A Walk in the Karakorum
Fandom: Fix Bay'nets!
Disclaimer: Fix Bay'nets! OR, The Regiment in the Hills was written by G. Manville Fenn, and was published in 1899. It is out of copyright. The characters' opinions reflect the worldview of the novel.
A Walk in the Karakorum
Daegaer wrote, @ 2004-08-05 14:26:00
Current mood: manly and complete
I've been making an effort to finish this within my lifetime, and am rather pleased to have got to this point. There will be one more instalment, an epilogue, but this is the final chapter.
In the days that followed, Bracy and Gedge found themselves called upon to speak of their journey, of the dragons and the other marvellous beasts of the valley, and, most of all, of the monster and Rustem's part in that evening until they felt they would be happy never to speak of it all again. When they were not telling and re-telling their story, however, they were left in peace, and Bracy felt himself very calm and happy. If doubts arose in his mind they vanished away when he saw Gedge laughing and content. Sitting and looking out over the valley, one arm cast about Gedge, he wondered what they should do with their lives. It seemed unfair, as Gedge agreed, that they should live in Straton's house, when the man had perhaps not looked for them to be permanent guests. 'I wonder if we should start a farm,' said Bracy, 'no doubt we could learn to do it well enough.' He did not think about such things for long, however, for like Gedge and Rustem he was happy for the moment merely to rest and enjoy the warmth and the greater abundance of food. He enjoyed seeing Gedge and Rustem at play with the boys of the town and joined in their games once or twice, feeling a little foolish. Soon he found it better to keep company with the men and did his best to accustom himself to learning how he should be a Greek gentleman.
It was a fortnight after they had returned to the valley that Straton sought him out, taking his arm and leading him away from other listeners. 'You are looking much better, Bracy,' he said. 'You all seemed starved of proper food after the winter.'
'Our hosts gave us everything they could, and stinted themselves to do so, though they are poor,' said Bracy, unwilling to hear a derogatory word against the village.
'Yes, yes,' said Straton, 'I do not mean otherwise, but still, all three of you are in better health now. You were generous to that village, Bracy, and at your own cost.'
'I felt it only fitting that some recognition --,' began Bracy stiffly, but Straton held up a hand, laughing to himself.
'You are young and see challenges to your honour where none are intended,' he said. 'You were right to be generous, even at the cost. However, you must give me the chance to be generous also, Bracy.' He looked at the young officer in great seriousness. 'You have given me back my son, when I had lost all hope even of according him his funeral rites. Do you have children, Bracy?'
'No,' said Bracy.
'Then you cannot know what a great thing you have done for me, and must trust me when I say it is a debt I will find hard to repay - no, do not shake your head, this is something that must be said. Rustem has told me you and Gedge have spoken of having a farm. If that is what you wish I will give you one, with men to work your fields, but you and Gedge will always be welcome in my house, always. There is no need to think of anything else, unless it is truly what you wish. But that is not what I came to you to speak of. I would not have you think you are prisoners, Bracy and that you must pass your lives here by constraint. You are free to come and go as you please.'
At first Bracy merely smiled, glad in his heart that he and Gedge should be trusted so, but then he thought of what this meant and that, having satisfied his duty to the village that had saved them, there was now no barrier to he and Gedge satisfying also their older duty to their regiment. He said nothing, looking instead out over the valley, and thinking it unfair that having found such happiness his conscience now called on him to turn his back and return to the demands of his duty as a British officer.
Seeing his face fall, Straton asked, 'What is wrong, Bracy?'
'Thank you for all your kindness to us,' said Bracy distantly, 'I am very grateful that you will allow us to leave.'
'What is this?' said Straton, 'will you not stay amongst us? Do you not know how you are loved and honoured?'
'Ah!' ejaculated Bracy, 'if only I could! But while I could put aside the demands of my duty when I thought I had sacrificed them to do good for others, I cannot now that I know I may honourably fulfil both my duty to those who sheltered us and my duty to the Queen. I wish it were otherwise, but both Gedge and I must leave you.'
'I thought only to please you and show that you are esteemed,' said Straton with sadness. 'No man can avoid his fate - even if I were to gainsay myself and order you to stay you would know it for falsehood and would leave. Still I entreat you to stay, Bracy. Are you and Gedge unhappy among us?'
'Please,' said Bracy, 'I cannot.' He turned away, saying, 'I must find Gedge.'
'Wait,' said Straton, 'speak with him later. If you must go no one will stop you, but stay a while, Bracy, as our guests.'
Bracy nodded, wondering how he should say to Gedge that they would leave after all, and followed Straton back to the men with whom he had been earlier conversing.
* * *
That night when Bracy had told him they must return to the 404th Gedge rolled over so that it could not be seen when he wiped surreptitiously at his eyes. 'I should be happy,' he thought, 'it ain't that he's got tired of me, I'm sure he wants to see his friends and I can see mine - if they ain't all dead and we ain't going back for nothing!' He wiped at his eyes again and let Bracy pull him round into an embrace. 'When d'you want to go, sir?' he asked.
'Well, there is no longer any rush to get back to the fort,' said Bracy, 'we can stay a little longer if you like.'
'Oh, yes,' said Gedge, then, all in a rush he cried, 'we don't know what happened to the fort! Everyone might be dead, sir! The fort might be gone!'
'Now, Gedge,' said Bracy, 'do not be silly - even if the worst had indeed happened, do you really think the army would not have sent another regiment to take the place of the 404th. There will be someone there for us to report to.'
'But that don't matter!' cried Gedge, a new idea coming into his mind, ''cos they think we're dead! They must do, sir, we've been gone just about a year; they must think we was shot long ago.' He felt pleased with his line of reasoning, thinking that Bracy must now surely agree that there was little point in returning.
Bracy, however, stroked his hair and said quietly, 'we know that is not the case. Surely you cannot wish to stay here based on a lie, Bill?'
Knowing that Bracy was right, Gedge sighed and said heavily, 'I suppose we could go in a day or two.'
'We'll stay longer than that,' said Bracy, 'you will need to speak to Rustem, we will need to organise supplies, and we will take some time simply to enjoy the life we have here.' Feeling that that life had already slipped from him, Gedge kept silent, but essayed a smile when Bracy continued in a whisper, 'So let's not waste more time talking about it now,' and kissed his face.
The next morning, as they ate bread and meat in the hall, Gedge told Rustem they should have to leave and return to their fort. Rustem looked at him in amazement and did not notice when the dogs crept over to stealthily take food from his plate. 'That is stupid!' cried Rustem, 'you cannot go like this!'
'We have to, pard'ner,' said Gedge, 'even if we'd rather stay, it's our duty to go back. You can see that, can't you? If you was stayin' in England and knew you could come back here because you'd promised, wouldn't you have to do it, even if you wanted to stay?'
'This is your idea,' said Rustem to Bracy, and, turning back to Gedge he continued in tones of hope and desperation, 'You could stay - let Bracy go back to your fort if he so wishes to go, but you could stay. Don't go, Gedge, don't go! Stay here with me!' So saying he flung his arms about Gedge and hugged him tight.
'Rustem, stop, you will embarrass our friends,' said Straton, but Rustem just held Gedge tighter, whispering entreaties not to leave.
Gedge held his young friend close, feeling sad that they should have to part but at last said, 'Here now, don't take on so. It can't be helped, that's all. We'd like to stay, but we jest can't and that's all there is to it.' He felt very low to say this, as if it had only at that moment struck him that he would never see Rustem again, and would return to a life that seemed very far away, almost a forgotten dream. Rustem tore himself from Gedge's arms and ran from the hall, his face angry and his eyes full of unshed tears.
'It is a hard thing to lose friends, especially friends with whom one has endured so much,' said Straton, looking after his son with sadness. 'He thought you would be here always.'
Neither Gedge nor Bracy replied, their sad faces showing that they too had thought this.
'Well,' said Straton, 'I will give orders for you to have as much supplies as you wish, and you can go at any time of your choosing. Let us know, and we will feast you before you leave. I regret to tell you that I cannot return your own clothes, for when I knew Rustem had followed you, in anger I ordered them burned. I will make this loss good.' He stood and followed his son out of the hall, leaving Bracy and Gedge alone but for the dogs who came and begged shamelessly for the breakfasts they no longer had the heart to eat.
The next weeks they spent leisurely, no longer needing to decide how and where they should live, but enjoying all that they could of the valley. Gedge was most pleased to find that Rustem's spirits seemed to have lifted, and that the boy was as gay as ever when they wrestled or swam. Only sometimes did a look of sadness come into Rustem's eyes, and he quickly hid it, as if determined to wring every last drop of pleasure he could from his friendship with Gedge. Now that the decision to leave had been accepted, Gedge felt sad but at most times quite calm and found he could enjoy himself whole-heartedly as long as he did not dwell on the moment of separation. He never allowed Bracy to think that he was other than satisfied to go, thinking that his officer had enough burdens without Gedge adding to them. Still, sometimes at night, when Bracy was asleep Gedge found himself wishing they could stay and then, thinking of his friends in the 404th, felt that he must rush and see them at once. In this confusion of feeling he lay wakeful until sleep could no longer be denied, and his subsequent dreams were filled with his soldier-friends in Greek dress and his Greek friends in British uniform.
At last, before the heat of the summer became unbearable, Bracy said they would go, and Straton had a feast prepared to bid them farewell. Gedge and Bracy were both pleased and saddened to see that the men of the town seemed truly to regret their going, and many fine speeches were made expressing the hope that they would come back. Straton gave them both fine swords of Indian design. Gedge wondered to himself if they had been part of the caravan that Rustem and his friends had raided that day when they first met, but said nothing. The guests cheered when Straton said that he and Rustem would take it upon themselves to guide their friends on their way back to India. The young men were heaped down with other gifts too, new tack for their horses, finely worked saddlebags and bracelets of antique design that Straton fastened about their wrists. Gedge flushed a little, thinking of the ribbing he would get from his friends in the 404th if they saw him wear such a thing, but he smiled and thanked Straton for his kindness. Both he and Bracy were greatly moved to be given new tunics made, as they were told, by the woman whose daughter had been taken by the dragon, who had worked for many months weaving and sewing so that her daughter's avengers might be clothed like gentlemen, refusing to believe that they could have perished.
Gedge slipped from the hall after the presents had been given and several rounds of toasts raised, hoping to catch a breath of fresh air. The night was clear and the stars seemed very close. A hand was laid upon his shoulder, and he turned to find Rustem by his side.
'It is a beautiful night,' said Rustem quietly.
'Yes, it's lovely,' said Gedge.
'I must return this,' said Rustem, putting his hands to his neck and withdrawing the golden chain with its dark blue beads.
'No, no!' said Gedge, 'I can't take it, I felt all wrong takin' it before. Yer mum wouldn't want you to give it away,' and he gently pushed the boy's hand back.
'Then borrow it to keep you safe,' said Rustem, holding it out once again. 'You can come back and return it to me,' he said, his voice full of hope.
'I can't,' said Gedge. 'If I thought I'd ever manage to get back here - but I'm a sojer, Rustem. I c'n only go where I'm ordered to go. You keep that, all right?'
Rustem dropped his hand by his side, then covered his face with both hands, crying quietly as if his heart would break. Gedge put his arms about him and held him until he managed to stop and kissing his brow.
''S'all right,' he said, 'yer a good lad, and I'm sorry to disappoint you, really I am.' He cast about for something cheering to say, continuing, 'and we don't have to part jest yet, you and yer father are comin' part of the way with us after all.'
Rustem sighed, leaning on Gedge's shoulder. 'Yes,' he said. 'Perhaps you will change your minds on the road.'
Gedge made no reply, feeling it wrong to give the boy false hope, simply holding him close a moment longer and kissing him once more before putting the chain back about his neck and leading him indoors again.
* * *
The journey back was easy, the roads secure and the mountains in their summer attire of grass and flowers very beautiful. The beauties of the country were, however, seen by Bracy and Gedge only in the morning and evening, and when rest stops were made, for Bracy had insisted that they be blindfolded during the travels. Straton had at first refused, saying he knew them for men of honour who would not reveal the location of the valley, but Bracy was firm, saying that if they in truth did not know the way they could not be ordered to lead the regiment to Straton's people at some future time. Reluctantly, Straton and Rustem blindfolded them and led their horses along the trails.
The little party was slow in its progress, both because of the manner in which Bracy and Gedge were travelling, but also because none of them wished to hurry to the point where they should have to part. They did not hurry to move along in the morning, took a good rest at noon, and did not push on till the dusk. Even so their destination came closer and closer and at night Gedge would lie by Bracy's side wondering how soon he would have to see the officer only when their duties required it.
Finally, Gedge and Bracy had their blindfolds removed, for they had some so far from the valley that it made no difference whether or not they could see their surroundings. Gedge looked about him with pleasure at the clear, bright scenery, the mountains clad on their higher parts with snow, but covered with bright grasses and plants on their lower slopes. Everyone's heart seemed raised by his delight in seeing properly once again and the journey seemed, therefore, to go faster - a result poor Gedge did not truly wish.
The day came at last to part, and they all dismounted. Straton pointed down the trail saying, 'This is the road to Hind - take the left fork when you come to it, and it will lead you down to where Rustem first found you.'
Rustem, smiling bravely, embraced Gedge, murmuring, 'Do not forget me. Come back if you can.'
'Oh, pard'ner! As if I'd forget you,' said Gedge, returning the embrace with a whole heart. He told himself very sternly that he was the boy's elder, and should therefore set an example of how a man should act, but even so he found it difficult to restrain tears from creeping into his eyes. Beside him, Bracy took Straton's hand firmly, then stepped back and quickly mounted.
'We should get off, Gedge,' he said in a controlled voice, 'we have a long way to go still.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, and leaving Rustem he swung up onto his horse, scarcely remembering a time when such an action would have been foreign to him.
'Farewell,' said Straton, and the young soldiers began their journey. They had gone down the trail almost to its first bend when they heard Rustem's wild and high-pitched war-cry behind them. Gedge turned about in his saddle and saw the boy making his horse rear up, and waving his arm in farewell. Gedge waved back, his eyes wet now that he did not have to worry about Rustem seeing them, and his horse stepped around the bend and there was only the road ahead to see.
Their journey continued without incident, and soon they began to see sights that were familiar to them. On seeing a great rock with chips flaked off it Gedge realised they had come to the very spot where they had first encountered Rustem and his friends, during the fight with the Dwat tribesmen. The village below seemed peaceful and quiet, and no one came to menace them.
'Perhaps it is because we are wearing native dress,' said Bracy, 'but I cannot say I'm not glad to be left alone.'
Without speaking of it over the next days, by common design they kept their horses to the slowest of paces even when the road became very familiar, and they realised that they were within the lands over which the soldiers ranged for hunting or other amusements. When they passed villages the houses and the fields always seemed quiet, and there were no signs that fighting had taken place the year before. Gedge felt relieved, and began to hope that he would indeed see his friends again. Seeing the well-known sights of the area, he expected at any moment to be challenged and to hear a voice other than his own or Bracy's speaking English. The woods remained siilent, however, and he reined in his horse.
'Let's stop,' he said.
'It's only a few miles to the fort,' said Bracy, 'we can easily be there well before they shut the gates for the night.'
'Yes, sir,' said Gedge, 'and then we should be telling our story all night long. And we both look a bit worse for wear, don't you think? If we stopped now we could have a wash and a shave and put on those new clothes before going to the fort in the morning. Wouldn't that be better? We mightn't look much like British sojers right now, but we could at least be neat and tidy.' He looked pleadingly at Bracy, saying quietly, 'one more night, Edmund, can't we take that for ourselves?'
Bracy jumped down from his horse, saying, 'Let's find a suitable place. You're right, Bill, we don't have to hurry.' He held out his arms and Gedge slid down from his horse and into a firm embrace.
* * *
The next morning saw them shivering from a scrub in a cold mountain stream, and dressed in their new tunics. It cost them some nicks to shave with cold water and no shaving soap, for Bracy's supply had long since been entirely used up, but at last they felt they were as presentable as they could be. They ate the last of their supplies, for there was no longer any point in saving them, and thus sustained began the final stage of their journey through the grey dawn.
When they saw the fort Bracy reined in, astonished at its size and squat strength, having become quite accustomed to a wholly different style of architecture. He licked his lips and turned to Gedge, saying, 'We are here. Thank you for being my companion, I could have asked for none better. You are a very fine soldier and an even finer man, Gedge.'
'Thank you, sir,' said Gedge, his eyes fixed on the fort. 'Should we go on?'
Bracy put out a hand and took hold of Gedge's arm, saying, 'Bill, you know that when we go in that things cannot be as they have been with us?'
Gedge looked from the fort to Bracy and back again. 'Yes, sir,' he said. 'I know.'
'I'm sorry,' said Bracy, and moved his horse forward, followed by Gedge until they stood beneath the walls of Gittah Fort. The immense and heavy gates were not yet opened, but looking up Bracy could see the sentries peering down at them. 'Open the gates!' he cried.
'None of that,' called one of the sentries, 'if you've got something to sell you can jest wait. The gates don't get opened on yer say-so, friend.'
Gedge rode up beside Bracy and called up, 'Yer always grumpy in the mornin', ain't you, Fred? Don't you know us?'
'Bill Gedge?' cried the sentry, 'we thought you was dead! Where've you been, then?'
'If you don't mind, Private Carr, could we have the gates opened, please?' called Bracy.
'Mr Bracy! Yes, sir!' cried Carr, and turning to shout down at the inside of the gates yelled, 'it's Bill - I mean, Sergeant Gedge and Captain Bracy! Open the gates!'
There came the sounds of activity from inside the fort and a great clunk as the gate was unbarred. A feeling of wildness came over Bracy and he turned frantically to Gedge.
'Gedge!' he hissed, 'let's run, we can be far away from here quickly and who will believe the sentries' story?'
'Oh, sir,' said Gedge with sad fondness, 'we've left it a bit late for that. Look, they've got the gate open already.'
Indeed the gate was open the merest sliver, but curious soldiers had already slipped out to whisper and stare. In the next moments the gate was opened more widely, and Bracy could see the familiar buildings within. He and Gedge spared each other one last glance, then touched their heels lightly to their horses sides as the soldiers surrounded them, looking up and exclaiming.
Slowly and forlornly they entered and were lost from view behind the cold grey walls of the fort.