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The Impressionists - Part Two

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It was quite a few years since he had left the College but nonetheless Stalky’s exploits remained legendary benchmarks to which lesser youths could only aspire. Not surprisingly given the roots of the College in military life, the careers of former graduates were keenly followed by current pupils, even more so when a younger relative was attending. A.L. Corkran had been mentioned in dispatches twice in the last year alone; and M’Turk’s young cousin (twice removed), now making his way through the Second Form, basked in the borrowed glory of having actually met the Great Man once when he visited his old study companion on M’Turk’s Irish estate, when M’Turk was invalided home after some affray. Thus, when whispers ran through the dormitories that a couple of Old Boys who had been serving with Stalky on the Northwest Frontier had been rotated home and were coming to the match at the end of Easter term, there was much excitement.

Downy bird that he was, the Head could not be unaware of the buzz, and added to it by quartering Captains Dickson and Abanazar in their old dormitory. They chuckled when he explained there was no more space in the rooms normally allotted Old Boys, remembering how Crandall had been billeted amongst them years before.

“Want us to put some stiffening into the Fifth Form, recounting tales of derring-do, I know,” smiled Dick Four.

“Speak for yourself,” retorted Pussy Abanazar, “as a ‘political animal’ I lead a quiet life these days.”

“But nonetheless one wholly essential to the Great Game,” responded the Head, who smiled at his former student’s startled glance. “Colonel Creighton is a friend of mine.”

“Indeed Sir,” said Pussy. He had had no idea the Head had that connection; though on reflection realised he should not have thought anything else – the Prooshian Bates was a man of parts, after all.

“And, I happen to know you played an essential part in Corkran’s recent successes.” The Head looked slightly stern as he looked direct into Pussy’s chocolate brown eyes. “You both know the purpose of this school. Understandably the boys hero worship former students who cover themselves with glory on the battlefield, nor would I say they should not. But you of all people know not all who leave here are destined for a military career and success in other branches of service to Her Majesty’s Empire can be equally as important, if not more so.”

Remembering his own less than comfortable time as a junior lieutenant in the regiment before he transferred to the political service; more to the point, remembering the short-sighted, uncoordinated Beetle of yesteryear, butt of King’s jokes while at school, but transcendent after he graduated, Abanazar found himself asking, “Is there someone in particular you are concerned about?”

But the Head simply shrugged and turned discussion to the forthcoming match. He had, as often happened, pulled several key players off games for special prep, which meant the College team was a scratch one this year. This was just as well: the Old Boys were short a player, since even though they had the right number, Pussy declined to take part (and some of the men who did play had never been much use at games anyway). The match was a draw. It often was, but normally provided a better show than this year. Nonetheless the school was in high spirits over dinner. The Old Boys, splendidly clad in evening dress, attended and were seen to congratulate those boys who had scored in the match, retiring soon after to the Head’s private study for a brandy and cigar, before turning in for the night.

In Prout’s, the bed seemed even narrower than before and certainly the mattress was even lumpier, Abanazar thought as he settled his expanded girth down onto it before bending to take off his shoes. He looked up from this task to see eight sets of expectant eyes upon him. All quickly shifted their gaze once they realised he had noticed, returning to their own preparations for night. But Pussy glanced behind to where Dick Four was folding his shirt on the chest at the foot of his bed. Had he noticed? It appeared not; or if he had, he was not letting on. It was starting just as Abanazar remembered from all those years ago when Crandall had visited. Prayers it had been back then as he recalled. Saying their prayers had settled them and unleashed questions. Prayers…. He looked round again at Dick Four who now was attired in striped nightshirt and caught his eye with a wink. Abanazar had by now stripped off his outer clothes and was down to long johns, not regulation wear under evening dress but, from his perspective, essential for any returnee from India. In the service of vanity, Dick Four might shiver so that his evening wear fit close and looked smart; but Pussy knew nothing could look trim over his spreading midriff and sacrificed looks to comfort. He now knelt heavily beside the bed and clasped hands.

Now I lay me down to sleep
Ruttan Singh on guard to keep.
Little Friend finds secrets in the night,
So Stalky gloats with morning light.

There was a different – expectant – quality to the silence as he crawled into the hard bed and pulled his covers up. Pussy smiled as the lights went out; his ears pricked as he heard rustlings as boys from connecting rooms crept in. Finally the question was asked.

“We’d heard you know Stalky, Sir, and were there!” The boys whisper came urgent and imperative. “Please could you tell us about his Afghan campaign a few months ago?”

In the dark, unseen, Pussy smiled his satisfaction to hear Stalky was still Stalky. Though he rise to giddy heights (as assuredly he would), and be known in years to come to lowly subalterns as that fire-breather General Corkran who didn’t suffer fools gladly, he would always be Stalky to those from the Coll.

Mindful of the Head’s request, Pussy shifted on his pillow to address his unseen audience.

“Well, of course, I can only speak from what I know and my own part in the campaign was quite small,” started Pussy.

“And I wasn’t around right at the very beginning,” Dick Four chipped in, “and spent most of my time under doctor’s orders.”

“But I fancy, between us, we can give you a fair account of the doings, both seen and unseen,” finished Pussy.

“Unseen, Sir?” asked a young high voice.

“That’s the bit I know,” said Abanazar, “so I’ll start.

He smiled again in satisfaction as he paused. Restless they might be when the Council sent some Shakespearean actor or worthy orator to address them on Saturday; but for this, no mouse could be quieter.

“A few years ago I was seconded into the Indian Political Service, and latterly I came to the attention of Colonel Creighton who runs the…let us call it the confidential side of that business. Approximately ten days before it all broke loose, he sent me to Simla to see an Irishman called Lurgan who owned a jewellery shop in the European quarter there. He was an odd man with the exceedingly fair skin of the Celt, which is hard to keep pale in that climate, but a black beard and shock of thick curly hair more common to see in the Continental. But what made him most odd wasn’t his appearance but his manner, for he had gone completely native (and if indeed he had ever been outside the Hind I should be most surprised). He knew his jewels and made a fair living doctoring sick pearls and selling opals and turquoises to the whites; but in reality it was what his other jewels brought him that made him wealthy and prized by Creighton as a pearl beyond price, for he ran a string of informants.

“At another time I doubt I would have met him, for he normally only reported direct to Creighton himself, but at the time the Colonel’s attentions were being drawn toward Ceylon, where there was growing unrest between the plantation Tamils and Sinhalese who were agitating for the reestablishment of Kandy, and spreading propaganda about the brutal suppression of their people. It was almost 70 years since the Uva Rebellion so, clearly, this was just an excuse. But the plantation owners were anxious for their investments and I learned later the Ceylon Volunteers had specifically asked for someone who could ferret out the ringleaders who were in hiding. And so Creighton was sent and I was placed temporarily in charge of intelligence in the northwest for the duration.

“Anyway, credentials established with Lurgan, I returned to Amritzar where I met another Irishman, much younger, sent by Lurgan to report his findings from reconnaissance on the border, one Kimball O’Hara by name. When I first saw him in my office, he was dressed much as any white; but his manner and style set him apart. Son of a regimental colour-sergeant, the blood of Ulster flowed through him but he had never been there and was wholly one with India. I learned he had been educated at St Xavier’s in Lucknow which taught him a European gloss but, though I am sure they did their best, utterly failed to beat the Indian out of him, which made him completely useless as a soldier. However, it was what made him so useful to our cause – a complete marvel in fact.

“Kim, as he was called, reported, not surprisingly, growing unrest on the border and of nefarious plots on the part of the native princes in the Khye-Keen Hills to treat with the Russians to allow them access. This was nothing unusual; you may remember how Crandall Minor got cut up a few years ago during another such plot. What was new about it this time was that the Khye-Kheens were sinking differences not just with the Afridis but also the bloody Baluchistans, which put it all in a different light. His arrival could not have been more serendipitous as I had received only the day before a note from Stalky, who was posted near the border, also warning of trouble. So I sent young Kim off in his direction while I telegraphed Umballa to ask for back-up.”

“Whereupon my regiment was despatched northward from Delhi,” interjected Dick Four, “not before time, given the brushfire was already starting by then, the bally Indian Political being slow off the mark again in reporting the game had started.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t sit on anything,” Pussy retorted, before explaining to the boys how post-action they learned some fat-arsed Lieutenant-Colonel in Delhi ignored an earlier warning sent by an Indian Infantry lieutenant because he was half-caste and had been promoted from the ranks and so ‘couldn’t be trusted’.

“Let that be a lesson to you chaps,” said Dick Four. “That Colonel-walla was of less use than a chai-walla, and I understand is now permanently assigned to home base as a result of Stalky’s report.”

Pussy looked at their audience. While he had been speaking, someone had lit a candle which illumined rapt faces of the nearest boys. It was very gratifying to be listened to so attentively.

“Anyway, about a week later,” recounted Pussy, “I started to hear by bush telegraph that things were getting a bit hotter than they ought to be, even in an Indian summer, and decided it was time to be a bit closer, Amritzar being off the Grand Trunk, and therefore wanting faster lines of communication. So I upped and moved base to Rawalpindi, or at least that was the plan.”

“Except you got kidnapped,” interjected Dick Four.

“Except I got kidnapped,” agreed Pussy, “by that same young Irishman I’d met not long since at Amritzar. Not that I would really call it ‘kidnapping’; more that he used his initiative to incorporate me into the plot, and did not allow me any chance to object. ‘Using all available resources’ was the way Kim phrased it, that evening by the fire as he explained his plan, by which I knew he was entangled with the Great Man himself. Of course I promptly volunteered. ”

He could see confusion on upturned faces and laughed.

“Stalky, I mean. It was classic Stalky. He’d set Kim the task of spreading confusion amongst the enemies. Kim had, in turn, enlisted the help of a retired player, Hurree Babu, who had settled in Peshawur to study local customs and practices while he wrote a paper for the Royal Geographical Society. He told me he had known Kim since he was a lad, called him Little Friend of all the World, and told me the boy had a natural talent for mimicry which enabled him to be accepted anywhere he went, which was, clearly, an excellent skill in intelligence. I could see the truth of it in how that dashing young man I had met in Amritzar was now transformed into native. Dark dye stained his skin and he was clad in a long dirty striped cloth of the most extraordinary orange colour that he had twisted and tied round him, plus a purple turban.

“They were crisscrossing back and forth between tribes and local bands, bribing some, stealing from others (always letting their victims think it was the next village that had done the stealing), accidentally-on-purpose losing incriminating missives from the one where the other could find them, and generally creating distrust. He called it ‘creating an impression’; I remembered the tactic well from one time when Prout turned out Study No 5 for lowering the moral tone of the house; the three proceeded to create havoc in the form rooms until let back. Clearly now Stalky had taught it to Kim. Their crowning moment was when Kim and Hurree Babu intercepted the pay-off from a local Hill Rajah to his retainers, and then, when he needed cash to pay them, lent him back his own money at a uxorious rate of interest, only to steal it again the next day. Not unexpectedly his retainers went over to the enemy – meaning enlisted with Stalky – the moment his back was turned, which was the whole point.”

Anyway, I came upon Kim and Hurree Babu – or probably more accurately, they came upon me while I camped by the roadside a little beyond the turn off to Chilianwallah. They were having trouble convincing one unusually fierce hill chief of their veracity and it seems they felt the need of a captive British officer to prop up their pantomime.” Pussy paused for effect, enjoying being centre of attention.

“And you were it,” prompted Dick Four.

“And I was it,” confirmed Pussy Abanazar. “Imagine the scene, if you will: one slender young Irishman no-one would ever take for anything but native such was he dressed and so did he talk, and one fat and smiling Bengali with a blue and white umbrella, walking into the heart of the enemy camp one afternoon with me, bound in ropes. Loosely bound so that I could wriggle out of them at need; but it did not appear so, which was the point. They wanted to create a certain impression on this particular chieftain, a nasty tin-pot despot who was fool enough to think the fatter the Englishman the more important he must be.”

Pussy made a florid gesture, drawing attention to his girth.

“I was clearly ideal for the part. And so I was presented to the chieftain as a trophy, and sat at his feet (and very smelly feet they were too) while he toasted the pair who had brought me to him – with glasses of Russian vodka.”

Once again Pussy paused for effect.

“It turned out,” Dick Four jumped in, “that the reason for this particular chieftain’s obduracy was the fact he’d been hosting military advisers from the Imperial Court for the last month.”

“It also turned out,” Pussy took back control of the story, “that Stalky was in the crowd, deer-stalking as it were, in disguise.” Later that night, after the chieftain and his advisors had fallen into an alcoholic daze, he cut me loose and spirited me off to his own encampment which was just across a gully, while Kim and Hurree spread confusion by opening the boxes of rifles the Russians had bribed them with and removing all the firing pins.”

“The next day my company arrived.” Dick Four took up the story, “I can tell you we’d have been there earlier save it was damned hard finding him, Stalky was so well camouflaged. And soon after, the bun fight started. You already know the rest, as it was reported in the news. The countryside rose and there were only the two companies on the ground. The commanding officer was killed in the first flurry of fighting. I was slightly senior to Stalky, but he had local knowledge. Besides, I was injured the second day of fighting, so naturally, he took charge and covered himself in glory. In the end, it took two full battalions plus a detachment of sappers to pacify the natives; but the real kudos – plus, of course the gongs – went to those men there when the curtain went up. Not, sadly, to Kim and Hurree Babu, which is a great injustice. We could not have done it without them and they continued their work by providing reconnaissance throughout the campaign. They were,” he spoke with gravitas adding emphasis to the simple words, “the bravest of brave, probably all the more so for not being trained to battle.”

This last was received in silence, a new idea to be mulled over and absorbed gradually by boys accustomed to measuring bravery by military exploits.

The next morning, on rising, after the boys went down for breakfast, Pussy and Dick Four locked the connecting dormitory doors (there was no sense enflaming the sensibilities of King and Prout) before going in search of the Head.

“Not sure what the effect will be,” offered Dickson Quartus thoughtfully. “I watched while Pussy here talked but I never did twig which boy you were concerned about. Perhaps he wasn’t there.”

“He was there,” the Head returned. “And, whatever the rest of them did, he’ll have listened.”

Dick Four had an appointment in Oxford later that day so the two left soon after breakfast, on a brake specially organised to take them to the station. One of the Fifth helped them load their bags into the back. He was a husky well-built lad who slung their duffels about with gusto, despite favouring one leg with a pronounced limp.

“Injured it at football,” was the laconic reply to Dick Four’s enquiry, and the usual best wishes for a full recovery were issued.

The boy frowned slightly as he explained it was as healed as it ever would be; but then his face cleared. “I’m still going out, though. The Head’s got me a clerking place in the Indian Political Service.”

As the brake progressed down the long drive, Abanazar and Dick Four looked back on the twelve bleak houses by the shore, governed by the Head who had so shaped their own characters and careers. Abanazar winked. “God’s in His heaven – all’s right with the world.”