Harry's Great Trek
Read the first four chapters
Cast adrift, 1874–1891
“Soldier, soldier come from the wars,
Why don’t you march with my true love?”
“We're fresh from off the ship an’ ’e’s maybe give the slip,
An’ you’d best go look for a new love.”
New love! True love!
Best go look for a new love,
The dead they cannot rise, an’ you'd better dry your eyes,
An’ you’d best go look for a new love.
— Rudyard Kipling, “Barrack-room Ballads”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Chapter 1 – Suez to Aden, August 1885
Is it really only six months since the murdering bastards speared General Gordon?
Harry Smythe-Vane, who insisted on being called simply Vane, bent his gaze between two decks of open porthole shades, white squares against the dark water that creamed along the iron hull twenty feet below. The wake streaming from the stern made a pale tramline etched against a violet sea, and for brief moments marked the steamship’s southerly passage. He was forward enough that by leaning out over the rail he could just see the Malabar’s ram bow cutting through the dark waters of the Red Sea, the Star of India proudly displayed on either side of the point.
A Peninsular and Oriental or a British-India Steamship Company liner would have been more comfortable than a Royal Navy troopship, but as luck (or otherwise) would have it, H.M.S. Malabar docked at Port Said to deliver fresh troops to Egypt at the opportune moment and so Harry’s Dragoons regiment, barracked at Cairo but intended for India, entrained for Suez to catch the ship as it left the Canal. From there the vessel was bound for Aden to refuel and reprovision, and then across the Arabian Sea to drop the Dragoons at Bombay, before continuing its long journey around the peninsula to Madras and Calcutta.
“We Guards subalterns are dogsbodies as much as any ranker,” William Maplethorpe had remarked sourly when, fresh from London, he joined Harry’s detachment of 1st King’s Dragoon Guards Regiment a few weeks before their departure from Cairo. The second lieutenant’s moan was fair enough, but then, Harry’s enveloping depression colored the view of his own station more than the drudgery of barracks life. He’d spent a couple of months’ in Cairo fighting off exhaustion after the dispiriting retreat from the Sudan following the failure to relieve Khartoum. And the death of heroic General Charles Gordon there at the hands of Mahdist fanatics had not helped his mood—or indeed that of any other officer or serving soldier.
“How on earth could a bunch of religious crazies have so besmirched our dignity and made fools of British arms?” Maplethorpe had asked; rhetorically, Harry said to himself, since he was only spouting the newspapers’ jingoism.
And gone unpunished for it. The further indignity of a retreat almost to the Egyptian border as the Mahdi’s Dervish army forced them back from Merawi and Korti to Dongola and then finally to Wadi Halfa did nothing to raise morale—and William Maplethorpe was at that time yet in England so he missed the ignominy. Harry could list some minor victories, though insufficient to hide the fact of defeat.
But languishing in Cairo another wound nagged at Harry’s soul. It was the real source of his low spirits: the uncertainty surrounding his friend Richard Rainbow’s fate.
Harry’s mood did not match the sea’s sparkle. He wasn’t paying the natural display any attention. In Cairo he’d feared that Richard was as hopelessly lost in the Sudanese wastelands as his “brother” Edward, for whom he had gone in search. Now—after Suez—Harry knew better, and the knowledge of both Rainbows’ delivery from the Arabs cut like a knife even when he knew he should be delighted for them. The bitterness he couldn’t avoid feeling lay as a lump of guilt in his stomach. At moments when he least expected it a dyspeptic sob rose up like a bubble of air desperate to escape.
Richard. It was always Richard. The exhalation became a sigh. He knew it was useless to think of him. The world thought of Richard and Edward Rainbow as twin brothers, an error both men deliberately promoted in order to explain their closeness’ Richard’s love for Edward eclipsed whatever Richard had felt for Harry and everything they had shared since school. His ever-present guilt rocked Harry whenever he faced the truth of his awful betrayal. When he and Richard learned that Edward had fallen into the hands of the murdering Mahdists, Harry hoped he was indeed dead at the hands of his captors, those tribesmen who had dragged the boy off from Metemma in the dead of night. Harry confessed to Richard something of the darkness in his heart, there in the riverside camp at Abu Kru before the fall of Khartoum. “I grew angry with Edward, thinking about how selfish he was to run away from you the way he did,” he blurted to Richard. “I told myself that whatever the circumstances, no matter how awful, I would never abandon you the way Edward did. But your love for him went deeper than any betrayal and I came to understand that, and finally accept it.”
Accept it? No, not really.
“You see,” he’d told William Maplethorpe in Cairo, “the first Richard and I knew that Edward was even in the expeditionary force with us to secure the escape of General Gordon from Khartoum was on the Nile near Metemma.” Harry waved a hand dismissively. “You see, two years before that there had been some kind of family ruckus and Edward ran away from the school we all attended. He just vanished. Then he turns up there in the Sudan. Not that either of us knew it at the time, since it seems he hid himself from us. It was I who found the wounded sergeant who had taken Edward under his wing and he told us what passed, that they’d both been wounded at Abu Klea—trust me, that was a scrap worth missing—and that Edward had gone to seek help for the sergeant, since his own wound was only slight. Later, we learned of the Dervishes taking him. You can imagine how distraught Richard was to have lost his brother at school and to have almost found him again only to lose him to the enemy.
“It was a dark time. We all knew that captured white men were forced at the point of a blade to recant Christianity and embrace the fath of the Moslem, or face immediate decapitation. It seemed hardly likely that a headstrong boy like Edward would ever consent to apostasy.”
“Why did he run away in the first place?”
Maplethorpe’s was a reasonable question, but Harry felt unequal to the task of explaining the story of Richard and Edward’s births, the mix-up that meant they were not even related, though raised by Colonel Rainbow and his wife as twin brothers. “It was something buried in their past. It must have hit Edward hard for him to run off and hide away, but that’s what he did and evidently joined the Hussars as a trumpeter, which is how he found himself on the Nile campaign.”
But then we heard that Edward’s captors were not Mahdists that they were desert traders who would prefer to keep him alive in slavery. And so Richard hared off on what seemed like a hopeless quest to search for his true love.
A gong sounded, the one-hour alert for dinner. The Dragoons’ commanding officer liked to keep to strict regimental orders, even aboard ship. Harry glanced back along the Malabar’s almost four hundred-foot upper deck, past the three barque-rigged masts with their spider’s web of ropes and the huge belching stack rising from the confusion of superstructure. Time soon to retreat to the stiflingly hot cabin he shared with William Maplethorpe to dress. At least he wasn’t crammed sardine-like in a can as were the enlisted ranks, hundreds sharing the new-fangled bunks stacked four high so that to turn around in bed the soldier had to clamber out and then get back in again in his new chosen orientation. A number of the lower ranks had secured accommodation on the open-top troop deck at the bow and stern areas with the advantage of fresh air, and the drawback of having to huddle under the central awning if it rained. It didn’t a lot, but it might more on nearing their destination.
A school of flying fish leapt in silvery arches across his vision. Such fleeting moments. “We’ve spent so many years, closer even than any brothers, thinking we were twins,” Richard had said. “I still feel like he’s my brother.” Richard always mixed that latent misplaced guilt of incest with a bad conscience for hurting Harry. Harry knew that as well as he knew himself. “I think your feelings for each other are as strong as they are because you aren’t brothers, even if you didn’t know that as you grew up,” Harry replied. And then, not long after the withdrawal from Korti began, Richard obtained six months’ leave of absence, joined a band of Arab traders, and vanished into the trackless dunes with little more than a rudimentary training in Arabic.
No, the subsequent months in Cairo had not been recuperation for Harry, a time only to mope for the loss of Richard’s love, perhaps even the loss of Richard himself at the hands of the very sheik who agreed to act as his guide. There had been no guarantee of success, either in finding Edward or even coming back alive from the nest of Dervish vipers. Success, in fact, had hardly seemed a possibility.
The half-hour warning gong sounded and broke his sad reverie. Now he really had to go and clamber into formals for dinner. Full mess folderol in the blistering heat of the Red Sea suggested life in the cantonment of Rawul Pindee could be even worse.
But Harry had a plan, one that would avoid the dreariness of garrison life. He hoped.
* * *
The relief at departing Aden was palpable throughout the Malabar. Making a good thirteen knots, with the upper sails catching the following wind, at least provided a deck breeze, even though the sun beating off the copper surface of the Gulf of Aden made it feel as though she sailed across a cauldron of boiling oil. To the northwest the low-lying dun-colored coast of Yemen framed the horizon, rising here and there to a line of purple jagged hills farther inland. The transport’s route followed the Arabian coast to the point off exotic Oman before cutting across the Arabian Sea to the Indian subcontinent and Bombay.
At almost twenty years old, the Malabar showed her age in small matters, but the officers’ accommodation was reasonable, better by far than that provided to the wives of officers and enlisted men alike, who were berthed in a single long cabin. This was the Dovecot, so named for the continual shrill squabbling that poured from its door and added to the squalls of noise from the adjacent nursery. The promiscuous conditions occasioned endless arguments among the women and even some fights between the lowest-born. Harry thanked his stars that he had no such dependents to concern him.
He knew that if he left the shade of the strung awning—which did little to abate the heat—and climbed the great foremast to the top-tree lookout, in the opposite direction he might just make out the hump of Socotra, the island famed for its mushroom-shaped dragon’s blood trees. The thought of such an apocryphal climb caused his stomach to heave. He’d been quite unable to face the luncheon buffet in the regimental officers’ wardroom.
“It is a great deal finer than the canned meat and hard biscuit of the desert march, so I’m informed.”
Harry had managed a wan smile for William Maplethorpe, who in fact had only digested such fare second-hand, since he himself had not been on the Nile campaign. But they all knew the hard-tack rations on officer training exercises back home at Aldershot. Under other circumstances he might have reacted more warmly at the first subtle undertones in the young lieutenant’s overtures of friendship, but the specter of Richard in Edward’s embrace haunted his waking moments and stunted even an erotic response. His new friend (“For God’s sake, Vane, call me Maps, everyone at school did.”) had sought Harry out at every opportunity—they were of similar ages, Harry having turned twenty-one in the June past. But comely as he was, Maplethorpe wasn’t Richard, and Harry’s heart was still closed against anything more than distant friendship. On the other hand he suffered the natural urges of his youth and Maplethorpe’s evident interest in pursuing a more intimate relationship soon beat down Harry’s reservations. That—and Harry’s naturally polite nature—meant he did not rebuff Maplethorpe, and when it came to shipping out he agreed to share an officers’ cabin. Such intimacy threw them into a cozier companionship whenever their varied duties brought them together within its private confines.
“I know I should take advantage of the fresh comestibles,” he answered Maplethorpe. “Salted meat will soon be all that’s left on the menu, but I fear my delicate constitution won’t take this much for luncheon.” He offset the effect of the arch words with a slight suggestion of throwing up, and immediately regretted the childish gesture. It made him feel he was back at Benthenham College.
But in fact I never allowed myself to behave in such a manner then.
The fried fish of various kinds, mutton chops running in grease, some kind of game pie (probably rank pigeon from Aden), with a “medley” of sad looking diced vegetables of indeterminate origin was simply too much for his stomach in the heat. His fellow subalterns, including Maplethorpe, second lieutenants, and a scattering of captains made short work of the fare, but Harry stuck to a small portion of fish.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I’ve my books to study.”
“Hah, my dear Vane, you will go blind trying to learn the Hindoo.”
Harry waved his left hand airily while chasing a forkful of fish around his plate. “The Indian isn’t so difficult, it’s getting the hang of Pashto that’s taxing, though having a basis in Persian is a help. Evan—my brother that is—argued that I should be a diplomatist to make good use of my flair for learning new tongues.”
“I’ve not noticed you breaking into Arabic at every juncture.” Maplethorpe ineffectively stifled his grin at Harry’s reproving look.
“It is clear that you were not in the Sudan with us, my dear Maps, or you would know. Was there ever an opportunity? I had a friend—the Richard Rainbow I’ve spoken of—and he had a sound reason to learn to speak it, though he was never as good at languages as his brother. Indeed, Edward Rainbow is the only person I know who exceeded my enjoyment of mastering a new lingo… and he’s now for home, his head no doubt filled with the Arabic picked up in captivity.”
Maplethorpe raised eyebrows inquisitively. “You were going to tell me what happened to this friend.”
Harry realized Maplethorpe wanted detail of how on earth two unrelated boys came to be brothers, let alone that they’d fallen in love with each other. (It hadn’t been long after Maplethorpe’s posting to Cairo that Harry and he first turned a clapped shoulder into a secret hug and then something more intimate in Harry’s bed. That familiarity meant sex between men was not a taboo subject as long as there was no one to overhear them.) But he chose to deflect the evident curiosity. “I don’t really know anything yet about Edward’s captivity. I think I told you that we all met quite by happenstance in Suez and really only for two minutes due to the Malabar’s warning horn sounding.”
Harry was unsure why he’d brought up the Rainbows, unless it was like worrying at an aching tooth. But there it was. The recurring images of what happened on that last day in Suez before the Malabar departed plagued Harry’s every waking hour. The timing, as well as the event, was too cruel. The transport was docked and taking on provisions and fuel for the next leg of her journey to Aden; she was due to depart in hours and shore leave for the troops was over. Officers were expected on board before sunset, so Harry took a last landlubber’s stroll on Terra firma. The prospect of being trapped on board a navy troopship for the ten days to Aden, with a day’s layover for refueling, and then another two-and-a-bit weeks to reach Bombay did not appeal over much, even with the consolation of William’s company. He wandered lonely among the garish stalls of the souk, undecided as to whether he really wanted a souvenir of Egypt. In mid-muse, a shout brought him to an abrupt standstill… and his heart lurched painfully.
He whirled around, hardly daring to believe his ears. “Good God!” He choked over the words and then he was wrapped in Richard’s arms, which stifled any further attempt to speak for a moment. The sounds of the teeming bazaar faded, tears pricked at his eyelids, and he breathed in the scent of his lover… his borrowed lover. “Oh, Richard.”
They broke apart, staring wide-eyed in the amazement of meeting. “You made it… and…” Harry trailed off in wonderment at the interloper approaching. An avatar of a boy grown into a young man, sun-darkened skin, almost absent hair on his shapely head, in ill-fitting army clothes, so familiar yet so changed. “…and Edward.”
Edward smiled, almost shyly. At school they had never used Christian names. Harry swallowed uncomfortably. “Sorry… I’ve known you as Edward for so long now—ever since you—”
“Ran away from Benthenham.” Edward laughed easily.
But then he could. He was back with his beloved Richard… brothers in arms. The glimmer of bitterness evaporated in the happiness at the reunion even as his breath hitched at the cruel timing. Harry extended a hand and shook Edward’s, and then quite impulsively he leaned forward and gave Edward a long hug. “You must tell me about all your adventures, both of you. But I fear that’ll have to wait until I get back to England.” It gratified Harry to see a look of disappointment cross Richard’s face. “You see I’ve had a few day’s shore leave before going on to India with my regiment and our transport departs in less than an hour now. What a bugger. But we shall catch up soon. It’s only a sixth-month tour of duty. And then…”
“You must come visit us, Harry.”
Harry held Richard in his gaze for long seconds, and then gave him a tight-lipped smile. He nodded. “Yes, of course, I should like that.”
He turned before the risk of another burst of tears unmanned him. The Smythe-Vanes did not make emotional scenes in public. It only occurred to him as he wove his way between the importuning traders that there had been a black-skinned African-Arab boy with the Rainbows, and he briefly wondered what his role with them might be. But the perfidy of finding Richard after so many months and then having to lose him again in such an impossibly abrupt manner swept away any curiosity as to what that might be.
* * *
Maplethorpe seemed to sense Harry’s reluctance to reveal more of the mysterious Rainbows and changed the subject. “A tale for a cooler day, perhaps. So, is it a language-studying afternoon?”
“I shall retire to our cabin.”
“Is it really any cooler two decks down? As this is our first voyage to the Great Peninsula, I am in no position to judge the truth behind the reasons for locating senior officers in cabins of their own on the port side of the ship.”
Maplethorpe’s comment piqued Harry’s interest and took his mind off Richard for a few moments. “And what is this potential truth?”
“As we travel toward India, the port side faces away from the hot afternoon sun and so affords a cooler atmosphere. Were we returning home, the arrangements would be reversed so that, again, senior officers should benefit from being housed on the starboard, as far away from the sun as it is possible to be on a vessel the size of the Malabar.”
“So in going out, our starboard side cabins are several degrees warmer by the afternoon?”
“So goes the hypothesis.” Maplethorpe sighed heavily. “I suppose only on our promotion will we discover its accuracy.” He reached out and took a scrubby looking orange from a bowl of fruit.
“I shall leave you to it.” Harry swung his legs over the bench and stood. “I don’t think I can take any more citrus, and I’m sure the surfeit I’ve had recently will stave off the scurvy until we reach Bombay.”
“Indeed. And thank you for leaving me to it. You know full well how much I enjoy supervising my squadron’s drill. I see no good reason why it requires an officer when the sergeant is far more capable than I. Think of me as you relax in the ‘chill’ of our abode.”
Harry threw an ironic wave over his shoulder and briefly acknowledged the salute of the mess orderly who held the door open for him as he stepped through onto the muster deck. The temperature outside was the same as within, but the vessel’s speed generated a momentary pleasing draft of heated breeze. As he descended the steep stairs to the lower decks, Harry looked forward to renewing his acquaintance with the languages of Afghanistan. Learning as much as he could was central to his plan.
Chapter 2 – Shottery & Benthenham, 1874–1878
In spite of William’s skepticism, Harry had convinced himself that their cabin was cooler than being on the muster deck—what a passenger liner might more grandly refer to as the promenade. Tiny as it was, the rectangular compartment represented a haven of comfort, even though the Admiralty had designed it for one and the War Office insisted on fitting in two subalterns. He hadn’t missed Maplethorpe’s envious prod at senior officers having cabins all to themselves. The door—so narrow it obliged Harry to sidle through it—faced the open square port through which he heard the hiss of the sea against the hull, and through which came a damp smell of ozone. Two small cots fitted to the sidewalls left a space two feet wide in between, which allowed a cane table to sit under the porthole.
Harry sat on his cot, too short for his six-foot frame, and thumbed the pages of a book in which were listed common words in Pashto and Tajik. Harry traced a fingertip across the raised gilt letters of the volume’s leather cover which spelled the name of its compiler: the intrepid trader-explorer Robert Shaw ignored the rule in force at the time that no Englishman should venture beyond India’s frontiers. Seventeen years ago he journeyed north to Yarkand and farther, to the court of the Muslim adventurer Yakub Beg at Kashgar on the westernmost edge of the dread Taklamakan Desert. Shaw’s intention was trade, but also to discover the truth that a Russian was already courting Yakub Beg, who controlled a vital section of the fabulous Silk Road from China. Tsar Alexander III’s expansionist ministers were forever trying to find routes by which the army might invade British India.
To Harry the book represented more than a useful compendium: each page turned released a scent of the lands Shaw had explored; every column of text freed the acid-excitement of jeopardy; every word conjured the Pathan tribesman in all his violent grandeur. In short, Shaw’s book was a passport to an experience far in excess of mere garrison duty. It was very much a part of Harry’s plan to join an enterprise in which he hoped to equal Richard’s evident achievements in the Sudan as revealed by his success in finding Edward. If he accomplished his ambition to become a “political” it might also give him something more than a broken heart to think about. The trick would be to obtain an attachment to the Indian Political Department, which might as well be described as the Intelligence Department. The IDP recruited most of its agents to the petty states from the officer corps of the British Army in India, and the role of ambassador-spy appealed to Harry’s sense of adventure.
What excitement, what endangerment! Robert Shaw spent several months, virtually a prisoner of the wily ruler, before being dispatched back in the role of petitioner to the viceregal authority in Calcutta. Yakub Beg claimed British protection against the grasping Russian militarists (although it seemed clear he was simply playing off one great power against the other). The Viceroy was happy to supply the barest polite minimum, anything to keep overbearing Russian influence at bay and as far away from the borders of India as possible: the Tsar desired the brightest jewel in the Empress Victoria Regina’s crown.
As he began to study, a part of Harry’s mind reflected on the omnipresent temperature. The heat encountered crossing the Sudanese Bayuda Desert, and in the stone pan at Gakdul wells building two way-forts, was enough to fry the brain. But dry. Out here on the ocean the humidity made the heat more unbearable, so that within minutes every bit of clothing clung to the skin. One trooper described it as like being gripped by an amorous octopus, which seemed odd, considering he was a farmer’s son from Shropshire and surely uneducated about the sea’s denizens. Carter—Harry and Maplethorpe’s on-board soldier-servant—did his best to keep up with their laundry, but the wet atmosphere made short work of the man’s best efforts. Harry knew from those who had been stationed in India that he would encounter a drenching humidity until the blessing of the monsoon rains. Likely by the time they actually reached Rawul Pindee, the cooling downpours would have ceased for the year. He swung his legs up and leaned back against the bulkhead and cast his mind back to something cooler… much cooler.
* * *
It was a shock to hear the truth behind Edward Rainbow’s sudden and out-of-character disappearance from school. As one of the seniors in The Lodge, one of eight boarding houses at elite Benthenham College, Richard Rainbow confided in him what had driven Edward to flee. The ship’s thudding engine seemed to drift away as the memories crowded in. Harry had pressed Richard to spend that Christmas vacation of 1882 with him at the Smythe-Vanes’ palatial country mansion of Hadlicote rather than mope around brotherless at the Rainbow’s Costwolds home. It seemed like such a long time ago, but that was surely because the Nile campaign’s stress and distress made it seem so far off; in reality barely three years had elapsed.
“That’s really kind…” Richard had said.
“You would be company for me, Rainbow. Someone my own age around.” Harry’s older brother, Evan Frederick Peverell Smythe-Vane to give the man his full name, was five-going-on-six years Harry’s senior and, in the way of aristocratic families, the boys had been raised quite separately. And it wasn’t as though he had many friends at Benthenham.
It had been like that at Shottery Hall, the preparatory school to which his parents sent him aged eight in the ferociously cold January of 1874. After the comforts of Hadlicote’s nursery, Shottery Hall came as a jolt to little Harry’s system, all the worse for the extraordinary degree to which he thought headmaster Mr. Bowles’s head resembled a skull. Only the lightest covering of gray skin covered the bony protrusions and concavities of his cranium, and its papery thinness blended indistinctly to wisps of cottony-white hair adhering to the sculpted cliffs of his temples. Harry shuddered at every unwelcome contact, particularly when examined under the large magnifying glass Mr. Bowles used to compensate for his strangely damaged eyesight. In the way of claustrophobic boarding schools, there were experts who would tell of how Boggsie, as the boys for some reason called him, could see well upward and downward but had a thick line through the center of his vision, hence the massive loupe. All Harry knew was that it made the man’s gimlet eyes bulge to the terrifying proportions of a gargoyle, like one of those on the corners of the family chapel at Hadlicote which confronted arriving worshippers as they rounded the ancient yew from the driveway. The grinning beast so frightened him when he was very young that he hid his face in the folds of his mother’s coat. Facing Mr. Bowles, there was nowhere to hide.
“Why do you shiver, boy?”
“It’s the cold, please, sir.”
“Cold? What cold?” The glass passed in scrutiny over Harry’s face. “Your brother never suffered from the cold.”
And that was another burden: the constant reminders that Evan had flourished there before him.
“At Shottery Hall, we pride ourselves on preparing our boys perfectly to fit in with the public schools to which they go on. This is achieved through excellence.” Mr. Bowles leaned forward and raised his hairy eyebrows. They reminded Harry of the tufty brushes between the horns of Hadlicote’s Home-Farm bulls when they tossed their heads. “But even more is achieved through discipline.” The emphasis lent terror to the word. “Here at Shottery Hall, Smythe-Vane Junior, my demand is all the law there is. Bowles’s Law is what you obey, or I shall come down on you with utmost severity. Do I make myself clear?”
The forty-odd boys aged between seven and thirteen shivered through the winters in their simple short pants, shirts, and painfully thin jerseys, struggled to write when the ink in their desk wells froze, and then sweated the summers in reverse discomfort. Boggsie hammered home the intricacies of Latin, Greek, and English, often with a birch cane, while a younger scholar—at least, he wore a gown like one—pummeled them with arithmetic and history… all those monarchs. (Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste / Harry Dick, John, Harry three / One, two, three Neds, Richard two / Harrys four, five, six—then who? There were too many King Harrys and in the immutable way boys in an establishment where only surnames are allowed could ferret out the hidden Christian name, every time they were forced to parrot the mnemonic the class underlined each Harry with demonic glee. He was only happy no one ever discovered the true nature of the name that his parents gave him at the baptismal font, and which not even the servants at Hadlicote dared ever use.)
There was a part-time teacher, obscurely called Kreutzinger, who took them for geography and physical exercise, which included reciting the capitals of major European countries while swimming in the weed-clogged River Avon. The spartan school stood on a slope above the confluence of Shottery Brook with the Avon, not far from Shakespeare’s Stratford. The school was not so far from Hadlicote either, but too far for Harry to run back home in those first horrid weeks when it seemed every hand was turned against him and all too often found satisfaction in slapping or punching him. Mrs. Bowles acted in the capacity of matron, but her buxom bosom did not extend to cuddles for young boys lost and away from home. Quite the opposite, in fact: she was a harridan who charged the boys from their pocket money for any medicine and she had no time at all for “cry-babies.”
Harry’s happiest moments of the day started the minute he curled up on his uncomfortable paillasse under a scanty blanket. Alone at last. He didn’t much mind evening prep either, the task of sitting for an hour preparing for the next day’s lessons, memorizing whole passages of Gaius Aurelius Cotta’s tedious orations for recital, and working out the English translation of the Latin. He found a calm in the eye of daily cyclonic activity while conjugating verbs and declining nouns, without reference to anyone else. The boys treated prep as a free-for-all the minute whichever adult on guard duty vanished for a bit of time-out (usually a pipe of tobacco), but Harry’s head-down attitude earned him the epithet “dirty swot.”
Early on in his life, then, Harry learned to keep his own counsel and hold others at bay through an icy self-control. He was no better born than several of his fellow pupils, but he created a carapace of snooty aristocratic indifference, while ensuring as he grew older a cool respect through an unsuspected skill for boxing. The sport, while held in high regard for gentlemen of a certain type, found no favor with Mr. Bowles. He regarded “pygmachia” as fit only for “low-born stevedores.” However, Herr Kreutzinger regularly arranged bouts in secret. These were held in a makeshift ring in one of the stables, now free of equine pursuits and disused—apart from the occasional storage of sports equipment—since the Hall had fallen on hard times and been sold off as a school.
In a reversal of character young Harry could never work out, his very aloofness made him a fine pugilist, and all the better since—in complete double-contravention of Bowles’s Law—Kreutzinger encouraged betting between those selected boys who were allowed to watch the fights. Kreutzinger took twenty per cent of each bet placed, half of which went to the winning boxer of each bout. In this way, Harry augmented his pocket money, although the excess inevitably went straight into Mrs. Bowles’s capacious pocket in return for styptic pencils to dab on his bruises. If the woman ever wondered where they came from, she never asked.
Harry never lowered his guard, not even out of the ring, and never allowed his boxing success turn him into a popular figure among his peers, though as he progressed through the years and attained some eminence he could not prevent the hero-worship of younger boys. And then, like so many before him, there came the inevitable moment when his age stripped Harry of a senior boy’s rare privileges. It came in the transfer from the discomfort (but familiar and understood) of prep school to the unknown and feared horrors of public school.
In his case Harry moved from Shottery Hall at one end of the Costwold Hills to the other… and Benthenham College. He carried his carefully crafted persona with him to this new, terrifying environment. So he was well aware of the way his peers in The Lodge viewed him: stuck-up, haughty, manicured and fashion conscious but conservatively tailored. A swat-snot more interested, for instance, in the work of the rash of ridiculous French daubers who called themselves collectively the Impressionists as making an impression on the rugby field. However, as a well-respected boxer and tennis player few called him “Smarmy”—derived, of course from the homonym of Vane—to his face. (Harry banished his double-bareled surname on the first day at Benthenham.) But he knew what they all thought of him. Harry was in fact as lonely a boy as he’d ever been.
So when that fateful Christmas of 1882 after Edward’s sudden disappearance he added, “We might even get up to some japes,” it came as little surprise that Richard Rainbow responded with amused and possibly mocking astonishment. “Do you actually extend to… jolly japes, my dear Vane?”
Japes indeed. Oh how I longed to have japes with Richard. And how little he knew at that moment when he accepted my invitation to spend the festive season at Hadlicote with my family how much I wanted him… every bit of him.
As though it were yesterday, Harry remembered Alfred Winner—Winner the Spinner—holding forth in The Lodge on the Rainbows, who were temporarily absent from the Senior Common Room on some mission of their own. “Like limpets,” he said with a shake of the head. “Those brothers are closer to themselves than to anyone else.” And Harry resented Edward his intimacy with Richard.
The three had started at Benthenham College in the January of 1878. The Lent term was out of kilter with the normal school year commencement of September, and Harry still shivered at his memory of his thirteen-year-old self standing in the freezing Junior Common Room of The Lodge with a dreadful sense of déjà vu that this was still Shottery, under the keen interest of boys his age and some years older; a gaze Harry was certain contained not a little gleeful hostility. “New Bugs” were always bullied… Willy, Willy, Harry, Ste… It would all have been even more awful were it not for a quickly whispered greeting from his fellow newbies before they had nervously shuffled in from the hallway. “I’m Richard Rainbow. My brother Edward.”
It warmed him that the boy had offered their Christian names so simply, and there was little else to provide inner heat. But as chill as the Junior Common Room was, the flat scrutiny of the three gentlemen who faced them, standing upright, stiff and military, hands tucked behind their backs, was far colder. The room stretched into a wide bay window that housed a table between the arch of a semi-circular window seat, and with chairs at its ends and three facing the window. This, Harry learned was called Prep Table, and after high tea accommodated the house monitor of the day and his favored henchmen of the Junior Common Room to oversee daily prep. Running centrally down the length of the room was Long Table, its venerable surfaces scarred by the penknife-carved names of endless wicked boys. There were wooden benches either side for the rest of the Junior Common Room sit at their prep. With a shuffle up of the juniors, the seniors could just fit around Long Table for evening prayers and house notices read out by the housemaster, Mr. Tonkins.
All this knowledge was an hour and more in the future as Harry and the two Rainbows faced the dour gentlemen before them. The one who seemed gowned in the more oppressive seniority because of the gold capped swagger stick tucked under the left armpit of his immaculate morning coat spoke in a clipped voice. “Quiet down, please, JCR.” The drawn out pronunciation made the letters into jay-see-eurrr. He barely raised his voice, but it carried and the room stilled instantly to an occasional shuffle of leather house-shoe soles on bare polished floorboards. He never took his stern eyes off the new boys. “Stand up straight.” Another rolled r.
“Yessir,” the fairer haired of the two other new boys snapped out. That was Richard, Harry noted, and glowed inside at the recognition.
A flicker of distaste passed across Swagger Stick’s august visage and he enunciated each word clearly with a gap between them, as though speaking to an imbecile. “Do not call me ‘sir,’ I am a College prefect, not a master…” He made it sound like pr-raefect. His eyes widened in question. “Which are you?”
“You may address me as Eltern. I am The Lodge’s head of house and the College’s most senior prefect this year. The gentlemen with me are Roberts and Elphinstone, house prefects.” He unfolded his right arm and indicated behind at four less exalted boys standing self-importantly apart from the rest of the JCR. “Runsam is senior house monitor. Messers. Jefferies, Woolfe, and Richards are the dormitory monitors, to be obeyed without question at all times. Are you clear on that?”
“Yes, Eltern,” the brothers said in smart unison. Harry’s mutter mingled with theirs and he was grateful for the unspoken support.
Eltern manipulated the swagger stick with practiced ease as he reached inside his coat and produced a small notebook. He consulted a page, and glanced up at Harry. “Since these two are Rainbows, by subtraction that makes you Smythe-Vane.”
“Yes, Eltern. But j-just Vane will be sufficient.”
“You may offer opinion when asked, but not otherwise. I remember your brother referred to himself by the glory of his full appellation. He was head of house when I was new.”
The look Harry received was not a comforting one. His heart sank at the thought of the horrors Evan must have put Eltern through, now to be revisited on his young brother with interest.
Roberts and Elphinstone gave the three new boys a final look over with pursed-lip contempt and then turned away to follow Eltern from the crowded room. He held the door connecting to the boarding house’s front hallway open for his colleagues to pass through, and with a final glance back said, “Carry on, please, Runsam.”
Harry wished the piggy-faced but frighteningly fit looking Runsam with his lizard eyes wasn’t the senior house monitor. Harry knew a pugilist when he saw one and he didn’t like the way those narrowed eyes took him in, looked him up and down and came again to rest on his middle for a long moment.
“You were no doubt cocks of the walk at your prep schools, but now you are cast down, lowliest of the plebs.” Runsam took a step toward them and peered closely at the other two before turning to Harry. “Hmm.” He swiveled around and addressed a soft-faced, floppy-haired boy standing among the gathering of curious juniors. “Benson! You are retired from your fagging duties.”
Benson’s face lit up in gratitude. “Thank you, Runsam!”
Runsam rounded on Harry. “And you will take Benson’s place as my fag for this term.” He glared at Harry as though daring him to speak. Wisely, Harry kept silent, even though he could feel his feet sinking through the floorboards. Runsam sniffed peremptorily. “Without limitation, subject to my pleasure, you will make my bed every morning, fetch clean bed linen every Wednesday and Saturday from Matron, lay out my nightdress and gown, my clothes for each morning, always ensuring the collars and cuffs are properly starched, and stud and cufflinks are half-inserted.
“You will clean and dust my room twice a week, be available for afternoon tea after going to the tuck shop to purchase toasting bread, teacakes, and buns as well as any other vittles which I might require. Naturally, you will be expert in laying the fire and getting a good blaze going the minute after-sports baths are completed in the afternoon. I insist on a nice strong glow for the toasting fork. I trust you know the difference between a good Darjeeling and a Laspsang Souchong?”
It was clear Harry’s answer was taken for granted.
“I shall expect my morning coat to be brushed every day before I get up. Oh, and of course you will be my bed warmer. You others,” he said to his fellow monitors, “can fight over the Rainbow brothers. I don’t care for the look of spirit in their eyes.” Runsam concluded without smiling.
From the corner of his eye Harry saw the relieved Benson laughing behind his hand, and he felt sure it was about the last-mentioned task, which filled him with deep unease and a sense of appalled embarrassment. Why didn’t he have some of the spirit Runsam saw in the Rainbows’ eyes? To Harry’s mind the tousled, darker haired of the two—the one he remembered was Edward—regarded his interlocutors without any expression, but Richard’s striking gray eyes exuded confidence. He had an inch in height over his brother and it put him on a level with Runsam, even though Harry supposed he was only just thirteen and Runsam a good sixteen. Harry soon discovered that the Rainbows were younger than him by eight months, which made their brave front even more remarkable in the face of the hostility present in the room. (And it meant they would be in a younger stream in the classrooms of school, which didn’t make him feel happy.)
“Are you twins?” the monitor called Jefferies demanded.
Edward spoke up. “We are.”
“But one of you must be the elder, even by a minute or two?”
“That’ll be my brother,” Edward said affably.
Jefferies shouldered Runsam slightly aside and nodded firmly at Richard. “Then I’ll have you, Rainbow Senior. Runsam was most concise in outlining your duties as a fag, but I hope you know how to toast muffins properly. I prefer them to teacakes.” He sniffed at Runsam and then turned on the gathered boys. “Jackson, like Benson you are relieved… but before you get all excited, Elphinstone has asked for you.”
Snickers filled the room.
“Shut up!” Runsam glowered at the juniors.
Woolfe proclaimed himself happy with the fag he already had and so Rainbow Junior was handed over to Richards. Harry thought Edward was lucky. Tall, lanky Richards seemed pleasant and unassuming.
I tried hard not to huddle in a corner of the Junior Common Room that first awful day as the house monitors checked us out.
But when it was done and the New Bugs dismissed to the mercies of the rest of the JCR, Harry snuck covert looks at Richard, drawn as though by gravity into his orbit. When Benson swung over, Harry stiffened up for the anticipated assault, but the boy just grinned, though not pleasantly.
“Runsam’s not so bad, once he gets used to you, and as long as you do what you’re told, and in fact do a lot more you’re not told. Anticipation… that’s the watchword.” He tapped the side of his nose knowingly and smiled slyly. He leaned in confidentially. “Whatever you do, never mix up Earl Grey with Lapsang Souchong, or you’ll be up for tighteners.”
“Clench up your buttocks before the cane strikes. It hurts a little bit less.”
“And don’t worry too much about the bed warming bit. Just make sure you’re up in his study room a good twenty minutes before he turns up.”
“But… what do I do?”
“Get in his bed, silly, under the blanket and quilt and warm up the sheets for him. If he’s in a good mood and feeling kindly, he might, when he gets up there himself, get in and warm you up for a bit. If you know what I mean.”
Benson suddenly reached out and grabbed Harry’s right wrist in a cruel pinch.
“You are right-handed?”
“Of course.” Who isn’t?
“Well, I hope you have a good wrist action, you know, for those evenings when Runsam feels like It.” He pinched harder until Harry snatched his arm free. Benson grinned devilishly for a second. “Don’t worry, he shoots quickly.” And then he turned to run out of the noisy room with two other boys, all chortling loudly.
Their reckless humor boded nothing good.
Chapter 3 – Benthenham College, 1878–1880
Benson’s thoughtless cruelty was almost nothing compared to that of the twenty-odd JCR, delighted at the prospect of new prey to devour. For the course of Harry’s first year he endured the usual rich mix of torment: Chinese burns; rabbit punches; kidney digs; instep stamps; name-calling (Smarmy-smarmy-smarmeee…); wet towel flicking in the echoing bathroom, usually aimed between the legs; apple-pie beds and blanket tossing in the dormitory… but, unlike Harry, the Rainbows had each other, even more so as twins, which made them a mutual support unit—a kindred enfilade against the rest. If rebuffing their attackers with good-natured rowdiness failed, the occasional well-placed physical riposte did the trick. Soon enough everyone wanted to be pals with the brothers, but it was Rainbow Senior, whose very bearing contained such serene purpose, Harry wanted as a friend.
Somehow on that terrible first day, Richard had caught Harry’s shy glances. Anticipating a typically indifferent schoolboy cold shoulder, the returned warm smile gratified Harry. Richard astounded him even more when, uncaring of who saw, he reached a friendly arm around Harry’s waist and actually hugged him. It was, really was, love at first sight.
As for Richard, he was always proper and polite toward Harry and lent a diplomatic hand whenever he could to alleviate the worst of what they all suffered. Of course, after that initial private confidence before entering the Junior Common Room they were Vane and Rainbow to each other, and Harry had to think of him as Rainbow Senior lest he let slip Richard’s private name. If a boy’s first name leaked out, it was rarely acknowledged, almost as if it were taboo. Harry never heard the nickname the rest of The Lodge gave him slip from Rainbow Senior’s lips, but except when playing rugby football there was never another hug.
Richard Rainbow’s kindness that first day changed Harry and bolstered his damaged courage to face his peers and seniors with the delicate disdain he’d employed so well at Shottery Hall. He quickly established himself again safely behind the façade which everyone came to know, the boy who in Alfred Winner’s words took an age “to fold his clothes without a crease, to scent his hankie, and coif his hair.”
Like many of his contemporaries who came from families with a military tradition and who were fully expected to pursue careers as officers and gentlemen, Harry was eager to hear any tales of derring-do out in Britain’s widespread Empire. He preferred to read newspaper accounts, but made a secret habit of reading novels like The March to Coomassie by G.A. Henty and the just published Young Buglers, A Tale of the Peninsular War. As the juniors moved into their second and third years at Benthenham war games were a constant diversion in free time. Returning for the fall term of 1880, Harry found—as he quite expected—everyone full of the electrifying news from Afghanistan: the victory of General Frederick Sleigh Roberts two weeks before on the first of September.
“This is going to be a tough one,” Winner, who had become something of a barrack-room lawyer, warned the Junior Common Room. “I bags being Bobs.”
“I don’t think, Spinner, that your stature is suited to the role of General Bobs,” Hammy Harmondsworth objected with noisy disdain and not a little pomposity. “Whereas Smarmy fits the bill perfectly.”
Winner’s violent snort cut off Harry’s quiet intention to defer the role of the hero of Kandahar to someone else. “Vane, no offense intended, but you never want to get your hands mucky, let alone those elegantly garbed legs of yours, so I really can’t see you playing a part in this, unless of course you’d offer to be one of the delegates who negotiated with the Pathans after the battle. The ones who sat around in ornate pavilions with fixed smiles on their faces ready for the daguerreotypists.”
Harry gave a polite cough. “I think you will find, Winner, that most of the enemy were actually Ghilzais, who have never liked us. Pathan is a general term for—”
“Not interested! Smarmy, you really must look to the Big Picture. Now, who wants to be the villain of the piece?”
No one, it seemed was willing to play Ayub Khan.
“I think Rainbow Senior is the obvious choice for Bobs, though.” Harry’s firm drawl brought instant silence. Then…
“Here, here!” Rainbow Junior cried out from his perch on the edge of well-worn Long Table. Immediately the common room rang in agreement, apart from a sulky Winner.
“Thank you, Vane, but forgive my ignorance,” Rainbow Senior said, “I’m a bit confused as to what happened. Didn’t we lose rather poorly at… Maiwand, wasn’t it?”
Rainbow Junior jumped down from the edge of Long Table and shook his brother’s neck in fond disparagement. “Dick never reads the papers.”
“Nothing like a battle well lost,” Winner said, rubbing his hands together briskly.
“And then there was the siege,” lanky Skiddy Scudamore broke in.
“That’s right.” Winner strode to Prep Table and leaned on it to point out the window to what appeared to be a small building site across a width of grass. “The new Eton Fives courts will make a perfect Kandahar citadel.”
“Bags I play the good native.” Harmondsworth bobbed up and down vigorously. “What’s his name, Ab-what?”
“Abdur Rahman,” the group chorused. “Play him if you like, Hammy, but I think he’s a weed,” Benson added.
Winner rounded on the others. “Tell you what. If I can’t be Bobs I’ll be Ayub Khan after all.” He thumped his breast aggressively. “From my stronghold of Herat I shall advance on Kandahar and repeat my victory of Maiwand.” He pointed a finger at Harmondsworth. “Watch out for yourself, traitorous cousin. I shall wipe the memory of Abdur Rahman from the mountains and valleys of this proud land the Great Alexander gave us, as I shall drive the infidel British back across the Indus, there to cower in their garrisons.” His pointing hand swept around the room and the grinning faces. “But I, Ayub Khan, shall then lead my loyal men down through the Khyber Pass and invest Rawul Pindee and hurl the British foe before my warriors. Verily, shall I sweep them from Calcutta into the sea!”
“Winner’s energy as a bad fellow is most commendable, if a trifle exhausting,” Harry said in aside to Rainbow Senior. “One might almost believe he could alter history.”
“Quite. The point I suppose—I’m sure Ed will put me right on this—is that this Ayub fellow lost?”
Harry, who followed developments in the newspapers as assiduously as Rainbow Senior’s brother evidently did, quickly enlightened his questioner. “Indeed, and splendidly. They marched from Kabul, the Highlanders with their skirling pipes, the Gurkhas and the Sikhs with their British officers and NCOs, all bearing their Sniders and Martini-Henry rifles. Alas, poor Winner, he must face the loss of a thousand of his brave men, all his artillery, and his encampment at Kandahar. The last I read before setting out on the tediously extended rail journey to this worthy establishment was that Ayub Khan is a fugitive, and his cousin Abdur Rahman is appointed Amir of Afghanistan.”
In the event, Winner failed to persuade his fellow boarders to change the real outcome of early September, which was so disastrous to his cause as Ayub Khan, and so he insisted on their first replaying the battle of Maiwand so that he could at least boast a victory. Such was the general buzz of excitement over the outcome of what was now officially referred to as the Second Afghan War that the mid-junior Lodge boys even involved their rivals from Fabian and School House to join in the two planned battles. And since he had proven the most knowledgeable, it fell to Rainbow Junior to act as Greek Chorus for the event. The as yet uncompleted row of Fives courts—their walls raised only a little above waist height—made ideal fortifications. On a bleak autumn afternoon the area around the construction site rang with the bangs and roars of battle as the boys recreated the events of July 27.
Rainbow Junior stood forth; arm raised, and addressed the gathered audience. “Racing from his stronghold of Herat, here to do battle, comes Shere Ali’s youngest son, Ayub Khan. He is eager to avenge the defeats of his tribesmen at Masjid, at Kotal, and at fabled Kabul. He has vowed to retrieve the villages taken by the infidel British, especially blessed Kandahar, Dakka, and Jalalabad.”
With loud ululations and bloodthirsty war cries, Alfred Winner, exotically garbed as Ayub Khan, led his men onto the field of battle. To indicate the difference in numbers Winner’s band amounted to thirty boys compared to Harry’s fifteen, though in fact the real disparity had been much worse for the British. Harry was playing the unfortunate British commander, Brigadier-General Burrows. Three boys from the College’s Volunteer Corps followed Winner’s group. Each carried a Snider rifle borrowed from the school armory and fired blanks (strictly into the air or otherwise… the College’s Regimental Sergeant-Major Fielding had warned from under bristling mustaches). These mini-explosions stood in for Ayub Khan’s artillery batteries, which had really included modern Armstrong guns.
Co-opted referees with coded flags darted around to indicate who had been shot, and once the reluctant victims were persuaded to accept their demise, zealous death throes were enacted all over the battleground. Some even suffered real damage in particularly exuberant eruptions of violence. “None mortal!” cried the referees as they helped the wounded from the field of battle to the infirmary to have grazes and cuts dabbed with iodine (more excruciating than the injury) and bandaged. After an hour’s battling, the rough-edged concrete walls of the Fives courts and the area all around were littered with dying and the dead.
When the British left flank collapsed under the overwhelming onslaught, Brigadier-General Burrows began to withdraw with the remnants of his brigade. Rainbow Junior stepped out in front of the spectators from the three participating boarding houses (the seniors had disdained childish play) and placed his right palm dramatically across his left breast.
“As brave Lieutenant Henn and Captain Slade secure the retreat from General Burrows’s defeat,” he declaimed in a bold voice, “all is terror across the expanse of desert. The camels have thrown their loads. The native coolies have downed their dhoolies and left the wounded to the merciless foe. Gun carriages are weighed down with injured men. Horses limp from the agony of desperate wounds. All cry out for water. Horsemen ride down our baggage animals. They cut our men down: Englishmen bold, Gurkha or Sikh, Indiaman or Punjabi. The wild Pathan takes his pleasure and loots…” He paused dramatically. “The small army of two thousand Indians and five hundred British faced ten times as many of Ayub Khan’s Afghans. Of these brave men, more than a third perished at the hands of the Pathans, the rest…” he pointed to Harry’s reduced huddled group, “…will reach doubtful safety at Kandahar.”
Enthusiastic clapping rattled sharply in the air from the young audience like an echo of the Snider gunfire, now silenced. As the dead and wounded began to spring back to their feet, Winner’s voice rang out. “Today Maiwand. Tomorrow Kandahar!”
“What the heck is a dhoolie?” one junior asked another, who shrugged.
“It’s like a palanquin,” Harry informed as he walked up to stand beside Rainbow Senior (temporarily brave Lieutenant Henn of the Royal Engineers until he should turn into even braver General Bobs). “A carrier for wounded men, slung over bearers’ shoulders.” He finished his explanation, nodded at the younger boy, and then formally shook Rainbow Senior’s offered hand, with a mock bow. “I think your brother got a little carried away. I noted his impartial oration became personal toward the end: ‘…cut our men down.’ Tut, tut.”
Rainbow Senior bridled. “He gets involved, that’s all.”
Harry wished he had someone who so protected him as did Richard his brother Edward, and vice versa. Winner was correct. The brothers were closer to each other than anyone else. He dipped his head, accepting his admonishment. Rainbow relented and clapped him on the shoulder.
“So that’s the end of the war, Vane? I mean the real thing, the news, you know.”
“It seems so, but mark my words, Rainbow, it isn’t the end of the Russians who keep stirring would-be emirs against our interests. The Russians want India and are determined nothing shall stand in their way.”
Rainbow Senior rubbed his hands together in an eager gesture. “I do hope they won’t lose interest before we’re commissioned. It would be a tragedy if there’s nothing to go out there for.”
“I shouldn’t worry about that. Afghanistan is where we’ll be going with College over and officer training finished.”
“Ed, I mean Rainbow Junior, insists there is a lot of trouble in the Sudan, where General Gordon has his hands full.”
Harry waved a hand in airy dismissal. “No. The Sudan will never be our problem. My brother—when he deigns to speak with me—who sits at the foot of the Whitehall panjandrums after going up from Oxford, says that now the Liberals are back in government Gladstone will have no truck with wasting money on the Khedive of Egypt or his dependencies. Trust me, it will be India, not the Sudan where the real excitement will be.” He brushed at a speck of mud from his vest as he glanced shyly at Richard (privately he thought of him as Richard not Rainbow, try hard as he did not to do so). “Meantime, I think you’ll make a very elegant and handsome General Bobs in the next round.”
The flecks of gold in the otherwise gray irises brightened Richard’s expression. Harry would have so liked to brush the side of a finger lightly over the modest smile and capture it for himself.
Chapter 4 – Hadlicote House, Christmas 1882
As the Malabar parted the sea, in Harry’s mind the years went by, the boys grew up, became seniors with the younger boys to fag for them, gained responsibilities. Runsam’s bed warming slipped away into an unsavory but thankfully hazy memory and Harry went out of his way to be firmly, distantly pleasant to those younger boys who had to perform their slave-like duties for him. In consequence, he attained a level of respect from the juniors that any command he issued was obeyed at once and with a willing attitude that often flummoxed his fellow seniors. On returning to Benthenham after the long summer vacation of 1882 for that fateful Michaelmas term, as he approached the Senior Common Room Harry heard some of his peers talking about him. A smile twitched at the corners of his lips at Winner the Spinner’s raised voice.
“It gets my goat when he saunters up as if it were an honor he’s turned up, and speaks in that d-r-a-w-l-i-n-g way.”
“Does it matter if he makes an asshole of himself so long as he plays well in the team?” someone Harry suspected was Harmondsworth muttered.
Winner sounded incredulous. “The words team and Vane don’t go together—there’s nothing sociable about him.”
But by that time—only a few weeks before Edward Rainbow did his amazing disappearing trick—Harry had attained the exalted rank of College prefect, and his top-drawer act had become an ingrained part of his personality. Not that he didn’t enjoy putting it on as thick as Winner spread butter on his teatime toast, knowing how much it riled the terrier tyke. Funny how close a friendship they formed later in the wastes of the Sudan, Harry Vane the Guards lieutenant, Alfred Winner in his blues as a naval officer.
Yes, it was cold as Richard and I traveled to Hadlicote, the silent ghost of runaway Edward between us.
There was an unusually early fall of snow that Christmas, but the heating on the Great Western train compartment they shared with four other passengers between Paddington and Banbury made it advisable to shed heavy overcoats and tuck them up on the overhead luggage rack with their suitcases. During the journey from Gloucester to London, Harry tried hard to cheer Richard without sounding crass. It was obvious that Edward’s abrupt running off from school, friends, and family had come close to unhinging the boy sitting beside him. Lacking any sibling sympathy for Evan, Harry found it difficult to understand what Richard was going through, beyond an academic apprehension that it must be hard if you were close to a brother and a twin, though they were by no means identical.
On the other hand, he knew better than most how close the two were, and it was as if Richard didn’t feel quite the same need to hide his filial feelings for Edward from Harry as he did from other Lodgers. Filial. Sometimes Harry was sure he sensed much deeper swirls in the currents of the brothers’ relationship, something more intense than brotherly love. And he resented it.
Nevertheless, he felt it best to support Richard in his bereavement—for that’s what it appeared to be—with a calm non-judgmental naturalness. Besides, not discussing the Edward matter any further—at least until Richard was ready to do so—meant Harry could avoid letting a certain happiness at the other brother’s absence creep into his tone of voice. It seemed mean, but there it was… now he had Richard all to himself.
At London’s Paddington station, having ascertained the time of their arrival at Banbury, Harry dived into the general telegraph office and sent a telegram to request two carriages to transport them and their baggage home, Banbury being some fifteen miles of winding country lanes from Hadlicote. The Great Western express service to Birmingham’s Snow Hill station was busy and all but two of the eight seats of their first-class compartment were taken by the time the train guard’s whistle sounded.
Once settled, Harry’s musing returned to the brothers’ relationship. In his presence neither had kept up the appearance of sibling indifference to which they treated the rest of the boarders, an attitude over which Harry pondered often, perhaps even obsessively. Did their relaxation in his company—little enough as it was—stem from that first day exchange of Christian names? And in those few moments when he felt privileged to see inside the fence of good-fellow-well-met Rainbowness it seemed the boys’ relationship verged on the amorous.
Now there’s a thrilling thought, taboo and unsettling but sexy nevertheless…
And then there was the heat of Richard’s thigh pressed against his own. The portly gentleman seated on their side of the compartment took up more than his fair share of the bench. Squashed in the middle, Richard nevertheless had an inch or two of leeway, whereas squeezed up against the car’s wall by the window Harry had no room to maneuver, so when he very gently pressed his left knee against Richard’s right, his companion could certainly have edged away enough to put air-space between the pinstripes of their school uniform pants.
But he didn’t.
Somewhere a bit after High Wycombe as the locomotive chugged toward the Chiltern escarpment and the Oxford Basin, Harry became convinced that Richard was pressing back. There was nothing more he could do under the circumstances but try to relax in the comfort of that secret touch. Partly to take his mind off the thought of Richard’s thigh and as much to engage Richard in a low-voiced conversation that required him to press even more firmly against his side to hear, Harry regaled his companion with ribald tales of Lady Helen Vane-Tempest Stewart, who by some mysterious family connection was an aunt. “We don’t talk about her much at home for reasons that have been carefully withheld from my innocent ears,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper. “I rather hope she will be coming for the festivities, though. She’s fun.”
After alighting at Banbury, once more swaddled in greatcoats against the chill—though here the snowfall had been so slight that the roads were clear—there was no more opportunity to exchange any thigh compression on the jouncing trap which carried them to Hadlicote, their belongings following in the dogcart behind. Nor was there any during the first days of the vacation, for as usual Hadlicote—filled with relatives and invited grandees from London to celebrate the festival and Evan’s twenty-first birthday a week later—rang with merriment all day and long into the night. And in the daylight hours, or once most revelers had fallen out of bed, been dressed by their valets, partaken of breakfast, and readied themselves for some exertion, Richard and Harry went riding in company.
On the eve of Christmas Eve the guests and members of family assembled in the vast withdrawing room. Some occupied comfortable chairs in their various scattered groups. Others stood around the pianoforte and sang carols lustily if not always in tune while imbibing freely of the champagne that continued to gush in the aftermath of dinner. The occasion was informal, which meant the men wore three-piece lounge suits with matching vests, except for Evan’s, Harry noticed with a twinge of irritation, which was of a color and pattern that could only be described as loud: a lime green with slightly paler yellow dots; but then, he was an Oxbridge toff sucking up to any Liberal parliamentarian who came within range.
Richard, ensconced quietly against the edge of the third of the deep bay windows, now shuttered and draped against the wintry views of the expansive lawn outside, looked resplendent in a pale fawn lounge suit. His unbuttoned jacket gave Harry the thrill of seeing the shape of his friend’s sex bunched up beneath the well-cut gabardine. How strange, Harry wondered, that a sight familiar enough in school togs or sportswear should seem so altered—so excitingly transformed—in a different context; on my territory…
“Oh, Trent, thank you. I’ll take two of those.”
Harry swept two full champagne saucers from the butler’s laden tray.
“Master Harry,” Trent began in reproving undertone, “you will have me in trouble with your father—”
“It’s almost Christmas, Trent.”
“I shall deny all responsibility should you descend to a state of inebriation, Master Harry.” Trent sniffed, but failed to hide the smile as he turned away.
Harry bore down on Richard. He felt happy, perhaps a touch light-headed after the previous two glasses of bubbly and two of wine at dinner, which had deadened the twinges of guilt he felt at knowing he was trying to replace Edward in Richard’s affection as a way—he defended his position—of lightening Richard’s loss. But he was seventeen and allowed a modicum of alcohol. Richard, that bit younger… well, his parents were far away in Nice with Richard’s young sister for the holiday period, no doubt mourning the disappearance of prodigal Edward. Perhaps it was the silvery lining of sadness that made Richard appear so delectable, a sleekly suited sylph whose very stance inflamed Harry’s passion. He hoped Richard, who had also partaken of a few glasses along the way this evening, would feel equally… free.
Richard looked up and smiled, took the proffered saucer by its short stem and raised it in salutation.
Harry turned and stood shoulder to shoulder with his friend. Like an observant audience, they watched the singing, the coming and going of busy conversational groups, as Trent and two maids wafted between them dispensing tea, coffee, more champagne and also brandy for some of the gentlemen.
“Who is the strikingly good looking, knife-edge-straight man of undeniable military bearing over by the edge of the fireplace?”
Harry glanced across the gathering. “Colonel Langrish-Smith, a friend of my father… and maybe even of your father, Richard. His boy Jolyon is my godson, for some obscure reason. The child is attractive enough as tadpoles go when they are the age of… oh, what is he now? Seven, I think… though I have only seen him squalling at his christening and here at Christmas last year. They obviously left the brat behind with his nanny in London this year.”
He saw Richard’s attention switch to a group of well-set young-bloods and elegant young women standing beyond the piano, all carousing happily to a gay wassail, led by Harry’s brother. Richard licked at his lower lip before raising his champagne to take a sip, and the flicker of tongue hit Harry’s stomach like a physical punch from a boxing opponent. He was aware of the pleasant effects of the champagne and perhaps it was that which guided his hand under the back of Richard’s jacket, where he hooked two fingers into the waistband of his evening pants. To detract from the action, he nodded at his brother. “Evan has set his sights on becoming a great mandarin in the government. Nothing so coarse as a military career for him.” He put a little disdain into his tone and kept his gaze fixed firmly on the merrymakers across the room, while gently wiggling those trapped fingers. “Of course, one day he will have to take his place in the Lords, though that won’t prevent him being a minister.”
“You mean he’s glad-handing Gladstone?” Richard swayed slightly in self-appreciation of his wit and Harry’s fingers moved with him.
Harry was very aware of Richard’s weight against his hip and shoulder, and the pressure of his amused--aroused?—scrutiny. “I feel your eyes on me, Richard.”
The quiet smile wafted across the corner of Harry’s vision, but Richard said nothing. Neither did he reject the guddling fingers at the small of his back, a countryman’s way of enticing trout to come to the hand for capture. Harry swallowed. “I’m aware I may, just may, please note, have imbibed a few more bubbles than is good for me. So please prepare to forget anything I might say.” He emphasized the point by pressing against Richard’s spine, just above his coccyx.
“One ear and the other,” Richard breathed.
Harry ducked his chin to stifle a small burp and then turned a dreamy gaze on Richard. “You must know that I am not immune to your charms, my dear Richard.”
He paused and Richard stared back, the slightest frown marring the perfection of his forehead. Harry was aware of the heat radiating against his hand from the spare flesh of Richard’s back.
“Do you know that?” Harry raised the hand holding his champagne, knuckles to his lips to disguise a second unwarranted belch.
Richard shook his head slowly. “I–I didn’t… know.”
The tone of wonder contained no censure that Harry could detect, if anything, the opposite. His heart soared. They held each other’s gaze.
And then Evan crashed the moment. “Young Rainbow,” he said brusquely as he marched into their secluded corner. “Will you excuse me? I must whisk Harry off to meet someone. I promise to bring him back.”
* * *
William Maplethorpe’s face drifted across Harry’s reminiscing. He couldn’t deny the tug at his groin occasioned by thoughts of Richard and the availability of his fellow shipboard lieutenant. How, he wondered, does the pain of loss become an erotic urge? And how long does it take for the fresh and surprising to become familiar and used? Harry wasn’t sure. He was barely free of his adolescence, hardly a jade, and yet he was sure nothing could ever again match the edge-of-a-cliff excitement of discovering Richard Rainbow’s returned love, even though he came to know that he shared Richard’s affections with his… with Edward. But knowing that wasn’t enough to dim his love.
Maplethorpe had remarked on the danger they would have been in in years past from their proximity to Socotra, since ancient times a nest of pirates.
Yes, of course. There was Blackbeard.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, waking without the anticipated hangover (“I never suffer such an infliction as long as I remain with the champers,” Evan so often claimed, with due smugness), Harry felt emboldened, determined to elicit from Richard that they both shared the same feelings for each other. He dragged Richard out for a “constitutional,” after insisting on rugged clothing, so they were similarly attired in warm flannel shirts, Norfolk jackets, and thick cord trousers tucked into vulcanized Wellington boots. A short stroll from the main house brought them to the home farm. Harry led the way between two massive Dutch barns, which he knew were almost fully stocked with sheaves of baled winter hay.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?” Richard asked in an amused, perhaps puzzled, tone.
Harry cleared his throat. It felt parched. Perhaps his constitution was not the same as Evan’s after all; perhaps it was the shaky-ready-to-be-filled emptiness he felt at Richard’s proximity, their aloneness, and the full knowledge of what he was about to embark upon, come what may. He paused to look sideways. Richard, so unfamiliarly garbed as a gentleman farmer. So used to seeing him clothed either in formal college uniform or kitted out for sports, he had to remind himself that his friend also hailed from a farming community, even if his family, like Harry’s own, were straight up-military. “Yes. This was always my special place as a child. Actually, it still is. Here, among the hay, was my Daríen, my Porto Bello or Cartagena. I made pirate ships up there and sometimes I was Blackbeard, sometimes the noble Sir Francis Drake burning the Spanish Main. Often, I was the poor ordinary seaman, captured, bound, and stripped naked for the torture.”
Harry looked at Richard’s surprised expression. He knew his school friend was seeing a new Harry Vane, one he might never have supposed to exist. Harry swallowed, but pressed on. “I usually had to play two parts, sometimes more.” He shrugged apologetically. “Older brother, not interested in my games. What’s a lonely fellow to do? Here!”
He forced a bright smile, and strode on and then reached up to haul himself over a chest-high ridge of hay retained by low-set boards. “Come on!” Harry clambered up the narrow chute between stacked bales on all fours and hauled himself up the dusty incline of shifting straw. A quick glimpse down between his knees revealed Richard struggling up behind him, half-laughing, half-sneezing against the flying chaff. And then he reached the top, high up in a natural hollow formed of hay bales under the barn’s curving arch of corrugated iron. The forage released the sweet smell of summer along with stored warmth into the fragrant atmosphere. As Richard crawled the last few feet and began to stand unsteadily on the uncertain floor, Harry laughed loudly flung his arms wide, spun around like a child, and threw himself flat on his back. Here goes nothing… oh, sweet Lord, love me.
As an invitation, it exceeded Harry’s expectations. Richard barely paused before hurling himself across the space, arms outstretched, to land on top of Harry. His head fell against Harry’s shoulder and he pressed their ears together. Sudden arousal flooded Harry’s body and the way it slammed into his brain nearly overwhelmed him.
Richard chuckled against his cheek, hot wet breath bathing Harry’s ear. And then came the words. “Now I’m really concerned,” he burbled breathlessly. “What simulacrum is this which has replaced the real Harold Smythe-Vane?”
Harold. The deliberate provocation informed Harry better than anything that Richard’s feelings for him were more intense than he could have hoped for. It was a tease and of the sort that could only emerge from a true affection, for Richard was being purposely contrary. Years of public schooling had to be thrown aside for the Christmas gathering, and on inviting Richard for the holidays Harry had insisted on using their Christian names.
“If we’re to spend time out of school together… Richard. And for God’s sake, not Harold. And I’m not a Henry.”
Richard might reasonably have asked what kind of Harry he was then, but he accepted the request without comment and allowed Harry to keep his given name as his own secret… at least for the time being. If anyone were to learn it, he would allow Richard to be that person.
His emotions swamped his natural caution. In a moment he enfolded Richard in his arms and rolled him back. Richard didn’t resist. Those beautiful smoky eyes flickered left to right and back again to focus on each of Harry’s. Time stopped. The quiet in the barn was a physical presence and it only served to concentrate the sounds of their breathing. Harry crushed his lips against Richard’s. His tongue broke through the barrier of Richard’s teeth and sought his tongue and Richard didn’t deny him. After the briefest hiatus, Richard mustered his counter-attack and Harry’s mind side-slipped into the amazing petard of Richard’s tongue exploding in his mouth, a sensation of such intensity he feared he might faint.
For an eternity, he lost himself in the incredible frisson generated by this sudden onslaught of passion, all coherent thought erased by the wonderful recognition of Richard’s ardent response… and as physically. He felt the bone of Richard’s hardness push against his stomach and reveled in his own stiffness thrusting back against Richard’s thigh. He broke the labial contact and reared up triumphantly above his conquest. “You didn’t reject my hand last night.”
“We were drunk.”
The response might have hinted at evasion, but Harry didn’t think so. “Hah! Yes, weren’t we? And…?”
The uncertainty in Richard’s tone matched the sudden fear of rejection that cut a deep runnel in Harry’s hopes. Had he gone too far, too fast? A worm of fear crawled in his gut. Too serious, too soon. He desperately hoped Richard was suddenly being cautious because he feared these portents of passion might be misread. But surely not? They had kissed. It was mutual. They both sported erections, and yet the next move to something more overt suddenly loomed like a barrier. He opted for levity to ease any of Richard’s concerns.
“Now? I think I’m going to be Blackbeard, which means I’ll have to strip you naked and torture you until you give me what I desire.”
Richard relaxed under Harry’s weight and grinned. “The stripping bit sounds like fun, but pray tell me sire, what might your desires be?”
Harry’s Great Trek – On the back cover…
What do you do when the person you have loved in secret since your schooldays finds happiness with another, leaving your heart bereft and your future a bleak, lonely prospect?
For Harry Smythe-Vane, junior officer serving in the British army at the end of the failed campaign to rescue Gordon of Khartoum from the Mahdist siege of 1885, finding childhood friends Richard and Edward united in love spells the end of a dream he knows was doomed from the start—more so, a dream condemned by society at large: the love of two men for each other.
Harry must now pluck up the courage to pursue an uncertain quest for an elusive new soulmate—his great trek to attain fulfillment.
From dangerous missions on India’s wild North-Western Frontier to the deserts of Sudan, Harry forges a career and experiences fleeting friendships, but when a spell of leave takes him to London his heart is struck. He meets his almost-forgotten godson Jolyon Langrish-Smith, a troubled teenager in Oscar Wilde’s louche circle. It’s an encounter that pitches Harry headlong on a turbulent journey of emotional involvement, of hurt and joy.
Painting a vivid panorama of the British Empire at its height, with its multi-faceted but rigid society hovering on the brink of change, Harry’s Great Trek is an epic saga of love and war—alive with an engaging cast of the humble and the famous, the honorable and the scoundrels—which climaxes in 1900 amid the carnage of the Boer War. There Harry’s future is decided as one quest ends and a new journey begins…
Harry’s Great Trek concludes the “Empire Trilogy” which also comprised of A Life Apart and Gregory’s Story.
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