Friday, 22 March 2013

A sample of 'Cawnpore'

There was a blog site (now closed) which allowed authors to show off a sample of their writing so people could get a feel for their books. I spent ages choosing mine and, as you can't read it on that site any more, I'm posting it again here. It's an interesting contrast to the excerpt from 'Lord of Endersley', which I know Sue spent a while picking out. She concentrates more on the relationship between the characters, while this piece is more about the time and the place. Some readers who want a romance complain that my lovers (the narrator, John Williamson, and Mungo) lack passion. It's a fair comment. But the Lord of Endersley never learns how to couch a lance.

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The anniversary of Plessey was now less than a week away and I feared that I could not hope to gain the skills I needed in the few days available to me. I need not have worried. Soon after dawn the next day, Mungo introduced me to his cousin on an empty plain a few miles west of Bithur, remote from any road and away from prying eyes. Amjad (for that was his name) was a wiry man but, though I still found it difficult to judge the age of Indians, I thought him too senescent to be in any shape to teach me. As soon as he mounted the skinny little pony he had brought to our meeting, I realised my mistake. The man was a magnificent rider, relaxed yet secure in the saddle as he galloped his mount in what seemed impossibly tight circles.

After a few minutes, he reined back and cantered toward a lance he had left upright in the red earth. Without pausing, he plucked it from the ground and wheeled again. As the pony turned, the lance was already couched under his arm. He kicked once and galloped straight toward us. My horse shied as Amjad raced just inches past my face and lowered the lance to the ground. A moment later, he raised it. There on the point, was a tent peg he had hammered into the ground before our arrival.

Twice more he turned at the gallop and the lance dipped to the earth and each time he raised it with another peg speared on the tip.

He trotted over to me and passed over the lance.

"You try."

Thinking this a joke, I laughed, but Amjad's scowl showed that he was serious. I looked to where he had speared up the pegs and saw another three forming a neat line alongside them.

I tucked the lance under my arm. It was surprisingly light. I turned my horse, but, before I could start toward the pegs, Amjad was shouting at me with a string of criticisms. I didn't hold the lance properly; I had failed to adjust my weight to take account of the new balance point I would need as it dipped; my left hand was loose on the reins. There seemed a hundred other things but these were all I could remember.

I sat on Kuching, feeling more and more ridiculous as he poked and prodded me into what he thought was a satisfactory position. Finally, I was allowed to kick in my heels and start toward the tent pegs.

I had taken barely half a dozen paces before I was subjected to another torrent of complaints. I had shifted my weight again as soon as I had moved, my kick was wrong, the horse didn't understand me, I had allowed my body to slump, I had pulled too sharply on the reins, I had taken my eyes off the pegs...

On my third attempt, I got as far as a canter before the abuse started; on my fourth I almost reached the pegs. By now, Mungo was struggling to keep a straight face. I, blushing furiously under the tan which was now almost as effective a disguise as my walnut stain, tried to hold onto my temper. I was, after all, no mean horseman. I had grown up with the beasts and, if I had not ridden during my sea-faring years, I had more than made up for my lack of practise during my time in India. Yet I had to admit that I did not have the smallest part of the skill of the old man now offering a devastating critique of every aspect of my riding. Even so, I doubted that his comments would be truly useful. Surely his skill was that of a native, born to his way of life. How could a morning spent subjecting myself to being treated like a child at a riding school make any difference to my own abilities? As the day grew hotter, I found, to my astonishment, that I could catch the tent pegs on my lance, if not at a gallop, then at a respectable canter. And my newfound ability to turn my horse back on itself without slowing impressed Mungo to the point where he caught himself clapping, despite Amjad's scowls.

Before noon, we had to stop. The heat had reached the point where neither man nor horse should be in the full sun and we walked our beasts slowly toward a grove some half mile away, where we sheltered under the trees and Mungo made us a picnic of cold rice with curried fowl and mangoes and figs to make a fine dessert.

Amjad enjoyed his food though, like many older men, he ate sparingly. I took advantage of the break to question him about drills. He was undoubtedly improving my horsemanship but I was still no clearer as to how the Nana's cavalry drilled. Having watched the Company's cavalry on parade, moving seamlessly from 'advance by column' to 'advance in line', responding, as if by magic, to the sounds of the bugle, I was all too aware that I had no knowledge of how to perform these manoeuvres. I was sure that as soon as anything more complicated than following the man in front was required, I would be exposed as an imposter.

Once I had got Amjad to understand my question, he laughed so much that he nearly choked on the last of his figs. Yet again, I had forgotten that the way that Indians organised their armies was totally alien to the British approach to matters military.

"Ride along with your fellows until they order a charge, then draw your sword and charge with everyone else. Your horse will know what to do if you don't." He laughed again.

"What about the lance?"

"If they charge, you won't need the lance. It's for showing off and sticking pigs. The first man you strike with it, it will snap off. And if it doesn't, you can hardly ride around with a body dangling from your lance, can you?"

Mungo passed him water, because we both feared that he would choke if he laughed much more.

"So why have I spent the morning learning to use the lance?"

Amjad spluttered and water splashed onto the baked earth.

"Because showing off is nine tenths of what makes a sowar. But don't worry – once the day cools, I'll show you how to use that fancy sword of yours."

We lazed under the trees, digesting our meal until the worst of the heat was over. Then Amjad was as good as his word. We did not leave the grove but Amjad stuffed a bag with leaves and soil and hung it from a branch. Then he rode through the trees, swinging his heavy tulwar, toward the bag, which was slashed open in an instant.

"Now you try."

My first attempt ended with my nearly falling from the horse as the weight of the sword unbalanced me. Having mastered the whole business of staying in the saddle while whirling my blade around, I twice buried it in tree trunks before I reached the sack. A few more passes rocked the bag to and fro but failed to cut it. Only as the shadows of the trees were stretching long in the afternoon did I finally manage to despatch my enemy well enough to satisfy Amjad. Even at the end, though, he had his doubts.

"Mungo tells me you don't really want to kill anyone," he said. "That's probably just as well."

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