Lord Brampton held his hand out expectantly; arm rigid, fingertips twiddling with impatience; all the while never taking his eyes off the fearsome black rhino grazing placidly in the distance.
I carefully handed him the heavy elephant gun, making sure the muzzle was pointing well away from either his lordship or myself. Two great bullets were loaded in those chambers. The hammers were at half-cock, but I’d learned the hard way it was always best to be safe…insofar as that was possible. I regret to say, however, that when in the company of my master, when he was in the company of his guns, that possibility didn’t always exist.
But, so far so good; Lord Brampton’s fingers curled around the polished walnut of the stock. There was a momentary unease when one digit slid unerringly past the trigger guard, but then it was out again without any harm being done.
That part of my duty successfully completed, I pulled the small brass telescope from my belt and leveled it at the beast. A moment later the head of the bull wobbled into view. He was big to the naked eye at a hundred yards, but massive in the lens, his great horns jutting up and down while he grazed. We were downwind of him and, so far, unsighted.
Lord Brampton leveled the great rifle at the brute and sited down the shiny blue steel of the twin barrels.
“Head will look good in the gunroom, what?” His lordship rumbled confidently in a voice too loud to be a whisper. The rhino’s ears twitched, and I felt my grip on the telescope tighten, but he was only flicking away some flies.
My own voice was a hoarse whistle as I cautioned His Grace to silence.
“Nonsense,” he scoffed, “Trouble with you, Smithers, you worry too much.”
I knew better, of course, but I also knew better than to remonstrate further. My master was in one of his more quarrelsome moods. It was always this way when his old wound was bothering him.
To accent the point, an angry growl erupted from his abdomen – the medical legacy of having so much of his intestines removed at Balaclava.
The rhino’s ears twitched again, then centered; his great head rising while he peered short-sightedly in our direction. I found myself softly keening, willing Lord Brampton to pull the trigger.
At last there was a deafening report as the gun discharged. A few yards beyond and to the left of the beast a large spurt of dust heralded the usual complete miss. With a sinking heart, I focused back on him. When I did so, I saw that he, in turn, was now focusing on me, his eyes wide with surprise.
Then angrily, they narrowed.
The elephant gun roared a second time. The top two inches of the rhino’s front horn disappeared as if by magic, but that was all. When you stopped to consider that the tip of that horn was in a direct line between the gun’s muzzle and the lethal spot between the beast’s eyes, such a lack of result was really quite remarkable.
The bull took a few belligerent steps in our direction to get a better look at us, his ears fanned out and alert. I think the sun must have glinted off the lens of my telescope, for it was a mere instant before he lowered his head and charged, bellowing with rage.
“Missed, by God!” Lord Brampton roared, affronted.
“Oh hell!” quoth I, to no one but myself.
The rhinoceros had increased speed at an alarming rate. In fact, the way he was eating up the distance between us was quite impressive.
Here we bloody go again.
We’d been camped out on the great plain of the Serengeti for a week now. As usual, His Grace had failed to hit a thing, not even a wildebeest, and this, you’ll note, after having worked our way to within fifty yards of a herd so vast that it stretched in every direction for as far as the eye could see!
So it was with some trepidation in my heart that, when we happened upon the small herd of rhinos, Lord Brampton had decided to stop and have a go at them. When I hopefully ventured to point out an inoffensive herd of zebra a short distance away instead, he had dismissed the idea with a derisive snort. For all evidence to the contrary, my lord had a supreme confidence in his own abilities as a deadeye marksman and, misguided or not, it was his towering ambition to be accepted as such by his peers.
Now, true to form, his appalling lack of skill, or luck, or whatever else you might care to call it, had remained steadfast and not forsaken him.
So it was with a sinking feeling that I passed the other gun to his lordship. That feeling was confirmed scant seconds later when, with the bull growing larger every second, he calmly levelled the piece and let go with both barrels at once.
Those great slugs should have stopped the beast in his tracks, but he never even slowed down. Where they had got off to no one could tell, but one thing was sure, they never registered in any of the rhino’s sensory apparatus. Not to worry though, he seemed quite infuriated enough already.
There was only one thing left to do.
“Get out of it, m’lord!” I cried and nudged him firmly toward where the horses were tethered some distance to the rear. Already, they were whinnying with fright and rearing back, pulling hard on their reins.
Now he turned that indignant glare upon myself. As God’s my witness, I thought he was going to stand there and argue.
“There’s no time, sir! You must save yourself!”
His face worked furiously for a precious moment, and then – praise be! – seemed to recognize the urgency at last; but true to his sense of dignity, there was no hurry in his step as he turned away. The very square set to his shoulders proclaimed with immense pride that a Brampton never ran.
It would have to do.
Now to assure his lordship’s safety, my duty was to bring the brute’s attention fully upon myself. Indeed, the time was so short as to be virtually nil. Already, his great bellowing form was nigh upon me, filling the very horizon with clouds of the churned up plain in his wake.
I roared my own pathetic challenge and feinted a half-step toward him; then spinning away, darted off at a right angle to my master’s line of escape.
It wasn’t necessary to look back to know that the bull had taken the bait, and was now hard on my heels. The very ground was trembling as though I were running through an earthquake – so far, so good. Now if I could but stay ahead of him for the next twenty yards or so, to where a cliff plummeted down to the Mara River, everything was going to be jake.
Accordingly, I lowered my head, and ran for dear life.
Now, with things in hand, and all my other duties temporarily suspended, so to speak, perhaps this is as good a time as any to introduce myself.
Charlie Smithers is the name and personal attendant to John Houghton, Lord of Brampton (with five lines in Debrett) is my occupation – has been for the past thirty odd years, back to when we were just wee lads, and him and I was playmates together.
Ah, but those were the days – both of us roaming the wild Yorkshire hills with the roan deer in the sights of our wooden guns and joyful murder in our hearts! And if that didn’t serve, there was always charging in amongst his mother’s flower gardens (or in our eyes, obliging lines of French infantry), hacking and slashing at those prize geraniums until they were so much bloody offal. That was the life, I tell you! Plenty of mischief for a couple of mean-spirited lads, and no end of it in sight, neither!
Hold on, I think the brute’s catching me up. Not to worry, I’ve enough left in me for a bit more speed. Ah, that’s better! Now, where was I?
Right, his nibs and me was mates – well not mates, exactly, but as close as a peer could be to his servant, and vice-versa. I suppose that was just as well because there was never any question I was raised to be anything other than his man, just as my dear old dad was raised to be his dad’s before us as convention demanded; and in accordance with such convention, it was through my father that I first understood what it was to be a gentleman’s gentleman.
It must have been one of those times after having laid waste to the flowers, because it was one of those rare instances when we were immediately taken to task. Lord Brampton was hustled into the depths of Brampton Manor by his father, the earl, while my own father grabbed me by the scruff and dragged me off behind the stables. A gentle man was my dad, but duty was duty.
“Now then, Charlie,” he said, and boxed my ear repeatedly ‘til it rang. Then his eyes narrowed while he studied my face, searching for any sign of weakness. But I had learned at an early age that giving in to such unmanly emotions was something my guv’nor never tolerated, so I remained stolid, eyes front like a guardsman. Satisfied, he relented somewhat, and laid a heavy hand on my shoulder.
“Now my lad, I do allow that killing Frenchmen is only right and proper. After all, we’re British, and that’s why God put us here on this earth; but,” and his voice was the rich source of reason, “destroying her ladyship’s flowers is just not on, don’t you see?”
“But Father,” I piped, doing my best to sound man-to-man, “I was simply following orders.” Which was the unvarnished truth, and I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
They were simple words from a simple lad, but the effect they had on my dear old dad was remarkable, and one I shall never forget. He flung himself back like he’d just taken a musket ball square in the chest. Then raising himself to his full height, eyes bulging like a surprised owl, I thought I was going to get another cuff across the head, but after a moment, his expression changed to one of paternal pride. This time more tenderly, he replaced his hand on my shoulder.
“My son,” he said, his voice thick with emotion, “the day will come when you will have my position, the day, in fact, when young Master John succeeds his father, and all this carefree time of youth will be but a distant memory. There will be little ease in your life, and even less recognition.” Then he grew even more solemn, “but though difficult, always remember there is no higher calling than to be of service to your gentleman. They are a fickle race, and lack that instinct of self preservation infused in we lesser folk. So you must see to their well-being in a thousand different ways, because they cannot see to it for themselves. Often you must place yourself in danger’s path to protect them from harm. Many’s the day when you must work from dawn’s first light to beyond the setting of the sun, always with their comfort foremost in your mind. You must do all these things with a cheerful heart, and a Christian forbearance for their many strange foibles; but above all,” and his eyes were flashes of stern duty, “you must always obey.”
“Yes father,” my own eyes were glued to his.
“Even when there is a certainty of punishment, you must obey – nay – even if there is a certainty of death, never forget your duty!”
“No, Father,” I felt entranced. Like I said, a great one for duty was my dad.
“This is a sacred trust, one which has served our island race well, until it has made of us the foremost amongst all nations!” This was a favourite topic of my old man, the part about being British and all, and I thought he was just getting started, but this time he exercised some self-discipline, and contented himself by admonishing me with, “Never forget that, son!”
“Good lad!” he cried. Then nodding affectionately, he weighed in on the other ear.
And I never did forget, neither. Hang on – almost there!
Air rasping like hot coals in my lungs, I leapt for the precipice just as I felt the lethal end of that great horn graze my backside. I chanced to glance over my shoulder, and could have laughed aloud. The bull had pulled up just short of the brink, bellowing with rage at being frustrated in his desire to smash me to a pulp. For a brief moment I was elated to be free of that charging black nemesis…until I chanced to look down.
With some horror I realized my escape route hadn’t quite been thought through in its entirety. For now I found myself poised over thin air a hundred feet above the Mara River – except, at this time of year, it was more like the Mara Trickle. Indeed, from this height, it seemed virtually non-existent – no more than a silver thread cutting through the parched yellow of the vast grasslands below.
Down I plummeted.
Oh well, as the saying goes: it’s not the fall that will hurt you….
Now, my old man certainly knew what he was talking about. Gentlemen had foibles, and by the cartload, too! And being gentlemen, their foibles were of an altogether grander nature than yours or mine. Take my master, for instance. He was always the great one for the hunt, but the problem was, no matter how hard he tried, he could never hit the broad side of a barn door. But then, neither could any of his forebears, so perhaps there may have been something inherited to it all. Yet even when marksmanship wasn’t the issue – as in riding to the hounds – although he sat a horse very well, and could ride like a Red Indian, there was always the most appalling bad luck attending him. Many’s the time I can recall, while the far-off belling of the hounds led the other toffs over hill and through dale, my master would invariably blunder into a wood, wild with enthusiasm, and stay hopelessly lost, until I – having witnessed, with sinking heart, the trees crashing and swaying for hours on end while he careened about in frenetic peregrination – ventured in to bring him back for tiffin.
Consequently, as the years passed, the walls of the gunroom at Brampton Manor remained bare and unadorned – had done so since time immemorial – and are so to this very day.
That came as no surprise to the common folk, for word had long since spread that, in this regard at least, the family was cursed. That in itself might not have been the end of the world (peers, after all, seldom paid much notice to the common herd) except for the fact that the subject was dear to the hearts of that ancient, blue-blooded line. For it had long been a family notion, handed down from father to son over many generations, that they were country nobility. Not for them was the society of London. Rather, they perceived themselves to be made of sterner stuff than those stylish fops, and fancied that the harsh nature of their northern estates fit them as naturally as a well tailored coat. While there may have been some truth to this, try as they might, they could never shake those dark whispers, and as the local superstitions eventually became accepted by some of the nobility itself, they considered it a personal disgrace.
Now all that talk of being cursed was just so much bullocks, if you ask me. However, I do have to admit there seemed to be a distressingly long list of unfortunate episodes that might appear to give credence to those whispers.
Like there was the time at the hunt when his steed accidentally trod on young Lady Wynngate’s foot – poor girl, she was in plaster up to her hip for ages – and though it was never confirmed, may well have been the cause for the breaking off of their engagement.
Then there was that time when he – perhaps rashly – in an attempt to throw off the shackles of superstition, had promised his father a brace of quail for the table that evening; but the only blood to be spilled was when his gun caught on a bramble and the discharge filled a beater’s backside with bird shot.
Or the time when we were hunting deer on the eastern fell…but then that was long ago, and best not spoken of. Besides, that ghillie’s widow was endowed with a pension for life, so all’s well that ends well.
I suppose, given the Brampton’s inborn sense of bloodlust and perhaps – if my impertinence may be forgiven – a certain lack of reason rendering them unfit for much else, it was only natural that the family should have a time-honoured tradition of purchasing commissions in the military. Hence, you shall generally find that at least one of that noble family was present at some of our nation’s more notable defeats. Why, milord’s grandfather lost a leg at Saratoga when, at a critical moment, while bravely attempting to lead a bayonet charge into the thickest part of the frey with the last of our dwindling reserves, tripped over his sword, severing the tendons behind the knee. Many years later, in the peninsula, his father, the present earl, led a charge at Corunna – in the wrong direction – and was subsequently shot out of the saddle by some annoyed Highlanders. As the story goes, the ball caught him squarely in the forehead, but by great good fortune, was already spent. Sadly however, the blow rendered him severely cross-eyed, and looked to do so for the remainder of his days.
Of course I followed my master to the colours in our own time as well, and with thoughts firmly set on bloodshed and glory, sailed with him to the Crimea. Well, I saw enough bloodshed to last me a lifetime, and no error. And while I’m not saying there wasn’t any glory, if there was I never saw it.
By now it must be a rarity to find anyone who hasn’t heard of the charge of our Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava, and how it’s fame was helped along by a certain romantic poem – which was so much poppycock, if you ask me. It was a bloody shambles, that’s what it was, and a disgrace to British arms…and my own personal disgrace foremost amongst it all.
You see, it had been pure and simple hell riding up that valley; both shot and shell screaming through our ranks, sweeping away our fellows in giant handfulls, but so far, by the grace of God, my master and I had managed to pull through unscathed. Yet even as we drew nigh the guns, I saw the Ivans wheeling that piece around to catch us in flank, and saw that bearded blighter touch his match to it, too. But the worst of it was that I saw the discharge was set to scythe directly across Lord Brampton’s path, and when that happened, it would almost certainly blow him to smithereens. So, with my dad’s words ringing in my ears even o’er the roar of the cannon, I’d urged my mount forward, but, lamentably, was not in time to shield him completely. The round lifted us both from the saddle, for the best I could do was to only partially absorb the charge, shredding the muscle from my shoulder, and taking a few balls of the canister in my leg. But at length, when I came to my senses amidst all the blood-curdling thunder of hooves and cannon, and the hair-raising screams of the wounded and dying, I was able to crawl my way over to my poor master, and was horrified to see that great gaping wound in his abdomen.
That was a bad time, I can tell you. I’d thought he was a goner at first and that my failure was absolute, but then I noticed that, somehow, he was still breathing. Where there was breath there was life, as the saying goes, and where there was life there was still hope, no matter how slender. I don’t rightly recollect how I was able to get him back, and with only one arm to do it with too, but I must have managed it. I remember grabbing at the reins of a horse with an empty saddle, but the rest is just so much blank confusion of coming back through all that hell, until we’d finally reached our lines and I’d summoned the surgeon.
That worthy had shaken his head with deep gravity when he saw my lord’s wounds, but when he took note of the fretful state I was in, had set about them regardless of his misgivings. It had been a long and painstaking affair, with him pulling out sundered entrails by the yard, and me hovering anxiously, helping as best I could; which, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t much. When at last he was finished stitching him up, there was such a pile of gory intestines on the ground beside him that I wondered if he’d left any inside my poor master. But at last, he rose to his feet and put his bloodied hand on my good shoulder.
“It’s in the hands of God now, Charlie,” he said, although I could see he didn’t hold much hope. Then clucking his tongue in that disapproving way he always had, added, “Now let’s see about saving that arm of yours.”
For weeks I felt the very picture of misery while my master hovered between life and death. Many’s the time I thought the fever was going to carry him away, but whatever they lack in other areas, Bramptons have the constitutions of bulls. Even so, it was a close run thing – as the old duke used to say – and when he finally did open his eyes, I was so relieved that I hobbled over with my arm in a sling, threw myself to the ground, and begged his forgiveness for having failed him so completely. He had every right to sack me, of course, or at the very least have me shot for cowardice, but believe it or not, all he murmured was, “Better luck next time,” or something else along that line, before drifting back to a laudanum-induced sleep.
Now I ask you, is that, or is that not, a true gentleman?
After such a horrible experience, you’d have thought it would be nothing but Easy Street for him from then on, wouldn’t you? If it were any other man I dare say you would be right, too, but my master would have none of it. Weak and wane though he was, when invalided out of the army, and having returned to England, Lord Brampton soon found that he was no longer suited to the quiet country life. For once having tasted it, beneath that noble breast there burned an unquenchable thirst for adventure. So it was with little surprise when, one evening some months after our return to Brampton Manor, I was summoned to his side.
I found my lord in his rooms, pacing back and forth in evident excitement. His face was set in the way he had of showing the decision he’d come to was, as usual, the one he’d desired.
“Smithers,” he cried, already showing signs of coming into the bloom of health, like a man reborn, “pack my bags! We’re off to see the world!”
“Certainly, Your Grace,” I bowed carefully, and somewhat awkwardly from my crutch. My arm was also still in its sling, but healing famously. “May I be so bold as to enquire where we are going?”
“Why, haven’t you ears? I said ‘the world’ didn’t I?”
“Yes, of course, milord, but…..”
His brows knit together.
“But what? Come on, man, out with it!”
“But what part of the world, sir, if you don’t mind my asking?” I needed this information so as to reckon on which of milord’s togs it was best to stash away into his travelling chests.
“Why the world, Smithers! The whole lot! Every last nook and cranny, every last jungle and sand dune, every last tepee and igloo, every last square inch, in fact, or,” he amended slightly, “at least as much of it that’s British.”
“Oh,” I couldn’t hide my surprise, for this was doing it up handsomely, and no error. In fact, this was such a grand affair that more luggage would have to be purchased in order to transport so much of my lord’s wardrobe…and his guns, too, of course.
And so, to make a long story short, seven months later – with both our wounds healing in the process – having taken a mail packet to Cairo, then overland by camel caravan to the Gulf of Suez, before taking an East Indiaman to Mombasa, here we were, with milord trundling back to camp unattended, and me plummeting to almost certain death.
Speaking of which, legs straight, arms tight to my side!
There was a tremendous splash and water engulfed me. The shock struck most of the air from my lungs and I was still sinking like a stone.
What great luck! Apparently, I had fallen into a deep eddie or a pool. I was saved!
But before I could exalt too much, my descent was suddenly arrested by a bone-jarring crunch on the gravely riverbed. A pair of sharp ‘snaps’ was quickly interpreted into the knowledge I had broken both my ankles.
What little air remained in my lungs was now expelled by a sub-aquatic scream of agony. Water flowed into my nostrils and into my mouth. My confused mind was so disoriented from the fall and the searing pain I didn’t know which way was up. I thrashed about, but without evident effect, for with both ankles broken my legs were now useless. Yet, just as I was about to black out and give into the the river’s insistence it should take me, my head miraculously broke the surface, and I found myself spluttering water from my lungs. I coughed and coughed until my stomach cramped, and I was spewing muck all over the place; but once I had retched up most of that disgusting filth, I looked up at the clear blue sky and the world all around me, and knew that I had somehow survived.
Treading water with my arms, I fairly crowed with triumph.
“They haven’t got you yet, Charlie!” I cried, my voice echoing off the canyon walls. “The world’s tried and tried, but you ain’t bloody dead yet! Bloody marvelous! Bloody indestructible, that’s what you are!”
I was so loud in my rejoicing that I almost didn’t hear the splash, or the sound very like boulders rumbling together; but not quite like that….no, not quite. This sound was…hungrier, somehow.
Subdued now, I peered over my shoulder to the far shore, and was able to catch sight of the last of the leathery forms as it took to the water.
It was enormous.
“Oh crumbs,” I said.