The third section of Flashman’s career, as recorded in the Fourth, Fifth, Eighth and Tenth Packets, once again gives us a complete record of Harry’s movements, this time from his ensconcement at the Board of Ordnance in late 1853/early 1854, to his hasty ejection from a Baltimore-bound train in America in October 1859 and, after a brief but puzzling gap, his adventures in China in 1860.
At the beginning, Flashman has secured his post at the Board of Ordnance to ensure he is not called up for active service in the war he can see coming with Russia, eventually taking place in the Crimea. However, his taste for vicious amusement, at the expense of a young and naive German princeling, backfires when the lad turns out to be a cousin of Prince Albert. Flashman is promoted to Colonel and installed as William’s mentor, but this means going to War.
In the Crimea, Willi’s impulsiveness and naivete quickly gets him killed, with Flashman not straining at the leash to save him. In disgrace, he is laid low with dysentery, brought on by drinking stale Russian champagne, returning to duty, fatefully, on the day of the Battle of Balaclava.
Flashman features in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, the Thin Red Line and the Charge of the Light brigade, which latter action he helps to bring about, trying to get Lord Cardigan to somewhere here he will be shot at. Flashman survives the Charge but is captured by the Russians and, in the absence of an equivalent prisoner to exchange, is taken inland to the estate of Count Pencherjevsky. There he is re-united with his old Rugby schoolmate Harry ‘Scud’ East, now an Intelligence Officer.
Flashman is happy to remain indefinitely, especially as he is conducting an affair with Pencherjevsky’s daughter, hoping to impregnate her at the Count’s urging. This unusual idyll is interrupted when the Englishmen discover plans for a Russian Army to take advantage of the distraction of Crimea, to invade India through Central Asia.
East insists on an escape but Flashman is recaptured, and dragged with the Russian Army under the heel of Count Nikolas Ignatieff. However, in Central Asia he is rescued by the men of Yakub Beg, a rebel leader and, full of hashish induced courage, he succeeds in destroying the Russian supply ships, halting the advance.
Flashman reaches India but is laid low by a serious bout of cholera, delaying his return to England until the latter half of 1855. he is not home for long before he is sent back to India, as Palmerston’s agent, to investigate signs of an impending mutiny.
Flashman’s first role in India is as a Political Agent, sent to the Maharani Lakshmibai, in Jhansi, to attempt to seduce her into accepting the influence of the Raj. Flashman may or may not have been successful in the former aspect, but he is exposed to enemies, and drops out of sight, joining the Army as Iqbal Khan. In. his undercover role, Flashman sees the events that led to the start of the Mutiny building.
When it all begins, Flashman is shocked by the brutality displayed, and also wounded in the head, leaving him incapacitated. He return to his wits for some time, during which his old comrade, Ilderrim Khan guides him towards Cawnpore, where the British are besieged. Among the other officers present is Scud East.
Flashman plays a part in negotiating an agreed British retreat, but the Rebels play false and the British contingent are slaughtered. Both Ilderrim Khan and East are killed, the latter in Flashman’s arms, though he is one of a handful who escape down the Ganges.
Returning to the fray after several months convalescence, Flashman finds himself again besieged, in Lucknow, and guides out the man who can bring the British Army in to relieve the siege.
But his worst moment comes when he is sent into Jhansi again, to try to get Lakshmibai out unharmed. Instead, he is imprisoned for months, and she uses the fake escape plan to effect a real escape, but not for long. Flashman, in native garb, is witness to her death, and is taken himself as an agitator. He wakes to find himself strapped across a cannon’s mouth, and gagged, but manages to get himself freed.
For his efforts in the Mutiny, Flashman is both knighted, and awarded the Victoria Cross, though his triumph is spoiled by discovering that Tom Brown’s Schooldays has been published, identifying him as a school bully.
Flashman leaves for England, going ashore at Cape Town, where he is invited to dinner at the Governor-General’s palace. There, he rudely encounters his old enemy, John Charity Spring, seeking revenge for his humiliation a decade previously. Spring tempts Flashman with an opportunity to seduce his teenage daughter (which Flashman achieves, not that Spring knows) but it is a trap. Flashman is drugged and sent to sea with one of Spring’s cronies.
Spring’s revenge is to deliver Flashman to Baltimore, abandoning him ashore, without funds or friends, with the Police alerted to the return of the still-wanted ‘Beauchamp Comber’.
But Flashman is being watched by three disparate organisations, with different intentions but the same outcome in mind. These are the Underground railroad, anxious to see a blow struck against slavery, the Kuklos, a secretive organisation dedicated to preserving the South’s way of life and facilitating secession, and Pinkerton’s Detectives, on behalf of US Intelligence, who wish nothing to happen.
However, all three want Flashman to join with the notorious Abolitionist John Brown, on his much-touted, supposedly secret invasion of Virginia. Brown needs a militarily competent Lieutenant, either to make his raid succeed, or else demonstrate just how impossible it is. And, if necessary, shoot him in the back.
Flashman is forced to go through the whole matter, under the watchful eye of a fanatical black supporter of the Kuklos, who is a mole in the Underground Railway. The raid on Harper’s Ferry goes ahead, with Flashman an unwilling witness as usual, and things fall out as they do.
Flashman, having killed the Kuklos agent, is spirited away by Intelligence, on a train to Baltimore where he will board a ship to England. But there is another Kuklos agent watching him, who decides to warn him. He decants from the train, along, friendless and hunted, one stop short of Baltimore…
In complete contrast to the previous breach in Flashman’s career, this final break is very short, a mere five months. Given that it starts on the East Coast of America and ends in Hong Kong, in completely the opposite direction from the one in which Flashman was travelling, I think we can safely say that our hero spends most of the period in transit, with little or no time for adventure.
But why and how are questions to which we have no answers. It’s completely inexplicable how Flashman ends up going in the wrong direction, and not enough to say that, having found himself lost and friendless on American soil, and hunted by the Kuklos, he had very little choice in where he went, and may even have deliberately chosen to go in a direction his pursuers wouldn’t expect.
Even so, and even with five months to play with, this means Flashman has got to get across the American continent and across the Pacific, with time to spare to hang around in Hong Kong. Even if we posit that Flashman somehow got down to Panama and crossed the isthmus, it’s hard to believe that he could make it in time.
Personally, I put it down to Fraser being so determined to throw in John Brown that he wasn’t concerned about joining up the dots with the Eighth Packet, but we can’t actually use that as an excuse to ignore the problem.
This is another point at which Flashman may have heard his South American jungle drums, if his flight took him below the Equator, but it’s hard to imagine how he’d have time.
Nevertheless, to Hong Kong he comes, planning to sail on further west and return to Elspeth via India, picking up the route he was following two years previously. Instead, whilst trying to fill in the time by seducing a clergyman’s wife, Flashman finds himself conned into running guns to the Taipeng Rebels, and, after bluffing his way out, finds himself revealed to the authorities, and despatched to join General Napier’s march on Pekin.
First, Flashman is put back on Intelligence, in which capacity he is despatched to see the Taipeng from the inside, hoping to divert them from attacking Shanghai. In this he fails, but gets away sufficiently to warn the authorities of the army on his tail, and army that is turned back, but not before Flashman is diverted to his real task on Napier’s staff.
He joins the March on Pekin, getting captured and subject to both torture and the ministrations of the Emperor’s preferred concubine, and future Empress of China. Escaping her custody, Flashman rejoins the Army as it takes Pekin, and plays his part in the still-controversial decision to destroy the Summer Palace.
Heading home at last, he runs into Phoebe Carpenter again, and intends to complete his seduction by blackmail. Unfortunately, she has him drugged, and he finds himself shanghaied to parts unknown…