Corporal Reynolds rubbed his eyes groggily and sat up. The air in his tent was cool and still, punctuated only by the blasting fanfare just outside. A roll call? At this hour? As he pondered what the world was coming to, he clumsily pushed himself out of bed and began fumbling with his uniform, his vision blurry with tiredness – not helped by the fact that it was pitch dark outside. Eventually, he had finished dressing. His uniform was far from immaculate – there were stains down the front of his crimson jacket, for a start – but in the darkness it would probably do.
Reynolds lifted the flaps at the entrance to his tent and stumbled out into the darkness, dazed for a moment by the sudden activity. He could not make out much, with the moon hidden behind a cloud, but up ahead the whole unit was gathering. The trumpeter who had woken Reynolds to begin with hadn’t let up, and continued to blast his harsh tunes across the barracks. Vaguely lit by a candle or oil lamp of some kind stood Colonel Percival Sanders, the commander of this camp. Sanders had risen to the rank of a Colonel not through any merit of his own, but rather by marrying the sister of a high-ranking general. His lack of tactical ability was well-known, and he could hardly have carried less respect amongst his men if he’d tried. If one wanted to locate Colonel Sanders, all they had to do was check the nearest tavern or whorehouse, and they would find him. Reynolds walked over towards Sanders, where the rest of the men seemed to be congregating.
As he came closer, he could see that Sanders was standing atop a pedestal and seemed to be preparing to make a speech. As far as Reynolds could tell, there was no good reason why this speech couldn’t have been given in the morning, but, alas, the Colonel wanted to make a speech, and, being a Colonel, he was going to. The rest of the men were formed up in rows, and Reynolds joined them, at the end of the second rank. Nothing was going on, and the soldiers were simply talking amongst themselves. Reynolds exchanged pleasantries with the man in front of and behind him, and then simply stood there in silence, doing everything he could to prevent lethargy grabbing onto him and pulling him down into the sweet embrace of sleep. He was just starting to lose this battle when the trumpeter finally stopped, and Sanders began to speak. Before he spoke, he stepped forwards onto the pedestal, a lamp suddenly casting peculiar shadows over his face, dancing as the flame flickered. Bathed in the shaky glow from the lamp, Reynolds could clearly see the flushing in Sanders’ cheeks. Sanders stood uneasily, off-balance, and when he spoke the words were slurred and stuttering.
“‘Ello ladsh. I have deshided that we are -” He paused to hiccup. “We are going to, going to-” Another hiccup. “Have an eshibishun. Yesh. An eshibishun.” He hiccuped again, and before he could continue to speak, his aide, Lieutenant Fletcher, tugged at his sleeve and whispered to him. Fletcher was another unpopular officer among the men. Not for his incompetence, however – for Fletcher was a talented and capable commander – but for his general personality. Fletcher was cold and impolite, believing himself above all other men, and had manoeuvred himself into a position of importance as Sanders’ aide. While Sanders was the colonel and commander-in-chief, it was clear to all that Lieutenant Fletcher pulled the strings.
Reynolds watched with surprise as Fletcher and Sanders had what appeared to be a very animated discussion – any orders from Sanders usually actually came from Fletcher, and judging by Fletcher’s aggravation, it looked as if Fletcher had been kept in the loop as much as Reynolds with regards to this exhibition.
Sneaky bastard deserved the surprise, Reynolds thought to himself. As he was thinking this, the man to his right nudged him and asked, “So, what d’ya think we’ll be exhibiting?”
“Haven’t the foggiest,” replied Reynolds, his voice quieter and croakier than normal due to his tiredness.
The other man began to speak again, but was cut off by Sanders stepping back onto his pedestal.
Sanders promptly fell off the pedestal, landing face down on the hard stone of the parade ground. Raising himself off the floor with as much grace as a pheasant falling to earth after being shot, he opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it after a few seconds. With an expression of stern concentration on his face, he opened his mouth once more.
“Well… My good friend, my friend, um, my friend… Fletcher, yesh, tha’ one,” he clumsily raised his hand and turned around a few times, trying to spot Fletcher, and, finally locating his target, pointed somewhere in Fletcher’s general direction. “That one there, he has, has told me that… What did he tell me again? Oh! Yesh! I remember! It’sh not an eshibishun we’re having. We’re having an esh- … an esh… a washitcalled… an eshpudishun? Yesh, I think so.” There was murmuring among the crowd at this announcement. An expedition? To where? When? And most importantly, why bother? It was at this moment that Reynolds caught sight of something he never expected he would see: Lieutenant Fletcher with a look of genuine confusion on his face. This cheered Reynolds up a little, but not enough to overcome the annoyance of being rudely woken in the middle of the night for a drunkard to declare that they were going on an expedition.
Sanders coughed and continued, “My good friend, Captain… Captain Shimmsh, who I met in the inn, has shaid he’ll let ush use hish shipsh for our… ex… expedishushushun…” While doing this, Reynolds gathered that Sanders was trying to point to the man to his left, a naval officer with cheeks equally as flushed as Sanders. So, it wasn’t just an army thing, then.
The briefing continued for, as far as Reynolds could tell, several days. Sanders continued to ramble through his orders, hiccuping and stuttering as he went. However, despite saying many things, there was one key topic he failed to mention: where the ‘eshpedishun’ was going. As it turned out, they weren’t going far.
Reynolds was up again at the crack of dawn for the actual roll call. His eyelids were heavy; he felt as if he had been awake only an hour or so prior. In all likelihood, he had. As he dressed, he muttered a short string of curses under his breath. This rapidly became a long string of curses when he saw just how bad the coffee stains on his coat were. Forming up on the parade ground once more, he tried to hide at the back, trying to appear as small as possible in the vain hope that an officer wouldn’t notice his coat. It didn’t work.
“Corporal! You there! Corporal! Don’t pretend you don’t know who I mean, corporal! Yes, you, the one with the filthy coat!”
Reynolds pointed at himself and shrugged his shoulders in questioning.
“Yes, you!” The officer walked over to Reynolds, a look of true rage on his face. His voice was high-pitched and harsh, it’s screeching tones almost hurting Reynolds’ ears. “That coat is a symbol of Matilum! It is crown property! It is your duty to keep it im-mac-ul-ate! What do we pay you for, corporal? What are you supposed to do with a filthy coat like that? What will the natives think when they see you? You are a laughing stock! A joke! You go into combat with a jacket like that, we’re bound to lose the battle! As soon as roll call is over, get it cleaned! If not, I shall ensure that you don’t live to regret it!” With this, the officer turned on his heel and marched proudly off, back to the front of the formation.
Even after several minutes of everyone standing in formation, nothing had happened. Reynolds was unsure of what was causing the hold-up, until he heard someone else say, “That’s it! Sanders ain’t here.” That made sense. He was probably sleeping off last night’s drinks. Several more minutes passed, before Lieutenant Fletcher eventually stood up on the pedestal. A sergeant-major called the unit to attention, two hundred soldiers’ heels snapping together in unison. Fletcher began to speak, but was quickly cut off by angry shouts coming from the back of the parade ground.
“Oi! Your Colonel told us you’d be on our ships by now! Get a bloody move on, would ya? We’re all ready to set sail!” All heads turned to look at the sailor who’d interrupted the roll call. When Reynolds looked back, there was an expression of pure hatred on Fletcher’s face. He swore, and barked an order, “All men, fetch your rifles and report to the docks in your companies. Artillerymen, bring your carbines but you can leave the howitzers.” The sergeant-major commanded the men to fall out, and the parade ground was soon similar to an ants nest, with people scurrying all over the place, rushing to complete the task at hand.
Rifles in hand, the thirty or so men from Reynolds’ platoon boarded the naval vessel they had been assigned to. It was a beautiful craft, long and slender, with her two masts climbing proudly to the sky. The firing ports were all open, her flanks bristling with cannon. On deck, the crew strode purposefully from station to station: every man knew his roll and intended to fulfil it. Thick, acrid black smoke bellowed out of her funnels, the coal-fired boilers readying the ship to move off.
By the time all of the soldiers were ready and the ship slipped lines, it was getting into the early hours of the afternoon. Standing on deck with the sun beating down on him, sweat poured from every pore on Reynolds’ body, further marking his already stained coat. Why the soldiers were required to wear thick, red, woollen jackets in the tropical heat was anybody’s guess.
The crossing itself was uneventful and relatively short: the target for the expedition was, in fact, only the small archipelago across the straits from the regiment’s current base in Kasapur. As the minutes slipped by, the Island ahead of them grew and grew, and its features became easier to make out: what had earlier been a blurry green shape became a mass of separate and distinguishable trees; birds could be seen circling overheard; mangrove forests revealed themselves on the shoreline. Eventually, while still some distance from the shoreline, Reynolds could feel the ship’s propellor grind to a halt, and the volume of smoke pouring from the funnels decreased slightly. Orders were barked, and he saw the anchor being lowered at the bow. The captain shouted over the mob of soldiers’ conversations, “Listen up, please. We cannot sail any further for risk of running aground. To make the rest of your way to the island, the only options are to swim and row. Anticipating which option was likely to be more popular, I’ve had the crew prepare some rowing boats for you. Embark in an orderly fashion, please.” His voice was a far cry from Sanders: clipped, precise and polite like Fletcher, but with an air of humility rather than confidence.
As the captain had requested, the soldiers boarded the little boats methodically, and began to row towards the shore. They aimed for the patches of sand that showed themselves here and there, in between the mangroves. Reynolds didn’t know what to expect – his cousin had been in the army, too, and had been sent to Southern Tamestein, where he’d fought several tough battles to put down insurrections by angry – and extremely aggressive – natives. Would this be like that? Reynolds simply didn’t know.
Next Chapter: The Acquisition, Part 2 (June 6th-7th, 1856)