In Karnal the great parade paused to split off into separate deployments. There I challenged an officer to a duel. He accepted. He had to accept. His commanding officer and my commanding officer had to order us to cease and desist. Many men fight duels in India. It was put down to my surly temper and indeed my temper was fiery for that officer, nameless even here on this page, because he enraged me with his recklessness. But neither he nor I dare say what the source of the argument was.
I declined mess privileges and kept my head down, did my job, and lived with my Indian family. I felt as comfortable around them as I felt uncomfortable around strangers of my own race. Karnal was a large fort and any place that held too many strangers triggered my shyness which made me freeze up. I would hold my head very high but inwardly cringe. Every day I washed in the river along with everyone one else. In the heat of India you bathed everyday. I noticed an officer watching me from the bank but I ignored him. But one night while I checked on the evening pickets before signing off I saw him. He was strolling through the cantonment, trying very hard to make it appear to be mere chance his route crossed my route. He struck up a conversation, asking twice if I was ‘that John Nicholson I heard tell about’. I asked him what he heard and who was telling and what he meant by it. He was flustered then. He was a middle aged man, bland, blond, clean shaven. Then he gestured with one hand, the hand resting on my tunic.
“It is just that I hear tell that you don’t fancy whores being the type who ….does not go out of his way to woo the ladies.”
“What the fuck are you driving at?” I asked. “And who has been doing the talking?”
“Just some griffins. On the steamer coming. At Fort William. At the college. In the cool rooms. You would sit in your underwear reading poetry when the other griffins enjoyed the more vulgar fruits of the bazaar and Calcutta….” I felt the hand move up the tunic to my beard and pause. Then a finger stroked my beard.
“Who the fuck has been telling you this crap so I can beat the shit out of them?”
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Then the officer dropped his hand and gestured. “My mistake old chap! My mistake!”
“No! You tell me who the griffins are! I want their names so I can beat the shit out of them! Tell me the names!”
“It was just a …. after mess….. just talk you understand…..”
“You tell me the names now!”
“I can’t! Really! Why make a scene? It was a misunderstanding old chap!” The officer tried to walk away but I groin kicked him and he sprawled in the dirt. At that moment a picket guard came up. I blushed bright red in the moonlight.
“Asshole is drunk! Drag the bastard back to his bungalow!” I snarled. “I will walk the picket line until you come back!”
I paced the picket but could not believe what I had just heard. The bastard actually thought I was a XXXXXX! He said he got that information from some of the griffins! My reputation was being shredded. Just the merest hint of such a scandal as this could destroy a soldier’s career! Should I beat up every griffin? Or would that just draw attention to their gossip? Should I challenge this man to a duel? Or would that just draw attention to his conduct — which he assumed I invited! I simply did not know what to do! And I could not talk to anyone about it!
The next day my Commanding officer called me into his tent to ask what happened last night! It was all over the camp! I said the officer was drunk and insulted me and I was going to challenge him to a duel. And I did! I had to!
The commanding officers ordered us to cease and desist. No one asked the reason for the duel. Gentlemen did not ask such questions. The parade marched out two days later. I later heard this officer ‘resigned’ for ‘health’ after the Officer Mess revoked his privileges. The only thing that could cause that to happen was not paying the mess/gambling bills, cheating at cards, seducing a fellow officer’s wife, or being suspected of being a XXXXXX.
I dreaded Ferozepore now. I had no idea what rumors were circulating. And worst of all was the nagging question: why? Why did he proposition me? Why did he think I was a XXXXX like him?
My pen pauses at the word. My pen scratches the word out. Excuses fill my head. My mother’s kirk. The kirk’s hellfire and damnation. That hygiene speech back at Fort William. I don’t gamble either. I don’t drink. And I don’t fornicate. It is evil. It is dangerous. And I simply don’t want to risk my career with vices that my mother’s kirk said were hellfire and damnation. It does not mean I am a XXXXX. That is all. That is all there is to it. Really. Incident closed. Non issue. Misunderstanding. He probably propositioned every young lieutenant. I am not even that handsome. I am clearly not that type. That sort. That vice. I will cross out every word with big XXX’s. I never once looked at a single naked body of any man washing in the river. That proves it. And I will beat the shit out of every griffin I find repeating lies about me. I will flog them bloody!