By Punnus Man
“I met Roger Bellingham for the first time in the summer of 1815. The world had just enough time to take a breath before Bonaparte came back from Elba to give it one last kick in the bollocks.”
We were out by the cliffs, astride idle horses.
Parham told me the story more than once during the course of my employment, but I remember the way he told it that very first time as the wind blew off the channel, up the cliff face to swirl in gusts about us.
“I met Roger in the parlor of a brothel in Brussels. We called it Chez Almond Towers, though for the life of me, I cannot remember why. It was a friendly house, you know the sort, clean and welcoming, with a central parlor for having a drink or a cup of tea in when you were not otherwise engaged. Strictly for officers mind you, the ranks had their own place.”
Parham stopped speaking and reached into his coat pocket to produce cigars, though I shook my head at his offer, torn between simply not wishing to knock him off his horse and the knowledge that Parham smoked remarkably lower than his station. As he deftly clipped the end of a foul looking cheroot and lit, managing to remain horsed for his trouble, I watched clouds clear from his eyes and the blue sky above. The green rolling grass led to the eaves of a forest that tangled back into an impenetrable darkness that spoke of adventure to one side, and the cliff’s edge to the other. It was a morning of golden magnificence, pulled whole out of the old songs sung about green Jerusalem in pleasant English lands.
Parham stroked his horse’s mane and puffed on his cigar before continuing.
“It was nothing compared to even a second rate house in Paris, but what the fallen Flemish girls may have lacked in imagination and technique when measured against their Parisian cousins, they attempted to make up for with a certain dour enthusiasm, of that I can assure you. In any event, the Parisian houses were all patriotically servicing Bonaparte’s rejuvenated Grand Army at the time and the ale was also quite good at the Almond Towers.
On the night in question, I was enjoying a glass of ale, and confess I was enjoying it cold. Having spent a considerably brisk and rewarding interlude with a flaxen haired former maiden, from Antwerp as I recall, I was most distressed to have what I expected to be a most enjoyably relaxing afternoon ruined by a boor in the guise of a polished Prussian Peacock holding court in the snug just off the parlor.
The old boy was an Oberst and wore a powder blue dress uniform with a monocle and dueling sword. He was speaking altogether too loudly for both the circumstances and surroundings. From what I could make out, he was bragging about his prowess with a sword, though German was a language I had little familiarity with at the time. It had always seemed a vulgar language, a notion that has grown with my fluency.
I recall thinking that any man who would brag about anything after so recently having been chased down the road was a remarkable boor, even for a Prussian. The day before you see, Napoleon had forced Blucher and his Peacocks to retire from Ligny, preventing them from meeting up with Wellington. At the same time, his Field Marshall, wily old Ney, had taken on some of our own lads, but had to beat the retreat for all the good it did him. As I say, only a remarkable boor.
The sun was beginning to rise higher in the sky and I could almost hear it sparkling off the waves that broke against the cliffs below. Parham sat stiff on his Arabian, the missing leg to the other side, feigning the illusion of wholeness. Indeed, only the iron gray of his hair gave indication of his age. His voice carried with the salt on the low breeze that came up from the sea, deep and full of the story he told.
“I think I was simply going to leave. As I say, I had been after a spot of relaxation after my tryst with young Moll. We were for the march come morning, bound for glory at Waterloo as it turned out.” His voice held no irony, only remembrance. “I think I was simply going to leave when I heard it.”
‘I say, would you simply give over?’
“It came from behind me. I turned with the rest of the room. A young British officer, wearing the insignia of a field artillery Captain, holding a glass of ale in one hand and what appeared to be a pall mall mallet in the other was standing just in back of me. It was clear he had addressed the ill mannered Prussian. Everyone in the room had begun looking back and forth between the two. Everyone that is, except the Prussian, , so absorbed in his soliloquy he remained oblivious to the challenge. After a moment, the Captain shook his head and set down the mallet against an overstuffed velvet chair, then finishing his glass and setting it on a side table, strode forward until he was directly in back of the Prussian.”
‘Now listen, I hesitated to speak up, considering that you wear a Gentlemen’s uniform, but I think I speak for all of us when I say that your manners are appalling. I ask again sir, will you not give over?’
“To emphasize his point, the Captain tapped his fingers on the Oberst’s shoulder. To say there was an element of shock in the room would be an understatement. As I believe I mentioned, this particular house was not the home of ranker’s doxies. We had become accustomed to a refreshing civility. Although I had found the Prussians behavior extremely common and distasteful, I was a bit dismayed at what had become of it. As a matter of fact, I was walking towards them when the Prussian began to slowly turn around. I found myself with the burden of being the highest ranking officer in the room, this owing more to the fact that my father had raised the regiment before falling at the siege of San Sebastian, then age or accomplishments on my part. The Prussian turned around and looked at the Captain. He said something in German which I did not understand. His tone was dismissive and he barely registered the Captain before turning back to his conversation. His group erupted into laughter, and the Captain again shook his head. I cleared my throat to get his attention, and once having gotten it, I spoke casually.”
‘Captain, I don’t believe we have been introduced. My name is Henry Runsdale.’
“I put out my hand, my intention to get the young fool out of the room before he found himself in a duel. The Prussians were known for their skill with the blade and from the way this one had been so casual in his dismissal, I had no doubt he could almost certainly make short work of the impetuous young captain.
He considered the Prussian’s back for long enough that I cleared my throat again. At that point, the captain turned to me and smiled most easily. ‘Roger Bellingham, pleased to make your acquaintance.’ He grasped my hand firmly and the twinkle in his eyes was so genuinely good natured that I smiled back in spite of myself. I took his elbow and firmly began walking towards the door that led to the foyer.
“I suppose I ought to apologize to you.” He said it, adding Sir when he noticed my rank. It was an afterthought, but a good natured one. There was no insult in his voice. “I just had planned on spending a quiet afternoon, perhaps over a game of chess. That pompous peacock was certainly going to put me off any game I found. It was very out of character for me to insult a fellow officer, even one as so entirely despicable as that old boy. I do regret my behavior sir.” It was clearly a lie, but I ignored it. I accepted his apology and was about to take my leave when there was another noise from behind us. It was a cry from a woman. We all turned again, this time to find one of the girls, clad in a robe that was in as much disarray as her hair. Her face alas was beyond mere disarray. It was bloodied from what looked to have been a fairly severe thrashing.”
Parham’s voice was full of disgust. He took a long pull on his cigar. I heard the distant cries of gulls, back from France and the shores of Normandy, but I had been transported farther inland, to Brussels and the house where young Parham had stood. He let out the smoke and considered me carefully.
“Do you believe in Divine intervention Mr. Hartley?” It was not a question I had expected and my surprise compelled honesty.
“My belief in Divine intervention is hampered by my belief in the Divine to begin with.” I replied. “That is to say, I find myself most catholic in my agnosticism.”
He nodded his head, taking another long pull of the cigar. After letting out a cloud of blue noxious smoke, thankfully taken by the breeze to send the gulls screaming back across the channel, he spoke, though his gaze was directed beyond the waves, beyond the clouds.
“Although I suspect every day is full of moments that change fortunes”, Parham said, “ The events that unfolded that afternoon at Chez Almond Towers home for wayward girls in Brussels had a singularly profound effect on my life. I have often considered the possibility that fate took a personal interest that day, though whether fate’s embodiment was divine or otherwise I cannot tell.”
He was silent for a time and I was content to let him be. When he was ready to continue, he looked away from the sea and into my eyes.
“Had Roger Bellingham fought that Prussian in a duel, he would have been killed, of that I am entirely convinced. As he was killed the next day anyway at Waterloo, it hardly seems worth noting, but not for the fact that he saved my life before he died, a feat which would have been impossible had his life ended on the end of a Prussian dueling sword in Brussels.” He paused again and looked at me, eyes bright, head tilted slightly, as if in question. I nodded, though I cant tell you why. Parham seemed satisfied though and continued his story.
“The girl was crying and being supported by two of her fellows. The madam having been alerted to the disruption was standing in the doorway. She clapped her hands and signaled for the girls to leave the room. Her eyes then shifted. They were full of quiet loathing and they were burning into the back of the only man in the room whose gaze did not follow hers. The Prussian Oberst stood where we had left him, again oblivious to the attention.
The madam muttered something in French, then turned on her heels and left the room, utter silence in her wake. This silence lasted for a few seconds, to be shattered by laughter of extraordinarily mirthless cruelty. It lasted long enough that it rings in my ears even now. It lasted long enough that Roger Bellingham had the time to slowly walk across the room, passing close enough to the chair to retrieve his mallet, before resuming his position behind the Prussian. When the laughter subsided, Bellingham spoke a single word in German. It is a word I have learned since, though I did not recognize it at the time.
The Prussian stiffened. I have since learned that Pantofelhelt is a word that is associated with men who do the work of women, specifically men who enjoy being ordered to do this work by actual women. The literal translation from what I can gather, is “slipper hero”, or the one who wears the carpet slippers.
Before the Prussian could finish stiffening, Roger switched to English, no doubt for our benefit. He asked the Prussian if his need to be well serviced by stallions was hampered by the Prussian Cavalry’s use of geldings. The hush that had fallen over the room fell whatever distance there was left to fall. The Prussian turned slowly and faced Bellingham, a thin smile playing across his lips. He slowly drew his sword and nodded once. Bellingham nodded back, before bringing up his pall mall mallet and thumping the old boy smartly on the head. The Prussian simply went down, legs falling out from under him, that being all there was to it. He was out cold before he hit the floor. Before anyone could do so much as breathe, Bellingham rolled him onto his stomach with a boot and grabbed the dueling sword that had fallen to the ground, deftly slicing the blue pants down the middle. He drew not a single drop of blood, but his riposte revealed that the Prussian was sporting a most interesting set of undergarments. The room exploded into laughter as the old boy was exposed, dressed in frilly lace knickers that would have made Lucrezia Borgia blush. “
I found myself laughing heartily. It was a funny story, made funnier for the telling of it. Parham’s mannered accent and understated delivery added to its charm. He allowed me my laughter, though he did not share in it as I might have expected. There was something else in his eyes that wasn’t laughter, though I cannot describe it as sadness or melancholia. He finished the story with the look in his eyes, the ghost of a smile on his face.
“The Prussian’s comrades, their own disgust visible, picked him up roughly and dragged him out the door, to whatever fate his disgrace demanded. A round of cheers and a chorus of ‘good shows’ and ‘well met’s went around the room .”
“I say, this whole business has left me parched. Let me buy you a drink.” I guided him towards the bar, an arm over his shoulder. “Wherever did you learn how to use a mallet like that?”
We spent the next several hours drinking most contentedly. By the time we parted, we had become fast friends.”
Parham threw down what remained of his cigar and turned his horse to face the horizon, his missing leg now visible.
“The next morning, we left for Waterloo.”
(To Be Cont)
Dover Beach by Mathew Arnold
The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; —on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
I’m more than impressed. I’m very, very impressed! What a great story to get lost in! More, more, more, Monsieur!