Saturday, September 02, 2006

Flora Annie Steel, “The Most Nailing Bad Shot in Creation”

This is one of my favorite stories that I’ve discovered in compiling this collection. Flora Annie Steel was the wife of an administrative official in the British Empire and spent a lot of time in India and other parts of the Empire; she was friends with Rudyard Kipling. She was also something of a feminist and certainly a shrewd observer of human interaction, devoid of prejudice and White Man’s Burden guff. This story blows so much latter-day intellectualizing about Colonialism and Victorian Womanhood to shreds; it even has something to say about the third subject of British literature, Class. Struggle through the Cockney and Yorkshire dialects; it’s worth it. And it’s an ordinary, unpretentious magazine story where action, humor and wit matter. I found it in the 1903 volume In the Guardianship of God.
This again is one of poor Craddock’s stories which he told me when we were stretching a steel-edged ribbon of rail across shifting sand-hills; that ribbon uniting West to East on which, a few years later, he met his death in trying to rid the permanent-way of something which Fate had decreed should be permanently in the way.

It happened in mutiny time; shortly after his appearance down the King’s Well, which is told elsewhere. He was serving as a volunteer in one of the breastworks which, as the long hot-weather months dragged by, began to seam and sear the face of the red rocks on the Ridge at Delhi; creeping nearer and nearer to the red face of the city wall.

And with him, as the catch phrase runs, “lay” Joe Banks, the Yorkshireman; tall, stolid, silent. Good-looking also, with a thick close crop of curly brown hair and hard, honest blue eyes. He was not stupid by any means; only phenomenally silent, except when the talk turned on women, and then, as Craddock put it tersely, he “damned free;” perhaps because, as the latter worthy used to add with a suspicion of sympathy in his drink-blurred face, he had “cared a sight deal too much for one woman to ’ave much likin’ left for the lot.”

To one side of the breastwork lay a dry ravine where every day the vipers used to sun themselves on the hot red rocks. Just across it, within range, rose a small Mahomedan shrine amid sparse brushwood, which thickened a bit till it was barred by the ruined wall of a garden where the slow oxen circled round the well, sending runnels of slippery-looking water to the scented shade of citrons, roses, and mangoes, heedless of the great cannon-balls which sometimes came trundling, like playthings, down the wide walks. Not often, though, for the stress of strife lay at the other angle of the breastwork which faced the city wall.

Still, those who came to smoke a hard-earned pipe in what was the safest spot in the outpost, soon found that the pious-looking shrine, the peaceful garden, were not always so innocent as they looked. In the dusk of dark or dawn they were tenanted by what, after a time, the men agreed to call the “most nailin’ bad shot in creation.” “The direction wasn’t, so to speak, so bad, sir,” Craddock used to explain to me. “ ’E’d about ’ave ’it the sea-serpent for length; it was the elevation which, as Bull’s-eyes said, savin’ your presence, sir, was d— ficient. The top o’ the Monument was about in it, sir, an’ that was why the only feller as really use langwidge was Joe Banks; for ’e was a ’ead and shoulders higher than the lot o’ us.” So when, in the dark, a flash used to glimmer for a second among the brushwood like a firefly, the men learnt to sing out, “That’s for you, Joey,” “Duck, my darlin’, duck,” and other witticisms of that kind, until the big Yorkshireman’s face darkened beyond jesting-point: for he had the devil’s own temper when roused. It was this, joined to his extreme good looks and a somewhat hazy recollection of the Bible and the classics among the volunteers, which earned him the nickname of Apollyon. So to soothe him, some of the wilder spirits would organise a charge over the ravine, scattering, perhaps, a few drowsy adders which had forgotten to go to bed; but nothing else. The blind old fakeer in the shrine was always fast asleep, the bullocks in the garden circling slowly, driven by a drowsy lad curled up behind them.

So the days passed; and, despite practice, the Most Nailin’ Bad Shot shot badly as ever. The odds, however, as the men pointed out gravely to Apollyon, kept on improving; so that sooner or later there must be a “casualty” in the garrison of Number One outpost. Joey, too, would get careless; he wouldn’t smart enough, etc., etc. And, sure enough, one evening just as the moonlight was mixing with the daylight, and Joey Banks had risen to his full height in a huff because Craddock for once had sided against him in the perennial argument as to whether it was worth while fighting for women who didn’t know what they would be at, and hadn’t the pluck of a mouse, one of these firefly flashes was followed by a sudden clapping of the giant’s hands to the very crown of his head.

“We looked, sir,” Craddock used to say gravely, with that reminiscent biblical knowledge of his which had doubtless supplied Apollyon, “for ’im to fall dead; as ’e deserve rich; for ’e’d been damnin’ uncommon free, sir. But ’e only use it worse. And then, savin’ your presence, sir, we see that ’e’d ’ad, so ter speak, a narrer-gauge line laid down thro’ ’is jungle — right through ’is curls, sir. Lordy! ’ow we laughed. It was a lady, we told ’im, as wanted some locks an’ no mistake. It sorter made ’im mad, for ’e just stooped and gathered the lot — bein’ fair, you could see it shinin’ in the dust — together.

“ ‘She shall ’ave ’em, never fear,’ ’e says, quiet like. ‘Yes! the person who fired that shot shall ’ave more o’ my ’air than he reckons for.’ ”

Just at that moment, however, one of those sudden alarms which for three months kept the men and officers before Delhi on the alert by day and night broke up the company, and so Joe Banks’ loss passed out of most minds. Except his own, of course. It lingered there, aided by that narrow gauge over his brain on which the cool night wind passed pleasantly.

So when the alarm passed, instead of coming back to rest, he crept out surreptitiously by the back of the breastwork, for such sorties were strictly out of order, and so by a slant downwards across the ravine. It was a brilliant moonlight night, and he caught the sparkle of many a deadly pair of eyes among the rocks. But he was in no mood to step aside from any danger, and once beyond fear of recall he strode along straight as if the whole place belonged to him; it might have, for all the opposition he met. The fakeer was asleep as usual, the oxen circling round the well, and in the scented shade of the roses and citrons he could find nothing save some drowsy birds who fluttered and twittered helplessly as his tall head forced a way through the thickets.

Feeling ill-used, he set his face back towards the breastwork, until the extraordinary peace of the moonlit scene, which, as Craddock asserted used in the interval of onslaught to make the beleaguered city look like the New Jerusalem, brought him to a standstill; first to look, then to take out his pipe; finally to sit on a rock and think vaguely of the Yorkshire wolds and of some one, no doubt, who had not had the courage of her convictions, for after a big he murmured, “She were a raight down coward, that’s where it is, aw’m thinkin’.”

He had not much time for reflection, however, for at that moment there was a flash, a crack, and something whizzed past his left ear. The Most Nailin’ Bad Shot was better at close quarters. His blood was up in a second, and without pausing to pick up his musket, which he had laid aide, he was off to the spot whence the flash had come. And there! whoop forward! gone away! was his quarry for sure, running like a hare for some hiding-place, no doubt, among the rocks. It might have been reached, for romance tells of many secret passages between palaces inside the city and gardens without, but for a true lover’s knot of viper which refused to budge from the path; which made the flying figure give a screech, and the flying feet, in their effort to overleap it, miss footing and fall.

The next instant Joe Banks was on it as it lay, and conscious even in his hurry that what he gripped was something young and soft — a boy, no doubt — devil’s spawn.

“Aw’m goän ter choak ye on t’ hair,” he said grimly. “Open yer domed mouth, d’ye hear?”

It was almost as if the prostrate figure understood; but the next instant a set of gleaming white teeth had closed like a squirrel’s round Joe Banks’ first finger. He let off an echoing yell to the previous screech, and an oddly satisfied smile came to the fierce little face he could scarcely see for his big hand. It was an oval face, smooth as a girl’s.

“That’s nowt to Joey Banks, lad, he can kill anoother way,” he growled savagely, as he shifted a knee to press his prisoner down, loosened his left hand, his right being detained, and deliberately drew out one of the many knives stuck in his enemy’s waistband. “Aw’ll lay t’ hair abun tha’ heaart, tha’ wrigglin’ worm, and driv it hoäm — that aw wull.”

In pursuance of which plan, he undid an embroidered satin waistcoat, and began to push aside an inner muslin vest. A whiff of musk and roses mingled with the moonlight.

“Stinks and bites like a foumart,” he muttered. “Soa lie thee still, will tha? an’ tak’ that to thissen ma — gor amoighty!”

Joe Banks was on his feet; so was his enemy. Both dazed, uncertain. Flight seemed to come uppermost to the latter’s thought, when the big man suddenly laughed a low chuckle of sheer amusement.

“An’ t’coom like a wild cat at Joey Banks — that caps owt!”

The next instant he was grappling with a whirlwind of knives and nails, anything.

“Woa! woa! ma lass! Hands off, tha little vixen, till a’ git a look at tha!” he said soothingly, as he prisoned two small hands in one huge fist, and with the other held his adversary almost tenderly at arm’s length. What he saw, as he afterwards described it to Craddock, was just a “moit o’ pistols an’ pouches.”

“Well! well! Aw’maw’m jiggered!” he exclaimed at last; adding argumentatively, “Whatten iver mad tha’ go fur t’ do it, tha foolish lass?”

Something in his broad, not unkindly rebuke seemed to take the starch out of the Most Nailin’ Bad Shot. It seemed to cower in on itself and become smaller; though, as Joe Banks told himself perplexedly, it had been small enough to begin with.

“Well, aw am jiggered,” he repeated more softly. “Whatten iver mad tha’ do it, ma lass?”

The answer was feminine and disconcerting; a sudden storm of tears. So they stood, the quaintest couple in the world. She bristling with cold steel of sorts; he bareheaded in the moonlight, with nothing but his hands for weapons.

“Dunnot,” he said soothingly, not without a certain trepidation. “Aw’m noän goän to hurt thee, ma gell. We’m not thaat soort t’ womenkind; an’ tha’s a main pratty gell.” Here he laughed softly; a laugh that was lost in a third —

“Wall, aw’m jiggered.”

He appeared to be so, for he ceased thrusting her from him — she being, indeed, too much engaged with tears to make it dangerous — and passed his hand over his forehead as if to clear his brain.

“Aw’m noän goän t’ hurt tha, ma lass,” he repeated suddenly, as if for his own information. “Aw’m nobbut goän t’ shame tha’ fur tha’ badness.”

And with that he lifted her right up like a baby, sate down on a neighbouring rock, and set her on his knee.

“Thou’rt as light as a feather,” he said almost admiringly. “An’ t’ coom at Joey Banks like a wild cat; for sure it caps owt; but thou’rt a bad gell, an’ mun be shamed. So set tha still an’ be doon wi’ it.”

Once more he might have claimed comprehension, for the Most Nailin’ Bad Shot sate still; with the half-wicked, half-frightened look of a curious squirrel, as one by one he transferred knives and pistols to his own person. It was rather a lengthy business by reason of his right hand — the one that had been bitten — being still occupied in prisoning hers. Not that she struggled; on the contrary, she sate curiously still, checking even her sobs.

“Now for t’ hair,” he went on methodically, pulling off the large green turban wound around the small head. He sat half perturbed and breathless after this was done, and the half-wicked, half-frightened dark eyes watching him, seemed to admit a faint smile.

“Whew-w-w,” he said under his breath, “it’s long, for sartin sure.” It was, and a faint scent of orange-blossom assailed him as he loosed the plaits. His hand trembled among them a little, and lingered.

“Aw mun be as good’s ma word,” he muttered, “as Joey Banks’ word. See tha here — sit tha still, there’s a good lass, an’ let me hurry up; wilt thee?” There was almost an appeal in his voice, and both hands shook a little as the long black tresses twined themselves about the big fingers like snakes.

“Aw’m noän goän t’ hurt,” he reiterated blandly; when, perhaps fortunately, the whole bewildering face before him relapsed into a mischievous smile, and one small finger pointed derisively to the crown of his head. He flushed up scarlet.

“Thee’m nobbut a wicked, bad gell,” he said fierceley, “an’ Joey Banks’ll shame tha — a bold hussy.” So he set her on her feet, and attacked her last bit of masculinity. This was a long, green waistband wound about her middle, and which had carried a score or so of pistols, yataghans, and Heaven knows what murderous weapons. Of this portion of the toilette Craddock said it was hard to get Joey Banks to speak at all, and when he did, his voice dropped to a whisper, and he looked positively scared. She was so main slender, he said, that he thought he would never have done unwinding, though after a bit she helped cheerfully by twirling like a teetotum. At last, however, she stood there, slim, girlish, her long hair shimmering, her dark eyes shining, half with tears, half with smiles.

“ ‘An’ then, Joey?’ I arst ’im, sir, when ’e sate mumchance,” Craddock interpolated.

“Aw out wi’ ‘Fower angels round ma bed,’ man, an’ a’ up wi’ her in ma arms, an’ a’ kissed her fair an’ oft, man, fair an’ oft, just t’ shame her, an’ a’ runned awaay. That’s what a’ did — aw runned awaay.”

Half-way across the ravine, however, he paused to pick up his musket and look back. The Most Nailin’ Bad Shot in creation was standing where he had left her, her face hidden in her hands. For an instant something tore at his heart, bidding him go back; then he set his teeth with an oath, and ran on. Five minutes afterwards he had slipped into a favourite cranny of rock beside Craddock and was puffing away at his pipe as if nothing had happened, absolutely silent, till, according to the latter’s report, he “give a silly sort of laugh,” and in the moonlight his eyes could be seen shining like stars as he turned and said softly —

“Well, lad — a’ ha’ dune it this toime.”

“Done what, Apollyon?” asked Craddock.

“A’ dunnot roightly kna’, but a’ ha’ dune it, for sartin sure,” replied Joey Banks, succinctly; and then he told the story.

“One of them gazes1 as they call ’em,” interrupted Craddock, when the big man told of his discovery in a sort of hushed voice. “They makes ’em male an’ female — the latter most wicious. Bad lots out o’ the bazaar, needin’ a passport to the skies — or the devil.”

Joey Banks’ big fist came down like a sledgehammer on Craddock’s knee.

“Hush, mon!” he said peremptorily. “She woan’t none that sort. When a’ kissed her — ” he stopped short, and blushed furiously.

“Apollyon!” remarked Craddock, after a pause, with great severity. “It ain’t wholesome to keep sech things comfortable in yer own buzzum. It’s better to ’ave up an’ done with it an’ begin agin. When you kiss her — w’ot then?”

But Joe Banks’ shining eyes were looking out into the soft darkness, soft and dark for all their shininess. “A’ meant to ’a’ keppen coont — but a’ didn’t somehow.” His voice was quite dreamy, and Craddock rose in wrath.

“It’s my belief, same as I was in the catechising, Joey Banks, that you bin an’ fallen in love with a female gaze; but mark my word — there ain’t no gratitoode to speak of in gazes, and she’ll nick you yet, sure as my name’s Nathaniel James. She’ll nick you yet, I du assure you.”

But Craddock was wrong. Whatever else she did, the Most Nailin’ Bad Shot shot no more. Not that it mattered much to Joey Banks whether she did or not, since but a few days after there was a “casoolty” in Number One outpost, Volunteer Joseph Banks, sometime canal overseer, was reported missing after a sortie; but as he had been last seen mortally wounded close to the city wall, his comrades mourned Apollyon from the first as dead. So as Craddock said feelingly, “there weren’t even a lock o’ ’is ’air for ’is old mother, an’ she was a widder.”

Not that there was much time for mourning in the outpost, since the long months of the siege were drawing to a close. Then came the final assault, the ten days of struggle within the city, until even the Palace was ours, and the army which had taken it prepared to move on elsewhere. It was the evening before the start, and Craddock, who, as a volunteer, had more liberty to come and go as he chose, went down to the now deserted outpost to smoke a last pipe, and think over the past with the pleasing melancholy which goes so admirably with tobacco.

“Poor Joey Banks!” he thought, as memory came round to that episode, “’im and ’is female gaze. I shan’t never forget ’em.”

I will tell the rest in Craddock’s own words; they suit it.

“I look up, sir, an’ you might ’ave knock me over with a ninepin, for there was Joey, lookin’ as spry as spry. ‘Joey,’ says I, takin’ it as one does, sir, for all them sayin’s of ninepins and feathers and such like, quite calm, ‘so you’re not dead?’

“ ‘Na! lad,’ he says back, as calm like. ‘Aw’m goän t’ be married, an’ a’ve coom t’ get t’ best man.’

“It took me all of a ’eap, sir, sorter Malachi an’ the minor prophets, sir, as things does sometimes. ‘Joey, my boy,’ I says, ‘you ain’t never goin’ to marry a female gaze?’ says I.

“But ’e was, sir. Ter cut a long story short, she’d found ’im an’ nursed him. An’ we all knows wot that means, white or black, sir. ’E’d a ’eap to tell — though Lord knows where ’e got it, for ’e didn’t know no ’Industani to speak of, sir — about ’ow she lived in quite a fine ’ouse an’ ’ow her father an’ brothers ’ad bin killed, so as she kinder ’adn’t no choice but gazing. But I wasn’t to be took with chaff, so I says to ’im quite solemn like, ‘Afore I’m best man, I’ve got to know, Joey — is she square?’ ’E just looked at me, sir, as if I were slush.

“ ‘She’d gotten ma hair in t’ buzzum,’ he said, an’ said no moor.

“So I gave my word to be best man, sir, an’ ’e sighed like as a weight was took off him. ‘Then coom awa’ wi’ me t’ passon,’ says ’e, ‘fur I’m goän t’ be marrid afoor aw goes with t’ army to-morer.’

“ ‘Then you’ve ’ad the banns cried,’ says I, for my father bein’ bell-ringer same as give me my name in ’oly baptism, sir, I was up to them dodges. ’E gave me a real Apollyon frown, sir.

“ ‘Na, lad; aw’ve noän had nought cried, but aw’m goän t’ wed her fair afoor a’ fight, so save t’ breath an’ coom t’ passon.’

“Well, sir, parson wasn’t a bad chap, as I knowed, ’aving seen ’im doing dooty stiddily like the rest o’ us, but ’e’d got ’is black coat on agin, an’ ’e were by nature, the canonised red bricky sort; so ’e wouldn’t none o’ it, though I stood solemn for Joe like as if I bin godfather, tellin’ ’im ’ow Joe would ’ave bin a deader but for ’er, an’ ’ow she was willin’ to become a Christian in ’oly baptism wen she ’ad a chanst, an’ ’ow Joe wouldn’t never ’ave bin in a ’urry without bridesmaids but for bin’ that eager to fight ’is country’s foes agin — for of course, sir, ’e ’adn’t ’ad a look in at anythin’ but beef-tea an’ barely water till we took the city.

“ ‘Why doesn’t he wait decently till he comes back?’ says parson. ‘The sacrament of marriage is not a responsibility to be entered into unawares, my good — ’

“Joe rose up — Lord bless you! — two ’heads taller nor parson. ‘Coom awa’! best man,’ ’e says. ‘It’s waaste toime heere, an’ aw’ll need tha at t’ mosque; passon theer ar’n’t so scrumfumptious, an’ she towt ma t’ Kulma this marnin’ foor fear’ — that’s their creed, sir, same as the Gazes, male an’ female, yell when they’re a stickin’ of you.

“Well, parson ’e brought up sharp at this an’ said, ‘Stay a bit.’ Then ’e look at Joe, an’ Joe look at ’im.

“ ‘Tha see she’s gotten t’ be ma wife, man,’ said Joe apologetic like, an’ parson ’e push ’is red bricky prayer-book away fretful.

“ ‘But I don’t know anything,’ he said. ‘I don’t even know if she is a spinster or a widow. Will you swear she hasn’t a husband living?”

“Well, sir, Joe looked at parson, and then ’e looked at me, an’ then ’e scratch ’is ’ead — the curls ’ad grown tight as ever, sir — an’ then sudden ’e smile — one o’ them smiles like the sun on a daisy, sir.

“ ‘Aw dunnot rightly knaw,’ says ’e, ‘aw nivver arst her,’ and parson ’e look at me an’ at ’im and at the solemnisation o’ ’oly matrimony as ’f ’e didn’t know which was which.

“Well, the end o’ it was that the three o’ us went down to one o’ them light an’ shady open-air houses with a tree growin’ out o’ a wall, and a lot o’ pigeons. Parson ’e stood in one o’ the arches raise up a step or two, an’ they stood in the space below, right in the sun, an’ I stood ’twist an’ between, for you see, sir, I was clerk as well as best man.

“ ‘Will you take this woman to be thy wedded wife?’ arst parson.

“ ‘Such is my desire,’ says I, in order; but Joe Banks wouldn’t none o’ that.

“ ‘Fur better fur worse,’ ’e says, ‘fur richer fur poorer, domed if a’ doan’t.’

“So ’e was wedded to the Most Nailin’ Bad Shot in creation.”

“And was she pretty?” I asked of Craddock.

He shook his head. “I niver set eyes on her, sir, though I was best man. She was wrap up in a white veil, an’ ’e kep’ her so — said she liked it — they does, sir, when they’ve got a good ’usband.”

“So they lived happily ever after?”

“Not for long, sir — ” here Craddock slipped his hands into his pockets as the first step towards slouching off. “That sort o’ thing don’t somehow last long, sir,” here his eyes caught the gold of the setting sun, as they had a trick of doing when they grew soft. “Seems to me — savin’ your presence, sir — as if there was too much o’ the Noo Jerewsalem about that sort o’ thing fur this world; that’s ’ow it is. She died, sir, a few years after, when ’e was back in the Canals, in a God-forsaken spot, where there wasn’t no one to — to be best man like. An’ so they found ’im lying beside ’er with a bullet in ’is brain. So I was a minor prophet after all, an’ Joey Banks got nicked at last by the Most Nailin’ Bad Shot in creation.”

1 Ghâzie — religious fanatic.

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