May 0004

 


 

FEH WX IN THE DUCK, OR, THE INVENTION OF THE CARSTAIRS GAMBIT

One day Carstairs and Findlater decided to give a fireworks display for the local poor children, to celebrate Guy Fawkes day, and to imbue them with enthusiasm for the empire.  

“Esseh Finletter”, said Carstairs, “wonfilz trooli-munificentenofferin thiserrvent, end won offaz thashurns thet the wokkhouse children wilberxcluded frirm the festivitehs.” 

The evening of the show dawned, dull, gloomy and drizzling slightly. It was a typical November night, and promised a splendid background for the display. Carstairs and Findlater were having so much fun with the preparations, they were observing a tacit cease fire, although one that could end at any moment. Findlater had constructed an enormous bonfire, using some Jacobean furniture he had found in the attic, a big pile of tradesmens’ bills, and the contents of some of the tied cottages occupied by his tenant farmers. It towered thirty feet above the village green, and was topped by a scarecrow purloined from a nearby field. Carstairs had occupied himself selecting and purchasing the fireworks for the event from the Imperial Firework Manufacturing Concern of Stalybridge, and had assembled a magnificent collection of rockets, catherine wheels, roman candles, jumping jacks, bangers, and so on. At this particular moment, he was reading the instructions on a large and gaudy jack in the box of which he was particularly fond.  

“Detonation of this pyrotechnical device is effectuated by the application of a taper, lucifer or fuze to the blue paper located at one extremity. We counsel that the use of a flint would be misguided for this purpose. Ignition achieved, one must retire to a minimum distance of one and one half furlongs. IN THE EVENTUALITY OF FAILURE TO IGNITE, ON NO ACCOUNT MUST THE FIREWORK EVER BE APPROACHED BY ANY LIVING SOUL. God save the Queen!” 

Carstairs smiled contentedly, and replaced the purple and yellow firework in the brass-bound, ebony inlaid mahogany box the manufacturers had supplied it in. There were enough combustibles here, he thought, to provide a series of bangs loud enough to fell a cow at twenty paces, and that would last for four minutes, at the rate of one every fifteen seconds. 

Carstairs and Finlater had shared the most pleasurable tasks between themselves, and the servants were busy setting up trestle tables, and piling them with mountains of penny buns, and with jars of ginger beer. Venables, Carstairs gamekeeper, was already stationed by the duck pond with a large knobkerry to keep order. He was fortifying himself from a hip flask containing some of Mrs. Venables’ sloe gin, and drinking it neat. A hammering could be heard from the nearby workhouse, as the windows were boarded up to prevent the inmates watching the fireworks. 

With a crash and a bang the first rocket shot into the sky. Carstairs and Findlater had agreed that this was their favourite – 

“Deshit Cosstez, the bellything’s pecked with nerlessenfaw powndsv guncottn!” Findlater had observed, and Carstairs had smiled seraphically in agreement. There was a brief moment of disappointment when the rocket, evidently overburdened by its gigantic payload, fell short, but it detonated with a deafening roar in the rectory, demolishing the entire structure. Carstairs and Findlater were so pleased they each permitted themselves an almost audible “Goo-cherr”.  

The poor children, excluding those from the workhouse, were yelling with excitement, and Venables, striding among them with his knobkerry flailing, had his work cut out to maintain a respectful silence.  

Another roar, and a roman candle shot a jet of magnesium, sulphur and copper forty feet into the air. Little white particles of chemical precipitate started to fall gently on the crowd, and stick to their faces, which were damp with the light drizzle that was falling, and glowing red from the intense blaze of the crackling Jacobean oak in the bonfire. A light stench drifted on the breeze towards them, mingling the odour of burning fireworks with that from Jenkin’s pig farm across the valley. 

While the roman candle was pouring light and heat into the evening air, Carstairs and Findlater were choosing the next firework. Carstairs was already bored with their cease-fire, and looking for an opening. 

“Demmit, Finletter, weenid something really spectaculaw, layke thissn,” he said, indicating the jack in the box that was his pride and joy. Findlater nodded, and Jones, the blacksmith, and his boy, hauled it towards the yard deep emplacement they had excavated that morning, using the rollers thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer. Carstairs picked up his fuze, and advanced towards the jack in the box. He lit the touchpaper, heard it fizzle, and ran back to the shelter of the trees. And then…………………nothing.  

“It’s gawn owt”, observed Findlater. “One murstv felt fiffle of the explosivs, end felledte laytit correctly”, congratulating himself on a small point scored. “If won exemins the fehwok through wons tele-scopp, wonken dteminf thezaglow”, awarding himself a further point for officious helpfulness.  

Carstairs felt corralled into compliance, took the proffered telescope, and peered hopefully into the gloom. There was nothing. “It hezzgawn utt”, he said, “won musnawt approchit. It’s fiffly powafull.” He scented the opportunity of a rally. 

“Deshit Costas”, replied Findlater. “Thetwd be keddish. The paw children are lessn ahondred yodds aweh. Fit girrz awf, thellbe massacred! Ay think thet foolish blecksmith entrenched the jecknthebox fuhtoo clirse. Won shell dismiss him in the monnin. Won mirst ect. Ehthink yaw shd paw apailvwotter onit.” Findlater felt that he was doing well. Two small points up, and already the opportunity for a decisive victory! 

Now came the historic moment in which Carstairs invented his famous gambit. “Eftayaw, Finlettah”, he said with calculated weakness. His face remained impassive, but inside, his intestines were revolving with excitement. Findlater was completely taken in. Surely Carstairs was capable of better than this flabby response? “Nir, nir, eftayaw” he replied automatically, falling right into the trap. 

Carstairs opened his mouth, and watched with unalloyed joy as the words formed and flowed out of it, seemingly without any assistance from himself. “Er nirr, nirr nirr, yaw my guest. Eh kennot deprave yaw. Yooh doot!” In a masterly final stroke, he paused while Findlater became aware of the snare he had fallen into, and added “Plizz.” 

Poor Findlater! Certain victory had been snatched away from him, and humiliation stared him in the face. Not only that, but that awesomely powerful firework awaited him. Still he had no choice. Picking up the bucket, he trudged gloomily towards the silent jack in the box. The eyes of the poor children followed him with interest. Gulping, he climbed the escarpment surrounding the emplacement which contained the firework, and, on reaching the summit, closed his eyes, held the bucket as far from himself as possible, inverted it, and surrendered himself to whatever consequence might follow. There was a gigantic flash! Carstairs had filled the bucket, not with water, but with naphta! There must have been a small residual glow in the firework, and it all joyously exploded at once. Findlater had been completely correct. The poor children had indeed been far too close. 

When the tumult subsided, Carstairs surveyed the scene with pride. Just how many points could he legitimately award himself? he wondered. However many it was, it had to be a huge number. Findlater had been utterly confounded, for one thing, and had even fallen for the old bucket trick, and, for another, Carstairs was the sole survivor. That had to be worth a hefty bonus in itself. And then there was the complete elimination of the poor children, excluding the ones from the workhouse. They would have to wait for another day, and their survival was the only thing that separated him from that elusive perfect score.  

 

 

A NEW LIGHT ON ST. JAKE OF PASADENA

Although St. Jake of Pasadena has become a major focus of scholarly interest in recent years, surprising new aspects of this versatile, sinister, talented, violent and ignorant man are still discovered from time to time. I have just received an excited e-mail from Professor Ivo Schultz of the Department of Wild West Studies at the University of Innsbruck. In it, he says he has just discovered that St. Jake also had a brief career as an agony aunt! According to Professor Schultz’s research, St. Jake had a column which he called “Drat Them Personal Problems to Tarnation” which appeared in the Prairie Homesteader’s Companion and Sod House Clarion for about eighteen months from March 1894. The column ended when St. Jake had an argument with his editor, Clarence Huxtable. Most of Jake’s personal relationships appear to have ended this way, and indeed, are the reason for his status as the world’s most married saint, as he outlived no less then sixteen wives, all of whom were shot by him in what were then regarded as routine domestic incidents. Be that as it may, the argument with Huxtable appears to have arisen over the amount Huxtable owed for a crate of whiskey. St. Jake insisted that $3 was the agreed price, but Huxtable insisted that the whiskey was from a bad batch, and that he should only pay half that. The inevitable showdown followed, and Huxtable, with no less than eleven slugs in his back, was lucky to survive, but he spent his remaining years in a bath chair, and Jake lost his career as an agony aunt. This does not appear to have mattered so much, because the Prairie Homesteader’s Companion and Sod House Clarion itself came to an abrupt end a few days later, when its premises were mysteriously burned to the ground. Jake himself insisted that he’d seen some Hopi Indians lurking near the press on the night in question, and that they must have been to blame, but this seems rather unlikely as the events in question occurred in central Texas, many miles from the nearest Hopi Indian.

All this is, of course, by way of introduction to a short selection from St. Jake’s column, which, scholars should note, forms a unique guide to his pastoral theology in action.  

Here’s a representative question: 

Dear Jake,

      One time, me an the boys’d a-kidnapped o’ this woman, thinkin’ a purty piece like that oughter fetch a mess o’ ransom, only things got a bit outa hand, seein’ as she was real ignoran like, an one thing she sure’d never heard tell of was that a woman’s gotta keep quiet an leave the menfolk to do all the decidin’. What with her telling us to take our boots off in the cabin, and not ta talk or smoke or fight whilst we was a-eatin, and not ta drink more’n one bottle of whiskey at a sittin’, an not to cheat at poker, an loads of crazy stuff like that that we ain’t never heard tell of afore, we was decidin’ we’d made a big mistake in a-kidnappin’ of her. Things came to a head like when she told Big Lou not to point his Remington at her, on account of it was rude, an he showed her why he was a-pointin’ of it at her. But one thing she’d said really stuck with me. We was hunkered down at chow time, lookin’ forward to our pork an beans, when she said you’re not allowed ta wear your hat while eatin! I sure heard some plumb crazy things in my time, but that beats the lot! Is there anyone else in the whole wide world that thinks the same, or did she just invent it herself to be a-annoyin of us? 

Elmo the F*gg*t, Carson City Jailhouse. 

And Jake’s reply: 

Dear Brother in Christ,

I sure heard tell o’ some strange things in my life, like when the Sacramento Kid was a-tellin’ me of the time he went all the way to New York, an’ he saw these people a-sweepin’ of the streets, an he asked why they was a-doin’ of that, an they said the City PAID them to do it, but that sure beats em all. No siree, you take it from Jake here, not wearin’ your hat while eatin’s just some darn thing that crazy woman a-invented of herself. The way I figure it, only a woman that was real loco could think up somethin that darn plumb weird. Also, I opine Big Lou wus right to shoot her,so, if he ain’t got round to goin’ to confession these coupla years, tell the varmint I just darn absolved him. 

Some of the questions were short: 

Dear Jake,

I figure you must be real good at writin’ seein’ as the store here in Tumbleweed Flats gets five copies o’ your paper every month, an’ you darn wrote exactly the same thing in all of them. An I figure if you writes so good, you must know a whole mess of things. So here’s my question. Is pork an’ beans the only vittles there is? I heard tell of folks a-eatin’ of other things, but I ain’t sure I’m a-believin’ of them. 

And the answers confident and authoritative: 

Dear Brother in Christ,

      Yup, pork an’ beans sure is the only vittles there is. Says so in the holy book somewhere, only I cain’t recall just where at the moment. An whiskey an’ coffee’s the only things there is to drink. Says that in the holy book somewheres too. 

Sometimes the questions and answers provide a fascinating insight into the culture and mores of the late nineteenth century wild west, and in this case, of its ethnic and social diversity: 

Dear Jake,

I must confess that I am dissolute and a reprobate, and a past master in caddishness. I was sent down from Eton at the tender age of thirteen, for begetting triplets with a college maid, and was subsequently sentenced to penal servitude for offences including bigamy, breach of promise, fraud, forgery, libel, and blackmail. All this my dear Pater could forgive me, but when I was caught using a mirror and marked cards at whist he determined to make a final settlement with me, and settled a small annuity on me on condition that I remain abroad until reformed. My only wish is to see my own dear shores again, and to do that I must change my character utterly, but for the moment I am here. My question to you is this: What is the correct etiquette to observe if one is involved in what I believe is colloquially known as a showdown? In order to become a gentleman again, I wish to learn how to avoid giving offence to bystanders. 

James Thistleton, formerly of Cheltenham, but now residing in Tortilla Gulch, Col. 

PS With your permission, I should like to take advantage of the hospitality offered by your columns to rebut the recent scurrilous flood of rumours to the effect that my presence among you is due in some way to the abrupt cessation of the recent series of sanguinary outrages in the Whitechapel district of London. The true facts are as I have outlined them above. 

And the reply: 

Son in Christ!

Your letter a-filled me with great joy! You’ve darn well repented, an you’ve done humbly besought instruction! I figure Old Man J.C., he’s a-lookin’ down on your strivin’s, an he’s a-smilin’, an a-blessin’ of them. Now, her’s the answers you was a-askin about.

I opine there’s only one way ta handle a showdown. Just cause you’re a-fixin’ to kill a man don’t mean you ain’t got to be nice to them. An if there’s one thing most folks just plumb love, it’s a surprise. So what you got ta do, if you hear of some low down varmint a-plannin’ to kill you, or if you’re a-figurin’ you want ta shoot a mean hombre, you got ta hide. Like in a water-barrel, only you got ta take the water out first, on account of you don’t want none of that stuff in your mouth, or on a roof, or behind a horse. Or if there’s some women, you can hide behind them. Course, no-ones not goin ta shoot on account of no women, but most folks’ll give it a think first, an that gives you a bit of time. But best thing’s if he don’t know you’re there, an you wait till he goes past, an then you fill him full a lead. That’s his surprise, see. An then you got ta remember ta say a prayer over him. One thing makes me really sorry is seein’ good men forgettin’ the Lord, an’ not a doin’ of that. If you say that little prayer, you kin make sure the varmint’s dead, an not just playin’ possum, an you kin see what the varmint’s got in his pockets. Many a time I found, oh, five dollars an’ more, an I just knew these was mine. Darn recognised them. An another thing, you got ta think of his greivin’ relatives. Shoot him in the front an there’s no way they’re not gonna see a whole mess of mess, but shoot him in the back an he’ll be in his coffin a-lookin’ no worse than when he was livin’ and breathin’ an’ drinkin’ an whorin’ an robbin’ banks. 
 

Sometimes Jake appears to have been genuinely outraged at the questions he was asked: 

Dear Jake,

One time, I heard tell that it was a sin to be a-killin’ of a redskin. Now, don’t get me wrong, cause I bin a-killin of redskins all my life. Matter o fact, my paw helped me kill my first when I was six, so I figure that makes me pretty darn normal, but I reckon I still got to ask you: Is it even a little bit wrong to kill a redskin? 

Pro Bono Publico, Badlands, North Dakota. 

The answer: 

Dearly Beloved,

Nope! If one things as sure as rattlers is no good, it’s that killin’ redskins is no sin. Only way I figure it could even be a little bit wrong is if you wasted too many bullets on him. Ain’t you never read the good book? If there’s one thing it’s darn certain of, it’s that you got ta kill your enemies dead. An’ it don’t say shoot ‘em, on account of they didn’t have no guns in them days. Figure they used tomahawks instead. Anyways, the way I figure it, killin’ a redskin’s not only no sin, it’s so good you get a plenary indulgence every time you plug one o them varmints. 

A different world indeed.

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