Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Cripple and the Storyteller - Part II

Bill sat with the sergeant in the Hand in Glove, wishing he could escape this conversation that was not doing anything to lift his spirits. Raising his head he looked across the room, where he could hear a commotion. There stood was another red-coated veteran of the wars holding forth, surrounded by a goodly crowd of listeners. The man waved his arms around in an excitable manner, clutching a cocked hat in his left hand. His voice rose and fell, and those listening to him would cheer, then gasp then noisily draw breath and cheer again. The sergeant, who had become more and more morose as the tale progressed, quietly got up and left the pub, staggering out into a whirling snowstorm. Bill sat where he was, supping what little remained of his ale.

“So there I was”, said the red-coated storyteller, “in the rearguard of the British retreat to La Corunna, with Sir John Moore, may God bless his soul; that icy winter's day we stood with our backs to the sea – in front of us forty thousand Frenchmen, chasing us across the snow-covered mountains. A fat French officer – a huge, fat, elephantine man led their pursuit. I picked up my musket which I had loaded with my last ball. He was more than a hundred yards away, approaching a pair of huge boulders which marked the summit of the Pass of San Cristobal. I had to steady myself, for the range was long. 'Sir John!' I cried. 'Hold steady Sir! Let me use your shoulder to rest my musket on!' Sir John stood firm, facing the approaching enemy. My musket steadied, I fired. The ball hit the French officer in the heart. The big man stopped in his tracks – wavered for a while – and then fell forward into the tight gap between the boulders. So fat was this enormous Frenchman that his body wedged itself solid. Try as they may, the Frenchmen following behind him could not pull his vast corpse from out of the narrow passage. 'Run, Sir John! Run boys!' I called, as the last of our gallant men and their commander made their way to the safety of the lowlands. I stayed on to laugh at Boney's men struggling to remove their fallen officer from the defile. As I waved in mocking salute at them, a French rifleman took a single shot and took off the end of my little finger – my only wound from the entire Peninsular campaign!”

As he said this, the storyteller held up his left hand, which was indeed missing the tip of said digit. Bill thought about what man was saying – it all seemed vastly improbable. His first instinct was to sneer at this boastful oaf. And some of the listeners sounded dubious as to the veracity of the man's tale. But then again... there was something compelling in his brash manner, in his comic way of telling the tale, that had captured everyone's attention. Suddenly, spontaneously, Bill stood up on one crutch and shouted “And every word is true! Bravo, Sir!” The crowd turned round to see another red-coated war hero on a wooden leg waving an empty tankard. “See! Another hero in our midst! Buy that man an ale!” roared a florid-faced man standing by the fireplace. A full tankard was soon passed to Bill, he drank with gratitude.

The story-teller passed his hat around a cheering audience; he must have collected sixpence ha'penny that evening! The storyteller approached Bill. “Soldier – let me tell you this: people will always pay to hear a good story,” he said. “I can see that you know that. Come with me down the road to the Black Lion in Cold Ash. I think you could be of assistance. You can ride my nag. There will be a large crowd there tonight. I need someone who can lend me some verisimilitude, some credence to my tales! I shall make you my comrade-in-arms, my brother hero. I'll tell you what to say and when to say it.” Bill nodded in agreement; after all, he had nothing to lose that night. “Verisimilitude” repeated the storyteller.

This time last year:
The station with no name

This time two years ago:
Lent, recession and motoring

This time three years ago:
Flowers and sunshine (already!)

1 comment:

Jeannie said...

I Loved this story!!! Wonderfully told. I really felt the intensity of his injury in the opening paragraph. Great ending! Thank you for sharing.