art, Cards, games, poetry, Short Story, Smoking

Quatorze (A Short Story)

The rather dowdy man smoked his meerschaum pipe. The pipe was intricately carved to look like a Medieval Saint (Francis Perhaps?)

The younger man laughed. “How wonderful! Where did you acquire such a special piece?”

“Gallipoli. Took it from a Turk. Believe it belonged to his grandfather.”

“How would you know such a thing?”

“I asked him. Just because I have to kill a man does not mean you have to be discourteous to him.”

“And he freely provided the provenance of his prized pipe?”

“The man was dying. He was not doing anything freely. But, if you mean did I have to prod it out of him then no. I asked him where he had got it from, and he told me.”

“I am amazed at your storytelling abilities Sir Henry. Carte Blanche.”

Sir Henry’s eyebrows stood at attention. A martial tune whistles from his nostrils. “Hmph. Hmph. I enjoy having the advantage. Tactical ramifications all such.”

The younger man, who was Edmund, slapped his knee. “Ah! I have no luck. I cannot enjoy the company of the nobility, even in playing card form. My blood is a very distinct shade of red, and last I checked blue cannot from red be made.”

“I will be exchanging four.”

“Well perhaps I am not so desperately disadvantaged after all! You mentioned Gallipoli. How old does that make you? I can gather from your few words that you took part in some way. Infantry?”

“It’s my mustache that gave me away isn’t it? Yes, 52nd Division of HRH Infantry. I saw a good bit of the old Hellas that trip. Made Thucydides proud I suppose. Xerxes made no further advance west, that I can assure you.”

“Sir Henry, are you attempting to be sardonic? I am young but I can tell when a man is attempting to make a fool of me.”

“Draw your cards or I will draw again. Forgive me. I have always been sardonic. It is my chief fault. Ask any of my wives… but not the first one as she is dead.”

“I shall keep that in mind when I call on her. Three cards. How many men did you kill during the campaign?”

“Details. Well, the one with the pipe, and two more besides; a young Turkish sailor who surprised me while I was releasing myself, and another man who I shot at quite a distance. Well I suppose you could say two and one half as I am only half sure that I killed the third. I never got the chance to see for myself.”

“Only three? Now that seems odd to me considering the casualties the Turks took in that campaign.”

“It is not odd at all. You must understand; most men shoot a foe at a distance, and are never sure whether or not their target has died or was merely wounded. It is the rare man indeed who has more than one or two close quarters kills. We have far too many beautifully maintained instruments of chaos and massacre to leave all the killing to the boys in the trenches. An engineer with a plumb line will kill you as surely as a bruiser with a bayonet. The bruiser gets a medal for his manslaughter. The engineer gets a job with his father in law after the war.”

“So you were neither a bruiser nor an engineer? What were you then?”

“A pipsqueak from Manchester.”

“Remarkable.”

“Point of three.”

“Good.”

“Huzzah! You remind me of my son.”

“Perhaps that is because I am your son?”

“No. My son died in Tasmania. He was a logger, and he caught a nasty case of influenza. He was only 23 the poor dear. Left a pretty little wife and son behind. They live with me now, and the little one is always going on about his father. Poor child. Run of three.”

“Not good!”

“Wonderful. I was waiting for a bit of action… give me a minute, I must retrieve my glasses. You mentioned earlier that you worked in publishing?”

“No, printing. It is an easy mistake to make though. I sell parts for type setting machines. It is rather droll work but it has a future in it I think. I want to open an independent printer when I get enough money saved. Maybe at that point I might even get into some publishing. My sister was a writer, poetry, and I would love to be able to help her get her work read.”

“Well I have eyes young man… Do you have an example of her work handy? I paid the most attention in classics and literature so I might have something of an appreciation for good work.”

Edmund patted his chest and his legs, searching his pockets for the scrap of paper he know was crammed therein. “I always keep one that she gave me on my last birthday. It reminds me why I pursue my dream not just for me, but for her as well. Ah! Here we are. Please do have a look, and be as candid as you can possibly be; my sister cannot abide by those who hold back their criticism out of the pretense of being polite.” He handed Sir Henry the slip of paper.

He relit his pipe and puffed the smoke up around his head like a dusky halo. “mmm. Let me read this now… It is your turn to deal by the way.”

“I believe you are correct.” He shuffles the deck and deals with a deliberate hesitation that allowed Sir Henry to finish the poem.

Seeing the last train leave the station

With my very own mind and soul aboard

I blow a kiss to my exiled essence

And I finger the coins in my pocket

“Oh my.”

“Sir Henry?”

“I am… I don’t know what to say. It is quite touching. The last line though… It seems to suggest that she lost her train of thought.”

Edmund smiled. “I think you just came to the point of the poem. A subtle play on the word train, with a cleverly placed diversion in the last line. She never had to make the pun… your mind makes it for you.”

Sir Henry nodded his head. “She has talent. Alas I fear it is the type that will seem trite to many of our more philistine fellow citizens. I am so glad to see that the art of a good pun is still appreciated, and practiced in such a creative way. Thank you for sharing this with me sir.”

“Poems are for sharing. My sister would be proud to hear you liked what she had written.”

The pipe had extinguished while he had been reading the poem. He took a single match from the left breast pocket of his smoking jacket. He lit the pipe again. The smoke seemed to soak into the wrinkles in his face. He smelled of smoke. Tobacco.

“You mentioned young man that your sister was a poet. Did she give up her art?”

Edmund looked down at his cards. “Point of three. No, she would have continued with the poetry forever if she could have. I lost her to cancer of the breast a year ago. Terrible illness runs in my family; lost an aunt, a great aunt, and a grandmother to the cancer. Come to think of it all those poor women enjoyed writing as well. Shame that they were not allowed to share the music in their hearts with me, and with others.”

Sir Henry shook his head. “Shame. Terrible shame. Useless disease it is. Shame. You are much to young to have experienced such loss. That is what us old people are for. We lose what we have had for far too long. Still quite impressed by that poem by the bye.”

“It impresses me as well. I am proud my sister wrote it. Pride is the best keepsake I have of my sister.”

The old man emptied the pipe into an ashtray. “When did she give you that poem?”

Edmund drew his cards. “She gave it to me a week before she passed away. It was wrapped around a caramel candy.”

The two men continued to play.

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