Dammit I’m mad!” Captain Palindrome stormed into the officers’ mess of the King’s Own Dragoons. The heads of his comrades turned as he stomped over to the beer tap. Filling a mug, he drank deeply. “Lager, sir, is regal,” he said to no one in particular and then wiped the foam from his mustache.
“Bob, old man, what’ve you been up to?” asked Captain Scarborough.
“He’s been making a royal pain of himself, that’s what,” answered Captain Tilit, who’d walked in right behind his friend. “Over at the newspaper.”
Palindrome groaned. “Tilit —”
“Not the Times, surely?” asked Scarborough.
“The very one. In yesterday’s edition, it seems they . . . well, that is . . .” Scarborough was amused to watch Tilit struggle to be tactful because it was so uncharacteristic of the young cavalryman.
“Come on, lad, spit it out!”
Casting a sidelong glance at Palindrome, Tilit sighed. “They panned his new book.”
“Book? What book?”
Palindrome drew a slim, leather-bound edition from inside his uniform jacket and thrust it into Scarborough’s hands. In gilt letters it said I Love Me, Vol. I. “Bloody hell,” said Scarborough as he flipped the pages. “It’s all love poems — to yourself!”
“It runs in the family, Hugh,” said Tilit. “His old ma did the same thing, when she was younger. It was her gift to literature — isn’t that what you always say, Bob?”
Palindrome nodded. “Ma is as selfless as I am.”
Scarborough shook his head in mock dismay and handed the book back. “Panned! I guess, Bob, you had expected to be . . . ?”
“Deified,” he said, nodding glumly, as he slipped the volume back inside his jacket — against his heart, as he’d confided to Tilit earlier.
At this juncture, Captain Reginald Pratt stepped forward. “Little chance of that, isn’t there, Palindrome, peddling such mawkish twaddle, eh?”
A shocked silence fell, charging the room with a dangerous energy. Slowly, Palindrome turned to face his antagonist. Looking him up and down, he said, in a casual voice, “Drab as a fool, aloof as a bard.”
“And what in hell is that supposed to mean?”
Palindrome turned to Scarborough and nodded toward Pratt. “Was it a rat I saw?”
“I say,” said Scarborough, trying to hide a grin. Pratt was forever picking quarrels with his messmates, and he, for one, would not be sorry to see him get his comeuppance.
Turning his attention back to Pratt, Palindrome sniffed in a haughty manner, mimicking his enemy’s airs. “Rot can rob a born actor!”
Pratt’s face turned red to the very roots of his pale blond hair. “Do you dare to insinuate —”
“Good lord, Bob,” piped up Tilit. “One would think you’d stuck him with a pin — listen to him roar.”
Palindrome smiled. “Ergo ogre!” This laconic sally brought a volley of laughter from the other officers ranged around the room. “Touche!” said Pratt. “Your tongue is very sharp, sir, and your words are raw.” He loosened his saber in its scabbard.
“War, sir, is raw.”
Pratt sneered. “War, is it? Live by the sword, die by the sword, then, eh?”
Palindrome smirked. “Egad, an adage!” Loosening his own blade, he looked Pratt squarely in the eyes. A hush fell on the room.
“Draw, O coward!” The business had barely begun when it was suddenly over. “Only a flesh wound to the sword arm, thank God,” said the regimental doctor, who’d been having some port when the whole incident started. “Gentlemen, stanch the blood and take him to his bed — I’ll sew him up there.”
After wiping and sheathing his weapon, Palindrome reached into his tunic pocket and turned to Tilit. “Cigar? Too tragic.”
Impressed by Palindrome’s sang froid, the room erupted in applause and the stamping of heavy cavalry boots. Several men slapped him on the back all at once, while another forced a tankard into his hand. “Speech! Speech!” they shouted. “Let’s have a speech by good old Bob!”
Palindrome choked up. “Aha,” was all he could force out, after which he dashed a tear from his eye.
“Gentlemen, listen to me!” All faces turned to Tilit. “We all agree that although Captain Pratt is our comrade, he desperately needed a lesson — and, by God, thanks to Bob he got one!” The men yelled their approval. “Now, let us turn, as they say, to nobler things. Bob, bring out that book of yours and favor us with a rhyme or two.”
“Lion oil,” he muttered, secretly pleased. After blowing his nose in a fine cambric handkerchief, Captain Robert Palindrome pulled out the cherished volume and turned to page one.
Waters is a senior copywriter for Films for the Humanities & Sciences, in Hamilton, and lives in Pennington with his wife, Nancy.