Wednesday, December 14, 2005

At Mapoto Gorge

A few weeks after that, I saw Perks in the street.
I hailed him and he stopped to talk.
Why Perks, I said, I haven’t seen you since Mapoto Gorge.
He looked puzzled.
I’m sorry, old chap, it’s not ringing a bell.
Mapoto Gorge. Summer of 18—. A battalion of Her Majesty’s finest facing up to ten thousand screaming fuzzies intent on dismemberment.
It seems like something a man wouldn’t forget, Perks said.

This left me rather bemused. I was quite sure I had seen Perks in the Gorge. He had dispatched with his service revolver a fuzzy who had been inches from disembowelling the colonel. Why would Perks claim not to have shared such a glorious hour? He certainly would not lie. He was a gentleman. Had he suffered some terrible accident, robbing him of the memory? You heard of such things but Perks seemed to be in excellent health and sound in both body and mind.

That evening I was to dine with Jackson, who had also been at the Gorge. I resolved to ask him about Perks.

Dear fellow, Jackson said, as we were enjoying a selection of cheeses, of course Perks was there. He shot the fuzzy who was mere seconds from dispatching the colonel. No one who had seen his heroism could forget it. He was a lion that day.
Most curious, I said. Because he denied it utterly and yet I saw him with my own eyes.
I think not, Jackson said. You yourself were not at Mapoto, having been laid up with a fever some days before.
I was not? That cannot be. I remember it vividly.
I do not recall your being there. Jackson said no more and we let the topic pass.

I was most disturbed. I could recall Mapoto Gorge as if it were yesterday. I decided to consult another old soak, to get to the bottom of this morass of conflicting memories.

I called the next day upon Arbuthnot, colour sergeant of the regiment, who would be sure to remember who had and had not fought at Mapoto Gorge, he being a man of quite legendary talents in the field of memory. He never forgot a face, be it white, black, yellow or any shade in between.

Arbuthnot received me with delight.
It’s very kind of you to call on an enlisted rank, sir. I’m only sorry I have nothing suitable to offer you, but India tea and best British biscuits.
Could a man wish for finer, Arbuthnot?
He laughed heartily. A better man in a tight scrape was never invented.
It’s been a while since we last met at Mapoto Gorge, Arbuthnot.
He looked puzzled.
There was that affair in Shanghai, sir. Do you not recall? He winked.
I had never, to my knowledge, been to Shanghai, or even to China, or anywhere east of Calcutta for that matter, but I did not feel I could challenge the prodigious memory of Arbuthnot, so I winked in return and said nothing.

Arbuthnot had a clear picture of Mapoto Gorge.
Ten thousand fuzzies, sir, as you say, and us no more than the low hundreds. The fire so hot that they were beaten back at last, howling as they went.
And do you recall Perks’ rescuing the colonel from his doom?
Indeed I do not, sir. I saw an incident in which the colonel was spared the loss of his bowels by a young man armed only with a revolver and indomitable courage, but that man was Lieutenant Jenkinson, sir, later to be eaten in the Congo after a foolhardy charge of a band of pygmies, the power of whose poison darts he underestimated. A fine officer.
But I remember clearly seeing Perks, I said, although I did not like to disagree with a man renowned throughout Her Majesty’s army for his powers of recall.
You could not, sir, said Arbuthnot. You were not at Mapoto Gorge.

That settled the affair for me and cleared up the mystery. I had somehow acquired a memory that was not mine. Perhaps in my fever I had read some newspaper account or other and become confused. Why I should include Perks in my imaginings was the deepest part of the mystery, but I supposed it was because I had always considered him with warm regard.

A few weeks later, I attended a supper party at the Marquis of M—’s London residence. I was delighted to meet the Lady N—, wife of the colonel of our regiment, and to engage her in conversation. I mentioned to her my high esteem for her husband, a man known for his gallantry and love of action.

Indeed, he was a good man, she said.
Perhaps you could tell me a little of his career after Mapoto Gorge, for I left the service after that action.
She gave me a look that will haunt me until the day I leave this earth.
After Mapoto Gorge? Sir, there was no after for my dear Alfred. He was cruelly disembowelled by a fuzzy that fatal day.


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