It was a dull, grey morning, the air thick with acrid smoke and the clouds dark and heavy with impending rain. It was the perfect sort of day to lounge about in bed, leisurely making love to one’s beautiful wife, before a relaxed late lunch at the club.
Edmund Blackadder was, unfortunately, not in a position to do any of these things, mostly because he was standing in a foot of mud in a trench in France where pretty much everyone was trying to kill him.
He had no wife, beautiful or otherwise. When he woke, it was to the dulcet tones of Private Baldrick asking if he wanted coffee.
The answer to that question, incidentally, was yes, always yes. Mostly because, that early in the morning, it was the most sure-fire way Blackadder had found to make Baldrick leave his field of vision.
He looked down at the “coffee” (spiced mud, but drinkable), steaming in defiance of the early morning chill.
He was on watch in an hour; an easy enough job, staring out of the trench into the bleak, lifeless expanse they called “No Man’s Land” (a misnomer in Blackadder’s opinion; the land beyond their trenches belonged to all sorts of people, the Germans had just killed most of them) until something interesting happened, but the shift was long.
There wasn’t a game of “Eye Spy” in the world that could make eighteen hours staring at a muddy brown field of utter desolation bearable.
And the rain...
Blackadder ducked back into their bunker, coffee in hand and a freshly scrounged newspaper tucked beneath his arm. He looked to Lieutenant George, doubled over in his chair and lacing his boots in a slow, somewhat clumsy manner.
“Ah, George,” Blackadder said, with about as much cordiality as he could muster given the hour. “There was a call from Headquarters. They want you on watch for,” he made a show of checking his watch, “the next eighteen hours. Shift starts at 5 o’clock. I trust you won’t be late.”
“Of course, sir!” George said. The cheer in his voice was simply nauseating. “You can count on me. 5:00 AM, there I’ll be.” To his credit, he continued. “Was there a call? I didn’t hear it ring.”
Blackadder slid back into his chair where breakfast, if you could call it that, was waiting. He poked at a sausage with his fork sceptically. “You were asleep.”
“Gosh, but I sleep through everything, don’t I?” George said, with a somewhat tired smile. “That call last Tuesday; after that corker, I was on latrine duty for a week.”
“Tried to convince them otherwise, George,” Blackadder said, with bored but nevertheless well-manufactured sincerity, “but they couldn’t be swayed.”
“Can’t be helped. Can’t be helped.” George rose with a stretch, every joint cracking as if by some terrible design, and crossed to the door. He stuck his head outside and squinted into the sky. “Looks like rain,” he added, conversationally. “Weren’t you supposed to be on watch today?”
The best Blackadder could muster was a noncommittal shrug. He cracked open the newspaper, a pilfered copy of the Daily Mail, and started to read.
“Oh, I say,” George said, face brightening. “Is that the day’s newspaper? Any word about the boys back home?”
“If by ‘the day’s newspaper,’ you mean, ‘a newspaper printed at some time in the last twenty years,’ then yes.” Blackadder thumbed through the pages, pausing to skim through the editorials. Total rubbish as usual. He kept reading. “Apparently, Queen Victoria has been having it off with a Scot named Brown. Very scandalous.”
“Come on now, sir,” George said. “It can’t be that bad.”
When George leaned over to have a look, Blackadder snatched the paper away. “It lists Kaiser Wilhelm II as a promising up-and-comer. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
There was a crash at the door; for a fleeting moment, Blackadder thanked God that the Germans had finally come to put an end to this conversation. When the racket persisted, his expression soured.
“Twist the knob, Baldrick,” he called out, the doorknob jangling ineffectually a few more times before the door finally burst open and Baldrick finally stumbled inside. “Just like every other day since the day of your birth.”
“Sir! Sir!” The words tumbled from Baldrick’s mouth in a flood of uncontrolled enthusiasm. His eyes, for what Blackadder could make of them, not really wanting to look at Baldrick’s face, were wide and bright. Beneath his somewhat soiled, ratty clothes, his scrawny chest was heaving.
Heaven forefend, he’d been running.
Baldrick, for his part, was gasping for air. “You’d never believe it, sir! The news! It’s like nothin’ I’ve ever ‘eard!”
“Queen Vic and the Scot,” George agreed genially. “Pretty saucy stuff.” He hesitated; Blackadder could almost see the man’s few remaining brain cells firing behind his eyes. “Wait, isn’t she dead?”
Blackadder ignored him. He’d have ignored them both, but Baldrick, a man with the relative intelligence of an aging syphilitic baboon, was the sort of person whose excitement was often dangerous to ignore. This was, for example, a man who had once tried to play footie with a live grenade.
His eyes narrowed. “Your clothes have less of their usual patina of filth. Is that your dress uniform?”
Baldrick saluted. “Only the best for the King, sir.”
“The King, Baldrick, is a wealthy man who has his own clothes likely not soiled by his own excrement.” Blackadder returned to his newspaper. “He’s unlikely to be impressed with yours.”
“’s not mine,” Baldrick protested, raising an arm to his nose for a sniff. Like any other sane man in his situation, he visibly recoiled. “Mostly, I mean.”
Blackadder shuddered. There were some truths man was not meant to know. “So, what’s this news of yours? The war is over? The French protectorate of Morocco finally coughed up its promised legions of trained warrior monkeys?”
“The King is comin’ to France to pay us a visit,” Baldrick reported, standing stiffly at attention. “He’s comin’ ‘ere to cheer on Britain’s fightin’ Tommys in their fight against the Boche, sir.”
“Hurrah!” George shouted, punching the air in an act of entirely unwarranted celebration. “Balders, that is the most excellent news. I’m, well, I’m bloody well speechless, aren’t I?”
“Would that were true, George.” Blackadder said wearily, folding the newspaper closed and tossing it to one side. “Would that were true. Now, the King is not coming, so calm down, the both of you, before you hurt yourselves..”
“But sir,” George protested, with the schoolboy whine of a young boy refused a second helping of ice cream. “Baldrick said...”
“Baldrick says many things,” Blackadder replied, “despite my repeated instructions to the contrary. Have either of you ever heard of Occam’s razor?”
Baldrick’s face scrunched into some parody of thoughtful consideration. “Yes,” he finally exclaimed.
“Really?” Blackadder said, genuinely surprised.
Baldrick thought about this. “No.”.
Blackadder gave him a sour look. “Occam’s razor is not, as you might think, Mr. Occam’s favourite shaving implement. Rather, it is a theory that suggests the simplest explanation is likely correct.”
Blackadder reached over, plucking a piece of neatly folded paper from the heaping stack of unanswered correspondence on his desk. “In this case, the simplest explanation is that Baldrick is an idiot.”
“I never met no Mr. Occam,” Baldrick protested. “How’d ‘e know?”
“That you are an idiot? Everyone knows, Baldrick. That’s no secret,” Blackadder continued. “Only last week, I received a letter from the Village Idiots Association of Great Britain complaining that you was making them look bad.” He held the letter aloft with a flourish; it was a hastily scratched note from Captain Darling, some drivel about not using the wooden trench ladders as kindling without the express permission of HQ, but the prop’s effect on Baldrick’s features was satisfactory, to say the least. He looked somewhere between shocked and proud.
“The King isn’t coming,” Blackadder said, finally. “Why? Because unlike the vast majority of his predecessors, he isn’t insane.”
“Reading, Blackadder?” General Melchett stood in the doorway, his chest puffed sufficiently that it seemed he was pulled along by invisible strings that had been securely fastened to his nipples.
Blackadder had no pretenses about being an expert in the ways of body language, but he liked to think that his years of service under Melchett had granted him a few keen insights into the hidden meanings in his posture. For example, this particular pose, which he liked to refer to (in the privacy of his own head, lest he lose it to the firing squad) as “the ruffled pigeon,” could be deciphered as the following true statement:
“I have concocted a brilliant new military strategy which consists mostly of German sharpshooters using your todger for target practice while you dance provocatively in women’s undergarments. If there was even the smallest glimmer of justice in this world, you would probably just bludgeon me to death with my own riding crop.”
It was a sad statement on Blackadder’s poor long term chances of survival that Melchett stood that way pretty much all the time.
Blackadder set aside his book before rising to his feet. He stood “at attention,” insofar as “at attention” describes a man standing upright showing a total lack of interest in what his superior officer had to say. “Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” he explained, face carefully blank. “1200 pages of sheer hilarity.”
Melchett nodded knowingly. “Masters of comedy, those Russians.” He ducked through the low doorway and stepped into their makeshift hut. He was utterly drenched; the brief walk from his warn, dry, chauffeured car to their front door had left him almost as wet as Blackadder had become by simply remaining indoors.
Stepping over a bucket set down to capture one of the larger leaks, Melchett stripped off his coat and hung it rather distractedly on what he must have assumed was a coat stand. It was, in fact, Private Baldrick, standing dutifully at attention in acknowledgment of the General’s arrival.
In Melchett’s defense, Blackadder thought, the brown of the dirt smeared on Baldrick skin and uniform did make him blend into the wall. If it weren’t for the smell, he would have made the perfect spy.
When Melchett shook the water vigorously from his hat, Baldrick sneezed.
“Ah, Private Baldrick,” Melchett said cordially, though noticeably not reclaiming his coat from where it was now draped across Baldrick’s face. “I didn’t see you there.”
“It’s quite all right, General,” Blackadder said. “It’s the first shower he’s had in months.”
Melchett brayed with laughter, clasping a visible section of Baldrick’s shoulder in a gesture of soldierly camaraderie. Once the act of empty, paternal affection was complete, he wiped his hand discreetly against the leg of his trousers. “Put that away, will you?”
“Certainly, sir,” Baldrick replied, though his voice was somewhat muffled. “Right away, sir.”
Melchett turned to Blackadder. “Blackadder, I have come to you with news the likes of which you won’t believe.”
“The reinforcements from the French protectorate of Morocco have arrived?” Blackadder volunteered; it took every last fiber of his being to keep from voicing the question with the cheekiest smirk the world had ever seen.
“The monkeys? God, no.” Melchett snorted loudly. “We’re sending them back. Those Moroccan bastards told us they were trained to diffuse landmines. So far, the only talent they seem to have is flinging their own poo.”
“They offer, at least, the element of surprise,” Blackadder said smoothly. “What Hun wouldn’t turn tail and retreat when faced with an angry, 30 pound Barbary Macaque violently hurling its own excrement?”
“Well, the chateau is a mess. In fact,” General Melchett’s voice dropped to a low, conspiratorial whisper. “That actually brings me to why I’m here.” He cast a sidelong glance at Baldrick, who seemed lost in his own little world as, for reasons known only to him, he took the largest of their leak-catching buckets and upended its watery contents on the floor. The worst of the spill washed around Melchett’s shoes. “This is Top Secret, Blackadder. The men are not to be informed.”
“Surely such a missive wouldn’t apply to Baldrick, sir,” Blackadder said. He looked back to Baldrick, who was now forcing Melchett’s coat into the bucket as best he could. “He is admittedly bipedal, but most would say his species hasn’t yet been fully confirmed.”
Melchett bristled visibly. Blackadder could see that he’d made a misstep somewhere; the way Melchett’s dark eyebrows crashed together into a massive black hedge of disapproval was a sure-fire indication that something had gone horribly, horribly wrong.
When Melchett finally spoke, it was with great shock and consternation. “I say, Blackadder. I like to fancy myself a progressive sort of chap, but your man’s,” he sputtered a little, “sexuality is none of my concern.”
“Ah,” Blackadder said, selecting his words carefully. “I didn’t mean to imply anything untoward about,” he turned to Baldrick, who was now wrestling the coat into the bucket with limited success, “Private Baldrick. What I was trying to say is that, in his particular case, ‘man’ is pushing it.”
“Bob!” Melchett exclaimed. Sure enough, Bob Parkhurst was standing (or, more properly, shivering) in the doorway, her coat held above her head as a makeshift shield against the rain. “Ah, come in, please,” Melchett continued, his voice suddenly as warm and jovial as butterscotch pudding on a Sunday afternoon. “This matter involves you as well, as you well know.”
“In more ways than you might think,” Blackadder muttered beneath his breath. His tone wasn’t so much pleasant as less insulting than normal; on the whole, as close to a compliment as she was likely to get. “Good morning, Bob. You’re looking very masculine today.”
“Cheeky, Blackadder. Very cheeky.” Melchett slammed Bob hard on the shoulder with a meaty hand. Her body shook with the impact; for a moment there, she looked at risk of losing the hat that so unconvincingly disguised her long, blonde hair. That would have been difficult to explain. “Bob here is a man’s man. More a man than you’ll ever be, I’ll wager.”
Bob, for her part, blushed fiercely.
“It’s your money.” Out of the corner of his eye, Blackadder noted Baldrick standing at attention in the corner. Melchett’s coat was, once again, draped over his head, the bucket abandoned at his feet. “Baldrick,” he said, with a note of weariness. “What are you doing?”
“General Melchett’s coat was drippin’ everywhere,” Baldrick explained, after a moment, “so I tried to put it in the bucket, so’s everything wouldn’t get wet, sir.”
“An excellent thought, Baldrick,” Blackadder said, with entirely undisguised bitterness. “Apart, possibly, from the fact that, in doing so, you upended a bucket of water on the floor.” He gestured at the coat. “And now...?”
“The bucket wasn’t big enough.”
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Blackadder said. “Exhibit ‘A’ that evolution does not exist.” He turned back to the others. “Now, where were we?”
Melchett looked around; apparently, despite their earlier conversation, Baldrick’s turn as a coat rack provided sufficient camouflage that he continued, fully oblivious to Baldrick’s presence. “I need to tell you about the King.”
“The King?” Blackadder replied, with a healthy dose of skepticism. “Bearded fellow, German extraction, lives in London. Yes, I’ve heard of him, actually.”
“I don’t know how you know, Blackadder,” Melchett said, a little taken aback. “The King’s trip to France was intended to be Top Secret.”
It took Blackadder a couple of seconds to recover; not so much from the news, though that was exciting enough, but from the startling idea that Baldrick had actually been right about something. “You mean it’s true, sir?”
“Of course,” Melchett said, with a self-satisfied smile, “and a valued soldier like yourself should have an integral role in making the King’s visit a success.”
“Naturally, sir,” Blackadder said. He could hear it in his own, traitorous voice as he spoke; a warm tenor he reviled in George for years. Optimism about the future, about surviving the war, about getting out of the mud and the chaos and the opportunity to impress a man more powerful than God in Blackadder’s tiny, miserable existence.
For the first time in his life, he was flush with the wholly alien feeling that everything was finally going his way.
“I am grateful that my years of service to the Crown are finally being recognized,” Blackadder said. “I presume that, given our past experience, you are looking to Bob and myself to coordinate the royal visit?”
“Oh no,” Melchett said. “I have a much more vital role in store for you.”
“I am delighted to hear that, sir,” Blackadder exclaimed. “What role did you have in mind?” His mind wandered. “Some kind of honour guard, perhaps?”
“Not as such,” Melchett said.
It was then that Blackadder noticed the unease on Bob’s face. She was, as he already knew, a horrible liar. In fact, being terrible at deceiving people was one of her most defining attributes. “The King isn’t coming here, is he?”
“No,” said Melchett.
“And I will never meet him, will I?”
“Come now, Blackadder,” Melchett protested with a braying laugh. “I cannot commit to what the vicissitudes of fate might bring.”
“But in this case,” Blackadder said, a comfortably familiar bitterness dripping from his voice like poisoned honey, “I will not see the King. In fact, I will not be within 30 miles of the King.”
There, Melchett hesitated. “You know, I’m not sure. How far away is Paris, anyway?”
“Farther than 30 miles, sir,” Bob offered.
“Ah.” Blackadder attributed the ringing in his ears to the strike of the final nail into the coffin housing whatever was left of his good mood. “Paris.”
“Of course,” Melchett said. “The King would never come here. If he wanted mud, rain and plenty of Germans, he’d have gone to east London like everyone else.” He continued. “No, Bob and I will be departing for Paris in the morning. I’d love to have you with us, but unfortunately your duties will keep you here.”
“I see,” Blackadder said. “Bob is going with you?”
“Well, naturally,” said Melchett. “I need a driver and would you believe the poor boy has never been? Paris is all well and good for old codgers like myself, but it’s a place best experienced when young, if you ask me.”
“I’ve never been either,” Blackadder volunteered. “It’s been a life-long dream of mine. The sights, the sounds...”
“But Captain Blackadder, sir,” Baldrick protested, voice muffled by the fabric still pressed against his mouth. The sound of his voice was like sharpened fingernails against a chalkboard -- or, perhaps more accurately, Blackadder’s soul. “You told me you’d visited Paris before the war. You said you enjoyed their ‘loose coffee and black women,’ sir.”
“That’s ‘black coffee and loose women,’ thank you, Baldrick.” Blackadder looked to Bob. The girl was flushed a deepening shade of crimson. “Not that it helps any.”
“Mustn’t you worry, Blackadder,” Melchett said, eyes mischievous and smile cheeky. “I’ll see to it that Bob gets all the loose coffee and black women a young man his age can handle on this trip.”
“They have some excellent brothels, or so I’ve heard.” Blackadder said, noting the pained expression on Bob’s face with silent satisfaction. This morning, at least, he had no sympathy for her. “So, General, if I’m not to be in any way involved with the King’s visit, what would you have me do?”
“It is imperative that word of the King’s visit remain Top Secret,” Melchett explained, brows furrowed thoughtfully. “To that end, we have dismissed the staff and are limiting access to the chateau to a trusted few, lest anyone realize that I’m not there.”
Blackadder raised an eyebrow. “Your cunning plan to avoid raising suspicions is to dismiss your staff for two weeks without explanation?”
“Yes,” Melchett said, “but unfortunately it raises some complications. Captain Darling was supposed to coordinate the return of the, ah, Moroccan contingent over the next two weeks, but that obviously can no longer be the case.”
“Obviously,” Blackadder concurred, his eyes narrowing. “Would I be correct in inferring that you want me to spend the next two weeks scraping monkey dung off the walls of the Great Hall?”
“I’m sorry you won’t be with us, Blackadder.” Melchett pulled the coat from Baldrick’s face and seemed genuinely shocked to notice the ugly, foul-smelling private underneath. Bob, still blushing, followed him to the door. “I will be sure to tell the King of your great service to your country.”
“Thank you,” Blackadder said. “At last, King George V will know of my great work corralling one hundred Barbary Apes into a very large van.”
“That’s the spirit.” Melchett paused in the doorway adjusting his coat. Behind him, the rain continued to pour. “Carry on.”
“So, Baldrick,” Blackadder said, sourly, once Melchett was safely out of earshot. “There as a call from Headquarters. How would you feel about a family reunion?”