Art Pact 258 - In The Heat of the Day


"Oh, this is intolerable!" the major blustered. He waved at the cloud of flies that attended him like a halo, succeeding only in dispersing them for a few moments before they regrouped again into their holding pattern. Frobisher could see that one of the insects had made a daring landing on the very tip of the major's ear, and was dabbing cautiously at the skin there with its proboscis. It was a brave creature - there had been many a larger animal that had wanted a piece of the old soldier, and Frobisher had seen an array of them strung up on the man's wall at the hunting lodge. One, in particular, came to mind at that moment - a rather surprised looking elephant whose head took up the greater part of the north wall between the two windows that overlooked the gardens. It seemed to have been killed in a manner entirely unexpected to it, judging by the look on its face, as though it had stumbled in upon its wife in the middle of a sordid affair with a kangaroo, and having then attempted to dispatch the cuckolder with its own boomerang it had been unprepared for the weapon to curl around mid-flight and return to strike it fatally in the rear. Of course, such fanciful thoughts bore no connection to the truth of the matter - that being that the creature had been shot at blank range by the major and then stuffed by a taxidermist who was not, perhaps, at quite the very height of his art, but it made Frobisher feel a little better about accompanying the old man to think that the elephant had died in some purely natural manner and had then simply been acquired. The brutal truth - that the major was a murderer of our four-legged friends on a grand scale - was simply too much to bear for long. There were only so many hours that Frobisher could spend convincing himself that the past was a different country where the customs were alien and the attitudes towards the sanctity of life considerably more flexible. He could tolerate such behaviour only to a certain degree, and then he of necessity fell back on more whimsical methods, fooling himself about the quality of the man he was accompanying in order that he himself might rest more peacefully at night and not be haunted by the vengeful spirits of the veritable menagerie of the deceased with whom he shared the house.

The major, unaware of the insect that was even now attempting to make something of a meal of him, tugged at his collar and fanned himself ineffectually with his open hand, trying at the same time, it seemed to Frobisher, to shrink back so as to cram his generous body further and further into the meager shade allowed by the parasol. He had become steadily pinker through the course of the morning, and now, in the full heat of the day, he had begun to resemble a lobster that was slowly wising up to the fact that it was being boiled alive. A distressing red colour had begun to creep across his sparsely-covered pate, although its blotchy nature led Frobisher to believe that it was a heat rash rather than the onset of sunburn. Frobisher had been called upon very specifically by the major's physician to watch out for the slightest hint of sunburn and call an end to the morning's expedition, although how he might persuade the major into any course of action (or in this case inaction) against his will was a mystery to Frobisher. The doctor himself had never, so far as Frobisher was aware, been able to persuade the major to change his lifestyle in any way that would materially benefit him, and it seemed exceptionally optimistic, given that fact, that he should expect the far less qualified Frobisher to succeed where he had so frequently failed.

"I wonder," Frobisher suggested, "if it might not be a better idea to have some of the locals build a hide for you."

"A hide?"

"Yes, a hide. A covered-"

"I know what a hide is, for God's sake. What I want to know is why you think that my mission would be improved by building a structure in a single place when all of my plans are arranged around mobility and the opportunity to follow on of the creatures should it present itself."

"Well," said Frobisher. He was unsure quite how to proceed, but he looked at the insect - still perched on the major's ear and sucking away at it quite happily - and realised that if a creature like that was not afraid of the major when he might kill it without a second thought, he should at least be capable of speaking to the man in the capacity for which he had been hired. "I think that until the animal turns up you're doing a lot of sitting in one place anyway. Since the locals aren't doing anything much at the moment and you're paying their wages, we might as well have them erect something here just in case you have to wait a significant period of time. Anything that gets built we can abandon when the time comes to follow your quarry." If the time comes, he thought, since he was still extremely skeptical about the existence of the creature.

"Humph. Well, I suppose I am paying them," said the Major. Frobisher was not too surprised to hear that that was the reason that the old man took most seriously, although he was a little surprised about how unsurprised he was. Had he somehow decided that the man's chief motivation in this wild goose chase was money? Frobisher understood well that a creature so improbably would be a terrific money-spinner if it should turn out to be real - the major would get book deals out of it without a doubt, he would be able to name his price for speaking engagements, and if nothing else he was unlikely ever to have to buy his own meals ever again - but was that his primary motivation? Had it been the motivation behind his relentless slaughter of more quotidian beasts? Frobisher thought not. There had been a solid streak of glory-hunting behind it, and no doubt he had sold the rest of the animal when he kept their heads, but the major had spoken of the old hunts as though they were personal tests, as if they were things that he had had to do to prove something to himself (or possible, Frobisher thought, to the spirit of his father - the major was wont to invoke the old man when lambasting Frobisher, and he wondered sometimes if he were not actually hearing the echo of some dressing down that the major had received himself as a young man).

"I could have them start in the morning," Frobisher suggested. "If all goes well we'll be on our way before they have the skeleton in place, but as they say, plan for success but prepare for failure."

The major raised an eyebrow.

"They say that, do they?"

"Uh, yes. Well, I mean not often, but it's a known aphorism."

"Really. Well I suppose if it's well known then it must be true."

The major shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then raised up his left hand. For a moment Frobisher thought it was all over for the fly, but the insect's reactions were faster than the old soldier's. The major scratched at his ear furiously, but the fly was gone even before the shadow of ancient fingers fell over it. Frobisher watched it spiral away into the cloud of its compatriots and found himself breathing a sigh of relief on the little animal's behalf.

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