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Clambering Uphill

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[A camp in the Low Countries. JENNET JOURDEMAYNE, seated, watches. THOMAS MENDIP, either twenty or twenty-one, searches his bag. A CAPTAIN enters with the weight of his arms on his shoulders.]


CAPTAIN.
Lucifer!

THOMAS.
No.

CAPTAIN.
Yes, you there
With your blooming springtime-face  hey, don't you know
The sky's too bright for morning eyes like yours?
And anyway, it's not polite to rise
Before your elders.

THOMAS.
Then I'll stay down. Have you
Seen any gold? I swear they were here
Somewhere— wait no, that's just my dashed elan.
Farewell, the tepid joys of clean clothing
Or fresh food, or the pleasures

CAPTAIN.
First week out?

THOMAS.
First day. How did you guess?

CAPTAIN.
Ha! Wait:
You've yet to take a burbling, halting step
Into the premier field of your glory. Yes, wait,
Until you see each armour in the sun
(Still fresh, most of it, like your fuzzy jaw
Although we've got a few more dents than you),
Alight like Michael's rippling sartorius:
His clean chest gleaming with the salty drops
Of two days' honest work in digs and duchies.
It's not a sight to pass by and say, "Oh—"

THOMAS.
I'm tired of you.

CAPTAIN.
Oh, I'm tired of you, that's what you wouldn't say.
Just the very thing to not say there, or here, or now.
Why did you sign the lists, if you weren't
As panting-hot to smear your face with life
As all the rest of us?

THOMAS.
My lord's the man to ask, not me, Captain.
I follow at his unsmirched velvet hem.
Of course, you'd have to find him to inquire:
He may be in that shaded tent yonder,
Or, more like, he's retreated to the town
To regroup, plan assault, and pen advance
Upon the royal coffers. It's a dry day,
Not made for outdoor work.

CAPTAIN.
Does he know
The king is in the field, and as poor a man
As you, or any other coinless loaf?

THOMAS.
I'm sure my lord cares not, as long as he
Can sit among the curtains silken draped,
Sip the sweet cooling wine of prince's taste,
Imagine these are his, or these, or this
And sibilantly incline to hear a word
Minced nicely with the silver knife of wit.
He'd rather to roll upward and, aspiring,
Come to rest at the peak of something great;
But climbing is beyond his ken, and so
Instead he hops, and leaves me, packless, here.
Where the devil—? No, I give up. Sound trumpet,
I've lost my only gold.

CAPTAIN.
I'm not surprised.
You left them here where anyone could see.
You act as though there's nothing past the next
Turning of the dial hand.

THOMAS.
This war's
Altogether too continental for me.
And so are you.

CAPTAIN.
I sense distaste.

THOMAS.
God, yes. I—

CAPTAIN.
No, I don't believe you, I don't think:
It's not distaste you say, for you are slow
And young, too young for dusty weights like this
To hang drop-shod in your unweary mouth
To lag your thoughts, retain your words, and altogether
Halt your enthusiasm, which to be frank
Should come as naturally to a boy of twenty—

THOMAS.
Twenty-one—

CAPTAIN.
As flurries to a squirrel. No, what you've got
Is a distinct lack of relish, which is not
Even remotely close to being the same thing.
Relish; savor; zest; without them, boy,
You're nothing but an ivory Jacob's-ladder
Driving the world before you with your dry clattering.

THOMAS.
Have you finished?

CAPTAIN.
Twenty. Ha! If that.

THOMAS.
All this rhapsodic mess of yours has done
Is make me hungry: and since all we have to eat
Is worming hardtack, beans, or Flemish silt,
You've done quite well indeed. My cap's off, sir.

CAPTAIN.
That's captain to you, boy.

THOMAS.
I wouldn't have
Expected any less.

[Alarums.]

And look! My gold!

CAPTAIN.
Well done, you kit; but now I will to the fight:
Better die with arms and rule, than fail the right. [Exit.]

THOMAS.
You would, you sodden lump of clay.

JENNET. [rising]
But I
Don't quite understand the point, I fear.
Unless it was to tell me that you were
An utterly insufferable, swotty boy
(And you insult me if you think I hadn't
Figured out that particular one already),
What do you mean by this regress in time?
Surely you don't expect me to believe
He ended on a couplet.

THOMAS.
Woman, I swear,
If ever man consummated in rhyme,
That man was he. And all I meant to do
Was to distract you from the throbbing hurt
In your right foot, you said an hour ago.

JENNET.
I might have preferred the pain; still,
Observation breeds understanding,
And some theories I've developed have been proved.
The devil told me the bright world will end
In rhyming verse. I'd rather have it that
Than any other, equally dreadful trump.
Yes, with meter and metaphor — polite —
I'll take the way of we living below.

THOMAS.
My God, you're quite transformed. It's not a month
Since I heard you declaim the joys of life,
Your eagerness to chase the flickering flame
Across a vasty course you can't make out
Until— had you even thought of that blasted end?

JENNET.
Someone else is to blame for that, you know.
I have enough alchemy to tell that
Elements don't up and change by themselves.
Inertia is the proper state of nature:
It must be an improper maverick,
A charming quark, to set off transmutation.

THOMAS.
I don't consider myself charming.

JENNET.
I speak
Scientifically. But while you might be strange
(As certainly you are), your most inherent
Quality is charm. Improper, I should say.

THOMAS.
In a short while, I shall become large-headed.

JENNET.
It's far too late for that.

THOMAS.
My shining girl—

JENNET.
We must be near the city. I am not,
Like you, used to travelling these long days,
Arising at the coxcomb call to leap
Astride Apollo, my bronze steed, and cry
For a groom to gird me, and hitch-gallop
Twenty miles to Caen before the next white
Crow can show its colors.

THOMAS.
No, nor I.
I've very little experience of actually
Winning campaigns. Usually at this point
We'd be at "Retreat; plunder and pillage!"

JENNET.
We?

THOMAS.
I mean my regiment.
I've always found a pub and hunkered down.

JENNET.
Your quality is not a martial sort.

THOMAS.
I did the rather least I could.

JENNET.
Yes, just.

THOMAS.
But I survived; and now I'm here, speaking
With you upon all matters of the soul:—
Of life, of days and nights; of that seashore
We passed in clouded light near Berwick town.
We nearly didn't make it out before
Nimbus tripped over a haystack rock
And spilled his precious jewels on the main.
Now ghosts of the grey North Sea knock my knees
And blow about your skirts: do you recall
The boat we found that night? Upturned, it barely
Served as an embanked umbrella to slide
The drippling moonlight from our huddled cloaks
And so we paddled off to slanting dawn.

JENNET.
Now who's talking like whom?

THOMAS.
You are the strangest quark I've ever met.

JENNET.
Well, I stand by my earlier judgement.

THOMAS.
Then shall we go?

JENNET.
I certainly cannot see any path
But up.

THOMAS.
We're in precisely the same place
We were when we began.

JENNET.
Yes, as I said.

[Exit THOMAS and JENNET, toward the summit.]