For All Nails #21A: Officers and Gentlewomen
By M. G. Alderman
A recruiting sergeant came our way To an Inn nearby at the close of day, He said, "Young Johnny you're a fine young man Would you like to march along behind a military band, With a scarlet coat and a big cocked hat, A musket on your shoulder?"
Refrain: What makes you go abroad fighting for strangers? When you could be safe at home free from all dangers.
Women's Barracks, Royal Confederation Air Force College,
Marlborough City, Manitoba,
27 October 1970 FN1
Cadet Second Class Alexandra Stapleton stood muttering angrily before the full-length mirror, doing up the uniform buttons of her coat over her starchy white shirt, legs set wide apart, hips tilted with cocky defiance. Her hands quickly made their way to the high stand collar of the fly-fronted, well-tailored air force grey-blue tunic. The austere, trim cut of the academy uniform, with its brass collar dogs, pipped shoulder-straps and concealed buttons suited her lithe, athletic frame. Her thin-lipped mouth was contorted into a half-cocked frown as she scrutinized herself with uncertain but sharp grey-green irids.
Standing at her shoulder, a little taller, was one of the scant number of friends she had at the College. Cadet First Class Evangeline Gilmore, her senior in rank and years, who would be commissioned a Cornet FN2 a whole year ahead of Stapleton. There was little to explain the odd friendship between the foul-mouthed Manitoban and her jaunty upper-crust fellow cadet, the scion of minor gentry in the Northern Confederation. Stapleton, self-centered as usual, couldn't remember the name of the place.
They certainly had little in common in temperament. Ev Gilmore was seldom angry -- at least not overtly -- but was given to curious, razor-sharp asides, off-center humor, and contemptuous wit. Stapleton glanced at her out of the corner of her eye, catching her face in the mirror. She was listening, an odd smile quirking her well-molded lips, but her icy blue eyes were unfocused, vaguely staring into the distance. Odd. She looked as if she might laugh. She was, by a nose, the better-looking of the two. Stapleton tended towards angularity. Perhaps the Manitoban was slightly resentful of the well-shaped copper-auburn aureole framing her idiosyncratic, jaunty features, cut into a fashionable bob, far more eye-catching than her dark, close-cut hair, at best only slightly modish. She had cut most of it off the day after she had stormed out of the house.
But exactly what emotions--admiration, contempt, jealousy--she had for her friend would have been a hard task even for the most talented of alienists.
Ev Gilmore had a certain feminine dash about her, well-pressed military riding breeches, Sam Browne belt and boots gleaming with polish, flap-covered holster slapping at her hip. Her leather-gloved hands distractedly turned a peaked cap emblazoned with the winged and crowned sword of the academy around and around again.
Stapleton gave a furious tug on her tunic skirts to correct some invisible error and spun around. "You are listening, aren't you?"
"Mm-hmmm," said the Gilmore girl distractedly. Stapleton realized that she was looking out the window, eyes fixed on the snow-frosted red-brick neo-gothic crocketry of the Academy, built in a fit of revivalist nostalgia after the shock of the Global War. "If I recall correctly, it was in reference to your father -- something about weaklings hiding behind pacifism, piss-faced progressives with rainbow ribbons and so on and so forth. Pray continue," she said with a dismissive flip of her hand, and there was something in the way she said the last couple of words that she was not taking Cadet Stapleton's daily tirade with all due seriousness expected by Alexandra.
Was that what she thinks of me? A hayseed joke from the frozen wilds to entertain her? It certainly would have explained a lot. The upper-class cadets who filled the barracks with their well-tailored uniforms, their equestrian trophies, their fencing foils, their name in Howard's North American Gentry, their mothers and fathers, Sir Fitzhugh Kennedy Toffeenosed Snob, Dame Louisa ffoulkes-Peabrain -- she remembered in a flash that Gilmore's father -- late father -- was Major-General Lord Gilmore of Star's Hollow -- d-mn it, that was the name of the town...
Despite her pretentions, just a pimple on the face of nowhere, like her own home, that pissy little town of Fort Benton, half hicks and half pacifists. Though she used stronger adjectives to describe both, usually.
All the cast-off remembrances, encumbrances, petty rumors, silly grievances and confidences, conventions of a life of privilege in the big cities of the East. Her ancestors had struck out for the fields of Manitoba to leave that all behind. An unpleasant idea formed in her mind, one that had been eating at her as she had been snubbed, one by one, by all her fellow officers and ladies, as her term at the Academy had dragged on. Maybe everything she had thought she knew about those Mexicano b--ggers west of the Rockies with their siestas and their accents was wrong and they had been right, not a bunch of bloodthirsty regicides and rabble-rousing anarchists. After all, the Jeffersonist rabble had wanted the ship the lot of them back to England. Not that it would have worked, by a long shot. The North American Rebellion -- what a farce.
But Ev had been different. Her father's father had won a peerage with the blade of a sword, pulling himself by his bootstraps, typical Northie ingenuity and social climbing. And Ev was definitely not here to gain a fifth-wheel Lieutenancy at some velvet-cushion agency in Burgoyne or a posting to some comfortably out-of-the-way consulate in one of those other cursed tiny European states. That's what Nell Phillips wanted; she shared Stapleton's quarters in the barracks. Cadet Phillips' father was the CNA Minister to the Grand Duke of Minorca and was thus assured of a well-upholstered office in the embassy overlooking the Mediterranean.
D--mn, she hated that. She hated Nell. She hated all of her snot-nosed barracks-mates -- all of them, Louisa St. Laurent, Laura King, that Chesterton girl, Roberta Feldon...
But Ev had been a rebel like her friend--subtler, perhaps, though. Her widowed mother had done all she could to keep her out of the Academy, and with good reason. But Ev had proved a match even for her formidable mother, with all her society connections. Evangeline Gilmore was a dangerous creature, clearly: sharp-witted, vicious if crossed, but always supremely in control: she'd never show you an emotion she didn't want you to see, and even then, it was expressed in the most mind-bendingly obtuse way, with cryptic asides, odd smiles, sharp glances, decontextified quotations.
Shakespeare. Especially Hamlet, that ravenous, revenge-crazed beast, haunted by a dead warrior father. An unconscious portrait of her self-consciousness? "I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in." Stapleton wouldn't have known, nor would she have cared much. Psycho-analyzing was for foreigners. She had never seen the play and had expunged what she had learned in school from her mind. But she did know that Lord Gilmore's death, as mysterious as it had been, had left Evangeline with a bloodthirst for revenge against the United States of Mexico. Shaded hints of espionage, stolen plans. Gilmore had been involved with Army Intelligence, deputy director-- FN3.
D--mn, why does she have to be such a sphinx?
Enigma. Frustrating. Ev always was quoting Shakespeare, and Stapleton did know it was a subtle taunt to her intelligence. Uncouth as she was, she knew that much. Gilmore may have had brains and had challenged her instructors and made a fool of anyone who breathed the wrong way without her permission, but she was still one of them. And she didn't even do her the justice of being contemptuous of the raw Manitoban. She was too smart for that, and it rankled Stapleton.
She thinks I'm funny. She thinks I'm a joke.
G--dd--mn them all.
(Forward to FAN #21B: ". . . And Met With My Downfall".)
(Return to For All Nails.)