On True Grit

There are people of whom it can be said that they have true grit. “By their grit shall ye know them,” that is what we say, when we talk grit with our coevals. And talk grit we do, rather often nowadays, when we are on the lookout for true grit. We talk grit the better that we shall know it when we see it, and not be seduced by the blandishments of false grit. For sad to say there are more persons abroad in the world with false grit than with true. If you would argue with that, perhaps you will be persuaded by an anecdote.

Many years ago it happened that I was summoned by a Captain of Souls. This fellow, in starched uniform, with epaulettes, had been charged with commandeering the souls of all in my village. It was not a task he undertook willingly, but his continued captaincy depended upon it. His superiors were quite clear on the matter. So the Captain gathered about him his advisers and asked their advice on how best to proceed. In among all the mutterings and mumblings one voice rang out, that of the dwarf Crepusco, who told the Captain he must summon the village bellsman. The bellsman, explained the dwarf, as an important village personage, could expedite the transformation of all the souls in the village, if once convinced he might otherwise be placed in durance vile. So saying, he pointed downwards, to where, far below the Captain’s chamber, there lurked an oubliette, infested with scorpions and hornets and tiny soft squirming sucking things.

“If I understand you correctly,” said the Captain, hushing the rest of the advisers with an imperious raising of one eyebrow, “We frighten the bejesus out of this bellsman and get him to ring his bells in such a fashion that he in turn frightens the bejesus out of the whole village. We then sweep across the tarpoota and capture their souls at one fell swoop while they are defenceless through terror.”

“Indeed so,” said the dwarf Crepusco, “It is a foolproof plan.”

And so a rider was sent across the tarpoota with a letter of summons from the Captain to the village bellsman. In other words, to me. Having delivered the summons, the rider rode away, and I shuddered. It was far from clear to me how I could possibly cross the tarpoota in safety. It was rife with banditti, and not just banditti but marauding ruffians and gaggles of escaped convicts and similar ne’er-do-wells, eye-gougers and limb-loppers and head-boilers. That the Captain’s rider had come and gone unharmed was small comfort. He, of course, was astride a horse, a horse as swift as a swift in the sky, but we villagers had no horses, nor ponies nor bicycles nor motorbikes. The only way I could obey the summons was to cross the tarpoota on foot, which meant almost certain death.

Frantic with worry, I went out of my belltower into the designated smoking area and lit a cigarette. And it was as I was puffing away that I saw, passing by, a stranger with a shovel over one shoulder. Over his other shoulder he was lugging a burlap sack, and printed on the sack, in bold Palatino Linotype lettering, was the word GRIT. I followed him and fell in step beside him and engaged him in conversation. It was always disconcerting to come upon a stranger in our village, and I plied him with questions. Who was he? What was his business in the village? How did he get here? It was the reply to that last that proved decisive. He had, he said, crossed the tarpoota alone, on foot, with just his shovel and his sack of grit and a flask of lapsang souchong and a clementine.

“And were you not set upon by banditti and ruffians and escaped convicts and ne’er-do-wells? Were not your eyes gouged, your limbs lopped, your head boiled?” I babbled, even though I could see he was sound of body, like Felix Randal the farrier, big-boned and hardy-handsome, boisterous and powerful, but by no means, like Felix Randal the farrier, dead. In reply, he said four simple words.

“I have true grit.”

And he glanced back at the sack over his shoulder.

We fell to parlaying. I wanted him as my escort and bodyguard, I explained, for I too must cross the tarpoota, in answer to the summons, but I was puny and weak and cowardly and would surely fall victim to banditti or ruffians or escaped convicts or ne’er-do-wells. The stranger agreed to protect me, but only after exacting a hefty price. We stopped off at a newsagent’s and I leafed through the financial pages of The Daily Tentacle to check current metal prices. Doing the sums in my head, I worked out that I could afford to pay the stranger by melting down a couple of my bells. We shook hands, and arranged to meet outside the post office the next morning, to set off across the hostile tarpoota.

I had not asked him the most important question of all. Was his grit really true?

The wind was howling across the vast and desolate tarpoota as we set out the next day, he with his shovel and sack and flask, and me with a parasol and a can of Squelcho! Not unexpectedly, we had been walking for just five minutes before there came lumbering towards us a ferocious tangle of banditti or ruffians or escaped convicts or ne’er-do-wells.

“Eek!” I cried, dropping my parasol.

“Leave this to me,” said the stranger.

My heart swelled with gratitude as I watched him prepare for the onslaught. Holding the shovel between his mighty teeth, he hoisted the sack from his shoulder and plonked it on the ground in front of him. With surprisingly delicate manipulations, he untied the cord that fastened the sack. Our assailants were almost upon us. And then I saw what I hoped never to see – the grit in his sack was not true grit. It was false grit, a mixture of sand and sugar and shreds of cotton wool. He tipped it out on to the tarpoota, and it blew away on the wind.

“Ah,” he said, taking the shovel from between his teeth, and he gave me a sheepish grin, and ran away. I ran too, but not nearly fast enough, for sure enough I was beset by banditti or ruffians or escaped convicts or ne’er-do-wells. Somehow, I managed to escape them and scamper back to the village, but not before they had gouged an eye, lopped a limb, and parboiled my head. At least I was safe. God knows whatever became of the stranger, who had fled in the opposite direction, with miles and miles of the tarpoota ahead of him. For his base treachery, I like to think he was pecked to perdition by vultures.

I hope, from the foregoing, that I have made crystal clear the importance of telling true grit from false. As for my unmet summons from the Captain, I worried about that for a week or two, until I read in The Daily Tentacle one morning that the Captain himself had been summoned by his superiors. They wanted to know why he had not yet captured all the souls in my village. Like so many superiors, they were impatient, and rather than have the captain travel on horseback, a journey that would have taken many days, they sent him a ticket for a flight by airship. Alas, the airship was the Hindenburg. With the captain dead, his superiors lost interest in my village, and we were left to get on with our quiet orderly lives, far far away across the desolate vast tarpoota.

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