On A Darkling Plain

And you may find yourself on a darkling plain. Under a vast purple cloud-bruised sky, you smoke your pipe. The air is still. It is cold, but not bitter cold, and you have the warmth from the bowl of your pipe. You are wearing a scarf, too, silken, and embroidered with scenes of historic military endeavour. The same scenes recur on the embroidery of the handkerchief you have stuffed into the breast pocket of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit, over which you are wearing a thick black overcoat. The soldiery in the military scenes sport moustaches similar to your own, which bristles in the cold air out on the darkling plain. You forgot to bring with you your shooting stick, so you must stand, as the purple of the sky grows deeper, deeper, darkening the plain, almost featureless save for here and there a sprig or shrub, a ditch or sump. What in heaven’s name are you doing here?

You were summoned by a mysterious telegram. The mystery of the telegram lay in its provenance, not in the message it conveyed, which could not have been more explicit. It summoned you to the darkling plain, and specified the date and the time, and the exact location, with points of latitude and longitude. The sender knew you were an aficionado of maps and, in your younger days, of the sport of orienteering, and that you would therefore respond to a summons which spoke to your inner pangs, for map reading and past orienteering triumphs. Before leaving the house that evening you took a duster to the cups and trophies on your mantelpiece. You buffed them till they shone. Then, after a last look at the map of the terrain of the darkling plain, you popped in to one of the trouser pockets of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit your trusty compass, battered and dented by age, and not quite as accurate in its readings as once it was, due to magnetic decay. You know its ways so well, however, that you are able to make the mental calculations necessary to correct its inaccuracies as easily as falling off a log. On the darkling plain, there are no felled or fallen logs for you to fall off, nor even to trip over or to bump into, for no trees grow nor have ever grown here on the darkling plain. You obeyed the summons but you still do not know why you are here.

You take from another of the pockets of the trousers of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit your pocket watch. It is a reliable timepiece. You wound it up forty years ago and it has never needed to be wound up again. It ticks and tocks relentlessly, implacably, and almost silently. Somehow it even manages to adjust itself when there are sudden shifts in the official calculation of time within your territory. What a watch!, you have been known to say to yourself, in wonderment, when prompted. This is no time for such wonderment. You take it from your pocket merely to satisfy yourself, for the umpteenth time, that you are here present upon the designated spot upon the darkling plain at the time required by the summons. You made sure you were early, for you have always set great store by punctuality. Now the hours and minutes have ticked and tocked away and the moment has come. You have no idea what will happen.

Suddenly, over to your left, to the west, according to your compass, there is a terrible sound, a fearsome din as terrible as an army with banners. You turn and peer and see, looming into view through the cold darkness, an army with banners. Almost at once there is a terrible sound, a fearsome din, over to your right, to the east, and you spin around and peer and see, looming into view through the cold darkness, equally terrible, another army with banners. The two armies are heading directly towards one another, and you are in the middle, at the spot where, soon enough, soon enough, they will meet.

And when they meet, they will clash. They are ignorant armies, destined to clash by night upon a darkling plain. At the head of one army, the one to the west, is Capitano Alphonso Fathead. He is reputed to be the most ignorant commander of an army in the known world. His troops are hand-picked for their fathomless stupidity. Most of them display such witlessness that they cannot even tie the laces of their military boots, a task which is outsourced to a bootlace-tying consultancy at ruinous cost, so ruinous that they can barely afford any weaponry. That is why the ignorant army is armed merely with sticks and pebbles, elastic bands and bags of icing sugar.

The other army, the one to the east, marches to the drumbeat pounded by Generalissimo Fulgencio Dimwit. If such a thing were possible, he is considered to be as ignorant as the Capitano, his foe. The Generalissimo is so dense he looks upon every phenomenon presented to his senses as a thing of profound and utter bafflement. He understands nothing. He cannot even hand-pick his soldiery, so the ragtag rabble who march in his wake have fetched up with him by accident or calamity or mishap. They only march in the right direction because each is tied to the Generalissimo by a length of string, the knots tied by a knot-tying consultancy retained at ruinous cost, so ruinous that they can barely afford any weaponry. That is why this second ignorant army is armed merely with twigs and sawdust, pin-cushions and clementine pips.

And so the ignorant armies approach each other to clash by night upon a darkling plain. And you have been summoned there, you realise, to act as referee. You dig into yet another pocket of the trousers of your stylish Hubert Clompstock dress suit and retrieve your whistle. It is a whistle which has served you well, over untold years, in circumstances fair and foul. As the ignorant armies prance and mince and lollop ever closer, you hold the whistle to your lips and prepare to PARP!!!

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