Letters from Armorica: Friction (3 February 1016)

Armand’s First Letter. Amelia’s First Letter.

Dear Journal,

I am coming to loathe my cot. It is becoming a symbol for me of all that is most unpleasant here at Camp Moorhen: hard, cold, and not particularly well-suited to the purpose. As such, it bears an unpleasant likeness to Colonel Redvers, the camp’s commander.

I am being unfair, I suppose. Redvers is a cheery old fellow, not at all cold; and if he is hard, the hardness consists in my complete inability to constrain him to pay attention or to take me seriously.

Just yesterday evening I found him in the tent that serves as the camp’s Officer’s Mess, to which I am by courtesy admitted, and told him that if we did not receive the next shipments of lumber we would be forced to stop work.

“Not to worry, not to worry, Grandmaster, I’m sure everything is in train,” he replied, looking at me over his luxuriant mustache. “Have a sherry!”

He is to be found in the mess at most times of day—not drinking except in the evening, mind you, he’s no sot. I find it hard to blame him—or, at least, I find it easy to envy him—as it is the one warm place in the camp. But if he does any paper work, or gives any guidance at all, I have yet to see it.

Fortunately I have heard many of Jack’s stories about army life; and so I had recourse to the regimental sergeant major. The RSM is a lean fellow named Fraser who strongly resembles (and has all the expression of) an iron spike. One pictures him being forged in the depths of time by Wayland the Smith.

I found him by the camp’s parade ground, supervising the drill, by which I mean observing sternly while 3rd Company went through its paces. (I should note that Camp Moorhen is ostensibly a training camp for the regiment, a subterfuge to explain the presence of large numbers of troops in a remote location and so hide the work we are doing.)

“Sergeant-Major, might I have a moment of your time?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“It’s a delicate matter.”

His expression did not change in any way—I have never seen it change in any way—and yet somehow it became more watchful. I found myself standing up straighter.

“As you say, sir,” he said, and led me a few yards farther away to a spot out of general earshot.

“It’s a simple matter, really,” I said. “There are matters that need to be attended to regarding materials and supply, if we are to continue our work here. I’ve spoken with the Colonel—”

As I spoke, I saw Fraser’s countenance somehow grow alarmingly stormy while not varying in the slightest, and changed what I was going to say. I could tell that complaints about a superior officer would not be well received.

“—and he assures me that everything will be quite all right. The difficulty is that I need more information if I am going to plan the work, regarding the order and timing of the deliveries.” I shrugged. “It’s like this, Sergeant-Major. I have a cousin, Jack Montjoy, who was a lieutenant in the 29th Cumbrian Foot; he’s now an aide to Lord Doncaster in Armorica. He has always told me that in times of uncertainty the thing to do is to ask the sergeant-major for advice.”

The unseen storm clouds cleared; Fraser gave the impression of having nodded firmly.

“It’s the colonel’s adjutant you’ll be wanting, sir. Lt. Somers. Tell him you spoke to me.”

I had been introduced to Somers; he is a young fellow with a boyish face who is to be seen flitting all over the camp, and so I found him by taking up station outside the Officer’s Mess and waiting. On his next pass I waved to him, and he trotted over and stood at attention.

“Yes, sir?”

“A moment of your time, Lt. Somers?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Sergeant-Major Fraser advised me to speak to you.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I have some questions about the shipments of lumber we’re expecting, so I can plan the work efficiently.”

And like that, we were off. We’d receive the first of the larger timbers tomorrow, mid-morning, he told me, and so on through the week. I won’t list the specifics here; it suffices to say that Somers had them at his fingertips, and was able to tell me all I wanted to know.

I was quite pleased to hear about the timbers, as they are the first thing I shall need tomorrow as I continue on the prototype of the fast courier, which will in turn be the model for everything we do subsequently. I may say it will look like nothing anyone has ever seen.

The essence of building such a thing is that the motive elements, which are greedy, must be in proper proportion to the hardened elements, which are generous; and that the hardened elements must be under constant stress so as to be able to supply effort to the greedy elements without losing their own integrity. This is where my first sky-wagons failed; even as they flew, they were consuming themselves.

The vessel will be formed of four interlocking frameworks, each hardened as a unit and each stressing the others, and so producing sufficient effort to supply the motive elements.

First, there is the external framework, a sort of open-work box of timbers. Fitting inside this, and interlocking with it, is the main body of the craft, which has its own hardened framework. The main body is cradled by the external framework, which is in turn stressed by the main body’s weight. The hardened framework within the main body is itself stressed by the weight of the walls, decking, and other appurtanences.

The external framework extends up above the main body, where it embraces the “keel” and two long bodies that hold the lifting and motive elements, one on the left and one on the right, rather like pontoons. The external framework and the main body hang from these pontoons, causing further stress on all members.

Had I followed my instincts, as I did with my first sky-wagons, I would have formed all of these members as a single hardened unit, and most of that stress would be lost.

Colonel Redvers greeted me warmly when I joined him for dinner in the Officer’s Mess. “Lt. Somers was able to answer your questions to your satisfaction, what?”

“Ah, yes, Colonel, very much so.”

“Good, good. I’m glad to hear it.” And though his cheerful expression and warm voice did not change in the slightest, I very much felt both that I had been put in my place—and that I had passed a test.

Next letter


Photo by Patrick Langwallner on Unsplash

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