Back to the Beginning
You are the kindest and best of friends for endeavouring to refute Miss Dell’s every charge; but although she may have been mistaken in many things, there may be a grain of truth in what she said. I seem to find something wrong everywhere I go since arriving in Kingstowne, and after one or two instances one must begin to question whether oneself is the problem, and not everything else. I must avow that since the beginning I have remained afraid that my taking this post has been a mistake. It has not gained me Edward’s attentions, that is for sure, and what a horrid reason that is to have taken the post – far from the solemn motivations one would expect of a District Officer of the British Empire. But more, alas, on Edward forthwith.
There is good and ill. No, I did not go to the County Authority in Taybridge Tuesday last, and I also did not go to the Office for the rest of the week following the two-pronged attack by the ladies and Mr. Ridgetop. Instead I imitated that most noble of animals, the turtle. I sent word by means of Mrs. O’Shaughnessey’s youngest girl that I was indisposed, and I withdrew into my shell, working from my kitchen table (after shimming two of its legs) and Lorenzo’s back. A clandestine trip to the Office late Tuesday night provided me with all the documents I needed to continue with my study of the Plateau.
The town at night, without a soul to concern me, agreed with my digestion. I went out for a walk the following night as well. And the night after.
Only during such wanderings after dark was my attention drawn to the saloon, tucked behind the main street. I had not paid the building much notice at all during the day, being rather small and nondescript, and a good ways from the Haverly. But with a healthy murmur of voices and light streaming from within, past sunset it made itself the centre of town.
It is both fascinating and alienating to prowl past such a bright and busy place, alone at night. And the fact that the saloon was already on my mind may help to explain my accepting Mr. Ridgetop’s invitation on Friday evening.
I had a knock at my cabin door on Friday afternoon. Recently returned from an outing with Lorenzo, and mapping out my latest measurements at the table with a cup of tea, I rose expecting Mrs. O’Shaughnessey on some errand or other. “Good afternoon,” was out of my mouth before I saw Mr. Ridgetop – and of course I was evidently hale and hearty, and not ill at all, standing right before him. Mr. Ridgetop was not so delicate as to hide his taking in of this fact, looking me up and down with raised eyebrows.
But in the course of the past few days I had become angry, Kate. Angry to a breaking point, in fact. Even if Miss Dell and Mr. Ridgetop had been largely correct – instead of largely mistaken – in what they said to me, they were abominably rude to do so, particularly on such short acquaintance, and with no prior explanation of themselves. One does not simply run about picking apart the behaviour of one’s neighbours, out of the blue and directly to their faces – the natural order of things should fall into chaos, I am sure, if we were so outrageous. After all, for what did we invent notes, and rumours, and passive-aggressive asides? (You know I am not entirely serious, Kate. Yet in the event that one is unable to have a sensible discussion, any of the former three would be preferable to full-frontal assault).
So I was angry, and I am unashamed to say that I glared openly at Mr. Ridegtop, just as openly as he was staring at me. I do not know whether he was taken aback by this or not, but instead of answering my “Good afternoon” he straightaway said that he was going to the saloon that evening, and Old Man Lorelli could not come as usual, but would I like to join him around eight o’clock.
How lovely it is to feel that zeal for battle with one’s enemies, instead of merely wishing to run away. I told him “Yes, thank you”, and shut the door in his face, which was very satisfying.
This, Kate, is the “good” that I mentioned. It was nearly suppertime already, and although I had felt rotten for days, I was almost happy in the righteous indignation with which I flew about, eating cold odds and ends and getting myself dressed as carefully as a knight must fuss with his armour. I have the suspicion that I shall not be attending any more barn dances, or dinners, or teas with the Thurstons and their set, so I took one of my new dresses, those absurdly expensive things the young ladies coaxed me into buying, and I put it on with the greatest contentment in thinking a saloon might be the finest establishment it should ever grace.
I even powdered my nose, and did that trick with the faintest bit of rouge on my mouth like you showed me, years ago. Of course, the rouge disappeared with my first glass.
I arrived at the saloon quite punctually, and I should have liked to have been further miffed by Mr. Ridgetop’s being late, but unfortunately he was already at a table, clearing a supper plate. To mollify myself I strode straight past him to the bar and ordered a beer. Is it not plain, Kate, that I was quite out of my senses? Without having drunk a drop I don’t believe I cared for anything. I even tossed my head as I cut him, and as I had let my hair down from its braids, it was most fluffy and jaunty a gesture.
Drinking did not improve my behaviour, as you may have guessed. Thus comes the “bad”.
I had not had anything by way of alcohol since leaving England. I also had not eaten what one might properly call a meal before I went to the saloon. The beer slid to me over the counter was all the more delicious for how long it had been since my last (my first years at university, when sneaking out to places we ought not to have been), and my first sip (well, gulp) had me one fourth of the way down the glass before I glanced up over the rim and saw that Mr. Ridgetop had sidled over and was not quite looking at me.
“A table… Miss Walker, if I may…”
He turned about to try and show me to his table, rather maladroitly, I would note, but it was clear to me that I did not want to sit in the midst of the saloon. One cannot see the comings and goings from there, and one is altogether too seen; besides, the tables along the side had benches, which sported cushions rather than bare wooden seats. I declared my preference (I did add, “should it not incommode you”, at least) as Mr. Ridgetop was pulling out a chair (likely for me, now that I think of it). He put back the chair, and I selected a bench and table to my liking.
As I have already mentioned is not a large saloon, Kate, and I thank all the stars and comets that there were only two or three other people there. For I sat down, and with another healthy swig of beer I felt perfectly ready to speak my mind. I waited only for Mr. Ridgetop to settle down with his own beer, and then I sprung.
“Do you know, I have found yourself and others here rather lacking in consideration, Mr. Ridgetop. Let us not speak of Monday afternoon just now, for I have no interest in that” at which, I am sorry to say, the sarcasm was thick, “but let us, perhaps, go back to the very beginning. I have no idea why there should be a local allergy to clocks here, but I really must inform you that you are short eighty-nine hours at the Office – and that is only since the resumption of your normal duties after my arrival. Eleven more, and as per the Regulations, I will be forced to report you to the Head Office back in London. As you can imagine I don’t appreciate being put to such trouble.”
Yes, this was how I had planned my offensive, which I had been rehearsing since afternoon. And Mr. Ridgetop looked just as startled as I had envisioned. Ever since finding and reading the District Regulations for the Township of Kingstowne I had been storing up that information, agonizing over how and whether I should deliver a warning. Now that he had broken diplomatic protocol, as I saw it, I opened with a bang.
“Is that so…? Eleven more, you say?”
“That is so. Perhaps your time sheet could use some attention before any business of whether or not I talk of this or that, which some folk may or may not desire, and which may or may not have a perfectly sensible solution – as I have already explained – down in Taybridge. But never mind me. The lot of you with your limestone and potash – and too many heifers for an absurd paucity of wells – can just continue on as you always have.”
To be honest I was proud of that speech at the time, my beer quaffed and a hankering for whisky creeping on. I signalled to the barman.
“Miss – ”
“Ms., please.” And I ordered the first of two ill-fated whiskies.
“Ms. Walker. I have been thinking that we ought to start afresh.”
“Is that so?” I pretended disinterest Kate, but even I did not find myself convincing.
“Your Mrs. Brougham was at the waffle breakfast the other day, when I, ah, happened to be airing some opinions. On the matter of the rancher wells.”
“My Mrs. Brougham?” I managed to stop myself from adding “Waffle breakfast?”, despite an immediate surge of resentment at not being invited to such a thing. I took another sip; the whisky was not particularly good, but I smiled at the retreating barman. He had told me his name but I had already forgotten it, and this was worrying me.
“Yes. Mrs. Brougham. She took exception to one or two remarks.”
Now it was not surprising that Mrs. Brougham should contradict someone, but in my favour? I goggled at Mr. Ridgetop. “Do you mean to say Mrs. Brougham vouched for me?”
“Not – not precisely.”
I stared at him.
“Well, her precise words were that you were an oblivious milksop.”
I should have known. I did not get any waffles, and then this. I stuck my nose back into my whisky, wondering how on earth I could get even with a being such as Mrs. Brougham, but Mr. Ridgetop was still speaking.
“I must own, Ms. Walker, that I have taken you to be rather standoffish. Humourless, perhaps.”
“Well you certainly did not seem to appreciate any of my own jokes.”
“Jokes?” I asked. Mr. Ridgetop looked rather surly.
“When we first became acquainted, Ms. Walker. You did not seem amused.”
Kate, for the life of me I do not recall Mr. Ridgetop making a joke when first I met him, or ever after. However, I did lean back on that cushy bench and promptly begin laughing at him. The world brightened up again. Had had my wits about me, I should have worried at how very comfy and cozy the saloon was seeming
“For heaven’s sake, Mr. Ridgetop! A girl just arrived from overseas, with a hundred worries on her mind, and you her senior at the District Office – she fails to laugh at a joke at yours, when she is surely thinking of six dozen other things, and so in high dudgeon you deem her humourless? There, now. You have succeeded in making me laugh.”
Mr. Ridgetop’s mouth opened and shut, the saloon was most agreeable, and I ordered the second whisky.
“Well this has been quite the experience,” I remarked. “I think I shall go home tomorrow.”
Mr. Ridgetop seemed confused. “Tomorrow? Not tonight?”
“Of course not tonight, for there are no airships to be had at one’s whim at ten – er, ten-thirty pm on a Friday. People here make things much too difficult, you know. Oblivious milksop, is it? Well nobody tells me anything, and then I am somehow supposed to do everything right. I call those unrealistic standards. If I am to be subjected to unrealistic standards then at least I would like them to be those I am more familiar with.”
I may have pouted – you know how one’s mood can change so quickly when drinking. Mr. Ridgetop may have looked amused, but at that point I was aware that I was drunk and meant to pout in earnest, not for anybody’s amusement.
“You don’t really mean to return to England, do you?”
“Why shouldn’t I? I have ruffled more feathers here than in all my life in England thus far. And the man I love is there, you know.” Taking a sip, I believe I was imagining myself as some wistful heroine. I do not want to know how I really looked.
“I see. Ms. Walker, what were you saying about limestone?”
My glass was emptying again, Kate, and I was most offended by this baldfaced change of subject on Mr. Ridgetop’s part. I was thinking of Edward’s eyebrows and answered only grudgingly.
“Why, only all the nonsense in your backyard that no one has bothered either to develop or to stake out for conservation. This really is cow country.”
“Ms. Walker, do you think you might come back to the office tomorrow?” Mr. Ridgetop had the effrontery to steal my nearly-empty glass from me as he spoke, quite the effective distraction. “I should like to hear more about your thoughts on the matter.”
“I find my cabin much more comfortable, thank you.”
“Then… perhaps I might call on you. In the afternoon?” he was eyeing me in an almost worried manner which was to make more sense to me the next day. But at the time thoughts of my cabin began to supplant the attractiveness of the saloon and I waved my assent, saying that of course he might call if he needed to discuss anything, and perhaps we should both turn in for the moment.
“Yes. May I walk you back?”
“By all that the Earth is round, Mr. Ridgetop, Kingstowne is not such a maze that I should fail to find my way home! Good evening, good evening.”
My overriding thought, Kate, was to be alone. But how little I was to be trusted! I flew off, very drunk indeed, and made a beeline for my cabin. For my writing desk. And it was only when the foreshadowed knock came at my door the next day, startling me up from bed with a nasty headache, that the fog over my late-night escapades began to clear, and I remembered the letter I had written before falling into bed.
Headache and all, I jumped into trousers and a shirt, and I bolted outside, my half-salutation to Mr. Ridgetop doubtless lost in the wind. I ran all the way to the post office, but it was too late. As the angle of the sun told my sinking heart long before I arrived, it was well past noon, and all the letters dropped in the mailbox up to that morning had been dutifully carried away by Kai, the postman. Among them, a drunken poem and confession of my undying love for Edward.
P.S. Please do not try to console me. I know how perversely efficient the post will be just when I would most wish otherwise, and have very little hope of the letter being lost. Maybe a fire on board one of the little cutters, if I am lucky.