If I could step so lightly
I would go to you
Where the gods
Cross drifting leaves
If I could step so lightly
I would go to you
Where the gods
Cross drifting leaves
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.
Thank you for enclosing Irene’s address; it is both most unaccountable, and most entirely her, that she has not written me herself. At any rate, I hope she is keeping well.
I went to a lovely dance the other evening, among the nicest of gentlemen and ladies as you could imagine, and yet not like our parties back home. For it was outside, on a balmy night, with a great fire and a great number of musicians. I believe many of the guests took turns at playing. It was Miss Thurston who invited me, and I think I am widening my circle of acquaintance here credibly.
Tomorrow is my move and I shall tell you all about the new cabin. There it shall be much more convenient, with my gelding being stabled only a minute’s walk from my door.
Have you got all your pickling done for the season? Have you enough wool laid by for your knitting? I am sending a wire so that you can get the house provisioned for autumn and the winter to come – do let me know when you get it.
You must not tell anyone, but I am seized with a fit of regret over the cabin. It is two rooms, which seemed to be of most generous size when I visited weeks ago, only now it feels somehow cramped, and unwelcoming. I believe the young couple must have taken away every scrap of decoration that had been here – that or it was the O’Shaughnesseys up at the main house – and it seems not to have been cleaned since their departure. Why, there are not even curtain rods. And I failed to notice beforehand that there is no running water, but a pump out back.
Actually I just began to laugh, for it seems that every time I arrive somewhere there is something amiss. Perhaps I was never meant to leave home. But it will make for good stories. And Lorenzo seems to like the barn, a mere forty paces from my doorstep.
Edward has not written back, just as you said he would not. I am cleaning up the place, in what I hope to be a very stoic manner, mourning the lack of curtains and a doormat, and not paying any mind to my second-hand letter-desk, which leaves much to be desired in both comfort and the lack of letters from the above-mentioned.
Anyway, there are many more important matters I should be thinking of. I do believe I wrote you about the Kingstowne annual report which I submitted, but I omitted to mention my conclusions as to the probable location of some limestone deposits a few miles east of town. In my report I included details on all the promising indicators, and I finally went out today on a long ride, with a shovel and a pick tied behind my saddle, to quite literally dig a little deeper. I will have to go back again tomorrow; however, I can now say with a high degree of certainty that considerable deposits are present, and with the presence of coppers and silicons in the soil of this region, I am itching to find proof of the turquoises and opals that may lie within.
How am I to describe what a discovery this might be for a place of Kingstowne’s size, and how lucky I would be to make such a discovery? The economical consequences could be far-reaching. It brings to mind a wonderful passage in the original mandate letter, received by the Kingstowne District Office upon its conception, that I dug up out of the bottom of a cabinet (and only a little the worse for mouse droppings):
The role of the Officer is to take account of the land, its characteristics, peculiarities, and possibilities. No attention to detail must be spared, and consideration of its inhabitants should always be present too, in their habits and livelihoods and well-being. The Officer is to consider all matters, from the maintenance of justice, to the planning of streets, to the laws of property and business. But always the Officer is to return to the question of the land.
No matter how non-existant my kitchen might be, that is something, isn’t it? Something I am a part of. The great importance of New Britain is the land itself, after all, amid all the anomalies of this hemisphere of the globe, and no matter how short my sojourn might be, my name would be forever in the records if I stake out a useful resource such as this.
I wish I had someone here with whom I could speak about it, it is so terribly exciting. But something tells me that bringing it up at tea with the Thurstons or the Mathesons would not be quite the thing. I declare they have the most leisurely afternoons of anybody I have ever met! Coming and going, I almost feel ashamed to pass the ranch hands, working away in the pastures. And that is not to speak of the card parties I have been invited to (some of which I have attended, with due deference for inability to stomach many late nights in a row), nor of the next dance that Regina (Miss Thurston) and Adrienne (Mrs. Matheson) are so looking forward to.
No, I do not think they are the right sort for chatting about rocks – although they might like the sound of opals, for a number of reasons I don’t share. Yet each to their own bailiwick. They have most kindly pressed me to allow them to help me choose my next dress, and there I think I shall bow to their expertise.
I shall try to buy something very dashing and very out of step with my dreary cabin. I only wish I were thinking solely of my ride tomorrow, of the hills and the next place I am itching to dig, instead of imagining myself in a Cinderella dress, and wishing Edward were here to see me.
Your best of cousins,
P.S. Why do all the girls get married so young, here, Kate? I was shocked to discover their ages – I was on the shelf before my even knowing it.
No, I have not yet received a reply from Edward, but really, I think this would be quite early indeed! Almost no gentleman is a prompt correspondent – now do not go telling me about Everett’s letter-writing habits, if they would serve to contradict me!
You will remember Miss Thurston, of the lovely porch, who was so charming? She was so kind as to invite me to a kind of a folk dance, held on one of the neighbouring ranches. How happy I was to see her note! By dint of leaving my desk now and then, I have discovered that one reason why Mr. Ridgetop is so perennially late back to his desk may be that he often seems to be stopping and speaking with someone or other. Now what could make me feel lower about still not having found a small circle for myself within Kingstowne society? Miss Thurston’s note came at just the right time.
Well, it did come only one day before the dance, so despite Mrs. Brougham’s many proclamations and urgings, a more suitable costume than my new riding habit was not to be obtained. But I am happy enough in my habit – it is no gown, yet becomes me well enough I think.
So I was under-dressed for the dance, but I had a fine evening! Lorenzo was almost gallant-seeming as he carried me there; the other guests, and above all the young ladies, arrived by carriage or wagon, but no one seemed to look twice at me. At least I could not tell if they did, being out after dark, with nothing but lanterns and firelight. Some young man appeared to take Lorenzo’s reins, and I had no trouble finding Miss Thurston at all, given her pale blonde hair. She seemed most glad to see me, and her parents, too, came over to greet me.
The dance floor was a beaten square outside a great, trim barn, not the kind of barn that seems about to peacefully crumble but the sort that speaks of industry, and energy. The lights and the bon-fire were almost too much on a warm night. I think they were more festive than anything else.
Miss Thurston introduced me to a number of persons, whose faces amounted to a blur between line dances. I had to learn quickly (and I dearly hope I have learned enough to acquit myself better next time) but then there were the country dances more after the style you and I know, with all the hanging about on the sidelines that entails, and consequently more conversation. I cannot say I entered into it much, surrounded by I was by a dozen young ladies and gentlemen who had known each other practically all their lives! But I shall do my best to get to know them. And I did dance at least five dances – the young men behaved quite handsomely.
I won’t say whether anyone compared to Edward, for the very thought of such comparison seems silly. However, I do at least remember some names. There was a Gregory Henlow, or Harlowe, who did not talk too much about himself as some of them do, but asked me plenty of questions about England. He appeared to have an interest in dirigibles. And a Mr. Matheson, very much occupied by his wife on his arm – so I did not dance with him – in whose expressions there was often something droll, as Mrs. Matheson chattered away. There was also a Miss Dell, who was certainly the belle of the whole dance, a real beauty with masses of black hair. I do not know what it is, Kate, but as so often when I see a beautiful lady, I have this presentiment that she and I shall never be anything more than polite to one another. This is how I felt with Miss Dell, even as I could hardly stop looking at her.
Scarcely could I believe it when I fell into my own bed at almost one o’clock in the morning! And I had not been among the first to leave, but I had also been far from the last. I crept around getting Lorenzo back into his box stall, and crept back over to the inn and up the stairs, and I do believe that as I did these things there may have still been people dancing!
Now here I am the following evening, ready to turn in very early indeed. I sent a note off to Miss Thurston thanking her, and saying that I had a wonderful time – I did want to make sure she knew it, since I begged off earlier than she did. If I had stayed any longer I am sure I would have been entirely, instead of mostly, useless at work.
All-in-all, it was worth the trouble of poking one’s head out of the house.
My Dearest Kate,
I move to my new lodgings next week, and every time I see Mrs. Brougham I seem to be sidestepping another question. Do I have sufficient linens? Tea towels? Spoons? Do I know how to cook? And I suppose I do not, in any of the above categories, but I daresay I shall manage. What with the extravagance that is Lorenzo I prefer not to go off buying every piece of silverware I can find.
The Kingstowne Annual District Report has been sent off on the airways, back to Britain, with what ceremony a brown envelope and a bit of string from the General Store can lend. That is one less thing on my plate – and since I received the latest post, I own I am otherwise occupied.
I think you may have chided me, had I told you when I wrote to numerous friends back home. Alexandra and the other girls I sometimes saw, but also a few of the boys, and Edward among them. I did not really expect a reply from him, Kate. But I thought that if I wrote to many of our acquaintance, it might not be so remarkable that I should write to him. After all, I simply cannot stop wondering when, if ever, he also might come to New Britain. It is such a vast country that even if he were to cross the ocean it likely would not matter. Yet I simply cannot stop.
And yesterday I had a letter from him set down by my breakfast plate, under the keen eye of Mrs. Brougham. I hope I did not audibly gulp down my mouthful of cornmeal cake.
He writes that Kingstowne sounds a very interesting place by my account. And he answered to my inquiries about doings back home, and the health of his family, most cordially. Dare I suppose this foreshadows a fruitful correspondence? He said the remainder of the fall there looks very rainy. I have written back, noting some advantages and deficiencies of the climate of New Cambridge county, and asking him about his work and his plans for the future.
I only wish I had had the chance to speak to him so much, tete-a-tete, when I had been there in person. Personally I find it much easier to speak through a letter, but it should be worth it to see his features and his expressions again.
Did you not have such thoughts and agonies when you and Everett were courting?
P.S. I can hardly think of work at the moment; I am already noting things I should like to include in my next letter to him. Jolly good thing his letter had the sense not to arrive before that report was wrapped up!
I am indeed getting to know my neighbours. Only yesterday I took tea with one of the rancher families of Kingstowne, the Thurstons, who number among the town’s founders. They have the loveliest porch you ever saw. Young Miss Thurston had only just returned from Cartaeser, and was a most genial and polite hostess.
The matter of your joints aching is quite concerning, have you gone back to Doctor Watts? I own I suspect you of complaining without the intent to consult a medical professional! But you know these things never get better on their own.
Irene must be very busy, or in one of her moods, for I have not heard from her the last few letters I wrote. Perhaps I managed to offend her with one of my missives!
As the heavens and all their naked cherubs be my witness, I am not fit to deal with the intricacies of small town life. Being out here has brought home to me how much I appreciate big towns and cities, where one can easily disappear, whilst interactions necessary to daily life are greased by that veneer of universal, uninterested politeness that is the great achievement, in my opinion, of the modern age.
Would that your Everett might advise me. He sounds like quite the diplomat, suggested seating arrangements such that your mother and his shan’t have any reason to take offence at the wedding. Unfortunately, that is the very sort of thing I fail to consider.
I was having a lovely day – the very first, real, lovely day since I arrived in Kingstowne. The week prior a Mr. and Mrs. Thurston came to call on me at the Haverly, Saturday tea-time. They are, in fact, the well-to-do ranchers I mentioned in the context of the cow incident. Mrs. Brougham was at her most polished as she brought me down to sit with them in the front room and then whisked herself away. The Thurstons were most genteel; a light joke about the heat, but nothing about the cow; and they asked me to tea at their home, for their daughter was due back from a visit among friends in the city, and she would certainly be delighted to make my acquaintance.
So this afternoon I saddled Lorenzo (yes, he remains an unknown quantity) and went up to their ranch, for which Mrs. Brougham gave me most thorough directions, and advised me – with only a twinge of sarcasm – to wear a hat this time. I went to the trouble of acquiring a proper sort of split-skirt riding habit for the occasion, also on Mrs. Brougham’s advice, and was very glad when I arrived, for Miss Thurston was so prettily turned out that I should have felt immeasurably worse in my usual.
The Thurstons, however, were so pleasant so as to make me speedily forget any comparisons between myself and the daughter. And they seeming to be a busy sort of people, I was left for the bulk of the tea-time tete-a-tete with Miss Thurston, who was terribly engaging.
What a breeze, coming off the rolling grasses, and there in the shade of the porch, learning all sorts of gossip and drinking a cold tea, I felt I understood why some folk adore this place.
Only, when I took my leave and rode away down the cart-track, a passel of ranch hands made a great show of stepping out of my path, and ducking their heads. Not only was there was plenty of room to pass, but I own I was shocked to be treated like a lady as I was in England; ever since arriving in New Britain I have thought of myself – and have been received – as a District Official in a dusty coat. Now I should have forgotten all about the ranch hands, except that I had to stop by the general store for a hand salve on my way back to the Haverly, after having stabled the inscrutable Lorenzo. And at the store, when Mr. Lorelli asked after my day, and I said I had taken a very nice tea with Miss Thurston, there was a general oddness in the air. When I got back to my rooms, I realized that Mr. Lorelli’s usual volubility had converged to a more normal state – normal, that is, were it not he.
Now I am huddled at my desk in the Office, wondering whether I am paranoid but mostly sure that I am not; and mostly sure that Mr. Ridgetop’s muttered question about how I had liked Thurston’s ranch was both piercing and significant, in a way I cannot appreciate; and I am not in much state to consider the significance of winding valley formations right now, so I am writing to you instead.
I wonder whether all small towns are so troublesome. Who went telling Mr. Ridgetop that I was up at Thurston’s, anyhow? And why should anyone care whether my tea was a weak mint with one of Mrs. Broughams biscuits, or an Earl Grey with milk and little cakes with Miss Thurston?
Your bumbling cousin,
P.S. Perhaps Kingstownians are prejudiced against tea-cakes, Kate, and now that I have ingested some on New British soil I shall be persona-non-grata forever.
The country here must be, as you say, one that remains influenced by the native philosophies and a sense of being at the mercies of the natural world; although the townspeople do not expound upon such abstract concepts, one can discern it. The sun, the wind, and the rain are spoken of in the most absolute terms – and the means of man in terms so vague (“plodding on”, “getting on with it”, “chipping away”) as to put the two in clear juxtaposition once one sits back.
Meanwhile the native festivals are held here but dimly disguised, and the very fact that no one ever breathes a word of the Great Sky Dreaming Ark, or of the States of the Confederated Tribes just to the southeast, says a whole lot in and of itself.
If you do embark on your next book with New Britain as your subject, at whatever point in its history, I would very much enjoy being an early reader of your draft. Although this may not be practical, owing to the existence of that pesky thing called an ocean between here and there! Anyway, do take care of yourself.
The County of New Cambridge is remarkably level, bounded in the northwest by the Youx-shalni range, the southwest by the River Cartaeser, and the east by the Redhawk Hills and the forests of Labrette’s County. You are familiar already with the spiral rock formations I mentioned, which pockmark the plains and can give rise to toxic updraft of a dizzying array of chemicals (ever unpredictable in their exact mix, from site to site and time to time). The latter formations are composed largely of felsparic sandstone, but also in the region abound mica of a mediocre quality, syenite, quartzite, and at least some limestone.
I say “at least some” because the limestone is subject of some debate – and some very bad handwriting – in the Kingstowne records, on which I have not yet formed an opinion myself.
A strange feature of the region is the manner in which the rock beds nearest the upper crust, on which we walk, tend to undulate most gracefully but always culminating in an angle jutting up eastward toward the horizon. If one could strip away all the vegetation and annoying topsoil that stand in the way, one could see how the land here almost resembles a bed of scales, the bottoms of which all point up off to the east.
By way of explanation for this digression into the business of the world beneath us, I am now in possession of a horse, and consequently deep in the (overdue) throws of writing Kingstowne’s annual report to the Minister of the Districts of the Greater Commonwealth.
I was ill-equipped to go much of anywhere until I acquired Lorenzo, but now that I can, in fact, carry out one of the principal duties of my Office, I am in a mad hurry to survey as much as I am able in order to add new material to this year’s report. While the principal geological features of a region hardly change much from one year to a next, our decades being but sneezes next to an inch’s shifting of granite, there are still other topographical features on which I can report, albeit less interesting. And thankfully there are leftover questions such as the limestone.
Kingstowne’s last report principally consisted of the usual descriptive table, contents last updated in 1926 and reproduced each year by way of confirmation that yes, a human being bothered to copy them out, and yes, the foibles of new formatting demands from the current Minister of the DGC could be humoured. This table had, by way of foreward, a letter from Mr. Inglethorp to the Secretary to said Minister, which said very little about rocks and trees and water levels, but made up for that in spades with snooker and Scotch kilts. I was disappointed to see that Mr. Inglethorp’s handwriting was quite passable, so I cannot blame him for the illegible passages I come upon in the Office.
Anyway, I have enclosed a sketch of Lorenzo, whose temperament is still an unknown, and whose apparent dislike of apples is too obvious to be trusted. I acquired him from Mrs. Brougham’s son-in-law’s cousin, whose ranch runs alongside the O’Shaughnessys’ and who will board Lorenzo until I move house. If I sound ambivalent where I ought to be excited, let us put this down to the fact that at present Lorenzo does not always go where I wish him to, and has therefore exposed me to the laughter of Mr. Ridgetop as well as a few stray ranch hands.
Perhaps I should not complain seeing as Mr. Ridgetop almost looked astonished when, on my first ride out on survey, as he watched from the Office doorway I got into the saddle without mishap. In fact, I am thoroughly competent at getting on and off of a horse, and have only to feel sour at this apparently being such a surprise.
As I was working away in the office yesterday, the unfortunate door was flung open most abruptly, and Mr. Ridgetop – very tardy indeed, in coming back from his lunch break – threw down his hat on his desk and ran out again.
The poor door (I do think it is on its last legs) swung madly on its hinges in his wake. I righted it before I went after him, both because it seemed like the kind thing to do, and because I was deeply apprehensive about what I should find outside.
As I learned after the event, the infamous dreyflies of New Britain are not normally found out on the plains near Kingstowne. They like to lay their eggs in the stills of otherwise free-flowing water, and although very little else is known about them, it is known that if they do appear on the plains it will most likely be in late summer – despite the counter-intuitive dearth of moisture here in said season. The one other thing I learned about them is that their bite, while it releases a substance which could be termed a poison, has fascinated entomologists for many decades because of its extraordinary hallucinogenic effects.
Out on Main Street, in the blinding sun, I peered about and was both relieved and disappointed not to see a scene of chaos as I had imagined. There was indeed a cow within view; it was of the butchering variety, brown and hefty. There was also a general congregating of people, drawn like magnets, and all looking rather grimmer than seemed necessary.
I saw our good Mr. Lorelli, and ducked my head to him; the local smith, whose name was Gibbons, according to my landlady; a middle-aged rancher, who had introduced himself to me one morning on my walk to the Office, and whose name I had forgotten, but who gave off a relative air of well-to-do-ness; there was also the latter’s wife, clutching his arm, and fanning herself into an excited swoon. Meanwhile, the cow plodded along towards us, her lead trailing and her head swaying gently. For a brief interval she picked up her feet to skip (lumber, more like) along, and then she stopped, and looked here and there, and kept plodding.
There were at least a dozen or so other people about, some whose faces I recognized but without names to put to them, and others I did not know at all. As I grew less interested in the cow I became aware that a great many of my fellow human beings present were glancing at me. Almost as if there were something on my face, or as if they expected me, at any moment, to do something.
Another minute or two and I surely would have retreated into the Office, but then with a muffled commotion a man with a great burlap sack in his fist bounded into sight, followed by Ridgetop, with a great lot of rope.
Now the cow took exception – now that she was approached, she became more worthy of that epithet, “rogue”. The poor, dear thing, Kate, had looked so very pleased with itself – floating along as if in a fairy land, seeing who knows what. But upon noticing the two men her feet stomped and I do believe that if she could have growled she would have. Can she be blamed? This is my own reaction when being disturbed from a most enchanting dream.
The well-to-do rancher’s wife gave a little shriek. The cow snorted. Ridgetop threw his lasso and the other fellow ran forward headlong, sack thrust out before him as if he were armed with a crucifix against a devil, a rope of garlic against a vampire. For a moment it was very thrilling.
Then the lasso fell home and the bag was simultaneously thrust over her nose; all fight went out of the cow, and, with a surprised look, she began contentedly chewing at whatever was in that bag.
A cheer rose all around, and being a little too excited to go straight back to my desk, I made my way over to Mr. Lorelli. Here I had his explanation of the dreyflies, one of which had evidently bitten this cow, and throughout his voluminous discourse I was discomfited by the sidelong, almost sly looks that other Kingstownians were throwing me as they dispersed, and by Mr. Lorelli’s own alternating sympathetic looks and stifled chuckles.
I finally had to interrupt him, and ask if I had any ink on my chin.
“Oh, no, Ms. Walker. Right as rain! You must be thinking it strange, this whole dreyfly business. It doesn’t happen too often. But when we do get them roague cows, it was always Mr. Inglethorp rushing out, to go about catching them. Master wrangler, he was. Well, you have a good afternoon, Ms. Walker.”
And isn’t that one of the most unhelpful pieces of information you have ever heard? Better to let me think they were all looking at a pimple of mine, rather than expecting me to leap forth like my cowboy predecessor! I can hardly change the truth, that I have never before wrangled a cow.
At least I was left to my own devices that afternoon, for of course Ridgetop went off with the inebriated cow. In the Office I was able to daydream about secretly practising knots, and throwing, or whatever else is necessary for trussing up unsuspecting animals by their feet or necks, and thereby astonishing all the townsfolk. Only I determined by the end of the afternoon that it all seemed like more bother than it was worth, and I wandered home regretting not having actually done my work.
The latter sentiment, I think, must embody the very essence of being “adult”. What a great number of children we could terrorize, Kate, if we went about disseminating this truth!
Mr. Lorelli has put me on to what may be a perfect solution for my accommodations. There is a contingent of O’Shaughnessys here in Kingstowne, who own a sizeable ranch not a twenty minutes’ walk from the District Office, and who a few years ago built a sort of secondary little cottage on their land to house the young Mr. and Mrs. James O’Shaughnessy, lately married. It seems that Mr. James has decided to go work on the railroads, and once the young family decamps two weeks hence, the little cottage will be empty.
So I have a visit to the O’Shaughnessys in my agenda, and out of prudence I will stay well wide of the subject of fruit punch. I must ingratiate myself if I hope to board a horse with them as well.
Mrs. Brougham, if initially taken aback by my mentioning this idea, has since taken it over as being of her own origination, and has told me that although the cottage is “by no means so nice” as her own rooms, I will “do well enough” there. She has warned me not to buy any furnishings without seeing what is to be had at her church jumble, and not to buy a horse without speaking to her son-in-law.
I have perhaps been remiss in describing the running of the Haverly; there is Mrs. Brougham, and a maid of all work, and a man who comes in from time to time (called Thomas, as I know from how this is wrathfully shouted when he does not complete his tasks to standard), and that is all. I had no notion of my landlady having any family, and was afraid to ask, in fact, lest there have been some sort of terrible tragedy involving fires or floods or bee stings. Instead it turns out that Mr. Brougham died several years ago of a very ordinary pneumonia – apparently he always had weak lungs, or so Mrs. Brougham told me, her manner quite disapproving – and Mrs. Brougham’s daughter and son-in-law live four houses over.
I shall have to speak to this son-in-law soon, for a proposal has come in to open a fresh quarry (the present one being apparently nearly exhausted) and I don’t see how I’ll get up in those hills without a horse. Am I not busy socially, now?
Never mind that attempt at a jest and tell me more about the parties you have been attending. I am starved for the silliness of society.
I saw an inverted rain spout today, at one corner of the general store here in town, which lasted all of two minutes, and had thankfully very little effect, this being a dry climate.
It sounds as though my uncle’s pewter soldier collection may have finally overreached itself – but so it has seemed many times before! And I am sure you know you are contributing to the mischief, in notifying him of such things as thumb-sized steamcannons for sale.
Your research is continuing well, I hope? Do give me plenty of notice ahead of when your book will come out, will you?
It has been some time, I know. At present I am reconciling myself to the need for a horse, extravagant an expense as that seems, and daunting logistically as well – all I, myself, need is a room or two, but think of the land one needs for a horse!
We did have fun though, those years ago at our great-uncle’s farm. A pity Irene never got over her fear of animals any larger than a sheepdog.
So perhaps a horse will be worth all the trouble and expense; if I cannot travel about to conduct surveys, what sort of geographer would I be? And at least I have Mrs. Brougham’s advice in seeking lodgings for myself and an equine companion, now that she has come around to seeing me as some helpless, misguided British girl marooned on her doorstep, and I can hardly resent this when she is offering me seconds of her biscuits. I do tend to run her tidbits of wisdom by Mr. Lorelli at the general store, however, in a covert manner, for a second opinion. At the notion that Old Woman Brown up the road might like a lodger (Mrs. Brougham’s current favourite scheme), Mr. Lorelli was a blur of waving hands, and protestations that a young person should not shut themselves up inside a coffin full of doilies.
And no, Mr. Ridgetop has not improved upon further acquaintance, Kate, though I thank you for your unceasing optimism vis-a-vis my working life. He was singularly unhelpful the other day, in fact.
The matter of the restrictions on well-digging was still bothering me, and I had read as much as I could find, over and over, without enlightenment. I had also posed one or two questions to Mr. Ridgetop on the subject, but he always seemed to answer at cross-purposes.
One never likes looking silly for asking the same sorts of questions a thousand times, especially when the other person is so very nonchalant on the subject, as if it were the simplest thing in the world. But I was fairly boiling with frustration and I finally launched an interrogation without any scruples as to how it would demonstrate my own ignorance.
“But why, Mr. Ridgetop? I understand that no more than one well of a depth of 100 feet or greater can sit on two hundred-and-fifty square acres, and the procedures in place, and the levels of approval necessary, but why?”
“As prudence would say, no more than one well per two-fifty acres.”
“Yes, yes, but why? What is one being prudent of?” And here I had to resist pulling on my hair. “What is the risk present?”
Here he blinked, and said of course it was the risk of toxic updraft in this part of New Britain. And here I opened my mouth, and then shut it, and then opened it again to said that was all very well, for a method had been developed, and tested, to identify such problem areas (I had two classes worth of lectures on the subject in one of my courses in senior year). We should be quite all right with digging more wells if we surveyed the sites properly first. There should therefore be no impediment to amending the rules, as requested innumerable times by innumerable (well no, I admit they are very numerable) ranchers.
I believe Mr. Ridgetop was downright suspicious of me, Kate, and I had some work to do in explaining to him the peculiar spiral rock formations, and porous, rocky soils which characterize known sites of toxic updraft in the new land. In the end, however, he shrugged at me.
“Well you’ll have the County Authority to convince, but that’s as you see fit.”
The trouble being that the County Authority is in Taybridge, some twenty miles away, and I have already learned how unwise it is to walk a mere hour’s distance. Another reason for that horse…
| Heart on Fire |
Thoughts, Stories, Poems
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My Own Paradise: Life on Seven and a Half Acres