Certain heavenly bureaucrats
Could have told the tale
Eons of analysis (note: pleading)
And single-sided briefing notes
Convincing the gods that this,
This was what they wanted;
A least-bad option for
The creation of All
Certain heavenly bureaucrats
Could have told the tale
Eons of analysis (note: pleading)
And single-sided briefing notes
Convincing the gods that this,
This was what they wanted;
A least-bad option for
The creation of All
This missive, written so close upon the heels of the last, is a function of the limitations of the human body. Although events were still very much in motion after my impromptu run to the post office, my pen-hand was exhausted and I was burning the midnight oil, so to speak – not midnight to be exact, but even ten o’clock is a late hour the night after one has had much too much to drink.
May I just say your plans for a new window-box herb garden sound wonderful? So calm and soothing. I daresay I ought to build one as well.
When I returned home from the post office, at more regular pace and having smoothed my hair the best I could (although I still looked a fright, I saw in the looking-glass as I got back), I was dismayed to find Mr. Ridegtop still there. Mostly stone-faced, but also slightly bemused, he was sitting at my kitchen table. In my favourite chair. I do admit that I have only two chairs, and one very rickety indeed, but I still felt obscurely infringed upon. Not to mention that my dearest wish at the moment was to wash up and change my clothes.
He began by asking me what was the matter, whether there had been some emergency. I told him no, there was nothing. Perfectly lovely morning (in fact, it was the afternoon, and I dearly desired solitude so I could shudder over what I could remember of that letter I’d written). He asked whether this was a convenient time to discuss my findings. I lied that yes, of course it was.
Mr. Ridgetop did his infamous raised eyebrows, as if I needed anything more to regret undertaking that conversation at that particular moment, and I stubbornly pressed on, asking if he would like some tea.
I had the sense from his response, albeit in the affirmative, that Mr. Ridgetop is not a tea-drinker. But he did seem all too apt an observer as I flailed about with my aching and wobbly head, struggling with the new stove and generally making a farce of the tea-brewing process, whilst simultaneously trying to hide my dirty dishes.
It was likely a relief to us both when I sat down, the teapot and two cups on the table. My discourse then was neither as orderly nor as convincing as I had planned, for I had forgotten all the fine wording that I had put into my report thus far. Perhaps in an effort to reacquire the knowledge by visual osmosis, my eyes kept straying to the bookshelf where I had last stuffed my papers in order to clear the table – to the point that Mr. Ridgetop asked me if there were something on his shoulder. However, I managed to communicate the main ideas, and I told Mr. Ridgetop that I had intended to raise both the development of the limestone deposits and the well-drilling regulations with the County Authority. As for the potash, I was not sure if there were sufficient local demand by crop farmers to warrant investment at the moment.
Mr. Ridgetop, who had been quiet during this time and had hardly drunk half his tea (in the meantime I had polished off most of the pot), finally spoke up.
“You have been busier than I knew, Ms. Walker. Afraid I’m not sure of the uses of this potash stuff, but when it comes to matters like a limestone quarry, and the number of wells we can drill hereabouts, I’m afraid there might be a spot of difficulty with the County. They’re apt to allow folks to raise only one issue per township at a time.”
“Do you mean I could not, after all, bring both matters before them at once? That seems rather inefficient, if I should have to go back a month later or some-such.”
“Well. More like a year later, Ms. Walker.”
“A whole year?” I was flabbergasted.
“Seems they feel they have more than enough business to deal with, and when it comes to major items like changes to County regulations, or development permits, as of a few years back the Councillors decided to limit deliberations to only one issue per township per year. Supposed to be fair for all. It’s an informal rule; you can submit as many things as you like for their consideration, only they won’t actually look at more than one.”
It was a sorry end to the airing of all my great ideas, Kate. I did not have much to say in the face of this bureaucratic reality. Mr. Ridgetop took his leave after I informed him, with a growling stomach, still-messy hair, and as much dignity as I could muster, that I would continue to work from my cabin that day, but that I would be back in the Office on Monday.
I am almost sorry to find him a more reasonable human being that I first thought. Makes me look very silly, I think. But I should not be choosy when I have gone and offended all the cattle ranchers around Kingstowne.
With all my love,
P.S. Hardly got any work done during the remainder of the day, with my rotten head and that letter to Edward hanging over me like the sword of Damocles. I feel positively sick.
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.
You ask whether my lot has improved since that dinner at the Thurstons. I am afraid it has only gotten worse.
I dropped your previous letter in the post-office box on Monday morning, and Miss Thurston and Miss Dell came to the Office on Monday afternoon. Ostensibly for tea, each with a picnic basket under her arm, but we all three knew why they were really there. Veritable steel under their smiles.
Blessedly, Mr. Ridgetop stepped out partway through this torturous interval. Miss Dell, with her dark eyes very large and serious, relieved Miss Thurston in taking the offensive, but when the same arguments did not produce the effect she desired, she disarmed me by asking whether or not I was happy in Kingstowne.
My uncertainty plainly showed, although I answered in the positive. Miss Dell tossed her head, and said that I should not be happy unless I determined to like the place instead of looking down upon it – that she saw in me a person determined always to be reserved and unsatisfied – and that I could begin doing better, by having more care for my acquaintances. Otherwise, I had no real business staying, and should do better giving the Office up to someone else.
With that assault they left, taking the last of the crumpets with them.
I believe I was still in shock, Kate, when Mr. Ridgetop returned on the heels of the ladies’ departure. When he asked me what “that” had been all about, words slipped out rather in spite of me. I told him that I had the prospect of going to the County Authority in Taybridge the very next day, in order to argue in favour of digging more wells. I had intended to wait until I could bring other development projects as well – but it seemed people thought that unwise – although I had also intended to prepare myself better, in general… I said a number of things, all of them confused.
Mr. Ridgetop just looked at me, and finally said, “I suppose its no surprise, with all the dances and teas those ranchers have been giving you.”
Perhaps a ten second delay, it was, before I took his meaning and felt myself go red from tip to toe. It was most unjust – I had not even decided to go – and even if I were to go, why should he insinuate such a thing?
I turned around, back to my desk, and I heard Mr. Ridgetop sit down as well, and his pen began scratching away. But I could not read a single word. I took a handful of papers at random and now I am home, with the cabin door barred although it is broad daylight, still unable to read and mostly just dreaming of other ways I could block out the world.
P.S. I have been through my accounts and I have enough to buy my passage back to England and return with some savings to show for myself. But England means Edward, and Edward has not written. How small I am, Kate, and yet I have something humiliating awaiting me on two separate landmasses.
My dear cousin,
Raised as we both were by fathers who disapproved of every ha-penny spent on a cut of meat too fine, every extra log thrown on the fire when the barethermeter was already at 1.014-and-nineteen – in short, every luxury that a great many people of middling comfort would deem in fact a necessity of life – surely you must know that feeling of great exultation in the vicinity of one’s wallet when one has, serendipitously, avoided a significant expense.
No longer at The Haverly, it is my own responsibility to launder my things now, and I chose to do so on Sundays, when I am not at all at the Office. And lucky I was to happen to go home for lunch on Saturday, and to see Mrs. O’Shaughnessey, at about one o’clock in the afternoon, catapult herself out of the big farmhouse towards her laundry line, a veritable Fury, and begin stuffing everything back into her basket. Taking a good look around, I thought I saw a similar commotion through the hedgerow, at the Price’s farmhouse just south.
There was something a little too embarrassing about stopping to ask my new landlady about such odd behaviour, particularly with her husband and children’s underwear in hand. So on my way back to the Office I popped in to the General Store to buy a peppermint, and to ask, just as I happened to be there, whether Mr. Lorelli knew anything about it.
As it happens, the afternoon sun in New Britain has an especial enmity for clothing, and is liable to bleach or discolour a good neckcloth in a matter of hours (bed linens and tablecloths, apparently, go unscathed). I had been living in blissful ignorance of this, but ever since I have been alive to the 1pm rush of housewives on sunny days.
So on Sunday morning I washed and hung my things out behind the cabin, where they are somewhat out of sight, and once I heard the whistle up at the main house, and Mrs. O’Shaughnessey’s swearing (for she is rather short for her laundry line), I also ran out to get my clothes. Thus were my garments preserved from a menace I should never have imagined, and I shall take similarly good care of my new dresses – what a horror, should one of those be ruined! It would amount to burning pound notes.
The whistle up at Mrs. O’Shaughenesseys’, by the way, is a little device every Kingstownian housewife seems to have hanging in a kitchen or parlour window. I cannot recall the name of the chemical, but a jar filled with this substance, once hit by the sun, will let off an excess of gas; when the sun is strong enough, this gas trickles through esoterically curved little pipes and screams out. This –
I had left off, Kate, thinking to finish this letter later, but I have quite forgot whatever I meant to write about the sun or the laundry or the whistling jar.
Sunday evening was a big dinner up at the Thurstons’. The Coopers were there, and no sooner had I sat down to the table then Mr. Cooper – who was on my left – told me he was up to Taybridge on Tuesday, and should be very happy to take me.
Now I had already a number of things planned for the week, including another ride out to the Marlin Plateau, besides not being at all prepared for a meeting of the County Authority. To be frank, I have not even established what I should need to bring before the Councillors. I smoothed out my napkin on my knees and thanked Mr. Cooper but said I should not be ready, and there were other matters I ought to study first before making the journey.
My napkin was nice and smooth and perhaps I imagined this but it seemed quiet in the dining room. I looked up, and had the eerie sense that people were turning back to their conversation partners just a moment before I set eyes on them again, whilst Miss Thurston, across from me, was unmistakably frowning.
Mr. Cooper pressed me on the matter of Taybridge, Kate, there is no other way to describe it. He expounded upon the great importance of the wells, and the comfort of his carriage, and told me I should be doing the town a deal of good. What else, he asked, should I need to study about the matter?
I declare I hardly tasted the soup, I was so uncomfortable. I offered up some nonsense about wishing to be well prepared to make my case, and then, for good measure, that I wished to present additional matters for their consideration when I did make the journey, such as the development of Kingstowne’s mineral assets.
The tone conveyed something between dismissal and disappointment, and many eyes were unmistakably on me at that point. Miss Thurston, frown gone, swooped in with a call for anecdotes from the latest dance, and the conversation turned; but with the icy silence of Mr. Cooper to one side, the simple pleasantries of Mr. Harlowe to my right were no panacea against my pleading a headache before dessert, and retiring.
However, Miss Thurston found me in the hall on my way out. And there she plainly told me that it should be unkind of me not to go up to Taybridge with Mr. Cooper, when he had taken such pains to arrange things for me; that everyone thought it a very good idea; that they had all considered me a friend, since my coming her; and that surely I must be interested in the livelihoods of one’s friends.
I do not know what I answered, Kate. I left feeling that I was not Georgia to any of them, but a mouth to the ear of the County Authority, and the government across the sea.
I wonder that I was calling any of these young ladies my friends.
Missing you greatly,
My dearest Kate,
If you say I am being silly calling myself an old maid then I must believe you, and thank you, and send you my love as best I am able with this sorry excuse for a pen. I declare I have to sharpen it every letter.
Some boundary troubles emerged between two farmers last week, but I am happy to say that I could leave the matter to Mr. Ridgetop, so that I could continue with my map of what I have decided to call the Marlin Plateau. Therein lies the limestone, and I am drawing it most delightfully if I do say so myself, and there will be an accompanying report. It shall take a great deal of time I think, and I shall have to ride out innumerable times more. Which is all for the good, because I do believe Lorenzo enjoys the exercise, however little he wishes to let on.
Mr. Ridgetop has not asked what I am working on, and I have not nerved myself to mention the redoubled irregularity of his office hours. It is quiet as a library in this dusty Office.
I was summoned to the Haverly at lunchtime today to recover two items I had forgotten – my hairbrush, and trade paperback romance that I do wish had not come to Mrs. Brougham’s notice. I was also subject to a barrage of inquiries, and told a great many lies about how I am settled in the cabin.
“That so? Good enough, then. And I imagine now you’re due for tea with the Thurstons or the Dells (I was not – I was going back to work!). Fine folk.”
And she looked at me with a piercing eye, as if to say that I did not look the part. But in fact, at the young ladies’ behest I have ordered three dresses, Kate, a near-intolerable expense, and I laid up the entire night afterwards unable to sleep. I am hoping I will feel less awful about it once the dresses are actually made.
So I am still going out in my usual attire. And there has been another dance, too, only I did not write to you about it, for somehow nothing really occurred there. I seem to be smiling more and more without knowing quite why everyone else is smiling.
Anyway, a day or two after Mrs. Brougham’s remark I was in fact taking tea with the Thurstons and the Coopers, parents and daughters all, and one unruly six-year old son who had Mrs. Cooper most distracted. There was a very languid, pleasant sort of conversation going on about the summer heat, and the cows that sometimes get sunstruck. And Mr. Cooper mentioned that “it should all be much easier, if only the well weren’t so far.”
There I perked up, Kate, for I felt as though I actually had a chance to speak about something real. I asked Mr. Cooper if he were constrained by the restrictions on well-digging, and when he naturally said that was the case, I told the assembled party that I might try the County Authority when I had the chance, and see if I could change the rule.
“Change it, Miss Walker?” Mrs. Thurston asked. “You don’t say.”
She sounded doubtful, and I very nearly took off, a whole speech unrolling my head about the iniquities of the present system, its basis in outdated science, etc. etc. But I didn’t get further than four syllables before Mr. Thurston clapped his knee.
“Right-o, jolly good! Always said we ought to be able to have more wells drilled so we can water our cattle, eh, Cooper?”
“Why, that sounds fine, Miss Walker. When can I give you a lift up to Taybridge? Only say the word.”
“Oh dear,” Miss Cooper turned to me, “only it is such a long road, and I am afraid our carriage is hardly sprung like it used to me. You must wait for mama and I to badger papa into buying the new one.”
“The new one?” Mr. Cooper guffawed. “You talk as if it were already a done thing, pet!”
In such a way nothing was said about the advancement of human knowledge, the unique features of the land beneath our feet, or the status of the aquifer. We passed into a thorough discussion of carriage upholstery, and I sat there, as agreeable as any other piece of furniture in the room, eating more than my share of the biscuits.
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.
| Heart on Fire |
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My Own Paradise: Life on Seven and a Half Acres