Is there any invention more cruel than the doctrine of Divine Predestination? If we believe it, we cannot pity the unfortunate, because their misfortunes are God-given. Stigmata for some concealed sin, perhaps, or the proof of an inherently corrupt nature. To be sure, it is an efficient method for bleeding out the malcontents whose inclusion might disrupt the harmony of the brotherhood of faith. But it demands its price according to a terrible ledger-book. It makes God like the banker who lends only to the stable, and calls in the debts of the insolvent.
Such thoughts color my recollection of my wife’s scheming in the carriage this morning. After all, we two are outcasts of a sort, exiled to the provinces to ride circuit among the country folk rather than taking our place among the tumult and glory of the capital, where the nation’s bright lights make their careers. We approach the end of this year’s tour, and My Dear is desperate to find some way for us to curry favor with the Lady Dodge (and thereby with her husband the great jurist Sir Dodge) before the end of the season. I myself am no great socialite, but I have promised to devote my utmost attention to this year’s engagements. No doubt our very state of grace may depend on the most casual remark, on the slightest gesture.
Our best hope is to obtain some trinkets from the glassworks in the valley where I’ll next hold court, which was greatly celebrated until recently, when symptoms of idiocy and bone-melt arose in the noble families that drank most often from its famous "rose glass" goblets. After the panic, the glassworks reopened to produce decorative objects such as sculpted glass flowers, but its wares have been scarcely seen in the capital lately. My Dear predicts a resurgence and believes that with a timely gift of rose glass, we can set the Lady Dodge so far ahead of the fashion that the fashion will seem to have followed her. She expounded all this to me while eating smoked jujubes out of a sack that we were given in the last town, handing me the pits to toss out the window (she always sits in the exact center of a carriage-bench, to minimize jostling).
Not so long ago I hoped that My Dear would not join me on this year’s circuit, but would remain in the Old Retrocession to make a home for us and bear our first child. Then the time came for me to leave and she was still not expecting, so along she came once again. The journey would have been very different without her. It would not have been ethical for me to accept the gift of a racing foal from the murderer’s wife in Addis, had my wife not been there to do so for me. Nor would I have even dreamed of buying the land on the Duck River to develop irrigation canals, had My Dear not pointed it out to me and set me about it. We both continue to wish for the blessing of a child, but with the chaos of travel and the dust of the road, lately we’ve found it hard to arrange a quiet moment together.
The country here is pine forest, and the weather is still brisk even at this time of year. We rode alongside soil-clogged creeks that flow down from hills which are strip-mined above the tree line, often with squared-off segments carved out of them as if their natural shapes had been invaded and displaced by geometric solids from the Platonic world of forms. The glassworks, and the town that supports it, are nestled into the base of one of these hills. As usual, My Dear and I are to reside in guest rooms within the parish church of the rector whose rulings are appealable to me. It has been nearly three years since I last held court in Lemoine Valley. My Dear has made me promise to work quickly.
We came to an agreement with the driver that he could stop at the post office and carry in the mail, so long as he inquired whether any message was waiting there for us from another direction. That was how my wife and I came to be sitting unattended in a tethered carriage on a close, shadowy street so muddy that escape on foot, for a decent person, was impossible. A servant woman with an upturned, rooting sort of nose and grey-streaked hair like straw pulled back in a bonnet walked right up to the window of our carriage and accosted us. She asked if I was Judge Cushing, and I admitted that I was.
"I have a petition for an appeal," she said, and waved at me a few wrinkled scraps of paper.
"That," I answered, "can only come to me through official channels."
"It has been, and its duplicate awaits you now in the church house, only my brother-in-law and the Reverend Withrow will have agreed between themselves that you needn’t be bothered by it and removed it from the docket. Nonetheless, it’s a valid claim brought on my own account, not theirs."
"You witnessed these two tampering with the motions?"
"They will have," she repeated. "It’s in the matter of the glassworks. As to whether I own it."
"Is that why the glass shipments stopped?" My Dear asked avidly. "The factory was in a lawsuit?"
The canny old crow simply held out the petition for me to read. Under the will of both women, I had to take it. At that moment our driver returned and shouldered the old servant aside to give us a letter with news from one of My Dear’s young allies in the capital: Lady Dodge had taken up croquet.
My Dear is an excellent person with whom to witness the spectacular. I do not mean only that she has a sense of awe. Awe is nothing but sensations overwhelming the senses, like wine overflowing a bowl. I mean also to say that My Dear is a very deep bowl: observant, discerning, appreciative. But resultantly, when we are together in some ordinary situation, I sometimes feel that certain faculties of her mind go unused, and in my greed to experience the pleasure of her company as fully as possible, I often wish that I could sequester her from the mundane.
The Reverend Withrow’s church is a rambling arc of rotted, shambling brick and lumber with chapel, parsonage, meeting house, guest house, dormitories, a few rugged fenced-in vegetable gardens and pens for pigs, chickens and goats, all of it tended by a troop of ragged, skittish women who were the legal Wards of the church and the town. Having no other cloister or avenue of retreat available to them, these women were committed for some combination of poverty, age, ill-repute, prostitution, adultery, bastardy, widowhood, spinsterhood, asociality, criminality and lunacy. Their faces, for the most part, are ill-favored and undernourished. Some have loathsome diseases. Yet they are needed here: in their way, they serve as the Imps and demons that complete their church’s rustic cosmology. It is an image without grandeur, maintained for the edification of the simple. My Dear and I aspire to a higher vision. A great jewel, one might say, of which a gaudy old woman swatting at croquet-balls is but a single, gleaming aspect.
Upon alighting I introduced My Dear and the Reverend Withrow, although I must admit that I recalled him but vaguely from my last visit, as a man with unusually poor conversational timing (in joining discussions, making interjections, laughing at jokes, et cetera). Soon enough the driver carried up our trunks and My Dear and I retired to our quarters. Among the papers reserved for my perusal, the petition regarding ownership of the glassworks was, as forewarned, missing, and the records referring to its existence amateurishly altered.
- ▼ 2007 (10)