Monday, April 23, 2007

June 13, Night

Our hosts will no longer think they shocked us with the explosion we witnessed this afternoon. My Dear has demonstrated a more spectacular one at supper! Before we went down, she had a devil of a time enlisting one of the Imps to help cinch her into her second-best dress, reassuring her that it was quite alright for her to leave her milk pail and come into our quarters unaccompanied, making her help My Dear pin her hair up, &c. So many instructions were issued on helping a lady into proper formal wear that I nearly learned to do it myself, though of course the whole time I was occupied with my own work: adding together a set of figures to fix the payment term of a contract that the half-literate Withrow had voided for indefiniteness, and composing a new opinion in the matter.

I put on my wig and formal robes and we went down arm in arm to the banquet hall at seven, scandalously late by the standards of the country folk. The welcoming committee all stood drinking from mead-glasses which, to my relief, were clear. The wizened burgomaster was already at his seat at one of those charming long tables made from a tree split in half down the middle, polished a bit and propped up on pegs. His beard brushed the bottom of his soup bowl as he nodded off. A cheerful man who combined the energy of youth with the appearance of middle age approached me and introduced himself as Reuben Riley, the owner and lessor of the glassworks. After a pretense of discussing the weather, he talked to me for a long time about his pastime of alpine hiking, and bragged that his friends often tried to restrain him from going up a mountain after a new snow, but always to no avail. The unblemished beauty of the vista from atop a mountain peak at such a time, he said, was like a presentiment of the peace of Heaven.

"The lynx could teach mankind a thing or two. Or it could teach me something, anyhow," he said at one point. Eventually he told me that he had heard I’d received a petition from the widow.

"Yes. She lives in your home, now?"

"She does. I hope you’ll forgive our poor Pearl if she troubles you. The death of my brother was a blow she never overcame. After she lost the glassworks she wanted to take a room in town to be near it still and I said to her, Pearl, you’ve got to think about your future. There’s no place in town for a woman alone. That’s what _this_ place is for. And it wasn’t only moving in; she wouldn’t eat. Our cook would sit her down with a bowl of soup in front of her and say, I want to see you drink that soup up, Pearl. I’m not going to let you starve yourself. Pearl wants to go on living, but strike me if anytime I looked in the kitchen those first few weeks the cook wasn’t making her eat or looking after her. The two of them became fast friends."

"She joined your household as a servant?" I asked.

"In a way. She’s certainly below stairs, but she remains a part of the family. When she came to the plantation there was the question of what place, exactly, she would occupy. I am a married man...and my household was already established." Riley reddened a little, I think, to recall that I might not share the attitude toward such matters common in the countryside.

Soon the Reverend Withrow invited us all to take our seats around the dozing mayor. As the owners of the two large plantations to the north, Messrs. Riley and Plympton sat next to him with their wives. Then came the aged mine owner Benediction Dalton and his son who is the manager of the mine, the rector at one end of the log-table, the glass-broker, Wheeley, who keeps his office in town, a preoccupied Vincent Kale and his pearlike wife. Last, the Imp maid led my wife and me to our seats at the opposite end of the table from Withrow. I will elide my account of our meal (Plain. Heavy.) and come directly to the end of the evening, when the village luminaries were to honor us with gifts.

According to tradition, the burgomaster gave us the gift of the town seal--a crudely minted coin with a mountain on. He unceremoniously pulled this prize out of his pocket, stood and placed it in my palm, and then muttered "Thank you for coming," as he shuffled his way back to his seat. From the two farmers, the Imps brought in mossberry compote from the Rileys and sweetened mossberry wine from the Plymptons. This seemed an elegant way to squeeze two gifts out of their one crop whose renown extended beyond the valley where it was grown, and it showed that there had been a little coordination between the two in advance of our coming. The miners gave us a fine pair of gilded bronze candlesticks, and Wheeley supplied us with a stitched quilt depicting an apple tree in full bloom with nesting birds. We accepted the quilt with grace, though it seemed to me that there was a little too much of the bedroom about it for perfect decency on such an occasion. Finally all that remained was to receive tribute from the glassworks, and My Dear could not quite contain her eagerness to accept the gift which she had speculated about daily for the last leg of our tour at least. I could see in her rapt posture that it was all she could do to make polite conversation with Dalton the younger while she eyed Kale for some hint as to what was coming. And then a maid emerged from the kitchen bearing a single glass rose, and placed it in her hands. My Dear sat perfectly still, but she could not conceal the flush in her face at this shock! The rose was intricate enough, but it was not even life size. And the green pigment of the stem spilled over into the petals quite imperfectly. How tiny it looked, cupped in a pair of hands that had been ready to embrace bouquets, bushels of glass roses! I nearly coughed up my mead when I discerned the warring passions beneath her cold expression.

"It’s a lovely little thing," she said in an even voice.

"Yes, it’s every bit the match of your factory’s noble reputation," I added hastily. "You honor us. Here, let me hold it."

I took the rose from my wife and made a show of admiring it. It really was quite beautiful. It was translucent, but even in that dim banquet hall it seemed to glow with inner light. Each of its multifarious petals had its own pattern of blended oranges and reds, like crystallized fire. But it was the self-satisfied smile with which Kale watched me admire his gift, I believe, that finally called down the furies upon him.

"We shall have to find some kind of special vase for it, won’t we, darling?" she said. "I suppose any of our ordinary ones would swallow it up like a crocodile."

There was an uncomfortable silence, through which my wife positively beamed. There was no logic to my wife’s transports of vengeance, but I knew that it was useless to try to stop them. Her outburst was visibly very satisfying to her.

"An economical sort of gift," she went on with the merest veneer of innocence in her voice. "I’m sure it’s very practical to be conservative with your glass given the state the factory is in. Who knows if you’ll be able to repair the damage, or work the furnace reliably ever again?"

Wheeley the glass-broker pricked up his ears and said "Trouble at the factory? I’ve heard nothing." Riley looked disconcerted as well.

Kale waved down Wheeley’s concern. "It’s hardly anything. The furnace will fire tomorrow, or, in the worst case, the men will work double shifts the day after. The factory’s obligations are well in hand."

"You undertook to notify me of any more trouble," said Wheeley. The formal setting and his many uncomfortable observers had plainly receded from his awareness, leaving only him and Kale alone.

"And I will tell you everything, but in private," Kale begged. Then our entire company sat for the count of ten in complete silence.

"Fine, then, why don’t we adjourn?" Withrow said. He beckoned to the Imps to clear our dishes.

"I’ll just take my pretty little flower," My Dear said, and mock-admonished a mortified Imp, "Don’t go mistaking it for a caviar spoon!"

At that, Kale and the rector jumped to their feet and left without a word, with Wheeley in their wake. I remained to send off the others as graciously as possible. When I was on my way back to our quarters, Withrow buttonholed me in the corridor and told me that a new chamber had been made ready for me, because it would not be suitable for "a man and woman of passionate disposition" to lie together in the Lord’s house. Naturally I recognized this new rule as nonsense concocted for petty revenge, but I could not remain long in my station in life if I failed to observe the Lord’s more whimsical commands at least as diligently as the rest. And so I find myself this evening in a musty, windowless cell, separated from my wife by locked doors and the courtyard where the watchman prowls, with only my Diary for company.

But I observed one other thing. As Withrow lighted our way down the narrow hallway, the fingers of his right hand, which he liked to keep in the folds of his cloak by his side, remained fixed in the same position I had seen them in when he fled from the overflowing molten glass. The bones of his hand were fused in place. I do believe that even the ascetic Reverend Withrow has drunk too deeply from the luxurious goblets of Lemoine. How must it have appeared to his eyes when the substance of his hidden shame erupted from the widow’s furnace? The glowing hand of his old vice, belched forth to drag him down to Hell!


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