Tuesday, 2 September 2014
Short fiction: "Ways to Ruskin"
Ways to Ruskin
Huddled at a railing damp from a heavy dew, Miss Nora Tingley watched river flotsam pass by—bark, branches, entire logs scarred by who knows what, and, no surprise given the season, a smattering of catkins from cottonwood stands bunched along the shores. Once a week perhaps voices rose about the quicksilver shadows beneath, sturgeons that riled men to parry boasts about fishing trials worthy of Jonah.
Soon after she’d boarded at the wharf in Mission City, the grizzled bargeman had removed his cap and approached the gathered ladies (herself and two stout widows, standoffish mill workers of some ilk who muttered sharp Teutonic phrases to one another). Smoothing his hair, he cautioned them: rot had eaten through the weatherbeaten former port rail; the replacement plank might yet be sticky with sap. He didn’t extend the courtesy to the liberal helping of men. Their calloused hands would be sullied soon enough.
Miss Tingley breathed in palpably moist air, a tonic, she believed, despite the bargeman’s toothless mouth. Haze drifts along the water’s surface caught her eye, and she pictured a Fraser Valley rainbow of grey (sullen clouds in heavy banks), brown (a steady expanse of river), and green (vibrant trees above striving brambles). Channeling the impulse to write toward a practical end, she reached into her mother’s gift, a petit point tapestry bag of forest grove deer that gamboled innocently rather than raiding gardens—as in daily life—for strawberries and carrots. With a stubby pencil she jotted in a notebook: “silt,” “incalculable,” “Styx,” “Charon,” “Ophelia,” “muddy death.” A lyrical history lesson for eleven students whose hearts did not beat for verse or fine sentiments, she wondered? Perchance, next winter.
Gaze sweeping from distant southern shore to barge lip (the water level in between as swollen as expected after a uniform winter of deluges) she noted the sodden hem and sighed—experience had taught her that the irksome stitched wool would not dry till midday. She gingerly raised the skirt by a fraction and braced for the influx of brisk morning air.
For this new lesson Miss Tingley’s pupils would have to wait. Today she had bigger fish to fry, as Mrs. Dollar, her neighbour right next door, declared both fondly and often. Straddling the fence between overbearing and bearable, Mrs. Dollar frequently spoke her mind when she wasn’t freely dispensing advice. Miss Tingley sometimes loitered inside when the woman thundered through the packed mud pathways of her sloping back property, headstrong and capable in ways advanced years and a stooped posture belied. She pitied Mrs. Dollar’s husband, whose unmentionables she saw on the line far more frequently than the fellow himself. Apropos of nothing, his wife explained he was resting his eyes as she whittled down the list of chores—chop cedar kindling, dig potatoes, chase broody hens from the coop. Townsfolk made unkind mention of this ghostly man as Mrs. Dollar, a weakling who tippled to ease the pain from a slippery morning’s mill fall during the winter of the Right Honourable Sir John A. Macdonald’s sad passing.
By the day’s close Miss Tingley hoped to broach a delicate topic in Ruskin and feared she’d be waved away once again, her person rendered an irritant, a pest little better than a mosquito. The egalitarian rhetoric of the Canadian Co-operative Society aside, Miss Tingley understood her stature: well beneath the apex of the Society’s great chain of being, itself a simple chain within a larger jumble.
The Whethams, Gilchrists, and Twiggs, esteemed landowners and men of enterprise, shared a provisional link with Mr. Willband, the Society’s president, a contradictory man of ambitious schemes and monastic inclinations in debt to their benevolence. Without the Twigg brothers’ grant of four cleared acres, a field of mud, the Society’s dream of a workers’ paradise named for Mr. John Ruskin would have remained inert, a germ, pages of hopeful notes in a private journal.
Miss Tingley had met Mr. Willband once, a year ago, before she’d even stepped into the classroom; principles, organization, and masculine debate in closed-door rooms evidently fired the waspish Englishman’s imagination. The mewling of a replacement teacher in her middle years failed to altogether. She exhaled in gratitude that an invitation for a subsequent interview hadn’t dawned on him.
The Society’s secretary and indispensable public agent, Mr. Thomas Robinson, possessed a long face whose beseeching quarter-smiles and imploring meditations on the horizon she’d grown to resent. With the dull blue eyes of an Edgar Linton and the fiery pedantry of last summer’s tent preacher down on the river flats (reputedly: she’d not seen this itinerant American up close and relied on Mrs. Dollar’s account, which condemned the evangelical soul as a windbag, a stranger to reserve, and a ridiculous scarecrow flapping in the breeze), Mr. Robinson strutted along paths and bounded through doorways with the zeal of Dr. Livingstone scouring the Nile.
Miss Tingley disapproved of Mrs. Dollar’s inclination to judgement and strove to limit that impulse within herself. Still, the conviction had grown that Mr. Robinson sought her out only because he’d exhausted the goodwill of the Society’s sparse membership. Verbiage came as naturally to the man as breathing. So too did a histrionic fretfulness—not infrequently, he spoke of the poetic sensibility that burdened him—that suggested time spent facing limelights.
Miss Tingley suspected he saw in her apparent appreciation an opportunity for further discourse, perhaps an object for his handiwork. Consequently, when she caught sight of him approaching from the distance she turned for any pupil within eyeshot, or else stopped, stock-still, with the aim of blending, squirrel-like, with the surroundings.
Mornings presented Mr. Robinson at his worst, as though he woke from troubled dreams of Socratic schooling. She’d watched him on occasion as he lingered on the rise, studying the mill grounds but keeping an eye fastened on the river landing, keen to separate the expendable chaff of trudging working men from her, the singular nugget of wheat. After ritual niceties about weather and student progress, he’d wrest control of the conversation; he considered Department of Education business as his own, if only as a gateway to matters of greater value. To her utilitarian bleating about the proximity of the mill’s deafening machines to the schoolhouse—the euphemism they’d agreed upon when referring to a sawdust-littered building anyone would describe as a hovel—he offered Thought.
“Good day, Mr. Robinson,” she’d begin, resisting his efforts with occupational minutia about arithmetic lessons and absentee students and, on occasion, whooping cough, until uttering her refrain—“The children cannot hear, let alone learn”—and gesturing at the placid lakeshore in hopes of inspiring remedial actions.
“Yes, yes,” he’d nod, and then change the subject: “Miss Tingley, I’ve been thinking” or “Last night at the shore of the Stave, Miss Tingley, I had a Thought.” He’d pause, wearily, as if readying himself to unveil the weightiest of secrets.
And until an interruption rushed forward she felt obliged to listen. “Oh, pray tell?”
With each word the man exhaled his titanic reluctance, eternally thirsting for a kind, sympathetic audience. A doubtful explorer and a revolutionary lacking fire, he questioned every decision and his very purpose. He often began his disquisitions with a question: “Do you believe, Miss Tingley, that we are meant to be here?”
She’d learned early on that Mr. Robinson desired no answer.
He’d barge forward on the path, a step or so ahead. “Consider the story of the Tower,” opening the passageway to a favored topic. “Are we not confounded scatterings from Babel, punished for daring to build a tower with a top that reached for the heavens? Is our paradisiacal undertaking”—he’d stop, two large hands gesturing widely to survey the immediate view—“not the selfsame folly on a new continent?”
Counterpoint came from Mr. Darwin, entire passages of whom Mr. Robinson stowed in memory. “And what of natural selection and the favoured races?” With such questions he might peer down at her eyes, momentarily curious, a wizened teacher fathoming the depth of a pupil’s obtuseness. “Mr. Darwin wrote, ‘We can so far take a prophetic glance into futurity to foretell that it will be the common and widely-spread species, belonging to the larger and dominant groups, which will ultimately prevail and procreate new and dominant species.’ Is our little settlement here, then, assuring our own dominance?”
On a few icy January mornings, Miss Tingley worried that her expression of rapt interest might become a permanent feature, the punishment fitting the crime.
Ever the last word, Mr. Ruskin’s voluminous wisdom about civilization and what is good and necessary and ennobling for the souls of all men, proved to be a fertile garden from which Mr. Robinson could pluck a sumptuous feast.
Miss Tingley had seen that a man, as with an infant, tires after lengthy squalling and succumbs to a contented silence. That hypothesis failing with Mr. Robinson, she found any sentence that began with “The children—” granted her the freedom to break free.
Mr. Robinson threw questions as stones into water, expecting no rebound. In turn, she harboured unspoken answers, retorts. For example, no matter how long a man studied their words, stories—Babel, natural selection—contained not one lone truth, only layered possibilities. Comparable to rats swimming from a sinking ship, Hoxton smiths and Dublin maids (and a soldier lovestruck by a waif shelling peas in Covent Garden, the tale told by her own grandparents), who’d been packing trunks and sputtering for generations about their dreams to any passerby whose faced wasn’t snapped closed like a clam, fought only against being extinguished; dominance was a blind happy accident rather than the champion’s silver chalice of victory. As for a community of legislated equality and good souls engineered with clockwork precision by visionaries, Miss Tingley felt no faith in the premise: one could no more make a silk purse from a sow’s ear than a sow’s ear from a silk purse; and a marriage of the pair succeeded only in a monstrous graft, a specious idea transformed into a foolish result, such as a cabbage-cow. It might be accomplished, but why?
Cheery—milky white walls, trim the hue of pine needles—but smelling of stable even when no horses stood in the hold, the Ramona paddled as slowly as a swimmer against strong current. Passage on the sternwheeler cost half that of a train and afforded ticket holders a semblance of leisure, especially on benches at the prow during stretches of fine weather. Better yet, when stepping off Miss Tingley did not feel, as with trains, deafened, queasy, and manhandled, as though she’d tumbled down a long hill inside of a whiskey barrel. She agreed to the CPR on increasingly rare Saturdays when her mother’s eyes twinkled with the suggestion of riding the rails for the afternoon, splurging on a pot of Darjeeling and fancy iced cakes near the Royal City station.
By late afternoon steady cold downpour had turned Ruskin into a swamp of puddles and mud. The gloomy dampness changed pupils into squabbling miscreants puffed with abundant pride at forgetting all but the vestiges of recent lessons. In their guise as dunces Miss Tingley saw a choral accusation: incompetence, incompetence. She’d hurried to the boat landing, rushed up gently bowed boarding planks.
Elbows resting on the flat railing of the open-air promenade deck a flight above the river, she stood safely distant from rainfall and fellow travelers but within view of the blunt-nosed prow. She wanted the panorama and rhythmic current to ease away her cantankerousness before the Ramona docked in Mission.
Poorly this spring and growing blind in plodding worrisome increments, Miss Tingley’s mother spent whole days indoors; and by five o-clock she was particularly avid for news and trivia about the cluster of mills, pupils and their families, the river’s likelihood of flooding, any of the outside world’s concerns.
Miss Tingley believed her mother would reach out to Mrs. Dollar once she felt lonesome enough. In the meantime, as Mrs. George Tingley, formerly Miss Fanny Smithe of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, prepared and served tea, she relished quotidian details of Ruskin, as though they rivaled the palace intrigue of Versailles.
All the while, Miss Tingley knew, her mother waited to pounce: “And what did your Mr. Robinson have to say today?”
The portrait Miss Tingley had sketched for her mother had gradually warped into a caricature, insofar as she gave prominence to the man’s business acumen, social graces, and penetrating intelligence while including not a pinch of his lesser qualities.
The result: Fanny Tingley heard wedding bells, a loose end she’d like tied before, she hinted theatrically, Meeting her Maker.
Miss Tingley had seen that coming from the first half-truth she muttered.
To explain the sparse news and lack of progress, Miss Tingley had taken to “responsibilities for mill business keep Mr. Robinson locked out of sight” and its kin, which etched a deep frown on her mother’s face—one that might have been lifted from the schoolhouse’s youngest pupils.
Mrs. Tingley did not ask about Ephraim Metzger, a man she thought suspicious with his family’s foreign syllables and doubtful because he did not work with his hands, not really.
Ruddy and stocky but nimble, Ephraim worked in a room overlooking the mill’s choked interior, ledger books, pencils, and ink his chosen implements. When this clerk said, “Please call me Ephraim,” Miss Tingley had not inquired about the national origins of his name.
He belonged to the Society and partook in club meetings alongside Mr. Willband and Thomas Robinson, though he possessed a gentler spirit.
A man of true democratic temperament would say, “Do you believe that we are meant to be here?” and wait a proper time for the reply. Miss Tingley had come to have faith that Ephraim represented such a figure, interested not only in her perspectives about setting aside funds for a new schoolhouse but whatever subject struck her fancy.
Miss Tingley stared ahead, indifferent to what species of debris floated by. She’d spoken with Ephraim right after noon in the dripping but protected passageway between the classroom and the mill’s infernal concatenation of saws, belts, and chains. Nodding in sympathy at her concern, Ephraim then expressed—voice raised to compete with clanking machinery—grave doubts about the mill’s prospects, and thereby hers, his, and the Society’s. He mentioned back-to-back dry summers, dropping lake water levels and resulting timber shortages, and financial difficulties rising as the sun.
The crux: composed of nothing more than lines of ink on paper, dream civilizations find success readily in bound volumes; quixotic seasons, unaccountable human nature, and a recondite God join forces to assure the terrible, futile struggle of their nail and timber counterparts.
At the wharf Miss Tingley watched the remaining passengers skirt puddles and scurry then slip on matted grassy mounds, and vowed she’d wait to summon the wherewithal to cross the dismal flats, a flooded plain just four years earlier and a fertile breeding marsh for thick clouds of mosquitos each and every spring that could drive a man to his knees with prayers begging for Arctic gales. After that, a short climb up the stubbled hillside—partially slashed and cleared bushland that would take years to cultivate and, as important, prettify.
She did not have the heart at this instant to chirp brainlessly about mill goings on. Nor would Ephraim’s forecast for the impending termination of her position serve to lighten the house’s sober mood.
Upon her mother’s passing, an eventuality not long in the future, she’d be pecked at by decisions. To bide her time and take up teaching nearby, or bid goodbye to Mrs. Dollar and the snug house where she’d lately resided, settling perhaps in New Westminster, or Victoria? Let out rooms by the week and cook meals for tongue-tied itinerants from Poland and China, pretend an interest in quilting patterns while selling yards of calico cloth at Mrs. Tretheway’s general store? And before then, what? Write to the Department of Education and plead for a position? Raise poultry and sell eggs like Mrs. Dollar, grant her mother one final happiness by securing an acceptable prospect, or lower her sights and flutter her lashes at the bargeman with his house on stilts near the bridge?
Shawl adjusted and bonnet retied, Miss Tingley charted the driest path across the monotone puddles, mud, and rivulets of the flats.
On vexatious mornings Mr. Robinson spoke to her shortly, as though she stood before him an affront, an empty vessel that needed constant filling, or worse, a leaky one, a sieve, from which his wealth of ideas trickled away and seeped uselessly into the ground below. She did not correct his presumption; he was not her pupil and would not care for a clarifying lesson. She let him carry on believing 2 + 2 = 22 because he did not wish to know otherwise.
No stranger to Mr. Ruskin, Miss Tingley thought of the utility of his words as her skin puckered from rain suddenly falling sideways in bracing dollops.
Though Mr. Ruskin had travelled in fine, rarified circles, the man never abandoned common sense. He believed, as he’d reasonably written, that variety is a necessity to the human heart and brain. Less common was his claim that change and monotony have their uses, like darkness and light, “the one incapable of being enjoyed without the other: change being most delightful after some prolongation of monotony, as light appears most brilliant after the eyes have been for some time closed.”
Soon, surely, she would usher in change, open her eyes, and spy an elsewhere.
On the morrow she’d query Ephraim about his future outlooks and suggest that Victoria ought to welcome a man so handy with a pencil, just as it should a woman with hand’s-on knowledge of the stingy ways of the world.