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"WHAN THAT APRILLE WITH his shoures soote," mused Dittany Henbit, spelling out the words in her mind as was her habit and no doubt getting at least one of them wrong as at least a dozen Aprilles had passed since her eighth-grade teacher had made her do that paper on Chaucer. The chief thrust of her argument, as she recalled, was that Chaucer wrote better than he spelled. Miss MacWilliams had sniffily penned, "Too bad you don't," under the undistinguished mark she'd awarded Dittany's effort.
There was no telling what Miss MacWilliams would have had to say about Arethusa Monk, whose latest effusion Dittany ought to have been at home in the shabbiest house on Applewood Avenue typing a final draft of at this precise point in time. Arethusa, who wrote strangely popular paperback novels of the "Ods bodikins, Sir Percy" school, was the best and the worst of clients, depending on whether it was worktime or paytime. Ten minutes ago, realizing that at least a hundred pages of egads and forsooths stood between her and any hope of a check, Dittany had shoved back her chair and headed for the great outdoors.
A person could stand only so much. One more impeccable Mechlin lace frill falling negligently over one more strong, shapely hand taking one more pinch of snuff from one more chased silver snuffbox with one more exquisitely limned ivory miniature of the beauteous but stupid Lady Ermintrude set into the lid, and Dittany would have been driven to od Sir Percy's bodikins once and for all. That was why she was sloshing through the slush and mud with a storm coat buttoned up to her ears, a wool cap on her head, and a quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder.
Very few people in Lobelia Falls went walking without their bows and arrows, not because of hostile tribes but on account of Minerva Oakes's grandmother. Winona Pitcher, as she then was, had been the first young woman from Lobelia Falls ever to attend a Female Academy of Higher Learning. During that era of ruffled corset covers and lawn sports for the gentry, archery had been all the vogue at the Academy, as tending to develop the feminine contours while keeping the ankles discreetly covered. When she returned to marry Mr. Oakes and lead the smart young social set in her home town, Winona had brought her enthusiasm with her and here it had taken root.
Roving, or strolling through the byways of which southern Ontario then had so many more than highways, and shooting at random targets was more fun than plugging away at standing archery butts, so Winona suggested forming a Lady Rovers' Club. Since everybody who cared to join was already a member of the Grub-and-Stake Garden Club, it was simpler to make a slight change in the existing bylaws and name. Husbands and sons snickered at the Grub-and-Stake Gardening and Roving Club but soon realized what they were missing and formed the Male Archers' Target and Game Shooting Association. Before long, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts were holding archery drill at every meeting. By now the sight of a tot barely out of diapers zipping an arrow bang into the gold was by no means uncommon in Lobelia Falls.
Today Dittany had no special intention of shooting. She'd simply picked up her bow and quiver as naturally as she'd put on her boots and mittens. That was the main advantage of being owner, manager, and sole employee of the Henbit Secretarial Service. One not only made a living of sorts, one could also get outdoors and draw a bow at a venture when one was, as Chaucer might have put it, Sir Percy'd yppe to ye eyeballes, although, come to think of it, Chaucer would likely have said so in a more forthrightly Chaucerian manner.
Dittany couldn't imagine what had started her on Chaucer all of a sudden, unless she was subliminally comparing Cat Alley, down which she was walking, to the sort of road over which old Geoffrey's pilgrims would have slogged their loquacious way. Perhaps Cat Alley might look less like the wrong end of nowhere had this been in fact Aprille instead of the last week in March, but Dittany was inclined to think not. She knew the laggards who were supposed to take care of the lane, and a scurvier bunch of knaves even Arethusa Monk would be hard put to invent. Those monsters of depravity on the so-called Highway Department were no doubt too busy shoveling blacktop into the potholes on Rover's Row, where several town officials lived, to have any time or budget left for grading and oiling, much less paving, the route to her own favorite prowling ground.
Thus brooded Dittany Henbit on this lousy morning or afternoon as the case might be. Living alone as she had done since her widowed mother succumbed to the sales talk of a traveling representative in fashion eyewear, Dittany tended to lose track of the time. All she knew for sure was that it was still March and she was sick and tired of it. She was trying to recall something unflattering Chaucer had said about March when Ethel larruped out of the partly thawed swamp and planted a muddy paw on Dittany's best wool and camel-hair slacks, which she should have had sense enough not to wear in the first place because she might have known Ethel would come whoofling along sooner or later.
There was no telling what Chaucer would have said about Ethel. Probably something along the general lines of, "What in Goddes nayme ys thatte?"
Ethel was generally supposed to be part beagle, part bloodhound, part black bear and the rest a mystery although speculation ranged everywhere from badger to brontosaurus. The town clerk, insisting that she wear a dog license on the off chance that she did in fact happen to be a dog, classified her as "mixed breed," which was as close as anybody was apt to get.
Theoretically Ethel belonged to the Binkles, Dittany's neighbors, who'd got her from the dog pound on a charitable impulse they wished they hadn't had. However, they'd striven to do their duty. Henry Binkle had spent several weekends building a super-sized doghouse with stained glass windows. Jane Binkle had locked up chewable objects and tried to interest Ethel in a balanced diet. When it came to exercising her, they were licked before they started.
The Binkles were middle-aged, childless folk who owned a bookshop over at the shopping mall, about ten miles away. After a hard day among the Agatha Christies their notion of a pleasant evening was a leisurely game of chess with Ethel curled up beside them on the hearthrug. Ethel's own proclivities ran more along the lines of "Let us then be up and doing with a heart for any fate."
Ethel and Dittany had been soulmates from the start. On that fateful day when the Binkles brought the animal home from the pound, Dittany had happened to be sitting at the picnic table in her own back yard, eating a ham sandwich. Without waiting to be invited, Ethel had slipped her leash, leaped a five-foot hedge, and whisked the sandwich from Dittany's hand. As the Binkles stood aghast, Dittany had gone inside and made two more sandwiches, one with mustard for herself, one plain for Ethel.
Ethel loved to go roving with Dittany, and Dittany was seldom averse to following where Ethel's adventurous spirit led. It wasn't that Ethel had the better grasp of geography, it was just that both she and Dittany, like that lady friend of the late Mr. Wordsworth, preferred to dwell among th'untrodden ways. Off the beaten path, they were less apt to run into Arethusa Monk wandering along in a bemused state, muttering about Sir Percy and the lovely fathead to whom he was forever plighting his troth but never getting down to the nitty gritty because Arethusa's readers were much too high-minded to tolerate any goings-on.
Unfortunately the writer was never too lost in fantasy to stop Dittany and demand an opinion on whatever scene happened to be coursing through her luridly fecund mind at the moment. Since Dittany's bread and butter depended on her being tactful, evasive, and sometimes downright untruthful, such encounters were seldom fruitful and always upsetting. They only served as a reminder that ere long the Henbit Secretarial Service would be struggling with yet another fistful of illegibility.
Arethusa had a habit of snatching a page out of her typewriter in a frenzy of self-disgust, wadding it up, and chucking it into the wastebasket. There was no reason why she shouldn't, and often a perfectly sound reason why she should. The trouble was that Arethusa was apt to regret her impulse, fish out the wad, and try to press the paper smooth again under whatever weighty tome she was using for historical research; Arethusa's notion of research being to shut her eyes, open the book at random, stick a pin into the page, and insert whatever fact the pin happened to light on willy-nilly into the text.
Neither the pressing nor the pinning contributed much to the coherence of the manuscripts. Arethusa also forgot to number her pages more often than not and let her cat Rudolph, named for her pet villain, sleep in the box where she threw them. As Rudolph was a restless sleeper, the pages tended to get mixed up, clawed, and occasionally chewed. Dittany not only had to retype the ensuing mess, she had to make sense of it first. Only the facts that Arethusa made pots of money, paid lavishly on the dot, and was fun to be with when she could get her mind off Sir Percy made the struggle worth while.
This had been a particularly trying winter. Snowstorms and gales had kept Arethusa housebound, so the snuff and hair powder had piled up at a frightening rate. Dittany had been hard pressed to stay ahead of the fluttering fans, the swelling bosoms and coquettish glances. She particularly didn't want to meet Arethusa today because Arethusa would be sure to ask how she was getting on with the current opus in which Lady Ermintrude was about to become enmeshed in the perfidious toils of an evil baronet, Rudolph being away on vacation. Dittany would then (a) have to confess that she was playing hooky and be called a caitiff knave or possibly even a base varlet or (b) make believe the work was going great guns and then be expected to produce a sheaf of finished typescript she didn't have.
She could always pretend Ethel had eaten it. Ethel probably would, if asked. At the moment, Ethel was cavorting up Cat Alley toward the Enchanted Mountain. Dittany ran after her. Despite the bluster March was trying to get out of its system before April came along and put a damper on its fun, despite the chill and the slop and the fact that her best pair of slacks was probably ruined forever, it felt good to be out here with the wind whipping her nose, no doubt, to a piquant shade of scarlet. Nevertheless, Dittany was glad when they got into the lee of the Enchanted Mountain.
Nobody remembered who had given this not really very impressive lump of glacial detritus its fanciful name, or why. Approximately a century ago, two bachelor brothers named Hunneker, skedaddlers from somewhere down in the States, had decided to return to their native heath, now that the Civil War was well over, and become carpetbaggers. Because they couldn't find a buyer for the real estate they'd acquired during their stay in Canada, they magnanimously deeded it over to the then embryonic town of Lobelia Falls, and because they couldn't think of any use to which it might be put, they had vaguely stated that the land was to be used for the common weal.
Needless to say, the rugged individualists of Lobelia Falls had never achieved a meeting of the minds as to where their common weal lay. As a result, nobody had done anything. Over the past century the Enchanted Mountain had become a refuge for all sorts of growing things that had been developed out of existence elsewhere.
Here could be found the Pointed-Leaved Tick Trefoil (Desmodium glutinosum) along with the showier Desmodium canadense and the naughty Desmodium nudiflorum. Here flourished the demure Silene antirrhina or Sleepy Catchfly, as well as the Heart-leaved Twayblade (Listera cordata). Here also proliferated that unpopular thornless trifoliate Rhus toxicodendron, or Poison Ivy, which was a major reason why the Enchanted Mountain was not a more frequented place, except by Dittany, Ethel, and a few intrepid souls of like enthusiasms.
As Conservation Committee chairman of the Grub-and-Stake Gardening and Roving Club, Dittany had got into the habit of considering the Enchanted Mountain not only her private playground but also her personal responsibility. She was therefore horror-stricken to find the place infested on this unlikely morning by a large man steering a backhoe straight toward the only patch of Spotted Pipsissewa in Lobelia Township.
After one startled, anguished glance, Dittany charged like a tigress into the maw of the oncoming machine. "Get away from that Spotted Pipsissewa!" she shrieked.
The operator looked up in surprise, as well he might, and stalled his motor. However, he immediately tried to start it again so Dittany called up her ultimate weapon.
"Ethel, sick him!"
Ethel hadn't the remotest idea what "Sick him" meant, but she was always glad to make a new acquaintance. Baying in delight, she clambered aboard the backhoe.
The man made the grave mistake of standing up. He proved to be even larger than Dittany had thought, but Ethel was bigger still. She draped her front paws over his shoulders and began licking his face with a tongue the size of a bath mat. He staggered backward, lost his balance, and landed unhurt in the soft mud. Assuming this was the next move in whatever game they'd begun to play, Ethel sat down on his chest and flailed him joyously about the hips and thighs with her powerful tail.
"Call off your whatever-it-is," he gasped.
Under other circumstances Dittany might have obliged, for the man was not uncomely of countenance or much further advanced in years than she. As it was, she hardened her heart.
"She's not mine. Ethel, stay! Don't move until this—this person explains what he's doing up here with that ghastly backhoe. This happens to be town property, in case you don't know, mister."
"And I happen to be a town employee."
With a mighty heave, the operator managed to unseat Ethel, flinging her on her back in the mire and sending her into fresh ecstasies. He got to his feet and began picking last year's oak leaves out of his rather attractive red-brown curls. "I'm here to do percolation tests."
"To see how fast the water drains off," he explained with remarkable forbearance, all things considered.
"I know what a perk test is, thank you. I meant why are you doing them here?"
"Because my boss told me to. Look, ma'am—er, miss, there's nothing to get excited about."
"That's what you think. Get that backhoe off this mountain within twenty seconds or I'll put you under citizens' arrest for vandalism."
"On what grounds, eh?" The man wiped his muddy hand on his shirt, pulled a map out of his pocket, and planted a far from dainty forefinger on a diagram of what was officially known and thereon designated as the Hunneker Land Grant. "We're here, right?"
"Wrong," said Dittany. "I mean we are but you've no business to be."
"You'll have to take that up with Mr. Architrave. He said he'd meet me here, though I haven't seen him yet."
"That figures." Dittany knew Mr. Architrave of old. He'd been around almost as long as the mountain, squat and stubborn and thickheaded, holding on as head of the Water Department by sheer cussedness years after he should have been retired from a position he'd never been capable of filling in the first place. He was always having to hire new men because nobody could stand him long. This must be the latest.
"Anyway," the operator went on, "yesterday afternoon he gave me this plot plan and told me to bring the backhoe up here today and do a perk test wherever you see one of those red dots. And you're standing on one of my dots right now so I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to move, eh?"
"You can ask till your teeth fall out and a fat lot of good it'll do you. Nobody's said anything to me about red dots, and I'm chairman of the Conservation Committee We don't need perk tests up here, we need a few gallons of poison ivy spray and some wood chips to make paths with. Those should come from Mr. Schwunder of the Highway Department. I suppose Schwunder got the bright idea of passing the buck to the Water Department and knew he'd get away with it because Mr. Architrave is solid caramel custard from the neck up, and always was. Please go away. Mr. Whatever-your-name-is. I'm sure that old nincompoop has made another of his bloopers and you could do irreparable damage to some very rare wildflowers if you start messing around up here. Haven't you something else to do?"
Excerpted from The Grub-And-Stakers Move A Mountain by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1981 Alisa Craig. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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