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The Last CrossingA Novel
By Guy Vanderhaeghe
Grove Atlantic, Inc.Copyright © 2002 G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCHARLES GAUNT I let myself into the house, stand looking up the stairs, turn, go into the study, pour a whisky and soda. Today's mail is waiting, envelopes on a salver. My man, Harding, has laid a fire, but I don't trouble to light it. I leave my ulster on, stand sipping from the tumbler with a gloved hand, staring at the day's letters.
I know what they are. Invitations. Invitations for a weekend in the country. Invitations to dine. More invitations than I am accustomed to receiving. Now people court me. Queer old Charlie Gaunt has become a minor, middle-aged bachelor celebrity. Even Richards and Merton, long-time acquaintances with whom I dined tonight in the Athenaeum, did not allow my new eminence to pass unremarked. For years, I was never anyone's first choice as a portrait painter, never admitted as a full member of the Royal Academy, only very lately handed the privilege of sporting the initials a.r.a. after my name. Merely an Associate. Tardy laurels finally pressed upon an indifferent brow.
The highest praise ever bestowed by my fellow artists was to say I ought to have been a history painter, my rendering of marble in oil paint was as exquisite as Alma-Tadema's. Cosgrave, with a picturedealer's disdain for the truth, once described me to a dewlapped matron as a "court painter." By that he meant I had doodled up a portrait of a demented claimant to the throne of Spain (of which there are legion), a sallow-complexioned fellow who sat in my studio morosely munching walnuts and strewing the floor with their shells. I cannot recall his name, only that he wore a wig, but never the same wig twice. This led to an indistinct element to the portrayal of His Catholic Majesty's coiffure which mightily displeased him.
But now, the mountain comes to Mohammed. Artistic success won in an unexpected quarter. The dry old stick Charlie Gaunt publishes a volume of verse. Love poems, no less. For months, much of London society has been mildly engrossed in tea-time speculation about the identity of the lady of whom I wrote. A small assist to sales. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Times was laudatory and the Edinburgh Review kind in a niggling, parsimonious Scottish way.
Yesterday, I ran into Machar, the Glasgow refugee, outside Piccadilly Station. He was arch, and I was short with him.
"We hadn't guessed, Gaunt," he cooed. "I mean the book - that's a side of you we hadn't suspected."
I challenged him. "You've read it, have you?"
"Haven't had time to read it yet. But I bought it."
He was lying. If he had it at all, it was borrowed from a lending library. "Well," I said, brandishing my stick to hail a passing cab, "then you don't know what you're talking about, do you, Machar?" I showed him my coattails, spun off without another word.
One of the envelopes on the tray attracts my eye, addressed by an unfamiliar hand and bearing a Canadian stamp. Inside, I discover a newspaper clipping already a month old.
The Macleod Gazette July 17, 1896
JERRY POTTS DEAD
AN HISTORICAL LANDMARK GONE
Jerry Potts is dead. Through the whole North West, in many parts of eastern Canada, and in England itself, this announcement will excite sorrow, in many cases sympathy, and in all, interest. Jerry was a type, and a type that is fast disappearing. A half-breed, with all that name implies, he had the proud distinction of being a very potent factor in the discovery (if it might be so called) and settlement of the western part of the North West Territories. When Colonels French and Macleod left their worried, and almost helpless column at Sweet Grass in '74, after a march of 900 miles and a vain search for the much vaunted "Whoop-Up" it was the veriative accident of fortune that in Benton they found Jerry Potts ...
My eyes skim the remainder of the obituary, settle on the last paragraph.
Jerry Potts is dead, but his name lives, and will live. His memory will long be green in the hearts of those who knew him best, and "faithful and true" is the character he leaves behind him - the best monument of a valuable life.
The indestructible Potts dead. The news excites a pang of melancholy despite the fact that I have not laid eyes on him for a quarter-century. Yes, faithful and true he certainly was. And now, apparently famous too, after a fashion. Jerry Potts, how unlikely a candidate for renown.
Wondering who could have sent me such a notice, I peek into the envelope and dislodge a small piece of notepaper, a few words scrawled on it in pencil. There is something you must know. I can only tell it to you in person. I beg you to come soon. Signed, Custis Straw.
The shock of the name turns me to the window. In the square below, street lamps are shedding an eerie jade light which trembles in the weft of the fog.
It seems I am asked to perform at another's bidding, just as I did more than two decades ago when my father set my feet on the Pasha, 1,790 tons of iron steamship breaching the Irish Sea, bound for New York.
Twilight, the ship trailing scarves of mist, the air wet on my face. Standing at the stern, damp railing gripped in my gloves, sniffing the fishy salt of the ocean, gazing back to the blurred lights of the river traffic plying the mouth of the Mersey.
The land slowly vanishing from sight, retiring at ten knots per hour, as the screw boiled water and I stood, one hand clamped to my top hat to hold it in place, and peered down. Alone. The other passengers had gone to dress for dinner. The propeller frothed the water, beat it white, the ship's wake a metalled road pointing back to England. The breeze freshened, the skirts of my frock coat fluttered. Sailors cried out, preparing to raise auxiliary sail. Chop clapped the sides of the vessel, pale veins of turbulence in the dark granite sea. A first glimpse of stars, their salmon-pink coronas.
Deferential footsteps behind me, a smiling steward had come to announce dinner was served. I shook my head, "Thank you, I shall not dine tonight." The puzzled steward's face. Thirty guineas passage, meals, wine included, and the gentleman does not wish to dine tonight?
Not when I preferred to gaze upon what I was leaving, to recall those figures in the Ford Madox Brown painting, The Last of England. A young couple in the stern of a boat, holding hands, faces sombre, the white cliffs of Dover sentimental in the distance, the ties of the woman's bonnet whipping in the wind. A lady flying from England just as Simon, my twin brother, had fled it.
Beneath my feet, the deck of the Pasha lurched, grew more and more tipsy with every minute that passed. Yet that unsteadiness was nothing to how unbalanced I feel now, staring down into Grosvenor Square, wondering what has prompted Custis Straw's blunt and peremptory summons, what it means.
Chapter TwoOut of the black inkwell of the night sky, incongruously, a white flood poured. Fat flakes of lazy snow eddying, sticking like wet feathers to whatever they touched. Simon Gaunt, waking with a start, discovered himself seated on an inert horse, becalmed in a storm. For the briefest of moments, mind a blur of white, he searched for a name. Seized it. "Reverend Witherspoon!" he shouted. "Reverend!"
Nothing answered, nothing moved except for the palsied snow.
Since dawn, Witherspoon had been driving them to the brink of collapse. In London, Simon Gaunt had not recognized the danger of that side of Witherspoon, the reliance on iron rules. Cited like Holy Scripture. When journeying one must never halt until wood and shelter are obtained.
But here, on a barren tabletop plain, wood and shelter were a figment of the imagination.
Press on, my boy.
As the October dusk drew down, Simon had argued desperately for making camp. But Witherspoon would not hear of it; the imposing face that ecstatic love could render soft as soap in London was now cast as hard as an Old Testament prophet's certainty. We shall not yield to adversity.
So on they went, deeper and deeper into bewildering nightfall, Witherspoon flogging his mare until he opened a safe ten yards, a cordon sanitaire between himself and the weak-kneed naysayer. Ten yards to symbolize the moral gulf separating master and disciple.
The last thing Simon could remember before falling asleep was the Reverend's broad shoulders rocking side to side like a wagging forefinger, reproving his feebleness, admonishing his sloth.
How long had he slept?
"Reverend Witherspoon! Reverend Witherspoon!" The snow drowned his cry. Knowingly or unknowingly, Witherspoon had ridden on and Simon was alone. A cold clinker of fear settled in the grate of his belly. Lost. He lashed his horse into a trot; the gelding submitted for a hundred reluctant yards, then faltered, came to a complete standstill.
How dreadfully cold it was. A breeze sprang to sudden life and his cheeks, wet with melting snow, stiffened at the icy touch. The wind panted, flakes swirled, thickened. Twisting in his saddle, Simon strained for a glimpse of Witherspoon hastening to gather the lost lamb, some darker blot in the darkness of night. The blizzard was strengthening, slapping at horse and rider; he could feel the gelding's mane fluttering against his hands clamped to the reins.
Bouncing his heels on the gelding's ribs, he urged it to resume an unwilling shamble. The gusts were growing fiercer, snow was biting at his face like flying sand. He ducked his head and watched the drifts unroll beneath him, a white scroll of vellum, luminous in the dim light.
The scroll stopped. His hat sailed off. Dismounting, Simon rifled the saddlebag, found his old Oxford scarf, bandaged his burning ears with it, knotted it under his chin. Wind keened through the weave of the wool. Never had he known such cold; it drew heat out of the body like a leech draws blood. Forehead, eyes, cheeks ached from the frigid, sucking mouth.
Weariness overwhelmed him, dropped his forehead heavily against the horse's flank. He let it rest there. Just a minute. Only a minute. Then he would move. Go on. The gelding's rump was crusted with ice and snow, so was Simon's beard. Raking his fingers through it, he plucked away clots of ice, trying to pray. "Lord God of Hosts," he began, but his thoughts were lost in the roar of the storm, brain nothing but a puddle of numb slush. Falling back on memory, he recited from the Book of Common Prayer. "'O most glorious and gracious Lord God, who dwellest in heaven, but beholdest all things below,'" he mumbled. "'Look down, we beseech thee, and hear us, calling out of the depth of misery, and out of the jaws of this death, which is now ready to swallow us up: Save, Lord, or else we perish. The living, the living shall praise thee. O send thy word of command to rebuke the raging winds and the roaring ...'" His voice ebbed away.
It was no good. He dove back into the saddlebag, fingers turned to pincers by the cold, and grappled a tin, pried away the top. The wind caught the lid, tore it from his hand, kited it off into the howling night. He patted, crooned and clucked, feeding the exhausted horse his shortbread, trying to kindle in it a little strength to continue on.
The gelding shied when he tried to remount. Somehow Simon snagged the stirrup with his boot and clambered aboard, weeping when the horse once more stubbornly stalled, beating its neck with a fist. But then it swung its head, put the wind to their backs, moved off hesitantly. With the blizzard whipping its hindquarters, the gelding broke into a lope, then a wild staggering gallop, heaving like a storm-driven ship. Simon tasted long white streaks of snow, smears on the chalkboard of night, as his brain jerked from spot to spot on his body, probing. Face dead, a slab of wood. Fingers dead. Twigs.
Latimer, bound to the stake, had said to the chained and sobbing Nicholas Ridley beside him, "Play the man, master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."
He would have welcomed to burn like Latimer now.
The horse gave a grunt, stumbled, fell in slow, dreamy increments. Simon became a boy again. His father had bought him a ticket at the London zoo for a ride on the camel. The dromedary was lowering itself to earth, in stages, a complicated, groaning piece of machinery, settling to its knees, sinking.
Pitched headlong, Simon lay in a pillow of snow, listening to Ridley screaming in the flames.
No, not Ridley screaming, the horse. He staggered to the fallen gelding. It was trying to rise on three legs, the fourth was horribly broken. Lurching up and falling back, lurching up and falling back. Simon caught the head stall, pulled the beast down and squatted on its neck, bringing to an end the terrible struggle. The horse stared up at him. Its eye a coal-yoked egg.
He placed his hand over the eye. His brother Addington had smashed a lot of hunters' legs. Addington, merciless rider. Long ago, a boy of ten, he'd seen one of the victims of Addington's recklessness destroyed. The gamekeeper delivered the coup de grace while Addington and his fox-hunting friends drank whisky in the house. The callous cruelty of it had made him sob miserably, displeasing his father. "Buck up," Father had commanded him.
Left hand blinkering the eye of the horse, Simon reached for the knife sheathed on his belt. Less a knife than a small, bone-handled sword bought in Fort Benton, a bowie knife the Americans called it.
He told himself, "The Holy Ghost reads hearts."
When he sliced the throat, a tremor ran down the horse's neck, hot blood scalded his hand. The weary horse did not take long to die.
Whimpering, Simon huddled against its belly, cringing from the wind. His hands were alive with needles of agony; when he slipped them down the front of his pants to warm them, he felt the gluey blood on his privates.
There was a hymn - it skipped about his brain before he heard himself singing. "'How mighty is the Blood that ran for sinful nature's needs! It broke the ban, it rescued man; it lives, and speaks, and pleads!'" Blood running for sinful nature's needs. Living, speaking, pleading. To rescue man.
Simon scrambled to his knees, knife upraised. Drove the sixteen-inch blade into the horse's chest, sawed the belly down to the legs. Guts spilling, a thin steam sifting out of the lips of the incision. Plunged his hands into the mess of entrails. Tore away, scooping offal behind him, hacking with the knife at whatever resisted, whatever clung. Moaning, hunching his shoulders, drawing his knees up to his chest, wriggling away at the mouth of the wound, he burrowed into the balmy pocket.
O precious Side-hole's cavity I want to spend my life in thee ...
Excerpted from The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe Copyright © 2002 by G & M Vanderhaeghe Productions Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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