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THE GIVER OF STARS
About the Author
Jojo Moyes is a novelist and journalist. Her books include the bestsellers Me Before You, After You and Still Me, The Girl You Left Behind, The One Plus One and her short story collection Paris for One and Other Stories. Her novels have been translated into forty-six languages, have hit the number one spot in twelve countries and have sold over thirty-eight million copies worldwide.
Me Before You has now sold over fourteen million copies worldwide and was adapted into a major film starring Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke. Jojo lives in Essex.
By the same author
The Peacock Emporium
The Ship of Brides
The Horse Dancer
The Last Letter from Your Lover
Me Before You
Honeymoon in Paris
The Girl You Left Behind
The One Plus One
Paris for One
To Barbara Napier, who gave me stars when I needed them.
And to librarians everywhere.
20 December 1937
Listen. Three miles deep in the forest just below Arnott’s Ridge, and you’re in silence so dense it’s like you’re wading through it. There’s no birdsong past dawn, not even in high summer, and especially not now, with the chill air so thick with moisture that it stills those few leaves clinging gamely to the branches. Among the oak and hickory nothing stirs: wild animals are deep underground, soft pelts intertwined in narrow caves or hollowed-out trunks. The snow is so deep the mule’s legs disappear up to his hocks, and every few strides he staggers and snorts suspiciously, checking for loose flints and holes under the endless white. Only the narrow creek below moves confidently, its clear water murmuring and bubbling over the stony bed, headed down towards an endpoint nobody around here has ever seen.
Margery O’Hare tests her toes inside her boots, but feeling went a long time back and she winces at the thought of how they’re going to hurt when they warm up again. Three pairs of wool stockings, and in this weather you might as well go bare-legged. She strokes the big mule’s neck, brushing off the crystals forming on his dense coat with her heavy men’s gloves.
‘Extra food for you tonight, Charley boy,’ she says, and watches as his huge ears flick back. She shifts, adjusting the saddlebags, making sure the mule is balanced as they pick their way down towards the creek. ‘Hot molasses in your supper. Might even have some myself.’
Four more miles, she thinks, wishing she had eaten more breakfast. Past the Indian escarpment, up the yellow pine track, two more hollers, and old Nancy will appear, singing hymns as she always does, her clear, strong voice echoing through the forest as she walks, arms swinging like a child’s, to meet her.
‘You don’t have to walk five miles to meet me,’ she tells the woman, every fortnight. ‘That’s our job. That’s why we’re on horseback.’
‘Oh, you girls do enough.’
She knows the real reason. Nancy, like her bedbound sister, Jean, back in the tiny log cabin at Red Lick, cannot countenance even a chance that she will miss the next tranche of stories. She’s sixty-four years old with three good teeth and a sucker for a handsome cowboy: ‘That Mack McGuire, he makes my heart flutter like a clean sheet on a long line.’ She clasps her hands and lifts her eyes to Heaven. ‘The way Archer writes him, well, it’s like he steps right out of the pages in that book and swings me onto his horse with him.’ She leans forward conspiratorially. ‘Ain’t just that horse I’d be happy riding. My husband said I had quite the seat when I was a girl!’
‘I don’t doubt it, Nancy,’ she responds, every time, and the woman bursts out laughing, slapping her thighs like this is the first time she’s said it.
A twig cracks and Charley’s ears flick. Ears that size, he can probably hear halfway to Louisville. ‘This way, boy,’ she says, guiding him away from a rocky outcrop. ‘You’ll hear her in a minute.’
Margery’s head snaps around.
He is staggering slightly, but his gaze is level and direct. His rifle, she sees, is cocked, and he carries it, like a fool, with his finger on the trigger. ‘So you’ll look at me now, will ya, Margery?’
She keeps her voice steady, her mind racing. ‘I see you, Clem McCullough.’
‘I see you, Clem McCullough.’ He spits as he repeats it, like a nasty child in a schoolyard. His hair stands up on one side, like he’s slept on it. ‘You see me while you’re lookin’ down that nose of yours. You see me like you see dirt on your shoe. Like you’re somethin’ special.’
She has never been afraid of much, but she’s familiar enough with these mountain men to know not to pick a fight with a drunk. Especially one bearing a loaded gun.
She conducts a swift mental list of people she may have offended – Lord knows there seem to be a few – but McCullough? Aside from the obvious, she can find nothing.
‘Any beef your family had with my daddy, that’s buried with him. It’s only me left, and I ain’t interested in blood feuds.’
McCullough is directly in her path now, his legs braced in the snow, his finger still on the trigger. His skin has the purple-blue mottle of someone too drunk to realize how cold he is. Probably too drunk to hit straight, but it’s not a chance she wants to take.
She adjusts her weight, slowing the mule; her gaze slides sideways. The banks of the creek are too steep, too dense with trees for her to get past. She would have to persuade him to move or ride right over him, and the temptation to do the latter is strong.
The mule’s ears flick back. In the silence she can hear her own heartbeat, an insistent thump in her ears. She thinks absently that she’s not sure she’s ever heard it this loud before. ‘Just doing my job, Mr McCullough. I’d be obliged if you’d let me pass.’
He frowns, hears the potential insult in her too-polite use of his name, and as he shifts his gun she realizes her error.
‘Your job … Think you’re so high and mighty. You know what you need?’
He spits noisily, waiting for her answer. ‘I said, do you know what you need, girl?’
‘Suspect my version of what that might be is going to differ a mile or two from yours.’
‘Oh, you got all the answers. You think we don’t know what you all have been doing? You think we don’t know what you’ve been spreading among decent God-fearing women? We know what you’re up to. You got the devil in you, Margery O’Hare, and there’s only one way to get the devil out of a girl like you.’
‘Well, I’d sure love to stop and find out, but I’m busy with my rounds, so maybe we can continue this –’
McCullough raises his gun. ‘Shut that damn mouth of yours.’
She clamps it shut.
He takes two steps closer, his legs spread and braced. ‘Git off the mule.’
Charley shifts uneasily. Her heart is an ice pebble in her mouth. If she turns and flees, he’ll shoot her. The only route here follows the creek; the forest floor is hardscrabble flint, the trees too dense to find a way forward. There’s nobody for miles, she realizes, nobody except old Nancy making her way slowly across the mountaintop.
She’s on her own, and he knows it.
His voice lowers. ‘I said git down, now.’ He takes two steps closer, his footsteps crunching in the snow.
And there is the bare truth of it, for her and all the women around here. Doesn’t matter how smart you are, how clever, how self-reliant – you can always be bettered by a stupid man with a gun. The barrel of his rifle is so close now that she finds herself gazing down two infinite black holes. With a grunt he drops it abruptly, letting it swing behind him on its strap and grabs at her reins. The mule wheels, so that she lurches forward clumsily onto his neck. She feels McCullough claw at her thigh as he reaches back for his gun with his other hand. His breath is sour with drink, and his hand is scaled with dirt; every cell of her body recoils at the feel of it.
And then she hears it, Nancy’s voice in the distance.
Oh, what peace we often forfeit!
Oh, what needless pain we bear –
His head lifts. She hears a No!, and some distant part of her recognizes with surprise that it has emerged from her own mouth. His fingers grab and pull at her, one arm reaching for her waist, throwing her off-balance; in his determined grip, his rank breath, she feels her future morphing into something black and awful. But the cold has made him clumsy. He fumbles as he reaches for his gun again, his back to her, and at that moment she sees her chance. She reaches behind into her saddlebag with her left hand, and as he turns his head she drops the reins, grabs the other corner with her right fist, and swings the heavy book as hard as she can, smack, into his face. His gun goes off, the sound a three-dimensional crack! ricocheting off the trees, and she hears the singing briefly silenced, the birds rising into the sky – a shimmering black cloud of flapping wings. As McCullough drops, the mule bucks and lurches forward in fright, stumbling over him, so that she gasps and has to grab the horn of the saddle to stay on.
And then she is off along the creek bed, her breath tight in her throat, her heart pounding, trusting the mule’s sure feet to find a hold in the splashing icy water, not daring to look back to see if McCullough has made it to his feet to come after her.
Three months earlier
It was, everyone agreed, fanning themselves outside the store or passing in the shade of the eucalyptus trees, unseasonably warm for September. The meeting hall at Baileyville was thick with the smells of lye soap and stale perfume, bodies wedged together in good poplin dresses and summer suits. The heat had permeated even the clapboard walls so that the wood creaked and sighed in protest. Pressed tight behind Bennett as he shuffled his way along the row of packed seats, apologizing as each person rose from their chair with a barely suppressed sigh, Alice swore that she felt the warmth of each body leach into her own as it leaned backwards to let them pass.
So sorry. So sorry.
Bennett finally reached two empty seats and Alice, her cheeks glowing with embarrassment, sat down, ignoring the sideways glances of the people around them. Bennett looked down at his lapel, brushing at non-existent lint, then spotted her skirt. ‘You didn’t change?’ he murmured.
‘You said we were late.’
‘I didn’t mean for you to come out with your house clothes on.’
She had been trying to make cottage pie, to encourage Annie to put something other than Southern food on the table. But the potatoes had gone green, she hadn’t been able to gauge the heat of the range, and the grease had spattered all over her when she dropped the meat onto the griddle. And when Bennett came in looking for her (she had, of course, lost track of time) he could not for the life of him see why she wouldn’t just leave culinary matters to the housekeeper when an important meeting was about to take place.
Alice placed her hand over the largest grease mark on her skirt and resolved to keep it there for the next hour. Because it would be an hour. Or two. Or – Lord help her – three.
Church and meetings. Meetings and church. Sometimes Alice Van Cleve felt as if she had merely swapped one tedious daily pastime for another. That very morning in church Pastor McIntosh had spent almost two hours declaiming the sinners who were apparently plotting ungodly dominance around the little town, and was now fanning himself and looking disturbingly ready to speak again.
‘Put your shoes back on,’ Bennett murmured. ‘Someone might see you.’
‘It’s this heat,’ she said. ‘They’re English feet. They’re not used to these temperatures.’ She felt, rather than saw, her husband’s weary disapproval. But she was too hot and tired to care, and the speaker’s voice had a narcoleptic quality so that she caught only every third word or so – germinating … pods … chaff … paper bags – and found it hard to care much about the rest.
Married life, she had been told, would be an adventure. Travel to a new land! She had married an American, after all. New food! A new culture! New experiences! She had pictured herself in New York, neat in a two-piece suit in bustling restaurants and on crowded sidewalks. She would write home, boasting of her new experiences. Oh, Alice Wright? Wasn’t she the one who married the gorgeous American? Yes, I had a postcard from her – she was at the Metropolitan Opera, or Carnegie Hall …
Nobody had warned that it would involve so much small-talk over good china with elderly aunts, so much pointless mending and quilting or, even worse, so many deathly dull sermons. Endless, decades-long sermons and meetings. Oh, but these men did love the sound of their own voices! She felt as if she were being scolded for hours, four times a week.
The Van Cleves had stopped at no fewer than thirteen churches on their way back here, and the only sermon that Alice enjoyed had taken place in Charleston, where the preacher had gone on so long his congregation had lost patience and decided, as one, to ‘sing him down’ – to drown him out with song until he got the message and rather crossly closed his religious shop for the day. His vain attempts to speak over them, as their voices rose and swelled determinedly, had made her giggle.
The congregations of Baileyville, Kentucky, she had observed, seemed disappointingly rapt.
‘Just put them back on, Alice. Please.’
She caught the eye of Mrs Schmidt, in whose parlour she had taken tea two weeks previously, and looked to the front again, trying not to appear too friendly in case she invited her a second time.
‘Well, thank you, Hank, for that advice on seed storage. I’m sure you’ve given us a lot to think about.’
As Alice slid her feet into her shoes, the pastor added, ‘Oh, no, don’t get up, ladies and gentlemen. Mrs Brady has asked for a moment of your time.’
Alice, now wise to this phrase, slid off her shoes again. A short middle-aged woman moved to the front – the kind her father would have described as ‘well upholstered’, with the firm padding and solid curves one associated with a quality sofa.
‘It’s about the mobile library,’ she said, wafting her neck with a white fan and adjusting her hat. ‘There have been developments that I would like to bring to your attention.
‘We are all aware of the – uh – devastating effects the Depression has had on this great country. So much attention has been focused on survival that many other elements of our lives have had to take a back seat. Some of you may be aware of President and Mrs Roosevelt’s formidable efforts to restore attention to literacy and learning. Well, earlier this week I was privileged to attend a tea with Mrs Lena Nofcier, chairman of the Library Service for the Kentucky PTA, and she told us that, as part of it, the Works Progress Administration has instituted a system of mobile libraries in several states – and even a couple here in Kentucky. Some of you may have heard about the library they set up over in Harlan County. Yes? Well, it has proven immensely successful. Under the auspices of Mrs Roosevelt herself and the WPA –’
‘She’s an Episcopalian.’
‘Roosevelt. She’s an Episcopalian.’
Mrs Brady’s cheek twitched. ‘Well, we won’t hold that against her. She’s our First Lady and she is minding to do great things for our country.’
‘She should be minding to know her place, not stirring things up everywhere.’ A jowly man in a pale linen suit shook his head and gazed around him, seeking agreement.
Across the way, Peggy Foreman leaned forward to adjust her skirt at precisely the moment Alice noticed her, which made it seem that Alice had been staring at her. Peggy scowled and lifted her tiny nose into the air, then muttered something to the girl beside her, who leaned forward to give Alice the same unfriendly look. Alice sat back in her seat, trying to quell the colour rising in her cheeks.
Alice, you’re not going to settle in unless you make some friends, Bennett kept telling her, as if she could sway Peggy Foreman and her crew of sour faces.
‘Your sweetheart is casting spells in my direction again,’ Alice murmured.
‘She’s not my sweetheart.’
‘Well, she thought she was.’
‘I told you. We were just kids. I met you, and … well, that’s all history.’
‘I wish you’d tell her that.’
He leaned towards her. ‘Alice, the way you keep hanging back, people are starting to think you’re kind of – stand-offish …’
‘I’m English, Bennett. We’re not built to be … hospitable.’
‘I just think the more you get involved, the better it is for both of us. Pop thinks so, too.’
‘Oh. He does, does he?’
‘Don’t be like that.’
Mrs Brady shot them a look. ‘As I was saying, due to the success of such endeavours in neighbouring states, the WPA has released funds to enable us to create our own travelling library here in Lee County.’
Alice stifled a yawn.
On the credenza at home there was a photograph of Bennett in his baseball uniform. He had just hit a home run, and his face held a look of peculiar intensity and joy, as if at that moment he were experiencing something transcendent. She wished he would look at her like that again.
But when she allowed herself to think about it, Alice Van Cleve realized her marriage had been the culmination of a series of random events, starting with a broken china dog when she and Jenny Fitzwalter had played a game of indoor badminton (it had been raining – what else were they supposed to do?), escalating with the loss of her place at secretarial school due to persistent lateness, and finally her apparently unseemly outburst at her father’s boss during Christmas drinks. (‘But he put his hand on my bottom while I was handing around the vol-au-vents!’ Alice protested. ‘Don’t be vulgar, Alice,’ her mother said, shuddering.) These three events – with an incident involving her brother Gideon’s friends, too much rum punch, and a ruined carpet (she hadn’t realized the punch contained alcohol! Nobody said!) – had caused her parents to suggest what they called a ‘period of reflection’, which had amounted to ‘keeping Alice indoors’. She had heard them talking in the kitchen: ‘She’s always been that way. She’s like your aunt Harriet,’ Father had said dismissively, and Mother had not spoken to him for two whole days, as if the idea of Alice being the product of her genetic line had been so unbearably offensive.
And so, over the long winter, as Gideon went to endless balls and cocktail parties, disappeared for long weekends at friends’ houses, or partied in London, she gradually fell off her friends’ invitation lists, and sat at home, working half-heartedly at scrappy embroidery, her only outings accompanying her mother on visits to elderly relatives or to Women’s Institute gatherings, where the subjects for discussion tended to be cake, flower-arranging and Lives of the Saints – it was as if they were literally trying to bore her to death. She stopped asking Gideon for details after a while as they made her feel worse. Instead she sulked her way through canasta, cheated grumpily at Monopoly, and sat at the kitchen table with her face resting on her forearms as she listened to the wireless, which promised a world far beyond the stifling concerns of her own.
So two months later, when Bennett Van Cleve turned up unexpectedly one Sunday afternoon at the minister’s spring festival – with his American accent, his square jaw and blond hair, carrying with him the scents of a world a million miles from Surrey – frankly he could have been the Hunchback of Notre Dame and she would have agreed that moving into a clanging bell-tower was a very fine idea indeed, thank you.
Men tended to stare at Alice, and Bennett was immediately smitten by the elegant young Englishwoman with huge eyes and waved, bobbed blonde hair, whose clear, clipped voice was like nothing he’d ever heard back in Lexington, and who, his father remarked, might as well be a British princess for her exquisite manners and refined way of lifting a teacup. When Alice’s mother revealed that they could claim a duchess in the family through marriage two generations back, the older Van Cleve almost expired with joy. ‘A duchess? A royal duchess? Oh, Bennett, wouldn’t that have tickled your dear mother?’
Father and son were visiting Europe with an outreach mission of the Combined Ministry of East Kentucky Under God, observing how the faithful worshipped outside America. Mr Van Cleve had funded several of the attendees, in honour of his late wife, Dolores, as he was prone to announcing during lulls in conversation. He might be a businessman, but it meant nothing, nothing, if it was not done under the auspices of the Lord. Alice thought he seemed a little dismayed by the small and rather un-fervent expressions of religious fervour at St Mary’s on the Common – and the congregation had certainly been taken aback by Pastor McIntosh’s ebullient roaring about fire and brimstone (poor Mrs Arbuthnot had had to be escorted through a side door for air). But what the British lacked in piety, Mr Van Cleve observed, they more than made up for with their churches, their cathedrals and all their history. And wasn’t that a spiritual experience in itself?
Alice and Bennett, meanwhile, were busy with their own, slightly less holy experience. They parted with clutched hands and ardent expressions of affection, the kind heightened by the prospect of imminent separation. They exchanged letters during his stops at Rheims, Barcelona and Madrid. Their exchanges reached a particularly feverish pitch when he reached Rome, and on the way back it was a surprise only to the most disengaged members of the household that Bennett proposed, and Alice, with the alacrity of a bird seeing its cage door swing open, hesitated a whole half-second before she said yes, she would, to her now lovelorn – and rather deliciously tanned – American. Who wouldn’t say yes to a handsome, square-jawed man, who looked at her as if she were made of spun silk? Everyone else had spent the past months looking at her as if she were contaminated.
‘Why, you are just perfect,’ Bennett would tell her, holding his thumb and forefinger around her narrow wrist as they sat on the swing seat in her parents’ garden, collars up against the breeze and their fathers watched indulgently from the library window, both, for their own reasons, privately relieved about the match. ‘You’re so delicate and refined. Like a Thoroughbred.’ He pronounced it ‘refahnd’.
‘And you’re ridiculously handsome. Like a movie star.’
‘Mother would have loved you.’ He ran a finger down her cheek. ‘You’re like a china doll.’
Six months on, Alice was pretty sure he didn’t think of her as a china doll any more.
They had married swiftly, explaining the haste as Mr Van Cleve’s need to return to his business. Alice felt as if her whole world had flipped; she was as happy and giddy as she had been despondent through the long winter. Her mother packed her trunk with the same faintly indecent delight with which she had told everyone in her circle about Alice’s lovely American husband and his rich industrialist father. It might have been nice if she’d looked a tiny bit mournful at the thought of her only daughter moving to a part of America nobody she knew had ever visited. But, then, Alice had probably been equally eager to go. Only her brother was openly sad, and she was pretty sure he would recover with his next weekend away. ‘I’ll come and see you, of course,’ Gideon said. They both knew he wouldn’t.
Bennett and Alice’s honeymoon consisted of a five-day voyage back to the United States, then onward by road from New York to Kentucky. (She had looked Kentucky up in the encyclopaedia and been quite taken with all the horse-racing. It sounded like a year-long Derby Day.) She squealed with excitement at everything: their huge car, the size of the enormous ocean liner, the diamond pendant Bennett bought her as a gift from a store in London’s Burlington Arcade. She didn’t mind Mr Van Cleve accompanying them the entire journey. It would, after all, have been rude to leave the older man alone, and she was too overcome with excitement at the idea of leaving Surrey, with its silent Sunday drawing rooms and permanent atmosphere of disapproval, to mind.
If Alice felt a vague dissatisfaction with the way Mr Van Cleve stuck to them like a limpet, she smothered it, doing her best to be the delightful version of herself that the two men seemed to expect. On the liner between Southampton and New York she and Bennett at least managed to stroll the decks alone in the hours after supper while his father was working on his business papers or talking to the elders at the captain’s table. Bennett’s strong arm would pull her close, and she would hold up her left hand with its shiny new gold band, and wonder at the fact that she, Alice, was a married woman. And when they were back in Kentucky, she told herself, she would be properly married, as the three of them would no longer have to share a cabin, curtained off as it was.
‘It’s not quite the trousseau I had in mind,’ she whispered, in her undershirt and pyjama bottoms. She didn’t feel comfortable in less, after Mr Van Cleve senior had, in his half-asleep state one night, confused the curtain of their double bunk with that of the bathroom door.
Bennett kissed her forehead. ‘It wouldn’t feel right with Father so close by, anyway,’ he whispered back. He placed the long bolster between them (‘Else I might not be able to control myself’) and they lay side by side, hands held chastely in the dark, breathing audibly as the huge ship vibrated beneath them.
When she looked back, the long trip was suffused with her suppressed longing, with furtive kisses behind lifeboats, her imagination racing as the sea rose and fell beneath them. ‘You’re so pretty. It will all be different when we get home,’ he would murmur into her ear, and she would gaze at his beautiful sculpted face and bury her face in his sweet-smelling neck, wondering how much longer she could bear it.
And then, after the endless car journey, and the stopovers with this minister and that pastor the whole way from New York to Kentucky, Bennett had announced that they would not be living in Lexington, as she had assumed, but in a small town some way further south. They drove past the city and kept going until the roads narrowed and grew dusty, and the buildings sat sparsely in random groupings, overshadowed by vast tree-covered mountains. It was fine, she assured him, hiding her disappointment at the sight of Baileyville’s main street, with its handful of brick buildings and narrow roads that stretched to nowhere. She was quite fond of the countryside. And they could take trips to town, like her mother did to Simpson’s in the Strand, couldn’t they? She struggled to be equally sanguine at the discovery that, for the first year at least, they would be living with Mr Van Cleve (‘I can’t leave Father alone while he’s grieving Mother. Not just yet, anyway. Don’t look so dismayed, sweetheart. It’s the second largest house in town. And we’ll have our own room.’) And then once they were finally in that room, of course, things had gone awry in a way she wasn’t sure she even had the words to explain.
With the same gritting of teeth with which she had endured boarding school and Pony Club, Alice attempted to adjust to life in the small Kentucky town. It was quite the cultural shift. She could detect, if she tried hard, a certain rugged beauty in the landscape, with its huge skies, its empty roads and shifting light, its mountains among whose thousands of trees wandered actual wild bears, and whose treetops were skimmed by eagles. She was awed at the size of everything, the vast distances that felt ever-present, as if she had had to adjust her whole perspective. But, in truth, she wrote, in her weekly letters to Gideon, everything else was pretty much impossible.
She found life in the big white house stifling, although Annie, the near silent housekeeper, relieved her of most household duties. It was indeed one of the largest in town but was stuffed with heavy antique furniture, every surface covered with the late Mrs Van Cleve’s photographs or ornaments or a variety of unblinking porcelain dolls that each man would remark was ‘Mother’s favourite’, should Alice attempt to move them an inch. Mrs Van Cleve’s exacting, pious influence hung over the house like a shroud.
Mother wouldn’t have liked the bolsters positioned like that, would she, Bennett?
Oh, no. Mother had very strong opinions on soft furnishings.
Mother did love her embroidered psalms. Why, didn’t Pastor McIntosh say he didn’t know a woman in the whole of Kentucky whose blanket stitch was finer?
She found Mr Van Cleve’s constant presence overbearing; he decided what they did, what they ate, the very routines of their day. He couldn’t stand to be away from whatever was going on, even if it was just she and Bennett playing the gramophone in their room and would burst in unannounced: ‘Is it music we’re having now, huh? Oh, you should put on some Bill Monroe. You can’t beat ole Bill. Go on, boy, take off that racket and put some ole Bill on.’
If he’d had a glass or two of bourbon, those pronouncements would come thick and fast, and Annie would find reasons to lurk in the kitchen before he could rile himself and find fault with dinner. He was just grieving, Bennett would murmur. You couldn’t blame a man for not wanting to be alone in his head.
Bennett, she discovered swiftly, never disagreed with his father. On the few occasions she had spoken up and said, calmly, that no, actually, she’d never been a great fan of pork chops – or that she personally found jazz music rather thrilling – the two men would drop their forks and stare at her with the same shocked disapproval as if she had removed all her clothes and danced a jig on the dining table. ‘Why’d you have to be so contrary, Alice?’ Bennett would whisper, as his father left to shout orders at Annie. She realized swiftly it was safer not to express an opinion at all.
Outside the house was little better; among the townspeople of Baileyville she was observed with the same assessing eye they turned on anything ‘foreign’. Most people in the town were farmers; they seemed to spend their whole lives within a radius of a few miles and knew everything about one another. There were foreigners, apparently, up at Hoffman Mining, which housed some five hundred mining families from all over the globe, overseen by Mr Van Cleve. But as most of the miners lived in the company-provided homes there, used the company-owned store, school and doctor, and were too poor to own either vehicles or horses, few ever crossed into Baileyville.
Every morning Mr Van Cleve and Bennett would head off in Mr Van Cleve’s motor-car to the mine and return shortly after six. In between, Alice would find herself whiling away the hours in a house that wasn’t hers. She tried to make friends with Annie, but the woman had let her know, through a combination of silence and overly brisk housekeeping, that she didn’t intend to make conversation. Alice had offered to cook, but Annie had informed her that Mr Van Cleve was particular about his diet and liked only Southern food, guessing correctly that Alice knew nothing about it.
Most households grew their own fruit and vegetables, and there were few that didn’t have a pig or two or a flock of hens. There was one general store, huge sacks of flour and sugar lining the doorway, and its shelves thick with cans. And there was just the one restaurant: the Nice ’N’ Quick with its green door, firm instruction that patrons must wear shoes, and which served things she’d never heard of, like fried green tomatoes and collard greens and things they called biscuits that were actually a cross between a dumpling and a scone. She once attempted to make some, but they emerged from the temperamental range not soft and spongy like Annie’s but solid enough to clatter when dropped onto a plate (she swore Annie had jinxed them).
She had been invited to tea several times by local ladies and tried to make conversation but found she had little to say, being hopeless at quilting, which seemed to be the local preoccupation, and knowing nothing about the names they bandied around in gossip. Every tea after the first seemed obliged to begin with the story of how Alice had offered ‘biscuits’ with her tea instead of ‘cookies’ (the other women had found this hysterical).
In the end it was easier just to sit on the bed in her and Bennett’s room and read again the few magazines she had brought from England or write Gideon yet another letter in which she tried not to reveal how unhappy she was.
She had, she realized gradually, simply traded one domestic prison for another. Some days she couldn’t face another night watching Bennett’s father reading scripture from the squeaking rocking chair on the porch (God’s word should be all the mental stimulation we require, wasn’t that what Mother said?), while she sat breathing in the oil-soaked rags they burned to keep the mosquitoes away and mending the worn patches in his clothes (God hates waste – why, those pants were only four years old, Alice. Plenty of life left in them). Alice grumbled inwardly that if God had had to sit in the near dark stitching up someone else’s trousers He would probably have bought Himself a nice new pair from Arthur J. Harmon’s Gentleman’s Store in Lexington, but she smiled a tight smile and squinted harder at the stitches. Bennett, meanwhile, frequently wore the expression of someone who had been duped into something and couldn’t quite work out what and how it had happened.
‘So, what the Sam Hill is a travelling library, anyway?’ Alice was startled out of her reverie with a sharp nudge from Bennett’s elbow.
‘They got one in Mississippi, using boats,’ called a voice near the back of the hall.
‘You won’t get no boats up and down our creeks. Too shallow.’
‘I believe the plan is to use horses,’ said Mrs Brady.
‘They’re gonna take horses up and down the river? Crazy talk.’
The first delivery of books had come from Chicago, Mrs Brady continued, and more were en route. There would be a wide selection of fiction, from Mark Twain to Shakespeare, and practical books containing recipes, domestic tips and help with child-rearing. There would even be comic books – a revelation that made some of the children squeal with excitement.
Alice checked her wristwatch, wondering when she would get her shaved ice. The one good thing about these meetings was that they weren’t stuck in the house all evening. She was already dreading what the winters would be like, when it would be harder for them to find reasons to escape.
‘What man has time to go riding? We need to be working, not paying social calls with the latest edition of Ladies’ Home Journal.’ There was a low ripple of laughter.
‘Tom Faraday likes to look at the ladies’ undergarments in the Sears catalogue, though. I heard he spends hours at a time in the outhouse reading that!’
‘It’s not men; it’s women,’ came a voice.
There was a brief silence.
Alice turned to look. A woman was leaning against the back doors in a dark blue cotton coat, her sleeves rolled up. She wore leather breeches, and her boots were unpolished. She might have been in her late thirties or early forties, her face handsome and her long dark hair tied back in a cursory knot.
‘It’s women doing the riding. Delivering the books.’
‘By themselves?’ came a man’s voice.
‘Last time I looked, God gave ’em two arms and two legs, just like the men.’
A brief murmur rippled through the audience. Alice peered more closely, intrigued.
‘Thank you, Margery. Over at Harlan County they’ve got six women and a whole system up and running. And, as I say, we’ll be getting something similar going here. We have two librarians already, and Mr Guisler has very kindly lent us a couple of his horses. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank him for his generosity.’
Mrs Brady motioned the younger woman forward. ‘Many of you will also know Miss O’Hare –’
‘Oh, we know the O’Hares all right.’
‘Then you will be aware that she has been working these last weeks to help set things up. We also have Beth Pinker – stand up, Beth –’ a freckled girl with a snub nose and dark blonde hair stood awkwardly and sat straight back down again – ‘who is working with Miss O’Hare. One of the many reasons I called this meeting is that we need more ladies who understand the rudiments of literature and its organization so that we can move forward with this most worthy of civic projects.’
Mr Guisler, the horse dealer, lifted a hand. He stood up and after hesitating a moment, he spoke with a quiet certainty: ‘Well, I think it’s a fine idea. My own mother was a great reader of books, and I’ve offered up my old milk barn for the library. I believe all right-minded people here should be supporting it. Thank you.’ He sat down again.
Margery O’Hare leaned her backside against the desk at the front and gazed steadily out at the sea of faces. Alice noted a murmur of vague discontent moving around the room, and it seemed to be directed at her. She also noted that Margery O’Hare seemed supremely untroubled by it.
‘We have a large county to cover,’ Mrs Brady added. ‘We can’t do it with just two girls.’
A woman at the front of the hall called: ‘So, what would it mean? This horseback-librarian thing?’
‘Well, it would involve riding to some of our more remote dwellings, and providing reading materials to those who might not otherwise be able to travel to the county libraries, due to, say, ill-health, frailty or lack of transportation.’ She lowered her head so that she could see over her half-moon spectacles. ‘I would add that this is to aid the spread of education, to help bring knowledge to those places where it might currently be sadly lacking. Our president and his wife believe this project can bring knowledge and learning back to the foreground of rural lives.’
‘I ain’t letting my lady ride up in no mountain,’ came a call from the back.
‘You just afraid she won’t come back again, Henry Porteous?’
‘You can have mine. I’d be more’n happy if she rode off and never come home!’
A burst of laughter travelled across the room.
Mrs Brady’s voice lifted in frustration. ‘Gentlemen. Please. I am asking for some of our ladies to contribute to our civic good and sign up. The WPA will provide the horse and the books, and you would simply be required to commit to at least four days a week delivering them. There will be early starts and long days, given the topography of our beautiful county, but I believe there will be huge rewards.’
‘So why don’t you do it?’ came a voice from the back.
‘I would volunteer, but as many of you know I am a martyr to my hips. Dr Garnett has warned me that to ride such distances would be too great a physical challenge. Ideally we are looking for volunteers among our younger ladies.’
‘It ain’t safe for a young lady by herself. I’m agin it.’
‘’Tain’t proper. Women should be looking after the home. What’s next? Women down the mines? Driving lumber trucks?’
‘Mr Simmonds, if you can’t see there’s a world of difference between a lumber truck and a copy of Twelfth Night, then Lord help Kentucky’s economy, for I don’t know where we’ll be headed.’
‘Families should be reading the Bible. Nothing else. Who’s going to keep an eye on what they’re putting out there, anyhow? You know what they’re like up north. They might spread all kinds of crazy notions.’
‘It’s books, Mr Simmonds. The same you learned with when you were a boy. But, then, I seem to remember you were more keen on tweaking girls’ pigtails than you were on reading.’
Another burst of laughter.
Nobody moved. A woman looked at her husband, but he gave a small shake of his head.
Mrs Brady raised a hand. ‘Oh, I forgot to mention. It is a paid opportunity. Remuneration will be in the region of twenty-eight dollars a month. So, who would like to sign up?’
There was a brief murmur.
‘I can’t,’ said a woman with extravagantly pinned red hair. ‘Not with four babies under five.’
‘I just don’t see why our government is wasting hard-earned tax dollars dishing out books to people who can’t even read,’ said Jowly Man. ‘Why, half of ’em don’t even go to church.’
Mrs Brady’s voice had taken on a slightly desperate note. ‘A month’s trial. Come on, ladies. I can’t go back and tell Mrs Nofcier that not one person in Baileyville would volunteer. What kind of place would she think we were?’
Nobody spoke. The silence stretched. To Alice’s left, a bee bumped lazily against the window. People began to shift in their seats.
Mrs Brady, undaunted, eyed the assembly. ‘C’mon. Let’s not have another incident like the Orphans Fundraiser.”
There were apparently many pairs of shoes that suddenly required close attention.
‘Not a one? Really? Well … Izzy will be the first, then.’
A small, almost perfectly spherical girl, half hidden among the packed audience, raised her hands to her mouth. Alice saw rather than heard the girl’s mouth form the protest. ‘Mother!’
‘That’s one volunteer. My little girl will not be afraid to do her duty for our country, will you, Izzy? Any more?’
‘Not one of you? You don’t think learning is important? You don’t think encouraging our less fortunate families to a position of education is imperative?’ She glared out at the meeting. ‘Well. This is not the response that I anticipated.’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Alice, into the silence.
Mrs Brady squinted, raising her hand above her eyes. ‘Is that Mrs Van Cleve?’
‘Yes, it is. Alice.’
‘You can’t sign up,’ Bennett whispered urgently.
Alice leaned forward. ‘My husband was just telling me that he believes strongly in the importance of civic duty, just as his dear mother did, so I would be happy to volunteer.’ Her skin prickled as the eyes of the audience slid towards her.
Mrs Brady fanned herself a little more vigorously. ‘But … you don’t know your way around these parts, dear. I don’t think that would be very sensible.’
‘Yes,’ Bennett hissed, ‘you don’t know your way around, Alice.’
‘I’ll show her.’ Margery O’Hare nodded to Alice. ‘I’ll ride the routes with her for a week or two. We can keep her close to town till she’s got a nose for it.’
‘Alice, I –’ Bennett whispered. He seemed flustered and glanced up at his father.
‘Can you ride?’
‘Since I was four years old.’
Mrs Brady rocked back on her heels in satisfaction. ‘Well, there you are, Miss O’Hare. You have another two librarians already.’
‘It’s a start.’
Margery O’Hare smiled at Alice, and Alice smiled back almost before she realized what she was doing.
‘Well, I do not think this is a wise idea at all,’ said George Simmonds. ‘And I shall be writing to Governor Hatch tomorrow to tell him as much. I believe sending young women out by themselves is a recipe for disaster. And I can see nothing but the foment of ungodly thoughts and bad behaviour from this ill-conceived idea, First Lady or not. Good day, Mrs Brady.’
‘Good day, Mr Simmonds.’
The gathering began to rise heavily from its seats.
‘I’ll see you at the library on Monday morning,’ said Margery O’Hare, as they walked out into the sunlight. She thrust out a hand and shook Alice’s. ‘You can call me Marge.’ She glanced up at the sky, wedged a wide-brimmed leather hat onto her head, and strode off towards a large mule, which she greeted with the same enthusiastic surprise as if it were an old friend she had just bumped into on the street.
Bennett watched her go. ‘Mrs Van Cleve, I have no idea what you think you’re doing.’
He’d said it twice before she remembered that this, in fact, was now her name.
Baileyville was unremarkable among the towns of southern Appalachia. Nestled between two ridges, it comprised two main roads of a stuttering mixture of brick and timber buildings, linked in a V, off which sprouted a multitude of winding lanes and paths that led at the lower level to distant hollers, as the small valleys were known, and at the higher, to a scattering of mountain houses across the tree-covered ridges. Those houses near the upper reaches of the creek traditionally housed the wealthier and more respectable families – it being easier to make a legitimate living on the flatter lands, and easier to hide a liquor still in the wilder, higher parts – but as the century had crept forward, the influx of miners and supervisors, the subtle changes in the demographics of the little town and its county, had meant that it was no longer possible to judge who was who simply by which leg of the road they lived on.
The Baileyville WPA Packhorse Library was to be based in the last wooden cabin up Split Creek, a turning on the right off Main Street and a road that contained white-collar workers, shopkeepers and those who made a living mostly by trading what they grew. It was squat on the ground, unlike many of the lower buildings, which were set on stilts to protect them from the spring floods. Cast into part-shadow by an oversized oak to its left, the building measured approximately fifteen strides by twelve. From the front it was entered by a small flight of rickety wooden stairs and from the back by a wooden door that had once been wide enough for cows.
‘It’ll be a way for me to get to know everyone around town,’ she had told the two men over breakfast, as Bennett yet again questioned his wife’s wisdom in taking the job. ‘Which is what you wanted, isn’t it? And I won’t be under Annie’s feet all day.’
She had discovered that if she exaggerated her English accent, they found it harder to disagree with her. In recent weeks she had begun to sound positively regal. ‘And, of course, I will be able to observe who is in need of religious sustenance.’
‘She has a point,’ said Mr Van Cleve, removing a piece of bacon gristle from the side of his mouth and placing it carefully on the side of his plate. ‘She could do it just till the babbies come along.’
Alice and her husband had studiously avoided looking at each other.
Now Alice approached the single-storey building, her boots kicking up loose dirt in the road. She put her hand to her brow and squinted. A newly painted sign proclaimed ‘USA PACKHORSE LIBRARY, WPA’ and the sound of hammering emerged in staccato bursts from inside. Mr Van Cleve had indulged a little too freely the previous evening and had awoken determined to find fault with whatever anyone happened to do in his house. Including breathing. She had crept around, wrenched her way into her breeches, then found herself singing softly on the half-mile walk to the library, just for the joy of having somewhere else to be.
She stood back a couple of paces, trying to peer in, and as she did, she became aware of the low hum of an approaching motor, along with another, more erratic sound she couldn’t quite distinguish. She turned to see the truck, noticing the shocked expression on the driver’s face. ‘Whoa! Mind out!’
Alice spun around just as a riderless horse came galloping down the narrow road towards her, its stirrups flapping, reins tangled in its spindly legs. As the truck swerved to avoid it, the horse shied and stumbled, sending Alice sprawling into the dust.
She was dimly aware of a pair of overalls leaping past her, the blare of a horn and a clatter of hoofs. Whoa … whoa there. Whoa, fella …
‘Ow.’ She rubbed her elbow, her head ringing with the impact. When she finally sat up she saw that a few yards away a man was holding the horse’s bridle and running a hand down its neck, trying to settle it. Its eyes rolled white, and veins popped on its neck, like a relief map.
‘That fool!’ A young woman was jogging down the road towards them. ‘Old man Vance tooted his horn on purpose and he bucked me off in the road.’
‘You okay? You took quite a spill there.’ A hand reached out and helped Alice to her feet. She stood, blinking, and regarded its owner: a tall man in overalls and a checked shirt, his eyes softening in sympathy. A nail still protruded from the corner of his mouth. He spat it into his palm and shoved it into his pocket before offering a handshake. ‘Frederick Guisler.’
‘Alice Van Cleve.’
‘The English bride.’ His palm was rough.
Beth Pinker appeared, panting, between them and snatched the reins from Frederick Guisler with a growl.
‘Scooter, you ain’t got the damn brains you was born with.’
The man turned to her. ‘Told you, Beth. You can’t run a Thoroughbred out of here at a gallop. It gets him wound up like a spring. Take the first twenty minutes at a walk and he’ll be good for the day.’
‘Who has time to walk? I got to get to Paint Lick by midday. Shoot, he’s put a hole in my best breeches.’ Beth tugged the horse over to the mounting block, still muttering under her breath, then turned abruptly. ‘Oh. You the new girl? Marge said to tell you she’s coming.’
‘Thank you.’ Alice lifted a palm, before picking at the selection of small stones embedded in it. As they watched, Beth checked her saddlebags, cursed again, wheeled the horse round, and set off back up the road at a sideways canter.
Frederick Guisler turned back to Alice, shaking his head. ‘You sure you’re okay? I can fetch you some water.’
Alice tried to look nonchalant, as if her elbow wasn’t throbbing and she hadn’t just realized that a fine layer of grit was decorating her upper lip. ‘I’m fine. I’ll just … sit here on the step.’
‘The stoop?’ He grinned.
‘Yes, that too,’ she said.
Frederick Guisler left her to it. He was lining the walls of the library with rough pine shelves, beneath which stood boxes of waiting books. One wall was already filled with a variety of titles, neatly labelled, and a pile in the corner suggested some had already been returned. Unlike the Van Cleve house, the little building held an air of purpose, the sense that it was about to become something useful.
As she sat rubbing dirt from her clothes, two young women walked past on the other side of the road, both in long seersucker skirts and wide-brimmed hats to keep off the worst of the sun. They glanced across the road at her, then put their heads together, conferring. Alice smiled and lifted a hand tentatively in greeting, but they scowled and turned away. Alice realized with a sigh that they were probably friends with Peggy Foreman. Sometimes she thought she might just make a sign and hang it around her neck: No, I didn’t know he had a sweetheart.
‘Fred says you took a fall before you even got on the horse. Takes some doing.’
Alice glanced up to find Margery O’Hare looking down at her. She was atop a large, ugly-looking horse with excessively long ears, and leading a smaller brown and white pony.
‘Um – well, I –’
‘You ever rode a mule?’
‘Is that a mule?’
‘Sure is. But don’t tell him. He thinks he’s a stallion from Araby.’ Margery squinted at her from under her wide-brimmed hat. ‘You can try this little paint, Spirit. She’s feisty but she’s sure-footed as Charley here, and she don’t stop at nothing. The other girl ain’t coming.’
Alice stood up and stroked the little mare’s white nose. The horse half closed her eyes. Her lashes were half white and half brown and she gave off a sweet, meadow-grass scent. Alice was immediately taken back to summers spent riding around her grandmother’s estate in Sussex, when she was fourteen and free to escape for whole days at a time, rather than constantly being told how she should behave.
Alice, you are too impulsive.
She leaned forward and sniffed the baby-soft hair at the mare’s ears.
‘So you going to make love to her? Or you going to get on and ride?’
‘Now?’ said Alice.
‘You waiting for permission from Mrs Roosevelt? C’mon, we got ground to cover.’
Without waiting, she wheeled the mule around and Alice had to scramble aboard as the little paint horse took off after her.
For the first half-hour Margery O’Hare said little, and Alice rode silently behind, struggling to adjust to the very different style of riding. Margery wasn’t stiff-backed, heels down and chin up, like the girls she had ridden with in England. She was loose-limbed, swayed like a sapling as she steered the mule around and up and down slopes, absorbing every movement. She talked to him more often than she spoke to Alice, scolding or singing to him, occasionally turning 180 degrees in her saddle to shout behind, as if she had just remembered she had company: ‘You okay back there?’
‘Fine!’ Alice would call, trying not to wobble as the mare tried again to turn and bolt back towards the town.
‘Oh, she’s just testing you,’ said Margery, after Alice let out a yelp. ‘Once you let her know you’re in charge, she’ll be sweet as molasses.’
Alice, feeling the little mare bunch crossly under her, wasn’t convinced, but she didn’t want to complain in case Margery decided she was not up to the job. They rode through the small town, past lush fenced gardens swollen with corn, tomatoes, greens, Margery tipping her hat to those few people who passed on foot. The horse and the mule snorted and backed up briefly as a huge truck bearing timber came past, but then abruptly they were out of town and headed up a steep, narrow track. Margery pulled back a little as the track widened, so they could travel side by side.
‘So you’re the girl from England.’ She pronounced it Eng-er-land.
‘Yes.’ Alice stooped to avoid a low-hanging branch. ‘Have you been?’
Margery kept her face forward, so Alice struggled to hear her. ‘Never been further east than Lewisburg. That’s where my sister used to live.’
‘Oh, did she move?’
‘She died.’ Margery reached up to break a switch from a branch and peeled the leaves from it, dropping the reins loose on the mule’s neck.
‘I’m so sorry. Do you have other family?’
‘Had. One sister and five brothers. ’Cept there’s just me now.’
‘Do you live in Baileyville?’
‘Just a lick away. Same house I was born in.’
‘You’ve only ever lived in one place?’
‘You’re not curious?’
Alice shrugged. ‘I don’t know. What it would be like to go somewhere else?’
‘Why? Is it better where you come from?’
Alice thought of the crushing silence of her parents’ front room, the low squeak of the front gate, her father polishing his motor-car, whistling tunelessly through his teeth every Saturday morning, the minute rearrangements of fish forks and spoons on a carefully ironed Sunday tablecloth. She looked out at the endless green pastures, the huge mountains that rose up on either side of them. Above her a hawk wheeled and cried into the empty blue skies. ‘Possibly not.’
Margery slowed so that Alice could draw level with her. ‘Got everything I need here. I suit myself, and people generally leave me be.’ She leaned forward and stroked the mule’s neck. ‘That’s how I like it.’
Alice heard the faint barrier in her words, and was quiet. They walked the next couple of miles in silence, Alice conscious of the way the saddle was already rubbing the inside of her knees, the heat of the day settling on her bare head. Margery signalled that they would turn left through a clearing in the trees.
‘We’re going to pick up a little here. You’d best take a grip, case she spins round again.’
Alice felt the little horse shoot forward under her and they were cantering up a long flint track that gradually became more shadowed until they were in the mountains, the horses’ necks extending, their noses lowering with the effort of picking their way up the steep stony pathways between the trees. Alice breathed in the cooler air, the sweet damp scents of the forest, the path dappling with broken light in front of them, and the trees creating a cathedral canopy high above, from which birdsong trickled down. Alice leaned over the horse’s neck as they surged forward, and felt suddenly, unexpectedly happy. As they slowed she realized she was smiling broadly, without thinking about it. It was a striking sensation, like someone suddenly able to exercise a lost limb.
‘This is the north-east route. Thought it would be wise if we divided them into eight.’
‘Goodness, it’s so beautiful,’ Alice said. She stared at the huge sand-coloured rocks that seemed to loom out of nowhere, forming natural shelters. All around her the boulders emerged almost horizontally from the side of the mountain in thick layers, or formed natural stone arches, weathered by centuries of wind and rain. Up here she was separated from the town, from Bennett and his father, by more than geography. She felt as if she had landed on a different planet entirely, where gravity didn’t work in the same way. She was acutely aware of the crickets in the grass, the silent slow glide of the birds overhead, the lazy swish of the horses’ tails as they swept flies from their flanks.
Margery walked the mule under an overhang, and beckoned to Alice to follow. ‘See in there? That hole? That there’s a hominy hole. You know a hominy hole?’
Alice shook her head.
‘Where the Indians ground their corn. If you look over there you’ll see two worn patches in the stone where the ol’ chief used to rest his backside while the women worked.’
Alice felt her cheeks glow and stifled a smile. She gazed up at the trees, her relaxed mood evaporating. ‘Are they … are they still around?’
Margery peered at her from under her wide-brimmed hat for a moment. ‘I think you’re safe, Mrs Van Cleve. They tend to go to lunch about now.’
They stopped to eat their sandwiches under the shelter of a railroad bridge, then rode through the mountains all afternoon, the paths winding and doubling back so that Alice couldn’t be sure of where they had been or where they were headed. It was hard to gauge north when the treetops spanned high above their heads, obscuring sun and shadow. She asked Margery where they might stop to relieve themselves, and Margery waved a hand. ‘Any tree you like, take your pick.’
Her new companion’s conversation was infrequent, pithy and mostly seemed to revolve around who was and wasn’t dead. She herself, she said, had Cherokee blood from way back. ‘My great-granddaddy married a Cherokee. I got Cherokee hair, and a good straight nose. We was all a little dark-skinned in our family, though my cousin was born white albino.’
‘What does she look like?’
‘She didn’t live past two. Got bit by a copperhead. Everyone thought she was just cranky till they saw the bite. Course, by then it was too late. Oh, you’ll need to watch out for snakes. You know about snakes?’
Alice shook her head.
Margery blinked, as if it were unthinkable that someone might not know about snakes. ‘Well, the poisonous ones tend to have heads shaped like a spade, you know?’
‘Got it.’ Alice waited a moment. ‘One of the square ones? Or the digging ones with the pointy ends? My father even has a drain spade, which –’
Margery sighed. ‘Maybe just stay clear of all snakes for now.’
As they rose up, away from the creek, Margery would jump down periodically and tie a piece of red twine around a tree trunk, using a penknife to slice through it, or biting it and spitting out the ends. This, she said, would show Alice how to find her way back to the open track.
‘You see old man Muller’s house on the left there? See the wood smoke? That’s him and his wife and four children. She can’t read but the eldest can and he’ll teach her. Muller don’t much like the idea of them learning but he’s down the mine from dawn till dusk so I’ve been bringing them books anyway.’
‘He won’t mind?’
‘He won’t know. He’ll come in, wash off the dust, eat what food she’s made and be asleep by sundown. It’s hard down there and they come back weary. Besides, she keeps the books in her dress trunk. He don’t look in there.’
Margery, it emerged, had been running a skeleton library single-handed for several weeks already. They passed neat little houses on stilts, tiny derelict shingle-roofed cabins that looked like a stiff breeze might blow them down, shacks with ramshackle stands of fruit and vegetables for sale outside, and at each one Margery pointed and explained who lived there, whether they could read, how best to get the material to them, and which houses to steer clear of. Moonshiners, mostly. Illegal liquor that they brewed in hidden stills in the woods. There were those who made it and would shoot you for seeing it, and those who drank it and weren’t safe to be around. She seemed to know everything about everyone, and delivered each nugget of information in the same easy, laconic way. This was Bob Gillman’s – he lost an arm in one of the machines at a factory in Detroit and had come back to live with his father. That was Mrs Coghlan’s house – her husband had beat her something awful, until he came home boss-eyed and she sewed him up in his bed sheet and went after him with a switch until he swore he’d never do it again. This was where two moonshine stills had exploded with a bang you could hear across two counties. The Campbells still blamed the Mackenzies and would occasionally come past shooting the house up if they got drunk enough.
‘Do you ever get frightened?’ Alice asked.
‘Up here, by yourself. You make it sound like anything could happen.’
Margery looked as if the thought had never occurred to her. ‘Been riding these mountains since before I could walk. I stay out of trouble.’
Alice must have seemed sceptical.
‘It ain’t hard. You know when you have a bunch of animals gathering at a waterhole?’
‘Um, not really, no. Surrey isn’t big on watering holes.’
‘You go to Africa, you got the elephant drinking next to the lion, and he’s drinking next to a hippo, and the hippo’s drinking next to a gazelle. And none of them is bothering each other, right? You know why?’
‘Because they’re reading each other. And that old gazelle sees that the lion is all relaxed, and that he just wants to take a drink. And the hippo is all easy, and so they all live and let live. But you put them on a plain at dusk, and that same old lion is prowling around with a glint in his eye – well, those gazelles know to git, and git fast.’
‘There are lions as well as snakes?’
‘You read people, Alice. You see someone in the distance and it’s some miner on his way home and you can tell from his gait he’s tired and all he wants is to get back to his place, fill his belly and put his feet up. You see that same miner outside a honky-tonk, half a bottle of bourbon down on a Friday and giving you the stink-eye? You know to get out of the way, right?’
They rode in silence for a bit.
‘So … Margery?’
‘If you’ve never been further east than – where was it, Lewisburg? – how is it you know so much about animals in Africa?’
Margery pulled her mule to a halt and turned to face her. ‘Are you seriously asking me that question?’
Alice stared at her.
‘And you want me to make you a librarian?’
It was the first time she had seen Margery laugh. She hooted like a barn owl, and was still laughing halfway back down to Salt Lick.
‘So how was it today?’
‘It was fine, thank you.’
She didn’t want to talk about how her backside and thighs ached so badly that she had nearly cried lowering herself onto the seat of the lavatory. Or the tiny cabins they had passed, where she could see the inside walls were papered with sheets of newspaper, which Margery told her were ‘to keep the draughts out in winter’. She needed time to process the scale of the land she had navigated, the feeling, as they had picked a horizontal path through a vertical landscape, of being truly in the wild for the first time in her life, the huge birds, the skittering deer, the tiny blue skink lizards. She thought she might not mention the toothless man, who had sworn at them on the road, or the exhausted young mother with four small children running around outside, naked as the day they were born. But mostly the day had been so extraordinary, so precious, that she really didn’t want to share any of it with the two men.
‘Did I hear you was riding out with Margery O’Hare?’ Mr Van Cleve took a swig of his drink.
‘I was. And Isabelle Brady.’ She didn’t mention that Isabelle had failed to turn up.
‘You want to steer clear of that O’Hare girl. She’s trouble.’
‘How is she trouble?’
She caught Bennett’s flashed look: don’t say anything.
Mr Van Cleve pointed his fork at her. ‘You mind my words, Alice. Margery O’Hare comes from a bad family. Frank O’Hare was the biggest ’shiner between here and Tennessee. You’re too new to understand what that means. Oh, she might dress herself up in books and fancy words, these days, but underneath she’s still the same, just like the no-good rest of ’em. I tell you, there’s no decent ladies around here would take tea with her.’
Alice tried to imagine Margery O’Hare giving a flying fig about taking tea with any ladies. She took the plate of cornbread from Annie and put a slice on her plate before passing it on. She realized she was ravenously hungry, despite the heat. ‘Please don’t worry. She’s just showing me where to deliver the books.’
‘I’m just saying. Mind you don’t hang around her too much. You don’t want her ways rubbing off on you.’ He took two slices of cornbread and put half a slice straight into his mouth and chewed for a minute, his mouth open. Alice winced and looked away. ‘What kind of books are these, anyway?’
Alice shrugged. ‘Just … books. There’s Mark Twain and Louisa May Alcott, some cowboy stories and books to help around the home, recipes and suchlike.’
Mr Van Cleve shook his head. ‘Half those mountain people can’t read a word. Old Henry Porteous thinks it’s a waste of time and tax dollars, and I have to say I’m minded to agree. And, like I said, any scheme with Margery O’Hare mixed up in it has to be a bad thing.’
Alice was about to speak up in Margery’s defence but a firm pressure from her husband’s hand under the table warned her off.
‘I don’t know.’ Mr Van Cleve wiped away some gravy at the side of his mouth. ‘I’m pretty sure my wife would not have approved of a scheme like this.’
‘But she did believe in charitable acts, Bennett tells me,’ said Alice.
Mr Van Cleve looked across the table. ‘She did, yes. She was a most godly woman.’
‘Well,’ Alice said, after a moment, ‘I do believe that if we can encourage godless families to read, we can encourage them to turn to scripture, and the Bible, and that can only be good for everyone.’ Her smile was sweet and wide. She leaned forward over the table. ‘Can you imagine all those families, Mr Van Cleve, finally able to truly grasp the word of God through a proper reading of the Bible? Wouldn’t that be a marvellous thing? I’m sure your wife would have had nothing but encouragement for something like that.’
There was a long silence.
‘Well, yes,’ said Mr Van Cleve. ‘You could have a point.’ He nodded, to suggest that that was the end of the matter, for now at least. Alice saw her husband deflate slightly with relief and wished she didn’t hate him for it.
Three days in, bad family or not, Alice had swiftly realized that she would rather be around Margery O’Hare than almost anyone else in Kentucky. Margery didn’t speak much. She was utterly uninterested in the slivers of gossip, veiled or otherwise, that seemed to fuel the women at the endless teas and quilting sessions Alice had sat in on up to now. She was uninterested in Alice’s appearance, her thoughts or her history. Margery went where she liked, and said what she thought, hiding nothing behind the polite courtly euphemisms that everyone else found so useful.
Oh, is that the English fashion? How very interesting.
And Mr Van Cleve Junior is happy for his wife to ride alone in the mountains, is he? Goodness.
Well, perhaps you’re persuading him of the English ways of doing things. How … novel.
Margery behaved, Alice realized with a jolt, like a man.
This was such an extraordinary thought that she found herself studying the other woman at a distance, trying to work out how she had come to this astonishing state of liberation. But she wasn’t yet brave enough – or perhaps still too English – to ask.
Alice would arrive at the library shortly after seven in the morning, the dew still thick on the grass, waving aside Bennett’s offer to drive her in the motor-car and leaving him to breakfast with his father. She would exchange a greeting with Frederick Guisler, who was often to be found talking to a horse, like Margery, and then walk around the back where Spirit and the mule were tethered, their breath sending steam rising into the cool dawn air. The library shelves were almost finished now, stacked with donated books from as far away as New York and Seattle. (The WPA had put out a call to libraries to donate, and brown-paper parcels arrived twice a week.) Mr Guisler had mended an old table donated by a school in Berea so that they had somewhere to lay the huge leather-bound ledger that listed books in and out. The pages were filling quickly: Alice discovered that Beth Pinker left at 5 a.m., and that before she met Margery each day, Margery had already done two hours’ riding, dropping books at remote homesteads in the mountains. She would scan the list to see where she and Beth had been.
The Farley children, Crystal – four comic books
Mrs Petunia Grant, The Schoolmaster’s House at Yellow Rock – two editions Ladies’ Home Journal (Feb, April 1937), one edition Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (ink marks on pages 34 and 35)
Mr F. Homer, Wind Cave – one edition Folk Medicine by D. C. Jarvis
The Sisters Fritz, The End Barn, White Ash – one edition Cimarron by Edna Ferber, Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas (note: three back pages missing, cover water-damaged)
The books were rarely new, and were often missing pages or covers, she discovered, while helping Frederick Guisler to shelve them. He was a wiry, weather-beaten man in his late thirties, who had inherited eight hundred acres from his father and who, like him, bred and broke horses, including Spirit, the little mare Alice had been riding. ‘She’s got opinions, that one,’ he said, stroking the little horse’s neck. ‘Mind you, never met a decent mare that didn’t.’ His smile was slow and conspiratorial, as if he wasn’t really talking about horses at all.
Every day that first week Margery would map out the route they would take, and they would head out into the still morning, Alice breathing in the mountain air in heady gulps after the stifling fug of the Van Cleve house. In direct sun, as the day wore on, the heat would rise in shimmering waves from the ground, and it was a relief to climb into the mountains, where the flies and biting creatures didn’t buzz relentlessly around her face. On the more remote routes Margery would dismount to tie string to every fourth tree so that Alice could find her way back once she was working alone, pointing out landmarks and notable rock formations to help her. ‘If you can’t work it out, Spirit will find the way back for you,’ she said. ‘She’s smart as a tack.’
Alice was getting used to the little brown and white horse now. She knew exactly where Spirit would try to spin, and where she liked to speed up, and she no longer yelped but leaned forward into it, stroking the horse’s neck so that her neat little ears flicked back and forth. She had a rough idea now of which trails went where, and had drawn maps for each, which she tucked into her breeches, hoping she could find her way to each house on her own. Mostly she had just begun to relish the time in the mountains, the unexpected hush of the vast landscape, the sight of Margery ahead of her, stooping to avoid low branches, pointing out the remote cabins that rose up like organic growths amid clearings in the trees.
‘Look outwards, Alice,’ Margery would say, her voice carrying on the breeze. ‘Not much point worrying what the town thinks about you – nothing you can do about that anyway. But when you look outwards, why, there’s a whole world of beautiful things.’
For the first time in almost a year, Alice felt herself unobserved. There was nobody to pass comment on how she wore her clothes or held herself, nobody shooting her curious glances, or hovering to hear the way she spoke. She had started to understand Margery’s determination to have people ‘let her be’. She was pulled from her thoughts as Margery slid to a stop.
‘Here we go, Alice.’ She jumped off by a rickety gate, where chickens scratched in a desultory way in the dust by the house and a large hog snuffled by a tree. ‘Time to meet the neighbours.’
Alice followed her lead, dismounting and throwing the reins over the post by the front gate. The horses immediately lowered their heads and began to graze and Margery lifted one of her bags from the saddle and motioned to Alice to follow. The house was ramshackle, the weatherboarding drooping out of place like a wonky smile. The windows were thick with dirt, obscuring the interior, and an iron wash kettle sat outside over the embers of a fire. It was hard to believe anybody lived there.
‘Good morning!’ Margery walked halfway towards the door. ‘Hello?’
There was no sound, then the creak of a board, and a man appeared in the doorway, a rifle cocked on his shoulder. He wore overalls that had not troubled a washtub in some time, and a clay pipe emerged from under a bushy moustache. Behind him two young girls appeared, their heads tilted as they tried to peer at the visitors. He gazed out suspiciously.
‘How you doing, Jim Horner?’ Margery walked into the little fenced-off enclosure (it could barely be called a garden) and closed the gate behind them. She appeared not to notice the gun or, if she did, she ignored it. Alice felt her heart race a little, but followed obediently.
‘Who’s this?’ The man nodded at Alice.
‘This is Alice. She’s helping me with the travelling library. I wondered if we could talk to you about what we got.’
‘I don’t want to buy nothing.’
‘Well, that suits me fine, because we ain’t sellin’ nothing. I’ll take just five minutes of your time. Could you spare a cup of water, though? Sure is warm out here.’ Margery, a study in calm, removed her hat and fanned her head with it. Alice was about to protest that they had just drunk a pitcher of water between them not half a mile back, but stopped. Horner gazed at her for a moment.
‘Wait out here,’ he said eventually, motioning to a long bench at the front of the house. He murmured to one of the girls, a skinny child with her hair in plaits, who disappeared into the dark house, emerging with a bucket, her brow furrowed with her task. ‘She’ll get you water.’
‘Would you be kind enough to bring some for my friend here, too, please, Mae?’ Margery nodded at the girl.
‘That would be very kind, thank you,’ said Alice, and the man startled at her accent.
Margery tipped her head towards her. ‘Oh, she’s the one from Engerland. The one married Van Cleve’s boy?’
His gaze switched impassively between them. The gun stayed at his shoulder. Alice sat gingerly on the bench as Margery continued to talk, her voice a low, relaxed sing-song. The same way she spoke to Charley the mule when he became, as she called it, ‘ornery’.
‘So I’m not sure if you’ve heard from town but we got a book library going. It’s for those who like stories, or to help your children get educated a little, especially if they don’t go to the mountain school. And I came by because I wondered if you’d like to try some books for yours.’
‘I told you they don’t read.’
‘Yes, you did. So I brought some easy ones, just to get ’em going. These ones here have got pictures and all the letters so they can learn by themselves. Don’t even have to go to school to do it. They can do it right here in your home.’
She handed him one of the picture books. He lowered his gun and took the book gingerly, as if she were handing him something explosive, and flicked through the pages.
‘I need the girls to help with the picking and canning.’
‘Sure you do. Busy time of year.’
‘I don’t want them distracted.’
‘I understand. Can’t have nothing slowing the canning. I have to say it looks like the corn is going to be fine this year. Not like last year, huh?’ Margery smiled as the girl arrived in front of them, lopsided with the weight of the half-filled bucket. ‘Why, thank you, sweetheart.’ She held out a hand as the girl filled an old tin cup. She drank thirstily, then handed the cup to Alice. ‘Good and cold. Thank you most kindly.’
Jim Horner pushed the book towards her. ‘They want money for those things.’
‘Well, that’s the beauty of it, Jim. No money, no signing up, no nothing. Library just exists so people can try a bit of reading. Maybe learn a little if they find they have a liking for it.’
Jim Horner stared at the cover of the book. Alice had never heard Margery talk so much in one sitting.
‘I tell you what? How about I leave these here, just for the week? You don’t have to read ’em, but you can take a look if you like. We’ll come by next Monday and pick them up again. If you like them, you get the kids to tell me and I’ll bring you some more. You don’t like ’em, just leave them on a crate by the fence post there and we’ll say no more. How does that sound?’
Alice glanced behind her. A second small face vanished immediately into the gloom of the building.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Tell you the truth, you’d do me a favour. Would mean I don’t have to carry the darn things all the way back down the mountain. Boy, our bags are heavy today! Alice, you finished your water, there? We don’t want to take up any more of this gentleman’s time. Good to see you, Jim. And thank you, Mae. Haven’t you grown like a string bean since I last saw you!’
As they reached the gate Jim Horner’s voice lifted and hardened. ‘I don’t want nobody else comin’ up here botherin’ us. I don’t want to be bothered and I don’t want my children bothered. They got enough to deal with.’
Margery didn’t even turn around. She lifted a hand. ‘I hear you, Jim.’
‘And we don’t need no charity. I don’t want anyone from town just coming by. I don’t know why you even came here.’
‘Headed to all the houses between here and Berea. But I hear you.’ Margery’s voice carried across the hillside as they reached the horses.
Alice glanced behind her to see that he had raised his gun to his shoulder again. Her heart thumped in her ears as she picked up her pace. She was afraid to look back again. As Margery swung herself onto the mule, she took the reins, mounted Spirit with trembling legs, and it was only when she calculated that they were too far away for Jim Horner to take a shot at them that she allowed herself to exhale. She kicked the mare forward so that she was level with Margery.
‘Oh, my goodness. Are they all that awful?’ Her legs, she realized, were now entirely liquid.
‘Awful? Alice, that went great.’
Alice wasn’t sure she’d heard her correctly.
‘Last time I rode up to Red Creek Jim Horner shot my hat clean off.’ Margery turned towards her and tilted her hat so that Alice could see the tiny hole that scorched straight through the top of it. She rammed it back onto her head. ‘Come on, let’s kick on a little. I want to take you to meet Nancy before we break for lunch.’
… and best of all, the wilderness of books, in which she could wander where she liked, made the library a region of bliss to her.
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
Two purple bruises on her knees, one on her left ankle and blisters in places she didn’t know blisters could exist, a cluster of infected bites behind her right ear, four broken nails (slightly grubby, she had to admit) and sunburn on her neck and nose. A two-inch-long graze on her right shoulder from being scraped against a tree, and a mark on her left elbow where Spirit had bitten her when she’d tried to slap a horsefly. Alice peered at her grimy face in the mirror, wondering what people back in England would make of the scabby cowgirl staring back at her.
It had been more than a fortnight and nobody had mentioned that Isabelle Brady had still not arrived to join the little team of packhorse librarians, so Alice didn’t feel able to ask. Frederick didn’t say much other than to offer her coffee and help her with Spirit, Beth – the middle child of eight brothers – would march in and out with a brisk boyish energy, nodding a cheerful hello, dumping her saddle on the floor, exclaiming when she couldn’t find her goddamn saddlebags, and Isabelle’s name simply failed to appear on the little cards on the wall with which they signed themselves in and out of shifts. Occasionally a large dark green motor-car would sweep by with Mrs Brady in the front, and Margery would nod, but no words passed between them. Alice began to think that putting her daughter’s name out there had been a way for Mrs Brady to encourage other young women to come forward.
So, it was something of a surprise when the motor-car pulled up on Thursday afternoon, its huge wheels sending a spray of sand and grit up the steps as it stopped. Mrs Brady was an enthusiastic, if easily distracted driver, prone to sending locals scattering as she turned her head to wave at some passer-by, or swerved extravagantly to avoid a cat in the road.
‘Who is that?’ Margery didn’t look up. She was working her way through two piles of returned books, trying to decide which were too damaged to go out again. There was little point sending out a book in which the last page was missing, as had already happened once. Waste of my time, had been the response from the sharecropper who had been given The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I won’t be reading a book again.
‘Think it might be Mrs Brady.’ Alice, who had been treating a blister on her heel, peered out of the window, trying to remain inconspicuous. She watched as Mrs Brady closed the driver’s door and paused to wave at somebody across the street. And then she saw a younger woman emerge from the passenger side, red hair pulled back and pinned into neat curls. Isabelle Brady.
‘It’s both of them,’ Alice said quietly. She tugged her sock back on, wincing.
‘Why?’ said Alice.
Isabelle made her way around the side of the car until she was level with her mother. It was then that Alice saw she walked with a pronounced limp, and that her lower left leg was encased in a leather and metal brace, the shoe at the end built up so that it resembled a small black brick. She didn’t use a stick, but rolled slightly as she moved, and concentration – or possibly discomfort – was writ large on her freckled features.
Alice pulled back, not wanting to be seen to be watching as they made their way slowly up the steps. She heard a murmured conversation and then the door opened.
‘Good afternoon, Mrs Brady, Isabelle.’
‘I’m so sorry for the delay in getting Izzy started. She had … some things to attend to first.’
‘Just glad to have you. We’re about ready to send Mrs Van Cleve out on her own, so the more the merrier. I’ll have to get you sorted out with a horse, though, Miss Brady. I wasn’t sure when you were coming.’
‘I’m no good at riding,’ said Izzy, quietly.
‘Wondered as much. Never seen you on a horse. So Mr Guisler is going to lend you his old companion horse, Patch. He’s a little heavy but sweet as anything, won’t scare you none. He knows what he’s doing and he’ll go at your pace.’
‘I can’t ride,’ Izzy said, an edge to her voice. She looked mutinously at her mother.
‘That’s only because you won’t try, dear,’ her mother said, not looking at her. She clasped her hands together. ‘So what time shall we come by tomorrow? Izzy, we’ll have to take you to Lexington to get you some new breeches. You’ve eaten your way right out of your old ones.’
‘Well, Alice here saddles up at seven, so why don’t you come then? We may start a little earlier as we divide up our routes.’
‘You’re not listening to me –’ Izzy began.
‘We’ll see you tomorrow.’ Mrs Brady looked around her at the little cabin. ‘It’s good to see what a start you’ve made already. I hear from Pastor Willoughby that the McArthur girls read their way through their Bible samplers without so much as a prompt from him last Sunday, thanks to the books you’ve brought them. Wonderful. Good afternoon, Mrs Van Cleve, Miss O’Hare. I’m much obliged to the pair of you.’
Mrs Brady nodded and the two women turned and made their way out of the library. They heard the roar of the car’s engine as it started up, then a skidding sound and a startled shout as Mrs Brady pulled out onto the road.
Alice looked at Margery, who shrugged. They sat in silence until the sound of the engine died away.
‘Bennett.’ Alice skipped up to the stoop, where her husband was sitting with a glass of iced tea. She glanced at the rocker, which was unusually empty. ‘Where’s your father?’
‘Having dinner with the Lowes.’
‘Is that the one who never stops talking? Goodness, he’ll be there all night. I’m amazed Mrs Lowe can draw breath long enough to eat!’ She pushed her hair back from her brow. ‘Oh, I have had the most extraordinary day. We went to a house in the middle of absolutely nowhere and I swear this man wanted to shoot us. He didn’t, of course –’
She slowed, noting the way his eyes had dropped to her dirty boots. Alice looked down at them and the mud on her breeches. ‘Oh. That. Yes. Misjudged where I should have been going through a creek and my horse stumbled and threw me straight over her head. It was actually very funny. I thought at one point Margery was going to pass out from laughing. Luckily I dried off in a wink, although just wait until you see my bruises. I am positively purple.’ She jogged up the steps to him and stooped to kiss him but he turned his face away.
‘You smell awfully of horse, these days,’ he said. ‘Maybe you should wash that off. It does tend to … linger.’
She was sure he hadn’t meant it to sting, but it did. She sniffed at her shoulder. ‘You’re right,’ she said, forcing a smile. ‘I smell like a cowboy! I tell you what, how about I freshen up and put on something pretty and then perhaps we could take a drive to the river. I could make us a little picnic of nice things. Didn’t Annie leave some of that molasses cake? And I know we still have the side of ham. Say yes, darling. Just you and me. We haven’t had a proper outing together for weeks.’
Bennett rose from his chair. ‘Actually, I’m – uh – going to meet some of the fellas for a game. I was just waiting for you to come home so I could tell you.’ He stood in front of her and she realized he was wearing the white trousers he used for sport. ‘We’re headed to the playing field over at Johnson.’
‘Oh. Fine, then. I’ll come and watch. I promise I won’t take a minute to scrub up.’
He rubbed his palm over the top of his head. ‘It’s kind of a guy thing. The wives don’t really come.’
‘I wouldn’t say anything, Bennett darling, or bother you.’
‘That’s not really the point –’
‘I just would love to see you play. You look so … joyful when you play.’
The way his gaze flickered towards her and away told her she had said too much. They stood in silence for a moment.
‘Like I said. It’s a guy thing.’
Alice swallowed. ‘I see. Another time, then.’
‘Sure!’ Released, he looked suddenly happy. ‘A picnic would be great. Maybe we can get some of the other fellows to come too. Pete Schrager? You liked his wife, didn’t you? Patsy’s fun. You and she will become real friends, I know it.’
‘Oh. Yes. I suppose so.’
They stood awkwardly in front of each other for a moment longer. Then Bennett reached out a hand, and leaned forward as if to kiss her. But this time it was Alice who stepped back. ‘It’s okay, you really don’t have to. Goodness, I do reek! Awful! How can you bear it?’
She backed away, then turned and ran up the steps two at a time so that he couldn’t see her eyes had filled with tears.
Alice’s days had settled into something of a routine since she had started work. She would rise at 5.30 a.m., wash and dress in the little bathroom along the hall (she was grateful for it, as she had swiftly become aware that half the homes in Baileyville still had ‘outhouses’ – or worse). Bennett slept like someone dead, barely stirring as she pulled on her boots, and she would lean over and kiss his cheek lightly, then tiptoe downstairs. In the kitchen she would retrieve the sandwiches she had made the evening before, grab a couple of the ‘biscuits’ that Annie left out on the sideboard, wrap them in a napkin, and eat them as she walked the half-mile to the library. Some of the faces she passed on her walk had become familiar: farmers on their horse-drawn buggies, lumber lorries making their way towards the huge yards, and the odd miner who had overslept, his lunch pail in his hand. She had begun to nod to the people she recognized – people in Kentucky were so much more civil than they were in England, where you were likely to be viewed with suspicion if you greeted a stranger in too friendly a manner. A couple had started to call out across the road to her: How’s that library going? And she would respond: Oh, quite well, thank you. They always smiled, though sometimes she suspected they spoke to her because they were amused by her accent. Either way it was nice to feel she was becoming part of something.
Occasionally she would pass Annie walking briskly, head down, on her way to the house – to her shame, she wasn’t sure where the housekeeper lived – and she would wave cheerily, but Annie would simply nod, unsmiling, as if Alice had transgressed some unspoken rule in the employer-employee handbook. Bennett, she knew, would rise only after Annie arrived at the house, woken with coffee on a tray, Annie having already taken the same to Mr Van Cleve. By the time the two men were dressed, the bacon, eggs and grits would be waiting for them on the dining table, the cutlery set just so. At a quarter to eight they would head off in Mr Van Cleve’s burgundy Ford convertible sedan, to Hoffman Mining.
Alice tried not to think too hard about the previous evening. She had once been told by her favourite aunt that the best way to get through life was not to dwell on things so she packed those events into a suitcase, and shoved it to the back of a mental cupboard, just as she had done with numerous suitcases before. There was no point lingering on the fact that Bennett had plainly gone drinking long after his baseball game had ended, returning to pass out on the daybed in the dressing room, from where she heard his convulsive snores until dawn. There was no point thinking too hard about the fact that it had now been more than six months, long enough for her to have to acknowledge that this might not be normal newlywed behaviour. Like there was no point in thinking too hard that it was obvious neither of them had a clue how to discuss what was going on. Especially as she wasn’t even sure what was going on. Nothing in her life up to now had given her the vocabulary or the experience. And there was nobody in whom she could confide. Her mother thought conversation about any bodily matters – even the filing of nails – was vulgar.
Alice took a breath. No. Better to focus on the road ahead, the long, arduous day, with its books and its ledger entries, its horses and its lush green forests. Better not to think too hard about anything, but to ride long and hard, to focus diligently on her new task, on memorizing routes, jotting down addresses and names and sorting books so that by the time she returned home it was all she could do to stay awake long enough to eat dinner, take a long soak in the tub and, finally, fall fast asleep.
It was a routine, she acknowledged, that seemed to suit them both.
‘She’s here,’ said Frederick Guisler, passing her on her way in. He tipped his hat, his eyes crinkling.
‘Who?’ She put down her lunch pail, and peered towards the window at the back.
‘Miss Isabelle.’ He picked up his jacket and headed for the door. ‘Lord knows, I doubt she’ll be riding the Kentucky Derby any time soon. There’s coffee brewing out back, Mrs Van Cleve. I brought you some cream, given that’s how you seem to prefer it.’
‘That’s very kind of you, Mr Guisler. I have to say I can’t drink it stewed black, like Margery. She can pretty much stand a spoon in hers.’
‘Call me Fred. And, well, Margery does things her own way, as you know.’ He nodded as he closed the door.
Alice tied a handkerchief around her neck to protect it from the sun and poured a mug of coffee, then walked around to the back where the horses were tethered in a small paddock. There she could see Margery bent double, holding Isabelle Brady’s knee as the younger girl clutched the saddle of a solid-looking bay horse. He stood immobile, his jaw working in a leisurely manner around a clump of grass, as if he had been there for some time.
‘You’ve got to spring a little, Miss Isabelle,’ Margery was saying, through gritted teeth. ‘If you can’t put your shoe in the stirrup then you’re going to have to bounce your way up. Just one, two, three, and hup!’
‘I don’t bounce,’ said Isabelle, crossly. ‘I’m not made of India rubber.’
‘Just lean into me, then one, two, three, and spring your leg over. Come on. I’ve got you.’
Margery had a firm grip on Isabelle’s braced leg. But the girl seemed incapable of springing. Margery glanced up and noticed Alice. Her expression was deliberately blank.
‘It’s no good,’ the girl said, straightening. ‘I can’t do it. And it’s pointless to keep trying.’
‘Well, it’s a heck of a long walk up those mountains, so you’re gonna have to work out how to get on him somehow.’ Surreptitiously, Margery rubbed at the small of her back.
‘I told Mother this was a bad idea. But she wouldn’t listen.’ Isabelle saw Alice and that seemed to make her even crosser. She flushed, and the horse shifted. She yelped as it nearly stood on her foot, and stumbled in her effort to get out of the way. ‘Oh, you stupid animal!’
‘Well, that’s a little rude,’ Margery said. ‘Don’t listen, Patch.’
‘I can’t get up. I don’t have the strength. This whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t know why my mother won’t listen to me. Why can’t I just stay in the cabin?’
‘Because we need you out there delivering books.’
It was then that Alice noticed the tears in the corners of Isabelle Brady’s eyes, as if this were not just a tantrum but something that sprang from real anguish. The girl turned away, brushing at her face with a pale hand. Margery had seen them too – they exchanged a brief, awkward look. Margery rubbed at her elbows to get the dust from her shirt. Alice sipped her coffee. The sound of Patch’s chewing, regular and oblivious, was the only thing that broke the silence.
‘Isabelle? Can I ask you a question?’ said Alice, after a moment. ‘If you’re sitting, or only walking short distances, do you need to wear the brace?’
There was a sudden silence, as if the word had been verboten.
‘What do you mean?’
Oh, I’ve done it again, thought Alice. But she was too far in now. ‘That leg brace. I mean, if we took it off, and your boots, you could wear – um – normal riding boots. You could mount on the other side of Patch here, using the other leg. And maybe just drop the books by the gates instead of climbing on and off, like we do. Or maybe if the walk isn’t too far it wouldn’t matter?’
Isabelle frowned. ‘But I – I don’t take off the brace. I’m supposed to wear it all day.’
Margery frowned, thinking. ‘You ain’t gonna be standing, though, right?’
‘Well. No,’ Isabelle said.
‘You want me to see if we got some other boots?’ Margery asked.
‘You want me to wear another person’s boots?’ said Isabelle, dubiously.
‘Only till your ma buys you a fancy pair from Lexington.’
‘What size are you? I have a spare pair,’ said Alice.
‘But even if I get on, my … Well, one leg is … It’s shorter. I won’t be balanced,’ said Isabelle.
Margery grinned. ‘That’s why we got adjustable stirrup leathers. Most people round here ride half crooked anyway, drunk or no.’
Perhaps it was because Alice was British and had addressed Isabelle in the same clipped tones that she addressed the Van Cleves when she wanted something, or perhaps it was the novelty of being told she didn’t have to wear a brace, but an hour later Isabelle Brady sat astride Patch, her knuckles white as she gripped the reins, her body rigid with fear. ‘You’re not going to go fast, are you?’ she said, her voice tremulous. ‘I really don’t want to go fast.’
‘You coming, Alice? Reckon this is a good day for us to head round the town, schoolhouse and all. Long as we can keep Patch here from falling asleep we’ll have a fine day. You okay, girls? Off we go.’
Isabelle said almost nothing for the first hour of their ride. Alice, who rode behind her, heard the occasional squeal as Patch coughed, or moved his head. Margery would lean back in her saddle and call something encouraging. But it took a good four miles before Alice could see that Isabelle had allowed herself to breathe normally, and even then she looked furious and unhappy, her eyes glittering with tears, even though they barely broke out of a slumberous walk.
For all they had achieved in getting her onto a horse, Alice could not see how on earth this was going to work. The girl didn’t want to be there. She couldn’t walk without a brace. She clearly didn’t like horses. For all they knew she didn’t even like books. Alice wondered whether she would turn up the following day, and when she occasionally met Margery’s eye, she knew she was wondering the same. She missed the way they normally rode together, the easy silences, the way she felt as if she were learning something with Margery’s every casual utterance. She missed the exhilarating gallops up the flatter tracks, yelling encouragement at each other on wheeling horses as they worked out ways to traverse rivers, fences, and the satisfaction as they jumped a flint-strewn gap. Perhaps it would be easier if the girl weren’t so sullen: her mood seemed to cast a pall over the morning, and even the glorious sunshine and soft breeze couldn’t alleviate it. In all likelihood we’ll be back to normal tomorrow, Alice told herself, and was reassured by the thought.
It was almost nine thirty by the time they stopped at the school, a small weather-boarded one-room building not unlike the library. Outside there was a small grassy area worn half bare from constant use, and a bench underneath a tree. Some children sat outside cross-legged, bent over slates, while inside others were repeating times tables in a frayed chorus.
‘I’ll wait out here,’ Isabelle said.
‘No, you won’t,’ Margery said. ‘You come on into the yard. You don’t have to get off the horse if you don’t want to. Mrs Beidecker? You in there?’
A woman appeared at the open door, followed by a clamour of children.
As Isabelle, her face mutinous, followed them into the yard, Margery dismounted and introduced the two of them to the schoolteacher, a young woman with neatly coiled blonde hair and a German accent, who, Margery explained afterwards, was the daughter of one of the overseers at the mine. ‘They got people from all over the world up there,’ she said. ‘Every tong