I opened my eyes and saw nothing. I closed them and
pulled at the fringes until the jagged edges came together and I
knew where I was. I got out of bed, trying not to disturb Carol. I
gathered my clothes from the top of the dresser, shivering almost
audibly, and felt my way into the hall.
I tiptoed to the bathroom at the end of the hall and
shut the door. I switched on the light and recoiled. I made a mental
note to change to a smaller bulb. Or try a candle.
The bathroom was the slightest bit warmer than the bedroom. My
washcloth draped on the pipe heater was deliciously warm. I washed
my face in cold water, combed my hair and dressed. I pulled the
heavy wool sweater over my head and combed my hair again.
Picking up my shoes, I switched off the light and opened the
door. I stood a moment, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness, then
felt my way along the hall to the head of the stairs. I climbed over
the barrier, put there to prevent Jennifer's trying the stairs
before we decided she was ready, and descended the carpeted stairs.
The window midway between floors admitted enough weak light to
outline three or four steps in the blackness.
The stone floor at the bottom of the stairs was cold. The warmth
of the kitchen pulled me through the dining room. I dragged a chair
close to the kitchen stove and put on my shoes. The window panes
glowed, revealing shapes in the dark room. Moisture collected on the
iron window frame and dropped to the sill.
I walked to the door--it was more a gate than a door--opened it
and stepped outside. The barn and cattle shed were dimly outlined
against the morning sky. The stone fence surrounding the yard was a
low silhouette. A few hundred yards farther, a hint of the wood
appeared in the gloom, and the gentle curve of the hills beyond, not
I listened. I strained to hear something and was rewarded with
silence. It had rained during the night. Drops fell noiselessly from
the eaves and the bare branches of the lone tree in the yard. The
air was cold, but already touched with the promise of day. And
spring. The slight breeze that brushed my face carried a delicate
sweet scent. I wanted to prolong this, the best part of the day, to
hold it in suspension. But the moment passed, and I went inside.
My tea and toast made, I crept upstairs, over the barrier and
down the hall past the bedrooms. Carol and the girls were still
asleep. At the end of the hall, I nudged the door open and stepped
into the narrow stairwell. Setting my tea cup on a step, I turned
and closed the door quietly. I recovered the cup and climbed the
steep, winding stairs to my garret. It was still dark there, the
single gabled window admitting little light. I felt my way to the
desk, pushed some papers aside and set the saucer and cup on the
The room was cold. The weather the past week had been mild, and I
had turned off the night storage heating unit. I didn't mind the
cold. Indeed, I relished it. I sat at the desk--actually it was a
dining table--warmed by the tea, and watched the day come.
As the feeble light from the window increased in intensity,
imperceptibly, the room emerged from the darkness. The square of
light illuminated the maps of the American
Southwest tacked to the wall above the desk. The desk-table, one of
those sturdy, solid oak types that had leaves at each end that
pulled out and locked in position, was covered in orderly chaos with
books, manuscripts, letters and papers. The portable typewriter
rested on a small table adjacent. More books and boxes of note cards
and photocopied materials were stacked on the floor nearby.
The soft light began to fill the room. The walls of the garret
were about three feet high. They joined the lower edge of the roof
at a horizontal timber of about eight inches square. The roof was
supported by beams of the same dimension, running from the
horizontal wall timbers to the peak, about eight feet in height.
Between each pair of facing roof beams, a magnificent
naturally-curved timber joined the beams about four feet below the
peak. All of the timbers were hand-hewn and painted black. The walls
and ceilings unfortunately were papered.
My toast was finished. I swallowed the last of the tea, switched
on the desk lamp and set to work. I had ended last evening on the
southward journey of the Domínguez-Escalante expedition in Utah. I
was working on the second complete draft of the manuscript,
clarifying and trimming. The original draft was about twice the
length it should be. Writing it had been sheer joy. Producing the
second draft was excruciating. Words are so precious. Each paring
produced an anguish that was only slightly relieved by reminding
myself that sentences are more precious than words.
So I wrote, condensing and trimming. I brought those intrepid
Spaniards through the deserts and mountain passes, experiencing the
biting cold with them and sharing their growing doubts for the
expedition's success, reducing their days to moments and their
anguish to an incident.
It was light outside now, the instant before sunrise, and I heard
faint morning noises from the floors below: drawers closing, running
water, muffled voices. The smell of bacon, the ultimate herald of
day, reached me just before Jennifer's call, a singsong
"Ah-h-h" of about two seconds duration, the ending lower
in key than the beginning. Incoherent to the uninitiated, but
communication of the first order nevertheless. We both knew that she
was summoning me to breakfast. I obeyed, leaving my explorers to
ponder whether to press on to California or to return to Santa Fé.
Jennifer was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs, smiling
a little close-mouthed smile and looking like a small cherubic
prisoner as she peered through the bars of the barrier. Carol had
transferred the movable gate when she and Jen went down. I climbed
over and gathered her up. She hugged my neck tightly, then drew back
and started telling me something very important. She knew exactly
what she wanted to say, but did not yet know the words. How
impatient she was to learn!
Cary and Merrilee had already begun eating. They were seated with
their backs to the stove at the rectangular table,
large enough for a sizable farm family. From the time the girls
threw back their bed covers each morning, they were drawn like
magnets to the kitchen. There was no heat in the bedrooms, and the
scant warmth of the bathroom did not slow their progress to the
kitchen, on cold days the very heart of the house. The big,
cast-iron, oil-fired Raeburn cooking stove was never turned off.
Carol and I sat down together, she at the end and I on the side.
Jennifer was enthroned in her high chair at the other end. Merrilee
finished her breakfast first, an event since she had decided that
she did not like eggs, and went to the window to wipe the beads of
moisture that covered the panes and made them translucent. Carol
often dried clothes on the lines above the stove, especially on
overcast days when they would not dry outside. One could almost feel
the moisture moving through the air from the hanging clothes to the
The panes were clearer now, and we could see the peanut bag and
suet hanging on the fence post just outside the window. There were
two tiny robins clinging to the bag and a blue tit at the suet. We
watched quietly a bit, then I turned back to my egg.
Almost immediately, Carol touched my arm. She was looking at
Merrilee who was whispering excitedly and pointing at the window.
The blue tit had been replaced at the suet by a male chaffinch, a
brightly colored bird that we had not seen for weeks. It remained
only a moment. Then one of the robins flew to the suet, making room
for a great tit, distinguishable from the blue tit by its black
breast and head. The robin at the suet dropped to the top of a fence
picket. Hardly ten seconds later, a hedge sparrow alighted, pecked
briskly at the fat as if it had little time to spare, and was gone.
I rose and motioned toward the dining room door. Breakfast had
been a rich feast, but the school bus would not wait for such
pleasures. Cary, Merrilee and I went upstairs, they to brush their
teeth and grab coats and books, and I to shave. I kissed them
goodbye at the head of the stairs and went into my bedroom. A few
minutes later, I heard a shouted goodbye from outside and went to the
window. I opened it and waved to Cary. She waved, closed the gate
and set off down the driveway. The short driveway led to the road,
"the bumpy road," the girls called it, that ran about two
hundred yards to the paved lane, almost obscured by trees and
I waited. The cold air began to flow gently through the open
window into the room. The sun had not pierced the overcast. A thin
layer of ground fog lay along the hedge fence at the far side of the
field. I was reminded of mornings in the Japanese countryside,
still, dripping and sweet melancholy. Yet, an English overcast day
filled me more with a sense of history than melancholy. I could
never decide why.
slammed door, hurried footsteps on the paving stones below. Merrilee
rushed through the gate, looked up and waved, dropped her books,
closed the gate, gathered up the books and flew down the road, coat
open and flapping. She caught up with Cary about fifty yards from
the paved lane and they walked the rest of the way together. They
crossed the cattle guard and waited there, blue and red dots in a
The school bus appeared suddenly up the lane in an opening in the
roadside foliage and vanished as quickly. With horizontal red and
white stripes, it glided silently through the fog, reappearing at
intervals in the green wall. It slowed and stopped at the opening of
our road. It filled the narrow lane and towered over the girls. They
turned and waved toward the house, knowing that the three of us also
were waving, then disappeared inside. The bus pulled away, the roar
of the motor in low gear reaching us, and disappeared. I closed the
Upstairs again, I found my explorers still floundering about in
the snows of Utah and set to work to extricate them. I alternately
wrote, studied the maps on the wall, consulted books and duplicated
materials and stared at the window. Sometimes when I could not solve
a particularly vexing problem or when a sentence would not form in
my head, the window commanded more and more of my attention.
Today, words, sentences, paragraphs and Spaniards fell into
place, and time no longer counted. I was with my trail makers,
feeling the cold, exhausted in mind more than body as we gave up the
quest for California and turned toward home. I wanted to lift their
spirits, to tell them what lay ahead, that posterity would note
their journey and judge it remarkable. But I kept silent. We trudged
on, my heart heavy because I could not tell them.
The door to the stairwell opened, and up they came, Jennifer in
the lead, scrambling up the knee-high stairs and babbling about
something, and Carol behind, balancing the tray in one hand and
preventing Jennifer from rolling backwards with the other. I
switched off the desk lamp, and we sat on the floor under the
Carol poured my tea and her coffee while Jennifer continued her
tale with mounting excitement between swallows
of hot chocolate and mouthfuls of bun. Carol explained, carefully
adding to Jennifer's story rather than translating. Their walk this
morning had taken them to the pasture beyond the barn where they had
seen four new lambs. They had watched the tiny lambs frolicking like
kittens. Jennifer had touched one of the new lambs that Mr. Haworth,
our landlord, brought to her.
The story finished, we sipped our drinks and ate our buns in
silence, enjoying the scant warmth from the window. A little brown
house sparrow alighted on the sill, then another. I pointed to them.
Carol tore off a piece of her bread and broke it into smaller bits.
She got up and opened the window. One of the birds was so frightened
by the movement that it burst into flight. The other hopped away
from her but did not leave the sill. A few days ago, a sparrow had
almost worked up the courage to eat from my hand.
Carol dropped the crumbs and closed the window. Instantly, two
more sparrows joined their braver sister to peck at the treat. Carol
sat down again. Jennifer climbed onto my knee for a better look.
Their repast was soon done, and the birds flew away. Ours also
was finished. Carol collected our cups and started down the stairs,
placing Jennifer on the left side where the steps were widest. On
the right, the winding stairs narrowed to nothing. I returned to my
Where was I? The Spaniards were visiting the Havasupais in their
Cataract Canyon villages. I had them homeward bound now and was as
anxious as they to complete the journey. But as I assisted the
padres at their task, I must not forget mine. Condense and Trim.
Pare the Spare. Remove the Fat. Oh, the pain when the lean clung too
tightly to the fat, and the knife sliced into it. But march on,
fathers, toward home and glory! If not glory, then perhaps
martyrdom. There are the Hopis yet to visit.
If the missionaries expected to salvage something from this
disappointing venture by sacrificing their bodies, they were
frustrated. I guided them through a short visit in the Hopi pueblos
where these staunch traditionalists assured their uninvited guests
of their friendship and their determination not to become
Christians. Though the padres continued to plead their cause, I
decided before they that their enterprise was hopeless and thrust
them back onto the dusty trail.
My impatience was growing. I carried my explorers along the path
to Zuñi, Acoma and Isleta, then northward to Santa Fé and the end
of the journey. Not to acclaim and fame unfortunately. After all,
they had been looking for a direct route between Santa Fé and
Monterey. Escalante's place in history nevertheless was assured. His
record of the expedition would be read by contemporaries and
generations of enthusiasts to follow. Too bad about you, Domínguez.
You should have kept a journal. "T'is the pen," observed
Master Mace, "gives immortality to men." That has a nice
ring and might do for a footnote. I wrote a message to myself to
verify the quotation.
My success in bringing the expedition to a conclusion was
rewarded instantly with Jennifer's call to lunch. When I rose from
my chair, two birds flew from the window sill. They flew so quickly
that I was not able to identify them.
Jennifer was waiting at the front entry. She smiled at me through
the barrier which seemed to restrain her speech as well as her body.
I climbed over the gate--I had long ago stopped taking it down and
replacing it--and gathered her up. I was immediately deluged with
what must have been a record of the morning's happenings.
In the kitchen, Carol asked whether my lunch was to be eaten on
the premises or did I want a take-out. I put Jennifer in her chair
and replied that I would eat here. Sometimes when the writing seemed
good, I would exchange a greeting for lunch and hurry back to my
garret, tray in hand, to carry on.
I am not among those, fortunates I suppose, who can write on a
schedule. I read not long ago that a certain best-selling writer,
whose name escapes me, writes five days a week, from 7:00 a.m. to
11:00 a.m. Period. No more, no less. I don't know whether to applaud
him or pity him, whoever he is. Today, with Domínguez and Escalante
safely back in Santa Fé, I felt that I could enjoy lunch downstairs
without guilt pangs.
Carol set potato soup, cucumber-and-meat sandwiches and glasses
of milk on the table. As we ate, she showed me some pottery chips
that she had found in the freshly-plowed field just beside our
garage. Jennifer had taken part in the relic-hunting, but she gave
her undivided attention to lunch until her soup and half her
sandwich were devoured. Then she climbed down from her chair,
sandwich in hand, and into my lap. She babbled for five minutes
between bites and ended abruptly. Sandwich and tale done, she slid
off my lap, picked up a book from the floor, said "Bye"
and walked from the room.
Lunch was soon finished. I placed my dishes in the sink, pulled
on my jacket and stepped outside. I walked slowly on the stone
pavement toward the small wing of the house that was now unused. At
one time, it had been the kitchen with its cooking fireplace. When
the new section was added to the house during the 1930s, with the
new kitchen on the ground floor and the bathroom above, the old
kitchen became a storeroom, housing the coal supply and the useless
paraphernalia like storerooms everywhere.
I stopped and listened. I heard only the distant lowing of a cow
and, a minute later, a bird singing in the tree in the yard. Even
these sounds were muffled. The overcast had grown darker and lower
during the morning, almost merging with the wispy ground fog. Large
drops fell from the tree, wet from the heavy air. Almost seven
months we had lived at Durham's Farm, but the quiet continued to be
a discovery and the peace of mind it brought me, a new sensation.
The kitchen door opened, and Carol and Jen came out, bundled
against the cold and carrying folded umbrellas. We set out at an
unhurried pace down the bumpy road. On our right lay the black,
plowed field ready for planting. The field had produced grain and
wool for centuries. A single tree, still leafless, somehow had
escaped the ax. On the left, a smaller field in pasture. It was due
to be plowed tomorrow. The far side of the field was bordered by a
thick hedge fence. Jennifer stopped and pointed toward the hedge and
said a few words, unintelligible except that we knew what she meant.
She reminded us of it each time we walked the road.
A few months ago, standing at my garret window, I saw a fox dart
from a hedge at the lower end of the far field on my left. It ran in
clear view, stopped momentarily to look behind, then glided along
the hedge, under a board fence, and lay down in the tall grass of a
lane running from the front of the house to the pasture below. I ran
down the attic stairs, almost falling, calling to the others to
watch for the fox. Jennifer was in her bedroom and we went together
to the bathroom window. Carol, Cary and Merrilee stepped outside
from the kitchen door and looked up at us. At the instant I pointed,
the fox was up and running. What a beautiful, brilliantly-colored
little creature! He dropped under the board fence on the other side
of the lane and ran along the far side of the field. Then he turned
abruptly and disappeared into the hedge.
I had not heard the hounds until that moment. Within seconds, the
pack appeared, followed closely by the hunt. In a
minute our gray-green world was splashed with color. What
magnificent horses and beautiful, smartly-dressed people, filling
the grassy lane and the bumpy road and even our driveway. Jennifer
jumped up and down, squeezed my hand and jabbered loudly.
She stopped suddenly. She was looking at the hedge at the far
side of the field. While we had been marveling at the spectacle
immediately below us, the fox had been caught, killed and was now
being displayed. I had had a hard time explaining that to Cary and
Merrilee. I had assumed that Jennifer had not understood.
Carol took Jennifer's hand and we continued our walk. We soon
reached the end of our road and crossed the cattle guard. Turning
right, we walked on the edge of the pavement. There was no mown
shoulder. The local authorities had chosen to leave the roadside
"weeds" and "brush" uncut. Their wisdom would be
repaid soon with wildflowers.
About fifty yards down the road, we came to the Cripps's house,
our nearest neighbors and dear friends. Mary Cripps was a wizard at
wine-making and growing sprouts, and her turkeys were in great
demand at Christmas time. Months ago, she had volunteered and still
found time to sit with our children frequently on Tuesday evenings
when Carol and I sang with the choral group in nearby Kingham.
We were almost past the house when we saw Mary working in a
flower bed. She looked up and waved. We turned into the driveway and
exchanged greetings. Carol asked what flowers we might expect to
enjoy in her yard with the coming of spring. She mentioned a few and
added that the wood adjacent to her house was lovely in the spring
when it was carpeted with bluebells.
On the road once more, we walked along the edge of the wood. It
was tangled with dense undergrowth. There was an occasional narrow,
low pathway where a child might stoop and disappear into a green,
private world. Just a month ago, the wood had been a white fantasy.
A light rain had been followed by freezing temperatures, then a
slight thaw, then snow and, overnight, a hard freeze. Branches and
undergrowth the next morning were coated with ice and sparkled white
and blue like so many gemstones.
We reached the end of the wood and walked alongside a pasture.
About a dozen cows grazed near the fence. Crossing the road, we
reached our destination. There on a small loading platform was our
milk, unpasteurized, unhomogenized and unstolen. As I exchanged five
empty bottles from my rack for the full bottles, Jennifer pointed
across the road and jabbered. She undoubtedly was remembering the
gigantic bonfire last fall when villagers celebrated Guy Fawkes Day.
Scrap wood of all sorts was piled up for days before the event.
After the people gathered at nightfall and the fire was lighted,
more materials, anything combustible it seemed, were thrown into the
flames that soon leaped twenty feet high. Carol was shocked almost
to distraction when an old bureau that she might have paid a
generous price for at an auction was thrown atop the heap and
consumed in less than five minutes.
We started home, in a hurry now for scattered large rain drops
had begun to fall. I shifted the heavy milk rack from hand to hand,
all the while dissuading Jennifer who insisted that she could carry
it. The wind grew stronger, chilling us through. We were almost
running before we reached the house. The warm kitchen had never
seemed more a haven as we stood near the stove and drank hot
chocolate in silence. The rain fell steadily now, pattering against
the windows and making little puddles on the stone walkway outside
the kitchen window.
Jennifer finished first and left the kitchen. Carol and I cleared
the dishes from lunch. She began drawing water in the sink as I left
the kitchen. In the dining room, I stopped across from Jen. She sat
in the window seat, her back to the window, completely absorbed in
her book. Her blond hair shone in the light, in contrast with her
face which was in shadow. I started to say something, but decided
against it and went on.
Back to my eyrie and Father Francisco Tomás Hermenegildo Garcés.
Garcés was one of my favorite persons. It was going to be difficult
to condense the manuscript at this point without losing some of the
drama of his story. I had already cut the Garcés material in half
in an earlier revision, and I still had enough for a short
biography. But condense I must.
I picked up a book and stared at a page. I looked at the window
sill. No birds. I wondered whether they still ran the
most-unforgettable-character articles. I placed the book carefully
on the desk, aligned it with the desk edge, sat back, and slumped in
my chair. I stared at my shoes. £3. Marks and Spencer.
I shivered. I leaned down and switched on the electric heater
under the table to the lowest setting. I returned to the manuscript,
determined to focus, but soon found myself idly turning pages.
The task was not simply difficult; it was painful. I read. I
pondered. I looked at maps and stared at the wall. I typed a
sentence, and another, then lined both out. I leaned back in my
chair and studied the ceiling beams. They must have been painted
just before we moved in last September. I wondered whether this
attic room could be enlarged. I got up and walked to the far end of
the room--it was about twenty feet long by fifteen feet wide--and
opened the door to the small storeroom. It held nothing but some rug
fragments. Knocking out this wall would add about eight feet to the
room, but more important, it would add another gabled window. I made
a mental note of this and dropped it into the compartment of my
brain where I had stored dozens of other notes outlining what I
would do with the house if it were my responsibility. But it was
not, and the manuscript was. I returned to my chair.
I read, stared at the corner, tried to form new sentences in my
head, fingers hovering over typewriter keys. Nothing. I got up and
went to the window. It was raining softly. The wind had stopped, and
all was still. I remained at the window, searching the land and the
air for any sign of motion. After five minutes, a small hawk, an
immature one I guessed, flew from my right, angling away from the
house and to the left. It became smaller and smaller, then a speck,
then disappeared, still in flight. I waited yet, but there was no
other movement save that of the lightly-falling rain, and that made
no sound. What inexplicable tranquility. A wet idyll. I returned to
I read through ten pages of the manuscript and concluded that I
could not spare a single sentence. My mind went blank. I stared at
the maps pinned to the wall over the table, then over the debris on
the table, mentally ticking off the content of each stack of papers.
I picked up a little book that had arrived in the mail yesterday:
Early 17th Century Missions of the Southwest. It had been sent
by a friend in Tucson, a bona fide character.
The stairway door below opened, and up the troop came. My void
suddenly filled with four enthusiastic females and the delicious
aromas of tea and freshly-baked bread. I was delivered.
The girls took their orange drinks and slices of bread from the
tray and found seats, Cary beneath the window, Jennifer
on the top step and Merrilee on the deep sill of the small stairwell
window. Carol set the tray on the floor in the gable window's light,
and we sat on opposite sides of it. She poured our tea and told me
about her afternoon.
A fruitful one it was. She and Jen had driven to Moreton-in-Marsh
for grocery shopping. Returning to the car, loaded with bags, she
stopped on impulse in an antique shop and bought a leather-bound David
Copperfield, not very old, but a beautiful volume and reasonably
priced. Taking a roundabout way home, she discovered a delightful
little pottery in a village neither of us knew existed. She
purchased a small cream pitcher and decided that we must go there
together. Just a mile or two farther, they happened purely by chance
on Warren Hastings's home. I made a note, a written one this time,
to schedule a visit. I am fascinated with Hastings.
Cary and Merrilee then vied with each other to tell what had
happened at school. Cary had been invited to a friend's home for tea
tomorrow. She told about a new song the chorus was learning. The
chorus had six members; the village school of twenty-seven pupils
had a small reservoir of suitable voices. Merrilee had had a hard
time convincing the cook that she did not care for sprouts. She had
to eat a few bites anyway. The rain had kept them indoors at noon,
always a crisis. The absence of comment on lessons meant that all
had gone well. Carol had picked up the girls on her way home. They
often walked home, about a mile and a half, but we tried to arrange
a ride on wet days.
Carol stood up, signalling an end to tea. Glasses and cups were
returned to the tray, and the four of them descended the stairs. The
stairwell door closed with a click, and it was quiet.
I sat still a moment, then got up, stretched, and walked to the
window. The rain had stopped. The dense overcast was breaking up
into thin horizontal layers of cloud, still dark on the bottom,
almost white on top. The sun shone through the open spaces, its
first appearance of the day. The wet grass glistened, and wisps of
steam began to silver the chocolate-colored fields.
I lingered at the window, held there by the warm sunshine and the
view. I had spent far too many hours at my window, meditating,
trying to sort things out or simply enjoying. The land, hedged
pastures, plowed fields and small patches of woods, sloped gently
downward to the road, about a half mile in the distance, that led to
the school and the next village. Beyond the road, rolling pastures
and larger woods rose just a bit more steeply to a ridge about two
On the far left, a car appeared on the horizon and then
disappeared in the trees. It would be passing the Cross Hands now,
the historic old pub on the road between Chipping Norton and Moreton.
On the right, below the horizon, trees blocked our village from
view. Only the top of the country house could be seen. Did Constable
paint in the Cotswolds? If he missed this view, that was his loss.
Enough of this! To work! I switched off the heater and sat down.
Without looking at the manuscript--I knew it almost by heart--I
began typing. I was all of a sudden confident and determined. Words,
sentences, paragraphs, episodes were discarded without remorse. With
only an occasional glance at the manuscript pages, I worked rapidly,
typing at my top speed. Rough, but the next draft will smooth it
out. I stopped and read the pages I had just typed and made some
pencil corrections. I skimmed the manuscript pages. Had I omitted
any incident, any conclusion, that simply could not be left out? No.
good. Nine pages superseded by five; that also was good. And I liked
what was there.
Continue. I had already severely pared the material on Garces's
background, before his arrival in Pimería Alta. I had linked this
Franciscan to his Jesuit forebear, Kino, in place and vision. Now I
guided him through his first three expeditions into the frontier
regions of Sonora, firmly establishing his role as frontier
missionary. More important, Garcés's reputation as one of the
premier explorers of the American West was beginning to emerge,
intact, perhaps enhanced. I brought him near the climax of the third
journey to the Colorado River, poised to cross and enter the
Colorado Desert and California which was beckoning him to his
destiny. Then I heard Jennifer's call to dinner.
Curses! I pondered telling Carol to start dinner without me, but
I thought better of it. That would be betraying a faith. Jennifer
would not understand just yet. Wait here, Garcés, poised.
As I left the stairwell, I met Cary coming from her bedroom where
she had been reading. I took her hand and we walked down the hall
and the stairs. Jennifer was waiting for us at the bottom. I
lifted Cary over the barrier and wondered, as I had wondered scores
of times, whether I could do a flatfooted leap over it. I decided,
as I had decided as many times, that I would not risk a broken jaw
on the stone floor by trying. I climbed over, swept up Jen who was
already jabbering to Cary, and we all went into the kitchen.
We were right on time. Carol was just setting the serving dishes
on the table: battered fish, corn, baked potatoes, a lettuce salad
and slices of homemade bread. Merrilee came in from outside. She had
been on the tree swing in the front yard. Sometimes, swinging, she
was not of this world. She stared into space, transported who knows
There was a surprising lack of comment at first, indicating a
strenuous afternoon. The edge of hunger gone, conversation began.
Cary remembered a discovery. She told us excitedly about a secret
place she had found in a copse where three fields joined about two
hundred yards from the front of the house. I could see the little
thicket from my study window. She described her hideaway in the
greatest detail, the opening in the foliage, the narrow path around
a "little lake," and a brushy cave on its edge just big
enough for herself and two or three friends and a picnic lunch. She
begged Carol and me to come see this new wonder which she had
already named "Fossil Pond," and we said that we would go
down with her tomorrow.
Merrilee had listened wide-eyed to Cary's description, and her
excitement had grown with each new detail. She said she would like
to see it right now. Cary promised to take her down after dinner.
Rice pudding for dessert, and they were into their Wellingtons
and burst through the door, running and struggling to get into their
coats. Jennifer climbed down from her chair, carried her empty
pudding dish to the sink without a word, and walked briskly from the
room as if to say that she had no more time for us. Carol and I
cleared the dishes.
I excused myself and returned to my garret. The room was darker,
the light from the window barely illuminating the table top. I
switched on the desk lamp and stood there, collecting my thoughts,
filtering, funneling, focusing until I once again stood with Garcés
on the banks of the Colorado, poised. I read the last page of the
revision and skimmed the manuscript account of my padre's wanderings
in the Colorado Desert. I decided that I should not work on that
story this evening. There was too little time. I turned off the lamp
and went downstairs.
The house was quiet. I walked into the kitchen to stand by the
stove. The study had been cold. I lifted the teakettle and felt the
side. I added a little water from the tap, put the kettle on the gas
stove and switched on the burner.
I stood at the sink, looking through the window. There was
absolutely no movement in my view, far or near. No branch, no blade
of grass. There was no sound but the faintest hissing of the gas
stove. My reverie was dissolved gently by the bubbling, then
rumbling of the kettle. I turned off the gas and made my tea.
I stood in the open doorway a moment, cup in hand, then stepped
outside. Jennifer was leaning against the stone fence, looking at
some chickens in the cattle yard scratching in the straw. Carol sat
on a bench against the house, writing. I had seen neither of them
from the kitchen window.
slanting rays of the evening sun cast long shadows and bathed the
front of the house. The rich, cream-colored Cotswold stone glowed. I
sat on the bench, stretched out my legs, and closed my eyes. The sun
warmed my face ever so slightly. A bird sang in the distance. I
opened my eyes to see the sun touch the horizon, golden through the
leafless trees and silhouetting Chastleton House, making it seem
larger than it was. Carol looked up from her writing pad and
watched. The sun dropped quickly, changing color from gold to
orange, and it was gone.
Carol called Jennifer, and we got up. Cary and Merrilee were
coming up the path, coats unbuttoned, hand in hand. I waited for
them at the door. Inside, the girls hung up their coats and took off
their boots, whispering quietly to each other, then went upstairs to
get ready for bed. Not a word about Cary's hideaway. They had
decided apparently that we should discover it for ourselves tomorrow
when they showed it to us.
While Carol helped the girls get ready for bed, I busied myself
in the living room, making a fire. That done, I washed my hands--as
usual, I handled the coal with my hands instead of tongs or
shovel--and sat in the plush chair in front of the fireplace to
watch the fire. The chair had so little cushion that it was almost
like squatting on the floor, but it was comfortable.
A new fire fascinates me. I am filled with mixed emotions of
anxiety, until the flames assure me that it will survive, and a
sense of beginning something new and promising. Even a coal fire,
lacking the flame of oak or pine, arouses these emotions.
Running footsteps on the stairs--it sounded more like
tumbling--and the girls came in to say goodnight. Jennifer gave me a
hug and kiss and went out. The other two, immediately on entering
the room, began a string of questions and comments that announced
The Big Stall. I listened and responded for a minute, lectured
briefly on the perils of running down stairs, then herded them from
the room and to the bottom of the stairs. Realizing that they were
indeed going to bed in spite of urgent, unanswered questions and
unfinished tales, they gave me kisses and hugs and started up the
stairs. Carol helped them over the gate at the top, said good night
and came down.
The fire glowed now, and the chill was gone. Carol sat on the
couch and took out her writing pad. I switched on the lamp and
picked up my book. What now, Lord Peter? This evening, we must bring
this perplexing case to a conclusion. I think the old lady committed
suicide. The niece's motives were much too obvious for her to have
done it. We shall see.
An hour later, I closed the book. The fire had burned down. I got
up, stirred the coals and stood with my back to the fire. Carol had
finished her letter while I was assisting Wimsey and now was reading
a new book. I asked her about it, and she replied that it was a
sympathetic recent biography of Mary Stuart. She had just begun but
already was deeply absorbed in it. She had become quite an authority
during the past year on British kings, queens, pretenders and
I moved closer to the fire and felt the heat on my legs. Confound
it, Wimsey. I thought I was a step ahead of you on this one. The
niece did it, after all. I was as much in the dark as everyone in
I sat on the couch beside Carol, and we stared into the fire. She
suddenly remembered a story about our fireplace that Mary Cripps had
told her. Many old fireplaces, in an age before electric heat, had
stone seats built right into the face of the fireplace, on each side
of the opening. As the fire heated the stone, the seats became warm.
A fireplace seat must have been the most popular spot in the house
on a winter's evening. As late as the 1930s, our fireplace,
constructed of the same Cotswold stone as the house exterior, had
fireplace seats. They did not survive a modernization of the house
sometime during that decade. They were not torn out, simply covered
with new stone. They are still there, waiting to be uncovered. I
added this mental note to my what-I-would-do-if-the-house-were-mine
The fire was almost gone, only a faint glow remained. I got up
and stirred the ashes, uncovering two small smoldering lumps that
immediately burst into a low flame. Carol came to stand beside me as
I probed the ashes for more live coals. I found no more, only these
two. She put her arm around my waist and we walked from the living
room into the hall and up the stairs.
Getting ready for bed was a fast process because the bedrooms
were cold. As I brushed my teeth, the events of the day raced
through my mind. The narrative that I had written flew like a ticker
tape across my brain. I re-read in my mind the manuscript pages that
I had skimmed after dinner.
I stopped brushing abruptly and looked up. Garcés was lost in
the Colorado Desert on his third expedition. Precisely why was he
lost? Had his guides deserted him, as my manuscript states, or had
he refused to follow their advice? An important difference. I must
clear that up. Laying my toothbrush down, I picked up the pad and
pencil from the shelf over the sink and wrote a note as the foaming
toothpaste dripped from my mouth. I replaced the pencil and pad and
I stepped from the bathroom into the hall and shivered. I turned
back to switch off the pipe heater but decided to leave it on. I
went down the stairs to check the fire one last time. I turned on
the light at the bottom of the stairs and went into the living room.
The last two embers were gone. I stirred the ashes and found no
more. I switched off the hall light and went up the stairs.
The light from the bathroom, the door only slightly ajar, dimly
illuminated the hall. I went into Cary's bedroom, then Merrilee's
and Jennifer's, to kiss them and listen to their sleeping sounds.
I switched off the bathroom light, and the house was dark. I
stood for a moment in the hall and listened. All was quiet. I felt
my way through the door and to the bed. Pulling back the covers
gently, I slipped into bed. It was warm. Carol likely had read a few
minutes on my side of the bed, then turned off the light. She
stirred as I settled back and moved close to me, taking my arm in
her hands and resting her head on the pillow beside my shoulder. She
breathed slowly and evenly, and I knew she was asleep.
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, as every muscle and
nerve in my body released and came to rest. It was a good day.