This was my first completed novel, originally called "Bittern's Last Folly" and sprung from a dream. As I became submerged in its draft #1, the intention grew to write an epic story brimming with plunder from the late 19th century: Imperialist Victorian attitudes bristling against the forces of social, sexual and intellectual revolutions; hallucinogenic descriptions, deft satire, gothic heartbreak! The pure delight of researching, imagining and creating this world was incredible, then appreciating the flaws of those early drafts became a priceless exercise for me as a writer. The eventual result, many drafts later, is, blush, still my favourite work.
We have no power, no will, no sense; I lie,
I should not then thus feel this misery.
John Donne - The Calm
The unwieldy head of Bovent Bittern appeared in the doorway to the Music Room. He lumbered towards his wife, who was cradling her violin in its case.
“Alessia! I’m leaving for the Americas.” He waved a piece of paper, closely scribbled with blue ink. “Pomfret tells me he has been smoking the most superlative tobacco with an Indian tribe. It’s likely bunkum, but here: ‘the tobacco of the Karok Indians has a flavour not unlike that imported by the Turks. Nicotiana Bigelovii genus’ – ha!” Bittern cuffed his wife’s shoulder jovially, “damn fool thinks I’ve never smoked the stuff! He found a nugget of gold in a stream, too, or so he claims. But I shall meet these tribesmen of his and see for myself.”
Alessia pulled at the fringe of her paisley shawl and looked down at her pale ochre slippers. Her husband’s valet, well-versed in her taste, had bought them in the Atlas Mountains a year earlier. After that escapade, Bittern had declared how perfectly a Berber hamlet would suit his southern pastureland and sketched a sort of Kasbah-cum-grain silo for his architect to elaborate on. Alessia neither knew nor cared why no Berber hamlet had materialised, but her slippers had lasted well. “What carat was the gold?” she asked. “You do know I hate the kind which is too yellow.”
“In that case, my dove, I shall be sure not to pick up any gold of an unpleasant hue. And I shan’t be gone for more than a month or two, you’ll barely have time to miss me!”
Now Alessia lowered her brows and looked away.
“Really, you shan’t,” Bittern stamped a kiss on his wife’s forehead then strode off to his Study.
Landing onto his reading chair with a wallop, he allowed Ming and Ling, his two Burmese monkeys, to climb his legs and he exchanged Pomfret’s letter for the Fenimore Cooper novel he had begun earlier that morning. He clouted the air as the hero embarked on the Mohawk River.
The four gargantuan desks in the centre of the room were pushed together to form a plateau. Across it were strewn the muddled fruits of a life split between adventure and contemplation. Dead flies and pecks of tobacco crumbled darkly in the crevices of ammonites, buddhas and old bones; laid out on an ancient camel blanket, its tassels withering into greasy tails, were sheaves of Bittern's own architectural doodlings. Over the debris teetered a few dozen towers of books and pamphlets, jaded yet not quite daring to topple, like altar servants at the close of Easter week.
Once the echo of her husband’s boots had faded, Alessia shifted her bulk and hoped that he might still be away when she reached her largest, most grotesque stage. Her frame was desperately ill-suited to her swollen condition, though as usual she tried her hardest not to dwell on the fact that another four months of growing had yet to be endured, stretching the skin of her belly to bursting point and then the – “Oh!" A sharpness jabbed at Alessia's throat and the vase of white roses blurred before her eyes, just as the coffered ceiling of her bedchamber had done during that terrible first confinement. Drawing in a breath, she reached for the violin case, undid its clasp and took the instrument once more into her slender arms.
“If only,” the notes seemed to sigh, “if only he would stay away forever.”
High above Mr and Mrs Bitterns’ heads, on the second floor of Bittern Manor, was a room walled with bookshelves, ranged so that no volume jutted out a hair’s breadth further than its neighbour. Muted light fell in from two lofty windows and at the end of a thick white pipe, a ceramic stove squatted curmudgeonly before the hearth, bricked up almost a half-century earlier due to an illicit spate of gunpowder experiments on this very site. In a corner stood a pianola, a lace mantilla covering its yellowed keys. Over the inertia of the two small desks in the centre of the room, the painted ceiling crawled with curling leaves and wild animals circled a Classical temple. Two hirsute old men with rather bestial faces leered at the ancient musical instruments in their grasp, while the creatures, their faces were oddly human, were absorbed in being whatever species they were – the hedgehogs snuffled rudely after grubs, a leopard-like beast seemed abnormally aggrieved, and long-bodied rodents twirled themselves into furry garlands. This was the Schoolroom, where generations of children had been ensnared on every living morning – except Sundays – and now it was Miranda Bittern’s turn.
“The acc–omp–lished young lady does not pres–ume to interrupt her elders,” read Miranda, following the words with her finger and sitting up as straight as she could. “Rather, she listens attent–ively to the counsel they offer and she always obeys. With regard to her future marri-age, she must – ”
“Ahem,” coughed Miss Nottage, a roundish woman in her mid-forties, whose chin sagged in permanent dissatisfaction. “That is enough reading for today. We still have time for a spot of embroidery – oh!” She seized her best fly swatter and swished across the room. “Ha… ha-ha!” The fly terminated with a single sweep, its zealous assassin smoothed her skirts and returned her attention to her pupil.
The flowery juniper wood smell of Miranda’s desk wafted up as Miss Nottage took away The Habits of Decent Gentlewomen and replaced it with a piece of linen stretched over a frame. Miranda’s thin fingers clenched her needle and she began her daily battle with the thread that frayed and bent each time she tried to pass it through the needle.
“Heavens!” Miss Nottage exclaimed a few minutes later, putting down her own beautifully executed silk pansies. “Have you still not managed to thread it?” She rustled over to her pupil again. “I thread them for you every day, Miss Miranda. Now that you are eight years old, you ought to be able to thread them for yourself. Wet the end again, snip off the ragged bit, now try. Oh, really! And again.”
“I will, but… Mama and Papa don’t have to thread needles, do they?”
Miss Nottage gripped the edges of Miranda’s desk for a moment, staring into the little girl’s grey eyes. “Every decent young English lady is able to thread her needle.”
Miranda snipped and licked the thread as she was told, not daring to ask whether this rule also applied to half-Italian young ladies, decent or not.
On the eve of Bovent Bittern’s departure for the Americas, the Dowager Lady Cassandra Bittern crossed the principal threshold at Bittern Park and observed her daughter-in-law edging down the Grand Staircase.
“Alessia is so… comme il faut, for a Continental,” Lady Cassandra murmured to her son, before raising her voice to declare that her daughter-in-law’s gown was of the most positively correct shade of mauve. Then the visitor allowed her plump arm to be taken, and she swept on to the Green Dining Room. Pacing among these walls crowded with gilded lilies, frogs and roses, she complained of the dreadful discomfort she had suffered during her ten-minute carriage ride.
Thus unburdened, Lady Cassandra sank onto a dining chair and glared vigorously at her son. “Of course, whatever one hears of Mr James and Mr Twain and so forth is all very well, but they are still a grossly uncivilised people. Childlike, frankly. Why any person would wish to visit their nursery of a country quite eludes one. And Bovent, I hope that your letters will describe the picturesque, if anything of that nature is to be found, rather than those peculiar pagan rituals of which you are so fond. One felt quite indisposed after you wrote of that appalling funeral in… eh, was it Pondicherry, or some such horrid place? You must never again write such distasteful fiddle-faddle, do you hear? Now –” pursing her withered lips, she halted to supervise the pouring of sauce Hollandaise onto the baked salmon before her.
“Very well, Mamma. I shan’t write you a single word, and then you shall have nothing to vex you.”
“Precisely in the centre, Hobbes,” Lady Cassandra urged the butler, then she turned to examine her daughter-in-law, placing a hefty, heavily ringed hand on the expanse of white damask between them. “Alessia! I can only imagine that a dearth of eligible young men in Tuscany induced you to marry this brute. My careless son who will insist on disappearing abroad for months at a time to goggle at Hindoo parades and the like, leaving his mother to languish.”
“Madam, you forget that you always decamp to London after my departures, hardly thinking of me whilst you meddle in the intrigues of Town,” murmured Bittern, satisfied that his mother would not hear him. He poked his fingers in his waistcoat pocket then pulled out his watch. Carefully, not in the way a brute might do, and reminded himself to tell Taverner about the broken chain. It was almost nine o’clock, which meant his mother would not be leaving for another three hours. His hand tightened around the watch and he heard a tiny crick – when he opened his palm, the last piece of chain had detached itself altogether. He stuffed the watch back in its pocket.
“Of course Lady Cassandra, he will write with tales of… the picturesque… to inspire your poetry,” Alessia was saying, having taken scant notice of anything her husband had ever written or said. She had been reared with the notion that once acquired, a husband should not be pestered, which also meant the wife was left free to develop her own decorous pursuits. She folded her perfectly formed hands in her perfectly correct mauve lap.
Lady Cassandra chewed her salmon apathetically, having decided that a brief silence would suit, as it usually did following her pronouncements.
“And what of Miranda?” she asked, as the pudding dishes were laid out. “Now, the child must be…ah, most timely, that birth. Like any decent person, I consider the announcement of progeny within a year of the wedding frankly improper, howsoever the Monarch and her German husband may have comported themselves. Naturally, that was some years ago and one has no wish to speak ill of the late Prince Albert, but really...”
“Miranda’s slightly too tall, but otherwise unremarkable,” replied Bittern. “You might see for yourself if you were to call in the afternoon some time.”
His mother looked at him as though he had suggested that she accompany him to a Polynesian orgy. “Call in the afternoon? In the country? Where did you learn such a disgustingly arriviste notion?” She folded her arms and glared roundly at her half-eaten custard. “I shall see the child when she is old enough to dine with me.”
The House quietened after Bittern’s departure, and the faded green glow of summer crept around the Park. Alessia’s bloated body drove her to the point of hysteria, so she shut herself away in her bedchamber throughout each day until, late one rainy afternoon, she summoned Miranda to the Music Room and indulged her with a piece of Madeira cake and a violin recital.
To the little girl, each note seemed more and more furious with the one before. Mama’s eyes were closed, and the creases had left her brow. On the low table separating them, Miranda noticed some letters covered in her father’s handwriting. At last, the violin was laid down, its player leaned back on the chaise longue and sighed.
“That was nice, Mama, thank you.” Miranda stared at the letters. “Can you play another?”
“Nice,” said her mother, “nice… hm. I would not say that, I would describe it splendidamente dolorosa. I will play another, but you should not say at the end that it’s nice.” She took up her bow and squeaked it slowly across the strings, trilling lightly, then thrumming faster and faster, whilst Miranda tried to think of words other than nice.
“What would Papa say, do you think?” she asked eventually.
“Il Signor…” her mother’s gaze fell on the letters.
“Is he having a ni – a splendid time, do you think?”
“Ecco,” she motioned to the letters with a tired finger. “Read for yourself.”
Miranda lunged forward, “Shall I read them aloud to you, Mama?”
“No.” Her mother leaned back and pouted. She stretched out her feet towards the logs flaming behind the iron nymphs of the grate, for she hated chills, even mild August ones. “I close my eyes.”
25th June 1873
My dear Alessia,
We docked yesterday. Crossing was tolerable, bed hard and narrow, cabin well-aired. The ship was entirely populated by dreadful commercial types, braying on about an epidemic of equine influenza, which for some reason they think will lead to a decline in silver prices. I’d have heard far more interesting conversations if I’d gone steerage, for sure.
Went on deck as we entered New York Harbour, which is surprisingly populous, and dominated by the gigantic French lady with her torch. Madame Liberty is a little brash for my tastes, although at least she isn’t bogged down by one of those absurdly oversized crinolines so beloved of her Parisienne compatriots. The crowds on the quayside were full of pale faces, people who are no more Indian than I; what an ass Pomfret is! I have not seen a single Indian here, in fact, but there are Negroes aplenty, all wearing European costumes.
New York itself is not altogether displeasing, although here one has the odd sense of never being truly outdoors. I shall venture westwards at the end of the week. I’m seeing a fellow tomorrow who wants to sell a goldfield in California.
I shan’t be away much longer, never fear. You may telegraph me if you like, I will send a poste restante address as soon as I can.
Miranda re-read the description of Madame Liberty and looked up at her mother’s great round stomach, under its folds of steely blue satin. It seemed quite unbelievable that behind them lay a tiny baby.
“It is what happens to married ladies,” had been Miss Nottage’s explanation of the phenomenon. Nanny had not been able to elaborate either.
Miranda reached for the second letter.
San Pedro, California
14th July 1873
My dear Alessia,
This whole escapade has been a farce, truly. That rock-strewn tract of land brought me only tedium. Its stream, which I was assured ran plentifully with gold, proved to be nothing more than a cracked, silty trench. The hired men dug for three weeks to find bucket after bucket of sand down there, nothing else. I was glad to see the back of the place. There are men out here, desperate men, who stay on and pummel the earth with their own hands in the hope of finding gold, and who grow wilder and more sunburnt by the day as their labour brings them nothing in reward. They often die out here, desperate, envious, failures; leaving only debts, and families in a hurry to forget all about them.
The Indians I did eventually meet were quite dull. Not a scrap of war paint, no archery, and no interest in ritual dances or lacrosse or any of the things they do in novels. I tried their tobacco; I can only say it pales beside my Erinmore blend.
So, westwards I’ve come. My first sight of the ocean span was impressive – myriad hidden possibilities. Blasted Taverner forgot to bring out my botany case, so I could only gather a few seaweed samples. Then he made a fuss about being a poor swimmer, miserable wretch. He helped me prise some molluscs off a rock, quite ordinary once I examined them, then got himself swept away by the tiniest wave. Had to pull him to shore myself – the man’s a liability. Of course, back on land he shewed me no gratitude and is still sulking.
So I went on down the coast south to the port at San Pedro Bay, where I boarded a ship for Acapulco. I got no further than my cabin, because the flimsy little cot where I should probably not have slept a wink, subsided with a crack and a creak when I sat on it.
Now I am having to wait five hours for the train back to New York. Taverner is seeing to the trunks and will probably forget everything, so I have taken charge of my tobacco myself. From New York I’ll head south. The lower part of this measly continent might be worth a look.
I hope you are feeling as well as can be expected. I shall soon have a poste restante address.
The candles in the Music Room were burned down almost to their wicks, and the light from outside was dimming. Poor Papa sounded terribly cross, but perhaps this meant he would return sooner and finally allow her to play with his monkeys, or even tell Miss Nottage that young ladies who were half-Italian should not be obliged to thread needles…
Opposite, Mama lay still on her chaise longue, her eyelids twitching as she dreamed her secret dreams; Miranda watched her for a while, wondering if the baby inside her was sleeping too. She stole up to her, closer than she’d could recall ever having been, and listened to the whispering breaths. Her mother’s skin glimmered, golden in the firelight, almost the colour of an apricot. Those dark brows were slightly furrowed and her dark hair had started to come loose from its jewelled pins. Miranda touched her own face, wishing she had more of that warm colouring… just a little, though, not like the wild sunburnt men in Papa’s letter.
Lightly, Mama stirred, her lower lip pulsing as if she were about to speak. Miranda stepped back for a last look. Mama was never very kind when she woke up, and besides, Miss Nottage would not return for at least an hour. So she slipped out through the far door into the East Corridor and skipped along through the series of massive rooms, pausing to glance at her favourite paintings, all the way to her father’s study where the adorable Burmese monkeys, Ming and Ling, were dozing. This was not disobedience, for nobody had ever said that she mightn’t look at them and in any case, she had no way of finding the key to their cage.