Diviner – new novel in progress

This is chapter one of Diviner, Craig’s current novel in progress.

Chapter 1

There’s no sin in being old. Lily Croft knows that. She’s seen real sins in her life, and being old isn’t one of them.

Most of the year her father was a farmer, but for two weeks each April he was a horse-buyer.

Horses die all the time. They serve us and die. For all their strength they’re surprisingly delicate creatures. A badly placed hoof in a gopher patch, the chance to eat too much grain, an untended saddle sore and their story is over.

Before planting Father took the train from Manitoba to the soft, wet farms of southern Ontario and booked the two livestock railcars that he would fill from the annual horse auctions. Standing in pastures and paddocks he’d wait until the early sales were done, letting the best animals go for top dollar, so he could clean up the dregs, cheap to bring home to Thornhill.

In 1900, the year before the Queen ought to have died, he made one exception. For Lily.

As usual her father brought home two score animals, twenty draft horses and twenty riding horses for resale. This year the temporary herd included one better-than-average roan for his almost-grown daughter. A horse she would be allowed to name.

From the Barnsley rail-head the unfinished government road allowances to Thornhill add another jig-jog forty miles father could usually take at his own pace, but he wasn’t traveling alone this year. Three others rode with him and they hurried him along.

They were not neighbours or anyone the Crofts knew from the nearby Hutterite Colony. And they were people to be remarked on.

The first you’d have noticed because of his red serge tunic. Constable Combe was a freshly minted Mountie; a member of western Canada’s constabulary, the North West Mounted Police. Acutely aware of that dignity Combe rode with a jutting chin. His right hand had business of its own, busily cultivating a moustache, as if that bit of facial hair would make him equal to the task.

The second rider, though less colourfully dressed, was the more impressive man. He wore the blue serge and gold braid of a commissioned officer in Her Majesty Queen Victoria’s Imperial Army. His face recalled a British bulldog who had started many fights and ended more. Twenty years older that the constable he occupied that indeterminate phase of military life, after one has reached a rank beyond which only war and the violent death of one’s superiors can offer serious hope of advancement. The start of a campaign beard occupied a face normally clean-shaven and a large revolver, whose grip was engraved with the words “Mrs. Bumps”, was tethered by a lanyard to his Sam-Brown belt. He told Lily’s father that his name was Colonel Aymar.

The third of Mr. Croft’s traveling companions had been introduced at the railhead as simply, ‘M’Lady’. In a heavy black silk huntress dress, sewn by Spitalfields seamstresses and properly veiled, she was slim, her age obscured. The Lady, a woman Lily would come to know well, sat her horse easily, her hands gloved in sharply contrasting white kid.

Normally Lily’s father’s return to the village with the new horses would’ve draw plenty of attention on its own, but the presence of three exotic strangers was far more exciting news.

Miss Roberta, Lily’s teacher, had just paroled her grammar-school prisoners and an explosion of freckle-faced boys quickly carried that news through back-kitchen doors.

The trio of newcomers dismounted on Main Street near the grammar school.

Constable Combe instructed the blacksmith’s boy to take their animals away for water and oats, but to return directly and “not to touch anything”.

Colonel Aymar directed a pointed look at the men’s rifle scabbards where canvas bags covered wooden stocks like falcon hoods and the boy nodded his understanding.

Lily and several of the other older village girls were still at the school, lingering over books and assignments, imagining a future where they might be independent young school teachers themselves, like Miss Roberta.

Tarrying at school was a daily ritual for the girls, enacted to postpone their return to their homes and the inevitable kitchen duties and other chores their mothers had saved for them; peeling punky potatoes, grown spongy and spotted after a winter’s aging in the cellar; hauling buckets from the well to fill the wood stove hot water tank; or if there were no brothers in the family, a quick change to barn clothes followed by time distributing hay and grain to the animals and mucking out the inevitable results of the last feeding.

Miss Roberta was twenty and sympathetic and so held court on the grammar school porch, granting the girls the excuse that “Teacher wanted me after class.”

With spring, the school year was almost over, and the book-prize this year for best pupil had been awarded. The hard-bound three-volume set of Great Expectations by Mr. Dickens had gone to Lily. The set was a hand-me-down treasure, in violet cloth with gild-stamped spines and on the fly-leaf, endorsed in her teacher’s perfect copperplate hand, a quote from the book itself, “Take nothing on its looks.

Lily was thrilled to learn the books had originally belonged to Miss Roberta’s own favourite Teacher’s College instructor. The title page back cover revealed that they had been a parting gift given to Roberta before “Embarking on your great adventure in the West.”

The implications of the title were not lost on Lily and she’d been proud to stand before the class. Grades one through ten, and her only in grade nine yet. Fidgeting with the grade ones was Mother’s “late gift” as Mr. Croft called him, her little brother, William.

“Your elocution, penmanship and composition are first rate,” Miss Roberta said. “Although, I expect more facts and less imagination in your essays next year.”

Later, when the Lady took her to England, Lily sincerely wished she had had a bit more imagination.

Though who might have envisioned The Diviners and their secrets, she could not have guessed and by then book-prizes no longer seemed to be so very important.

As the three newcomers strode down Thornhill’s only street toward the school, the bulldog man seemed to be in charge.

He spoke to Miss Roberta. “You and the girls are to stay here.”

His voice was blunted, his words round with a West-country accent like Lily’s father’s. It made her want to trust him.

“Summon their parents.” That was an instruction to the red-coat.

Colonel Aymar pointed at the brass bell mounted on the peak of the school roof and the pull-cord that ran down the wall near the front door. The Constable began a regulation clangour.

The black-veiled Lady held her place in the street, keeping a distance from the girls that made Lily feel as though she might contaminate the woman.

The clamouring bell soon brought the villagers, including Mr. Croft, still in a sweat-stiff shirt and his wife, Lily and William’s mother, looking cross at the disruption to her routine.

“I am Colonel Aymar of Her Majesty’s Imperial Army.” His parade-ground voice carried a exotic note Lily had not heard before, like the spice of service with the Indian sepoy troops.

“This,” he indicated the veiled woman, “Is Her Majesty, Queen Victoria’s personal advisor and agent plenipotentiary, the Lady Urn. Please attend upon what she has to say.”

That job done, Aymar’s gaze rose from the faces of the villagers. He began to scan the long horizon and brought his hand to rest on Mrs. Bumps backside like an old lover.

“I will explain later,” The lady began. Her voice was upper-crust and sharp, “but it is absolutely imperative for everyone’s safety that all the girls, both in the town and the surrounding area, between the ages of ten and eighteen, attend here immediately. God save the Queen.”

Lily did not like how the woman spoke, as one striving to be patient with a dull servant.

There was a desultory reply of ‘God save the Queen.’ mixed with other sentiments from the villagers.

They themselves were a mixture of former Ontarians, mid-western American immigrants, leavened by Metis, island Scots and Protestant Irish. Lily thought that if she hoped for ‘Huzzahs!’ from this crowd the Lady would be sorely disappointed.

“As well, all of your horses must be made ready to travel at once, and brought here too. No exceptions.”

If the first statement brought a general rhubarb from the adults, the second topped it.

But who were the citizens of Thornhill to gainsay the British Army and an agent plenipotentiary of the Queen?

Mothers were sent home to fetch daughters. Boys and men went to fetch horses and tack.

The town fathers huddled to see who could express best just how indignant they were, without stating it clearly enough to draw the ire of Her Majesty’s Colonel Aymar.

Lily and her friends stayed close to Miss Roberta, who offered the comfort of the schoolhouse to the strangers. “Please, won’t you come inside? I’ll make tea.”

“Thank you.” Only the Lady followed. The Colonel remained outside to watch the land and the Constable remained to watch the Colonel.

In Lily’s mind the grammar school’s main room contained two kingdoms.

The south two-thirds, closest to the main door, was the student’s world. Regimented by outside forces, it held a neatly planted field of wooden-topped desks, in five rows of five, iron frames screwed to the plank floor, as though external order could contain the incipient chaos of boys and girls growing into the revolution of adulthood.

The north third of the room, the teacher’s walk, displayed the relics of Miss Roberta’s power like royal regalia.

Dominant was Sir Howard Vincent’s beautiful Mercator map of the Earth, with the British Empire’s pink covering a quarter of the land masses.

It displayed a planet largely named and claimed by England, and whose place names, as Mr. Victor Hugo said ‘are the hooks of the immense net whereby England has taken the world.’

Next to the map, the wall-slate, black smudged white with erased lessons.

Centred above the teacher’s desk in the place of honour, a portrait of the Queen, crowned, sceptre’d and orb’d, to whom they sang each morning, imploring ‘God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen.’ Soon enough Lily would come to examine those words afresh.

The two side walls, well windowed, east and west, admit morning and afternoon light, to be shared by both kingdoms alike, but with different results.

The teacher’s light for practical purpose of instruction. But also to keep the young under close scrutiny, no dim lit hall that might allow ‘footsey’ or other tom-foolery to enflame the lusts of adolescents.

The students’ light was for bored shadow play, and for reflected spots off polished pencil boxes, sent to race and fight across the walls like heat rays from Mr. Well’s Martians. Or for afternoon closed eyes that glow golden from the inside.

How Lily longed to switch sides, to trade allegiances, and join Miss Roberta on the side of those who know, and teach, and control.

Miss Roberta had withdrawn into her living quarters, behind the north wall to prepare the tea, leaving Lily and her friends alone with Lady Urn.

“In your seats.” The Lady stood at the teacher’s desk, inspecting Miss Roberta’s seating plan, assuming control of both kingdoms.

“You.” She spoke to Lily. “Tell me when all the girls are here.” The woman sat in Miss Roberta’s chair, hand folded. Miss Roberta returned and tea was served. The teacher had brought all the cups she owned and included the girls in the pouring.

The room was warm but neither the Lady’s black veil nor her white gloves were removed. Her porcelain cup sat untouched on the blotter.

The girls looked at each other. Then at their teacher. Small talk seemed to be unwelcome.

The wall clock at the back of the room marked the movement of now into the past. Lily counted the ticks. At three hundred and five the younger girls started to file in and before long she was able to confirm that the first of Lady Urn’s commands had been fulfilled.

“That’s all of us, ma’am,” she said.

None of the parents entered. Lily could hear them come to the door, but it appeared that Constable Combe had order to exclude them.

The Englishwoman spoke.

“I will be conducting a test. It will not make any sense to you, but I promise you that it is of the utmost importance. When we are done some of you girls will come with me.”

Colonel Aymar entered, a Lee-Enfield rifle cradled at port-arms and Lily caught the scent of gun oil. Miss Roberta was speechless and could only flick her hands at the weapon like an unwelcome dog.

The man ignored her and spoke urgently to Lady Urn.

“Double quick M’Lady. Our German friends are near. It’s fly or fight.” He were back out the door, he’d know her answer soon enough.

“Girls, attende.” The strange woman was on her feet and something had changed. Her voice was not hers. It carried an aged and subtle burr, like someone who’d spent time in the Scottish highlands. “I speak now in the name of your sovereign, Victoria Regina. Where can we catch the nearest train?”

The sound of rushing water filled Lily’s ears. Feathers of cold touched her skin.

All around the other girls were pointing east, back the way the strangers had come, toward the Barnsley railhead, where the nearest station was.

She wanted to do the same, but knew it wasn’t the answer to the Lady’s question.

The question wasn’t about where the nearest station is. It demanded something else from her. A demand for certainty and truth.

Slowly, irresistibly, she rose from her desk.

“I know.” She said and she knew she was right with the certainty of a miracle.

Lily felt this righteous, joyful certainty should evoke a jubilant reply from the Englishwoman. What she heard instead was shock.

“Oh, my God.” The Lady said. “There’s only one!”

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