Read-By-Number

The Main Street dips and makes a dramatic right turn down toward the water. If a person weren’t paying attention, you think, they might take a terrible tumble. What looks like an old sea captain’s home has an eye-catching plaque above the door – Flint’s Fine Art Gallery!  How can you resist? You climb the steep stone steps with difficulty, feeling every muscle from your waist down protesting in memory of the bicycle ride.  You pass under a whale jaw archway as you follow the bricked path to the open door.  You stare up at the skull white bones, frightened a little by their size.  “Wide enough for a coach to drive through” … hadn’t Mr. Melville written something of that sort?

A huge canvas greets you, hanging over the fireplace. The mantle is currently filled with bouquet of wildflowers.  The painting depicts a red-haired mermaid, not unlike Clovis’ soft fur, you think, picking a few hairs from your white blouse.  The mermaid is beached on a rock; cracking open the lid of a golden treasure box with exotic landscapes like willow pattern on the sides.  Her emerald green scales begin far her back where moonlit bare skin morphs into an oily-looking, glittering hide.  The delicate tips of her tail seem to twist in anticipation — or mischief.

“Would you open the box?” a rumpled looking character asks, standing oppressively close to you.

“Why, I don’t know.  Maybe.” You stammer, taking a step back.   “I mean, look what happened to Pandora?”

“Quite.  All the troubles of the world unleashed by one nosy woman.”

“Curious,” you correct. “Not nosy.”

He reclaims his step closer to you and introduces himself as Mr. Flint.  He is at your service.  You feel far from rejoicing at this nauseating offer as he ogles you, leering.

“My dear, any specimen of womanhood, whether underwater or ashore, would have one little peep under the lid of a golden trunk! Including you.”

“I might, indeed.”

“There, then.”

“And would you call me nosy, Mr. Flint?” you ask, suddenly wondering why you’ve allowed yourself a dalliance into this lecherous character’s ramblings.

“I would call you . . . lovely.”

Mr. Flint moves forward, eclipsing the sliver of space between you with his formidable bulk and moves to kiss your hand.  Suddenly a shadow surely the only thing that could fit between you and the villainous Mr. Flint, intercedes.

“Sir!”  The shadow booms in a most urgent tone.  “I’m in rather a rush and I’m looking for something a little better dressed and on dry land.”

“I am at your service.”   Flint bows panderingly low and precedes this heroic young man into an adjoining room.  The young man quickly removes his hat and nods respectfully.

“Accept my apologies on behalf of the rummy old cove, Miss.”

“Oh! Thank you . . .” And you don’t even get the “Sir” out before he’s gone.  You hear footsteps creeping to the wooden floor above. You look up and see the white-washed ceiling beams looking like the belly of a boat. Of course you should cease the charitably-given opportunity to escape Flint’s Gallery, but perhaps your “nosiness” is calling you onward.  Room after room, you recognize figures from literature and folklore nearly springing from their canvases amidst jewel-colored seas and fire-colored skies.  So much color!  And the glossy surfaces betray not a single brushstroke.  You find yourself nose to nose with an angry Aurora and you still can’t see anything but the perfect creaminess of fine oil painting.

Suddenly you feel a hot tantrum coming on, igniting itself with the familiar and futile complaint – Why did I have to be born a woman?  If I was a man I’d be painting with oil and not fiddle-faddling with watercolors.  Watercolors!  Defiantly, you snatch your sketchpad from your pocket and wrest one of Mrs. Moreau’s pencils from her package. You begin madly sketching Aurora – bare breasts and all.  The splintering sound of wood creaking grows increasingly louder.  Mr. Flint and your personal knight must be coming back.  You make a most unladylike lunge for the door and in the process nearly trample an  young man attempting to enter.  He’s wearing a bicycle club badge with a codfish swimming across it. He does beg your pardon, Miss.  Vying loudly for pardon of your own, you complete your graceless exit, and then realize he must be one of the Cod Haven Cyclists.

1)    Now that you’ve made your unnecessarily mysterious exit, will you pause your adventures for a chocolate croissant lunch? If so, choose A.

2)    Or  has your hunger abated? Will you finish your perusal of the Main Street with a renewed commitment to avoid bodily collisions? Choose B

_______________________________________________________________________________________

HATTIE BOOT – PART III

The town is crawling with cyclists.  Belfry is a hub stop with all of the clubs. The small seaside town is fairly bursting with people in pants. Almost every passerby is sporting a pin or a badge similar to Walnut Hill pin you’ve already stabbed through your Valciennces in place of the errant button. The Main Street calls to you; its small shops proudly displaying banners and barrows out on the sidewalk. Ladies are carrying baskets like yours and filling them with luscious looking fruits and bottled refreshments. You must pass a tempting-looking bakery and make a mental promise to the half moon chocolate dipped almond dusted croissant in the window that you’ll come back for it shortly.  Finally!  A bookstore!  You know how Mr. and Mrs. Boot feel about you reading “smut” books.  But the ones in Mother’s library are filled with moral nonsense and make you feel as though you’re getting a sermon when you’re relaxing in bed.  When you push open the old door, a sweet bell rings, reminding you of Christmastime.  Something for your next watercolor.  Ah, and that musty, delicious smell of old books – that must be how England smells.  That must be what Mrs. Gaskell and Mr. Dickens smelled when they shopped for books.  A lovely marmalade tomcat comes to greet you.

“Now, Clovis, stay off the young ladies skirts.”

Too late.  Clovis has hurled up on your lap and is pleasantly nuzzling your neck.

“I don’t mind. Truly.”  You tell the bookshop owner.   She is a woman your mother’s age, but looks nothing like Mrs. Boot.  Although she’s not in trousers, an inch or so of her ankle is showing, revealing small, utilitarian boots.  Instead of a lot of fancy piping and insets on her bodice, she’s wearing an exotic looking shawl held in place with a constellation of interesting wodden buttons that all look like carved gargoyles.

“I was given these by a Baron.”  She smiles, fingering the collection of stickpins.  “At his villa.  What a time.  Have you ever drunk Madeira, my dear?  I recommend it.”  Suddenly your silly bicycle pin seems like a paper doll in a chess game.

“Well, I should like to try.”  Clovis jumps down in a hurry when he hears his mistress spooning something into his dish.  You start browsing the shelves, happily conscious of the money jingling in your pocket from the sale of your last painting.  Now, this “At Midnight” by Ada Cambridge looks interesting.  Something about an Australian couple on their wedding tour in England.  And Mathilde Blinds “Birds of Passage” is wildly exciting in its Oriental looking book cover – a torso of cupid …the tombs of the Kings … Spring in the Alps … you don’t quite finish your hungry perusal of the contents before the shop owner brings you a pile of books.

“Read Marie Corelli first,” she advises.  “The Romance of the Worlds.  And then Cora Linn Daniels’ “Bronze Buddha.”

“I’ll take them all,” you pant, feeling a twinge of guilt as you fish the cross stitch change purse Mrs. Boot made you from your pocket.

“Thank you, Mrs. Moreau,” you say, tucking her card into a cover.  “I’m Hattie Boot.”

“How do you do, Miss Boot.  We share a love of literature, and for that reason you are a kindred spirit.”

“Indeed.  Oh, and Mrs. Moreau, do you sell sketching leads?  I seem to have forgotten to pack my pencils.”

Although she doesn’t sell them, she’s got plenty enough to spare a couple.  When she disappears in the back room, Cloris startles you by making an epic jump onto the counter and demanding more petting and admiration.  Mrs. Moreau returns with a rather bulky package wrapped in brown paper that will only just fit into your basket.

“Did you buy all of those!”  She ties some pencils to the string on top as you ask her for some ideas of pretty views for sketching.  She describes an old lighthouse, a mysterious rock formation on the jagged shore and a windly clifftop from which you’ll almost certainly see green dolphins or spotted seals swimming.  You leave the little shop; your arms heavy with novels and your head laden with inspiration.

1)  Will you Keep your date with the chocolate croissant and pop back to the bakery?

2)  Or would you rather trundle on along Main Street and see what other Mrs. Moreaus are out and about?

_________________________________________________________________________________________

Hattie Boot – Part II

Even to you, there is something strangely goose-like in the sudden, sweeping arrival of a flock of white-clad women.  The shaded village green, starred with a rustic steepled church, provides the perfect picnic setting. The Walnut Hill Wheelwomen park their machines and repin their hats beneath the maples.  On the other side of the green, a dapper-looking group of Wheelmen are flexing their muscles ~ to some of them, shaking their heads in disapproval.  The one with the handlebar moustache is approaching, a broad smile stretching his tanned cheeks.

“Who’s the chap in charge here?” he jokes.  So many men, these days, refer to women as “manly women” – it’s nearly impossible to tell when someone is joking.

“How can I help you?” Fern Trumble asks coldly, stepping forward.  “Handle Bars” puts an arm around Fern’s shoulders as a preface to their convergence.  She recoils wildly, as a serge of Wheelwomen press forward in protest.

“How dare you, sir!”  Fern roars.  But the truth of the matter, you have to admit, is that men often treat women in trousers as though they were common prostitutes.  Yet another reason to stay in skirts.  You’d rather have Fern as your ‘enemy’ than Handlebars as your ‘friend’.

When Fern storms off Mrs. Oliver Hanson steps up to handle the swine.  He’s inviting their fellow cyclists to join the Wineborough Wheelmen on their side of the green.  Mrs. Hanson, like so many of the married women in the club, lived in a constant state of celebration when not near their husbands.

“By all means, Mr. Rook.”

Some of the ladies began moving toward the shady part of the green.  Mr. Rook offered his arm, and Mrs. Hanson received it – a most unseemly way to tarry on in broad daylight.  Fern Trumble announces she’s going to explore the dunes.  A gang of trousered girls follow her.  What you want is to explore on your own.  Why else would you have joined this club, if not for the chance to discover new places and bring home mental pictures, remembered smells and breezes to make into watercolor paintings?  Before any of the other straggling girls could catch on to you, you waddle behind a tree and undo the buckles around your ankles that tuck your skirt close while you peddle. Your skirts come trumpeting down your legs, skimming the lime colored grass. Now you’ve got to remember to be back at the green by four o’clock. But it’s only noon!  Your group has dispersed just like a broken strand of pearls, rolling in every direction. A wave of panic rises from deep inside your corset.

Skirts or not… it is somewhat odd for a young lady to be wandering around on her own in a strange town. Maybe you should latch onto one of the other geese before it’s too late. If you think so, CHOOSE A

What’s the point in joining an adventuring club if you don’t want to have an adventure? A companion is just more whalebone and petticoat. You’re going to strike out on your own. CHOOSE B

READ BY NUMBER – Hattie Boot and the Westcote Wheelwomen PART ONE

PART ONE IN A NEW READ-BY-NUMBER story in which YOU choose the destiny of the narrator…

“It can’t be much further to Belfry,” you tell yourself.

Singled cottages look like grey breadcrumbs as you make your peddling progress along the sandy twisted path.  Flashes of nickel-rimmed tires and the ghostly white shirts of the other ladies’ serve as intermittent beacons.  The June noon heat nuzzles unwelcoming into collar and corset, but the sun itself, like your companions, is a shadowy sort of chaperone; it creates a dizzying and confusing rhythm as it plays hide and seek between the pine treetops.  When you realize you are lost in a cycling cavalcade of over forty young ladies from the Maple Walnut Hill Wheelwomen, you panic for a moment to feel your legs circling like a windmill with epic strides.

“I’m with you, Hattie,” Fern Trumble says as she slows down to ride beside you.  “I’m half-melted and I don’t have near as many skirts as  you have on.”

The thinly-veiled barb makes you puff up a little stiffly in your woolen Armour and remember your dear mother’s favorite maxim: “Least said, soonest mended.”   Fern Trumble has been a neighbor and family friend since you were riding around in prams.  Now that you’re both in your thirties, old maids and single, that’s not likely to change, so best to keep the peace.   You make some sort of affirmative sniff, sufficient for ownership of your voluminous skirts.  Fern in her weirdly Shakespearean sport skirt that looks something like a harem girl’s bottoms to you, her ankles even make you nervous.

“You know, Mattie, if you make the hop to Mrs. Bloomer’s costume, you’d be feeling fresh and inspired right now.”   She inhaled loudly to mark the point, and to remind you of your corset, you suspect.

“You know my mother and father.” You argue simply.

Fern shrugs and steams forward, the feathers of her straw hat standing up like soldier’s plumes.

A seam of sunlight appears ahead.  Trees in silhouette grow skinnier and skinner as you speed out of the woodland path.  The Wheelwomen are pulling over for a roadside connoiter.  Without thinking, you inhale so deeply that a marble-size button pops off your blouse and lands safely on your lap.  No matter.  Your white batiste Valerciennes, so stranglingly tight around your throat, can easily be loosened and lengthened with a new inch of breathing room.  You breathe the sea air and smile up at a lighthouse perched atop a grass-whiskered and dune.  The most “horsey” (as Mr. Boot would say) of the group conferred and finally signaled for the club of cyclists to follow on.  What seemed like an eternal climb up the side of an ever-rising hillside ends in a charming hilltop village.  Belfry at last!

(Part One of Hattie Boot does not have a Choose-Your-Own-Sordid-Adventure choice at the end of it. At the conclusion of the next installment (Sunday) you will have to make a strenuous decision).

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One Response to Read-By-Number

  1. Definite “B” to part 3. The adventure is on ~ damned the torpedoes (and the chocolate dipped croissants!)

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