Friday, November 11, 2016

Gethsemane by Julia Richards

After surviving the sinking of the Titanic by being thrown overboard in a steamer trunk, an upper class English lady washes up on Scottish shores and falls in love; by Julia Richards.

Although she didn't know it, fortune was looking out for Gethsemane the day she set sail on the Titanic. Shortly after the ill-fated ship left port, Geth was thrown off the side locked in a steamer trunk. The vessel continued its trajectory of doom without her.

Her mother, Mrs. Harlow, a kind of Bright Young Person born a few decades too early, was in the habit of taking sizable doses of brandy to calm her nerves and prescribed herself extra shots for seasickness. Before they even weighed anchor, Mrs. Harlow was well-medicated.

Geth - who suffered from genuine seasickness - had been convinced by her mother to partake in this cure. As they were among the earliest of the first class passengers to board, Geth and her mother were in a right state by the time the gangplank was lifted.

Mrs. Harlow had also managed to entice a sailor back to her cabin to help her "unpack." Geth heard their low moans and whispers as she lay on her bed trying to get the room to stop spinning around her. The next thing she knew, someone was lifting her.

She heard a distant voice that sounded like her mother. "I should have booked a second cabin, but we'll have some privacy if you shut the lid."

Geth alighted in a small, fabric-lined space and curled up to resume her slumber. Meanwhile, more and more sailors joined Geth's mother. They drank straight from the bottles she had packed - they had taken up a considerable portion of her luggage in fact - and were soon dancing and spilling out into the hallway.

"Darlings, get rid of these trunks," Mrs. Harlow said after tripping during a particularly enthusiastic waltz.

"What should we do with them?" a sailor asked as he fell on top of her.

"Throw them overboard! I'll get new things in New York."

Luckily, no one else heard these instructions. Unluckily, the one sailor who did hear chose the trunk that Geth slept in. By the time he pitched it over the side of the ship and went back to the room, his commanding officer was dragging the revelers to the brig. The straggling sailor greeted the officer by bending over and vomiting on the man's shoes. After his superior beat him soundly about the head, he woke up hours later with no memory of Geth's mother or her trunk.

Geth, in a first-time drinker's stupor, slumbered away as the Gulf Stream swept her trunk northwards. The currents and warm winds of the North Atlantic Drift pushed her up and around the coast of Ireland. There, a singularly incurious fisherman found the box tangled in one of his nets when he pulled it onto his boat.

Dear Reader, although I ardently hope not, you may be a cynic. You may say, "it's impossible for a girl to survive journeying so far in a steamer trunk on the ocean." For you, I cite Danaë and Thaisa and Utsuro-bune. This sort of thing used to happen all the time.

The incurious fisherman didn't open the trunk - merely passed it on to a friend at a Scottish port who had a cart large enough to transport it and enough of a spirit of inquiry to want to see its contents. This friend, Craig Montgomery, also possessed an admirable amount of patience. He didn't want to break the trunk open and damage it (a high quality and expensive item), so he carted it all the way back to Logan House, the famous estate of the wealthy McDouall family, where he worked as a gardener.

Craig drove his cart onto the grounds of the estate and stopped by his cottage to stow his booty. Geth had slept on the road between the port and Logan House, but when Craig lowered the cart's back gate, the trunk tipped over and landed lid down on the ground. It broke into two pieces with minimal splintering, so when a dazed Gethsemane crawled toward the light, she only got a few scratches. The long sleep had been good for her. She leapt to her feet, refreshed and only a little disoriented.

"Oh my," Geth said, "what happened to the boat?"

Craig silently cursed the loss of the beautiful trunk. "What boat?"

"I was travelling on the Titanic, the largest boat in the world."

"Never heard of it." Craig stared at the lady - he knew it was a lady as opposed to a mere woman by her accent. "I picked that trunk up at a port on the coast of Scotland. A fisherman found it floating by his boat."

"Scotland? That explains why you sound so odd." She took a closer look at the battered trunk. The labels were too waterlogged to read, but she recognized the design. "This was one of my mother's trunks. I must have fallen asleep inside it."

Craig raised an eyebrow but held his tongue. If the upper classes wanted to sleep in steamer trunks, it was none of his affair.

"But how did the trunk end up in the sea near Scotland?" Geth asked.

"I can take you to the house, miss." Craig remembered to take his cap off. "There you can cable the ship."

"Of course." Geth clasped her hands in front of her. "I must tell Mother where I am."

"If you'll follow me, miss, I'll take you to the family. This is the family estate of the McDoualls."

"Thank you very much," Geth said as she shook the remaining debris from her skirt. Then, she looked Craig full in the face for the first time. The blood of ancient Gaelic warriors ran through Craig's veins and manifested itself in black hair and blue eyes. His work gave him the physique of Apollo and golden brown skin.

Geth fell in love.

Now, Dear Reader, I know that you know that, in those days, an upperclass lady falling in love with a gardener was taboo. It was the height of vulgarity. There is no excuse for Geth's behavior except le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. But she fell in love, and there is nothing you or I can do about it now.

A gardener falling in love with an upperclass lady would have been equally shameful, but in this case, that particular event was avoided. If Craig hadn't thought a wealthy young lady's looks were a subject far removed from his judgment, he might have found Gethsemane pretty in an English rose sort of way. Her face lacked the horsiness that afflicts so many well-bred ladies. She was pale and round-faced with large blue eyes.

However, Craig didn't think of ladies as belonging to the same species as the lower classes. She was a curiosity, as interesting to look at as a parrot might be. He was uncomfortable being alone with her and left several feet of space between the two of them as they walked up the drive.

Gethsemane's wet slippers disintegrated on the gravel. Craig, forced to choose between giving her his arm the rest of the way and leaving her to sit on a tree stump while he fetched help, chose the latter. Geth, her chin resting on her palm and the stars in her eyes, gazed at his broad back as he walked away.

The same Gulf Stream that carried Geth to the southwestern tip of Scotland also brought subtropical temperatures to Logan House. The McDoualls had taken advantage of the clime to cultivate a wonderland of ferns, palm trees, and tropical flowers. As Geth came out of her love-induced daze, she noticed bushes of bright flowers surrounded her. Pinks and reds and yellows she thought only belonged in the tropics. Hibiscus and rhododendrons and daffodils erupted around her in violent shades of reds, purples, and yellows.

"How odd," she said to herself. "Perhaps love has metamorphosed the weeds so my eyes see only their majesty."

Dear Reader, we have already established that you are a cynic. Your heart is probably the size of a lump of sugar, and you probably don't even take sugar with your tea because you prefer it as black as the darkness of your soul. You will ask yourself, "How can she be in love with a man she has only exchanged a few sentences with?" You will say, "Love causing plants to burst into flower is ridiculous."

And you would be partly right - although, I wouldn't be too smug about it. Lovesick fools often have the richer experience of life. In this case, Geth's fantasy of love was hastily crushed when Lady McDouall came down the drive. They recognized each other in that vague way of people who travel the same social circuit. Soon, the two ladies were chattering away.

"How do you like the flowers?" Lady McDouall asked her. "Spectacular, aren't they?"

When Geth realized the flowers were real and not a love-induced mirage, she was disappointed. But she told Lady McDouall that they were lovely and she had never seen anything like them.



Of course, by the time Geth's trunk floated to Scotland, the Titanic had hit the iceberg and sunk like a stone. Mrs. Harlow was not one of the survivors. I abhor flippancy, but, as the Titanic has nothing further to do with this story, we will skip over that part. You may take a moment of silence for those poor drowned souls on your own time.

Lady McDouall took Geth under her wing and allowed her to seclude herself in mourning in Logan House for an entire year. After that year, Geth confounded the wagers of the locals by taking a house in the village and installing herself there with a butler, cook, and housemaid, instead of hightailing it back to fashionable London. The only house available would have fit in the front hall of the Titanic, but it suited Geth's needs very well. Or should I say wants? Geth wanted to live near Craig. No one needs another person, like water or food or shelter. She wanted to breathe the same air that he exhaled. She wanted to know that her eyes might be gazing on the same objects as his were.

But perhaps I am just being as cynical as you are, Dear Reader, and she did in fact need it. Perhaps her heart would have broken and withered away if she lived miles and miles from him. Psychologists today will tell you of the strong link between mental and physical well-being due to endorphins and brain chemistry and things of that nature. Back in Geth's time, it was still socially acceptable to die of a broken heart.

However she had arranged her life, Geth ended up hardly ever seeing Craig. She couldn't very well stop by the gardener's cottage for a chat. The McDoualls encouraged Gethsemane to walk in their gardens as much as she wanted. They wanted to show off the miracle of nature they possessed, but, most of the time, Geth didn't catch so much as a glimpse of Craig during these walks.

In truth, Craig was embarrassed to have hauled a lady around the country in a steamer trunk. If she had been old, he wouldn't have minded answering her questions about the plants and the trees, but he couldn't be tete â tete with a girl he had seen in a wet, white dress. Think about it. And so, if he saw her before she noticed him, he would turn and walk hastily in the other direction. And although you'd think a young lady's senses would be sharpened enough to sniff out the man she loved, he usually noticed her first.

The days passed. In the mornings, Gethsemane wrote letters to her friends in London. In the afternoons, she walked in the garden or read some improving book. In the evenings, if the McDoualls hadn't invited her over, she ate dinner alone in her little house.

And then the war came.

It drained the country of men Craig's age. The McDoualls had some influence within the government and managed to keep him as their gardener long past the time when their pastry chef and valets were called up. But he was young, single, fit, and increasingly eager to fight.

He spent the last night before he left in the gardens. He walked by the formal pond, which was lined with tree ferns. Their straight trunks reminded him of soldiers standing at attention. The burst of green leaves at the top he imagined to be the faces of the men, each one alive and emotive in the wind. Slender and delicate, the cabbage palms had multiple limbs shooting off in different directions, haphazard and wild.

The branches of Eucalyptus trees displayed the same lacy intricacy. Someone once told him the Australian winds were so strong that the trees needed to be spread wide enough to let the wind through. An English oak would be toppled by a gust to its thick trunk. He plucked a leaf to chew and let the medicinal flavor numb his tongue.

He wandered by the Gunnera bog, taking in the huge leaves of the ancient plant. Some were as wide as six feet across. Craig didn't have much schooling, so he didn't know that he stood in what resembled a primordial forest. Maybe his atavistic memory was awoken. As he stood among the leaves, towered over by palm trees, he felt that danger nearby but he was at peace with it.

Gethsemane was finishing her dinner when she heard loud voices from the servants' domain where one of the maids from the big house was visiting her sister. The girl's excitement made her loud and Geth heard her say, "Craig Montgomery is going. The poor lad."

Geth was out of the house, down the road, and on the McDoualls' estate before she realized she didn't have a hat or a coat or any idea what to do. She went so fast that she literally ran into Craig. He hit the ground with a loud thud.

"Pardon me," Geth said between heaving breaths.

"No damage done, miss." He stood and dusted himself off.

"I hear you are going."

An uncomfortable pause. "Yes, miss."

Geth's heart, which was already aching from the lack of oxygen due to her sprint, exploded when she looked into his blue eyes. "Don't go. My uncle is in the War Office. He can get you something else, something away from the Front."

Craig shifted his weight from one foot to another. "That's all right, miss. I have to go sometime."

"But you might die."

Craig didn't believe he would die. He believed he would kill one hundred Krauts single-handedly and save all the Belgian babies. Craig was young. "I will be fine, miss."

Gethsemane thought of throwing herself on the ground, kissing his boots, and begging him to stay. She could tell him how much she loved him. She thought of wrapping her arms around his legs and never letting go. He couldn't go into the trenches dragging a lady around his ankles. The unusualness of the sight would tip off enemies to the army's position. She thought of running home and telegraphing her uncle who could assign Craig to a regiment in England and keep her machinations a secret.

"Thank you for your concern, Miss Harlow," Craig said. He picked his cap off the ground. "Good-bye."

While Geth stood frozen and thought of grabbing him by the feet, Craig walked down the gravel drive. His broad back got smaller and smaller as he marched away from her. She kicked off her slippers and ran after him.

As Geth got close, Craig heard her steps and turned in surprise. She flung her arms around his neck and put her lips to his. She had never kissed anyone thus, but her mouth softened around his, pressing with incredible sweetness. His arms wrapped around her waist instinctively, and her cold flesh molded into his warm body.

It only took a few seconds for Craig to realize what was happening and to drop Gethsemane like a log. She grunted like a startled ape as her bony bottom hit the hard road.

"Miss Harlow, it is too kind of you to think of sending a poor soldier off with a kiss," Craig said. "Thank you, miss. Good-bye, miss."

Then he walked away before she even had time to stand. In fact he sprinted, but I will spare Gethsemane's dignity on the worst night of her life and say that he walked. Geth settled her bruised buttocks on a stone wall and sat for a long time, just looking at the flowers. The rhododendrons were starting to bloom.

The papers hadn't reported much on the conditions of the trenches at this point in the war. Geth didn't know that Craig was choosing lice, moldy food, barbed wire, and almost-certain death when he walked (sprinted) away. Even Craig didn't know what he was choosing over Gethsemane. But the fact remains that he didn't choose her. Had he known, would he have chosen her?

No.

As I said, he was young and eager to do his duty. Also, he didn't love her. There wasn't one molecule of love in his entire being for Gethsemane. Things that he had more affection for than her: the garden, beer, puppies, the smell of the dirt after it rained, busty red-headed women, babies when they just started toddling about, his grandmother's laugh, the sight of the sunset over the ocean, rainy days, rugby, a freshly sharpened axe, and so on.

And so, Craig left for the Front, and Geth sat on that wall everyday. She stared at the reflection of the rhododendrons in the pond, a hazy palette of pinks and reds that reminded her of the day she arrived at Logan House.

Perhaps, Dear Reader, your cynical nature is expecting this to be a typical tragic love story. With the romance of war and admirability of duty and all that nonsense. If this were a tragedy, I might tell you that Craig died on Flanders Field, and Gethsemane sat on the wall for days without drinking or eating until she too died.

But this is not a tragedy. Craig came back from Belgium, having survived the last few years as a prisoner of war, malnourished but not mistreated. He married a farmer's daughter and had six children, all of whom survived to adulthood instead of dying of consumption. Gethsemane fell in love with a less handsome man who worked in a boring office and gave birth to three sons who all went on to work in other boring offices.

The next war came, and Craig and Geth's children survived. Sliced bread was invented. Girls wore shorter skirts, and big estates were broken up and sold to pay post-war taxes. Civil rights, television, post-colonialism: all happened.

But mostly, it was ordinary life. Craig sowed and harvested vegetables. Gethsemane instructed the maids on washing dirty nappies. They grew older and fatter and more wrinkled before dying at advanced ages, safe in their beds. Is that romantic? Or sentimental? A woman who survived the Titanic succumbing to pneumonia at an NHS hospital? A man who made it through World War I dying in a prefab house on mass-manufactured sheets?

But aren't things better this way? Our lives are long, filled with lots of searching for clean socks and meetings about topics that could have been settled by email, but most aren't tragic. Yet, perhaps this in itself is cruel: life being so boring and filled with trivialities.

And if life is cruel, what is the point of fiction?



For you, Dear Reader, an alternate ending, which you can take as you please or omit reading altogether. It's your life, and you may be content with the dreariness of the mundane.



As Geth got close, Craig heard her steps and turned in surprise. She flung her arms around his neck and put her lips to his. She had never kissed anyone thus, but her mouth softened around his pressing with incredible sweetness. His arms wrapped around her waist instinctively, and her cold flesh molded into his warm body.

Craig whispered, "Darling, I have wasted so many years. I love you."

"I have loved you since the moment I laid eyes on you," Geth whispered back.

"Darling, I must go to the Front. If there is one woman left in Belgium who is loved by a man as much as you are loved by me, I must save her. The world is nothing if we do not fight for love."

Geth swallowed her tears. "I understand. I will wait for you always."

Then they did a lot more kissing. Craig survived the war, and he and Geth were married. It wasn't long before a nurse lay black-haired baby girl in his arms as Geth watched from her bed. They say newborns cannot recognize faces, but, as those blue eyes stared up at him, Craig was certain she knew who he was. He cuddled her closer and whispered promises to her.

"Your mother has suffered terrible tragedies in her life, but you never will, my baby girl. You will never lose your parents. You will never love someone who doesn't notice you. You will never see a war devastate your world. I will keep you safe forever. I will never leave you."

He believed every word he said to his daughter. He knew he would bandage all her scraped knees and lay cool cloths on her head when she had chicken pox. He would scare off any young men who weren't good enough and her heart would never be broken. He had fought in the Great War so that war would never come again. She would have the happiest life.

A cynic may say the point of fiction is to lie to us - so that we can be happy.

4 comments:

  1. An intelligent and amusing story that cracks along at a fair pace.The humour tempers harsh reflections on life, literature and the expectations that we have of both. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I really like the self reflection of this story. I like that it takes romance with a grain of salt. And I love the alternate endings.

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  3. This story cleverly probes not only the nature of fiction, but of love and life itself. Is one's life a comedy, a tragedy, or perhaps a mystery? I will probably not think about this story again until I am lying on my bed with my eyes closed. Perhaps I will dream the answers to all of life's unanswered questions, then awaken with a vacant smile, remembering no dreams. Thank you Juila Richards for a unique and enchanting story, or should I say, stories.

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  4. I immersed myself in reading of this post so much, that forgot about the work. Now it is necessary that somebody do my homework for me. You write very professionally. I admire your style! And although I want to say "it's impossible for a girl to survive journeying so far in a steamer trunk on the ocean.", but I hoped all the way to the end.

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