In this stunning and original novel, John Steffler has recreated a lost time and place, and has given life to an enigmatic figure from Canada’s 18th-century past. Described quietly by historians as “soldier, diarist, entrepreneur,” George Cartwright emerges in Steffler’s tale as a character of overwhelming appetite and ambition. Until this time Cartwright’s greatest legacy has been the place in Labrador named after him and the journal he wrote during his years there, when he lived amongst Native people and ran a successful trading post. Now his legacy becomes our own: a telling portrait of our past; a warning.close this panel
Nottinghamshire shimmers. Fragrant, dizzy with bees at the peak of May. Turning around in the saddle, George Cartwright squints at the scattered fields – no birds within range, no sign of another person. Never a sign of another person. He lets his horse carry him on at its own easy pace, following the Nottingham road out from Mansfield, the same route he’s taken every day since his death in 1819. His hawk, Kaumalak, is perched on his left fist. Sunlight pricks blue fire from the feathers of her wings, and
Cartwright smoothes her iridescence: this dainty mortar shell. Songs from invisible birds beckon him forward, stirring his appetite for the hunt. For the moment, his loneliness is nearly without pain. Sparrows splash in the puddled wagon tracks ahead, but he keeps his hawk hooded, scanning the pastures and groves, waiting for larks. Cartwright knows he’s dead, but death isn’t the way he expected – although after 170 years it isn’t something that troubles him very much anymore. In the last weeks of his life, riding this same well- known road, feeling his hawk unusually heavy on his glove, he had sensed the end coming and wondered what lay beyond. Not harps and angels, he suspected, but at least a brief audience with his Maker. Probably a reunion with family and old acquaintances who had already died – some he wasn’t so sure he wanted to face again, but even that he was curious about. Forgiveness and understanding would likely prevail. Maybe a new incarnation in a new world awaited him, something as unimaginable as Labrador. Certainly explanations and marvels, and a few rewards. He didn’t anticipate many punishments. God, he assumed, under his aura or robes or whatever, would be a manly gentleman who favoured a bit of push and gusto in his chaps on earth. But instead of any of that, he died in his room at The Turk’s Head in Mansfield and woke up there, and nothing had changed. Except time had stopped, at least in his immediate vicinity, and everyone was away somewhere. All he could think to do was go hawking.
This morning, for example, like every morning, he had sat on the edge of his bed in The Turk’s Head Inn – after a night of unspeakable dreams – and had thought about his unfinished affairs in Labrador, about Caubvick, the Inuit woman, and Mrs. Selby, his mistress, wondering how he might have kept them with him during his days alive. And as he sat picturing their beautiful, troubled faces, speaking to them in his mind, making them smile, and as he proved to himself once again that his bankrupt business might have been saved, his ruminations were mixed with a constant awareness of the smell of damp soot in the fireplace and of the soundlessness of the building around him, the deserted taproom downstairs, Mansfield’s deserted houses, deserted streets. And then, sitting hopelessly, he noticed Kaumalak on her perch. Her keen eyes and beak. Her economical movements. Her stern looks. And in his heart Cartwright felt, with a surge of gladness, the old desire to hunt, to feel the kick of his Hanoverian rifle or the push of his peregrine’s talons as she launched herself in a burst at the sight of doves. He looked out his window then at his horse, Thoroton, stabled across the courtyard, and began hurrying, whistling, getting into his boots.
Although time has stopped for Cartwright, he knows that just beneath the surface of what surrounds him it has been racing along at an insane speed. He’s discovered that time is like sound – that the past doesn’t vanish, but encircles us in layers like a continuous series of voices, with the closest, most recent voice drowning out those that have gone before. And just as it’s possible to sit on a bench in a city reading a book, oblivious to the complex racket all around, then to withdraw from the page and pick out from the cascade of noises the voice of one street vendor two blocks away, so for Cartwright it’s possible at times to tune in a detail from either the past or the ongoing course of time and, by concentrating on it, become witness to some event in the affairs of the dead or the living.
For the living, the past is always overlaid, made inaccessible by the present, but for Cartwright, both the past and the present are elusive background phenomena, subject to occasional capture. His experience as a hunter and his 170 years of practice have made him adept at nabbing rare moments by their whiskers or tails. He even stumbles into pockets of time unintentionally, the way he’s often stumbled into a rabbit hole during his rambles in search of game.
Right now while Thoroton plods and the saddle creaks, Cartwright’s eye is caught by a red glimmer ahead in the roadside grass. A ring dropped by some lady or gentleman? A berry? A beetle? The ruby gleam rapidly grows in size and hurtles toward him, pulling in its wake a black river of pavement and two wide wings of images: sharp- cornered brick buildings in rows on either side, poles and wires, smoke. The scarlet double- decker Trent Lines bus bearing down on him is a familiar sight. It rushes under or through him, at which point Cartwright sees it, feels its rush, but can’t see his horse or himself. Groups of cars plunge through him from both directions. He seems to whirl upward, enlarged on an eddy of turbulence, feeling a mixture of horror and admiration. To ride in one of those things! The inventor and sportsman in him are aroused. And yet he’s annoyed. He has spied enough on the present to know how small, how mechanical people there have become. Children of Edmund, he thinks, remembering his brother Edmund’s power- loom and gunpowder engine. This is where all that led. And then remembering his own attempted inventions, he admits to himself some blame for this state of affairs.
At certain periods Cartwright has been a fan of the present, though usually a rather grudging, critical fan, following it more out of idle curiosity than love. For a while the smell of the lichen on an oak tree in Averham Park was a reliable way of getting into the Robin Hood Tavern in Nottingham, and although the effort required to trace the smell into the tavern and keep himself there was extremely draining, Cartwright had spent many hours standing by The Robin Hood’s coat- rack watching television and reading the paper over the shoulder of a retired dry- cleaner who always sat nearby and whom Cartwright regarded as more dead than himself. He was actually quite interested in Nottingham Forest, the local football team, for a time – knew all the players and their statistics, laughed at the barbaric remarks of their manager, Brian Clough. But then the effort became too much, and he felt foolish, and went back to his hawk and the Nottingham road. It was lonely and predictable there on the whole, but at least it was his death, and there must be some purpose in it, he thought.
The red gleam, the Trent bus, had taken Cartwright by surprise. After a moment he recomposes himself and looks around from his elevated position over the countryside. He is out of the present again. The landscape he sees now is the familiar one, exactly as it was on the 19th of May in 1819, the day he died. To the east he sees the old family estate at Marnham and to the south, near Newark, his father’s famous bridge, far from any water, like a length of Roman aqueduct, the folly that had swallowed what little was left of the family fortune and had sent Cartwright into the army and to Labrador. Buttercups and grasses festoon its parapets. A small herd of cows enjoys the shade under one of its spans.
Perhaps he’s borrowing Kaumalak’s eyes. This ability of his to stretch up and scan the surface of the earth is getting stronger, he’s noticed. It works best, for some reason, on horseback from the top of a hill. He has seen as far east as Saxony, where he was injured by a boar for the sake of the ungrateful Marquis of Granby, and even to Minorca where he nearly died of fever. To the west he has seen Lizard Head and the Scilly Isles where more than once he came close to being shipwrecked returning from Labrador. He has seen as far as the mid- Atlantic, the same mountainous grey and yellow waves that had rolled clean over his leaking ships. But not yet as far as Newfoundland and the Labrador coast.
Cartwright rises slightly in his saddle and farts and searches the sky over the meadows for larks. No, the present causes him little envy. The past is what he can’t let alone.
He turns Thoroton to the left through an open gate onto a cattle track and immediately flushes a pair of pheasants from beyond a hedge. He deftly releases his hawk’s jesses and takes off her hood. She swivels her head once, unfolds her wings, and kicks back hard as he braces himself in the stirrups and throws up his arm, pushing with all his might against the amazing force.
Nottinghamshire slips from Cartwright’s lap like a quilt. He watches his hands shoot out far, fingers hooked for the pleasure of catching. For feeling the quick pulse burst into bloom, red petals scattering.
His centre melts, a current of hunger surging out of his throat and eyes in his hawk’s wake. His body forgotten on Thoroton’s back.
Diving into a pocket of blood in the sky. Pure fugitive treasure. The motherhood under everything, even rocks and ice.
Kaumalak has disappeared in the sun. Cartwright hangs suspended, waiting, hearing a pasture gate lazily striking its post in the light breeze, pausing, striking.
Like that knocking on board the Mary during his first voyage home from Labrador. The sound belonged to the part of his cargo he couldn’t understand; the most precious part, he now thinks, the most curious of all he carried from Labrador. The sound of beliefs fathered in people by icebergs and rocks.
Having lost sight of land east of Belle Isle, the Mary broke into her full ocean roll, creaking without restraint. Mrs. Selby had made a nest for herself on some bales of marten pelts by the window at the stern and was reading a book. Beside her a set of caribou antlers was lashed to the cabin wall. A tall willow cage containing an eagle swung from an antler point. Cartwright sat at a table making entries in his journal, pleased to be bound for home. Every inch of the ship was snug with cargo, the fruit of a two- year stay in Labrador.
“1772. November. Sunday 8,” he had written, “Wind N.N.E. fresh. At day- break we put to sea from Chateau, and set sail for Ireland. We found a great sea in the straits, and by mid- afternoon are two leagues to the eastward of the island of Belle Isle.” Pausing to match his hand to the ship’s movement, he became aware of repeated knocking in the next cabin, not in time with the pitch and roll. He rose, exchanged a questioning look with Mrs. Selby, then stepped out to investigate, opened the nearest door.
The smell of the Inuit: woodsmoke and old fat. Only slightly different from his own smell after being surrounded for so long by dried fish, furs, barrels of oil from the cooked blubber of seals. Ickcongoque was lying on her back on the small cabin floor. Her husband, Attuiock, knelt a few feet from her head, chanting slowly and mournfully. Using a musket’s ramrod as a lever balanced over a pewter jug, he was raising Ickcongoque’s head by means of a leather thong which hung from the ramrod’s end and passed under the back of her neck. Their four- year- old daughter, Ickeuna, was snuggled in Caubvick’s lap, both of them fixedly watching the rite. Caubvick’s husband, Tooklavinia, was asleep in one of the bunks. Caubvick turned her beautiful face to Cartwright and smiled when she heard him come in.
Attuiock chanted monotonously, his eyes shut, then opened them wide, hissed a couple of words with great intensity, and let Ickcongoque’s head drop to the cabin floor. Then he began his chanting again, raising Ickcongoque’s head.
Cartwright waited, watching intently, as he had done so often with these people, glad of their incomprehensible displays. Attuiock paused, looking proud and wise. “It is very good, very good,” he said, pointing to Ickcongoque and his device.
“That may be,” Cartwright nodded, “but pray, what is it good for?”
“My wife has got the headache.”
“Ah!” Cartwright raised his eyebrows and quickly withdrew.
Three strides up the companionway, hit by the tilting bite of the air, he gripped the rail and let his laughter explode. He was rich, he knew it. The old chief ’s solemn face! How he loved him, his childishness and wisdom – always what Cartwright loved: dignity and fantasy combined.
Cartwright could see his success. His cargoes wouldn’t completely repay his debts, but they would impress his creditors, bringing investment for his next trip out, for expanding his operations on the Labrador coast. He would speak about that with the Board of Trade. And the Inuit would bring him renown, audiences with curious grandees, people of influence – perhaps with the King himself. Some gifts of furs and curios for the men on the Board of Trade, and for Cartwright sole right to fish and hunt in the watersheds of the St. Lewis River and the Alexis River, and eventually Sandwich Bay. And Noble and Pinson’s territory as well – he would have to devour those rivals who were trying to squeeze him out. And better naval support – British law to hold it all in place. Tall doors opening everywhere to admit the adventurer- gentleman back from the Empire’s outposts with proofs of supremacy. He wanted that. Thick- headed George Cartwright, the sporting dolt. He knew what his brothers thought of him. A failed soldier, forever in debt, retired young on half- pay with nothing to do and not enough money with which to do it.
He felt himself grin at the prospect of showing off England to the Inuit, watching their faces as they rode in a coach through London’s streets. As they entered St. Paul’s. He liked their capacity for awe, and the thought of the tales they’d take back to their people in Labrador. They looked on the English as a small tribe of landless wanderers. He wanted to show them the true proportion of things, amaze them, make them willing subjects of his rule, to both their advantages. He needed to keep them working for him, bringing him whalebone and furs; he wanted them to see that they needed his knowledge and goods in exchange.
He imagined their comic conjectures and his explanations, their blunders in high society. He was eager for this, the disruption they’d cause. He felt they embodied a part of him self returning home. He had never fitted into London society. He was happier gutting a deer. He pictured himself in London walking his wolf cub on a leash, carrying his eagle, escorted by Inuit, and felt the power they gave him – not merely because of the spectacle, but because they were his natural company. They proclaimed what he’d always harboured inside himself.
His youngest sister, Dorothy, would be frightened, filled with wonder. His brothers would be speechless for a change. In their chairs in the parlour at Marnham. Political pamphlets, inventions, and sonnets would be swept from their minds as they watched him stride about with his unimaginable friends in their clothing of skins.
It was cold and nearly dark. The crew was hauling the ship about on its port tack. Cartwright waved to the helmsman, then heaved himself below to his cabin – a lighted lamp now swinging there from an antler – and flung himself down on the furs beside Mrs. Selby. Unbuttoned her jacket, reached under her clothes.
Laughing again he described what Attuiock and Ickcongoque were doing. “Listen,” he said. The knocking was still going on. “No doubt she would have a headache!” His fingers found more buttons, burrowed for warmth.
“Poor thing,” Mrs. Selby said. “It must be leaving her people, and the strangeness of all this has made her sick.”
Cartwright looked into her eyes and saw something as plain as water around rocks at the edge of a lake. Something sufficient in itself with which he could do nothing. There was also a tinge of amusement there. It seemed directed as much at him as the Inuit.
“Ah, most likely it has,” he said, “but they have such a quaint conception of medicine. If they’d only ask me to bleed her, she’d be up helping to trim the topgallant sails in a minute or two.”
Mrs. Selby put her book aside, a novel by Sarah Scott. It was one of the few books of Mrs. Selby’s that had survived Labrador, and she’d already read it six or seven times. She took his hand out of her clothing and bit it. “You’re more of a savage,” she said, “than any of them.”
By the Nottingham road he is conscious again of the gate swinging slightly in the breeze, tapping against a post. Cartwright whistles to Kaumalak. Watches her slowly spiral in.
Out to the east the Trent is a long placid smile in a green face. Marnham, where Cartwright was born, lies just to this side of the river at the top of a soft fold.
“The land is all made here,” Attuiock had remarked during his visit to Marnham. He and Cartwright were riding slowly side by side in the late- winter afternoon – meadows and hedgerows lay before them – when Attuiock turned to Cartwright with a look of embarrassed discovery on his face. “All made by man.”
George Cartwright, eleven years old, crouched and pushed his way through the willow thicket. His family’s house was in sight at the top of the rise. With his left hand he guided his small fowling piece through the branches ahead of him, careful not to let the trigger get caught. In his right hand he carried behind him four partridges tied by their feet with a cord. A twig stung his cheek. He stepped free into the meadow and started to run.
At the top of the meadow he followed the brick- walled trench, then climbed its steps and continued running over the lawn to the window of his father’s study. He peered past the reflection into the dim room. His father was there with John, Cartwright’s brother, younger than him by only a year. They stood at a table looking at drawings and maps. His father’s shaved head, showing a week’s grey stubble, was bare of the wig he sometimes wore. His long, unbuttoned waistcoat, his open shirt, hung loosely before him as he bent forward pointing at diagrams.
Cartwright waited and listened. His father was indicating how the red lines representing turnpikes and the arches representing bridges would join with the system of canals, shown in blue, to link ports and county capitals together.
“And who shall pay for the work?” John asked. “Will the King pay for it all?”
“No,” his father explained, “it will be the duty of landowning families in each district to underwrite the cost of the works, and they will then have the privilege of charging tolls to recover their expenditures and gather a profit.”
“Will the roads and canals not stand vacant for want of people with money enough to pay the tolls?” John wondered aloud.
“No.” His father spoke to John with gentle intimacy. “When the means are improved, the traffic in goods by land will be much greater than what it is at the present. The storehouses in Nottingham right now are filled with stockings and lace and malt that cannot be conveyed to those who would buy them. Habit is useless. There is great wealth, great wealth to be made by the man with the wits to improve the way things are done.”
His father turned to reach for his drawings of bridges, and Cartwright at the window called out and held up his partridges. His father and John looked up – their eyes, their expressions nearly identical. Both for a second seemed not to know who he was. His father opened the window. “We’re busy just now. . . . Well, what have we here? Oh, it’s a pity you didn’t have better luck. Your Aunt Elizabeth’s coming, you know. One or two birds more would have made a meal.”
His mother was crying, her mouth bunched and ugly as she gave him the basket, the twisted wicker handle thick in his hands, the basket heavy with plates and food for his father and brothers. Anne, his oldest sister, pale and silent, watched from behind the cluttered scullery table. The manservant who would drive the cart, at least until Cartwright insisted on taking the reins, stood by the light- filled door, waiting, a basket in each of his hands, a vague half- smile on his face, looking at nothing.
“He’s stolen your future to pay for his precious bridge. Do you know that, George?” His mother was looking into his eyes with frightening intensity, as though grabbing at him out of the ruins of her usual self. “There was a lawyer in here this morning from Nottingham. Your father sold him the Ossington house to pay for his bricks. That was my father’s house. And your father knew I meant it to go to you. There won’t be money for any of you for a tutor now. Army school or some wretched apprenticeship is all you’ll get.”
“But the bridge will bring money in, will it not?”
“Ha. That bridge is nought but one of his games.”
Passing out of the kitchen garden into the carriage- drive where the horse and cart were waiting, Cartwright glimpsed the younger children beyond the orchard leading a pony. His brother William, sixteen years old but smaller than George, was lying on a rug near the garden wall, reading a book. He didn’t look up from his reading. William was separate. In some ways he seemed freer, more adult than the other children; in some ways he was less taken into account than even the youngest one. He was sick much of the time, alone in his room, dining at odd hours. Because of his poor health, and perhaps because their father had once expected him to become head of the family, he was the only one to receive private lessons, although their mother was always talking of having tutors for each of her ten children.
Cartwright lifted the basket up to the servant in the cart. He wouldn’t miss the house in Ossington, which he had visited only a few times; he was glad to be spared the tedium of tutors. He couldn’t imagine anyone stealing his future. He was eager to drive the cart, see the country passing, and join the others down in the lowlands beside the Trent River where they were building the bridge. To be under the bright wide sky with the crowds of workers, the carters and piles of bricks.
Cartwright’s father, his wig askew, his waistcoat open, was showing a group of visitors over the site, gesturing with a rolled drawing to where the fourteen piers for the thirteen arches would be situated, extolling the values of sound engineering and public works. To the east, marsh birds rose in a glittering flock. Goods and traffic would flow between Newark, Gainsborough, and Mansfield all the year, untroubled by floods, he was saying. The air was loud with the echo of carpenters’ hammers. John was on top of a curved wooden form where one of the arches was being completed. He waved, called out, threw down a rope for Cartwright to tie to one of the baskets of food.
Edmund, younger than Cartwright by four years, was out at the last pier watching the engineers rigging a crane with block and tackle. Edmund had diagrams of his own rolled under his arm. In his seven-year-old voice he asked about their arrangements of levers and counterweights. The engineers paused in their work and answered him without condescension. Cartwright had set down a basket in their midst. While he listened, he took out a roasted partridge and handed Edmund a leg.
“You’ve got the makings of a fine officer in many respects, Cartwright.” Mr. Becher, Headmaster of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, paused to stretch his chin high and inhale through large, snuff- blackened nostrils. “You’re good in sports. The Academy Wrestling Champion. You get on well with the other lads. You’re admired by many; that’s clear. You could be a first- rate leader and find advancement in His Majesty’s service. But, look here, you’ve got to apply yourself to your lessons.”
“Mr. Ryland tells me your knowledge of Latin is no greater now than when you began here.”
“Mr. Langley tells me your knowledge of mathematics, and of the principles of gunnery, is not what it ought to be.”
“Our officers cannot be ignorant men, Cartwright. You seem capable enough, but I’m told you daydream. I’m also told you were absent from parade three times in the last fortnight and that you are sometimes absent from your dormitory for the whole night. Those are grounds for expulsion, Cartwright.”
“Now I could wink at a few fallings- off of that sort if your performance here in other respects were more satisfactory. If I receive any further reports of failures in mathematics and gunnery, or absences from your duties between now and Easter, a caning is the least you’ll get, in spite of your size. And I expect some progress in Latin. Think of your future, Cartwright.”
“I don’t know what – if anything – goes on in your head.”
“They’re letting you stay?” Kellet leaned forward over his basin of porridge across from Cartwright. “Old Becher is soft on you. Anyone else he would have had flogged and sent down months ago.”
Cartwright shrugged. “He says I’ve got to learn Latin. Christ, I’m sick of this stuff.” He stood his spoon upright in his porridge; then, grasping it like a handle, lifted his bowl sideways off the table, turned it quickly upside down in a tight circle without any spill, and set it down again.
Kellet sniggered. “You know what cook puts in it instead of salt, don’t you?”
“Here, give me your handkerchief,” Cartwright said.
He spread Kellet’s handkerchief on the table, scraped his porridge onto it, and tied the handkerchiefs corners over the mass like a peas pudding. “They’ll be watching me,” he said. “Put this in your hat.”
Kellet whisked the moist parcel under the table into his hat. “What for?” He searched Cartwright’s face eagerly.
“You know those pigeons Madame Becher feeds on the porch roof under their window? I’ve got a plan to get us some decent food.”
The sound of boys cheering echoed up from the playing field on the other side of the building. Cartwright looked behind him awkwardly to each side. He was pulling himself upright through the leaves, clutching a vine branch with his left hand. His feet were on Kellet’s bony shoulders.
His face rose shakily over the eave of the porch under the Bechers’ bedroom window. Pigeons cooed apprehensively and fluttered up to the building’s main roof, sending a gust of feathers and oat husks into his eyes.
He checked the window, cautiously lifted the bundle of porridge onto the roof, and opened the handkerchief. It was possible to spread the porridge over the slates like a sheet of dough. He scraped his hand clean, took grain from his pocket, and scattered it over the porridge. “Keep still,” he hissed, turning his face toward Kellet.
“Oh God, I hope they’re starving,” Kellet moaned. “You’re breaking my back.”
Cartwright crouched under the eave, as deep into the vine’s leaves as he could get. From time to time he twisted his head, checking the courtyard. Everyone was still at the game.
He heard a soft rush of wings above him. Mild cooing, claws clicking on slate. He waited. Heard flapping and darted his face and right arm over the eave, snatched one, two, three pigeons before they could pull their feet out of the porridge.
The air in The Swimming Dog Tavern was murky with smoke, thick with the clatter of backgammon pieces and drinkers’ talk.
“The mushrooms were a good idea,” Kellet said, chewing, the light from the fireplace giving his left cheek an exaggerated glow. Two nearly empty wine bottles stood on the table between them.
“Mnh!” Cartwright agreed, dipping bread in his plate. “Astonishing what you can do with a wad of porridge. Just add some wine and onions and plenty of peppercorns. And Meg to cook it of course.”
Kellet and Cartwright laughed and clinked their glasses together. “To Meg! To Madame Becher! To porridge!”
Meg, who had just served them their pigeons, took the earthen baking dish back to the fireplace. “I’ll leave the last one here on the hearth to keep warm,” she said.
Then she returned and stood at Cartwright’s side, her hand at the back of his neck, her right hip touching his shoulder. Cartwright put his hand on her waist and looked up into her face.
“Do you think my friend Kellet here could stay the night too? What about Theresa? Will she be by?”
“Oh, I should think.” Meg smiled openly at Kellet’s red face. “We’ll see the young gentleman safely housed.”
A wide tilting column of smoke is jutting into the sky from just beyond the crown of the meadow he’s in. It must be a farmer burning old hay. He urges Thoroton forward. During his whole time since dying he’s never encountered another human, not one he could talk to. He’s looked in on the living, invisibly, often enough, but his own customary realm has always been empty of all but animal life. Where did his family go in their own deaths? His soul, or whatever he is, has lingered near home. Why haven’t theirs? In all his ghostly hunts and rambles through the familiar countryside he’s never crossed paths with his parents or with any of his four brothers and five sisters. Eventually he’s bound to find John or Catherine or one of them sitting under a tree or walking some lane as lonely and baffled as himself.
The smoke just over the rise mounts into the air with unusual volume and energy. Reaching the crest of the meadow he stretches up in his stirrups to see its source, and finds he’s been tricked into the present again. The smoke thunders up out of the five cooling towers of the power station that stands on the site of his old family home. There is a railway below him and a highway with windshields glinting in the sun. He should have thought of this. He’s seen those funnels often enough. As though some experiment of his brother Edmund’s lurched out of control, swallowing the house, pinning the landscape in its cogged and levered arms.
He strokes Kaumalak’s breast, then turns Thoroton back down the meadow, out from under the looming presence, into a sprinkling of birdsong.
In late December 1779, approaching his fortieth birthday, back from Labrador, exhausted, his business in ruins, his relations with Mrs. Selby at an end, Cartwright had made his way by carriage from London over the muddy roads to Marnham.
Passing through Newark, alone in the carriage, he looked for his father’s bridge in the distance. Dykes and canals had drained the Muskham marshes into the Devon and Trent. To make a shortcut and avoid the toll which the bridge’s current owner was trying to impose, the driver chose a humpy track to the east of the bridge, across what used to be swamp.
Cartwright counted thirteen vague arches in the evening rain. Already grass and brambles seemed to be crowning them.
At Marnham his father had embraced him tearfully, struggled to open Madeira wine, his hands trembling constantly, talked breathlessly of his latest financial schemes, plantbreeding, shares in Doncaster mills, his voice thin and brittle.
Since his father’s sister, Lady Tyrconnel, had recently died, only their daughter Catherine, their old servant Mary, and a cook were living at home with his parents now. His father led Cartwright into the conservatory, its floor and tables strewn with pots and boxes of earth. Whispering, he lifted a small potted plant and invited his son to stroke its leaves. The old man plucked a leaf, nibbled part of it, and offered the rest to Cartwright, whom he watched expectantly.
Cartwright’s mouth puckered.
He had bred it himself, his father said, blinking rapidly. A thornless, edible thistle. It would alter the course of history. He was weeping again. “It will release the poor from hunger and reverse God’s curse on Adam. It is a great step toward the recovery of Eden, which now must be the whole object of man’s endeavour.”
Black plumes pulled sideways in the wind. Cartwright has seen so many over the years, over the landscape, from chimneys and tall stacks. Coal mines, cloth mills, breweries. The cooling towers at Marnham, on top of his old house. These glimpsed billows and skeins often seem to detach themselves from their settings and come after him. Shapes like faceless banshee women, black rags streaming, hovering over his head. Reminders of Caubvick’s hair.
Even Kaumalak diving sometimes is a black plume.
“Give me your hair,” he had begged Caubvick. “It has to be burnt or thrown away.”
Her long black hair, unusually coarse and glossy, almost like a horse’s mane – he had loved to dig his fingers in it, feeling her body’s pull like a river’s current. It had seemed to spring not just from her skin, but from her whole history and the land that had made her. The fever had lifted it off like a wig. The potent mane was attached to a scalp- shaped layer of scabs and dried skin. “Give it to me, in the name of God,” he had pleaded repeatedly as they sailed toward Labrador. “It’s full of death. It will kill your people.”
But Caubvick, bald, hollow- eyed, her face pitted with sores, had locked her hair in her trunk and would not give it up. As though she were guarding all that remained of her beauty.
He should have forced her, weathered her screaming, her devastation, and taken the trunk, broken it open, and flung her pestilent hair into the sea. Except he knew she’d have thrown herself in after it.
He had taken so much from her already, and was grateful she had survived to spare him from having to face her people alone, explain alone what had swallowed their relatives, how he had let them slip. He wanted to handle her gently, not rob her of what little she had left.
It was like something fallen out of his hands from the brink of a cliff. He could see it falling, but could not snatch it back. The most precious thing. Falling down and down. His arms were not long enough.
Hawking and spying over the land, listening in on other periods in time, getting tangled in parts of his life and disentangling himself, finding himself back on the Nottingham road – this jolting process makes up Cartwright’s days. And then there’s the night, and his journal.
He never thinks of his journal until it’s dark and he’s in his room in The Turk’s Head Inn and Kaumalak is asleep. The loneliness, the immobility of time seem to be crushing him. He’s sure he’s about to implode, metamorphose into some horrible thing. And then the crisis of torment passes, and a dullness sets in, and his apathetic gaze passes over his journal on the table by the extinct hearth. He takes up one of its volumes for no particular reason, becomes intrigued by some old entry, and forgets where he is again. Sometimes an idea it triggers prompts him to take up his pen and add a new passage. Sometimes he sits up all night, filling his journal’s pages.
For a long time now he has continued to write in it, examining his peculiar version of being dead, recording his excursions into the current age, his luck at hawking, his memories.
It used to be, he now realizes, that when he was alive he enjoyed making entries in his journal almost as much as he did hunting. The sense of importance, the ritual gave him great pleasure, the times by the fire in the Lodge in Labrador when Mrs. Selby would hush the others because the master was writing. He enjoyed reassembling events, picking out some pattern in what had gone on, and capturing happenings in words. It was not so different from hunting, or so it used to seem.
Now, when he writes, he does so with much less order and purpose. Who will read it after all? How long will it go on? He finds himself rewriting passages almost word for word. Some evenings he only reads old entries. Sometimes he simply sits thinking with a volume in his hands and falls asleep. Is he pulling things together, making sense of his life? He can’t tell.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
John Steffler was born in Toronto and currently lives in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, where he teaches at Memorial University’s Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.
An acclaimed poet, his most recent books of poetry are The Grey Islands and The Wreckage of Play. The Afterlife of George Cartwright, published in Canada and the U.S., won the 1992 Smithbooks/Books in Canada First Novel Award, the 1993 Thomas Raddall Award, and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and for the 1993 Best First Book Commonwealth Prize.
John Steffler is currently at work on his next novel.close this panel