Home > Stardust(8)

Author: Neil Gaiman

When she was sixteen she had fought vigorously with her mother, for Victoria had taken it into her head that she would work in the Seventh Magpie as a pot-maid. “I have spoken to Mister Bromios about this,” she told her mother, “and he has no objection.”

“What Mister Bromios thinks or does not think,” replied her mother, the former Bridget Comfrey “is neither here nor there. That is a most improper occupation for a young lady.”The village of Wall watched the battle of wills with fascination, wondering what the outcome would be, for no one crossed Bridget Forester: she had a tongue that could, the villagers said, blister the paint from a barn door and tear the bark from an oak.

There was no one in the village who would have wanted to get on the wrong side of Bridget Forester, and they did say that the wall would be more likely to walk than for Bridget Forester to change her mind.

Victoria Forester, however, was used to having her own way, and, if all else failed, or even if it did not, she would appeal to her father, and he would accede to her demands. But here even Victoria was surprised, for her father agreed with her mother, saying that working in the bar at the Seventh Magpie was something that a well-brought-up young lady would not do. And Thomas Forester set his chin and there the matter ended. Every boy in the village was in love with Victoria Forester. And many a sedate gentleman, quietly married with grey in his beard, would stare at her as she walked down the street, becoming, for a few moments, a boy once more, in the spring of his years with a spring in his step.

“They say that Mister Monday himself is counted amongst your admirers,” said Louisa Thorn to Victoria Forester one afternoon in May, in the apple orchard.

Five girls sat beside, and upon the branches of, the oldest apple tree in the orchard, its huge trunk making a fine seat and support; and whenever the May breeze blew, the pink blossoms tumbled down like snow, coming to rest in their hair and on their skirts.

The afternoon sunlight dappled green and silver and gold through the leaves in the apple orchard.

“Mister Monday,” said Victoria Forester with disdain, “is five and forty years of age if he is a day.” She made a face to indicate just how old five-and-forty is, when you happen to be seventeen.

“Anyway,” said Cecilia Hempstock, Louisa’s cousin, “he has already been married. I would not wish to marry someone who had already been married. It would be,” she opined, “like having someone else break in one’s own pony.”

“Personally I would imagine that to be the sole advantage of marrying a widower,” said Amelia Robinson. “That someone else would have removed the rough edges; broken him in, if you will. Also, I would imagine that by that age his lusts would long since have been sated, and abated, which would free one from a number of indignities.”A flurry of hastily suppressed giggles amid the apple blossom.

“Still,” said Lucy Pippin hesitantly, “it would be nice to live in the big house, and to have a coach and four, and to be able to travel to London for the season, and to Bath to take the waters, or to Brighton for the sea-bathing, even if Mister Monday is five and forty.”The other girls shrieked, and flung handfuls of apple blossom at her, and none shrieked more loudly, or flung more blossom, than Victoria Forester. Tristran Thorn, at the age of seventeen, and only six months older than Victoria, was half the way between a boy and a man, and was equally uncomfortable in either role; he seemed to be composed chiefly of elbows and Adam’s apples. His hair was the brown of sodden straw, and it stuck out at awkward, seventeen-year-old angles, wet and comb it howsoever much he tried.

He was painfully shy, which, as is often the manner of the painfully shy, he overcompensated for by being too loud at the wrong times. Most days Tristran was content — or as content as a seventeen-year-old youth with his world ahead of him can ever be — and when he daydreamed in the fields, or at the tall desk at the back of Monday and Brown’s, the village shop, he fancied himself riding the train all the way to Lon-don or to Liverpool, of taking a steamship across the grey Atlantic to America, and making his fortune there among the savages in the new lands.

But there were times when the wind blew from beyond the wall, bringing with it the smell of mint and thyme and red-currants, and at those times there were strange colors seen in the flames in the fireplaces of the village. When that wind blew, the simplest of devices — from lucifer matches to lantern-slides — would no longer function.

And, at those times, Tristran Thorn’s daydreams were strange, guilty fantasies, muddled and odd, of journeys through forests to rescue princesses from palaces, dreams of knights and trolls and mermaids. And when these moods came upon him, he would slip out of the house, and lie upon the grass, and stare up at the stars.

Few of us now have seen the stars as folk saw them then — our cities and towns cast too much light into the night — but, from the village of Wall, the stars were laid out like worlds or like ideas, uncountable as the trees in a forest or the leaves on a tree.

Tristan would stare into the darkness of the sky until he thought of nothing at all, and then he would go back to his bed and sleep like a dead man.

He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dy***ite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.

Monday and Brown’s was the village shop. While they kept a number of necessaries in stock, much of their business was conducted by means of lists: villagers would give Mr. Brown a list of what they needed, from potted meats to sheep-dip, from fish-knives to chimney-tiles; a clerk at Monday and Brown’s would compile a master list of everything requested; and then Mr. Monday would take the master list and a dray pulled by two huge shire horses, and he would set off for the nearest county town and return in a handful of days with the dray loaded high with goods of all description.

It was a cold, blustery day in late October, of the kind that always seems about to rain but never actually does, and it was late in the afternoon. Victoria Forester walked into Monday and Brown’s with a list, written in her mother’s precise handwriting, and she rang the small bell on the counter for service.

She looked slightly disappointed to see Tristran Thorn appear from the back room. “Good day, Miss Forester.”She smiled a tight smile and handed Tristran her list.

It read as follows: 1/2 lb of sago10 cans of sardines1 bottle of mushroom ketchup5 lb of rice1 tin of golden syrup2 lb of currants a bottle of cochineal 1 lb of barley sugar1 shilling box of Rowntrees Elect Cocoa 3d tin of Oakey’s knife polish 6d of Brunswick black1 packet of Swinborne’s Isinglass 1 bottle of furniture cream 1 basting ladle a ninepenny gravy strainer a set of kitchen steps

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