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To be a gentleman

Melissa Scott and I have gotten into a pattern on our collaborations. I tend to charge ahead writing some key scenes and then those scenes serve as flags, as map points driven into the ground for where the story is going. Sometimes those flags are turning points of the book we're working on right now. Sometimes they're key emotional scenes. Sometimes they're testing an idea to see if it works as a direction for the story. And sometimes they're not even in this book -- they're in a future one down the road, a distant stake showing where we're eventually going.

Sometimes they're backstory or a different point of view, and they won't be used as they are but they serve as a touchstone for us, invisible backstory that informs how we write a character or a relationship. Those are the ones that would be interesting for you to read, but generally they're full of spoilers.

This one isn't. This is a story I wrote about Mitch in 1914, fifteen years before the beginning of Lost Things. And since it's not full of spoilers, I thought I would share it with you. I'd love to hear what you think!

John Sorley was born in 1852, and even his eldest child thought of him as an old man. He had always been gray and quiet, a man of few words who never lost his temper. Every obstacle or question was greeted with contemplative silence while he chewed on the stem of his pipe, followed in due course of time by an answer that was usually right. Old John had all his marbles, people said. He knew what was what.

He wasn't a gentleman, just a farmer with four hundred acres of good land eight miles from Salem, most of it in tobacco except for the pasture by the stream that was too marshy where three milk cows and the plow horse grazed. In summertime there was shade from the trees along the creek, but in the fields the sun was merciless. That was what gave the tobacco life, Carolina gold rising out of red clay soil and spreading leaves to the sky.

There was a white farmhouse where he'd brought his first wife, room for her and the baby, Young John, but influenza had carried off mother and child alike two years later and it was eight years before he married again, never to inflict the bad luck name of John on any son again. Instead there was Rob, who loved animals and was fascinated by the calving, who brought home injured birds and wild rabbits until the other children called him Doc, half in jest and half for real. There was Frank, quick and bright and up to something, lying through his teeth and getting away with it with a grin. There was Michael, who had a head for numbers and could do long lines of sums in his head when he wasn't but in fourth grade. There was Charlie, who loved music and would spend all week in church if he could get his hands on the piano, practicing on the quilt at night as though there were an invisible keyboard beneath his hands, playing Jesus Loves Me silently in the dark. There were Madeline and Evelyn, the girls, Maddie bossy and certain of herself, the chaperone of her boisterous brothers, and Evelyn all blond curls and stubborn ways, the sunny baby at the very back end.

And there was Mitchell, the oldest. He was the high school letterman, the starting quarterback, a big handsome boy who stayed out of trouble and kept his nose clean. He hitched the wagon in the predawn winter darkness, heating hot bricks to put under the board for the little kids' feet before they came out bundled up to go to school because no Sorley child ever missed school, not even in planting season when almost everyone did. Old John had to take on hired men when he had strong sons of his own because his wife put on airs that way. All her sons would be doctors and ministers and attorneys before the law, and you didn't get there by working with your hands like you were going to be a farmer in a godforsaken backwater all your life! And so Old John gave in, and even in planting season Mitchell drove the wagon to Salem with all the rest on board, and if along about his junior year he wished for one of the fancy automobiles that rich men had in Salem, there wasn't much point in that. His father would buy a car when hell froze over. Every spare penny was for college so that every last one of them would be doctors and ministers and federal judges.

Durham was a bigger town than Salem, and Trinity College had its charms. He studied Classics as a precursor to reading law, which his mother would arrange with someone in Salem by the time he'd finished his degree. He had no doubt she'd push and pull and figure it out, and by the day he walked with his diploma his whole life would be plotted out -- the man he'd read law with, the practice he'd enter, the justice carefully groomed to take him as a clerk, the big house he'd buy in town, even the girl he'd marry. They'd all be waiting, and all he had to do was connect the dots, walk unerringly through the dance steps like he had all his life. The steps weren't so hard. Bad things happened if you missed a beat, and why court bad things when it was easy enough to comply and keep your own self to yourself? If the wagon you drove was a gypsy wagon full of performers on their way to a fair instead of a pile of children, who knew that? If the old plow horse was hauling a catapult to shoot Greek fire to relieve the siege of Rhodes, well, he was supposed to be reading Classics, wasn't he? And whatever you got up to in Durham, it was seventy miles from home.

Who'd know if you "borrowed" a Stutz Bearcat from a stuck up fraternity brother and went roaring through Five Points with a couple of chorus girls from a traveling Vaudeville show? Unless you accidentally dumped the car in the Eno River, a prank was a prank. And if anybody was drag racing and dumped the car in the river, it wouldn't be Mitchell Sorley. He'd be the one fishing people out and explaining to the police, all innocence and helpfulness that officer, he'd just been passing by when he saw a brother in trouble. It had nothing to do with that tricky shift, or with putting an anvil in the trunk to make sure that the back wheels stayed on the ground over that hill there.

But those days were numbered. Graduation loomed, and so did Salem. He'd live at home, of course, until he married. His mother would brush his suits and make sure his shoes looked proper for a young man on the rise. She'd peek through the curtains while he wooed some boring girl he went to high school with on the front porch just to make sure there were no kisses. And how could a man stand that? There was a good deal more than kissing possible, but not sharing a room with four brothers. Ok, two, since Rob was at college and Frank would be too next year, but sharing with Michael and Charlie was no good.

He could put his foot down and get a room in town, pleading it would be easier with his job, but all that would do would be bring his mother in town in all weathers. Or she'd have her friends watch him. She'd hear if he ever had a glass of beer and tell him long and strong that drunkenness was the fastest way to failure, not to mention wrecking his chances with any good young woman. "Lips that touch wine shall never touch mine!" she'd proclaim, reminding him of the Temperance pledge. Every decent girl in Salem had taken it at about fourteen. Only teetotaling men would ever get kisses. Drinking was working class. God help him if he ever looked working class!

And then there was the fact that he hated the law. Not that it was so bad, per se, but the thing about reading Classics was that it was full of things that actually happened. There were battles and expeditions, marches and hardships and strange voyages and cities founded and clouds of seagulls that came down in portent. There was magic and mystery and strange people who burned their captives alive and peerless queens reclining in Eastern splendor on gilded barges.

All that hadn't gone away. Just today men were searching for the North Pole or finding lost islands in the Pacific. Rome was a real place and you could get there on a steamer. The South Sea Islands were further, but you could go there if you dared to, if you put your mind to it and went. The ocean was real, and only a full day's drive if you had an actual automobile rather than a wagon, and the train could take you to San Francisco in four days. How could you shut yourself up in an office in Salem and never come out again?

The problem, of course, was money. Setting yourself up in any kind of profession required money. And sure, he could read law in San Francisco, but he didn't know a soul in San Francisco and you couldn't just walk in and become someone's clerk. The mothers of San Francisco had those places sewed up for their sons.

Likewise, polar expeditions didn't grow on trees. You had to know someone who was planning an expedition. Which he didn't, because nobody from Salem ever had polar expeditions. Ditto the South Seas.

There was an ad from the Southern Railroad looking for an agent in St. Joseph, Missouri, which wasn’t exactly an exciting place though it did have the virtue of being several hundred miles from Salem. He considered this, sitting in the Stutz Bearcat waiting for a covered truck to clear the 11' 8" bridge, which it couldn't without turning around and going back up Gregson Street. Several hundred miles did have advantages, and he'd never been to Missouri. On the other hand, being a railroad agent was not at all like going on a polar expedition. There had to be some way to get out of North Carolina without a huge outlay of cash going forward, or in fact without an outlay of more than $32 plus whatever he could make by selling his textbooks to the rising class at the end of the year. There had to be something more likely to lead to South Sea adventures than being a railroad agent.

The truck hemmed and hawed, trying to turn around. Beyond it on Peabody Street one of the brick buildings was painted with an enormous poster, a glaring gent in red, white and blue hat pointing sternly at him. "Uncle Sam Wants You!"

And so at Easter of 1914, two months before his graduation, Mitchell sat down with Old John on the front porch and took a deep breath. "Pop, I've decided I'm going to enlist."


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 15th, 2013 03:27 pm (UTC)
Sigh.....have I said today how much I love Mitch? I don't think I have b/c I've been too busy with end of the year school things.....

May. 15th, 2013 08:19 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it! I love Mitch too, and this is a really necessary look at where he came from.
May. 15th, 2013 06:08 pm (UTC)
I love Mitch and I love this.
May. 15th, 2013 08:23 pm (UTC)
I'm glad! I write most of Mitch, so I've done some sketching with him forward and backward.
May. 15th, 2013 07:00 pm (UTC)
Such a slice of reality from that time...how many of that generation went to war just to get away from home...
May. 15th, 2013 08:27 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it. I love Mitch and the rest of the team! This is how he got to where we meet him in Lost Things.
May. 15th, 2013 11:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, I love this so much! I'm from N.C., although not from Durrr'm, and my daddy grew up on an N.C. farm, and this all rings true.
I love Mitch's Walter Mitty-style dreaming of traveling players and catapults despite all the expectations placed on him (it's a little easier to see how he was able to accept the extraordinary in Lost Things). Unlike George Bailey, he has a good enough excuse to slip his chain and go a-yondering.
I didn't realize, though, that military recruitment efforts extended to building-size posters back in 1914, way before the U.S. entered WWI.
I'm also a little curious how successful-but-not-a-gentleman, contemplative John Sorley ended up with a somewhat snobby, ambitious-for-her-children second wife.
Anyway, thanks so much for sharing this!
May. 17th, 2013 12:03 pm (UTC)
I'm so glad you love it! Many bits of it are true, though of course not quite the way it's put together. This is my own home, so it's interesting to write something so close for a change.

I like the Walter Mitty dreaming too -- someday I want to do a story about how Gil got Mitch involved with the Lodge, because it must have seemed like Mitch was the last person on the planet who would be ok with this. He seems so normal! What made Gil think Mitch belonged in the Lodge? But it was a good choice. Which is one of the things that interests me about Mitch -- he chose this. All of the others to a certain extent couldn't fit in the "day world." Mitch could. But he doesn't want to. He made his Descent willingly.

I'm also a little curious how successful-but-not-a-gentleman, contemplative John Sorley ended up with a somewhat snobby, ambitious-for-her-children second wife.

That's a good question! We're going to come back to that in the sixth book, Invisible Wars, when we meet Mitch's mother and his sister Evelyn. (And OMG I love Evelyn!)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )