The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies
HM has been deceived by the dainty manners of first acquaintance, when Cassandra nibbled his fingers and blew nose kisses into his palm. Now she flattens her ears, twitches at the reins. Every hoof she sucks from the ground aims another clot of water at her rider. HM happens to know that horses, like all creatures intended to run for their lives, can observe their full compass round, so when she turns her head back, it is not to look but to make by-our-lady sure he sees her look. Raindrops have beaded on her lashes and whiskers, transforming her into some frosted basilisk of the great northern ocean, risen to recite the charges against him.
Behind HM rides Shiers, also sulking, on a cow-hocked bay. Shiers has tunneled deep into his habitual melancholy to uncover a seam of stygian gloom. With every new set of accounts or assay report, his head has sunk further between his shoulders, threatening to reduce him to one of those nipple-eyed monsters of Ethiop. He may not even have understood the fine details. His mind is blunt, a maul at best, or a crowbar. For this reason, he has been HM’s most trusted employee yet tedious companion, the more so right now for his rheumatic affliction. He sniffled and sneezed through a passable supper at the inn and then again through a more doubtful breakfast. Aeolian fanfares accompany their progress along the puddled track.
At the front of this small cavalcade rides the man who calls himself Tall John, his feet dangling past the belly of a gray pony that is first cousin to a sheep. Tall John wears a short hood or perhaps a long hat of coney fur, which covers his neck and his ears and merges around his face into a grizzled ruff where, HM surmises, the coney stops and the man begins.
Since leaving the highway, they have slithered up and down and around so many hills that every six yards ridden marks one gained. Each ascent reveals more hills—bare, treeless wastes of sorrel and mauve, rainclouds tumbling down their slopes like the smoke of burnt villages.
The bay slips, and Shiers curses. “How much longer must we wade through this by-our-lady swamp?”
“Pish!” says HM, to assure anyone listening that in him, at least, dwells the true spirit of an Adventurer. “Pash!” he adds, more quietly, because perhaps Tall John, with his fur-coddled ears, has not heard.
But Tall John looks back at them, with an expression that suggests their exchange has disturbed the grasshoppers in his head.
“A journey is as long as it is long.”
“Indeed,” agrees HM, noting that once again this could be the wisdom of a rustic savant, the subtlety of a cozener, or the rambling of a lunatic.
It was Shiers whom Tall John approached first, with a tale that he could not be persuaded to elaborate or even repeat. When Shiers explained the finder’s fee and its conditions, Tall John stipulated that HM must be of the preliminary party, plus Shiers, and no one else.
So here is HM, founding director and deputy governor of the Company of Mine Adventurers, former comptroller of the Middle Temple, former member of Parliament, knighted by His Royal Majesty King Charles II, in sodden garb on a sodden horse trailing through the sodden by-our-lady wilderness after either a simpleton or a crook.
It is clear to HM that Tall John belongs to that most disagreeable class of humanity, those who refuse honest employment, choosing instead to scrape a living off the land, like animals. They take anything they can eat or burn or sell: berries, acorns, bracken, scraps of fleece, leaves, peat, sand. They trap and fish, empty birds’ nests, pull the very stones from the ground. And with all this, account themselves a second Adam, more free than a freeborn gentleman.
This morning, in the stable yard of the inn, Tall John observed the preparations in silence. HM still prickles from the smirk he recognized as he took up his reins. A look-at-you-fine-sir-in-your-fancy-sleeves-and-neckcloth smirk.
Smirk while you can, Mr. Coneyhead, HM thought, we’ll see who is fine in the end.
Tall John looks back again, and HM sits up straighter, like one who has studied not only horsemanship but also fencing and archery (has Tall John studied fencing and archery? HM thinks not), and reminds himself that before getting mixed up with the Mine Adventurers he had single-handedly restored the fortunes of his wife’s family and hauled the estate into the modern age. He has put occupation into the hands of the poor and gruel into the mouths of their young, even provided them with ministers and teachers at his own expense (that is, at the expense of the Company, yet is that not the same thing, almost?).
He brings to mind, as he is wont to do in moments of doubt, his favorite poem, a lengthy ode on the subject of HM and his mineral pursuits (is there an ode to Tall John? again, HM thinks not), certain flattering lines of which he has committed to memory: “a genius richer than the mines below,” “with virtues bless’d and happy counsels wise,” “commanding arts yet still acquiring more.”
It is comforting to remember, as the rain pools in the toes of his boots, that he is “with virtues bless’d.” For it is common knowledge, among Adventurers as among rustics, that the signs they seek are reserved for the righteous.
HM wishes, above all, to be seen as righteous. Everything he has ever done has been for the good of his children, the nation, the deserving poor. It wounds him when his altruism is not acknowledged. When, instead of “Thank you very much, HM” or “HM has done a fine job,” he must suffer, “Where are the receipts?” “Where are the accounts, the evidence?”
But if today’s expedition finds nothing, then he has been cheated, and will look a fool. And there is nothing he hates more than to look a fool.
An unwelcome apprehension teases at the edge of HM’s vision—a familiarity in the shape of the hills, in the contours of the valley through which their horses wind, and now a row of hovels, thatched like sties. With consternation, he realizes they are approaching one of the Company’s sites.
He has passed here once before, on a tour of inspection with Waller. It is among the smaller mines, not greatly different, at casual glance, from the surrounding dents and hollows and tumbles of rock. The entrance resembles a crude lair, clawed out by some night-skulking beast to evade a fiercer one.
A number of men and women and children are lolling about on the surface. They have the yellowed skin of subterranean creatures, and when they raise their heads it is with the single movement of a startled herd. HM tries to adopt a deputy-governorial posture but is conscious of how he must appear—mud-spattered, squelching, his entourage a blemmye, a sheep, and a coney-headed clown. The opportunity to retreat has passed.
Yet again he is to be tested. Not Hercules, not even Job himself, has had to overcome more obstacles.
Hardships of his early life—he achieves success
When his mother died, he mourned a shade that had moved now and then across his sight, seeming always to be attending to someone more important. Four years later, he lost his sister, Louisa, who had petted him and carried him and played with him, teaching him his letters, helping him to fashion shiplets of paper and muskets of blackthorn.
“What a blessing it wasn’t one of the boys,” said Aunt Verity, shaking dust from her little-used head, and HM said that he would happily trade, for Louisa’s life, that of his elder brother Richard, whose preferred pastimes included kicking, smacking, tripping, pinching, and twisting.
He was beaten for this sentiment yet did not recant.
HM’s role was to be audience to the parade of his brother’s talents. Richard was quick and strong and courageous. Richard was accomplished in Greek, Latin, rhetoric, ancient history, and the use of arms. Richard went up to university with a princely allowance and a small household to attend him.
HM, meanwhile, had to scrimp his way through Oxford and the Middle Temple on £80 a year. And it was not enough that he had to live like a pauper—his father denied requests for loans or expenses, even the necessities required to secure a royal appointment and thereby HM’s legal career (not to mention pay off a number of debts).
In the end, however, he didn’t need his father or his aunt or his brother or any of his weak-livered relatives, only his own industry and excellent judgment.
Mary was very young when he met her, pale and thin like her mother, with the same prominent bones. The family had made its money initially in salt, which might account for a certain redness, as if from crying, about all their eyes. Still, wise investors are tempted not by the sparkle of an object, yet rather by its use. In her hair was the black of coal, in her irises, the gray of ore. She was the wealth of nature in the shape of a girl.
Mary was the sole heir to the mineral leases her grandfathers had bought up a century before and earlier, times so primitive that a man scratched what he could off the surface and then scrabbled to the next seam to repeat the process. HM’s new family, despite their tenuous claim to nobility, had shown uncanny foresight, first in acquiring the leases, then in holding on to them as proceeds fell, and finally in preserving this girl, alone of all her dead sisters, for him, the most fitting man in the kingdom to exploit the opportunities of her inheritance. (What had HM’s own grandfather left? His treasonous bones to be, at the Restoration, removed from Westminster Abbey and thrown into a common grave.)
In the span it took Mary to produce three boys so very like their father that her part in the matter seemed negligible, and then pass away, HM had revived the neglected mines, turning £60 annually into £500. He toured the northern coalfields, where the latest technology was squeezing profit from land otherwise useless, and came back eager to introduce the ingenious new ideas he’d discovered—gunpowder, devices of fire and water, systems of draining and ventilating.
But he found himself obstructed again, this time by his mother-in-law’s new husband, one of those doddering curmudgeons stuck in the fifteenth century who thought gentlemen should not dirty their hands with commerce or anything else that he did not understand. Jealous of HM’s success, he blocked plans for expansion, even further investment in the current facilities.
HM was in London when the news of the man’s death arrived. In the privacy of his chamber, he danced a little jig (for the sake of his dear children). And when his mother-in-law wrote, begging him to return and take control of the estate, he allowed himself a hornpipe.
HM had seen, by then, that his ambitions had been too small and local—even a peasant could dig and sell. It was transformation and manufacture that generated real advantage. He set about creating what he liked to think of as a vast, modern machine of industry, his sundry projects like its cogs and levers, each fulfilling its own purpose while contributing to the functioning of the others, every part more profitable for its communication with the whole.
He blasted adits and sank shafts. He constructed horse gins. He renovated the abandoned smelting works, employing artists from the continent to prepare ponds and dams and engines of iron. He cut a dock and built floodgates, established battery mills, rolling mills, brickworks, manufactories.
Taking a lesson from the plantations, he imported men from other regions and bonded them to his service, conscripted convicts to work out their sentences. He was able to move labor between his concerns as required, so that no man need ever stand idle. Day and night, in shifts of eight hours, he mined and smelted and swadered and lantered and shined. While the farmers still lazed in their beds, before even the rooster opened his eyes, HM worked.
Deep in the earth, he carved shining black streets of coal, lit with candles and drained of much of the water, ensuring his laborers were almost as comfortable below ground as above. He lined these streets with wooden rails, so that trained men could haul the coal to the shaft in great wagons bearing eighteen hundredweight. He laid more tracks between his mines and his works, his works and his docks, over highland and lowland, over (for all the squawking of envious neighbors) common land and public highways. To these surface wagons, he fitted sails. A horse could replace ten men, but a sail could replace even the horse. His terranauts skimmed over the skin of the earth, merry as a flock of small birds put to harness.
Master of the elements, HM schemed once again for expansion. The royal monopoly on silver had been lifted, and in the next county were rumors of rich ores—the wealth of three kingdoms.
That was when it all started. Waller pouring poppy and poison in his ear. The founding of the Mine Adventurers. His present troubles.
An unpleasant encounter
HM recognizes the foreman yet is unable to recall his name. He prides himself on knowing such things, likes to think of his men as a kind of extended family, akin to lesser relations or servants, who roost and thrive in the spreading shelter of his generosity. (It is true that it is easier to think of them this way when they are at a distance.)
The foreman’s memory proves quicker, and he greets HM with accurate deference. He seems unsurprised by the party’s arrival, and reports, as if it were expected, on the progress of the work (“Very good,” says HM), the length of the drift (“Very good”), the quantity of ore raised (so little?), the days of rain and the days of frost, the injured and the sick.
“Very good, very good,” says HM, nodding, as if he has ridden all this way in this foul by-our-lady weather to learn about Samuel David’s leg or Edward Morgan’s burns. He gathers the reins to move on, but the foreman stops him.
“If I may, sir,” he says.
HM cannot think of anything in this wasteland so urgent as to give plausible excuse to leave.
“The men, you understand, sir, are anxious. If there is anything you could tell us, sir.”
“There is no reason for anxiety.”
“We have heard talk, sir. Of closure.” At this point the foreman—is his name Jennings?—looks at Tall John. “Or sale.”
Can he think that the coneyhead is here to invest? Are all these people simple?
“Nothing runs faster than false rumor,” says HM, with a memory of Latin and all the authority he can retrieve from beneath his dripping hat.
The yellow people, without seeming to move, have somehow crept closer.
Jennings is closer, too. “So there is no truth in it?”
It can be hard, HM has found, to determine the sentiments of common men, lacking, as they do, the gestures and expressions of gentlefolk. At this moment, however, he has no difficulty in interpreting the glinting eyes and parted lips of the miners. This is the face of the mob at a dogfight or a baiting.
But they are on the ground and shoeless, and he is in the air and booted.
“Look at me,” he says to Jennings. “Do I look like someone who needs to sell?”
Jennings drops his eyes and murmurs something that HM decides to take for an apology.
“Perhaps,” he says, “you would be better served working than spreading gossip.”
And with that, he jabs Cassandra in the ribs. Startled from a dream of carrots, she springs forward, all four feet leaving the ground at once, almost unseating HM, who hangs on by reins and mane and jabs her again for good measure. Summoning to his face the expression of a man who has studied horsemanship and fencing, he rides past the crowd, past Tall John, and on up the track. A trot, he decides, is an acceptable pace. A righteous man rarely needs to canter, but the importance of his affairs justifies a trot.
Soon enough Tall John catches up and jogs beside him (the gray pony judging its distance from Cassandra’s bite), looking at HM like a schoolmaster expecting the square of the hypotenuse.
“Lead on, man,” says HM. “You know the path.”
“We all follow the path we have chosen,” says Tall John, like a sage of bedlam. And he leers, showing all five teeth.
HM can conjure no reply, and would give half his purse to put a wall between himself and his appraiser at that moment.
This whole unfortunate incident, he adds to the list of things for which Waller is to blame.
An opportunity—the conspirators
His first meeting with Waller came about, it seemed at the time, by chance, when they found themselves in the same inn, one journeying north, the other south. Waller introduced himself, expounding in the most gratifying manner on HM’s achievements and innovations, before progressing to the opportunities in that county. This was a new world for the new century now beginning, Waller said, a second Eden, a vast, untilled garden of minerals waiting to be cultivated by a man of wisdom and experience, a man of energy and insight, a man with the genius to raise the necessary capital.
It was a barbarous region, the natives without schooling, without speech almost, clothed in rags. The land was rock and fen and bog, not worth enclosing. The rain fell unceasingly, turning gullies to streams and streams to rivers, making marsh of every flat place.
Yet here thrifty nature had chosen to lay up her stores of silver and copper and lead, stacked and sealed and ready for use.
The numbers were beguiling. In the great mine that Waller compared to Potosí, the sun vein was eleven-foot wide, with seven foot six inches in ore, yielding more than fifty ounces of silver to the ton. The east vein was four-foot wide at its narrowest, and in places eight foot in solid ore. The bog vein, of potter’s ore, was four-foot wide. There were further veins, each at least a yard wide, of silver lead, green copper (three tons of copper to every twenty of ore), and brown copper (five tons to every twenty).
And that was but one mine of more than a score available for leasing.
Waller had calculated that in the first year, having drained the water from the main veins, fifty miners would raise one thousand tons. By the fifth year, eight hundred miners would raise sixteen thousand tons. The washed ore was merchandisable at 3s. and 7d. a ton. After subtracting the cost of bone ash, casks, candles, buckets, storage, and the mending of bellows, the lessees would clear an annual profit of £171,970 9s. 9d.
HM brought in his cousin and a number of other gentlemen with whom he had done business, and the Company of Mine Adventurers was formed. Like conspirators of less worthy causes, they exchanged letters and documents, met in inns and private rooms, the flames lighting their faces as they plotted ways to fund their enterprise.
“A prospectus,” one would say, “advertising the benefits to the investor and to the nation.”
“Stating the portion to be set aside for charitable uses,” another would add.
“A plan of the mines.”
“Accounts to show their future value.”
“A lottery,” said one—later they wouldn’t remember who.
Lotteries were the entertainment of the age. The crowds flocked to them as to fairs and executions. The more distant the prize, the more certain they were of winning.
The Company would issue twenty-five thousand tickets. Prizewinners would receive shares. Those who drew blanks would be entitled, when the mines ultimately turned a profit, to their original outlays. There was no risk, no loss.
The Company advertised the scheme in newspapers and handbills. Subscribers included nobles and aldermen, a former Lord Mayor of London, a director of the East India Company, grocers, cobblers, widows and orphans, the poor of the village of Empingham. A fifth of the tickets were sold on the first day, all within two months.
And there, nature put her pert nose in the air and turned her back on them.
In this wild country, it was the dead work that was the problem: blasting, tunneling, propping, draining, draining, always draining. Whole years were spent pumping water. Even the newest, most costly engines struggled. The floods always returned.
A little ore was raised here, a little there. But after the drilling and the draining, certain necessary payments to friends and accomplices, and such transfers and long-term loans as, having examined his conscience, HM judged himself entitled (only those purchases required by his position: minor lordships, a second, very modest estate), there never seemed to be anything left to repay the investors.
He did what he could to put good news in place of bad. There is a difference between lying and presenting the best possible outcome, which no reasonable man could call fraud. Yet even HM, feeling queasy, found himself pleading with Waller to somehow speed the works—employ more men, buy more engines, open more levels, any by-our-lady thing.
As the creditors started to bleat, the Adventurers conspired again. They made more shares and sold them to more shareholders. They borrowed money. They lent money. They set up their own bank to issue bills (hadn’t the Goldsmiths and the Hollow Sword Blade Company done the same? hadn’t the King himself when he needed money for war?), scant months before the Bank of England, like a jealous wife, seized all such activities for herself.
They were left with one bleak calculation: To raise ore required money. To raise money required ore.
He faces more troubles
The bay drops a forefoot in a hole, throws Shiers to the ground, and pulls up, trembling, on three legs. Shiers is bruised and pettish, but the horse is useless and must be shot. It is decided that Shiers will follow the path back to the mine, where he can find some conveyance to the inn. HM will continue on alone. That is, with Tall John.
In the very moment they part company with Shiers, it seems to HM that the rain becomes wetter, the wilderness wilder, himself more mortal. He feels a greasy sweat beneath his cold clothes and considers that he may have a touch of fever. He reminds himself again that he is an Adventurer, a genius richer than the mines below, knighted by His Royal Majesty, et cetera, et cetera.
As they climb again, the track fades into the surrounding thin tapestry of moss and sedge. Soon there is nothing more to see than the subtle byways left by savage creatures on their errands.
Tall John marches ahead as if a line of beacons blazes before him, leading HM down a hill so steep that Cassandra and her rider grunt, and along a valley where the marsh coalesces into a small river. Raindrops stipple the surface, reminding HM of the flies dancing at evening over the fishing pond on his father’s estate, and then of the time Richard pushed him into that pond and ran home laughing. HM, green with duckweed, dripped slowly after him, intending to creep in unseen. But Richard had forethought him. Every member of the household who could be called from his duties was assembled to point and mock.
They ascend to a high plateau where reeds huddle in slaty pools. Cassandra’s mood has become stoical, with a touch of resentment, like one of the less successful martyrs. When Tall John drops back to ride beside HM, she barely bothers to flick her tail.
“The mare thinks herself too good for our paths,” says Tall John.
“The mare cost nearly thirty guineas,” says HM (rounding up from twenty-two).
Tall John gives a fancy-gentlemen-and-their-fancy-horses shrug. “The best servant is a trusty companion,” he says. “Spratt knows where to put his feet. Does not mind getting them wet.”
HM glances at Spratt’s woolly round flanks and decides not to pursue this topic. “How much farther is it?”
“The farthest point of a journey is its end.”
“And what is that in by-our-lady miles?”
“Have no fear. I have led other gentlemen to a just reward.”
HM chews on this for a moment. “A well-lived life is its own reward.”
“I’ve heard that in the city, merchants catch the rain before it falls to the ground. That the poor must pay for even the air in their streets.”
“What low people do in their muddy hollows is of no concern to me.”
“There may be mud on the highest mountain,” says Tall John, and, before HM can conceive of any kind of retort, moves on ahead, Spratt putting his wet feet wheresoever he chooses.
As they advance, the vegetation is alchemized to bronze and pewter, ocher and lead. Dwarfish worts and spurges drown in every hoofprint. Great plashy expanses of dark bog grass are topped with quivering white flags. If this is not the realm of goblins nowhere is.
And these goblins are well known among miners and Adventurers—the tapping of their hammers signals the vein. A modern man like HM may scoff at such superstitions, but the method is proven. There are many cues that a rustic is more fitted to detect than a gentleman. Underlying minerals influence the spring herbage, planting directions for those who live close to the ground—just as in winter, heat rising from the ore to the frost writes letters only the unlettered can read.
And HM needs to believe that, with or without the help of goblins, Tall John has made a find. Because even such ore as the Company has been able to raise is yielding a paltry four or five ounces a ton. Because the debts are thirty times the remaining capital. Because the creditors will not accept promises, pleas, or yet more shares, but, like overindulged children, demand everything right now. Because they are taking their case to Parliament. Because HM’s defense is to lay the blame with Waller, who plotted from the beginning to cozen him. Because Waller has in his possession correspondence containing certain unwise statements that might, if made public, throw a poor light on HM’s actions, on his knowledge, and on what he has subsequently said about his actions and knowledge. That might, if taken in an ungenerous spirit, cast HM as unscrupulous, crooked, a liar, a thief even. Because if he is found guilty, he may lose the Company, his sons’ inheritance, his very freedom. For all these reasons it is essential that Tall John has located a seam of finest ore, right on the surface, fat and firm as floorboards.
The mist descends—the other realm
The rain has thickened to a dense curtain. If there is danger ahead, it will arrive without warning. Spratt seems eager to meet it, is speeding up, pulling away. HM spurs Cassandra, who for a few begrudging moments concedes a faster amble. (She will be ambling to market next week, HM vows.) The gray pony glides on, a two-headed centaur, round a ridge and out of sight.
When HM rounds the same ridge, he pulls up short. A few yards ahead, the land plummets into a great bowl of white mist. There is no sign of Tall John.
HM cannot see any path down into the bowl and is not keen to improvise one. He nudges Cassandra forward to take a closer look, but she digs her front feet in and, when he whips her on, wheels her rump around, stating that she has no intention of venturing that slope.
“Halooo!” he calls. And then again, “Halooo!”
Cassandra rolls an eye at him, contending that his shouts are as likely to attract wolves and footpads as Tall John.
“They will reach you first,” he says. All the same, he checks his pistol and regrets leaving the musket with Shiers.
He calls once more.
Tall John cannot be out of earshot already. This is some knavery. The man has tied cloths through the pony’s harness, as tinkers do, and is creeping away, leaving HM to face an unknown peril.
The list of his enemies is long. Waller. Those in the Company who support Waller. The Company’s creditors. Its rivals. The laborers. The ex-laborers. His envious neighbors, who, not content with digging up his wagonways, went so far as to plot an attempt on his person.
He calls yet again, anger propelling his voice a little farther.
It occurs to him then that perhaps he is misjudging Tall John. Perhaps the lout has merely fallen to his death. Perhaps he and the gray pony lie at the bottom of an abyss with broken necks.
The mist is surging over the ridge behind him, islanding him on this shelf like a mariner on a foreign shore, with only his wits to guard him from death or humiliation.
He listens. He hears Cassandra’s breath, her creaking harness. The primitive croaking of a moorland bird that has never apprehended music. Water seeping from every surface, oozing and dripping and trickling, and a gurgling like the laughter of small children setting nutshells to sail and watching them bob and founder. Grasses sighing, and beetles and worms crawling among the stems and burrowing down between them. Roots pushing into the thin soil and sliding around pebbles and rocks and seams and veins, knotting them in place, hoarding them, hiding them.
HM did not achieve his current position by sitting impotently, waiting for deliverance. He will not succumb. He has taken “paths before untrod.” It is his right and his destiny to enter nature’s abode, “the smiling offspring from her womb remove, and with her entrails glad the realms above.”
He points Cassandra toward the rim of the bowl and unleashes upon her such an almighty thwack that his whip slips from his grasp. For a moment it seems she will resist again, but she is too tired or bored, too habituated to complying with decisions from on high.
Down they go, through a white tunnel that leads to more white. The mist rolls and buffets, like a jeering crowd. The slope is steep and faced with loose, wet scree. The mare skids, recovers, skids again.
“You must be kidding me,” says Cassandra.
It is clear what has happened. Like those travelers of tales old who bargain with the devil, they have crossed to another realm, an enchanted, purgatorial kingdom where men babble and beasts speak, where time moves by inches. Outside, years pass, then centuries. Wars are fought, empires spread and contract, fortunes are lost and recovered. The world is changed utterly.
But HM knows how this future will be, for it is he who has molded it, he who can see it even now, through the billowing drapes of tomorrow.
His accusers are buried with their lawsuits in long-neglected graves. His sons and his sons’ sons have nurtured his legacy through the generations and carried it to every corner of the domain. Forests and pastures and all such wastes as they have passed through today are sown with mines and mills and workshops. Nature herself is employed to break open her treasury. No rock is too hard to breach, no material too elusive to extract. Her engines run day and night, needing only one man to oversee and perhaps a few boys to carry messages. Every valley, every mountain, every high street is lined with rails carrying kettles and coins and candles. Where wind is lacking, great bellows worked by lungs of fire blow into the canvas.
And where are the idle wastrels and the coneyheads? All such men are properly employed now, not in mines and fields, where nature’s powers have supplanted them, but in countinghouses and chanceries and stockrooms. Every village and hamlet has its school and library and coffeehouse. Every manor house has its university. Even the poorest are provided with all the learning necessary to make them useful. In well-tended rows, they bow their heads to their tasks.
And past their windows, at the command of her masters, the earth’s wealth flows. No longer curbed by whining investors or petty regulations, commerce runs swift and smooth and ceaseless, unfeeling, untiring, a machine of perpetual and profitable motion. The rails gleam in the dawn like spiderwebs, and the song of gears drowns the birds. At night, the stars, the planets, the moon herself are dimmed by the glitter of furnaces.
Faint noises can be detected through the mist, and an enticing, almost familiar scent. Cassandra lifts her muzzle, cheered by the possibility that their destination may be near. She had a stableboy once who, in lieu of goodbye, gave her warm bran mash with cider and sliced apples, and ever since, she has hoped for such reward at the end of each journey. In her narrow skull, experience and speculation are pressed together, the days that have disappointed layered with those more frequent imaginary ones that have not, and compounded by increments into a single substance in which the main element is sweetened, hallucinatory mush. She lengthens her stride and hurries toward whatever lies ahead.