26. July 2020 · Comments Off on The Next New Book… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

After That Fateful Lightning, of course. The book with the WWII setting, which picks up with a pair of cousins, granddaughters of characters in The Quivera Trail and Sunset and Steel Rails.

Chapter 1 – To The Far Exotic East

At mid-morning, in a tropical lagoon, Peggy Becker – no, she was now Mrs. Thomas Morehouse – stepped carefully off the ramp from the magnificent flying boat which had brought her and her new husband a thousand miles and more across the Pacific Ocean and onto the floating dock, which rocked gently in a vivid blue ocean bay, only slightly less blue than the sky above, framed by the distant eminence of Diamond Head, slashing up into that horizon like a vast sleeping stone lion. A brilliant sea bird, the Pan-Am four-engine Clipper had settled into the crystal-blue waters, as if no more than slightly wearied after a day and a nighttime flight from San Francisco. The dock abutted a lush green lawn shaded by graceful coconut palm trees – a vision of tropical beauty only slightly marred by the view in the other direction; a grim and functional view of docks and mooring places for a crowding of grey-painted naval vessels, whose masts and gun muzzles gave to lie to a vision of a peaceful Pacific island paradise.  

“Tommy,” she exclaimed to her new husband, as he took her arm. “It’s absolutely beautiful here – I love it already.”

“Wait until you see Ipoh Perak,” he replied. “It’s a garden of Eden in comparison.”

Peggy was tall and model-slender, an athletic girl with stick-straight hair the color of ripe wheat-straw, hair which defied every attempt to curl it in accordance with the current fashion. Her countenance was oval, pleasingly featured, accented with sky-colored blue eyes and shapely lips which owed little to brilliant red lipstick in accentuating their kissable attraction. Attraction to Tommy Morehouse most of all; Tommy was wiry and charming, as tall as his wife, but possessed of a personal magnetism which drew the attention of everyone in any room where he appeared.

Peggy had not quite figured it out – that attraction. Any room where Tommy appeared – he was instantly the star, for all that he wasn’t tall for a man and didn’t look anything like a movie star. Tommy was … Tommy was Tommy; grey eyes and undistinguished brown hair – dunduckety, was how one of the Vining cousins had described him; lanky and angular, rather like an English version of a young Abraham Lincoln. Her cousin Vinnie Stoneman had attempted an explanation. ‘Tommy looks at you and talks to you as if you are the most singular and fascinating person in the room. He does this with everyone, and the thing is – he is completely sincere. Tommy loves people, he is interested in every single person he meets. And that is why most everyone loves him in response.”

Peggy had fallen for him almost from the moment of meeting, an encounter at a family dinner with her grandparents, in their big old house in the oldest part of Alamo Heights. A distant cousin of the family, her father had said vaguely, English and kin to Great-Aunt Lottie’s husband in some degree, by way of explaining the presence of a stranger among the scattering of cousins, uncles and aunts in Granny Jane’s parlor on a rainy January Sunday.

“He’s returning from home leave in England, the long way around,” Daddy explained. “Quite pleasant when I spoke to him on the telephone; he had all kinds of questions. He works in Malaya, overseeing a rubber plantation.”

“Boring! And yet another cousin,” seventeen-year-old Ivy grumbled. “Don’t we ever meet anyone who isn’t a cousin?”

“He’s not bad looking at all,” Peggy murmured, and her heart had skipped a beat as hers and Tommy’s eyes met. He had been leaning up against the upright parlor piano, talking to Grandpa Sam – something to do with the property up north in the Palo Duro country.

It was an instant connection, as if they had known each other always – or as Vinnie observed humorously – as if they had known and loved each other in a previous life. Surely one couldn’t in this modern day, fall in love at first glance? But Peg and Tommy had. The talks between them – about the family ranch in the Hill Country where Peggy had spent most of the years growing up, the property that he managed in the Malayan foothills – were as meaningful and momentous as the companionable silences. Barely a week later he proposed; a month and a half later, married and boarding Pan American’s luxurious China Clipper, resting now like a motorized water-lily leaf in San Francisco Bay.

“How long are we going to stay here, then,” Peggy asked, as Tommy took her elbow. The morning breeze smelt a little of aviation fuel, with an overlay of salt water – but teased a little now and again with the scent of flowers; ginger, plumeria, jasmine and gardenia. She inhaled, relishing the fresh air and the flowers, palm leaves rustling in an endless dance overhead.

“A week here, and a week or two again in Manila,” Tommy replied, as half a dozen young women rushed forward, their arms filled with flower garlands, dark hair flowing unbound around their shoulders. They wore colorful bandeaus around their breasts, shell necklaces and more garlands of live flowers woven into their hair and around their necks, and shin-length skirts composed of some long fiber that looked like green raffia.

“Aloha!” the women chorused, flinging a garland around the neck of every departing passenger. “Aloha! Welcome to Hawai’i! Aloha!”

“I love this place, already!” Peg exclaimed again; the garland brought a richer scent of flowers to her than the erratic breeze. “I cannot imagine a place more different than Texas.”

“Indeed,” Tommy grinned. “Certainly, more different than Oxfordshire. A bit more like Malaya, though. Come on, Peggy – the hotel where we are staying is right on the beach. I believe, though,” he confessed as he and the other passengers took their places in a handful of taxis and a small bus tricked out in the colors and emblem of PAA – Pacific Air Ways. “That this is a welcome laid on by the airline … certainly very considerate of them to do so.”

“I don’t care – I love Hawaii anyway,” Peg replied. “And I’m certain that I’ll love Longcot Plantation even more. Tell me about the house again. I love to hear you talk about it.”

“It’s in the foothills above Ipoh,” Tommy began with a wry smile, for this was a story told many times, like a fairy story to a child at bedtime. “Over seventy hectares of mature rubber trees – my father and my grandfather began planting them when the coffee crop failed, back before the War. The house is not a large one – two stories tall, and on tall pilings to catch the breezes. It has deep porches all around. Every room of it opens onto a porch, through tall French doors. The afternoon heat, y’know…”

“I know about heat,” Peg replied, knowingly. “Summer in Texas means living in an oven … although it always seemed to be cooler in the Hills. I’m used to heat, Tommy.”

“Mumma – my mother started a garden when she married Father,” Tommy continued. “She has always said that the soil was so rich, it was a matter of planting a seed or a sprig, and then having to leap backwards as it grew so fast that it might hit you in the eye!”

“She lives in … Australia now?” Peg wanted to refresh her memory of Tommy’s family – none of whom were able to attend the ceremony, due to Tommy’s impulsive haste and the long distance from Texas between his remaining family and friends; his side of the church had been practically deserted on their wedding day. His parents and half-sister were stiff figures in black and white photos, formal or caught on casual snaps on a small simple Brownie camera, pictures which he just happened to have carried with him on his ‘home leave’. Neither of his parents really looked like Tommy. It was if he were a changeling child, deposited by the fae in the Morehouse family cradle, in faraway Malaya.

The taxi in which they were riding was skirting the harbor – a shining stretch of water on one side, and a precipitously-rising range of mountains on the other, mountains clad in lush greenery, attended by blue skies in which a range of clouds floated, like something arranged by a scenic painter. Peg spared a look outside the windows; now they were passing by the fringes of the naval base; nothing there but grim concrete and industrial metal, broken now and again by exuberant outcrops of palm trees and banks of lush plants. Yes, things grew in the tropics, as Tommy’s mother said of her garden. Stand back, or it will hit you in the eye.

But always beyond that vista of cranes, docks and steel was the ocean, dark and brooding, even in the morning sunshine now slanting over those mountains, a deep blue ocean trimmed with the white of cresting waves.

“Yes,” Tommy replied, and even though he spoke with typical English stoicism, Peg sensed the grief and loss which her husband must have felt. “Father was gassed in the War. Never entirely fit and well again afterwards. He died in 1921. I was at school then, of course. I was twelve – being sent Home even before the War. It wasn’t thought healthy for us English children to be kept in the East after about five or so. And Mumma married Stanley a few years later. Stanley’s a good sort of chap. He was an agent for some enterprise which had an office in Kuala Lumpor. They met at one of the Club do’s – can’t recall the occasion, since I wasn’t there. Of course. Social life in Malaya revolves around the local club.”

“He’s not a wicked stepfather?” Peg smiled sideways at her husband, and he covered her hand with his and smiled in return. “No, he’s not. Stanley’s a jolly decent sort. He makes Mumma happy, and now he and Mumma and Mavis all live in Brisbane. They all write to me without fail, every week. Now, your turn. Tell me about your home.”

“You never got to see it, in all the rush of the wedding,” Peg replied, with regret. “I’m sorry for that – because I loved the place so. Daddy managed it for Great-Uncle Dolph, and Ivy and I lived there on weekends and holidays. We boarded at St. Mary’s Hall, during the week.”

“Boarding school,” Tommy had a particular wry grin on his face. “How very English of you all.”

The taxi had now passed the outlaying establishments of the naval base, and now traveling along a good road; houses and small enterprises set in lush green plots and among thickets of tropical trees and vines. The green mountains rose up precipitously on the horizon to their left, and out to the right, between buildings, houses and stands of trees, the deep blue Pacific beckoned. Tommy had arranged for a week-long stay at the splendid pink hotel on the very beach, before continuing their journey.

“It was school – and we had to be there,” Peg was indignant. “A very good school, I will have you know! Anyway – the Becker ranch was established by my … I think, great-grandfather. Maybe another grand on top of that. I can’t be certain, as it was simply ages ago. Anyway, he built a stone house for his wife, or the woman that he hoped would be his wife, and it was the first and oldest stone house anywhere in the neighborhood. That’s the family story, anyway. There’s a carving over the front door, of a bird in the nest of an apple tree and the date 1847…”

“Practically modern, then,” Tommy commented.

Peg was indignant all over again. “No, you beast! For Texas that is old, as old as the hills! The great-great-grand had land for his service as a soldier, and later Great-Uncle Dolph and his kin went into trailing cattle, all up the long trail to Kansas. Daddy says that this was how they made the original fortune after opening a general store after the War Between the States, and lucky we were to hold on to it, too.” Peg settled against Tommy’s shoulder with a sigh. “I loved the place. I wish I could have shown it to you. A lovely old house with gardens all around, and a walled apple-orchard supposed to have been planted by Great Uncle Dolphs’ father. And Great Uncle Dolph planted an avenue of red-bud trees, all along the drive from the gate to the Home Ranch. His wife designed and set out the gardens. She was English, you know. It’s a lovely place … when we have home leave once again, I can show it to you. We learned to ride there, Ivy and I, but she is better in the saddle than I am, and Cousin Vinnie is better than either of us.”

“Your cousin who was your chief bridesmaid,” Tommy replied with a nod and a brief look of satisfaction at having recalled the names and the web of relations. “And quite an excellent dancer, too – I did several turns around the floor with her, at the reception dance. Did she also grow up on the family ranch with you?”

“Oh, no,” Peg replied. “The Stonemans own a big place in New Mexico – they visited now and again, for family things. I can’t recall the exact connection, it’s terribly complicated, I think she is a second cousin, but I love her like a sister. Now, the funny thing, and the new thing that I have just remembered is that Stoneman isn’t their real name – they changed it from Steinmetz about twenty years ago.”

“To sound less Jewish?” Tommy ventured, and Peg giggled.

“No, silly – to sound less German. Because of the War! All the Beckers and the Stonemans came from Germany, about a hundred years ago! Vinnie’s father decided around 1915 or so that he didn’t really want the grief of being considered foreigners and hostile foreigners at that. They were American, and that was an end to it, and if it took changing the name to something less tiresomely Germanic, then he could go to the courthouse and change it and solve all their problems.”

“I understand that our very own dear royals had the same problem,” Tommy chuckled – a rather cynical sound, and at Peg’s baffled expression, he enlarged. “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was formerly the family name, since Prince Albert the blessed, espoused of our own good Queen Victoria was of the old German nobility. They changed it to Windsor and vacated all their German titles after Kaiser Wilhelm and his filthy Huns dropped bombs on England during the War.”

“You see? Problem solved,” Peg replied, thinking privately that she had been so blessed in her impulsive choice of husband. She nestled into his shoulder and watched the passing landscape in blissful silence for the remainder of the journey into town from the Pacific Airways landing dock. The taxi was descending into the city now, a space of wide avenues, which now and again crossed over watery canals and ocean inlets. “Are we going to dance at the Royal Hawaiian? I expect they have a band…”

“For a certainty, they do,” Tommy kissed her hand. “Every dance with me, Mrs. Morehouse?”

“Of course!” Peg promised. That was one of the silly things that she loved about her husband – that he was a good dancer. They fitted together, on the floor, the music binding them, every move, turn and gesture a magic thing, as if they sensed it without words. Now the taxi approached the grand hotel, a sprawling and eccentric edifice the color of pink cotton candy, set in groves of palm trees and gardens, with the dark blue pacific rolling in upon a sugar-white strand beyond. It was a palatial hotel, even the name reflected it. “What a lovely place for our honeymoon trip!” Peg sighed in absolute bliss. Everything was perfect. Her wedding, her husband, and now their lives together could not fail to fall short of such a perfect beginning.

Comments closed.