The View Beyond the Rope

Samuel Butler looked at the large maple-wood clock and smiled one last time before blowing out the candles so that his wife could sleep. It was forty minutes after nine o’clock and he had yet to put the girls to bed. He himself was not tired and had taken it upon himself to set aside time that evening to pen a letter to his brother who had been living for some time now in Pennsylvania. He would wait until Milly was asleep, however, as he knew she would rise at dawn and struggle to awaken their children. She had had a difficult day again. He could always tell when her day had been particularly difficult because she didn’t talk about it and when she no longer freely offered to tell him about it, he was fearful to ask. Hearing her say “nothing” as though her mind had long ago been severed from her voice was worse than leaving her to say nothing. I will kiss her on the cheek and tell her I love her, he thought. It might make her feel better to hear that. With that, Samuel arose from the Windsor chair at his bedside, finished the last of his tea, and placed it quietly on the saucer on the nightstand. The white and gold china teapot, along with the fine English cups and saucers, were given to them by the Mr. & Mrs. Thomas Hayden on the day of their wedding. Milly was wearing the most beautiful of dresses and her hair smelled of lilacs and they made love together that afternoon for the first time on the soft grass. Thomas Hayden was an awfully good friend to him and it pleased him immensely that their friendship had not suffered nor waned with the duties of husbandry and time. Perhaps he would call on the Haydens for dinner tomorrow. Milly too enjoyed the company. She would make a delectable roast and bring warm bread from the oven. She cooked with great delight and prudent industry and enjoyed pleasing others when she wasn’t having a particularly difficult day. After dinner, the men and women would break off and both parties would attend to the natural and appropriate topics of conversation that concerned the interests of their gender.

home

The Butler family lived in a lovely, substantial farmhouse, with both Dutch and Flemish influences, and was typical of fairly well off families of the time. The Georgian woodwork, with elegant Federal paneling, filled Samuel Butler with pride as he walked from room to room admiring his home in those precious hours when his children and wife were nestled peacefully and happily in their beds, and he was free to attend to his private affairs in the solitude of his study as the light of the fire warmed the room and adorned it with a frugal transient light.

With uninvited sleepiness, Samuel Butler pulled his watch from his pocket, opened it and checked the time once more. The floorboards creaked as he walked down the hall to check on the girls. This is part of the original house, he thought again. Before they had built the addition in ’18. A sadness had suddenly come over him that even the sight of his lovely young daughters could not fully wipe clean.

“You girls had better get some sleep,” He said. “You’ll need to help your mother make the week’s bread in the morning. It’s going to be a long day on the farm tomorrow. A very long day, indeed, my sweet young girls.” Even Mr. Butler smiled sadly, wondering if that was what they meant when they called things irony.

“Goodnight, Father, we love you,” Amy said warmly as her sister clutched her daddy’s leg and said goodnight.

“Goodnight girls, and remember…”

“We know, Dad, sleep tight.”

They all smiled in trite recognition as the girls tightened the rope beneath their mattresses and crawled into the bed. First Emily and then Amy. Samuel Butler walked down the hall, the floorboards creaking.

“Why does Daddy talk like that all the time now,” Emily asked.

“Because he wants to be someone else,” her sister said. Emily did not understand entirely, but she had understood enough to know that it was to be the end of the discussion.

“Goodnight Emily.”

“Goodnight Amy,” she whispered.

Their father descended the stairs and retreated to the carriage house to gather the whale oil with which he would refill the Betty lamps. He found fish oil and animal grease produced a disagreeable odor and he preferred the lighting of the whale-oil lamps, particularly as they worked in concert with the soft flickering glow of Milly’s candles. He was pleased that he had recently cleaned the lamps; not because he didn’t enjoy the task, for he very much did. It had been heavy on Samuel’s mind, however, to write his brother and announce his concern over not having heard from him for so long. He was confident that this time he could put it all in writing and get it right at last. And so, he took the canister of oil into the house and went room to room filling lamp after lamp. As he always did, he thought with pride and pleasure of Mr. Franklin’s innovation as he watched the brilliant flame of the double-burners illuminate the inner chamber of his study.

The study was a fairly large room, but it did not lack the quaintness and warmth one might find in a smaller one. There was a table with four chairs, a rocking chair near the window, and a fireplace, before which lay a large and ornate handmade rug that led out and across to Samuel’s desk. The desk faced the fireplace and so too the window on either side. He could think of no better place to work in the world and recognizing this filled him with familiar dismay; it was inevitable in the way that the ideal is always attached to its counterpart. Samuel took from his desk the empty glass and filled it half full of spirits from the decanter. He took a few sips and a few moments to regain the composure necessary for the necessary composure of his letter. He suspected that the letter would ultimately be a failure; that its interpretation would never elicit a response that was commensurate with his hope. He knew too well as he dipped the long feather pen in the inkwell and paused at length after the sight of the splendidly calligraphic “Dear Daniel” that the stationary and the pen and penmanship would alone only contribute to the unfortunate incomprehensibility of his decision. He knew also that his brother much preferred to be addressed more informally as “Dan,” but these things were among the necessities concerning Samuel’s attempt to gain his brother’s understanding and acceptance of the admittedly peculiar conditions in which Samuel had taken to live.

Samuel Butler worked ardently and passionately as he unpacked the thoughts he had been suffering from relentlessly for some time and attempted to organize them with deliberate honesty and accuracy. He realized as he was writing that the letter was not being written to his brother alone, but also to his wife and their sleeping children. How could he expect them to understand, he considered, and yet for more than three years now he had expected just that. He disagreed that it was a matter of dignity, for him it was a simple case of preference. He had earned as much, given the indignities he endured 40 hours every week for that past 18 years of his life. Samuel explained this at length and with great eloquence in his letter. He felt a sense of relief as he put the finishing touches on his letter and placed the pen back into inkwell. Surely, he thought, if they refused to accept him now, then it was clearly not because he did not seek their acceptance. He carefully folded the paper, melted the end of the bar of wax so that it dripped down over the seam and drove the stamp into it, delivering his seal. SB.

Samuel paused before attaching the postage stamp to the letter and decided instead to place the naked envelope on the empty corner of the desk. It was late, half past midnight, and he had been drinking. That could have affected his judgment, but it certainly accelerated his exhaustion. He decided it would be wiser to sleep on the issue and he would deal with the mailing the letter in the morning. Surely it could wait until then. With that, Samuel ascended the stairs and walked down the creaking hallway and climbed into bed with his wife and lay back to back, as Samuel preferred to sleep on his left side and Milly preferred to sleep on her right.

Milly was not in her nature a morning person and yet she found those hours before her husband and children had woken to be the happiest ones of her day. That morning she awoke at 5:00am and the man beside her barely noticed her absence as she got out of bed. In four hours, the nonsense would start again. It was unclear to her why she agreed to the idea in the first place, but now she could barely contain herself from breaking down entirely and she knew that it was now only a matter of finding the courage. She couldn’t admit, even to herself, that she once enjoyed the performance. At first, if she could pretend to be someone else, some place else, some time else, then she could also pretend to be happy. It was a fine thing to convince yourself that you were happy, she thought, and she would have much preferred to have believed that lie rather than think about losing her family. But what was it to have a family that was itself a lie? It was Sam’s fault, she was convinced. He insisted this would help them escape the endless hopeless drudgery of their lives and bring meaning to their existence. He realized he was an anachronism, he told her at the time. He was born into the wrong world at the wrong time. His soul was never meant to spend 18 years as a clerk in an accounts payable department and he could scarcely believe that he had. The contemporary time demanded he do something to support his family and it was only bad luck and bad timing that landed him in that day job. He had once wanted to be a writer and he was convinced his ideas were good and that he had a talent with the written word, but after several years of failed attempts to complete even a single story he had stored that dream in a place where neither lamplight nor candlelight would ever touch it. Sam blamed his failure at becoming a successful novelist on his job and on his family. There was simply no time to concentrate and get it all out. Milly had known the truth about him now better than he did. Still, she had to give him credit, he could write well. It was his writing and creativity that helped win her over in the first place. He was very charming then, full of hope and aspirations, so confident that he would be a successful writer. Probably he could have been, but it wasn’t time that he lacked, she had long understood.

Milly loved old farm houses and she particularly loved the one in which they lived. She found it odd, however, that the Historical Society would only allow them to purchase and live in the home if they opened the house to the public on weekends and continued the reenactments. It was part of a larger colonial era community that had been preserved and on the weekends it was full of actors and visitors. At first, Milly enjoyed putting on the clothes and playing the part. She relished period films and novels, being particularly fond of Jane Austen and Henry James. Even she once enjoyed dressing up in her costume and parading around the house on days when visitors weren’t there. It was the repetition that very quickly ruined what was enjoyable about it. Her skull now rattled even in anticipation of saying, “Hello everyone, welcome to the Williams Home, I will be showing you how they used to make bread during colonial times.” She knew that Sam hated that part of it too and that for him it was only necessary, as his job had been necessary, so that he could continue his fantasy. He used the evenings to escape what he viewed as the great tragedy of his mornings and afternoons, which were only deemed successful on the 15 days of vacation he received each year, and even then it was rare that Milly could convince him that they should travel and pretend like they were living in the 21st century. The lie of his life was far more tolerable than what he perceived to be the truth.

Milly tried not to think about this on those mornings before the performance. She preferred to walk around the fields or work in her garden. Occasionally, she would drive her car over into town and eat at the local diner; not because the food was particularly good, but because it had a television and it was open. If the girls were awake, she would play with them outside and she still occasionally needed to make it clear that they didn’t need to perform when the three of them were alone together. That morning, Milly was in the garden and the girls came out to help her when they woke.

At 8:00am, Samuel Butler descended the stairs fully dressed. “Come along now, it’s time to get dressed and be ready when our guests arrive,” he announced. The smile washed from Milly’s face as the three stood up and she followed the girls into the house.

One by one, the room began to fill up. It would begin soon. Samuel had already heard one wise guy making fun of his clothing. It wouldn’t be long now. He wouldn’t have had the people over at all if it were up to him. Or, rather, if it weren’t necessary. They took the reality out of the room. By the time it returned, it was time for it all to begin again. True, it was not such a bad living. In the beginning, he enjoyed the guests.

Old man Butler stood tall, straightened his shirt, and with feigned confidence, he addressed the crowd:

“Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Williams House. This is part of the original home, built in 1796…”

Milly watched her husband with sympathetic pity and a diminishingly gentle resentment.


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