Ruthie and I bounced along in the old panel truck, I gripping the wheel, and Ruthie clinging to the dashboard. We did not speak, for it was too noisy, and we concentrated on not banging our heads whenever we lurched into a pothole.
We were the librarians of the Alexandria Travelling Library, as the letters painted on the truck proclaimed, and every day we bumped along country roads, lending books to the county’s rural folk.
“It’s snowing,” stammered Ruthie. Her hand flailed, pointing to several flakes, which immediately became a wild flurry. A prairie squall, unseasonable and fierce.
The wind buffeted us on the rutted road, and snow swirled, deepening into drifts with every moment. I squinted into the whiteout, unable to see more than a few feet. Suddenly, we slewed sideways and slid into the ditch; the truck shuddered and died. A portable bookcase toppled with a loud thud, and we heard a series of thumps as hardcover books cascaded from a shelf.
“Well, here we are,” I proclaimed cheerfully.
“What’ll we do?” Ruthie asked.
“Wait. For spring.” Fortunately, Ruthie was not the type of girl prone to nervousness or panic and she chuckled.
“Shall I push?” She yanked on her mittens.
I turned the key, and the truck rumbled to life. Ruthie exited through the back, since her door was wedged against the snowbank. She reappeared at my window, a halo of snowflakes around her head.
“It’s too deep.”
“Get in. You’re soaked.”
She scrambled over the dislodged books, arriving in her seat holding several volumes in her soggy mitten.
“Let’s read,” she grinned.
I chose Black Beauty and she opened Jane Eyre, but the light was already fading, and we soon set aside the books. Ruthie traced snowflake trails on her window, and I made mental lists of overdue and requested books.
A tap on the window startled me. A bewhiskered face emerged from the blasting snow, and I hesitantly reeled open the window.
“‘Evening, ma’am. Miss. I’d be delighted if you’d come to my home for supper and tea.”
It was George Chadwick. I was dismayed, for he was considered an eccentric recluse, and his unkempt appearance seemed to confirm the rumours. Yet, tea sounded splendid . . . Certainly we’d be safe until help arrived.
He helped us from the snowbound truck amidst softly accented assurances of harnessing the team in the morning.
Morning? Surely not.
It was fully dark when we arrived at Mr. Chadwick’s cabin.
“You must disrobe,” he urged.
I protested, though I knew his suggestion was sensible; our skirts were drenched, our hair wringing. He disappeared into the back room, returned with flannel shirts and blankets, and left again. We donned the dry clothing and hung our wet things on the rack over the woodstove.
Mr. Chadwick served lamb stew and fresh bread. His hair stood in unruly tufts and his beard was tangled, but his faded, patched clothes were clean, as was the comfortable cabin. Astonished, I watched him spoon tea leaves from a silver caddy into a china teapot.
“I’ve wanted to borrow books from your library. I’ve exhausted my meagre collection.” He indicated several leather-bound volumes.
“When the library is set to rights, you may borrow two books. What sort of . . . literature do you prefer?” Undoubtedly, he’d favour vulgar penny novels. His books were merely for show.
“Chekhov, Descartes, Austen.”
Ruthie brightened. “Jane Austen?”
“Yes, miss. I’ve read her every book.” He served us our tea in porcelain teacups.
“If I may ask . . .?” I regarded the fragile cup with its hand-painted pansies.
“My grandmother’s. From England.” My curiosity hadn’t offended him, and with a shrug, he continued, “I had grown weary of England’s crowds and wished to homestead instead.”
I sipped while Mr. Chadwick and Ruthie discussed Hugo, Tolstoy, and Mr. Chadwick’s Cambridge education. During the night, while the blizzard howled itself out, I dozed and missed the moment when Ruthie’s cheeks became prettily flushed. When I awoke, I soon realized her rosiness was not caused by the heat of the woodstove.
Dawn revealed an exquisite fairyland. Mr. Chadwick harnessed the team while Ruthie and I dressed.
Our Austen-esque adventure was over.
Yet, reminiscent of Miss Austen’s manner, the romance between Ruthie and George, an admirable gentleman after all, flourished, in spite of its unlikely beginnings when the Alexandria Travelling Library skidded into a snowy ditch.
Meanwhile, I, custodian and appraiser of fine literature, humbly recalled the old adage warning against making a judgment before acquiring insight.
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