Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Lost Colony of Caledon

[This is one of those “it seemed like a good idea at the time” ideas: part farce, part social commentary. What would happen if a society found itself to have many times more men than women? It ran out of steam – a bad thing indeed in the Steamlands – after a page or so. In part, it ran afoul of too much exposition (the “show, don’t tell” rule), but I saw no way around that without making this into a long, drawn-out affair. In part, there was no satisfactory ending. Such is life. - RJ]

The airship set down with a splash in the lagoon. The crew could see the natives looking curiously at the ship, its huge air bags starting to settle. I started back at the savages. They were browned from the sun, and wore scandalously little.

“D’ya think they speak English?” asked Davey, the cabin boy.

“Not the Queen’s English, that’s for sure,” replied Lieutenant Pinkus. “Who knows whether we’ll be able to understand them at all.” Pinkus called to his men, who would constitute the landing party, to lower the gangplank. Lieutenant Chartier, in charge of the soldiers, ordered his men into position to cover the landing party, just in case of trouble.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “These people have been away from our fair land for ten years, not ten generations.”

I was there to cover the historic event for my newspaper. The Lost Colony had been found! This was big news in Caledon and even in the other Steamlands. As long-time Caledonians will no doubt recall, a decade ago, well before my arrival in Caledon, an expedition had set forth to found a colony on a delightful tropical island on the coast of a large equatorial land mass. This was in the days before large airships were possible, so the colonists – nearly 300 men and 200 or so women – embarked on the Ark, the largest sailing vessel Caledon had ever seen, and two smaller ships. They left with great fanfare: crowds lined the docks to cheer the colonists on their way, the Guvnah himself made a speech lauding the bravery of the colonists, and then they were off, promising to send the smaller vessel home with word of how the colony was faring and to gather additional provisions as needed. That was the last anyone had heard from the Ark or its crew or passengers. Did all three ships go down in a storm? No one knew. After nearly a year of silence, a Navy ship set forth on the same path but, although the Navy ship reached the intended destination of the Ark, no trace of the expedition was seen.

Then, mere weeks ago, a RCAF airship on an exploration mission to the southern seas had spotted an island with obvious signs of human habitation. The airship itself could not land, but it reduced altitude as much as possible and several crewmen descended rope ladders to the ground, whereupon they saw an incredible sight: a flag, badly faded by time and the sun, with Caledon’s colors. The crewmen signaled this back to the airship, by which time the islands residents had gathered to meet these delegates from Mother Caledon. Their numbers had been greatly reduced over time because of the hardships they had had to endure over the intervening years. The Navy men could not help but notice almost all were men. They told the crewmen that the Ark and its fellow ships encountered an enormous storm, and were blown off course and badly damaged. The Ark itself took on water and sank, and many of the passengers perished before the other ships could rescue them. The smaller ships were also damaged, and, without navigational aids, were hopelessly lost. Severely overloaded, they needed to make landfall as quickly as possible; when the island they were presently on loomed before them, they viewed it as providential, even though they had no idea where they were or how to get word back to Caledon.

They spoke fondly of Caledon, but refused repeated offers to send a passenger airship to return them home. These people were of pioneer stock and, having made their bargain to spread Caledonian ideals elsewhere, would not go back on it, despite their hardships. The Captain of the Navy airship agreed to send various provisions and additional colonists. He noted that women, in particular, were in short supply, and recommended to his superiors that, for the survival of the colony, the newcomers would all be women.

Thus it came to pass that the airship Thunder, with a crew of two dozen, including those who served as infantrymen when on land and handled the airship’s cannon, along with one hundred brave ladies and one not-so-brave reporter, landed in the island’s lagoon.

Lieutenant Pinkus led six burly crewmen off the gangplank. Each carried nearly 75 pounds of supplies, and each would make dozens of trips back to the Thunder to gather more supplies. We saw the natives looking expectantly at the supplies, which were a mixture of life-saving equipment – sulfa, bandages, morphine – tinned food, clothing, and small luxuries, including soap, the likes of which had not been seen on the island for years. I followed the crew into the village, where I met Mrs. Mary Matthews, the Colonial Governor, and asked if I could interview her. She assented.

Mrs. Matthews was a slender woman in her late 40s with a bob haircut; this seemed to be the preferred style for the island. Her tanned face was developing wrinkles around the eyes and forehead, but she was a handsome woman. She made the tea herself – a queer sort of tea indeed, made by boiling native leaves – because even the governor had no servants.

“I am certain my women readers will be interested to know how you came to be the Governor here,” I said, settling into the offered chair made from palm fronds.

She smiled. “The Governor has always been a woman…well, aside from the first few months, but they don’t really count, do they?”

“I cannot say, ma’am. Please tell me about that time. It must have been a terrible hardship for everyone.”

“Indeed it was, Miss Jameson, indeed it was. I don’t mind saying that one bit.” A man came into the room, saw us talking, and quietly backed out. Mrs. Matthews tsked. “That was Mackay, my third husband. If he hadn’t left so quickly, I would have introduced you to him.”

“Your third husband?” I sounded a bit startled. “The death rate here must be very high. Oh dear, I am terribly sorry, Madame Governor, that was a thoughtless way to put it.”

Mrs. Matthews gave a short laugh. “Quite all right, my dear. But that’s not what I meant at all. Mackay is the third of my husbands. I have five, you see. Dear Bartholomew – Mr. Matthews, that is – was the first, Samuel was second, and Mackay was number three. He’s very shy.”

Now I was hopelessly befuddled. My confusion must have shown on my face, because Mrs. Matthews said, “This must sound very strange to you. Let me begin at the beginning…

“When we left Caledon, the Ark contained nearly equal numbers men and women. More men than women, I suppose, but it was fairly close. Almost all of us were married – married for the first time, that is. Perhaps half the couples had children, and they also were with us. The colony was to be self-sustaining, which meant that our children would stay and marry here, and so forth.

“All that changed the night of the storm. We lost the Ark, of course, and many of our provisions. We also lost a great many of the women: dozens drowned immediately, and dozens more died before they could reach one of the rescue ships. When we made landfall, the gentlemen outnumbered the ladies by at least two-to-one, if not more.

“As time went on, that imbalance only worsened. Life was hard, and women died quickly, some by disease that is unknown in Caledon, some, later on, in childbirth, and some just…passed on, perhaps of a broken heart, knowing they would never again see their beloved homeland. Of course, some men died as well, from accidents, from the rigors of farming, or from disputes that, back home, would have been settled over a few brandies, but here were resolved at the end of a knife or a sharp stick. Still, these were few relative to the number of women we lost.

“Eventually – and by that I mean perhaps a year after we found ourselves stranded – we noticed how the number of women had become very low indeed. The men certainly noticed, as those who were unmarried or widowed understood that the likelihood they would attain or regain the state of matrimony was nil. As you are perhaps unaware, Miss Jameson, men have certain…wants that only marriage may provide.” (“So I have heard,” I replied dryly, and left it at that.) “This left the vast numbers of unattached men most distressed, and they began to act most hostilely toward the married couples. The husbands would find themselves menaced over trivial incidents, while the wives would find themselves the center of unwanted attention.

“I called the ladies together to discuss the situation. I had a plan, you see. We would declare that a lady would be able to wed as many times as all parties concerned might agree. That is to say, a wife, already in possession of one husband, might take a second husband if she desired, and the two gentlemen at issue might consent.” She sipped her tea.

I must have looked shocked. “But,” I stammered, “how did the gentlemen possibly consent to this arrangement?”

“It took some time,” Mrs. Matthews agreed, a smug smile on her face as she recalled her efforts to facilitate this outcome. “The single men were easier to persuade, of course, as they understood that the alternative was to hope for a premature death among the husbands – or to hasten such a death. The husbands were less enthusiastic, but, Lysistrata-like, the wives all soon persuaded their husband this course of action was best for the colony. Although some adjustment problems presented themselves initially, the arrangement has worked admirably for nearly a decade.”

A knock came at the door while I was digesting this information. The caller was a younger woman with a ruddy, farmer’s face, wearing trousers and a dishwater-gray blouse. “Beggin’ your pardon, Madame Governor, but the new colonists have all disembarked from the Thunder, and are waitin’ on a few words from you.”

Mrs. Matthews put down her cup and crude saucer. “Goodness! I had no idea I was going on at such length! If you will excuse me, Miss Jameson…”

I stood. “Of course, ma’am.”

The Governor left the office, and I followed the ruddy-faced woman to a clearing, where the new colonists stood expectantly. Lieutenant Pinkus stood at the front of the group, a familiar presence to them. They seemed a little nervous, having now seen the primitive state of the village, and having a few reassuring words from the Governor would likely do them a world of good.

Shortly thereafter, Mrs. Matthews arrived and scanned the crowd. The smile that had started on her face disappeared. She turned to the lieutenant and whispered something to him. He nodded curtly in reply. “That cannot be…there must be some mistake!” I could hear her say.

“No, ma’am, no mistake. One hundred women, to balance out the numbers.”

“Why would you do such a thing?”

Lieutenant Pinkus looked confused. “Ma’am?”

“Why would you not have asked me before you decided that you needed to have equal numbers of men and women on this colony?”

“It seemed obvi…we asked many colonists what they needed, and they all said you very much needed more…I mean to say, my superiors made that decision. You would have to ask them, Madame Governor.”

Mrs. Matthews then made her welcome speech, but it was clear her enthusiasm was gone. It came as no surprise to me to hear that she resigned her position only weeks after the Thunder left the island, nor that the next Governor – a gentleman – banned the practice of multiple spouses. One to a customer, he reportedly said.

Still, the colony thrived, and began limited trade with Caledon. Rumors reached our fair land about certain…practices once found in the colony, but no one would official confirm those rumors. I found the entire experience to provide an interesting example of Professor Smith’s principles of supply and demand.


Dio said...

I thought it worked quite nicely, Rhianon. And as for running out of steam--I wouldn't say that. I think the low key ending fit with the structure and nature of the story: ending not so much with a bang, but a "shrug and let's muddle through" had a very honest feel to it.

Mako Magellan said...

If further inspiration is required, Miss Jameson, perhaps 'Coral Island', 'Lord of the Flies', or 'The Fatal Shore' might suffice :)

Rhianon Jameson said...

Thank you kindly, Miz Dio and Mr. Magellan. (I did have to dive for the safety of the Googles regarding the latter of Mr. M.'s suggestions - just great, another book on the "to read" pile!) I must have been subconsciously channeling "Lord of the Flies" when I penned this.

On a more humorous note, when I read Miz Dio's account of having accidently shot the poor orphan boy, and how she acquired the gun from "number six," I had the oddest thought that must refer to husbands...until I saw the reference to "number nine." If you ever see me in Deadwood, ma'am, it will be with a white flag waving promimently.