By Lorelei E. D. Underforth, with oversight by M_____
CHAPTER THE SECOND: THE DREADFUL MODERN METHOD
Containing within many state capitols of absolutely no importance
(My dear readers, you may direct your electro-telegraphs to these coordinates to read an account of my previous adventurers)
Eleven years passed. Not all at once, of course, but consecutively. Many important things happened. The great Western Steamroad was finished, and the Men of the Green Isle perished of the potato-plague, and a new sort of meat-pastry was invented, and also during one of the summers it became fashionable to own dancing bears. And through it all, I blossomed into a perpetually more and more beautiful young woman, and grew tall, and strong, and fertile, and my teeth became even straighter and whiter; but little else of significance occurred until the day of which I speak.
On said day, Mary and I were at our desks, having a lesson from Professor Swindburne, our geography tutor. Though Mary was at the time a year younger than I, a state in which she remains to this day, she was permitted to share my lessons. Her intelligence, which the Phrenological Society had pronounced quite frightfully advanced, allowed her to keep up with even the powerful movements of my fully adult brain.
Professor Swindburne always insisted on holding classes in the sunroom. He had been hired from the University, and a lifetime spent teaching in dark, cavernous rooms had left him with a mania for flooding his teaching space with as much light as possible. Hence the sunroom, which was what we called the greenhouse after a classroom-sized space had been set up inside it. It was warm in winter and downright tropical at all other times, but Swindburne, who had the build of a praying mantis, never seemed to notice. Mary seemed to manage, too. I had to fight to stay awake.
“Today we shall be going over the state capitals once again,” Swindburne muttered, one hand on the enormous Globe of the World which was always wheeled out from under the potted cycads to accompany his lectures. His hands were as drawn out as the rest of him, and his long fingers tended to drape themselves about the northerly latitudes, where his habit of idly spinning the globe while he was talking had worn a white streak.
When one is about to receive a lecture in geography, one might expect one is about to get a really ripping tale about shrunken heads or ice trolls, but Professor Swindburne was a devotee of the Modern Method, and did not do very much to make learning fun. Usually we went over lists of very boring facts and drilled them into our memory. I can tell you to this day that the principal export of West Acronesia is a small, sour pastry called the “monkey-cousin”, but nothing else about the island.
“What is the capital of Superia?”
“Detroit, sir,” Mary spoke up quickly.
“Correct,” Swindburne said. His twiglike fingers jumped from the trench they were wearing through the barbarous wilds for long enough to pry one half-melted chocolate from the large crystalline punchbowl on his desk. He tossed it to Mary, who caught it in her mouth like a trained dolphin catching a bit of fish.
There are few subjects more boring than state capitals, and I had already charted a course for my life that did not include them, but I thought I should at least make the effort while I was here. Superia-Detroit, I wrote down in neat little handwriting on the crisp, creamy page in front of me. I carefully underlined the words, and started a nice little border pattern of boxes around them, just so that I could remember it extra well.
Dear ones, you must not think me ignorant of geography! On the contrary, I can name all three countries with ease. There is, of course, Anglia, the island cradle of all human civilization. There are the vast and varied wildlands of Nonanglia, where the Nonanglian tribes–the Cipangunese, the Esquimeux, the Jews, the Kangaroo, the Swedes, and four or five others–exist in a state of barbarity and constant stick-and-club-based warfare. And then there is my own dear homeland of the Semi-Civilized American Properties, which are not exactly Anglia, but thrive in the fields of Industry and Armament, and have invented many great things, including the Reality-Play and obesity.
So as you can see, I am a well-educated woman of the world. I can hit a moving target with a cannon from a hundred yards, know three Life-Hacks to accomplish one’s own corsetting, and can even describe the location and general dimensions of the Terrible Male Apparatus, though of course I would never do so. I simply don’t care about state capitols, because they are stupid.
“Devil’s Skull, sir,” said Mary. I missed whatever state had Devil’s Skull as a capital, which was too bad, as that one actually sounded interesting.
“Miss Underforth, are you paying attention?” Professor Swindburned said coldy.
“Of course I am, sir,” I said. I hastily scribbled ???-Devil’s Skull on the paper.
“Perhaps you would like to tell me what the capital of Napolea is?” he demanded.
“Um, is it Napolea City?” I ventured. That is usually the safest guess.
“Incorrect”, Swindburne said with a frown. “What about Franklin?”
“… Franklin City?”
Those spindly fingers were spinning the globe faster now, a sure sign that the professor was becoming agitated. I imagined tiny globe-dwelling people fleeing in terror before those huge pink Towers of Babel as they sliced through the sky and carved great furrows in the world. While the professor was occupied in tossing well-deserved chocolates to Mary, who of course had the answers ready to hand, I added a few scared little men in fur hats to my notes.
Maybe the hats were a bad idea. They served to do little but remind me that the room was roastingly hot and I was growing increasingly drowsy. My head sank lower and lower, until my face was a scant six inches from the page and the tip of my nose, which by now had blossomed into its full adult voluptuousness, was smearing the ink.
The fingers stopped on the globe abruptly, leaving a brown smudge all across the Interminable Ocean. “Miss Underforth, may I have a look at your notes please? I wish to refresh myself on the point I have just finished making.”
“You may if you’d like,” I said, handing them over. “I’m afraid they really don’t have much to do with what you were talking about, though. I’m sure Mary can answer you.”
“Miss Trowel’s mouth is full of chocolate at the moment.” His beady eyes narrowed as he looked over the paper. “I don’t see many actual notes here.”
“I only write down the things that sounds important, and well – state capitals, it’s hard to see exactly how those could ever come in handy,” I said, mustering ever ounce of my prodigious acting talents to sound apologetic.
“I see.” He stroked his long, bony chin as though it were a misshapen squash he were testing for ripeness. “Yes, I see. You’re only interested in a practical education. Well, let’s suppose I give you a little practical quiz. I’ll ask you one simple, easy, little question that relates directly to your future, and if you can answer it, why, I’ll send a glowing report to you father regarding your progress in the class.”
His upper lip curled into a sneer. “And if you can’t answer it, you’ll take ten thousand lines as punishment. Are you ready?”
Ugh, lines. I’d been so innocent as a child; compared to writing lines over and over, moralistic poetry was a walk in the park.
Swindburne turned away in thought for a moment, setting up some devious little trap, I had no doubt. Without turning back, he abruptly asked, “Miss Underforth, your family owns the Underforth Automated Sofaworks, do they not?”
“Er, yes…well, that is to say, I don’t really keep track…” I stammered, trying to think of whether I’d ever heard Father mention such a thing. “It sounds like the sort of thing we’d own. Yes. I’m going to go with yes.”
“Yes, they do,” Mary agreed, dabbing a napkin around her mouth.
“A-ha!” I crowed. “There, I’ve done it!”
“That wasn’t the question!” he snapped. “I was merely establishing the situation.”
“Ohh, no, you said one question, you can’t go changing the rules just because–“
“Quiet, you idiot!” His pointer slammed down across my desk. “I can make whatever rules I want. I may be just your servant on paper, but in here, I am your king, and you are a silly little ninny who can barely spell her own name!”
He turned to Mary. “And no helping from you!” It was spoken almost kindly, at least compared to the tone in which he’d adressed me, but she still looked stung. She wasn’t used to getting reprimands from teachers. Softening, he fished the last chocolate out of the pool of drippings at the bottom of the bowl and tossed it to her.
“I can so write my name,” I muttered. Swindburne ignored me.
“Miss Underforth, your family does, in fact, own the Underforth Automated Sofaworks. Now, let us say that one day you are touring the factory, overseeing your vast holdings. You are approached by a representative of the Governor of Delaware, who wishes to furnish his home entirely with automated furniture. He places an order for one thousand sofas. Three days later, the order is assembled and ready to be loaded onto a train. Ah, but there are several trains! One goes to Harford, one to Leon, one to Gateway, one to Dover, and one to New Amsterdam. Your question is this, Miss Underforth–which train will reach the capital of Delaware? And I assure you, the answer is not Delaware City.”
It was purely a guess. One chance in five. It probably wasn’t the first or last choice. It never was, not with only one question. Leon, Gateway and… whatever the other one had been. It was best to sound sure.
“Gateway,” I said confidently.
“Oh dear, wrong,” Swindburne said gleefully. “The governor calls you from Dover, furious, while pallets of automated sofas rot uselessly under the Franco-Virginian sun. That will be I will not allow my mind to wander in class, ten thousand times please, and in your best handwriting.”
“Say, that’s not fair!” I retorted. “You said this would have something to do with my future. I’m not going to be in charge of running some boring little factory.”
Those beady little eyes fixed on me. “Your father has no sons, Miss Underforth, and frankly, your personality makes you unmarriageable to any but the most desperate and cloddish. Eighteen, aren’t we, and still no ring? No, God help us, someday you’ll be running the family business, and since I would rather not have my retirement marred by burning cities and exploding factories, you will learn as much basic information as I can drill into that solid ball of bone you call your head.”
“I’ll have managers for that sort of thing, won’t I?” I explained, trying to stay calm. I could feel anger, hot and prickly, beginning to claw at the inside of my throat. “I’m going to be an adventurer. I’ll be apprenticed to Uncle Arlen, he’s just got back from another terribly exciting voyage, you know, and who knows but that I won’t be on the next one? Why, perhaps this will be the last time we see each other.”
“Oh, you’ll hire people to mind business for you, will you? And if you don’t know enough to monitor them, you’ll end up with nothing but scoundrels who’ll rob you blind. The foolish rich attract them like leeches.” Swindburne said. “Even your father–who is quite competent in the realm of business–has been bereft of brains enough to hire me, a lecturer of no little renown, and pay me handsomely to pretend that his daughter isn’t an unteachable dimwit. And here I continue to collect those riches, with the full knowledge that I might as well be skipping out to the theater for all the effect I’m having.”
“Then why don’t you?” I shot back. “It’s not as though I want to come to these awful classes!”
“I likely would, if it wasn’t for Miss Trowel’s educational needs. She may actually make something of herself some day.” He pointed at Mary, who looked as if she wanted nothing more than to sink into her chair and disappear.
Oh, I’ll make something of myself one day, I thought. And then I’ll see you eat a nice drippy fondue of your words, drizzled over a slice of humble pie!
I stood up, gathering my notes with as much dignity I could, and stormed out.
“I suppose that’s class dismissed, then. No homework today, Miss Trowel, and remember, Miss Underforth, despite your assumptions about your uncle’s willingness to take a hundred and twenty pounds of lazy ballast along on his next voyage, I still expect to see those ten thousand lines on our next meeting.”
I didn’t let him see me shudder, but still, ten thousand lines! It was downright nauseating. I would have felt better if I’d known that this was, in fact, the last class I would ever have with Professor Swindburne–though it was not the last time I ever saw him, nor did I leave on a steamer with Uncle Arlen.
I never was apprenticed to my uncle, in fact, but in a very real way I did owe the end of my odious and stuffy formal education to him. At that very moment, the key to my freedom was resting in a bed of straw, in an orange crate, in the showroom in the east wing of the house, and my uncle was the one who had brought it there.