Sharing one of my all-time favorite essays, “The Devil on Horseback,” that’s a chapter in “When the Shoe Fits…Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances.” It’s all about getting some perspective on your younger, earlier self…and recognizing how far you’ve come!
The price of admission to my own mind cost less than a Godiva chocolate bar.
The Indian Summer sun beat down radiantly on my bare shoulders as I picked my leisurely way through a massive flea market beside the Mississippi River in Iowa with my daughters. We were giddy fugitives from routine on that rare weekend together. Meandering and winnowing and pointing things out proved to be a bottomless well of amusement.
Hey, look at those Saint Bernard puppies lounging over there in the shade! Get a load of the cute Halloween yard decorations! What do think this weird metal utensil was used for fifty years ago? Should I buy this?
We turned over crockery and porcelain teacups, priced knick-knacks, pored over collections of used CDs, sniffed fragrant soaps, and eyeballed cheap jewelry. And as I casually glanced at a box of second-hand books, the past nearly bit me on the finger.
There, atop a stack of other unmemorable novels, was the key to my formative years—a “romantic suspense” novel by Victoria Holt called “The Devil on Horseback.” The original paper dust cover was still intact, though faded. Center stage was occupied by a wasp-waisted young, beautiful blond with long ringlets trailing from beneath a feathered blue bonnet the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. She was flanked by images of a booted, sneering nobleman (in a smaller but just as ridiculous feathered hat) astride a somber chestnut steed. A tumbrel full of doomed aristocrats was parked conveniently by a guillotine.
I flipped the cover open, and scanned the thumbnail description of the plot. There was the beautiful schoolmistress’ daughter, caught by unkind circumstance between the worlds of education and aristocracy and the hired help, forced by fate to make do while a “dark and cruelly handsome” French count thought she was “just the kind of mistress he had to have.”
A bright yellow sticker advertised a handwritten price of a dollar. I couldn’t resist. I didn’t counter, haggle, barter or quibble. This book, I had to have. Reading it, I thought, would be like stepping into a time machine.
The title was vaguely familiar, though I couldn’t remember if I had actually read it before. But since I had devoured everything I could get my hands on by Victoria Holt decades earlier, I’d have bet good money I had.
I will be the first to confess that as a child, I did not play very well with others. There could be a thousand explanations for that, but we are going to skip them all here. Let’s just say that I read my way through my childhood and leave it at that. Growing up on the northwest side of Chicago, I practically wore grooves in the pavement to the local library at Pulaski and North Avenues, especially in the summertime.
No sooner would I finish an armful of books—Greek mythology, Nancy Drew mysteries, everything the library had about horses, especially the entire Black Stallion series by Walter Farley—then off I trekked. Past the Woolworth five-and-dime, and the Tiffin movie theater, and the bowling alley, and the delicatessen that carried those boxes of delicious Dutch chocolates shaped like tiny wooden shoes—but still always smelled like smoked herring. My arms always ached from the load, returning one batch just to bring back another.
The window of my second story bedroom fronted on the street, and from the middle of my bed there in the afternoon light I retreated into a world of language and imagery, Homeric adventures and western canyons, mustangs and mysteries.
It didn’t do much for my social life…but it gave me one hell of a vocabulary and—years later—great verbal scores on my college entrance exams.
Somewhere along the line, though, I outgrew my hunger for stories about teenaged sleuths and Smokey the Cow Horse, and turned avidly to a new genre, romantic suspense. Phyllis Whitney, Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart were my new must-read authors, and my imagination became steeped in tales of young and lovely heroines in difficult circumstances drawn to brooding, distant men who magically turned out alright at the end.
Given that my first two years of high school were spent in a sea of plaid jumpers at an all-girls Catholic prep school, sightings of actual males were somewhat sporadic, and these books provided a more sophisticated window into love, courtship, and happy endings.
Or so I thought.
Fast forward a few decades. Back from the weekend getaway, I wasted little time in finally cracking open a window to a younger, less complicated time. I curled up in bed with a light at my elbow one weekend, and a few pillows propped comfortably behind me. With the doors and windows locked and cat, dog and son soundly asleep, I began to read. But a journey that started with amused anticipation segued quickly into a dutiful slog through repeated disappointment, finishing at long last with a sense of acute nausea…and relief that it was over.
Good grief, I thought, what mind-warping tripe! What toxic influence had cast its malignant and formative shadow on such an impressionable young mind!
This was a knee jerk reaction, of course. Nobody reads romantic suspense to get a dose of reality—all the ormolu clocks and clattering horse-drawn carriages and borrowed evening finery would see to that.
But this was ridiculous. I could—if pressed—buy into the potential quandary faced by the milquetoast heroine Minella of choosing a loveless, if affectionate, marriage to the Lord of Derringham Manor, or the reckless and tempestuous life of being the mistress of the sneering, bad-mannered and still-married Comte Fontaine Delibes.
But for heaven’s sake, did this woman never think outside the childish confines and fantasies of her own mind? Did it never occur to her to just ask someone a question point blank about their motives or their feelings? If someone threw a brick through the window of the chateau, wrapped in a menacing note…did you think that maybe she’d just go tell somebody??
Patience worn thin, I closed the cover and thought about what to do with this new revelation. The trash can seemed too…undignified, disrespectful of the past and the arduous journey to the present. Keeping it seemed…unthinkable. Giving it away to charity…well, that would be like donating poison to a food bank.
The book sat for weeks in a corner of the living room, as I left daily for work or other errands, paid the bills, toted the firewood, got the oil changed in my car. And then the skies parted, and the ending to this story became clear.
As evening fell after a day of working in the yard with my boyfriend and our chain saws, I stood at the edge of the bonfire. It blazed with the dusty and cobweb-covered scrap lumber I had pulled from the garage, and the mountains of brush we had cut and dragged from the edge of the driveway and raked into the crackling pile. The heat was a palpable, ominous force, smacking my face and my shins if I stepped just a little too close. But step forward I did anyway from time to time, to drag the smoking vines and branches from the edges back to the middle where they popped and hissed before dissolving into ash. I felt exhausted, but triumphant as well—a primitive goddess of fire tending.
I had grown proud of my incremental post-divorce independence, and I stood surrounded by the fruits of my hitherto most unlikely labors—the tons of gravel moved, the paddock fences repaired, the mulch spread, the plants dug in, the branches trimmed, the shrubs taken down to the ground with a hand saw. And I stood in the shadow of the house where I had fixed the leaky toilet, patched and sanded and painted the bedroom, installed knobs and handles on the basement cabinets, and even managed—after six months of peering through murky darkness on the front stairs—to change the light bulb in the dreaded light fixture over the foyer.
I fetched the offending book from the house, and pitched it into the fire.
And as the sparks wafted upwards in the dark and the flames curled greedily around the pages, I sent the “devil” back home.