A Kinrowan Estate story: Charles and Alice Pay a Visit (A Letter to Owyn)

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I found this charming letter in a bundle of archival material that we were cataloging for the Library this past week. L.L. Littlesworth, Esq. was the Estate Librarian for most of the late Victorian era.

From the letters of L.L. Littlesworth, Esq.

East Wing Library Belfry Tower,
Kinrowan Estate,
August 11th, 1865

Dear Owyn,

This afternoon, my good friend Charles Dodgson and his charming companion Alice came for tea. The Cheshire Cat I see often, as he regularly makes his rounds from the conservatory to the kitchens to the library here at the estates. But the library belfry, where I keep my personal effects and from where I write this account, is blessedly Cheshire-free, most days. And it is peaceful — no bells here since who-knows-when. These estates have been here what seems like forever, though every few generations someone feels compelled to expand upon what lay here before him. The entire library wing of this rambling place looks positively Medieval, though I suppose such is the fashion again, what with the Gothic modes and the emergence of the New Romanticism.

So — no bells in this belfry, just books, books, books. And scrolls and codices, more than one illuminated manuscript. Several inscribed stone tablets lean in corners which come and go as stealthily as the Cheshire Cat. Never before I came to work here did I see a place with so many corners, nor such a propensity for those corners to disappear when the fancy took them. Rumor has it some long-ago librarian here used the library’s extensive collected works on the Grey Arts to imbue the walls with a sort of ethereal elasticity. It enables us to continually acquire as many new books as we need, you see, without ever having to let any go.

The estate managed by the School of the Imagination is an easy walk from here; quite close, though closest on third Mondays and full moons. The other side of Oberon’s wood is sometimes quite close indeed, depending upon the circumstances of the hour and His Fey Majesty’s pleasure.

When Dodgson and his charge arrived I took them straightaway to the library for tea. Miss Alice is most enamored of the belfry. ‘Why, it’s rather like a rabbit hole, is it not, Mr. Littlesworth?’ she said. ‘Only it goes up, up, up rather than down, down, down; and it is lined with books rather than roots.’

Upon which my friend Dodgson mumbled, in an off-hand way, one of his famous doublets — ‘Books — boots — roots.’ He’s always thinking, is my friend Dodgson. His mind never rests. And Miss Alice! So fetching a child, and so intriguing. Once Dodgson created her, he could no sooner undo his work than any of us can undo any auto-manifesting fabrication, or flight of fancy made real.

For tea, Cook had laid out quite a feast for our guests (she spares no such labors on simple me!) — hardboiled eggs sprinkled with Paprika from the Indies; lovely slices of delicate fish which virtually melted on the palate; cakes a variety of shapes, and cordials a dozen colors. Dodgson remarked most favorably upon the fare, but I noticed Miss Alice refrained from the repast. When I directed her to the fish, she said — most politely, for she is an extremely well-behaved child — ‘Thank you ever so much, Mr. Littlesworth, but once one has seen a fish in all his livery, it is not quite the same to see him spread wide upon a platter, and seems not quite the thing to eat him.’ When I offered her the plate of eggs instead, she remarked, ‘Oh Mr. Littlesworth! I couldn’t  . .not since it was explained to me by a most insistent mother pigeon that only serpents eat eggs. I think I look not the least like a serpent, do you?’ Upon which I hastily reassured her in the negative. Dodgson was of no assistance. He merely smiled — indulgent of Miss Alice or myself I wouldn’t presume to guess.

In desperation, I piled the girl’s empty plate with cakes of every variety, thinking I’d never met a child who would say no to cakes at high tea. But she demurred, fixing me in a dolorous gaze with those enormous eyes of hers. ‘Mr. Littlesworth,’ said she — ‘A girl who grows all out of proportion for the simple act of eating a cake once might be pitied. She might be praised if she does it again to remove herself from a fix. But a girl who makes a habit of eating cakes, randomly and with no thought to the consequences to her size and shape. …’ She shook her pale head with finality. Our Cook is forever speaking of putting herself on a reducing diet, but I had quite the strong feeling that was not what Miss Alice meant at all.

After tea, I asked which portion of the estate my guests would most like to see. ‘Just please, Mr. Littlesworth, not the Conservatory,’ said Alice. ‘The Cheshire Cat has told me often what a lovely place the Conservatory is — how delightful its flora, how accommodating its fauna. He has recommended most strongly that I visit it while here. But I have decided not everything the Cheshire Cat says is true, strictly speaking.’

At which Dodgson laughed. ‘Are we speaking strictly?’ he said. ‘I make a habit of never speaking strictly, if it can be at all avoided.’

And so my guests decided they would explore the library wing itself, which if I do say so has quite a bit to recommend it. It has the shifting corners, of course, and the telescoping stairwell, which expands or contracts according to the seasons and to its willingness to allow access to a particular book. The library has been most accommodating during my tenure as its keeper. We have a benign relationship, this strange old wing and I. I like to think we co-operate to provide excellent archiving and retrieval services for the many, many volumes which come our way from around the globe and around the clock, as it were. I’m not always sure all of our volumes exist in the same temporal frame-work, though they may share the same shelves of magicked planks.

The remainder of our afternoon passed pleasantly. Time went quickly, as it does when spent in good company. The Cheshire Cat made an extended appearance late in the day, his grin materializing first and fading last, beaming down from its position atop the shelves on the upper landing of the belfry. Miss Alice pointedly ignored his presence, and asked me to explain my new toy, a tintype camera. I deferred to the Good Doctor’s superior knowledge, and he rambled for the remainder of the afternoon, blissfully unaware, I believe, that his young companion was engaged mainly in snubbing the looming feline and his enormous smile. I knew already most of that which Dodgson explained, but his enthusiasm was charming. He is a lovely man when his interests are engaged. His stammer virtually disappears, and he is then the most eloquent of scholars, and the very best of company.

Now the light is fading from my tower. Even that light which reaches here, far over the tops of trees fringing Oberon’s wood. I see the Old Mill Pond from my window. If I look very hard, I can make out pale wisps of smoke rising from the chimneys of the School of the Imagination. I picture my friends there, Dodgson perhaps writing in his journal as I do mine. His Alice — that strange, wonderful creature which is so like an actual human child and yet so unlike — perhaps she sleeps. In this odd twilight which exists between day and night, anything is possible. I think a creature so strange and lovely as Alice might outlive even her creator Dodgson and myself. Will she, I wonder, still be teased by the Cheshire Cat long after these papers crumble to dust; long after some future generation of Estate librarians decide this old belfry is no longer useful, or that some of these books must go?

I slide back onto the shelf by my desk this slim volume Dodgson gave me upon his leave-taking. I run a finger along the title inked onto the spine — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Part of me thinks she will outlast us all, this girl-child entity made real by the power of words alone. For that and for her, I love these books around me all the more.

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