Chester McNaughton Connaughton, aptly named for both sides of the family, landowner in the new world, squeezer of pennies and nickels at the very corpulence of coin, embarrassed at times by his own good fortune where his roots had once been controlled and ordained by potatoes and turnips or the lack thereof, gazed over the latest acquisition of a two-acre parcel abutting his prime abode and wondered how he could best utilize it. Mere coinage, he had early assessed, would apply the jimmy bar under Carlton Smithers and separate him from the land in their town of Saxon, not far from Boston. Carlton was old, alone, susceptible. It would be a piece of cake. It was, subsequently and as he had forecast, a swift steal, and papers and proper process moved the property under the shield of his name.
A big man in his own right, massive across the shoulders, Chester, even as a dreamer of large proportions, was given to talking to his father long gone down the pike, from a runaway case of pneumonia, to better pasture. The old gent had once called it “a greater kingdom and a lesser court.” Still civil in such matters, Chester addressed his father as “sir,” never once forgetting his manner of address.
“Sir,” he said this day, “how can I best use this land? The farmer is no longer in me; no endless hours, no thievery of land and what it will allow to be taken from it, these I do not envision. What would you propose? I would by design do whatever you suggest.” On his porch, the sun wavering its heat across the width of the two acres, Chester transposed himself into his study mode.
Now it takes all kinds of beliefs to manage oneself in this world, and commerce or business demands certain of those beliefs come into the fate of a man. Chester heard his father say, in the same enigmatic voice, the same wonder of voice, the simple words, “Swan River Daisy,” the words a barely audible breath coming upon his porch, like an aside from forever. The long-gone old man had not entirely eluded him. A sense of trust redoubled itself in him as he heard the echo say again, from some parallax athwart the universe, “Swan River Daisy,” and repeating, “Swan River Daisy.”
Acceptance struck him. Oh, he knew that sun-yellow flower well, a hardy, deep-root grower that dispelled an easy pull of root work in the fall. One year a decade or so earlier he had planted the whole flower bed across the front of the old colonial house with the tenacious daisies, waiting for their yellow waves to unfold a day in May, a wave a teasing breath of wind could set to dancing, the daisies standing so tall. Both the blossoming and the root work came back to him in swift recall. Did the old man mean to have him construct a greenhouse on the property, to specialize in Swan River Daisies? Was that the evolution of the simple answer a soft wind had brought him across the field? Should he plant the whole field with such golden color it would attract tourists? Should he run horses, like roans and pintos, through the field, and to what end? What good means is such advice without fair and equitable interpretation?
At length, in this quandary, the sun nodded his head and closed his eyes, and the old man said again from off the porch yet at immeasurable distance, “Swan River Daisy.”
Came upon him eventually turmoil and noise and his daughter crying out to him, “Father! Father! Look, look at the field!”
Upon his new property sat the most gorgeous Mississippi paddle wheel steamboat he had ever seen. It was red and blue of color and proud in its bearing and was smoking at its single black stack. Bales of cotton, like pale brown dominoes, stood on the prow of its deck and the paddle wheel astern of it, like a huge radius, spun itself through slow, angry revolutions. But there were no passengers crowding its deck, no crew evident about its surfaces, no movement other than smoke in a single column drifting upward to dispersion and the paddle wheel only partly visible in its circular passage.
Boldly printed in large yellow letters against the blue hull was the name, “Swan River Daisy.”
In less than the passage of one hour he was nearly assaulted by the Building Inspector who had come in answer to neighbors’ complaints, his eyes popping, his hands in agitated gesture. “How did you get it here? Did you have a permit? Do you have a permit? Was there a building plan submitted to Town Hall before this traffic? I suspect, sir, that you have violated many laws and regulations and will be held accountable.”
Chester shrugged his shoulders. “I did not bring it here. How could I do that? It was just there. My daughter, in great confusion, yelled at me and said, ‘Look in the field.’ There it was.”
“Is that your field?” The inspector was indeed young, indeed officious and surly in manner, the way Chester looked upon him, and wore his hair long and uncombed.
“Yes, I bought it quite recently.” A pup is still a pup, Chester announced to himself.
“I suggest, sir, that this must go all the way to the Town Manager and the Board of Selectman. You, most likely, as I have said, have broken all kinds of rules. That plot is not zoned for business.” The inspector was young, snotty-nosed, arrogant in an imperial and puerile manner at one and the same time, and was shaking his head and pointing the most possible accusatory finger at landowner Chester McNaughton Connaughton, smarting at the surliness.
“What business is that, inspector? Chester could not bring himself to call the young man sir. That was reserved for his father. His father came from that distant point again, that far parallax, “Swan River Daisy.”
The wide-eyed young inspector, obviously not in on the other conversation, replied, from his haughty countenance, “Why, that of transportation, having a river boat, delivering cotton bales, obviously a horde of passengers who are below deck and gambling illegally.” His head shook in a fearfully authoritative manner, superior counsel judging the Swan River Daisy from his dais, and thus judging Chester McNaughton Connaughton.
“Delivering bales where?” Chester’s hands were on his hips, his arms like sails, a big man towering over the young judge in pants though not in robe.
“Why, the next port of call, perhaps.” The young man looked down past the fields the way one might look down river. Fluster, for the lack of another expression, came on him.
“I must report this to higher authorities. I will call the electric and telephone and cable companies to see if any of their wires have been cut or disturbed. This is highly unusual. Improper displacement of utilities most certainly has been commissioned in this transport. Think of all your neighbors so unceremoniously impacted. Perhaps half the town. Why haven’t I been so informed?” In the most inquisitive gesture, he cocked his head to one side, a half-smile at his mouth, as if to say you can let me in on this, and said, “How did you ever in this world navigate the underpass from the main highway? That seems quite impossible.”
“I suspect it does look that way, but I did not bring it here. I did not build it. I did not order it. I did not wish for it. And I assure you I know nothing about the underpass or the overpass or how it was, as you say, navigated. ” Chester suspected there was in his own eyes a merry twinkle at this point. He consciously depressed the words, “Perhaps there’s been a change of tide.”
“But, sure as heaven, you are responsible for it.” The finger was wagging at Chester once more. “It’s on your property, sir, and you are therefore responsible. I hope you have insurance.”
“For what?” replied Chester, still hearing the far voice saying, “Swan River Daisy.”
“For the obvious damages you have incurred getting it here.”
“Getting what here?”
“Getting the Swan River Daisy onto your property, that’s what. I can read the name on the hull. I know what a Mississippi steamboat is, and a stern paddle wheeler for all that. You can’t fool me in these matters. I assure you I have read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I know about the big river and the boats. I even saw the movie, Tom and Huck and Becky in the cave. And Injun Joe.” A pause came upon the young inspector, jaw hanging slack, then a distant light came into his eyes as he stuttered in saying while pointing at the Swan River Daisy, “This… this, sir… this is not Saxonish. This is,” and he held his breath in proper caesura before he nearly shouted out, “Mississippian.” As he walked away, Chester McNaughton Connaughton saw a definite slump had accosted the young man’s shoulders.
In less than another hour a parade of men and two women came to Chester McNaughton Connaughton as he and his daughter Chadra were leaning on the fence that girded the new parcel of land… and the Swan River Daisy still puffing a thin line of black smoke, the wheel still turning mysteriously into the earth, and as yet no passengers or crew evident. Counted in that new audience were the Town Manager, the Town Counsel, the Board of Selectmen including two women members, three men from the Planning Board, an energetic member of the Appeals Board who was rapidly making notations on a pad of paper, and citing the length of the Swan River Daisy by use of a visimeter of a special sort. Every man was dressed in a black suit, white shirt and black tie and Chester, whispering to his daughter, said, “They look like hangmen if you ask me.” To which the daughter replied, “Especially the women in those deep-rose dresses, so ghastly.”
The Town Manager, bristling, holding forth in front of the small parade, addressed Chester McNaughton Connaughton. “My dear Mr. Connaughton, what is going on here?” With his hands on his hips he was still half the size of Chester, yet he had a round face, almost moonlike above the black tie, and deeply-set eyes continuously at measurement. “This disturbance, this disdain. I was at a wedding reception. It is no mean feat to slip away from a wedding reception. I’ll have you know. I might have dishonored a constituent.”
Chester reminded himself of the change of tide comment and thought well of it. “Do you seek passage, sir? Do you sail? Indeed, I do not, and do not contemplate doing so.”
“Is this your craft?” The Town Manager, whose name was Anton Swirling, said to Chester, and then smiled at the two ladies from the Board of Selectmen. He did not know which one he favored best.
“It is not my craft. It is not my boat. It is not my ship.”
“Is this your land?”
“We all know this is my land,” Chester offered, leaning back against the split rail fence. “I bought it from Carlton Smithers.”
The Town Manager smirked for the ladies once more. “At a ridiculously low price, from what I hear.”
“Would you have bought it at that price?” Chester said.
“That’s beside the point,” the Town Manager said.
“Precisely what I say,” Chester came back with. “It’s all beside the point. This is not my paddle wheeler.”
“If it stays here in your field, you will have to pay taxes.” In his affirmation, Anton Swirling was holding the hand of one of the ladies of the Board of Selectmen. He squeezed that hand as a sign of his authority and their potential. “That means property taxes, water fees, sewerage fees, all that apply to a place of business. The Assessors are at this moment coming up with a firm billing.” He felt puffed and thorough and mightily superior.
“To what business do you refer?” Chester said.
“The business of commerce, sir. It is most evident that this craft is a business enterprise. My god, man, look at the piles of cotton bales on the prow of that craft.”
“Do you suggest that I have a cotton field where such cotton is raised?”
“Where you get it, sir, is your concern. Mine is that you pay the appropriate fees for running such a business.”
“If I offered you for the taking every bale of cotton, would you take them, for free?” Chester offered. Chadra Connaughton squeezed her father’s hand.
“What in heaven’s name would I do with bales of cotton? Where would I take them?”
“Your Building Inspector, whom I note did not return with you, suggested the next port of call, down river somewhere.”
“My god, sir, there is no river here.”
“That is precisely my argument, Mr. Town Manager. There is no river to properly run a business of boats. There is no next port of call. There is no place to deliver the goods of a business. There is nothing. This town has not supplied any services for such a business. And you wish to tax me on those conditions.”
“By god, sir, there is a boat in your field and you will pay taxes on it.” His voice was a few octaves up on its normal range. The lady of the held hand squeezed him back. He turned to the assessor still madly scribbling on his pad. “I want the whole business of this land sale scrutinized before this day is out. We will get to the root cause for all actions, mark my words. And once you have ascertained the proper tax billing, please present it to Mr. Connaughton.” He squeezed the lady’s hand and said, in his best manner, “And with a duplicate copy to me so that I can fully watch and control this situation myself, if I must say so.”
The parade of authority of the Town of Saxon walked off behind the Town Manager who strutted like a drum major at the head of a band.
Chadra Connaughton tugged her anxiety at her father’s sleeve. “Easy, child,” he said, “it will be fine with us. We have done no wrong.”
When Town Manager Anton Swirling woke in the morning and looked out his back window, hoping to catch the glint of the early sunrise, The Swan River Daisy, on due course, was now crowding his whole back yard.
Header photograph: By Bourne & Shepherd, Calcutta for Cassell & Co. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons