The Discovery
by Jesse F. Knight

 

 

1. Woody’s Dragon

Stella was in the parlor when the little whirlwind known as Woody Featherstone came rushing in with news of the discovery.

Stella’s slender white hand was on a vase Gerald had purchased for her. All the way from Europe it had come to San Francisco, then Grass Valley, then finally to their booming but small mountain community of Sierra City. Transportation costs made such objects rare and extremely valuable in 1878 California, but Gerald was always most generous with his wife, seeing not only to her every need but also to her every luxury and to her desire for beauty, as well. The vase was made of exquisite crystal from Venice, and it gathered the California sun to its heart, then released it with a burst, flashing splinters of light and shards of rainbows. California and the pure air of the Sierra were made for crystal, Stella thought.

Stella was arranging some roses in the vase—yellow roses with throats of a faint pink blush. In the heat of the summer she had worked hard to preserve their fragility, insuring they had plenty of water early in the morning. She was arranging the last rose in the vase when she heard Woody’s hobnailed footsteps on the porch.

“Mrs. Wellington! Mrs. Wellington!”

“In here, Woody,” she called out the open window, smiling at his youthful exuberance.

Breathless, he flung open the door and tore down the hall, scattering a rug under his feet. But as soon as he entered the cool, darkly paneled parlor, he slid to a stop, pulling his cap from his tousled wheat-blond hair.

“What is it, Woody?” Stella asked, lifting a finely sculpted eyebrow of query.

“There’s something down in the lake. Well, not exactly in the lake, not any more. It’s coming out of the lake, like a big old black monster, and—.”

“Something? Can you be a bit more specific, Woody?”

“It’s huge, enormous, gigantic,” he said, holding apart his thin, small arms as far as he could.

“A fish?” asked Stella.

Woody shook his head emphatically. “Not this, no.”

“What else can you tell me about it?”

“Ugly! It’s horrible ugly, dripping black, with eyes so black you can’t even see where the eyes end and the head begins. You can’t even tell if it is looking at you or not. But I was sure, positive sure, it was glaring at me the whole time I was down there. And hairy, it’s hairy, too. Don’t rightly know what it is myself. I’m thinking a dragon, though of course it could be something else—treasure, maybe. I’ve been reading a lot about treasure lately.”

Stella laughed, holding out a slim ivory hand to the boy. “Let’s go take a look at it,” she said, “you and me, shall we?”

Woody blushed, his freckles seeming to take on a darker hue, and he smiled, revealing two missing teeth. “Sure thing, Mrs. Wellington,” he enthused, slapping his cap back on.

“I could use an outing; I haven’t been down to the lake in weeks.”

Woody grinned brightly. “Yes, Ma’am!”

There had been little rain during the winter of 1877 and ’78. Spring had been unusually warm and had slipped into high summer before anyone realized it. As a result, drought gripped the land.

As Stella and Woody walked toward the lake, the hillsides presented a golden sea; puffs of dust, gauzy and cinnamon-colored, blossomed at their feet; and even the call of the hawk sounded dry as dust, harsh, and strident. Stella held a parasol over her head to protect her unblemished skin from the blazing bronze sun. But the heat, creeping under the listless fringe of the parasol, suffocated her. She waved a hand in front of her face in a futile attempt to stir the stifling air.

On all the maps of California of the time, the lake toward which they trudged was officially named Lake Sutter, after the fountainhead of California’s Gold Rush nearly twenty years before. But thereabouts the lake was called Stella’s Lake. Eventually, many years later, long after the discovery, the lake was officially named Stella’s Lake. Even today, as government agencies lag woefully behind reality, the name is gradually evolving, in the way of all languages, into something else—Stellar Lake—but perhaps that isn’t all that far removed from Stella herself, since she was noted far and wide for her celestial beauty.

Like a puppy bursting with vitality, ten-year-old Woody Featherstone bounded ahead of Stella, jabbering about the treasure he had found, or maybe it was a dragon—

“If it is treasure, do you think the sheriff will let me keep it? Do you?”

“If it is treasure, we’ll have to see, Woody.”

“Would he let me keep a dragon?”

Leaving Stella’s house on the hill far behind, they made their way into the meadow. The tawny grass crackled under their footsteps. Stepping carefully, Stella shifted her long, sky-blue dress, fringed with darker blue velvet, to avoid an occasional bramble. The thirty-year old, dark-haired woman caught the faint fetid odor of the lake before she saw it—the smell of the reeds, decaying vegetation, and the mud drying in the early August afternoon. But there was a suggestion of vigor about it. In a few minutes they came upon the lake. The hum of dragonflies, iridescent in the sun, trimmed the silence. An egret, seeing the human intruders, took to the air, landing farther down the lakeshore, amid some reeds.

Normally, Woody would have been fascinated by the large white bird but this time his attention was riveted elsewhere. “See?” He pointed to the edge of the dark water. “What did I tell you—a monster, a dragon, or a treasure.”

Having not been out there in some time, Stella surveyed the lake. The drought and the wilting heat had taken its toll. Where Stella stood had once been the edge of the lake. Now, the lakebed went out several hundred feet. The gray intervening ground, which the water had once covered, was caked and splitting, looking like the web of a crazed spider. The surface of the lake had dropped so low that much of what had once been covered by the water was now revealed in sharp relief. There were pieces of driftwood, white as bone, exposed to the sun and air. Large boulders stood forlornly here and there, and Stella could see a drop off of about five or six feet perhaps fifty feet out from where she stood. Farther down the slope a rusty bucket and a miner’s pan were lying in the muck. But her gaze was drawn toward a spot some hundred yards from where she stood. “What on earth is it?” she wondered aloud.

For a long time she gazed at the huge black… thing that lurked in the mud. Weeds and mud dripped from its motionless frame. Normally, she would have thought of it as nothing more than a massive boulder, except for one thing: In one area, for whatever reason, the clay, the mud, and rotting vegetation had dropped away and something white glistened in the sun. Whatever it was, it most definitely was not a boulder. For all the world, its shape reminded her of an elephant—an oddity she had seen in Wesley’s Weekly Rotogravure Summary of World Events, a set of periodicals she received every three months from New York City. Stella furrowed her smooth and snowy forehead. An elephant in California? Once, she had read an account of a monster in Scotland—the Loch Ness Monster, she remembered it was called. She could recall the artist’s conception. Could this be something like that? Could there be monsters in the depths of Sierra lakes that no one had seen? At any moment Stella expected it to lift a giant snout and turn toward her.

“A dragon—I told you so, Ma’am, or worse,” Woody whispered.

“Not a dragon and certainly not worse,” Stella said.

“Then what?”

“I’m not exactly sure . . .” she hesitated, “but whatever it is, we’re not afraid of it, are we?” she went on firmly.

“I guess not, Ma’am.” Woody sounded uncertain.

For a few minutes they stood staring at the glistening black thing in the lake, then Stella said decisively, “We may not know what it is, but we’re going to find out.” She held out her hand. “Come, Woody, you can help me compose a letter, then deliver it for me.”

“A letter!” Woody’s face was a delightful mixture of pleasure and anxiety. “I’ve never written a letter before.”

“That’s all right. We can do it together.”

In Stella’s cool parlor, squirming in a chair, Woody wanted to write of dragons, and would they send a dragon slayer, but Stella said, “When you write a letter, Woody, you want to be straightforward and factual. Otherwise, your reader, if he doesn’t know you, will set your letter aside as so much fiction.”

“What should we say?” asked the boy.

After considering for several moments, Stella began, “How about:

Dear Sirs:

 

During the recent drought that has gripped our land many of the lakes, rivers, and streams in this area have dried up or fallen to the lowest levels anyone can recall. As a result, objects have come to be exposed that have been covered for who knows how long. In our own Stella’s Lake, there is something , which is very mysterious. Mineral, vegetable, or animal? I cannot identify it. It is possible that it may prove to be of interest not only to the scientific community in California, but also to the world at large. Would you wish to dispatch a member of your staff to investigate?

 

Yours sincerely,

 

Mrs. G. A. Wellington

“There, what do you think of that?” Stella laid down the pen with satisfaction.

Woody beamed at a job well done. It was straightforward and factual; and even if it didn’t once mention dragons or treasure, he thought it still had an air of mystery about it. Facts, he decided, could be enchanting things.

With a flourish, Stella addressed the envelope and gave it to Woody. “Will you take it to the post office and mail it off for me?”

“I sure will, Mrs. Wellington. But what about postage?”

“Tell Mr. Benton that Mr. Wellington will be by to take care of it tomorrow morning.”

“Sure thing,” Woody yelled, taking the envelope in his brown hand. Like the whirlwind he was when he entered the house, he departed the same way, flying out the front door and letting it stand open behind him. Stella smiled after him, her slim hand on the door’s frame. The oversized door had a lovely glass window that Gerald had ordered from Germany for their wedding anniversary; etched into the glass were a shepherd and shepherdess holding hands. And even if there was an air of unreality about it, it was rendered with breathtaking precision and virtuosity.

As she closed the door, Stella, wasn’t thinking of the bucolic picture etched in her window; she was wondering about the black and gooey thing in her lake.

Besides being quick to mail the letter for Stella, Woody was just as quick to inform the townsfolk of the mysterious creature emerging from the surface of Stella’s Lake, and with each telling the “dragon” became larger, bolder, blacker and more fearsome. Before long, curiosity-seekers were flocking to the lake. All hovered near the distant shore, hands in pockets, studying the thing and speculating what it might be. None dared venture close to it. Maybe it really was a slumbering dragon, as Woody insisted.

 

However, it was not the mysterious creature in the lake that occupied Stella’s thoughts. She was concerned with her husband’s outlook on the matter.

At dinner the day after Woody’s find, Gerald told her, “Really, Stella, I wish you would have consulted me before you sent a letter off to a complete stranger.”

Gerald was a massive man, in whose presence Stella had always felt secure. He was large of voice, chest and hands, if not of spirit. He had a broad florid face, a ready smile, and a large ginger-colored mustache. There was a confidence about him that Stella admired. He was comfortable in his assuredness, even if it was a bit tight in the collar.

“But he isn’t a complete stranger, dear. He’s with the university, our very own California University,” Stella explained.

“You could at least have waited to discuss the matter with me, rather than sending it without forethought.”

“But I did give it a great deal of forethought, and I concluded it would be a fine idea to notify someone very official, someone with mountain peaks of learning behind him, someone very scholarly.” Stella laughed and, lowering the pitch of her voice and pushing out pushed out her small stomach in a mock imitation of a fat professor, continued, “I’m sure they will dispatch someone with a worldwide reputation. A grandfatherly figure will come, who is very ancient with thick eyeglasses and a cane on which he totters. And I will have to push him down to the lake in a wheelchair, and it will take hours to walk that far.”

“Stella, this is not a laughing matter.”

“You’re right, Gerald, it isn’t. But I’m quite sure they will send someone important. After all, it may be an important discovery.”

“Humph! Don’t you think I would have notified someone if I considered it important?”

“Of course, Gerald, of course. I was just so excited by the find that I took action without consulting you first. Can you forgive your wife?”

Gerald sighed, and his vast vest moved like the swell of the ocean. He patted her hand affectionately.

“I understand, my little partridge. You did it without thinking.”

“Not without thinking,” she replied, somewhat puzzled, “without considering how you might view the matter in a light other than mine.”

Gerald lifted a magnanimous palm: “Let us consider the matter closed.”

“Closed it is, as you say, Gerald.” Stella lowered her eyes to her delicate Dresden teacup. And in her mind the matter was closed. She turned her attention to the daily domestic chores that routinely occupied her time.

2. The Dragon Slayer

But the matter wasn’t closed. Not by a slingshot, as Woody Featherstone would say. In the following weeks, the story of the dragon spread far and wide. A steady stream of the idle and the inquisitive walked past the house, through the golden meadow and down to the lake. This infuriated Gerald.

“What! Do they think this is public property?” he demanded.

“What harm can they do, Gerald? They’re merely curious.”

“It isn’t a question of harm, my dove. It is a question of permission, of ownership,” Gerald lectured his wife.

“Why, so it is,” Stella agreed quietly.

Gerald stalked onto the porch, his ginger-colored mustache bristling. “And just where do you think you’re going?” he shouted at a passerby.

The stranger was young and slim with a roughhewn square jaw. His hair was the color of the rust-red earth around Sierra City, and his eyes had a depth to them—like a garnet into which you could gaze without touching bottom. There was an alertness there, too, in the form of a relaxed poise.

Little escapes his notice, Stella thought. He might be a reporter, she conjectured, from the Grass Valley Gazette or maybe even the faraway Sacramento Bee.

The stranger opened his mouth to answer, apparently not intimidated by her husband’s gruff confrontation, but Gerald immediately interrupted him.

“We have no dragon around here. Shoo! Begone. Go away.”

The stranger grinned and glanced at Stella. “I can’t say I’m looking for a dragon, unless Mrs. G. A. Wellington is one.”

“And who may you be?” Gerald inquired coldly.

“Jeffery Kendle. From the University.”

Stella stepped out from behind her husband’s broad back. “From the University?’

“Of California.” Kendle reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope. Stella immediately recognized her own sweeping handwriting. “This was forwarded to our department. Since I was taking a summer excursion in this area, the head of the department asked me to look into it.”

“Wonderful!” Stella exclaimed. “I am Mrs. Wellington.” She beamed, holding out her hand, “but everyone calls me Stella.”

Kendle bowed over her hand and then gazed up into her lilac-colored eyes.

“Dr. Jeffery Kendle,” he introduced himself.

Stella lifted her hand out of his and brushed back her gleaming chocolate-brown hair from her forehead.

“What department?” Gerald asked.

“Natural Philosophy,” Kendle answered, “which is another way of saying science. My specialty is paleontology.”

“And what need, do you think, we have here of paleon-whatever-you-call-it?”

“Need? None, I suppose—not like we need air to breathe or food to eat or light to see. Do we need knowledge, science or scientists? I don’t suppose we actually need the steamboat or the railroad or doctors or inventors. I imagine when the first caveman used fire or built a wheel someone argued with him that it wasn’t needed. After all, they had gotten on just fine before then. But we find all of these things useful, even valuable in extending our lives, increasing our knowledge, and expanding our joy and pleasure. No, we don’t need paleontology, but life would be, I assure you, a much less enjoyable and more brutish existence without it and a hundred other sciences.” He seemed taller, suddenly. “That is why paleontology is needed here.”

Gerald humphed, but at the same time, the sound of such modern inventions as steamboats and railroads filled his eyes with a hearty respect. If Gerald admired anything at all, it was all the newfangled inventions that were cascading out of the nineteenth century.

“Now, if you please, sir, may we view this curiosity your wife has written about, this monster that has terrified half the town?” asked Kendle.

“Of course!” Stella exclaimed. “Right this way.”

“Stella!”

“What is it, Gerald?”

“Don’t you think it unseemly that you go down to the lake with a complete stranger unescorted?”

“An excellent point, Gerald. I’ll get my parasol. Why don’t you take Mr. Kendle down to the lake, and I will walk with you.”

Stymied, Gerald sighed, seeing no way out. “All right,” he rumbled, mumbled, and grumbled, his voice sounding like a distant storm brewing on the horizon.

With Stella in the middle, the three of them made their way down to the lake.

Kendle remarked, “In town they told me the dragon was in Stella’s Lake and your letter also refers to Stella’s Lake, but my maps of the area do not show such a lake.”

Stella nodded. “True enough. It was willed to me. My father didn’t believe in the get-rich-quick schemes of the 49ers, so he wasn’t interested in prospecting for gold when he came to California. Instead, he opened a general store and sold goods to the 49ers. In those days, miners often didn’t pay with money for the goods they wanted, but rather offered claims or land for collateral. Father drowned in the floods of ’69, leaving everything to me. None of the claims made me wealthy, but my father did leave me several pieces of property, which included the lake as well as the land surrounding it. As a result, everyone has always called it Stella’s Lake. My husband and I had been married nearly a year when Father died. Gerald had already been working with my father, so it was natural for him to take over the running of the store. We decided to build our home near the lake. Since then we’ve been gathering treasures from all over the world to furnish the house—paintings from Italy and France, furniture from Germany and England, mirrors and chandeliers, walnut bookcases, dishes, a marble fireplace, and…”

As they strolled through the meadow, Stella continued to chatter gaily, occasionally forgetting to keep the parasol between herself and the sun.

“We’ve been having a terrible drought for better than a year now. There is a dam farther upstream where water was used for mining, so the brook that usually feeds the lake has dried up to little more than a rocky trickle. Stella’s Lake itself used to be much much larger before they built the dam. Now with the drought—”

“The lake is down perhaps thirty or more feet,” Gerald announced.

“Then a few weeks ago, Woody Featherstone, a youngster whose parents have a neighboring farm, came rushing in, exclaiming he had found a dragon,” Stella continued.

“Ahh, so that’s how the rumor of a dragon got started.”

Stella nodded. “When I saw it in the lake—whatever it is—I didn’t know what to make of it. That was when I had the idea to write to our brand new University in Berkeley. Gerald was terribly upset with me—don’t pretend you weren’t, you ogre,” Stella laughed gaily, holding Gerald’s arm. “But I thought it would be such a good idea, and anyhow,” she shrugged prettily, “I had already done it.”

Under the blazing sun they fell silent as they approached the lake. Fish were rising to the surface of the water, softly dotting the dark expanse with tiny rippling rings. The lake did not have much shade. A giant oak tree stood nearby in a draw, and a copse of cottonwood grew along the trickling stream that fed the lake, but that was all. Out farther, where the sluggish dull gray waters lapped against a new shoreline, the mud was darker and wet. In the reeds along the shore a bird flapped away as they approached.

The thing—dragon, elephant, monster, whatever it was—stood still and mud-caked, a silent, slightly sinister sentry at the edge of the lake. Kendle shaded his eyes, gazing intently at the object. A trickle of perspiration glided from his temple down the side of his jaw, but he was so intent on the thing in the lake that he didn’t seem to notice.

“Well, I’ll be,” he breathed softly.

“What is it?” asked Stella.

“Nothing bad, I trust.” Gerald looked worried. “I wouldn’t want anything to adversely affect the value of the property.”

“Your land is safe,” Kendle said dryly. “This is much more important. I can’t be certain yet, but it appears to be a Mammuthus primigenius.”

“A what?” exclaimed Gerald.

“A Mammuthus primigenius—a prehistoric creature commonly called the ‘woolly mammoth’, an extinct ancestor of today’s elephant. Of course there is the Parelephas, also called the ‘Columbian Mammoth’ and—”

“What on earth would such a creature be doing here?” asked Gerald.

“Hard to say. They have been found in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere, in Europe as well as the U. S. and Canada. The earth was considerably different hundreds of thousands of years ago, you know. This may once have been a bog or a swamp. Or perhaps it was a lake even then, and the creature stopped to drink and became stuck in the mud and couldn’t get out, much as it appears now. Or perhaps there was a drought, then, too, and it walked far out into the water to cool off.”

“I’ve never heard of such a thing—a mammoth!” Gerald exclaimed.

“But it existed, I can assure you, whether you’ve heard of it or not. I’ve seen exhibitions of the creatures’ skeletons in Baltimore and Philadelphia. If it is all right with you I would like to take a closer look.”

Without waiting for an answer, the scientist plunged down the slope. Gerald cringed, watching Kendle in his hound’s-tooth suit slip and slide down the steep embankment, before striding toward the black mass far out in the lakebed. At first, since the mud had been exposed to sun and air for some time, Kendle was able to walk on the surface of the muck. But as he made his way closer to the mammoth, the mud became stickier and his boots started to sink in. Soon he was struggling with each step, but eventually, sweat pouring from his brow, he reached the object and began scraping muddy debris away. In a few moments, some white of bone began to appear, then a distinct long, curved tusk began to take shape—that and a part of a skull.

Kendle rinsed his hands as best he could in the muddy water before slogging his way back to the couple. His trousers were covered with muck, his hands were stained, and he had mud on his forehead and a bit of leaf in his hair where he had thoughtlessly brushed at sweat as he worked on the creature. Stella was struck by how focused he was, so that the trivialities of mud became insignificant to him.

“This is a major scientific discovery!” he exulted. “Not only is this the first time we’ve found a mammoth in California, but the skeleton—at least what I can see of it—looks nearly complete.”

“Would you be interested in helping us extricate it from the lake?” Stella asked.

“I would be delighted, Mrs. Wellington.” He had a boyish grin on his face that reminded Stella of Woody Featherstone at Christmas time. “When can I get started?”

Stella looked pointedly at his mud-streaked city outfit and mused, “It looks to me as if you already have.”

Kendle glanced down at his attire and grinned. “Tomorrow morning I will start officially.” He paused, then asked, “What do you plan on doing with the bones?”

“We could put them on display at the general store,” Gerald suggested. “And charge admission.”

“Would the University want to put them on display?” Stella ignored Gerald’s look of surprise at her contradiction to his idea.

“The University would be honored! We could even give it a special name—how about ‘The Wellington Discovery’?”

Stella clasped her hands in delight. “You see, Gerald. It will be wonderful publicity. People will come from all parts of the world to the University to see the bones, and the name Wellington will be on their lips! I’ll bet newspapermen will report the event with gigantic headlines.”

“It’s possible,” said Kendle.

“All right, have it your way,” muttered Gerald.

The sunset poured molten gold over the horizon as they walked back to the house. Kendle spoke animatedly now—plans and ideas and notions about the excavation spilled from his lips in an excited flow.

After he’d left and they were alone, Gerald spoke candidly to his wife for the first time. “Oh, what have you gotten us into, my dear, dear pet?” he moaned.

Stella stopped and thought about it a moment. Looking inside herself, she was surprised to find that she could hardly contain the feeling of joy within. She realized that she wasn’t at all sure what she had gotten them into, but whatever it was, she was absolutely sure it was exciting.

3. The Dragon Emerges

The next morning, after Gerald had left for the store, Stella was sipping a cup of coffee when she looked out the window of her breakfast nook and saw Kendle striding toward the lake.

He now wore khaki-colored work clothes and had a shovel slung over his shoulder, which he carried as if it were a rifle, causing Stella to admire his broad shoulders. He had his sleeves already rolled up for the job ahead, causing her to notice his muscular bronzed forearms.

“You look like a 49er searching for treasure,” she called gaily out the open window.

Kendle lifted a hand in recognition. “I am looking for treasure,” he replied good-naturedly, “the treasure of knowledge.”

Stella touched a napkin to the corners of her mouth. Curious, she decided to see what the scientist would do out at her lake. Hurriedly putting the dishes in the sink, she grabbed a parasol and followed him. By the time she got down to the lake, Kendle was standing beneath the big oak, surveying the expanse of water and the mammoth. He had taken a notepad from his pocket, and he was busily sketching on it.

He was so absorbed in his work he didn’t notice her at first.

“Good day to you, Mr. Kendle,” Stella called.

“And to you, Mrs. Wellington.”

“Would you think me too forward if I were to ask you what you are drawing?”

“Not at all! I wish some of my students were as curious about my activities as you are.” He held the notepad out for her to see. “I keep a record of every site I work at,” he explained. “Where I excavate, how deep—a record of everything from climactic conditions to geological information, soil conditions, everything that could have any possible bearing on the dig. Right now, I’m outlining the lake and the mammoth’s location in it. Later, I will draw the fellow himself, taking notes as I bring the bones up. It will all become part of the report I make to the scientific community when my work here is completed.”

“My, it is all very scientific, isn’t it?”

Kendle emitted a short laugh of pleasure. “That is my fervent hope,” he said. “I look forward to the day when paleontology is as scientific as, say, astronomy or medicine. However, for that to happen requires that we apply the same rigorous techniques to our research that are applied to any other branch of science.”

Stella listened carefully, her eyes shining, as she watched this man of science go about his painstaking work, his mind as focused, sharp as a blade. Stella glowed, not because he had actually paid attention to her comments without finding them frivolous or childish, although both were indeed new sensations for her—no, a gentle radiance flowed from Stella’s mind because she felt she was a participant in a great undertaking—an active participant, not some passive child who simply had things done to her. The intensity of the emotion erupting within her was so strong that for a moment Stella was startled by joy, and she lifted her slender hand to the high collar around her throat.

But before she could ask any more questions, Woody Featherstone interrupted them, leading four men to the edge of the lake. “For a quarter,” he told her later, with a proud look on his face, “a whole quarter each.” And since Stella was happy to see such an entrepreneurial spirit, she left the site to the young guide.

In the beginning, as Kendle worked, there was always some sort of crowd milling about on the bank of the lake, waiting expectantly for some great discovery to be announced. The visitors speculated among themselves, offering unsolicited advice and unrequested help, and usually inaccurate information. Kendle just grinned and answered their questions, if they had any good ones, or ignored their comments and advice when appropriate. After a week under the merciless sun, the townspeople began to disappear—“evaporate” was the way Kendle described it. As Jody Culbertson put it, “watching him work is about as exciting as a watching a snail race. I think I’ll take a closer look when he nears the finish line.”

After the initial excitement had dissipated among the locals and they drifted away, Stella returned to the site. Kendle cleared a path down to the excavation, scraping away the mud until he was down to hard dirt. As a result Stella was able to approach the skeleton. Kendle put up four poles to which he tied a large square of canvas obtained from Gerald’s store, which gave them protection from the blazing sun. Much of the mammoth was below the surface of the lakebed, so Kendle had to dig down around the hulk until he had made something of a crater. In the tan shade of the canvas, Kendle measured and cleaned the skeleton, meticulously piecing the ancient puzzle together. While he worked, pouring water over the muddy objects as he uncovered them, Kendle explained to Stella what he was doing. He talked, enthusiastically and knowledgeably, about prehistoric creatures that roamed the earth before humans arrived, about the research he was doing. He communicated these images so vividly to Stella that she could picture in her mind the great battles for survival between the animals.

“Breathtaking!” she thought. “Magnificent!”

Stella began to frequent the lake so often that it aroused talk in town. Mrs. Tiddle visited Stella twice only to find the house on the hill vacant both times, and Mrs. Tiddle, jealous guardian of the town’s moral fabric, was not used to being stood up, even when she hadn’t announced her intention of paying a visit. Mrs. Tiddle “just happened” to mention the empty house to Gerald at his general store that very afternoon.

“Nor am I alone in my observations,” Mrs. Tiddle snorted. But then Mrs. Tiddle was never alone in anything she did.

“Honestly, Stella,” Gerald cautioned his wife later, “you should be more circumspect.”

“Really?”

“People are talking.”

Stella shook her head in bewilderment. “About?”

Gerald hesitated. “About all the time you are spending at the lake.”

Stella laughed—A sound of naivete was in that silvery, cascading laughter. Like any innocent, Stella was nonchalant about public opinion. “In broad and blistering daylight!?” she exclaimed. “My, my! They really must lead boring lives if that gives them something to gossip about. Let them talk,” she declared with an airy wave of her delicate hand.

“It isn’t as simple as that,” Gerald said.

“I don’t see why not.”

“I have a position to maintain in the community. I have a store that relies on the goodwill of the town, and I have a real estate business that I want to prosper.”

“I understand all that, Gerald, but we can’t run our personal lives based on other people’s perceptions, can we?”

“Let me put it to you this way, my pet: imagine that you are a beautiful piece of porcelain. Although lovely, you are delicate, and like anything fragile, you must be protected from the rocks that the real world tosses in your direction. Like anything beautiful, you must be protected from the mud that the world can fling your way. I don’t want to see your reputation sullied or your good name splattered with mud.”

“Oh, come now, Gerald. I know you mean well, but I am not as fragile and delicate as all that.”

Gerald patted her hand. “You don’t know the real world, my dear, not the way I do.”

“I’m not sure I want to,” Stella mused.

“Of course, you don’t, my precious piece of porcelain,” Gerald soothed, putting his arm around his wife.

4. The Dragon Exposed

Despite Gerald’s warnings, Stella found she was irresistibly drawn to the excavation. What was it about the site? she wondered to herself. What pleasure did she derive in watching Kendle as he worked in her lake, in the fierce sun, sweat glistening on his forehead and shoulders, the ropes of muscles in his forearms flexing as he ever so gently released a bone from the mud? There was something hypnotic in the smooth, precise and efficient movements of his arms.

Stella also found herself identifying in some elemental way with the prehistoric creature. It was as if the essence of her being was becoming exposed, rising to the surface of the lake of her life. It was as if she were inhaling the sweet air of freedom, released from the dross of mud. One time Kendle handed her part of the skeleton for her scrutiny, and it seemed strangely and intoxicatingly as if it were her very own self that she examined. Although she was excited by the find, at the same time Stella felt strangely disquieted, too. The discovery, instead of satisfying her curiosity, merely whetted her appetite for—? What? How she longed to be in that crater with him, pulling the bones from the jealous earth! Finding herself wishing for that complicity one day, the desire washed over her in a powerful wave that left her short of breath and feeling faint.

“Are you all right?” With concern, Kendle moved to her side, touching her elbow to steady her.

“It’s just the heat,” she replied, weakly, leaning against him for a moment. “I’ll be fine.”

What did Kendle do that served as a catalyst for Stella’s budding metamorphosis? Gradually, it began to dawn on Stella. The scientist quite simply treated her with respect. He looked at her as an equal. When she asked a question—and she seemed to have an endless flow of questions—Kendle paid attention and replied thoughtfully and thoroughly. Sometimes their discussions became quite lengthy and far ranging, and while Stella didn’t challenge him, she often asked a second, third, or fourth question that compelled him to modify or qualify his initial statement.

Kendle relished the role of a teacher, as he did at the University. He enjoyed the give and take of intellectual discussions, delighted in the ebb and flow of questions and answers. He often compared their conversations to those of the Greeks in Athens’s gymnasium two thousand years before. Occasionally, when he commented on the perceptiveness of one of her questions, Stella found herself basking in the glow of the implied compliment.

More than once, she actually did leap agilely into the excavation site to help him tug at a recalcitrant bone, only to discover her Parisian dress caked with mud afterward and herself laughing as happily as a child over the mess. That was how she happened to be close beside Kendle one golden afternoon in early September.

He had spent the last hour or so digging out what he surmised was the last of the mammoth. Reaching into the mud where a bit of white was showing, he felt around, yanked, pulled, and tugged. “What—?” He grabbed the shovel and dug quickly but carefully around the spot, scraping away the moist earth.

“What is it?” Stella asked excitedly.

He reached down into the mud and pulled harder, but fell back, the bone in his powerful grip. Quickly, he washed the bone and examined it carefully. Then turning it over and over in his hand, he inspected it, letting his fingers glide sensuously over the surface of the ancient bone with two long, large teeth near the front of the jaw.

“What is it?” Stella repeated.

“If I’m not mistaken, it’s the upper jawbone of a Smilodon, a saber-toothed tiger.”

“What on earth does it mean?”

“It means, my dear Stella—” His voice picked up speed as implications raced through his mind. “It means that what we have here is more—perhaps much more—than just a mammoth. We might have a whole mother lode of prehistoric animals!”

Grinning broadly, Kendle let out a whoop. “Wahooo!!” And still clutching the jawbone, he twirled Stella round and round, so that muddy water splashed and splattered everywhere. Caught up in the excitement, Stella shouted with him and allowed herself to be flung about as Kendle sang and danced and tromped in the mud.

5. The Dragon Rampant

“Stella.”

Suddenly, Stella halted, breathless. Her breasts were heaving—as much from the joy she was sharing with Kendle as from the exertion. She felt as if she were no longer a passive spectator but taking an active part, joining the scientist in his discovery…

“Stella!”

He stood on the bank of the lake at an angle above them, elbows bent, fists at his hips. Stella was suddenly aware—acutely aware—of the mud on her peach-pink silk dress, the mud on her hands and forehead, even in her hair. Gerald’s face was mottled a dark red, his mouth a thin slit.

“I’ll see you in the parlor.” It was not a question.

That was all he said, but in Stella’s mind it echoed and reechoed. Because he was right. One simply did not fling another man’s wife around in 1870s California, regardless of how progressive one was. She glanced at Kendle, who returned it with concern. Neither of them said anything. Gerald stalked ahead, while Stella quietly followed. Arms crossed over his chest, he was waiting in the dim parlor when she walked in. The light did not flow so much as it unfold sluggishly through the window. The vase holding unattended roses appeared dull in the half-light of the parlor, the fragrance of the flowers slightly stale. Stella looked down at her hands, clutching the lace of her bodice.

“I trust that I will never see a spectacle like that again,” Gerald said tonelessly.

Stella’s cheeks flamed. “It wasn’t a spectacle,” she said, “unless you call being happy a spectacle.”

“Stella, I don’t know what has come over you lately.”

“Perhaps it isn’t a matter of something coming over me, Gerald, so much as it is something being removed—something that has long been suffocating me.”

“Meaning?”

“I feel as if I am trembling on the brink of some mysterious cliff.”

Gerald’s answer was his usual humph, but his reddish mustache quivered with fury. “There is no need to be melodramatic.”

“I’m not trying to be. I’m trying to use common words to express very common needs and desires. Am I so obscure? If I am, let me put it this way: for the first time I feel a new kind of happiness, a happiness deep within myself. I’m no longer content with just existing.”

Gerald brushed his hand across the empty air. “Why can’t you be content with your lot in life? Most women would be overjoyed to have a loving husband who has given them all I have given you.”

“I don’t think things can go back to the way they used to be. I keep thinking of that mammoth out in the lake.”

“A creature dead ten thousand years.”

“But I don’t see it as a symbol of death, don’t you understand? It surely wanted nothing more than to live. In a way it was more clever than I, for it knew that it had to take its joy as best it could, when it could.”

“What is it you want?” Gerald demanded.

“More than what I’ve had in the past. I thought I was happy Gerald, but I wasn’t, not completely. I thought I had a life, but I realize now it was just half a life; I realize now how much I’ve been missing, the sheer exhilaration of doing things.”

“I don’t think I understand you, Stella.”

“I scarcely think I understand myself. But in another way I know that I do, for the first time.”

Gerald breathed a long sigh, throwing up his hands. “I really don’t see any purpose in discussing this any further. I have never seen much value in discussing abstract concepts.”

“As you wish, Gerald.” Stella nodded. “But it won’t go away—my thoughts about this abstract concept called joy.”

“I have something to tell you that is important.”

“Pray, tell me,” Stella invited.

“We have been discussing an issue at the city council.”

“What issue?” Stella clutched his arm. There’s no need for uneasiness, she told herself. Gerald had said not a word that was threatening. Yet there was something in the seemingly innocent way he brought up a vague issue with the city council that made her apprehensive. There was a deeper purpose to his statement, and the fact that she couldn’t grasp it alarmed her.

“As you know,” Gerald went on, “we have been debating for a long time the question of our water supply. Right now, the city relies on the old Jenkins well.”

“It has filled our needs in the past.”

“I know, but if we had a new major source of fresh water, the city could grow and expand, become more prosperous. Real estate values would climb. The store would be more successful. The drought has shown us that we need to have more water available, a ready supply, or our town’s growth is limited. As a result, the council has reached a decision.”

“What decision?”

“It is the only way we can do it, but even if it weren’t, I would still vote the way I did. I will be happy to be rid of the nuisance.”

“By nuisance I take it you mean Professor Kendle.”

“Yes.” He glared at her.

“And this decision, this vote you are talking about—” Stella probed.

“I am selling the lake.”

“Selling Stella’s lake? My lake? To whom?”

“That is what I have been explaining to you. The city council has decided to buy the lake for the city.”

“Isn’t this very sudden?”

“Not at all. Negotiations have been going on for quite some time. It is just that it wasn’t the sort of thing to trouble you about. Commercial transactions of this kind are so complex and boring. You have enough to concern you, what with the house and the kitchen and all,” he added, patting her shoulder.

“So you have decided to sell my property without so much as informing, let alone asking, me.”

“At a good price too, I might add—a good price to us, that is. Upstream, they are going to dynamite the dam that once was used to divert the water for mining and allow the water to flow into the lake. With no natural outlet the lake will rise. We have consulted several experts and they recommend doing it immediately. Construction can begin right away on a pipeline to town and—”

“No!”

“What do you mean—no?”

“My God, how self-evident must it be?”

“I don’t think you understand, Stella.”

“I understand too well!”

“This is for the good of the entire community.”

“But if the lake rises, we will not be able to finish our work.”

“We?” Gerald arched his eyebrows a second time.

Stella explained, “The work on the mammoth is incomplete. Today, we found another creature, entirely different from the mammoth. This could now become a discovery of historic proportions, Gerald.”

“We?”

“That’s right, ‘we’. For I, too, am a part of it now—we won’t be able to finish the project.”

Gerald sighed. “Alas. The price of progress.”

“I won’t agree to it,” Stella exclaimed.

“But Sweetheart, this isn’t your decision to make.”

“And why not, I’d like to know?”

“Because the lake is not yours.”

“Not mine? But Father gave it to me. Everyone in town knows that. That is why it’s called ‘Stella’s Lake’.”

“A courtesy—I assure you, dearest.”

“I’m not sure I am anybody’s dearest any longer.”

Gerald shrugged. “A courtesy,” he repeated.

“A courtesy?! What does courtesy have to do with it?”

“You see, according to law everything a wife obtains after being married devolves to her husband. That includes inheritances.”

“Speak plain English.”

Gerald sighed. “As you wish. Everything you have received since we were married—and that includes what your father left you—technically became mine. That’s the law.”

“’Stella’s Lake’ isn’t Stella’s?”

“Not technically.”

Speechless, Stella walked to the window and rested her fingertips on the white sill as if she needed to confirm the existence of some concrete reality beyond her spinning world.

“So that’s the way it is,” she murmured.

Realizing that perhaps he had gone too far, Gerald went over to her. Standing close behind her, he put his hands on her shoulders and spoke softly. “But I wouldn’t think of selling it without your permission.”

“You wouldn’t?” She turned, hope in her eyes.

“Of course not. But I know when you have a chance to think it over you will come to see that my way is best.”

“I—”

“Shhh, my darling,” he said, putting a gentle finger to her lips. “Think it over. We can discuss it later. Tomorrow, if you like. Or the next day.”

“But I don’t have to think it over. I have already reached a decision.”

“And—?”

“As soon as the research is done—”

“I’m afraid that isn’t good enough, my dear. The council wants to—must!—begin work immediately in order to finish the project before winter arrives. It will create jobs, bring stability to the area, raise our standard of living.”

Stella clutched at her dress, crushing the lace at her throat with a small fist. “Please, Gerald, don’t force me to do this.”

“It isn’t me, my darling,” Gerald cooed.

“I know you look upon the dig as a nuisance and you have humored me. But for me it’s much more important. I realize now how much there is to know in the world, how little I know, and how exciting it is to make such discoveries. It’s as if I’ve been buried my whole life and now I’m emerging into the sunlight, along with the mammoth. Do you have any idea how crucial this is to me?”

“I see that some idealist from the University has filled your head with all sorts of starry-eyed nonsense. Why, you’re no different than Woody with his dragon.”

“Give me some credit, please. Professor Kendle has not filled my head with anything. But he has shown me things I have never seen before.”

Gerald stared at his wife for a long time. “I see how it is now.”

“How is it? Tell me. I truly want to hear what you think.”

“I think you are in love with him.”

“Don’t be absurd. If I am in love with anybody, it is me. For the first time. Do you understand—me!”

“If it is such a high-flown abstract concept as self-love that concerns you, then by all means focus on it. Do not let a shopkeeper like me stand in the way of your contemplation. But for heaven sakes, leave the real world to men. Why be so stubborn about an insignificant piece of property—a piece of property that you don’t even own, that I give you as a present.”

“Don’t you see: that is exactly my point. Everything I have is a result of your largess, a result of your good will, your kindness. What am I? A charity case?”

“Stella, I don’t understand you at all. What is this talk of charity? You have a beautiful home. I have bought you beautiful objects from all over the world. I love you devotedly. I have given you everything. You have an idyllic life. What more could any woman want?”

“Herself. I need to achieve something that is my own without anyone’s help.”

“That may be, Stella, but is this the way?”

“I know of no other.”

“I warn you, the decision you make is about more than just the lake.”

“I know that, Gerald. Do you?”

“You are sending me a very clear message.”

“I wonder—will you interpret it correctly?”

“Your decision.”

“If I want to be independent,” Stella murmured, “then let it begin here… this moment.”

“Your decision.”

“You will not sell my lake.”

Gerald’s large mustache twitched once, then twice—the only outward sign of the maelstrom churning inside him.

“As you wish, Stella. You force me into an untenable position.”

Stella remained silent, gazing at her husband.

Slowly and deliberately Gerald walked over to the inlaid mahogany table and picked up his hat. Only his hand trembled. His voice remained firm. “I will send a boy for my things later. If you wish to speak with me, I will be staying at The Gold Hill Hotel.”

“Is this really necessary, Gerald?” Stella asked, gently.

“I think it is.”

Stella lifted a slender hand, as if anguish could be communicated through a gesture. She sighed softly. “Not even a good-bye?” she whispered.

Gerald was gone. His heavy tread on the porch outside echoed and reechoed in the silence of the house. Stella pushed aside the gauze curtain at the window, and her eyes followed the departure of her husband.

Outside, as Gerald took the path that led into town, he met Kendle. Stella cringed while the two men talked. What could her husband possibly be saying to the scientist? She turned away from the window.

A few moments later Kendle’s shadow fell across the etched glass of the front door, and she heard a knock. She didn’t answer it. The knock came again, insistently. Reluctantly, Stella opened the door.

Concern was etched into Kendle’s brow. “May I come in?”

Stella stepped aside.

“Your husband told me what happened.”

“I saw the two of you talking.”

“I want you to know…” He hesitated.

“Yes?”

“I am deeply honored.”

“By what?” Stella asked, puzzled.

“That you have chosen me.”

“What on earth are you talking about—chosen?”

“Your husband told me everything. How you have made a decision—me, rather than him.”

“Is that what he and you take my decision about the lake to mean?”

“It could hardly be more clear, could it? You’re spending so much time at the lake, your decision to let the excavation be completed.”

“Is that what you think?”

“Well… not until your husband spoke to me. But I have to admit it makes sense.”

“Listen carefully to what I have to say.” Stella chose her words carefully. “It seems I am destined to be misunderstood regardless of what I do. Now listen. Before I met you, before the discovery, I was a pampered little child—naïve. My whole world changed when you came here. You opened up new vistas for me, a world of knowledge, a horizon of discovery, of achievement and goals—things I’d never known before. I saw how exciting knowledge could be, how thrilling it was to make discoveries. But don’t mistake it: It is that that I fell in love with, that idea, that concept. Not with you. If you have misunderstood that, or my husband misled you, then I am sorry, but that is the truth of the matter.”

“I see what you mean,” he said, lowering his eyes. “Silly of me, really.”

Stella touched his arm gently. “I am grateful to you for what you have taught me, what you have shown me, but that is the extent of it: gratitude.”

Kendle bowed. “As you say—gratitude. Well, perhaps you will become one of my students someday.”

“I hadn’t thought of that, but yes, what an idea. I’m not too old.”

“As far as I know, there is no age limit for students,”

“It is possible, Professor Kendle, very possible.”

“In the meantime I understand that we will be able to continue our research?”

“We will continue our work in the lake until it is finished.”

“Wonderful,” he enthused. Kendle held out a hand, which Stella took in both of hers. “Who knows what discoveries are left to be made,” he said.

Closing the door behind him, Stella leaned against the sturdy dark oak, her back to the etched glass with its shepherd and shepherdess holding hands. Silence spread through the empty house. For the first time ever she realized that she was truly alone. Although the solitude was new, it did not frighten her. It settled like a dove on her mind.

She went up to her dressing room to change. As her skirt dropped to the floor, she noticed once again the mud on it. From the upstairs window, Stella was able to see her lake in the distance. Despite the drought there was some water left in the deepest portion. Might there not be discoveries to be made there, too, in the deeper water? The lake glowed like a molten gold disk in the sunset, shimmering, beckoning to her.

Would Gerald return someday? Would he ever understand? she wondered. “Who knows,” she whispered to the silence, “what discoveries are left to be made?”

Jesse F. Knight has had fiction, articles, essays and plays published in a variety of national and international magazines. He frequently travels to European destinations where he gathers information for travel articles.

Copyright © Jesse F. Knight, all rights reserved.