Fantastic chapter image by PhoenixAlthor@TDA
I claim no ownership of Rowling’s work, however, all OCs mentioned herein do belong to me. In addition, this story is a work of fiction, not historical fiction. I have taken many historical liberties while writing this piece and some of it may be considered anachronistic.
Two Months later--April
Hannah and I did not go straight back to the house, as Ann had wished. Instead, we took our baskets and sat by the edge of the creek, dropping our toes into the still-frigid water. I felt most scandalous, spending my time idly while my stepmother awaited our return from market.
Hannah, on the other hand, seemed proud of herself.
“It would serve her right,” she said, speaking of Ann with that same practiced coldness she usually reserved for a particularly hated neighbor in the village. “Here I’ve been working my fingers to the bone this past week and she sends me out again to fetch more candles.” Frowning, she dipped her hand into the basket and fussed with the long wicks.
“She’ll not have her parents eating in the dark,” I replied. My feet were numb now, but still I enjoyed the feel of the water rushing between my toes. The last of the winter’s snow had only melted three weeks ago and the approach of spring left me hearty, if not a little breathless.
I had spent too long locked up inside the house, at my father’s behest, of course. Ever since my last bout with the malignant fever he kept me close at hand. I went to Meeting and back, always in the company of Ann or himself. It vexed me terribly to be so confined, especially when I felt my health returning. Even Doctor Norris seemed convinced that the danger was past. I ate well, slept the night through and, more importantly, committed nary an indiscretion.
The darkness inside me, I dared to hope, had abated.
Hannah seemed to sense all this as well, which is why she had insisted I accompany her to market that afternoon. Ann had been too flustered to object. Her parents were expected for supper and although my skin crawled at the very thought of sharing a table with strangers, I managed to find some pleasure in my time outside.
The grass was only beginning to come in and I dropped my hands to my sides, feeling the soil.
“Frozen,” I muttered.
Hannah rolled her thin shoulders. “You shouldn’t be able to bury a corpse in it. The same thing was true for my parents when they died. They were kept in their coffins down in a root cellar until the spring thaw. Strange, is it not?”
The thought of such a thing brought a bubble of unease to my stomach. I swallowed. “My mother died in the summer. In her sleep. She had been sick for some time.”
Hannah huffed under her breath. “I tell you now, Constance and do not think my harsh for saying such, but it makes no difference should you have your natural mother or Ann. All these women are the same. Distracted hypocrites. They look to God when they should look to themselves…to their families.” She paused, her face hardening like I had never seen it before. “May the whole village be damned.”
And oh, what a shock it was to hear! Hannah had always been a frank girl, but now she spoke of frightful things.
“You cannot mean that,” I said at once.
“I do. Let them all be damned. All of them.” Her eyes were flinty, dark and brooding. I had never seen such a look before. I felt weak and sickly when put up against her rage.
“You mustn’t let my father hear you speak so.” I tried to place my hand on her wrist, but she pulled away, dropping her arm into the lap of her apron. “Is Ann such a terrible mistress?”
At first, I could not believe what I was saying. Far be it from me to defend Ann. She had invaded my house, destroyed the comfort of my home and kept me in a state of nervous tension since her coming. Although to be fair, I had been distracted with worry for some time before her marriage to my father….
There was, I decided, nothing I wished to say for her. Hannah had been my ally for so long and if she thought Ann to be a cruel mistress, then perhaps she was. I only knew her as an insufferably concerned woman who watched me with sad eyes and spent her time in the village on missions of mercy when she was not following my father about the house like a lost pup.
Hannah did not stay anything for a long time and I did not press her. The call of a robin punctured the stillness. I listened to the high warbling, trying to pick out the bird amidst the budding branches. After a few minutes, he took flight and I watched him leap into the sky, then dip gracefully over the treetops. My own arms itched inside my woolen dress as I imagined sprouting wings of my own.
But that was impossible. And it was impossible for a man to turn himself into an owl and back again…without the aid of the devil.
An unwelcome chill touched my neck, traveling down my spine in a rush and leaving me breathless.
Hannah sighed. “Come. We must be getting back.”
I pulled my toes out of the water and dried them on the grass before sticking them back into my shoes. Hannah was busy fastening her stockings and I stood wrapped in my cloak, watching her closely.
“You could not have meant what you said about the village,” I said, “or about Ann.”
In truth, I did not care what Hannah thought. Ann meant nothing to me and the village, well, most of our neighbors where gossiping wretches.
Hannah dropped her skirts and smoothed the front of her apron. “I meant every word of it,” she said and the icy glint returned to her gaze. “And you mind it all, Constance. You mind it well.”
I paused, a small ache settling upon my lower back as I knelt by the linen chest. My body was sore. Ill used by the weather and the condition which God had granted me. And I was blessed for it all, I minded. So very blessed.
In a moment, the pain went away and I fetched the ivory-hued tablecloth from out of the chest and brought it into the company room. The table need not be set for another few hours, but with the roast cooking in the kitchen, I could not give myself any opportunity for lateness. My parents were creatures of defined habit and I knew they would be by early, long before I should ever expect them. My mother in particular was expecting much of this evening. She had had her doubts, I knew, when I choose to marry Samuel.
“A poor preacher,” she had said, even though she knew the parsonage was one of the most well-appointed homes in the village.
“He has a servant,” I had insisted.
“And a sickly child.”
She was a shrewd woman yet, hoping that perhaps I might court and marry a shipping merchant from Boston who could provide for me grandly then leave me as a young widow when he disappeared at sea, as such men often did. Fortunately, my father was yet a pious man. He saw me married to Samuel and would be happy for my household, no matter what state it should be in.
But for him, I wanted it to be prefect.
The clock on the mantle read half-past two and I felt a slightly prickle of panic. Hannah and Constance had yet to return from the market and we were short of candles. Already, I anticipated my mother’s complaints, saw her squinting over her plate like a blind woman in the light of the fire alone.
And the matter of the candles was the least of my worries, as it was. Constance, although somewhat improved in health, had not kept her dislike of my presence in her house a secret. For the longest time I had pleaded with Samuel not to press her. She wasn’t well, after all, no matter what Dr. Norris said and I still couldn’t forget the queer look she had given me when she first awoke from her fit last February. The girl could not be held accountable for her dark moods and I accepted the coldness she offered me…most of the time.
Tonight, my mother would be watching me closely, counting the number of peas on her plate and searching the linen for wrinkles and watching, yes, watching my stepdaughter closely.
And how could I raise my own child if Constance hated me so?
My stomach knotted and I minded the sickness that had come upon me of late. The midwife said it was to be expected and she had given me a fragrant tea to drink. I knew, however, that I wouldn’t be at ease until the night was over and the news was out.
Samuel would be pleased to learn that he was to have another child. As for the rest of the household, I could not tell.
Settling the linen on the table, I smoothed the corners with nervous efficiency. The entire house was humming with a forbidden energy. I tried to distract myself, arranging the pewter candlesticks on the sideboard then rearranging them. The dishes had to be brought out from the kitchen yet and if Hannah returned in time, I might have her sweep again, I might…
The knock on the door made my heart sink. Dear God, my parents couldn’t have arrived so soon! It might be a sin, but I would be right furious if my mother showed up my doorstep now. She had no business being here, deliberately disrupting my preparations…and I had tried so hard, tried so hard to make everything…
Through the window I saw the tall shape of a man in a leather greatcoat.
“Hannah!” I called, forgetting but for a moment that I had sent the girl out. I hesitated, my fingers lighting upon the very edge of the table where I still felt the distinct grain of the wood beneath the linen cloth.
The foggy glass of the window pane misshaped the man’s face and I saw only two eyes, smudged like charcoal against parchment.
I suddenly minded that I was alone in the house.
But my hand found the doorknob anyway.
“Yes?” I smiled when I opened the door, playing the part of the minister’s wife. Ever welcoming. Ever charitable. My mind was taxed, but my soul could never be. I remembered at once that my life was not wholly mine, but parceled out to those in the village, my husband’s congregation.
And it was a hard thing….
The man met my smile with one of his own and doffed his hat. I realized at once that I did not recognize him. He was not of the village and smelled of the wind when it came blowing down from Boston. But when he spoke, his words were that of one who had been born and raised in New England.
“Mistress Palmer, good day to you.” He had an odd way of bobbing his head when he spoke. Like a bird, I decided. Which was strange for a man so big and strong and broad. “I am Mr. John Rockwood, lately come from Boston.”
“Sir.” I shifted my shoulder’s slightly, wanting to invite him in but still nervous. He knew my name, which eased me some. Grasping at the last of my Christian charity, I held open the door. “Please do come in.”
“Only for a moment, Mistress Palmer,” he said.
I brought him into the company room, minding his heavy boots which left faint traces of dust on the floor. He had to stoop to keep his head from hitting the rafters. I suddenly felt very small, like a tiny field mouse ready to be picked off by an owl.
Instinctively, my hands settled over my stomach.
“Will you have some cider, Mr. Rockwood?” I had left the pitcher in the kitchen, but would be happy for any excuse to leave the room.
Mr. Rockwood pulled his lips together and shook his head slightly. “No, thank you. I must be returning to Boston today and it is noon already.”
“You are from Boston?”
“Rhode Island, actually. But I have business in Massachusetts,” he trailed off, his dark eyes glancing at the empty study beside the company room. “I was wondering, Mistress Palmer, would your husband the good Reverend be here?”
I stood with my back against the table, my mouth dipping as I weighed his words. “No, sir. He be out in the village visiting the widowed Goody Smyth. But I expect him to be back soon, sir, very soon…” Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced out the window, half-hoping to see Samuel come striding up the path.
The road was empty.
“I should hate to bring him from the village,” Mr. Rockwood said politely. He turned to look at the door and I saw his eyes catch upon the sampler Constance had been sewing. The needlework was set upon a cushioned chair and although I had told her to put it away before she left for the village, she had quite neglected my request.
“Ah, there must be a young lady in this house,” he said.
“My stepdaughter,” I replied. Slowly, the tension was leaving me. This man was somehow affable, as though his easy voice were meant to lull one into security. Despite my prudent sensibilities, I quite enjoyed his ready smile. “Constance is forever leaving her things about. She is a distracted child.”
“Most are,” Mr. Rockwood laughed. “But surely she is no infant?” Carefully, he lifted the sampler and inspected it. “She be handy with sewing, I see.”
“Constance is fifteen, near on sixteen,” I told him. His hands, I noted now, were remarkably clean. Not the hands of a farmer or fisherman. Perhaps he was a merchant?
“I have a son her age,” he handed the sampler to me. “Tell me, does your Constance behave as queerly as my boy does sometimes?”
I raised my eyebrows at him and fingered the loose threads on the needlework with some distraction. “How do you mean?”
“Oh, it is hard to say. Children of that age are weirdish. My son surprises me much with his moods and antics.”
“Well,” I took a deep breath. “It might not be fair to compare Constance. She have been sick this past winter. Such a dreadful fever it was!”
Mr. Rockwood watched me closely, but his eyes were still friendly. “How so?”
I shrugged, feeling my collar rise up against my chin as I did so. “She come home once near two month ago, screaming like a wild thing. We put her to bed and could not make sense out of her for a week. When she woke, she were as calm as anything. My husband, the Reverend, says she have been like this for some time. But I do not believe her distracted.”
“That is odd,” Mr. Rockwood mused. He folded his long arms over his middle, his faded hat hanging limply from his right hand. “And has she ever done anything strange?”
“Has she ever done anything you can’t explain, Mistress Palmer?”
I did not answer him. Something had awoken within me, stirring in memory and caution. I remembered the pallor of Samuel’s face that night when Dr. Norris came to look after Constance.
But I would not have word of this reach the village. This must stay within my home.
And I had told Mr. Rockwood nearly everything. I had opened my soul to a stranger.
“No, sir,” I said firmly. “I do not know your meaning.”
Mr. Rockwood raised his chin and I saw the skin about his mouth tighten. “Ah, no matter, Mistress Palmer. Forgive me for keeping you so long. I must be on my way. The sun still sets so early.”
“But my husband,” I followed him to the door, “will you not leave a message for him?”
“No, I shall not.” Mr. Rockwood bowed before placing his hat back on his head. “I thank you for your hospitality. Good morrow.”
I stayed by the door, watching him as he walked down the path. As it was, Constance was also coming up the road and when she turned in our gate, Mr. Rockwood tipped his hat to her.
Constance faltered, leaving Hannah to walk to back of the house alone. She too stared after Rockwood and when he was out of sight, she looked up the path at me.
“Constance,” I called to her.
She came, and good Lord, her face seemed marked with horror.
“Constance.” I put my hand on her shoulder and ushered her inside the house. “You seem struck, child.”
“No.” Her mouth hung open and I felt fear prickle my skin anew.
To disguise it, I thrust her sewing in her empty hands. “You left this lying in the company room, child. Take care, please.”
“No,” she repeated dumbly. The needlework slipped from her grasp. “No!”
My fear was a real thing now. Persistent. Howling at me as my heart quickened and the color rose into my cheeks. “Constance--”
But as I spoke, I wondrous thing happened. The fine linen cloth I had of late laid upon the table was snagged, as if by invisible hands and cast aloft like a ship’s sail. The candlesticks atop it rattled and clattered across the table, rolling onto the floor and smashing with such a noise that my heart seemed to still.
In shock, my hand found Constance’s shoulder. “God! Oh God!”
As the table cloth settled atop the fallen candlesticks, I thought I knew exactly what Mr. Rockwood had meant.
Thanks so much for reading! The next chapter should be posted in two weeks. Until then, take care and be well!