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This week, an homage to the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy with the gothic novella, "St. Edmund Wood," set in early 19th century England and the first of a series of novellas - "Cheshire Tales."
From "St. Edmund Wood:"
THE STORY INSOFAR as anyone cared began in a rattling, noisy coach from London; a conversation shared by two strangers as different as night and day that started with a look. After stealing surreptitious glances at her traveling companion, The Elderly Woman of Means put aside her copy of Fordyce’s Sermons and gazed at The Young Lady through spectacles, nodding.
“You've been to London for the season!” The Woman pronounced.
The Young Lady sitting opposite shook her head though it was barely a movement. She resumed her vigil on a rural landscape far more entertaining than this curious woman.
“Can this be so? Who are your parents, my dear? Why would they not consider bringing you out?”
“It wasn’t a question of consideration.” The voice was soft, quiet, and clear, but not the childish or nasal kind. It was a voice that inferred confidence, even contentment.
“Ah…” Eyes darted up and down. “Well, I see that you have an eye for the latest fashion, for if I’m not mistaken that dress is very much like the one Mistress Beaulieu wore on the Glorious Twelfth when she joined the Duke of Clarence and his hunting party!”
“Is it? I didn’t know.”
“Oh yes; the sash is just at the waistline and affords a freedom of movement you modern girls so love—let me hazard a guess; you’re not wearing corsets!” The last was said behind the woman’s fan. “You do have an uncommon beauty, my dear! Well, it is a shame. Not that your beauty is a shame, nor going without a corset! It is, I meant, a shame your parents did not see fit to bring you out, for it is certain you’d have the pick of suitors from the best houses in society!”
The Young Lady smiled and offered another imperceptible shake of the head.
The coach slowed and began its descent through a wood and into the valley where a village clustered around the walls of a ruined castle. The bleating of the post horn made the woman pause only for a second in her accolades. “We should be approaching Litchfield, I think, for I see the towers of a castle!”
“We’re too far north for Litchfield; we must be near Crewe, or perhaps Warrington?”
“Knowstone!” the driver shouted.
“Oh…” A disappointed sigh.
Not that anything more need be said of a village in the middle of nowhere; a forgotten place beside the ruins of a forgotten castle.
The coach made its way up and down the streets of the village, careening and tipping as corners grew tighter and narrower until it groaned and creaked to a halt at the common room door of the only inn for miles around, The Castle and Motte.
The considerable noise and the lantern light woke a gnarled creature asleep on the stoop. It stood more upright than customary, swaying back and forth while a palsied hand groped for something to steady unwilling thirty-year-old legs; here was a commentary on the local economy; here was a man brought to a sorry state by life and liquor. His name was Abraham Creetur and his nickname was apt: ‘The Creature.’
The Creature stared blindly into the carriage lanterns, trying to bat them away as if they were insects. “Here! What’re ye doing? Weren’t ‘pected ‘til the morrow!” he growled.
The driver threw down a shilling and waved him off. “Knowstone, Miss!” he then called and rapped hard on the coach roof. A moment later the door opened, and The Young Lady disembarked, her face obscured by a scarlet hood. She waited as the footman brought her trunk down and when asked where she wanted it, pointed toward the public-house door.
The Creature caught sight of her as she approached and stepped back. “You! You came back!” he growled. “Isn’t true you be dead! Isn’t true at all!” Having said this, The Creature moved away, watching her suspiciously. The coach drove off and then disappeared into the wood, becoming a speck of light on the horizon until it was swallowed up in the trees. The Young Lady glanced down the lane to her left, then to her right, then left again. A tentative scuff of her boot became a step and another, and soon she paced a wide arc as she waited. The church bells rang the half-hour and were ringing seven o’clock when The Creature lost interest in her and settled under his cloak for the night.
“Why don’t you go home?” he muttered.
“It’s too far to walk with my trunk; I have to go through St. Edmund Wood.”
He cackled, adding, “Best not go through St. Edmund Wood at night! Safe for no one—not even you!”
A moment passed before The Young Lady replied. “I can pay you a ha’penny if you’ll escort me and bring the trunk. No? A half-crown, then.” The offer was conveyed in a voice now unsure and tremulous. The self-assurance of an hour past was gone.
The tantalizing sound of metal jingling at the bottom of a purse and the shine of a new coin held up in the lamplight made him game for only a second. He was ready to accept the offer and his trembling claw of a hand was willing to take it when he paused and shook his head.
“No! I daren’t—not worth risking bed and board!”
“And where could you earn a half-crown doing so little, Abraham Creetur?”
“Not fair, Mistress! Not fair!”
The Creature sighed with relief when he heard the chink and rattle of coin against coin and the snap of a purse clutch. It meant he was free of an obligation. The Young Lady began pacing again, and she stopped before him, meeting his gaze. The Creature looked away first.
“I don’t understand; Cook should have been here to meet me…”
The Young Lady might have spoken to the wind, for The Creature was snoring, his breath making clouds above them. She watched in fascination for a moment and then tried the public-house door. Of course, it would be unlocked; sunset was but an hour past. She took a breath and went in.
“Christ and all His Saints!”
The Innkeeper heard the door slam and had come out to greet the new customer but stopped just short of the hearth when he saw who it was. The Young Lady had pushed back the hood of her cloak and the men in the common room turned from conversation and ale to offer appreciative stares. Only A Young Clergyman taking his supper seemed disinterested until he noticed how silent the room had become and looked up. He pushed aside the books and papers that perpetually cluttered his usual table in his usual corner beside the hearth and reached for the bottle of wine, throwing a glance at her.
“Who’s she?” The Young Clergyman asked a man nearby.
“A ghost.” A cryptic response, that, but The Young Clergyman shrugged, looked about, and frowned, seeing how the men leered and whispered among themselves.
“Why should you come here?” The Innkeeper demanded of her.
The Young Lady took a tentative step forward as if the wooden planks beneath her light step would give way. “Cook was supposed to meet me. I’ve been waiting for the better part of an hour. I’ve come to supper.”
“Supper was an hour ago, Miss!”
“Please, I’ve come a long way. Even some bread and butter, a cup of ale.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” The Innkeeper hissed. “Supper’s done! There’s nothing to be had!”
The Young Lady kept her eyes on The Innkeeper. When he didn’t budge, she took a booth under the stairs, and there she sat for the longest time, staring down at her hands folded neatly on the filthy tabletop.
“It is your bounden duty to feed the hungry,” she spoke up as The Innkeeper brushed past to answer the town magistrates’ bellowing for more ale.
“Don’t tell me what my duty is!” The Innkeeper growled.
“If I were a clerk from London or a shopkeeper from Chester or Litchfield, or Warrington, you’d not waste a moment arguing. You’d not argue over the color of my coin.”
The Innkeeper threw down his towel and spun about, grumbling about the importance of some people. He grabbed a plate of meat and cheese from a table near the door, food that had been sitting out for most of the day, if not picked over by rats or humans. A pitcher was slammed on the tabletop so that it sloshed and spattered the girl’s cloak, the plate thrown down with a clatter. A tin cup tossed at her spun like a top until she reached out to steady it.
“It’s gone bad,” she spoke up after a glance at her supper.
The common room fell quiet. All eyes turned in her direction.
“It’s gone bad,” she said again, this time meeting The Innkeeper’s smirk with a sad, serious stare.
“It’s all I have at this hour,” the innkeeper snapped. “If you wanted supper, you should have come earlier.”
“That’s no fault of mine, sir. I’ve no say over the weather or the roads,” she replied. Her eyes lighted on The Young Clergyman and nodded in his direction. “Ask the vicar; I’m sure he’d agree.”
A Serving Girl passing by shook her head at The Young Clergyman as if to warn. He pretended interest in the Bible open on the table and avoided The Young Lady’s large eyes boring into him.
But he did want to know what color those eyes were.
“It’s all I have,” The Innkeeper spat. “Find supper in London, bloody Chester or Litchfield if my fare isn’t good enough!”
“It is your bounden—”
The kitchen door slammed shut behind him.
Conversation and music rose slowly in the common room until the incident was just another passing entertainment at The Castle and Motte, something to be recounted after church in the morning. The Young Lady was forgotten. She shoved the plate from her and drew the pitcher close. Glancing down into the pitcher to make sure nothing floated on top, she poured a cup and drank, screwing up her face.
The Serving Girl stopped by the table, took from her apron pocket a fresh, warm sweet bun and an apple, and placed them on a clean napkin. No one watched or knew; no one, save The Young Clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Godwin Herrold.
“Bless you for your charity, Dorcas,” he murmured when The Serving Girl came his way. She pulled another bun out of her pocket and let it roll onto his plate.
“What’s her name?” Godwin Herrold whispered, taking a bite and savored the sweetness, looking at The Young Lady.
Dorcas now leaned in as if to wipe up a puddle of grease and crumbs. “Witherslack.”
Godwin pushed his tankard at Dorcas and watched the fresh ale she poured swirl into a frothy head, making note of the name.
When he left the common room at midnight, The Young Lady was still sitting there, staring at nothing, waiting.
Mary Burnley returns to her home in Knowstone, a remote village in northwestern Cheshire. Is it Mary herself that keeps family and friends at a distance, making her unwanted or unloved, or is it the secret of St. Edmund Wood?
"St. Edmund Wood" is a novella originally written under Berkeley author Ellen L. Ekstrom's pseudonym, 'Caitlin Luke Quinn' for a series of novels about a fictional English village in different time periods entitled "The Cheshire Tales."