Hiemal House

The chilling wind was not as cold as the expressions on the pallbearer's faces as the funeral proceeded down the dusty road to the cemetery. Tugging mischievously, mercilessly, the frost-ridden gale snatched at top hats, bonnet ribbons, petticoats and coat-tails, irrespective of the sobriety on the grey faces, the tearstains that marred the cheeks of the girl who trailed behind the neighbours that carried the body of her mother.

From her rickety rocking chair, the village's sole medical practitioner Mrs. Cecania Smythe watched the procession without expression as they passed by her gate, her gaze incurious, for she knew practically all there was to know about the individuals involved in this sordid affair. She knew their names, their spouses, their children, but most of all, she knew their pain and worries, the little things that caused them grief and bitterness in a village that, contrary to popular belief, had never been a particularly cheerful one.

Gripping her gnarled cane with her equally gnarled hand, Cecania snorted as she rose unsteadily, stretching the kinks out of her spine as she stood, before grasping the handles of her cracked-leather bag. Miss Bessie King, the "poor girl" walking behind the procession, might have been the dead woman's daughter but she was far from the most affected by her mother's death.

In truth, the stupid chit following the coffin would probably capitalise on the situation, marrying that casanova of a barman's son who had been courting her for the last few months. Like any intelligent mother, the woman who was now dead had taken one look at that handsome piece of danger, and warned her daughter that marrying him would be an unfortunate decision. If he went through the girls like a rats through a storeroom before marriage, what was the likelihood that he would remain faithful after wedlock?

That Bessie neither wanted nor needed anyone's help, even if Cecania had not considered the silly girl to be beyond it.

No, it was for the dead woman's step-daughter, the younger of the pair, who would be the most distraught by the woman she called 'Mother''s passage. Young Miss Harriet Griffith, God Bless her Soul, was too ill to stand by her sole parent's graveside- the same disease that had claimed her step-mother had attempted to do the same to her, but the girl was as strong as her personality- no mere fever could take the life of Harriet Louise Griffith.

Grief however, Cecania mused grimly, was an entirely different kettle of fish. Lord knows that she still had days when she felt like dearest departed Jacob might be about to stumble in through the door, unchanged from before he had succumbed to the very fever he had been ministering to.

She and Jacob had come for the goldrush, but they had stayed for the need- the need for effective medical services to combat the natural effects of dangerous conditions, freezing cold nights, broiling hot days and camp-style living all year round. Diggers spending up to and beyond fourteen hours a day knee deep in mud, or dangling down haphazardly-dug mineshafts that varied in their quality and size along with the experience of the miners. Cecania had aided her husband with everything from broken bones to concussions to fevers to hangovers to births. They had never asked for more than what they thought the patients could pay, but had been significantly benefitted by the number of miners who paid for their medicines with gold dust. Even the quartermasters had been impressed by the scope of the house that Jacob had commissioned.

All of this was a far cry from the environs of the Deaconess Institute at Kaiserswerth where Cecania had met her husband as he toured the grounds, but they had adapted well enough, and had been, if not deliriously happy, then at least far more than content with their situation. They had planned so much for the future...

But for Cecania, after Jacob's death most of those dreams of family, finances and social status had lost their glamour.

Despite the need that also existed in this town, it was not for the citizens that she continued to provide her services. Rather, it was her way of remembering her husband, putting off the lonely hours that a childless widowhood endowed, despite the occasional gestures by well-meaning villagers and expatients, who still came to her door, despite her now tired claims that their gossip did very little to brighten her days.

Still, they did keep her well informed.

The uneven surface of the road passed slowly under Cecania's feet as the old woman limped past the plain white-washed cottages that compsed the majority of the dwellings in the small coastal settlement. She continued down, ignoring the succulent gardens with the carelessly maintained rose bushes, grevilleas and bottlebrush that dotted the fencelines. Stepping determinedly past the young boys playing soldiers in the dust, the young girls skipping over on Mrs Harris' verandah.

The last house on the street was different to the others. The late woman's late first husband King had been a builder, and so had constructed the simple cottage with his bare hands and bricks that he had carted from the nearest town, nearly twenty kilometres away. As some private joke, they had named their new home "Hiemal House", and had lived together happily enough.

At least they had until the man had indulged in a little too much Irish whiskey one night and took a tumble off the bluff's edge.

That was the tale that the other villagers had surmised (and repeatedly rehashed)- as Eleanor McKenzie had never spoken to any of them about her first husband's death, the talk was that she had been nearly broken from the loss of her husband after such a short time, surviving only for the sake of her two year-old daughter. Some of the younger women had claimed that they would have followed their husbands off the cliff, themselves, but Cecania was privately convinced that Eleanor's tears had been in at least part from sheer relief. Her joints might be troubling her in her old age, but there was nothing wrong with her eyes, and she had marked well how soon the then Mrs. William King had ceased being pedantic about how much skin her sleeves covered, even in the broiling summer heat.

Eleanor had met her second husband, the man who taught at the village school, not long afterwards. He had been a quiet man, labelled as "standoffish" by the other villagers, when in fact Cecania had instantly spotted that he was merely reserved. He too, had been only recently bereaved at that time, his small daughter was naught but a babe, being cared for by a wetnurse who lived in a hut a short distance from the schoolteacher's home. Owen Griffith had been his name, and Cecania was sure that had it not been for the Recently Deceased, it was doubtful he would have survived so long, for his wife had taken his heart with him to her grave.

With a sigh, Cecania came to a standstill before the weathered brick cottage. The usual sounds of laughter, piano practice and cleaning were absent, sending a shiver up the old woman's spine that had nothing to do with the brisk breeze. Drawing her bright woolen shawl tighter about her hunched shoulders, she marched up the garden path to rap sharply on the door with the iron-shod foot of her cane.

"Door's open."

Cecania frowned. The casualness inherent in the greeting was not uncommon in the village that had began as a goldrush settlement, but it was out of character for Harriet to display such unconcern for whom her callers might be.

Leaning heavily on her cane, Cecania shoved the creaky wooden door open, and saw the blanket-swathed form of Harriet Griffith, one of the few girls in the locality whom Cecania considered to be sensible, seated upon a chaise lounge, a steaming teapot and mugs already set out.

She had known Cecania would be coming- Madame Doctor might claim to not follow the gossip, but she was always present at times of crisis, whether the people involved were healthy or not.

Because at times like these, Mrs. Cecania Smythe could always be found.

Where she was needed.