Watching with bramble black eyes, the bird perched silently on the small windowsill, raindrops glistening on its daisy-white feathers. How the bird has managed to squeeze through the slit in the wall we called a window was a mystery, and as for why it wanted to visit, I had no idea. Either way, a white bird was lucky according- Jemima said it meant that someone was looking after you. Turning the door handle, I gently opened the door. Outside, the sky was black as belladonna, apart from a solitary star blazing far away, and the opal moon meant that it was well into the witching hours. Grabbing my basket(bread, wine, herbs from the fields), I slipped out of the door, already rehearsing my apology for not being around earlier. Thunder and lightning were no excuse for the old woman.
Pulling my faded shawl further around me, I tried to ignore the biting wind. Jemima had once told me that the North Wind only howled like this when beckoning the dead or to protest against some injustice. Perhaps there was an ounce of truth to it? After all, Lady Sarah had died very suddenly in her sleep only a few weeks ago. The poor thing was only twenty-eight, and already Death had snatched her from the bridal bed. Perhaps she would see her husband again some day.
A hand closing over my shoulder put a stop to my daydreams and made me cry out.
"Calm down, girl!" I turned at the order, my body relaxing when I realised who it was. Bending my knee into as good a curtsy as a girl of my standing had been taught, I began to babble an apology to Sir John, every drop of blood I had surging straight to my cheeks.
"I'm sorry, you startled me." The reply was a laugh, the sort that you could hear brandy and cigars at the back of. The smell of cigar smoke and spices oozed into the air around us like perfume, leaving me a little dizzy.
"What the devil are you doing out here, Lucy?" he asked, watching me with eyes darker than poison as I rose from the curtsy, one hand clutching my basket tightly; the other, holding my shawl up around my shoulder.
"Oh... Jemima asked me to-"
"Jemima," Before I could finish, he threw his hands up in the air as though I'd told him I was just going to have a chat with the earthworms. "The old witch must understand you have better things to do." While completely true, there was something in the way he said "witch" that made it seem like a curse, an insult.
"It's no trouble," I insisted, not daring to explain. It was my own fault, after all- I'd known better than to wander through the woods alone, and I'd ended up with a bite for my stupidity. Thank God the old woman had showed up and sent the wolves away when she had, or I doubted I'd have got home. Luckily, it wasn't necessary to go into the forest on the way to her house- I still had the occasional nightmare about my incident with the wolves- and it wasn't too out of my way. Any excuse to walk through the moors, to see the bright, beautiful wildflowers, to smell the delicious night air and hear the birds twitter was a blessing.
"Hmm. If you insist. I'll see you get there safely," He held his arm out for me to take, which I did. It was none of my business as to why he was out so late, so I stayed silent- a grown man could walk on the moors if he wanted to. Seeing his immaculate black sleeve with the silver cufflink beside my shabby blue one, it occurred to me that I should have wore my Sunday dress. A silly thought, really, and vain, too. Having a pretty face, Jemima had warned me, is no excuse for having nothing between your ears.
"Have you given any more thought to my offer?"
With dread seeping through my skin like rainwarter, I glanced past him. It seemed disrespectful when he was so recently widowed. People would talk. A rejection might have caused gossip, too- "Look at 'er, Miss Nose-In-The-Air, thinks she's above 'im when she's not got two pennies to rub together". Yes or no. A rock and a hard place.
"I have, Sir,"
"And?" Yet again, I found myself silent. He was handsome, I'd admit, and rich. My mother would certainly have approved of the idea; me swanning around the village with a diamond ring weighing my hand down; me strolling through the gardens in an embroided frock without a prick or puncture on my finger from sewing; dark-haired children with fancy clothes and double chins. Each image would have delighted her so. Noting my smile at her imagined approval, he continued the conversation without my reply. "You seem to be giving it plenty of thought. Two weeks, isn't it?"
"Hmm. I suppose that's comforting. After all, if you were going to reject the offer, you'd have done so fourteen days ago and not allowed my hopes to grow, would you? After all, no girl with any heart leaves a person in limbo for fourteen days," His tone was lighter than an atom, almost jovial. "And I mustn't be completely repulsive if a young lady sees fit to consider me as a husband."
"Of course not, Sir," I replied, perhaps quicker than I ought to have done. Of course he wasn't repulsive, but it wasn't a decision to be made on a whim. He wasn't a book or a piece of furniture. I couldn't return him when he became boring.
"I'm glad you agree. I'm sure you'll have your mind made up soon, my dear." he told me, twisting his lips into a sort of smile as if I'd already married him. "I'll probably be wandering around the village around Thursday. Perhaps I'll see you then?" he suggested. I nodded, unsure of how to postpone the deadline. Thursday. I would have to agree on Thursday, if not before. "Perfect, my dear," he said finally, lifting my hand to kiss it once I had let go of his arm, the day's stubble scraping the pale skin on my knuckles as he released my hand from his tight, warm grip. Letting my hand drop to its rightful place by my side, I lingered foolishly before babbling my goodbyes and darting through the front door of Jemima's house.
"What took you, girl?" The voice, gnarled and broken by the decades, flitted across the room to me from the old woman's chair by the fire. "I sent a message a good four hours ago,"
"I'm sorry, something came up. Promised that I'd help look for that poor child,"
"They haven't found her yet, then?"
"No, they have. The trouble is..." My words turned to water and slipped back down my throat. A young couple had found her in the dirt, under the dandelions. The father, a mountain of a man, had yet to stop crying. And such a sweet child, too. A posy of wildflowers in her little fist. Tiger eyes that didn't know a pet from a predator. Dirty knees and spindly legs that could never have outrun a predator.
There was nothing that even Jemima could have done, had she been called. She'd have tried, of course. In fact, she prided herself on the fact that only one child had died since her decision to involve herself in the villagers' care. Doves flocked from her roof to those of pregnant women and stayed in their nests until the child began to gurgle. Sparrows found their way into the houses of feverish children and sang, fanning the sufferer's hot faces with their wings. At first there had been gifts for the witch woman; cakes, ornaments, visitors that stopped visiting when they realised that they would be kept just as safe whether they worshipped or abandoned her.
"I see." She opened the basket. "I did warn them, you know. You'd think they'd at least keep an eye on her, check that she stayed out of trouble. Four years old... she should never have been out of her mother's sight!" She shook her head and leaned back, her cankered hands resting on her stomach. Had she ever had children? She had been old when my grandmother was a girl, although, remarkably, still retained that red hair that could coil three or four times around her neck, if not more. Perhaps she had been too shrivelled to have children by the time it occurred to her, or perhaps she had not wanted any. Or maybe she had a whole bundle of bairns who had drifted away like dandelion seeds on the wind, hence the shift in her expression when she saw someone waddle down the road, ready to burst with motherhood. Whatever the case, I didn't ask. Perhaps I should have.
"Sit, girl. Is there anything else going on?"
"I believe I saw two shadows on the moor. Who was with you?"
"Sir John," Her eyes swivelled in their sockets, all-knowing and all-judging. "He moved on rather swiftly."
"What do you mean?"
"My little friends tell me he asked you to marry him," On cue, one of said little friends swooped in, stopping just short of hitting the wall before turning and landing in Jemima's lap, ruffling its saffron feathers. Not native to the moors. Eagles, mockingbirds, turtledoves. However did they find her?
"He did..." I brushed my fingers over the hand he kissed in a swift movement, staring at the creases of my cotton skirt. "I told him I'd think about it,"
"Do you wish to marry him?"
"I suppose I would if it came to it. He's handsome, after all. He's well-mannered, and intelligent, and I could probably become fond of him... and I would be able to live comfortably if I agreed," I answered.
"And which is the most important of those?" she asked me, watching with glittering eyes, as dark as those of her darling birds. "Not wealth, girl. You're not a prostitute." No honey coating from Jemima. She pointed to the cup and waved me over. Immediately, I obeyed and carried it towards her.
"Whatever shall I say if I turn him away? Is there a way I could disagree without upsetting him? After all, I've been so silly to wait a-"
"I don't care for that man's feelings. You should never marry a man while his first wife is still warm." Her hand suddenly shot out and gripped mine, pulling me close to allow her to whisper to me. "Especially not if she died with almond on her breath," Almonds? Not wishing to make myself seem a fool, I pressed my mouth shut and nodded, almost cutting my lips with my teeth as a result. Loosening her grip, she sat back in her chair. "Be careful of men, Lucy- especially him."