The high-bourne clouds reigned gloomily over the estate grounds, the rains shimmering as they struck the lake and the trees, shrouding the rotunda with a gray veil.
“I think it ’s what ’s called a decoy, Miss, ” Sara said, squinting into the wobbling waves of the lake. The servant girl stood just beneath the dome of the rotunda, her frock splattered with wayward raindrops. “What ’s used for gettin ’ more ducks down so they can be gotten with ‘em rifles. ”
“Indeed, ” Miss Woodward said, absently strumming her harp with a flurry of fingertips. The musical notes joined the downpour like a small silver bell tinkling amongst a waterfall. Not even the harpist could hear them well. “No doubt Thomas requested it from a carpenter in town. Gamekeepers are always such ingenious fellows. In their own way. It bears a wondrous resemblance to a true mallard. At least insomuch as distance abets the deception. ”
“Yes, Miss, ” Lara said, her voice rougher than her daughter ’s. She was much frayed with age, like linen too familiar with the washboard. “I ’ve seen ‘em bag ten ducks in short order with a couple of those decoys. ”
“I ’ve always fancied having me one, ” Sara said wistfully. “Not so I might shoot any of the poor creatures, but as they might all come nestin ’ near me. Like I was a fairytale princess. ”
Sara ’s mother scolded her. “Lot o ’ good you have usin ’ that head of yours for dreamin ’ such prattle! It ’d be better employed in your knittin ’ and weavin ’. You haven ’t learned half the knots I ’d known at half your age. Always swimmin ’ in the clouds when work ’s to be done. ”
Lara shook her wizened head ruefully, but Sara was too lost in fancies to mind. Meanwhile, Miss Woodward sighed. She had heard Lara scold Sara many a time, and so she had their intercourse put to mind as fixed as any chiseled stone. So she turned her attention elsewhere in the rain —away from Lara and Sara and the decoy duck being hammered on the lake by the deluge. She had requested Sara and Lara carry her harp out here to the rotunda so she might fancy herself a few daydreams in seclusion. Unfortunately, the rain hastened on, swifter than portended and now she had to share her cloister with the most quarrelsome among her father ’s servants.
Lara raised her voice, her hands on her aproned hips. “Were I wiser I would ’ve hardened your head against fancies with a few right wallops, ” she said. She shook a rheumatic fist. “Or maybe softened it, ‘cause you aren ’t but hard-headed as a goat in tulips! ”
“I do my work right and proper like, ” Sara rejoined, raising her nose and turning it away from her mother…lest the latter snatch the complacent ornament between finger and thumb as long ago when she was yet a child, and not so tall or pretty. “What difference is ought that I should like to think up things better than they are? There ’s no harm in thinkin ’ than there is in singin ’ while I work. It ’s just to pretty things up a bit. And that ’s what we do in the house, isn ’t it? Pretty it up? ”
“Thinkin ’ leads to wantin ’, ” her mother said. “And wantin ’ leads to wishin ’. And wishin ’ leads to wastin ’ for naught but what never was nor will be. It ’s the most serious of self-harm one might do other than a willful march through the valley of the shadow of Death, and what ’s more it can be just such a march if wishin ’ gets to be strong enough! ”
Miss Woodward sighed and strummed a few trickling notes on her harp; like raindrops cascading down the dome of the rotunda itself. The mother and daughter stood on the other side of the rotunda, and yet even at the distance and with the rain condescending the earth it was as if they waged their little war on either side of their mistress. Hearing Lara ’s trite commonfolk wisdom bored Miss Woodward immensely. She despised such pretentious peasant pedantry. She would rather be lectured by a boor, or a boar for that matter. She utterly detested the lowborn for their artlessness and lack of cultivation. They were a rough-spun frock when she indulged only silken petticoats. And they were superstitious and stupid about many matters, whether sublunar or supernal. Some still believed in pagan nonsense. Sprites and spirits and whatnot. Fairies dancing in the forests on brightly moonlit Summer nights. Indeed, Miss Woodward loathed them, and in particular Sara and Lara. The crudely-aged Lara would not leave off the presumptuous lessons of the young, pretty Sara. Admittedly, Sara was a pretty sort of lowborn girl, with auburn hair and skin browned by days spent labouring in the sun, but being a lowborn girl was no good recommendation, however pretty in most people ’s estimation.
Miss Woodward wondered how her late mother would have handled such bellicose behavior between servants bound by blood. She knew how her father handled such things: he retreated to his study to drink wine and make as to read, letting the servants run amok among his ancestral home. Lord Woodward was too negligent a Master to enforce discipline among his servants, and Miss Woodward resented him for it. From what she had gathered from those who knew her mother, Lady Woodward was a strict disciplinarian among the operations of the household, and tolerated no such liberties of the tongue as was presumed by Lara and Sara presently. But mother had been dead fifteen years past, having passed in the vain attempt to deliver to the world Miss Woodward ’s younger sister. Miss Woodward had been but three and, so, remembered her mother in snatches of imagery and instances. But nothing more. Consequently, Miss Woodward vowed to never bear children, for it seemed a futile endeavour imperiled by catastrophes all too common. And, of course, were she to successfully bear a child who was to know if her darling might not be a contrary predilection, fraught in disposition with a disobedience and recalcitrance, contriving at every corner of life to conduct mischief wherever the darling pursued her divergence? Succinctly put, Miss Woodward feared an arrangement akin to Sara and Lara, for it seemed dreadfully tedious, diverting, and disagreeable.
“You would do better in a textile mill, ” Lara declared to her daughter. “Working sunup to sundown with bleedin ’ fingers for your reward. ”
“I would just have a fairy weave straw into gold, ” Sara said with petulant sarcasm, “since I am so besot with fancies! ”
“Aye, and here we have your soft-headed fancies in full force again, as to a puddin ’ of pixies! One would think you had spun around the fairy ring thrice too many times, dizzyin ’ yourself and topplin ’ your head down on a hard stump! ”
The rain refused to subside, as did mother and daughter. Miss Woodward plucked at her harp plaintively, no muse but frustration and impatience inspiring the melody. She was so wroth that she nearly tore the strings for a garroter ’s tools to reconcile the two servants to silence.
Yet, her eye alighted upon movement in a nearby orchard. There seemed, in her periphery, as if a young man was watching from among the falling rain and green foliage. When she turned to look upon him more directly, the curious figure had moved yet to her periphery once more.
“If you donna ’ come off your cloud, ” Lara said, “I ’ll knock you off quick! ”
Thunder grumbled above the rotunda, silencing the mother and daughter. As if remembering themselves for the first time that day they looked to their young Mistress. Her stool was empty, the harp standing alone and bereft like a large swan wing of mahogany and catgut.
“Miss Woodward? ” Lara asked, extinguished of her former fire.
“She ’s lost her senses! ” Sara exclaimed, pointing at the figure fleeing through the veil of rain, her petticoats soaked and clinging to her frenzied figure. Beside the lake she ran, the waves tossing with the wind and the rain. Toward the woods she went, and Lara ’s eyes followed. “There ’s someone in the woods. Someone…so…beautiful… ”
Sara made as to go directly, but her mother clasped her by the wrist.
“Avert your eyes! ” her mother said, averting her own eyes, for she felt, too, her too-long fallow sex stir anew at the sight of the young man. “Their ’s is not make or manner Man was meant to look upon! ”
Her daughter again attempted to rush thitherto, but her mother ’s grip was as a washerwoman wringing the linen.
“Stay you, girl, ” Lara demanded. “Man is not the only creature what ’s employs decoys for its purposes! ”
“I know, momma, ” Sara said. “I ’m not so flighty as to go chasing such spirits in a daze. ”
Yet, even as Sara spoke such sensible words, her body attempted to follow, her arm extended at full length while her body leaned in the young man ’s direction.
“I will be a goodly daughter, ” Sara said quietly. “You are hurting my arm, mother. Please let me go. I promise to remain here, with you. ”
The man ’s pale white face was as snow, and the smile just as beautifully cold. The rain did not touch him as it cascaded down the canopies of the trees. Lara gripped her daughter with both hands, for despite her innocently voiced promise, there was trickery in her smile that matched the face of porcelain within the woods.
“Poor Miss Woodward, ” Lara said. “There will be a reckoning of it, to be sure. Certain as willows by the waterside there will be. ”
The birthing pangs were terrible indeed. Miss Woodward ’s screams resounded throughout the manorhouse. The doctor and the midwife were the only ones in attendance tot he birthing. Lord Woodward had retreated to his study as he always did when confronted by things over which not even kings commanded influence, for all their power. He had tiredly chastised Lara and Sara for hiding from him his daughter ’s condition. Sara had attempted to explain that she had only been in such a condition for a week — no more —but her mother silenced her. Lord Woodward uncorked his bottles and erstwhile sealed himself up in the wine ’s stead.
Lara and Sara heard the pangs as they dusted the parlour.
“It will go ill, Lara told her daughter. “All signs point to a sad crossroads of lives. One will go on where two have met, and the other will turn aside forever. Neither will walk this world again. ”
“It is very sad, ” Sara said, reaching with her feather duster to send a shower of cobwebs off a corbel in the wainscoting. The corbel was of a leaf-crowned man with a leering face. “A tragedy as like a bard could sing of. ”
“It would be a foolish song, ” her mother retorted. “But all such songs beginning in foolishness end the same. ” She sat down all at once in a chair that belonged to Lady Woodward. Presumptuous as it was, no one was there to reprimand her. “It ’s what comes of dealings with the highborn fairies. Mind you, Brownies are useful in their own way —for the cost o ’ a saucer o ’ milk, no less —but dalliance with ‘em high lords of Faerie lead to naught but mischief and sorrow. ”
“We common folk have to be practical of such things. When such visitations transpire we are wiser for not presuming too much interest, but treatin ’ ‘em as one would the lordly folk of this world. We canna ’ afford the luxuries o ’ ‘em highborn. They ’re too costly. It ’s much like lessons in Art and Music and the froggy tongue of the French. And we ’ve too many chores to be done. ”
Another scream resounded through the house, as if to crack it.
“Truth be told, the cost o ’ ‘em Fae folk is a kingly sum that no king can afford. Maybe Solomon might, but it is a cost of wisdom more than anything. And you ought to pay it afore the cost comes callin ’. ”
A terrible silence suddenly reigned in the vast manorhouse. A moment later the nurse screamed —or perhaps the doctor. There was a rush of frenzied feet, a door flinging open, and then the nurse came with a tripping sort of haste down the stairs, staggering to the vestibule. Sickly green, she halted but a moment to gawp at Sara and Lara.
“Unnatural, ” she croaked, then charged down the hall, out the door and away from the house. Her smock had been smeared with blood and mud and leaves.
After a moment, Lara gave a knowing look to her daughter. “The child must take after its true father, ” she said. “Likely stillborn as a plank of wood, then. The real child cries elsewhere. ”
The manorhouse had grown silent again. No infant cried. At length, the doctor shuffled downstairs, dazed. He was an old man, and had seen much with the faded blue eyes behind his spectacles. Now he seemed to see naught at all, but what he had recently seen. He walked past the two women, as if blind to them, then paused.
“Please endeavour to tell Lord Woodward that neither mother nor child survived, ” he said hollowly. “As for why, say whatever comes to mind. ”
In his arms he carried a bundled mass, the cloth stained red and brown and green. He went into the vestibule and left, not minding to close the door after him.
Lara shut the door presently, then returned to the parlour, shaking her head.
“Doctors, for all their learnin ’, know so little. I would claim, in front of St. Peter ‘imself, that doctors and such are as beholden in their highborn learnin ’ to fancies and daydreams as much as any nannerin ’ old crone lost to the horde of her cats. A donkey kick to the head could ’na ’ wrong their thinkin ’ no more than what their learnin ’ has. ”
“Poor Miss Woodward! ” Sara said, at last overcome with everything. She wept. “Poor child, and her child, too! ”
Lara made as if to give her daughter a knuckled knock.
“Have you not been mindin ’ me, you deaf ninny? That child is but a part of what will ’ve been born on the other side o ’ the rain! That thing of crude Nature is the afterbirth. Count yourself fortunate you cannot see the trueborn of the conception! And count yourself luckier I was present enough of sense to catch you ‘fore the people of the rainy woods could catch you! ”
Her daughter went on weeping, and Lara got her fist ready to bring it down upon her pretty daughter ’s head. But another thought overtook that one, and so Lara sat down again in the Lady Woodward ’s chair. She rather liked that chair. It was comfortable. It helped her stiff old back relax into its soft cushions. Sitting there, in the highborn comforts of the parlour, she thought she would rather sit there until Death came to sweep her away from her hard life. Affixed in such thought, she looked at her daughter, and knew she was of a pretty make, especially when overcome with woe.
“Ah, my pretty daughter, ” she said. “This could be a ripe ol ’ chance to recompense on the favour. Lord Woodward fancies you —I ’ve no doubt on it —and there ’s much that a young pretty woman can make of herself to a sad man yearning for his dead wife and dead daughter. ”
Sara sobered almost at once, looking up through fresh tears with a look not nearly so innocent. “He must have himself a princess, ” she said, understanding at once.
Lara smiled — a smile of pride, for she had never thought her daughter so swift on such understanding — and she gestured for her to come to her. Sara went to her mother, and her mother took her hand in her own.
“Nay, my duckling, ” she said. “A queen of a vast kingdom, if you should like. All this yours! And mine. But we must act, and act as only practical common folk can!” She rose quickly from the chair, knowing now that she might return to it at her leisure. “I will inform his Lordship of the tragic news. It will, naturally, break him, and then you, my dear little duckling, will swoop in and take him underwing and comfort him as only a wife and a daughter could! Get ready your tears, dear! I am the gamekeeper and you the trap! ”
The lowborn earth took the tears of the high-bourne clouds in the coming seasons, and made goodly Springs of them, and better Summers