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Authors: Donna Lea Simpson

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Five

 

 

“What do you want, Angelica?”

Theresa and her young friend strolled by the banks of the stream on the Leighton property while the girl visited. It was not quite Midsummer Day—it was actually the first day of summer—and the air buzzed with bees visiting the wildflowers along the stream.

“What do you mean?” Angelica asked, pulling a long stem of grass and chewing on the end.

“Very simply, what do you want? You could tell me what you want from life, a philosophical outlook. Or you could tell me what you want this minute . . . like lunch!” She laughed. “Or, you could tell me what you want soon, an amber necklace, or an amethyst ring. When I was your age I longed for an amethyst ring. My mother found out.” She put forward her hand and showed the delicate filigree ring with a pale amethyst, the purple glowing in the midday sun. “She designed this for me.”

Angelica gazed at it. “I wish my mother had lived.”

“I wish she had too.” Theresa put her arm over the girl’s shoulders as they strolled, the long grass swishing around their skirts, daisies brushing their fingers. In just a few days she had come to care for the child. “She must have loved you very much to name you ‘Angelica.’ It’s a very pretty name.”

“My governess told me she named me for the candied herb because she had low tastes and liked sweetmeats.”

“And how did she know that?” Theresa said acidly. “I cannot suppose the wretched woman was there at the hour of your birth. No family engages a governess for a newborn infant.”

Angelica looked startled. “I guess that’s true. Do you think mother named me just because—”

“Because she loved you and you were her angel.”

“Oh.”

There was silence for a few minutes. The air was warm and still, laden with the scents of grass and clover. They were supposed to be out gathering herbs and wildflowers for their Midsummer Eve wreathes. Theresa began to gather daisies, piling them near the stream bank, and Angelica followed her example.

“Does your father never talk about your mother?”

“No. I think it’s just because she died so long ago.” She found some pinkish daisies and gathered a handful, laying them with the others. “And he worries about Jacob all the time and doesn’t think of anything else.”

Bitterness laced her voice. Theresa would bet that if the girl could wish for anything it would be more time with her father. That was something she could not promise the child. However, maybe James Martindale would stay and they could work on that part of their lives a little more.

“Ah, here is what I have been looking for,” she said, distracted as she found the herb most important to their Midsummer wreathes. “This is St. John’s wort. Of course, since Midsummer Day is also St. John’s Day, it’s very important to weave in this particular plant.”

They gathered the delicate green herb, protecting the yellow blossoms, and put it with the daisies and grasses they had already gathered. Together they sat down in the long grass by the stream, and Theresa showed Angelica how to plait the grasses into a wreath, working in the daisies and St. John’s wort.

“What will we do with them?” the girl asked, holding hers up and examining it critically.

“In the country St. John’s Eve, or Midsummer Eve, as I still call it, is very important and can have great affect on the crops even. The evening of the twenty-third of June, on a high hill, a great fire will be set and folks will stay up all night. These wreathes will be hung on doors and over stables.” Theresa worked quickly, her long fingers whipping the grass into plaited circlets with delicate fronds of daisies and the all-important herb worked in.

“Why is it so important?”

“Magical things happen that night. And one man in the village will jump over the Midsummer fire flames. How high he jumps will be how high the crops grow.”

“What a lot of rubbish!”

“Profane child,” Theresa laughed, tossing one wreath up into the air, where it spun for a moment, framing the sun.

“But isn’t this all very . . . heathenish?”

“That’s why the church insists we celebrate St. John the Baptist’s day, rather than Midsummer. But the old ways last, especially among the most superstitious. My mother believed in the old ways.” Theresa stacked her wreathes in a pile and said, “I will send William back to fetch these. We have made far too many to carry. I suppose we should go back for luncheon.”

“May I carry mine?” Angelica said, gazing down at her thick circlet of grass and daisies.

“Certainly.”

They started back along the stream bank, the lush grass thick and the stream sluggish.

“So what do you want?” Theresa asked, glancing sideways at her young friend. “Say, this summer?”

“I want a pony,” she said quickly. “A white one. And I want to ride!”

“Have you never learned to ride?”

“No. Father’s afraid if I learn, Jacob will want to, and then he’ll be in danger because he has no sense.”

“Is that true?”

“That Jacob has no sense? Sometimes he acts that way, but . . . I don’t know. I wonder.”

“You wonder if he just causes trouble to get attention?”

The girl looked up at her swiftly. “Do you think so?”

“It’s possible. I did that on occasion. So, what would you do in return for a white pony and riding lessons?”

“Do?”

“Nothing in life is free . . . or very little anyway,” Theresa said. More of her cynical philosophy. She really must be more careful that she did not create a world-weary child. Misanthropy was very unattractive. “I don’t mean that. Love is free. I know your father loves you both. You never need to do anything to earn that love, either.”

Angelica reflected on that for a few moments and nodded, as if she accepted that statement. True or not, Theresa hoped it was at least what she needed to hear.

“I would do anything for a white pony!” Angelica put her pretty, lopsided wreath on her head and hugged herself, dancing in the long grass, her white dress whirling around and her long hair streaming out.

Theresa caught her breath. The child was breathtaking, her expression joyful in the sun-filled meadow. She suddenly laughed and danced with her, whirling, arms spread wide, face turned up to the sun, feeling the joy of childhood once again. She and her mother had done this, Lady Leighton, fey and unpredictable, dancing wildly like a gypsy.

Finally they both fell down, breathless and laughing in the long grass, staring up at the sky while their breathing returned to something like normal. It was said, Theresa reflected, as she gazed dizzily up at the sun, that if you stayed out all night on Midsummer Eve you could end up with the talents of the immortal bard, or you could just end up insane, or you could be taken away by the fairies. Lady Leighton was rumored to have spent that one Midsummer night among the fairies. She was “fairy-touched,” magical but fearsome, too, in her supernatural powers. She had gained a reputation as a healer and good-luck charm. For her to visit a household was said to bring instant good luck. Money would arrive when it was most needed. A creditor would send a notice that a bill had been mysteriously paid. It was magical! So though the most superstitious feared her, a visit from her was still coveted and she was never insulted by anyone.

Oddly, few caught on to Lady Leighton’s subtle probing, her delicate way of finding out what was plaguing a troubled family. The old reverend knew, but he was from the previous century and his respect for Lady Leighton’s position in society kept him silent. The countess wanted no credit when she helped someone, so she would do things in secret and shrug when someone mentioned it. She had not purposely set out to become a fairy godmother to the village of St. Mark, but it had happened anyway. She was a good-luck charm.

A good-luck charm. Theresa sat up and stared off at the misty hills. The village had been without such a talisman since Lady Leighton’s death five years before. Maybe it was time they had one again. Maybe it was time Midsummer Eve worked its magic.

 

• • •

 

James Martindale stomped back up to the house from a loud confrontation with the farm manager. A desire to do things a new way was met with stubborn refusal and an oft-repeated phrase he was coming to loathe:
’Tis not the way it’s aught been done
.

He had negotiated in the lease for the rights to farm the immediate acreage, though the far fields were rented out. But Puget, the farm manager, only said that since he was not the owner he had no right to change how things had been done for generations. The man didn’t care that the land was producing poorly. He didn’t care that the topsoil was being systematically blown into the stream by over-tilling. Things had always been done one way, so that was how it should stay. If Mr. Martindale were the owner, he would have no choice but to comply, he said.

He slammed into the house, threw his boots at his distraught valet, and demanded luncheon in the library, where he would not be disturbed. The butler was saying something to him, but he didn’t listen, storming in his stocking feet into the library.

He should have listened. There in the library was Lady Theresa with both Jacob and Angelica. His first instinct was to turn and leave, but the lady looked up from her book and smiled, and he was caught.

Her nose was red; so was Angelica’s. They looked sunburned, but happy.

“Mr. Martindale,” she said, standing. “I brought this book on the history of St. Mark-on-Locke and was showing the children. If you do decide to stay, I thought they should know more about their home.”

Jacob was sitting cross-legged on a chair and he had in his arms a rag doll. He hugged it to him and rocked back and forth.

“If I have to deal with Puget again I swear I will leave this . . .” He stopped before he swore, took a deep breath and sat.

“You’re in your stockings again, though I suppose that’s an improvement over muddy bare feet.”

“I thought I would be alone. I thought you and Angelica were still out, and that Dora would have Jacob.”

“Puget is one of the best managers in the area, Mr. Martindale. What problem are you having with him?”

Oddly, explaining it all to Lady Theresa and the children, and having them laugh at his troubles, calmed him. When his luncheon came he was able to share it out to the children—Lady Theresa said that she and Angelica had already dined, but his daughter gladly took another sandwich—and eat his own share washed down by liberal tankards of ale. He hadn’t realized he was so hungry.

“Where did you get the doll, son?” he asked, watching Jacob cradle the rag baby as he ate cress.

“I brought it,” Theresa said. “It was what I used to play with when I was a child, and I remember how soothing I found it.”

“He is not a baby, my lady.”

“No, but comfort is comfort. One never outgrows certain needs.”

He let the subject drop.

“I wonder if you would like to go into town one day soon, Mr. Martindale. With me. I thought if I introduced you around, it may break the ice a little. Make you more acceptable.”

He eyed her thoughtfully, drained the last drop from his tankard, and pushed it away. “I do need to speak to Mr. Dartelle. He is acting as my man of business in St. Mark, while I am away from the city. He has some messages for me, I believe.”

“Shall we say Friday?”

“Friday it is,” he agreed, wondering at her secretive smile.

“May I also ask to take Jacob for a ride tomorrow?”

He hesitated. “I don’t think . . .”

“I’m perfectly able to care for him. I’ll have Dora come with us, if you like.”

“Papa, let him go,” Angelica said. “Jacob should see some of the neighborhood as I have. And Lady Theresa knows everyone.”

A look passed between his daughter and the lady, and James glanced between them uneasily. But he could find no fault with the plan—other than that it was odd for Angelica to come down on the side of any treat for Jacob that didn’t include her—and said, “I suppose, if you take Dora with you.”

“Good. I’ll call tomorrow at one, then.” She knelt in front of Jacob. “Jake, you and I and Dora are going to go for a ride tomorrow, after you sleep tonight, that is. We’ll have a grand time and I’ll show you where I got that cress from. We can gather some for your dinner. All right?”

Miraculously, his eyes never leaving her mouth, he nodded.

Six

 

 

Theresa combed out her long hair and stared blankly at the mirror over her vanity table. She realized that the vague feelings of dissatisfaction she had felt since coming home from the season had disappeared, and the Martindales were responsible. Angelica had quickly become a friend. The sullen attitude the girl displayed with her father and others was never present when they were alone.

And little Jacob . . . something about the boy haunted Theresa. He had an unnerving habit of staring directly into one’s eyes, as if he was reading one’s soul. That was just fancy, no doubt, but she knew deep down that he understood far more than he ever let on. Whether the secrets of his own soul would ever be unlocked only time would tell. And even if he always remained an enigma, that did not mean that he could not be communicated with and cared for.

That was one of the things she appreciated about James Martindale. Love for his son was present in every interaction between them, every minute of every day. Society said he was a fool, and so he chose to eschew society in favor of family. He had taken the more difficult road and walked it without complaint.

She put down her brush and picked up the stalk of vervain she had brought back from the meadow. This time of year some of the wild herbs were said to be at their most potent. Trefoil and rue, roses and vervain . . . all were said to be able to bring dreams about future lovers, future romance. She twirled the purple flowered herb between her fingers, smiled at her fancy, and crossed to her bed.

Carefully, she put the vervain under her pillow and lay down, pulling the light covers up. Her mother would be proud of her, Theresa thought as she snuffed the candle.

 

• • •

 

“I’m here for Jacob,” Lady Theresa said, not getting down from her brass ornamented gig.

James, in the lane in front of the house speaking to his groundskeeper about a fence for the stew pond, looked up at her on her high seat in her gig and wondered at the two spots of color on her cheeks. “Will you come in for a moment? One of the grooms can take care of your horse.”

“No, I think not. If you can have Dora and Jacob meet me out here, I’ll wait.”

Her evasive behavior was such a deviation from the day before that James wondered at it. “All right,” he said. “I think Jacob is looking forward to this. Last night he clutched that doll you gave him so tightly I couldn’t remove it when he went to bed. He slept with it.”

Talking about his son did the trick; she eagerly met his eyes.

“Really? I do so want him to enjoy himself today. We’re going to visit a man who has broken his leg, old Mr. Gudge, but then we’re going to my secret watercress bed. Jacob does love cress!”

James sent the groundskeeper to the house to ask the butler to send Dora and Jacob out, and then strolled over to the gig. He laid one hand on the painted body and gazed up at Theresa. There was something different about her this day but he could not imagine what it was. She looked away hastily, but he had already noted how truly fine her gray eyes were, large and luminous. She must have slept well the night before.

Unlike him. He had been disturbed by the strangest dreams all night, of a bonfire and people leaping and dancing around it. He remembered the Midsummer festivals of his youth; it was likely just that memory plaguing him.

But that didn’t account for the other dreams, of chasing a mystery woman through the forest, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of her, only to have her disappear with just a fleeting glance at a handsome ankle and a wisp of dusky curls fluttering on the night breeze. He shook his head, dispelling the disturbing image.

“Lady Theresa, I’d like to visit and meet your father. I fear I have been sorely remiss in that aspect, but there was so much to do at first. Would he be home this morning if Angelica and I visited?”

“He will,” she said. “I thought perhaps I would take Jacob home with me; we could meet there for luncheon, about two? Would you care to do that?”

He felt a flood of warmth and gratitude that this odd young woman had befriended them. “We would be delighted, if you’re sure it’s not putting you out at all.”

“No,” she said. “Father and I would love to have company.”

The two spots of deep pink appeared again on her high cheekbones. He had thought her plain at first meeting but had begun to see how fine her bone structure was, and how lovely her eyes.

At that moment Dora, thrilled at her new position as nursemaid to Jacob and with her elevated status—going for a ride in Lady Theresa Barclay’s gig!—approached with her young charge’s hand firmly held in her own. Jacob was nervous at first and pulled back at the sight of the open gig.

Theresa jumped down and led Jacob around to talk to her horse. James couldn’t hear what she said, but he could see that she had a way of hunching down and gazing directly into Jacob’s eyes. His son reached up and petted the velvety nose of the mare, and when they came back to the side of the carriage happily clambered up into the gig and onto Dora’s lap as Lady Theresa, with James’s help, climbed up and took the reins.

“We’ll meet you at two then,” she said brightly, with a brisk snap of the reins.

He watched her competent handling of the mare and the steady gait of her horse and tried not to worry. But why did he have the feeling that something was up that he should know about?

 

• • •

 

Theresa guided the gig expertly down the country lane. A side glance told her that Dora was afraid of the high, open vehicle but was doing her best to conceal her fear, for Jacob’s sake or perhaps her own.

“I’ve never had an accident,” she said gently.

Dora, clutching tightly onto Jacob and the edge of her seat, said, “No, my lady.”

“Do you know Mr. Gudge, Dora?”

“Yes, ma’am. He’s my great-uncle.”

“Wonderful. This will be a family visit for you, then.”

“Oh, I don’t know him to speak to him. Me mum calls him an evil old man and willna let me father visit.”

Theresa bit back a smile. “I expect that is just because Mr. Gudge has a liking for ale and gin. It’s how he broke his leg, though he won’t confess it. But regardless, he’s an intelligent old man. I like him.”

They pulled up outside the cottage, a ramshackle home cobbled together with daub and wattle, some wood, and a dash of luck. Theresa jumped down from the carriage, took Jacob from Dora, and said, “Dora, if you would prefer to stay out here and wait, that will be fine.”

“If you don’t mind, my lady,” she said. She held on to the side of the gig as she stepped down. “My pa would be that put out if he was to find out I’d gone into the old man’s hut when he is not even allowed. And me mum would skin me alive.”

“Well, we can’t have that.”

Theresa led her mare to a shady spot to crop grass and then took Jacob by the hand as she entered the man’s cottage without knocking. They were old friends, she and Mr. Gudge. He had been game master of her father’s estate, and there was not another person in the county who knew so much about rabbits and partridge, quail and voles.

Jacob hung back at first, but when she gazed directly into his eyes, his trust shone on his solemn face and he followed her with no more tugging backward.

“Mr. Gudge, I’ve brought a visitor.”

The old man was at his ease in a chair by the window, using daylight to carve his wooden animal figures. Since he couldn’t get about on his own just then, he was dependent upon whatever she chose to bring him, and she chose not to bring him spirits. At first he had been in a foul mood because of it, but he had steadily improved, and the apothecary had been surprised when last he had visited the old man to find him almost healed, though he was not a bit better, to hear him tell it. She suspected his malingering was brought about by an unexpected enjoyment of the attention his invalidism had attracted. Perhaps he would soon have reason to have a miraculous recovery.

“Who have you brought to plague me, then?” he said querulously.

“This is Master Jacob Martindale. Jacob, this is Mr. Gudge.”

The two sized each other up for a few long minutes in the dull light of the odorous cottage. Gudge stuffed some tobacco from an oilskin pouch into a dark wood pipe and lit it from a taper set near the fire, but his eyes never left the boy’s face. Jacob’s consideration was equally silent.

Theresa watched the old man’s eyes. She could read the flickering thoughts, almost as if they were writ on a page. He was intrigued. Because he was a miserable old cuss, folks dismissed Gudge as lacking in intelligence, but the opposite was true. He could not abide fools and so drove most people away, since, in his own words, most people were fools.

But he had loved Lady Leighton with a devotion no one suspected but Theresa. They had mourned together when she died. Ever since, she had been sincerely attached to him as a reminder of her mother, and how that lady’s spirit lived on in those who loved her.

Theresa reminded him of the girl she had brought to visit the last time and then said, “Jacob is Angelica’s brother, the son of Mr. James Martindale, new tenant of Meadowlark Mansion.”

“Ah. That so.”

The two, boy and old man, stared at each other for a moment longer, then Gudge took another knife up from his side table and a block of wood, and handed them to Jacob. “See what you can make outta this, boy,” he said gruffly, staring directly into the child’s eyes.

Theresa left the two to sit alone for a while as she made tea, some sandwiches for the old man’s luncheon and soup for his supper. She unpacked some more dainties, washed dishes and put them away. Folks in the village would be amazed to see her doing such menial chores. She could just hire him some help, but she knew he would hate that. Soon he would be on his feet again and able to do for himself. Until then, she would do his chores.

She called out the window for Dora to bring her a pail of water from the well, then tidied the last of the crumbs and leftovers away, putting them into a pail and handing them to Dora to give to Mr. Gudge’s pig in the hut behind the cottage.

Housework done, she came back to the two who carved in silence.

Jacob, his narrow face intensely focused, carved with quick strokes that took Theresa’s breath away, so frightening was it to see his deft hands flash and move, the blade like quicksilver. But in another moment he was done and held up his handiwork to the light.

Theresa gazed, astonished, at the marvel he had wrought in the hour they had been there. It was a tree, but it roiled with life. Squirrels—clumsy but clearly squirrels—chased each other in circles on the trunk and birds, some in flight, were attached to the tree limbs by just the most tenuous tip of their wings. The leaves practically fluttered and danced, there was such life in the little carving. It was crude, but there was a mysterious power to it.

She let her breath out. “Amazing,” she sighed. “Jacob,” she continued, taking his face in her hands and staring into his eyes. “That is a lovely piece of carving. Would you like to take it for your papa to see?” He nodded. “Okay. Run along outside for a moment while I talk to Mr. Gudge alone.”

He handed the old man back his knife and gazed at him for a minute.

“You’re welcome, lad. Come back any time.”

Jacob bounced out to show Dora his tree, and her glad cries and exclamations could be heard through the open window.

“You have made a friend.”

“He’s all right,” he grunted. “Silent. That’s always a good thing in a child.”

“However, some in the village don’t like him. They’re afraid of him because he’s different.”

“Pack of fools, the lot of them.”

“Some. Some just easily led. And some believe whatever they’re told.” She told him about Mrs. Greavely, Dame Alice and the housekeeper, Mrs. Hurst, and the groom who said Jacob had “the evil eye.”

He snorted through her story and then gazed at her shrewdly. “An’ what do you want from me, eh?”

“I’ll tell you what I want, and I’ll tell you what I am prepared to do to get it.”

A half hour later she left the cottage, singing an old tune. Time to collect cress in her secret spot with Jacob and Dora, then go home to luncheon and to see James Martindale again. Why that should give her such a trill of happiness she would not examine, in light of her dreams the night before, dreams brought on by vervain under her pillow, or something much more insidious.

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