Read an Excerpt
(From The Fisherman's Lady)
Though the day would soon grow warm, the early coastal chill cut straight to the bone. The rising sun would have to work to thaw the damp earth, nearly frozen from the hours of darkness. Likewise, as the sun began to beat down on certain inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhood, it met a similar resistance to its warmth. For they too had been in darknessbut of a different kind.
Dawn was about to break in upon Portlossie and its people. But none would have imagined the light that would gradually engulf them, would spring from one whose light had just gone out and who now lay dead in an upper room of an old house overlooking the Seaton from the town above. Griselda Campbell had been a little-known and even lesser-understood enigma who had lived the past twenty years of her lonely life as a virtual recluse with a distant relative. Her passing in the very prime of life was greeted by those few who knew her not so much with mourning as with curiosity.
Griselda's life was shrouded in mystery. But hers was not the only past kept carefully shielded from would-be intruders. As she had long ago withdrawn into the seclusion of her inner thoughts, so had several others. And now it seemed the secret which bound them all together would go quietly to the grave with poor Griselda. For she alone had held the missing piece to the puzzle without which none of the others would ever know the full scope of the truth. Indeed, it was a cold morning and would have been colder still had anyone known the extent of Griselda's long and painful silence.
Margaret Horn shivered and pulled her sweater more tightly around her broad shoulders as she closed the door to the empty room where rested the body of her departed third cousin. She turned back to the room on her right to rejoin her early caller, whom she had left for a moment. How bitterly cold a corpse can be, she thought to herself. And on this particular morning the sun was having unusual difficulty warming the heart of Margaret Horn which was steeling itself against all intrusions, especially the one most feared of allthe feeling of grief.
"No, no. I've got no feelings, I'm thankful to say. I never knew any good to come to them," she said as she returned.
"Nobody would have ever accused you of them, mem," said her visitor, Mrs. Mellis, the wife of the town dry-goods dealer who had called ostensibly to console her, but in actuality to see the corpse.
"Indeed, I've always had enough sense just to do what I had to do without interfering," went on Miss Horn. A brief silence followed.
"Ah, she was taken young," sighed the visitor with long-drawn tones.
"Not that young," returned Miss Horn; "she was nearly thirty-eight."
"Well, she had a sad time of it, anyway."
"Not that sad, as far as I can seeand who should know better? She had sheltered quarters here, and would have, as long as I was seeing to it."
"But she was a patient creature with everyone," persisted Mrs. Mellis, not to be foiled in her attempt to draw out some word of acknowledgment from the former companion of the deceased.
"Indeed she was that! And a bit too patient with some. But that came of having more heart than brains. Now she had feelings! But it's a pity she didn't have the judgment to match, for she never doubted anybody enough. But it doesn't matter now, for she's gone where all that's less important. For one that has the harmlessness of the dove in this wicked world, there's a flock of them that has the wisdom of the serpent. And the serpents make sad work of the doves."
"Well, you're right there," said Mrs. Mellis. "And as you say, she was easy enough to persuade. I have no doubt she believed to the very last he would come back and marry her."
"Come back and marry her! What do you mean? I tell you, Mistress Mellis, if you dare to hint at another word of such gossip, you'll be less familiar with this side of my door from now on!" The hawk eyes of Miss Horn glared.
Mrs. Mellis's voice trembled with something like fear as she replied, "God guide us, Miss Horn! What have I said to make you look at me like that?"
"Said!" repeated Miss Horn. "There's hardly no gossip in all the countryside but what comes from you. And it's all trash. It's small thanks you'll get for it here! And with her lying there just in the other room as she'll lie till the judgment day. Poor thing!"
"I'm sure I meant no offense, Miss Horn," said her visitor. "I thought everybody knew she was sick over him."
"Over who, in the name of the father of lies?"
"Oh, that long-legged doctor that set out for the Indies and died before he was across the equator. Only folks said he wasn't dead and would be home again when she was married."
"It's all lies from head to foot."
"Well, it's plain to see she pined away after he left and was never herself againyou don't deny that?"
"It's all heresay," persisted Miss Horn in a softened tone. "She cared no more about the man than I did myself. She pined, I grant you. And he went away. But the wind blows and the water runs, and the one has little to do with the other."
"Well, I'm sorry I said anything to offend you. And now, with your leave, I'll just go and take one last look at her, poor thing."
"Indeed, you'll do nothing of the kind! I'll let nobody glower at her that would go and spread such gossip, Mistress Mellis. To say that such a dove as my Grizel, poor, soft-hearted, winsome thing, would have looked twice at any such serpent as him! No, no, mem. Go your way and come back straight from your prayers tomorrow morning. By that time she'll be quiet in her coffin and I'll be quiet in my temper. Then I'll let you see hermaybe."
Mrs. Mellis rose in considerable displeasure and with a formal farewell walked from the room, casting a curious glance as she left in the direction of the room in which the body lay. She descended the stairs slowly as if on every step she deliberated whether the next would bear her weight. Miss Horn, who had followed her to the head of the stair, watched her out of sight below the landing. She then turned back into the parlor, but with a lingering look toward the opposite room, as if she saw through the closed door what lay white on the bed.
"It's God's mercy I have no feelin's," she said to herself. "To match up my poor Grizel with such a flighty man as that! Ah, poor Grizel. She's gone from me like a knotless thread."
Miss Horn's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the latch of the street door, and she sprang from her chair in anger.
"Can't they let her sleep for five minutes!" she cried aloud.
But after a moment's reflection she thought, "It'll probably just be Jean coming in from the pump."
But hearing no footsteps along the passage to the kitchen, she concluded, "No, it can't be her, for she goes about the house like a new-shod colt." She went downstairs to see who might have thus presumed to enter unbidden.
In the kitchen, the floor of which was as white as scrubbing could make it and sprinkled with sea sand, sat a woman of about sixty years of age whose plump face to the first glance looked kindly; to the second, cunning; to the third, evil. Her deep-set, black, bright eyes, glowing from under the darkest of eyebrows, had a fascinating influenceso much so that at first meeting one was not likely for a time to notice any other of her features. She rose as Miss Horn entered, buried a fat fist in her soft side and stood silent.
"Well?" said Miss Horn.
"I thought you might be wanting one of my calling?"
"No, no. There's no hand that lays a finger on the bairn but my own," said Miss Horn. "I've had it all finished before the light of day. She's lying quiet nowvery quietwaiting on Watty Witherspail. When he brings the coffin, we'll lay her into it and be done with it."
"Well, mem, for a lady born and bred like yourself, I must say you're taking it unusually composed."
"I'm not aware, Mistress Catanach, of any necessity laid upon you to speak your mind in this house. I don't expect it. And anyway, why shouldn't I take it with composure? We'll all have to take our turn before long, composed as we have the grace to be, and go out like a dying candleyes, and leave our memories behind us."
"It's not that much of a memory I expect to leave behind me, Miss Horn," said the woman.
"The less the better," murmured Miss Horn, but her unwelcome visitor went on.
"Them that's most in my debt knows least about it. It's God's truth, I know worse than I ever did, mem. A person in my trade can't help falling in among bad company once in a while, for we're all born in sin and brought forth in iniquity, as the Book says. But you know the likes of me mustn't tell tales. All the same, if you don't take the help of my hands, you won't refuse me the sight of my eyes, poor thing?"
"There's none shall look upon her dead that wasn't a pleasure to her living. And you know well enough, Bawby, she couldn't bear the sight of you."
"And good reason she had for that too, if what goes through my mind before I fall asleep nights when I'm thinking to myself be the truth. Of course it may be no better than an old wives' fable dreamt up by my imagination."
"What do you mean?" demanded Miss Horn sternly.
"I know what I mean myself, and one that's not content with that is ill-prepared to be a midwife. I would just like to get a certain fancy out of my head that's been in my memory many a long year. But, please yourself, mem, if you don't be neighborly. I'll just have to harbor my suspicions privately yet a while longer."
"You'll not go near her!not to save you from all the ill dreams that ever gathered about you," cried Miss Horn.
"Gently, gently," said Mrs. Catanach. "Don't anger me too much, for I am but mortal. Folk take a lot from you, Miss Horn, that they'll take from no one else. For your temper's well known. But it's an ill-fared thing to anger the midwifeso much lies with her. And I'm not in the mood to put up with it today. I wonder at your being so unneighborlyat such a time too, with a corpse in the house."
"Go away. It's my house!" said Miss Horn, in a low, hoarse voice, restraining herself from rising to tempest pitch only by the consciousness of what lay in the room just above her. "I would as soon let a cat into the dead-chamber to go loping all over the corpse as I would let you into it, Bawby Catanach. And there's to you."
At this moment the opportune entrance of Jean afforded fitting occasion for Miss Horn to leave the room without encountering the dilemma of either turning the woman outa proceeding which Mrs. Catanach, from the way in which she set her short, stout figure squarely on the floor seemed ready to resistor of herself abandoning the field in discomfort. She turned and marched from the kitchen with her head in the air and the gait of one who has been insulted on her own premises.
She was sitting in the parlor, still red-faced and wrathful, when Jean entered, closed the door behind her, and drew near to her mistress. She bore a narrative of all she had seen, heard, and done while "out on the town." But Miss Horn interrupted the moment she began to speak.
"Is that woman out of the house, Jean?" she asked, waiting for an affirmative answer as a preliminary condition for all further conversation.
"She's gone, mem," answered Jeanadding to herself in a wordless thought, "I'm not saying where."
"She's a woman I wouldn't have you go around with, Jean."
"I don't know anything wrong with her, mem," returned Jean.
"She's enough to corrupt a churchyard," said her mistress with more force than fitness.
Jean, however, was on the shady side of fifty and was more likely to have yielded already than to be liable to a first assault of corruption. And little did Miss Horn think how useless was her warning or where Barbara Catanach was at the very moment. Trusting to Jean's cunning, as well she might, she was in the dead-chamber and standing over the dead. She had folded back the sheetnot from the face, but from the feet and raised the night dress of fine linen in which the love of her cousin had robed the dead for the repose of the tomb.
"It would have been better for her," she muttered, "to have spoken fair gto me. I'm not used to being treated so foul like that. But I'll get even with her yet, I'm thinkingthe old goat! ... Losh! And praise be thanked! There it is. A bit darker, but the samejust where I could have laid the point of my finger on it in the dark. Now let the worms eat it," she concluded as she folded down the linen of shroud and sheet. "And no mortal knows of it but myself and him that would have been behooved to see it, if he was a bit better than Glenkindie's man in the old ballad."
The instant she had rearranged the garments of the dead, she turned and made for the door with a softness of step that strangely contrasted with the ponderousness of her figure, indicating great muscular strength. She opened it with noiseless circumspection to an inch, peeped out from the crack and, seeing the opposite door of the parlor still shut, stepped out with a swift, noiseless swing of person and door simultaneously, closed the door behind her, stole down the stairs and left the house. Not a board creaked, not a latch clicked as she went. She stepped into the street as sedately as if she had come from paying to the dead the last offices of her composite calling.
Malcolm (2-in-1) by George MacDonald
Copyright © 1982, Michael R. Phillips
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.