Until the day I fled for Portsmouth, when my senses partially returned, I was seriously ill and only partly capable of occasional flashes of rational thinking. Yes, I must not only have a type of temporary amnesia, but according to Sedwick, a momentary lapse of reason.
[From Sedwick’s narrative after I regained awareness:]
urthermore, Sedwick can tell what happened concisely, as he did to me in one of my lucid moments in the days following:
fter returning from London through Surrey, I regained the Bayley Road and went charging westward, through the horrid weather, spewing mud as I went, yet with the fresh horses I made good time. I admit, I was apprehensive, rushing through these tunnel like woods in a severe gale, in a area known for witches and highwaymen was like a bad ghost story; yet I was more likely the only phantom of the night. I crossed the bridge late, I estimate two or three hours after dusk, but I didn’t check the time. I slowed down briefly to look for signs of you and made a note to myself to be aware along the way ahead if you’d been caught out late in the gale walking. I saw nothing unusual from the bridge all the way to the inn; except one instance. Ah, I remember—a little before reaching the bridge crossing, I passed someone bundled in a rain cape, riding a gray horse. Whoever they were, man or woman, they pulled a cargo piled on a small cart and covered over in canvas; they rode by slowly paying absolutely no mind to me and saying nothing.
I arrived late at the inn; it was around half past ten or so. The innkeeper was only then clearing tables and the few overnight guests were quietly having a last mug or heading upstairs to bed.
‘Keeper, has Sir Henry gone to bed, I do not see him about,’ I asked the innkeeper.
‘Why no sir, I thought the two of you’re arriving only now.’
‘Why he’s to walk here by late this afternoon! I left him at the bridge to fish awhile late this morning. God, he’s in trouble; I knew I shouldn’t have trusted him.’
‘A far walk alone, for someone not used to the country—if there’s foul play ‘tis hopeless—if he’s lost, we’ll hunt for him—’
‘I saw an odd cart with a figure on horseback, a mile or so from the bridge. At this hour, in such a storm who could—’
‘That was that crazy Bird Lady. She was here looking for ye both. I told her, ye were off on an excursion. She wanted to stay, but I wouldn’t have it. Rules is rules.’
‘What was in the back of her cart?
‘She sells garden produce. I only buy a little and I did, but what the rest of it is, only the devil knows. I don’t trust her. Was it much?’
‘There was a heap covered in canvas. I can’t believe she’d hurt anyone.’
‘No, perhaps not. She certainly wouldn’t bother a Royal like Sir Henry. My groundskeeper, Sven here, can take us as far as the bridge. Wife! You and the boy guard the inn. Boy, keep the gun loaded by the front desk and lock the doors! We’ll lock the gate as we leave. Mr. Sedwick, follow Sven’s work cart, and I’ll ride with you in the coach—
I said to the innkeeper, ‘You’ll have to ride on top; I’ve no time to empty the coach of Sir Henry’s supplies—I’ve been to London and back this very day to fetch them. Do we have enough lamps?’
‘And I told ya this morning to be careful—should’ve overruled his reckless impulses with some excuse or other. It ain’t no London park, these are wild woods!’
‘Ye know not my master; when he sets his mind on something, nothing will rein him in,’ I retorted.
The keeper was a natural take charge fellow and decided, that we’d check the brook from the bridge down by lamplight; thank God, the rain had abated, but it was still a blustery, windy night, and with no moon, as black as your hat (as the cliché goes!). The keeper kept a loaded musket on his lap the whole ride, and with Sven leading by horse and packing a hurricane lamp, we avoided the worst washouts and ruts on the roads. Though he didn’t like Miss Aldwych, he felt she was not a culprit in Mr. Henry’s disappearance; furthermore, he reasoned, she was our best hope for any information and help.
‘Pull over now! Careful, do not sink her into the culvert there!’ We parked alongside the bridge just off the road. ‘Sven, guard the coach, what with all that loot in the cabin. I’ve the pistol; ye take the musket. We’ll take yer mount, ‘case we need to bring up an injured man. Sedwick, carry a lamp; I’ll take the other. Now which direction did ye see him go this morning?’
He knew the way well, and found cow paths I’d never have seen. The cows always followed the same beaten tracks to drink. This was a grazing area for local farmers, though nobody owned the land. We saw no signs of any of your effects, Mr. Henry, along the stream, but we saw your footprints. Finally, the keeper came to a meadow, the one ye just told me was the last place ye remembered being. The keeper said, ‘twas unlikely you would have ventured through the thickets further beyond; they being so impenetrable. He took the horse to the center, near a broken tree trunk—tying the horse to graze. Here we found the horrible effects that I gathered and brought to Hilda’s; but no body or any sign of my master.
‘There. That’s his shoulder bag; strewn there,’ I said.
‘What’s this? Looks like his fishing pole; what’s left of it.’ said the keeper, picking it up ten yards from the tree trunk. ‘The bag was over yonder. Look at that jagged trunk, near the top. D’ye see anything strange?’
‘Yes; a gaping hole, freshly torn in it.’
‘And his pole is charred and splintered. How long was it did he say? Nine feet? Nothin’ but three now. He’s been struck by a demon I’d say.’
‘Nonsense, Keeper. Why shouldn’t it be a thunderbolt? Has rained all evening; ye still see flashes way off yonder!’
‘Tis a judgment just the same. Of God or the Devil’s!’
Then I asked him to hand me the pack, so I could search it. I was looking for the watch in particular. I found it, some tackle, and yer rather tattered, fishing book by Walton. I was amazed!
‘Here’s his watch. I told him to put it inside the flap and he did. Look! Stopped exactly at six minutes after six on the clock! He ignored my advice—I told him to head back well before sunset! Something struck him exactly at that hour and moment. I say ‘twas lightning—‘
‘I say ‘tis a curse!’ The keeper countered.
‘Whatever, the watch is not charred—unlike his rod.’ I shook it and it began to tick.’
‘Then surely ‘twas no thunderbolt. I’m for getting out! ‘Tis a den of the damned; there’s witches like in Hamlet in these woods—
‘I’m surprised you read Shakespeare; and that’s Macbeth not Hamlet.’ I said rather insultingly.
‘I don’t; I go to the plays is what I’m driving at,’ he said. ‘Anyhow, serves ‘em right for messing with that weird fly-fishing; why, they probably thought he was a diviner or a priest.’
We searched for his body; it wasn’t in the meadow where we had gone so far. He must have survived. However, I couldn’t see how ye could survive a thunderbolt striking you.
‘More likely dragged away by a beast or a demon!’
‘Why not a robber or a highwayman,’ I asked?
‘Cause they afraid as any God-fearing pastor’s son would be of the Devil in these woods at night. The trodden road is where the silver is. Highwaymen, bold as they are, stay away from desolate spots and prey on the civilized.’
The keeper got down to earth and issued his plan: ‘I’ll go no further into these evil woods; search the way back. Hilda may know something. I trust her not for a tinker’s pay, I do not, but, she’s the only one to help—I’ll take ye to her cottage, then I’m heading back to the inn.’
e could go no further up the drive with our city carriage, so we parked it up from the yard, the innkeeper saying he would go no further. He jumped aboard his cart with Sven, they wished me well, and they were off, on the way back to the inn. I stood for a few moments examining the yard, then paced hesitantly towards the house; not tumble-down by any means, but an old plank dwelling of two stories, with a porch and a woodshed attached, in need of a whitewashing and some repair. Yet, the front yard was as neat as any suburban lawn in Chelsea, with various gardens dug out of a nice meadow grass, each in a different geometric shape. There were trellis-climbing plants all along the veranda, as far as I could see in the lamplight. An oil lamp hung from the patio over the front door. I noticed, as expected, that most of her plants were indeed herbs and flowers, with many bird-feeder platforms stationed along the way, as well as birdbaths. On one side near the shed was a small orchard, with what looked like a knarled, apple tree in its center. There were strangely formed rocks, obviously intentionally set around these gardens and in the orchard. The up-sloping side yard led to what looked like her produce garden, with a strange circle of rocks that was some type of fire-pit, nearby.
It must be getting on midnight; after the rain, mist was forming; I admit, I was uneasy and getting more superstitious with each step. A sudden breeze blew through the yard, clearing out the mist, rattling the many wind chimes I saw hanging from the porch fascia. It sent a singular shiver along my spine, but I mustered courage forward; strangely, this Hilda Aldwych did not appear at the door to greet whomever it was she expected. She might have heard us rumble up in the dead of night but perhaps not.
With the lamp burning, a multitude of evening insects swirled at its glowing glass-enclosed flame: moths, midges, fishing flies (or what Sir Henry calls the Mayflies), and other winged critters. In the distance, an eerie beating sound vibrated in the meadow. Luckily, I was educated enough in local fauna to identify it as the meadow ‘snipe’ or woodcock; thanks to having occasional recourse to your library books. An owl suddenly hooted in the birches near the side porch; large wings beat across the sky between the light and my position, throwing a frightened shadow on the grass, terrifying some field mice and me. God knows if I should now see a bat, I would expect the innkeeper’s rumors to be true . An owl that flies before ye at night is said to be an omen of death foreboding. However, thanks to the educated influence of Sir Henry, I collected myself, and examined the proposition that since they eat mice and insects, there was no better station at night for an owl than near a dimly lit yard.
Best to get it over quickly; I rapped hard with the brass knocker, which was in the shape of a lion’s head. At the third and final knock, the porch lamp suddenly snuffed. Suspicious, I turned, felt a sudden breeze, assumed this the cause; I was about to call out when a small white dove landing on a whicker chair to my left startled me. There was a shuffle of feet, a creaking of stairs; a candle flared in my face, blinding me a moment, then, through a partly opened door: ‘Is that ye Mr. Sedwick?’
‘Aye, is that ye Bird Woman? Are ye working charms or am I imagining things? The lamp just now extinguished as I knocked thrice. Moreover, this dove, and an owl by yer house, forebodes that no good can come of this. Do ye know where Sir Henry is? There’ve been strange happenings this night.’
‘The signs ye beheld are normal, into which ye are reading dire things. I’ve rescued Sir Henry this foul night from greater harm. Come in.’
‘I demand woman, how? If ye’ve done harm to him, ye shall pay!’
‘Contrary, fine sir. I found him walking dazed and confused along the road, returning in the squalls from the inn where I hoped to find ye. He was going in the opposite direction; soaked, dirty, and incoherent, he collapsed in my arms. I figured he fell victim to robbers, escaped; or had some dire accident. I think I passed yer carriage, but I can take no chances. If the locals found me carrying an injured man, they’d accuse me of witchcraft. It seems he’s fallen, but his cloak was torn and singed. He had an encounter with something or someone, or perhaps a thunderbolt struck him. He has no open wound, so gunshot is not likely.’
‘Aye woman. The keeper and I found his personal effects in a meadow by the Wormwood, where I’d left him to fish late this morning. I hope ‘tis not witchery, but I too scoff at these things. I’ve never heard of a man survive the wrath of God. Then again, he is no ordinary fellow.’
‘He’s in my bedchamber, unable to speak—has opened his eyes and looked at me without recognition a few times.
Here in the side room—look at him, Mr. Sedwick. I’ve spent the last hours puzzling over it myself. I only wish to save him from further ill. When he awoke once, I gave him a remedy for shock, but he could swallow little.’
‘Do not give him strange brews, woman! Let’s get him to the inn and a physician!’
‘Think what ye say! A doctor? To do what? Bleed him? Unless ye can get back to Culpepper, I would put yer trust in me. That local hack’s true trade is butcher and tool smith.’
‘Aye, I suppose ye’re sincere after all.’
We sat by yer bedside Sir, talking to you. Ye did open your eyes, but they had an empty hollow stare. I remembered about your field bag, where I had found your watch stopped when ye were struck. I’d yet to search all its contents. ‘Bird Lady, lend me a lamp. Outside, where I parked the carriage, I’ll retrieve his fishing bag. I wish to show it to you and search its contents.’
I returned shortly without incident. ‘Look, we found his watch, here in his bag, which is singed by the force. It’s exactly stopped at six minutes after six on the clock! Or it was; I shook it, it began to tick, has stopped again, and now shows exactly seven. What d’ye make of that?’
‘Not much. He was struck at that precise moment, if ‘tis true . A strange series of sixes, means bad luck—if ye do of curse—I mean of course, believe in that cheat.’
‘Woman, do not toy with me!’
‘…A slip of tongue that’s all. Search his bag further. D’ye see if he ever found the St. Michael’s flower he was looking for—without my guidance, I add.’
I searched your bag. We found your book, I saw the pressed leaves extruding from the pages. Miss Aldwych, stated they were not the plague plant, without the flowers. They seemed undisturbed, so we assumed ye did not consume any. Then at the bag’s bottom I found a damp parchment, with roots wrapped in it. She was amazed that they were neatly washed. Then she was worried. They were cut, and she was certain they were the deadly Water Hemlock, not the St. Michael’s plant. Further inspection brought the finding of the sketches, those labeled: Arch Angelica, roots: to prepare tonic.
‘If he partook of those roots, in his haste, I assure ye he’s a dead man walking—if he rises again from this bed. He’ll have nightmarish visions, then fits, and finally spasms, until his breath stops, his skin turns purple—ah, and what of those boils—those swellings on his arms. Pull up his shirt, Mr. Sedwick.’
‘What arm was it? No matter, both arms are clean! They’ve vanished madam!’
‘Strange indeed! Perhaps a fiery healing, or as I said, dropsy, but not the plague!’ She felt your forehead.
‘His shirt is damp again,’ I said.
‘He beads with sweat—a fever on his brow now,’ said the Bird Lady. ‘We must give him an antidote I’ve used, just in case, and hope he didn’t take the hemlock.’
‘Or your potions are killing him!’ I declared.
‘Sir, trust me, I know my herbs. Sir Henry himself said he’s a believer. Culpepper would do the same. Besides, if he’s been struck and somehow miraculously survived, he may come to, but lose his senses. He may not remember much.’
‘If only ye can get him to drink; ‘tis all we can do,’ I said.
e sat by your bedside all the rest of night. Late towards morning, ye seemed to be dreaming strongly and strangely:
Unexpectedly, that damned owl appeared on the outside windowsill. It seemed too strange a coincidence for me, what with you turning restlessly in your bed, and making some of the first vocal sounds we’d heard. Then you mumbled in your sleep, perhaps related to your nightmares. At first it seemed as so much jumbled rubbish, but soon Miss Aldwych claimed you were praying, calling on St. Michael, or perhaps something related to him that ye beheld. I admit, I feared the owl had something to do with it. I suspected the worse, and thought you were dying. We clearly made out these phrases:
“I have the Angelica, Archangel. Show me my three salvations. Give me the Arch angelica.”
There were other such words and broken phrases we could make out as you sweated in a feverish nightmare:
“Thou dost promise salvations three,
By which the last, ye shall resurrect me.
Drink a holy water, blest with thy flower,
And so break the curse of Sycorax, her hastening hour.”
True to form, ye rhymed, composing in your fervor, couplet and tuplet that meant little to me. The Bird Lady said it was a promise of a healing in three stages, if we followed through with your treatment as Culpepper had suggested. Giving you the tincture of Angelica could do no harm, although she was not sure what your illness was, if that is for what your dreaming soul yearned.
I for one, asked her of the owl, was it not a sign of looming death—was not this a final rite of passage rather than a prayer. She prepared a tonic of Angelica properly, using a small amount of liquor to taint it, and administered to you with my help and some difficulty. Towards dawn, you fell strangely immobile, your chest hardly heaving with breath, your eyeballs fixed to the ceiling, only the whites showing; it was almost as though you were already dead. Miss Aldwych, calmer than I should say I was, felt your pulse; it was weakly beating. At dawn, you suddenly sat up in bed, your eyes full and bright, but seemingly unaware of our presence. You were spellbound, and you were pointing to something or someone, as though they were here in the room with you. I greatly regretted having let that Miss Aldwych proceed, remembering the innkeeper’s suspicions. You excitedly mouthed phrases that were absolute gibberish, even to the Bird Lady. Then you suddenly and quietly demanded more Angelica, as though in custody of your full senses, which Miss Aldwych, at my weak protests, obliged. Your fever gone, you peacefully fell back to sleep for a few hours, rising later in the morning. You sanely beheld us at late breakfast, knowing our names, but as I questioned you, you could remember nothing of last night’s events. You seemed to be able to trace your awareness only back to that late evening fishing, but couldn’t tell me how you came to be wandering forlornly along the road, nor remember Miss Aldwych taking you to her cottage.
There was the traditional afternoon tea (of which she had the grandest selections from her herb garden, but also from the Far East); she began to inquire as to Henry’s plans.
‘After such a harrowing experience last night, where will ye go and what will ye do Sir Henry? Ye seem to have had a remarkable recovery. Perhaps it is the Angelica; but to be lightning struck and live. Have you no symptoms even now?’
‘I do have a headache—what makes you so certain I was struck by a thunderbolt? And my eyesight is blurred at times—look, see my left eye is twitching now and again. There’s pain—‘
‘I suggest another tonic for headache, or a tea of—'
‘No, no—I mean, you’ve done so much already. I’ve had a healing; these are after effects, leave well enough alone. May I choose a fine eastern tea?’
‘I often go to trade in Portsmouth, where they can be had for wholesale. This is from Ceylon.’
‘Ah, I remember. Sedwick, weren’t we going there to see the ships? I want to look at navigation and weather instruments, perhaps to buy. Then visit the Royal Merchant Office. Perhaps they’ll cut me a deal…’
‘So you remember something. Postponed, in lieu of you trying that crazy fly-fishing. If only we’d gone instead—‘
‘Whatever happened, happened. We’ll go tomorrow; Hilda here can come as guide if she wishes.’
Hilda, being the motherly type, could not help but ‘prescribe’ a course of ‘recovery’ for Mr. Henry. I could see that Mr. Henry was about to brush this off and make a pronouncement, but then he reconsidered, perhaps thinking of all she had done to save his life. I know my master; it would not change his mind, if indeed he had already made his decision.
‘Your tea gentlemen. Honey, a bit of goat’s milk if you prefer. Ye need to recuperate Sir, before you dash off,’ said Hilda. ‘Do ye not think ye should stay for a week? There’s my girl, Celeste, on your lap for a change,’ said Hilda, as one of her longhaired cats jumped up on Mr. Henry’s lap. ‘Now girl down—‘
‘No, quite alright. I like cats. That reminds me—didn’t I have a cat of my own—what was his name. Where is he?
‘Newton, Sir,’ said Sedwick. ‘Ye took him to Drury. No cats at home, remember.’
‘My wife, uh. Well she had no business—well, see to it when you return, that he’s fed—moreover, bring him to your cottage. It’s spring, he can live outdoors, right Mr. Sedwick?’
‘Mr. Sedwick, sir? Where’re you going, if I may inquire?’
‘—perhaps Hilda can adopt the cat, she’s already in that line of keeping anyway’
‘Mr. Henry—I meant Sir,’ said Hilda, ‘of course I’ll adopt your cat.’
‘You need not call me Sir. I’ll only give him up if necessary; as to where I’m going, why the Earl of Margate’s of course. That is what we decided isn’t it, Mr. Sedwick? I’m not ready to return home and all those householder chores.’
‘Ye never call me Mr Sedwick, Sir.’
Dinner (by candlelight) was a vegetable lover’s delight! Strange, the locals thought this gardener and animal lover a witch, yet, she ate nothing of blood and meat except an occasional fish. Beyond milk, cheese, and eggs, most of her diet (as she was proud to say) was grown by her own hands. Moreover, those animal by-products, she seldom had to buy, having a cow, three chickens, and two goats. Perhaps they hated her for her independence; she contributed little to ‘their’ local economy.
‘I will retire earlier than either of you may wish,’ said Henry. ‘But go on talking—Hilda, where shall I sleep?’
‘Where you bedded last night is fine, I changed the linens. Are you feeling well?’
‘The cordials you served, for once, soothed my pain but have me dizzy a bit. Where will you and Sedwick sleep?’
‘The guest room upstairs and I’ll be in the adjoining room to yours, in the event you need me.’
‘Why not take the big bed for yourself, I’ll take the cot.’
‘I often give my bed to guests. You need the comfort after your ordeal,’ said Hilda.
oon exhausted from the meal, the liquors, and perhaps a lingering effect of my ordeal, I fell asleep with ease.
When I had undressed to my under garments, and got into the fresh, lilac-scented linens she’d prepared, I sensed not only a woman’s fine sense of order (and cleanliness), but also a sexual undercurrent. I was too tired to pay it much heed and dosed off. Her home was orderly, the opposite of what some might lead you to believe of such a woman.
After brushing my teeth, I’d noticed by my watch, that I had reset by Hilda’s clock that it was near eleven o’clock. I set it on the table near my bedside. When I suddenly awoke, after dozing off, I saw a candle put in the side room where Hilda was to sleep. There was only a divider between the two rooms, and she had pulled it aside. There was a mirror against the wall and she was undressing. By my watch it was around midnight; I laid on my back with my head turned to that side and couldn’t help but be a voyeur—she no doubt wished it, though acted as though I was not there. In the weak glow of a candle, everything loses the hard details and all looks both more sensual and beautiful, perhaps more so than it is—but, as I said, she was not in any way an unattractive woman for one in her early 40’s. She was one of few women her age who could still look handsome in long hair—which, just graying, had an undertone of fading blonde. She must have been a beauty in her twenties, and being blonde, a rarity, (perhaps it was her northern ancestry). She was isolated more so because of it. She had good, bright teeth, and was a slender woman, though well proportioned in her frame.
After removing her blouse and skirt, her comely form was revealed dressed only in a type of corset of black lace and red satin, which laced up the back, facing me, ended at mid-torso, leaving her shoulders bared. It was unusually brief in the buttocks and she had stockings gartered to it. After brushing out her hair, she tied it up again in a ball on her head, using a ribbon of red; she bent over a basin before the mirror and washed her face. She also was one to brush her teeth, as I, using a paste, no doubt made of her herbals, which she stirred in a small wooden bowl. She powdered her face, after drying; put on silver tasseled earrings that hung down with pearly looking stones; I realized her simple rustic lifestyle belied hidden wealth. She must long for a more aristocratic life; the wealth she had, no doubt, a product of her exploits in Portsmouth or her cryptic past, which may have been peppered with prostitution, for she was likely much desired when young. Yet, she was no princess. She’d worn a simple wood bead necklace, with a silver chalice hung above her round, full breasts most of the day. She now removed it, and decorated her neck with a bright choke that glinted richly with silver and glass globes in the wavering candlelight. Rather elaborate I thought, for one who was going to bed.
By now, I surmised her plan; I should have protested about the choice of quarters—it is easier to avoid temptation than to resist it. I should turn away to the other side, however, like some charm, or animal attraction, I was mesmerized; I didn’t move a muscle. Was she aware I was awake? In any case, I’m only human and a man at that—but I would have no part of making love to her if that were her intentions; I hoped I’d be strong enough. I was married, though since yesterday, I couldn’t get a clear picture in my mind of either my wife or my children. Why? Was this by some charm? If charmer she was, it did not seem the Black Art, but perhaps magic closer to the old druids, combined with a determined and resourceful talent—her independence. She had made her way in the world without husband or society, yet she was no malicious misanthrope.
When she sat in an armless chair near her lavatory, she ungirdled her stockings and bent over to remove each one: I could see her full round breasts fill the strapless bra cups of her corset’s front piece. I had noticed when I first met her; nature had endowed her in fullest proportion.
She quickly adorned a robe, I could not see if the corset came off, but as she stood, she took her first look in my direction. Now was the time; I rolled over in bed facing the other way. If I kept looking, I might start wanting something I shouldn’t have.
I opened my eyes, I could see the glowing candle flickering on the walls, and growing brighter; I was correct, she was coming. She said nothing, but I pretended I was fast asleep. She bent over the bed and held the candle closer, trying to see if I was awake. I heard her quietly put the holder on the night table and boldly get into the wide bed, (the side that I previously lied in). Gently she put part of the linen over her as though not to wake me, but she must have known I’d awake. She didn’t blow out the candle.
I had two choices: try to sleep through it all, or I could protest. Yet, when she got in bed with me, I unexpectedly felt arousal, no doubt her charms working on me, and the effect of all she had prepared ahead. I thought how in some ways I had sympathy for her. She seemed childless and companionless as far as a mate goes, perhaps if not beyond the age of child birthing, very near it. If I’d not said I was going to Portsmouth tomorrow, she might not have forced my hand. I should not pre-announce things! Was she desperate for affection? Perhaps she had a history of seduction, or did she believe, a man of my station could fall in love with her? She was not without appeal, she had a seductive charm about her that belied she had lived as a feminine acolyte. She knew the powers of seduction, yet she was not evil, rather like a child of untutored nature. There’d be no ignoring her through the night.
I suddenly decided:
‘Miss Aldwych, I must protest! You’re taking advantage of my situation! Perhaps you’ve pre-arranged this—with yer charms.’
‘No, Mr. Henry! Shh,’ she said holding a finger to my mouth to hush me, ‘please, hear me out; I’m not a charmer. I only want a memory to take with me. Is that so much to ask?’ She propped her upper torso up on the bed with her elbow. As she did, the linen fell from her breast, revealing her lovely endowment.
She recovered the sheet with one arm, and I noticed she wore a large ring on her finger in the shape of a butterfly. She was ‘bejeweled to the nines’ as we say, the dying candle gave her an almost overpowering allure, as her choke necklace, ringed finger, and earrings twinkled and glittered in the amber haze. A few locks of her hair came down, as the ribbon loosened, giving her an even more charming look. I noticed her eyes (I hadn’t done so before much); they were a grayish blue. Blue eyes, blonde hair, all thought of by the locals as the product of the devil, no doubt, or a Nordic pagan. I empathized with her. Men had used her for her sexual charms when young and had scorned her later. The same townspeople who on Saturday nights sought her services, on Sundays in church, acted in silent league with their wives as protectors of the truth. Their self-righteous hypocrisy was more disdainful than Hilda’s simple pagan transgressions. She no doubt had to make a living before she turned to her agrarian trade.
‘We cannot make love. I’m a married man. Ye’re seducing me! I will have to leave on the moment.’
‘Quiet. Just give me this one time together with ye. ‘Tis not so bad is it? Your wife, you said, hasn’t been paying much mind to you. You’ll be leaving on your holiday, and we’ll not see each other again. Is it so wrong? Maybe there’s still a chance for me? Almost everyone has scorned me. Whatever have I done to them? You find me unattractive?’
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘For your age you’re most becoming, but—‘ I paused. ‘It is adultery. I know in your situation, it seems a little thing. I do have children.’
‘And I’ve none, and no hope soon forever,’ she said, sighing and a little resigned. However, I sensed she still had her charms to work on me.
‘Where did ye get all this array,’ I said, pointing to the jewels and ribbons.
‘From Portsmouth. I’m a shrewd trader when I have the goods. Ye can get anything in the world there, if ye’ve the mind to.’
‘What’s this?’ I noticed a small tattoo on her bared shoulder.
‘A souvenir—when I was young I waited tables. I was around a lot of sailors.’
‘Ah, I understand.’
‘I’ve paid my dues for what I had do to make my way in the world. It was only a dozen years in my life.’
‘All that time, you could find no one man for a mate?’
‘None—that would stay around. I see you believe in the soul; well, it was this simple life of birds and gardening that saved my soul—but condemned me to be abandoned forever.
I felt her pain; in a moment, I was easing under her spell again. My mind was fuzzy from something; I’m still not sure what. Would one night hurt anyone? She’d saved my life, was not a bad woman, and she sorely needed affection. I turned away; I felt her charms succumbing me. She was strong willed, yet not repulsive in any way. She put her arm around me and pulled herself close—I smelled a scent of herbal fragrance, I couldn’t put my finger on it, and I smelled lilac and lavender from her washing. Her breath was sweet, not dour, and her breasts heaved against my bared arm. I was about to push her away, when she threw the sheet aside (a most determined woman!) I had better make a decision or I will be seduced beyond my better judgment. The robe fell to the sheets, and then slipped off the bed to the floor. Instead of pushing away, I felt weak, then arousal. I pulled her a little closer, and she began to loosen her corset strings with one hand, asking me to help.
“I want to show you another souvenir,” she said breathlessly. I said nothing in return, but I no longer resisted. I undid her corset strings as she slipped the garment down, revealing her exposed breasts, then she unwrapped the top portion to the front, removing it completely. She now was clothed in only her bottom briefs. Above the lace fringe of her panty was her bared naval, inlaid with three tiny pearls, shining lustily in a triangle. It looked like a tiny ship.
‘I see you are as creative in your personal adornments, as in your home.’ I said suddenly smiling with mirth and pleasure. ‘Another by-product of your wayward youth?’
‘A gift—from a West Indian chief. He had his servant fit me with this talisman, in exchange for teaching his daughter some English. They were taken from shipboard in Portsmouth to London, to be exhibited to the King in ‘74. A lucky charm, he promised it to be.’
‘Has it been?’ I asked, distractedly, enjoying the seductive power of her talisman, whether lucky or not.
‘In a way. A natural way of life was more fitting for me, free of the hypocrisy of this culture. The Natives were straightforward with their bodies, their tastes plain, and clean in their habits.’
I made one last attempt to pull free. Sitting up suddenly, I tried to rise, protesting:
‘I cannot go through with it. My mind is blurred. I think I’ll go out for air. Please forgive me.’
‘You mustn’t, please,’ Hilda said, gently pulling me back into her web of seduction. Yet, she said it so innocently, I found myself groggy with gravity, Newton’s force transposed to the moral sphere, was pulling me back. Part of me wanted to oblige her, part of me wanted to resist, to leave. But where? How did I get in this situation? I couldn’t even remember.
‘You put something in those drinks, Miss Aldwych. My head is as foggy as a dank night along the Thames, or along that waterfront in Portsmouth. I think I’ll go to Portsmouth. I can prepare and Sedwick can drive at dawn.’
‘Stay this one night with me. Let me just lie next to ye then. I’ll behave.’
There was the unusual stress of not only my recent grief, but my own wife had not lain with me for many months—our relations throughout the winter had been little more than a formality—cordial, but estranged. Still, my own convictions reasoned this was no excuse. As soon as I recover, I intend to reinvent my career, and then our lives should have zest and normality. In the fog of my mind, my memory was truncated—my past seemed a blur and remote—while this moment glowed ever brighter. The more I lay in bed and sensed this woman beside me—also the more I glanced at her—the more appealing she became. She looked more tempting than I had realized. The fact is: in this frame of mind, my judgments were inoperable. Without the higher goals of my normal composing—without immersion in that higher pursuit, I was vulnerable to the moment and basic instinct. I’d said I would not bestow affections for charity, but it was not hard to rationalize, now that I knew more about her than I wished to.
I decided if I reached out and touched her again, then assume my mind made up. I’d throw aside guilt, give myself to the moment and her power; yet, something was wrong in my thinking. Who was I? What have I been doing these last days? Where am I on this journey, and why am I running. Should I not return home?
Please! Stop this infernal thinking! Give me oblivion, or give me death!
With all the blood now rushing to my senses like a sea gushing shoreward at flood tide; or a dam holding back a river about to break, I made one last Herculean effort to rise and rush outside. I was as a giant chained by invisible cords (or perhaps, a fly ensnared). I could only emulate the action of liberation from this beautiful spider’s charming web. In agitation I rolled over, sighing, burying my face in the pillow; while in my thought, I could see myself in opposition, reaching out and stroking her exposed thigh. It was useless; I was postponing the inevitable. My mind was a fervor, my senses racing with blood—I do not remember truly, what ensued, but I recall awaking in a cold sweat, yet calm. It was daybreak, and I had a bewildering sensation at first, which everyone has had at one time; no sense of where I was or how I got there, or, who this woman was.
Looked at the face lying in bed beside me—a handsome, but mature face of a middle-age woman, fast asleep. What have I done! Not my wife—where in God’s power am I? I felt a rush of panic, but quelled it, for I didn’t want to awaken her. I crept out of the chamber, grabbing my clothes as I went and dressed in the corridor. Slipping quietly out on the porch, daylight grew; mist hovering in the yard, while yesterday’s events vaguely came back to me.
I was queasy, my head throbbed with a dull pain, yet, my body felt relaxed. As the sweat chilled, a cold loneliness crept over me making me want to run off. I could not piece together the last few days. Who really was that woman? Where was Sedwick? Should I tell him? No. I could leave a note—they would pursue. It would make little difference. A headstrong man makes his own way—taking what comes.
My mind cleared, yet I saw colored trails of light before my eyes. The sun seemed to rise a sickly green in the southeast, and in these soggy woods, the misty meadow before me, the south beckoned. Besides the coughing, which had continued at times throughout the winter, I had a sudden, painful twitch in my left temple, between my eye and my ear. My ears rang, not in one tone, but in a series, a maddening melody of cacophonous noise, like distant church bells clashing in overtones. I saw the coach before me. Retrieving the two horses tied out to graze, despite the pain, I rigged them to the harness. As I did, I saw flashes of a weird image. Was it you again Duke of Derby? You’ve no doubt come to judge. Judge thyself! No, ‘tis a figure from a Shakespeare play I once saw—Prospero, island king of magic, undo this spell or send me to hell!
FAREWELL MY FAIR ISLE
_______________ D.S. al Fine.