The Coven: Part IV

 

The carriage ride to the manor was a blur, and I fell asleep before we made it to the front gate. I awoke in a strange bed in stately room, which had molded ceilings, papered walls, and intricately carved furnishings. The hangings and the bedspread were pink and blue brocade, and the corners of the room were decorated with gold-leaf angels.

I sat up a little, and saw, sitting at the end of the bed, a maid dressed in a starched white uniform. As I sat up, she stood and came to the bed, carrying a silver tea-tray.

“Good morning, my lady. I am Chastity, and I have been assigned to be your personal maid. “

“Thank you,” I said blearily, accepting a cup of hot, black tea. “What time is it?”

“It’s thirty minutes past one, my lady. I have laid out your clothes. It is a very hot day, so I thought a white muslin gown- the one with the blue trim- would be comfortable.”

“Thank you, that’s fine. Tell me, is Lord Frey awake?”

“Lord Frey did not go to sleep. He has some business to attend to, and has been in his office all morning.”

I took another sip of tea, feeling just a touch of guilt for keeping Hope awake all night when he’d had business the next day.

“Lord Frey has instructed me to give you a tour of the manor, once you are dressed. You are welcome to go into any room in the manor, except for the Library and the cellars. Lord Frey does not want you to enter either of these places by mistake.”

“I’m not allowed in the library?” I burst forth, now wide awake.

Chastity raised her eyebrows, and I could feel my face grow hot.

“Well- I mean- not to question…”

“You may ask any question,” Chastity said. “Lord Frey knows that you love books, so he has arranged a private study for you filled with books from his collection. If the books he has given you are not sufficient, you can give me a list of the books you need.”

I was unable to speak for a moment, but finally managed to reply, “he is very kind.”

Chastity continued to stare at me, her eyebrows still raised, and I felt very small. It was kind of Hope to arrange a private study for me, and to give me so many gifts, but at the same time, I felt a message in his forbidding me to enter the Library.

I was a welcome guest in his house, but I was not its mistress.

 

#

 

Chastity and I spent most of the afternoon going over the house, lingering in halls full of portraits for far too long.

My father’s house had been venerable. Each crumbling wall had been covered by a rich tapestry, and the stone floors covered with plush rugs, which left it feeling cushioned and close. Here, however, the halls were light and airy, with white crown molding and walls papered in light blue. The floors were gleaming marble, and the furnishings clean and new, with fresh tea roses on every table.

Chastity led me down the widest hallway just to the double doors at the end.

“This is the library- remember it. You cannot open the door, but if Lord Frey is inside and you need him, pull this cord.” She gestured to a tasseled cord by the door.

Just as we turned to leave, however, the doors opened, and a young girl wearing a white cap and apron emerged, pushing a cart that appeared far too heavy for her, which was full of books.

“Mercy!” Chastity said. “What are you doing?”

“I beg your pardon,” the girl said, bobbing a curtsey, “but the master told me to take these to the new mistress’s study.”

“All of these are for me?” I said, stepping forward to see the books.

“Oh- my Lady!” the maid said with a deeper curtsey.

The door opened again, and Hope emerged. He looked at me, smiled, and bowed deeply.

“Good Afternoon, Lady Frey. I hope you are well rested.”

“I am, thank you,” I said.

“Chastity, you may go back to your usual duties. I will escort Lady Frey, and her books, to her study.”

“But, my Lord, I haven’t-“

“That’s alright, Chastity.  The steward is waiting for you in the kitchens- he’d like to have a word with you.”

“Very well,” Chastity said, and left.

Hope offered his arm, and the three of us went back down the hallway, the cart’s wheels squeaking on the marble floor behind us as we went.

The study was near the drawing room, and was comfortably furnished with a desk, table, and shelves that were already beginning to fill with books. On the far wall there was a window that opened to the rose gardens.

“It’s lovely,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it. I confess that I set this up for you to keep you from being cross about the library.”

“Why…” I began to say, and then stopped.

Hope stood silently for a moment, and his usual charming smile faded slightly. Then he turned to the maid and said, “Mercy, I will shelve the books. You may leave us.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” she said with a curtsey, and I belatedly realized that when Chastity had shouted “Mercy” it hadn’t been an expletive, but rather, the girl’s name.

When we were alone, Hope turned back to me, his smile gone. He even frowned slightly as he leaned against the cart and pulled out a selection of books.

“Astronomy, trigonometry, alchemy, philosophy- I even brought you some of the liturgy. I was going to burn the liturgy, you see, after my father died, but I didn’t. I’m glad someone in this house can use them, now.”

“Burn them!” I gasped.

“I told you in the cabin, Grace, that I am a heretic. I’ve grown dissatisfied with the universal order you admire so much. The stars shine in the heavens, while we crawl like worms on the Earth below. Some live in splendor,” he gestured to the intricate furnishings around him, “while others suffer immeasurably.

“I’ve done things that may cause trouble, later,” Hope continued. “So the less you know about it, the less it can touch you. You’ve come to my house at the worst possible time, but I will protect you. I promise.”

Hope pushed his heavy, dark hair away from his eyes and smiled again. “I will either gain the power to protect you, or I will set you free, Grace. Until then, keep to this part of the house, and don’t ask too many questions.”

I sighed, then, with unexpected relief. Strangely, in confirming my worst fears with his confession, he’d set me at ease. Perhaps, I thought, an honest villain was safer than a masked one.

There was a knock on the door.

“Enter,” Hope said graciously.

The door opened, and Chastity stepped through.

“I beg your pardon, my Lord, but we have visitors.”

 

#

Chastity opened the doors to a magnificent drawing-room, hung with velvet and gold, with an oval ceiling tiled with gold medallions. In the center of the room, seated on a red-cushioned couch, was a short-haired officer wearing black gloves. By his side, with her short legs swinging over the edge of the couch, sat a brown-eyed little girl.

 

The Coven, Part V

The Coven, Pt III

 

The afternoon sun beamed, full and hot, into Lord Frey’s stately barouche. I held on to my bonnet to keep the wind from blowing it off, both grateful for the breeze that was a relief from the summer heat, and sorry for its cause. The faster the carriage went, the sooner I would be at my new home and under the power of my husband, whom I still could not bring myself to trust.

We passed by gently rolling hills, filled with plentiful grass and clover, dotted here and there with grazing sheep and goats. In the distance I could hear a shepherd’s flute, which echoed across the landscape.

Lord Frey touched my arm, and pointed to the distance, where one hill rose above the rest.  On the side of the hill, with spires so high it rose above the crest of this hill itself, was a grey stone palace.

“Rowan Heights, my home,” Lord Frey said. “It’s your home, too, as long as you like it.”

“Oh! My Lord-“

“Hope.”

I paused in my rapture and looked back at Lord Frey. “Excuse me?”

“My given name is Hope. You gave me permission to call you by your given name; I’m merely returning the favor. Please, let’s have none of this ‘my Lord’ nonsense.”

Hope leaned closer to me, speaking almost conspiratorially. I turned away to hide my blush.

“Hope- yes, the priest did say your full name at the wedding,” I said. “It seemed a good omen.”

We lapsed into silence as the carriage ascended the large hill, and as the road wound toward the top, a small stone cottage came into view. It was a neat cottage, not overgrown with vines, but clean and bright, with a neat row of hedges in front, which bordered a small cobblestone path to the door.

Hope stood, sure footed despite the carriage’s motion, and spoke to the driver.

“To the cottage first, please. I have a gift waiting there for my bride.”

The old coachman gave a loud, coarse laugh and looked askance at me before stopping the carriage before the cottage.

Hope helped me down from the carriage, and we walked together up the path to the cottage door. The front door was barred by a series of locks, two of which Hope opened with two different keys, and three of which were strange metal devices with gears that he turned, first one way and then the other, until the latch popped open. The he held the door open and gestured for me to enter.

Despite what the multiple door locks would suggest, there seemed to be very little inside the cottage of value. It was furnished like any other country cottage, with bare wooden furniture and a threadbare rug before the hearth. There were dried herbs and flowers tied to the overhead beams, a small bookcase full of paper-bound books and scroll cases, and a cellar door, which was locked like the cottage door had been.

“Wait here for a moment,” Hope said. He disappeared into the cellar, and a few moments later he emerged, carrying a black trunk with silver fittings. The trunk’s lid had a silver plate, bearing the initials GAF.

Hope placed the trunk on the table in front of me.

“Open it,” he said.

I undid the silver clasps and opened the lid. Underneath, there lay a long, black tube with golden fittings on each end, and two small dials near the back.

“Have you ever seen a telescope?” he asked.

“No, I have not,” I said. I hesitated, and then lifted the telescope from the trunk.

I should give back this gift, I thought.

I should give it back.

But I couldn’t put it down. How could I put it down? All I’d ever wanted was to get closer to the stars.

“I didn’t think it would be an inappropriate gift, though I must admit I’m not the best judge,” Hope said. “The prince has forbidden such devices on the premise that they are unnatural, but as you will see, the telescope operates solely on natural principles, much like a pair of spectacles.”

The prince has forbidden this device because of hubris, I thought. It allows us to see what no mortal was meant to see. Not even mariners are allowed to use them to see over the horizon.

But still, I clutched the telescope in my hands.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

Hope laughed then- a full, rich, hearty laugh. A genuine laugh.

“I didn’t mean to distress you with this present.  You mentioned that you liked astronomy, and I thought you would like it. I may as well be honest with you; in many ways, dear Grace, I am a heretic. Even so, I don’t mean to tempt you away from your piety.”

My grip tightened on the telescope, even as I tried to return it to him.

“Do you think,” I ventured after a short silence, “that we may mount the telescope onto my sextant?”

 

 

 

#

 

 

The coach was dispatched back to the great house to fetch my sextant and observation journal, which had been sent ahead of me, along with my books and the elaborate trousseau my governess had arranged.  When he returned, he brought not only my sextant and book, but also several large baskets that contained fruit, cold meats, bread, and wine. Hope took the baskets himself to a grassy area near the crest of the hill, and spread it out on a blanket.

Hope and I ate in silence as the sun fell lower in the sky.  Then, when I’d finished my meal and took my sextant out to assemble on the crest of the hill, Hope spoke.

“Do you need assistance?”

“Bring the telescope, if you please,” I said, setting the sextant atop the unfolded tripod. He brought it over, and I mounted the telescope quite easily, with the help of two metal bands.

“They seem made to fit together,” I remarked.

Hope smiled almost sheepishly. “I looked at your sextant when it was sent ahead of you. I didn’t mean to intrude on your privacy, but I wanted to make sure your gift would suit.”

“And so it does. Look- twilight is near,” I said, turning the telescope to the west.  “The evening stars, Lystra and Miriam are out.”

“Lystra and Miriam are wandering stars, are they not?”

“Yes, but they always appear quite near the sun- in the west near sunset- and they never wander very far away. They will set soon after the sun. How bright they are, tonight!”

Hope came over, and handed me a cup of wine, but I took only a sip before I put the cup aside and reached for my observation book.

I checked off the last observation I’d made for Lystra a week before, and then turned my sextant to the predicted coordinates. Then I looked into the telescope and adjusted it, little by little, until a bright silver blob appeared in the circle of light.

“This one,” Hope said, taking my hand and guiding it to the first metal gear on the scope, “will heighten the magnification, and this one,” he guided my hand to the second gear, “will sharpen the focus.

I jumped a little as he touched me, filled with a sudden, awful feeling that the gift had been a trap- that he would chide me for my wickedness in accepting the telescope and, worse, using it. His hands were gentle, though.

I trembled a little with anticipation as I turned the gears, and the tiny blob of light grew larger, bit by bit, blurring more and more. Then I turned the other gear and it grew just a little sharper, until it would focus no more.

“It isn’t quite clear,” I said, “But I can almost make out features- it isn’t just a light. It has form. There’s a dark area near the top of the disc, and some faint lines that seem to coalesce on a point at the bottom. Oh! If only I could get closer. What am I seeing?”

My eyes hungrily took in everything, yet through the wonder of this new sight, it somehow wasn’t enough. As satisfying as watching the light dance across the sky, night by night, had been before, this new glimpse of the planet awakened a need for more. I hadn’t experienced anything so tantalizing since I was a young girl and, learning that the stars had names, tried to learn them all.

I took the observation book and, noting the date and time, tried to sketch what I saw through the telescope. I failed, scratched it out, and tried again. Finally, satisfied with the result, I wrote underneath; Lystra, seen through the forbidden instrument. Today, the heavens are new.

 When I finished, I smiled up at Hope, who said, “every cent of this little instrument’s cost was worth it, just to see you smile.”

I turned away before he could see me scowl at his courtly flattery, hiding my discomfort by standing aside to let him look through the eyepiece.

I soon forgot my discomfort. As the night wore on, wonder after wonder unfolded before my eyes. The sky darkened to deepest black, and more stars appeared, and I traced my favorite constellations- the cat, the widow’s veil, and the demon’s cage- with my new telescope. The fixed stars remained as bright points of light, but with the wandering stars, I could make out a small disc with faint features. My most breathtaking discovery was made when I turned my telescope toward the faint patch of tiny stars on the cat’s tail. On the best nights, when I looked hardest, I could only make out 4 distinct stars, but when I turned my telescope toward it, I could see dozens, some faint, and some as sharp as the evening star.

I wanted to remain here forever, re-discovering the sky, but eventually I grew exhausted. When the eastern stars grew dim, and the eastern sky filled with the faint glow of dawn, I leaned back and yawned, resting my tired eyes.

“The sun is rising,” Hope said. “It is time to go home to the manor.”

The Coven, part IV