Softly, She Treads Ch. 04byXyJonah©
Hester awoke the next morning with the sounds of the rain drumming loudly upon the roof of his small hut. He sighed and rolled in his covers. But the veil of sleep had already been lifted and, after some minutes spent lying and listening to the rain, he got up and stretched.
The dogs had gone, but the door was closed; she had been back. As he glanced about, other signs of her greeted his eyes. The fire had been built and sat, ready to light; a pile of green leaves had been placed upon the table and, causing his heart to leap when he saw them, a pair of trousers and a thick jumper sewn from inexpertly felted wool were placed over the back of a chair. He smiled and rushed to put the clothes on; the trousers were a little too big at the waist, but so tired of dressing in a blanket was he that he barely noticed. The jumper, though itchy upon his skin, was an enormous improvement, and he felt his body quickly warm beneath it.
"They fit then?" came the woman's voice from the door. Hester swung about, grinning broadly and nodded.
"Good." she stepped into the hut, drenched from head to foot but, unlike anyone else he had ever seen sopping from being caught in the rain, she looked elated, and not angry at all. She stroked her hands over her forehead and hair, her cheeks flushed and her skin covered in tiny droplets, before moving to light the fire.
"You're all wet," he observed, his breath caught in his throat; she was beautiful; he had denied himself from seeing it until now. But here, as the fire blazed into life and she fixed him with those large, dark eyes of her, their lashes caught together by the rain, he found it undeniable.
"It's why I'm a day late," she explained, seemingly unaware of the thoughts that ran like a torrent through her mind. "I see you've been busy." She straightened up and sat down upon a chair.
"The wood outside. What's that about, then? It'll take days to dry out and there's far too much for tinder."
"It's for a raft."
"I see," she murmured, that melancholy marking her expression again. He did not see it, however. He rushed to the table, pulling out his parchment and explaining - with great enthusiasm - his now-detailed plan.
She nodded and listened attentively, asking questions here and there, marvelling at how he planned to store the wood and build upon the beach, and nodding at his notion to wait until the spring to launch. Finally he straightened up, threw his arms wide and said, "We could be off this island within six months! What do you think?"
"We?" she said, looking plainly disturbed. "I don't want to leave the island."
"But I can't leave you here."
"You'd have to - I'd not go."
"But I've planned everything for you to come with me. The stores, the steering, everything. Don't you want to go back to civilisation and end your days with the dogs?"
"No," she replied gently. "I love it here. It's more civilised than anywhere else I can imagine. Of course, there's no dancing or painting, there's no cities or money, but there's an honesty and a clean feeling to being here that can never be had in society."
Hester sat down and took her hands. "I won't leave you."
"You won't have to," she said quietly.
"What do you mean to say?" he asked, feeling suddenly tense.
"It won't work. Your plan." She looked up at him and pulled her hands away. "It's a good plan. But it won't work. Not here."
"Why not?" he asked, swallowing anger.
"Because you're not meant to leave," she said.
"I don't believe you."
"You don't have to. You'll see in time."
He shook his head and stood up from the table, snatching his parchment up and pretending to examine it closely. But his mind reeled; again and again she had repeated this assertion, and yet, once again, she had neglected to explain further. The fact remained, however, he had to escape this island, and he was determined not to do it alone. He turned back to her to find her silently weeping at the table, watching him with large tears rolling down her flushed cheeks.
"You're meant to be here," she said simply, making no effort to hide her tears. "And I'm meant to be with you. Here."
"I don't understand," he said. "Why won't you explain what you mean?"
"Because you wouldn't believe me. Because it doesn't make sense. Because you're not ready to listen to me yet."
He shook his head and set his plans aside, forcing his attention onto the jumper she had made. "It's very well done," he said gently, looking at her form the corner of his eye. "Did it take long?"
She wiped her tears with a hand that shook slightly and steadied herself before she spoke. "No. The trousers were harder; I didn't know how big to make them. There'll be shoes before long; I've patched up your own boots, but they're not quite finished."
"Shoes? You are a marvel."
She tipped her head modestly and rose to poke at the fire.
"Where do you go?" He asked as he watched her move; her britches clinging to her legs and her tunic hanging wetly around her arms. She looked tiny, like a rag doll brought to life in some fanciful ballet. Her dark hair glistened and her skin glowed.
"Go? When I'm not here?"
"Yes. You said this wasn't your home."
"No. This is just a tiny place that keeps me warm when I get caught at the beach. I've a bigger place in the woods. It's half underground, very warm. There's pasture and meadow the other side of the woods, you see, and wild sheep graze there. They let me milk them sometimes, and I trim their fleeces in the spring to make blankets and clothes. There are some horses, too - though they'll never let themselves be ridden or used for harness work. But their tails shed a lot of hair, and I use that to make thread and rope. It's very strong."
He nodded, watching her relax and return to her more normal cheerful self as she spoke, relieved that her dark melancholy had passed. His mind mused idly over a name for her; still he could find none that are suitable.
"Can I come up there?" he asked, adding when he saw the surprise and reluctance on her face, "Not to stay. Just to, you know, see."
"Eventually, perhaps. When the weather gets colder, you'll have to. It'll be too cold to stay here before much longer. It's not ready yet, though."
He smiled and nodded, pleased at the thought of their quiet winter hibernation together. But she seemed less comfortable with the notion.
"I'm not used to sharing. I don't much like people," she said, "I like to have my space."
"I understand," he said, "But don't you get lonely?"
"I used to, at first. I used to find the quiet deafening, ringing in my ears and demanding I break it. But when you listen, you see that it's not really silent at all. Now, anything louder than a crashing wave I find deafening, except for the dogs barking."
"Are they yours?"
She laughed and shook her head, but then reflected for a moment. "Perhaps, in a way, we belong to each other, the dogs and I. Certainly we both benefit from the partnership. I saw they visited you last night."
Hester smiled. "I fed them and let them sit by the fire."
"It's only fair," she said, "After all, they let you sit by theirs when you washed ashore." She cocked her head, laughed and said, "Listen..."
He listened but heard nothing save the rain that was easing up on its rooftop drumming. "What am I listening for?" he asked eventually.
"The sun's come out," she whispered, "But it's still raining."
Hester glanced out of the mall window; the sky was still black and gloomy. He shook his head, but she was already on her feet and heading for the door.
"What are you doing?" he called after her.
"Hunting rainbows," came the reply.
"But you've only just dried off."
"That's the point..."
Bemused, Hester rose to his feet and followed her out of the door to where she danced in clumsy circles over the wet ground, her arms spread wide and her head thrown back in laughter. He noted dryly that she had, in fact, been correct, for on the side of the hut where there was no window, a patch of sky had cleared and the sunshine flooded through it. But he could see no rainbows, no matter how hard he peered at the rays.
"Not that side!" she said, panting and laughing and taking hold of his sleeve. She wheeled him about to look at the sky opposite the sun. He gasped and joined in her laughter. There, standing proud in the sky, arching high over the sea, was a fine, bright rainbow. "I'll be damned..." he murmured.
She laughed and sat down upon the grass, staring at the coloured spectacle. "Might even split," she murmured.
"Split?" he said, joining her on the ground, feeling the cold water seep through the seat of his trousers.
"Yep. The sun's bright enough, and there's enough rain. I think we'll get a rainbow within a rainbow. That happens rarely... keep watching!"
It was dim at first, and Hester found he could only see it when he glanced to one side and tried to spy it from the corner of his eyes. But, within moments a fainter rainbow appeared, echoing the brighter first one. Two great arches of colour, leaping over the distant waves, their feet masked in the dark, quietly churning sea. He had never really looked at a rainbow before, and now he couldn't look away.
"What could you ever want to leave that for?" she whispered, turning to glance at him. He shook his head in reply, staring at the pair of bows until they had vanished from view, obscured by the sunshine that grew behind him. The rain stopped, the air grew lightly warmer; the storm was over.
"You're all wet," she said with a laugh.
"Isn't that the point?" he replied with a smile. She laughed and, taking him by surprise, kissed him on the end of his nose. He blinked in surprise, expecting to feel outraged at her forwardness but actually reacting with a deep laugh that welled up from deep inside him. She laughed, oblivious to the effect her kiss had upon him, and ran back over the damp grass to the hut.
He found her poking the fire, her wet hair hanging heavily over her shoulder; it was already drying into clumsy curls. He pulled a chair up at the table and sat, waiting for her to finish her task.
"What's your wife like?" she asked as she joined him at the table.
"Amelia?" he said, mildly surprised at the question, but not reluctant to answer her. "She's a good wife."
She turned this over in her mind for a moment before shaking her head. "That's not enough. Everyone would be a good wife to someone. What's special about her? What's she like?"
Hester nodded, thinking about his wife for a moment. "She's much younger than me - she had to be. She never would have married a man who wasn't already established in his field. And she wouldn't have waited for a man of the same age to mature in his profession before accepting a proposal. She's... " He shook his head, running a hand over his chin and leaning back in his chair while she watched him with her big dark eyes.
"The first time I met Amelia was at her father's birthday party. It was, naturally, less about his birthday than it was about meeting his daughters - three, he had - Amelia was the youngest. I went only to discuss business with him; he owned a shipping company, and I wished to further my medical investigations by taking a position aboard a ship and collecting plant samples from overseas. He, naturally, examined my prospects quite closely, and, finally, offered me a position. After a year-"
"No," she said, quietly interrupting. "What is your wife like? What does she look like? What does she wear? Is she tall or short? Fat or thin? Does she like to laugh?"
Hester glanced at her, a vague sense of guilt washing over him that he couldn't truly accredit to anything in particular. "Her hair is auburn, and would be curly if she didn't bind it at the back of her neck all of the time. When she lets it out long in the evenings and the moonlight catches it, it takes my breath away. She has freckles over her cheeks, which she hates. She says they make her look girlish - she won't accept that it's why I like them so much. My eldest daughter, Elizabeth, looks just like her. Amelia is thin and delicate, every movement she makes and sounds she produces is elegant and graceful. She is beautiful, but in a way quite different to-" he cut off and glanced guiltily at his companion.
"Different to you." She laughed and waved her hand dismissively.
"She plays the piano, and Aimee, our youngest, plays the flute. They often duet together when we have guests. When we were first married, she played a piece she had written on our honeymoon night. It was special; she isn't normally romantic. She enjoys tradition, not spectacle; nature, not contrivance. And yet she forever covers herself in powder to hide how the sun catches her skin, and makes herself faint with tight corsets."
"Why? Why would she bother with all of that?"
"Because," said Hester in a quiet, sad voice, "It is what everyone else who isn't so blessed as she is has to do. You see... Amelia, being the youngest, was bred to marry. She was taught to be a wife and have children and serve her husband. She was taught to compete in Society to win the best contacts which would lead to the best marriage suitors for her own children."
"That's disgraceful," said the woman, "What about what she wanted for herself?"
"What she wanted?" laughed Hester, "What else could she want? The third daughter of a merchant mariner? A good marriage is the best she could aspire to."
"And she got you," said the woman.
Hester quirked a brow and shrugged. "I have tried to be the best husband I could, I have tried to maintain my respectability and status. I have given her everything she and our girls could reasonably hope for."
"Except being there."
Hester reddened at the accusation. "It was never meant to be for long!" His protesting tone grew quickly more subdued and reflective as he continued. "The money made on voyages is more than I could hope to earn, even in London, in a year. And while I am away, Amelia's father pays for most of the household expenses. What he doesn't provide, I cover with a pension far more generous than many other wives -- or doctors - receive. I was going to arrange my own practise shortly, and give up sailing overseas."
"And what of your research?"
"I have seeds and samples, drawings and descriptions. I have enough to keep me busy when my practise is quiet."
She nodded thoughtfully. "Did you love her?"
"Love? She was a good wife."
"That isn't what I meant."
"What did you mean?"
"Did your heart stop when you saw her? Did you feel dizzy when she brushed past you? Can you imagine living without her?"
Hester considered this for a long time, remembering his wife and the conversations they would have, the few occasions they would consummate their union, the small intimacies she would allow them to enjoy. The answer, when he gave it, struck him with a strong emotional wave. "No. I appreciate her; I don't love her."
The woman stood up and kissed Hester's forehead. "I am sorry, Richard Hester, that love has never touched you. I am sorry that you find your life so acceptable." She looked at him with an expression of incredible sadness and sympathy as she silently drew her shawl over her shoulders and moved to the door. "I'll bring your shoes next time," she said, barely in a whisper, and then she slipped out to vanish again.
Hester sat for a long time at the table, staring at his wedding ring. Love? Since when did love enter into the question of marriage? And yet, suddenly, he felt its absence with a powerful emptiness. But he and Amelia were perfectly suited, and everyone had commented upon that over the years. Their union had produced two beautiful daughters, and love had never been an issue - save the notion for Frenchmen and poets - respectable people did not guide their lives according to maps of emotion.
Yet now, as he thought over the day he had spent, he somehow regretted his marriage for having been so clinical and cold. Surely there should be some feeling of attachment besides a staunch sense of duty?
Long he stayed at the table, staring at his hands and pondering these questions, until the flames in the fire had grown low and the shadows grew long upon the ground.
The next day, the rain had paused, leaving the sky a brooding, mottled-grey. The air was heavy and chilled, and Hester was grateful for the clothes the woman had brought for him - he looked forward to receiving his shoes, especially when he peered over the edge of the cliff and down to the rocks he would have to navigate with his wood.
As he gazed over the cliff, the back dog appeared again. It looked sharply up at where Hester peered over the cliff-face and barked, as if it had been expecting him. Hester, unsure how one would greet a feral hound, remained silent, examining the animal before retreating back to the grass and his pile of wood.
It was mid-morning, and Hester was about to begin the task of dragging the wood from where he had left it by the hut to the edge of the steep descent, when he heard a loud stamping of hooves. He turned to see where the sound was coming from, and caught his breath in his throat; a brilliant shaft of light broke through the clouds and illuminated - as if lit by a spotlight - a large bay horse that stood in the middle of the grass, stamping its hooves and breathing heavily, as if it had just been running hard. All thought abandoned Hester; functioning on instinct alone, he extended his hand to the noble beast and approached it.
The horse sniffed at Hester's hands and knelt down onto its knees next to him. Hester smoothed his fingers over the horse's muzzle and up its long, rich-coloured face. His fingers moulded themselves around the horse's ears and tangled in the top of its mane as the horse twisted its neck and pushed gently at Hester's hip. Hester took the mane firmly in his hand and slipped easily onto the crouching beast's back.
The horse stood tall, bearing Hester easily up with it. It turned and, with the shaft of light following it, walked over the grass toward the woods. At the edge of the tree line, the black dog appeared, confusing Hester for a moment, for he had just seen it at the foot of the cliff. The dog and the horse eyed each other for a moment, each tense and alert, ready to turn and run. but then a silent agreement was made between them, and they continued into the trees together, the horse bearing Hester and the dog at its side. The strange shaft of light followed them, sending dappled light through the trees and over the ground. To Hester's surprise, the leaf-covered ground beneath them made no sound at all.
They walked for, perhaps, an hour like this, man, dog and horse, until they reached the edge of a narrow, but deep and fast-flowing stream. Like the leaves upon the floor, the water made its passage in silence; the sounds of the animals breathing and Hester's heart pounding in his ears were the only noises to be heard. The horse crouched down again, and Hester slid from its back and stood between the two animals, watching the water, brilliant in the shaft of light.
On the other side of the water, a large black bird - a raven, Hester supposed - and a black cat appeared. Hester watched as they eyed each other, much like the dog and the horse had done, reaching a similar compromise. They turned to eye Hester with uncanny intelligence, before the bird took to flight and the cat, in a single bound, cleared the water. The horse was still crouching; Hester remounted, and it stood up. Then, with the two newcomers, they continued through the trees.
It didn't seem like much time had passed, and yet the shadows grew long upon the ground and the air grew cold around them, and still they continued through the woods, man, horse, dog, bird and cat. The shaft of light faded and, instead, the stars peeped through the leafless canopy, and the way ahead was lit by a brilliant moon - full before its time - that sat fat and low in the sky. The air around them grew misty, yet the damp did not affect Hester; he felt warm and safe upon the horse's back.