Mag Challenge 304
The bleary sky had been meditating all morning on whether it would snow or not; in the meantime, Edinburgh was up to its knees in damp, muzzy air that was piercingly cold and without a breath of wind. Jehanne sat beside her mother on the settee before the fire and was content to be inside.
The two heads bent over their work were both crowned with the same, almost colorless blonde hair, pulled severely up into buns atop their heads, and crowned with a large braided coronet. The paleness of their hair and skin made stark contrast with their high-necked, black wool dresses with wrist-length sleeves, and their black knitted fingerless gloves.
It was the middle of the afternoon but, owing to the combination of the northern latitude and the three and four storey buildings on either side of the narrow street, little light came in through the narrow casement window. The only other source of light in the small, oak paneled sitting room was the coal fire burning in the grate. Despite the gloom, mother and daughter worked steadily at their knitting. Jehanne’s mother, whose given name was Aoife, glanced up at the ormolu clock on the mantle, below the large gilt-framed mirror.
“You’d best start tea, Ottar,” she said, “They’ll be chilled from their flight.”
The large black dog lying at their feet, almost indistinguishable against the dark blue Turkey carpet, obediently rose to its feet and padded out of the room. The faint click of its claws on the wooden floor marked it’s passage down the hall.
“I hope everything went as planned,” Jehanne said after a while. She was the image of her mother, from her narrow, high-boned face to her long, slender fingers.
“An iffy thing making the switch, but I’ve no doubt they’ll pull it off,” her mother replied.
They knitted in silence for another moment. Then Jehanne said, “One worries that the boy will take to drink like his father.”
“Ah, but that drunken lout is not his father.” Aoife rummaged with one hand into the work bag on the settle beside her, found her needle case, extracted her darning needle and began to work the tail end of the yarn into the top of the sock cuff.
“Don’t tell me it’s the Reverend McElvoy’s!” Jehanne gasped.
“I can’t, because it isn’t. T’was his younger brother, who had more than one tumble with the upstairs maid last summer.”
“Oh, there’s a tangle. The father drowned at sea, the mother beat to death by her drunken husband. And the preacher’s poor wife brought to child bed three times and not a liveborne babe to show for it.” Jehanne shook her head sadly.
“And your Aunty Macca sitting in her attic half the morning waiting for babes to materialize and make sure the live one doesn’t get dropped.” Aoife smiled at the thought. “Still, all in a good cause.”
Footsteps on the stair announced the arrival of a tall man in his early fifties, whose jet black hair was laced with grey at the temples. His face was square-jawed and long, with deep-set eyes of a hazel so light as to verge on amber.
“Tea is ready ma’m.”
“Thank you, Ottar.”
He bowed slightly as he crossed the room to the window. There he stood watching out it for several long moments before he spotted two ravens with a hooded crow between them gliding low over the rooftop of the building opposite and headed straight for the window. He opened the casement, stood back to allow them entry, then quickly closed and latched the window behind them and drew the draperies over it. The three birds hovered in midair for several seconds, blurred, and then one by one resolved into an older black haired man in a black frock coat and black woolen waistcoat, a slender older woman with grey-laced black hair wearing a plain black woolen dress with a heavy grey woolen shawl draped over her head, and a young black haired man dressed as a clergyman.
“It’s snowing finally in Aberdour and coming this way,” the older woman said, resettling her shawl about her shoulders and hugging it around her. The older man snapped his fingers and the gas jets lighted, throwing pools of glowing white light into the room.
“It was cruel cold over the Firth,” the young clergyman allowed. He shot his cuffs and straightened his coat collar.
“Drogo, if you and Mr. Black will bring the other settee to the fireside, the tea is ready,” Ottar said quietly.
“There is room here on the settle for you by the fire, grandmamá,” Jehanne said, as both mother and daughter shifted to make space.
“Yes, Lady Catha, draw you near the fire and warm you,” Mr. Black agreed, as he turned to help the young clergyman carry the settle from the far wall to the fireside. In the meantime, Ottar had produced a heavily laden butler’s table from thin air and set it in front of the ladies. He then went to a small cabinet on the wall beside the door, where he got out a silver tray bearing a cut-glass decanter and three hand-blown crystal glasses. He carefully poured three fingers’ worth of the decanter’s dark amber contents into each glass. He set the decanter aside and brought the tray to offer it to Lady Catha, Drogo and Mr. Black.
If one ignored the prominence of Lady Catha’s nose and the confusion of the differences in coloration, there was a notable resemblance between mother, daughter and granddaughter about the cheekbones and the shape of the eyes, though Lady Catha’s eyes were black and Jehanne’s were a clear, cold blue like her mother’s. Lady Catha quickly tossed the glass’s contents down in one gulp, set it back on the tray. Her male companions did the same, though Drogo had to suppress a coughing spasm afterward.
“Ah, I feel better, now,” Lady Catha said, with a sigh and a smile. She took the tea her daughter handed to her.
“A stiff snort of good Scots whiskey’ll take the chill right off you,” Mr. Black agreed, although his voice was slightly hoarse.
“Oh,” gasped Drogo wiping at the corner of his eye, “It’ll take your mind off it, anyway.”
Having set the tray of glasses and the decanter back into the cabinet, Ottar inquired gravely, “Will there be anything else, ma’m?”
“No, I think this will do quite nicely. Thank you, Ottar.” Lady Catha interposed before her daughter could reply.
Ottar inclined his tall body in a slight bow, blurred and became a large black dog. The dog walked quietly to the end of the settee where his mistress sat, turned in a circle, and settled to the rug.
“So, did everything go well?” Jehanne inquired, handing cups of tea across to the two men.
“Just barely. Thank goodness the McElvoy babe was born upside down. It was another girl. Dead at least a day,” Lady Catha said between sips of tea. “I was able to get a towel round it before that silly maidservant of hers got a good look at it. A bit tricky to tie off the cord and cut it without revealing the naked truth, so to speak.”
“Knolly’s husband had been drinking all night, devil take him,” Mr. Black half growled. “I had to clock him good to get him off her. Vicious brute. I won’t half mind watching that one swing.”
Drogo swallowed a sip of tea and added, “Your Aunty Macca nearly scared the life out of me grabbing my hand when I put the dead girl babe through. The boy babe was all slippery with blood and I almost dropped it. It was howling when I brought it out.”
“There was blood everywhere,” Mr. Black footnoted grimly. “The bastard had knocked her down and kicked her before I could get to him. I had to help things along a good little bit. T’was almost all I could do to keep her from bleeding to death before she delivered. Poor woman. Even if I could have stopped the bleeding, she wouldn’t have lasted the night. ” He shuddered at the memory. “I’m glad it’s all over.”
“Amen to that,” Drogo said softly. “Still her babe’s alive and will have a loving home.”
“There’s that,” Mr. Black agreed, frowning. He set his teacup aside and took the plate of sandwiches Aoife handed him. “I expect I’ll have to go and testify at the assizes, but that’s not til spring.”
Drogo set his teacup down, reached for the fire iron and poked up the fire. “Such a tiny thing for the future to turn on.”
“The future always turns on tiny things,” Lady Catha replied. “This time we got to save a babe and give it two loving parents. That’s three lives better for this morning’s work. There was no future we could see where Knollys lived beyond this day, and don’t think we didn’t look.” Shaking her head sadly, she took the plate of sandwiches Jehanne handed her. “I must say, daughter, your dog sets a lovely tea.”
“Oh, he’s a good dog,” Aoife allowed, smiling. The dog beside her thumped its large tail against the carpet three times. He was, in point of fact, a wolf masquerading as a dog, but he let it pass without comment.
The conversation lapsed into silence as the five of them made short work of the large plate of cold beef sandwiches and the plate of jam tarts. In the silence of their eating, sleet began to rattle against the windows. Aoife had just refilled her mother’s cup and handed it to her when a woman’s face appeared on the surface of the tea within it.
“Everything all right, Catha dear?” said the face in the teacup.
“Yes, thank you, sister. You’ll be interested to know that the worthy reverend is over the moon now he’s got a son. He wants to name him ‘Patrick’ after his papa and ‘Alfred’ after his poor drowned brother.” Lady Catha replied.
“There’s irony for you,” Mr. Black murmured.
“Well, I must dash, sweetie. There’s the Widow Campbell coming up the path for cheeses. I don’t think I’ll mention I spent the morning in the attic sorting babies.” The face in the teacup said wrily. The image faded and disappeared.