by Sandi Leibowitz
“Miss Du Lac, there you are at last!” The squat woman with graying brown hair rose from her needlework. “I had begun to worry.”
“Mrs. Cranford, I am delighted to meet you,” I said, my smile reflecting hers. “My coach arrived on time but your man Joseph never appeared.”
“That is most unlike him. I wonder what could have happened.—But then, how did you get here, my dear?”
“I decided to walk from the inn, since the weather is so pleasant. I left my baggage for Joseph to collect.”
“What, all that way?” The woman put an arm about me, as if I threatened to fall down on the instant. “You must be exhausted! Poor thing!”
“No, no, I assure you.” I patted her arm with what I hoped was a convincing display of vigor. “I am quite a healthy specimen of womanhood. It was no bother to walk, believe me. I enjoyed it after my long journey. The country here is beautiful, in its rugged way. Quite like home.”
Mrs. Cranford’s harried ministrations relaxed. “If you are certain. Oh, but you must take some refreshment before I show you to your room. Addie, bring Miss Du Lac’s tea.”
The maidservant curtsied and left.
“Will I not meet Mr. Colchester today?”
I was curious about my new employer. Would he be brusque and supercilious, all too aware that he had hired a poor curate’s daughter? Or would he recognize that I was a gentlewoman, remember all the accomplishments that had prompted him to hire me in the first place? I needed this position. It was far better than the drudgery of teaching in a school or serving as governess. And a woman of my meager means and only moderate charms could not expect to attract a suitable mate. (Besides, I fear I lack the constitution for marriage; I am too ungovernable.) But I would not tolerate being treated as an inferior by my employer. I would boldly meet Mr. Colchester’s gaze. Even now I reminded myself that in my body merged the bloodlines of a princess and a hero.
“Mr. Colchester is detained in Manchester on business. He should return in a day or two. That will give you ample opportunity to make yourself comfortable here. Now tell me, how does a good Cornishwoman become fluent in French? You have more than a school-girl’s competence in the language.”
“As my name suggests, I do not come solely from English stock; many generations back, an ancestor hailed from France. Since the days of that good chevalier, it has been the custom of the Du Lac family to maintain a native’s facility with French. In addition, I studied at a pensionnat in Brussels for two years, and served as assistant teacher another two, in preparation for becoming a full-fledged teacher there. The deaths of my elder sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, forced me home. I learned of Mr. Colchester’s need for a translator some time afterwards, and so here I am.”
It would not do to think about Maria and Elizabeth now. No. If I were to give Mrs. Cranford a good impression of me, I must not let my mind go thither, for surely my emotions would betray me. I stared into the fire and assumed the quiet mask of a respectable young Englishwoman of somewhat reduced circumstances recently come out of mourning.
“Ah, I am sorry, child,” Mrs. Cranford said in a gentle tone. Her eyes swept to the mourning brooch at my throat, a gold serpent encircling plaited strands of chestnut, auburn and copper hair behind glass. She would conjecture that the chestnut strands belonged to me (their color was so like mine) and the others to my two departed sisters. She no doubt pictured them wasting in their beds from consumption or perhaps influenza. She could not possess the kind of imagination to conjure up a vision of two young women stricken by a single bolt of lightning, their bodies blazing like torches on the heath. I had not witnessed it, yet my mind constantly revisited the hellish scene. There had been no hair left to serve for a memoriam; my brooch contained mementoes of my remaining siblings.
“Have you other family?”
“Yes, in addition to my father, I have two sisters still living—Emily and Anne—both younger than I. And I have an elder brother, Branwell.”
“What a comfort for you,” the kindly woman said. “What profession does he follow?”
As dangerous a topic as the other, my elder brother. Where was he now? If on this earth, what condition was he in? Was he capable of rising from his bed? Of focusing his eyes, coherent speech? It was because of Branwell that I was here now, supporting not just myself but also my sisters. If only… No. This was another thought to stow away, like an old letter filled with sorrowful news that one keeps to re-read in private moments because—well, it is a part of one’s history.
“He is an artist,” I replied with the answer I had prepared, knowing Mr. Colchester would be sure to ask. He might have heard of Branwell’s studies with the landscape-artist, Cameron, before his condition had deteriorated. “He is often away in other lands, following his heart’s desire.”
If Mrs. Cranford found this irresponsible in an older brother with three dependent sisters, she did not show it.
Fortunately, at this juncture, Addie returned carrying the tray, a most satisfactory meal of cold sliced beef and bread with currant jam. Mrs. Cranford poured the tea, joining me in a cup herself.
“And you, Mrs. Cranford, how do you come to be housekeeper in Mr. Colchester’s home?” I sipped. The walk had made me thirsty.
“I am a distant cousin of Mr. Colchester’s. Since he is often away on business, he needs a reliable woman to see to the running of his home. After my husband’s death, I lived with my eldest daughter and her family in Scarborough. By living here, I am no longer adding to the crowdedness of her home but am close enough to visit from time to time.”
I understood. Unmarried women without means are underfoot. Perhaps Mr. Colchester had a charitable heart, offering his poor relation a home and an easy occupation. Or else he was a miser, who thought to find inexpensive help from a genteel woman with nowhere else to turn. I would know soon enough what measure of man he was.
“I have so looked forward to your arrival.” Mrs. Cranford beamed at me. “I am often lonely here. Fortunately, my sister and her family live close by in Sowersby, otherwise it is quite a solitary existence I lead at Nettlefield Hall. I am sure we shall become great friends.”
I grasped her hand and shook it warmly.
We finished our tea in companionable conversation, and then Mrs. Cranford showed me to my room.
I had nothing to complain of in my appointments. The chamber was far more substantial than mine at home, with a window that overlooked the gardens. A generous four-poster took up much of the space, but there was room enough for a towering mahogany bureau, which even if filled with all my worldly goods would remain half-empty, and a small but elegant desk. Mrs. Cranford had kindly seen that it was furnished with ample paper, pens, and all the proper accoutrements for writing. The room was bright, with a cheery, pomegranate-patterned wallpaper. In sum, it made me happy to be there, and gave the impression that I was perceived as a valued guest of the household and not a mere menial.
Supper a few hours later was a quiet affair. It was a good thing that the master’s presence had not required me to dress, as it was not until halfway through the meal that the mystery of Joseph‘s disappearance finally resolved itself. Addie interrupted our braised mutton to inform my hostess that he had finally returned. A horse had thrown a shoe, and it had taken all this while to lead it to Lowerton to be re-shod, then return for the carriage. Had I not taken the short cut through the moors suggested by the innkeeper, I would have encountered Joseph on the road. Horse, carriage, and driver were now safely home and my belongings awaited me upstairs in my chamber. When we finished dining, Mrs. Cranford retired, suggesting that I do the same.
In the silence of my new chamber, I stowed away my things, finding comfort in familiar objects. As a final act, I set upon the mahogany bureau the large miniature of myself and my sisters that Branwell had done a few years ago. I smiled at the likenesses of Emily and Anne, still young girls at the time, and let a finger caress the painted cheeks of Maria and Elizabeth. I sighed. Branwell had never completed the miniature he had promised to make of Papa.
I willed myself to remember Branwell only as a loving brother and talented artist, and Maria and Elizabeth as vibrant young women. I endeavored to think positive thoughts about what my situation would entail—for if Mrs. Cranford and my room were any indication of what my new life would be like, I could look forward to pleasant years uninterrupted by the peculiar, sad occurrences that bedeviled my family.
I blew out my candle and eased myself into the bed, the down coverlet billowing around me like a warm ocean. The charming porcelain clock on the mantelpiece kept me company for longer than I wished, for I am always slow to sleep in new surroundings. But seven days of traveling and a two-hour walk had indeed wearied me, and eventually I dozed. I cannot say that I slept well, for I was flung from one strange dream to the next: seas that churned and thickened into stormy moors; women sacrificed to pagan rituals; a dark stranger who turned into a raven that flew at me, all black feathers and fanged beak; a lost youth held prisoner by a ghostly lover; and myself, riding into foreign lands in an eternity of dust-choked carriages.
Day broke, though one could hardly tell. Grey clouds smudged the horizon. A dismal fog, having already consumed the view of the hills, patrolled the grounds in search of other prey.
It seemed as if a landscape from last night’s dreams had escaped the confines of my mind and taken up residence in Yorkshire.
After breakfast, Mrs. Cranford showed me to the study. A junior desk flanked the larger one, in readiness for me. Once I acquainted myself with some of the correspondence the master had left for me, and copied out some translations for him to review on his return, I was at my leisure. I penned a note to my father and sisters, letting them know I had arrived safely and providing quick impressions of my new domicile. I then wrote letters to my dearest friends. To Lucy Burns, who had a nervous constitution and had been anxious over my adjustment to my new situation, I spoke cheerfully about the beauties of the countryside, the cordiality of Mrs. Cranford, and the charm of my room. I did not worry her with the tale of my solitary walk through the moors. Harriet Hill had migrated to America, where she was engaged as a school mistress in Boston. She had not yet heard of my sisters’ deaths, nor of my decision to come to Nettlefield. I informed her of these events now.
Knowing that full soon I would spend my days fettered to my desk and, even if granted some leisure, the winter would keep me pent indoors, I decided that another walk was in order. Besides, I wished to post my letters.
“Are you certain?” Mrs. Cranford said. “Surely Joseph can take them into town tomorrow! The day’s so grim.” She shuddered. “It’s sure to rain.”
While the sky hadn’t recovered its blue, the fog had dissipated and a hesitant sun peeked through the clouds. The weather did not strike me as threatening.
“I will be sensible,” I assured her, “and not stray too far from the path.”
I set out at once. Once in Lowerton, I found the post office with ease; the village was too small to obscure the location of so important an edifice. I felt sanguine enough about my future earnings to revisit the George to fortify myself with a cup of tea and a scone. The innkeeper cast me a curt nod, which I took as the beginning of a convivial association, as far as Yorkshiremen go. I did not tarry for the hour was growing late.
A slight chill rose as I headed back towards Nettlefield Hall. I was glad for my gloves, and wrapped my mantle close about me. The sky grew darker and less hospitable as I left the hamlet of Lowerton behind. Once more I passed small farms bordered by low stone walls, sagging like ruins. A fine rain fell. The sheep huddled together, miserable in their sodden wool coats. My boots and skirts would get damp when I forsook the road for the path across the moors. I quickened my step.
Soon all signs of civilization abandoned me—not so much as a sheep to stave off my sense of isolation. The moors opened up on either side of the road in a great, treeless expanse. The hints of purple from the last blooms of heather that I had noted yesterday seemed submerged in gloom. The fog rose from its torpor, like the ghost of its morning self. The world greyed.
Grey thoughts pursued me. Were not the tendrils of fog like the hands of wraiths, reaching out towards me?
“No!” I exclaimed.
I would not end up like Branwell, seduced by will-o-the-wisps, prey to phantom torments. I screwed my eyes half-shut and endeavored to imagine the fog-wraiths into Maria and Elizabeth, for surely those beloved spirits would keep me from harm. At the thought of my three tragic siblings, tears rose to my eyes. I dashed them away with a gloved hand and pursued my way with a vengeance.
The fog thickened. My breath came in short huffs as I labored to keep pace with my own intensity, and created a miniature miasma of its own. My individual fog warred with that of the moor and lost—for the greater quickly subsumed it, like a trout swallowing a minnow. I no longer could make out the landscape that surrounded me. The stone wall two feet away had all but vanished. The world was naught but mist, the ground at my feet, my own breathing, and the sound of my hastening footfalls.
But no, some other sound began to insist upon my attentions. In the distance, I heard—or perhaps sensed before heard—hoofbeats rushing behind me on the road. Tabby, our maid back home, used to terrify me and my siblings with tales of sprites, goblins and other supernal creatures from her Yorkshire childhood. The disembodied hoofbeats now conjured up an image of Tabby’s gytrash, an evil-minded sprite in the guise of a dark horse that beset travelers on lonely roads. The unsuspecting victims were lured onto the back of the beast, who gave them a terrifying ride before hurtling them to their doom in bottomless lakes or off the sides of cliffs. As the hoofbeats grew closer, I halfway gave in to my own imagination, my heart beating faster.
“Charlotte, you’re a fool!” I chastised myself. Hearing my own voice brought me back to my senses.
And yet the hooves drew closer and closer. My heart kept up its sympathetic rhythm.
Get out of the road! I cautioned myself, suddenly awaking to the real danger. For the rider would not be able to see me in the fog, and I ran the risk of serious injury.
I scrambled into the brush just in time. The rider clearly sensed my presence, for the hoofbeats slowed, then came to a halt. With my heart still clamoring in my ribs, I wondered briefly it this were the master of Nettlefield Hall heading home. What a peculiar introduction that would make!
“Who goes there?” I called.
No answer but the snort of the horse. I heard it walk towards me.
Out of the mist, its dark form appeared, growing clearer and clearer. A black head thrust itself in my direction.
I laughed quietly—as much in relief as in amusement. For this horse was as far from a demonic mount as one could imagine. It was a black Dales pony, elderly and swaybacked. The shaggy beast gazed at me with friendly brown eyes.
“Hello, there. Are you lonesome too?” I asked. It turned towards me an inquiring countenance and walked closer as if indeed it hungered for some sort of companionship.
I reached up my hand to stroke its muzzle. It nickered softly in delight.
Farmers let their ponies graze freely on the moors, I knew, only rounding them up at this time of year. But I could make out the traces of a bridle on the muzzle; this was some child’s beloved pet, which had somehow gotten loose and taken itself on a jaunt. It would be a shame to let it come to possible harm. No doubt the owner would come looking for it tomorrow in better weather. I was sure that Mrs. Cranford would agree to give it good stabling in the barn until that time. This was an opportunity for me as well; the pony could get me to Nettlefield faster than I could go on foot. I was an able horsewoman, and had often ridden bareback at home when I was younger and wilder. The more I thought of it the more desirable became the thought of riding.
I chose a conveniently sized rock to serve for a mounting block. I clucked my tongue to encourage the pony to follow. Amiably, it walked towards me. When I climbed the rock, the pony stood still in place, as if not merely acquiescing to my desire to ride, but indeed as if offering itself to me were what it wanted most in the world. I swung myself upon its back and kicked.
“Giddup, boy,” I encouraged him.
We ambled off towards Nettlefield Hall. I was cheered by the thought of soon reaching Mrs. Cranford’s cozy fireside. I patted the pony’s neck, noticing for the first time how tangled its mane was, a veritable sea of knots. And how damp! Why, droplets of moisture dripped down its mane and neck. Had it driven itself so hard in its flight that it had worked itself into a lather? I hadn’t noticed that before. Of its own accord, the pony now quickened its pace, as if it too looked forward to a safe haven at the end of the road.
“Whoa,” I told it. “Too fast. It won’t do for either of us if you stumble.”
Instead of obeying, it sped to a canter. How could this elderly pony muster such speed?
I twined my hands in the mane to get a better grip. That was when I noticed the bits of weed knotted there.
Before I had a chance to muse on this oddity, the cantor became a gallop. Had our encounter only interrupted the pony’s reaction to some frightening event? How unlikely that seemed. I leant forward to clasp its neck. That also afforded me the chance to speak in its ear. In as calm a voice as I could manage—for a spooked horse only grows worse if met with heightened emotion—I said, “No, my friend, this won’t do. Slow down. Slow down. We will get to a dry, warm barn soon enough.”
The beast whinnied—a deep eerie sound—and turned its head around to stare at me.
How it had changed! The eyes now glowed an unearthly gold. The lips curled back in a vicious snarl. The face radiated malicious intelligence. It was indeed a gytrash!
I trembled. The gytrash seemed to smirk in satisfaction at my terror, and turned its head back to the road before it. How it managed, I do not know, but the beast’s entire shape had changed; the back I sat upon now was broad and muscular, and high off the ground. The gytrash thundered off the road into the moorland. I held on for dear life.
We crashed and hurtled through the low brush. The strings of my mantle came undone. It slipped down my shoulders and flew off like a banshee into the wind. For a moment I considered flinging myself off after it—might not the soft bracken and heather break my fall? But no doubt the gytrash would then attack me with its hooves, and I would be more helpless than I was now. I tightened my grip.
An image of Branwell rose before me. The trace of Fay blood had always been strongest in him. His encounter with the Otherworld had ruined him for this one. Its beauty had poisoned that of earth for him, rendering everything here pale and passionless and pointless, thus curdling his ambitions and stalling his talents. People thought him a drunkard or opium addict, or both, but I knew his addiction lay elsewhere. He had either killed himself on some lonely heath or returned to the Fay world at last. Would I be the next victim?
The gytrash surged uphill. The labor never slowed it—if anything, the creature went even faster. My hair whipped across my face, obscuring my vision. I spat it from my mouth. There was a small part of me that thrilled at the speed and power of this ride, as if the next step would be to throw off gravity itself and take to the sky. But I knew I did not control my mount—it controlled me; I was merely staving off the inevitable. In none of Tabby’s stories did a gytrash’s victim survive his ride.
As if to confirm my sense of doom, all at once the sky darkened. Could the gytrash summon even the elemental powers? Thunder erupted from the coal black sky, and I could not tell which was louder—that or the pounding of the gytrash’s hooves. A jagged line of lightning rent the sky, yet the rain withheld. The gytrash raced onward.
I had no idea how much time had passed since the creature had spirited me away; it already seemed an eternity. I felt I might go mad. I needed to do something to calm myself, to tie myself to the ordinary world.
“As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives,” I chanted, my voice contending with the storm’s. This happy nursery remembrance was the first thing to spring into my mind.
The gytrash galloped on, its hoofbeats making a horrible accompaniment to my utterances. Like Herr Schubert’s Erl-Konig. How Emily had loved to pound the piano’s keys to simulate the horse’s hooves while I sang! A fleeting smile passed my lips at the memory of this innocent hearthside scene. It faded as I realized—like the Earl-King’s victim, I too might be riding to my death.
We crested the hill. Now I beheld it: the lake where the gytrash intended to make an end of me. I felt the creature’s confidence course through its muscles, an exultant trembling. I was glad I could not behold the face of my tormentor.
The lake looked black. I tried to convince myself the waters merely reflected the black of the sky, that they’d look blue in better weather, but I doubted this was an ordinary lake. Green slime coated the surface, and weeds like those twisted in the creature’s mane sprang up along its margins.
“See, saw, Margery Daw,” I croaked. “Ride a cock horse to Banbury cross, to see a fine lady upon a white horse…”
My disordered mind rushed through Mother Goose rhymes until it ran empty.
“Two times two equals four,” I muttered. “Two times three equals six.” The multiplication tables soothed me more than the rhymes had; they felt almost like a counter-spell to the dreadful iteration of the gytrash’s hoofbeats. I, who had always detested mathematics, now clung to the life-preserver of numbers as my tie to rational thought and a rational universe.
The rational—was this the way to vanquish my foe? An ill-advised love of the rational had destroyed Maria and Elizabeth. Always denying their Fay heritage, they had gone that night to Mên-an-Tol to dissuade the simple folk from passing their sickly children through the Crick Stone. They had stood on West Penwith Moor and denounced the old ways and the ancient powers—and the ancient ones smote them down for their audacity.
Giving in to the Otherworld like Branwell was not the answer, but neither was denying it. No—I needed to embrace both parts of my lineage. That alone might save me. But how?
The lake loomed larger. We were almost upon it. The lake!
My family had maintained the tradition of speaking French from our ancestor, the knight Sir Lancelot, who received his surname from his foster-mother Vivien. It had also maintained certain traditions from his wife. Three tongues were mine, not merely two.
“You have chosen the wrong victim!” I screamed into the wind. “For I am Fay-blooded! Descendant of Elennin, daughter of Vivien, Lady of the Lake!”
The beast neighed—protest or laughter at such flimsy protection? How strong did the Lady of the Lake’s blood run in my veins?
It took all of my fortitude to wait.—Wait.—Keep clutching the gytrash’s mane, knees gripping its flanks.
The beast leapt into the lake. Black water sprayed onto my legs. I waited. Deeper and deeper the gytrash plunged. Still I waited. The dark lake swallowed my feet. Now.
I chanted in the language of my ancestress, a prayer to the powers of the lake.
The gytrash screamed, an Otherlandish sound that threatened to rob me of my reason. My lips froze. The words died away. I forgot the chant, the Fay language itself.
The cold water reached my knees, icy as death.
But it was the water that revived me. I chanted anew.
The gytrash screamed and thrashed, but I kept chanting. The creature launched itself fully into the water, no longer wading but swimming. No need to raise my voice any more, for with my chant I called the water to my aid. Would it heed me or the gytrash?
I loosened my grip from the gytrash’s mane. The water lifted me free. I propelled myself away from my tormentor. The gytrash spun in the water to face me, its hooves thrashing. Its jaws gaped open to reveal razor sharp teeth, nothing like a horse’s, fully apt for rending flesh.
But even this had no power to frighten me. I now knew who would win. I felt the lake’s power in me, my sovereignty over it. I splashed water into the creature’s face, as if we were children playing at the beach. The water obeyed me. In mid-air it turned to green fire, scorching the beast’s face.
With a scream, the gytrash lunged from me, out of the lake. Green weeds cascading from the flaming mane, the creature plunged onto the land and galloped off. I watched its form disintegrate into shreds of mist.
I felt the pleasure of the water surrounding my body for the first time. I threw back my head and laughed.
For I am Fay-blooded, and belong to the Water-Clan, as my friend Lucy Burns belongs to the Fire-Clan, Harriet Hill to the Earth-Clan, and Agnes Eyre to the Air-Clan. My own element will never destroy me.
Had it been warmer, I would have relished the chance to swim unobserved. But now I felt the chill of a Yorkshire lake in October. Only now did I notice the weight of my skirts.
I clutched a handful of slimed reeds and drew myself onto the bank. My sides heaved. I gaped like a landed fish.
The rains came then. I struggled to my feet, my drenched clothes dragging me down. I wiped away the worst of the weeds.
So this is how I must lead my life, I thought, my hands green with slime. Embrace both fay and human, fancy and logic. It came as a wonder to me. I almost thanked the gytrash for the lesson.
Logic now told me that I had best hurry to Nettlefield Hall, before a fever accomplished what the gytrash had failed to do.
I no longer had any idea where in this strange country I had ended up. I scooped a cupful of black water into my hands, where it looked clear as innocent glass, and spoke the Fay words for scrying to read therein the direction.
That way lay the road. If I walked north, in half an hour I would encounter a cart that would quickly bring me to the Hall. If I walked south, the Master of Nettlefield Hall himself would overtake me before the hour was out.
I had an appointment to keep. I began the long hike south.
Sandi Leibowitz is a native New Yorker who writes fantasy fiction and poetry, often based on myths and fairy-tales. Her works have appeared or are forthcoming in places like Strange Horizons, Apex, Goblin Market, Jabberwocky, Mythic Delirium, Cricket, The Golden Key and Luna Station Quarterly. Ellen Datlow selected one of her poems for the most recent volume of the Year’s Best Horror (5). She has a lifelong love of the Victorians and the Middle Ages. Her B.A. thesis at Vassar was on women in the fiction of Charlotte Bronte; her Masters thesis (N.Y.U.) was on Sir Palomydes and the Questing Beast in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. She does not like to be late for her appointments.