The Ole Buttered Bread
September 1, 1896
The land was not referred to as the Villages that Stood on Mountains for nothing. As the end of the century had drawn near, the question of how rail would be constructed was a difficult one as Marshall Davis had suggested. His joy of being right, one that came with a hefty sum from a bet won, was quickly overshadowed by the reality that there were going to be places they just could not connect to. He had to sit down and think about what this all meant. A few months ago, he and several others were scheduled to travel to lands unknown for a project that had the House of Commons so up in arms that it was barely agreed upon. For days, temporary allies and foes existed, all of whom were giving all sorts of criticism, some only anger could manifest and only shame would follow, until an agreement was finally found. Marshall was specifically chosen as he had the most experience with the continent.
The heat was at its worst this season, its intensity scorching the little moisture his skin had left, drowning his mind with delirium. Maybe he could see a dung beetle carefully gathering a spherical ball larger than its body weight. Maybe a group of safari ants were dancing in his leg, slowly leaving marks as they explored his trousers. What remained true was that he knew his name, his location and his reason for having sat. But the heat did not seem content with merely giving him physical discomfort. Memories tucked away neatly in a hitherto inaccessible part of his mind slowly unraveled.
Mabel, whose last name was unknown to any who knew her, had in her heart planned to run away with a swindler and start a new life while she still could. He had amassed quite a fortune scamming people and had now made plenty of enemies. She feared for his life and thus asked him to consider starting afresh, somewhere where both of them didn’t have to hide who they were. They would buy a farm in the village and spend whatever life they had left being honest farmers. He obliged and was ready to let go of everything should his final scam fall through. Unfortunately for the swindler, the predator had now become prey. Several of his known contacts had come together with a plan to blind him with an offer he couldn’t refuse and his addiction to the art marked his death.
Mabel never even got to see his body. All that she was left with was his memories and his unformed child. For a few days, she could not even leave her own home. In her heart lay only pain and a resolve to die. Hers was going to be a simple one. She would poison her bread and have her last meal and disappear before people had a chance to link her to the swindler. The plan was perfect but for one flaw. The baker’s son, Marshall Davis, was nosy enough to notice Mabel’s despair as she stopped by for bread. He had recently returned from the Ninth Xhosa War, his first draft, and thus was able to help around before he would be called to serve. Marshall decided to interfere.
“Good lady, have your days been kind to you? You seem as though life handed you more than you bargained for,” Marshall said.
“I am no good lady. What business is it of yours to know mine? Are you not a bakery? Do you provide more than bread these days?”
“Forgive my intrusion. It was but an honest query.”
“May they be fewer on my next visit.” With that, Mabel stormed away. Marshall merely studied her exit, his eyes still filled with worry but his heart steady at the thought that whatever her plans were, she had a tomorrow and one that would lead her here. He felt glad that even in his inability, he was able to accomplish that much. Upon arriving home, Mabel immediately realized that her plans were now ruined. She had inadvertently given the impression that she was going to visit the bakery again, something that would now be viewed as suspicious if she didn’t follow through. With a slap on her cheek, she then reminded herself that if she died tonight, it wouldn’t make any difference. It was still foolish of the young man to be so openly interested in her life. She took a pause to think about the baker’s boy a few minutes more.
There was truly nothing to say about his features. He had a pointy nose with freckles that peppered not only his nasal area but a majority of his face. His arms held substance from being a soldier but there were many more that had better and more alluring frames. He had brown hair, the worst and most bland shade one could ever have in the town and his green eyes spoke of nothing but trouble. He was in every way a misfortune and many of the ladies in town held the same regard for despite his service and his good name and his good family, there was none who felt captivated by him. In all of England, none held his level of bad luck. She then turned to her meal and could smell the odor of death in her bread. Having deserted her job and with nobody caring enough to find her, she was going to run out of her measly savings soon enough. Even if she didn’t decide to eat now, she was going to die anyway. The foreigner in her body had no commentary to add, not that any would have dissuaded her. This was her choice and she had to hold fate in her hands. She served on her plate the bread and broth and calmly dug her wooden spoon and tried to place it on her lips, her hand trembling with fear. She had up until that point gathered up courage and in the moment of truth, she was failing.
She tried to force her spoon further into her mouth but there was no conviction, there was only a pathetic will to live, one that held no merit to her. Why would she be this weak when everything would be solved by her final step? The spoon finally fell to the floor, the soup soiling her dress on its way down. A tear trickled down her cheek followed by several more as she felt the pain wash over her. She had not cried ever since she heard her beloved died and it was as though her body was finally compensating for that. Her life was too broken to live but now she was too scared to die. She threw herself on her bed violently, ripping the sheets and willed them to cover her as her head boiled with frustration and anger and bitterness. At some point in her tear-filled escape from reality, she found sleep. The next few days had her constantly fighting the baker’s son with her eyes, willing him not to speak as she made simple orders for cakes. It was clear to him that she was no longer able to afford a decent meal and he wanted to change that.
“If it pleases the good lady, might she be willing to share bread with me?”
“Does it look like I am desperate for bread?”
He knew she was stubborn and if he didn’t stand his ground, she wasn’t going to listen to him. “I offer because plenty goes to waste sometimes.” That wasn’t true. “This is one of those times. Have some and think nothing of it.”
“Think nothing of the fact that you offer me free bread as though I was a beggar? Do you truly see me as a good lady?”
“If you do not take it, I will find a way to make your next order of cake have a little more than you pay for. It will be discreet so you will never know.”
Mabel smiled. “Well, that plan wouldn’t work if I knew, now would it?”
Marshall noticed and scratched his head. “Well then I shall approach your house like a thief in the night and place bread by your window. You can throw it if you wish but I think you would find yourself too hungry to resist.”
“Now he calls me a glutton. You truly have a way with words.” Mabel was now intrigued. She was interested in knowing how close she got to his breaking point. She was hungry and by this point, the young man’s appeal was becoming too great to keep fighting back but she held her head high. If she was going to be a charity case, it might as well not be a cheap attempt. He then took some bread and began to slowly slice it, his eyes now taken off of her. He took out a flask of tea and flooded a cup, the tea slowly wetting his table. She wanted to look away but she couldn’t. The foreigner inside wanted her to keep looking, to desire the bread and to desire to be filled with food for once in her life. Butter was hard to come by in the area but the young man had quite a good amount and began to spread his sliced bread a bit too carelessly, letting the butter stick out of the bread slightly and this finally annoyed her.
“Is waste your way of getting me to agree with you?”
“The only way I will hear your complaint is if it is followed by your acceptance of my generous offer to share bread. You don’t have to watch me do any of this, good lady,” he said. There was a chance she would still preserve her pride and walk away but at this point if she did, he would let her and hope for success the next day. She was already arguing with him day after day over the way the bakery chose to size various portions so she was not very far from not affording anything. He had to win, she had to break, for her sake.
“And what would happen if I did? Do you offer me butter too?” Her pride was dead for she had no energy to sustain it. It was his turn to smile.
“I don’t deal in ifs and maybe, good lady. If you want my offer, be open about it. I shall not hold back my generosity if you do.” She marched back into the shop, aggressively snatched a piece of buttered bread and munched on it, feeling the warmth of it flood her senses with delight. She paid no attention to him and gobbled up the slice until it was no longer in her hands. She was really tempted to lick the crumbs off her fingers but her limits kicked in and she looked at him.
“Should I also call you a thief?” He said while laughing. Her face flushed and she rushed back home.