“He insisted, Ma’am. It was his dying wish.”
Elizabeth Hawley’s face glowed red with suppressed anger. “No. After you were here the last time, Katherine became very agitated. I’ll not have you upsetting her again. Get home with you.” The green door closed in Helen’s face.
Dejected, Charles Watson’s former nurse retreated down the stairs and hiked up the lane. She turned and squinted back at the green stone house with the white mortar. A movement of the curtains at a second floor window caught her eye. She saw a pale face behind the glare of the glass. On impulse, she pulled the crumpled note from her dress pocket and held it out in front of her like an offering. The face in the window disappeared. Helen turned and trudged home, worried that with Mr. Watson dead she would have to find another situation quickly.
In her dream, Helen ran through an ice storm. Fists of hail hammered down from the heavens. She ran across an endless field, tripping in the deepening ice, but struggling onward. She had to get somewhere, but she could not remember where. She saw a shed up ahead and almost swam through the waist-deep ice to reach it. She threw her body through the shed door and lay exhausted on the musty straw of its floor. Above her the tin roof rattled with a constant metallic echo as hail rained down on it.
She awoke with a gasp and heard the same gravelly rattle. Fear speared through her bosom and she pulled her blanket tight under her neck. The gravel sound came again and she turned her head to the window. She was not dreaming. She leaped from bed, the night air suddenly cold against her skin. She prickled with more than the temperature as she approached her lone window.
A half moon bathed the side yard in crisp light. She saw an apparition with a bright circle of face looking up. Helen raised the window sash and leaned out as her visitor drew back the shawl that had covered her head. Long ringlets cascaded to her shoulders.
“Where is it?”
Fear left Helen as she recognized Katherine Hawley. Helen held up a finger and hurried to her bureau. From the top drawer she extracted the note Mr. Watson had given her, returned to the window. Leaning far out, she dropped the note.
Katherine looked like a child chasing snowflakes as she scurried back and forth to match the uneven descent of the paper. A breeze wafted the note away from the house. Just as it seemed to be headed for the meadow, Katherine jumped and captured the fluttering thing. She pushed the note into the top of her dress, readjusted her shawl, and waved. In an instant she disappeared into the shadows.
Bethany breathed hard after her mad dash up the stairs from the kitchen. Her foray into town had gone undiscovered, but the night chill gnawed deep into her flesh. Her left hand clutched to her chest a brick heated on the stove and wrapped in rags, while her right hand threw back the thick quilted featherbed. She lit a candle, stripped off her outer clothes, pulled on a night dress, and jumped under the heavy bed cover and hunkered down, hoping her shivers would stop soon. With a second goose down featherbed under her, she felt like a mouse in a hayloft, buried deep to fight the cold. She held the swaddled brick against her chest for a few minutes and then transferred it down to the foot of the bed where her feet had become tiny icebergs despite wool socks.
As the heat from the brick thawed her toes and her body heat began to collect in the fabric around her, she bravely poked her head out from under the covers. In the candle illumination, saw her breath. Despite the sharp cold in the room, extended her right hand out into the golden light. It held the second yellowed piece of parchment she had gotten from the Watson nurse. She read the scrawled handwriting again and again.
This old body will not last. By the time you get this note, Charles Watson will probably be dead. But Charles Watson is not me. I will go on. I don’t know who or how, but someday soon, I will contact you again. I may be young; I may be old. But I will certainly be your husband, Ethan West. Wait for me.
I know this sounds like the ravings of a madman. But have faith. I have found a way to get to you from where we started.
Since I got no answer to my first note, I fear you may have no memories of who we were. But you may remember the lightning. You were struck right after we flew your Tibetan kite. Try to remember. You are Bethany West and you once lived in . You taught history. And you hate to be tickled.
Even if this makes no sense, don’t leave until I can reach you. I promise it will all become clear.
With all my love,
The words kept ringing in her mind: Don’t leave . He had said the same thing in his first note. Yet, her step-father planned to send her to some godforsaken place very soon.
As she lay back on her pillow and watched steamy tendrils of her breath disappear toward the ceiling, she thought, this is a real place. I can feel the cold, I can see the candle. I am not dreaming. And don’t I have some deep feeling for the name Bethany West?
Her thoughts shifted. Was this an elaborate joke? Was George Hawley tormenting her with hope just after he had announced her sale to the highest bidder in some mining camp?
No, this couldn’t be a joke. Suddenly, an image – brown eyes and perpetual five o’clock shadow – floated in front of her. This memory seemed clearer than the rest. As if a floodgate had been released, remembered places and times she had spent with this man. Had she loved him, married him? With a frightening tremble that pulsed through her whole body, she remembered making love with him. Despite the cold, her skin released fear sweat. Her night dress clung to her and she wanted to strip naked and fling it away.
What is wrong with me?
Was this sudden cascade of memories about a husband the product of insanity? How could a dream be so real?
No matter how closely she examined these new memories, she could find no flaw in them. Unlike dreams, they had the smooth and extended details of truth. Then how was she here in a place whose details so thoroughly clashed with memory?
She examined the pink, freckled skin on the long fingers of her hand, the hand of a stranger, yet she could move it, flex it, make it obey her commands. She lived in this body with its copper hair, green eyes, and wide forehead, but she did not feel at home in it. She felt disconnected from everything going on around her. For weeks she had felt hopeless and trapped, but she could not think of a way out of her dilemma.
Then the first note had come and her stoic endurance of something she could not understand began to crumble under hammer blows of memory. Or was it fantasy? She clung to the hope that this man, Ethan, could not be a dream if she held the physical evidence of his existence in her hand. Yet, she wondered if her delusions had become so real that she was hallucinating, creating a reality that nobody else could ever understand or penetrate. She knew such things were possible.
Rather than comfort her, this latest note merely agitated the fears that blossomed like weeds in her head.
How was she in this world when her mind was filled with the images of subways and skyscrapers, of stereos and sports cars, of skim milk and microwaves and central heating? How was she in a world of horses and soldiers and war where a woman’s voice was no more than a breath of wind to the forces that swirled around her? She remembered a life of independence and personal accomplishment. So, how was she suddenly transformed into chattel to be sold to a man a continent away? Was it her destiny to be shipped like baggage to another place she didn’t know to be used like a tool until her sharp edge would be dulled and she would accept her bondage and sink uncaring into the world around her?
She leaned over and puffed at the candle. The room became an inky pit and Beth curled far down under the featherbed and wrapped her arms around her knees.
A horrible loneliness settled on her and made the room feel even more frigid than it was.
“Emily, please, you must.”
“Your father said I was not to carry messages for you, Katherine. If he finds out, I’ll be in a heap of trouble.”
“Emily, you don’t have to carry a note. Just go to the Watson house. Ask to see him. Talk to him.”
“About what? He’s an old man and mean as a snake from what they say. Why would he talk to me?”
“Because he sent me another note. Tell him my name and tell him I got his note. Then tell him that is fine.”
The maid’s dark eyes shifted back and forth as if she expected George Hawley to materialize out of the walls. “Oh, Missy, please. This scares me somethin’ fierce.”
“Emily, when you go to town, make a detour. It won’t take you ten minutes to go there and talk to him. Then do your shopping. Nobody will ever know.”
“I can’t do that. Already been to town. And anyways, I won’t remember everything you said.”
“I’ll write a note.” Emily clutched her hands in front of her. Before she could speak, Beth pressed the advantage. “You’ll do it?”
Emily’s lips formed a grim line as she nodded her head. “Only if I can go at night. I don’t want your father seein’ me.”
The fear Beth saw in Emily’s eyes made her feel terrible, but not bad enough to relent. This trembling girl could provide a thin conduit to sanity.
Or to confirmation that she had gone truly mad.