Transit

FictionIssue Four

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By Lauren Chater

 

Carr House, Lancashire

1639

Eliza Stone was hot. Moisture pricked beneath her arms. A bead of sweat inched its way down her neck, coming to rest in the small of her back. The flames in the kitchen furnace writhed. She felt their breath upon her face, melting her skin. It made her think of hell and of Papa. He had talked a lot about hell in his final weeks. Eliza had done her best to comfort him, assuring him that the fears were merely fancy but by the time he died, his face bloated and swollen, she felt so exhausted by grief that she did not much care where he went at all.

“Eliza!”

She started guiltily and turned to find Cook glowering on the threshold between the first kitchen, where they did the prep, and the working one where Eliza stood before the vast brick oven.

“What are you doing? Hurry up! Get those pies in, then get upstairs to clear away. The family are almost finished. Do you think this is a game?” He gestured with his floured hands. Thick crusts of dried pastry flaked from his skin onto the floor. Eliza watched their descent with dismay.

Would she be asked to sweep, too?

The answer came with a rush of shame and despair that prickled across her skin; of course she would. The truth; Papa was dead and the shop, as well as their living quarters above it, had been sold to pay off the debts amassed during his long illness. Her old life was over. No amount of wishing or crying would bring it back.

Cook was still watching her, narrowing his piggy eyes. Eliza cursed him silently. He had never liked her, not from the moment she arrived at the servant’s entrance a month ago, her small bag clutched in one hand and a letter from Master Stone in the other, inviting her, the orphaned daughter of his second cousin, to come and live at Carr House and be the children’s maid. It had been hard enough, adjusting to caring for the children. And now there was this to endure; a cramping illness which had spread through the lower house last night, striking down the bulk of the servants – gardener, valet, housemaids, waiters. Even the little scullery maid and the back-of-house boy had not escaped, but now lay groaning in the servant’s sickroom where the air was rank with ordure and herbal incense. Only Cook, and Eliza herself, seemed untouched by the disease.

Turning her back on him, she hoisted up the iron hotplate with both hands and slid it in. The flames leaped higher at once, licking at the plate. But they could not reach the fragrant pies resting safely above.

She drew back, muscles aching. The hotplate weighed a tonne. Cook had arms like meat slabs. He could have offered to help, but he hadn’t, preferring to watch her suffer, knowing she was unaccustomed to such work and had not been raised to it. She turned to find him gone, returned to his task next door, preparing the meat which was destined to become supper.

Her finger throbbed. A small tight bubble was forming where she must have caught it on the lip of the stove. Eliza pressed on it, digging in her thumb as punishment for believing that Master Stone’s act of charity – awarding her a comfortable role as the children’s caretaker – was any guarantee against a bleak future of domestic servitude.

From somewhere above, she heard the crash of a plate. “Take the broom,” Cook spat over his shoulder as she hurried past him. She doubled back to retrieve it from its spidery corner and caught a glimpse of Cook’s hands in the oily kitchen light. They were buried deep in the cavity of a skinned hare. She watched as he curled his fists and drew out glistening innards. Catching her eye, he grinned; the first genuine smile she had seen from him.

Choking down revulsion, she left the suffocating heat of the kitchen and its contents behind.

#

In the dining room, the Mistress avoided her eye. She stood up when Eliza entered and kept her face lowered as she hurried past. Missus Burns, her waiting lady, trailed behind, darting quick, curious glances from beneath her cap.

Eliza’s cheeks burned.

She could read the women’s thoughts as if they were tea leaves; what was the children’s maid doing, when only last week Master Stone had invited her to dine with them and spoken to her as if she was a guest, not the hired help?

If she’d been allowed to speak, Eliza would have cried, “I’ve no choice”. And it would be the truth. This was how it would be now, she realised; neither servant nor family but some monstrous hybrid of the two. She would not fit anywhere now, and any aspirations she might have held of marrying or forging her own path were worth less than a broken time piece beyond repair.

The porridge had grown a lumpy skin in its tureen. It wobbled when she picked it up. One cold fat droplet landed on her hand. Eliza bit her lip but did not clean it off.

Unlike his wife, the Master did not flinch or look away as she moved about but drained the last dregs of his small ale noisily and set the cup down at the edge of the table so she might add it to the growing pile in her arms.

When she slid the food-smeared platter off the cloth before him, he tapped her wrist.

“Do not forget to feed him,” he said.

Eliza stared.

Master Stone jerked his head towards the roof. “The Puritan, I mean. Cannot have him starving to death. Not in this house. A man of God. Or will be, one day. Very like.”

A man of God. The Scholar.

Understanding left a bitter taste on her tongue.

“Do not trouble yourself about the children,” he added. “Missus Burns will see to them until you are done.”

She nodded, head bowed but the moment he had left the room, she stared with narrowed eyes up at the scrolled ceiling as if she could see through it all the way up to the rafters.

Of all the tasks she must do today, she was certain this one would be amongst the most distasteful. The man of God – she had seen him distantly once the day of her arrival – was a recluse. His room, the attic, was directly above hers. The Master said he was a graduate of Cambridge and would one day take orders, although his particular interest was astronomy. Sometimes he gave the children lessons in mathematics or Latin. His teachings were inconsistent, though, as more often than not he was cloistered in the attic and did not come down even for meals, but had them brought up to him by the back-of-house boy who also ran messages to town on his behalf.

Night-time creakings. Hammering which startled her from sleep. The squeak of the window casement being lifted. Restless footsteps moving back and forth. Never an apology. And in the morning, as if he had not slept at all, the sounds would begin again.

He was like a ghost. Only the back-of-house boy and the Master seemed ever to remember him. She did her best not to think about him, unwilling to admit that his nocturnal activities reminded her too much of Papa’s final weeks, when nightly visions of demonic spirits and hell-hounds kept him pacing the hallway outside her room. What if he was mad and attacked her when she entered? Was it common for sane people to stay shut in their rooms for days at a time?

Back in the kitchen, she hunted about. A wheel of cheese sweated on a shelf. She hacked off a slice, avoiding the blister on her finger and banged it down onto a plate. A shoulder of brown bread joined it. Gathering up a mug, she filled it with ale.

The house was quiet as she ascended. Eliza passed her own cheerless bedroom and peered in out of habit, noting the placement of her scant belongings, the drab olive curtains swagged about the bedframe.

In the stairwell she paused to readjust her tray, wary of catching her heel before mounting the steps and raising her hand to knock.

No one answered.

“Master… ?” she called, realising she did not even know his name. She shoved the door with the heel of her hand. It swung back; a rush of cool air fanned her cheeks. The room took shape before her eyes.

It was a large area set beneath slanted gables, longer than it was wide. A workbench ran along one wall. Books were stacked in piles. A simple bedframe was pushed into the farthest corner like an afterthought.

The window was open. Beside it sat a man, balancing a small desk on his knees; the kind she had sometimes seen her father use. The inkwell swam with dark liquid. A strip of parchment was tacked on the blotter. Eliza could see letters and numbers scratched upon its surface but she was not close enough to make them out and, in any case, her eye was drawn to a strange instrument standing between them. It was a short Dutch spyglass mounted on three wooden legs so that it could stand erect without assistance. A long timber arm, crudely nailed, held a circle of paper at arm’s length.

Eliza searched her mind for any explanation of what it could be. Nothing surfaced.

She shifted her attention to the man himself.

He was unremarkable. Long hair tied back from a pale face, what she could see of it, since his nose was buried in his figures. He could not be more than a year or two older than her. A black frockcoat billowed around his thin frame. As she drew closer, he looked up slowly. Eliza watched the vague, dreamy expression slip from his face, replaced by one of mild confusion.

She felt herself prickling. “Food,” she said curtly, brandishing the tray, searching about for some place to set it down. The bench nearest her was covered in scribbled sheafs of parchment and, weighing them down, an ornate brass instrument as big as a dinner plate.

“You’re not little William,” he said, still frowning.

“No.” Spying a free space nearby, she slid the tray onto it and stood back. The man’s gaze barely glanced over it before returning to her face.

“Who are you?” he said.

A good question, she thought. Who was she indeed? Watchmaker’s daughter? Children’s maid? Servant of-all-tasks? But she did not think this man with serious eyes would laugh so she pursed her lips and said, “Elizabeth. Mama named me after the old Queen.”

He did not offer his name in return but set the lapdesk down and stood up to inspect the food. He wrinkled his nose at the cheese. Eliza noticed that he pushed it as far away as possible from the bread then rubbed his fingers on his sleeve as if they were tainted.

She hovered, unsure if she was dismissed but when he took up the bread, he turned back to her and stood just slightly too close for comfort, nibbling small holes in the crust. He did not speak and she felt the silence stretch.

“What is it you do up here?” she said at last. She pointed her chin at the three-legged spyglass. “What is that?”

He raised his eyebrows. “This?” Swallowing down the last of the bread, he moved towards it and dipped his head to peer into the eyepiece. “It’s a helioscope. It enables me to observe the sun safely and record its movements.” He made a tiny adjustment to the spyglass with his thumb and straightened up. “There.”

Eliza shook her head. “Why would you want to observe the sun?”

If tomorrow was like today, she thought, she would rather the sun did not come up at all.

He blinked. “I don’t understand.”

She did not reply. No, he did not understand and very likely never would. An educated man, with a future in the Church who could sit all day observing the sky. What could he know about hardship, about watching the life you imagined for yourself disappear like a shadow blotted out by the sun? She turned to leave.

“Wait.” She paused. “Come back later,” he said. He glanced at the window. It was grey outside, threatening rain. “A little before sunset, perhaps. With luck, the sky will clear.”

“Why?”

“I may need some assistance. Can you write?”

So that was it. He needed help. Another task to add to her list. “Well enough.”

He nodded. “Good. William could not. I’ll be observing the passage of a planet which will make its way across the sun. It only happens once every hundred years, so it’s important that every calculation is recorded precisely. It should appear as a black dot. Might be wise to have someone standing by, another pair of hands.”

“A planet?”

He nodded. “Venus. It should be visible, providing the weather clears.”

Venus. She felt her heart skip in her chest. Her father had told her about the planets, describing them as places of wonder, spheres around which moons and stars spun. Tucked up in bed, she had dreamed of a sky full of planets, each one a bauble as fine as blown glass. The sun did not interest her; it was always there. But planets; they were different. They did not stay still, Papa said, but moved about on their own trajectories, following some unknown course.

And now she might see one for herself.

For the first time since Papa’s death, Eliza felt something close to joy quickening her blood. The temptation to talk about Papa, to unpack all the grief she still harboured for the cruel way he had died, was strong. The scholar had already returned to his spyglass, though, his attention occupied.

He had already forgotten her. But she left the attic feeling light.

All through the afternoon, she drifted through her work.

When Cook shouted at her for letting the pies burn, she merely smiled and cut the blackened crusts off.  When the Mistress tutted because Eliza could not remove a spot of ink from her silk, she bowed her head in apology.

At two o’clock, Eliza was scrubbing the floor in the entrance hall. Her back ached. The bristles of the scrubbing brush, sharp as needles, kept catching on her raw fingers. From somewhere above, voices echoed and a door slammed. Footsteps sounded on the newel staircase. She heard her name called and rose to her feet.

The Mistress stood twisting her hands together. “Leave that,” she said. “I need you to take the children out into the garden.”

“Oh!” Eliza felt water dripping from the brush onto her boots. “But the Scholar, Mistress,” she said, throat thickening. “He told me to come back and help him…”

Irritation flashed across Mistress Stone’s face. “Impossible. You will take the children out now. Missus Burns needs a rest. I have told Cook you must return to your duties. He will have to manage somehow. Hurry now. The children are waiting in the nursery.” Mistress Stone’s jaw was set. It was useless to argue.

With heavy limbs, she trudged up to the nursery to collect her charges. They were already dressed, Johnny sulking because Missus Burns had rapped his knuckles. With one last look of longing towards the attic, Eliza drove them downstairs, her mood as dark as the clouds lowered over the sky. The children fanned out in all directions, exalting in their freedom. Eliza hugged herself and kicked at the leaves.

She felt time dwindling and looked back at Carr House. The lattice windows reflected the grey sky. The handsome inscription stone over the porch door stood out against the burnished bricks. She let her gaze wander to the topmost window which was now closed.

Would he even notice if she did not return? Eliza doubted it.

A scream interrupted her thoughts. Her stomach turned over in alarm. But it was only Johnny, chasing plovers through the grass, his coat flying behind him and the others thundering in his wake.

A bubble of mirth rose in her chest.

A fresh breeze whipped the leaves of the tree nearby until they danced like jewel flames. She felt her muscles slackening. Perhaps it was not so bad a place to be for now. Was it not – life – a kind of transit anyway, a shifting from good to bad and back again? Nothing was certain. Look at Missus Burns; ever reliant on the Mistress and Master to provide her with shelter and food. At least Eliza was young. There was still hope for something better. They were all of them trapped in an orbit, spinning around each other like planets.

“Come back!” she called, for Johnny was plunging towards the distant fields. The wind caught her words but he wheeled about anyway, enticed by a family of grouse stirred from their nest by the noise. His happy cries came back to her, making the gooseflesh rise on her arms. The clouds parted above him, revealing a sudden burst of sunlight.

Eliza squinted.

It was only a moment, a second in which the round disc of the sun imprinted itself on the back of her eyelids. Then she had to look away. But she could have sworn she’d seen it; a black dot dancing across the surface of the sun. A tiny speck of something much greater than she would ever be.

When the children caught her hands, she turned towards the house and did not look back.

 

Artwork by Jackie Benney. Published with permission of the artist.