Monday, April 23, 2007

June 14-15, Night and Early Morning

Never have I experienced a night of such confusion and blind stumbling in the dark. My evening’s work began in my study at the church, where I pushed aside all my normal cases, set a couple of volumes on estate law and procedure near to hand, and sought some scheme by which I could prise the possession of the factory out of the hands of the men who held it and return it to the widow. This process involved tracing out a few intuitions about the state of the law which I had formed in the carriage, and it was not helped along at all by My Dear, who hovered officiously at my shoulder with theories of her own.

"Withrow made himself a party to the glass-sellers’ contracts by accepting their debts as payment of the widow’s tithe," My Dear insisted. "And then he intentionally frustrated the contract by inciting the glass-sellers not to pay! All you have to do is hold him to account for the widow’s lost profits and make him acknowledge her tithe as paid. If she was not properly ejected from the church, then she was not properly dispossessed of the factory, and everything is undone!"

"My Dear, I assure you, I cannot. To hold the curate liable for a sermon he gave in his capacity as a church officer would violate the basic principle of separation of church and state. Sir Dodge wrote on this very point only the session before last. If I seem to misunderstand such a basic doctrine he will think me an imbecile, and that is an injury that no mere gift of flowers for his wife will undo!" After this outburst she left me alone, and although I regretted having to rebuke her, I was glad she understood that this was one realm in which she could be of no help to me. It would have been the work of a few minutes to rule against the widow, but it took several hours of study and composition to produce an adequate opinion in her favor. Its reasoning was attenuated, garbled, and in all probability applicable only to the specific facts of the widow’s case. I thought it might be studied in the academies for generations.

I was unable to justify returning the ownership of the factory to the widow outright. I accepted the validity of Riley’s transfer of a leasehold estate in the glassworks to Kale, but I ruled that the central furnace and other instruments were never annexed to the building, and they therefore could only have been leased to Kale by means of a separate contract. Finding no such document in existence, I ruled that Riley had created an implied covenant to operate the furnace to facilitate Kale’s use of the glassworks. This meant that Riley was obligated to provide an experienced manager for the glassworks at his own expense, and also to indemnify Kale against any expenses arising from failure or misuse of the glassmaking equipment. I anticipated that Kale would be willing to let the widow run the factory if it meant that her brother-in-law would take on the risk of any further catastrophe. My ruling would deal a ruinous financial blow to Riley, but that was acceptable.

I sketched out as authoritative an outline of my opinion as possible. The hour was already quite late, but My Dear and I agreed that I should return to the Riley estate that very night to make our proposal to the widow, since her family might spirit her away at any time, and there would most likely be no reaching her for a private conversation in the daytime in any case. During her visit, My Dear had subtly asked the widow where she slept: a bottom-floor room at the back of the house. My plan was to ride out on horseback, tap on her window and hope that no one would raise the alarm. If caught, I would simply claim than an informant had accused the widow of performing Satanic rites out in the swamp at midnight, and as Inquisitor in her case I had been obligated to investigate. I bribed the stable boy to let me take a horse out in secrecy, and I made the long journey back to Riley’s plantation with no more light than came from the half-full moon and a weak lantern that I often had to clutch to my chest as I grabbed at the reins to keep from falling from the starting creature. Twice my mount stumbled and I thought I would be thrown off the road into some ditch or bog, and when it began to rain I feared she would refuse to go on. Finally I arrived near the plantation and tied off the horse’s reins to a sapling away from the road. I removed my brown riding cloak to reveal my black robes beneath, which I believed would better hide me in the darkness. Silently praying that the occupants would not spy me and shoot me on sight, I crept behind the house to the window that My Dear had described, which was illuminated by the dim light of a guttering candle. I could distinguish movement in the shadows but nothing more, so instead of tapping I peered harder at the scene inside. To my shock I recognized the widow’s body, unclothed, and the larger arms of a man who embraced her, sharing her bed. I tried to see his face, but then I was gripped by terror as I heard footsteps racing toward me through the grass along the side of the house, very close. I could not even move before I was dealt a blow on the side of my face and knocked down into the muck. A hand covered my mouth and forced my cheek to the ground so I could not scream or even look up and see my assailant. I heard three taps at the widow’s window, and the shadows on the ground grew shorter. The widow, or her lover, was looking out at us.

More footsteps came around the house toward us and my captor allowed me to turn my face upward so that I could see the widow’s lover, still buttoning his shirt. It was the foreman from the glassworks. The one who had knocked me down was a large woman who I had not seen before, and the maid who had admitted me to the house that afternoon was standing a little apart, watching. The foreman, from whose belt hung a sheathed hunting knife, pointed out across the bog, and then the three of them bore me up against my struggles and began to carry me out into the darkness, the women’s arms looped under my shoulders and the man holding my legs at his side like a bundle of firewood. Soon I could hear the sucking sound of their boots being dragged through the mud, and save for the grizzled foreman they panted with exhaustion. There were also others walking alongside us, but I was unable to turn my head to see them.

The widow was the first to speak. "How far do you think voices will carry tonight?"

"Screaming carries for miles," the foreman said.

"Then we cover his mouth."

"I wouldn’t reckon on no screaming. Not to save us a short walk."

I tensed up to hear this exchange, but then they were silent for a while and the foreman made no threatening movement that I could distinguish, so I relaxed. I waited until the fat servant whose hand was clapped over my mouth was off-balance straddling some obstacle on the ground, tottering a little, and I lurched my whole body away from her arms using the foreman’s firm grip on my legs to give me leverage, striking at her so she stumbled away from me and dropped me on my back in the mud, leaving the terrified maid with only a grip on my left arm.

"You need me!" I whispered harshly. "I’m here to help! Don’t try to silence me or I’ll wake the Rileys to screams and a house empty of servants." The fat servant hesitated and looked to the foreman for help.

"I have a message for you," I said. "It’s a proposal. I can return the management of the glassworks to Ms. Riley. If you let me go I can return to the church and file my ruling. I have it right here in my coat."

"No light to read by, Judge," the foreman said, holding my legs up at an angle that seemed to make movement in any direction impossible.

"I ruled that her brother-in-law must indemnify Kale against any future accidents such as the one that happened yesterday, and provide a commercially acceptable, experienced manager for the glassworks. Naturally, Ms. Riley is the only option, and that means that Mr. Riley will have to pay for her readmission to the church so the townspeople will allow her to perform her duties. In exchange I ask only that my wife and I hold the exclusive commission to import the first shipments of glass objects to the capital, for a period of some months, open to discussion."

The widow now stood over me to speak. Her flashing eyes were like tapers in a skull. "Your ruling, whatever it is, is nothing but words. No words will protect us from men with the will to steal my factory and the power to hold it. We’ll sabotage the furnace until no one else dares to work it. Then I resume control, and manage it with people I trust. The rest of the village can work for me or starve. If it had been my choice alone, we never would have waited to hear your response to my petition before we acted." She moved to clap her own hand over my mouth, and the foreman pulled his knife from its sheath. For the first time, I entertained the thought of meeting my death under such circumstances, at the hands of a disgraced woman and her secret paramour. Absurd.

"My wife’s testimony will hang you all!" I said, not raising my voice in the slightest, not setting off the blind panic of the final mortal struggle. I pushed the widow’s hands away with a gesture. "Do you think she needs evidence? She was in the pigment room when the blasting powder was planted. No matter that she doesn’t know who did it; she’ll say that it was the widow herself! She will recall a figure in uniform who walked strangely like a woman and lurked in the room where we were, watching us. Do you think anyone would doubt a woman like my wife, bereaved, respectable? What about Kale, who sent me to interrogate you about the sabotage this very day? What about the curate who will hear your case, who accused you of witchcraft and was poisoned by your factory’s accursed glass?"

The maid who still held my arm was quaking with fear, but the fat woman, the one who had knocked me down, calmly looked to the foreman for direction. I addressed her. "And you! You’re the cook who made the widow eat, aren’t you? My wife knows your story. She knows she can avenge the widow’s crimes on you. She will begin to destroy you on the very first day. She will come with a group of villagers who she trusts and say that I went missing here--she will have a fine innocent explanation for my visit--and pointedly she’ll observe how filthy is the rose glassware, and she will have Riley’s wife make you scour it clean in front of her, and drink from it--" The widow slapped me across the face, but there was perfect silence until I recovered and began again.

"And when the Reverend Withrow has seized his excuse to convict you, My Dear will befriend the next circuit-rider who will come to Lemoine in another three years, and warn him about you. But that will do you no harm, because witchcraft is a capital crime and no judge takes appeals from a pile of ashes."

I let my words echo in their ears and propped myself up on my elbows. I became aware that two other servants, who had followed us but never laid a hand on me, had withdrawn into the darkness, fearful, I think, that I would see their faces. They carried spades. The nervous maid released my arm and spoke first. She begged the widow to accept my terms, and swore that she never cared whether she stayed in the Rileys’ service for the rest of her life, so long as she escaped the weight of the guilt and fear that their crime had laid on her.

We reached an arrangement, advantageous to my wife and me and with adequate provision for us to take some of the glass flowers from our shipments and dispose of them as we like. The widow Riley relit her candle and read my judgment, found it acceptable, and knee-deep in the swamp we shook leech-covered hands. I began to plot how to be absolutely certain to avoid the widow in public for the rest of my stay in Lemoine, and indeed forever. I have heard that it becomes necessary to make many such bargains, and develop a long register of such contraindicated people, as one’s political career blooms.

Given what had passed between us, none of my hosts offered to accompany me back to my horse, and I spent a long time wandering around in search of her. The journey back was difficult as well, as clouds rolled in across the moon and fatigue compounded upon confusion to slow our progress. Finally I returned my horse to the carriage team, which I hoped would not be taken out too early the next day lest someone notice that one horse was not fresh, and snuck into the guest house by a window that My Dear had promised to leave unbolted. I crept up to her room and tapped on the door, twice high and once low. She admitted me and I gave her my filthy robe to hide. I reassured her that I was alright, and explained to her about the foreman and our bargain.

"That’s wonderful. It will be all right if Lemoine glass is coming in to the capital when we arrive, so long as for Lady Dodge we have the widow create something unique. And very large."

"It wasn’t in the agreement I made with the widow."

"Don’t feel sorry for her. She understands that she has to pay a price." She smiled merrily. "You’ve done it!"

She kissed me. I embraced her and kissed her again, but she held me back.

"You have to go," she said. She explained to me that every time that Withrow had come to the door searching for me, she had made sounds of passion and refused to acknowledge him. This had infuriated Withrow, who promised not to sleep until I was in my own bed, and threatened to have the door unscrewed from its hinges.

"Try to be seen," My Dear said as she sent me out the door. To this end I took a long route back to my cell, passing not only through the courtyard but also the much-trafficked servants’ area downstairs. I spied a dim light in the kitchen and I looked inside to see a couple of Imps, both drunk, and watched them make merry by the embers of a fire in the brick oven for a short time before they noticed me. One of them was a gaunt girl with dark eyes and withered legs. She propped herself up against the table as she drank. The other could have been a young grandmother, sly-looking and toughened by hard living, though she seemed greatly loosened up by drink at the moment.

The girl affected a high, falsely aristocratic voice as she swung her rose goblet, which still refracted the light in vibrant vermilion despite its filthiness. "Oh yes. Pardon me. Marvelous. And if I may say so, mankind could learn a _lot_ from the common apple maggot, my dear Lady...Loathesimia."

The old woman drained her glass and smirked mischievously. "Is that so? How charming, Lady _Pigs__t_."

The girl doubled over with laughter and clutched at the table. "You know...you know, this is such a special occasion, Lady Loathesimia, that we’re drinking the communion wine, which is the only magical wine in the whole valley. If this was Sunday I could change it into Godsblood. But because you’re such a noble lady, I’ll change it into the Holy Mother’s Piss. This is very special. All you have to do is say a prayer over it...and pour some on the floor as an offering..."

"Oh, no, Lady Pigs__t, I believe you must _not_ pour some on the floor as an offering."

"You’re right. Next we don’t pour any wine on the floor as an offering. And look! It’s piss!"

Lady Pigs__t emptied the rest of the bottle into their glasses and gave it to Lady Loathsimia, who concealed it at the back of a high cabinet full of empty bottles. Then the two Imps drained their goblets, hurled them at the back of the brick oven, and stirred the embers to hide the shards.

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