The road to Riley’s house was a sort of shored-up dirt path, ready to collapse at any moment into the acres of moss-covered slough that crowded it in on both sides for miles. I began to fancy that I was on my way to some fairy-castle hidden away at the heart of this noisome labyrinth, but no: Riley’s bogs were his kingdom. I discerned a few men scattered in the distance, dredging their way along half-submerged in the muck, planting or tending some crop in anticipation of the far-off harvest. The Rileys’ homestead itself was a fairly substantial two-storey structure in the German half-timbered style, with several outbuildings to house the laborers at a decent distance. The maid met me on the front porch, I introduced myself, and she immediately asked if I was here to see the widow. I answered with some surprise that I was, and she led me through the kitchen toward a tiny sitting room with carpentry tools hanging from the walls and no two chairs the same, though there were several cabinets full of rose glassware of the old kind: ornate plates and goblets in many discordant styles, organized only by size. I could see the back of a seated grey-haired woman by the doorway, and on the other side of the room, sanguinely standing to greet and introduce me, was my wife.
"You were able to pull yourself away!" she said to me. "Darling, I’m so pleased."
"You honor me, Judge Cushing," the widow said. Her clothing was even worse than it had been when I saw her the day before: having been interrupted at work, she wore a plain white garment of little more than rags stained all over, evidently designed so that she could be set to filthy tasks without any fear of ruining good fabric. Given what I knew about her now, I could not but think of this garb as a strange costume into which she had been forced by happenstance, while her true guise laid waiting for her in some nearby wardrobe.
"The honor is mine," I said graciously, though I could say no more because I had no idea what pretense had excused my wife’s visit, and was supposed to have brought me as well. Though she had plainly meant to conceal her presence here from me, she seemed to have no concern that I would ruin her charade.
"I gave the quilt to Mrs. Riley," My Dear said to me, pointing to a table where lay the blanket that the glass-broker had given to us the night before, now bound by a silk ribbon tied in a bow, no doubt torn from some precious garment from our luggage. To the widow she said, "When my husband heard your sad story he promised that we would not let our stay in Lemoine pass without giving you a bereavement gift."
The widow bowed her head and said, "You are very kind, your honor."
"You were saying that after your poor husband passed away, you maintained his legacy by operating his factory for some time," My Dear said.
"I did. For eleven months. And then they took the glassworks from me and brought me out here."
"We had the pleasure of meeting your brother-in-law and his wife at our welcoming dinner last night," My Dear said. "But I can’t help but wonder whether, even though they are your family, you might not have been a little happier before you were with them?"
"A little happier." The widow laughed ironically. "Have you wondered why the servants’ quarters are filled with Lemoine glass? In the old days, rose glass was kept under lock and key. But when it began to kill its users, we received crates of glass every day in the mail from customers who cursed us and wholesalers demanding refunds. The respectable people of Lemoine could not bear for the glass to go to waste, so they gave it to their servants, who they believed had neither knowledge nor any concern about threats to their constitution. To drink from rose glass is now expected of every member of the subservient class. Anything else would be considered presumptuous."
"That’s terrible," My Dear said.
"I want to show you one of them." The widow went to one of the cabinets and brought out a heavy, long-stemmed wineglass. "During my servitude, I’ve learned to recognize the way that small marks memorialize long and painful struggles between bodies animate and inanimate. Can you see the way that the glass is much thinner on the bottom of this glass than it is by the rim? Its owner must have made his servant scrape it clean with a scouring-pad, hard, every time he drank from it. Imagine the number of hours that women must have spent polishing to wear down the insides of every glass in this cabinet, grain by grain. And when she was done cleaning, the glass-dust and poisonous pigment that she had scraped off remained in the bottom of the goblet. It mixed with the next glassful of wine or mead and the master drank it down until his body was petrified and his mind destroyed." She let us look into the glass to see the servants’ own way of avoiding this fate. The glass was filthy, its inside encrusted with old, hardened mead.
"Even so, I must drink from the rose glass like everyone else, because it is my place. I have no happiness here. Only a place."
"And if you were ever to return to the management of the glassworks," My Dear said to her, "no doubt new complications arising from suspicion of your product abroad would require you to retain...an agent..." The sound of Reuben Riley’s wife stomping her way to the servants’ quarters, unfortunately, forced My Dear to lapse into silence.
Riley’s wife stood in the doorway with an expression of theatrical surprise, pleased or displeased, I could not tell. The moment seemed suspended between us, gathering weight and import upon the fulcrum of her arched eyebrow. She had seemed a small, unassuming woman on her husband’s arm at dinner the night before, but now her face went sour.
"Are you the one receiving guests, now?" she asked of the widow. "This must be our new parlor."
"No, ma’am, I..."
"I suppose I needn’t even be told when company comes to my home. Was your plan to bring them down to your dirty rat’s nest and send them off again with me none the wiser?"
"Do you want me to cut you loose, Pearl? If you can’t take living in my house then you can say the word. I bet that’s why you’re acting up. You want to end up at the church, don’t you?"
"No, ma’am." The widow looked straight forward and spoke flatly, her eyes focused on nothing.
"That’s good, because I’ll never send you there. I’m not going to let you bring more shame upon this family. I’ll have you off to the farm at Cudworth as soon as I can spare so much as a mule." Only once her tirade was done did Mrs. Riley seem to notice us.
"I should apologize," My Dear said. "I came uninvited, to offer my condolences. I beg you to blame me for the intrusion."
Mrs. Riley curtsied. "No, ma’am. It’s her. She causes trouble. I’m sorry I can’t receive you today; I have another engagement and Mr. Riley is not at home."
"There is one more thing," I said. "It is incumbent upon me to question Pearl Riley about the recent accident at the glassworks." Mrs. Riley assented, but then she simply sank down into one of the chairs and watched the widow like a hungry owl.
"Did you have anything to do with the explosion in the furnace yesterday afternoon?" I asked the widow.
"No. I returned here from my errand to the post office yesterday morning, and have been here ever since," the widow said. "I know nothing about any explosion. These days news of the glassworks comes to me late, if at all."
I sat thinking about her response, stymied. I could do nothing to advance our cause with Mrs. Riley present.
"Fine," I said. "That will be all." Then My Dear and I retired to the carriage.
"She meant to make a bargain with us," My Dear said once we were well down the road, in low tones so the driver would not overhear. "She would give anything to have the factory again. She is desperate. Is that not what her mistress was hinting at, her willingness even to live in Withrow’s cloister to be nearer the glassworks?"
I agreed, and we decided between the two of us that we would make the widow an offer as soon as possible, though I can hardly imagine what ruling of mine could restore to her what she has lost. To do that, I would have to reverse the depredations of her husband’s family, and the cruelty of the church and the opinions of all the townspeople. I would have to nullify the concept of property and ban the village of Lemoine from the face of the Earth, and perhaps reach back to the beginning of time to overrule God’s original act of Predestination, which made the weak and unfortunate subject to the powerful and righteous. If I can help the widow Riley, it will be by cruder and less honest means.
- ▼ 2007 (10)