Did you enjoy Sarah Cawkwell's first instalment 'The Storyteller'? We definitely did!
It's time to return to the stories of Wild West Exodus and finally meet the Countess...
Although, after this, would you want to meet her?
When Dorcas was seven, her parents died. It would have been easy to linger on the tragedy, but life went on, even for homeless orphans and as it transpired, she was not homeless for long. She was taken into the household staff of the Countess where she worked as a kitchen helper until she was deemed old enough to move up to house servant.
She never complained about a life of servitude. She had a roof over her head and enough food to fill her belly. Even at such a tender age, she was more than acutely aware that things could have been infinitely worse. Workhouses, crammed to bursting point, were the usual fate for orphans of her age although it was not unheard of for children to take places in debtor’s prisons.
No, she was definitely one of the lucky ones.
She was a pretty thing, with long chestnut curls framing a heart-shaped face. Her nose upturned slightly at the ends, her eyes were the green-grey of a becalmed ocean after a storm and her full, beautifully shaped lips were almost always turned upwards in a smile. She was slim and lithe of limb, with a narrow waist flaring out to shapely hips. Despite the sadness of her childhood, she was bright and happy and turned many heads in the Parlour, male and female alike. The men wanted her, the women wanted to be her. She was unaware of her beauty and that somehow made her even more attractive.
In the ten years she’d lived and worked here, Dorcas had come face-to-face with the Countess only once – three months previously – and that had been the most intimidating experience of her life. The woman was impossibly tall. Statuesque would have been the word Dorcas would have used had she been more literate. But tall would suffice. The maid was bustling through a corridor on the lower levels of the complex, her arms full of towels and when she had rounded the corner she had quite literally bumped into the Countess. The towels spilt everywhere, a snow-white shower of soft, fluffy fabric and Dorcas had apologised profusely. Falling to her knees, she began gathering up her spilt cargo.
The Countess spoke just the one word and her tone was commanding enough that Dorcas did exactly as instructed. The black-clad figure took a step toward the kneeling maid and bent slightly so she could raise the girl’s chin until they were looking directly at each other. Dorcas felt her eyes brim with tears and blinked them back.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Dorcas, ma’am. Dorcas Williams. I… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
“Hush. Do not speak.” The Countess turned Dorcas’s head this way and that, studying the girl’s features for what felt like an age before releasing her chin. She nodded, as though to herself and took a step back. “Be on your way.”
“Yes, ma’am, thank you, ma’am…” Dorcas, flustered, gathered up the towels and fled. She was aware, as she did so, of those eyes watching her.
Three months later, the summons came.
The Countess’s private rooms were chilly and as she entered, Dorcas yearned to go to the large grate and light a fire to take the edge off. Her maid’s uniform did not afford much protection from the cold and her arms were textured with goosebumps. She shivered slightly. She did not quite know whether the shivering was from the cold or from the anxiety she’d been feeling ever since Master Sheldon had told her that the Countess desired her presence.
The room was circular, as befit the highest room in the tower, and was almost all glass. It afforded a quite spectacular view over the forest beneath. Fall was well underway and the deep, scarlet reds and rich oranges seemed to carpet the scenery in a swathe of unimaginably beautiful colour.
Countess August Byron was standing with her back to the door, her hands were clasped behind her back as she gazed out over the view. She did not turn at Dorcas’s entrance but was clearly aware the girl had arrived.
“My cartographers tell me that from this vantage point atop Mount Greylock you can see five states,” she said by way of greeting. “Come join me, Dorcas. Experience the beauty of the forest as the seasons change.”
She turned, then, beckoning with a long finger and driven once more by a compulsion she didn’t understand, Dorcas stepped to the woman’s side. Again, she was struck by the Countess’s height; well over six feet. This close, she could smell the woman’s perfume; a gentle aroma of flowers and… something Dorcas couldn’t place. She gazed out over the forest and allowed a gasp of delight to leave her lips.
“It is beautiful, is it not, my dear?” The Countess was studying Dorcas in profile. “The change of seasons pleases me greatly and I find that the Fall is the most beautiful of all. There is a poem written by one of the Romantics. Not, alas, my namesake, but nonetheless, an excellent poet. I find his choice of words most pleasing. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.” She sighed, rather theatrically. Dorcas barely noticed, so caught up was she in the beauty of the forest.
“There is an orchard on my grounds,” continued the Countess. “Soon, the staff will harvest the fruit. Harvest is a time for celebration, don’t you think?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Dorcas and this time she looked up at the Countess. Her smile was quite lovely. The Countess nodded and moved over to the table. She poured two cups of tea into dainty, porcelain china cups and offered one to the maid who hesitated briefly before accepting the drink and sipping. It was a pleasant flavour; fruity and mellow. The Countess watched her, dark eyes glinting.
She did not sip her own drink.
“Harvest is a time for sharing.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She felt light-headed and wondered if it was something to do with the altitude. They were so far up above the forest…
The cup slipped from her fingers which had gone suddenly numb and she began to fall to the floor. The Countess caught the slight young girl easily and lifted her as though she were a child. She cradled the maid to her breast and walked towards the far door which led to what she called her workshop and which others, who knew her well enough, called her larder.
“You are a beautiful young woman, Dorcas. I want that to be the thought you take with you. Your beauty will live on, I promise you. I will take your best features and when I smile, it will be you they remember.”
Dorcas was not afraid. The Countess was beautiful, divine, wonderful and she was caught in the spell. A thought came to her and she spoke her last words.
“Will it hurt?”
The Countess looked down at the girl and smiled a terrible smile. “Yes,” she said. “Aren’t you one of the lucky ones?”