Chapter three

Dick had come to the Fair in his father's panelled delivery wagon, Moore's General painted in smart yellow letters along the side. Leslie knew it would be nigh on impossible to get up to the high bench without his help, but that did not mean she wasn't going to try. He offered his hand and she gave him her basket, which he took with one of his smirks. As he walked around the back of the wagon, Leslie scrambled up – never mind the loss of dignity – and positioned herself as close to the massive wheel as she could. When he returned she saw his hands were empty and shifted even closer to the wheel. She had been counting on that basket as a way to build a barrier between them, and yanked her shawl around her like it was some sort of shield.

"Get away from the wheel," Dick said gruffly.

Leslie duly ignored him and he gave the reins a surly flick. The Shire horse lurched forward, just as he knew it would, sending muddy spatters all over Leslie's skirts.

Mud she could handle, it was the movement of the wheel that made her shrink back. She saw his little face, the freckles on his nose showing bright against skin that had gone a pearly grey. Her brother, Kenneth, lying beneath her father's hay wagon. All the air squeezed out of him.

If Dick noticed her move towards him he never gave any sign, even when he turned up the steeper road towards Four Winds. The wagon tilted, the wheel by Leslie leaving the ground, causing her to slide even closer to him.

"That's the way, good girl…" he said, flicking the reins again.

"Your Shire is very strong," said Leslie, wanting to believe he had been addressing the horse.

"Has to be," said Dick, "lugging this great weight all day. I'm not much of a horseman. Prefer to go with the wind."

Presently they rounded the harbour. Leslie leaned forward, craning past Dick to the wide view of the shore below. It felt strange to see it from such a lofty position. She felt like a seabird and thought of her papa.

Only when the trees obscured the view did she sit back. Dick was holding the reins with one hand, the other resting lightly on the back of the bench. The cuff of his shirt sleeve tickled her neck, his open collar flapping like little snowy wings. Drawn to the movement, Leslie caught sight of the mermaid, her face beneath one collar bone, her caudal fin beneath another. She pictured the long tail of the mermaid's body curving like a smile across his chest.

Dick affected not to notice, though he did angle his chest toward her, offering a clearer view of the plump arms wrapped around the mermaid's head. Leslie wondered if her breasts were bared or if they were cupped by little shells.

"You live up there, don't you?"

His voice was gravelly. Leslie drew back with a start. How long had she been gazing at that mermaid? It wasn't right to stare at a stranger – a man at that – for so long.

She responded with a nod and pointed to the winding road opposite Miss Bryant's. Leslie usually cut through Miss Russell's garden, but then she was always on foot. It would have been far more convenient to be dropped off there; she could have avoided all the questions her mother was bound to ask.

Why did she forget herself whenever she was around Dick Moore? He scared her – no, that wasn't true. He made her scare herself. It wasn't like her to lose focus, she was behaving like a child. When he pulled the horse to a stop outside her house Leslie made herself stay in her seat like a proper lady so that he could help her down.

The Shire horse sniffed at the willow leaves as Dick retrieved her basket from the back of the wagon and laid it on her lap. Leslie waited for him to offer his hand. Instead he stood there, gazing at her openly, and she stared into his eyes, one hazel, one blue.

"The loveliest maiden is sitting," he said, "high throned in yon blue air. Her golden jewels are shining. She combs her golden hair. She combs with a comb that is golden, and sings a weird refrain, that steeps in a deadly enchantment, the listeners ravished brain…"

Leslie dropped her basket, Dick let it fall. She leaped down from the wagon expecting him to move. Hoping he would, wishing he would… So how was it that when he caught her by the waist she didn't move away. She didn't retrieve the little pies rolling onto the driveway. She didn't clutch at the shawl that had fallen too. She let him press her into the wheel, the hub sticking into the small of her back.

His fingers snaked around her ribs, his calloused thumbs curving under her breasts. He kissed her hard on her gaping mouth; his rum flavoured tongue slipping over her teeth and gums like a great sucking octopus. He all but sucked the air from her, too.

"I suppose you're going tell me you hated that, as well," he said, one hand caressing her cheek. "Sweet Lorelei," his breath hot on her face. "My little Lore-liar."

Leslie drew back her hand to slap him and saw plainly he wanted her to. She did it anyway with a viciousness that surprised her – and gratified him.

He pushed past her and leapt into the wagon. "Get away from the wheel," was all he said.

Leslie had no choice but to obey, and stepped onto the patch of lawn where the willow stood. Watching with her heart in her throat as Dick drove along the circular drive and back onto the road.

He didn't wave goodbye, nor even turn his head. Leslie ducked down to pick up her basket and brushed down her shawl. But the little pies could not be saved. The wheels had squashed every one of them. Their glistening berry innards oozing into the dirt.

The house was empty. Leslie knew that before she had entered. If Mother had been here she would have come outside the moment she saw Abner Moore's wagon, and insisted his son come in for some refreshment. She had left with Leslie this morning and they had walked together as far as Miss Bryant's. Rose needed to borrow a beading needle as hers were all dull, in order to finish the last details on the velvet tie-backs for Mrs Kirk's new parlour curtains. That good lady was hosting a dinner for the all the rich farmers who had come from as far as Charlottetown to exhibit at the Harbour Fair. Rose said she would be back by lunchtime to put all the washing back through the mangle after everything was drenched by last night's rain. It was still on the line, and from the kitchen window Leslie could see the the bottoms of the sheets hanging limply in the grass.

Leslie felt washed out herself. Weak-kneed and faint like the heroines in Papa's novels – and all because of some silly kiss! The pitcher by the sink was empty, so she splashed her face with the water soaking a batch of hard, brown beans. She could still taste rum, though whether this was real or a memory was something Leslie did not want to consider. She wanted it gone, that was all, yet when she told herself she was heading to the parlour to hunt out a peppermint, she didn't look for one. Nor did she hear her mother when she entered the room an hour later.

"I thought you might have put the beans on. They need to be boiled for an hour and it's already half-past six."

Leslie looked up from the desk she was sitting at. The parlour had always been Papa's room; they rarely ventured in here. Rose stood in the doorway, her eyes on the thick black beams that ran across the ceiling. Seeing this Leslie left the desk, bustling her mother into the hall.

"What were you doing in that room, I searched for you all over?"

"Looking for a book," said Leslie, who could never lie to her mother. "A little one with a red hard cover, filled with tales and poems."

"So why were you reading that old folklore book, what was so important that you forgot your duties?"

"Mermaids," said Leslie, pressing her mother into the armchair by the kitchen stove. "You look tired," she continued quickly, "I'm sorry about the beans, but there's plenty of tomatoes and cheese. How about a pick-up supper and a good strong cup of tea?"

"Fine by me," Rose sighed, all too happy to drop the subject of mermaids, it was the sort of falderal her husband and daughter used to gab about. "Would you look at my finger, I forgot my leather thimble. Two sashes Sarah Kirk said, then the minute I'm finished out come her daughters all wanting trimming too."

"No doubt Mrs Kirk is hoping one of those farmers will take a liking to one of her girls."

Rose harrumphed. "She can gussy them up all she likes, none of them hold a candle to you." She sat back in her chair and rested her feet on the wooden settle where Leslie usually sat. "So tell me, how was the Fair?"

Leslie kept her back to her mother, chopping the tomato into finer and finer slices until she trusted the flush on her cheek had cooled. She would have to take supper right next to her mother and it would be impossible to hide her face. Did it show, could her mother tell that she had been kissed? Against her will, of course. Though that had not stopped her thinking about him. Nor stopped her tongue rooting about seeking out any last traces of rum.

Rose continued with her questions unaware that Leslie had not answered one yet. Did she buy anything nice, pies or ribbon or perhaps a little lace; what about the book she was angling for, the one that tinker was hawking? Did she win it? Rose hoped she did. She really could not tolerate listening to horseshoes clinking on that blessed nail for another year.

At the mention of her precious book Leslie determined to tell her mother would had happened under the willow tree. That tattooed lout had ravished her, Leslie hoped she would never see him again!

"I met Dick Moore… He drove me home…" she began, setting the supper on one end of the settle near her mother's stocking feet.

This news so excited Rose she slopped her cup of tea. "Did he now?" she said, shifting her feet and motioning for Leslie to sit. "Abner said he was coming back. Is he still as handsome as they say? I haven't seen him for… oh, it must be five years at least. Has he got a gold earring?"

"No?"

"Oh. I heard he sailed to Spain. All the Spanish sailors wear them." Rose cradled her tea and stared into the embers in the stove grate, her voice taking on a faraway sound as she sang. "Farewell and adieu, my fair Spanish ladies, Farewell and adieu, my ladies of Spain, we have received orders to sail to old England, and may ne'er see you fine ladies again…"

Leslie perched on the settle and nibbled a corner of her sandwich. She was not thinking of her father as she listened to the singing, though her mother surely was. Rose had always been an impossible romantic, and the loss of her beloved Frank had only made it worse. She clung to their tragic love story; it was the only way she could make sense of it. Leslie felt loathe to break the spell now.

"What a good lad he must be," Rose said, her reverie fading, "coming back to help his poor father."

"Poor?" Leslie snorted. It was one thing to tolerate her mother's fancies but this was a bold-faced lie. "Abner Moore's as greedy as they come."

"Abner Moore saved our farm. If wasn't for his generosity, you and I would be cast out –"

"– on the streets, yes, I know," Leslie said. She also knew her mother wouldn't be half so gushing over that yellow-toothed, purple nosed Abner Moore if he did not hold the deeds to their farm. The mortgage repayments he squeezed from Rose were the cause of her sewing day and night. Unfortunately, there had been nothing else for it. The bank wouldn't help, nor would Frank's mother. Grandmother West had scraped and saved to get her son to college, and it broke her heart when Frank threw it in for a pitiful hillside farm. When he died the old woman begged Rose to move in with her, but the sappy woman refused to go.

"If it was simply a matter of living on the streets but it's more than that, Leslie, and you know it is. This farm is all I have left of your Papa – all I have left of our dreams. If I should lose that too…"

"Oh Mamma," Leslie left her seat and knelt beside the armchair. "You won't lose it, you won't. I'm not strong enough to run a farm but I can make money in other ways, you'll see. One day I'll – I'll wheel a big barrow crammed with twenty dollar bills right into Moore's General and buy back our farm. You'll never need to sew one bead again."

Leslie had come so close to revealing her secret plan to go to college, and hid her face on her mother's lap, releasing a breath of relief. When her mother's hands began smoothing her hair the tears that had dogged Leslie earlier, threatened to fall once again. It felt so good to be mothered, instead of feeling that she should do the mothering.

"You'd do more good wearing beads, yourself," said Rose, with a tired sigh. "The state of you, Leslie. There's a dirty great mark on your shirtwaist, and your skirts have a tide line of salt."

The look Leslie gave her verged on saucy. "And flaunt myself in front every rich man's son, like Sarah Kirk's girls?"

"Never!" her mother vowed, and broke into a laugh.

It was merry and it was needed. But it could not relieve the desperate longing Rose had for her daughter to do just that.

The clock in the hall struck ten before Leslie got to bed. The ends of the sheets all needed scrubbing and everything was hung on the line in the attic just in case of more rain.

Leslie sat at her dressing table staring at her reflection as she hummed the melody to Spanish Ladies. He would know that song, he must do if he knew that poem. How had he known it – why had he recited it – how could he have been so sure she wouldn't laugh at him?

The hair brush was ignored as she studied the lips that had been roughly crushed against his, when she heard her mother's knock. The door opened a crack and Rose tottered in, her nightgown rumpled, her nightcap slipping off.

"Mamma, have you had one of your dreams?"

Rose nodded, still muddled with sleep, and shuffled towards the dressing table."I woke with such a start, like someone was telling me where to find it, and I knew, oh Leslie, I knew where it was…"

"Where what was?" said Leslie, patiently. Her mother's dreams weren't as common as they used to be, but they never frightened Leslie anymore.

"That book, of course, the one you were looking for when I found you in… there." Rose glanced down as she said this, to the parlour that lay directly beneath Leslie's room. She got down on her hands and knees and crawled toward the iron bed.

"Aha!" said Rose, ducking beneath it, the tiny tassels she had sewn along the counterpane tangling with her cap. "Lift the end of the bedhead, will you?"

Leslie did so, and did not dare to lower it until her mother reappeared. When she did, a little red book was in her hand. The bed itself was now crooked.

"I remembered putting it there, after – well, that business with the beam."

Leslie knew what her mother meant. The beams in the parlour were a big reason why her mother never went into that room anymore. The day they found Papa dead, her mother had attacked the beam with a hatchet and caused the floor above to slump.

"Here," said Rose, with a hint of pride, "you've been sleeping with it this whole time."

Then she kissed her daughter's golden head and stole out of the room.

Leslie returned to her dressing table, the little red book in her hands. Her hands found the poem she was wanting, seemingly of their own accord. She read it softly, staring up at herself after every line, wondering as she did if she would see any change.

"She combs with a comb that is golden, and sings a weird refrain, that steeps in a deadly enchantment, the list'ners ravished brain…"

The words were in her head now and she dropped the book and picked up her hair brush, a sensuous, almost forbidden tingle going through her with every stroke.

"Lorelei," she whispered, picturing the mermaid carved into Dick's Moore's chest. "Lorelei, Lorelei, Lorelei…"

* the poem Leslie was reading is Die Lorelei by Heinrich Heine, about a mermaid who lures sailors to their death. The lines recited were from the English translation by Mark Twain.

* Spanish Ladies is a famous sea shanty

...

Astrakelly: Hello again! I'm so excited to know you are reading!

Angela: Great comment. I was wondering if I should detail their journey, then I got your review (and FKAJ's) and I knew I had to.

Guesthouse: Thank you for compliments, especially about Cornelia. Of all the characters I was nervous about portraying, this one got me the most.

Guest: Thank you, the detail I was most pleased with was the bit about all the sound being muffled when you walk between the dunes. I love the quiet as you walk through them, then this gorgeous surprise of loud crashing surf and wind when you come to the shore.

Regina: I had no idea who Minnie Pearl was, but it's eerily accurate to the sort of woman I was imagining as I wrote her. I love Maud's characterisation so much, not just the man-hating aspects, but the little things like her ugly green house and her mismatched clothing, yet somehow she manages to pull it all off. Good luck with the second wave. We were expecting higher numbers in NZ as it struck just when the weather was getting cooler. But it never happened, thank goodness.

Plain Jane: Awesome. I hoped there would be some curiosity, this story is for readers like you!

FKAJ: I am so glad (relieved) you liked my Cornelia, I was worried I wouldn't be able to make readers recognise her unless I had her going, "Just like a man" every five lines. The little things left on the road was another thing I especially liked in the story. I was trying to think of a way to show that the Fair was over, and I remembered noticing that at the end of days like that the grounds are strewn with little bits and bobs, a balloon, a tuft of candy floss (that's fairy floss to you). I mentioned to Angela that I wasn't sure if I should write about Leslie's ride back with Dick, but you both convinced me to try. As I write it I am thinking, No Leslie, stay away! Because I know how it's going to end. But I think if you're going to hate someone as much as Leslie ends up hating Dick, there has to be some sort of feeling between them first, however mixed up.

Thanks for reading, please keep sending me your comments and suggestions. I always write from the seat of my pants with only a rough plot to guide me (very rough). So it truly helps when you let me know where you want the story to go, what isn't working, or even better, what you like!

kwak.