Chapter five

Though she ordered her daughter to do something, Rose was the first one out of the house. Not because she wanted to protect her daughter from the fire, but rather the consequences of it. It occurred to Rose when she stared out the window that the underskirts and bloomers Leslie had hung out that morning were not the only things in the fire's path. Mrs Lennox's old wedding dress was being aired out there; an heirloom of exquisite work that she had hired Rose to alter. Now the duchess satin and pearl trimmed lace were engulfed in choking smoke.

"The gown…" she muttered and ran into the yard.

The flames had devoured the grass by the line and were licking up one of the props. One of Leslie's petticoats caught first, the frills catching and sending red tongues up the skirt. Rose darted forward then quickly drew back as a charred piece of fabric flew off and settled in the long grass in front of her. There was a crackle, then a whoosh as the grass caught alight, blocking Rose's path.

Rose groaned through hands pressed to her mouth, tented up in prayer. She felt Leslie pat her shoulder but when she reached for her, the unfathomable girl ran away. Rose saw she was heading for the shed at the far end of the property by the fields they rented to old Simons and his wife.

"Where are you going?" Rose yelled at her, through a bank of rising flames.

Leslie ducked inside the wooden shack and reappeared with a shovel in her hand. A hoe was in the other, but she couldn't get it to her mother without tossing it through the fire now separating them, and risk that burning too.

She dropped the hoe and raced to the vegetable patch, heaving up thick, red earth. The first load was scattered with a desperate inefficiency, but the second load hit its mark. The flames at her feet sputtered under the dirt and surrendered with a puff of smoke. Seeing this, Rose hauled her skirts over one shoulder and leaped through the blackened grass the fire had left in its wake.

"Get in front of it," she ordered Leslie, "we have to save the clothes!"

"I need to be near the dirt," said Leslie, who was more worried about the loss of their fields and their shed full of tools and seed.

Rose yanked the shovel from Leslie's hand and dashed toward the washing line. If she had thought to take a load of earth – but she didn't. The flames were mere inches from the wedding dress now. She struck her shovel into the knee length grass. It bounced back immediately, jarring her wrist. The second attempt garnered some yellowed roots and a handful of lumpy dirt. Rose did not try a third time. She stood stone still with a masochistic fascination as sparks of grass and charred petticoat floated through the air, marring the pristine satin. By the time Leslie got to her mother the train of the gown had caught.

Leslie's skirts were filled with dirt. "Mother, what are doing?" she cried.

"It's too late…" Rose moaned and dropped the shovel. "The gown… Oh, Leslie, it's lost…"

Only now did Leslie realise why her mother cared so much for the washing. Why didn't she say so before? Lurching through the weeds, she dumped the dirt into the flames before her and ripped the gown from the line, stamping out the burning train.

"For Pete's sake, git away from thar!"

The air left Leslie's chest as a broad shoulder swooped into her ribs. She was thrown against a hornbeam hedge, landing hard and barely aware of the brown calloused hands patting down her skirts. A coughing spasm gripped her as she tried to find a breath of air that wasn't filled with smoke.

"What dya think you were doin', tryin' to catch yerself alight?"

"Captain Jim?" Leslie whispered.

"Stay where yer are." Jim sounded angry and he was right to be, but his actions were guided by concern. Leslie knew this the moment she met his eyes, squinting and watering in the smoke, and brimming with affection.

Leslie did as she was told and retreated further under the hedge. She couldn't see her mother; she did not even look for her as she watched Captain Jim scatter loads of earth over the crackling flames.

Then it was over, the yard was all charred grass and smouldering dirt. And the vegetable patch was in ruins. Minutes before it had been towering with a high summer harvest. Now it was toppled, withered and forlorn.

Captain Jim noted where Leslie was looking and patted her ash-flecked hair. "Taters and carrots will be right as rain, don't you worry 'bout that."

Leslie flinched. She had been worried. More worried about their seed, their tools, even the gown in her hands, than she had been for her mother. Her throat felt hot and she was desperate for something to drink. When she tried to speak it came out as a croak, but Captain Jim knew what she meant.

"She's with Cornelia, they're in the house. Ken yer walk, little girlie? Gimme yer hand."

The kitchen was filled with pungent smoke, and she heard voices coming from the parlour. Leslie was too dazed to register this and walked toward the sound with the sense of being detached from her body. Her mother sat by the empty grate. Cornelia was shouldering the French doors trying to get them open.

"Leave these heavy things to me, will you?" she grumbled to Captain Jim, who strode in behind Leslie. "When was the last time this room had fresh air…"

Cornelia let that question go unanswered. Every person in her presence knew when that last time was. "Make yourself useful, Jim," she said with a crossness that masked her unease, "while I put on some tea."

Jim sized up the doors for a moment and turned the key in the lock. "Silly woman," he muttered as they swung open, and he went out to the porch. Despite the smoke in his lungs, he felt for the pipe in his overall and slipped it between his lips.

Leslie glanced at her mother then went out to see Captain Jim.

"Your fingers," she said, softly, when she saw his blistered skin. "You need butter and gauze."

Jim waved her away. "These mitts have had worse than a bit of fire at 'em afore. Go to your mother, Leslie, she looks white as a sheet of ten penny paper."

Leslie did so. It never chafed her spirit to obey Captain Jim. She could no more ignore him than she could ignore a port in a storm. Some folks made fun of his old-fashioned ways, distrusted the way he could spin a good yarn. Of all the sea dogs the dwelled in the Glen, he was the doggiest; her trusted guard, her loyal friend.

She used to wonder why her mother her didn't marry Jim. So, he was thirty years older than her; he was brave and thrifty and adventuresome and everything a husband was supposed to be. She never dared wonder this out loud, but Miss Bryant heard it anyway – nothing ever got by her. Leslie had been about thirteen and was picking apples for her neighbour while Jim was mending their porch. Her mother brought him lemonade and they shared a laugh, and Leslie wished – a lonesome wish – that Mother would find someone to make her laugh again. She handed the bushel to Miss Bryant with a wistful little smile.

"Don't you go hoping on those two," Cornelia had warned her, nodding at Jim and her mother. "You'll never pry them from their ghosts."

Rose certainly looked like one. Jim hadn't been exaggerating (though he sometimes did) when he said her mother looked as white as paper. Leslie knelt beside her slowly, as though a sudden gust might blow her away.

"My darling girl, are you all right – oh what are we going to do?"

Before Leslie had a chance to answer she was wrapped in her mother's arms and pressed into her lap. She smelled smoke mixed with the lavender water they sprinkled on their clothes. It was a comforting smell, the smell of a time when she was younger still, when it was Papa mending the porch roof and Kenneth catching her apples.

She heard gulping next and looked up to see her mother downing a cup a tea. Miss Bryant was standing over them, her eye on Captain Jim.

"Don't go lighting up that dirty great pipe of yours, there's smoke here aplenty, I'd say."

Rose began crying then, but it was Cornelia she clung to. Leslie stood up and went to the tea pot.

"None for me," said Jim, his unlit pipe dangling from his mouth. "I'll give the backyard one last dump o' dirt, jest to be sure, then I'll let you ladies be."

Rose showed no sign of hearing him, nor did she offer her thanks. She sobbed into Cornelia's mustard-striped shirtwaist while Cornelia patted her back.

"There, there, it's not so bad – "

"But it is," Rose wailed, "it's all my fault."

"I know I told you a thousand times to get your grass cut, dearie, but you're hardly to blame for setting it alight."

"I quarrelled with Leslie," Rose continued, "oh Cornelia, I slapped her. If I hadn't been so awful, if I had hadn't lost my temper, I would have seen the fire earlier. I could have stopped it all myself..."

The tea caught in Leslie's throat, and she struggled to get it down. What had happened in the kitchen was no one's business; why did her mother have to unburden everything, why couldn't she keep some things in? Leslie could not meet Cornelia's eyes, but she knew who she was speaking to when she said:

"Why don't you freshen up and get out of your mucky clothes?"

Leslie did not want to, she wanted Miss Bryant to keep her nose out, and left through the French doors by way of revolt. She walked around the front of the house, past the old willow. Without knowing why, she worked out the iron nail from the tree trunk and threw it over the picket fence.

It was a more subdued Leslie who came downstairs. She had wanted to wear her kimono, but she knew Miss Bryant was still in the house by the smell of her delicious cooking wafting up the stairs. She discovered Miss Russell was with her, making up a tray. Mother must have taken to her room, shocks like this affected her for days.

"Can I help you, Miss Bryant?" said Leslie, timidly.

"You can teach me how to tame that stove of yours," she replied. "I fiddled with the vent I don't know how many times. My biscuits should have been done by now."

Leslie opened the ash tray at the bottom of the stove. "It never draws unless we keep that open, the chimney needs a proper clean."

And their grass needed cutting, and their trees needed trimming and their house was overdue a fresh coat of paint... Cornelia tutted to herself. She managed to live on the money her father left her and clothe and feed half the Glen. While Rose and Leslie had the Simons' rent and regular work, yet they never seemed to make ends meet.

"You can hire those nice boys to do it," Miss Russell suggested, " the ones who fixed up my little place. The shingles look so smart, and the piles – there I was thinking one of my legs was shrinking when the whole time it was my lopsided floor!"

"Nice boys?" Cornelia sniffed. "Oh yes, they had a very nice time helping themselves to my cherries – and my corn! Lord knows what they snatched from you, Harriet dearie, have you counted your silver since they left?"

Miss Russell laughed and in between her laughs muttered the word 'silver' like it was some sort of joke. She plucked some of the violets set on the table and placed them into the vase on her tray, then winking at Leslie she left the room.

"Nice boys," Cornelia said again. "It wouldn't surprise me if they were the cause of your fire."

"How so?" Leslie was intrigued.

"Captain Jim reckons it started with a camp fire just behind your shed. It's fairly sparse back there under all those alders, but all it takes is one little spark."

"You think someone was staying on our land?"

"Staying on it or hiding out. There's been some evil goings on this summer, you must have heard. A distillery in the woods near Over Harbour, and that tinker getting robbed –"

"The tinker?" Leslie dropped onto the settle, all thoughts on her precious book.

"Terrible business, came in the night and emptied his cart, tore his pillows and his bedding and set his donkey free. Of course, the dumb animal just stayed where it was, munching on the grass by the side of the road. I hope the beast delivered a good kick to whoever did it. I asked Dr Dave if he had treated such an injury, but of course he refused to say." Cornelia set the food on the table. "Just like a man," she sighed.

Leslie had finished her meal and was dishing out slices of sponge cake before she spoke again. She had been thinking about Cornelia's words all through supper, but how to say it in a ladylike way.

"I think... perhaps we need one."

"A donkey?" The cake fell off Cornelia's fork.

"A man."

The fork fell too.

"Well, you did say we need our grass cut, Miss Bryant, and our chimney cleaned, and a dozen other things besides. Now you say there are bad folks about. We can't always expect Captain Jim to rescue us."

"Captain Jim wouldn't know what to do on land if he didn't have you two to fuss over."

"But he isn't always on land, is he? He's sailing to Portugal next month."

"Any woman with arms and legs can sweep a chimney and mow a lawn. What you need is a watch dog, I've always thought so. A dog would have smelled that fire too."

"The Captain is a good dog if you ask me."

This was Miss Russell. She set Rose's tray by the sink then settled into the armchair with an oomph. The creases and folds of her quilted housecoat puffing out like an eiderdown quilt. "A nice brown dog," she went on, tickled by the imagery, "with a waggy tail and mournful eyes and a shaggy little coat."

Cornelia shook her head in disdain. Leslie leaped from her chair and gave Miss Russell a kiss.

"More!" The old lady giggled. "If you kiss me enough, I won't need to buttermilk my face tonight."

Leslie duly kissed her again while Cornelia cleared the plates. Rose's, she noticed had been eaten clean. So much for being in shock.

"Your mother needs some kisses too, Leslie-sweet, why don't you go up and see her?"

"Let her rest," Cornelia cut in crisply, "Leslie has enough to do."

Miss Russell saw that she did not. Cornelia Bryant had given the whole kitchen a thorough clean and tidy, even the ash in the grate seemed to shine. But she wasn't going to argue, she had done her bit. Leslie's kiss was her reward. Cornelia's would no doubt be the conversation she was wanting to have with the girl. She had that 'I've got some questions' look on her face and was expecting some comprehensive answers. Answers Miss Russell didn't give a hoot about. Not when her tummy was full to bursting after tucking into the dinner that poor Rose refused to eat.

Miss Russell was right. Cornelia barely waited for the back door to close before she set to.

"So what's with all this man talk? Has your mother put you up to this?"

"I meant a hired man, that's all," said Leslie, her cheeks as red as her scarlet sash.

"And the slap?" Cornelia pressed, not at all convinced.

"I sassed her," said Leslie, more coldly but with an unmistakeable ring of truth.

Cornelia was satisfied. She was also canny enough to know she would not get any more from the girl. "Well, I don't deny I'm sorry she did it." She pulled Leslie in for a short sharp hug and whispered into her hair. "Jim's not the only one that watches out for you. Just you remember that, dearie."

Leslie walked Cornelia to the gate and breathed in deep when she left. The smell of the sea filled her lungs and chased the smoke away. She could see the light at the Lighthouse and thought of Captain Jim.

"A dog," she murmured. That's what they needed.

And she knew where to get one too.


FKAJ: Some more Miss Russell just for you, J. I have named her Harriet, it seemed to fit. I really like her dynamic with Cornelia, they're like good cop/ bad cop. It makes me laugh :o) Thanks for your beautiful review, I love knowing what resonates. The kerosene for example. I read a novel ages ago about this dirt poor coal mining family, and the littlest brother was making food to take into the mines. All they had was lard and he spread it on their bread, then his big sister came along and scraped off half of it, saying they couldn't afford to have it that thick. It really struck me, that kind of deprivation, and the kind of stoicism it demanded. At the same time, I thought Leslie "wasting" kerosene on something frivolous showed that maybe she is more similar to her mother than she wants to admit.

Regina: thanks honey. I hope all is good with you!

Guest: Dick Moore will reappear in the next chapter. As for Abner, you know I'm not clear what is character is yet. Leslie hates him, but then she is of the mindset where everything he does is automatically bad. This story is all about how characters interpret each other, but the truth is harder to grasp. Like you can see the way Rose takes to her bed after the fire, that Cornelia is justified in thinking Rose is lazy (which is how she describes her in AHoD). But we know there is way more to her than that, and so does Leslie. Every time a character acts I think about how other characters perceive them. Except maybe Miss Russell, she's kinda floats above it all.

Thanks for reading, next up: the return of Dick Moore!