An Obliging Cousin
by Dana Cameron
Art by Mark Evan Walker
There was no reason for Anna Hoyt to feel so abominably ill. The day continued as it had started: calmly, with no demands above the daily requirements attending a tavern and a few scuffles before the evening crowd settled into its equilibrium. Clarissa Jones, Anna’s distiller and brewer, reported that all was well at the distillery before she left for the evening. In the public room, the brisk business increased with the setting sun. Anna found herself in the comfortable rhythms of serving her customers. Her acts were meditative—find a bottle or a barrel, fill a glass, take money or chalk up an account, make small talk, and occasionally glance around to assess the mood of the room. Only one incident marred the day; her old chatelaine failed, the number of keys Anna now carried too heavy for the slender hook. As she retrieved the keys and implements that had scattered across the floor, Anna considered. She did not believe in Heaven—in her life, she had found far more evidence for the other place—but if Heaven did exist as she was told, she imagined something like this particular day closest to it.
As the evening went on, Anna’s head began to ache. Her skull felt as if it were filled with shattered glass and a pain stabbed rhythmically behind her left eye. The throbbing was echoed by a toothache so fierce, she thought she might have an abscess, yet when she touched her cheek, there was no swelling and no obvious hurt, though the sensation remained.
The next morning it was worse. She broke her fast with porridge and beer, and though she found it did not actually hurt to eat, the pounding in her head and jaw persisted. She drank some willow-bark tea, laced with rum, and the ache eased somewhat, though she was left feeling sick and out of sorts. She snapped at Clarissa and was short with her man Josiah when he struggled with a cask of ale, hoisting it right herself. Eventually, her inability to concentrate forced her to withdraw to her chamber, where her accounts refused to tally correctly and her correspondence swam before her eyes, communicating nothing of sense to her.
“Enough!” She slammed the book shut, making the inkwell’s lid rattle. “What is the matter with me? Is this some new effect of advancing age, or the frailties of the feminine condition? If so, I shall plunder all the herbals and medical schools in the world for its cure, for I am not ready to succumb to either. Until then, more willow bark, more rum, and a darkened room.”
She pushed back her chair and stood. Unhooking her gown, Anna tripped over a raised nail head in the floorboard, and fell down hard. She cried out and tears spilled instantly down her cheeks. Her knee was a riot of new hurts and old ones summoned up.
“I am bedeviled at every turn! I will not tolerate this infirmity.” She tried to lift herself but her arms buckled beneath her. Filled with rage, she fell back to the floor. Anna had seldom felt so miserable in her life. The other times—
Lizzy, her maid of all work, rushed in. “What has happened, madam?” She knelt and helped Anna to her feet.
As soon as she was steady, Anna shook off her arm. “Your sluttish ways will kill me! How is it a lady cannot even walk across her chamber without your inattention causing confusion and injury! This nail should have been fixed before it laid me low.”
Confused, Lizzy stepped back. “Yes, madam.”
“Get away from me, and better attend your duties or I’ll sell you to a brothel. Close the shutters and get out.”
Lizzy opened her mouth to reply, but Anna held up a hand and looked away from her. The sound of the closing shutters followed by a small click of the latch told her Lizzy had gone, pulling the door closed behind her.
Anna hobbled over to her bed and, grimacing, climbed onto it. She loosened her bodice, and after a few endless moments of pulsing pain, fell into an uneasy sleep.
She awoke with a start. It was full dark inside the room and out; hours must have passed. Anna rubbed her swollen and salt-crusted eyes. She had been dreaming of Thomas Hoyt and being unable to escape him, even though her husband was dead and buried. In the dream, she saw him as she saw him last: sea-bloated and tangled with castoff ropes and seaweed, dead, but pursuing her still.
Why did he plague her still, when he’d been dead for a year? She presently had more troubling concerns than Thomas had ever provoked, and far more to fear these days than his ill temper and beatings. Just months ago, she had fought for her life at the hands of John Griswold and Samuel Houseworth. . . .
The memory brought back the pains in her head, and jaw, and knee, fresh as if they were newly inflicted.
“I am going mad,” she said to herself. She turned to the well-dressed porcelain figure on her desk. “Dolly, I cannot bear this unwarranted upset! Is it some nervous malady? A knife in my heart, rather than this unbearable—”
A discreet knock at the door. “Anna, it is Clarissa. I wanted to ask you about ordering more barrels.”
Anna swung her feet off the bed with a groan, pulled the bed curtains back, and made her way to her desk by the fire. “Come in.”
Clarissa handed her the notes and Anna glanced at them. She could barely see to read. “Very well, order twenty more barrels, and do not forget we have five empty, waiting to be used.” Anna suddenly found herself unable to turn away from her assistant.
Clarissa stood as she always did, in a reasonable imitation of good posture. Her dress was unremarkable, a serviceable wool in a pretty plum color, and her dark hair carefully dressed. There was no sign of anything unusual in her oval face, and nothing about her at all out of the ordinary. Then Anna’s gaze lighted upon something twinkling on Clarissa’s wrist.
Anna recognized it immediately as the key to the stillhouse.
The untouched lock plate, the unbroken windows, all the things she’d observed directly before she had been assaulted by Griswold and Houseworth. Anna felt the world swim around her.
The sound of the woman’s voice and the understanding of what had actually transpired the night of her attack raised Anna’s every instinct to preserve herself. It came easily, after long years of practice in schooling her emotions and controlling her face to avoid one of Thomas’s beatings.
Instantly Anna shook her head, smiling a little. “I have lost myself again; I apologize. I have not been my right self this week.”
“It is of no consequence,” Clarissa said, bobbing a small curtsy. “It might happen to any of us. If there’s nothing else . . . ?”
“No. Thank you.”
The door closing behind Clarissa, Anna got up and barred it. Returning to her desk, she sat down heavily, though not with pain—that had all fled in that blinding moment of insight.
Clarissa had betrayed her. Clarissa had used her key to let in Griswold. Clarissa had known she’d been beaten and said nothing.
“Of no consequence, she says,” Anna said as she met Dolly’s fixed gaze.
Anna stayed in her room the next day. She didn’t trust herself not to reveal her emotions and her intentions. She was so outraged at Clarissa’s actions (and indeed, angry with herself for not paying better attention) that everyone would know her thoughts the moment she showed her face. She had her meals brought up as she wondered how Clarissa had come to conspire against her with Mr. Griswold, and whether there was the possibility of another suspect.
But she knew what she’d seen. So much had happened, immediately after the attack and since her discussion with her new patron and sometime employer, the powerful Mr. Browne, it had fled her mind before greater concerns. But Anna’s memory was as good as it ever was.
When she had examined the lock on the door to the distilling shed, she had seen no trace of tampering or prying. The windows were intact. She’d had her own key; it never left her chatelaine, which was either on her waist or locked away. Clarissa had the other, under strictest orders never to lend it to anyone, for any purpose. So either she’d disobeyed Anna’s direct order, or she’d actually let John Griswold and his accomplice in that night.
To destroy the still Anna had worked so hard to make productive. To ruin her enterprise and humiliate, perhaps kill, Anna.
Her motive? Clarissa might have had a thousand, but Anna could not for the life of her imagine what would be the cause of such betrayal. She’d rescued Clarissa, hired her, taught her some accounting, and left her in charge of the distilling and brewing, for which Anna paid her handsomely. She gave the other woman the gowns in which she was no longer interested, which were better quality than anything Clarissa might have had—a few were even from London. There was no fathoming what might have caused this treachery.
Anna resolved at last to find a method to deal with Clarissa, if she was the traitor within the household. She paused a moment to consider: She had learned a valuable lesson that evening of how she must carry herself in her trade. Anna had known to keep her face in polite and common society, to go to church regularly enough, pay taxes and debts promptly, and behave civilly with everyone she met, until she was given reason (and the opportunity) to behave otherwise. But just as she’d discovered with the nobility in London, there was a trick to finding the right bearing in every sort of society, within every shade of respectability. She had learned, that terrible night of the assault, that she also had to embrace a direct and brutal persona, at once more aggressive and more discreet, with those involved in her other commerce. By doing this, Anna had made it abundantly clear to whom her allegiances were and that she meant to continue, more boldly, as she’d begun accidentally.
The lesson had been well-learned, if dearly bought.
Anna finished her midday meal and pondered her choices. If the removal of Clarissa from her situation as distiller became necessary, who would replace her? Anna had learned the rhythm of the distilling process from observing Clarissa, but now had no time to devote to it herself. She would need to find another distiller, which might not be easy, as she had no idea how to tell whether someone was qualified or talented. She needed more information before she could proceed.
She also knew she must appear soon in the tavern, or begin to raise suspicions, so she dressed and, reassured she looked well enough—her imagined pain was completely vanished now—Anna descended to the common area to survey the foundation of her small but growing empire. All being well, she went to the distillery building.
“I have the chance to acquire another still,” Anna said to Clarissa. “Do you think you could manage that as well, or would you require an assistant? Or two?”
“I am running from dawn until dark as it is, with just the boy to help me and the men, when the heavy lifting comes necessary,” Clarissa replied, adjusting a knob on the apparatus. “When might this happen? And might I have the time beforehand to visit my folks in Hartford? You know I’ve been patient.”
“Soon after we are established on a better footing with this endeavor,” Anna said, lying. She fought to keep her face still, giving away nothing of the turmoil she suddenly felt. Was that it? So little? All that trouble and anger, over . . . nothing? That could not be why she sold me out to Mr. Griswold? It isn’t possible. “I cannot spare you for so long a time yet. And how many more assistants might you need, and suited for which skills, if I were to go ahead with this plan?”
As Clarissa outlined what was needed, Anna wrote notes absently, attending other thoughts. Any thought of ignoring Clarissa’s transgression was now impossible, especially as Anna had already dealt with her attackers. Worse, if Clarissa had believed she’d been able to fool Anna, and get away with it, there was no telling what she might imagine possible. If she was willing to help rob Anna, and subject her to cruel usage, then she was capable of anything.
No, Anna could not stay her hand when it came to Clarissa. Best to do it quickly, she thought, now that I know what I will need to replace the girl.
“Clarissa, would you help me?” Anna called from the cellar, several days later. “I need another cask of brandy.”
As soon as Clarissa was down the stairs and in the far corner of the cellar where the brandy was stored, Anna stepped forward and slapped her so hard Clarissa’s head hit the stone wall. The girl’s lip split and bled, her eyelids fluttered, and she was close to insensibility. She moaned and staggered to her feet, grasping the wall for support.
Setting down her lantern, Anna picked up her pistol. Shadows danced on the uneven surface of the cellar’s stone walls and a brackish smell wafted up from the damp dirt floor. “How dare you break trust with me! Aiding my enemies, who would not only ruin me, but would have murdered me? I know it was you who gave them the key—do not dare to deny it.”
Clarissa gasped and her eyes focused. “What—?” Then she seemed to recognize where she was now, and what had just happened.
“I said, I know you sold me to John Griswold! How much was it? What did he promise you?”
As she steadied herself, Clarissa’s eyes narrowed and filled with hate. “Not so very much. More money. My own still, with him backing me, and the running of your tavern, when you finally decided to sell it. The chance to visit my family.”
Anna raised her hand to slap her again, but this time Clarissa caught her by the wrist, not heeding the pistol now jammed under her chin. “No more of that. Never again. You get that first one, because I was stupid and unwary. But no more. How did you know?”
“It was the key on your wrist that reminded me. The distillery door had been unlocked by someone. My key was with me. That meant it was your key.” Anna stared. “I asked you only to delay your visit, that is all. This is a sad turn, Clarissa. I am hurt; I cannot find it in me to forgive this.”
“I have done nothing that you yourself have not done.” Clarissa spat blood on the floor. “You are no model for any creature, and in no way my better.”
“Have I ever harmed you?” Anna cried. She felt an anger filling her anew, and to overflowing. “How have you suffered at my hands? I took you away from that wretched town of Eastham and that fool Mr. Stratton, when I needn’t have. I gave you food, shelter, a life you might never have had, and work you take some pride in. Have I ever sold you out to a ruffian’s abuse?” Anna shook her head. “I have never treated you like this. You have had nothing but goodwill from me and you’ve repaid me as a viper would.”
Clarissa laughed unhappily. “I’ve seen how you’ve repaid people, O queen of vipers, and have learned well enough from your example. So you need not think you can kill me as simply as you imagine. We will make a new arrangement regarding my service, right now.”
Anna pointed the pistol at Clarissa’s face. “You are in no situation to give me orders or dictate terms.”
“If I die, you are destroyed. I left a letter in the safe of Mr. Marsh, the merchant. It details all your activities, legal and illegal.”
“Liar!” Anna said.
“If you doubt me, look at this.” Clarissa reached into her bodice.
Anna shoved the pistol closer. “If you produce anything that I think threatens me, I’ll shoot you and the consequences be damned.”
Clarissa raised her eyebrows. “No threat but this.” She removed a slip of paper, much creased, and handed it to Anna. “Read it.”
“You read it. I prefer not to be distracted at this moment.”
Clarissa shrugged. “As you like. ‘I have received of Clarissa Jones this day a sealed note to be opened at the moment of her death or by her order.’” She held it before Anna, then threw the note to the floor. “You may examine the seal and the signature at your leisure.”
Anna, having recognized both, could not for the life of her conceive a response.
Clarissa continued, “So we shall go on, you and I, as we have done. I shall work until I decide I want to open my own place, when you will back me. It will appear that I’m working for you, but all the profits of the distillery will be mine now. You will not strike me or I will call for the letter. If anything happens to me, it returns to you a hundredfold. Unlike so many of your adversaries, I have come into this prepared. I know your ways, I know your mind. Whatever happens now, it rests with you, Anna Hoyt. What is your answer?”
Anna was silent still, her mind awhirl, but she finally lowered the pistol and stepped aside.
“Thank you.” Clarissa pushed herself away from the wall, rubbing her jaw. She was halfway to the ladder when she paused and turned back. “I know I said that you earned that first blow, or rather, I failed to avoid it, but I think a test of our bargain is in order. For the marks I shall bear on my face—and say nothing about their origin—I would like two pounds. Today, I think, please.”
Anna’s jaw dropped. The sum was outrageous.
Clarissa tilted her head. “I will not make a habit of it, being satisfied with what I intend and relying on your desire to preserve yourself and your business. But I think that much, in earnest and in compensation for the other times you have ill used me, is not unreasonable. If you please.”
There was nothing to be done. Anna nodded and preceded Clarissa up the ladder. As she reached the top, about to emerge into the kitchen, Clarissa jostled the ladder, causing Anna to gasp and grab for the edge of the trapdoor’s opening.
“Mind you!” Clarissa called from below. “Remember, your situation is very precarious, mistress. You must take heed.”
Anna shot her a look of pure hatred and scrambled out. She retrieved her purse from her locked box and handed Clarissa the money without a word.
Clarissa smiled broadly. “Now. Shall I begin the day’s work?”
Anna could barely make herself speak. “If you please.”
“Of course.” And Clarissa hurried away, reaching for the back of her head to check for bruises and blood.
Anna climbed to her chamber, brushing off the maid’s questions and, out of sheer habit, ordering Silas, the boy, to wipe down the tables in the tavern room. Locking her door and barring it, she took up the bolster, bit onto it, and screamed. No noise but a high-pitched whine escaped the thick upholstery and feathers. Long ago she had declared to herself that she would rather die than show the world such weakness, but found the expression of that emotion necessary still.
To be at the mercy of such a creature was unbearable. She had to find a way to extricate herself from Clarissa’s snare. And yet she found herself helpless, with only the memory of the girl’s smile, bland and treacherous, taunting her. Anna felt a contraction in her chest, her breath short. She had long ago sworn she would never be caught up in an impossible situation again, and yet . . . what could she do . . . ?
# # #
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An Obliging Cousin by Dana Cameron, Copyright © 2016 with permission of the author.
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