"Don't believe a word of it," said the spit-boy, his jaw thrust forward defiantly. "Yon lass is ever makin' up yarns. She's a liar, that's what she is. She's got a tongue as long as 'er legs and just as swift at getting out o' trouble."
The subject of his scorn remained serene, holding a candle in both hands, the flame tall and unwavering until she spoke again, resuming her story as if he never spoke. "But they found the dead man's bones fifty years later, when the hidden door were discovered by accident." Now her breath disturbed the flame's poise, rippling its edges, melting that golden blade and forging it anew, for each observer, into whatever their imagination saw.
She cast her eyes upward toward the low, crooked ceiling above their heads. "There he were... just as his servant left him all those years ago...tucked away in that secret cupboard, bent up in a chair...waiting...and waiting...and waiting... for his supper what never come."
Clustered around the storyteller and her candle, the other young people were silent, captivated by the tragic tale. Only the spit-boy still fidgeted and scoffed, but he did so under his breath, rubbing his meaty, callused hands on his knees. "You're making it up, wench. Never 'appened."
Her gaze curved downward from a thoughtful perusal of the stout beams and found his round, freckled face again through the fluttering ochre wing of that solitary flame.
"Never 'appened," he said again, but those eyes, big and round beneath bushy red brows, revealed less confidence in this conviction.
"Have you never heard the thumping then, young lad?"
"What thumpin'?" he sneered.
"At night, mostly, although it happens in the daylight too, so 'tis said."
"Well, I never 'eard the like."
Once more she raised her somber scrutiny to the air above them, her gaze traversing the pattern of cracks in the plaster. "Listen!" she urged in a fraught whisper. "His lordship still thumps for his servant, wondering where he is and why he do not come. But he cannot call out. He cannot make too much noise, or else the soldiers will find where he is hid. And after a while, he en't no more strength to speak in any case." She sighed, making the flame weave and bob again. "Slowly all his candles burn down and putter out. He is wracked by the madness of solitude, the dark and the quiet. He hears his own heart weakening, rats scratching in the walls, and the muffled sounds of life elsewhere in the building, but 'tis weeks since he used his own voice, and now that the madness sets in, all he knows how to do is thump his wooden stump against the floor and hope that the only servant who knows where he is, has not forgot that he waits."
"Why don't he let 'imself out then?" the doubter demanded.
Without moving her head, she directed her narrowed gaze to his round, stubborn face. "Because he hides from the soldiers, as I told you already." Then she closed her eyelids and paused a moment, as if receiving a message from voices heard only by her. "And the door can only be opened from the outside."
"Well, that's daft. The man were a ruddy fool to go into such a place."
Her eyes flew open again, and she pierced him with her fiercest glare. "I daresay, John Jenkins, if you were running from somebody of a mind to thrust a pole-axe between the downy pillows of your backside, you'd be grateful for any cupboard into which you might squeeze it."
At that moment there was a noise within the beams above, a lengthy creak, produced perhaps by the building shifting and the ancient wood expanding or contracting, as was often the case in the old tavern. But none of her audience were dangerous intellectuals with minds that might, in any way, be described as scientific or logical, and since she had put the supernatural idea into their not-very-busy heads, his long dead lordship's stump-foot was the first and most reasonable source they set upon. Two of the girls, clutching each other for comfort, mewled in a mixture of excitement and terror.
She held her candle higher and waved it slowly in an arc, as if to chase away any menacing spirit hovering there. "His lordship never knew, of course, that the faithful manservant had dropped dead so suddenly, unable to tell anybody else about his nobleman secreted in these walls. Thus his lordship must die a slow and wretched death. Alone. In the thick, silent darkness of his tomb."
There was scarce a sound in the room now, only her voice quietly listing off the horrors that trapped man must have suffered. "Pemphigus, blooming across his body, like raindrops falling in the river." She made a soft popping sound to demonstrate how those watery blisters might have appeared. "Sanquineous crust forming in great yellow patches, before his skin peeled off altogether. Like sands through an hourglass the liquids of his body seeped out and mortification of the limbs set in. I suppose he developed trench mouth and then came a softening of the brain matter, followed by his eyeballs oozing out of their sockets," she closed her eyes and whispered, "plopping, one by one, to the boards beside his useless...thumping...wooden...stump."
The spit-boy made a tight, exasperated curse and tried to take the candle from her. "You talk nonsense. There were no lord with a wooden stump for a foot hid away in these walls. I never heard of it. How would you know of such a thing when you weren't alive back then?"
She opened her eyes and pierced his gaze with their cool, somber blade. "Perhaps I were alive."
"You're younger than me!"
"The number assigned to a body in years signifies naught in the matter of the soul."
"'Tis claptrap you do talk."
"There is much in this life, and beyond it, that you cannot comprehend with your corked brain." The good thing about being abandoned as a babe— and yes, she had a talent for finding some good in any sad event, because she had a lot of practice at it— was that her imagination could make up a number of tales about how she came into the world. It must be very dull, she thought, for folk like the spit-boy, who knew where he had come from and exactly who was responsible.
"Where's this secret cupboard then?" he demanded. "If you know so much."
"They plastered over it, of course, so that nobody would ever get shut away like that again. But they left his lordship's bones there, for 'tis said they become like fossils, stuck to the chair and the floor in that cursed place."
It was likely nobody but the storyteller knew what a fossil was in any case, but the spit- boy was not about to admit that. "'Tis all a wicked great fib. Ought to have your tongue pulled out."
When he singed his fingers on the flame of her candle and yelped as if it were her doing— despite the fact that he should surely have been accustomed to the sensation— she gave a superior sniff and continued primly, "It were St. Ulfrid's day in the year of our lord, sixteen hundred and forty-nine, just before they chopped off King Charlie's head, when his lordship climbed into that cupboard to hide from the Roundheads. He knew they were coming for him, you see, and would serve him the same as they did his king. So his lordship's beloved, trusted servant had the idea of putting him in the priest hole that still existed from the time of Good Queen Bess. His lordship were safe there a while, with his servant sneaking him food and wine from these very kitchens, until that faithful retainer suffered a sudden and fatal incidence of cramp colic. He died instantly, leaving his master abandoned to that grim fate, as I just described it." She paused, her face dour. "It is all quite true, horrible though it might be to contemplate that such a tragic event could have happened in this very place. I would not give you such an account of it, if it not be so."
Another elongated whine from above, sent all their gazes to the ceiling again and stilled their breaths as efficiently as a pillow across their faces.
"Aye. His lordship waits there still. After all...parts of his body, and the vibrations of his agony, linger in the floorboards, absorbed there since the worn, decaying leather that was once his skin, burst like an overfilled wine sack."
One of the girls moaned, clasping a hand to her mouth. Another put hands to her ears and screwed up her eyes.
"Shhh," the storyteller whispered, a finger to her lips. "I hear him thumping now. He must know we are down here — he heard John Jenkin's loud mooing, no doubt—and he wants his supper."
Sure enough there was a heavy clump from the floor above. Or, at least, the audience imagined that was where the sound originated, for that was where she looked, where she directed the solitary candle flame and their attention. A single, harmonious gasp rose up from the small group around the candle. Even the spit-boy said nothing now that he'd been accused of rousing the spirit. His gaze roved wildly back and forth, before it stilled upon the spot just above his head.
The candle went out.
Somebody screamed and toppled over in a faint; another was sick. The others flew about the store cupboard, knocking over stools, and bruising their knees on barrels and crates. There was much hollering and shouting, until the door flew open and the tavern cook, lantern in hand, demanded to know, "What in the name of Satan goes on 'ere, then?"
By then Meg of the Long Legs had made her swift escape through the delivery hatch, while her audience still ran about in fits, shrieking and yelling as if a hornet's nest had ruptured among them and they were covered in treacle.
She laughed as she climbed the trellis all the way to her attic chamber under the thatched roof and slipped through the open shutters to her bed.
There were few things more satisfying than a well-told ghost story, she thought, as she kicked her clogs aside and pulled up the threadbare coverlet. As Master Cosgrove, the local schoolmaster, used to say, the human imagination is a terrible beast when forced to stir. All a good narrator need do was scatter a few crumbs outside its lair, and then watch the hungry, awoken monster creep after them, following the trail to the trap she'd laid for it. The capture of imaginations had been Meg's favorite pastime for as many years as she could talk.
"That tongue of yours will get you in trouble, Long-Legged Meg," a cross old woman had declared once, after jumping so suddenly at one of the girl's gruesome stories that she banged her head on a low beam. "You'll end up in the branks, I shouldn't wonder."
The branks, otherwise known as a scold's bridle, had been used to curb the riotous tongues of gossiping women for centuries. The inn-keeper there at The Kingfisher had one such object on display, hanging from a hook above his cider barrels, but it was more of a warning deterrent and a curiosity than anything, since it had not been worn by anybody in many years. Meg, with her fascination for all things macabre, had studied that iron muzzle and imagined wearing it as she was led through the village. An iron bit of two inches in length, projected into the mouth of the wearer to press down upon the top of the tongue and prevent it moving. A little bell hung above the bridle, just to make the wearing of it even more humiliating.
Unfortunately, looking at that implement of torture merely inspired her rotten imagination with more stories. Thus, she conceded there was no hope for her— not if she stayed in Twytchel-on-the-Nene, where folk began to see her wickedness and taunt her with that bridle.
So this girl had other plans. Meg of the Long Legs— as she'd been known, according to one of her stories, since she was a newborn babe, found half-drowned in a bucket of water and pulled out by her ankles— was restless for more than she could find in that village. It was inevitable, perhaps, considering the length of the limbs which carried her, that she should feel the intense need to wander about on them.
"Whatever you envision for yourself, will come to pass," Master Cosgrove once said. "Always nurture a dream, set your target in life, and collect the tools to cut that path ahead of you, otherwise you will be driven instead, like oxen yoked to a plow, toiling in other men's fields, for the benefit of other men's profit."
Well, what Meg envisioned for herself was the most luxurious treasure she could imagine: a garden overflowing with flowers, where everything was color and light, birdsong and sweet fragrance. Where there was beauty, peace and life always renewed. Where nothing was hurried and angry, nobody kicked or slapped her, but where she worked in the sunlight, for her own pleasure and at her own pace. And it all belonged to her, every nodding flower head, rustling leaf and glistening golden stamen.
She kept all this to herself, because if she told anybody about it, they would inevitably snatch the dream from her. Or they could try. Meg was quite tenacious when she had her mind set.
Master Cosgrove was the cleverest man she'd ever known, and Meg had followed his lessons avidly. Not that she was a pupil at his school, but she was once the maid who cleaned the floors and the windows, scrubbed his boots for him, dusted books and stacked papers, made up the fire on cold mornings and toasted his bread for breakfast. All that she gleaned from that learned fellow she guzzled heartily, and unbeknownst to him, in great thirsty gulps, listening closely as he rehearsed his lectures, or scolded pupils, or read aloud from his newspaper in a scornful way to his miserable wife. In this manner, by accident on his part, he had been her tutor for four years. Yet it was unlikely he even knew her name. He didn't even know when she was in the room.
His wife did though. "Get on with your work, useless, great, lanky girl. Always dilly-dallying, wandering about with that gormless countenance and under my feet. Look at the smudges you've left on that window. I swear I don't know why I took you in."
Meg didn't know either. There must have been no other girls to spare at the charity home on the day Master Cosgrove's wife came to hire acquire a maid-of-all-work for her house, and was offered a shining-eyed, nine-year-old waif, described as "tall for her age, quiet, knows how to get on and only has to be shown once."
"As long as you don't grow much more," the schoolmaster's wife had remarked warily, while assessing young Meg's gangly appearance. "We've only so much room in our house and if you take up too much of it, you'll have to go. We want a girl who works hard and doesn't cause any trouble, or cost much to feed."
In return for her services, Meg was provided with two meals a day, a straw mattress under the stairs, one candle a week for her personal use— two in winter when the dark hours were longer— and material to make one new frock a year.
"It is up to you," Mistress Cosgrove had said, "whether you make a new garment for summer or winter each year, but you cannot have both. It will teach you to be grateful and thrifty. And the importance of maintaining your clothes to make them last."
Meg was surprised to hear that she still needed lessons in poverty and the art of making do, since she'd never known anything else. Had she not already been named Long-Legged Meg by whomever found her, she would surely be better known as Makeshift Meg. But she supposed she ought to look keen and attentive, as any stray dog would for the person with food in their hand.
She did her best to please the Cosgroves and not expand too much, although there was scant chance of that in any case, on the meager crusts they spared for her plate. Sometimes, for amusement, she pictured herself bulging out of their windows and chimney until she became so big that the house lifted from its foundations and she clumped down the street wearing it, with a tiny, squealing, Mistress Cosgrove running after her.
"What do you smirk at, girl?" was a demand often uttered by that lady, and Meg's apparent inability to answer only made her mistress more irate and suspicious, resulting in many pinches to Meg's arms and beatings about her wicked head.
Four years later, when the master was hired for a new school in a larger town, they decided not to take their servant with them.
"She eats too much," Mistress Cosgrove complained to her husband. "I'll find another maid in King's Lynn. To be sure there's better pickings there. This one's always thinking. You can see it on her face. I'm sure I caught her reading from one of your books t'other day. "
"Reading?" Her husband had choked out a short chuckle. "I very much doubt it, my dear. She must have been looking at the illuminations, attracted, as a magpie would be, by the gold leaf."
They thought her illiterate, of course. She wasn't supposed to get above herself, even though Master Cosgrove gave speeches to the boys in his class about aspirations and reaching for greatness. It was different for girls. Especially for those whose unwed mothers abandoned them to the charity of the parish. If Meg was to find honest work for herself, the less education she had the better. Grand folk didn't care for maidservants who, if they could read and write, were capable of prying into their master's correspondence, nosing into business that was not theirs to heed and generally getting above themselves.
No, indeed, Meg was not entitled to have any ambition at all. Her mind was meant to be left fallow, for the good of all. But, for some terrible reason, any seeds that fell by chance upon her field flourished there, in ground quietly throbbing with vitality and fortitude. It was no more feasible to stall her imagination than it was to stunt her physical growth.
Left behind by the Cosgroves, she next scrubbed floors and black-leaded grates for Dame Glossop, a mean-tempered, rich and greedy old lady, who kicked and whipped her maids bloody for even a sideways glance. Since Meg was the only soul with enough gumption to talk back to the mistress and stand up for the smaller girls, she received the brunt of that ill-will, and her skin bore several print marks from the old lady's iron pattens. Then, one day, Dame Glossop found a bowl of beautiful, shiny, black berries on the table and, with her usual greed, ate them all herself. It was to be her last meal.
When the village doctor came to examine the body, she was slumped in her carved oaken chair, but the empty bowl had been removed and her eyelids respectfully closed by one of her maids. Called out in the midst of his own supper— warm, greasy crumbs yet hanging on his chin, port wine on his breath, and a napkin still tucked into his stock— the doctor hastened to declare death caused by a seizure of that shriveled heart and nobody questioned it further. Her demise was too convenient for everybody who ever knew her and Dame Glossop's relatives, having waited impatiently for the end of her bitter, frugally led life for some forty odd years, quickly divided the spoils with no further ado.
One of the other girls once asked Meg whether she put those berries on the table for their mistress, to which she replied calmly, "Don't be daft. I know the berries of deadly nightshade are poisonous. Why would I give them to our mistress to eat?"
Next she went to work for Dr. Woodruffe, the village apothecary, where she had the opportunity to study his charts and figures as she dusted them, to learn a variety of medical terms from the books on his shelves as she tidied them, and to listen at his door as she cleaned the flagged-stone passage. From there she heard patients complain of many different symptoms, while he, in his dusty, grey wig and with wine fumes released by every flap of his thick tongue, delivered his standard treatment for every occasion— leeches, followed by a course of elixirs, made up in his back room and embellished with a label of impressive promises.
During her three years in his house, she never knew of the "learned" doctor curing anybody, although he sold them this series of ineffective potions for a neat profit and undoubtedly hastened several folk to their graves. Nobody else seemed to notice his incompetence, or realize that he could make no money from the healthy. Or, if they did, they dare not doubt such a man of learning. Why would they question him, when he could be so very disparaging if they did and make them feel like fools?
It must have been about that time when it occurred to Meg that as long as a person dressed and walked the part, and had the proper words to say, everybody believed them. All it took was a convincing coat of confidence, bluster and a good wig.
At least he didn't pinch her arms and beat her about the head like Mistress Cosgrove had, nor did he knock her down and step on her like Dame Glossop, but when Dr. Woodruffe first came fumbling after her one evening, slobbering his foul breath on her neck and with sloppy, sausage fingers tugging at her laces, Meg discovered there were even worse ways to suffer.
Screams had never brought anybody to her aid, so after the shock of that first attack she relied on a fiercely wielded iron poker and a bacon kettle, which, from then on, she kept in her bed at night. But now she must worry about the other little maid in the house, a girl less capable of defending herself. Although she brought the girl into her bed for safety's sake, Meg got no rest with one eye open and she had to be up early to light the fires, so her solution was a little hemlock slipped into the doctor's evening drink. This helped send him to sleep faster and deeper, and kept him from doing his maids any further harm.
One night he woke suddenly, thought he heard someone shrieking that there were robbers after the bottles in his cellar, and tripped down his stairs in an addled stupor, his big head falling first to the cold stones, the rest of him tumbling after. There he dreamed so deeply that he never woke up again, and Meg could finally sleep soundly herself for the first time in almost three years.
She was then taken in at the local inn, and there she was now, still bright-eyed and long of leg, but not so willing to stay quiet and certainly not content with cleaning floors and emptying chamber pots for the rest of her life.
According to rumor, Jasper Wallop, a local wool-merchant's son whom she'd known for most of her life, thought she would marry him. But he hadn't got around to asking her yet. At least, not in a definite way. Instead, he circled the matter in a jumpy fashion, like a blackbird pecking at a fallen crust of bread, that was just a little too big to carry in his beak. His father, so she heard, didn't approve the match. He wanted better for his son, of course, and there were rumors about those two dead employers in Meg's past— no proof but plenty of speculation. Jasper didn't seem to pay it any mind. He didn't even flinch at the half-moon scar on her cheek bone, a mark left by one of the iron rings on Dame Glossop's foul-weather pattens.
The village busybodies often reminded her that it was quite a compliment for Jasper, eldest son of a moderately successful merchant, to notice a fatherless maid-of-all-work with not a penny to her name and two dead bodies in her past. But Meg didn't need any reminder. She knew she was a wicked girl and he was far too good for her. Perhaps his goodness would rub off on her.
So after church on Sundays she daringly let him hold her hand as they walked along the river bank, but invariably his wretched little brother would trail along after them, throwing fish heads and bait worms, or hide in a tree above, smacking his lips together loudly and laughing so hard he fell out of the branches. More than once she'd chased that naughty boy into the river Nene, but apparently a dousing was not enough to stop his teasing.
"Don't pay heed to him," Jasper would say, trying to grip her distracted hand again. "The little bugger does it for attention."
It was all well and good for him to say, but Jasper didn't have a vengeful temper or an imagination like Meg's. He'd never had to fight for his survival. Indeed, if he had a bit more raw passion about him, he might have swept her off her feet and made her heart beat faster. But, as it was, there was not much zeal in her suitor's veins. A placid fellow, he was content to follow in his father's steps, to live always in Twytchel-on-the-Nene and, mostly, do as he was bid. Others around him could create havoc if they chose, but he simply kept on walking, his head down, letting the fish heads bounce off. He looked down a lot, but since he walked the same path every day and it had already been worn out for him, he had no need to look ahead for dangers and obstacles in his way. He had no enemies, no experience of other folk trying to hurt him. He could have walked along with his eyes closed.
Meg, on the other hand, kept her wits about her and her eyes busy.The only time she trained her gaze upon the ground for any lengthy spell was when she thought coin might have dropped from somebody's pocket.
She decided Jasper deserved a better wife, not a wretched sinner like her. With her bad temper and knack for trouble she could bring him nothing but sorrow.
Happiest with people, places and things he knew well, Jasper saw his life stretching onward into a fat, contented future with the same safe routine he had known forever. He cherished no desire to cut himself a new path. If it was sufficient for his father and many a Wallop before that, it was good enough for Jasper. But it was not enough for Meg of the Long Legs. Taking Master Cosgrove's advice to heart—even though it was never meant for her and he would be appalled to know she heard it— Meg would set out a path for herself.
She had plans that didn't include Jasper, or Twytchel-on-the-Nene, and all she required to embark upon her great journey was an opportunity.
Copyright © 2017 by Jayne Fresina