*(a stab at a historical/slipstream story with steampunk tendencies… I know where I want to take it (sort of), but I am daunted by the task. again, the overwhelming drive to be factually and historically accurate with the details belays my ability to write more than a little at a time. i was hoping ‘steampunk’ would give me the leeway i need to be ‘less’ accurate, given it’s anachronistic characteristics…)
“Does something trouble m’Lady?” Sara’s voice was subdued as she helped Lady Agnes on with her raiment for the evening’s festivities. Her normally nimble fingers fumbled as she tugged the corset into place and clumsily laced the heavy satin ribbon through the eyes of the garment. Agnes only stared ahead, exhaling deeply as her lady-in-waiting cinched the heavy ribbon. Her silence was calculated and purposeful, and the desired effect was achieved in short order. Sara shifted uncomfortably and changed tack. “This fabric is lovely, m’Lady, and the shade of green, it flatters your fair skin and fiery hair.”
Agnes’s smile was icy. The guilt was evident in her waiting maid’s trembling voice and awkward hands, and had she not been behind the Lady, busily fumbling with the ribbon, Agnes was certain that same guilt would be written all over Sara’s countenance. Nor did the Lady believe it was guilt born of any actual feelings of contrition or conscience. No, it was probably more akin to the guilt of a child caught doing mischief or a whelp cringing from an angry master. The girl feared she had been caught in her betrayal of her Lady and had the airs of one condemned and waiting for the ax to drop.
And twas rightly so, for Sara, Agnes’s servant, her companion and confidante, her friend, was bedding her Ladyship’s husband.
It was still not particularly unusual for a Lord to take a mistress, although under the reign of the sovereign Queen Victoria, the existence of the royal mistress was becoming passe. Still, the old ways died hard, and men of stature seemed to find ways to satisfy their self-indulgent desires. Though she considered herself practical in most respects, there had once been great passion between Agnes and her Lordship, and so it cut her deeply when he eventually took a mistress. The shock of discovering the doxy to be her own waiting maid was insupportable.
The duty of Lady-in-Waiting to a noble woman was a desirable and comfortable position bestowed only upon someone well thought of by the Lady herself. She was not only a servant, but a companion to the Lady of the house. Perhaps it was inevitable that a close friendship often developed between a Lady and her waiting maid. And so, it seemed to Agnes an unspoken rule that a lady-in-waiting could not service her Ladyship and the Lord as well. If nothing else, propriety and good taste dictated this.
Although a mistress’s presence typically was never flouted, her comings and goings conducted with customary discretion, neither was her identity usually heavily guarded. So initially, when Agnes had considerably more than expected difficulty discovering the identity of the mistress, she became suspicious. She could have commanded the woman’s identity from any of the castle staff and been denied only if his Lordship had explicitly ordered such information not be divulged (unbeknownst to Agnes, the Lord’s directive in this matter was actually implied rather than direct). However, to go about demanding this information would have caused Agnes to lose face with the servants of the household, and that prospect was an additional humiliation that was simply unacceptable to her. So Agnes had to go a more circuitous route.
Between subtle changes in Sara’s demeanor, and a some instances where she struggled through an explanation to account for her increasingly frequent absences in the evenings, Agnes had come to the conclusion of her waiting maid’s transgressions. Yet, still a part of Agnes felt the need for confirmation, whether to give Sara the benefit of the doubt, or to allow herself a last moment of denial, however feeble. Agnes was not without her wiles, and rather than confront Sara with her duplicity, she decided to bide her time until she devised a suitable reprisal. In the meanwhile, she could still derive plenty of satisfaction from the Sara’s guilty discomfort.
Finished cinching the corset, Sara retreated to the vanity to retrieve the lavender scented toilet water and the jewelry for her mistress before Agnes could even turn about. She smirked to herself. The waiting maid -for she had ceased to think of Sara in terms of anything but a servant, and often in terms even less pleasant and not often spoken aloud by a lady- could not even bear to meet her eye.
Just as well, thought Agnes. It was becoming harder for her to control her ire, and though she usually favored a candid approach in all her interpersonal dealings with others, she had found that her heartache had awakened in her a previously unrealized maliciousness. Moreover, the few years she had spent as a married noblewoman had worked a subtle and surreptitious change in her. Her innocence and notions of romance were fading, to be replaced by a feeling of hopelessness.
* * *
The marriage of Lady Agnes to Lord Edward Abernathy had been arranged by their families for the usual reasons most noble marriages were arranged, namely because such marriages allied families politically or increased wealth in some manner. In this case, along with continuing the line of noble blood, the Abernathys had lucrative holdings in coal warehouses in and around London, while Agnes’s family had influential political ties to the House of Commons, as well as a sizable dowry.
Agnes was sixteen at the time of her betrothal, and Edward ten years her senior. She had fully come to her womanhood, but was still a slender thing, lithe but not buxom. Her hips were narrow and her bust modest. Still she possessed an ethereal air, defined above all by the alabaster-like quality of her finest feature; her flawless skin. There was not a freckle or scar to be had on her body. Her fine complexion was further enhanced by a wavy mane of auburn hair. Her dark eyes were almond-shaped, and sloped gently towards her tiny nose, lending her expression an almost exotic and oriental quality. Still, though she was considered by all to be a comely girl, it was when she smiled that she was truly transformed, becoming radiant.
And just like a fairy tale from her youth, Agnes’s prince was a fine figure, cultured and charming. He was charismatic without being pretentious or pompous, and so even if he had not been exceedingly handsome, with his sleek, shining hair and intense dark eyes, Agnes knew she would have fallen in love with him anyway.
At sixteen, though Agnes had been schooled in certain expectations of the married noble wife, she was still largely innocent of the ways of men. And although Edward was equally taken with his young bride-to-be, like most noble men he’d had his share of premarital trysts, and was adept at seduction.
Still he put his full effort forward in pleasing his betrothed, courting her as if the marriage were not already a given. They enjoyed long horseback rides on the grounds of their families’ respective manors. Edward had been informed of his betrothed’s love of nature and commissioned the creation of an elaborate garden sanctuary for her.
There was little beauty and nature left to be had in or around London since the steam industry had exploded, becoming the prime source of power for all manner of technology. London had a huge industrial district, full of factories and large machinery. There seemed to be a perpetual warm orange glow emanating from the many of the buildings and sewer grates, flickering as coal fires burned in perpetuity to create steam to fuel the many engines of art. The air was muggy, and at any given time of the year, it was said that the city and surrounding townships were at least ten to twenty degrees warmer than the British countryside. Therefore, Edward’s extravagant gift went a long way in wooing the young Agnes. It was there in the romantic haven of fragrance and color that they spent the majority of their abbreviated courtship. Once married, it was there they often entertained their fellow noble friends. They had even made love in the shelter of the tree groves on several occasions. And eventually it was in the garden, the sanctuary that used to provide her with such joy, that Agnes spent many lonely days lamenting the loss of her love.
They had been married less than four years when his visits to her bed became less and less frequent. Nor did he spend as much of his free time with her as before, instead devoting even more of his leisure time to pursuits in the company of other noblemen. Agnes at first suspected her husband’s cooling attitude towards her was related to her failure to produce an heir thus far. She had heard the whispered rumors among their castle staff, rumors that she was barren. Her head held high, Agnes tried to ignore the rumors and the implications of them. But that part of her that was still rooted in adolescence felt hurt and ashamed. What’s more, she feared that the whispers would eventually reach Edward’s ears.
Whether or not that was the case, or he had come by the idea of his own accord, Edward eventually summoned the family doctor. Agnes was subjected to an examination much more thorough than her modesty permitted and was declared healthy. Still, time passed and she did not conceive.
By then she had already selected a lady-in-waiting. Sara Brighton was the daughter of another noble and two years Agnes’s senior. Though pretty enough, Sara had not yet married and her family was proud and more than a bit relieved when she was selected to be Agnes’s waiting maid. Sara was not only an attendant to the Lady of the castle, aiding Agnes in everyday mundane tasks such as dressing and serving tea, but was her companion as well, for noblemen were often busy on official business, leaving their wives to keep their own council. Agnes had other servants as well, but her waiting maid was less servant and more friend and confidant.
* * *
She was not sure if the bond between them was merely physical or if there was an emotional component to it. But why should there be? thought Agnes archly. What did Sara possess of either aspect that Agnes herself did not? However, the question had a more practical implication than merely validating her wounded feelings. And they were wounded. She had loved her husband, as much as she was capable, and had done all she could to do right by him. It was through no fault of her own that she had not conceived. She had made herself more than available to him. So, were he to avail himself of concubines, as was still a privilege of noblemen, why did it have to be Sara? Why her closest friend?
Still, Agnes could not lay all the blame at Edward’s feet. He was just a man. No better than beasts where their desires were concerned. He might have had a mistress regardless. But Sara, she had betrayed Agnes, had lied, and sneaked like a common rodent. So to determine if the punishment should have the desired effect, Agnes had to be certain how much her husband cared for the waiting maid. Of Sara’s feelings for His Lordship, Agnes had no doubts, especially considering Sara had no current romantic prospects or suitors. It might have soothed Agnes’s bruised ego and broken heart to learn that Edward was not in love with Sara, however if he had no emotional attachment to her, it would not hurt him when she took ill and died suddenly.
Agnes sat on a low wrought iron bench amidst verdant vines covered with delicate Blue Bells of the deepest periwinkle hue. A sweet fragrance hung in air that was pleasantly warm, and every now and again a mild breeze would waft through the small glade, rustling the foliage ever so gently.The evening was perfect, and yet a deep abiding melancholy suffused the mood. Agnes looked over to where her gray mare was drinking water from a tinkling stream that ran through the glen, and her brow furrowed. The mare should not be in this part of the gardens. There wasn’t a proper path and the mare would trample all the delicate flowers. And then possibly Edward would be angry with her for allowing the horse into the garden…
As this thought crossed her mind, causing undue distress, she heard a faint rustling behind her, and there stood Edward with his magnificent bay gelding. He was smiling gently and he dropped the horse’s lead and reached out a hand to Agnes and he approached the bench. Her apprehension disappearing like so much smoke in the wind, she took his hand and stood.
Drawing her into his arms, he pressed his mouth to hers and she felt tears spring to her eyes as the sorrow of the past few years melted away. “I am so sorry, my love. I’ve missed you so, and I promise I shall be a better husband. Can you ever forgive me?” Her heart soared, and in that instant, she did forgive him…
And she woke with the feel of his lips still on her skin and the tears in her eyes spilled over, not in joy, but in deepest grief, for the instant that the dream left her, it was as if the loss of her beloved was brand new.
* * * * *
Agnes had spent many a rainy afternoon in the modest library adjoining Lord Abernathy’s study. Though she did not admit as much to herself, initially this was as much so she could be close to her increasingly distant husband when he was working in the manor, than out of any desire to actually read any of the books there. Still, there was little to do in there but read and eventually, her curiosity whetted, she found she had an intellectual side that yearned for [cultivation]. One chilly fall evening, she happened upon a book on apothecary. Sitting by the fire and sipping decanted brandy from a crystal goblet, she consumed the entire book (and the better part of the brandy) in a single evening. By midnight, she was well on her way to [being] inebriated and had the manic spark of a new obsession in her head.
Agnes realized in that one night that her very own garden, once the romantic overture of her now disinterested and wayward husband, was a treasure trove of ingredients for various potions, medicinal and otherwise. She began to request of her husband and his adjutants additional books on the flowers and trees of England, which he gladly supplied to keep his wife happy and quiet. Agnes found that she enjoyed learning, that it filled her with a sense of accomplishment and her [filled her] days with a purpose they had seemed to lack of late. Not only that, but her new past time occupied her mind and masked her loneliness. Still she was ever aware, in some dark corner of her mind, there was another purpose that had not yet been fully realized. And Edward left her to her “little hobby,” relieved that nothing was required of him and content in the knowledge that this sudden interest in plants was merely an extension of her love for her garden.
However, which plants’ aromas would sooth and which plants could be ground to make effective poultices for sprains were not the only things of note in her books. Much to the chagrin of the kitchen staff, she also learned the uses and recipes for many different types of teas and infusions, and was constantly experimenting with their tastes and healing properties. On more than one occasion, the matronly head cook, Bertha, had tried to shoo Agnes from the kitchen, claiming she was making a “nuisance” of herself, getting in the way of the other cooks. The head cook had been in service to the Abernathys for three decades and so commanded a position of some respect among the servants. Moreover, when Agnes had first come to the Manor, she had found a sort of mother-figure in the stout, gray-haired cook. So she took Bertha’s chiding in good humor, simply smiling guilelessly and slide all her preparations to a small table in the corner, attempting to make presence less intrusive. There she would grind ingredients with her mortar and pestle, sprinkling herbs into her tiny cast-iron pot, like an unlikely witch making a brew.
* * *
In the descending gloom of dusk, Agnes pulled the hood of her cloak down low, so low that when she looked down all she could see was the cobblestone beneath her boots. She rushed that way, head down, along the gutters of the streets to avoid the main flow of traffic. She had stolen one of her maid’s plain day dresses and the theft, more than the beggarly attire, left a bad taste in her mouth. Funny, that, she thought, considering I’m now a criminal and murderess…
In truth, Agnes wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Now that the deed was done, she felt strangely numb. There was none of the satisfaction or righteousness she had imagined for herself after her long-planned revenge. Of course, even with the months of careful planning, things had gone terribly amiss and she had only herself to blame. If she had planned things half as well as she had thought, then her late-hour reticence would never have lead to this disaster. Now her husband was dead and she was running for her life.
As she rushed through the slums that were the better part of London, she realized that her infamy alone would not necessarily have been a hindrance to her escape. Save for the upper-middle-class passing on the sidewalks of the shopping district, looking down their noses in their pomp and pageantry, London was a sea of dirty, anonymous faces. Aside from her cloak, which was of the finest cashmere wool, and her leather riding boots, which were strangely ill-matched in quality to the rest of her pilfered clothing, she did not stand out. Neither did her face inspire the recognition of some of the more influential nobles. Indeed Agnes might have passed unnoticed into anonymity were it not for the price on her head. While not exceedingly large, the bounty on her head would be enough to allow most of the people she passed in the oppressive gloom of the streets to live out the rest of their lives in relative comfort. She imagined even the gentry wouldn’t turn up their noses at the money being offered. And hiding among other nobles was simply out of the question. Her husband’s family wielded way too much influence to be opposed.
Agnes cursed her belated attack of conscience as she hurried through the deepening murk. She did not know where she was going, only that she had to keep moving; naturally, she reasoned, someone who looked like they were moving with purpose was going to be less conspicuous than someone dallying around and looking harried.
Agnes had left the Manor late the night before, creeping down to the stables in the utter dark of a moonless sky, and absconding on her mare, Shadowfox. The Manor was not that far from London proper, but far enough that escaping on foot would have been impractical. She had neither the time nor the inclination to bother with the absurd nonsense that her mother had always insisted upon, riding sidesaddle to keep up appearances and play the part of the proper lady. When Edward had courted her and gifted her the magnificent gray mare, she had wished to give up the silly pretenses, but knew that it would embarrass him were she to behave so coarsely. So she continued her charade of demure femininity. On the rare occasions when conditions were right- that is, she was going to ride alone and she found the barn unoccupied when she went to fetch Shadowfox- Agnes would tack the mare with a man’s riding saddle and ride astride the horse, delighting in the fluid motion beneath her and the freedom of riding unfettered by the rules of polite society.
During these clandestine rides, she felt almost at one with the animal, and so, it was with immense regret, that upon arriving on the outskirts of London proper, she turned loose the horse in an overgrown meadow.
She had relied on the horse to guide her through the landscape, which was all shadows and darker shadows. Though she had been traveling only a couple of hours, she felt immensely weary, a condition as much the result of emotional distress as any physical exertion. When her mind could no longer sustain her abject panic, it gave way to more considered thought. She had not planned on having to leave the Abernathy Manor at all, let alone in such an abrupt and feverish flight, and she needed a moment to plan her next move.
She paused by a dilapidated but obviously abandoned barn on the fringe of the meadow and a bordering copse of trees. The interior smelled of old hay and dry dirt, and was somehow strangely soothing. The darkness was absolute, and she felt her way along one side of the structure and sat down on the hard-packed earth for a moment to rest and think.
When she first opened her eyes, Agnes felt disoriented and confused. Everything was black as pitch and it took her a moment to realize that although it had been dark when she closed her eyes and dark when she opened them, some time had passed in between. She had fallen asleep. Panic blooming in her belly, she jumped up, and abandoning caution in favor of haste, stumbled through the Stygian gloom. She banged her knee twice on something before considering that perhaps she should have followed the wall out, the same as she had on the way in. When Agnes finally found the doorway and pushed the door opened on creaking hinges, she realized that she could see the ghost of the landscape. Dawn was fast approaching.
Agnes sighed heavily. It would not be safe to travel during broad daylight. How long should she remain in the barn?
* * *
The carefully pruned and shaped daphne that ornamented the cobbled walkway leading to the garden’s entrance was an attractive evergreen with gorgeously fragrant blooms. If ingested, the fruits of the daphne would lead to violent stomach pains and illness, followed shortly by coma and death. The daffodils appeared sublimely innocent, their cheerful yellow flowers a hallmark of Spring; and yet accidental ingestion of the bulbs, which, according to her reading, had on at least one occasion been mistaken for onions, could cause total paralysis of the heart. Moonseed, angel’s trumpet, foxglove, rhododendron. Ethereal autumn crocuses of an indescribably beautiful shade of lilac. Now when Agnes walked through her garden, she not only saw the glorious colors and myriad shades of green, but she saw a secret place full of malevolent potential. It surprised her just how many common plants were poisonous. Many had the potential to do serious damage to the organs and systems of the body were they accidentally ingested, and yet they could be found most anywhere in nature, and were even purposely imported, as was the case with some of the flowers in her garden, for the purpose of ornamentation. To anyone else, her garden and the resulting apothecary hobby was nothing more than a benign and maidenly fancy.
Which is just how she wanted it to appear.
Some of her tonics became popular about the female staff of the household; she experimented with the various fragrant blossoms in the garden and arbor, adding them to a mineral oil or ethanol base, to develop quite a few agreeable solutions of toilet-water. She also created potions to ease the pains of womanhood. Even the head cook Bertha came to her in confidence for the small potions of belladonna she had cultivated from her own plants, which gave women the much yearned for bright-eyed look of the day. These last types of toiletries were a kept secret among aristocratic women, who often wore make-up, but usually would not admit to such a thing.
Agnes genuinely enjoyed learning about the plants, experimenting with their different healing and aesthetic properties. She even came to enjoy the notoriety her brews inspired, if only among the household staff. However, this new Agnes, this more independent young woman, jaded and cunning, was also all the while establishing an emotional alibi or sorts within the Manor. This alibi was one part trust and one part admiration, as the women who used her perfumes and tonics not only enjoyed the benefits of them, but were confident in the benign and innocent nature of the potions.
This was essential as she prepared to set her plan into motion. One of the new routines Agnes implemented was to take over Sara’s duty of making the tea that she and Sara enjoyed together everyday. She did this under the guise of wanting a “friendly tongue” to taste her experimental teas and give an honest opinion.
Of course, Sara obliged. As was expected of a waiting maid, Sara would have, regardless, bowed to her Lady’s wishes in most any matter. However in this instance, given the circumstances she found herself in, was especially eager to oblige to Agnes’s wishes, as if by virtue of trying harder to be a doting maid, she could annul her treachery.
The yew trees -lush, dark evergreens that were carefully trimmed into high hedges enclosing large portions of her garden sanctuary- sprouted plump red berries once a year. The flesh of these berries was said to be very sweet. The tiny bitter seed hidden inside the berry was highly toxic. After much careful reading and jotting of notes, which she kept in a leather bound book that passed for a diary, the yew became her poison of choice.
For all of her diligent studying, Agnes acknowledged to herself the fact that she was no doctor or scholar. She had only what information was available in the books Edward had procured for her. Oftentimes, and depending on the style of book and knowledge of the author, the information was cursory at best. Agnes knew she had to choose carefully which information to rely on, suspecting that she would get only one chance at her revenge. Sara’s death had to look organic, the result of a mysterious and insidious illness, or bad blood perhaps.