The Farm Wife’s Story
By Cate McDermott
“I can remember every detail of her face, poor soul, though it was so many years ago.” The farm wife with whom Princess Esther had taken refuge returned to her place by the fire, smiling kindly down at Esther. “Very slender and elegant she was, too, even in her worn garments. In that, too, she was similar to you in a way: for while her clothes were by no means so fine as yours; still, they were well-made from sturdier and smoother cloth than even the finest of us peasant weavers can produce for ourselves. Definitely she had come from court, or some fine country estate. And for people of such quality, travelling gowns are made for travelling in a carriage, or possibly on horseback—riding side-saddle, at that—not on foot!
“Nineteen years of age, perhaps, she was, with a child in her arms—near as white and drawn as its mother, poor little thing, but I remember that she wanted to get down and walk, so as not to burden her mother with her weight, even though she could scarcely totter along.”
“How old was the child?” Esther enquired, breathlessly waiting for the next words. This could be very revealing.
“Eh, that I know precisely, for with a mother’s customary pride in her child, the lady would tell me everything about her little girl. She sat here—right on the left of the hearth, leaning back a little against the stones to rest herself, while her child sat on the floor at her feet—wouldn’t come to me, though that fond I am of children. Never had any of my own that lived; little Julia died before her first birthday. This child was—as her mother said in her precise, gentle tones; I can hear them now—one year, ten months, and seven days. Aye,” she smiled as Esther laughed, “ ‘tis sweetly amusing, when one is not a mother oneself, to observe such attention to minor detail. But, ah,” the farm wife heaved a great sigh, “the child was well worth a deal of attention, if I may say so myself. Not strictly beautiful, but striking eyes and hair, and very intelligent. She didn’t move around much, but she noticed everything in the cottage, steadily gazing at anything she didn’t understand until her mother or I noticed and would tell her what it was. She was very interested in that butter churn there, I recall!” The woman laughed at the memory, indicating the stoneware implement at the side of the hearth, and then continued. “When I tried to coax her to me, she didn’t cry or try to run away; just sat and stared at me, a little reproachfully. Wouldn’t leave her mother for anyone, she seemed to be trying to tell me, the loyal little thing!”
Esther swallowed a lump in her throat. She picked at the fresh scones that the farm wife had put on her plate, trying to tell herself that she had no guarantee that this little girl and her mother had been herself and her own mother, so lately lost to her. Esther had no recollection of this scene at all; one would think that such a detailed description would awaken memories, even if one had been less than two years old . . . she came back to the present with a jolt, to realize that the woman was still talking.
“. . . no family, she told me, or at least none she could reach”— that squared with what Grandfather had said about King Rothbart and Queen Tressine cutting off Esther’s mother’s retreat to her own family’s home, when she had fled from their court—“and her husband was dead. She was somewhat reticent to talk about herself, the lady; I made no doubt but that she was in some trouble, and I offered to have her remain with us for some time. But no, she had to get on, to some place where she could find a permanent home for her little girl—bless her, as though I would not have been willing to do by that child as though she were my own!—and she didn’t want us to be troubled by two extra mouths to feed, when she’d be no help to us on the farm, not having been brought up to it, you see.”
“Yes, of course,” Esther replied mechanically, still eating, though without tasting the food she put into her mouth, fully attentive to the woman’s every word. Could it be?
“She left the next morning, as soon as she was rested, and that thankful she was for the food and lodging we had given her, though sure and it must have been much poorer than what she was used to—ah, a fine lady, you could see it! She did not, as so many thoughtless proud young ones might, offer to pay us for offering her no more than Christian hospitality, but she gave me this ‘to remember her by.’ Here, I will show it to you; one of my finest treasures, it is,” and the farm wife got up and crossed over to a dark oaken chest in the corner, deeply carved with intricate designs—Esther guessed by the woman’s own husband or father. After a moment of rummaging, the woman triumphantly brought forth a lovely golden locket, heart-shaped, and set with one perfect amethyst in the centre. “Lovely, is it not, my child? Have ye ever seen ought like it?” The farm wife exhibited the ornament to Esther’s wide-eyed gaze, watching her face intently as she did so. Esther drew her breath in sharply; the locket itself meant nothing to her, but the gilt-edged pink ribbon on which it hung was the same as those which she carried for binding her secret messages, the ones that had belonged to her mother.
To Be Continued