Come Now Desolation
The Salted Orchard Part VII
(Read Part VI here.)
Dawn had come and lit up the Captain’s old world, and what had been born in Cusack’s imagination and first encountered in silvered outlines cast by the clear half-moon and the moon’s shattered lightning on the river became simultaneously more and less alive. Color moved in, and detail, and now came the roofs of houses and then fences and animals behind the fences, still unconscious, or rising clumsily up on four legs as though surprised by and unready for the return of the world.
Bibury disappeared then in the spreading daylight. It became replaced with this hamlet, fine and English and as good as any, but not what it was, and Cusack felt the momentary void between his letting old Bibury go and discovering this new one, fresh and still in the minutes after dawn, and lacking people.
He had slowed his horse to an easy walk upon approaching the hamlet, and this the horse took as its opportunity to communicate its exhaustion. It moved unsteadily on the lane, and even stopped occasionally, overcome by its need to survive, which overruled its subjugation. Cusack prodded it forward. He would have liked to let it out to one of the green fields that were the dominant terrain of this countryside, but he needed it a little longer, at least until he arrived at Fiona Hammond’s doorstep. Then he might even release the animal and vacate his arguable claims on ownership of the beast.
He could let the animal go because he was arrived. He had not found Winston on the road, but he wondered if he had expected to, or if he would have been equal to a fight out there, him without weapon and Winston capable of near supernatural feats and depths of wickedness.
He would be better here, in Bibury, where he could wait in ambush and employ all the citizenship to his task. He would alert them to the coming criminal and multiple eyes and hands could not fail in apprehending him before his evil was accomplished.
That it had not already been accomplished Cusack was sure of. His flight in the last two days was swift, a punishing ride that a man such as Winston—who would have been confident that he had an enormous lead on his interceptor—would not have engaged in without reason. No, Cusack had beaten him. It was his first real victory, and it filled him with calm and a sense of worth and ability that reduced his weariness, hunger, and discomfort.
He came down from the horse and walked into the hamlet, leading the animal. In the several minutes since sunrise, he had seen small awakenings everywhere, and as he passed the first cottage he started to see people. They were coming out of their doorways, old women and men out to collect eggs and milk and water for their still-sleeping families inside. They were few—a grey-headed, heavily-coated woman at the first cottage, a spare more down the lane. They saw Cusack when he passed, noted him, wondered at him, and went inside to tell their husbands or wives that a stranger had just gone by.
Cusack only passed, though he needed to stop to ask about the Hammonds’ home. He did not know it. But he did not want to disturb them in these first private minutes, when they had not expected to see anyone and certainly were not prepared to meet him. He needed their aid, so he endeavored to leave a good first impression. This, of course, was made difficult by his unwashed, unkempt appearance and the sight of his shaky and staggering horse.
He also knew there was time before Winston would arrive, and he wanted Mrs. Hammond to have a last good morning before she learned of her widowhood. He led the horse down the lane and past the sparsely grouped cottages. He crossed the bridge over the river and made camp there, watching the horse walk down to the water to drink and come inelegantly up the bank to lie down far from Cusack, just far enough to make a point.
Time passed and the cocks stopped crowing. The sun shined pale yellow in the grey December sky, and when it climbed to midmorning, Cusack rose up on his feet. He roused up the horse, who would have been obstinate had it not lacked the spirit. Then they crossed back over the river and walked back up the lane and were a few minutes before Cusack saw an old woman in her garden.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he hailed. “Would ye know Gabe Hammond’s place?”
“I know it,” she said. “But he ain’t there.”
“All right, ma’am. It’s his wife I need to speak with. I have news from Captain Hammond.”
“Aye, three places down. There’s a hazel tree in front.”
The hazel, of course, was bare. It was old, with deep crags and grey limbs. It stood between the road and the cottage, all on a piece of land only large enough to keep chickens and one or two goats. It was hemmed in by its neighbors, whose land met quickly behind the Hammonds’ garden, as though the whole idea of the Hammonds were too early or too late for the rest of Bibury. It was a seaman’s cottage; no need for land to plant or feel, when Hammond had all the world laid out for him like the maps on the dining table in his cabin on his ship.
Cusack spent no time dithering on the doorstep. He’d given her the better part of a morning to prepare, and he’d begun to feel Winston’s approach and all the work he must do to be ready for it. So he knocked on the door, and then he knew that within two minutes Fiona Hammond would know of her husband’s murder, and the turn her life would take for it, and to add to that the news of the man coming to kill her. It was heavy news and Cusack felt the heaviness in delivering it only now, because before he was intent on the delivery and was of a single mind.
Long moments passed when he stood alone on the doorstep waiting for the door to swing open. He stared at the heavy wood and felt the cold world all around him. He refused to look at it. Then the door opened and Fiona Hammond was there, pretty and so much tinier than him, he seemed to block out all the light and he remembered the vision he had had. He shrunk back from her and let the dull light flood in. There was again that black second when his old vision of Fiona Hammond was released to let this new one take hold.
She was small, like a girl, not the fat-bosomed ladies he met at the docks or in the towns at night. Nor had she the thick arms and shoulders of a country woman. She was a small, pretty thing with light brown hair and a face that was soft and pale, but not untouched by the years and the winds and a life that was not hard but deficient, in companionship and comforts. Captain Hammond was not a rich man, but he would have had enough money to keep her happy. But what was her life when he was not there? Only the church, Cusack thought, a married spinster and now a widow.
She greeted him with a mix of surprise and friendliness and unease, and he said hello. She asked him what his business was and then he was untethered from his thoughts, aswim in a momentous flood that he would only know finished when she was weeping.
“You don’t know me, but maybe you might have heard of me from your husband. I’m Anwell Cusack, his first mate for these last few years.”
“Of course I know you, Mr. Cusack,” she said with that trepidation that was her need to know, but also never wanting to know.
“I have some news, Mrs. Hammond. I wonder if I might come in.”
She was a moment in deciding. She knew what news, of course. She’d felt it in her heart all these days, always expected this day, and there was no doubt when this man had shown up instead of Gabe. “Please,” she said, feeling the tremor in her voice.
Cusack walked into the cottage and sat down and waited for her to sit. When she did, he sat quiet and nervous and then stood again.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. Captain Hammond is dead.”
Cusack started slow, wanting to know how she would take each next part, and she started slow, too, frozen first, like a statue or a man caught by a surprise blow, and then the tears fell in quick streams down her smooth cheeks. She lost a whimper once and then a minute later, on hearing how her husband came to pass, an awful, primal cry fell out, and it was the sound of her heart shattering. In the end, Cusack had told her all, but he did not dwell on his failure, though he knew as he told it that he needed her forgiveness. When he stopped speaking he was holding her, awkwardly at first, but soon overcome with the force of her sobs and tearing himself, furious again and heartbroken for the lady, who Cusack thought again as life—Hammond’s life and now his—and who had been failed and should not be failed again.
Read Part VIII here.