Chapter 8 – An Eventful Journey
For the fourth time in as many minutes Joyce lifted the hinged lid of the engraved watch that hung on a silvered chain about her neck to check the time. It was an automatic thing, a nervous tic, and when she caught herself doing it she would force herself to try and focus on other things.
The goodbyes at the manor had been perfunctory and brief, with everyone involved keeping a tight rein on their emotions lest they break down in tears. Her father still had a haunted look in his eyes, the sense of loss written all over his face.
The servants, those that remained, had loaded the carriage quickly and efficiently with her immediate luggage; the rest of what she would need would be brought with her parents to the wedding in a few weeks.
And then it was time.
Joyce had stepped into the carriage with but a brief look backward to take in the scene: mother and father and siblings gathered at the entrance to the manor that had been her home for so many years. With the crack of a whip, the carriage had pulled away from the house. Joyce had waved her hand in goodbye, but stared straight ahead until the carriage had rounded a corner and the house was at last hidden from view.
Then, only then, had she let the mask fall and let herself collapse into weeping.
Now, on the final leg of her four-day journey, she was anxious to be done with it all. She was resigned to her fate and the long trip was taking a toll on her patience. The inns they had stayed at on the way had been, for the most part, adequate, but they were far from the comforts that she was used to, and she was beginning to feel ragged and not quite herself after days on the road. She had not even been able to take a proper bath at their last stop.
The trip itself was uneventful – boring in fact, she thought, and she was hard pressed to keep her thoughts focused, instead drifting in and out of a restless and unrefreshing sleep.
She examined the carriage again, noting that it had been overhauled with fresh paint, new gold leaf, and a newly upholstered interior. It was important to impress, and no expense had been spared. A foot tapped nervously on the floor of the carriage as it bounced its way across rutted, hard-packed earth. The jolts and bumps were becoming more frequent since they had left the main thoroughfares. Joyce took it as a good sign that the journey was nearly over.
She stared out the window as the rolling and undulating landscape passed by. Most of it was still wild and unkempt but here and there she saw signs of farmland, bales of hay rolled up and left where they were as if a giant had been playing with toys and forgotten to put them away. These might even be some of Herman’s holdings, she thought. In the distance, beyond the fields, she could see dense stands of woods, their trees starting to shed themselves of leaves of crimson and gold, their sun-dappled colors full of intensity.
Now they were passing through fields that had not yet been harvested, this one wheat, that one barley, their stalks waving in the wind. She was staring, almost mesmerized by the random patterns, when something woke her out of her trance: a ripple was moving through the sea of amber, against the wind.
She rubbed her eyes and looked again.
Something bounded then into view. A good distance away, but large. And moving fast.
“Driver!” she tapped on the underside of the roof of the carriage. “Do you see that? Out to the left?”
“Ma’am?” came the driver’s voice, muffled.
“On our left, something big….” her voice trailed off.
Whatever it was, it was gone.
She broke off suddenly as a huge shape surged out of the grain, perilously close to the carriage.
Too close, she realized.
“Max!” she screamed, but it was too late.
The thing was almost upon them. It looked like a wild animal, huge and mud-spattered, and it was bellowing loudly. The horses panicked and veered away, starting to pull the carriage off the path onto the rock-strewn terrain on their right.
The conveyance lurched hard as its wheels left the road. A small boulder loomed ahead and Joyce braced herself for a collision. But as she watched, another form seemed to rise up from the back of the beast as it thundered alongside the spooked carriage, and an arm suddenly snaked out to grab the neck yoke of the left horse. With a sudden wrench the carriage pulled back to the left, bouncing as its wheels crested the lip of the trail, narrowly missing the boulder – a slight shudder ran down the length of the carriage as it just scraped by and Joyce turned her head towards the sound with a grimace.
The driver had by now managed to gain some control of the horses and he was reining them in slowly. Joyce found herself holding her breath as the carriage slowly rolled to a stop.
Even before all motion had ceased, she threw open the door to the carriage and stepped down unsteadily, eyes scanning the landscape.
Whatever the strange beast was, it and its apparent rider were gone.
The driver, Maxwell, climbed down from his seat to join her.
“What on Azeroth do you think that was?” he exclaimed.
Joyce, her eyes still searching the ripe fields of grain and the rocky plains nearby, gathered her thoughts together.
“I don’t know, Max, but it almost looked like a giant pig with a rider on top…”
Max snorted involuntarily.
Joyce turned to look at him, raising an eyebrow.
“Begging your pardon, ma’am,” he said, blanching. “I suppose that’s possible, but it would be a bigger pig than I ever saw.”
“And exactly how many pigs have you seen in real life?” she asked, knowing that Max had been a servant at the Chesterhill manor since he was a young teen.
“Point taken, ma’am,” Max said, wincing.
Joyce continued to scan the horizon for a few moments more.
“All well and good, Max,” she said at last. “I guess we’ll have to chalk this up to an exciting tale that we’ll be able to tell at the next banquet.”
She wondered then if such was even in her future. She still knew little about Herman, did not know if he was the type that socialized with others in the manner to which she was accustomed. She felt a sting of bitter disappointment at the realization. Then the Chesterhill blood reasserted itself and her frame straightened. Well, she thought, if she was to be his, he would also be hers. And she would make a proper gentleman of him.
That decided in her mind, she motioned to Max.
“We’d best be getting along then. We’re expected at Oakmere Village by day’s end.”
She looked at the sun.
Just a few hours, she thought. A few more hours and she would be at Herman’s farm and she could start to assert some control over her situation instead of feeling like a leaf flung about in a raging gale.
The sooner the better.
Dusk was falling on the small village of Oakmere as the Chesterhill carriage rumbled noisily down its main road. A cluster of children kicking around a small leather ball turned at the sound and scattered out of its path, turning to stare at its impressive size and bright colors edged with gold and at the sight of the draft horses dressed in dusty regalia of black bearing the family crest in red.
The driver slowly reined in the horses as they neared s structure at the center of the village, a small building almost lost among the crowding of its neighbors.
Inside the carriage, Joyce blinked the remains of a fitful sleep from her eyes and covered her mouth with a hand as a loud yawn escaped her. She stretched in her seat, looking out the small leaded glass windows, her eyes drifting to the slack-jawed faces of the younger kids. She saw threadbare clothes, stains of grass and mud, and gap-toothed smiles as some of the kids pointed and whispered among themselves in giggling but hushed tones.
Slowly pushing her gaze past the impish grins, she took in the small and ramshackle homes of Oakmere clustered haphazardly in accordance with absolutely no long-term planning at all, evidence of its origin as a frontier settlement. Most of the houses were small, maybe two to three rooms, patched together of rough wood with dark clay to fill in the gaps in the walls and crowned by rooftops thatched with layers of bundled straw. Only a few of the bigger homes were built of the more traditional stone and mortar. All looked to be run-down to various degrees and in need of repair.
But Joyce didn’t sense a feeling of decay or hopelessness about the village. The faded paint of a shop sign, the heavy rust of a creaky water pump, the heavy growth of weeds growing between houses built nearly on top of each other – these weren’t the signs of a declining homestead giving back way to nature; instead they represented the natural scars of age as the community bent itself to survival, to the exertions of everyday life needed to pull food and life from the ground. The village was old, to be sure, and weary, but underneath the dirt and grime it still pulsed with a certain hopeful vibrancy.
It felt like a good place, Joyce thought, and she found her spirits momentarily buoyed to the surface of the sadder thoughts that had burdened her most recent days.
So caught up in her thoughts and wonder was Joyce that the sudden rap that sounded through the carriage door startled her.
“Ma’am, we’re here,” she heard Maxwell say.
Joyce gathered herself, smoothed out some of the rougher creases in her dress, collected her parasol, and took a deep breath, closing her eyes.
“I’m ready,” she replied.
The door opened and Maxwell quickly placed down a small brass and pewter step stool to help her navigate the significant height difference from the carriage running boards to the ground. He took her hand as she stepped down gingerly to alight on the hard-packed earth.
Small slabs of broken flat slate lay embedded in the dirt forming a narrow meandering path to the entrance of the inn where she would stay overnight while word was sent ahead to Herman of her arrival.
After helping her settle in, Maxwell joined Joyce for a brief supper in a corner of the main room of the inn: cold mutton, slabs of hard cheese, and a few dubious-looking fruits. The inn was fortunately uncrowded so they did not invite any undue attention. Maxwell ate heartily enough but Joyce could not muster much of an appetite and the silent dinner was soon over.
Maxwell took his leave to take care of stabling the horses nearby, tipping the stable boys generously so the beasts would get a good rub-down and brushing after their harrowing experience with the mysterious beast and its rider earlier that afternoon.
Joyce took the opportunity to retire for the evening, hoping against hope that she would be able to fall asleep after napping on and off during the carriage ride. Her fears proved well founded as she struggled to fall asleep. It wasn’t until the early morning hours that she at last drifted off in spite of the anxiety worrying at the edges of her mind and the rough linens itching at her skin.
At last the sun rose, painting the walls of her room in a diffuse golden glow. She groaned as the light shone in through the broken slats of the cheap window blinds; the day had arrived sooner than she would have liked. Even so, she found herself oddly looking forward to the new day in spite of her nervousness and fatigue. For today she would begin the process of getting on with her new life. She had felt lost and unmoored for too long and it was time to put down anchor and make the best of the life path she found herself walking.
I look a mess, though, she thought to herself as she stood in the mirror, the brown tangle of her hair splayed about her in wild disarray as she yawned loudly.
She summoned one of the innkeeper’s daughters, a mousy and sullen young woman, to draw a hot bath for her, only to be informed that the inn had no tub. A flash of silver coins, however, had both innkeeper and daughter nearly tripping over themselves to retrieve a small and barely serviceable wooden tub from the depths of the basement where it had sat for years under a heavy tarp. The old man sweated and grumbled, but after an hour the hastily scrubbed out tub was in place in Joyce’s room and filled with buckets of lukewarm water.
She sighed as she stepped carefully into the tub at last, settling in for a good soak. Back at home at the Chesterhill estate, Joyce reflected, she had had female servants that would prepare her bath in a massive cold-hammered copper basin. They would help her bathe and scrub and wash her hair, help her dry, dress, and tease her unruly mane into a suitably fashionable style. It was in some ways fortunate then that she had had to learn to make do on her own after most of the servants had been let go as the family fortunes had declined.
It was just past noon when she stepped back into the carriage for the brief trip to Herman’s home. The air was crisp and cool and full of the scents of harvest – hay and earth – overlaid with the more subtle smells of pine from the nearby forests and salt from the sea but mere miles away.
She had just settled into her seat when a thought struck her and she called out.
“Ma’am?” he replied. His voice was muffled as it filtered down through the roof so Joyce opened the carriage door on her left.
She stuck her head out. “Have you ever met him? Herman, I mean.”
“Ma’am?” he repeated, surprised, his voice now much clearer. He wasn’t ready to have this conversation.
“You heard me, Max.”
He was silent for a moment. “Yes,” he said at last. Then, more forcefully, resigning himself to the situation, “Yes, ma’am, I have. He and your father met several times in person as everything was, uh, being arranged, so to speak…” His voice trailed off in embarrassment. He knew, of course, what a blow to the family ego it had been that Joyce was being married off as she was.
Joyce was now lost in thought and didn’t seem to notice.
A long pause ensued and Maxwell wondered if he should just signal the horses to go, but then he remembered that her door was still open.
“What’s he like?” she said suddenly, and as the words spilled out of her she felt a brief moment of surprise that she had never thought to ask the question earlier.
Maxwell considered. This was a question mined with snares.
“Well, he’s rich of course, owns not just this farm but others, and from all accounts he is a very hard-working – “
“I know all that, Max. But what’s he like?” she persisted. “I mean, as a person.”
She felt the carriage rock slightly as Maxwell stepped down from the reins and came around to her door.
He looked at her, then turned to lean against the carriage and stare down the road, as if was difficult to speak directly to her face on such personal matters. After all, he was just the family driver, though he’d been with the Chesterhills since he was a young teenager and had practically been raised among their children.
“Bear in mind, ma’am, that I’ve only met him very briefly, and never actually talked to him myself, that was all your father what took care of everything,” he said, voice lowered. “Anyway, he seemed pleasant enough, but, well – I thought that there was a very hard edge to him. He certainly has developed a reputation for being -”
“A bastard?” Joyce cut in with with a hoarse whisper. Her voice was suddenly heavy with emotion and Maxwell turned to her and noticed with shock that her face was reddening with anger. She turned away, embarrassed. She hadn’t meant to lose control like that but she’d been keeping her feelings bottled up for so long.
“I’m sorry,” she managed at last. “That wasn’t proper, I shouldn’t have said that. It’s just – all the things I’ve heard -” Then she shook her head. It doesn’t matter now.”
Maxwell looked away again. “No, ma’am,” he agreed glumly.
“Oh stop calling me ‘ma’am’ ” Joyce sighed, obviously still irritated at herself. “You know I don’t stand on formality as much as my father. Please call me Joyce – not ‘ma’am’ and not ‘Ms. Chesterhill’ – just Joyce.”
Maxwell looked mortified.
“Please, Max, it will do me good to be reminded of who I am beyond being a Chesterhill, before I lose even that name…”
“Yes, ma – yes, Ms. Joyce.”
Joyce sighed. It would have to do.
“Go on then, Max.”
“Well, as I was about to add, he does come across as gruff and uncompromising, but I’d hazard to say that he’s very much like any businessman who’s scrambled to large degree of worldly success. The business world can be a harsh mistress and its stresses can make harsh people.”
“Father was never harsh.”
“That’s true enough,” Maxwell admitted. Neither he nor Joyce took the further step in admitting that Herman’s fortunes had risen even as the Chesterhill fortunes had fallen, hinting at a not so subtle correlation.
“Your father’s done a lot for me personally,” Maxwell continued. “I mean, he took me in and gave me a place to work when my pa fell ill, so that I could support my baby sisters after ma died. I know he had to make room for me at the estate and not one in fifty men would have done what he did for me.” He took out a handkerchief and wiped at a tear beginning to gather in the corner of his eye.
Joyce bit her lip. Even though a part of her was grateful for Maxwell’s praise for her father, she did not want the conversation veering down this maudlin path.
“What else do you know about Herman?” she said at last.
“Honestly, it’s doubtful I know much more than you do,” Maxwell said. “I mean, you’ve heard all the normal rumours, I’m sure. That he was a bit of a terror in his youth, a bit wild, but then he married and settled right down here and kept his head out of trouble. It was only when his wife died suddenly that he fell off the wagon, so to speak.”
“I’d heard that, too.”
“But once he came out of that, he really put his nose to the grindstone and turned things around.” Maxwell put a finger to his lips in a thoughtful gesture. ”Though nobody can quite figure out how he managed to get his farm up and going so fast, and how he’s managed the rate of expansion that he’s enjoyed.”
Joyce looked pensive for a moment, as if turning over everything in her mind, sorting it out. Finally, she admitted to herself that her feelings weren’t going to be fully sorted out until she actually met Herman and saw who he was herself.
“Thank you Maxwell, that will be all,” she said. “We should be going. It wouldn’t do to be late.”
“No, ma’am,” agreed Maxwell and he closed her door before she could correct him for not using her name.
He climbed back to his seat, and with a quick flick of the reins the horses were off at a canter, a trail of dust trailing their hooves.
Minutes later the carriage was pulling up in front of Herman’s cottage. It was bigger than what had been described to Joyce and upon closer inspection she could see where recent work had been done to expand its size. The work had been excellently done, she thought..
As Maxwell helped her down once again from the carriage, the door to the house opened to the sound of squeaky hinges and Joyce’s gaze flicked up with a sharp intake of breath.
A man stepped outside, and the first thing she noticed was the corn-cob pipe clenched between his teeth. She frowned, a tightening of the lips that came and went so quickly that Herman didn’t notice. She didn’t like smoking, but she was used to it from her father at least.
The man was tall and heavily built. He was old, too, older than she had thought he would look, with dark hair run through with silver streaks like seams of ore, his skin weathered and tanned from a lifetime of physical effort under the sun. Despite the cloak of age he wore, he looked strong and vital, like a sculpture carved from gnarled oak.
These thoughts flashed through her in an instant but she found that she had little reaction to them, as if she was watching events through a distant lens, through the eyes of someone not herself.
Herman stood on the porch to his house, puffing away at his pipe, gazing at Joyce. He’d seen pictures of her courtesy of the wonderful gnomish invention called a camera, but they did not do her justice, he thought. She stood tall and erect, head held high, the golden pins inset with tiny emeralds in the pleats and rolls of her elegantly styled dark brown hair reflecting the noon sun into shards of green and white. Her dress, also green, but of an earthier wooded hue hugged at the curves of her body, tight at the bodice and likewise stretched slightly at the hips suggesting just a hint of plumpness. Her lips were closed tight as she clutched a small purse in her hands before her, giving her a look of seriousness that reminded Herman of the school-marms of old he had tortured in his youth, but those women had been old and shapeless; not so, Joyce. A slight smile lifted the corners of his mouth.
Maxwell took Joyce’s arm in his and escorted her across the small distance to the cabin porch. Joyce felt her heart hammering in her chest. The moment long-dreaded, it was here at last. Maxwell’s steadying presence helped her to continue moving forward.
Step by step they closed the distance to Herman, who took the pipe out of his mouth and set it aside as he left the porch stairs to meet them halfway. He strode forward, noticing the state of the carriage and horses. The Chesterhill family was really going all out to impress despite the debt that he knew was crushing them.
As few feet apart now, both Joyce and Herman stopped. Herman’s shadow loomed large over Joyce, blocking out the sun.
Joyce let go of Maxwell’s arm and he moved to step between them but to one side, out of the way.
They stood there in silence for a moment, unmoving.
Then Herman reached out for Joyce’s right hand. Purely on long trained social reflexes, Joyce extended it. Herman bowed and straightened, then took her pale hand in his own where it almost disappeared in his huge palm. Scarred fingers like thick sausages briefly squeezed a greeting while he lifted her hand to his lips. She felt the cold dryness of his kiss on her skin, like wood brushing against marble.
Then he released her hand and stepped back as Joyce in her turn dipped into a deep curtsey.
“A pleasure, Ms. Chesterhill,” smiled Herman.
“The pleasure is all mine, Herman of Oakmere,” said Joyce.
Then, at Maxwell’s urging, the three of them moved toward the cottage to settle out the last details of the wedding agreement and arrangements.