Loyalty

Sarah Henworthy walked in her kitchen, hands full of clothes, to see a pale young woman feverishly eating a bowl of soup.

“Excuse me, who are you?” asked Sarah.

The woman glanced upward but didn’t stop spooning her soup, a repetitive, quick motion. She wore a faded, dirty linen dress with pieces of a lace trim. Her hair was seaweed the way it fell upon her face — long, gnarled locks acting like a black veil. She ate as though the world was ending.

Sarah’s husband, George, bounded into the room. He rested his hands on his hips, which framed his ample paunch. “Sarah! I’d like you to meet Estella,” he said brightly, his face red from the exertion of running across the house. “She is our guest.”

Sarah narrowed her eyes. “Okay. Help me out with these,” she said, nodded towards the pile of clothes in her hands.

They went upstairs to the bedroom. All the candles were lit, which was a rarity in the Henworthy household, unless there were guests. It was a humble two-story home, normally warm from the fires of the adjoining silversmithy. Tonight, however, there was a stranger in Sarah’s company, who had intruded with no warning from her oft-scatterbrained husband. The house was anything but warm and inviting to her.

“Who is that?” said Sarah urgently, after she closed the door.

“An old friend, a very old friend,” said George. “She’s come up on a bit of trouble, so I’m helping her.”

“Trouble? You know that we have plenty of trouble of our own.”

“Now, now, Sarah, we must remember our Christian duty.”

Sarah realized she was crushing the clothes in her hands. She relaxed and let them on the bed, gently. It had been a hard week for her side of the family. Her aunt Edna had passed away, with whom she was very close. She was an avid seamstress, a vocal member of the Church, and one of the few relatives Sarah could look to for strength and support. Her mother had passed away several years prior, but truthfully, it didn’t hurt, at least not as much as losing Edna. It left a cold void in her heart that chilled everyone around her. The clothes she was carrying were her aunt’s; she had just returned from helping settle her estate. There were several gorgeous sundresses that Edna made herself, as well as a unique, lacy wedding dress, custom designed by a boutique in Charleston. A rich gift from a wealthy uncle.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I’ll make up the downstairs,” said Sarah.

“Actually, that bed is so uncomfortable, I was hoping we could take the downstairs and she could have ours,” said George.

Sarah winced. “Certainly.”

——————–

After a fitful night of very little sleep, Sarah awoke to the fires roaring in the forge, and the whoosh of the bellows. Hammer-strokes echoed throughout the house. Normally it was a normal sound, but on a Sunday, it was particularly foreign.

She looked outside. The sun was nearly at its apex. How long had she slept? My goodness, we’ve missed church! she thought urgently.

Sarah ran out to the forge, to find George and Estella. George’s girth was covered by his smoky silversmith apron. He used his tongs to reach into the fires of the forge. “There we are!” he proclaimed, laying down a fine silver chain on the workbench.

“It’s lovely,” said Estella. Her appearance had improved dramatically. She was wearing a nicer dress – a powder blue that Sarah had lent her – and her coloring was much ruddier. While she was slight and malnourished looking the night before, she now appeared voluptuous. She had brushed out her matted locks, and the flowed down her back like a waterfall.

“Where did you get the material?” asked Sarah. George made an adequate living as a silversmith, but he could scarce afford to keep the things he made. He frowned at his wife. “Don’t worry, it was Estella’s. An old heirloom she had me fix for her.”

A few moments later, a visitor walked up their lawn. “’Allo there!” he called out.

Nobody recognized this man. The man’s hair was black and wild, nearly shoulder-length, matching the strangeness of his clothing. His jacket was weather-beaten, a graying black, and his pants, while made of expensive cloth, were frayed at the edges. Sarah recognized immediately that though this man dressed as a gentleman, and perhaps had a gentleman’s upbringing, there was no way he moved in those circles now. Though a member of the working class herself, she had a fascination with the fashion of the ladies and gentlemen of Charleston. This man was putting on airs, but to a truly trained eye like Sarah’s, he was failing.

“I hope I’m not intruding on anything,” he said. “And who might you be?” said George, crossing his burly arms across his chest.

“Nicholas Calloway, I’m a journalist from Charleston,” he said. “I was hoping to have a moment of your time. I had hoped to meet with you at Church this morning.”

George nodded his head hurriedly. “Well, out with it then, we’re very busy here.” Sarah was amazed at George’s coldness. He was normally a socialite through-and-through. Everybody loved him.

“Very well. I was hoping to ask you about the current conditions of Summerville from the perspective of one of its families. A somewhat historical piece on the town’s genealogy. I also would like to give my condolences,” he said, putting his hand over his heart. “Edna Henworthy was a fine woman and friend to the Calloways. I was at her funeral, if you recall. Lovely service for a wonderful person.”

“Thank you,” said Sarah. She was unmoved by the sentiment. She sensed something hiding within this man; a sort of caged ferocity hiding in his eyes.

“Well I haven’t got the time,” said George.

“Please,” said Nicholas, smiling invitingly. “I would be quick and ask harmless questions.”

When it sufficiently cooled down, Estella picked up the silver chain and fawned over it like a child in awe. It was much too long for a necklace or bracelet. Then, she noticed Nicholas staring at her and rushed inside the house.

“See what you’ve done? Estella, here now, this man’s not going to harm you!”

Nicholas held his gaze at the door Estella had disappeared to. His anger was well-restrained, but Sarah picked it up. “Are you upset, sir,” said Sarah.

“Why would I be?” he asked, the somewhat-fake smile coming back. “I hope you don’t mind if I call again soon. When things have calmed down, of course.”

—————-

The next several nights were terrible for Sarah. All she wanted was to sleep in her own bed and grieve for her lost aunt. Instead, her husband and their new guest were having the time of their lives. There was laughter and music (Estella played piano) at all hours of the day. At night, she began to notice her husband coming to bed late. She didn’t ask what he was up to. Her gardening and sewing provided her mind little refuge from making the obvious assumptions. Why would he want a mistress? The good Lord hasn’t blessed us with any children, but it wasn’t for lack of love. Has he given up on me?

After that visit from Nicholas three days prior, they hadn’t heard word from him. “I don’t want you to let him inside, or anywhere near Estella,” said George, on the day of the visit. “She says he’s one of the men trying to kill her.” Sarah was at the windows often at night, fearing for the safety of her family.

Any questions she asked about their mysterious visitor were met with swift dismissal. “For our friendship, it’s the least I can do. I owe her my loyalty,” he said, using the last word as though it were foreign.

She was feeling altogether claustrophobic by the fourth day, and decided that morning that a trip to the park downtown would clear up her cabin fever. It was a brisk cold, the kind that comes along between seasons. If the sun had been shining, it would be a pleasant day. As it was, the sky was gray, and there were no souls in the park, save a few pigeons. The vermin of the sky, Sarah thought, remembering the Hugh Days article she read in the paper the other day.

She felt a tap on her shoulder, light as the breeze, and she jumped nearly a foot.

“Sorry to startle you, Mrs. Henworthy!” said Nicholas. He was dressed more plainly this time, a cream-colored button-down shirt with those same smoky black pants. “I thought maybe that we could talk, just you and I – some lingering questions I simply must answer for my writing.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” said Sarah, starting to walk away briskly. “But I do,” said Nicholas forcefully, cutting in front of her. She stopped walking and stared directly at him.

“You have a way about you, Mr. Calloway, a sort of falseness, and don’t think I don’t see it!” “I apologize if I intimidate you, ma’am. I mean nothing untoward.”

“Then tell me your true purpose!”

Nicholas gestured toward a bench, and they sat down.

“Your houseguest,” he said, tasting the last word as though it were a fine wine, “is of great interest to me. I have questions for her. And I did not lie about your aunt. Would that I had brought photographs with me to show you. My father was a missionary, and often brought me to the church here in Summerville.”

“And why would Estella be interesting to you?” asked Sarah.

“Is that her name!” he said, brightening. “Well, as I told you before, I’m a writer for the Charleston Gazette. Her background would make for a lovely column.”

“I still don’t believe you,” she said.

“But, you want to. You don’t want her in your house anymore, is that correct? Let me talk to her. Perhaps my line of questions will help her remember…more pressing business.”

Nicholas’s sudden darker tone prompted Sarah to get up and begin to walk away. “I’ll be staying at the John Rutledge when you change your mind!” he said, that smile returning.

—————–

That afternoon, Sarah came back and charged up to her bedroom – not the guest bedroom where she had been forced to sleep, but her own room. “George, I want –“ she started, bursting through the door.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t what she expected to find. She expected to find Estella naked, underneath George. Instead, George was reading a book to her, and Estella was laughing. A constant, nearly hysterical laugh. Neither of them recognized Sarah enter. George read with a zeal she had never seen before (his literacy was limited to receipts and newspaper headlines). And, what was more, the subject matter was bizarre – Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And, there was one more thing.

Estella was wearing Aunt Edna’s wedding dress.

—————–

Sarah arrived at Nicholas’s hotel room at the John Rutledge Inn and knocked twice. “It’s open,” said a voice.

She emerged through the doorway to see Nicholas sitting in front of a desk strewn with maps and notebooks. He was wearing wire-rimmed glasses that made him look at least ten years older. One thing in particular stuck out to Sarah — a map of the graveyard where her aunt was buried. The mausoleum, where her body was interred, was circled.

Sarah cleared her throat. “I’ve changed my mind. I’d like you to interview Estella. You know, what you talked about before.”

“Excellent, excellent!” said Nicholas. “It’ll make for a wonderful article, truly.”

He collected an empty bag, shoved something inside, and joined Sarah out the door and on the road to the Henworthy home. He asked her some odd questions, like “When was your family’s mausoleum last opened?” and “Did George explain where and when exactly he met Estella?” and lastly “Has he given her any gifts?” Sarah answered the questions as best as she could — to the first, her answer was 30 years; to the second, she simply stated she didn’t know because George never told her anything about Estella, despite her questions; and to the third, she said yes, a silver chain. Now, it was Sarah’s turn for questions.

She only got one.  “What’s in the bag?” asked Sarah.

“We’re playing charades,” answered Nicholas, once again with that mocking smile. “It’s part of the interview.”

They traveled the rest of the way in silence.

————–

The only way Sarah was able to tear George away from Estella was by setting their storage shed on fire. She cringed at how much damage was being done, but nothing else worked. This woman had gotten hold of George somehow, and she had to do whatever it took to get her out of his life.

When Nicholas walked in the bedroom and stopped Estella from following George out to fight the fire, Sarah considered what she was doing. For all she knew, this man was a rapist, a thief, or some kind of hired killer sent to take out Estella. She knew she should have felt guilty, but truly, she felt relieved that, somehow, this man was going to get Estella to leave her family alone. She felt sick to her stomach knowing that she would rather see this woman dead than lose her husband.

Nicholas sat Estella down at a table.

“Could you get us some tea, Mrs. Henworthy?” asked Nicholas. “We don’t drink tea,” said Sarah. Nicholas looked at her, his eyes afire. With a cryptic smile, Nicholas asked “Could you leave us, then?”

Sarah left the room and clomped her shoes as if she was walking downstairs, but she stood silently by the door, peering through a crack at the two. Nicholas and Estella were sitting opposite each other; she looked positively frightened, more like she was when Sarah originally discovered her, pale, thin, and devouring stew.

“You’re afraid of me but you don’t know why,” said Nicholas.

“I suppose that’s true,” said Estella, rearing back in her chair like a frightened rodent.

“Allow me to show you,” he said. Nicholas emptied the contents of his bag onto the table with a clang — an iron rod, it looked and sounded like. Then, he pulled down the collar of his shirt. “You know what I am, now.”

“I’m not leaving,” she said, shaking her head vigorously like a child. “I won’t leave again. I like George. He treats me nice. First nice one in hundreds of years.”

“Mrs. Henworthy,” said Nicholas, making eye-contact with Sarah through the nearly-closed door, “I would prefer if you were not around for this.”

Sarah went downstairs, reluctantly. Outside, through the window, she saw her poor George throwing water on the storage shed. Fortunately, most of it was still intact. She hoped that the crib survived, which George built for their eventual child — “a good outlook leads to favorable results,” he always said.

She went back upstairs to find Nicholas shoveling some ashes into his bag with his arm. Estella was nowhere to be found. He looked over at the doorway, and made eye contact with Sarah through the crack. “You can come in,” he said. “It’s over.”

Sarah trembled. “And…is she…”

“She’ll trouble you no further,” said Nicholas. He turned for the stairs, with his sack of ashes over one shoulder.

“Wait!” said Sarah. “Just please, tell me, for my own conscience, what did you do to that woman? What have we done?”

“I will say this –” said Nicholas, with a pause. He looked at Sarah askance, as if judging her. He sighed. “I will say this. She was no…that is to say…oh, hells, you would never believe me. Look, she’s in the bag, all right? What more is there to understand?” He laughed.

“Is this funny to you, sir?” asked Sarah, her voice trembling.

“I love my work,” said Nicholas, and he disappeared out the back door.

Advertisements