The Grinning Stranger
A Tale of Arcadia
by A.D. English
Editor's Note: This story is set in the near future, when twenty-first century society has been smashed, its technological base ruined by a destructive pulse originating in deep space. Human and animal labor was all that remained to work the farms and halt the spread of famine. Not all of the human labor was voluntary...
This theme is explored in greater depth in A.D. English's series of 'Arcadia' novels, available from both Amazon and Smashwords, and I highly recommend them.
Just what Andrew Hiller did for George McArthur Tinian, his wife Mary did not know. In the twenty years she had known him he had never been a man of action, but when Tinian went out on one of his missions Andrew was always asked to tag along with the usual crowd of ruffians. After most missions, captives, refugees from the broken cities, were brought back to Arcadia, and those were put to forced labour on farms around the village.
Food production was cranking up then, although far too late to save Mary and Andrew’s son Christopher, who had perished in the great hunger. The organisation imposed by Tinian and his boss Mathew Wilks made Arcadia almost unique among a thousand otherwise similar villages, a well-fed island in a land where famine was king. As other communities withered to a few families or collapsed altogether, Arcadia grew. Its success attracted the ambitious and the plain greedy, but its use of forced labour repelled others. Those who remembered freedom and thought it a good principle tended not to stick around a place that was rebuilding with whips and chains, and they departed.
In time, Andrew was rewarded for his mysterious contribution to the Arcadia story. A farm abandoned by its owner was awarded to him by those who ran local affairs, and he was given three captives as his labour force, a couple named Károly and Jenny, and a single woman named Catriona. When Mary first saw the farm’s hostilely-staring workforce she wanted to run back to her mother, and Tinian had tried to give her and her husband some backbone. ‘Look, those people belong to you, they’re your slaves, and you must make them work damn hard for you. You have a whip, use it, and never forget that Arcadia stands at your shoulder, always ready to give support if you need it.’
In truth, Mary and Andrew could not have run the farm at all without the agricultural knowledge of their workforce, especially Károly’s. With it, basic food crops were planted, the potatoes, carrots, cabbages, and neeps Tinian had suggested, and for a couple of years owners and slaves rubbed along without incident. All three slaves slept in a stone shed Tinian sent men to build, while the master and mistress had the house left by the previous owner. Hanging on a nail in the kitchen was a whip, but although Mary and Andrew heard that whippings were common on other farms, their instrument of correction was not used, for they lacked the nerve if not the inclination.
There came the day that Wilks, Tinian, and those they consulted with, decided that henceforth male and female slaves would kept at separated locations, the males to be used in timber and other heavy industries, and the females to be farm hands. Shortly after that, two constables took Károly away from the Hillers’ farm, his destination not revealed. Quite deliberately, to keep her from the scene, Jenny had been sent into the village to buy milk, and when she returned to find her husband gone all hell broke loose. She transformed into a seething, spitting fury whose rage knew no bounds until, in desperation, the whip came off the nail. Aided by Mary, Andrew tied her to the head of the water pump, stripped her, and properly flogged her. Howls of sorrowful anger became those of grievous pain as stroke after stroke cut her from shoulders to thighs. Blood flowed freely, and afterwards, when Andrew had dragged the semi-conscious slave to the shed and chained her there, Mary told him it was the worst thing she had ever seen. It had been that and worse, because she had seen something in his face as he whipped the woman, a suggestion of demonic pleasure.
Jenny’s mangled flesh healed over a few weeks, and she was put back to work. Sullen now, and with a tendency to be argumentative, she never mentioned her husband to Mary or Andrew again.
Tinian soon supplied a replacement for Károly, a slightly-built woman named Sheena. Mary and Andrew were not told where Sheena had come from, or any of her circumstances, and they were not inclined to ask. They accepted that she was now their property, and worked her as they did the other two, but without Károly’s expertise the farm began to deteriorate. Mary thought the slaves were deliberately sabotaging the crops, or at least were not make sufficient effort, and Andrew needed little encouragement to whip both Sheena and Catriona, although quite mildly, and Mary insisted that they were only stripped to the waist. Jenny, after one sarcastic comment too many, was whipped again, not nearly as severely as previously but still opening scar tissue for the blood to flood out.
Of course, the farm did not begin to recover.
As a teenager, Andrew had developed a skill at leather working, and he now turned to that craft as a means of earning some money, for the farm was producing little more than its five occupants ate and there was precious little surplus to sell. The whole burden of bossing the farm fell on Mary, and she was ill-equipped to bear it. Always slightly nervous of the slaves, she was also becoming unable to work with them in the fields. A build-up of tissue fluids, the result of a leaky heart valve, caused her legs to swell, on some days so severely that she could not walk more than a few steps, and wept from the pain. Andrew adapted a small two-wheeled cart, one that had been made in the village for a donkey to pull, so that two of the slaves could haul her, and that conveyance became her only means of reaching the shops in Arcadia, without it she would have been virtually housebound. There was no question of buying an actual donkey, of feeding and caring for it, none at all, so Jenny and Catriona, never the smaller Sheena, had to become occasional and very reluctant beasts of haulage.
Andrew’s leather goods soon brought in more cash than the few pounds of root vegetables they were able to sell. His artfully tooled and monogrammed wallets, purses, and other small personal items were popular in the Arcadia area, and soon he was looking further afield for customers. An opportunity arose when a neighbouring farmer, a vastly more successful extractor of riches from Arcadia’s damp soil, revealed his intention of taking a wagonload of produce to market in the town of Newtown Stewart, then a larger and more populous place than Arcadia.
Andrew hitched a ride. The wagon, pulled by two stout horses, picked Andrew up early on a Tuesday. The journey would take a full day, the market was to be held on the Wednesday, and Andrew was due to return home, hopefully with a sheath of orders and his sample case empty, late on the Thursday. Mary would have to cope alone, and she felt the deepest foreboding. ‘I’ll never see you again, I know I won’t,’ she said to Andrew as they parted.
‘Don’t say that,’ he laughed. ‘It could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ll be fine, of course you will.’
Mary let the slaves get on with their work unsupervised that morning. The farm was between crops, and the task, never-ending, was of tackling the weeds that grew with infinitely more vigour than anything edible. She moped around the house, she darned two pairs of socks, and she visited Andrew’s workshop, which had once been their living room. Here the smell of leather was strong in the air, and she looked affectionately at his tools, the curved knives, the punches, the thick needles and bobbins of thread. Around midday she warmed a pot of pea soup with some shreds of ham in it, and ate a bowl of it for her lunch. As she morosely spooned the food into her mouth she decided to visit Arcadia that day, just to get away from the farm for a few hours. Her meal finished, she rinsed out her bowl, found another two, and then, with considerable difficulty, carried the still-warm pot and the crockery to the field being worked. Hobbling along, with her legs feeling as if they were on fire and being stabbed with pins, she reached the field to find only Jenny was working. Catriona was crouched in a corner of the field, obviously urinating, while Sheena was sat on a blanket she had evidently thought to bring with her.
‘Why aren’t you working?’ Mary asked Sheena grumpily.
‘I’ve only just stopped, Miss.’ Sheena pointed to her hoe on ground beside her. ‘I saw you coming along.’
'A likely story,' Mary retorted.
Catriona wandered over, Jenny set her hoe down, and Mary handed out bowls and spoons. The three field hands shared Sheena’s blanket to sit on while they ate their meal as Mary prowled awkwardly around. George McArthur Tinian had told her and Andrew that slaves always needed to be watched with food, or ‘one greedy swine will eat the lot.’
When they had rested for a few minutes after eating, Mary told the women to get back to work, which they did. As weeds were again assaulted the timorous slaveholder gave out her bad news. ‘Jenny, I need to go into the village this afternoon, so I’ll need you and Catriona to pull me.’
Catriona’s shoulders slumped, and Jenny threw her hoe to the ground. ‘Aw, Mary, you know it ain’t right to use us as donkeys.’
‘I’m Miss Mary to you,’ Mary reminded her.
‘Well, I’m not Miss Donkey to anyone.’ Jenny stood with her hands on her hips, clearly ready for a confrontation.
Not then, and not ever, did Mary feel she had any natural authority over those she supposedly owned. She stepped back. ‘Now then, Jenny. I’m not going to punish you without my husband here, and things could be very nasty if I have to ask the constables for help.’
Jenny gazed at her. She knew, everyone knew, that the constables would drink steadily while they beat a recalcitrant slave without mercy, and after that her torment would really begin. She turned away from Mary, picked up her hoe, and jabbed savagely at the intrusive weeds. ‘I’ll pull the fucking cart,’ she said over her shoulder. ‘Although I’d like to know why Sheena never gets picked.’
‘That’s for me to decide.’ Mary wanted to sound coldly commanding, but knew she had failed when her words sounded like the bleat of a sheep to her own ears.
Feeling exhausted, Mary took a nap on her return to the house, and then wheeled her cart from the barn, looking forward to chatting with people in Arcadia. The vehicle had been made with two shafts for a donkey to fit between. Andrew’s adaptation had been to slightly widen the gap between the shafts, shorten them, and fit a hinged bar joining them at the front. Attached to strong staples on the bar were two sets of manacles, and Mary now just wanted to get her motive power fastened where she needed them. Her legs were feeling more comfortable after her rest, and she got to the gate of the work field without suffering too much.
All three field hands were summoned to the gate, and after sending the lucky two to the cart Mary spoke briefly with the third. ‘Sheena, my dear, you’re to carry on here for a couple of hours. Then I want you to go to the house, peel enough potatoes for the four of us, and set them on the stove to boil. The stove is still warm, and the wood box outside the back door is almost full. Stay in the kitchen until I return, and don’t let the potatoes boil over. Happy with that?’
‘Sure thing, Miss Mary.’ Sheena gave her occasional thin smile from under her ragged fringe. ‘You can trust me with those spuds.’
‘Good girl.’ Mary patted her cheek, thinking that Sheena was the best of the slaves, and wishing she were big enough for cart duty.
Jenny and Catriona were waiting by the cart, both grim-faced.
‘You know where I need you,’ Mary said, and they shuffled between the shafts, Jenny on the left and Catriona on the right.
The front bar was swung into place and its locking pin fixed, and then the manacle rings were locked around the slaves’ wrists with satisfying clicks. Both knew what would happen next. Mary unbuttoned the shoulder buttons of their dresses, allowing the upper parts of the garments to drop down. This uncovered their backs to the driving whip, and also bared Jenny’s small breasts and Catriona’s long pendulous ones, an exposure they always resented. Jenny lifted her head and turned down her mouth, while Catriona puffed air from between pursed lips in a show of disapproval.
‘Ready for a nice trip?’ Mary asked, feeling a surge of confidence now the slaves were helpless. Neither replied, and she clambered onto the seat. ‘Walk on now, walk on.’
Two women cannot pull one woman, even as a wheeled load, with speedy efficiency, or not unless they were powerful and highly trained creatures, as Jenny and Catriona most certainly were not. Mary knew that, and her expectations of the journey were as low as her expectations of life in general. She sat quite patiently on the hard little seat as the cart left the farm and bumped slowly along the poor road, leaning against the plank Andrew had fixed as a back support for her. Only when progress seemed about to cease altogether did her fingers tighten on the handle of the whip, and she uttered her usual threat. ‘Keep moving, if you need a sting you’ll get it.’
Breathing heavily, the slaves maintained some sort of momentum, keeping the cart wheels turning as Arcadia drew slowly closer. Mary’s mind was on something she had thought about for weeks, but had not mentioned to Andrew. The farm was failing, and they would have fallen on very hard times but for Andrew’s extra earnings. The obvious solution, Mary was inclined to believe, was to sell a slave. That train of thought was driven from her head when about a mile from home, and half that distance from Arcadia, Mary was startled by the appearance of a stranger at the roadside. He seemed to come from nowhere, for she had not seen him in advance; one moment he was not there, the next moment he was. Tall and thin, he wore a long black coat over black trousers, and a hat sat crookedly on his head, or that was how Mary was to remember him. What really seared into her memory and frightened her breathless was the grin he showed her as she passed him, a slash of greenish yellow across a stubbled face.
The wordless encounter occurred on a slightly downhill stretch, where the slaves were moving the cart along as fast as they could ever manage, Jenny’s breasts bobbing and Catriona’s swinging from side to side.
Aware of her pounding heart, but not knowing why exactly she was terrified, Mary gasped for a few moments, and then turned her head for another sight of the grinning stranger.
He was nowhere to be seen, and Mary assumed he had hopped over a hedge.
A few hundred yards outside Arcadia she called a halt and refastened her slaves’ dresses. She had vague concerns about public decency in the village, and also hated for Jenny’s horribly scarred back to be seen. Remounting the cart, she ordered her slaves on into what passed for civilisation.
Never busy, or not at that point in its history, the curving village high road was virtually deserted. There were a couple of women, both with shopping bags in hand, talking outside the post office, and Martin Spiller the coal merchant was adjusting the feedbag his horse was munching from. Margaret Tinian, George McArthurs’s snooty sister, emerged from the butchers shop and deposited a wrapped leg of lamb in her hand cart, against which was leaning a barefoot slave woman whose massive blue-veined breasts were clearly visible through her ragged shirt. So much, Mary thought, for public decency, as she waved with artificial cheeriness to Margaret.
Turner’s, the grocery and general store, was busy, for which Mary was grateful. It gave her the opportunity for a chat with Mavis Forres, the mousey schoolteacher, who disapproved of everyone and everything. ‘Did you see that poor creature Margaret Tinian’s using? Pregnant, that woman is, so I’ve heard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tinian, Dirty George, is the father. That whole family is a wicked disgrace and should be burned at the stake, which is not to say anything against you and your husband for keeping slaves because you’re honest farmers, the salt of the earth.’
Mary enjoyed hearing of several other scandals before she spent an unnecessarily long time examining the meagre selection of goods on offer. As she studied cheese she was engaged in conversation by one of the oldest men in the area, the notoriously foul-mouthed William Paisley, whose daughter and son-in-law had supported him through the famine and with whom he still lived. ‘Fucking, that’s what it’s all about,’ he confided to Mary. ‘All those women being paraded with their jugs out, there was nothing like it in my day, I can tell you, but I wish there had been. I like to see them when they’re sold at the livestock market, stark naked they often are, not even wearing shoes. Lovely, but I get thrown out if I finger their crotches.’
‘It’s been so nice talking to you, William,’ Mary said. ‘I’ve never been to the livestock market, and now I don’t think I’ll go.’
‘No?’ His eyebrows rose towards his bald pate. ‘You might like it. They have men, too, big bastards, some with unbelievable cocks.’
‘Really, William.’ She pushed past him and went to the counter, where Turner’s hefty daughter Bonnie was serving. With little money in her purse there was no question of luxuries such as the cream donut she longed for, and she bought only a quarter pound of butter, some tea, a flagon of milk, a carton of powdered soap, and a twenty-pound bag of flour. After paying she saw the proprietor Robert Turner at the shop doorway, and went to speak with him, for she had always thought him a man to be trusted.
‘Bob,’ she whispered. ‘I’m thinking of selling one of my hands, because we can manage with two. How much do you think I’d get?’
Turner raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m surprised you want to play in that dirty game, Mary. But it’s hard to guess the money you’d raise. One of those two?’ He was looking through the store window at Jenny and Catriona.
‘Possibly,’ Mary replied.
‘Everyone knows you had trouble with Jenny, and she’s badly marked, isn’t she? So I don’t think you’d sell her easily. But the other one, what’s her name?’
‘Yes, Catriona. It depends on who’s buying and how much they’re prepared to pay. She looks sound, so the best thing you could do would be put her up in the next auction and see how the bidding goes. You can set a reserve price so you don’t wind up giving her away.’
‘But how much?’ Mary asked anxiously.
‘For a reserve price? No more than five hundred, if you’re serious about selling.’
Mary was both appalled and delighted. She had hoped for a much higher estimate, but even five hundred would keep her, Andrew, and the other two slaves for years. They could get back on their feet again, and if Andrew gave up his leather goods business they could really make a success of the farm. Why, in a few years they might be bidding for another hand or two at the auction.
She felt almost happy, and actually smiled when Bonnie offered to take her shopping out to the cart. The big girl hoisted the heavy bag of flour onto her shoulder as if it were nothing, tucked the box of groceries under her arm, and went out of the store with Mary following.
Sack and groceries were slammed down onto the cart’s load platform. ‘There you go, Mrs Hiller,’ Bonnie’s red face split into a grin.
‘If I only I still had your strength,’ Mary said. ‘My legs are awful now, and I can’t walk far at all.’
‘I guess that’s no problem while you’ve got those two to pull you around, eh?’ Bonnie returned to the store, but Mary called her back.
‘Have you seen a stranger in the village? A nasty-looking man, tall, very thin, dressed in black?’
‘Nope.’ Bonnie grinned again. ‘Nobody like that. Maybe you’re seeing things, Mrs Hiller.’
Mary hoped what she had seen had not been real, but forgot about the grinning stranger when she saw William with a hand under Catriona’s dress, squeezing hard on a breast. The slave cried out in pain and spat in his face as Mary shouted her anger. ‘Get away from my property, William. You’re a disgusting old man and I shall speak to your daughter about you.’
Cackling happily, William ran away like a stiff-jointed schoolboy, and Mary spoke to Catriona. ‘I don’t blame you for what you did, but both of you have to be careful with free people.’
‘Dear God,’ Jenny breathed softly. ‘How long does this shit go on for?’
Back on the cart, Mary told the slaves to head homewards. Their load was only slightly heavier than before, but they seemed to labour more and Mary could feel impatience growing as her legs began to throb again. Coming to a gradient, she realised that this was stretch of road on which she had seen the grinning stranger, and felt an icy coil of fear writhe within her, a dread she could not have explained. There must have been a reason he had appeared to her before, and he could still be in the locality, so he could pop out at her from a hedge at any moment, stretching out his black-clad arms to take her in a deadly embrace. Without stopping the cart, and quite forgetting her leg pain, she stepped down from it and walked backwards alongside the slaves as she quickly unbuttoned and dropped their dress tops, feeling dreadfully exposed to hideous but unknown danger. Regaining her seat, she felt slightly safer for no rational reason, but was still anxious to get clear of what she saw as the danger zone. She shook the lash out, and struck first Jenny and then Catriona with it, slashing sideways strokes across their shoulders. ‘Move it, move it, move it,’ she called.
Catriona only yelped at the unexpected bite of whipcord on her skin, but Jenny protested. ‘Miss Mary, give us a chance to get going, will you? There’s no need to whip us.’
‘I decide when you need the whip.’ Mary gave each of them another stroke, leaning forward to lash them with all her might. ‘And you’re not to talk when you’re pulling the cart.’ Again she swung the whip, and again, never had she driven them so ferociously.
Sobbing, grunting with effort, sucking in air, the two slaves leaned into their load and the incline was climbed with a speed that pleased Mary. ‘Obviously you two will only work properly when you’re whipped,’ she crowed. ‘And I’ll remember that.’ Looking behind her, the very emptiness of the road was menacing, and she was suddenly afraid to look forward again. Suppose the grinning stranger was standing in the middle of the road? He was not in the middle of the road, and a shaft of sanity illuminated Mary’s mind. The whip was still in her hand, and her arm wanted to strike again, but she knew she could not continue to drive the slaves hard without risking one of them collapsing.
‘Alright, you can ease up now,’ she said. The pace dropped back, and only when Mary’s heart slowed did she realise how fast it had been beating. And for what? For a phantom, for a self-conjured terror. The grinning stranger had probably just been a friendly traveller, she told herself, and there was no reason to fear him.
Jenny and Catriona plodded on, the wheels turned, and nothing happened, but Mary could not feel relaxed. Could the grinning stranger have been Jenny’s husband Károly, she wondered? He had been tall, but not unusually thin. But suppose he had escaped wherever he had been sent to, and was on the run, then it was conceivable he could have lost a lot of weight. Why then, would Jenny not have reacted to seeing him at the side of the road? Perhaps because of the weight loss, and the probably stolen clothes, she had simply not recognised him. That seemed possible.
It was such a puzzle.
The farm came into sight, and she was struck by a horrible thought. He could be there, the grinning stranger, waiting at her home. ‘Stop here,’ she shouted. ‘Stop right here.’
Jenny waited and watched for any sign that evil had occupied her house. A special terror was that the stranger’s face would appear at a window, but she could not look away. The afternoon was dying, she knew she should get home, but she would not rush on into unknown terror, into the cold clutching hands of a grinning fiend.
With the sun falling into the west the temperature dropped, and both slaves began to visibly shiver as the sweat dried on their bodies. ‘Well, Miss Mary?’ Jenny prompted.
‘Shut up, just shut up,’ Mary snapped, but got off the cart to fasten the slaves’ dresses up. As she did that she noticed she had cut Catriona’s right breast with the driving whip, and a thin trickle of blood was dripping from the nipple. She regretted that, and knew she would think it a shitty thing if anyone else had done it, but she was able to shrug off the guilt, to easily push it from her mind. ‘Needs must as the devil drives,’ she said under her breath.
Back on the cart, noticing how chill the air was getting, she waited and waited, staring at the house until it became a fuzzy floating object in her vision and she had to glance away to regain focus. The sun vanished with her still waiting, while the slaves shuffled restlessly and stamped their feet for warmth, and then she saw the sudden yellow flare of an oil lamp light the kitchen window before settling to a steady glow. That would be Sheena’s reassuringly normal act, she knew, and the lit window seemed to represent welcoming warmth and cosiness, a beacon of safety in the darkening world. ‘Walk on now,’ she said quite softly, and the cart instantly surged forward so quickly as to throw her back onto the seat rest.
Hearing or seeing the cart arrive, Sheena emerged from the house. ‘Did you have a nice trip, Miss Mary?’
‘I did, thank you Sheena. Tell me, have you seen anyone hanging around?’
‘Nobody at all has come to the house?’
‘No, were you expecting someone?’ Sheena was wide-eyed mystification.
‘Of course I wasn’t.’ Mary got down from the cart. ‘Get the table ready for me while I deal with these two.’ From her purse she produced the simple key that would unlock the manacles.
This was a moment Mary always hated. Usually when she returned with the cart Andrew would be on the premises to assist her, and even then she routinely feared her throat might be seized in a choking grip by vengeful hands when the manacles were released, and now she was alone she was terrified of what might happen. Jenny was watching with simmering hostility as she fumbled with the key, found the release hole, and thrust the key in to bear against a spring-loaded cam. The manacles flew open, and Mary was still able to breathe because Jenny only rubbed her wrists, although her eyes still showed a dangerous gleam in the light spilling from the kitchen window.
Catriona too was released, and Mary told the pair of them to go to the slave shed. ‘I’ll send some supper over with Sheena,’ she muttered, and went into the house.
Cold-looking and distinctly scruffy by day, in the weak but warm light of the paraffin flame the kitchen felt a good place for Mary to be. A cherry-red glow behind the stove grate shone its own merry puddle of warmth, the crockery and cutlery Sheena had set out on the table gleamed like new, and Mary knew where she was. She was home, and there was nowhere else she would rather have been. A new spirit of togetherness welled in her. ‘Sheena, I’d like you to eat with me.’
‘Really? That will be nice,’ Sheena said hesitantly.
Mary insisted that Sheena sat down while she mashed potatoes and cut some more meat from the ham, although there was much less left than she had thought. But she gave Sheena a portion equal to her own, and set some aside for Jenny and Catriona.
Under the circumstances, conversation was not going to flow easily. The meal was eaten with very few words exchanged, Sheena replying monosyllabically to whatever Mary said.
When they had finished, Mary fixed Sheena with a quizzical stare. ‘Have you heard that Jenny had a husband?’
‘I may have been told something. He was sent away, wasn’t he?’
‘He was taken away, Sheena, taken away. It wasn’t a decision taken by my husband and I, we would never have done that. But we have bosses, you see, and sometimes we have to just go along with what they tell us. Everyone has bosses, Sheena, that’s the way the world works.’
Sheena looked down at her empty plate. ‘Not everyone gets beaten,’ she murmured.
Mary ignored that. ‘I think Jenny’s husband may have come back, that’s why I asked if you’d seen anyone.’
‘Come back? You’ve seen him?’ Sheena looked up.
‘I may have done. There was someone on the road, and it could have been him.’
The silence in the kitchen made Mary aware that her clock must have stopped. ‘Sheena, I know you’re a good girl, and I want to promise you things are going to get better here, because I have a plan. In the meantime, I want you to promise me you’ll tell me if you see a stranger around.’
Sheena clasped her hands together in front of her throat in a curiously prayer-like way. ‘Miss Mary, I swear on my life and on my mother’s grave that if see Károly I will tell you straight away, and may God take my eyes if I don’t.’
‘So you’ve heard his name?’
A nod, slow and solemn. ‘Yes. I’ve heard Jenny mention her husband’s name.’
‘Of course you have.’ Mary got to her feet. ‘I suppose she’s bound to talk about him. Look, you take their food over to the others and I’ll make us a nice cup of tea.’
Filling the kettle, spooning tea leaves into the pot, Mary giggled. She was serving a slave, but what the hell. It was nice to have someone to talk to while Andrew was away, and might cause friction between Sheena and the other two. Divide and rule, she thought, always a good plan. But when the tea was brewed and ready to pour, Sheena had not returned.
Reluctantly, fearfully, Mary opened the door and peered across the dark yard at the slave shed. She could see their oil lamp glowing behind the small barred window but could hear not a sound. Was Sheena over there? Or had she fallen victim to the grinning stranger, and was even now a corpse in the shadows, slit open from breastbone to crotch? That was not a pretty thought, and Mary quickly closed and bolted the door.
She sat for a while with her elbows on the table, wringing her hands together as a thousand wild imaginings, all blood drenched, all involving the grinning stranger, whirled in her mind. At last she could stand no more waiting and helpless worrying, and despite shaking with fear, she unbolted the door, opened it, and stepped out, pausing as it closed on its return spring behind her. A quarter moon had emerged from cloud cover, so there was much more light than when she had peered out earlier, and before crossing the yard she looked first to the right. All clear. Then she looked to the left, where she saw the grinning stranger’s face poked around the corner of the house.
Demented with terror, Mary jumped back, or tried to, but her lower limbs failed her and she crashed to the ground, briefly seeing the moon and scudding clouds above before rolling over, getting up on hands and knees, and lunging headfirst at the kitchen door, battering at it with her cranium as a panic-stricken ram might. Closed, it only rattled in its frame, and her outstretched hand clawed desperately for the handle. Finding it, she jerked it down and was then able to haul herself across the threshold, but now her breath was coming in short inadequate gasps, and she could only lay there, half of her in the kitchen and half of her still out in the realm of the grinning stranger. Her heart should have stopped, she wanted it to stop, when fingers closed around her ankles.
‘Miss Mary, there’s nobody out there.’
Having lifted Mary’s legs over the doorstep, Sheena had dragged her into the house far enough that the door could be closed.
‘He is there, I saw him grinning at me.’
‘You keep saying that, Miss, but I’ve looked around outside, and there’s no one. Can we try to get you up now? Are you strong enough?’
Unsteadily, with the surprising strength of Sheena supporting her, Mary got off the floor and onto a chair. ‘Where were you? I made tea for us, but you just didn’t come back.’
‘I waited for Jenny and Catriona to finish their supper, so I could bring the plates back. Then I heard you scream, and when I looked out you were conked out in the doorway, so I came over?’
‘I screamed? Did I? I don’t remember screaming. Sheena, did you say anything about Károly to Jenny?’
‘No, Miss. I thought it might upset her.’
‘Good. You did right. Look, you knew I was making tea, so you should have come back straight way. I’m quite cross with you about that.’
‘Sorry, Miss. Do you want me to make a fresh pot?’
Mary shook her head. ‘There’s not much tea, so I don’t want to use more today.’
‘OK.’ Sheena was standing by the table, her face its usual blank page on which nothing was written but absolutely anything could be read. Mary studied her, while trying not to be obvious.
Where had Sheena come from? Nobody had ever said. Who was she? What was she? That whole goody two shoes act seemed deeply suspicious all of a sudden, as did her knack for not being there when the grinning stranger appeared. It didn’t seem remotely possible that Sheen could transform herself into that hideous stick figure, and yet Mary, looking at those smoky grey eyes, wondered what might be lurking behind them.
The notion of a long evening chatting pleasantly with her had lost its appeal, and Mary gave a new order. ‘You go back to the shed, and all of you should be in your bunks very soon.’
‘Lots of work tomorrow.’ Sheena’s face was expressionless, and her arms were folded across her chest as she stood looking at her mistress.
‘Are you being cheeky?’ Mary asked sharply. ‘That’s what you’re here for, to work. Go now, and remember I want all of you to be sleeping soon.’
Sheena unfolded her arms. ‘You’re the boss, Miss Mary.’ She left the house, leaving Mary to think very hard about who she would sell.
Her preference would still be to get rid of Jenny, who she increasing thought was dangerous, but if she was too marked-up to fetch a good price that would defeat the object. Catriona was unexceptional, but strong and never awkward, so Mary would like to keep her. Sheena was bright, soundly made if rather small, a reasonable worker, and probably the one who might most appeal to a lonely farmer seeking a comfort woman as well as a field hand.
She stood up, feeling quite calm now but groaning from the bruising she had suffered when she had fallen in the yard, went to the sink, ran the tap until the water was not too murky, and filled a cup. Slowly sipping at the water, she reflected on both the grinning stranger and her fear of him. Had he actually attacked her? No. Had he even threatened her? No. So probably he was no danger to her at all, and was just a slightly loopy vagrant looking for food to steal. Unless he was Károly, of course, and what would he want? He would know that Mary and Andrew had not been responsible for him being separated from his wife, so would have no reason for murderous revenge. He would want Jenny, of course, Jenny who was in the unlocked slave shed, available for easy collection and stealing away from her rightful owners.
The cup shattered when she dropped it in the sink. They couldn’t possibly afford to have a slave stolen, that would just about finish them off, so she would have to take emergency measures. Tinian had given them three sets of manacles, she definitely remembered that, but scrabbling about in the cluttered cupboard under the sink she could only find one. It came to her as she crouched there that Andrew had used two sets when he modified the cart, so OK then, one would have to suffice, and she struggled to her feet again, holding onto the sink and pulling herself up.
A pause while she dragged whooping gasps of air into her lungs, and then she went to the door. The heavy whip Tinian had given them, the whip that had made crimson jelly of Jenny’s back, hung on a nail there, and there were another three nails from which keys hung. One, never used, was for the front door. The next, rarely used, was for this back door into the kitchen, and the third, which Mary could not recall ever being taken off the nail, was for the slave shed. A fire in a locked shed meant certain loss of its occupants, whereas it was a rare thing for a slave to run away, since capture followed by gruesome punishment was a near-certainty, so any form of security was unusual on Arcadia’s farms.
Mary took the shed key and went out into the yard, the manacles swinging in her hand.
Slightly emboldened by her reasoning that the grinning stranger was no danger to her, although entirely prepared to run back into the house, she shouted into the darkness. ‘Come on then, here I am.’ She rattled the manacles. ‘I’ll soon put these on you, you streak of piss. You’re a coward, hiding in the dark to frighten a woman, and the constables will make you suffer.’
She could hear the wind stirring the tops of surrounding birch trees, and dry leaves scuttling across the yard, but there was no reply to her challenge.
Reaching the slave shed, she peered through the window. As on every other farm, it was never in total darkness, for a lamp was left burning through the night so the slaves could be observed before anyone entered. Not at all surprising to her, none of the women were asleep, they were sat on their bunks talking, with blankets wrapped around their shoulders. She opened the door, and they all looked up at her.
‘Who were you shouting at, Miss Mary?’ Jenny was half-smiling.
‘You should be sleeping,’ Mary said.
Jenny’s smile developed. ‘Well, it’s hard to rest with so much noise going on tonight.’
Catriona’s shoulders were shaking with suppressed laughter, and Mary felt her face flush as the anger rose in her. ‘You’re a saucy bitch, Jenny, you really are. Put your hands out.’ She held up the manacles.
Jenny clasped her hands behind her back as she spoke quietly. ‘You’re not going to beat me, Mary, I’ll not allow that.’
‘You don’t get a say, because you’re just an animal like a sheep or a pig, and I own you. Now hold you hands out, or if it takes me all night to crawl to Arcadia I’ll have the constables here to deal with you.’ Her reddened face set in bleak fury, Mary shook the manacles.
Jenny licked her lips. ‘You’re a crazy woman.’ She knew what the constables had done to a rebellious girl from the Sturgess farm, hung her up by the wrists for five days and nights, raped her repeatedly, cropped her ears, and thrashed her with wood staves so severely she was afterwards unable to walk fully upright. Slowly, with a great show of reluctance and with an ugly scowl on her face, she put her hands out.
Jenny seized the woman’s left wrist and snapped a manacle over it. Another snap, and the other manacle ring was attached to the tubular steel frame of her bunk.
‘What’s this about?’ Jenny asked.
‘I think you know what it’s about,’ Mary said hotly. ‘And I swear you’re going to regret it if you don’t start speaking to me properly.’ She swung her right hand, now unencumbered by the manacles, to slap Jenny across the face with a resounding crack. ‘What do you call me?’
Recoiling as far as the short chain of the manacles would allow, Jenny screwed her face up and spoke between clenched teeth. ‘Miss Mary, you’re Miss Mary.’
‘Good.’ Mary towards Catriona. ‘And what do you call me?’
‘Miss Mary,’ replied the ashen-faced slave.
‘Sheena?’ Barked the mistress.
‘Miss Mary,’ Sheena squeaked. ‘I always call you Miss Mary.’
‘Alright then,’ Mary was feeling in command, an unknown sensation to her, and she decided to spring her big surprise. ‘Now here’s something for you three to think about. One of you is going to be sold next week, sold, do you hear me? Stood muff-naked in front of a crowd of people and sold to whoever offers the most cash. So how do you like the sound of that? What chance you’ll go to a small farm like this, where you’re treated kindly, like family? More likely you’ll be worked under an overseer, and he’ll have plenty of fun with you after he’s half-killed you in the fields. It’s up to you which one goes to market, it really is. The one who doesn’t work about ten times harder than usual over the next few days, the one who forgets she has a mistress who has to be respected, well that silly bitch will soon be sleeping in a different shed, or maybe chained in a cold cellar, who knows? Got that? Good.’ She stormed out of the shed feeling more cheerful than she had done for years, and she locked the door.
Hobbling back across the yard, Mary smiled with satisfaction. In reality, she had decided who was to be sold the instant Jenny had put her hands behind her back instead of offering them up to be manacled, but there could be no harm in torturing the other two with worry. And worry they would, that she could not doubt, because being sold must be a fearful prospect. But Jenny deserved to go, and it might be hoped the auctioneer would describe her scars as merely evidence of her being properly disciplined, and would draw attention to her strong shoulders and thighs. Perhaps a good price could be obtained, maybe six or seven hundred dollars.
She stopped midway to ease her leg pain, thinking how dreadful enslavement must feel. Probably Mavis Forres was right, and the whole thing was an evil abomination sprung from the wicked hearts of the Tinian and Wilks families, but she and Andrew were well and truly stuck with it, they had no other way to proceed. Besides which, there was a certain curious pleasure to owning other human beings, and she was quite looking forward to seeing Jenny at auction. It would be so good, such a colossal relief, to hold the wad of cash the woman would bring.
Resuming her slow trip to the house, she thought about the cart, her lifeline. Tomorrow, she decided, she would give Sheena a try at pulling it with Catriona. If she needed to broken in with merciless driving, then so be it, she would get her back striped, but reassurance was needed that disposing of Jenny would not leave her permanently stranded at the farm. She reached the kitchen door, opened it, and then stood in open-mouthed shock as the grinning stranger slammed it in her face.
Mary felt her breath becoming short, and swayed a little, but she did not back away from the door. There was no retreat available to her, and no assistance, unless she went back to the slave shed. But that was an impossible option.
Say girls, although I’m going to sell one of you into a life of whip and prick with a cruel overseer, would you mind helping me out with an intruder problem?
No, she was alone, and would have to cope with the situation devoid of help. She felt a little pleased with herself that she had not collapsed or run away screaming, although she could not deny the terrible fear she felt. But she could control it, she was newly aware, and if she didn’t have courage, she could pretend to.
Had the grinning stranger bolted the door? No, it swung open when she worked the handle, and she stepped into her kitchen.
Her tormentor was not to be seen, and there was silence. She hung the shed key back on its nail, took another step, and then heard the unmistakable sound of rapid footfalls going up the stairs. Moving as quickly as she could, she went out into the hallway, past Andrews’s workshop, and stood at the bottom of the stairway. There was very little light in the hallway, for she had not brought the oil lamp from the kitchen, and upstairs was in stygian darkness.
She put a foot on the first tread, waited a few seconds, listened, brought the other foot up. Surely that could not have been a faint snigger she heard from the darkness above? She went up another step, now clinging to the banister with both hands. What would she do if she found him? She had no idea, and only knew she could no longer suffer his existence as a chimera, a waking nightmare, she had to know he was of flesh and blood. The third step was scaled, and then the fourth and the fifth, as her heart pounded erratically and air whistled in her nose, throat, and chest. Halfway up, and she could no longer see her hands on the banister, there was just no light at all.
Another step, and another, and then she heard the snigger again, but from only inches away, and she caught the foulness of the grinning stranger’s breath, the sickening sweetness of death.
Her hands came off the banister and she reached outwards and upwards, her fingers making contact with coldly damp fabric. She gripped and pulled, knowing she would fall, not caring, wanting to take her nemesis crashing down with her. But her purchase on his clothing failed, and she fell alone.
How long she lay at the bottom of the stairs, Mary did not know. At no point was she completely unconscious, and she clearly remembered a black shape stepping over her. But the every wave of pain from her shattered femur left her light-headed and nauseous, and her awareness was so poor she could be sure of nothing except that she was in the most desperate predicament. It would be tomorrow evening before Andrew returned, surely to find her dead. The slaves, locked in the shed, would not come looking for her, and there was not a chance in a million of an unexpected visitor to the farm saving the day.
‘Doomed,’ she whispered, a thread of spittle from her mouth forming a tiny puddle on the flagstone floor.
She did not know if minutes or hours had passed when she started crawling towards the kitchen, but certainly it was still dark. Her plan, for she did have one, was to haul herself all the way out of the house and yard and onto the road. Surely somebody would pass along and see her? Yes, that was sure to happen, and it was her only chance. At the kitchen entrance she fainted briefly, but as her head lifted again she saw the slave shed key hanging on its nail. It might be possible to reach that key, although it would be very difficult. If she could, though, she should be able to cross the yard and find salvation, for she could not believe the slaves would just let her die. Hadn’t she been a good and kind mistress to them? Of course she had.
The key became the objective. Fourteen feet away, one hundred and sixty-eight inches, it was distant goal for a rapidly-weakening woman for whom every attempted movement meant sickening pain. About halfway there she felt the overpowering need to rest, and was quickly submerged into merciful oblivion.
When her eyes flickered open she could see full daylight through the open back door, and birds were making their usual morning cacophony. Out in the yard she could see Jenny and Catriona, stripped to the waist and with their wrists manacled to the cart. They must be cold, but she did not care, because she knew what it meant, Sheena was going to put her on the cart and take her to Arcadia to be cared for. Bless that golden-hearted girl, bless her, but how had she got out of the shed? She lifted her head slightly and saw the key was missing from its nail, and then became aware of conversation in the kitchen.
‘She’s coming round,’ Sheena said. ‘Look at the state of her, she’s pissed herself again. Obviously she’ll die, and that’s dangerous for me. You were only supposed to scare her away.’
Fingering his greasy felt hat, gazing at it as if it were a priceless object, the grinning stranger replied. ‘I tried, but where did you ever think she was going to run to? She could hardly move before she took a tumble.’ His speech was affected by his damaged face, much of his lips having been lost to a ricocheting bullet when Sheena had been taken by the Tinian gang. ‘Anyway, I didn’t push her down the stairs, it was an accident.’
Sheena drank the last of her tea. ‘Whatever. But we need to get moving now. ’
‘I’m not going with you. You said the husband will be bringing money when he comes back. We need that, and he surely owes it to us, so I’ll wait for him and catch up with you when I can.’
‘A few dollars won’t help you if the constables come.’ Sheena stood up. ‘Seriously, you should come with me now, while we’ve some chance of getting home.’
‘No, Sheena. It took me so long to find you, and nobody will ever know what I’ve been through, the things I’ve had to eat, and all the time with my face a mess of pain. Now I want something for me, some money to spend. Go now, you can’t vanish like I can, so run for the coast, and I promise I’ll see you at home.'
On the floor, her breathing now frighteningly shallow, Mary did not attempt to speak. She closed her eyes, all hope gone now, and only wanted to not see or hear her husband murdered.
Sheena kissed the back of the grinning stranger’s head, squeezed his right shoulder, and left.
* * *
A trader in cloth, thread, and haberdashery supplies was driving his wagon, with his wife snoozing at his side, along the road from Ballantrae to Arcadia when he saw a small cart approaching in the opposite direction. He elbowed his wife awake to see what they both assumed to be a farmer’s wife or daughter lashing two semi-naked women along. ‘These Arcadians are disgustingly cruel,’ the shocked wife said. ‘I’ve never seen anything so awful.’
‘That’s what they do,’ the trader replied. ‘I suppose a special evil’s taken root here, but their money’s as good as anyone’s.’
Both soon dozed off, leaving their horse to follow the road.
In the tiny hamlet of Balkissock the part-time constable was sat in a rocking chair outside his house, taking the sun. He raised his eyebrows when the cart came through, thought the slaves should at least have their breasts covered, and was disturbed by their gory shoulders. But although he thought he would raise the subject of common decency and public abuse with George McArthur Tinian at the quarterly constabulary meeting, what people did with their property was not a matter he could interfere with. He stayed in his chair, watching as the cart receded.
Auchairne, two miles from Balkissock, was a huddle of farm cottages, only one of which was occupied. The single resident, an elderly man who foraged in the woods for most of his food, gazed in distressed astonishment as Jenny and Catriona staggered past with the cart, their heads hanging low. The young woman driver looked at him coolly, and blew him a kiss as she passed. What terrible things were happening in the world nowadays.
Sheena, by unstinting use of the driving whip, covered the total of eleven miles from the Hiller farm to the costal village of Ballantrae in just over three hours, by which time Jenny and Catriona were little more than bloody hunks of meat attached to the cart, barely alive. Both had collapsed several times on the journey, and had been tormented to their feet by cruel strokes to their abdomens and faces. Their involuntary sacrifice had saved Sheen much time and allowed her to bring a bag of swag with her, and she was grateful to them. When she abandoned the cart and her former friends in a deserted orchard she kissed them both goodbye.
Taking her bag from the cart she walked quickly into the village, from where she could see the looming bulk of Ailsa Craig, otherwise known as Paddy’s Milestone, rising out of the sea mist some ten miles away. The waters around that island were a magnet for fishing boats from far and wide, and very often men from her home village of Peninver fished there for herring and mackerel. Indeed, a Peninver boat had landed her and her brother the grinning stranger at Ballantrae three months earlier, when they had come looking for work. Her hope now, held desperately, was that she would be able to return home exactly the way she had come.
As Sheena went down to the Ballantrae shore, at silent Hiller farm the grinning stranger lay on the kitchen table, for he was comfortable on the hard surface. Time would drag, but it would pass until the moment he gave Andrew Hiller a surprise greeting, using the curved and wonderfully sharp knife he had found in the workshop. Mary still gave an occasional gasp or grunt, but would fall silent, he guessed, before nightfall.
* * *
As things were to turn out, the grinning stranger was in his last days; the hangman’s noose he often dreamed of was closer than he thought. Even by then the haberdashery trader had told his story of a savagely-driven cart to Robert Turner, and a constable in company with two volunteers was riding out to check on Mary Hiller.
Slaves are the real victims in every tale of Arcadia.
Sheena, Jenny, and Catriona were separately to live through many more difficult and dangerous days, but all of that is another story.
Copyright© 2014 by A.D.English. All rights reserved. I welcome your comments. Email me at email@example.com