Leslie got as far as the gates before she saw Saul Elliot was right. Harbour Road was churned up worse than her mother's porridge. It hadn't been this bad on the walk from Four Winds this morning, but a succession of heavy carts and excited Fair-goers had turned every exit into a trough of sludge. Of course, she could tuck her skirts under her arm and navigate through it, but wouldn't it be nicer – thrilling even – to take the Shore Path home instead?
The Shore Path was forbidden to Leslie, though this hadn't always been so. Papa had often taken her there, back when she tied her hair with two ribbons. She would ride on his shoulders, hands clasped beneath his bearded chin, and they would barter for fish at the Percy's and talk to the sea-dogs mending their nets. Sometimes, if he had the time he would splurge on filets of hot fried fish. They would sit on the rocks and tear holes in their parcels, and nibble each morsel as slowly as they could. After, Papa would get Leslie to check his beard for salt or grease. She knew the instant her hand got near he would make a low growl, and pretend to chomp it off. And she would squeal with a delicious terror and fly down the beach, her father roaring after her like a monster in those novels he used to read after supper.
Then one day, it was about the time when her mother let down all her skirts, Leslie made it all the way to the lobster traps and her father hadn't caught up. She turned back to look for him, her hand cast over her brow, to see Papa with his hands on his knees and his head bowed down. He blamed it on her too long legs, said she was getting too fast for him. But Leslie knew, and he knew she knew, the sickness in his lungs was returning again.
When he died Leslie's mother hired a mason to build a great stone monument over his grave. Some folks said the marble angel looked just like Leslie. Others said a family as poor as hers should never had been so frivolous. Right in front of Leslie too, as though she didn't know what that word meant. She had won a First at Queens, had plans to go to college – but no one knew about that. Oh, to see their faces when she got the money together... And again, she thought of those five pennies wasted, and the man that was the cause of it.
A sailor, he said. Leslie knew the kind he meant, with a wench at every port and a long list of merchants he owed but never paid. The sort of man that loitered on the Shore Path. Her mother always told her never to come here alone. This was hard on Leslie, who knew in her bones that Papa could never be found in that cemetery, and definitely not with that white winged child. He was with the winds that bore up every seabird, in the lick of the waves that tickled her toes.
She disobeyed her mother once. It was just before she was about to go to Charlottetown and begin her first term at Queens. Leslie had wanted to say goodbye, a true and proper farewell, and tell dear Papa – or the wind at least – that the highest dream he held for her was beginning to come true.
It didn't go well. She had left after twilight when she was supposed to be in bed, and the sun dropped fast in September. By the time she got to Harbour Head she was wishing for a lantern. By the time she got to Harbour Mouth she was glad she could hide in the dark. There were only a few houses there, shacks really, most folks lived further south at the Cove. They were all lit up with lamps and candles and there was a low pulsing sound of someone playing the jug.
As Leslie got closer she heard other noises above the crash of the waves. Clinking glass and cuss words and the shuffle of heavy boots. She got even closer, there was nothing else for it, she had to pass by to get to her rocks. Her kidskin slippers tiptoed over the silvered boards that made up the boardwalk, and she hunched down into her cloak. After all that darkness, the light from the shacks was dazzling. She couldn't see their faces, but she heard them calling, "Come dance with us, pretty maid!" Then at last she was free of the light, the sounds all drowned out by the surf. Yet the thud, thud, thud of the brown stone jug followed her all the way home.
She should be heading home now, but she didn't. A feeling of freedom rose so strongly, it was impossible to ignore. There was never a moment when she wasn't busy teaching at school or tending the house. Her mother never really took to housework. Oh, she tried, she really did, but she never got the knack. Her stains never shifted and her dough never rose and her windows always showed smears. She was once known as the Rose of the Glen. Her real name was Aileen, but no one called her that except Grandmother West. The old woman had not approved of her only son marrying a girl whose singular skill lay in how to sew a pretty seam. And while Leslie felt very protective of her mother, and was proud of the stylish clothes she made, she sometimes wished the cooking and cleaning wasn't left up to her.
There would be plenty of chores for Leslie to go back to, but first she had to attend to her muddy boots. She would nip over the low stone wall and wash them in the sea. After that she would tie the laces together and wear them around her neck. No one minded bare feet down here, even the proper ladies of Glen St Mary thought it perfectly admissible to paddle about. But once she had done it, and knotted the laces, Leslie found she could not move. The sea itself worked to make her stay, softening the sand beneath her till she sank down to her ankles.
Leslie had the sensation of being a tree, imagined roots going down to the dark, wet earth. If Papa had been here, he would have warned her to keep a look out for the seventh wave. The soft lapping water had lulled her into a sort of trance; the rogue wave knocked her off her feet and drenched the back of skirts. Only now did Leslie realise she had left her basket back at the tent. Her shawl was in it, and some little pies she had bought from the Ladies Aid stall. There was nothing for it, she would have to go back. But not until her dress was dry.
Her eyes turned south toward the Cove hidden behind high dunes. Most folks there would be at the Fair, perhaps if she walked in that direction and sunned herself on the sand-hills? It shouldn't take more than an hour; her mother wasn't expecting her till five. She could clean up, fetch her basket and return home, and Mother would be none the wiser.
She skipped down the boardwalk in the opposite direction of her house. With each step she took she could feel herself dissolving, as if she was one with the wind. The teachers in the tent all assumed she had gone home, her mother thought she was still there. It gave Leslie a carefree, almost careless feeling. For the first time in a long time she was bound to no one but herself.
The boardwalk meandered between two tall dunes. Beyond it lay a collection of hovels known as the Cove. Only the stoutest Christian ever visited these parts. Her neighbour, Miss Bryant (she of the stolen chrysanths) often brought back tales of no good men and slatternly women, skin and bone dogs and children not much better. Secretly, Leslie preferred the rough ways of the Harbour folk, at least you knew where you stood with them. It was those proper ladies and their clean-shaven husbands that filled her with unease. The way they called her, Poor Leslie West, and smiled with their mouths and not with their eyes.
There were no fine families out here, however, just a deep trench between the dunes. Her skipping stopped and the frown her mother chided her about, creased her much admired brow. Every sound, the air, the sea, even the call of the gull, was muffled by the walls of sand. It only added to the wonder Leslie felt, and she rose on tiptoe, eager to become one with the silence and breathless with what she might find.
The boardwalk gave way to a scrubby patch of dirty sand and stunted trees with an eastward bent; high fences with boards like broken teeth surrounding every side. The path was empty of people but Leslie supposed most of them would be at the Fair. The only sign of life was a thin plume of smoke coming from a rusted tin roof. The rest of the house was hidden behind a fence of nets and driftwood. Large, dark creatures paced behind it. Studying them, patiently, Leslie realised they were dogs.
"What do yer want?"
Leslie turned and saw a girl about her age, holding a puppy in her arms. She meant to smile but as she got closer the stench of dog made her stop. The girl looked clean though, even lovely, save the look in her large green eyes. She was openly appraising Leslie, discerning what she could from her smart straw hat and finely stitched dress. The extra flounces and lace trimmed sleeves telling her all she needed to know.
"We got some nice bitches," the girl said, hoping she might make a sale. "What are you after, huntin' dog or watch dog, where's your mama, don't she want a look?" She jiggled the puppy as she spoke, the sinews in her brown arms tight and lean. "You can have this one, if yer like, I'll sell her to you cheap. She's a runty little mongrel. Could be we have to drown her and I hate doin' that –"
At this Leslie found her voice. "Did you say drown her?"
"Keep your hair on, I was only messin'. You're Rose West's girl, ain't yer?"
"How do you know that?"
The girl darted forward and thrust the puppy into Leslie's arms. The closest she had ever come to a dog was the hard, stuffed toy Dick Moore had won. It surprised her to find that beneath the thick and curly coat were tiny bones, expanding and contracting with each panting breath.
"It ain't safe," said the girl, her confidence growing, "livin' up at that big ol' house all alone. Ol' Bryant said you should keep a dog. Reckon that's why you come here today."
Leslie's skin prickled. This girl seemed to know everything about her, yet Leslie didn't even know her name. She lifted her gaze from the little dog and met the bold girl's stare.
"You're quite the hawker, aren't you –"
"Oh, she's something all right!"
Both girls looked up with guilty expressions, as Cornelia Bryant strode towards them. The basket that had once been filled with the good simple bread and peggy-square blankets, swinging briskly in her hand. The other hand reached out promptly and plucked the dog from Leslie's arms
"I think this belongs to you!" she said, glaring at the girl. Never did a you sound so withering. Leslie would have winced if she wasn't already wincing.
"And don't think creasing up that pretty face of yours will get you out of your folly either, Leslie West. Come –" and she tugged on Leslie's arm, "I must be getting on."
They were almost at the sand dunes before Leslie had a chance to respond, and only because Cornelia had to take a breath after several long-winded admonishments.
"I'm not a child, Miss Bryant."
"Oh, you're not, are you? Gadding about barefoot, petting strange puppies, wandering off. I thought you were supposed to be judging at the Fair. Your mother told me this morning, all proud she was. My Leslie's on the Children's table – as if that required any nous."
"I could have used your talents this afternoon," said Leslie, thinking it might be wiser to take a more conciliatory tone.
Cornelia slowed her pace and gave Leslie her dry look. She had one of those faces where you could make out the plains of her bones. Her skin was like fine, brown linen except where it pinkened on the apples of her cheeks.
"You're speaking to the wrong woman, Leslie. Only the married sort can judge at the Fair – and any woman silly enough to tie herself to a man isn't much of a judge in my book."
Leslie laughed and offered to take the basket from her as they continued through the dunes. Little scoops of sand flicking up as she tried to match Cornelia's pace.
"You know," she said, the laugh in her voice, "I'm not married either."
Cornelia gave her another look, one that said Oh, but you will be. Leslie decided to ignore that.
"What's more," she went on, "you don't need a husband to judge the Children's table."
"That you don't," Cornelia conceded, "you just have to make a great advertorial of yourself and pander to Abner Moore!"
Leslie suspected this point might come up and had been all ready to confess the terrific misdeed of awarding Homer Smith a First. In the shelter of the sand dunes it certainly seemed possible, even a relief. But now they were on the Shore Path it seemed of little consequence. Who cared about Abner Moore, why not mention his son instead?
"Oh, he's back is he?" Cornelia sniffed, when Leslie mentioned his name. "Useless gaddabout..." As she said this she peered at the tall girl beside her, who was no longer following the flight of a shearwater, but staring at her toes. "You never went to meet him did you, is that why I found you down at the Cove?"
"As if I would –"
"Because child or no, I'll set you over my knee and tan your hide if that's the case!"
She did not mean it. Cornelia Bryant's opinion on the beating of children was famous throughout the Glen. Leslie often thought she would have made the very best of mothers – not that Cornelia would see the compliment in that. No, the Good Lord had put her on this earth to do what those blessed with too many babies could not: dress them warm and fill their bellies and the other apparently trifling things their feckless parents forgot.
"I'll leave you here," said Leslie, dropping down in the sand. "I left my basket at the Fair and I'll have to go back and fetch it."
Cornelia chewed over this information while Leslie laced her boots. It would only be neighbourly to offer to go with her, but that would mean setting foot in that Fair Ground and there was no way she was doing that.
"I'll let your mother know you're coming directly," she said, by way of a goodbye.
Leslie watched her till her florid hat disappeared behind a row of dories, then she headed up to the Harbour Road. There were thick cracks in the mud now, studded with straw and the little things little hands forgot to keep hold of. A peg-doll, some peanuts, a green and white striped candy cane. And there, caught in the rope fence where the lamb exhibition once stood, a long piece of scarlet ribbon, sinuous in the wind. It did not appear to be a rosette, but a sash. A little grimy and frayed at one end, but serviceable certainly, and beautiful – yes!
Leslie coiled it into her pocket and patted it like a treasure, and was thinking of the things she could trim with it when she entered the Children's tent. There were all the winners wilting in a row. Best bloom, best root, best potato (that had it's own category around here), best posy, best vine, best legume... Well, what do you know? Homer Smith had his First, just as Leslie hoped he would. She thought a little higher of Saul Elliot and even less of Dick Moore.
If only she had thought more of him, she might have had some response prepared when he called out to her now.
"Well hello again, little Leslie, I thought you were unwell?"
He had been curled up under one of the tables and looked like he had been sleeping. His hat was off, his hair all mussy, and several of his shirt buttons were undone. Her basket was beside him and he picked it up slowly, revealing what looked like a mermaid tattoo etched into his chest.
Leslie dropped the pea pod. Her eyes on her basket, the tattoo, anywhere but those eyes.
"Can't let you trudge up that muddy road all alone now, can we?" He squashed the pea as he leaned against the table where Leslie was standing, and pressed her basket into her breast. "You look cold, get your shawl on. I'm going to take you home."
Thanks for reading. And now, back by popular demand some good old kwakish review responses...
Guest: Thank you, it always gives me encouragement when I read something like that
Kitti: I haven't read a story that focused on Leslie either, though to be fair I tend to read paper bound stories rather then fanfic. There is nothing like a book you can hold in your hand.
Angela: I think it's going to be good too. I'm quite excited by what's to come
FKAJ: Cor babe, thanks so much! I was really interested in learning about Leslie's past too. It's interesting to me that Maud didn't make a special case out of Anne, yes she excelled, but there are plenty of other characters (Priss, Stella, Phil, Katherine, Leslie) who aspire to college educations. And yes, Dick Moore is something else, but frankly I am more nervous about trying to write Cornelia Bryant!
Guest: I first got the idea when I saw an old cover of AHoD, with Leslie Moore in the foreground tending her geese, and a small buggy with Anne and Gilbert driving by. It struck me that while AHoD is centred on the Blythes, you could argue the hero is Leslie Moore.
ozdiva: I used to live by the beach when I was a girl, and I always loved Maud's line (I quoted it in UTK) about the sea calling ever to dwellers on the shore... or something like that. I liked what you said about Dick. From what I could glean it seems like Dick was a very handsome man. But while Leslie comes to see her beauty as a curse, he sees it as a way to get what he wants.
Regina: I'm glad you want to read it, but I don't take it for granted anymore. I remember finishing UTK and thinking any writer that could manage to get 100 reviews (I can't tell you what it meant to reach that goal!) would surely be good enough to get readers interested in CTA. Ha ha, what a little novice I was. Readers come here for Anne (ok, and Gilbert too) but I also know this story will find the people who are meant to read it.
Guest: Thank you! I thought I would list the parts right off, so that readers would know where I am heading. One of the annoying things about online stories is that a reader is never sure how long they might be and what the goal is. In a paper book you can skip ahead or even glance at the chapter list. Giving my readers an outline is a way to make this story a little more tangible, which is especially important when you are not focusing on Anne.