That night Leslie tucked the small red book beneath her pillow. Half an hour later she had to admit romantic gestures were beyond her. It was one thing to tolerate the hard cover poking through the flattened down, quite another to ignore the tilt of her bed. The book was returned to its place beneath the bed-leg, before she slipped between the covers once more with the expectation of sleep. But it was a rather half-hearted expectation, much like the way we make a show of inviting an acquaintance to tea when we know they cannot come.
The lighting of the lamp as good as admitted her intentions. Kerosene was saved for important work that could not be fit into daylight hours; candles were used to brush your hair by, or illuminate the pages of an oft read book. Leslie retrieved the red sash she had left to dry on her window sill and sat upon her bed. She had carefully trimmed the frayed end and removed the greasy stain earlier that evening. It should have been hung with the other washing in the attic; she had even pegged it up for a minute before popping it into her sewing basket and bringing it back to her room.
A true scarlet of shot raw silk, five inches wide and almost two yards long. It begged for gold thread but that wasn't to be had. In the end, Leslie settled on a skein of indigo floss, and marking out the centre of her fabric settled into her work.
Despite sewing into the small hours, she was the first one up that morning. This was not unusual, though it was surprising to find Mother sleeping when Leslie brought in her cup of tea. Rose always took a lot of care over her appearance, and her daughter's. On Sundays she was up with the sun fretting over this hat or that collar, whether she could hide a small hole with a brooch or pin up a hem she had no time to sew. Leslie often joked that the two of them were like walking billboards advertising her mother's wares. And like all good jokes it revealed a truth. They needed the money, they always did, and their continual attendance at church brought about the bulk of it.
"Mamma..." said Leslie, pulling back the faded curtains. "darling, are you unwell?"
Rose rolled away with a groan. She was in no mood to explain herself, though once she began she found it hard to stop. She had been restless and panicked all night, thanks to Leslie. Her heart beat like a freight train and she was visited with endless waking dreams.
"You and your silly books," she grumbled. "Why did you poke around there last night? You know how it unsettles me."
Leslie bit back her response. She knew very well her mother did not like her going into the parlour, but that didn't mean she agreed. The parlour was the most beautiful room in the house. A generous, golden, west-facing room that took in the whole of the garden through a picture window and tall French doors. These lead onto the wide veranda where Papa's hammock used to hang, and his roses (all dug up now) perfumed the air long past Autumn. His picture was in there on the high mahogany mantel, his chalky old peppermints, and his little shelf of treasured books.
His widow liked to pretend the parlour no longer existed, like a limb that had lost all its feeling. The rest of the house limping along in the cool east light, with their views of the shed and the washing line.
Leslie closed the blinds against them, and the tangled mess of grass and weeds that needed to be cut. "I was only –"
"Leslie, what are you wearing?" Rose's blonde brows drew together as she peered at Leslie's waist. "Open the curtains again."
Leslie did so, then shifted nearer, a little skip to her step.
"But this is exquisite, where on earth did you get it, don't tell me you found something like that at a Harbour Fair?"
Leslie brought her hands to her waist and stroked the sash proudly. "I made it."
"But that's silk, and dyed with such a colour, it must have cost a small fortune. And what are those birds?" her mother said, of the two delicately stitched creatures; their wings outstretched, their beaks just touching. Leslie had formed their feathers in a painstaking satin stitch, leaving their breasts a bold red. When viewed from a distance their chests looked like two halves of a heart coming together or breaking apart.
Rose sat back against her pillows; her pale lips split with a grin. "Not Dicky-birds?"
"Hmm," said Rose, noting the sheer poplin blouse Leslie was wearing with her best navy Gabadine skirt. The way the combination set off the red sash, and her tiny waist, just so. "I've never seen you go to such trouble before."
"It was no trouble." Leslie turned and shut the curtains again, then retrieved the cup from the nightstand. "I'll get you more tea," she said, leaving the room. "This one will be cold."
When she returned her mother was humming the tune to Spanish Ladies.
"I might try a spot of baking," she called after her daughter, who was already making a dash for the hat stand in the hall. "We'll have some nice treats. I think we have some cocoa left, in case you decide to invite someone over after service."
Dick Moore was hardly the church-going type, though that didn't stop Leslie stealing furtive looks whenever a late comer slunk into a pew. Abner Moore was also missing. Perhaps he was sickening, perhaps that was the reason his son decided to come back home? What if Abner should die, would the debt her mother owed be wiped? Leslie wished her Papa had talked more about sensible things instead of just fancies, then she might have known how these things worked.
The Reverend cleared his throat and Leslie fell to her knees, the last in the congregation. Only minutes before he had begun his sermon with judge not lest ye be judged, but he did not mind judging her now. When everyone else in the church rose to their feet, Leslie lingered, a repentant prayer on her tongue, for wishing death – if fleetingly – on another human being.
Heart clean, Leslie joined the customary gathering outside the church. Her mother was the expert at this, darting from one group to another with the ease of a needle whipping stitches. Gathering admiring glances and gleaning information about so and so's christening or wedding or funeral, a tired drawing room that wanted refurnishing, or a suit in need of repair.
Leslie knew her mother would want her to join the Kirk women first and politely inquire about their grand dinner. Their cook had a lot to say about that, and a lot to say about her bunions. The two gentlemen accompanying the Kirk girls were far more interested in Leslie, particularly her pleasing figure and long lashed, sky-blue eyes. Noting the expression on Sarah Kirk's face and knowing Mother needed her custom, Leslie wished them all good morning and swiftly moved on.
"Poor Leslie West," one of the Kirk girls sighed. "She hasn't a penny, you know."
It was said in a voice loud enough for Leslie to hear, but the little barb barely made a dent. Leslie did have a penny. She had one hundred and eighty-nine dollars and fifty-one cents! One more year of teaching and she would have even more. A college education! Something Sarah Kirk and her precious daughters would never have for themselves.
Leslie smiled a secret smile, the sort that was all for herself, though she did not mind sharing it when she spotted Miss Russell. The little lady was ambling through the crowd with the intention of asking after Leslie's mother, when Homer Smith bowled into her. The boy was all arms and legs, begging pardon and raising his cap. Miss Russell giggled behind her hanky and waved him on.
"Miss West," said Homer gravely, sliding his cap off his greased down hair, "you gave my family a First."
Leslie's smile grew wider. Homer was an awkward boy of about thirteen with an angry pimple on his chin. She had always had a soft spot for him; he was one of the few boys who never tried to flirt with her. "I believe I gave your pea a First."
"I meant that, of course…" The boy scratched his head and looked over to his folks, who were dawdling by the gate with shy and grateful faces. "Anyways, I wanted to thank you. I would've yesterday but Dick Moore said you were poorly, said you asked him specially to present me with my prize. I'm just sorry you missed out on yours –"
"Some book, wasn't it? A real biggun, Myra Crawford said. From that tinker with the hoops."
"Never mind Myra Crawford," said Leslie primly. She had not got used to the sting of losing that book yet – or the uncomfortable way its loss was tied up with Dick Moore. "I'm just satisfied your legume got the recognition it deserved."
Homer squinted up at her, but Miss West wasn't sassing. You could see in her pretty face she meant it. His cheeks turned a pink to match his pimple and he lowered his eyes. To Leslie's surprise he whistled.
"Look at them cocks, that's bully!"
The smile on Leslie's face dissolved. "I beg your pardon?"
"Them cock-robins on your sash. They almost look real." He stared hard at the birds, his scrubbed clean fingers drifting closer to her waist, daring to see if he could touch one, and maybe, just maybe... her.
Leslie stepped away from him with a huff that was more from disappointment than alarm. She reminded him that his parents were waiting, then waved to Miss Russell, who was weaving her way towards her with her usual wobbly step. Her spectacles flashed beneath her leghorn bonnet as she nodded at Leslie's sash.
"Who killed Cock Robin? I said the Sparrow, with my little bow and arrow, I killed Cock Robin."
Miss Russell was almost eighty years old and had got into the habit of saying whatever she felt like saying whenever she felt like saying it. Despite being neighbours her entire life, Leslie hadn't quite learned the trick of how to respond to her yet, and kissed the old woman's cheek.
"Morning, Miss Russell."
"That's not your mother's work, too bold for her."
"Shall I walk you home?" Leslie asked, "I'm all by myself today. Mother isn't well."
"If I had known this morning you were going to walk with me, I would never have spent ten minutes together trying to fasten my opal brooch."
"And why's that, dear?"
"Because you, sweet Leslie, outshine any ornament man can make. Look at them, would you? All gawping at you."
Leslie would not look, though she did hold her head a little higher, flashing her scarlet sash as she sauntered by.
She was supremely conscious of the long tail of red silk flying out behind her as she strolled with Miss Russell up the slope to Four Winds. Though she came to regret her poplin blouse. The swelling wind was a cool one, and she crossed her arms about her as she took in the view of the harbour below. Wondering all the while if he was there...
Leslie continued to wonder for most of the summer. It was as though Dick Moore had vanished. His father had been gone a good month too. Leslie knew this because she volunteered to do the shopping at Moore's General all through June.
Of course, this had nothing to do with the tiny, pushed down hope she had of seeing Dick again. But mothers are not so easily fooled.
Rose was wise enough to keep this insight to herself. Other girls Leslie's age had strings of beaux already, some of them even had promise rings. While her Leslie was a famous beauty and never had so much as one boy chum – and she spent a whole year at Queens! Rose knew this was all Leslie's doing. The girl had inherited the surly will of Grandmother West.
Rose never forgave the old biddy for thinking she was too low for her son. Though Rose could see the benefit of having a daughter with high standards. Everything rested on Leslie finding a suitable match, one who could get them out of this mess. But to catch the eye of Abner's own lad. It was as though the clouds had finally parted and Rose could feel the warmth of the sun!
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Leslie. The hotter the sun shone that summer, the cooler and more withdrawn she became.
It was a broiling day in early July when Leslie dumped sacks of flour, sugar and rice on the table, before tersely announcing she would not be doing the shopping at Moore's General again.
"He's back, you know, Abner Moore. The greedy man filled my five pound bags only three quarters full and charged me the whole amount!"
Rose put her outburst down to missishness. It wasn't Abner, Leslie was cross with. This had to be about Dick Moore. He hadn't come calling since the day of the Fair. Rose was beginning to worry herself.
She emptied a bag into the flour bin with a sympathetic sniff. "I'll do the shopping from now on, darling. You go back to cooking."
There was batch of melted cookies sitting on top of the stove. Leslie clicked her tongue when saw them and rued the waste of good butter. She took the empty flour bag from her mother and threw it into the fire. That secret smile curling her lips as she watched the Moore name stamped onto it, catch and kindle and burn.
The following week, Rose returned from her shopping and not even a Victorian sponge of feather-like airiness could lighten her mood.
"What do you think?" said Leslie. She was washing her hands in the basin and missed the dark look on her mother's face. "I was going to top it with fresh strawberries but the birds got to them first. Thankfully, the cherry preserves from last year are still good. I don't know how Miss Bryant manages it. I must ask her secret when she comes this afternoon."
"Cherry preserves are the least of our worries," Rose snapped. "I wouldn't be surprised if we have to get all our supplies from Cornelia now... Leslie, how could you?"
Leslie calmly dried her hands. Mother had come back from Moore's General, and Mother was not pleased. Leslie had been expecting this since her scene with Abner Moore last week. If only she had not been so proud and insisted that she would continue the shopping. But the sneer on Abner's face! The fleck of spit that struck her cheek as he railed against her – in front of his customers, too! Leslie knew the facts of the matter were bound to come out sooner or later whether she smoothed things over or not.
"It was a prize for a pea, a simple pea. It's sheer pettiness for Abner Moore to take offence at that."
"Pettiness?" Rose's anger grew. "Who's the petty one, I ask you? All you had to do was give First Prize to anyone else. But no, you had to choose the one family who does not use Moore's seed. You had to go out of your way to offend the man who saved us from destitution? Why Leslie, that's all I'm asking, why would you do such a thing?"
Leslie turned to see her mother slump into her armchair. Red dust from the sunbaked road was coating her cheeks, and pale blonde tendrils hung limply around her shoulders. It had once been a thick and glimmering gold like Leslie's, and her shoulders, once straight and fine, were hunched up with a stifled rage.
A rage that found its match in her daughter. For years, Leslie had watched her mother simper and smile for that Abner Moore. The way she allowed him to finger the lace on her blouse and hold swathes of cloth against her bosom. They were walking billboards, all right, for the fabric sold at Moore's General! Was it any wonder Leslie loved her sash? It was the only piece of clothing she owned that hadn't been pawed by him.
"I don't care if he saved us," Leslie snapped back, "he's a greedy, feckless beast!"
It was glorious relief to say this. Yet it fled the instant she saw the change on her mother's face. Leslie quickly realised she was not the only one bursting to say her piece. If it had come out as a rant, perhaps it would not have hurt so much. It was the calm, almost methodical way her mother spoke that sent a chill through the young girl's heart.
"And you wonder why Dick Moore never came back," said Rose. "I know it all, young lady, Abner told me everything. How you ordered his son to give a First to the Smith boy in front of the whole town, knowing he represented his father. Then like a gentleman Dick drives you home, and what does he get in return? A proud toss of the head from you, no doubt. Oh, you're beautiful, Leslie, no one denies that, but I fear you're becoming quite vain. I could have had any man in my day, but I chose a penniless farmer. While the likes of Dick Moore, whose father practically runs the Glen, isn't good enough for you."
Leslie turned and looked out the window, to the grass now sprouting seed heads by the washing line. Browned and papery, the blades rubbing together like crickets at dusk, sending a dry almost rasping murmur into the room.
"Shut the window," her mother added, when Leslie refused to speak. "There's smoke in the air, someone must be having a burn."
Leslie ignored the command; to be shut up now was more than she could stand.
"You were twenty when you married Papa, I am only sixteen. A year ago I was still in school –"
"A co-educational high school that serves some of the best families on the Island."
"So that's why you let me go – to find myself a husband – and you laugh at Mrs Kirk?"
Rose pursed her lips, thinking how best to reply. "Your grandmother left what money she had to you, when she knew I was up to my eyes in debt. I never said a word of reproach when you chose to go to Queens, even though you left me quiet alone with no one here to help. So don't cast me up as some meddlesome schemer, Leslie. I've only ever wanted what's best for you –"
"Which just happens to be what's best for you."
How much she sounded like Grandmother West. Her lofty demeanour and cold clear voice. Rose hauled herself out of her chair and reached out to her daughter. It wasn't right to conflate them like that. Leslie had turned down far more prestigious schools in order to work in the Glen. Leslie was loyal, Leslie would never leave her, Leslie would listen when no one else did.
Rose cupped the solemn face before her, trying to connect with the little girl who had always been there for her.
"What's best for us. You and I are all that's left. You and I, and this land. I gave everything to your father, his farm is slipping through my fingers, you are the one hope I have left. You have looks and intelligence and spirit, but I'm telling you Leslie, you won't attract a man of means, not when he knows you are penniless, not if you don't... help him on."
Leslie shrank away from her. If only she could have taken back her words so easily.
"The way you help on Abner Moore –"
She felt the sting before she realised what had stung her; the outstretched palm of her mother's own hand. Judge not lest ye be judged, the Reverend warned her. Yet Leslie had, and how. She had spurned Dick Moore, embarrassed him, hit him. Now a hand had struck her back.
Rose's eyes spilled over with tears, and she wiped the offending hand on her skirts. "I shouldn't have done that – I'm hot and tired and that confounded smoke is choking me half to death..." She leaned over the bench to the window fastening, the bright blotches in her cheeks going pale. "No..." she murmured. "Dear God, I beg you..."
"Mamma, please – what is it?"
"Fire – oh, Leslie, do something quick, the whole backyard is burning!"
Angela: Yes, he kissed her, it must have been a pretty good kiss too, because that man has made his way into her head. No!
Guest: Thank you so much. I'm really enjoying working out Leslie's character, especially the relationship with her mother. We only have Leslie and Cornelia's account of this in the book. Leslie insists her mother was beloved, Cornelia says she was a selfish lazy cow. I knew the truth had to be somewhere between the two, and this kind of thing is what interests me most.
Guest: That's why I keep writing. It's a helpless feeling seeing people suffer and wonder what you can possibly do. If I can distract you for a little while, and keep the blues at bay, then that's all the reason I need to keep on. Take care, lovely one!
FKAJ: You know as I am writing Dick I am thinking of Owen, the more I flesh out one character the more the other begins to form in my head. I imagine after her marriage to Dick, Leslie will fight against her feelings for Owen. She will tell herself he is just like Dick, and in some ways I think he will be; tall and handsome and mysterious. Leslie will be feeling those warning signs all over again, not wanting to believe it is love. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Thanks for the compliments, babe, the octopus line came from memories of many a drunken pash. It's like all decorum is off the table, and for a girl as bound up as Leslie I think it took her by surprise. The surprise being it undid something in her. But again, I'm getting ahead of myself...
Orange Jasmine: what a wonderful and very astute thing to say. I loved it! And yes, the Chronicles are filled with tales of angst and misunderstanding. Remember the one near the end AotI, about Janet and John Douglas. The cruelty makes you cry. But I love that about Maud, people think she wrote these pretty little tales filled with flowers and sunsets and puffed sleeves, but she was never afraid to tackle dark themes, and AHoD is the perfect example of that. I hope I keep your readership :o)
oz diva: I'm loving your reading of Dick, I love that he intrigues you. When I write him I often think back to Cornelia's line that he wanted something until he got it, and then he stopped wanting it. I know Cornelia has her bias, but I thought it was an excellent place to start!
Thanks for reading, everyone. I will write this next chapter more quickly, we can't keep that fire burning too long. But don't worry, it's Captain Jim to the rescue!