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Authors: Julie Berry

Secondhand Charm

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For Denny,

and for Phil

“The earth is full of thy riches.

So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.

There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.”

PSALM 104:24–26

Chapter 1

“What will you do when school is done, Evie?”

Priscilla peered at me through her thick spectacles. They had the unfortunate effect of making her already watery eyes swim large and fishlike. That didn’t bother me. After eight years as academic rivals at Sister Claire’s school, Priscilla and I had both decided that it was much easier being friends. And what were fish eyes between friends?

It was mid-August, and the air lay heavy and hot around us as we walked home from classes along Maundley’s main street. I lowered my bonnet to shield my face from the sun. My scratchy shift and knickers clung cruelly to my damp, tired skin.

“I don’t know, Prissy,” I said. “I hate to think of it. The end of school feels like taking a walk, and reaching a cliff, with a man holding a pitchfork behind your back. There’s no other choice but to fall off.”

“Kersplat,” Priscilla agreed. “I know.” She hoisted the strap binding her books over her shoulder. “You could always do like Rosie Willis, or Mary Grace, and get married this fall.”

I shuddered. “Bite your tongue, Priscilla Hornby,” I said. “That’s like having an army of pitchforks behind you, and a lake of molten lava at the bottom of the cliff.”

“Either way, you’re dead.” Priscilla could be maddeningly practical.

“Oh, why do good things have to end,” I moaned, “while tedious things go on forever?”

“This is our lot in life, Evie. We’re now to wash and iron and weed and bake. We’ll do it a few years for our folks until some man marries us, then do it for him till we die.”

“There’s romance for you.” I gave her a poke. I happened to know she was hopelessly sweet on Matthew Dunwoody, the butcher’s son, and would do his ironing and baking till forevermore with a song on her lips, if he’d only take notice of her. But I heroically didn’t tease her about him. Not just then. I would save that fun for another time.

“Sister Claire says learning is the work of a lifetime,” I mused. “Do you suppose I could teach myself to be a physician? A bit of reading, a bit of studying, on my own?”

“Not a chance of it.”

“Why not?”

“You’ll not practice medicine on me if you’ve never had proper training, I can tell you.”

I laughed. “Coward.”

But Priscilla was no longer listening. She grabbed my arm and pointed. “Evie, what’s going on up there?”

We reached the chapel and noticed a gathering of ten or more people standing outside. For Maundley, this was practically a mob.

A short man in crimson hose and a blue velvet jacket that was rather too tight stood addressing our gigantically fat and eternally sweating mayor, Sam Snow. Beside the stranger an attendant stood, holding two horses by their reins.

“Good people,” the man said, in a magnificently crisp, nasal voice, reading from an elaborate scroll. “I come from Chalcedon to announce the joyful news that His Exalted Majesty King Leopold III, Protector and Prince Royal of Pylander, by the grace of God and upheld by his fair and loyal subjects, deigns to favor the village of Maundley with his luminous presence on the occasion of your feast of Saint Bronwyn, next fortnight.”

A ripple went through the crowd, starting with Mayor Snow’s great girth. A royal visit! Such a thing hadn’t happened since Widow Sprottley’s uncle’s cow birthed a calf with two udders. We’d heard the tale often enough to know. What news!

“Fame of the charm and pleasantness of said country celebration, honoring your village’s patron saint, has reached His Majesty’s ears, and as it is his good will to visit the towns of all of his Pylandrian subjects, His Majesty now sees fit to time his arrival in Maundley with the eve of your celebration.”

Mayor Snow swabbed his cheeks with a dingy handkerchief. Widow Moreau, who lived next door to Grandfather and me, winked in my direction.

“His Majesty begs you to go to no special trouble on account of his arrival,” the herald went on, giving us a stern look that clearly spoke otherwise. “He will be pleased to lodge, along with his retinue, at the home of your mayor or chief magistrate. As for dining, His Majesty is sure that the simple fare at the feast will please his tastes. As for entertainment, he is prepared to be exceedingly delighted by the dancing, games, and contests that accompany your feast day.”

Priscilla and I stared at each other. Dancing? Games? Contests? And for that matter, lodge at Sam Snow’s crumbling house? Lord help us all!

“His Majesty salutes you cordially and with all affection, and joyfully anticipates the day of his arrival among your loyal bosoms.”

Mayor Snow wiped his sweating hand upon
his
loyal bosom and offered it, trembling, to the brightly colored herald. “Joyful news indeed,” he said in a voice that squeaked like a growing boy’s. “And now, er, you must need refreshment from your long journey. May I”—here he cast a terrified look over his shoulder at the ever-growing assembly—“offer you victuals? The Galloping Goose”—here he gestured to our only tavern and public house—“serves an excellent luncheon and has clean rooms for boarders.”

This set off a fit of coughing among the villagers present.

“Thank you, no.” The herald cast a critical glance at the local tavern, whose wooden goose dangled askew over its door. “I must press onward. I’m due in Fallardston before day’s end. I will tell His Majesty how joyfully you received the news of his imminent visit.”

The mayor shot us all a panicked look.

“Huzzah! Huzzah!” I cried, before I’d had a chance to think. Others joined in, praise be.

“Huzzah! Huzzah! Long live His Majesty!”

Chapter 2

When the hoofbeats of the herald and his page died out, an outcry broke loose.

“The
feast
of Saint Bronwyn?”

“Were we planning to hold one of those this year?”

“Where will you lodge the king, Sam—in bed with you and the missus?” Butcher Dunwoody slapped his knee. “That’s the only spot in your house where the roof don’t leak!”

Widow Moreau spoke up. “What you need, Mayor,” she said, “is some help repairing your place. Now, if my son Aidan were here, he could mason those stones of yours right up. Carpenter Thomas and his sons could fix the roof snug.”

The Thomas men nodded slowly, cautiously. Widow Moreau’s sharp eyes saw it.

“Folks’ll help you clean and paint. As for the ‘feast,’ leave that to us.” By “us,” we understood her to mean the village women who did whatever Widow Moreau told them to. Life, they found, was just easier that way. “We’ll organize it. Food, handicrafts. Father Pius, can you put together games, and music, and contests for the lads?”

The timid village priest nodded.

Widow Moreau turned to my beloved schoolmistress. “Sister Claire, you’ll arrange an exhibition from your students. Recitations, and ’rithmetic, and so on, won’t you?”

Sister Claire caught my eye. I sighed. Now I knew what
I’d
be doing at the feast of Saint Bronwyn. Better than baking. Leave that to Mary Grace and Rosie Willis.

“Who’ll pay for the repairs?” Harold Flint, the sour-faced treasurer, spoke. “Mayor can’t.”

“Besides,” I said, “Aidan
isn’t
here. He’s in Chalcedon, and there’s no time to fetch him.”

Widow Moreau beamed at me and patted my cheek. “Don’t you worry, duck,” she said. “I’ve had a letter from Aidan, saying he’ll be here for a visit soon. Expecting him any day now. He’ll be eager to see you, too, I’m bound.”

I felt my face grow hot as the amused glances of the entire village turned my way. There was nothing I wouldn’t do for Widow Moreau—she’d been a neighbor and a mother to me all my life—but why she persisted in this foolish notion that either I or Aidan had any regard for each other, beyond neighborly friendship, was more than I could figure.

“The forest’s full of wood, and I daresay many of you men have some seasoned lumber set by,” Widow Moreau said, addressing the village once more. “Paint can be made. We ought to do ourselves proud when our king comes to visit Maundley, oughtn’t we?”

Mayor Snow wisely said nothing. He was on the verge of a free refurbishing of his house. And he also knew that what villagers would never do for him, they’d do for Widow Moreau.

A little slip of a girl, no more than six, came pelting down the road. It was Letty Croft, her ankles long and brown underneath her raggedy dress, her hair and face shockingly dirty. I adored Letty Croft. She reached my side and tugged my skirt, panting.

“Miss Evelyn,” she gasped, “Mam says it’s time. You’re to come, please, if you would.”

I handed Prissy my school things, who took them without a word. “Tell Grandfather I don’t know when I’ll be home, please?” I said to Widow Moreau. “Hannah Croft’s having her baby. Sister Claire,” I looked at my teacher. “Just in case, the composition for tomorrow, I … ”

“Go on, Evie,” Sister Claire said. “I’ll tell Sister Agatha to stop and see if you need help.”

Clutching Letty’s dirty hand in mine, I ran off to the Croft cottage.

Hannah Croft was a big strapping girl, or woman, I should say, seeing as she already had three of her own, but I thought of her as a girl. Her face was so smooth and round and young. She was only about half a dozen years older than me, and even in rural Maundley that was young to birth her fourth. I was not yet seventeen. The reason I was playing midwife, and not an older woman, was simple. I’d never known a sick day in my life. Not a fever, not a cold. Naturally, some therefore believed that I had a beneficial influence over sickbeds and birthing tables. “Wholesome vapors,” Father Pius once called it. Which, meaning no disrespect to his holy office, was nonsense. It wasn’t vapors that helped the ailing and the birthing. It was heat when needed, or cool when needed, soothing care, and lots of washing and salt in wounds. And all that I’d learned from my father’s books. Maundley had no doctor, but I’d been bringing babies into the village, or helping a midwife do so, almost since Letty learned to walk.

I found Hannah on her hands and knees in her bed, moaning and panting.

“Oh, thank ’ee for coming, Miss Evelyn. I was so afraid when the time’d come Letty wouldn’t be able to find you,” she said. She rocked back and forth. “It’s coming quick, I think.”

“Letty,” I said, “take Lester and Mattie down the road to Mrs. Peronell’s house, and stay there until I come for you. All right?”

Letty looked like she hated to leave.

“Why?”

“Because I can’t tend to you and your mother too,” I said.

“Why?”

“Everything will be all right. Mrs. Peronell will give you supper. Ask her, please, to send over any old linens she can spare.”

“Why?”

“Letty!” I cried. Then I changed my tone. “She’ll have a sweet for you.”

Mama was forgotten; Letty and the little ones ran next door. I put logs on the fire and filled every kettle I could fit in the coals to get water heating.

“Oh, Miss Evelyn,” Hannah said, “I’ve been so afraid of this one, I have. It ought to get easier each time, but instead all I get is more afraid. I remember how awful it hurts. It keeps me up nights, remembering.”

I rubbed her back with slow, firm strokes. “I know,” I said, though of course I didn’t. “I know. Do you want me to send for your husband, so he can be here with you?”

“Laws, no,” she said. “I’d hate for him to see me bawling and hollering like this. Don’t know what he’d think of me.”

I knew what
I’d
think of him if he thought less of her, but I kept my comments to myself and rubbed her back. For hours. Contrary to her prediction, this one wasn’t coming quick.

Word reached Abiah Croft anyhow, and he was there in the garden when I opened the door.

“Biggest one yet, Mr. Croft,” I said, displaying his infant son. “Isn’t he sweet? Hannah says his name is Brom.”

Abiah’s face parted into the widest grin possible. His leathered peasant’s face went soft as warm butter at the sight of the tiny red child. He took Brom in his hands and cradled him under his chin.

In time he remembered I was there. “We don’t know how to thank you, Miss Evelyn.”

“It was Hannah who did the work.”

He handed me back the baby and reached into his pockets. Joy drained from his cheeks. “We haven’t any, er, that is, in time we could … ”

“Oh, no,” I said. “Don’t think about that.”

Abiah shook his head, distressed. “No, Miss Pomeroy,” he said. “I’ll see to it, and I’ll come by just as soon as … ”

The baby began to fuss in my arms. I wanted to refuse payment, but saw that for his sake I shouldn’t. “Tell you what,” I said. “I hear you’re a fine hand at cheese. How about a slab of it for Grandfather?”

Abiah Croft stood up straighter. “It’s Hannah that’s got the knack,” he said. “I’ll bring a whole wheel by tomorrow.”

Mrs. Peronell brought supper and said she’d already tucked the Croft children into bed at her home. I left the Crofts with Hannah feeding Brom, and Abiah feeding Hannah soup, spoonful by spoonful, and made my way home through the falling twilight. The cool night air smelled sweet, and the lavender sky colored fields full of barley and meadows full of hay. I kept smiling, thinking of that ruddy little baby, thinking what a glad, glad thing it was for everything to go well at a birth. I didn’t blame Hannah Croft one iota for being afraid. A little part of me was afraid every time I helped a laboring mother. But that was why I did it. The fear was enough that I had to—
had to
—help in whatever way I could.

That was why I wanted to be a physician, like my father had been and like my mother had studied to be. From the day Grandfather told me how my parents died during the influenza epidemic, after weary nights treating sick patrons at the university infirmary, I’d formed my hope of following in their footsteps. They were martyrs to medicine, heroes in my eyes.

The kingdom of Pylander, since the days of Queen Margaret the Wise, generations before my day, had held school doors open to women and girls, by law at least, if not by widespread practice. There were women at the royal university in Chalcedon. Not many, but enough to prove it was possible. Not many became doctors. Most chose teaching, like Sister Claire.

I walked on, knowing the paths home through the woods by heart, and imagined myself at the university. I’d seen pictures of the robes and caps that the students and professors wore. Even just thinking of those trimmings gave me chills of excitement.

“Ho there! Young lady!”

A deep voice made me jump. A dark shape filled the path before me. Bandits! Could I make it back to town? Not before being caught. Heart thumping, I backed away from the shadowy figure, looking for an escape through the trees.

“Do you know the way to Widow Moreau’s house?”

Relief, then aggravation flooded over me in turn. “Well, if you don’t know, Aidan Moreau, I’m not about to tell you.”

The tall shape stepped out of the shadows and leaned against a tree. I’d recognize those laughing eyes anywhere, but I was startled to see how much older he looked. Hefting rocks all day and working under the hot sunlight had added years to his face and build. He seemed foreign to me now. I’d known Aidan since we were children, though he was a few years older. His mother used to make him walk me to school. Even after he left for a stonemasonry apprenticeship in Chalcedon at fourteen, he had come home once or twice a year to see his mother. But this time I might almost not have known him. For shame, scaring me like that in the woods! He knew his way home as well as he knew his name.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” I said. “Or are you waiting for other young ladies to pass by so you can terrify them too?”

“Not a bad idea,” he said. “I could easily make a sport of this. But seeing as you’re unprotected, I may as well walk you home. I can always come back and lurk more later.”

“Your mother’d boil you if you did.”

“There is that.” He looked sideways at me, and I noted that he’d grown at least an inch taller. “She’s probably at your grandfather’s, giving him grief. How’s the fishing this season?”

I smiled. When we were little, Aidan and I would fish together in the stream beyond our homes. At first it was just me tagging along to pester him when I was a little girl, but soon he began to say the fish came when I called them. He insisted I come along for good luck.

“No time for fishing these days,” I said.

“We’ll see about that.” He pantomimed flicking a fishing rod with one hand.

“What brings you home?”

“Holiday,” Aidan said. “My old master’s as good as gravy. His family, too. They’re very kind to me. Always wanting me to look in on my ‘sweet, helpless, widowed mother.’ ”

I laughed. “He’s never met her, then, has he?”

“I suspect she’s laid some sort of spell on him,” Aidan said.

“Or written him a letter,” I said. “Your mother gets what she wants out of people.”

“You’re telling me?”

“Well, she’s got a plan for you, this trip.” I told Aidan about the royal visit and the Feast of Saint Bronwyn.

“Oh, no.” He laughed and groaned together. “I thought I was getting me some rest for a change. Say, Evie,” he said, looking at me with excitement, “I’ve got some news. You can be the first to know.”

News was intriguing. “Let me guess: you’re married.”

He stopped in his tracks. “No!”

“Soon to be, then.”

He shook his head. “No,” he said, looking at me closely. “Neither one.” He seemed crestfallen, as though now his news wouldn’t seem like much. “I’m done being a journeyman. My master, Mr. Rumsen, says when I return, he’ll make me a master myself. I may stay on with him, if he can use me. If not, he’ll help me find a post somewhere else.”

I picked my way over a fallen tree limb. “Is this good news?”

“It’s a year earlier than most,” he said. “Mr. Rumsen says I’ll be the youngest full mason in Chalcedon. Maybe in all of Pylander.”

I presented my hand. “Well, congratulations then, laddie,” I said. “Let me be the first to shake your hand. Well done.”

Aidan smiled, and for a moment he looked more like the boy I remembered.

“Now, isn’t this a pretty sight?”

I dropped Aidan’s hand. Aidan reached his mother in two strides, picked her up, and swung her around knee-high off the ground. I slipped away, smiling, and headed toward Grandfather’s house.

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