Alice tiptoed into the hallway. Perhaps it was a blessing she was still in mourning, for there would be less risk of being seen. Wheeler would be watching out, and his eyes were sharp as pikes–he would spot any movement, any slight shift in the features of the landscape.
She reached up to the peg for her black bonnet and put it on, pulling the lace veiling down so it hid her face. Regretfully, she looked down at her narrow feet, shod now in pale yellow sateen. This was her favourite pair of shoes, in a style considered far too fancy these days. They were one of the few pretty things she had saved from the fire and she was loath to get them wet and muddy. But her leather bootees made too much noise; even on tiptoe the irons would clang against the flagstones in the hall. These shoes were silent, and outside would leave hardly a trace if she was careful to tread where it was dry. There must be no mishaps. This was the only night with no moon, and the orchid would fade fast, so it had to be tonight.
The basket stood ready by the back door. She had prepared it earlier with a lining of soaked green moss and dampened sackcloth. A bunch of fresh herbs was waiting in the pantry for her return: parsley, salvia, rosemary; they would be her excuse if Thomas were to wake and ask her where she had been. She glanced over towards the fireplace where he snored lightly, his mouth drooping open and his arm dangling over the edge of the chair. As usual, his boots were almost in the embers.
At the door she leaned her shoulder against the jamb, to ease the latch out of its socket; the door swung open silently and she stepped out into the night air. She heard the latch clack gently into place behind her.
The night was a soot-black tunnel. She listened, senses quivering. Her heart beat loudly as if caught in her throat; her breath came in sharp little puffs. She gathered herself. Soon she would have it, and though Wheeler might suspect her, he would never be able to prove it.
She felt her way down the path with an outstretched hand on the fence, for Wheeler must not see any glimmer of her presence, and a lantern would surely draw his eye like bait to a fish. Her foot stubbed against a wooden milk churn and she momentarily lost her balance. She lurched for the gate with her hand and shuddered as she felt the wet body of a slug on its night-time foray for food.
Her eyes strained to accustom themselves to this new, lightless world. Thank the Lord she had rehearsed the route. In the daylight she had practised with eyes closed, opening them again as she passed close to Wheeler’s house, for in the dark of the moon she knew it would be hard to find her way. Becoming more sure-footed, she followed the smell of wood-smoke from the village chimneys until she saw the lights of Wheeler’s house and the barely perceptible outline of the kissing-gate to Helk’s Wood.
The house lay directly next to the gate, with a window that over-looked the path. From here Wheeler could keep watch on anyone coming or going. Lights flickered in the downstairs room. She stopped short.
He was awake–and probably at his vantage point at the window.
A lozenge of yellow light slanted across her path. She reconsidered her route; she dare not risk passing the window. Instead, she felt along the hedge for a gap.
A bramble wound its thorny teeth round her ankle and she winced as she tore free. She stumbled forward and found herself in a cut cornfield. She walked faster, despite the scratchy stubble, which snagged on the silk of her shoes and caught at her under-skirt. The dew was already heavy, her dress damp–the sodden hem swung over her ankles.
Above her the stars were fixed points of light, too faint to reach the shadows under the stooks, too faint to touch the flurry of a hare as it leapt into the hedge’s black underbelly. She felt for the wall to the wood. Here, she could hide and keep away from Wheeler’s gimlet eyes. The wall had substance, solidity–so she kept her hand there. As she listened, the ancient presence of the woodland loomed beyond; the trees were watching, and the grasses, even the stones in the wall. They were conversing with each other in an unknown silent language. She shivered and withdrew her hand.
Beyond the wall the trees were shapes distorted by the dark. Each one grew into the next; one dim shape concealing another, brooding. A crawling sensation curled at the top of her spine. From nowhere a chill breeze swept through the branches making the mounds of creamy meadowsweet float like ghostly clouds against the hedge. In the night air their smell was sickly and cloying.
But there was another smell, fainter, more familiar. Alice sucked in her breath. It was a smell she knew, something sweet and musty, like peat. Instantly she dropped down behind the wall. Tobacco. There was someone smoking close by.
Her back pressed against the stones, she pulled the veil of the bonnet down over her face and undid the ribbons, straining her ears for the least sound. A cough, and then the sound of boots approaching. She heard the ring of them on the stones, and the slight squelch as they landed in the muddy wheel tracks. With consternation Alice saw a light getting closer. From her hiding place she saw the leaves of the trees in the canopy flare into colour and then disappear into the dark. She shrank further into the shadow of the wall. She knew only one man who smoked that tobacco. Wheeler.
He must be guarding the wood.
The footsteps got nearer, until she heard what must be the buttons of his long coat scratching against his boots.
She put a hand over her nose lest the steam of her breath should betray her. She heard a dull hiss as a taper caught light. The corn near her feet was illuminated as he drew on his pipe. She crouched low, head bent forward, hands now clutching the fabric of her gown about her. The smoke drifted over the wall and fogged above her head, like the creeping mist near the river.
What would he think if he knew she was only inches away, spying on him from behind the wall? The situation struck her suddenly as absurd. She suppressed an unaccountable urge to laugh. Mirth began to bubble up inside and she had to quash it by stuffing her sleeve over her mouth and nose.
Wheeler must not see her here. He was such a serious man–so serious he made her feel like a fool. If she were to give herself away, he would know straightway what she was about, and would have none of it. He would be incredulous to think she could consider doing such a thing.
Presently the footsteps moved away up the path. She listened to them fade away and let out a long exhalation. All desire to laugh had disappeared. When she was certain he had gone, she stood up stiffly, aware that the hour was passing and she must hurry if she were not to make trouble at home. Finding a place where the wall had tumbled down, she hitched up her skirts and climbed over, landing softly on the path below. She walked until she felt the ground become springy under her feet–a mossy clearing.
A breeze blew up again, a soft muttering of leaves, a swing of shadows, the branches moving silver-limbed against the sky. Her eyes had opened out to the dark. She stopped a few feet away and looked.
The pale globe of the flower shone out like Venus in the night sky. She tiptoed closer. Indeed, silence came easily. It was a natural response to something so exquisite.
She knelt down in front of the plant so she could look inside the fragile petal bowl and see the tiny stigmata of maroon and pink, appearing blue-black in the darkness. Reaching out a finger, she caressed the edge of a fleshy leaf.
‘Cypripedium.’ She whispered the Latin name softly, caressingly, as if calling for it to come home, feeling the taste of the words on her tongue.
Squatting down she started to dig around it, her movements precise and delicate, careful not to disturb the roots. She worked quickly with the trowel to prise away the heavy soil, not noticing that the dirt was forced up into her fingernails. In one deft movement she plucked the whole plant and lowered it gently into the basket of damp moss.
A movement made her startle. An owl flew overhead, pale faced, wings beating quiet as breathing. Again she shivered and looked over her shoulder. There was nobody there, yet she could not shake off the feeling that someone was watching, unseen in the cold shadows.
She stood up and regarded the empty hole, wondering whether to fill it in or disguise it in some way. But then she had an idea. She reached into her handkerchief pouch and pulled out a few coins. She tossed them into the hole, hearing them chink at the bottom. There, she thought, I have paid you for it. She repressed a small chuckle as she imagined Wheeler’s face when he returned in the morning. He was always so keen on the idea of everything having its price.
She picked up the basket and, confident now, followed the same route she had come. She turned to look back. Behind her, another dark human figure melted into the shadow of the undergrowth.
When she passed Wheeler’s house she trod softly, for although his lights were still lit, it was even more vital to be invisible now. But the only sound was the chek, chek of the corncrakes in the meadow and the distant lowing of a cow.
She went straight to the summerhouse and gently took out the orchid to stand it upright in a small pot of earth. It looked small and insignificant, almost insipid, next to the pink curling papers of the flowering geraniums. She felt a pang of remorse. The orchid looked somehow less, out of its woodland setting.
It was for the best, she convinced herself. She knew she had the skills to divide it, whatever Wheeler might think; soon there would be lady’s slippers growing in abundance. She watered it, just a few drops. Not because it was dry, but because she wanted to tend it–to make amends for uprooting it and bringing it to a strange place. After hiding it out of sight under the table, she locked the door with the little bronze key and crept into the house.
She need not have worried. The fire was barely aglow, and Thomas’s wheezing snores told her he was still sleeping. Only now did she allow herself a sigh of relief. She thought of her dear sister, Flora, and her delight if she could have seen it. She could not wait to tell Geoffrey, and looked forward to his expression when he saw it for the first time. He would understand her excitement, and she knew she could trust him to keep her secret.
Her cuffs were brackish-brown and there was a quantity of dirt under her nails, so she washed in the scullery, out of Thomas’s earshot, by the light of a lantern. She soaped and drubbed the cuffs until the water ran clean; they would dry overnight. Looking down at her shoes she could see they were ruined–the fabric soaked through and scuffed with mud, but worse, the deep scratch on her ankle had bled and dribbled over the embroidery in a dark red stain.
She carried the shoes to the kitchen and wrapped them in brown paper. It would be difficult to explain their condition to Thomas so they would need to be disposed of. She dare not pass him, in case he should wake. For the moment she pushed the shoes right to the bottom of the turnip sack. Her bare feet padded softly on the stairs as she made her way to bed. Thomas slept on–his snores loud above the ticking clock, while the embers grew cold.
THE LADY’S SLIPPER Copyright © 2010 by Deborah Swift.