“By God, not again!” William Cuthbertson glared at his oldest daughter. “You show up more often than a pebble in my shoe, girl! What is it this time?”
Judith Cuthbertson Willoughby Henderson looked down at the stone steps. The lone blue feather from her bonnet was soaked; dye drizzled from its tip to mix with the puddle of muddy water at her feet. The rain had finally stopped, but too late to matter. Her slippers were ruined, her stockings sodden, the hem of her best blue dress was caked with mud.
The coach ride had lasted three days; she’d no coin to purchase accommodations. Sleeping had been accomplished by sitting in the corner of the jostling carriage, wedging herself against the wall. Despite her letter home, there had been no wagon waiting at the crossroads. She’d waited for an hour, then placed the box under her arm, grabbed the weight of her skirt with both hands and proceeded up the lane she’d walked so many times as a young girl.
Half way here, the rain had come, a precursor to her welcome.
Standing on the steps of the manor house she’d called home for most of her life, Judith wondered if she had ever before felt as unwelcome as she did at this particular moment.
It came as no surprise that her father insisted upon explanations now, nor was his anger entirely unexpected. Of course he would be enraged that she was, once again, dependent upon his charity. She had managed to anger him by simply breathing.
Judith ignored the familiar flash of pain.
“Have you nothing to say, girl? You, the oldest of my girls and the only one to return home like a bad penny!” he roared.
He lifted his balled fist toward Judith, but she remained rigid, shuttering her eyes against the blur of his descending hand. The air of its passage brushed against her cheek as his fist missed her face by a scant inch.
A long moment later, she looked up and met his angry gaze with a calm and placid facade. It was a lesson she had finally learned.
“The Matthew’s were emigrating to the Colonies, sir. There was no coin for my passage.” The words were said calmly, softly. Her blue eyes were clear, without guile. No emotion shone at all, except for fatigue, but then, she could not totally mask her exhaustion. There was nothing about the telling of the tale to indicate that it had been conjured up during the long walk home.
“And why did you not become indentured, then?” Her father’s face was suffused with red as he continued to glare at her. Judith looked down at her feet, at the small box tied with string which contained all her worldly possessions. What a pitiful sight it was.
Instead of elaborating on her lie, she answered him simply. “I will not be an encumbrance, sir. Perhaps I could find another position, somewhere.” Or, was it her burden to fail at servitude as adroitly as she had at marriage?
The squire was not appeased. To have her return again was outside of enough! Was she a plague upon his life?
“Is there no welcome for me here, then?” Judith finally asked, screwing up her courage. Where would she go if he would not allow her to stay? Her married sisters were too afraid of her father to give her shelter. Nor would she willingly knock upon the poorhouse door. What, then, would she do? Accept Hiram Matthew’s invitation to whoredom?
William Cuthbertson stared into his daughter’s face knowing that, in this at least, he had no choice. Her presence shamed him, yet his refusal to grant her entrance would only provide fodder for the gossiping harpies in the neighborhood. He nodded finally and grudgingly stepped aside, allowing her to mount the steps for the comfort of the solar, her mother and her chattering sisters.
Judith summoned the last of her strength as she climbed the stone stairs. At the door, she turned, looking back at her father. It had ever been this way. She had realized long ago there would never be affection from him. As a child, though, she had prayed to have been left as a fairy changeling’s gift, pretending that she was not related to the squire at all. Somehow, it was easier to believe she was not his child than to accept he truly cared nothing for her.
He watched her close the heavy oak door. So, she was back again, was she?
She was an unnatural female, his daughter. She bore no resemblance to her sisters, or his wife, nothing about her mirrored his own healthy looks. If his wife had been another sort of woman, the squire would have believed himself supporting a bastard all these years. Judith was tall, an oddity in a woman. Her hair was brown, not blonde like the Cuthbertsons, her eyes a shade of blue so dark it disquieted him.
Yet, it was not simply her physical appearance which marked her as different. There was a restrained air about her which spoke not of tranquility, but rather of duplicity. Sometimes, he saw a spark of rage in those odd eyes of hers, but in the next second it was gone, to be replaced by a docility he did not trust.
The girl had not taken to marriage the way a gentlewoman should, resisting from the first. He had wed her to a neighbor, only to have her return within months. He had then wed her to a soldier, whose stern countenance and air of authority should have meant the end of her stubborn ways. A few years later, she was his burden again, a wan shadow of herself, but still determined to plague his old age. Widowed twice over, she should have brought money or land with her, instead, she cost him in room and board.
She’d returned for the last time. She was twenty-four years old, doomed to remain in his household for the rest of her life. Unless he did something to ensure she never came back.
He almost smiled at the thought.