There is a song they now sing in Reason, the place where I was born. When I left all those years ago, the story behind its words was only just becoming known. The lullaby made its way to me recently through a friend who’d stayed in Reason. Anyway, it goes like this:
If you must speak, keep your voice to a whisper,
For it grows dark and the leaves are going somewhere,
And the grey-faced man has still not had his answer
Of a pledge in blood; if no one pays it, all will suffer.
Speak not above a whisper.
Keep still, my child, tightly shut your bright eyes,
For it’s silent in town and not one child cries.
Tomorrow a madman shall hang for his lies
At last with his payment end the nightly reprise.
Speak not above a whisper.
Be silent and cautious, my darling, and rest,
For the night has just swallowed up one of the best,
Her hair black as shadow, in white was she dressed,
Her quiet grace thwarted, she strayed from the rest
And speaks not above a whisper.
Be quiet, my child, and find peace in your sleep!
For at dawn, all the village will silently creep
Toward the angel that hangs from the gallows, and weep
Then find in the forest their children asleep.
Speak not above a whisper.
Yes, it is true, most of it. And no one but me knows the whole story. No one but me and a girl named Faith Prescott.
She was beautiful, with inky black hair that, when unpinned, hung past her hips. She had a sweet smile and chocolate-brown eyes that danced like they held a secret. None of the other boys seemed to pay her much attention.
This shy young woman was my first love. We lived a few blocks from each other in a little town called Reason, tucked into the dark hollows of New England. It’s about thirty miles north of here. She was a few years older than me and remarkably clever. Everyone knew her name, and with her sunny laugh and shy sort of kindness, they thought they loved her.
Why, then, did she not interest more of the boys? Was she not sweet and pretty, and delightfully full of secrets? Yes, and that was the catch: a more private young lady you’d never find. She was kind to all, but none were allowed admittance to the walled garden of her mind, and in time she was relegated to the title of “wall flower.” Though she was sometimes admired, the others never seemed to see how very special she was.
But I did. And so she was all mine, at least in my own mind.
I’ll never forget the first time I noticed her. I was seventeen. Papa had sent me to market with a bale of wool to be sold. Some of the wilder boys were riding through the town on horseback and yelling at the top of their lungs, enjoying their freedom after the melting winter snows.
Suddenly, there she was. Faith had been walking in the road and had to leap out of the way of the riders. She landed a few yards in front of me, resting one arm against the whitewashed storefront.
It was like I was seeing her for the first time. Her peach-hued cheeks had captured the breath of the previous autumn, against which her eyelashes were a shock of black and her slender mouth a stroke of pale red. She pursed her lips and tossed a disdainful glare in the direction of the boys. I decided she was the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.
She recovered herself in a moment, smiling ruefully and straightening her frame like a little queen. Then she stepped back into the street without so much as a glance in my direction. I concluded then that I was in love.
From that day on, I trod after her like some forlorn pup. She remained apparently oblivious to me, and I kept at a distance for fear she would speak to me. I didn’t want to let cruel reality shatter my fragile dream, so I resolved I must never approach. Silly, I was, but devoted.
We were often separated by our respective chores, during which times I suffered great impatience. The instant I was free I was on the hunt for her, hoping to catch just one glimpse of her, or perhaps plod along beside her as she went on some errand, pretending I had some business in the same direction.
She always greeted me with the same solemn politeness she used with most everybody and tolerated my presence, but otherwise forgot about me. I suspect more than one villager had guessed my affliction due to the snickers behind hands, but in my purpose no one molested me. They probably saw it as both pathetic and harmless, and they would’ve been right.
One busy morning, I overheard Faith’s mother instructing her to bring a parcel of freshly-baked bread to the town’s dye maker, a man of about thirty who lived a few miles outside of town. Faith’s mother made it her business to send the occasional gift to the friendless or the eccentric, so Faith was no stranger to such errands. As for me, I’d never paid them any attention until now. Faith’s house was a block or two closer to the town square, which meant I’d previously been relying on chance for us to cross paths. This errand, however, brought her right across my own doorstep, making me the obvious escort. I volunteered at once.
Faith took the parcel dutifully, though none too excited for her journey. As we were leaving town, I received more than one approving nod from the townsmen. I realized to my glee that to escort a young lady on some remote errand was a noble endeavor, and I dared to walk closer to her.
We soon reached the inkmaker’s humble dwelling. My little mistress stepped up the neat stone steps and knocked.
“Who knocks?” a man’s voice barked from somewhere inside.
“It is Faith Prescott, Mr. Gladstone. My mother sent me to deliver you some bread. Would you like me to bring it inside or leave it out here?”
I straightened and watched keenly as Faith turned the knob and stepped hesitantly inside. She shifted from foot to foot in the tiny, chaotic entryway. Several wooden and mechanical parts I couldn’t identify leaned against the walls, and there were pieces missing from the floor.
There was a great clattering and muffled stomping before the gentleman himself appeared. His clothing perfectly matched the state of his entryway; he had on a loose white shirt whose tails not only hung out but appeared to have been torn in multiple places, and his bare legs and feet protruded from the bottom of a pair of brown breeches.
Faith recoiled ever so slightly as she handed him the parcel, noticing the brilliantly colored stains on his shirtsleeves. When he saw where she was looking, he caught her eye and quickly smiled, exposing dimples on each cheek and bringing a touch of life to the pale, watery eyes which looked as sad as a basset hound’s.
This did little to improve my impression of him. I noted chaotic blond hair and a closely cut beard which defied all sense of symmetry. Faith appeared to share the somewhat alarming impression, though she was polite enough to offer him a sweet smile.
“Your mother is very good to think of me. Give her my thanks.”
“Of course.” Faith nodded and edged toward the door.
“Well, farewell, Miss Prescott,” he added with some disappointment. “And thank you.”
She nodded awkwardly again, then made her escape.
This insignificant occurrence was repeated weekly that spring. Mrs. Prescott sent Faith with something different each time: biscuits, muffins, a freshly-baked loaf, or a plate of little cakes.
Each time Faith came to Mr. Gladstone’s door, I, her faithful shadow, obtained her permission to accompany her. Her greetings were often initially ignored or unheard, and once he finally did appear, Mr. Gladstone’s appearance was continually frightful. It seemed that each week his beard was different, now a full beard, now a half beard, now a goatee, and nearly always uneven. One day, a glimpse of scarring made me realize it was often singed off by chemicals or flames.
As spring progressed into summer, for me the world stood still. Sometimes Faith greeted me after church or acknowledged me when we were at market, but she made no attempt to engage me further. I often traded tasks with others in the village so I could always have an errand to run that brought me in step with Faith. Whenever she seemed to tire of my presence, I bid her goodbye and took a separate route, then circled back to watch her from a distance.
However, one tiny cloud cast its shadow over the summertime. It was a lush summer morning when Faith and I – oh, to hear our names said together! – traipsed through the lush pools of shade peppering the by now familiar path through the forest. She kept a brisk pace, swinging her basket cheerfully in spite of the monotonous task. She’d never taken much interest in these visits, though she dutifully paid them, and always with a smile.
When we got to the cottage, I took my accustomed seat on a nearby stump while she eased open the door and went inside. She had gotten into the habit of placing her mother’s gifts on a chair just inside to avoid the necessity of an interaction between herself and the old bachelor. Similarly self-conscious, he had readily agreed to the system. She would merely call out to let him know she’d been there.
Today, however, her customary call was interrupted by an urgent cry for help. With a start, my mistress rushed into the house, hastily tossing her basket onto the chair and leaving the front door swinging. I leapt up in alarm and peered anxiously inside, unsure whether to follow.
The little front room and kitchen were a mess, with pieces of wire and metal stacked in corners and wooden parts leaned up against the walls. Unfortunately, Faith’s host was not in either of these rooms and she quickly disappeared from sight.
I darted around to the back of the cottage. To my relief, the back door and windows were wide open, letting in the soft breeze. There she stood in an odd-looking little room lined with bookshelves, apparently no worse for the wear. She held a strange contraption like tree branches which contained several glass vials of fluid in many different colors.
I narrowed my eyes in search of Mr. Gladstone. Suddenly, the disheveled blond head appeared inside. He darted back and forth, hurriedly mopping up some clear liquid which had spilled all over a large wooden desk.
For the next several minutes, Faith worked to help him rescue the other items off his desk and put his chemicals back in order. A strange sight it was, for as clumsy as his appearance had led me to expect he would be, here in his laboratory, his movements were like a dance. He gracefully wove in and out of Faith’s path, handing her things and retrieving others, making a wide sweep of the arm to clear a spot here or a sudden grab to move a book there. Faith seemed to notice it, too; whatever she did, he graciously integrated to his purpose. At first she seemed intimidated, but as her clumsy movements were knit into his, she became entranced.
In a matter of minutes, the lab was set to rights. Mr. Gladstone caught up a broom and began sweeping up broken glass. A little dazed, Faith sank onto a high wooden stool to watch him.
“How do you manage all of it?” she finally asked, her eyes wandering over the glass bottles and strange bundles of herbs and little paper parcels, all shelved neatly in hundreds of little wooden compartments.
“As well as I can.” He laughed ruefully. “Which, as you can see, doesn’t always go as planned!”
She laughed softly. “Well, it’s all right.” Her eyes had turned bright and thoughtful, and she looked around the room with the discerning intensity I had often noted. “I’d never imagined your work would require so many, um, volatile chemicals.”
Gladstone nodded as he set the broom aside and stood back to survey the room. He seemed bigger and taller than he had, standing up straight with his thumbs in his pockets to look about the makeshift laboratory which must have been his pride and joy.
“It can be dangerous work. But it’s safe enough if you know what you’re about.” He flashed his dimpled smile at Faith, and she smiled back. “Though it certainly takes some trial and error.”
Faith seemed to remember herself and hurriedly got up off the stool. “Well, I’m glad I happened to be around when that happened. Do- Do try to be more careful!”
His face fell as she edged into the entryway. “Worry not. I am not normally so careless. It was a chance mishap.” His eyes followed her reluctantly to the door. “Thank you for your help.”
Faith bobbed an awkward curtsy and gestured toward the chair. “Enjoy…my mother’s bread.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you!” he called out one last time as she made her escape.
I followed her past a clothesline of brilliantly colored fabrics, probably where he tested the dyes he made. As we drew near the town, I chuckled to myself over the mishap. Clearly she was glad to have helped, but probably she’d never want to go there again.