Even in the shade of the colossal oak, there was a light around Maria, a glow. Leah had it too, but she wore it differently. No newcomer to Eastham took them for sisters. There was a simplicity to Maria; Leah was harder to understand. Standing under that tree, Maria appeared bewitched by something. She seemed out of place and time, still and silent, almost petrified. Perhaps I’m reading too much into that expression of hers. Remembering that day and everything that’s come since has made me do so. Did I even notice it then? It was the quarterstaff bout that had captured and fixed her attention. I look back now and think, what if she’d never seen it? That day was back in July and it was hot, hot as Jove. It was the kind of day that just made you want to lie down until it was over. The air was thick as wax and the rank stench of bodies flattened before rolling right over you.
But Maria looked cool under that oak. I recall the image so clearly because I never saw her look quite the same way again.
Maria stood a short distance from the meeting house green. More a dusty, rutted, manure-covered square of dirt than a green, the area in front of the white building was where most of Eastham’s dramas played out. It was set with a whipping post, a pound and a watch house. On this particular summer’s day, the space was playing host to a lively quarterstaff bout. Maria could barely hear the staves connecting over the din of the cheering spectators. Most were yelling the name of Judah Doane, a young man of twenty whose family she knew well. He was the grandson of one of the first settlers in Eastham. Maria was the granddaughter of another. The two families had forged their lives in the wilderness side by side.
Maria wore her most becoming dress. Although it featured no lace or embroidery, the mulberry-coloured bodice fit perfectly, accentuating her neat waist and compact bosom. She liked the contrast of its bold white cuffs against the vivid purple. Wiping her brow with her gloved hand, she looked towards the unblemished sky through the leaves of the oak. The tree was one of only a few survivors when the township (consisting of little else than a tavern, blacksmith and meeting house) was carved out of the forest seventy years earlier. Grand and glorious; a true gift from heaven, Maria thought, as her lips curled into a contented smile. Her gaze drifted towards the ocean. The bay was quiet of all activity. Boats lay anchored, dormant, as their captains and crews enjoyed the festivities in the town. Even nature itself refused to toil on such a day, refusing to produce a single wisp of cooling breeze.
Craning her slender neck to view the man Judah was fighting, Maria saw her sister’s husband, Palgrave Williams, among the bystanders. The town’s silversmith, he stood at least a head taller than those that surrounded him. He watched the bout pensively, but, on noticing Maria, lifted his spider-like hand and cast a gentle smile in her direction. Palgrave had a particular economy of gesture, as though he had worked out just how little movement he required to sustain him. She’d never seen him hurried. He was never in a rush. He always walked with a slow, fluid stride, like the roll of a boat over an easy swell.
The crowd parted slightly. She could now see Judah’s challenger, an opponent whose name no-one was crying. A raven-haired man, older than her friend, flourished his weapon grandly, intending to impress the onlookers. His broad grin, directed at both Judah and the spectators, was taunting. As he engaged the audience with his skill, his eye caught Maria's. His smile disappeared, although he continued to look at her while sweeping the stave in large arcs across his body. She felt her face flush. She turned away, albeit grudgingly, and feigned interest in a stall where cider was being sold. Maria did not recognise him. He was not from Cape Cod, she was certain. But there were many unknown faces in the town this Thursday. He was probably a crewman from one of the merchant ships docked in the harbour. He wore nothing but breeches and a thick leather belt.
A moment later, the town’s beadle, Arthur Earl, came into view. Maria had noticed him before as he patrolled the area at a meditative pace, his close-set green eyes taking in the town. She saw him glance briefly at the two opponents. As he passed Maria, he tipped the brim of his hat with his forefinger. ‘May I share a little of your shade?’ he asked, as he stepped beneath the bowers of the tree. ‘You looked so cool in this heat that I thought I might join you.’
Maria moved sideways, one step only. She never knew how to take Arthur Earl. He was at once stern but friendly, shy but forthright; handsome in his own quiet way, yet never overly solicitous of her, or indeed any woman’s, company. Apart from Leah’s, of course – they had been childhood friends.
They were silent as the men fought. Arthur finally cleared his throat.
‘How is your sister, Mistress Hallett?’
‘She is well,’ Maria replied. ‘Leah is here with Palgrave and the children.’
Earl nodded thoughtfully. ‘I’ll seek her out, say hello.’
‘She would like that.’ Maria hoped he would move on.
‘Have you seen Silas?’ he enquired. ‘He arrived in Eastham last night.’
Maria’s voice caught in her throat. ‘Nay, I have not.’
Surprised, the beadle assessed her response briefly before continuing.
‘Perhaps he is weary from his journey. Good day to you, Mistress Hallett.’
‘Good day, Mister Earl,’ she replied, relieved to see him go. She allowed her eyes to be drawn back to the bout.
The chest and arms of Judah’s opponent glistened in the noontide heat. The stranger’s movements, his expression and his very presence were grander than all of Eastham – he had the look of a man who had seen the world. She was aware of the impropriety of staring so blatantly. There would certainly be gossip.
But she couldn’t look away.
‘Maria.’ A voice from behind startled her. She recognised it immediately and turned to face her old friend. Silas held out his hand and took her fingertips gently in his own. She lowered into a curtsey. The formality of their gestures made Maria uneasy. She and Silas, companions since childhood, had never stood on ceremony.
‘I see you’re enjoying the bout,’ Silas remarked, as if sensing her unease. ‘It’s a feisty match, to be sure, but I have seen no man best Judah Doane at quarterstaff.’
‘Neither have I.’ Maria’s gaze returned to the fighters for an instant. Judah appeared disturbed and irritated. His face was red and the heavy fabric of his shirt clung to his body.
‘I’m pleased to see you’ve arrived home safely, Silas,’ Maria said. Her friend’s narrow face had filled out in the past six months and he now wore a close-cropped beard, the same shade as his chestnut hair. He was clothed in a striking suit of taupe-coloured silk, the likes of which Maria had never seen before. It didn’t hang comfortably on him. To Maria, it made him appear less than the man she recalled.
‘I trust your journey from Cambridge was uneventful?’ she asked politely.
‘Aye,’ he answered, straightening his vest. ‘It was tiring … but on seeing you, it seems my fatigue has quite disappeared.’
Maria smiled uncertainly, noting the shift in their dialogue. Driven by Silas, it was a change that did not sit easily with her.
She turned towards the fight again, her blonde hair fanning out from her bonnet. Silas breathed in deeply, hoping to catch a hint of its scent. Perspiring, he reluctantly removed his hat, fearing the absence of his headwear would ruin the effect of his appearance. The felt hat, wide-brimmed and brass-buckled, completed his carefully chosen ensemble of coat, breeches and vest – attire he felt befitted his new position.
While Maria watched the bout, Silas stood behind her observing the way the dappled sunlight danced and glinted off her hair.
They both started at a sudden roar from the crowd.
Judah rushed his opponent and thrust his stick wildly towards his adversary’s face. His assaults were parried consistently. Then, in no more than four blows, Judah was face down on the ground. The victor stood holding his staff above his head, one foot pinning the vanquished man in the dust. As the spectators applauded, Judah’s opponent pulled him to his feet then offered him his hand. Judah shook it, at first reluctantly, then more convincingly after the dark-haired stranger uttered something in his ear. With the left side of his face caked in dirt, Judah laughed and nodded. Within seconds the crowds and the competitors had dispersed.
‘That was an outcome I didn’t predict,’ Silas said as Maria scanned the crowd.
‘Who are you looking for?’
Maria faced her companion. ‘My sister.’
He stared at her intensely, taking her in. When she lowered her blue eyes to the ground, he lifted her chin with his finger.
‘Your father announced the news of your posting last Sunday during his sermon,’ Maria began, easing away. ‘I’m pleased for you. A ministry in Beverly is an achievement, but we all had hopes you might relieve your father of his congregation here.’ She paused before adding pointedly, ‘Our congregation is dwindling, Silas.’
‘That had been my hope as well,’ he replied, disappointed that her remark was not more intimate. ‘But father is not yet ready to retire and believes I’ll make a better fit in Beverly. He’s pleased with my position, even though I'm merely the minister’s assistant.'
‘But for one so young … ’
‘Not so young,’ Silas cut in. ‘The Reverend Cotton Mather began at Harvard College when he was twelve and delivered his first sermon at sixteen. By those standards, I'm an old man,’ he said with a smile.
Maria laughed, relaxing into their conversation, finally recognising her friend of old. ‘You must have worked very hard.’
‘I did. Maria …’ He was glad to be able to say the rhythm of her name aloud again – Ma-rye-ah. ‘Might we take a walk?’ he suggested. ‘It’s hot and the forest is cool. We could find some moss and sit down. Do you remember how we used to do that as children? Cool ourselves by stretching ourselves flat on the moss?’
‘I have so much I want to tell you! Harvard is such an interesting place, full of like-minded men with the same calling as myself … I have such plans for the future, Maria …’
‘But Silas, I must find my sister …’ she said. ‘I told her I would help with the children.’
‘Then later?’ he pressed. ‘We could meet at Boat Meadow River at three, by the willow?’
‘Aye,’ she finally agreed, regretting her earlier hesitation. ‘By the willow at three.’
‘Do you promise?’ he asked as she began to walk away.
‘Aye, I promise.’