A Coven in Essex County | An Invitation to Tea

 

Below is Part 2 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.

◄◄  Read the first installment  |  Prologue



AN INVITATION TO TEA

The weather over Innsmouth took a queer turn in the afternoon, as it was known to do. Out of the clear blue morning, clouds formed like a drop of blood in water. They rolled and bubbled from an invisible axis, striating the sky in gray. Lightning appeared before thunder, rumbling like some old, forgotten beast. Then rain dripped faster and faster in fat drops on the heads of those less dexterous citizens out on post lunch errands. The sluicing sky opened into flat slate and its slow drip became slicing sheets.

Birdie Dwyer tapped through the streets in her new Oxford heels. She was soaked to the core, and sorely wishing she had allowed time to stretch the shoes before wearing them out of doors. After a half-dozen sighs that filled the space of curses, she clicked up the cobblestone walk of the imposing Bridgeford mansion.

It was a hulking two and half story monstrosity that rose above the other hall and parlor style houses all the way down each side of Broad street. Some of these had added a second story, and many were complemented by decorative fencing in the general suggestion and hues of each abode’s trim.

This street did not have welcoming colors. Dual rows of flat-fronted houses ran on each side of the street where stones were pushed out of step with each other by 200 years of traffic. Fencing enclosed bricked patios too brief for a table or chairs. Occasionally, a failing garden crumbled out of caged window boxes. As a street, it was not stately, nor particularly stylish: the street was moneyed.

The Bridgeford mansion’s small windows winked at Birdie through the rain as the diamonds of glass caught and diffused light from within. It seemed half a block of walking past the sheer front of the American colonial frame to reach the black front door. She glanced back down the street before knocking.

A man huffed down the street with a ladder and lantern, lighting the streetlights so they sputtered some illumination in the rain. He stared hard through the water at Birdie, then looked away quickly when his eyes were met. His face was blurry to Birdie, but she did not think she had known him. It did not matter—the men of Innsmouth avoided looking at women. The poor avoided all families that lived on certain streets.

Taking the chill metal of the knocker in her hand, she banged once and waited. An old butler in a dusty black suit answered the door. Like many older families in the Innsmouth area, the manservant had a sloped brow and curiously staring eyes that bulged awkwardly from an incrementally flattening face. The shallow setting of the bridge of his nose, and barely identifiable nature of his pale lips were familiar features to Birdie, but they still made her uneasy. She did not meet his eyes, which was made less uncouth by the twelve inches he had on her.

With a quick turn of the hand and an abruptly presented back, Birdie was led through the grand foyer. The room was so poorly lit that the upper hallway was visible only where a single lamp had been left on to mark the top of the stairs. She followed him down the naked hallway and to the door of the back parlor. Her guide held an expectant hand out to her.

Birdie held the box of tea cake to her chest and shook her head. The butler nodded curtly, then turned on his heel and walked away with an eerily silent gait. She watched his lurching, alien form retreat; she was too relieved to be annoyed he neither opened the door nor announced her. There were no proper house servants in Innsmouth. After all, they had vastly different jobs than butlers and maids and groomsmen elsewhere.

Something in the house protested against a sudden gale as the storm raged on. The adjustment of timber creaked noisily down the corridor as he rounded the corner back into the foyer. She shivered.

The cast brass door knob was a warm contrast to the sudden chill of the New England afternoon. She turned it and entered. Within, women were laughing.

“Where are the men, anyway?” a young voice was inquiring. A rotund woman at the center of the spread of sofas spoke up.

“In Arkham, for business. They should be gone until quite past midnight.” Betta Bridgeford, who had been Betty Shepard until three years ago, had grown almost as large in figure as she had in social standing. “Who knows where Mother has gotten to. She won’t bother us.”

A peal of giggles sounded around the room, marking the gathered women’s pleasure at being quite left to their own devices. They were all forced. The laughter stopped at the click of the door closing behind the newcomer. All attention turned to little Birdie. She entered the circle of chairs and sofas swiftly, and set the pink-swathed package on the center table. Betta leaned forward conspiratorially.

“I see you don’t disappoint, Birdie dear. Now please, have a seat on that ottoman. I couldn’t stand to have you soaking the new upholstery on the sofas.

Birdie perched on the edge of an antique foot stool, covered in a fine age-spotted velvet. There were a few unsure murmurs from some of the dozen or so women gathered. No one was sure of decorum at this point.

Always impulsive, Liza Orne sighed heavily and leaned forward. Without encouragement from any of the others, she excitedly began untying the twine fastening the tissue paper parcel. Her fingers were thin, and the skin on her hands looked as stretched as the paper she unwrapped. The narrow face that just last year had been generally agreed upon to be the most elegant and dignified in Essex county despite some obvious barriers in coloring, had become equally taut and exhausted. Only a shadow of the excitement exhibited by her eagerly arching companions showed in her dull gray eyes.

Liza opened the round box by tossing the lid to the floor The cakes were lifted on their china plate and haphazardly thrust on the tabletop. Several of the women in attendance cringed at the jarring noise.

Finally, she lifted her prize from the bottom of the box to light applause and low tittering. It was a brown folder, like one of their fathers or older brothers would use to group related documents for business, or research in their courses at Miskatonic University. Before she could open it, a woman older than any other in the room spoke.

“Before we proceed, I want to say something,” she began, glancing down her nose at those in the room from where she had stood. “Through our marriages, we have the highest status of any in the area. It is because of our husbands that we enjoy the comfort of houses much like this one, and the envy of women with lesser fortunes.”

Someone across the circle sniffed. “What women? someone hissed. Beulah Mowry continued.

“Once the first—” she paused, searching for a word, “—uncomfortable portion of our marriages are over, our lives have been unconscionably easy and good. Without our luck, some among us would have found life significantly more harsh,” upon glancing at Mrs. Bridgeford, Beulah quickly saw her attempt at level-headedness was not well received. Deciding it would be good form to wrap up her thoughts, she finished, “That being said, I will support whatever the group decides.”

Liza raised an eyebrow at the flushed Mrs. Mowry. She waited an uncharacteristically polite moment while the older woman sat down, out of respect for Beulah’s place in their circle. Hearing no objection from the only slightly subdued group, Liza flipped over the cover of the folder. From its interior, she fanned out three frayed pieces of paper. All three had been printed as well as written on, and showed wear and tear associated with some age.

The room was hushed, and the stuffy air hanging between the women heavy with anticipation. They sat primly at the edge of their respective seats, all feigning patience to get a look at the papers.

There was a loud pop of wood as the door from the hallway to the parlor was opened. Delilah Mowry suddenly stood up and sneezed dramatically all over Beverly Steward. While the view from the portal to the table was blocked, Liza smoothly slid the plate of finely formed tea cake over the papers. Birdie noted the fluid movement with some admiration.

While Liza’s looks may have largely left her at a young age, the twenty one year old had maintained a sort of aquatic grace that bordered on unnatural amongst land bound creatures. Her movements were flurries of perfectly executed, linearly defined momentum. It was largely this that won her the most acclaim as the most beautiful bride in decades just the year before. This, and the fact that her’s was an old and traditional family. Birdie realized she was staring.

Tea was brought in by the manservant who answered the door. The women fell in, talking amongst themselves and drinking tea out of fine china shipped in new from Boston, and eating tea cake off of plates with little silver forks.

“Having a manservant on call seems utterly wasteful,” Delilah said. She sniffed and primly wiped her nose on a lace-trimmed handkerchief.

Beulah’s niece had developed a famous cold after the birth of her child ten years ago, which was brought out in full force whenever convenient. As was tradition, Delilah had been kept in seclusion, sequestered by her family to complete certain stages of birth preparation that ensured the health of the child. After birthing, she had emerged with a sniffling nose and irritated chest that confounded the best physicians in the county. A notably blued pallor had developed soon after her second marriage and stayed with her as well.

Beverly snorted in response and sponged at her blouse with her own embroidered cloth. Since taking sick, it was also well know that Delilah prescribed to a long list of tasks she was either too ill to accomplish alone, or too poor off to accomplish at all. It then fell to Beverly to help her, since both were from families on fixed incomes from their principal branches and both now lived spinster lifestyles cooped up in an unrenovated cupola crowned cottage all the way up on Southwick Street.

Minute conversations were whispered quickly throughout the room. The manservant did not return. The Uxor twins rose to move an imported screen so that it blocked the view of the circle from the door. They lifted the oaken frame without complaint. The less polite among them tutted to each other at the muscled form of them. One of them, with artificially curled hair, turned red at their whisperings.

A lack of attractive qualities in the identical twins only compounded the discomfort offered them by polite New England society. Those well aware of the social strata of higher society were also aware that the Uxors were considered a backwoods, simple people. Too much in line with the old ways of the region and their forefathers’ Black Forest to be seen as anything wholesome.They shut themselves up in an estate on the edge of town between an unplowed field full of stones still and the water-slapped rocks of the Atlantic. The family lived and multiplied mysteriously in their old fashioned house, living several generations all together. While they were regarded as markedly outside polite society, they were not outside common courtesy. In public, anyway.

It was generally understood that the Uxors were within their circle by some measurement, though this was never defined nor explored. In any case, when the call went out, they responded, and so it was assumed by all ladies present that the Uxor girls were at least in some similar situation to their own. All among them had decided to refuse to bring up the gossip that the Uxor twins were sister-wives as well.

Birdie nearly had a little chuckle at the thought of any in the room judging anyone else, but drowned it with tea just in time. She watched the women perch themselves on chairs like great cats, hunched over and self conscious, and nearly laughed again. This was the first time she had seen so many different types of Innsmouth women in a single room.

The papers reappeared behind the median safety of the lacquered wood screen. They were passed around with some small discussion. The women took them one at a time, putting down their saucer laden with cake and cup, or balancing it carefully in one hand while glancing over the documents.

As they made their way to Birdie, she thought over how strange a group they made. A year ago she would not have found their looks off, but now she had been to Arkham. In Arkham, women were soft and willowy. They were tall and fat in the bosom and bottom. They came in a variety of shapes, but the women at Miskatonic had a certain mirth in their eyes, a light that spoke of an intelligence Birdie had never seen in Innsmouth.

She counted thirteen women around the circle. Most she knew from childhood. All had changed in some physical way after their marriages, though many she now knew carried strange traits through their family lines. The hands that gripped their props were gnarled and slender or misshapen and blocky, with extra skin between the fingers.

Each woman was strange in her own way. Some malformations were harder to place than others. While Betta had grown fat and her face strained and gray under heavy makeup, she had been the most similar to the women that came through Arkham. Liza beside her was stark opposite. Tall and taut-looking, her every vein seemed to show purplish through her skin.

Beulah was stout and white. Her eyes had faded each year since she married in 1878 to where she appeared blind, though she still insisted she could see when people brought themselves close enough. She seemed quite useless on most occasions, except to talk a good deal on topics no one much cared about. Yet her social standing made her exclusion impossible.

Lotte and Lana Uxor were hulking women with oddly oblong skulls that many were sure denoted an inferior intelligence. They were sometimes observed speaking to each other in an unintelligible tongue sometimes known to occur between twins. Mildred Marsh nearly matched them for size, though she had developed a hump in her back of late.

Beside the three of them, Birdie appeared even slighter than usual. Elizabeth Dwyer’s nickname predated her comparatively smaller stature, but its appropriateness meant it lived on in adulthood. How her eyes appeared sunken some morning and swollen others. Every day it seemed she had to remind herself to stand up straighter, and paint a new face on to accentuate the parts of her rapidly aging countenance that had already fallen and failed to retain their shape. She wondered if it was the same for all in the room.

On her other side, Delilah wiped her nose again before accepting one of the papers. Beverly looked on with interest over her friend’s shoulder. She prematurely shared the Mowry penchant for stoutness. Her lips were particularly, and expressive of mostly disdain.

Beside her, Verna Marsh snorted at some piece of humor Gertrude Tanner had offered.Verna had dark black hair like her cousin Liza, but instead of cutting it into a short bob, she let it grow and wound it around her scalp like a coil of snakes. Where Liza was constantly fashionably made up by Essex County standards, with monthly orders to tailors in Arkham and even New York for special occasions, Verna wore the long dresses retired cosmopolitan spinster put on while at home. When she laughed, pointed teeth showed in her mouth, turning her otherwise elegant countenance into something entirely more sinister.

Gertrude was utterly plain looking, except that one of her eyes had become infected and consequently been removed and permanently closed following her wedding. Beside her sat Cora, looking as bored as she did out of place. Her thick black hair had been left unbound to frame her round face. Birdie knew this was meant to make the women uncomfortable: she had seen Cora with her hair pulled back any time she was out of doors.

Finally, there was Dorothea Gilman. Her hands shook, clattering her china each time she attempted to lift it to her mouth. She got a few drops each trip while the rest filled her saucer, and slowly her lap.

The first of the papers finally made its way to Birdie. She carefully placed her cup and saucer on the short central table and gripped it with both hands. Birdie had already been intimately acquainted with the documents on Joe Sargent’s bus from Arkham, but she could still admire them.

She first glanced over a birth certificate from the Essex County office. The name read ‘August Bouchier,’ born to an Ann Comstock Bouchier and Samuel Bouchier in 1911. The second paper’s layout was similar, but instead gave information for an ‘Ursula Louvain,’ mother Cora Ewell Louvain and father Ernest Louvain, born 1910.

Birdie glanced over the two documents, comparing the tint of the comparably old and poorly kept papers, the exact shade of the fading ink.

The final paper was well yellowed with age, though the neatly printed boxes and typeset words were not, she knew. Neither was the handwritten information filling in most of the boxes. The uppermost portion of the paper was sectioned out in a brown that was supposed to look like faded red ink. The handwriting had been done with a nearly dry pen so that it faded to the point that one had to squint and imagine which loops completed where, and what vowels were dotted, which consonants crossed. This was the one she was truly interested in once again checking over.

Reactions around the room had been muted, even subdued. Some of the women, particularly Lotte and Lana Uxor, along with the permanently sour Mowry women, carried an appropriate sense of gravitas in their features. The other ladies laughed nervously and looked distantly at corner of the room, the corners of the papers they handled.

The final sheet was more crumpled-looking, Birdie noted once again. It was over the top, she thought. On it, the name ‘Ursula Louvain’ was spelled out in a measured hand.

◊◊◊

► Read the next installment | BETTA

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