Below is Part 3 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
Betta said a little prayer with her hand on the door knob. She was not sure she said all the words right, but she also was not sure it mattered.
The Shepards had stopped going to a proper church for anything but Christmas and Easter long before she was born. Around the time she turned twelve, they stopped going altogether. Instead, the men spent hours each week at the reclaimed Masonic Hall on the green.
The six siblings that had been hers before she was a Bridgeford had not been taught to read their Bible of anything else, before or after the books were burned with the crosses. She was the same. All her prayers were made up from half-remembered phrases the preacher they had run out of town taught on Christ’s days, and common things people said on their own days, with maybe a wish or two of her own thrown in.
There was much less to pray about nowadays, but her mother always said it never hurt to hit on all sixes when a little extra help was wanting. The mother that had birthed her, that is. Her mind wandered and she wondered what it was like in their rickety house on the outskirts of town right now.
It was still warm in the Bridgeford Manor from the women who had occupied the room just moments before. She thought about the erratically populated neighborhood of her old home and the families just like the Bridgeford’s in homes all the way down Broad Street and the neighboring avenues. The idea of more families like the one she resided with now made her shiver, even after four years.
In spring and summer, their homes were spotted with well manicured splotches of color in front. Winter brought warm candlelight in windows, one of the few colonial traditions still observed in the silently progressive little town. Greenery would line the street in drapes of holly and pine bows. She had begun to think that autumn was the most honest time for Broad Street.
In this chilled season, there was nought but neglected plants spindling over each other in tones of brown. The wind rustled no thing now living, and ripped around the ankles of those rare pedestrians. This scene was much more a match to the immortal lineages that lived within those houses.
The Bridgeford manor itself was a tri-fronted Colonial monstrosity in the family’s hands since a generation after it was built some hundred and fifty years ago. It was two and a half stories with three broad peaked dormers protruding from the bloated rectangle that held parlors, salons, and dining halls on the first floor, then the rooms where living was truly done on the second.
Betta thought of the sort of living being done on the floors above her and felt unwell. Behind her, the manservant cleared his throat in a wet way. Betta wrinkled her nose at the fish market bouquet she had failed to register until now. She carefully composed her features again as she turned to face him.
“A successful tea, I think. We will have to to do it again.” The manservant did not respond. She moved to go around him, but he did not budge. The hallway was not wide enough for her to proceed past.
“Tomorrow, you will have to call Ridgemont’s,” she continued somewhat shakily. She hoped she just sounded tired. The man’s black eyes stared at her intently, unblinkingly. Betta tried to prattle on, aiming to delay whatever he was waiting to tell her. Perhaps he will forget, she thought. Of course, he never forgot. Anything.
“To be on the level, the reservation will be for two. Not myself, naturally, but a very important person this year, if you catch my drift.”
Unexpectedly, the manservant’s indistinguishable lips parted, and his mouth turned up slightly at the corners.
“You are requested upstairs, in the nursery,” the man rasped. “The first steps have apparently been advanced.”
Betta breathed in then out quickly. She had completely abandoned hiding her anxiety from him. It was all she could do to bite back the sobbing despair she felt, keeping it firmly locked behind her gritted teeth. She thought she had hours until Mr. Bridgeford returned.
He fluidly moved aside to let her pass, never removing his eyes from her. They were like a dead thing, ever tied to her countenance. It was as if he had been instructed to never stop observing her face.
“Ducky,” she said under her breath.
Though the house was massive, this wind was snugly built onto the main bulk, which was dominated by the ballroom. The walk down the hall was short. Betta’s heeled shoes clicked and pounded with false determination as she automatically walked toward her imminent ascension.
It was a rare thing to see the halls of the Bridgeford’s shod in carpets. Rarer still for most rooms to be heated, and certainly not the hallways. Mr. Bridgeford was miserly. All the ladies thought so, though no such criticism could be coaxed out of any of the men. Carpets were an expense to clean, and heating an entire home an unnecessary luxury, except in deepest winter. Then it must be done to keep the pipes from freezing and the front from cracking the walls and sills of the windows.
There were more windows to be cracked in the Bridgeford house than any other residence in Innsmouth. It was a hulking and proud structure, a sore on the New English eye. Unlike the wealthier Marshes, who had come a long way the last 50 years, the Bridgeford’s lacked the learned restraint. Mister Bridgeford’s father had all of his money tied up in renovating a house he felt was worthy of the station he had purchased with his older daughter’s marriage.
It was only the Missus Bridgeford’s quick thinking and investments that save the family and home, both. After her husband’s more or less expected death of a contaminated cut of meat, she had begun taking boarders in the home. In those days, some men still came to do work, fishing or look carefully at certain uniquely preserved examples of curious architectural influence.
Betta knew his household management to be lacking in foresight, but she dare not tell him so. She wondered if his mother had taught him nothing, or if he had ignored her lessons. There was no one she could ask.
The few times a week she interacted with the head of the Bridgeford household were chilling. Despite her ability to do essentially as she saw fit, Mr. Bridgeford seemed always to be appraising her and explaining what was expected. It had been three years, and still she was treated as an ignorant farm girl in the wealthy Innsmouth lineage.
The Bridgeford matron was no comfort. She was rarely about, often playing with her grandson behind closed doors for hours on end or in bed. It was a lonely life for Betta.
Still, she was allowed to purchase as many physical goods as she desired. It kept her as happy as could be in a house as cold as this one. Mr. Bridgeford insisted, despite his wife’s meek opposition, that physical items for home and person were mobile property, thus worthy of purchase.
He seemed to have it in his head that such luxury items were recession proof. He cited, as verification, the older women of Innsmouth, who seemed to buy from their era of youth well into their dotage. Betta did not question these wild-eyed ramblings. No one did.
Ever since the torch had been passed from mother to son, upon her death naturally, Mr. Bridgeford’s word had been infallible, and law as well.
The climb up the stairs felt an eternity. At least, she tried to take that long. Perhaps if she lingered on each step just the right amount of time, the moments would count down to a great gust of wind that would usher down Broad Street and sweep away the rudely huge house and its occupants. She lost herself in the patterns cut by scuff marks and scrapes on the naked steps as her feet mechanically mounted them.
Maybe I should have been counting them, she decided. Betta turned to return to the bottom of the stairs and begin her ascent anew, but a deep voice froze her feet in place.
“Elizabeth,” Anthony Bridgeford addressed her from the top of the stairs, “I do not know where you are headed, but I believe your presence was requested here, with your child.” His voice was cutting and dark. She shivered.
“Are you cold, child? Come here to the nursery and we will put new logs on the fire. Come, Elizabeth,” he held out a hand to her, entreating her to touch his clammy skin. She skipped to the top of the stairs and placed her sweating, warm hand in the grasp of his freezing digits. Betta was led this way down the hall, through the double doors at the end of it, and into the huge nursery.
“I was just going to change for dinner,” she protested weakly.
“Dinner is a long way off, and you are expected by your child and Mrs. Bridgeford as well,” he rebutted. Betta had no choice but to continue with him into the room.
Six days later, Birdie sat before her, firmly denying Betta’s silk chiffon lace-trimmed handkerchief. She sat knock-kneed on the freshly trimmed settee in the dressing room adjoining Betta’s bedroom. The girl’s eyes leaked profusely as she wiped her nose on the finely embroidered gloves bunched into the palm of her hand.
“I have failed,” she sniffed and snorted in an entirely unladylike fashion, “They’re gone. They’re both gone.”
Of course you did, thought Betta. They had never intended her to succeed in seducing the girl to their cause. It was a loss of money, but what was that to the patriarchs of Innsmouth? It was what Mr. Bridgeford would call a bad investment.
They are inevitable, he had explained to Betta one night, a year and a day after she was brought into the household. He sat in the armchair he often occupied in his office, before the empty fireplace. The lamp lit his face sideways. Half his face was cast in shadow behind his unusually prominent nose. It was entirely un-Innsmouthian, his nose. Almost the size of an ordinary nose, not the flattened lack of protrusion on most faces of the important families in town.
She had concentrated on it, avoiding his eyes. Mr. Bridgeford frightened her. She had always been a brave girl, everyone said so, but those were the folk outside the Innsmouth elite. Those lower families knew little of things to fear, she had learned.
Betta disliked the way the Bridgeford patriarch looked at her. He had never done anything to her, and said little. She had expected him to come for some kind of payment for his kindness, but instead he was mostly silent and stared at her.
Her mother had said to expect some kind of request for payment after the Bridgefords had swept in unexpectedly one day to their little cottage. They talked with her parents in their small living room for a while. The children had been told to play outside, but Betta knew her brother Tom had stayed at the kitchen door, hidden between the stove and the wall beside the door jamb.
After the Bridgefords left, neither Tom nor her mother would look her in the eye. Her father simply left. He milled around the yard, pretending to repair a loose slat in the fence, but eventually took off towards town, probably toward an empty seat in one of the illegal bars along the sea side. The only thing her mother would tell her is that she was being adopted by the Bridgefords and would have everything she ever dreamed for herself. And that it came at a price.
So she had kept her bedroom door in the drafty house unlocked, preparing mentally in the still darkness for whatever happened. Nothing had. Every night the lights in the Bridgeford household went out, and each morning the butler came to set the fire in her room and draw back the heavy curtains.
A year and a day later, she sat with the entirely tidy desk of Mr. Bridgeford at her back, and his tall figure before her. There were no decorations to clutter his office, except two foreign-looking sculptures. One lounged upon his desk, shuffled to a corner almost haphazardly, and the other crouched indomitably on the fireplace mantle.
“Do you know why you are here?”
Betta chose to hazard that lurking thing’s gaze over Mr. Bridgeford’s shoulder than suffer his indiscernible stare again.
“You called me in, sir.”
“I mean here. In this house. Why are you here, girl?”
The door to the hall was open. A clock carved in gothic style ticked into the room. Cloaked by each tock were the butler’s footsteps. Soon after Mr. Bridgeford’s raised voice echoed into the rest of the house, his suited servant appeared and pulled the door shut with a decisive slam.
“You need something done.”
“Yes,” Betta’s eyes recalled back to his form. His head had begun nodding ecstatically. It was unnatural in rhythm, seizuric. He nodded to his feet then stopped. A hand went to the monstrous carving over the dark fireplace. He stood there behind his chair, almost beyond the touch of light. “Most important, yes. You are to be married.” He turned back to her, squaring his shoulders to her slumping unconfident body.
“Married, sir? Will I not meet him first, sir?”
“Yes, girl, yes. But we have different ways. Old ways. You will meet him, but on your wedding day.” He paused, though the brevity showed it was not for a response. Breathing in deeply, he continued, “Tomorrow we go to the board of selectmen, so that the others can explain it to you. For now, you may go, and know that you are doing this family, this city, a most important duty. You will from this day forward have every need attended, much as it has been in the last year. Karuwanene!
“You may return to your rooms, now. Suitable dress had been laid out for tomorrow. I expect you understand the necessary decorum. Go now. Sleep. Tomorrow you are a Bridgeford. Tomorrow you will make us proud.” He waved wildly to the door.
Betta rose from the creaking teak of the chair, gripping its frame for support. She thumped across the carpeted floor in her stiff new shoes, not having the presence of mind to say anything further. Her hand was on the knob, she was almost to the safety of the hallway when his voice called her attention once again. She could barely turn in response, only looking over her shoulder in a manner that must have been rude.
“One more thing only, girl: Leddik eo nejū. Karuwanene, daughter. Call me father.”
Birdie called Betta back to the present with a loud, unstifled sniffle. Her sight came back into focus on the smoldering log on the grate. Upon turning back to Birdie, she found the girl staring into her face.
“What will we do?” she asked, red eyes and wretched.
There were a couple of logs stacked in an ornate metal basket beside the hearth. Betta stooped to collect a large one and toss it on the dying fire. She missed her mark, and had to retrieve the log by poking it from two sides with a pair of wrought iron implements.
“You really cannot be blamed, dear,” she told Birdie, finally, standing slowly. “It was all wet from the start.”
Birdie stopped sniffling momentarily and sought Betta’s face again.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he was not the only iron in the fire, dear. Of course we had another.”
“You were never going to use him.” Birdie stood, wiping off her eyes. “Why, then?”
“Oh, dear,” Betta said again, taking her hand in one palm and patting it with the other, “We needed the documents and you were the only one with means of transporting them. You are watched so much less closely.”
“Why did you not limit my involvement to transport, then?” There were no tears, now.
“Surely you have a sense of personal preservation. We counted on it. We did not trust you to do it, unless you were totally complicit. You had to feel important enough to—” Birdie stomped her foot like a child and stormed for the door.
She had lost patience as well as sense of her surroundings. Just as she reached the door, there was a tapping on the other side. It opened fluidly. The tall manservant peered from the dim lights of the hallway.
“Mrs. Elizabeth was just going,” Betta attempted smoothly, refusing to meet his terrifying eyes. It came out terse.
“Birdie turned one last time before being escorted to the front door.
“Whose plan was it?”
Betta paused, thinking over how much the manservant could deduct from this snippet. There was no harm in it now, he supposed, “Liza.”
► Next installment: BEULAH