Below is Part 4 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
It had been years since Beulah had spent any meaningful amount of time in front of her mirror. When the last of her line had left five years ago, she had decided it was time to put the brushes and combs and gowns dyed in costly hues to rest. This was done with some relief.
She had never been a woman with extravagant taste. Her uncle had called her matronly when she was in her early teens. It made her miss her father. Those days were relics she chose on most mornings to ignore.
Yet, she had understood her appearance was an extension of her duty into middle age. Even as an older woman, long past earning the respect of the members of lesser families, she had clung to the traditional symbols of status used in her younger years. Her family kept her in fur and satin until the war.
During the war, she had been able to revert to wearing old gray gowns and worn out lace up boots. She knew that somewhere circumstances were dire, but Beulah also could not help but feel glee while passing her mirror without a glance each morning. Her clothes had been almost comfortable enough to sleep in. While the men were distracted, she was allowed and even encouraged to ‘do her part’ by aiding women’s groups in Arkham. Once she had even been allowed to attend a conference in Boston. Beulah kept it to herself that the women in the group were suffragettes.
Then the war had ended and things returned to a state of relative normalcy—except the men in her family paid less attention to her. Symbols of her family’s wealth returned. Neat boxes of taffeta and satin and silk enveloped in tissue paper made their way into her dressing room once again, but her moves were not watched as much. They appeared distracted by their mortality, suddenly realized, after thoughts of it had been long absent. So Beulah visited Arkham more and more the two years between the end of the war and the passing of the 19th Amendment.
After women gained the vote in 1920, the groups she was affiliated with died down slightly. The organizers insisted there was more to be done, but the women had won what they saw as their fight. Beulah did not see how anything more for the women in the rest of the United States could affect her.
The women of Innsmouth were not allowed to interact with the men from the county that came to monitor the polls. The locals that participated were lower folk and unpleasant enough, anyway.
Now the women in Arkham wanted each female to take responsibility for independent action. They wanted women to run for office, attempt to raise aid from their social connections, and rise up against their relations. Banning liquor had made little impact in Beulah’s life in Innsmouth, and the right to vote less so, but these women did not know when to stop. When to look around and appreciate.
It was all too much for Beulah, and by 1921 she had stopped going to meetings. Arkham itself had taken on a dark cast for her. She disliked its close streets and the carapace of scents that enveloped its urban quarters. In warm weather, the stench of trash and sewage and mystery fish floated through the air and settled on the shoulder of sweating pedestrians. In cold weather, icy wind slithered through the openings of shabby city blocks, crept from the frozen stones into one’s shoes, and snaked up poorly covered legs.
Her dissipating vision had not helped. Over everything grew a crawling paranoia, a creeping sense of inhospitality. Always something seemed lurking around a corner, in a doorway. A boy would run past suddenly, out of nowhere, tripping her up. A man would yell into her ear at a friend across the way. There were too many people there, and not enough of the quiet stillness that pervaded Innsmouth.
Finally home from a prolonged walk through the familiar streets of Innsmouth, she sat in a chair in her room in her silent house and looked into the pressing dark. The sky had turned suddenly blue as if a silk scarf had been tossed over it, muting the light of the early evening.
Beulah recalled when Captain Marsh had died. When Captain Obed Marsh went down, there was no one of the Marsh line to fill his oddly shaped shoes, stretched beyond familiar shape to fit elongating limbs. Not properly, not yet.
Innsmouth could afford no gap in leadership. After all, they dealt with problems far and above the normal New England seaside town. Selectman in Innsmouth was not a vanity, it was a responsibility second perhaps only to mayor of New York. That is how Beulah thought of it, anyway.
Men stepped up. Not the best of men, nor the most worthy, but they were righteous in their intentions, her mother had told her. Looking back now, Beulah could agree they were righteous. At first.
The council of men that agreed to deal with the Others under the reef had the approval of Captain Marsh’s second wife. It took months of negotiations: those that they dealt with had strict laws of lineage. However, certain deals were struck and slowly solidified over the next decade.
This, Beulah’s uncle had told her in the late evenings, after he had two or three brandies. He would come in and allow Beulah to curl up on the carpet of her father’s study. She would look at a book while he pored over the family accounts and other large volumes Beulah was never allowed to see the inside of.
She did not mind. When her father had been alive, she had not been allowed inside his study, much less to pass the time with him. Occasionally she would hear him dully tap his snifter on the leather covering of her father’s wide oak desk. Beulah would mark her place, then rise to pour him another Brandy.
Beulah’s mother would come in as the clock struck nine times and announce she intended to go to bed. Her brother, Beulah’s uncle, would ignore her, but Beulah would dutifully give her a kiss and wish her sweet dreams. Then, after her mother had swept from the room in her perpetually black clothes, her uncle would scoop her up into his lap and begin to tell her everything that was happening behind the increasingly closed doors of Innsmouth.
When she was ten, he made shadowed allusions to meetings North of Innsmouth along the shore.
“Meeting with people in boats?” she would ask, wide-eyed. Like the people in boats that had taken my father, she would add wordlessly.
Her uncle would shake his head and respond they were from the sea. How could anyone come from the sea and not be on a boat?
He would tell her about the town meetings and committees that would all convene in the building devoted to the Esoteric Order of Dagon when she was twelve. Things were different, changes had to be made. She would try her best to keep up, and always to ask questions, like he had taught her. However, she felt always behind, always confused.
Their goals had been simple at first, he explained. Those goals grew in ambition the more years they planned. At fourteen she thought her uncle could not be anymore disbelieving, but by fifteen he had been swept up in their impossible planning. There was no way it could be worth the price, he had told her, staring hard into her face.
Finally, he told her there would be certain things that would be asked of her. Needed things. For everyone, the whole of Innsmouth.
Thus as sixteen years old, Beulah had been told by the man she trusted most in the world that she would be married the next Spring holiday. She would not be the youngest bride in the world, he assured her. There were girls in the United States that married as young, and savages far away make brides of their children regularly. He could show her a book all about it if she liked. It did little to reassure her.
After she was married, he promised, he would never again have to clerk for the mean old Marsh matron and her son in their gold refinery. She could have all the books she wanted, too. Was his salvation and her comfort not enough?
She could have even more books written by him, if she liked. He could begin writing again and have the freedom to wait for a publisher to recognize his wit and every volume would be dedicated to her. Was it not a lovely thought?
It had been. The wedding was hardly something she enjoyed thinking on, and instead thought of all the books lining the walls in what had been her father’s study, then her uncle’s room for writing. The evening had come on like a blindfold so that she had to retrieve a match to light one of the old lamps.
She wondered where the maid had gotten off to. Hard to find good help these days, of course, but it was not like her to leave Beulah entirely without light or fire. Perhaps she had not heard her come in.
The library was not so dusty, at least the girl had done that right. Beulah went to a shelf and touched the volumes lovingly: Household accounts and her father’s notes from town meetings, her uncle’s forbidden tomes, and one she had added to the collection herself. This, she thought of as her old book, though it had not been hers to begin with.
It had been years since she had spirited it from the Arkham library, where it had sat in a dusty collection reserved for reference that nearly no one ever looked to. She took it off the shelf, marveling at the softness of the cover after years of handling. Its binding had been stiff and strange pressings of plants had fallen from the hand cut pages when first she came into possession of it.
Inside, the words scrawled down a page with a sketch opposite. It had been copied from an older volume, she knew, with the addition of highly artistic imaginings of what she imagined to be the subject. On most pages, she could not make out any of the writing or words, though more in this version than in the original book.
Somewhere in the back of her copy, the writing trailed off and the drawings leapt in great splotches of ink and smears of charcoal over both open pages. In recent years, she never read past certain illustrations, or attempted the more exoticly scripted words.
It had been over ten years at this point since last she read. That was the year a bride could not be procured. The selectmen had tried to pressure Beulah into using her influence on orphaned niece, but Delilah had refused. It had been a stressful few months, and still they married her niece without her consent. It was all very distressing to Beulah, who could not even bring herself to attend the wedding.
Now similarly upset, she turned to her book. The early images were strange and delicious, things that had both enthralled and terrified her as a younger woman. Now she found their familiarity soothing when she felt distressed. She settled herself back in the chair and opened to the third page, passing her hand lovingly, lightly over the image. She began to read.
The words, incanted aloud, kept the ever draping darkness firmly thrown back. As the night wore on, it would fall closer and closer, but after reading the words she could feel forces larger than herself reaching toward that cloak of shadow and pushing it aside. Protecting her. Calling her to some higher purpose. If only she knew what that purpose was.
► Next installment: BIRDIE