Widowed crones, their ragged skirts and shawls flapping in the rising gale like so many black crows, threw back grayed heads and keened a wild lament. Though slow of gait, they kept a dozen steps ahead of Maureen O’Reilly, the eldest daughter of their dead neighbor. Not one dared walk beside the “Scarlet Maureen,” no matter that they’d been handsomely paid for their services from the young woman’s purse.
Maureen didn’t care so much for herself. She expected nothing more or less from the village gossips. But she did care for the heart of her younger sister.
She pulled Katie Rose, the lily flower of her family, close. Together the sisters trudged up the rocky hill, part of a bleak and broken parade, toward the stone-walled churchyard. Twice they slipped, cutting their palms, the path muddy from the morning’s rain. Once past the churchyard gate, Maureen pushed to the front of the troop, lifted her chin, and set her lips tight as the prow of a ship, daring the women to snub her sister.
The Keeton brothers had dug the grave that morning, and Joshua Keeton, the second eldest, nodded respectfully toward Maureen—an act so out of village character that Maureen turned away without acknowledgment. The priest intoned his series of Latin prayers into the wind, finishing with the “Our Father.”
The Keeton brothers lowered the wooden coffin into its bed.
The priest sprinkled its top with holy water and resumed in his monotone, “Grant this mercy, O Lord, we beseech Thee, to Thy servantdeparted, that Margaret Rowhan O’Reilly may not receive in punishmentthe requital of her deeds . . .”
Maureen had attended enough wakes and burials in her twenty years that she could recite the passages by heart. But she’d never buried her mother—and that made this day different from all the rest. Shunned from normal attendance at the village church, she’d wanted this service to penetrate her heart; she’d wanted to repent and mourn the loss of her mother as deeply as Katie Rose mourned—Katie Rose, who could barely stand for the grief of it all.
But the lowering of the coffin spelled only relief for Maureen. For the seven years since her father’s death, Maureen had served at the landlord’s grand house as the only means of support for her mother and young sister, first as a scullery maid and later, because of her earnest work and graceful ways, as a parlor maid. When the landlord’s eye fell upon her, she was barely fourteen.
His mother, Lady Catherine—a good and godly woman—had seen the lust in her firstborn’s eye and taken Maureen under her wing. For six of those years she’d employed her, trained her in the ways of a fine lady’s maid, kept her as safe as she could. But even Lady Catherine could not outlive her strapping, willful son. Once she was gone, so was Maureen’s protection.
And that was what Maureen thought of as the priest droned on. Not so much for herself—she was beyond safety, beyond redemption—but protection for Katie Rose.
Maureen pulled a tear-matted wisp of chestnut hair from her sister’s pale cheek. Thirteen and so beautiful—too beautiful not to be noticed. The thought pierced Maureen’s heart. The sooner Katie Rose was placed under the protection of someone good and kind, someone strong and not beholden to or at the mercy of the landlord, the better. Their mother, in her last years of consumption, had not been willing to hear of it, not been willing to part with the jewel of her life. But it was up to Maureen now, and she knew what must be done. If only she could make her aunt agree.
Maureen started as Katie Rose pulled from her side, lifted a clod from the earth, and dropped it atop the lowered coffin. Maureen winced to hear the finality of the thud—earth on wood—but did the same, and the village followed suit.
The keeners began again their long, musical wailing. The small band retreated down the hill, the men stopping at the pub to drink to Margaret O’Reilly. “A fitting end,” they solemnly chorused, “to a great lady’s passing.”
But the women, expecting a well-laid tea, followed the road round to the cottage of Verna Keithly—aunt to Maureen and Katie Rose and sister of dead Margaret O’Reilly. When the troop reached her cottage door, Verna pulled the door handle, and her nieces passed through.
The band of women, having lingered a few steps behind, hesitated, stopped, and the leader, the blacksmith’s wife, whispered loudly, “She’ll not be staying, will she?”
Maureen looked back to see her aunt’s spine straighten as she removed her gloves.
“You’ll not be expecting us to join her for tea, Verna Keithly,” the cooper’s wife admonished. “Surely not!”
Aunt Verna tilted her head, smiled, and said simply, “No, Mrs. Grogan, I don’t believe I will” and quietly closed the door.
Maureen felt her own eyes grow wide. But her aunt smiled, wrapping a work-roughened hand round Maureen’s wrist. Maureen bit her lip at the sign of affection. But the tremble threatened anyway, so she turned her face aside, whispering, “You’ll live to regret this kindness to me. They won’t forget, you know.”
“My only regret is in not being kinder sooner.” Verna turned her niece to face her and hugged her properly. “I’ll do better before this night is through. I promise.”
Her aunt’s words quickened the hope in Maureen’s heart. Perhaps she’d grant her wish, after all. Surely she’d see the need, the urgency, once Maureen explained her plan.
“Shall I set the kettle, Aunt?” Katie Rose sniffled from the kitchen.
“Please! Tea first; I’ll cut the cake directly. But let’s get a bit of something warm going for later. I’ve a good shank of lamb already roasting.”She hung her damp cape on the hook nearest the door. “Good food—that’s what’s needed. Maureen, you scrub the potatoes. Katie Rose, cutthe bread.”
As Maureen passed, her aunt whispered, “Once Katie Rose is abed for the night, we’ll talk. We need to talk before your uncle comes home.” Maureen looked at the clock. “He’ll be closing soon, won’t he?” Aunt Verna harrumphed. “Not tonight. First round’s on him—’tis the first one that loosens purse strings for all the rest. So kind and generous of the grieving brother-in-law, wouldn’t ya say?” She raised her brows insarcasm, knotting her apron strings behind her. “They’ll drink and sing andsmoke and dance their hearts out. He’ll cha-ching his till the whole nightlong. By then we’ll have things settled.”