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Daughter of Chronos:

 

2. Spider and Fly

15th April, 1691

 

  From the distant mountain-slopes the scent of pine drifted into town on a spring zephyr.  Carried through the market, the fragrance mixed with the appetising smell of fruit, meats and fresh-baked bread stacked on the market stalls, and the less welcome pungent odour of horse-dung dropped in the centre of the thoroughfares, forming an infusion of aromas that tested the nostrils of all who breathed deeply of it. 

  In the scent-laden breeze, laundry, pegged to cord lines strung high across the streets, semaphored indecipherable messages to the people that busied along below.

  One man, in less haste than those around him, turned the corner from Nicholas Street and began walking along one side of St Agnes road.  His progress, calm and dignified, divided his fellow pedestrians like ocean breakers before the bow of a cutter.

   Extensively educated and impeccably dressed, he carried himself with the swagger that only the confidence of high authority can bring to a man’s gait.  The occasional “Good morrow, Sire,” from passers-by provoked little response.  His destination that morning was a timber-beamed house, but he had no intent to converse with the occupants.  Instead, he came to a stop opposite the abode, his gaze focused on the entrance door.  Outwardly, his face displayed scant emotion, a blank canvas betraying nothing of the thoughts that possessed his mind.

  But the eyes scrutinising the home held no warmth for the family therein, nor showed any love for humanity within his soul.  Those who knew him knew this was a man for whom the milk of human kindness had long since soured.  To him, traits like sympathy and compassion were weaknesses, failings to be expunged from himself or exploited in others.  In his hands he held the power of life and death. 

  For a long time he stood.

  Watching.

  Waiting.

***

  In the upper corner of a window, a spider was industriously spinning its web, circling back and forth to complete its laborious task.  There was no conscious design in its brain; it didn’t plan or think what it had to do next.  It worked purely on instinct, a set pattern passed down in its genes for millions of years. 

  All the time it toiled, its simple mind was oblivious to the small, inquisitive face studying its every move.  The five-year-old girl watched, captivated, as the web slowly grew from the first single strand into a complex structure that covered the full corner of the window. 

  Another, older figure came and stood behind the child.

  “Thou hast been very quiet, Verity, what is fascinating thee?” The woman adjusted the headscarf and light brown pony-tail behind her head, and smiled benevolently at the young girl.

  “Mama,” the little girl spoke softly, emphasising the second syllable, “the spider, see how he makes himself a home.” Her eyes never left the web and its builder. “‘Tis beautiful to watch.”

  Judeth Proctor moved a little closer to the window and sat sideways in the brightly embroidered seat Verity was kneeling on.

  “Not just a home, darling, but a larder, too.”

  “A larder?” Verity turned to her mother. “How so?” 

  “If thou be patient, then thou shalt see.” As if prompted by the words, a bluebottle blundered into the sticky trap. “Ah!  How timely.  Now, dearest, watch what happens.”

  The girl watched closely as the spider raced to the struggling insect, and spun it around, encasing it in a silken coffin before dragging the doomed fly into the corner of the window. 

  Verity blinked in surprise. “Whatever hath he done?  What will he do now?”

  “Now he will eat the fly.”

  Verity’s nose wrinkled, and her lips puckered up.

  “Eugh, ‘tis horrible.” She lifted her hand, thinking to help the condemned insect escape.

  “Oh no, wouldst thou see the poor spider go hungry?” 

  Verity’s gentle soul quickly turned from fascination with the spider to sympathy for its meal.

  “But, Mama, the fly-”

  “Has taken his place, darling.  Such is the nature of things, that is how the good Lord meant it to be.”

  Verity watched, torn, not wanting the spider to go hungry, nor wanting the fly to be consumed.  She thought of her own dinner earlier.

  “But spiders, why can they not eat chicken and potatoes, such as we do?”

  Judeth smiled. “And how should such a small creature eat a big meal such as thine?” 

  Verity considered the question carefully. “He could save some for the morrow?”

  Verity’s childishly logical answer brought forth a peal of laughter.

  “No, my dear, spiders eat only flies!  That is how ‘tis supposed to be.” 

  “But, flies, are they not bad to eat?” Verity asked, still thinking of her own lunchtime.  The thought of eating a fly was beginning to unsettle her meal. “Will it not give the spider a tummy-ache?” Then, after a short consideration, “Dost spiders have tummies?”

  Verity had always been an inquisitive child.  A quick learner, she loved attending petty school, and was among the first in her class to master the bone reading-dice.  After school lessons she would watch the birds that flew across the houses from the forests beyond the edge of town, or sit for hours in the small yard behind their house, and study the plants and insects therein, her bright green eyes full of wonder.  The smallest girl of her age in town, she was adored by her mother and father.

  As Verity watched the miniature drama unfold in the corner of the window, on the other side of the glass a bright blue butterfly flitted into view.  The butterfly’s effect was instant.  Verity abandoned the fly to its fate, and pressed her nose to the window to watch the new creature outside.  It was a large insect, and her mouth fell open in fascination at the way its body jerked up and down between its wings while it fluttered back and forth in front of her. 

  As she watched, the blue beauty flew into the room through the open top half of the window she was staring out of, and she let out a little squeal of delight.  Moments later her elation melted as the butterfly chose the end of her button nose to settle on.  She hesitantly stepped backwards, circling her arms slowly, confused as to her best course of action.

  “Oh, oh, Mama, please…”

  The butterfly’s wings now blocked her view.  She had wanted a closer look, but this wasn’t at all what she had in mind.  The insect’s legs were tickling the tip of her nose, and she wondered if butterflies liked to eat little girls.  She didn’t want to hurt the fragile creature though, and was now in a quandary, not knowing what to do.

  “Mama!” Her voice began to rise in pitch. 

  Judeth shook her head, smiling at the sight of her daughter with her new facial ornamentation.

  “Do not fear, darling, just gently shake thy head from side to side, and he shall soon move off.”

  Verity did as suggested, her shoulder-length raven-black hair flipping softly from side to side.  Sure enough the butterfly decided to find more stable ground, and flew off, out of the open window opposite its original entrance. 

  Now that she was relieved of the bright blue obstacle to her vision, Verity felt a pang of disappointment, and decided to follow it outside.  Watched by her mother, she skipped across the brightly coloured woven rug, past the little carved ornamental table with its flower vase on it, to the door and, lifting the latch, let herself out into the street and began searching for the butterfly. 

  Verity’s green eyes then fell on the stranger across the street, and under his cold scrutiny, felt herself blush.  New people had always had that effect on her, making her feel awkward and embarrassed. 

  But Judeth had taught her that good manners are everything, however self-conscious she may feel, so after warily eyeing the strange man, she gave a little curtsey.

  “Good... m-morrow, Sire.”  

  By return he said nothing, giving just a curt nod in acknowledgement, then continued to stare at Verity, eyes as hard as obsidian.

  Though they were innocently oblivious of the reason, the watcher in the street had a bitter issue with this family, a long-standing grudge that had been eating away at him since before the little girl’s birth.  It was a dangerous place for the young family to be.  He never failed to take retribution against those who crossed him, or stood against him. 

  And he had endless patience.  He would wait, sometimes years if necessary, before bringing his revenge down upon those who he considered had wronged him, however slight it may have been.  And in his mind, his issue with the Proctors was anything but slight.  Long ago he had decided he was owed a heavy price for his humiliation.

  As the Duncan Falls Minister of Justice, the stranger’s principal purpose in life was to preside over most of the town’s court cases.  He had, none the less, become independently very wealthy through investing.  As well as shares in the local granite quarry and the timber industry, he also owned one of the large warehouses in town that dealt with the influx of commerce from the numerous trade routes that intersected at the towns centre. 

  Through all this wealth he had also become thoroughly corrupt.  On the middle finger of his right hand he wore a large, gold signet ring.  Now he watched, as the innocent girl went back to her business of butterfly hunting.  As he twisted the ring around his knuckle, a look of distaste stained his face. 

  Eventually, ruminations finished, he turned, and continued along the path at the side of the street, leaving Verity to squeal happily at the butterfly that had settled on a flower near her front door.

  Residing in the British province of New Hampshire, Duncan Falls nestled in a broad, fertile valley that ran approximately north by north-west between two long mountain crests, and ran up to the squared edge of a large, glacial lake. 

  On the eastern ridge, a narrow waterfall that ran down over a series of outcrops into the lake gave name to the town, from the pioneer who first discovered the falls, Josiah Duncan.  

  Originally an early traders’ settlement, numerous dirt track roads and trails fanned out in all directions, the largest of which passed along the western side of Lake Magdalene, and headed towards the next nearest town, Point Clear, some ten miles away.  Traders and merchants of all kinds criss-crossed the mountains and the wooded slopes, bringing in textiles, fur, animal hides and liquor. 

  Over time, the town grew and spread out, until the northern border finally butted up against the shore of the lake, and the smattering of trading posts began to develop into a recognizable township, the roads lined with houses built of stone and oak beams. 

  The more wealthy merchants would have grand houses towards the centre of the town, while the lower classes had modest, less elaborate housing further out towards the town’s border. 

  Verity’s father, Daniel, earned a good wage as a foreman in one of the large warehouses dotted throughout the town, and they lived in a comfortable house not far from the town’s bustling centre. 

  The hub and nerve centre of Duncan Falls was its market place, situated in the town square itself.  Twice a week the market was thronged with stalls of all kinds, the traders all barking their wares.  Offset to one corner, not far from the front of the town’s imposing, granite-constructed civic hall, was a wizened, gnarled old tree.  It had a grisly purpose, it’s lower branch acting as gallows for those denizens unfortunate enough to be sentenced to death for their crimes.

  At this time the population stood at just over five thousand, and although the town had a locally elected council and Mayor, there was never any doubt as to where the true seat of power lay.  With the town’s immoral, crooked  magistrate.

  He ruled with a rod of iron, and his reputation for administering harsh punishments in his courts had spread throughout the province.  On one occasion, an eight-year-old boy had been brought before him for picking up and not paying for an apple that had fallen off a market barrow.  The magistrate sentenced the hapless youth to be publicly flogged in the town square.  Though his mother begged for mercy, the boy’s punishment was duly administered.  The boy suffered badly, and, after lingering in agony for a few days, eventually succumbed to his injuries.  The magistrate, when told, dismissed the news with a wave of his hand.  For him it was all in a day’s work.

  As he walked away from the front of the Proctor home, Judeth, standing inside by the window, followed his departure with disquiet.  This was not the first time she had noticed this sinister figure outside their home.  Six times in the past year alone she had looked out of the window, to see him standing there, worrying his signet ring, and watching the house with cold eyes. 

  Opening the door, she called softly to her daughter, still intent on her entomology lesson.

  “Verity, darling, I think it best for thee to come inside now.” Verity looked up from her insect study with disappointment, but obeyed her mother’s instructions.  Once inside, Judeth closed the door, giving one last, concerned look back out of the window. 

  “Who was that man, Mama?”

  “T’was Judge Chambers, dear, the town magistrate.” 

  “Judge Chambers?  My friend Elizabeth did say he is a very bad man, and he hath no heart.” 

  Judeth looked down at her daughter. “And Elizabeth knows this how?” 

  Verity shrugged her shoulders. “His soul is dark, she said, and there is no good in him.” 

  Judeth knelt down beside the girl and held her close. “No, dear, there is good in every one of us, no matter how it may seem.  Thou must always look for the good in others.  Then they shall see the good in thee.  Thou should keep that in mind, always.”

  It was sound advice.  Unfortunately, every rule has an exception.  And the exception to Judeth’s rule had a name.

  The honourable Bartholomew Chambers.

~~~

 

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