By Tiffany Shull Peterson
“Mama, I saw the Devil.”
My tired eyes turned from the flickering fire and rested on Eliza’s round, red cheeks pulled flat by a frown. Gentle curls framed her concerned face as she stared back at me.
“Another bad dream, love?”
My question was met with a defiant deepening of her frown that I did not have the energy to press further. I continued, “Well then, if not a bad dream, why do you think the Devil is wandering around Devonshire?” My voice is hoarse, a symptom of the seemingly endless winter. Though a cold and wet season was expected in early February, the ever falling snow was not. Fires blazed throughout each room of the home day and night.
“Papa likes to walk the country,” she reasoned. “Maybe he does too.”
I gestured to the window, heavily draped against the cold. Dense snow stuck to the icy glass panes. The tension in her face fell for a moment as she watched the snow fall.
“Maybe not.” She conceded, though her tone is not convincing.
A gentle knock on the parlor door drew her attention. Mr. Taylor, the house steward, entered with a letter held aloft. I waved weakly, a motion which he understood he should read aloud.
“Dearest Catherine and my sweet Eliza,
London remains, as ever, booming with industry and all of its residual filth. I am steadfast in my decision for you both to remain in the country until spring. Once our son arrives…
Eliza rested her hand on my swollen abdomen at the mention of her brother.
…we will be together in the city again. Eternally your loving husband and father,
Mr. Taylor folded the letter neatly as I sighed and patted Eliza’s soft hand. She turned her face up to me. Tears rimmed her green eyes.
“I’m so sorry love, your father’s not coming, business keeps him from us once more.”
Only the crackling of the fire answered me.
I shivered beneath layers of thickly quilted bedding as my personal maid, Mary, stoked the fire. The bedroom was half the size of the one I shared with William in London, but its small size made it easier to heat, and I was grateful for it. Mary finished with the fire and shuttered the window, drew the drapes, and laid another blanket over me. I smiled appreciatively.
“Will there be anything else, my Lady?” Her sweet voice hushed as I nodded off. A thought rushed to the forefront of my mind, propelling me briefly from the edge of sleep.
“Yes, Mary, please sleep with Miss Eliza this evening. She’s been dreaming again.”
Mary nodded. “I will have the cot made up and will stay with her. Until the morning then?”
I nodded and she backed from the room, latching the door gently. I settled into the feather soft pillows and allowed the rhythmic crackling of the fire to lull me to sleep.
The glow of morning had not yet penetrated the room when I woke. The fire had reduced to glaring red coals. Heat radiated from them, dancing in vapors that were quickly swallowed by the frigid air in the room.
“Mary?” My voice squeaked and broke. I huffed, remembering I had sent her to Eliza’s room. With more strength then I had to spare, I shoved off the heavy blankets. The cold wood floors bit through my wool stockings. Half burned candles flickered throughout the hall and I ached momentarily for the oil lamps of our London manor. I shuffled toward Eliza’s door, the sting of winter penetrating my bones.
I pressed a palm flat to the door and winced as it creaked open under the pressure.
“Mary? Mary, I have need of you.”
My voice carried like a specter through the dimly lit room. The fire was nearly dead here as well and the cold nearly twice as severe. I pushed the door further as a rush of icy wind tore through my sleepclothes.
My scream flooded the house at the sight of my child’s empty bed. The room’s only window stood open, flanked by billowing curtains. Snow poured over the sill and had begun to cover a shrouded shape below. Bile rose unbidden as I was struck with recognition and horror. Mary lay as still as the cot beneath her, a pool of frosted blood on the floor. I held my stomach, aware of my son stirring there, as I heaved and wretched. Mr. Taylor appeared beside me, his face devoid of its regular composure as he beheld the scene.
“Eliza!” I wailed. “Where is my girl?” I stumbled toward the window, uncaring as the vicious winter’s wind clawed at me. I stared desperately into the storm but saw nothing in the frozen void. Mr. Taylor’s hands pulled me back into the room, and then the hall, where maids waited. I crumbled into them, tears and cries for my daughter draining from me.
The maids tried to soothe and coax me to return to bed. I planted myself firmly on the chaise in the entry hall. I would be nowhere else until Eliza returned. The maids finally agreed so long as I took a cup of sleeping tea from the cook. I sipped it down with shaking hands, the cup barely emptied before exhaustion took me.
I woke on the chaise at midday, feverish and filled with grief. The maid watching over me immediately sent for Mr. Taylor, and I did not dare to hope for good news. The house had been in a flurry of activity while I slept. Watchmen had been called for, then sent to search the surrounding countryside for Eliza and the beast that had murdered Mary. Mr. Taylor did not share greater detail, but that the injury to her body could not have been done by a man. “This beast, I fear, is long gone.” He said sullenly in closure.
I shuddered with what would have been a sob, but there were no tears left in my body. “How could you know?” I asked, barely above a whisper.
Mr. Taylor’s face hardened as he hesitated.
“I must know, if there is a chance for El…” I choked on her name.
In answer, he moved beside me and gently helped me through the entry. Wrapped in nothing but blankets, we stepped carefully down the icy steps and into the front garden. Some of the staff and men I recognized from the village were gathered, their voices hushed as we neared.
The men moved aside at Mr. Taylor’s request and I saw the subject of their discussion. Great forked hooves had left footprints in the snow. They were burned through the iced layers and seared into the earth. I gasped and Mr. Taylor steadied me as my knees threatened to give out.
“Where do they lead?” I asked, lamely.
“Miles away, further than the watchmen were willing to ride.” He replied in defeat.
A memory whispered softly within my devastated thoughts:
“Mama, I saw the Devil.”