The hag had to feel around for a chair but eagerly accepted a glass of the liquor. Caroline poured a glass for herself but refused to drink it. Seeing her companion was not able to see much of anything, she knew she was in no danger of getting caught in her lie. Caroline waited until she settled in her seat before taking stock of what was in front of her. The woman was greedy, for certain. Someone who was looking for something more than what she was given. It was in her mannerism. She was a beggar but she knew how to behave in certain company. Oh yes, she was someone who had learned much about taking from others. No shame about it at all. Caroline wasn’t sure why she felt compelled to keep this wretch in her company but she knew that she would not allow her to go just yet.
“You poor woman,” Caroline cooed, her tone light but the look on her face one of suspicion and contempt. “How dreadful for you to have to work such wretched hours! Tell me that the man who sent this gift is kindly to you. He is a good man?”
“Oh he is a terrible man,” the hag began, sloppily drinking from her glass. “He sends his regards and he is generous now, just like yourself, the pretty lady, is generous. He is wicked, though, making me work these crooked hands to the bone. Such a pretty lady, miss. So very generous.”
“I was taught such good manners back home,” Caroline said, watching with revulsion as the hag drained more of her glass. “We must look out for those less fortunate than ourselves. I was once more fortunate than this even. I should like to think that my kindness will find me a friend to help me in my times of need.”
“Oh I do know the need for friends, pretty miss,” the elderly beggar nodded, threatening to spill the contents of her glass. “Times, they aren’t good everywhere. This world, it’s gone crazy with them kids. Ain’t no place for a woman to be alone and just keeps getting darker.”
“Surely you have somewhere that is better than this,” Caroline said, her fingernails digging into the wood. “This cruel man can be good sometimes?”
“Oh he is wicked but the other is better,” the hag replied, draining her glass completely. “Better most of the time. Got a fearsome temper that man. He got lots of money up there but he gives it to the wrong people.”
“And who is this man? The better one?” Caroline asked, fighting to keep her tone sympathetic even though the lines on her face had taken a sinister look.
“Thinks he’s too good for the likes of us, pretty miss,” the elderly woman sneered dismissively. “Got so much money up there in the woods, he could own half the county. Maybe already does, all that talk he does to everyone. All through letters though. Don’t have no time of day for anyone, that man. ‘Specially the likes of us. Got that little miss hiding up there with him now. No good little tramp! Can’t say nothing about it ’round him, though. Boy, he does get mad, that man. Can’t see for looking but I hear it, I do. Done his laundry for a couple of years and he don’t give nothing for free. Not like that little moll he put up there now.”
“That sounds just awful,” Caroline said, filling the woman’s glass again, this time to the brim. “To ignore all those years of service for someone so vile!”
“Would never’ve been like that if that little trollop hadn’t been flirting with him,” the hag said, bitterly. “Should’ve just stayed where she was. Don’t deserve better than what she had, I’ll tell you pretty miss. Me old boss, he were a devil to work for but he paid good money. Got what he wanted and he paid very good, miss. Fixed to sell off that little witch and she were all but spoken for but that man in the big house, he got a hold of her instead.”
The hag’s words were slurring and her better speech was giving way to old habits. Deeply inlaid mannerisms that were to be suppressed in better company were coming out as though there were holes being shred in the veil of this beggar’s tales. Caroline stayed quiet, silently hating this woman as she spoke of Victor. It could be no one else. And to speak of that woman invading his home now! To think that she’d driven the wench right into his comforting arms!
“How terrible that you should have to put up with this horrible woman,” Caroline said, her breath getting short. “Surely, this man could be reasoned with, no? After all your years of loyal service, would he not listen to you if you told him this girl was trouble?”
“Oh he ain’t listening to nobody now,” the elderly woman chuckled, gulping down half her glass in one shot. “Got wind that he gots himself sick but you listen right, you find out things. Old Mary knows how to listen and I knows he ain’t just sick. Won’t be leaving that bed any day soon.”
“What have you heard?” Caroline asked, her stomach rolling in terror and sudden fury.
“Ah, pretty miss, that girl got some secrets behind her. Knows some tricks to make a man’s heart jump and then he falls dead,” the hag laughed. Caroline gritted her teeth. “She’s the one tending him now and lots think he’s plum dead but only a matter of time. She ain’t that kind. Just like her kin, that one. She’s rotten to the bone and, that man, he’s gonna be so sorry he showed a kind eye to her kind. Should be dead within the month and that girl gonna be coming back to Old Mary for help again. I got some help lined up for her, these fancy boys keep coming to town.”
“You’re so kind, Old Mary,” Caroline said, her eyes fixed on the hag as she got out of her chair. Inside, she was brimming with a kind of fury that felt like it might burst forth from her chest at any moment. “Oh but do tell me, if this man in the woods does perish, what will become of you? If this horrible girl hurts him, will it not mean that you will suffer?”
“Always a man with dirty laundry out there, pretty miss,” the elderly Mary snorted, finishing her drink. “Always a man who needs another girl when one won’t do it. Always a girl who needs Old Mary to give ’em shelter. That girl, she thinks she gone through hell now, she ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“Oh I don’t have much taste of young women myself,” Caroline said, through gritted teeth, circling the table, filling Mary’s glass again. “Too proud and cruel and lusty for my liking.”
“And spoiled!” Old Mary agreed, eagerly. “Ain’t no idea what she could’ve had. Thinks she got it rough. Should’ve left her to the dogs when they came. Should’ve left that one alone. Ain’t nothing good about those girls.”
“No, Old Mary,” Caroline agreed, walking to the bed, looking at the sparse elements that made up her new home. She decided that she didn’t care for them. Too dull. That lamp was entirely too plain for her liking. Too heavy. “Those wretched girls have no idea what they deserve and what they don’t. They just take and think that the world won’t ever come back for them.”
“Blood on those bed sheets says anything, that girl, she gonna be coming back soon enough,” the hag laughed loudly. “Can’t see it too well but I seen those stains before. Has that feel, he ain’t long for this world. Him gone, no one to look out for her now. Too many of them girls running around here and won’t be no room for that trollop when she gets here.”
“Oh I very much agree,” Caroline said, grabbing the lamp. Slowly, she walked behind the slumping old woman, the lamp clutched in her white-knuckled fingers. “I know too many girls like that, Old Mary. I lived with them. My sisters, all of them, like that. Too many of them in my house for my liking.”
“No more room for any more of them girls,” Mary nodded before draining the rest of her glass. “Don’t need any more of those girls here. No more man for that girl to leech off and that little floozie gonna come begging. No more room!”
“How right you are,” Caroline said, her tone no longer kind but Old Mary was too drunk to notice. “I have so many sisters like that. I have too many sisters but I only have one brother.”
Old Mary paused just long enough to register that her hostess’ tone had changed and Caroline swung the lamp. The old woman had no time to react before the heavy lamp came down on her again and again until Caroline’s face was spattered the same color as her livid soul.