It was an odd betrothal. James, the intended groom, had not proposed; Euphemia, the intended bride, had not accepted; it had merely been Agreed, between their mothers, over James and Effie's cradles, and an Agreement between those two ladies had more than the force of law. Just so in their own bloom of youth had they, the queens of the village, agreed on the best catch in the parish. After a furiously ladylike season of contest, the fair Agnes walked away with the prize of young Jamie Crawford of the sprawling Crawford farm, and Janet, with no hard feelings (and perhaps a small sigh of relief), accepted the offer of copper-headed John Cochrane, the young minister of the new church. John's stone parsonage was not as grand as the Crawford house, but his eyes were bluer than Jamie's, and his mother far kinder. Agnes, for her own part, had accepted her new house and polecat of a mother-in-law with the feeling of a bargain well struck.
It was a bargain Euphemia Cochrane was not particularly eager to make for herself, and she had told James as much since she was old enough to know it. He, in turn, had a gift for prose when he wanted, and had spent those same ten years avowing that he had better thing to do with his life than court a scraggle legged plucky faced blue cheeked flea lugged gowp of a girl.
He had told her this often and again, as they played handball, climbed trees, swung on gates, baled hay (at his house) and conned their Bible (at hers). Just so had she sniped back at him as they tickled trout, chased sheep, cleared bats from the belfry and rescued smaller children from the pit beneath Old Madge's Rock. Only somehow, along the way, they had never managed to tell anyone else, and
so their mothers' smiles grew more and more smugly pleased, until two weeks ago, at the farmhouse and the parsonage, respectively, James and Effie had been informed of their betrothal over breakfast.
"Effie is seventeen now, after all," Agnes said, smearing James' toast for him with jam and butter in the way that he had liked when he was much younger. "I had your father speak to her father yesterday."
"Mr. Crawford was here yesterday, and about time, too," Janet said to Effie, over oatmeal. "We've barely time, if you want a New Year's wedding."
And now, a stunned fortnight later, it was the night of the betrothal supper, and the farmhouse was blazing with movement and light. The mothers, vying with each other in resplendency of dress, held satisfied court in the great room and accepted congratulations with pleased smiles and complicit looks. The fathers drank perhaps more strong drink than they intended and wound up outside dancing with
the younger men, who felt it was the great joy of their life to see the village parson and old Farmer Cochrane jigging it to pipes and a fiddle. The happy couple themself had absconded to the kitchen garden, although not, perhaps, for the purpose that the indulgent winking eyes inside assumed. They were looking remarkably well that night- Effie's hair gleamed with brushing and James' eyes were bright with some undisclosed emotion- but they faced each other with the squared shoulders of fighters ready to scrap.
"Well, you've gone and done it," Effie said. "I tell you James, I never thought I'd have such an idiot to husband."
"Well, shrew, you needn't yet," James countered gamely. "Just you go inside and tell my mama you've declined to marry her idiot son. It's as easy as kiss-my-hand, go on now, do it." Grabbing her by the waist he spun her round a time or two as she slapped and scratched at him,
"Put me down! You great oaf! You idiot!"
He set her down laughing by a rosemary bush, and dodged her dizzied blows with ease, for she was a tiny thing, though sturdy, and he was quick on his feet.
"James, I'm serious!" she said, between gasps of laughter. "I won't be pegged for a jilter, when I've never even been asked to marry! You must tell your mother you don't wish to marry me."
James blanched, thinking of the shock, the majestic disapproval, the shattered crockery. "What, tonight?"
"No-o-o," Effie said reluctantly,"Not tonight, then. But soon, James, unless you want to be married after all."
James, dropping to a bench, looked up at Effie in the summer moonlight. The keening music of Habbie's pipes floated towards them on the rosemary-scented air.
"Would it be so bad, Eff?" he said. She looked down quickly, surprised, and wrinkled her freckled nose.
"Leaving aside your mother, James-"
"We could build a new house on the back acre."
"-you're a bit like a brother to me."
"You're exactly like a sister to me," he said straightforwardly. Candor was one of his most disastrous qualities. "But I do wish...".
"That we *could* be in love," he muttered quickly and quietly, and waited for her harpy's laugh.
But "Oh!" she said instead, "It would be easier, wouldn't it?"
"Infinitely," he agreed.
"I wonder," she said thoughtfully, but just as her eyes widened with some madcap notion, the kitchen door opened wide and noise and light and laughter came spilling out from behind the sharp silhouette of Rob Maxwell; their playmate and protector of old was twenty-six now, and the Conynghame's groom. "Inside, you two," he said, with his familiar pulled smirk. "There's about to be pudding, and the missus says you're being improper." He winked lasciviously at them; Effie stifled a giggle.
"If there is pudding, then pudding you shall have," James said gallantly, and offered Effie his arm as he rose from the bench.
"Meet me at Old Madge's Rock tomorrow noon," she whispered up at his ear as they swept into the house, "I have an idea."
Effie's ideas, as James had cause to know, were often compounded of equal parts idiocy, brilliance, and mischief; yet somehow, thank
God, they seemed to work, if only through her sheer bravado. The next day at noon, James met Effie on the hill where Old Madge was said to answer petitions left at midnight, and settled himself comfortably atop the large stone to hear her out.
As he listened to her chatter on, it seemed to him that nothing had changed: her blue eyes flashing, white hands fluttering like excited birds, her shrilling voice; the only difference now her hair in its
thick red braid, rather than childish pigtails. The day was warm, and she was taking her sweet time getting to her point; his thoughts drifted to the barley field he had surveyed with his father this morning, and the prospect of buying one of Tom Erskine's brindled cows, until Effie's
"-says it's nearly foolproof, so we'll go to Madge tonight," jerked him out of his reverie.
Effie regarded him impatiently.
"Go to Old Madge for a love charm!" she said, as if it made perfect sense. His blood ran cold in the noonday sun.
It was well known that the woods-witch Old Madge made potions and distillations of every kind- on the sly, so as not to offend the respectable, who counted among their number Reverend Cochrane and the Crawfords. You could go to her yourself or, girls whispered, you could write your heart's desire in a note, drop it in the pit beneath the rock atop the hill, and in a week's time you would get
a decoction for what was wanted on your doorstep (along with a neatly printed reckoning).
It was a common test of bravery among the village children to spend a night on the hill, and the bravest of the smallest would even crawl down into the pit after the deliciously secret notes. Beneath it was slippery and wet, infested by snakes and spiders, and the walls offered only jagged outcroppings for purchase to climb out; the children who climbed in squirmed out, noteless, gasping in terror, as mysterious creatures chittered behind them. Some children, having gotten in, were then too small to climb out by themselves, and screamed themselves hoarse for their friends.
And serve them right, too, as Effie, who hated pryers, was wont to say. Nevertheless, she remembered the night a seven-year-old James had spent in the pit; slipping on the way in, he had wrenched his ankle badly and been unable to climb out; he had begged her not to leave him, though she had to get help. The memory of his drawn face when Rob had hauled him out was enough to send her
running with lantern and rope any time either of them heard tell of some childish dare.
Though his memory was obscured by fear, there was one memory of that night that was James' alone; sometime after the sound of Effie's departing frantic footsteps, there was an irregular creaking step atop the hill. The little light shed by the stars disappeared, replaced by a silhouette with lank hair and disturbingly clawlike hands, one of which darted in to grab something stuck in a crevice by James' head. He heard unfolding paper; a dry chuckle; a thin voice saying,
"A very interesting bit of news and a fat nosy little Crawford to boot; we must take the good with the bad in this world, and no mistake."
He felt the claw grip his collar with unbelievable strength, but just as terror swamped him, he was released and fell back, hitting his head against the slick rocky wall. A minute or an hour later- he could not be sure- Effie came back with Rob and the nightmare was over.
Now Effie stared at him curiously, and he realized he had been silent too long. He laughed, only a bit uneasily. A love charm? Ah, well, and why not? He had no doubt there were such things; and besides, it was easier to let Effie
have her way. They were to be married, after all. About one thing, though, he would put down his foot.
"I won't go at night," he said. Effie rolled her eyes.
By flickering candlelight, Margaret Black's cottage was a riot of shadows. They darted between the flasks, the tables, and over the faces of the bewildered young pair peering over the threshold: James Crawford and Effie Cochrane, if Madge made no mistake- which, since uncanny knowledge was her stock in trade, she rarely did.
"Door's open," she called from the corner where she sat and knit. On a warm summer night, she often let it open, particularly if she or anyone else was distilling. It was also good to hear the sounds of the forest around her: the birds, the occasional fox, the absence of angry righteous villagers quoting Leviticus- all reassuring noises for an old frail woman. Madge gave her unpleasant chuckle. The boy
jumped visibly in the doorway; the girl marched in bold as brass.
"Mistress Madge," she said, properly, "We want a love potion, please."
Madge looked from the girl's freckled face to the boy's milk-white one.
"Never heard it called that before," she said, "You're betrothed already, my chickens; are the Crawfords are too good for a seven-month's baby?"
The boy's face turned a satisfying red. "N-no!" Aside from his temporary discomfiture, Madge noted critically, he was a fine young man: he had his father's straight nose and, growing out of his fat, a good height from his mother's family. The girl was a pretty piece too, in her own way; small, light-footed, with sparking blue eyes and a managing way. These two aren't sparking each other, though, thought Madge, who had an eye for that sort of thing as well.
"It's not quite like that," the girl said. "You see, we would like to be in love, but we aren't. We have heard," she said, leaning forward meaningfully,"that you could help us with that."
So that was how things were. Madge laughed inwardly. She knew Janet and Agnes of old, and it delighted her to see their plans had not run quite so smoothly as could be.
"Well, now," she said. "Well, that is a difficult thing." She sucked air in through the gap in her teeth. "It's hard enough brewing such a potion when one person is already in love. Conjuring love out of nothing..."
"Surely it's easier when both are willing," Effie pointed out.
Madge leveled a glare at her. "Don't tell me what's easy, girl. No, this will need time, and help from you two, if it's to be done at all."
"We have until New Year's; is that enough?"
Madge knit for a moment or two, thinking."Well, I'll try it. But tell no one, mind; and you must do exactly as I say. It might cost you, too."
This time James lifted his chin, steadying his voice. "We can pay."
"Oh, you can speak too, can you? Well, we'll discuss that when we come to it. For the meantime, you must come and see me a week from Thursday, and bring me-" she jotted down a short list on a piece of foolscap- "just these few things."
They took the list; Madge watched them go.
"Best you come in now, Sylvie," she said to the thin air. "I've a bit of work for you to do."
For James, that week, like the summer that followed it, was a disconcerting mix of the familiar and the strange. Familiar, the usual round of farm duties; fishing with Rob; driving the waggon to market. Strange was his mother and Mrs. Cochrane sewing Effie's trousseau and his father taking him to choose the lumber for a new house down the farmhouse road. And laid over it all was the whole lark
with Madge: familiar in that it seemed like the apotheosis of all their childhood pranks; strange in that this was the first time they had dabbled in magic, beyond the odd wart cure, of course. James was not naturally superstitious, but in that first week he jumped at every draft, swore his things had been moved, woke up from strange dreams with a mist still before his eyes. The scent of pine and smoke seemed to surround him.
Effie loved it all. The parson's daughter had a natural affinity for the occult and ran the affair like a general. On the appointed Thursday eve she came to collect James for a lovers' walk; taking turns carrying her satchel, they took a long road to Madge's in the darkening woods. Once there, James brewed a pot of tea in a dubious-looking vessel, while Effie presented the requisitioned items for Madge's approval.
"Dirt from the graves of two true lovers."
Effie unrolled a bit of cloth. "My great-aunt Tamsin and her beau Jacob, who died in the war."
Madge's cheeks creased. "Ah, she was a beauty, I remember well. A ribbon from the prettiest girl of the village."
Effie drew a blue ribbon out of the sack. "Emilia Erskine." James made an emphatic sound of agreement. Effie kicked him.
"A lock of hair from the handsomest boy," and it was James' turn to frown as he recognized one of Rob Maxwell's shaggy black curls.
Holly twigs, ivy, and the sweet summer violets followed; and finally a silver ewer James recognized from the parsonage.
"Now," Madge said, rubbing her hands together,"I have taken the charts and read the signs of the birds of the air and the beasts of the field. By the arts instilled in me by my teachers and familiar spirits, I believe I know the best way to proceed. Be you two still ready to heed my bidding?"
"Yea," said Effie, big-eyed.
"Yes- I mean, Yea."
"Good," said Madge. "James, go mend my garden wall. Effie, you stay here with me."
Over the next few weeks it became apparent, to James' serious relief, that this was rather the way things were going to go. Madge and Effie would conference within the cottage, while James performed any one of the myriad tasks that the rambleshack building urgently required. If their parents wondered where they spent their evenings, their mothers could be counted on to brush aside any qualms; James and Effie had always spent their time together, and it was only more fitting now.
Besides, it was nice. While James still couldn't look at Old Madge without sweating, the solid feel of rocks hefted in his hands or weeds coming up out of the ground were reassuringly mundane; barely supernatural at all, unlike the dreams that had not ceased to haunt him. He liked working with his hands; and if he was done with a daily task, he often took to whittling stakes in fanciful designs, and
wrapping vines around them.
One day, when he sat carving a pug-faced goblin into a soft piece of birch, he heard a rustle in the woods, just beyond the cottage clearing. It was very dark now; he was carving only by the light of an outdoor torch set by the cottage door. The smell of pine smoke seemed to tickle his nose. It grew stronger; the rustle came closer. He sat perfectly still, a thousand forgotten images swarming in his brain: familiars, spirits, grinning goblins. At last, by dint of the best scholarly logic, he managed to convince himself that it was a deer, or a fox. He turned around, and saw her, disappearing into the forest: a tall, black-haired girl. The soles of her feet flashed pale in the night.
He tried to call after her, but he couldn't find his voice. He felt as if he had just woken up.
On the way home that night, James was uncharacteristically silent. Effie eyed him sidelong.
"Do you want to stop going?" she said. James was still frightened to death of Madge, she could tell, and had never set foot in the cottage since the first day.
He laughed, startled.
"No," he said, and meant it. "For one thing, she hasn't given us our potion yet."
Effie laughed in turn, a little uncomfortably. In truth, the idea of a love charm had faded in her mind, overshadowed by the excitement of an even newer and larger endeavor.
On that first day, Madge had sat her down and looked her in the eye, saying,
"Are you a bright girl, then, Euphemia Cochrane?"
Effie was. Daugher of a preacher, she had learned to read and write early; she had her Latin, too, and even a little Greek. Even more than that, though, she had an incurably active mind; hence her wild fancies, however quickly they passed. Under the guise of preparing the desired potion, in dribs and drabs, and then in torrents, Madge began to reveal to her the secrets of herbs, planting and reaping;
tinctures and distillations; poultices and ointments. Why she did this, Effie could not begin to guess; except that in the papery fineness of Madge's skin and the swelling of her hands and feet, Effie read with her new knowledge the signs of unwell old age. Sometimes she felt guilty, as James toiled outside, that she was deceiving him; but in truth he seemed as happy as she, if a little distracted; and although she trusted him, she knew how his parents and hers would view her studies with the old woman. That was another thing Effie had learned from Madge: caution, an element of care added to her natural love of secrecy.
Madge had scars from an old life, and not all of her stiffness was from age.
It took Effie a long time to scout out Madge's greatest secret. It was revealed in little things. Beneath its layers of clutter, the cottage was actually quite clean, its incongrously luxurious glass apparatus always washed and dry. There was fresh wood chopped, but James could have done that; what surprised Effie into saying something, one day, was the appearance of a basket of strawberries, the
small but very sweet kind, notoriously difficult to find, that grew up in a glen at least four miles away.
"Who brought you these?" she asked idly one day, as she copied over the pages of an almanac. She looked up from her work, as the old woman had become very still. Madge squinted at Effie, considering. Effie had never felt so thoroughly scrutinized, except, perhaps, in interrogation by her mother over a broken church window.
"Is it the fairies?" she joked, trying to ease the strange tension. "Shall I bring you fresh cream to lay out for them?"
Madge shook her head, slowly. She got up, went to the back door, and struck a small bell hanging there with a stick that hung right beside it. Then she returned to her seat, now with an unsure air.
Effie, who had never known her to be other than sly or cantankerous, was profoundly curious; but she turned herself back to her work with a sense of expectation.
Sure enough, in a few moments she heard padding bare feet on the dirt path outside, and a girl entered the cottage, stepped over the threshold, only to stop dead. She and Effie stared at each other in mutual astonishment.
On Effie's part, the astonishment came because the girl was quite unlike anyone she had ever seen. She was tall and long-limbed; her eyes were almond-shaped and black, and over them were thick dark brows. Her skin was the color of wheat, and her hair was black, black waves cut in a fringe around her face. To Effie, who had never left Ayrshire, she seemed a gypsy or, perhaps, a girl from Spain. But then the girl spoke, and her accent was the copy of Effie's own.
"Mother-" she said, and Effie heard her fear and distrust.
"It's all right," Madge said. "I've called you to meet a neighbor." This did nothing to ease the surprise on her face; evidently, neighbors were not a fixture of this girl's life.
"This is my Sylvia," Madge said, with a hint of fierce pride. "This is my daughter."
"You must be Effie," Sylvia said gravely. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise," Effie managed. A secret daughter! A hidden Gypsy! Curiosity pumped hot through her veins, but she held her tongue.
Sylvia looked at her mother; then at Effie; she dropped a small, unpracticed curtsy and turned and left. Effie heard the sound of feet breaking into a run, and a quick fluttering laugh, gone as soon as it arrived.
"She's not used to company," Madge muttered. Effie made a noncommittal noise. She would not pry. She wouldn't. There was not a single
question she could think to ask that was not wholly outside the realm of polite conversation. Why the secrecy, what about the father; what about the mother, for that matter. Madge was far too old to be this girl's natural mother. Where on earth did she get her?
"Out with it, girl," Madge snapped, and lamentably, it was the last question that emerged, and no more delicately phrased, either.
Madge let out a bark of laughter. "The fairies left her under my rock," she said. It was an obvious rebuff, and Effie bit her cheek for her own clumsiness.
That was the hardest secret to keep from James.
James saw the girl again the next night; she flashed in and out of his field of vision as he finished whitewashing the cottage wall. She left footprints in the damp earth, at which James breathed a sigh of relief. His sylph might be quick, soft-footed, and utterly silent, but she was incontrovertibly real.
A few days later she stole one of his carvings. This time he knew she was there almost before she was; the smell of pine, the barely audible footsteps; he turned his head and she was there, shockingly close. He saw the golden brown of her skin and smelled smoky pine as she plucked a stick from the pile at his feet. Impulsively, he grabbed her wrist and held it lightly. She looked down at his hand, then back at James. Her mouth formed an soft O of surprise. For a thundering heartbeat he knew she was about to speak, and he braced himself in anticipation of her voice; but she broke his grip and ran away, flying like a leaf, leaving him breathless.
He thought of asking Effie about her, but didn't know how to explain his curiosity. How to tell one's betrothed wife that there was something arresting about a strange girl's lithe stride; the way she ran as if she were dancing. He remembered his dreams now; dreams of trees that woke from their sleep and became girls with black eyes; girls with arms like birch and hair like willow. Other nights he slept badly, or not at all.
Meanwhile the preparations for the wedding rattled on apace. Agnes and Janet had at least twenty spats over the ceremony. It was the most fun they had had in years, and the fathers did not begrudge them a bit of it. Although they were extremely preoccupied, they spared a moment or two to notice that their children were more often than not absent from the proceedings; they assumed that James was merely passing into the realm of masculine irrelevancies that occupied their husbands, but did cluck over Effie's rapacious appropriation of food from the kitchen. It was to be hoped she would still fit her dress, which was her mother's, retrimmed in the latest style.
Thankfully, she didn't appear to be gaining weight; if anything, she looked a little thin, a little serious. Candles burned in her room into the night; she told her mother she was making lace for her veil.
In truth she was working on her knot-charms; she tied charms to protect her family; charms for luck; even charms to dream of the face of her future husband, just to see if it would be James. (She dreamed of thick dark hair, but couldn't say whose it was). Madge put little stock in this kind of magic, but Sylvie thought they were effective. Though still shy as a deer, and nearly as quiet, Sylvia was her ally now; she knew all that Madge had to teach as well, and together they performed the more difficult preparations and shared bits of knowledge. They had few common points of reference beyond Madge and her teachings, the cottage, and the land around them; this, as well as Sylvia's reticence, confined their conversation. With Madge, sometimes, Effie traded stories and gossip of the few families Madge knew.
The gaps in Madge's knowledge sketched a rough frame for Effie: Madge had been born not too far from here; she had left when she was sixteen, and returned from time to time throughout the years. Madge hinted in a romantic fashion at years spent abroad; of Paris and Aleppo and Stamboul, and the sunny islands between; how much of it was fortuneteller's fakery, Effie did not know. Quite a bit, she suspected.
But there was still Sylvie to account for, she reasoned with herself, as well as many of Madge's more exotic ingredients, measured out by the grain. She found she wanted to believe it was true, or to make it true for herself.
As the days grew colder, they often fell to speaking of such warmer places. Effie brought books, and laid tea, and they read together of Mandeville's travels or the siege of Troy. One such day, when early winter was well and truly upon them, the three of them sat dreaming together as they waited for the solid noise of James returning with the last load of firewood. Effie kept one eye on the barometer; the sky had threatened a bough-breaking storm
"I'll go to Jerusalem," she said absent-mindedly. "The Turk be damned."
"And where will your husband be?" Madge chaffed her.
"He can come with me," she said, "Like Eleanor of Aquitaine and Louis, on Crusade. Although," she added, as a shame-faced afterthought, "I don't suppose James would like that." The words felt awkward in her mouth; she had not really faced the reality of her marriage, as close as it was. In the cottage it was easy enough to lock out the world; after the first week, she and Madge spoke no more of it.
At home, the sheer momentum of the household in preparation was too much to face. She had the sensation that even if she tried to jilt James, or he her, the mill would grind relentlessly on, and they would be married regardless or ground to pieces.
"I suppose we should finally brew that draught," she said, half against her will, thinking of these things.
"What draught?" Sylvia asked. Effie was surprised to hear her speak, and even more surprised at her demeanor: her eyes were suddenly like coals. Madge in turn watched Sylvia with a sharp eye.
For the second time in that cottage, Effie felt a strange tension: as if a spell were about to be cast, or broken.
"My betrothed, James, and I, we wanted a love potion; something for- a happy marriage," she said lightly.
"James is the man who comes with you?" This was almost more than Sylvia had ever spoken at once.
"Well- yes," Effie replied, although she was not accustomed to think of James as a man.
"Sylvia," said Madge, with an unmistakable note of warning. Sylvia's face suddenly smoothed.
"I hadn't realized you were betrothed," she said, and the conversation moved on. It was just like talking with any acquaintance, if Sylvia had ever talked that way before. A few moments later James' step sounded heavy outside the door. Effie rose and wrapped herself up against the cold; she paused, turning, on the threshold. Madge and Sylvia were in close conference at the table, and Sylvia's face was downturned, in shadow. Outside, James stamped his feet in place on the forest path; and blew on his hands to warm them.
"Move your feet, dear heart, would you," he yelled.
"Of course, James, my own pig," she called back, and putting on a smile followed him down the path.
That night was, as promised, a wild blow. At the Crawford farm, they stoked the braziers high and sealed the doors; James' bed alone had three goosedown quilts. Yet in the middle of the night he woke up shivering, or dreamed he did. Then he saw the sylph, wearing dark green and standing in his very room, and all thought of the cold fell from his mind. "Hello," he said simply, smiling as if it were a dream, as it had to be, if she was there. And, because all things are permissible in dreams, he said, "I love you. I dream about you," he added, as if that were not enough.
She stood still where she was, in the center of the room, and looked at him a while more. Her face was tight, as if she was in the grip of some powerful emotion.
"Are you betrothed to Euphemia Cochrane?" she asked. Her voice was as lovely as she was to him. It disturbed him that the sylph should talk of Effie, but with the peaceful acceptance of the dreamer he spoke truthfully, though feeling it was not the whole truth.
"Yes," he said. She walked silently to his bedside, and held out a bottle.
"I have this for you, then," she said.
The cold was beginning to pierce through her enchantment, but he reached out for it anyway.
"What is it?"
"It is the lover's draught for you and your lady," she replied, watching him closely. It seemed to him that her eyes glowed.
"Drink," she said, forcefully.
Thinking of nothing but obeying her, he raised it to his lips. Almost as it touched his lips she gave a choking gasp and struck out like a snake. The bottle fell down and away, rolling across the floor.
"Traitor," she choked out, and moving for once clumsily and hastily, she escaped through his window- open, James suddenly realized- into the howling ice and snow.
His head reeled; his lips stung. Still not entirely sure that he was not asleep, he did the only thing he could think of doing: he followed her.
Three solid bangs on the parsonage door brought the parson to the door, wrapped in a blanket and rubbing his eyes.
"Search party," the knocker said. "The Crawford boy is gone from his bed, with the window open."
"Who would go out in a night like this? He must have been mad," Cochrane said, as fear began to spread like ice through his chest. It
was a bad night to be out; even a search party of men banded together stood a fair chance of losing their way in the snow.
"His mother thinks he was poisoned," the other said. The two shared the look of those who knew Agnes Crawford.
"Nevertheless," Cochrane said briskly, as he began to search for his leggings and boots.
"What's going on?" Effie called from the stairs. Her hair bloomed around her head like a copper dandelion.
Her father's face was enough to have her scrambling for her own boots.
"Your James is missing from his bed," he said.
"He's not with you, is he?" said the other man hopefully, and found himself on the end of two blue stares.
Another knock on the door sounded, this one almost too faint to be heard. It was Old Madge; she was utterly white and blue, and Effie raced to her.
"Sylvia's gone," Madge said. "I think she's gone to the Crawford place, but I couldn't make it so far."
"No," Effie said. "James is gone too." The two of them looked at each other for a long moment, oblivious to the stares of the two men.
"I see," Effie said. She bundled Madge into the startled arms of her mother, who had just come out to see what the fuss was. Janet briefly recoiled, but rallied, and led Madge away to the kitchen.
"I'll show you where to look," Effie said to her father, and they all plunged together into the howling night.
They brought the pair back to the parsonage, as it was closer to where they had huddled in a snowdrift, three-quarters of the way between the Crawford's and Madge's cottage. If any of the search party wondered how Effie knew the path so well, or what part Old Madge played in the affair, they saved their gossip for a warmer moment.
When that moment came, there would be more than enough to talk about. The Crawford boy and the strange girl had been found in each other's arms- what a scandal for Agnes Crawford! That the arms were more than half-dead with cold was a barely mitigating factor. And the girl was a gypsy, too, or a sprite; no one from around here, at any rate. That young Effie Cochrane had taken it as cool as
you please; said that she hoped she might be released from her engagement under the circumstances. No, others said, there was a scene between them all- Effie and the girl and James; lots of yelling and crying
and some laughter, too. My niece the maid heard it all. At any rate, everyone agrees, now Effie is thick as thieves with Rob Maxwell, who, they say, is thinking of moving to Glasgow. What is the world coming to?
The last word, though, might be given to James and Effie, and their redoubtable mothers, in a conference in the spare room at the parsonage, the day after the blizzard.
"Mother," James said, holding Sylvia's hand, "This is my Sylph. I'm going to marry her." His voice was sure and steady, and Mrs. Crawford, who had been badly frightened, was overcome by relief, pride, and the unfamiliar sensation of a matter being out of her hands.
"Yes," she said, "Of course."
"How do you do," said Sylvia, with a smile lurking in her voice.
"But- Effie-" said Janet, totally out of her depth.
"It's all right, mama," Effie said. "I didn't really want to marry him anyway." She winked at James and Effie, and thought of all the apothecary's shops in Glasgow where she and Madge could run riot, and it may fairly be said that she thought of Rob Maxwell, who was still the best-looking man in the parish.
Janet and Agnes turned to each other rather helplessly, and sighed with the resignation of mothers the world over- those who, surely through no fault of their own, have given birth to certifiable children. Agnes even threw away the glass bottle and forbore to accuse Madge of poisoning- she was really a new woman.
Needless to say, they all lived happily ever after.