In the weeks following the birth of his son, William Adamson found himself unable to sleep.
It was not a remarkable occurrence, for he had often struggled with the balmy regularity of the equatorial calendar, and it was not that he felt readily awake, for his limbs were quite weary and his breath moved sluggishly within his breast. He heard the lulling timbre of Eugenia's sleep as her snores ebbed and flowed beneath his doorframe and between their bedrooms. The clock on his chimneypiece marked the progression of the night, and the boards and brick and hidden mortar of the house clicked and creaked, settling in the gloom. But his mind raced here and there, turning and tumbling over the excursions of the day before and the day to come; he imagined that his brow was yet flushed with the long hours spent more in the company of the blood-red sanguinea -- the worker ants and the bloated queen and the hapless slaves -- than of his wife.
With softened hunter's steps, he dressed and traced from his rooms and down the hall, lingering in a dim parlor and at the top of the stair like a half-sighted specter before padding to the kitchen for bread and water.
It was there that he came upon Matty Crompton.
She seemed smaller than she looked, or more substantial than she was; William could not decide which. Perhaps, he reasoned, it was little more than the moonlight which lay about her feet in a milky pool and cast her sharp features in alternating whorls of shadow and shine. Perhaps it was the angle of her head, or the wisps of dark hair that fell across her temples. She was very still, and even as William crossed the threshold and stood beside her, she remained crouched over something that he could not quite unravel from the inky blackness.
"Miss Crompton?" His voice felt harsh and unwieldy in his throat. He thought for a moment that she had been weeping, but then again, no: her cheeks were quite dry. And then again, he knew she was not of the sort who wept.
She opened her mouth and closed it again before glancing up to him. "Hello."
"Is everything all right?" William took another step into the room, but then paused. "I am sorry if I have disturbed you," he said carefully. "I did not expect anyone to be out of bed at this hour."
"Yes," she said. And then, "I had only hoped to do a bit of revision before the day began in earnest." She pointed to the folio which sat atop the counter, and William knew without further scrutiny that it was the latest chapter of his book. Our book, he corrected himself. He had only given it to her the evening before, but he saw that the margins of the first pages were already dappled with the thoughtful curl of Miss Crompton's script.
"It is coming along very well," she presently continued. She had said the same less than a week ago, but now the light in her eyes seemed somehow altered, darkened as though by the pull of the hours and the din of the walls. "That is to say, I believe your observations are ever more perceptive."
"Ah," William said, finding that he must object. "Yes, but without your--"
Again Matty Crompton raised a hand, but this time it was with cautious concentration.
William glanced into the shadows over his shoulder and at once heard the rough pulse of Edgar's laughter, the click of some faraway door. Upon feeling the hair at the nape of his neck stand on end, he shook his head and admonished himself for his own folly, for those apprehensions sparked by mere exhaustion and strain. He breathed deeply, making out the familiar, homely whiff of yeast and curing meat, polished stone and barley. Beneath and each to each there lingered those of Matty Crompton: lavender and linen and sweat, things neither dangerous nor dreamy, but nevertheless distinct. William was accustomed to such intricate idiosyncrasies, and his mind relegated them to categories which bespoke interest rather than importance.
There was also the sickly-sweet scent of molasses, and William remembered Amy's nervous explanation of the rudimentary traps which had to be emptied each day to keep the scrabbling black beetles at bay. It seemed a very long time since he had stood before her much as he stood before Miss Crompton now, and indeed this was so.
"Look," said Matty Crompton in a voice that may well have come from across the sea. She leaned down again with a rustle of muslin skirts; during the day they would have been brown, he knew, but in the half-light the folds seemed wrought from cobwebs and parched earth. She held her upturned palm before her eyes, and a lone, glossy-backed Coleoptera scrambled to right itself against the delicate lines which wove between the flesh of her wrist and fingers.
"They boil them," she said in a steady listening voice, and narrowed her eyes, "though the beetles always return. Did you know?"
"Yes. I suppose they're a menace to Cook." William looked about for the tarnished buckets of molasses and ceaselessly searching legs, but did not see them. He swallowed before venturing, "I once thought I might conduct a study of them. Of their breeding habits."
A pause, faintly curious. "Why didn't you?"
"I don't know."
Miss Crompton's narrow lips curled round the corners, though she did not smile. The beetle at last straightened itself with a heft of something more than simple determination and began making its way towards her ink-dotted, quietly calloused fingertips. "Shall we set it outside?" she asked, her brown eyes meeting William's.
William felt suddenly light, suddenly rarefied and momentarily out of breath. Matty Crompton was still watching him. "Certainly," he said, and waited for her to pass by.
He did not take her hand, that pale bony thing, weightless, like a featherless bird.
Outside, the air was damp, heavy with the coming morning, and the sound of their footsteps was blanketed by the chirr of unseen life. Fog whirled across the lanes and before the paddock, and somewhere beyond, the stream flowed on.
Without another word, they broke the dew.