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That Inconstant Orb

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On Siblings

One of Elizabeth’s first memories was peering into the Murray family cradle and seeing Laura’s blue eyes blink up at her sleepily. They weren’t steely blue like Elizabeth’s or their father’s, they weren’t hazel like Mother’s. Instead they were a blue all their own that called to mind violet dales in springtime. Laura was smaller and more wrinkled than any of the other babies of Blair Water. The thought must have shown on her face for that was when Mother laughed gently – always gently – and said, “She’s only just born, Eliza. You mustn’t expect her to be as big and laughing as other babes just yet.”

Laura was a New Moon baby and that made her the best baby in all of Blair Water in Elizabeth’s opinion.

The next baby was Wallace, arriving a year later, and he was not as beautiful a baby as Laura. In fact the clan often compared him to Elizabeth’s by-gone babyhood which rankled at her tender five year old soul. Surely she hadn’t made the faces fussy Wallace made at every turn. He smiled only at Mother and even that was a rare occurrence. She watched over him dutifully as a Murray must and wondered if he’d ever grow up to be a fine brother. It was too much for her imagination, she could only picture a larger baby lumbering around the farm.

By the time Oliver was born seven year old Elizabeth considered herself a modest success as far as sisters go. She could plait her hair in a special herringbone pattern for Sundays and managed to tame Laura’s taffy colored curls into respectable braids for company. She had managed to keep Wallace from eating raw eggs (a decidedly un-Murray like desire!) and could coax him into having his mashed turnips when no one else could. With every tiny triumph she looked to Father for approval and found none.

If nothing else it was a sure way to keep her pride in check.

Mother was a great deal more fatigued than before. Elizabeth stepped up with the mending and darning and farm chores. Cooking was not yet within her grasp. Thankfully Ollie was the fattest, cheeriest New Moon baby yet. He laughed and cooed at everything and rarely cried. Elizabeth was oddly grateful to her youngest brother for he kept Mother’s spirits up better than anything else.

Two years later Ruth would be the last little Murray for another decade. Her puckered countenance and steely eyes missed nothing. She wasn’t as lovable as Laura or Ollie, but Elizabeth reckoned she’d be a solid Murray just like her and Wallace and that was good enough.

Quiet constant Mother slipped away from them not long after Ruth’s debut. Elizabeth told herself she didn’t blame Archibald Murray (if only he hadn’t been away in Charlottetown when the influenza stuck, if only he had hired on a maid after Ollie’s birth, if only-!), but in her heart of hearts she didn’t believe it.

Stepmother was gay as a spring morn and the children were unable to resent her, she was so different from Mother that there was no feeling of dreadful replacement. There was a light brogue in her voice and a sort of earnestness in her affections that lit up New Moon after five years of Archibald’s solo reign. She was a credit to the clan and slipped into Murray traditions as if she was half born to them which made up for the times when she wasn’t quite Murray. Never in front of company, but on quiet evenings she might look up suddenly from her knitting and stare at something the rest of them couldn’t see. Once in a while she’d wake from a fevered dream and scribble down notes that hardly made sense, until some event came to pass some weeks later and made sense of it.

The Sight was never mocked in such a staunch Scottish clan. There were some remnants of the Old World that wouldn’t be left behind in spite of New World sensibilities. Elizabeth found herself half –believing when she was alone in bed with only the sound of rustling trees for company. Of course just when it seemed Stepmother was to be a permanent fixture in their homestead Juliet arrived at the cost of her mother’s life.

On Education

At the start school was somewhat outside the scope of Elizabeth’s imagination. Unlike Sunday school which only required rapt silence and a handful of memorized verses, Blair Water School demanded a different kind of obedience. The schoolmaster, a lean solemn man who as rumor had it was a veteran of whaling vessels. Perhaps that explained his penchant for order and cleanliness in the classroom which could only be rivaled by a naval ship. Elizabeth rather approved. This was no dingy cabin like that of their neighboring town. The windows were cleaned daily, the floor swept and sanded to smooth perfection, and muddy boots were not tolerated.

It was hard to like school in the beginning when her heart was still in New Moon. Elizabeth wondered if Laura remembered to feed the hens, if Wallace was behaving himself, if Ollie learned a new word, if Mother needed help in the cookhouse. However it would never do to be labeled a dullard and shame the Murrays so Elizabeth applied herself quite diligently to her studies. Much to her surprise Elizabeth found peace in ciphering, numbers were clean and easy to make sense of.

Father withdrew her from school years later as New Moon girl needed to lower herself to pursue a higher education and become that dreaded servant to the public: a school teacher. If he approved of her assisting with the New Moon books and accounts he never said so. The lack of disapproval was enough for Elizabeth. She began to take a small substantial satisfaction when she looked at her neat handwriting in the lines and columns of the account book, a comfort for decades to come.

On Love

The first time someone declared love to Elizabeth Murray she was so astonished and angry that she pushed them.

Jimmy Murray was never the same afterward.

Everything had started harmlessly enough, a passel of cousins and siblings playing on the farm. There were dares and frolics, teasing and laughing. A Priest cousin claimed that Elizabeth was too homely to ever be married and thus she could not be the queen in their game. Jimmy could not let a Priest get away with such a blow to the Murray pride.

“I’m going to marry Elizabeth because she’s smart at ciphers and making cakes,” Jimmy replied hotly. He’d no thoughts of marriage and even less of Elizabeth, but Murrays couldn’t let themselves lose face in front of the Priest clan. “You’re just jealous because all the Priest girls are pretty, but lousy cooks.”

“I’d rather a pretty wife than a homely one!”

“Priests,” scoffed Jimmy recollecting something his uncle was wont to say, “Have no judgment at all.”

During this exchange Elizabeth had gone pale, then red with mortified fury. She was ready to go back to the house when Jimmy took her by the hand and gave her a quick boyish kiss. It was all too much for the tempest raging in her heart and she shoved with all her might.

She didn’t notice the well. 

She remembered the screams then the deafening silence. 

Through that terrible night Elizabeth sat by her cousin’s bedside, pale and miserable with grief.

The next time romance was brought up was during a visit to Wyther Grange a few years later. Laura and her were dressed in their best winter wool dresses, rich navy and modestly but prettily trimmed by a loving stepmother. Aunt Nancy summoned them to the parlor the first morning of their visit.

Elizabeth inwardly sniffed at the garish Priest heirlooms. It wasn’t as though New Moon wasn’t the home of some ugly pieces kept out of duty and tradition, but at least their ugliness was stately. Next to her Laura fidgeted and she seemed close to trying to hide behind her elder sister. Had they been eight and five instead of twelve and nine, Laura probably would have hidden behind her sister.

Caroline and Aunt Nancy spent a good quarter hour debating which features from which ancestors the girls possessed. Elizabeth held her tongue and kept at her needlework. Nancy was very much Father’s sister, with her barbed remarks and cutting comments. At long last Aunt Nancy addressed them directly.

“Well now Elizabeth Murray, what do you think of boys?” her smile was sharp and unpleasant.

“I think nothing of them, Aunt Nancy,” Elizabeth answered, honestly and with not a little of New Moon offended pride.

“Ha! Didn’t I tell you, Caroline? Aunt Nancy’s laugh was triumph personified. “At her christening I said she’d grow up to be a fine spinster.”

I beg your pardon! Elizabeth thought to herself, piercing the canvas with a particularly vicious jab.

“I don’t think she liked hearing that,” Caroline cackled to her companion. “Look at the puss on her!”

“Don’t take offense, little miss,” Nancy said. “There’s many a worse thing in the world to be. You don’t have a use for them and they don’t hold any charm for you. Others may titter about it, but keep your head high. It’s your sister there I’m worried about.”

Laura stiffened on the sofa next to Elizabeth.

“What do you mean by that?” Caroline voiced Elizabeth’s thoughts.

“Oh well,” Nancy grinned over her knitting. “Laura finds them charming you can see it in her eyes. A romantic deep down, taking after your dear Aunty, eh? But you’re too sensible. In that you’re like little Elizabeth here. You’re both starched in good sense. Let me tell you, girls, men love a fool. If a man has to choose between a sensible girl and a foolish girl, he’ll choose the fool every time.”

Caroline laughed once more in agreement.

You’re more of a spinster than I shall ever be! Elizabeth thought at the woman. Caroline wasn’t any older than Nancy or Father, but there was something of a classic crone in her features.

“Play the fool now and then and you’ll land yourself a man,” Nancy wagged a finger at Laura. “I won’t insult you by giving you the same advice. You won’t let yourself play the fool for anything,” she stared hard at Elizabeth. “I’m not done being a fool for the menfolk, but I can admire your stance. Caroline here is just the same and we’re dear bosom friends.”

Her longtime bosom friend muttered something that Elizabeth was certain was not fit for the ears of children.

Thank Heaven visits to Wyther Grange were rare!


On Motherhood

The eyes of Emily Kent’s baby were the same deep violet as Emily’s.

“Her middle name is Elizabeth,” Emily said, smiling mischievously as though conferring a delightful secret.

Elizabeth remembered the day they brought Emily to New Moon, Emily’s achievements in Shrewsbury, the book she wrote just for Elizabeth, and the day Emily married her childhood sweetheart. A maternal sentiment bubbled up and threatened to break the Murray mask.

She let it.

“You needn’t bother, I have no vanity to satisfy,” Elizabeth said primly, but her gaze was soft. “Juliet Elizabeth Kent has a fine ring to it, I won’t deny.”

And if Laura and Jimmy exchanged pleased glances behind her, if Emily and Teddy quoted a private joke to each other, well it was nothing to get fussed about.

After all they were family.