Another story from the world of The College of the Crones:
“I don’t care if Mother forbids us to speak her name!” Bridgette snapped at her sister, Mary. “Meghan was our cousin! We played dolls with her. We played in the fields together.” She stamped her foot on the wooden stool on which she stood, sounding a boom with her silk slipper. The dressmaker’s other patrons, milling around bolts of fabric in the outer room, looked in at the young woman to see what was causing the disturbance. One didn’t scream like a little girl at a fitting. It was a time for stillness and quiet, unless one wanted to get poked with pins. The dressmaker herself, Mrs. Pincer, frowned at her, a task made more difficult by the pins in her mouth.
“She was our cousin, and a dear friend, but don’t blame Mother.” Mary gently took her younger sister by the hand, their green eyes reflecting each other. “Be reasonable,” she continued, using her most soothing voice. “Think about it. The broken engagement, poor Harold the baker, the birthday party. Everything was perfect- the flowers, the music, the cake. The only thing missing was the birthday girl. Think about how Aunt Margaret and Uncle Edmund felt.”
“Excuse me, ladies,” Mrs. Pincer interrupted. “I’ve finished marking the hem. If you could carefully take off the gown, I’ll take it. It should be finished by weeks end.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Pincer,” Bridgette replied, calmer now. Mary smiled up at her, and walked to her back, unlacing the pale green gown and helping Bridgette out of it. It sat on its layers like cupcake icing on the circular wooden pinning stand. The dressmaker pulled it up by the fitted bodice and gently pushed the full skirt through the fitting room doorway.
“But that doesn’t mean she never existed!” Bridgette said through clenched teeth. Her long bouncy blonde curls shook with conviction.
“Let’s get out of here,” her sister insisted, dragging her out of the shop. “I’m dying of thirst. Let’s go get some tea.”
The main street in Riversedge was bustling with fine ladies, some on foot and others in carriages that slowly pushed their way through the crowds. The sisters shook the summer dust off the bottoms of their dark blue silk dresses after they crossed over to the other side of the street. Both sides of the street were full of shops—dress shops, hat shops, bakeries, floral shops, jewelers, and one special shop.
The storefront itself was inconsequential, smaller than the shops on either side of it. It had a bright red door and no windows. A wooden sign hung over the door read, “The Royal Tonic Shop.” Every woman knew its exact location, yet none of them had ever crossed its threshold. Only men were allowed.
Bridgette shuddered slightly as they passed it on the way to the tea room. Was it the tonic that caused Meghan, their usually compliant cousin, to run away in the night?
Mary glanced at her sister, and took her arm, steering them through the maze of horses, carriage wheels, and giggling girls. “Bridgette, you couldn’t have done anything. You know how closed Meghan could be. No one knew this treachery was in her heart.”
“But why, Mary? Why did she do it?” Bridgette shouted over the noise of the street, her eyes welling up with tears. Mary quickly took out her lavender scented hankie and dabbed her sister’s eyes.
“Now, now, Bridgette,” she said, putting her hankie away in her small jewel encrusted bag. “You’re going to make your eyes puffy. Forget about that sad business. It was a tragedy, that’s all.” She sighed, pulling her sister out of the path of oncoming horses.
“I can’t forget about it,” Bridgette insisted, her dainty nose turned up. “Our cousin left her betrothed, her family, and her entire future, content instead to crumble into a hideous crone. Even though all she had to do was get married to be cured.”
“It was her choice,” Mary sniffed, as she adjusted her tiny velvet hat perched on her elaborately braided tawny hair. “Every woman must choose when she becomes eighteen. Marry and take the tonic to remain beautiful, or fall to the crone curse. Meghan knew what she was doing. Obviously living with hunched over, wart-crusted crones was preferable to society life with her family.”
“But what if she knew something?” Bridgette said, stopping as they approached the tea room. “Meghan was always thinking, always reading, even though as a woman it was not her role to do either. What if she made the better choice?”
“Ridiculous!” Mary scoffed. “What woman in her right mind would allow herself to transform into an ugly old woman? The right choice, the only choice, is to marry. That way your husband is allowed to buy the prince’s tonic.”
“That was our choice,” Bridgette agreed. “Even though we were practically forced into it by our parents. Not that my Richard is hard to live with. He gives me everything I desire.”
“And the parties!” Mary sighed. “With my Robert I have invitations to dances and feasts every night. Who would want to miss the prince’s balls? I dance so much I can’t wake until evening the next day. We have the perfect life.”
The women entered the tea room and found an empty table in the back of the large room. Since the inns were considered unsavory for the local nobility, the tea room had opened exclusively for ladies. The establishment had many tables covered with white tablecloths and fresh flowers in exquisite crystal vases. The windows were large and well cleaned, allowing women passing by on the street to see who was sipping tea within. The light was cheerful, and the buzz of women’s conversations droned on throughout the day like contented bumblebees.
After they ordered their tea, Bridgette took a deep breath. Mary could see that her sister needed to unburden her heart, so she resolved not to dismiss her concerns. Instead she settled into her cushioned chair patiently as she waited for the rest of it.
“Meghan’s been on my mind, all these months since she left,” Bridgette shared. “Do we truly know what happened to her? What if some robber beat her and left her for dead? Has anyone even tried to follow her trail?”
“I don’t know,” Mary admitted. “Since no one in the family talks about her, I don’t know what has been done. I can’t imagine Uncle Edmund not trying to find his only daughter. He spent much more time with her than Aunt Margaret ever did.”
“But don’t you think she probably went to the College?” Bridgette asked. A crone dressed in a grey dress with a crisply pressed apron brought them a silver pot with a spicy aroma and two dainty ceramic cups in saucers. The crone’s thinning white hair was pulled back under a white cap. With gnarled hands she poured their tea, and bowed out of their way.
Mary took a tiny sip, mindful of the steaming liquid. “Meghan might have gone to the College of the Crones,” she agreed. “After all, she could read, and she loved to sing. Maybe we’ll see her someday, performing at the prince’s castle.” She sighed as the tea soothed her throat.
Bridgette set down her cup after tasting the sweet, spicy brew. Her flawless face showed rare furrows as she struggled to find the right words. Suddenly she was aware of her action and quickly smoothed her face. “I wonder what it would be like. Choosing your own future, apart from parties and dresses and jewels. Instead of pleasing your husband, serving others with your vocation learned at the College. The crones are healers, actors, singers, and artists. Maybe Meghan knew better than we did, sister.”
Her sister’s eyes widened in alarm. She looked around to see if any of the other women had taken notice of their conversation. But the rumble of laughter and conversations full of hairstyles and wine selections passed by them, unaffected by Bridgette’s heresy.
“Don’t speak that way!” she gasped, reaching for Bridgette’s trembling hand. “We live to serve beauty. Our prince demands it. Beauty is our mother, covering us with her favor. Any other way of life is pure ugliness.”
A crone servant passed their table at that moment, struggling with a tray of tea and cakes, and seemed to gaze at the young women with pity, but Bridgette couldn’t be certain.