Mary O Brien gaped in wonder at the man standing on her doorstep. It was not in her nature to be shy, but she was almost simpering at the unexpected visitor. He really was something out of the ordinary. He was tall, much taller than her, so he looked down into her eyes as he spoke. The voice addressing her was soft, caressing and she watched in fascination the movement of his wide, full lips and sighed at the words that dripped like honey from them.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon,” she blushed; when she realised, he had finished speaking.
“Not at all, dear Lady. Make no apologies to me. I was merely asking if you would have a room to let for a weary traveller?”
“Oh,” she spluttered in confusion. “I don’t rent out rooms, Sir. This is a private house, but you could try the Inn.”
“I was on my way there, but on passing your home, I noticed it was the finest in the village. I make no excuse that catching site of its lovely owner through a gap in the curtains, made me stop and act as bold as I now am.”
“Dear me,” Mary blushed again. “But I must admit you’re being quite bold.”
“Forgive me?” he smiled taking her hand and raising it to his lips. The kiss felt soft and the eyes looking up into hers were the brightest green she had ever seen. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on my way.”
“There is no need,” she caught hold of him. “I mean…I’m sure I can’t let a gentleman such as you sleep at that Inn,” she cast a baleful eye across the village. “After all, I do have many spare rooms, and I’m sure my home would be more suited to you.”
“You are too kind, dear lady and be sure I’ll pay you well,” with this he pulled a purse from his coat pocket and emptied a mass of silver coins into her hands.
“Oh, but this is too much,” she gasped.
“I insist,” he held up a hand. “And may I say it is no more than you are worth.”
He picked up the bag at his feet and waited for her to stand aside. Mary pocketed the thirty pieces of silver, stood back, and allowed the Devil to enter her house.
Hugh was surprised to find they had a visitor, and at his mother’s constant attention on the man. He was obviously rich, from his dress and manner. It had to be someone important if his mother was fussing so much. He had admitted on meeting him, the man was very charismatic, and the hand shaking his was cool, but strong.
“Are you just passing through, Mr…?”
“Tanas, Oliver Tanas.”
“Dear me, how foolish I was not to ask your name,” Mary was mortified, and hoped he would not think her rude and uncouth like the other villagers.
“Then we were both foolish for neither did I ask your name, dear lady. Though I admit I imagined it to be something saintly.
“It’s Mary, Mary O Brien. Of course, you have met my son, Hugh, and I am afraid that is all there is in my family. I’m a widow, you see,” she had to let him know she was available. “Well, if you’ll excuse me, Mr Tanas, I’ll see if the girl has our supper ready.”
Hugh was left alone with him once his mother disappeared into the kitchen, and was put out at having to make conversation.
“Do you like card games?” the man asked, and within minutes they were deep in conversation about the games of poker they had played.
Hugh spent most of his night’s playing cards, and this caused constant trouble with his mother. He was hopeless at the game, and there were many times when she had to pay his gambling debts.
“Tell you the truth,” he mumbled to his new-found friend. “I lose more than I win.”
“Perhaps, it’ll change for you. Let us play a few hands after supper.”
“I’m afraid I can’t,” he shrugged. “I’ve arranged to play with some friends later.”
“Well, never mind. Some other time, perhaps?”
“Will you be here for long?”
“A few weeks, I think.”
“Are you staying locally?”
“Why, dear boy, I’m staying here.”
“You mean here. In this house?”
“The very same.”
The news seemed to throw Hugh for a moment, and excusing himself, he followed his mother into the kitchen.
“What’s the idea of having a stranger stay in this house?” he demanded. “I’m talking to you, mother.”
Grabbing his arm, she pulled him out of the servant girl’s hearing and hissed.
“Listen to me, you little upstart. He’s rich and I want you to treat him well, understand?” She already had their mysterious visitor marked out as husband number two. “Look,” she fished in her pocket and withdrew some of the coins. “And there’s more where this came from. So, treat him well or else…” the threat was left hanging, as she swept past him and went back to her visitor.
The supper was more elaborate than usual, though their visitor seemed to have little appetite.
“Is the food not to your liking?” Mary asked.
“It is delicious, I am sure, but my appetite is not what it was. I’ve recently recovered from an illness.”
“Dear me, I hope it was nothing serious,” she felt his money slipping from her grasp.
“Not at all, dear lady. I’m quite recovered, but still unable to eat much.”
“I’m so glad to hear of your return to health. If there’s anything I can get for you do let me know.”
“You are truly kind, but I’ll not trouble you for much. I shall be out all day so please do not prepare any food for me. I usually eat on my travels.”
“What is it you do?” Hugh managed to get the question in before his mother.
“I’m of independent means, but a scholar of sorts.”
“What is it you study, Mr Tanas?” Mary was ecstatic. Independent means!
“You could say the work of the Devil.”
Mary and Hugh looked at one another.
“Let me explain,” their visitor laughed. “I believe my recent illness was brought about by unsavoury means.”
“You mean you were cursed?” Mary gasped.
“Precisely, and I’m not the only one. I have heard about the suffering in this village, and I believe the Devil’s work is being done here. If this is the case, I mean to root out this evil and put a stop to it at once.”
“Oh, sir, how fortunate we are to have you here with us. I was saying only last evening, wasn’t I Hugh?” she slapped at her son’s elbow. “This place is cursed and I’m sure I know who the cause is as well,” she nodded at their visitor in a very conspiratorial way.
“Then you’ll be of great service to me,” he smiled.
Hugh left his mother and her visitor deep in conversation. He felt good tonight. He was not sure if it was the fine supper he’d just eaten, or the two silver coins slipped into his hand before he’d left home by the man with a wink and a wish of good luck. Things were about to turn his way for once. Setting his cap at a jaunty angle, he spurred his horse forward and galloped away from the village.
Mary O Brien’s visitor was proving to be as mysterious as he was handsome. He left the house each morning before she awoke and made his bed up before leaving. The room looked completely undisturbed. Curiosity drove her to check his wardrobe, and the clothes she found hanging there pleased her. Some of his suits were of the finest brocade and lace hung from beneath the cuffs. These were the clothes of a great gentleman. His dressing table also gave her great joy. On it were his comb, brush, and perfume bottles, all were fashioned in the finest silver, even the bottle tops. On that first morning, she waltzed around the room with happiness. This man was about to change her life forever. She took no time in spreading the word of his existence around the village, and the reason for his stay. There were many who listened in awe to her story, and as many more doubted such a paragon of virtue was truly among them. Night after night she paraded him for all to see. Jane O Regan was first on her list. Describing her to Oliver, as he insisted, she call him, as a poor unfortunate and in need of their charity. Jane was impressed and Mary preened herself, throwing her shoulders back in pride at the woman’s reaction. Once they were seated, he immediately enquired to the state of her health.
“I’m well now, sir,” she blushed under his gaze, and hoped the heat of the fire would be blamed for the sudden redness.
“Well,” Mary sniffed. “If you ask me, you’re lucky to be alive.”
“What do you mean?”
“With that Annie Ryan and her herbs poisoning half the village, you were lucky to survive.”
“But Annie helped us to get well. She nursed us day and night. No one could be as kind as or more attentive than she.”
“You lost your little one, didn’t you?”
“I prefer not to speak of it,” Jane gazed down at her hands.
“It is sad indeed, when one so young is robbed from us,” Oliver joined in the conversation.
Jane looked up.
“What do you mean robbed?”
“Let me explain, dear lady,” he patted her hands. “I was nearly lost to the terrible sickness you suffered from. Had it not been for the wisdom of my doctor, I might have succumbed to the same fate as your child. Luckily, he realised that evil doers among us were causing the sickness, and it was only through his intersession I was saved. Let us hope I can do the same for the many afflicted in this village.”
“But…but,” Jane stuttered. “You cannot imagine for one moment Annie had anything to do with it? Why, I have known her since she was a baby? There’s not an ounce of harm in the child.”
“As you wish,” he stood up to leave, and Mary hopped from her seat to join him.
Jane tried to make amends.
“I’m not saying you’re wrong. I am sure you’re more knowledgeable on this subject than I. It’s just I fear you’re mistaken in choosing Annie as the culprit.”
“Very well,” he smiled. “Time will tell.”
Jane held the door open and Mary swept past her with a face like thunder. The stranger stopped in the doorway to bid her goodnight.
“I fear I have offended Mrs. O Brien and your good self in some way, but I don’t know what it is I’ve done.”
“You’ve done nothing but be a good friend to one who’ll shortly be in need of one,” he donned his hat and reaching into his waistcoat pocket, withdrew a handful of coins. “A small gift,” he took her hand and placed the coin in her palm, closing her fingers around them. “From someone who will hopefully be worthy of your friendship in the future.”
He left Jane standing open-mouthed in the doorway. The coins in her hands felt warm and she rushed to the table and let them fall onto the wood. There was a small fortune there. She could hardly believe it. Picking up each piece she studied it as if it might disappear at any moment. He had ensured, by his actions that Jane and her family would survive the coming winter. She would have to find some way to repay him for his generosity. His clothes were of the finest materials. So, nothing she could make for him would be worthy, but she’d find a way.
Within a week Oliver Tanas was well known throughout the village, not only for his generosity and wit, but also for his preaching about witchcraft. In those dark times, when ignorance and superstition combined and made a very potent mixture, there were many who believed his words as anything else was beyond their understanding. They were simple folk, mostly hill farmers. They knew little of life outside their community and lived by way of the land. The winter brought with it the cold, the spring was for planting, the summer for heat and the autumn for ploughing. They had few enemies, hidden away as they were in that God-forsaken place and the appearance of this man; this saviour seemed too good to be true. Here was someone who understood the sickness, could root out the cause of it and drive it from the land.
Pat O Malley shook his head in wonder. How anyone could be stupid enough to believe what the man was saying was beyond him. He was on his way home from the Inn, where Oliver was preaching, surrounded as usual by the red-faced drinkers, who hung onto his every word.
“Your misfortunes were caused by witchcraft,” Oliver hollered. “The sickness is a curse on your house, sent from someone you know. It could be a neighbour, even one you regard as a friend, but trust me, my friends, you are cursed.”
The crowd stopped their mumbled agreements and parted so Oliver could see who had uttered such profanity.
“Were you addressing me, Sir?”
“I was, Sir,” Pat stood, and made a mocking bow.
“Perhaps, you’d care to repeat that?”
“I said bullshit.”
There were gasps from the room, and many smiled in anticipation of the coming fight.
“You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, but perhaps you’d enhance it somewhat further so I might understand?”
Pat laughed in his face, but was stopped by the man calling for drinks for the house Asking Pat to join him at his table, he did so out of curiosity, but refused to accept a drink, preferring to buy his own.
“You seem very set in your ways,” Oliver smiled at him. “I admire a man who sticks to his opinions.”
“I know the sickness was brought about by the heat, nothing more. The summer was too hot.”
“Surely it was as hot in the other villages?”
“We have different wells, a different water supply than the others. It may well have been the sickness came from there.”
“You find it impossible that I am right, this village was cursed? That there are many who do the Devil’s work?”
“Oh, I believe in the Devil,” Pat fixed him with an angry stare. “And speaking of the Devil’s work, what may I ask, have you to gain from your preaching?”
“Nothing,” Oliver raised his hands. “Nothing at all. I survived a sickness such as this and have made it my life’s work to root out all who’d do such harm.”
“Well, you’ve come to the wrong place,” Pat emptied his ale mug and stood. “Once the winter sets in it’ll put an end to all this sickness. If I were you, I would not waste my time with these simple folks. It could do more damage than good.”
“As you say, it’s my time and what I choose to do with it, is for me to decide.”
Pat was almost out the door when the voice stopped him.
“Perhaps you protest so much, because you fear for someone you know.”
He hesitated, wanting to go back and smash the milksop in the face, but decided against it. It was best not to draw too much attention. He heard the rumours and did not want to add fuel to the flames. They caused him to lay awake night after night worrying about Annie, aware once Mary O Brien had a hand in what was going on, she would not be safe. He had not seen her in over a week and there was no sign of the gypsies either. He even considered going to her, asking her to leave this place with him. They could set up somewhere else. Even if she did not love him, he loved her enough for the two of them and in time…. Things would have to be sorted soon. There was rumours the village would be put into quarantine and no one would be allowed in or out. He planned to take his cart into the nearest town for supplies in a couple of days, but he would leave sooner. Food was running short, and those recovering from the sickness were becoming more demanding in the quest for delicacies. He would set out the next morning. His assistant could manage the shop, and once he sold the new supplies, he would have enough money to start anew somewhere else. He felt better at having come to the decision. Once he was back from the town he would go to Annie, ask her to marry him and keep her safe forever. He sniffed the air as he walked. It had the hint of frost in it and it would not be long before the snows came. There were many arrangements to make for his trip the next day, and a sleepy assistant was woken and told of his plan. Pat went to bed that night a much happier man. In just a short time he might be happier still if Annie accepted his proposal. He hated leaving her now, especially at such a time of unrest, but it was only for two weeks.