The woman had grown old in the Victorian house along the sea.
She walked with a cane now, making her way into the drawing room. They had once entertained here when the days were young. The furniture had been covered in the finest of fabric, the wood was dark and imported. A gilded gold mirror hung over the mantel. Now, her easel stood in front of the bay window, looking out over the ocean; an unfinished watercolor reflected the green of the sea.
She caught a glint of silver reflecting from the center of the oriental rug; worn and a bit threadbare. Her hands and spine were twisted with age; swollen and angry.
Slowly and with much bodily protest, Eleanore stooped to pick up the silver cufflinks, turning them in her palm.
She had given these to her first husband, Stanley, as a gift.
“Hattie!” the old woman yelled.
There was pounding on the stairs as the young girl hurried to her mistress’s aide.
“Yes, Lady Eleanore?” The child was only 16, her apron crumpled and her hair falling loose about her face.
“How did these come to be here, in the middle of my drawing room floor?”
The girl stepped closer.
“Why, I don’t know?” The girl looked frightened now.
“I have told you not to go through my drawers.”
“I didn’t, Lady Eleanore! I promise you!”
“Then why are these lying here?”
“I swear to you…”
“Do not swear, it is unladylike.”
“I only meant…”
“I know what you meant. Take these up to my room and place them at my dressing table.”
“Yes, Lady Eleanore.”
The girl took the cufflinks and headed up the stairs.
It was only her and the girl now. A cook came in a few hours each day to prepare supper and to leave food for the following day’s breakfast, dinner, and tea. There were no visitors, and the money had dwindled over time. Hattie was all the woman could afford.
Eleanore turned back to her easel, remembering her first husband.
He had been a banker, tall and handsome, with soft curling blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She was the daughter of a politician; twenty and beautiful. He had built her this home, looking out over the sea. He had Copper Beech imported from Europe and planted around the back of the home, saying the leaves when they turned, reminded him of the copper in her hair.
Years passed, and she thought they had been happy until she found him kissing a maid. She had pretended to ignore it, to continue her life in the comfort of wealth and privilege. What was it to her that he sometimes chose to share his bed with other women? She was his wife. Until the night of the ball, when she had found him pressed up against a girl no more than 16, the daughter of an investor.
At home, they had quarreled. He told her that she was becoming tedious, that he thought she would have given him children by now. Perhaps, he said, he would take another wife.
She had these cufflinks made, a gift for her husband.
Before an opera, she had given them to him.
“I do not wish to quarrel with you, my dear husband. Please do not put me aside for a younger woman. I have had these made for you, a token of my forever faithfulness.”
Stanley smiled, turning them over in his hand. Sterling silver with Roman coins as their front face.
“They are finely made. Who is the man?”
Eleanore smiled her beautiful smile, “Why this is Emperor Claudius, my love. He was the ruler of Rome and helped to reestablish the Roman finances, just as you have done here. He was an ambitious builder and began the conquest of Great Britain. He was worshiped, just as you will be worshiped, my husband. May I put them on you?”
That night, Stanley slipped from their box at the Opera, leaving Eleanore alone. He did not return at the end of the show, and while Eleanore waited patiently, the theater emptied.
There soon came a bloodcurdling scream from backstage.
Stanley had been found, blood trickling from his nose, laying on top of a young ingenue, his pants around his ankles. The girl had laid underneath him, silent, afraid to be found, afraid of the wrath of the wealthy. While she lay there, she slowly went mad.
Eleanore came from her memory and seemed to catch a glimpse of a shadow as it moved through the room.
“My eyes have become old,” said the woman.
She opened her paints and dipped the brush into the water, looking out over the shapes of the ocean.
When she looked down at her canvas, the glimmer of silver caught her eye. Sitting on the lower handle, where the canvas sat, were two cufflinks, the face of Emperor Claudius looking up at her.
Eleanore gasped slightly, picking them up in her old hands. She had watched as Hattie took them from her, had heard her ascend the stairs, yet here they sat.
Eleanore turned and looked around the room. For a slight moment, she thought she saw the face of a man peering out of the gilded mirror over the mantel. She blinked and the face was gone.
He had black hair and his eyes reflected green, like her second husband, Thomas. Thomas was a politician and well-liked in society. When Stanley died, Thomas swooped in and made sure that Eleanore was supported, finding lawyers to make sure she received all she was due from Stanley’s estate. He also made sure that Stanley’s death was covered up, paying off the members of the Opera and legally binding their secrecy. It was reported that he had fallen victim to a heart attack while leaving the theater, allowing Eleanore the discretion of staying within society without scandal.
She did not love Thomas the way she loved Stanley, but he did care for her and kept her out of society’s gossip. So, when he began to be rough in the bedroom, she thought perhaps this was what some men did. She did not want to insult him, but the time came when she begged him to stop.
He hit her. Bruising her legs and arms, but never her pretty face. She threatened to take him to the police, but he reminded her of how her first husband had been found, pants around his ankles, over a young girl who was now in a mental hospital. He stated that he would be happy to tear up the legal document keeping members of the Opera quiet and that he was quite sure the local newspaper would be happy to print the story.
Eleanore withdrew, only appearing in society as was required. The household saw the change, saw the mornings when she did not seem to be able to get out of bed, saw the way she limped through the house. They were afraid of Thomas as well and wished to keep their jobs, so they kept quiet.
Finally, the night came when Thomas was to speak at a dinner in front of his supporters.
“I have a gift for you, Thomas.”
She stood in a gown of silk and brocade, her copper hair twisted and piled on her head.
He was ill-mannered, trying to tie the bow at his neck.
“Let me do that for you,” she said.
She fixed his collar and knotted the bowtie before giving him a little box tied with a blue ribbon.
“Just a gift. They are antiques, passed down from royalty in England, and seemed perfect for you.”
He opened the box and saw the cufflinks, not knowing they had once belonged to Eleanore’s first husband.
“They are made from Roman coins, of the Emperor Claudius. He was a great Emperor and sat among the men of the Roman Senate. He reminded me of you and how you have continued to rise within the world of politics.”
Thomas looked at her with tenderness she had not seen in many years.
“Thank you, my wife, will you do me the honor of putting them on?”
Later that night, Thomas stood in front of his donors and began to speak of their plans, to rise from the local constituency, to become a senator and perhaps even president. He spoke of their arsenal of men, of lawyers and donors and influential spokesmen, and how they would all climb to the top, no matter who got in their way.
Eleanore watched from her table and, when Thomas began to gasp through his speech, asking for water, and then spitting up blood, Eleanore cried and tried to rush to his side; the effect of a woman in terrible grief. She was held back by men, trying to protect her from the sight of her dead husband, lying on the stage.
Eleanore looked at the cufflinks in the palm of her hand and then dropped them into a tall decorative vase that sat on the mantle, imported long ago from China. She heard them clink through the narrow porcelain neck and settle at the base.
Turning back to the room, she thought she saw a shadow pass the drawing-room door.
“Hattie? Is that you?” asked the old woman, walking with her cane to the door.
“Did you call me, Lady Eleanore?” The voice of Hattie drifted down from the bedroom.
Shaken, Eleanore called up, “No, child. I’m going to go walk through the garden.”
“Let me help you with the stairs!” Hattie called back.
“I can do it myself, I’m not feeble.”
The old woman moved slowly down the stairs, using her cane to balance while holding tightly to the banister in her left hand. She came to the landing and passed the dining room on her right, walking to the front door. She stepped out, looking at the sea in front of her. The garden was around the side and the Copper Beech, now a grove, grew tall behind the house.
Eleanore looked at the overgrown plants. There was no one to care for them now, no one to love the land except her, and she rarely stepped from the house. The herbs had become tangled bushes, the broccoli was a mass of yellow flowers going to seed. In the dirt, Eleanore caught the glint of silver reflecting in the cold light.
Careful not to fall, Eleanore slowly bent to investigate what was lying in the garden bed. She brushed back the dirt. Emperor Claudius looked back at her. Digging her nails into the ground, Eleanore grabbed the cufflinks from the soil and with a scream, threw them as hard as she could towards the ocean. Her arms were weak and she felt the protest from her shoulder. The cufflinks did not travel far, but they landed somewhere outside the fence in the tall weeds.
Eleanore no longer wanted to be outside, she felt tired as she slowly walked with her cane back to the house. She seemed to see the shadow of a man as he walked past the corner.
Eleanore thought of her third husband, Edgar. Edgar was young and thin, a bit mousy, but he made her feel beautiful.
Eleanor was moving into her fifties when she met Edgar. He was in his twenties and she knew he was more interested in her money than he was in her, but she didn’t care. She was lonely, and very few men looked at her after being widowed twice.
Edgar took her to dinner and showed no embarrassment at their age difference. Edgar gambled with the possibility that he could, should he be patient, inherit everything Eleanor had to offer. And so they married. However, in time, he not only gambled with her affection, he gambled with her money.
At first, Eleanore discovered items that seemed to be missing; jewelry and bits of cash she hid throughout the house. Edgar questioned whether perhaps a maid was stealing, or perhaps even Eleanore was confused at where she had left her items. When she went to the bank and realized her fortune was diminishing, when she saw that her husband’s signature marked the transactions–small amounts, again and again–she knew he would take her to poverty.
Edgar was going out one night, he said to play cards with the fellows. Eleanore knew what that meant now, that he would continue to gamble with her fortune. And so, she gave him a gift of cufflinks.
Edgar’s eyes shone with a greedy desire.
“These were my first husband’s, Stanley’s. I hope you will care for them, my dear.”
Edgar could not take his eyes off the precious treasure and wanted to feel their weight in his hand.
“Will you wear them tonight? For me?” Eleanore asked.
A smile spread across Edgar’s face. He cared nothing for the coins or who the man looking up at him was, he cared only that he could gamble them away.
“Will you help me with them?” he asked.
Edgar died at the gambling table. He had been winning, for once, and when his body was taken to the morgue, the cufflinks were still at his sleeves. Eleanore collected the links and buried him next to her first two husbands; three men in a row.
As Eleanore climbed the steps to her decaying home, she caught a glimpse of the face of an old man peering down at her from an upstairs window. She stumbled, caught herself, and put her hand to her heart; the beating was frantic. When she looked again, the face was gone.
She made her way into the morning room and collapsed into a deep chair. She closed her eyes and imagined the face she thought she had seen, the face of her fourth husband, Nathaniel.
“Are you okay, Lady Eleanore?”
Eleanore opened her eyes and saw Hattie in the doorway.
“I am quite tired today,” Eleanore said.
“You look pale, as if you’d seen a ghost,” the girl responded.
“Perhaps I have?” said the old woman. “Will supper be ready soon? I think that I would like to go to bed straight after I eat.”
“It’s early yet,” said Hattie, “but I will go ask the cook if she can be ready more quickly.”
“Thank you, dear,” said the old woman, and closed her eyes.
Hattie didn’t know how to respond. The old woman had never called her “dear” and wasn’t sure she had ever thanked her genuinely.
Eleanore thought of Nathaniel, her fourth husband. He had done nothing wrong. He was simply old and he bored her. He did not like to go out, he did not like the opera; he liked puzzles and reading before the fireplace. And so Eleanore asked him one night if they could perhaps dress for dinner as they once had, in their finest clothes.
“Perhaps, after we eat, we could put on a record and dance in the drawing room?” Eleanore asked.
“My dear, I would love to dance with you. There is a man of science who speaks of relativity, and how the functions of the world interact. I simply wish to be near you. It is that relativity in which he speaks.”
“I have been saving these for a special occasion,” said Eleanore, and she pulled the Roman coin cufflinks out.
“They are beautiful,” he said, “ and perhaps even an important piece of history?”
“Yes, I do believe they have been instrumental in the role of men,” she responded. “Can I put them on you?”
And so they ate dinner, and that night, while they danced in the drawing room, Nathanial died in Eleanor’s arms. He went quietly, with very little fuss. He simply said that he was tired and slumped into her arms.
“The cook says that we can start supper now if you wish?” said Hattie, pulling Eleanore from her memories.
“Yes, dear, please help me to the dining room.”
Eleanor sat in her accustomed place, first being served a bowl of soup. As she sipped the broth, she felt stronger. Until that is, she came to the bottom of the bowl.
There, sitting in the curve beneath the broth, sat the cufflinks. Emperor Claudius seemed to be staring into her eyes.
“Oh!” she squawked.
“Is everything okay?” asked Hattie.
“Can you look into my bowl, and tell me if you see anything unusual?”
“Of course, Lady… oh! I swear, Lady Eleanor, I took them up to your dressing table as you told me! I did not do this. Please don’t fire me!”
The old woman simply nodded her head.
“I am not going to fire you. But I do think I am full, and wonder if you would help me to bed?”
The young girl helped Eleanore, undressing her from her day’s clothes, and dressing her in her nightgown. She brushed the woman’s long grey hair and braided it, tucking it under a fine cotton nightcap. She pulled back the blanket and helped the old woman under the covers; slowly laying the woman back into her deep pillows.
Eleanore gave out a little cry once fully lying in bed.
“Are you alright?” asked Hattie.
“My bones are just old, that’s all. I’m ready to sleep now.”
Hattie said goodnight and closed the door.
It had not been her bones that caused her to cry out, it had been the prick of something sharp behind her left shoulder. She could feel it cutting into her, sharp into her skin. It didn’t matter what she did now, her death was close at hand.
She remembered when she had had the cufflinks made for her dear Stanley. She remembered how she had asked that one of the toggles be made hollow with a sharp point that would not be noticed when it hid between the post and under the face.
When she had put the cuffs on Stanley, he had cried out as she scratched his skin with the sharp point, drawing blood. She apologized and said that she would have the cufflinks checked and fixed. But he had died, and so the cufflinks had never been returned to their maker.
Thomas had struck her with his belt the night that she helped him with his cufflinks. He had called her stupid and clumsy when she scratched him with the sharp end, and she had agreed that it was all her fault. It was the last time he hit her.
Edgar hadn’t really noticed the scratch as she helped him with the cufflinks. He had sucked the blood from the wound, perhaps hastening his death. He said it was nothing, for his eyes were focused only on the uniqueness of the coins, and wondered what he could get for them. They brought him only a hole in the ground.
Nathanial had looked at her sadly when she had scratched him. His skin tore easily, like tissue paper, the aged bruises standing out against his wrinkled flesh.
Eleanore remembered dipping the hollow toggle into the poison, being sure the well was filled; knowing that the scratch would allow the poison into their bloodstream.
Now, she lay, with the hollow toggle pressed into a scratch in her shoulder. It had been many years since she had dipped the sharp point in poison and a part of her wondered if it was enough to kill her the way she killed them.
She did not wonder long, for a tall shadow with faded blonde hair and blue eyes stepped from the corner of the room and began to walk towards the bed. Then a thick shadow, black-haired and green-eyed, emerged from the wall and moved closer. The third figure, thin and mousy, stepped from the window. Finally, the ghost of an old man moved through the door.
They all came and stood around her bedside, looking down on their wife, looking down on their killer. Four men, four graves laid side-by-side.
She had nothing to say to them in death, and so died silently.
In the morning, when Hattie came to wake her, the woman was cold, a single trickle of blood dried around her mouth, a cufflink embedded in the flesh of her shoulder.
I wanted to leave a certain ambiguity in this story until the end. Is Eleanore murdering her husbands? Or is there a curse on the cufflinks? Perhaps there is a curse on the Roman coins. Could Eleanore be a victim in this as well, grieving for each husband despite the fact that they were all (except one) terrible husbands? Perhaps, if I had included an old, faithful maid, the maid could have actually been the murderer and the last husband died naturally in his wife’s arms.
I chose to make the murderer Eleanore simply because the story was clear in my mind. I was stepping into the shower (where I do all my best thinking) and I saw the whole story laid out before me. However, should I ever rewrite this story (or publish it in a short story collection), perhaps I will give you a different ending. One of the above or perhaps something even further from the original truth.
I love antiquity and own two Roman coins myself (the ones you see in the title photo). There is something really special to me about artifacts, the idea of all the people who held that coin; how it was probably lost through time, buried, and rediscovered by someone in a field with a metal detector. I think perhaps I was meant to be an archeologist or anthropologist.
I wanted the Roman coin to bear the face of Emperor Claudius, as history believes he was murdered by his wife, Agrippina, on 13 October, 54. I worried that the idea of a cufflink being able to introduce enough poison into the human body may push the limits of reality, however, Agrippina may have used a poisoned feather to kill Claudius. I wanted the use of Claudius to be an element of foreshadowing. If you know his story, you will suspect Eleanore in the murder of her husbands.
Finally, all photos come from when my family and I had the opportunity to live in, and travel around, Germany for 6 months in 2016. The majority of the photos are statues carved from salt rock in the Polish salt mines of Wieliczka Salt Mine. I’ve also included photos from Castle Muiderslot in the Netherlands, the Catacombs of Paris, and one from the torture museum, Mittelalterliches Foltermuseum, in Ruedesheim am Rhein in Germany.
Thank you, dear reader, for joining me on this week’s journey. I am publishing a short story every Saturday this year in my 52-week project. If you liked this story, please share it with a friend or loved one. I send out an email every Friday with any stories or blogs I have posted during the week, please sign up for it here.
This Week’s Prompt
Week 13 – A haunted house
Include: silver, relativity, watercolor, Copper Beech, limited, affect, broccoli, politician, arsenal, cufflink
Some of these links may seem random, but they are all sites I visited this week to research various questions I had for this particular story. Some stories need no research, others find me searching for every little thought. This was one of those weeks.
Week 14 Prompt
Something bad is about to happen but nobody believes the main character
Include: Andromeda, stop sign, dandelion, iceberg, spectacle, poet, candlelit, keyboard, bumble, robotic