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Natural Causes: The diaries of Purselaine Speedwell
People were naturally drawn to Purselaine Speedwell, who usually went by Lanie. She had grown up in a small, but quaint and well-made cottage that backed up to a thickly wooded swamp. Her father had been a successful farmer who had amassed substantial wealth. Her mother was a great beauty from a family line with a dark past of witchcraft. But, the happy couple had become a respected staple of the community before they were both tragically killed in a terrible carriage accident when Lanie was 14.
From then on, Lanie, an only child, was the master of the house. From all outward appearances, Lanie was a strong, successful young woman in an age when that was a rarity. Her striking beauty, well-kept home and remarkable gardens gave the impression that all was well with Lanie, but she harbored a crippling hurt from the untimely death of her happy family and the suddenness at which she was thrust into the harshness of the cruel world on a farm in the late 1800s.
At the age of 16, Lanie’s beauty had fully blossomed and was unparalleled by any woman in the small rural community. Her body was lithe and strong from caring for the stock and her ambitious gardening of the rich soil on the sprawling farmland she had inherited. She spent her days doing most of the chores of hard working men and women on the farm in those days.
The most noteworthy thing about Lanie, even more than her incredible beauty and her early independence, was her meticulous garden. Gardens for aesthetic appeal were an impractical rarity in those days. There was too much work to do on the rest of the farm to put forth effort for a bit of prettiness.
Lanie’s gardens were quite beautiful and practical, being filled with useful plants and herbs. There was never a weed present, though many of the plants she groomed, like milkweed, would be considered weeds today. She loved using the sage, chives and parsley in her home and cooking, but her favorite herb was lavender for all of its wonderful attributes. Even casual garden viewers were immediately drawn to the beauty and noticeable tranquility of the simple but stunning gardens around the cottage.
The neighboring farm family, the Bergamots, generously helped her with the more physically demanding tasks on the farm and often served as an extended family for Lanie. She deeply appreciated this and grew to love them dearly. The Bergamots had 6 children and most all of them helped Lanie out at one point or another. As she grew into a young woman, it was the youngest son, Carey who most often helped at the farm.
Carey was two years older than Lanie and devastatingly handsome. His frame had been hardened from long hours of work on the farm and the beauty of his blue eyes, paired with a shock of dark hair, were rivaled only by the piercing blue eyes of Lanie herself. As the girl and the boy spent more time working together on Lanie’s farm, it seemed destined that they would be wed.
He would pick her up for church in his carriage every Sunday, he would come over two or three days during the week to help with farm chores and the two could often be seen taking twilight walks through the wild iris meadow at the swamp’s edge. As could be expected, the couple soon fell deeply in love with each other.
Because of the hurt in her life, Lanie had built up emotional layers of defense that were gradually falling away in the presence of the boyish grin and smiling eyes of her handsome young neighbor. She had secrets from her past, though, dark secrets that she had shared with no one, especially the very conservative and highly respected Bergamots.
As a young girl, Lanie’s mother, Hazel, shared with her the secrets of the swamp flora that grew in the tangled marsh near their home. While this was not quite the same as the witchcraft of her ancestors, it was understood that such things would be viewed as unacceptable by the community. There was no sense in dredging up the black history of the family and reinforcing their reputation for witchcraft, so the secrets were confined to mother and daughter alone. Not even Lanie’s father knew.
One night, to see how he would react, Lanie tugged on Carey’s hand as they walked through the meadow in the direction of the swamp. The warm twilight darkened into a muggy gloom as they wound between the trunks of massive trees springing up from the soggy ground.
“Why are we going in here?” Carey asked as he swatted a late summer mosquito.
“I love it here in the bog,” Lanie replied. “I feel at home here. I would always come out her with my mother as a girl. There is so much to explore and learn about out here.”
“This is no place for a lady,” Carey said sternly, recalling the rumors he had heard about Lanie’s family history. “There is nothing out here but bugs, weeds and witches. I certainly do not think it is appropriate for you to be out here.”
He glared at Lanie, but saw that the glow of her porcelain complexion actually brightened the gloom of the swamp. He could not help but smile at her incredible beauty in contrast to the dismal swamp — like a jack-in-the-pulpit amid the mire.
“Come on my love, it is time I get you back home,” he said.
Her cheeks reddened as he gently tugged on her hand and led her back to the meadow. By now the almost full moon had risen into the evening sky and the handsome couple was a breathtaking sight in the rural moonlit meadow — her dark wavy hair fluttered in the gentle summer breeze and blue eyes pierced through the darkness. His chiseled frame formed a perfect silhouette against the fading colors of the sunset.
The stars were poking through the deep blues of the night sky as they walked hand in hand to Lanie’s cottage. The heat of the day had given way to cool and pleasant breezes that stirred the trees and accompanied the night birds’ calls from the swamp. By day, the small but meticulously groomed gardens around Lanie’s cottage were stunning and incomparable with anything else in the community. In the moonlight, however, they were nothing short of magical in both visual appeal and fragrance. The heart shaped leaves of the moon flower, sometimes called witches weed, had opened their flowers one minute after sundown as if to keep an eye on everything. The huge white flowers of the Angel’s Trumpet, though very poisonous, were glowing in the soft moonlight, and their spicy scent of the evening filled the air. Carey and Lanie stood in the glow of the garden beneath the moon and talked for another hour or so before they reluctantly parted their intertwined fingers and Carey went home.
Their love grew through the harvest and the first autumn frost had quelled the summer’s heat. Lanie grew nervous, as she was sure Carey was going to propose any day. She loved him deeply and could not wait for the rest of her life to begin with him. She was so aflutter that, as of late, she was letting her girlish fantasies get the best of her — something she had never permitted herself to do because there simply was no time for daydreaming in her hard life alone on the farm. Day by day, she was having more lapses in her normally sound farm judgment because of the growing distraction of Carey.
New growth was coming out after the first hard frost on the pasture mixed with sorghum, alfalfa and orchardgrass. She normally would have known better, but she did not give a thought to letting the dairy calves out into the pasture. Of all the animals on the farm, Lanie loved her dairy cattle the best. Not only did they provide vital beef and milk for her, and some income, but she loved their personalities.
She opened up the gate and let the animals out into the pasture to graze in a heavy autumn mist that hung in all of the low areas of the rural landscape. The bell of her favorite cow, Lavender, could be heard clanging flatly in the mist.
Soon the sound of rapid heavy footfalls in the autumn mud thudded through the thick air as Carey ran into the barn and forcefully grabbed Lanie by the arm.
“Lanie what have you done? The frost on the pasture!”
Once she heard the word “frost” Lanie knew her grave error. The pair of them ran out into the fog and quickly corralled most of the stock. They could not, however, find Lavender and her calf. Then they heard the calf’s cry through the fog.
Lanie spun around, trying to get her bearings in the fog, frantically calling for Lavender.
A dark form materialized in the fog. It was Carey running with the calf.
“I think she will make it,” he said, but his eyes betrayed the answer to Lanie’s real question.
“Lavender?” she pleaded, her eyes filling with tears.
Carey looked down and shook his head.
Lanie was fortunate that most of her livestock was unharmed by compounds that converted to cyanide in her pasture plants after the stress of the frost, particularly the sorghum, though she bitterly mourned the loss of her favorite cow. She named the young heifer calf that Carey had saved Lavender in honor of her mother.
“I am sorry,” Carey said as he put a strong comforting arm around Lanie. “She was a good cow, and it was an honest mistake my dear. I beg you to not be too hard on yourself over this.”
Lanie hugged him and their blue eyes met.
“I— umm — I, I came over here to talk with you about something very important this morning my darling,” Carey said, as they walked from the barn to the cottage after finishing the morning chores and double checking the animals were not in the pasture.
The fog had mostly lifted, revealing a clear, blue-sky morning with the trees of the swamp clad in dazzling autumn hues. She went to step up onto the porch when he gently tugged on her hand. She turned and he got down on one knee, just on the fringe of her stunning autumn garden. He proposed. She accepted. The chrysanthemums seemed to nod in approval.
Weddings were simple things back in those days and the big event was planned for just a few short weeks away, to allow time to finish the harvest. Lanie, though, could hardly concentrate upon the many tasks at hand. After all, she was engaged to the handsome Caraway Bergamot. But, not only was he handsome, he was widely known as a young man of uncompromising integrity, religious piety, and honesty, with a sharp mind and hard work ethic. In addition, the Bergamots were a wealthy and powerful family that was the envy of most everyone in the county. And, most importantly, the love of the young couple was deep, and true.
As harvest neared its conclusion, the weather took a turn for the worse. A severe wind whipped through the area and several large trees fell in the swamp and around Lanie’s cottage. One small tree landed in her prized garden amid the plants she had been grooming for the wedding — simple bouquets of lavender and mums. Carey came over to help with chores and saw that his bride-to-be was upset.
“What is wrong my darling?”
“Oh, it is nothing. There is so much else to worry about around here with the harvest and the wedding. It’s — it’s nothing,” Lanie said unable to mask how upset she really was.
“What is it? Just tell me.”
She explained the situation to Carey. He looked at the tree, which just a bit too large for them to move, he thought, but there would be no way to get enough help during the scramble of harvest for at least a few days. That of course, would do no favors for Lanie’s gardens.
“I think that we can move it,” he said.
Together, they wrestled the tree up off the plants. Lanie lost her footing, slipped and she fell, leaving the full weight in Carey’s arms. He stumbled too and, left in an awkward position gave a desperate heave to drop the tree clear of the garden. The action left him crumpled in agony on the ground.
“My back! My back!” he groaned.
Lanie ran round the cottage to the fringe of the swamp.
“Nettles, where is that patch of nettles?” she thought to herself, her heart pounding.
Lanie knew, from her childhood memories with her mother, that the diuretic nature of stinging nettles could do wonders for Carey’s ailing back. She also knew that Carey would not approve of these methods she learned from the black history of her mother’s family. She stopped for a moment to consider the situation. Should she lean on her past to jeopardize her future by helping the man she loves? There was no question.
“Find the nettles,’” she said under her breath. “There.”
She tore strips of fabric off of her work dress and wrapped them around her hand to avoid the sting of the nettles she grabbed. She was tearing out the plants as quickly as she could — the stinging leaves affecting her arms and face that quickly got red and blotchy. Her eyes were watering when she heard an unearthly chipping noise coming from overhead. A curious screech owl starred and her with its bulbous eyes gleaming through the gloom of the swamp. The wild bird bobbed its head back and forth a few times watching her closely. The eyes and the unusual call of the bird momentarily entranced her, but she continued the task at hand. She snapped a large clump of the plants and hurried back to Carey.
When she returned, he laid crumpled on the ground in agony. She tore off his shirt and yelled, “Where does it hurt?”
“What are you doing?” Carey groaned and looked at the stinging plants she held. “What is this witchcraft?”
“Where does it hurt?”
“My back — ahhh — my lower back!” Carey said, trying not to pass out from the pain.
Lanie took the fistfuls of nettles she had and began flogging Carey’s lower back with the stinging weeds. To a person passing by, it would have appeared that she was severely beating the man, until they realized it was just a clump of weeds. Nonetheless, Carey finally succumbed to the tremendous pain and passed out.
He awoke in bed in Lanie’s cottage. His skin was on fire on his lower back, but the deeper pain of the original injury was much better. There was a broad cloth bandage wrapped around his waist with ground nettle leaves pressing on his back.
Lanie was sitting and watching him with her beautiful, and haunting, blue eyes.
Carey sat up and winced, though he did feel much better.
“You just need a few days of rest,” Lanie said softly, waiting to see how he would react.
“What witchcraft have you done? What have you done?”
Carey tried to sound stern, but his words came out sounding only sad and hurt. Carey was a good man of integrity — a man who had no place for witches, no matter how much he loved them.
He got up and weakly left the room. At the door he turned, with a tear in his eye, and said, “It is done, my dear. The engagement is done. There will be no wedding.”
Lanie got up to stop him, but she could not speak. She ran after him as he clambered up on his horse and trotted off.
“Wait, Carey, wait…”
But he didn’t.
Every day that Carey did not drop by to help, she sat on an aging bench beneath an apple tree, heavy with ripening fruit, and wept bitterly. One evening she again sat with her head buried in her hands when an unearthly chattering from above startled her. She looked up, her face puffy with grief, and was taken aback by two round, yellow eyes staring back at her from the apple tree.
“You’re the screech owl from the swamp by the nettle patch.”
The bird poofed up its feathers and rocked back and forth — lifting one leg up and then the other — chattering a lengthy string of gibberish. For the first time in days, a slight grin graced Lanie’s lips.
“Nettles, I think I’ll call you nettles.”
The bird bobbed its head in agreement.
Weeks passed, and autumn turned to winter. Some of the Bergamot family stopped by fairly regularly to check on Lanie and help with some of the endless tasks on the farm. They offered their apologies, but no explanation for Carey’s actions. They all said that: “He has given not one cross word about you, nor about why he cancelled the wedding.”
While Lanie needed and appreciated the help they offered, she just preferred to be alone, or in the company of Nettles, who was becoming a regular visitor to the apple tree. When the Bergamots, or anyone, stopped by, she maintained a reserved composure and quiet disposition. She seemed almost tranquil on the surface, though she was deeply wounded emotionally.
She had rarely left the farm before the engagement had been broken, other than to go to church or to town with Carey. Now she almost never left at all.
The cold winter passed slowly as Lanie spent much of her free time in a dark corner of her cozy cottage and focused on the hurting of her heart — often silent, sometimes weeping quietly. She would have stretches of necessary winter work that temporarily distracted her from the misery in her mind. She ate little and grew more bitter by the day.
The only highlights of her life were when she would bundle up on the sunny, comparably mild winter days and visit the bench beneath the bare limbs of the apple tree. She would share her troubles with Nettles, who would whinny and purr his sincere condolences and blink his bright yellow eyes in sympathy.
Spring finally arrived. Lanie poured herself into the care of her farm and gardens. Nettles became an almost constant outdoor companion, swiping troublesome insects and even the occasional rabbit that would threaten the garden plants.
As spring bloomed and her garden grew, it was more beautiful than ever before. The plants seemed to radiate an inner glow. Some even had a unique iridescence about them. It was nothing short of magical, though few saw it. The few who did see it were members of the Bergamot family, who were so impressed they told others about it.
Lanie herself, had been looking withered and frail at winter’s end, but the sunshine and labor out of doors had enhanced her looks to make her nothing short of stunning. Her cheeks were sun kissed, and her slender frame had been hardened and defined by her labor, though it still possessed ample softness of feminine beauty. Her blue eyes possessed a fierceness that was not present before, yet retained the friendly, innocent and inviting quality that had always been there.
As news of the beauty of Lanie and her gardens, along with her heartbreak, spread around the community, visitors began to stop by more regularly. Lanie was always polite, but quiet and distant. For the young suitors that did not get the hint that she was not interested in their advances, Nettles would make an appearance with a few well timed swoops with his talons at their hats or faces to send even the boldest suitors scurrying off.
The farm crops and gardens were planted on the farm and the growing season was ideal. Rains came when needed and temperatures were moderate. But Lanie still cried almost daily about her hurting heart. She still loved Carey deeply and, to make matters worse, she had gotten word that he was courting the lovely Persimmon Langely, a beauty from the southern part of the county. There was speculation that an engagement was right around the corner.
After she heard this news, Lanie became even more withdrawn. She would spend the twilight and early evening hours gliding through the trees gracefully on the fringe of the swamp, with Nettles following along from perch to perch in the trees above. She looked more ghostly than human as she flickered between the patches of moonlight scattered between the black, dense shadows of the trees. The mosquitos and ticks left her alone. It was as if she was just another part of the swamp, and not a human intruder to the ecosystem of the mire.
She was weeping on her bench one night, beneath a crescent moon.
“Oh Nettles, will I ever stop hurting so?”
The bird ruffled his feathers and scrunched down in to a ball.
“I love him. I love him, but SHE has him. That is something I cannot live with. Maybe I should end my life. Maybe that would be best.”
Nettles slowly closed his bold golden eyes with concern and made the saddest whirring purr that ever haunted the swamp trees behind the cottage.
“Well then what do you suggest for this hurting heart of mine?”
She looked up into the yellow glowing eyes of the owl, unblinking now. He bent down on his perch and his pupils narrowed. He emitted a low, unearthly growl and bolted off into the trees in search of his evening meal.
“You’re right. There really is only one thing to do. Just one thing.”
Her beautiful face hardened in the dim moonlight. Nettles returned to his perch with a rodent in his talons.
The following late summer days brought a renewed fervor to the cottage. Harvest was coming soon. There was much to be done. Members of the Bergamot family continued to come over and help. They rarely spoke of Carey any more, though Lanie listened closely when they did. One day, fairly late into harvest, Carey’s brother Edward was over helping pick corn. The days were getting cold, but there had not been a hard frost yet. Edward did not possess the regal air of most of the rest of his family, particularly Carey.
Lanie knew that Edward was interested in her. Though she had no romantic interest in him, she found that he was a great source of information, if she listened carefully. She was also learning that she could easily manipulate him. Thus far, the men in her life had always been powerful and dominating — her father, Mr. Bergamot, and Carey. With Carey, it had been more of a mutual sway over each other, but she had little influence over the others. Edward (and she would later find the vast majority of men she met) was different. Lanie’s beauty enchanted him and he could hardly even speak when he was around her. When he did, it was in nervous, simple statements that he awkwardly blurted out.
They were carrying corn to the crib when Lanie broke the long silence of their work.
“I know I shouldn’t ask, but how’s Carey?” Lanie said in her sweetest voice.
“Uh — well, I mean, uh, not…not well. Uh…” Edward said. “He’s been real, uh, sick-like the past few weeks. Shame too, he was just engaged to Miss Langely.”
Edward quickly dropped his head as though he’d said too much. He had. Lanie saw opportunity here.
“Oh no! Oh dear, that is terrible,” she said.
“They say it’s cause he still loves you — nobody knows why he picked her over you. A, uh, uh, real head scratcher you know.”
This time Edward’s cheeks reddened at the obvious slip of information.
“Well, maybe I should talk to him. Maybe I can help,” she said, honestly concerned, and just a bit hopeful.
“Uh, maybe, I guess. I gotta’ go now Lanie.”
The next day, bright and early, Lanie was out tending to the livestock when in rolled a fine carriage carrying none other than Mr. Bergamot himself. Though he had grown more robust with age, he was still a striking, strong, barrel chested man with a booming voice and a powerful personality. He walked purposefully to the cottage and knocked on the door politely.
“Miss Lanie,” he called.
She came around through the garden to meet him at the door. He promptly took off his hat.
“My, my, you are prettier than ever Miss Lanie, I do say. You have grown into quite a woman,” he said. “We miss seeing you at church as of late.”
“Well it is nice to see you too, Mr. Bergamot. How can I help you?”
“Well, I guess it is no secret that our Caraway has fallen ill, and I can’t help but feel as if it might help him if you could just come over for dinner and maybe have a talk with him. You are a fine young lady and, quite frankly we are all a bit confused as to what it is that happened between you two. Edward said he’d talked with you about it and, well, Mrs. Bergamot and I thought it might be a good idea or, rather, it sure doesn’t seem like it would hurt a thing, anyway.”
“Well, I am happy to try, but I really don’t know that there is much I can do about it. Even so, it would be good to see all of you again. And, after all that your family has done for me, it seems the very least I could do.”
“Very well then Miss Lanie, I will be by to pick you up at 6 ‘o clock.”
The Bergamot home was a beautiful sprawling colonial style brick farmhouse with two massive a meticulously cared-for white barns. The house sat atop of a small hill and the front yard was dotted with oak and maple trees that were just starting show signs of autumn glory. The night was cool, but there was still just a touch of summer left in the breeze as the carriage approached the home.
The entire boisterous family, with the exception of Carey, surrounded the large table and had plenty of tales to share with their friend and neighbor. For the occasion, Lanie had dressed up a bit. She wore a simple but pretty dress she had made the previous winter. She had washed her wavy hair and let it fall down to tumble over her shoulders. She had even put some lavender oil (her favorite scent) behind her ears for the first time since the last time she saw Carey. She was nothing short of stunning.
The whole family was quite talkative with the exception of Edward who sat two seats away with red cheeks and his head down for most of dinner. There was a joyful and welcoming mood for most of the meal, until the conversation inevitably turned to Carey. Gradually all of the Bergamot children found some other pressing task to do around the farm and politely excused themselves as Mr. Bergamot told the tale of how Carey had courted Miss Langely and then, just a few weeks prior, had proposed. Soon after, Carey had become forgetful and started eating less. In the following days he had grown weak and pale and feverish. He hadn’t gotten out of bed for three days now. He had been moved to the guest room on the first floor so Mrs. Bergamot could tend to him more easily. Mostly, though, he said he wanted to be alone.
“We think you should talk to him,” said Mrs. Bergamot. “Please help our dear Caraway.”
She stood and gently grabbed Lanie by the arm and led her to Carey’s door.
“We’ll leave you two alone.”
The door shut behind Lanie and her body trembled as she gazed at Carey, sleeping, pale and sickly, though still strikingly handsome.
“Carey,” she said.
At the sound of her musical voice and the scent of the lavender upon her skin, his eyes fluttered open, piercing and blue and very sad.
“Lanie, why have you come? Do you wish to torment my soul further?”
“No, not at all. I love you Caraway.”
“And I love you, more than I can tell you, but you know that, no matter what, I will not, cannot and shall not ever marry a woman of witchcraft,” he said, his voice gaining some strength. “You misled me and never told me the truth about your interest in that swamp and its black magic.”
After this, he reached for the crock of vegetable soup his mother had prepared sitting on the nightstand. He took a mouthful and it warmed him. His blue eyes flashed.
“Though love you I do, I shall never marry a witch.”
“Do not worry, Lanie. I have spoken not one ill word of you to a soul, and I will not, but please, you must leave me now. Please…”
Lanie dried her tears as Mr. Bergamot dropped her off at her cottage. She had much to do to enact the only solution to healing her broken heart. There was an ominous low whirring sound and a ruffle of feathers from the direction of the apple tree, heavy with fruit, as the carriage headed down the dusty road in the moonlight.
Four days later, the Bergamot carriage once again rolled away from Lanie’s cottage. Even the horses hung their heads with sorrow. Mr. Bergamot had stopped by to tell Lanie of Carey’s death. Though she expected the visit, she wept, and her body shook with sobs of grief upon receiving the news. She cried for days. And, for Lanie, each tear carried with it a bit of humanity, compassion and caring. And, when she had finally wept out the last of her soul, she stopped, sat up, and smiled.
She dried her eyes and stumbled out into the crisp night air. She sat on her bench and gazed up at the full moon. She sat silent for a few moments. Then it came — a soft and sinister “whirrrrrr.”
Nettles purred with contentment and slowly blinked his glowing yellow eyes.
Lanie went in and wrote in her journal:
Caraway Bergamot, the love of my life,
My existence fulfilled if I were his wife.
But that could not be, and Nature knows no pause.
And so he had to die from my Natural Cause.
You be the detective. How did Carey die?