Twenty minutes into the ride back to Tyalwyn, we reached the edges of Glanusk Park and our smiles transformed into concern. Or, at least, Isla’s did; mine was more of the curious sort. I scanned the edges of the roadway, searching the shadows of the trees for a sign of the aforementioned gipsy band. Isla released her curtain from the tasselled restraint to cover her window and placed her hand against her stomach.
“You think there really are Kales here? This far down? I thought they usually gathered closer to the coast, like round Caernarfon.”
I leaned closer to the glass, anxious to locate them. “Yes, Caernarfon . . . I think most do live there, but they are travellers, Isla, like our grandmother before us.” My heart leapt as the carriage rounded a curve and a small glade appeared at my side of the carriage. They they were, a group of at least ten or more, sitting round a small campfire, two barrel-shaped wagons parked nearby and fur-hoofed horses munching on the meagre patch of grass along the dirt roadway.
I lowered the window and tapped on the roof of the landau. “Harri, stop here, please.”
He called back down a concerned reply, but I opened the door as the carriage halted a little ways down the road from the group. Isla grabbed hold of my arm.
“Vala, what are you doing?”
I eased my arm from her fingers and seized her wrist, urging her to come with me.
“No,” she cried out. “Are you mad?”
“Oh, come along, Isla, just a bit of sport. We’ll have our fortunes read, for grandmother’s sake.”
She jerked her hand away and her head, defiantly. “I will do nothing of the kind. Go on, if you dare, but I am staying right here.”
“The missus is right,” Harri protested, even as he offered his palm to me to help me step from the door. “Ye needs take care, me lady, for the likes of them.”
“Hogwash,” I spat, and marched down the road to the group, all the while searching the bottom of my mesh purse for a few pennies.
Five pairs of eyes gazed up at my face when I approached, all in various states of inebriation—glazed, half-closed, wide-eyed, curious, and another with a look I dared not label from the leer on his lips. I raised my chin and steeled my courage, holding out the two pennies.
“Is there a fortune-teller here?” They looked askance at one another, murmuring and gesturing. One of them, a thin wiry man with a snaggled grin, slurred out an answer.
“Dw I dymm yn dallt.”
He did not understand. I smiled, my mind searching the Welsh tongue still tucked beneath my English facade. Father insisted on his girls speaking English on an everyday basis, especially when visiting London or attending the Season in search of husbands, as he concluded the high-born aristocrats of London society never stooped to learn the language of the least populated section of Great Britain. He was right, for even Edward, the Prince of Wales, knew only a smattering of the tongue. Even our house staff he hired from Dorset and Warwick instead of any locals to ensure we maintained the speech. In truth, his insistence on all things English piqued my curiosity on more than one occasion. I dared never ask, though.
“Dach chi’n siarad Saesnag?” I answered back, hoping at least one of them spoke English.
Each of them, in turn, shook their head. I held up the coins again, this time asking for the fortune-teller in their language.
“Ble mae’r rhifwr ffortiwn?”
The same wiry man stood up, brushed the dust from his trousers, and motioned for me to follow him. He approached one of the wagons and tapped his swarthy knuckles against the frame.
“Kezia,” he belted out. “Mae gennych fusnes ac arian.”
The woman, upon hearing that she had business and money, peeked out through the small square side window. She looked as ancient as the Black Mountains, grey hair, furrowed brow, and eyes full of fog.
She opened the door, her twig-like fingers beckoning for the coins and curling over them once obtained.
“Come in,” she said, her voice unmatching her appearance—wispy and soothing, yet rich like fine boxed Belgian chocolate.
I glanced back to the carriage and waved to Isla who stared out the window, biting her fingernails, while Harri stood near the campfire with the other men, accepting an offer of a cup of something to warm his gut. Blowing Isla a kiss, I mounted the steps and entered the cramped quarters.
The woman cackled softly and pointed towards a chair across from a round table in the centre of the room. I sat, taking in the surroundings. A fire burned in a iron-belly stove at one end of the room, the scented heat inundating the ambience with oakwood and anise. Snatches of herbs dangled from a hemp rope along the ceiling and rich burgundy scarves embroidered with botanical scenes lined the walls, as well as decorating my chair and the cushions behind my back. The air exuded mystery.
The woman, Kezia, blended into the atmosphere as naturally as a butterfly on a flower, even in her worn, aged state. She poured out two cups of tea and sat across from me, smiling a quite uncomfortable yet knowing grin.
“Ye sister not want to come?” Her question billowed out and her dark midnight eyes narrowed.
“My sister? No, she did not . . . how did you know?”
She chuckled and took a sip of her tea, tapping one finger to the side of her head. “I am knowing many things.” Leaning forwards, she stared deep into my face. “Like this . . . I know who ye are, my lady of waters.”
A sudden flush of nausea flooded my stomach and I touched my hand to my neck, my pulse racing beneath my fingertips.
“Lady of waters, what do you mean?”
She leaned back, draping her arms over the thick brocade upholstered arm chair she sat on. “Is this not why ye came . . . to hear ye ffortiwn?”
The nausea morphed into fear and I made a move to stand, but she stilled me with her words.
“I remember ye mam-gu, ye nain,” she said. “Illya was her name, was it not?”
“Wha . . . what?” I sputtered, easing back down. “How?”
“Ooh, ‘tis fifty years now, I think, when she died. I knew her before the Major, before India . . . that journey kill’d her, ye know.”
I huffed through my nose, an sardonic sneer as I pushed my teacup away and crossed my arms. “No, I wouldn’t know.”
She replied with a wink and a chuckle. “No, I suspect ye wouldn’t living with secrets now, would ye?”
She snickered and struck a white-tipped matchstick, lighting a thick beeswax candle in the centre of the table. The flickering flame danced in her pupils and she held the smouldering stick in between her thumb and forefinger; the smoke wafting in two slender entangling streams.
“White phosphorous . . .” she said, “very deadly, if eaten. One pack of matchsticks can kill a person.”
I arched my eyebrow, uncertain if I ought to sip any more of the tea. She blew away the smoke with a blast of breath, finishing off with a wave of her hand and crooked a smile.
“Useful information, is it not?” She added.
“I suppose, if you need to know such a thing.”
She nodded in agreement and pointed to my teacup. “Go on, finish the tea and with the last few drops, swirl the leaves and hand me the cup.”
With much trepidation, I finished the strong brew, deciding if she indeed poisoned me, at least Harri and Isla were close enough to ensure a rescue.
Handing her the cup, I waited for a moment as she turned the cup clockwise from the handle, her slight hum pausing once, twice, and a third time, with a ‘hmm’ or ‘ahh’.
She set the cup down and pointed to a long line close to the rim, formed by the residue of the leaves.
“Ye will take a long journey . . . far away from here. And here . . . near the bottom . . . the ‘T’. Do ye see it?”
I squinted and tilted my head, unsure, but agreed any ways. “Yes . . . I think.”
“This is for love . . . ye will look for this letter in your search for love. And the last, ye are a traveller as ye grandmother before ye.”
My heart leapt in my chest. “And where does it show that?”
She smiled and pushed the cup away, wrapping her warm hands over mine. “I need not the cup to see that.” Raising her hand, she pointed her forefinger and jabbed her rounded fingernail into my chest, right above my pounding heart. “Here . . . in ye soul and in ye eyes.”
The words lured me in with a strong pulling sensation, creeping into my core. “You said you remember her,” I said, hoping to draw more information from her about my past.
“Yes, she was like me.”
“A gipsy traveller, you mean . . . a Kale . . . from Caernarfon.”
She snickered. “Ooh, much more than just a Kale . . . for she knew the ways of travellers from long ago. She was a woman Bard with a voice like a nightingale—her favourite was Keats . . . do ye have a favourite?”
“Yes . . . I do. I adore Tennyson.”
“Ah,” she acknowledged, her eyes alighting with a long ago remembrance. “Of course, ye love Tennyson . . . the days of King Arthur. Romantics, both poets in search of escape, and dreamers of days long gone.” She narrowed her eyes. “Ah, I am seeing doubt in ye eyes. You have listened to rumours that we gipsy folk are ignorant . . . illiterate, even. Some are, no doubt, but ye nain was special, like a muse of fire to poets. She used to read poetry to me late into the night. One of her favourite lines was from Keats—‘O, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!’”
I grinned at the quote. “I know that line . . . my mother recites that quite often. But, what do you mean ‘of course, I love Tennyson’?”
She chuckled and lifted the teacup, tilting the rim for me to see inside. “What do ye see when ye look inside?”
I thought, for a moment, that her question answering my question was her attempt to evade, but as I stared into the cup, a clear picture formed in my thoughts. I shook my head and touched my fingers to my temple, just above my right eyebrow.
“The roots of a tree . . . like my ancestry reaching deep into the soul . . . searching for water . . .”
She cackled, reached across and touched my arm. From her fingertips, the goose flesh sped across my skin, all the way to the crown of my head. She narrowed her eyes and quoted another line. “Lo! I must tell a tale of chivalry, for large white plumes are dancing in mine eyes.”
Keat’s poetic words compulsed from my heart and throat. “Last night I lay in bed, there came before my eyes that wonted thread of shapes, and shadows, and remembrances . . .”
She continued. “You know the Enchanted Castle—it doth stand upon the rock on the border of a lake . . . ye know it well enough, where it doth seem a mossy place, a Merlin’s hall, a dream . . .”
And I added, without volition. “Here do they look alive to love and hate, to smiles and frowns; they seem a lifted mound above some giant, pulsing underground.”
She leaned towards me, her eyes narrowing. “And from them comes a silver flash of light, as from the westward of a summer’s night; or like a beauteous woman’s large blue eyes gone mad through olden songs and poesies . . . it is a flaw in happiness to see beyond our bourn—it forces us in summer skies to mourn, it spoils the singing of the nightingale . . .”
“I have a tale to tell,” I rhymed. “And yet, I cannot speak it.”
“And yet, your dreams speak the tale, do they not?”
I shook my head, scattering her question tingling the hairs on my arm, and rubbed my brow again.
“What . . . what just happened?” I asked.
She answered only with another low chuckle.
Even with much eyelash blinking and lip-biting, confusion bubbled inside me, fearing what just passed between me and the gipsy. Looking over to the empty teacup, I felt a sudden fear that more than tea, indeed, poured from her kettle and down my throat; therefore, in an attempt to steady my nerves, I asked a grounded question.
“Can you tell me more about my grandmother? What was her voice like, or her eyes, or her passions?”
Kezia’s hand retreated to her side of the table, aware of my sudden anxiety and need for answers. Still, though, she maintained a potent smile.
“She was a rare beauty with dark hair, not remarkable at first glance, but once ye recognised the sparkle in her dark eyes, there it was. She possessed an ancient strength as with Boudicca or Cartimandua, and knew the rites of a Druidess. When the Major came into her life, she sprang like a tigress at the chance to follow him to the spiced paths below the Himalayas. I heard from her a year later, her words indicating she never left the sheltered walls of the Residency in Lahore, ‘corseted and confined’ were her words. She was there during the uprising in 1858; then, one last letter coming nine years later telling me she and her husband were living in Lhasa. I knew nothing more of her until the day I saw ye mother in Caernarfon before ye were even born. I knew she was Illya’s daughter, despite the golden hair, for she possessed the same wandering eye and soul. Both ye nain and ye mam sought escape, as do ye . . . and for love, but not just any love . . . a love surpassing time.”
“Did my nain find it . . . with the Major, my grandfather?” I thought of the hidden tintype, wondering now if the man was my mother’s or my grandmother’s secret.
She smiled and shrugged. “I knew her no more after the last letter.”
Standing up, she sauntered over to a bookshelf along the back wall and removed a small wooden box. Inside, a stack of yellowed papers, old and worn from the passing years. She rifled through them, sliding out two and held them out to me.
“Here, take them. Ye might find something lingering in her writing or in her words.”
I took them, my fingers shaking as if I held a sacred relic and tucked them inside my purse.
With her still standing and no additional words trailing the offer, the candle wick waned, the tea leaves dried, and the former mystic aura faded into the stifling closeness of the wagon. I sighed and reached inside my purse to retrieve another coin.
“For your kindness,” I said, offering her a single sixpence.
At just the moment she slid the coin from my palm, a knock vibrated through the room. She strolled to the door and before even opening it, remarked.
“Ye sister comes for ye.”
Isla stood before the steps with a quivering lip and wide watery eyes.
“Vala, how much longer must I wait?” She blubbered.
Kezia bowed and motioned for me to leave.
“I’m done. I was about to leave before you knocked.”
Isla hugged me tight when I stepped down from the steps, whispering in my ear. “I was so frightened. I had no notion of what was happening inside.”
I kissed her on the cheek, then gestured towards Kezia leaning against the door frame. “We had a nice chat, sister dear. This lady is Kezia . . . she knew our grandmother, Illya.”
Isla gazed up and curtsied to her. “A pleasure to meet you.”
Kezia held up her hands and bowed to Isla. “No . . . ye need not bow to me . . . my lady . . . for ye are a Queen-in-waiting.”
Isla laughed and squeezed my arm, pushing me towards the carriage. “Dear me, a Queen-in-waiting? I think Queen Mary might have a thing to say about that. Come along, Vala, it is getting late.”
All five men seated round the campfire rushed to their feet as Kezia shouted towards them in clear Welsh.
“Sefyll I fyny! Mae dau offieriades yn cerdded o’ch blaen!”
As the carriage sped away, Isla leaned near to me and whispered. “What did she mean, two priestesses walk before you? And why did she call me a queen-in-waiting?”
I merely shrugged, unable to give an answer to Isla’s questions, or perhaps I ignored her, for my thoughts rested on the strange recitation in the wagon, as well as the letters in my purse. I felt anxious for Harri to hurry the horses home so I might rush to my bedroom, snuggle into the covers, and read my nain’s words by candlelight.
Staring out the window as the carriage edged along the Usk, Kezia’s words tripped across my soul— ‘ye are a traveller like her’, ‘ye seek escape like her’, ‘not just any love . . . a love surpassing time’.
I closed my eyes and smiled. This yearning deep inside me was an inheritance from my Kale grandmother, real and substantial, not the flighty romantic dreams my father accused me of. The peaceful thought comforted me on the ride back to Tyalwyn.