Howard told James and James told Molly:
Remember how Howard met the Master? Years ago.
Yeah, before you or I were sent here. Howard’s told me the story a dozen times.
Right-o. Well, he’s gone and seen him again.
Last week? Wouldn’t there have been more of a to-do?
He snuck off after his rounds.
He did. Sunday after his hedges.
He snuck off? And spied on the Master? He never would.
Yeah. But he did. He tossed the trimmings in the bin round back and returned the clippers to the shed and from there he snuck off over the hill. Told Miss Etta he was stealing away for a smoke and she didn’t question him.
He might have been seen! Was he seen?
No. Well, by the Master, yeah.
Keep your voice down, Molly.
He’ll be hanged.
He won’t be hanged.
Sneaking off! Spying on the Master! He’ll be hanged certain.
Stop you’re crying. Stop it. Here, wipe your eye or gag your sobs, Molly. He’ll be fine. He saw the Master and the Master saw him.
How did he spy him so easy? Did he sneak up to a window?
No, that’s just it. He was at the hedges.
No, Molly, don’t be daft. The hedges at the pure house.
Howard ran all the way over there?
It’s closer than you think.
I was told it’s miles.
Maybe two miles at most. Just over those hills there.
Can’t be. It’s due north.
Isn’t. Straight that-a-way, over the hills, through the wood.
Not me then. I’d never go through the wood.
It’s quite pleasant in daylight.
James! You haven’t!
Don’t be such a child, Molly. It’s just trees.
There are bears in those woods.
I didn’t see any.
You’ve got lucky bones, James. You always have.
Then why do you worry about me?
You haven’t any sense like I do. You have your luck. I have my sense. Sense doesn’t run out.
Doesn’t. When your luck runs out, what’ll you have?
I’ll have you, Molly.
Don’t you wink at me, James. The devil closes one eye at a time.
Now you’re quoting at me? Sound like Miss Etta, Molly.
Miss Etta’s got sense, as have I. And you, you’re gonna get yourself hanged.
What’s all these hangings? Have you seen a hanging? When’s the last time anybody’s been hanged?
We’ve been good, is why. Behaving all along these years. So the Master goes easy on us when we fub a bit here and there. But sneaking off, you and Howard, spying on the Master. He’s like to bring back hangings, and he’ll start with your scrawny neck.
Nobody saw me.
Running over the hills in broad daylight, who couldn’t see you?
I keep my head down, like a proper penitent.
I’m proper. I’m just proper in other ways.
No, James. You run off into the woods and conspire with Howard to get us all hanged.
Nobody’s getting hanged.
Miss Etta’s study is on the third floor, looking out over the woods.
She’s only there half the time anyway. I’m no fool. Do you want to hear the story?
I’m terrified either way. I don’t know if I want to know.
Well, he saw the Master. Wearing a cotton jacket.
Precisely. And with pale blue denim trousers.
Why? I thought he only wore silk.
Apparently no, least not when he’s trimming his hedges!
He was never!
Trimming his own hedges?
I won’t believe it. Why? His own gardener keel over? Why not send for one of us? Why not send for Howard?
Maybe he enjoys it.
Nobody likes trimming hedges, not by the way Howard bellyaches every Sunday.
The Master must, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it.
Howard mistook the other gardener for the Master. Certain.
He says it was him.
Dressed as a penitent? Laboring in the sun? Wearing our drab?
He says the way the Master looked at him, he was ashamed.
Why was he ashamed?
Right. Precisely. Why would a penitent be ashamed? If another laundress snuck up on you, would you be ashamed to be caught scrubbing linens?
Not ashamed. Surprised maybe.
It was him.
No. A brother or a cousin. How long has it been since Howard saw the Master?
No, I mean for real. The first time.
Almost ten years.
I don’t trust it.
It would explain why we haven’t ever seen the Master.
Lost his clout, maybe. Somebody else is running the estate.
We haven’t ever seen the Master because he lives in the pure house and we live in the penitent house and we haven’t any business running over there and spying on him.
I’ve seen the pure house. It’s not that special.
Better than this.
Makes you breathe easy, doesn’t it?
Knowing the Master’s not all-powerful. Like us, he can be replaced.
That wasn’t the Master. Certain.
He was once the Master. Now he’s a hedge trimmer, like Howard.
So. Even if. There’s still a Master.
Perhaps. But a Master who can become a hedge trimmer if he’s not careful.
A Master who can still hang us for spying.
What’s all these hangings?
I’m taking it up with Howard.
Don’t. He’s poorly.
Since seeing the Master?
In bed all week. Claims a flu.
I’m taking it up with Howard.
Molly took it up with Howard:
Talked with James yesterday in the woodshop.
Molly? You’re not allowed in the men’s corridor. Scram, now.
One to talk, you are. Spying on the Master’s manor. Oh, you’re quiet now, Howard? James says you think you saw him.
I saw him.
Trimming the hedges?
No different than me.
Quite different, or you didn’t see him.
We had a lovely chat. Near ten years ago. Did I ever tell you?
He asked you to lunch. He said, teach me your hedge trimming ways.
Sit up now. Have you eaten all day?
He said he needed to pay a visit every ten years to the penitent. But as his manor was staffed by the fairest folk, young children and fragile elderly, he was afraid of exposure when entering the penitent house. So he asked we meet at high noon, while the others were at mass.
He said all this?
The Master wrote you a letter? Can I see it?
You burnt it?
On the envelope were instructions. Should you break this seal, you thereby swear to destroy this missive upon comprehension. Signed by the Master.
Signed how? What’s his name?
Just signed, Master of the Manor, with his seal pressed in wax.
The twin scythes?
And the words, Purity and Penitence.
I got something like that when I was sent here.
The letter asked my size, in inches, for a fitting.
A fitting? Like a suit? A tailored suit?
I asked Miss Etta to assist. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that, but I couldn’t have measured it on my own. The letter said I could tell everybody after the lunch, but not before.
What did she say?
She asked why I needed to know my measurements. I told her it seemed I was to have lunch with the Master.
You told her?
She delivered the letter. Asked why the Master was sending me personal notes.
Did you tell her anything else?
So what came of it?
Miss Etta and I took down my measurements and she delivered them to the Master. A month later she delivered a suit for me and another letter from the Master asking if I would be free the following Sunday.
He asked if you would be free?
How fine to be asked! To write an appointment on the calendar.
What’d you eat?
Scalloped potatoes, garlic chicken breast, rutabaga salad, filet of trout, and pork loin.
Orange and purple and green. Sweet, citrusy sherbet. Served in a silver dish.
That’s heavenly. When I get out, I’m having sherbet first thing.
If you want to be transferred to the pure house, Molly, you shouldn’t be sneaking about the men’s corridor.
Nobody saw me. Certain. Tell me about the Master.
He was kind. Quiet. I could tell he wasn’t comfortable in the penitent house. I tried to make him feel at home, but of course that was impossible. Miss Etta served us personally. He said it seemed best not to cause too much of a fuss.
What did you talk about?
The weather. The food, of course. When he left, he seemed sorry to go. In another life, perhaps, we could have been chums.
What did you call him? You can’t have called him Master all throughout.
He said his name was George.
George! The Master’s name is George. That’s a strong name. Appropriate for a Master of a Manor.
Or a hedge trimmer.
Nonsense. You’ve mistaken him.
I didn’t. Certain.
Why would he go about trimming his own hedges when he has two houses full of servants glad to labor for him?
Why would I?
What are you on about, Howard? You’re poorly. You need to eat. Why’d you sneak off anyway through the wood? At your age? I mean no harm in it. Only you shouldn’t be risking bears and hangings.
Hasn’t been hangings since before your time, Molly.
No reason to summon their return.
I’m old, Molly. Getting weaker. I have no hope of getting out now. I thought sure I’d be transferred to the pure house by now. I wanted to see my old chum one more time. I knew he’d be angry, me sneaking around and all. But I wanted it. To see him one more time. To remember. That lunch with the Master was the chief joy of my long service here. Sentimental old fool I am.
It was him? Certain?
How could I ever forget his face, child?
That cannot be.
What must he have done to fall so low? Who is the Master now? Did you speak?
Of course not. We were both ashamed.
Why were you ashamed?
Hush now. There’s a step in the corridor.
Miss Etta unlocked the cellar:
You haven’t eaten in two days, Molly. You must be hungry.
I’m terribly sorry, miss.
Are you ready to talk? Look at me. Are you ready to tell me what you and Howard were conspiring?
Howard was poorly. I brought him fresh linens.
You weren’t told to do that.
You were at the Master’s house.
When I am gone, is Molly the mistress of the penitent house?
Purity of action, miss. Purity of thought.
Look at me. In the eyes, Molly. Why is Howard poorly?
Is he still not feeling well?
Won’t eat. You’ll eat, won’t you? Tell me. What did Howard say?
Yours is to accompany sad old men?
He hadn’t changed his sheets all week.
Look at me, Molly. Do not look away. What did he say to you?
Only that he’s a sentimental old fool and he no longer believes he’ll ever get out of here.
He’s not happy?
The goal is purity. He’s still here. He’s disappointed.
One does not simply will themselves pure.
He’s been penitent for decades.
And there’s a fixed time after which we are pure? Is that what I’ve taught you?
What have I taught you?
Not to sneak about the men’s corridor.
Well, that is surely a lesson you haven’t learned.
Is the Master well?
He’s Howard’s age, no? Changing of the seasons and all. We penitent all wish him well.
Yes. He’s fine.
He’s nearly due for another visit.
You set the Master’s schedule?
How long have you served, Miss Etta?
A long while.
How long were you penitent?
Irrelevant. Do not compare each to each.
You’ve been pure many years. One of the few who serves the Master directly.
What do you call the Master when you speak with him?
How is that any of your business?
Has he ever asked you to call him George?
You’re a bold young woman.
I want out of this place. No harm meant to you, miss.
Naturally. There are many paths that lead out of this place for you, Molly.
Penitent heart. Penitent mind.
There haven’t been hangings since before my time.
There may need be a return.
Visits of the Master and hangings. Both lose their power with either too long an interval or too brief.
You and I should get to know each other better, Molly. One day, I may introduce you to the Master.
No harm, miss, but I wouldn’t want to meet the Master.
And why not?
I’d rather run his letters.
You’ve had a lot of time to think, I see. I could use your help, Molly.
Who do you get to write them?
Hush now. Not here.
I want out, miss.
Impossible. But I can make your life here much more comfortable.
There is no pure house, right? Each house thinks the others are their betters?
You need to be cautious.
Does anybody else know?
Of course not.
James built the gallows that hanged two hedge trimmers:
Don’t be sneaking off now, James.
I’m still lucky, Molly. Howard was never lucky. Poor man. I liked him.
He was sentimental.
And the other. To think, that old fool used to be the Master.
He never was the Master.
You’re saying Howard was wrong?
So the Master didn’t fall to the station of a hedge trimmer?
Quite the opposite.
What’s that? Why are you looking at me like that?
Molly chose not to tell James.
Story writer, game creator, puzzle spinner