Authors: Gemma Holden
The River Maid
by Gemma Holden
Copyright © Gemma Holden 2014
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without the prior written permission of the author.
St Goarshausen, Germany, 1805
Her mother had always warned her to be careful of the river; not to get too close and to stay away from the edge. But the river was impossible to avoid. Nestled at the bottom of a valley, the town stretched like a thin ribbon beside it, pressed between the river on one side and the hills rising above it on the other. Vineyards covered its fertile banks and castles stood as testament to its significance.
Adrianna picked her way carefully along the riverbank. She had loved the river as a child but now, along with the hills, it seemed to form a prison, cutting her off from the rest of the world. It was as if nature itself had conspired to keep her trapped in this tiny town, never to see beyond it.
Her walk came to an end as the grassy bank gave way to rocky cliffs and the river disappeared around a bend and out of sight. Adrianna sighed. She wished she could carry on and follow the river and see where it led. The world was awash with ideas and revolution. There was talk of freedom and change, but not here. Here, the only thought was how many fish the men would catch that day or if Frau Duerr’s pig had escaped and trampled Herr Krause’s garden again. The townspeople didn’t think or question. They got up every day and went out to their fishing boats and then returned to do it all again. They were content with that, so why couldn’t she be?
Gulls cried out and circled in the sky above her. Grey wings tipped with black, streaked across the sky in wide, lazy circles. No boundaries held them in, no obstructions blocked their path. They were free to go wherever they wanted. She looked around and then closed her eyes and stretched out her arms. The wind streamed past her, whipping her dress around her legs and trying to tear the shawl from her shoulders. She imagined it lifting her up into the air. For one brief moment she was there with them; soaring, swooping, diving. Completely free.
With a sigh, she let her arms fall to her side. She was too old to be daydreaming. The other girls her age were married now or about to wed and soon, if her mother had her way, it would be her turn.
Unable to avoid returning home any longer, she reluctantly turned to head back to the town. She still had chores to finish if she wanted to avoid yet another argument with her mother. The argument from that morning was still fresh in her mind. They had begun to quarrel more and more lately. It seemed that not a day went by that they didn’t argue about something.
Before she left, she cast one final look back, hoping to see Monsieur Gaspard, but for once the cheerful Frenchman was nowhere in sight. He often came for a walk by the river after he had finished his lessons with the prince. He at least listened to her. There had been no one else to talk to since Jutta had disappeared. She wished she could be as brave and leave this place.
Her feet trailed to a stop. She turned back. She could hear someone singing softly, so faint, it was barely more than a whisper. For a moment, she thought she had imagined it, but then she heard it again. The song sounded familiar, as if she had heard it before in some forgotten dream. Straining to catch the words, she hummed the melody. The song continued, as if in answer. Like a rope, it drew her toward it. She had to find out where it was coming from.
The icy touch of water on her feet shocked her into opening her eyes. She was at the very edge of the river. Another step and she would have been in the water and caught in the current. The weight of her skirts would have dragged her down. Confused, she stepped back. A shape floating in the river caught her gaze. At first she couldn’t make out what it was, but slowly her mind made sense of what she thought was a twisted branch of a tree. Slowly, the limbs became an arm and the arm joined a body. A white face stared up at the sky.
Adrianna stumbled back in horror and then turned and fled. Picking up her skirts, she ran back the way she had come. Further downstream, a group of fishermen were pulling in a fishing boat. She recognised Herr Fleischer. With him were his two sons, Evert and Georg, who both had the same red hair as their father, and Peter, who had come from St Goar to live with Frau Duerr, his aunt, the year before. They saw her running toward them. Herr Fleischer came to meet her. He caught her and steadied her, his hands gripping her arms tight.
“What’s happened?” he asked.
She opened her mouth to speak, but she couldn’t seem to form the words. “I saw Jutta,” she eventually managed to get out.
Herr Fleischer waited, his thick brows drawn together. “Where?”
She pointed a shaking hand to where Jutta slowly floated, carried along by the current. “In the river.”
They all turned to look. Peter paled, turning as white as his fair hair. Evert looked as if he was about to be sick. A sob came from the other side of the boat. She hadn’t seen Jorg crouched among them. Jorg was small for his age. With mud smeared across his cheek and his brown hair in desperate need of a good brush, he looked much younger than his ten years. His mother was heavy with her sixth child and with nothing to occupy
him; he often came to meet the fishing boats. Now, he stood there crying, his small shoulders trembling with the force of his sobs. Adrianna moved to comfort him, but Herr Fleischer stopped her.
“Jorg, I need you to go back to the town and tell them what has happened,” Herr Fleischer said, his voice calm and steady. “Can you do that?”
Jorg wiped his nose on his sleeve and nodded. He took off back to the town.
“You should go with him,” Herr Fleischer said to her quietly.
Adrianna shook her head. “She’s my friend. I have to stay.”
He nodded and turned to face his sons and Peter, his face grim. “We need to go back out.”
They pushed the boat out into the river and then quickly climbed in. They rowed out. Adrianna stayed on the bank. She could Jutta clearly now. She drifted slowly, her face turned up to the sky. It was almost as if she was floating. Perhaps she wasn’t dead. Adrianna willed her to move. For her to somehow be all right. The boat drew alongside Jutta. Ernst stood up and threw out a net. He pulled the net in, drawing Jutta’s body with it, and with Peter’s help, they lifted her into the boat. They rowed slowly back. Adrianna went down to help them pull the boat in.
They had covered Jutta’s body with a blanket, but her hand had slipped out from beneath the coarse grey fabric. Adrianna had seen her father after he had died one winter from a fever. Jutta had that same lifeless pallor to her skin. Her fingers were bloated and swollen from being in the water, the tips reduced to stubs where the fish had nibbled at them.
“Adrianna,” Herr Fleischer said.
Adrianna looked up. She realised she had been staring. She stepped back, out of their way. They took one corner of the canvas each and lifted Jutta up. Feeling n
umb, Adrianna stepped aside to allow them to pass with their burden and then fell in behind them. She followed them back to the town, which seemed so far away now, in silence. She felt as if she were in some terrible dream. Nothing felt real.
Georg struggled with the weight. Adrianna watched as he kept losing his grip, but he didn
’t let go. He clung stubbornly to his corner. Herr Fleischer murmured soft words of encouragement to his son. “Not far now,” he said, his voice low. “We’re nearly there.” His words were directed to Georg, but Adrianna knew he was talking to them all. It was as much as she could do to remember to put one foot in front of the other. Above her, the cries of the gulls now sounded harsh and cruel. They seemed to mock her for her earlier daydream.
Jorg had roused the entire town. As they entered, the townspeople came out of their houses to watch as the grim procession passed. No one spoke. They huddled together on their doorsteps, holding tightly to their children. They had all put down what they were doing when they had heard the news. Frau Mueller had not stopped to wipe the flour from her hands; Herr Krueger still wore his bloody butcher
’s apron. Liane, who had only had her baby two days before, had wrapped a cloak over her nightdress. She leaned against Diederich, her husband, for support. When Adrianna had left only a few hours before, they had all been going about their lives. Now, everyone was silent. The only sound was the wailing of Frau Luft, Jutta’s mother.
The men stopped in front of Jutta
’s house. Frau Luft, who had always reminded Adrianna of a bear due to her thick arms and legs, sobbed into the corner of her apron. In contrast to his wife, Herr Luft stood unmoving, his face etched with grief. A small, quiet man, he had aged in the last few minutes. He reached down and took his daughter’s cold, limp hand in his own. He pressed his lips to her skin and closed his eyes, before gently tucking her hand under the blanket. He stepped back and nodded to the men to bear her away.
Men came forward to help carry Jutta’s body. Adrianna hugged her arms to her chest. Everyone seemed to be being comforted by someone; Jorg was in his father
’s arms, Diederich was holding Liane tight. Peter, having been relieved of his burden, came to stand beside her. He reached out as if to take her hand, but she stepped away, out of his reach.
Adrianna.” Her mother appeared behind her, her arms outstretched. Adrianna flung herself into her mother’s arms. She hugged her tightly, the argument from that morning forgotten. “You didn’t see her did you?” her mother asked.
“Only from a distance
,” she said, her voice muffled against her mother’s shoulder.
Her mother pulled back and cupped her face with a calloused hand.
“I’m sorry. I know she was your friend.”
Jutta had been her friend once, but she had changed in the weeks before she had disappeared, becoming silent and withdrawn.
“I’m going to see what I can do to help the Lufts,” her mother continued. “Someone needs to make sure the younger children are fed and put to bed. Unless you want me to stay with you?”
She did want her mother to stay with her, but she shook her head.
“I’ll be fine. Go and help Frau Luft.”
Her mother gave a last squeeze of her hand and hurried across the street. She put her arm around the weeping Frau Luft, and with the help of Frau Mueller, they led her inside.
“Mademoiselle,” came a voice from behind her. She jumped, her hand going to her chest as she spun around.
’t seen Monsieur Gaspard come up. He held his bicorn hat against his chest, revealing his bald head. Portly, with shrewd light blue eyes, he was shorter than her and Adrianna was not tall. With his ample stomach and bald head he resembled an egg. Although he was French, his German was perfect. She could only detect the faint traces of his French accent when he spoke.
Monsieur Gaspard,” she said in greeting.
Forgive me,” he replied. “I did not mean to startle you. We were out riding and noticed the crowd and decided to come and investigate. Has something happened?”
She looked around. She didn
’t know if the townspeople would want her to tell him, but it would be common knowledge soon enough. “A girl disappeared two weeks ago. We found her this afternoon in the river. She’s dead.”
He bowed his head.
Adrianna hugged her arms to her chest. “
We thought she had run away, but she never took anything with her when she disappeared.”
Adrianna had envied Jutta her courage at leaving the town. She had thought of leaving herself and finding work in the city. She was not naïve; she knew that she had few skills. She could wash and clean and mend, but little else. It would be no different from her life here now, and she would be far away from her mother. She had thought Jutta so brave for leaving and all this time she was dead.
“Something like this was bound to happen eventually when there are so many soldiers about,” Monsieur Gaspard said sadly, shaking his head.
A chill ran down her arms. “
You think that someone harmed her?” It hadn’t occurred to her that Jutta’s death was anything other than an accident.
Gaspard hesitated. “It’s possible. Forgive me. I did not mean to frighten you.”
She had always thought that she was safe here in the town. The same river that cut her off from the rest of the
world protected her from it as well. At least, she once thought it did. Suddenly cold, she pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders.
Monsieur Gaspard looked past her and gave a short nod. Curious to see who he was
signaling, she turned around. The prince stood waiting for his tutor in a nook between two houses. He held the reins to two horses loosely in his gloved hand. Dressed in a charcoal grey overcoat, with black polished boots, it was obvious he was not from the town. It was not just his fine clothes that marked him as different; it was the way he held himself with his shoulders back and hands by his side. Most boys would slouch and lean against the wall. The prince stood straight, his handsome face expressionless, his dark blue eyes staring directly ahead. Under his bicorn hat, rich dark brown hair, the colour of old wood stained and polished, fell over his forehead.
His handsome features had caused quite a stir when he had first arrived to stay at the castle that overlooked the town. She agreed that he was handsome, but there was a remoteness to him that made him seem cold and detached. She wondered if he had sent Monsieur Gaspard to find out what had happened instead of having to ask the townspeople himself. Although, he was within hearing of their conversation, he gave no indication he was listening. If Monsieur Gaspard had not looked over, she would never have known he was there.