"The guest list must reflect our place in society. We must invite only the high-born and well-connected, or our own standing will be in question."
Their "standing" as she called it, was already in question as far as her husband was concerned. He was reluctant to add more phony, posturing, narcissistic peacocks to their already long list of such. If these represented the "cream of society" as his wife was constantly reminding him, he believed the cream had long ago curdled!
"My love, haven't we sufficient to fill our table by now? I do believe every Lord and Lady from within a day's journey, has been sent an invitation."
He knew full-well, his wife would never change her adamant pursuit of even the lowliest of creatures if they had a title attached to their name. She merely gave him one of her steely looks now, and he quietly withdrew to his study.
Sitting behind his empty desk, its gleaming walnut surface held only his dark reflection since he had turned the household affairs over to his young wife. He was twice her age and looked the fool, he knew, to all his contemporaries, but she was beautiful and filled with an extraordinary appetite for life.
These were qualities his first wife, Corrella, lacked in equal portion. While he sat on his large leather chair he did what he did best; daydreamed.
Corella was a plain woman, well past her prime, if indeed she ever had one, when they married. With her frumpy dress and shy demeanor, there were occasions when visitors would shove their cloaks and hats at her, as she came to greet them, mistaking her for a servant and not the Lady of the Manor.
It always galled her husband, but Corella never seemed to take notice of the slights. Her staff adored her and though their union brought no children to bear his name, her husband lived a quiet, if unexciting life, for the better part of fifteen years.
It all ended in a mystery that was yet to be resolved to his satisfaction. Corella went to call on an elderly villager who worked as their groundskeepers assistant. His health was failing and true to her caring spirit, Corella packed a large hamper with provisions and set off alone in their small carriage.
It was a blustery day in February, and she covered her legs in furs and told the stable boy he needn't go along as she'd be back before sunset. They waited the noon dinner for her, then the evening meal and still, she didn't appear. By full dark, her husband had staged an extensive search for her, arriving at the old man's cottage first. There he learned his wife had never arrived.
That was two years past and her husband's loneliness put him squarely in the sights of his second wife; that along with his vast estate and holdings. Oh, the older husband welcomed, even enthused over the attentions of the beautiful young woman and when she suggested they marry so she could care for him in his declining years, he tripped over his tongue saying yes!
The dinner party lacked one more female to balance the table. His wife interrupted his melancholic daydreams, saying he needed to think of someone who could add amusement to the party.
"Well my dear, there is that strange woman that lives deep in Farley Wood; she's a widow I hear and enjoys a reputation for having the ability to commune with those that have passed on. Total rubbish, but..."
"She'll do nicely. Have your man run this invitation over to her manse immediately!" she said imperiously, her sweeping gown giving finality to her command.
He sighed and did as she bid.
The following two days were hectic with activity and the evening of the dinner found the Lady of the House caught up in her toilette and picking and discarding gowns like fallen fruit in a colorful orchard. Her elderly husband retreated into his study where he sipped a sherry and dwelled on the prospect of the rest of his earthly days. This required another sherry.
There was an insistent knocking on the closed door and he was startled out of his reveries.
"Your Lordship, your first guest has arrived and her Ladyship is unavailable. I'm uncertain what to do with the Lady."
Leaving the empty sherry glass, but enjoying a bit of after glow along with a slight twinge in his stomach, the master of the house went to greet the lady who arrived unfashionably on time.
She stood with her slightly hunched back back to him, gazing into the fire that snapped and crackled in the hearth.
"Madame, I fear we were unprepared for your arrival," he was saying as she turned.
Her hideous features nearly unmanned him on the spot. He stepped back until his legs bumped into the small sofa and he plopped down like a country bumpkin rather than the country Squire.
She smiled at his disconcerted response, showing greenish teeth that appeared to have been filed to fine points. Her swarthy complexion told of many days in the hot sun, with its leathery look and deep lines. Her eyes were a bold black and seemed to study her host as if an appetizer before dinner. Her hands were gnarled like an ancient walnut tree limb and the long fingers she intertwined as if in prayer, were tipped with talon-like finger nails, yellowed and hardened with age.
"Do forgive me Madame, I seem to have had a bit too much sherry without the buffer of food against its effects. Can I assume you are our neighbor from Farley Wood?" he asked struggling to stand.
Her voice was like a carriage wheel turning without benefit of oil, and now rough with grit and dust.
"I am Madame LaCroix, good sir, and my tiny estate, Farley Wood has sadly kept us from previous meetings. But be assured, I know all about you and your dear wife. In fact, I am pleased to do your Calling this very evening."
"My...Calling? I'm terribly sorry, Madame LaCroix, but I have no idea what you mean by that. Perhaps you have confused this evening's event with another. Tonight, we dine together in convivial companionship."
When she moved closer to him, he unconsciously leaned back further into the sofa. She stood looking down on him, stretching her blackish lips into a terrible smile.
"You must allow me to perform this service sir, or suffer the rest of your days living with your shrewish young wife."
"Madame! You speak slander I fear! Have you not come in answer to our invitation, or have you used this as an excuse to harass me?"
"You are a good man, my Lord, but simple in the ways of the designing woman you wed in your loneliness. I am here to extend another chance for happiness to be yours. "
He had listened to this intently and wanted to refute her statement, but as he opened his mouth, the old crone blew a dark red mist from her own dark mouth into his startled face. He breathed deeply in his shock and gulped for air, soon falling back and into a deep sleep.
The witch, for that was her proper title, swept threw the foyer in her black garb, past the startled face of the door maid and up the circular marble stairs. Finding the rooms the Lady of the house occupied was simple; she merely listened for the constant complaints and hectoring voice and followed.
Throwing open the door and pointing to the lady's maid to leave, which she did, grateful to be free of her abusing Mistress, the witch stepped over the scattered dresses, avoided the boxes or discarded shoes and came closer and closer to the stunned Lady.
"Wha...Who...How...?" the Lady stuttered weakly.
The witch drew even closer to the gibbering woman, speaking in her gravely croak.
"I will now give you the freedom you want from your husband, just not in the manner you expected with his death. For I've seen you slowly kill him with small doses of rat poison, put into his sherry, his hot milk at bedtime, you even planned a larger dose for this evening's meal, putting it into the plain wine he prefers, to your own exclusive tastes, so you and your guests would never be in danger.
You have drained him dry of his joy in a life lived simply. You are greedy for all he possess and give nothing to his pleasures, not even your cold bed. I shall now take it all back from you with your own death."
As she moved closer, the Lady screamed out, "You can't do me harm..all will hear my cries." She immediately began caterwauling like a banshee on a spike, but no one came.
"They are all under my spell and now you pay."
A dark red mist settled around the old hag and the beautiful young woman, but when it cleared only the young wife remained. In body only that is, since the witch took full possession of the lovely form, running her hands down the slim waist and smoothing the lace bodice with a lovely smile.
Dressing carefully, she returned the staff to their own normal states and reentered the small room his Lordship sat upon the sofa. He was staring at her when she entered and when she leaned over and kissed his cheek, he jumped to his feet as if stung by a wasp.
She came close to his rather stout middle, getting on tip toes she give him a deep kiss, his sherry flavored breath filling her beautifully shaped nose.
This time his Lordship staggered backwards and but for her strong young arms, would have collapsed onto the floor.
"Madame, this is...this ...what has happened to you?"
"Tonight we shall entertain our guests and when we are done with the lot of them you shall come to my bed chambers and I will warm your body."
Dinner guests began arriving before he could process all that had happened, especially the promise of the night to be spent in his beautiful wife's bed.
He ate sparingly, but drank copiously, unnoticed by his suddenly adoring wife. He'd already finished an extraordinary bottle of French wine and the server, knowing his love of the plainer bottle of red, poured until it too was finished.
The witch, in possession of the lovely body of the young wife, finally realized what had happened.
Before dessert was served, his Lordship was standing to give a toast to his beautiful wife at the end of the long table. With his last words "my treasure" he fell over, squarely landing in his gold dinner plate.
The witch wanted nothing to do with being a Lady and soon after the funeral , returned to her natural habitat in the deep woods. Waiting for another to stumble upon her door as the unfortunate Corella had done all those years ago.
Not liking the plain, homely face and figure of the frumpy Corella, the witch disposed of her and waited for something more appealing to continue her long, endless existence. When the invitation came to attend the dinner at the home of the reputedly most beautiful woman in the region, well, it was irresistible.
Life can take such unexpected turns can't it?