My lessons began in earnest the next afternoon in Sebastian’s study, or what I thought of privately as ‘the library room’. In the following weeks, they continued after I finished my duties, later in the afternoon.
Sometimes Maggie brought in tea and also cakes if she had been baking. If she thought anything about my lessons she kept it to herself, only saying once when she brought in the tea, “Them's that can read have a good start in the world. Father Fannon is doing you a great favour, my dear.” Then she pursed her lips and said nothing else about it.
Father Fannon's tutoring method was straightforward. Once I had mastered the letters of the alphabet and their sounds, he read children’s stories aloud to me, pointing to each word on the page until I could recognise which words made which sounds. Then he wrote out simple sentences for me to read, and lo and behold, after a couple of weeks of stuttering my way through, I could read simple text without too much trouble. I also practised writing at night in my chamber until my eyes gave out trying to see by the flickering candle.
During this time I felt a strange sense of destiny and purpose and hope all mixed together. It was as if my heart had breathed a sigh of relief that my life would not be ruined, as I was sure it would be because of the pox. I found myself pondering possibilities and dreaming of things that were quite above my station. I could not help it, Father Fannon had opened a door to another me and there was no going back.
One afternoon it was quite mild, as if the seasons had forgotten it was almost winter. Father Fannon said he was so pleased with my progress that we should take our books outdoors as there would not be too many more afternoons like this.
Readily I agreed and ran upstairs to collect my shawl, because the sun still hurt my eyes and would burn my scarred skin. I couldn't see Father Fannon so I left the house alone, wrapped my shawl around my head and made my way to the old weeping willow in the field at the back of the house.
There was enough heat in the air to feel oppressive, as if a thunderstorm were brewing. It was hot and sticky and I was glad to reach the cool shade of the willow. Father Fannon poked his head through the leaves and looked at me in my shawl.
“Will you not take off your shawl and get some sun Mercy? It'll be winter soon and then we'll all be crying out for it.”
I shook my head, “I'm afraid I can't Father, the sun burns my face now after....after my illness.” I suddenly felt depressed as I remembered why I was now different from everyone else.
“Pah, the pox!” said Father Fannon shaking his head so the willow leaves rustled.
“How I hate that monster! This spring we were lucky, but we've had our own share of it in Braintree. The year I arrived people were falling like flies. It's the most despicable thing I've ever encountered. I myself was inoculated in Turkey some years ago so it cannot touch me, but my heart goes out to those afflicted. And to those like you, Mercy, struggling to deal with its...consequences.” He stretched out a hand slightly as if to touch my shawl but then withdrew it.
I was surprised to hear him talk so of the pox. I had thought, more fool me, that somehow he had not noticed my pits and scars and so I, for a time, had forgotten them also. But now I knew that he had noticed and felt pity for me. The thought depressed me even further.
“Thank you, Father,” I said stiffly and turned my head away to indicate that I didn't want to talk about it. He must've got my hint as he said no more and lay down on his side in the sun and opened his book “on philosophy”, he told me. I opened mine, a simple farming story about a boy who wants to buy a cow for his father. For a time we read in silence.
Soon though, Father Fannon started sighing and plucking at his shirt. I heard him mutter, “So hot!” Eventually he sat up and pulled the shirt over his head. I was shocked at the sight of his bare chest. “Father!”
Father Fannon laughed at my horrified tone. “Apologies, Mercy but I had to free myself of this cumbersome article of clothing. Rest assured, I don't normally go gadding about with my shirt off, ahem, but I was dying of the heat. You do not mind?”
“Er, no sir,” I said not, knowing where to look or what to think. I felt like making the sign of the cross but knew he would see and laugh. I tried instead to concentrate on the cow in my story. It was a fine beast with a full swinging udder and would solve all the family's money worries by producing milk, and cheese and butter.
After a time I sneaked a peek at Sebastian. He appeared to have dozed off, but then he gave a lazy slap of his hand to his chest to disturb a fly that had happened to land there. I gulped and averted my eyes. As if he felt the weight of my gaze, Sebastian opened one green-grey eye and looked in my direction, “Have you made the sign of the cross yet, Mercy? I can feel your disapproval burning from here.” He chuckled bemusedly.
I said nothing and just kept reading about the cow with the full udder, over and over again and thinking, not for the first time, that Sebastian was a very odd rector.