When Maurice died, Constance inherited two things: the ramshackle cottage in the woods that she had shared with Maurice for forty years - and Maurice’s shotgun.
Constance proceeded to let the house fall further into disrepair around her. But the shotgun she kept always clean and always loaded.
Residents of the small village nearest to Constance’s cottage would speak about her behind their hands on the rare occasions that she ventured out for supplies: “There she is again, that mad woman from the forest” and “How could she let herself get into such a state? She can hardly walk” they said.
Nor were the village folk ever slow to circulate rumours about Constance. They gossiped that she stalked the forest at night, barefoot and wearing just a nightshirt and that she trapped vermin for her kitchen store cupboard. There was a suggestion that she ate up to twenty rats and squirrels a day and that accounted for her huge size. The more malicious among them also questioned whether or not she had any part in Maurice’s demise.
Certainly Constance gave no indication – in public and in private – that she mourned Maurice’s passing. He was buried in the cheap end of the local cemetery, with little ceremony and with nobody but the gravedigger and a sad-faced priest present.
Constance had stayed home, polishing Maurice’s shotgun, and burning on a bonfire the few threadbare clothes that he left behind. A fact that was not missed by the gossipmongers in the village.
Chief among the gossipers was Ted Hardy, owner of the village stores. It was he who had most contact with Constance on her rare forays into the village, as his was the only store that she patronised. Constance never spoke a word when she was in Ted’s store buying supplies, she merely picked up what she wanted and dumped it on the counter. Ted, as was his usual style, would smile obsequiously and keep up a constant stream of chatter, saying “Oh yes, such a good choice, Madam, that was fresh in only yesterday” and “It’s always a pleasure to have you in my store”.
Ted would also, in his usual style, miscalculate the reckoning . Which always worked in his favour.
But Constance’s visits were infrequent and so, to fill their days, Ted and the other villagers had to look elsewhere for hapless characters to assassinate.
Constance was not afraid of the villagers. Indeed, Constance was not afraid of any mortal soul – or of those below ground either. (The thought that there might be vengeful spirits roaming the forest during the hours of darkness had never troubled her).
But the villagers were wrong when they gossiped that Constance roamed the forest at night, because Constance never did such a thing. Constance was afraid of the forest at night. And that’s because Constance was afraid of wolves. Deeply, mortally afraid of wolves, she was. In Constance’s imagination they were everywhere – skulking in the shadows, scratching at the wooden walls of her cottage, sniffing around her outbuildings.
So she kept her door locked and her shotgun loaded. If the wolves found a way to get inside, she would be ready.
The fateful winter following Maurice’s sad and friendless departure from this life was unusually severe. Snow began falling as early as November and there followed snowstorm after snowstorm that turned the village, the farmer’s fields and the forest trails white and silent. The drifts built up against folks’ doors so that few villagers ventured outside even during the brief hours of daylight. And none ventured outside at all at night.
Ted Hardy’s store began to fall on hard times. His usual custom dwindled to a trickle and his bank balance began quickly to slide. For a man as money-oriented as the store owner, it was too much to bear. Any brave soul who battled the howling winds, the sharp hailstorms in order to reach the store might find Ted seated grim-faced at his cash register, mournfully counting sad little piles of coins over and over – as if by so doing they might increase of their own volition.
But Ted had not become a wealthy man without being resourceful. And he had come up with a plan – a risk-filled plan born of desperation it has to be said – to raise some extra cash. He was thinking of the forest folk, locked in their houses in the woods and held there by huge snowdrifts. They must be, he reasoned, running short of supplies.
And when supplies are needed so badly, prices can reasonably be expected to rise, can they not?
So Ted began to plan how he could get supplies out to these remote parts of the county. He would need a dog sleigh hauled by six hounds. When Charlie Wannamaker, the dog sleigh owner shook his head violently and said “No Sir, I will not be risking my life out there in the wilderness, Mister Hardy” Ted realised that he would have to drive the sleigh himself. Therefore, a cost for his personal safety had to be added to the cost of supplies.
Ted did the accounting so that his costs on the one side would be handsomely compensated by his returns on the other side. When this was done, the final price that he would be asking for the life-saving provisions that he would bring to the forest folk was eye-watering.
The day that Ted chose to venture out into the woods was quieter than the days before. The winds had dropped and no snow had fallen overnight. Ted called Charlie to bring the sleigh and the hounds to the store and he conscripted Charlie to help load the supplies.
The air was still as cold as any day that winter and so Ted dressed himself in furs from head to foot: fur hat, fur coat, fur gloves and fur-lined boots. Ted’s main concern was to maintain enough heat in his hands so that he could count the money that he would collect without fumbling and dropping any single coin.
The first part of the venture passed slowly – the snow drifts were deepest on the open paths and fields surrounding the village and the going was tough. But the dogs were strong and well-trained and once Ted got into the rhythm of driving the animals forward and accustomed himself to the swaying of the loaded sleigh, better progress was made.
The forest dwellers were pleased to see Ted and his supplies arrive at their doors. They were less pleased when they realised that the prices demanded for the flour, meat and dairy items would throw them into debt for months to come. But they took what they needed nonetheless.
Due to the layout of the forest paths, going from one hut to the next meant much back-tracking and diversion and, as a result, darkness was beginning to fall all around the store-holder and his hounds before the sleigh was half emptied. But Ted was determined not to quit the venture before every item had been sold and so he cracked his whip and urged the dogs forward.
It was deepest night in the woods by the time that Ted arrived at Constance’s cottage, where there was no sign of life other than the flickering of a single candle within.
Although Ted himself may have been the origin of the rumours around Constance’s nightly haunting of the forest, he did not give it any credence. He was certain that the strange, mute, half-witted woman, despite her eccentricities, would be at home at this late hour.
He tied up the dog sleigh to a wooden post and took the last remaining package (of pressed beef and cheese) up to the cottage door. He felt for and tried the door latch, but the door was locked. He called out to Constance, but there was no reply from inside.
The hounds, tired, restless and hungry now, began to set up a howling one after the other – an eerie sound that echoed around the hollows beneath the tree cover.
Inside the cottage, Constance heard the howling, and the scratching at the door. She nodded quietly to herself – it was what she had been expecting. The wolves had tired of waiting for her to venture out into the forest and they had come for her at last.
Yes, she told herself, the wolves are here. When she heard what sounded like a human voice, she knew that the wolves were trying to trick her to come outside. But she was not to be tricked.
Constance already had the loaded shotgun on her lap and now she cocked it.
Outside the cottage, Ted was becoming impatient. He was determined not to take even this small last package back to the store unsold and so he looked closely at the door, as best he could in the darkness. Like the rest of the building, the door was rickety and Ted reckoned that a nudge with his shoulder would let him in.
So he put his shoulder to the door panel and shoved. The flimsy door gave way and Ted fell forwards on to the threshold.
As the door flew open, Constance saw a creature – a confused outline of fur - burst in. She gave the shotgun its head and fired both barrels. The sound of the double explosion in the tiny cottage was deafening.
When folk in the village speak of Constance now, it’s a different tale that they tell. They speak of her silence at the trial; they speak of the plea of insanity that her state-appointed defence lawyer put forward; they speak of her incarceration (for the rest of her lifetime) in the secure home for the mentally challenged.
They also speak more happily of the better prices on offer at what was once Ted’s supply store under the new owner, Mister Chang.
And now in Mister Chang and his daughter, Li Jing, the village rumourmongers have a rich seam of gossip with which to fill their time.