Authors: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Love Stories, #Historical, #Historical Fiction, #London (England) - Social Life and Customs - 19th Century, #Sagas
For the flame will surely come,
And burn, and blacken, and lay bare the hill.
But with the first sweet breath of spring
The shy and lovely flower will again show
its face among the charred ruins.
It yields to the searing beat,
But with its persistent beauty
Far surpasses and finally tames the flame.
June 23, 1799
Somewhere in the world, time no doubt whistled by on taut and widespread wings, but here in the English countryside it plodded slowly, painfully, as if it trod the rutted road that stretched across the moors on blistered feet. The hot sweltering air was motionless; dust hung above the road, still reminding the restless of a coach that had passed several hours before. A small farm squatted dismally beneath the humid haze that lay over the marsh. The thatched cottage stood between spindly yews and, with shutters open and door ajar, it seemed to stare as if aghast at some off-color jest. Nearby, a barn sagged in poor repair about its rough-hewn frame and beyond, a thin growth of wheat fought vainly in the boggy soil for each inch of growth.
Inside the house, Heather wearily turned potatoes against a dull worn knife that more scraped than peeled. Two years she had lived in this cottage, two years so miserable that they seemed to blot out her life. She could barely summon the happy times prior to that weary day she had been brought here, the softer days spilling over the years as she grew from baby to young woman, when her father, Richard, had been alive and she lived with him in a comfortable London house, wearing stylish clothes, having enough food to eat. Oh yes, it was better then. Even the nights her father left her alone with servants didn't seem so frightening now. She could understand now his agonies, his loneliness for a wife long dead, the sweet, beautiful Irish lass whom he had fallen in love with and married and lost giving birth to their only child. Now Heather could even comprehend her father's need to gamble, that cruel sport which had robbed him of life and her of home and security, leaving her at the mercy of her only kin, a pluckless uncle and a shrewish aunt.
Heather wiped her brow and thought of Aunt Fanny lounging in the other room; the straw mattress would be flattened under her more than generous frame. Fanny was not a woman easy to get along with. Everything seemed to displease her. She was without friends. Not a soul ever came to call. She liked no one. She had thought the Irish woman her brother-in-law had married was inferior because of her people, a race she declared was always warring against the crown because it was their nature to fight, and now Heather bore the brunt of that malicious hatred. Not a day went by that it wasn't thrown up to Heather that she was half foreign. And with the prejudice was an emotion that ran deeper, twisting Fanny's reasoning until she half believed that like the mother, the daughter was part witch. Call it jealousy perhaps, for Fanny Simmons had never been pretty, not even remotely so, whereas the colleen, Brenna, had possessed great beauty and charm. Men's heads turned when she walked into a room. Heather had inherited her mother's exquisite loveliness and, sadly enough, the aunt's criticism along with it.
The gaming houses had claimed payment for Richard's losses at their tables, taking every material possession he had had but a few personal artifacts and some clothing. Fanny had hastened to London to declare her husband's right of blood, snatching up the orphaned niece and her meager inheritance before a protest could be made. She had grumbled because Richard had not shared his wealth nor left it behind for them, then sold the goods, all but one gown, a pink one that Heather was not even allowed to wear, and greedily pocketed the money.
Heather straightened her aching back and sighed.
The words rang from the other room and the bed creaked as her aunt rose from it.
"You lazy flit, stop your daydreaming and get to work. Do you think your chores will be gettin' done while you mope around here? I swear a body would think that lady's school you went to would've taught you something useful instead of reading and all those high-handed notions what fill your head!"
The huge woman padded across the dirt floor into the room, and Heather mentally braced herself. She knew what was coming.
"See what good it done you—'aving to live off your only kin. Your pa were a fool, that he was, throwing away his money without a care o' nobody but hisseif, all on account o' that flip he married—that Irish girl." She spat the words out in distaste as if she could think of nothing worse. "We tried to warn him against wedding her. But he wouldn't listen—'e had to have Brenna."
Heather lifted her gaze wearily from the shaft of sunlight drifting in from the open doorway to the large bulk of her aunt. She had heard the argument so often she knew it by heart; it failed to shake her kinder memories of her father.
"He was a good father," she said simply.
"That's a matter of opinion, missy," the woman sneered. "See what fix he left you in. No dowry an' eighteen you'll be next month. Ain't no man what'll marry you without one, though they'll be wanting you all right—to fill their beds. I got me poor hands full, trying to keep you decent. I ain't wanting you to spill no bastards in me home. Folks here is just waiting for that. They knows what trash your ma was."
Heather flinched, but her aunt ranted on, turning her narrowed eyes upon her and shaking a damning finger.
"The devil done his work when he made you just like her. A witch, she was. 'Taint natural for you to have the same looks. And so she ruined your pa, so you'll be ruining every man what lays his eyes on you. 'Tis the Lord's will what brought you to me. He knew I could save you from the fire an' brimstone you were meant for, and I done me duty in selling those fancy gowns you had. You were too vain an' uppity for your own good. Them old dresses of mine have done nicely for you."
Heather could almost laugh. If it weren't so sad she would. Her aunt's clothes hung about her worse than any sack, for the woman outweighed her twice over. This was all that she was permitted to wear, old rags that made a mockery of style or design. Fanny had even forbidden Heather to take in the seams to make them fit better, only to shorten the hems, so she wouldn't trip.
The woman caught Heather's contemplation of her hand-me-down and sneered. "Ungrateful little beggar. Just tell me where you'd have been today if your uncle an' me 'adn' t taken you in? If your pa would 'ave 'ad good sense, he'd 'ave married you off with a nice dowry. But no, he kept you to hisself, thinking you too young to wed. Well, it's too late for you now. You'll be buried a spinster when you die—and a virgin, too, that I'll see to."
Fanny returned once more to the cottage's only other room, giving Heather a warning that she'd best hurry with her chores or suffer under the bite of a switch. Heather's fingers sped at their task. She had felt the sting of that branch. Red welts usually criss-crossed her back for days following a whipping. Fanny seemed to take special delight in marking Heather's bare flesh.
Heather dared not release another exhausted sigh, for fear it would draw her aunt's attention again, but she was weary of her labors. She had been up since before dawn, preparing a feast for Fanny's anxiously awaited brother, and she doubted her ability to last much longer. A letter had arrived several days before, informing Fanny that he would be coming this evening, and she had ordered Heather to start preparations immediately upon receipt of the note; she had even lifted a finger or two herself to arrange a treasured cup on a saucer. Heather knew the man was someone her aunt held very dear indeed. She had heard many glorious tales about him, and guessed that Fanny's brother was the only being, human or otherwise, that she cared anything about. Uncle John had confirmed Heather's beliefs when he told her there was nothing Fanny wouldn't do for the man. There had been only the two of them, and being ten years her brother's senior she had raised him from a babe. But it was very rare nowadays that he came to call.
The sun was a red ball flaming low in the west before everything lay ready. Fanny came to give her final approval and directed Heather to set out more candles to light later.
"It's five summers since I laid my poor eyes on my brother, and I want everything to be nice for him. My Willy's used to the best of London, and I won't be having him find fault with what's here. He ain't like that uncle of yours nor your pa. My brother's got lots of money cause he uses his head." She gestured to her own large head to make her point. "You don't see him in no gaming houses throwing away his wealth nor sitting on his prat like your uncle. He's a man what makes his own chances, he does. Ain't no finer clothier's shop than what he's got in London. He even has a man what works for him, he does."
She finally gave the blessed command for Heather to go and freshen up.
"An' Heather, wear that gown your pa give you. It'll do nicely. I want my brother's visit to be a happy occasion without the likes of those rags you're wearing marring it."
Heather turned around, eyes wide with surprise. For two years her pink gown had remained tucked away, untouched and unworn. Now she would be allowed to wear it. Even if it was for the pleasure of her aunt's brother, she was delighted. It seemed an eternity since she had worn anything pretty, and now she smiled in anticipation.
"Aye, I see you're pleased. Always thinking how pretty you look in those fine dresses, you are." Fanny pressed close and wagged her finger under Heather's nose. "Satan is at his work again. Mind you, the Lord knows what a task you are for me." She sighed heavily, as if tired of her burden. "It's better that you were married and off me hands. But I pity the man who would wed you, though there ain't no chance of that without a dowry. You need a strong man to keep you tied down and burdened with his babe every year. You need it to take the witch from your evil soul."
Heather shrugged her shoulders and continued to smile. She longed for the nerve to frighten her aunt into believing she was really a witch. It would be a heathenish thing to do and the temptation would have been great for a braver person, but for her the idea quickly ebbed away. The consequences would not be light.
"Another thing, missy, wear your hair coiled round your head. It'll do nicely indeed," Aunt Fanny smirked slyly, knowing how much her niece disliked being told how to wear her hair.
The smile quickly faded from Heather's face, but she turned away murmuring an affirmative answer. Her aunt waited for disapproval of her commands to be expressed in the slightest way; she took it upon herself to hand out discipline with harsh methods.
Heather crossed the room and moved behind the curtain separating her small corner from the rest of the living area. She heard her aunt leave the cottage and it was only then she dared allow a mutinous pout to show. She was angry, but more at herself than at her aunt. She had always been a coward and the way things were going she would always be one.
The dreary cubicle held but the barest necessities, yet it was here she sought succor from the brutality of her aunt. She sighed and bent to light the short candle on the shoddy table beside the narrow rope cot.
"If only I were stronger and braver," she thought, "then I would set her back on her heels. If just once I could retort in kind to her needling." She flexed a slim arm with a wry smile fleeting across her lips. "But I'd have to be Samson to wrestle her!"
Earlier she had set an ewer of warm water and a washbowl in her room and now Heather stretched in anticipation of the bath. With a distasteful grimace, she half tore the hated dress she wore from her body. Standing naked, she relaxed and ran her hands down her slender body, wincing when her fingers touched a bruise. Aunt Fanny had flown into a rage the day before when she had accidently knocked over a cup of tea, and before she could flee the woman had laid the bundle of a straw broom heavily across her buttocks.
With tender care Heather removed the pink gown from its bundle and hung it where her eyes could caress it as she bathed. The water was refreshing and she scrubbed vigorously until her skin blushed with a youthful glow. She worked the cloth over a small sliver of scented soap she had scavenged and lathered herself liberally, reveling in the pungent fragrance.
Her toilette complete, she drew the gown carefully over her shabby chemise. The bodice of the gown had been made for a younger girl. The fabric was tight across her breasts, and she pondered on her growth and considered the daring swell above the low décolletage, then dismissed the problem with a shrug of her shoulders. It was her only gown and it was too late an hour to contemplate alterations.