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A Sweet Disorder

All through a journey lengthened by rain and by roads made slippery with mud, I looked out at the trees stripped of their leaves, at the stark black birds of winter framed against an opaque white sky. As the horses’ hooves kept time with my heart, I clung to the image of my mother standing in the doorway of Plowden Hall, her long-fingered hand— graceful as a departing bird—raised in farewell.

This year, once the flowering plants bore fruit, Mother and I would not make tarts from the fragrant strawberries we had always gathered by the basketful in the early morning sun. Nor would we place the fairest cherries in the cool dark of a hay-lined barrel, preserving sweetness for another year. As for how much time would pass before we would once more sit 3 down to refurbish our gowns with new guards of grosgrain taffeta or velvet, or dust a pattern with charcoal before embroidering a jacket or shawl, I could not say. And if I needed to recover her stories of her growing up and early womanhood, I would have to rely on memory, that fickle organ capable of bringing as much sadness as pleasure.

The coachman had told me more than once that Turbury was a ten days’ journey along the old Roman road under the best of conditions, a circumstance that made my hopes of seeing my mother anytime soon extremely slim. Even so, I clung to her promise to come once she had settled the affairs on my father’s estate, affairs that could take several months, if not the entire year. On the eighth day of the journey, the carriage came at last into Yorkshire. Looking out, I sought some spark of beauty or mystery in the country in which I now found myself. But it was early January, a time when the earth is at her solemnest, when such emptiness could only remind me further of all that I had lost.

I reached Turbury three days later.

Unlike the umber stone of my ancestral home, which looked out on the rolling meadowlands, the earl and countess’s gray manor house dated back to those more primitive times when families made war on each other.

More than two centuries later, the nearest village remained a half day’s ride away. Even if it had been closer, there would have been little reason for us to visit it, as Turbury possessed its own chapel, and its cellars stored sufficient vegetables and grains to last through the winter, a circumstance that rendered even the noisy pleasure of market-going unnecessary. Nor would we need to go elsewhere for the flesh of beast and fowl when the earl and countess were said to be such accurate shots.

As if the moat that surrounded the house were not proof enough of Turbury’s fortresslike origins, there was its location on a particularly desolate stretch of ground that the countess’s ancestor had chosen, or so I came to believe, precisely because one could spot an enemy from a distance of five furlongs.

For the first few minutes, a light drizzle dampened my hood as I sat within the carriage, unable to move. But then I recalled my last breakfast of porridge and mead taken among strangers at yet another roadside inn, and I allowed the driver to help me step outside.

No sooner had I reached the high wooden door than it swung open, and a sturdy woman in a cotton smock and apron stood before me, her hands chapped by hard work, her ankles swollen beneath her petticoats. “My name’s Emily,” she said, her full lips softening into what I took to be a genuine smile. “Lady Miranda Molyneux, yes?”

I nodded, then stepped inside as the driver unloaded my belongings.

“You’ve been traveling for at least a week, haven’t you?”

“Eleven days,” I said, surprised by the pungent odor of lye that hung about the air.

“And your journey, it passed smoothly?” Emily wiped her hands on her apron, her careful gaze making me thankful I had remembered to put on my best shoes before leaving the inn that morning.

“Thankfully, yes,” I said, relieved not to have met with any of the clapperdudgeons who disguised themselves as lepers so as to beg or steal alms from those who tried to pass.

“Well, there’s gratitude in that,” Emily said, then turned toward the interior of the house, where I heard the sound of light footsteps.

She motioned toward the shadows, and a slim girl stepped forward, a girl with the same walnut-colored hair and wide gray eyes. “My daughter, Eliza,” she said, as the girl—who was probably only a year older than myself— curtsied and bowed her head. “She’ll see to your things.”

“But the trunk is far too heavy,” I said, reminded of how difficult it was for me to lift it, and my figure was on a grander or at least a plumper scale than Eliza’s.

“The driver will carry the heavier trunk upstairs.” Emily nodded to where he still stood on the drive, watering the horses. “Eliza can manage the other one. She has chopped much of the wood this year. And it’s she who is responsible for the milking. No,” Emily said, when I stood there staring, “my Eliza is as strong as any boy.”

The slender Eliza curtsied a second time before she stood again, and our eyes met. I admired the straight way she stood in her sky blue kirtle, which had been laced in the old-fashioned way. I hoped she would stay and talk, but before I could think of how to keep her, she turned and made her way up a precariously steep flight of stairs, the smaller of my two trunks in tow.

“Turbury isn’t a place where one finds much company, and tonight it’ll be just the countess joining you,” Emily explained as I followed her to a sparely furnished dining room, which remained remarkably cold and damp despite the fire that burned in the hearth.

“When will the earl return?” I asked, noting the absence of any adornment on the cupboards and cabinets, the plainness of the buffet, the whitewashed silence of the walls.

“Difficult to say.” Emily poked at a log in the fire. “But I wouldn’t expect him before February’s come and gone.” I must have flinched, for she said, “You didn’t know, then, that he’d be away?”

“No,” I said, trying to coax inside a skinny black cat that stood in the doorway.

“Well, no great matter in that,” Emily said as the cat twined itself about her legs. “It’ll be the countess who sees to your care anyway. She’s raised half a dozen gentlemen’s daughters these last ten years.”

Tempted as I was to learn more about the fates of these daughters, for whom the countess must have found husbands, I could not ask such a question of my guardian’s housekeeper. “And the cat?” I said instead, my fingertips tracing the outline of spine and bone beneath the coarse fur.

Emily’s gruff laugh was friendly. “What about her?”

“She’s so skinny.” I recalled my own Griselda’s hearty appetite as well as her habit of lying all day in the sun. “Does she belong to the house?”

“As much as anyone does. I call her Burr. She’s not much of a mouser, has yet to learn she has to earn her keep.”

I tried to scoop Burr up, but she jumped away and fled the room.

“She’ll come around,” Emily said. “Like most creatures around here, she can’t resist a bit of kindness. For now I’ve set biscuits and tea on the table for you.  The countess will be here soon.”

I thanked her, wishing she would stay and talk. But it was clear she had work to do. Alone once more, I found myself standing before a long table upon which two settings of scarred silver plates had been laid on either end.

Politeness demanded I remain on my feet until I met the countess. Still, I found it odd that she expected me to sit at one end, and she at the other. How would we speak to each other across such a distance?

On all of my previous visits to others’ homes, I’d found keys to their characters in the rooms themselves. What was I to make, then, of this high-ceilinged space without a single ancestral portrait on the wall? Here there was not even a grouping of vases or other curios on display in an open cupboard. As for containing anything like the beloved tapestry of the lady with the unicorn that graced our own dining room—a tapestry my grandmother had carried back from France during her service with Anne Boleyn— not one piece of art, howsoever humble, enlivened the room, which, despite its whiteness, possessed a cavernous feel.

“So you are Miranda Molyneux,” the countess said, startling me as she strode into the room in a stiff black dress, her handsome face framed by a wide white collar. Her body was uncannily lean, and she must have stood six feet. Though I was tall like my father, she stood at least a head higher than I did, an extraordinary thing in a woman.

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, training my gaze on the floor until she gave me permission to look directly at her. When she did, I beheld the gold-flecked eyes of a real beauty, her sculptural features framed by tightly bound hair dark as a rook’s wing. All the same, there was something troubling about the countess’s aquiline nose, her high cheekbones, her perfect oval of a face. In her features I could find neither any imperfection—a mole, a scar, a laugh line— nor, I feared, much sign of kindness.

“You have your mother’s look about you,” she said, her tone more calculating than praising. “Still, I see you stand nearly as high as the door. Unless you marry a man as tall as the earl,” she said without a hint of humor, “you will have to learn to stoop a little.”

I had no words for this.

“And how was the journey?” the countess continued. “Exceedingly long?” She twitched the gold pomander at her waist, releasing the unexpectedly exotic fragrance of oranges and spices.

“Eleven days,” I said, still believing I could hear the horses’ hoofbeats keeping pace with my heart.

“And the roads,” she continued, scrutinizing my hair, my skin, my clothes, “how did you find them?”

“Fairly good.”

“Potholes? Ragged ground?”

“In places.”

“So, you fare no better in Cumberland than we do here In Yorkshire,” the countess said. “Why our queen does not apportion a part of the country’s coffers to mend the roads I will never understand. Instead, she lavishes our monies on court masques and processions. Despite her early show of modesty, she is proving to be Henry VIII’s daughter after all.”

Unsure of how I might answer, knowing nothing of the countess’s politics, and having never expected such outspoken talk about the queen in front of a newcomer, I chose the safest course and thanked her for having Emily and her daughter see to my arrival.

“Emily is a hard worker, and her daughter takes after her in this way,” the countess said, then motioned to me to sit down. “I trust Eliza helped see to your belongings.”

Reminded of Eliza’s straight-backed figure in the sky blue kirtle, but also of what Emily had said about the skinny Burr, I said, “Right away.”

“I’m glad to hear it. She and Emily have been dyeing wool these last few weeks.”

At the possibility of joining such work, my heart lifted. That explained the smell of lye.

Such an extravagance of color!” the countess said, my hopes plummeting at once. “Had they kept the choices simpler, they would have been finished days ago.

“Have you brought a great deal with you?” The countess spoke more sharply now as she studied the pattern of honeysuckle and roses threading the bodice of my gown. “I asked your mother to keep your provisions simple.”

“Two trunks,” I replied, wondering at her words, given the vastness of this house.

“Two?” The countess seemed to weigh this fact as her hand clasped the pomander.

“Clothes mostly, and my books.”

“Tell me,” the countess said, “what do you read?”

The Maiden’s Dream and The Melancholy Knight are two of my favorites,” I said eagerly.

“Though the one I could not be without is a collection of Marie de France’s Lais.”

“Ah, the Frenchwoman who served in Henry II’s court?”

“Yes. It was a birthday gift from my father.”

“You are fond of reading for pleasure, then?” the countess asked. “And possibly have read the Greeks?”

“Oh yes—Mother and I read The Odyssey last summer.”

“A scandalous work, I am told,” she said, her gaze narrowing, “in which an adulterous husband returns after many years to his wife.”

“That is the premise, but the story is so much more than that,” I said, hoping she would ask me to explain.

But the countess just frowned, so it was a relief when Emily reentered, carrying with her a steaming wild goose pie, on her face only a glimmer of her former smile.

“I favor simple cookery,” the countess continued as Emily sliced the pie.

“Simple” to me suggested “bland,” but this pie had been seasoned with thyme and marjoram, herbs that extend a food’s longevity and give it a woodsy flavor I particularly liked. I ate the first helping quickly, then made to reach for another slice.

“Miranda,” the countess said, “please ask before taking another plate of food.”

“I’m sorry. I haven’t eaten since late morning.”

I expected her to offer me a large portion, but she cut only a narrow slice. “Given the precedent of your parents, you are fuller in figure than I expected. Here at Turbury,” she said, her rook-dark hair glinting in the candlelight, “we live a disciplined life, believing a disciplined body to be the key to a disciplined soul.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, recalling the ease and liveliness at Plowden Hall during mealtimes, my mother’s belief that a hearty appetite was an indication of one’s zest for life.

The goose pie was followed by roast saltwater eel served with a small loaf of oat bread that must have been several days old, for it crumbled dryly in my mouth. Although I did not like eel and was surprised to find it in this part of Yorkshire, so far from the coast, I was hungry enough to finish my entire portion. Besides, I understood the countess would not approve of my turning away from what I was being offered.

Afterward, there was a carefully apportioned apple and a slice of cheese. Reminded of my mother’s practice of serving spiced wine in the evening because she believed it paved the way for good dreams, I found myself hoping the countess would somehow uphold this practice also.

Instead, from a pewter teapot she poured what proved to be steeping water into two cups that each held only a slice of lemon and a few fennel seeds. “For the digestion,” the countess said, and handed a cup to me.

“Is the earl away?” I asked, sensing it would not be prudent for me to reveal that Emily had already told me this.

“He is.” She cocked an eyebrow, as if considering the significance of my question. And when I said nothing further, she added, “I do not expect him back until sometime in March.”

“Does he often travel?” I asked, curious to learn more about my father’s cousin, for perhaps they did share this passion for adventure.

“Only when he must. You see, Miranda,” she said, her fingertips toying with the pomander, “my husband views travel as a necessity, not a pleasure. He has no need to see other countries, other ways of life. Is it not at home where one’s responsibilities lie?”

“I do not know,” I said, recalling the sketches of my father’s travels that adorned his study walls, but also the sketch I had carried with me—a drawing he had made just before departing, a drawing of his return.

“You’re thinking of your father?”

“Yes—” “You must remember your father lost his life abroad.

That reminds me, I should have told you as soon as you arrived. How sorry I was—as was the earl—to learn about his death. So sudden.” Her eyes met my own. “And among the heathens of Ireland.

“Of course,” she continued, “I met your father only once, and it was a rather brief meeting. Still, most said he was a good, albeit imprudent man.”

“My father was a very good man,” I said, aware of the edge in my voice. “He lost his life at the service of Her Majesty the Queen.”

“Yes,” the countess said neutrally. “Unfortunately, the Irish cause is not one in which I place much faith.”

We sat in silence as the remaining log crackled in the hearth. I concentrated on the fire, watching the flames lick the wood so that the area surrounding the grate smoked just a little.

“It’s time for me to show you where you will sleep,” the countess said, indicating with a swift flick of the wrist that I should rise.

We proceeded down the poorly lit hallway, and I followed her up the stairs and down a very long, very damp corridor. Once again, no portraits adorned the dark walls; only a solitary candle to light the way.

At the end of the passage, the countess opened a heavy door.

Inside, I surveyed a small bedroom furnished with a narrow bed, a dresser, and a simple washstand. As for a mirror or a silver basin and ewer, there was no sign of any of these things. Nor did there linger about the room the inviting almond or lavender fragrance of homemade soap. And the hearth, though it burned with a small fire, seemed to create little warmth.

“I trust you will be comfortable enough here,” the countess said, then drew closed the heavy curtains that would seal away any possibility of light finding its way through the window come sunrise.

“Yes,” I said, breathing the stale smell of the hay rushes strewn along the floor.

“Good night, then.” Already the countess was reaching for the latch on the door. “I will send Emily up here at six to wake you.”

After she left, I stood for a while, shivering in the chill air and listening to her diminishing steps in the hall. Once more the image of my mother lingering in the doorway of Plowden Hall returned. This time I recalled the sunlight slanting across her face, casting the right half in shadow while illuminating the tears that traced her left cheek.

I undressed and washed in a basin into which I poured cold water from a crackle-glazed pitcher, then slipped on my nightgown, which still smelled of my room at home. The bed, I discovered as I pulled back the thick blankets, was only a pallet of straw. Touching its coarse material, I tried to remind myself of the rough provisions of my father’s journeys. But even when he slept out of doors, Father always remembered to look up at the stars, believing they were keeping watch.

Inevitably my thoughts turned to my own room’s soft feather mattress, the shimmering branches of the willow tree beyond my window, my beloved cat, Griselda, Mother’s temperate step on the stair.

Soon I was beside the heavier of my two trunks, searching for the gown that had once belonged to her. I feared it had been crushed by the journey, but when I lifted it into the candlelight, the wrinkles fell away, and the pale pink satin—still glossy despite the years—shone just as it had when I’d admired it in my mother’s room. I touched the flowers she had embroidered along the bodice, admiring the intricacy of her stitches, remembering her touch through the feel of the Cyprus gold thread.

On the morning of my departure, before the coachman had arrived, I stepped into her room, where the wardrobe presided, a great piece of furniture she had brought with her from her father’s house. For as long as I could remember, I had been entranced by the clothing secreted there, not by the sturdy gowns of wool and cotton that my mother wore every day—gowns I often helped her sew and later mend.

No, what held me captive were those magical survivors stitched from velvet, damask, and satin—gowns with slashed sleeves and delicate beading that she had worn during her time at court. And for each of these enchanted survivors, my mother had a story: the gown of Genoan silk with its bobbin lace she had worn to Elizabeth’s coronation in Westminster Abbey; the ivory satin with the gray-blue skirt she had favored during her year as a lady in- waiting, its sleeves embroidered with columbine and violets, its bodice discreetly adorned with pearls.

Always I believed these gowns would be my legacy. Like my mother and my sister after her, I, too, would one day walk through the gilded landscape of the court. I, too, would partake of the masques, the tournaments, the concerts, the lavish meals attended by visiting dignitaries, the gay evenings where the handsomest of the courtiers would ask me to dance a spirited galliard. Not for very long—for like my father, my mother was wary of the court’s intrigues, and believed too much time there inevitably spoiled one for the simpler pleasures. Yet she loved it also. Her stories had told me as much, as had her occasional sadnesses during those long months when Father had been away.

What compelled me to take the gown without her permission, I could not say. I knew only that I needed its soaring birds and brightly stitched butterflies, its garden of pinks and carnations, its trim of lace. I needed, too, the memory of her enfolded in its fabric: lute music mingling with the murmur of the Thames as she danced in my father’s arms, arrayed in a gown the precise shade of a maiden’s blush—the shade of innocence. And yet many understood this to be the shade of vanity.

When my mother found me among her things, she did not ask what I was about. Instead, she placed the pink satin in my arms and told me she trusted I would pack it well.

Excerpted from A SWEET DISORDER © Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Kolosov. Reprinted with permission by Disney-Hyperion

A Sweet Disorder
by by Jacqueline Kolosov

  • Genres: Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Hyperion Book CH
  • ISBN-10: 1423112458
  • ISBN-13: 9781423112457