EDITOR’S NOTE:  The following is an excerpt from Julie Klassen’s Lady of Milkweed Manor (Bethany House Publishers).

Prologue

When first I knew her, I thought her an amusing scrap of girl, silly and a bit grubby from her mornings spent in the gardens. When not pottering about out of doors, she seemed always to be reading some poetic nonsense or other and loved nothing more than to pose the most disturbing questions. Still, I liked her even then and, I think, she admired me. But her father took notice and pronounced me unsuitable, effectively pruning our young friendship before it could grow into anything. I soon forgot about Miss Charlotte Lamb. Or so I convinced myself.

Years passed, and when I saw her again she was altogether changed. Not only her situation, which had changed from privileged to piteous, but also her very substance. At least it seemed so to me.

Others would look at her with much different eyes. They would see, perhaps, a fallen woman at the deepest point of humiliation. A woman to be flicked off one's sleeve like a disgusting worm. Or an insect to be tormented. Cruel, overgrown schoolchildren that many are, they seem to delight in ripping off one wing, then another, watching in morbid glee as she falls helpless to the ground.

To the gentler observer, she is a creature to be scorned at worst, ignored at best, but certainly not one to watch in hopeful anticipation. Day by day to witness her transformation amid the grime and cloying weight of her surroundings, not to wither nor shrink, but to unfurl, to become all that is sun and wind and flower and grace.

I, of course, can only watch from a safe distance—safe for us both. For me, now a married man, a physician of some note, a man of standing in town. And for her, whose reputation I am determined will suffer no more—not if it is in my power to prevent it.

Yet, as I watch her there among the milkweeds, I confess all these thoughts fade away. I think only of her.

How lovely she looks. Not abstractly beautiful, but perfectly fitted to the landscape, etched into a painting of purest golden glow above, and mad, overgrown garden below—gold, green, purple—heaven and earth. And there at the center, her still figure, looking not at me but at the distant horizon, where the sun is spilling its first fingers over the milkweed, over her milky skin, her hair, her gown.

The light moves toward me and I am stilled, speechless. A sharp barb of waiting fills my chest and I can barely breathe. If I don't move, the light will touch me, the painting encompass me. If I step away, retreat into the shadows, I will be safe, but I won't be there to see her when she finally flies away....

Dear God. Please guard my steps. And somehow bless Miss Charlotte Lamb.

Part I

That exquisite thing, the seed of milkweed,
furnished abundant playthings.
The plant was sternly exterminated in our garden,
but sallies into a neighboring field provided supplies
for fairy cradles with tiny pillows of silvery silk.

—Alice Morse Earle, Old-Time Gardens

Alas! And did my Saviour bleed,
And did my Sovereign die?
Would he devote that sacred head
For such a worm as I?

—Isaac Watts

Chapter 1

The common milkweed needs no introduction. Its pretty pods are familiar to every child, who treasures them until the time comes when the place in which they are stowed away is one mass of bewildering, unmanageable fluff.

—19th century naturalist, F. Schuyler Mathews

Twenty-year-old Charlotte Lamb laid her finest gowns into the trunk, pausing to feel the silken weight of the sky blue ball gown, her favorite—a gift from dear Aunt Tilney. With one last caress, she packed it carefully atop the others. Then came her promenade dresses, evening dresses, and gayer day dresses. Next were the coordinating capes, hats, and hair ornaments. Finally the long gloves, petticoats, and the new boned corset. Definitely the corset.