Lady of Milkweed Manor
- Thursday, January 31, 2008
Turning back to her rapidly thinning wardrobe, her hand fell upon a plain muslin in dove grey. It showed wear in the elbows and cuffs. She tossed it on the bed. Then a thought came to her and she stopped her packing and left her room, stepping quietly down the corridor to her mother's room. Looking about her and seeing no one yet awake, she pushed the door open as silently as she could. She stepped into the room and, finding the shutters closed, walked to the windows and folded them back, allowing the grey dawn to illuminate the chamber. Then she returned to the door and closed it. Leaning back against the wood panels, she closed her eyes, savoring the stillness and peace she always felt in this room. It had been too long since she'd been in here.
From somewhere in the vicarage she heard a noise, a clang, and she jumped. Though why she should fear being caught in here she had no idea. Most likely it was only Tibbets lighting the fires. Her father would probably not be awake for hours. Still, the thought of someone up and about reminded her that she needed to hurry if she wanted to depart with as little to-do as possible. She stepped purposefully to the wardrobe and opened its doors. Yes, her mother's clothes were still here. She raked her fingers through the fabric, the lace and velvet and silks, but did not find what she was looking for. Had her father or Beatrice discarded it? She pushed the gowns aside and looked at the bottom of the wardrobe, at the slippers lined up neatly in a row. Then a flash of brown caught her eye, and she reached down and pulled out a crumpled wad of clay-colored material that had fallen to the bottom of the cabinet. She shook out the simple, full-cut dress—her mother's gardening dress.
Tucking it under her arm, she ran her fingers across the books on the bedside table. She didn't dare take the Bible her mother had used, knowing it was from the vicarage library. Instead she chose the Lady's Pocket-Sized New Testament and Psalms, as it was smaller and lighter. It was a lovely edition with a canvas cover embroidered with birds and flowers worked in silk and metallic thread. It had been a gift from her mother's sister, and Charlotte didn't think her father would object to her taking it.
With one last look at her mother's things—hairbrush and combs, cameo necklace and butterfly brooch—she left the room and walked quickly back to her own. She rolled her mother's dress as tightly as she could and stuffed it into a leather valise. Then she shoved in the worn grey gown, shifts, stockings, slippers, drawers, and a pair of short stays. Into a carpetbag she placed a shawl, dressing gown, gloves, and the New Testament. Two of her most serviceable bonnets went into her bandbox. Handkerchiefs and what little money she had were secured in a reticule which would hang from her wrist.
She looked at the trunk, filled with her beautiful years, her happy vain youth, and firmly shut the lid. Pausing to secure a traveling hat over her pinned-up brown curls, she left her room with only her valise, carpetbag, reticule, and bandbox—all she could carry. She quietly made her way down the stairs and glanced at the silver tray resting on the hall table. Yesterday's letter lay there still, unanswered. Their cousin had written to tell them of her "blessed news" and how she looked forward to the "great event to come this autumn." Beatrice had curled her pretty lip and said it sickened her to read of such private matters, especially from a woman of Katherine's advanced age. Charlotte had said not a word.
Now Charlotte paused only long enough to run her fingers over Katherine's elaborate script and the smeared London Duty date stamp. She took a deep breath and walked on. She was nearly to the door when she heard her father's voice from the drawing room.
"You're off, then." It was not a question.
She turned and, through the open doors, saw him slumped in the settee by the fire. His greying hair was uncharacteristically disarrayed and he still wore his dressing gown. She felt her throat tighten. She could only nod. She wondered if he would soften at this final moment. Would he hold out some offer of assistance, some parting words of conciliation or at least regret?
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