Lady of Milkweed Manor
- Thursday, January 31, 2008
In a voice rough with the early hour and disdain, he said, "My only consolation is that your mother, God rest her soul, did not live to see this day."
The pain of it lanced her, but it should not have. He had said the like before, worse even. Willing tears to remain at bay, Charlotte stepped out of the vicarage, quietly shutting the door behind her. She walked through the garden, committing it to memory. There were the neatly trimmed hedges that Buxley still coaxed into the shape her mother preferred. There, the exquisite flower beds with their cleverly mixed color palettes, graduating heights and varying textures—delphinium, astilbe, cornflower, Canterbury bells, lemon lilies—all of which Charlotte had tried to maintain in her mother's honor, at least until now. She took a long deep breath, then another, savoring the dew-heavy fragrances of sweet violets and purple pincushions. She had no intention of picking a flower to take with her, a flower that would wither before she reached her destination, but then she saw it. A vile milkweed in the border of sciatic cress, which Buxley called Billy-come-home-soon. How had she missed it before? She strode to the weed and pulled at it with her free hand, but the stalk would not give. She set her bags and box down and pulled with both hands until the whole stubborn thing was unearthed, roots and all. She would leave her mother's garden in perfect order. But for how long? Who will tend your gardens, Mother? Buxley will try, I suppose. Though he is not getting any younger. With the horses and all the heavy work falling to him, the garden suffers. And Beatrice has no use for a garden, as you well know.
On nostalgic impulse, Charlotte snapped off a cluster of small purplish flowers from the milkweed plant and held it briefly to her nose—it smelled surprisingly sweet—then slipped it into her reticule. She tossed the stalk onto the rubbish heap on her way down Church Hill. Glancing over her shoulder at the chalky white vicarage, a face in an upstairs window caught her eye. Beatrice. Her sister wore a stony expression and made no move to wave. When Beatrice turned from the window, Charlotte turned as well, wishing for a moment that she had turned away first. Two minutes later, just as she knew it would, the post wagon approached.
"Hallo there, Miss Lamb," the driver said as he halted his horses.
"Good morning, Mr. Jones."
"Care for a ride into the village?"
"Yes, thank you."
He took her bags from her and helped her up. "Off to visit your aunt again, are we?" He settled her carpetbag beside her.
She did not wish to lie any more than necessary. "I am always so happy in their company."
"And why not. Such fine people your aunt and uncle are. Never knew the better."
"You are very kind."
She clutched her carpetbag as the wagon started off again, her generous pelisse shielding her from the damp morning wind, from curious onlookers—and even from the full brunt of her father's farewell, such as it was. She would not cry—not now, not here, where villagers she knew might see her and guess she was leaving not on another holiday but rather on a much darker journey.
When the driver helped her alight at Chequers Inn, she took not the coach headed for Hertfordshire and Aunt Tilney, but rather a coach bound for London.
The black enclosed coach bumped and jostled its way to the west side of London. When the driver called his "whoa" to tired horses, Charlotte arose from her seat, clutched her belongings, and pushed her way out of the conveyance before the coachman might help her alight.
She stepped down and made haste up Oxford Street, past the stationer and paper hanger, china and glassman, and linen drapers. Walking north on busy Tottenham Court Road, she passed silversmiths, chemists, and dwelling houses that were clearly less than fashionable. Then she stepped off the cobbles and crossed the damp and narrow Gower Mews. At the alley's end, she paused between market wagons and rubbish carts to look over her shoulder, assuring herself that no one was watching. Then she slipped in through the rear door of the Old Towne Tea Shoppe and, with an apologetic nod toward the proprietress, stepped out the front door onto Gower Street, opening her black umbrella against the slight mist and any prying eyes. Head lowered, she stepped over a refuse-filled gutter, then walked crisply on. Coming upon a sign bearing the name Store Street, Charlotte checked the directions her aunt had written down for her. This was it.
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