Lady of Milkweed Manor
- Thursday, January 31, 2008
Charlotte glanced up and immediately saw an old manor house looming against a border of shadow and trees. It was a grey hulk of a building with two dark wings at right angles to each other, a boxy garret at their apex, standing guard over a formidable, arched door below. Perhaps a great house a hundred years ago, the structure looked sound but bleak—mottled stone, severe lines, the absence of adornment save a hedgerow lining the edge of a mossy stone walkway. She saw no sign, no plaque naming the manor, and somehow that made her all the more sure she was in the right place.
It was only then that she allowed the tears to come. Here, the street behind her streaming with people who knew her not and cared less, she felt the sting of her father's rejection and the loss of her home. But she could not agree with his assessment. He might be glad that her mother was not here to witness this day, but Charlotte was not.
She thought of her dear mother, the well-loved Lillian Lamb, who had brought warmth and moderation, cheer and steady calm to the vicarage, and especially to Reverend Gareth Lamb himself.
Charlotte hoped her memories of her mother, gone these five years, would not fade in this absence from all that was familiar—her mother's room, her portrait, the far-off look in Father's eyes that meant he was thinking of her. His parting words echoed again through Charlotte's mind, and she flinched—envisioning the disappointment that would certainly have clouded her mother's face—but yet she wished her mother were here with her, walking this rutted path, consoling her as she always had that all would work out in the end.
I wish I had your faith, Mother. I wish I were half the fine lady you were—or half as proper a clergyman's daughter. Would you have forgiven me, even if Father will not?
As Charlotte drew closer to the looming grey edifice that was to become her temporary home, she could not help but notice the secretive shuttered windows of the ground floor.
Then she noticed the milkweeds.
No formal gardens here, or if there once were, they had long since given way to islands of tall grasses and unchecked patches of milkweeds running the length of the wall facing Charlotte.
Her father would be horrified, and even her mother would not have approved of the tangled mess. Charlotte sighed. She supposed that for the women within these grey walls, the gardens outside were the least of their problems. And the same is true of me.
But milkweeds? What a bane they were to gardeners, their stubborn roots sending out crafty runners, the offspring only slightly easier to pull than the mother plant herself. And they spread not only by runners, but by their prolific seeds that filled the air every autumn. Apparently that was what had happened here—milkweed had been introduced and, left unchecked, had taken over most of the lawn.
Couldn't they at least hire some boy with a scythe to come and cut the pests down? Charlotte wondered. Milkweeds were pretty enough when the flowers bloomed, but when the grey-green pods aged to a dull silver, the reedy stalks held little aesthetic value at all.
Perhaps that solicitor friend of Uncle's had given false information about this place. Or Aunt Tilney had gotten it wrong somehow. Her aunt had confided in hushed tones that this place was of better quality and more discreet than others like it. Charlotte gathered their London solicitor had procured the recommendation for her. Her father knew nothing of the arrangements, other than to exact Charlotte's promise of secrecy and anonymity for as long as possible. Otherwise he seemed to care little of where Charlotte was to go or how she was to provide for herself. It was clear he could barely wait to get her out of his sight.
Charlotte wondered if her mother would recognize the man she had been married to for so many years. Not that Gareth Lamb had changed so much physically, except to grow a bit grey in his sideburns and a bit paunchier around the middle, but his demeanor was markedly changed. He had been stern—self-righteous even—before this happened, and now was all the more. The whole of his concern revolved around two points: how such a thing would likely ruin his career and how it would ruin Bea's chance at a suitable marriage.
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