Authors: Darcey Bonnette
Scowling, the servant scuffled out of the room, slamming the chamber door so that the little girl within the wardrobe was certain her displeasure was heard.
Father Alec laid a slim-fingered hand on the door. “Lady Cecily, my name is Father Alec Cahill. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind coming out and speaking with me awhile? If you do not like what I have to say you can go back in if it pleases you.”
Father Alec leaned his forehead on the door. He found himself wishing with more fervency that the Pierces had come to collect the girl.
“Then perhaps you will allow me to come in there and talk to you,” he suggested in gentle tones.
“All right, you may come in,” she conceded.
“Thank you, my lady,” said Father Alec as he opened the door and crawled inside the cramped, stuffy wardrobe. He folded his knees up under his cassock and thanked God he didn’t have gout. “This is a rather nice spot, my lady, if I may say so.”
“Thank you,” the child replied, her voice thick with reluctance.
“I’m told you’ve made it a second home,” he said. “Small for gentry folk, but I suppose it has all the amenities.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “My … my … lady’s gowns are here so I stay here to be closer to her. To her smell.” Her voice caught in her throat. “It makes her seem alive.”
“My child, you will never heal from this. I know.” Father Alec heaved a sigh, squeezing his eyes against memories of his own. He continued. “But God will give you the strength to go on and each day your burden will be easier to bear. You must honour their memory by living. There is so much of the world to see, so much that you need to do. You are the last of your family and it is up to you to be brave and carry on for them, to grow up, to marry and have children. You cannot do any of that if you hide yourself away in this little wardrobe.”
“But if I come out it all becomes true. One day will go by and then another and another. And all without them,” she said miserably. “In here it isn’t quite real; in here I can pretend they’re just away. They were always away so that is easy,” she added with a sniffle. “I can still smell my mother’s pomander, you know. I wait for her in here. Any minute, I keep thinking, she will throw open the doors and find me hiding, just like she used to when she was alive. She would laugh and put her hand to her heart as though I gave her an awful fright—but all along she knew I was there.”
Father Alec was silent along moment. “It sounds like a beautiful memory, Lady Cecily. I imagine your mother must have been a kind, loving woman. It would break her heart to see you hiding away. She cannot come find you now. So she sent God to. And God and your mother both long to see you come out and take your place in the world.”
The child was silent.
In the hopes she was giving credence to his words, Father Alec went on. “I’m certain the wardrobe with all of your mother’s lovely gowns can be brought to your new chambers at Sumerton,” he told her. “And someday when you are big enough, the gowns can be updated and fitted for you. Your mother would love to know you would use them again, I imagine.”
Cecily paused a long moment, then quietly, in tremulous tones, she asked, “What is Sumerton like?”
“It’s a lovely place, much like your home,” Father Alec told her. “It is surrounded by a lush forest teeming with life and there is a lake the Pierces keep their barge on. There are stables filled with beautiful horses and mews with regal hawks. And Lord Sumerton loves hounds. The king himself has called them among the finest in England.”
“The earl—I am his ward now?” Cecily asked.
Father Alec nodded, then, realising it was too dark for her to see, said, “Yes.”
“Is he kind?”
“He is,” Father Alec told her in truth. He had never known Lord Hal to be unkind. The man always smiled, always had a gentle word for his children, never raised a hand to anyone. “He is kind and quite young, in truth.” He smiled in fondness. “He and Lady Grace, the countess, are both vibrant with youth and vigour. It is … well, it is a
place, my lady—very alive. And me, I am tutor to their children, which means I will be educating you as well.”
“Tell me of the children,” Cecily prompted.
Father Alec’s legs were getting sore and stiff within the confines of the wardrobe, but he continued. He would win this child. Rather win her than have to drag her kicking and screaming to Sumerton. He rubbed the backs of his knees as he talked.
“One, young Aubrey—they call him Brey—is just your age, and Mirabella is thirteen. They are loving children and eager to make your acquaintance,” he said. “Why, the whole household has been in a thrall of preparations since news of your wardship. They will be so disappointed if I cannot convince you to join me.” He paused. “Won’t you join me, Lady Cecily?”
She was silent again. “Yes,” she acquiesced at last. She pushed open the doors, squinting as blinding white light flooded the wardrobe.
Father Alec scrambled to his feet, then extended his hand toward the girl.
She accepted it, emerging from the depths of the wardrobe to reveal a stunning beauty with rippling waves of rose-gold hair and startling teal blue eyes set in a tiny face with skin the colour of alabaster. Father Alec’s breath caught in his throat.
, he thought to himself.
I am looking at an example of God’s art, for this child is nothing if not a masterpiece
He squeezed the little hand in his. She turned her strange eyes to him, eyes that were a mingling of so many emotions—fear, grief, anxiety, longing. Longing to trust, to be happy. To live.
Together priest and child proceeded out of Burkhart Manor, where waited the coach that would carry them toward Sumerton and Cecily’s new life.
Cecily was well accustomed to opulence, but never had she seen such beauty as that possessed by Castle Sumerton. Father Alec had explained the history of the castle to her as they rode. Built in the fourteenth century and a favourite summer estate of Lancastrians and Yorkists alike, the palatial fortress was awarded to the Pierces, along with the title of earl, when their family assisted Henry VII in his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Since then not only had a little town of the same name emerged nearby to support its needs, but it had been visited by ambassadors and kings and prelates, scholars, princes, and pundits. An advocate of education, Lord Sumerton entertained Europe’s most celebrated minds, men such as Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus. The Pierces adored giving grand entertainments and feasts, Father Alec told her, and there was seldom a week that passed without guests.
It sounded very grand to Cecily. Yet even as her heart raced with anticipation she feared the transition. She feared liking her new home, liking her keepers. What if she grew too fond of them and forgot her own family? Even now, so soon after her parents’ deaths, their faces were obscured in her mind’s eye, forms that resembled the people she had cherished but were not quite right. Like paintings, their features were soft, a little lacking in definition. Guilt surged through her as she thought of it and she found herself focusing on the miniatures she had brought with her, staring for long hours at the little faces. But what were miniatures but paintings? They were not her parents; in fact, these miniatures were very poor reproductions indeed.
But as she approached Castle Sumerton thoughts of her parents were replaced by fearful curiosity. The large keep with its climbing turrets captured her breath. She could not imagine playing hide-and-seek here. She took in the vast expanse of lush green forest that surrounded the fortress; it made it seem sort of isolated as opposed to the open, sprawling green fields that had made up the Burkhart lands. Somehow this comforted rather than intimidated her.
Taking Father Alec’s hand, she allowed him to lead her into the great hall, which was being set for a feast. Servants bustled everywhere. The hall was being swept and sweetened, trestles set up, plates laid, and orders shouted. Cecily looked toward the cathedral ceiling, one side of which was outfitted with three large windows allowing the light to stream in and dance across the floor. She stood in one of the rays, watching the flecks of dust float and sparkle in the sunlight. She smiled.
“Ah! She has arrived!” a jovial voice cried, rousing Cecily from her reflections. She turned to face a well-built man in his early thirties sporting a close-cut beard, wavy brown hair that curled about his neck, and twinkling blue eyes. His countenance was kind. Cecily was immediately disarmed.
She curtsied. “Lord Sumerton.”
Lord Sumerton dipped into a bow. “My dearest little lady,” he said. “We mourn the loss of your parents; Baron Burkhart and I were educated together with the Wyatts of Kent.” His eyes softened with fondness over a memory, perhaps of the carefree days of youth. He returned his gentle blue gaze to Cecily. “Please know that we will take good care of you and hope you will be very happy with us here at Sumerton.” He took her hands in his, offering a bright smile. “I should like to present my family.” He indicated a slim, fair woman beside him whose blond hair was pulled back beneath her gable hood. Her sleepy brown eyes were bleary and unfocused. “This is Lady Grace, my wife.”
“And these are my children. Aubrey and Mirabella.” Lord Sumerton gestured toward the children. Lord Aubrey offered a quick bow. He was fair haired and wiry, his smile slow and sweet. His cheeks flushed when he looked at Cecily. She smiled and curtsied in return.
Lady Mirabella was slender and tall, her black hair cascading down her back in soft waves. The green eyes peering out of her olive-skinned face were keen as they scrutinised Cecily. She shivered as she offered a curtsy.
“You will share the nursery with them, Lady Cecily, until you are older,” Lord Sumerton told her. “Matilda is our nurse.” He nodded to a short, buxom young woman with bouncing red ringlets who tossed her a reassuring smile. “And of course you know our tutor and chaplain, Father Cahill.”
Cecily offered a fond smile to the priest whom she had placed all her trust in since this peculiar journey began. It comforted her to know he was a fixture in the household; perhaps it would make her adjustment easier to bear.
“Children, take her to the nursery and get acquainted,” ordered Lady Grace in soft tones. “We will send for you at supper.”
“Yes, my lady,” they chorused. Cecily threw one pleading glance at Father Alec, as though begging him to stop them, to stop her life from moving forward, to suspend the moment of bittersweet uncertainty and anticipation a bit longer before Reality began.
Father Alec only smiled.
Cecily averted her head, allowing herself to be shown out of the hall and up a flight of narrow stairs to the nursery. It was a room far lovelier than her nursery. The tapestries depicted cherubs surrounding the Blessed Virgin, all enveloped in a light so welcoming Cecily longed to be embraced by it. The beds were dressed in sumptuous white lace with cornflower blue velvet curtains to match those that were drawn across the bay window. The floors were covered in soft bearskin rugs to warm their feet and a cheery fire crackled in the hearth.
“What do you like to do?” asked Aubrey as the three took to sitting upon his bed.
Cecily pondered. She liked to be with her mother and father, but they were no more. Aubrey and Mirabella would not want to hear about all that as it were. “I like to dance,” she said at last. “And read. I like to sing and play the lute, too—my … my lady played all the time.” She would not cry. They would think her a baby if she cried. She must still her quivering lip.
“Do you like snakes?” asked Aubrey. “I have one,” he said, his tone growing conspiratorial as he reached under the bed to withdraw a little wooden box. Upon opening, it revealed a slim grass snake.
“Brey!” Mirabella cried. “Get that slimy thing out of here!”
“Do you want to pet him?” Brey persisted, thrusting the snake toward Cecily.
Cecily smiled, touched. “I am not afraid of snakes,” she said as she reached out, stroking the creature’s skin. He was not slimy at all.
“Eve wasn’t afraid of them either and look what happened to her,” Mirabella snapped.
Cecily bowed her head, ashamed. She had never likened herself to the woman who steered the entire world into sin.
“She wants to be a nun,” Brey informed Cecily sotto voce.
At this Mirabella lit up. “The abbey is within walking distance,” she told her. “I love to go there and help them with their chores; it is usually forbidden to outsiders, but they allow me to visit. Perhaps you would like to accompany me sometime?”
“Very much,” Cecily told her. She had never seen an abbey before.
Her willingness to acquiesce seemed to please Mirabella, and Cecily’s taut limbs relaxed as relief coursed through her.
At once memories of Burkhart Manor swirled before her mind’s eye. Riding her pony through the fields with her groom, hiding outside the solar to hear her mother sing … Cecily squeezed her eyes shut. This was her home now. There would be new memories.
She must concentrate on making them.
It was an energetic young household, abundant with vibrancy. The Pierces surrounded themselves with people their age; few who entered were over forty and all who visited could count on being made merry. Because it was Cecily’s natural inclination to be happy their enthusiasm afflicted her like contagion. She fancied God could not have sent better guardians, and as the weeks separating her from her parents’ deaths turned into months her former life at Burkhart Manor became more dream than reality. Her parents were the undefined faces in miniatures, and while there were nights she awoke crying for her mother, she found that it was increasingly difficult to recall her mother’s voice, her touch, her face.
It startled her; it riddled her with guilt. But then there was a feast to prepare for and lessons to be had, embroidery to do, ponies to ride, and Cecily was consumed with the task of daily living. And, perhaps since Cecily had known such a great deal about death, the mission of living was all the more precious to her.
She loved her lessons with Father Alec. The patient priest tutored the children on all manner of subjects, from Latin to history, from astronomy to arithmetic, and Cecily was a quick wit. She enjoyed the company of the other children. Brey stirred a lot in his seat and his blue eyes were often more engaged by the window rather than his books, but Cecily imagined he wouldn’t need much book learning anyway, since he was the heir and would not be a gift to the Church.