Authors: Barbara Taylor Bradford
Tags: #General, #Fiction
As always, for Bob,
who makes my world go round,
with all my love
FINE MIST FLOATED LIKE PALE WATER OVER THE
meadows, drifting, eddying, blurring the trees, turning them into illusory shapes that loomed against the somber sky.
Beyond these meadows, the distant Litchfield hills were purplish in the dimming light, their bases obscured by the rising mist so that only their peaks were visible now.
And all about this wintry landscape lay an unre-mitting silence, as if the world had stopped; everything was washed in a vast unconsciousness.
The stillness was all-pervasive; nothing moved or stirred.
In the summertime these low meadows were verdant and lush with billowing grass, and every kind of wildflower grew among the grasses. But on this cold Wednesday afternoon in November they appeared bleak and uninviting.
Stevie Jardine normally did not mind this 4 / Barbara Taylor Bradford
kind of misty weather, for inevitably it brought the past back to her, and happily so, reminding her as it did of the Yorkshire moors and the lovely old farmhouse she owned. Yet now the vaporous air was chilling her through and through; it seemed to permeate her bones.
Unexpectedly, she experienced a rush of apprehension, and this startled her. Pulling her woolen cape closer to her body, she hurried faster, trying to shake off the strange feeling of foreboding that had just enveloped her. Involuntarily, Stevie shivered.
Somebody walked over my grave, she thought, and she shivered again. She looked up.
The sky was remote and cold, turning color, curdling to a peculiar faded green. A bitter sky, eerie; she increased her pace, running, eager now to get home. She no longer liked it outside, regretted her decision to take a long walk. The fog had closed in, but earlier the weather had been beautiful, almost an Indian summer’s afternoon, until the dankness had scuttled the day.
Her feet knew well the path across the fields, and her step was sure, did not falter as it suddenly dipped, curved down into the dell. The fog was dense on this lower ground. Shivering once more, she drew herself farther into her cape.
Soon the narrow path was rising upward as the landscape changed, became hilly; the mist was evaporating up there, where the land was higher.
When she reached the crest of the hill the air grew colder, but it was much clearer.
Power of a Woman / 5
From this vantage point Stevie could make out her house nestling cozily in the valley below, and she felt a surge of relief. Smoke curled up from its chimneys, lights glimmered brightly in the windows.
It was a welcoming sight, warm and inviting in the dusk.
She was glad she was home.
The house was two hundred years old, built in 1796, and stood in a long, green valley under the shadow of Connecticut’s Litchfield hills. It had been something of an eyesore when she had first seen it five years before, an unsightly hodgepodge of addi-tions that had been built onto it over the decades.
After some skillful remodeling and restoration, its former graciousness and charm were recaptured.
Stevie moved rapidly across the wet lawn and up the steps onto the covered porch, entering the house through the side door, which led directly into the cloakroom.
Once she had hung up her damp cape she went into the great hall. This was vast, with a wide staircase at one end and a dark wood floor so highly polished it gleamed like glass. A beamed ceiling, heavy oak doors, and mullioned windows bespoke the age of the house.
Stevie always thought of the great hall as the core of the house, since all the other rooms flowed around it. From the moment she moved in, the 6 / Barbara Taylor Bradford
hall had been used as a family living room, where everyone congregated. Several pink-silk-shaded lamps had been turned on, and they glowed rosily, adding to the inviting atmosphere. It was a comfortable, welcoming room, with an old, faded Savonner-ie rug in front of the fireplace, antique Jacobean tables and chests made of dark carved wood. Big sofas, covered in a fir-green tapestry, were grouped with several chairs around the fire.
Stevie’s face instantly brightened as she crossed the hall. It was cheerful, safe, reassuring. A log fire roared in the big stone hearth and the air was redolent with the spicy scent of pine, a hint of wood smoke and ripe apples. From the kitchen there floated the fragrant aroma of bread baking.
Coming to a standstill at the fireplace, Stevie stood with her hands outstretched to the flames, warming them. Unexpectedly, laughter bubbled in her throat and she began to laugh out loud. At herself. How foolish she had been a short while ago when she was crossing the meadows. There was no reason for her to feel apprehensive. Her sense of foreboding had been irrational. She laughed again, chastising herself for her uneasiness earlier.
After a few seconds she turned away from the fireplace and crossed to the staircase, heading upstairs. She loved every corner of this lovely old house, in particular the small study that opened off her bedroom. As she pushed open the door and walked in, she could not help admiring the Power of a Woman / 7
room. It was beautifully proportioned, with a cathedral ceiling, tall windows at one end, and a grand fireplace flanked on either side by soaring bookshelves.
Stevie had had the study decoratively painted by an artist, who had layered innumerable coats of amber-colored paint on the walls, then given them a glazed finish. This Venetian stucco treatment created a soft golden sheen, as if sunshine had been perpetually trapped within the confines of the room.
Lovely paintings, selectively chosen over the years, family photographs in silver frames, a variety of treasured mementos, and well-loved books were the things that made this room hers, and very special to her.
The fire was laid and she went and knelt in front of it. Striking a match, she brought the flame to the paper and within seconds a roaring fire was blazing up the chimney.
Rising, she walked across the floor and seated herself at the oval-shaped Georgian desk in the window area. Papers from her briefcase were neatly stacked on it, but after a quick, cursory glance at these she turned away from them, sat back in the chair. Her mind was suddenly far, far away.
She found herself gazing at various objects on her desk, an absentminded expression etched on her delicate face…the Art Nouveau lamp she had picked up for next to nothing in the flea market in 8 / Barbara Taylor Bradford
Paris, a Georgian silver inkwell her mother had given her years before, a plethora of photographs of those she loved, her grandmother’s Meissen cream jug in the Red Dragon pattern filled with small pencils, and a copy of an ancient Hindu saying displayed in a mother-of-pearl frame.
Staring intently at this, she read it again, perhaps for the thousandth time in her life: “He who buys a diamond purchases a bit of eternity.”
This old saying had been written out by Ralph in handwriting so beautiful it was like calligraphy, and he had given it to her not long after they were married. As he would so often tell her, the saying summed up what he felt about diamonds. They were his business, he loved them; and it was from him that she had learned so much about them herself.
Stevie’s light gray-green eyes strayed to the photograph of Ralph and her, taken on their wedding day in November 1966. Thirty years ago to this very day. Ever since early this morning, Ralph had been in and out of her thoughts, and once again she fell down into herself, for a moment contemplating him and their early years together.
He had been such a good man, the best person she had ever known, so very loving, adoring even, and devoted to her from the first moment they met.
And certainly he had taken a strong stand against his parents when they had fiercely objected, and vociferously so, to the idea of their marrying.
Power of a Woman / 9
Bruce and Alfreda Jardine had disapproved of her right from the start, because, they said, she was far too young. And also an American, not to mention a girl with no background or fortune, although her nationality and the word
had never crossed their lips.
Stevie had always somehow known deep within herself, had actually
without ever being told, that had she been born an heiress with a great fortune to bring to the marriage, her age and her nationality would have been of little or no importance to the Jardines.
To her, Ralph’s parents were as transparent as glass. They were snobs who had long harbored grand ideas for their son, formulated grand plans for him, at least where matrimony was concerned.
But Ralph was not having any of that. Always his own man, he had been unshakable in his determination to make her his wife. He had openly defied them, and in so doing had ruined their elaborate schemes, thwarted their ambitions for him.
From a very long distance she heard a faint echo reverberating in her head. It was Bruce Jardine’s aristocratic English voice raised harshly in a shout of rage, as he uttered the most ugly words she had ever heard, words she had never forgotten.
“For God’s sake, man, you’re twenty-seven! Surely by now you know enough about sex to take care of matters properly! Why didn’t you have your way with her without getting her pregnant?
10 / Barbara Taylor Bradford
You’d better make arrangements for her to get rid of it. Talk to Harry Axworth. He’s a bit of a bounder, I’m the first to acknowledge, certainly not someone I would normally wish you to associate with. However, because of his nefarious indiscre-tions, he’s the best chap for this purpose. He’ll be able to point you in the right direction. He’s bound to know a doctor down on his luck who’ll no doubt do the job for fifty pounds.”
She had been waiting for Ralph in the grandiose front entrance hall, sitting on the edge of a chair, a nervous wreck, her hands trembling, her heart in her mouth as Bruce Jardine’s voice had echoed through the closed mahogany door.
Ralph had chosen not to dignify his father’s words with a response. He had walked out of the library and straight into her arms. After holding her close for a moment, calming her, he had then led her out into the street and away from the Jardine mansion in Wilton Crescent. His face had been white with fury, and he had not said a word to her until they were safely inside his bachelor flat in Mayfair. Once there, he had told her how much he loved her, and that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her.
They were married two weeks later in the register office in Marylebone. She had been sixteen years old, younger than Ralph by eleven years, and four months pregnant by then.
The elder Jardines, always contentious, had shown their disdain and anger by boycotting the Power of a Woman / 11
marriage of their only son. So had Alicia, Ralph’s sister.
But her mother had been present, her beautiful mother, Blair Connors, once the most famous model in the world, a supermodel before the term had even been invented.
Accompanying her mother that morning had been
new husband, Derek Rayner, the great English stage actor who everyone said was the heir apparent to Larry Olivier’s crown.
After the wedding ceremony, Derek had taken them all to lunch at The Ivy, London’s famous theatrical restaurant, which the elite of stage, film, and cafe society favored. And then they had gone to Paris for their honeymoon.
Ostracized by Ralph’s parents, Stevie and Ralph had lived for each other, and the world had been well lost to them.
A wistful sigh escaped her. For a long time now she had recognized that the weekends and holidays she had spent on the Yorkshire moors had been the most happy of times for her, perhaps the happiest in her entire life. It saddened her that they could never be recaptured, that this particular kind of happiness would never be hers again.