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Authors: Tracy Chevalier

Burning Bright

BOOK: Burning Bright

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Published by Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Copyright © 2007 by Tracy Chevalier

All rights reserved



Chevalier, Tracy.

Burning bright / by Tracy Chevalier.

p. cm.

ISBN: 978-1-1012-1358-2 (hardcover)

1. Blake, William, 1757–1827—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3553.H4367B87 2007

813'.54—dc22             2006026898

Designed by Nancy Resnick

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

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For my parents

March 1792

There was something humiliating about waiting in a cart on a busy London street with all your possessions stacked around you, on show to the curious public. Jem Kellaway sat by a tower of Windsor chairs his father had made for the family years ago, and watched aghast as passersby openly inspected the cart's contents. He was not used to seeing so many strangers at once—the appearance of one in their Dorsetshire village would be an event discussed for days after—and to being so exposed to their attention and scrutiny. He hunkered back among the family belongings, trying to make himself less conspicuous. A wiry boy with a narrow face, deep-set blue eyes, and sandy fair hair that curled below his ears, Jem was not one to draw attention to himself, and people peered more often at his family's belongings than at him. A couple even stopped and handled items as if they were at a barrow squeezing pears to see which was ripest—the woman fingering the hem of a nightdress that poked out of a split bag, the man picking up one of Thomas Kellaway's saws and testing its teeth for sharpness. Even when Jem shouted, “Hey!” he took his time setting it back down.

Apart from the chairs, much of the cart was filled with the tools of Jem's father's trade: wooden hoops used to bend wood for the arms and backs of the Windsor chairs he specialized in; a dismantled lathe for turning chair legs; and a selection of saws, axes, chisels, and augers. Indeed, Thomas Kellaway's tools took up so much room that the Kellaways had had to take turns walking alongside the cart for the week it took to get from Piddletrenthide to London.

The cart they had traveled in, driven by Mr. Smart, a local Piddle Valley man with an unexpected sense of adventure, was halted in front of Astley's Amphitheatre. Thomas Kellaway had had only a vague notion of where to find Philip Astley, and no idea of how big London really was, thinking he could stand in the middle of it and see the amphitheatre where Astley's Circus performed, the way he might back in Dorchester. Luckily for them, Astley's Circus was well known in London, and they were quickly directed to the large building at the end of Westminster Bridge, with its round, peaked wooden roof and front entrance adorned with four columns. An enormous white flag flying from the top of the roof read
in red on one side and
in black on the other.

Ignoring the curious people on the street as best he could, Jem fixed his eyes instead on the nearby river, which Mr. Smart had decided to wander along “to see a bit o' London” and on Westminster Bridge, which arched over the water and ran into the distant mass of square towers and spires of Westminster Abbey. None of the rivers Jem knew in Dorset—the Frome the size of a country lane, the Piddle a mere rivulet he could easily jump across—bore any resemblance to the Thames, a broad channel of rocking, choppy green-brown water pulled back and forth by the distant tide of the sea. Both river and bridge were clogged with traffic—boats on the Thames; carriages, carts, and pedestrians on the bridge. Jem had never seen so many people at once, even on market day in Dorchester, and was so distracted by the sight of so much movement that he could take in little detail.

Though tempted to get down from the cart and join Mr. Smart at the water's edge, he didn't dare leave Maisie and his mother. Maisie Kellaway was gazing about in bewilderment and flapping a handkerchief at her face. “Lord, it's hot for March,” she said. “It weren't this hot back home, were it, Jem?”

“It'll be cooler tomorrow,” Jem promised. Although Maisie was two years older than he, it often seemed to Jem that she was his younger sister, needing protection from the unpredictability of the world—though there was little of that in the Piddle Valley. His job would be harder here.

Anne Kellaway was watching the river as Jem had, her eyes fixed on a boy pulling hard on the oars of a rowboat. A dog sat opposite him, panting in the heat; he was the boy's only cargo. Jem knew what his mother was thinking of as she followed the boy's progress: his brother Tommy, who had loved dogs and always had at least one from the village following him about.

Tommy Kellaway had been a handsome boy, with a tendency to daydream that baffled his parents. It was clear early on that he would never be a chairmaker, for he had no affinity for wood and what it could do, or any interest in the tools his father tried to teach him to use. He would let an auger come to a halt midturn, or a lathe spin slower and slower and stop as he gazed at the fire or into the middle distance—a trait he inherited from his father, but without the accompanying ability to get back to his work.

Despite this essential uselessness—a trait Anne Kellaway would normally despise—his mother loved him more than her other children, though she could not have said why. Perhaps she felt he was more helpless and so needed her more. Certainly he was good company, and made her laugh as no one else could. But her laughter had died the morning six weeks before when she found him under the pear tree at the back of the Kellaways' garden. He must have climbed it in order to pick the one pear left, which had managed to cling on to its branch and hung just out of reach all winter, teasing them, even though they knew the cold would have ruined its taste. A branch had snapped, and he fell and broke his neck. A sharp pain pierced her chest whenever Anne Kellaway thought of him; she felt it now, watching the boy and the dog in the boat. Her first taste of London could not erase it.

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