Authors: Alix Rickloff
For Mom and Dad, who have waited for this one
Prue puts down her sewing and eyes me through her cheaters, but in no other way does she reveal the shock she must be feeling at my news.
“Cancer, so Mr. Porter tells me.” I blunder on before she can gather herself to speak. “He suggests I put my affairs in order while my strength remains, but what's there to organize? The last payment I received for modeling was just enough to pay the doctor's consultation fee. By the time Andre returns from Biarritz or San Remo or wherever he's gone in search of lucrative commissions, I won't be in any position to pose for him or anyone else.”
We are taking advantage of a mild winter's afternoon to take the air in Prue's small back garden. Laundry flaps on the line, and in the corner by Graham's potting shed, the earth has been turned in preparation for planting cabbages and cauliflower. My journal lies
open in my lap where I have tried to capture the poignant intimacy of the scene, but my mind won't focus. Memories laced with regret and grief simmer too close to the surface for me to concentrate on my work.
I chose my moment carefully. Graham is at the pub, leaving Prue and me alone in the little house on Queen's Crescent. I know I can no longer hide my illness from her. She is far too observant and has already noticed my lack of appetite and how quickly I grow tired from the least strenuous of activities. It's just as well. I need her counsel and her quiet common sense. She'll not burden me with useless sympathy. That isn't her way. For good or ill, life must be faced head-on. She has taught me that if nothing else.
“There's Anna,” she says simply, as if reading my thoughts. “You must make arrangements for her.”
Anna. My daughter. My dearest treasure.
I sent her to school this morning in a crisply starched pinafore, her wild red hair tamed into two slick braids. She made me leave her at the corner, too old at six to be seen holding hands with her mother. But at the last moment, she threw her chubby arms around my neck and kissed me on my nose. I wanted to crush her close and never let her go. It took every ounce of strength I possessed to release her. Too many times have I watched silently as those I loved walked away. As she marched proudly, back straight and head high, down the sidewalk, I clamped my jaw shut to keep myself from calling her back.
“Of course, but I don't want her to know, Prue. Not about the cancer. Promise you won't say anything.” My throat aches, and I shiver with unexpected cold. My fingers knot, and I'm surprised to see how knobby my knuckles have become, the veins running blue under the translucent skin of my wrists.
“Are you certain that's wise?”
I force myself to relax my hands so they lie flat on the pages of the journal, but I can't make myself leaf back through the pages. Not yet. “I've weighted her with enough burdens, don't you think? I won't add to her load.”
Prue pours out two cups of tea, adding four heaping spoonfuls of sugar to mine, just the way I like it. The sweet, syrupy heat coats my throat and warms my stomach. I take a deep breath and the ghosts of the past recede, though they never completely leave me. Now I am glad of their company.
“You should write to your family,” Prue urges, her own tea prepared with only a thin slice of lemon. Her expression is grave, though I can see she is already looking ahead to what must be done, checklists mentally ticked off in her head. “Tell them what you've told me. Ask them for help. If not for your sake, for Anna's. She's a Trenowyth, no matter what side of the blanket she was born on.”
Next door, crazy old Mrs. Vaisvilaf begins playing the piano. Some of the neighbors dislike the noise, but I enjoy her concert-worthy performances of Haydn and Mozart as she relives her youth on a St. Petersburg stage. Perhaps because I know how she feels when the past becomes more real than the present. “You make it sound so simple. You forget that in their eyes Lady Katherine is already dead and has been for years.”
Despite my protest, Prue's suggestion makes perfect sense. Anna
a Trenowyth. I've made her one through my own arrogance. And I wish I had the courage or, perhaps, the shamelessness, to write and beg my family's aid.
I imagine Anna moving from room to room at Nanreath Hall, her shoes scuffing the same crooked floors, her fingers trailing along the carved oaken banister as she is led downstairs for her daily obligatory visit with the grown-ups, staring out the same nursery window toward the glittering gray-green sea and listening to its
purr as she lies in the narrow iron bedstead with Nanny snoring a comforting room away.
But I know even as I imagine it, that it is a dream with no hope of coming true. Nanreath is lost to me. There is no going back.
I close my journal and run my hand over the tooled calfskin cover, worn smooth over years of use. It is warm to the touch, as if the souls of the people and places within might be conjured with a word and a breath. “It's funny, but I'm not frightened of dying. I'm more terrified that when Anna understands who and what she is, I won't be here to explain. That she'll despise me.”
“And why would she do that?”
“Bastards are rarely treated gently.” I hate the taste of the word. Prue winces, too, and she catches back a little breath. “Sometimes I regret not feigning a marriage,” I continue. “It would have been easy enough after the war. There were so many widows, who would question one more? I know you thought I was mad not to.”
“I didn't want you hurt any more than you already were. You were so fragile, so lost. I didn't see the honor in wearing your shame like a badge.”
“Perhaps not.” I give a little shrug. Now that the confession has been made, I find I am weary, my strength deserting me. “But I'd lied to myself for so long that when I finally realized the truth, I couldn't lie anymore. Not even for Anna's sake.”
“She won't despise you.” Prue reaches across to take my hand, squeezing it gently in a wordless note of comfort. “Graham and I will make sure of that.”
Her motherly gaze behind her glasses holds the reassurance I seek even if I don't ask outright. I could not have wished for a better friend or a better guardian for Anna when the time comes. But not even Prue knows the whole story.
There is no one left alive who does.
The sun chooses that moment to break free of the clouds and spear the sea of belching chimney pots, falling warm and golden upon my face. Spent, I close my eyes, and though I am in London where my life is ending, I see the glittering expanse of ocean stretching on forever and feel the June sun burn my cheeks as a briny wind tosses my hair into my face. Mrs. Vinter's house sits at the bottom of the lane where riotous beds of camellias and jasmine and verbena frame a pink front door, and Nellie Melba on the gramophone floats through an open window to war with the cry of gulls.
It is Cornwall the summer before the Great War, and though I am already twenty and, to my mind, quite grown up, my life is just about to begin.