Authors: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
To my three-year-old granddaughter,
Adrienne Elise Woodiwiss,
Who is my delight.—Kew
stood at the lofty windows of the front parlor and, through a wealth of tears, gloomily observed the people scurrying along the lane traversing Berkeley Square. They seemed in urgent haste to find shelter before the gathering clouds sent a torrent of rain down upon them. The chilling gusts that accompanied the glowering sky buffeted both young and old, male and female, puckishly snatching cloaks and redingotes of passersby who were put to task keeping top hats, fashionable bonnets or their flyaway wraps in place. Cheeks and noses were brightened to a reddish hue, and shivers came from those more lightly clad. For the most part, the city’s inhabitants were making their way with varying degrees of eagerness or resignation to family and homes or to more lonely existences. They gave little heed to the comfort awaiting them or, for that matter, how fragile life really was.
A large porcelain clock, artfully adorned with figurines,
delicately chimed the fourth hour on the marble mantel in the parlor. Cerynise clenched her slender hands together in the gently gathered fullness of her skirt, burrowing them into the stiff, black taffeta as she struggled valiantly against an encroaching grief. As the tinkling of the timepiece quieted, she stilled the urge to glance over her shoulder with the same expectancy that had become ingrained by the ritual of tea of which she and her guardian, Lydia Winthrop, had partaken daily for the last five years. The suddenness of the woman’s death had stunned Cerynise, and even now, she found it difficult to accept. Lydia had seemed so vivacious and energetic for a woman approaching seventy. Even on the night of her death, her wit and humor had nigh sparkled in contrast to the dour sullenness of her great-nephew, who had come to call upon her that evening. Yet, however much Cerynise wished otherwise, Lydia was dead and buried. Only yesterday Cerynise had stared fixedly at the mahogany casket while final prayers were being spoken for the repose of the woman’s soul. To her wearied mind, it now seemed an eternity had passed since a handful of dirt, signifying man’s return to ashes and dust, was scattered over the descending coffin. That kind, loving woman whom Cerynise had come to love as her protectress, confidante, surrogate parent and dearest friend was now forever gone from her sight and company.
Despite Cerynise’s efforts to banish her sorrow, soft lips trembled back from fine, white teeth as a new rush of tears welled up to blur the thickly fringed hazel eyes. Never again would the two of them enjoy delightful little chitchats over brimming cups and crumpets or sit together in the evening before a cheery, heartwarming fire while Cerynise read aloud to the elder from a treasured book of verse or fiction. The sitting room would no longer be imbued with the lilting strains of melodies which Cerynise had sung while Lydia played the pianoforte. Neither would they traverse a bustling strand together nor share their thoughts while strolling along the banks of the Serpentine
in Hyde Park, nor would they simply enjoy the presence of the other in the peace and serenity of the glade. Forever gone would be her guardian’s gentle support, which, despite the obstacles of society, had bolstered a young girl’s dream of becoming a great painter, to the extent that exhibits had been held and paintings had been sold for goodly sums to wealthy patrons, albeit under an element of secrecy with only the initials CK hinting of the artist’s identity. Even now, as poignant memories brought ever-freshening waves of grief sweeping over her, Cerynise could almost imagine the tall, slender, black-garbed silhouette of the elder standing a short distance behind and to the right of her easel as she had oftentimes done while Cerynise painted and, in her rather husky voice, reminding her ward to always be true to herself no matter what.
Cerynise’s despair and loneliness were more than she seemed capable of bearing at the moment. She felt completely drained and weak. It was not at all surprising to her that the room seemed to tilt unnaturally, leaving her swaying on her feet and blinking against an encroaching dizziness. In desperation she clutched the window frame for support and rested her brow against the cool, dark wood until gradually the feeling subsided. She had eaten very little since Lydia’s death, managing to down nothing more than a few sips of broth and a dry wedge of toast. What sleep she had finally gleaned in her bedchamber upstairs wasn’t worth noting. Still, she doubted her ability to find ease from her sorrow even now, though she knew that Lydia wouldn’t have wanted her to be unduly distressed by her untimely departure. The elder had once offered a world of comfort and compassion to a frightened twelve-year-old girl who, at the time, had just lost her parents in a devastating storm that had sent a large tree crashing down upon their home. Cerynise had blamed herself for not being there to save them, but Lydia, who had grown up in the area and been childhood friends with Cerynise’s grandmother, whose own death had preceded her daughter’s by several years, had gently led the girl to
understand that she, too, would have been killed had she not been away attending a young lady’s academy. No matter the hardships one had to face, the elder had counseled her solicitously, life had to go on. Lydia would have expected her to remember that now.
Yet it was so terribly hard, Cerynise groaned inwardly. If Lydia had been ill even one day of those five years or if there had been some kind of warning, then the whole household would have been better prepared, but as much as it might have forewarned her, Cerynise would never have wished a long, debilitating illness on the elder. No, if the hand of death could not have been stayed, then the fact that Lydia had succumbed in such seemingly good health was truly a blessing, however much it had shocked the young woman who had loved her in life and now grieved her passing.
Raindrops began to pelt the windows and trickle down the glass in quickening runnels, drawing Cerynise’s thoughts back to the present. With a storm closing in upon the city, the street was now nearly devoid of pedestrians. Only a few hastened by to find shelter. Carriages continued to pass, their drivers hunched deep in their dapper liveries as they squinted against the droplets.
Soft footfalls came into the parlor, and Cerynise glanced around to meet the reddened eyes of the parlor maid who, like the other members of the household staff, was sorely lamenting the demise of her mistress.
“Yer pardon, Miss Cerynise,” the servant murmured, “I was wonderin’ if ye’d be wantin’ tea now that ye’re back?”
Cerynise had no interest in taking sustenance, but the tea would perchance warm her after her graveside visit. She had gotten so chilled to the bone from the unseasonably cold weather presently thwarting them that she could only foresee it as a dreadful harbinger of what the approaching winter would be like.
“Tea will be fine, Bridget. Thank you.” Her syllables were softened by a subtle drawl characteristic of her Carolina
birthplace which her sojourn in England had barely changed. Amid a profusion of other studies, her tutors had diligently sought to instruct her in proper English diction and etiquette, but having considered none of them as wise or as brilliant as her own studious parents, Cerynise had enjoyed frustrating their efforts to correct her speech like some precocious child who was wont to tease her elders. Though she could assume a stiltedly refined speech that could fool the keenest ears when it met her mood, she had stubbornly refused to become a foreigner to her homeland, for she had made up her mind even before departing the Carolinas that someday she would return.
The maid bobbed a curtsy and hurried away, relieved to have something to occupy her, for the house had grown somber and deathly still in the last few days, as if it too mourned the loss of its mistress. At times, Bridget could almost imagine she could hear the uniquely rasping voice that had, for some years now, filled her life with cheer and kindness.
A tea cart, laden with a silver tea service and Meissen china, was soon pushed into the parlor. Accompanying the steeped brew was a plate of scones adorned with creamy butter and a crystal server of strawberry preserves to tempt the palate.
With a pensive sigh Cerynise left the window and took a seat on one of a pair of matching settees that faced each other before the fireplace. Bridget rolled the cart near and, with another polite bob, took her leave. Cerynise’s hands trembled as she lifted the teapot, filled a cup, and added cream and sugar, a small concession which she had made to English custom, but one she particularly enjoyed. She considered the scones, having every intention of eating one, but after taking the bread onto her plate, it suddenly lost its appeal. She could do nothing more than stare at it. Between resolution and actual compliance, there loomed a chasm that, for the life of her, she couldn’t seem to cross.
I’ll eat it later
, Cerynise promised herself and, with a shudder of distaste, set the plate aside. Lifting the cup, she
tasted the concoction, hoping it would calm her stomach as well as her nerves. It wasn’t long before she found herself at the windows again, sipping the tea as she looked out upon the elegant Mayfair district in which they lived. Beyond the limitations of her view, the world seemed so vast and untamable that the enormity of her sense of loss gave her cause to wonder how she could wisely make the best of her circumstances now that she was alone and no more than ten and seven years of age.
Cerynise closed her eyes against the dull ache that had been brewing in her head since her return home, no doubt caused by tension and endless hours without sleep. The pain in her temples progressed into a constant throbbing until it seemed that every hairpin in her hair had no other purpose but to intensify her discomfort. Setting the teacup aside, she grew more purposeful and began to search out the offending pins, freeing them from the intricately coiled knot on top of her head and raking her fingers through her hair until the thick, softly curling tresses tumbled in free abandon over her shoulders and down her back. The torment persisted with unrelenting vengeance, seeming to pierce her brain until Cerynise felt compelled to seek another form of relief. She began to massage her scalp, giving little heed to how she ruffled the pale-streaked tawny mane that adorned it or, for that matter, that she was in the formal parlor, where proper dress was usually the rule. Only servants were in the house, and although Lydia’s great-nephew was inclined to drop in unannounced at odd and sundry times, he hadn’t seen fit to come to the funeral. In fact, the last time he had visited, he had been so vexed with the elder when he left that he had raged at her and vowed that he wouldn’t be back for a fortnight. That had been a mere three days ago.
The pounding ache in her head began to ease to a more tolerable level, allowing Cerynise to think more clearly about her future. She began to pace restlessly about the parlor as she tried to put her life into clear perspective. She had one remaining relative, and that was an uncle
living in Charleston. He had been a bachelor all of his life, having preferred his books and studies over marriage and a family, yet Cerynise suffered no uncertainty that he would welcome her back with open arms. Prior to her departure, he had assured her that, had he not doubted his ability to nurture her as a knowledgeable parent and teach her all that a woman should know, he would never have let her go, but after carefully considering the advantages she would reap living with the older woman, he had acquiesced to Lydia’s suggestion and, with brimming tears, had urged his niece to go to England, study art and languages, learn everything that an elegant lady should be cognizant of, and then come back a polished gem. However far away, Sterling Kendall was her one sure haven.
At least, she wouldn’t have to worry about money for a while, Cerynise mused with a measure of relief. With what her paintings had already gained in coin, she could live very comfortably while she created others. Charleston had its own share of wealthy planters and merchants, many of whom were avid collectors of art. Still, they might not be as enthusiastic about her work if they were to learn that the artist was hardly more than an unknown, and a girl to boot. To be reasonably successful there, it seemed advisable for her to find another representative who’d be willing to sell her paintings without lifting the cloak of mystery from her identity. Considering what she had already earned, she didn’t think it would be too difficult to interest an enterprising art dealer in performing such a service.
Cerynise halted her pacing abruptly, momentarily startled by the reflection the long gilded mirror hanging in the entrance hall cast back at her. Her disheveled appearance was certainly unexpected here in the front parlor, but what she found even more amazing was the fact that, with her long, softly variegated hair curling wildly about her shoulders, she looked closely akin to a wild-haired Gypsy girl, albeit a well-garbed one.
Her head tilted aslant on a gracefully long neck as she
perused herself with critical detachment, wondering if her uncle would find her changed much after her lengthy absence. When he had watched her sail away, she had been nothing more than a scrawny girl painfully conscious of her height. Now she was a woman fully grown, still taller by a few degrees than a fair share of her gender, and although slender, she was well curved enough to have attracted a small following of young gallants who had begun to pester Lydia about the details of her coming out. With her recent lack of nourishment, her thickly fringed hazel eyes looked enormous beneath sweeping brows that angled upward in soft brown slashes. Her cheekbones were exquisitely high and perhaps, at the moment, more pronounced than usual, lending a slight hollowness beneath. Her nose was straight, slim, and fairly decent from her perspective, but little color remained in the soft lips that curved unsmilingly back at her.
Except for a tiny frothing of scalloped white lace overflowing the high, pleated ruffle at her neck and more of the same at her wrists, she was clothed entirely in black. Her fashionable spencer jacket of velvet, trimmed with black braid swirled military-fashion over her bosom, ended just above the waist. Her sleeves were puffed at the shoulders. Otherwise they were closely fitted, ending at the wrists with the black pleats lined with the same costly white lace. Her skirt bore festoons of decorative braid above the hem, the length of which was stylishly short, at least enough to display trim, stockinged ankles and flat slippers.