Authors: Darcey Bonnette
In memory of two incredible women:
my grandmothers, Lily Bogdan and Helen Baer
Table of Contents
he hid in her mother’s wardrobe. The Sickness would not find her there. Shoulders scrunched, limbs hugged close to her body, eight-year-old Cecily Burkhart huddled against the silks, taffetas, and damasks of the baroness’s elegant gowns. She fingered the materials, thinking of her beautiful mother, murdered by the dreaded sweat. She heard the servants’ dresses as they rushed in and out of Lady Ashley’s chambers. They rustled, stiff with starch, crude gowns of homespun and wool. They did not flow the way her mother’s did when she walked across the floor.
But she was not walking across the floor. The footfalls that click-clacked against the rush-strewn chambers now belonged to the physician, the servants, and, finally, the priest as he administered the last rites.
Cecily’s mother was dead.
Cecily buried her head against the fur hem of her mother’s gown and offered silent sobs. Her mother was the last of them, her father, Lord Edward Burkhart, passing the week before. He had joined Cecily’s four brothers, who met the angels when they were but infants. Now she was alone.
Someone called her name. She hugged herself and began to rock back and forth. She did not want to answer. She did not want to think of anything but her mother’s gowns. She smiled to herself, remembering Mother gliding across the floor, hand on Cecily’s father’s arm, in the very gown her tears wetted now. How gentle she was and how merry was Cecily’s father in her mother’s company.
“Lady Cecily, do come out, lamb!” begged one of the servants, Mistress Fitzgerald. “You must come out of Lady Ashley’s wardrobe now; we must know if you are ill!”
“Supposing she passed on and we’re not being aware of it?” another of the servants added, her voice wrought with anxiety.
Cecily drew in a breath. She must not evade them any longer; it was cruel to cause them distress. “I am here,” she said in soft tones.
Footfalls bounded toward the wardrobe. “Lady Cecily, child, are you ill? Do you feel hot, child, achy?” Mistress Fitzgerald’s voice was taut.
“I am … well,” Cecily assured her. She was not well. Her parents were dead, her family was wiped out, she did not know what was to become of her. But she was alive and there was no other response she could think of.
Mistress Fitzgerald threw open the doors to the wardrobe. Cecily squinted against the painful light and retreated farther back within its reaches. Meaty, chapped hands parted the gowns, revealing Mistress Fitzgerald’s broad face and teary brown eyes.
“Lady Cecily,” she said in gentle tones. “What have they done with my mother?” Cecily asked, sniffling.
Mistress Fitzgerald expelled a heavy sigh. “Lady Ashley has been promptly put to rest, to help contain the spread of the Sickness.” She narrowed her eyes and shook her head. “Blast the king for bringing God’s wrath upon us and all for lust of that Boleyn Whore, witch and heretic that she is! And blast your parents for supporting him! That’s why God took them, you know. They supported the Boleyns and their despicable lot.”
Cecily covered her ears against this gloomy interpretation of God’s will, averting her head from the round-faced maid.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Mistress Fitzgerald said. “It’s just me being mad with grief is all. This sweating sickness came into our country with the Tudors … and sometimes I’m afraid it won’t leave till the last Tudor is—” At this she cast her eyes to and fro, then crossed herself. It was treason to predict the death of any monarch and Mistress Fitzgerald had enough problems.
Cecily uncovered her ears and stared the maid in the face. “Then I am Baroness Burkhart now,” she said as she realised the fact for the first time. “I am the lady of this house … of everything. …”
“Yes,” said Mistress Fitzgerald. “Though this is hardly the time to gloat about it.”
Cecily scowled. “I mean to say, madam, that I am the mistress of this house,” she explained.
Mistress Fitzgerald bowed her head. “Of course, my lady. What can I do for you?”
“Close these wardrobe doors and leave me alone!” Cecily ordered.
Mistress Fitzgerald screwed up her face in confusion, shrugged her shoulders, and closed the doors.
In the darkness of the wardrobe, Cecily inhaled the traces of perfume on her mother’s gowns. She wrapped herself up in them and pretended they were the beloved arms of the woman she would never see again.
Father Alec Cahill saw no valid reason for having to fetch the Earl of Sumerton’s new ward. Now that the threat of the dread sweating sickness was on the decline he couldn’t understand why the Pierces could not get the girl themselves. It was the least they could do for her, a child all alone in the world with no one to care for her. As for the Pierces, while a stag lived in Sumerton Forest they were not to be disturbed. Not when there was hunting and entertainments to be had.
Yet Father Alec liked the Pierces. They were warm and merry, and since being engaged as tutor to their children he could not say he didn’t enjoy being a member of their household. The children were intelligent and eager to learn, the employers were generous and freethinking enough to allow him to teach in the progressive manner he felt would someday benefit the children in what was becoming a fast-changing world.
If there was any fault to be found with the Pierces it was that they were upper gentry and, as with most upper gentry, an inherent selfishness accompanied their station. It would not occur to them to fetch the Baroness Burkhart themselves, not because they were cold and unfeeling but because the thought would never cross their minds. He supposed it didn’t matter. He would endeavour to make the child feel as comfortable as possible until her delivery to the Pierces, where he was confident they would do the same.
Father Alec drifted in and out of a listless sleep as the coach lurched and bounced along the rutted road. When not sleeping, he prayed for the girl’s smooth transition, and it was as he was praying, eyes closed, mouthing the words, that the coach rambled up to Burkhart Manor. He opened his eyes to a sprawling green vista. The manor house was set on a hill surrounded by lush gardens and an imposing stone wall. Vines climbed the walls of the house toward the heavens and Father Alec inhaled the sweet smell of fresh rain and green things.
He was shown into the house, where he was instructed to wait in the great hall for the girl. It was a stunning hall, outfitted with imported Turkish carpets, intricate tapestries, and stained-glass windows bearing the Burkhart coat of arms. He shook his head, awed as always by such opulence. It, along with all of the treasures within, belonged to a single little girl now. Quite heady.
“I’m afraid she won’t come down, Father,” a stout servant informed him with a huffing sigh. “She’s been devastated since her loss, sequestering herself in her mother’s wardrobe. She takes her meals in there and everything—only leaving to use the chamber pot!” With this the round face flushed deep crimson. “If I may be begging your pardon, Father.”
Father Alec smiled and waved a hand in dismissal. “Perhaps you should take me to the girl.”
“I apologise, Father,” the servant continued as she led him up the stairs to the chamber that used to belong to Baroness Ashley Burkhart. “Lady Cecily has always had a bit of a stubborn streak in her and now aggrieved as she is—”
“I am not worried, mistress,” assured the young priest with a slight chuckle.
The servant entered the chambers first. “Lady Cecily, there’s a priest here waiting to see you, a servant of God! You’ll not want to be angering a servant of God!”
“We’re all servants of God, so I expect
should not want to anger
either!” a little voice shot back.
Father Alec’s lips twitched, but he refrained from breaking into a smile.
The servant balled her thick hand into a fist and pounded on the heavy oaken doors of the wardrobe. “Now we’ve indulged you long enough! You come out of there!”
At this Father Alec rushed forward, laying his hands upon the doughy shoulders of the servant. “Please, mistress, perhaps you should allow me. If you wouldn’t mind stepping out?”