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The Master of Henzel’s died as the clocks struck three into the raw darkness of a November afternoon in 1844. And as she felt the power drain from the hand that had controlled her life, Christina came into her own.
Not that she was at all aware of it. Indeed, as she stared down at the twisted face, cullet-grey against the pillow, she was conscious only of a rising anger that threatened all her taut control, gripping her heart with a white heat that could be blazing from one of the family’s own furnaces, tearing its way from her throat to burst from her lips in bitter denial.
At her shoulder, she was vaguely aware of Doctor Thorpe, stepping forward to lean over the still figure in the bed. She watched him feel the dead man’s chest, touch his lips and then – impossibly, intolerably – pass his hand down Joshua Henzel’s face, closing the glaring eyes.
‘No!’ she cried again, tightening both her hands around her father’s massive fingers, gripping them as though she could pump her own life back into the silent heart, will the receding spirit to return. ‘No! He can’t die, he can’t! I won’t let him!’
The doctor turned to her, his kindly face full of concern, which only served to anger her the more. ‘I’m afraid there is nothing we can do,’ he said gently. ‘Your father is dead, my dear, and you will have to accept it.’ He laid his hand gently on her shoulder, but to Christina his touch was cold, the touch of death, and she twisted violently away from it, her hair, loosened during her long vigil, flying in a chestnut cloud around her shoulders. ‘Go to your room and rest,’ he advised her. ‘I will arrange for your maid to bring you some tea.’
‘Tea?’ To Christina, the suggestion was almost obscene. Tea, while her father’s body still cooled on his bed? Tea, when her whole world had been taken by one corner and shaken as a maid would shake a tablecloth? ‘I want to stay with him,’ she said, and took up again the hand that she had dropped when the doctor touched her.
‘My dear Christina, you can’t, there are things to be done—’
‘But not immediately.’ The green-gold eyes she lifted were bright but dry, and not for the first time the doctor recognised the likeness to her father. Not in body – Christina, fully-grown now at twenty, was still barely a third the size of Joshua Henzel – but in a certain indomitability, in a certain look. And the brilliant glance that met his so squarely and commandingly, was Joshua’s through and through, and as impossible to resist.
‘Not immediately,’ she repeated, her voice softened now, yet still with a thread of steel running through its tone. ‘I want to stay with my father, Doctor Thorpe, alone, for a little while. I want to say my own goodbyes.’
He inclined his head. The idea of leaving a young girl alone in a room with death was not appealing to him, but he could not refuse her this.
‘I’ll notify the rest of the family,’ he said quietly and, with another small bow, turned and left the room.
Christina’s eyes turned towards the corner of the room where one other watcher had kept her and the doctor company for almost all of the past forty-eight hours.
‘You too, Ruth,’ she said, more gently than she had spoken to Doctor Thorpe. ‘Leave me alone now. Go down to the kitchen, and ask Mrs Jenner to make you some broth; tell her I said you were to have it. And tell them that I am not to be disturbed for half an hour.’
The little maid came out of her shadowy corner, skirting the bed timidly, but reluctant to go.
‘Are you sure you’ll be all right, miss?’ she whispered, her voice dry with grief and weariness, ‘I don’t hardly like to leave you here with-with…’
‘Go and have some soup, Ruth,’ Christina repeated, and her voice shook with the effort of remaining calm. ‘Come to me after half an hour.’ And the maid, with one final, scared glance towards the big bed, slipped like a shadow through the door.
Christina remained quite still for a moment, staring down at the body of her father; he didn’t look dead at all. He looked fearsome enough, his face, already distorted from the stroke that had felled him two days ago, twisted afresh from that last dreadful spasm. But he was still her father and Christina, alone of all who knew him, had never feared him. She was not going to begin now.
‘Why did you have to die?’ she asked him, gazing down at the closed eyes, the ashen face. And then, her tone louder, throbbing with a bitter, angry despair, ‘Why? Why did you have to die now?’
Ever since early childhood, Christina had known she was her father’s favourite. Always, when he came storming through the nursery door, she had been first to run to him, ahead even of her brother Frederic, thrusting her way into his arms while her elder sister, Alice, hung back timidly by their nurse’s knee and Adela stared from her cot. Third of the large family, she seemed always to have been aware of him – much more than she was of her mother, the frail invalid who had lived in a shady room, to be visited for just a few moments each day, and that only when she was strong enough.
But Joshua, a swarthy giant of a man with a voice that could shake the house and send the dogs scuttling for cover, Joshua had been Christina’s world. He was part of her earliest memories. He had been there when they lived in the country, near her grandparents’ home, when she and Frederic had been allowed to run wild in the garden and the woods, to make mud pies and dam the trickling stream. In the mornings, she had run down in her nightgown to lift her face for his goodbye kiss; in the evenings she had swung on the gate, stubbornly refusing to go indoors until his carriage had arrived and she had been once more enveloped in his bear-hugging arms.
Leaving that house in the country and coming closer to the smoke of Wordsley, thickened by that of neighbouring Amblecote and Stourbridge, would have been more painful for Christina if it had not been for the fact that her father would not have to travel so far to the glasshouse, so that she could see more of him. And any lingering regrets she might have had, for the woods, the fields and the streams, were soon forgotten in the intoxication of discovering the world that Joshua inhabited during those hours when he was away from home.
The glasshouse! Even now, the very word sent a thrill of excitement pulsing through her veins. She remembered how Frederic had come back from his own first visit to the huge red-brick cones, glowing with enthusiasm, passing it on to her. From that moment, her one consuming desire had been to see it too, and to become a part of the world they knew. But winning the right to go into the glasshouse had come only after a long, hard fight. Even Joshua had shaken his head, laughing that great laugh of his, telling her that it was impossible, that she was a lady and the glasshouse was no place for a lady. Persistence, cajoling, all the wiles she had learned to use so successfully, none of them had been of any use, and Christina had almost despaired.
It was sheer impudence that had eventually won the day. Impudence and daring, and even now, in the first throes of her grief, Christina could smile at the recollection of Frederic’s fearful doubts when she had insisted, and his relief when Joshua, inevitably discovering them, had simply flung back his head, roared with laughter and capitulated.
‘Dressing in your brother’s clothes!’ he’d exclaimed, his voice loud enough to shatter the entire output of the factory. ‘Why, you little minx!’ Lips twitching, he’d surveyed the two of them, caught before they’d even reached the glasshouse doors. And then, to Christina’s delight, had shrugged his shoulders. ‘Well, if it matters so much to you, you’d better finish the job. Come along, the pair of you. Frederic, you can show your sister what it is she apparently longs to see. Show her what buys those clothes, and all the other gewgaws and trinkets around the house.’ And he had taken them both on a long and comprehensive tour of the three cones that formed the factory, explaining the entire process of glassmaking and returning them afterwards to a shocked Aunt Susan and wide-eyed Alice and Adela. Perhaps he thought that this one visit would satisfy his headstrong daughter, who would then return to the nursery, to her sewing and her dolls.
But for Christina, that first visit had been like the first taste of an addictive drug. She could not sleep that night for reliving the entire experience, seeing again the hot, dark glasshouse, populated by half-naked men who moved in muscular ballet across the shadowy floor, skin bronzed by the fiery glow of the furnaces. Lifting glowing, red-tipped spears, they had stabbed Christina’s heart with an excitement from which it had never recovered. And even now, years later, she could not enter the glass-cone without a throb of that same violent delight.
She had had to fight for the right to return to the glasshouse, and if her father had failed to support her she might have lost that fight. Her Aunt Susan, who had come to the Henzel house to look after the family when Joshua’s wife first took to her bed after Thomas’s birth, and then stayed on after her death, had been shocked at the very idea, had tried to forbid all such visits. But Christina’s obstinate determination, allied with her father’s amused compliance, had beaten her.
‘You’ll spoil the girl, Joshua,’ Christina had heard her aunt expostulate time and again. ‘She’ll never learn to be a lady while you treat her like a boy – taking her to that dirty glasshouse, letting her mix with all those men. Why, I’ve never heard of such a thing, a young girl like Christina, going into a factory, it’s most unsuitable. And it will do her a great deal of harm.’
‘Harm?’ Joshua’s shaggy brows bristled. ‘How’s that, Sue?’
‘Why, she simply won’t be fit to appear in society, that’s how.’ Susan, usually so submissive, had faced her brother with unusual boldness. ‘Everyone will think her queer – an eccentric. What lady will invite Christina into her drawing room, knowing that as like as not she comes straight from the glasshouse? And as for marriage—’
‘Do you mean to tell me that Christina will have difficulty in finding a husband?’ Joshua demanded. ‘With her looks? The child’s a beauty already; small, I’ll grant you, but a lot of men like the petite figure. And with that hair of hers – Titian, isn’t that what they call it? – and those great green eyes and the way she has of using them, why, I’ll not gamble on any man’s ability to withstand her once she’s grown.’ And he laughed, filling the big drawing room with the reverberations of his amusement. ‘No, sister, the problem will lie in finding a man fit to marry Christina, not the other way about. And it’s a problem neither of us is in any hurry to solve,’ he added, forestalling Susan’s inevitable complaint that Christina ought to have a husband by now, that at nineteen, almost twenty, she was in danger of being left on the shelf. ‘Christina doesn’t have the starry-eyed view of marriage that you and her sisters seem to enjoy. She sees well enough that for her it would be little more than a trap, a comfortable, scented little cage. And she’s right, too, dammit!’ He snorted and felt in his pockets.
‘Really, Joshua! A trap, a cage, what nonsense you talk. And you fill Christina’s head with it, too. You’ll do her no favours, you know. She’ll never settle down with these silly ideas of yours to plague her.’
‘And I wouldn’t want her to. My Christina, sitting at home all day sipping tea and gossiping with a lot of feather-brained women! It would be a waste – a tragedy.’
‘The truth is,’ Susan said with some shrewdness, ‘that you don’t want her to marry because you don’t want to lose her yourself.’
At this, Joshua’s laugh shook the house. ‘Well said, sister! You may well be right. But no – where is that damned pipe? – I’ll have no objection to her marrying when the right man comes along, whoever he may be, and he’ll need to be someone very special to warrant her. Mark this, the man who does wed her will be a man who can appreciate having a wife who understands the value of his work.’ He rose and searched the cluttered mantelpiece. ‘He’ll thank me then for the way I’ve brought up my daughter, and so will she.’
‘I’m surprised you don’t allow her to learn to blow glass herself, and make her own wedding bowl,’ Susan said acidly, and again Joshua’s laughter made the shimmering drops of the chandelier tremble.
‘That’s not a bad idea, not a bad idea at all! Don’t worry so much, sister,’ he said, patting her shoulder with a hand large enough to span a dinner-plate. ‘Christina will be a fine young lady, as fine, as you could wish; she has a natural quality, a bearing she’s inherited from my dear Margaret. But she’ll also have a head on her shoulders that isn’t filled with nonsense. I understand her better than you do, and I know that if she doesn’t have the opportunity to learn, to do something with her life, then things could go ill with her. And I’ll brook no interference.’ His tone changed suddenly and Susan flinched, her uncharacteristic courage wilting under his glare like a spring flower out too early. ‘You’ll leave me to bring up this daughter as I think fit,’ he said implacably. ‘You had your way with Alice, and you may do the same with Adela, should you think it best. But Christina, you leave to me.’
He left the room and Susan stared after him, unaware that Christina herself, drifting with apparent idleness about the landing outside, had heard every word. And also heard the muttered remarks that her aunt made as soon as Joshua was out of earshot.
‘Such nonsense! Joshua should know better. There will be nothing but trouble to come of it and then he’ll blame’ She came to the drawing-room door and caught sight of her niece by the window, apparently absorbed in watching the clouds fly past in the wind. ‘Christina! What are you doing there, child? Have you nothing to do? No work for Miss Crossley, no embroidery, no mending?’
Christina turned. She had no dislike for her aunt, only an impatience for the authority she commanded. But as Joshua had come through the door he too had seen his daughter lurking there and given her a wink that had made her want to giggle, and she knew that the days of her aunt’s authority over her were numbered.
As for the authority of Miss Crossley – that never had amounted to much. The governess, joining the family when Frederic was only five, had found herself with less and less control over the headstrong second daughter of Joshua Henzel. With Alice and Adela, both docile and content to recite the alphabet, chant their tables or sit peacefully with their sewing, she had had no trouble at all. But with Christina, flying through her lessons and then fidgeting impatiently in her seat, there had been constant battles.
‘Christina, please!’ she would remonstrate. ‘Young ladies do not twist about in their seats and stare out of the window at the gardener’s boy. Attend to your lessons – have you finished those sums I set you?’
‘Yes. Hours ago.’ Christina would wrench her eyes away from the window with difficulty. It wasn’t the gardener’s boy she was interested in, but what he was doing; the freedom he had to be out in the fresh air, digging, planting, weeding. All the things that Christina’s restless body longed to be doing rather than be cooped up in the stuffy schoolroom with her sisters and little Harry. ‘If they’re right, can I go outside?’ she pleaded, holding up her slate.
Miss Crossley would agree, confident that the sums she had set Christina were far too hard for the child to have got right – but to her chagrin, as often as not, right they would be, and Christina would leap up with delighted disregard for the inkpot on her desk and go flying from the room, to be seen minutes later racing across the grass in the most unladylike way, pursued by the gardener’s boy whose rake she had snatched from his hand… Miss Crossley, defeated again, would sigh and wonder what was to become of her difficult charge, though she had to admit that it was much more peaceful in the schoolroom without Christina’s presence. And when the time came to test the children, and demonstrate how much they had learned, Christina never let her down.
Christina turned and met her aunt’s accusing eyes with a dimpling smile.
‘I’m going out,’ she answered pertly, lifting her skirts to run down the stairs. ‘I’m going to the glasshouse with Papa. So I can’t do any schoolwork, or embroidery, can I!’
And she had gone, scampering to join her father in the hall below, leaping into the carriage with him and her brother Frederic, leaving the house behind to go to the looming, sooty cones where her heart belonged.
And now, standing in the gathering darkness of the cavernous bedroom, with the shadows of death encroaching upon her soul, Christina dragged together all the shreds of her courage and faced the fact that her father was dead. Dead, as her brother Frederic was also dead – the two who had mattered most to her in all the world.
She was alone now, for none of the rest of her family were as close to her. There was nobody now to understand her, nobody to support her in her battle against the trappings and restrictions of ‘being a lady’. Nobody now to stand beside her and fight.
The hand she held was chilling against her palm. Was it her imagination, or was it already beginning to stiffen? Christina lifted it to her lips, then laid it back, gently, on the counterpane. She stepped back, keeping her eyes on the pale distorted face.
Her anger had died a little, transmuted into a fierce determination. Joshua had taught her well, by example and by rote. He had urged her to be strong, and now was the moment when she needed that strength, when she could call on it and know that it was there.
The walls of the house had begun to close in around her, a prison of propriety. With a sudden violent gesture, Christina flung out her arms as though pushing them away.
‘I won’t let them beat me, Papa,’ she said aloud, her voice steady with resolve. ‘I’ll go on as you taught me. I won’t become a nothing – a doll. I swear it.’
But even as she turned away, hearing the timid knock on the door that signified that Ruth had come back, her heart shook a little within her. For with her father dead, who knew what would happen next? To the glasshouse – or to her?