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My grandmother died on the last day of March while a raw wind found a way through window crevices to stir curtains she would not have drawn. As had that greatest of queens, that formidable English Elizabeth, Lydia Wyllyses Harrach refused to meet Death a bed-fast victim. Instead she sat in a high-backed chair, upright in her iron-willed pride, ever watching the muddied snow of the lane which led from our manor landing, as if she had some reason to believe what she must face would come from that direction.
She had been tempered, as a craftsman works with his material, by scandal, reputed dishonor, petty spite, until she had become a living legend.
Though I sat beside her during those last hours, she never reached out her hand, nor turned her head in my direction, but ever surveyed the lane. Nor dared I disturb her. Sometimes the intentness of her stare made me shiver and pull my shawl the closer. It was as if by her very will she would summon something—or someone—to appear.
When she at last broke the silence between us, her voice had lost none of its authority.
"Amelia,—" Her tone held command.
"I am here."
"Bring me the box—"
I had 8at still so long my feet were numbed and I staggered a little as I arose. There was only one "box"— a small chest I had never seen opened but which was always kept near her, resting even under her pillow at night. When I brought it from the candle stand by the curtained bed, she did not raise her hand to take it. After a moment's hesitation I placed it on the coverlet drawn about her knees.
"Time—not enough time after all—," Her words were hurried, she still watched the road. Then she turned her head slowly, so that intent gaze centered on me. "Yours—" She made the slightest of gestures toward the chest. "Yours also—the rest. There will be a messenger." She paused, then her will helped her to the last. "Your heritage—take what is offered—by right, by right!" Her voice rang out in the repetition of those words. There was, I believed, both the heat of anger and the force of pride in them. Then a shadow of protest crossed her face.
Her body straightened yet more among the supporting pillows. Still her head remained high, she might be wearing a crown instead of the ruffled night-cap. So she met Death at last, refusing him any triumph.
I caught her as she slumped forward and my cry of "Grandmother!" signaled her maid Letty from the other side of the room. Her dark face was creased with a grief closer to simple love than any emotion I could muster. She had shared years and memories I knew nothing of. Now I was an intruder.
"The box, Miss Amelia." Letty pushed the casket on me. Drawing my shawl still closer about me, I went to my own chamber across the hall.
Life at Wyllyses Hundred had never been easy, nor particularly happy. As a child I had accepted the rigid routine of the house without question. Only when I went away to school seven years ago had I discovered that the world beyond our Maryland manor lived in a different fashion. To me the family life as reported by my schoolmates had seemed so exotic as to be unreal. Nor could I adapt to their freedom easily.
At our home no neighbors came calling, we visited no one. My father had died in the second war with England, falling at the Battle of Bladensburg. My mother, a quiet woman, often in pain, and, I realized as I grew older, much in awe of her mother-in-law, had faded out of life soon after, leaving very little impression to remember her by.
Old scandal had blackened our name, that whispers and isolation had taught me. My grandmother had made a strange marriage—wedding with one of the captive Hessian officers billeted in Maryland after the surrender at Saratoga. When the war was over at last, he returned home overseas. Had he promised to send for her? No one living now knew. The story which arose was that the wedding had been a false one, that she was no wife in truth, and her son had no rightful name. Of Captain von Harrach no more was heard.
That her marriage was dubious, that she had chosen an enemy, both branded Lydia Wyllyses and made of her a recluse. Then a further blow struck, her father called to account on the dueling ground a loose-tongued neighbor, killed his man, to live out the rest of his own life a cripple.
It was then my grandmother showed the rare metal of which she was forged. She assumed the duties her father could no longer manage, and she proved to be of so astute and practical a turn of mind that the family prospered. Not only did Wyllyses Hundred become a fruitful and self-sustaining manor, but in addition there were ship holdings and much to do with trade, once our new nation ventured into commerce abroad. In a little, I, in turn, had a part in this. For as my grandmother's hands became crippled with rheumatism, I was pressed in service to write her letters and instructions. Though there were some letters she still painfully penned herself and those I never read.
My life was, judged by that of my contemporaries, an unnatural one. I had no companions of my own age nor did any kind of social meeting ever claim my presence. Perhaps this cloistering saved me from disappointment, for I was far from a beauty and would doubtless have been neglected had I ventured into company. I was too tall for a female, and my body was lanky, though my schooling had not allowed me to remain gawky or awkward in my carriage. My very fair hair was fine, though thick, and would not hold a hint of curl. So I dealt with it in the most sensible way by binding it about my head in braids. My dark straight brows were set above my eyes in such a manner as to make my habitual expression a sober, near scowling one. I was no candle about which male moths would gather.
These lacks ceased to bother me once I had left school. As my grandmother's deputy, I was entrusted through the years with more and more authority in her name. I was interested in my duties. Did she ever think of me as a young girl? She had so encased herself in an armor which could not be broached by emotion that she seemed all powerful, a stable center to my whole world. On that March day when she left me I was like a ship suddenly lacking a steersman.
She had spoken in those last moments of a messenger—a heritage—and the chest. I sat now with my hand on that. The box was old, fashioned of wood which had either turned dark from age, or been stained so. The carving on the lid was very much worn away. But a shaft of the weak spring sun crossed that near-vanished design, so I could see it was a representation of a heraldic shield—but it did not carry the arms of the Wyllyses.
In its lock there was the small key which hitherto my grandmother had always worn on a chain about her neck. Reluctantly I turned that.
Papers had been crammed so tightly within that with the raising of the lid they sprang upward. A letter on top was clearly written by my grandmother and it must have cost her much pain to set down those straggling words, since her hands were near helpless of late. I unfolded the sheet to read.
So my small, safe world cracked, fell apart. These words were no fanciful flight of imagination—they were the truth. Feverishly I dropped the page and shuffled through the rest of the papers—letters, and a piece of parchment with crabbed legal language, signed by an official seal.
Thus I learned of the true Joachim von Harrach, whose blood ran in my own veins—but the name I bore from him was false.
He had been a younger son (the sixth of seven brothers) but still a prince of the arrogant Wittlesbach line, making him kin in turn to that stubborn German-English George who tried to keep us subjects of his will. Quarreling with his father, this prince had fled and joined the Hessians as an officer, leaving behind Hesse-Dohna of which his father was Elector and autocratic ruler. Then there had come deaths—by fever, by hunting accident, by a fall from a horse, and Joachim was ordered home to his kingdom.
It was very easy for his father to sweep away an imprudent marriage. His signature on the parchment did that. There was a proper princess ready and waiting, carefully groomed to her role, a court-solemnized marriage.
Another letter had been rolled inside that document that had made of my grandmother a mistress, my father a bastard. This second sheet was creased and recreased, as if it had not only been read many times, but might also have been fiercely crumpled in a hand and then smoothed again.
I knew the heat of anger as I read it. An offer—a dishonoring offer—to such a woman as Lydia Wyllyses. Yet I knew from my reading of the European newsletters which my grandmother had ordered sent to her regularly, as well as from the German mistress at my school, this but followed a custom common in such German courts. A ruler might have both an official wife of his own rank, and a morganatic one—even two such— To me the protestations of love in this letter were an insult. My hands shook as I threw it from me as I would something poisonous.
Yet there remained the message in her own letter. That I took up to read again. Now I understood what must have been the driving purpose of her life.
All that I have done to make secure our heritage here and have our name prosper was accomplished so that we should carry no further stain. I could not win back Joachim, though I believe that such pressures were brought to bear upon him that, schooled as he was, he could not resist. By the laws of this country I am his legal wife, and I would have acknowledgment of that. To this purpose have I worked—and perhaps it is not now impossible. Should the message which I await now come, I ask it of you, Amelia, that you do what is in your power to win this recognition. You will have an independent fortune and so will not be unable to do as you see fit.
I bind you to no promise, however. Time buries much. If this cause seems of no value to you, then do as you wish. If the promised messenger comes, receive him, hear him out, and then decide. I will not ask more of you—
There was no signature, it was as if at the last the pen had fallen from her hand. My grandmother had never asked anything of me save my aid as a secretary and her deputy. Nor did she now try to tie me by any command from the dead. Yet anger welled in me, not for myself, but on her behalf. Let this messenger come— let me then decide what course to follow. What she asked of me I was hot to give. I would prove indeed that she had been an honorable woman cruelly misused!
Fired by that resolve, I read through the other papers. They were reports for the most part coming from Hesee-Dohna. There was a terse description of the royal marriage. The only son born of that was dead, killed in Napoleon's wars—one daughter, unmarried, still lived, though there was no other message from Joachim himself. That is, I thought so until I found beneath the papers a piece of yellow-white brocade crossed by a tracery of tarnished gold thread. It seemed to part by itself as I took it up, so there spilled into my lap a necklace with a pendant, the whole dead black in color. Twisted about it was a piece of paper. I unrolled that.
"Lydia—Lydia—Lydia—" Just the name written over and over again, the last time with such force that the pen pierced the paper, leaving a blot like a drop of blood from a wound. The force of that writing—it reached even into my emotion-starved heart. I could not doubt who had written it, nor that he had been racked by deep feeling.
The necklace—it was fashioned by workmanship of the highest order, yet the metal was no more than common iron. Filagree butterflies, their delicate wings formed of threads near fine enough to draw from a spider web, were united by rosettes in which small sparks of light marked, no gems but tiny beads of cut steel.
Almost without conscious thought, I held it about my neck, looking into the mirror of my dressing table. It was eerily beautiful, yet I found it somehow distasteful. Why should the most delicate of insects be represented in the harshest of metals? What kind of mind would devise such a union of opposites?
As I would return it to its wrapping it slipped in my hand and I saw the engraving on the back of the pendant:
"Em get aushet zum Wolh des Faderland"
"Exchanged to the welfare of the Fatherland," I translated.
What did that mean? But that was a mystery without solution for me now. I slipped the chest and all it contained once more safely locked within, under my pillow.
Five days later my grandmother's man of law made my future plain. I was over legal age and Lydia Wyl-lyses had indeed left me independent. There was another clause which made James Weston frown disapprovingly.
"Should you marry, Miss Harrach, your property will be placed in a trust from which you alone shall benefit. Madam Harrach insisted that you should always have full use of your inheritance with no interference."
This fact, I thought with hidden amusement, should indeed speedily remove the danger of fortune hunters. A wife so independent of her husband was an abomination to be feared. Weston's distaste already appraised me of that. But, as she had promised in her last letter, grandmother had left me free in more ways than one.
There remained only the promised messenger. The most recent reports from Hesse-Dohna (I had taken to reading and rereading the material in the chest from time to time) had been signed P. F. and they gave such detailed accounts of court life that I felt they could not have been penned by any merchant or sea captain, but must be by one who held some responsible position there. I was studying the latest of these after James Weston's departure, when Letty came to me.
"Miss 'Melia, there be a gentleman as says he is expected—and would speak with you—" She stood in the doorway smoothing down her apron. I knew Letty's moods, even more now since the funeral, when she had attached herself to me with the same devotion she had served my grandmother.
He was expected—the messenger! I half arose from my seat and then forced a show of calmness.
"Did he give his name, Letty?"
"No. He just say he have important business with Ole Miss. I tell him she is gone. Then he say he see you."
"Show him into the morning room, Letty."
But she did not move. "Miss 'Melia, you sure you want to see him?"
She crumpled the hem of her apron now. "I got a feelin', child, jus' a feelin'."
I knew Letty's feelings. Too often in the past they had turned out to be warnings. But this time—if it was the messenger— I shook my head at her and she went with a sigh.
As I entered the room I saw only my visitor's back, for he stood at one of the deep-set windows looking out into the garden. He was tall and his well-cut coat of dark green set so smoothly over his shoulders it was like a second skin. But there was a stiffness in his attitude, as if he were a military man about to spring to attention.
"You wished to see me—?" I must have entered very quietly, for until I spoke he did not turn. Now he did swiftly, with an ease which belied his posture of a moment earlier. I had expected a seafarer or one of the merchants who visited the manor at my grandmother's bidding. This was a different class of man entirely.
His face was brown enough to suggest that he did spend much time out under the sun, but the sharpness of the glance with which he favored me was that of a man well used to command. I could not at that moment have declared him either plain or handsome, but there was a character in his face which impressed. His hair was dark and one unruly lock curved down on his forehead not quite far enough to conceal the seam of a scar, one end of which cut his left eyebrow, raising it, to give him a distinctly quizzical look. Now he bowed.
"Miss Harrach?" His voice was deep, carrying the faintest hint of accent.
"I am Miss Harrach."
"I am Pryor Fenwick." He paused as if I should recognize the name. Then he must have guessed from my expression I did not. With a hint of frown he continued:
"Did not Madam Harrach advise you of my coming?"
"As she was dying, sir, she mentioned a messenger she was expecting. The reason was not given me."
"Then you were not told that I was to be your escort to Hesse-Dohna?"
It was my turn to stare. "My grandmother left no such instruction, sir. As for going to Hesse-Dohna—why should I consider such a journey?"
Something in his assurance aroused irritation in me. In fact he had an affect which I could not understand, and one which I distrusted. Now he came toward me and I had to force myself to remain where I was when I wanted nothing more than to retreat.
Excerpted from Iron Butterflies by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1980 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 22, 2012
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