Portrait of an Unknown Woman A Novel
By Vanora Bennett William Morrow Copyright © 2007 Vanora Bennett
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-06-125927-2
The house was turned upside down and inside out on the day the painter was to arrive. It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that everyone was in a high state of excitement about the picture the German was to make of us. If anyone had asked me, I would have said vanity comes in strange guises. But no one did. We weren't admitting to being so worldly. We were a godly household, and we never forgot our virtuous modesty.
The excuse for all the bustle was that it was the first day of spring-or at least the first January day with a hint of warmth in the air-a chance to scrub and shake and plump and scrape at every surface, visible and invisible, on a mansion that was only a year old, had cost a king's fortune, and scarcely needed any more primping and preening to look good in the sunshine. From dawn onward, there were village girls polishing every scrap of wood in the great hall. More girls upstairs were turning over feather pillows and patting quilts and brushing off tapestries and letting in fresh air and strewing pomanders and lavender in chests. The hay was changed in the privies. The fireplaces were scraped clean and laid with aromatic apple logs. By the time we came back from matins, with the sun still not high in the sky, there were already clankings and choppings from the kitchen, the squawking death agony of birds, and the smell of boiling savories. We daughters (all, not necessarily by coincidence, in our beribboned, embroidered spring best) were put to work dusting off the lutes and viols on the shelf and arranging music. And outside, where our stepmother, Dame Alice, kept finding herself on her majestic if slightly fretful tour of her troops (casting a watchful eye up the river to check what boats might be heading toward our stairs), there was what seemed to be Chelsea's entire supply of young boys, pruning back the mulberry tree. The mulberry tree had been Father's first flourish as a landowner-its Latin name, Morus, is what he called himself in Latin too (and he was self-deprecating enough to think it funny that Morus also meant "the fool").
It was the garden that kept drawing everyone outside, and the ribbon of river you could see from Father's favorite part of the garden, the raised area that gave the best possible view of London-the rooftops and the smoke and the church spires-which used to be our home until, by the grace of our king, Henry VIII, we got quite so rich and powerful, and which Father, almost as much as I, couldn't bear to pass a day without seeing.
First Margaret and her husband, Will Roper, came out. The oldest of the More children and my adopted sister, Margaret was twenty-two, a bit more than a year younger than me; but they were already so long settled in their shared happiness that they'd forgotten what it was to be alone. Then Cecily with her new husband, Giles Heron, and Elizabeth with hers, William Dauncey, all four younger than me, Elizabeth only eighteen, and all smirking with the secret pleasure of newlyweds, not to mention the more obvious pleasure of those who had had the good fortune to make advantageous marriages. Then Grandfather, old Sir John More, puffed up and dignified in a fur-trimmed cape. And young John, the youngest of the four More children, shivering in his undershirt, so busy peering upriver that he started absentmindedly pulling leaves off a rosebush and scrunching them into tiny folds until Dame Alice materialized next to him, scolded him roundly for being destructive, and sent him off to wrap up more warmly against the river breezes. Then Anne Cresacre, another ward like me, managing, in her irritating way, to look artlessly pretty as she arranged her fifteen-year-old self and a piece of embroidery. In my view there was no need for all of her humming and smiling. With all the money and estates she'd been left by her parents, Father would have John marry her the day she came of age. Of all his wards, it was only me he seemed to have forgotten to marry off, but then I was several years too old to marry his only son. Anne Cresacre didn't need to try half so hard. Especially since you could see from the doggy way John looked at her that he'd been in love with her all his life.
The sun came out on young John's face as he came back, better dressed now for the gusty weather, and he screwed up his eyes against the harshness of the light. And suddenly the peevish ill temper that had been with me through a winter of other people's celebrations-a joint wedding for Cecily and Elizabeth and their husbands, followed by Christmas celebrations for our whole newly extended family-seemed to pass, and I felt a pang of sympathy for John. "Have you got your headache again?" I asked him in a whisper. He nodded, trying like me not to draw attention. His head ached all the time; his eyes weren't strong enough for the studying that made up so much of our time, and he was always anxious that he wasn't going to perform well enough to please Father or impress pretty Anne. I put a hand through his arm and drew him away down the path to where we'd planted the vervain the previous spring. We both knew it helped with his headaches, but the clump that had survived was still woody and wintry. "There's some dried stuff in the pantry," I whispered. "I'll make you a garland when we get back to the house, and you can lie down with it for a while after dinner." He didn't say anything, but I could sense his gratitude from the way he squeezed my hand.
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