Read an Excerpt
The Lady of Rhuddesmere
By Victoria Strauss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Victoria Strauss
All rights reserved.
AS THE EARLY WINTER dusk fell across the winding streets of the city, a boy of about sixteen could be seen moving slowly through the gathering darkness. His clothes were ragged and dirty. Bundled in a thin, patched cloak, he shivered with a slow, constant shudder that seemed almost a permanent part of him, something he no longer noticed. His feet were wrapped clumsily in rags, and he stumped along over the light coating of snow, leaving huge prints that seemed scarcely human. His reddish hair was matted over his forehead and obscured his features, but occasionally he flung it back with a jerk of his head so that anyone who happened to be looking could see his face: hollowed cheeks, dark eyes sunk in darker sockets. He stumbled now and then, and wavered at street corners, but he seemed to have a destination, for he often consulted a grimy piece of paper clutched in chilblained fingers.
Eventually he came to a wide street lined with substantial houses in the Jewish section of the city. Consulting his paper once more, the boy stopped before one of the houses and knocked on the door. At length a maidservant answered the summons, opening the door so that a rectangle of golden light fell on the snow, and peered out. She did not see the boy, standing in darkness outside the area of illumination. Questioningly she said something in a strange tongue. The boy moved forward.
"I'm looking for the apothecary," he said in a hoarse voice, "the apothecary of Walleston. I've been told he came here—"
The maidservant moved back and said something in the same strange, guttural language. Then she slammed the door shut.
"No," called the boy, "please let me in, he knows me—I'm almost frozen—"
But no one came. The boy had by then used up the last of his strength, and he sagged hopelessly against the doorframe. Slowly he slid onto the stone steps, his legs so cold he hardly felt the snow. His head fell back and his eyes closed; he looked unconscious.
All at once the door swung open again, and a small dark man with a pointed beard stood on the threshold. He knelt by the boy and looked at his face, then called sharply back into the house. Another man appeared, bent down, and easily lifted the boy in his arms, carrying him into the warmly lighted hall. The small man followed and the door swung shut behind them against the cold and the snow, which had begun to fall again in light sparse flakes.
The boy woke to a consciousness of enfolding softness and warmth. His last memory was of darkness and cold, and he wondered if he had at last died and gone to heaven. But opening his eyes he found he was still very much in the world, lying in a large bed set in the middle of a small room. Beside him sat the same dark man who had brought him in out of the winter night. The boy turned his eyes on him and sighed, as if content. He tried to speak but the man reached out and put a hand on his lips.
"Do not speak yet, Geraint," he said in accented English. "You are not strong enough."
Geraint struggled for voice but instead began to cough convulsively. The man reached for a cup beside the bed, raised the boy, and held the cup to his lips.
"You see, you must not try to speak," he said when Geraint had drunk and the coughing subsided. "You are still ill with an inflammation of the lungs. You will recover, but right now you need rest and food and sleep. Now try to drink a little broth."
He called out in that strange language, and after a moment a dark woman entered with a steaming bowl. This she gave to the man, who fed Geraint spoonful by spoonful until, with the abruptness of the very ill, he fell all at once into a deep sleep. The man watched the boy for a while, his face thoughtful and grave. The light of the oil lamp touched his aquiline features, catching at his eyes and rings and the folds of his rich woolen robe. There was no sound but the hiss of the wick, the crackle of the fire in the fireplace, and Geraint's slightly labored breathing. At length the man rose silently and left the room, enclosed in the tinkling of the small bells sewn around the hem of his garment.
Geraint woke the next day. Although weak and ravenously hungry, he felt considerably better. He was alone in the room; sun slanted through the mullioned window to pool on the floor beside the bed. He felt a great peace. For the moment the memories that followed him always, like dogs, were suspended. Quietly he lay watching the sun move across the floor.
The door opened and the man entered. Seeing Geraint was awake, he smiled. "Would you like something to eat?" he asked.
Geraint nodded, and soon the woman came in with a bowl of soup and a hunk of crusty bread. The man helped Geraint to a sitting position and fed him slowly until all the food was gone. Somewhat strengthened, Geraint tried his voice again.
"I—I thought I'd never find you," he said. It sounded strange, a hoarse half-whisper.
The man smiled. "I felt that you would. For some time I have been expecting you—since the plague that drove us from Walleston."
"They wanted to kill you there. They burned your house."
"I know. A scapegoat is always needed. But I knew it was coming, so I packed up my family and belongings and journeyed here, to the house of my brother. He is a merchant in this city."
There was a silence. The man watched Geraint with that same thoughtful gaze. At length he said, "Did you leave Rhuddesmere of your own will?"
Geraint turned his head away. The memories flooded back and peace was gone. "I was forced," he said after a moment.
"Is it what I am thinking?" asked the man. "Their anger turned against me, and when I was not to hand it turned elsewhere?"
Geraint shook his head violently and then held it in both hands, swept by a wave of dizziness. "I don't want to talk about it," he said. All at once he felt ill again. The blood drained from his face, and, alarmed, the man helped him lie down. Geraint turned his head away and closed his eyes, seeming to fall into an immediate sleep. The man rose to go after a while, the door closing softly behind him. Then, at last, Geraint gave himself up to the tears that flowed hotly down his cheeks.
A few days passed and Geraint grew stronger. He was eating solid foods again and sitting up without aid. Yet still something lay over the boy's returned health, something dark that weighed his spirit down and seemed to suggest that full recovery would be long in coming. Perceiving this, and suspecting the cause, the man became increasingly worried.
One evening he helped Geraint out of bed and supported him down the stairs into the richly furnished parlor on the floor below. There he installed him in a cushioned chair by the fire, a rug over his knees, and drew up a chair opposite. Geraint stared at the fire, his face overlaid with the shadow that had been masked by illness but appeared clearly now that illness was receding.
"Geraint," the man began after a while, "how long did you travel before you found me?"
The boy shrugged. "I'm not sure. Since early January. I lost track of time—what month is it now?"
"March," the man replied. "We are having an unusually long winter."
"I really thought I'd never find you," Geraint said after a pause. "I asked in all the towns I went through. After a while I didn't know what direction I was going in any more. And then by chance I ran into an innkeeper you'd helped with his rheumatic leg, and he told me to come here." The firelight flickered over the room, touching both their faces. Geraint looked up at the man. "I still have the charm you gave me, you know." He fumbled at his neck and drew out a cord on which was hung a triangular piece of parchment. "You told me once it would guide me to you."
The man nodded. "I tried to warn you then. I could say very little—I did not know how far you would believe me."
"Well, you were right—your warning, I mean." Geraint watched the fire. His face twisted and at last he brought out with difficulty: "They're all dead, you know. Everyone at Rhuddesmere."
"The townspeople?" the man asked.
"Yes. They came in a mob. I tried to warn them, but I wasn't in time."
"And you saw it all?"
Geraint nodded. Then he shook his head. "I don't want to talk about it."
The man leaned forward. "But you must, Geraint. You must rid yourself of the pain and poison you carry with you. For I have seen it in your face. It lies there always, and you will not be well in mind and body if you do not come to terms with your memories."
"But I've thought about it too much already. I've thought about it so much it makes me ill to remember."
"You have thought, but you have not spoken to anyone. It could be that I can help you, Geraint. It could be that if you tell your memories to another person, from start to finish, they will somehow fall into place in your mind."
It was quiet in the room for a long time. Geraint's hands were buried in the rug over his knees, his shadowed face intent. The memories were crowding round him again, as they had on his journey here. But it was somehow different now, more vivid, as if they were all there in the room tonight—the baron, Urien, Anfelise. And in the fire, something seemed to take shape within the flames: an uplifted face, hair streaming, eyes closed ... A shower of sparks shot up as a log collapsed, and Geraint squeezed his eyes shut in a sudden vivid access of memory. He felt tears behind his lids, and at that moment he realized the man was right and he could not go on so. He felt a need to speak to someone now, a need he had not felt since it had happened. He felt a desire to pass the burden, to tell one other person, to make one other person see what he had seen.
Geraint opened his eyes and looked at the man. "I'll tell you. I'll tell you everything. Maybe you will be able to understand." He looked at his hands, still clenched in the rug. Then, in a kind of hopeless outburst: "But I don't know where to begin!"
The man smiled gently. "Begin at the beginning, Geraint. Begin at the very beginning."CHAPTER 2
IF I START FROM the very beginning, I suppose I should start with myself. I was born at Wallestoke, which, as you must know, is one of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential estates in southern England. I never knew my mother. When I was a child and asked about her, I was always told that she had been a gentlewoman and had died giving birth to me. But there the story ended and no one seemed to know more. I never found this particularly strange, considering the endless parade of the baron's mistresses over my lifetime alone. As I grew older, I ceased to ask about my mother, but I never ceased to wonder.
How I came to live at Wallestoke is another thing I don't know for sure. Most of the baron's bastards were farmed out to the peasants on his land, or given to the nuns, or even exposed. Only I, my half brother, Peter, and my half sister, Parnel, lived at the castle. Peter and Parnel had a living mother, who was one of the baron's favorites, and he had allowed her to keep her children.
At that time I supposed that I was kept at Wallestoke because of my mother's gentle birth. There was no other reason I could see, for the baron had always hated me. As far back as I can remember he treated me cruelly. He never beat me or abused me physically—it was more the way he looked at me, the way he sneered when I talked, the way he humiliated me when I came too close. I don't know why. When I was very little, I admired him because he was handsome and dashing and always won the battles he fought, and I tried to make him love me. But he only ignored me, or laughed at me, and by the time I was twelve or so, I hated him completely.
I never remember being comfortable at Wallestoke. I never quite fit in anywhere, and was always conscious of it. At best, I felt like a kind of inferior lodger; at worst, I was filled with a violent, seething desire to escape. Of course, I was in a strange position: I was a bastard, and yet by being allowed to live at Wallestoke I was acknowledged—after a fashion. I was not allowed the privileges of the baron's legitimate children, but I was not as low as a scullion, either, and could not be forced to work the way they were. So I never deserved my keep, nor did I ever earn it. And I was often made to feel this. No one ever really knew what to do with me, I suppose. I was given a place at the baron's middle tables for the evening meal, and yet I had no access to the warmth of the inner rooms during the winter. I was not supposed to associate with the legitimate children, but the stableboys and others of my age at Wallestoke were never especially friendly because being the baron's son distanced me from them. Sometimes they were cruel: even the lowest of them, as the more unpleasant ones often pointed out, knew his mother. Only Peter and Parnel were my equals. Parnel was too young to be a companion, and I never liked Peter: he was ingratiating, and somehow I never felt he was completely honest.
As I grew up at Wallestoke I spent most of my time alone. Often there was not much for me to do, and I took to spending much of my time taking walks in the countryside or working in the stables. Though I was in an uneasy position with the stableboys, I loved the horses enough to put up with the rest of it. With the horses I felt most comfortable—they never taunted me or called me a bastard.
I suppose this story really starts on an afternoon in early summer. I remember that I was in the chapel with Father Simon. He was showing me his prayer book and telling me the words of the prayers, though they were in Latin and made little sense to me. Father Simon was the only person at Wallestoke who ever seemed to take any notice of me. A small man in a black robe with a perpetually worried expression and a trick of playing with the large silver cross that hung about his neck, he had been the baron's family priest ever since I could remember. He conducted the services and led the morning prayers, and he taught me everything I know about God and Jesus Christ. He often told me Bible stories: the travels of Moses, the battles of King Saul, Our Lord's descent to earth to redeem all sinners. He also dwelled much on Revelations, describing the end of the world when God would judge the quick and the dead, telling me of the plagues and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, of the pale horse and the pale rider whose name is Death. Father Simon taught me to say my prayers every day, and he gave me the wooden cross that I had about my neck most of my life until ... until just a little while ago.
Father Simon had a small library, and occasionally he would show me pages of his books and tell me what they said. As long as I can remember I wanted to learn to read and write. It was a deep and burning desire. It seemed to me that a man who could read and write must hold in his hands the key to all things. A man of knowledge must be the happiest man on earth. I begged and begged Father Simon to teach me, but he always evaded me, saying he was busy or that he did not have the proper materials with which to teach.
That summer afternoon, once again, I begged him to teach me to read. Once again he refused.
"But why won't you teach me, Father Simon?" I asked for perhaps the hundredth time.
Father Simon looked at me and sighed, as he so often did. "Child," he said, "you do not know what an asset you have in ignorance. Knowledge is dangerous. If a man does not know what things he cannot have, he cannot pine for them. Treasure your ignorance. Never seek to find out too much, or you may look back and curse the day you sought to know."
He turned away from me and shut the prayer book. I did not understand these words—they seemed completely contradictory. How could ignorance be an asset, knowledge a danger? I was about to voice this objection when all at once a tremendous din of hooves and wagons began in the courtyard. I ran to the door, Father Simon behind me, and saw that the baron had returned.
Excerpted from The Lady of Rhuddesmere by Victoria Strauss. Copyright © 1982 Victoria Strauss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.