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By Barbara Michaels
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Barbara Michaels
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The blackened shell of the house still stands on the edge of the moor. Ivy has crept over the rough stone, veiling the ugly marks of fire, blurring the stark squares of emptiness that once were doors and windows.
In other times and other places there would be nothing left to mark the site except a roughness on the coarse, veiling grass. The stones would have been carried away by the villagers, to mend their walls and build sturdy byres for livestock. Cut stone of such quality is rare in the North Riding; but the walls of Greygallows stand untouched save by the elements. The wild animals of the moor shelter there--foxes and birds and badgers. Their calls and the sighing wind are the only sounds that break the silence. The villagers shun the spot. They call it accursed; and who am I to say that they are wrong?
I have always avoided books that begin "I was born." But here I sit, about to commit the same literary sin. I can plead some excuse, for in my case the phrase is not merely a conventional opening. It is significant that I was, in fact, born in the year eighteen hundred and twenty-six, seven years after the birth of her Majesty and eleven years before she ascended the throne of England. In the year of my birth, almost half the total land area of the realm was owned by five hundred nobles. Naturally the franchise was limited to members of the landowningclasses. In 1826, it would be a quarter of a century before divorce was obtainable by any means other than a special act of Parliament; sixteen years before English law rescued tiny children from the lightless pits of the mines; and half a century before the Married Women's Property Acts were passed.
Such great impersonal issues might seem to have little bearing on the life of one young woman of good birth and fortune. Yet the bizarre fate that befell me was the result of the legal and social conditions of that time.
I was happily unaware of these portentous matters, as I lay in my cradle sucking my coral and uttering infantile cries of protest, or later, as I sat my first pony under the fondly critical eyes of my father. I scarcely remember him, except as a tall, lordly form surmounted by a luxuriant crop of whiskers. Mama is an even dimmer memory--only a sweet scent and a silken rustle of skirts. They both died in an accident when I was seven. I was thrown from the carriage, or so I was told; I have no memory of the accident or of the days that followed. When I was restored to life, after weeks of illness, it was to find my familiar world turned upside down. My home, my nurseries, and my fat old nurse were exchanged for a cold, narrow room shared with three other little girls; and to take the place of Mother and Father, there was Miss Plum. Even my body had suffered a change. One of my lower limbs had been hurt in the fall, and though it healed with scarcely a scar, I could not walk without limping.
My first weeks at Miss Plum's school in Canterbury were a nightmare. Rebellious, sickly, bereaved, I fought all efforts to console me. Later, though, I came to love the school and its mistress. It was a good school, as schools went in those days; perhaps it communicated little in the way of knowledge, but it was a comfortable, kindly place, and that was not always the case. As for Miss Plum . . .
I can still see her in my mind's eye, a rosy dumpling of a woman, almost as broad as she was tall. Her face was round and pink and usually damp with perspiration, for the good old lady loved rich foods and roaring fires. Her heavy opulent clothing added to her girth. She panted like a fat old spaniel; it was impossible for her to spy on us girls, for we could hear her coming yards away, gasping and wheezing and dragging her enormous petticoats.
Not that she was ever a harsh mistress. Quite the contrary; she was too fond and sentimental to be a good disciplinarian, and she spoiled me abominably. I was a pretty child, with brown curls and dark eyes, and an unusually pale, translucent complexion. Miss Plum dressed me like the big china doll I rather resembled. There was plenty of money for clothing or for any delicacy I fancied. I took that for granted; it was many years before I realized that my status as Miss Plum's pet depended to some extent on my position as an heiress. Orphaned and alone, I never left the school, not even for holidays. Miss Plum pitied me for that, and for my infirmity; instead of urging me to exercise and walk, she coddled me with warm fires and teased my feeble appetite with her favorite rich foods.
It is no wonder that under this treatment I soon became a spoiled little prig. My schoolmates detested me as heartily as Miss Plum doted on me. I took no notice of their dislike until one day, my tenth birthday, when it was brought forcibly to my attention by one small guest whom I had been teasing in my usual fashion until, driven by exasperation, she threw her jam-filled cake straight into my face.
Speechless with shock, I began licking jam off my spattered countenance; and suddenly the expression on Miss Plum's face awoke a hitherto dormant sense of humor. I began to laugh, and the guests followed suit. I was more popular with the girls after that, especially when I was able to persuade Miss Plum to spare little Margaret the punishment she was scheduled to enjoy. It was not difficult to dissuade Miss Plum from whipping a student; no doubt we would all have been the better for it if she had resorted to corporal punishment more often.
Excerpted from Greygallows by Barbara Michaels Copyright © 2007 by Barbara Michaels. Excerpted by permission.
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