Lady of Milkweed Manor


by Julie Klassen

PROLOGUE

-hen first I knew her, I thought her an amusing scrap of girl, silly and a bit grubby from her mornings spent in the gardens. When not pottering about out of doors, she seemed always to be reading some poetic nonsense or other and loved nothing more than to pose the most disturbing questions. Still, I liked her even then and, I think, she admired me. But her father took notice and pronounced me unsuitable, effectively pruning our young friendship before it could grow into anything. I soon forgot about Miss Charlotte Lamb. Or so I convinced myself.

Years passed, and when I saw her again she was altogether changed. Not only her situation, which had changed from privileged to piteous, but also her very substance. At least it seemed so to me.

Others would look at her with much different eyes. They would see, perhaps, a fallen woman at the deepest point of humiliation. A woman to be flicked off one’s sleeve like a disgusting worm. Or an insect to be tormented. Cruel, overgrown schoolchildren that many are, they seem to delight in ripping off one wing, then another, watching in morbid glee as she falls helpless to the ground.

To the gentler observer, she is a creature to be scorned at worst, ignored at best, but certainly not one to watch in hopeful anticipation. Day by day to witness her transformation amid the grime and cloying weight of her surroundings, not to wither nor shrink, but to unfurl, to become all that is sun and wind and flower and grace.

I, of course, can only watch from a safe distance-safe for us both. For me, now a married man, a physician of some note, a man of standing in town. And for her, whose reputation I am determined will suffer no more-not if it is in my power to prevent it.

Yet, as I watch her there among the milkweeds, I confess all these thoughts fade away. I think only of her.

How lovely she looks. Not abstractly beautiful, but perfectly fitted to the landscape, etched into a painting of purest golden glow above, and mad, overgrown garden below-gold, green, purpleheaven and earth. And there at the center, her still figure, looking not at me but at the distant horizon, where the sun is spilling its first fingers over the milkweed, over her milky skin, her hair, her gown.

The light moves toward me and I am stilled, speechless. A sharp barb of waiting fills my chest and I can barely breathe. If I don’t move, the light will touch me, the painting encompass me. If I step away, retreat into the shadows, I will be safe, but I won’t be there to see her when she finally flies away…

Dear God. Please guard my steps. And somehow bless Miss Charlotte Lamb.

That exquisite thing, the seed of milkweed, furnished abundant playthings. The plant was sternly exterminated in our garden, but sallies into a neighboring field provided supplies for fairy cradles with tiny pillows of silvery silk.

-ALICE MORSE EARLE, OLD-TIME GARDENS

Alas! And did my Saviour bleed,

And did my Sovereign die?

Would he devote that sacred head

For such a worm as I?

-ISAAC WATTS

The common milkweed needs no introduction. Its pretty pods are familiar to every child, who treasures them until the time comes when the place in which they are stowed away is one mass of bewildering, unmanageable fluff.

19TH CENTURY NATURALIST, F. SCHUYLER MATHEWS

CHAPTER I

rlwenty-year-old Charlotte Lamb laid her finest gowns into the trunk, pausing to feel the silken weight of the sky blue ball gown, her favorite -a gift from dear Aunt Tilney. With one last caress, she packed it carefully atop the others. Then came her promenade dresses, evening dresses, and gayer day dresses. Next were the coordinating capes, hats, and hair ornaments. Finally the long gloves, petticoats, and the new boned corset. Definitely the corset.

Turning back to her rapidly thinning wardrobe, her hand fell upon a plain muslin in dove grey. It showed wear in the elbows and cuffs. She tossed it on the bed. Then a thought came to her and she stopped her packing and left her room, stepping quietly down the corridor to her mother’s room. Looking about her and seeing no one yet awake, she pushed the door open as silently as she could. She stepped into the room and, finding the shutters closed, walked to the windows and folded them back, allowing the grey dawn to illuminate the chamber. Then she returned to the door and closed it. Leaning back against the wood panels, she closed her eyes, savoring the stillness and peace she always felt in this room. It had been too long since she’d been in here.

From somewhere in the vicarage she heard a noise, a clang, and she jumped. Though why she should fear being caught in here she had no idea. Most likely it was only Tibbets lighting the fires. Her father would probably not be awake for hours. Still, the thought of someone up and about reminded her that she needed to hurry if she wanted to depart with as little to-do as possible. She stepped purposefully to the wardrobe and opened its doors. Yes, her mother’s clothes were still here. She raked her fingers through the fabric, the lace and velvet and silks, but did not find what she was looking for. Had her father or Beatrice discarded it? She pushed the gowns aside and looked at the bottom of the wardrobe, at the slippers lined up neatly in a row. Then a flash of brown caught her eye, and she reached down and pulled out a crumpled wad of clay-colored material that had fallen to the bottom of the cabinet. She shook out the simple, full-cut dress-her mother’s gardening dress.

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