Chapter 1: Of Birthdays and New Beginnings
My childhood ended on the day I turned five years old.
My first years were happy; I lived in a large mansion in the heart of London, on an estate ringed with rose gardens. My father was a respectable figure, a capable businessman, and a loving parent. My mother was an heiress; her father was a wealthy French aristocrat who, upon his death, bequeathed most of his money and belongings to his only daughter.
As for myself, I was raised as an only child. My elder brother died merely three hours after his birth, I was told.
My parents doted on me, that much I remembered. They lavished their affections upon me with no restraint. From a young age, I was pampered with toys, clothes, sweets, and servants. They called me "princess." Every autumn, they would hold a magnificent ball in honour of my birthday. I remember shrieking with surprise and joy as I opened the gifts... a doll of porcelain, with satin robes and buttons of ivory, a trinket for true royalty. A gilded, leather-bound storybook with inks of all shades shimmering on the pages. Yes, birthdays were always festive in our manor.
It was on the fifth such occasion that my luck and happiness had deserted me. Maman was to come from Bath, where she was visiting with her old friends. In the mean time, preparations were are whirlwind of fever and craze.
I remember a newly hired maid, only three years older than I, and a freshly made, azure gown of silk and chiffon, hemmed with gold and silver. Papa had gazed upon me with pride, and swept me up in his warm, strong arms. My friends - all girls born of the same high lineage - had been envious, but kind, laughing as they ran from carriages drawn by tall, dazzling steeds, their parents pausing at the door to exchange brief pleasantries with my father.
But maman was not there.
The celebrations continued deep into the evening, until the sky was a profound blue, littered with white, white stars, and the moon shone down upon us, suffusing the world with its cool gaze. The great atrium was littered with food and bits of coloured paper.
Still, she did not come.
Deep into the evening, long after my eyes had begun to ache with fatigue, and most of the guests had left the property, properly impressed, M. Argène, the butler, led a tall, uniformed man into the house.
It would not be until the next morning that I would find out the news.
Katrine Marie Isabelle Montagne de la Valence, beloved mother and wife, was dead.
My father, who had never, by any standards, been a weak man, was devastated. For a month after the initial shock, he refused to leave his rooms. Food was brought to him, but it was seldom touched.
At the end of his seclusion, he came forth a changed man. No longer confident and charismatic, he rarely smiled or talked. Never was his deep, infectious laugh heard again in the manor. His face grew gaunt and haunted. He walked with a slow, hesitating step, carrying barely a regard for his safety and surroundings. He took to drinking, immersing himself in the filth of taverns and foul street men. He never spoke to me save out of necessity. More and more often, he did not come home at night. The light left his eyes forever.
Two months later, Alessandre Rys de la Valence was killed.
The crown seized all of my possessions. Who was there to argue? I had no living relations, as far as I knew, and none came forward to claim me. I cried silently as they shipped away my toys, my gowns. I retained only the one doll of porcelain, satin, and ivory, my sole comfort in all the world.
The manor was closed to me. I was placed in the Saint Helena Orphanage for girls. The Mother Henrietta of the orphanage was a stern faced woman with steel-grey hair, grey eyes, and a tall stature. A word issued from those thin, strained lips was almost worse than a crack from her whip. The sisters were little better - demanding, pitiless, sharp and biting.
On the first day, my doll was taken from me to be sold at a market. I was issued a reprimand for crying, a gesture of "pity" for my first day that I was not beaten, or sentenced to clean the kitchens alone. I was led around the grounds and shown the fundamentals of life in Saint Helena.
It was a dull, drab building, with dimly lit corridors and bare walls. The floor was of cement, cold and unyielding to the touch. Dormitories were nothing more than a large, rectangular room lined with cots, each of them thin and hard. The draperies were of heavy, brown wool, the windows high on the walls - more for conventional purposes than light or air.
That night, I cried for the first time since my father's death, sobbing quietly into the coarse, starchy sheets, praying that no one would hear me and come to punish me for my insolence, but unable to stop.
That room would be my home for two long years.
The days were long at St. Helena's, filled with work and mindless past-times designed for the sole purpose of distracting us. What little freedom we had was quickly deterred by the watchful sisters. Beatings were frequent, and often based on little more than a careless accident, an inopportune word, or simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The work was tedious: weaving, embroidery, cleaning.... If we were lucky, we were chosen to cook for the day.
But if the days were long, the nights were longer still. For it was during the nights that our ghosts were left to roam free. Memories haunted us. It was not at all unusual to wake, screaming from nightmares, in the dead of the night, only to be hushed - sometimes forcibly - by neighbours, fearing Mother Henrietta's strap.
Other times, I would lie awake at night, weeping for my lost life and my parents, stifling my sobs in the hard, scratchy pillowcase, finding comfort in my own tears. Memories are relentless; they never leave.
More than once, I awoke feeling the soft whispers of my late mother, and her hands on my brow, offering solace, or the scratchy stubble of my father as he bent to kiss my cheek. I would find my pillows wet with tears of mingled joy and sadness. But the mornings that followed would always bring a hint of hope.
I do not remember much of my time in the Saint Helena Orphanage, and for that I am grateful. After a time, the pain and work simply blended together, a stone sitting in the back of my mind, resistant. I came out of the orphanage bearing few physical scars - the beatings seldom breached skin - but what I do remember of it, I shall never forget.
My mother's birthday was on the ninth of February. Preparations habitually began weeks prior to the celebration, back when I was still a child, blissfully ignorant of the world around me.
On the morning of the ninth, she would float down the grand staircase, resplendent in a gown of chiffon decked with rhinestones, her eyes alight with love and joy. I remember thinking that she was the most beautiful creature to ever walk this planet, delicate as a dove, yet resilient as a diamond.
She was beautiful, my mother - even her worst enemies admitted that, and there were many; many who were jealous of my mother's fortune. Her eyes were a deep, clear blue, as pure as the heart of a flame. Her hair was a shower of gold, rippling to her waist, igniting when the light caught it just so. She was a creature of flame and light.
My father was just the opposite - dark as the night, with hair of ebony and eyes of coal.
On the ninth of February of my seventh year - my mother would have been twenty-six years that day, had she lived - a kindly, middle-aged couple entered the Saint Helena Orphanage for Girls, with the intent of adopting a child between five and seven years of age. A procession was quickly brought in: myself, and five others. Mother Henrietta personally introduced us.
The early morning sun slanted through the eastern windows, glancing briefly off of the dust motes dancing in the large, dim room. There were twenty of us there, all bent over our embroidery, squinting at the fine stitches woven in the tapestries. Sister Margaret sat in a chair at the door, nodding slightly in boredom. She was a jovial woman, slight and lenient compared to the others, but firm in her disciples. She was, perhaps, my favourite of the sisters - the only one to have remembered my birthday in October past.
Conversation was rare and hushed, most of us preferring to work than face possible punishment at the end of the day, when we had little result to show the demanding Mother, whose presence we had long since learnt to fear. But snatched words were better than no words, and life without some form of companionship is impossible, even in such a dismal place.
Beside me sat a girl one year older than I, by the name of Lara. She was soft spoken, and was the only semblance of a friend that I had in those days. Her father had deserted her family shortly after she was born, and her mother had passed away not long after. Between us, we found little use for words, merely content to draw strength from each other as we worked.
Sometimes, when I wake from tortured dreams deep at night, I would find her sitting on the floor beside my bed, offering silent comfort. She had a lovely smile; Sister Margeret loved her.
We wove together, exchanging a few rare words at long intervals. The work was particularly heavy that day, but not beyond us - yet.
At once, the door opened, and fresh streams of sunlight poured in. Some of us looked up, bedazzled. The weaving slowed. Sister Margeret woke with a start.
But the doorway was quickly darkened again. Mother Henrietta strode in wordlessly, her expression shrewd and calculating. "Catherine, Claire, Olivia, Lily, Anne, Lucinda, come with me."
I glanced involuntarily at the others who were named. What had we done? These were people I barely knew. Confusion wracked at me.
"Immediately!" she snapped, and we quickly abandoned our work to follow.
It quickly became clear that there was a prospect on the property. We were ordered to queue up for assessment, and to enter "as proper young ladies, and not as the unsightly fools you are." Naturally, this did very little for our confidence.
But the Collingsworths greeted our group with welcome. They looked upon us with kindness and acceptance. "Oh!" exclaimed Mrs. Collingsworth, "what lovely children you are!"
And then she smiled at me.
Oh, what a lovely gift fate had brought to me! Providence smiled upon today, for here, at last, was the chance that I had sought for so long. My lost life would be rebuilt again, the damage repaired. No longer would the name de la Valence be muttered in distaste in the gutters of London, amid the lewd laughter of the wasted in the street-side taverns. I would build a new life for myself; I would regain the wealth and honour that had been lost. Those who had killed my parents (for, surely, they were both killed and did not die of natural causes) would pay.
All of this was a jumble in my seven-year-old mind as I stood amid my fellows, gazing shyly and with barely guarded surprise and wonder at Mrs. Collingsworth, whose bright smile was quickly transforming into an expression of bemusement. Mother Henrietta glowered at me.
A breeze blew by, cool and gentle, and ruffled my hair in soft affection. Its touch was calming on my brow, reminiscent of a long-ago warm touch and soft lips upon my skin. I could feel its smile.
Happy birthday, maman, I thought at it, my tears caught in my lashes.
I looked up at Doreen Collingsworth, and smiled.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. I remember talking animatedly with Mr. and Mrs. Collingsworth, but my mind was not there. It was as if some external force had taken over my body, that I was merely a spectator in my own life. The feeling stayed with me until, two days later, all paperwork finished and fees paid, I stepped out of that stonewashed building forever, never once with a backward glance. Just outside of the wrought-iron gates, a carriage waited for me. I climbed in, and settled myself, as the carriage began to lurch on the cobbled walked, to watch to the scene from the windows. The grey, cemented building shrank slowly.
I recalled Mother Henrietta's long, dour face rounding the corner to stand before me, her expression a mask of satisfaction at catching us in the midst of breaking some minor orphanage rule, and Sister's Margaret's face, melted with kindness, her mouth twitching upward in amusement. But most of all, I thought of Lara. I would never see her again. There was no point in denying that I had abandoned her. Her smile would forever be forgotten, lost in that den of darkness. My heart mourned for her; but I had no tears left to spill.
Farewell, my dearest friend, I thought into the sluggish air left in the wake of the carriage. May God be with you always.
The carriage topped a hill and began the descent, the setting sun bathing it in red. Saint Helena's disappeared from my view.
Michael and Doreen Collingsworth lived in a fair-sized house in southern London. It was nothing compared to my late parents' one-hectare estate, but I was more than happy with calling it home. There was a serenity there, a comfort that had nothing to do with the size of the house or the cost of its decorations - indeed, most of the rugs, covers, and quilts were hand-sewn or woven - but much more with the little things, the lumpy candles in the midst of the clusters of wildflowers on the table, the shadows cast by the carved trinkets hanging in the windows, the strategic placement of the chairs, so that even the farthest one could share in the heat from the hearth.
They had gone to great pains for me, I realised. A room was set out for me, its walls splashed with mauve, pink, and lavender. The curtains were of thin, flowery cotton; the two windows faced south, and the early-morning sunlight spilt through to warm the chilled air. At the centre of the room lay a bed - a real bed, after two years of sleeping on hardened and lumpy piles of blankets, all of them old and reeking with the stink of human misery.
I walked to the window and bathed in the sun's warmth. Outside, in the back, was a little garden of herbs and wildflowers. A small, white picket-fenced walk ran through it, curving and twisting its way around the garden. Birds flitted through the air.
It was a picture of urban domesticity, and I was a part of it, as much an element of the small, cosy household as the embroidered pillowcases and the alluring scent of freshly-baked bread wafting from the kitchens. I had a family again; I belonged somewhere.
Next came the not-so-pleasant task of determining my education and my future. A brief visit to the Lawrence Academy for Young Ladies and a few oral inquisitions later, I was enrolled into school. It was decided that I would live at home and walk the 45 minutes to and from school everyday.
Lawrence was a medium-sized school, with approximately 150 students. The girls there ranged in age from 6 to 15, all of them from middle-class backgrounds. For the most part, they tended to keep to themselves. Conversation was, at best, brief and kept between classes. The teachers were strict, but helpful.
I fitted in rather well there, as far as I was concerned. I had very few friends, and detached myself firmly from social circles. After all, there was only one reason that I was there: to be educated. That was what the Collingsworths wanted for me, and I would do what it took to follow their wishes. I owed to them my life.
I threw myself whole-heartedly into my studies. I was far behind others my age, but I tried - oh, how I tried! Can you imagine staying up late into the night to pour over texts and books at seven years of age? But that was what I did, by candlelight late into the night, quieting every ruffle of the papers lest I wake my benefactors. I was determined to prove myself and bring honour to those that had selflessly brought me in which I was alone in the world, with no one to call family, no home to call my own.
And bring honour I did. Within four months of my initiation into the school, I had risen to be in the top 5% of most of my classes. My teachers were pleasantly shocked; the Collingsworths were pleased. I could not have been more proud of myself.
By the time summer drew close and infused the land with its balmy, green breath, I was well established in the academy.
I spent most of the summer helping Doreen with the work, and accompanied her on the bi-weekly trips to the market. The market was a fascinating place, exuberant and noisy, filled with curious people and trinkets. I could spend hours there, exploring the stalls, gazing wistfully up at the dolls - so similar to the one that I had owned, when I was a child - and the glass figurines, at the colourful beads and bright, exotic cloths.
It was on one of these trips that I saw a man, about 30, at a corner. He was a musician, I saw, a fiddler. He handled the horsehair bow so deftly and freely that it seemed merely an extension of his body, the instrument plucking the notes from his mind. The jig strummed its way through the air to reach me, fastening onto every pore of my skin, seeping through my very being. I coveted that music; it was a glass of water in a sand-dry desert, a splash of colour in a grey world.
Maman, I recalled, played the violin, an obscure art learnt in her childhood in France. Some mornings, I would wake to her music, fresh and vibrant in the crisp, clean air. Other times, she would play in the audience hall, the notes echoing off of the walls and ceiling in the large chamber. I would sit, enraptured, before her, watching her every move, every play of the bow on the strings, every delicate touch of her hands on the fingerboard, the light gleaming off of the polished wood.
I stood at the outer edge of the circle surrounding the fiddler, watching for what seemed an eternity before Doreen came and dragged me away, scolding me for slipping away without notifying her. I apologised, but regretted it not one bit.
When school started again in September, I threw myself yet again into my studies, with somewhat less strict a concentration than before. I was still one of the best students in my year.
My birthday came and went with the turning of the leaves in the autumn. The ground lay covered with golden leaves, soft and spongy when I stepped on it, as though I were walking on clouds. Mr. and Mrs. Collingsworth brought me a book of fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen. I smiled and thanked them, but my heart grieved for that one birthday, three years ago, when my world had ended. I still hadn't told them of my past - beyond the bare necessities: that my parents had died when I was five years old, and that I remembered little, if anything, of my past.
There was a good deal of travel every morning and afternoon, between my house and my school. Sometimes, I would dally on my way, for there were many stores on the roads, and I had not forgotten my old taste for sweets, despite two year's curb in Saint Helena's.
On the road to Lawrence Academy, there was always a block of silence, of waiting, on which sat a particularly large and grey building. I had never liked it much - it held an air of tastelessness - and so tried to avoid it if at all possible on my road to school. Of course, this was little aided by the fact that it was an orphanage, much like the one in which I spent two of the worst years of my life.
But it was here that I met him, and that my destiny would be changed forever.