Authors: Dawn Thompson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy
The Bride of Time
Tessa backed away. The man was in earnest. There was no use trying to reason with a madman, handsome and brilliant artist though he might be, and she made a dash for the door. He caught her in one stride and spun her into his arms. How strong he was. His eyes were wild feral things flashing in the candlelight, devouring her.
He began fumbling with the neck of her frock. “How do you get shot of this deuced thing?”
“I’m no Penzance roundheels!” she cried, swatting his hand away. He winced when the blow grazed the scar near his wrist, but her anger was such that she could not raise an ounce of compassion. “Oh yes, I’ve heard all about the harlots you Cornish have out this way,” she went on. “They put Whitechapel unfortunates to shame. It was one of those trollops that left here naked in your coach just now, wasn’t it? Well, I am no such creature. I’ve been trying to tell you there’s been a mistake. Let me go, sir! You will
get me into that bed!”
To: Leanne Burroughs, Diane Davis White, Billie Warren Chai,
Victoria Bromley and the wonderful Ladies in Waiting…
I love you all!
My sister, Diane “Candy” Thompson. Thank you for all!
Miss Fuzz, my heart, my caretaker
DeborahAnne MacGillivray for always being there,
for always caring.
A Model of Discretion
Also by Dawn Thompson
It was happening again. She was running over the patchwork hills through the mist, her heart hammering in her breast. He was gaining on her, his heavy footfalls vibrating on the spongy heath through the soles of her morocco leather slippers. She couldn’t see his face, though his hot breath puffing against the back of her neck covered her with gooseflesh. Raw fright forced her to surge ahead, until a clump of bracken snagged the hem of her bombazine frock. It scarcely caused a hitch in her stride. She hoisted the skirt up and kept running—running for her life!
Tessa LaPrelle sat bolt upright in bed, her breast heaving as if she’d run her heart out. He was getting closer. She’d never felt his breath dampening the tendrils on the back of her neck before. Terror gripped her heart like an icy fist. Who was he? What did it all mean?
She glanced about her dingy chamber, half-expecting the phantom of her nightmare to materialize out of the shadows. Mercifully, he did not. She gripped the counterpane tight to her breast in both fists, as if to keep her thudding heart from bursting through her skin. After a
time, her heart slowed and she took a ragged breath. It was over again…at least for now.
Tessa swung her bare feet to the cold wood floor and padded to the window. It was not yet first light. The moon had long since vacated the sky in that ultimate darkness before dawn. She wiped the damp windowpane and her hand came away smudged with lamp soot and dust. No one bothered to clean the maid’s chambers, and when the day was done, the servants were too tuckered to address them on their own time. Once a month the lots were drawn, and the girl who lost was designated and obliged to address the servants’ quarters’ sleeping cells with mop and broom, but the chambers never got more than a slapdash wave of the duster. Her employer, Jasper Poole, optician extraordinaire—so said the shingle on his little office in Cornhill Street—was a hard taskmaster in every other regard. He couldn’t care less about the servants’ rooms.
It was a hard life, but what else was an orphaned girl to do, unless she was to beg in the streets or become a Whitechapel lightskirt? At least signing on as a scullery maid in a respectable house was honest work for honest wages, even if it was no more than drudgery for a pittance.
It was Tuesday; her day. As long as she returned to the Poole’s home on the fringes of Cheapside by dark, she could do as she pleased. That meant going back to the little gallery just south of Threadneedle Street, where it all began. Was that only a sennight ago? It seemed an eternity.
Tessa had found the little gallery quite by accident on one of her Tuesday jaunts. She’d been on her way back home when it began to rain. Caught without an umbrella, she’d ducked inside the gallery to wait out the storm and had become so enthralled with what she’d found that she nearly got locked in at closing time. As it
was, she was late and missed curfew, which earned her a public chastisement before the other servants at supper that eve ning.
Tessa moved away from the window. There was still some time before her outing. She was too wide awake, thanks to the nightmare, to go back to bed. Mrs. Atkins, the house keeper, and Cook would be up and about in the kitchen. Chores started early at Poole House. Deciding to go down for a cup of tea, she washed with the cold water in her pitcher and dressed in her Sunday-best indigo bombazine frock with the little Brussels lace collar. She ordered her thick chestnut hair—her best feature, so everyone told her—with the aid of three tortoiseshell hairpins, her only possessions of any value, and examined her reflection in a shard of broken mirror glass she’d propped on her dressing chest.
The nightmare was still with her, and her hands shook as she pinned her coin purse inside her bodice, something she always did when going abroad in Cheapside. Cutpurses still existed, the new century hadn’t changed that, and they would, she had no doubt, until the end of time. Well, they would not get their greedy hands upon her hard-earned wages. She was far too clever for that—especially as she carried her savings with her wherever she went; she did not trust any hiding place in her rooms. Her toilette complete, she straightened her posture and went below.
Bessie Harper, the kitchen maid, was already scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees with strong lye soap and a well-worn brush when Tessa entered. Bessie gave her a scathing look, raking her from head to toe in her unofficial togs. The maid was doing Tessa’s chores, since it was Tessa’s day off—and none too happily, Tessa thought, judging from the girl’s clenched posture and staccato jabs of the brush.
“Well,” Bessie said, “If it ain’t Miss High and Mighty
Gallery-goer in the flesh. Up early enough on your day off, I see, ‘my lady.’ A bleedin’ shame ya can’t manage it the rest o’ the week now, ain’t it?”
Tessa didn’t reply. The kettle was simmering on the back of the Majestic coal stove, and she made herself a cup of tea and took a seat at the old scarred wooden table in the center of the room. She would not let Bessie drive her from the kitchen. Her day was her own.
Bessie slapped the scrub brush back down on the floor, flinging suds that came close to spattering Tessa’s slippers. Tessa pulled her feet back beneath her chair, out of harm’s way, and took a sip from her cup. She
let them chase her. This was common enough behavior in such houses. The lowest servant always took abuse from the rest, and there was nothing lower in the pecking order than a scullery maid. She would not let them ruin her day.
“So,” Bessie taunted, “are ya goin’ back to that fancy gallery, then?”
“A little culture might be beneficial to you, also,” Tessa said sweetly. “You might try it on your day off, Bessie.”
Cook flashed a gap-tooth grin and Bessie bristled. “Well, ya won’t be goin’ nowhere till the missus finds her pearl brooch what’s gone missin’.”
“I dunno,” said Bessie. “I ain’t seen it. She come in here all out straight an hour ago. ‘Nobody leaves this ’ouse till my brooch is found!’ she says. She’s checkin’ the chambers right now. So, Miss High and Mighty Gallery-goer, ya ain’t goin’ nowhere till this coil is unwound.”
“Do you mean to say she believes one of
took it?” Tessa asked, incredulous.
“Well, it didn’t walk off by itself, did it?” Bessie shot back. Wisps of brown hair had escaped her mobcap, and she brushed them back from her eyes.
“That cannot include me,” Tessa said. “I have no access above stairs.”
“Makes ’erself out better’n us, don’t she, Cook?” Bessie taunted. “Puttin’ on airs. We all has ‘access’ if we wants it. Them upstairs can’t watch us every minute, can they? That ain’t goin’ ta save ya.”
“I hardly need saving, Bessie. I’ve nothing to hide.”
“So she says, la di da, with her voice so refined,” Bessie said through a snigger to Cook, who was larding a pheasant at the other end of the table, and getting more lard on her pendulous bosom than the poor flaccid bird. “Ain’t she a regular funnyosity, though, voice like a lady, goin’ about in threadbare togs? That pearl brooch would look right nice on that raggedy old bombazine frock, now, wouldn’t it?”
Tessa shouldn’t rise to the occasion, but she would not stand being accused. “Are you suggesting that
took the brooch, Bessie?” she asked coolly. “If you are, you’d best have proof. And I speak as I do because I had someone to teach me, who cared enough to hope it would help me better myself.”
That had been one strike against Tessa the minute she entered Poole House. Thanks to the upbringing she’d had with her aunt before the woman died and she’d been forced into a life of servitude, she’d learned at least to talk like a lady. It hadn’t helped her in her current circumstances, and she said no more. Hopefully, the missing brooch would be found, and she would be on her way to gaze once more upon the painting that had captured her eye so severely, and the formidable, darkly brooding self-portrait of its creator, one Giles Longworth, among other of his works on display. It was titled “The Bride of Time,” a large—almost life-size—canvas of a naked woman, scantily draped in what appeared to be a bridal veil that looked no denser than spider silk and hid none of her charms. She was lounging upon an
opulent couch, gazing reverently toward a gilded hourglass in her hands. Through an open window behind the woman, rolling patchwork hills had been painted draped in fog, with the crenellations of a manor house of great proportions, reputed to be the artist’s Cornwall estate, poking through the distant mist.
There was nothing remarkable about the painting. It was typical of the artwork of the era. Tessa wouldn’t have given the canvas a second thought if several patrons hadn’t gasped and called attention to the fact that the girl in the painting resembled her. One had gone so far as to ask if she might have posed for the artist!
This was 1903. That painting was done at the turn of the century, around a hundred years ago, at the social and economic beginning of the de cadent Regency period. Those times, and the people who lived then, had long since fascinated Tessa. The world had changed so much in a mere hundred years, but not enough to blur the edges between the classes. Boundaries still existed that could not be breached. C. D. Gibson may have created an image of the new woman for a new century with his famed Gibson Girls, but some things would never change. Scullery maids still wore bombazine and threadbare faille for Sunday best, and mobcaps beneath their unadorned bonnets.
Tessa finished her tea and helped herself to a cheese biscuit besides, but she refused to continue the conversation. When Mrs. Atkins floated into the kitchen sometime later, her countenance no less scathing than the others, Tessa excused herself and went back to her chamber to fetch her cloak and bonnet. She would stop to feed the pigeons in the little gated park in the square, and by time she reached the gallery it would be open. She could relax there. She could escape, pretend she lived in that grand abbey in the painting. She could pretend
she had posed for the portrait of that bride from a different time. It was a pleasant fiction that lifted her out of the doldrums of her everyday existence, even though she wasn’t convinced of the likeness. Oh, the woman in the painting had her coloring, her long chestnut hair and eyes more violet than blue, but that woman was beautiful. Tessa had always considered herself plain.