Authors: Jo Graham
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #General, #Romance
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For my mother
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar . . .
“Ode: Intimations of Immortality”
The Cuckoo’s Child
harles van Aylde was not a nice young gentleman. His fair hair was powdered, swept back from a high, flawless brow. His eyes were blue. Blue eyes were common enough, but his were midnight, the color of sapphires, the color of secrets. His coat was midnight too, his collar reaching to his chin, the shoulders padded wide, the very height of fashion. His cravat was ruched with Valenciennes lace; his hands were long and white. He affected a small quizzing glass, and he wore a diamond on the last finger of his left hand.
I considered him in the mirror, my own reflection, but no longer a girl. In the drawing rooms and spas of the waning eighteenth century, I knew I was prey. Men might play deadly games of war or passion or politics, but the role of a young woman was to be the prize, the lovely and innocent thing for which all others strove for good or ill, to take or defend her virtue and honor as though she were a castle perennially under siege. Such was against my nature. If that was the lot of women, then I would become Charles instead.
I passed through the card parlors where, as Charles, I played conservatively and somehow usually left the table with more than I had brought, though there were no large wins that might call attention to me. Charles did not speak much, and his face was expressionless. In the drawing rooms and at the gaming tables of the baths, in the assembly rooms where young ladies danced the minuet under the careful eyes of their mothers, his
manners were polished but not excessive. He was, after all, the scion of an old Dutch family of means, a wealthy man but not a titled one, reveling in the indiscreet pressure of the fingers in the figures of the dance, the brush of his hand against a blushing cheek, the sudden heated look that spoke more of conquest than any kinder passion. And yet, when he left the rooms it was alone.
There were no careful mothers in the inns and taverns that surrounded the baths proper. Instead the taverns were full of soldiers, travelers, tradesmen, and whores. The stakes were higher and the games less genteel. I did not venture here without a sword at my side. It was a dress sword, a pretty thing, but no less sharp.
There were words over cards with a drunk hussar, a recruit hardly more than his own age. Steel rang as the dress sword was drawn sinister, a left-handed fencer in a dirty, crowded room. The hussar’s friends stepped between.
“Let’s not take this so seriously. There’s too much drink all around.” An officer barely twenty broke it up. The recruit compounded his difficulties by promptly vomiting on the officer, who swore in Flemish and French both.
I took my winnings and sheathed my blade. The coins we were quarreling over would hardly pay my laundress. With a negligent shrug, I left the disputed coins on the table in the puddle of spilt beer. “Use it to clean up then,” I said. I glanced once more at the young officer holding the recruit’s arms, raised one eyebrow, and left the tavern, reveling in the sharp spice of danger.
I did watch my back on the way back to the spa, but the only person I met was a whore. “Get you something nice, sir?” she asked, dropping a battered fan from ample cleavage.
I stopped and looked at her appraisingly. “I don’t think so
just now,” I said, cultivating just the right gesture, one finger beneath her chin, tilting her head into the light. “But you are lovely.”
walked back to the spa, to the fine rooms for wealthy people, the suites of travelers with plenty of money to spend taking the waters. Charles van Aylde did not slip in. He strode, the swagger of a blade too young to fear anything. I lit a candle in front of the gilt glass over the sitting room fireplace, the flare illuminating even, handsome features, a mouth too thin and tight for beauty. I closed the heavy velvet drapes and went into the bedchamber on the left.
There, in front of the dresser and washstand, I took off my coat and carefully hung it away. The rooms were silent, though voices still came from the streets. Outside a spring drizzle was beginning. I dipped a cloth and washed the powder from my face with tepid water, looking in the mirror. I opened my shirt, watching one finger trace down from the opened cravat to the top of the contrasting lines of stays, the swell of breasts carefully hidden. “Upon my word,” I said, “what are you hiding, Charles?” I smiled at myself in the mirror, and it was not such a nice smile. I opened the top of the stays and rubbed at one pale pink nipple. Charles smiled back in the mirror.
“Lovely, I protest,” I whispered. White flesh and white corset, white cravat and shirt opened, man’s clothes over woman’s body. I ran my hands over my breasts, pulling the nipples free of the top of the corset, drawing and plucking at them, watching them roseate. “You are beautiful,” I whispered, but there was no one to answer but myself.
he next afternoon I was taking English tea with my mother in one of the salons, wearing a gown of raspberry-and-white-striped lawn. A lace shawl around my shoulders.
I dropped it. Before I could bend, a hand seized it.
“Allow me,” a gentleman said. It was the officer from the tavern. He lifted the delicate lace and handed it to me. “Your servant, Madame.”
He clicked his heels together smartly. “Lieutenant Bleeker, Madame. The honor is mine.” He seemed even younger in the light of day.
“Madame Ringeling,” I said. “And this is my mother, Madame van Aylde-Versfelt.” I indicated my mother. She nodded over her tea.
I saw his eyes widen almost imperceptibly. Yes, he recognized the name. Would he take the bait?
“I believe I am acquainted with your brother, Madame,” he said.
“Oh?” I said. Over his shoulder in the great mirrors I could see my reflection. With honey-blond hair, a rose and white complexion, and a pouting mouth stained the color of raspberries, Madame Ringeling resembled her brother, but not so very closely.
“My son is around somewhere,” my mother said.
“It was pleasant to make your acquaintance, Lieutenant,” I said airily. “Perhaps our paths will cross again.” There was a power to it, knowing something he could not possibly guess. It was a polite dismissal, and he made his bows.
My mother took up the lace shawl and began absently shredding it. “Elzelina, I wish you’d be more polite. You’re quite too old for competition with your younger brother.” At thirty-eight, my mother hardly looked as though her youth was far behind.
Her hair was still platinum fair, and her hands were hardly wrinkled at all. “You would never bring me anywhere if Charles didn’t insist,” she said. “He always thinks of my comfort.”
“Mother, it was I who suggested we come to the baths,” I said. “Your doctor recommended it, remember?”
“Yes, but I would never have come without Charles,” she said. Her beautiful fingers picked at the lace. “I can’t imagine traveling without him to protect me. What if we were set upon by highwaymen?”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m an adequate shot,” I said tightly. “I am quite certain Charles is no better than I.”
Mother picked up her teacup. “Oh, I know Leo showed you how to hold a gun, and I’m sure that’s all very well, but you can’t imagine you’re half the man Charles is.”
“Mother,” I said, getting to my feet, “I assure you that I am entirely the man Charles is.” I stalked out of the salon.
I was still fuming when I opened the door to our rooms. Berthe was brushing out my dinner gown. I flung my shoes under the bed and opened the Hungary Water, dabbing it on my temples. My face was bright pink in the mirror.
“Have you quarreled with Madame again?” Berthe asked.
“Charles this and Charles that and all the time Charles,” I said. I put down the bottle and ran my hands over my face, breathing in the deep scents of citrus and vetiver. “Charles is dead these ten years.”
Berthe came over and stood behind me as I regarded her stout form next to mine in the mirror. “And it’s a sad thing, to be sure. But you know your mother would never have come to Bad Bentheim without you playacting at Charles. And her doctor said that staying in Amsterdam was just making her worse.”
“Because she thinks there’s a curse on the house,” I said. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “She thinks that her uncle
watches her out of mirrors and that there are bloodied monks in the cellar left over from the Spanish and a dead child’s ghost moaning around in the attic. Compared to some of the things my mother believes, believing that Charles is alive is fairly sane.”
Berthe patted me on the back. “She’s not the first mother to lose a child and disbelieve it.”
“For ten years?” I asked. “Isn’t that carrying it a bit far? Charles would be sixteen if he were alive. He died when I was eight.”