Chapter One. Too Pretty
According to Father, I was "too pretty."
His solution consisted of banishing me to an estate owned by distant relatives.
I was seventeen minus two months when he broke the news to me. I had no brothers or sisters, and my mother died of fever when I was three, in 1677. Father raised me on his own ever since, which proved not to be a challenge, because technically, he did not raise me at all. Father spent eighty-seven percent of his time at the church, admiring the pastor and bishop more than he admired God himself. Nurses raised me. Elise was my favorite of them all; she was the one who had been with me the longest. She was a maid to Mother before she even met Father, and after their arranged marriage, Elise stayed. Then I came around. Elise stayed longer. Beyond her days of outside play and physical activity before I was even born, I found her a dull and boring person in my early years and opted for the younger maids and nurses to be my playmates. As I grew older, however, Elise became a surrogate mother to me, and a friend of wise and sometimes harsh advice. Elise spoke the truth to everyone, and in her own words.
The cook was my best friend. That was how my early years were. With no siblings and no real playmates besides a friend named Jessica, whom I saw once every month or so when her father and mine talked business in the parlor and smoked their smelly tobacco pipes, I took to tormenting the hired help. I was a stress on the minds of every maid and servant in our three-floor, seven-bedroom manor. When the gardeners clipped and pruned our extensive labyrinth of hedges and flowers, I followed closely behind and asked endless questions. All of the workers in the house disliked me, except for Elise...and Cook. Cook would not shoo me away when I got under his feet, he would not scowl at me and call me a stupid little girl when I questioned what he was making for supper that night. Instead, he answered my questions smoothly, never missing a stroke of his knife as he chopped fruits and vegetables for dinner. Cook was my greatest companion from when I was five to the day I left Father's home. He was older than I, past his life's peak, but I imagined when he was young, he was a handsome man. He was also the one who listened when I complained about Father.
Father, who spent all of his time out of the manor and doing business, came home one day and determined me to be too good for any man in our town to marry. Then came the diagnosis to this obvious problem: Send me away to his cousin's estate far south of any real civilization. He did not want his daughter to be whisked away by any greasy-handed man from town, he said, and assured me that going to the farm for six months would give me time to come into being a woman "safely," that is, without men at all.
I've not yet mentioned that there were no young men at my cousins' estate. There was the ancient owner of the house, whose age I was sure consisted of three digits, and his grandson Dewey, who was four. I was quite positive the limited male resources were the main reason I was going to that particular estate.
"I'll not go," were the first words to spill from my pursed lips when I heard the news.
"You will," Father replied calmly, avoiding my angry eyes and opting instead to puff his tobacco pipe from his large red velvet chair. Each night that he was home, he sat in that chair in the library and stared out the window, smoking his pipe quietly. I had learned from experience not to disturb him while he was in his chair, and was surprised when he called me in to see him on this particular spring night. He put the pipe down gingerly on the arm of the tall chair, motioning with one pale finger for me to join him across the room. I did. He stood and faced me, looking down at my face through his furry eyebrows and rough beard. "Caroline," he began, pronouncing my full name. "I do love you," he swore, though he sounded as if he were trying to convince himself more than me. "You've grown into a woman overnight, and I've not been around enough to witness it properly. I know I've not been the father I could be, but things have not always been the easiest for me. You know conversation is not my forte."
"You excel at it with others," I muttered.
"True," he agreed, nodding once with an awkward glance out the window to my right. "Regardless." He reached up with leathery, aged hands that had never seen a day of hard work and took my face in them. "Caroline," he began again, unsure of himself. He was always unsure of himself around me. He and I never shared the connection of a father and daughter, our conversations were businesslike and cold, meetings seldom and brief. But now, he looked into my eyes for the first time in a long time, and I saw he was trying to study me. A man of books and science and politics, my father was trying to understand the emotion in my eyes. I stared back, not even trying to bother to understand him back, I had no desire to. "You are such a beautiful girl...Woman," he corrected himself, and a pained look made itself home on his features. "It seems just yesterday you were underfoot with the servants, just a little girl. Now..." He sighed heavily, and it was then I realized that he wanted it to seem as if it were a burden for him to send me away. "Now you've grown into your corsets and dresses, and when we go into town I must get at least five marriage proposals from the most prominent of men in the city..." He released my face. "You are much too good for those men, though...I understand that, because your mother was much the same." Another sigh escaped his frail lips. "You look just like her," he reminisced, taking a strand of my auburn hair between two fingers and twisting it back into place. "She was too good for me," he admitted quietly, turning away from me. The pipe sat forgotten on the arm of the red velvet chair, Father's only comfort and his personal security guard.
"Your mother and I were an arranged marriage, you know that, Caroline." He turned back to face me. "I can't do that to you...I may be traditional, and single-minded...But I cannot subject you to an arranged marriage when you are only sixteen years of age. And I'm past my best age, as you know..." he whispered, gazing intently at his wrinkled hands as he faced the window. "There are many men in the city who ask for your hand, Caroline. I've said no thus far, but they're becoming persistent...It would be unfair to have you wed before you've yet experienced enough life to be ready."
"Sending me away is fair?"
"No. It is safe, though."
"You can come into your age on your own, you can be a girl for another six months before you must be a woman. Do you not understand?"
"I do not," I replied calmly, but my voice was tinged with anger.
He sighed in exasperation and turned on me. "You are leaving this manor, and you will live at your cousins' estate for six months. They have girls your age there, daughters. You'll like them." He was attempting to be understanding, I saw that much. I also saw that he was failing miserably. "You're simply too good for the men in the city, too..." He searched for the word, and I was shocked at the one he found. "Tempting." His eyes met mine for a second. "You're too pretty, Caroline."
I opened my mouth to protest his absurd reasoning.
But my fate was sealed.
"He said I was tempting," I told Cook the next day. He was preparing dinner in our open kitchen, while I stood against a counter and complained. Cook often tolerated my rants, but this was different.
"He had his reasons."
I decided I could give Father that much. I had blossomed into a woman, like he said, and I acted much more womanly nowadays. I emulated women I was fond of, twisted my hair up atop my head like the wives of men who came to talk business with Father. I wore prettier bonnets and more elaborate dresses. The only drawback was the older I got, the tighter my corset seemed to be. The dreadful thing haunted me.
"But he said I were too pretty to marry a man in town!" I exclaimed.
"You are," Cook agreed nonchalantly, passing by me as he crossed the length of the kitchen.
"You aren't helping any."
"I rarely intend to help, Carrie."
That was something I enjoyed about Cook's presence—he was the first to call me Carrie. My full name, Caroline Blythe, came from my grandmother. Father called me Caroline, while most others tended to address me as Carrie. In my vanity mirrors in my quarters, I considered myself to be more of a "Carrie." I was slim, like every other girl I'd met my age, and the corsets made me look even thinner. I had long, thick, auburn hair that reached the middle of my back, but I'd seen girls whose hair nearly reached their knobby little knees. My nose and ears were small, eyes dark and sharp, and lips full. I had determined long ago that I was pretty. But "too pretty" was never a thought to me. It didn't escape my mind that Father said it as an excuse—a poor one, at that—to force me from the manor.
I was going regardless. I hadn't any choice.
"Say something to ease my mind," I begged Cook.
"Supper will be done in two hours," he replied dryly, and I frowned, pursing my lips together in a pout that always did him in. "What am I to say, Carrie?" he sighed, shaking his head at me. "You're going, that's that. I'm not the one to call your father's faults. That is Elise's part in this house. She puts your father in his place."
I smiled. "True. But Cook, he is sending me away for six months!" I wailed.
"You are missing the point, Carrie," Cook said, waving a wooden mixing spoon at me. "It isn't as if you have friends to miss here." Cook thought a moment while I frowned miserably at him. "In fact, you haven't any true friends at all, have you?"
I was a homebody. I seldom left the house, for the skies were always dreary and the streets muddy. When I ever did leave, it was to go to a ball and dance. My mother, according to my father, loved to dance as much as I did. "You aren't my friend, Cook?" I squeaked.
"Friends of your age," he restated. "Girl, you haven't much life here anyway."
"And I'll haven't any life there!"
"Then does it matter?" he asked me pointedly, and stared into my stubborn eyes. "Truly, Carrie. What have you to lose?"
I looked down, ashamed that he was right. Jessica was the only girl my age I shared a bond with, and we rarely saw each other anyway. I went into town for Father and for balls with the local lords and estate holders, but formed few friendships with any ladies. "I've nothing to lose," I muttered sadly.
Cook noticed my glum mood, and lifted my chin with the end of the mixing spoon. "You've been such a troublesome girl," he told me, but his voice was not scolding in any way. "Quite a burden you've been for your father...For once, don't fight him. Just do what the man says, he means well."
"Caroline!" Elise's voice broke through my protest. Cook went back to work as Elise entered the kitchen. "Your father just told me the news!"
"Did you protest?"
"Of course!" she cried dramatically, taking my arm in hers as she led me through the house. "I told him 's wrong to send a child away from her home!" she continued, trudging upstairs with me in her green cloth dress and stained white apron. "I gave him quite a piece o'me mind! Of course, the old man was right in calling you too good fer the men of the town. But Lord, Child! To take y'away from all men, because he can't handle y'!"
Elise was loud. She had been loud ever since I first heard her. A round, happy woman with wise eyes and rosy cheeks, Elise usually made me feel better with her bluntness and opinionated manner. But I was beyond solace of any form at this point. "Cook says I've been a burden on Father," I told her.
"That you have, Child! But dear Carrie, 's no fair reason t'send you away!"
"You told him that?"
"O'course I did!"
I would give Father the credit of calling me a burden, and I felt bad for it. I had been trouble on the hired help, the servants, the maids...I rarely saw Father but for a few minutes at a time, and when I was younger, I would throw tantrums when he would suddenly appear in my life and try to dictate it. I had my manners, of course, the teachings of maids who would swat at me and Father's hired etiquette teachers. Though I had been at balls in town and seen and danced with men, I had never had an inkling of the thought to marry any of them. Father's accusation that I was "too pretty" and "too good" for those men who I merely thought I was too young for completely blind-sided me. I had not been the best daughter to him as I could have been, but he had not been the best father, either. His punishments, administered by me, were fair, I thought.
When he would leave the manor for two weeks on business, I would break an expensive dish for each day he was away. As I grew older, I designed more subtle punishments, taking the form of the men around me. At town balls, Father would allow me two dances with two men, and I suppose that I should have been tipped off there that he wanted to control the men in my life. When Father deserved punishment for leaving me at the manor and going on off business or shadowing the bishop, I would politely go to the ball without him, find what could be called a "suitable man" and dance with him and any other willing partner. Then Father's friends would see me, tell him when he returned, and he would be shocked with my behavior. It was a fair punishment, I thought. I danced, and he fretted. He was afraid, I assume, that a marriage proposal would come from one of my many dancers.
I suppose...it may have been my own doom. From there, Father was very careful to extract each dance partner from my life. That was all they had been, dance partners. Pawns in my revenge. I suppose...that was mean. I suppose...it was what started Father on his plans to send me away.
"Did you change his mind?" My voice was overly hopeful as I snapped out of my musings.
Elise stopped walking for a moment, and I stumbled as her abrupt halt brought me to one, too. "Well—" she started, but her face gave it away. Elise was the one who fought for what I thought was right for me when Father made a bad decision. Usually she could get him to reconsider and compromise, but it was obvious that there was no such compromise in this particular matter. "No," she said, and my face fell.
"But don't worry, Deary!" she half-shouted, pulling me down the hall to my quarters. If nothing else could console me, Elise's accent could. She hailed from Scotland, and her accent was prominent. I loved it. She used to tell me stories about her homeland when I was a girl and could not go to bed, and I would seldom even care about what she was saying, for the sound of her thick voice would be all that was necessary to coax me to sleep. "We'll get you all packed up so's you can leave, and you can get back in just a short six month time!" She turned suddenly and took my face in her hands, much like Father had yesterday. "And you'll be twice as beautiful upon your return, won't y'?"
"That's a damn right y'will. Y'll show that father of yers."
As it turned out, I was set to leave in three weeks. Elise helped me to pack, and I went to find Cook on the day I was leaving.
"You'll miss me, right, Cook?" I asked him innocently.
For once, he wasn't busy in the kitchen, but was instead lounging in the gardens, amongst the bright red and yellow flowers and the green shrubbery that hid us from view. He stood and approached me carefully. It dawned on me that Cook was not that old, and in fact was about the same age of the men in town who were asking my hand in marriage. It was Cook's features that made him seem older. He had seen many years, and many troubles. He lost a wife and two children in the same way that I lost my mother. And I had burdened him ever since I was born. At least I would not be around to trouble him for a while.
He seemed to sense what I was thinking. "Carrie," he began, looking down at me. "Who will bother me when you've gone? I'll get too much work done."
I attempted—and failed—a smile. "I don't wish to go."
"I know. But you are. Get used to it," he told me in the way Elise usually would. "But...I suppose I will miss you."
I was overcome by the confession of my only true friend, and threw my arms around his neck to hug him tightly. I had never hugged Cook before, as the hired help was not to come into physical contact with the residents of the home. But no one was around, and I was thrilled when he hugged me back. "I'll miss you the most, Cook," I told him in his ear.
"You're such a pretty girl, Carrie," Cook told me sincerely, looking into my eyes. "Your father is right to think no man deserves you. You'll come back more beautiful, I know it." His words reminded me of what Elise had said. I began to think there may have been a sliver of truth in them, and then scolded myself for being so narcissistic.
I had been called pretty and beautiful before—simple, empty compliments from others from the town. But Cook's voice was so sincere, I blushed under his watchful eyes. "Shall I write you? I am sure I'll have much free time."
Cook offered me a smile but shook his head, arms still locked around my back. "It's not worth it. The letter would not even make it to me, and if your father knew—"
I knew then that Cook and I would not see or hear from each other until half the year was over. Father's voice floated into the garden as he called for me—my buggy was ready to take me away. I would be going on the journey with a friend of Father's, a hired hand who had been with us for years and yet whom I'd never before met, at the reins. I turned back to Cook. "I've got to go."
"I'll be seeing you."
"Not for a while," I replied morosely. Then my face brightened the tiniest bit. "When I'm back, I'll come to you first," I promised. Father called my name again, but my eyes remained on Cook. Shyly, and cautiously in case anyone was watching, I tilted my head up and kissed his cheek. "Goodbye, Cook." With that, I dropped my arms from his neck and walked away from his arms, not bothering to look back at him, for if I did, I wouldn't have left again. I was leaving my only friend for a dreary place I'd never heard of.
I found Father at the buggy, which was set up with my luggage and already harnessed to two draft horses. Father's friend was talking to the horses, feeding them some oats and preparing them for the nine-day ride we were about to go on. "You'll be good for Liam," Father told me of the buggy driver.
"Tell my cousin Walter I said hello, and send my best regards. They're expecting you, and they're quite excited about it."
I decided not to respond. "How many girls live at the Walter Usher estate?"
Father had disclosed limited information to me over the past three weeks. I avoided him as much as possible, wanting nothing to do with the traitor that he had become to me. All I knew about the place I was going to was that it was far away, secluded, and on a moor-like area. "Seven girls, four your age, plus maids," Father told me. "You'll grow to like them," he promised, and I nodded because it would please him.
Liam climbed onto the driver's bench of the covered buggy. "Time t' go, if'n ye want th' s'nlight," he announced in a thick accent I immediately recognized as Irish. Father was known for befriending many Irishmen and Scottsmen, a practice that few others followed in our time.
"All right, then," Father said. "Your bags are in loaded. Liam will take good care of you."
"Tha's ride, ma friend, the las is in good hands!" Liam swore, smiling brightly.
"That's the spirit!" Father exclaimed. He turned his attention to me, and hugged me awkwardly. "Be a good girl, Caroline," he told me, and helped me onto the buggy. He patted one of the draft horses and Liam got the buggy going with a jolt of the reins. I sat in the driver's bench beside him, not staring at my father as we bumped and bounced down the dirt road, away from the manor. Father did not tell me that he loved me.
A tiny spark of a revenge plan went off in my head, and I wondered how to act on it.
But any plans forming in my brain to swiftly get back at Father upon my return died away, as if a whisper in the wind, when we passed the gardens on our winding way down the hill. I looked up at the hedged-in acre of gardens, hoping by any off-chance that Cook would be there, watching me being carted away to my own personal Hades. Cook was there, standing at the edges of the gardens, statuesque and unmoving. I raised my arm to wave goodbye without moving my hand, and he reciprocated. If I had not been so depressed, I would have smiled. I tried to imagine him smiling, but it didn't help.
I understood why Father was sending me away. He wanted me to be away from any men for the next six months, to keep me from any contact with the male species "for my own good." I understood his reasoning, however farcical, and I understood also that he would need to be punished when I came back home. I would be the worst daughter to him, I would run away and marry the first man I saw, the ugliest and poorest, just to show Father. He would know that he made the wrong decision.
So, here goes! As you have probably noticed, the majority of people who responded "voted" for the untitled story (which has a name!! I just...don't know how to connect it to the story...eh I'll figure it out...). I've admittedly been fascinated with this time period and all the genres around it for the longest time. There's also that period right before it, in the 13-1500s. I'm convinced I was a dragon slayer in a past life :-)
I hope you guys all liked it. I can understand if throughout the story you might have conflicting feelings toward Carrie. You might like her but turn your nose up at her at the same time, and that's okay. She was kind of raised to be a bit of a snob, but she's good at heart--she is, I promise. As for the rest of the story, I'm basically just flying by the seat of my, well, keyboard.
Hope you enjoyed!