The Town of Floating, 1856
Looking back on his life, William Grace would say that his childhood had little joy other than the occasional glimpse of happiness he saw in Jane's life. His own home was in a tiny one-roomed apartment that they could only afford because of Mr. Sorrel's generous wages and his mother's scrupulous budget.
There was a budget that had to be met every month because money could only be stretched so far. The family rarely went hungry for there were only three mouths to feed, but living is itself an expense. Money fell through the cracks every day, mostly down the gullet of one useless father William despised.
When William was smaller than he was, he had believed his father to be a great man. A teacher of great learning whose days were spent at his writing table, furiously scribbling away. Had William understood what his father had been writing, which had mostly been in the defense of keeping the all but defunct Magicians' Guild. To William, who was born to a generation who had never known magic or witnessed its great feats, it would have been confusing dribble filled with the jargon of another age. But William remained in ignorance of what his father wrote and would never realize that he would take a similar path. The adult William would have been filled with self-loathing to know that.
To the young, young William, however, his father's work was part of the blurred world of adults where it seemed that 'work' was easily imitable by mindless force. So William once wished to be like his father who seemed so intelligent and all-knowing. The Grace patriarch sometimes met with visitors who shared William's admiration. To his eyes, William did not notice that his father rarely brought a single penny to support them and it was his mother who worked herself to the bone to keep them alive.
Growing older makes one notice such things. Mrs. Grace never complained about her husband to her child, but William's heart began to harden towards him when he first lifted his hands from his ears to listen to an argument his parents were having. Mrs. Grace urged her husband to leave the house to find work, perhaps at the stock houses or in the city. He waved her off, his voice loud that he had more important things to do.
"All I am saying is that William needs to begin his schooling, my wages won't be enough for all of us then!"
"I'll find a job next week, I told you," William's father grumbled. The papers in his hand crinkled as he held them tightly.
"That is what you said last week and the week before that!" Mrs. Grace threw her hands into the air in exasperation. She indicated to the piles of paper on his desk, "What is the use of all this? Jacob, you must move on."
Mr. Grace bristled, there was a rustle of paper as he gathered his work and stacked them in brisk order. He ignored his wife's comment, instead choosing to defend his apparent lack of contribution, "If I were to find a job, then who would watch William? You have your place at the Sorrel house and come home in the evenings."
"I told you, William will be starting school. You won't have that excuse anymore."
"I was not making excuses—"
"Jacob will you please stop living in the past and at least live for your son?" Mrs. Grace implored, setting her eyes on her husband.
Mr. Grace looked properly shamed but his pride got the better of him. He set his jaw, "I didn't say that I wouldn't find a job. But what I'm doing is important as well."
This continued for quite some time. It pained William to hear their vicious yells, loud enough to convince him that they would never reconcile. Nonetheless, he stayed because from this conversation he had picked up the missing puzzle pieces to put in blanks he had not noticed before. Unlike other fathers of his class, William's father rarely left the house other than to meet his colleagues who acted similarly. Only his mother worked—even William made a meager penny doing odd errands for his neighbors.
Another thing was that his mother was adamant that he go to school. That was something they could hardly afford but Mrs. Grace acted as if she would put him through by sheer force of will. William did not particularly want to go, he did not even see the point in it until his mother had scolded him.
"William, don't you understand the opportunity being handed to you?"
The boy, sullen over a second-hand arithmetic book she had acquired for him, shook his head. He was quite certain that at no point in his life he would have to figure out the height of a bird flying at a certain angle and distance from a tree. Perhaps if he was a rich man hunting and even then he would probably not take the time to calculate all of that. Just shoot and be done with it.
Mrs. Grace sighed, running her fingers through her son's hair, "The world is changed William. I'm sure you don't realize it because it was the one you were born into, but there are doors open now that were closed to you before. Your father thinks that doors have been closed and indeed they have. But with every door closed is another opened.
Had you been born in your father's time, you would have been doomed and chained to your position. Everyone around you would have ruled how you would have acted because of your blood."
William pulled away in confusion, "My blood?"
"From your inheritance as a magician's son," Mrs. Grace corrected. "And that is what you would have been. Don't look so wondering, it would not have been as lovely as you suppose. That position would have been your lock and chain for the rest of your life. Times have changed since the fall of the magicians. Everything has changed. This is the moment when people are trying to readjust and that is what makes it so good for you. It is like hot metal, melting into new form."
She had been speaking all this time, mostly to herself, verbalizing her hopes for her son. She blinked as she realized the outpour that had come from her mouth and turned her attention to William who was staring at her. He understood most of it, but some he could not because he did not realize the difference between the 'worlds' as she spoke of.
"Well, what I mean is, don't end up like your father," she smiled in jest, "Study hard and you can be most anything, save perhaps royalty. Even then there's always marriage." Winking she leaned over to correct an incorrect sum on his work.
Crouching in the hallway in front of his family's room, William thought again of what his mother had said. He disliked the way his father yelled at her. Though he did not know the reasons why, William also felt her frustration and learned through her actions.
William compared his father to Mr. Sorrel and saw the contrast that left Mr. Grace lacking. Mr. Sorrel certainly never yelled at his wife nor would he have been berated for being useless. Jane didn't have to worry about school because she had tutors teaching her at home. He held his head between his knees and tried to breathe slowly. He tried to think of something to redeem his father. There had to be something that William had seen before. It would be proof that his mother was wrong and that their family did not have a problem.
His father often took him to the park. Admittedly it was close to home but William had always received a sugared bun or sweet meat from one of the vendors that roamed the area. The trips had not bothered him before, in fact there were some moments that William had enjoyed. Then it occurred to William that the park was the only place Mr. Grace ever went out to. He would sit under a tree to continue his writing while William ran about and played on his own.
Straightening his legs, William stared blankly at the faded wallpaper. He winced as he heard the crash of furniture falling to the ground. He imagined his mother standing there, the anguish written on her face and for a moment he hated his father. There was something he now knew: he did not want to be like his father. He didn't want his mother to look at him in disappointment and to hold her tongue because she knew it would be of no use.
He thought of what he could do and, as Mrs. Grace told him, what he could become. Surely, he could do more than this. The school books his mother had given him to start early had not been difficult. The largest reason why he resisted had been because of their tedious nature. Once he learned something, he did it quickly and with little effort. His mother had been amazed and pleased. When she smiled, she did not look so tired.
Shortly afterwards, a bottle hit the wall and Mrs. Grace was silent. Without another word, the door swung open and Mrs. Grace walked out. She noticed her son sitting and immediately scooped him into her arms, holding him tightly to herself. William looked at his father over her shoulder. Mr. Grace's surroundings pressed down upon his form, making him seem small and insignificant. From the safety of his mother's arms he saw for the first time a man who had continually failed his family and lived in his own delusions.
The days after the party were grim. Mrs. Sorrel was confined to her bed from a fever that made her thrash and moan. Frightened, Jane found herself unable to face her mother. Mr. Sorrel was no better, locking himself in his study and missing meals. The house had a static that ran through the air. All those within it were afraid to do anything for fear of shock.
Jane's room was just down the hall from her parents'. Every morning she would wake up with dread at the thought of having to walk past their door. She did it as quickly and as silently as possible, shutting her ears so as not to hear her mother's words. When she was lucky, her mother would still be asleep or her voice too ragged. She would often scream until she sounded like a dying beast from Hell. Sometimes, they were cruel, and others they made no sense. The doctor visited daily, checking Mrs. Sorrel's conditions and always shaking his head to Mr. Sorrel.
"I just don't understand, she seems to be perfectly healthy," the doctor put his instruments away. Jane watched all this from a door left slightly ajar. Everyone was being so secretive. It terrified Jane and her mother's condition grew worse in her mind. Her imagination grew wild but she had no one to tell her fears to. No one would listen. Every time she asked, they simply looked sad before changing the subject. Her fears boiled inside of her, bubbling underneath a flimsy lid.
"Please doctor, is there nothing we can do to help her?" Mr. Sorrel's pained expression made Jane's heart ache.
"I will send word to my colleagues and see if they have seen anything like this. For now it seems as if it is only her mind that is affected so the best we can do is make sure she is comfortable."
Not wanting to hear any more, Jane fled the scene. She hid herself again in the linen closet but found no comfort in it. The only thing she felt in there was that she was alone and isolated.
Not even William was around lately, his mother kept him away. Jane wanted to see him, she wanted things to go back to the way it had been. She desperately wanted to apologize for her misspoken words, as if that would help. William was so clever he would listen to her and help her figure out what was going on. At the very least she would have him as assurance that the entire world had no gone mad.
"Deedee, what is wrong?" Jane asked her governess. When she hesitated, Jane became forceful, "I want to know!"
Mrs. Applebaum's eyes turned soft with tears, she gently stroked Jane's hair and answered with something that did not satisfy Jane at all, "How about a walk, Jane?"
The prospect of a walk meant preparation for a public appearance. Jane was swept away by the process and was dressed in stiff, fresh clothing, after which she was pushed firmly out the door by Applebaum's deceptively strong hands. They would walk resolutely to the park, in deliberate silence under the overcast sky.
They never spoke during these walks. Jane simply clasped her hands tighter in front of her and trailed behind her governess, who walked rather like a dark specter, solemn and silent in her black dress. She walked with sureness, as if she knew how the whole world should be without even checking if Jane was following. However Jane did follow, no matter how sour her mood. They stopped by the river, where Applebaum sank gracefully into the grass, opened her bag and began to work on her embroidery. Jane assumed that this was the moment where she was to be a wonderful child and pick flowers or some other appropriate activity.
Instead she screamed and began to run. She heard Applebaum's alarmed voice calling after her, but she ignored her. Jane ran towards the river, fully intent on jumping, until she felt thin hands pull her back forcefully. She struggled again Applebaum's deceptive strength.
She wanted to stomp her feet. She wanted to shout. There was too much wrong here. The adults were acting as if they didn't know what to do, as if they were as confused as she was. But they would pretend that they did know and tell her to hush and be a good little girl while her mother recovered. Being a good girl would not help anything. She could not do anything.
A terrifying thought occurred to her, what if her mother did not recover? Her heart dropped then and she pushed the thought aside. It just was not possible that her mother could die.
Jane knew about death, she had known since her younger brother had died of a terrible coughing illness. They had not told her then either what had happened. They were protecting her, thinking her too young to know such things. But not knowing made things so much worse. All she could see was that the house was in a disarray, trying to cope with something they knew much better than Jane. She had been surprised at her brother's death, she had not even known that George was in so much danger.
And now, her mother could die too. Her beautiful, lovely mother who always had the most interesting stories and a comforting kiss to press on particularly dark nights. Jane began to sob as she remembered the still body of George, lying in his bed. She had not believed them when they told him George had gone to Heaven, she had pushed past them, some how able to escape the flurry of hands that seemed to grab at her. She saw him, so pale and small. She shook him, but he would not awaken. However now, instead of George lying on a bed, it was her mother and the thought was even more painful than she could have ever thought possible.
"Jane, hush!" Mrs. Applebaum held her tightly, her own voice thick with tears. Jane tried to remember then, exactly when Mrs. Applebaum had entered their lives. It almost seemed as if she had been there always, as if she were a part of the house. Vaguely, she recalled a tall and thing woman, her hair pulled into a neat bun introducing herself. This woman was cold and unyielding, nothing like the nearly breaking woman that held her back now.
"Mama's is going to die," Jane sobbed, "She's going to die!"
Mrs. Applebaum hushed her again and began to hum, rocking Jane gently. Slowly, Jane settled, still sniffling into her governess's embrace. The river ran, as it always had, the silent witness to Jane's outburst.
When they returned, Mrs. Applebaum decided that it was time for tea and told a maid to prepare it. The girl bobbed a curtsy, her cap going slightly askew on her dark head,
"Will you be taking tea in the parlor or the little Miss's room?" She cast a quick glance at Jane, whose clothes were stained with grass and mud. Jane sniffled forlornly at her shoes, wiping her nose on her arm with a face streaked with dried tears. Mrs. Applebaum coughed to bring back the girl's attention, and to look disapprovingly at her for gawking rudely.
"The parlor, of course. Why ever would we take our tea in Jane's room like hiding mice?" She bristled a bit, pushing Jane behind her skirts to hide her from more prying eyes.
The maid turned red and began to speak nervously, "Begging your pardon, madam, but the master does seem to have guests."
"I believe it's Mrs. Haywood and her daughter."
The governess pursed her lips in thought. Her eyes flickered to Jane's distraught form before saying, very archly, "Then I suppose we will have to take tea in Jane's room then."
As the maid scurried off, eager to be out of the older woman's range, Jane finally spoke, "Must I change again?" She looked unappreciative at the thought of having to put on freshly starched and ironed petticoats for the third time that day.
"Jane, it would be improper for me to allow you to continue in that filthy dress."
"It only has a few stains…" Jane pouted as she followed her governess up the stairs. Mrs. Applebaum did not answer, stepping with purpose down the hall to Jane's room. She did not call for a servant and rather opened the wardrobe herself to dress the child.
Jane was a silent captive to this tedious ceremony of skirts, petticoats, and stockings. Mrs. Applebaum tsked at the sight of Jane's shoes now dotted with bright green and brown, but did not scold her, instead taking them off and calling for a girl to clean them.
Downstairs, Mr. Sorrel wiped some cream on the table that Hermia had spilled. He did this with meticulous motions, seizing upon the opportunity to break the awkward lull. When he was finished, they sat once more in silence; Hermia did not seem to notice, primly drinking her tea and consuming enormous amounts of cakes and sweets with delicate bites. After she had downed the last lemon tart topped with glazed fruit in great enthusiasm, Mr. Sorrel coughed and spoke to fill the air, "As I was saying, I'm sorry I missed you when you visited last, Hermia," here he frowned, setting his cup on its saucer. He did not notice Hermia's plump fingers pluck a soft green macaroon from its plate while she watched him with unblinking eyes. She waited as if her next words would be affected by his. "But there were serious matters to attend to. You see, Elizabeth is not well and will not be well for quite some time now."
"How terrible! What has the doctor said?" her response was almost rehearsed, the tears welling up rose on cue. Not a single one was allowed to fall down Hermia's heavily made face, but were instead caught like escaping prisoners on her pristine lace handkerchief.
"He couldn't understand it either, we're waiting for word from his colleagues to see if they have come by anything like it." It was certainly a terrible matter, however Mr. Sorrel was a bit puzzled as to Hermia's over-reaction, for she had no idea the true immensity of the situation. His expression darkened as he remembered the golden eye peering out from his wife's face, the unwelcome stranger on her loveliness. He was struck with sudden impatience at having to play this little game with a relative whom he was unsure of exactly how they were related and not attending to his wife. There was still that promising book his old professor had sent him that might enlighten…
"Oh, poor Elizabeth!" Hermia wailed, her voice making Mr. Sorrel wince. Her formidable bosom heaved and Mr. Sorrel was quite afraid that she would burst out of her clothes.
"Yes," he coughed, trying his best to avert his eyes, "and I am quite occupied with matters concerning that, so you will have to excuse my inattention."
"Of course, you poor dear! And what about the household, and Jane?"
"It has been difficult, but we do manage."
"Oh my," she touched a hand to her cheek as if in contemplation. Several different things seemed to run in her mind and finally she tilted her head saying something that sounded like she had decided right then and there, "Well I just wanted to visit to tell you that I would be leaving town soon."
"Is that so?" Mr. Sorrel did not seem too concerned.
"Yes, to live in the City with my brother."
The scholar nodded slowly, acknowledging her words and at the same time wondering if this relation of hers was somehow distantly connected to his family as well. He had to suppress a smile that bubbled up from his amusement in thinking just how many 'relatives' they would have to go through before reaching Hermia or her supposed brother.
"How unfortunate. We will all miss you."
"Yes, but I must think of Silvia. She cannot possibly grow up properly so far away from society."
"I'm afraid I don't understand." Because really, Floating was a lovely town filled with lovely people. It was a quiet little place in which nothing much ever happened and that suited Mr. Sorrel very much. He had had enough adventuring for several lifetimes and was not so eager on starting again. Where he had arrived in his life he was content. The only thing that troubled him was the affliction that had taken his wife, shattering the tranquility that had come to be in his world.
"Oh, you know. This place is too far from the city and Silvia needs to be around people of better standing if she is to get anywhere," Hermia said this as if it was common knowledge that anywhere outside of the city was simply not good enough. Truly, many felt this way and jumped at the opportunity to relocate there. However Mr. Sorrel was not a man who believed in rising in society through vicious networks of the rich and powerful. He had seen much too much to believe that this was the purpose of life.
He was not inclined at all to convince Hermia otherwise, nevertheless. He gave her a gentle half-smile, inclining his head, "Of course."
Author's Note: Another update, thank you to all of you who read. Until next week.