From Not Quite a Marriage
“Polly, watch where you’re stepping! You’ll tear the hem of my nightgown!”
“If you’d just climb a little faster, Sheba, it wouldn’t get caught under my feet.”
“It’s not me, it’s Connie who’s the clumsy one.”
“I’m not clumsy. It’s just that I can’t see! I don’t see why I couldn’t have a candle too, like Lizzie has. I’m not even the youngest.”
“Ooh, Connie’s scared of the dark.”
“I am not!”
“Are too! Cowardy, cowardy custard!”
“Philadelphia, make her stop!”
Philadelphia Fry, all of fifteen yet feeling as ancient as a crone, fought back a sigh. For the better part of this past week, she and her older sister Anna had been forced to ride herd over this squabbling jumble of unruly cousins while their elders visited and entertained during the annual family visit to Audley Priory, their grandparents’ Hertfordshire estate. Vivacious Anna relished the energy and attention of the four younger girls, but Delphie would have far preferred to spend her time alone at the pianoforte, or with a book. Or even better, with her own daydreams.
Which she certainly could have done. No one but Anna would have noticed her absence.
But Anna insisted that Delphie should at least try to join in the fun. After all, making oneself likable was only a matter of effort. Or so Anna always said…
“Polly, please stop,” Delphie said, struggling to instill at least a modicum of authority into her tone. “Such impertinent behavior is not at all ladylike. And besides, you’ve hurt Connie’s feelings.”
“You’re not our governess, Philadelphia,” Polly retorted, shoving an elbow in Delphie’s direction. “Stuffy, sloomy, tedious old thing!”
“We don’t have to listen to you,” Connie jeered, shifting allegiance with the easy perfidy of the young.
Although she, unlike Connie, had her own candle, Delphie couldn’t see very well in the dark of the staircase. But she wouldn’t at all be surprised if both her cousins, despite having reached the advanced age of thirteen, were sticking out their tongues at her.
This time, Delphie didn’t hold back her sigh.
From the top of the staircase, Anna raised a finger to her lips. Candlelight glinting off her silver locket lit her with a strange, uncanny glow. “Quiet, now, or you’ll wake the spirits.”
Delphie shivered at the whispered warning, at her own anticipation, at the cold draft that blew down on them. Even in the face of a flock of unruly cousins, Anna could make life sparkle.
Their five spectral nightdresses fluttered in the wake of Anna’s white satin ballgown. Alone up in the attics, away from the bustle of the family party, the night seemed ripe with mystical possibility. What did Anna have up her puffed, beribboned sleeve?
Over the centuries, Audley Priory had been home to more than its fair share of audacious women, as every Audley cousin well knew. Elfthryth the Fair, who had sited the priory she built to house her religious order next to a hated brother-in-law’s estate to serve as a constant rebuke for that lord’s marriage and murder of her beloved elder sister. Euphemia of Wherl, prioress during the twelfth century, who had somehow managed to increase the number of the Lord’s handmaidens devoted to her order from twenty-eight to eighty during the worst years of the Black Death. And of course, Lady Joan Audley, who sold the assets of her order before they could be seized by Cromwell’s men, giving over the resulting proceeds not to her family, but to the sisters in God whom she had vowed to support before sending them back into the world temporal.
But Delphie doubted that any previous Audley lady had ever been as audacious as Anna. How else could her sister have beguiled all of them into doing something none of them would ever have imagined, never mind risked, doing on their own? Who else but Anna would they have followed up the creaking staircase to the Priory’s rarely-visited attics, especially when the clock in the front hall was on the verge of chiming midnight? And on tonight of all nights, the night of the annual Audley ball, an event which every Audley cousin longed to attend, but which only seventeen-year-old Anna had been granted the privilege of so-doing?
Something truly wondrous must lie above, if Anna had left the glories of the ball—and the company of Spencer Burnett, the young viscount to whom she would soon be engaged—to show it to them. Even shy Delphie would have braved the crush below for a chance to dance with the breath-catchingly handsome heir of the Earl of Morse.
No, Anna’s presence here tonight was not an indulgence to be taken lightly.
With a soft click, Delphie closed the attic door, then set down her candlestick on a battered table. The flame wavered, then died, leaving Anna’s candle the only light in the room. Delphie shivered again, then took her place in the circle gathering about her sister.
Anna stood, silent, for endless minutes while her cousins waited to see what she would do next. At the precise moment when anticipation threatened to tumble over into fear and flight, Anna raised her candle. Slowly, slowly, she guided it around the circle of girls seated on the dusty floor, pausing for a moment in front of each to intone each cousin’s name.
“Elizabeth Audley Davenport-Devenport. Bathsheba Audley Honeychurch. Polyhymnia Audley Adler. Constance Audley Ellis. Philadelphia Audley Fry. And I, Anna Audley Fry. We, the six female descendants of the ancient and noble Audley line, have gathered here tonight to meet, perhaps for the last time, as unmarried women.”
Bodies shifted uneasily around the circle. “No,” a voice across from Delphie whispered.
“Yes,” Anna said, her voice growing more stern. “Soon your parents, as have mine, will find you a suitable life partner, and each of you will thereafter fulfill the sweet duties of wife and mother, duties for which all proper gentlewomen are destined.”
Delphie felt her pulse quicken. Anna’s pale face seemed to glow with some strange inner light. What could her sister be about?
“But is a husband, a family, all for which a lady might wish?” Anna rose to her knees and clasped her hands to her chest. “Might a woman not have greater desires? A greater destiny? Especially a woman with Audley blood in her veins?”
A gasp—from easily frightened Connie?—echoed throughout the shadowy room. Delphie moved closer, the need for physical connection overcoming any worry of appearing weak. Goose-flesh creeped over her arms.
Anna threw her hands wide, almost as if she were preaching a sermon. “Tonight, I invite each of my fellow Audley cousins to ponder her future. To examine her mind, and her heart, and then give voice to her most secret desire. And in so voicing, take the first step toward realizing it.”
Delphie’s stomach plummeted. Give voice to her most secret desire? Here? In front of all her cousins?
“Only a silly a wishing game?” Polly, who had risen to her knees at the same time as Anna had, flopped back with a humph. “There’s no full moon tonight, and the first cuckoo of spring has long since sung. Have you collected some dandelions for us to blow, Anna? Oh, I know, it’s to be the ‘old wish on an eyelash’ game, isn’t it?”
“No mere superstition, Polly,” Anna chastened, pinning their youngest cousin with the sharpness of her gaze. “This is an ancient ritual, handed down for generations through the eldest female in the Audley line, generation after generation, long before any Baron Audley was summoned to Parliament.”
“Are you certain this isn’t sacrilegious?” Sheba, whose family belonged to the Society of Friends, was always wary of anything that might offend Quaker sensibilities.
“Completely certain,” Anna answered. “Why, your own mother participated in the very same ceremony, when she was not much older than you.”
“But won’t telling you all what I wish for make it sure not to come true?” logical Elizabeth asked. “That’s what they say of dandelion wishes, and of eyelash ones too.”
Anna placed a reassuring hand on Elizabeth’s arm. “You don’t have to say your wish aloud. You only have to acknowledge it to yourself.”
Delphie certainly wasn’t the only one to utter a sigh of relief at that. She knew only too well what she longed for when she lay alone in bed late at night when sleep refused to come. A wish so shameful she could hardly bear to acknowledge it, never mind imagine it actually coming true.
Anna reached behind an abandoned trestle table and pulled out papers and pencils she must have hidden there earlier. “Come, each of you, write down the innermost desire of your heart.”
Why an ages-old ritual required writing, something Delphie guessed many of their ancient ancestors had not the least idea how to do, Anna did not bother to explain. Her sister had, no doubt, made the entire ritual up out of whole cloth. But her story—or rather, the certitude with which she told it—had caught the imaginations of her cousins. Small hands reached eagerly for scraps of paper. Even skeptical Polly took up a pencil and began to scribble.
“Think very hard before you choose what to write,” Anna said as she pushed a pencil toward Delphie. “The ritual will only work if you confide your deepest, most heartfelt desire.”
Biting her lip, Delphie picked up the pencil and clutched it in a cold hand. With her other, she held the sheet of paper in place on the floor. None of the other girls seemed to have any trouble confiding their wishes to paper, but for Delphie, the words would not come.
“When you’re done, fold your paper so that you can no longer see the writing,” Anna said after a long moment filled with only the scratching of pencils across paper.
Delphie’s breath caught in her throat. Could she pretend she had already finished?
She glanced up to make sure no one was looking, only to find Anna staring right at her, an already-folded piece of paper clutched in her own gloved hand.
Anna had made a wish, too? But why? Didn’t her sister already have everything any young lady could ever want?
Pressing her lips flat, Delphie scribbled her own wishes across the paper:
To charm and entertain others without having to work so hard at it…
To inspire enthusiasm and devotion in the people around me…
And finally, coming to the real point:
To be courted by the most handsome man in all the world.
The image of Spencer Burnett, his tousled blond curls, his energetic stride, tumbled across her heart.
Delphie raised her eyes, her gaze flicking toward her sister then quickly away. In such dim light, surely Anna would not be able to see the flush flooding her sister’s face.
With a scowl, Delphie screwed her paper up tight in her hand.
Anna rose and gestured for her cousins to follow her behind an old tattered screen. There, atop a battered dining table, sat an elaborate silver Rococo epergne, each of its six arms holding up a small, flat dish decorated with an elaborate border of shell and scroll.
Anna placed her candlestick with care in epergne’s central basket.
“Now, everyone, gather close. We are meant to do this part outside, around an open fire, but I think our candle will serve just as well. Touch a corner of your paper to the flame, then hold onto your wish for as long as you can. Only when you are in danger of singeing your fingers should you drop it onto a dish in the epergne. The less paper that remains to burn on its own, the greater the likelihood of achieving your desire.”
Delphie suddenly realized what her written wishes really meant.
I want what Anna has, what Anna is…
She was the first to thrust her paper into the candle’s flame. But the younger girls quickly followed suit. Six tiny flames sparked, then burned.
“Quiet,” Anna instructed, even though no one had spoken. “Think hard of your wish, and only of your wish.”
They watched as paper crackled and crumpled, ashy black snowflakes wafting through the chill air. As flames burned closer and closer to tender fingers, papers dropped, one by one, to silver dishes below.
Delphie had intended to let go of her paper first, to make sure she had the least chance of having her embarrassing, selfish desires come true. But somehow, her fingers held tight, tight, slowly inching away from the climbing flame until its warmth turned to heat, and finally to pain. With a cry, she let go, and watched as the last scrap of her wish fluttered toward the epergne.
By the time it fell to its dish, the flame had gone out entirely.
Her own gasping breath was the only sound Delphie could hear. Until finally, silk rustled once again, and Anna palm curled about Delphie’s.
“Come and take each other’s hands, ye women of Audley,” Anna intoned, more pagan priestess than earthly sister. “With our hearts, and our fire, tonight we consecrate our most precious, secret desires. We call upon the power of our ancestors to give us the strength to pursue what we most desire, no matter the cost. And most importantly, we pledge to do everything in our power to help one other make our wishes come true.”
Delphie flinched at the pain of her sister’s unexpectedly hard squeeze as a chorus of young voices echoed Anna’s pledge.
Anna blew out her candle with a quick puff.