Shall I paint you a picture? Alas, my friend, I am no artist...if ever that talent stirred my mother's blood, she passed it all to Josephine. But words...ah, words I know. Shall I show you with words, then? As you wish.
Imagine this, then. Dawn breaks over a small town in Spain, a tiny village whose only value lies in its large inn, that services many a traveler passing on the nearby highway. A young woman, no more then a girl truly, boasting scarcely fifteen years emerges from her hovel. She is an orphan, a lovely wildflower sprouting from the cracks in the paving stones, but stronger then most blossoms she has not been crushed by the world's rolling carriages. She spreads her wares, woven cloth, simple garments, pottery or even jewelry of polished stone..anything that can be made at her home, from materials cheap or free, and sold to place bread in her mouth...upon a blanket and hopes one of the travelers of the approaching coach will buy. Her clothes are neat and modest, but faded and patched, her long hair tightly braided, and while she is naturally slender her skin lies a little too close to her bones for her table to be heavily laden.
The coach pauses and a young man, handsome and well-clad, emerges in a glittering flurry of shimmering travel-clothes and heavy valises. His eyes wander over the pitiful vending station with apparent disinterest, until its minder catches his eye.
He speaks to her gently in Spanish tinged with the lilt of the English land. She listens and blushes--he takes her hand, and she flushes now in anger, wrenching her fingers from his, and frigidly bids him make his purchase or move on. He stares at her stricken, then hurriedly buys a length of fabric and retreats to the inn.
The next day he returns, now in his private carriage, gallant and penitent, to buy some pottery. The next he purchases cloth again..but he lingers, speaking to her, for half an hour, and her eyes follow him when he leaves.
Within a year they are married.
Now, my friend, indulge me if you would, and I shall take you ahead six years. The girl, older and sadder but still unquestioningly lovely, comes home to their small house, and finds him gone, a wide-eyed little boy and a crying infant girl--their children--left alone.
She waits. For days, weeks, months, years she waits, certain he shall return. But the loved step never rings out upon the dirty path again nor does his fresh young voice shake the rafters, and slowly weary resignation replaces the hope in her eyes.
And one day her son, now nine years old, comes running breathless with the news that a fancy letter has arrived for her.
The woman is called Dariena Gornatez, a name which doubtless means nothing to you. Her son was granted the name Ferdinand, her tiny daughter Josephine. And her husband, the other side of this half-a-dozen years' union, that gave to myself and my sister the precious gift of life?
Daniel Blakeney, uncle to the man who was to become my dearest friend, most trusted confidant, and the leader I swore to follow into death and worse.
Memories of my childhood crowd around, thick and fast, but none so clear as that first day. I can still feel the dry road, hot and dusty upon my bare feet, as I ran into my mother, excited beyond measure, because we--WE!--had a letter by the post. Addressed with strange words that did not match any in the meager store of what I could read upon paper that crackled queerly in my grubby hands.
"LOOK! LOOK!" I commanded, shoving the tiny sealed envelope, somewhat the worse for its arduous journey, into her slim, work-worn hands with such force that I jabbed myself on the needle she held.
I exclaimed quickly in pain, thrusting the injured appendage into my mouth, too excited to demand further ministrations.
Clear before my eyes comes the image of my mother's slender, calloused fingers, so firm with needle or clay, trembling as they broke the scarlet seal.
Her dark eyes scanned the paper quickly, and then, with a smothered sob, the liquid brown portals filled with tears as she dropped her head into her hands.
Daniel Blakeney had returned to England, leaving behind his wife and children with many a backward glance, but a selfish longing had seized his errant heart to be far more then the happy husband of a beautiful--but POOR--Spaniard.
As was to be expected, he did not succeed--a man of his ilk needs someone, friend or lover--or, what is best, one who is both--to spur him onward. He managed to get started, fairly well too, at law school, but took ill very soon afterwards, returning to his absent brother's luxurious Richmond home to waste away.
On his death bed he remembered, a trifle tardily perhaps, the young woman to whom he had made such a deep and powerful promise and then so readily deserted, leaving her with two more to support and several pennies less then he had found her. He wrote a letter to his married elder brother, roaming abroad with a wife ailing in body and mind, a letter begging him to care for the woman and raise her two children for their father's sake. And now Algernon Blakeney, with his wife and little son, were coming to Spain, and wanted to see his dead brother's progeny.
I knew nothing of all this, of course, and my sister Josephine, scarcely five, knew even less. She remembered our father not at all, and to me he was only a faint recollection of merry laughter and a tall form that tossed me in the air with strong sure hands and put gentle arms around Mother. All we understood was that about a week after the letter Mother became a portrait of nervous anxiety, dressing us both in our finest clothes--which were threadbare enough, to be sure--and then a carriage arrived for us, the driver wrinkling his nose at our small house, and Mother, curtsying to everyone as if her life depended upon it, hustles into the dark coolness of this vehicle bearing us who knew where, but it was assuredly a place of change.
The lodgings Sir Algernon Blakeney and his wife adopted while in Spain were huge, a great manor the English lord rented for the eleven months out of the year when he had no use for it. But grand as the architecture itself might have been, it was furnished simply enough to make a monastery seem opulent. We were led into a broad, bright hall, sun streaming in to reveal its elegant bareness, and a man appeared.
He was tall and broad-shouldered, but dressed in garments of simple severity, and although he could not have been older then forty he looked more then sixty, the powerful shoulders incessantly stooped, eyes sad and sunken in the weary face, dark lines drawn with ominous firmness along his skin, hair once chestnut and now almost entirely gray. His eyes were warm as he came toward us, but it seemed as though his mouth had wholly forgotten how to smile.
When I saw him, standing there, taking my mother's hand in his with gentle authority, I thought from the first: "He looks so very sad."
He gave my mother's slender fingers a brief, warm squeeze and then bowed, and my mother sank into a deep curtsy.
"An honor, milord," came the soft, terrified murmur in English, and he with perfect gallantry raised her to her feet.
"My good Senora...please, sit down.."
He began to lead her toward a small room to the side, with a half-open door through which one could view a cozy, tastefully furnished room with many comfortable looking chairs.
Mother, however, yanked her hand from his with none of her customary grace, and pushed myself and Josephine forward with a swift, awkward motion, as if in an offering of appeasement.
"Sir, my children...Ferdinand and Josephine.."
"Ah, yes!" he exclaimed gently, dropping easily to one knee in front of me. He held out his hand.
"Shall we shake, little man?"
I felt his condescension and rebelled, standing up very straight and neither taking his hand nor inclining my head.
"Ferd'nan!" my mother's hiss fell on my ears in indignant fury, but I stayed, my icy gaze piercing into Sir Algernon's eyes. One gray eyebrow raised itself.
"More Daniel then I expected."
With that light comment, he rose to his feet.
"We have long discussing to do, Senora Blakeney.."
My voice cut across his mellow tones in frigid daggers, arrogance flying through that one word. He stared down at me, the hint of a smile tugging at a corner of a mouth that I somehow felt did not often show merriment.
"Quite right, young man. Your pardon."
There was the faintest whisper of a bow in the movement he made toward me, and then offered his arm to my mother.
"We have much to discuss, Senora Gornatez...perhaps the children would like to play a little and meet their...their cousin?"
How my mother's face lit up at that simple word--"cousin"! Sir Algernon Blakeney had acknowledged the bond between my mother and my father as pure and right and legal. He would not have been the first English gentleman to declare a foreign elopement unrecognizable, to denounce the woman as a cunning whore and the children as bastard brats whose parentage was far from certain, and I think that was the reaction my mother had expected and feared. The gentle voice, the kindly manners, the whole weary, lovingly courteous demeanor had sent the sun breaking over her face and her own personality shining forth in brilliant response.
Algernon half-turned toward one of the doors, his voice taking on a quick, commanding quality, and suddenly from behind me came a voice, young, rather indolent, but firm, reminding me strongly and strangely of my father's.
He spoke Spanish easily, without more then a slight British lilt to the words. I turned slowly...did I have any idea how my destiny was to be changed then? Any notion of how this one afternoon was to alter all my life?
Even then, scarcely seven years of age, he was impeccably clad in a suit no self-respecting young lad of my acquaintance would have allowed to remain unsoiled for above twenty minutes. Even then, his powerful physique was scarcely evident in the broad shoulders, the long legs--taller then me he already was, for all I was three years his senior.
Algernon Blakeney's face took on a curious expression at the sight of his son. The boy in no way resembled his father, nor mine--those thick blond curls came from no generation of Blakeney I had seen, nor was the low brow and heavy lidded eyes so strange in a child's face, the oddly firm lips with their good humored smile--there was nothing of the father's weariness or the uncle's cowardice in the son's steady gaze and firm voice.
"Percival, come here."
Obediently, the boy came forward and made a very deep and elegant bow to my mother. Myself and Josephine he ignored utterly.
"Percival, do you remember your uncle Daniel?"
The boy looked at him, then slowly moved his head to indicate in the negative.
"This is his wife, your aunt.."
He turned to my mother.
A shy smile curved her lips,and she shook her head, bestowing the liquid glory of her eyes on the solemn young lad.
"Aunt Dariena will be quite fine.":
Sir Algernon echoed her smile with the gentle twist of the lips that seemed the nearest he came to one, and motioned to my sister and I.
"And these your cousins, Percival. Ferdinand and Josephine."
"A pleasure," I muttered stiffly, as Josephine, clinging to my hand, made a slight obeisance. The boy still made no movement or said a word, only turned his head ever so slightly to allow his deep blue eyes under the heavy lids to meet mine.
I neither lowered my eyes nor glanced falteringly away, but drew myself up very tall, trying to lessen the distance he looked down on me. His gaze was blunt, even insolent, a mocking challenge in its easy clarity, and I bristled in response.
Our parents seemed wholly unconscious of the tension between us. Sir Algernon again made that faint gesture that served him for a smile, and slid a thin hand under my mother's elbow in brotherly courtesy.
"Percival, you can show your cousins around, h'm? There are things I need to discuss with their mother."
He led Senora Gornatez into the small parlor, all gentle affection, and even before the door closed I could hear him questioning her about how much schooling Josephine and I had received--next to none--and whether she had any particular preferences or specific futures in mind for us.
The boy and I stood together, staring one to another in granite silence. After a very long moment, one throbbing with ominous foreboding neither would break, Josephine piped up in a small voice that sounded like an incongruous thunder clap in the oppressed room.
"Percival. That's a funny name."
"Ferdinand's funnier," he flashed back, a swift retort dagger sharp, but the blue gaze, so taut and piercing under the half lowered lids, was no longer directed at me. The eyes, still oddly intense although no longer belligerent, were staring easily at my little sister.
"Is Josephine a funny name?" she asked defiantly, standing on tip toe and staring straight into his eyes. It was a ludicrous enough picture, to be sure--the little beauty with her father's blue gray eyes and his chestnut curls, dressed in a frock a servant would have scorned, confronting in proud fury the lanky small boy with his cherubic curls and fiery azure eyes shimmering in all his finery. And what seemed strangest and most laughable of all was that this impudent tower of carelessness was now looking upon my petite Josie with something greatly akin to respect.
"No..," he admitted after a long moment, a grudging concession wrung from him by her eyes. Then a twinkle leapt into the unsettling eyes.
"Josephine's a name for a lady."
Josephine flushed uncertainly, rather disarmed by his turning of the cheek.
"Am I a lady, then?"
The lad settled back easily, throwing back his miniature coat and burying his hands in his pockets with a habitual gesture that would one day be as familiar to me as any mannerism of my own. A mischievous, but in no way cruel, smile danced on his lips.
Josephine's face plummeted, and tears crept to her eyes. She was only a little girl as yet,to whom any negative comment was devastating, and she could not yet entirely tell the difference betwixt a jest and a serious remark. He had not realized this, and before the tear could do more then begin to veil the soft grayish ocean of her eye he was starting forward, remorse written plain on his features and one slender hand held out in apology. But I saw this only out of the corner of my eye--far clearer I saw tears, her tears, tears in the eyes of my worshipped baby sister, tears put there by this lanky, insolent brat with his thinly veiled contempt.
I charged forward as if I were a bull in the fights I had been told of, barreling into him headfirst with all the force of my undernourished body. The sheer sudden fury of my attack knocked him breathless to the floor, and I straddled his stomach and struck him once, soundly. and then made to go, for he had been punished in my eyes. But he had other ideas. A pair of strong hands, curiously lacking the pudginess of childhood, seized my arm and commenced pummeling, and after a moment of shocked unresistance I fought back with all the vehemence of a tiger.
The red haze of fury and pain, the whirling hurricane of blows given and received, was interrupted by my mother's voice trembling on the verge of tears. Percival's weight--for, despite all my indignant zeal, I had been getting the worst of it--was suddenly removed from my back.
I scrambled to my feet, conscious of a warm trickle along my jawbone and several fast-forming bruises, and stared about in mingled abashment and defiance. My opponent stood, bloodied and torn--I felt a small thrill of satisfaction at that--beside his father, the latter's slight hand resting heavily on his shoulder, head down though his eyes flashed threatening fire. My mother, pale and ghastly, slender hand clasped against her mouth as if to smother a sob, lingered a little behind them, Josephine's shocked, tear-streaked face peeping from the refuge of her skirts.
There was less of anger then of anguished, incredulous plea in the wide gaze my mother held me with, and a flush partly of unabated rage and partly of shame warmed my cheeks as I lowered my head. Dully, in young childhood's vague, confused way, I was conscious I had committed a sin of great magnitude. It filtered to me that this insolent cur probably spent more on one pair of boots then my mother did on two month's food, that that wealth was sadly needed in our tiny hovel, and that ignominy was sometimes something one bore for one's future--my first introduction, a child of nine, to the cruel world's harsh realities.
I am proud, and at that age, unable yet to so much as claim a decade for my count of years, I had not yet learned the wisdom and joy humility--born of love, mind you, not obsequious self-degradation--could bring. It was very hard to silence obstinacy, to push down righteous indignation and become something cringing and groveling I already loathed, but something--the threadbare state of my mother's finest clothes, the feel of my ribs brushing my own waistcoat through the taut covering of my skin, the easy arrogance of the boy's stride at his arrival, perhaps above all Josephine's pinched face, that had never struck me as too thin ere I saw this weary crane and his gay peacock--forced me to it, pressed down upon my spirit ready to cripple it beneath a crushing weight, and had I had any other Englishman and any other boy to deal with, who knows what stilted monster this brutal revelation would have formed me into.
"What is the meaning of this, boy!?"
I winced at the clear anger in Sir Algernon's voice, raising my head--and stared in shock as I saw his icy displeasure directed not at me but at his shamefaced son.
"We were fighting, sir," came the reply, sullen, his eyes never leaving the floor.
"Heaven forfend I should have a son unable to state the obvious, Percival," the elder Blakeney riposted, "but what I should be pleased to know is who provoked it, you or he?"
Every limb trembled, yet I forced myself to speak up.
"Mine was the first blow, m'lord."
He seemed to have forgotten my presence, and it was with an expression of some surprise he turned to face me.
"Is that so?"
My mother closed her eyes as if to gather strength, wringing her slim hands, and I nodded miserably.
"And had you a reason for this outburst besides my brother's temper, young sir?"
In THIS, at least, I had been in the right.I drew myself up very straight, barely four feet of slim southerner struggling to face down this weary man-of-the-world.
"I did! I *DID*...he insulted my younger sister. Sir."
Algernon's gaze, the sorrow slipping a bit beneath the surface, strayed to his son, one gray eyebrow raised, and I could almost fancy I saw the hint of a smile tugging as insistently as a small child at the corner of his lips.
"Is this so, Percival?"
"'Twas only meant as a jest, sir!"
The smile became more marked, but his voice was still cool and immovable to his son's defensive furor.
"It is true, then?"
A moment of uncertain hesitation, and he nodded.
"But I didn't mean for't to be an insult!!!! Sir."
A short burst of breath that might almost have been a laugh exploded from Sir Blakeney's lips--half encouraged, Percival ventured to raise his head, a tentative smile growing wider by the moment, his grinning blue eyes meeting mine across the expanse of floor. And as if by some enchantment, my anger was gone, not draining or subsiding, but vanishing like a genie in a fairy-tale with an abrupt puff. I grinned widely, unaware of the pain as this exasperated the cut in my jaw, and in that instant, with that glance and conspiratorial grin, in the way only those who God fits together to accomplish His work can comprehend, we were friends that fire, love, horror or death--and indeed all these would come--could not separate.
My mother was still working her slender, calloused fingers frantically, finally gathering the strength to murmur a few broken words in Spanish.
Despite her superhuman efforts, a few despairing tears were forcing themselves to the liquid eyes that seemed to see in this tableau of the attacked aristocrat and unrepentant peasant the wreck and ruin of all her trembling hopes--hopes pure and unselfish, meant not for herself but her children.
Sir Algernon turned toward her quickly, words of fraternal reassurance on his lips, and my opponent and comrade took advantage of this freedom to take a step toward me.
I had by now lost something of my cowed demeanor of a prisoner before the tribunal, and raised my head to meet his good-humored gaze. He raised one eyebrow, tempting and taunting, and my tongue emerged from my mouth in a universal gesture of impudence.
My mother's despairing gasp met my ears from far away, but ere her agonized remonstrance could make itself heard Sir Algernon laughed, a rich, rolling, baritone chuckle that was surely so rare it ought to squeak rustily from disuse, and with an echoing shout of mirth Percival seized my hand and pulled me from behind, Josephine in our wake, the three of us a whirlwind trio sweeping into the garden and the world.
That afternoon, and the weeks that followed it, are a warm, cheerful blur in my memory. Brief flashes arrive sometimes that by their painstaking detail make up for the vagueness of others--Josephine, asleep on a green bank, I sitting and holding her in my arms as Percival calls down from a high branch above us. The thud of a slender hand on my shoulder blade, a young voice calling gaily, "Run, 'Phina! Ferd'nan's it!". The scent of flowers, the taste of foreign English foods, sharp tableaus of my mother smiling at my uncle and distant notions of three small forms, exhausted and happy after childhood's way, lying tumbled like puppies on a carpet before the hearth, chestnut curls and sable locks and silken blond waves mingling as six pairs of eyes stare drowsily into the fire and nonsense remarks drift from our lips. Darker things, too, hinting at the somber, almost sinister atmosphere enfolding these three children possessed, even me, of such uninhibited gaiety. A wing kept locked, where we were not allowed to venture on our rainy-day rambles and from which Uncle Sir--for so I began to call him, a mixture of his wish for familiarity and my mother's justifiable terror of presumption--always emerged with a pale countenance that had sorrow's lines drawn deeper then usual. Three months--a veritable eternity to three bairns who, all together, did not equal more then two dozen years--must have passed by in this easy, contented fashion, and then Sir Algernon and my mother decided it was time we went to school.