Fanny’s father, Henry Harding, has known Oliver Barebones since the two men were children. Together they survived the Great Plague and the Great Fire, and now they are rich, middle-aged, and unmarried. Everyone’s shocked when Oliver, a lifelong bachelor, falls headfirst for a superstitious young girl named Rose. In two days he’s decided to marry her. For the Hardings and the Barebones, it will be years before they find such happiness again. Ruin comes to them all in the shape of Alfred Montagu, a cold-hearted moneylender who ensnares them in crushing debt and schemes to marry Fanny. After her father dies, Fanny attempts to take refuge in France. It’s not far enough to escape her troubles, so with Oliver and Rose, she departs for a far-off place called Connecticut, dodging Montagu by diving into the teeth of dangers no London girl could ever imagine.
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The Bride of the Wilderness
By Charles McCarry
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1988 Charles McCarry
All rights reserved.
As soon as the candles were lit at the wedding feast, Henry Harding asked his daughter Fanny to sing. She had just learned to play a new Italian instrument, the viola d'amore, that had seldom before been heard in England. With seven strings to play upon, and seven sympathetic strings quivering beneath them, the viola made a thrilling foreign sound. Fanny closed her eyes as she sang "Tell me no more you love," her father's favorite song. She was seventeen years old and she looked like the portrait of her dead mother that hung above the mantelpiece: black hair, trustful eyes, slender neck, and a wheaten complexion that her father called the golden skin of Araby.
When Fanny opened her eyes at the end of the song she saw her father smiling at her in his boyish delighted way. The wedding guests were clapping their hands and calling out the names of songs. Fanny waited for them to be quiet. A man had entered the room while she was singing and now Henry got to his feet and held out his hand to welcome him. Fanny did not know the newcomer but she was not surprised to see him; her father was famous for his hospitality, and often invited strangers to supper. The man touched Henry's outstretched hand with a limp gesture and looked with boredom around the circle of flushed faces at the table. He was bony and tall and stood with one foot well before the other, like an actor playing a gentleman on the stage. The servant offered him a goblet of Canary wine, Henry's best; he sniffed it disdainfully and gave it back without tasting it.
Fanny began to sing again in her sweet soprano voice that was almost like a boy's voice. The stranger, standing well back in the shadows with his chin resting on a hand covered with jeweled rings, watched her intently. She continued for an hour until her throat grew sore, and then sang a tavern song, "I gave her cakes." The wedding guests joined in the chorus, shouting out the bawdy words and pounding on their goblets with their knives. The stranger's face changed and a wise little smile came to his lips, as if he had learned a secret about Fanny. If she knew this song, he seemed to be thinking, what else did she know? He was looking straight into Fanny's eyes as she sang. She looked straight back until his gaze wavered. Henry had taught his daughter never to look downward when a bold man stared at her. "It makes them think they've made you yield," Henry said. "Don't give them even that much, Fanny; they have no right to it."
His stare broken, the stranger turned his back on Fanny and gazed studiously at the portrait of Fanny's mother. A chair scraped over the floor, and Fanny, knowing what was coming, swept her viola d'amore out of harm's way. The bridegroom, an immense rawboned man named Oliver Barebones, lurched out of his chair, pulled Fanny to her feet, and gave her a loud kiss on the cheek. His powdered wig was askew and he had spilled wine on his silk wedding coat. Fanny straightened the wig, which was brand-new and overpowdered, so that it had left a line of caked powder on Oliver's sweaty forehead.
"Fanny-my-love," Oliver cried. He kissed her again, bending down from his great height and pushing out his lips like a child who was just learning to kiss. His wig slipped again; it must be too big for him. That such a thing was possible made Fanny smile: how could any wig be too big for that enormous skull? She laid her palm against his stubbled cheek and kissed him on the lips. Fanny had known Oliver, who was her godfather, literally from the hour of her birth, and she loved him dearly. Her father kissed her too, and for a moment the three of them stood smiling at one another and holding hands. Across the table, the stranger watched, and the mockery had come back into his face. He opened his lips to speak. Fanny turned away before he could do so.
Beside her, Oliver Barebones' bride sat alone. A mirror hung on the opposite wall. Fanny saw that she was looking at herself in the glass. Henry stood up and raised his wine.
"The bride," he said.
The guests rose to their feet and drank. The bride herself, eyes fixed on her image in the mirror, did not acknowledge the toast. When it was over, she tugged Fanny's sleeve and whispered in her ear. Her eyes were on the stranger.
"What a wicked man," she said. "Did you hear what he said to you?"
"That man who's been staring at you."
"No," Fanny said. "I didn't hear."
Rose opened her lips to tell her, but before she could speak, Oliver picked her up like a doll and stood her on her chair.
"Another toast," he said. "To Missis Rose Barebones, the most beautiful woman in England, my bride."
While the toast was drunk, the stranger stepped backward through a doorway into the dark room that adjoined the dining hall. Rose pulled Fanny close and placed her lips against her ear.
"He said, 'You'll change your tune,'" she said. "He said ..."
Rose did not finish the sentence. Something was happening. She shrieked and squeezed Fanny against her. A fuzzy white cat, all four feet extended as it sailed through the air, came flying out of the darkened room into which the stranger had disappeared and landed in the middle of the table, skidding and knocking over Venetian glass as it went. People grabbed for the animal. Its fur went up and it hissed and showed its claws as it looked frantically for a means of escape. Yowling, it leaped toward a window. The sash was closed and the cat went straight through it, punching a clean round hole in the glass about twice the diameter of its furry body.
"By God, Oliver!" Henry cried. "It's a day for cats!"
A white cat had appeared in the church that afternoon during the wedding ceremony and walked among the candlesticks. The guests were delighted. No one present had ever before seen a cat at a wedding, much less a cat that could leap through a pane of glass without shattering the whole pane. Were this cat and the cat in the church the same cat? Was it the ghost of Rose's first husband? Who had smuggled it into the house? Who had tossed it onto the table?
"Oh, Fanny," Rose said, clinging to her friend, "you know how I hate cats. He promised me there'd be no cats if I married him."
Although Rose was a widow who had borne two stillborn children, she was only two or three years older than Fanny, and she looked and behaved like a maiden instead of a woman who knew what marriage was. She did hate cats. All her life they had brought her misfortune. Long after the white cat had gone out the window, Rose clung to Fanny and gazed fearfully at the broken window.
"It's all right, Rose," Fanny said. "The cat is gone, there's no more cat."
No one but Fanny paid her any attention. Oliver had gone looking for whoever had thrown the cat into the room. Tipsy women were beginning to lean against the men and hold up their faces to be kissed. They drank more wine and told each other over and over again what the cat had done. Nearly everyone had observed some detail of the cat's wild run down the table that nobody else had seen.
Rose did not like these people. They were Oliver's friends, every one of them —coarse men and blowsy women he had met in taverns. None of her people were here—not a parent, not a sister, not an in-law. She was far from home and alone. In Buckinghamshire, where Rose came from, she was a famous beauty, with perfect features and flaxen hair that was so nearly white when seen in strong light that it was sometimes taken for a wig. In candlelight it was the color of honey.
Henry Harding, because he was Oliver's best and oldest friend, had made them a gift of this wedding supper. The twenty guests had eaten pigeon pie, saddle of mutton and breast of veal, ducks and sweetbreads and calves' feet and oysters. They had drunk forty bottles of Canary wine, ten of claret, and two of Nantes brandy. It was a feast that cost more money than Rose, who came from a good but impoverished family, had ever seen before in a year. And now they were laughing at her. Rose burned with resentment. Who were these low people to have these things when Rose was the one for whom lovely things were meant and she had never had them? Who were they to laugh at her at her own wedding supper? One of them had gathered the hairs that the white cat had left on the broken glass, rolled them into a ball, and burned them in a candle flame; the stink, tiny but piercing, made Rose gag. Everyone else laughed. These people lived for amusement. Before the wedding they had gone all together to Bedlam, paying twopence each to look at the lunatics. In church, whispering and giggling as they waited for the bride to pass down the aisle, they told stories about a madman who was drilling the birds as they flew overhead into an army of sparrows and wrens and larks with which he planned to conquer France. In the month she had spent in London waiting to be married, she had met no one she liked except Fanny. No one.
Oliver had come back into the room.
"Cock ale, where is the cock ale?" someone cried. "Oliver must have cock ale."
"He's never needed it before," said one of the women.
Cock ale, a concoction of beer and spices in which a plucked rooster had been boiled until it dissolved, was supposed to be an aphrodisiac and was nearly always drunk at English weddings. A servant brought in tankards of the stuff. The largest mug, holding more than a quart, went to Oliver, who drank it off in one long swallow while his friends shouted cockadoodledoo.
"No sleep for fair Rosie till dawn comes up rosy," somebody cried, gaping and grinning at Oliver and his bride.
One of the women pulled Oliver to his feet and danced with him, steering him toward Rose's chair. The woman's breasts quivered when she moved. She leaned over and whispered to Rose. "Oliver's famous for the size of his dingle, you know," she said. "He talks to it. You'll soon be introduced, my dear."
Rose drew away and folded her hands in her lap, and almost for the first time in the month that Fanny had known her, smiled. Because Rose's smile was so secretive, it looked like a bride's smile of triumph. Oliver kissed her while his friends gave three cheers for the wedding night. Then, with his mouth still covering hers, he picked up Rose in his arms and, stumbling, carried her out the door.
Rose was taken by surprise. She heard the others cheering. She tried to scream but Oliver caught the sound in his own mouth and swallowed it. His eyes were laughing. Rose closed her own eyes and tried to breathe through her nose without smelling the food and drink on her bridegroom's breath or the sweat on his body. She failed, and as these strong odors flowed into her head and into her mind, she tore her mouth away and gagged in her effort to expel them. Oliver carried her outside into the street.
"Put me down," Rose said.
But instead of setting her on her feet, Oliver tossed Rose into the air like a child and caught her by the rib cage when she came down. She gasped in pain. Oliver gave her a rough kiss on the mouth, licking the underside of her upper lip. His tongue was as muscular as the rest of him, and to Rose its temperature seemed hotter than was human.
"Stop! Stop kissing me that way," Rose said, but she hadn't the breath to say it loud enough for Oliver to hear. He had drunk too much brandy to hear anything. He threw her up again, very high this time, above his head, and when she came down with her hair shimmering in the amber light from the windows, he caught her in his arms and sank to his knees, covering her face with kisses.
"Ah, Rose, Rosie, my Rose," he moaned, "I love you so."
Rose held her breath and closed her eyes, but she couldn't prevent all her senses from working, so she still heard Oliver's muffled voice and smelled his breath and felt his clumsy hands on her body.
Oliver and Henry, who lived as if they were twins, occupied identical half-timbered houses side by side in Catherine Street near the Strand, so Oliver did not have far to go with Rose in his arms. He threw open the unlocked door and carried her up the stairs. A dozen candles burned in the bedchamber, which smelled of burnt wax and new paint. Having lived in thrift all her life, Rose had hardly ever seen so much light in a house at night. The room had been made ready for her. There was a new bed, the largest she had ever seen, and a table with a mirror where she could look at herself and brush her hair.
A freshly painted portrait of a flat-faced girl with buttery hair and bone-white skin hung on the wall, and Rose knew that it was supposed to be a picture of herself because she had posed for it for three long weeks. The painter, a rude, scruffy man, had come in the morning at eleven, when the feeble Lenten light was strongest over London. His breath squeaked in his nose when he talked. "Don't move!" he shouted. "Wear the same dress every day!" Rose did sit still, looking into the light until tears came into her eyes, in the hope that her tormentor would capture a flattering likeness. But this hideous thing was what he had done.
"Look, Rose, isn't it a wonderful likeness?" Oliver cried. "It was worth every penny I paid for it."
Rose closed her eyes.
Oliver put her down on the bed. He had been sleeping here before the wedding —this had been his bachelor bedchamber—and Rose smelled not only the living, breathing Oliver—sweat and gas, brandy and smoke—who was fumbling at her buttons and laces but also the scent left by the Oliver who had been here before she came.
Oliver had removed his wig and his cropped graying hair stood up in sweaty peaks. His head looked even bigger with the wig off. He lifted Rose's foot, with the slipper still on it, and murmuring her name over and over again, kissed her ankle through the white stocking that covered it.
Rose twisted her foot and the shoe came off in Oliver's hand. "Give me back my shoe," Rose said. "I want to sleep now."
Oliver did not listen to her. Stocking by stocking, ribbon by ribbon, he undressed her.
"No," Rose said, "no."
But Oliver did not hear her. Rose tried to squirm away but he seized her ankles and, peering along the inside of her left leg with one eye closed as if sighting a musket, gave her a silly grin. Rose did not want what was going to happen to her to happen. Watching Oliver's dazed face, she began to form a plan of escape. She stopped protesting, stopped squirming. She lay on her back, limp and silent, while Oliver removed her garments one by one. At last she was naked.
When Oliver saw Rose for what she really was—the luminous hair, the skin that was pale yet faintly brown like the meat of a pear—he could not believe his eyes.
"Lovely," he cried, tearing off his shirt and breeches. "Lovely!"
The sight of Rose and her generosity in letting him see her naked left Oliver breathless. He had had hundreds of prostitutes and a good many unfaithful wives, but he had never before seen a nude female body; even with whores, even in the middle of the act, it had always been a matter of groping under shifts and peeking under hems.
"Ah, my friend," Oliver said, "have a look at what Oliver has for you."
He wasn't talking to Rose. She opened her eyes with a start. Had he brought a friend into the room with them? There was no one there.
"Very well, very well," Oliver said, grinning affectionately. "I'll introduce you to the lady."
Rose turned her back, but she could see Oliver's shadow on the wall. Projected by the candlelight, every part of his huge shadow picture was half again as large as Oliver himself. She realized what it was he was talking to. "He's famous for his dingle, he talks to it," the bawd at the wedding feast had said.
"Friend," Oliver said, "meet our wife."
He leaped onto the bed. Rose rolled herself into a ball and looked at Oliver's shadow crouching over her—the tousled head like a dwarf's, the humped shoulders, the paunch, and ... his friend. Rose peeked over her shoulder at the man himself. His eyes were closed as if the memory of his bride's loveliness would escape from his brain if he opened his lids.
Watching her movements in the shadow picture as if in a mirror, Rose reached out her hand.
"Rose," Oliver whispered, "Rose, Rose, Rose."
The plan was working. He was like a sluggish old fish on the hook. Rose's shadow sat up. Its head, with the long loose hair rippling behind it, bent toward the object. The odor was overpowering.
Excerpted from The Bride of the Wilderness by Charles McCarry. Copyright © 1988 Charles McCarry. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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