Once Again a Bride - By Jane Ashford
Charlotte Rutherford Wylde closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the brush moving rhythmically through her long hair. Lucy had been her maid since she was eleven years old and was well aware that her mistress’s lacerated feelings needed soothing. The whole household was aware, no doubt, but only Lucy cared. The rest of the servants had a hundred subtle, unprovable ways of intensifying the laceration. It had become a kind of sport for them, Charlotte believed, growing more daring as the months passed without reprimand, denied with a practiced blankness that made her doubly a fool.
Lucy stopped brushing and began to braid Charlotte’s hair for the night. Charlotte opened her eyes and faced up to the dressing table mirror. Candlelight gleamed on the creamy lace of her nightdress, just visible under the heavy dressing gown that protected her from drafts. Her bedchamber was cold despite the fire on this bitter March night. Every room in this tall, narrow London house was cold. Cold in so many different ways.
She ought to be changed utterly by these months, Charlotte thought. But the mirror showed her hair of the same coppery gold, eyes the same hazel—though without any hint of the sparkle that had once been called alluring. Her familiar oval face, straight nose, and full lips had been judged pretty a scant year, and a lifetime, ago. She was perhaps too thin, now that each meal was an ordeal. There were dark smudges under her eyes, and they looked hopelessly back at her like those of a trapped animal. She remembered suddenly a squirrel she had found one long-ago winter—frozen during a terrible cold snap that had turned the countryside hard and bitter. It had lain on its side in the snow, its legs poised as if running from icy death.
“There you are, Miss Charlotte.” Lucy put a comforting hand on her shoulder. When they were alone, she always used the old familiar form of address. It was a futile but comforting pretense. “Can I get you anything…?”
“No, thank you, Lucy.” Charlotte tried to put a world of gratitude into her tone as she repeated, “Thank you.”
“You should get into bed. I warmed the sheets.”
“I will. In a moment. You go on to bed yourself.”
“Are you sure I can’t…?”
“I’m all right.”
Neither of them believed it. Lucy pressed her lips together on some reply, then sketched a curtsy and turned to go. Slender, yet solid as a rock, her familiar figure was such a comfort that Charlotte almost called her back. But Lucy deserved her sleep. She shouldn’t be deprived just because Charlotte expected none.
The door opened and closed. The candles guttered and steadied. Charlotte sat on, rehearsing thoughts and plans she had already gone over a hundred times. There must be something she could do, some approach she could discover to make things—if not right, at least better. Not hopeless, not unendurable.
Her father—her dear, scattered, and now departed father—had done his best. She had to believe that. Tears came as she thought of him; when he died six months ago, he’d no longer remembered who she was. The brutal erosion of his mind, his most prized possession, had been complete.
It had happened so quickly. Yes, he’d always been distracted, so deep in his scholarly work that practicalities escaped him. But in his library, reading and writing, corresponding with other historians, he’d never lost or mistaken the smallest detail. Until two years ago, when the insidious slide began—unnoticed, dismissed, denied until undeniable. Then he had set all his fading faculties on getting her “safely” married. That one idea had obsessed and sustained him as all else slipped away. Perforce, he’d looked among his own few friends and acquaintances for a groom. Why, why had he chosen Henry Wylde?
In her grief and fear, Charlotte had put up no protest. She’d even been excited by the thought of moving from her isolated country home to the city, with all its diversions and amusements. And so, at age eighteen, she’d been married to a man almost thirty years older. Had she imagined it would be some sort of eccentric fairy tale? How silly and ignorant had she been? She couldn’t remember now.
It wasn’t all stupidity; unequal matches need not be disastrous. She had observed a few older husbands who treated their young wives with every appearance of delight and appreciation. Not quite so much older, perhaps. But… from the day after the wedding, Henry had treated her like a troublesome pupil foisted upon his household