The Lady in The Woods

 

“Are you sure we’re taking the right path, Jonathan?” Aunt Ellie shot at her carriage driver, a lanky, hunchbacked chap with a bad case of influenza. “I don’t recall us ever going so far out from the main road. Why, I can barely see any house!”

“Pretty sure, Ma’am,” Jonathan answered after his umpteenth sneeze. “This is the nearest shortcut to the country church as far as I know of.”

Aunt Ellie was struggling to reply without biting her tongue in half. The road was so bumpy that I hardly managed to keep my hat straight for longer than two minutes. The fact that Jonathan sends the carriage to a violent rattle every time he sneezes doesn’t help either. I felt so grateful I skipped breakfast (I smuggled the buttered toast behind my jacket and gave it to the poor little girl I met on the side of the road when Auntie wasn’t looking), otherwise the carriage floor would be an utter mess by now.

“How much further are we?” she exclaimed on top of the rickety racket of the carriage. “We can’t risk being late.”

“Which is precisely why I took this shortcut, my dear Lady,” Jonathan retorted, rather grumpily. I can’t blame him—Aunt Ellie had been constantly complaining since the minute we took off, and every so often she would crane her neck out to yell a thing or two to the driver. She wanted everything to be perfect. Imagine having to live with her for twelve full years. Imagine being me.

I can’t say I’m not lucky. I might have better life than most of the children in my age, and for that I am deeply thankful. Yet, I never knew my mother or my father. Aunt Ellie said my father passed away since before I was born and my mother, her sister, died giving birth to me. Auntie kept one picture of her, which I now carry everywhere I go. She didn’t have any of my father’s though, and stated that ‘she doesn’t feel it’s necessary’, and that ‘I look so much like my late mother anyway, so don’t bother’. Whenever I asked her about him, she always pretended she didn’t hear me and began humming the tunes of Mendelssohn’s Italia. At night I often stayed awake for hours in bed, looking at mother’s picture, imagining how my life would be if she were alive. She has this unique beauty, unlike the women I often saw promenading on the street, but I couldn’t quite mention what it was in particular. I do have her nose, I guess; however, judging by my hound-like eyes and prominent forehead which she lacks, I must’ve inherited those qualities—if I may call them so—from my father. I wonder if he had any grave. All I had was a name. William. And there are hundreds and hundreds of William in the town, let alone in the whole wide kingdom. Even our late king was also named William. I remember Auntie mentioned it several times during our History lessons. When I recounted what the name’s reminded me of, she hastily insisted to proceed to the next lesson which I find less enjoyable, music. She made me practiced Schubert for three straight hours until she was satisfied. I could no longer feel my arms afterward and could almost saw the flesh deliberately stripping itself off my fingers, one by one.

Unlike most children, I wasn’t taught by governesses—as you may have noticed. Aunt Ellie took care of all the teachings. We did have servants around to cook and housekeep, but Auntie insisted on not employing any governess. She just said it had something to do with our family’s fortune.

My being lucky or not, I shall let you be the judge of that.

The carriage came to such an abrupt halt that I was propelled from my seat and bumped against Aunt Ellie’s bony knees. I felt a lump forming on my already bulging forehead. Such a suitable fittings for this pleasant occasion.

After snapping at the driver for the discomfort we’ve received the whole trip (on which Jonathan merely response with four sneezes in a row), Aunt Ellie came approaching with her familiar expressions.

“Stand straight, boy!

Mind that hat!

Dust your shoulders, you look deplorably filthy!

Come here, let me take a good look at you.”

She would pinch, twist, tug, and turn me over until she received the result she wanted. I stood still without protesting. I think I’ve had enough of her bad temper already for today.

“Now then, walk with me. Quick! We are late.”

Aunt Ellie was always late, even when she was early. There was always someone arriving before us. The Sheridans. The Beckwells. The caterers. The priest. How in the Holy Father’s name would you expect us to be arriving before the priest?

Indeed, there had been quite a number of people gathered. The aisles were already half-full. Aunt Ellie paced her steps so that we can take the still-vacant front row. She liked to show herself. I passed a handsome bearded man on my way to the front. He gave me the impression of someone in a deep grief and sadness, much in contrast with the vibrant atmosphere around him. A very peculiar sight. Maybe he had lost someone dear to him. I didn’t have the chance to get a better look, though, as Auntie had gripped my upper hand with the strength of a vulture, urging me to keep walking.

I sat squeezed between Aunt Ellie and a plump man who smelled strongly of beef stew. I wonder if he hid his meal behind his jacket just like I usually did or he just fancied bathing in meat broth. It was impolite to stare, so I keep my eyes fixed to the altar. The priest was preparing, apparently, and I watched him talking to a balding man I believed was the groom.

Pardon my obscenity, but that man is nothing but an unsightly view. He was as pale as a corpse and twice as hideous. I saw him grinning to the priest and noticed two missing front teeth. However, by seeing his clothes one can immediately perceive that he was an extremely wealthy person. Then I started to ponder whether it was lucky or rather unlucky for the bride who accepted his hand in marriage, which suddenly made me think about my mother.

How did she look when she marry? Was she beautiful? I believe she was. What was she wearing? Was she smiling? Was she happy?

Time passed and the ceremony still had yet to commence. I was beginning to find it difficult to breathe. The stew man’s smell was too overwhelming and my insides seeming to swirl uncomfortably. Eventually I excuse myself from Aunt Ellie’s grasp. She was too preoccupied with her conversation with a lady beside her to realise I was leaving. I saw the bearded man again and this time he was bending his face downward. I was still curious of what had befallen him, but then I remembered how much I required fresh air as to avoid any unfortunate circumstances.

I let my feet and my thoughts carried me away. I paid close to no attention to the direction I was heading until I found myself on a really tranquil location not far to the west. There was a pond shrouded with water lilies; a small, slightly elevated building with a canopy, two white pillars, and no walls; and, dangling from a mighty tree, a swing. There wasn’t much to talk about the swing, but rather the person sitting on it.

She was wearing a marvellous white gown, bared on the shoulder. Her dark brown hair was worn in an elaborate and beautiful coiffeur adorned with small white flowers. At first I could see that she was not yet aware of my presence, so I ease my steps to avoid disturbing her peace. She was staring at the pond, seemingly lost in thoughts, with an expression incredibly similar to which the bearded man also showing back in the church.

It seemed that may pair of big clumsy toes betray my noble intention. I stepped on a dead twig with a loud crack.

“Pardon me Madam, I didn’t mean to startle you,” I apologised as she jerked her head up upon hearing the sound. I bowed my head, half for courtesy and half for hiding the blush of embarrassment.

The lady, no more than twice my age, I presume—descended from the swing. Walking towards me with a subtle smile, she said, “May I inquire your name, young Sir?”

I was completely taken aback at the question.

“It’s— Sturridge, Ma’am. Thomas Sturridge.”

“Sturridge,” she echoed. “Well, it is such a pleasure meeting you, young Sir. Here I was, completely ignorant of my surroundings, and He sent you to bring me back to the mortal land. O delvèd gold, the wailers heap!

O strife, O curse, that o’er it fall!”

I watched her in amazement as she threw her head back and began spinning in circles, her skirt flying and billowing around her. Then she hopped to the pond, plucked a white water lily, and gave it to me while saying,

“Now tell me, young Thomas, are you aware that it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife?”

I wasn’t sure how I should respond, so I stood stunned in silence. It appears that my reply wasn’t necessary anyway, as she implored,

“And you may as well consider me fortunate for having found such man. But alas, woe is me, my Thomas dear! A woman of strife my mother’ve born me: they hate, revile, and scorn me. I am in no position to bring forth any rebuttal. I supposed I am regarded as no more than a lifeless chess piece, being played against my will. They left me no options. It is as if I bear the fault for being the only sister not yet to be married. But I have hopes, little Thomas Sturridge, I do, and those are the sources to my survival. I am in love, dear Thomas.”

She picked another lily—this time red—and pinned it on her hair.

“I am in love with the man I wish to marry. Whom I wish to grow old and die with. The only man I have ever been passionate about. The reason my heart beats and my lungs breathe. I am in love with Sir John Dunleavy, Thomas.”

“But—“ I was as surprised as her to hear my own self speaking, “your groom is—“

“Not him,” she cut my words, a behavior my aunt would wholeheartedly frown upon. “The foul, contemptible, gruesome Robert Charlton. I could imagine that God created him with as much humor as when he designed The Black Death.”

I had to repress a chuckle when hearing this.

“Then, why don’t you just marry John instead?”

The lady looked at me with a soft smile. “It is not that simple, little boy. Unless…”

She reached both of her hands out to touch my cheek. Her hands were warm and fragrant, and I found myself cherishing the sensation. That was the first time I made physical contact with a female other than my aunt. It was… I don’t know how to put it in words. Relieving?

“Tell me Thomas,” she stared right into my eyes. I couldn’t help but noticing that her eyes were in different colour. “What do you propose me to do?”

Blue on the left, and brown on the right. I had never seen such outstanding eyes.

I started thinking about the marriage ceremony. Then my aunt. Then the beef stew bloke. Then the ghastly groom. Then my mother…

“I’d say,” my voice was shaky but my heart was concrete, “I would encourage you to follow your heart, Ma’am.”

The lady was now beaming with a smile one could compare its brightness to the sun. “Thank you, young Thomas Sturridge. You would grow into a very fine gentleman, indeed. You would do well.”

She planted a swift kiss on the top of my head which sent me into a temporary paralysis. When I managed to bring myself back to the real world, she was no longer there.

I walked back to the church, still dumbfounded, and even failed to answer my aunt’s whispered inquiry of “Where in the heavens have you been?!” The walking beef stew is now absent, leaving me wider vacant place to sit on. I sat down happily, recounted my earlier experience with an utmost delight mounted inside my chest. I almost missed the cue for the arrival of the bride had Aunt Ellie not yanked me upwards.

“Stand up, boy!”

Wagner’s wedding march was sung along every step the lady in the woods take down the aisle. All eyes were upon her, including mind. She seemed to solely taking her time to walk, earning some impatient sighs from here and there (including my aunt). However, she came to a stop right in reaching the middle row.

“I must humbly ask for you forgiveness, Sir Charlton,” her voice rang above the murmurs and whispers, “but unfortunately I cannot marry you.”

The sound of murmurs began to rise like a violent rain. The groom simply looked awestruck, while a man whom I presume must be her father, raised from her seat.

“What kind of unspeakable depravity is this, Abigail?! You will marry this man and you will continue this ceremony right this moment!”

“Forgive me, Papa,” the lady, Abigail, now that I know her name, countered back at him. “I’m not in love with Robert Charlton. I am in love with John Dunleavy, and therefore I would marry him.”

“Abby?”

The bearded young man I saw earlier stood up, looked as astounded as anybody else in the room. “Abby, you—“

“Yes, John. I don’t care what Papa or my sisters will say. Please, take me away with you.”

“Abigail Elizabeth Marianne Cowan, I order you to stay right here!” her father spluttered with such rage I could sense the heat coming out from him.

“No, Papa, I shan’t. I have always be your obedient daughter, and now it is my time to make my own decisions. This is what Mama would have wanted.”

Her remark left his father silent. John had had her arms around his as they marched out of the church, not before she turned her head right at my direction and gave a little wave.

“Despicable!” cried Aunt Ellie; already shouting, even, when the crowd began to broke into bee-like buzzing. “Preposterous! Such abomination! Oh, what a great, great shame!”

I sank back to my chair, feeling a smile forming itself on the corners of my mouth. That was freedom, so I’ve learned. And, I thought as Aunt Ellie impatiently dragging me along with her to the cart, such was I would one day deserve to obtain,

I will find you, Father.

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*dibuat untuk tugas mata kuliah Survey to English Literature: Elizabethan to Victorian Period, tahun 2009

 

 

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