It had been a year since Lord Wandesford passed.
The household had slowed down somehow"no one went about their tasks with the same energy or confidence, like they had forgotten how without the gentleman’s quiet, constant presence. Superficially the manse was very much the same, but it did not take much probing to discover a certain lackluster feel about the place. It was like a heart whose pulse had slowed, though it was still beating.
There was no one to play the piano after dinner, or enrapture the children with a cunningly devised fairy tale: the Lady was no teller of stories. The grounds were quiet, devoid of their usual busy noises as the lord of the place went about routine inspections. No one ran the horses for sheer enjoyment; there was no joyous thunder of hooves. There were no hunts, and there had been no fall festival, no gathering of friends and allies to celebrate the harvest. All in all, it was a much quieter existence, and William hated it.
A boy of eight, he had tasted what it was like to have a father to teach him to be a man, and to have that taken away was a heavy burden to bear. His mother was not herself, and though they had enjoyed much time together before, he was now left to his own devices for many hours at a time. He would often act as his father, ordering people around and stroking his invisible mustache. Attempting to fill his father's gap was something he was not prepared to do, pretend naively though he might.
He could not run the estate"that was left to his mother for lack of a properly aged heir; she wouldn't let some distant relative invade her home for sake of following protocol and thus learned the politics herself. He could not walk in mirth like his father had"he was too young yet to push aside his grief for the betterment of others. And he could not comfort his ailing mother"that tore at his heart the most.
Since the wake, the Lady Wandesford had worn only black. Dress, hats, any accessories were all black. She had neglected her health for several long months, porcelain skin turning ashy and gold hair going dull. Her face remained tragically beautiful though, pools of eyes nearly always rimmed with red from many sleepless nights alone.
Claire appeared almost oblivious. She had grown to a lovely four years of age, little blonde curls so very much like her mother's. She was the one happy thing in the otherwise lifeless place, seemingly unaware of the great disaster that had fallen around her, the mar on her future. Joy trailed in her wake; happy contentedness engulfed her like an aura. Observing this, William had hoped it would cheer his mother to be around Claire as much as possible. It was the first thing he could remember regretting.
He had picked Claire up, little hands fumbling around the girl's many layered dress as she wrapped her arms trustingly around his neck.
“We're going to see mum,” he whispered, trying to sound as excited as possible. Claire squirmed impatiently but he held fast, knowing it would be best if they didn't surprise the Lady too much.
“And you can make mum smile. I will have to leave after a bit for my riding lesson, but you can stay with her.”
“Stay and make mum happy?” Claire asked, one small hand playing with her brother's hair.
“Oui, make mum happy. You're good at that.”
The little girl fell silent then, as they came to the door that led to the Lady's dressing room. It was partly open and William could see her sitting at her vanity. She was unmoving, silent, both hands folded and neatly on her lap. William felt a little jolt of misgiving but entered the room regardless, setting Claire down so she could walk.
“Mum!” Claire cried out, her hand slipping out of her brother's as she ran to her mother's side. “Make you happy!”
Dreamlike, the Lady turned, faced her daughter. William stood where he was, watching as his mother slowly held out her arms for Claire as the girl clambered into her lap. It was a clumsy maneuver on Claire's part, all legs and grasping hands, but she eventually was seated firmly in her mother's lap.
“Happy,” the Lady reiterated slowly, quietly, as though unfamiliar with the word and its meaning. She stroked her daughter's hair only halfheartedly but stopped, turning the girl's face up to meet her own. There was a certain stillness in the atmosphere that was mirrored in the intense way the two looked at each other, an unbreakable quiet.
“Last time I was...Jonathan hadn't left me.”
It was a whisper, barely above the hiss of skin on skin, but William heard it as he'd begun to leave. He turned and tried to ignore the coil of sadness that had crept into his belly at the mention of his father. It was the first time he'd heard his mother say her husband's name since the wake.
“Left me...with his family's...tragic tradition. His silly rules about sons. His...his son.” The Lady's voice grew steadily louder and William feared she would turn her eyes to him, but instead those vacant windows looked at Claire, burning.
“You were supposed to be a son. A boy"but you killed him. You were supposed to do what William will now have to take on, in your stead. A girl is what you came out as, and your father left me! Left me with you to keep, and not his image!” Her voice was shrill with pain and she pointed a finger at her boy in the doorway.
Now the Lady focused her attention on William, who did look so very much like his father. The same sweep of dark hair and already handsome face. She rose in a swift motion, seemingly uncaring that Claire was still in her lap. The little girl's mouth made a round 'o' of surprise and William watched as she fell, impossibly slow, to the marble floor, chubby fingers failing to find purchase in her mother's dress to save her. Blonde curls hit the ground first, and things went in full speed again"Claire was sprawled on the ground before William had seen it and she had not yet recovered enough breath to start screaming.
“Claire!” It was all the boy could think to say as he ran toward her.
“Leave her!” The Lady had never yelled at either of them before and it made William stop out of sheer surprise"then the words themselves registered and he blinked, shocked. Claire started crying, loudly, painfully.
“She needs help,” the boy protested hesitantly, not sure the Lady before him was the same one he knew.
“She will be fine.” The Lady looked down at her daughter, unperturbed by the wailing that echoed off the walls of her dressing room like another child within them was hurt as well. “Needs to learn what it's like to not be pampered. Nor is she that hurt. Are you?” She knelt down beside Claire, tilted her head a bit; there was something obscene about the way she smiled at her daughter.
Claire, still crying, quieted a bit as her mother drew near. Reaching out to be picked up, she was surprised when her mother slapped her hands away and was startled out of her pain long enough to stop crying. She said nothing and made no effort to move from the floor.
“See?” The Lady rose and nudged Claire with her foot in an effort to get her to rise. “Perfectly fine. Just a bruise, maybe a bump on the skull. Nothing she won't heal from.”
William stood aghast. He had seen his mother treat their hounds with more affection. He flinched and took a step backward as she came to his side.
“You should hate her, you know.” The Lady nodded as though to confirm the opinion. “Because of her, you will have to kill people. Because of her,” she said, pointing an accusing finger to the four year old prostrate on the floor, whimpering, “you will never be treated as your father's first born son. No inheritance, no position unless you earn it. Nothing. Ha!” She started laughing then, a slow, sad kind of sound that followed her back to the vanity where she sat down. Slow and sad turned into high, hysterical barks.
Afraid without really being able to explain why, William went to his sister and picked her up, surprised that she didn't make a sound. Little tear tracks were shiny on her face still, and her eyes were red, but she was silent and curled into his arms like something feral.
“I'll skip lessons today,” he confided in her, running from the room as fast as he could. Behind them, he could hear his mother sobbing.