White Violets

by Andre Norton

 

all.cats.are.gray.1953 fantastic universe

 

1st Published ~ In Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine (1999) Edited by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Published by The Marion Zimmer Bradley Living Trust, Issue # 45 – Vol.12 # 1, ISSN 0897-9286, $5.95, 64pg ~ (pg 06) ~ cover and this story illustrated by George Barr

Available Now ~ In Tales from High Hallack vol. 3 (2014) Published by Premier Digital Publishing, DM & TP, 1-624-67189-6, $22.95, 450pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge

 

Bibliography Page - http://andre-norton-books.com/worlds-of-andre/short-stories/470-white-violets




 

Dilly was busy making flower-and-leaf bonnets for her two favorite dolls. She was also where she was not to be --- in the garden alone. But Mackie, who had ruled her world almost since she was born and Mother had gone to Heaven, had a headache --- one of her very bad ones which meant lavender-water cloths on her forehead, a dark room, and no noise. And Simpson, her sister's maid, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on her, was busy with Violet's gown to be worn this evening at the big ball.

Dilly pinned two leaves together with thorns and examined the effect. She had been told directly not to go into the garden, but here she was, which gave her a sense of adventure. However, she had not ventured far from the Manor --- the garden was too large, and besides, Old Buskins, the head gardener, would soon be through with his elevenses. It was best to keep out of sight, which was why she had squirmed back into the bushes.

Only, suddenly, there were voices --- one of them quite loud and angry and the other sounding nearly just as sharp, as Violet could speak when she was upset. Dilly dared to pull aside, though for only an inch or so, the branch which hid the newcomers from her.

Yes, it was Violet, though she was supposed to be resting before the ball tonight --- the important ball when Papa would announce that she was going to marry Colonel Sir Christopher Hale. Dilly's lips shaped soundlessly that very important name, which Violet and Papa shortened to “Chris.”

"It was entirely open to the understanding of everyone at tea," he was saying in a harsh voice she had never heard before.

"Are you calling me a flirt?" Violet snapped back. She had picked a rose and was now pulling it to pieces.

"You were wrong to allow him to pay you so much attention, and you know it!”

'Now Clarissa is speaking through you!" Violet stamped her small foot, though only a twist of her wide skirt suggested the angry gesture.

Dilly's mouth shaped a big O. Violet was angrier than her little sister had seen her since Bruce had broken her perfume bottle last Christmas.

"We'll leave Clarissa out of this!" Chris returned. "She has only the best wishes for our happiness --- “

"Does she?" Now Violet's face looked white, almost as though she were going to be sick. “I was warned about her. She isn't going to give up her brother willingly  --- “

“Shame, Violet --- that is not just. Clarissa has been very kind and would be more loving if you let her. But she has nothing to do with your encouragement of Ridgley in such a public fashion --- “

Violet was tugging at her wrist. The bracelet she wore there was caught in the lace of her sleeve.

“As well I learned in time, Colonel Hale, just what kind of suspicious tyrant you are! It is plain we don't suit and never will if you can take some harmless fun so seriously. I don't like your ordering me about, and I don't like you anymore, either! You can give this back to Clarissa as a trophy to prove her dear brother is free from the toils of the seductress!”

"Violet, you've gone beyond reason!" The outraged man's face was red, and his small mustache seemed to bristle.

"No, you have!" Violet tossed at her erstwhile lover the bracelet she had at last freed from the lace. The ornament fell to the ground just beyond the edge of her skirts. He made no move to retrieve it, as Violet, gathering up the same skirts a little, blundered away from the small clearing. Nor did she look back.

Chris stood very still. He looked, the eavesdropping child thought, like Papa when something at the Manor had gone very wrong. Not stooping for the bracelet, he turned and marched in the opposite direction as stiffly as if he were on parade before the Queen herself.

Dilly waited until she could no longer hear any footsteps from either direction. Then she squeezed through the screen of foliage so that her hand could close upon the bracelet. Since Violet had thrown it away and Chris had not taken it up, then neither of them wanted it, and she had found it. She had never seen it really close, for Violet had only had it for a few days. Chris's sister, the one who had fallen from her horse and couldn't walk anymore, had sent it to Violet when the engagement had been known to their families.

Now Dilly turned the ornament around and around, admiring what seemed to her to be a true treasure. It was formed of gold links holding together ovals, every one a little picture set in a gold frame. And the designs were all of flowers made of small bits of white and green set into black, each forming a white violet.

The little girl closed her hand tightly upon the bracelet. No one wanted it; they had just left it lying there, so it was going to be hers. She had heard it had come all the way from Italy --- Simpson had told the first housemaid that. Now she had a precious thing of her very own from far off! Pushing back under the bushes, she retrieved Rosamond and Lucy and, with them under her arm, she started back to the house, keeping hidden as best she could.

There was the sound of hooves on the circle drive, and Dilly saw Chris riding off.

Back up the second stairs to the schoolroom the child padded and hunted out her own secret place, which not even Mackie knew about. Dilly had discovered it herself one rainy day when she was tired of the doll family and the many-times-read books and had gone poking about, running her fingers along the carvings on the wall. There were a lot of these, because this was the oldest part of the Manor and the rooms here had once been important.

The child had pushed on a rose that day and been amazed when there had come in answer a creaking and the opening of a very small cupboard built right into the wall itself. Then, there had been nothing but dust inside, but Dilly had cleared that out and afterwards used the cubbyhole for secret treasures. There were the sixpence from the Christmas pudding and the little tarnished silver heart she had found back in a drawer, and now the bracelet joined them.

There was a great bustling in the house. Dilly dared to creep to Violet's room and, even through the thick door, she could hear her sister crying hard and Aunt Susan's voice sounding almost as sharp as Chris's had been.

Of course, no one ever told Dilly anything, but she listened as she always did, and Mackie was not around to keep her in the schoolroom. Papa came up the stairs --- the child could hear the heavy stamp of his feet in spite of the hall carpet --- and went into Violet's room. Then he roared, and Dilly heard all sorts of things about her sister's behaving badly, shaming the family, and being an unfilial daughter with no feelings for anyone but herself.

In the end, all the preparations for the ball stopped right in the middle, leaving the servants whispering in corners. Then Mackie had found Dilly eavesdropping, and she, too, had been told she was a disgrace for listening.

The family never really let her know what happened, but, three weeks later, Violet and Aunt Susan went away. Papa spent most of his time shut up in the library, while all the servants kept as much distance as possible from that room.

It was autumn before Violet came back. She looked quite different --- more like a grown-up lady. She always spoke in a sharp way and mostly ignored her little sister, but she had a new ring, and Dilly was going to have a new brother --- Lord Ridgley. The child did not like him very much, for he acted as though he did not see her, was stiff, and had hard eyes.

Dilly was allowed down for tea on the afternoon that the news came about Chris. Lord Ridgley had brought in a paper from London and read it out loud: Colonel Sir Christopher Hale had fallen in battle with the Sepoy rebels at Lucknow, way off in India. Lord Ridgley looked at Violet right after he read that. The child saw her sister's face go very pale and her hand shake so that her cup clattered on the saucer as she set it quickly down, but her lips were very tight together, and she raised her eyes and looked back at Lord Ridgley, saying.

“He was doing his duty; that meant much to him.” Dilly thought she heard a quaver in Violet's voice, though her sister did not move even a hand. But Aunt Susan began to cry and, catching sight of the child, sent her back to Mackie.

One season followed another. Dilly had a governess now, though Mackie still ruled her life. She was growing up, Rosamond and Lucy had been packed away, and she had lessons, not only from books but also in dancing, manners, and how to act in company.

Violet did not come home often. Lord Ridgley had a post in the government, and the couple lived in London where, Dilly was told, her sister entertained a great deal and was considered a fine hostess. No one ever mentioned Chris, and there was no visiting between the Manor and the Hall. Sometimes, though, Dilly saw Clarissa out riding in the carriage. The young woman looked away quickly on such occasions, for there was something in that gaunt, sharp-featured face which made her shiver, though she never knew why.

Dilly herself rode along the paths, but she kept away from those which were close to the Hall. Then she met Clement. For a moment, when she first saw him, she had been startled --- he looked so much like Chris, only he was young. Clement was a soldier, too, but only a captain. He was also a "Sir," because Chris had died and he was Chris's brother's son. He had come to spend his leave at the Hall because his Aunt Clarissa wished it. Dilly heard Mackie and Miss Johnson, her governess, talking, and Mackie declaring that Miss Clarissa was "fair daft" about Clement, even as she had been about her brother.

"Never wanted to share that one." Mackie put down the petticoat she was hemming. “She tried to keep him away from Miss Violet, only he had a will of his own. But I have always thought” --- she hesitated before she continued --- "that she had a hand in breaking that engagement. Miss Violet  ---  it was like she had been somehow witched. She stood out against all of us, saying she never wanted to see him again. It was a pity --- “ Mackie shook her head.

Though there was no visiting between the Manor and the Hall, the girl did meet Clement, and in the most proper way. She had ridden to the vicarage with some special herb receipts Mackie had promised Mrs. Trevor, and Clement was walking in the garden with Mr. Trevor, who came forward at once to greet her and introduce his visitor.

Dilly felt an odd breathless sensation when she looked into his grey eyes. Chris's eyes had been blue, but Clement still seemed so much like his uncle that she almost called him Chris. He was very polite and asked if he might accompany her when she left. She had John, the groom, with her, so it was indeed proper, and she had not the least desire to say no.

They met again and again in the weeks which followed. The young woman always had John with her, and she felt there was no harm in doing this. Somewhat to her surprise, Clement never mentioned the past, Violet, or Chris, and she wondered if he knew about what had happened more than a dozen years ago.

At length, greatly daring, she invited him to tea. When she admitted to Aunt Susan what she had done, her aunt looked shocked, and Dilly had to hurry on to explain that the couple had been properly introduced by the vicar.

“Captain Hale never speaks of Violet or Chris," she said quickly. "Perhaps he does not even know."

"He must." Aunt Susan sounded almost grim. “But, since you have been forward enough to ask him, he will be our guest. It is a pity that your father is in London --- I do not like this situation in the least."

The tea, however, was pleasant; Clement was most attentive to Aunt Susan, and Dilly could see that he was winning at least her approval. Nor was that their last meeting at the Manor.

When Papa returned, Dilly was summoned to the library --- a fearsome place in which explanations of behavior were always demanded and punishments announced. By now, though, the girl was so sure she had done right that her shivers as she entered were but slight ones.

"What's this your aunt tells me about young Hale?" Her father was plainly not at his most yielding. "I wonder that one of his family comes near to this house!" He slammed his hand flat on the desk so hard that one of the pens jumped out of its holder.

"He --- he never mentions Violet  --- or Chris." Dilly summoned her courage. "He has been most proper --- Aunt Susan will tell you.”

Papa just sat staring at her. "Hale's a good enough youngster," he said at last, “but why --- “ He stopped short.

“Papa --- “ The girl decided to risk all upon one throw. “The fete in the garden next week --- may we send him an invitation?"

Again her father did not answer at once. "Well, that can do no harm, I suppose, though I think perhaps Miss Clarissa will arrange matters so that he does not come. She is a very bitter woman, Dilly. If you continue to see this young man, she may make trouble for you. She never wanted Chris to marry --- they were twins, and she was fiercely jealous of Violet. I have always wondered . . ." He shook his head as though trying to dismiss some unpleasant thought. “Just be careful, child. You're not as quick-spoken as your sister; see you keep on in that way and guard your tongue.”

The fete was held, and even Papa unbent when Aunt Susan introduced Clement to him; nor did he ever give any more warnings during the long summer days when Dilly felt she was caught up in a dream. Then came the time when the Captain found her alone in the rose garden and asked if he might speak to her father about an engagement. That was the dream come true!

There would not be a ball this time --- Aunt Susan said something about tempting Providence --- but instead only a gathering of friends at dinner when the momentous announcement was to be made. To her aunt's obvious surprise, the invitation sent in courtesy to Miss Hale was actually answered in the affirmative.

On that afternoon, Dilly wandered into the old schoolroom. Though it was kept in general order by the housemaids, no one came here much anymore. The young woman opened the chest drawer and looked in at Rosamond and Lucy. The sight of them made her think of that long-ago day in the garden and, on impulse, she went to her hiding place.

There was the bracelet, gleaming never more beckoningly from the dark pocket. The girl drew the ornament out, put it on, and fastened the catch. It was pretty, too pretty to be hidden. Certainly no one would remember it after all these years, so --- she would wear it this evening! That decision seemed to come out of nowhere almost like an order.

Dilly had a new dress of the palest green, and Sally, who now acted as her maid upon occasion, coaxed her red-brown hair into the most orderly waves, with a curl to lie across her shoulder. She then endured the twitching and turning of the modified-crinoline-supported skirt which was the latest fashion. And, for the first time in her life, she looked into the mirror and decided she was attractive --- as attractive as Violet had been.

"Come along with you." Mackie stood just within the door. "The first of the carriages has turned in, and you must be ready to greet the guests."

This evening, Dilly appeared to have laid her usual slightly-timid and retiring manner away with her daytime dress. Her hand sought the bracelet, turning it around and around on her wrist as she descended the stairs. Young ladies mostly wore a modest pearl necklet like the one she also had on, but there was nothing worldly or showy about her other ornament.

Papa held out his hand to her as she took the last step down and, beyond him, smiling welcome, was --- Clement. The young woman blinked and blinked again. These past two months, the Captain's face had become as well known to her as her own mirrored features; but his grey eyes now --- they were somehow unpleasant, as though she had committed a social error. And there was a quirk to his lips as he smiled which made him look almost disdainful and caused her to feel like a country girl intruding among her betters.

Then she was standing between her father and Clement with Aunt Susan in line, greeting neighbors and distant members of the family. Violet had sent a civil refusal --- this was the night of an important dinner which Lord and Lady Ridgley were helping to host. Oddly, no one had thought her refusal strange.

Dilly's arm, wearing the bracelet, hung down beside Clement. Twice he had crooked his own arm in invitation, but for some reason she shrank with a real sense of aversion from his touch. She could not understand why her intended seemed suddenly such a stranger, and she tried to tell herself it was because she was uncomfortable at being the center of attention as she had --- never been before.

Most of the guests had arrived when there was a small commotion at the doorway, and an unusual procession appeared. First came a chair which was mounted on wheels and was being pushed by a brawny footman in full livery. There was no mistaking the sharp-featured face of the woman who sat bundled in several shawls in that strange conveyance. Dilly heard a startled "Hmph!" from Papa; then he and Aunt Susan moved forward to greet Miss Clarissa Hale, whose penetrating glance had already shaken Dilly. A moment later, the Captain took a grasp on her arm and pulled her forward too. However, the woman in the wheeled chair had another attendant. Dilly, trying to forget that unpleasant stare pinning her, gave a little gasp.

The stranger presented a complete contrast to the dark figure huddled in wraps to whom he paid patient attention. He --- he was the Knight! Dilly saw him as plainly as if he had stepped from the pages of the IDYLLS OF THE KING which the girl had dreamed over ever since Papa had given her the volume for her last birthday. Somehow she was able to take her eyes from him long enough to greet Miss Hale, whose stretch of thin lips was anything but a cordial smile.

"Since we are family, or about to become so," Miss Hale spoke directly to Aunt Susan now, "I knew that you would not mind an addition to the party. An extra young man is always useful." She laughed, and to Dilly that mirthless noise sounded exactly like a crow's harsh call. "This is Gerald Langley, dear Clement's cousin on his mother's side, who happened to be passing through the shire and had the good manners to renew family bonds with a visit."

Both Aunt Susan and Papa had on their set "social faces," but the young woman was sure they were not pleased; only one could not turn the guest of a guest from the door.

At that moment, Hawkins carne to announce that dinner was served. Aunt Susan looked around a little wildly, as if she wondered how they were to conjure up a place for this unexpected addition to the party, but Hawkins favored his mistress with a certain look which suggested that the matter was well in hand. Nothing ever seemed too difficult for that pillar of the family to manage.

"Foster, you may go now." Miss Hale was abruptly dismissing the footman who had pushed her in. "Sir Clement knows well how to manage for me.”

And Clement did move obediently to the handle at the back of that chair. Dilly watched him, not a little nettled. By all the social laws, he should have taken her in himself, but it was plain that his aunt had him well "under her paw" --- a saying Mackie often used.

"Miss Manners, may I have the pleasure?" It was the Knight, coming to her rescue before the eyes of the company, just as was fitting for the occasion. Dilly looked up at him. Yes, he was just like the Knight. Was it Lancelot or Galahad? She could not remember now; however, she felt a warm glow as she put her hand lightly on the arm he offered. At least she would not be trailing behind Captain and Miss Hale like a charity child summoned in for inspection!

There was something of an undignified scramble at the table where Miss Hale's majestic chair had to be accommodated. The result was that that lady sat on the right hand of her host with Clement still in close attendance on her left. As the minutes passed, Dilly's irritation grew. Her intended seemed altogether occupied with seeing to his aunt's comfort, answering various questions she addressed to him between statements to Papa concerning affairs in the world at large. She would say such things as, "Now, you are a military man, dear Clement --- what is the Army's reaction to this?"

Dilly found that, in a curious way, he seemed to be fading --- that he was not her bright and happy friend or, yes, lover anymore. She had a growing feeling of shadows stretching out to overcast the future drawing near. Would Clement expect her, after they were married, to live with Miss Hale? The estate belonged to him, but he constantly deferred to his aunt, saying that she had run it ably for so long her advice was needed.

For contrast, she allowed herself to be amused by the light chatter of her seatmate, Mr. Langley, who seemed to be anything but "under Miss Hale's paw." The girl found herself laughing at his amusing comments about his travels in the shires.

Suddenly the older woman shot a question at her, completely interrupting a story Mr. Langley was telling. "It is somewhat unusual for a young lady to wear much jewelry, but that is a very handsome bracelet you are displaying this evening --- certainly fine mosaic work. Italian, is it not?"

Dilly flushed. She knew Clarissa had recognized the bracelet. What would that sour spinster say next? Clement was frowning at his intended as though she had, indeed, broken some rule of good breeding. Defiantly, she held her hand out a little further so that the candlelight brought the ornament in question fully into view.

"It is an old piece, Miss Hale. I really do not know much about it, except that I found it in a drawer. The pattern is quite pretty, and I admit it tempted me.”

Miss Hale was smiling once more. "Just so. Violets are modest, maidenly flowers and quite suitable. Clement, I think my chair needs some adjustment --- ?”

There had been something about that exchange which made the younger woman feel a small shiver. She wanted to pull the bracelet off as Violet had done in the rose garden on that day a dozen years ago, but she could not make a scene. Now, though, the mosaic piece seemed very cold, and the flowers looked faded and far from pretty. She turned abruptly to Mr. Langley with the first remark that crossed her mind --- something about the rose garden. Rose garden --- she must not think of that!

Fortunately, in moments her interest was caught and firmly held by his description of his visit to the royal gardens at Windsor and his subsequent presentation to His Highness the Prince of Wales. Clement and Miss Hale could be forgotten --- Dilly was determined it would be so.

Only at last the dinner, which felt as though it had lasted forever, was nearing its end, when Papa would be giving the toast in honor of the engagement. How, at that moment, she longed for the Knight beside her to see her safely away! It seemed to Dilly that tonight Clement had revealed himself as an entirely different person --- one she did not know and would not like even if she did. Deep within her arose a little quirk of wonder at why she felt that way, but it quickly vanished.

Somehow Dilly managed to sit and smile through the toast, blush in an appropriately-demure way, and accept the good wishes of the company without catching Clement's full gaze again. Mr. Langley was all consideration and once actually murmured something about time making him a loser which she hoped only she had heard.

Then the girl was free. By now, her head was pounding, and she wanted nothing more than her bed and Mackie's soothing hands stroking her hair. She glanced about in near desperation but knew that neither Aunt Susan nor Papa would countenance her withdrawal --- no, she had to go inside, stand by her betrothed (who seemed bound by an invisible tether to his aunt's chair), and present the proper appearance. Mr. Langley still watched her, and now and then their eyes met. It almost seemed then that he understood her growing confusion and need for escape.

Finally the party began to break up. Clement turned to her with a suggestion that they go out onto the terrace, but Miss Hale's harsh demand that he guide her chair into the hall summoned him away. Aunt Susan and Papa were busy saying farewells when the Knight appeared beside her.

Dilly was not aware that she had raised the hand backed by the bracelet, but she found it clasped in his and felt the unnerving brush of his mustache as he raised her fingers a little to kiss them. At the same moment, Clement appeared in the doorway. His face looked hard and set, and he summoned Mr. Langley with a wave; nor did he come to Dilly but left with his aunt and cousin without so much as a goodnight.

The young woman's head was bursting now, and she wanted to cry. She got by Aunt Susan and Papa, she never knew how, and back to her room. Once in that merciful refuge, she sent Sally away and dropped into the big chair by the window, not caring how her skirts were being crumpled. Holding her head between her two hands, she tried to understand what had happened to her.

"Childie --- ” The familiar endearment from Mackie brought the tears, hurting tears, which Dilly tried to wipe away.

'I knew that one would make trouble." Mackie drew her close in soft, comforting arms; then, suddenly, the nurse's fingers closed tightly about her wrist and turned it into the light. The girl heard, even through her sobs, the hiss of the old woman's breath.

"Where did you get this?" Mackie gave a jerk hard enough to bruise Dilly s wrist and waved the bracelet before her charge's tear-filled eyes.

"I  --- I found it  --- “

"This was Miss Violet's, sent her by that woman."

Dilly managed to get out the story of that long-ago afternoon in the rose garden and what she had seen there. "The bracelet was so pretty, and they did not want it, so I took it." Her voice sounded childish even to herself.

"Pretty? Aye --- about as pretty as a viper!" The aged nurse was holding the now-dangling band as she might well hold the reptile in question. Now, moving away from Dilly, she lifted the ornament close to the nearest candle. She was looking, not at the flowers, but rather at the back of the oval gold pieces which framed them.

“Yes --- as I thought all along when Miss Violet acted so. This is a wicked, bewitched thing! That woman --- she knows more than anyone mortal has a right to do. I wonder she can set foot in church of a Sunday!”

"But where there is darkness, there can be light. Where is your prayerbook, childie?"

Completely amazed to the point where she was no longer crying, Dilly went to the bedside table and took from its drawer the worn, velvet-bound book which had belonged to her mother and which she had carried to church more Sundays than she could remember.

Mackie had pulled aside the curtains at the closest window. Now she carefully placed the book, opened to a certain page she had hunted for in the full moonlight, and across the flattened volume she laid the bracelet.

"Darkness and hate, spite and harm --- what is within this thing of evil, may it be brought forth. In the Names of the Father, Above, the Son Whom we cherish, and the Holy Spirit Which awaits the call of any in need." She said the words slowly and solemnly, and then she added certain other ones which Dilly did not understand at all but which had the sound of an urgent summons.

Did she see a mist gather over the bracelet? The girl was always sure afterwards that she had. Then that mist passed on out through the window and was gone, and she felt as she had when she was small and was recovering from a bad illness. Now all the events of the night appeared utterly strange and unreal. Clement --- Clement was strength, and warmth, and loving ---  

The young woman rubbed her hand across her eyes. "Mackie --- do such things happen ? This is real life, no fairy tale! Did Miss Hale wish some kind of bad thing on Violet and Chris and try to do it again with me, until you sent it away?"

"Childie, there are many powers in the world, both good and evil. Belief makes either one strong to help or hinder. This evil is gone --- “

"But I do not want that ever again." Dilly looked at the bracelet. "Put it away, Mackie, in one of the trunks in the attic. Let it stay hidden forever.”

 

 

Clipping from the Obituary column of the Lincolnshire Times:

The sudden demise of Miss Clarissa Hale was a sharp and sad surprise for her family and friends. She bore her infirmities with dignity and courage and was an outstanding example of the best of a fine old family.

 

From the same publication six months later:

The wedding of Delia Lucinda Manners, daughter of the Right Honorable Robert Manners and his deceased wife, Lady Pauline Dervant Manners, was celebrated in St. Richard's, the bride's parish church. The happy couple are about to set sail for India, where Captain Sir Clement Hale will join his regiment, the Bengal Lancers. The Hale family have a long history of service to the Crown in that country.

Among the guests were -

 

Advertisement in Antique Guide 1995:

Estate sale. Unusually fine example of 1840 Italian marble mosaic bracelet. Unique pattern of White Violets.

 



 

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