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Authors: Doris Grumbach

The Ladies

BOOK: The Ladies
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The Ladies

A Novel

Doris Grumbach

FOR MY FRIENDS
:

Joseph Caldwell

Tristram Coffin

Gilbert Harrison

Roderick MacLeish

Faith Sale, who gave me the first right steer

May Sarton, who talked to me about the Ladies

Hilma Wolitzer, who read the manuscript with a cool eye

and Allan Gurganus, to whose fine ear I first confided

this story

“Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story-teller who would keep that from you. Especially do all stories of monogamy end in death.”

—
ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Death in the Afternoon

APOLOGIA

Writing about the Ladies in
Ces plaisirs
in 1932, Colette apologized for sinning against chronology: “I reverse the order, and I do not excuse myself at all!” My offenses against the Ladies' histories are far greater. I have changed names, switched facts about, changed and abridged the chronology, inferred, interpreted, denied, imagined. This is
a fiction
about the Ladies of Llangollen, not in any way a history. I have ‘made them up' as I imagine they might have been. Like Colette, I do not excuse myself at all.

IRELAND: 1739–1778

She stands looking out the long window, the toe of her silk slipper hard against the sill. She holds her back painfully straight, trying to imagine what it will be like tonight in stirrups, in the saddle. Outside, the wet day is sliding fast into clouded night. There will be no moon for her ride.

She calculates that it is almost four o'clock. Behind her, in the long hall lined with blackened portraits of her ruffed and wasp-waisted Ormonde forbears, she thinks she hears Milligan moving towards her mother's rooms. He will, as usual, inform her mother that dinner will be served. Always it is ‘will be,' allowing her mother time to traverse the long hall to her father's dressing room. Her mother will help her father to his feet and lead him, now that his vision has narrowed to a blurred stream of fitful light, towards the small eating room where the three now have their dinner.

This is her last evening. When it is quite dark, when the vast, untidy park she is staring at now, without quite focussing upon the rough tumps and the obtrusive birse, turns blue, then black, and then merges with the lowering Irish sky, when the Nore River at the edge of their land mells with the blotched demesne and the hooded sky: then she will go, saying farewell to her dog Lento, leaving behind Kilkenny Castle and the whole company of servants, cotters, neighbors, and relations she has always known.

She considers what it will be like not to walk beside the quicks of the hedges in bud, never again to see the quiet, undersized Irish cattle that graze their fields untended, the birth of each white-faced calf a day's or night's excitement in eventless lives. Not to roam the bracken of the hillsides, wading the stretches of bog, stirring up partridge from the hollow, pheasant out of the stubble. Not to witness the strained, worshipping posture of her mother, everlastingly at prayers in the chapel at the end of her sleeping room. No more to hear her high-pitched fulminations at the servants for oversleeping, at the cotters for their absence from castle Mass in order to work their cabbage gardens, threatening them violently, as always she has, with hunger, loss of shares, and everlasting perdition. Nor her high voice badgering her daughter for not marrying, not improving her father's chances of regaining his title, lost to him by a treasonous forbear. To leave behind the sight of her father's bulbous hands as he raises them, needing both to guarantee the elevation of the after-dinner port glass to his lips without accident, his cravat dotted with bits of salt beef and orange preserve where the napkin has failed to catch what his gums can no longer retain. To not witness the downing of the entire contents of the port decanter and then his struggle for upright dignity as he makes his way to his rooms between her angrily dutiful mother and Milligan.

They have been her life and her company since she was allowed to leave the convent school at Chambrai, since her younger sister married and went to live on her husband's estate. At thirty-nine, she is a blank and useless maiden to her aging parents, who grow increasingly ill-tempered, religious, and disappointed with their lives and with hers. They are no longer compelled by the needs of their daughters for sympathy and care, and so no longer capable of them. Preoccupied with their failing memories, too selfish and too proud to want old friends to witness their declining patience, health, and capacity for affection, they lean to each other, for the first time in their married lives, and away from everyone else, away from her.

Only yesterday her mother informed her of her plans. She had heard them before but never had they seemed so well developed, so unalterable. To her mother's priest-dominated mind her daughter was to be an offering to the Faith, a sacrifice, human recompense for her own brother's desertion to the Established Church. She, who yearned for freedom and the full, unchained play of her hungry mind and restless body, was now destined to return to the Chambrai of her pious education, or better, her mother hoped, to the Convent of the Holy Sepulchre at Liege, an exclusive yet laudably inexpensive place for an aging daughter with a limited, three-hundred-pound dowry. In her mother's view, Chambrai or Holy Sepulchre had all the virtues of heavenly ransom and domestic economy. Her daughter's maiden state, withering and stale in her sight, would be stowed away suitably, permanently, among sacred, believing virgins.

From behind closed eyes she watches them seat themselves beside each other, their trays placed side by side at the end of the square mahogany board so that her mother may cut her father's mutton chop and arrange the gravy in wells of cheesed potatoes. Her mother will ask Milligan to fetch Lady Eleanor. When she is not to be found in her room, Milligan will dispatch a maid, perhaps Mary, to search the state rooms. She will look first in the upstairs parlour where often Eleanor reads.

‘Please, m'lady. Dinner is already served.'

She is not yet a Lady, not until the dukedom of Ormonde is again her father's. But her parents insist the servants use their titles-that-may-be, so determined are they on the eventual restoration.

‘Please, m'lady …'

She does not turn. She fears, curiously, that Mary will read her plan to escape in her face, in the way she holds her lips to conceal the pleasure she feels at the prospect for this night.

‘Tell my father I am somewhat unwell and shall not dine. Perhaps something later, on my tray, upstairs.'

She listens to Mary's departing steps, the linen slippers her mother orders for the serving people (so their soundless passage will polish the bare-board floors) making short, repetitive shushes in the hall. She is nervous and very excited: her plan is to leave by a side door as her parents linger over the port. She is relying on the slow service, the distance the servants come from the kitchens and pantries, pushing dollies laden with tureens and serving dishes, and on the long way they must return to fetch the pudding, the cheese. She counts on the slowness of their eating, their sipping of the wines, her mother mincing the half a chick or the parsnips and salad for her husband's consumption, their profound attention to each bite, as though they wanted to diminish the time between this mouthful and the last.

Far away, she believes she hears the sounds of overtaxed wheels grinding rustily along the lower hall. The broth and bowls are returning to the pantry. Not looking back to verify her supposition, she opens the long door as quietly as she can, pushes Lento down with the instruction to sit, steps over the sill, and walks very quickly across the wide stone porch until she reaches the bench under which her chambermaid Ellen has said she would hide the riding clothes.

O delight! the bundle is there. The breeches are old and spotted and will not fit, she thinks, but no matter. She knows it is coming on to dusk, but she pretends it is truly dark and so disregards her half-dressed state. She finds the jacket and puts it on over her chemise, leaving only her scarf to be crushed into the collar as a neck cloth. She leans against the rough trunk of the beech tree that shades the porch to put on the boots, and rolls her skirts and shoes and petticoats into a tight ball, bestowing them in the same spot that harboured the habit. There she finds gloves and the whip that Ellen told her were in the old stables. (How kind! How busy she has been on her behalf!)

The boots are much too tight, the waistband on the breeches will not buckle, but she is so eager to be gone that she pays no heed. She stumbles along as fast as she can, staying close to the shadow of the high walls that have shielded Kilkenny Castle for centuries against the threats of hut-dwellers' fury and the assaults of brutal Irish winds. She will be without their protection now: she senses for the first time what it will be like to be deprived of the safety of family and the support of hereditary walls, to be free to be the woman she has kept well hidden for so long.

From the low dark outline of the old stables, long ago bereft of grooms, tackle, carriages and horses, she hears the neigh of the horse Ellen has arranged to be waiting for her. Its owner, she was told, is an ostler in the town who hires out to travellers. Ellen has instructed him to stay with his animal in order to assist Eleanor in mounting. There have been no horses in these stables for many years, ever since her father was tossed during a crosscountry ride, shattering his anklebone and his elbow, his head struck into unconsciousness against a stile. Furious at the horse's clumsiness, he ordered all the horses sold, the carriages stowed away, and the grooms and drivers transferred to castle and grounds duties. Now, when her parents want to travel, they hire a chaise from the village. But it is a long time since they have wished to do so.

She is guided to the dark stable door by the sound of hoofs stamping in place, by a horse's deep, rattling snort.

‘Over here, m'lady,' she hears.

There is light from a lantern. By it she sees a man and a horse. His one hand holds the bridle, the other is on the horse's flank as though to calm him. In her excitement at leaving at last, she has forgotten how frightened she is. But now, when the horse snorts again and stamps under the man's hand, her heart pounds, her hands become wet. The tight heavy boots cut into her ankles like flame. She thanks the man who lowers his lantern so she is able to see moving restless hoofs, the man's blunt-shod feet, her own painful boots, the stirrup.

He reaches for her arm, as she puts her left foot into the stirrup. She feels sodden with fear and clothes. He lifts her up and her knee makes a snapping sound as she swings her leg over the broad back of the horse. The animal is black and bigger, it appears to her, than any horse she has ever seen. She is full of anxiety at the prospect of the black night, the tortuous roads she is only faintly familiar with even in light, the huge, restive horse. The man settles the bridle on the horse's head and gives her the reins.

His hand on the bridle, the man leads her through deep grass to the path, which looks, from her elevation, like a bottomless ribbon, darker than the laurel hedgerows, narrower than the yews that close over her. Her hands grip the reins so hard she can hear her knuckles crack over them. Her knees are clenched against the horse's flanks, almost one with the stirrup's leathers. She manages to thank the ostler for his help, afraid to take her eyes from the road ahead to look at him, praying she will find her way in the dark, that she will not be stopped by the villainous Whiteboys who attack priests, tax collectors, and well-to-do travellers. But in the dark and in these clothes, she thinks, she will not be taken for a prosperous person. Only one thing—the thought of her beloved at the end of this fearful journey—propels her forwards. There are fifteen miles to travel, over roads made of unbroken stones and mud, to the barn near Woodstock where they have arranged to meet.

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