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Author's note: I got the idea of a controlling mother from the movie Titanic. I also love the idea of historical fiction. I admire authors who can take historical facts and twist them in a way that makes a totally different story no one could have thought of. There is also a poster of William Shakespeare in my English classroom that got me thinking about William Shakespeare
I looked into the mirror at Anne Shakespeare as the maids tightened my corset and helped me get into my dress. I looked at my brown hair and hazel eyes, trying not to flinch as the corset bit into my ribs, making it uncomfortable to breathe. Blasted thing.
“Tonight is the big night, miss,” said the young maid my own age named Bonnie. “Are you excited?”
If my mother had been in the room, she would have scolded Bonnie for asking a personal question like that, and then have made me do the same. But when Mrs. Shakespeare was not in the room, I answered any question they asked me.
“Not really,” I answered breathlessly as the other women pulled one more time on my corset, making my breasts bigger and my patience shorter.
“Why not, miss?” Bonnie looked astonished that I was not excited to go to a party where I was meeting the man my mother has chosen for me to marry.
“I want to marry the man I love, not one I have never met or seen! Where is the fun in that?” I asked.
“You should be a good proper young lady tonight, miss,” said Allona from behind me. “Your mother is trying very hard to make your life a good one. Take it with grace, and be happy about it.” She disappeared behind my back as she buttoned up the red silk of my dress.
I repressed a sigh, because I didn’t want Allona biting at me again. Allona was my nanny as a child, and she wanted me to live life to my full extent, especially since she never had the chance to be something above a first maid, the poor woman. However, she loved me like I was her own child, even if she didn’t always show it.
I knew I should be happy I was going to be married to Ralph Destine. He was wealthy and a gentleman, according to my mother. She told me she was arranging a marriage for me when I was seventeen because she wanted me to live a good and happy life. However, I was not as oblivious as she thought I was. I knew that we were in serious debt, and that we had no money to help pay off those debts. Ever since William died three years ago, Mother and I had been struggling, especially since my father was gone too, God rest their souls.
But I didn’t want to get married! I was only seventeen, and I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to marry the man I was meant to be with, not be arranged to someone else. Mother may have held on for a few more years if I went to India or France to try to get a job and then I could have sent her money. Maybe in those few years I could have learned to ride a horse like I always wanted, how to sail a ship, how to swim. I wanted to learn and see things, but when Allona and Bonnie pulled on my hair and wrapped part of the brown curls up and together, the tugging brought me back to reality quickly and painfully. I was a seventeen-year-old girl; my dreams and wishes did not matter to anyone. Except to Tim, of course.
I was able to back out of reality again with the idea of Tim for company. I grinned involuntarily thinking of him. When William was just starting to really write plays, he had seen Tim on the streets, with a pen in his hand, dipping it in a puddle of water. William was interested in why a boy would be doing that, so he talked with him, and discovered that he was an orphan child living of the street, who wished to learn how to write. William took pity on him, and took him in as his assistant. William taught him to read and write, and built him a little hovel under the bridge crossing the Thames so Tim would have somewhere to go.
William never brought Tim to the house, because Tim and I were too close to the same age, but when I went to see one of William’s plays, I couldn’t help but notice the boy on the side of the stage. He noticed me, too. We met, talked, and I immediately liked him because he listened to me, accepted my ideas, and even agreed with most of them. No man or boy has ever listened to me before. I started going with William to the playhouse much more after that first meeting. When Tim and I walked around the back stage area, some of the men would try to sweet-talk me, and Tim would jump to my defense immediately. I would talk myself out of their little word games, proving to Tim that I didn’t always need help. I was extremely pleased when he started looking at me with something akin to awe after he listened to me lash against the men.
I remembered one incident I wouldn’t have been able to get out of if Tim hadn’t been there: We were walking backstage, and one of the men was stumbling around drunk. We decided to help him find a bench to lie down on, but he some how found a way to fling me into the wall, lock his hands around my wrists and push his body against me. Tim jumped to my defense as if he had had expected it to happen. He pulled the man off me, punched him in the nose, and threw him on the ground. He came to me quickly, asking if I was fine, if I was hurt, if I needed help, and as soon as I promised three or four times I was fine, he put his hands on my shoulders and looked at me with a shocked expression on his face.
“Why didn’t you scream? You didn’t even look scared!” he asked, looking extremely surprised.
I shrugged and said, “I tried to hit him, but he was too strong. I didn’t scream because someone was already here who could help me, and I wasn’t scared because I knew you would help.” I blushed slightly as I confessed that, but he just looked at me warmly, and kissed me for the first time. I grinned again, remembering the sweet moment.
My mother brushed into the room and disturbed my thoughts the way she always did: chin held high, cold blue eyes looking only at me, never at my beloved maids. She was wearing her favorite dress: a black full gown with a white trim of flowers that revealed none of her skin but her hands and throat. Around her throat she wore a diamond necklace that Father had given her when they had gotten married. She had her blond hair up off her neck and wrapped into a bun that pulled her face back a bit and made her look like a bird. She looked up and down me, as if evaluating me.
“Leave us,” she snapped at Bonnie and Allona. They both stood quickly, like startled rabbits. They curtsied briskly and walked from the room as fast as they could without really running. Lucky them, I thought bitterly. I don’t have the opportunity to get away from my mother so quickly.
I turned quickly to my mother and put a smile on my face as she turned to me. Even with the servants gone, she looked at me like I was something that had to be groomed and controlled. She didn’t look upon me with love anymore.
“Turn around,” she told me. I did as she asked while she went to my desk. She opened a drawer and sifted through it to find the perfect jewelry. I stifled a sigh; I really hated putting on jewelry. It was heavy and unnecessary.
She pulled out a pair of earrings she knew I despised. They were gold, big and heavy and pulled on my earlobes all through the night.
“Don’t you make that face, Anne,” she snapped at me. “I know you say these earrings hurt, but beauty is pain. William never used to complain when I would get him ready for important dinners like this!”
“William was a boy who didn’t have to wear this damned corset nor irritating earrings,” I muttered under my breath. Saying that out loud would have pushed my mother’s patience too far; her eye was already twitching slightly.
“Mother, what are you nervous about?” I asked her in my most innocent voice.
She looked at me in surprise. She never seemed to understand that I could always tell when something was bothering her.
“Nothing, dear!” she said quickly. “Nothing at all.”
“Mother…” I said, making my voice stronger.
“Alright, yes, I am a little nervous,” she admitted. “You have never been one to follow rules very well. You may not like wearing dresses and jewelry, but if you don’t marry Ralph, we will not be able to live anymore. Do you want to sell everything we have until we have nothing, and then still not have enough money to pay our debts? With Ralph in the picture—“
“Yes, yes we will survive and be able to live in luxury for the rest of our lives. But Mother,” I said, my voice slipping to a plea, “I don’t want to get married to this man. I don’t know him, I don’t want to get married so young, I don’t care what most people think! I don’t believe getting married at seventeen is a good idea.”
Mary Shakespeare, who I have never seen leak a drop of water out of her eyes before, looked like she might cry. I was so startled, I lost my side of the argument for a moment. She composed her face back into an emotionless mask again.
“I’m sorry, dear,” she said. “I know this is not the life you want, but we have no choice, and you know that! Now please put these on and get ready to leave.”
I didn’t know if I could go through with it. This situation was too great a weight for me and I felt like my knees were buckling under it. But I knew I had to try.
“Yes, Mother,” I said back to her. “I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“There’s a good girl,” she said briskly. She looked at herself in the mirror to make sure her make-up did not smudge, and then walked to the door. I went to my desk to grab my favorite necklace that William had given me a month before he died. It was a very simple necklace, just a long, gold chain, but I loved it because he gave it to me and because it didn’t wrap around my throat like my other necklaces; those made me feel like I had a collar on.
Mother and I got into the carriage and we were off to the party. The windows had their drapes over them, but the frigid December air still managed to get into the small compartment. I moved one of the curtains to close it more securely and saw a puppet show on the side of the street. There were children sitting in front of a small stage and laughing as a puppet moved up and down by the controlling strings of its master. I shivered and pulled my coat tighter around my shoulders.
We pulled up to our destination, and we could hear the sounds of laughter and music. The lights of the house shone like a beacon through the dark night, and despite my fear of whom I was meeting inside, I was eager to get next to a warm fire. Mother got out of the carriage first, and went immediately toward a group of her friends: more middle aged women who kept looking over their shoulders to make sure their own daughters weren’t getting into any trouble, and for fresh gossip. I despised the lot of them.
I took a breath and was about to step from the carriage when I heard our footman say, “You ‘ave three minutes, Tim.” I started at the name he uttered, and sure enough, Tim stepped into the carriage and pulled the door shut.
“Annie,” he whispered. His golden brown hair was falling into his brown eyes as always, and he gave me the grin I could not help but return.
“Oh, Tim, what are you doing here?” I asked him in a tired voice. “You know I am engaged.”
“I know,” he said mischievously. “But that doesn’t really matter to me and you know it.” He gave another grin; the kind of grin of someone caught doing something wrong by someone who won’t punish him.
I wrapped my arms around his neck suddenly, and cried into his shoulder. I couldn’t help myself. The weight of everything that was happening crashed down on me suddenly, and I was too much to bear. He brought his arms around me and rubbed my back in soothing strokes.
“Oh Anne, I’m so sorry,” he whispered into my hair. “I’m so sorry.”
“There’s nothing you can do, you don’t have anything to be sorry for,” I muttered. “I need to marry Ralph or else…” I was at a loss for words. I didn’t want to explain.
“I know, I know,” he said soothingly. He was the only one who really did know; he was the only one I told everything to. I hugged him tighter and then pulled away to look at his face one last time.
“What if you didn’t go in there?” he asked suddenly. He lost his playful look; this was one of the few times I had seen him serious.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What if we ran away? Together? We could leave right now and never look back. We could go anywhere we wanted and start our own life together. We could both get jobs and send the money to your mother. She would be able to live, and so would you, and so would I. I don’t think I can live without you, Annie.” He finished his speech by looking into my eyes with the saddest and most desperate look you could see on a human, and for a moment, I saw it. I saw everything that he wanted in his brown eyes. We could build our own house. He could be an editor so he could write like he wanted to. I could sew dresses. We would make a lot of money, and I could send Mother the money she needed. Everyone would be happy. But as quickly as that vision came, it was gone again. I knew I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave enough.
“Tim…” I said, trying to find the right words, but I didn’t have to.
“I know, I know,” he said again. He knew me better than anyone in the world, and he would be my true love for all time; I knew that too.
I reached up to my neck and undid my favorite necklace. The gold shone slightly in the dark as I reached it out to him.
“I want you to take this, and always remember me,” I whispered to him. “Please, please never forget me.”
“As long as you promise to never forget me,” he whispered back.
“You know I never could.”
“I know.” He gave me my favorite grin one last time, kissed me one more time, and then left the carriage.
He was sneaking away, making sure no one saw him, when he turned around and said, “If you change your mind, you know where to find me.” And I did know where he would be.
I took a few deep breaths as I prepared myself to go outside to face my mother and the other women. I saw their heads close together as I came up to them. I heard some words such as “…respectable marriage…” and “…is blooming and he will…” until Mother saw me coming and gave them a look that made them stop talking.
“Come along, dear,” Mother said to me. She waited to start ascending the stairs until I was beside her. She turned to me half way up the stairs and said, “You might want to try to look happy, instead of like you are walking to your death.” She didn’t try to comfort me. She didn’t understand that I didn’t want to do this. She didn’t know that with every step I took towards my unwanted destiny, I wanted to take three large steps back.
We reached the top of the stairs and I looked down on all the people dancing around the hall in a flurry of colors and polite smiles. I felt like I was suffocating as I removed my coat to give to the servant standing by a closet door. He took the coats with a “Thank you madams. Enjoy your evening” without a smile or a look above our shoes.
I felt Mother poke me slightly as we prepared to start down the stairs. I heard her talk to me as if from the end of a long tunnel. I tried to focus, but I could only think about everything I never got to do, and never will.
I shook my head slightly, and said, “I’m sorry Mother, could you say that again?”
“I said, there he is,” she said in my ear. She was pointing to a man who was surrounded with other men at a table. They looked like they were in very serious conversation. As a servant girl came up to them and asked if they wanted wine, I noticed Ralph didn’t even look at the servant girl. He just shook his head slightly while still continuing his conversation with the man across from him. He was tall but pudgy. He had a big red mustache with a top of hair that looked like a red wig. His eyes were sunken and his face looked very unkind. But the most important thing I noticed were the wrinkles around his eyes, mouth and eyebrows.
I turned to Mother, horrified, but she was already walking over to his table. I had no choice be to follow.
“Mr. Destine may I—“
“Hold on, woman. Can’t you see a man is trying to talk?” He didn’t even look at us while he said this. “Yes I quite agree, Tom. I shall write all of my views and send it to you so you can put them in the paper.”
When he was talking to his friend, I had turned to my mother. I wasn’t just sad and scared anymore: I was downright angry.
“How could you?” I whispered. I couldn’t believe she had matched me with this man, of all the wealthy men in London. He looked older than my father had been, and he was rude and uncaring.
“You will be kind and obedient Anne, do you understand me?” she answered through her teeth, which were still pulled into a grin. When I didn’t respond, she pulled on my arm and made me look her in the eye. Her eyes didn’t have a spot of remorse in them: they looked scared. She was afraid of how I would respond, of being shamed in front of all the important people of London.
I knew then what life I would lead. I would always be judged and rated according to how well I could sit under my husband’s thumb. I would be expected to never speak my opinion, only make children and a beauty for him to show off, as if I was his property.
I wouldn’t have it.
I looked at my mother once more. I saw her eyes narrowed in her sockets, her skin pulled and covered with makeup. I saw the blond hair that I used to play with, I saw the mouth that always used to smile at me and give me kisses on my forehead before bedtime. That was all gone and I wasn’t sorry. However, I knew I would have to help her when I left.
“I will send you money,” I said to her. My voice was no longer a whisper. One or two of the men at the table turned to me, puzzled before turning back to the table. I curtsied to my mother, turned on my heel, and walked away. She didn’t come after me.
I walked up to the servant next to the closet door and asked for my coat. He gave it to me without any emotion in his face. I made my face a mirror of his while I turned back to the hall where my mother was looking up at me. She was tapping Ralph on the shoulder and when he finally looked at her, she pointed up at me. I gave a wave to both of them, then turned and walked out the door into the cold night.
I walked quickly through the streets of London, feeling the sting of the cold air on my face, and I welcomed it. I was a woman who could do what I liked now; I chose to walk in the cold. No one told me to walk, and no one was holding me back. I was in control now; no more puppet strings.
I walked to the Thames and closed my eyes. I could remember when Tim took me here and told me to close my eyes. I am right here. Walk to the center of the bridge. Close your eyes, and walk forward three steps. Then turn left and walk forward one step. Open your eyes and lift the trap door beneath your feet. That’s where I will always be, if you ever need me.
I followed his instructions and an old staircase was underneath the door. I walked down them and came into a small room. There were candles in the room so you could see where you were going. There was a bed against a corner, a little table in the middle of the room with a book on it, with a pen and ink next to it. There was also a bookshelf filled with little notebooks that had clearly been written in; there were ink fingerprints on the books’ sides. I smiled at them and then looked in the last corner. A cabinet stood there, probably with clothes in it.
No one was in the room, so I went to the cabinet and opened one of the doors. A shirt and trousers were in there. I pulled them out, and recognized them as the clothes that Tim had gotten me a long time ago, when we had free time to go around London and I had gotten sick of my heavy layers. I grinned so widely I felt I would pull a muscle in my cheeks.
I hurriedly took off my dress and corset with deep full breathes that I could finally take. The shirt and trousers were so comfortable; I could move anyway I wished and not worry about what people would see, because everything was covered.
I heard footsteps from behind me and I jumped around, heart pounding. I relaxed when I saw Tim’s hair glowing softly in the candlelight. I ran to him, and was crushed into his embrace.
“Where should we go?” I asked into his ear.
He pulled away to look at me, confused. “What?”
“You never said where you think we should run away to. Did you have a particular place in mind?”
He grinned my favorite smile and said, “Well, where would you like to go?” as he slipped my necklace back around my neck.