Half a Lady

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Historical Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

We set our scene with three siblings bound in blood but divided by jealousy, pain, and remorse.

Ophelia, the dutiful daughter, is slowly going insane from her inability to cope with stifling societal pressures. Benvolio, the quiet peacemaker, is wracked with guilt and haunted by a tragic accident of the past. Cordelia, the broken daughter cast aside by the family she thought she knew, has been gradually planning her great escape.

Shakespeare prophesized the ending of their stories a long time ago, but all the world's a stage and this tale of three siblings is far from the final act.

Cordelia sat despondently in the stuffy sitting room. She would rather be anywhere else  than here, trapped as she was with her mother and sister. They were decidedly ignorant of her plight, which only served to further increase her torment. It was a glaring reminder that she had been reduced from the favorite child and sibling to something little better than a servant; someone who was to be tolerated and nothing more.

She sighed before sneaking a glance at her mother, whose gaze was locked affectionately on her younger sister. Cordelia felt like a weed overshadowed by flowers, yearning for the sun’s light despite knowing it would never fall as brightly on her. She had learned her place in the world long ago, and it was not among the tulips, roses, and daffodils.

“Ophelia,” her mother purred, “your needlework is truly exemplary. It will look lovely on display.” 

“Thank you, Mother,” her sister said, blooming under the attention.

Cordelia looked down at her own stitching and winced. She doubted she would receive any compliments from their mother on it. 

Sure enough, when Mother saw it, she gazed upon it with disdain. When she finally spoke, her voice betrayed her disappointment. “Cordelia, perhaps you should practice painting instead of wasting your time sewing.” 

“Yes Mother, you know best,” Cordelia replied, feeling her cheeks flush. “I will commence painting shortly,” she lied, having no intention of starting another mediocre portrait when there were books waiting to be read. 

She didn’t know why her parents even bothered to try and mold her into a Victorian lady. Unlike her younger sister, she wasn’t skilled with an instrument or paintbrush, and her needlework was positively atrocious. But it hadn’t always been this way. 

“You’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” her mother offhandedly said. She lightly fanned herself as she continued on to say, “Supper will be ready soon.” 

Cordelia glanced at the large mahogany grandfather clock situated by the fireplace and saw that she had around an hour before she would have to be dressed for supper. If she left now, she would have just enough time to escape outdoors with a new book. 

“Please excuse me,” Cordelia said as she set aside her sorry excuse of a sampler and subserviently withdrew. Her mother and sister barely spared her a glance.

Once free, she walked briskly to her chambers, not wanting to waste even a single minute. It seemed to take ages for her maid to undo the tight stays of her gown and help her into a simpler white dress and straw hat. After being properly outfitted for the excursion, she hurried outside, blatantly disregarding her mother’s wishes. She had given up on trying to fulfill the role of a dutiful daughter long ago.

Cordelia headed to her favorite spot; a small grassy knoll overlooking a stream. She wasn’t surprised to find it deserted when she arrived. From her perch on the bank of the river, the only face she could see was her own. It stared back at her from the water’s cool depths. 

With her creamy white skin and large hazel eyes, Cordelia had always been told she was beautiful. Her pronounced cheekbones, dark hair, and bow-shaped lips had served to make her the envy of every girl who visited their countryside manor. She had a lovely voice and her needlework used to make Ophelia’s look like an amateur. 

But that was before the accident. 

Two years ago, when Cordelia was nineteen, her little brother had been in danger of being run over by a carriage. She hadn’t hesitated to throw herself in front of it, saving his life but permanently condemning her own. The wheels of the carriage drove over her right arm, crushing the bones in it. Their doctor had no choice but to amputate it at the elbow. Cordelia lost her arm and any chance of living a normal, respectable life on that fateful day. 

Shaken from her self-pitying thoughts, she settled down in the soft grass, tilting her face up towards the sun. She had always been at peace in nature, even before the accident. Nature never expected anything from her, and it frequently provided her with much-needed privacy to pursue her academic interests. Her body may be broken, but her mind was still sharp.

Cordelia smoothed out the folds of her dress before reverently flipping to the first page of her new book, The Wanderer, by Frances Burney. She was soon lost in the story of a penniless emigree who escaped the French Revolution and tried to make a living for herself in England. The despicable treatment the young woman endured was something Cordelia found herself relating to on more accounts than she cared to admit. It wasn’t until she had to squint at the delicate print, straining her eyes to read the cramped text, that she realized how late in the day it had gotten.  

She carefully marked her place in the book before leaping to her feet in alarm. It would be brazenly unacceptable for her to be late to dinner, which left only one choice. Proper women were not allowed to run, but Cordelia was far from being a refined lady, and she headed down the path to the manor at a dead sprint. 

She entered through a side door, commonly used by the manor’s servants, to avoid causing a scene with her disheveled appearance. Once inside, she quickly summoned a servant and hurried to her chambers. The maid helped her into a fancier dress and restyled her hair in record time. Thanks to her, Cordelia arrived only a few minutes late to supper, but her tardiness was still enough for her mother to begin talking about institutions again. 
“William,” she addressed her husband, “has the administrator of the Nazareth House in Cardiff replied to your inquiry?”

Cordelia had heard of this institution before. It housed crippled, deformed, and incurably afflicted girls, a category she now fit under. The purpose of the Nazareth House in Cardiff was to prepare women for a life in the domestic services. Although Cordelia didn’t plan on making beds or cooking meals anytime soon, some of the other lessons they taught might prove useful. More important than that, her attendance there would draw her away from the estate. Her parents could forget she had ever existed. Nobody, her own family included, wanted half a lady living at their estate. 

“As a matter of fact, I received a letter from them earlier today,” her father replied. “They are ready and willing to provide accommodations for our daughter. Would you like for me to begin making travel arrangements?”

“Please do. Would tomorrow morning be too early of a departure date? We could always have her things sent later,” her mother stated with cool detachment. 

Cordelia felt the temperature of the room plunge with her mother’s icy words. Shivering, she tried to keep up with the small talk Ophelia was making, but failed at doing so miserably.

Cordelia stumbled into a footman as she rose and tried to escape. She hardly noticed as the soup tureen fell off of the footman's tray and landed in her mother’s lap. 

Tears blurred her vision as she raced down the hall to her chambers. Shutting the door behind her, she collapsed on the floor, crying tears of wretchedness. 

What she wasn’t anticipating was the soft knock on her door. 

“Cordelia? Are you alright?” a small voice asked. 

Wiping the tears from her face, Cordelia tried to compose herself. The last thing she wanted to do was appear as miserable as she felt in front of her brother. Taking one final, deep breath, she pushed open the door. 

“Ben, please come in,” she said.

Her seven year old brother entered, closing the door behind him. 

He took after her and their father in terms of appearance. Whereas Ophelia possessed the straight brown hair and dreary grey eyes of their mother, Cordelia and Benvolio had inherited their father’s voluminous, dark brown locks and large hazel eyes. Their similar interests and values transcended the fourteen year age gap, forging an unbreakable bond between the two siblings.

“Why were you crying?” he asked as he sat down beside her. “Are you as miserable as I am over your arm?” 

“Oh Ben, I don’t regret jumping in front of that buggy to save you, not for one minute. I’d do it all over again and lose this arm too if it meant that you would be safe,” she assured him as she drew him in for a lopsided hug.

“I truly am sorry,” he insisted as he wigged out of her grasp. “I always ruin everything. I made you lose your arm, and now Mother wants to send you away. You can’t leave, Cordelia. You simply can’t!” he insisted as a hazy glaze of tears crossed over his eyes.

“You worry too much,” she teased in a poorly executed attempt to lighten the mood. For his sake, Cordelia tried to force a smile onto her face, but between the dried tear tracks streaking down her cheeks and the wobble in her lips, she wasn’t sure if it came across well. 

“Why don’t we visit the library?” she suggested, hoping to distract him. “I know how much you like books.” 

“I’m not sure if that’s a good idea,” Ben pouted. “You know how Mother feels about you reading books.”

It was probably her imagination, but her copy of The Wanderer seemed to be burning a hole through her skirts at the mere mention of illicit book reading. The empowering message contained within the novel was not one that their mother would endorse. 

“Come on. We will have a grand time!” she insisted.

Ben sighed before nodding in agreement, and Cordelia celebrated the small victory. One way or another, she would be leaving the estate in the morning, and she wanted to spend time with her brother before that happened. 

His earlier sadness tucked away for now, Ben bounded out of her room and began eagerly making his way down the hall. Cordelia dutifully followed behind him, acting on her best behavior despite knowing that it wouldn’t be enough to save her in the end. Theirs was a reputable and respected family, and Cordelia simply didn’t fit in. Nobody would marry her, even with her sizable dowry, and she could hardly encroach on her brother’s benevolence and feelings of guilt, as he would one day own the country manor and their family’s vast fortune. 

Luckily, Cordelia had a plan that would grant her the freedom, happiness, and security she so desperately craved. Unbeknown to her family, she had been playing the long game in preparation for the day she was exiled. All the pieces were set in place, and Cordelia felt confident she possessed the strength necessary for what was about to come. 

The two siblings entered their manor’s small library and began perusing the shelves in search of an intriguing book. Despite encountering little use, the shelves were meticulously dusted. The staff made sure of that, which Cordelia was infinitely grateful about. If her mother ever discovered how frequently Cordelia visited the library, she would have been sent away long ago. 

“Can you reach that?” Ben asked, pointing towards a thick book with red binding and delicate gold print stacked precariously on the top shelf. 

Cordelia stretched, her fingers just grazing the book’s worn cover. She gently tugged it down, cradling the ancient volume with her one remaining hand. It was a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and she estimated the tome to be well over two hundred years old. 

With feigned innocence, she asked Ben, “Would you like for me to read to you?”

A grin split across his face, and he hurried over to the nearest chair, quickly settling in. 

Clearing her throat, Cordelia began reading the story of  Antony and Cleopatra, using different accents and voices to act out the characters. 

It wasn’t until she was well into the play that she realized her audience had doubled in size. Her voice faltered as she took in the look on their mother’s face. Then, Cordelia’s eyes hardened, and she took control of the situation.
“Benvolio, would you mind going to your room?” she asked politely. “Mother and I will be having a word with each other.”

His face fell and fresh tears sprang to his eyes, but at the use of his full name and the tone of her voice, he reluctantly retreated and left Cordelia to her fate.

At first, Mother said nothing. She stared at the First Folio as if even an ancient, threadbare book was preferable to the sight of her damaged daughter. Finally, she asked, “Did you know that Shakespeare was my favorite playwright?”
Cordelia looked up in feigned surprise. 

“Yes, I quite admired his work,” she said after finally designing to look at her daughter’s face. “I even named all of my children after characters in his plays.”

Cordelia nodded, matching herself and her siblings to the iconic figures. 

First, there was Ophelia, the dutiful daughter in Hamlet who eventually went insane from her inability to cope with societal pressures and expectations. Then Benvolio from Romeo and Juliet who played the role of a quiet, unsuccessful peacemaker who ultimately caused the demise of his best friend. And finally, there was Cordelia, the kind, beautiful, favorite child in King Lear, until suddenly, she wasn’t. 

In a way, Cordelia had always known the outcome of her story. Shakespeare had prophesied it long before she was born, and the accident had only sealed her fate.

She lifted her chin as she met her mother’s cold, dead eyes. No matter how hard she had prepared and planned for this moment, hearing her mother speak the words still hurt.  

“You will pack your bags and leave in the morning for the Nazareth House in Cardiff. From now on, you will be a stranger to me and my family.”

Cordelia nodded in acceptance before saying, “And might I expect to be given anything with which to sustain myself?”

“I asked William to put aside 10,000 pounds for you,” her mother said dismissively. 

It was a sizable amount, and Cordelia struggled to suppress her smile. In preparation for her eventual banishment, she had inquired about and accepted a position as a tutor for the children of a wealthy family, located some distance away. The small fortune her family had set aside for her would be more than enough to cover travel expenses.

From now on, just like the protagonist from The Wanderer, she would be making a name and a living for herself. And unlike Shakespeare’s Cordelia, she would never look back. 

Submitted: October 29, 2021

© Copyright 2021 CamWill18. All rights reserved.

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