She paused to wipe her eyes, gratefully accepting the handkerchief that Anthony handed to her. When she continued, her voice was barely a whisper. “The other vow was to your mother. I visited her grave, you know.”
Kate’s nod was accompanied by a wistful smile. “I know. I went with you on several occasions.”
Mary shook her head. “No. I mean before I married your father. I knelt there, and that was when I made my third vow. She had been a good mother to you; everyone said so, and any fool could see that you missed her with everything in your heart. So I promised her all the same things I promised you, to be a good mother, to love and cherish you as if you were of my own flesh.” She lifted her head, and her eyes were utterly clear and direct when she said, “And I’d like to think that I brought her some peace. I don’t think any mother can die in peace leaving behind a child so young.”
“Oh, Mary,” Kate whispered.
Mary looked at her and smiled sadly, then turned to Anthony. “And that, my lord, is why I am sorry. I should have known, should have seen that she suffered.”
“But Mary,” Kate protested, “I didn’t want you to see. I hid in my room, under my bed, in the closet. Anything to keep it from you.”
“But why, sweetling?”
Kate sniffed back a tear. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to worry you, I suppose. Or maybe I was afraid of appearing weak.”
“You’ve always tried to be so strong,” Mary whispered. “Even when you were a tiny thing.”
Anthony took Kate’s hand, but he looked at Mary. “She is strong. And so are you.”
Mary gazed at Kate’s face for a long minute, her eyes nostalgic and sad, and then, in a low, even voice, she said, “When your mother died, it was…I wasn’t there, but when I married your father, he told the story to me. He knew that I loved you already, and he thought it might help me to understand you a bit better.
“Your mother’s death was very quick. According to your father, she fell ill on a Thursday and died on a Tuesday. And it rained the whole time. It was one of those awful storms that never ends, just beats the ground mercilessly until the rivers flood and the roads become impassable.
“He said that he was sure she would turnabout if only the rain would stop. It was silly, he knew, but every night he’d go to bed praying for the sun to peek out from the clouds. Praying for anything that might give him a little hope.”
“Oh, Papa,” Kate whispered, the words slipping unbidden from her lips.
“You were confined to the house, of course, which apparently rankled you to no end.” Mary looked up and smiled at Kate, the sort of smile that spoke of years of memories. “You’ve always loved to be outdoors. Your father told me that your mother used to bring your cradle outside and rock you in the fresh air.”
“I didn’t know that,” Kate whispered.
Mary nodded, then continued with her story. “You didn’t realize your mother was ill right away. They kept you from her, fearing contagion. But eventually you must have sensed that something was wrong. Children always do.
“The night she died the rain had grown worse, and I’m told the thunder and lightning were as terrifying as anyone had ever seen.” She paused, then tilted her head slightly to the side as she asked, “Do you remember the old gnarled tree in the back garden—the one you and Edwina always used to scramble on?”
“The one that was split in two?” Kate whispered.
Mary nodded. “It happened that night. Your father said it was the most terrifying sound he’d ever heard. The thunder and lightning were coming on top of each other, and a bolt split the tree at the exact moment that the thunder shook the earth.
“I suppose you couldn’t sleep,” she continued. “I remember that storm, even though I lived in the next county. I don’t know how anyone could have slept through it. Your father was with your mother. She was dying, and everyone knew it, and in their grief they’d forgotten about you. They’d been so careful to keep you out, but on that night, their attention was elsewhere.
“Your father told me that he was sitting by your mother’s side, trying to hold her hand as she passed. It wasn’t a gentle death, I’m afraid. Lung disease often isn’t.” Mary looked up. “My mother died the same way. I know. The end wasn’t peaceful. She was gasping for breath, suffocating before my very eyes.”
Mary swallowed convulsively, then trained her eyes on Kate’s. “I can only assume,” she whispered, “that you witnessed the same thing.”
Anthony’s hand tightened on Kate’s.
“But where I was five and twenty at my mother’s death,” Mary said, “you were but three. It’s not the sort of thing a child should see. They tried to make you leave, but you would not go. You bit and clawed and screamed and screamed and screamed, and then—”
Mary stopped, choking on her words. She lifted the handkerchief Anthony had given her to her face, and several moments passed before she was able to continue.
“Your mother was near death,” she said, her voice so low it was nearly a whisper. “And just as they found someone strong enough to remove such a wild child, a flash of lightning pierced the room. Your father said—”
Mary stopped and swallowed. “Your father told me that what happened next was the most eerie and awful moment he’d ever experienced. The lightning—it lit the room up as bright as day. And the flash wasn’t over in an instant, as it should be; it almost seemed to hang in the air. He looked at you, and you were frozen. I’ll never forget the way he described it. He said it was as if you were a little statue.”
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