During the 1830s, sixteen year old Lily discovers from her gypsy grandmother that she is not a gypsy. Her real parents are an English Lord and Greek heiress. Her search for her parents leads her to England, where she falls in love with an English Lord. However bstacles greet her along the way. Love wins the day.
Lily exited the dark chamber of the bookseller’s store clutching a small book in her grubby hands, content with her purchase. Her voice was hoarse from selling trinkets all day and she was tired and hungry, yet her victory was not in the number of coins in her pocket, but the leather book in her hand.
A sigh escaped her lips when she spied the crescent glow of the setting sun peaking behind the crown of the stone building she faced. She was late.
It was the first day of the festival in Caen and the town’s square was bustling with activity. Lily’s bare feet skimmed past the spice-filled barrels with their wild profusion of rich scents, followed by the pungent smell of leather and freshly baked bread. She hugged her book close to her as she passed tight crowds watching musicians sing and perform juggling acts, while nearby food vendors competed with chaotic shouting, bargaining and selling French cheese, sausages, and brioche. Jumping over carpets brimming with an assortment of textiles, handcrafted goods, and tools, she turned into a dark alley.
It was quiet here except for the steady pitter-patter of her feet against the cobble-stoned pavement and the rhythmic sound of her heavy breathing. Lily could see her grandmother’s tent, which always stood on the outskirts of the towns they visited, and would be removed by the end of the day. It was round and dirty white, with tiny tears from constant use and had two openings, one in the front, and one in the back. A small line of people, mostly women, had now formed in the front.
Lily flipped the back flap of the tent and stepped inside. Her grandmother Mirela sat at the table with her crystal ball and two lit candles on each side. She was plump and middle-aged, with round gold earrings, decked in flashy apparel and a purple turban. Her eyes were closed. She was meditating.
“Your earnings were good enough to afford that book?” Mirela spoke without opening her eyes.
“Yes, Grandmother. I earned more than Sultana and Fifi and the other girls.”
Mirela’s dark, heavy lidded eyes slid open. She gazed with interest at Lily’s wide, blue eyes.
Lily strode towards her and pulled out the shiny coins from her pocket, dropping them into her outreached fat palm. She showed her the book. “It is a new French novel and…”
“You can tell me another time. Now go and wait for my cue. Take some candles with you.”
Lily grabbed some tallow candles and slipped out the back. She slithered the black wig off her sweating head like a snake casting off its skin. Her grandmother wanted her to wear the piece in public so she wouldn’t stand out from the other gypsies, but she never could get used to it. With anticipation coursing through her sixteen-year old body, Lily sat down on the small stool, lit the candle, and began to read her book. It would be several minutes before she would be needed to escort the customer out the back.
Grandmother Mirela had taught her to read and write English, Greek, and French, although this was not an acceptable practice of the gypsies. Her friends often teased her when they spied her reading. She would shrug her shoulders and toss her head. They could not understand her.
The sun had already set when Gertrude Charleton entered Mirela’s tent. Hiking her blue walking dress up so as not to sully it on the dirt floor, she walked into the dimly lit tent and with a flourish sat down on the hard chair. “I am so glad I found you!” she said, removing her snug-fitting gloves. “So much has happened since two years ago, in Paris, when you read my future.”
“I have been expecting you.” Mirela spoke in English, her voice calm and dusky.
“After you told me about Mr. Penbroke, I checked up on him and you were right! He had gambled away everything he had. I married Sir Douglas Charleton after all.” She showed her the ring on her finger.
“You are to be commended for your wise choice, Lady Charleton.”
“With help from you, of course. I will always be in your debt. If there is ever a need for assistance in anything…”
Mirela’s eyes flashed open. “Later… we can talk. Let us begin.” She fixed her gaze on the gleaming ball for a few moments, then looked up. “What brings you to France, Lady Charleton?”
“My husband’s cotton textiles business.” Gertrude twisted her gloves. “It is not that he needs the money, mind you, he inherited quite a bit from his late father. He just likes to make more.” She appeared guilty. “Although trade is not quite accepted by the ton.”
“Maybe trade is not, but money is…and trade brings money.”
Gertrude appeared pleased. “We just came from Lyon, where we bought silk fabric. We will be leaving tomorrow with our packet ship for England. Is silk right for us at this time?”
“I do not see anything wrong with the choice, but I do see machines, many of them, for the cotton. The looms will help your business grow.”
Lady Charleton thanked Mirela. A shadow flitted over her features. “My husband’s uncle is quite ill with consumption. The doctors claim he does not have much time left.”
“A change of climate could help his condition.”
“His son is returning to England from his trip abroad, and now my younger sister Charlotte has confided in me that she is in love with him,” Gertrude said with lowered voice.
Lily’s long, honey-blonde braids brushed the pages of the book as she labored over the words. With one ear cocked toward the tent, she listened to the conversation, waiting for the cue to usher Lady Charleton out the back.
“Charlotte just turned twenty-one,” Gertrude was saying to Mirela, “I am not surprised of her interest for Edward. Indeed he is wealthy and quite handsome. Even I had a crush on him at one time, but that was so long ago.” She tittered.
“Hmm, and you want to know if they are right for each other.” Mirela’s eyes narrowed as her hands hovered above the ball. “Yes…I sense a woman next to him…attractive…and brightly clothed. She appears to be important in his life for they are holding hands.”
“Oh, that sounds like her! Is there anything more you can tell me? Will there be a wedding?”
Two drops of candle wax landed on the page that Lily was reading. Disgusted, she moved the book to the side, not wanting to damage it and turned her gaze on the shadows in the tent. Mirela’s turbaned head was close to the lady’s plumed head. She gave an inaudible response.
Lily could easily imagine what was being said, filling in the blank spots. Each city they visited was different, but the people were all alike with similar emotions, aspirations and dreams. The hushed conversation inside the tent was no different; a possible marriage, illness, and impending death.
The rattling sound of a carriage caught Lily’s attention. It was unusual for carriages to come through the narrow alley and besides, they were quite expensive and only the rich rode in them. The clattering sound stopped. Lily arose and hurried toward the alley with her candle to see who it was. She peered down the pitch-black alley, shifting the sputtering tallow candle towards that direction. Unable to see anything, she leaned forward, her lit candle revealing a closed carriage and horses.
The scene before her reminded her of a story she had once read, where the handsome prince drove up in his plush carriage to rescue the maiden in distress, but where was the maiden? She shook her head, realizing that she was becoming too fanciful. It must be Lady Charleton’s carriage, she was sure of it.
A cackling sound followed by the smell of the stark, pungent smoke interrupted her daydreaming. She glanced down in alarm at the flames soaring through her hair. Her heart jumped to her throat. She dropped the candle and cried out, but nothing came out of her mouth except a croaking sound. What was wrong with her?
What came next happened so quickly that it would remain a blur in her memory. Someone pushed her to the ground, rolling her in some thick, scratchy fabric. The scent of sandalwood and spice replaced the smell of smoke.
“Ne vous enquietez pas, ma petite,” said a man’s voice, deep and soothing.
Lily struggled to be free, for she did not want to be a captive in his arms, whomever he was. The warm wool was lifted from her. Trembling like a leaf, feeling the coldness of the evening press upon her, she arose. The tall shape of the man kept a respectful distance as she swiped at her face and clothes. She felt stronger by the minute.
“Merci, Monsieur,” Lily rasped. Her throat still felt raw from the smoke. “I do not know what I would have done without your help.”
“Ah, so you also speak English.”
Lily was silent, unsure as to how to reply to this man’s gentle probing. If he found out she was a gypsy, who spoke several languages, he would turn his heel, checking his pockets to make sure she did not steal something.
“I was in that carriage when I saw your head glowing like a ball of fire in the night,” he said. “I used my coat to put the flames out. You should be more careful in the future.”
Lily was touched by his words. His gentle tone was that of a father addressing a child. A gadjo speaking in such a manner was unusual.
“Good-bye!” Mirela announced from inside the tent.
Lily’s head swiveled towards the tent. Her grandmother’s call could not be ignored. “I must go!” She dashed back to the tent, thankful for the candlelight inside the tent guiding her way. She threw the black wig on her head and pulled the flap open to reveal the small frame of Lady Charleton standing there.
Lily curtsied, her head low. “Please follow me, my Lady,” she said, grabbing her gloved arm and leading her towards the direction of the street.
Gertrude pulled her arm away. “I can find my way.”
Lily watched the lady glide forward. She wondered if the man would still be there. Maybe he was the lady’s coachman. As if reading her mind, the man’s tall shape materialized.
“What a surprise to see you here!” Lady Charleton exclaimed. She clung to him as they walked away, their dark shapes blending into the night.
Lily stared at their retreating shadows, feeling deflated. She did not even know the name of her rescuer.
* * *
Gertrude sank into the plush seat of the carriage. “I was expecting Douglas to collect me. You can imagine my surprise when you showed up instead! I suppose my husband was still busy finishing up with his… transaction?”
“He duly sends his apologies.”
“I thank you for playing the gallant!” Gertrude replied, laughing. “We were expecting you earlier in the day.”
“I just arrived an hour ago. Our ship struck inclement weather just as it was departing from Italy, which made for an arduous journey.”
“I’ll have you know that delays in shipping are quite common these days. Indeed, our textiles are always late for some reason or another. So, Edward, how were your travels? You must tell me all about your trip.”
“Extraordinary, and always something new to see or do.” He discussed a few highlights of the countries he visited.
“You took so long in returning, we thought you might have met some beautiful exotic woman and decided to live on some secluded island with her for the rest of your life!”
Edward laughed. “It was not like that at all. I assure you, I am still a free man.”
“That is good. There are some people besides your father and us who are glad that you are returning to England.”
* * *
After the last customer left, Lily dragged her sore and tired body into the tent. She pulled off her ragged black wig and combed her fingers through her singed hair, thinking about the tall stranger who saved her from the fire. Perfumed scents from the female customers clung in the air as she greeted her grandmother, whose head was bent over the table counting the coins.
“We did very well today.” Mirela looked up at Lily and blinked. “What happened to your hair?”
“It was nothing. My braid got caught in the candle,” Lily mumbled.
“Come, sit down. There is something important I must say to you.” Mirela’s fleshy hand sought Lily’s, guiding her to the stool. “I had a dream last night…a prophetic vision…where a young woman I knew came and took you away. I woke up feeling terrified and did not know what it meant until this evening when Lady Charleton appeared.”
“Lady Charleton? What are you saying?”
“The time has come for you to leave us, Lily, and the reason? It is here, a lie that I have lived with for a decade, that has been knocking on my heart heavily, seeking to be free,” Mirela pounded her chest. “You must know that I am not your real grandmother.”
Lily sat motionless, stunned into silence. How could this be? Mirela was all the family she had.
“You always wondered why you stood out from the other gypsies, your tall height, your fair hair…your eyes…and I told you lies. They were all lies!” Mirela sighed once more. “Your parents were not gypsies. Your mother was not my daughter. You are a gadjo.”
* * *
The tent seemed too small for Lily. She stood up with the urgent need to rush out into the night and breath deeply, anything to get away from this terrible feeling she was experiencing. She had been raised up to believe that gadjos were foreign to them, untouchable, and to be avoided except for business only, and here she was one of them. She held her ground, her hands clenched, trembling with emotion. “How can this be?”
“Your mother was Greek and your father English.”
“I do not believe it!”
“It is true !” Mirela insisted. “Ten years ago, in March, we were staying on the outskirts of the Greek city of Patras.” She looked out into the distance, her eyes hooded. “The night before, I had a disturbing dream about the city. A prophetic dream that it would glow like the sun.”
Lily heard about how Sultana and her sister, Fifi, had found her wandering the streets of Patras with her doll. The two gypsy girls snatched the doll from her hands and she chased them into the woods. The girls confessed to their mother Babushka about what happened, and she alerted the others. The men searched for Lily and brought her back to the camp.
“Why was I not taken back to my parents?”
“It was too late. The Turks had already set fire to the homes in Patras and the smoke had come up to the hills. I could smell death in the air and urged Petroff that we leave right away.” She shook her head emphatically. “The fighting was fierce between the Greeks and the Turks and marked the beginning of the war. Later, we learned of the atrocities of the Turks and how they took the children and women as slaves. It is good you came with us.”
“Is that why you always spoke to me in Greek? Is that why I was always afraid of fire?”
Mirela nodded. “I remember them carrying you back to the camp. You were beautiful, just like your doll… with your large, blue eyes, blond curls and pink dress. You said your name was Lily. So that is what we called you. Petroff entrusted you in my care.” There was a far-away look on her face. “We had just lost our own daughter to an illness, and there was a huge void. I loved her dearly.” She turned towards Lily. “You came into my life just at the right time.”
“How did you find out about my parents?”
“You wore a locket around your neck and carried a purse in your pocket that revealed your true identity.” Mirela pulled out a green silk purse from her pocket. “Count Igor got a hold of this after my Petroff passed away. Today I took it while he was at the festival. He does not know I have it. It truly belongs to you.” She retrieved a folded paper from the purse, then a gold locket, handing it to her. “Open it.”
As Lily struggled with the latch, a discomforting feeling tugged inside of her. This simple act reminded her of something buried deep into the past. A cry of joy escaped her lips when she succeeded. It revealed the miniature portraits of her parents. Her mother was beautiful and her father was blonde-haired and blue-eyed.
“Quickly, read this. Count Igor will be here soon,” Mirela said, shoving the paper into her hand.
The paper identified her as Judith Evangelia Montgomery, daughter of Frederick C. Montgomery and Penelope S. Mavroditis. She was born in London, England on March 23, 1815. It stated that if she were lost, she was to be taken to the Clemence and Hartford law office in London, where this document was to be submitted. The lawyer would take the appropriate action to secure her place. The signature on the paper was that of Frederick Montgomery, her father.
Lily brushed the tears from her eyes. “Why was I never returned to my parents?”
“If we took you back to Patras, the Turks would have captured you and taken you as a slave. If we took you to England, they would have thought we stole you and would have put us in prison. Each year that passed, the idea of returning you to England became more painful to me. When I became a widow, you became even more important in my life. I did not want to part with you. I wanted to teach you fortune-telling, to make you follow my foot-steps…but that is not to be.” Mirela’s shoulders sagged.
Lily felt mixed emotions. On the one hand, she felt sad for the loss of her real parents, and at the same time, guilty. How ungrateful she must appear to her grandmother! She stood up, clutching the paper. “Why should I go after all these years? No one came for me. No one cared to find me!” She paced the small tent, flailing her thin arms around. “How do I know if my real parents are alive? What if no one is there to take me?”
“There is another reason I want you to leave. Now that you are sixteen, of marriageable age, Count Igor plans to take you as his wife so he could claim your inheritance from your English relatives.”
Lily recoiled from the news. Count Igor was the leader of the gypsy caravan. She had known him ever since she was a child. He was darkly handsome, but so much older. Her friend Sultana had spoken openly about her feelings of adoration for him. “Are you sure about this? I do not want to marry him! Sultana wants him!”
“Why do you think he never married?” Mirela hissed. “He should have had a family by now. Instead, he has been waiting all these years for you to grow up. He plans to leave for Germany as soon as the festival ends.”
“There, he will meet up with his cousin’s caravan and the two caravans will become as one, leaving Count Igor to be free to take you to England and marry you there. After your marriage, he wants to take you to the attorney’s office and claim your inheritance. I cannot allow this to happen.”
“How can that be?” Lily cried.
“I have seen the future. You are not meant to marry Count Igor.” She stopped, not wanting to go further. “I will deal with him when the time comes. He will listen to me.”
Lily stared at her feet, a tight feeling forming in her chest. She did not want to leave.
Mirela stood up, her arms outstretched. “Ela etho. Come here.” Lily ran into her open arms. “Things will be all right, my dear, you will see,” she crooned, stroking Lily’s head.
The sound of the men’s voices outside was loud and boisterous. Count Igor and his band of musicians had arrived and apparently had a few rounds of drinks before coming here.
Mirela scrambled up, grabbing her lit candle. “Stay here.” She hurried outside.
Lily stuffed the purse into her skirt pocket and threw the wig on her head, then pushed the front flap of the tent to the side, peeking out into the breezy night. Emilian and Iakov, members of the band, were descending from the wagon, while Count Igor stood in front of his horse talking to Mirela. Mirela handed him a pouch of coins.
“Where is Lily?” Count Igor asked Mirela. He glanced at the tent.
Lily dropped the flap and withdrew back into the safety of the tent, feeling guilty at eavesdropping.
“She is inside getting things ready.”
Lily busied herself with preparations. Emilian and Iakov entered the tent, greeting her cheerfully. They transported the furniture to the cart. Within minutes, they were dismantling the tent. No one seemed to notice her pensive face. They were too happy.
“It was a wonderful day,” Emilian announced. “Everyone made good money at the fair.”
Lily learned that Count Igor had sold his black stallion, Night Dust. He had made a bundle.
Soon, they were heading back to the camp. Lily and her grandmother sat quietly in the back of the wagon while the men sang with gusto. It was not long before strains of violin music greeted their ears as they entered the gypsy camp. Several gypsies danced with abandon around the campfire, accompanied by whooping sounds and clapping. Lily’s friends, Sultana and Fifi were among those dancing. Even the children were still up, playing and running around.
Babushka sat in the middle of the camp stirring the large pot over the campfire. “There is plenty of stew left!” she called out to them.
Mirela excused herself, feigning tiredness, and Lily did the same. She followed her grandmother’s footsteps down the path, away from the group, and into the dark, safe haven of their round tent. She did not feel like eating or conversing with any of her friends. There was too much turmoil weighing her heart down and they would eventually tease the truth out of her. She did not want them to know that she was a gadjo.
With a determination that was to help her later in life, Lily lit a candle, then retrieved the knife. “Come, yia-yia. Help me cut off the burnt edges of my hair.”
With steady hand, Mirela sliced the offending chunks of singed hair. “Do not worry, it will grow back again. Life is that way. You lose some and you win some.”
As each long strand fell, Lily felt as if she were relinquishing her innocence, her naïve existence, and allowing a new life to begin. With a solemn air, she bent down and retrieved a lock of her silky flaxen hair from the small heap on the floor. “Please take this to remember me.”
Mirela took the strand. “I will always remember my dear Lily.”
Lily dug a hole in the ground next to the black trunk. She buried her hair, covering it with dirt, then wiped her dirty hands. “How shall I prepare for the trip?”
“Look in that black trunk. It has English clothes. I kept them all these years, thinking they might be needed one day.”
Lily stared inside the chest at the folded dresses. “How did you get these?”
“Do you think I was always a gypsy?” Mirela asked with a doleful shake of her head. “I was born in England a long time ago, to a squire.” She ignored the astonished look that Lily shot her. “I was the oldest of five children, and when I was seventeen, my father died and we had to work. I became a personal maid to Mrs. Evermore. She gave me these clothes. When I was nineteen, I met Petroff at the town fair. He was singing and dancing with his group. We fell in love and once we married, I became a gypsy.”
Lily was bemused. She had always assumed that her grandmother was born a gypsy.
“I know what you are thinking.” Mirela commented. “You are probably wondering why I did not tell you sooner.” She shook her head. “There was no reason for me to tell you this story…not until now.”
“How was it like…becoming a gypsy?”
“At first, it was wild and beautiful, and free…so different from English life, but soon I noticed there were problems. Wherever we went, I was dismayed at how poorly we were treated by each country. There was no respect for us. There was a bad stigma attached to the gypsies, even though we made an honest living. It made no difference to them.”
Lily thought about Mirela’s words as she dipped her fingers into the cold water from the basin. She wiped her hands and chose a gray muslin dress from the trunk to wear. Her fingers smoothed the wrinkled fabric. “I wonder what happened to Mrs. Evermore.”
“She is resting,” Mirela said cryptically. “There are also some shoes in there.”
Lilly slipped a pair of black shoes on her feet and winced. “These are too tight.” She tossed them to the side. “I will not wear them. I will just go bare….”
“No you will not!” Mirela scolded. “There are rules of society you will need to abide by in order to fit in. For instance, never take your shoes off in public. I will give you money to buy new ones in London, but until then, you must wear these.”
“I do not like all these changes.” Lily sighed. “What else do I need to know?”
“Do not speak unless spoken to, and never shout or swear. It is unladylike.” Mirela paused as if thinking. “Never be in a room alone with a man or speak to him alone, unless you are engaged or married to him. Or else you will be labeled as a loose woman. Always have a chaperone with you.”
“What silly rules! Why is it a crime to speak to a man?”
“It just is. Oh, and do not wear any of your gold bracelets. They jingle too much and call attention to you. Keep them hidden in your bag. They can be exchanged for money.”
Lily was thankful that it was so late and that no one had come by to interrupt them, including her friends who were too busy enjoying the festivities. They would have been shocked to see English ladies’ clothes strewn all over the cots.
“Here, I almost forgot. Take these with you. You must use these to eat with, instead of your fingers,” Mirella said, pulling out a silver spoon and knife from the trunk and handing them to her.
Lily fingered them. “They must have cost you quite a bit.”
“I did not pay for them. Grateful clients have made these possible,” Mirella said, smiling. “Now finish your packing. We must get ready for bed. You have a big day tomorrow.”