History of Sofia - Part 2
By mid-summer, before her eleventh birthday, Papa was bedridden. He was more than she or her mother could handle, now, and too weak and muddled to care or complain, he finally broke down and let Mama hire a nurse to help tend to him. Sofia helped too. Miranda saw to that, gently coaxing her daughter into feeding him or sitting with him if she felt she was being neglectful. She was still as attentive to him as ever, and Sofia was a little sorry that she was not as good and as patient as Miranda wanted her to be.
Her last memory of her father is of going into his room one afternoon to check on him, as part of her daily routine. He was sleeping, as he was more often than not now. She did not want to wake him, but she slipped her hand into his and stood for a moment, thinking of all that had happened to them. She felt sorry, sorry for him, sorry for herself, sorry that she wasn't a better daughter.
He stirred, and opened his eyes. They were clouded and unfocused, but he had enough vision left to find her. He looked intently at her for a moment, as if he were surprised to see her there - almost as if she were some other, half-forgotten person from his past - and then he smiled. "It's Sofia, Papa," she squeezed the words around the lump in her throat, still not sure if he saw her, or someone else. His cramped fingers tightened around hers for an instant, but she couldn't tell if it was a deliberate or accidental gesture. Then his eyes closed, and he was asleep again, and she left him.
Mama went in to sit with him later that day. When it grew dark, and she still did not come out, Sofia went in to see if she wanted anything. Papa was sleeping; she could hear his ragged breath. Mama was sitting by the bed, her eyes were red and her voice cracked when she turned to her. "What is it, Sofia?"
"Nothing," she whispered. "I came to see if you were all right."
"Fine, fine." She got up and came to wrap her daughter in her arms. "Papa is sleeping. Have you had your supper?"
"Yes." Sofia frowned and hugged her mother's waist. "Mama?"
"It's all right, Sofia," Mama's arm was around her shoulders and she was walking her to the door. "Papa is sleeping, and the nurse is here if I need anything. You've worked so hard. Go and rest."
And so she did.
Her father died that night. Mama had known it was coming and did not want her daughter to see. It was no more than an hour or two after she had spoken to him, and she was still awake. When she heard the news, she wanted to see him. Sofia went into the sickroom bravely enough, but she came out in Mama's arms, dripping with tears. "Come here," Mama sat her down and they spent a good, long while huddled together, Sofia drenching her shoulder while Mama rocked and hushed her. She never knew she could cry so many tears.
Miranda grieved deeply for the loss of her husband, and Sofia wept pitifully for the loss of her father, but then, when the tears had dried, she could feel nothing but relief. She tried to explain it by telling herself that, of course, it was all for the best; he had suffered so much, death could only be a blessing to him. But the truth was, Sofia had reached a point where she could no longer remember a time when he wasn't sick, and she was weary of carrying even her little portion of the burden of caring for him, day after day. God forgive her, she didn't have her mother's patience, and she was glad to have the whole thing over with.
In the end, their lives had revolved so much around his that it was strange at first to be able to think of themselves again. Mama suggested that they hire a housekeeper, but Sofia told her emphatically that she did not want one. The household was theirs now. They had paid dearly for it, and she was not about to give it up. And, after spending so much time taking care of everyone else, she certainly did not need anyone to take care of her. Miranda argued the point, and Sofia knew her mother was only trying to make life easier for them, to give her daughter back some part of the childhood she had lost. She encouraged her to get out and make friends with other girls her age, and she threw little parties and staged little outings for her to meet them. But Sofia did not like the girls she knew. They were silly and stupid and spoiled. And they did not like the odd, plain girl who cared more for cooking and reading than frippery and foolishness. Her friends were the market vendors, who treated her as an adult, and an adult with a nose for a good piece of cheese and an eye for a freshly-caught fish, at that. She was always happiest at home, managing her own small domestic kingdom, and Mama, understanding this, finally gave up on the housekeeper and the neighbor girls and let Sofia do as she pleased.
Sofia's education had fallen into disarray, and Miranda had hired a tutor to put her back on the path. His name was Tom, he was a young man, slight and fair and solemn, and she had a crush on him before she ever knew what a crush was. Mama winked and looked the other way and let her study right alongside him. Tom was nervous at first about having a young lady pupil – Sofia thought he was afraid someone would find out, and he would be burned for heresy or some such thing. "Sofia," he told her early on, "you are a very clever girl." He said it with a touch of surprise in his voice, and a shadow of fearful respect in his eyes, as if he found the notion of female intelligence intimidating – as she was sure he did. Sofia would laugh at him, and tease him, and flirt with him to the extent of her awkward abilities and before long, he grew accustomed to her. She was eleven when he came, and by thirteen she had outgrown her infatuation with him, thanks to the butcher's brown-eyed son, who had begun working in his father's shop that winter. She wasted far too much money on ham that year.
That was the story of her infant love life. Every six months or so, a new infatuation, always directed at some poor lad who could not have cared less for her. She had no idea how to make herself interesting to them, so she pined away hopelessly, and secretly as well, since she had no girl friends to confide in and Mama, always seemed too busy with work otherwise.
She was glad she had survived her crush on Tom, for she was then able to settle into a comfortable friendship with him. His own interest was in the science of herbology and medicine, and he taught her many interesting things. Sofia was intrigued by the deadly qualities of some herbs and the life they could restore if used correctly. This was not a morbid fascination, you understand. She was amazed by the effects certain combinations the herbs had on an ailing body. In early spring, on mist-shrouded mornings, Sofia would be taken into the forest, where Tom taught her how to identify the herbs and then, over long summer days, how to dry and store them. And she learned wondrous things; how, for instance, the herb hellebore, which was found growing on the banks of the river, bears a blossom pearly white and was blessed with the power to drive out evil spirits possessing the mind, but that its root is as black as night and can induce mental or bodily illness, even death.
She learned that angelica fights the Plague and that a mixture of mandrake and henbane kills pain and causes a person to sleep as though dead. All of this and much more she was made to keep in her head, Tom asking questions into the night when all she wanted was to close her eyes and sleep.
She had just turned eighteen, and they were having a hard winter. Talk had begun of a sickness going around, but as yet it had taken only a few, weak, old people and a baby or two. When Mama started a fever and complained of a few aches and pains, Sofia was concerned, but not alarmed. Sofia had fixed supper and gone to bed as usual.
To her distress, Mama was much worse in the morning. She helped the nurse tend to her. It was as if God had said, very well, Sofia, you didn't cry when I took your Papa, let's see how you feel if I take your mother; can I make you cry for her? And, yes, she did cry this time. Not until the day was done, not until Mama was in bed with a nurse to watch over her, and she was alone in her room, but at last, in the dark, she stuffed my face into a pillow and screamed and sobbed for her poor mother until her stomach was in knots, and her jaw ached miserably, and she was as red and as hot as if she had had the fever herself. It was far and away the most brutal pain she had suffered in all of her eighteen years, the prospect that she might lose the only family she had.
Sofia was too numb and defeated to worry; God was beating her down, and repaying her selfishness, and if He wanted to take her mother, her worrying would not stop Him. She did not let Mama see this; she put on a good face for her, and fixed all the dishes she liked, and managed to keep her eating. She was afraid to hope that she would recover, but at least she did not worsen. She hung at some point several steps short of death, weak and lethargic, but safe for the time. Mama talked to her a great deal then, about Papa, and how she had fallen in love with him. She spoke often of their time with him before he was sick, and asked her if she remembered the incidents she would recount, and Sofia always said yes, even though she usually didn't. That was also when she told her the story of how she'd learned to read and count, sitting on his lap while he worked, and she told her honestly that she did not remember that, but she insisted that it was all true.
One time, Mama held her hand and told her, trying to sound as if it were nothing but a passing remark, what a good girl she was, and how clever she was, and how she didn't know how she would ever have managed without her - and by then, she was sorry she'd said anything, because her daughter's face was fairly dripping with tears.. "Now, Sofia," she croaked, giving her hand a slap and a squeeze, "don't get all emotional." And Sofia smiled and said, with a big, noisy sniff, "Don't be silly, I'm not emotional!" And she wiped her face and went to get her mother some supper.
By evening on the fourth day Sofia had a fever. The sickness had taken so long to get to her, she had begun to believe it would pass her by altogether. But, in the morning, she could not get out of bed, and the nurse had two patients to watch. Ironically, it proved to be a bigger help to Mama when she was sick than when she had been well. Jolted by her daughter's illness into realizing that she was on the verge of losing all the family she had left, Mama fought back and made a startling recovery. Oh, she did not regain all her old strength in one day. But, it wasn't long before she was sitting by her daughter's bedside, fussing at her to eat, and exhorting her to fight off her weakness. Although she would never wish to feel so dreadful again, Sofia had a strong constitution and was never in any danger. Before long, she was back to her old self and as healthy as ever.
For a long time after her husband's death, Miranda had been doing business in Enchancia, travelling often between that city and their home in Fairburn. Once spring came, and they were both as healthy as they were likely to get, Mama decided that they should move to Enchancia for good. She said that with the loss of Papa and the sickness, the house made her uncomfortable now. But Sofia suspected another reason.
They had been so cozy together, she and her mother, that she had never pushed her daughter out of the nest, so to speak. Mama assumed that she would live for, oh, half an eternity or so, and, should the day ever come for her to leave her daughter, Sofia would be married off by then. But now Mama had just had a good long visit with her own mortality. In her view, her daughter had to be taken care of, and if she were not here to do it, who would? The pool of appropriate suitors was wider and deeper in Enchancia, and Mama had a large circle of friends there who might prove useful. So, to Enchancia they went.
Sofia was not sorry to go. The only person she was saddened to leave was Tom, her tutor. Mama had to discharge him, of course. Although she no longer had any delusions of being in love with him, she supposed she still would have taken Tom, had a match been arranged. But, there was never any thought given to such a bargain, and, in the end, he married the niece of her friend the Dairy-man. It was a much happier choice for all concerned.
Sofia had some small idea of what Mama was plotting, but she kept her peace. She knew her mother would never press her into a marriage she was unwilling to enter. She tried, again, at nudging her into some friendships with other young ladies, but they were all so pretty and delicate next to plain little Sofia that she grew quite cross with comparing herself to them and ended up right back where she'd started. She was introduced to the sons of the merchants her mother knew. Some, she disliked; some disliked her. One or two were pleasant company and were actually willing to engage in intelligent conversation with her, but the sparks, so to speak, never flew. "Well," said Mama, "you can't rush these things."
"Yes," Sofia said; "I know."
Miranda was called to the kingdom in the summer. She remembered her mother's giddiness at having the chance to meet the royal family. Sofia was given the chance to come along and while her mother was discussing business with the royal advisor, Sofia was left in the hall to wait. That was when she met Cedric, the King's Royal Sorcerer. He was twenty-four to her nineteen, really quite a reasonable balance of ages. She would not say that she fell in love with him at first sight but he did catch her eye. For one thing, he was very tall, a virtue she'd always found appealing, and, added to that, he was fair and fine-featured, with a pair of remarkably piercing amber eyes. He was mature and sensible and yet childish, which earned him high marks in Sofia's books, and seemed older than his years. He had the reputation of a dry old bachelor, even as young as he was.
When her mother began taking frequent visits to the castle at odd intervals of the week, Sofia began suspecting more than simple business affairs. So it came as no surprise when the rumor that Miranda had become the king's mistress had reached her ears. Things moved rather quickly after that. In six short months following the news of her mother's relations, Sofia found herself a step-daughter and a newly crowned Princess of Enchancia, a title her new step-sister resented her for.
Her mother adjusted well to court life however Sofia found the move taxing and more often than not found herself hiding away in her newest and only friend's tower in an effort to escape. It's difficult for her to recount their courtship in any sort of innocent or objective manner. She did know that it was her cooking that first caught his attention. Though she was required to dine with the King during evening meals, she still insisted she cook her own meals even when the servants protested. Finally, they met at a standstill and while she had to be served her meal in the evening, she was permitted to cook anything she pleased in between. It was on one such occasion that she had made a lunch of roasted quail and had taken it to his tower to share. He had praised every dish she set before him and she was too flattered and delighted by his attention not to be smitten with him and she thought that it was at that moment that she saw her future laid out before her.
And so, there is the tale Sofia Knightley, the wool merchant's daughter and the completion of her backwards biography.