A.N.: Since the film-makers decided to mush several decades together—i.e. Maria wearing a leg-of-mutton sleeve (1890s-1907ish) with a horrendously unfinished 1870s skirt (the crinolette would never be seen as part of a finished dress; it was an underskirt)—I have decided to take my own creative licenses—if only so that Diana can play Clair de Lune though (with my story set in 1878 where Eliza Merryweather's tombstone said she died in the early 1870s) it wasn't published until 1903.
This is my take on what would have happened if Maria had had an elder sister who didn't have the pride everyone else in the Merryweather strain did. Maria's elder-sister's name is Diana and she is played in my head by Amy Smart.
Also, if I don't get bored, I may incorporate The Spiderwick Chronicles into this story after the curse on Moonacre is lifted—maybe have one of Robin's friends (Jered, maybe?) be a nephew of Sir Conan Spiderwick or something in Moonacre Valley.
June 17, 1877
"Lord, we commit the body of your son, Colonel George Herbert Merryweather to the ground…"
Diana took a deep shuddering breath and released it, clutching her sister's hand in her own. The prayer was finished and Diana and Maria both stepped forward with their blood-red roses and each dropped one into the pit, where they rested with broken petals on the polished wood of the lacquered black coffin.
She dropped her own rose with Maria's and brushed her lace-gloved hands over her black jacquard skirt and glanced away from the freshly-engraved tombstone at a tumbledown marble gazebo. There was someone clad all in black in a strange bowler-hat and a strip of black fabric across his nose leaning, just so, against one of the elaborate Ionic columns, dark eyes fixed on their party—on her. She shivered and turned back to her father's grave and took her place beside her younger sister.
She licked her lips, tasting the saltiness of her tears, and glanced over Maria's ribbon-strewn caramel hair and almost jumped. The man, or boy, had disappeared. But she couldn't shake the feeling of having eyes on her. Something karked loudly in the trees above and made her shiver.
Since the carriage had already been sold off several weeks ago to cover a debt Papa had against one of his regiment members, they had to walk to the attorney's office. It was a grand old place filled with grand old furniture and grand old men: their heels echoed on the polished parquet floor as they were led to the office of Colonel Merryweather's attorney. Diana walked in front, Ms Heliotrope behind with Miss Maria.
"Ah, Miss Merryweather," the attorney said, upon Diana being admitted into the office with Ms Heliotrope. Diana was offered a seat in front of the attorney's desk and her sister flanked her, standing behind, as she sat, feeling herself growing smaller and smaller as the attorney read out her father's will.
"This being the last will and testament of Colonel George Herbert Merryweather of London," the attorney read out with a sigh of defeat.
"H-he—He lost it all?" Ms Heliotrope squeaked. Diana sat in silence, feeling a decidedly heavy weight resting on her. She, alone of the two daughters and numerous staff of the family, knew how much trouble Colonel Merryweather had been in. She had written herself to Uncle Benjamin to ask for help—it was the only time her father had ever struck her when he found out, when Uncle Benjamin had written her father with offers of money.
He'd had too much stubborn pride to accept help from his own brother—he'd done one sordid deal with the wrong person one time too many, and here they all were because of it.
"Mm," the attorney nodded solemnly.
"Including the house?" Ms Heliotrope asked. Diana had settled herself with the notion that nothing would be different now that Papa had gone and gotten himself killed—she had written to Uncle Benjamin the day Papa died to plead that he take in her and her sister should the need arise. She took a shaky breath and wiped her cheeks.
"No—" Maria blurted obstinately, and Diana glanced up to her younger sister, to see her cheeks glistening with tear-marks and her eyes red. "No—Papa can't have been in London. When he wrote to us and said he was coming home, he wouldn't arrive—and not…"
They were penniless. Diana had had a long time to get used to the idea—she was hardly a materialistic girl, but very sentimental, and she knew they would have to sell most of their possessions to pay off her father's debts. Their belongings could be salvaged, of course, but…there would be no more brand-new pretty frocks sent over from Paris, no luxurious parties with champagne and gorgeous beaux. Not for her sister, anyway. At seventeen, Diana had already had a little of her share of that kind of fun.
"Oh—well, your father did leave you girls this," the attorney said, reaching into a deep drawer of his polished mahogany desk that matched the panelling on the walls. "As your inheritance." It was a book, a large leather-bound, dusty book studded with something that looked like pearls. Diana reached for it and felt it rest heavily in her arms as she read the gold-embossed title on the cover.
"'The Ancient Chronicles of Moonacre Valley'?" Strange volume, she thought, examining the binding. She'd never seen a book decorated like this—and Diana spent most of her time (when she wasn't at the park on fine days) in her Papa's library. She'd never noticed this book in that dark, musty room, and she was sure she would have recognised the title.
Diana sat at the pretty dressing-table that had belonged to her mother, partially undressed and toying with the ribbons of her chemise. The wardrobes had been emptied and there were clothes still strewn all over the room, on the chairs and little tables: there were books that needed packing and portraits of the family that needed to be safe-guarded for travelling. Ms Heliotrope sat on the brass-headed bed Diana and Maria shared despite the number of rooms, and it was altogether a very depressing scene.
"I know this is hard," Ms Heliotrope said, struggling to find the right things to say: Maria had been stubborn even as a baby and now she sat with a set jaw and hard eyes. Diana sighed softly and traced the swirling pattern embossed in gold on the book their father had left them. "But you know, I-I'm sure did…did love you…He just, um…and you know, everybody does have to go out on their own at some point in their lives, and—"
"Miss Heliotrope, I'm fine," Maria blurted, quite loudly. Diana glanced over her shoulder at her sister, still sitting in her fine black dress—the fine black dress Diana had worn to their mother's funeral when Maria was still a little baby—with her hair still dressed up in those black ribbons, with the moonstone pendant draped around her neck as it always was. "Really."
"Yes, mm…" Ms Heliotrope nodded, rising fiddling with her gloved fingers. Diana watched her leave the room in the mirror and turned her head to the bedroom-door. Ms Heliotrope looked in once and nodded.
"Goodnight, Ms Heliotrope," Diana said softly, and Ms Heliotrope nodded and closed the door behind her. Diana sighed and proceeded to undress fully, groaning with relief as she undid the laces of her corset and draped it over her trunk, ready for the morning with the pretty little travelling suit Papa had bought her when they'd gone to Brighton, before all of this had happened. She slipped into her pretty white nightgown and started unpinning her hair in front of the mirror. Seventeen, she had come out into society last Season and had worn her hair up since then; Maria still had three more years until Ms Heliotrope would let her wear her hair up, but she liked playing with Diana's hair. Diana combed out the golden curls she had inherited from her mother and tied her hair in a long braid down her back with a little length of shimmering opalescent pink ribbon.
"You knew, didn't you," Maria said quietly, sitting despondent on the bed as Diana pulled on her little pink-and-white embroidered bed-jacket. She flicked the braid over her shoulder and nibbled on the inside of her cheek, watching Maria. She sat down on the bed behind Maria and started tenderly untying the ribbons worked into her hair.
"Yes, I did know," she admitted bitterly. She felt Maria's frown instead of seeing it.
"Why didn't you tell me?" she asked hoarsely.
"It's not the sort of thing you relish telling your younger-sister," Diana said, wincing as one of the bows held obstinately. That they had no money and probably no more fine frocks and fancy parties and the trinkets their Papa had given them over the years would probably be sold at auction to clear their father's debt--at least, they might've been if Uncle Benjamin hadn't been so kind.
That tomorrow morning, a carriage would arrive, sent from their uncle, Sir Benjamin Merryweather's estate in West-England. They would leave London, the place Maria loved so much, behind for the countryside they knew nothing of. Though Diana had always preferred the pretty parks to any other places in London, she had never been to the countryside: their Papa had never been back to his childhood home since he first left it at seventeen. She had never met Uncle Benjamin and Papa had spoken of him so little she didn't know anything about him, at all.
Maria sighed heavily and shook out her hair when the last bow was removed and Diana combed out the curls of her caramel-coloured hair before tying it in a braid and helping Maria off with her dress.
"Why didn't Papa tell me?" Maria asked, heartbroken. Diana licked her lips and helped Maria out of her little trainer-corset.
"You think he opened up to me about all this?" Diana chuckled softly, shaking her head; her lovely Ragdoll kitty Celestine purred and climbed into her lap as soon as she sat down on the bed again with the book. "It was a debt-collector who told me what was going on, when he came to ask his money back." He had been very rude about it all, and Diana had only just found enough coins in Papa's study-vault to pay him off without making a fuss.
"Enough—that was Papa's problem," she sighed, patting the bed beside her; Maria climbed into bed with her and nestled her head in Diana's shoulder, hugging her waist. They had always shared a bed, especially lately with the cost of coals being so high last winter. "It isn't our concern any more. Uncle Benjamin is sending a carriage tomorrow, and we had better get some rest." As soon as she's asleep, I'll go and grab everything, she thought. There was no-one else left in the house besides the housekeeper and their nursemaid Ms Heliotrope. Maria touched the catch on the leather-bound book and Diana opened it, smoothing out the first page and touching the hard, embossed leather bookmark.
"We'll be fine, you and me, no matter where we are," Diana said softly, looking down at her sister's wavy hair. "Together we can do anything." They always had done. Things happened to them that didn't happen to other people, to other girls. All the girls Diana knew had perfectly flawless fair skin, the product of years inside doing needlecraft, so much so that their delicate white skin showed the blue veins beneath. Diana and Maria had always had fair, glowing skin like mother-of-pearl in sunshine. And animals came up to Diana, completely calm and tame without being trained—she had had numerous pets that Ms Heliotrope hadn't approved off: an injured hedgehog she'd nursed, a nightingale who came and went as he pleased and always knew where to find her, and her tiny fawn French Bulldog puppy Tybalt should have been drowned because he was so small. He snuffled softly in his sleep at the foot of the bed on Diana's feet and Diana sighed as she smoothed the first page of the story. Maria always liked Diana reading to her. She did all the voices, like their mother used to.
"'Once upon a perfect time,'" she began, "'many hundreds of years ago, when the old magic still clung to Moonacre Valley like early-morning mist, there was a young woman whose skin gleamed as pale as a star and whose heart was as pure as moonlight. Such was her bravery, and goodness, she was beloved by Nature, as if she were its own daughter.'" Diana swore the watercolour picture on the right-hand page was moving, showing the story as she told it. "'One fateful night, the moon blessed her with an extraordinary gift that would change the magic of the valley forever—the moon-pearls.
"'From that day forth, she was known as the Moon Princess,'" Diana read, turning the page. "'Two ancient families lived in harmony at the edge of the valley, sharing nature's bounty. Daughter of the Du Noir clan, the Moon Princess fell deeply in love and was to be married to Sir Wrolf Merryweather. Her father, Sir William Du Noir, blessed the union by presenting the couple with a rare, black lion.
"'In turn, Sir Wrolf gave his bride a unicorn, lured from the wild, white-horses of the sea. Her heart overflowing with happiness, the Moon Princess revealed the magical pearls to both families.'" The picture was of the Moon Princess, flawlessly beautiful in a white gown, holding a lovely jewel casket and the pearls linked around her fingers, holding them aloft, bathed in moonlight. Maria squirmed sleepily beside Diana and her breathing was slowing. "'Legend told of their unique power, so strong the pearls would grant every wish, both good and evil.'"
Diana closed the book softly and slipped carefully from under Maria's hold, and for another two hours, Diana flitted around the house, securing everything the two girls had ever held dear in mounds of their undergarments and soft shawls to protect them.
When the housekeeper woke them both the next morning with creamy porridge and jam and toast, Diana was tired but a little happy. She had always wanted to go to the countryside, to see what it was like without the bustling carriages and towering buildings and the constant noise.
She helped Maria change into a duck-egg blue frock embroidered with orange orchids and slipped the moonstone pendant onto a long turquoise velvet ribbon, tying her hair back with a little length of the same colour ribbon before turning to herself while Maria ate her breakfast.
Diana loved pretty frocks and looking lovely; she was a very beautiful girl and she had a little of vanity: her Papa told her she looked like her mother and that had always made her feel lovelier inside than she looked on the outside: she picked out the travelling suit Papa had bought her: unlike Maria's rather unfinished-looking gowns, Diana's dresses were absolutely divine, suiting a slender hourglass figure, the skirts smoothed to the backs of her thighs and then sweeping the floor with a generous train from rich folds at the back. She liked simple elegance and delicacy, not Maria's overindulgent silk and velvet-bow concoctions.
Today's outfit was a soft fawn cashmere dress embroidered with little golden starflowers, the overskirt draped up and back to give an apron effect and show the elaborate ruffles beneath in a glowing golden-brown silk. She coiled and braided her hair into a thick bun at the back of her head and secured it with one of her favourite combs—tortoiseshell, decorated with gold leaf, and secured the gold ribbon of her little hat decorated with little silk starflowers and gold silk ribbons, beneath her chin before picking up her parasol and her little beaded reticule and her carpet-bag, with Celestine's head poking out of it, and Tybalt tucked under her other arm, and made her way downstairs with Maria, taking one last look at the house they had loved for so long.
The housekeeper was waiting on the steps for them, and Diana sighed as she bent her head and kissed the loyal old woman's cheek. A small carriage, dirty from travelling, stood below, drawn by two lovely brown mares, and the driver stood waiting as a footman secured Diana's and Maria's trunks to the back of the carriage. He was distinctly from the country, in an eclectic costume that comprised several pieces of indiscriminate origin, but most were colourful, and he wore a dried posy of flowers tucked into the band around the crown of his floppy leather hat. He had a kind face and smiled when he took his hat off.
"You'll be Miss Diana Merryweather, then," he said, and Diana smiled as she sank down a few more steps to greet him.
"Diana," she said with a smile, offering her hand; he shook it and smiled. "I'm very pleased to meet you."
"I am Digweed, your uncle Sir Benjamin's steward," he said, smiling as he shook her hand. "And that be your sister Miss Maria, then?"
"Yes, and—Ms Heliotrope?" Diana glanced up when Ms Heliotrope appeared with many rustlings of her ribbons and tape-ties, her arms loaded with little bags and suitcases.
"My man? Quick!" Digweed jumped up the steps and took Ms Heliotrope's luggage, pausing long enough that Ms Heliotrope walloped him with her cane to get him to hurry up.
"Ms Heliotrope?" Diana frowned, as Maria took her place beside her, holding her large carpetbag.
"Maria—my sweet, darling Diana," Ms Heliotrope sighed, glancing at each of them with a soft, wistful smile of the only motherly figure they'd had in their lives since Diana was nine. "When your dear Mama died, I promised her faithfully that I would take care of you both. So I'm not going to abandon you now. If you're going to live with your uncle amongst the rigours of the countryside, then I shall be there with you both." Diana smiled, leaning forward to hug Ms Heliotrope, avoiding the feather stuck in her bonnet with the curious painted cameo brooch that was always on Ms Heliotrope's person.
"Thank you, Ms Heliotrope," she said, kissing her governess's cheek. For her to sacrifice a life in London with many a richer family to live with them in the countryside—and Ms Heliotrope had never let it be mistaken what she thought of fresh air and exercise for a young girl—then she was truly devoted to them. As a mother should be.
Diana took one last look at her home as Ms Heliotrope guided Maria to the carriage and lifted her things into the little carriage: she took the forward-facing side of the carriage, with Tybalt and Celestine, and Ms Heliotrope and Maria took the backward-facing bench.
London passed them by, slowly at first through the crowded streets filled with carriages and people shopping along Bond Street, then faster through the less-crowded boroughs. Diana had her favourite book of Shakespeare's sonnets out on her lap, stroking Celestine, and watched the scenery fly past, turning gradually from soot-blackened brick to the most brilliant emerald-greens and dreamlike blues.
A.N.: Please review!