My father had not the heart to ask for anything. Having paid his last respects, he set out mournfully on the road to London, resigned to his fate.
It was getting late when he met a strange-looking man with a long beard tied in a knot, holding a lantern as round as the moon. The stranger told him he had been robbed by a highwayman who had taken all he had owned, leaving him just the lantern. My father felt sorry to hear of this misfortune and offered him his cloak to keep the chill off. The stranger accepted it with thanks.
"Young man, to travel with an open and loving heart is worth more than all the gold coins in a treasure chest," he said. "Tomorrow your kindness will be rewarded."
My father wished the fellow well and hoped that nothing more would befall him. Then he set off again, with only the light of the moon to show him the way. As he walked, a wave of tiredness came over him and he lay down to sleep.
Next morning he had not gone far when he thought he might be lost, for in the dawn light everything looked different.
At this point I, having heard the story so many times that I could repeat it to myself word for word, would interrupt and say, "But you were on the right road." He would laugh and reply, "It was the road that would lead me to your mother, so how could it be wrong?"
To my childish way of thinking, it seemed that he met and married my mother in the space of one day. They arrived back in the city after the wedding to be greeted with the astonishing news that his ship had returned safe and sound with a cargo of fine silk.
From that day forward my father's life had been charmed with love and good fortune. No other merchant's ships fared as well. Untouched by pirates, wars, or tempests, his ships sailed unmolested in calm seas, bringing back bounty fit for a king. Before long, my father was wealthy enough to be able to build this house for us by the river, where we lived in great luxury, having a cook and servants to look after us as well as Sam, my father's faithful apprentice.
It was no surprise to me that all this should happen so fast. It never entered my head to ask what my mother's family thought of their daughter marrying a young man who was penniless, or even if she had any family to mind. All these questions and many more besides only occurred to me much, much later when there was no one left to ask.
My father had two miniature paintings done of them both shortly after their wedding. My mother's portrait shows her wearing a cream gown beautifully embroidered and oversewn with tiny glimmering pearls. I imagine that this is how she looked when my father first saw her that midsummer's day under the oak tree. Wild flowers are woven into her hair and in her hand she is holding an oak leaf.
The background of this tiny painting always fascinated me. It is as if you are a bird looking down from a great height, seeing the land mapped out below. There, in a forest of oak trees, is a clearing in which there is a grand house with formal gardens. In the distance a tower stands tall over the trees, and I could just make out a figure at the top of the tower watching over the landscape, searching for something or someone. On the edge of the forest is a hunting party with dogs. Compared to the house and the tower, they look oddly large. A hawk sits on the outstretched arm of one of the riders. Another rider is standing up in his saddle blowing a horn. I looked at this painting many times before I spotted the white horse and the fox hidden in a thicket. For some reason that I cannot explain, their discovery worried me greatly. It gave me an uneasy feeling, as if somehow nothing was safe.
My father's portrait shows him looking young and handsome. He is clean-shaven, wearing breeches and a linen shirt embroidered in the same pattern as my mother's dress. The scene behind him could not be more different. It is a view of a city with the river running through it like an opal green ribbon. You could be forgiven for thinking it a picture of London, except that the houses are brightly painted and mermaids and sea monsters can be seen in the water amongst a fleet of tall ships with full-blown golden sails.
From I, Coriander by Sally Gardner. All rights reserved. Copyright Sally Gardner 2005. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Dial Books for Young Children.
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