Excerpt from Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Portrait of an Unknown Woman

A Novel

by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2007, 432 pages
    Apr 2008, 464 pages

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I looked sideways at the woman who’d brought the dying boy to me. There were tears coming silent and unbidden down her grey cheeks. I knew her to be in grief, but something about her rapturous expression suggested these were tears of joy. ‘So shalt thou not despair,’ Davy went on, ‘but shall feel God as a kind and a merciful father; and his spirit shall dwell in thee, and shall be strong in thee, and the promise shall be given thee at the last.’

Now the little old man stepped forward, his fear of me forgotten, his face lit up with happiness. ‘When I began to smell the word of God,’ he began modestly, and the group turned towards him with a drawing-in of breath, ‘it so exhilarated my heart – which before was wounded with the guilt of my sins until I was almost in despair – that immediately I felt a marvellous comfort and quietness, so much so that my bruised bones leapt for joy.

‘The churchmen would say I’ve lost my faith. But I say this. Scripture has become more delicious to me than honey or the honeycomb, because in it I learn that all my torments, all my fasting, all my vigils, all the redemption of masses and pardons, being done without trust in Christ, who alone can save his people from their sins, these, I say, I learned to be nothing but a headlong rush away from the truth.’ There were more quiet sobs of relief, and more wet cheeks, as he stepped up to kiss the book in Davy’s hand.

Beyond a bit of banter in the street while I was buying something from a street trader, or a chat with one of the maids at home, I’d never have talked to people like these in the usual run of my life. Watching their faces light up with exaltation now, I realised I probably hadn’t even thought of them as knowing how to talk other than in the cheeky chat of traders. Except when I was treating their wounds and ailments, that was; when I remembered that if you pricked the poor they bled just like the next man. But I certainly hadn’t expected this depth of emotion, this passion for truth. I felt humbled by it.

They knew when to stop. When the only candle had burned down to its mark, they wrapped the books up and hid them behind the logs again and filed out, as quiet as they’d come, into the courtyard and off in their different directions. ‘Will you take me home, Davy?’ I asked, sitting on my bench, quiet with my impressions.

‘I haven’t told you answers to the questions you asked,’ he said, as we slipped out into the alley. ‘Showing you this was the best I could do.’

I nodded. ‘It was a good answer,’ I said, at peace with his new sane self now.

‘You go up to the top, and left and left again into Walbrook. Best I don’t go with you,’ he said. He shouldered his bag. ‘I’ve got business to do. Unicorn’s horn business.’ And he winked at me, then grinned crazily and danced off down the dirty little street, every inch the cheerful madman again.

Excerpted from Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett, Copyright © 2007 by Vanora Bennett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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