This story is an odd hybrid? it's an alternative retelling of a classic story? it's definitely not your average uber? It seemed to me, in my warped little mind, that our dear Xena most reminded me of another beloved character, Mr. Rochester, the lead character in one of my most favorite books, Jane Eyre. Both are Byronic type heroes, tortured souls with dark pasts? The only difference was the gender. The two begged to be combined. Jane's love for Rochester so nearly mirrors Gabrielle's love for Xena, it wasn't much of a stretch. Why not turn literature on its head and commit the utter blasphemy of reworking the hero to become a heroine? Gabrielle and Jane Eyre merged to become Charlotte Bell. Xena and Edward Rochester became Jane Delchester. As in Charlotte Bronte's classic, the story is told from the governess' point of view. The language threw me a little loop. How was I to accomplish the impossible and recreate the beauty and perfection of Charlotte Bronte's prose? You can't really. So I didn't. What you read here is just my version of it.
I have set forth to record my history, invoking the privilege of an authoress whose audience has only ever consisted of herself, noting herein only those events which have had a profound impact, in my mind, upon my sheltered life. Be forewarned. I am no great scribe. No exalted truths will be revealed by my account; no laurels rest upon my brow. Poor historian that I am, a chronicle of my life is the only narration I can provide, and I can only tell it as I experienced it. Embellishments, dramatic flourishes and other such frippery: all forms of artifice that I would have avoided if I had any choice in the matter. As it is, such furbelows are woven into the warp and weft of my tale. They are mine and they have made me.
You see, my universe has always been infinitely small. Indeed, until my eighteenth birthday it was encompassed by a singular location, the Orphanage at St. Selfridges.
And here my pen pauses, reluctant to continue. Memories I thought long ago abandoned, bundled together and safely flung into the deep, black caverns in my mind, rise again, oddly undamaged. Try though I may, St. Selfridges, the time I spent within those dour and unwholesome walls, refuses to be severed from my tale. It is not lack of detail that precludes omission, for the minutiae of my childhood is very clearly etched upon the rather tempestuous tablet of my thoughts. Nor is it an insignificance of events that would make exclusion a happy mercy. I wish that were so. But alas, like a pitiless sculptress, St. Selfridges shaped who I am and thus, necessitates an introduction.
From the outside, the appearance of St. Selfridges could be illustrated as appropriately quaint and modest, it being the ancient front of a once crumbling Roman bath, now sanctified in its purpose in that its dilapidated beauty attracted the admiration of wealthy patrons and donors willing to provide for its upkeep. A small portion of the charitable donations went toward restoration of this picturesque poverty. A smaller amount still was designated for the maintenance of the poor orphans so poetically housed there.
Beyond the cracked marble porticos, two utilitarian wings, hastily constructed and poorly preserved, housed the pupils and teachers alike. The surrounding landscape, chosen only for its pleasing aspect, was unwholesome, perilous to those with a less than hardy constitution. A lake was situated nearby which flooded in the autumn, provided a damp northeastern chill through the winter, and in the summer months proved a breeding ground for pestilence.
The beauty of St. Selfridges taught me the mercilessness in splendor.
It was a painful lesson for a child to learn. I could fill these pages with the privations I endured there. And yet I cannot complain. They served as instruction for the far more devastating losses I would suffer later. For that, at least, I am grateful.
Earliest of these adversities was simply a marked difference between myself and the other pupils. I became an introvert, creating a more pleasant and tolerant universe in my imagination than the morose and unforgiving environs in which I lived. Being much more small and timid than my aggressive peers, I invented tales to keep my precious reason, some stories borrowed from the scant books lining the schoolroom shelves, some of my own design. When this yielded no solace, I began sketching my own stories, drawing faces to match the characters I had created. These illustrations, penciled in the margins of my schoolwork, were more real to me than anything I had ever known. I became quite good at losing myself in these fictitious worlds, to the exclusion of all else, and as such, was labeled absentminded and slow. The other girls teased me. In fact, finding new names to call me was their chief diversion. If not for Mary, I could claim a completely friendless youth.
Dear Mary! To speak of her is too painful, even now. The thought is as sharp as broken glass, shards of regret embedded in my mind. Perhaps now is the time to exorcise her ghost. Such a demanding shade, haunting in its clarity and bittersweet in its purity, implores illumination by my pen. I cannot avoid it.
I can still feel her perpetually cold, thin fingers on my arm, curled around my shoulder, flexing fitfully as she dreamed, her head resting on the pillow next to mine, the blue sunken shadows under her violet eyes causing her beautiful face to look wasted and weary.
That is the true beginning to this tale, the quiet tragedy in Mary's eyes.
That year, the year I turned eleven, the year Mary came to us, I began to notice an invisible line drawn between myself and the others. To be sure, the other girls had always shown an aversion for me, but it had sharpened into genuine antipathy.
We slept two to a bed, more for warmth than companionship. A fire or a warming pan was considered extravagant and wasteful, too much expense to lavish on those without family or future. The heat of our young bodies huddled together served to ward off the chill night air that whistled through the cracks and crevices of the dormitory walls.
Bed partners changed nightly. It was the one part of our lives that was not regimented. At the evening bell, one warm body was as good as the next and the girls of St. Selfridges were indiscriminate with whom they shared a counterpane at night. Loathed thing that I was, this measure of peace was granted me at night. Torture me all through the day the other girls might, but once the candles were extinguished an uneasy truce reigned until the morning bell.
And then one pitiless and freezing February evening, my peers showed me the depths of their childish cruelty. The bells clanged their summons and I obeyed, sliding under the thin blanket, teeth chattering, waiting for someone to clamber in beside me.
I waited all night and woke up in the morning alone, shivering with blue lips? and the same happened each night thereafter. At first, I did not understand the intended snub. Despite the numbing cold, I thought it quite wonderful to stretch and turn without having to be mindful of elbows or knees invading another's territory. I was such a silly child, always slow in discerning the intentions of others, trapped in my own fanciful thoughts.
Days advanced to February and then a sweet and burgeoning March. Only after witnessing countless whispers hushed upon my arrival, critical eyes lowered and mocking smiles smothered, did it occur to me this nighttime liberty was not a reward. It was a punishment. Only then did I feel the sting of it.
Gone were the loud, taunting remarks, the confrontations, the pointed slurs. No longer did they pull my hair or trip me as we marched two by two down the drafty halls. They disdained touching me at all, recoiling fiercely if I brushed against them, even by chance. Without understanding the reasons behind it, I realized the entire school was silently united against me. I had attained an almost leprous infamy and I could not imagine why. After a time, I found comfort in my separation. Grudgingly, I took my place in the lowest strata of our little society. There is a freedom in knowing you can't go any lower in the eyes of your peers. It did not matter what I did or said. I would not be accepted.
Months passed. My misery deepened.
To an outsider, St. Selfridges might appear to be an admirable model of order and piousness. Like sisters of the cloister, our days were regulated by the bell, our abstinence from all things worldly, stringently regulated. One hour per day were we allotted for our own pleasure. It was anything but pleasurable for me, even with a sketchpad to occupy my time. That stretch of minutes became my especial torment, a time to dread, face buried in my sketchbook, pretending not to hear the whispered insults, not to see the cruel mocking imitations of my every hesitant gesture, my timid, halting voice.
A windy March day found us again at such idle pursuits when Mary was first introduced to our numbers. I was hiding near the back of the garden, drawing, trying to capture on my slate the curves and of the willow tree that sheltered me, when I heard Madame enter the garden. Her piercing nasal voice announced the presence of a new pupil. I peered out from my hiding place, parting the leafy strands that brushed the ground to catch a glimpse.
I can close my eyes and imagine Mary as first I saw her, shuffling down the weed bedecked gravel path bisecting the barren flowerbeds. She absently shadowed Madame De Laclos as the callow, sharp-faced French instructor familiarized the new pupil with the confines of the garden. A faint flutter do I feel even now as I picture her, a forlorn echo of the first feeble stirrings of my young and impressionable heart. Was it the observant tilt of her head, the bemused expression in her slanted, violet eyes, the wistful smile that played about her mouth that cried out 'Here is like meeting like' that first endeared her to my heart? I had never told another of the fantastic planes of thought that tenanted my mind then. Instinctively, I knew that this girl would understand, though I could not say why.
Mary had not yet donned the uniform of St. Selfridges, namely a boiled wool pinafore and dress, both the color of wet pebbles, and coarse stockings of the same hue. Her clothing was unkempt and oddly mannish to my curious and unsophisticated eyes. This exotic garb consisted of a sooty wine-colored blouse, sans collar, open at the neck, cravat untied, a gentleman's vest of soiled blue silk and split skirts, similar to those worn as a riding habit by some of the daring ladies who visited St. Selfridges from time to time.
Mary was older than most, likely thirteen or fourteen, and her garments looked as though they had seen constant wear or had been fitted to a much younger version of the slim and yet shapely form now attired in them. The skirts were shockingly high, grazing the tops of her tattered boots. The vest was rent in places and smudged with oily spots. Only her hair showed signs of recent attention. It was slicked back and shorn like a man's. The other girls stared in shock, but some, those less accustomed to keeping their opinions silent, openly snickered and pointed.
Mary did not appear to have heard. Her attention was captivated entirely by her surroundings to which she seemed to have a strange, absorbing affinity. A slight smile played upon her lips and she closed her eyes, silently relishing the cool air. Madame De Laclos turned to her. Annoyed at having her discourse so ignored, Madame's thin hand shot out to shake the girl from her reverie. Startled, Mary shrugged the hand aside, without a thought of propriety, and then drew in a sharp breath that was followed by a fierce racking cough. She clutched her sides, burying her mouth in one hand, her face contorted in sudden pain. This went on for some moments. At first Madame De Laclos expressed irritation, but this soon grew to alarm. Hastily, she shepherded her charge inside.
A flurry of whispered conversation followed their departure in which mock coughing and smothered laughter figured largely.
My enemies had a new target it seemed.
In the days that followed, I was consumed with observing Mary. She took her place in the dormitories, sharing a bed, situated near my own, with Dora, a heavy-set girl who belonged in the fifth form but had barely mastered the third. Mary coughed until dawn, her pathetic gasps for breath underscored by Dora's loud complaints. Shortly thereafter the headmistress permanently moved Mary to a bed away from the draughty windows, closer to the far end of the room.
After that first night, Mary eluded me, though not deliberately. She spent three days in the infirmary before she finally emerged, feeble and yet smiling, to join forms at the lowest level.
Mary's knowledge of French and Mathematics was well below the level of other girls her age. For these, she studied with the younger girls, during which, I was able to covertly watch her, abandoning my grammar and mathematics for more absorbing study. I followed her with my eyes, taking note of her mannerisms, her careless gait and absent smile. Subconsciously, I copied them, trying to identify with each gesture what about her so riveted my attention. She fascinated me and I could not understand why.
Months passed and my fascination did not wane. The gauntness of her face softened slightly and her dark hair grew longer, curling at her neck. It made her seem more girlish, almost beautiful, although much less exotic than she had appeared on that first day. I liked to watch the sun glint off of those curls. The light gave them a bluish cast that seemed otherworldly to me. Often Mary would wonder off alone, a book tucked under her arm. I would espy her secreted away under a stubby tree or shrub, deeply absorbed in whatever she might be reading. Thus occupied, I could stare at her all I wished.
In the interim, I was still on my guard. Thus diverted from me, their favorite target, my enemies watched Mary as well, biding their time. Alarmed beyond measure, I appointed myself Mary's silent guardian.
Perhaps, at first, I might have had a moments pause, confused by my peculiar obsession, but I reasoned it away, telling myself that it was my duty to protect her, and watch over her, friendless as she was. Mary never noticed nor seemed concerned about the absence of companionship in her life. Inured to the veiled barbs and the hardships, Mary glided through life at St. Selfridges with effortless calm, a content smile always on her lips. Only in her less guarded moments, when the fits of coughing overwhelmed her, causing her to thrash about and gasp for breath, did I see that calm vanish. Oh, how I ached to go to her then! But someone would usually come for her, taking her away to be ministered to by the headmistress, sometimes for days at a time. I hated those days.
It seems curious now that I would attach to such childish pranks a monumental importance. It all seemed too dreadful for words, those evil deeds; dipping her pillows into the washbasin, hiding earthworms under her sheets, strewing her personal effects about so that she might invite the reprimands of the teachers. Stealthily, I thwarted their efforts, leaving supper early so that I might sweep the earthworms from her bed or trade her soiled, soggy pillow for my own clean and dry one. I would wake early, well before daylight, just so I might tidy her cluttered things when the others weren't looking. In my young mind, I considered it an absolute imperative that I help Mary avoid a shameful fate. No taint of ridicule should touch her. She must stay as she was, elevated beyond all concern, imbued by some secret happiness. Her history and her character must maintain the romanticized disposition I had conceived for her in my imagination.
Thus, with me as her silent ally, I waited for the moment when I might gallantly come to her rescue and reveal to her my role as her protector and friend.
It happened in late July. The summer nights were stifling and sultry. Hot breezes swept over the lake, creating a stultifying effect, wafting the noxious smell of the putrid water into the dormitories. That night, all was still, sighs, snores and the sounds of bedclothes shifting the only sounds punctuating the silence. I was alone in my bed, as usual, now more than ever aware than this was a symbol of shame. I strained to hear Mary's labored breathing over the dissonant sounds of the night until finally, my eyes grew heavy and my thoughts still. At the edge of sleep, at the moment when random thought merges with celestial consciousness, I heard a defining rustle, stifled laughter and a sharp cough.
My eyes snapped open. It was time.
Pitching the bedclothes aside, I hurtled from my bed, soon spying the conspirators huddled around Mary's bed, a semi-circle of giggling, evil-minded girls bent on mischief. Mary lay on her side, a hand under her chin, curled and tangled hair strewn out over the white lawn of her pillow. The slap of my feet against the floorboards must have alerted the devils to my presence. One girl turned, a tall, skinny red-haired girl named Josephine. She was the architect of much misbehavior, her especial talent; goading others into a frenzy of insults and injuries. A gleam at her side drew my eye, in her hand, a pair of sharp, shiny scissors.
Seeing me, her lips drew back in an evil leer and she lifted the scissors with a flourish while brushing one of Mary's sooty curls with her other hand.
"There is plenty for you when I'm finished here," she hissed, eyes narrowing venomously, and then, turning back toward Mary with inexorable resolve, she gnashed the scissors in the air above her with a theatrical relish. The other girls sniggered, clapping hands over their mouths to smother their mad glee. All the while, I was rooted by my horror, waiting for the heroic impulse that had sustained me thus far to impel me forward into the melee. The image I held dear, the valiant and dashing role I played in my imagination, withered and died once challenged by true danger. I wanted so badly to breathe life into it, to don my imaginary armor and rush to Mary's aid. Somehow, my small, skinny eleven-year old body would not comply with this wish without an assurance of success. Shaking badly and sickened to the core by my own cowardice, I watched as Josephine opened the scissors to clip away Mary's lovely curls. Down the silver blades came, closing with a horrible metallic whisper and one long dark lock fell to the floor.
I felt tears slide down my cheeks and a convulsive clutch in my throat that would not allow my inner sobs to rise. Josephine snatched up the ruined curl from the floor, holding it aloft like a flag. She laughed, a high-pitched cackle that, to my young ears, sounded very like the voice of evil itself.
The other girls were quietly baying for blood. They would have Mary completely shorn by daybreak, they declared.
"Hush, Clarissa," Josephine whispered, snipping at another curl. She turned to the others, holding the limp strands out to one of the younger girls. "Here, take this. We'll each wear one on the brim of our bonnets, see if we don't!"
"Is that so?"
Shocked, Josephine pivoted as the others gasped and drew back. My heart swelled in my chest.
Mary stood next to her bed, quite awake, a wry, disinterested smile twitching her white lips.
Josephine, recovering from her surprise, after a moment's hesitation, salvaged her cruel poise and sneered. "Yes that is so."
The scissors swooped through the air toward Mary, a pass meant to intimidate rather than injure, and which ultimately accomplished neither. Mary's hand shot out, stopping the circling motion, gripping Josephine's wrist like a vice. A moment of fierceness, flashing like lightning in a clear sky, contorted Mary's features. Josephine cried out, bleating in surprise and anger as her hand flexed, her fingers loosened, and the scissors clattered to the floor.
In the next instant, Mary had the scissors in her hands. She relaxed her hold on Josephine and the girl shrank away, clutching her wrist, cradling it in her other hand. Mary's face had lapsed back into its habitually vague expression. She even smiled slightly. "You think you can hurt me with your foolish pranks," she said casually to the astonished circle around her. Sighing, she reached for a hank of her own hair, clutching it tightly in her hand.
"You have no power over me," she informed them quietly. And then, the scissors flashed and her hair, her beautiful curls fluttered to the floor. Grabbing another handful of hair, she did the same, over and over, until not one curl was left on her head. As she snipped away, her face remained impassive, her eyes unfocused, unblinking. At last she turned her head, hair chopped at a thousand odd angles, and handed the scissors to a flabbergasted Josephine.
She smiled and said pleasantly, "Thank you, I quite prefer my hair this way... much cooler."
The girls stared, too stunned to retort. Mary continued in a pleasant tone, but her words were clipped, a warning apparent in every harsh syllable. "I am tired. I think I've had enough grooming for one evening." She waved an imperious hand at the scissors. "You'll see those are returned to Madame De Laclos, I trust? I'd hate to inform her how and why they'd gone missing. You know how cross she can be when she loses things."
This subtle threat was enough to scatter Mary's conspirators. They fanned out quietly, each finding their beds with undo haste. Mary watched them go and the smile faded from her lips, (it had never reached her eyes) The shadows underneath those luminous orbs were quite pronounced, I noticed, and her mouth seemed pinched, even when her expression relaxed and she turned her eyes to me.
"And you... I owe you thanks, I believe."
My mouth went suddenly dry. It was the first time she had addressed me directly and I found I couldn't reply, could not even muster an answering smile. Standing so close, she was a hand taller than I, but she bent low so that our eyes were on level with each other. She did not smile, but her expression grew softer.
"I know, Charlotte," she whispered. "I know all you have done for me and I should be reproached for not thanking you before it came to this. You have been very kind. I will not forget it."
I must have shivered again, though there was no breeze and the air was still and close. A sob, the same sob held strangled in my throat, chose that moment to escape and once freed, tears followed in such a torrent, I could not hide nor control them. I think it was relief I felt and an abundance of tender emotions I could not name.
She did not hate me for failing her. She knew my name!
"Oh child," she said in dismay, folding her arms around me and drawing me close. Tremors rippled through me, but her arms stilled them and finally I sighed.
"There now," Mary said. "Nothing to cry about. I really do like my hair like this. Surely it will frighten some but it will grow back in time." She smiled solicitously.
"I... It looks nice," I said and then an expansive yawn caught me unawares.
She chuckled, nodding. "Yes, theatrics of this sort always make me sleepy, too." Leading by the hand to her bed, she drew back the thin coverlet and patted the sheet. "I would not have them take their retribution out on you this night, Charlotte. Sleep here. Nothing shall harm you. All will be well in the morning, you will see."
Still hiccuping on tiny sobs, I nodded as she drew back the coverlet and shepherded me into bed. Composing my limbs, arms held stiffly at my sides, I laid down, ashamed of my tears but oddly thrilled to be encompassed, even in this small way, in Mary's regard. She climbed in beside me, nestling close.
The bed was empty.
When I awoke at daybreak, the morning bells were ringing and I was alone. Clutching the counterpane to my chest, I thought for one dazed moment that I had dreamt the entire episode. But then my gaze fell and I saw a clump of dark hair lying bereft on the floor.
I rushed down to breakfast, others trotting on my heels as we clambered downstairs en masse, but I did not find Mary seated in her usual place. I did find Josephine, however, and the angry stare accompanied by the livid flush staining her face and neck told me that my defiance had not yet been forgiven or forgotten. I would have to be very careful.
Draining my bowl of gruel, I fidgeted until the bell indicating we should form classes rang. I took my seat in the sixth chair (for I was so absentminded, I hadn't climbed any higher in forms) and waited impatiently for our teacher's arrival. Ms. Skatcherd took her place shortly thereafter, her plump face red and glistening in the sultry, airless classroom. Before she could rap her ruler on her desk, I raised my hand and half stood so that she would see me.
Her thick eyebrows raised a fraction. I believe it was the first time I had ever deliberately invited her attention.
"Yes, what is it, Charlotte?"
My hand dropped back down to my side. "It's Mary, ma'am. I was wondering..."
"She's with the headmistress," snapped the belabored woman, fanning herself with her slate "and it's none of your concern." She melted into her chair and then continued irritably. "Well then, since you're already standing, you may begin the lesson."
And so, not only was I submitted to the terrors of Mary's unknown fate, I had to suffer all eyes upon me for at least a good quarter of an hour. By the time lessons were over, my nerves were strung tighter than a pianoforte. Was Mary being punished for last night?
I did not find her strolling about the garden, book in hand, as was her custom during our free hour, and I panicked. Should I go to the headmistress? Someone should take Mary's part, I determined fiercely, and I proceeded to the headmistresses' chamber to give my account of last night's activities.
I stole inside, avoiding the patrolling teachers, finding my way up the back staircase to the headmistresses' rooms. Very rare were my visits to this section of the school. Indeed, I had been reprimanded once by the headmistress herself and that was only because I had wondered out into the rain to better see an intriguing formation of clouds that I wanted to sketch later, and had succumbed to a virulent head cold because of it. The headmistress, Mrs. Phillips, had been very annoyed with me, but her harshness had been tempered with concern and so I did not feel any timidity at approaching her now. She would be fair, I reasoned. She might understand.
I rapped upon her door and after a few moments, it was drawn back and an eye peeked through the chink between door and frame. The eye flickered over me. The door swung open.
"Mary, is she here? Is she being punished?"
Shaking her head, Mrs. Phillips' face became grave. She wiped her hands on her crisp, white pinafore and rested chapped fingers on her hips. "No, my dear. Mary is not being punished. She is ill, very ill and she is resting at the moment but I daresay, she would appreciate some company for a short spell. Come in. You may sit with her briefly as long as you promise not to tire her."
She stood aside and admitted me to the cozy comforts of her sitting room. Fresh flowers beautified the simple furnishings. Bright sun streamed in through the wide windows and a small fire crackled cheerfully in the hearth, though the day was warm. Next to the fire, a blanketed figure reclined on a low sofa. A raspy cough erupted from beneath the heavy woolen mantle and the whole sofa rocked and shivered under its influence. I stood in the doorway, waiting until these tremors subsided, hesitant to approach. After last evening, I had been convinced a new friendship had been forged between Mary and I. But what if I had been mistaken? What if she thought me a silly bother?
Mrs. Phillips bustled about next to the fire, prodding it with a poker and gesturing that I should sit on the stool next to the sofa.
I found my voice, though it was smaller and much more meek than I would have liked. "Hello. How are you, Mary? It is I, Charlotte, come to visit."
The blankets stirred, the folds parted and Mary's wan smiling face was revealed. "Ah, my guardian angel, you have found me out. I don't suppose one can hide from an angel, though can they? Especially not one so persistent as you."
This was said in a gentle, teasing, though hoarse, tone. She sat up, pulling the blankets close around her and it struck me how weary she seemed. Two hectic spots of color reddened her cheeks. Her eyes were encircled with rheumy shadows that made me wince in sympathy.
I pushed the stool closer to the sofa and sat down. She shivered. Mrs. Phillips began to fuss with her wrappings, draping a shawl over her shoulder and tucking it tight around her.
She looked so awful, and so unlike my beloved Mary. A sudden panic swooped down upon me. For a child unacquainted with the portents of death, seeing them written so indelibly on her face made me feel as if all the tethers that bound me to this world were in danger of being cut. "Oh," I cried wildly, clutching at her hand. "Are you really very ill? But you can't be!"
"Oh can't I? It's forbidden then? Charlotte declares it, and it must be so?" She began to chuckle but it tapered off into a raspy cough.
I only gaped, struck with a terrible, morbid certainty, that I, no matter how much vigilance I might exercise, could not protect her, not from this. Sickness could lay its ephemeral fingers upon her and I could not tear them away.
My distress must have been apparent, for Mary, once the cough had subsided, beckoned me closer. I leaned in, breathing in the scent of sickness and the faint, sweet scent of Mary herself. I knew it wasn't proper, but I wanted to bury my face in her lap, avail myself of a child's privilege and throw a screaming tantrum.
Of course, I didn't. I let her caress my cheek and then my hair, biting the inside of my lip as I tried to smile.
"You must not worry, Charlotte. You are too passionate."
I like this place," she sighed, eyelids fluttering down, lashes rayed across her pale cheeks. "I like this room. I close my eyes and I can almost believe..." She sighed again, trailing off.
Her hand brushed mine, and she patted it absently, the caress you would give a lap dog. I resisted the urge to take her fingers and thread them through my own, somehow physically knitting us together. If she were to be taken away, I thought fiercely, it will not be without me!
"Do you not think this a lovely day?" she said finally, beaming at me in and odd feverish sort of delight. "It's perfect, Charlotte. And you may make it more so."
She extracted a thin tome from under her pillows and offered it to me, eyes shining in excitement. "Will you to read to me? My eyes tire so easily and I am keen to finish this chapter. Gulliver thinks he is safe among the little people, but I suspect he'll find some mischief and they shall have to tie him up again!"
And I obliged, spending what was left of the daylight with Mary in Lilliputian lands, quieting my inner torment as I made my voice pleasant and soothing.
After that day, Mrs. Phillips came to expect my knock at her door. She admitted me always with the same admonition not to tire Mary. But rather than fatigue her, I believed, with some secret satisfaction, that my presence enlivened her, banishing the pallor in her cheeks and the sadness that hovered about her like a ghost.
I read to her, often until my voice was hoarse and quaking. We had just completed Frances Burney's scandalous Cecilia, which I had very much enjoyed but Mary did not. She thought the heroine silly, stupid and vain but tolerated the prose because I enjoyed the drama of the masqued balls and the heroine in peril. I would catch her sighing impatiently during the romantic interludes. I hurried through those. She especially liked it when I enacted the characters for her, using different voices and gestures for each one. My antics made her merry and it gladdened my heart to see her fleeting smiles. We had worked our way through the endless perils of poor hapless Cecilia and then Mary declared a moratorium on all romantic fiction. With Mrs. Phillips' help, I had unearthed a book of Lord Byron's poetry and meant to surprise Mary with it. One sleet gray afternoon, I stumbled haltingly over the opening verse.
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold,
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this!
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow;
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
I glanced up to apologize for my graceless recital and, much to my surprise, saw tears streaming down her cheeks, her eyes fixed upon me with wordless horror.
I dropped the book and raced to her side. "Mary, what is it? What have I done? Are you ill again?"
She did not answer, nor did her expression change until she began to cough. This was mercifully brief. After a few moments, she had the spasms under control. As smoke will coil and dissipate, so did the shock writ upon her face. She sank back into the cushions, throwing an arm across her eyes as she turned her face away.
Wringing my hands, I repeated my question. "I can fetch Mrs. Phillips if you would like?"
"No. Don't bother. I am fatigued, nothing more. Please continue, Charlotte, but choose another poem." She sighed. "I cannot bear to hear that one."
She steadfastly refused to answer, sniffling into the sleeve of her chemise. Obediently, I thumbed through the pages until I found The Corsair and began to read. Soon, she was sleeping soundly.
I was not always so agreeable. There was a lassitude, an air of contentment to Mary that sometimes chafed my nerves. It did not help that she staunchly refused to tell me anything about herself. Already, I had fashioned a grand and dramatic past for her, one that included a secret royal lineage and a harrowing escape in the dark of night from a dank manor house where she was kept prisoner by a dastardly distant uncle.
"Tell me about the world," I would demand rather petulantly when the mood took me, refusing to read until she answered. "I know you have traveled, Mary. I can see it in your eyes. You've been to London, haven't you? Tell me what you've seen!"
"Charlotte," she would say, the touch of her cold fingers bringing me back to the reality of her thin face, "you do not want to know, believe me." And then she would lean back and close her eyes, remaining as still as a January morning until I let the subject pass and found another topic to occupy our time.
It was a very delicate matter, discovering more about my enigmatic friend, far too delicate a test for my youthful diplomacy. Melancholy silence greeted my pointed interrogations and, as a result, my interest was whetted and I became more aggressive. I pelted her with questions at every turn, becoming more and more impatient with her evasions. But no matter how pitifully I pleaded, she would never speak of her past.
All this while, as I helplessly watched Mary's plump frame become emaciated and her manner more distracted and distant, my enemies were struck low and not by my hand. God, it seemed, was swift with his justice. Typhoid cut a deadly swathe through the dormitories. Josephine was among those suffering. I lost my fear of her then and could even pity her. Seeing her pallid, weak, mewling for water and relief was enough to erase any rancor I might have harbored. Soon after, quarantine barred me from the ward altogether. More were sick than well. Those few of us spared bedded down in the schoolroom, pallets clustered together, each of us lying awake at night, uneasily listening for the telltale signs the contagion had laid its claim upon us.
Mary's complaint was consumption. I, in my ignorance, believed this ailment to be something mild, which time and care would be sure to alleviate, and so I carefully applied both. Mrs. Phillips spent night and day in the dormitories and, as Mary's illness carried none of the harrowing symptoms of typhoid, she no longer merited close attention from the headmistress, nor the visiting doctors. I tended her religiously, nonetheless. Mary was a sacred burden, one that could imaginably yield a reward. Mary had seen the world. She could show it to me. One day, she would be well again and we two would escape St. Selfridges.
And we did, each in our own way.
It was nearing my thirteenth birthday. As a rule, a natal anniversary is not cause for celebration in an orphanage. But I secretly marked the day every year, cherishing it as the one possession that was truly mine, (the information stolen from a registry left carelessly open).
And to celebrate, I stole something else. My liberty.
Forays into the forests surrounding St. Selfridges were strictly forbidden. But this was no matter to me. Long ago, when my arms grew long enough to reach the lowest bough, I had found a way over the wall with the help of a cherry tree at the back of the garden. All the year through, I planned for these purloined moments, treasuring them. The day of my birth fell on the first day of spring. Stealing forth, I often happened upon the first buds, uncoiling from their long winter's sleep or hidden islands of soft green shoots, fighting to banish the parched brown turf surrounding them. All the colors of the world seemed to be shyly peaking out, trying to catch my notice. Every leaf, every flower, every newborn hatchling stirring in its nest, these were my treasures? mine alone. I never met another soul in my wanderings. St. Selfridges was far, too far even from the rural communities that supported it. I had no encounters with strangers, which ensured that my bounty could only be shared with the forest itself. I told it my secrets and then listened as it answered, the soft awakening voice of it like a lover whispering in my ear. I longed all the year through for that gentleness. But this year I was afraid. I dared not leave Mary, not even for a moment, but I longed to go. The need to explore, to run unfettered, to breathe the loamy air, itched at my unconscious, prickling even in my most tranquil moments. And so I told Mary of my plan, instinctively seeking her blessing.
Her eyes lit with amusement and she graced me with a peal of laughter, though it was curtailed by a thick, cottony cough. "I often forget you're just a child," she wheezed, wiping her watering eyes. "You're far too serious, Charlotte. Of course you must go! It sounds a perfect paradise. Don't spend your worries on me, dear. I will only sleep the day through. You will come see me tonight and tell me all about your adventures."
This made me pout. I did not like to be reminded I was just a child. "I wish you might come with me," I said petulantly. And then warming to the thought, I declared, "We could go together! We really might! I'll lend you my coat and we'll cover your head. I'll help you walk. It will be perfect!" I rose, buoyed by my thoughts, sucking in a long and hopeful breath before I expelled it in wonder. "Oh Mary, do you never wish to escape this place? Come with me! We need not stop at the forest. We could just keep going. Imagine it. You and I in London!"
I must have been near mad with glee. It had sprung, this idea, fully formed from my brain, like Athena, but without the wit or sense of the wise goddess. I danced around the parlor, savoring the glorious tale of our escape and the happy ending that surely awaited us. I snatched up Mary's cold hands and tugged, pulling her upright a bit too forcefully.
"No!" Alarmed, her great, violet eyes went wide and she hastily loosed her hands from my grip. "Even were I well, I would not leave, Charlotte."
"What? But? why?"
She sank back into the cushions, pale and visibly weary. "Is this place truly so dreadful you must run from it? Why do you despise it so?"
I stumbled, staring at her in amazement. "Yes!" I cried vehemently. "How can I not? It's vile. The very air here is foul! Everything is foul!" And then, seeing her astonishment, I became sullen, sinking onto the stool next to the settee and burying my face in my hands.
"You know that is not true. Mrs. Phillips is kind to you."
"Only out of necessity," I sniffed, though the words were muffled.
"Charlotte, listen to me." Her hand stroked my hair and I sighed into the palms of my hands, my anger already defeated. "Your lot is not so terrible. I hope you realize that someday. Understand this place you call hell, some would name heaven. You may think it torturous but I am glad they took me in. I have never known happiness as I have known it here." I raised my head. Tears quivered on the ends of her eyelashes, but she smiled and it was the most peaceful, beatific smile I have ever seen. Her hands smoothed my hair and then settled quietly in her lap. They looked so small, too small.
"I don't want to frighten you, Charlotte. That is why I have never told you anything about my past. Still I think it is too much for you to understand. I'm not sure I want you to understand. I hope that you never do. You are still so innocent." Her gaze slid away from my face. "But to give you an idea? grasp the darkness hiding in the corners of your mind, anything that has ever scared you or made you feel the onus of dread. Hold it tight and then stretch it out. Now enshroud your entire existence with that darkness. That is all I knew before I came here." She lifted her head and stared hard at me, eyes bleak and unblinking. "Fear, hunger, pain, cruelty? you have never truly experienced any of those things. I have." Her eyes willed me to comprehend what she was not saying. I winced, feeling the full import of the omission. An icy sense of dread settled over me. Her breath became shallow, ragged.
She struggled to continue. "You may hate it, but I am grateful that I am here? for all of this? more than you can ever know. This place is paradise to me. There is shelter? beauty for the eyes to feast upon. I want for nothing. Books are plentiful. My bed is soft and warm. And? I have your friendship." She paused, the stark, hollow look receding. Her countenance was still unsmiling, but nonetheless, radiated contentment.
I could not fill the silence with a protest, though my heart wanted to rail against the injustices she had suffered, to somehow wipe them from her mind. A swollen knot of sorrow had formed in my throat. If she had found peace under St. Selfridge's roof, if she truly preferred to be here in this despicable place, then the world must be much harsher than I had imagined. The thought chilled me to the marrow of my bones. We would never escape together. My fantasy was shown to me for what it truly was? hopeless.
"Yes, you do have my friendship," I replied, voice rasping. My chin dropped so that she might not search my eyes and find disappointment simmering there. "Always."
Her fingers touched my chin, gently tilting my face until my eyes met hers. A knowing grin flitted across her pale face. "And now I have ruined your special day, haven't I?" She sighed. "Oh, Charlotte. Do not listen to me. I don't know what I'm saying. I am only tired. You must have your merriment without me. I would not spoil it for all the world." She gathered my hands in hers, squeezing them gently.
But liberty had lost its tantalizing luster. "I?I think I would rather stay here now. I could read to you? Shall I finish As You Like It? Remember? Rosalind has just met Orlando in disguise."
She coughed, delicately and with eyes darting from me to the handkerchief balled in her shaking hand. Her mouth trembled. A soft smile wobbled onto her white lips. "No, my dear. The forest beckons. I dare not keep you from it, not on this day. Rosalind will keep."
She motioned feebly toward the window. Warm, golden light seeped through the mullioned panes. It did beckon to me. It seemed to carry a message from the trees, a softness like the whisper of leaves. "Well? I? I think I saw bluebells near the east wall," I said reluctantly. "Shall I bring you some then?"
Her eyes closed. She inhaled a shaky breath. "Yes, Charlotte, you must bring me bluebells. I would like that very much."
"And you must rest. I fear I have exhausted you already."
"On the contrary, you have helped me find a small measure of peace." She laid back on the cushions. Her bony frame was almost enveloped by them. Her lips were a worrisome shade of violet, almost the exact color of her eyes. I hesitated, but impatience bit into me.
Impulsively, I kissed her cold cheek and bounded up. "I shall bring you the most lavish bouquet, Mary! It will take your breath away!"
She smiled again, a sweet, faint smile. "Be happy, Charlotte. Farewell."
At that, I departed, becoming less enthusiastic once I reached the hall. Employing all the guile I had stored away in all my thirteen years, I made my way to the garden, not once garnering notice by anyone with any authority to stop me.
My reward waited patiently for me beyond the spike-girded bounds of the school. Hills, still capped in white, lounged in the distance, still enjoying their winter's sleep. But below them, rich in verdure and contrasting color, the forest lay at their feet like a warm emerald blanket defying the chill of the iron gray sky. The wind was stiff, but carried with it an undertone of gentle scents; of bluebells and moss and snowdrops. Sunlight crept over the hills, spreading across them like melting butter. I followed the warmth of it, sitting from time to time to watch it rise higher in the sky, only to be shuttered by banks of jealous clouds.
And what did I discover when I reached my sylvan playground? Such recesses of shadow and light palaces have never contained! Gleaming silver of dew and leaf! Primroses! Bluebells! My drawing rooms were more beautiful than any ever bedecked with silver, silk and velvet! I reveled there, dreaming my dreams, until the light receded and with a full heart, I returned to the dreariness that was my reality.
Twilight had hushed the chatter of birds. A faint glow illumined the upper windows, pooling on the shadowy ground outside. I found the back door without incident, shutting it carefully behind me. As I moved through the silent school, I listened for the sounds of those stirring about the sickrooms, but the halls were strangely silent. I stepped lightly. My progress was hampered by an armful of bluebells. A trail of pale petals fluttered in my wake. My eyes and limbs were warm and heavy. The day's revels had taken their toll on my energies. Sleep and dreams called to me. But before I retired, I wanted to keep my promise to Mary.
Mrs. Phillip's door was ajar. I began to slide through the aperture, seeing too late, the bent form of Mrs. Phillips herself, barring my way.
She was seated, face buried in her hands, back to the smoldering fire. Her shoulders quaked and shuddered, though no sound accompanied this action. I held my breath, intuitively feeling the immense wave of something intangible and awful suspended above me, waiting to swallow me up. I don't know what alerted her to my presence. Perhaps I turned away instinctively. Perhaps it was a small gasp of dread that betrayed me. Her hands dropped from her face and I saw an awful truth writ there.
"No." I shook my head, and once begun, could not make myself stop. "No." My arms dropped, deadened at my sides, bluebells scattered at my feet.
"I am sorry, Charlotte." Her voice faltered but she gathered her composure quickly. Her arms opened and I found myself kneeling on the hearthrug with them about me. "It was not a quarter of an hour ago. Don't cry now, child. She went peacefully. She no longer feels any pain."
I hadn't felt the tears streaming from my eyes. My only friend?. Stunned, I let sorrow invade and occupy. It has never truly been routed.
Routine became my solace. I was not unhappy, though at times my mind felt like a stack of tinder thirsting for a spark. I availed myself of the stringent education offered to me. I delighted in pleasing my teachers, as their praise was the only ever offered to me. Years passed. I excelled, not satisfied until I was first girl of the first class.
Often after that, it fell to me to take the place of teachers whom had fallen ill. By my sixteenth year, I had assumed a permanent place at the school. I taught there for two more years.
I should have considered myself fortunate. But my own thoughts betrayed my well-being. Turbulent dreams haunted my sleep and an uncertain longing shadowed my days. Happiness with my small lot seemed impossible. I wanted more. I was aware now more than ever, that there was a wide world beyond the gates of St. Selfridges, lives that were not regimented by the ringing of bells. That world called to me. On my eighteenth birthday, I decided to take action, to seek that life since it was hardly likely to come to me.
The article in the Herald ran thusly:
"A young lady of good breeding and education seeks a situation in a private family. Her accomplishments encompass the usual tuition required for the education of young children. In addition, she is qualified in French and Drawing."
For two weeks I secretly awaited a response. Finally, just when I was assured of failure, a letter came, only one.
"If the lady who advertised in the Herald can give proofs of her accomplishments and character references, then I would be pleased to offer her the position as governess in our home. There is only one pupil, a girl ten years of age."
It went on to elaborate on salary (very satisfactory) and gave the directions and name as "Care of Mr. J. Maddox, Rosefield Hall"
I immediately found my map and reacquainted myself with this area's particulars. Rosefield Hall was in the North, a place I imagined as wild and rough country, with dramatic scenery and quaint inhabitants. It was exactly what I would have wished. I wrote back my acceptance, gave my resignation the next day and within the week, had prepared to depart.
Leaving St. Selfridges was uncomplicated. I had no ties and a mind full of pleasant prospects. These kept me occupied through the long carriage ride to Rosefield Hall. All day we traveled on rough roads. The changing landscape was like a tonic to my nerves. I thrilled at the new scents in the air, the new sounds in my ears.
Just before twilight the coachman announced my destination. I had been drowsing, allowing my thoughts to construct the ideal Rosefield Hall. I opened my eyes and found myself at a crossroads. After arranging with the coachman to have my trunk delivered to the Hall later, I gathered my traveling case and set off in the direction the coachman indicated.
Rolling hills cascaded before me like undulating emerald waves. Violet dimness settled over them as the sun sank into their soft curves. The road unfurled, like a pale ribbon into the distance. The moon, luminous and full, was just beginning to shed its soft light. The air was still and cool. Blue wisps of chimney smoke lingered in the sky and I knew Rosefield Hall could not be far off. I settled into a slow pace, the better to admire my surroundings and drink in the novelty of it all.
A sharp, thundering crack suddenly broke the calm, followed by a deep bay, as if from a hound on the scent. I felt the rumble under my feet before I actually saw what was causing it. A large, black dog bounded out of the shadows. Before it had the chance to greet me, the clatter of hooves sent us both scurrying from the lane. I saw it, pale against the low and gnarled trees on either side, a white horse with a cloaked rider. I must have spotted me too, for the rider reined the horse in with a sudden jerk, causing the skittish mare to rise up, sliding awkwardly on the dew-slick grass of the embankment.
The rider tumbled with an explosive exclamation and the horse thundered off.
"Deuce it all!"
The resulting thump as the rider connected with the turf made me cringe. Then, remembering myself, I rushed forward.
"Are you hurt?"
The rider thrashed about in high temper, lungs still quite healthy after the fall.
"Of course I'm all right, dammit. What do you mean coming up on me like that?" The swearing continued, gaining color and momentum.
I persisted, approaching slowly as if gentling a brutish beast. "Is there anything I can do for you, sir?"
The rider was sprawled in an undignified heap, trousered legs splayed and mud streaking his dark cloak.
"Sir is it? I think not." The hood was pushed back and I sucked in my breath.
A woman stared back at me, and not an ordinary woman at that. I had never seen the like of her before. Eyes like deep silver pools regarded me. Shafts of moonlight bathed one side of her face, throwing the other side into dark relief. Delicate curves of cheek and chin seemed sculpted from the smoothest marble. Dark hair tumbled around her shoulders in careless waves. I had seen picture books at St. Selfridges, mythological tales of gods and goddesses illustrated with the most beautiful drawings. Her face could have been copied from those pages.
I think I stared in dumb wonder for some minutes before I found my voice again.
"I?I beg your pardon. Are you injured? I can go for help. Rosefield Hall is not far, I think."
She, in turn, was gazing at me. An odd expression piqued those lovely features. Eyes widened as I spoke.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"My name is Charlotte Bell."
The dog, tired of being ignored, whined and pawed at the ground. I made an appreciative noise and patted my side. It cavorted a little, testing to see if I would play, before it nuzzled my hand and allowed me to pet its head.
"Easy, Ullysses." The woman got to her feet and brushed the dirt off her cloak. She glanced up at me, scowling. "Odd. He doesn't usually like strangers. Come, Ullysses."
The dog remained happily at my side, pretending deafness as I scratched its ears.
The stranger deepened her scowl, giving me to understand she blamed me for her dog's defection. She came closer, hobbling slightly and beckoned to it. The dog turned its head into the folds of my dress.
"I'm sorry," I said, though I was not in the least embarrassed. For some reason, the stranger's harshness had done the opposite of what it was intended. I felt quite at ease. "I see you are indeed hurt. Allow me to help you find your horse if you will not let me go to Rosefield Hall for assistance. Please, it is the least I can do."
The woman sighed. "What you can do is let go of my dog and get out of my way. It's bad enough you were lurking here in the dark. Just what is it you were doing? Shouldn't a young girl like you be within doors? at home embroidering or something."
I laughed, though I knew it wasn't the response she had expected. "I am just come to Rosefield Hall. I have yet to be introduced to the household."
The woman drew her cloak close, giving me a measuring stare. She presented quite a sinister picture in her masculine clothing, eyes aglow with moonlight. I thought, were there women bandits, she would fit the category to perfection. "What are you to Rosefield Hall?" she asked.
"I'm the new governess. As I said, I've just come."
The woman nodded reflectively. "The governess. Oh, yes. I remember now." She looked me over again, this time the scrutiny was more intense. I suppose I met with her approval, for a tiny smile, which she endeavored to hide, played at the corners of her mouth.
"Then you ought to be off. We can't have you haunting country lanes all night. Other travelers might not be as resourceful as I am."
I stood firm. "I cannot leave you here alone when you're injured."
She grimaced and raised her eyes heavenward. "This is what you send me?" she muttered.
"Shall I get your horse then?" I asked, puzzled by her comment.
The woman sighed again. "If you insist upon making yourself necessary, give me your shoulder. Argo will not come to anyone but me and so we must needs go to her."
I obliged, coming closer so that she could lean on me. I felt the warmth of her keenly, not realizing how chilly the night air had become. The scent of horseflesh mixed with jasmine permeated her clothing and her hair. After a few paces she stumbled and began to swear again. I leaned in closer, allowing her to wrap an arm around my waist to right herself.
I suppose I should have considered it curious that one as shy and passive as I should behave in such a manner. But it seemed quite natural to have her close. Gruff as she sounded, instinctively I knew that I was in no danger from her temper.
Just over the rise, her horse cropped at the tall grass, patiently swishing its tail as we approached. The woman made a clicking noise against her teeth and the horse trotted to her. She patted its muzzle affectionately before reaching for the pommel. She swung into the saddle with effortless grace, only wrinkling her nose just slightly from the pain.
"Get you to Rosefield," she said, looking down on me. The moon was bright behind her. I couldn't see her face. "Make haste."
Another clicking noise and a light touch of spurs and horse and rider were off, the hound in joyful pursuit.
I was alone again.
I did make haste to Rosefield. Less than two miles brought me to the crest of a hill overlooking the house and gardens.
Rosefield was not what I had pictured. It was neither the medieval fortress nor the fairy tale castle my imagination had conjured. It was a venerable house with a wide expanse of mullioned windows across its front, now reflecting moonlight. Turreted towers divided the sloping slate roof in two. A lofty mass of age-mellowed stone, its elegance intimidated even as its beauty invited.
At least the gardens were engaging. Roses everywhere. Lush bowers of scent dotted the landscape. Trellises loaded with heavy blooms climbed those forbidding walls. I breathed in the scent. It was so lovely. For a moment I felt weightless. I sighed and then made my way down the lane, through the tall iron gates and trudged the last few steps to the threshold of my new home.
The man's face that peered out at me was sickly pale, but comical. Bulging brown eyes and what I concluded was a habitual smile greeted me with good humor. He was much younger than I had expected. I wondered if I should be alarmed or worry about the propriety of having such a young master.
"Hello, there," he said. "What have we here?"
I bobbed a curtsey. "Charlotte Bell, sir. I'm the governess."
The smile widened and became even more lopsided. The man struggled to pull the heavy oaken door wide. "Come in. Come in. We weren't expecting you until tomorrow. Wonderful. Wonderful. So good to finally meet you. I'm Joss Maddox. Come in. Come in."
The man was a flurry of bouncy gestures. He ushered me inside.
"I'll be back in just a moment. So good to finally meet you."
I hadn't expected such a jovial welcome from the master of the house. I stood nervously in the darkened foyer while he fastened the door behind us.
He returned carrying a candle. He lifted it high and looked down at me.
"Pretty thing aren't you." His forehead creased with light concern and then smoothed out again. "Oh well, I suppose that's all right. It's late. You'll be wanting a meal and a bed. Let me show you right up to your room and I'll have Meg bring you a tray. We can take care of our business in the morning, can't we?" He nodded to himself. "We can. We can."
With a jaunty step he led me through a shadowy maze of corridors and staircases. By the light of the candle I caught tantalizing glimpses of objects quite foreign to me, ornate furniture, portraits in heavy gilded frames and once, in a large and echoing room, the flickering and somewhat rumpled image of myself reflected back from a wall of mirrors.
Finally, we arrived at another heavy oaken door, darkened with age, and Joss pulled a ring of keys from his coat pocket.
"Here we are. Meg aired the room this morning herself, she did. Yes, she did. Should be to your liking." He stood aside and allowed me to enter and then handed me the candle.
"Come to our sitting room in the morning. It's just below your chamber on the first floor. We'll talk then." With another lopsided smile, he retreated, leaving me to inspect my chamber.
Accustomed as I was to drafty dormitories with no privacy and no charm, this room seemed like the perfect haven, a nest of comfort and repose.
The bed, hung with light blue curtains, was positioned near the fireplace. A simple braided rug covered the polished floor. A large washstand and cupboard occupied the wall opposite the fireplace. A set of high windows flanked the bed. It was plain but cheerful, and I noted with happy tears in my eyes, that a kind heart had placed fresh roses in a crystal vase on the mantel.
The welcome was overwhelming. I sat down on the soft bed and cried.
Sunlight stole in through a gap in the curtains, waking me the next morning. I hurried about my toilette, taking extra care in my dress. I wore my dove gray taffeta. Though it was extremely plain, it was the nicest dress I owned. After carefully braiding my hair, I rushed downstairs, noting with appreciation the burnished paneled oak walls, the faded tapestries covering them and the ancient carved banisters under my fingers. Marble steps led to a vaulted hall I was sure I'd passed through last evening.
From there I was lost.
I turned at the sound of my name and came face to face with the woman of the night before.
I gaped at her, at a complete lost for words. The eyes were the only assurance I had that she was the same woman. Her dress and hair had completely transformed from sinister bandit to coiffed and queenly gentlewoman. She wore an ice blue silk gown that accentuated her small waist. No lace or frippery for her. The exquisitely simple lines of the dress suited her and she wore it just as naturally as her masculine garb. Her rich, dark hair was gathered at the nape of her neck in a clasp and rippled down her back. From the ladies journals I had seen, I knew she was not dressed fashionably, but had the ladies of society in their bows and frills seen her, they would have abandoned their vanities in despair.
"You," I said, staring stupidly.
"The governess found her post, I see. And have you met your new charge?"
"No, I... I haven't," I replied, my tongue feeling strangely thick.
She lifted a delicate brow, the corner of her mouth lifting as well. "Neglecting your duties on your first day? What kind of impression will that make?"
"Ahhh!" An verbal explosion from the staircase above interrupted her and moments later, Joss Maddox bounded up to us. I was reminded of the big black dog of yesterday. Jolly, good-natured, but rather clumsy. I shook myself. I shouldn't have such disrespectful thoughts of my employer.
"There you are!" he exclaimed. He turned to the woman and with only a shade more deference said, "Forgive us, milady. I was just coming to fetch Miss Bell to take her to the schoolroom to meet Miss Evelyn."
The woman waved an imperious hand in the air. "Then please do so, Maddox." She turned to me and with a sardonic quirk of her lip said, "Good day, Charlotte Bell." Her skirts swished as she walked away, a slight limp the only indication of her recent injury. I stared after her, my head swimming.
I turned to Maddox. "Milady?"
Maddox tilted his head, confused.
"I thought you were the master of this house," I said, plaintively, willing it to be true.
Maddox laughed merrily, quite taken with the idea. He slapped me on the shoulder. "Bless you, that's a rare one. Me, master of Rosefield?" He guffawed loudly. "I'll have to tell that one to Meg. She'll split a corset." His eyes boggled and he covered his mouth in embarrassment. "Oh, pardon me, miss. Didn't mean no harm." He cleared his throat then continued after motioning for me to follow him across the wide hall. "No, no, no? Mrs. Delchester, she's mistress here. There hasn't been a master since before I can remember."
We passed through to a hallway beyond and traversed a connected drawing room until we came to another staircase, this one narrower and less elaborate. I judged this to be the servant's main thoroughfare.
"No," Maddox was saying. "Meg and Me, we're the caretakers. She's the housekeeper and I oversee the grounds and such. There's just the four of us here. Five now, counting yourself. We don't usually have the Missus in residence. Mrs. Delchester's been a widow now going on twelve years. She don't stay here often, and when she does, it isn't for long. Young Miss Evelyn, she just come to us recently. Mrs. Delchester went abroad months ago and brought her back."
This strange pronouncement brought us to a door, which Maddox opened and then peeked inside.
"Brought you a visitor," he said into the room and then turning to me with a wink, clambered back down the stairs.
My new pupil sat at the window, knees drawn up, arms clasped around them, a pensive soberness to her round face. She glanced up at me as I entered, large brown eyes absorbing all the details of my person before she yawned and looked back out the window.
"You must be Evelyn," I said by way of introduction. "I am Miss Bell."
This statement was met with indifferent silence. Evelyn yawned again, stretching her arms as her face contracted and her mouth opened even wider.
"You do realize that most onlookers would not be thankful for such an unobstructed view of your tonsils?"
Evelyn's mouth snapped shut. "Que est-ce que vous avez dit?"
"I said that perhaps we ought to consider an earlier bedtime for you. Obviously, you need more rest."
The child stood up and stalked over to me. She placed her diminutive form in front of me, hands on hips.
"Est-ce que vous me comprenez? Je ne le crois pas"
"Of course I do. But Madmoiselle understands me as well, doesn't she? From your accent, I can see La Francais is your native tongue. Perhaps we should exercise our English now instead? You seem to have mastered the other."
"Et pourquoi doit je accomodate le stupide anglais?"
I felt my temper rise, but I gathered my patience quickly. I knew well how to deal with stubborn children.
"Why should you accommodate me? Well, possibly because being polite will get you a lot further than rudeness."
Her upturned face flushed red and she stamped her foot. "Je n'ai pas besoin d'un governess. La maman ne m'a jamais fait celui a."
I crossed my arms and held firm. "In English if you please."
The girl thrust out her lower lip and tossed her white blonde ringlets. "I don't need a governess. Mama never made me have one. Why should I now?"
"Well, your mother has obviously changed her mind about that, hasn't she?"
The girl dropped her head and the pout extended. She looked truly pathetic and, in spite of myself, touched upon my maternal instincts.
"La maman est allée au ciel."she said in a small voice.
I brushed her curls back. "Mama isn't gone. She's downstairs, surely. Mrs. Delchester? I just passed her on the stairs."
The girl looked up at me, deeply offended. "She isn't my mother. She's the bad woman. She killed Maman."
I must confess I was dumbfounded. Ridiculous. And yet the little girl seemed utterly sincere.
"Nonsense," I said dismissively. But I instantly harkened back to the fearsome bandit of the night before and a seed of doubt was planted in my fertile mind. "Let us get on with your lessons now and no more foolish talk. Perhaps, we can start with arithmetic?"
It seemed my pupil had no more energy for rebellion. She lapsed into silence, nodding to indicate her answers. I tested her knowledge of the basics and finding her deplorably uneducated, at once began to ease her into a rudimentary awakening of her young intellect. For two hours or more, we pressed on, until a knock at the schoolroom door and a relieved sigh from young Evelyn told me our lessons were finished for the day.
The door creaked open and a buxom dark-haired woman, preceded by a tray heavy with tea implements and steaming scones, entered the room.
"Ah, this will be the good Joss's wife," I thought.
"Thought you might be wanting your tea, then," the woman said, her face as stern as her husband's was jolly. She set the tray down with an irritable thump and, after wiping her red hands on a stained apron, reluctantly offered one to me.
I thanked her and shook her hand. She sniffed, looked me up and down and then nodded to herself as if something in my appearance confirmed a secret suspicion of hers. I smiled at her uncertainly and she sniffed again. She looked as if she were once pretty, but was now somewhat drab, of middle age, quite florid of face and sour of expression.
"I'm Meg, the housekeeper."
She paused here and looked down at her feet, her repertoire of polite conversation apparently exhausted. Then, a sudden inspiration caused her to lift her head and continue in a much more cantankerous tone.
"Been awfully busy what with the missus back in residence again. She has to have everything just so. Don't know why. She's only here two days out of a year most times. I haven't had a minute to myself, I tell you. 'Show the governess around.' she says. Like I don't have enough to do." She sighed. "I'll show you around tomorrow if I can. I'm not promising anything, mind you."
"That would be most kind of you," I said.
She narrowed her eyes, apparently suspicious of my sincerity.
Evelyn giggled and the housekeeper shot her a glance full of loathing.
"Cette femme est étrange," Evelyn said in a mock whisper. "Toute nuit longue elle pleure et pleure, tout comme un bébé." And then she made a face at her. The woman's eyes narrowed to slits. Having no wish to become a party to the obvious enmity between them, or to embarrass the woman, I ignored the remark when I should have rebuked the child.
"Well, thank you very much for the tea," I said briskly. "That was very thoughtful of you. I had forgotten about breakfast."
An unintelligible mutter was Meg's response. She turned to go and then stopped at the door to add, "The missus is wanting a word with you in the drawing room after supper."
When the door closed behind her, the child erupted into mean-spirited laughter and began to make baby sounds and pretend to cry.
"That is what she does," Evelyn said. "All night long. Sometimes she screams, too. I think the devil woman is torturing her and it makes her sad."
I deliberately ignored the child's taunting and reached for the tea things, surprised to hear my stomach growling in anticipation. I turned to see the child capering about making faces.
"That's quite awful of you, making fun of that poor woman. Imagine how she must feel. What if someone were to do that to you? Now, if you don't cease this instant, you shan't get a biscuit. Come sit down and behave yourself."
The child pouted but begrudgingly complied. We sat in silence and drank our tea. My eyes kept stealing to the window and the sunlit gardens in all their glory. I wanted to explore them while the fragrance was still warm in the air.
I was about to set my tea cup back down on its saucer, when a piercing scream split the air. Cup and contents clattered and splashed on the carpet. I leapt to my feet. "What was that?" I cried.
I turned to look at my pupil who sat docile and serene, sipping at her cup. "I told you," she said. "Madame Maddox, it is she."
I thirsted for fresh air, sunlight. I hoped that the calm of the garden would help to clarify my jumbled thoughts.
I charged Evelyn to do a few additional lessons and then promised her that I would read to her that evening. This seemed to agree with the child. Her face brightened and before I left, she'd added wistfully, "Maman used to read to me."
What should I conclude from the little girl's cryptic comments? I was not sure, but resolved to ask for explanations when I sat down with my employer that evening. And what of the lady herself?
I pushed all thoughts of her aside, aware that my curiosity had been piqued to an uncomfortable degree.
I found a door that would admit me to the gardens and went outside. The sun felt friendly on my face, bathing me with warmth. I followed a gentle slope carpeted in green until I came to a wall dripping with drowsy, red blossoms. I followed its length until I reached an archway. Gazing through the tall stone portico, I caught my breath. Surely Eden must have looked so to Eve. I had never seen anything so beautiful. A profusion of color courted the eyes. None but nature can so artfully arrange a garden. It looked as if human hands never touched it, but they must have. It was wonderfully well kept with not a weed in sight.
A twisting cobblestone path led away into the greenery. I determined to follow it to see where it might lead. I looked over my shoulder at the house above, uncertain if I should inform anyone as to my whereabouts and surprised a face staring out a window, looking down at me. It was an unknown face, definitely female. I shielded my eyes against the glare of the sun to get a better look. The next instant, the face was gone.
I shook my head and turned back to the tempting path and began to make my way through the garden. Every few steps I had to stop and exclaim over some new example of loveliness. I idled away most of the afternoon in this fashion. When the sun began to set, I made my way back up to the house, much refreshed in mind and spirit.
I went to my room and straightened my hair and washed my face. I couldn't change for dinner. I was already wearing my best dress. I surmised I wouldn't be dining with my employer anyway. I would probably take my meal with my charge. That was customary among servants and the reality was, I was little better than one.
I found two places set at a table next to the fireplace in the schoolroom. Evelyn and I had a very satisfactory meal of beef and Yorkshire pudding. Meg Maddox's temper and unusual behavior might be bearable if they always resulted in such splendid fare, I thought. Conversation was sparse, as my charge was sleepy and it plainly showed. I took her back to her nursery and helped her into her nightclothes. Upon hearing a distant clock chime half past seven, I hurried from the schoolroom, reiterating my promise of a story later.
I rushed downstairs, passing through the great hall once more. I was unsure whether the drawing room was to the left or to the right. I stopped and considered, trying to remember.
"You're just in time," a voice called to me. I whirled around, but I already guessed who had spoken.
She stood in the drawing room, an arm resting on the edge of a green silk settee near a blazing fire. The light created a soft silhouette around her. Any greeting I may have given dried up in my throat.
I wondered that she had the power to take my breath away not once, but twice in one day. But again, her appearance was remarkable. Her hair was drawn back into a simple coil at her neck, accenting the delicate bones of her face. She wore a white satin gown that exposed her shoulders and dipped in front for a discreet display of decolletage. Again, the gown was very simple but it fit her well and made her seem like a diamond in a precious setting. I felt especially dowdy in comparison. I brushed absently at my unimaginative braid, a few tendrils escaping as I pushed it over my shoulder.
As if she could sense my nervousness, she sighed impatiently and gestured for me to come inside.
"Come, Miss Bell. Sit."
It was a peremptory command, put in the tones of one who is accustomed to being obeyed. I did as she asked, entering the drawing room and taking a seat in a wooden, high-backed chair near the door.
She watched me sit and pursed her lips as if I'd displeased her somehow. She left her post at the fireplace and came to stand before me.
"So, Miss Bell," she continued, staring down at me sternly. "I understand you were a teacher?"
For the second time since we'd met, I found that rather than being put off by her severe approach, I warmed to it, as if her thorny exterior were just a mask that only I could see through. My awkwardness dropped away and I felt easy and relaxed again.
"Yes," I replied. "At St. Selfridges. It's in the south."
She raised an eyebrow. "I'm aware of its location. Are you from that vicinity?"
"The orphanage at St. Selfridges was my home. I lived there for as long as I can remember."
The other eyebrow shot up. "You must be hardier than you appear, then. No wonder you have that faraway look about you, as if your mind were somewhere up in the clouds." She chuckled to herself, a surprisingly comforting sound. "When you came upon me last night, I thought the old stories were perhaps true."
"You know, of the Sidhi, the old people who live under the hills. I had half a thought that you'd bewitched my horse."
She was teasing me, I realized. I glanced up at her. The tenor of our conversation was fast becoming uncertain.
"The old people would never claim me for a relative," I said, my face deliberately grave. "I'm far too sedate."
She nodded, smiling absently at my jest. "And what of your parents? Any human relations that would own you?"
I shook my head. "They died of a fever when I was a baby. I know of no other relatives."
Mrs. Delchester nodded again, her mouth thinning into a grim line. She turned away from me and began to pace the length of the thick Oriental rug underfoot. In her present garb, the action was disturbingly masculine, almost too vigorous for one so delicate of beauty. It was disconcerting, but I couldn't look away.
"And have you traveled much?"
"No. Of the world, I only know St. Selfridges and Rosefield, and of course, the road between."
"And what do you think of Rosefield?"
"I think it's the most beautiful place, more beautiful than I imagined."
This amused her. "Your age?"
"I've just turned eighteen, ma'am."
She rounded on me, her pale, blue stare frigid. "Do not ever call me ma'am."
"I am sorry, Mrs. Delchester."
She sighed and shook her head. "No not that name, either. You may call me Jane."
"All right, Jane."
She stopped pacing and stood before me again, watching me a moment in thoughtful silence.
"I'd like to be frank with you Miss Bell as it may alleviate any misunderstandings later." She clasped her hands behind her back. "I am blunt of speech and manner and I make no apologies for it. It is the habit of a lifetime and I'm not going to change it to spare the feelings of one. Does this offend you?"
"No," I said, and feeling that I ought to elaborate, added, "I don't believe there is anything wrong with a forthright tongue, as long as there is no malice intended."
"There are those who do not share your objectivity. Your pupil is one."
"She's just a child."
"A very determined and capricious child. I'm sure you've noticed that by now."
I took a moment with my answer, the child's accusations ringing in my ears. Surely that was only the grim fancy of an over-active imagination. I hesitated to broach the subject. I knew all too well how easy it was to get caught up in fantasies, good or bad.
"I see that she is intelligent and very quick. I'm hoping to harness her energies and put them to good use. I'm sure she'll adapt. Perhaps she just needs more attention?" I cleared my throat nervously. "How long has it been since her mother passed away?"
At my words, Mrs. Delchester pursed her lips and looked at the floor. If I hadn't been staring steadily at her, I would have missed the sidelong glance she gave me before speaking. I nearly started. It was such a calculating and cold look, as if, in the blink of an eye, her features had turned to stone. But, a moment later, the look was gone.
"Almost a year," she said shortly. "She is an orphan, too, Miss Bell."
"Well," I said with a determined lift of my chin. I wasn't fond of the cavalier opinion she seemed to have about the child, even though the girl was indeed, difficult and willful. It set me on edge for some reason. "She will have to think of me as sister, if not in blood, then in spirit."
But instead of taking my words as defiance, she smiled warmly, her eyes approving.
The mantle clock struck quarter past eight. The mellow gong brought back the hard _expression to her face.
"What are you about, Miss Bell?" she said sharply "It is late. Your charge, see to your charge."
With a wave, she motioned me away and our strange interview was over.
"Good night, Mrs. ... I mean, Jane," I said over my shoulder, the sound echoing in the darkened hall.
No answer followed. As I climbed the stairs, I looked down. She was watching me from the drawing room doorway.
When I reached Evelyn's room, I found her in her bed, her hand curled under her chin, already sound asleep. In repose, with her blond curls tumbled across the pillow, she was the very picture of a sleeping cherub. I smiled to myself as I pulled the coverlet up to her chin and put out the candle at her bedside table.
My room was difficult to find in the shadowy gloom but by some miracle I did manage to locate it. I donned my nightdress, shivering, and quickly burrowed underneath thick blankets. Someone had thoughtfully put a warm brick at the foot of my bed.
Despite the rigors of the day and the unanswered questions rolling around my teeming brain, sleep claimed me almost as soon as I closed my eyes.
I'll never be sure what woke me. The last vestiges of a troubled dream evaporated and I sat straight up in bed, listening. Had I heard a scream?
I pulled back the bed curtains and searched the shadows of my room. No movement, no sound betraying an unwanted presence. I sat back, almost willing myself back to my pillow and to sleep, but something troubled me. The very air throbbed in the silence.
I put my feet to the cold floor and padded over to my chamber door. I put my ear to it and listened. An unbroken hush.
Taking a deep breath for courage, I cracked open the door and stared into the hall.
There, at the end of the hall, in the middle of the floor, stood a candle.
And then I heard it, low, demonic laughter drifting through the darkness.
I don't know why I didn't run back to my bed, bolting the door behind me. Any rational person would have done so.
But I did not. Some unnameable force compelled me forward. I tiptoed down the hallway, inspecting doors as I passed them. Five were locked. The sixth was not.
I tried the handle. It gave without much effort. Before I had it halfway open, smoke billowed out into the hallway, stinging my eyes. I coughed, shielding my eyes as I rushed into the room.
Flames and smoke, that is what I first perceived. But gradually my eyes adjusted to the contrast of light and dark and saw with horror what the flames were consuming.
A bed with Mrs. Delchester sleeping soundly at the center of it.
"Wake!" I screamed, inching my way closer. The flames darted out at me, gaining virulence as they licked at the bed curtains, sizzling with hungry fervor as they climbed to the ceiling. "Mrs. Delchester! Please, wake!"
But she didn't stir. The smoke had stupefied her. Frantically, my eyes searched the room and fixed upon a silver ewer and basin set in one corner. I lifted the heavy basin and doused the one side of the bed curtains. I followed with the water in the ewer. With a steaming hiss, another panel was extinguished
"Wake!" I screamed again. I tried to reach the bed, but the heat was too intense. The sheets were now on fire. I rushed from the room, returning moments later with the basin from my room. This I aimed directly at Mrs. Delchester.
The splash hit her full on the face. She sputtered awake, coughing as she sat up.
"Who's there? What's happening?" She spied me first and then the flames. In the next instant, she leaped out of bed with surprising agility, landing almost fully across the room.
"Your arm!" I cried. She'd carried some of the flames with her. The sleeve of her nightgown was on fire. She slapped at the flames, putting them out and then darted forward and yanked the bed curtains down, stomping on them until they no longer burned. I followed her example and between the two of us, we smothered the blaze.
We stood in smoky darkness, each of us breathing heavily, each of us soaked to the skin (I had spilled half my basin down the front of myself carrying it from my room.) until I began to shiver uncontrollably.
She started, awakened by the sound of my teeth chattering. She crossed to a large, mahogany wardrobe, rifled through it and extracted a long, black velvet cloak. This she draped around my shoulders.
"Is that better?" she asked. I nodded, though I avoided meeting her eyes. She was very close, and her hands still held the cloak together at my chin. I shivered again, though I was no longer cold.
And then she began to chuckle. It was such an odd reaction, I couldn't help looking up at her. She was gazing down at me, a bemused expression on her soot-covered face.
"I swear, I knew when I came upon you in the lane that you would be my good angel, and now you've proved my guess correct.
"Charlotte?" she said, her voice soft and tentative. But she got no further. The eerie laughter had echoed again, floating through the gloom. I glanced up. The frightening stony expression had returned. She looked down at me.
"Stay here. Do not move from this chamber."
Panic gripped me. "Wait! Shouldn't we call Maddox? Someone is loose in the house!"
"Maddox? No. I shan't disturb him. Just be still and I shall investigate. I won't be long."
She went, taking the candle from the hallway with her. I was enveloped in total darkness.
I listened for some time, straining my hearing to catch the slightest sound. Weary and sick, I waited. A thousand quickened heartbeats passed before I lost count and began to wring my hands with worry. I was nearly at the point of venturing out, despite Mrs. Delchester's warning, when, at last, the sound of footsteps broke the silence.
She entered, twice as pale as when she had departed. The flickering candlelight cast shadows across her face, causing the flinty set of her features to seem more ominous than perhaps they should.
"The house is secure," said she.
"And the culprit?" I asked, rising from the chair where I had been seated while waiting.
She turned to set the candle down which also effectively hid her expression from my prying eyes.
"It has been dealt with. You have nothing to fear now."
"But how can you be assured of that?"
I saw the rise and fall of her shoulders as she sighed. She turned back to me, arms crossed and inquired in a peculiar tone, "What woke you this evening? What made you come to my room?"
"I cannot say. I think I heard a scream. I was sleeping. I can't be sure."
Tilting her head, she gave me a sidelong glance charged with suspicion. "And when you opened your door, what did you see then?"
My brows drew together and I felt my heart pounding. Did she suspect me of this heinous crime?
"I... I saw nothing, only the candle. I heard laughter, though. I'm certain of it."
My statement seemed to alleviate whatever had plagued her thoughts. "Yes, laughter, no doubt it was only the wind. The house is quite drafty. I'm sure you've heard that sort of sound before. You'll hear many odd noises in which the wind is to blame."
I shook my head. "No. This couldn't have been the wind. It sounded very real. And I'll tell you who I think it was. Meg Maddox. I've heard her before. I don't want to cause trouble, but the woman is quite unstable. You ought to turn her out at once."
Mrs. Delchester considered this, biting her lower lip. Her bed gown was sodden and hanging off one shoulder but she did not seem to notice nor feel the cold. She nodded to herself and then looked back at me. "Yes. Meg. It could have been... She has a.... condition. Sometimes, it becomes beyond her control." She waved her hand in the air in, what it seems, was her habitual dismissive manner. "But as I've said, the matter is settled and there is no reason to fear her, none at all. I must sort out my sleeping arrangements for this evening, so off to bed with you. As for tomorrow, not a word to Meg or Maddox or anyone, do you hear?"
She looked so severe that I merely nodded when really I wanted to argue further. I turned to go.
I looked over my shoulder.
"You take your leave with no words of parting, no fare thee wells?" she cried incredulously. "You save my life and then just depart in such cool fashion, as if we were strangers? At the very least shake my hand and let me thank you."
She held out her hand. I clasped it with mine. She held it in a firm embrace. Her eyes, searching mine eagerly, were in turn, fathomless.
"I would not willingly owe anyone else such a debt, Charlotte," she said, her voice tremulous. "But I think having you as a benefactor would not be such a hardship."
I was not sure how to respond to this. "You owe me nothing," I said uncertainly. "My assistance is freely given."
She gifted me with another of her warm smiles. "And so is my gratitude."
Her fingers clutched mine tightly, as if she were loath to give them up. Becoming aware of this, she reluctantly loosed her hold. I turned again to go and heard her call after me softly,
"Good night, Charlotte. Sleep well, my good angel."
Though my rest had been disturbed and foreshortened, I woke strangely refreshed. My fingers fumbled as I dressed and tidied my hair. I paused overlong in front of the small mirror above my washstand. Two spots of hectic color showed on my cheeks. I looked away, not daring further examination. I didn't want to put a name to the eagerness I felt.
I quitted my chamber and was accosted by strangers, a pair of young girls in starched aprons and caps. They each bobbed a curtsey at me and proceeded down the hallway, stopping at Mrs. Delchester's door and then entering.
Hearing voices from within, I followed, overcome with curiosity.
"My word! She could have been burned alive!" exclaimed a girlish voice.
"I've always said it's a dangerous luxury to keep a fire burning at night. Such a waste." This voice I recognized as Meg Maddox's.
'Fiend!' I thought with indignation. 'Come to see what damage you have wrought?'
I resolved to test the woman to see what she might betray. I stepped through the doorway and waited until I was noticed.
The pair of girls were busy stripping the bed of its charred hangings. Meg was cleaning the soot from the windowpanes. Her face wore its customary sour expression. I searched her countenance. Surely such an odious act must leave its mark on the perpetrator, a sign of desperation or madness. But her reddened hands neither shook nor fluttered about as she performed her task. Her face was so calm and inscrutable that I began to doubt my conviction. Perhaps I was wrong to have judged merely on the words of a child?
A rustle of my gown gave notice of my presence. Meg and both girls looked up at once, and only the latter two betrayed surprise or alarm.
"What has happened here?" I asked, thinking to myself 'Let her speak the lie directly to me. I will see through any subterfuge.'
"The Mistress says she fell asleep with the candle burning and it nearly burnt her up as you can see," came Meg's bland reply. The dour expression seemed firmly fixed.
"This happened last night? I can't believe it! It's a wonder no one heard. Did you hear anything strange? I understand your sewing rooms are just above."
She leveled a hard stare at me and then answered with her own question. "How did you know where my quarters be? I haven't shown you anything of the house yet"
I started. "Why... Joss told me? and Evelyn pointed them out yesterday."
She nodded, but continued to stare. I shivered despite myself. "Don't let me catch you going up there," she said, her brown eyes squinting. "It's treacherous dark and you'd get lost and I'd have to come find you. Or then maybe you'd end up falling and I'd have to tend you. And I haven't time for either."
"All right," I agreed hastily, and then to change the subject turned to the young girls and introduced myself.
"I'm Emily," replied one, reddening as she bobbed another unnecessary curtsey.
"I'm Anne," said the other.
These introductions produced a prolonged sigh from Meg. "Missus had me bring them, and a few more besides, in from town. I'll be needing all the help I can get. Missus's off to the Hellerton's now and then on to the Parrish's, but soon we're to be having the whole lot as guests. In a few days, no less. As if I don't have enough to do with them that's already here and she goes and starts entertaining. The gentry will be wanting formal teas and hothouse flowers brung in and fancy dishes prepared special at all hours of the day and night. I don't know why she wants to start having fine folk in now after all these years. Makes a body tired just thinking about it."
She expelled another long-suffering groan as she finished cleaning the window. I stood, uneasily absorbing this news while she gathered all the burnt shreds into a basket and then hoisted it onto her hip.
"You two finish up here and then start tidying the other guest chambers." She looked at me. "Evelyn's had her breakfast already. Will you be wanting any? I suppose I could make a trip back up if you had to have it."
"No," I hastened to assure her, though I was famished. "That won't be necessary."
"Good," she said and quitted the room.
I breathed a sigh of relief, aware as I did that I was still unconvinced as to the woman's guilt. Intimidating as she undoubtedly was, it was not proof. But if it wasn't the stern and harsh-voiced housekeeper, then who could have done it? I knew the story of the candle accidentally catching the bed curtains on fire was a farce invented for the new servants. I had seen the candle in the hall, heard the eerie laughter. I vowed to make further studies of the matter.
Much more intriguing was the news that others would soon be occupying the quiet house. Strange voices would echo in the hallways. Elegant ladies and dapper gentleman would decorate the drawing rooms. We were to have visitors cried my heart in pleasant anticipation. But a traitorous voice at the back of my mind whispered 'Now you will have to share her company.'
This voice I quickly silenced.
Flustered and alarmed, I gave Emily and Anne a few parting words and made my way to the schoolroom.
Never in all the long and tedious years at St. Selfridges did a few days pass as slowly. On that first day, I found myself at times inexplicably fretful and cross. Twice during our lessons, I spoke sharply to Evelyn though she had done no wrong. I apologized, of course, and as compensation, told her the story that I had promised her. We spent a happy morning lost in the world of the Arabian Nights and Sheherezad's wiles. For a few hours, I thought little of my employer or of the housekeeper Meg or of the dark pall of mystery that seemed to dim the very air of Rosefield.
On Sheherezad's fifth night with the mad king, I concluded my tale, promising more the next day. Evelyn, having insisted that she sit on the floor cross-legged like the heroine of my tale, was very amused.
"I like this game! I'll be the king tomorrow and you be Sheherezad." She laughed. It was a sweet little sound. "You are quite droll, Miss Bell," said she.
I gave her hand a little squeeze as I helped her up from the floor. I was becoming fond of my young pupil.
We took our lunch outside in the gardens. I decided that we both needed the fresh air and sunshine. While she capered about on the lawns and played with the hound, Ulysses, my thoughts, like the wheel of a cart on a much used road, found the groove of my worries and could not be turned.
Why did Mrs. Delchester leave so quickly? What or who in this house did she find so repellent? Meg had said when Mrs. Delchester came, she never stayed more than a few days. Why was she staying longer now? Was it the child? She did not appear to care much for her ward. She hadn't once made an appearance in the schoolroom while I was present. That couldn't be the reason. And what of the child's accusations?
Which only brought my thoughts back to Meg and the relationship between her and her mistress. Why would Meg want to do violence to her?
I had no answers.
Later, after I leaving Evelyn to play in the nursery, I wandered through the house in order to familiarize myself with its labyrinthine twists and turns.
I began in the great hall. The space was little more than a massive soaring arch but there were details here that I'd missed when passing through before. The buttresses holding the dome far above in place were so delicately carved with tiny figures and flowers that I spent at least a half an hour discerning the patterns and running my hands over the tiny shapes.
Footsteps echoed across the cold marble floor. Other strange faces passed, each newly hired servant intent on their separate tasks. I was too absorbed to notice anyone in particular. For in each niche created by the buttresses, I found frighteningly lifelike statues, which I decided must be the Greek gods and goddesses. I stroked their cold cheeks and walked on.
From this center point, the wide staircases ascended and three galleries branched off. I found the drawing room I had visited the evening before. Thick blue draperies were drawn back and sunlight washed the jewel tones of the room. It was a handsome place, with elegant furniture that, despite their beauty, did not attract my attention. The glass case in a far corner drew my eye. Inside, chunks of ancient pottery, clay pipes and arrowheads sat in row after row. A crumbling textile occupied the top shelf and in the middle of that, a rusting circle of some indefinable metal. Oh, how I wanted to touch this! But I dared not.
After some time, I moved on to the gallery, inspecting portrait after portrait.
"There is her jawline. And that one has her eyes," I said to myself as I passed.
A faded yellow conservatory bursting with exotic blooms, an apricot morning room with lovely silk chinoiserie wall coverings and pretty framed watercolors, a chocolate and rose sitting room that held the most gorgeous collection of stained glass floor to ceiling windows, a sage and cream music room full of enough gleaming wood instruments to furnish an orchestra; all were revealed to my inquisitive eyes. I'd never seen so many gorgeous things. My head was nearly swimming with luxurious images, when I suddenly encountered myself, multiplied.
I gasped at the small, blond women whose wide green eyes stared back at me. I did not recognize the content expressions, the happy sparkle in those eyes.
It was a ballroom. An enormous chandelier was draped and dark above me. The mirrored panels reflected my image and the light streaming in from the hall.
A strange impulse took hold of me and I took hold of my skirts and whirled around the polished boards until I couldn't catch my breath. I think I was a little drunk on the beauty of Rosefield. I began to laugh.
And so did another.
The laughter froze in my throat but the other continued. I spun around, trying to locate the source of the eerie sound.
It seemed to echo through the very walls, as though Rosefield itself were laughing at me.
"Who are you?" I called, my knees quaking.
No answer followed and the laughter shortly faded into silence.
The woman reflected in the mirrors no longer appeared pleased. I stalked out of the ballroom, cutting short my explorations for the day.
Days extended into weeks. At first, I started at every sound, ran to the window countless times during the day and was so completely distracted one morning, I forgot to braid my hair.
Finally, I gathered my wits and called upon the patience that life at St. Selfridges had so thoroughly taught me. Once again, I immersed myself in routine and was rewarded with a fragile peace of mind. Dark thoughts were erased, only to surface to plague my vulnerable sleep.
'Mrs. Delchester's affairs are of no matter to you,' I reminded myself upon waking. 'Teach your charge. Take your salary and remember you are not of her sphere. You have no place in her world and no business divining her secrets nor the secrets of Rosefield."
And yet still I would catch my thoughts straying.
My days were spent in Evelyn's company. After much application, I could congratulate myself on her progress. Though she had obviously been spoilt and indulged, and at times refused to apply herself, an avid intellect soon threw off this malaise and she became obedient and wished to please me.
As for my idle hours away from the schoolroom, these I applied to Joss to fill. At first that amiable man demurred, insisting that my ladylike hands would be worse for it. I assured him that I was no stranger to labor and would welcome the diversion. For a brief moment his comical face was a riot of conflicting emotions, but his genial nature won out and he laughed.
"You're an odd creature, Miss Bell. Never did I see a gentlewoman go about doing what you do. Never did I see it."
This, I decided, was a compliment. Joss shook his head and set me to polishing a score of silver plate, displayed in an enormous cabinet in one of the smaller dining rooms. I am positive he had plenty of other tasks waiting for his direction, yet he insisted upon keeping me company.
"You've done wonders with that child, you have," he began, taking up a cloth and a tarnished platter. "She speaks clear enough so you can understand her now. Used to just jabber and jabber. Couldn't understand a word. Not a word. Why, she even said a kind word to Meg yesterday. Meg was right pleased, she was. Haven't seen her that happy in a long time. It'll be jolly having a young one about now. Yes, quite jolly."
Even with my prodigious imagination, I had difficulty picturing Meg pleased. "Yes," I agreed. "Evelyn is making marvelous progress. I only hope her attention won't be diverted from her studies when our guests arrive. She is wild to see the grand ladies and gentleman."
"She will get her fill of that, to be sure. The fashionable set in these parts are quite gay. Parties and outings... why we could have company for weeks!" Joss seemed inexplicably pleased at the prospect.
"And what are they like? Do you know much of them?" I hoped my voice remained casual as I asked. I rubbed harder at the silver.
"Oh, certainly I do. I do. There's Mrs. Parrish and her son and daughter, the Honorable Jared Parrish and Miss Blanche. They are a fine pair. Never seen two so handsome or so fine." He flashed me a knowing glance. "Now I'm not one for gossip, but you ought to watch young Jared. You might be seeing a lot more of him in the future."
"What can you mean?"
Joss put down the cloth and inclined his head just slightly. "I mean to say there may be a new master at Rosefield soon. Oh yes, very soon. Young Jared has had a passion for the Missus ever since he set eyes on her. She's never given him any reason to hope till now. That's what I think of it. Why else invite him and his family here? She's shunned the whole lot all these years. Must have changed her mind about him is what I think. I do. I do."
I absorbed this news in silent shock.
Married? Well, why shouldn't she, I asked myself? She was young yet and widows did remarry as a matter of course. Why should it surprise me so?
I recovered my equilibrium enough to inquire in a rather strained voice, "And what of his looks? You say he is handsome?"
Joss nodded. "The handsomest man in the county. Built like one of them statues in the great hall. Black eyes and hair, noble features. A bit of a dandy, though. All the young maids have set their caps at him but he'll have none of it. None of it. Wants the missus, he does and no other."
I cleared my constricted throat. "And why has Mrs. Delchester not yet succumbed to this man's overpowering charms?"
Joss shrugged. "Who's to say? Woman are strange creatures aren't they? Yes, they are."
This, it seemed was an insurmountable mystery to Joss and it closed the conversation. I could not argue; his wife was more than enough proof that this was true. We continued on in silence; I, reluctant and yet impatient to learn more about the impending arrivals, finally prompted Joss for more details.
"And the others? What of them?
"Colonel and Mrs. Hellerton, do you mean? Oh, his brood will keep us on our toes, no doubt. The misses Hellerton are known for their garrulous tongues and their caprices, they are. There are four of them and I hear tales from the servants at Gateshead that we should expect all sorts of pranks. They are a high-strung and boisterous lot and not very ladylike if you were to ask for my opinion."
Subsequent to this statement, Joss' comments became more restrained. Perhaps he thought we had strayed too far into areas servants should not speculate upon. The conversation turned to more trivial matters.
Later, in the privacy of my room, I reviewed the information I had collected and then delved deeper into my heart, scrutinizing its hidden contents. What I found there frightened and alarmed me. It could not be possible to cherish such feelings. It was unnatural, I reminded myself.
'And should you really feel this, you cannot hope to have your feelings returned,' I told my wayward heart. 'You were not made for this love. That is for men such as Jared Parrish.'
I could picture this man, forming his image in my mind to serve as an example. He would be as Joss described, ruggedly handsome features, a winning smile, an admirable form and offering all the benefits of noble parentage, wealth and power. I held nothing back, forming his attributes as perfectly as I could imagine.
At last I came to this conclusion: 'Charlotte Bell, you are a fool. You yearn for the impossible and in doing so, ensure that you will never be happy.'
The beauty of Rosefield, the admiration of my pupil, the wide and varied world I had so longed for, I must be content with these. I forced these newfound revelations back into the prison of my heart and vowed to lock them there forever.
A full fortnight passed before the clatter of wheels on the drive announced the arrival of the guests and the return of Mrs. Delchester.
Evelyn flew to the schoolroom window to watch them descend from the carriages. The first carriage discharged four chattering girls, all tall and lanky, with straw-colored hair and prominent teeth. From the squeals and the seamless flow of high-pitched talk, I deduced these were the misses Hellerton.
Evelyn sighed over their fine diaphanous dresses and their elaborately arranged curls. I could only compare their careless elegance to my plain and matronly attire.
From the second carriage, a noble equipage complete with coat of arms, stepped the very image I had created in my mind. It could be no other than the Honorable Jared Parrish and his esteemed family.
Curling black hair drifted across his noble brow. He smiled up at an older woman and helped her down. A chiseled jaw similar to her son's and the haughty set of her features told me this must be Lady Parrish. A striking young girl followed whose eyes and mouth mirrored that of her brother, though her hair was a lighter shade of brown.
My gaze swept over the party, anxiously searching. And then I found her. Mrs. Delchester was astride Argo, her appearance dark and ominous once again. She was clad in a black velvet riding habit, her hair loose and tangled about her shoulders, her eyes shadowed. She did not seem to share the gaiety of the others; rather she seemed bored and restless.
Joss appeared at her side and she leaned down and whispered something in his ear. The good man nodded. She then motioned to the others and summoned up a civil smile. I saw her mouth words of welcome to the ladies. She swung down from the saddle and strode over to the handsome carriage, stopping before Jared Parrish and smiling up at him with dazzling candor. He grinned and took her hand, brushing the tops of her gloved fingers with his generous lips.
That look spoke volumes of history. It was true then. Here was more proof than I ever wanted. I sighed and turned away from the window.
Evelyn bobbed up and down, pleading for permission to go and meet the new arrivals. I drew her up on my lap and reminded her that this was an adult party and that she had not been invited.
"You must wait until you are sent for," I said gently, sympathizing with her disappointment.
"But Maman always allowed me to come to her parties. She let me dance for the guests. Have you seen me dance? Maman said I danced well."
Evelyn began to pirrouette around the schoolroom. I caught her up in my arms and hugged her close, sensing the underlying sadness in her desperate desire to partake in, what must have been, the familiar sights and sounds of merry people about their revelry.
"This is quite different. This is a very formal party. I'm sure you would be bored with the adult talk. Why not stay with me? We'll have another story, shall we?"
She agreed and The Arabian Nights served to divert both her and me for a good while until the sound of a gentle cough brought us back from the genii and the desert.
We looked up in unison, Evelyn still seated on my lap, both catching our breath at the same time.
Mrs. Delchester stood framed in the doorway looking on us with the oddest expression. For a moment, I thought we had inadvertently done something to displease her. But the tight lines of her features relaxed and a semblance of a smile nudged the corners of her mouth upwards.
"What? No welcome? I did not expect greetings from the little one, but I thought I'd at least get a good day from you. Not even a hello for your employer, Charlotte?"
I, unable to summon any words, just stared back at her. Evelyn trembled but then suddenly pushed herself off my lap and crossed the room to stand in front of Mrs. Delchester. The two locked gazes for a moment and then Evelyn did something quite astonishing.
"Good day, madame," said she and made the tiniest curtsey before she scrambled back to me and buried her face in my shoulder.
It was impossible to say who was more stunned, Mrs. Delchester or myself. Open-mouthed, she cocked her head to one side and then looked to me. In answer, I could only muster a slight shrug.
Then she laughed heartily. "Why Charlotte, I do believe you've lied to me?" she said.
This brought my chin up. "I've never..."
Her laughter faded, but a teasing grin lingered. "Oh, but you have. You must be related to the old ones to have worked such powerful magic as that. I'd say it could even qualify as a miracle. Of course, the Bishop might have other ideas."
I had no answer to this. The velvety tones of her voice had rendered my tongue mute.
"I liked your story," she said, strolling around the room, looking to my mind, like a giant black cat on the prowl, until she reached the wall where I had tacked up a few of Evelyn's pencil drawings next to a portrait I had sketched of Evelyn. She inspected these for a moment and then looked over her shoulder. "You seem to have a way with the child. From these, I'd say she's progressing marvelously. You should be proud."
"No, she should be proud," said I, the words tumbling out before I could stop them. "I've only done what you hired me to do."
She turned, frowning. "No. I can't allow that. I can tell it is your nature to be modest, but it doesn't suit you here. You really have done well and the portrait is the very likeness of her."
I felt warmth rising to my cheeks. I lowered my eyes and quickly set about straightening books and papers to hide my trembling hands. I felt her silently watching me but couldn't bring myself to meet her glance.
"Charlotte," she said gently, "I'd like you to bring the child to the drawing room after dinner."
I heard a little squeal of pleasure escape Evelyn.
"As you wish," I said and darted a glance at her face but she had withdrawn without another word.
Evelyn danced across the room, spinning happily. "J'ai su qu'il la tromperait. J'ai su qu'elle m'inviterait si j'étais agréable à elle. "
Evelyn was entirely unmanageable for the rest of the day. We played a few games, had our dinner and then commenced our toilette. It was serious business, this. The violet ribbon was too plain; it must be the blue. Evelyn's snowy curls had to be arranged just so. Finally, when she expressed a delighted satisfaction in what she saw in the mirror, she pronounced she was ready. I put on my best lace collar, smoothed my hair and then led my charge downstairs.
The drawing room was empty when we entered, but beautifully prepared for the guests. The jewel colors of the drapes and the upholstered furnishings were more pronounced by the firelight. A fortune in candles burned and vases of fresh flowers added their scent to the air.
I established myself in a chair in the corner nearest the window, Evelyn, on a stool at my knee. Though I was extremely nervous, I found some amusement in watching her. Her little face was composed in welcome, her small profile displayed to perfection. Ringlets were arranged to cascade prettily on her shoulders. Small hands were settled primly in her lap. The airy folds of her dress brushed the floor.
We did not wait long. Broken sounds of conversation and light peals of laughter preceded the entrance of the party guests. They spilled into the room and Evelyn sighed happily. The ladies appeared to float like bits of dandelion fluff on a light wind. Most wore white gowns that were so wispy and delicate, they stirred at the slightest movement of the wearer. Jewels glimmered on white throats and wrists. Blossoms adorned the younger girls, tucked into sashes or curls. The men, in their smooth black coats and bright neckcloths, were sober accompaniment to this snowy brightness.
The Hellerton girls, arms linked, gathered round the crackling fire. A fair-haired young man, a stranger to me, strolled near and began a conversation with one of the elder girls. Young Blanche Parrish kept herself apart from this chattering fray, taking a leisurely promenade around the room. The Colonel and Mrs. Hellerton entered next, taking possession of a settee. Lady Parrish, declaring herself quite incapable of further merriment, entered on the arm of another strange young man, swatting him playfully with her fan.
Moments passed and I became aware that I was watching the doorway. I made myself look away and missed the entrance of Mrs. Delchester and Jared Parrish. I glanced up at the sound of their voices in gentle argument.
"... away all these years and not even a hint as to where you have been? You're too cruel, Madame."
"I am cruel only to be kind. You wouldn't like to hear the tale, believe me."
They made a very becoming pair, both dark and tall. Tonight, in deliberate contrast to the fair and virginal display of the other women, Mrs. Delchester wore black velvet, cut low with jet beads decorating the neckline and hem. The two walked so closely, his arm wrapped around her, that Parrish's black coat blended seamlessly with her midnight gown. Only the contrasting sight of his gloved hand around her small waist distinguished the one from the other.
"Do tell us," chimed in Lady Parrish. "We've all been speculating. My guess was Egypt."
Just then, Evelyn chanced her approach, stopping in front of the lady and executing the most perfect sweeping curtsey. "Bonjour, Madame," said she, with charming gravity.
"This must be the little Parisienne," said Jared Parrish, arching a brow at the child, not even trying to hide his disdain.
The women exclaimed over her. Blanche Parrish declared her an 'absolute angel' and the Hellerton girls enveloped the young girl in their midst. Evelyn was in paradise.
Mrs. Delchester disengaged herself from Parrish and circulated among her guests. She was pleasant but slightly distant, always instigating questions but never answering those directed at her. I was too far to hear most of the conversation, but I could tell her guests were intrigued by her, some were fascinated. Watching her among them, It was plain to me she was not of their ilk. She might have the outward appearance of an elegant lady of society, but the melancholy and brooding light in her pale eyes, the occasional flashes of biting intelligence in her words, the raw grace in her every move, I saw that these would forever set her apart from her contemporaries. I wondered if the distinction bothered her, or if she had ever considered it.
Evelyn being thoroughly engaged and enjoying herself, I thought it the perfect time to make a quiet exit and return for her later. I slipped out, pausing on the landing outside, catching the modulated undertones of Jared Parrish's voice expostulating upon the merits of boarding schools over governesses.
I bit my lip and turned to go upstairs.
I spun around and came face to face with Mrs. Delchester.
"Are you ill?"
"No ma... I mean, no, Jane."
The use of her name pleased her. She smiled. "You are pale. And you've gotten thinner," she observed, "And leaving so soon... Are you sure nothing is the matter?"
"A headache," I lied.
She looked at me for a moment. "Not a cold? You didn't catch a chill that night did you?"
I felt a strange pang at her casual reference to the night she'd nearly been killed in her bed, the night she had called me her angel. "No," I said. "I'll be all right. I'm sure it's nothing."
She came closer. "Come back to the drawing room. Sit next to the fire. You're retiring too early."
Those pale eyes searched my face as if my head were made of glass and she could see my secret thoughts.
"Tired and a little depressed, I'd wager. The roses are gone from your cheeks."
"Ah, but you are. I can see quite plainly."
A fresh peal of laughter made her glance back at the drawing room. "If I had the time, I would pry out the reasons for this change, but not now. Go to your room and rest. But tomorrow, I expect you back in the drawing room, for as long as my guests are here. No excuses." At that, she put her hand on the door and then turned. "Go. I'll send Evelyn with Meg. Good night my... good night, Charlotte."
The following days were full of light-hearted festivities that everyone seemed to enjoy. The shadows that had lingered at Rosefield were swept away by a constant flow of gaiety. The air hummed with activity. Servants rushed to and fro. Ladies and gentleman drifted from room to room in a constant and yet ever changing parade of finery and wealth.
Picnics and shooting parties were organized. Games of charades or billiards were proposed. Cards and costume revels filled their nights. To all, I was an unwilling witness.
Evelyn was in her element. I had to declare a holiday to her studies. I simply could not get her to concentrate. It was both amusing and distressing to watch her among the Hellerton sisters. Her childish voice took on the simpering tones of the other young girls, their silly mannerisms. She excelled at frivolity.
But more distressing still was to be forced to silently watch Mrs. Delchester surrounded by this banquet of amusements and taking no pleasure in them.
She smiled. She danced when she was asked, which was often, thanks to Jared Parrish. She played charades and croquet and dressed up for the masquerade (as a bandit, I noted ironically) but I could well see that her exuberance was forced, as if she were somehow obliged to make merry.
The full wonder of it was that I seemed to be the only one who had noticed this.
Worse yet, she took the arm of Jared Parrish whenever the opportunity arose. She laughed and bantered with him. She returned his flirtations carelessly. And the matrons looked on with approving glances, talking behind their fans about impending matrimony.
The flame of jealousy should have flared at this, but I found myself unable to feel envious of Jared Parrish. He had every attribute that fate could bestow; wealth, power, respect, handsome features. And yet with all these bountiful gifts, he could not achieve what he seemed to desire most. The trap had been set. The prey had been lured. The snare had been triggered. But I could see it had failed to capture Mrs. Delchester's heart. But in his arrogance, he did not seem to know it.
I watched as he showered her with contrived compliments and unwanted caresses. I listened while, with one breath, he lectured on the moral responsibilities of nobility and then in the next, harshly berated the servants for one minor infraction after another. His unremitting snobbery, the calculating look in his eye as he took in the wealth of Rosefield and its mistress, the sardonic lapses in his speech, for these I gave him my pity instead of my envy.
He easily could have won her love if he had approached her without guile, if, in his heart, her love was his actual goal, but I could see that a tactic such as this was beyond his comprehension. To me it was obvious that she felt nothing for him but scorn. But still, the marriage innuendos abounded and she did nothing to deny them. I could see that she would marry him, for money, for power, for tradition, but never for passion or companionship.
The mystery was compounded one rainy evening when all games had been exhausted and the diversions of the week past had lost their allure. Seeking amusement, early in the morning the gentleman had ridden to Colonel Hellerton's estate to inspect the newest addition to his stables. Mrs. Delchester had accompanied them.
The downpour began at teatime and showed no signs of dissipating at dusk. The riders were not expected to return that day. The ladies lamented the lack of masculine company at dinner and were at a complete loss as to how to entertain themselves afterwards.
They sat in little clusters, listless and complaining of the weather, fluttering their fans and sighing. Evelyn was fretful and tired. The ladies had been petting and spoiling her all day long, feeding her sweets and allowing her to dance for them. I rose from my post in the corner, proposing an early sleep to Evelyn, when a quiet whisper made me turn.
Joss beckoned to me from the hall. I sent Evelyn upstairs and in turn motioned for him to join me. He did so, nervously shuffling from foot to foot.
"Scuse me, miss, but someone's been asking to come speak with the ladies," he said, looking very agitated.
"Well, let them come," I said irritably. "I must see to Evelyn."
He twisted his hands and looked to the floor, looking like a whipped dog. I immediately repented speaking harshly. I apologized.
He gave me a short smile and went on. "You see, miss, this visitor ain't the sort that has words with the likes of them." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "It's one of them gypsies and she's refusing to leave till she's talked to the ladies. Says it's important."
"A gypsy you say?" said a voice over my shoulder. It was Blanche Parrish. I turned and she gave me a withering glance. I could see that governesses weren't the 'likes that talks to ladies' either, in her opinion. The girl appeared to be intrigued by the newest visitor. "Let her come up," she said haughtily. "I will speak with her."
"Who?" asked Lady Parrish, her attention caught by the sharp tone in her daughter's voice.
"A gypsy, Mother. She wishes to tell our fortunes."
This news made Lady Parrish swoon. "Dearest," she gasped. "You musn't!"
Blanche ignored her mother's protest and squared her shoulders. "Let her come," she commanded. "I'll see her first."
The others heard this and their eyes went wide. The younger girls shivered and hid behind their mother. But Blanche appeared steadfast and willing to meet her fate.
Joss hung his head again. "I'm sorry miss," he said, "but she wishes to see Miss Bell first. She was quite firm about it."
"The impertinance!" cried Mrs. Hellerton.
Her daughters cast me looks of pity. Blanche Parrish merely puckered up her beautiful face, gave a quiet 'humph' and stalked over to the window seat to quietly contemplate the rain against the panes and her dislike of presumptuous governesses.
I whispered in Joss' ear. "What is she like?"
Joss chuckled. "A hag if there ever was one. If she had a house made of gingerbread somewheres, I wouldn't be surprised."
Curiosity rather than fear spurred me to action. I followed Joss to the library where the old gypsy waited.
"I'll stand outside if you're frightened, Miss."
I patted Joss on the hand and thanked him. I wasn't in the least frightened. Actually, I was eager to meet a real gypsy in the flesh.
"I'll be all right," I reassured the good man and then I turned the handle and went inside.
A fire had just been lit in the hearth. It had not been burning long enough to either warm the chilly air or reflect a great amount of light on the room's other occupant.
The old woman sat next to it, her back to me, crouched deep in a high-backed wing chair. As I approached, I saw little of her except snarled gray hair, an enormous and dilapidated straw hat tied under her chin with a dirty ribbon, and layer after layer of multicolored shawls. She moved her head to face the other way as I approached.
"You want your fortune told?" she rasped, her voice ancient.
I clasped my hands behind my back and faced the fire. "Not particularly."
"Then why are you here?"
"You were harassing Joss."
A dry cackle sounded from the depths of the chair. "Wouldn't come for yourself, but you'd face the lions for another. That's like you, it is."
"Ah... you've been interviewing the servants about our habits. You won't impress me easily, old woman."
The woman tutted. "You don't fear me, then? You will when I tell you what I see for you."
I nodded. "I see. Because I refuse to cooperate, you predict dire things for me."
Another desiccated laugh followed this volley. "Give me your hand, child. You know you want to hear what I have to say."
She was right. I was rather curious. I walked over to her, stood next to her chair, and held out my hand. Her hat brim shook as she chuckled again. A dirty gloved hand reached for mine.
"On your knees, child. I'll strain my neck looking up at you like that."
I sank down and allowed her to pull my hand up under the lowered hat brim.
"Sadness, loneliness, and stubbornness, this is what I see. And yet the answer to all could be had so easily if you would but reach for it."
I sighed irritably. My knees were beginning to ache from kneeling on the hard floor. "If all you can speak of is generalities, I'll go. I haven't the time for such nonsense."
The old crone's hand gripped mine with surprising strength. "You have the courage to find happiness. This I have seen. You would give your life for it and fight for it. I have seen this as well. The fire has purified your heart."
I started. "What do you mean?"
She pressed my fingers between her two hands and held them close to her. I could feel her heart thump through the layers of shawls. "An evil lurks in this house. You have felt it, perhaps?"
"Yes," I breathed, astonished.
"And yet you are quite safe from it. It cannot touch you."
"Tosh! She's harmless. You fear shadows. You fear the future."
"I do not."
"Don't you? I see a celebration. I hear the church bells toll. A wedding... and soon."
"You see this?"
The hat brim waggled in agreement. My heart sank.
"She'll marry him then?"
"Oh yes. And you disapprove?"
I yanked my hand away. "Of course, I do. She doesn't love him and he's unworthy. I cannot wish them well under the circumstances."
"And you've really studied the pair of them to come to such a conclusion. You've watched them together?"
I colored a little. "Yes, I've seen them together. It was hard to avoid. But she doesn't love him; it is quite clear to me."
The woman did not respond to this, merely lifted her hand and put a finger under my chin. She tilted my head towards the firelight.
"Hmmm... Palms are not all that I can read, no. Your face tells me much. It is a pretty face, but you choose not to take advantage of its fairness. The chin is strong. This is your stubbornness. It dreads shame and demands respect. And your eyes, they reflect an unusual intelligence, but also a melancholy that is quite deep. But it is the mouth that intrigues me. It is still soft. There is hope there. The mouth still clings to its fantasies, still wishes for dreams. Yes, I see a way. And I would but confess all, would that mouth still retain its sweetness." The old woman sighed, a rattling sound that produced a sympathetic response. I turned my head and then stood and moved away.
"Would you like some tea, mother? You must be cold."
A fresh cackle broke the strange atmosphere her words had produced.
"I pester and taunt you, and you offer me the civilities of the house as if I were an honored guest. You continue to amaze me, Charlotte Bell."
Was my hearing deceiving me? I knew that voice. The dry rasp had changed to cool velvet. It was my mistress' voice. I couldn't be mistaken.
The hat brim tipped up and revealed her familiar face. A mischievous twinkle shone in her blue eyes.
"Jane. How often must I insist?" She grinned. "Do you forgive me, Charlotte?"
Anger coursed through me. "How could you!"
"Ah yes, up comes the stubborn chin." She grimaced but continued, "I needed a diversion for my guests. They were growing restless."
I crossed my arms, unconvinced.
"You won't understand this, but I thought it best to act a charade in order to end another."
"You are right. I don't understand. Whatever your reasons, it was cruel. But I will forgive you because you are my employer and there was no great harm done."
She stood and crossed to me, staring down, an unreadable emotion making her features tense and quite serious. I have seen a pool of very still water take on all the colors of a sunset. Her eyes had this characteristic now as the firelight flickered and they held mine.
"You are very generous, Charlotte. I promise you, one day, I will explain. I would that it were now, but I have some things I must do first. But one day..."
I looked away. "After you are married, you mean? I don't think I will be here for that."
"Why do you say that?" she asked sharply.
"Mr. Parrish," I said. "He quite favors boarding schools. You won't have need of me if you send Evelyn away."
"Ah yes," she sighed. "Mr. Parrish."
I took this opportunity to address something that had been genuinely troubling me. "Perhaps I ought to advertise for another position? It would make things less complicated later."
"No, Charlotte." Glancing up, I saw a strange fierceness had taken possession of her. "I won't allow it."
At her declaration, a tumult of suppressed sentiment rose to form a knot in my throat. I simply could not stand to think of Jared Parrish as master of Rosefield. 'Nor as husband to this woman,' a silent voice whispered to my heart.
"I will not stay for the wedding," I said, a small sob escaping as I spoke. I swiped quickly at my eyes lest the gathering tears betray me.
I felt Mrs. Delchester draw closer. "Would leaving bring you sorrow then?"
I couldn't answer at once. I swallowed and said, "I don't want to leave Rosefield. I'm very fond of Evelyn and of... this house. But I cannot stay if he becomes master."
I felt her breath stir the hair on top of my head. "No," she agreed after a moment, her voice gentle and coaxing. "You cannot. But promise me this, Charlotte. Do not advertise. Allow me to find you a new position. I promise you I will find another before I marry. Is that agreeable?"
I felt my lip tremble and dared not speak. I nodded and glanced up at her again. Her face was inches from mine. I felt her breath fan my cheek and saw, with surprise, real pain in her eyes.
"Thank you for trusting me, Charlotte," she said and then backed away. She sighed again and then pushed the hat brim back down over her face. I watched her sink into the chair by the fire and resume her disguise.
"Now," said the raspy voice of the old woman, "Please send in Lady Parrish. I have a few words to say about her future."
I am not aware what part Mrs. Delchester played for the remaining ladies, but it must not have been an agreeable farce. After leaving the library, some were solemn, some livid. All retired early, declining further entertainment.
Sleep defied me that night. After seeing that Evelyn slept, I paced my room, ruminating over Mrs. Delchester's words.
Why was she carrying on with this strange subterfuge? Why was she still defending Meg's actions? More confusing still, she admitted she would marry that man and I knew she did not love him. How could I ever accept that?
You have no choice, I reminded myself. You never did.
I grew weary finally and sat down on my bed. The embers of the fire in my own hearth had long ago grown cold. I was pacing in the dark, so lost in my thoughts I hadn't even noticed the light waning. The sounds of movement in the rooms near mine, voices rising and falling, had faded. The night was silent, but for the cry of the wind and the tapping of the rain against the windows.
Though I was tired, I knew sleep was still a distant possibility. I lay down, still fully clothed, and watched shadows chase each other across the ceiling.
Thoughts blurred. The softness of my bed invited sleep but my mind would not permit it to claim me. I rolled over onto my side, clutching my pillow.
And suddenly, a terrifying scream rent the stillness, reverberating through the galleries, and then was shortly followed by another, more plaintive cry.
I tossed the pillow aside and hurtled out of bed to my chamber door. Bolting into the corridor, I met Mrs. Delchester who appeared to be thunderstruck. She was still dressed as well, though her clothing had reverted from gypsy to bandit once again. Her shirt was untucked, vest unbuttoned, boots and breeches still caked with mud. She saw me and stumbled toward me just as doors were opening and bleary-eyed sleepers looked out.
Mrs. Delchester reached me, gripped my shoulders and whispered hurriedly in my ear, "Charlotte, I ask for your help. I believe I can trust you. Placate these people. Get them to their beds and then follow me to the nursery. Will you do this?"
I nodded. "Evelyn?"
"I'll see to her. Do as I ask." She whirled around, presenting an apologetic face to the vexed ladies. "It's all right. I apologize... a servant... terrible nerves... nightmare..."
She rushed off as the others grumbled their objections. I did my best to calm them.
"Please, I'm sure Mrs. Delchester has everything under control. Do go back to sleep. You'll take cold if you linger here."
I don't know which offended them more, being awakened from their rest or being addressed thusly by a governess. Lady Parrish sniffed haughtily.
"Mrs. Delchester must review her domestic arrangement," mumbled Mrs. Hellerton as she directed her daughters into their chambers and then retreated into her own. Thinking of one servant in particular, I could not help but agree with her. Blanche and Lady Parrish also withdrew leaving me alone in the gloomy corridor.
I made as if to go back into my room, miming the sounds of opening and closing my door and then made haste to the nursery. The sight that greeted me there chilled me to my marrow.
Mrs. Delchester stood in the midst of a ruin, clutching a headless doll, eyes wide. The nursery looked as if a storm had ripped through it. Everywhere, broken toys were strewn. Evelyn's pretty clothes were ripped and shredded and tossed about haphazardly.
And Evelyn was not in her bed.
"Where is she?" I cried.
Mrs. Delchester seemed to be struggling to find words, stranded and bereft in the midst of that chaos. She stood motionless, but her wild eyes frantically searched the shadowed corners of the nursery for the little girl, as if she might suddenly appear from behind the draperies or crawl from under the bed.
"I don't know," she whispered in a small voice. "I don't..."
"We must find her! Why did she cry out? Who was that screaming? Mrs. Delchester, you must tell me!"
My demands roused her from her frightened reverie. She looked down at the doll in her arms and started. She cast it aside and then glanced up at me as if just noticing my presence.
"Charlotte. Charlotte, Evelyn is gone."
I sighed impatiently. "Yes, I know this. Where might she be?"
Mrs. Delchester shook her head, shedding her temporary confusion. "We will search for her. You take the galleries downstairs and I will take the third floor."
I turned to go and she stopped me with a hand on my arm. "Be very careful, Charlotte," she said, her face taut with apprehension. "Do not confront... I mean to say, should you hear strange noises, retreat quickly. Do not approach. Promise me."
I did. Still, her hand did not leave my arm. I looked into her eyes and said it again. "I promise."
A small smile flickered across her face and she let me go. We parted in the corridor. I made my way downstairs, carefully navigating my way around the hulking shapes of furniture in the dark. I searched the drawing rooms first, shivering with cold and fear. The library, the galleries, the conservatory; all were vacant.
A terrible dread gripped me. Frustrating darkness pressed in, as if it were deliberately shrouding what I sought.
And then, above the moaning of the wind I detected the faintest sound. At first, it was difficult to distinguish from the keening reverberation of the storm, but as I listened, I heard it again.
A child was singing.
And suddenly I knew where she must be. I started off at a run, tearing around corners and nearly losing my footing twice. I took a wrong turn and had to double back, but was rewarded by the clear sounds of a nursery rhyme put to song, something I had taught Evelyn the week before.
I came to the doorway of the ballroom, panting and clutching the stitch in my side. She was there and she was alone, a ghost in white, twirling and twirling in the shadows, watching her reflection in the mirrors.
She did not turn at my cry, just continued dancing. As she whirled closer, I noticed a glazed look in her eye, a slack expression on her face. She appeared dazed and shocked, unaware of her surroundings. I rushed to her, and clasped her to me, whispering her name. "It's all right, dear," I murmured. She struggled to be free of me, digging in her claws like a cat. She was quite wild, thrashing about and shrieking. I let her go, only to take her small face in my two hands. I forced her to look at me.
"Evelyn, dear, it's me. It's Charlotte. You're all right. No one will hurt you now. I promise."
Her restless eyes finally settled upon me, fixing upon my face. She seemed to focus, opened her mouth to speak and then collapsed in my arms. I rocked her, making comforting noises. I felt my shoulder go damp from her silent tears. Thundering footsteps clattered in the hall and she nestled closer. I looked up as Mrs. Delchester's form framed itself in the doorway.
"She's here," I said.
I carried Evelyn to my chamber. I could not allow her to spend the night in the ruined nursery. She clung to me all the while, her face buried in my shoulder. Though she was heavy, she howled when Mrs. Delchester tried to take my burden from me. I could see this hurt the lady very deeply but she bore it in stoic silence and followed me upstairs.
Once in my chamber, I lit a candle and turned down the coverlet for Evelyn. She climbed onto the bed and lay rigid, her hand clutching mine tightly.
"Go to sleep now. I promise I won't leave you." But the child whimpered, her gaze shifting to Mrs. Delchester who stood at the end of the bed, looking quite haggard. Mrs. Delchester turned her face to me and by the candle's light, I saw two bloody trails marking her cheek. She saw the direction of my glance and put a hand to her face and grimaced. I thought of the child and did not voice the question that came immediately to mind.
No matter how we coaxed and cajoled, Evelyn would not sleep with Mrs. Delchester in the room, nor did she say a word, merely whined like a wounded thing, shook her head, and turned her face into the pillow. I pulled the coverlet under her chin and sat down next to her.
"Evelyn dear, Mrs. Delchester would never harm you. Can't you see how relieved she is that you are well?"
But the child continued to watch Mrs. Delchester with wary, frightened eyes, refusing to close them or look away while she was present.
"I'll go," Mrs. Delchester said, though I could see clearly, would the child have allowed it, she would have stood sentry over us the whole night through.
"I'll come find you if she needs anything," I reassured her.
"Not necessary," said she, her jaw clenching. "I'll be just outside."
Though I could see it cost her a considerable effort to go, she left Evelyn to me. After the door closed, I heard the scrape of furniture moving against the wood floor and heard a thump outside my door. She would indeed stand sentry the night through.
It was well into the morning hours when Evelyn finally drifted off to sleep. Too many unanswered questions plagued me. I could not follow her example. I gazed down at the sleeping child. What had she seen that caused such mute terror? I felt a surge of anger so fierce it momentarily overwhelmed me. Whatever it had been, I vowed not to let it to happen again.
I eased off the bed and crept across the room. Gently, I opened my chamber door.
The upper halls of Rosefield were much the same as the lower, airy and cold, with arching ceilings that disappeared in the dark. Time-blackened tapestries ornamented but did nothing to warm the thick, stone walls. In the spaces between, ancient ancestral portraits whose sallow tenants appeared to be only pale faces and hands swimming in elaborate Elizabethan costumes. These dour forbearers looked down with silent disapproval on their descendant who lay sprawled upon a wooden bench of such age that they themselves might have once sat upon it.
A casual onlooker would believe the eccentric mistress of Rosefield was asleep. Her chin was propped on her chest and her eyes appeared to be closed. But wary slits of glittering blue told me she was awake and alert. She straightened almost immediately as I opened my door. Running a quick hand through her matted hair, she asked in a raw tone that told of the strain of the evening, "Is she all right?"
"She fell asleep."
"And you could not," said my mistress with a wry smile. She stood and stretched. Instantly, the image of a cat returned to mind, such feline grace in every move, even as weary as she must undoubtedly be. She pushed the bench back against the wall and then motioned for me to follow. "I believe I have a soporific that cannot fail us. Come with me."
"What of Evelyn?" I asked, looking anxiously back at my door.
"I have sent word that Joss is to look after her while the nursery is being put to rights. In any case, I don't think she will wake soon. It was a... tiring evening for her." She held out her hand and gave me an encouraging smile. "Come."
For one as deprived of physical contact as I, (For who spends their caresses or embraces upon an insignificant orphan?), the touch of her fingers upon mine was an overwhelmingly intimate sensation. I reeled for a moment, but told myself it must be lack of sleep, or anxiety. Her fingers curled around mine and she pulled me along in her wake.
The first faint light of dawn penetrated the high mullioned windows at the end of the corridor, lighting our way. I followed her downstairs, taking the steps two at a time to keep in step with her long stride. We passed quickly through the great hall and the conservatory and out the door I had made use of the week prior. The storm had passed some time in the night and a low bank of fog swirled around the overhanging trees surrounding the garden. Instead of crossing the lawn, we stayed close to the house, skirting the kitchen gardens until we came to a towering stone edifice that rose into the mists. Through the whirling eddies created by the fog, I spied a steeple.
I knew this place! I had seen it before, though the watercolor image was nothing compared to the stark, majestic reality.
A battered bronze door, green with age, gave entrance. A pair of startled birds took flight as we crossed the threshold. I inhaled appreciatively.
Years of neglect did not diminish the solemn and peaceful air that pervaded the abandoned chapel. The sanctity, once invested, could not be erased though none was there to witness it. The altar and several pews were intact, as were three very beautiful stained-glass windows. In the darkness, I could not see what they represented. I knew with sunlight streaming through them they would be beautiful to behold. We walked forward in silence, like reverent petitioners seeking calm rather than forgiveness. Mrs. Delchester and I edged into a pew near the nave and sat. A broken statue, bereft of arms and garlanded with dead vines and patches of moss, looked down from a recess behind the altar. It might once have been the image of Mary, but now had faded into something more primitive. A gap in the slate roof admitted watery gray dawn. The entire scene was bathed in an incandescent light.
Next to me, I heard Mrs. Delchester sigh.
"I used to hide here when I was a child," she said, gazing up at the statue with a dreamy expression. "I'd spend hours sitting in this very spot. I always believed that nothing bad could happen here, that evil could not cross the threshold. It was silly, I know."
"Not silly. It's lovely and, as you said, very soothing."
She sighed again, but it seemed with this breath she had expelled some of what had been troubling her. "I just had to get out, get away for a little while. That house seems a prison sometimes."
This I couldn't comprehend. Rosefield was my oasis, an island of color and beauty in my tiny and prosaic world. I said so and she gave a short bark of caustic laughter.
"The veil of naïveté covers your eyes still. You haven't bitten into the fruit and so you only see that it is ripe and not the canker that eats away at it from the inside." Her mouth thinned and she sat silent for so long, I nearly decided to slip away and leave her with her thoughts. But she spoke again and I felt a forced lightness to her words. "But here you needn't worry. All is as it seems. It is ruined and derelict but I like it so. I won't let them renovate it. I wouldn't disturb such natural calm." She breathed in again and nearly smiled.
"I'm glad. Let it stay pure as it is," I said and she looked to me again.
"It has been a very strange night, has it not, Charlotte?"
"And you were afraid?"
"Yes. For Evelyn."
"But not for yourself?"
"Yes, a little."
She paused, watching me with a distant calculating look that was quite foreign to me. But the look passed and she said, "I can call you my friend, can't I, Charlotte?"
"I will gladly serve you and obey."
She shook her head. "No. That is the response of a subordinate. I ask not as your employer, Charlotte. I ask as a.... as a. woman to another woman."
"Then, in that capacity, yes, you may call me friend."
Another intense scrutiny followed this and then she chuckled again.
"So very grave. Do you never laugh, Charlotte? I would imagine that a heart as innocent and light as yours must be merry often."
"I am no giggling school girl, but I do laugh when something strikes me amusing."
She did not respond to this, only dipped her chin slightly as if lost in thought.
"This place has influenced me. I have a mind to confess." She turned in her seat so that she faced me, her leg brushing mine, her hands gripping her knees so hard that her knuckles were white. "I mean to say, if that's acceptable? I won't ask you to be my confessor if it will make you uncomfortable?"
I hastened to put her at ease. "No, please do, if that is what you wish."
"Good. God, knows why, but I think that I will. Your presence is a balm to me. It puts me at my ease? but not enough." Her head dipped again, her hair swinging forward, covering her face. "I want you to understand something about me. I'll put a case to you. Try to fathom, if you can, that you are no longer an innocent girl brought up in the strictest and most rigid environs. Imagine instead that you are headstrong and undisciplined, indulged since childhood and rebellious by nature. That would be an accurate portrait of my younger self. As I have told you, my mother died when I was very young. My father and two brothers stayed clear of me through most of my childhood. Weak-willed nursemaids had the charge of me until I was eighteen, or rather say, I had the charge of them. I had no appreciation for authority. Most especially that of my family and they had no interest in my activities or my well-being, that is until I came of marriageable age. Then they decided my freedom must end and my future became a negotiable commodity.
"I don't know why I thought I could avoid what was inevitable for every other girl of my age and class. But I was very much against marriage. I made my objections known, both to my father and to every eligible man who came to propose. My father paid no heed to these objections. He continued to parade me before the county's bachelors. To my father's rage, I drove off every available suitor. By guile or sheer intimidation, one after the other, they fled. And still this did not exempt me from the bonds of matrimony. My father and brothers cast their nets wider.
"I was shipped off to Jamaica, to a man twice my age who agreed to have me only because my dowry was too large to refuse. The man was Charles Mason, a widower with a child my age. Our marriage was accomplished almost the minute I stepped off the boat. My father must have warned him of my reluctance.
"He seemed kind at first... very pale and very weak. He was ill, that much became apparent immediately. We knew almost nothing of each other before the marriage. Afterward, our true selves became apparent."
A look of such bitter reflection encompassed her peaceful expression it was almost as if it had never been. She glanced at me and then looked away.
"I have asked you to imagine yourself in my place. But I cannot ask you to expand your imaginings that far. You do not know what it is to become embittered and then enraged, to lash out. You are too ingenuous to understand what true despair can do to you. I could have made peace with my lot and been content with my fate. The island was very beautiful and my husband's plantation was quite lush. I could have made a life with my new husband and his family. But I did not. I was angry and vengeful. Very quickly, I made life miserable for us all."
Her recollections must have been painful, too vivid. She winced and then crossed her arms and hugged herself as if suddenly cold. I knew, without understanding how, that to have a witness to her pain was terribly hard for her, that she had not spoken these words to anyone else. I wanted to leave her alone so that she would not have to experience this shame. But, I realized the compassionate thing to do was to hear her confessions, to give them an impartial ear. Also, I was secretly pleased she felt so at ease with me that she could unburden her heart. I composed my features and folded my hands in my lap. Mrs. Delchester noticed this nonverbal acceptance and she smiled.
"I haven't shocked you, Charlotte? You are like yonder statue. I can tell you anything with impunity, can't I?" She frowned abruptly. "But my story is not complete. You may not remain objective after I am finished. But go on I must. You must be aware of what you choose before..."
Her voice broke and then she began again, selecting her words carefully. "As I have said, I was to blame that my marriage was not a happy one. He was not the ideal husband, but I could have managed him better if I had a mind to. He was an old man, weak in both body and mind. Short and gray-haired, he walked with a gnarled old cane, waving it around when he was in a temper, which was often. His family adored him. I did not. The poor man was not prepared to deal with my tempests, my rages. We clashed on a titanic scale. His constitution could not withstand my moods for long." She mused quietly, pursing her lips. "Fortunately," she continued, "I found... diversions... to quiet my anger. There was a town on the eastern side of the island, about a days ride. I was there... often. I settled into my new life for a time. My husband, being bedridden for nearly a month after one of our quarrels, never noticed my absence. But he found out soon enough. And he had more mettle than I had reckoned. That, combined with a rather frightening, latent character flaw changed our situation dramatically."
Memory held sway over the present and her words tapered off. Misery was the predominant emotion of the many that swept over her face. She put her face in her hands for a moment before sweeping her hair back from it with a deep breath. When she continued, I knew she had omitted a large portion of the account but I did not pry, just kept my silence and listened.
"Not long after," she confided with obvious chagrin, "I became a widow. I'd wished over and over that I could be free and suddenly it had been granted... but at such a cost."
It should not be assumed that while she spoke, I sat mute and emotionless. No, for while it was costing her a great effort to speak, keeping silent was taking its toll upon me. She looked, by turns, so bereft and lost and then, in the next mercurial instant aflame with fury that I was unsure whether to comfort or hide from her. In either case, I could not speak my mind without reminding her of the embarrassment of divulging her secret thoughts to me. Still, some sympathetic noises escaped me by turns and at them, she would stop and give me a surprised look. To be honest, she puzzled and frightened me. But I remained intrigued.
She had lapsed into silence again, that horrible frown twisting her features into something too painful to observe. I hadn't thought regret could wound so deeply.
"And so you came back to England then?" I asked, mainly to divert her attention from her musings.
"What?" she asked, waking from her reverie. "No. No, I did not go back to England. Why lose one yoke only to take up another? My father still lived. He would have married me off again if he'd thought it advantageous. No, I avoided England and my family. We... I? traveled on the continent for a long while, sampling the delights of all the capitols of Europe." She searched my face. "Hedonism, Charlotte, do you know the temptations of that kind of life? No, I imagine you do not. How could you? I never thought that I could be tempted. I was your equal once, perhaps not in temperament. But nature intended me to be a good person, I think. But after... well, after Jamaica, my soul was stained beyond mending. To sink further into immorality could not harm me any more, I reasoned. I lost myself in debauchery until I became literally sick from the filth that surrounded me day and night. Many years had passed. My father was dead and my brothers succumbed to scarlett fever soon after. I was alone in the world. I came back to England to take my brother's place at Rosefield." Her head turned away from me, seemingly to inspect the stained-glass windows, but her shaking hands upon her knee told another story. I turned my face away, pretending to inspect the stained glass windows as well. The first rays of morning made their colors glow.
"I regained my health," She said. "But not my vitality. I grew restless again. I could not remain at Rosefield for long, too many memories. I wandered the continent again, listless and full of regret. That's when I found Evelyn. Her mother... I... I knew her mother. Celine was a dancer? though that is only the polite name for her profession. She had abandoned her child. I rescued Evelyn from the squalor in which I found her. I brought her to Rosefield."
She shrugged abruptly, ending her narrative by standing and nearly knocking down the pew in front of us. She looked up at the statue.
"Have I not paid enough?" she whispered, like a prayer. "Do I not deserve some crumb of happiness?"
Her eyes, I cannot rightly describe their appearance as she stared fiercely at this moldering monument, except to say that those two portals reflected a hell I never thought to see on this earthly plane. They flashed. They raged. "I have found happiness and I will do what I must to keep it. I will defy God and all convention if need be, but I will hold it to me. I have h..."
She seemed to catch herself on the verge of some exclamation. She shuddered and then turned to me. A tiny smile softened her expression.
"Ah, my little friend. Do my lunatic ravings frighten you? I am sorry. I should not... You will hear this often in the future, I'm sure, but you are very easy to talk to.
"But what's this? You are pale and it is morning. See the light creeping in through the windows. I have kept you from your rest. You must think me quite mad."
I shook my head. "No."
"Come shake hands and say good morning then. Oh, your fingers are cold! What have I done? You will fall ill and will not want to watch for the dawn with me again. I have been careless and kept you too long." She cast a curiously shy glance at me. "I hesitate to ask but will you come here with me again, Charlotte? If I promise to have you in bed at a more appropriate hour?'
"Of course," I assured her. "I will and gladly."
She pursed her lips and then regarded me with a measured glance. "On the eve of my marriage as well? I know I will not be able to sleep that night. It is all right to speak of my dear one, Charlotte? You have seen him. I can confide this to you. He is handsome, is he not?"
"Yes," I replied through gritted teeth.
She smiled. "He's a rare one. I should be so happy, don't you think?"
I nodded, hiding the blush that had risen to my cheeks by turning my face away.
The crunch of wheels on the drive made her lift her head. Her smile widened but she didn't look pleased.
"That will be the Parrish's carriage. I must see my guests off, Charlotte. Go back to the house. Take your rest. Let Joss look after Evelyn today."
She strode out of the chapel, leaving me to contemplate without pleasure, three radiant saints caught forever in glass, shimmering in the morning light.
One by one the guests departed that day and Rosefield was again a quiet oasis. I could linger in the corridors and gardens and not encounter a strange face, or a bustling servant hired from town. Peace reigned once more except in my turbulent mind.
Mrs. Delchester left soon after the last guest said their goodbyes. I did not see her for several days. When I finally did, I chanced upon her in passing through the conservatory. She gave me a chilly "good morning" and then brushed by me. I was momentarily upset by her coldness. Then I reminded myself that it was not in her nature to be communicative, that the confessions of yester eve were by no means habitual to her. I knew I should be grateful for the time and trust she had given me but not expect further instances of it.
She is busy, I told my heart. She has nuptials to arrange.
This phrase became routine. I repeated it over and over, like the chorus of a very strident song. It rallied my restraint. I could control the bile that rose to my throat every time I imagined the pair before the parson, happily vowing to love, honor and cherish until death. What hollow words!
Evelyn helped to redirect my attentions. Worry for her consumed most of my days. She hadn't recovered from the shock. She refused to speak. Lessons were impossible. I spent my days trying to coax her to speak her fears, to speak at all, but to no avail. She hid her face, would not meet my eyes. At times I caught her humming the nursery rhyme I had taught her. It was the only noise the child would make.
The nursery had been salvaged and was nearly back to normal, except that Evelyn's fine toys and clothes had to be thrown in the dustbin. Very few had escaped destruction. Only her plainest dresses had survived intact. I sewed bits of ribbon on to these to please her. She pouted but she did not complain.
Only when we were outside in the garden did she seem closer to her normal self. Sometimes she even smiled and capered about as of old. I knew then that it would take time. The somewhat vain and carefree child she had been would be restored to us. As for myself, it took all of my patience and control to quell my curiosity. I wanted to shake her, to demand that she tell what she had seen. The secret hung heavy between us. I know she sensed my impatience no matter how well I thought it hidden.
A fortnight passed and then three days more, and in all that time I saw my employer only once as I glanced out of the schoolroom window and saw her riding into the distance.
A terrible restlessness took hold of me, far stronger than it had ever been. I found I could not sleep, could not concentrate on anything, and even Meg's fine fare had lost its flavor for me. I grew thinner and the buoyancy that had thus far kept my emotions on an even level had forsaken me. One moment I had a measure of reason, and then the next, my spirits would plummet. I took to wandering the grounds, trying to seek some solace in the gardens and their beauty. But even this once loved pastime had lost its luster. I only had to think 'In a few weeks time, Jared Parrish will be master here," and my heart sickened and the scent of the flowers became cloying and almost overpowering.
I wandered farther, exploring the forest just beyond the grounds until I knew it so well I could tread every path with my eyes closed. On those rainy and cold days when venturing outside meant risking certain illness, I explored the inner sanctums of Rosefield. With these too, I became very familiar. The honeycomb of servant's quarters, the kitchens, all of the rooms of the lower stories I memorized, trying to imprint them upon my mind so that when the day came and I was sent away, I could draw upon these images to sustain me.
I still did not dare explore the third floor or the attics. I did not want to encounter Meg there. Indeed, it seemed as if she had been warned about confronting me. I rarely saw her, and when I did, it was briefly and in passing, the sour expression still firmly fixed upon her face. Joss was amiable and kind. But even he seemed to shun me. When I did encounter him in the corridors his manner was distant. Such looks he would give me, as if I had offended him in some mysterious way. I couldn't presume what I might have done to incur such behavior.
One afternoon a dressmaker arrived to fit Evelyn for new gowns. Thus unoccupied, I felt the pull of the outdoors, needed the loamy scents of the forest and the sounds of the wind in the leaves to calm my restless agitation. I stayed in the shelter of the trees for far longer than I normally did, only returning when the sun had completely set behind the hills and the sounds of the night, of animals creeping from their dens, roused me to go back. I detoured through the gardens before going inside, postponing as much as I could, going to my bed and the inevitable thoughts that would not permit me sleep. The moon was full in the clear night sky casting its pale rays upon the garden, changing the colors of the landscape. All that was green was now silver gray. Reds, yellows and pinks became luminous. Reaching vines twining around and over the garden stile seemed to writhe in this magical light. I stared at the marvel of it, breathing deep.
"It's lovely, isn't it?" A shadow separated itself from the others behind the stile and came forward.
I could not answer; my heart was caught in my throat. How lovely she looked by moonlight, almost as she had looked the first moment I laid eyes on her.
"Well, there you are. I've been looking high and low for you once again. Where have you been?"
"In... in the forest," I managed to stutter.
She nodded, much amused. "Ah, you've been visiting your people. I should have known. All I needed to do was to wait until the moon was full and high and I would have found you. That's when your kind comes out to dance."
Oh, how her playful tone stung me. I know she meant no harm, but still I wanted to weep.
"It has been a long while since I've seen you, Charlotte. And how have you been keeping?"
"Well," I lied and she knew it. Her eyes missed nothing.
"Yes, I can see how well. In any case, I was seeking you because I have news. Can you guess?"
I shook my head. I couldn't speak.
"Well, you might have thought I'd forgotten our little arrangement, but I did not. I have kept my promise. I've found you a new post."
I gave a small shuddering sigh. This was the moment I had been dreading. I prayed silently that I shouldn't be sent too far, that I might by chance, be close enough to catch a glimpse of her and of Rosefield from time to time.
"Aren't you curious, Charlotte? Don't you want details on your new post. I picked it specially with you in mind."
"Tell me," I said dully.
She came round to stand next to me, staring down. I shifted my gaze and looked down too, studying the tips of my shoes and the grass underfoot, anything to detach myself from this moment.
"You lucky girl. You are to be the new governess for Mrs. Irene O'Shannon and her seven daughters. I imagine seven girls will keep you very busy. You might not have time to run about in the night, I'm afraid."
"Where?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"Kilkenny, Ireland. It's a small house, but they've promised you a room in the attics. I'm told it has a lovely view."
"Yes. It is located near the northernmost tip, I believe. Very cold. Snows eight months out of the year. But I'm sure you will like it very much, if you bundle up."
"But... but it is so far!" The distance was unimaginable, even for me. Any control I might have had was lost. The dam was broken. I burst into a flood of noisy tears." "I won't like it!" I exclaimed. "I know it!"
"Why?" she asked, her voice full of concern. I sniffled and turned my chin to my shoulder so that she wouldn't see the tears streaking my cheeks.
"I've done as you asked, Charlotte. You and Evelyn shall be gone before my dear bridegroom crosses the threshold. I am sorry to have to send my little friend such a long way, but it is the best I could do." She paused, and though I wasn't looking up at her, I knew that she must be pressing her lips together as I had seen her do a hundred times during while she pondered what to say next. The thought only made me sob harder.
"I have the oddest feeling about you," she continued. "I must say. It is as if we are tethered in some way. I cannot explain it. Do you think that bond will survive such a distance? Or will it snap and break? Ah well, I suppose it cannot be helped. It is what you wanted."
"It is not what I want!" I avowed heatedly, swiping at tears so thick they were blurring my vision.
I felt her hand gently cup my chin and tilt my face upward. "Then tell me what you do want, Charlotte," she said softly.
Her face, so smooth and perfect in the moonlight, was utterly serious. To have her so close and to know that soon I would have to leave her forever was too much to bear. I wrenched my face away and then looked back to glare at her.
"I know that I am not your equal. But, do you think because I'm poor, humble and plain, I have no heart, no soul? You think wrong! I have just as much soul as you and full as much heart. It breaks at the thought of leaving Rosefield... and you. But if I had been gifted with wealth and great beauty, I'd make it as hard for you to part from me, as it is for me to leave you now!"
"You would miss Rosefield then? and Evelyn?"
"Yes... and you. I don't want to leave."
"Then, by God, you shall not!"
She placed her hands firmly upon my shoulders, her fingers clutching so tightly it was almost painful. I thought she mocked me. It was the final blow. "What did you say?" I asked just to seal my own demise.
"I said, you shall not go. I swear it." And then suddenly the distance between us was gone and her arms were around me, her body pressed against mine. It is what I had wished for so long. For a moment I surrendered to it, melted into the warmth of her embrace.
Too soon, I remembered. What I wanted of her was not natural, not right. She could never seriously understand it or return it. She was my employer and soon to be a married woman. Circumstances had not changed.
I pulled back. Her face registered shock.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I shouldn't..." the words caught in my throat.
But her arms gathered me close again. I was too weak to fight it. I wanted it so.
"You should," she murmured and then, somehow, her lips found mine.
I was drowning in sensations, willingly so and yet this astonishing new passion could not silence the sensible part of my brain. I pulled back and immediately wished her soft lips against mine once more. But I stayed my impulses and held her at arms length. She appeared as dazed as me, her eyes darkened in their fervor, her lips still parted.
"Charlotte," she breathed, the word a question and a summons.
I shook my head and forced my traitorous mouth to form the words I must say. "I cannot... I will not!" And then a terrible vehemence made me stiffen and my anger and desperation leaked into my voice, "You play with me! How could you? What am I to you? I tell you we are not equals! You are a married woman, or nearly so, and you would wed yourself to one you do not love, cannot love. I would scorn such a union!"
Instead of infuriating her, my speech only served to make her smile. "I do scorn it, Charlotte. You are the only one I wish to be with. I would give you my heart, my life and all that I possess. Will you have me? Can you accept the life that I offer you?"
I could not answer. I was still incredulous, though her expression was more frank and eager than I'd ever seen it.
"Still you doubt me?
"Yes," I said uncertainly.
She threw back her head and laughed. I was so startled I jumped. She caught me before I could stumble and took my hands in hers.
"You little skeptic! You shall be convinced, even if I must spend the rest of my time on this earth proving my love. Oh you marvelously sweet and naïve girl! I love you, can't you see? I have loved you since the first moment I clapped eyes on you. What use would I have for Jared Parrish? I do not love him, as well you know. And he does not love me either. A convenient rumor has freed me from his attentions." She laughed. "It's a strange thing. It seems that Mrs. Delchester has lost her fortune and Mother Parrish disapproves of marrying her darling son to a pauper. A traveling gypsy planted the seeds of doubt in their minds, bless her."
She laughed again, quite pleased with herself. I could only stare, open-mouthed as her sincerity and her earnestness began to sway me. She stopped laughing suddenly.
"Charlotte, my dearest, you torture me with that searching look. End this torment and tell me true. I ask while I still have the courage: Do you have it in your heart to love me?" I saw such pain, such hope and torment mingling in her eyes, on her face. She bit her lip as she stared down at me.
"If you are sincere, you have my gratitude and devotion..." I began.
"Dammit all! I don't want your gratitude..."
I squeezed her hand, looked into her lovely blue eyes and continued, "... and my love, all I have is love for you."
Relief, joy and genuine tenderness wiped her tortured expression clean, making her appear so very young and vulnerable. "Come to me then," she said, opening her arms, smiling a tremulous smile. "Make my happiness and I swear I will make yours."
Her arms surrounded me and again I was lost. "God pardon me and man meddle with me not," she whispered into my hair, so softly I could barely hear. "I have her and I will hold her."
I do not know how long we stood, joined as one, our hearts beating almost in rhythm, oblivious to the rest of the world. A damp and icy wind rushed past, scattering rose petals and spraying our faces with mist. Above, clouds had gathered, obscuring the moon. Deep and ominous thunder heralded an oncoming storm. But even these disturbances of nature could not penetrate the veil of wonder and contentment that sheltered us. Only when the heavens opened up and the rain rushed down did we stir. She wrapped her arm around my waist and we ran through the garden to the house.
We were soaked to the skin and laughing like children when we entered the conservatory. She kissed me again.
A quiet cough broke us apart. I looked up and Joss stood in the doorway looking like one of the dark thunderclouds above. I started and backed away from her but she reached for me, curling her arm around my waist possessively.
"Yes, Joss?" she said, her tone haughty and defiant.
Joss frowned. "I've been looking for Miss Bell, ma'am. It's Evelyn. She's gone missing again."
I felt Mrs. Delchester's fingers dig into my side. Jane's fingers, I told myself. Think of her as Jane.
"She was with the seamstress," I said stupidly, for Joss was shaking his head before I'd finished.
"She was, but the woman took her leave and I sent the child to Meg. She was making gingerbread and I thought the girl might like that. And then she was just gone. Meg said as like she disappeared."
"You did what?" I exploded, stepping out of Jane's grasp. "You left her alone with that woman?"
Certainly, if I had slapped the man across the face he could not have looked more offended.
"And where's the harm in leaving her with my wife?" he asked.
"Nothing," answered Jane, taking me by the arm. She turned me around to face her. "Please believe me, Charlotte. The child would have been safe with Meg. But we do have to locate her now. She should not be left alone in this house."
A quick glance took in my dripping hair and sodden gown. "Go to your room, change into something dry and then join us," she said, taking no notice of her own soggy state. "We will begin searching the cellars and make our way up."
Not giving me a chance to argue, she turned and commanded Joss to follow. The two marched from the room with purposeful strides, leaving me to stare after, my entire body quivering in frustration.
How could she leave me with so little explanation? I could still feel the imprint of her kisses on my lips, hear her words of love and trust in my mind.
"She trusts you," I said doubtfully to no one but the air and the portraits on the walls. Saying the words did nothing to reassure me.
I hurried to my chamber, listening all the while for signs of Evelyn, but the only sounds to reach my ears were the slap of my wet dress on the stairs as I ascended, the gusts of wind and sheets of rain rattling the windows.
I was just turning the handle of my chamber door when a strangled shriek followed by that familiar and demonic laughter stilled my hand. I whirled around, and raced down the corridor, calling out Evelyn's name. Again, the laughter echoed and I followed the sound until I came to the servant's staircase. There, it resonated, sounding so loudly I could hear nothing else. I bounded up the stairs, my breath coming in great gasps, until I reached the third floor.
Instead of a landing or another corridor, I came upon a thick, ebony door from which hung an unfastened chain. A sturdy lock was attached to this, also unfastened, and, I noticed the door stood slightly ajar.
The maniacal laughter had ceased. A thick and palpable silence hovered all around me, like the stillness of a predator patiently awaiting its prey to come within reach. I peered round the edge of the door, my heart hammering in my breast.
A narrow flight of stairs led upwards, turning at a shadowy landing and then climbing still higher.
I pulled the heavy door open and put a foot on the first step and then the next. On the third step, I paused, overcome by a paralyzing realization. I knew, with a breathless and lightheaded certainty that Evelyn would be at the top of those stairs and the answer to all of my questions would be there as well. I do not know from whence this realization came, but I could not free myself from the notion that all would be irrevocably changed once I'd reached the top.
Laughter rang out again, less ethereal now. It came from a human throat. I could hear the blood in that voice, low and guttural. Someone waited above, someone who knew that I approached.
I reached the landing. To my right stretched another long hall, its length cloaked in darkness. Before me, still another staircase, this one narrower. At the top, a door stood open and soft, flickering light spilled out of it. I took a deep breath for courage and mounted the stairs. The steps creaked underneath me, sounding in the silence like the crack of a whip or the report of a gunshot. I winced but kept climbing.
At last I reached the open door. My eyes, so accustomed to the darkness, took a moment to focus. I shielded them with one hand and held onto the door with the other. My vision cleared, and with a powerful revulsion so swift and sudden I nearly retched, I beheld a horrible tableau and the evil that awaited me.