~ Charlotte Bell ~
Goosedown fluttered like drifting snowflakes through the still air of the small room. The floor was thick with feathers. To my horror, I spied Evelyn lying motionless, tucked neatly into this downy nest. Tufts of white all around her were spotted wet with crimson. Asleep she seemed, but a red trickle of blood streaming from her forehead and another from her mouth marred this pretty picture, as did the figure crouching over her.
I couldn't look at the woman, for a woman it was. In horror, my eyes would not focus upon her. I looked instead at the slashed and disemboweled mattress propped against one wall, the smashed chairs and table lying in splinters in a corner. There were no windows in the room, only a sputtering fire covered by a curious wire grate that was bolted to the wall. This screen had a small door that must be used to feed wood to the blaze. This door was chained and padlocked.
And when my eyes could avoid it no longer, they came to rest upon the woman. Firelight slanted across her back. She was hunched over and squatting like an animal. Matted blonde hair streamed down her back. She wore a white nightdress. The hem had been shredded, exposing her thin legs. Fresh stains of red spotted this as well. Her hands worried the strips of fabric and her shoulders twitched. But the true horror was the damage she had inflicted upon herself. Her arms and legs were raw with red, bloody scratches. A map of shiny white scars provided a grotesque contrast to these wounds. The sight sickened me, but it was not until she turned her head to look back at me that I felt real fear.
My hands flew up to cover my open mouth.
It was a terrible pity. She must have been very pretty once. The bone structure of the woman's pale face was very delicate and her eyes were wide and brown. Her skin was not scarred but madness marred the beauty of her face more surely than these outwards markings ever could.
Her eyes darted about relentlessly, never resting but full of a calculating maliciousness. A hideous smile perverted the softness of her mouth. Lips stretched too wide, like a dog showing its teeth to intimidate and frighten. Cunning brown eyes fastened upon me in instant fascination.
"Look, Pet," she drawled, her high-pitched voice rising and falling in a demented cadence. She reached a hand behind her to tug at Evelyn's dress, "we have a guest for tea. But I didn't invite the frumpy governess, did you?"
Evelyn did not stir but the women went on, "No... No darling, I thought not. Well, she is here. Let's play with her, shall we? Do you think she'll sing for us? I know ways to make her sing."
She turned around without rising. Going down on all fours, she crawled forward until she was only a few paces from me. Then, I heard a chink, and noticed an iron cuff that encircled one of her thin ankles attached to a length of chain. Feathers rustled and she became distracted, raising a finger to trace the pattern of a slowly falling piece of fluff. So concentrated upon this was she, that I thought she'd forgotten me. I moved to step around her to try and reach Evelyn and she lurched forward, snapping at me like the dog I'd imagined. I flinched, but the chain binding her went taut and she could not reach me. She let out a wild and furious howl, a sound that had, over the last few weeks, become etched upon my mind.
Hers was the scream in the night! Here was the wraith that had haunted the halls of Rosefield. She was the midnight visitor that had started the blaze in Mrs. Delchester's room. She had wrecked the nursery and terrified Evelyn speechless. I was sure of it!
This last thought ignited my rage. I felt a tiny measure of courage. Evelyn needed me.
Then, just as suddenly as it began, her hysterics ceased and the hideous smile returned.
"I know you," she said coyly, twisting a strand of her hair tightly around her finger. "I've been watching you. I've seen the way you look at her. Such a lovely romance... Did she sweep you off your feet? Tell you she will love you forever? It's always the same, always the same."
She sighed. "She seduces them, one after another, after another." Her shrewd eyes slid to mine, hatred glittering in their depths. "And then she destroys them, just like she destroyed me."
She is raving, I told myself, struggling to repress the alarm her words had invoked.
She held up her thin arms, her expression changing to weary irony. For a moment, her eyes went dull. Her hands ceased their constant, scrabbling movement.
"She ruined everything. She took my life from me." Her tone went flat. Bitterness welled up from deep within her to surface upon her face. "I was pretty once, before she came," she whispered. "I had fine things, a home. People loved me. I had Papa."
Tears shimmered in her eyes and then spilled over onto her cheeks. I held fast to my anger, fighting the pity that stirred within me.
"Before she came, Papa and I were happy... Before she stole everything..."
And then she shrieked. The transformation from sad reflection to raging anger was so swift, it startled me. I gasped.
"She killed him! She stole everything from me! I'll make her pay! I swear it! I won't rest until she burns... just like Papa... just like Papa..."
She dropped into a crouch again and skittered toward me. I shrank back, but quickly collected myself. She looked at me from the corner of her eye, tugging on her chain.
"She won't love you," she murmured in a sing-song tone. "No. No. No. She's only ever wanted me. Me. Me. Me. It's why she keeps me here. She can't bear to be parted from me."
Fighting the sick, leaden feeling in the pit of my stomach, I found my voice. "Who are you?"
A tremor of fury passed over her and was quickly controlled. The smile flickered into a snarl and then back again.
"Why should I tell you? Why should I tell you anything? You'll just run and whisper it all in her ear. She has you fooled you stupid, little girl. She'll tell you more lies. Lies. Lies. Lies. Just like she lied to me. She said she loved me once. Then Papa found out. Papa found us together... and then she killed him."
A bolt of lightning could not have shocked me more. Mrs. Delchester and this woman? Mrs. Delchester a murderer? No. I wouldn't believe it. She was mad.
The woman's face crumpled. Eyes squeezed shut as if the memory were too much to bear.
I glanced quickly back at Evelyn and was relieved to see the subtle rise and fall of her chest. I should have gone. I should have called for the others. But a deep curiosity kept me rooted to the spot.
"Tell me, what is your name. Who are you?" I insisted.
She looked up at me and past me, seeing in her mind's eye some other place, some other person. Her head and hands began to twitch again. "But Papa's at the door. He's pounding. Papa gets so angry... No, I won't go out onto the balcony! Papa! He's forcing door. He's beating her. Papa no!"
She flinched as if receiving a remembered blow and then her arm lashed out. She screamed and began to thrash about as if in agony.
I couldn't passively observe such pain, no matter how her words had wounded me. I moved forward to offer comfort to the poor woman and in a sudden flash of movement, her hands were on me, gripping my throat.
I grappled with her, struggling to pry her grip apart. But her maniacal strength overpowered me. Her face was inches from mine. I felt her warm breath on my face as she laughed.
I choked and she squeezed harder. I gasped, but it was not enough.
My lungs ached for air. Spears of pain stabbed my chest and shot through my limbs. I floundered in her arms, my legs going weak. In despair, I thought the last sound I would hear on this earth was her mad, ecstatic laughter. I felt my body go limp. Consciousness began to melt away. The firelight seemed distant and unreal. My vision went dim and then completely black.
A thunderous crash broke through the darkness and then suddenly I was free, frantically inhaling air through my bruised windpipe, my chest heaving. I found myself on the floor, clutching my throat amidst the feathers. I fit of coughing shook me until I doubled over. I heard the woman still laughing hysterically, but soon it escalated into another angry shriek.
"Everything you love!" she screamed, "Everything you hold dear! I swear I will destroy it until I am all you have left! And then I want to watch you to burn the way he did! I want you to feel the fire eating you alive!"
I heard an appalling thud and glanced up. The woman was sprawled on the floor and a terrifying sight, a person that I scarcely recognized stared down at her.
Was this the same woman who had so tenderly offered me her heart? The soft and vulnerable face I had last seen shadowed in the moonlight was now a mask of fury. There was nothing soft in those cold and merciless eyes.
Never have I seen anyone display such pure loathing for another. In her eyes, the sneer on her lips, in the very tension of her stance I could see it. Jane's fist was still upraised from the blow she had just delivered. The hand trembled and I could see that the thinnest thread of control was preventing her from unleashing the most violent retribution upon the woman.
"You have gone too far, Celine," Jane said, the muscles of her jaw working convulsively. "You may strike at me with impunity, but I will not allow you to hurt anyone else ever again."
Jane bent low, and without taking her eyes from the woman, lifted Evelyn into her arms. The girl appeared lifeless, her head lolling on Jane's shoulder, her small face very white against Jane's dark hair. Jane lifted a hand and gently stroked the girls tangled blonde curls. Her eyes narrowed to vengeful slits.
But did the woman quake at this show of hatred? Did she cower and plead for mercy as anyone else facing the embodiment of such searing wrath would have done?
No. She laughed.
"And who will stop me?" she asked, risking Jane's anger by goading her further. It appeared to be an old and familiar game between them. The woman taunted and Jane bore it all in stoic silence.
"You? You would kill me? Defenseless as I am? " The two locked gazes for a few interminable seconds and then she laughed again, a manic cackle that escalated into yet another shriek.
"You can't do it!" she cried triumphantly, pulling herself up to crouch, bobbing up and down, again the image of a frenzied animal. "That would be too kind. You would rather shut me away, keep me prisoner here just so you can ease your conscience. You are a coward! Kill me! Do it! Do it now!"
The small fire popped and I realized I had been holding my breath. The woman turned her head to look over her shoulder at me, the firelight illuminating the slow, evil smile spreading across her face. "You wouldn't, even if your conscience didn't torment you, not now, not in front of your little friend. Imagine what she would think.
"Does she know about you? Does she know about us? I don't think so. You wouldn't tell her. She might hate you. And you can't have that. You see, I know your tastes. You prey on the young and innocent. You can fool them so easily."
She began to twist her hair around her fingers again, doing it so tightly, strands came off in her hand. "So, what lies have you told this one? Shall I disillusion her now? Should I tell her?"
For the first time, Jane met my eyes. Her stony expression did not change. "Leave her out of this," she said tersely, looking away.
The woman shook her head slowly. "No. No. No. I can't allow that. Don't you think she should know the truth? I'll tell her if you don't."
A small, almost imperceptible tremor passed over Jane. Her lips thinned and she inhaled deeply. She looked to me again.
"We are going. Come, Charlotte."
Trembling, I got to my feet, surprised that my knees would hold my weight. The two women watched me, one with malicious delight; the other face was expressionless and cold. I made my way carefully to the door and Jane placed Evelyn in my arms. The child was burdensome, but I was overwhelmingly thankful to have her close to me, to feel the weight of her. I staggered to the door, disturbing feathers with every step, and Jane followed, backing out cautiously. She slammed the heavy door shut behind us. I carried Evelyn downstairs. Behind me, I heard chains rattle as Jane put them back into place. And just as the click of the key sounded in the lock, the prisoner began to howl.
"Murderer! Tell her what you've done, murderer! Tell her the truth!"
After we reached the bottom of the stairs, Jane silently took my burden from me and walked ahead without a word. With a dreadful sense of foreboding, I followed her. Joss met us on the landing below. Jane sent him to fetch the surgeon and continued on.
I had thought I had tasted fear in that little attic cell. But I now found that a larger fear had me in its grasp, a pain I had never experienced before. I had read in a book once that wanting is a learned habit, and needing is but the outcome of too much wanting. The words held no significance for me then. I understood them now. I had not realized until that moment how much my soul had learned to need Jane Delchester.
I took each step with a mounting sense of desperation. A dark presentiment, similar to the feeling I had earlier but much more alarming, told me that when we had reached our destination, when finally she opened her mouth to speak, both our lives would be changed forever. I didn't want that moment to come.
We reached the nursery. Jane pushed the door open with her elbow and went inside. I found a candle and lit it at the hearth and then carried it over to Evelyn's bedside and sat down on the edge of the bed.
With thorough hands, Jane looked for injuries. There were none, other than the lump on the child's forehead and the swelling bruise upon her cheek. Jane tried to wake her, prodding her gently. She moaned a little protest. Her eyes fluttered open and then shut again. Evelyn rolled onto her side, cradling her chin in her hand. Despite the bluish spot of color on her pale cheeks, she appeared to be normal. Jane nodded, satisfied for the moment that Evelyn was well.
Jane stood next to her bed, her hands clasped behind her back as she studied the sleeping
child. Some minutes passed. Though I was burning with impatience and apprehension, I did not interrupt her contemplation. At length, she turned to me and panic blossomed within me. Careworn and defeated she looked and utterly without hope.
She took the candle from the bedside table and held it up over the child. "She's the picture of her mother," she mused, bitterness tainting every word. Her hard gaze found mine. "Have you never wondered about her parents, Charlotte? I'm surprised, with that curious nature of yours, that you never asked."
I was confused and did not answer immediately. Why were we speaking of Evelyn's parentage after all that had happened this night?
"She told me that her mother was a dancer and that she had died."
Jane grimaced and set the candle back down. "Half correct. If only all of it could be true. She did not know..."
Evelyn whimpered in her sleep and she broke off, shaking her head. She took a few steps away, her back to me. A sigh of such futility followed it broke my heart. She turned, running her hand wearily through her tangled hair. I wanted to go to her, to shake the truth from her if I could. But I did not.
"You mean that woman upstairs... "
The rain had slackened, leaving a delicate tracery of glistening beads upon the windowpane. I forced myself to look at this and not at her face.
I could feel the tension mounting between us but neither of us dared break this weighty silence. Finally, Jane let out a forced chuckle and then sighed.
"What Charlotte? No reproaches? That is not like you. I know your ire is up. I can see it. You frown and look pale one moment and the next I see the fire in those green eyes. I have awakened that demon curiosity, have I not? It's a voracious beast. It will not be sated with the poor fare it has fed upon this night, not Charlotte's demon. No. It must have the full banquet."
She came to me suddenly, crossing the room quickly to place her hands on my arms. Her grip was rough and almost painful.
"I want you to go," she growled, breathing heavily. "I want you to leave this house."
"No!" I exclaimed, unflinching.
Her blue eyes flashed and she shook me. "You must. You will. Tonight."
She took a ragged breath, still staring down at me and then abruptly let me go. "I have a cottage. It's about a day's ride. It's near the sea. I daresay, you'll like it. The scenery should tantalize that imagination of yours. I want you to go there."
"And will you be going as well?" I asked, though I knew her answer. Cold desolation began to consume me, but I would not let it claim me whole. I would fight it.
"No," she said frowning down at the carpet as she paced the floor
"Then I will stay, too. I refuse to go. You are my employer and it is your prerogative to banish me from your household. But should I leave, I will not go far."
This caused a brow to arch in my direction. The ghost of a smile flitted across her face, but it was gone in an instant, too transitory to erase the frown that had taken residence upon her brow. "Your employer? A true Charlottism and just what I expected you to say. But no, I can't have you remain under this roof another night. It... it isn't safe. You must go."
I stood, lifting my chin and pushing my shoulders back. I would stand firm and defiant. I could not rest another second until I knew entirely what was torturing her soul. I would not feel peace until I knew she could share it. I wanted no secrets between us.
"I will not," I maintained. "Please won't you explain to me what has happened? I can see that you are troubled. I want to help you if I can."
But Jane was shaking her head again, now more vehemently. "No. It is not within your power to help rid me of this burden, Charlotte."
Jane halted before me, frustration conquering her iron control. She brought her hand to her mouth, curling it into a fist as she fought to remain calm.
"And you would choose to remain at Rosefield even after all you have seen tonight?"
"You are here," I said simply. As I had hoped, this seemed to be an insurmountable argument. I could see her defenses crumbling.
"All right," she said with grim finality. "I had hoped to spare you this... but the truth will serve my purposes now with less contention. I suppose this was unavoidable from the beginning. I must learn this lesson. The look upon your face when you hear what I have to say will teach me to never hope again."
Her eyes were wide and forlorn. Purple shadows underneath made them appear hollow and haunted. Again, my mind contrasted the happy and playful countenance silvered in the moonlight with this gaunt, rigid and joyless face before me. I longed to see the former, to coax that phantom to the surface again.
She passed to the window and leaned her face against it, her eyes closed. Long and lean in her dark clothes, I again had the strongest sense of the masculine from her, of obligations that most women would never dream of assuming. My Jane (for I did think of her as mine) would bear the weight of the world upon her shoulders and never complain.
"I... I have told you of my marriage..." she began, "but I did not tell you all. You will perhaps berate me for keeping this secret. I only... I wished... Oh, never mind! I'll have done with excuses and take my medicine, though it will taste more bitter than any draught yet."
She crossed her arms and turned her face away but continued to speak. "My marriage, as I have said, was far from a joyous union. My husband was an old man, used to being coddled by his servants and his daughter. He was kind at first, but fitful, like a child. Strange piques would take hold of him and send him into a fury. He would rage at me for days on end and then lapse into a dumb lassitude that would leave him bedridden and weak. I shunned his company as often as I could, especially our marriage bed. Adopting a disguise, I would steal into town to pursue my own interests. I found solace in all of the lesser sins. I immersed myself in them. Angry and resentful, I blamed my husband for all of my unhappiness. It became my sole vocation to goad him, to make him as miserable as I. And then, by chance, I found the perfect instrument for vengeance. His daughter, Celine.
She paused, to let the full effect of these shocking words sink into my brain.
"She was a few years younger than I, shy and quiet. She led a very secluded life, nursing her father and tending to the Plantation's concerns. But she was curious about me. I could see it from the beginning, in the way she looked at me. She made timid overtures toward friendship, which I accepted only to use to my advantage. I encouraged her curiosity. I played upon her innocence. I seduced her, Charlotte."
She turned from the window to look at me. I tried to make my face blank of emotion, but it was futile. She saw my horror. Her jaw hardened.
"That... that woman in the attic," I stammered, fearing confirmation. "... you called her Celine."
"Ah, I knew that your quick mind would assemble the pieces, Charlotte. Yes it's true. The woman in the attic is Celine Mason, the daughter of my husband. Full marks to the governess."
"But why?" I cried, sinking down to sit upon the bed again. "Why do you keep her prisoner here? What has she done?"
"Yes, it's quite a riddle isn't it? One among the many you've no doubt stumbled upon. Why is yonder lunatic locked away? What has she done? Better yet, ask what it is that I have done. But no, that would shorten my agony and I must pay the penance and prolong it. My narrative must be heard entirely. Pray do not interrupt me again. All will be revealed, but you will not thank me for it."
She began her relentless pacing again, "I was a fool. A terrible fool. I thought your happiness would atone. I believed I could... No. There is no use wondering. That is behind us. You will hear me now."
"Celine loved me, or so she supposed. But I did not want her love." She clenched her fists at her sides. "I wanted her corruption. I showed her the way of it. I introduced her to my... pastimes."
Here she paused in her ruminations. A trembling hand brushed dark strands of hair from her eyes.
"Before long, she surpassed me in debauchery. It seemed to be a family trait, this madness. She excelled in dissipation. She reveled in it to such a degree, even I became sickened by her enjoyment. Despite my vow of vengeance, I resolved to end our connection.
"She would not accept it. At first she cried and followed me everywhere I went. Before, our rendezvous had been discreet enough, but now the servants began to talk. I bid her leave me in peace, but she would have none of it." She looked to me for an instant but would not meet my eyes. "Celine came to my room that night and begged to be let in. I would not. So she went outside and climbed the trellis to my window. She began to plead with me. When I would not yield she became enraged. She began to rave. Her rantings were heard throughout the house. Eventually, they reached her father's ears.
"He came to my door and threatened to break it down. Celine became frightened. She wanted to hide. But before she could, he burst in upon us, his insanity fueling his feeble strength. He came at me. I returned his blows with energy. I unleashed all of my anger and let it have its day. He cowered back. And then, seeing he could not intimidate me, he turned his madness on Celine."
She lapsed into solemn reverie, and again that morose and hopeless aspect claimed her. Her words had revealed to me a coldness and cynicism I had not thought to find in her. Her soul was stained by the corruption she had sowed, but I believed there was hope yet. It yearned for a purity I believe was already attained, though it was buried deep underneath shame and hatred.
We heard steps in the corridor. Jane quickly collected herself and I tried to do the same. Joss appeared in the doorway with the doctor behind him. This gentleman went about his duty with quiet efficiency and after a few moments pronounced that the child had a mild concussion and should be closely watched through the night. Joss showed the doctor out and went to fetch Meg to come sit with Evelyn. Jane and I were alone again.
I stared down at my lap, wringing my hands. I heard the soft sound of her tread on the carpet. She stopped in front of me.
"You remain? I should have known your mettle would withstand this much. You are nearly as stubborn as I."
Was that humor I heard in her voice? I glanced up but found only glacial calm in her eyes as she regarded me. Our glances merged and held. The pale blue of her eyes disappeared as her pupils expanded. Something inside me quickened, and a tingling sensation rippled from the palms of my hands and down my spine. I heard a soft moan and I could not tell whose lips had uttered it, hers or mine. She swayed, her mouth so close, her breath fanned my lips. And then she closed her eyes.
Without prelude, she pulled away and continued her story. The next words she spoke froze me to the core of my being.
"I have done murder, Charlotte," she said, "and it was liberating. I murdered my husband that night when he burst into my room. I burned him alive, Charlotte. Do you understand what pain he must have suffered? He screamed and screamed."
I was on my feet, pushing past her, before I realized it. The momentum carried me to the door before I fought the impulse and turned back.
"Why do you say these things? I know you! What you say can't be true!"
She smiled. It was more a feral show of teeth than a sign of amusement. "You heard Celine's screams. She believes I am a murderer. She will verify my story. Why should I lie to you now? You asked for my secrets and I have given them to you. You see, there is nothing I won't do for you."
Her sardonic tone, the cold set of her features, both flayed me, exposing all my foolish hopes as the childish dreams they were. I shook my head, hot tears stinging my cheeks.
"No. You aren't telling me all. There must be a reason."
She shrugged. "What other reason did I need? I have told you I hated the man."
I could not stop shaking my head. I could not reconcile the Jane Delchester I had come to know with the callous woman speaking these foul words.
"No," I whispered. "I don't believe you."
"Well then you are a fool, Charlotte. This is who I am. You are seeing it all now. I thought to delay this talk. I wanted a few weeks of pleasure with you at least. But reality has been thrust upon us and the truth must be told. I am an unrepentant libertine, Charlotte. The woman you know was a sham."
I was shaking so badly, I could barely lift my hand to wipe away my tears. "No. I know you feel this attachment, too. There is something between us, a bond that draws me to you. I can feel it."
She inhaled deeply and then leveled a cold stare at me. "Understand this. What you feel is a lie. I created it and now I choose to end it."
The instinct for self-preservation will obliterate higher consciousness when imperiled. At that moment, my instinct was to run, to get as far away from her before her barbed words tore through what was left of my heart. Another word from her and I might have stayed, or I might have surrendered my sanity. I will never know. Instinct prevailed.
She watched me flee in calm silence, not even turning her head as I rushed past.
My feet carried me swiftly through the darkened corridors. My tears abated long enough for me to realize that I was no longer near her. I had come to my chamber door. I stared at the solid, age-scarred surface, wondering what compulsion had brought me here, too numb to even reach for the handle. I am not certain how long I stood there.
The same subconscious sense of self-preservation eventually gave me the strength to cross the threshold, to gather a few belongings into my travel case.
Once I held this in my hand, however, that instinct left me. I stood in the middle of the room, stranded.
A slight change in the air, a paleness that pervades just before dawn, made me turn my head to the window. Morning was upon us and yet I felt that the night should go on forever. What was daylight to me now? What use had I for such pleasures as sunshine and soft breezes? Let the storms rage. Let all the days wear the colors of mourning. She never loved me. And worse, the woman I loved did not exist.
What was I to do?
But I knew even before I asked it of myself. I wished that I could pretend weakness and thus avoid the suffering and pain that would begin when memory asserted itself and the distance between us became apparent to me. I knew I must leave and at once. Her words left little room for anything else. It was unthinkable to wait, to allow her to neatly send me off to the cottage she spoke of, like a favored toy that has lost its appeal. I would not allow her dispose of me so easily.
I forced myself to leave this room that had become a home to me. Somehow I traversed the space between myself and the outdoors, waking from the miserable numbness only when I felt cool, morning air on my cheeks. I was in the garden and I scarcely knew how I had gotten there. I dared not look over my shoulder at Rosefield. Like a siren, it beckoned but to answer its call would mean my ruin. I stopped near the kitchen garden. My feet would carry me no further.
She had played me false, I told myself as motivation. Deliberately, she had preyed upon my naiveté. She admitted it along with such horrors that I should be revolted, happy to flee with my innocence intact. She was a scoundrel, a liar, and a murderer that relished the blood that would forever stain her hands. Common sense told me to forget, to keep walking, to find a room at the inn in the village and to search for another post tomorrow. The future would not stop simply because of one brokenhearted governess.
But something inside me, deeper than the injured feelings of my heart, defied common sense and kept me rooted to the spot. A bird's shrill cry brought me back from my chaotic reflections and I found myself where I most needed to be.
The abandoned chapel waited for me like a patient guardian, its peaceful walls offering respite from my own confused thoughts.
I thrust open the chapel doors and breathed in the dusty, earthy scent of the place. Holy incense could not have cleansed my riotous thoughts, but this simple, sacrosanct air did. Reverently, I took a seat on the pew before the ruined statue and lifted my eyes to it, letting its primitive beauty pacify and sustain me. Gray light was softly penetrating, filtering through the shadows, choosing which corner to illuminate, which to leave dark, like an artist's sketch in pencil. And then a sudden shaft of rosy daylight cast its brilliance upon the altar and I became transfixed.
There was a language in this quiet, desolate place, a communion with clarity that I had not looked for but blessedly found.
No lies could ever cross that threshold, nothing evil or tainted. Jane's own words. Jane had believed it and now I could feel the truth, the entire truth of it. She could not hide it from me, not here. Every glance, every touch had been a promise, a gift. She could not take them back.
Her love was with me still. The bond connecting us had not been severed, though she had tried, for my benefit to do just that. I felt it still and that was all the assurance I would need. No matter whom she had been, or professed to be, the woman I knew was the true distillation of her soul.
There could be no thought of leaving now.
The hall and sitting-rooms were dark, the draperies still drawn, as I stole through them. Even so, Rosefield was roused for the morning. In the distance, I heard a clatter and the slight scent of smoke from the wood stoves in the kitchens. Meg was about her duties early, I thought pleasantly.
Climbing the stairs, a sudden distasteful thought occurred. Rosefield's secrets had been revealed to me and I had reached my resolutions concerning them. But the obstacles I must overcome appeared insurmountable in the clear light of day. I realized though I had looked to Jane for strength, it would fall to me to protect her from herself and her past. Glancing upward, I knew that meant I would have to contend with the woman in the attic as well.
It did not matter. Whatever needed to be done, I would do it.
Just then, I heard a small noise on the stairs behind me and looked back.
"Thought you had gone, Miss," Joss said, over arms loaded with wood. He looked tired. His bulging, brown eyes had circles underneath that spoke of the long, sleepless night we all had endured. I smiled warmly at him.
"No, I have no plans to go. I intend to stay at Rosefield."
Joss appeared confused. "But the missus, she says we're to gather up yours and Miss Evelyn's things and see them packed."
I felt my hackles rise. How dare she? "She said that, did she? She may have been a bit hasty, Joss. Where might I find the lady of the house? We have some matters to discuss."
"I dunno, Miss. She came down about a quarter of an hour ago looking like the devil. I never seen her so upset. She told us you was leaving and then she stormed off."
"Which way did she go?"
"Couldn't say. Outside's all I know, Miss. She was muttering something about the forest and fetching you from 'the people' but I couldn't take what she meant by it. She's out of her head, Miss. Truly. I was frightened, I was."
"She will be fine, Joss. I promise you. We will all be fine. And how is Miss Evelyn?"
"Tolerable, Miss. She's awake. Meg's sitting with her."
"Good," I said, turning to go back downstairs, and then I felt a pang of conscience and faced him. "Joss, I feel I ought to apologize. Meg... I said and thought some horrible things. She did not deserve such..."
He interrupted with a wry smile, adjusting his load to ride on his hip. He reached out with his free hand and patted my arm. "Not a word of it, Miss. There's no need to explain."
But my guilt would not let me off so easily. "No Joss. There is. Please convey my sincere apologies to your wife. I am sorry if I treated her badly."
"I will surely do that, Miss," he said continuing on looking very pleased.
I went downstairs, retracing my steps.
Once outside, I drank in the morning air, the clean fresh scent of dew on green grass, the sharp tang of wood smoke mixed with the ever-present scent of roses. As the sun rose higher, colors gained sharpness. I hurried through the bright relief of the gardens set against the tangle of forest in the distance, searching all the while for a figure in black.
I followed the curve of the hill, over the broad expanse of rolling lawn to the stand of trees that would give admittance to the shadowy wood. Once under that soft canopy of leaves, sounds became magnified and distorted. Every step crackled and then echoed in the distance. Scuffling sounds of birds in the trees and creatures scurrying through the undergrowth caused me to turn my head expectantly every few yards.
Oh, but what a palace it was! Majestic moss-covered pillars stretched to the thick, green roof overhead. These natural collonades spanned into the distance, traversed only by thin shafts of golden light. Beyond these, a green gloom pervaded. Here and there spider webs, stretched between trees, would be illuminated, the beaded strands like beautiful prisms in the light. An abundance of thorny bushes populated this part of the forest, now furnished with sweet smelling blossoms that would ripen into blackberries when the weather grew cool. The paths angled sharply downward as I traveled on, so that I looked upon the crown of the trees below before I saw the tangled roots. Once the course smoothed out, vegetation became thick and was full of brambles that tore my thin slippers. I scarcely noticed this, so caught up in my search was I.
At first, I called her name but ceased when my throat became hoarse. It struck me suddenly that I was searching still, as I had been all these weeks, possibly even my entire life. And I saw now that Jane had also been searching, but in a different way. Would our lives never intertwine? Would she have the courage to try? Or would we continue forever circling each other, too frightened to truly grasp at what we sought. No, I thought. That I could tolerate no longer.
I reached a listless brook that barely wetted the bed of rock beneath it. I stopped to catch my breath, gathering a handful of water to cool my hot cheeks. I rested a moment, taking a seat upon a cluster of large rocks nearby that were carpeted with lichen and moss. The silence was oppressive here near the center of this natural labyrinth. Even my own labored breath sounded jarring and out of place.
And then, the barest rustle gave me to know that I was not alone. I stood and turned and saw her emerge from the jade colored shadows.
I did not know how I could be stunned anew by the beauty of a face whose soft planes were etched upon my brain. But the breath caught in my throat and my heartbeat quickened just as it had done the first moment I saw her.
"I should have known I would find you here," she said. "Have you come to gather your offerings at the water's edge like a true wood sprite?"
Her jocular tone belied the serious set of her features. Her eyes were swollen and red and her lips were drawn into a tight line.
"You were looking for me? Why?"
She hadn't expected that question. "I... I wanted to see that you were all right."
Consternation suited her, I decided. It made her look vulnerable and real, not so hard and unfeeling.
"You left so suddenly..."
"You wanted me to go."
"No, I didn't. I..." The admission startled her. It was obviously not what she had planned to say. But her facade had been years in the making. It was never far from her. She collected herself and quickly, the flinty and impassive mask was back in place.
"I wanted to make sure you were ready to leave when the coach arrives," she said. The words were a challenge; one I readily accepted. I mentally prepared to lay siege.
"Leave? I never agreed to leave."
"But you must." Her delicate brows drew together and I saw the stubbornness within her rally. "You wish to leave your fate in the hands of a murderer then?" she asked silkily. "I have no use for an innocent governess, Charlotte. If you stay, you must accept the provisional liaison I offer, though I have made my lack of feeling clear. Is that what you want?"
I was prepared for this frontal attack now. She could strike and batter against my solid defenses and incur no damage. It could not be breached through force; no hard words would penetrate, only true words, told from her heart could reach me now. Calmly I listened, knowing the outcome of this battle was assured.
"No," I said, stepping closer. "I accept no provisions." Now only the thin ribbon of water at our feet separated us. I met her chilly stare and smiled. "I accept nothing less than what you have already offered me, Jane. We had a prior agreement, remember? I think it supersedes this one."
But Jane was not willing to admit defeat yet. "Lies. All of it."
I stepped closer still, feeling water seep into my slippers and wet the hem of my dress. We were only an arm's length apart.
"I don't believe you. I don't think you really are a murderer. The truth, Jane. That is all I ask. Let me hear the truth and then decide." I whispered. I saw her eyes linger on my mouth before she pulled them away.
"Be serious, Charlotte. You don't understand." When I stood firm, she turned away in irritation. When she turned back, I saw my victory in her eyes. One battle won, but the war was not over. She sighed heavily. "You can call it what you like. It was murder. Charles Mason attacked Celine. I pulled him off of her. He fought me. I pushed him away."
She sighed again. "He stumbled, fell against a table holding an oil lamp. It broke underneath him. His robes caught fire. Before long, he was a living torch. His beard, his robes, his skin, all were aflame. And I did nothing, Charlotte. I did nothing."
"But it was an accident!" I cried.
A shake of her head quickly negated this. "No, I am to blame. I deliberately set out to seduce Celine. I set events in motion. And I froze when I should have acted. He died a few days later of his injuries."
Her hands shook. Seeing that I noticed, she thrust them behind her back.
"But that is the past," I told her gently. "I want the future."
"You think you want this, but you don't. I would give you a life of terrible responsibilities, of secrets, of ridicule. You could have so much more. You should go. Please go." Her tone pleaded, as did her eyes.
'Aha!' I thought, triumphantly.
I did not answer. Spanning the distance between us with a step, I moved closer, feeling the heat of her, hearing her breath come faster.
I lifted my face to hers. "Kiss me, then, and tell me good-bye."
Within a kiss lies a form of madness that waits to claim us, one that we happily crave.
How else explain the frenzy of want and need when two lips meet?
Mouths explore. Breath is exchanged. Softness yields. And always there is a hunger that cannot be sated. Personality flees. Another small universe is formed, a complete world made only of desire.
It is the most exquisite lure, a temptation to coax the soul from another. For in those moments of frenzy, is that not what happens? Surely this is how souls meet and find their like.
The moment her lips brushed mine, such madness claimed me and I knew my soul was hopelessly lost.
Exquisite gentleness as her mouth yielded to mine, allowing me to take and to taste. Tenderness was returned with urgency. After my first tentative explorations, her lips grew demanding. Arms encircled me, crushing me to her. Lips became rough, hard and feverish.
I gasped and a shiver ran down the length of her. She seemed to feed upon my gasps, my soft sighs and in turn trembled with every touch.
I do not know how long we continued thus. Will had forsaken me. I could not have ended the kiss even had I been aware of the passage of time. But this madness took its toll upon me. At last, my legs became so weak, they gave way beneath me. Jane caught, held me and with a low, protesting moan, broke the contact between us.
I think I staggered back a few steps. Somehow I found myself again sitting on the rocks.
Jane stood several yards away, her back to me. The space between us seemed enormous, unbearable. The sound of our ragged breaths punctuated the stillness. I waited until she finally spoke.
"Charlotte, it is... undeniable that I care for you," Her voice was thick with remorse. "Our friendship may be the one thing in my life that is true and good. And perhaps that is why I cannot allow the stain of shame that has colored my life to touch you. Celine will always be my responsibility. Do you really want that burden? Once, long ago, she escaped from my... care and it was several years before I found her again. Evelyn is a result of that lapse. And now I am responsible for her too.
"Over the years, Celine has grown very violent. She hurts anyone who come near her. I don't know what would happen if she ever escaped again. That you were in danger... I can't bear to think of it. Charlotte, I have done so much that is wrong, so much that I regret. Please allow me do one thing that is right. You are so young..."
And like a condemned woman, she looked to me. For love, I saw, she would banish herself to a barren and comfortless existence. Solace and true affection would forever be denied her. The misery that had driven her to depravity would eventually devour her soul.
I would not let that happen.
"Jane, I..." but I did not finish. The clamor of bells rang out in the distance.