Abbie and Mariana stood before the mirror. The aunt stood behind, appraising the seamstress’ work as she cut the last of the threads and brushed the skirts straight and adjusted the starched and high-collard blouses they now wore beneath tailor-made jackets of stiff, almost immovable material. Coffins in crepe and coal black lace.
“It is as I feared, Arabella, I’m sorry to say. You do not look well in black. But there is nothing we can do.”
The look on Aunt Newhaven’s face as she examined Mariana required no words. Her sister always had and always would look well in anything she wore. Were it the dark, lustreless fabric alone, or the stiff, almost masculine cut of the cloth, Abbie might not have looked so ill. But she was ill. Dark circles beneath her eyes bore the evidence. Her skin was sallow, not the radiant, rose glow she was used to. But her aunt, having never laid eyes upon her before these last two weeks, would not know. Abbie knew. And so did Mariana, though she was too polite to say.
The aunt, casting her approval over the new attire, if not over the girls themselves, at last left the room, accompanied by the elf, in order to arrange to have the wardrobe finished, complete with died undergarments and handkerchiefs. And to have it all done in the quantities necessary for the year, or what was left of it, that they would remain in full mourning. Her clothes, at least, were not a permanent arrangement. But such offered little comfort, for it begged the comparison to other matters.
“At least we will still have our lessons,” Mariana said, faithfully optimistic.
It could not be much easier for her, Abbie understood, for her dreams had been dashed as well as her own.
“Yes,” Abbie answered. “Though I suspect it’s so we will pass on what we know to our future charges. Hardly for ourselves.”
“But it is something to look forward to. Some occupation, don’t you think? And we will be better for it.”
“Do you want to be a part of this venture, Mariana?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“I suppose not.”
“Then I might as well choose to be happy as not,” was Mariana’s surprising answer.
Abbie had miscalculated her sister entirely. Mariana, always the dreamer, at times the mercenary, always admiring what others had and wishing it for herself, had grown up a good deal in the last fortnight. Perhaps she had avoided any unnecessary labours before now. Perhaps she had been vain and idle. But too, she had always been optimistic, turning the worst of situations into the potential for better things to come. ‘Where one door closes,’ she had used to say, ‘another always opens.’ Abbie could take a lesson or two from her sister. And she vowed to do it.
* * *
Over the next few weeks, Abbie committed herself to putting on a brave face, to smile when she felt like crying, to speak respectfully when she felt like screaming. Perhaps Mr Meredith saw her struggle, for on the few occasions he joined them for meals, or to visit of an evening, he made an especial effort to encourage her, drawing her out into the light and pleasant conversation that was best for her in her recovery, both from grief and illness.
“Have you never been to London before, Miss Gray?” he said, folding his ringless hands before him. She must have imagined he had ever worn one.
“There is much to see and do, you know. You have much to look forward to, when time and circumstance allow it, of course.”
“My aunt had told me, I believe, that it was you who would decide what was to be done with us. Is this true?”
“To a certain extent, I suppose.”
“And so touring London is part of your plan?”
“It might be. If you will be very good and learn to deserve it.” He smiled then, almost coyly. “You are looking much better, you know.”
“I’m not and you know it.”
“You are at least smiling. That makes a greater difference than perhaps you can imagine.”
She looked at him askance. She could never quite tell if his manner was fatherly or slightly flirtatious. She compromised and called it brotherly. Elder brotherly. Much elder. And laughed to herself.
“What is so funny?”
“Oh, nothing. I was just wondering if you meant to play tour guide and slap my hands when I tried to touch the exhibits, or, if I was very good, you would buy me an ice cream at the end of the day.”
He laughed at this. “I doubt very much you can be that well-behaved.” And then, quite unexpectedly, he took his leave of them.
What was fun a moment ago left her feeling uncomfortable now, as if she had attempted (and failed) to flirt with her favourite uncle. She alternately liked him and was made to feel uncomfortable by him. She was desperate for friends, she supposed, while her sister spent all of her free time with their aunt. It was good of her, really. But, in spite of her best efforts, Abbie felt increasingly alone. Still, she felt he was a good man, Mr Meredith, if a bit strange at times. Look what he was doing for all these fallen and friendless women. But then…how had he come to be in such a position in the first place? How did he know where to look and just how to gain their trust?
Conscious that she was overanalyzing (he was merely her aunt’s lawyer, after all) she turned to her aunt, who offered her a half-puzzled, half-condemning look. Was she in trouble for engaging in warm and animated dialogue with a gentleman of her aunt’s paid acquaintance? Or was the unspoken reprimand in consequence of his being driven from the room—by her?
Again, she was thinking too much about it. Heaven, how she needed a distraction! She was going fairly out of her mind, she was quite sure. Grief, boredom, loneliness…these were conspiring against her greatest efforts to conquer her darker emotions. And together they were breeding something not quite safe or sane.
* * *
If Abbie was in need of a diversion, it was soon enough provided. Upon descending the staircase one evening, a knock was heard at the door. Seeing no one else in sight, she opened it to find Mr Meredith holding, half carrying, a young woman, pale and in evident distress. The kind Abbie understood by now, though she’d not seen it for herself since leaving Holdaway. The woman bore an air of desperation and shame Abbie had never before seen, even under the worst of circumstances.
“You shouldn’t have opened the door,” Mr Meredith said to her.
“You knocked, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but you shouldn’t have opened it.”
He didn’t quite look at her, engaged as he was with his burden, and began to ascend the stairs. His hand, resting on the banister to support them both, bore a ring. So she had not imagined it!
“There’s a housekeeper for a reason, Miss Gray.”
“Well, next time I’ll remember to make you wait.”
“I’m here,” Mrs Giles said, rushing into the hallway. “This way, Mr Meredith. Have you got her? That’s good. If I can just get by you. I’m so sorry. Yes, just this way.”
“Please, Miss Gray,” Mr Meredith said now, as he continued his way up the stairs, and doing his best to follow Mrs Giles, “next time wait for the housekeeper.”
She did not like his patronizing tone and stood mutely watching as he shouldered his burden the remaining distance.
He returned a moment later.
“May I be of some assistance?” she asked him as he descended the stairs once more. “I have some experience in—”
He stopped just before her.
“Miss Gray, you and I both know you are not entirely well. I don’t think it a good idea. Besides, we—”
“Let me do something,” she said, exasperation heavy in her voice. “I’m desperate for something to do. And I can do this. I can. You’ll see.”
“And besides,” he said again and more pointedly, “we have a doctor. If you’ll just let me fetch him.” And he pushed past her toward the door. Before he shut it behind him, he turned back. “Perhaps you should rest. It’s bound to be a long night.”
“Does that mean I can help?”
“It means,” he said, with a hint of irritation, “that you may find your sleep disturbed.” And the door slammed to.
Abbie turned back to the staircase.
“What is it?” Mariana said, emerging from the parlour. “What is the matter? I thought I heard voices.”
“Someone has come, Mariana. Another of our aunt’s young women. Her time is close at hand.”
“Her time? You mean…?” and she too turned her attention toward the upper floor.
“Yes. Mrs Giles is with her, and Mr Meredith has gone for the doctor.”
Mariana simply stared for half a minute. Such situations she had so far avoided with success. She had rarely helped her mother, and then only with supplying nourishment and small comforts to the mother. Or later, to the child. She had never helped Abbie. Not once. But it didn’t matter. Their help was not wanted. Still, it was plain the shock of reality was great despite the forewarning they had been given of their aunt’s occasional unexpected guests.
“I’ll just go get our aunt, I think,” Mariana said, half dazed.
She returned a moment later, following behind her aunt, who, upon stopping before the staircase, hooked her walking stick over the banister and proceeded to climb them with no aid whatsoever. She stopped just at the first landing.
“Mary. You might be able to assist me. You are very patient and quiet. You might calm the poor girl.”
“Please, aunt,” Abbie asked in her sister’s behalf (for she had suddenly grown quite pale) as well as for herself. She needed a purpose, some meaningful employment or she would simply go mad. “Might I help? I asked Mr Meredith, but he thought it not a good idea. But truly, I do have some experience in these matters.”
“Experience!” and she scoffed. “Mr Meredith knows best. If he would not allow it, then neither will I. Perhaps an early night for you? You look quite done in. Mary, if you will?”
Mariana offered her sister a look that was both regret and apology. But she followed nevertheless. Abbie yet remained where she stood, helpless to help and lost to do anything else.
The door opened once more. Mr Meredith and the doctor entered.
“Back? So soon?” Truly she could not have been standing there above ten minutes.
“It was no great distance, Miss Gray. His is but the next house over.”
Ah. The doctor was also the neighbour. “And you live?”
“Some would say I live here. What do you say?”
“Yours is next door as well, isn’t it?”
“Just so! Now do go to bed, there’s a good girl.” And he and the doctor went upstairs.
Tentatively Abbie followed. It was quiet. Too quiet. She located the room, having discerned it from the others, not by the low hum of whispering voices, but by the crowd of idle and anxious housemaids who had gathered in light of the excitement. Why had she thought she could be of so much use? Clearly help was readily at hand. And Mariana’s services were likely more for the aunt’s benefit than the young girl’s. There she knew herself to be powerless. And so, with resignation, she returned to her room and prepared herself for bed. And slept.
* * *
Abbie awoke suddenly. A scream filled the house. Doors slamming, people walking quickly, loudly. She arose and dressed. The sun was just beginning to rise, casting an eerie half light through soot encrusted windows.
She washed her face. The circles beneath her eyes were as dark as ever. She brushed her hair and tied it up, then dressed as quickly as she could before creeping out into the corridor and up the stairs. All was quiet now. She approached the girl’s room. The door was open, just a crack. Abbie peered inside. The young woman was lying quite still. Mariana, sitting beside her, rested her head on the bed. Had she been there all night? Had she fallen asleep? But no, for she looked up then, tears streaming down her pale face.
Abbie pushed the door open and entered. The doctor, with his back to the door, stood on the other side of the room, whispering earnestly with the aunt, but the sound of the creaking door startled them. In Aunt Newhaven’s arms lay the child, resting too quietly.
“What has happened?” Abbie asked, but knew already.
“The child did not make it,” the doctor answered. “It was a breech birth. He strangled on the chord.”
“You did not send for me?”
The aunt, with the dead child, limp and blue in her arms, turned away.
“There was nothing anyone could do,” the doctor answered.
“And the woman?”
“She’s lost a great deal of blood…”
Abbie looked, and immediately wished she had not. Like a rag doll the woman lay, spent and wasted in her futile labour. Abbie felt instantly weak. The room was unbearably warm and close. And as it began to spin, she turned from it, and walked, with one hand on the wall to steady her, as quickly as she could down the corridor to her own. Her knees gave out upon the stairs, but after a moment’s rest, she arose again and found her way to her room. But she had hardly stepped into it before she realized she could not remain. Decorated in vertical stripes, it now looked to her as a jail cell. Or a prison tower. She was the Lady of Shallot. I am half sick of shadows said… Was her whole life to be one of futility and missed chances?
From this room too she turned, and as quickly as her still spinning head would allow her, she walked down the stairs and straight out the front door. To stand in the garden, if only for a moment. She needed air. She needed freedom. But even the fence, with its wrought iron bars, seemed as a cage.
In the distance she heard the cry of a peacock. The sun had fully risen, but was hidden by a heavy fog that loomed and rolled about the empty street. She shuddered in the chill air. She heard the cry, once more, of a captive bird. Was there a park so near? The fog cleared, to reveal the gate and a sign. But before she could quite make these out to be what she wished them, a cab obstructed her view. It stopped before the house adjacent. Mr Meredith’s house. One of his clients, perhaps. A gentleman, no doubt.
Yes, it was a gentleman. He was standing on the street now, looking very seriously, very purposefully about him. He examined the door before him and found it not to be the one he wanted. He stepped away, then turned to walk in the direction of her aunt’s door. As he came closer, she saw that the look on his face was one of irritation, perhaps even anger. He stopped just before the gate, while she remained half hidden behind the withered and dying late summer flowers.
Aunt Newhaven’s door bore no number, and so he stared for a moment, as if willing it to reveal its secret. Of course it would not. He heaved a frustrated sigh and stood back to examine the façade.
And then he saw her. He looked at first surprised, then irritated again, half angry, and then… Something changed. He suddenly looked sympathetic, kind. Concerned.
“Are you quite all right?” he asked her and came to stand just at the gate.
“Yes, of course.”
“Something has not upset you?”
It was only then that she realized she had been crying. Confused in her near delirium, distracted by the unexpected appearance of a stranger, she had not thought to wipe her tears away. She was crying no longer, but the traces yet remained. He offered a handkerchief. She took it.
“You are looking for someone?” she asked him, when she had done wiping her eyes and dabbing her nose.
“I— Yes. Possibly.”
“You’re unsure?” she said and laughed.
He smiled with grey-blue eyes. He was very handsome when he smiled. “I think I must have the wrong address. Perhaps you can help me.”
“I doubt it. I—” But how explain her circumstances? She did not know the neighbourhood though she had been here nearly six weeks. She lived with her aunt, and with her sister. And with… Good heaven, she couldn’t explain that! But she did not want him to go. She wanted him to stay. Or better, take her away from here. To go anywhere. She didn’t much care at the moment.
“Miss Gray?” It was Mr Meredith’s voice. He was just emerging from his house. And he was now approaching. “What are you doing outside, Arabella? What are you doing standing- Good day, sir. Can I help you? Are you acquainted with this woman?”
The question was plied to the stranger and had a curious effect. On a sudden he had resumed his former irritated manner. No, she was quite sure he was actually angry now.
“Not at all,” he said, rather too emphatically, and gracing her with a last icy glance, he turned to walk away.
What could she have possibly done to offend him?
“You will at least tell me your name, sir,” Mr Meredith called after him.
But the gentleman did not answer. Mr Meredith followed then, but the stranger was too quick. He was in his cab and pulling from the kerb before the lawyer could catch up to him.
“Arabella!” The aunt now. “What on earth do you think you are doing? What has gotten into you? Come inside this instant!”
And so she did.
And while her aunt scolded, and Mariana (who had now joined them) removed her wrap and warmed her hands with her own (and as she took something from them), and as Mr Meredith returned with more questions (“Do you know that man?”, “What did he want?”, “Did you get his name?”, “Are you sure you’ve never seen him before?”) Abbie felt the will to continue drain out of her. Her vision began to blur and dim. The walls tilted and began to crush down upon her. The floor rose up to meet her. And she met it half way.
* * *
“You said you saw her?”
“With your own eyes?”
James whistled and sat back in his chair before the fire. They had agreed to meet at their club, where they sometimes took rooms when they were in Town. The townhouse, of course, was shut up this time of year. “And she is…?”
“Finish your sentence, if you will,” his brother answered.
“She is…,” and he shook his head, “…as common as we supposed her?”
“It’s hard to say.”
“No it isn’t. Say it. She is common tenant riff-raff. A wanton opportunist and a mercenary grasper.”
“I couldn’t possible tell all that simply by looking at her.”
“Then what did she look like?”
David cast a sideways glance at his brother.
“Good G___! Don’t tell me she’s a stunner? David Ransom Crawford, are you that soft?”
“I never said anything of the sort. She had been crying.”
“You are soft!”
“And she looked as though she had recently been ill. Or perhaps was still.”
“And despite all that…”
“I told you, I never said she was a stunner.”
“But you didn’t say you didn’t think it.”
“You don’t think Ruskin would be moony after a plain faced waif, do you?”
James took in a deep breath and released it with his answer. “I suppose not…,” he drawled.
“But as she is not to come after all it really cannot matter now.”
“Ah!” James answered and withdrew a fold of paper from his pocket. Which he handed to his elder brother.
“What is this?”
David opened it and read. “Damn!”
“So she is to come. This can’t be allowed to happen.”
David groaned and ran his hands roughly through his hair. “So we are back where we started, are we?”
“No. We started with Ruskin having his eyes set on the Mountbatten thing. Lacking in charm, not exactly a looker, but she had what counts. And it might have come to something too. But then he returned to the estate, you see, and that’s when the little minx got her claws into him.”
“He needn’t have done much more than look at her, you know.”
“It’s that bad is it?”
“It might be.”
“This can’t be allowed to happen,” David said again.
“It’s happening, brother. But she can’t stay, and that’s a fact.”
“What do you mean to do about it?”
A rather wicked look played upon James face.
“What are you thinking?”
“You don’t want to handle it, I take it? You have your work to keep you in Town?”
“Yes. And no!” He waved his hand in an obscure circle. “Reverse that. You know what I mean.”
“You’ll trust me to handle it, then?”
David laughed. “I trust you can handle it, yes. Do I trust you? That’s asking something entirely different.”
James rubbed his hands together. “Very good.”
“Don’t do anything to hurt her, will you? I think her life this last year has been difficult enough.”
James narrowed his gaze.
“Don’t compromise her or anything.”
“I thought you said you trusted me.”
“I believe I said I didn’t.”
James arose and threw his coat on. “I’ll take care of it. Never fear.” And he patted his brother on the back before turning from the room.
“Where are you going?”
“Things to see, people to do. Or whatever.”
“Have I told you you smell like cheap perfume?” David called after his brother, who was already halfway through the door.
“And watered brandy. Yes, twice today.” And the door slammed closed.
David ran a hand through his hair once more, and pulled hard at it before letting it go. Then blew a great breath. “Damn it!”