Nightgowns were too thick, I decided as I climbed into bed that night. Even though the sun was sinking in the West, the heat it had left behind still weighed heavily on me. It was a relief to be out of my mourning dress, but it didn't take long for that relief to die from the exercise of preparing for sleep. I lay on my mattress with my arms and legs stretched out as far from each other as possible, my braided hair flipped over my pillow to keep my neck bare, and my blankets untouched beneath me. "Hot" I breathed into the humidity.
I was just beginning to drift off into an uncomfortable sleep, when a soft knock pattered on my door like the hop of a bunny and a small voice whispered through the keyhole, "Miss Metcalf! Are you awake?"
My eyes opened. The purple light of the gloaming fell through my open window onto the door. I was half-tempted to pretend I was sleeping, just so I wouldn't have to move again, but my curiosity wouldn't allow it and neither would my little knowledge of propriety. I arose and opened my door. "Miss Latham?" I asked.
Olivia stood before me with a thin robe over her nightdress and a smile on her face so bright that it battled with the purple glow in my room. She had her hands clasped together at her breast as she bounced on her heals and whispered, "I hope I haven't disturbed you."
"No, not at all. Please, come in." I opened my door wider and she drifted in. "Trouble sleeping?" I asked.
"Oh, Miss Metcalf!" The little creature threw her hands over her face and broke into gentle peals of laughter. Her eyes began to gloss over with tears of joy. "He loves me, Miss Metcalf! He loves me!"
"Mr. Fisher!" Like an ethereal fairy she danced on the spot and twirled and laughed. "He said he's loved me for years, but never dared to say anything until now!"
I was taken aback at this news. It all seemed so fast! Of course, I had to remind myself that Olivia and her tutor had known each other long before I'd ever arrived. I managed a small smile for her and expressed my delight. "Whatever happened?" I couldn't help asking.
We were both sitting on my bed then, and Olivia looked like a little girl masquerading in her mother's dressing gown. The lacy sleeves of her gown (which swallowed up most of her palms) fell down past her elbows when she raised her hands to cup them over her blushing face and giggled. "I was just finishing Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, and on the ending note… he touched my hand!" She fell onto her side with a sigh.
I tried to be excited with her- really I was more fascinated. I'd never seen a real-life romance unfold before and I had no idea what to expect or how I ought to react to it. I thought of Lucile Schaffer, the coquette of London, and of her many romantic rendezvous I'd heard whisper of- of the kiss with Thomas Higbey under the bridge and the close dancing and whispering with Andrew Lennemore at the Easter Ball. What had occurred between Olivia Latham and her tutor? I prodded her to continue: "And then?"
With her face cushioned on my quilt, Olivia couldn't bare to look at me from her embarrassment as she went on. "And then he held my hand in his and told me that he loved me!" She shook her head energetically as if it would help her to bury her face further into the quilt and her braid of flaxen curls quivered with her.
"Is that all?" I asked before stopping to consider that it might be rude.
My new friend looked at me with crestfallen, wide eyes. "You think he should have done more?"
Again, I was taken aback. What a big mouth I had! "I- I don't know…" I admitted. "I'm not accustomed to the ways of courtship."
Olivia smiled shyly, and with a bit of relief. "Neither am I," she said.
We both sat in silence as we contemplated what had happened tonight. "But do you really suppose he ought to have done more?" Olivia asked in a scandalized whisper. "I think I might have fled in fright if he had! I was scared enough when he looked into my eyes. It seemed highly improper! Margaret would have become very cross had she seen it."
"Yes…" said I, feeling like an ignorant savage, "I suppose you're right."
A knock came on the door then, much louder and firmer than Olivia's had been. Olivia audibly gasped, as if the new-comer might have heard her secret. I pulled on my own dressing gown as I made my way to open the door.
A tall woman stood before me. My first thought was that she looked like a horse. Big boned with a large, long nose, high, protruding cheekbones, gray-and-black hair in a tight bun, and eyes that looked only half-open in a droopy, sleep way. Her mouth was large and flat with lines around it that claimed she never smiled. I noted that she was dressed in the plain, black dress and white apron of a servant; only her apron had no frills. In her masculine hands she held a cup of tea and a curious, small bottle. "Yes?" I asked her.
In a low voice that I thought sounded almost hypnotizing, she replied by asking a question of her own. "Is Miss Olivia in?"
Olivia drifted to my side and I opened the door wider. "Margaret," Olivia sighed genteelly, "must I go to bed now?"
The old servant nodded. "I'm afraid so, my dear." Though she neither smiled nor softened, it was obvious how deeply the woman cared for her mistress. "Bu' first ye must take yer vitamins." She held up the tea and bottle in her hands.
"Vitamins?" Olivia asked, looking more like a child then ever as she tilted her head to the side and furrowed her brow in curiosity.
"Yes. The doctor wishes for ye to take 'em every night now wi'h yer tea."
Olivia took the tea obediently as Margaret removed two yellowish capsules from the bottle. I watched reminiscently. Mrs. Hastings always took vitamins with her nightly cup of tea as well. "They'll help me live a long and healthy life," she'd once explained to me. Personally, I didn't even have a nightly cup of tea! Tea was so unpleasant to me that I thought it was something that only ought to be endured when in the company of others.
"Tha's a good girl," Margaret said after Olivia had swallowed her vitamins. "Now finish yer tea in bed."
Olivia shared a secret smile with me before ducking her head, curtsying a good night, and exiting.
Margaret lingered just long enough to shake her head sadly. "The poor dear," she said. "'S no easy life she leads, I'll tell ye tha'." She shook her finger at me to emphasize her words.
"Is she ill?" I asked.
Margaret prickled and became defensive, as if I'd touched on a very sensitive subject. "Miss Olivia is plen'y well and you'd best mind yer own!" and then she followed her mistress out the door.
The next morning, I again awoke to Martha and Sarah whispering to each other as they bustled about my room.
"Don't put it there, you silly gehl!" Sarah was saying.
"But I always put it there," came Martha's weak protest.
"It'll fall in the bath and Miss Metcalf will be itchin' from now to Christmas!"
"Well where, then?"
"On the floor! On the- Oh! Must I do everythin' myself? Here-!"
"Bless me, she's awake!"
I managed a small smile for the servants. "Good morning."
Currently, all I could see was Sarah's spacious backside as she bent to put a tray of soaps and lotions on the floor beside my bath. She turned around hastily at the sound of my voice, blushing until her face was almost as red as her hair. "Mornin' Miss," she said with a curtsy.
Martha followed. "Mornin' Miss."
It was already hot in my room as I stepped out of bed. Likely, today would be even hotter than yesterday had been. Sarah must have seen into my mind, because she asked, "Shall I open the window, Miss?"
After that, the two women laid out some clothes for me and then curtsied and left. I went to my window. A light zephyr blew in, stirring the white fabric of my chemise and the loose curls that had come out of my braid in the night.
The House grounds looked beautiful from up here. Directly below me was a slope of freshly-trimmed, emerald grass that I could smell perfectly. Far into the distance was a chocolate-colored forest, separated from the town by a narrow, winding river. Blue star creepers and English ivy climbed up the walls of the House, peeping around the edges of my window, and I could see that the star creepers also carpeted the base of the House. Only a mile or so away, enclosed within the gates of the House, was a charming chapel whose spire formed a silver cross that winked at me in the sunlight.
My eye lingered on the chapel. How picturesque it looked! Like paintings I'd seen of the country. I felt the sudden desire to go and explore it. It looked old and tired, but happy as it perched upon its own, small lump of land and gazed out at the town below with its back to the pompous Manor. The church in London had been much larger, and surrounded on all sides by dirty buildings and noisy neighbors.
I rested my arms on the windowsill as I breathed in the morning air. And then, as I continued to watch the old church, a small figure in blue appeared through the back door. It was a man, I could tell from the lack of a bell-shaped skirt. He paused, I think to take in the deep blue of the sky, before placing a black, disk-like hat on his head, trotting down the church steps, and making his way towards the House. As he drew nearer, I saw that he had a light step and a long stride, but he was still too far below for me to see much else and soon enough he walked out of my line of vision, to the front door of the House. I thought that his hat looked like the flat ones that the clergy usually wore, and, since he'd come from the church, I decided that he must be a clergyman and I wondered what business he had to conduct here.
The clergyman soon fled my mind, though, as I washed and dressed and did my hair before going down to breakfast.
Here, dear reader, I wish I could stop my narrative. My life had already crumbled to the earth and, over the past few days, had begun to rebuild again on a new foundation; but when I walked into breakfast that morning, my foundation crumbled again. At least, breakfast was when it began. Breakfast was when I felt something tugging at my feet, and then throughout the day, my feet were pulled from beneath me and I found myself falling until I was on my backside with no stability whatsoever.
When I walked in to breakfast, Olivia looked up at me with surprise as the butler announced, "Miss Liesel Metcalf," aloud.
My hostess stood to accept me. "A pleasure to meet you, Miss Metcalf," she said with a curtsy. "Please, won't you join me for breakfast?"
That was when the tugging at my feet began. My limbs seemed to freeze and I stared at her in confusion. I looked into her eyes-- there was not even a speck of recognition in them. It was as if she'd never seen me before in her life! Slowly, I sank into my seat because I didn't know what else to do. Olivia looked to the butler, as if expecting that someone else might come in, and when no one did, she looked back at me expectantly. When I said nothing, she blushed from the awkwardness of the situation and tried to fix it.
"I trust your family is in good health?"
My feet were beginning to slide. "Excuse me?" I asked weakly, hoping I'd heard her wrong.
Just as she'd done yesterday, Olivia noticed my black dress and became mortified. "I- I'm so sorry!" She searched in desperation for a change of subject.
She doesn't remember you. Somewhere in the back of my mind, these words were whispered and I pushed them away as nonsense, but this only made them return with more vigor. She doesn't remember you! Look at her eyes! Look at her trembling lip and twisting hands! You are a complete stranger to her. But how? I could see why she had behaved this way yesterday morning- for we hadn't become really acquainted yet. But now? Only last night she'd confided her deepest, most sincere secret to me and now she couldn't even remember why I was here? It was eery. Hardly realizing what I was doing, I leaned away from Olivia and stared at her strangely.
"I'm so sorry that my father cannot be here to welcome you," Olivia was saying sympathetically, "he is away on business; but I hope that I can be of some assistance to you."
Paranoia seeped into my chest like an icy hand and gripped my lungs. The ground seemed to be sliding out from underneath me. Was I dreaming? Or suffering from a severe case of déjà vu? The feeling of dark foreboding I'd experienced the moment I'd first laid eyes on Latham Manor returned to me and I found myself looking behind me, afraid that someone would jump out at me at any second.
"You must be tired from your journey, Miss Metcalf," Olivia cooed.
Something was not right. Olivia's innocent sweetness seemed to transform, then, into a kind of nightmarish soothing in my mind. Mrs. Hastings' oldest son had once told me a story of a beautiful witch who would coax children into her home with kind words, tender eyes and sedative smiles, fill them up with sweet treats until they were fat, and then eat them while they slept. It sounds silly to you, no doubt, that I could think of Olivia as a sort of illusory witch, but you must understand that I was still broken and lost over the passing of my grandfather. If you'd lost all the family you had and been thrown into a dark, mysterious, strange place all in one week, you would be no less paranoid! I'd come to the Manor like a lonely reed tossed about on the sea and Olivia had been a stable rock to cling to… but my rock was becoming sand and the tempests were strong.
"Yes," I said, grasping my chance for escape, "I am tired…. I think I'll go rest, if you don't mind."
"Of course not."
I left the room in a daze. Once I was out in the hall, I stopped and stood… just stood. What was I to do? Where was I to go? Who could I talk to? I wish I could express with words how utterly alone I felt at that moment. I was suffocating. The heat of the day was becoming stifling and I was beginning to wonder if I was going mad. The servants all seemed to remember me; why not Olivia?…. I pinched myself to be sure that I was not dreaming. I suddenly felt very exposed out in the hallway, and I couldn't shake the feeling that there was some great conspiracy against me. I looked around me, at the doors , at the shadowy corners, at the haunting faces in the portraits, and then I ran across the hall into a sunny room and pressed my back against the door after closing it behind me.
I was in a small parlor that took up the fore-right corner of the House so that there was a window facing the front of the House and a window facing the East. Sunlight spilled in through both of these so that the room was bright, and the furniture and curtains were all made of a pale, cream-colored fabric with little blue flowers. A large rug of gold and blue and white covered most of the ancient stone floor, adding further light to the atmosphere. A large, red hound lay snoring in the far right corner of the room. It was cooler here that it had been out in the hall (perhaps because of the open windows), so I was able to calm my wild fears a little as I stood against the door. It was several minutes before I realized that no one was coming after me and pealed myself off the door to walk about the room.
I couldn't think. I was too frightened to laugh at my wild imagination, and too confused to come up with logical explanations. In the end, I lay down on one of the stiff sofas that sat beneath the front window and, eventually, fell asleep so that I wouldn't have to think anymore.
There is something about sleep that wipes our mind clear of fears and troubles so that when we awake we have a clean canvas to begin again with. Thank goodness for that, or I might really have driven myself mad with my own imagination. I awoke from my nap a little dazed and warm from the sun, but also relaxed. My anxiety was replaced with curiosity as I wondered about my morning. It is easy to laugh at ourselves after a nap. Silly me, said I, I'm sure I just overreacted.
I pushed myself up to a sitting position against the arm of the sofa, yawned, and rubbed my face to relieve the disgusting puffiness in it from having slept in the sun. My back ached a little, and my breath tasted awful, but my mind was at ease and so I was content. Just as I was forcing my eyes open and smacking my tongue against the roof of my mouth to ward off my napping breath, I heard the low muffle of male voices approaching outside the window. I sat up taller so that I could peak over the sill.
The back of a head of golden curls was approaching the window slowly, as if the man who possessed them was walking backwards. "I'll see you at Mass on Sunday, then?" I heard the man call in a warm, jolly voice. Sitting taller still, I saw the high color of a blue jacket beneath his hair and broad shoulders beneath that.
"Don't count on it," an answering voice replied coolly. My blood ran cold when I recognized this voice as Edgar Alric's.
The flaxen-haired stranger chuckled in response and, still walking backwards, raised his hand in a wave. "Goodbye, then," he said before turning around and placing his black, clerical hat on his head and continuing away. I saw only a glimpse of his face as he passed- only enough to see that he was young and had on a white clerical collar, around his neck. It must have been the man I'd seen coming from the church earlier that morning.
I was only slightly curious about the young man, but it was enough that I was completely awake and I pulled myself off of the sofa. After stretching and yawning a bit more, I left the parlor in search of Olivia.