Chapter Four. The Frantic Un-Event

Samantha was a great deal more than pleased to hear of my implied intention to accompany her and Abigail into town. As soon as I got to the table for breakfast the next morning, she was already bouncing around with excitement. Gracie immediately complained because she could not come along as well, but Elizabeth, ever the dutiful sister, quickly distracted her with a proposed walk along the cliff side after breakfast. Just like that, Gracie was as good as new. Samantha returned her attentions to me at once.

"We'll have the best time, I promise. There's much to do in town, and it's so close to London it's as if you're actually there. And the ride in is not that bad, we'll find ways to pass the time. Oh, I'm so excited!" Samantha moved as if she was going to squeeze my hand, but instead she seized her fork and scooped up some food.

Samantha's enthusiasm had me going, I had to admit. I smiled my way through the majority of breakfast before remembering that I did not like to smile for this family. Sir Usher was not at the table, and Madam Usher explained that he was feeling sick this morning. I wondered how often he felt sick. It had to be frequent, considering his age and his state of health.

"Walter got the letter from your father, Carrie," Madam Usher said to me. "Did you get yours?"

"I did," I replied with a nod. "Dewey brought it to me." I smiled briefly at the little boy, unable to help myself. He had grinned widely upon hearing his own name, then promptly stuck his thumb into his mouth.

"Are you girls leaving directly after breakfast to go into town?" Madam Usher asked.

"Yes," Abigail answered. "I asked Daniel to prepare the horses this morning."

At the mention of the stable boy, I immediately looked up to the dark-haired twin, then shifted my eyes down to my food and tried to focus.

"What do you plan to do today?"

Samantha and Abigail looked at each other, and it seemed they were reading each other's minds. They glanced to me then smiled. "We're going to show Carrie the town," Samantha said. "And perhaps we'll shop for a bit. There is a political rally going on today, so the town is bound to be active."

I remained mostly silent during the rest of breakfast, while the twins got more and more excited for the day. After breakfast, the servants cleared the table and I went upstairs to my room so that Alice could put me into a proper dress.

"You'll like going into town," Alice said as she brushed my hair. "It will probably make you feel more at home, what with the excitement of the people and the things to do."

I ignored Alice's comment, not out of rudeness but because my mind was not focused.

"Hair up or down today?" Alice asked.

"Whatever you like. You're much gentler than my nurse."

Alice smiled at the compliment. We sat in silence while she pulled my hair back and then swept it up and off my shoulders and pulled it up. "All done," she said moments later. "It looks lovely."

"Thank you," I told her, standing and turning my head to inspect the job. Alice's work was flawless.

"Carrie!" Samantha called into my room. I turned to see her standing at the door. "Are you ready to leave?"

I looked to Alice, then back at Samantha. "I believe so."

"Wonderful! Let's go then! Goodbye, Alice!" Samantha said with a wave. Alice waved back, then disappeared with the perfected silence of any maid. Samantha took my hand and led me down the hall and downstairs. We went outside the front doors of the house and found our buggy waiting for us. Two horses were harnessed and standing lazily while they waited to go. They occasionally stretched out their necks to bite up a piece of brownish grass below. Abigail was already inside the buggy and waiting to go, and the driver was waiting as well. As we approached, I saw that Daniel was standing by the horses, stroking their necks calmly. Samantha nodded at him with a tiny grin.

"Thank you for getting them ready, Daniel," she said in a sweet voice.

Daniel looked up to give Samantha smile in return and tipped his hat to her a bit. "Anytime, Sam." His eyes drifted over to mine and I watched as the smile turned into a small smirk. It was the same half-amused expression as he wore the first time I had seen him in person. "Carrie," he greeted shortly.

I was not amused. Tense for a reason I could not explain, I let my features harden into a glare and turned away from him. Samantha got into the buggy and I moved to follow her, wrapping my fingers around the handle and picking up a leg to lift myself up. But I must have missed a step, because I lost my footing and stumbled back. I let out a surprised sound as I fell back, and prepared to hit the ground, putting my hand out.

But I stopped.

Somebody had grabbed me around my waist and held me up. There was another hand at my own, pulling me back to my feet. Disoriented and slightly confused, I blinked and looked up. Daniel had caught me.

"Y' almost fell. Should be more careful, Carrie." Daniel steadied me so that I was standing on my own two feet, and I felt his arm leave my waist.

I wasn't sure how to react. I was considerably ruffled, and unsure whether to thank him for catching me or slap him for touching me. Nodding once, I said, "I will. Thank you," but my tone did not reflect the kindness or thankfulness that anyone else's would have. Daniel still wore his nearly smug smirk even as he took a step back. He lifted his hand to help me into the buggy, and not knowing what else to do, I took it.

"Dancers should have more balance than that," he commented quietly as I stepped into the buggy.

Shocked, I whipped around to glare at him. Samantha and Abigail had not heard. "How dare—"

"Thank you for helping Carrie," Samantha said suddenly, completely unaware of what Daniel said. She leaned in front of me to peer down at him. "We'll be back before dinner."

Daniel nodded, his dark eyes focused on Samantha now. "Have fun." He glanced at me as Samantha leaned back, but I refused to look at him. I could see his smirk out of the corner of my eye, and I turned to see as he backed away. The driver got the horses into motion, and we started to bounce along away from the house. Daniel stood and watched us go, then turned and walked back to the stables, and I stared angrily at his retreating figure.

Still shocked and more than a little furious, I let out a frustrated breath of air and crossed my arms.

"Are you okay?" Samantha asked.

I turned to the innocent blonde girl. She did not know how much Daniel seemed to get under my skin. "I'm fine," I answered her calmly.

I had to stick to my agreement with myself. Daniel was a man whose story demanded pity but whose behavior called for something much more harsh. I would not let him bother me. He was just a stable boy anyway. I would not let him into my thoughts any longer. He would not ruin my day.

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The town was very busy, bustling and crowded with people moving to and from shops and weaving in and out of the market in the street. I followed Samantha and Abigail around wherever they led me. Samantha stuck by my side and described to me each of her favorite places downtown, and as we passed by them, she insisted we explore. The twins were quite different people, separately, but I noticed that when they were together, their different personalities played off of each other and they molded into one being. Abigail was adventurous and wanted to explore alleyways and cobblestone paths which neither twin had been down. Samantha, ever the social butterfly, waved and smiled at every person who made eye contact with her. Between the two of them, we met many people they knew. The girls explained that there was a nearby boarding school which many children their age attended in their early years. Lately, their mother had been teaching the children.

"Did you bring any money?" Samantha asked me. I squinted at her as we walked down the surprisingly sunny streets. We had just eaten lunch, and were searching in and out of any shop we came across.

"A little," I said.

"I know there is nothing much to dress up for around here, but you may think about buying a ball gown," she suggested.

"Why is that?" I asked.

Abigail glanced at her sister. "Oh, Sam, that isn't for a while."

"I know," Samantha complained, "but it's never too early to start searching for the perfect gown."

"Gown for what?" I spoke up.

The twins stared at me unblinkingly for a few seconds. "For the ball," Samantha finally said.

"The...There is a ball?"

"Yes. At the end of the summer, just when the leaves change for fall, there is a grand ball held, and everyone is invited. I believe you'll still be here when it is held, so if you plan to attend, you'll need a dress. And of course, Abby and I have plenty of gowns which we could let you wear, but wouldn't you like to have a gown of your very own, and not some hand-me-down, even just to wear for one night?"

Samantha was getting so worked up over this faraway ball that I couldn't help but laugh. "I don't know," I said. Attending grand balls were what started me into trouble in the first place. Perhaps it was not the grandest of ideas for me to go to one. I did not say this to Samantha, however.

"Oh, please! You must go!"

"You said you aren't even sure if I'll still be here," I reasoned.

Some of the wind visibly left Samantha's sails. "Oh," she said, dropping her arms. "Yes...You're right."

Abigail patted her sister's shoulders. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm sure that if Carrie is still living with us at the time of the ball, then she will consider attending, yes?" she said carefully, looking toward me.

I smiled easily at Samantha. "Of course. I'll most definitely consider it."

Abigail nodded. "Yes. And when that time comes, we will find her a dress, if necessary."

"Right," I agreed.

"I suppose..." Samantha gave in slowly, looking more than a little upset at the possibility of me not accompanying them to the ball, which was months away. "But you must promise you'll truly, truly consider it."

It was obvious that Samantha had taken to me. And I had to admit, she was something of a joy to be around.

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Just as the twins promised, we returned to town shortly before suppertime. Daniel must have noticed our buggy coming toward the house in the fading light, because he was ready to take the horses back to the stable as soon as we arrived.

"Have a good day in town?" he asked none of us in particular.

Samantha took the privilege of answering. "We absolutely did. It was not too busy, either, and the weather was fair."

"Good," he said, nodding. "I'll take the horses back to the stables."

Oh, good, get them away, I thought.

"We could help," Samantha offered.

Daniel smiled at her. "Not necessary, Sam. You should get inside. Elizabeth was worried you wouldn't be back in time for dinner."

Samantha smiled anyway. "Okay," she said. "Goodnight." She and her sister started for the house, assuming I was following. I wasn't, though. I had lingered for one second too long.

"Goodnight," Daniel said back, though his eyes were on me.

I met Daniel's eyes for perhaps two seconds. He was holding the horses' reins bunched together in both hands, standing comfortably and looking, as usual, rather amused. Without saying a word, I turned and ran to catch up with the twins. What a strange stable boy.

At dinner, Samantha and Abigail eagerly spoke about the events of our day in town. I sat quietly for the most part. Madame Usher asked what I thought of the town, and I looked up and gave a small smile. "It was nice," I said. A quaint answer for a quaint little town, cute though it was. "I enjoyed it," I added.

Samantha was beaming. "Carrie has agreed that if she is still here when the town ball goes on, she will attend," she spoke up.

Wait, what? My mouth opened up quickly. "I said--"

"She said she would consider," Abigail clarified, glancing my direction with a knowing smile. I smiled back and mouthed the words, "Thank you." She looked down to her plate. I found it incredibly interesting to see how the twins' personalities were so different, but still so similar. They were polar opposites in emotion, but that changed back and forth. When I first met Abigail, she was the pushy, overexcited one, while Samantha was playful but respectful of boundaries. Now it seemed Abigail was making up for lost manners by being understanding and reserved. Samantha, it seemed, had quickly become comfortable with me, and was opening up to let her excitement show more often.

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Gracie was at my door after dinner. I was sitting in the chair in front of the vanity mirror, while Alice braided my hair. She had sat in moderate silence while I told her about the day's events, getting excited now and then and jumping in. We had to re-do my braid three times to get it right, because we kept getting sidetracked talking about the town, and Alice would lose her place. When Gracie showed up, my door was cracked open. She must have been attracted by all the giggling in the room, because Alice was quite the storyteller, and had us both nearly in tears from laughing. I spotted little Gracie's reflection in the mirror. She was dressed in her nightgown, holding her thumb in her mouth.

"Aren't you supposed to be in bed, Gracie?" Alice said slyly, glancing up at Gracie's reflection.

The little girl swayed nervously, her thumb still plopped in her mouth. Alice's smile was one of invitation, and she stumbled over to us quickly. "I wanted to say goodnight," she said.

"Aww. Goodnight, Gracie," I told her.

"Alice, would you braid my hair like Carrie's hair?"

Alice smiled down on Gracie and nodded. "Sure, but then you must go to bed, okay?" When Gracie nodded, she nodded back. "All right. Hop up on Carrie's bed." Gracie launched herself onto my bed, and Alice sat at the edge behind her and began to take her hair out of its ties. She combed through it gently with her fingers, then separated the parts to braid. I turned in my chair at the dresser and watched, my head sitting on my crossed arms on the back of the chair.

"I'll look pretty and grown up, just like Carrie," Gracie said, beaming in my direction. I smiled back, blushing a little for reasons I couldn't name.

"Yes, you will," Alice agreed. "There you go," she said after a couple of seconds. "All done." She sat back, and Gracie jumped off the bed and ran over to the mirror to inspect the job Alice had done. "What do you think?" she asked.

"What do you think, Carrie?" Gracie echoed, turning to me.

"I think it looks fine. Very grown up."

The compliment made Gracie's day, and her smile widened.

"It's bedtime now, Grace," Alice said gently.

"Okay. Can I have a hug?" she asked shyly. Alice bent down and gave her a big hug, squeezing her until she giggled. She hesitated a second after Alice let her go, and I realized she was waiting for me to make my move.

Oh, why not, I thought, and bent down in the chair to hug her. She was beaming the entire time, even when she finally said goodnight and left the room.

"She's quite the charmer, is she not?" Alice asked.

"Indeed," I agreed. "I like her very much."

"And she seems to have taken to you, as well." She nodded to herself. A smile crossed my face. We sat in silence for a moment, then Alice sighed. "Well," she said, "I best get to bed. It is getting late."

"Yes," I agreed.

"Goodnight," she said as she went to the door.

"Goodnight," I said back. Alice closed my door when she left. I considered going straight to bed, but instead I sat looking into the mirror a moment longer. "Too pretty," I scoffed. Standing, I stretched my arms and walked over to the bed. I picked up my mother diary and laid down with it, skimming the pages without really picking a passage to read. Finally I chose one, a page I'd read a thousand times, about a time my mother and father went to a ball together. We danced and danced, she had written, and later they attended a rather late dinner with a few close friends. The night was marvelous, my mother wrote. She ventured to say that it was one of the best of her life, as she and her husband did not often dance together. She finished by saying she wished they could dance together more often, then sketched a little picture of a couple dancing in the corner of the page.

My thoughts drifted to the ball that Samantha had mentioned earlier. I'd told her I would consider attending, provided I was still living on the estate at the time. Did I really think that I would go, or was I just being polite? Dancing was probably what got me sent here in the first place, and I feared that if I did go, and I found a suitable dance partner, the elderly Ushers would alert my father, and he would lengthen my sentence another six months, just as I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Well, the ball wasn't for a while, so I could sleep tonight.

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A whinnying horse woke me the next morning.

The sound of it was faint, but I had slept lightly. The windows in my room were open and I could hear the sound drift into the room. Sitting up, I stretched and yawned, then pushed myself out of bed and stood at the window. The sound had ceased, but started up again seconds later. It was not the same shriek that I had heard two days ago, but more of a plea, a cry for attention. I knew where to go to view the show, but my head would not will my feet to move.

No, I scolded myself. This is trivial, and boring. And since when have you chased horse sounds? Then my feet started to act out of turn, and I found myself across the hall into the next room. The windows were closed, but the sound was clearer from here, because I was closer to the source. Working automatically--my body moved of its own accord; I had no say in the matter--I moved to the windows and pushed them open. Then the sound was clear as day, and I could even see the upset horse making it. He was tethered to a post just outside the nearest stable, and was quite unhappy with being left alone. His head shook back and forth and he stomped his feet angrily, then stood still and silent for a moment before starting all over again. He was behaving much like an ignored toddler, acting out for attention.

Suddenly, the very attention the unruly horse was craving walked out of the stable. Daniel appeared in the early sunlight, carrying a saddle in his arms. He dropped it on the ground near the horse, then returned to the stable. He reappeared carrying what I knew to be a bridle, brought it over to the horse, and worked it over his head.

A gust of wind brought the smell of the stables up to the window, and I cringed and jumped back, plugging my nose in disgust. I had half a mind to return to my room and breathe in the clean smell of the pillows, but then the horse started to whinny again, and my curiosity got the best of me. Cautiously, I edged up to the window again and peeked outside. There was Daniel, standing beside the horse. He had gotten the bridle in place, I could see, and was fixing the horse's saddle. The horse had calmed since receiving the attention he'd been seeking, and only occasionally stomped his foot or gave a snort. I watched as Daniel stroked and petted the horse's neck after saddling him, and thought I could see his mouth moving, as if he was speaking to the animal.

I stayed at the window, watching as Daniel untied the rope that had tethered the horse to the fence. He stuck a foot into one of the stirrups and swung himself into the saddle. The horse sidestepped and moved backward, but Daniel grabbed the reins and gave them a snap to get the horse going in the right direction. Then, just before he set off, he looked over his shoulder and threw a sweeping glance over the house. I ducked immediately--Had he seen me?

Turning slowly, I pulled myself up to peek over the edge of the window. If Daniel had seen me watching, he didn't make a fuss of it, because he had turned and ridden off toward the rising sun.

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After Daniel and the horse had disappeared into the forests, I returned to my room. The people inside the manor had begun to bustle, and Alice came to my room to fix my hair after I dressed. The family was gathering at the table for breakfast, and as soon as I took a seat, Gracie scrambled into the chair beside mine. We ate breakfast side-by-side, while she chattered on about what she wished to do all day--practice her piano, visit the new foals in the stables, etc. I had nothing to do that day, and considered writing back to my father, mostly so he knew I had received his letter at all.

When breakfast ended I went back up to my room and took out a piece of paper to write my father.

Father--, I began.

I received your letter without trouble. The weather has been fair at the estate, and the Usher family has treated me just as fairly. I miss the manor--

I stopped, and scribbled out my last statement. Beginning again, I chose a different sentence.

I hope Elise can send the dresses she is spinning soon. She is probably very bored without my presence. Tell her and Cook hello for me.

Then, grudgingly, I added:

I'll be looking forward to your next letter.

And looking forward to the end of this six months. What had it been, a week yet? No, not even. Four days, correct? Goodness, four days. It already felt like an eternity. It did not escape my attention that a letter would take longer than that to reach this estate. Father must have written and sent it long before I even left the manor.

I ended my letter to Father and folded it up. I would give it to a maid to send out before breakfast tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow it would be five days.

It felt as if so much had happened in those four short days. I had arrived at the Usher estate angry and insolent, determined to shut out my keepers on these grounds. And yet in a mere four days, already three of the Usher girls had broken my barriers and made me laugh and smile. Gracie was the first--then Sam, then Abigail, when we went into town. Strange. Was I truly that weak, or was this family simply that damned friendly and disarming?

I decided to blame the family for being so damned disarming. I knew I was stronger than that. I could have shut the family out for much longer--possibly the entire six months if I wanted to. I just knew that it was better for everyone if I played nice. After all, it wasn't their fault I was here, right?

I heaved the heaviest of sighs. So I was lying to myself.

I had been at the Usher estate for four days, and already I wished I had a little sister like Gracie. Already I had agreed to dance--no, consider dancing--at a town ball. Already I had befriended Alice, had learned about the trials and tribulations of the smug-remarking stable boy, had let this family break what I thought were my strong barriers.

I had only one theory of how the family could make such an impact on me so quickly.

Witches, I thought, shaking my head and nearly laughing at the very absurd idea. They must be witches.

With no other plans for the day, I holed myself up in my room for the better part of the sun's light. I read bits of some of the books I'd brought along with me, attempted to sketch the moor from my window, found I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, and wrote three different letters to Cook which I knew I could never send. I napped, falling asleep with my mother's diary atop my head.

This was all before midday's meal.

Will this be the routine everyday? I wondered. How...boring.

I sighed from the bed, where I'd been laying in silence, studying the detail of the ceiling.

Fascinating.

Sarcasm.

Could I really handle six whole months of this? Probably not, I decided. Definitely not. I would have to find something to do...

Sitting up, I looked about my room. There was nothing much to play with, even if I wanted to play. I stood up and stretched my arms, pulling them over my head and arching my back. Then--Whoops! I was on my toes, doing a spin. It's funny how those things just seemed to happen sometimes. Dancing was just so natural to me.

So I danced about my room for a bit, to music I could not even hear, to music that did not exist even in my head. I simply counted beats and held my arms out to my invisible partner. I tried to name him, to give him an appearance, but that all fell through as I closed my eyes and floated around the room. It was so lovely, if not a bit insane. I forgot all about where I was--how I was stuck at this boring place, the plan of revenge I would exact on Father upon my return, the stable boy's brother buried out in the forest.

When I finally collapsed on the floor, breathing heavily, my arms folded over my legs and I drooped my head down, smiling to myself.

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Dinner was uneventful, though that was to be expected. I found it increasingly sickening and somehow interesting to watch the elderly Usher father lift his food to his hands. His fingers shook, which sent tremors out through his arms, which made his entire body seem unstable. He would cough occasionally, and Patty and Beth would share a look of worry, which they tried to hide with obstructing hand gestures and over-the-top conversation following each coughing fit from their father. Dewey smacked his baby cousin, Paula, and that distracted them for a bit while Beth chastised him and Patty stroked Paula's hair to get her to stop crying.

Madame Usher spoke up suddenly, clearing her throat before asking quietly, "Has anyone seen Daniel today?"

Everyone's heads turned to the end of the table where Madame Usher sat. Even Dewey looked attentive, and Paula stopped crying briefly. Elizabeth, who ate with her head tilted down politely, lifted it now to show her full attention. Sir Usher gave a quiet cough; he was ignored even by Beth and Patty's mutual worry.

Abigail was the first to speak. "Why do you ask, Mother?"

Madame Usher shrugged lightly. "I have not seen him since last night. None of the other stable workers had word of his presence, nor of him leaving for anything."

I thought back to this morning, when I had watched Daniel saddle up a horse and ride away. Should I say something? Had the stable boy left the estate once and for all? Hadn't Samantha told me that just four days before, when I arrived on the estate, there had been talk of Daniel leaving? Perhaps I had witnessed the arrogant, broken-hearted stable boy's resignation.

Samantha had a quiet look of horror on her face, which she tried to hide by dipping her head. She was sitting directly to my left, and I could see her features twitching imperceptibly. I remembered what she had said about once being sweet on Daniel. I could see now that she did not at all think of the stable boy as a brother. Goodness, if only her father knew.

"No one has seen him?" Madame Usher asked.

I knew it was only right that I open my mouth, explain that I had seen Daniel ride into the forests this morning. The family--all of the family, not just Samantha--was looking concerned with the silence meeting Madame Usher's questions about the stable boy's whereabouts. "I--" I cleared my throat and leaned forward a bit to see Madame Usher at the end of the table. "I saw Daniel this morning," I said quietly.

Suddenly everyone's eyes were on me. On my left, Samantha's head turned sharply. Her eyes were hopeful. "So he did not leave the estate?"

"Well, I--I don't know," I said.

"But you did see him?" Madame Usher asked.

"Yes," I replied. "I saw him from the window in the morning." I stopped there, unsure whether I should say more. Would that information be enough to satisfy the family, to calm them and give them some hope, even if Daniel had left once and for all? Would it be wrong to tell them he had ridden away from the house without looking back once, or would the information I'd given up already be enough?

"He left no word," Madame Usher said quietly. "I do hope he sticks to his decision to stay."

"I spoke with him," Sir Usher's voice cut through the growing tension in the room. It was gravelly and strained, as if he'd been working all evening on saving energy for that single statement. He gathered his strength and continued, with much effort. "Five days ago, when he asked if it was best for him to leave the estate. I thought I had convinced him. Perhaps he found other work?"

"Perhaps he simply took a day of rest?" Abigail suggested. "After what happened, it is only fair--"

"Wouldn't he have told somebody?" Samantha asked, looking sick.

"He probably wanted some time to himself," Abigail said. "Do you really believe Daniel would leave without saying goodbye?"

"No--No," Samantha agreed skeptically, nodding a bit.

"We will just have to wait," Madame Usher said with a quiet sigh. "He will return."

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No whinnying horse woke me the next morning. Alice came to my room before breakfast, fidgety and looking quite concerned. I could have guessed why, but she spoke up before I even bothered to open my mouth and ask.

"Daniel has not returned," she said shakily.

"I see." Alice had awoken me with this visit, and I still laid in bed while she paced the room. I covered my eyes with one arm when she opened the curtains on the windows, peering out in vain, as if she could see Daniel returning on the horizon. I turned my head to watch her squint out into the fields. She stood mostly still, breathing slightly, ringing her hands. "The stable workers waited up to see if he would return, but--"

"Alice, wasn't there talk of him leaving anyway?"

Alice turned to face me. "Yes, but--"

"Well then perhaps he left!" I groaned. It wasn't that I didn't care about where the stable boy was, and it wasn't that I did care. It was that the family cared so much that it actually kept me up nearly the entire night. I kept having dreams about horses and the smug-smiling stable boy, and they woke me up three different times in the night. At the moment I was caught between the realm of mildly wondering where Daniel had gone off to, and being halfway glad that his arrogance may not be around any longer. After all, the family sure seemed to think he was a fantastic asset to their farm, but for the times I had seen him, he had always been rude and out of line.

"Yes, well..." Alice shook her head, looking out the window once more for a moment before turning away completely. "He'll be back."

"Of course," I agreed half-heartedly. After that we spoke of Daniel no longer, and Alice did my hair after I dressed. I joined the family for breakfast, where there was actually relatively little talk of Daniel. Samantha sat in silence at the table. Gracie asked innocently if she could ride her horse today, and Madame Usher quietly told her no. She pouted for a moment, then resumed eating without much fuss. She must have picked up on the silent tension in the room, because she didn't mention horses for the rest of the day.

After breakfast, Samantha left the table last. She gave a quiet sigh as she passed me, and I felt obligated to say something to her, though I couldn't explain why. She just seemed so down and so very depressed that I felt something needed to be said. "Samantha--" I began.

"It's okay," she stopped me. We stood in silence, not making eye contact.

"Okay," I said. A few seconds passed, then Samantha turned and walked away.

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The day passed tensely and uneventfully.

So did the next one.

I had been on the estate for six days. Daniel had been gone for three. Already he had become a ghost around the estate, both to the family and the workers. They spoke of him in hushed tones, and if someone entered a room and interrupted their conversation, each person would turn away and pretend nothing had happened. He was a missing person and a beloved, lost family member at the same time. A legend and a mystery, already an old wives' tale, but the kind that carried a flicker of hope for truth, because each person wished he'd come home.

On the third evening of Daniel's absence, Alice shared with me a theory she had on the stable boy's whereabouts. We had been walking with Gracie through the gardens behind the manor, and Alice waited until Gracie ran off on her own to share with me the idea. "I believe," she said, "that Daniel took his own life."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because of his brother," she said matter-of-factly. "I believe he found life too hard to bear."

We were silent while we took in this information. "Did you know Daniel to be a God-fearing man?" I asked.

Alice nearly smiled. "No. Especially not after Thomas became sick."

I nodded slowly. "You believe he would do such a thing?"

She shrugged. "I believe it. I hope I am wrong, yet I do believe it." Then Gracie broke the somber moment by running between us with a bunch of flowers in her hands. She wanted to put them in a vase with water for her mother, so Alice and I took her into the house. We helped her get the flowers into water, and put them on the dining table so the whole family could see them at dinnertime, which would be very soon. Alice ordered the little girl to go clean up before dinner, and Gracie ran off to another room to do it. I had learned in the past week that Alice was not exactly treated as a maid in the house. In fact, she was more of a nanny to Gracie, and handled many responsibilities regarding the little girl's wellbeing.

"I hope I'm wrong," Alice whispered again to me. "For everyone's sakes," she added, turning her head away to look into the parlor beside us. I looked as well, and saw Samantha sitting in the room, curled up in a chair with a quilt around her shoulders and a novel in her lap. As we watched, she set the book down and gave a little sigh. "Seems to me it is not the book which has her sighing," Alice noted. It struck me as rather out of line to say, but I could not help but agree with her.

Alice left to check on Gracie, and I cleaned for dinner as well and joined the table at the same time as the rest of the family. Sir Usher was the only absent family member, and Madame Usher announced he was not feeling well and would not be joining us for dinner on this nice. At Beth and Patty's worried gazes, she assured everyone he would be better tomorrow and would be down for breakfast in the morning. After that it was mostly quiet at the table, save for Gracie and Dewey, who sat together and chattered on as children do. They made conversation about everything Gracie could think of, and everything Dewey was able to put into words. I understood why they were often separated at the table. Even if someone did want to talk, which seemed out of the question by the look on the faces around me, a word would not be gotten in edgewise with those two children going on.

Dinner ended as uneventfully as everything else had been. Afterward, I did not feel tired as I usually did, so as the family parted ways, I stayed a moment at the table. Perhaps a walk would help, I thought. The fresh air could be good, and I used to take night walks through the gardens at Father's manor quite often. It would be calming, I decided, and went through the kitchen door in the back of the house to get outside.

The sun had set long ago, but the moon was out and full, and shone across the moor, lighting up everything in my path. There was a light breeze, but the air itself was warm, and the night was peaceful. I disturbed some tall, swaying grasses and flowers as I left walking path and followed the cliff side around the side of the house.

There was a deer path, I remembered, that Gracie and I had taken just days ago. I could see it up ahead, and followed it as best I could in the minimal light. I stepped slowly and carefully, trying not to trip over the various rocks and sticks in my path. I made it a short way down before stopping. It was nearly silent here, and if I strained my ears, I thought I could hear the slow sounds of the river far below, but it may have been my imagination. I remembered there was a boulder just a bit farther down, though it was a little more difficult to reach. Gracie had said the maids would sometimes sit there when they were not working, and now I wanted to sit there, too. It was only slightly risky--the path was fairly clear and the moon did much to light the way--so I decided to go for it.

I had managed to make it to a sort of landing just before the boulder without tripping when I stopped dead in my tracks. There was someone sitting on the big rock.

Holding my breath--had this person heard me?--I inspected the stranger's outline in silence. My first thought was, Alice?, but the structure was not right. Alice was tall and slim, and this figure was more broad. Masculine. I was not exactly scared, but I did have the thought that I should leave, immediately. Turning, I started back up the path, but my footing was off, and I slipped on a patch of grass and nearly fell. My mouth opened but I did not make a sound, and stood frozen for a second. I knew I had made noise. The stranger on the rock must have heard me. Don't turn around, I told myself, and straightened up to try walking again.

"Don't," a voice cut through the darkness.

I froze.

"You don't have t' go."

That voice. I knew that voice, I had heard it before, that husky inlander-esque, nearly Irish accent which had spoken out of line with me on more than one occasion. I turned my head over my shoulder. "Daniel?"

"You c'n stay." His words were slurred only slightly. I heard a bottle clink against the boulder as he set it down. "Come. Sit."

Turning slowly, I considered simply running back to the house. There was something in his voice, however, that made me want to go to the boulder like he asked. I took a tentative step, hearing a twig crunch under my foot. Daniel did not move. In fact, he hadn't turned around once to even see who was behind him. He sat still on the boulder as I inched closer. It took only a few steps to reach the big rock, and I climbed atop it carefully. Daniel turned halfway to his right to squint at me through the darkness.

"Oh," he said. "It's you." He moved his hands up comically to imitate a dancing couple. "The dancer."

Already I was glaring at him. Here I was, going for a nice night walk, when I stumbled upon this drunken runaway (I could smell the bourbon and see the half-empty bottle at his side). He asked me to stay with him on a boulder so I climbed over sticks and up onto a big rock, nearly automatically, just to see what he wanted. And already he was going in with the sarcasm?

"If you're going to act like this, I'll just go." I turned to ease myself off the boulder.

"No--" Daniel's hand reached out and grabbed my arm, stopping me. "Stay." My immediate reaction was to turn on him for touching me, but instead I turned back to sit. Again, there was something in Daniel's voice that made me feel I should stay. There was a desperate tone to his words.

So I sat beside him on the boulder, facing the darkness and listening for the river below. I waited patiently for him to say something. Apologize, perhaps? Explain where he had been? Not necessarily for my sake, but so I could perhaps relay the information to the family? Everyone had been so concerned with his absence, they would just be beside themselves to hear he was back, or at least alive.

"Everyone has been worried about you," I ventured quietly, not knowing exactly what to say or where to start.

Daniel snorted, nodding once. He lifted the bottle of bourbon to his lips and took a long drink. "Not you, though," he replied.

"I don't know you."

Another nod. "You don' want to."

Honestly? I thought, Not truly. Instead, I said, "You were awfully rude."

Daniel's face set into an expression I could not name. It wasn't anger or frustration, but it also was certainly not happiness. He remained silent, and turned his head away.

"I'll take that as your apology," I muttered bitterly.

"Apology? I owe you no apology."

"The hell you don't! You speak out of line every time I see you, even now."

"True," he agreed, nodding lazily.

"And for your arrogance and your--your insolence, I feel I should expect an apology," I concluded. The bourbon was at his lips again, and a silence fell over us both. When Daniel lowered the bottle, he sloshed it to the side, offering it to me. I scoffed, crossing my arms. "And then you offer me that. You--I should hope someone comes along and teaches you manners someday. And may God bless whoever takes on the challenge."

"I have manners, pretty girl. Maybe I've not decided t' use them on you yet," Daniel replied sharply.

"Don't speak to me that way," I warned him, whispering to keep down the anger in my voice.

"Which way might that be?" Daniel asked, just as quietly.

"In that tone, with those words. Don't call me things like that. Don't speak to me as if you know me, as if you have some trick up your sleeve," I told him indignantly.

A thoughtful look crossed Daniel's countenance. "You...don't...want me to call you pretty? Was it not that very word which sentenced you t' this place? You may as well embrace it, ma dear." He toasted the bourbon bottle to me.

"How dare you!" I whispered vehemently, trying to keep my voice down. "I should--I should push you off of this big rock right now!" He was really working on my last nerve. "But that would be kind. You're just an arrogant, drunk, stable boy. You have no right to speak to me that way."

Daniel made a disinterested sound. He took another drink. I let out a disgusted grunt and turned my head away, crossing my arms at my chest as I stared bitterly into the darkness.

"I imagine the family missed me," Daniel ventured after a moment of silence.

I closed my eyes and counted to ten, then opened them again. "They expressed a feeling of woe at your absence," I replied coldly.

"But not you." His voice was quiet. Pursing my lips, I decided not to answer. I turned and stole a look at the side of his face. He was staring down the cliff side, swinging the bourbon bottle between his fingers. His leg moved to a beat only he could hear. Suddenly he turned to face me. Stunned, I was forced to stare him in the eye for a second. "The family, they were scared?"

He met my eyes evenly; I was the one shaking. His face was placid, as if he did not care about the answer, though the question struck within him a curiosity which needed to be quenched. "Worried," I said carefully.

Daniel nodded slowly, turning away. "Ah, yes. Did they 'av any theories on my whereabouts?"

I sighed loudly. "There were a few theories, yes."

"Indulge me," he encouraged.

Another sigh escaped me, sounding slightly aggravated. It did not faze Daniel, and he waited patiently for a response. "Um..." I let out another loud sigh. "Abigail believed you simply wanted some time to yourself. She and Madame Usher had faith in your return."

"And Sam, what about her?" he asked hurriedly.

I eyed him with a suspicious eye. It had not escaped my attention that Samantha's feelings for the stable boy were more than friendly, but it had not occurred to me that he may return the feelings. I dared not venture into the subject, for it was not my place. But then, had Daniel ever minded his place in conversation with me? Well, certainly not! "I believe...Samantha held out hope, but was quite devastated with your absence."

"Ah..." Daniel sighed, nodding fervently. "Yes, Sam would react that way." He nudged my side with his shoulder; I jumped away, scooting farther on the rock, but he didn't seem to notice. "Sweet girl, tha' Sam, eh?"

I glared over at him. "You haven't any right to be fooling with her."

Daniel snickered. "Foolin'!" he exclaimed. "Me 'n Sam? Ah! Nah, nah, nah." He laughed heartily, in between short drinks. "I know how Sam thinks o' me, prit'y dancer. But heavens, is she ever the opposite of me type!"

My glare intensified as Daniel chuckled on. So he did not have feelings for Samantha? The poor girl would have to continue her crush one-sided, though I could not say I felt bad for her. In fact, I could not understand her decision to consider this drunken stable boy as a suitable man to swoon over. Angrier with him than I had ever been, I narrowed my eyes and muttered darkly, "Alice believed you killed yourself."

Daniel's laughter abruptly stopped. He looked toward me in soft shock, then stared at his knees. His leg was motionless. He coughed once, then cleared his throat. "She--She did?"

"Mmm." I nodded.

Silence took over for a moment, then Daniel spoke. "It crossed my mind," he said quietly. A feeling of sympathy stirred somewhere inside me, not unlike the first time I heard Daniel's story--before I met him, that is. He stared dejectedly into the darkness, took a long drink from the bourbon bottle, and sighed heavily. His head swung and he turned to study my profile, his face twisted in concentration. "You don' care," he concluded after his silent examination.

Was I expected to care? I wasn't sure what the answer was to that question. "Should I?"

Daniel shrugged. He made a sound of indifference, then took one more swig from the bottle. It was empty now, and he held it up to examine it, then tossed it off the cliff into the darkness. We sat in silence, waiting for it to crash against the rock, straining our eyes to see it long after it was out of sight. After a while we gave up. No sound was made. It must have landed in the water below.

"Did you drink that whole thing?" I asked.

Daniel nodded drunkenly. "Yes'm."

"You'll need help off this rock, then," I told him, heaving myself up to my feet. I'd decided we had sat outside long enough, and it was time for bed for the both of us. There was no way Daniel would make it to a bed on his own--he'd probably fall off the cliff if I left him alone--and I certainly did not want to be the one to bring the news of Daniel's death to the family. "Come," I said, sticking my hand out to him. He peered up at me in wonder, squinting suspiciously. Then he reached his arm up and put his hand in mine, and I pulled him to his feet. He was wobbly, and I wondered if I should put an arm around him to keep him from falling over.

Daniel answered my thoughts for me. "C'n I 'ave another arm?" he slurred as I inched him off the boulder. I studied him, then decided he was drunk enough, and harmless enough. He would not remember this in the morning, and he would be safe at home where the family could fret over him, and I could go back to my room and wait away my six months. So I put my arm around his side, and he reached an arm over my shoulders to lean on me. Together we took small steps off the boulder and up the cliff, slipping more than once before we reached the top.

"This doesn't mean you care," Daniel said matter-of-factly when we reached solid ground. I untangled myself and stepped away from him, partly to test if he could walk on his own and mostly just to get away.

Did he want me to care? The stable boy certainly did not seem like the type to be begging for affection. "Where will you sleep tonight? Do you want help getting home?"

"The stables," he said, shaking his head. "I'll sleep in the stables."

"Very well." We stood facing each other in the darkness. A cool wind blew up around our feet, and I shivered. Hoping he would refuse, I offered him help getting to the stables. He turned it down, and I sighed in relief, though a part of me wanted to make sure he made it at least to a bed of straw. This was the part of me that earlier sympathized with the stable boy, before I knew him. He was just so sad, I could not help but feel bad for his situation. And the family painted him up to be so strong, working right up to his brother's death and even after it, yet here he was drunk and vulnerable, swaying in the darkness. What a fallen angel.

Yet I could not forget how arrogant he was, even despite his troubles. He was smug and he spoke out of line. He winked at me and called me names. He was downright rude.

"You'll be fine getting into the stables, then?" I asked.

"Mmm," Daniel replied. He tipped an invisible hat at me. "G'night, dancer," he said with a lopsided smile.

I let it slide, though I could not decide why. "Goodnight, stable boy."

Something flashed in Daniel's cloudy eyes. He stared at me for a few seconds, an unreadable expression on his face. His brow furrowed, and he looked down at his feet, then up into the trees and darkness. "Yes," he said quietly. Then he turned and walked away, limping slightly as he faded quickly into the darkness.


:) Yay for new chapters! I was going to keep going with it, but I looked back and thought it was long enough. Strange, that's my main concern. Not, Did I get in all the important events? No, no, it's Is it long enough to make it worthwhile to read? :D Let me know what you think!