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Prologue
 
“Why in her absence doth the world appear
As void of her, a vacant wilderness?
E'en while thou sighest the shiver of her dress
Makes blessèd music in each happier ear
About her home. Why feed on gloom and fear
As earth were empty of her loveliness?
Set rather all thy loving mind to guess?
Her sweet seclusion, as when thou art near.
Still thy belovèd rises every morn,
And in the holy stillness of her room
Dresses her dainty beauty at the glass;
And, while thy tears divide the night forlorn,
Her soft light heart-beats in the breathing gloom
Record the maiden moments as they pass.”

                                 Sonnet XXXVII, "Why in her absence doth the world appear”

                                              John Barlas (pseud. Evelyn Douglas), 1889

hree days.

It’d been three days since she’d run out the front door, leaving it gaping wide open.  Leaving her standing atop the grand stair to the second floor, her hands gripping the banister tightly, her lips drawn just as tightly closed.

Oh, she’d gone looking for her, of course.  The first night she moved from shadow to shadow, cautiously gazing through the smoke-stained windows of pubs and other dens of iniquity, both afraid of seeing her huddled in some corner and silently hoping to catch just a glimpse of her face, just to be certain she was still alright.  Alright, of course, was a relative statement…she was certain neither of them were quite alright.  The second night was much the same, flitting from alleyway to alleyway, hoping that she’d find her, fearing what she might find if she did. The streets of this city hadn’t been safe for any woman to walk alone for a very long time, and while she knew her charge was resourceful, well.

No.

It was best not to think about that.

She rose from another restless slumber, her eyes blinking quickly at the blinding light that poured through the windows of her room.  The previous few days had been filled with what she had come to know as typical London drear for this time of year.  A mix of clouds, light, all pervading misting rain and cold, chilling humidity hung in the air like a cloud come to earth.  Thinking little of what someone passing in the street might think, she slowly rose from the tangled sheets of her bed and drew the thick curtains closed, wrapping her room in darkness again.  It was so very tempting to curl back up in that bed again, but she knew that sleep wouldn’t come.  It hadn’t come at all the past nights as her mind raced after returning from another failed search, second guessing everything she had said and done up to this point. 

A sigh escaped her lips as she pulled on yesterday’s clothes…brown cotton trousers, white cotton blouse.  Her fingers nimbly buttoned the blouse closed, and she bent to pull on a pair of socks before slipping her feet into plain black boots.  Without a thought she donned a black brocade waistcoat, buttoning it closed as she had the blouse.  Without so much as a second look, and certainly not turning a glance to the mirror atop the dresser, she quietly made her way downstairs. 

Her stomach growled as she reached the bottom step.  Three days ago, she’d have already smelled breakfast cooking on the stove…thick slices of ham, eggs, potatoes frying up, their individual scents a simple but heady culinary fragrance enticing her to eat.  Today the air was barren, scentless, absent.  She sighed again, making her way to the kitchen where she silently cut a rough chunk of bread from the wrapped loaf nearest the stove.  Tossing it on an almost clean plate, she opened the ice box, where the remains of a roast from 4 nights ago sat, still chilled.  There was barely enough there for a meal, but she didn’t care.  This too she placed on her plate.  She sat at the small preparation table in the kitchen, gazing sullenly at the cold meal before her.  Without thought, or any hope of enjoyment, she began to eat.  Her fingers tore at the cold meat, pulling it roughly from the bone and silently bringing it to her mouth.  She chewed, barely tasting what she ate, methodically stripping the roast’s bone bare before eating the slice of bread she’d cut.

She half thought about just tossing the plate aside as she finished eating…after all, it wasn’t as if anyone would notice or raise a fuss.  In the end she thought better of it.  There was still hope after all.  There was still hope that luck would win out and she’d at least know that the girl was safe.  As much as she was tempted to, it was no time to give in to despair or resignation to failure.  She placed the plate back on a counter quietly, turned and made her way to the basement.  There was very little she could do during the day, mind, but she could ensure her skills lost none of their edge. 

Perhaps a bit of exercise will snap me out of it, she thought as she unlocked the basement door.  She thought about that, too…as the house was empty again, save for herself, what need was there in locking the door?  As she slowly made her way down the steps into the almost welcoming darkness of the basement, she thought back yet again on the events that led to this point.

Part One: Of Discoveries and Disappointments

here’d been a knock on the door.

She was expecting one, of course…after all, a few carefully spoken words here and there made certain that news of a wealthy household in need of domestic help spread quickly through the streets of London.  A careful look in the mirror assured her that her gloves and cowl obscured her form from view.  While it was easy to assume that a single female in a house this size was sadly a widow who’d inherited everything, the truth was far more complex.  A final glance at the mirror, then, and then quickly off to the door.

Dark brown eyes, darker brown hair, and pale skin greeted her.  A young girl, certainly no more than 17 or 18 at the most, stood before her, dressed in an ill fitting drab grey dress.  The girl’s hands nervously twisted a pair of worn gloves between them.  Her eyes were wide and nervous, while her lips quivered slightly, echoing that nervousness.  She tried to take in the tall form that stood before her, tried ever so hard to make out some kind of shape within the heavy cowl that obscured the woman’s features from view.  Finally, after a deep breath, she spoke.

‘M…Madame Vastravosky?’

‘Yes, that would be me, young lady.  Am I to assume you are here to inquire about the position?’

A short silence fell while the girl fumbled for words.

‘Y-yes, madam.  If the position is still available, madam.’

Vastra smiled…not that the girl could see it, of course.  ‘Yes, the position is still open.  You are, in fact, the first to stop by to inquire.  Please, come in, and we can discuss the position and your particulars.’

She stepped aside, sweeping one arm inward in a welcoming gesture.  The young girl stepped nervously into the entry hall, her eyes widening as she saw the grand stair, the wooden panel work on the walls, the cut crystal chandelier that reflected light in a cascade of rainbows through the room.  She tried not to gape, but knew she was failing to keep her wonder under wraps. 

The girl jumped as the door clicked closed behind her, and turned just in time to see the tall woman glide past her silently.

‘Come…we shall sit in the library and discuss the matter at hand.  Follow me.’

 

artwork by ANDY LAMBERT
used with permission
 
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