The woman rose languorously from her bed, letting her fingers trail over the smoothness of the silk sheets and caress the softness of the cashmere blankets before she drifted across the room to gaze out the window. It was late in the afternoon. Below, two of her gardeners tended to the rosebushes she'd laid out last year, while another trimmed the low box hedge. Some of her guests were playing badminton on the broad lawn beyond the rose garden, and when one of them looked up, she waved gaily. For a moment she toyed with the idea of dressing and going out to join them, but then she changed her mind.
Better to stay in her boudoir, resting and enjoying her privacy before tonight's festivities began.
What was it to be tonight?
A formal dinner, with dancing afterward?"
Or a fancy-dress ball, with supper at midnight and a champagne breakfast served just after dawn?
She couldn't remember just now, but it didn't matter really, for one of her maids would remind her when it was time for her to dress for the evening.
Turning away from the window, she wafted back to the bed and stretched out once more, picking up the square of finest linen she'd been embroidering for several weeks now.
It was edged with lace, every stitch perfectly worked into a floral design so exquisitely wrought that she could almost smell the flowers' scent. In one corner she was working a single initial, an ornate R to signify the rank of the handkerchief's eventual recipient. Regina.
The queen would be pleased with her gift, and perhaps even summon her to court--a most pleasurable diversion,inasmuch as it had been months since she'd been away from her own country seat.
Spreading the handkerchief on her lap, she set about the final embroidery. Surrounding the R was another intricate pattern of flowers, these woven into the linen in the finest and palest of silk thread, lending the handkerchief a faint aura of color that was almost more illusion than reality. The stitching was so delicate that it seemed to emerge from the weave itself, and each side was as perfect as the other. Even the monogram had been mirrored so the handkerchief had no wrong side.
An hour later, as she worked the last thread into the design, then snipped its end away so deftly that it instantly disappeared into the pattern, she heard a sharp rap at the door, announcing the arrival of her maid. Setting the handkerchief aside, she drew her robe more tightly around her throat. "You may come in," she announced.
The door opened and the servant appeared, bearing a silver tray upon which she could see a plate covered by an ornately engraved silver dome.
An afternoon repast.
Which meant that tonight would be the fancy-dress ball. She must begin thinking about a costume.
"What have you brought me, Marie?" the woman asked. "A pâté perhaps? Some caviar?"
The nurse's hands tightened on the metal tray.
And not that it mattered either. Even if she'd brought half a pound of pâté de foie gras or a whole can of Beluga caviar, it wouldn't be good enough for this one! She hadn't eaten anything at all for a week. And how many times had she told the woman her name was Clara, not Marie? "It's spaghetti," she said as she bent at the waist, intending to set the tray down on the woman's lap. "With some nice salad with oranges, and a roll."
"Be careful!" the woman ordered, her voice sharp. "This robe was handmade for me, and if you stain it--"
"I know." The nurse sighed, straightening again, the tray still in her hands. "I'll be dismissed." She eyed the rough terry-cloth robe the patient wore over her flannel nightgown, and wondered just what material the woman's delusions had created. Silk? Ermine? Who knew? Or cared? "And if you spill it all over yourself, don't try to blame me. It won't be anybody's fault but your own."
The patient drew herself up, her eyes narrowing into slits of anger. "I will not be spoken to like--"
"You'll be spoken to any way I want," the nurse interrupted. "And if you're smart, you'll eat this."
Finally setting the metal tray on the patient's lap, she lifted the cover off the plate.
The silver dome lifted to reveal a tangle of worms writhing in a pool of blood, and a rat, its red eyes glaring balefully up at her. As she hurled the silver tray, off her lap and flung it aside, the rat leaped away to scuttle across the floor, and the blood and worms cascaded down Marie's uniform. Feeling no sympathy at all for the servant who had subjected her to such torture, the woman reached out to slap the hapless girl, but to her utter astonishment, the maid caught her wrist, immobilizing it in a grip so strong the woman was suddenly terrified her bones might break.
"How dare--" she began, but the maid cut in without letting her finish.
"Don't 'how dare' me, Miss High and mighty! I've had just about enough of your acting like I'm your servant. Look what you've done to my uniform! How would you like it if these were your clothes?"
Rendered speechless by the impertinence, the woman watched as the maid dropped her wrist, then reached out and snatched up the handkerchief she'd finished embroidering only a few minutes ago. As the woman looked on in horror from her bed, the servant pressed the fine linen square to her chest, using it to soak up the blood on her uniform.
"Stop that!" she demanded. "Stop that this instant! You'll ruin it!"
The nurse glowered furiously at the patient as she wiped away the mess of spaghetti and tomato sauce that was still dripping down her brand new uniform. She'd bought it only last week and was wearing it for the first time that day.
"You think you can get away with anything, don't you?" she demanded. "Well, you're about to find out who runs this place, and it isn't you." Leaving the patient cowering in her bed, the nurse strode out of the room, returning a few moments later with an orderly and a doctor.
While the orderly mopped the splatter of spaghetti off the linoleum floor, the nurse recounted the incident to the doctor. "I suppose if she won't eat, it's really none of my business," she finished. "But I don't have to stand for her throwing her food at me."
The doctor, whose eyes had been fixed on the patient throughout the nurse's recitation, smiled thinly. "No,"he agreed, "you certainly don't. And it's certainly time she began eating too, don't you think."
For a moment the nurse said nothing, but then, as she realized what the doctor was saying, she smiled for the first time since entering the room a few minutes earlier. "Yes," she agreed, "I certainly do!"
With the aid of two more orderlies, the doctor and the nurse secured the struggling patient to her bed with thick nylon straps. When the woman was totally immobilized, the doctor instructed the aides to hold the patient's mouth open.
As the woman moaned and struggled, then began to gag, the doctor inserted a thick plastic feeding tube through her mouth, down her throat, and into her stomach.
"There," he said. "That should do it."
Before he left the nurse to begin feeding the immobilized patient, he stooped down and picked up the soiled handkerchief up from the floor. Holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, he gazed at the elaborately embroidered initial and the perfectly worked lace.
"Interesting," he said, more to himself than to the nurse. "I wonder who she thought she was making it for." Crushing the handkerchief into a shapeless mass, he stuffed it into the pocket of his white coat and left the room.
The woman in the bed tried to cry out, tried to beg him not to take away the beautiful handkerchief she'd spent so many weeks making, but the tube in her throat turned her plea into nothing more than an incomprehensible moan.
She never saw the handkerchief again.
A month later, when she was finally released from the bonds that held her to the bed, she waited until she was alone, then used the belt of her terry-cloth robe to hang herself from the clothes hook on the back of her door.
Still gazing at the handkerchief, the dark figure let his finger trace the perfectly embroidered R that had been worked into one of its corners.
The letter itself told him who its recipient must be.
All he regretted was that he couldn't deliver it personally. Still, he knew how to guide the handkerchief to its destination, and who its bearer would be....