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I hear her footsteps now, coming softly down the hallway. There is a gentle swish of silk against silk as she approaches. Her head will be held high, her look imperious. She was well named Regina; she is the Queen of Palin Park. My nostrils will be assaulted by the heavy odor of musk that envelops her like a cloud, lingering long after she has gone. Till the day I die, that spicy, musky scent, as of carnations inhaled too deeply, will bring to mind Regina, and Palin Park, and the mourning ring. She is going to offer me the ring, I know. I must accept it, to see how it is done.
My door is ajar. The rustling of silken skirts comes closer, faster. She is here. My life, my recent life, flashes before my eyes, as though it were Death that approached, and not Regina....
I remember my decision to come here--a reckless decision for a cautious creature like Sylvia Thompson, who had never strayed farther from home than the seashore in the summer, with her parents and sister, Rosalie. For us, living in London, the seashore was only forty miles away. It was the longest journey I had ever made. Papa taught in a boys' school, and had a holiday in the summer. Home is still London, but no longer the pretty cottage in Mecklenberg Square. After my parents' death four years ago, Rosalie and I went to live with Aunt Harriet, in her very genteel, very small flat in Upper Grosvenor Square.
Rosalie, though she was three years younger than myself, was the first to leave the nest. Harriet was not sorry to see her go, either. A strong-willed young lady who had gentlemen calling on her, who occasionally even went out for walks and drives with them unchaperoned, was too much for Aunt Harriet tohandle. They had a great, thundering argument one day. Rosalie tossed her pretty head, said she would do as she pleased, and got herself a position as nursemaid to a well-off family named Palin, from Widecombe, in Devon. Devon, nearly two hundred miles away! It might as well have been India. I felt sure I would never see her again; I was right, but she wrote letters. I kept them all, read them till I had them by heart, half envying her adventure, half pitying her, so far away, and working for a living.
For six months she wrote regularly, every month, and I of course replied faithfully, trying to eke out my meager news to fill a page, to vie with her rambling epistles. Then the letters stopped. At the expected time, I waited eagerly for the postman's bell, worrying and wondering what had happened. When a letter at last arrived from Widecombe, it was not from Rosalie, but from her mistress, Mrs. Robert Ranke Palin, informing us Miss Thompson had seen fit to leave her service without so much as a by-your-leave, or a single day's notice. She intimated there was a young gentleman in the case, which, to be sure, sounded very much like Rosalie.
"If that isn't just like the minx!" Aunt Harriet condemned, her second and third chins wagging in delighted disgust.
"It is not like her not to tell me," I defended.
"She'll let you know when she gets around to it. Mrs. Palin so kind to her, too. What must she think?"
"She has not been so kind lately," I reminded my aunt. Rosalie's first letters had been gushing rhapsodies on the many excellencies of her mistress. The later ones showed a creeping disenchantment.
I reread the old letters, while waiting for a new one from Rosalie. Through the kind offices of my aunt, I was encouraged to believe the reason no letters were forthcoming was that Rosalie could not sign herself Mrs., and was ashamed to admit it "as well she might be!" She had run off to live with a man without benefit of clergy.
Two months passed, throwing me into such a state of alarm I was ready to set out after her into the wilds of Devon, when an incident occurred which made this unnecessary.
In the Morning Herald, perused dutifully by Aunt Harriet and myself, was a notice that Mr. and Mrs. R. R. Palin, of Widecombe, were visiting London, residing at the Clarendon Hotel, just as they had been when Rosalie was engaged by them. Before my aunt had finished reading the brief announcement, I was dashing off for my bonnet and cape to call on them. I hired a hackney for the trip to the fashionable part of London. The clerk at the desk informed me madame was out, but if I was one of the girls applying for the position advertised by them, I could take a seat with the others in the common room and wait my turn for an interview with Mr. Palin.
It was an expensive morning for me. I purchased another copy of the Herald to read the Help Wanted column, till I found their advertisement. It was a replacement for Rosalie they wanted. It was odd they should have waited two months to do it, odder still to come all the way to London, but likely it was only a minor part of their reason for coming. Rosalie had said they were active socially. I was quite simply agog to meet her, and found it odd the husband should be selecting the nursemaid.
There were three girls ahead of me, giving me ample time to consider my case. After the second was ushered in to Mr. Palin, a toplofty servant informed the clerk, who informed the other and myself, that Mr. Palin was through with interviewing today, and we should return on the morrow at nine o'clock sharp.
At the time, I was both angry and downhearted, but as it turned out, it was for the best. During my absence, a note from Mrs. Palin had arrived at Grosvenor Square, a note that altered my plan. It informed me briefly that, as I very likely knew by this time, my sister had gone off to America with her young man. Mrs. Palin had not received word directly from her erstwhile nursemaid, but had it from local gossip to be the case. On the off chance that we were unaware of the girl's whereabouts, Mrs. Palin thought it best to let us know, to set our minds at rest.
It had quite the opposite effect. Rosalie might well have married some young man out of hand, but she would never in the world have run off without marrying him, nor would she have failed to let me know all about her romance. We were very close.
The more I considered it, the more convinced I became that there was some greater irregularity than running away at work here. I reread Rosalie's letters once again. Small items passed over as gossip, or perhaps imaginings, assumed a larger importance. The first gushing letter gave over to mere satisfaction as she became accustomed to the elegant home, and the high style of life enjoyed there. Then a few complaints appeared; the child was difficult, following her every step she took, the place was lonesome, isolated. Things improved in the next one, when she met a man "who rather reminds me of Jerome." Jerome is the most favored of our cousins, insofar as appearance goes. In the last letter, there were a few sharp comments about madame, but a changed opinion of Mr. Palin, whom she had formerly found stiff and silent. Now he was "nice"--such a vague term.
And at the very end, just missing out on being a postscript, she added a few curious sentences. "But really I should not complain of madame. She tries to be friendly. She wants to give me a ring for my birthday, a great, dark ugly thing that she wishes to be rid of, I expect. I would prefer cash."
I was made uneasy by rereading them. Why should she want cash? That did sound as if she were planning a trip, did it not? Something seemed amiss, but what? I decided that in lieu of going only to talk to the Palins, I would ask them for the job advertised. I would go and see for myself what had happened to Rosalie at Palin Park. It would be an adventure too, for it was so very dull in London without Rosalie. Before a minute was up, I realized they were not likely to hire the sister of the girl who had run off on them without giving any notice. Very well then, I would be someone else.
The resemblance between us had never been striking. Rosalie was smaller, her hair lighter and curlier than my own. She had favored Mama, a dainty, feminine woman, while I inherited the Thompson characteristics. I was tall, slender, with heavy chestnut hair that only looked well when pinned up. Fringes and curls were not, alas, for me. Even our eyes were different. Rosalie had Mama's blue eyes; my own were gray. I liked my eyes. They were the best feature of a somewhat indifferent face, for my mouth was too small. It was like Rosalie's, but it suited her better. We had both inherited Mama's lopsided smile.
The advertisement specified "a mature woman," which it had not done eight months earlier, when Rosalie replied. Their experience with her might account for that. Lest twenty-three not be considered mature enough for them, I would scrape my hair back, wear a plain dark suit, and claim to be twenty-five.
Rooting through drawers for a pair of dark gloves to match my outfit, I came upon Mama's old spectacles. I stuck them on my nose, and found, to my dismay, that the scene out the window fell into sharper focus than before. Every leaf on the trees, every scrap of paper on the sidewalk, ever pedestrian hurrying past jumped into sharp focus. Did I need spectacles so soon? No matter, I could wear them without discomfort.
Aunt Harriet was privy to all my plans. She thought I had run mad, and did not hesitate to say so, several times. She was not so eager to lose me as Rosalie. We rubbed along well together. Still, in her heart I think she believed there was more to Rosalie's disappearance than the Palins knew, or at least told us. She did not forbid me to go.
"You should not wear that suit, my dear," she said, just as I was ready to leave the door.
"Is it too fine for a nursemaid?" I asked, glancing down at my best navy serge.
"Those buttons are sterling silver," she reminded me. They were a gift from herself, and while I did not think the Palins would recognize them for silver, I knew Rosalie had a set like them. Mrs. Palin might possibly notice the similarity. She was said to be fond of clothing.
There was time to cut them off and replace them with plain black buttons. "Keep these for me, will you, Auntie?" I asked, putting them into her hand with a last admiring glance at the dainty things. They were only half an inch in diameter, with a convex face, each imprinted with a small crown. They were family heirlooms, purchased by Aunt Harriet at the time of Queen Victoria's inauguration to honor the occasion, and passed along to Rosalie and myself.
At the hotel, I was the first in line for the interviews that morning. The clerk ushered me immediately into the parlor Mr. Palin had hired for the transaction. He arose when I entered. He was a tall man, about six feet, with dark hair lightening to silver at the temples. He was not gaunt, but lean, the cheeks showing hollows at the back. The eyes were the most arresting thing about him. They were sorrowful-looking eyes--dark, troubled, I thought. He had the elegant air of a gentleman of fashion, a crisp white collar showing above his dark jacket. "Have a seat, Miss Bingham," he said, examining me carefully.
I had selected the name of Jane Bingham for myself. "Have you done this sort of work before?" he asked, settling into his chair.
It had been impossible to invent references that could actually be verified on such short notice. I replied, "No, sir, this is the first time I have gone looking for work. My father died recently. He was a curate in a country parish. I have worked with children, however."
"Brothers and sisters, I suppose?" he asked, with moderate interest.
"No, I have no immediate family. I am an only child. I used to help out at the orphanage closest to my father's living."
"Where was that, Miss Bingham?"
"Northumberland," I answered, choosing the farthest corner of England, in hopes that he would not investigate. When he did not inquire more closely for a place name, I breathed easier.
"You are a long way from home. If you come to work for me, you will be farther away yet. It is an isolated area, Widecombe."
"I know. I looked it up on the map before coming, sir," I said, to explain the knowledge.
All the while he was looking at me closely--at my face, lent an air of mature dignity by the spectacles, at the clothing, subdued into plainness by the removal of the silver buttons, at my hands, divested of all rings.
We talked a little about a variety of matters. My impressions of London, to which I was allegedly a newcomer, about Gladstone and Disraeli, the war in the Punjab. As we spoke, I knew I was being assessed, weighed up for common sense, gentility, maturity. You know when you are making a favorable impression. I knew Mr. Palin approved of me. With a memory of the girls I had sat with yesterday while awaiting my interview, I could not take this as any great compliment. They had been common, ill-spoken, the sort of female too often hired to raise the children of the wealthy.
"When would you be free to come?" he asked after a quarter of an hour. I knew the job was mine.
"I could leave any time."
"Good. I'd like to get away as soon as possible. I must caution you, my son is not an easy child to--watch,"
It was an unusual word to use--"watch." He noticed my frown, and went on reluctantly. "Robert is not quite--normal. He does not speak much."
"How old is he?"
"Four. He is active physically, a well-formed child. I do not mean to give you the notion he is some sort of freak. His mind, I fear, has not developed as it should. You would have to watch him closely. He can be rather violent at times."
"What sort of behavior are you speaking of, Mr. Palin?" I asked, astonished, for while I knew from Rosalie the boy was difficult, she had certainly never intimated he was violent at all. She might possibly have hidden this from Aunt Harriet, not wanting to admit she was having a perfectly wretched time, after her brave running away.
"He might strike you, push you, that sort of thing. You would have to be careful of yourself, and him."
"I cannot believe a four-year-old child could inflict much damage on a grown woman!"
"I only wish to let you know of the problem. He is not a normal boy. It would be unfair to take you so far, and have you learn there the difficult nature of the task you are undertaking."
I came to understand now the reason for that troubled, brooding look he wore. He was a little stiff, as Rosalie had said, but it did not take me six months to find him also nice.
"I am willing to give it a try, if you wish."
"You will do excellently, Miss Bingham. Could you be ready to leave in two days? My wife has some shopping and other business to tend to. We came on the train, to give it a try. We will be returning the same way. Have you ever traveled on a train?"
"No, it sounds very exciting!"
"It is, and so very fast compared to horse and carriage. We made forty miles an hour. Can you be here at the hotel at nine the day after tomorrow, with your trunks? I can have them picked up for you, if that would be more convenient."
"No," I said quickly, not wishing him to discover my address, in case he recognized it for Rosalie's. "I mean, I can be here, but my uncle will bring my trunks. I am staying with him for the present."
"That's it, then. You're hired," he said, arising with a smile. "I was beginning to despair of ever finding a suitable girl. There was no one at home, and the applicants even in London were not of so high a caliber as last time, till you came in."
This indirect reference to Rosalie caused my color to heighten, my ears to perk up with interest, but he said no more, and it was too early yet to start asking questions. "I shall be here at nine."
He walked to the door with me. Just before he opened it, he said, with an amused smile, "Are you not curious to hear what wage the position pays?"
I gave a mental cringe at my first blunder. Naturally a penniless woman would be greatly interested in this. "Indeed I am, sir. I hoped you would mention it."
"You did not strike me as being such a timid woman. It is inexperience, I expect. The pay is two hundred a year, along with your room and board, of course."
"That is satisfactory," I said, knowing Rosalie had received only one hundred and fifty. A thirty-three percent increase in salary seemed quite high, but I could not mention it.
The door was held open; I left, feeling those dark eyes following after me. The clerk at the hotel got me a hackney, and I rattled home to tell Aunt Harriet of my success, and to make further plans.
"He seemed very nice, gentlemanly," I assured her.
"You didn't get a look at his wife?"
"No, she was not there. I am to go on the train, Auntie! Isn't it exciting?"
"Be careful, Huskisson was killed on the tracks," she warned, harking back to ancient history. I believe this tragedy had occurred decades ago, upon the opening of the railway. "How much is he paying you?" was her next question.
"Two hundred a year. We must devise some way to be in touch. I shall write to you here, and post the letters myself in Widecombe, so no one at Palin Park will know who I am writing to. When you write to me, remember to call me Jane Bingham, and call yourself Mrs. Bingham in your signature. You must not use your monogrammed stationery, Auntie."
"I'll use my old cream set. But do you think they will read your mail, Sylvia?" she asked, her chins jiggling in shock.
"No, of course not, but let us just be safe. Call Rosalie my cousin Laura, if you wish to tell me anything about her, or ask any questions. If you do hear from her, be sure to let me know at once."
"I shall, my dear. You do the same. Talk to the servants. Find out who that fellow was she was seeing, the one who reminded her of Cousin Jerome, and see if he has also left Widecombe. That will be a clue she has run off with him."
"She never said the man was not eligible. If she decided to marry him, she would have told us."
"It does seem odd, surely. I am very uneasy, your following off in Rosalie's footsteps. Whatever shall I do if you disappear on me too, Sylvia?"
"Why in that unlikely event, Aunt Harriet, you must call in Scotland Yard," I told her, but in a rallying way, making light of her fears.
"I hope Julie arrives before you leave," was her next concern. Her cousin Julie was coming to stay with her during my absence.
As she had to come no farther than from the other side of London, she arrived that same evening. Her coming left me free to prepare my belongings for the trip, regretfully sorting out to leave behind anything of elegance or a partying nature. The impoverished daughter of a curate would not be so fashionable as Miss Thompson, living with her well-to-do aunt. My gold locket and my watch were the only pieces of jewelry I took with me. When anything fine I possessed had been removed, there was only one trunk to go to Widecombe with me. We had it sent to the hotel in a hackney cab the evening before I was to leave, in case it had to be there early for storage on the train.
I had the intervening day to say goodbye to my few friends, and to invent a story to account for my absence. A connection in Scotland was turned into an ailing aunt who required my services, for I did not intend to tell anyone but my aunt where I was going. I slept little the last night at home. In my mind, I was already at Palin Park, searching for Rosalie.