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It would be simple enough to follow him. Roger was a man of habits, and even when his hours of work were irregular he would still take his mid-day meal, whenever he did take it, at the same restaurant. Miss Temple found an antiquarian book shop across the street—where, as she was obliged to purchase something for standing so long watching through its window, she on impulse selected a complete four-volume Illustrated Lives of Sea Martyrs. The books were detailed enough to warrant her spending the time in the window, apparently examining the colored plates, while actually watching Roger first enter and then, after an hour, re-emerge, alone, from the heavy doors across the street. He walked straight back into the Ministry courtyard. Miss Temple arranged for her purchase to be delivered to the Boniface, and walked back into the street, feeling like a fool.
She had re-crossed the square before her reason convinced her that she was not so much a fool as an inexperienced observer. It was pointless to watch from outside the restaurant. It was only from inside that she could have determined whether or not Roger dined alone, or with others, or with which particular others, or whether with any of whom he might have shared significant words—all crucial information. Further, unless he had merely thrown her over for his work—which she doubted, scoffing—she was like to learn nothing from observing his working day. It was after work—obviously—that any real intelligence would be gathered. Abruptly, for by this time she was across the square and in the midst of the shops, she entered a store whose windows were thick with all shapes of luggage, hampers, oilskins, gaiters, pith helmets, lanterns, telescopes, and a ferocious array of walking sticks. She emerged some time later, after exacting negotiations, wearing a ladies black traveling cloak, with a deep hood and several especially cunning pockets. A visit to another shop filled one pocket with opera glasses, and a visit to a third weighed down a second pocket with a leather bound notebook and an all-weather pencil. Miss Temple then took her tea.
Between cups of Darjeeling and two scones slathered with cream she made opening entries in the notebook, prefacing her entire endeavor and then detailing the day's work so far. That she now had a kind of uniform and a set of tools made everything that much easier and much less about her particular feelings, for tasks requiring clothes and accoutrements were by definition objective, even scientific, in nature. In keeping with this, she made a point to write her entries in a kind of cipher, replacing proper names and places with synonyms or word-play that hopefully would be impenetrable to all but herself (all references to the Ministry were to "Minsk" or even just "Russia", and Roger himself—in a complex train of thought that started with him as a snake that had shed his skin, to a snake being charmed by the attractions of others, to India, and finally, because of his still-remarkable personal presence—became "the Rajah"). Against the possibility that she might be making her observations for some time and in some discomfort, she ordered a sausage roll for later. It was placed on her table, wrapped in thick wax paper, and presently bundled into another pocket of her cloak.
Though the winter was verging into spring, the city was still damp around the edges, and the evenings colder than the lengthening days seemed to promise. Miss Temple left the tea shop at four o'clock, knowing Roger to leave usually at five, and hired a carriage. She instructed her driver in a low, direct tone of voice, after assuring him he would be well paid for his time, that they would be following a gentleman, most likely in another carriage, and that she would rap on the roof of the coach to indicate the man when he appeared. The driver nodded, but said nothing else. She took his silence to mean that this was a usual enough thing, and felt all the more sure of herself, settling in the back of the coach, readying her glasses and her notebook, waiting for Roger to appear. When he did, some 40 minutes later, she nearly missed him, amusing herself for the moment by peering through the opera glasses into nearby open windows—but some tingling intuition caused her to glance back at the courtyard gates just in time to see Roger (standing in the road with an air of confidence and purpose that made her breath catch) flag down a coach of his own. Miss Temple rapped sharply on the roof of the coach, and they were off.
The thrill of the chase—complicated by the thrill of seeing Roger (which she was nearly certain was the result of the task at hand and not any residual affection)—was quickly tempered when, after the first few turns, it became evident that Roger's destination was nothing more provocative than his own home. Again, Miss Temple was forced to admit the possibility that her rejection might have been in favor of no rival, but, as it were, immaculate. It was possible. It might even have been preferable. Indeed, as her coach trailed along the route to the Bascombe house—a path she knew so well as to once have considered it nearly her own—she reflected on the likelihood that it was that another woman had taken her place in Roger's heart. To her frank mind, it was not likely at all. Looking at the facts of Roger's day—a Spartan path of work to meal to work to home where undoubtedly he would, after a meal, immerse himself in still more work—it was more reasonable to conclude that he had placed her second to his vaulting ambition. It seemed a stupid choice, as she felt she could have assisted him in any number of sharp and subtle ways, but she could at least follow the (faulty, childish) logic. She was imagining Roger's eventual realization of what he had (callously, foolishly, blindly) thrown aside, and then her own strange urge to comfort him in this sure-to-be-imminent distress when she saw that they had arrived. Roger's coach had stopped before his front entrance, and her own a discreet distance behind.
Roger did not get out of the coach. Instead, after a delay of some minutes, the front door opened and his manservant Phillips came toward the coach bearing a bulky black-wrapped bundle. He handed this to Roger through the open coach door, and then in turn received Roger's black satchel and two thickly bound portfolios of paper. Phillips carried these items of Roger Bascombe's work day back into the house, and closed the door behind him. A moment later, Roger's coach jerked forward, returning at some pace into the thick of the city. Miss Temple rapped on her coach's ceiling and was thrown back into her seat as the horses leapt ahead, resuming their trailing surveillance.
By this time it was fully dark, and Miss Temple was more and more forced to rely on her driver that they were on the right path. Even when she leaned her head out of the window—now wearing the hood for secrecy—she could only glimpse the coaches ahead of them, with no longer a clear confidence about which might be Roger's at all. This feeling of uncertainty took deeper hold the longer they drove along, as now the first tendrils of evening fog began to reach them, creeping up from the river. By the time they stopped again, she could barely see her own horses. The driver leaned down and pointed to a high, shadowed archway over a great staircase that led down into a cavernous gas-lit tunnel. She stared at it and realized that the shifting ground at its base, which she first took to be rats streaming into a sewer, was actually a crowd of dark-garbed people flowing through and down into the depths below. It looked absolutely infernal, a sickly-yellow portal surrounded by murk, offering passage to hideous depths.
"Stropping, Miss," the driver called down and then, in response to Miss Temple's lack of movement, "train station." She felt as if she'd been slapped—or at least the hot shame she imagined being actually slapped must feel like. Of course it was the train station. A sudden spike of excitement drove her leaping from the cab to the cobblestones. She quickly thrust money into the driver's hand and launched herself toward the glowing arch. Stropping Station. This was exactly what she had been looking for—Roger was doing something else.
It took her a few desperate moments to find him, having wasted valuable seconds gaping in the coach. The tunnel opened into a larger staircase that led down into the main lobby and past that to the tracks themselves, all under an intricate and vast canopy of ironwork and soot-covered brick. "Like Vulcan's cathedral," Miss Temple smiled, the vista spreading out beneath her, rather proud of so acutely retaining her wits. Beyond coining similes, she had the further presence of mind to step to the side of the stairs, use a lamp post to perch herself briefly on a railing, and with that vantage use the opera glasses to look over the whole of the crowd—which her height alone would never have afforded. It was only a matter of moments before she found Roger. Again, instead of immediately rushing, she followed his progress across the lobby to a particular train. When she was sure she had seen him enter the train, she climbed off of the railing and set off first to find out where it was going, and then to buy a ticket.
She had never been in a station of such size—Stropping carried all traffic to the north and west—much less at the crowded close of a working day, and to Miss Temple it was like being thrust into an ant-hill. It was usual in her life for her small size and delicate strength to pass unnoticed, taken for granted but rarely relevant, like an unwillingness to eat eels. In Stropping Station, however, despite knowing where she was going (to the large chalk board detailing platforms and destinations), Miss Temple found herself shoved along pell mell, quite apart from her own intentions, the view from within her hood blocked by a swarm of elbows and waistcoats. Her nearest comparison was swimming in the sea against a mighty mindless tide. She looked up and found landmarks in the ceiling, constellations of ironwork, to judge her progress and direction, and in this way located an advertising kiosk she had seen from the stairs. She worked her way around it and launched herself out again at another angle, figuring the rate of drift to reach another lamp post that would allow her to step high enough to see the board.
The lamp post reached, Miss Temple began to fret about the time. Around her—for there were many, many platforms—whistles fervently signaled arrivals and departures, and she had no idea, in her subterranean shuffling, whether Roger's train had already left. Looking up at the board, she was pleased to see that it was sensibly laid out in columns indicating train number, destination, time, and platform. Roger's train—at platform 12—left at 6:23, for the Orange Canal. She craned her head to see the station clock—another hideous affair involving angels, bracketing each side of the great face (as if keeping it up with their wings), impassively gazing down, one holding a pair of scales, the other a bared sword. Between these two black metal specters of judgment, Miss Temple saw with shock that it was 6:17. She threw herself off the lamp post toward the ticket counter, burrowing vigorously through a sea of coats. She emerged, two minutes later, at the end of an actual ticket line, and within another minute reached the counter itself. She called out her destination—the end of the line, round-trip—and dropped a handful of heavy coins onto the marble, pushing them peremptorily at the clerk, who looked beakily at her from the other side of a wire cage window. His pale fingers flicked out from under the cage to take her money and shoved back a perforated ticket. Miss Temple snatched it and bolted for the train.
A conductor stood with a lantern, one foot up on the stairs into the last car, ready to swing himself aboard. It was 6:22. She smiled at him as sweetly as her heaving breath would allow, and pushed past onto the car. She had only just stopped at the top of the steps to gather her wits when the train pulled forward, nearly knocking her off her feet. She flung her arms out against the wall to keep her balance and heard a chuckle behind her. The conductor stood with a smile at the base of the steps in the open doorway, the platform moving past behind him. Miss Temple was not used to being laughed at in any circumstance, but between her mission, her disguise, and her lack of breath, she could find no immediate retort and instead of gaping like a fish merely turned down the corridor to find a compartment. The first was empty and so she opened the glass door and sat in the middle seat facing the front of the train. To her right was a large window. As she restored her composure, the last rushing view of Stropping Station—the platform, the trains lined up, the vaulted brick cavern—vanished, swallowed by the blackness of a tunnel.
The compartment was all dark wood, with a rather luxurious red velvet upholstery for the bank of three seats on either side. A small milk white globe gave off a meager gleam, pallid and dim, but enough to throw her reflection against the dark window. Her first instinct had been to pull off the cloak and breathe easily, but though Miss Temple was hot, scattered, and with no sense of where she was exactly going, she knew enough to sit still until she was thinking clearly. Orange Canal was some distance outside the city, nearly to the coast, with who knew how many other stops in between, any one of which might be Roger's actual destination. She had no idea who else might be on the train, and if they might know her, or might know Roger, or might in fact be the journey's reason itself. What if there were no destination at all, merely some rail-bound assignation? In any case, it was clear that she had to find Roger's location on the train or she would never know if he disembarked or if he met someone. As soon as the conductor came to take her ticket, she would begin to search.
He did not come. It had already been some minutes, and he had only been a few yards away. She didn't remember seeing him go past—perhaps when she entered?—and began to get annoyed, his malingering on top of the chuckle making her loathe the man. She stepped into the corridor. He was not there. She narrowed her eyes and began to walk forward, carefully, for the last thing she wanted—even with the cloak—was to stumble into Roger unawares. She crept to the next compartment, craned her head around so she could peer into it. No one. There were eight compartments in the car, and they were all empty.
The train rattled along, still in darkness. Miss Temple stood at the door to the next car and peered through the glass. It looked exactly like the car she was in. She opened the door and stepped through—another eight compartments without a single occupant. She entered the next car, and found the exact same situation. The rear three cars of this train were completely unoccupied. This might explain the absence of the conductor—though he still must have known her to be in the rear car and if he had been polite could have taken her ticket. Perhaps he merely expected her to do what she was doing, moving ahead to where she should have been in the first place, if she hadn't been so late to reach the train. Perhaps there was something she didn't know about the rear cars, or the etiquette on this particular trip—would that explain the chuckle?—or about the other passengers themselves. Perhaps they were in a group? Perhaps it was less a journey and more of an excursion? Now she despised the conductor for his presumption as well as his rudeness, and she moved forward in the train to find him. This car as well was empty—four cars!—and Miss Temple paused at the doorway into the fifth, trying to recall just how many cars there were to begin with (she had no idea) or how many might be normal (she had no idea) or what exactly she could say to the conductor, upon finding him, that would not reveal her complete ignorance (she had no immediate idea). As she stood thinking, the train stopped.
She rushed into the nearest compartment and threw open the window. The platform was empty—no one boarding, and no one leaving the train. The station itself—the sign said Crampton Place—was closed and dark. The whistle blew and the train—throwing Miss Temple back into the seats—lurched into life. A chill wind poured through the open window as they gathered speed and she pulled the window closed. She had never heard of Crampton Place, and was happy enough not to be going there now—it struck her as desolate as a Siberian steppe. She wished she had a map of this particular line, a list of stops. Perhaps this was something she might get from the conductor, or at least a list she could write down in her book. Thinking of the book, she took it out and, licking the tip of the pencil, wrote "Crampton Place" in her deliberate, looping script. With nothing else to add, she put the book away and returned to the corridor and then, with a sigh of resolve, stepped into the fifth car.
She knew it was different from the perfume. Where the other corridors were imbued with a vague industrial mixture of smoke and grease and lye and dirty mop-water, the corridor of the fifth car smelled—startling because she knew them from her own home—of frangipani flowers. With a surge of excitement, Miss Temple crept to the nearest compartment and slowly leaned forward to peer into it. The far seats were all occupied: two men in black topcoats and between them a woman in a yellow dress, laughing. The men smoked cigars, and both had trimmed and pointed beards, with hearty red faces, as if they were two examples of the same species of thick, vigorous dog. The woman wore a half-mask made of peacock feathers that spread out over the top her head, leaving only her eyes to pierce through like gleaming stones. Her lips were painted red, and opened wide when she laughed. All three were gazing at someone in the opposite row of seats, and had not noticed Miss Temple. She retreated from view, and then, feeling childish but knowing nothing else for it, dropped to her hands and knees and crawled past, keeping her body below the level of the glass in the door. On the other side, she carefully rose and peered back at the opposite row of seats and froze. She was looking directly at Roger Bascombe.
He was not looking at her. He wore a black cloak, closed about his throat, and smoked a thin, wrapped cheroot, his oak-colored hair flattened back over his skull with pomade. His right hand was in a black leather glove, his left, holding the cheroot, was bare. At a second glance Miss Temple saw that the right gloved hand was holding the left glove. She also saw that Roger was not laughing, that his face was deliberately blank, an expression she had seen him adopt in the presence of the Minister or Deputy Minister, or his mother, or his uncle Tarr—that is, those to whom he owed deference. Sitting against the window, the seat between them unoccupied, was another woman, in a red dress that flashed like fire from beneath a dark fur-collared cloak. Miss Temple saw the woman's pale ankles and her delicate throat, like white coals beneath the flaming dress, flickering in and out of view as she shifted in her seat. Her darkly red mouth wore an openly provocative wry smile and she puffed at a cigarette through a long black lacquered holder. She also wore a mask, of red leather, dotted with glittering studs where the eyebrows would be, and then—Miss Temple noted with some discomfort—forming a gleaming tear, just ready to drop from the outer corner of each eye. She had obviously said whatever the others were laughing at. The woman exhaled, a deliberate stream of smoke sent to the other row of seats. As if this gesture were the conclusion of her witticism, the others laughed again, even as they waved the smoke from their faces.
Miss Temple stepped clear of the window, her back flat against the wall. She had no idea what she ought to do. To her right was another compartment. She risked a peek, and saw the far seats occupied with three women, each with a traveling cloak wrapped around what seemed to be, judging from their shoes, elegant evening wear. Two wore half-masks decorated with yellow ostrich feathers while the third, her face uncovered, held her mask on her lap, fussing with an uncooperative strap. Miss Temple pulled her own hood lower and craned to see that the other seat held two men, one in a tailcoat and one in a heavy fur that made him seem like a bear. Both of these men wore masks as well, simple black affairs, and the man in the tailcoat occupied himself with sips from a silver flask, while the man in the fur tapped his fingers on the pearl inlaid tip of an ebony walking stick. Miss Temple darted back. The man in the fur had glanced toward the corridor. In a rush she scampered past Roger's compartment, in open view, and through the connecting door to the previous car.
She shut the door behind her and crouched on her hands and knees. Interminable seconds passed. No one came to the door. No one entered in pursuit, or even curiosity. She relaxed, took a breath, and brought herself sharply to task. She felt out of her depth, beyond her experience—and yet, frankly, Miss Temple had no confirmation why this must be true. Despite being assailed with sinister thoughts, all she had definitely learned was that Roger was attending—without obvious pleasure, nor anything more evident than obligation—an exclusive party of some kind, where the guests were masked. Was this so unusual? Even if to Miss Temple it was, she knew this did not figure, so much was strange to her sheltered life that she was no objective judge—had she been in society for an entire season, this kind of entertainment might seem if not so routine as to be dull, at least a known quantity. Further, she reconsidered the fact that Roger was not sitting next to the woman in red, but apart from her—in fact, apart from everyone. She wondered if this was his first time in their company. She wondered who this woman was. The other, in yellow with the peacock feathers, interested her much less, simply for having been so vulgarly receptive to the more elegant woman's wit. Clearly the men were unconcerned about hiding their identities—they must all know each other and be traveling as a group. In the other compartment, all being masked, perhaps they didn't. Or perhaps they did know each other but were unaware of it because of the masks—the whole pleasure of the evening would lie in guessing, she realized, and in remaining hidden. It struck Miss Temple as perhaps a great deal of fun, though she knew that her own dress, if fine for the day, was nothing to wear to such an evening, and that her cloak and hood, though they protected her identity for the moment, were nothing like the proper party mask everyone else would have.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a clicking sound from the other corridor. She risked a look and saw the man in the fur—quite imposing when not seated, nearly filling the corridor with his wide frame—stepping out of Roger's compartment and closing the door behind him. Without a glance toward her, he returned to his own. She sighed—releasing a tension she had been unable to fully acknowledge—he had not seen her, he was merely visiting the other compartment. He must know the woman, she decided, even though he could have stepped into the compartment to speak to any person in it, including Roger. Roger saw so many people in his day—from government, from business, from other countries—and she realized with a pang how small her own circle of acquaintance actually was. She knew so little of the world, so little of life, and here she was cowering in an empty train car, small and ridiculous. While Miss Temple was biting her lip, the train stopped again.
Once more she dashed into a compartment and opened the window, and once more the platform was empty, the station shuttered and dark. This sign read Packington—a place she had never heard of—but she took a moment to enter it into her notebook just the same. When the train began to move again she closed the window. As she turned back to the compartment door she saw that it was open, and in it stood the conductor. He smiled.
She fished her ticket from her cloak and handed it to him. He took it from her, tilting his head to study the printed destination, still smiling. In his other hand he held an odd metal clamping device. He looked up.
"All the way to Orange Canal, then?"
"Yes. How many more stops will that be?"
"Quite a few."
She smiled back at him, thinly. "Exactly how many, please?"
"Seven stops. Be the better part of two hours."
The clamping device punched a hole in the ticket with a loud snapping sound, like the bite of a metal insect, and he returned it to her. He did not move from the door. In response, Miss Temple flounced her cloak into position as she met his gaze, claiming the compartment for herself. The conductor watched her, glanced once toward the front of the train and licked his lips. In that moment she noticed the porcine quality of his heavy neck, particularly how it was stuffed into the tight collar of his blue coat. He looked back at her and twitched his fingers, puffy and pale like a parcel of uncooked sausages. Confronted with this spectacle of ungainliness, her contempt abated in favor of mere disinterest—she no longer wanted to cause him harm, only that he should leave. But he wasn't going to leave. Instead, he leaned closer, with a feeble kind of leer.
"Not riding up with the others, then, are you?"
"As you can see, no."
"It's not always safe, a young lady alone ..."
He trailed off, smiling. The conductor persisted in smiling at all times. He fingered the clamping device, his gaze drifting toward her well-shaped calves. She sighed.
"Safe from what?"
He did not answer.
Before he could, before he could do anything that would cause her to either scream or feel still more galling pitiful disdain, she raised her open palm to him, a signal that he need not answer, need not say anything, and asked him another question.
"Are you aware where they—where we—are all going?"
The conductor stepped back as if he had been bitten, as if she had threatened his life. He retreated to the corridor, touched his cap, and turned abruptly, rushing into the forward car. Miss Temple remained in her seat. What had just happened? What she'd meant as a question the man had taken as a threat. He must know, she reasoned, and it must be a place of wealth and influence—at least enough that the word of a guest might serve to cost him his position. She smiled (it had been a satisfying little exchange, after all) at what she had learned—not that it was a surprise. That Roger was attending in a subordinate position only reinforced the possibility that representatives from the upper levels of government might well be present.
With a vague gnawing restlessness, Miss Temple was reminded that she was actually getting hungry. She dug out the sausage roll.
Over the next hour there were five more stops—Gorsemont, De Conque, Raaxfall, St. Triste, and St. Porte—every name going into her notebook, along with fanciful descriptions of her fellow travelers. Each time, looking out the window, she saw an empty platform and closed station house, with no one entering or leaving the train. Each time also she felt the air getting progressively cooler, until at St. Porte it struck her as positively chill and laced with the barest whiff of the sea, or perhaps the great salt marshes she knew to exist in this part of the country. The fog had cleared, but revealed merely a sliver of moon and the night remained quite dark. When the train started up again, Miss Temple had at each station crept into the corridor and carefully peered into the fifth car, just to see if there was any activity. Once she had a glimpse of someone entering one of the forward compartments (she had no idea who—black cloaks all looked the same), but nothing since. Boredom began to gnaw at her, to the point that she wanted to go forward again and get another look into Roger's compartment. She knew this to be a stupid idea that only preyed upon her because of restlessness, and that further it was times like these when one made the most egregious mistakes. All she had to do was remain patient for another few minutes, when all would be clear, when she could get to the very root of the whole affair. Nevertheless, her hand was in the act of turning the handle to enter the fifth car when the train next stopped.
She let go of it at once, shocked to see that all down the corridor the compartment doors were opening. Miss Temple ducked back into her compartment and threw open the window. The platform was crowded with waiting coaches, and the station windows were aglow. As she read the station sign—Orange Locks—she saw people spilling from the train and walking very near to her. Without closing the window she darted back to the connecting door: people were exiting from a door at the far end, and the last person—a man in a blue uniform—had nearly reached it. With a nervous swallow and a flutter in her stomach, Miss Temple stepped silently through the door and rapidly, carefully, padded down the corridor, glancing into each compartment as she passed. All were empty. Roger's party had gone ahead, as had the fur-coated man.
The man in the blue uniform was gone from view. Miss Temple picked up her pace and reached the far end, where an open door and a set of steps lead off the train. The last people seemed to be some yards ahead of her, walking toward the coaches. She swallowed again. If she stayed on the train, she could just ride to the end and take the return trip easily. If she got off, she had no idea what the schedule was—what if the Orange Locks station were to close up like the previous five? At the same time, her adventure was continuing in the exact manner she had hoped. As if to make up her mind, the train lurched ahead. Without thinking Miss Temple leapt off, landing with a squawk and a stumble on the platform. By the time she gathered herself to look back, the train was racing by. In the doorway of the final car stood the conductor. His gaze was cold, and he held his lantern toward her the way one holds a cross before a vampire.
The train was gone and the roar of its passage faded into the low buzz of conversation and the clops and jingles and slams of the travelers climbing into their waiting coaches. Already full coaches were moving away, and Miss Temple knew she must decide immediately what to do. She saw Roger nowhere, nor any of the others from his car. Those remaining were in heavy coats or cloaks or furs, a seemingly equal number of men and women, perhaps twenty all told. A group of men climbed into one coach and a mixture of men and women piled into two more. With a start she realized that there was only one other coach remaining. Walking in its direction were three women in cloaks and masks. Throwing her shoulders back and the hood farther over her face, Miss Temple crossed quickly to join them.
She was able to reach the coach before they had all entered, and when the third woman climbed up and turned, thinking to shut the door behind her, she saw Miss Temple—or, the dark, hooded figure that Miss Temple now made—and apologized, situating herself farther along on the coach seat. Miss Temple merely nodded in answer and climbed aboard in turn, shutting the door tightly behind her. At the sound, after a moment to allow this last person to sit, the driver cracked his whip and the coach lurched into motion. With her hood pulled down, Miss Temple could barely see the faces of the other passengers, much less anything out the window—not that she could have made sense of she might have seen anyway.
The other women were at first quiet, she assumed due to her own presence. The two across from her both wore feathered masks and dark velvet cloaks, the cloak of the woman to her left boasting a luxurious collar of black feathers. As they settled themselves in the coach, the one to her right opened her cloak and fanned herself, as if she were overhot from exertion, revealing a dress of shimmering, clinging silk that seemed more than anything else like the skin of a reptile. As this woman's fan fluttered in the darkness like a night bird on a leash, the coach filled with perfume—sweet jasmine. The woman sitting next to Miss Temple, who had preceded her into the coach, wore a kind of tricorn hat rakishly pinned to her hair, and a thin band of cloth tied over her eyes, quite like a pirate. Her wrap was simple but probably quite warm, made of black wool. As this was not quite as sumptuous, Miss Temple allowed herself to hope she might not be so out of place, as long as she kept herself well concealed. She felt confident her boots—cunningly green—if glimpsed, would not make her look out of place.
They rode for a time in silence, but Miss Temple was soon aware that the other women shared her own sense of excitement and anticipation, if not her feeling of terrible suspense. Bit by bit they began making small exploratory comments to one another—first about the train, then about the coach or about each other's clothing, and finally, hintingly, at their destination. They did not at first address Miss Temple, or indeed anyone in particular, merely offering comments in general and responding the same way. It was as if they were not supposed to be talking about their evening at all, and could only proceed to do so by degrees, each of them making it tacitly plain that they would not be averse to bending the rule. Of course Miss Temple was not averse in the slightest, she just had nothing to say. She listened to the pirate and the woman in silk complement each other on their attire, and then to both of them approve of the third woman's mask. Then they turned to her. So far she had said nothing, merely nodding her head once or twice in agreement, but now she knew they were all examining her quite closely. So she spoke.
"I do hope I have worn the right shoes for this cold an evening."
She shifted her legs in the tight room between seats and raised her cloak, exhibiting her green leather boots, with their intricate lacing. The other three leaned to study them, and the pirate next to her confided, "They are most sensible—for it will be cold, I am sure."
"And your dress is green as well ... with flowers," noted the woman with the feathered collar, whose gaze had moved from the shoes to the strip of dress revealed above them.
The woman in silk chuckled. "You come as a Suburban Rustick!" The others chuckled too and, so bolstered, she went on.
"One of those ladies who live among novels and flowered sachets—instead of life itself, and life's gardens. The Rustick, and the Piratical, the Silken and the Feathered—we are all richly disguised!"
Miss Temple thought this was a bit thick. She did not appreciate being termed either "suburban" or "rustick" and further was quite convinced that the person who condemns a thing—in this case novels—is the same person who's wasted most of her life reading them. In the moment, as she was being insulted, it was all she could do not to reach across the coach (for it was an easy reach) and take sharp hold of the harpy's delicate ear. But she forced herself to smile, and in doing so knew that she must place her immediate pride to the service of her adventure, and accept the more important fact that this woman's disdain had given her a costume, and a role to play. She cleared her throat and spoke again.
"Amongst so many ladies, all striving to be most elegant, I wondered if such a costume might be noticed all the more."
The pirate next to her chuckled. The silken woman's smile was a little more fixed and her voice a bit more brittle. She peered more sharply at Miss Temple's face, hidden in the shadow of her hood.
"And what is your mask? I cannot see it ..."
"No. Is it also green? It cannot be elaborate, to fit under that hood."
"Indeed, it is quite plain."
"But we cannot see it."
"But we should like to."
"My thinking was to make it that much more mysterious—it being in itself, as I say, plain."
In reply the silken woman leaned forward, as if to put her face right into the hood with Miss Temple, and Miss Temple instinctively shrank back as far as the coach would allow. The moment had become awkward, but in her ignorance Miss Temple was unsure where the burden of gaucherie actually lay—with her refusal or the silken woman's gross insistence. The other two were silent, watching, their masks hiding any particular expression. Any second the woman would be close enough to see, or close enough to pull back the hood altogether—Miss Temple had to stop her in that very instant. She was helped, in this moment, by the sudden knowledge that these women were not likely to have lived in a house where savage punishment was a daily affair. Miss Temple merely extended two fingers of her right hand and poked them through the feathered mask-holes, straight into the woman's eyes.
The silken woman shot back in her seat, sputtering like an overfull kettle coming to boil. She heaved one or two particularly whinging breaths and pulled down her mask, placing a hand over each eye, feeling in the dark, rubbing away the pain. It was a very light touch and Miss Temple knew no real damage had been done—it was not as if she had used her nails. The silken woman looked up at her, eyes red and streaming, her mouth a gash of outrage, ready to lash out. The other two women watched, immobile with shock. Again, all was hanging in the balance and Miss Temple knew she needed to maintain the upper hand. So she laughed.
And then a moment after laughing pulled out a scented handkerchief and offered it to the silken woman, saying in her sweetest voice, "O my dear ... I am sorry ..." as if she were consoling a kitten. "You must forgive me for preserving the ... chastity of my disguise." When the woman did not immediately take the handkerchief Miss Temple herself leaned forward and as delicately as she could dabbed the tears from around the woman's eyes, patiently, taking her time, and then pressed the handkerchief into her hands. She sat back. After a moment, the woman raised the handkerchief and dabbed her face again, then her mouth and nose, and then, with a quick shy glance at the others, restored her mask. They were silent.
The sounds of the hoofbeats had changed, and Miss Temple looked out of the coach. They were passing along some kind of stone-paved track. The country beyond was featureless and flat—perhaps a meadow, perhaps a fen. She did not see trees, though in the darkness she doubted she could have had they been there—but it did not seem like there would be trees, or if there had been once, that they had been cut down to feed some long-forgotten fire. She turned back to her companions, each seemingly occupied with her own thoughts. She was sorry to have ruined the conversation, but did not see any way around it. Still, she felt obliged to try and make amends, and attempted to put a bright note in her voice.
"I'm sure we shall be arriving soon."
The other women nodded, the pirate going so far as to smile, but none spoke in reply. Miss Temple was resilient.
"We have reached the paved road."
Exactly as before, all three women nodded and the pirate smiled, but they did not speak. The moment of silence lengthened and then took hold in the coach, each of them sinking deeper, as the air of solitude intruded, into her own thoughts, the earlier excitement about the evening now somehow supplanted by an air of brooding disquiet, the exact sort of gnawing, unsparing unrest that leads to midnight cruelty. Miss Temple was not immune, especially since she had a great deal to brood about if she were to shift her mind that way. She was keenly reminded that she had no idea what she was doing, where she was going, or how she would possibly return—and indeed, more than any of these, what she would return to. The stable touchstone of her thoughts had disappeared. Even her moments of satisfaction—frightening the conductor and besting the silken woman—now struck her as distant and even vain. She had just formed the further, frankly depressing, question, "was such satisfaction always at odds with desire?" when she realized that the woman in the feathered cloak was speaking, slowly, quietly, as if she were answering a question only she had heard being asked.
"I have been here before. In the summer. It was light in the coach ... it was light well into the evening. There were wildflowers. It was still cold—the wind is always cold here, because it is close to the sea, because the land is so flat. That is what they told me ... because I was cold ... even in summer. I remember when we reached the paved road—I remember because the movement of the coach changed, the bouncing, the rhythm. I was in a coach with two men ... and I had allowed them to unbutton my dress. I had been told what to expect ... I had been promised this and more ... and yet, when it happened, when their promises began to be revealed ... in such a desolate locale ... I had goosebumps everywhere." She was silent, then glanced up, meeting the eyes of the others. She wrapped her cloak around her and looked out the window, smiling shyly. "And I am back again ... you see, it gave me quite a thrill."
No one said a word. The clattering hoofbeats changed once more, drawing the coach onto uneven cobblestones. Miss Temple—her mind more than a little astir—glanced out the window to see that they had entered a courtyard, past a large, tall iron gate. The coach slowed. She could see others already stopped around them, passengers piling out (adjusting cloaks, putting on hats, tapping their walking sticks with impatience), and then a first glimpse of the house itself: splendid, heavy stone, some three tall stories high and without excessive ornament save for its broad windows, now streaming out welcoming golden light. The entire effect was of a simplicity that, when employed on such massive scale, bespoke a hard certainty of purpose—in the same way as a prison or an armory or a pagan temple. She knew it must be the great house of some Lord.
Their coach came to a halt, and as the last person in Miss Temple took it upon herself to be the first person out, opening the door herself and taking the coachman's large hand to aid her descent. She looked up to see, at the end of the courtyard, the entrance to the house, double doors flung open, servants to either side, and a stream of guests disappearing within. The massive splendor of the place amazed her, and she was again assailed by doubt, for surely once inside she would have to remove her hood and cloak and be revealed. Her mind groped for a solution as her eyes, brought back to their task, scanned the milling crowd for a glimpse of Roger. He must already be in the house. Her three companions were all out of the coach and had begun walking toward the doors. The pirate paused for a moment, looking back, to see if she was with them, and in another sudden decision Miss Temple merely gave in answer a small curtsey, as if to send them on their way. The pirate cocked her head, but then nodded and turned to catch up with the other two. Miss Temple stood alone.
She looked about the courtyard—was there perhaps some other way inside?—but knew that her only hope, if she wanted to truly discover what Roger was doing and why, in service to this, he had so peremptorily thrown her over, was to present herself at the grand entryway. She fought the urge to run and hide in a coach, and then the urge to just put things off long enough to record her most recent experiences in the notebook. If she must go in, it was better to go in at the proper time, and so she forced her legs to take her with a sureness of step that her racing heart did not share. As she got closer she moved among the other coaches, whose drivers were being directed by grooms toward the other side of the courtyard, more than once causing her to dodge rather sharply. When her path was finally open, the last of the other guests—perhaps her three companions?—had just cleared the entryway and vanished from her view. Miss Temple lowered her head, throwing more shadow over her face, and climbed the stairs past footmen on either side, noting their black livery included high boots, as if they were a squadron of dismounted cavalry. She walked carefully—raising her cloak and her dress high enough to climb the stairs without falling, but without being so vulgar as to expose her ankles. She reached the top of the stairs and stood alone on a pale marble floor, with long, mirrored, torch-lit hallways extending before her and to either side.
"I think perhaps you're meant to come with me."
Miss Temple turned to see the woman in red, from Roger's car. She no longer wore her fur collared cloak, but she still had the lacquered cigarette holder in her hand, and her bright eyes, gazing fixedly at Miss Temple through the red leather mask, quite belied their jeweled tears. Miss Temple turned, but could not speak. The woman was astonishingly lovely—tall, strong, shapely, her powdered skin gleaming above the meager confines of the scarlet dress. Her hair was black and arranged in curls that cascaded across her bare pale shoulders. Miss Temple inhaled and nearly swooned from the sweet smell of frangipani flowers. She closed her mouth, swallowed, and saw the woman smile. It was very much how she imagined she had so recently smiled at the woman in blue silk. Without another word, the woman turned and led the way down one of the mirrored halls. Without a word Miss Temple followed.
From the Hardcover edition.