Margaret’s weeping reminded him all too much of Pamela. Thomas couldn’t stand those hours when Pamela had cried and wailed. He’d force the elevator door to remain open, preventing her from calling it down so she could ascend in her chair to his workshop. But still her weeping seemed to echo through the house, drifting like a wraith around corners and up stairs. She cried right up to the end, never suspecting her illness had any extraordinary cause.
At the last, Lucille had smothered the poor woman because neither of them could endure the rasping, choking sounds she made as she struggled to breathe through her illness. The ugliness of how she’d fought to live, even when no hope remained, wounded Thomas. He did not wish to see such a dreadful scene again.
But Margaret did not accept her fate with the same weepy inevitability. Pamela was used to illness by the time they were married, and a miserable life had already confined her to the wheelchair. Not so with Margaret, a hale and hearty woman, one who liked long walks in brisk weather. She did not submit quite so easily to her fate. Thomas could tell it grated on Lucille, the woman’s stubborn desire to live. It wore on his nerves too, even more now that her steely resolve had at last melted into tears.
“Oh Thomas, I cannot stand this.” Margaret’s tears were not pretty, feminine or delicate. She cried and her skin blotched. She blew her nose like a man, gasping and honking.
“There, darling, don’t cry.” Thomas offered her a handkerchief. It was new, freshly laundered and embroidered around the monogram with delicate flowers. Lucille constantly mocked the contrast between stolid Margaret, and her taste in odd frivolities. Embroidered handkerchiefs were one of the few things in common between Thomas’ wives.
“I am certain this is just a terrible winter cold, sapping your strength.” Thomas moved to the fireplace in the bedroom, adding more fuel to strengthen the flames. “You must rest, and stay warm.”
“Damn this confinement,” Margaret wailed. Across the room, the door swung open to admit Lucille carrying a tray.
“I’ve brought you some breakfast,” Lucille announced in her brisk voice. She carried the heavy tray with grace, and Thomas smiled gratefully as she placed it at the bedside. In bed Margaret struggled to sit up against the pillows, breathing hard at the exertion.
“Lucille, each new cup of coffee you bring tastes worse than the last.” Margaret scrunched her nose in displeasure, reaching for the sugar. “We really must just hire a proper kitchen maid.”
Lucille grit her teeth, and smiled through her annoyance. Their plans were stymied when they realized how little tea Margaret consumed, and so they were forced to add it to her coffee. In desperation, Lucille had even dosed the bottle of brandy that Margaret prefered for an after dinner drink. The woman’s indomitable constitution seemed impervious at first, but the poison and inconsistent diet eventually began to wear her down. After a long summer of endurance, autumn brought a chill and death to Margaret.
“Finding someone willing to come all this week just to be a kitchen maid for a pittance will be difficult,” Lucille said over her cup of tea. She settled herself on the little sofa beside the fire.
“Well just double whatever the going rate is.” Margaret waved her hand. The imperious little gesture spoke volumes about the life Margaret was accustomed to before marrying Thomas. Lucille winced, and lifted her tea to her lips to conceal a frown. Margaret’s careless attitude towards money came from a life where deprivation was only a fashionable game. Her fortune insulated her like a blanket. Not for much longer, Lucille thought. She would rip that comforting shroud away, leave the woman exposed to the freezing cold wind. Sitting before the bedroom fire, Lucille daydreamed about driving Margaret out into the night in nothing but a shift, making her run over broken stones until she bled, forcing her to keep stumbling in terror and pain until her body gave out. It was one of Lucille’s favorite fancies.
“How can you stand that old woman?” Lucille’s voice rang out shrill and ill tempered. He’d waited until Margaret dropped into an uneasy sleep before escaping. Lucille had the advantage of escaping with the tray back down to the kitchen. He found her standing before the kitchen sink, water dripping from the fine porcelain cups in her hands.
“Because she’s a very wealthy old woman,” Thomas answered lightly. It was easier to bear if he joked about the ugliness of it. Thankfully they were spared the odd glances of society, shut up in the dark walls of Allerdale Hall. Because the done thing was older men and young girls, not graying women with young men. Thomas knew they talked behind his back. He didn’t let it show in his face or his courtesies. All that mattered was the money.
“I loathe her,” Lucille said, her voice low.
“Surely she will fail sooner rather than later,” Thomas reassured her. Margaret’s unseemly refusal to sicken fast enough to satisfy Lucille’s temper worried Thomas.
Luckily they did not employ any servants in the house, only the few men working the clay and helping Thomas develop his machine. Margaret’s horror at not having a maid or housekeepers had not yet resulted in an employed servant. Most of them were too unsettled to come to Allerdale Hall, even before they realized the scarcity of wages.
Thomas gripped his sister’s shoulders, trying to impart some comfort to her. He risked a kiss to her temple, breathing in the scent of soap and faded flowers, dusty moths and something astringent.
“I will come to you, later,” Thomas promised. He kissed her again, lips to the line of her hair. He meant to store up the memory of her scent, her warmth, to sustain him through a few hours of desultory time with his wife.
“We will just have to make certain it is sooner,” Lucille said, her voice quiet and firm. She patted Thomas’ hand as she poured out the last of the coffee into the sink.
The early light slanted through the curtains, wan and weak in the bedroom. The fire in the hearth cast a more homely glow, but it struggled to fill the room. Margaret’s coughs were the loudest sound in the room. She sat propped in the pillows, the handkerchief in her fist stained with blood.
“Dear brother, why don’t you take Margaret’s horse for a ride? Give the poor thing some exercise.” Lucille put a sisterly hand on Thomas’ arm. Her smile strained for civility.
“An excellent suggestion, my dear sister.” Thomas gave her hand the briefest squeeze. So much could be said without words. They had a lifetime of silent communication, touches and glances that spoke when their tongues could not.
“Thomas, you can’t leave me here,” Margaret pleaded. “You cannot.”
“I’ll just make certain your horse is in tip top shape for when you’re ready to ride again.” He leaned over the bed and brushed his lips over her forehead. “Wait right here for me, I won’t be long.”
Thomas escaped the bedroom with a sense of relief. He could see Lucille’s hand in events, and knew she would spare him the ugliness of the end.
It took him only moments to saddle the spirited bay that belonged to Margaret. One of her wedding gifts, a prize horse that gleamed like polished mahogany. The animal seemed all too eager to escape the shadow of Allerdale Hall. They galloped down the track, through the gates, and then Thomas pointed them at the wide open hillsides. Clouds dappled the clear winter light, and a stiff breeze stirred his soul. Racing over the dead grasses, Thomas let himself enjoy the moment. It was sweet, to be free of the suffocating bonds of the house and all his responsibilities as the last of the Sharpe line. Thomas pointed the horse north, and left all thoughts of Margaret behind.
The breeze beat fitfully at the windows of Allerdale Hall, rattling the loose panes of glasses and finding chinks in the walls. Draughts pulled at the curtains, and whispers echoed into the empty rooms.
“Oh Margaret, Margaret,” Lucille cooed in a honeyed voice. “Whatever are we going to do about you?” She carried in a cup of tea, weary of making expensive coffee that Margaret disparaged and never finished. Lucille couldn’t stand the pointless waste, the way the woman flaunted her money.
“You must fetch a doctor, a proper doctor, I insist.” Margaret’s breath strained to filled her lungs. She grabbed for Lucille’s hand, spilling the tea. With an angry hiss, Lucille pulled back.
“Why can’t you just do as you’re told?” Lucille snapped, wiping at the damp spots along her skirt. “Look at this mess.”
“Now you listen to me, you little tart.” Margaret’s face grew an alarming shade of red, verging on purple. Her weak voice rose.
“How dare you speak to me this way in my house!” Lucille’s voice rose as well, vicious and poisoned with her loathing.
“Your house?” Margaret glared. “This is my house now, girl, and I am the Lady Sharpe.”
Lucille slapped her then, fury clouding her mind. Margaret stared, open mouthed and silent before she surged up to clobber Lucille with a fist. Fortunately her illness robbed her arm of its habitual strength, and in her weakened state the blow was a glancing one. But it succeeded in driving Lucille to white hot rage. The dull fire of madness surged as once again a woman declared herself Lady Sharpe, and set her will against Lucille.
Emotion goaded Lucille to her feet. Margaret followed, staggering out of the bed. Her nightgown clung to her fleshy hips and breasts, and the old fashioned cut only further enraged Lucille. For a moment she imagined Lady Beatrice, and then the vision was gone. The wind moaned and the entire house seemed to breathe with her for a moment.
“How dare you,” panted Margaret. Unsteady on her feet, she wove towards Lucille and nearly tripped on the rug.
“You will never be mistress of this house,” Lucille shrieked. “The right is mine! Mine!”
“You’re mad. When Thomas comes back, I’m going to insist something be done about you.” Margaret shook her finger, her wedding ring vivid against her pale and clammy skin.
“Thomas would never choose you over me.”
“He is my husband, girl.”
“Oh but I know him better than you ever will,” Lucille crooned. “He’s never loved you.”
Margaret stuttered and gasped, clinging to the back of a chair. With a considering glance, Lucille reached for the heavy stand holding the poker and fireplace tools. She hefted the fireplace spade, with its fanciful curlicues of brass. As casually as if she was playing croquet, Lucille swung the spade into Margaret’s leg just under the knee. She shrieked and collapsed to the floor, howling again as Lucille smashed the spade into her ankle.
“I’m not nearly the brute Father was, so that won’t break your leg.” Lucille walked around her, swinging the spade back and forth. Her attitude of glee belief the severity of her braided hair, or the high necked dress. Her smile even softened her face to one of a girl much younger, easing the taut line of the scar on her face.
On the floor, Margaret curled her injured leg. Looking up at Lucille, her expression mixed fury and bafflement.
“Have you lost your mind?” Margaret struggled to climb into the chair. She wheezed, out of breath.
“Oh no,” Lucille laughed. “Quite the contrary.” She struck Margaret in the side of the head, knocking her back to the floor.
“You monstrous bitch.” Margaret moaned, gingerly touching the side of her head. Her fingers came away sticky with a trickle of blood from a cut to her temple, darkening her grey hair.
“You have no idea.” Lucille raised the spade and brought it down on Margaret’s forehead. The satisfying crunch of bone mixed with Margaret’s scream. The second blow caved in much of her skull, and the gore soaked into the rug. Lucille paused to admire the spreading stain, blood darkening the moldering whorls and flowers. She swept her skirts out of the way, kneeling down beside Margaret’s body to tug the Sharpe ruby from her hand. The ring resisted, caught in the swollen flesh of her knuckle. Lucille snarled, clawing at Margaret’s hand. Blood smoothed the way, and she liberated the ring with a triumphant pull. In the sink, she gently rinsed away the mess and wiped it clean before returning the ring to it’s rightful place.
Darkness cloaked the house, something more than night’s shadow and the east wind. The fire crackled in the great room, and Lucille played the piano with a renewed sense of calm. The complicated arpeggios her fingers drew from the keys crashed like waves over Thomas, reassuring and familiar. He watched the firelight through his glass of wine.
Mostly he just felt relief that the problem of Margaret was solved, with her body wrapped in a rug and sunk deep into the red clay beneath the house. Even if the wind groaned, and the lingering specters of Allerdale Hall rattled the walls, he could not bestir himself to care. It was done, and he would no longer be forced to endure the terrible charade. No more would he have to placate or soothe, feign interest or commiserate with the unhappy woman. Best of all, he would no longer have to sleep in their mother’s bedroom, or sneak away in the dark hours to creep around his own home like a ghost.
Flames roared, drawn to new heights by the groaning wind. The room brightened for a moment, then receded back to the comfortable dimness. As Lucille’s music faded, Thomas drained his glass, and set it carefully on the side table. The eyes of their mother’s portrait stared down, burning like coals. Lucille passed beneath it. The ruby twinkled on her hand, catching the firelight.
“How peaceful it is, to be alone once again.” Lucille’s voice was heavy with satisfaction. Thomas reached for her hand and brought it to his lips.
“But we are never alone, you and I,” Thomas murmured. He kissed each of her knuckles, tracing their shape with his lips. Thomas knew them all by heart. Every scar, every line, every inch of her skin. But he enjoyed reminding himself of it, and Lucille enjoyed the attention.
“Always together,” whispered Lucille, tightening her grip on his hand.
“Never apart,” answered Thomas. Lucille sank down into his lap, and Thomas wrapped his arms around her. He tilted his face up to meet her lips, and the fire roared behind them in the rising scream of the wind.