“It is, of course a rather complicated matter, Mrs…” the solicitor trailed off, gave a delicate cough and amended with, “Madam.”
“I am quite familiar with particulars of the situation,” Paula said, grip firm on her gloves and clasp of her bag. “Regardless, I’d like to proceed.”
The solicitor, Mr. Farnesworth, peered at her over his glasses, then looked back down at the notes on his desk. “Hmm. Well. Married in Italy. Marriage certificate?”
She carefully set her gloves aside and pulled the certificate from the bag, then handed it to him.
He glanced at it, then said, “Banns?”
“None,” she said shortly. “We eloped.”
“I see,” he said and she rather bitterly supposed that he did.
“The hotel proprietor and his wife. We were - I was there on holiday.”
“And he used Gregory Anton the entire time of your courtship?”
“Do you suppose I should have married him if I’d known he possessed another identity? Another wife?”
“My dear lady, please do not be offended. It is a question that will no doubt be asked in the proceedings. Best to grow accustomed to the indignity.”
Paula took a deep breath and said, “No. Anton is the only name he used and I wish to be rid of it.”
“Of course, of course,” he said in a soothing tone. “As I said, however, there are complications. And a petition for divorce is never a pleasant experience for the wife.”
“An annulment then,” she said. “The how of it doesn’t concern me, just that it is done.”
He set down the papers and took off his glasses and held her eyes in a direct stare. “My dear,” he said kindly, “our firm has represented your aunt and her estate for many years. You know we have your best interests at heart.”
“I do,” she said.
“Then please, listen to my advice. Your - Anton’s arrest and trial will be more than a nine day’s wonder. Your aunt was and still is a famous figure. Add in the subject of your wretched treatment at his hands during your union and the masses will consume it and demand more. The press, I am sorry to say, will be happy to oblige.”
“I have done nothing wrong,” she protested even as he shook his head.
“You have not, but when your story rivals a penny dreadful they will continue to publish it until the public ceases to be interested. A trial and a presumed hanging are sensational enough. Add a divorce for cruelty or annulment for bigamy and I’m sure you can see in what lurid tones a picture could be painted to keep interest aflame. ‘Did she know all along? Perhaps she helped plan her aunt’s murder?’”
Paula shook her head in denial. “No, how could anyone think so?”
“My dear, it has been my experience that people are not only willing but eager to presume the worst in others. Especially if the press can find someone of a higher social standing to drag into the muck. Read the clippings about Lady Mordaunt’s divorce, if you can stomach them.”
“I remember,” she said through suddenly numb lips. “She was put in an asylum.”
“Quite. I won’t attempt again to dissuade you, but do please consider how society treats a widow as opposed to a divorcee. And naturally, your name shall change once you remarry.”
“And what if I shan’t?”
“You’re a lovely young woman,” he said patting her hand. “Of course you shall.”
As she walked home, Paula let her lips curl in a cynical smile at the thought of marrying again. “Of course you shall,” she murmured and then gripped her bag closer and hurried her step.
Curtains at the other houses in the square still twitched aside when she used the front door, and sometimes, despite the efforts of Inspector Cameron to keep them away, reporters still lurked in the shadows. So she wrapped her shawl over her head and went in through the servant’s entrance. The kitchen was cold and empty, just as Elizabeth had left it, she thought with a pang of guilt. It had been a wretched thing to do, even with the letter of reference she’d given. Her guilt was not eased by the remembrance Elizabeth’s gentle acceptance. “Of course, ma’am,” she’d said. “You’ll want a fresh start with no bad memories.”
Paula had not felt badly about Nancy in the least, had indeed felt a small, savage burst of pleasure at the panicked look on Nancy’s face when she’d said, “Pack your things and leave. Now.” She’d stood in the doorway to Nancy’s small room and watched as she stuffed her meager pile of clothing into a battered bag, and then ushered her to the servant’s door, where Nancy had paused. “I hope you aren’t expecting a reference,” Paula had said coldly.
For moment it looked like Nancy would plead, then her pretty lips turned up into a mocking smile and she pulled out a cigarette and lit it. “No, ma’am,” she said, then blew out a cloud of smoke and sauntered down the alley.
Now, standing in the silent kitchen Paula felt a little ashamed of herself. Without a reference it would be difficult for a maid to find work; reputable work, anyway. Although she supposed Nancy might earn a small sum if she sold her story to the press. I was a maid in the Alquist murder house, she thought morbidly, and then cursed herself for not considering that before showing Nancy the door.
As she lit a fire and set the kettle the stove, she realized that any servant was now a potential source for the tabloids. It’s a good thing, she thought as she sank into a chair, that there’s only myself to look after.
The upkeep of the house itself wasn’t an issue. She’d closed off all rooms except the kitchen, a small parlour and her bedroom: not the room where she’d slept and sometimes made love with Gregory, but the room that had been hers as a child. She’d fled to it that first night after she was finally alone and realized she couldn’t bear the idea of her body touching sheets that he’d slipped between. So she’d gone into her old room for the first time since Aunt Alice’s funeral. It seemed untouched saved for the sheets carelessly draped over the furniture. There were no gaslights in here, so she set a candle on the nightstand, then crawled in under the dusty counterpane and waited for sleep.
She’d worried that she wouldn’t be able to, that every small noise would send her heart racing and make rest impossible, but sleep itself was not a problem. Indeed it seemed as if most days all she wanted was to sleep. Sometimes only the urgent demands of her bladder could rouse her, and after using the water closet she would gaze longingly at her narrow bed and yearn to slip back under the covers and into slumber.
But no, there were fires to light, tea to make, food to cook even if she had little appetite for her own limited repertoire of recipes. And then washing and dusting and sweeping and a thousand other little chores that needed doing. She supposed Nancy would laugh at her now as she hauled the coal bucket up from the basement, her dress smudged with dust and her hair in an untidy bun. Even so, purpose, no matter how inconsequential, kept her moving, kept her from thinking.
The hardest part was forcing herself to go outside the first time. It was a rather bitter irony, she thought, that the prospect of the one thing she’d yearned for could now almost paralyze her with apprehension. What if someone recognized her? What if she was questioned, or worse, offered sympathy? However, if she wanted to eat, she must shop. And, she thought as she pulled on her shawl, she would be damned if she’d let Gregory succeed at last in keeping her a total recluse.
With her plain black dress, shawl and shopping basket she blended in with the crowds at the market, and if sometimes a vendor raised a brow at her accent, they were still quick enough to take her money and then go on to the next customer. In the market, away from Thornton Square, there was a liberating anonymity to be found and she lingered sometimes until the weight of her basket reminded her of the walk home.
Her steps slowed as she approached the square and she paused when she saw a man waiting at the door to Number 9. Then he lifted his head and she smiled a little and continued.
“Good morning, Inspector Cameron,” she said as she unlocked the door.
“Miss Alquist,” he said with a touch to his hat, then gestured to the basket. “May I help you with that?”
“Thank you, but no, I have it,” she said as she set it on the table in the entry way. “Can I offer you some tea? It will only take a moment to put the kettle on.”
“No, please don’t trouble yourself.” He removed his hat and turned it in his hands a few times before saying, “I wish you would reconsider hiring some house staff. I don’t like this situation at all.”
“It’s not for you to like or dislike,” she said rather tartly.
He laughed a little and ducked his head in acknowledgement. “No, you’re quite right that it’s none of my business, but allow me to worry a little.” He added with a sober look, “I do worry that you’re all alone.”
She shook her head, but smiled at him and said, “I thank you for your concern, but please don’t. I’m - no, I’m not fine but I will be. And when I’m ready to have someone else living in my home again I’ll consider hiring help.” She opened the door to her small parlor and gestured for him to sit as she lit a fire. “Now,” she said as she sat on the chair opposite him, “I assume there’s more to your visit than a simple check on my well being.”
When he paused to take a breath before speaking, she knew.
“A date has been set for the trial.” He looked at her from under his brows, as if to judge her reaction before continuing. “Two months from today.”
“I see,” she said after a moment. She’d known this was coming, but hearing it said out loud, having a date named, transformed a nebulous eventuality into a hard certainty. She swallowed, then raised her chin. “Will I be called upon to testify?”
“Not by the prosecution. But, he could call you. For the defense.” When she reflexively shrank back a little in her chair he aded, “He cannot compel you.”
“Why?” she whispered. “How could he think I would defend him?”
Cameron shook his head. “He may think he has some remaining vestige of influence over you. Or that some part of you might still care for him.” He met her eyes evenly, “Or hope that at least you pity him.”
A harsh laugh burst from her. “No,” she said when it eased. “No.”
He leaned forward and took her hands between his. “I’m going to be blunt, so forgive me, but won’t you consider leaving until after the trial and the execution? Couldn’t you go home, go to Italy for a few months and then come back when the sensation has died down?”
She allowed him to hold her hands for a moment, taking an almost absurd amount of comfort from the simple contact, then gently withdrew and clasped her fingers on her lap. “No,” she said again. “This is my home now and I won’t allow him to control or influence me any longer.”
Cameron sighed, then nodded and said, “Very well. I suppose I can understand that.” He stood and said, “I’ll take my leave, Miss Alquist.”
She stood as well and walked him to the front door. “Thank you for calling on me, Inspector.”
He paused in the vestibule and said, “I won’t try to intrude into your business again, but please don’t be offended if you notice a few extra officers around the square. Just for my own peace of mind, you understand.”
After she shut and locked the door she leaned against it, closed her eyes and considered, just for a moment, his suggestion. She could book passage back to Italy and be there before Christmas. She could shed her black dresses and shawls along with London’s cold fog and bask in the sunshine. No one would know her, or her story, no one would look at her with either pity or speculation. It would be…
“It would be running away,” she said to herself. Wasn’t how that how this entire tragedy had started? She couldn’t bear the idea of making a decision and so she’d run away, and then let Gregory make it for her.
No, she thought. I must stop being afraid and bear this until it is done and then, then I’ll consider what to do next.
Having braced herself to face her fears, Paula reluctantly sat down at her desk and began a long avoided letter to Maestro Guardi.
My dear Maestro, she began, I am so sorry to have left you with no word. It was a wretched and cowardly thing, and I am deeply ashamed to have repaid your care and concern in such a manner. I know you still have the London papers sent by post, so I’m sure you have read what’s become of me, or at least the tabloid’s version. You deserve to know the full extent of the matter. Here she paused and took a breath and then started at the beginning, the day she had first walked in for her lesson and found a new pianist sitting at the keyboard. Putting it on paper made her see, perhaps for the first time, how easy it must have been for Gregory, how sheltered and silly she’d been.
You once told me that I had yet to experience tragedy, she wrote at the end of the entire recitation. And then you apologized because of course I’d lost dear Aunt Alice. However, I think there’s a difference between the tragedy a child experiences and that of an adult. Aunt Alice’s murder made me afraid. The events of my co called marriage have left me deeply ashamed and angry. I don’t know if I can now sound like my aunt, as I no longer have any desire to sing. Perhaps it’s just as well, since I would always be in her shadow. I must find my own voice and my own way forward.
I wish you well, my dearest teacher, and hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me.
She signed simply Paula at the bottom, and then sealed it in an envelope and took it to post before she could change her mind.
As she paused to lock the door behind her she heard, “Good morning, ma’am” and turned to see the policeman Inspector Cameron had assigned to the square.
“Good morning,” she said and added after a moment’s thought, “...it’s Williams, isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He touched the brim of his helmet, hesitated, then said, “Pardon me for asking but is Nancy ill, then?” His cheeks flushed a little, and he added, “It’s just that I haven’t seen her for some time.”
Paula said, somewhat stiffly, “Nancy is no longer in my employ.”
He nodded and said, almost to himself, “I see. A bit odd, though.”
Against her better judgement Paula asked, “What is?”
“Oh, well, we used to meet up sometimes at the music hall. Haven’t seen her there either. Not since that night.”
“Perhaps she’s found a situation on the other side of town,” she suggested.
“No doubt that’s it.” He glanced at the clouds scudding across the sky and said, “Getting cold, ma’am. Best keep wrapped up tight.”
Miss Thwaites caught her coming back from the market a few days later and said in agreement, “The coldest winter in thirty years, they say.” She scattered a handful of breadcrumbs and said, “Eat up, pigeons! You too, Paula, you’re much too thin. Let me send over my cook, she makes the most divine trifle with nuts and marzipan and oh let me send her to you, just for a day and we shall have a long, lovely chat over tea and cakes.”
Paula smiled and shook her head. “I’m not one of your poor pigeons needing fattening up for the winter.”
“No,” Miss Thwaites said, “you’re one of my skinny little sparrows.”
“In this dress?” Paula dubiously looked down at her sensible black skirts. “More like a crow.”
“Ugh. Vile, mean, nasty things,” Miss Thwaites said emphatically. “They are the bullies of the bird kingdom, my brother always says. Now, you know there’s no reason to wear widow’s weeds. No one expects you to mourn him.”
“Is that what people think?” she asked, torn between amusement and dismay. “I wear dark clothing so the coal dust doesn’t show.”
“Well, I would say that’s very sensible if it wasn’t so silly. I’ll send Cook and one of my girls.”
Paula shook her head again. “It’s so kind of you to offer, but truly, there’s no need. Come tomorrow for tea and we shall see if I can make a cake you won’t be forced to feed to our feathered neighbors.”
With a sniff Miss Thwaites said, “I’m quite sure I would never.”
After her cake was pronounced passable, Paula made a habit of inviting Miss Thwaites for tea once a week. While she wasn’t yet capable of entertaining the notion of going back into society, she found that she had begun to crave conversation and companionship, to hear a voice other than her own.
“What a charming little room,” Miss Thwaites remarked on one such occasion in the small parlour. “So cozy and informal.”
“The drawing room is too large for just me,” Paula said. “And to be honest, I don’t like going in there. It’s too…”
Miss Thwaites leaned forward with an almost unseemly eagerness. “Morbid? It’s where you found your poor dear aunt, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but that isn’t what I meant. I just find it oppressive, somehow.”
“Well, it’s no wonder. So many things and gewgaws. It’s like a magpie went mad. Oh, I’m sorry my dear, I didn’t mean to offend.”
“You haven’t. Gregory chose all the furnishings and decorations. I thought at the time that it might be a bit much but I...” She lifted her chin and continued grimly, “I suppose I wanted to please him.”
“Then you’re not a sparrow but a silly goose. Get rid of it, my dear.”
The idea, once spoken aloud and considered, consumed her. She opened every closed room, took what was hers, or her aunt’s, and consigned the rest of it to damnation.
“No, I don’t care what you do with it,” she told the contractor hired through her solicitor. “You may sell it, donate it or burn it for all I care. I just want it all gone, except for the piano. That will stay.”
Even the wall paper was not spared and when Paula’s canvas was finally blank, she went to work with a purpose. Aunt Alice’s best pieces were brought down from the attic and recovered, as were the walls. Where before there was oppressive maroon, gilt and dark purple there was now creamy blue, soft yellow, bright white and pale green.
“It looks like a garden, ma’am,” one of the painters said when they were touching up. .
“Yes,” Paula said, and for the first time in a very long while, thought ahead and wished for spring so she could fill each room with flowers.
When the workers had finished and every piece of furniture was in place, Paula walked through each room, lightly touching a vase here, a painting there and wondered at the lightness she felt, the almost giddy sense of freedom, and realized the source must be twofold. In the back of her mind, she’d kept an inventory of every picture, every absurd figurine, just in case she be called upon to explain its absence. By jettisoning everything, she’d cast it out of her mind and into oblivion. And now, she thought, this house was truly hers, as it should have been all along.
Paula wished for spring again when she stepped outside for market day. The cold crept through her heavy coat and sturdy shoes and her breath made her scarf stiff with frost. The market was unusually quiet, maids not lingering to flirt or barter, just quickly filling their baskets and hurrying homeward. Paula’s fingers ached as she paid for a loaf of bread and she abruptly decided to follow their example. The remaining items on her list could wait for a warmer day. Some of the vendors looked to have reached the same conclusion and started packing away their goods.
Perhaps it was because it was so quiet that she heard the sniffle from just inside an alley. She paused when the sniffle was repeated, and then followed by what sounded like a sob. Paula glanced around, but no one else seemed to have heard, or if they did, cared to stop to investigate. She took a step back toward her way home when there was another soft sob. She thought it somehow sounded beaten but still defiant, as if it were made by a young child unfairly punished for some minor crime.
The children who usually thronged the market were absent today; they were cheeky little devils who were as quick to jeer as they were to beg, but sometimes she slipped a bun or a pence to the small ones. The person in the alley didn’t sound particularly small, but the muffled crying tugged at her heart, and so she stepped forward, prepared to part with her bread and possibly a shilling or two as well.
It was not a child, but a woman in a thin and gaudy dress. She was curled up into herself next to a broken crate, her face hidden in her bare hands.
Propriety demanded that Paula turn on her heel and pretend she’d never seen the woman, that she didn’t know that the cheap dress was not a covering but an advertisement, or of the goods being sold.
Instead she took another step closer and asked, “Pardon me, but are you hurt? Is there someone I can send for?”
The woman stiffened, and then, incredibly laughed. “Oh, it would be you to find me like this, wouldn’t it,” she said. Even with her voice thick with tears and muffled behind her hands, Paula knew her.
“Nancy,” she said.
Nancy took her hands from her face, gave her nose an angry swipe and then met Paula’s eyes with a defiant stare. She was thin, her cheeks were red but the hectic flush of a fever instead of artifice, and one of her eyes was blackened. “Go on, take a long, bloody look,” she said. “Have yourself a good laugh.”
“Nancy,” she simply said again as every wretched detail of Nancy’s condition seemed to strike her like a blow. For some reason, the ragged nails and reddened, chapped hands seemed worse than the black eye. Nancy had always kept her hands beautiful. “I don’t want to laugh.”
“What, then you want to have go? No? Then be off, you’ll scare away the customers.”
Paula took an automatic step back, then stepped forward again until she stood next to Nancy’s huddled form. “Can you walk?” she asked and held out her hand.
Nancy lifted her head and narrowed her eyes. “Walk where?”
“Home,” she said, “Unless you want to freeze to death in this alley.”
Nancy’s lips trembled as if she would cry again, then she said, “I can walk.”
They made slow, stumbling progress down the street, Nancy convulsively shivering despite Paula having given over her coat. There wasn’t a cab to be found, so by the time they stepped into the square the both of them were blue with cold. Nancy stumbled and Paula caught her before she fell, and then cast a frantic look around for assistance.
“Here now,” Williams said as he sprang forward. “Let me help, ma’am.” He swung Nancy over his shoulder, wrapped an arm around Paula and hurried them both to the front door.
Paula fumbled a little with the keys, then swung the door open. “Upstairs,” she said, “the small bedroom at the end of the hall. There should still be a fire going.”
While Williams took the stairs, Paula threw another wrap over her shoulders and ran back out to Number 16. She rang the bell and waited what seemed like an eternity before Miss Thwaites’ housekeeper answered. “Why, Miss Paula! Come in from the cold.”
“I can’t,” she said, “Please, I need the doctor, can you send for him? I know it’s an imposition, but please, can someone go right away?”
“Of course, Miss. I’ll send one of the boys immediately.”
She hurried back to Number 9 and found Williams tucking Nancy into her bed. He’d left Paula’s coat on her, but had taken her shoes off. She picked them up to set aside and saw they matched the rest of Nancy’s clothing; worn thin and bearing several holes. .
“She swooned on the stairs,” Williams said, his voice grim. “Do you have more blankets?”
“I’ll get them. Will you wait by the door for the doctor?”
He nodded, touched Nancy’s flushed cheek and then strode to the door, where he paused. “You’ll take care of her?”
“Yes,” Paula said without hesitation.
“I’ll be downstairs until the doctor comes, then.”
She covered Nancy with additional blankets pulled from the linen closet, then put some bricks on the hearth to heat, which she then wrapped in towels and tucked in at Nancy’s feet. Having reached the limits of her knowledge of the treatment of cold victims, she sat next to Nancy and waited for the doctor.
He arrived within the hour, brusquely shooed Paula from the room and shut the door behind her. When he beckoned her back in, he was blunt.
“Fever, malnutrition, minor frostbite and,” here he hesitated, then continued, “abuse.”
Paula took his meaning at once. “You don’t mean the bruising on her face.”
“No,” he said, snapping his bag shut. “You are aware, I presume, of the nature of her profession.”
“Yes,” Paula said. “Will she fully recover?”
“Physically, in time.” He washed his hands in the basin, then dried them fastidiously on his handkerchief. “I can have an ambulance here this evening,” he said.
Surprised, she glanced at Nancy’s sleeping face and asked, “Is her condition so serious that she needs to be in hospital?”
“No. Basic care will see her put right.” He met her puzzled gaze over his glasses and said, “The ambulance is to take her to the charity ward. You can’t mean to keep her here.”
Paula answered without hesitation. “I do.”
He raised an eyebrow, then with a shake of his head gave her a weary look that seemed to say he’d seen it all and refused to be surprised by anything new. “Then keep her warm, clean and fed, and your valuables locked up tight. Good afternoon.”
Williams lingered after the doctor left, and said, “Nancy will be all right?”
“Yes,” Paula said. “And she’ll stay here until she’s well again.”
His eyes widened a little, but then he smiled and said, “Bless you, ma’am. She’s a bricky girl, that one, and she’ll be on her feet in no time.” He touched his cap and as he left, said, “Good afternoon, ma’am.”
After a moment’s consideration, Paula went into the kitchen to start some broth, then took a kettle of warm water upstairs.
She refilled the basin, stoked the fire a little higher and then pulled back the covers to bathe her patient. She found the doctor had already removed Nancy’s thin dress, leaving her just in her worn underthings. Paula stripped those off as well, then gently cleaned Nancy up as best as she was able. There were more bruises, the majority on her arms and back, and Paula’s lips compressed as each one was revealed.
Once Nancy was clean and dry, Paula slipped one of her own gowns over Nancy’s head and arms, then tucked her back under the blankets. The flush in her cheeks had faded a bit, and now her sleep seemed natural. When Paula put a hand to Nancy’s forehead it seemed only slightly warmer than it should be. Nancy stirred a little and murmured, “Mum?” then opened her eyes, saw Paula and shrank back.
“It’s all right,” Paula said.
“What -,” Nancy paused and shook her head. “Where am I?”
“Number 9, Thornton Square,” Paula said. “You’re in my room.”
Nancy looked around and said, “No, it’s not right, it’s too small.”
“It’s a different room, Nancy. Do you remember coming home with me?”
“Thought I was dreaming. That or dying,” she said and closed her eyes. “I was so cold.”
“Yes, it was much too cold to be outside. But now you’re inside, safe and warm.” Paula said.
“Coo,” Nancy said, her voice dim as if she were falling back into sleep.
“Is there anyone I can contact for you, Nancy? Anyone who might be worried if you don’t go home?”
Nancy shook her head and murmured, “No. No one.”
“All right, then. Go back to sleep and when you wake again we’ll try some broth.”
Nancy was quiet when Paula brought up the bowl of broth and ate most of it without speaking beyond asking, “Elizabeth is back?”
“No, I made it,” Paula said. “Is it satisfactory?”
Nancy shrugged. “It’s all right, I guess.”
When she finished, Paula took the tray and set it on the nightstand. “I’m going to take some of my belongings, she said, “but if you need something, please help yourself.” She pulled out a robe and some undergarments from the bureau, all the while aware that Nancy was watching her in the mirror.
“You could put me back in my old room,” Nancy said, her eyes shadowed.
“I could, but I’m afraid you would have to sleep on the floor. I haven’t replaced the furniture in there yet.”
“People will talk,” Nancy said abruptly. “A lady like you taking in someone like me.”
“I suppose they shall.”
“Oh, so you’re all brave now. What happened to the frightened little mouse?”
Paula closed the drawer and said, “She had the cat put in prison.”
Nancy let out a small snort of laughter. “You did at that.”
“Do you need anything, Nancy?”
“No ma’ - No,” she said.
Paula pulled the door to her old room shut behind her, then walked toward her aunt’s old room. She’d had it refurbished, but still felt a reluctance to enter it, to take ownership over a room where she’d been barely allowed as a child. I must grow beyond this, she thought, and settled herself in the new bed under the eye of Alice’s portrait. That night she dreamt that Aunt Alice stroked her forehead and kissed her, just as she’d done before going on tour, and woke the next morning feeling warm and safe, as if she’d finally come home.
Over the next several days Nancy improved; her colour came back, her eyes brightened, and after a bath her hair regained its former bright glory. If Paula sometimes heard Nancy suppress sounds of pain when she used the water closet, she pretended not to hear beyond asking if Nancy would like the doctor to see her again.
“Old busybody,” Nancy said. “No, I still have the medicine he left before.”
When Nancy was well enough to leave her room, she would sometimes join Paula in the drawing room.
“Coo,” she said the first time. “It’s so light and pretty.”
“Thank you,” Paula said, absurdly pleased. “Would you like some tea?”
Nancy seemed to hesitate, then said, “Yes, thank you.”
Paula poured and they drank in stiff and uncomfortable silence until Paula moved to the piano and played a simple tune.
“That’s pretty,” Nancy said. “What is it?”
“The Song That Reached my Heart,” Paula said.
“Are there words?”
Paula bent her head over the keyboard for while, then said, “Yes.”
“Well, go on, sing then.”
Reluctant, Paula said, “I warn you, it’s been a while.”.
Nancy folded her arms and said, “Sing.”
So Paula started over and let the words out, at first low and hesitant, then her throat eased and the song flowed out from her clear and true.
“I like that,” Nancy said when the last note faded. “In a city far beyond the sea,” she softly sang, “In a distant foreign land.”
“You have a lovely voice too, Nancy,” Paula said.
“For a music hall,” Nancy replied.
“No, truly. With training you could -”
“I could what? Be a singer like your aunt? Be a grand lady and have Quality showering me with jewels?” Her eyes flashed and her cheeks flushed as she added, “Be like you?”
“Why are you suddenly so angry?”
“Because you’re stupid,” Nancy said, her voice harsh. “Stupid and - and-,” her lips worked and she finally spat out, “nice,” as if it was the worst thing she could think of. “I would have done it, you know. He could’ve crooked a finger and I would have done it with him, right there in the drawing room when you was taking a nap.” She clenched her fists, her eyes bright and hard as she continued, “And when he was done, I would’ve gone upstairs and called you madame and brought you tea all the while he was still drying on my thighs.”
Paula put a hand to her throat, then took a breath, shut the piano cover and said, “I believe that says more about you, Nancy, than it does me.”
“Are you going to show me the door again, then? Kick me out in my borrowed robe and knickers?”
Paula shook her head. “No.”
“Then it says you’re stupid. I knew what he was the first time I saw him. Men like him are everywhere, they think a pretty accent and some posh clothes are enough to fool some stupid rich woman into either opening her purse or her legs -”
“That’s enough, Nancy!”
“And then you bring me back because you feel guilty about me, like I’m an animal you shooed outside and then was sorry because it was caught in the rain.”
“Now you’re being absurd. I don’t think of you as an animal.”
“Oh, am I your servant again, and I’m to shut my mouth and mind my business?”
“No, you’re a guest in my home.”
“A guest,” Nancy scoffed.
“Yes, and while I don’t want or expect gratitude, I do expect courtesy. That’s all.” With that, Paula rose from the bench and went to her room, shutting the door firmly behind her.
She tossed and turned, unable to sleep and when there was a knock at her door, she was still wide awake. “Yes?” she called.
The door slowly opened and she saw Nancy’s hand clenched tight on the doorknob, Nancy’s head bowed, her face shadowed. “I am grateful.” Nancy said, her voice low. “Don’t know very well how to say it, but I am.”
Paula said, quietly, “Thank you, Nancy.”
“And I’m sorry too, for saying those things and being mean.” She paused, then muttered, “I still think you’re too stupid for words.”
With a sudden spurt of amusement, Paula said, “I assure you, it’s been noted.”
“What do I call you then? If I’m a guest and not a servant?”
“Why, you can call me by my name, of course.”
Nancy half turned her head and mouthed it, as if testing the word, then said, “Well then. Goodnight, Paula.”
The next morning Nancy cautiously smiled at her, and when Paula smiled back, she moved to help with preparing breakfast. As they ate, Nancy said, “Paula.”
Nancy flashed another smile and said, “Coo, you answered to it.”
Paula smiled again and said, “Did you have a question , or simply to see if I recognized my own name?”
Nancy shoved a forkful of eggs around on her plate, then said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. You say I’m your guest and that’s all well and good, but I have to work, don’t I?”
“If you like,” Paula said. “Do you have something in mind?”
“Well,” Nancy said slowly, “I suppose I could be your maid again. If you want me.”
“Do you want to be my maid?”
Nancy made a face of distaste. “Not particularly. Do you want me to be?”
“No,” Paul said, then added without malice, “You weren’t an especially good one.”
“Oh, that stings it does. Very well, what am I supposed to do?”
“You could be my companion,” Paula suggested.
“And what does a companion do, then?”
Paula shrugged. “She keeps her employer company, reads to her, accompanies her to parties and outings.”
Nancy wrinkled her nose. “I’m not much for reading.”
“No, I think I can manage that on my own.”
“Well then, going to parties and the theater. That sounds like a bit of a lark. Anything else?”
Paula met her eyes directly. “Don’t ever lie to me.”
“Well,” Nancy said after a pause, “I’ll try. Anything else?”
“Please tell me if I’m being stupid.”
“Oh, that won’t a problem.”
The winter continued cold, and Paula rarely ventured out beyond trips to the market. Now that she was providing for two she asked Nancy to accompany her and often wound up with rather more sweets that she was accustomed to in her basket. But after the first time, when Nancy stopped on the way home to hand them out to the children along the way, Paula soon found herself adding to the total.
“It’s a hard life,” Nancy had said, her voice and posture defensive.
“Yes,” Paula agreed. “Maybe some buns in addition to the sweets?”
“If you like,” Nancy said casually, but her eyes shone.
In early February Maestro Guardi finally responded to her letter and granted Paula the absolution she craved, but wasn’t sure she deserved.
My dear Paula, he began, there is no need to beg forgiveness. Indeed, it is I who should beg yours. I should have known when he showed up, hat in hand with no references, but so much talent. He finished, You say you cannot sing, but I know better. With me or without, I pray you find your voice again.
Please know you will always be welcome in my home.
He signed with a flourish Guardi.
“Coo,” Nancy said when Paula shared the letter. “Going back to Italy, are you?”
“No,” Paula said. “I promised myself I’d stay here until it was over.”
“I don’t know,” Paula said quietly. “We shall see.”
When the trial started, the press descended on the square once more and Paula asked Miss Thwaites if she would mind having her maids do the shopping. It was a kindness Paula appreciated, but it left her with little to do once she’d finished the cooking and cleaning.
Nancy caught her circling the drawing room like a lost soul and finally took her by shoulders and sat her at the piano. “Play something,” she said. “I can’t watch you make one more circuit without my eyes falling out.”
Paula stared blindly at the keys. “What shall I play?”
“Something that will keep you sitting,” Nancy said tartly.
Her mind blank, Paula sought to bring a tune to mind, then said, “Will you sing, Nancy?”
“Play something I know and yes, I will.”
After a moment of thought, she said, “Something from Dorothy?”
Nancy inclined her head and said, “Can you play Queen of my Heart?”
“Yes,” Paula said, and set her fingers to the keys.
And so the week of the trial passed, and when it was over, Paula didn’t need to read the note Inspector Cameron sent over. She’s already heard the newsboy’s cries of, “Guilty, guilty, the Thornton Square Strangler is found guilty!”
“You don’t have to go,” Inspector Cameron had written. “But if you want to be a witness, you may.”
Paula didn’t especially, but a part of her felt she must. On the day of the execution she dressed carefully in dove gray, not in mourning, but because it fit her mood.
“You’re going, then,” Nancy said.
“Yes.” Paula pulled on her gloves and looked up in surprise as Nancy settled a wrap around her own shoulders.
“Well then, I’ll go too,” she said.
The warden met them at the front gate, then escorted them to the small, private square where the gallows waited.
After a short wait, Gregory emerged through a hidden door. He was thin, sallow and dressed in shabby prison garb. His hair, Paula noted, was cut brutally short. He was cuffed, and stumbled a little on the steps leading up to the platform where the noose waited.
He looked over at the witnesses, saw Nancy and his eyes widened a little, then touched on Paula and went blank. He blinked, then looked away, a muscle working in his jaw.
The priest asked him for his last words and he simply said, “Get on with it.”
Paula watched dispassionately as the hangman put the hood over Gregory’s head, and then the noose. The priest spoke to him, then stepped away and nodded at the hangman. The crowd seemed to hold its breath and then let it out in a collective sigh when the lever was pulled and Gregory dropped. It was, Paula heard later, a clean hanging, no kicking legs or struggles for breath, just a short, sharp snap and Gregory hung still.
Nancy remained silent on the cab ride home, then asked when they were inside, “Did you feel sorry for him, then?”
“No,” Paula said shortly. “It was an easier death than the one he gave my aunt.”
It seemed the height of irony that a few days later her solicitor sent her notice that an annulment of her marriage had been granted. She was free of him, legally and morally, and yet still felt that some part of her was indelibly stained.
“You’re being stupid,” Nancy said when Paula mentioned this. “Are you increasing?”
Paula shook her head no. She’d known that she’d escaped that particular predicament less than a month after Gregory’s arrest.
“Then put him out of your mind and stop being an idiot,” Nancy said. “What he did doesn’t affect who you are now. All right?”
“All right,” Paula said.
When spring finally came, Paula met Miss Thwaites in the square saying hello to her tulips and daffodils.
“How good to see you my dear,” she said “What a dreadful winter. Are you off to market?”
“Yes," Paula said. “I want some fresh flowers for the drawing room.”
“How lovely,” Miss Thwaites exclaimed. “I haven’t seen it since you’ve redone it.”
“Then you must come to tea,” Paula said, graciously taking the hint.
“I’ll be there this afternoon,” Miss Thwaites said.
With a smile, Paula set off to market and picked up some extra buns for the children, plus some sweets that Nancy would never ask for, but always seemed to make disappear.
Miss Thwaites promptly rang the bell at four o’clock, and her smile of anticipation faltered when Nancy answered the door.
“You,” she exclaimed.
“Me,” Nancy agreed, and added grandly, “Won’t you come in?”
“My dear,” Miss Thwaites said to Paula, “what is this?”
“Nancy,” Paula said pointedly, “is my dear companion. Nancy, will you take Miss Thwaites to the drawing room? I’ll be up directly with the tea.”
She entered the drawing room with the tea to find them at opposite ends of the sofa and daggers in their eyes.
Miss Thwaites said, “You are a rude and impertinent creature.”
“Yes, I am,” Nancy said complacently.
“If you were my girl I’d take a switch to you,” Miss Thwaites exclaimed.
“Bessie,” Paula said in a reproving tone as she set down the tea tray.
“You spoil her, Paula.”
“I do no such thing,” Paula said firmly, then sat down at the piano. “Nancy, if you would pour?”
Nancy rolled her eyes and said, “I suppose.”
“Lovely,” Paula said with a smile. “Now, then, what shall we sing today?”