Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  Aurélie declared that she did not talk secrets, and Lucretia smothered her with lisped words of eternal admiration and devotion, her tone as false as her smiles.

  On the third day of the Bouldeston visit, Aurélie used her pianoforte practice as an excuse to exclude herself when the older girls took over the schoolroom as their personal parlor. This excuse was accepted with obvious relief by Cassandra, who I suspect had been anxious that Lucretia might dump her and suck up to the marquis’s daughter.

  Aurélie retired to the downstairs parlor to practice her music. It was while she was losing herself in her fae melodies that I overheard Aunt Kittredge and her sister directly outside the parlor door, for they did not trouble to lower their voices.

  “…she is really very good,” Lady Bouldeston was saying. “You know that my taste has always been superior, Philomena. This is why I hired only the best music masters to my girls. You may rely on my word. You know I never compliment. And in fact, I will observe, to demonstrate my sense of justice, that your niece’s complexion is far too brown and though her curls are charming, you must take care that they do not grow as wild as some African savage. And that puts me in mind of a question. Lucasta chanced to observe that Aurélie runs off by herself some mornings.”

  “Yes. She likes to take walks. I must say, the child is not lazy. I wish my girls were as vigorous, but dear Cassandra suffers with a delicate constitution. We have had to be very careful, and our medical man agrees with our opinion of the case. He says that a mother is always the most reliable judge. Now, Sister, to revert to the previous subject, an idea has come to me this past year. I meant to ask you. I know your husband has a brother at the Admiralty…” They moved out of hearing, and I wondered if the parents were thinking of the Navy instead of the Army for James. The Admiralty was where you’d go to get a son recommended aboard a ship as a midshipman, though James was rather old for that. But money talks, as always.

  James slunk in through the back door with a slightly hunted expression, and I wondered if Lucretia had been trying to flirt. These were the days when cousin marriages were common. He offered to turn pages for Aurélie as they stole smiles at one another. Later, they slipped away, met in the barn, and went back to their usual practice of fencing and occasional kisses, glad that the visitors kept everyone else busy so they got more time with one another.

  That was Day Three. On the fourth, I became aware of a shadow behind Aurélie that she didn’t see. I could sense it—I could almost see it—but it wasn’t until Aurélie paused at the barn door and cast a habitual glance behind her that I was also able to turn. I glimpsed Lucasta ducking behind the horse trough. Aurélie’s mind was clearly elsewhere, because she didn’t react.

  I poked Aurélie, who started, then made a face. “Duppy Kim, please do not do that,” she whispered, as she sped up the ladder to the loft where she kept her clothes. “There are no mirrors here for us to speak,” she muttered as she shed the layers of female clothing.

  She was always speedy, but especially now, with her breath clouding in the wintry chill. She shrugged into her outfit and crammed her curls up into a laborer’s cap that James had found her.

  I poked her hand again. She made an irritable gesture of warding, and kept climbing down, her attention on James, who entered the barn, walked over, and put his arms around her. She reached up for a kiss—

  And the barn door opened. There stood Lucasta, looking around with avid interest as she mimed surprise. “Oh, pray, Cousin, I was looking for you to—”

  Her mouth fell open. Then the barn door slammed, and Lucasta was gone.

  I will draw a curtain over the painful scene that ensued and report only that by the end of the evening, Aurélie was engaged. But still in trouble.

  The thing that had upset the adults the most was the breeches.

  The thing that upset me was the image of Dobrenica vanishing and along with it, everyone I loved. Me, too.

  “That is why you touched me. You warned me, did you not?” Aurélie asked me in the mirror that night, after she’d cried herself out.

  “Yes,” I said. “I saw her following you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t do better than that.”

  Her chin lifted. “It is I who should be sorry. You warned me. I ought to have found a mirror, or a glass, at once. But I was inattentive. I will never be so again.” She sighed. “I find it difficult not to hate Lucasta. Why should she spy on me?”

  “I think you should ask why she is angry,” I said.

  “She is angry? At me? But I have done nothing to her.”

  “She is angry at the world.”

  “This is a strange thing you tell me,” she responded, tipping her head with a puzzled air. “Well, I shall soon be seventeen. Then only another year and James and I can marry, and my dowry will permit us to live anywhere we like.”

  Alec—Dobrenica. She trusts me, right? These things streamed through my mind, prompting an instinctive response: “Aurélie, believe me when I say that he’s not the right man for you.”

  Saving Dobrenica came first, but not far behind it was the image I’d glimpsed of her happy honeymoon. And I’d built up a good relationship with Aurélie. She might listen.

  But on the other hand, when has anyone ever come well out of the I-hate-to-be-the-one-to-tell-you-but-that-guy-is-totally-wrong-for-you conversation?

  Yeah.

  Aurélie’s eyelids flashed up. Then her chin. “I shall choose for myself. Maman promised, and James is my beloved. We have sworn to be true to one another for eternity.”

  She yanked her hand away from the mirror and didn’t come back.

  FOURTEEN

  BEFORE SHE WENT TO BED, she threw a blanket over the mirror. The next day she replaced it with a holland cover, draping it neatly. The message was clear. She didn’t want to talk to me.

  Since there wasn’t anything I could do except wait, I waited. I’ve been here before, I kept reminding myself. Somehow I got past this. I had to keep my eye out for that moment when the past became possible futures, endangering Dobrenica.

  I still had no idea what that meant.

  And so time blurred on, season following season, each day largely the same pattern. Aurélie’s eighteenth birthday came and went. James was still around, but the two were forbidden to interact except with the entire family present. Aurélie was still betrothed, though secretly, and the betrothal didn’t stop Aunt Kittredge from lecturing Aurélie about indelicacy and reputation as if she’d been running after every guy in the countryside. The problem was, they showed a distinct tendency to run after her whenever they were invited to local parties.

  That made poor Cassandra frantic with jealousy, and Aunt Kittredge continued to hector Aurélie about being “fast” even if she sat still. The boys flocked around if she so much as smiled, that charming crooked smile with one side quirked whimsically.

  Spring came at last, and still no wedding. Skip all my desperate plans to foul it up, not that I had any magical abilities besides the Power of the Poke. Judging by the holland cover now neatly arranged over the mirror, Aurélie was angry enough to have ignored me thoroughly even if I’d poked her entirely through the ceremony. She was determined to marry James and to prove her loyalty In Spite Of Them All (I was included in the “Them”), and she would Love Him Forever.

  The holland cover only got rid of me in her own mind. I think she was so used to talking to me in the mirror that she forgot I was connected to her all the time, not just when she looked in the mirror.

  She wasn’t the only angry one. Cassandra moped around dramatically when she found out that the family was not going to London for her to be presented to the queen, which was the way the haut monde officially launched their girls into society. She pouted for days after Uncle Kittredge and James departed to visit the Horse Guards and see about James’s joining the army—I guessed that the naval plan had come to nothing. Cassandra’s mood was not helped by her being the recipient of a constant stream of letters from Lucretia, as usual e
xulting over the Bouldestons’ prospective season in London.

  Cassandra was furious with envy, but she couldn’t bring herself not to read every word. We had to listen as Cassandra read the letters aloud. Lucretia Bouldeston was unsurpassed at wringing maximum drama out of a mere introduction and detecting secret passion in the briefest contact with her partner during a single dance. Cassandra finished each letter wailing that she would never see London and she would die an old maid and nobody cared.

  Before James left for London, Romeo and Juliet were restricted to longing glances across the dining table, and on the way to church and back. As a consolation (or maybe to get Cassandra out of the house) the girls were taught to drive James’s old gig, after which they were permitted to tool sedately to various neighbors to take tea or to attend dance practices, or impromptu dances—although only when the moon was full, and they were accompanied by a sturdy servant armed with an ancient fowling piece that Aurélie could probably have wielded better.

  Everyone was getting ready for the social season.

  Toward the end of March the girls went off to another tea party, and spent the afternoon eating heavy cake and drinking tea as the select company said the exact same things about the weather, each other’s hats, and the new fashions, that they’d said at the last party. When the girls arrived home, they discovered that James and Uncle Kittredge had returned from London.

  Aurélie was overjoyed to see James back. But he didn’t seem as glad to see her. He appeared uncomfortable and hastily excused himself.

  She went upstairs to change for dinner, her expression troubled.

  As Aurélie repinned her hair, Diana slipped into her room. “There is something vastly amiss,” she whispered.

  “What can it be?” Aurélie asked.

  “I know not, but I heard Mama and Papa in the book room. Very loud. I detected your name spoken, otherwise I’d scorn to listen at doors. But they sounded so very angry that I felt that I should,” she finished frankly.

  “Oh, Diana, pray tell me what you heard!”

  “Nothing to the point.” Diana sighed. “Truth to tell, I don’t understand how Lucasta could be so adept as such practices. Though my eyesight is poor, there’s nothing amiss with my hearing, but I could only make out the occasional word. Pirates? Rebellion. Monalco? Mulatto? Is that even a word?”

  “There is a dance called the Monaco,” Aurélie said slowly. “A mulatto is a person with one parent who has pale skin and one with dark.”

  Mulatto? I was thinking. I’d stopped worrying about the fake nobility when that first year had passed without incident, but now that worry came rushing back.

  Diana went on, “Well, this much I can tell you: Mama is in a bait.”

  The girls stared at one another in dismay. The entire household walked softly when Philomena Kittredge was in a temper. Meanwhile, I was frantic with curiosity, regret, and most of all, rage at my own helplessness.

  Aurélie was subdued when she went down to dinner. To everyone’s surprise, they found Philomena smiling broadly, and I saw the girls relax a little. But I didn’t. The woman’s eyes looked strange in the candle light: Wide, the pupils huge and black. She’s up to something nasty, or I’m an armadillo, I thought.

  “My dears, we are to make a journey,” she said with that broad smile. “Now that there is to be peace with France, half of fashionable England is traveling to Paris. Where the Devonshires lead, what is there to do but follow? We would not be thought behindhand.”

  As soon as the girls had withdrawn upstairs to the schoolroom, Cassandra exulted, “Lucretia is not going. Or I would have heard.” She turned Aurélie’s way. “Mama hasn’t said, but we must be going to Paris to buy fabrics for our introduction to London. And perhaps silks for your trousseau. The French silks are infinitely superior, so I’ve heard.”

  “Shall we be presented to Napoleon Bonaparte?” Diana asked, and turned to Aurélie. “I remember when we were small, and someone, I think it was Papa, said that you were related to his wife.”

  “Aurélie, you must send in your name at the Tuileries,” Cassandra declared. “If Madame Bonaparte does remember your family, that would be capital. You could arrange our introduction to the best French society.”

  “There is no best French society,” Diana retorted. “They died on the guillotine.”

  “There has to be good society. Everyone talks of the beautiful Josephine and her beautiful palaces and clothes. What’s the use of that if there’s no society to see them?” Cassandra said.

  “I hope it’s as you say, because that would be one in Lucretia’s eye,” Diana stated. “At all events, I should like to have a look at the great Bonaparte after all we have heard about him.”

  “You won’t see anything at all,” Cassandra stated, screwing up her face in a mocking squint.

  Diana shrugged. “I will if I obtain a pair of spectacles. And so I shall. I care not a whit that ladies don’t wear spectacles. I want to see France in every detail, and no stupid quizzing glass that you have to hold all the time.”

  “My mother wears spectacles,” Uncle Kittredge said a couple hours later, when Diana brought it up.

  “That happened after she was safely married,” Aunt Kittredge retorted, but she was watching her husband as she said it. There was something going on between them; he seemed to have the advantage, for once, and she submitted. I wondered what had happened, and wished again that I could get away from Aurélie to do some listening on my own.

  Then Philomena was back to her usual self as she scowled at Diana. “If you must, then get them. But do not cry out for sympathy to me when no eligible gentleman will offer for you.”

  Diana shot back, “Cousin Charles likes me the way I am, and he wears spectacles.”

  “Your cousin Charles is a blockhead, throwing away a good career in law when there is no living set aside for him. You watch, he will end his life in some hamlet, preaching to toothless farmers, chickens, and pigs,” her mother said in disgust. “Do not take him for a pattern.”

  Diana looked down, her expression wooden. Uncle Kittredge said nothing, but the next day he drove her into town to the lens-maker.

  The first week in April found the family on a packet ship crossing the Channel. This one left Newhaven bound for Dieppe, for, as Cassandra told the other girls, Mama had stated that she did not intend to rub shoulders with every grocer’s wife who wished to crowd over to Calais. Papa had been to Dieppe before the Revolution, where he’d stayed at a hostelry he particularly liked. He’d been assured when he arranged the crossing that it was still there and still served only the best people.

  The packet set out on the running tide. It was late in the day. They would spent the night crossing and arrive in France in time for breakfast.

  Aunt Kittredge went straight to the tiny cabin she was to share with Diana, and stayed there, leaving her husband to hang out with the older men in the wardroom. James remained on deck, at a little distance from Aurélie and his sisters, who listened to Aurélie name the parts of the ship. Diana faced into the brisk wind, her eyes slitted behind her new spectacles, her grin wide. Even shivering, with the wind trying to take her bonnet away and tangling her skirts, she clearly relished every moment and pelted Aurélie with questions.

  Gradually James drifted closer and closer. I watched him, trying to figure out why he was keeping so aloof. If he and Aurélie had argued, I would have heard it, surely.

  But he didn’t talk, and at last, when Aurélie became aware of him, she quite naturally smiled and held out her hand. He flushed to the tips of his ears, his body stiff. He looked down at her with such an expression of mute misery that her smile changed to concern. Diana looked askance at her brother, and I knew something was very wrong.

  Then the bell rang for the passengers to assemble for dinner. They crowded into the wardroom, talking and laughing as dishes slid back and forth and lamps swung overhead.

  After dinner, the night being fine, the crew strung lanterns along the
deck so that passengers could walk about. Aurélie and the younger Kittredges joined other young people on the deck, where they worked through the polite inanities of introductory conversations.

  Diana scowled fixedly at the water, then said to Cassandra and Aurélie, “I left my handkerchief in the cabin, and my spectacles are thick with spots of brine.” She slipped away.

  Sometime later Aurélie became aware of James and Diana standing at the prow, talking earnestly. She made a move to join them, followed by Cassandra. As soon as the brother and sister saw the two girls approaching, they shut up.

  For a few seconds everyone looked at everyone else in the swinging lantern light, and I could feel the discomfort radiating off three of them. Only Cassandra seemed oblivious. Aurélie turned to James, appeal plain in her face, but he gazed out to sea as if rescue lay there.

  “I’m chilled,” Cassandra said finally. “Aurélie, we should retire.”

  There was only one lantern per cabin, so Aurélie had to go with her. What seemed like a few seconds after they blew out the light Aurélie jerked awake—and so did I. A small hand, just barely discernible in the weak blue moonlight filtering through the open scuttle, slid over her mouth. Aurélie’s eyes opened wide.

  Diana’s profile bent over her, moonlight reflecting briefly off the glass in her spectacles. She tugged on Aurélie’s arm.

  Aurélie slid noiselessly out of bed and wrestled into her travel gown—like the others, she’d slept in her stays and chemise. She slid her feet into her walking shoes and noiselessly left the cabin. Cassandra slept on undisturbed.

  The two girls didn’t speak until they were as far forward as they could get, and both shivered in the bleak pre-dawn chill. Diana then took Aurélie’s hands. “I want you to know first that I loathe such practices as my cousin Lucasta employs. But I believe I am doing right by you, even if Mama would not agree. James thinks so, as well.”

 
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