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"I am afraid we must settle the problem of what to do with Theodora," my brother-in-law said with a weary sigh. He looked past me to where my sister sat stitching placidly on a tiny gown. It had been worn four times already and wanted a bit of freshening.
Anna glanced up from her work to give me a fond look. "I rather think Theodora ought to have a say in that, William."
To his credit, he coloured slightly. "Of course she must." He sketched a tiny bow in my direction. "She is a woman grown, after all. But now that Professor Lestrange has been properly laid to rest, there is no one here to care for her. Something must be decided."
At the mention of my grandfather, I turned back to the bookshelf whose contents I had been sorting. His library had been an extensive one, and, to my anguish, his debts demanded it be sold along with anything else of value in the house. Indeed, the house itself would have to be sold, although William had hopes that the pretty little property in Picardy Place would fetch enough to settle the debts and leave me a tiny sum for my keep. I wiped the books carefully with a cloth sprinkled with neat's-foot oil and placed them aside, bidding farewell to old friends.
Just then the housekeeper, Mrs. Muldoon, bustled in. "The post, Miss Lestrange."
I sorted through the letters swiftly, passing the business correspondence to William. I kept only three for myself, two formal notes of condolence and the last, an odd, old-fashioned-looking letter written on thick, heavy paper and embellished with such exotic stamps and weighty wax seals that I knew at once who must have sent it. I hesitated to open it, savouring the pleasure of anticipation.
William showed no such restraint. He dashed a paper knife through the others, casting a quick eye over the contents.
"More debts," he said with a sigh. He reached for the ledger, entering the numbers with a careful hand. It was good of him to settle my grandfather's affairs so diligently, but at the moment I wanted nothing more than to be rid of him with his ledgers and his close questions about how best to dispose of a spinster sister-in-law of twenty-three.
Catching my mood, Anna smiled at her husband. "I find I am a little unwell. Perhaps some of Mrs. Muldoon's excellent ginger tea might help."
To his credit, William sprang up, all thoughts of me forgotten. "Of course." Naturally, neither of them alluded to the happy source of her sickness, and I wondered wickedly how happy the news had been. A fifth little mouth to feed on his modest living in a small parish. Anna for her part looked tired, her mouth drawn.
"Thank you," I told her when he had gone. I thrust my duster into my pocket and took up the paper knife. It seemed an act of sacrilege to destroy the seal, but I was wildly curious as to the contents.
Anna continued to stitch. "You must not be too impatient with William," she advised me as I began to read. "He does care for you, and he means well. He only wants to see you properly settled."
I mumbled a reply as I skimmed the letter, phrases catching my eye. My dearest friend, how I have missed you…at last he is coming to take up his inheritance… so much to be decided…
Anna chattered on for a few moments, trying to convince me of her husband's better qualities, I think. I scarce listened. Instead I began to read the letter a second time, more slowly, turning each word of the hasty scrawl over in my head.
"Deliverance," I breathed, sinking onto a hassock as my eyes lingered upon the last sentence. You must come to me.
"Theodora, what is it? Your colour has risen. Is it distressing news?"
After a moment, I found my voice. "Quite the opposite. Do you remember my school friend, Cosmina?"
Anna furrowed her brow. "Was she the girl who stayed behind during holidays with you?"
I had forgot that. After Anna had met and promptly married William at sixteen, I had been bereft. She had left us for his living in Derbyshire, and our little household never entirely recovered from the loss. She was but two years my senior, and we had been orphaned together in childhood. We had been each other's bulwark against the loneliness of growing up in an elderly scholar's household, and I had felt the loss of her keenly.
I had pined so deeply in fact, that my grandfather had feared for my health. Thinking it a cure, he sent me to a school for young ladies in Bavaria, and there I had met Cosmina. Like me, she did not make friends easily, and so we had clung to each other, both of us strangers in that land. We were serious, or so we thought ourselves, scorning the silliness of the other girls who talked only of beaux and debut balls. We had formed a fast friendship, forged stronger by the holidays spent at school when the other pupils who had fewer miles to travel had been collected by their families. Only a few of the mistresses remained to keep charge of us and a lively atmosphere always prevailed. We were taken on picnics and permitted to sit with them in the teachers' sitting room. We feasted on pastries and fat, crisp sausages, and were allowed to put aside our interminable needlework for once. No, we had not minded our exile, and many an evening we whiled away the hours telling tales of our homelands, for the mistresses had travelled little and were curious. They teased me fondly about hairy-kneed Highlanders and oat porridge while Cosmina made them shiver with stories of the vampires and werewolves that stalked her native Transylvania.
I collected myself from my reverie. "Yes, she was. She always spoke so bewitchingly of her home. She lives in a castle in the Carpathians, you know. She is kin to a noble family there." I brandished the letter. "She is to be married, and she begs me to come and stay through Christmas."
"Christmas! That is months away. What will you do with yourself for so long in…goodness, I do not even know what country it is!"
I shrugged. "It is its own country, a principality or some such. Part of the Austrian Empire, if I remember rightly."
"But what will you do?" Anna persisted.
I folded the letter carefully and slipped it into my pocket. I could feel it through my petticoats and crinoline, a talisman against the worries that had assailed me since my grandfather had fallen ill.
"I shall write," I said stoutly.
Anna primmed her lips and returned to her needlework.
I went and knelt before her, taking her hands in mine, heedless of the prick of the needle. "I know you do not approve, but I have had some success. It wants only a proper novel for me to be established in a career where I can make my own way. I need be dependent upon no one."
She shook her head. "My darling girl, you must know this is not necessary. You will always have a home with us."
I opened my mouth to retort, then bit the words off sharply. I might have wounded her with them. How could I express to her the horror such a prospect raised within me? The thought of living in her small house with four—now five!—children underfoot, too little money to speak to the expenses, and always William, kindly but disapproving. He had already made his feelings towards women writers quite clear. They were unyielding as stone; he would permit no flexibility upon the point. Writing aroused the passions and was not a suitable occupation for a lady. He would not even allow my sister to read any novel he had not vetted first, reading it carefully and marking out offending passages. The Brontës were forbidden entirely on the grounds that they were "unfettered." Was this to be my future then? Quiet domesticity with a man who would deny me the intellectual freedoms I had nurtured for so long in favour of sewing sheets and wiping moist noses?
No, it was not to be borne. There was no possibility of earning my own keep if I lived with them, and the little money I should have from my grandfather's estate would not sustain me long. I needed only a bit of time and some quiet place to write a full-length novel and build upon the modest success I had already enjoyed as a writer of suspenseful stories.
I drew in a calming breath. "I am grateful to you and to William for your generous offer," I began, "but it cannot be. We are different creatures, Anna, as different as chalk and cheese, and what suits you should stifle me just as my dreams would shock and frighten you."
To my surprise, she merely smiled. "I am not so easily shocked as all that. I know you better than you credit me. I know you long to have adventures, to explore, to meet interesting people and tell thrilling tales. You were always so, even from an infant. I remember you well, walking up to people and thrusting out your hand by way of introduction. You never knew a stranger, and you spent all your time quizzing everyone. Why did Mama give away her cherry frock after wearing it only twice? Why could we not have a monkey to call for tea?" She shook her head, her expression one of sweet indulgence. "You only stopped chattering when you were asleep. It was quite exhausting."
"I do not remember, but I am glad you told me." It had been a long time since Anna and I had shared sisterly confidences. I had seen her so seldom since her marriage. But sometimes, very occasionally, it felt like old times again and I could forget William and the children and the little vicarage that all had better claims upon my sister.
"You would not remember. You were very small. But then you changed after Papa died, became so quiet and close. You lost the trick of making friends. But I still recall the child you were, your clever antics. Papa used to laugh and say he ought to have called you Theodore, for you were fearless as any boy."
"Did he? I scarce remember him anymore. Or Mama. It's been just us for so long."
"And Grandfather," she said with a smile of gentle affection. "Tell me about the funeral. I was v...