Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
Hildegarde followed Vie down the hallway to the parlour room, which was empty and silent save for the spitting of the fire. Vie took one of the seats nearest to it. Hildegarde sank down into the armchair opposite, her legs as heavy as lead.
Vie was unreadable. Hildegarde wished, not for the first time, that degas didn’t wear masks.
“Why did you want to speak to me?” Hildegarde said.
Vie rearranged her skirts, her hands like white spiders in their gloves. “In all honesty, Hildegarde, I think you know why.”
Sweat beaded on Hildegarde’s palms, but she didn’t let her eyes flicker. She’d dealt with this before. Teachers who took her aside to ask ‘if there’s anything you want to tell me’ – they had no proof she’d done anything wrong, but they wanted to trick her into confessing something. She’d never fallen for it. She wouldn’t now.
“I don’t…really get what you mean,” she said. “Is this about Paris? I was rude to him earlier – I’m sorry—”
Vie waved a hand. “It’s not about Paris.”
“Then my brother?”
“Not him, either.” Vie seemed to study her for a moment, her hands tightly folded over each other. “Wilson says you were late out of your signing lesson today.”
Understanding prickled over Hildegarde’s skin like gooseflesh. Wilson was the chauffeur.
“I was just looking at the cakes in the bakery across from Atkinson’s,” Hildegarde said. “I lost track of time. I did tell him sorry.”
Vie sighed, almost sadly. “He saw you speaking to a boy.”
Fear flashed in the pit of her stomach. That snitch! was her first thought, and it hit her then that the staff must be spies as much as servants. How could she have been so stupid, to walk down the main road with Albie, to hug him like that—?
She’d hugged him. Wilson must’ve seen that, must’ve passed it on. Vie had no reason to think that Hildegarde and Albie were conspiring together, no reason to think they were planning an escape. So she might have formed her own conclusions about why Hildegarde was speaking to him.
For the first time, she let her eyes flicker. The fire was overly warm, so she hoped her face looked flushed. In a small voice, she said:
“I- I didn’t think anyone would find out.”
Vie shifted. “I had been wondering why you seemed out of sorts, these last few weeks. What is the boy’s name?”
“Daniel,” she said, scrunching her hands together. “He’s not – he doesn’t make me out of sorts. He’s nice to me.”
“I’m sure he is,” Vie said, her voice surprisingly gentle. “But I imagine it’s a strange, new way to feel.”
Hildegarde only shrugged, keeping her eyes on her knees. She flinched when Vie reached out to touch her hand.
“My dear,” she said, “you do know that it can’t continue?”
Hildegarde swallowed, wishing she could shove her hand off. The leather of the glove was cool against her skin, barely real.
“Why not?” Hildegarde asked, thinking she ought to be petulant. That was how the older girls at the House had been, when they got told off for sneaking out to meet boys.
“Because you’re going to be a posie, my girl,” Vie said. “Very soon, you’ll be officiated. It’s likely that, after Paris completes his PhD, the pair of you will move south, so that he can aid the government with his Reading abilities. This can’t end smoothly. It’s better to end things now, in an early stage. Before the feelings ruin you.”
“Why would they ruin me?” Hildegarde said. Then, dangerously: “What would you know about it?”
“Too much, I’m afraid,” Vie said, leaning back against her chair “When Manon was in training to be my posie, she fell for one of the footmen. I didn’t disrupt it – she seemed so swept up in it, so happy, and I didn’t want to take that from her.” She sighed. “A grave mistake on my part. The footman knew, even if Manon didn’t, that the relationship couldn’t last. He broke things off and left her a wreck. She blamed herself, blamed me, wouldn’t eat properly for weeks, couldn’t sleep. It was months before she came back to herself.”
Hildegarde was stunned for a moment. Manon was so ancient and wrinkled and silent, it was almost impossible to imagine her young – and harder still to imagine her angry or passionate, her face anything other than a mask.
“It can cause so much pain, my dear. You wouldn’t even believe it,” Vie said. “Look at me, Hildegarde. Promise me you won’t see this boy anymore.”
Hildegarde lifted her eyes. “I promise.”
“Very well. You may go.”
Hildegarde got to her feet. Before she reached the door, she stopped and turned.
“I meant to ask,” Hildegarde said, “but where is Manon at the minute? She doesn’t come down for meals anymore.”
Vie bowed her head. “She’s rather unwell, I’m afraid. Her health has been unpredictable for years, but she is 87, so I suspect that…” She tailed off. “Let’s hope that she recovers.”
Hildegarde nodded, then left wordlessly. She thought of Manon all the way up the stairs – the old Manon, with her wispy hair and pouchy face, and a younger Manon pasted over her like cellophane. Hildegarde imagined her fair-haired and angular, not quite beautiful. Who might she have been, if she hadn’t been a posie? A wife, maybe. A mother. A grandmother or even great-grandmother, by now, with a web of family to mourn her.
When Hildegarde reached the top of the stairs, she knocked on Daisy’s door. I’ve changed my mind, she heard herself say, once the girl let her in. We’ve got to get out of here, and I don’t care how we do it.
“What about this?” Daisy asked, scooping up a jade necklace. Moonlight skittered across the chain links.
“Fe never wears it,” Hildegarde whispered. “I don’t think it would be ‘missed’.”
Daisy dropped it back on the desk with a clatter. Hildegarde almost whacked her, but it wouldn’t have helped. Daisy didn’t seem to have a sense of caution. She supposed that would happen, were you unable to feel fear.
They were in Gaiv’s chambers, blundering around in near darkness. Gaiv was still downstairs, presumably drinking brandy in the parlour room, and fe usually turned in at about ten o’clock. It was quarter to ten now.
“Where does fe keep the masks?” Hildegarde asked. “They’d be missed.”
Daisy started yanking out compartments in a chest of drawers, slamming them shut when she found nothing notable inside. When she pulled open the third drawer, she stopped.
“Here. Creepiest fecking drawer in the house.”
Hildegarde padded over to look. Layers upon layers of masks lay inside the drawer, upturned and staring at nothing. As befitted Gaiv, most were plain and featureless, but Hildegarde sifted through them and found one carved of ivory, and one made of black silk with a boarder of pearls.
“These look worth stealing,” Hildegarde said, gathering them up. Only when she held the masks in her hands did she realise how much bigger a degas’ head was compared to her own. “Have you ever seen a degas without a mask?”
“No,” Daisy said.
Outside on the landing, something creaked, and a shadow blocked the light easing out from under the door. Hildegarde yanked Daisy to the floor and struggled into the stifling darkness beneath the bed. The masks were clamped against her stomach, digging into her ribs. Daisy was pressed close by, her greasy hair in Hildegarde’s face.
The door opened. The light flicked on, making Hildegarde scrunch up smaller. A pair of human feet crossed the carpet – a servant, thank god, just a servant, getting the room ready. They lit the fire, slipped a warming pan under the bedsheets. They paused by the dressing table, perhaps to pick up a jade necklace and hang it back on the jewellery tree.
Eventually, she left. Hildegarde wanted to wait, to be sure she wasn’t coming back, but there wasn’t time – Gaiv would be here soon. She wriggled out from under the bed, pulling Daisy with her, and the two stole down the corridor and up the stairs, to where the servants’ bedrooms were.
“Which is hers?” Hildegarde asked, breathless. “I’ve never been up here.”
“Look for the smallest one. She’s new – she’ll have the shittiest room.”
They searched the rooms in turn, but they all seemed poky and under-furnished to Hildegarde, after months at the estate. Eventually, they found a room no larger than a cupboard, with a small camp bed and a wardrobe with just one rail inside. Hildegarde slipped the masks into the dark, narrow gap between the wardrobe and the wall, her stomach fluttering with guilt.
It was a bad thing to do. Dante wouldn’t do it.
Dante didn’t have to do it, she reasoned. He had her to rescue him.
“You’re sure they’ll find it, if they come searching?” Hildegarde said, dusting her hands.
“They know the hiding places. They’ve dealt with thieving maids before,” Daisy said. “Come on.”
They left, wending back down the staircase. As they reached the second floor again, the domain where they were expected to roam, a knot loosened in Hildegarde’s chest. It was okay. They’d nearly got away with it, nearly, nearly—
The bathroom door opened. Gaiv’s posie stepped out.
Hildegarde came to a stop without meaning to, heat running to her face as the posie took them in. Her doorknob hair shone in the lamplight, and her eyes were unfriendly as they passed over her and Daisy.
Daisy eyed her back. “You want something?”
Her voice was imperious. The posie looked between the two of them once more, then turned away and headed back to the stairs. Hildegarde’s feet shifted as if to run after her.
“She’ll tell on us!” Hildegarde hissed, once she was out of earshot. “What’re we going to- can we stop her?”
“No,” Daisy said, as airily as always. “She saw us standing within a meter of each other, on the floor where our bedrooms are. It’s not a crime. And it’s only suspicious if you do what you just did, and stand there looking like she caught you pissing in the queen’s porridge.”
“What if we get asked about it?”
“Then we make something up. Go to bed.”
Hildegarde did as she was told, but she couldn’t relax. She kept expecting Gaiv to bust down her door and point the finger at her, to start yelling about stolen masks. When she slept, she dreamt of it, expect Gaiv’s finger was three times as long as it should’ve been, and it kept poking her in the eyes.
The next morning, no maid came to wake Hildegarde – she stirred alone, to the sounds of thundering feet above. She dressed quickly, then met Paris on the stairs.
“Is something going on?” she asked, trying to sound merely curious.
“Some of Gaiv’s masks are missing,” Paris said. “Fe thinks one of the servants has been stealing. I’m not sure why it matters, because fe still has fifteen of them.”
“Oh,” was all Hildegarde said. She tried to think of a non-suspicious comment to add, but spent too long thinking, so said nothing.
When they arrived in the dining hall, it was empty except for Sen, Harrison and Daisy, who had served themselves – clearly they weren’t expecting Vie and Gaiv to join them anytime soon. As Hildegarde forced down yoghurt, she heard footsteps on the stairs, and the high, gabbling tones of a pleading voice. Hildegarde made out ‘wasn’t me’, then nothing else.
The doors to the dining hall opened. Vie stood at the entrance, and Sen looked round at her.
“Did you find them?” she asked.
Vie nodded. “Behind a wardrobe. It was the new maid, as Gaiv thought.”
“Sounds like she was denying it.”
“Oh, fervently.” Her tone was distracted, and she turned to Hildegarde. “Hildegarde. Daisy. Could you just come with me?”
Hildegarde’s body went cold. She tried to mimic Daisy, who looked so unconcerned as to be almost bored, following Vie at a loitering pace that bordered on insolence. Vie took them to the parlour room she and Hildegarde had spoken in the night before, but it was far colder today. The grate held only burned coals.
“Can I smoke?” Daisy asked, pulling her Marlboros from her pocket. She clicked the lighter before Vie could say anything.
“What’s this about?” Hildegarde asked.
Vie studied them. Hildegarde could almost hear cogs whirring behind her mask. Then she said:
“You’re not in trouble, either of you – though you will be, Daisy, if you keep dropping ash on that rug,” she said. “I just want to ask you a question, and I want an honest answer. Heather, Gaiv’s posie, says she saw the pair of you speaking together last night on the second floor.”
A beat of silence. Hildegarde’s pulse throbbed in her neck.
“That’s not a question,” Daisy said.
Vie twitched. “Quite right. I just mean to ask what you were speaking about. Because I believe I told you to leave Hildegarde alone, after the grief you caused her at New Year.”
“I believe you did. But she came to me, as it happens.”
Hildegarde jerked her head to look at her. What was she doing?
“Cornered me, she did, wanted to speak somewhere nobody’d overhear,” Daisy continued. “She’s got boy trouble.”
For a moment, nobody said anything. Hildegarde was nonplussed – she hadn’t told Daisy about her conversation with Vie; there hadn’t been time – but she recovered quickly enough to clench her fists and look away, abashed.
“Boy trouble?” Vie repeated.
“Some lad she’s met at her signing lessons. She’s sweet on him. Wanted to know how to impress him.”
“Why would she go to you for advice?”
“Yeah, that’s my question too,” Daisy said, tapping her chin and looking at Hildegarde. “Why didn’t you go to Paris, love guru that he is?”
“I thought you wouldn’t tell,” Hildegarde muttered.
Vie dusted a hair from her sleeve. “What’s this boy’s name?”
Hildegarde tensed. Daniel, she’d told her. There was no way Vie had forgotten.
Daisy just shrugged. “She didn’t say. She was a bit cagey about the whole thing, to be honest.”
“I see,” Vie said. “If you could leave us, Daisy. I’ll speak to you later.”
Daisy bowed out of the room, dropping her cigarette into one of the pristine ashtrays. Hildegarde almost shivered under Vie’s gaze.
“Hildegarde,” she said. “I meant what I said yesterday, and I don’t appreciate you making empty promises to my face. Wilson will accompany you to and from Atkinson’s from now on. If I find out that you are still attempting to see this boy, I will be forced to move you to a different tutor. Is that understood?”
“Very well. You may go.”
Hildegarde left as quickly as she could without looking like she was running. Daisy had loitered in the corridor outside, and the two of them walked side-by-side back to the dining hall.
“I can believe she bought that,” Hildegarde murmured.
“She didn’t,” Daisy said. “She knows we’re hiding something. She just doesn’t want to start chucking accusations around, not unless she’s certain. If she’s wrong, she’ll ruin the chances for a clean entanglement.” She glanced back down the hall, to where Vie had emerged from the parlour room. “She’s going to be watching us from now on.”
The words sank sickeningly into Hildegarde’s stomach. She tried to summon up the triumph of obtaining the conditions, even the quiet confidence that came from gaining the bird’s trust, but it wouldn’t come. The second condition had been undone, but an innocent girl was packing her bags because of it. She was banned from seeing Albie. And Vie was catching on.