Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The days after Christmas still weren’t easy, but Paris did his best to distract Hildegarde from Dante’s pressing silence. On Boxing Day, they went walking around Fountains Abbey with Sen and Harrison, tramping over frosted grass and under weathered arches. They weren’t allowed to climb on the broken walls, but Hildegarde did it anyway. Paris joined her, though he looked ungainly doing it, like a drunken, oversized mantis.
In the following days there came museum trips, more walks, visits to the cinema, shopping sprees, a return to the bird sanctuary – it seemed like Paris was working his way down a tourist list of Things To Do In York, ensuring there was always an activity to focus on or look forward to. But it did help. Sort of. The in-between moments still gnawed at her, and she slept fitfully every night, her thoughts grasping for Dante, but the days were manageable. It was something.
New Year’s Eve marked a month since she’d last heard from Dante. Sitting at the breakfast table, there seemed an awful lot of day to get through – they were going to the theatre in the evening, then a restaurant, then back to the estate to see the new year in. Hildegarde wondered if there’d be fireworks. Dante hated them. When they were young, he spent every bonfire night in bed, hands tight over his ears. Sometimes Hildegarde would comfort him. Other times she’d creep over and yell ‘BANG’ just as he was drifting off.
“I for one shall welcome the next year,” Vie said, spreading jam onto her bread. She turned to Hildegarde. “A lot of exciting changes. With any luck, we can officiate you as a posie by March, perhaps earlier.”
Hildegarde slipped from her thoughts. “That quick?”
From what she’d gleaned from the matrons, the training period usually took a year, if not longer. She turned to Paris for confirmation, but it was Gaiv that spoke.
“That’s a little hasty,” fe said. “Summer, perhaps.”
Vie drummed a finger against her glass. “I don’t see much reason to delay. Hildegarde’s been doing excellently.”
“All the same,” Gaiv said.
There was a brief silence, in which Hildegarde scrunched her hands in her skirts. As far as she knew, Vie and Gaiv hadn’t rowed since their blow-out in November, but every interaction since had been bruised with awkwardness. Hildegarde didn’t really understand the tension. As far as she could tell, life as an official posie wasn’t hugely different to life as a trainee – it was a little stricter, Paris had said, and they’d be expected to step into society proper, but the process was more of a formality than anything. They’d have to go down to London, see about signing forms and instating her as an official member of the Matreau family. Boring things. Though Paris had promised they’d go to the Natural History museum, see some dinosaurs.
“Do you think it will be March?” Hildegarde asked Paris later, when they were in his office reorganising part of the methodology section. “My birthday’s in March. I might like going to London for that.”
Paris shrugged. “Whatever Vie decides.”
She nodded. March. Thirteen years old in March. Dante would be thirteen as well, either a few minutes before or after her – she’d always argued that she was the older twin, though they had no way of knowing.
She pinched herself for thinking about him. Focus. Focus on the work, on your degas, on your life here. That’s clearly what Dante’s doing.
The theatre show, mercifully, was not an opera. Hildegarde didn’t usually have the patience for stage performances – the actors always spoke in silly, old-fashioned voices and didn’t act at all like real people. But this was a more modern musical, all about murder and jazz and love affairs, with a cast full of Americans and women in outrageous clothes. Mrs Humphreys would’ve hated it, which made Hildegarde clap all the harder when the actors took their bows. The leading lady, who had a head of blonde curls rather like Daisy’s, spotted Hildegarde standing in the front row and waved at her specifically.
“Did you see?” she babbled to Paris afterwards, as they walked down one of the winding streets to the restaurant. “She looked right at me, like I was a celebrity too. I’ve never met a celebrity. And they were right up close. Which was your favourite bit? I liked that creepy, puppet-y bit, and the bit with all that dancing at the end. Did you like that?”
“I thought it was all enjoyable,” Paris said mildly, and Hildegarde rolled her eyes at him.
She sat adjacent to Vie for the meal, who seemed far more enthused by the show than Paris. The two of them whiled away the starters and main courses discussing their favourite songs and sequences, before Vie moved on to talking about other musicals she’d seen.
“Sweet Charity is a favourite of mine. We’ll go to that if it shows here again, certainly,” she said. “I’ve got records of the songs, though I’m not sure where I last saw them. I’ll have to search Daisy’s room – she’s rather light-fingered.”
Hildegarde’s ears pricked at the name. “Does she like Sweet Charity?”
“Probably. She was a theatre girl at one point.” Vie passed her glass before her face, and Hildegarde marvelled at how normal it felt to see the wine vanish. “Where on earth are those dessert menus, for goodness’ sake? Sen, call that waiter—”
Hildegarde felt the shift in topic, but she had to bite back the urge to ask more about Daisy. A theatre girl? When? In what? Hildegarde imagined Daisy framed by a stage, waving to applause and blowing kisses like the actress had earlier, but her movements looked limp and puppet-like in her mind’s eye. She was pretty enough for stardom, definitely, but it was hard to imagine her moving with the zeal of a performer. Not when she spent her days drifting from room to room, slouched on chairs, smoking. Focus came into her eyes when she flipped through her playing cards, but she never did that when anyone was around.
By the time the desserts menus arrived, Vie was engrossed in conversation with Sen. Hildegarde ordered strawberry gelato. Dante’s favourite flavour, but she managed not to remember that.
Hildegarde felt the fireworks in her ribs. Scarf over her nose, she watched the black sky fracture into sparks and colours, her hands numb with cold even in their gloves. When a Catherine wheel squealed, so did one of the maids; a clump of servants stood a little way off, having been invited out to watch the display. Another rocket exploded overhead, throwing light across the ground below – Hildegarde saw the gamekeeper’s face, alight with laughter, and smiled to herself.
“Sparkler?” Paris asked, coming to stand beside her.
Hildegarde took one, then watched as Paris fiddled with the lighter. “They gave us these at the village bonfire last year. I got whacked because I tried to shove mine down this boy’s jumper.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because he said I wouldn’t dare.”
The sparkler caught, fizzing light into the cold air, and she grinned. After Paris lit his, Hildegarde stood a little way back and extended hers like a sword.
“I challenge you to a wizard duel,” she said.
Paris tilted his head. “I don’t know much about wizard duels.”
“Unlucky for you.”
She lunged forward, knocking his sparkler with hers. He stepped back at first, startled, but after a few moments started to ‘duel’ her back, swiping at her with his own sparkler. Both burned out before either disarmed the other, so Hildegarde called a truce and Paris lit another sparkler for each of them. Hildegarde moved hers through the air, writing her name in smoke. Then she moved onto – other words.
“That’s not how you spell ‘bastard’,” Paris observed. “It’s like this.”
He wrote the amended spelling into the air with the manner of a schoolteacher, and Hildegarde burst out laughing. When those sparklers faded and the smoke blew apart on the breeze, they watched the last of the fireworks, standing close.
“There,” Paris said, tapping his watch. “It’s next year.”
Hildegarde looked at it. A firework burst overhead, lighting the face: the hands were at midnight.
“So it is,” she said. “I can’t believe I’ve not had a bath since last year.”
Paris didn’t react, but she was used to jokes being lost on him. The final firework split the silence, leaving a deeper one behind, and Vie called everyone in. In the kitchen, she poured everyone – posies and servants included – a drop of champagne, passing glasses around and laughing. She told everyone to clink glasses as one, then drink.
Nerves squirmed in Hildegarde’s stomach as she swallowed. She still remembered the wine. But she didn’t feel sick, didn’t feel flustered or confined. For the next half hour, everybody sat and chattered around that kitchen table, boundaries broken. Hildegarde told the cook that her malt loaf was the best thing she’d ever tasted. She laughed when the gamekeeper relayed a boyhood New Year’s story about some escaped chickens and a traffic cone.
When she finally departed for bed, she felt lighter, as if the bubbles in the champagne had worked their way up through her chest. It was okay here. Even if it was different. Even if Dante wasn’t with her.
As Hildegarde reached the second floor, she saw Daisy emerging from the bathroom down the hall. She looked tired, paler than usual, her hair damp. Her eyes passed over Hildegarde as she walked towards her bedroom door.
Hildegarde thought of the kitchen downstairs, crammed with chattering people. Then of Daisy, standing under a drumming showerhead, completely alone.
She stepped in front of her.
Daisy narrowed her eyes. “What?”
“Nothing, just-” Hildegarde swallowed. “Happy new year.”
Daisy stared for a moment, her face blank.
“If you say so,” she said.
Then she eased past and disappeared into her room. Hildegarde looked at the closed door, chewing the inside of her lip, then turned into her own room.
As she struggled out of her dress and pulled a nightgown over her head, tiredness crept into her bones. She brushed her teeth languidly, trying to scrape the taste of champagne and garlic off her tongue. What had Daisy eaten earlier? She hadn’t come for the meal, nor for the show. They never took her anywhere. Hildegarde liked it that way usually, but now she kept picturing her under that drumming shower head, staring at the tiles while people clinked glasses two floors down. What did she do all day?
Hildegarde felt her way through the dark and slipped under the bedsheets, staring up at the canopy. Her brain hummed. She sighed and turned over onto her side.
Hildegarde frowned. Something papery pressed against her cheek. She sat upright, reaching over to switch the bedside lamp on. An envelope lay against the linen of her pillows. Stamp in the corner. Her name scrawled on the front, a hastily-written address, all in familiar handwriting.
She could feel her pulse in her throat. She picked it up and ripped it open, a letter spilling into her lap.
You have to help me. I want to explain but I can’t – it isn’t safe. Please just leave as soon as possible – please please come find me, I don’t know what to do. Please come. Please come.
DON’T show this letter to anyone – I don’t want to think about what would happen. Please just come.