Authors: Claire Warner
The floor was cold. This first impression floated through her mind as the deep dark of unconsciousness began to shift from her. As she struggled to wake, she registered that she lay twisted and awkward on a hard parquet floor. The unyielding surface sent small stabs of pain through her limbs and confusion set in. Why was she slumped on a hard floor? That question took longer to decipher as her thoughts seemed unwilling to move at a faster rate. Her head felt heavy and somehow hollow, even though the darkness that clouded her vision had slowly begun to recede. She managed to blink, the mundane task rendered difficult by the lassitude swamping her. As she struggled closer to full awareness, she became aware of something clasped in her hand, something smooth with petals. Despite her temporary lack of memory, its presence between her fingers sparked a wary, almost sick sensation of worry.
"I think she's waking up."
A voice, feminine and vaguely familiar, sounded close to her head. She tried to move, to turn her head to stare at the speaker, yet her body refused to cooperate, still caught in the spell of near insensibility.
“Yes, I can see that.” Another voice, male this time and disapproving, spoke from further away. “You need not sound so thrilled; I doubt she will welcome you when she opens her eyes.”
“Oh, Hugh darling, how can you say that?” Petulant yet teasing notes flowed through the woman’s light lilting speech and she longed to see the face that it belonged to. Those
tones invoked cautious recognition, a recognition which did not bring her any sense of peace.
“I say it because it is the truth,” The man moved position, coming closer to her prone figure. “Why on earth did you do it?” The voice dropped lower, becoming accusatory in tone and timbre. She wondered at this, struggling with tattered threads of memory that refused to make sense.
“It solved a problem.”
“I beg to differ,” He was standing over her now; she could feel the tips of his toes against her side. “Do you think that Justin will thank you?”
Justin, that name caught at her mind, dragging it free from the sludge her mind had become. She knew that name and the feelings it provoked were soft and wondrous. Once again the memories fluttered close to the surface yet she was still not awake enough to make sense of it all.
“He should,” The voice argued, louder and less teasing than before, “This solves all,” She felt the woman move, the edge of a skirt brushed against her side and she wondered how long they were going to stand and argue over her.
“Really?” There was a bark of incredulous laughter. “Our Justin, who promised never to curse another,” Her eyelids opened slightly and she focused blearily on the rich brocade silk that tickled her nose. “Do you honestly think he would be happy that you damned someone else?” From her position on the floor, she could see the man’s calves and a pair of silver buckled shoes.
“Yes Hugh,” The skirt rustled as the woman stepped away from her side to face the man before her. “The chit is now safe. John will not be able to hurt her.” Another memory pulled at the edges of her mind, this one sending a thrill of fear through her as she struggled again to remember more fully. “And Justin...” The woman laughed shortly, bitterly, “Justin will not spend the next fifty years in depression because he had to leave her.”
“Don’t try to claim that you did this for him,” The man knelt down now and she felt his hand close about her wrist. Her limited vision took in a rose pink satin frock coat and embroidered lavender waistcoat. “You did it for yourself. You’ve always felt like the youngest and now you’re not.” His other hand reached down and settled in the small of her back. “Come on now Melissa, let me help you up.” She did not question her name, for she remembered that at least.
With sure movements, he helped her to her feet. Her eyes opened fully and she took in her surroundings. She was in a parlour, mahogany wainscoting covered the walls and a thick blue rug topped the parquet floor. Several chairs stood round a card table in the corner of the room and a fire was burning brightly in the hearth. Behind her was a closed door and she could hear conversation and music from beyond the closed portal. As the man guided her into a cushioned chair, she glanced up, taking in the extravagant clothing that seemed totally at odds with the serious cast that were over his features. Behind him, the woman stepped back and out of sight.
“You’ll be a little disorientated at first.” She could see pity in his eyes and she wondered at it. “It’ll pass.” He reached out to one of the small tables in the corner of the room and picked up a glass of amber liquid. “Take a snifter of that, it’ll strengthen your nerves.” The scent of brandy filled her nostrils and she took a deep gulp, feeling the liquid burn down her throat, making her splutter. As she controlled her coughs, her eyes took in the form of the woman. Taller than her, the woman had blonde ringlets worn up and powdered. An expensive dress of dark blue brocade covered her form and blue eyes sparked with mischief or malice.
“What happened?” She asked, staring at the pair of them in confusion. “Did I faint?”
The man sighed and knelt down, staring at her with sorrowful eyes. “I’m sorry my dear, but,” He held out his hand and she stared down at the small snuff box before her. Set into the lid of the box was an enamel lotus blossom. It filled her vision and sent shocks of horrified recognition through her. “You have one of these now and I’m so very sorry.”
It was then that she looked down, at the item clasped between her fingers, a lotus flower, enamelled black and hinged at the side, a twin to the one on the snuff box before her. The sight of it surged through her and she remembered what it stood for. Her head snapped up and she stared at the blonde woman, hatred surging through her as her mind finally filled in the blanks.
3 months earlier:
“Hold still for just a few moments more Miss.” Melissa gasped lightly as the heavy twill fabric pressed tight against her ribs, shortening her breath. Behind her back, her maid Jane paid no heed to Melissa’s small gasp of protest and her calloused fingers tightened the laces, fitting the corset snugly about her mistress’s form. Melissa tried not to think of the fumbling fingers pulling her upper body into a more erect stature and focused instead on the familiar surroundings of her bedroom, the warm mahogany panels, the canopied four poster with its coverings of brocade and silk. Her gaze drifted past the marble hearth with its blazing fire. Above the mantle, a newly commissioned portrait, and gleaming in vibrant oils, smiled out over the room. Melissa jerked her eyes away from the image of herself in riding attire, ran her eyes past the small set of drawers with its bowl and pitcher of water and back towards her bed. Lying in the centre was the object of her search, the dress she was to wear for this evening. Emerald green silk taffeta glimmered in the candlelight, the colour specifically chosen to bring out the colour of her eyes and cut in the latest fashion. A happy smile played about her lips as her thoughts turned to the coming evening and the ball that would introduce her to society. Her older brother had been a man about town for the past four years and he had told her much about the balls and events which made up the season. Ever since her thirteenth birthday she had dreamed of this, the night where she would make her impact and become the darling, she hoped, of the social scene. It was also hoped, but not too explicitly spelled out that she would find her future husband at one of these events, yet there was time for such considerations. At this precise moment, she was only concerned about the evening and making the biggest impact since the Lady Emmeline the previous season. People were still discussing her dress and hair even a year on.
.” The maid’s fingers worked quickly, drawing the stays closer together and tying them deftly in the middle of her back, pinioning her Lady’s form in a coutil and whalebone cage. Melissa caught her breath slightly at the newest pinch from the maid’s ministrations and returned to dreaming about the coming evening. There would be food, music, dancing and most of all, chances to meet the opposite sex without the overpowering presence of a chaperone. She shifted her weight slightly and drifted away, picturing the scene already, a columned room filled with candles, a minuet playing softly and a man leading her through the steps of the dance whilst sweet nothings whispered into her ears.
.” Melissa broke out of her daydream and sighed with relief. Her eyes drifted back across the room and she turned towards the tall mirror in the opposite corner. In her undergarments she looked slightly strange, the corset pushed up her bust considerably more than was usual, revealing a cleavage that she wasn’t quite used to. Her legs were encased in white silk stockings beneath a calf length silk chemise and her hips were encumbered by heavy panniers which gave her a comical appearance without the addition of the gown which was to be worn over them. Her hair and make-up had been attended to earlier in the day and she glanced at her face with a sense of shock. Her usually night black curls were pinned up and away from her face into a fantastic style and powdered to a chalk white. Even though she was usually pale skinned, her maid had applied a whitening powder to her face rendering her almost ghostlike in appearance and a black beauty spot now nestled on her left cheek. The only spot of colour came from her lips and they were a deep carmine. She looked stunning, at the height of fashion and ready to take on the whirl of the social scene.
“Now for the dress
Miss.” Jane turned to the bed and removed the green silk creation with a flourish. The slow burn of excitement bubbled over and Melissa found herself smiling broadly as the maid pulled the rustling silk dress over her head, carefully avoiding the powdered creation of hair that had taken at least two hours to put up. Jane laced up the taffeta creation and reached for the jewellery box.
“Not those Jane,
” Lady De Vire, Melissa’s mother called as she stepped through the door into her daughter’s chamber. “Your father and I have something much more appropriate,” From the pockets in her blue taffeta skirts, she drew a wide wooden box and held it out to her daughter, smiling gently as she waited for her to take it. With slow, deliberate movements, Melissa reached forward and picked up the box. The smooth grain of the wood felt warm beneath her fingers as they closed on the container. With nervous, excited fingers, she reached for the tiny golden clasp that held it closed and opened the box.
“Oh.” A gasp of pleasure and surprise broke the air as Melissa revealed the necklace and earrings that lay within smooth box. With careful, reverent movements she removed the jewellery and looked at them, tears of happiness dancing in her eyes.
“Mother they’re beautiful,” Jane took the earrings from her hand and pushed them gently through her lobes before attaching the heavy chain of the necklace around her slender throat.
“Well take a look
,” Melissa turned back to the mirror and drew a breath; the girl she knew was gone. In her place was a woman in rustling green silk and emeralds, a woman who would turn heads at the ball. From the top of her powdered head to the soles of her silk shod feet, she was elegantly dressed and more than ready to attend the ball. The earrings fell from her ears in waterfalls of tiny emeralds and her necklace was a heavy engraved affair of gold, the emeralds in the scrolled settings large and dazzling. Green suited her it seemed.
derful. You’ll do us all proud.” Her mother reached forward and kissed her cheek. “Now remember that your brother is close at hand, if a gentleman becomes a little friendly. But also recall your propriety. Only coquettes leave to take the air with any man who offers compliments.”
“Yes mother,” Melissa answered politely, having heard enough of this talk in the past to recite it in her sleep. She had no intention of walking out with just anyone, only a fool endangered her reputation like that and yet, she couldn’t concentrate on the sensible now. As soon as her eyes had taken in the vision in the mirror, she couldn’t wait to leave the solid, dull life of her childhood and enter the enticing whirl that was waiting for her.
, shall we?” With a rustle of silk skirts, her mother led her from the room and down the wide wooden staircase towards the hall. Her father was waiting at the bottom and a wide, proud smile edged across his usually dour face.
” He murmured, kissing her gently on the forehead as his valet placed a cape over his shoulders. “You will be a triumph.” Jane helped Melissa into her cloak and all three left the hall. Beyond the heavy double doors of their town home, a coach stood ready, four chargers stamped impatiently on the hard surface of the circular drive. The coachman mounted the box as one of the house staff shut the coach door. A guard shouldered a blunderbuss and stood up on the box at the rear of the coach as the driver flicked his long tongued whip over the heads of the horses and with a rattling noise the coach and four started its journey.
The horses moved off at a rolling trot, the jolting motion moving the passengers back against the upholstery. Melissa settled back against the embroidered cushions, feeling the beat of her heart in the movement of the wheels. They moved past the lit coach house and were now on the road. They weren’t too far from
the centre of London and the roads were considerably better than they were in the country. The coach and four rattled along the roads, gaining pace as they moved along the roads with ease, the rough patches of the road barely bothering the occupants of the well sprung coach. Melissa stared out onto the country scenes and allowed her mind to wander.
The uncurtained window of the coach gave her a distorted reflection of herself as she drifted through her thoughts. Slowly she drifted towards sleep, the movement of the carriage dulling her senses. As her eyelids flickered in a light doze, the vision came to her, hazy yet potent as it shocked through her sleep dulled mind.
In the haze of sleep, she saw a hallway, its familiar comforting look marred by the scene of horror at the foot of the stairs. A girl lay in a tumbled heap, her feet propped against the bottom step and her face pressed to the cold floor. In a bright river, blood ran over the flagstones, turning the hair on the girl’s golden head a dull sunset red. With mounting fear she could see the wounds on the girl’s back and head, ragged cruel wounds which spoke of a savagery more animal than man. Her dream self moved forward, reaching for the body with concern. Something else snagged her attention, a foot clad in sombre black stepping down from the upper floor. With reluctant slowness she dragged her eyes upwards, following the motion of the leg as she looked at the figure before her.
“We’re nearly there.” Her mother’s voice jolted her from her vision and with a jump, Melissa snapped out of her light doze away from the images before her.
“Are you alright?
Melissa nodded, the vision still
present in her mind as she looked at her parents feeling their concern at her startled awakening flow over her. “I’m fine,” she lied, trying to forget the blood spattered hallway and the menacing figure that presided over it.
“I just dropped off
,” she uttered as they rattled over a crossroads and entered the city properly. Her arm jarred against the side of the door as the coach crashed over an intersection. With the sudden shock of pain through her arm, the dreamy images fled from her mind. Gazing out of the window, she watched in earnest as they moved closer to their destination, the royal court at St James’ Palace. Tonight was auspicious, tonight she would be introduced to the King and this would mark Melissa’s induction into court society.
As they neared their final stop, Melissa forgot the image she
had seen, pushing the troubling thoughts aside. The fluttering of excitement for the evening ahead drove all other concerns out of her head and filled it instead with the delights of society. In no time at all they reached Pall Mall and an evening alive with people. The coachman reined in the horses and they drew up before a tall red brick edifice with lights blazing extravagantly in every window. The steps of the coach dropped to the paving slabs and she alighted to stare up at the building where she was to meet the King. Two royally dressed footman stood on either side of the main doors and they bowed as she crossed the threshold, her eyes flying everywhere with curiosity.
.” Her parents led her along the hallway, past rooms of chattering people and rich furnishings. At the end of the hallway, a large door opened into a panelled room full of people.
His Majesty is at the other end,” Her mother indicated as they crossed the threshold into the main audience chamber.
“Remember, he’s old and occasionally con
fused,” her mother warned. “Just curtsey and smile,” A hand squeezed her shoulder comfortingly as she caught glance of the old be-wigged man sat on a throne at the end of the room.