Monday, September 5, 2011
I made my deadline with SLIPPED last week. YAY! And to celebrate, I'm posting a big, fat chunk of it for you to enjoy. Here are my newly revised opening three chapters. This will give you a good sense of the Meg, my heroine, and where I'm going with the book. My only regret is you don't meet, Jag, my post-nuclear winter time-slipping assassin hero, until Chapter Four. My preview readers tell me he's my hottest hero yet. Maybe I'll give you a snippet of him later. He's worth a post of his own. This week, though, enjoy SLIPPED, Chapters 1-3.
by Angela Morrison
Laughing the clouds away with playful scorn
Lord Byron, “Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage”
Halfway to the castle, the brooding clouds open. Rosalyn, my second cousin once removed, jerks my sturdy, black English umbrella from my grasp and holds it high over her head. I cuddle in close to keep my mourning pelisse dry.
“Don’t crowd so, Magsie.” Rosalyn, who I chaperone though at seventeen years I am barely a year her senior, elbows me into the downpour.
I relinquish all shelter and skip ahead of her. “Hurry up, then, Rosie!” A boisterous wave splashes the rocks that line Lake Leman’s shore. “Chillon awaits.”
“Don’t call me by that filthy name.” She knows I detest Magsie.
I’m Margaret Smith. My intimate friends at school called me Meg. It has been two long years since I heard that tender name.
Rosalyn scurries by me. “You’re mad!” She holds her violet pelisse out of the mud. She refuses to wear proper mourning for our mutual great aunt.
I was our aunt’s companion the last two years of her life—hardly fit training to be a wayward cousin’s chaperone while she waits her confinement. Here on the Continent I don’t care if Rosalyn wears mourning or not. Her mother will never know. I wear black for love of our aunt. I let Rosalyn wear what she wants.
My uncle’s money comes to me, so I decided the quaint Swiss village hard by my favorite castle in all the world was the perfect place for Rosalyn’s banishment. We arrived last night in a thunderstorm and despite today’s threatening clouds, Rosalyn and I set out for the castle first thing this morning. Her downfall is my good fortune. How often I dreamed of walking this very path!
I spin in the rain and laugh up at the storm clouds. “The castle is around the bend.” I wipe drops from my face. “Look, you can see the top of the tower.”
Rosalyn stomps in a puddle to splash me. “What do I care of another castle? Back home, I’ve seen more than I can count.”
“But this is Chillon!” I grab Rosalyn’s arm and hurry her along.
Rosalyn resists. “Which one is She-Yawn?”
“Julie’s castle.” The excitement builds inside me. Ah, to see the place in life that I adore in literature.
“Who is Julie?”
“You told me you loved her.” I drag Rosalyn forward. “Rousseau’s Julie—The New Heloise?”
“You mean Eloisa?” Rosalyn only knows a ridiculous English translation that took London society by storm two seasons back, even though they still blame Rousseau for the French Revolution, Napoleon, and every soldier and sailor we lost fighting him. “Why didn’t you say so.” Rosalyn scurries with me. “What a marvelous surprise.”
I’ve only been talking about Julie and Chillon since we left London. Rosalyn’s father’s tens of thousands educated her in every refinement, but I would not trade my youth in a charity school, an orphan dependent on my mother’s distant relations, for all Rosalyn’s beauty and wealth.
I know the real Julie. I secretly borrowed my French mistress’s well-worn copy and devoured the contraband volume while the other students struggled to memorize irregular conjugations. Mademoiselle never let on, but she knew full well I had it. Bless her. Julie changed me. She changed everyone. Everything. Even Chillon.
I stop running and stare at the wet paving stones beneath my feet. Another wind-whipped lake wave splashes up against the wall. “Good heavens! Rosalyn!” I squat and touch the stones. “It could have been this very spot.” My eyes move to the angry water tossing and churning so close to the path. My mind conjures the happy family party strolling along. Julie’s rascal son dashing about, slipping, falling into these very waves that splash at my feet. The brave mother plunging after him—saving the brat but catching her death, pneumonia. A tear stings in my eye and a lump pains my throat. My hand caresses the stony path, remembering Julie’s saintly death.
Rosalyn returns to me—holds the umbrella high over my head. “You look like a giant black toad squatting there like that. What happened here? I don’t recall.”
“Julie met her fate—on this very path.”
Rosalyn screws up her face attempting thought. “Her lover? No. He was her tutor. She met him in her schoolroom at home. I wish I had a tutor like that. Mine were all frights.”
“At the end?” I stare up at Rosalyn’s blank face. “She saves her son from drowning?”
Rosalyn shrugs. “I only read the first part. I got angry with Eloisa when she married that old man. Why didn’t she run off with her lover?” Rosalyn only read of Julie’s passion and downfall—and tossed aside hundreds of pages of redemption. She grabs my arm and jerks me to my feet. “How I envy her the beating her father gave her.”
“Cousin! For shame.” I grab hold of the umbrella below Rosalyn’s grasp. “Julie lost her child—lost her only chance to marry St. Preux.”
“Too bad my father is a soft-hearted man of industry. No violence in him.” Her eyes shy away her thickening waist. “No accident for me. So I’m stuck here with you.” Rosalyn will be brought to bed in five months time.
I rise and put my arm around her shoulders. “Did you want to marry him?”
“Him?” Rosalyn snorts and shrugs free of my comfort. “You are so simple. I made many conquests, Magsie, dear.”
I blush at her tone.
“I have no idea which one fathered the brat.”
I drop my arm. Part of me wants to hear more of her adventures. Part of me wants to stop my ears and run far away. We walk on to the castle, slowly now, battling the wind.
A gust hits us, and Rosalyn laughs. “If those ugly biddies in London only knew what their husbands were up to.” She notices my shocked expression. “Ah, yes. Husbands. Sons. Lord this. Sir that. They all wanted me. I chose the best—played them off one another.”
Thunder cracks over our heads. “Hurry, cousin.” I drag her around the corner. A full view of Chillon opens up to us. I gasp. “Look!” Ancient stone walls shrouded in rain. Waves breaking around her where she sits on a stone islet hard by the shore. Peaked roofs clothed in red clay tiles top walls punctuated with arrow loops, round corner towers, and the square keep tower jutting out of the center. A flower-decked wooden bridge beckons visitors where an ancient drawbridge once kept them away.
Rosalyn ignores the romantic scene in front of us. “That stupid Eloisa didn’t know what she was doing. Virtue? Useless in society. Pleasure, my blushing virgin cousin. It is all about pleasure. The intrigue doubles it. The challenge of a faithful husband is irresistible.”
And look where it got you, dear cousin. I am becoming inured to shocking statements from Rosalyn. She stops her ears at moralizing, so I don’t mar this moment replying to her.
Chillon’s battlements are far bolder, more medieval than the delicate castles where our kings and queens dwell in England. I smile. It is fitting to meet Chillon in a storm. The grand chateau looks like a ship tossed on the waves. A stone ship of massive dimensions.
The wind catches our umbrella and tears it from our hands. Rosalyn shrieks and dashes after it. I spy a battered gypsy awning and take shelter under it.
Rosalyn gives up the chase and follows me. “Make way, Magsie.” She shoulders the left side of my small person into the deluge. I give way. No matter. I am already drenched from head to toe. Must look a sight.
My teeth chatter. “Bonjour.” I greet the ancient gypsy who squats in the corner.
He turns yellowed eyes spidered with red-veins toward us. “Bonjour, bonjour, mademoiselles!” The greedy creature rubs his hands together. He rises, wiry and twisted. His shock of white hair is tied back with a filthy cloth. The stench emanating from his person forces me to bring the perfumed, black-bordered handkerchief I’ve carried since my aunt’s death to my face. The cloth is dripping wet.
Rosalyn snorts at me. “You are forever ridiculous, Magsie.” Her eyebrows knit together, and her mouth becomes a firm line. She studies the gypsy’s wares at her feet spread willy-nilly on a worn carpet—tin rush light shades, sooty oil lamps, a few dented tinder boxes, a collection of garish paper fans, a brass spigot, red papier-mâché cases for visiting tickets, pudding cloths, stirring spoons, and crude carved animals for child’s play. She bends her elegant head that remains perfectly coifed and dry beneath it’s lovely violet hat until her lips touch my ear. “I have a friend in town who says the gypsies on the continent sell a draught that will end a pregnancy. Ask him.”
My eyes grow round, and my mouth drops open.
She grasps my forearm and digs her gloved fingernails into my flesh. “Do it. Now.”
I don’t care what my cousin does or says. I won’t be an accessory to a crime. Poor misbegotten, babe. I stare at the pile of junk at our feet and mumble nonsense at the gypsy.
“Pardon, mademoiselle? Je ne comprehend.” Of course you don’t understand me.
“Ask him!” Rosalyn pinches my arm again.
I wrench free of her—take refuge closer to the gypsy despite his stench. I ask him for a healthful draught for a woman with child. Something that will help the babe, not hurt it.
This gypsy nods, smiles. “Ma femme.” He holds up a small bag concocted by his wife. He mixes a touch of powder into a steaming mug of cider and offers it to me.
I sip cautiously. The taste is vile—perfect to deceive Rosalyn.
“Let me try it.” Rosalyn grabs the mug—spilling it on my already drenched black gloves. Without hesitation, she gulps it. “Ouch.” She blows on the liquid and takes another swig. She makes a face. “How often do I take it?”
I confer with the gypsy. “Twice a day.” I reach into the jet-beaded bag my aunt gave me before she died for a few coins to pay him with.
“Anotre chose?” The ancient man wafts his hands over his rug.
I glance out of courtesy. Useless all of it, except perhaps—I bend and select a knife with an intricately carved wooden handle and a matching wooden sheath. I love old-fashioned curiosities. I’ve never seen a wood sheath before. I tug and the blade, dark with eons of grime, slides from the sheath. It is flat, thin, dull and curved at the tip, similar to a dagger. I hold it up to the light. The metal appears to be etched. “Combien?” How much?
“Pour vous, mademoiselle?” The gypsy’s ancient eyes rake me up and down. “Vingt franc.” A gust hits his awning and makes the whole thing rattle. Darker clouds roll down from the mountains.
I shake my head and re-sheath the knife. Twenty francs is surely a bargain for this specimen, but far more than I can spare. I hold it out to him. “Désolé.”
Rather than retrieving the knife from my outstretched palm, the vagrant grasps my hand with both of his and presses the knife hard into my palm.
I gasp and try to wrench free.
“Vingt franc,” he intones. His grip tightens.
“Non, monsieur.” I continue to struggle.
“Vingt franc, vingt franc, vingt franc.”
Rosalyn finishes the mug of cider. “Stop fooling with that, Magsie. Let’s make a dash for it.”
“I’m trying.” My fingertips begin to tingle. The unnatural sensation moves up my hand, evolving from numbness to a powerful vibration.
I am both terrified and fascinated. Powerless. I should run or scream, but the gypsy holds me captive with his strong grip, mesmerizing voice, and this bone-chilling sensation that has now overtaken my entire arm.
I cease my struggle, but the tingling only intensifies. It is a painful piercing buzzing unlike anything I’ve ever known or heard of. I nod and reach into my bag, hanging from the wrist of my captured hand. “Vingt franc.” Tears sting in my eyes.
Rosalyn glares at me and frowns. “You’re not buying that junk.”
“Vingt franc. Vingt franc,” the gypsy chants.
I pull out two Swiss bank notes.
He lets go of my hand to snatch the money.
Free from his touch, I break from the trance and run like a frightened child. Rosalyn dashes after me. “You truly are mad,” she screams.
By the time we make the shelter of the covered bridge, Rosalyn is as drenched as I am, but she’s laughing, beautiful, captivating. I clutch the cursed knife in my foolish hand.
“Whatever possessed you back there?” She brushes the water from her wool pelisse. It sheds it well. My wool is old and soaks the moisture up.
Possessed? My teeth chatter. “I don’t know.” The buzzing has begun to dull, but my hand and arm ache with cold, surging pain. I shove the knife into my beaded bag and collect myself as best I can. It is rather a hopeless task. I am a soggy wreck. The strange sensation in my arm ebbs away. But the pain remains.
“How do I look?” Rosalyn wipes the rain from her face.
“Entrancing. As always.”
She smiles. “Good.” She heads across the bridge.
I breathe overly fast—follow frightened, confused. I barely notice when we step through a massive entrance and into Chillon.
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old
Lord Byron, “The Prisoner of Chillon”
Rosalyn and I clatter over a grating and through the arched entrance. I regain my sense enough to gaze up and spy remnants of a pulley system that lowered and raised the old drawbridge. A thrill goes through me despite the wet chill and lingering fright.
A caretaker beckons us through a door that leads inside the square tower that guards the entrance. Rosalyn joins a fashionable group of holiday-makers waiting for the next tour to begin. I pay the caretaker for our tour and take up my post at her side. Most of the milling group is English—and quite dry, with one notable exception.
A young man with a trim athletic build—wearing a close-fitting, expensive black riding breeches and an oilskin overcoat—bends over squeezing excess water out of unruly black locks that curl wildly out of control. He throws his head back—sees us—and I almost faint. My mouth drops, and I stare. Lord Byron? Here? It’s as if the engraving of him in my well-worn copy of “The Corsair” had sprung to life thanks to the magic of Chillon. “It’s”—I bring my hand to my mouth, astonished—“Lord Byron.” I say it loud enough for him to hear.
Rosalyn elbows my ribs and speaks without moving her lips. “Hush. Don’t make a scene.”
The most notorious poet all of England smiles at my childish adulation—frank and friendly. I am about to push my way through the crowd to tell him I saved my pin money so I could purchase every volume he’s ever released to the public—that I cried over “The Corsair” and through every tragic line of “Lara”—that the London newspapers were horrid to publish his private sketches over his recent domestic troubles—that it must break his heart to be forever separated from his baby daughter—that Lady Byron should not have treated him so ill—the rumors were obviously wrong. Just look at him. Angelic. Innocent. His sweet boy-like face even more beautiful than I ever imagined. Rosalyn’s firm hand on my arm stops me.
His eyes move from me, short, bedraggled, pleasant but no beauty, wearing second-hand black mourning garb that drowns my small frame to Rosalyn. Tall, lovely, amply endowed. Her young, porcelain face tinged pink by the storm. Wisps of damp blonde hair curl on her forehead. Her lilac pelisse accentuates her voluptuous figure. She shows no outward sign of her scandalous condition. I watch Byron enjoy the glowing vision of Rosalyn, an exotic bloom amidst everyday herbs. He looks at her like a painter, a poet, a lover would.
The caretaker explains the room we’re gathered in was fitted with the large stone fireplace that is blazing warmth to our chilled bones when it was converted as a guardroom in the sixteenth century when the Bernese captured the fortress.
I whisper a translation to Rosalyn.
“I don’t care.” Her eyes are all for Byron.
Has she met him before in society? A man so famous—so loved—so hated. She would have bragged about him for sure. Unless . . . ? No, even Rosalyn didn’t move in his London circles. Of that I am sure. Lord Byron surely is not one of Rosalyn’s former conquests. Can I keep her from making him her next?
He continues to admire her through the caretaker’s hurried discourse. I am carried away with imaginings. He is so like the brooding heroes his pen brings to life. I discounted the rumor that in his Eastern travels, he saved a slave girl consigned to a watery death, and then wrote “The Giaour” in her honor. Gossips had it he loved her to distraction. Looking at him now, I believe him capable of anything.
He could fall in love with Rosalyn and immortalize her in verse—the secret affair, leaving her, wandering aimlessly, yearning for her, returning after many months determined to seduce her again. The beautiful Rosalyn hides all evidence of the child, rendezvous with him, and rushes off to Venice to live in a sprawling palazzo until he tires of her, and she finds another man.
I could go with them—care for Rosalyn’s child. She couldn’t hide it from him forever.
I have an affinity for the poor child she carries. A keen longing comes over me whenever I recall stolen moments in a noisy nursery at Christmas or Easter when my great, great aunt’s home filled with her progeny and numerous tiny cousinletts. Their tired nursery maids were always happy to thrust a screaming child in my arms. With no dowry and few attractions, no man will ever look on me as a wife or a mother. My refinements disqualify me as the wife of a humble cottager. Not even a curate with few prospects would waste a marriage proposal on me. I would be pleased to have the care of my cousin’s child—even without a poetic hero as master of the house.
I will volunteer as foster mother for her baby if one is proposed. Rosalyn will want to return to London when she is slender again. I will mother the child—give it all the lonesome love penned up in my breast.
The caretaker clicks his fingers in the air and leads us from the shelter of the guardroom into a rainy courtyard. Rosalyn hesitates at the door. The other travelers dash across the courtyard and disappear into another door, sheltering under large, sturdy umbrellas. We have none.
Lord Byron comes up behind us. “May I be of assistance?” He holds up two umbrellas.
Rosalyn gazes up at him through her long, dark eyelashes—as grateful as if he’d rescued her from pirates. “Why thank you, my Lord.”
He murmurs low in her ear. “So I’m not incognito enough?”
I blurt, “That would be difficult.” My cheeks flame.
Byron laughs and hands me an umbrella. He opens the other and shepherds Rosalyn across the rainy courtyard.
I’m rooted, staring—overwhelmed by the encounter. If we’d met Julie and her entourage come to life, I would have been no more thrilled—no more surprised than finding Lord Byron milling with a group of ordinary holiday-makers as rain-drenched as I am. I’ve lived in quiet all my life—and here is a hero straight from today’s most thrilling romance and most celebrated scandal gallantly escorting my cousin over slick cobblestones. My eyes drop to the umbrella in my hand. He touched it—gave it to me.
The caretaker makes an exasperated noise behind me. I struggle to raise the umbrella. He takes it, releases the clasp and pushes me into the rain.
I manage to run to the next door without falling. I dash inside, bump hard into Rosalyn and Byron who stopped just inside the dim chamber.
“Gracious, Magsie. Control yourself.” She scowls in my direction and moves toward a large arched window with her arm resting on Byron’s. I trip along after them.
Byron pushes his wet hair out of his eyes. “This is the entrance to the underground vaults. Bonivard’s prison is just ahead.”
Rosalyn nods like she understands, but she has no idea who Bonivard was. “You’ve toured Chillon before?”
“Yesterday. Shelley and I brought the yacht over from Clarens with—”
A party of ladies, no doubt.
“I rode over today through the rain. The others are holed up in a hotel in Ouchy. I wrote like a fiend all night, but I had to return—feel these stones, breathe this dank air once more.”
Rosalyn stares up at the vaulted roof. “It is fascinating.” Her gaze returns to Byron’s face. “You be my guide then. The caretaker is boorish and has horrid teeth.”
Byron ascents with a nod. I follow them away from the caretaker’s inventive rambling. Rosalyn notices me behind her. “That’s Magsie, my cousin and”—I can’t see her face but I’m sure her eyebrows shoot up—“chaperone. She’s a veritable dragon.” Her tone makes clear to Byron the dragon is easily hoodwinked.
I stumble over a broken stone, catch myself and doggedly follow, blushing as my cousin tries to impress Byron. He’ll see her stupidity immediately.
He guides her down a broken stairway into an even larger vaulted chamber supported by soaring stone pillars. I marvel at the stone spines that support the high ceilings.
Rosalyn shivers and presses close to Byron. “Is this the dungeon?”
He shakes his wet mane. “Count Pierre—who rebuilt and fortified the fortress in the 13th Century—used this space to house his garrison.”
“Where are the prisons?”
“My you’re ghoulish. Come along—through here then.”
I’m loathe to quit the chamber so quickly. I loiter examining stone outcroppings. They could be ruins of even earlier buildings. I cross the room to an arched window—marveling that the stone casement surrounding it is more the five hundred years old. Five centuries. Half a millennium. I gaze out the window. The lake surges just below my perch. It’s disturbed, nearly black. Angry. Bottomless. The Dents du Midi peaks, across the lake on the French frontier, jut jagged out of the dark, low-lying cloud bank.
When I turn away from the scene, Rosalyn and Byron have disappeared. I hurry through two small rooms, angry with myself for losing her on our premier outing. I dash into a large vaulted chamber—identical to the garrison I left except the pillars each have an iron ring drilled into its base.
A gust blows through the unglassed windows. I shiver in my soaking gown. I fear the place is empty until I hear Rosalyn’s laughter and Byron’s deep, brooding tones.
I see them now. He squats in front of a column examining the metal ring protruding from its base.
They hear me approach. Byron scowls in my direction and then returns his gaze to the ring. Rosalyn tears her gaze off the bulging muscles in his crouching legs and scurries across the dungeon floor to my side. “Magsie be a good old girl and go back to the tour.”
My eyebrows draw close together. “The rest are hard on my heels.”
She glances back at Byron and says loud enough for him to hear above the gush of the surging water, “Isn’t he delicious?”
Byron looks up, impatient.
Rosalyn mouths, Is he looking this way?
She wriggles like a sensuous cat and turns right around so she can watch his wet head that, once again, bends low over the iron ring. “He tells me the most fascinating tale. Some poor zealot—a Genevese I think—was chained to that very post he’s examining. The Bernese did it. I think. Or maybe the Bernese freed him. I’ve got it all in a jumble. He was stuck here a horrible long time.” She shivers.
I know very well the sad fate of Bonivard, the Prior of Saint-Victor Abbey, hero of Geneva. I read Bonivard’s story and all about the famed Counts of Chillon, with heavy emphasis on Pierre, the most heroic of the lot, who built and expanded the castle during centuries of conquest in the Complete History of the Swiss Peoples I borrowed from my uncle’s library before we sailed. I shall return it when he brings me home.
Rosalyn whirls back around to face me, her skirts swishing with the movement. “Byron says as soon as it is fine they are taking his yacht back to St. Gingolph. Perhaps, I can convince him to include us in the outing.”
“Lovely.” I surprise her with a smile. “I’d be delighted to join you. I’ll finish the tour another time.”
My cousin’s elegant hand—ensconced in rain-ruined champagne-colored kid gloves buttoned to her elbow with gleaming pearls—grasps my arm. “Dear cousin.” She only calls me cousin when she attempts to wheedle something from me. “I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of the tour. You’ve waited so long to visit Chillon.” Her voice gets hard and eyes turn steely. “Move on with the group. I hear their approach now. I remain here with Lord Byron.”
I square my jaw. “You know I can’t leave you alone with him.”
“If you don’t”—she flashes me an scheming smile—“I’ll write to my father and tell him I caught you in a hayloft with the hotel’s groom.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “He’s an old man.”
“My father does not know that.” She folds her arms across her chest and taps her foot.
I’d be disgraced—ruined. Penniless. Alone. Without my relations support, I’d be thrown upon the streets. I don’t have the luxury of the rich to flout morality. If my virtue is questioned, I wouldn’t even be able to find employ as a governess. I could go to the church for support, beg work at a mill, or find myself forced to—no. Unthinkable. I’ll never sink to that. I’d rather starve in a gutter.
I meet Rosalyn’s bold gaze. “Is this how it’s going to be?”
“Yes.” She snorts. “Quietly move on with the cattle, and I’ll quietly remain with the Lord.”
None knew, nor how, nor why, but he entwined
Himself perforce around the hearer’s mind
Lord Byron, “Lara”
I trail the touring party through the grand hall—too worried to pay enough attention to the guide to understand his colorful Swiss French. My French mistress was a Parisian émigré. I was her best student but am not nearly as fluent as I thought—especially when the accent is strange. Rosalyn in the dungeon with Bryon preys heavy on me.
We move through a series of rooms where ancient oak pillars support the roof instead of stone ones. Then up a winding, narrow stone staircase. Two large halls. Bedrooms and the Duke’s private living quarters.
Standing in his chapel, I’m overcome with a sense of urgency. Rosalyn. I must return to her—drag her away. My uncle entrusted her to my care. Come what may, I have to stand up to her.
I quit the group. Brave the rain through three courtyards until I’m outside the door leading to the vaults. I push through it worried what I’ll discover. In the dim light of the first chamber, I lose my way, turn right instead of left, and find myself wandering through a maze of dark basement tunnels. I turn to go back—but cannot remember which way I should go. I reach an area where there are no windows. What happened to the light?
I breathe in and out too fast. My heart races. My palms sweat. Calm down. Keep going. Useless. I’m frozen in place. This is an old malady. My first year at school, a big girl locked me in a trunk. Hours and hours. Small. Dark places. No light. No air. No windows.
It echoes back to me.
“Hello?” A deep voice calls.
I run toward it. “Where are you?”
I follow the sound. Running as fast as I can in my full skirt. I race around a corner and run against Lord Byron. I am aghast, embarrassed, sobbing. I grab his arms, shake them. “Where is she?” I cry. “Rosalyn? What have you done to her?”
He is a pirate. A brigand. The corsair come to life.
He scowls. “I sent her on with the tour. It was foolish for you to leave her. I’ve a mind to write to your uncle.”
The surprise I feel registers in my face.
He pushes his damp locks from his eyes. “I’m embroiled in trouble enough with one forward young lady I can’t seem to be quit of.” He shakes his head. “I do not need another. Please try to control your charge.”
No doubt he thinks I am one with her designs. “I’m sorry, sir. Forgive me. It is beyond my power to control her.”
“Enough. Calm yourself.” He leads me into the light of the first chamber. “I’m in the fit of a poem and can bear with no further distractions. Go. Now. Leave me with my gloomy thoughts and the ghosts of this place.” The wind blows in through the tall, open windows. Waves crash against the walls. The advancing clouds cast a shadow across Byron’s angry face.
I retrace my steps—running as if those very ghosts were hounding me away from the angry poet. I’ve heard he’s mad. I shudder as I reach the rain-drenched courtyard. Hesitate. I cannot bear to step into the deluge again. Window boxes cascading with red geraniums line every window. A half-barrel planted up with blooms sits in the middle of the courtyard. The blossoms are as beaten and torn by the incessant rain as I am—while Rosalyn is safe and warm with the caretaker and the fashionable group of travelers he spins yarns for. I resent it on behalf of myself and the flowers.
I am at the end of my stamina, shivering with cold, fatigue, fright—mortification. A small sign beside a door across the yard comes to my rescue. “La Tour.” The Keep Tower. I recall the caretaker mentioning the guided visit will end there. I dash across to the door, turn the knob. The door swings open, and I duck inside and begin to climb. Staircase after staircase. A rickety affair that could collapse any moment. When I gain the top of the tower, I collapse in an exhausted, wet heap. Wind whips through the four open windows. I am too spent to even gaze out at the vast panorama the height affords. I hide my face in my hands and battle on the verge of a fit of sobbing misery.
I have not felt this lost since the night I looked up from reading a thrilling novel by the stolen light of my great, great aunt’s best candle—to find her peacefully dead. No awful calamity seemed to have taken place. Just a pleasant journey. I was distraught to be left behind.
“Excuse me, Mademoiselle Dragon? May I be of assistance?” It is Byron, come upon me unawares. The storm and my inward battle masked his approach. He extends his hand to me in a most gentleman-like manner.
I blush and look down—examine his beautifully made boots. One is strangely shaped. The tales of his twisted foot must be true.
He gently grasps my elbow and raises me to my own feet. “I’ve followed you to apologize for my behavior in the dungeon. Young ladies like your cousin are one of my particular weaknesses. I’m afraid I’ve got another with child. What would I do with one more?”
I drop all pretense at his intimate confession. “Rosalyn is already with child.” I manage a nervous laugh.
“And her appetite is yet unchecked?” A wicked grin overtakes his face. “Perhaps I was too hasty in my rejection.”
“Sir!” I stammer and blush. “I must entreat you to stop—”
“Ahh.” He examines me as if seeing my person for the first time. “You are not confederate with her schemes.” Byron helps me remove my soaked pelisse. He hangs it over the stair railing to drip.
I slip off my gloves and wring the water from them. “Rosalyn will do what she may. Her parents and the expectations of English society did not stop her. I surely cannot. But I will protect and care for the child.” I’ve said far too much. I check myself and resort to examining how thoroughly wet my gown is.
Byron stoops so he can see my face. “You were exiled with her?”
He gazes at me until I blush crimson and look away.
He speaks in a beautiful voice he has not yet employed. “I thought nobility dead—but here it stands before me shivering in a drenched mourning gown. Do you ever put on color, Mademoiselle Dragon?”
I cannot reply. It is all I can do to keep the one tear that escapes my eye and runs down my cheek from becoming a shower to compete with the storms outside.
Byron draws his own damp handkerchief from a pocket inside his oilskin coat and hands it to me. “You’re soaked to the skin. You must return to your hotel at once.”
“I wait for my cousin.” I sniff and try to conquer the shiver that rattles my teeth. “The tour ends here.”
“I shall escort your cousin safely”—his eyebrows arch in a most enchanting manner—“to your hotel.”
“I lost my umbrella. The wind took it right out of our hands. We took shelter with the gypsy—” I cannot continue when my mind reverts to how that gypsy mesmerized me. I rub my arm remembering the strange ache.
Byron takes a step closer to me and holds up the umbrella he borrowed from the caretaker. “Where is the one I gave you earlier?”
I blush. I have know idea where I set it down.
Bryon offers me his arm. “I shall escort you to your hotel and return for your cousin.”
I wipe my face with his handkerchief and hand it to him. “That is most noble of you.”
He pushes the handkerchief back in my direction. “Pray my intentions remain so.”
My wonder at his meaning—could he refer to me or simply my cousin—is interrupted by the drumming of many feet on the stair and enthused voices chattering. “It is no matter.” I glance toward the door. “They approach.”
“Then I will beg another umbrella and escort you both.”
I find it hard to form coherent thoughts with his eyes gazing into mine, but I manage to sputter, “My cousin is a most unnatural creature. Her enthusiasm for the flesh is keen, but I am convinced she has no heart within her,” before the subject of my discourse, Rosalyn herself, bursts through the doorway leading from the stairs. I’ve wrecked my fantasy of her running off with Byron, but I could not bear to watch her trammel his sensitive heart.
Climbing the stairs roused a rosy glow in Rosalyn’s cheek. She smiles like a mischievous kitten when she sees Byron, but her brows knit together in anger when she finds me at his elbow.
He moves towards her with the grace of an athlete, despite the slight limp. No wonder so many women fall in love with him. Under his brash frankness and evil weaknesses, there is a sad boy with an aching heart. Even I long to comfort him.
He addresses her in a different tone than our conversation ended. “Your cousin lost her umbrella again and became thoroughly chilled. I will escort you both to your hotel directly.”
“How gallant.” She glances over at me. “Magsie will be fine. She never takes ill.” Rosalyn takes Byron’s arm and maneuvers him to the window that affords the best view of the jagged peaks sticking up through the clouds. “Let’s enjoy the vista first. I will not make that climb again.” They gaze at the turbulent lake and alps growing upon alps.
It pains me to stand by as Rosalyn claims Byron. Jealous? Me? As I watch Rosalyn giggle and laugh, point out the window and touch his arm with her beautifully gloved hand, the sensation becomes most acute. I console myself with the memory of the velvet voice he revealed just to me.
Perhaps any girl, young or old, who has ever talked to the poet is deeply jealous of the girl he speaks to next. He is intimate and direct. His poetry romanced all of England. He could easily win any heart.
It becomes unbearable to continue watching him with Rosalyn who so expertly pleases and flatters the sensuous outer man. I turn away disgusted with myself. The small room is uncomfortably crowded. My ears begin to ring and terror rises in my throat. Not again. I exit the chamber and perch on the top step. I fall to examining the contents of my jet bag. A bit of air, a small distraction, and I will be fine.
Ah, the knife. I see the old man grimacing at me again. My face heats. My hands sweat. My claustrophobia worsens.
Vingt franc, vingt franc, vingt franc. The gypsy’s taunt haunts me.
I should toss the hideous thing into the lake. I breathe deeply and close my eyes until my heartbeat slows.
When my eyes open, they are drawn again to the knife in my lap. I examine it closely. Intriguing. I must keep it to remind myself of my folly. I slip the knife from its sheath and run my finger over the blackened blade. Maybe I can clean it. The wood carving on the handle and sheath is crude, but it pleases me. I rub grime off a spot just under the narrow, brass finger guard and hold it to the light. This is strange. A tiny line goes all the way around a three-quarters inch wide spot that isn’t repeated in the rest of the design.
I search my bag for my embroidery scissors, open them wide, place the tiny blade into the line, and pry up. The knife buzzes in my hand, and a thin cover swings open on minute hidden hinges, revealing a miniature compartment featuring a numerical display above red and blue dots. I’ve never seen anything so intricate. I touch the numbers, then one dot and the other. Nothing happens. I wonder if Byron can explain it. Perhaps it is some secret of modern soldiers or sailors. It has the look of an instrument, but not like any compass or sextant I’ve seen.
I re-enter the crowded room at the tower’s top and spot Byron and Rosalyn leaning out the far window—despite the rain that falls on them. As I cross the room towards them with the knife held out in front of me, my finger happens to rest on both dots.
My finger starts to tingle—just as my hand did when the ancient gypsy pressed the knife to my palm. All the fear of that moment returns in double measure. I panic and try to fling the cursed object from me, but my finger is fastened to it. I cannot shake it off. Silent suction, too powerful for me to overcome, keeps the knife adhered to my hand. The tingling advances to buzzing. The sensation travels up my arm again. I grab the knife with my free hand and pull. The old gypsy’s leering face comes into my mind.
“Help me, please.” My finger is sucked inside the knife. Bile bubbles up my throat.
Rosalyn and Byron turn toward me. She pulls a face. “That’s disgusting, Magsie. Stop it.”
“I can’t.” I’m panting, pulling against the knife, trying to stay calm. “Help me. Then my whole hand disappears into the knife handle. I wave my arm, trying to shake the knife off.
Lord Byron advances to my aid.
“Pull it off me,” I scream.
“Don’t touch her,” calls my cousin. “She may be bewitched.”
My arm slides into the ancient handle up to my elbow.
Everyone in the tower backs away from the spectacle I’ve become. The ladies begin to shriek, shrill and mind-numbing.
Byron and Rosalyn shout at me, but I cannot understand them. The vibration is too loud, too powerful. The pain of it too jarring. The terror of my disappearing self too rushed and too real. My shoulder and side disappear into the knife. “Please, God, help me,” I scream as my head gets sucked into the knife.
The rest of my person rapidly follows. I sense pressure on my foot—a hand pulling me. Is it Byron? Rosalyn? There is an acute wrenching, then all is lost to the overpowering buzzing. My entire body is squeezed inside the knife. All my being vibrates. Am I drugged? Poisoned? I sipped the draught the gypsy made up for Rosalyn. Surely this is crazed imagining or the work of nightmare. Madness? My phobic fits have never escalated in such a manner. The pain mounts, and I wonder that I continue to exist in the face of it.
A pinhole opens in the other side of the knife, and I am somehow forced through it into an elemental string speeding through black nowhere, faster and faster. The string of me winds, twists, tangles as it rushes onward. Still I tingle. The sensation crests and falls like waves through my impossible body. I strain to see, but I have no eyes. I try to breath, but I have no lungs. I try to reach out and touch the dark I race through, but I have no hands. There are no sounds because I have no ears. There are no smells because I have no nose. I taste something earwax bitter that causes me to gag, but I do not vomit for I have no stomach.
Am I mortally poisoned? This must surely be death. It is not the heavenly journey I witnessed on my dear aunt’s face. It is terror. Am I doomed to Hell?
The buzzing escalates into a soul-wrenching vibration. I cling to my brain, my thoughts, myself. It tears away from me, pushes out through a tiny hole in the universe.
A tiny hole in the . . . knife?