Miss Miranda de Manley was on the verge of sleep when she was roused from her pleasant thoughts by the frantic return of her maid into her bedroom. Rosie had left a quarter of an hour ago or so to return The Count of Monte Cristo to the library, and Miranda had really not expected to see her again so soon; especially not with such a dramatic entry. And yet, the mild rebuke she had been planning died on her lips at the sight of the girl before her.
Rosie was panting like she had run a marathon - her eyes were staring wildly at her mistress as one small hand clutched at the lace at her throat. The flame of the taper in her hand was dancing madly in the breeze of her jerky movements, throwing grotesque shadows on the walls of the bed chamber.
Miranda sat up in bed abruptly, the drapes of sleep rudely removed from her consciousness and leaving her heart hammering with some nameless dread.
"What is wrong, Rosie?"
Rosie opened and shut her mouth a few times before visibly swallowing hard. Her eyes welled up with tears, adding to the panicked thoughts flying about in Miranda's mind. What could be so bad that her sensible friend was affected thusly?
"Rosie?" she questioned again gently, afraid of scaring the girl any further. Perhaps she had seen a ghost - she certainly looked scared enough to give credence to that fantastic idea… "Won't you tell me what the matter is?"
Finally Rosie seemed to snap out of her terror. She shut the door behind her softly and swiftly came over to her mistress' side, setting the taper down on a little table on the way. Using the privilege of a close friend, she took the other girl's hands in her own cold ones before drawing a deep breath.
"I overheard your brothers while they were talking in the study. They were…discussing. They - they - " she was overtaken by another bout of tears before reining her emotions in once again. The next words came out in a rush, as if she wanted to be done with the distasteful task of imparting information as soon as possible. "They've run out of money, and are desperate for some of the ready now. They have hatched a plot to get your money, Miss Miranda. A horrible, unnatural plot," She again started sniffling, "and that is not even the worst part of it." She looked up into Miranda's horrified eyes as she said clearly, "They want to see you dead, and they have already hired people to m-murder you in the near future.
"Your brothers are discussing the plans as we speak."
Miranda could not believe her ears. Her first impulse was to laugh it off as a poor joke, but even before the first mirthful ejaculation could burble its way out of her throat, it was suppressed by the realization that neither was Rosie this good an actress, not would she ever spin such a hideous yarn at her mistress' expanse.
Wrath at Rosie's presumptuous action immediately took the place of amusement.
"Are you out of your mind, Rose?" she hissed, her eyes narrowing in anger. The loving shortening of Rosie's name suddenly sounded like an insult from her indignant lips. "Do you even realize what you are accusing my family of? They are my brothers, for heavens' sake!" she drew herself up and glared coldly at the miserable girl before her. "I might treat you like a sister, but do have a care before saying such things in the future. You may leave me now."
"No Miss Miranda, I won't leave you; because this is the truth I say." the distraught maid wiped off a tear. "I would not have come to you if I had not been sure myself. If you do not believe me, then please come with me to the library, from where you can hear them talking plain as pikestaff. That is, if they are still talking, of course."
"You had better hope that they are still talking, Rosie," Miranda warned as she slipped into her dressing gown. "Because I will never believe you without the evidence of my own ears."
On reaching the library, Rosie immediately made for a paneled portion of the wall. Miranda remembered that there had originally been a window leading into the hallway in that corner, which had been paneled over when the hallway was divided into a large study and a music room to accommodate the growing de Manley children. The wall had always been thinnest at this point. Idly, her eyes fell on The Count of Monte Cristo lying discarded on a nearby table - it looked like Rosie had not even waited to put the tome back in its place before making her way to her mistress' room and scaring the life out of her. She was snapped out of her desultory thoughts when the hum of male voices reached them from behind the wall.
"So you believe that Hans is capable of this task?" she recognized that belligerent tone so well - it was Desmond on the brink of one of his famous rages. She could almost imagine him pushing his hands into his black hair as he leaned forward, a common trait of his in times of strain. "He has already been to prison once for attempted murder. What makes you think that he can carry out this task without muddling it up? I still say that our best bet lies with Greg Thomas; he is a master at his profession and would never mess this up."
Her heart thudded to a stop, before increasing its pace so madly that she thought it would burst out of her body. It cannot be!
"No Des," James' deep voice rang out coldly, "Thomas specializes in kidnapping and arson. We have been over this ground so many times before that my head is starting to ache; we need someone who can make murder seem like accident. We want someone who will kill Mira as simply as possible, not someone given to theatrics like Thomas. Besides, do not forget that even if he is ever caught, the authorities will never take the words of a convict over that of respectable gentlemen who would ostensibly never benefit from their little sister's death, especially when they would be over in France at that time. How will they know about the Kent estate before it is too late? Do not worry. I have already talked with Hans and suggested at least five different methods by which darling Mira would, sooner or later, 'accidentally' meet her end. He will leave no margin for error this time.
"The week after we sail, we will be in possession of that legacy."
An eavesdropped conversation had turned Miranda's world upside down. She never knew how she managed to remove herself soundlessly from the damning library corner to the upper levels of the house; but by the time she had recovered somewhat from the shock, that was where she found herself - with only the comforting presence of Rosie to soothe her.
Barely twenty-five minutes after following her maid in a skeptical frame of mind, Miranda was sobbing in the older woman's room as the latter packed a weather-beaten old valise for the two of them. Her hands were cold, and her heart felt like it was about to break.
Memories swirled around in her head, mocking her with their crystal clarity.
James obligingly stealing apple tarts from the kitchen with her, even though he was thirteen years older than his six-year old sister and got a wigging from the cook for not knowing better.
Desmond presenting her with a silver harp on her ninth birthday, custom-made in London's finest music shop for her small hands.
James taking a ten-year old Miranda's hand as she cried at her mother's funeral and offering his starched cambric handkerchief to wipe her tears.
Desmond teaching her the first steps of the Viennese Waltz in their living room for hours, the week before her London debut.
James promising yesterday to bring her horse Twilight over to London to assuage her homesickness.
Desmond's carefree laugh.
James' serious face as he talked politics with his friends.
"Why are they doing this to me?" she whimpered, her bottom lip quivering. "They could have asked me for money if they were in need. I would never have denied them. James talked about taking me to the Mannerings' ball next week. Desmond…he was my hero, Rose. How could he have teased me today morning about prospective beaus while plotting to kill me? They are my brothers - they should love and protect me, shouldn't they?"
Rosie wiped off a stray tear of her own, before cording up the valise tightly. There was no time for sentiments now…the masters - her lips curled derisively at the appellation in view of their current deeds - had planned to do away with their baby sister on Monday next, which made their immediate escape mandatory.
"You must forget about them now, Miss Miranda," she said in a soothing voice. "God willing, you will have time enough to ponder on the blackness of their hearts later when we are out of their reach. For now, we must concentrate on escaping quietly without anyone the wiser. London's a big town, but we will never be really safe until we get far away from your - from the de Manley men's reach. We must be careful to seek anonymity and lose anyone trailing us."
"Why are you doing this, Rosie?" On meeting a bewildered look, Miranda softly elaborated, "Why are you putting yourself in this discomfort and danger for my sake?"
Rosie smiled lovingly, stilling her ever-busy fingers for a moment and turning to look her mistress in the eye. "Because Miss Miranda, I care for you and can never leave you alone when you are in trouble. We have been together through thick and thin, and that is how matters are going to be always. Besides," a mischievous twinkle appeared in her eyes, "my Ma would beat the hide off me if she came to know that I had left you to fend for yourself at such a time."
"Now, have you collected all the valuables from your room?"
Miranda meekly raised a small cloth bundle before her maid. All her available jewels and loose money were tied up in this silk scarf, looking very pathetic and forlorn in their meagerness. She wished that she could have taken a few personal items along on the journey to keep her company, but Rosie was right - the less baggage on them the better, and the less tempting it would be for roving eyes on the way. No toiletry items, no knick-knacks, not even her good walking shoes - since they could give away her station in life to anyone poking about in her business. Only Rosie's things had been packed, and they would have to suffice for both the girls who were going to pose as sisters to reduce suspicion. The only thing Miranda had been adamant on taking with her had been a miniature of her mother done on ivory; she needed something to remind her of her identity when going into hiding, or else she feared that the next few months might well propel her towards insanity.
Rosie took the bundle from her limp hands and slipped it into the valise, keeping a small amount of change outside for immediate expenses.
"So we are ready now. Please change into my clothes, and wrap this shawl around your head to avoid detection. Then we will sneak out of the house quietly by the servants' entrance and walk for some distance. Unfortunately, we cannot simply hire a carriage as it could be traced to us later, but I'm sure that we would be able to manage something once we are far enough…"
"Is it any use, Rose?" A quiet whisper interrupted her monologue, and Rosie whipped around to look at her mistress in confusion. The young girl was sitting listlessly on the bed and her eyes were so unnaturally blank that they scared Rosie for a minute.
"What would be achieved if I run away now? They…they will find me in the end. I know James -" a bitter laugh welled up from her aching heart, "he is very determined when he sets his heart on getting something. If they are out to kill me, I know that I will be dead sooner or later. I don't want you to be dragged into this muck with me, Rose. You should protect yourself while you can.
"With Mama and Papa dead and my own brothers plotting against me," her voice broke, "I don't believe I need to be alive either. Nobody would miss me much."
"Now stop all that nonsense, Miss Miranda," Rosie said sharply. She marched over and gripped Miranda's shoulders tightly before giving her a rough shake. This was new - Rosie never transcended the boundaries of class like this. It was enough to snap Miranda out of her self-pitying daze. "You look at me, and listen up good," Rosie continued sternly once she was sure that she had the younger girl's undivided attention. "You deserve to live a long life and enjoy the favors God has seen fit to bestow upon you. This sorry creature," she waved her hand at Miranda's astonished expression, "is not the real Miranda de Manley, who has always climbed whatever walls life built before her - and enjoyed herself along the way if possible.
"And how could you say that no one would miss you? What about your cousins? What about Twilight? What about Sadie, Edwin, Jasmine and the rest of the staff at Snowdown, who count their days as successes only if they have you smiling at them? What about your friends like Lady Gertrude, Miss Fiona and Mrs. Herbert? What about Ma and me, Miss Miranda? What about us all?
"Don't you dare say that you will stop trying to survive. I will keep you alive if it's the last thing I do." she hissed.
Miranda's mouth curved into a sweet smile. Indeed, there were things worth fighting for, worth living for. She gave her maid a spontaneous hug and whispered, "I'm ready now. Thank you."
She got up from the bed and, picking up a bag containing food and other necessities, turned around to get a last look at her old room before leaving it - perhaps for ever. Her eyes roamed over everything.
The ormolu clock in the corner, counting out the hours serenely as usual.
The four-poster bed in which she had slept since she had been nine years of age.
Her favorite rose-pink satin curtains, fluttering in the slight breeze from her opened windows.
Her toiletry items neatly ranged on the intricate dresser that had once been her mother's.
The fourteen cracks in the ceiling that, together, resembled a prancing bear.
The rug, the wardrobe, the mirror, the paintings, the chairs…
The cozy aura of comfort and familiarity wrapping around each item like a palpable mantle.
These had been part of her everyday life to such an extent that she had never consciously appreciated them, before being forced to give them all up in the twinkling of an eye.
Miranda closed her eyes for a brief moment before opening them with steely resolve. "Yes, indeed I am ready. Let us go." And she marched out without a second glance.
The girls crept along the hallway towards the stairs silently, their hearts thudding at each creak of wood and every squeak of a foraging rodent. The tallow candle in Rosie's hand could not banish the darkness around them, and only succeeded in making the unseen corners appear all the more sinister. Twice, mice skittered before them like streaks of furry lightning. It was not a time Miranda could remember later without grimacing, as even the bare memory of that time would send adrenaline pulsing along her veins. At every turn they expected to be discovered by a servant or - worse - one of the de Manley men themselves; and explaining what they were doing, with luggage and dressed as they were, would not have been an easy task. But the horrifying time was finally over and they were able to make it to the servants' staircase.
And then began the descent, down forty precarious steps of termite-infested wood on the path to salvation. Thankfully Rosie was used to its peculiarities, and guided Miranda carefully about the strongest places to walk on.
Why had nobody ever told me how dangerous these stairs are? Miranda wondered to herself indignantly as she was saved by the maid from going though the rotten wood in the nick of time, yet again.
At one point Rosie passed the candle to Miranda as she was trying to rescue the valise from a particularly adhesive cobweb. Within moments a glob of hot wax had dribbled onto Miranda's foot from the dish carrying the candle.
"Hush, Miss," Rosie put a finger to her lips as Miranda let out an involuntary yelp of pain. The chance of being caught by Miranda's brothers was mercifully thin on this route; but the runaways were not yet out of danger, as there were some servants who might well sell them out to James and Desmond for pecuniary advantages.
"I-I know Rose," Miranda whispered, a hand on her heart to still its frenzied beat. "Believe me, I know."
Each step seemed to take an age to be traversed, but finally they were in the cavernous kitchen of de Manley House. The slumbering fire in the hearth lighted up the last hurdle in their path - the kitchen door, their designated form of exit, locked up safely for the night with no key in sight.
Miranda clutched at Rosie's hand. She was better-versed in the lives of the domestic staff than most ladies of her status, but she did not know where the house keys were kept.
And if her pallor was anything to go by, neither did Rosie.
"Well, this is an impediment alright," Miranda smiled shakily. "Would Mrs. Jeffry be having the keys? It stands to reason that a housekeeper would be in possession of the house keys. But then, maybe Cookie has the keys to all kitchen doors…"
"It's no use, Miss Miranda," Rosie interrupted her, a frown marring her brow as she pondered over the situation. "We can't take the risk of traipsing all over the house searching for the one with the keys. We can't trust anyone, and for all we know the person we approach might refuse knowledge of the keys and go to the masters once our backs are turned."
Miranda whirled around in desperation, peering at every shadow suspiciously by the flickering candle-light, before the obvious answer struck her. "A window? Can we open a window?"
The maid's face cleared up and she moved swiftly to the window nearest to them. It was locked up alright, but thankfully the key was in the lock itself and could easily be twisted to release the catch. The window had been jammed with the oily kitchen fumes and protested a bit, before finally opening out to the cold night air.
"You first, Miss," Rosie said briskly in a tone that brooked no dispute. Miranda shut her mouth - which had already been half-opened to protest - and hauled herself out of the small opening. Thank goodness both of them were relatively small in stature! The window was certainly not one of the long French kind, which would have been very appreciated right now; but it was just enough for them and their luggage to pass through with a bit of pulling and pushing, as the case might be.
She felt around with her foot first and landed delicately on the spongy earth of a rose bed. She turned around quickly and leaned into the kitchen to get a strong grip on the heavy valise, before heaving it out of the room in a relatively muted manner. The groceries bag was next. Everything seemed to be going off pretty smoothly until it was time for Rosie to climb out.
She was almost out of the embrasure when she caught a foot on the window frame and, losing her balance, fell on the ground with a thud that was painfully loud in the stillness of the night.
Immediately a window opened on the top floor, and they could see the butler's bald head outlined in the wooden frame. The next instant his strident voice pierced the dreamy silence.
"Who's there? Who's…someone is breaking into the house! Henry! Gordon! Where's my gun? Wake up, everyone!"
His head retreated, and he was probably already making his way to the kitchen.
Candles were lighted in several windows and an incoherent babble rose in the air as the whole house was roused.
The window of the downstairs study opened as the masters of the house leaned out to search for the cause of this disturbance.
And two frightened young women picked up their bags, and ran and ran until they had opened the big iron gates defining the perimeter of the grounds.
And then, they ran some more.
© 2012 Copyright held by the author.