Stranje House A School for Unusual Girls by Kathleen Baldwin
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 2 Chapter 1 Banished London, 1814 "I'll wager Sir Isaac Newton's parents didn't pack him off to a school to reform his manners." I smoothed my traveling skirts and risked a glance at my parents. They sat across from me, stone faced and indifferent to my arguments. "Do be quiet, Georgiana." With gloved fingers my mother massaged her forehead. Our coach slowed and rolled to a complete standstill, waylaid by crowds spilling in to the road. All of London celebrated Napoleon's capture and imprisonment on the isle of Elba. Rich and poor danced in the streets, rejoicing together and singing songs around makeshift fires. Their jubilation made my journey to exile all the more dismal. M y father drummed fingers against his thigh and muttered curse words about our snail like progress through London. Mother closed her eyes as if in slumber, a ploy to evade my petitions. She could not possibly be sleeping while holding her spine in such an erect formation. She didn't even allow herself the luxu ry of leaning back against the squibs for fear of crumpling the feathers on her bonnet. Somehow, some way, I had to make them see reason. "This is a pointless expense. Surely you realize I have no more use for a schoolroom. Next week I turn sixteen and since I have already been out in society -" Mother snapped to attention, suddenly wide awake. "Oh yes, Georgiana, I'm well aware of the fact that you have already been out in society. Indeed, I shall never forget Lady Frampton's card party."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 3 I sighed, kn owing exactly what she would say next. "You cheated." "I did not cheat," I explained for the fortieth time. "It was a simple matter of mathematics. I merely kept track of the number of cards played in each suit. How else did you expect me to win?" "I did not expect you to win," she said in clipped tones. The feathers on her bonnet quivered as she clenched her jaw. "I expected you to behave like a proper young lady, not a seasoned gambler. I doubt I shall ever be able to show my face in Lady Frampton's c ompany again this age." "Counting cards is not considered cheating," I said quietly. "It is when you win at every hand." Trumped, I sighed and turned to stare out my window. A man with a drunken grin tipped his hat and waved a gin bottle, as if invitin g us to join the celebration. He tugged a charwoman into a merry jig and twirled away. I envied him. "Peasants," my mother huffed and brushed out her skirts. Peasant was her favorite condemnation. She followed it with a customary haughty sniff, as if br eathing peasant air made her nose itch. Father consulted his pocket watch and grumbled. "Confound it all. At this pace we won't get there til dark. All this hubbub over that ridiculous little Corsican." Never mind that during the last ten years Napole on, the little Corsican had embroiled all of Europe in a terrible war -my father was being inconvenienced, kept away from his hounds and hunters. Unfortunately for me, Napoleon wasn't present to receive his proper share of the blame. So, Father furrowed his great hairy eyebrows at me, his only daughter. The leather seats creaked as I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 4 shifted under his condemning frown. He wasn't a bad sort, my father. So long as I didn't bother him, he ignored my eccentricities and looked the other way. Today, however, he scowled at me. I'd wronged him. Regrettable, but true. A good share of blame for this dratted journey rested squarely on me, but certainly not all. "Surely you can't hold me responsible for these impassable roads." He growled in response and thum ped the ceiling with his walking stick to get the coachman's attention. "Move along, man. Blast it all! Get this trap rolling." "Make way," the coachman shouted at the throng and cracked his whip. Our coach lumbered forward with slightly more haste. A s we plodded by, I studied the crowds milling on walkways and cobblestones. Happy people jostled one another, laughing and singing, while I sat confined in gloomy silence on my way to be imprisoned at Stranje House. With a loud huff my mother exhaled. For heaven's sake, Georgiana, stop gawking and sit back like a proper young lady." Considering my present circumstances I had little choice but to obey. Although, I doubted I had the capacity for behaving like a truly proper young lady, at least not enoug h of one to please her. By the time we passed the outskirts of London and veered northwest, the sun hung low, too weak to burn through the haze. Periodically, fireworks lit up the darkening sky over the river like eerie orange lightning. After what seeme d like hours we turned off the road onto a bumpy drive. The coach stopped and the footman jumped down to open a creaking iron gate. I leaned forward to get a glimpse of my prison. A rusting placard claimed the old manor was Stranje House but I knew bett er. This wasn't a house. Or a school. This was a cage.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 5 "I don't need to go here. Truly, I don't." I hated the pleading quality creeping into my voice. Mother laced her fingers primly in her lap and glanced in the other direction. I cast my pride to the wind and bleated like a lamb before slaughter. "I promise to do exactly as you ask. Best manners. Everything. I'll even intentionally lose at cards. I give you my word." They paid me no heed. Stranje House loomed larger by the second. It seemed as if o ur coach bumped along faster than before. Was the coachman running the horses full out? Faster and faster we rumbled up the drive, until the speed of it made me feel sick to my stomach. The sprawling Elizabethan manor crouched on scraggily unkempt g rounds. Dead trees stood among the living and stretched skeletal hands toward heaven. The old manor's roof formed a black silhouette against the darkening sky. Its sharp peaks seemed like jagged scales jutting up from a dragon's back. Fog and smoke swirl ed around the boney beast. Clasping my hands together to keep from shaking, I turned to my parents. "You can't mean to leave me in this dilapidated old mausoleum You can't. They refused to meet my frantic gaze. "Father?" "Hound's tooth, Georgie! Lea ve off your grousing." No reprieve. No pardon. No mercy. My heart sped up. Aside from occasional visits to my grandfather, or my uncle, this was my first trip away from home. I'd be on my own -banished to this bleak heap of stones. All too soon our co ach rolled to a stop in front of the dragon's dark gaping mouth. Suddenly, I found it difficult to breathe. A very stiff butler opened the front door. I climbed out of the coach o n wobbly legs and followed him and my parents up a wooden staircase to th e headmistress's office. I held my head high as befits a woman going unjustly to the gallows. Every step carried me further from
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 6 freedom, further from my home. H e ushered us into a cramped dimly lit study where we seated ourselves on small uncomfortable chairs The walls were lined with towering bookshelf M ore books rested in haphazard piles on the floor stacked like druid burial stones Concentrating on anything, except my fate, I sat behind my parents and focused on the books nearest my chair A de cidedly odd assortment of titles a translation of Beowulf, atop Lord Byron's scandalous tale about vampires, The Giaour, beneath that lay John Donne's sermons and a text on French mathematicians. Under other conditions I would've been itching to look in t hat last one. At the moment I could scarcely keep from gnawing my lip unto the point of drawing blood. The headmistress, Miss Emily Stranje, sat behind her desk, mute, assessing me with unsettling hawk eyes. In the flickering light of the oil lamp, I cou ldn't tell how old she was. S he seemed ancient one minute and youthful the next. I guessed s he might've been pretty once, if it weren't for her shrewd measuring expression. She wore her wavy brown hair pulled back in a severe chignon, but stray wisps de fiantly escaped their moorings, giving her a wild animal like appearance. I refused to cower under her predatory gaze. If this woman intended to be my jailer, I had to stand my ground now or it would be forever lost. "It was an accident!" I blurted a nd immediately regretted it. The words sounded defensive, not strong and reasoned as I had intended. My mother sat perfectly straight, primly picking lint off her gloves as if my outburst caused the bothersome flecks to appear. She sighed. I could al most hear her oft repeated complaint, why is Georgiana not the meek biddable daughter I deserve.' Miss Stranje arched one imperious eyebrow, silently demanding the rest of the explanation,
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 7 waiting unnerving me with every tick of the clock When I did not answer, she tapped one slender finger against the polished walnut of her desk. The sound echoed through the room -a magistrate's gavel, condemning me to life in prison. "You accidentally set fire to your father's stables?" My father growled low in his throat and shifted uncomfortably on the delicate Queen Anne chair. "Yes. An accident," I mumbled. I knew that fire wasn't the whole reason I was here, just the final straw. If only people would understand. If only the world would care about someth ing beyond my ability to pour tea. I decided to tell her the truth. "It was a scientific experiment gone awry. Had I been successful -" "Successful?" my father roared. He twisted on the flimsy chair putting considerable stress on the rear legs as he le aned in my direction and numbering my sins on his fingers. "You nearly roasted my hunters alive. And my matched set of bays. What about my kennels, eh? You could've killed all my hounds." He dismissed me with an angry wave of his hand. "Successful. Fah!" He may as well have slapped me. It stung. No point in arguing the merits of inventing a new kind of undetectable invisible ink with him. It didn't matter that I'd helped the grooms lead the horses out, and doused the fire before any severe damag e occurred. His mind was made up. Unlike my father's precious livestock, my goose was well and truly cooked. I would be banished to Stranje House, just as Napoleon was to Elba. Miss Stranje glanced down at a trio of letters written by my mother. "It sa ys here that on another occasion, Georgiana jumped out of an attic window?" "I didn't jump."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 8 "She did." Father crossed his arms. It happened two and a half years ago. One would've thought they'd have forgotten it by now. "Another experiment. I'd read a treatise about DaVinci and his -" Wings ." My mother cut me off and rolled her eyes upward to contemplate the ceiling. She employed the same mocking tone she always used when referring to that particular incident. "Not wings," I defended. "A glider. A kite." Mother ignored me and stated her case to Miss Stranje without any inflection whatsoever. "She's a menace. Dangerous to herself and others." "No. I took precautions. I had the stable lads position a wagon of hay beneath the window." "Yes!" Fa ther clapped his hands once as if he'd caught a fly in them. "But you missed the ruddy wagon, didn't you?" "Because my experiment worked." "Hardly." A scornful rumble caught in his throat as he explained to Miss Stranje, "Crashed into a tree. Wore her ar m in a sling for four months." "Yes, but if I'd made the kite wider "This is all your doing." My father directed a familiar barb at my mother. "You should never have taught the chit to read." "I had nothing to do with it," she bristled. "That bluesto cking governess is to blame. I let her go as soon as I realized." My mother ignored his grumbles and demanded of Miss Stranje, "Well? Can you reform her or not?" There are whispers among my mother's friends that, for a large enough sum, the
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 9 mysterious M iss Stranje is able to take a difficult young woman and mold her into an unexceptional young lady. The highest compliment a debutante can receive is to be deemed un exceptional Among the b eau m onde being unexceptional is almost a prerequisite for marriage I care less than a fig for society's good opinion. Furthermore, I don't have the slightest desire to attend their boring balls, stand around at a rout, or squeeze into an overcrowded sweltering soiree. More to the point, I have no intention of marryi ng anyone. Ever. My mother, on the other hand, languishes over the fact that, despite being the daughter of a wealthy wool merchant her large dowry failed to snag her a title She'd agreed to the arranged marriage because my father, a mere mister had p otential. H e stood second in line to a n earldom. Unfortunately, my father's elder brother my uncle Brucklesby, married shortly thereafter and produced several sturdy sons All obnoxious bullies, but they carr ied on his line and dashed forever my mothe r's hopes of becoming a countess. As a result, her aspirations to elevate herself in society are reduced to puffing me off to a n Earl or perhaps a Viscount thereby transforming her into the exalted role of mother to a countess. A thoroughly ridiculous n otion. Has she not looked at me? My figure is flat and straight. I doubt I shall ever acquire much of a bosom. I am endowed with stubborn freckles that will not bleach out no matter how many milk baths or cucumber plasters M other applies. She detests my red hair. It is most definitely not en vogue Two and a half years ago, directly after the kite incident, she tried to disguise my embarrassing red curls by rinsing them with walnut stain. It would infuriate her if she knew that her efforts to change my hair color spurred my interest in dyes and inks. Her oily walnut stain
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 10 failed miserably. The hideous results had to be cut off my head shorn like a sheep. It has only now grown out to an acceptable length. And now this. Banishment. I clenched the fabric of my traveling dress and wished for the millionth time that I'd been more careful while adding saltpeter to the boiling ink emulsion. If only it hadn't sparked that abominable fire. Miss Stranje took an inordinate amount of time to pass sentence upon me. Unable to bear the wait, M other collapsed against the back of her chair. "I knew it. She's hopeless. Nothing can be done with her." Miss Stranje rose. The black bombazine of her skirts rustled like funeral crepe. "On the contrary, Mrs. Fit zwilliam. I believe we may be able to salvage your daughter." Salvage ? They spoke of me a s if I was a tattered curtain they intended to rework into something else. I felt ill. "You do?" My mother blinked repeatedly at this astonishing news. "Yes. H owever -" Miss Stranje grasped the edge of her desk as if it were a pulpit and she about to preach a sermon condemning us all to perdition -"You may have heard my teaching methods are rather unconventional. Severe. Harsh." She paused and fixed each of us with a shockingly hard glare. "I assure you, the gossip is all true." For the first time that day, my mother relaxed. I, on the other hand, could not swallow the dry lump of dread rising in my throat. Miss Stranje's sharp eyed gaze seemed to reach into my soul and wring it out. She bore down on my father. Mr. Fitzwilliam, you may leave your daughter with me
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 11 under one condition. During the school term you must grant me absolute authority in all matters pertaining to her welfare, financially and otherwise. Should I decide to lock her in a closet with only bread and water for sustenance, I will not tolerate any complaints. If I deem it necessary to take her to London to practice her social skills, you will not only permit such an excursion, you will finance the endeavor." My father ran a finger around the top of his starched collar. She plopped a sheaf of papers on the corner of the desk nearest him. "These documents grant me legal authority over your daughter." Father reached for them. "Before you sign," Miss Stranje said arrest ing him by pressing a single fingertip atop the stack. "I require all parents to visit my discipline cellar. It is imperative that you understand precisely how much authority you are signing over to me. If Geor giana comes home on holiday sporting a bruise, I want you to understand precisely how she came by it." "Don't much like the sound of that," Father grumbled. Then he glanced at me and his nostrils flared. His angry scowl returned. I groaned, knowing the smell of burnt stable hay still lingered in his nose. Miss Stranje lit a small lantern and ushered us to the door. "This way, if you please. You too, Georgiana, come along." She led us down long twisting stairs, deep into the bowels of Stranje House. Da mp limestone walls, gray with age and mold, closed around us. We emerged in a dim hallway and shuffled through a dank passageway until the headmistress finally stopped in front of a heavy wooden door. It creaked as she opened it. We were greeted by the sound of human moaning.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 12 Miss Stranje swept her hand forward welcoming my parents into her torture chamber just as if it were a prettily decorated parlor. F ather balked at the entrance and gasped, "Good heavens." Mother marched straight in. "Don't be missish, Henry. Nothing we haven't seen before. See here, this is just a backboard. Very good for the posture. Used one myself." She pointed to a pale white haired girl, younger than I, strapped waist, shoulders and head to a thick oak slat. Her blue eyes opened wide and flittered fearfully as we drew close. Her forehead had been buckled so tightly to the backboard that red marks welted on each side of the leather strap. She stood perfectly still as Miss Stranje addressed her. Mr. and Mrs. Fitzwi lliam allow me to present Miss Seraphina Wyndham." Seraphina did not speak, nor did she greet us with a genial smile. She simply mewed pitifully like a strangled kitten. Next to Seraphina stood a large steel mummy case. I'd read about these Egyptian arti facts but had never seen one. Fascinated, I ran my fingers over the metal, inspecting the hinges and, to my great disappointment, realized this one was of new construction. Inside the case, I heard breathing and jumped back. The metal coffin reverberate d like a dull bell when Miss Stranje rapped on the front. She peered into one of the eyeholes. "How are you holding up in there Lady Jane?" A small yip echoed inside the metal sarcophagus. "No, child, don't move about. Those tines are extremely shar p. I only meant to inquire after your health. I couldn't help but notice a small quantity of blood seeping out of the bottom of the case. Are you well?" "Well enough." Lady Jane's surly response reverberated eerily from the casket.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 13 "Well enough, thank you ," Miss Stranje corrected. A small O riental woman padded silently out of the shadows and struck the mummy case with a bamboo stick, setting off a sickening chime. I flinched, as t he girl inside yipped. Devoid of sincerity, Lady Jane repeated, "Well enough, thank you." Miss Stranje inclined her head to the woman with the stick and then turned to us. Mr. Fitzwilliam, Mrs. Fitzwilliam allow me to present Madame Cho. She assists me here in the discipline room and also instructs the girls in Asian hi story." Madame Cho was small, old, and crafty looking as a black cat. She bowed slowly and stiffly as if the effort cost her ancient bones much pain. My parents walked on, following Miss Stranje. Swift as a thief, Madam Cho straightened. So much for her old bones Her obsidian eyes reminded me of a lizard's as she examined me with the same ruthless assessment as had Miss Stranje. I edged away and joined my father who was toying with the end of a whip hanging on the wall. He fingered the sharp bits of metal tied onto the leather thongs and glanced at me. A worried look creased his brow, and I thought he might be picturing my back lashed and bleeding "Father?" I asked, hoping for a reprieve. Then we both remembered the day of the fire, how he'd threa tened to beat me with his own riding crop and how I'd run away and hid from him. His face hardened into the same angry mask it had that day. My shard of hope slipped away and splintered against the dungeon floor. He let go of the whip and wiped his pal ms against the side of his coat. "Might do you some good," he said, and turned away from me. My mother stood beside a medieval stretching rack. The relic must've dated clear back to
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 14 the I nquisition. She seemed alarmed that such an evil contraption shou ld be found in a girls school. But as she rubbed her fingertips together, I realized she'd merely been perturbed because dust had smudged the tips of her glove. No, I wanted to scream, instead I held myself stiffly and using every ounce of control I had left I asked, "You don't actually use this rack, do you?" Only when neccessary ." Miss Stranje turned to me and smiled graciously. "Would you care to try it out?" M y father stomped out of the room. "I've had enough of this place. Do you want me to sig n those blasted papers or not?" My mother rushed after him and Miss Stranje. I stared at the shackles on the rack, stunned that my parents would dare leave me here. Did they have no natural affection for me, their only child? I'm not given to outburst s of weakness, but I began to tremble stupidly and my feet seemed frozen to the cold stone floor. Hope does not shatter all at once. The mind plays tricks. For an few moments I felt certain Stranje House, this horrid place, must be a nightmare. Any m oment, I assured myself, the maid would throw back the curtains and I would wake up in my own bedroom. The world would turn right again. Sanity would return. The s un would glint through my windows. The mantle clock would tick steadily and reliably, not like the panicky thumping of my heart. But I didn't wake up. Instead, Madame Cho swatted the back of my legs with her stick and pointed to the door. "You go." Then she turned and beat on the mummy case. The stinging welts on my calf roused me out of my disbelief. I did go I ran. My feet thudded numbly against the floor as I skidded out of that awful
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 15 room into the dim hallway. It seemed darker than before, as if the night fog had settled into it. A junction in the corridor confused me. Which way were the stairs? Behind me, Madame Cho's clanging racket continued mingled with whimpers and yelps of pain I shook my head. This wasn't a girls school. It was a mad house. I didn't know what Napoleon planned to do about being imprisoned on Elba, but a s for me, I planned to escape.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 16 Chapter 2 Secrets I backed away from the vanishing specter of Madame Cho and hurried down the corridor until I came to three dark openings in the stone walls, three stairways. Which one led back to Miss Stranje's office? Her flickering lantern had captivated my attention as we'd trudged down into this endless maze of gray stone. I didn't recall passing other stairwells as we'd made our way to the discipline chamber. Think I ordered myself. Think I remembere d Father's boot heels clicking against the stone floor, but how many times? Ten? Fifteen? I closed my eyes and relived the memory, counting. Thirteen. I paced off the hallway, allowing for his long stride, grateful for the fleeting wisps of moonlight filtering in through a small mullioned cellar window near the ceiling. I measured the distance and stood in front of the second opening. Narrow steps curled up into thick impenetrable darkness. These had to be the right stairs There wasn't time to rec ount so I stepped up into utter blackness. Moisture from the damp moldy stones seeped onto my fingers as I lightly touched the wall, guiding myself as I climbed. Like a blind girl, I waved my other hand in front of my face,
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 17 brushing away cobwebs and sp iders dangling from the low ceiling. Determined to catch up to my parents, I climbed upward, but every step increased my uneasiness. Had I chosen the wrong stairway? I slowed my frantic steps and considered turning back. Just then, I thought I heard vo ices. This was the right way. I bolted up the stairs faster. Racing through the dark. I had to hurry. I needed to stop Father from signing those papers. I rehearsed the scene in my mind. I would throw myself at his feet and implore him to forgive m e. I'd promise to be good. I would beg him not to leave me in this wretched place. I'd promise never to conduct an experiment in the stables ever again. I would even promise never to dabble with explosive components, at least, not in such imprudent qua ntities if only he would let me come back home. The voices grew louder and more distinguishable. Up ahead, a thin beam of gray light penetrated the thick darkness. I ran faster and, in my rush forward, tripped on a crumbling step. A mouse squeaked a nd scurried past. I jumped up and brushed the grit and slime from my palms. At last, up ahead, I saw a doorway out of this interminable pit. I dashed up the remaining steps, but stopped short on a narrow wedge shaped landing. This was not a doorway. And the voice did not belong to my father. I teetered on the edge of a precipice overlooking a room. It was a small niche facing the backside of a tapestry, one that must be hanging very high on the wall. I estimated the distance to the floor to be abo ut eight feet. Thin gauze like peepholes in the tapestry's weave allowed me to see into the room with a fair amount of clarity. The voices belonged to two gentlemen. Odd, I thought, that gentlemen should occupy a sitting room in a girls' school, and od der still that there should be a spy hole tucked away in a dark passage in that same school. It must be
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 18 a forgotten hiding place from the house's Tudor days, when, according to my history books, the royal families were obsessed with spying on each other. The younger of the two men paced, while the elder stood completely still. Although both were tall in stature, they were opposites, angel and devil, light and shadow. The older man stood perfectly at ease. Tranquil. His golden hair thinning and his skin roughened from years in the sun. The younger man, who couldn't be more than a handful of years older than me, had midnight black hair and hard angular planes in his face. His eyes flashed with impatience as he paced. "We're wasting time," he grumbled. "If we leave now we could make the crossing before morning and still be back in London in time for the diplomatic ball." "You're allowing your emotions to rule your head, Sebastian." The older man tucked his hands behind his back and waited until he had Sebastian's full attention before continuing. "Consider the long term possibilities. If Emily's new student has developed a reliable formula for invisible ink, one that can't be detected by simply running a candle under the letter, think how that will ai d us. Our time is better spent here, rather than rushing across the channel and risk using the old codes." I couldn't believe my ears. Surely they weren't talking about my ink formula. It had to be a coincidence. I clutched the edge of the niche and lea ned closer, intent on hearing every word. They couldn't know about my experiments. No one knew about my research, no one except my father, and Mother. She must have mentioned it in those wretched letters she sent Miss Stranje. "But she's just a girl ." Sebastian shook his head. "I ask you, what can a girl possibly
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 19 know of such matters? Their heads are full of fripperies and dresses. Their weightiest calculations are deciding how many ruffles their next ballgown should have." I curled my fingers ag ainst the plaster walls. What an arrogant jackanapes. Ruffles I'd like to hit him over the head with a calculation or two. Sebastian's companion chuckled. "You have much to learn about women, my boy, and in particular the young ladies in this school. Emily is very selective about her girls. She only takes in the ones who" He stopped and rubbed at the stubble on his cheek as if considering his next words. Drat! What about the girls in this school? I balanced on the edge of the landing, barely able t o keep from shouting at him, yes, yes, go on, the girls who ? I did shout. When my foot slipped off the ledge I screamed. I scratched wildly at the tapestry trying to keep my balance, but it swung open. Scrabbling in vain m id air, I dropped like a sto ne Except t ime slowed to a torturous crawl. I saw my future in predictable angles, calculable forces, inescapable Newtonian physics. I would be dashed to bits on a monstrous old Elizabethan chest. My lungs would be pierced on the ornate gothic spires on the outer corners. O ther parts of me would be bruised and punctured on the metal studs decorating the edge. I would die. So, I closed my eyes. I nstead of breaking my ribs against the sharp edged chest and plummeting to the floor, I felt myself whiske d sideways, swooped away from the furniture. An angel must have saved me. Or had I'd died and passed straight on to heaven ? Unlikely, on several counts. I opened my eyes and found myself cradled in the devil's arms. Stunned beyond words or
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 20 good sense, I blinked, noting that Sebastian's eyes were a startling blue. I ran through several explanations I might give him for falling from the heavens, but decided against speaking, and concentrated instead on recovering my breath. It gave me a distinct sense of satisfaction to see that Sebastian's impatience had completely disappeared. The young man appeared quite as astonished as I. Introductions were in order. So, I began. "For your information, I have never given a single thought to the number of ruffl es on my ballgown. Never." There. That told him. One of his eyebrows arched up to meet a shock of dark hair that had fallen across his brow. My moment of triumph might've lasted longer if his surprise hadn't melted into a lazy sardonic smile. The smug scoundrel was about to laugh at me. The other fellow rushed to us. "Is she all right?" "She must have bumped her head," Sebastian said, with a sly half smile. "She's going on about ruffles." I buckled my lips together and then promptly unbuckled them. I meant to put a hasty end to his frivolity. "Why were you discussing my ink?" I demanded. At that precise moment, the door opened and Miss Emily Stranje glided into the room. She took one look at me draped across Sebastian's arms, glanced up at the tapes try dangling open in front of the passage hole, and hesitated only a moment before calmly addressing us as if nothing were amiss. "Ah, I see you've met my newest student." She narrowed her gaze at me "Miss Fitzwilliam, how clever you are to have so qu ickly discovered one of our secret passages. Incidentally, your parents asked me to bid you adieu." "They've gone? Already?"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 21 Miss Stranje inclined her head. "Yes. Your father thought it would be better this way." No. It wasn't better. Not better, at all They'd abandoned me How could they leave me in this in ghastly place without so much as a promise to return? I felt disoriented, dizzy, like I might be falling again. My stomach lurched. I clapped a hand over my mouth and turned my face into his ch est, away from the wobbling light of the oil lamps I didn't intend to sink deeper into Sebastian's arms G rief rendered me momentarily weak. C radled in his arms I felt warm and comfort ed yet un easy at the same time. I'd never been held by a man before except by my f ather long ago Father -who had just dumped me in this place like so much unwanted baggage I mustered my pride, fought to balance my mind again and take charge of the situation. I needed to get on my feet and stay there. I certainly did n't belong in this man's arms. Apparently, I didn't belong anywhere. "Put me down, sir." I pushed softly against his v est. "Lord Wyatt is a viscount Georgiana One must address him as my lord rather than sir ." Miss Stranje instructed me as if I were a complete simpleton. "Thus, you would say; kindly put me down, my lord." I didn't care whether he was a viscount or a fishmonger. I needed to get out of his arms. "After that fall, are you certain you're steady enough to stand?" Sebastian asked, studyi ng my face. A fleeting blush of pity colored his cheeks. I wanted none of it. "Quite certain. Now, if you would be so gracious, my lord as to kindly set me on the floor." I'd emphasized his title with more sarcasm than intended, and nearly spat the k indly at Miss Stranje. My mother would've whipped me soundly for such rudeness. In my defense, I was still shaken from the fall and my parents hasty departure. Rattled. Vexed. Sebastian lowered my feet to the ground. "You're welcome," he said coldly, reminding me
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 22 I hadn't thanked him. He straightened his rumpled sleeves and brushed away a cobweb I must have carried down with me on my skirts. At the moment, I couldn't risk gratitude. My composure hung by a thread as fragile as the cobwebs he brushed off his coat. I set my jaw and turned to Miss Stranje. "Did my father mention at which inn he would be staying?" Her bird of prey features softened. "No. Naturally I offered him rooms here, but he insisted they make a clean break of it. To avoid a fuss as he put it." "I would not have made a fuss." A lie I would've clung to his boots and begged like a street urchin, like one of the peasants my mother detested. The untruth made me flush with heat. Unable to look at them, I studied the intricate patt ern in the Turkish carpet. "Of course, not. Now, Miss Fitzwilliam, you may be excused for the evening." Miss Stranje stepped aside and gestured to the doorway. "Your trunks have been carried to the girls' dormitorium, up one flight, turn left into the e ast wing. You'll find it easy enough, it's the second room on the right." I was not a child that she should dismiss me out of hand. I faced her squarely, adopting my best no nonsense tone. "These men were discussing my invisible ink. I would like an ex planation." Miss Stranje didn't flinch. That sharp hawk like expression of hers returned, unreadable and shrewd. "Were they?" she said, without a modicum of surprise in her voice. That proved it. They had, indeed, been talking about my ink. But why? The experiment had failed miserably, burst into flames, and Miss Stranje knew as much. I couldn't stop my wretched tongue from betraying my curiosity. "Why?" Miss Stranje's face was a cool mask of restrained civility. She gestured to the hall again.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 23 "It is late, Miss Fitzwilliam. I'm afraid you really must run along and attend to your luggage." "And ruffles." Sebastian said under his breath, sweeping into an overly flamboyant bow, but not before I glimpsed his insufferable smirk. The intensity of the fr own I set upon him ought to have made the impertinent rogue burst into flames. When, of course, he didn't, I wanted to slam the door on all of them and run headlong into the night after my parents' coach. Except, that would be utter foolishness, and whil e I admit to many defects of character, foolishness is not numbered among them.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 24 Chapter 3 Lunatics and Thieves "Charming girl," Sebastian intoned to my retreating backside. I didn't give him the satisfaction of turning around. I had no desire to see the condescension on his arrogant face. For that matter I never wanted to see him or his shockingly blue eyes again. Ever. I rubbed my upper arm where, for some strange reason, I could still feel him holding me. There's no sound explanation for why, except Sebastian is a devil and his fingers left scorch marks. How dare he think I had nothing but fripperies occupying my thoughts. It wasn't his formula under discussion, was it? No. I f I only had ribbons and lace on the brain, how did he supp ose I had come by a recipe for undetectable invisible ink? Never mind that I'd nearly roasted myself alive while mixing it, I had something Lord Evil Eyes coveted. I stiffened my spine enough to please even my mother and marched up a flight of stairs, t urned left, went down the hall. I opened the second door and came to a sudden halt. My mouth dropped open. "What do you think you are doing? Those are my trunks." I balled up my fists and stomped toward the circle of girls gathered around my portmantea u.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 25 "Get away I snatched my hairbrush away from Seraphina, the pale flaxen haired girl who'd been strapped to the posture board. "Unhand my things. What are you -a pack of thieves? Angrier than I'd ever been in my whole life, angry at them, at Seb astian, at my parents, at everything, I unleashed my fury. "And to think I felt sorry for you. I can see why she strapped you onto that board. You deserved it. Pawing through my thing s like common criminals." I whirled on a tall girl holding my riding boots. I'm surprised you weren't strapped on the rack. In London they hang thieves." With a defiant tilt of her chin she threw my riding boots into an armoire that stood open and empty. Obviously, y ou must've been the one in the mummy case." "No. Th at was Jane." She didn't back away. Instead, she moved closer, looked down her patrician nose at me and tossed back her long dark hair "D on't play all high and mighty with us. Your turn in the dungeon will come. And you'd better be ready. All of us go there sooner or later. Tell her Jane T ell her about the ghost." Yes, you must be warned about t he ghost." P resumably it was Lady Jane who plopped unceremoniously on the nearest bed. She did n o t seem like the kind of girl who deserved to be locked i n a spiked coffin. She seemed exactly the sort of girl my mother wished for a daughter, the sort of girl who would have charmed all the women at Lady Frampton's card party. Before her honeyed curls even stopped bouncing, I had formed a dislike of her. Several years ago, a girl arrived at Stranje House ." She squinted at me, sizing me up. "About your age. According to the servants, only sixteen But the girl, Mary, was frail. Too frail. The pain was too much for her The upstairs maid told me it only took one turn on the rack
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 26 and the poor little thing's spine snapped S he died straightway. Or at least that's what everyone thought. Seraphina sat on the bed beside Jane, resting her head on Jane's shoulder. Jane stroked her hair and continued the sto ry. "Of course, no one admitted what happened. They circulated a rumor that the girl ran away and was never heard from again." Jane sighed T hey buried her in the yard just beyond the garden ." The boot thief no dded. I've seen the grave, a patch of ear th where nothing will grow. C overed over with dead leaves and withered grass." Jane stared off in the distance as if seeing the barren ground "That's because poor Mary wasn't dead. Her spine broke true enough, but she wasn't dead. Not yet. She couldn't move, couldn't blink, and her breath came in such shallow whiffs that no one noticed. They buried her alive. Prickles crawled over my scalp. It couldn't be true. Although, I'd heard of people being laid out in their coffins and suddenly awakening just before being buried. I suppressed a shiver. Jane continued. And now when the air is thick and cold and damp enough to carry her, she floats through the hall outside the chamber trying to tell people she's alive O nly now, of course, she isn't Jane t urned her attention to Tess who was pacing. "Isn't t hat so Tess ? Tess sniffed. I could tell she was still peeved at me. "Don't ask me, ask Sera. She's probably seen her." Sera straighten as if surprised to be drawn into the story. She averted her gaz e lacing and unlacing her fingers in her lap and merely nodded. "Rubbish," I muttered "I don't believe in ghosts." But the story had cooled my anger considerably I decided i t might not do to make enemies in a place like this
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 27 Oh, g hosts are rea l enough Tess said. "We all have them, whether we believe in them or not." I had the sense she didn't mean ghosts in the literal sense. It 's a preposterous story. What about the girl's parents? Surely they would make inquiries, and Miss Stranje would have been arrested." Tess slanted her cat eyes at me. "Really? Do you think your parents would make inquiries about you if they were told you ran away?" For just a moment I regretted Sebastian catching me. Life was hard, and some questions too unkind. I had no answer. Yesterday I might have thought I knew the answer, but to day I didn't want to think about it. "None of this excuses you from rummaging through my trunk." Don't get up in the boughs ," Tess said. We were just trying to help you unpack." "I doubt that." I crossed my arms. Tess shrugged. "I confess," Jane said, raising her hands, attempting to disarm me with a pert grin. "We were snooping through your things to figure out why you're here." "You thought my clothing would give you the an swer?" "No, silly." Her shoulders bunched up merrily. "We thought Sera might sense something and tell us what you are." What I am?" I frowned. "You mean who I am." Perhaps they weren't thieves so much as slow tops, or worse, completely balmy. I fell back on my original hypothesis that the occupants of Stranje House were all mad as hatters. "No. You see, Sera has a gift. She can Tess flicked Jane on the arm, silencing her. Jane buttoned her lip tighter than an account's
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 28 purse. My patience wore thi n. "She can what?" No one answered. Glancing this way and that, they retreat ed into a mutual pact of silence. "Look, you lot. It shouldn't matter to you who I am, or even what I am. I have no intention of staying in this asylum. I'm going to escap e as soon as I figure out where to" I hesitated. Where would I go? I couldn't go home. "Escape? Why would you want to do that?" Tess picked up a book from the other side of the bed and flipped it open One of my books, I recognized the crumbling lea ther cover. Not just any book -my most prized possession, an English translation of 12 th century alchemy experiments in Persia and Arabia. Extremely valuable, it contained Al Jildaki's notes on chemical extraction, alloys, and most importantly, ancient Egyptian formulas for ink. "Be careful with that I dared not grab it away from her, the binding was too fragile. "There are only five copies in existence." After sending dozens of letters all across Europe and hounding several rare book collectors, I'd finally obtained this copy. "Well, Sera?" Tess demanded. "Did you sense anything?" "Not much, Tess. I'm sorry." Sera glanced at the floor and shook her head. Her silky hair fell across her eyes like a curtain. "She's intelligent." Tilting her head and peeking out at me, she added softly, "Very." Tess's face twisted in exasperation. "I could've told you that." She held up my book. "I doubt a stupid girl would be hauling this around." "I hope she is also generous." A voice came from behind me. "B ecause I would very much like to borrow this excellent book." Another of my books taken? I spun around and came face to face with the most exotic
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 29 creature I'd ever seen. A delicate girl, with dark shining eyes, smooth whiskey colored skin, draped in a sw ath of saffron fabric trimmed in filigreed scarlet. "You're from India," I blurted. "Yes. I am Maya Barrington. My father was an officer in the East India Company when he met my mother." She said it as if she'd rehearsed the explanation countless times and then dipped in a strange half curtsey. F orgive us for looking through your things. We meant no harm." Her voice washed over me like a calming mist. She held out my mathematics book as if the faded tome was an offering to a goddess. At first, I didn't move, but then my shoulders slowly relaxed. I took the book. "Thank you," I mumbled, feeling like a clumsy giantess next to such a dainty girl. "See, we're not all bad. Maya is our diplomat." Jane grinned and tugged at Tess's sleeve. "Go on Tes s, stop teasing and give her book back." Tess still brooding, thrust my Persian Chemistry text at me. "Take it." I exhaled with relief and tenderly rewrapped the crumbling leather book into the silk scarf where it had been hidden. My parents would've bee n furious if they'd known I'd smuggled these books into my luggage, but I couldn't leave them behind. I lifted my lace box and checked beneath it to make sure my hand scribed compilation of DaVinci's experiments was still safely tucked away. Tess frowne d at Sera. "Are you quite certain you didn't see anything else about her?" She said see as if it meant much more than observing my height or noting my abundance of freckles. They spoke about me as if I wasn't present. Sera studied me openly and without s hame or any pretense of manners. So did they all. After what seemed like an interminable appraisal, she shook her head and shrugged. "Nothing."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 30 Jane patted the coverlet with finality and stood. "Well, that's that then ." "I was so sure." Tess cross ed her arms and star ed at me with obvious disappointment, her shoulders sagg ing I didn't understand her disappointment and didn't care. I had no intention of staying in this place. I pulled my boots out of the armoire, stuffed them back into my trunk, a nd glanced at the retreating girls. With a loud exasperated huff, I extended a small olive branch. "If there's something you want to know about me, you could simply ask. I have no secrets." Tess shook her head and walked away. "Everyone has secrets." Jane smiled sympathetically. "Thank you, but we'd rather hear it from Sera." The girls of Stranje House were a peculiar lot. Apparently, they all tilted a wee bit too far off the starboard beam. Then again, Sebastian probably thought the same about me. Was I as out of plumb as these girls? Or was I worse? I sighed heavily and closed the trunk, securing the latches. I couldn't ignore the fact that my parents had left me here in this madhouse for some reason. The girls drift ed away, leaving me alone. No matter. I'm an only child, I was used to solitude I played alone, ate alone, and hurt alone. Why should tonight be any different? My parents had packed me up and dropped me off in this awful place, like an unwanted kitten tossed in the lake to dr own -alone. I sat on the nearest bed and picked at a nubbin of wool on my stocking. I admit I am a trifle peculiar, but was I so odd that my own parents di dn't love me? Madame Cho barged in and struck the floor with her bamboo walking sick. "Bedclot hes. Now." She thumped it again and the girls scattered like quail into the shadowy corners of the room. I didn't move. The old dragon drew up in front of me, unlatched my trunk and threw it
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 31 open. She yanked out a nightrail and flung it at me. Her d ark eyes flash ed like steel against flint. I swallowed any hope of defiance. She leaned close, so close I smelled rice and fish and leeks. "You sleep now. Unpack tomorrow." I had no intention of doing either. I would not sleep. Nor would I unpack. And yet, I could n't find the strength to even make a pretense of obedience. I felt trapped, a rabbit paralyzed beneath Madame Cho's snake eyes. My limbs felt heavy and useless my spirit drained of strength I hated her, but I couldn't move. Her bamboo cane slapped the hardwood floor. Bed clothes." I jumped up and mechanically untied the tapes of my traveling gown, slipped it off and flung it across the chest. What did I care if it wrinkled? My petticoats pooled around my feet and I stepped out of them. T he old dragon moved away, nodding as if pleased to have proven her authority over me. The evening chill prickled my flesh. I shivered, more determined than ever to escape this awful place. All I needed was a proper plan. I may be peculiar but there's one thing I know for certain about myself, I'm good at making plans. Even if some of them do burst into flames.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 32 Chapter 4 Night Creepers I lay in bed staring into the darkness, counting the names of people I might impose upon to house me after I escaped. The list was short. To be perfectly frank the list remained empty. My uncle would promptly return me to my father. My maternal grandfather would do the same after delivering a hearty lecture and liberally applying a switch to my legs. Contempl ating a different tactic, I considered posting an advertisement in the Times offering my services as a governess. Even though I was almost s ixteen my age posed a substantial hindrance to that scheme I sank deeper into the pillow wishing it would swallo w me up and spit me out at home in my own bed. I would never get to sleep. It didn't help that one of the girls padded through the dark like a stealthy fox on the hunt. For all I knew any one of these girls might have a penchant for strangling people in their sleep That might account for why there were so few girls in this supposed school. In the shadows along the nearest wall, Tess, the tall one, scampered to the door. With the grace of a ballerina doing an arabesque, she bent on one leg and peered out through the thin gap between the closed door and sill. On tiptoes she darted back toward us and whispered, "She's
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 33 gone." Sera, who occupied the other side of my bed, rolled toward me and spoke softly next to my ear, "Madame Cho stands guard every nig ht until we are asleep." Obviously Madame Cho had failed in her task. "Come on." Sera flung back the covers and swung her feet over the side of the bed. Come where ? I didn't move. Whatever they were up to they could do it without me. I had plans to formulate. Jane popped out of the darkness and startled me when she thrust her face next to mine. "Did you think to pack candles?" I shook my head. No. I hadn't thought to smuggle a firearm into my luggage either, but it might prove a necessity in d ealing with this lot. "I thought you were supposed to be the smart one She grasped my hand and tugged me out of bed. "Come on then. We'll have to make do without." Normally, I would have demanded to know exactly what was going on and why, but given the o dd inhabitants of this school and my precarious position among them I decided it would be more prudent t o remain silent and cooperate. Tonight, I would emulate Captain Cook on his voyages to the aboriginal people of the South Pacific. Tonight, I would o bserve and analyze the natives in their natural habitat. For the sake of science, I was curious. Why were they here? Jane tugged me along as we crept through the shadows on the far side of the room T he other three were huddled near an ornate oak panele d wall. Tess knelt beside a panel and pressed the top corner A latch clicked. As she pulled it open, the panel scraped against the floor. We all tensed. Jane and Maya spun around and stared at the bedroom door wary as deer of a hunter. Maya took a de ep breath and shook her head and whispered, "She didn't hear."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 34 Tess slipped inside the opening and disappeared. Sera followed. I balked. Having seen quite enough of secret passages for one day, I didn't relish the dust and mildew on my bare feet or the spiders, the mice, or "Come." Maya took my hand and ended my stand off. Even in the thin light I could see her reassuring smile. "You would not want to miss this." I do n't know why I trusted Maya. Perhaps it was the musical quality of her voice, or her gentle nature, I'm not certain. All I know is that I instantly believed her. Without proof. Baffling Nevertheless I ducked under the oak frame and into the wall. Immediately a blanket of dense blackness engulfed me. Jane pushed from behind. "Hur ry." I stumbled and groped up a makeshift stair way even narrower than the ones I'd been lost in earlier. The stale air smelled like a musty old cupboard. Close quarters inside the wall magnified every sound; the five of us breathing, our feet padding o n the crumbling sto ne stairs, and the whiskery tic tic sound of mice chasing up the st ep s along side us. "Mice!" I warned the others. "Hush." Jane patted my back. "Just keep moving. Tess will deal with the rats." Rats? Jane rewarded me with a silenc ing thump between my shoulder blades. I shivered, but not from the cold. I imagined dozens of gray, greedy eyed beasts swarming around us, their hairless tails whipping from side to side, and their sharp teeth snapping at my toes. Mice are annoying pes ts, but they're little and cute. Mice have an innocence about them that makes their mischief almost forgivable. Rats, on the other hand, are big and ugly. They bite without the slightest provocation, carry diseases, and fleas. I don't like them. Especial ly in the
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 35 dark. So, I tiptoed gingerly up the cold steps, hoping every splinter of rotting wood, every nubbin of crumbling plaster, each shard of stone underfoot was not an angry rat's tail. We climbed higher and higher, until at last, the air tasted le ss stagnant, cooler. Particles of gray light filtered down from above us. It allowed me to distinguish slabs of broken plaster on the outer wall "Eewh." I cringed and hopped aside as one of the rats, a fat dark fellow, scurried past me, racing up towa rd the opening. Jane shushed me again. I silently followed the girls through another low portal and emerged into a long narrow garret. Large dormer windows cut into both sides of the attic. The curtains were drawn back allowing moonlight to bathe the contents of the room with blue and silver. The garret was a veritable labyrinth, full of dark tunnels and hiding places Stacks of d iscarded paintings leaned against a chest of drawers and an old wardrobe. Crates and trunks were piled up and stacked in haphazard towers, looming like misshapen pillars, creating weird shadows and caverns throughout the room. Four mismatched dilapidated chairs sat in a small circle near one of the windows. Jane adjusted a fractured mirror so that it caught the dusty moonli ght from the window and brightened the room. Then she lit a small tin oil lamp and set it on an inverted basin. Sera opened the window and busied herself with a sailor's spyglass, focusing it out to the west. "He's there she cried softly. "There's ligh t in his library." "Let me see." Tess hurried to the window and took the telescope. "Whose library?" I asked, forgetting my resolve to not ask questions. Jane waved me over to the windo w and pointed. "Look there, past our grounds, beyond that stand of trees Do you see the neighboring manor?"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 36 Our attic window jutted out of the upper most point of the house save the peak itself. We had a magnificent view of the neighborhood that lay to the back and west. The moon filtered through the clouds and I sa w where Stranje House's tangled woods ended and opened out onto a smooth manicured park. Further west stood the profile of an immense castle like manor A window on its second story glowed with golden light. I nodded. "That property belongs to Lord Rave ncross. He has only three servants for that whole great house. Can you imagine?" Jane squinted at the neighbor's mansion as if she was calculating the number of rooms. "He must keep most of it closed up and in covers." She shook her head. "No one in the neighborhood knows much about him. He doesn't make calls, refuses all visitors. Rarely does anyone go in or out." She flashed an easy grin. "We play guessing games about him." You are the only one who plays guessing games about him, Jane. Sera tugged the spyglass away from Tess. "And I do wish you wouldn't. The poor man deserves our sympathy not your mockery." Sera peered through the telescope Poor Georgiana, y ou must think we are all horrid busybodies." She turned to me with a probing gaze and wai ted for an answer. I hedged. "I suppose it's only natural you would be curious about a neighbor ." Oh, i t's much more than mere curiosity. Don't you see? He needs us." She pointed at the castle with her telescope. Frankly, I didn't see how that could be true but I kept mum. Sera sighed deeply and dove into an inscrutable explanation. "Tess had one of her dreams, a nightmare really, about a man being brutally injured Most alarming She isn't like me. I only
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 37 see what is Tess has dreams and sees -" Tess pinched her. "Ow!" Sera rubbed her arm and glared at Tess. "Three days later Lord Ravencross arrived in the neighborhood We saw him through the window And h e was limping His arrival may have nothing to do with her dream It could be coinc idence. Perhaps t he man has always limped," I suggested. Jane shook her head. "It's no use trying to reason with Sera She fancies Ravencross is a wounded hero in need of her help. She, of course, is the heroine who must heal him from his tragic past." In lilting Indian accents Maya explained, "Seraphina has a poet's heart." Tess took a deep breath and stretched like a cat on the window sill, leaning out, letting the cold breeze ruffle her hair. "Even if he was injured in the war, he's healed well eno ugh now. This morning I saw him riding his horse at a bruising pace." Sera's elfin like features widened with surprise. "And you kept this to yourself?" Moonlight illuminated her pale blue eyes and made her hair glimmer like spun silver. Tess pulled ba ck inside the window. "I'm telling you now." "How near were you? What does he look like?" We scarcely breathed waiting for her to tell us about the man in the golden window. Tess slumped against the window frame, fidgeting with the fabric of her nightdr ess Clearly, she did not wish to tell us about the encounter. Finally she answered "His hair is long and shaggy. One can assume his sole purpose for riding was to exercise the horse because he wore neither coat nor hat." Her face pinched up. "His sh irt was stained with sweat, and he'd worked his poor stallion into a lather."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 38 "Were his features twisted in pain?" Sera asked. "No." Tess glanced away, out the window to the house. "Not with pain." "He's badly scarred isn't he?" Sera leaned beside Tess an d peered up at her. Tess shook her head. "No." Jane lost all patience. "What then?" she demanded. Tess stiffened. "I meant to spare you. You won't like it B ut if you insist on knowing .. ." The edge on her voice softened. "Sera, you needn't waste your pit y on him. He s not the hero you imagined him to be. Lord Ravencross is a heartless scoundrel." Sera drew back. "He's rude." Tess slid out of the window sill and p ac ed he r straight brown hair f ell across her cheek as she count ed out more of his sins. "M e an and unfeeling." She stopped and looked into each of our amazed faces. "There I've told you." Chin in the air she pushed past us and flopped into one of the chairs. "Unfeeling?" Sera shook her head. Maya sat beside Tess. Did he wrong you in some way ?" "Nearly trampled me to death." Y ou were running in the fields again weren't you ?" Jane asked in a scolding tone "I have permission," Tess snapped. "Miss Stranje said as long as I run early in the morning so no one see s There's never anyone out at dawn. I'm used to having that hour to myself. I couldn't have predicted that I would cross paths with him and startle his horse." "Of course not," Maya agreed. "We very nearly collided at the edge of the woods. His stallion reared and I stumbled backward into the mud." She smacked the torn armchair, wadding puffed out. I never fall. And
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 39 I wouldn't have today if he 'd have controlled his mount." All of us fall from time to time, I silently argued, having taken a fall that very evening. No one else seemed to share my skepticism. "Beastly man. He swore at me. And then she pressed her lips tightly together and stared intently into the dark caverns of the room. When she turned back her cat shaped eyes had hardened against the sympathy Maya offered. "Hi s horse reared again. They always do, don't they, when some one yells." "Especially if you're involved," Jane mumbled. I didn't comprehend Jane's meaning, but the others seemed to. They gathered closer to Tess, except for Sera, who hung back glancing tow ard the window as if she wanted to hear Lord Ravencross' s recital of the events "He called me a bothersome little demon." Tess sank deeper into the chair. "Or something equally hateful. Exactly as my uncle would've done." "There is no truth in it," M aya said, in a low calm ing voice. He spoke in haste." "What happened next?" Jane demanded, like a governess expecting a child to spill all the facts of the matter onto the table Tess's jaw tensed. "If you must know, he pointed his crop at me and told me to stay clear of his property or, daughter of Satan or not, he would bloody well take a horsewhip to my backside. Then he galloped off and left me flat on my back in the mud." Maya shook her head mournfully. "Very rude." V illain of the first order," J ane rendered an indisputable verdict. "Explains why he carries on like a hermit. He's unfit for decent company. "It certainly wasn't gentlemanly behavior," I said.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 40 "He must be dreadfully unhappy." Sera perched in the window and peer ed through the spy glass again. "Look there. See how he s limping as he paces in front of the fire. I'm certain he wouldn t have treated you that way if he were not wracked with pain." "Pain does not excuse him from common decency." I would have said more, if I hadn't no ticed something stirring in the shadows near Tess's feet. "Don't move," I warned, straining to see into the shadows. I spotted two tiny glowing rubies and knew immediately what creature lurked beneath her chair. "Rat!" I did not shriek. At least, I prefe r to think I didn't shriek. I snatched an old shoe out of a nearby box, lunged and slapped wildly at the fiend. One knock on the head with the chunky French heel and that horrid rat would cease to exist. "Stop Tess grabbed my arm and snatched the shoe ou t of my hand. "They're only hungry." "Yes, for your toes." Jane laughed. Then, I registered the plural pronoun in Tess's plea. "They?" To my horror she pulled two scraps of bread from her pocket, stooped near the bottom of her chair, making ridiculous kis sing noises, just as one might to call a kitten. A pair of rats skulked out, scowling in my direction. "Don't be afraid," Tess crooned to them. "It 's all right. The big, bad, new girl didn't realize you're our friends." "Ha Jane said, "Don't lump me into that business. They re your friends not mine." She tossed a cynical smile in my direction. "Miss Fitzwilliam allow me to do the honors." She waved me closer. "May I present to you Messieurs Punch and Judy."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 41 Chapter 5 Pets and Passages I cringed. Two plump rats, one dark gray and the other a white albino, greedily tore into morsels of bread as Tess doled it out. Jane laughed at my distress. "Poor Georgiana, sent away to a school inhabited by busybodies and rats." The gray rat gobbled his crust down and then tried to snatch away his cohort's bread. Tess tapped him lightly on the back and scolded, "Judy, stop. You needn't be greedy." She indulged the rat with another crust. Jane leaned close to my ear as if confiding a secret. "The gra y one, ought to have been named Jack rather than Judy. Tess says they're both males. I suggested we keep the name only think of it as a nickname for Judas. As you can see, he's a rather disloyal thief." She smiled and looped my arm through hers. "Guard yo ur ribbons well. They're his favorite." Aside from her officious attitude Jane seemed intelligent enough, pleasant looking, and apart from rooting around in my trunks, fairly well mannered. In fact, I couldn't see much fault with any of them. Why had they been sent here, to this awful school? Jane, in particular seemed
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 42 flawless by society's standards, witty and graceful. Her looks were superior to mine in every way. My mother would've gladly traded my red hair for Jane's obedient brown locks. Unlike me they were all beautiful. I didn't understand. They c ould n't have been banished to Stranje House because they we re unmarriageable. Preposterous notion There was always a man willing to marry a pretty girl, as long as she was well behaved and the dowry w as enticing enough. These girls wouldn't be here if their families didn't have money. The question was rude, but I couldn't help myself. I had to know. "Why are you here?" When Jane didn't answer immediately I tried to clarify. "I meant, why are you he re at Stranje House? You don't seem in need of ... er reforming." I couldn't think of a way to say it that wouldn't insult her. An emotion splashed across Jane's face, but vanished so swiftly I couldn't identify it. Was it anger? Or perhaps sadness? Or hurt? She withdrew from me a pace, turning stiff and formal. "I made too much money." Even m ore confused, I shook my head. You must've misunderstood my question -" "No, I understood ," she said loud enough to draw the other girls' attention. "I'm here f or the same reason all of us are here. The same reason that brought you here." "I doubt any of you started a fire in your father's stables," I blurted, and immediately wished I could retract the words. "A fire, eh? Well, that at least, is unique." The c orner of Jane's mouth quirked up. I expected her to laugh at me, or mock me. She didn't. Instead, her wry smirk developed an edge of respect. For the first time Jane seemed genuinely interested in me. Her eyebrow hooked up sharply. "Surely you realiz e that fire isn't the real reason you were sent here." Her cryptic words hit me in the stomach. The meaning hidden behind them made me feel
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 43 sick I backed away shaking my head. "No. It's a simple matter of cause and effect. I started a fire and now I'm being punished." "Did you start it on purpose?" Tess asked with unusually keen interest. "No. It was an accident. I was mixing some chemicals." A dreadful thought niggled at the edge of my mind. I promptly pushed it away. They all stared at me. Rats fo rgotten. Lord R otten Ravencross forgotten. Jane's frowned at me, hands on hips. She fired her irritation in a string of sharp words. "Really Georgiana? You can't truly believe you were sent away because of an accident. You're here because you were a nui sance. You got in the way. If only you 'd sat in the corner doing needlepoint maybe they wouldn't have booted you out. Maybe. But even that didn't work for Maya." Maya touched Jane's arm and said softly, "Don't." Jane shrugged away. But you didn't sit i n the corner, did you Georgie? No, you were out doing something and you got in the way. And what did the people who are supposed to love you do? The same thing Tess' s uncle did. The same thing my brothers did -" "Jane! Stop." Sera, whose voice wa s no rmally as gentle as moonbeams, echoed through the room like an iron bell. "You're hurting her." Jane clamped her lips together for a moment c ompos ing herself. S he needs to know." "She's not ready." The brass telescope rested in Sera's lap and moonlight s pun a halo about her silvery hair. "Not yet. Not tonight." She looked like a fairy princess holding a golden scepter and her word appeared to be as final and absolute as any monarch's. With a resigned sigh Jane plunked into the nearest chair. "You know good and well, she's bound to figure it out."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 44 "You mustn't rush her." Too late. I already knew what Jane was trying to tell me. My mouth felt too dry to form words. I backed toward the passage. Tess shook her head and turned her attention to Punch and Ju dy who had climbed onto her lap and tussled with one another like jealous puppies. B acking away, I bumped into the wall and glanced sideways at the dark opening. "You must excuse me. I'm exceptionally tired," I lied. "I've had a long journey today." Ja ne waved her hand dismissively at me. "Bound to get even longer, isn't it, if you're always running away?" I plunged into the darkness of the wall and ran down the narrow crumbling stairs. Jagged fragments of stone bit into the soles of my feet. I didn't care. I'd a hundred times rather face rats, spiders, and mice in the darkness than the monster facts Jane had unleashed But I couldn't help it. I knew now why they were here at Stranje House why I was at Stranje House The families who should've lo ved us had failed to see our worth When we became an obstacle they'd kicked us aside I felt sick inside. Back in our dormitorium I brushed the dirt off my feet and climbed into bed, intending to go directly to sleep. I tugged the bed linens over my h ead and told myself, my parents must love me. They must. Underneath their irritation about the fire, they must surely love me. Underneath. My stomach hurt. I reasoned it must be because I hadn't eaten dinner. But I knew better and repeating, they must love me they must,' didn't help. So, I tried reciting the chemical elements listed in Antoine Lavoisier's La Nature des Acides. Sleep did not come. I tossed onto my side and murmured a song my nursemaid used to sing to me but I couldn t remember all the words. Suddenly, I felt a slight pressure atop of the covers. Not a cat,
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 45 but a kitten I guessed by the lightness of foot as it padded toward me. I di dn't mind if it wanted to curl up beside me for warmth. I could use a companion against the monster s in this place. The kitten wriggled atop the covers and nestled against the small of my back. Finally, the sound of its steady breathing lulled me to sleep. Not a restful sleep I dreamed of a huge black stallion with flames snorting from his nostril s. Atop the ferocious beast rode a mysterious stranger, his face obscured in shadows. Lest the horse trample me, I ran as fast as I could, but never seemed to escape. When I turned to judge the distance, the rider bore down even harder, laughing at my t error. A burst of flame illuminated the rider's face and I saw it was that wicked devil, Sebastian. Thrashing at the covers and gasping for dear life, I open ed my eyes. Morning sunlight blinded me so I squeezed them shut again The kitten licked my cheek, her tiny tongue tickled as she continued to wash away the sweat of my night terrors. I squinted, grateful for her affection and relieved to have escaped the fire breathing horse. A wee pink nose sniffed at me, white whiskers waved merrily, and tiny red ey es I screamed. It is true. I admit it. I screamed, or rather I squawked like a Sunday chicken. I sat bolt upright, shook madly at the covers and sent the creature skidding across the floor. Tess scooped up Punch and cuddled him in the crook of her arm. "He didn't mean any harm. Did you, Punch?" Had I not been half out of my mind at the time, I would've sworn that rat squeaked something in response to Tess's ridiculous speech. "That that thing ," I pointed, still clutching the covers, "that vermin spent the night on my bed." I scrubbed at my cheek. "I thought it was a kitten."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 46 "I daresay he's as good as any kitten and twice as smart. He sensed you might be lonely, and this is the way you repay his kindness?" The other girls were all up and dressed, st aring at me as if I were a common criminal. I remembered the gentle touch of Punch's tongue on my cheek and felt a little ashamed. There had been comfort in it, even if from a rat. I didn't know whether to feel indignant or pathetic. "Punch and Judy won't hurt you. Tess tamed them." Sera tickled the rodent as it tumbled and twisted in Tess's arms. "See? You needn't worry. They're our pets." Maya's laugh rang as lightly as a wind chime. Do not blame Georgiana. She is not used to thinking of rats as pets Consider what would happen in your own homes. In my country Punch would have been chased out with a broom, or worse, caught and eaten for breakfast." "Speaking of breakfast, it's almost time for ours." Jane sniffed imperiously and headed toward the do or. She called to me over her shoulder. "Best hurry, Slugabed, or you'll be late." Her laughter did not sound like a gentle wind chime. I groaned and madly dug through my trunks hunting for a suitable morning gown. Meanwhile, Tess deposited Punch behind the secret panel and latched it. I threw a dress over my head, wriggling in, pulling it down with a yank and knotting the side tapes in a haphazard fashion. I grabbed the nearest ribbon and tied back my tangled hair. No use to trying to smooth out my wil d curls. Corkscrews, my mother call ed them, and only with painstaking effort and a hot iron can they be brushed out and tamed. No time today. No time most days. I hopped on one foot while jamming on my kid slippers, and then rushed after Tess as she h eaded downstairs.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 47 Chapter 6 My Studies I nearly dashed headlong into the breakfast room except I remembered the torture chamber in the tombs of Stranje House and the importance Miss Stranje placed on posture I had no desire to spend the morn ing locked inside a metal sarcophagus lined with sharp nails. So, I stopped smoothed back my hair straighten ed my spine level ed my chin, and glided into the sunny yellow room with as much dignity as a queen. "Good morning Miss Fitzwilliam. Miss Stran je's lips twisted in a mocking smile "How nice of you to join us via the customary route. I 'd rather expected you might pop through one of the secret passages. Heaven knows there's bound to be at least one that leads to this room. What say you, Tess? By my reckoning you ve explored most of the hidden tunnels in this old house." Tess stopped scooping eggs onto her plate and glanced guiltily toward a bank of cupboards on the south wall, giving away the answer. "Ah, yes through the cupboard I'd forgott en." Miss Stranje nodded. "Do help yourself to kippers and eggs Georgiana. We have much to discuss this morning." My stomach took no notice of my wish to remain dignified it growl ed enthusiastically at
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 48 her suggestion S o I gave in and filled a plate wi th several slices of luscious hot house oranges, three sausages, a serving of curried eggs, and a whortleberry scone dripping with butter and honey. The tempting smells drove me to madness. It had been a full day since my last meal. Risking a lifetime in the t orture chamber, I dove into breakfast with the enthusiasm of a stable lad Only a fter several mouthfuls did I regain sanity T hey were all looking at me. I rested my fork properly and smiled. "Lovely scones I dabbed at the berry juice and butter on my lips. "Quite good." Thank you. I shall convey your praise to C ook. Now girls, you may attend to your various pursuits this morning as usual. Except for you, Jane dear. The steward would like a word with you s omething about planting the fields ." She waved her hand airily as if dismissing the details. Jane simply nodded. Now Tess, I have it on good authority that you were not quite as discreet as one might hope. Have you forgotten the terms of our agreement ? Tess nearly dropped her spoon. It clattered to her plate. How did you find out ? H e told you ? "Lord Ravencross ? Heavens no." "Then how?" Tess collected her spoon and stared at her plate as if the answer must be hidden in her curried eggs. Miss Stranje paused W e all leaned forwar d like eavesdropping Nellies waiting for her answer. "Did you think something as momentous as you nearly getting trampled to death would occur without my knowing? She leveled her gaze at each of us. As mistress of Stranje House it is my duty to be awa re of all that passes here."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 49 The shrewd hawk like expression returned to her features. It struck me that Miss Stranje moved about this house with far more skill than even Tess. Given the sharp knowing slant of her eyes, I sincerely doubted the secret room above our bedchamber had escaped her notice. A s swiftly as our headmistress' s feature s had hardened they softened. She held a note in her hand. "Maya your music instructor begged leave to arrive a half hour late. She set the note on a silver tray wi th several other missives. E njoy your morning everyone because we must entertain visitors this afternoon. The delightful Lady Harbaugh plans to call ." Jane and Sera groaned. I wasn't certain but I thought Tess mumbled something about a cantankerous old cow. The tight press of Miss Stranje's lips gave me the impression Lady Harbaugh was not actually as delightful as promised. Gi rls, you must not disparage Lady Harbaugh. Think of her with compassion. She is after all, a woman of many fears ." "She do esn't act like she's afraid Jane vigorously stabbed a sausage "She's always huffing and puffing and making dire threats If you ask me, she's a mean old goat You mustn't say that Tess set her fork down abruptly and feigned umbrage. "You sully the reputation of goats everywhere." Stop Miss Stranje put a n end to their mirth You will not judge Lady Harbaugh s o harshly. F ear is a powerful emotion Left u nchecked it will drive anyone to behave poorly. She shook her head. O f all people you girls ought to understand that. Most of you are here because you inspire fear in those around you. Did I? Yes, in a way, I suppose I did. I certainly made my mother nervous. Tess and Maya lowered their gazes Jane push ed food about her plate with little interest and Sera nodded, as if she had just found the answer to a difficult equation.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 50 Miss Stranje's tone softened. It s up to us to put her mind at ease If we are able to do so think how much we will improve the lives of her servants, her fr iends, her poor husband, and yes, even ours Chin s up We can do this." She whisked out a folded note and read it silently. It says here that she will be bringing several women from the neighborhood with her. It sounds as if she plans to stage a coup ." Miss Stranje smiled with a wickedly arched brow "You know what that means." I didn t. "Best behavior Sera whispered to me. "Yes, our headmistress confirmed. I suspect she want s to meet our new student. Sera, before she arrives this afternoon wo uld you please assist Georgiana in selecting more appropriate attire I glanced down at my dress and shrugged I was used to disapproval. Miss Stranje tapped the note against the table directing my attention to her "I believe I shall serve tea to our illustrious guest s I trust your mother instructed you on the proper behavior in such a situation ? Oh yes, m y mother had instructed me on proper behavior while taking tea, proper behavior at dinner, at church, at assembly rooms, at soirÂŽes, and even at card parties. Wasn't that the real reason I was here? Apart from Miss Stranje's odd ideas about fear. My mother had instructed me over and over and found me sorely lacking in those skills clumsy, ugly and socially inept. I answered "Yes, certainly." "Good. Miss Stranje stood abruptly. I f you have finished your breakfast, Georgiana, come with me. It is time w e attend ed to your studies." My studies?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 51 A s I followed her down the hall, I felt certain her use of the word studies was a euphemism for to rture. Clearly, punishment was Miss Stranje's educational theory. S he was planning to whip the stuffing out of me until I dared not even have a thought without my mother's permission. Go ahead. Torture me. I will never become a simpering, pudding hea ded, marriageable Miss. I clamped my lips together in absolute defiance. If only my palms hadn't gotten so clammy. I rubbed them against my skirts. We had descended down the main stairway before I realized the torture chamber wasn't in this direction. U nless Miss Stranje possessed two torture chambers, I might not be getting stretched on the rack this morning. Confused, I pondered Attend to my studies If she meant to stick me in a room with that dragon, Madame Cho, and force me to learn Chinese his tory I would leap out of the nearest window, cut off my hair don boy's clothing, run to the nearest port jump aboard a frigate and join the crew. Not a good plan, I'll admit. But at least I'd gotten that far in devis ing an escape. My s tudies ? Wasn' t Miss Stranje's task to reform me into a biddable young debutante ? What studies did that require? Oh please God, do n o t let it be a dancing master. I could not bear the humiliation of crippling another skinny Frenchman. Monsieur FouchÂŽ had howled like a cat with his tail under a chair leg and M other had to pay him double his fee just to get him to stop squealing I slowed Not dancing. Please, no t dancing Miss Stranje led m e through the foyer and into the west wing corridor Surely a ballroom w ouldn't lie in this direction. They're usually situated on the second or third floors. We passed
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 52 a gallery of family portraits unmistakably Miss Stranje's relatives Their sharp beak ed features did little to cheer up the dark paneled hall way Her ances tors had her same critical dark eyes T he y glared down at me as I pass ed beneath them I shivered, unable to escape their uncanny life like stares. Do s top dawdling Georgiana ." She waited at the far end of the hall. I ran and caught up just as s he u nlocked the door A still room lay before me but not like any stillroom I'd ever seen Mullioned windows allowed in ample light The a ncient floorboards creaked as I stepped inside f illed with wonder M y mouth dropped open like a stunned cod fish. I could n o t stop myself I hurr ied across the room to a long work table set with the most amazing equipment I'd ever seen I ha d only dreamed of such contraptions. I'd read about many of these items in Antoine Lavoisier's chemistry books B ut to see them, not in a drawing, but in real life -I could scarcely breathe. I touched my finger to the brass measuring scales. They bounced in reaction. I jerk ed my hand back and inspected a distillation tube connected to a copper beaker atop a heating platform above a small oil burner The damper could be opened or closed to perfectly control the heat Remarkable Miss Stranje stood at my elbow. "The tubing can be removed," she said and pointed to the clasps on the rim of the beaker. "Where did you get it ?" I mar veled. "A gypsy caravan came through last month. Their tinker did respectable work so I commissioned him to make it." S he pointed to several small glass beakers. These I procured from a glass blower in London. You 'll find the drawers filled with various minerals." She
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 53 pointed to a bank of small drawers on the side wall. Potassium saltpeter, cobalt, I wasn't certain which you needed so I ordered an assortment." I rushed to the small drawers pull ed several open and couldn't believe my eyes. Sulphur. M agnesium. Copperas. "This was my grandmother's stillroom Miss Stranje inhaled deeply "It still smells of her. I remember her teaching me how to distill rose oil and to make almond extract." She pointe d to a mortar and pestle. I pulled open another dr awer marked mollusk shells ,' f ine iridescent shells that could be gr oun d into purple powder. How did she know they were a component in so many dyes ? Then I spotted my books stacked on a small desk beside the cabinet. My books The History of Persian Alchem y Lav oisier's Manual even my notes, unwrapped, unpacked, un earthed from my trunks without my permission. "Why ? I spun around. Why have you done this? My parents hired you to purge this sort of thing out of me, to rid me of my my" I was going to say my defects She watched me, cruelly and without mercy waiting to see h ow I would describe that which my mother hated in me? My stomach twisted into a sickening knot just as it had last night O nly today it tightened around sausages and curried eggs I refused to get sick. I would not. I silently vowed not to humiliate myself in front of her I clamped my lips together and swallowed hard despite the squeezing knot in my belly If only I could run from the room and curl up in a corner somewher e M aybe then I wouldn't feel like retching. Except I couldn't, my unfeeling headmistress stood between me and the door, waiting, s earch ing my face for weakness. I thrust my chin into the air. "My eccentricities."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 54 Hhmm eccentricities ." The corner o f her mouth curved up slightly. I s that what you call it? I should rather have thought of it as the workings of a brilliant mind ." I blinked. She could n o t possibly have said what I thought I 'd heard No one had ever said such a thing about me before. I edged away. "I saw your torture chamber. I know what you do in this school. "Do you?" she asked pretending innocen ce What did she mean? I shook my head, thinking the woman must be completely demented But I saw. Sera strapped to t hat vile backboard Jane locked in the spiked mummy case T he whip "They have their uses. She waved her hand at the laboratory equipment. "How do you know this isn't a devious plan to rid you of your eccentricities ? Perhaps if you are free to experiment, science will l oose its appeal." She waited for me to respond. When I didn't her mouth twitched into a smirk. Of course, if you'd prefer to have a go on the rack, I' ll gladly oblige you. I stared like a simpleton, unable to find my bearings with her. Come now, Geor giana. Do you want to work on your formula or not ? It occurred to me that with the proper equipment you might not burn down any more stables." She had a point W ith proper equipment that fire wouldn't have happened. Except, I saw through her deception This was a ruse. "I know what you want. You want me to finish the formula for Sebastian and th at other man "Very good S he nodded just a hint of admiration softening her features But n ot so much that I trusted her. You re right That is exactly what I want ." "Why?"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 55 "A prudent question T he response did not come from Miss Stranje. Sebastian and his mentor stood in the doorway. His mentor approached us. "I'm glad you asked." "Captain Grey, how good of you to come." Miss Stranje met him with ro sy warmth. The two grasped each other's hands as if they were life long friends, and just as quickly stepped apart blushing and awkward. Miss Stranje recovered first. "Captain Grey, Lord Wyatt you ve already met my new student under how shall I say thi s? Less than appropriate circumstances Please allow me to properly present to you, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam." I greeted them both with a curtsey elegan ce enough to please even my mother, wishing the whole time that my wretched hair did not resemble a stork 's nest painted red and crush ed into one paltry white ribbon. But it did T here was no help for it. And since there i s no sense trying to pretend one is a silk purse when one is in fact a sow's ear, I quickly dispensed with the niceties Plea sed to meet you, Captain Grey. I intentionally took no notice of Sebastian. Now, if you will kindly explain what you want with my ink and why I should trust -" "Georgiana Miss Stranje stopped me short. You will not take that scolding tone. Captain Gre y is a man to whom we owe much It is his generosity and goodwill that allow s us to live here. My father's estate was entailed to the nearest male heir. This house the grounds, the cottages and adjoining property, all belong to him The gentleman shoo k his head. No, no, m y dear Miss Stranje, you must not credit me with such virtues. It is not generosity on my part. You are a most excellent overseer Indeed my entire estate flourishes under you r guidance and your students' contributions." He caught h is breath and stepped back from her Aside from that, by rights the house ought to be yours Were it not for the entailment or if you'd had a brother He stopped W armth color ed his cheeks H is
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 56 mellow voice caught and his easy manner turned awkward and unexpectedly boyish Clear ly generosity had little to do with the matter. Poor misguided Captain Grey appeared to be in love with my scheming inscrutable headmistress. Remarkable I catalog ed that fascinating tidbit for later inspection. "Neve rtheless," Miss Stranje resumed lectur ing me. "Captain Grey deserves our utmost respect. You may not demand answers of him as if you we re the local magistrate ." Oh, if only I w ere the magistrate She and her torture chamber would be banished from England. I silenced myself, pressing my lips together and turn ed my thought to how I might finagle the truth out of them about why they wanted my ink Captain Grey clasped his hands behind his back and paced a step or two before stopping in front of me It is right and proper that you should ask these questions Miss Fitzwilliam In fact, they are crucial question s In the wrong hands your formula w ould be a dangerous tool He took a deep breath. I will explain our interest." "Proceed cautiously, Ethan," Sebastian intruded He leaned against the doorjamb, his ar ms crossed over his chest, as if he was so bored he might take a nap standing up She is after all, a girl A nd girls must talk Incessantly He uncrossed his arms and strolled toward us. And they do so w ithout regard for the importance of secrecy." Oh, that topped it. I couldn't keep a secret? Bird s nest hair or not, I confronted his high and mighty Lordship. "I sincerely doubt the topic of invisible ink will come up whil e chattering with my friends about how many flounces to put on my next ballgown." Sebastian brazenly perused my sprigged muslin morning dress with so critical an eye that it ma d e me think he doubted I'd ever worn a ballgown. No matter that I hadn't I certainly could i f I ha d the slightest interest in such frivolous
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 57 thi ngs w hich I did n o t. Although, in light of his scorn I decided to have a ballgown made for me just to spite him H ow it would spite him I wasn't quite certain. Oh, confound it all The man was muddl ing my thinking. Captain Grey clapped Sebastian on the shoulder. Very well I will leave the explanation s to you ." He bowed to me quite saintly compared to his rude companion "Miss Fitzwilliam I leave you in the capable hands of Lord Wyatt Not only is my nephew an able attachÂŽ, he is, like yourself, a student of science. It may please you to know that he i s acquainted with the author of one of your books. When Sebastian was just a lad he and his father helped Monsieur Lavoisier 's wife smug -" He stopped and cleared his throat. P ardon me What I mean t to say is h e and his father help ed her transport out of France some o f Monsieur Lavoisier 's writings and equipment ." Sebastian cr o ssed to the other side of the table and toyed with a small brass f lask. "A brave and intelligent woman Madame Lavoisier Without her you would know nothing of these instruments." He set down the flask with a reverence that surprised me Nor would you have his notes. A fter her husband's capture, t he revolutionaries c onfiscated almost everything. The Republic does not need scientist s or chemists t hat's what they said right before they beheaded him. He flicked his finger against the flask. "T he y guillotined both her husband and her father on the very same day. We stood in morbid silence. I could not keep from p ress ing my hand against my throat Captain Grey nodded farewell and Miss Stranje took his arm. They headed for the door. Surely she didn't intend to leave me here alone with Sebastian It wouldn't be prop er. Y ou 're leaving?" Captain Grey and I have business matters to discuss. You won't be alone, Miss
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 58 Fitzwilliam She tilted her head and looked at me as if I were slightly daft. Madame Cho will act as my emissary It was then that I realized Mad ame Cho had slithered into the room without my noticing. The old dragon sat in the corner watching me with her cold lizard eyes. Sebastian took off his coat, flipped open my Persian alchemy book, loosened his cravat and rolled up his cuffs. What are yo u doing ? I asked "What does it look like I'm doing ? H e continued to roll up his sleeves. I f you 're not planning to use this equipment, I most certainly will. "You can't just assume command here T his is my laboratory ." Is it? Not mine. Not exact l y. I spared a covetous glance at the equipment table. You promised to explain why you want my formula. I did n o t h e said, and turned his attention to the Persian book "I heard you Y ou told Captain Grey He scoffed at me. I know exactly what I said. I told him to proceed cautiously, because girls talk too much. I reached over and shut my Persian manual. And boys talk too little. Obviously, h e wasn t a boy I guessed him to be a t least twenty two if not twenty t hree I said it to annoy him a nd it did He flinched at the word ever so slightly But enough that it pleased me. He deserved a set down. "I suggest you explain I said If he th ought his measly glower would frighten me, he was wrong. My father with his grizzled skin, lio n like side whiskers, and bulbous nose possessed a far more terrifying frown
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 59 Sebastian had a fine straight nose, a defined jaw with smooth inviting skin H is eyebrows although they sat at a wicked brooding slant, weren't nearly as fierce as my father's bushy ones I met his gaze with steady ease. I even managed a triumphant smile. He exhaled noisily How do you expect me to explain it to you ? How could you possibly understand? He waved my bravado away. "Impossible. You re completely ignorant of world affairs A n innocent He spat the word at me, twisted it, as if being innocent meant I was vulgar and indecent S uddenly his hard st are mad e me uncomfortable in a way my father 's never could. I backed away brushing against the scales sending the sensitive trays b obbling noisily The noise of the clinking brass tumbl e d through my belly. I couldn't meet his gaze. "W hat does my ink have to do with such things? Do you have any idea what' s going on in Europe at the moment ?" He sounded exaspe rated with me. Certainly. Napoleon has surrendered and t hey banished him to Elba ." Oh, very good. Even a chimney sweep knows that much. Madame Cho chuckled softly. "At least we finally have peace I defended. He shook his head and muttered, P eace For no reason at all I felt like crying. I was not stupid An d this this boy was not going to make me feel like a simpleton Very well then if I am so repulsively ignorant ," I shov ed past him and snatched my m anual s and note s away. "S o disgusting l y innocent I suggest you enlighten me. Madame coughed discreetly.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 60 H is lips parted H e stared at me as if I stood before him as naked as his forearms. I rubbed mine feeling unaccountably chilled. S ilence bristled between us. "I m a diplomatic attachÂŽ ch arged with protecting certain European dignitaries We need your ink in order to exchange sensitive messages when the need arises. The old formulas are too easily detected. There. That is explanation enough." I clutched the books to my bosom. It was exact ly what I'd suspected. So, you are a spy." No. A diplomatic attachÂŽ." A spy." "No ." He lowered his tone, and proceeded carefully the way my governess used to speak when explaining mathematics. I was only eight then. Now, his forced patience amused me. I a m a member of the Office of Foreign Affairs as was my father, and his father before him I m sworn to protect Britain's interests and that of her allies. If, on occasion, that means I must go about my task quietly and without drawing attention to my identity I only do so in order to fulfill my dut ies as a sworn protector of the crown ." Quietly Yes, I see." I said, tapp ing one finger against my lips. "And what is the precise title of this office you hold?" He shifted, crossed his arms, and frowned at me. "I'm not at liberty to say." Because, clearly, you are a spy." The muscles on his jaw knotted and he drew in a long irritated breath. "And, clearly you lack even the most basic skills in diplomacy or tact." His scold wounded. He needn't have str uck so near the mark. M y cheeks flamed with heat but I thrust my chin up proudly. I didn't need to tolerate insults from him. "If by that you mean I lack skills of deception and trickery, then you are right. If I possess ed those arts I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 61 wouldn't be lock ed away in this hellish place, would I? And you would know nothing about my ink. Hellish? You don't know what hell is little girl. I see no guards at the doors or bars on the windows? If this is such a horrid place why do you not leave ?" He was no gentleman to be so mean. I stepped back, unwilling to confess I had nowhere to go -no one who loved me well enough to shelter me if I did escape. I bit down on my lip to keep from betraying myself with angry tears. He swore under his breath "I'm sorr y. That was badly done. Look here, Miss Fitzwilliam, w e have gotten off to a bad start. Might we not just begin work on the ink?" I shook my head. "Not unless you explain." I could not look at him directly, not until I had my emotions under control. Fu lly ." "It is all so complicated." I said nothing to that I can t tell you everything. These are matters of S tate. What I am at leisure to explain, y ou could not be expected to understand. Wishing to heap burning coals on his foul head, I found the cou rage to look at him squarely. "Then I suggest you put to use all that diplomacy and tact you claim you have and try to help me understand." He drew back as if I'd surprised him. That wicked eyebrow of his a rch ed up as he stood there assessing me. Afte r a prolonged and uncomfortable silence, Sebastian's shoulders relaxed and I saw his resolve weaken ing I learn quickly ," I offered as a salve A lthough why I should soothe his rude temperament I didn t know I suppose s ome treacherous part of me want ed to prove my worth
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 62 to him He continued to brood in silence. The man stood nearly three feet away from me, yet I could smell the freshly press ed linen of his shirt and I swear I could almost taste the dampness of the morning mist that had settled i n his hair. Very well. He exhaled abruptly and his manner soften ed A far cry from peace -Europe is in chaos. S o many nobles were executed during the T error that much of the ruling class of Europe is either dead or in hiding Spain, Portugal, Italy t he entire continent has been plunged in to a dangerous upheaval B orders are in dispute E conomi es have been destroyed by the war. Europe is unstable -a beast without a head, wounded, thrashing i n pain. He turn ed and leaned against the cabinet stari ng out the window at the brilliant midmorning sky A sparrow leapt from the branches of a flowering pear tree and flutter ed past, completely unconcerned about the volatility of Europe. Sebastian glanced over his shoulder at me, sadness darken ing his feat ures, and I saw how he thought of me I was like that s parrow, flittering to and fro with my experiments, starting fires, jumping out of windows with wings strapped to my back blissfully ignorant of the monstrous happening s in the rest of the world "W ere you there when they beheaded Monsieur Lavoisier ? I bit my lip. It was a dreadful question It had nothing to do with the matters at hand, but it sprang from my mouth before I could retract it S eeing such horrors might explain the hardness in him. H e paced I didn't think he would answer, but he stopped beside me and said quietly Not Monsieur Lavoisier B ut soon after, they caught my father I was only four, I should n't remember a nd yet Sebastian stopped and squeezed his eyes shut. I swallow ed, waiting, afraid to breathe, regretting having brought him needless pain. When he opened his eyes the hardness had returned. I thought y ou wanted me to explain
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 63 why we want your formula Don't distract me with pointless memories. He squared h is shou lders and towered over me. What I am about to tell you must be kept in strictest confidence You will never tell anyone ." He grabbed my shoulders. Anyone Do you understand me ? Lives depend on you keeping mum. My life. He gave me a quick shake. I ought to have felt angry that he handle d me as if I were a wayward child. I didn't. I fel t afraid. Afraid because his touch sent my pulse hop ping faster than a frightened rabbit Only, instead of running away I wanted to draw closer. I wanted to s lide my hand over the place that hid his heart and soothe the trouble there My cheeks burned. I stared blindly at his shoulders, not daring to look up, and yet I couldn't stop thinking of his face his searing blue eyes, his mouth so close to mine. A hundred questions I wanted to ask him needed to ask him. H e had seen his own father beheaded Why had anyone allowed him to witness such a terrible thing ? I inhaled sharply at the thought. Had his mother held his hand as they watched ? Or h ad he lost her too? How had they escaped France ? Did he have nightmares? For his sake I stuffed a fist in to the mouth of my curiosity. "Swear." He stood over me waiting, demanding my promise of silence I give you my word ." He glanced at Madame Cho. She l ooked up from her embroidery and nodd ed her agreement as if such promises were commonplace for her Sebastian released me and shifted uneasily. "H eads of state from all over Europe are plan ning to gather for a council, a congress of sorts, in Vienna. I d read something in the London Times about a historic meeting to take place on the continent I nodded, encouraging him to continue.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 64 Their goal is to hammer out a course of action to restore order and economic stability to Europe. B ut there is heavy dis agreement as to how it should be achieve d Many of them are determined to restore the ruling aristocracy and the royal families You can imagine how this infuriates the revolutionaries e specially those in France. He massaged the muscles of his forearms as if it might relieve some of his tension. In a low voice he said, We've heard rumors of a plan to assassinate these heads of state while they are all gathered so conveniently in one place." My mouth fell open. Do you think it s true? How did you he ar of this ? Have you told the authorities? Slow down h e warded off my rapid questions. It s my job and Captain Grey's to un cover such plots. All you need know is that many lives may be saved if you give us your formula for invisible ink. We must b e able to communicate without being detected. Some of our codes have been deciphered B ecause of i t, m en died good men Sebastian paused and raked through his black curls clenching his jaw muscles and shaking his head I nodded, comprehend ing the pr oblem N ew codes must be extremely difficult to distribute without them being intercepted by y our enemies. "Exactly." His eyes brightened. T he invisible ink s we have at present are easily detected by applying heat. It s vital to the safety of hundred s of men their families, and their entourages that we have a means of exchang ing messages covertly. H is life hung in the balance as well. Dread prickled up my spine. I shudder ed. We had a very big problem. "You do realize my formula i sn't perfected ye t ?" My shoulders sagged under the confession of my failure. So I heard. He surprised me with a wry grin. An explosion, was it?"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 65 I shrugged preferring not to think about that day. I wanted to please him and h e needed me to succeed. The leaders of Eu rope were in danger. He was in danger. Dwelling on my mis take s wouldn't help any of us. When h e started chuckl ing at my embarrassment I thrust the Persian text at him Laughing at me wouldn't help either of us "We ought to get started I said brus quely.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 66 Chapter 7 Ashes I opened my notes and brush ed away ashes and charred flecks of paper left from the day of the fire That whiff of smoke although it was only a hint, billowed into a remembered blaz e of singed horse hair and smoldering str aw I nearly choked, but instead gulped air D espite my dry throat, I slowly breathed out the memory. That's all it was, j ust a memory. Nothing more. I had work to do and n o time for nonsensical phantom smells. Turn to my marker I told Sebastian embarrassed that m y vocal cords crack l ed like an adolescent boy's. "Which marker?" He held up the Persian book s nippets of paper protruded every which way out of the pages. I flipped it open and pointed to a passage discussing transmutable dyes. "Ther e. We will begin where I left off." I showed him the recipe on the singed pages of my notebook W e compared the ingredients to the chemicals described in the Persian text. See here where i t says r ed salt I'm not certain what th at mean s At first I thought it referred to Copperas, copper crystals. B ut t hen I got the idea to mix cobalt with saltpeter
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 67 potassium nitrate That's what I was doing when -" Why? C obalt is blue." He frowned and rubbed the stubble on his ch in while he pondered the recipe Yes, I know B ut I read that when you mix it with a nitric acid such as saltpeter cobalt turns red ." I was eager to explain more, especially because he paid attention Sincere attention. His skeptical smirk vanished H e turned to me, consider ing my hypothesis listening Listening t o me. No one had ever done that. No one had ever listened to one of my ideas, not really, not with that kind of respectful consideration O h, o ur old cook used to allow me sit at the table and theorize to her whil e she kneaded bread -out of boredom I expect My mother never even feigned interest yawn ing and glancing at the ceiling before shooing me away, exasperated with my harebrained ideas Sebastian with steady blue eyes waited to hear more. I swallow ed hard, trying to keep my heart from fling ing itself up into my throat. Childish of me to react so excite dly simply because someone wa s polite enough to listen "The acid causes the cobalt to crystallize into red crystals. That might be our red salt." Yes It's a possib ilit y." He nodded. Unfortunately, stew ing saltpeter, gun powder, is a bit of a risk His impish eyebrow arced up mocking me just a little Plus, I question whether the ancient Persians would have known how to convert cobalt into red salt "They knew," I muttered Why did people assume we moderns knew more than any of the previous cultures? It simply wasn't true evidence said otherwise. I bit my lip, su ppress ing the impulse to argue the point I wanted to hold onto th e deli cate connection I felt with him Shoulder to shoulder we leaned over the books H eads together we
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 68 hypothesiz ed as to what other ingredient s the ancients might have describ ed as r ed s alt. And all the while my skin tingled under the gentle breeze of ou r companionability. I doubt any lover's poem w ould have teased my ears more sweetly than our discussion of iron oxides and magnesium At length, we decided to try emulsifying copperas with ammonium over heat The burner worked beautifully, exactly like a chafing dish but with a more intense flame W hile Sebastian stirred the mixture I went through the chem ist's chest pulling out each little drawer searching the contents of every box for an element that might be construed as red salt. A few moments la ter, I fann ed my hand in front of my nose to drive away the stench from our mixture It smelled worse than rotten egg s Sebastian coughed. I felt sorry for him standing over the pot stirring. "Ghastly smell." I held my nose and squeezed past him to op en the window but stopped when he cough ed again T his time his shoulders hunched and he barked so spasmodically I feared he might lose the contents of his stomach. I patted him between the shoulder blades and commenced coughing quite violently myself. W hite acrid smoke puff ed up from the bubbling mixture stinging my nostrils A glance at the now fizzling brew and I realized my mistake. "Th e y're r eacting Sebastian reached through the suffocating smoke and shut off the flame. I covered my mouth with the collar of my dress and sl ammed a lid over the pot and yet s moke continued to pour out around the edges. I rushed to the window but t he rusted latch wouldn't budge Sebastian tried the next window only to be overtaken by another coughing fit. I yank ed on the handle and managed to pry it halfway out P ound ing and thump ing, I finally got the stubborn latch to give way and threw open the window
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 69 By that time Sebastian ha d turned a n alarming shade of gray D esperation twist ed his features A ny second he would collapse. I caught his arm over my shoulder and w e stumbled toward the door J ust as we rounded the work table all of his weight fell on me. I tipped and we slid to the floor. Sebastian would die if I didn't get him to fresh air i mmediately. "Madame Cho I screamed "Help us!" She had headed for the door, gasping, and fanning away the fumes with the silk she'd been embroidering Not sure the dragon would be able to come to our aid I wriggled out from under neath him C lasp ing him under the arms I tugged with every ounce of strength I had dragging hi s limp body toward the door. Madame Cho shuffled over holding some silk over her mouth and took hold of his arm T ogether w e pull ed him into the hall Shut the door I didn' t want the fumes to asphyxiate the entire population of the school. I checked Sebastian for signs of life. F aint breath sounds came from his mouth and his chest expanded slightly He was alive. Barely Think I ordered myself. The fumes had been aci dic. How could we counteract it in his system? I remembered a note in Lavoisier's book. "Milk," I shouted grasp ing Madame Cho 's arm. Quickly! We need a pitcher of milk and two eggs. No T hree eggs. Her face screwed up as if she thought I 'd lost my mind To neutralize the acid M ix egg whites in milk and make him drink it Hurry!" Instead of arguing, her expression cleared S he vanished down the hall with surprising speed I dragged Sebastian further from the stillroom further from the f umes seeping under the door, further from the poison that was killing him. If I could haul him all the way out into the garden, the fresh air might help I tugged and pulled, coughing with every step. At last I yanked open the side door S teps T oo m any steps for me to drag him safely down without giving him a concussion. A wracking cough overwhelmed me Wheezing, I sank against the door frame and
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 70 propped his head on my lap Without thinking I sli d my fingers into his black hair smoothing it back from his forehead My freckle d hands looked so shabby against his raven black hair and smooth white skin Too white. I jerked my hand away. No longer gray, Sebastian looked like a stone angel in the grave yard washed bone white in the sun. Pale and unearthly. It was all wrong. Where was his devilish sneer ? His hot teasing grin? T he cold gone ness of his features made me shiver "Come back ," I whispered and fell to coughing momentarily. I m not the sort of girl who fall s apart in a crisis Nor do I blubber pointlessly Not me T he moisture in my eyes was merely a reaction to the ac rid fumes T hat's all. "Breathe." I ordered and fanned fresh healing air toward him. "Breathe." I gave his shoulders a shake. "You mustn't die. You mayn't. I will not permit it. As if he heard me, Sebastian lurched awake I mmediately he commenced a brutal coughing spasm. I braced his shoulders At the end of it, h e slumped into my lap breathing in loud gasps "Stay calm I ordered sounding very autho ritarian even to my own ears. "Try to breathe evenly." I thought he said, "Hah." Or i t could've been "Huh ? No in retrospect, I m fairly certain he intended a derisive "Hah "Conserve your strength. I urged. Don't talk. Just b reathe." His impuden t smirk returned. H e ignored me. "You are "Hush," I cautioned. "No need to thank me." His eyes widened "After all I said, you caught me yesterday when I fell from the spy hole I coughed
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 71 briefly. Turnabout is only fair." Sebastian's pupils roll e d up ward I thought h e might l ose consciousness again so I patted his cheeks. No. T ake a deep breath. S tay awake He shook his head and inhaled deeply exactly as I'd instructed O nly it brought on more coughing. You are -" cough the most -" cough "vexing -" he wheezed, dangerous -" cough, cough, girl -" cough I've ever -" cough, cough, gasp He had the audacity to flop back against my lap as if I was his p ersonal feather pillow Fine. I certainly didn't want to hear the rest of his rude co mment anyway. The mocking glint in his eyes gave me a nearly uncontrollable urge to shove him down the steps. Fortunately for him at that very moment Captain Grey and Miss Stranje came r unning down the hall toward us followed by Madame Cho and a footm an carrying a sloshing pitcher of milk I experienced a brief measure of relief that they did not run up pelting me with angry shout s of Murderer! Captain Grey knelt beside us and braced Sebastian into a more upright position He asked simply What h appened ?" She "Fumes I interrupted before Sebastian could publicly condemn me. The c hemicals we mixed r eacted and emitted a poisonous gas. Captain Grey nodded just as t he footman arrived with the pitcher and a glass. "E gg whites? I asked as t he fellow poured Yes, m iss. Already in the milk ." G ood. I indicated the glass should go t o Sebastian D rink this. It will help neutralize the affects of the acid ic fumes
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 72 Sebastian reached for it but his hands shook Captain Grey guide d the milk to his protÂŽgÂŽ's lips. After gulp ing most of the contents, Sebastian exhaled loudly and once more began to accuse me "She -" He cough ed I sagged against the doorframe without trying to silence him again No sen se prolonging the inevitable. My days o f experimenting were at an end. Sooner or later the Captain and Miss Stranje were bound to hear about my colossal blunder Miss Stranje fixed her attention on Sebastian, concern bleach ed out her sharp features. I'd nearly killed her benefactor's nephew I expected she d horse whip me soundly, or strap me onto the rack A t the very least she would send me home as a hopeless case. What did it matter ? I could n't feel any more disgrace d than I already did One's capacity for humiliation is finite. I'd learned that years ago. I edged up against the doorframe, so I might stand and face my accusers It occurred to me I could run away. It didn't matter that I had nowhere to go. R unning would free me from this wretched moment from this horrid house, from this whole bloody mess. I managed to push all the way to my feet H ad I been steadier, I would' ve taken off like a fox fleeing hounds Except, I was dizzy. The garden wobbled and tipped at an unnatural angle L ight hurt my eyes so I focus ed down th e length of the cool dark hall S till the earth did not hold as steady as it ought. Sebastian cleared his throat. "She s aved my life." I wondered for a minute if m y hearing had become as unreliable as my sight. "Pulled me out," he wheezed. Captain Grey turned to me and smiled solemnly Thank you," he said. "I am in your debt.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 73 I didn't deserve his gratitude. I shook my head refusing his thanks Another mistake s haking my head made t he entire world spin You re not well. Miss Stranje grabbed hold of my shoulder and eased me down beside Sebastian. She signaled the footman to refill the glass. You ought to have some of this milk as well. "No, I'm fine." I pressed my hand against my eyes to stop the spinning. I didn t ingest as much of the smo ke as he did. Sebastian pushed the glass at me. Drink. Had he really told them I saved his life ? It wasn't true. He had it right the first time, I was dangerous. I'd nearly killed him. First the fire in my father's stables Now this. I lifted t he glass to drink, but a liberating blackness swallowed me up
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 74 Chapter 8 Visions I have no memory of how I got from the hall way to my bed It seemed as if I floated up the stairs in a wh irling darkness I saw faces along the way H ideous fa ces. Stern faces. Wild, mocking, laughing faces. N ow that I am rational again I believe the people I saw were merely the portraits hanging in the hallway portraits of Miss Stranje' s disturbing ancestors. Like the three hags in Macbeth these apparit ions cackled and chanted at me "B oil boil, toil and trouble T hey stirred a cauldron of bubbling red liquid. The pot hissed and spit burning droplets onto my skin. A swirling cloud of vapor encircled us. Your fault. Not smart R ed hair R ed salt, t hey chanted W orthless brain and freckled heart, make yourself an oak wart." The o ld women twirled around me in dizzying circles, laughing Again and again they sang that maddening ditty about my worthless brain and oak warts. O ne of them resembled M adame Cho except her eye s ockets were plugged with milky unseeing stones and she wore the black hood of an executioner I turned to run and collided with the chopping block of a guillotine T he blade hover ed above my head.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 75 No! No! I screamed, hiding my face from the steel edge plummeting toward me Wake up child Wake up Miss Stranje drew the covers away from my neck. N o guillotine. No witches or hags Well, one witch Madame Cho stood next to her, poised as a cobra wa it ing for a chance to stri ke. She hated me. I could tell s he blamed me for the poisonous fumes. And why shouldn't she? As usual my stupid experiment ing had landed me in trouble. The hags were right -m y brain was worthless. If only I 'd been born a simpleton with brown hair, a good girl without freckles and absolutely no interest in ancient chemists If only I could rip out my overactive curiosity and trade it in for an interest in ruffles, maybe then people w ould smile at me. Maybe then my mother would love me. Miss Stran je pressed a glass of milk to my lips. You've been perspir ing. You need fluids. The thick liquid burned my throat "I didn't intend "Hush. She set the glass down with an irritated plunk. Sebastian? I rasped. She stiffened at my use of his fami liar name. "Lord Wyatt ," she corrected, i s recovering. "I didn' t mean to -" "Stop She inhaled deeply. I know you didn't intend to hurt Lord Wyatt, but you did. Next time think before you act. Madame Cho emitted a low threatening grumble "I did t hink." My voice croaked like a rusty frog. "I was trying to make the ink." "And did you?" "No." I sank against the pillow. I failed." You failed today. There is tomorrow.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 76 Tomorrow? Yes she answered curtly "U n less you re suggesting t here i s no solution to the problem ? I wasn't suggesting any such thing I studied her, uncertain how to answer, f rustrated by the way she turned my words against me T here i s a solution The Persians had a formula So, did the Greeks. Pliny the elder r efers to an invisible ink. I just don't know if I can -" Georgiana, what are you going on about? She di dn't yell at me and yet it felt as if she had This is not a child's game I leaned up on my elbows and chewed my bottom lip At home, before t he stables caught fire, yes, maybe I' d just been playing at various experiments toying with ideas, i ndulging my own curiosity playing c hild ish games Ri sky ones Perhaps my mother was right Maybe I was a danger to myself and others Sebastian though t as much So did Madame Cho. I shook my head. I n the last few days it had all become quite serious d eadly serious No longer a child's game. Lives hung in the balance. Miss Stranje stared at me, scouring my soul. Either you are up to this challeng e, or you are not Her words scraped at me like a sharp comb digging too deep for parasitic nits Which is it?" she asked in a menacingly soft voice. Which was it, indeed? I felt an overpowering desire to run away again n ot from her, from myself fr om the confusion pummeling my worthless brain P art of me vowed to forget about Lavoisier forever vowed never again to think about DaVinci's kites or Pliny's invisible inks -to concentrate instead on ballgowns and silk ribbons At the very same inst ant new i deas tumbl ed through the back of my mind. Gnawing questions chewed through my resolve. Oak warts ? Why ha d the old hags chant ed about oak warts? Did they mean o ak gall s ? I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 77 knew the hags were only a figment of my imagination, so naturally, they didn't mean anything. But I also knew that galls, the round misshapen growths on oak branches when ground to a fine powder were used in making many types of ink. Was there a way I could turn a gall based ink invisible ? And then use a developer to bri ng out the color ? Seed pods of ideas took root and germinated in my mind A new theory bloomed and treacherously w hispered, what if ? Eager to test out the idea I tried to sit up. Except my head felt like an anvil and those two words rang against it li ke a hammer. I remember ed the price of w hat if I bowed my head and clapped my hands over my ears to block it out But the what ifs would not go away. They would never go away. Those insidious words meant t here would never be approving smiles aimed a t me. N o ballgowns in my future N o suitors bestowing adoring looks on me least of all Sebastian N o good daughter pats on my head. I could not escape the what ifs E ven if I could, Europe's leaders were at risk. And Sebastian. "Yes." I lifted my head and looked directly at her straight through the foolish tears blurring my vision. I will find the answer. I dashed water from my cheek Tomorrow. "Good s he said, only she didn t sound pleased Frowning, she t hrust a handkerchief at me Dry your eyes Georgi ana She shook her head and t he corner of her mouth twist ed up in scorn You are rather a stubborn case aren't you? I suspect you will need a turn or two on the rack before you are truly ready to return to the laboratory I didn' t understand her meaning. Madame Cho, on the other hand, was easy to understand. She laughed -a dry ugly laugh that did not inspire merriment in others I knew exactly what that guttural H a meant It meant she would take enormous pleasure in lock in g my wrists and
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 78 ankles i n to the corroded iron cuffs and cranking the handle until I screamed and my spine snapped You wouldn t I sat up The room joggled a bit, but at least it didn't spin as it had before "You can't C an't I? Miss Stranje consu lted a small pocket watch. W ell, it looks as if y ou a re right I 'm far too busy at the moment I ll have to accommodate you later. I trust you remember ed w e re having guests this afternoon She slipped the watch back into her pocket, smoothed down h er skirt and turn ed just as Sera and Jane rush ed into the room "The servants said something awful happened. Is she all right?" They cast curious eyes in my direction but focused on their headmistress for answers. M uch improved "W hat happened? Jane asked. I sighed heavily, dread ing Miss Stranje's account of the events But s he adopted an entirely businesslike manner We ve no time to go into that now. Lady Harbaugh will arrive all too soon and since the primary purpose of her visit is to scrutini ze our new student w e must set our minds to the task of making her appear presentable Presentable I silently scoffed and wished them best of luck in that endeavor. If presentable meant anything beyond making me clean and tidy they were going to be s orely disappointed. My mother had tried for nearly sixteen years and met with defeat at every turn The three of them gathered around studying me as if I was an inanimate object, such as a fireplace mantle they wished to decorate for Christmas. Miss Stra nje tilted her head to one side, no doubt regretting the daunting job before them. Seraphina, you re the artist W hat color do you think would suit her best?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 79 Let me see Sera tugg ed the bedroom drapes open wider She came back and inspected me under the full glare of the sun. Tapping her f inger against her chin, she squinted at me. Hmm I should think b lue s would do very well to compl e ment her eyes. As well as certain shades of green f orest colors. We ought to steer clear of pinks and plums A nd avoid stark whites She scooped up my hair and turned every which way to see the effect. If we m inimize any decorations near the neckline, her hair will form a lacey intricate pattern to attract and please the eye. My hair might poke out someone's eye, but please it ? Never Jane sorted through my armoire Apparently a servant had stocked it with the contents of my trunks There's n o thing blue in here. Or green. Of course not I could've saved her the trouble of looking M y mother though t white o r sprigged muslin the only suitable fabrics for a marriageable young lady I'd always felt like a snow covered stra wberry toddling into the room, and my p oor m other winced every time she saw me in one of her frosty con f ections. Jane shut the doors on my wardrobe with finality Nothing in there will suit. My mother would have burst a blood vessel if she 'd heard Jane's assessment of my wardrobe What she would cry A ll that money spent on seamstresses for naught ? After a lengthy tirade I know exactly what she'd do M y m other would fall silent and fix on me an expression of pained disappointment. It was, after all, my fault. Jane on the other hand did not lament. Airily, she said You and I are much the same size. I have a lovely blue and wh ite stripe that would do very well for the occasion She collected it from her armoire draped it across the bed and pulled it up under my chin. "See." Yes, just the thing ," Miss Stranje declared.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 80 Humph. Madame Cho strolled out of the room. Sera s poke directly to me finally acknowledging me as a person, not just a scarecrow they were dress ing "It's a lovely color on you. Brings out your eyes." And that s good? I wondered, thinking my eyes must surely reflect my perilously curious mind. Yes s illy V ery good." S he smiled and I knew that no matter how handsome the blue stripes looked on me I would never be anywhere near as beautiful as Sera Maya dashed in to the room amber and scarlet robes billow ing behind her like wings o n a brightly feathered bird She rushed to Sera breathing hard from her haste "I just heard." She looked me over and confusion lit up her face. But s he is not dying?" Miss Stranje t i sked. Servants do tend to exaggerate. She's a bit dizzy that's all. Now I really must go. I will leave you girls to figure out what to do with her hair. She took one last look at me, frowned and added I'll send a maid to help. I groaned. Jane pointed at the flute clasped in Maya's hand and suggested, We might try snake charming." The others laughed. I wasn't amus ed at being likened to Medusa with a head full of snakes. "We could scrape it all back and let out a few curls around her face." Sera un tied my ribbon, raked through the tangle s with her fingers, and twist ed my hair back tight. Jane shook her head. "Too severe." Sera let go and m y hair tumbled over my shoulders like Moses's burning bush. I ha ve a pomade we could try, Maya suggested.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 81 "No I said It's no use M y mother has tried every possible pomade o r fixative Sugar water only ma kes it worse. Potato starch L ard B ees wax D uck grease and egg whites R ose oil" I stopped ticking off fail ed attempts to tame my hair and threw up my hands. Unless you are a magician, a ll we can do is tie it back a nd hope for the best. Hope is the best kind of magic ." Maya trilled a few notes on her flute. "Yes, well, perhaps you know a snake charming tune that would do the trick. I haven't tried that before." Maya set down the flute. "I will get the pomade. You wi ll see." She brought out of her cupboard a jar of cream that smelled of exotic flowers, of ginger and almonds and honeysuckle. "What is it?" I asked. She breathed in deep over the jar. "The smell of home. Many women in my country wear this. It is an old recipe. My grandmother made it." I could tell by the way Maya's gaze drifted to the far wall that she was seeing a place not in our room, but a memory of a grandmother who no longer live d "I can't take this. I handed it back. It's too importa nt to you." She pushed the jar into my hands Use it today. If it works perhaps you will be able to duplicate it then I will always have the scent of home near me." I nodded, silently thanking her for such a kindness Even if my hair could not be tamed I would smell wonderful Maya took up a seat in the window and played her flute while Jane and Sera labored over my hair. The maid came and went, carrying water and towels, bringing brushes and combs, holding hair pins offering advice and finally leav ing us to our own devices I sat stoically in a chair. I ve had years of practice sitting perfectly still while my hair wa s tugged pulled, unsnarled, brushed, ironed pinned and plastered into place T oday proved the
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 82 most pleasant of those times a nd by far, the most successful. After they slipped the blue dress on me, Sera held up a mirror to show me their handiwork I gasped. Surely another girl stared back from the mirror. Unless Maya had charmed my stubborn curls with her flute playing, t he poma de had worked. My rebellious frizzles were transformed into soft shiny waves Jane had scooped up all the curls and pinned them back loosely allow ing a fullness that flattered my face. The cornflower blue dress balanced perfectly against my hair makin g me look not like a garish sore thumb but like a colorful bird whose feathers did not clash like Maya, like Sera, like Jane "You are magicians ," I whispered still scarcely able to believe it Maya set her flute aside and clapped Well done ." S era and Jane bowed like troubadours in a traveling circus T he clock on the mantle chimed and Jane immediately stopped playing. It's getting late Has anyone seen Tess?" No one answered. We can't delay any longer. Lady Harbaugh keeps country hours an d it would be just like her to come early to try to catch us off guard "You go," Maya said. I will stay here and help Tess get ready My presence would only upset Lady Harbaugh all the more Why? I asked. Wondering how Maya could upset anyone. Wi thout answering, s he smiled sadly retreated to the window seat and drap ed her robes over her head hiding under an elegant hood. Come. Sera grabbed my hand. We 'll wait and watch from the Hamlet hole
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 83 Chapter 9 Warships in the Drawing Room Hamlet hole ? Wait I slipped out of Sera's grasp. What am I supposed to do exactly ? Wh y does Lady Harbaugh want to see me anyway ?" She may not ," Sera said. We have to be ready just in case Jane looped her arm through mine and tugged me to the door "Y ou ask too many questions. We'll explain everything later. B ut for now, w e really must go. I 'm certain I heard someone knocking So far, in my experience here at Stranje House people never did explain later. They had more of wait and see for yourself policy. We hurried down stairs and turned sharply into an under stair closet. I balked. "Not another secret passage." This way." She darted into the closet. I hesitated and lifted my skirts, not wanting to subject Jane's lovely blue gown to a dusty narrow haunt Sera urged me forward. "It's okay everyone knows about this one, even the servants. See. They've swept it. The passage was narrow but tidy We stopped in a nook barely wide enough for the three
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 84 of us. "This is Hamlet's hole ," e xplained Sera. "You remember that part in the play where Hamlet hid behind a panel and spied on his evil step father." She gestured to a silk panel mounted across the opening and grinned "This spy hole lets us eavesdrop on any evil about to befall us in the drawing room ." She laughed. I did not. Whatever evil was about to happen in that drawing room had something to do with me, not her. The out er side of the finely woven silk was a painting of two dancing cranes, a line of Chinese characters, and a fe w spindly trees, but they hardly obscured our view at all. We could clearly see the large drawing room below and yet darkness concealed us The gilded furnishings, the blue Aubusson carpet, a vase of flowers on the mantle, the entire tableau lay before us in such fine detail it was like look ing through glass rather than through silk. A bank of tall windows on the far side of the drawing room allowed light to stream in while we remained hidden in the shadows of our dark spy hole Miss Stranje sat in a chair next to the fireplace with m ending on her lap and a sewing box beside the chair. She looked the very picture of domestic tranquility a clever ruse. T he butler ushered in a guest that could not possibly be Lady Harbaugh. Miss Stranje set her m ending aside and stood up to greet the gentleman. He limped into the room and bowed curtly. Lord Ravencross Sera mouthed in awe. Jane confirmed her assumption with a harshly whispered question What's he doing here?" He stood with his shoulders back W ith the gruff voice of an officer addressing his troops he barked I will come straight to the point Miss Stranje I m ay have injured one of your, er
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 85 that is to say his stiff posture broke and he hesitated as if searching for the right word. "O ne of your One of my guests? suggested Miss Stranje. Guests? He stiffened again Thought they were your students? That s what the servants said -that y ou run some sort of school for problematic chits." D o you usually rely on servants for your information?" In that coy manner of hers, Miss Stranje settled back into her chair and gestured to the settee. He c lamped his jaw tight and glanced wildly around the room as if the brocade couch had intentionally boxed him in. To make him feel more at h ome, the flowers would have to be thrown out the damask curtains ripped down and the whole place changed into a dark cave I swear I ha ve never seen a man who look ed as much like a trapped wolf as Lord Ravencross. Confound it, woman! Is she injured or not? Won t you have a seat, my lord? Miss Stran j e waited very primly. He raked his fingers through his thick unkempt mane and limped over to the couch but did not sit. I daresay you ll be more comfortable if you actually lower yourself onto the cu shion Miss Stranje's left brow cocked in an irritatingly smug manner and humor taint ed her voice. "Would you care for some tea?" I doubted Lord Ravencro ss would be comfortable any where e specially not in Miss Stranje's drawing room, and certainly not s itting on the sofa drink ing tea Madam, I beg of you. Answer the question. I s the girl injured or not? "Yes, I believe she was. But perhaps y ou ought to see her and judge for yourself. She rang a hand bell and Madame Cho appeared almost instantly I suspected the old dragon had
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 86 been lurking in some hidden corner off the room Will you e scort Miss Aubreyson to the drawing room please ." Lord Ravencross reluctantly dropped onto the sofa I feel as if you are toying with me, Miss Stranje I warn you I m in no mood for games. I can see that, my lord. You seem quite agitated. Is there anything I can do to ease you r distress? No. He shot up from the couch as if she d dumped hot coals i n his lap. His l ame leg rammed into the tea table and set the china to clattering. He clenched his teeth and hobbled sideways to where there was more room to pace. I don t need to see her. If she s hurt just tell me and I ll pay for the damages. Ah I see You view the young lady as one would view a chip ped saucer ." Miss Stranje set a cup on a saucer and held it up making a pretense of inspecting it "You have the notion a few dollars will patch up the damage and assuage your guilt She clucked her tongue the way one does at a naughty young boy. Tea, my lord ? "This has nothing to do with guilt He waved the teacup she offer ed away. The fault was not mine. Not mine at all. The chit ran into my horse, not the other way round. Running like a ruddy savage, she was, and on my land, too. Oh, I s ee. S he set the cup on the table and laced her fingers neatly in her lap. "That explain s your distress. A young lady running ." She sniffed and shook her head. Oh, my A nd on your land too ." You don t understand at all damn it She fell and I ," he stopped pacing and rubbed the back of his neck I may have been a trifle abrupt with her You my l ord? A brupt? she parroted him all innocence and sugar. "I can't fathom such a
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 87 thing." He r sadistic pleasure in his discomfort was palpable. Any mome nt I feared she might burst into gales of laughter at his expense. I concluded Miss Stranje was just plain cruel even cruel er than Lord Ravencross She enjoyed punishing him far too much. Sera must have felt the same. In the dim light I noticed her ch ewing her bottom lip. "Must she tease him so?" she hissed in Jane's ear "Yes, don't you see, it's for his own good. Jane said in hushed tone s "Watch what she's doing. It's masterful." Masterful? High praise for a woman who took pleasure in mak ing he r guest squirm A nd what good it would do him I could not comprehend Jane, observing my confusion, said "How else will he own up to his wretched behavior? I do wish Miss Stranje w ould have a go at my brothers." "Yes, abrupt ," Lord Ravencross snapped p ac ing ferociously. Suddenly he stopped and attempt ed to loosen his cravat even though it was sloppily tied and not nearly so high nor tight as most gentlem e n wore them. It's possible I may have issued a few curt words as well "Curse words you say ?" Curt words," he corrected Hasty. I s poke without thinking ." Tess appeared in the doorway of the drawing room T he beleaguered Lord Ravencross froze to his spot on the Turkish carpet. Oh no, Sera inhaled sharply and clutched my elbow "She looks so -" M ature, I finished astonished Tess filled out her vanilla lace gown in ways I never could. She had breasts. T he neckline on her gown left no doubt of that fact She didn t look sixteen, or even seventeen S he looked eighteen, shapely and elega nt, a diamond of the first water She c ertainly didn't look like a girl who rose before dawn every day and sprinted across
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 88 muddy sheep fields or a girl who c limb ed through grimy secret passages and kept a pair of rats for pets. Miss Stranje stood and g reeted Tess Come in, my dear. Lord Ravencross may I present Miss Tess Aubreyson." Lord Ravencross appeared to be just as stunned at Tess's change in appearance as we were O h H e swallowed hard drew back his injured leg and bowed ever so slightly. "Y ou are well I see ." Tess didn t answer. She simply dipped a quick curtsey, very prim very formal, and very unlike Tess. Miss Stranje didn't let up on her needling. You do realize, my lord, that n ot all wounds are outwardly visible It was anoth er of her twisty turn y comments. I wasn't sure if she referred to Tess's hurt feelings for being left to fend for herself in the mud or emotional scars Lord Ravencross might be hiding He bent his head awkwardly and a brace of his unkempt curls fell ac ross his eyes. I sup pose I s hould've ma d e certain she hadn't twisted her ankle, or -" He didn't finish "Pardon me." T he butler edged into the double doorway and in a very formal nasal monotone addressed our headmistress The Dowager Countess Lady Step hani, is here to see you miss She is accompanied by Lady Harbaugh and Mrs. Perris "Very well Greaves ," Miss Stranje said and sighed heavily "S how them in ." Lady Harbaugh didn t wait to be shown in. Anyo ne would have thought she owned Stranje Hous e by the way she shoved past Greaves A buxom woman clad in a mahogany brown satin dress s he sailed into the room like a war ship entering a placid blue harbor. She wore a broad
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 89 brimmed hat lavishly decorated with fruit and ribbons. It sat at a jaunty a ngle on her head so that any minute I ex pected the pile of cherries flowers, and stuffed blue birds to tumble off the side. In the warship's wake came a thin stick of a woman dressed in rich black silks cut in the Georgian style of the last century with a nipped in waist and full skirts A t first glance she appeared frail, with puckered cheeks and bony arms I t took only a moment to realize there was nothing frail about her. She carried herself with the latent power of a cobra, and her antiquated ward robe was clearly a matter of choice D iamonds sparkled from her neck and the ruby and sapphire rings worn over her gloves as was the custom, were so large they could not be missed even from where we stood Lady Stephani." Miss Stranje curtseyed addr essing the dowager countess first because it was she who ought to have led the procession into the room With a small wave of her hand Lady Stephani seated herself first and signaled Miss Stranje to do the same Mrs. Perris trail ed in behind them tot in g a fluffy little lap dog in her oversized reticule. The pup perked up and his ears pointed sharply as they passed Tess With an excited yip the dog leapt out of Mrs. Perris's purse It dashed over and paw ed at Tess's hem begging for her attention Tess scooped the yapping powder puff up and was rewarded with a flurry of licks to her neck and cheek. She embraced the wagging ball of fluff and scratched behind it s ears quite oblivious of how intently Lord Ravencross studied he r. "Pepper called Mrs. P erris "Stop licking that girl this instant." She hurried over and tried to remove the dog from Tess but Pepper snarled and snapped at his owner. Now, now Pepper poo she cooed. "Be nice y nice to your mamma kins ." Pepper cocked one ear and star ed wi th curiosity at his baby talking mistress
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 90 Tess handed the pup to Mrs. Perris an d dipp ed a very pretty curtsey. "Your dog is adorable, ma'am, very clever." "Yes, he is isn't he? Mrs. Perris stroked his silky fur and smiled at Tess, pleasure replacing irritation. Ladies, I m certain you are acquainted with our neighbor, Lord Ravencross Miss Stranje directed the women 's attention to her other guest He stood at an uncomfortable angle dividing his hostile gaze between the matrons and Tess who rema ined near the door. Well, well, Lord Ravencross N ever expected to see you here Lady Harbaugh said in a booming voice. Haven't laid eyes on you this age. Pity about your brother ." "Pity," echoed Mrs. Perris. Lady Stephani watched him with a narrowed gaze Lord Ravencross glowered at Lady Harbaugh with such angry heat it surprised me that the wax fruit atop her hat didn't melt. He inclined his head with very little civility. "I must be going. I'll see myself out." He limped rapidly toward the exi t paus ing momentarily in front of Tess. I m relieved to see you are uninjured "Not completely uninjured, my lord." Tess said without even a hint of proper girlish timidity n or any regard for the rest of the company present You were after all, ex ceedingly rude." "I I H e clamped off his stammer Have you forgotten ? It was y ou who startled my horse ." An accident And your horse shied only a little It was y ou who spooked the poor creature when you bellowed at me. That's why he reared up. Y ou r foul temper nearly got me killed.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 91 He clenched his jaw glanced sideways at their spellbound audience and snapped a curt bow to Tess M y apologies. However, as my temperament is not likely to change I suggest you st eer clear of my property Next time you may not be so lucky." B efore Tess could respond Lord Ravencross thundered out into the hall loudly demanding the servants bring him his blasted hat. Lady Harbaugh s booming voice reduced to more muted contralto. At least there's one young man w ho doesn't appear to be taken in by your machinations, Emily Stranje. Miss Stranje said nothing to that. "W hat the devil was he doing here anyway ." J ust a p leasant neighborly visit Miss Stranje offered cheerfully. Ha!" Lady Harbaugh bristled. "You can't fool me. Nothing pleasant or neighborly about him. O dious boy. Doesn't perform the duty owed his station. Hasn't called on me once since his brother died. Won't see visitors. Unpleasant sort. I expect he was here because you annoyed him somehow Miss Stranje directed their attention to the refreshments on the tea table "Would you care for tea?" T hat would be lovely." Mrs. Perris held Pepper tightly in her lap Lady Harbaugh waved the offer away. "No, no, we haven't time to shilly shally over teacups Lady Perris 's shoulders wilted at her companion's dismissal. She eyed the biscuits and tea in silence I will have tea. Lady Stephani said, dismiss ing the startled expression s of the other occupants of the room "We are not uncivilized bar barians.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 92 No, I thought, and shivered. She was far more frightening than a barbarian. One understood what a barbarian wanted and could take evasive action. Lady Stephani was the sort to take one by surprise. I imagined she carried a dagger hidden in h er sleeves and at least one of those voluminous rings must have a secret compartment for poison. The warship opened the shutters on her bulwark and rolled out her cannons. We a re here on pressing business. T here's no sense beating about the bush." Cr eam N o sugar." Lady Stephani directed Miss Stranje "You've changed this room since your g randmother died." "Yes I added a few accommodations for comfort 's sake ." "I preferred it the way it was." The elderly woman sniffed. M ost things are better o ff left as they were. W hile Miss Stranje poured cream into Lady Stephani 's cup Lady Harbaugh tapped her foot impatiently and puff ed out at the gills "We ar e here to discuss a matter of grave importance ," she reminded them Then b y all means, my lady proceed Miss Stranje handed off the teacup and sat back in her chair readying herself for a grueling lecture Lady Harbaugh dug into her reticule pulled out a letter and gripped it tightly in her fist We' ve come about that new gel you've taken o n, one Georgiana Fitzwilliam. My stomach knotted. Mrs. Perris stroked her puppy nervously. "Is it true? Is the young lady one of your she stopped and leaned closer speaking behind her hand Your g irls ? She snatched a shortbread from the tray, sn apped the cookie in half and nervously fed one half to her dog and stuffed the other in her mouth.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 93 Miss Stranje remained marvelously calm. "Why y es, Miss Fitzwilliam is a guest here How very astute of you. She arrived for a visit only this week It' s a wonder you've heard of her arrival so soon ." "Heard of it?" Lady Harbaugh waved the letter as if it were a court summons. We 've been fore warned. The girl is a n arsonist ," she roared. She starts fires Sera leaned close and spoke softly in my ear Don't worry. Most of us had thorny reputations that chased us here." Look here Miss Stranje, you can dispense with the pretense. We all know these girls aren't your guest s ." Lady Harbaugh cast a quick glance in Tess's direction and lowered her voice just enough that the china no longer rattled. "Every one knows you r game. You take in the troublemakers, girls who need a firm hand before they know which way is up. I assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. Miss Stranje laced her fing ers in her lap "She lied I whispered surprised she would do it so blatant ly It 's not a lie ," whispered Jane I'm not a troublemaker A re you? She glanc ed up at the ceiling with a grin. A nd I certain ly know which way is up I blinked I n one sense, it was the truth In another sense, in the implied meaning But t hose answers would have made Lady Harbaugh even more furious than she already was. Why I wondered, was the lady so angry at Miss Stranje ? Lady Harbaugh rammed forward. Y ou foist these misfits on society. And these these" S he t urn ed red with agitation and jabbed her finger in Tess's direction. These mongrels infect some unsuspecting young man with their revolting ideas and ruin his life forever ."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 94 Miss Stranje sighed loudly You know full well, i t was never my intention -" No! Lady Harbaugh thrust her hand out, warding off Miss Stranje 's response "No. We will not discuss past matter s With a deep breath, she filled her sails again, and navigated back onto her course. S tick to your charade if you must P retend this school of yours is something other than what it is. I don't care. B ut you've bit ten off too much with this chit I know for a fact she set fire to her father's stables Lady Harbaugh snapped her wrist a nd unf url ed the letter scanning the contents and plung ing a condemning finger against the parchment. It says so right here. Th e Fitzwilliam girl is a menace. We can t have her sort running about St. Cleves She nudged Mrs. Perris with a hearty jab of the elbow. "No no, q uite right. C an't have that sort of person here in St. Cleve s ." Mrs. Perris shuddered and glanced sidelong at Tess Her pup whined and tried to wriggle free. What if the girl start s a fire and k ill s us all in our sleep. "That would indeed be a tragedy." Miss Stranje set her teacup o n its saucer We wouldn't want you to die in your sleep would we? O u ght to be awake for s uch a momentous occasion Lady Harbaugh frowned. Don't be impertinent Emily Lady Stephani took a delicate sip of her tea. Your g randmother was many things, but never ill mannered I expect no less of you. Miss Strange did not answer L ady Stephani's scold Would you like me to send for Miss Fitzwilliam Miss Stranje smiled at her outraged gue sts. You do wish to speak with her don't you? To make certain she s not a young devil who wishes to murder everyone in their sleep "Heavens no." Lady Harbaugh pinched up her brow. I d on t need to see her to know she s a bad sort. I have proof enoug h right here." She waved the letter at Miss Stranje. What we
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 95 want is for you to send her packing. "Yes," Mrs. Perris nodded. Send the young lady packing Miss Stranje turned to Tess. "Miss Aubreyson, please fetch Miss Fitzwilliam. I believe our neigh bors will feel much better if they have an opportunity to express their concerns to the young lady herself ." Tess nodded and hurried out of the room. Sera nudged me. That's your cue. We back ed quietly out of the Hamlet's hole "Wait." Jane grabbed my arm and yank ed me back. Who is that I wonder ? Captain Grey and Sebastian stroll ed into the drawing room. I'd imagined him still in bed suffering the effects of the fumes. H e looked a trifle pale but w alked tall and steady Clearly, his strength had returned. R elief nearly drowned me. I caught a quick gulp of air and answered Jane in a shaky starts and stops. "Surely you've met Captain G rey before Captain Grey, yes, once or twice she said. No, silly I meant th e young man beside him I've never laid eyes on him before. I 'm quite certain I would remember if I had." Sera whipped back to pee k at the newcomers. I d oubt anyone would forget that face. H e s quite dashing ." A wicked twinge of jealousy tightened my shoulder muscles Except I sh ould n't be jealous. P erhaps the knot in my neck was from huddl ing in th e cramped spy hole for too long. I had no basis on which to be jealous. It was an impractical notion, completely illogical. D espite their assistance, Jane 's and Sera's beauty far ou tsh one mine I 'm not so foolish to imagine I might compete with either of them for his attention. Aside from that either girl would get along better with Sebastian than I did He wouldn t conde mn them as vexing and dangerous My neck kinked up into ev en tighter knots Why should it matter to me if he fell in love with one of them ? It didn't
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 96 I answered Jane with an unwarranted tone of proprietorship "That is my laboratory assistant. What? Sera's eyes grew large. You know him ? And you kept such a paragon to yourself ? S elfish girl. Jane's wide smile belied her whispered scold. Leave her be, Jane. I would've kept him to mys elf, too." Sera sighed. What s it like working along side him?" Clearly Sera was far more generous of spirit than I ev er w ould be She was so good natured she deserved better of me Come with me and meet him for yourself. Although I must warn you, Lord Wyatt is a not a very pleasant man He tends to behave in a surly and arrogant manner He is altogether unworthy o f your company. A pity Her smile diminished slightly "B ut you must agree, he i s excessively handsome Is he? I hadn't noticed. Sera smelled the fib before it even escaped my lips. One eyebrow shot up but at least s he had enough grace not to c all me on it Jane rapped my arm in a wordless scold We turned to study him for just a moment longer. Captain Grey had taken up a sentinel like stance behind Miss Stranje's chair S ebastian remained across the room near the window, gazing directly at the Chinese painting as if he knew we were watching. V ery well I whispered. You are right Lord Wyatt is tolerable looking in a dark brooding Byron ic sense Jane squinted at me with a sideways grin and shoved me out of the spy hole "Go on Mis s Stranje will be expecting you any minute in the drawing room. I'll stay here and watch."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 97 Sera and I left the shadowed safety of the hidden passage In the foyer just outside the drawing room she stopped me "Wait. Let me check you. She turned me ar ound and brushed dust off the back of my gown "Remember to smile sweetly at Lady Harbaugh no matter what she says." She s moothed down a stray curl at my temple and pinched my cheeks. There. You look presentable. Presentable Earlier I had doubted such an outcome was even possible. Now I longed for more. C ould she not have said beautiful ? Or at least charming ? Was I that homely? Next to her I felt like a great lumbering blue striped gargoyle. I wished she had refused my invitation to come w ith me to the drawing room. Sebastian would be so blinded by her beauty he would never even look at me "Are you coming in with me? Yes, o f course Sera smiled brightly. I'll be right by your side." Exactly what I feared. We entered together, the fairy princess and the gargoyle I found it difficult to fix my eyes anywhere but on the carpet. I was bound to disappoint them on all counts Lady Harbaugh would take one look at me and her suspicions would be confirm ed that I am a vile arsonist T ha t would upset Miss Stranje Sebastian would take one look at Seraphina and wish she were the chemist instead of me. Two boots appeared on the floor in front of me. I glanc ed up. Sebastian "Miss Fitzwilliam h e bowed. "A pleasure to see you again. And looking so well quite charming in fact Charming ? I couldn't believe it. He had never bowed to me before, not properly, not like a gentleman to a lady and certainly not without insulting me His peculiar behavior stunned me
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 98 S o much so that I would hav e forgotten to curtsey had Sera not n u d ged me in the ribs. I held my skirt and dipped in a formal curtsey A s I rose he said under his breath "What, only one ruffle?" The wretch. H is gallantry burst like a soap bubble, proving the one c ompliment he'd given me a counterfeit Miss Stranje made introductions all around Lady Stephani scrutinized me from under her black cap, with an executioner's cold stare Lady Harbaugh bestow ed upon me a frown so ferocious it rivaled one of my father 's angry scowls "Oh dear. Red She has red hair," Mrs. Perris said, in a terrified squeak as if t he color of my hair was an evil omen signifying I was the bringer of kill you in your sleep fires. Miss Stranje gestured for me to come forward. "My dear, Miss Fitzwilliam these ladies are concerned about some reports they have heard. Will you please explain to us how your father's stables caught fire?" Lady Harbaugh laced her fingers and plopped her hands atop the letter in her lap. I swallowed hard Su rely Miss Stranje didn't want me to tell the whole of it. These ladies wouldn't approve of my explanation any more than my parents had. "As I understand it, Miss Stranje prompted, "y ou were trying out a new recipe, were you not?" She astonished me. It was tru e And yet not. "Yes, it was a new recipe." Lady Harbaugh scoffed. "Makes no sense. What were you doing in the stables? If you were cooking, you ought to have done it in the kitchen Miss Stranje cocked one eyebrow expectantly at me. I nodded s urp risingly confident I had a ready answer to th at question Ready, because it
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 99 was another absolute truth. C ook wouldn't let me. Earlier that day I ha d tried mixing a similar recipe and she complained that I'd stunk up h er kitchen with my concoction I felt certain if I adjusted the ingredients it would come out right. Only, she wouldn't allow me back in the kitchen Mrs. Perris nodded sympathetically Cook never lets me in my kitchen either, does she Pepper kins ? The dog licked her puckered lips. Lady Harbaugh was not to be dissuaded that easily. Surely your mother keep s a stillroom where you might try new recipes ? One can't go around building cooking fires in a stable. Too much straw." E xactly right, my lady. Unfortunately my parents don t keep a stillroom a nd I was over zealous D etermined to try again I thought if I kept the flame low enough it would be all right. A grave error." I shook my head A s you said, there was too much straw, dried bits of it float ing everywhere A spark ignited and I stopped the tale there allowing them to draw whatever conclusion they might. No sense explaining that my concoction burst into flames That would ruin the illusion that I'd been cooking up a pudding of some kind. I shuddered remember ing how f laming muck had splattered everywhere. I d blo tt ed out the memory of how the fire had instantly spread across my work table and spill ed onto the floor of how frightened I'd felt when orange flames licked all around me. Until that very moment, I hadn't re call ed screaming for the grooms while beating out flames with a horse blanket I had forgotten how the smoke bit into my nostrils and lungs my panic as I frantically slapp ed at embers alighting on m y skirts How had I forgotten the sound of cr ackling tongues of fire gobbling up straw, or the high pitched whinnying of terrified horses when I tried to coax them to safety ?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 100 Mine was n't simply a failed experiment. I could have di ed. The grooms could have been killed. The horses. All of us b urne d alive. Suddenly I felt dizzy Sebastian guid ed me to a chair and I sat down, stunned, shocked and most of all, repentant. No wonder my parents wanted to be rid of me. Lady Stephani said nothing. I felt her st a ring at me judging me for the fool I w as. Lady Harbaugh bellow ed something about stupidity "You re right With hitherto uncharacteristic meekness I agreed. Very stupid ." Mrs. Perris hugged her dog. "I trust you won't be doing any cooking while you are here in St. Cleves ?" I blinked. Th at very morning I'd been cooking up a new emulsion. How could I answer truthfully ? Miss Stranje smil ed. Not to worry. I keep a well appointed stillroom should Miss Fitzwilliam decide to try out a nother new recipe." Lady Harbaugh harrumphed loudly. A b anbury tale if ever I heard one. I don't believe it Not for one minute." Lady Stephani craned her snake like head, studying me. "You must admit Constance, if it was a tale, the child delivered a very convincing piece of theatre Most affecting." "Phf fft." Lady Harbaugh's gassed her disbelief. "That's the rub. H er girls are nothing if not affecting." They spoke of us as if we were simply sticks of furniture in the room. Miss Stranje overlooked this insult. "Naturally, I've discussed th is unfortuna te incident in depth with Miss Fitzwilliam's parents. You may write them directly if you wish to verify the facts of the matter." "Oh, I shall. I shall. Lady Harbaugh bobbed her head, reddening and puffing up again like
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 101 a pig s bladder. "T his is not th e end of the matter, I assure you." She squinted at me giving me a haughty once over. D on't know why a girl of her station would want to bother with cooking anyway. No time for such mundane things. She stood up and shook out her skirts, her sour expr ession changed to one of pure disdain She wagged her finger at me Heed my advice young lady and take up embroidery. Less peril for the rest of us ." "I don't know Sebastian rubbed his chin skeptically and in a deadly serious tone said Those needl es look awfully sharp." More impertinence ." Lady Harbaugh swatt ed his comment a side and turned her attention to our headmistress. Listen to me carefully Emily Stranje Y ou a re not fooling anyone with this ruse of yours. Everyone knows t his is a schoo l for misfits. Nothing good will come of trying to reform these rebellious gels And, mark my words, I intend to put an end to th is meddling of yours. "Meddling?" Miss Stranje sprang to her feet and faced her neighbor "Yes, my girl You are meddling with the natural order of things." Lady Harbaugh glared down her rather large nose first at me and then Sera. What fault she could see in Sera baffled me. Miss Stranje unclenched her jaw and managed a gracious tone. Even if I were running a reform sch ool -" "Everyone know s you are." The two edged closer and closer, until they stood almost nose to nose, Miss Stranje with her sharp hawk's beak and Lady Harbaugh with her kettle shaped spout. If I w ere running a school ," continued Miss Stranje Are you saying you would prefer rebellious girls were left free to rebel without restraint? How very progressive of you, my lady."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 102 I'm saying no such thing Lady Harbaugh bris tled A bad girl is a bad girl. T here's no changing em Can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear "I hate that saying I muttered. "In my day such creatures ," she pointed forcefully in my direction, were locked in the attic a nd allowed nothing to eat but bread and water until they came to their senses." Abruptly, Sera plunked d own beside me and clutch ed my hand She looked pale, much paler than normal, so much so I knew she must have spent some time locked in an attic. Miss Stranje jerked back and stared at Lady Harbaugh. W ith startling sympathy she asked Did someone do th at to you my lady ?" Phf f t ." Lady Harbaugh nearly spit up her liver before she could form words "Not me, you young fool N ot me." Her ample chin lifted I was a proper girl. I did as I was told. Not like these intractable creatures you are housing. She dismissed us all with a wave of her hand. Come Lady Stephani Mrs. Perris I t s time we took our leave of this this school She emphasized school pucker ing as if it dirtied her mouth to say the word. Miss Stranje curtseyed. Do come and visi t us again soon my lady. Your company is al ways so very ," she paused. "D ivert ing. "Indubitably." With that the grand ship Harbaugh weighed anchor, her prow tilted up and she sailed out of our harbor Not to be ordered about, Lady Stephani remained seate d on the couch placidly sipping her tea. At length, s he gently set down the cup and saucer inclining her head at Miss Stranje "I wonder, my dear, if you are quite aware of the hornet's nest you are stirring ? She glanced at me with all the warmth of a hooded hangman "And to what end I wonder?" Miss Stranje said nothing. She too, studi ed me with a pinched expression perhaps
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 103 regretting her decision to accept me into Stranje House When Lady Stephani rose and shook out her skirts we all stood at attention As she passed, she stopp ed beside me W ith two gloved fingers, she lifted my chin. Tell me, young lady, a re you worth the trouble ? I couldn't speak. T he answer to that question made m y heart thud against my stomach
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 104 Chapter 10 F eed Me Cake Yesterday I would've answered Lady Stephani b efore she could drag her black funereal skirts past me I would've boldly said Yes I'm worth the trouble, because I a m going to invent something of great importance to you and to everyone else in England. And even though I wasn't exactly sure what that something of great value would be, I'd have continued on Someday, l adies in drawing rooms will remark to one another, Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam is a n extraordinary scient ist. Without her Bri tain would never have prospered so well That was yesterday. Today I watched Lady Stephani leave and had no answer. Only doubts. Did I have anything of value to offer the world? Did I matter to anyone? Or was I merely a menace, like Lady Harbaugh s aid? Lady Stephani's train swished across the floor, like the tail of a black leviathan stirring up the peaceful sea blue carpet She left me drowning in uncertainty. Scowling, Sebastian paced and grumbled Finally, he demanded of our headmistress W hat possessed you to invite that Harbaugh woman back ? The old harridan is nothing but trouble -"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 105 Miss Stranje pressed a finger to her lip s waiting till the sound of the front door shutting echoed through the drawing room "I 've learned from experience, i f I extend an invitation to Lady Harbaugh she does not return as quickly Miss Stranje seemed distracted and rubbed her palms against her skirt as if wiping away grime. You're shaking ." Captain Grey caught her elbow. No I'm fine." She smiled up in to his concerned face "Truly I am ." I don't see how you can be She ignored his skepticism. All in all I think it went quite well, don't you?" H e gaped at her and then shook his head Not precisely no. That isn't how I would've summed up th is a fternoon's skirmish T hose self serving old busybod ies ought -" "No. She caught Captain Grey's hands in hers Y ou are a good and caring friend. F or that I am eternally grateful. But please, you mustn't blame them. Lady Harbaugh is simply a wounded mo ther. She's protecting the world as she understands it ." She smiled and let go of him She suffered a great loss at my hands. I cannot blame her for her distrust." Exhaling deeply she added, Aside from that, change is always difficult. F or some it is impossible. He extended h is hands to her for a moment longer, waiting for her to grasp them again. She didn't. Instead she whirled to face me and clapped. "Bravo You performed marvelously well, Georgiana. Q uite well. I must say, you impressed me with your quick thinking. The cook wouldn't let you in She grinned, looking rather girlish. A b rilliant tack ." "It was the plain truth n ot a stratagem I confessed "Ah I see ." She nodded. Even better Y our explanation went a long way towar d minimizing the damage they can do when they gossip about you w hich they most certainly will
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 106 do. Always be mindful of g ossip B e alert and aware of anything you say that can be twisted by the hearer She peer e d at Sera and me as if evaluating whethe r we fully grasped her meaning. O ur words are little sparks ," she illustrated by flicking her fingertips. "T hat may burst into catastrophic flames Had she read my mind and somehow perceived my frightening memories of the fire ? On the other hand, ou r words can be cooling rain that dampen s a hot coals and quench es the thirst of the hearer." She dared to lecture us on quelling gossip? A woman whose rumored reputation herald ed her as head torturer and reformer of the beau monde 's misfit daughters ? Al th ough I ha d begun to doubt whether she actually did torture anybody I couldn't let her words go unchallenged. "But your reputation -" "Is precisely what I wish it to be S he rested her hand on Captain Grey's arm as if she suddenly felt weak and needed his support The c aptain led her to her chair. I could tell he wished to distract her from her discomfort. He leaned over the tray of shortbread and cookies. "This looks inviting. What do you say l adies ? S hall we enjoy some tea and biscuits ?" "I'll pour." Miss Stranje served us tea Sebastian stopped pacing. "You do realize Lady Harbaugh means to close the school." Captain Grey shot him a warning glance. P lainly he didn t want Miss Stranje upset by any more talk about the Harbaugh woman. Sebas tian bristled but settled on the sofa beside me "As I've said before, this is not a school," Miss Stranje argued calmly. If not a school what was Stranje House? Captain Grey pulled his chair closer to her s and they conducted a hushed conversation.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 107 T hat left the three of us me, Sebastian and Sera, sitting on the sofa dr inking tea in awkward silence. The shortbread cookies looked ridiculously small in Sebastian's large hand s and the dainty tea cup was almost laughable. No longer able to tolerate th e silence I said to him I m very glad you re not still suffering from the fumes. Are you? he asked with a hint of genuine curiosity "Yes, I worried you might be confined to your b ed recovering for several days ." What ? S it in bed and miss seeing you in your finery ? Never. A twitch in his cheek betrayed hi m He was making fun of me. I refused to let him hurt me. What a widgeon I was to think he thought I looked charming No sense pretending. I decided to let him know exactly what a complete sow's ear I was This isn't my finery I confessed matter of factly This dress, my hair, everything was Lady Jane 's and Miss Wyndham 's doing. I pointed at Sera. She s an artist. I sat back and allow ed Sera to take proper credit A marvel Mi ss Wyndham ." He raised his cup to her A remarkable exhibition of your skills Sera laughed and got up to take a turn about the room Exhibition ?" I could not sort through his beastly words quick enough It felt like he'd delivered half a compliment and half an insult, or more accurately : one third compliment and two thirds insult. Are you likening me to the exhibit of lions and elephants on display in the Tower of London?" Oh, well I wouldn't go that far. T ho se elephants are quite miraculous w hat with the ir long noses He mimed an elephant trunk and delivered this remark with a roguish grin as if it
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 108 was all just polite conversation. I should never have brought up elephants. But, o nce again, I refused to take offen s e. Mostly because I knew i t would please him too much if I did Instead, I inhaled deeply and changed the subject. "I' ve been thinking -" About ruffles? About oak gall s "I see. And d o y ou plan to paint them and dangle one from each ear ?" How amusing you are. I pretended t o yawn. "For your information, my lord, oak galls are a common component "Of ink Y es I know. He lowered his voice and lost his mocking edge. He leaned out to check if Sera was following our conversation. She didn't appear to be listening. In a near whisper I continued, Normally powdered gall is suspended in a solution of i ron salts The iron reacts and causes the dark purple color to appear What if T here was th at phrase again the one that d oom ed me to a life alone I shifted uneasily, wishing he would gaze at me with such skin tingling intensity for some reason other than my theories on invisible ink. "What if we ," I licked my lips and tried again. "What if I made the base out of colorless iron salts? A g all emulsion might be spong ed over it later to develop the mess age ." His dark brows pinched together as he mulled over the idea My fingers itched to reach out and smooth away his frown. "How would you make a colorless iron emulsion?" he asked. By a pplying heat to copperas the minerals should separate leaving a clear iron. I f not I can try adding s ulphur or perhaps potash ."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 109 At last he nodded and his face relaxed. I t might work. The trick would be get ting the liquid iron salts to dry invisible It's certainly worth a try. I set my cup on the table. I'll collect some in the morning. With all the trees on the Stranje House grounds I'm bound to find enough oak gall s for the experiment Sebastian reached for more shortbread. "I'll arrive first thing in the morning to help you. "No!" I blurted, thinking of how his helping me had nearly cost him his life that very morning. It's an unnecessary risk. You must n't expose yourself to more fumes I immediately wished I hadn't said it I didn't need his assistance but I did want his company. Oh why had I told him not to help me? B ecause I am abominably practical, that's why. If only I d kept my dratted mouth shut for once. Infuriating though Sebastian was, I rather enjoyed the sensation of my heart fluttering through my belly every time he turned his wicked blue eyes in my direction. I waited fidgeting with the fabric of my skirt, h op ing he would immediately counter my refusal He didn't. He studied me with that inscrutable expression of his. So naturally, I blur ted out more inanities, As you mentioned earlier today I can be rather vexing at times and by all accounts quite dangerous. I pressed my lips together finally clamping them shut after completely ruin ing any chance of seeing him in the morning. "I did say that, didn't I?" He nodded. Q uite v exing ." He worked his jaw muscles shifting between a dimpled grin a frown, and an annoying smirk. Yes A nd d angerous ." He lift ed his gaze to the imaginary distance and took on an air of martyrdom Neverth eless, I must be brave and face the danger He thumped his hand over his heart It is my duty to suffer all manner of vexation s for the sake of King and country. Oh aren t you noble. I crossed my arms and slouched against the settee.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 110 He incline d his head acknowledging the compliment even though I hadn't really meant it He tossed down the remainder of his biscuit chomp ing on it with boyish gusto I found it odd that he didn t attempt to look past me to watch Sera as she drifted around the room s tudying the flowers and paintings He had, of course, bowed graciously to her when Miss Stranje introduced them, and as far as I could tell he'd refrained from insulting her as he did me. In short, he treated Sera respectfully for which I envied her, an d yet he showed little interest in her which astonished me Captain Grey's voice rose above the noise of my brooding thoughts. "Why do you refuse help when it is offered? We all turned at the sound Y ou know I m grateful." Miss Stranje placed her han d over his H e stared at her gloved fingers resting on his tanned roughened hand. She leaned toward him in an earnest almost pleading manner a manner completely foreign to her nature. Exceedingly grateful Bu t y ou already do so much for me, to do a ny more would be unseemly. You know what they will think. He set down his cup and saucer with a plunk. I have no interest in their opinion More to the point t here i s and always has been another offer on the table. Sebastian cleared his throat warni ng them that their conversation had observe rs B oth turned sharply in our direction Miss Stranje lowered her gaze, and Captain Grey stood abruptly It is past time Lord Wyatt and I took our leave ." Sebastian rose and bowed to us Thank you for the plea sure of your company, ladies. W ith that t hey swept out of the room leaving the place as bleak and hollow as an empty theatre Miss Stranje stood h er neck flushed and blotchy A g itation marr ed her normally placid
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 111 features Our intrepid torturer appear ed to be suffering. I wouldn't have believed such a thing possible, but there it was, her lips pressed thin her brow rumpl ed and doing all manner of contortions. "You will excuse me. She hurried past us with a stilted gait I have the megrim s I had little doubt that her head ached. Sera watched with an anxious expression as our headmistress hurr ied away. She sat beside me and whispered, It's the Captain who has upset her, not Lady Stephani or even Lady Harbaugh "Yes I agreed and peered u p at the Chinese screen wonder ing if Jane still watch ed us I'd been so preoccupied I'd nearly forgotten we were be ing spied upon. Sera chewed her bottom lip pensively and took a sip of her now cold tea There's nothing we can do for them ," she said. "But you you are a different matter altogether You like him don't you? "Who? I knew exactly who she meant, but played innocent. "The Captain ?" She cast me a knowing look but didn't say anything S he 'd seen straight through my subterfuge. You mea n Lord Wyatt Y es, o f course I like him. W hy wouldn t I ?" The minute I said it I thought of several very sensible reasons why I sh ouldn t care for him at all F or instance the way he insults me at every turn. No, I mean you really like him. "Yes, he's useful in the laboratory." I picked up a small square shortbread biscuit and stared at it noting the uneven angles, wishing it were a perfect square but it was, after all, just baked goods and baked goods did not ordinarily form perfect squares "Georgie," s he grinned at me and shook her head There's no use denying it. I can see
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 112 how you feel. It's evident in so many things The way y our fingers trembl ed when you reached for a cookie at the same time he did T he way you watch ed him sideways o ver the rim of your teacup E ven now as we speak of him the blush climbing up your neck is a testament of your attraction "Very well I flopped back against the sofa You've caught me out. I cannot help myself. I do like him." I thumped the place where he'd been sitting with my fist. "I do. Although why I should with that acerbic tongue of his is beyond me. With a quick chuckle Sera said, I can give you one very good reason. She had my full attention. With an elfish grin she said, I f he tu rned one of his smoldering look s on me the way he did on you my knees would crumple straight way. Smoldering look ? Did she mean his teasing smirk? Jane practically danced into the room A vastly entertaining afternoon." She whirled around the couch a nd snatched the imperfect shortbread right out of my hand "W hy Miss Fitzwilliam, w hat have you done to poor Lord Wyatt to captivate him so completely? She chuckl ed and flung herself into Miss Stranje's chair. "Don't be absurd." I affected disinte rest in her remark. "Nothing could be further from the truth. You ve mistaken a bully's delight in teasing for captivation. Did you not notice the way h e mocks me at every turn ? Jane snorted. "Oh, he's interested, my girl. "I don't see how you can dr aw that conclusion." You never had any brothers, did you?" I shook my head. No, I'm an only child."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 113 "Ah, that explains so much ." Jane popped the cookie into her mouth. Sera clarified, "He wouldn't trouble himself to teas e you if he wasn't intrigued. T hat's the way men are. Jane finished chewing and nodded. "Precisely. Men will badger and harass you to get attention. I should know I have two older brother s b oth of them scoundrels to the bone b ut I've observed them enough to know men only tease yo u if they 're interested in you or want something." "Or if they're cruel ," Sera added. "But he isn't that sort. He likes you. I pursed my lips, doubting their assessment A man like Sebastian would have little use for someone like me beyond my ability t o formulate an invisible ink he could use for his clandestine activities in Europe. Sera and Jane didn't know about that and I couldn't tell them I'd promised to keep his secret s Jane must ha ve sensed my skepticism. "I'm older than you a lmost s evente en a nd you're only what, fifteen or so? On the subject of men, y ou're going to have to t ake my word for -" Madame Cho barged into the room, rapp ing her bamboo cane at all of us N o slouching. Sit like ladies." We corrected our posture immediately a pp arently not enough to satisfy Madame Dragon She jabbed her stick in the direction of the clock. It's l ate. Enough lazy. C hange clothes You go help C ook now C ut vegetables. Now now, now She barked and chas ed us out of the drawing room scuttl ing along behind herding us up the stairs like a rabid dog nipping at our heels with her stick As w e changed into work dresses Jane explained Miss Stranje believes every great lady ought to understand the work of the house. We learn by doing.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 114 "Hhmm. I muttered Rather convenient don't you think ? This way s he saves money on servants. That 's not why ." Sera brushed out her flaxen hair and quickly plaited it She's right. We may not always be able to depend upon servants. Who knows what the fu ture will bring. W e ought to be prepared for any possibility Sera tied a band around her braid Tess has foreseen awful things in her dreams London bombarded and in flames, b uilding s crumbled and -" Jane cut her off with a cautionary frown and a q uick shake of her head. "I enjoy cooking." I shrugged. Cooking wouldn't bother me. At least we weren't being horsewhipped or locked in side a mummy case. Besides, at home t he kitchen was one of my favorite places in the house A warm cozy room, i t alwa ys smelled of fresh baked bread and simmering soups. Our cook was a congenial little Cornish woman who insisted on pristine white walls and plenty of windows for light. Similarities between the two kitchens ended at good smells and sunlight. The cook at Stranje House was the largest woman I d ever seen W ell over six f ee t in height, she probably weighed twenty stone a burly big chinned woman with snow white hair and heavy black eyebrows set in a permanent glower S he wore a bloodied apron cinched ar ound her waist which only emphasized the fact that she was built like a hay wagon With a mighty thwack she brought a cleaver down and severed the bone of a lamb shank. Pointing the butcher's ax at us she shouted Y o r e late! If erself hears about this they ll be hell to pay. S he waved her weapon at Jane. You g o get l eeks S lice em for soup. Next she aimed the cleaver at Sera Potatoes, peel ed and quarter ed. They hurried off and Cook stared down her steel blade at me. Lamb s blood ooz ed off of the broad blade and dribbled onto the cutting board. An who ave we here?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 115 D espite her coarse dial ect, I gave the commanding woman my full attention, and bobbed a quick curtsey. Miss Georgiana Fitzwilliam m a'a m. I cringed thinking I 'd sounded too much like a cowering parlor maid. Georgie, is it ? Well I don t like the look of you. Too green about the gills Y' look gray as month old bread. Take y ore self off. She waggled the cleaver at Madame Cho. "Away with er I'll ave no sick un s in my kitchen. She followed this edict w ith a series of bone splitting staccato whacks as she chopped up the rest of the shank for stewing. I blinked, astonished to see Tess in the far corner of the room S he who not an hour earlier had appeared in th e drawing room with all the dignity of a d uke's daughter stood at the scullery performing the lowest of tasks, cleaning out a large cook pot. Sera rounded the corner, her arms laden with potatoes. G o on, Georgie," she whispered. "L ay down and rest. We ll bring you a bowl of soup later. Out ordered the cook. Madame Cho didn't whack the floor with her stick the way she would have done elsewhere I nstead she waved her arms, shoo ing me out of the kitchen as one would shoo a crow out of the garden I followed orders and trudged off to the dormitorium, but had no intention of resting. I couldn't sleep -no time for it. I needed to calculate the ratio of iron salts to water, and figure out what temperature to heat the green vitriol before it would t urn clear. I needed to hurry, l ives depended on it. I pictured Europe's leaders gathered in a room discussing economics cannons explode the walls, assassins burst in slaughtering everyone turning it into a blood y horror of severed limbs and heads. W hat if Sebastian got captured or killed because I failed to solve this problem? I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 116 shook the sickening images out of my head. Ink. I focused on making ink. As soon as Madame Cho left the room I flung back the covers and dug a graphite stick and a sheet of parchment out of my armoire I calculated and recalculated the ratios, scratch ing notes and speculat ing on a formula. If only I had my textbooks from the laboratory so I could double check my figures. M y eyes drooped and my head ached. I decided t hat i f I rested for a few minutes I 'd feel well enough later to sneak out, retrieve my books and complete the calculations. A short nap, that's all I needed F ifteen minutes, maybe twenty, then I would wake while the others went in to dinner and sneak o ut to the laboratory. I laid my head on the pillow. Weariness overtook me and I s urrendered to oblivion. When I awoke, faint gray light filtered through the gaps in the drapery I blinked, trying to get my bearings. A bowl of leek soup rested on the ni ght table. Surely I ha dn't slept straight through to morning and yet there was no other explanation Tess tiptoed beside the bed and scooped up the white rat tickling my cheek. I didn't scream this time but I did awaken fully sit up and thr o w back the covers. She deposited Puck behind the secret panel and headed to the door to leave. "Wait I called to her rubbing sleep from my eyes "I want to go with you." She seemed surprised at that. I have to go out and hunt for oak galls." "Galls?" She f rowned at me as if I had gone completely mad. "You know," I curved my fingers showing her the approximate size. "T hose round ugly growths on an oak They're caused by wasps and -" Jane moaned and pressed a pillow over her ears.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 117 Tess shushed me with a fin ger to her lips. She whispered, "I don't have time to wait for you to dress L ift ing the edge of the draperies she peer ed out Heralds of dawn, d ove gray and kitten tongue p ink drifted into our room It will be sun up soon This is the only time I'm allowed to run." She seemed unusually agitated and tense. I'm going. Don't wake Sera and Jane." "But -" Sera stirred in the bed next to me. I glanced across the room and noticed Maya's bed was empty. When I turn ed back Tess had vanished from the ro om. I gulped down the cold leek and potato soup, slip ped on my shoes, dressed and ran downstairs I dashed outside through the garden door just past my laboratory. Wisps of m orning fog t wirled and eddied through the garden like dancing ghosts brushing each blossom with cold droplets of moisture. B irds twittered in a hodgepodge symphony, punctuated by croaking frogs, and sleepy crickets. I rounded the corner of the house and saw Maya sitting cross legged in the center of the veranda. Her eyes were cl osed, her face tilt ed east, where the sun nipped at the gray fading edge s of night. She appeared to be deep in prayer or meditative thought, so I tiptoed past. I crossed the grounds and headed for a copse of trees In the dim light I couldn't see as many oak s as I 'd expected, only one deep in the thicket I plunged i nto the heavy undergrowth Thorns scratched my arms I squeezed past b rambles growing so thick I could n't even wriggle between them to reach the oak tree I gave up, edged out and fol lowed the line of trees further to a more promising stand that had two oaks Frustrated, I plowed into the thick et of scrub alder only to meet a roadblock of prickly holly so dense n ot even a weasel could squeeze through I tore the hem of my dress whil e backing out.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 118 Dawn's g olden light reflected off the pink blossoms of a h awthorn bush dripp ing with dew. I smacked my hand against it sending a spray of moisture and petals into the air. A few measly galls -that's all I need ." I balled my fists and marched on. It was lighter now, and I spotted a large old o ak further away It grew near the hedgerows marking the property line and f rom what I could see, it didn't have much undergrowth surrounding its base. I walked near ly a quarter mile to the far corner of the property slogging through tall grass, along a muddy sheep path. I certainly hadn't expect ed to have so much trouble finding galls. At last, I got to the tree and was pleased to find it easily accessible. In retrospect, I realize the oak must've been on or very near Lord Ravencross's property because it stood just be side a tall neatly groomed hedge Unlike the Stranje House grounds which were largely unkempt and left in a natural state, someone had taken a scythe to the tall grasses and weeds at the base of this tree. T here weren't any galls on the lower branches but I spotted several promising specimens on a limb about ten f eet above my head. My mother would beat me within an inch of my life if she knew I was about to scramble up a t ree. W hat choice did I have scrape through prickly undergrowth, or climb ? I had to have those galls. The leaders of Europe were depending on me. I glanced around I n the dim morning light I felt isolated well outside of anyone's view safe from pryi ng eyes. Stranje Ho use stood in the distance so obscured by bushes and trees that I couldn t see Maya, or even the garden porch N or could I be seen clearly from any other house round about. W ithout anymore hesitation, I slipped my shoes off, wiggled m y bare toes against the tickly grass, and grabbed hold of the largest branch. Using my feet to push against all the little grooves
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 119 and crevices of the knobby bark, I pulled myself up and scramble d onto the first branch. Pleased with my progress, I maneu vered into a standing position and tucked my skirts into my stays so that they hung just above my knees I'd miscalculated the distance. Ten feet from the ground, and I still had a nother branch to go It already looked like a long way down I hoist ed m yself up onto the next bough and stayed on my belly. A ll I need ed to do was inch out to that promising clump of leaves five or six feet away where I counted at least four large galls. I swung one leg over the other side of the gnarled branch and crept along on my belly out to the smaller branches and that cluster of leaves That's whe n I spotted Tess on the other side of the hedge R unning A nd Lord Ravencross cantering his horse across his neatly mown grounds on a dead run collision course. Just as I was about to shout a warning, h e pulled up short, swung off his brown stallion and marched angrily up to her "I warned you not to run on my land!" Tess stopped and leaned forward to catch her breath. "You knew full well I would be here. I always run here. The grounds at Stranje House are too wooded." He pointed his riding crop at the fields stretching beyond the hedges. "Then run on the sheep pasture at the back." "Can't. Lambs start chasing me and that upsets the ewes." She straightened and planted her fists on her hips. "Aside from that, you practically dared me." "I did no such thing. I told you to you steer clear of my property. He slapped his riding crop against his palm threateningly. I distinctly remember a threatening or else Or els e next time you might not be so lucky," he recited. It was a warning -not a dare."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 120 "Was it?" Tess didn't even flinch. N o r did she back down. Suppose I draw a line right here." She dragged the toe of her shoe across the grass between them. I f I sa y don't step over that line or else I might do terrible things to you. What would you do?" "I wouldn't put up with such nonsense." He promptly stepped over the line. She glanced down at his feet across the line. "Exactly my point." Ravencross's horse pranced over and nuzzled Tess's neck. She stroked the big brown's nose and gently pushed him aside. "You woul d want to know exactly what I planned to do about it, wouldn't you?" The stallion pushed between them again. This time he whickered and thrust h is muzzle in to her hair. "Zeus! Stand down ." Ravencross shortened his hold on the reins and stepped his horse back. "What in blazes have you done to him? Either you've got apples hidden in your hair or you've bewitched the animal." Tess shrugged. "You' re far too jaded to believe in magic, my lord." "At least you've got that much right," he grumble d, but then in a louder, angrier voice he demanded, "Are you going to get off my grounds or not?" "If I were you, my lord, I wouldn't shout or make any sudden movements. She nodded toward Zeus who had arched his neck and was blowing through flared nostrils Your stallion is taking a defensive attitude on my behalf ." "What the devil?" He turned to Zeus Maybe I ought to rethink that witch idea." Maybe you ought ." She shook her head and stared off into the distance, away from him and his horse. Witch I've been accused of it before on several occasions A nd I might add, by men older than you. Men who ought to ha ve been long past silly bedtime stories. Frowning, he led his agitated horse to the nearest tree and looped the reins into a clove
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 121 hitch. The stallion tossed his head and pawed the ground angrily. Warily, Ravencross returned to Tess and the line she'd drawn He stood far too close to her W ell then, w hat am I to do with you for trespassing?" She g lanced down to his feet, standing just barely on his side of the line, and laughed. How should I know, my lord. It was you who dared me." "I've a good mind to take my riding crop to your backside ." She tilted her head speculatively. "Now there's an amusing idea." She glanced around his shoulders at Zeus pawing the ground. "If I promise not to cry out, there i s a slim chance your horse won't dash you to pieces." "By God woman, you are a witch." C all me all the names you wish my lord But I see into your heart, and I know what you want from me." I covered my mouth to silence a sharp intake of breath and nearly slipped from the branch. How did she have the nerve to say such a bold thing to him ? Perhaps she didn't realize what she'd said O r how flirtatious it sounded. Either way, if my mother had heard it, she would've damned Tess as a brazen hussy and given her the cut direct for the rest of eternity. As for me, I flushed with anticipation and felt a grow ing admiration for her Tess had pluck. I couldn t wait to see what she would do next. Ravencross studied her for the longest time. "Now, it is you who is daring me." "No." She stepped back from him. "I am merely doing what I do every morning. Running." "No, you're not. Y ou my girl are playing with fire. And I suggest you stay well back." He dragged the heel of his bad foot across the grass, emphasizing the line between them.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 122 She shook her head. You ought not tell lie s my lo rd In your heart you are begging me to cross that line." I could not believe it. Tess did precisely that she stepped across it They stood only a hair's breadth apart Just as a wolf strikes, in a growling flash, Ravencross grabbed her shoulders a nd pressed his mouth over hers. Tess eagerly kissed him back. I gasped, and clutched the bark of my tree so tight that some of it broke off into my fingers Lord Ravencross pulled away abruptly, still gripp ing her shoulders and straightened to his full height "You see," he snarled i n a rough voice "I never beg for anything." "Not out loud," she answered calmly. "No," he let go of her. "Not even silently." "Then you believe your own lies, for I have never seen a man so hungry for love." He pac ed sideways and glared at her. "You know nothing of such things. What can you know of anything? You 'r e just a child." I'm seventeen. I f ever I was a child, my lord, that childhood ended long, long ago." She said it quietly and with such profound sadnes s that even Zeus whickered sympathetically. Lord Ravencross softened his tone. "Nevertheless -" She interrupted him. And I learned all those many years ago to stop listening to what people sa id, and listen instead, to what they mean. Some people speak with honey and intend to feed us poison. But you, my lord, you speak with venom and yearn to be fed cake." "You don't know anything about me." He backed away from her, his chest heaving as if she'd punched him. "You ," he pointed his riding crop unstea dily A re a witch." More lies ," she said, and took off running.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 123 As Lord Ravencross watched her go he brought the crop down, slapp ed it hard against his thigh and slowly limped to his horse.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 124 Chapter 11 Caught "If you intend to fall on me a gain, I would appreciate a warning." Sebastian stood on the ground below me. I closed my eyes and press ed my forehead against the rough bark, hugging the branch even tighter. Why? I asked the fates. Why could I never get away with even the smallest of i ndiscretions? And it would be Sebastian who came upon me while I was straddling the upper branches of a tree. Embarrassed beyond words, I tried to scoot my skirts down to cover more of my legs, but nearly lost hold o f the branch. "What may I ask are yo u doing up there?" I peeked out and caught sight of the wicked grin dimpl ing his cheeks. "Hunting oak galls I tried not to sound mortified, while tuggin g at my dress hoping my naked legs would escape his notice. "Hhmm," he said tossing several plump galls in one hand. "Looked to me more like you were daydreaming. Communing with the birds are you Miss Fitzwilliam? He made a silly bird sound.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 125 Could my humiliation get any worse? I prayed he didn't know I 'd been spying on Tess and Ravencross. I know I ought to have scrambled down the tree the instant I overheard them talking O r at the very least, I should have looked away and gone on about my business Except it had all happened so quickly, and I was worried for Tess and O h very well I admit i t T here i s no excuse for my behavior Drat my curious mind. I'm a scientist. I observe. Study things. Draw conclusions. I had to know what would happen between them The sad truth is, I couldn't have looked away anymore than I could've refused to t ake my next breath. "How do you propose to get down?" He had a point. Not that I couldn't climb down. I could. But how to do it in a ladylike manner posed a prickly dilemma "Do stop fiddling with your dress. Otherwise, you're going to come down the hard way." He was r ight again. I clutched the branch just in time "It's just that I" Oh, bother I 'm hanging half naked in a tree and right now that ma k e s me more uncomfortable than the thought of falling to the ground. Irritated, I went back to adjus ting my skirts. I hadn't anticipated an audience." "No that much is obvious. However, don't stand on ceremony on my account His quiet ha ha to himself chuckle was exactly what one would expect from Satan's dark angel I assure you Miss Fitzwilliam, I have seen female legs and feet before. Although, I must admit, yours are shaped quite splendidly." I jerked my bare calves up into my skirts hiding them as much as I could "But I digress. We must return to the problem of your descent? Shall I cli mb up and help you down?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 126 "No If you will turn your head I believe I can manage quite well on my own, thank you." "Yes," he said coolly. "I've seen how you manage on your own." "That is unfair." Allow me to offer a compromise. What if I close my eyes a nd hold out my arms thus." He stuck out his arms directly beneath my branch. "That way should you slip I'll be halfway prepared. I must confess. The night you fell from the spy hole it was more of a lucky catch than skill on my part. A split second gr ab for the best. He snapped his fingers to illustrate. Had I missed He shook his head mournfully but ruined the sympathetic affect with a wry twitchy grin If I 'd missed, t he world would have one less gall hunter." He smirked as if picturing m e splattered on the Elizabethan chest was frightfully amusing "I've had enough of your mockery. Just close your eyes." He complied with his arms extended. I seriously doubt Lord Wyatt actually closed his eyes because he moved beneath me as if anticip ating a fall The wretch Nevertheless, I inched along the branch ke eping a firm hold on it and lowered myself onto the next limb all the time wondering exactly how much of my person he could see from that angle From there I edged over to the trunk, clutched it, and slid into the V of the tree. At that juncture I clutch ed my skirts together with one hand and jumped to the ground. Luckily, h e caught my shoulders and kept me from stumbling forward and landing smack on my face "Thank you I said ca tching my breath. What wa s it about his hands that seem ed to warm me through and through? I looked up into his face and remembered Tess kissing Ravencross I couldn't help myself, I w ant ed Sebastian to do the same to me.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 127 "Are you quite al l right?" He st udied me with the concern of a brother for a sister. I sighed and glanced at the grass beneath our feet. No, I was not okay. I wanted him to kiss me. "You're blushing," he said helping me slip on my shoes "You needn't fear ," he confided in earnest. I won't tell a soul that I found the beautiful Georgiana climbing a tree. Your secret is safe with me." Beautiful ? "You promise?" I asked. He laughed and hugged me for a brief wonderful second then let go He tilt ed his face down to m ine so that we g az ed directly into each other's eyes and said with almost believable seriousness, "I solemnly promise." I knew he was promising not to tell anyone about me climbing the tree, but for just a moment I pretended he was promising that I was beautiful. Me, beautiful. Ha d he really th ought so? The merriment left his face and he blinked. His mouth softened. And I knew I knew in that instant he thought of kissing me. Sebastian stepped back and cleared his throat. He plucked the galls out of his pock et. Here." He thrust them at me. I found these on the way over ." "Thank you," I said Catching my breath I scoop ed the galls out of his palm. "These will do nicely." I smiled, wanting to dance, wanting to whirl, wanting to fling my arms around his ne ck For one glorious instant he'd thought of kissing me. Me! The sound of thudding footfalls interrupted m y delirium. I turned to see Tess running up the park toward us. Inwardly I cringed for at least a dozen reasons. For one thing, I'd sp ied on he r. F or another thing she looked remarkable in her running dress, like an ancient warrior
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 128 goddess wild and free, and carnal like a a she wolf. That was it S uddenly I understood why she and Ravencross were attracted to one another They were perfe ctly matched. Be that as it may my immediate concern was keeping Sebastian from fa ll ing prey to her animal magnetism, because I did not look like a warrior goddess. No r a goddess of any kind. Especially not with oak leaves stuck in my hair, splotches o f mud on my torn skirt and twigs poking out everywhere. I handed the galls back to Sebastian knocked a beetle off my bodice, pluck ed twigs and bits of bark out of my white muslin skirt, which is, by the way, a very impractical fabric for climbing trees. She caught up to us before I had remove d even half the debris I blew an errant curl out of my eyes and said, G ood morning Smiling as if nothing were amiss. "Breakfast," she said tersely in half an hour. And you s he gl ower ed at Sebastian. "Don' t leap to any hasty conclusions today." With that she ran past us. "Hasty?" Sebastian called after her "Conclusions?" I asked. Without answer ing either of us, or even looking back she sprint ed a way, pounding the ground with hard thrashing strides. "What 's she going on about, do you suppose?" I haven't the vaguest idea," I said wishing he would not stare after her so intently. I glance d up at the sun surprised it had already climbed so high and although I wasn't sure if I had the right to invite gues ts to Miss Stranje's table it was nearly the breakfast hour and it seemed rude not to offer. "Would you care to come in for breakfast?" "No thank you I ate with Captain Grey at his cottage However, I would like go to the still room and begin work in g on our experiment.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 129 Our experiment. I smiled. W e haven't much time T wo days from now I must have a working formula. Lady Castlereagh is hosting a ball in London and many of the diplomat s with whom we exchange information will be in attendance. It i s the perfect opportunity for me to distribute the new ink before they return to the continent Two days time It wasn't long enough. Not with my success rate being what it was. I stopped walking and stared at him. W hat if my latest idea d id n't work? I felt rooted to the spot. "Two days?" I repeated, hoping I'd heard him incorrectly. He nodded and gently removed the galls from my hands. "I'll get started, shall I? I could grind these. I noticed a mortar and pestle on the work table." Two days Co uld it be done? Still bewildered, I mumbled, They must be crushed very fine and sifted ." Two days to accomplish so much. And then then he would leave. Only two days left with him. "It will be all right." He dropped the galls into his pocket It would n't. It wouldn't be all right. Even if I succeeded in making the formula I would never see him again. Ever. He would be off in Vienna and I would be stuck here. "You're cold." He chafed my arms, but my prickles weren't from the chilly air "Two days. I shook my head. "I'm not sure I can -" You can. You will. We re very close to an answer. H e cut me off and whipped out a clean kerchief dabb ing at a small abrasion above my elbow. "Look here. You've scraped your arm." "It's nothing." "I'll decide that," he said as if he were much older and wiser than I and I couldn t tell a
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 130 gash from a cut. Nevertheless, I stood and quie tly allowed him to attend to it. These things must be cleaned out to avoid infection This is what comes of you climbing tr ees ," he scolded. There was no need of i t. I made it perfectly clear I would be here to help "I didn't think you d come." I liked him leaning close to me. I like d the comforting smell of freshly ironed linen on his neckcloth, and the inviting scent of honeyed scones on his breath. Only two days, I mourned silently "Widgeon h e chided, and tied his kerchief around my arm. "I told you I would be here ." "You sa y a great many things, my lord. And I never know which are said in jest and which are se rious ." He looked up from bandaging my arm and g ave me a singularly confusing sigh. Properly bandaged, I headed toward the house. You will find cheesecloth in a drawer along the back wall ," I said f or sifting the powder." Yes, he responded matching me stride for stride But, Georgiana, tell me something." His pensive tone made me stop. His coat sleeve brushed against my arm. B ack there, under the oak tree y ou wanted me to kiss you didn t you ?" I ? M e?" How dare he ask such a thing? Never mi nd that it was true O ne simply did not ask rude questions like that. No Heavens no. O f course not. I took off, fast, barely able to keep from running. No of course not. My mistake. Yes A mistake ? My heart slid down into the vicinity of my toes I t felt as if I kicked the poor abused organ with every step I took. Still I walked faster I had to get away from him If I could ve sprinted
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 131 away without looking like a n embarrassed schoolgirl I would have. As it was I scurri ed ahead of him in to the garden d art ed up the stairs and called over my shoulder. I really must hurry Don't want to miss breakfast." As if I hadn't lost my appetite entire ly. The minute I was through the door I did run. I took the stairs two by two, up to our dormitorium and collapsed facedown on my bed wishing I could hide there for the rest of the day O nly I wasn't alone Tess stood across the room I groaned and pressed my face into the goose feather coverlet, and yanked a pillow over my head. Even so, I heard her footsteps as she walk ed over beside my bed. "I saw you in the tree." She poked my shoulder. "Spying on me." I gr oaned aga in, wishing this morning and it s wealth of embarrassment s would go straight to blazes. "I'm sorry I said but my a pology was muffled. Shoving the pillow aside I lifted my head. "I a m sorry. Truly I am. It was a dastardly thing to do. I didn't mean to spy on you Not really. I was in the tree, and oh rubbish !" I s mack ed the pillow. I t just happened. Never mi nd. She exhaled loudly. Everyone spies on everyone else in this house. No reason why you should be any different than the rest of us And in your case, I suppose it's only fair After all, I don't need to climb a tree to spy on you. I 've spied on yo ur life more than you have mine ." Tess laughed sof tly not like she thought it funny or ironic, more like seeing my life had sa d dened and exhausted her In d reams ? I sat up. "You've seen me ? She nodded. A hundred questions popped into my mind. "When ? Last night ? B efore I arrived or after ? What did you see?"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 132 Before." She fold ed her arms across her chest shield ing her self from my barrage. "I don't understand. If you' d already seen things about me in dreams, w hy did you ask Sera what she saw ab out me ? "It's complicated." She shook her head. "And we haven't time. Suffice it to say Sera sees what is I see what will be Tess turned to walk away. Or what might be ." "Wait I sprang off the bed and grabbed her arm. What did you dream about me ? Tell me." She shook m y hand off with a warning glare that made me back away It isn't like that. All I can tell you is don't act in haste today She headed for the door without looking back. "But Haste? In regard to what? If she meant the experiment, I had no choice. We only had two days. S he couldn't mean the experiment. S he knew nothing about the invisible ink. Maybe s he was warning me to proceed carefully with Sebastian. She need n't have any concerns in that regard. According to hi m even the thought of kissing me was a mistake.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 133 Chapter 12 Experimenting After picking at my breakfast and pushing it around the plate I slipped into the laboratory and found Sebastian working at the table and Madame Cho already poised in the corner chair embroidering a long green piece of silk Sebastian glanc ed up from sifting brown powder There you are. I thought you d never get here. The gall is ready. What d id you plan to suspend it in? His all business attitude suited m e just fine. I d made a lifelong habit of focusing on science rather than expecting warmth from the people around me. A nd I could do it again now without any problem. Before we know what to put in the gall suspension, I need to check my calculations and form ulate the clear iron ink base ." I didn t look directly at him but went straight to work, scribbling ratios and m ixing a test solution. I wasn't going to take any chance of asphyxiating him again so this time I stood over the burner heat ing the iron sal ts in a pot of water I kept stirring until the minerals began to dissolve He leaned over my shoulder watching. I ignore d the way his nearness made my skin prickle and tingle just as it does before a lightning storm. I also ignored his low rumbling
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 134 m urmurs of approval when the mixture began to boil I paid no attention when his arm brush ed against mine as he reached around me to adjust the burner A lthough, he really ought to have asked me first. Never mind that t he heat needed a reduction I was i n charge here. This was my domain. He ought not think he could anticipate my needs. When he tuck ed a piece of my hair behind my ear it was outside of enough He had no right to touch my person in such an intimate way. He was my assistant not my brother and certainly not my lover. He'd made that abundantly clear this morning Don't I snapped. It was in your eyes ," he said matter of factly. I've grown accustomed to looking through my hair. M ust you stand so close? W ould you have me miss the most interesting part of the experiment? I exhaled my irritation. No. I suppose not. But I would prefer if you stood beside me instead of breathing down my neck. It feels as if you are a great hulking giant about to thump me should I do anything amis s. What an odd thing to say ." He s ound ed genuinely surprised almost offended Still he didn't budge from leaning over my shoulder. In fact his breath tickled even more, warming the sensitive skin just below my earlobe Ladies have never complained a bout i t before ." "L adies enjoy you breathing down their necks do they ? The stupid question popped out before I'd thought it through I cringed the minute it escaped my lips Prodigiously h e said into my neck I couldn't stop the shiver it caused. "Cad. You know what I meant." He stood so close that I felt his soundless chuckle through the slight vibration of his chest against my shoulders Madame Cho cleared her throat pointedly, playing her role of vigilant chaperone
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 135 He backed away slight ly. I assure you it's true. I've done diligent research and y ou appear to be the only female in all of Christendom able to resist my charms. He'd said it in jest and yet I realized the depressing truth. Sebastian must have many women in love with him I stared at the bubbling mixture, scowling. I suppose you left London littered with broken hearts. I 'd tried to sound flippant, sophisticated witty maybe even a little bit flirtatious Stupid, stupid, girl No sooner had I said it than I wanted to smack my mouth because I most certainly did no t want to hear about his conquests. "No." He moved to my side and shook his head solemnly "N o broken hearts in London on my account He rubbed his jaw, stroking freshly shaved whiskers, arousing the sc ent of his shaving soap in to the air between us. Mind you, he added. Europe is a n entirely different matter. I had the oddest reaction. I wanted to sock him in the belly or slap that cocky smirk off his face Either way, it is l ucky for him that I had to keep stirring. Look, he pointed at the mixture. "It's getting more transparent I'd been staring at the iron salt solution but not seeing it at all. It did look somewhat clearer but still retain ed a green ish yellow tint. He leaned close and I am embarrassed to report that I studied the color of his skin and the way his dark hair curled around his earlobe, rather than the murky liquid in the pot. Uh oh, he jerked back. "I t s turning brown What s happening?" "D rat !" I pulled the vessel fr om the heat and stared at the now reddish brown contents. "I let it go too long. We'll have to start again. He tossed the contents out the window and I started the measuring process again This time I watched the mixture more carefully as we heated it Once more it failed to stay transparent.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 136 "S ulphur," I suggested. We should try a dash of sulphur. W e did so and it seemed to work B ut at the last minute it turned a disheartening ochre color. Next, we tried potash. That didn't work either. W e hypothesized that if we kept the temperature exactly right we might succeed No. Again and again, w e tried. And so it went until the day stretched long and we were both rubbing at our temples in frustration When the light outside our window w aned from widow's gray to funer al black Sebastian lit a candelabra A footman brought us a platter of meats cheese bread and fruit I grabbed my notes and tucked up on a bench along the wall There had to be an answer somewhere. Sebastian flipped the Per sian textbook open on the table top and leaned over it, rak ing his fingers into his dark hair as he searched for an answer We re so close. He thumped the table. It just needs a small push and we ll have it. H e was right but I knew from my reading th at finding a solution as complex as this had been known to elude scientist s for years even decades That disheartening thought made me thumb through my notes even more frantically. I stopped on a set of paper s with numerous scribbled out passages A fe w months ago I'd experienced a great deal of frustration because the Persian s were so inconsisten t in identify ing their ingredient s. For instance, they might call iron salts ; green vitriol, chalcony, c opperas and even alum They used these names interch angeably even though there are notable differences in each of the substances I push ed a mass of unruly red curls back from my face and stared at the flickering candles "We can't even be certain exactly what the Persians meant by copperas." He tossed me an apple. I t has to be iron salt s because w e know i ron reacts with gallotannin to make ink I shrugged and bit into the apple, the sweet juices reviv ed me. I squinted at a note I d
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 137 scratched through a month ago Hope flared Except we'd had so many missteps that day I dreaded another wrong turn. I barely offered the suggestion aloud, "A mmonium He glanced up, like a hound alerting on a scent. D id you say something ?" What if we add ammonium? To minimize oxidation I struggled to read the scra tched out note. Two months ago I wrote a note that sa ys a mmonium applied to copper as produces blue crystals and leaves behind a white fluid. White might dry close enough to clear. "Worth a try." He clapped his hands together, invigorated by the possibi lity. "I' ll mix ," h e offered You keep reading You might run across something else we should try. Very l ow heat I should think." I d id n't know if he heard me or not. He nodded abse ntly while opening storage drawers, hunting for ammonium, measuring water and iron salts I leaned my head against the wall and watched him work while I finished off the last of my apple Sebastian was as much a riddle to me as invisible ink a n insufferable d evil one minute and a brooding angel the next The man j est ed mercilessly, and yet I knew he hid a dark wound in his heart I couldn't imagine how a child c ould cope with seeing his own father killed so brutally. But he cloaked his grief so effectively that e xcept on rare occasions it seemed almost a s if the t ragedy had never occurred He didn't behave like an injured animal, never angry and vicious like Lord Ravencross Perhaps Sebastian's childhood hadn't scarred him as much as I 'd thought. I sighed. O ne thing I knew for certain, the man was too striking in appearance for his own good. He hummed softly as he worked. "Read," he commanded, point ing the measuring spoon at the papers in my lap. "You can gaze adoringly at me another time." I jerked upright. "I was doing no such thing." Madame Cho grunted a n eerie sound that almost resembled a chuckle. Sebastian simply
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 138 rais ed one eyebrow at a jaunty angle "I wasn't gazing at you, adoring ly or otherwise I sniffed indignantly and bent over my note s "Be sure to keep the heat low." "Aye, aye, Captain." Y ou may as well leave the window open. The ammonium is going to stink." Barking orders made me feel in control again. "And for pity's sake, if it starts to smoke remove it from the burner right away. I'm too tired tonight to be dragging you r enormous ca rcass out of here again ." Enormous ," he muttered, tapping the copperas out of the measuring spoon onto the scale He stopped and squinted at me a picture of concern Now that you mention it, y ou are looking a bit peaked. Perhaps it's time you toddled off to bed with the rest of the youngsters." I'll not toddle anywhere. This is my laboratory and I won't be dismissed ." I flipped to a new page and pretended to be deeply engrossed in my old notes Aside from that, I am not a child." The minute I said it I realized it sounded exactly that, childish. The lady doth protest too much methinks ." Shakespeare H ow droll. I sighed and tisked, try ing to sound as if I was ever so sophisticated and weary of his nonsense If you must know my lord, I a m sixt een." I lied. Except it wasn't really a lie. I would be sixteen in three days W hat difference did a few days make? For all inten ts and purposes I was sixteen -o ld enough to have a season in London old enough to be shipped off to Stranje House and a bandoned to the care of strangers f or that matter, o ld enough to marr y S everal girls in my village had married at fifteen. Not that it was of any importance I swallowed and caught the corner of my lip between my teeth. Because, o f course I would ne ver marry.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 139 "Sixteen?" He set down the measuring spoon and studied me speculatively "That old?" H e smirked as if it was all a big joke. I hated him for that. "Yes, that old. I turned away from the burning look in his eyes which was probably nothing more than candle light reflecting o ff his pupils. Perhaps it is you, my lord, who ought to toddle off to bed. I know how dearly you old people value your rest." Without so much as a smile at my jibe he asked flatly, "How much ammonium?" I checked my n otes. Two drams I should think. If that doesn't work, w e can add more later He concentrated on measuring I skimmed through more page s cataloging past experiments analyz ing my failed recipes searching for something I might have missed -some glimm er of hope Why wouldn't the solution turn clear? I was so absorbed in scouring my notes I didn't notice Miss Stranje enter the room. "I take it you have not found the answer yet ? Immediately I swung my feet off the bench and corrected my posture. Even though Madame Cho had been sitting in the corner all day she so seldom looked up from her stitching, that I'd relaxed and lowered my guard. I glance d at the old dragon's straight backed chair and was shocked to see she had left her post. I must hav e been more absorbed in reading than I'd thought. "No, no answer yet." A pity." Miss Stranje sniffed stoically Unfortunately, you must put aside your work until tomorrow. Past t ime you went to bed Georgiana I expected Sebastian to smirk at that, but he didn't. He stirred the ammonium and iron and frowned. He must've been thinking the same thing I was. "We have so little time ," I explained. Less than two days.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 140 "Only one day now," he added. W e're so close to an answer perhaps if we had another h our or two ? I asked. She glanced at the pitch black window panes R aindrops pattered against them clinging to the glass C andlelight caught on the droplets making them shimmer like golden pearls. She flipped open her pocket watch and shook her head N o Y ou've been up since dawn and i t is long past a reasonable hour to retire ." My attention whipped to her. How did she know I'd risen at dawn ? H ow much of my morning adventures had she observed ? If she 'd seen me climbing the oak tree with my skirts tu cked up above my knees n othing showed on her face There was no narrow frown promising punishment, no menacing arched brow, no shame on you pursed lips N othing. Instead s he calmly said, "A rested mind is a fruitful mind ." "I 'll finish up here," Sebast ian offered "You 've had a trying day ." I imagined him saying toddle off to bed little girl and wanted to throw my notes at him H e continued stirring "If this doesn't work, I'll add more ammonium. "The ratio ought not exceed two parts copperas to one part ammonium I warned. He nodded. Failing that, we'll continue the experiment in the morning. Outnumbered, I heaved a resentful sigh. "Keep notes." I slapped the stack of papers on the work table and Miss Stranje marched me away like a prisoner being haul ed off to the dungeon She led the way through the dark hall holding aloft a single taper in a small brass holder Wind moaned through the mullioned windows and the walls creaked. A draft swept through the hall and t he flame gutter ed, casting an unsteady orange glow against the dark paneling. I shivered a tidal wave of isolation washed over me. T he house, the night, and the storm
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 141 threatened to swallow me up. I wanted to run back to the laboratory back to the light, back to Sebastian Inst ead I quickened my steps to keep up with her and remain in the small flickering orb of our lone candle In the distance a clock chimed the hour. "If we were in London I would be allow ed to stay out much later than this I argued with more than a litt le irritation in my voice. I've heard some ball goers don't return home until it s nearly dawn." "We are not in London." All the same, is not this experiment more important than stay ing up late to danc e and flirt at some foolish ball ?" "A n interesting a rgument s he said impassively But a s you stated staying out excessively late is foolish when practice d in London, ergo it would be no less foolish to do so here. T hat's not what I meant I meant the purpose justifies -" I understood your point I do wish you would learn to persuade rather than argue. "What's wrong with a logical approach?" The house groaned so loudly, it felt like we were aboard a ship tossed at sea. I steadied myself with a hand against the wall H ow did your logical argu ments fare with your parents?" Miss Stranje walk ed steadily on If you want to change someone 's opinion on a matter you must first alter their emotions. How ? I nstead of asking, I shook my head, trying to clear away her odd thinking. "I thought you wan ted me to produce the formula at all costs." "Not at the risk of your li fe The fumes compromised your health yesterday T esting your stamina tonight hardly seems a wise course of action. She clucked her tongue. The death of a student is always so tickli sh to explain to the authorities If she intended to be humorous, she missed the mark. Owning a torture chamber, as she
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 142 did, i t wouldn't surprise me if she 'd actually had to explain a death or two. All the same I stuck to the issue Working late would n't kill me." A mistake in mixing chemicals might. But o ther lives are at stake here m ore important lives than mine. Sebastian's for one. It is impossible to predict the importance of one's life You do not know how you might affect mankind Y ou ma y resume your quest first thing in the morning w hen your mind is rested and you are less likely to make a deadly error No one had ever debated so effectively against me before. With a defeated huff I asked, "Are you always this sensible ?" Sensible ? Her candle flickered, but I thought I saw her smile for just an instant No. I'm afraid I sometimes act rather impulsively. Not unlike yourself." "Hard to imagine you jumping out of a n attic window strapped to a kite," I muttered as we climbed the stair s. "I might surprise you. I understand far more than you think Which brings me to a point of some concern. As she spoke, s he stopped on the landing and turned waiting for me lowering the candle so that I could see my way up the stairs I froze sta rtled The candle illuminated a roaring lion's head carved on the balustrade The enraged beast seemed to burst out of the dark his mouth open teeth bared and his thick tongue protruding. She walked on leaving me in the dark with the lion. I hurried to catch up. "A point of concern about what ?" I must ask you to be more cautious in your dealings with Lord Wyatt. "Very well." I raised my hand in a pledge. "I promise not to asphyxiate him ever again." V ery good of you ," she said in a dry sarcasti c tone Except that isn't what I meant ."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 1 43 What did she mean? M y stomach somersaulted Had she guessed how I felt about him? How much had she observed that morning? She couldn't possibly know that I'd wanted to kiss him She waited for my response, sa ying nothing to alleviate my frantic unasked questions. "Cautious how?" I blurted. We reached the dormitory floor and s he slowed her steps. Lord Wyatt is a young man of intellect and action. A soldier. A strategist. He studiously avoids matters of t he heart F or many good reasons, h e does not bestow his affections easily. You must not wound him. He has experienced quite enough hurt for several lifetimes ." Me? Wound him ? Could she not see how utterly impossible that was? The hour was late bu t not so late that she should be talking utter nonsense It is unlikely that I should ever hurt anyone in that regard. "You think not?" "I'm certain of it. I harbor no false hopes in that direction. Indeed, contrary to what my mother may be plot ting or plan ning I shall never marry. N ot an easy resol ution to keep ." She spoke as if from experience. Perhaps that resolution was the obstacle between her and Captain Grey. It is understandable if you believe you need to remain unmarried so you can pursue a higher calling, but y ou are young yet. It would be best not to decide such a weighty matter at your age. I t is simpl e matter of facing facts. I am practical if nothing else Besides, a ll things considered," With a cavalier shrug, I tug ged on one of my straying curls. It flashed like fire in the candlelight. I t is highly unlikely that anyone would ever fall in love with me. As we approached the dormitorium I stopped, knowing that by this time the other girls would have slipped out of their beds and gone upstairs to the attic I didn t want their secret to
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 144 be discovered because of me. I lunged for the knob and wedged myself between her and the door I 'll go in alone. I can see well enough in the dark. I would n t want the candle to a wake n the others. I could tell she thought I was hiding something Her lips pursed and one eyebrow tilted up. F ortunately, she stepped back. As you wish But y ou are mistaken Did she know the girls weren t in their beds ? Mistaken ? How? Wind howled through the landing window and h er candle flickered almost out so I only caught a glimpse of her hard expression. You underestimate your appeal Georgiana It would be easy for someone to fall in love with you. Especially someone who uses his head for somethi ng other than holding up his hat. She drew closer and stared into my eyes with such sharp ferocity, it alarmed me. "I f you are truly determined not to marry then it is more important than ever that you do not toy with Lord Wyatt's affections. She tur ned as if that put an end to the matter but as she walked brusquely away she said over her shoulder, As it is, I'm afraid he s halfway in love with you already ." I tightened my grip on the doorknob and despite the cold draft sweat made my palm stick a gainst the brass Miss Stranje strode around the corner leaving me enveloped in da rkness Y et my thought s blazed as bright as a stable fire, leaping wildly and licking at my consciousness with hot orange tongues. Was she right ? Could it be true? A hu ndred counter arguments raged through my mind and yet one thought rose above them all one outrageous demand could not be silenced Only halfway?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 145 Chapter 13 Where There's Smoke Only h alfway I sighed into the dark ness In answer, a deafeni ng crack of thunder shook the walls of Stranje House I dashed into the room and discovered I'd been mistaken about more than just Sebastian's feelings toward me. The girls were already in bed asleep As I undressed, I heard Sera breath ing evenly. Des pite the storm battering the windows, s he didn't even stir. None of them did Lightning shot blasts of white through slit s in the curtains One of the flashes illuminated Punch 's albino fur as h e cower ed atop the blankets next to Sera When I pulled ba ck the covers and slid in to bed he crept hesitantly up beside me. His silly whiskers tickled my shoulder as he risked coming closer. "You're frightened, aren't you?" I whispered, feeling sorry for the poor quivering mite. I had no idea how Sera and the others could sleep through the storm rattling the whole house. He nosed up to my cheek and gave me a grateful lick. I tentatively petted the rat's back. It wasn't as unpleasant as I'd expected. H is short hair and plump tummy reminded me of my father's fox hound puppies. H e stopped quaking and curl ed up on my chest, calming down as I stroked his back. Miss
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 146 Stranje says Sebastian is h alfway in love with me I confided and experienced a rush of jubilation, followed by stomach grinding despair I sighe d. H ow does one go from half way to whole in only one day? Even if Miss Stranje's assessment was true, I was just as much at risk of getting hurt as Sebastian M ore. And to what end? After tomorrow I would never see him again. Falling in love was need less self torture. "I refuse to waste another thought on him. Ever. Punch responded with a rat sized kiss on my chin. Probably the only kiss I would ever have. I closed my eyes and tried to blot out the image of Sebastian's dark hair his cobalt blue e yes and the intriguing shadow of a beard on his square jaw T hunder blasted right above our roof and startled Punch. Sera moaned and tucked deeper into the covers. Between the bone shaking noise of the storm a rat quiver ing on my shoulder, and my own restless thoughts sleep eluded me. I stubbornly forced myself to stop thinking abo ut silly things, like the curve of a certain person's earlobes Instead, I concentrated on invisible ink, calculat ing ratios in my head and toy ing with other ways to achie ve a clear iron salt base. Three things happened at the exact same time : the clock chimed three, lightning flashed outside our window, and inspiration struck with as much force as the thunder that followed. I quickly scooted Punch into the hollow of Ser a's back and sl ipped out of bed. I had to get back to my laboratory. I didn't worry about changing out of my nightgown, because Sebastian would be long gone by now. I draped a shawl around my shoulders, put my shoes on and tiptoed out of the room. A cra sh of thunder made me dart down the hall. I whipped around the corner, nearly slid into that awful lion's head at the top of the railing Scurrying down the stairs I didn't stop running until I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 147 entered the long dark hall. Bursts of lightning sent wafts of ghostly gray down the corridor, illuminat ing Miss Stranje's ancestors' faces. As I walked past them, they all seemed to peer down at me with her same hawk like intensity, frowning, questioning, evaluating. I wished they would all sit back in their fr ames and leave me alone. I could almost hear their feathery voices calling my name. "Georgiana." Something moved in the darkness. I heard my name again, only louder. "Georgiana?" The voice came from the shadows in the hallway A ghost With all the g race and poise of a startled rabbit I squeaked and nearly jumped out of my skin Before I k new it he had hold of my shoulders. "Sebastian," I sighed with relief and clapped my hand over my heart. "Who did you think it was? And w hat in heaven's name ar e you doing up ?" I couldn't sleep. A n idea came to me ." Flustered, I rattled on like a crazy woman. I thought for certain you'd be gone. Gone f rom the laboratory I mean I need to try one thing, to see if this theory solves the problem and ..." I stopped for a breath. The ammonium didn't work did it?" The storm flashed and I saw him staring at me as if I 'd gone completely mad. "No. I pulled out of his grasp and opened the door to the stillroom. He followed me in. Surely you don't intend to work at this hour ? I nodded. Just a quick test to see if the new theory works I would n't be able to sleep unless I tried it One more experiment and then, I promise, I'll go back to bed." The windows allowed all the glory of the storm to radiate int o the room. We stood side by side, watching, as if instead of a storm it was a fireworks display over the Thames. He muttered,
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 148 "I shouldn't allow this." "You don't have a choice. If you make me leave I'll just pretend to go, wait until you've gone and sneak back in." "Obstinate child." "I told you before I'm not a child." I struck a match and lit the candelabra I can see that. He tilted his head and peer ed at my nightgown as if he could see through it in the candlelight. "Don't be ridiculous. I daresay this nightrail covers far more of my person than any of those ballgown s you keep talking about Nevertheless, I pulled the shawl around me protectively. He stopped openly study ing me and sighed A pity. I suppose the m emor y of you r lovely leg s dangling beguilingly from a n oak branch will have to suffice." His words startled me. Lovely? Beguiling? Was I? The wicked curve of his lips made me feel unaccountably weak I found it difficult to take a breath. That feeling returned that unbeara ble yearning and the fluttery sensation in my belly I wanted him to kiss me more than I'd ever wanted anything Ever. So much so, t he very idea seemed to make m y lips swell for want of his "Georgie," he warned and backed away. I'm not made of st one. This is a highly improper situation a nd if you continue to look at me that way I can't .. ." He shook his head ever so slightly stand ing back as if I were a leper Heat rushed into my cheeks and shame blaze d through me "I don't know what you're talking about ." I fumbled with the measuring spoons. He folded his arms across his chest looking as stern as a Methodist preacher and I was
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 149 afraid he planned to deliver a sermon on my wanton behavior Instead he said, Tell me about this idea of you rs H ow did you guess the ammonium didn't work? I measured water into the mixing vessel I t almost worked though, didn't it?" "Yes." He exhaled gloomily. It chang ed to a p ale yellow But n o amount of ammonium would make it clear I tried twice." He h anded me the packet of iron salts. Eager to share my new idea with him I let go of my embarrassment "Alum," I burst out "Alum ," he repeated, allowing the idea to germinate. U sed in tanning, isn't it? Precise ly. D yers mix it with iron salts to mor dant wool before adding the color Then it must make iron salts colorless in preparation for dying. I nodded. A slow smile spread across his face. We grinned at each other like two children on Christmas morning. Let's g et on with it He struck th e flint to light the burner A half hour later as I stirr ed the liquid over low heat crystals formed and drifted to the bottom of the pan. He stood next to me leaning over the pot. "It's working." "I think so, I can't tell in this light." I took it o ff the heat and placed it under the candelabra. W e stared at it "It's clear." I whispered, half afraid it would suddenly turn dark. "It worked he muttered, and then p ractically shouted "It worked! You're brilliant. "Yes, I know." H e laughed. So did I Unaccustomed to frivolity, I quickly moved on to issuing orders. Exhaustion rendered me incapable of restraining my boss y nature W rite out three or four test messages while I mix up the gall emulsion. I pointed at my ink pot. Then w rit e over th e invisible message with India ink so we can see what the gall emulsion does to standard ink You'll find
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 150 clean sheets of foolscap in my folio. He went straight to work without even mocking me with a salute. I smiled to myself. The excitement of ou r su ccess had caused him to forg e t about sending me off to bed a lucky turn of events, because I' d never be able to sleep now. He tore sheets of statione ry in half while I dissolved the gall in water. As he scrawled a test message on one of the papers, h e glanc ed sideways at me His furtive expression made me suspicious of what he was writing but he quickly moderated his features and stacked the messages No, no," I ordered. "S pread them out. They need to dry thoroughly for the test to be accurate T sk tsk you must a ddress me properly, as my lord remember? He mimicked Miss Stranje's scolding voice as he spread out the papers Thus you would say my lord, would you please be so good and kind and tolerant and forbearing as to spread out the te st papers so that they might dry thoroughly ? A nd a t this point if you were a well schooled young lady you would flutter your long lashes a nd demurely add if you will do me this one kindness, my lord, I will be forever in your debt My mouth opened in s earch of an appropriate response but nothing came. S o I closed it and did something I never do. I giggled. I blame it on the lateness of the hour. Tired, I easily succumbed to giddiness. In fact I shook so hard with nearly soundless laughter that I s l oshed a bit of gall solution over the edge of the pan No, no, Miss Fitzwilliam t his is not a proper response at all You shall have to do better ." He aped Miss Stranje's manner isms perfectly. Else h ow shall we punish you for this effrontery to woman kind?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 151 "A turn on the rack?" I suggested. "Horsewhipping?" The mirth on Sebastian's face chang ed to stone. I didn't understand what I'd said to offend him. "She has one, you know," I said defensively. "A rack, I mean. And a horsewhip." T orture is not a jesting matter ." Y et it had felt good to speak of the torture chamber concealed in the underbelly of Stranje House, to mock the evil it represented. Then I remember ed the horrors he must have seen as a child. What other grisly sights had he witnessed ev en more recently? I felt my cheeks burn as they so often did around him. "I 'm sorry ." He nodded, but said nothing more about it We worked in silence, until he held one of the sheets of paper over a cand le flame To my unspoken question he said, I'm che cking t o see if heat makes the message appear. After a moment he checked it and nodd ed with satisfaction holding the paper up to the light for me to see. T he invisible writing was so faint that with diversionary writing laid atop it, no one would be ab le to see it. So far it's a goer H e shifted up onto his toes and drumm ed his fingers on the work table. E agerness radiated from him like heat from a candle. M y hands trembled as I lifted the pot from the heat hop ing the results wouldn't disappoint him. "It's ready?" I nodded and dipped a small sea sponge in the brown liquid Which note would you like to test first? He passed one of the papers to me, cross ed his arms and held his breath, watch ing me with his lips pressed tight I sponged reddi sh brown fluid over the invisible message, and waited a
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 152 moment before blotting the page with a dry sponge to soak up the excess moisture. We stepped back and watched as the iron slowly reacted with the gall F aint words appeared on the page. He breathed out a huge sigh of relief. We're close. Try it again ," he urged. Only t his time apply more gall. I did and t he results were gratifying B rown words materialized on the paper clear and easy to read. You ve done it ," he whispered staring at the me ssage T hen he nearly shout ed You ve done it !" He picked me up in a bear hug and whirled me around We bump ed the scales and corner of the cupboard as he spun toward the window. I can t believe it. Do you know how incredible this is? Do you have any idea h ow long I've waited for an ink like this?" "Three days?" He laughed and loosened his grip allowing me to slide down his chest until my feet barely touched the floor on tiptoes. With one hand he gently smoothed a flock of wild curls back from my face. "So many deaths could've been prevented if you'd been born a decade sooner." H e stroked the side of my head "There's so much going on in here." Through my night gown I felt the muscles of his chest constrict. He held me so close that my forehead brushed against the rough stubble on his jaw, so close I could almost taste the warmth of his lips as he smiled at me. Hours ago he'd loosened his neck cloth and shed his coat. My arms rested around his shoulders clutching the rumpled linen of his camb ric shirt. He kept holding me studying my face as if he saw something truly remarkable there I ntense joy flooded my being I felt as if all the hidden messages inside me had suddenly been revealed as if everything about me that had always seemed pecu liar and awkward made sense. I felt truly happy for the first time ever a nd I never wanted to leave his arms
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 153 B ut Sebastian would leave me Soon. Sadness crushed me like a pestle crushes a gall against the stone mortar There would be no tomorrow for us He would leave for London as soon as we mixed enough ink. I lowered my gaze from his lips and tried in vain to straight en his disheveled neckcloth, but the folds had long since lost the ir ability to stand So di d I I f he were not holding me I wou ld've crumpled and fallen to the floor. Sebastian lifted my chin and without a word, with no reprimand for looking at him with mooncalf eyes, no mockery, no teasing, he brushed his lips against mine It was no more than the fluttering of a hummingbird 's wing Then h e pressed his lips against my forehead k issing me on the head a s if I was a child he was kissing goodnight. I will come back ," h e whispered. I said nothing just held him knowing his words were a lie spoken out of kindness. At least he felt that much. Kindness An instant later his mouth found mine T his time it was no child s kiss. I t felt as if he pour ed years of hunger and longing, thousands of heartbreaking secrets into me into this one urgent moment. I didn t know whether to we ep or explode with joy. I never wanted to let him go. I kissed him harder wanting to keep him with me forever. Sebastian pulled back and took a deep ragged breath. Georgie, he called my name in a husky gasping whisper. I opened my eyes and he wore su ch a pained expression I tried to get closer to him to comfort him. But h e held me away and shook his head. I can't do this I can't. In the name of al l that's merciful, Georgie, g o away "Why?" Stunned I stumbled back. What had I done? He turned away from me and leaned onto the window sill like a man praying his head in
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 154 his hands I don't form attachments. I don't. No entanglements." He hid his face from me and said all this with cold certainty. "It's less painful for everyone." Except, whe n he said those words, I detected a slight tremor and could n' t help but think of the little boy who watched his father murdered on the guillotine. Less painful for him. Still bowed, st ill articulating each word in an unfeeling monotone he said, You d eserve more. To that absurd claim, I laid my soul bare. And yet, y ou have already given me more than I've ever had." The pathetic truth shamed me, but I stood and faced him squarely I would rather accept the humiliation than allow him to banish me on such feeble grounds. He rubbed at his cheek and mouth as if he want ed to scrub my scent off his skin. "I can't." H e whirled around, glaring at me like an enraged angel no, like the devil I'd first met. D on't you see? he growled. I'm not in a positio n to -" H e stopped trying to explain. "For God's sake, go to bed. I don't want to argue the matter. I'll mix the batches myself. Just go." Like everyone else in my life, h e wanted to be rid of me. I backed toward the door m y shoulders heaving as I g a sped for air in violent gulps W as it shame suffocating me? Anger? Or was it grief? I d id n't know It all mixed together and bubbled up into an inscrutable toxic froth that made me tremble I could hardly speak. "My notes are on the table." Bumpin g into the door I gr op ed pathetically for the handle, and left. Out i n the dark hall I crumpled against the door holding it shut. I thought I heard his footsteps on the other side and felt the slight movement of the handle as he took hold of it H e di dn't turn the knob Instead, I heard a soft thud felt the vibration through the wood, and knew he had leaned his forehead opposite mine I thought I heard him say my name I t didn't make
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 155 the pain go away No, in fact I had to fold m y arms tight again st my stomach, press ing against the turmoil as I stumbled away from the laboratory. The storm h ad abated There were no more eerie blue gray flashes lighting the way Cold and shivering, I pulled my shawl tighter around my shoulders. A s I trudged past Miss Stranje's relatives, my eyes adjusted to the dark and I saw every one of th e ir shadowed faces Instead of chiding me, t hey seemed to mourn with me as I walk ed away from the one truly warm moment of my life Even the lion at the top of the stairs no longer frightened me. I wanted to say. Go ahead Devour me Rid the world of my noxious presence There are things in life worse than dying f or instance, this chilling apathy spreading like a canker into my limbs. With slow lifeless steps I made my way into bed. I did not give way to tears, not even when Punch nuzzled my chin, not even when the house moaned in sympathy. I stared at the ceiling, numb. Tomorrow I would beg Madame Cho to clamp me onto the rack and turn the wheel Maybe a good stret ch ing would bring the feeling back into my soul. S omewhere before dawn I must ha ve slipped into a coma like sleep because I a woke to Tess sh out ing at me "Wake up!" She shook me as if the house had caught fire. "It's happened. It's all gone wrong."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 156 Chapter 14 Dreams and Schemes "How could you let this happen?" Tess stood beside m y bed in her nightclothes her hair wild and matted, glaring at me like some sort of angry escapee from B edlam "W hat are you going on about ?" I muttered groggily. I specifically told you not to let him do anything hasty. I shook my head trying to comprehend her meaning Did she know I 'd let Sebastian kiss me? Even if she did, it was none of her business and hardly a matter to wake me over "Go away." Tess, of al l people, had no right to say anything. "Leave me alone." I pulled up the blankets and pressed deeper into the pillow. You were supposed to stop him Now h e s gone. And i t s all happening just as it did in the dream. She shoved me. Get up !" she yel led rousing the others. Sera turned over. What s the matter? "I t s happening. Tess said in a ragged voice. "Oh no," S era muttered and sat up She snatched Punch and held the squirming rat the way a frightened child clutches a rag doll
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 157 Tess tugg ed on my arm dragging me out from under the covers Q uickly You have to do something or it's going to go horribly, horribly wrong ." Stop ." I jerked out of her grasp and sat on the edge of the bed lower ing my throbbing head into my hands I t felt as if a cannonball had collid ed with my skull. "At least, let me dress. "There's no time." She thumped my shoulder. C ome now or he 'll die. My stupor vanished. I looked up into her distraught face, afraid to ask, Lord Wyatt ?" "Yes Fear jolted through m e. I dash ed out of the room with Tess hard on my heels We tore down the stairs and sprint ed through the hall I flung open the laboratory door expecting the worst expecting to find his asphyxiated body lying on the floor but the room was empty My wo rk table looked tidy tools gleam ing as if he'd scrubbed all night E arly morning sun drift ed in through the windows e verything at peace. Except Tess. He s gone, she murmured t o London. "Yes." Gone T he paralyzing sadness of the night before cre pt back into me. Her shoulders sagged. You were supposed to keep him here another day. Why didn't you keep him here one more day? My hands squeezed into tight fists My fingernails digging into my palms helped me hold steady and not yell at her. "I cou ldn't." I didn't explain to her that Lord Wyatt wanted to be rid of me. No doubt he wanted to get as far away from me as possible "I don't understand." She shook her head. I saw him with you yesterday Clearly, he had feelings toward you I was ce rtain he wouldn t be so quick to leave. And I don't understand why e veryone keeps mistaking Lord Wyatt's feelings toward me. I huffed. He feels no I lowered my voice "He felt no particular affection for me.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 158 Aside from that h e ha s urgent bus iness in London and would've left today regardless of anything I did or didn't do." I flicked my finger against the scales and sent them clinking and bouncing "Anyway, w hat difference does one day make? Tess gl ared at me her eyes rimm ed with sadne ss and dark circles The difference between prison or freedom. Life or death ." She sat on the long bench and tucked her knees up, hugging them as she pointed to the window sill A half sheet of paper rested beneath a small pot of reddish brown liquid. See for yourself ." She rocked slightly. This is how it begins." I wanted to ask, how what begins? But I didn't Instead, I stared at her and chewed the corner of my lip I'd admired Tess from the start, reluctantly, but there you have it -she in spired me to awe. She always seemed so aloof, so remarkably confident even if her confidence was at times tinged with hostility B ut this morning, she frightened the socks off me if I'd been wearing any H er whitened pallor made me nervous. S he d withdraw n into herself which could only mean something dreadful w as about to happen S he star ed at the letter as if she already knew the contents. My feet suddenly felt like icicles. With hesitant steps, I approached the window sill My fingers trembl ed as I slipped the paper out from under the bottle of gall There, w ritten in India ink, Sebastian had scrawled a note i n bold hard strokes. This portion of the letter anyone could readily see this was the diversionary writing as he called it -the rus e Dear Miss Fitzwilliam, I pray you will be so kind as to excuse my early departure. I thought it would be better this way. Captain Grey and I have numerous duties in London which require our immediate attention.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 159 I wish you well in your endeavors and, m ay I say, i t has been an honor to make the acquaintance of a young lady who has more than flounces and fripperies occupying her thoughts. My best regards Lord Wyatt. But a nother set of words resided between th os e lines a secret message meant only for m e. Written in fainter ink i t read: My d earest Georgiana, I cannot thank you enough for this ink. It will do more good than you co uld possibly know. A s you might've guessed, after London I go to Vienna. How long my sojourn there will be I cannot know. Georgie, I must war n you not to expect o ther gentlemen to impose upon themselves the restraint you have witnessed in me. Exercise caution around other men while I am away I shall be extremely unhappy if I hear of you break ing any other hearts. Yrs, Seb astian He was teasing, of course about breaking hearts I hadn't broken his I f I had he might still be here. I wanted to smile at his words but the warmth they elicited vanished in to a deadly chill. Sebastian's secret message wasn't hidden at all N either of us had applied the gall solution and yet t he faint writing was clearly legible every word exposed. My invisible ink had darkened on its own. Sunlight streaming through the
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 160 window may have developed it or maybe it reacted with a chemical i n the paper, or perhaps time itself did the deed It didn't matter. Sebastian was headed to London and tonight he would distribute an invisible ink that would betray ever yone who used it. I whipped around to Tess. "We have to stop him." She rocked, pal e, unmoved. I ran and shook her shoulders. "Tess, listen to me. Lord Ravencross's horse you must get him to lend it to you. I have to ride for London straightway. I can't explain why. It's a secret but I need you to get me a horse." She stared bl ankly at me. I shook her again. "Tess, I need a horse. Any horse. Now." She seemed to wake up at that. "You can't." "I can. I must. I have to warn Lord Wyatt or terrible things will happen." No. She frowned. You can't go yet. First, you have to ma ke an ink that works." Stunned at my colossal failure, I didn't have time to question how or why Tess knew about the experiment No. There isn't t ime. We have to stop him before he gives it to his men. He'll get caught. They'll ALL get caught. "No, no, no She shook her head and buried her face in her hands Listen to me. If you don't make one that works too many people will die. I've seen it. She looked up. "Too many people. Him, others, ambassadors kings she tried to suppress a moan a nd started rocking again. And i f they die you can't imagine what happens in Europe ." She glanced at the door and rubbed her fore head. I warned him. Why didn't he listen? If only he would ve waited. You would ve figured it out today." She slapp ed her hand against the wooden bench. Today ." Frustrated and angry, I shouted at her You can't know that. F ormulating a new ink could
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 161 take me months." "You only have today I clutched Sebastian's note in my fist, an d glanced wildly about the work room. "Even if I could figure it out, how w ould I get it to him? A few moments ago it had seemed so easy just a matter of running him down on the road and warning him that I'd failed, that the ink didn't work Now, everything seemed infinitely more difficult Impossible. I've seen the place where he will be I'll take you there." Tess stood, and star ed down at her toes peeking out from the hem o f her nightrail E ven though she was older than me she looked every inch a forlorn child altogether too vulner able "You? But he's in London The re's a ball tonight, with diplomats and I shook my head. "I t's impossible. We should tell Miss Stranje, she'll send word. If you tell her, she will stop him, it's true. But o nly a portion of the misery will be p revented, a very very small portion. He still dies in Vienna. She stared at me as if look ing straight through me in to a time and place of horror. "So do many others. Do you want me to tell you what happens then? T he bloody wars over borders ? Shall I de scribe t he starvation ? T he orphaned children -" "No!" My heart turned to lead, and I feared for a moment I might collapse. "What can I do?" I pleaded How could I ever banish my guilt? Make the ink ," she said it with quiet certainty. We 'll leav e just after sunset so we won't be seen on the road B ut how -" "I'll get a horse." She pointed at the table. You just make the ink Sera stood quietly in side the doorway, watching us holding a familiar pair of shoes and a
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 162 pile of white sprigged muslin i n her hands. "I brought you r clothes. She held them out to me W hen I didn't take them she set the pile on the table. We'll make your excuses to Miss Stranje and keep her busy so she doesn't suspect anything. Jane will come soon to help you and bring you something to eat Maya followed Sera into the room and the three of them stood around me in a solemn circle like mourners at a funeral. "You all know, don't you? None of them said anything Their furtive glances in Tess's direction answered for them. "This is not to be spoken of I warned fiercely. "Lives hang in the balance. You must all swear on your honor, not a word ." "We promise, Sera said, as if blood oaths were an everyday thing at Stranje House. And w e will help in any way we can." I glanced at the work table and raked my fingers through my hair. After a lifetime of failures, of foolish mistakes, bumbling errors t oo much depended on me getting it right for once. "What if I fail again?" Maya reached for my hand. Take heart Her voice seemed to travel through her fingertips up my arms Y ou will find the answer Georgiana Her gentle tone flowed around me like a hypnotic flute, calming my agitation. You are a woman of much courage. I know this. Y ou will go to London and you will do what must be done. Sera nodded, as if she believed it, too. I shook my head trying to escape Maya's trance. Could I really formula te an ink that worked in less than a day ? S he kept hold of my hand gazing steadily into my eyes. I believe you will do this. Her words float ed on the air, bubbles of hope, and sail ed straight into my heart. "You must ."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 163 Tess slipped out of the room. The other two followed, leaving me alone in the middle of a desperate nightmare A nd yet they left me bathed in hope There was a chance a mathematically improbable chance but a chance nonetheless, that I could set my mistake right. I bent over my notes with a n urgency and determination I had never felt before. I studied the formula A n hour later I realiz ed exactly where my error lay As usual, I'd over complicated things. The solution was so simple. How had I missed it last night? Iron was bound to darken when exposed to any number of elements -too uncontrollable. Alum alone was the answer. I kn ew it with as much certain t y as I knew I was still standing on the floor in my bare feet. I quickly pulled on my clothes. I t took me only a couple hours more to create the new formula By the time Jane brought food I had already mixed and heated a batch of clear soluble alum. "What did you tell Miss Stranje?" She set down the tray. "I explained that you insisted on working without interruption a nd that I would bring you food and provide assistance if you needed it." "Did that satisfy her ?" I snatched a muffin from the plate and bit into as I worked. "I couldn't tell. Jane rubbed her arm absently. She got that quizzical look on her face. You know the one that means she knows something is afoot. "That explains why she peeked in from the hall a few minutes ago." Jane nodded I daresay, our Miss Stranje can sniff out a lie a furlong away." "Then it's a very good thing you weren't lying ." "I wasn't?" No I certainly don't want any interruptions and I do need your assistance." I pulled out several s heets of foolscap from my folio tore them in half and half again, so that we had a dozen test papers Here. Write something on each one using India ink
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 164 Jane checked the nib of the pen. "She's bound to notice when you're gone this evening ." "Not if we're careful." We'll need m ore than just caution Luck I'd say What do you want me to write?" "Anything. A quick line or two on each of the papers. She thought for a moment and set to work W hile the ink cooled I ate a slice of ham wedged in to a roll By the time she finished the new invisible ink formula was ready to be test ed. Jane had jotted a couple farming instructions on each Leave the west field fallow. Plant beans in place of wheat in the east field ,' and so on. I quickly perused t he papers and glanced up. Are these ways to improve crop yields? She nodded. "Interesting," I had a new appreciation of our Jane. "We must discuss this when I return from London ." Assuming I did return She smil ed. "I thought you might find i t intere sting." Between the lines of her list I us ed the clear alum ink to pen a short invisible apology to Sebastian for putting him in danger. On succesive pages I apologized to England and Europe for making an error on my previous formula I waved one the pape r s bearing my hidden confession over the burner, heating it I laid another in the sunny window. All afternoon w e repeated the process, using different types of paper. I sprinkled water on some notes dirt on others, spilled wine on the m salt, vinegar, and candle wax. This time, I wasn't taking any chances. I intended to expose the ink to light, time, heat, and anything else that might cause it to inadvertently develop. W ith a grimace Jane reluctantly spit on one of the note s thus providing me with a saliva test
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 165 A ll the while, I kept repeating over and over in my head Don't let anyone die because of my mistake I imagined all the diplomats and their families who might suffer because of my failed ink O ne face, above all those nameless others haunted me o ne whose features I knew by heart The thought of Sebastian twisted in pain, dying, or locked away in prison, set me plead ing even harder for a reprieve. Please God, if you're there, spare them "What are you thinking about?" Jane wiped out the pot to start a fresh batch of invisible ink. "M y m istakes." She measured the alum into the brass scales "Don't you wish there was a way to turn back time? There are so many things I wish I could go back and do different ly ." "You? I asked surp rised. But you always seem to know exactly the right thing to do." She shook her head and squinted at the scales making sure the weight was exact "Not always, or I wouldn't be here, would I?" I didn't budge from the point "What could you possibly have e ver done wrong?" Everyone makes mistakes." She poured the alum into the mixing vessel I checked on the papers in the window sill But i f you could go back in time what would you wish to do differently?" She shrugged Bragging cost me everything. I f I could turn the clocks back I would ke ep my success es to myself." I inspected each of the notes, holding them up to the light. I desperately wished to hide from my failures, but I didn't understand Jane want ing to hide her success es S keptical, I ask ed, W hy ever would you want to hide your accomplishments ?"
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 166 She poured in the other ingredients and stirred it over the flame. M y parents she explained, w ere killed in a coaching accident leaving us with a nearly worthless estate My older brothers g amblers the pair of them had no use for our ancestral home apart from the meager allowance it provided. They abandoned me left me with a handful of servants to get along as best I could She shrugged S o I did. Her chin jutted up she straighte ned, and excitement animated her voice Have you heard of Thomas Coke? His farm is situated near ours H is ideas on animal husbandry were the talk of the neighborhood. I listened closely to what was said asked questions and convinced our steward to im plement his new method s It worked. Our farm flourished. By the second year the estate income doubled P ieces of the puzzle began to fit Is that why you consult with Miss Stranje's steward ? Y ou're advis ing him ? I hunted through the cupboards a nd fo und a dozen small vials to hold the new ink. "Yes." She reduced the heat on the burner and kept stirring. A ctually, he's Captain Grey's steward, but, yes. We've made significant improvements here in less than a year." Truly amazed, I plunked the bottl es on the table. But that's r emarkable. W hy should you regret any of this ? She pulled our last batch of alum ink off the heat before answering I invested the extra capital from my family estate, consequently tripling our gain It turns out I also have a passable ability to manag e finances. "More than passable, I should say." I checked the dampened note. It had finally dried and still showed no signs of the invisible writing. Success I f only I 'd kept th e news to myself, things would have gone along famously." Jane
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 167 glanced at the darkening evening sky outside our window. "We have to hurry." She fanned the ink to make it cool faster. "You told your brothers didn't you ?" I looked up from preparing the bottles holding my breath dreading her an swer. Y es I thrust my hard won success under their noses S colded them for their excesses T ightened the purse strings and badger ed them about wasting their lives and fortune on cards and lightskirts. Jane handed me a funnel How stupid I was to th ink they would listen to me, their little sister ." Her lips clamped into a hard buttoned line Her brothers' short sighted selfishness, made my hand tremble as I poured invisible ink into a dozen small vials. T hey sent you away, here so they could plun der the estate didn't they ?" Jane steadied the funnel for me I should've anticipated it I knew what they were. If only I 'd kept my foolish mouth shut. "No ." I shook my head. "No one could've predicted such deceitful and irrational behavior." I pressed corks into each of the bottles. "That's just it. I could 've P ride blinded me I was so certain they'd be impressed. So c ertain of their gratitude. So certain they would listen to me. She chuckled mirthlessly By now, my dear brothers o ught to have run through the ir funds and bankrupted the estate Any day I expect Miss Stranje to tell me there is no more money arriving to pay for my education here." I packed the vials into a small box with cotton wadding. "At least when that happens you will get to go home." "That is the last thing I wish to do." She stepped back and stared at me as if I'd run mad to
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 168 even suggest it. I blink ed and blinked again I clutched the table with both hands, hanging on for balance. W ith a shock, I understo od I had no desire to return home either. In fact, for days, t he thought had n o t even crossed my mind.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 169 Chapter 15 The Cassandra Complexity "Jane!" Sera burst into the still room Tess says to run straight way and find a ballgown that'll fi t Georgie. Pausing to catch her breath, Sera turned to me and thrust a flour sack into my hands. "Here, I wheedled this out of Cook. It's food for your journey. "Thank you." I glanced inside, at cheese apples and sliced chicken Astonished, I asked, H ow ever did you get anything more than a crumpet out of that terrifying woman ?" "Cook isn t so bad." I knew better Sera ignored my skeptical squint and pointed to a chair. S it down I'm supposed to fi x your hair." "There isn't time for that non sense," I said. "It is a ball. They won't let you in the door looking like that." She pointed at the chair again. "We'll hurry." Maya scurried in her arms laden with brushes and combs ribbons, a mirror, and her miraculous pomade. T hey set to work wind ing plastering, and binding my troublesome locks into a splendid Grecian coiffure They were sticking the final pins into place when Jane returned
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 170 carrying a satchel. My best gown. She opened the top so I could see a tuft of green silk embroidered wi th beautiful white scrollwork. "Thank you I jumped up ready to go. You all amaze me. I feel like a fairy tale princess." "Don't Jane snapped the bag shut. Her normally smooth brow puckered into a worried frown. T hink of yourself more like Cassandra rush ing to warn the Trojans the giant wooden horse is full of soldiers who wi ll burn the city. She pressed the bag into my hand. Let u s hope you have better luck than she did. I caught the corner of my lip. Cassandra failed miserably I would not. I must not. Out this way Sera hastened me out the side door and to my great relief, pointed at a coach waiting at the far end of the drive. I d expected a horse. In point of fact, I d expected to see Tess atop Zeus Considering our options, w hat ot her horse would she have procured? T he idea of hanging on behind her while we galloped that huge stallion all the way to London had been daunting. I ran down the drive and t he carriage door swung open Lord Ravencross a very grumpy looking Lord Ravencr oss, sat across from Tess inside the coach Get in ," he barked offering me a hand without lowering the steps I cl ambered up attempting to dodg e his knees bumping first the door and then his bad foot as I l ugg ed in Jane's satchel my box of vials, a nd the bag of food F inally I plopped down on the seat next to Tess "Good evening, I said hurriedly Neither of them greeted me. Tess lean ed against the far corner with her face turned away
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 171 from either of us. Lord Ravencross grumbled something inau dible, yank ed the door shut and rapped on the roof Th e coachman sprang the horses. I thought we were go ing on horseback ? I asked They said nothing in response but exchanged venomous glowers at one an other before turn ing again to stare out of opp osite windows. Thank you for the use of your coach my lord ." I gripped Jane's satchel beside me, praying for a fast journey. On that score, I need not have worried. We traveled at a break neck pace Speeding down the rutted road, t he carriage fl ew o ver bumps and potholes. and veer ed sharply around curves. For nearly an hour no one said a single solitary word. The seats were of the finest leather soft luxuriously padded and the carriage well sprung b ut t he atmosphere inside grew more and more pr ickly with every mile. I wondered, given the hostility crackling between Tess and Ravencross if riding horseback would not have been a more comfortable alternative, after all. The night was black and deep with fog by the time we hit the outskirts of Lond on Our coachman slowed the horses to accommodate traffi c as h undreds of carriages converged on to the too narrow streets Our speed reduced to a crawl. Too slow. If only it didn't take forever to get across London. Bouncing my foot impatiently, I wis hed I could get out and run ahead to clear the path But of course that would only succeed in getting me trample d and lost in the fog. Desperate for a distraction, lest I go mad with anxiety I grabbed the food sack and slung it onto my lap. Sera pack ed food for our journey M eat bread and cheese I held it open to Tess. No reply. S he finessed it out of C ook N o mean feat as I'm sure you must realize ." I had no stomach for any of it but perhaps she did. I continued to hold out the bag to he r. "We do have a
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 172 long night ahead of us." She shrugged and said nothing. Another ten minutes went by and I began to think I was traveling with a pair of corpses. "Hungry, my lord?" I fished out an apple and offered it to him. He shook his head in curt refusal. Very well ." Tess smacked her hand against the leather seat and snatched the apple out of my hand. I'll have one of those." S he held the apple in a manner that made me think she'd only taken it so she could heave it at Lord Ravencross. Bu t s he did not throw it at our benefactor. She kept hold of it and threw words at him instead. "For your information, My Lord High a nd Mighty I was only going to borrow Zeus. You know perfectly well, I would ha ve brought him back in the morning." Lord Ravencross turned, and despite the dim light his eyes seemed to blaze as he narrowed them solely on her. You are aware are you not, that it is customary to hang horse thieves ? With a haughty toss of her head she cho m ped into the apple. "My lord, thi s entire situation is my fault." I felt it my duty to intercede I assure you, Tess would never have tried to borrow your horse i f this were not a matter of grave international importance Extremely urgent -" He turned a rabid glare on me. "Do you thin k young lady, I would be escorting you to London for any other reason? I shook my head, regretting having broken the silence. He glanced sideways at Tess To my surprise, a splash of yearning and tenderness weakened his features, betraying him. "She w ould not tell me why, other than Lord Wyatt's life hung in the balance and it was my patriotic duty." Clearly, his reasons for escorting us had
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 173 nothing to do with state secrets or patriotic duty A n instant later his face hardened into his customary mas k of anger "And as I owe Wyatt a debt of some consequence," h is scowl turned to his l ame leg "I could hardly refuse." Tess m unched on the apple and didn't say another word until almost an hour later when we rumbled across the cobblestones on Queen Stree t As if Ravencross had never said a cross word to her she chirped as gaily as a Lark in summer, "Thank you for your escort, my lord. You may s et us down at the corner of St. James 's S quare I think not He heaved a sigh as if greatly exasperated There are already carriages lining King Street. What do you intend to do, march up Lady Castlereagh's steps like a couple of street urchins and beg admittance at her door ? The servants will toss you out on your ear. I have no intention of begging Tess lingered on the word H e shifted uncomfortably, frowning ferociously at the haughty tilt of her chin. I do n't need to beg for admittance or anything else. If you must know, she he fted a small carrying case at her feet and announced with pride I bro ught a rope. He groaned A rope? I groaned with him. My stomach clenched into an even tighter knot This did not bode well. Tess jabbed me with her elbow and frowned I'll thank you to s how a little confidence. I've gotten you this far haven't I." "Yes, but a rope?" I asked. I am above all things practical. How -" It's simple. All we have to do is slip around back find a dark section of wall and then I will scale the building to the third floor balcony Ravencross snorted.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 174 "I'll have you k now, My Lord Sour Pants I am particularly adept at scaling walls. I have done it before." Oh, of that I have n o doubt Miss Horse thief ." "I wi ll scale the wall and hoist Georgie up W e ll change into our ballgown s i n the dark of the balcony and enter through the deserted bedroom. Unable to hold back from examining the practicality of her plan I asked, "Yes, but how do you know it will be deserted?" B ound to be deserted ," she said with utter confidence. "Because, of course, e veryone will be attend ing the festivities in the ballroom. And there you have it. She snapped her fingers. Easy as peas on a knife Then, w e ll blend in with the other guests locate Lord Wyatt and proceed with the business at hand Ravencross closed his eyes tight as if he found her scheme so frightfully irksome it bordered on painful and he could only deal with it b y squeezing his eye lid s shut. To his credit he composed himself before speaking. Outstanding plan. H e clapped, two dull pats of his glove "A nd if you get caught had you considered the fact that breaking into the Minister of Foreign Affair s home might constitute treason ? The leather seat squeaked as Tess squirmed beside me. "I thought not." He leaned forward, with a menacing frown In which case when I caught you in the stable with Zeus I may as well have saved king and country the cost of a hangman and strung you up myself. He stared at her neck as if distracted by the ghastly specter of an imaginary rope. Tess's hand fluttered to her throat, but she quickly withdrew it and crossed her arms
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 175 defiantly. "I suppose you have a better idea?" Most assuredly ." He rested back against the squibs and pulled a card out of his jacket pocket W ith a flick of his wrist he sent it twirling through the air to land squarely o n her lap. Tess and I strained to read it in the dark : an invitation to Lady Castlereagh's ball. Y ou had this all along Tess accused He stared at the fountain in the square as we passed by. A re you s ay ing we may attend with you a s your guests? s he asked. "N o, he sneered at her. I was merely using the opportunity to sharpen my card throwing skills. You might' ve said as much She tossed the card back at him. "And y ou might ve remembered that I am a member of the House of Lords and naturally I would have an invitation "It doesn't matter." I practically shouted. "T his is marvelous. We won't have to waste time dangling at the end of a rope to get inside ." "I can't guarantee that much," he snarl ed Leave it to her to have yo ur necks in a noose before the night is out." I meant we won't have to scale the Foreign Minister' s wall I murmured. Tess shrugged, I d been rather looking forward to that part. Lord Ravencross opened the driver s trap. T ake us t o my townhouse. "W h y ?" Tess demanded. So you can change into your gowns in privacy. What else? T here isn't time," I blurted worried that S ebastian might be handing out the wrong ink at that very moment
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 176 Oh I see," he said. "And yet, there was time for you to sneak aro und the house and scramble up a rain gutter ?" Don't be absurd. I wouldn t have use d a rain gutter ," Tess huffed. "Much t oo noisy. I 'd have climbed the stones. We didn't have time for them to argue the point. I interrupted We can change in the carriag e It will save time. He shook his head. There isn t enough room in here. Aside from that, what do you expect me to do, close my eyes? Tess held her hand over her breast and feigned surprise. "Heavens no, my lord We would never expect you to comply with such a simple request. "What then ? he growled. "M y dear Lord Ogre if you would be so kind as to step outside and stand guard I am certain there is ample room for Miss Fitzwilliam and I to manage a change of wardrobe." He snorted in disbelief. "Re duce me to keeper of the door, will you? Very well, Y our H ighness I shall comply. H e pulled on his forelock as if he was the lowliest of servants. Tess inclined her head in a queen ly fashion. Lord Ravencross flicked open the coachman's transom and ord ered "Pull onto a side street a quiet one, and stop." He slammed it shut and brooded. And how may I ask, do you expect me to tie my neck cloth properly under these conditions She laughed outright at him "Oh dear, and laughed some more. I think i t is safe to say, my lord, n o one expects you to live up to Brummell's standards. Without a rejoinder, h e turned to brood at the black streets outside his window I rapped her on the leg for her meanness
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 177 A t least she stop ped grinning so rudely at his expense My lord, if a rumpled neckcloth vex es you I shall be happy to adjust it for you. She beamed at him as if the prospect delighted her immensely. The coach rolled to a stop W ith an inaudible grumble Ravencross dragged himself out casting a fi nal warning over his shoulder. Be quick about it I can't stand out here all night skulking like a ruddy brigand ." We dressed hurriedly he lping each other ease the gowns over our heads and tying tapes that were difficult to negotiate in the cramped spa ce I pulled on a luxurious pair of white elbow length gloves Tess fastened around my neck a string of pearls that Jane had generously packed in the satchel She'd also lent me a small beaded reticule i nto which I ca refully stowed the vials of invisibl e ink. We were ready. "Oh my goodness," I said when I took stock of my companion. You look beautiful ." Tess smoothed out her gown a clever combination of diaphanous white silk flowing over her shoulders and sides with a cornflower blue panel running down the center. It was, however cut exceptionally low and revealed a great deal of her bosom. I shrugged. S uch was the Parisian style S he looked stunning in it and would provide a useful diversion for my n ight's errand. With Tess in the room I coul d go about my business without attracting any notice at all I opened the door and summoned Lord Ravencross. With a nod he limped toward us, instruct ing the coachman to return to St. James 's Square. He sat across from us frowning more than usual "Wo uld you like me to straighten your cravat for you Tess asked with scarcely suppressed mirth "No," he snapped. "Wouldn't want to ruin my image."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 178 "As you wish." A loof and as elegant as a swan, she elevated her chin He eyed her cleavage, took a deep br eath, and cast his gaze up to the roof of the carriage. In a booming voice he started in I ve half a mind to rip the ruddy cloth off my neck and use it to cover up your your ..." He waved the handle of his walking stick at her breasts where they bulged over her dÂŽcolletage Haven't you a shawl or something? You're practically naked. Y ou 'll catch more than a cold going about in your undress like that." "You amaze me." She pinche d up a bit of the fabric of her skirt. "There must be at least four yards of material here I m hardly naked." He ignored her. Why you would want to gad yourself up like Cyprian is beyond my comprehension." He slapp ed his stick angrily across his thighs You 've put me in a very awkward position, my girl. I shall be forced to call out a t least a dozen ogling fools before the evening is half over "It wa s not my intention to distress you, my lord." I rather thought it might have been her exact intention. She plumped up the lace at the sides of her breasts. "There. Does th at make you happy?" Clearly, i t did not. "You re being ridiculous, s he tugged up the bodice a bit more "All the ladies wear their gowns cut thus. Moreover you needn't call anyone out on my behalf. You are neither my father, my brother, nor any relati on at all. I fail to see how it is any of your business if another gentleman lay s his eyes on my She paused, waiting for him to lay his eyes on the exact spot in question. "P erson ." He growled and shoved back against the seat.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 179 "Speaking of relationship s," Tess continued on as if his grizzly mood had nothing to do with her. How d o you plan to explain our connection? "Yes," I asked. What excuse will you give as to why you are escorting us this evening?" D on't need an excuse," he muttered. "You coul d introduce us as your cousins ," I suggested. "Among the peerage everyone is related somehow or other I n fact, i t is quite likely you and I actually are cousins through my father's line. My uncle is L ord Brucklesby ." Brucklesby he made my uncle's name sound like a curse word and grumbled something else, which sounded suspiciously like "moldy old goat." I couldn't be certain because o ur carriage finally rolled to a stop at the corner of Duke Street and King Street in front of Lord Castlereagh's imposing townhouse "Sebastian." I whispered aloud, and touched my gloved finger to the carriage glass.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 180 Chapter 16 The Beautiful Ones A few moments later, w e stood in line ascending a lavish staircase along with dozens of other guests waiting to be announced I jiggled my foot against the marble stair wishing the line would move faster. Leaning out from around Lord Ravencross, I peered up and down the procession hoping to catch a glimpse of Sebastian. He must be here H e had to be here, but where? In this awful crush how would I find him in time? Straining to see over shoulders and past voluminous turbans, and billowy hair arrangements, I spotted someone coming up the stairs I most fervently did not want to see I ducked in front of Lord Ravencross to hide from Lady Harbaugh D espite her stout physique, she was forcefully shoving up t he stairs with her husband at the prow discomfiting the other guests as she plowed past. You are a v iscount, Lady Harbaugh reminded her husband in a voic e that could be heard above the crowd "We simply cannot be expected to stand milling about with ordinary guests." "Yes m'dear, but you just stepped on the Earl of Marleb a ne's foot." Lord Harbaugh explained. "I do believe he outranks me considerably
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 181 N ot to be cowed Lady Harbaugh shoved him up two more stairs. An enormous beige ostrich feather bobb ed atop her coiffure like a wind whipped sail S top complaining Edwin, and move along ." She pushed him up another stair. We a re escorting the C ountes s S he outranks them all a nd I daresay she is far too frail to stand about in this dreadful mob ." I sincerely hoped the lady would push past us without taking notice B ut no s he stopped on the very same stair. Ravencross she hailed him loud enough to be heard across the street. "W hat ever are you doing here ?" Everyone turned to stare in our direction. Without offering so much as a nod in greeting, Lord Ravencross answered in a bored monotone Obviously, Lord Castlereagh requested my presence Oh ." S he appeared positively off put by that news. "That's all right then, I suppose B ut why in heaven's name did you bring those two pests with you? Anyone would've thought he'd limped in with a couple of smelly rat carcasses stuck to his shoe. She p eered down her stout nose at Tess and me In a brusque movement lacking any affection whatsoever, Lord Ravencross hooked his arm through mine and yank ed me to his side. My cousin, he announced. And her companion. He jerked his head sideways at Tess Lady Harbaugh's brow pinched up as if she could n't quite add the sums he'd presented to her. Finally she decided t wo and two definitely did not make four. Your cousin? Her tone rang with skepticism. Yes. Ravencross glowered at her daring her to challenge his word. I dipp ed in as much of a curtsey as our tight quarters allowed Yes, my lady. Lord Brucklesby is my uncle I said, a s if that explained it all.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 182 S he lower ed her chin and i nstead of a rat carcass she scrutinize d me as if I carried a contagious pox of some kind. You don't mean Brucklesby ? Of Westbury? I nodded. "The very same." "A pity." H er husband offered me a look of sincere sympathy Constance dearest, did you really force me up these nine hundred stairs stepping on the to es of half our peers merely to stand and confabulat e with our neighbor ? What about poor Lady Stephani ?" He nodded genially at the diminutive c ountess standing in Lady H arbaugh s shadow His wife cracked open her fan and waved it at the sweat beading on h er jowls For pity's sake, Edwin St op yammering at me and get us up these dratted stairs ." Lord Harbaugh, rolled his eyes, and proceeded to jostle and annoy the rest of the company ahead of them The stick like c ountess Lady Stephani, glided serenel y up the stairs behind her rotund protectors and paused next to me. An extraordinary thing, you being here my dear She lifted her lorgnette and peered so closely at me her dry flaking skin made my nose itch and I could smell the musty bismuth powder she'd used to hide liver spots on her face I wonder, she whispered. "D oes your keepe r know her pigeons have flown the coop ? T he scornful old crow guessed we d snuck out of Stranje House This was a veiled threat to tell Miss Stranje. "Playing nur semaid are you, Lord Ravencross?" Her black gloved hand was laden with diamond and ruby rings S he rapped him smartly on the arm. Keep a sharp lookout young man. It would not bode well for Emily Stranje if these two got up to any mischief now would i t? Lady Stephani didn't care at all for Miss Stranje not one speck I saw it in the spiteful smirk wrinkl ing her paper y cheek S he hoped we would do something wrong. Nay, she fully
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 183 expected us to err Head erect with a girlish tiara adorning her gr ay hair she left us. H er black lace train dotted with seed pearls ooze d up the stairs behind her like a malignant sludge Although it was not above ten minutes later, it seemed like an eternity before we met Lord and Lady Castlereagh in the receiving line Tess and I curtseyed deep. Lord Ravencross greeted Lord Castlereagh with a geniality I hadn t thought him capable of "I' m looking for a particular friend of mine ," Lord Ravencross said Lord Wyatt. Lord Castlereagh's smooth boyish features to ok a sharp turn. His brow rose, as if his assessment of Lord Ravencross might have missed the mark. I could almost read the question on his mind -did Lord Ravencross know of Lord Wyatt's clandestine activities? Yes, I know the fellow our host answere d cautiously gauging the other's reaction Bit of a muddle ," Ravencross confided. "I agreed to meet him here earlier but I came up late you see. He paused allowing Lord Castlereagh to digest the ramifications of this intelligence. "W ouldn t know wh ere I might find him would you ? I pretended to be dis interested averting my gaze to the dazzling company swirling about me. A ll the while my ears were keenly tuned to every word they said The Foreign Minister leaned in and answered quietly I belie ve I saw Wyatt and a group of his friend s head out the side door He nodded toward the north wall of the ball room. "I f I know the gentlemen they wanted a quiet place to smoke cigar s and perhaps drink a glass or two of brandy. Probably found their way downstairs to my study. He laughed with studied casual ness No doubt they found the good stuff stashed in my desk." He said all this airily, but with a tone that suggest ed there was more to his words if Lord Ravencross were inclined to hear or if he w as privy to inner secrets. I rolled my gaze up to the ornate ceiling. Only a slowtop would've missed the obvious
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 184 Sebastian had rounded up his contacts for a secret meet ing under the foreign secretary s roof. Ravencross thank ed our host bowed and we took our leave of the reception line I have to get in to th at study, I whispered from the side of my mouth. "And what precisely are you planning to do? Barge in to a roomful of diplomats holding a meeting behind closed doors? "I have to. It's imperat ive -" Don't be daft Even I would get shot if I tried that." "They wouldn't shoot a girl." "You are woefully naive. We will wait like civilized people until he returns to the ballroom. Tess drifted away from us to join a circle of young ladies and gentlemen greeting them as if they were old friends One young man bow ed over her hand and looked on the verge of asking if she might dance with him Ravencross growled under his breath and marched straight for Tess and her group of acquaintances He pa rted the circle and glower ed at them like a towering Hessian mercenary about to whip out his saber and cut down each and every one of them young ladies included. He provided me with just the opportunity I needed to find my way to the side door. I glanc ed all around to make sure I was not being observed. To my dismay a familiar beige ostrich feather bobb ed in my direction Lady Harbaugh weav ed in and out of the crowd behind me like a hound sniffing after a fox Well, this fox planned to give her the slip. I wedged out of the side door and shut it behind me, certain she w ould not guess my direction. T here had to be a back stair way leading down to Lord Castlereagh's study. Unfortunately,
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 185 Lady Castlereagh's ball was a n overwhelming success. Success among the beau monde is measured, not by the enjoyment of a gathering or the fo od, or wine, or music, but by the number of guest that will squeeze into a hostess' home. Consequently, e ven in the hall a surprising number of guests st ood about talking and sipping champagne So thick was the crowd I had to wriggle through them to find a space large enough to survey my surroundings. I spied a narrow jog in the hall at the far end and guessed that to be the direction I needed I hurried down the hall only to trip over an outstretched foot Stumbling into a side table I nearly toppl ed one of Lady Castlereagh's Chinese vases. "Hey ho, Cuz said t he owner of the offending foot I knew immediately, by his bullying tone, that it was one of my u ncle Bruckle sby 's obnoxious sons. Good e vening Roderick I said through clamped teeth as I righted the vase Turning to greet my smirking cousin I discovered, t o my great displeasure not one but two of the cretins leering at me Freddie I nodded, acknowledg ing my uncle's youngest son Freddie who was only two years my senior liked to think he was too good to breath e the same air I did. He lifted one of the coiled ringlets hanging over my shoulder with two fingers like a loathsome caterpillar he meant to squish He let it fall, and circled me the way a marauding tom cat would before pouncing "Can this be our own little Georgie?" Nah, said Roderick This girl is almost passable Our G eorgie i s a wild haired little urchin too busy reading books to be caught dead in a ballgown. I brush ed the stupid ringlets back and folded my arms trying to imitate my mother at her irate best. Isn t there some housefly somewhere whose wings you haven t plucked off ? S ome hapless goat you haven t properly tortured? Z ounds But t he chit has grown a sharp tongue. I'm wounded." Freddie pressed a hand
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 186 over his breast in mock anguish "N o one says zounds any more Freddie. Last century. Completely passÂŽ." I shook my head pretending a great deal more sophistication than I felt. "N ow if you will kindly step aside I have business to attend to. What b usiness? Like a pair of stray dogs they circled even tighter C ome to think of it where s your d a ? Don't recall seeing him on the guest list." I shrugged. I sin cerely doubt you a re privy to Lord and Lady Castlereagh's guestlist." Roderick imitated his older brother's inquisition like tone. Uncle Henry doesn't know you re here does he? And wh y a re you roaming the halls alone ? Up to something aren't you? "D angerous for a young girl to be caught alone even in a place like this ." I knew Freddie well enough, to know he wasn't warning me, he was forecasting. I refused to let him intimidate me. I' m not alone. I have an escort a nd a companion with me I was si mply making my way to the ladies retiring room. I d o n t need an escort for that. "Oh, I don't know," sneered Freddie leaning in sniffing my hair "Never know who might be lurking -" Hold on. Roderick straightened, as if his head might explode. "I ve h ad an idea." "I'll notify the Times ," I muttered. "Y ou might be of use to me, Cuz." Roderick flicked my ringlets back over my shoulder so they hung across my breasts He grabbed both of my shoulders and studi ed me as if I was a bug on a pin. She's not al together disgusting is she? What do you say, Freddie. I m ight use her to make a certain young lady jealous eh?" Freddie appraised me skeptically. "Might do." "Come on. Roderick grabbed my arm and tugged me in the opposite direction I wished to
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 187 go. "You shall stand up with me on the next set." No I can t ." I wrench ed my arm out of his grasp, but he seize d it again. Leave me be, Roderick I'm not going to dance with you." You will. He twisted my arm so that I had no coice but to drag along s ide him. Duty to family an d all that If you won't I'll -" I told you I can t. I didn't have time for his threats. Oh, t hat s right Freddie stopped and shoved me against his brother "R emember Rod ? S he broke her dancing master's foot. Or was it his leg ? C an t remember B ut I do remember Uncle Henry had to pa y off the bloke so he wouldn t put the story all about town I couldn't help it. M y gloved hands curled into tight fists. I wanted to pummel them both within an inch of their lives I f they weren't so much bigger than me I would have. Nearly spitting with anger, I said, And yet here you are -talking about it Freddie sniggered. Not exactly a secret is it? T he fellow limped around London for weeks complaining of the awful Miss Fitzwilliam. Well, I'm not afraid of a bruised foot. Roderick grabb ed my arm again and yanked me along Come on I need to make Amanda Crimwall jealous A man behind us cleared his throat. I m sorry to disappoint you gentlemen but Miss Fitzwilliam has promised the next set to me. Without turning I knew who spoke Roderick let go of my arm and spun around. Wyatt ," he groused and backed away as if confronted by a tiger. Sebastian held out his arm and I quickly accepted his escort. The moment we we re out of ear shot he hissed down at me angrily What the devil are you doing here? M ore importantly what in blazes are you doing with those two miscreants?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 188 I have the great misfortune of being related to those two miscreants, as you call them. They r e my cousins. And I am here because the ink you took with you is a disaster After a certain number of hours it develops on its own. He stopped short as if we d run headlong into an invisible brick wall. Are you certain? Upon my life, yes! The note you wrote me, the secret one, could be read easily without applying the gall solution. Good God. He shoved a shock of black hair away from his brow and started to pull away "I've got to retrieve the ink I 'd just finished giving it "Wait." I hel d onto him and pressed my reticule into his hand. I brought you a replacement. This one works. I tested it thoroughly. You could give this one to your contacts He stared at the emerald green purse in his hand. You already corrected the formula? How? He opened the drawstrings and check ed inside. "A nd you made more "It was a minor adjustment. I shrugged off his amazement. "Y ou re certain this time it works correctly ?" He looked worried. "Y es. I'm sure." I wanted to put his mind at ease. I made a mistake l ast night because I was tired, because ..." I caught my lip before continuing with the truth of the matter. I was distracted. He swallowed, and nodd ed without looking at me. A bout that -" D on t. I shook my head. "Please, d on't say anythin g. "Very well." His features tightened. He set his jaw. "I must take this straight way and deliver it to my associates He glanc ed down at me, stiff, apologetic Standing close he h eld the reticule in one hand and toy ed with my gloved fingers with his o ther I savored the smell of his freshly ironed linen and shaving soap knowing I might never be this close to him again T he
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 189 corner of his cheek by his ears turn ed scarlet F or a moment his resolve wavered. "I t grieves me to leave you so soon And ye t, he was already edging a way. My fingers dropped away from his. I stood beside the ballroom door and watched him leave. "Stay away from your cousins," he issued the order, stern, once more all business They re not to be trusted. He needn't tell me I d suffered enough at their hands on holidays and family visits to know that my dear cousins had graduated f ro m torturing puppies and toads t o making life miserable for any one within their purview especially me. Sebastian cast me a final wistful look over his shoulder and hurried away. There you are young lady Lady Harbaugh boomed. I spun on my heel to find Her Massiveness directly in my path. W hat mischief have you been up to out here?" She glanced up and down the hall actually sniffing as i f her nose might smell out the trouble I'd been stirring I dipped in a quick curtsey. La, my lady, whatever do you mean ? I have been searching in vain for the ladies repairing room. "I doubt that," she said with a final sniff. W rong hall, my girl The privy is upstairs not down I don t believe you for an instan t Well, there you have it. I'm dreadfully lost." I tried to sound as witless as possible. "Luckily, I bumped in to my cousins who sent me back this direction I fluttered my hand towar d Roderick and Freddie T he two buffoons having seen Sebastian leave were closing in on us. Lady Harbaugh 's face prun ed up Not Brucklesby 's whelps Yes, my lady I gave her a genial smile.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 190 In one swift movement she bustled me into the ballroom, mu ttering loudly, "I might've known you fell from that branch of the tree. Rotten apples, the lot of you. Wouldn't trust any of you one inch further than I could toss you." Given her ladyship's girth and the muscular grip with which she held me, she might very well be able to toss me some distance. "Please, my lady. My arm. Y ou're ripping it out of its moorings." "No less than you deserve. Insufferable u pstarts." "Upstarts?" If that was her complaint, I could set her mind at ease by explaining our linea ge. "We are not upstarts, my lady. My father's family arrived with William the Conqueror." Instead of pacifying Lady Harbaugh, her shoulders grew even more rigid. I began to wonder if our lineage outstripped hers. So, I lowered my enthusiasm considerabl y. "So, my uncle's earldom extends all the way back to -" She stopped abruptly and whirled on me. "I don't need a history lesson from you, you impertinent little scapegrace ." Stunned at her venom, my inquisitive mind took over. Before I could stop mysel f, I asked, "Why do you hate me?" In uncharacteristically hushed tones she proceeded to tell me, "Because Emily Stranje thinks she can take abnormalities like you and make them over into acceptable young ladies." I really had no idea what Miss Stranje int ended to do with the lot of us, but by now I had begun to think her goals had very little to do with making us acceptable. So, I dared to argue with an enraged behemoth. "I don't think Miss Stranje intends -" "I know all about Emily Stranje and her mutin ous ideas. That bluestocking fanatic intends to ruin everything. You think you're special don't you? But you're just another of her pawns
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 191 she's using to destroy the rest of us." I shook my head. "That's not true. She punishes us if we don't behave. There's a whip and -" No more than you deserve. Monsters, each and every one of you. Wolves in girls' clothing. I know firsthand she teaches you to prey on innocent members of society, infecting others with your outlandish ideas. And before anyone ca n beat sense into her son he's gone and married one of you. Ruin ed his life. Throw n away everything his parents gave him. Then he h ares off to India to feed filthy little street urchins and waste his life working in some God forsaken orphanage." She s huddered. Working ." She spat the word, as if that element o n her list was the most repulsive. I didn't know how to respond. I stood there, fighting for balance in the gale force of her anger, unable to see my part in the complaint. "But I've done no ne of those things." "Listen to me, young lady. I kn ow your kind. You're a trouble maker. You don't do as you're told. You question the order of things. You, Miss Fitzwilliam, are a blemish on the face of society." She shook with rage, and yet kept her voice menacingly low. "You will never be normal. You will never fit in. Never ." She spoke, now, through clenched teeth, her spittle spraying my forehead. "Heaven forbid you should marry some unsuspecting young fool and produce more creatures like your self. No, there's only one place for someone like you, and that is locked away where you won't inflict any more harm on society." She straightened, adjusting her stays and thrusting out her bosom. "Mark my words. Emily Stranje will not win this time. I will personally see to it." She leaned in to give me one last face washing. "When I am done with you, everyone from Portsmouth to Glasgow will know exactly
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 192 what you are." My knees shook like loose bowlines in her hateful wind I had no idea where the po wer to speak came from but I answered her threats "A vast undertaking, my lady. For I doubt anyone in either direction even knows who I am. Much less what I am. Nor why they should care." She tugged at her corset again. "Then I shall educate them."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 193 Chapter 17 The Pathway to Hell With a mighty huff Lady Harbaugh sailed off, leaving me cannon shot and sinking amidst a group of curious onlookers. I hi d my face behind my hand and on wobbly legs, wove through the crowd, ducking away from my cousins, seeking some quiet corner where I might regain my composure At the far end of the ballroom, away from the musicians, I found a large column in the shadows and collapsed against it, trembling. She was wrong. Wrong! More fool me for having as ked her opinion. I pressed my gloved fist against my teeth, biting down to keep from crying. It didn't work. What hurt most was I knew in my heart she was only partially wrong. It isn't what I am that puts people off. It's who I am. At least now, I understood. Now, I knew the truth. I pressed my backbone against the column for support. Even m y mother 's di slike of me had very little to do with my appearance. There were other girls here with red hair. No one hated them. I comprehended the truth now -I am an abnormality. Lady Harbaugh had that much exactly right. I don't fit in. And I never
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 194 would. I glared up at heaven, letting the back of my head thud against the smooth surface of the column, and almost slid down its length into a puddle. I am too curious. Too bookish. Too single minded. Too much of a hundred other unacceptable traits. A blemish on the face of society. Repugnant. She was right. I make people uncomfortable. I upset the equilibrium. With my fists balled tight, I turned and stared out at the cream of society, the beau monde the beautiful ones, dancing carefully memorized steps, prancing in predictable patterns. I pounded against the side of the column. How is it that my mere existence makes women like my mother and La dy Harbaugh so unhappy? Do they hate me just because I'm different? A n owl in a nest of peacocks? Or is it because I cause them to question whether they, too, ought to stretch beyond their humdrum patterns? Do I inadvertently make them doubt the worth of their own aims in life? At least one person did not find me repugnant. I thought of last night, of Sebastian stroking my hair and saying, There's so much going on in here. He 'd said it with admiration, not disgust. And there was Jane. I didn't s eem to repulse her. And Sera. Slowly, I stopped shaking. Perhaps, I wasn't as complete a monster as Lady Harbaugh said. And yet I stayed in the shadows, like a canary afraid to sing in a room full of cats. I watched the doorway, waiting for Sebastian to return to the ballroom. With him I would be safe. The cats would stand down. I had the mad fantasy that he would come back and sweep me up into that new Viennese waltz everyone talked about, the one where the man held the woman scandalously close and whirled her around the room. I had asked my dancing master to teach me, but he refused with a haughty, ImpossiblÂŽ ." That very day he broke his ankle while demonstrating a proper French
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 195 leap, a silly, straight legged, pigeon toed jump with a heel click. As if I would attempt such a goosey looking thing B ad enough I was always treading on other dancers' feet. In my imagination, Sebastian would take me in his arms, and suddenly I would become coordinated and graceful. I would not crack anyone's shins or stomp on his toes. In his arms I would be magically coordinated. Like Tess. I watched her dancing so elegantly, twirling and hopping and clapping at all the right places. Sadly, even from clear across the ballroom I noted the wretched expression on Lord Ravencross's face as he, too, watched her. He didn't look away from her, not once, even though every moment gave him pain. I was no less pathetic. My moonsick gaze fluttered every two seconds to the side door. Hope and longing, those twin siste rs of agony, turned me into an overeager puppy awaiting her master. I didn't care. There was only one face in all of London I wanted to see. But he did not come. A terrified scream silenced the musicians. "Fire!" Fire? Sebastian would be caught unawa re -trapped in the study. I dashed for the side door. So did dozens of others. A sea of panicked bodies rushing for escape and I was carried along like flotsam. If only I was taller. The pushing and shoving made it nearly impossible to keep on my f eet. Amidst the shuffling and shouting, I heard someone call my name. Him i t was him. I wriggled through the crowd, dodging around skirts, squeezing past trouser clad hips, until I found the one person going the wrong way, charging into the room inste ad of out. "Georgie!" He grabbed me around the waist and half dragged, half carried me back through
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 196 the crowd. The smell of smoke was very faint, but not faint enough to extinguish alarm. We all knew firsthand how quickly a flicker erupts into a terrifyi ng blaze. Once Sebastian and I got through the door he let go of my waist and seized my hand, pulling me toward the back of the hall where we rushed down a narrow stair. My panic subsided beneath the pleasure of him holding my hand, and the realization that he'd come back specifically for me. We exited the house into a rear garden surrounded by roses and moonlight. He hugged me tight and whispered into my hair, "I thought I'd never find you in that mob. You could have been trampled. Are you hurt?" H e clasped both of my shoulders in his hands and searched my face. "You look like you're in pain." "No. I'm unharmed. I was just afraid, that's all -afraid you might be trapped in the study, or somewhere else in the house." Only part of the truth, but I couldn't bear to tell him about Lady Harbaugh's condemnation. He shook his head. "You shouldn't have worried about me." But there were others who I ought to have worried about. I turned to run back into the house. "Tess and Lord Ravencross. His bad leg." I panicked. "They might still be in there." He caught me, and pulled back. "No, it's not safe. I'll go back and check for stragglers. You go around front with everyone else and see if they're out there." He pulled off his coat and tossed it to me. "Don't worry. If I know Ravencross he'll show up grousing like a badger, after having rescued a dozen others." Apparently, Sebastian had far more experience of Lord Ravencross than I did. He jogged back up to the house and darted into the building. "Be careful," I shouted after him, as if my feeble warning might keep him safe. I hugged his coat to my breast and followed the stone walk around to the front where crowds of
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 197 beautifully dressed guests stared up at the windows, watching for signs of fire I found Tess standing in the crowd beside Lord Ravencross. "There you are," she said as if she'd been awaiting my arrival. "I knew you'd get out." She glanced at the coat in my arms. "I see he found you." "Yes." I hugged Sebastian's coat tighter. "H e went back in to look for you and Lord Ravencross." H e's up there now ." She pointed at a third story window. Trying to put out the fire with Lord Castlereagh." Orange flames licked up the curtains. W e could only see their silhouettes against the f ire light as they fought the blaze I watched, holding my breath, each worried second taking hours longer than the one before. Carriages with lamps lit, pulled up to take some of the guests away. A few moments later the flames finally abated and the upstai rs window turned dark. Sebastian burst out of the front door, coughing, searching the crowd for me. As he made his way down the steps, the upper window opened. Smoke eddied out, descending on all of us in a swirling cloud. Lord Castlereagh leaned out and shouted to us The fire is out." A cheer went up. Lady Harbaugh's unmistakable voice boomed above the huzzahs of the crowd. "How did it start, my lord?" Lord Castlereagh shook his head. "A candle, placed on the floor near a curtain." "Then it was intentional," she shouted. Answering those in the crowd who murmured, "Who would do such a thing?" Lady Harbaugh pointed at me. "Her! The Fitzwilliam chit. I saw her leav ing the ballroom right before it happened." She
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 198 paused to make sure every ear h ad tuned to her strident announcement. "And she's done it before. She starts fires. It had to be her. She did this!" Her hatred as palpable as a winnowing fork, stabb ed into me. "No!" I shook my head. "No." I backed away from the angry glares of pe ople around me. "Grab her someone yelled. "Don't let her get away." "I didn't do it," I shouted, knocking away the hands reaching for me. "I wouldn't." Sebastian shoved through the crowd until he stood at my side fending them off. "This is nonsens e. She was in the ballroom with me when the fire started." "How can that be?" a gentleman across from us asked. "I saw you coming from the study just after the alarm was sounded ." "Keep your hands off her," Sebastian warned. Those trying to apprehend me backed away. "She wouldn't do this. I won't let you hang this on her." "Cowards, the lot of you." Lord Ravencross stood at my other side and together they guarded me like a pair of wolves protecting their cub. Lady Stephani glided in front of my accus ers. "Now, gentlemen, I'm sure we can settle this calmly." She fanned her gloved fingers at Ravencross as if she was a gypsy and she expected her jewels to mesmerize him. "Didn't you say Lord Brucklesby was her uncle? Here's the man, here." She pointe d with her fan. "Brucklesby, what say you? Is this your niece? Would she do such a thing?" My uncle wa s not an imposing man. What he lack ed in stature he ma de up for in embroidery. He rejected Brummell's dignified fashion in favor of fancier dress. His coat, a bright blue silk, wa s embellished with enough stitchery to keep all the fingers in C hina busy for a week, and he cover ed his red hair with a wig, as if he still live d in the last century.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 199 A path cleared for him, and he emerged from between onloo kers, adjusted the lace at his cuff, and pulled out a monocle to look me over. "By all the saints! That is my niece." He let the monocle fall and dangle from his lapel fully aware he was the center of attention. With a dramatic flourish he produced a ha ndkerchief from his sleeve and mopped his brow. With an air of importance, my cousins sauntered to his side. Roderick act ed as if he was the final authority as to my identity He stroked his side whiskers which hid his receding jaw and nodded. "Yes, si r. That is her." "Bit of a pickle, this." My uncle shook his head. "It mortifies me to have to say" he began and whirled to me. "Dear niece, I have no choice, do I?" He flicked the handkerchief from side to side, waving it at the invisible consequenc es of his dilemma With an artful sigh he turned back to his rapt audience. "It pains me to confess that the chit nearly burned my brother's stables to the ground, horses and all." With that my uncle sealed my fate. I understood then, why my cousins d elighted in pulling the wings off flies. Those rotten apples as Lady Harbaugh would say, had been poisoned while still hanging on the tree. "An accident," Sebastian shouted in a vain attempt to be heard over the outraged crowd. Just then Captain Grey ca me out of the house his face smudged with smoke. He stood on the steps "Stop!" he shouted. This cannot be." Nothing, however, could drown out Lady Harbaugh. "What say you, my lord?" s he shouted up to Lord Castlereagh. He stood at the window, a man vexe d. The curtains beside him hung blackened and burnt to stinking ash. I knew from experience what the smell of smoke did to a normally rational mind.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 200 Sebastian called up to him, My l ord, s he didn't do this. I know her. She couldn't have." "Lord Wyatt is a young man," Lady Stephani's heavily accented voice crackled over the crowd like lightning before a storm. They hushed and listened. T oo young to recognize evil when it wears a pretty skirt. "A besotted fool," snarled Lady Harbaugh. "He'd say anythi ng. We can't trust his word on it." "Hold on." A gentleman stepped forward. "I know Lord Wyatt. I'd trust him with my life. Have done. What's more, I' d take his word on any matter." "And I!" shouted Captain Grey. Another man countered them "Then, I say, let him bring his proof before the magistrate if he has any." The cry went up. "Take her to the magistrate." "Let the magistrate sort it out." "No!" Sebastian tried to shout them down. "No. She'd be imprisoned until trial. You can't send a gent ly bred girl to Newgate. You know what it s like. You can't do that to her. She's a young lady." She's a n arsonist. N ot one of us." Lady Harbaugh spoke with such conviction the others could not help but agree with her. "She's no better than any other criminal." The crowd would not hear Captain Grey 's or Sebastian's appeal s for reason. All the while my uncle stood idly by, feigning sorrow, watching with glee from under the cover of his handkerchief as one and all passed judgment on me, his brother's on ly daughter. I understood then why my father could never stand up to my mother. No doubt, he'd been bullied and tormented his whole life.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 201 "No! You can't do this." Sebastian moved under the window and made his plea directly to Lord Castlereagh. "My lor d, please. This girl has done a great service for our country. I beg of you, allow me to explain the matter privately." At that exact moment Lady Castlereagh rushed into the burnt out room and cut off Sebastian's petition with a bewildered wail. She wep t aloud at the sight of her demolished bedroom. Lord Castlereagh, occupied with trying to console his wife, waved his hand out the window. "Take the girl away. Best let a magistrate handle the business." Lady Stephani buzzed around the crowd like a ove rsized horsefly biting whoever she could. While Sebastian tried to summon Lord Castlereagh back into the debate, she set to nipping at Ravencross. "I warned you to keep an eye on them, didn't I? This is what comes of your neglect." My peers, the lords and ladies of the land reached a consensus. "Take her away ," they cried. "Off to prison with her." "No!" Sebastian roared, and fought his way through the crowd back to me. "I won't allow it." "Even you can't go against the Minister of Foreign A ffairs," argued my own dear cousin. Sebastian socked Freddie in the gut and shoved him aside. I did not feel sorry for it in the least. Except then Lady Harbaugh took up the challenge. "See there! See how she's beguiled him." Beguiled him? Me? Ludicrous. In any other circumstance, I might have laughed. Instead, I groaned as a handful of men swarmed Sebastian. Captain Grey and a nother smaller group tried to rescue him, to no avail. "Stand back!" Lord Ravencross brandished his walking stick, guarding t he path to me. Tess
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 202 stood at my back, struggling in vain to push them away. There were too many of them. She screamed when they wouldn't stop. At her cry, Ravencross whirled to her defense o nly to be knocked down by five men who pounced on his back. "Sto p!" I screamed. Please. I'll go. Don't hurt them. Leave them be. I'll go with you." Four men now held Sebastian back. One of the curs grabbed him by the throat. Captain Grey was pinned and held back behind him. Sebastian stared at me. His career in the foreign office would be in tatters and it was all my fault. A moment of foolishness in my father's stables would cost both of us a lifetime of grief. I deserved my fate he should not have to suffer for it. "I'll be all right ." I spoke only to him. A hollow promise Even as I said it, rough hands grabbed me, tearing me away from him forever. As they dragged me further and further away, Sebastian's features changed into that of horrified boy -a boy watching his father being haul ed off to t he guillotine. His misery shredded the last of my composure. I struggled wildly to break free, to run back to him B ut t hey wrenched my arms behind me, forcing me into submission. I cried out to him, Sebastian I'll be all right." Only it wasn't tr ue. My chest constricted. Breathing seemed pointless. His anguish punished me more than a hangman's rope ever could. Sebastian had been right. Loving me was far too costly. I had forced him back to the same horror he'd experienced as a boy. I was ca using him to suffer that terror all over again. As they dragged me away I watched the boy's face disappear and the devil return I mpatient, angry, stubborn Sebastian ripped the arm from around his throat and dipped his shoulder. A buckled shoe flew th rough the air as t he man clutching him by the neck flipped
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 203 forward T he fellow's legs bash ed into the men holding Sebastian's arm s His subduers tumbled into the street, splashing down in the gutter. With a quick right to the jaw, Sebastian dispensed w ith the last of the men trying to restrain him. M y two captors wrestled me into a coach pinning me between them on the seat, and t he driver pulled away. Sebastian sprinted after us. In the fray, I'd dropped his coat. He scooped it up and tossed it th rough the open window. "Keep it!" he shouted. "Be brave." As he ran along side the carriage, one of the men sitting beside me thumped on the roof. "Faster," he shouted. The other closed the glass. "I'll come for you." Sebastian yelled, banging on the window. "I'll set this right." The coach sped away from him. Sebastian stood in the middle of the road in his shirtsleeves, forlorn, raking back his dark curls as he so often did when he was upset. I would remember him that way forever. A ngry and frustr ated, but most of all, worried. About me. I slipped on his coat wrapp ed it tightly around me during the carriage ride and pull ed it even tighter when we disembarked. Shivering, I mounted the steps of Newgate Prison. I laughed, once, a hollow cheerless grunt, as I realized my mother's predictions had finally come true. Now, she could say with all honesty, that she c ould never show her face in polite society again. I will have properly shamed her this time. Her daughter would be shut up in Newgate as a dangerous criminal. Or perhaps I would hang. That would really discomfit her. M y feet moved a little slower at that thought. Newgate is a dark cheerless place during the day. At night it is worse than a graveyard. The gallows loom directly outside th e main entrance. Like a huge ghoulish vulture the scaffolding leans over the luckless souls who enter. "I will be waiting," the wind whispers through the crossbeams. "Watching, waiting for a chance to pick
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 204 apart your bones." My captors bang ed on the entr ance thumping with impatient fists and clanging the huge rusted knocker The g ao ler was not happy to be roused at this late hour. His frizzled hair needed a comb. His shirt stock was rumpled and his coat collar askew. Impatient to return to his bed, he swore as he ordered a turnkey to come and shackle my ankles. Holding up his lantern he caught sight of the pearls around my neck and held out his hand to stay the fellow carrying the chains. "For a fee, m iss, I can arrange easements for you. We might dispense with these leg irons." He rubbed his whiskers, evaluating the worth of Jane's pearls. "Mayhaps I might even scratch up a place for you on the Master's Side tis a sight more comfortable than the Common Side." I quickly covered Jane's necklace w ith my hand. "I cannot pay you, s ir. These are not mine. They re a loan from a friend." That's all right an' good, it is. Excepting you being a felon an' all, you'll have to go in the family commons P acked tighter than a pickle jar, it is. I suppose I could put you in with the felons a waitin' trial. Only t hree hundred souls in there. Either one ain't a proper place for a green girl." His gaze flash ed again to Jane's pearls. "As I see it, a true friend wouldn't want you tossed in with cutthroats and thieves, m iss." I shook my head. The pearls a re not mine to spend. "Please yourself, then." He shrugged and signaled the turnkey to do his work. "Double er shackles. Come morning, we'll see whose friendship she values most." The turnkey did n ot spare my dignity as he clamped manacles on my ankles. He handled my legs far more than necessary, and I caught him trying to look up my gown. "Sir!" I scolded and shoved my skirts between my legs, blocking his view. I sent a pleading look to the gen tlemen who'd dragged me into this horrid place.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 205 "Oh for pity's sake, man. Get on with it. The elder of the two swatted the air with his glove as if flies were annoying him. We haven't all night And so, my jailers finished fastening the shackles a nd led me away. Dragging two sets of chains, the heavy iron cuffs cutting into my ankles, I trudged into the depths of the Newgate dungeon. I grew up on a farm. I know the smell of pigs I've caught the stink of rotten eggs that have lain too long in th e grass. I've driven through dank and squalid quarters of London and hidden my nose from the stench of open sewers where too many people live too close together and the filth cannot wash away fast enough. None of these things will prepare you for the way Newgate smells, of vomit and piss, of sick people sitting in their own filth, and vermin living on the dr e gs of those unfortunate souls. T here are so many gates in this place Nothing like a pasture gate these are thick wooden doors reinforced with metal brackets. Each door has a small window barred with iron grating. As each one slammed behind me, the air grew heavier, the stench more putrid. The turnkey's oil lamp flickered with less strength, as if even the flame choked on the rancid air. I gagged. "You'll get used to it," he said with an ugly sneer as he opened the final gate and thrust me in. "Don't wake the others, he warned none too quietly. "Or there'll be hell to pay. Hell I had never believed in hell until that moment, when I could actu ally smell and hear it. I'd expected the sounds of slumber, snoring and deep breathing, not the sound of whimpering children, nor the moans of those too hungry to sleep and yet too weak to awaken. A rat shot past me, not the Punch and Judy variety, his t oenails tick tick ticking on the
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 206 uneven stone floor and splashing through puddles of God only knows what. Foolishly, I'd imagined there would be a cot or a vacant bench I might occupy. I had not expected to step in a pile of human excrement, or navigate around bodies sprawled on the floor next to that same excrement. I covered my mouth to keep from vomit ing. I wanted to turn and call out to the jailer I wanted to beg to be imprisoned in the punishment room at Stranje House. Put me on the rack. Lock me in the spiked mummy case. Just don't leave me here. But I didn't dare cry out. I had best remain silent. There were eyes watching me. Predatory eyes. Not only rats. Cutthroats. Thieves and murderers If I showed weakness now, it would place me in the meanest of positions in this new world. Victim. I hunched down so I could carry my chains, keeping them as quiet as possible as I groped along the wall, edging around reclining bodies. At last, I found a small empty section, not wide enough to lie down in, but enough width to stand. I huddled against damp bricks, slick with slime and human grease. The filth I'd stepped in earlier began to leech inside my shoe. I wanted to cry so bad ly I trembled. My trembling turned to rage and I wanted to scream. I did neither. I forced myself to look as far into the room as I could, watching for any movement. Even in th at hellish dark I saw the predatory glints in the inmate 's eyes as some of them blinked sideways, peering through the night at me, like crafty l ions smelling meat. Subtly, under the cover of Sebastian's coat, I unfastened the pearls and slipped the necklace into his inside pocket. One less temptation. I am not a religious person. My mother put an end to that. Too often I heard her complain that I was a punishment from God, a curse for the follies of her youth chastisement. As proof
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 207 she would point to my ugly red hair, my disgusting freckles, but worst of all -my overly inquisitive mind. So, I disabused myself of the notion of this vengeful God of hers. Even if there was such a being, I was far too unlovely to merit his notice. But here in the dark, cloaked in terror, I forgot my disbelief. In this reeking pot of blackness with my ugliness sufficiently hidden from God, I risked prayer. No t the urgent uncertain pleading for other people I'd uttered earlier. No. This was a much more primal thing. Prayer for myself. I remembered a story our vicar told of a man named Daniel who was thrown into a pit of hungry lions to be devoured. God save d him. He closed the mouths of the lions and made them sleep. I asked for that. Close the eyes of the cutthroats and villains Oh, please make them sleep
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 208 Chapter 18 Angels Dar e Tread All night long I watched, awaiting my fate but t he lions stayed back Surely, they did not sleep the whole night. How could they with the ever present sound of moaning and whimpering? I d id n't know what time it was when the ghostly light of predawn filtered into my new home Early, I expect. I di dn't hea r any sounds of life outside our walls no clip clop of carriages no rattling carts no v endors selling their wares. Too early. O nly a few souls stirred in our hell hole. I would not have thought any place could be more terrifying in the light than it w as in the dark. This place was. No longer hidden beneath the black ink of night, the vast cavern of misery scorched my eyes. The floor was carpeted with pitiful humans sleeping in haphazard rows. A restless toddler leaned against his mother, his plaint ive whin ing growing into a desperate squall His mother moaned and rolled over. No one cared except the handful of rats h e roused Furry gray backs scampered and hopped among the sleeping, wriggling under the straw pallets and hiding beneath the raggedy b lankets of the more well to do residents of the Common Side
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 209 A girl resting against the wall to my left said, "You don't want to stand there, Miss." No sooner had she issued the warning when an old woman clad a threadbare coat stumbled toward me W ithou t warning s he lifted her raggedy skirts and squatted against the wall and let fly a noxious stream of urine I quickly edged sideway but not quick enough to miss getting splash ed I pushed as far away as I could without stepping on the girl. "Th is is th e latrine?" I asked, ignoring the obvious proof deposited all around me. She shrugged and closed her eyes again. I guessed her to be younger than me despite her weary appearance P ale boney and hollow cheeked, d ark rings bruised the skin beneath her e yes. Clad in nothing more than a blood stained shift, she rubbed absently at festering s ores on her arms and throat. D ouble chains D on't make sense s he muttered. "You in that fancy dress." "The dress isn t mine ," I said, shift ing my shackles in a f ailed attempt to keep them from cut ting into my bleeding ankles. She grunted signifying that now she understood why I hadn't purchased easements. With an exhausted sigh, she tipped her head and squinted up at me "Why're you here?" I remembered askin g the same question of Jane when I'd first arrived at Stranje House. Except this girl didn't ask out of curiosity. Hers was a statement more than a question But I knew what she meant S he meant I was an abnormality. I didn't fit in here at Newgate any more than I did any where else. "What's your name?" I whispered thinking that we at least deserved the dignity of exchanging names She h esitated and finally answered in a muffled voice as if embarrassed to admit her own name "Claire." She didn't ask mine. Apparently names didn't matter here. So, I explained exactly why I had intruded upon her
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 210 at Newgate. "I m accused of starting a fire in the Foreign Minister's House. In all likelihood I will hang for treason ." Oh s he said and shrugged. Leas twise then it will all be over." Claire slumped lower against the wall and resum ed her effort to sleep bu t her words struck my empty belly with cannon force She was right. Hanging would provide an escape from this place. I long ed to ask her how she survived this gloom day after day. How long had she been here? What had happened to her clothes? But I didn't ask. S he look ed incredibly tired, so I le f t her to sleep. Standing sentinel over the rectum of Hades, I waited. In the distance, the world ou tside our shameful dungeon came to life. I heard a newsboy hawking his wares, the rumble of coal wagons and meat carters. Claire shivered in her half sleep, shuffled her feet, and tucked them up to her chest in a vain effort to find warmth. Morning come s unwelcome in this place. Those who possessed blankets pulled them over their heads Others buried their eyes and ears beneath skeletal elbows Muffled by the thick walls, I felt as much as heard the bells of St. Paul chiming We would have no reprie ve. Day would come Still the lions kept their distance. I saw several of them shifting to get a better look at me. It would not be long until they pounced. Lions had to eat. The only thing that mattered here was survival and I represented a commod ity. One glance at Claire predicted my fate They had ab used the poor girl until she welcomed death. From the look of her she would not survive much longer. Disease or starvation would take her soon. I closed my eyes for a moment 's escape but b linked them open at the sound of footsteps and the outer gates clanging. T he turnkey unlocked our cage and stepped inside scanning the room until his gaze landed
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 211 on me You there a gainst the wall come with me What did he want? What new torment did he plan to inflict on me? Guessing what they did to young women in this place, I didn't stir from my stronghold beside the latrine If it wasn't for that purpose then he meant to drag me away to some secret court and hang me. I pretended I didn't know it was m e he wanted. You! He barked louder and gestured harshly waving me in his direction. "Over here." He glanced at the floor in disgust. All th e filth protected me. He wrapped his fist around a club hanging on his belt and swore at me. I says, c ome her e. Have a care, Jack. My fellow residents grumbled, objecting to the noise. It's too early to be yellin'." The old woman who splashed me with urine snarl ed D o us a favor p rincess an' g o wi the gent The jailer squared his shoulders and glared at me. Miss, I won't be telling you again You've been summoned. Now, g et yer carcass over here. Claire tugged on my gown. G o with im, m iss. "I expect it's a noose they're summoning me to." She shook her head. Can't be a trial yet I been here eig ht months an' no trial in sight You best go or Jack ll take his stick to ya. Quick as I could I snatched Jane's pearls out of Sebastian's pocket, whipped the coat off and draped it over Claire. I figured Sebastian would've done the same. Keep this f or me. I thought if I instructed her to keep it for me she might not trade the coat away and p erhaps she would sleep a little warmer
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 212 She didn't say anything -n o thanks n o good byes nothing She just gap ed at the coat in her lap as if it was a gre at golden goose egg. With a backward glance I left my privy fortress M y chains clinked and clanged as I navigated around prone inmates most of whom cursed me for my trouble. As soon as I was within reach Jack Turnkey grabbed my arm an d sped up my p rogress to the door. He gave me a rough shaking. Anyone'd think a girl like you would know to come when she's called. No, not you. Oh, no. You has to give ole Jack trouble, that's what. You got visitors and a summons to court m iss. An' t his is th e t h anks I g e t for troubl in' myself to come find you outright disobedience and slop on my floors He pointed to the trail of muck left behind by my swish swashing chains What v isitors?" I ignored the iron cuffs cutting into my ankles and quickened m y pace to keep up with him smear ing more slime and excrement with every step add ing my own blood into the mess. "Who?" H e grumbled an unintelligibl e answer We passed through four gates with nary a nother word between us Jack led me down a side hall f umb ling with his keys as we approached an anteroom As he stuck his key into the lock he hissed into my ear "You should ave told us you was under the protection of a lord We'd ave given you easements on credit." The door opened and I thought I might faint dead away at the sight. Sebastian seethed like a great dark demon ready to wreak vengeance on the jailer. Take those filthy chains off her. The way he said it made even me tremble. Jack 's keys rattled as he bent to the task, stammering, "S he d didn t say nothing, not a w word bout being under your protection, yer l ordship."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 213 Sebastian inhaled and exhaled so loudly I knew he must be struggl ing not to thrash my jailer senseless I reached for Sebastian's hand under the pretense of needing to ba lance myself while Jack unbolted my chains. My hope was to exchange a modicum of comfort, but his grasp was as animated as a sword hilt and equally friendly Jack prattled on. "Trouble is, m'lord, she's to be bound over to court, you see An' the r ules say all prisoners must be conducted into Old Bailey wearin' chains So I' m llowed to remove this one set, but the other must needs stay on A n' I'm that sorry about it I am." Jack shrugged while hammering off one of my iron cuffs. T hem's the rules, you see. L aw s the law An' I'm bound by it as sure as these here chains." During this lengthy speech Sebastian gripped my hand tighter and tighter s aying not a word. He gave me no warm looks. No affection. He seemed so cold I thought he must surely be angry at me. Did he think me guilty? But t hat couldn't be. He was here. Perhaps he wondered about his missing coat. I thought I'd better explain. I'm sorry, but I gave away your coat. I know it wasn't mine to give, only there was a girl with al most no clothes She was shivering and I -" It's of no consequence ," he said, cold as the stones beneath my slippers. I would've done the same." Thank you. I thought as much ." I fell silent The turnkey struggled with my rusty ankle bracelet I gl anced at the door opposite us, guessing it must le a d out of the prison. I wondered if I should thump the turnkey on the head and try to make a run for it. But I probably wouldn't get far and assault would be added to my list of crimes. I chewed the corn er of my lip before daring to ask Sebastian Does this mean I a m to stand trial today?" Y es this morning ."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 214 So soon. My throat felt tight all of a sudden I tried to swallow but couldn't. The thought of hanging no longer held the appeal it had ten minu tes earlier. "Th i s is so very sudden I was told these things take months, even years. "Yes, well He raked back his hair. C ertain members of the government owe me favors. I roused them out of their beds T hose who didn't owe me I bribed to speed you r case along Yes, but that would spe e d me along to the gallows as well. Whatever the verdict is y ou do believe me, don't you? I didn't start that fire." I believe you ." His distance unsettled me. I wanted him to wrap his arms around me and hold me. Only h e didn't h e stood there as stiff as a tin soldier. All this time he hadn't looked squarely at me. Finally he dared. Georgie, a re you ? W hat I mean to say is He searched my face, glanced with irritation at the turnkey and lowered his voice to a whisper I've heard what happens in there." His features twisted from cold anger in to melting anguish To women," he breathed the last into my ear. Did they -" No." I squeezed his hand. I fared as miraculously as Daniel did in the lion's den ." I did my best to smile "I may be covered in dirt my lord, but I am otherwise unharmed." Or at least I would be until they put the noose around my neck. He exhaled as if he'd been holding his breath all night "Good. I had thought worried -" H is v oice broke, and he looked away I held his hand and watched his jaw muscles clenching and unclenching, until a t last they knot ted in familiar stubbornness He nodded and straightened his stance into warrior posture We have much work ahead of us. Your trial -" Mi ss Stranje burst through the far door pushing past the head gaoler who attempted to restrain her No, sir. I refuse to wait one instant longer." She stopped in her tracks the minute she saw me. "Georgiana. Thank God."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 215 Here was a Miss Stranje I did not know T urmoil and agitation seemed out of place on her features H er s mooth ed back hair looked more fray ed than I'd ever seen before b ut s he quickly c ompose d herself W ith her customary air of efficiency she sized me up and observed, "You are looking well "I f you mean I am a stinking mess and yet still able to stand on my own two feet t hen yes, I am well." Miss Stranje elevated her chin and sniffed "Good. I see y ou haven't lost your charming wit." Just then, the turnkey loosene d my left shackle As he yanked it off, the sharp edges scraped more flesh from my ankle. For Sebastian's sake I clamped my mouth tight to suppress a yelp of pain. Miss Stranje promptly took charge She wheeled on Newgate's head gaoler At least h ave the decency to provide a chair Can't you see t he girl needs to sit down? S he's weary to the bone Next, s he turned on Sebastian. "My l ord, you have done marvelously well to arrange this trial with such impressive swiftness. However, I think you wou ld do well to go immediately and remove Lord Castlereagh from Lady Harbaugh's reach as she is filling his ear s with her poisonous rubbish T hat will allow me a few moments alone with Miss Fitzwilliam to attend to her needs." Sebastian let go of my hand a nd tromped out the door. "Heaven help me, I'd like to throttle that Harbaugh woman." "Thank you I called after him. I meant for arranging the trial, but a meaner part of me deeply appreciated his desire to strangle Lady Harbaugh. He stopped and turned back to me, a pageant of confusion tumblin g across his face. I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 216 thought for a moment he meant to bid me farewell, but he didn't. He blanched and I saw again the boyish sorrow that made me ache inside. He tensed, turned on his heel and marched away. The g aoler passed him, carr ying in a small bench from the outer room I sat down for the first time in hours. Jack Turnkey stood sentry at the door leading back to the prison As Miss Stranje paced, I caught her hand and pressed the pearls into it. Here. T hese are Jane's. Will you p lease return them to her, and tell her how sorry I am about ruining her lovely ballgown." Y ou may tell her yourself, Miss Fitzwilliam." "I doubt I shall have the opportunity." She deposited the pearls in her pocket looking at me with that scolding manner of hers. Oh yes, as to that, may I congratulate you on having the distinction of being the first of my students to land herself in prison. Quite an achievement She ought not to have berat ed me. I was miserable enough. Your s tudents ? I thought you said Stranje House wa sn't a school." "It isn't She inhaled and tightened up into Miss Shrewd Hawk again. Georgiana, you bring me to a very important point. I beg you to consider using the powers of persuasion in this situation, rather than your considerable ability to argue. Arguing is not an attractive trait in a young lady N or in this instance will it accomplish your objective. "I suppose not. I studied the floor But I sincerely doubt either arguing or pers uading will do much good. My history with fire is bound to convict me." "You continue to underestimate your ability to sway others." I believe y ou must have me confused with someone else ," I snapped. It's me, Georgiana Fitzwilliam remember? To my rec ollection I have never won one single argument. And wearing this urine stained dress with its delightful vomit scent and my hair which, after last
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 217 night, is undoubtedly tangled and infested with cockroaches spiders, and lice I think persuad ing anyone of anything will prove a trifle difficult ." I crossed my arms with finality. "If not impossible." "Nonsense. Miss Stranje pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket and dabbed at my cheeks. There. You look lovely R ather like an innocent angel who's tum bled to earth. "And landed in a prodigiously muddy sewer I scoffed. "Exactly ." She spread the handkerchief across my lap, pulled a roll from her pocket and set it on the kerchief. Now e at," she ordered. "We can't have you fainting in the prisoner's box." The prisoner's box. And from there to the gallows I stared at the bread in my lap a luscious golden brown bun as large as my hand. Only I couldn't eat M y palms felt clammy and not just because my gloves were embedded with grime I tugged t hem off and lifted the roll to my lips It tasted like bits of dry straw in my mouth. I t had been almost a full day since I'd eaten n evertheless, my stomach revolted at the thought "I can' t. I shook my head and turned to my jailer Jack, wo uld yo u please give this to Claire, the girl who sleeps next to the privy area ? She's dreadfully hungry and -" Yes m iss I know the one ." He eyed the roll and I sighed, guessing Claire would n ever even see it. Miss Stranje thrust a flask of water at me "Drink ." She dusted her hands marched over to Jack and handed him a half sovereign S omething for your trouble. In exchange, not only will you give the girl th is roll, but you will see to it that Miss Fitzwilliam's friend receives bread everyday for the nex t two week s Do I make myself clear?" Miss Stranje bore into him with her
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 218 unyielding gaze. Trapped, Jack shifted from side to side "I'll do what I can." Bear in mind, young man, i t is well within my power to have you removed from your post. Odd that she called the grizzled, graying, turnkey young when clearly he was much older than she, and yet it seemed right. It many ways Miss Stranje seemed older than anyone I'd ever met. She waited until he looked at her directly before continuing, I will retur n later in the week during visiting hours I f I find you have not done as we have asked I will report you. Now run along and do as you are bid. W hile you are at it bring us a chamber pot. Jack locked us in the anteroom and went away grumbling I'm not a chamber maid to be ordered about willy nilly No, I am not. I work for the crown, I d o The sound of his grousing echoed down the hall as he stomped away l eaving me to contemplate my bleak situation Have you sen t word to my parents?" "Yes." Mi ss Stranje tapped her foot impatiently and stare d out of a small barred window into the barren Newgate yard I sent a letter by courier ." Y et they were not here. "Perhaps the y didn't receive word in time ," I said unwilling to consider any other possibi lity She spun around and in a very stern voice said, "They know Georgiana I sent the courier last night as soon as I discovered you'd been arrest ed T hey have already repl ied T his information sank into my heart and transform ed it into a dull thu mping thing. I n a very short time my useless heart would not have to make the effort and my parents would be rid of me once and for all "They're not coming are they? No. You are my problem now. That is how your mother phrased it." Miss Stranje s quared her shoulders stoically as if it did not matter a farthing t hat my parents had abandoned
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 219 me altogether "A bank draft accompanied her note Apparently, I am to be compensated quite handsomely for handling the matter." How very thoughtful of them No ." She sat down beside me. It is not thoughtful. Not in the least. For pity's sake, Georgiana, c all a spade a spade. It is a wretched decision. Cowardly in the extreme ." I cannot blame them for not wanting to watch me hang." "Do n't be fatal istic." She hopped up again, and set to pacing. Not fatalistic R ealistic. We may as well face facts Or, as you said, call a spade a spade I shall hang." No, y ou must have hope. Cling to it. Without hope we are naught but mindless animals doomed from the start. Without hope we are l ike the inmates caged in the Common S ide. I said nothing. Hope was expensive. She bristled at my downcast attitude. Posture." She clapped her hands at me, as if I was a silly goose she could herd into a sunny d isposition I checked into the facts last night and you stand a fifty fifty chance. Your mathematics are sadly off. I should think my chances are c loser to one in a thousand. Wait -" Now it was my calculations that needed adjust ment What do you mean -l ast night ?" I had assumed Sebastian summoned her this morning on my behalf but no, twice she had mentioned last night She'd even sent couriers to my parents H ow did you find o ut so quickly?" "I arrived at Lord Castlereagh's townhouse afte r midnight only to find the household in an uproar because of the fire and Lord Wyatt nearly gone mad with anger He was demanding
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 220 satisfaction of one and all. I warned you not to make him fall in love with you didn't I? B ut no, you are exceptionally pi g headed. And so is he. I'm surprised he didn't call me out for not stopping you -" What s this? You went to Lord Castlereagh's ? And Sebastian challenge d someone to a duel?" "One question at a time, young lady. Of course, I went last night Did you r eally think I wouldn't notice two of my girls were missing? It is fortunate that Seraphina cannot lie with any aptitude at all. Thus, Tess having confided her plans to Sera I was able to wrest out of her your direction. I set out immediately. Really, Georgie, why didn't you come to me first ? Because you would have stopped me ." Yes, and rightly so. Look around you. I c ould have prevented all this. Sera must not have told her everything. Tess had a dream. If you stopped me Lord Wyatt would 've d ie d ." I watched her expecting an outburst of disbelief. Instead, she held perfectly still wary, listening with that unsettling hawk like scrutiny of hers "Not him only I explained. "O thers in Vienna. And then horrible things would happen in Europe leading to even more deaths." Y ou believed her. Tess is very convincing. Mmm She nodded and took a deep breath And so here we are. Her skirts whipped as she spun around and started pacing again. Anxious for her full attention, I reached out in a gesture to implore her to stop, but she brushed past me. Is Tess all right? Lord Ravencross ? Please ," I begged. "T ell me Sebastian isn't really going to fight a duel? If he is, y ou must stop him.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 221 "Yes, yes, and yes. Tess and Lord Ravencross are fin e Captain Grey convinced Lord Wyatt to put his time to better use securing your trial rather than shoot ing holes through half the peerage and fleeing to Australia to avoid prosecution. I slumped back against the wall. "Thank you," I murmured. "It s Captain Grey you must thank, and the good graces of Lord Castlereagh." Newgate's gaoler came through the outer door. Say yer good byes, Miss. It's time Off you go to Old Bailey to see the judge These two guards will take you through the prisoners e ntrance To my surprise Miss Stranje hugged me I had not expected warmth from her. "Hope," she whispered in my ear. "And persuasion."
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 222 Chapter 19 Burning at the Stake My chains clattered across the cobblestones. Clinking louder than a pot p eddler I shuffled past curious onlookers, past the gallows with its ghoulish hanging ropes swinging in the wind and on to the court building next to Newgate P rison We stood before a high brick wall topped with iron pikes. My guards unlocked a small do or in the wall and ushered me into the Old Bailey to stand before a judge and plead for my life. The courtroom was a harsh landscape. T hree men in black robes and long white wigs sat behind a wide, imposing oak podium This judgment bar was elevated so that everyone on the gallery floor must look up at the specter of three very somber, judges T he banner draped across his robes signified that the judge on the far right was Lord Mayor of London The other two magistrates I could not identify The bai liff locked my leg irons through a metal ring inside the dock which is a raised prisoner's box directly across from the judgment bar There is no chair for the wicked. So, I stood and face d my judges and accusers hoping my legs would not give out The gallery o ff to the side held six pews crammed with more people than a church on
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 223 Sunday and above that was a packed balcony. Lady Stephani and Lady Harbaugh sat in the gallery on the front row, expressions of smug satisfaction buoying their features. L ady Stephani fanned herself rapidly as if brushing away the other, irritating, less exalted, occupants of the chamber, especially me My uncle made a great commotion in the middle seats, wearing a tragically pained expression No doubt, he'd practiced fo r hours before getting it exactly right. Other s pectators in the gallery pointed, whispered, and gawked at me just as they would a chained up tiger at Astley's amphitheater Above the prisoner's box suspended on two posts, hung a hinged mirror This c ruel mirror was angled to catch light from the window and reflect it directly on to the criminal This illumination proved particularly unkind in my case. The sunlight reflecting off my red hair was bound to remind everyone of the very flames they thought I'd set the night before. Miss Stranje had instructed me to hope. So, I hoped for a cloud, a big dark one. Expecting two miracles in a row must have been a bit presumptuous of me. In lieu of clouds, God chose that moment to lift the fog and bestow up on London an unusually blinding morning sun. I glanced up at the mirror. Instead of looking like a poor hapless angel who'd tumbled from heaven, I blazed like the archangel of fire. A hush fell over the gallery. I heard their breathy exclamations, the ir startled gasps some of them even crossed themselves S eeing myself in that astonishing light gave me hope. I cannot explain why b ut it did. I think perhaps I d never viewed myself as a person of any power. But o ne look in that mirror and I frightened even myself. Clearly, I am n ot a mousey brown girl N o r am I watery porcelain perfection. I am not the biddable, unexceptional daughter m y mother had always wished for I am fire.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 224 I would hang because of my odd ness But in t hat moment of bright re velation I determined to live out the remainder of my life stand ing straight and tall with the dignity I deserved. I was not guilty I would not act the part, regardless of chains, or boxes, or mirrors, or men in ridiculous wigs. An odd smile curved Miss Stranje 's lips. I fancied she must be see ing the same thing I did. Sebastian sat at a side table next to Lord Castlereagh and Captain Grey H is face remained dark and shuttered. W hen he finally venture d to look in my direction his mouth fell open as if he, too, saw a phoenix rising from the ashes Tess, Sera, Jane, and Maya sat i n the balcony It was odd to see Maya wearing a deep chip straw bonnet that hid her face, rather than draped in the lovely robes she normally wore. Sera and Jane cast m e smiles laden with well intentioned encouragement, but I saw the anxiety beneath their bravado. Tess didn't smile. She sat as s till as a Greek statue star ing straight ahead as if seeing something not yet in the room. W hat had her dreams foretold now? I willed her to turn in my direction so that I might hypothesize When she finally did look my way her face told me nothing, not to hope, nor to despair. Trying to decipher my future in her features I scarcely noticed the chief magistrate speaking to me. I must state at the outset that this is all highly irregular. It is only at the behest of Lord Castlereagh and the Prince Regent himself that I have agreed to settle this case in a n informal hearing. Miss Fitzwilliam, you have been bound over on th e charge of arson and a second charge of treason. This is a grave and serious matter T herefore, I ask you to consider carefully." I snapped to attention. The chief magistrate, a much taller broader man than the other two, leaned forward
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 225 focusing solely upon me. I f you consent to th ese proceedings you will surrender your right to a trial by jury This is a common practice with young prisoners seeking respite. However, most of th o se cases do not involve capital offenses. If you agree to these proceedi ngs my ruling will constitute the final say on the matter The verdict will be binding a nd your punishment will be carried out as ordered under the law I f you are found guilty Miss Fitzwilliam, I am bound by law to sentence you to death by hanging. I gripped the ledge of my box to steady myself feeling the noose already choking me When I didn't answer right away, the Lord Mayor leaned forward. Miss Fitzwilliam, d o you consent to these proceedings? I recognized intelligence in the chief magist rate, although not an abundance of pity. His eyes looked like those belonging to a man of principle -if I am any judge of it. On the other hand, he seemed irritated, perhaps vexed at having to rouse himself so early o n a Saturday morning I weighed my decision, and concluded my chances were better with him than with a handful of jurors -strangers coerced into sitting in court for hours and kept without food or drink, whilst listening to case after case. Moreover t he j urymen the bailiff collect ed mig ht turn out to be vagrants addled by malnutrition or too much gin. Yes my lord I consent I had no proof of innocence anyway There could only be one outcome I would ha ng by the neck until dead for crimes I did not commit Why prolong my misery wa iting for a jury trial I thought of Claire, being abused daily and sleeping beside a latrine. At least my suffering would be mercifully short. T he Lord Mayor leaned in to confer He pointed at Miss Stranje and t he chief magistrate nodded. Miss Stranje you are th e girl' s guardian. Do you also agree ?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 226 She stood. Yes my lord. I will abide by Miss Fitzwilliam's decision "So be it. Prosecutor have you all the facts and a re you prepared to go forward? A young energetic fellow bounced to his feet T his surprised me. I'd read court cases in T he Proceedings newspaper, and knew it was somewhat unusual to have a prosecutor, as the judges usually ask ed all the questions and the accused are expected to speak for themselves Yes milord. I ve been appr ised of the facts this very morning ," t he young fellow chirped Appalling acts Villainous He shook his head as if the whole matter offended him right down to his socks "D readful deeds Malicious. With each adjective his voice climbed in timbre until it finally cracked with excitement H e turned and al l but winked at Lady Harbaugh who I guessed then to be the one who had hired him The magistrate inhaled with obvious exasperation Let us proceed then shall we? Miss Fitzwilliam how do you p lead ?" I am innocent my lord. Acoustics in the room were very good, and my answer rang with a clarity that pleased me. Lady Harbaugh's derisive, "Hhumph," also echoed about the room. The judges summoned Lord Castlereagh to stand before the bar T he e ager prosecutor asked his lordship if he was certain the fire had been set intentionally. Lord Castlereagh said that he felt certain it had None of the magistrates asked him a question on my behalf. The prosecutor then asked him if he thought this inte ntional fire might be an act of treason. As to that, Lord Castlereagh sniffed deeply I cannot know. I know only that no one would've accidentally set a candle on the floor next to the curtain T he first draft of wind was sure to ignite the fabric. O ne of the magistrate s a small elderly, bird like gentleman, whose bulky wig completely
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 227 overwhelmed his skeletal features, cleared his throat My l ord, if we find that t his young lady is the one to have started the fire t he judge tipped his knobby fing er at me. W ould you still believe this to be an act of treason ?" At last A question that might go towards exonerating me Lord Castlereagh glanc ed squarely at me for the first time since standing to bear witness against me. H e blinked t hen swallowed and appraised me quickly before look ing away I do not think it likely N o. T hey dismissed Lord Castlereagh, and t o my dismay, called my cousin Roderick to bear witness Not Roderick The toad would love nothing more than to watch me squirm at the end of a rope, and he'd probably look up my skirt into the bargain. I resisted the temptation to gr oan and forced myself to stand stoically I t proved exceedingly hard especially when he promised to tell the truth Ha! I wanted to say I nstead I bit m y tongue. They say hanging is a fairly quick way to die If I was lucky, only ten or twelve minutes of strangulation, a t most half an hour and then I would be dead. I've heard for a few shillings the hangman's assistant can be bribed to pull one's legs, thus assuring the neck breaks quickly. Engrossed in speculati ng how to go about hir ing this grisly service I almost succeeded in ignoring my cousin 's testimony However, I didn't miss the part where he said that he did indeed see me wandering the halls I n his words, "I s uspected she was up to no good. Said as much to my brother d idn t I Freddie? Freddie answered from the gallery. Aye, exactly what he said.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 22 8 The prosecutor nodded earnestly as if taking my buffoon of a cousin seriously. W hat ha ppened then? Did she go upstairs to the bedroom where the fire started ? Well, I wouldn t know for sure, now would I? Me and Freddie went back to the ballroom. I ha d to give Roderick credit He didn t outright lie. Although, the rascal could have to ld them he saw me go back in to the ballroom with Lord Wyatt. H e could also have mentioned that the west hallway had no stairs leading up to the bedroom that caught fire The chief magistrate asked my cousin if he d seen me after th e incident in the hall way. Roderick shrugged Tried to find her W anted her to stand up with me in the next set you see? Except ing s he w as n't nowhere to be found. Saw her later of course, when the place was already burning. Next came Lady Harbaugh to stand before the c ourt. She strode up to the bar and leapt into her testimony with even more vigorous volume than normal. I spotted her in the hall her and those ne'er do well cousins of hers. I knew she was getting up to some sort of mischief K new it in m bones. I' d warned Miss Stranje th at girl ought to be locked up. Just look at her ." Lady Harbaugh wagged her beefy finger at me. "Anybody can see she's trouble. T his is what comes of paying me no heed. Imagine my distress when I saw Miss Fitzwilliam roaming the halls like the veriest rabble S he practically spit my name, as if it soured her mouth to let it roll over her tongue. Well, I did my duty and escorted her back to the ballroom G ave her a proper set down I did Mores the pity I didn't have a lengt h of rope to tie her down with. Lady Harbaugh barely pause d for a breath C ertainly not long enough to allow anyone to ask a question of her. She sailed forward with gusto. "I have here a letter from a neighbor of
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 229 hers telling of how Miss Fitzwilliam s et fire to her father's stables ." She unfurled the familiar missive and read the contents emphasizing each slanderous speculation, projecting her voice with such theatrical skill I doubt anyone in the entire room missed a single word. The chief m agistra te stopped her before she reached the dramatic conclusion This is all hearsay, conjecture and gossip. "But, there's more -" "Yes, I'm sure there is. However, i t would be better if we hear d directly from the girl's father on the matter of the previo us fire." She smacked the letter against her skirts. T hat's just it, my lord H e isn't here is he? Her own father has not troubled himself on her behalf ." She speared me with a look of pure spite How had she known that comment would sting the most ? "Quite telling if you were to ask my opinion." The magistrate rubbed his chin and pursed his lips before posing his next question. "Lady Harbaugh, did you see Miss Fitzwilliam start the fire at Lord Castlereagh's house? She hesitated, glanced at Lord Castlereagh, and filled her lungs with bitter air before answering. "Well, no. I would've stopped her and stomped it out if I had, now wouldn't I?" "Then d id you witness her emerging from the direction in which the fire started?" Lady Harbaugh thrust h er shoulders back, her face turned red and her bosom heaved up and down like a ship's prow striking against stormy waves. I s hould think it's obvious she' s the one who did it. The magistrate spoke to her calmly, despite her strident tone. My l ady, I wi ll ask you again. D id you see her coming from those rooms, or not ?" "Yes!" Spittle fl ew from her mouth as she blurted the lie. "Yes. I saw her coming down
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 230 the stairs. You couldn t have ." Sebastian sprang to his feet. You're lying. She wasn t even on that side of the house. I know because she was with me. You're a young fool. I saw her coming from that very direction. "Liar! You couldn t have. The fire started on the other side of the house from where we were. "Order." The elderly magist rate thumped a wooden block against the podium Order. No one heard him because Lady Harbaugh swung her hand at the gallery, shouting, Ask anyone S he wasn t in the ballroom It had to be her. The magistrate banged his hand against his desk a nd the Lord Mayor shouted "B e seated Lord Wyatt Y ou ll have a say later ." No one heard. People were too busy shouting from the gallery and the balcony, some accusing me, some siding with Sebastian. T he entire room e rupted into chaos, despite the m agistrate s standing and banging on the bar. I d had enough. Enough of the noise. Enough of the lies Enough false hoods. "STOP I shouted. I do not know how I produced such a thunderous sound, but everyone froze. "My l ord, neither of them are telling you the truth. Lady Harbaugh hates me and Lord Wyatt is trying to protect me. It is noble of him, but I can't allow him to perjure himself. Except it is true I was with him earlier in the hallway, but on that side of the house, my lord, there are no stairs leadi ng to the bedrooms where the fire started. The Lord Mayor dropped into his seat shaking his head T he chief m agistrate remained standing and leaned on the podium If you were not on the stairs or with Lord Wyatt, where were you just prior to the fire ?
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 231 "No No. I saw her." Lady Harbaugh rapped on the dais, trying to attract the magistrate s attention back to her. Lady Harbaugh," he said, through gritted teeth. We have heard quite enough from you. One more outburst and you will see yourself in the dock next. Do you understand? He yelled at the courtroom, pointing his gavel at the gallery and balcony. "And that goes for anyone else who interrupts these proceedings." "Lord Castlereagh, is it true that t here are no stairs in the west hall leading to where the fire broke out?" Correct My Lord. No access from that hall. "You there." The magistrate pointed at Roderick. In w hat hallway did you meet with your cousin." Roderick blinked like a pig watching the axe descend. He swallowed. "Speak up y oung man I'm losing my patience. Freddie gave Roderick a vicious jab in the ribs. "West, sir, er, I mean, my lord. Believe it was the west hall Lady Harbaugh side stepped in the front of the bar, edging back to her seat. T he magistrate leaned over th e podium and tapped his hammer "Lady Harbaugh She halted and hefted her chin, as if wounded he should stop her so harshly. Bearing in mind that perjury in the King's court is a crime, m y lady, would you care to retract your statement? Unless you 'd ca re to spend the next year inside Newgate I'd advise you to think carefully and speak only the truth. She stared at him as if he were a codfish wearing a wig. Her mouth moved in a number of starts and stops before she actually answered. I may have been mistaken S he sniffed and swished across the court room to her seat.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 232 "Miss Fitzwilliam exactly w here were you when the fire started ?" I glanced at Miss Stranje remember ing her advice to persuade. Rumpled, stained, bedraggled, and g low ing like an ember I didn't stand a chance of persuading the magistrates of anything. So, I simply told the truth. Hiding, my lord. He sat down slowly. Hiding? Why? I d had a rather unsettling conversation with Lady Harbaugh. She had just told me Phfft phftt p hfft!" A weird noise like that of strangled cat, came from Lady Harbaugh. I would've thought such a pleading expression impossible of her Yet there she was, begging me not to expose to the court and her peers the venomous threats she'd given me, the i ntense hatred she felt against me Yes ? urged the magistrate lifting his hammer and casting a warning look at the lady in question. She told you what?" I swallowed. Lady Harbaugh looked utterly pitiful like a desperate child. I'd learned the value of mercy that day. So I chose my words carefully. My lord, I will spare you the details. Suffice it to say s he explained her dislike of me and told me that I am a great burden on society. I heard Lady Harbaugh exhale her relief all the way from my pr isoner's box. The magistrate mopped his brow with a handkerchief knocking his wig somewhat askew. "Yes, yes, a great burden. As are all young women." He spoke with the weariness of a man who must have several daughters. The elderly magistrate nodded in agreement. And w hat did you do then? "I was hurt ." I paused uncertain which truths would be most salient "A nd embarrassed. So, I sought out a column at the far end of the ballroom in the shadows away from the dancing I lowered my gaze asham ed to tell them I'd slunk away to lick my wounds. Except I
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 233 couldn't afford to let shame blemish the truth. So I squared my shoulders and told him the rest. "I hid, my lord. I hid so that no one would see me cry. "Typical female behavior," he muttered. The three judges bent their heads together. They argued with the Lord Mayor who gestured at Lord Castlereagh. The chief magistrate ticked off points on his fingers, the elderly judge scratched at his wig and whisper in heated tones about the law. He t ilted his head indicating Miss Stranje. After another bout of arguments they stopped, and turned to study me, then fell back into a short discussion. Finally, they resumed their positions with grim expressions. "Miss Fitzwilliam, the chief magistrate sa id, as he prepared to pass judgment Stand tall I ordered myself. I took a deep breath and willed my legs to continue holding me up. I would not cower. I would not faint. I would not retch. "You are an unusual young lady. W e find y our manner forth right and without guile. A lthough hearsay appears to be weight ed against you we find that there is simply not enough proof to warrant a conviction. It is therefore the verdict of this court that you are not guilty of these charges. He banged his gave l against the bar In the future I advise you to stay well away from Lord Castlereagh's house Go home, Miss Fitzwilliam and avoid even the appearance of a fire. I stood in the box gripping the rail, uncertain that I had heard him correctly. The c ourtroom exploded with noise and still I could not move. The magistrate stood and pulled off his wig. You re cleared m iss. You can go home.
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 234 Chapter 20 Home I was free to go h ome. What home ? My parents wanted nothing more to do with me, and even if they did, I knew now I didn't belong there. Isn't home where you are understood and wanted? Miss Stranje stood off to the side watching me, like always, waiting for me to make a decision. And that's when I knew exactly where I wanted to be At Stranje H ouse being unusual did not consign me to perdition. I belonged at Stranje House with the other unusual girls -in that respect we were sisters. Sisters I don't know why that thought caused tears to fall from my eyes. Most likely they we re t ears of relief Except it felt like so much more than that I'd never had a sister not until that moment. I looked up at the four of them in the balcony and waved h appier than I could ever remember feeling Y et my foolish tears kept leak ing out. The bailiff unlocked my chains and pulled them off my bleeding ankles. I stood in the prisoner's box, holding the edge, needing the support. I was free. Not just free from Newgate,
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 235 free from the dungeon my mother and my mother's like had imprisoned me in. Lord Castlereagh Captain Grey and Sebastian stood together in deep c onversation When they finished talking Sebastian came to me with hard set eyes and an expression I knew meant bad news. You r e leaving aren't you? He nodded. "W e sail this afternoon. So soon ?" I said not censuring my tongue as I ought. He nodded solemnly. "Trouble with Bonoparte. Rumors. I can't tell you more." Months later, the world would hear of Napoleon Bonaparte's daring escape from Elba. Unbeknownst to me we were both escaping our prisons. So many things I wanted to say to Sebastian but Captain Grey waited by the door and any minute t he y would leave. He would leave. Thank you seems such in adequate praise my lord. I am deeply indebted -" "No." Sebastian shoo k his head. I would not let him stop me. You know it is true. I a m indebted. Without this trial occurring as quickly as it did I dare not think -" "Don't say it ." He helped me down from the prisoner' s box When he let go of me I almost reached up to smooth back those dear strands of black hair that fall across his brow. Except that would have been far too intimate. He stared down at me, the corner of his mouth quirked up wickedly. I felt heat burst ing into my cheeks. "Memorizing my features, Ge orgie?" "You flatter yourself, my lord." Why must he vex me at a time like this? I might not see him for too long It didn't matter if it was only a few weeks. Too long. There c ould be no good bye kiss here n ot in this place with heads of state and half of
Str anje House, School for Unusual Girls Kathleen Baldwin page 236 London watching. Not that Sebastian wanted to kiss me. I couldn t be certain that speculative glance at my lips meant anything or not. He reached for my hand I thought he meant to hold it, to press it affection ately the way lovers did in bo oks. H e didn t He opened my hand, pressed a small round object into my palm and closed my fingers around it. "T his was my father s ," h e said. "Take care of it for me. I stared at the pocket watch in my palm When I looked up he was putting on his hat and backing away from me. Keep it safe. I d id n t know how three words could be filled with so much promise. But the y were. Jane, Sera, and the others rushed toward me from the balcony stairs. Miss Stranje came and stood at my elbow. "Come I t's time to go home." Still, I could not tear my gaze away from Sebastian. He was right I was memorizing his features, the line of his broad shoulders, the way his dark hair curled over his collar, his sure easy stride I treasured up each and every detai l determined to hold on to them as tightly as I held his father's watch in my fist. "You'll see him again." Tess whispered in my ear. "You changed everything." A s he and Captain Grey went out the door, the devil glanced back and winked.