“Now come over to the mirror!” Jo squealed.
“Oh, don’t you look beautiful?” Henri said.
It was finally the night of the soiree and Jo and Henri, despite not being able to attend themselves, had spend all afternoon prettying me up. They both wanted to take a turn at doing my hair so it was done three times, but we started early so there was plenty of time.
“Oh, you two have made me look beautiful!” I gushed as I looked in the mirror.
“You’ll look far prettier than Mariah.” Jo said. “Even if the only thing going for you was your expression. She’s so sour she won’t be the only one from our class!”
“You are far more beautiful inside and out.” Henri said. “It’s so cramped in here, lets go out onto the landing so we can admire you!” Giggling Henri and Jo pulled me out onto the landing and I gave them a twirl.
“Oh to be down there tonight!” Jo grabbed my arm and swung me around in a waltz. “I don’t care how stuffy the company I expect it will be simply grand.”
“Oh do tell us all about it!” Henri said. “Every little detail as soon after as you can.”
“During, if you can.” Jo amended. “And if you think you could sneak any of those little almond cakes upstairs—”
“Jo!” Henri scolded, half laughing.
“Well… it’s worth a try!”
“I don’t imagine I will be able to get away during… but you never know!” I gave Jo a wink.
“Now you behave yourself!” Henri told me.
“Yes Ma’am!” I have her a salute. “Oh I wish Mother could see me now!”
“You’ll have to show her the dress when she picks you up at the end of term. She’ll be so proud you made it.” Henri said. “Now you better get downstairs or else they’ll be after you!”
“Oh, aren’t you the two best-est friends in the world?” I grinned at them then dashed for the stairs. At the top I turned on my heel and called back “I’ll be sure to miss you after this term!”
“Will you miss us enough to stay the rest of the year?”
“Maybe!” I turned and skipped down the stairs.
“I see you’re finally here.” Mariah said to me with a scowl. But nothing could dampen my mood.
“Sure are!” I said then grinned. “All ready!” I did a little twirl. I could see instantly that over the holidays someone had taken Mariah’s dress and fixed up the sewing. THey probably had to resew it completley, Cheater! I didn’t care, it was still ugly and I was the most beautiful girl in the world, or it felt like it at any rate!
I heard the front door close and I looked across to catch a glimpse of the early arrived guest but there was only Gladys standing there. She must have let someone out, not in.
“Evening Gladys! Don’t we look grand?”
“That ye do Miss.” She said. “Now everythin’s mostly set up, the two of you are to help with the flowers an—”
“Gladys.” Miss Jane strode into the hall. “Roberta is to come with me.”
“What will I be helping with?” I asked as I skipped over to Miss Jane.
“Nothing. Lady D’Winter will see you in her office. And stop that abominable jumping.”
“Yes Miss Jane.” I settled down, not just because I was trying to either. My thoughts immediately fled to Mariah. Had she got me into some sort of trouble? It would be just the sort of thing she would do.
“Have I done something wrong?” I asked Miss Jane.
“It’s in regards to your parents. You best go in.” My heart lifted and it was all I could do but dash for the door. My parents weren’t due back for a month yet, but perhaps they had come early? Then they would see me in my beautiful dress and they could see me sing and hand round refreshments and I could tell them all about Jo and Henri and tell them how much I missed them. And oh, did ever miss them! When I thought about it it was like a physical ache in my heart and when I didn’t think about it it was like… like something was missing, like a hole, a gap in my heart that would only be filled when I saw them again. It was all I could do to resist running into Lady D’Winter’s office but resist I did.
When I entered I saw only Lady D’Winter sitting at her desk. Of course, my parents might be waiting elsewhere so I tried not to be disappointed. Miss Jane entered after me and closed the door. Lady D’Winter indicated for Miss Jane to take a seat but I wasn’t invited to sit so I remained standing.
“You wished to see me?” I approached her desk. Lady D’Winter looked at me and sighed.
“What are we to do with you?” she said.
“I—” That was not what I was expecting. Was I in trouble after all?
“Don’t answer back.” She snipped. We looked at each other for another few moments.
“I have just spent the better part of half an hour in interview with a man from the commission.” She continued. Commission? What commission. “I regret to inform you that ten weeks ago your father’s ship did not report at her scheduled port.”
I swallowed but my mouth was dry. Despite the warmth in the office gooseflesh sprung up over my arms and I shivered… or the world shivered around me, I couldn’t tell.
“Stand up when I am speaking to you young lady!” I looked at Lady D’Winter blankly, not comprehending her words until I realised that I had sunk into the nearest chair.
I thought of my Pappa, of my darling mother and of highland courage. I looked at my legs. They weren’t mine, but I forced them to behave and they stand me up again. Pappa would want me to be strong.
“A fortnight later a search party was sent after her. It took six weeks to locate her at the bottom of the ocean, all hands were announced lost at sea. Do you understand?”
“Yes Ma’am.” I said, trying to catch her words as they spun around me. “Where— where are my parents? Where is Mother? Where is my Pappa?”
“Have you not listened to a word I have said young lady? Have you not been graced with two ears? They were lost at sea. They are dead.”
“Do you understand?”
“And the question remains now, what do we do with you?”
“Do with me?”
“Do with you. Yes. I can’t imagine what is wrong with your ears, Roberta. Do try to listen, I’ve had a rather trying day. Your fees were paid for the year but no longer. I can’t keep you here forever. I’m told you have no family to go to, is that correct?”
“I— I have— had only Mother and Papa. Noone— noone else…” My voice sounded distant. If I squinted I could almost see her, the small girl in the pretty dress hearing that her life was over and her world shattered. She wasn’t me, that small girl. She was someone else. I was her strong angel speaking for her, helping her through these words.
“Roberta, don’t you understand what I’m telling you girl? You are a child. You can’t be thrown out into the world to survive on your own, you won’t last one day out there. You’ve grown up sheltered but the real world is cruel and harsh. Where do you expect to live?”
“I— I could stay here during school term—”
“With what money? I run a school, not a charity home.”
“The money my father had. His… his estate… or I could go home, Elen would look after me and the house almost runs itself! Why our butler—”
“There is no money and no estate.” Lady D’Winter’s voice was harsh.
“But his savings… our home—”
“Your father had not run his affairs as he should have. The servants have been dismissed and your house has been sold to pay off his debts. There is nothing left.
“No…” This was wrong. This was not right. Not my Papa. There was a mix-up. Someone else’s papa was laying at the bottom of the ocean and some little girl somewhere else was missing her parents dearly. Not me. I was looking down on her, that poor little girl. I was an angel. It wasn’t me down there. Not me.
“It’s the truth and you best understand it straight away. If it’s not the streets for you then it’ll be the orphanage for as long as they’ll have you and let me tell you they won’t welcome a soft girl who hasn’t seen a day’s hard work in her life.”
“Don’t answer back. Now I said I wasn’t a charity case but, from the compassion of my heart, you understand, I’ll allow you to stay here until you can gain another position somewhere else.”
“Stay?” The girl looked up at me. She didn’t understand.
I reached out and touched her shoulder, to give her strength, to give her courage. Her world had been torn in two. Not mine.
“Yes. Though it will take far longer than half a year to train you into anything decent and the money your father paid me will only cover half a year more. You’ll be expected to earn your keep, understand? No more classes. You’ll be working and thankful for the chance. Understand?”
“Do you wish to be thrown out on the streets? Or to an orphanage?”
“Take her away.” Lady D’Winter said to Miss Jane. “Find her something suitable to wear for her new situation and remove her belongings from the room she used to share with Miss Cox. We’ll have to sell them so we can afford to keep her here.” With a wave of her hand Lady D’Winter dismissed me and then picked up her pen and paid me not a moment’s more notice.
“Come Along Roberta.” Miss Jane said.
The girl turned away and looked up, lost, looking for something… looking for me?
“Do you understand? You have nothing. You are nothing. You should be very thankful for the kindness Lady D’Winter has shown you. I was looking up and now I turned to look at Miss Jane.
The door shut behind us. Somehow we had moved back out into the hall.
I looked back to the closed door. I was me. I was no longer hovering, no longer an angel. I looked up above me but I couldn’t see my angel there either. Where had she gone? I needed her. Miss Jane grabbed my arm and pulled me away.
“Come along.” Miss Jane said as she half dragged me up the stairs.
My legs followed her without any bidding from me. I raised a hand to my cheek. My hand was shaking.
I touched my face and my fingers came away dry. Miss Jane was talking but I couldn’t hear her. There was just me now, just me.