The Lady in Yellow: A Victorian Gothic Romance

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Th
e Lady in Yellow

Alyne de Winter

KINDLE EDITION

Copyright © 2012 by Alyne de Winter

Revised & Expanded Edition © 2013

Cover Design: Indie Author Services

 

Dedicated to Cheryl Nance

for her unswerving support for this book

and won
derful friendship

and

For Alessandra, it's true fan

 

 

 

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here.

I’m mad. You’re mad."

"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here.”

A
lice's Adventures in Wonderland

----Lewis Carroll

 

 

One

 

T
he agent, Mr. Crowe, sat behind his shining Chippendale desk, reading Veronica's reference letter through a pair of pince-nez. The stack of papers neatly squared on his blotter was much higher than the mere covering letter and two references she had sent him. Much higher. What could the agency have possibly found out about her to produce so much paperwork?

Sitting on the edge of her chair, Veronica straightened her back and squared her shoulders. She was glad for the support of her stays, glad she’d been able to borrow a presentable dress for the interview in a rich dove grey that complimented her creamy skin, chestnut hair and large, dark eyes. She tightened her grip around the handle of her closed umbrella, hoping the sharp-eyed agent hadn’t noticed the worn fingers of her gloves.

As the agent read on, Veronica’s gaze flitted over the classical busts, the enormous paintings, the imposing floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, the filing cabinets, the stag's head on the wall with its crown of horns, the monotonous tick-tock of a long case clock orchestrating the movement of her eyes. Mr. Crowe certainly must have some very wealthy clients to afford an office like this. What could he possibly do for the likes of her?

He'd summoned Veronica to the office by letter, hinting that he may have found the perfect position for her as governess to a pair of motherless twins living in a remote stately home in the wilds of Yorkshire. Their father was often away on business. She would have full reign as to their schooling, and a great deal of privacy.

Privacy....
He’d scrawled the word over the page, as if isolation were a wonderful thing out there on the moors, with the ruins and the storms and the wild phantom hounds… But she was meant to be used to solitude, wasn’t she, having been raised in a convent?

"Ahem."

Heart lurching, Veronica glanced up. Mr. Crowe did not look at her. He was only clearing his throat.

Was the man going to read everything in that pile of paper before he spoke to her? Veronica tucked the toes of her shoes under her voluminous hem, smiling in case Mr. Crowe’s beady little eyes fell upon the scuff
marks, and glanced around the office at the grapevine motifs on the wallpaper, the oak leaves carved on the wainscoting. A large raven was displayed, wings outstretched, on the wall behind Mr. Crowe’s head, appearing to hover there like his guardian angel, or his own dark soul. Veronica began to dread that some dire oath would come croaking out of the agent’s mouth, and she would be out in the streets of London again with nothing to move on to, no prospects, no future. Nothing.

Mr. Crowe lifted a letter from the mysterious stack of papers so that the light from the window shone through it. Lowering his pince-nez, he glanced over it, and somewhere in the middle of the page, breathed out a small “Oh!”

What did that mean?

Veronica knew it was unlikely a poor, ignorant girl such as she would be offered an important position at a stately home anyway, but she sent up a silent prayer to Saint Jude, patron saint of desperate causes, for a small miracle. If the opportunity fell through, she would have to return to the orphanage at Saint Mary's, deeply secluded in the green, rolling hills of Gloucestershire, and
, in order to be allowed to stay there after the close of her eighteenth year, she would have to take the veil.

The life of a nun was unthinkable, a kind of death in life. She
must
be accepted to this post! She set her jaw as if sheer inner determination could move Mr. Crowe to decide in her favor.

Mr. Crowe stood up, rustled his papers, cleared his throat, and waving the mysterious letter around as if it were evidence at a trial, walked around to the front of his desk.

"Miss Everly?"

"Yes, Sir?"

Looking over the pince-nez perched now on the end of his long, beaky nose, the agent leveled an assessing gaze at Veronica. She smiled brightly, holding her breath as she watched him set the letter back down on top of the stack of papers, slowly square them, then tap them with the tip of his long, bony finger. When he finally looked about to speak, he picked the letter up again, paced away from his desk, and perused the missive one more time, sighing as if he were under a great burden.

“You must understand, Miss Everly, the twins are a bit difficult. Am I correct in seeing in this letter from Saint Mary’s that you have had experience with a mad child?”

Startled by the inference, Veronica took a deep breath, and mustered up her most self-assured voice.

"Yes. By God’s grace I was able to help her to live an almost normal life. Sequestered, but normal.”

Somewhat…

He sniffed, nodded.

“Don't worry, Miss Everly. The twins are not mad, merely unusual. They are identical. White enough to be albinos, but their eyes are pale green. They are also...well... androgynous. Have you ever met a person about whom it was impossible to tell whether they were male or female? That is the case with the twins. So the family decided to name them one for a girl and one for a boy. The boy is called Jacques, and the girl is called Jacqueline.”

“Are they French?”

“On their mother’s side. She was heiress to a great fortune, including a chateau in the Auvergne. Since her tragic loss, Mr. de Grimston spends almost all of his time there, trying to sell it. I’m afraid to say that the family fortune is in a terrible shambles. She had all the money, you see.”

“So, I shall not see much of him.”

“Indeed. Mr. de Grimston is rarely at home. This position requires a great deal of responsibility and endurance, Miss Everly. You will have to make many decisions on your own.”

Mr. Crowe looked Veronica up and down, squinting as if he were scrutinizing her for cracks. Veronica clenched her hand around the handle of her umbrella, pushing the ferrule into the costly Oriental carpet. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask if she would be paid. Instead she smiled in that swoony way she'd learned when she needed something from those who had the power to crush her.

Mr. Crowe raised his spidery eyebrows and went on.

“Lady Sovay de Grimston was a very beautiful woman. Her children adored her and have refused to accept a governess in her place. But you, Miss Everly, pretty as you are… Forgive me, but why would such an attractive girl as you are choose to work when you could have your pick of gentlemen?”

Veronica felt a blush starting. Saint Mary's was hardly the kind of convent that invited gentlemen! “Well, sir, my parents are dead so I must support myself. I do thoroughly enjoy teaching. I got used to all types of children growing up at Saint Mary’s.”

“Are you a religious girl, Miss Everly?’

“But of course. Saint Mary’s is a religious institution. We attended Mass every day, though I'm afraid I am not quite as conscientious about it as I should be.”

Frowning and biting his lip, Mr. Crowe looked straight at her.

“Very well then.” He sighed. “Though you are young…. What is your age? Eighteen?”

“Only for another few days... or so.” A slight stab of panic ran through Veronica. She had so little time to make a life in the world.

“I see…. Your references
are
impeccable. Especially the report of your success with the mad child. It is a live-in position, of course, with one day off per fortnight, preferably Sunday. The salary for one year is £45 payable in monthly increments on the last days of the month."

"Forty-five pounds!" It sounded like a fortune. Veronica almost fell off her perch at the amount. She had three shillings to her name. At the thought of a
salary
, tears threatened to betray her desperation for this position.

"That... that would be most acceptable, Mr. Crowe."

"Good. I will give you the position. Just be aware that the journey from London to Belden House takes a full day and night by train. You will be far from all you know, and those who know you.”

“I’m sure I shall make new friends.” Veronica was almost giddy with relief. “I am so looking forward to this.”

“Good.”

Smiling wanly, Mr. Crowe walked back behind his desk, and with a tentative flick of his fingertips, pushed the contract toward Veronica. He gazed at her from under his brows, his black eyes hard as marbles as she stepped up and took the quill from his hand.

What was she getting into? Should she back out? No, she couldn’t. With her lack of experience, it had taken ages to be offered a position at all. There was no place else to go.

The contract signed, Veronica’s curiosity got the better of her.

“May I ask, sir, what happened to Mrs. de Grimston?”

Mr. Crowe cleared his throat. “That is a mystery Miss Everly. No one knows for sure.”

Two

I
t was a very long journey to Belden House. As the train chugged slowly northward, Veronica felt as if she were traveling to some far off country, a wild, shadowy nether region at the far end of the world. The industrial clutter of the city gradually gave way to flowering meadows, sheep-dotted hills, then wild, open moorland stretching from horizon to horizon under a darkening sky. Who would have thought the land could be so empty, that she could feel so alone?

She began to wonder if she’d made a mistake choosing to accept the position at Belden House. A tall, brooding mansion came to mind, poised on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. A lonely, sinister place, like the one in the novel she clutched in her hand,
Jane Eyre,
now unreadable in the gloom of her compartment
.
Veronica fancied her own life might be mirrored in the heroine’s passionate story. Both orphans, both plunged into new lives as governesses to motherless children... She couldn't help wondering if her employer, Rafe de Grimston, would be as attractive and compelling as Mr. Rochester.

Touching the silver crucifix that always hung around her neck, she looked through her reflection in the dark window at the dimming heath. The moon was rising, traveling along with the train. Waxing toward fullness, it seemed to preside over the windy hills like a witch casting a spell of barrenness over the land.

She stared into her reflection, so pinched and pale looking in the glass.
Jane Eyre
... she sighed. She should be so lucky! Tragedy and sorrow had worked like an undertow in Veronica's life, taking everything she loved, her trust, her faith, constantly threatening to drag her under into unutterable darkness. All she had to hold onto were her silver crucifix and her dreams, things of the mind and heart and nothing of hard substance. But, as long as she lived on earth, hard substance she was made of, and hard substance was what she needed. Her parents had taught her that much. Both struggling actors on the London stage, they'd fallen in love tearing up the scenery in
The Castle Spectre,
a turgid melodrama in the style sorely frowned upon by the critics. They'd given up everything to stories and dreams, sacrificing their very survival to Art.

Veronica loved Art, but it led a devil's dance. As a child, she'd been enthralled by her parents' way of life: the costumes, the makeup, the flower-filled dressing rooms and mirrors, the theaters with their gilded, candle-lit prosceniums, velvet curtains, and boxes like royal balconies. The smells of powder and face paint and velvet still enthralled her. Her child's eyes could not see the rot beneath the tinsel, the hungry eyes and cadaverous cheekbones of the artistes, many of whom were exploited as low-paid entertainers by corrupt managers and theater operators. She could not comprehend the ill health glossed over by doses of laudanum that brought so many of these glamorous creatures low.

At three years old, carried high on Papa's shoulder, she'd entered every theater and music hall like a queen surveying the crowd below. In their costumes and wigs, the actors and actresses were beautiful, brave, and soulful. Mama was always so exquisitely made up that it was impossible, even in the role of mad Ophelia, to notice the dark circles under her eyes and the feverish flush of her cheeks. It was at home, in their flat above the reeking Thames, sitting by the coal fire, wrapped in her shawl, that Mama gave in to exhaustion, allowing the ravages of consumption to show.

Thinking Mama was merely tired, Veronica would curl up beside h
er and hold her ice-cold hand; it never seemed to warm.

Veronica would never forget the winter when she'd walked behind the hearse to Brompton cemetery. Holding Papa's hand, she was all of five years old, placing one thin-soled boot before the other, wounding the pure white snow with the darkness of her grief. Mama lay in the hearse covered in flowers, making her last exit. So Papa described it. Veronica was too numb to grasp his irony. She was frozen inside and out, brittle as china.

She stayed with Aunt Flora after that. Papa was often away on tour. When he was home, he drank. Aunt Flora drank with him. Veronica learned to stay in her room, away from them, playing with dolls or teaching herself to read.

Then, one day, Papa didn't come home.

Aunt Flora, drunk on cooking sherry, had stabbed the newspaper with her finger.

Ferry Sinks in the Irish Sea

241 Dead

"There he is, child," she'd said, pointing at an engraving of the sea that Veronica recognized from a handbill for a production of
The Phantom Ship.
"It's you and me now. You better not give me any trouble or it'll be the workhouse for you."

Still only five years old, and shivering in her grey cotton dress, Ver
onica at last understood that no one could be counted on.

She remembered Auntie putting aside the sherry and unearthing a pint of gin. "There, now." She poured a stiff glass. "No more headaches for me. You, girl. Stop crying and put on a cardigan. It's cold."

Sunday Mass at Saint George's Cathedral was Veronica's only salvation. The soaring vault and high stained glass windows, the fragrance of the incense, the bright bells and singing of the choir, were food for her soul. Father Curry, so handsome and eloquent, seemed to take special notice of her. Waiting at the front door, he'd cast a smiling eye over Aunt Flora's brocade skirts and velvet cloak, then shift to Veronica's limp coat and frayed bonnet with a gaze both inquisitive and sad. He'd always pat her shoulder, offer a kind word. But Veronica needed more than words.

Auntie's abuses worsened over the years. Finally, in the privacy of the Confessional, Veronica broke down.

"Are you all right, Miss Everly?" Father Curry had asked.

The warmth in the priest's voice reduced her to tears.

"How old are you now, Miss Everly?"

"Nine."

"How has it been, child, all these years with your aunt?"

"She... she doesn't want me around. She... she says my mother was a drug addict and my father a sot or a sod or both... I don't know what she means. She beats me when she's drunk. I have to sew all the time. All her of dresses and... things. Father... I have bad thoughts. All the time."

"What are your thoughts?"

Veronica pressed her lips together as if to say the words would be the same as committing the act they described. "I hate her. I want... to... to kill her sometimes. I fancy ways to do it."

Veronica's hands were pressed together so tightly that her fingers hurt.

"Poor child. She's cast a shadow of darkness over you. But you're young enough to be saved. Say ten Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, and pray for the power to forgive her."

Next thing Veronica knew, she was walking through the tall wrought iron gates of Saint Mary's Catholic Home for Girls. With its bright, clean towers, pinnacles, tall windows, and gardens, it was a glimpse of Heaven. As the younger nuns swarmed around her, the Reverend Mother regarded Veronica with narrowed eyes.

The glimpse of Heaven, though not entirely tarnished, soon lost its luster. Veronica was ushered in as
an actor's child
as if she were the offspring of the Devil. She worked hard to make up for this taint. Scraping back her curls, she learned to keep her head down, her mouth shut, to focus on her books, to be dutiful and reverent.

The nuns had no need to drive her as hard as they did, for she found devotion easy, almost natural. She loved beauty and exalted things, and God. She wanted to be good. The rules were strict, the nuns demanding, but knowing in her bones the sordid reality of how sin led to pain and death, Veronica was grateful for the discipline. As far as she was concerned, Saint Mary's was a sanctuary.

 

Veronica sighed as she studied the darkly rushing hills outside her dimming train compartment. She
was
an actor's daughter. Free of Auntie's abuse, she'd loved to sing and twirl down the hallways, make the other girls laugh. She was also insatiably curious. Who were these black-gowned Sisters without their robes?

Sneaking out at night and looking through keyholes into their rooms had been the greatest game. Sister Anne liked to smoke a small pipe in private. Sister Theresa played cards with Sister Louise and Sister Pauline. Old Sister Margaret was almost bald, but Sister Mary Michael had thick amber curls that she brushed to a high gloss before going to bed. Sister Victorine hid bottles of wine under her habit and smuggled them to her room. Reverend Mother liked to read novels, lying on her bed in a red dressing gown, sighing and fanning herself like a love-struck ingénue in a play.

These spying raids could not last long; there was always an Iago lurking in the wings. In the eight years since it had happened, she could still remember that tattler, Lucy Gordon, smirking as the nuns led Veronica off. She still felt the pain of the beating she'd received, the nine days and nights of penance, kneeling on a hard floor covered in uncooked rice until her knees bled, saying rosary after rosary after rosary, begging God to exorcise the demons from her soul before she collapsed in agony.

That was all it had taken. When Veronica had focused on her duties, life went on quite smoothly. When her insistent curiosity got the better of her, she gripped the silver crucifix hanging over her heart and begged her mind to stop.

The shrillness of the train whistle blasted Veronica back into the present. Watching the dark moor flash past the window, she brooded. What did that Mr. Crowe mean about her experience with a
mad child
? What would her experience with a feral, wild child, have to do with her career as a governess? A governess position was highly valued. And, even if it was a post mostly sought after by women in dire straits, it was respectable.

The rhythm of the tracks lulled Veronica into a doze. Out on moor, it seemed an animal cried out. Veronica jerked awake. Tala...

 

When Veronica was fifteen, a feral child was found living in the forest. The authorities brought her in to Saint Mary's wrapped in sackcloth and chains, depositing her on the floor like a piece of rubbish. She peered out through long, tangled hair, her dirty face rigid with fear, her eyes widening as the Sisters glided toward her in their trailing black robes. As they leaned in to help her, the child fought to escape, kicking and screaming as if she were being d
ragged into the very pit of insufferableness. It took five stout nuns to carry her down to the basement below the dormitories, push her into a barred cell, and lock the door upon her.

Veronica remembered the girl’s screams echoing up through the floorboards all night, her harsh, guttural sobs keeping everyone awake until dawn. Having known feelings of helplessness and, yes, anger, Veronica could not help but wonder how much worse it must be for a poor, half-starved child. It was cruel to lock her up in a cage like an animal. How could the nuns do it? Veronica would have screamed all night too!

She had just fallen asleep when the sepulchral bells of Lauds were ringing the hour of dawn, summoning the sleep-deprived girls out of their beds for Mass. 

V
eronica had been dying to see the feral child, to find out whom she was, to see, for herself, how she'd fared. At the long breakfast table, she'd folded some leftover crusts into her napkin, grabbed a candle, and gone downstairs toward the barred cell.

Soft cries filtered down the dingy corridor in tones of desperate misery. Clearly the girl had survived her ordeal of the night. Curious, yet fearful of what she might find, Veronica moved toward those cries with the slow, buoyant strides of a sleepwalker floating through a dark and vivid dream.

Though the laundry room sweltered with steam heat, the rest of the cellar was chilly, growing colder toward the corridor’s end where Veronica found the cell. There in the gloom, curled up in the straw piled against the back wall, whimpering and shivering and wiping her nose with her hair, was the feral girl. When Veronica approached, the girl stopped crying, set her eyes on Veronica, and stared. Then, as if she mistook the wall for a forest into which she could blend, the girl went very still.

Veronica remembered how her heart seemed to rise into her throat, how she’d breathed a soft greeting to the poor, frozen creature, only to be met by a pair of hungry green eyes.

“Have you had anything to eat?” Veronica opened the napkin full of bread crusts.

The girl shifted in her corner, her eyes aiming straight for the food.

“It’s bread. I’ll leave it here for you.”

Veronica set the napkin on the floor, just inside the bars of the cell. The girl stared fiercely at the bread, then at Veronica. The girl seemed quite young, perhaps four
or five years old, but the spirit looking out through the eyes revealed, not innocence, but a ruthless instinct for survival. Having been that small when her own mother died, Veronica felt she understood.

“What happened to you?” Veronica whispered.

The girl cocked her head as if listening.

“What is it like, being all on your own out there, with not even a home, or a bed, or a fire to warm you?”

The girl titled her head again. Then, bending sinuously forward and placing both hands on the floor like an animal, she prowled toward Veronica.

Veronica's heart faltered. Before the girl was near enough to wrap her fingers around the bars of her cage, Veronica was hurtling down the corridor, running back up the stairs, and crashing out the door into the clean, bright hallway. She slammed the door shut and leaned against it, gasping for breath, trying to erase from her mind the image of a child becoming a beast.

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