The Shadow and the Star
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2007 Laura Kinsale
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780380761319
Leda came awake suddenly in the depth of night. She had been dreaming of cherries. Her body made the jerk of transition, an unpleasant startle that sucked in air and twitched muscles and left her heart pounding as she stared into the dark and tried to get her breath-to make sense of the difference between sleep and reality.
Cherries ... and plums, had it been? Cobbler? Pudding? A receipt for cordial? No ... ah-no... the bonnet. She closed her eyes. Her brain swam dreamily over the question of whether it would be the cherries or the plums to trim the ready-made, gable-crowned Olivia bonnet that she could buy directly, at the end of the week when Madame Elise paid out for the day work.
She felt instinctively that the bonnet was a much safer and more agreeable topic for contemplation than the one that she knew she ought to be contemplating — which was her dark room and the various even darker corners of it, and what disturbance it might have been that had woken her from a sound and much-needed slumber.
The night was almost silent, except for the tick of her clock and the soft breeze that flowed into the attic window, carrying the scent of the Thames tonight instead of the usual smells of vinegar and distilling. Queen's weather, they were calling this early summer. Leda felt it on her cheek. The celebrations of Her Majesty's Jubilee had made the evening streets noisier than usual, what with the crowds and commotion of the entertainments, and perfectly out-landish foreigners from every corner of God's earth walking about, wearing turbans and jewels and looking just as if they'd got right down off their elephants.
But the night was quiet now. In the open casement, she could just see the outline of her geranium, and the cloudy pile of pink silk that she'd finished at two A. M. and laid across the table. The ball gown was to be delivered by eight, tucked and ruched and the embroidery in the train completed. Leda herself had to be dressed and at Madame Elise's back door before that, by six-thirty, with the gown in a wicker basket so that one of the workroom girls could try it on for faults before the porter whisked it away.
She tried to regain her precious slumber. But her body lay stiff and her heart kept thumping. Was that a noise? She wasn't certain if it was a real sound she heard or only the pump of her own heart. So, naturally, her heart just bat all the harder, and the idea, which had been floating nebulously at the edge of admission, finally took full control of her brain that there was someone in the small room with her.
The shock of alarm which Leda experienced at confronting this notion would have made Miss Myrtle snort. Miss Myrtle had been of a courageous disposition. Miss Myrtle would not have lain frozen in her bed, her heart pounding. Miss Myrtle would have leapt to her feet and taken hold of the poker, which would have been placed in a conveniently handy position next to her pillow, because Miss Myrtle had made it a point of habit to plan ahead for just such an emergency as not finding oneself alone in one's own room in the dark.
LeJa was not made of such stuff. She knew she'd been something of a disappointment to Miss Myrtle in that respect. She did have a poker, but she'd forgotten to arrange it close by before she went to bed, being ever so weary, and the daughter of a frivolous Frenchwoman.
Unarmed, she had no choice but to take the next logical step and convince herself that there was most certainly no one in her room. Decidedly not. She could see most of it from where she was, and the shadow on the wall was only her coat and umbrella on the hook where she'd hung them a month ago, after the last cool weather in mid-May. She had a chair and a table with her rented sewing machine; a washstand with a bowl and pitcher. The shape of the dressmaker's dummy by the mantelpiece gave her a momentary start, but when she squinted more closely, she could look right through the open weave of the torso and skirt to the square shape of the fireplace grate. She could see all of these things, even in the dark; her bed was pushed up to the wall in the little garret, so unless this intruder was hanging from the ceiling beam above her like a bat, she must be alone.
She closed her eyes.
She opened them again. Had that shadow moved? Was it just a bit too long for her coat, fading down into the obscurity near the floor? Was not that deeper darkness the shape of a man's feet?
Nonsense. Her eyes were gritty with exhaustion. She closed them again, and took a deep breath.
She opened them.
She stared at the shadow of her coat. And then she threw back the sheet, scrambled up, and cried, "Who is it?"
Nothing but silence answered this comprehensive inquiry. She stood in her bare feet on the cool, rough wood, fueling foolish.
With a sweeping circle of her pointed toe, she passed her foot through the deep shadow beneath her coat. She took four steps backward, toward the fireplace, and groped for the poker. With that instrument in hand, she felt much more the mistress of the situation. She moved the poker in the direction of her coat, jabbing the iron rod all round in the fabric, and then waving it into each deep corner of the room and even under her bed.
The shadows went perfectly empty. No hidden intruder. Nothing at all but vacant space ...