Erik has fled Paris and now lives in England, his soul as grey as the skies over London. One night, he meets a young servant from Miss Minchin's Seminary for Young Ladies, and nothing will ever be the same again.
The first in a new series from me called Twisted Fiction!
It was one of London's cold, foggy nights, when the pleasant warmth of an early autumn day had slipped into to a chill that warned of cold months to come.
In the gloom that enveloped the square, a dark, slender figure hurried along, unnoticed by those more comfortable in their cozy houses and warm carriages.
Sara Crewe was tired, more tired than she had been in a long time. She was recovering from an attack of influenza, and though still not completely well, she had been rousted from her sickbed to return to her duties in the schoolroom and kitchen.
As she made her way through the darkness, hugging her thin shoulders against the cold, damp air, she glanced up at the golden, light-filled windows of the Large Family. She tried to smile, but her face hurt too much to muster more than a shadow of a tender look. She tried to focus on stepping around the piles of dirt in the street as she crossed the square, but her mind was feeling oddly light and dizzy. Waves of uncomfortable heat rolled through her body, making the they left behind even more pronounced.
Unable to decide if she felt too hot or too cold, Sara leaned for a moment against the gate of the house that had once belonged to the mysterious Indian Gentleman, the one who had passed away not long after coming to live in the square. For many years, it had stood empty, like a sad sentinel. Just a few months ago, though, a new man had taken up residence. But for all that he was seen or that any sign of life showed in the house, it might as well still be empty.
Sara fought back a wave of nausea, and in her moment of physical weakness, she found herself marveling that it was nearly ten years ago that her father had died on her eleventh birthday. She had not cried for him then, not when Miss Minchin had been waiting to pounce and scold her. She would not cry now, alone but in public.
"I am a princess," she thought to herself, her thin hands clutching at the black iron grille for support. "A princess does not show weakness to the world."
Her body protested that princesses would have doctors and nurses to help her back to health instead of being forced to run errands in the cold and dark while still sick.
Sara's eyes closed without her realizing it and slumped against the gate. She was so close to Miss Minchin's Seminary, really just a few steps more. But a violent wave of dizziness prevented her from moving.
"Are you ill?"
Sara's eyes flew open, and she gasped, struggling to stand straight to address the man who had spoken to her.
"N-no, sir," she replied. Then, in her quiet, quaint way, she dropped him a curtsey, keeping her eyes fixed respectfully on the ground.
"You are the servant from the Seminary?"
The man's voice was low and soft, though not warm or kind. There was a compelling ring to it that made Sara look up.
The man was very tall, and in the darkness, he seemed to loom over her, almost over-powering in his presence, with his broad shoulders and black clothes. Half his face was in shadows, but the half that showed was very handsome. He wore a hat pulled low over his face, as if to help the shadows along.
"I am, sir," Sara replied, studying him with her great grey-green eyes. Though the years of privation and hard living had left her far too thin, with a complexion that lacked the brilliance of those more well-nourished, there was still a clarity to her eyes, a spirit that shone out from them.
The man seemed to study her with an equal, though more guarded, interest.
"If you are not ill, then why do you linger at my gate?" he asked, and Sara noticed a hard, suspicious edge to his voice. Instead of feeling afraid or angry, Sara instantly pitied the man for whatever had happened to make him so terribly bitter and harsh.
"I beg your pardon, sir," she replied, feeling uncomfortable as another wave of feverish heat overtook her, producing a clammy sweat on her skin. "I grew dizzy for a moment and needed to rest. I…I am better now."
The man quirked an eyebrow, the expression on the visible half of his face plainly disbelieving.
Sara shivered involuntarily, though not from fear. Disapproval had been a constant companion for ten years now and held no terror for her now. Her knees threatened to buckle, and her stomach was roiling. But, she held the gaze of the man unwaveringly.
"I am a princess," she said to herself, trying to focus her fuzzy thoughts. "I should be concerned for others and not for myself."
"Please, sir," Sara said quietly. "It is a cold night, and you should go indoors where there is a great warm fire to welcome you, and perhaps a tea kettle that is singing merrily along. Perhaps there is buttered toast, too, and a large, soft chair by the fire."
As she spoke, she lost track of the fact that she was supposed to be giving kindly advice and spoke more as if she was dreaming of something she herself imagined and longed for.
The man's expression changed, ever so slightly.
Sara recollected herself with a slight start.
"I should go," she said softly. "Good evening, sir."
Despite all her years of hardship, she was still a friendly little soul, and still possessed of a magical smile that could warm and hearten even the most hardened of spirits.
Sara smiled at the man before she turned and walked away.
Erik watched the young servant woman walk away, though walking was not exactly the mot juste. Staggering would be more like it, with one slim paw brushing along the wall for balance, until she reached the kitchen stairs of Miss Minchin's Seminary for Young Ladies.
She had smiled at him.
She was the one who was obviously ill and suffering, and yet she had smiled at him as if to offer him comfort.
He frowned deeply, then turned and hurried up the steps to his house.
Once inside, he flung aside his cloak and stalked into the sitting room where Ram Dass was waiting. Despite being insufferably cheerful, Carmichael – his solicitor – had been good to him, helping him secure this house and even procuring the mysterious, unquestioning but highly capable man servant, Ram Dass.
He stopped short for a moment at the sight of the fire. There was his great fire in the fireplace, his soft chair, and a steaming cup of tea ready for him. He thought of the servant girl and scowled.
Sitting down in the comfortable chair, Erik steepled his fingers and stared deeply into the fire.
"Ram Dass," he said quietly. "You used to live in this house before, did you not?"
"Yes, sahib, many years ago," the Lascar replied, bowing politely.
"What do you know of the school next door?"
The Lascar eyed him thoughtfully, then smiled, as if enjoying a private joke.
"I know that there was a young girl who lived in the attic, sahib," Ram Dass said, as if telling a story. "She was brave and good, no matter how the evil women of that school mistreated her. She had the spirit of royalty, even if she did not have the blood or fortune of royalty."
Erik watched the fire and studiously avoided Ram Dass' gaze.
"What did she look like?" he asked, trying to sound uncaring.
"Sahib, you know that for yourself, for it was the little one that you met at your gate tonight," Ram Dass replied smoothly.
"You may go now," Erik said irritably, suddenly wanting to be alone, quite alone.
Ram Dass bowed and left the room, and Erik continued to stare at the fire.
Speaking to that wretched little servant girl had done something to him. That damned smile had knocked the keystone out of the dam of his reserve of painful memories, memories he had spent two years fighting.
Two years ago, he had made a hearth fire out of the Opera de Paris. Two years ago, he had killed senselessly for a dream that would never come true. Two years ago, Christine had forgiven him, then left him. Two years ago, all that was the phantom had died, leaving only the Erik the miserable man to get on with a miserable life.
After the first flush of nobility at sacrificing his own hope and future for his beloved had passed, despair and depression had settled in. He had cursed his weakness at not being able to take his own unhappy life and end it all. He had not seen Christine or the boy since that night fateful night he had forced her hand, and then relinquished it.
He had fled, living in the shadows until there were no more shadows to hide in. In a haze of anger and pain, he had come to England to do something or nothing at all. With his talent for languages and mimicry, he was speaking like an Englishman within a few months.
Slowly but surely, the awful ordinariness of life reclaimed him from the shadows. He had engaged Carmichael as his solicitor, bought a house in the square and hired a man servant. He now took tea in the afternoons like every other civilized Englishman. He even worked occasionally, writing compositions for commission for various theaters. He was the unseen genius, though no longer anonymous as he signed his name Erik D'Arcy, the legal name that Carmichael had helped him procure.
For the past few months, he had been content to sink into the stupor of a kind of dark routine of daily life, speaking to no one except Carmichael and Ram Dass, and paying no heed to anything of the life of the square.
Now, this little servant girl had smiled at him. She had seen him…seen him and smiled.
That night, on the other side of the wall, in the attic where no fire ever burned in the hearth, Sara sat huddled up on her thin bed, snuggling with Becky for warmth.
"Laws, miss!" Becky exclaimed. "Yeh sawer him!"
"I did, indeed," Sara replied with a dreamy smile. "He was quite handsome from what I could tell, and he had a beautiful voice."
Sara pulled the frayed coverlet more closely about her bony shoulders.
"He seemed sad, though," she added, her dark hair tumbling around her face like a Shetland pony. "Poor man! I shall smile up at his window and wish him well whenever I pass by."
"Some kind o' magic, miss, to make him feel better?" Becky asked, her round eyes wide.
"It might not make him feel better," Sara said with a little laugh. "But, it shall make me feel better, at least, and that is not magic."
High in the sky that night, a thoughtful, silvery moon stood watch over the stars, over the young woman who slept soundly in her attic, and over the haunted man who tossed and turned in his feather bed.
Sara's health and strength did not return as the days grew shorter and the air grew colder. When she was not in the schoolroom teaching lessons to the little ones, she was running errands for the cook.
True to her word, Sara never failed to pause for a moment before the gate of the mysterious gentleman's house and smile up at the darkened window. Once in a great while, Sara thought she could make out the slightest movement behind the glass, like a dark coat sleeve or a shoulder. Then she would hurry on, not wanting to draw the cook's ire for being late with the parsley or rabbit, or whatever was in her basket.
“Perhaps he is in hiding,” she mused to herself as she passed by his window. “Perhaps he is very ill or has had his heart broken. How I wish he could be happy. I would like to see his face smiling in the window sometime.”
One night, she was making her way through the square in the icy rain that had started to fall. She struggled along the slippery sidewalk, clamping her bedraggled hat to her head with a red, raw hand that was too numb to feel any more cold. But careful as she was, she could not help slipping and falling hard to her hands and knees on the sidewalk, the contents of her basket flying everywhere.
For a moment, Sara was too dazed from the pain to realize that her precious bundles were slowly getting soaked in the rain. As it was, she hardly noticed that a pair of hands had encircled her waist and had effortlessly lifted her back up to her feet.
“Are you all right?”
The voice was like warm velvet, and the owner of the voice was standing very close to her. Sara shivered, but it was not from the cold, nor was it from any sense or feeling that she had ever experienced before.
“Y-yes, thank you,” she said softly, half turning in the man's supportive embrace to look up at him. Her grey-green eyes widened in surprise when she saw that half of the man's face was concealed by a mask. Completely puzzled, Sara studied him with open fascination, only realizing what she was doing when the man's expression hardened, and he drew himself as far back from her as he could without letting go.
Sara smiled at the man, wanting to put him at ease.
“If you are a princess,” she thought. “You must always think of others first and try to put them at ease in your presence.”
She nodded to him, a friendly little expression on her thin face.
“Thank you for helping me just now,” she said in her quaintly polite way. “It is so slippery on the ground, and I-“ her words ended abruptly as she turned and finally saw the ruination of all her parcels, with the drenched paper slowly disintegrating and the bread growing soggy in the rain.
“Oh no!” she exclaimed and tried to lunge forward to collect them. Unfortunately, her bruised knees gave way, and she would have crumpled to the ground but for the man's firm grip on her waist as he pulled her back, bringing her right up against him.
“Cook will be so cross,” she whispered, almost to herself, her face crumpling with distress. No tears welled in her eyes, for Sara rarely cried. But her heart was pounding, and she dreaded returning without the packages intact, for she knew it would mean no supper.
“Never mind the cook,” the man said, his voice close by her ear. Sara froze at the sound of it, a strange shiver running through her. It was like a thrill, but it was almost frightening in its beauty. She again turned in the man's grip and faced him.
“It is all very well to say that, you know,” she replied with a shadow of a smile. “But you have not met Cook.”
"Nor do I intend to," the man replied curtly, his expression closed and watchful.
A silence fell between them, and Sara could feel her heart pounding in a way that it never had before. The man's eyes were green like hers, and even his strange, mysterious mask lent him an unearthly kind of beauty. Her little hands were unconsciously resting on his arms, and through his closeness, she could feel a kind of warmth emanating from his body. The icy, biting rain falling on her seemed to fade into nothingness, for she was consumed by the vision before her and by the odd new sensations in her heart.
In the silence that seemed so loud in her ears, Sara felt him raise his arm, and out of the corner of her eye, she saw his hand – encased in a black leather glove – reach for her face. With his forefinger, he traced the line of her jaw, just the lightest of touches! Sara felt two bright spots of pink begin to burn in her pale cheeks, and it was suddenly hard to swallow.
“Come inside and warm yourself by the fire,” the man said softly, and Sara found herself hypnotized by the way his mouth moved when he spoke.
She broke from her reverie with a start at his words.
“Oh, oh…” she stammered. “That is so very kind of you. Truly, very, very kind. But I must get back. I am sure they are missing me already, and it is best that I face the firing squad with the soggy bread and get it over with. We soldiers don't shrink from admitting our faults, you know.”
Her words had started out hesitant, but by the end, she was smiling and speaking to this strange man as if they were great friends. Upon reflection, her words seemed a bit silly to her, but there was not taking them back now.
The man's mouth twitched as if he were considering smiling, but his eyes were grave and earnest.
“You are cold and wet,” he stated, his voice now firm and authoritative. “You should come in and warm yourself by the fire.”
Sara blushed miserably, biting her lip. “But, sir, you see,” she started to say, then hesitated.
“But what?” the man asked, frowning.
“They will ask me very awkward questions if I were to return even later than I am,” Sara said in almost a whisper, new and shameful thoughts entering her head. “And especially if I am dry.”
She paused for a moment, pondering how ridiculous her own words sounded in her ears. And then, her sweet, merry little nature rose up past her momentary embarrassment, and she laughed.
The man seemed taken aback, then reluctantly chuckled himself.
“I…I really should go now,” Sara said softly, a shy smile on her lips. “Thank you again for your help and your offer of a warm fire. You are very kind. Very kind.”
With that, she gently pulled away from his embrace, though it left her feeling strangely forlorn. She limped over to the damaged and ruined parcels and placed them back in her basket.
Sara turned to look back at the man, who stood just where she had left him. With a curtain of icy raindrops falling between them in the somber dusk, she smiled once more and nodded to him. Then she turned and limped forward to the entrance of the seminary.
Erik watched the young woman limp back to the school. He watched until he was certain that she had been admitted to the small door at the bottom of the stairs that led into the kitchen. Then, he ran up the stairs into the warmth and comfort of his own house.
It would have been impossible for him to describe what was going through his mind at that moment, for so many thoughts were warring for supremacy.
There was the thought that he hated that interfering, cruel Cook. There was the thought that he had just touched a woman–something that he hadn't done since…There was the thought that she had seen his mask and not flinched back or reached to snatch it from him like…There was the thought that she had smiled at him and called him kind. There was the thought that he was a fool and an idiot. There was the thought that he had no idea what he was doing. There was the thought that she passed his house every day and smiled at his window. And, there was the thought that she did not know that he found himself waiting every day by the window for that smile.
With an irritable exclamation, he threw himself into the warm, soft easy chair before the crackling fire in the parlor. Drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair, he thought and thought, but could find no ease in his thoughts. With a growl, he rose and stalked over to the grand piano that stood in the corner. He sat down and began to play. It didn't matter what he played, old or new, his own or someone else's work. He simply had to speak in music to say how utterly confused and frightened he was.
Ram Dass, who had watched his master from the moment he entered the square and found the Missee Sahib to the moment he sat at the piano, stood in the shadows and smiled thoughtfully to himself.
Sara climbed the stairs to her attic wearily, stopping to rest several times. She had been so absent-minded that she had been scolded often during the dinner where she sat with the youngest children and made sure they cleaned their plates and didn't make a mess.
When she reached her room, she stripped off her still-soaked, ill-fitting gown, thinking vaguely of how it had been Lavinia's before Lavinia had left school, a parting shot from that spiteful girl to leave the former ‘princess’ her cast-offs.
But instead of rushing to wrap herself in the coverlet and curl into a little ball to warm herself up, Sara paused in front of the chipped mirror that hung over her washbasin. She studied her reflection as if she had never seen herself before.
“I am twenty-one,” she thought to herself, looking at her face and then hesitantly letting her eyes wander down the reflection of her body. “Other girls my age are married by now. I don't think I would like that. No one would marry me now that I would want to marry. I don't think I look like I am a woman of twenty-one. Lavinia was very…shapely at eighteen, and I have no curves at all. I think I am quite plain, actually, but that is not so bad, as I never was a pretty child like Lottie with her golden curls and blue eyes. Even Ermengarde could be said to be pretty, with her lovely complexion and dimples.”
She tentatively patted her waist where the man's hands had held her so firmly, so surely.
“I must be mistaken,” she said softly to her reflection. “He was being kind to me, that is all.”
Her heart gave a lurch, as if it was awakening from a long slumber to a new world, a new era.
“Oh, but how nice he was,” she whispered longingly to the young woman in the mirror.
Emily, with her dusty old dress and chipped porcelain nose, watched in silence as Sara Crewe the girl was transformed into Sara Crewe the woman.