I sneaked another glance at the general, and, seeing he was still wide awake, got back to my illusory needlework. Cornelia dozed in the armchair next to me. Good. It had taken me two years to make her acquaintance, then another ten months to become a close friend of the family. I liked Cornelia; she had been nothing but kind, inviting me to her uncle’s box at the opera and to carriage rides with her aunt, never commenting on the color of my skin like the others. She had shared all her darkest secrets with me. I believe she considered me her best friend.
She shouldn’t be so trusting.
The general coughed, sending ripples pulsating across his voluminous belly, and lit another cigar. “Isobel, my dear, would you mind?” He held out his empty glass to me.
“Not at all, Sir Elbert.”
I set the glass on the side table that housed the general’s supply of whiskey and brandy, both in cut-crystal decanters, and slipped another dollop of sleeping draught in the glass before pouring a generous measure of brandy into it. I had dosed the tea liberally with the tincture, but perhaps it was the general’s respectable girth that kept him from feeling the effects.
I handed him his drink and decided to grab the bull elephant by the tusks.
“I wonder, Sir, if you might show me your cabinet of curiosities again? I should like to examine those artifacts so I can describe them when I write to Mother?”
“Certainly, my dear.” The general heaved himself up. “Oh, darling Cornelia seems to have dozed off. Perhaps I should ring for Hilda?”
“She looks so peaceful. Let us leave her be.” I forced my jaw to relax and my tone to stay light. The old fool would wake half the household staff if he rang, and that didn’t fit into my plans. I laid a hand on his arm and he relented.
“I believe you’re right, my dear.”
We shuffled through the dining room and the library into his study, a masculine room of dark wood and plush burgundy velvet, and stopped in front of a large cabinet, its front a delightful enamel study of oriental harvest scenes. The general, still huffing from the exertion of walking, pulled out a delicate, black iron key and unlocked it. He stood back, undoubtedly examining my features for awe and delight. I gasped, right on cue.
“Oh, Sir Elbert, how wonderful! May I?”
He nodded his permission, beaming like a proud parent, and I picked up this knick-knack or that, asking inane questions or prattling on about the fine craftsmanship of the Peruvian statuette, or the delicate pink hue of the conch shell he had brought back from the West Indies. I was beginning to wonder about the effectiveness of my potion when, finally, the general’s eyelids drooped and he swayed.
“I’m afraid I feel a bit unwell, my dear. I believe I shall take a short rest.”
He got halfway to the armchair before he succumbed, landing on the lush Persian carpet. When his loud, snorting snores grew regular, I placed the little ushabti figure I had been examining back into the drawer I had found it, and reached for my true objective, a withered human skull with gilded teeth.
“Hello, Grandmother,” I said.
About time! the skull answered.
I hurried back towards my room, trying to ignore the running diatribe of admonishments Grandmother kept up.
What on earth are you wearing, child? And what have you done to your hair? Oh, how you stride, my dear, you were such a graceful child, like a dancer, what happened? Who will want to marry such an unfeminine figure, I’m sure I don’t know . . .
On and on it went, to the point I almost regretted freeing her. Indeed, she drew my attention from the task at hand so thoroughly that I almost ran straight into Hilda’s arms. As it was, I only had time to shove the skull under my dress (Where are your bloomers, my dear? These smallclothes are simply scandalous!) before she rounded the corner.
Hilda curtsied. “Good evenin’, miss.”
She looked at me curiously.
“You’re looking a bit flushed, miss, if you pardon me for sayin’. Are you feelin’ quite well?”
“Oh, yes. It must be the brandy. I’d best go lie down, I think.” I was having a hard time keeping the skull from slipping out from between my sweaty knees.
“Good night, then, miss.”
“Good night, Hilda.”
With a sigh of relief, I slipped into my room and pulled on the clothes of a young gentleman, pinning my hair up under the hat, and then stuffed Grandma into the large doctor’s bag I had purloined from the surgeon next door. What are you doing, child? Just wait till I tell your father!
There wasn’t much time. Hilda could discover Cornelia at any moment, and I’d need to make my escape before that. I sneaked down the servants’ staircase on the north side of the house, not encountering anyone, to my relief. When I slipped into the hallway leading outside, I surprised the housekeeper and the chauffer in the middle of an amorous encounter. (Well! said Grandma in a scandalized tone.) We stared at one other for a long moment, and then the woman screamed. I ran, toppling an army of buckets and brooms as I went. I heard the chauffer trip and curse behind me as I slammed the door shut.
I didn’t stop running before we were in the cover of the woods, where I slumped down on a fallen tree trunk, panting, and watched the house light up as if for a dance party behind me. Come, child, we have a ship to catch. You’ll like the old country, I’m certain of it, Grandma said conversationally.
I would like the old country.
I got up and we melted into the night.