I burned the letter with my own hands. I assure you, it is gone.
Of course I will still write to you. I can’t imagine stopping. I like you and, believe me, there aren’t many people I like. I’ll do what I can to be certain no-one sees your letters and I won’t tell anything that’s in them. I am taking this letter down with the mail myself, so it can’t be looked at. If I have to be more careful, then I will be.
I trust you. There are so many things I tell you that I can’t tell anyone else. I don’t want to stop being your friend and if that means I sneak and burn your letters and break rules, I will do it all.
I was picking up the mail this morning when my mother walked in, much earlier than she is usually awake. I didn’t think I had to worry about her until later, as she usually spends her time in the morning room, writing her letters. Today she was awake and she seemed oddly watchful, her eyes looking round the room, inspecting it.
“Hello, Olivia,” she greeted.
I was about to go upstairs with the letters but she stopped me before I could move further, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“May I see those?” she asked.
“Yes, of course. Why?”
She laughed a little.
“Only curious, that’s all. What a funny question.”
She looked over the letters I’d received, the first a note from James Cole, the second your letter. She picked up James’ note first and frowned a little, pursing her lips together. When she saw your letter, she had the oddest reaction. Her eyes were hard for a moment and she traced over your name with her long, pale finger, over and over, absentminded.
Pia Doisneau, looping round, again and again.
“So they’re staying in Marseilles?” she finally asked, looking at the return address.
“Aunt Isabella’s on tour.” I imitated her tone, light, cold, polite.
“How lovely.” She smiled and maybe someone who didn’t know us would have believed it.
“Yes, I hear it’s very nice this time of year.”
“Sit with me, Olivia,” she commanded, “I’ve been wanting to speak to you for a while now.”
She folded herself into a chair and waved her hand to the one across from her.
“Some of this may sound pointless or vague to you but I want you to listen as best you can for now. Do you agree?”
“Yes.” I smiled at her, trying not to show anything.
It was a contest.
“I know what you want, Olivia, I do. You may think I am only interested in shaping you and telling you how to behave but I know all of who you are and what it is you want.”
“What is it, then?”
She ignored my mocking tone and continued as if she hadn’t heard me.
“Freedom, power. To do always as you like and to choose when others can do the same.”
I was quiet. She was right. I’ve never been kind, Pia. When I was young, there would be a bird with a broken wing or a street man holding out his hat for coins and some would pity them and fuss over them. And I could not. I took no joy in their suffering but I was kept to blank, light sympathy. And I dismissed it then.
I used to want to be free, until I realized it wasn’t enough just to be unbound yourself, there was something else to it.
And I cannot be sorry for it.
Mother looked me over, waiting for some reponse. She smiled when I said nothing, taking it for the answer she wanted.
“You see,” she breathed, leaning in as if to tell me a secret, “One day you will. You’re so young now, my darling, there are so many things you don’t yet understand.”
“Try me,” I challenged, soft, matching her tone.
“Little by little, Olivia, we can hardly shock you all at once. So much. You see, there will always be one of our family who makes decisions. Not only head of the Industries but head of us all, so to speak. Your grandmother, now, and it would have been Teddy, if he had been clever enough to take it when he could. So it will be me instead, then you. But you must do things right. Be patient. Wait. Don’t take too much right now or you destroy what you can have, what you will have.”
“I’m doing nothing wrong now.”
She gave a low, soft laugh.
“Of course you aren’t. But there’s so many mistakes you can make, Olivia. Especially now that you’re around that girl so often. Oh, I am sure she means all her best but it isn’t the same. I worry for you.”
“What do you have to worry about for me?”
“Olivia, you are so young, so beautiful. You’re clever, charming, graceful, poised. You have the sort of potential the Eleanor and Anne Larrabees of this world are left to envy, for all they try to imitate it. You are our jewel, Olivia, my jewel and I don’t want to see you cast aside.”
I couldn’t tell what was true and what was manipulation. I’ve always complained over her. I called her distant, strict, icy. But I never knew she tried to buy off your mother. And clearly she hasn’t changed because however she did it, she betrayed your father now.
I don’t trust often and if it were someone else, I might dismiss it. But whatever else, she is my mother. I don’t trust her but she is still.
I did know I couldn’t argue. Not then. I couldn’t look as if I disagreed.
“Yes, I understand. But I am careful. Always.”
“I only want to warn you, Olivia. As I said, there are so many things you don’t know and when you do, everything will look different to you. You’ll realize what your place is, where you have to be and with who. I only worry about all the new ties you seem to be making for yourself. I’m afraid you’ll be hurt when you have to break them.”
“And I will have to break them.”
She leaned back for a moment, closing her eyes.
“Oh, Olivia. It shouldn’t be that way, really it shouldn’t. But things rarely ever are as they should be.”
“I do know that.”
She seemed to think for a moment, her eyes growing sharper, harder.
“You’ve been speaking to James Cole recently haven’t you? I see he wrote to you.”
“Yes. What of it?” Blithe but not impolite, I told myself, careless.
“Nothing. If you came to me and told me he had proposed I’d agree, though I’d hardly be delighted. Whatever trouble he gets into, his guardian is a respected man, after all, and I am sure he’ll be smoothed out in the end. But as it is, it won’t do you any good to trifle with someone like that. It would come down harder on you than it would to him.”
“I think I am perfectly aware what sort James Cole is.”
“I don’t know why,” she continued, “Edmond took it upon himself to take care of that boy. The man takes him in and he throws it back at him.”
“You know, it was such trouble for him to have the charges dropped. Poor man.”
“What charges?” I asked, after a pause. I didn’t want to ask but I was more curious than proud at that minute.
Mother looked me over and just for a minute, she looked triumphant.
“You must promise not to mention this. Edmond’s had a terrible time enough already making sure it didn’t get to the press.”
“Why should I? You and Grandmother say I’m to be trusted.” I raised an eyebrow.
“James killed a man.”
I don’t know whether it was shock or even curiosity. There was nothing. It was as though I’d read it in a paper, another blank person, just another thing that didn’t affect me. Not pity or anger or sadness, just a sense that I knew he was capable of other things, even if I hadn’t guessed it.
I didn’t even feel a hint of guilt.
“Oh, I don’t think even Edmond knows what really happened. It was in London, some clerk or other. We don’t even know whether James knew him or not.”
“I never knew.”
“Nobody does, dear, Edmond did a very good job. He got an excellent lawyer for James, just a fine and it was done.”
“What do you know happened?” I inquired.
“The man was in their house, I believe. We don’t know how he got there but apparently Edmond was away and found it, the man on the floor and James simply standing there, guiltless, unconcerned, unaware. He didn’t even care when they called the police.”
“How did he kill him?” I asked. I had to know, I had to fit it all together.
“Don’t be vulgar, Olivia. I only mentioned it for a start because I thought you should be warned.”
“Tell me. How did he kill him?”
She thought it over for a moment, before she seemed to decide it couldn’t do me too much harm.
“His hands. There were the marks of his fingers pressed all round the man’s neck.”
And there was nothing important said from then on.
Tell me everything, whether it’s important or unimportant.
I can trust you.
in my heart: shocked