After dinner, Gaétane picked up one of the heavy candelabras and led Rosalyn through a door on one side of the dining room that led to a large sitting room. Nora followed with a tea tray which she placed on a side table. Four armchairs were arranged around a fireplace, one on each side and two facing. Gaétance placed the candelabra on the wide mantelpiece, added a log to the fire and sat down with a deep sigh in a chair beside the hearth. She kicked off her low-heeled embroidered shoes and extended her toes to the flames beginning to lick up from the embers.
“You know,” she mused, “the only reason we still dress for dinner is because Marcella would have a fit if we didn’t keep it up.”
“I’m not so sure,” said Nora, reaching a teacup and saucer to Gaétane who extended her arm lazily for it.
Rosalyn was beginning to wish she could take off this dress that didn’t allow her to do much more than perch on the edge of her seat. She suddenly felt exhausted.
“How do you take yours, dear?” asked Nora.
“Just plain, I guess. I mean clear, please.” She blushed. She took the delicate teacup Nora handed her. The steam curling up from the cup carried the woodsy floral scent of the tea to her nose. It was still too hot to drink.
Nora opened a drawer in the side table out of which she pulled a round wooden frame with a thin white cloth stretched aross it.
“What are you making?” asked Rosalyn, lowering her tea cup to her lap.
Nora held it out for her to see. Embroidered in the corner was an elaborate M.C. “Marcella’s initials. I always make her one for her birthday.”
“But she never uses them,” Gaétane said, rolling her eyes. “She must have a drawer-full by now.”
“That’s not the point, I’m sure,” said Nora good-humouredly. “The giver can’t demand the gift be used.”
“No need to moralize,” said Gaétane. “No doubt you’d stitch handkerchiefs anyway, Marcella or no Marcella. You’ve never learned the art of just staring into the fire and letting your thoughts take you where they will.”
“No, I haven’t,” she said quietly, jabbing the needle through the cloth.
“Now, don’t sulk,” said Gaétane. “I would never have the patience for your tiny stitches. In fact, as soon as Mother was gone, I took down the wretched sampler she made me stitch and tossed it in an old trunk. Every time I looked at it, I would think of all the sunny mornings I’d been cooped up inside making mistakes and having to unpick a day’s work to re-do the next.” She laughed bitterly. “Mother looking stern and mournful. She probably never thought she’d live to see me finish and there was no way she wasn’t going to display her year of suffering.”
“A year?” said Nora in disbelief.
“Yes, the thing took me a year and the only thing I’ve sewn since was a button.”
Rosalyn watched Nora’s nimble fingers manipulate the needle and thread, causing swirling letters to appear on the fabric, and despite Gaétane’s dismissal of such a pastime, she wished she knew how. The intricacy appealed to her.
Her tea was now safely tepid and she took a long drink of the black liquid. Replacing the cup in the saucer with a little tinkling sound, she took a deep breath and said, “So, about my brother, tomorrow you’ll take me to the port city to start looking for him?”
Gaétane didn’t say anything right away but peered at the clock on the mantelpiece. “I’m not exactly sure about tomorrow,” she said, “but we can get ready to go, if nothing else.”
“Why not?” said Rosalyn, upset at being put off, but hoping she didn’t sound whiny.
“It would take so long that by the time we got there, we’d have to turn around and come back.”
“But we’ll have to go sometime anyway, won’t we?”
“If we wait for a sunny day, we’ll get there in a quarter of the time,” Gaétane said as if Rosalyn should know this most obvious of reasons. Was she referring to traffic jams or train schedules?
Nora snipped the thread she had just secured and undid the little knob holding the two hoops taut and took out the handkerchief, holding it up to the candle light to look more closely at it. “There,” she said with a sigh of finality. “I think I’ll go to bed now. Rosalyn, why don’t you come with me and I’ll show you to your room.” She folded the square of linen and put it back in the drawer and lit a candlestick on the mantel from the candelabra.
“Goodnight,” she said to Gaétane who was staring, unseeing, into the fire.
“Mmmh,” she grunted.
“Goodnight, said Rosalyn, “and thank you again for bringing me here.”
The dark-haired woman looked up as if surfacing from some deep place of memory. “What? Oh yes. And don’t fret about your brother. Sleep well.” She crossed one ankle over the other and resettled herself in the deep armchair, looking somehow smaller than the powerful rower and hunter who had rescued her.
Rosalyn followed Nora out of the sitting room into the hallway and cavernous entry hall where even their felt-soled slippers seemed to echo on the marble floor. At the top of the stairs, Nora turned left. “I think Marcella has given you the room beside mine,” she said, “but we’ll just check.” Outside the second door, she took another candlestick from a bracket on the wall, lit it and handed it to Rosalyn. She turned the handle of the great wooden door and stepped into a dark room. It smelled of old wooden furniture. She could only see parts ot the room at a time as she held the candle higher, first to one side, then the other. Nora was patting the middle of a high, four-poster bed in the centre of the room. “There’s a lovely hot water bottle for you.” The second thing Rosalyn noticed was that the bed was as high as her shoulder. Another oddly proportioned object. “Is your bed like this?” she asked Nora.
“Mine has steps on the right. Yours are here on this side. She held the candle toward the left side and Rosalyn saw three steps leading up to the head of the bed. “Just remember they aren’t on the usual side, in case you have to use the pot in the middle of the night.”
“Yes, it’s just behind this little panel.” Nora pulled open one side of the stair, revealing a white pot about the size of a soup tureen, but shallower. What would I want with a pot in the middle of the night, Rosalyn thought, perplexed. In case I get hungry and want to make myself some soup?
“Clever, isn’t it?” said Nora. “Marcella has left you some warm water in the jug on the washstand. She thinks of everything—even a nightdress for you, did you see, laid out on the pillow? It might be a little snug at first, but by morning, you’ll be just right.”
The shadows cast by the candlelight deepened the lines on her forehead and around her eyes giving her placid countenance a worried look. Rosalyn tried to smile gratefully, dreading the moment she would be left alone.
“I’ll be up for a little while yet if you need anything. Just knock on the door to your right. Good night.” She left, taking her candle and closing the double doors behind her, leaving the room half as light. Rosalyn noticed suddenly how chilly it was and hurried to undress. The nightgown, however, was much too tight, even if it were to stretch in the night, so she laid it on the foot of the bed and slid under the heavy covers in her underclothes. Her feet quickly found the hot water bottle, a smooth porcelain container, like a stubby wine bottle, not the squishy rubber thing she was expecting. It was delightfully warm and Rosalyn felt its heat travel up from her feet to the rest of her body.
She had placed the candle on a little shelf that seemed designed for that purpose. Its flickering flame was some comfort. Lying still under at least five layers of sheets and blankets, Rosalyn felt wide awake again, senses alert to every noise or movement. There was a clock in the right corner of the room, ticking loudly. How had she not noticed it before when Nora had first shown her in? How would she sleep with such an invasive sound? In fact, how would she sleep at all, knowing that Jason was lost and her parents were probably frantic with worry and that nobody, nobody except three odd ladies, knew where she was. She didn’t even know where she was and so how could she ever get back home? If the puddle on her street had been the way in, how would they get back if it dried up? She pressed her fingers to the side of her head and squinted her eyes shut. The whole situation was so unreal. This upside down world where boats floated in air, clouds were semi-solid, stairs and beds came in odd sizes and where frightened women could not even go to the police for help. What a mess. She felt stiff and claustrophobic under so many layers. Where had they put her backpack and her clothes? Maybe Marcella had put it somewhere in the room. Not that she felt like venturing out of the warm bed with only a candle between her and anything that could jump out of the wardrobe.
Just then, the flame sputtered and went out, leaving the room pitch black except for a pale line of silver light from between two curtains. It was at that moment, with an uncomfortable pressure mounting in her lower regions, that Rosalyn realized what the pot was actually for.
“Great, just great” she thought.