Promptly at nine, Robert knocked on the door. He had taken off his apron and was dressed in a dark shirt and trousers. He seemed nervous, but cheerful. “Old Uncle Oleander’s going to be surprised to see me. I’ve probably grown an arm’s length since he last saw me.”
“You do have a sister,” confirmed Gaétane. “The guards won’t stop you?”
“I have three sisters. One or the other of them is always tagging along. Has she got a bonnet, though? To hide her face?”
“Yes, it’s here,” Rosalyn said. It was the first time she had spoken directly to him and she was glad to hide her blushing cheeks under the bonnet as she tied it on.
Robert rubbed his palms together. “Ready, Margo?”
“Rosalyn,” corrected Nora.
“Margo’s my kid sister.”
Rosalyn looked at Gaétane and Nora. “Thanks for helping me. You’d be home by now if it wasn’t for me.”
Nora reached down and hugged her. “Glad to be of help, my dear. We’ll see you very soon, I’m sure.”
Gaétane patted her on the shoulder. “Good luck. Can’t wait to meet the little runaway.”
Looking right and left, they slipped out into the empty corridor, lit at intervals by gas lamps on brackets. She had to jog to keep up with Robert, down what seemed like a labyrinth of passages and stairs. Finally he pushed open a heavy door and they were outside, two cloaked figures under a long portico looking out over a huge courtyard. Rectangles of light from the windows of the castle gave enough light for them to see without being seen in the shadows. Robert was a tall patch of darker darkness ahead of her and though his footfalls made almost no noise, she was worried her breathing would give her away. She was getting out of breath and found it difficult to run in a long dress. Robert stopped abruptly. “Right,” he whispered. You’re Margo and you’re 5 years old, and we’ve just been vising our older sister Agatha who’s a chamber maid in the south wing.”
“Margo, five years old, Agatha, chamber maid.”
“I should hold your hand, okay?”
Rosalyn’s stomach flip-flopped. “Okay.”
He held out his hand and took hold of hers firmly, just like an older brother who wasn’t going to let his younger sibling wiggle away. Rosalyn hoped her hand wouldn’t start sweating. He began to talk to her the way you talk to a little child. “So what did Aggie give you to eat? Any nice sweets?”
“Chocowate,” said Rosalyn, catching on, hoping her voice sounding babyish.
“Ooh, chocolate, my favourite. Did you play any games?”
Games—what would they have here that she would know? There wouldn’t be Hungry Hippos, her own favourite game that required batteries. What was that card game her grandmother had tried to teach her?
“Uh, Happy Families?”
“You mean Seven Families? That’s nice.”
“I’m tired,” she pretended to whine.
“Well, you wanted to stay later. We’ll be home soon.”
They were nearing the gates. Had the guards overheard their play-acting?
“Hello there, Robert,” said one. “Taking the little sister home? I didn’t see her come in with you.”
“Uh, no? My mother dropped her off with Agatha earlier, I guess.”
“And how’s my little Margo?” said the other guard, stooping and reaching out an arm to brush her cheek or chuck her under the chin.
She never knew how the idea came to her, but she turned and buried her face in Robert’s sleeve, as if too shy to say hi. He didn’t miss a beat. “Say hello, Margo,” he urged. When Rosalyn didn’t budge, the guard laughed. “Ah, they’re all the same at that age. Everyone’s afraid of us. Maybe that’s a good thing.”
Robert said, “Sorry, she’s just tired. Well, we’d beter go. Mother will be wondering why we’re so late. Well, good night.”
They passed through the high iron gates and onto the white stone bridge over one of the moats surrounding the castle.
“Good thinking,” whispered Robert when they were out of earshot. “You couldn’t have reacted better. That’s exactly what she would have done.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Okay, back to normal. They can’t see us anymore.” He dropped her hand. “Just tell me if I’m going too fast.”
A three-quarter moon gave enough light for them to reach the town. Light shining from windows illuminated their way up narrow, twisting cobbled streets. Rosalyn gave up trying to remember the route in case she’d have to make her way back alone with Jason. After three streets she’d already lost her sense of direction and turned her attention to keeping up with her long-legged guide.
He stopped in the shadow at the end of an alley that led onto a wide avenue. Rosalyn was breathing hard. “Catch your breath a second,” he said. “We’re almost there and I want to make sure you remember what to do.”
“I remember.” She wasn’t four years old, even if she looked it.
“Condy Circle is really well lit, so you’ll have to find a shadowy patch to wait in while I distract my uncle.”
“As I’ll ever be.”
She could hear the smile in his voice. “Let’s go!”
Condy Circle was a long curve of tall townhouses, their smooth white façades lit by gas lamps on black posts. A wide set of steps led from the street to each front door, black like gaping mouths against the white houses. Across from the houses was a park enclosed by an elegant wrought-iron fence and it was on this side of avenue that they glided along. As they approached the third house from the end, Rosalyn noticed the fences between the houses had a gate that led down a curved flight of steps to a door directly under the main steps. They darted across the street to the third house from the end and Robert unlatched the gate which swung open on well-greased hinges. In the curve of the stairway, there was a patch of shadow on the far side of the door. He pointed to this spot of darkness, then put his finger to his lips. Rosalyn tiptoed down the steps after him and crouched out of sight. Robert took a deep breath and gave the door a loud knock. Rosalyn figured that whoever answered the door would be giving Robert his or her full attention and wouldn’t be adjusted to seeing out in the dark anyway, so she inched around to see what was happening. She was tired of relying solely on her ears as she’d had to do all day.
A youth around the same age as Robert opened the door. He was wearing a loose collarless white linen shirt tucked into a pair of knee-length burgundy pants with a yellow stripe down the side and yellow socks that disappeared inside the narrow hem of the pants. “Yes?” he said, unsmiling.
“Good evening. I’m looking for my Uncle Oleander.”
The footman looked him up and down. “Wait here,” he said, turning on his heel and closing the door in Robert’s face. Robert turned around for a split second and gestured with his hand for Rosalyn to get her head down.
Plodding, uneven footsteps came toward the door. A face peered throught he glass, hand to forehead. Then the door flew open. “Oy, ‘zat Maddy’s boy? Come to visit his ol’ uncle? Makin’ peace, eh?” The man spoke with a voice slurred and raspy from too much whisky and tobacco. He slapped Robert heartily on the back a few times. “Eh, aren’t you the spitting portrait of my dear sister.”
Robert seemed unsure of this reception. “Well, I, uh, I was just passing by and thought I’d say hello. I know your master is out for the evening.”
“And so he is, so he is.” As Oleander closed the door, Rosalyn heard him say, “I was just taking some, ah, refreshment. We’ll toast your mother’s good health, eh.” The door closed. She squatted with her back against the wall as deep in shadow as she could.
Time inched by. The flagstone pavement was too cold to sit on and squatting was cutting off her circulation, making her knees feel all pins-and-needles. She could only shift from one uncomfortable position to another. Occasionally a horse-drawn carriage clattered by and stopped somewhere along the street, depositing or collecting a party of laughing ladies and gentlemen. It was hard to believe a rescue operation could feel so boring.
At last she heard the door open behind her and was about to jump up when she heard the voice of the footman who had first answered the door. “Back soon,” he called. She squashed herself into the shadow, sure the pounding of her heart was loud enough to give her away. But, whistling tunelessly, the youth took the stairs two at a time and sauntered off, heels clacking on the cobblestones.
Not long after, it was Robert who opened the door. “Hurry,” he hissed, “I’ve just told my uncle I thought the cat wanted in. He’s soused enough to believe me.” Rosalyn stepped inside the warm, candlelit entrance and Robert pointed straight down a long hall. “Back stairs,” he whispered in her ear. She could smell wine on his breath and made a face. “Good luck,” he grinned, giving her two thumbs up. He paused in the second doorway which gave Rosalyn cover to sneak past and up the three steps that led to a landing, a back door and a wooden staircase with three size of steps that led up into shadow.
“No cat,” she heard Robert say, “I’m already hearing things.”
“Better ‘n seeing things,” roared Uncle Oleander, his laugh devolving into a hacking cough. “How many fingers?”