12 DAYS AT BLEAKLY MANOR
Book 1 in the Once Upon a Dickens Christmas series
Christmas or not, there was nothing merry about the twisted alleys of Holywell. Clara Chapman forced one foot in front of the other, sidestepping pools of. . .well, a lady ought not think on such things, not on the morn of Christmas Eve—or any other morn, for that matter.
Damp air seeped through her woolen cape, and she tugged her collar tighter. Fog wrapped around her shoulders, cold as an embrace from the grim reaper. Though morning had broken several hours ago, daylight tarried to make an appearance in this part of London—and likely never would. Ancient buildings with rheumy windows leaned toward one another for support, blocking a good portion of the sky.
She quickened her pace. If she didn’t deliver Effie’s gift soon, the poor woman would be off to her twelve-hour shift at the hatbox factory.
Rounding a corner, Clara rapped on the very next door, then fought the urge to wipe her glove afterward. The filthy boards, hung together more by memory than nails, rattled like bones. Her lips pursed into a wry twist. A clean snow might hide the sin of soot and grime in this neighborhood, but no. Even should a fresh coating of white bless all, the stain of so much humanity would not be erased. Not here. For the thousandth time, she breathed out the only prayer she had left.
Why God? Why?
The door swung open. Effie Gedge’s smile beamed so bright and familiar, Clara’s throat tightened. How she missed this woman, her friend, her confidant—her former maid.
“Miss Chapman? What a surprise!” Effie glanced over her shoulder, her smile faltering as she looked back at Clara. “I’d ask you in but. . .”
Clara shoved away the awkward moment by handing over a basket. “I’ve brought you something for your Christmas dinner tomorrow. It isn’t much, but…” It was Clara’s turn to falter. “Anyway, I cannot stay, for Aunt’s developed a cough.”
Effie’s smile returned, more brilliant than ever. “That’s kind of you, miss. Thank you. Truly.”
The woman’s gratitude, so pure and genuine, rubbed Clara’s conscience raw. Would that she might learn to be as thankful for small things. And small it was. Her gaze slipped to the cloth-covered loaf of bread, an orange, and used tea leaves wrapped in a scrap of paper. Pressing her lips together, she faced Effie. “I wish it were more. I wish I could do more. If only we could go back to our old lives.”
“Begging your pardon, miss.” Effie rested her hand on Clara’s arm, her fingers calloused from work no lady’s maid should ever have to perform. “But you are not to blame. I shall always hold to that.”
Clara hid a grimace. Of course she knew in her head she wasn’t to blame, but her heart? That fickle organ had since reverted to her old way of thinking, pulsing out, “you are unloved, you are unwanted,” with every subsequent beat.
Clara forced a smile of her own and patted the woman’s hand. “You are the kind one, Effie. You’ve lost everything because of my family, and yet you smile.”
“The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. I suppose you know that as well as I, hmm?” Her fingers squeezed before she released her hold. “I wish you merry, Miss Chapman, this Christmas and always.”
“Thank you, Effie. And a very merry Christmas be yours as well.” She spun, eyes burning, and pushed her way back down the narrow alley before Effie saw her tears. This wasn’t fair. None of it.
Her hired hansom waited where she’d left it. The cab was an expense she’d rather not think on, but altogether necessary, for she lived on the other side of town. She borrowed the driver’s strong grip to ascend onto the step, then when inside, settled her skirts on the seat while he shut the door.
Only once did she glance out the window as the vehicle jostled along London’s rutted roads—and immediately repented for having looked out. Two lovers walked hand in hand, the man bending close and whispering into the woman’s ear. A blush then, followed by a smile.
Clara yanked shut the window curtain, the loneliness in her heart rabid and biting.
That could’ve been her. That should’ve been her.
Why, God? Why?
The cab jerked to a halt, and she descended onto the street, wearier than twenty-five years ought to feel. She dug into her reticule and pulled out one of her last coins to pay the driver. At this rate, she wouldn’t have to hire a cab to visit Effie next Christmas. She might very well be her neighbor.
“Merry Christmas, miss.” The driver tipped his hat.
“To you as well,” she answered, then scurried toward Aunt’s townhouse. A lacquered carriage, with a fine pair of matched horses at the front, stood near the curb. Curious. Perhaps the owner had taken a wrong turn, for Highgate, while shabbily reputable, was no Grosvenor Square.
Clara dashed up the few stairs and entered her home of the last nine months, taken in by the charitable heart of her Aunt Deborha Mitchell. The dear woman was increasingly infirm and housebound, but in her younger days she’d hobnobbed with people from many spheres.
Noontide chimes rang from the sitting room clock, accompanied by a bark of a cough. Clara untied her hat and slipped from her cloak, hanging both on a hall tree, all the while wondering how best to urge Aunt back to her bed. The woman was as stubborn as. . . She bit her lower lip. Truth be told, tenacity ran just as strongly in her own veins.
Smoothing her skirts, she pulled her lips into a passable smile and crossed the sitting room’s threshold. “I am home, Aunt, and I really must insist you retire—oh! Forgive me.”
She stopped at the edge of the rug. A man stood near the mantel, dressed in deep blue livery. Her gaze flickered to her aunt. “I am sorry. I did not know you had company.”
“Come in, child.” Aunt waved her forward, the fabric of her sleeve dangling too loosely from the woman’s arm. “This involves you.”
The man advanced, offering a creamy envelope with gilt writing embellishing the front. “I am to deliver this to Miss Clara Chapman. That is you, is it not?”
She frowned. “It is.”
He handed her the missive with a bow, then straightened. “I shall await you at the door, miss.”
Her jaw dropped as he bypassed her, smelling of lavender of all things. She turned to Aunt. “I don’t understand.”
“I should think not.” Aunt nodded toward the envelope. “Open it.”
Clara’s name alone graced the front. The penmanship was fine. Perfect, actually. And completely foreign. Turning it over, she broke the seal and pulled out an embossed sheet of paper, reading aloud the words for Aunt to hear.
The Twelve Days of Christmas
As never’s been reveled
Your presence, Miss Chapman,
Is respectfully herald.
Bleakly Manor’s the place
And after twelve nights
Five hundred pounds
Will be yours by rights.
She lowered the invitation and studied her aunt. Grey hair pulled back tightly into a chignon eased some of the wrinkles at the sides of her eyes, yet a peculiar light shone in the woman’s faded gaze. Aunt Deborha always hid wisdom, but this time, Clara suspected she secreted something more.
“Who sent this?” Clara closed the distance between them and knelt in front of the old woman. “And why?”
Aunt shrugged, her thin shoulders coaxing a rumble in her chest. A good throat clearing staved off a coughing spell—for now. “One does not question an opportunity, my dear. One simply mounts it and rides.”
“You can’t be serious.” She dissected the tiny lift of Aunt’s brows and the set of her mouth, both unwavering. Incredible. Clara sucked in a breath. “You think I should go? To Bleakly Manor, wherever that is?”
“I think,” Aunt angled her chin, “you simply must.”
More by Michelle Griep:
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• WriterOffTheLeash…Blogging Gone Wild
Who is Sarah Mytych? A graphic designer, traveler, reader and friend of Michelle Griep.