Scents of lemon tea and lavender incense filled Ingrid’s room as she mixed paints together in a haphazard fashion. Odette viewed this exercise as a welcome break for her, so she sat back in the arm chair and watched Ingrid make a grand mess as she took her tea. While the uncanny nature of the girl continued to perplex Odette, she did find herself growing more endeared to her through the passing weeks. Ingrid displayed a love of the arts, much like her governess, and displayed the greatest fascination with Odette’s sketches and paintings. She pasted a good many of them to her walls. The girl held an immense compassion for animals, prompting Odette to venture into the woods to catch as many creatures as she could to show her. Ingrid had a love of fantasy stories and a peculiar sense of humor.
For all of the girl’s good qualities, Odette did all she could not to be bothered by the odd quirks of Ingrid’s condition. Though Ingrid was the one learning to read, Odette had to read everything aloud because Ingrid would lose her voice after about two minutes of reading. About every ten minutes, their lesson was interrupted by a coughing fit. And then there was the inexplicable smell of decay in the room. Odette could not tell if it came from Ingrid or just the old room in general, but she beseeched Edmund to install incense burners in the room as he had the rest of the house. He was most accommodating, save for one question he would not answer.
What exactly happened during Ingrid’s surgery?
“It was a dreadfully long process, I scarcely even remember it myself,” Edmund would answer.
“We spent 48 hours straight keeping her alive. It would take a very long time to explain it all.”
“It was gruesome. You truly wouldn’t want to know.”
But what vexed Odette the most about the vague answers were how Ingrid also longed to know what she was. Try and try as Odette did to comfort poor little Ingrid, each time she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window or in a cup of water, she would launch into another fit. Odette thought that if Ingrid knew why she looked the way she did, it may ease the pain.
A few sleep-deprived nights spent snooping around the library and offices learning absolutely nothing caused her to nod off in her chair. When she awoke, she caught Ingrid hunched over her tea cup, random colors swiped all over her face.
“Ingrid!” Odette shot up from her seat. “What have you gotten into here? The paint could be toxic to the skin!”
She rushed over to the ever-empty wash basin and grabbed a damp rag. Ingrid retreated back from Odette’s outstretched hand. “No! I like it!” She huddled under the tea table to protect her pink and red painted face. “I didn’t get a chance to add all the white yet!”
Odette sighed as she studied the girl’s painted face. Had she been trying to make her face a normal skin tone? She ended up looking more like a bloody accident. “Your skin can repair itself,” Odette said, stooping down to her level. “It won’t look like this forever. But putting the paint directly on it could burn your skin and you don’t want that, do you? It will hurt.”
Ingrid sat in a curled up ball in silence. “I can’t feel my face.”
“How long has this been going on?” Odette sat down on the floor as best she could, bunching up her skirts.
“A while. I don’t want doctors poking at me again.” A tear ran down her cheek, tracing a pale line through the red. “Please don’t tell Mr. Kohler! Please!”
Odette chewed her lip. It was always a chess match with this girl and she knew that her next move to get her out from under the table so she could wash her face before it disintegrated. “I won’t tell Mr. Kohler, so long as you do not get hurt. But if the paint burns your skin, I’m going to have to tell him about it and the doctors will be examining you, numbness or not.” She held up the washrag. “So what shall it be?”
Just as Odette had finished up wiping Ingrid’s face, a knock sounded at the door. Ingrid’s eyes shot wide open with worry. “That’s Mr. Kohler’s knock,” she whispered. “We have to hide the rag!”
Odette tossed it over to the canvas that Ingrid had been painting. “He’ll just think it’s for the paints, if he even notices. Men don’t notice anything, though,” she whispered with a wink. After wiping the paint off on her apron, she opened the door to find Edmund exceptionally well dressed. “Good afternoon, is there something we can do for you?”
“Good day, Ms. Dufour and to you, Ingrid,” Edmund said with a bow, carrying on formalities that he normally dismissed outside of Ingrid’s presence. “Actually, Ms. Dufour, I would like a word with you, if you wouldn’t mind stepping out for a moment.”
Odette followed him to the hallway, her stomach somersaulting. Had she not been conducting the lessons according to his instructions? Did he know that she had poked around his office at night? How would he know if she did? She didn’t open any drawers or pick any locks, she merely scanned the papers and medical diagrams that he had displayed. Surely he couldn’t know. If he did, his warm smile didn’t betray it. But what he said only further confused Odette, “I was hoping you would do me the honor of joining me for dinner tonight.”
“Me? I mean, just me or Ingrid, too?” She felt the sweat begin to coat her hands and she greatly hoped that the discussion would not end in a handshake.
“Just you,” he said as he stepped closer, Odette now holding her breath. “I would like to check in on Ingrid’s progress. I thought dinner might be a good opportunity to check in.”
She let go of her breath. It was just standard business. Nothing to fret over, nor to get excited about. But of course, she did both. She agreed and returned to her painting lesson with Ingrid, but her mind was fantasizing about later that night.
She had only seen the dining hall in passing during her tour. Yet, she felt like taking her seat in the grand room should not have left her speechless. It was beautiful, that couldn’t be denied, but once the glamour of the chandeliers and silk tapestries wore off, an air of fear overtook Odette. The young governess had become an expert of concealing her fear in the past three weeks. She no longer felt the urge to bury her nails into her palms or to chew the top layer of skin off of her lower lip. Her tongue had not bled in days from clamping down on it. With masterful control of her breath, she tried to pin down what exactly it was about the room that unsettled her so.
Perhaps it was merely that she had arrived early before Edmund and didn’t care for sitting in a such a vast room by herself, every shift and scuffle echoing. But the gigantic tapestries and red velveteen table cloth seemed to be concealing something. Every glimpse at the stone walls and wooden furniture appeared weathered and aged. Cracks in the ceiling surrounded the chandeliers and spread out like veins. The paint upon the molding had chipped away to nearly nothing. She peeked under the tablecloth. Light scratches littered the edge, always in sets of eight. She pushed the cloth back further, revealing deeper, longer scratches. Were these human nails or something else? The door squealed open and she dropped the cloth and straightened her posture, like a child caught with stolen sweets.
The footman let Edmund in with a flourish. He ran through the usual pleasantries with Odette and then took the seat across from her. Wide as the table was, he felt an ocean away. The servants brought the first course, a potato stew, the smell of which reminding Odette of home. During the first course, they discussed the type of lessons Odette was holding and which ones she felt were necessary to delay. As the second course, a vegetable dish consisting of colorful root vegetables, they moved onto Ingrid’s progress in each area.
“I do believe that if the girl felt better, she would make much quicker progress. Her health is her biggest challenge. I don’t know what could be done to remedy that, though,” Odette said as she took her last bite of roasted beet.
“I’ve been considering what medication may help,” Edmund said, pushing aside his plate. “The tricky thing is, I’ve never known someone with her exact condition and I don’t know if anything will have an ill, unintended effect on her. So far, we’ve just been trying the tried and true remedies.” The servants swept away their dishes and in one fluid motion brought out the meat course. “Cough syrup, local anesthetic, ginger root tea, menthal balm, salt water rinses, but none of it has a significant effect on that cough or sore throat of hers.”
“Anesthetic,” Odette murmured. “How much of that are you using?”
“A two percent solution for her to rinse with every day. Why do you ask?”
She remembered her promised to Ingrid. “I was merely curious. Most of what you’re using are natural remedies and I was wondering how much of an actual drug she was receiving. Forgive me, I don’t know much about medicine. I’m trying to gain a better understanding.”
“That’s very noble of you and likely why you are an excellent teacher. I have spoken with Ingrid and she holds you in high regard.”
“Does she really?” The questions she had in her head about Ingrid’s condition all flew away as soon as she heard this. “She never indicated that to me. At times, she’s quite sullen.”
“I think she doesn’t know how to politely express herself yet. But she told me that she sits by the door and waits for you every day and that she wishes you would take your meals with her.”
“My, I suppose she does always wait up for me. Perhaps I should start having dinner with her instead of by myself, though I do enjoy my alone time— Not that I’m not enjoying this right now! I enjoy your company, I mean, I enjoy having company, any company, for the most part.” She stared intensely at the beef on her plate as she stabbed the knife through it.
Edmund stifled a chuckle. “I quite enjoy your company as well,” he said. After a heavy-hanging silence passed between them, he pushed his plate away. “You know, I normally eat alone myself. Generally, it’s just soup and bread in my office. I’m too busy for anything this extravagant.”
Odette dropped her knife and fork. “Oh good, I’ve only been playing around with the food for the past few minutes. They gave us so much! How many people did they think would be here tonight?”
“I may have made it sound like a few of my doctor friends were joining us.” He pulled a sheepish grin as he poured another glass of port. With a few glances about him, he ensured himself that all of the footmen had cleared out. “It’s not exactly proper for a man to have dinner alone with his governess and the cook is orthodox, so I said that my colleagues had to cancel last minute for a medical emergency. Am I completely wretched?”
She chewed her nail to keep herself from giggling like a twelve-year-old. “I don’t think you’re wretched. This is only to discuss Ingrid. It’s perfectly innocent.”
“I wish it felt that way.”
Though the words were only spoken with the faintest of volume, Odette heard them. She turned red from her neck to her ears. Turning her face aside to take the last swig of her port, she fumbled around for something else to speak of, “I don’t know if I mentioned it, but Ingrid’s manners are improving greatly. She always uses her pleases and thank yous. I’m wondering if perhaps she forgot those formalities when she had her surgery or if she has merely become less surly over time.”
“I personally lean towards the latter.” Edmund leaned further across the table. “Are you quite well, Miss Dufour? You seem flushed.”
“It’s very warm in here, what with the chandeliers and candelabras. That’s all, I assure you.” She fanned herself with her hand.
“Perhaps we should retire to the drawing room. Have you ever tried ice wine? That will cool you right down.” Edmund joined her at her side of the table and before she could object, he was already handing her out of the chair and leading her into the next room. “The servants must have already departed to assist with the clean up.”
Odette had a feeling that she wasn’t about to cool down.
She tucked her skirts underneath her upon the sofa and watched as Edmund poured the wine with the grace of an experienced butler. Did gentlemen ever pour their own wine? Even her former husband always made her pour the wine and they were not wealthy in the slightest. While he had his back turned and rambled on about the quality of the grapes in the wine, she tugged up her corset and smoothed down her hair.
He sat upon the opposite side of the sofa after handing of her wine. “Normally, I’d have the fireplace burning, but I think that would rather defeat the purpose of coming in here.” The way his smile lit up his sterling blue eyes, Odette wondered if he could sense her attraction to him. But could he perhaps feel the same way? Why else would he lead her on like this?
“But overall, do feel that Ingrid is any happier?” Edmund asked.
She had been busy sipping her wine much too quickly as she mused. “Hm? Oh, yes, overall, at least. I do have some concerns as she really does not feel well. She’s not like a normal child as respects to her energy and pain levels. I wish there was something that we could do.”
“It’s terribly sad, but I assure you, I’m working on a way to help relieve some of her pain. These were very new surgical techniques, there have been side effects that we have not anticipated. But I’m glad that it seems her mood is improving. And what of you? Are you happy here?”
Odette set the wine glass upon the gilded end table. The cool sweetness of the ice wine caused her to gulp it down. “Yes, for the most part. I suppose I should visit home soon, though. My sister and I had a fight before I left and I suppose I’ve been procrastinating going back.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. If I may ask, what was the fight about?”
“It was about moving here, in fact. She didn’t like that I couldn’t tell her much about the position or the pupil. She was suspicious.”
Edmund swished the wine around in his glass. “Do you think that perhaps she’s only being protective of you? Especially considering your past unfortunate circumstances.”
“Of course, but she’s not one to back down from her views. I don’t know, I’m probably fretting over nothing.”
“I do understand. Siblings can be very difficult sometimes.” He said those last few words through gritted teeth. As quickly as it had disappeared, his pleasant smile resurfaced. “But is everything else to your liking? Is your room adequate? Is the food to your liking?”
“Oh, yes, that’s all fine.” She picked her glass back up, feeling like her hands needed a prop. Edmund had somehow inched closer when she wasn’t looking. Or was the wine merely going to her head?
“Then what’s missing? Is there anything I can do for you?” His voice grew thicker yet somehow softer. Odette no longer doubted that he had scooted closer.
She knew she should leave. She knew she should splash the rest of her wine in his face. But instead, she said, “Well-” he inched even closer- “I’d feel much better if I knew what exactly happened to Ingrid.”
Edmund’s eyes had been staring into Odette’s, but then he started back. “That’s- that’s what you want?” He bit his lip and returned to staring at his wine. “It appears that I’ve gravely misread this situation. Forgive me, Miss Dufour.”
“Whatever do you mean?” The feeling of stupidity slapped Odette like a book thrown at her head. The servants would not have just left of their own device, not without clearing the table. Who had brought in the chilled wine, if Edmund didn’t ask the servants to do so ahead of time? The ice had not melted. There were only two glasses on the tray. Was this all a scheme to get her alone?
“I don’t know.” He leaned back into the sofa, tossing his head over the edge. “I suppose I’m getting a little lonesome here. I should have known that you would see right through me.”
Odette swallowed hard. Why had her mouth gone completely dry? It was really happening. “Me? See through you? Why, I would have thought that it was you who had seen through me.”
Edmund snapped back up from his sullen position. He placed his hands on top of Odette’s. “Do you mean to say-”
A piercing shriek echoed through the house. With each reverberation, the sound grew more and more mournful. Echoes of another wail ensued and Odette jumped up. She started again as her wine glass shattered against the stone floor.
“That last scream was Ingrid!” Odette glanced at Edmund scrambling to his feet, but she did not wait for him to follow as she dashed to the staircase.
With her hand on Ingrid’s door, Edmund finally caught up to her. “Wait! You might not want to see what’s in there!” As he seized her shoulder, her hand fell off of the knob.
She cast a confused glare back at him before she pressed forward into the room. Edmund was right, she didn’t want to see what was in the room. But she would not faint like he apparently thought she would. Her hands covered her mouth so that she would not add to the chaos in the room with her screams.
The maid, fully in tears, pointed at a severed ear lying on the floor while shrieking and babbling. Ingrid had a hand covering one ear and she was biting on a napkin, staring blankly at the fallen appendage on the ground. Purplish brown liquid poured out from her head, spilling out from the cracks in her fingers. That same gooey substance puddled up around the ear.
“What did you do?” Odette rushed over to the wash basin.
“I don’t know,” Ingrid murmured, still with the napkin in her mouth.
Edmund shook the shoulders of the maid and forced her to look away from the ear. At last, coherent words came out of her mouth. “I came in to clear her dinner tray. Nothing was amiss at first, but then it just- it just fell off! Right in front of my eyes!”
Odette mustered a soothing voice and convinced Ingrid to take her hand off of her ear. “Here, now, you can press this cloth to it. You can still hold it, dear. Everything’s going to be all right.” When Ingrid moved her hand, she could see the blood pooling up in that purple brown color, the color of old, dried blood. How could it be old from such a recent wound? And why was it so thick? Had the adrenaline not been rushing through her veins, her legs would have given out where she stood. The stench of iron sickened her, yet she pressed on.
Edmund pulled a stretcher out from a wardrobe. Had this happened before? He and Odette helped Ingrid and her wobbly legs onto the stretcher. “I’ve got to get her down to the surgery immediately,” he said. He ordered the maid to send a telegram to one of his colleagues to come assist. “And get a footman, quickly! I need help carrying her down!” he yelled as the maid scurried away.
“I can do it,” Odette said, taking one end of the stretcher in her hands.
His mouth opened as though he wanted to object, but he hadn’t much choice. They whisked Ingrid down the stairs as quickly as safety would permit. Ingrid stared up at the ceiling for most of the ride, still clamping the washcloth down upon her head. She met Odette’s gaze when she glanced down to check on her. Those eyes, normally so mysterious, so hard to read, were now brimming with panic.
At last down upon the first floor, a footman ran over to relieve Odette’s aching arms. Still, she followed the stretcher and continued to shout reassurances at Ingrid. She ran after them into the cellar, where the surgery apparently was located. She had never been down there. It didn’t appear how she thought a surgery should. Old metal doors with tiny barred windows and unlit sconces reminded Odette much more a of dungeon. Through the darkness, she could barely make out the forms of the footman and Edmund entering one of those barred doors and locking her out. She thought better than to knock, surely they would need to concentrate. Instead, she slumped next to the door in the blackness of the cellar.
Not much could be heard from the hallway. The footman never reemerged and Odette wondered if Edmund had recruited him to assist for this last minute procedure. The click of boots upon the ground resounded through the icy hallway. Mrs. Weber appeared carrying a torch. She lit each sconce as she went and did not observe Odette for some time. Nearly dropping the torch, she cried out, “What are you doing down here? Come back upstairs, you’ve had quite the shock.”
“Really, I feel quite fine,” Odette said, keeping her voice soft so as not to disturb the operation.
“No, I must insist.” Mrs. Weber nudged her from the back and prodded her until she reached the stairs. “Just go into the kitchen and get yourself some tea and whiskey. It’ll calm your poor nerves.”
Odette glanced back, hoping for any clues as to Ingrid’s welfare, but the slats on the metal door had closed. She slumped up the stairs, feeling much more tired than shaken. The thought of walking all the way to the kitchen, on the opposite end of the mansion, sounded like torture. She instead climbed the stairs to her room. But from the balcony, she caught a glimpse of one of Edmund’s doctor friends and a servant pushing in a gurney, a sheet overlaid on top of it. Their pant hems were splattered with mud and, was that a pistol strapped to the doctor’s belt? The size of the lumps underneath seemed to be about the size of Ingrid. Could it have been another patient? But why would the sheet be over top of her? Odette fell upon her bed, still fully dressed in her nicest evening wear, now speckled with blood around the hem. After that sight, she wished that she had gone down for tea and whiskey, she would have never seen the gurney had she gone that direction. She knew she would not sleep until she received word that Ingrid was all right.