Fated from the Start
All lives whether innocent or imperfect, are at one time or another, intertwined. At least that was what Millicent Ballard believed. When she was just ten years of age, she had the terrifying pleasure of running into a stranger in the street who had just robbed the Albert Banking Co.
The robber hadn’t run away after pushing her to the ground though. Instead, he had paused a single moment to give the crying girl a hand as he helped her out of the muddy street before taking off again.
It was the most bizarre turn of events for Millicent. A bank robber wasn’t supposed to be kind to little girls, or even grown men and women. They were supposed to be cruel and remorseless. That morning on the 8th of June, 1774, was one that Millicent Ballard would remember for the rest of her life.
The mid-morning skies were overcast and gray, exactly how they were six out of the seven days in a week. A cold light rain fell just outside, so that it softly pattered against the old battered window panes. Millicent shifted positions on the window cushion as she slowly peeled back the next cream page in her book and began to read the lines silently. There was little else to enjoy on a such a dreary morning. The estate was steadily quiet seeing as Mr. Ballard gave the few servants they did have, Saturday mornings off.
It was an unusual request from the head of the household, but when Millicent finally gathered the courage to ask her father of his reasoning, he simply told her that there was something serene about having one morning every week where nothing had to be done. Since weekdays were work days, and Sundays were church days, that left Saturdays. Rainy, uneventful Saturdays...
A fly tediously threw itself against the foggy glass, buzzing incessantly in its attempt to get outside. Millicent rose from the window seat and opened the window briefly to let out the fly. As she leaned forward to peer out the open window, she caught sight of a soldier riding on horseback up the gravel path to the manor. “There’s a soldier here,” she spoke over her shoulder to her brother and sister.
“A soldier?” chimed Eloise in her still youthfully curious voice.
“You mean a British soldier?” Alexander rose from the chair at the desk he’d been writing at, and looked at his sister excitedly. A boy of only twelve ought to be fascinated with soldiers, Millicent reminded herself dutifully.
“What other kind of soldier would it be Alexander? Certainly not an American.” Alexander swept his hands over his blonde curls, and blinked his brilliant blue eyes before running over to the window. The soldier could no longer be seen.
Just then, they three heard the light, but pensive knock on the solid oak door down the hall. Each of Ballard children looked to the door of the drawing room that rested slightly ajar.
Someone descended the stairs in the foyer with grace and timing before pausing to open the front door. All of the children stood quiet, hoping that they might overhear the conversation if they pressed their ears to the drawing room door. It was the footman who greeted the guest. Although the few words they exchanged were too hushed to hear, they heard the front door close, and the footsteps recede down the hall.
“Who might have that been?” wondered Eloise.
“To be sent away,” added Alexander.
“Hush you two. He’s still in the foyer.”
“It can’t be!” came their father’s hollowing voice.
“Indeed it can,” answered the soldier with a voice that could command thousands.
Millicent pushed her brother and sister out of the way so she could lean ever-so-slightly into the opening in the doorway to hear better. A curious lot they were. It was so very clear that eavesdropping was never in their lesson plans for learning, but coming from a family with a rather fascinating and cleverly designed network of relatives and friends, it was all too often that a strange and curious person appeared at their doorstep wishing to be in company with their well-known and well-endowed parents.
“Come into the drawing room! You must meet my family! Oh how you’ve grown into a man son! I guess war will do that to us…” Mr. Ballard’s voice began to trail off at the sight of his daughter’s dress skirts peeking out into the doorway. Immediately, Millicent drew back and placed an even four steps between her and the door so that she wouldn’t be plowed into when it was opened the rest of the way.
“William Atwin, these are my children Alexander, Eloise, and Millicent my eldest. Children, this is Mr. Atwin. A young man I used to know before the war.”
“I’m hardly a child Father,” Millicent whispered defensively. Mr. Ballard chose to ignore the naïve nature of his daughter. When she finally gave up on stubborn scowl, she saw just who exactly she was being introduced to.
Up close in person, Mr. Atwin was much taller and well-built than the rain soaked figure riding the horse up the path. When his gaze wandered from her brother to her, Millicent saw a coldness in the greyish-blue irises that reminded her enough of winter to send a chill down her spine. Despite the mere glimpse into the man’s soul, he was otherwise quite the ordinary, if not a little better than ordinary.
“Come Mr. Atwin, let’s go talk elsewhere.” Millicent’s father led the soldier back out of the drawing room, all the while asking of any accommodations, and what his work was after the war.
Millicent drew in a deep sigh—not because her mind was racing, but because her father had referred to her as a child. A child of nineteen, she scoffed.
Still, she quickly moved on with her daily tasks, trying to keep her mind as far from curiosity as she could for she knew that the moment she let her thoughts go too far, she would be caught peering in on her father’s conversation with the strange young man from the war. All she had to do was wait until the man left, then she could pester her father for petty answers.
Gathering her sister and brother, Millicent swiped the novel she’d been reading off the window seat and took to the covered walkways that led out to the gazebo off the back of the manor by the pond. If she were really up for it, she would cross the gardens to go to the old family pavilion at the other end of the property where summer functions used to be held including plays and small soirees.
It was two years prior however, that Mrs. Ballard woke with a bad hip, and hadn’t been able to make the considerable distance since. Although few alternative options did exist, Millicent’s mother was a stubborn woman, and wished that no one saw her in her weakened state. Ever since that day, the stout busty woman with meticulous brown eyes remained confined to the manor, and only received personal guests on days when she felt more like her old self.
Although the rain still came down soft and with rhythm, the three Ballard children read outside under the pavilion. Seated on cushioned chairs, the girls each wore warm woolen cloaks while Alexander paced about with no outerwear at all. He had always been a difficult child to keep under hand, but Millicent thought at the time that she could care less what the boy decided to wear or not to wear on a cold and dreary day.
“Children!” called the loud crackling voice of Mrs. Ballard from the terrace. “Come in this instant or you’re bound to catch a chill!” Rolling her eyes to herself, Millicent rose from her chair and ushered her siblings back down the covered walk to the manor steps where their dear old mother waited impatiently to shoo them each inside with a light tap to their heads.
“I have something of interest to tell you my dear Millicent,” spoke Mrs. Ballard when the two youngest finally ran off. Millicent smiled down at her mother and wondered momentarily if the woman was feeling at all decent enough to be out of bed. The cloudy look in her eyes was enough to make her worry, but then so was the slight tremble in her hand as she tried to balance herself.
“There will be an evening party at Albert Offrey’s estate on the twenty-third. You are invited to attend with your father as I won’t be fit to make the journey.” It was only a twenty-minute carriage ride, Millicent thought to herself.
Summer was quickly fading to autumn. The delicate flower buds that grew new and strong in spring were now deep and full with shades of red and pink out in the gardens. Soon they would begin to wilt and lose their petals when the rain turned to snow. For now, though, the gardens were an oasis to escape to; one where Millicent knew no one else would go looking.
The long reeds around the pond pierced the sky surrounding the murky blue waters of the pond. It was there that she really wanted to be instead of going to a dinner party where she would have no friends or acquaintances. I should be happy, she thought. I should be happy because my mother and father only want the best for me. I am going to have to attend this soiree this evening to potentially meet a suitor.
Marriage had always been a topic of the utmost displeasure for Millicent, but she knew that it was something that she could not avoid in her position. Nor could she forget the bright, dreamlike smile on her mother’s face as she told her about the dress she pulled out for her, and how much she was going to enjoy the dining and the dancing.
Going to such an extravagant place such as Elsfourd Palace sounded intimidating at first, but the moment that she stepped down out of the carriage, she felt at ease.
A gentle breeze brushed lightly across Millicent’s chest and cheeks, having her give thanks for the rather heavy and warm gown her mother chose for her to wear. Despite its impracticality, Millicent couldn’t help but praise the delicate work done on such a magnificent gown. She admired the soft yet boldly printed shades of blue and red brocade on the soft white cotton. Vibrant red ribbons and white pearls were threaded along the top of the bodice, and adorned the sleeves. The bottom half of her hair had been curled and now cascaded down over her shoulders in dark brown tendrils while the rest remained twisted and pinned neatly upon her head. Perhaps there was some truth in Mrs. Ballard’s words when she told her daughter that she was an image of her former beauty. Nineteen had been many years ago for her however. Now it was Millicent’s time to follow in her footsteps. At least in her eyes.
The joyful music of the flutes drifted through the hallways out the front entry as the young Ms. Ballard ascended the steps with her father at her side. Even he noticed the visible relief she felt to see her dear friend Katherine Taylor waiting in the entry foyer for her. She wore a lovely cobalt colored gown that was matched with a sapphire necklace. Her smile widened when she noticed Millicent enter. “Evening Millicent, you look beautiful!”
Parting from her father upon permission, Millicent took up her friend’s arm and guided her down the hall. “I don’t really feel it,” she confided in a whisper.
“Oh do cheer up Mill. I’ve already had a gentleman, Lord Thorton to be precise, ask me to dance! I’ve told him that I had to see that my friend made it down to the ballroom alive before I could accept. And now here you are! Come! Let’s go in! There’s a rather handsome gentleman playing at the piano forte as well. Perhaps you might try your luck with him?” Reluctantly, Millicent followed Ms. Taylor into a grand ballroom illuminated by candlelight so that everything within was bathed in a soft golden glow. Music filled the air along with laughter and lively chatter. By the time Millicent turned to ask Katherine a question, she had disappeared into the vast crowd of velvet and satin.
Frustrated, Millicent located her father in the crowd and allowed herself to be introduced to the men in his company- one of which she immediately recognized. The soldier. When Mr. Atwin saw the young woman approaching, he didn’t refrain from taking in the full scene before him. Incredulous, Millicent thought she looked, but the stares from the gentlemen in her father’s company may have opinion otherwise. Mr. Ballard cleared his throat. “Gentlemen, allow me to introduce to you my eldest daughter, Lady Millicent Ballard.”
“It is a pleasure to see you again young Millicent,” said Mr. Letuvus who was an old family friend.
“You as well sir,” she replied softly. Her gaze wondered across the small group to the tall and eerie Mr. Atwin who had since their last meeting, changed into a set of formal attire that someone must have lent to him.
“If you’ll excuse me pa. I’m going to find Katherine and get myself a drink. Would you like anything?”
“No dear, I’m fine thank you.” With a nod of her head absently aimed toward the men, Millicent turned in search of her friend.
The night drew on, and Ms. Ballard grew tired of chasing after her friend through the few rooms open to the dinner guests. Unlike the traditional setting, the Offrey’s preferred to offer the dancing and drinking until the clock struck eleven, when whoever chose to stay was invited into the dining room for a late supper. Their uncommon ways were a puzzle to Millicent, but what puzzled her more was how her father found company with such people.
It was thirty minutes before the clock struck the eleven o’clock mark, and Millicent sat watching the blur of colors on the dance floor, overwhelmed by her own thoughts, drowning out any slight chance that she could still enjoy herself before the night was over. It was at that moment that she chose to explore the palace halls.
Every room in such an extravagant place is meant to hold a purpose. A drawing room, a personal study, a bedroom, or even a library. Millicent curiously peered into rooms with open doors as she wound her way to the stairs that led to the second floor. If she was caught now she already had her excuse. “In search of the privy,” she’d say with a rose to her cheeks, and she’d be sent on her way. It was the same curiosity that held her peering through the crack in the doorway at her home, that now drew her to what she thought to be a muffled cry. Intrigued, Millicent kept on down the corridor, following the voices seeping through the walls of the room at the end of the hall. They were deep voices, one significantly louder than the others, but nevertheless male voices arguing.
She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet, careful to not let the heels of her shoes click loud on the hardwood floors. Millicent’s hand trailed along the textured wallpaper as she quickly approached the closed mahogany door, simple in design, yet sturdy in structure. So why, Millicent wondered, could she hear the voices? She looked from the door to the wall, eyes skimming for the source of the sound if it wasn’t coming through the door. And then she saw it, a small metal grate fastened low on the wall to allow air flow throughout the halls. With a quick glance over her shoulder to make sure no one was coming, Millicent sank to her knees and leaned in to better hear the voices.
“We waited too long for him.” The older of the voices growled. “But that didn’t mean you had to act out so violently.”
“He deserved it and you know it. I just did what you’re too cowardly to do.” Did what? Millicent thought as she leaned in more invested.
“What do you expect to do with him now? Parade him through the main halls of the palace and out the front door? You’ve created this mess boy, and you will get us out of it.”
“You asked for it.” Millicent went completely still. That voice. She knew that voice, and who it came from. She peered into the gold-plated vent at different angles until she saw more than just the lower half of their torsos. He was facing towards the door- Mr. Atwin. Still as the night he stood glaring defiantly at the other man- the older man -who had his back towards Millicent. “I’ll take care of him, but I still expect my share.” With that, Mr. Atwin moved, bent down, and lifted something that was too low for Millicent to see. There was a thump, Mr. Atwin turned to the window and hassled it open before bending back down to pick it up- him up.
Millicent couldn’t stop the instinctual gasp that escaped her parted lips, and passed through the vent into the room. Mr. Atwin turned sharp from the window he’d just sent the body out of, and looked at the door same as the other man. It only took a few seconds for him to locate the vent, and to see the shadow of someone on the other side.
Millicent was found out.
As quickly as she could, she rose from her aching knees on the hard floor and took off back down the hall. She heard the door open behind her, but Millicent moved around the corner into the stairwell fast enough to not be seen. Or at least she thought.
Safely returned to the main floor, Ms. Ballard tucked herself away in an empty corner near the ballroom, trying to catch her breath. The image wouldn’t leave her sight- the lifeless face drained white from the blood let out of the slit to his throat. Blood, blood had dripped down the front of the corpse, staining the white shirt crimson beneath the navy blue velvet dress coat.
She blinked, then blinked again to shake the horrid image from her mind, but there he stood in the opposite corner of the room, staring at her- and then in the middle of the crowd of moving guests, staring.
“Millicent! Oh heavens I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Ms. Ballard was quick to wipe the tears from her eyes so her friend wouldn’t see.
“Oh hello Katherine,” she said softly as she looked up at the young woman with rosy cheeks.
“Oh Millicent, do tell, what’s the matter? You’ve hardly danced all night, and I’ve been looking for you for the last half hour! They are about to serve dinner in the Gold Room. Do tell me Millicent. Are you upset because you didn’t meet anyone?”
“No Katherine. I’m fine- truly. I’m sorry I’ve been such a damper. You needn’t keep an eye on me. You’re supposed to enjoy yourself. I just-- I suppose you’re right,” Millicent said to make things easier. “I just haven’t been enjoying myself as much as I thought I would.”
“Well I did notice one gentleman had an eye for you earlier, when you were talking with Mrs. Elester- was a tall man-- well-built. Perhaps you know him, but I didn’t recognize his charming face.”
“Hm,” Millicent shrugged indecisively. Leaving behind the past fifteen minutes, Ms. Ballard followed her friend to the Gold Room where dinner was being served. It was a table set for twenty guests, almost all of which were seated and deep in conversation by the time Ms. Ballard and Ms. Taylor took their seats.
Millicent made eye contact with her father seated a little further down the table, who smiled warmly at his daughter. She smiled softly back at him, only to come undone at the sight of Mr. Atwin, perfectly composed in his seat beside Mr. Ballard. When Mr. Atwin crossed sightlines with Ms. Ballard, she froze, and quickly lowered her gaze to her place setting as his earlier words drowned out the festive atmosphere.
She couldn’t for the life of her set things right in her mind, and instead spent the entire supper nodding and giving simple responses to keep up appearances whilst her mind continued her thoughts fixed on the murder she saw.
With the festivities having ended for the night, Millicent bid farewell to her dear friend and joined her father who followed other guests towards the front of the palace where the carriages were being brought around.
Before Millicent could grace the first steps outside, her father caught sight of a friend and left her side to go speak with him briefly. The moment that Mr. Ballard stepped away, his spot was filled by a tall and invasive man she didn’t dare even steal a glance at. “Speak and be gone,” he whispered loud enough for only her to hear, and then he was gone as fast as he appeared, back into the gathering of people who awaited their transportation.
Her lack of conversation on the journey home did not raise suspicion with her father, he believed the young woman to be asleep with her head tilted in the shadows, rested on a small pillow placed against the carriage frame. Against his assumptions however, Millicent Ballard sat awake, staring into the dark and empty space beside her father’s silhouette, seeing the outline of a man take shape- the faint silver light of the moon reflecting off of the dark liquid seeping from his throat.
She squeezed her eyes shut.
When dawn broke across the still landscape, not a single soul awoke in the Ballard home except for that of Ms. Millicent who sat on the window seat of her bedroom in her dressing gown, bathed in the orange and gold light of the rising sun. She hardly slept through the night with the pressing images constantly repeating in her mind without end. What was she to do? Tell the constables? If there was ever a lesson she learned growing up with her siblings, it was that she was not a snitch. Yet she could not help but feel a sense of responsibility for telling someone what she saw. This was not stealing a candy button from the tin in the kitchen. This was murder.
The day wore on, and Millicent remained removed from the others in the Ballard house as she battled her own conscious. It wasn’t until the afternoon sun began to set lower in the sky, while she sat beneath the pavilion scribbling her thoughts down onto paper, that she made up her mind.
With more energy and determination than she’d possessed all day, Millicent rose from her seat and ran back to the manor. Inside the cool icebox, Millicent slowed to a brisk walk- headed for the front door where she paused to grab her hat and shawl. When she saw the coat hanging on the hook beside hers, she froze.
Moving away from the front door, a few steps down the main corridor, she paused again to listen for voices. Her father’s laughter… Picking up her skirts, Millicent hurried down the corridor to the drawing room where she found her father.
At her presence, Mr. Ballard tore his attention away from his guest to look at his daughter standing in the doorway to the room. “Millicent. What is it dear?”
Millicent took a few more steps into the room to see past the door. She stopped at once, unable to move or speak as she stared blankly at Mr. Atwin who had the tip of a clay pipe pressed between his lips. Upon seeing her, he lowered it from his mouth and slowly exhaled the smoke. “Good evening, Miss Millicent,” he greeted rather apologetically. If it had been anyone other than Millicent, perhaps they wouldn’t have noticed the turn of tone in his voice, but she did.
“Tell me Mr.Atwin,are you an innocent man?’
“Millicent!” Mr. Ballard exclaimed. “That is not a question to ask such an important guest.” She did not apologize for her behavior though. Instead, Millicent stood tall with her chin held high as she awaited an answer.
Millicentdidn’t need to explain her question to Mr. Atwin for he knew exactly what she meant. She was asking about the aftermath of events that she witnessed late that night at the party she had been attending. There are never straight forward answers in life. Nor are there straight paths to choose from because every one of them has at least one swerve or bend that sends the carriage wheels grasping for the dry earth to hold onto.“War changes a man MissMillicent. I’ve killed, I’ll admit that much... but what else are you supposed to do when at war?”
Millicentnodded softly, acknowledging, but not accepting his response. She knew that he was indirectly agreeing that he committed the ruthless murder on the eve of the 8th. “You know,” her father interrupted. “Mr. Atwin was a painter before the war. A very fine painter indeed. Perhaps we shall commission him to make a painting of you dear, to hang in the front foyer next to your mother’s.”
“I would be honored to paint such an elegant lady such as yourself, Miss.Her face possesses these complex dimensions that any artist might spend his life trying to understand.” Millicentglared across the room at Mr. Atwin standing beside her father. He simply smiled, his cold gray eyes bright with the reflection of the evening sun.
“It is settled than,” Mr. Ballard agreed. “I will leave the two of you to settle the details. Just know that Wednesdayswill not for you Millicent.Remember that you have riding lessons on Wednesdays.”
“Yes Father,” Millicentmurmured. Mr. Ballard bid the gentleman and his daughter farewell, and left in search of his wife who was said to be embroidering in the drawing room.
The moment the carved oak door shut behind Millicent’sfather, she movedawayfrom her standing position to go to the window. “You justlove messing with people’s heads, don’t youMr. Atwin?”
Mr. Atwin threw back his head and gave a heartfelt laugh. There was little that Millicent knew about Mr. Atwin, yet her father trusted the two of them to be in a room together without warranting suspicion. Millicent was admittedly curious as to what the true identity of Mr. Atwin was. Her father knew him before the war, so she knew that his name was in fact was true, but the details of his life during the war and after, could easily be a fabrication created using his imagination.
The man finally set down his pipe on the table beside him, and stuck his hands into his trouser pockets. “You seemed rather peculiar at dinner last night. May I ask what was wrong?”
Millicent eyed the man almost with as much suspicion as he eyes her. “Girl things Mr. Atwin. I wouldn’t bore you with the details. Now why are you really here?”
Mr. Atwin rolled back on his heels as he looked past Millicent for a minute before deciding on what to tell her. “You very well know why,” he told her seriously. “Where were you going just now that you grabbed your shawl and hat?” Ms. Ballard glanced down at her belongings in hand, and then back up at the man.
“To town,” she answered.
“Nothing to do with the events of last night?”
“That wouldn’t be wise,” he told her. Millicent shifted on her feet, then glanced over her shoulder to check that the door to the drawing room was closed.
“It’s not a wise move for you to make to be here Mr. Atwin. Yet here you are. I will do what I see fit, and whatever consequences that means for you, you will accept them.”
“Give me the opportunity to explain at least. Tomorrow, let me paint you.”
Folding her arms across her chest in defiance of the appropriate manners, Millicent felt the need to ask, “How long will you be staying for Mr. Atwin?” Silently, she hoped that he would say only a day or two, but in all reality, she knew that a portrait would take much longer.
Mr. Atwin moved over to the window where he noticed one of her books that she’d left on the windowsill earlier in the day. “Evelina,” he said as he brushed his fingers over the fine lettering on the leather binding. “A humorous story is it not?”
Millicent didn’t know why she blushed at his remark. It was unusual for a man to read such a feminine piece of writing. She also wondered when he would ever find the time to read novels being in the army, and then painting. “Indeed,” she murmured softly.
“I’ve told your Mr. Ballard that I intend to remain for the month until the signs of summer start to fade into autumn.”
“Are you not fond of the autumn season Mr. Atwin?”
“Perhaps not,” he replied dryly.
“Autumn is the most beautiful season here at Ballard Place. Perhaps it stands in competition with late-spring, but early-autumn has always held a certain feeling that cannot be matched by any other time of year.”
“Spoken like a poet Ms. Ballard.”
As the two began to part ways, there came a shriek from the front of the house- one that Millicent distinctly recognized as belonging to her mother. With a quick exchange of glances, the pair took off out of the room and rushed down the corridor to the entryway where Mrs. Ballard stood with young Alexander beneath her arm as the gentleman Millicent recognized as Mr. Elsfourd’s footman, shared the news.
“What is it Mother?” Millicent asked as she broke away from Mr. Atwin’s side to speak to her mother.
“Why don’t you go out back and feed the ducks on the pond Alex,” she suggested in an attempt to coax her younger brother away from the conversation. With a flash of his innocent blue eyes up in her direction, Alexander gave a crooked frown and ran off.
“Mr. Yultiere has died,” cried Mrs. Ballard. “What a sweet gentleman he was! Your father will be devastated to learn!” Millicent wrapped an arm around her mother as she looked to the footman for answers.
“He was murdered to be precise ma ’dam. Mr. Elsfourd wanted all of the guests who attended last night to know in case anyone might have useful information that may aid in finding his killer. Is Mr. Ballard home presently?”
“No,” said Mrs. Ballard shaking her head viciously as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “But Millicent here was there with her father. Mr. Ballard spoke nothing of the matter, so he couldn’t have possibly seen anything... and you Millie?” she asked with a wide teary-eyed glance up at her daughter.
Millicent’s heart stopped. Or at least it felt like it did in that moment. With Mr. Atwin standing behind the two of them however, she felt compelled to shake her head. “No Mother,” she whispered solemnly.
“I am sorry to have concerned you. A service will be held on Sunday at the church if you would like to attend, all friends are welcome to attend seeing as Mr. Yultiere had no pre-existing relatives for the last six years since his wife passed.” That comment seemed to arouse a greater deal of sorrow in Mrs. Ballard as she burst out into tears once more.
“Thank you for letting us know,” Millicent whispered to the footman as she gestured politely for the man to leave. With a nod of his head, the man retreated down the steps before Millicent could close the door in his face.
“Oh Millie how dreadful this day has become! Who would ever do such a thing? Can you believe it Mr. Atwin? Our dear friend murdered!” Beady-eyed and sniffling, Millicent sent her mother to her room to rest from hearing the news.
“Can you believe it Mr. Atwin?” She whispered sarcastically to the man the moment her mother was gone. “Who would ever do such a thing?” Mr. Atwin threw up his hands defensively, however lacked a sufficient argument to counter Millicent. “That’s what I thought...” She muttered as she took off out back to watch over her brother.