There was the sound of glass shattering and screaming.
Step up 'cause you're the next one in
line for the kill
You don't believe it but I'm betting that you will
Step down, I'll let you live a little bit with the pain that I bring
You know it's only the beginning
Emma’s phone morning alarm had gone off, jarring her awake.
She had no memory of falling asleep and was appalled with herself at dozing off cradling the valuable old diary. She got up and washed up, then re-dressed, ready to go out and get breakfast and begin the day.
Emma thought over what she had read in the diary last night. It seemed like Belle was quickly putting the household aright, bringing order and organization. She felt that there was a growing sense of intimacy between sweet, innocent Belle and her cantankerous, arrogant employer. The man had not made any moves on the girl, but Emma didn’t trust his motives. He was telling her that his marriage was loveless and was allowing her to comfort him. For someone of Emma’s suspicious nature, it looked like a clever play for the girl, getting her to feel sorry for him, allowing her to comfort him. Yeah right, the old My wife doesn’t understand me gambit. Emma was still thinking that it was a mere matter of time before he was putting his hands down her knickers.
She walked down to the diner, the brisk air helping her clear her head. She sat down and soon enough with Ruby she had finally learned the name of the slutty waitress she had ordered herself eggs, bacon, home fries and toast with coffee. No grits, this was Maine.
Debating the wisdom of reading the diary while reading, Emma caved in to its modest, unassuming call.
Emma read through the next several weeks of the diary. Belle detailed more and more about her relationship with her employer. There was a dark intensity that had molded itself around them. The man was clearly dangerous and could be quite threatening, but Belle didn’t seem to be easily threatened and her style of speaking clearly and quietly seemed to be mellowing the man. He wasn’t exactly becoming nice or even polite, but he was becoming almost civil.
Emma cracked up reading about some of Belle’s kindly, mellowing gestures. Often she did simple and homey things. One morning, Belle had been up early and had gone out to the flower and herb gardens that were in front of the house. She put vases of flowers mixed with herbs in the informal dining area they used for breakfast and lunch and then other vases in the library, one on her worktable and then, hesitantly not sure how it would be received, she put a small vase with a few sprigs of lavender, silver king and melissa, on his desk. He had huffed and rolled his eyes when he’d seen the flowers but, Belle noticed, he hadn’t ordered them removed. Heartened by his passive acceptance, she continued putting fresh flowers on his desk. He never commented on the flowers but from time to time she would catch him giving them a little sniff. And from time to time, he would allow his fingers to caress the little flower vase.
They were few and far between but she realized that she had begun to get small gestures of appreciation from the man. She had to think back to the first time that it had happened. It had been so brief and quick she realized that she had almost missed it. It had been on that first morning that Mrs. Potts had prepared breakfast and Rumach Goldark ate well-cooked, well-seasoned oatmeal with a side of properly fried bacon and a fluffy light biscuit. He gave Belle a very modest compliment, noting that the food was, “Not bad.”
It was those first, humble beginnings that seemed to sprout other kind gestures. He needed a letter about ordering new sails from somebody or another and Belle, checking her cross index, had immediately been able to put her hands on the letter. He hadn’t said anything at first, taking the letter silently from her hands and then dictating a response referencing the letter. Later he had given her the letter back and muttered, “Nice job.”
Oh, but it seemed to be their chess games that had the greatest, most dramatic impact on Goldark’s attitude toward her. After the first game when he had bailed as it was evident he was losing, he was much more careful when he played her. He had vastly raised his estimation of Belle’s skills. Focused and quite serious, he won the second game they played.
“It’s time to pay your forfeit,” and he handed her two short books of poems that had recently come in.
She had looked at them and commented, “I’m familiar with this writer, but I know him as an engraver, an artist, not a writer.”
“These were recommended to me by Thomas Paine,” Goldark told her.
“I know Mr. Paine!” Belle told him. “We met when I was very young and we have corresponded. You have some of his material that, I believe, has been declared seditious in England. I was not able to get a copy of much of his work when I lived with my father but found it. . . “ she looked at Goldark. He was watching her with his eyes half-closed with a faint smile on his face.
“I believe I have earned an hour of your time with you just reading and not chattering on,” he reminded her gently. Honest with himself, he admitted that he enjoyed hearing her lilting voice, but he was not used to females who talked incessantly, often asking questions, always offering opinions, never hesitating to disagree, even if she managed to do it respectfully. He just wanted to hear her, to bath in sound of her voice, to let it wash over him without having to make any response. He just wanted a soothing experience.
Belle had nodded in obedience. He signaled for her to begin reading while he struggled to compose a letter to his son, off in school in England.
Belle began the first book of poems, Songs of Innocence. She had to continually remind herself not to make remarks on the unusual poems. Then she began the second book, Songs of Experience.
She read steadily, the strong feelings of the poems coming through her delicate voice. It was after she had read several of the poems, stopped to prepare his tea, which she still hadn’t mastered to his satisfaction when she began a new poem.
“Tiger, Tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night.”
She stopped, contemplating the words.
She read on through several more lines of the poem.
“Did he smile his work to see? Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
She paused again, read on and finished the poem
“What immortal hand or eye dare frame thy fearful symmetry?”
She sat quietly with the book open on her lap. She didn’t continue reading.
Goldark watched her. He had stopped writing his letter to listen to the compelling poem. Belle was obviously struggling with herself, wanting to abide by their agreement but very much wanting to comment on the poem. He relented it had almost been an hour anyway.
“That was an interesting poem,” he began.
“It was remarkable,” she said gently.
“Remarkable, indeed.” He glanced at his clock. “I believe your hour is up. That was excellent, by the way.”
She stood, still holding onto the book. She was a bit reluctant to let it go. “I had not read anything that Mister Blake had written before,” she shared. “I’m impressed.”
“Thomas had thought these poems were interesting and sent me the books, knowing I like . . . odd things,” Gold told her. He watched as Belle put in a scrap of paper to bookmark the Tiger poem. She then put them on the shelf in his library than included works of fiction, including other books of poetry.
It was on their third game of chess that he conceded, allowing that she had indeed won. Belle could tell that it rankled him and concerned him. Beaten by a woman. Who would have imagined?
“You know you could make a living playing chess,” he said off-handedly. He was sitting back in his chair looking her over. He knew he was an excellent player and reluctantly realized, by extension, that so was Belle.
Belle laughed. “I could see myself loitering outside of a gentleman’s club, offering to play chess, betting my virtue for rent money.”
“I would suggest you play the first game for a kiss, losing that game and having lulled your victim into a false sense of security, then up your ante and take them down,” he told her. And they both laughed at the image and he gave her a penetrating stare, as if seeing her for the first time.
Belle’s heart turned over. She had never had a man look at her as he had just looked at her. He was looking at her with what was it? Appreciation? Admiration? Respect?
It was an almost intimate moment between them.
And now it seemed as if there were an increasing number of such moments.
When they were working together and she brought him the ledgers for him to go over.
At first he went over every single receipt and double-checked her math. When he began to see that she was not prone to careless errors, that all of her work was exacting and thorough, he began to just glance over the materials and, soon enough, would just attend to the totals. She would stand next to him during these reviews, standing close, his sleeve sometimes touching hers. If he had a question about an entry, she would have to bend over him and examine the numbers. Their faces would come close together during these times and more than once she turned to find that he was looking at her eyes or her lips rather than at the ledger pages.
Tentatively, Belle began to open up to him, to share her distress, her frustration that so few opportunities were available for a young woman who wanted to make her own way in the world. If she were not married, she was confined to being a servant, a midwife or a prostitute.
“But what would you have women doing?” he asked, genuinely puzzled.
“The same things a man might do. Run a business, become an attorney or a physician. . . “
He laughed but then realized that he had hurt her feelings. “Miss French you are a forward, fresh thinker. I would suspect that you are ahead of your time.”
“You, allowing me to work as your clerk, you, sir, are a man ahead of your time. Most men would have disqualified me for this post solely because of my sex, but you took a chance on me.”
“I had nothing to lose,” he admitted. “If you couldn’t do the job, I would have bundled you up and returned you to your father’s house and booted you both out. If you could do the job, then I would have an efficient clerk, something I had not been able to find in a man. I found. . . that you . . . have been well able to do the job,” he told her and then he gave her one of his rare smiles.
And Belle had just melted.
After that incident, Belle had fretted. She recognized something was happening to her and . . . she recognized that she was in an untenable situation.
The man was married. He was her employer.
And she was falling in love with him.
Oh, but she would find herself watching him perform simple acts, stirring his tea, picking off a speck of dust on his black-as-midnight suit jacket, running his fingers through his brown hair with its strands of gray, shuffling the week’s rent receipts before handing them off to her. He had long, strong fingers, she had noticed. Sure and capable fingers.
There were often late afternoons when he would put on some gold-rimmed spectacles to help him read some of the fine print, leaning over in the waning light while he sat hunched over his desk. On these occasions, he would often have removed his jacket and sometimes would have loosened his cravat, making him look approachable and almost kindly. If he caught her eye he would give her his little half smile.
And there was his voice. Often when dictating correspondence to her the burr in his locution would set up a reverberating timbre deep within herself. And it could be soft and almost purring when he was relaxed. It wasn’t just his accent, but he had brilliant, insightful remarks to share. She could listen to him for hours.
She chastised herself, calling herself a silly schoolgirl in love with the headmaster. She wrote that she felt she was becoming a loose woman, one of easy virtue. Now, when they were working on a project together and, as would often happen, they would end up being physically close, it was those times that she would become so very aware of the warmth and feel of his body, of his breath, sometimes laced with a touch of whiskey or the mild tobacco he favored. There was the subtle scent of his aftershave with rosemary and a mere touch of ambergris; it was something that his wife, Cora, would prepare especially for him and him alone.
Belle wrote that she was well aware that her musings were most inappropriate, but nonetheless, she had begun to wonder about his relationship, especially his physical relationship, with his wife. He had talked to her about the sexual relationship he’d had with his wife when they had first met and married an extremely inappropriate thing to do, she knew. He had apologized promptly following the disclosure. Belle knew that the couple had separate bedrooms, but that was not unusual among the upper crust. She had often seen Cora approaching Master Goldark she would not allow herself to think of him as Rumach. Cora would dress in beautiful, seductive clothing and would often kiss the Master on the mouth. To Belle’s innocent eyes, he did not appear to be kissing her back and part of her so didn’t want him to be kissing her back.
Belle didn’t think that he ever spent the night in his wife’s bedroom.
Or spent any time in his wife’s bedroom.
She would know if he’d stayed in Cora’s bedroom. Belle’s bed was directly over Goldark’s bedroom and at night in the quiet of her attic corner, she could hear his distinctive step, click, step, click as he would go into his bedroom. She became quite familiar with his pattern of movements as he prepared himself for bed.
She would fantasize about him removing his jacket and vest, unbuttoning his shirt and opening it up to reveal some of the skin on his chest. At some point, in her fantasy, he would sit and remove his boots. Next . . . next he would unbutton his pants and pull them over what she imagined were sinewy legs, hard muscled. What was wrong with his leg? She wasn’t sure, but she had seen him rubbing his knee and assumed that was the likely culprit accounting for his limp. He would end up, in her fantasy, clad only in a brief pair of underpants and an undershirt. She could go no further with her musings in her inexperience.
Belle knew well enough how long it would take him to settle in, how long before she would no longer hear him moving about in his room, how long before he would lie down on his large bed, slip between his sheets, alone.
As far as his relationships with other women went, although his reputation was darkened in town, here on the estate, the many females on his staff assured Belle that he had never accosted any of them. He had never made lewd or suggestive remarks. He had never even seemed to notice them.
Belle realized to her great dismay that she had begun to entertain an increasing fascination for the man. Soon enough she had begun experiencing fevered nighttime dreams and visions of him as . . . dare she admit it, even to herself? . . . as her lover. Belle who had led a sheltered life of innocence, wrote about dreaming that his hands were on her, not just holding her up like when she had fallen in the carriage, but holding her. That first carriage trip when she had fallen into him bloomed into her dreams and took fire. She wondered what his mouth pressing against hers would feel like. She would imagine his weight pressing her into her bed, the force of his lips on hers teasing her mouth open, the heated demands he would make of her body. She would wake up, throbbing with unrelieved desires. She didn’t understand what was happening to her.
She began to feel guilty. Adding to her guilt, was Madame Goldark. Despite her unpleasant reputation, the woman had only been kind to her, purchasing new clothing for her, praising her for her talents, thanking her for putting up with her difficult husband. And of course Master Goldark had never done anything to encourage her fantasies. Belle fervently hoped that she would never lose her self-control around the man. She’d had one ridiculous fantasy in which she threw herself into the man’s arms and begged him to kiss her and hold her and do whatever he wanted with her. That was one silly dream that she had to firmly squash.
At this same time, she began to take on more and more direction of the household, taking on the duties of a wife, more of the responsibilities and chores, without the benefits and pleasures of having a husband. More and more of the household staff would approach Belle to help with problems that would have otherwise gone to the mistress of the house as if Belle was the mistress of the house. Before Belle, the staff had lived in fear that Madame Goldark might summarily dismiss them without references for a minor infraction or even for something inconsequential. If anyone wanted a day off, if there was disagreement about the division of job responsibilities, if there was a dispute over quarters, any argument, any problem, it could now be brought to Belle who would listen and offer a fair and just resolution. With Belle to intervene, the tone of the household changed. People were smiling, jobs were getting done without problems. Things were running smoothly.
Except in Belle’s heart.