Grave Expectations – C.J. Archer

Ah, Mademoiselle Holloway, Monsieur Fitzroy. I have been expecting you. Please come in. Sit.” The matron’s accent sounded like a cat’s purr with its rolling Rs and softly tumbling consonants. Her kind smile rippled across her face and reached her gray eyes. Eyes that looked at me with as much wonder as I had looked at Paris through the coach window. “Thank you for seeing us,” Lincoln said, holding a chair out for me. “Would you mind continuing to speak in English,” I said. “I’m afraid I know very little French.” Since docking at Calais several hours ago, I’d learned the words for yes, no, thank you, please and hat, after it blew off in the wind. I’d also discovered that a pâtisserie was heaven in a shop. “Not at all.” The matron clasped her knotty hands on the desk in front of her. “You look like her.

Your face, your chin, nose, hair. So pretty.” A blush crept up my throat and threatened to engulf my cheeks. I was acutely aware of Lincoln sitting beside me. I didn’t need to see him to know that he watched me. His warm gaze made my skin tingle. “Thank you.” In an effort to shift the focus off me, I leaned forward. “Please tell me about her, Matron.” “I will try.

” The matron of the St. Madeleine orphanage in Paris had sent Lincoln a letter after he’d learned that I’d been adopted from that institution as a baby. She had provided him with brief details about my mother, and she now repeated these facts. Ellen Mercier had been unwed when she gave birth to me. She was educated and most likely from a good family but had perhaps been cast out when she became pregnant. She’d been gravely ill and had given me to the orphanage in desperation. She’d asked them to find me a nice home, so when the English vicar and his wife inquired about a child to raise as their own, I’d been handed over to them and whisked away to London. The woman I’d grown up believing was my mother was now dead, buried in Highgate Cemetery, and the man I’d called Father had disowned me when I’d raised her spirit at the age of the thirteen. Despite calling myself Charlotte Holloway, I was not a Holloway. Nor was I really a Frankenstein, after my real father.

I was Charlie. Just Charlie. That was enough—for now. “I would like to have known her in happier times,” the matron concluded. “She had a quick…what do you English say? Witty?” “Wit,” I said. “A quick mind.” ” “A quick mind, yes, and a good heart. She had two pair of shoes, and gave her spare to a girl here. A poor girl, so thin and cold with no shoes. Ellen, your mother, insist.

She was kind.” But instead of smiling at the thought of my mother’s kindness, she frowned and shook her head. “Perhaps that is why she find herself in trouble.” “Did she tell you anything about my father?” “No. We begged her to tell us. We would write to him, you see, and ask that he give you his name, or money if he had any. But she refuse, most strongly. I do not think he was a good man.” “I met him,” I told her. “He’s dead.

And you’re correct—he wasn’t a good man.” Her eyebrow inched up her forehead, but I didn’t elaborate. Victor Frankenstein was dead, and I didn’t want to waste my breath on him. He may have been my real father but he didn’t care for me as a father ought. He only wanted me for my necromancy and to fulfil his mad medical dreams. “Is there anything else you can tell me about her, Matron?” She sighed. “That is all, I am sorry to say. But!” Her face folded into a map of crinkles. “I have something for you. Something she wanted you to have.

” “Your letter to Linc—Mr. Fitzroy—mentioned it.” I felt myself rising from the chair in anticipation and firmly clasped the chair arms to ground myself. “What is it?” She flattened her hands on the desk, and that’s when I noticed an envelope sealed with a plain red wax seal. She handed it to me. The envelope bulged in one corner. “Thank you,” I heard myself murmur. I stared at the envelope. It was the first thing I’d held that my mother’s hands—my real mother— had also touched. It was such a small thing, so insignificant, but it felt more wondrous than all the artifacts in the British Museum.

Lincoln touched my arm. “Charlie?” “I’ll open it at the hotel.” I clasped the envelope tightly in my gloved hand and rose. My legs felt unsteady but I stood without assistance. Lincoln moved closer, as if to support me if I stumbled. “Thank you, Matron,” I said. “You’ve been very kind. Thank you for your care all those years ago, of both my mother and myself. It is very much appreciated.” She came around the desk and took my hand.

“You are welcome, mademoiselle. It is a joy to see you grown and in good health. It fills my heart to know that we gave you to a good family.” I didn’t correct her. She didn’t need to know about the cruel words Anselm Holloway had flung at me as he forced me out of the house I’d called home. She didn’t need to hear how he’d almost killed me in an attempt to ‘cure’ me of my necromancy. Besides, my adopted mother had been good to me. She, at least, had loved me. Of course, she hadn’t learned of my strangeness during her lifetime. “We will be in Paris for a few more days,” Lincoln said in his brisk but bland tone.

“Would you mind drafting a letter stating that Charlotte Holloway, now of London, was left here as a baby eighteen years ago by Ellen Mercier and given to Mr. and Mrs. Holloway.” “Whatever for?” I asked. “It may be required for legal reasons.” “What legal reasons?” His gaze turned cool. The topic was not up for discussion. Or so he thought. I would finish the discussion out of the matron’s hearing. “Bien sur,” she said.

“Send it to Le Grand Hôtel, on the Boulevard des Capucines.” Her eyes flared ever-so slightly at the salubrious address. “I’ll write it today. Goodbye, monsieur et mademoiselle. Good fortune to you both.” She escorted us through the orphanage’s labyrinth of stone corridors to the front door, but Lincoln paused before passing through the giant arched doorway. “Do you know where Ellen Mercier went after she left here?” he asked. “I am afraid I do not,” the matron said. “She was too ill and would not have survived long.” She gave me a pitying look.

“Why did you ask that?” I whispered to Lincoln as he escorted me down the orphanage steps. “Do you want to make sure she’s dead?” “Yes.” His bluntness shouldn’t have surprised me. He was, after all, not only here for me, but as the leader of the Ministry of Curiosities. The file on Ellen Mercier was open. Until we had proof of her death, he couldn’t close it. Lincoln spoke to the coachman who’d waited for us and paid him. I took Lincoln’s offered hand and climbed into the hackney. Our fingers lingered longer than necessary, the touch sending a tiny shockwave through my body. “Why did you ask for a letter of…?” What was such a letter called? “Authenticity?” I swear the corners of his mouth kicked up in a smile, even though his lips didn’t seem to move at all.

I laughed. “I suppose it could be called that. But why?” The contours of his face changed, and a small line appeared between his brows. “Holloway made it seem as though he is your real father. When he brought you to England as a baby, he pretended you were their natural child, born in France. As far as English law is concerned, he is your legal guardian. A letter from the matron will go some way to proving that you are not his legitimate child. You do not wish him to be your legal guardian, do you?” “No, certainly not. But he has disowned me. Surely any legal claim on me is now irrelevant.

” “What if he decides to no longer disown you? What if he exerts his legal right, perhaps in the hope of curing you?” His jaw hardened. “I can’t risk it.” “I see,” I murmured. “Do you think the matron’s letter will stand up in court, if it came to that?” “If not, I will bring the matron herself to England to testify on your behalf.” “Failing that?” His gaze shifted to the window. “I will do anything in my power to insure you are not under that man’s guardianship.” I didn’t ask how he would accomplish that; I didn’t want to hear the answer. Hopefully, it could be settled legally and without violence. “Unless Holloway demands I return home with him, there is no need for my guardianship to become an issue at all. And I cannot imagine he wants me near him now.

I’m quite sure I terrify him.” Lincoln frowned again. “Charlie, I don’t think you understand.” “I do. I understand that he can exercise his legal claim over me, but only for three years. Two, in fact. I will be nineteen soon. But why would he? I have no fortune and nothing of value for him to take from me. If he wishes to remove my freedom, I will simply run away again, and you can hide me. Besides, he’s in jail.

He can do no harm from there.” The coach rolled to a stop outside our hotel. Instead of alighting, Lincoln leaned forward and grasped my hand in both of his. His dark, earnest gaze penetrated mine. “Charlie—” He was cut off by the driver’s barked order. With a pursing of lips, he got out and assisted me down the step. The hotel porter gave me a friendly smile and asked, in terrible English, how I had enjoyed Paris. “Very much, thank you, but I have not seen a great deal yet. Hopefully tomorrow.” “You did not see my beautiful city?” He clicked his tongue.

“But you must!” “We had an errand to run this afternoon.” “It is late. Mademoiselle is tired, oui?” “Oui. It’s been a long day.” He went on to recommend some eateries to Lincoln in French, giving me an opportunity to admire the Boulevard des Capucines in the late afternoon. Despite the shadows, it was a pretty thoroughfare with its slender trees, now bare of leaves, and grand buildings with bright awnings. People walked quickly past, wrapped in furs against the cold wind, and coaches, omnibuses and carts jostled one another in their hurry to reach their destinations before dark. Before Lincoln and I left London, my traveling guide told me that Paris was the city for love and lovers. A city “bursting with vibrancy,” he’d said. “A delicious confection that teases, is never coy, and is always fresh.

” Considering my traveling guide had been Seth, I probably should have known his perception of the city would be influenced by his roguish escapades with the ladies of Paris. While the city wasn’t quite as he’d described, it wasn’t like Lincoln’s version either. When I’d asked him for his impressions of the city, as we waited for the boat to depart at Dover, he’d told me it was “much like London” and left it that. He’d not been overly talkative, and it wasn’t until we settled on the boat and his jaw turned green that I remembered why. Seasickness kept him in his cabin the entire crossing, and it wasn’t until we were an hour into the train journey from Calais to Paris that his color returned. He refused to discuss his wellbeing with me, despite my numerous questions. It would seem the topic of his weakness, as he thought of it, was off-limits. I took his offered arm and we entered the hotel together. My mother’s letter felt like a lead weight in my reticule, and I could hardly wait to reach my room to open it. “Sit with me,” I urged Lincoln at the door to the small sitting room that adjoined my bedroom.

“I might need your support as I read it.” He followed me inside and stoked the coals in the grate as I sat at the table by the window for the light. I opened the envelope with shaking fingers and peered inside. “It’s a necklace.” I tipped out the silver chain and pendant onto my palm. The pendant consisted of two circular rings, one inside the other, which could swivel independently. A spherical orange-brown stone was inset into the smaller ring. It could also swivel on its axis, like a globe. “It’s quite pretty.” Lincoln held out his hand and I laid it on his palm.

“It’s amber.” He turned it over, rubbed his thumb around the sphere, and held it up to the light. “No inclusions. It would be worth a small sum.” He handed it back to me. “Is there a letter?” I checked inside the envelope and my heart leapt into my throat. I removed the piece of paper and my heart dove a little. “Will you read it? It’s in French.” He sat and took the paper. The letter wasn’t long, but he took some time reading it first before he translated.

“‘To my dearest daughter. It is my greatest regret that we will never meet again, but I hope this letter will in some way give you comfort as you grow into a woman. Matron assures me you will be given to a good family, and I pray that you are greatly loved, as I love you. I cannot write much as my body is too weak. I will die very soon, but I go to my afterlife in peace knowing you are in good health and with good people at the orphanage. Do not be sad. Death is nothing to be sad about or to fear, as you may know. My daughter, I write this letter to you to tell you what I can about who you are and where you come from. My family name is Mercier, from Normandy. They will not welcome you and will only blacken my name.

Forget them. I will not tell you your father’s name. He is a dangerous man, and does not love you, or me. I made a mistake to trust him and give him my heart. He only wanted me for my power over death.'” “I suppose she means necromancy,” I said lamely. I felt somewhat numb listening to her words, written so long ago. It must have felt quite strange for her too, writing to a baby. Her baby. I swallowed past the lump in my throat.

“Please go on.” “‘I will keep his name from you to protect you, Daughter. If he learns of your existence, he will pursue you relentlessly and use you in his experiments as he tried to use me. If you have not yet discovered your power over death, then I don’t want to frighten you, but I must warn you. Like me, you are a witch who can raise the dead. When a spirit leaves its lifeless body, you can see it and speak to it, and even tell it to re-enter its body. Do not fear this power, but do not tell others. Most will not understand. They will fear you and perhaps harm you. The necklace I am giving to you will protect you from your father and others who wish to harm you.

Wear it always and when you are in danger, hold the orb and summon the imp with three words: ‘I release you.'” “Imp?” I echoed. “That is the closest English word,” Lincoln said. “Do you think it’s an actual, living…thing?” “It’s unclear. She could simply mean a childlike spirit.” “I don’t see how a spirit could help me if I am in danger, but I quite like the idea of being protected.” I slipped the necklace over my head and tucked it beneath my bodice. “Does it say how she came across it?” “No.” He continued to read: “‘The imp will protect the wearer from evil. I have not used it, and I caution you to only summon the imp if necessary.

As with all witchcraft, be careful. And now, dear Daughter, I grow too weak to continue. If you need to know more, call my spirit. It will be my greatest joy to meet you again. I will be at your side in a moment, but be assured, you are always in my heart. Always. Your loving mother, Ellen Marie Mercier.'” He folded the letter and handed it back to me without a word. I tucked it into my reticule and blinked away hot tears. It was a long time before I found my voice again, and he didn’t try to rush me.

“That was quite an experience,” I murmured. He reached across the table and took both my shaking hands in his. The gentle rubbing of his thumbs over my knuckles soothed my jangling nerves, but not my thumping heart. “Do you require a strong drink?” I smiled. “No, thank you. Your presence is fortifying enough.” “I assume that’s a compliment.” I squeezed his hands. “Most certainly.” We stayed like that for an age, as I thought through the contents of the letter.

I only let him go to inspect the pendant again. “May I have it?” he said. “To keep it safe.” I closed my fist around it. “My mother wanted me to wear it for protection.” “I’m here to protect you now, you don’t need a device.” He nodded at the pendant. “Its power is unknown, perhaps dangerous itself if unleashed. Until we learn more about it, it should be locked away.” I studied the orb.

It felt warm, as if it had been sitting by the fire. Then it throbbed. I gasped and quickly unclasped the necklace. I thrust it toward him. “I think…I think it’s alive.” Lincoln held it up to the light. “Amber sometimes has dead insects trapped inside from when it was a sticky tree resin. This one appears to have something very small in the center, but I can’t make it out with the naked eye.” “I felt it beat, like a heart.” He tucked it into his inside jacket pocket.

“We’ll see what we can learn about it when we return home.” I stared out the window at the street below, where the lamp lighter climbed his ladder to light the nearest streetlamp. My mother’s words tumbled through my mind, and while it was wonderful to have that connection with her, I wanted more. I couldn’t hear her voice; I wanted so desperately to know its timbre and to see what she looked like. I had only matron’s description of her. It wasn’t enough. Lincoln’s hand on my cheek startled me. He’d not displayed much tenderness toward me since the kiss in his room back at Lichfield, so his gesture was a surprise, though not an unwelcome one. But instead of kissing me, or stroking my cheek, he withdrew. He began to pace the small room, his hands at his back.

“I know what you’re thinking,” I said, also rising. He stopped and looked at me. “You do?” “You think I’ll raise my mother’s spirit. And since she’s a necromancer, she might know the same spell that Estelle Pearson knew and override my power. You’re worried she’ll escape and I won’t be able to send her back.” The memory of Estelle Pearson’s decaying body getting away from me in Highgate Cemetery still haunted me. I’d gone against Lincoln’s wishes and summoned her, but she’d been a witch and spoken a spell to override my commands. Knowing that she could have caused great harm to others still sickened me. I wouldn’t summon a spirit again unless I knew they had been powerless in life. “No,” he said quietly.

“That is not what I was thinking.” “Then what is it?” I touched his face as he had touched mine. He’d shaved that morning, but dark stubble already shadowed his jaw and roughed my palm. I stroked the smooth skin above it with my thumb. “What troubles you?” He placed his hand over mine and drew it away. He kissed my wrist, but not passionately, and let me go. “Now is not the time. You’re tired and your mind is occupied with thoughts of your mother. I’ll have some supper sent up for you. Goodnight, Charlie.

Tomorrow we will talk.” “But we’re meeting Monsieur Fernesse, the decorator, tomorrow.” “After that.” He kissed my forehead. “I will not be far away.” “Will you come to me if I have bad dreams?” “Of course.” I smiled. I thought he’d be more concerned about someone seeing us. It was one thing to come to my room at night at Lichfield, where it was only us and our three friends, but now we were in public at an exclusive hotel. Perhaps being in a strange city, surrounded by strangers, eased his conscience.

I was glad of it. I liked that he didn’t care about propriety. Liked it very much. Monsieur Fernesse occupied a gallery sandwiched between a wine shop and a cabaret on a sloping Montmartre street. Seth had told me all about the artists’ corner of Paris before we left, describing its freedom, creativity and madness as if those three things could not be separated. On a frosty November morning, however, there was no sign of the previous night’s revelries. Aside from a few souls braving the icy wind that swept down the hill, we were the only ones about. “I hope he’s in,” I said to Lincoln as we waited for his knock to be answered. He knocked again, and this time a man dressed in a long purple and gold smoking jacket unlocked the door. He barked out a string of French words I suspected weren’t terribly welcoming, from the way Lincoln went very still beside me.

He spoke back to the man in that quiet yet commanding tone he used when he was angry, then handed him Seth’s letter of introduction. The Frenchman read it. Then he burst out laughing and ushered us inside. I lifted my brows at Lincoln, and he held out his hand for me to go ahead of him. Seth must have been quite popular with Monsieur Fernesse to change his response from savage to solicitous with a mere letter. It was just as cold inside the gallery as out, thanks to its cavernous nature and high ceiling. A staircase at the back led up, and an alcove beneath the stairs was occupied by a table covered in swathes of colorful fabrics, sewing tools, and a lamp. The rest of the gallery was set up like a crowded drawing room. Sofas, armchairs, wing chairs, tables, cushions, vases and artwork filled every space, allowing only a narrow path for walking. Each piece was unique and displayed to exquisite perfection.

A flash of gold beading, a delicate tassel, a heavy strip of elaborate embroidery…nothing looked ordinary, simple. “Come, mademoiselle,” Monsieur Fernesse said, taking my hand in his long, slender fingers. He led me through the maze to a sofa. He plumped the cushions then insisted I sit. “I will warm your cold hands, mademoiselle. Please, a moment.” He set about lighting the fire. Once it blazed to his satisfaction, he summoned Lincoln. “Help me, young man. My knees, you know, they are old, like me.

” Lincoln assisted him to his feet, and the little man gave him a small bow of thanks. He stroked his hands over his gray hair but it remained a tangled mess that fell to his shoulders. He had a beard to match, and it was difficult to tell where beard ended and hair began. He rather resembled an aging lion with a mane of gray. “You are friends of my boy, Seth, eh?” His boy? “He’s a very dear friend,” I said. “When we told him we wanted to redecorate and were coming to Paris, he insisted we seek your advice. You’re the best decorator in the world, he claimed.” Those weren’t quite his words, but close to it. Monsieur Fernesse glowed. His grin split his face.

“Ah, that boy. Always the sweet one, always so good to old Fernesse. Of course, I was not so old when I lived in London, not so gray.” He stroked his beard. “They were good days, very good, but good days must end, no? How is my boy?” “Seth’s very well and sends his fondest regards.” “Fond?” He chuckled. “I do so wish to see him again, but alas, I do not like to travel now. You tell him, mademoiselle, to come to Paris and see me. Tell him I long to see his beautiful face again.” “I will.

” He insisted on making us tea because, “You English cannot do a thing without tea first.” Lincoln and I took the opportunity to inspect the items in the gallery. “I do hope he’s not too expensive,” I whispered as I ran my hand along the curved back of a chair. “The expense is not important.” I’d been brought up never to discuss money. My mother had claimed it was vulgar to speak about the cost of things or how much a man earned. I’d never asked Lincoln who paid him or where he got his money from. I assumed the ministry itself had funds. If that were the case, he must be in charge of finances, because he had not asked the committee’s permission to spend it. They weren’t even aware we were in Paris.

Monsieur Fernesse directed us to sit again and handed us a cup each, served with airy little cakes that were as delicious as anything Cook made. We spent the next two hours choosing furniture, curtains and lampshades, to drag Lichfield’s parlor and drawing room into a modern era. While I wanted to keep the parlor cozy, I allowed Monsieur Fernesse full reign in the drawing room. It currently stood empty and unused, but I wanted to turn it into a spectacular showcase. Lincoln was a gentleman, and the son of someone important, and he ought to take his place in London society. This could help launch him. All we would require would be some visitors other than the committee members. I wasn’t yet sure how to go about encouraging callers, or if any would come to Lichfield, but there would be time to think about it back in London. Monsieur Fernesse certainly had a lovely eye, and he was an excellent artist. He drew his plans for the rooms based on the dimensions Lincoln gave him.

We had everything settled for the two rooms when Lincoln suddenly said, “We also require the ballroom to be transformed.” “We’re going to hold a ball?” I asked, unable to keep the excitement from my voice. I’d never been to a ball before, and the thought of hosting one was both thrilling and dreadful. “In time,” was all he said.


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