Fateful, p.1Claudia Gray
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Also by Claudia Gray
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APRIL 9, 1912
It’s not too late to turn back, I tell myself.
As a group of sailors leer at me, I cross my arms in front and wish my coat weren’t so shabby. Though the spring days are warm now, the nights are cool, and the sea-sharpened wind cuts through thin cloth.
The streets of Southampton darken as the hour grows late, not that I can see the sun or anything so cheery with all these tall buildings surrounding me. My feet, accustomed to either the dirt roads of my home village or the polished floors of Moorcliffe, stumble on the cobblestones. I like to think of myself as a steady sort of girl, but the unfamiliarity of everyone and everything around me has put me off balance. The city seems dangerous, and dusk here seems more forbidding than midnight at home.
I could go back to the hotel suite, where my employers await. I could just say that the shop was closed, that I wasn’t able to purchase the bootlaces. Miss Irene wouldn’t mind a bit; she didn’t want to send me out on my own in the first place.
But Lady Regina would be furious—even over something as trivial as my not being able to purchase extra bootlaces for the trip. Lady Regina’s fury would spill over into Mrs. Horne’s punishment. I’m afraid of being out in a city on my own, but I’m more afraid of getting sacked before I reach America.
So I square my shoulders and hurry along the road. My servant’s dress, long and black, complete with white apron and puffy linen cap, marks me as lower class and insignificant. But it also says that I am employed by a household wealthy enough to have servants run the errands. Maybe that keeps me safe. The men around me know that I work for people of quality, and that if anything were to happen to me, those people might be upset and demand justice.
Luckily, these men don’t know Lady Regina. Her only reaction to my death would be annoyance at having to find another maid who could fit in the same uniforms, so she wouldn’t have to pay for new ones.
Something dark swoops overhead—a seagull, I think, and I lift one hand above my head to ward it off. I never saw a gull before this afternoon, and already I’ve come to despise the loud, greedy things.
But it’s not a seagull. I don’t get a very good look at it, fast as it goes by, but I see the sharp angles of the wings, the quick flutter. It’s a bat, I think. Even worse. That reminds me of the gothic novels I’ve sneaked peeks at in the Lisle family library—Frankenstein and Dracula and Udolpho, all the scary ones that were so much fun to read in a warm, well-lit room but seem far too plausible when I’m alone as darkness falls.
I wouldn’t have expected to see a bat flying through the streets of Southampton, but then, what do I know of the world beyond Moorcliffe and my home village? Only once before in my life have I ever been anywhere else—and that but for a day, just because Daisy needed me very badly.
And now I am planning a greater journey yet—
You mustn’t think of such things right now. You can worry about all that after you get on the ship.
After it’s too late to turn back.
Resolutely I continue on my path toward the shop. The sailors thin out a bit, though the streets still seem crowded to me. I know I’ve got to get used to it, because we’re traveling to New York City, which I understand makes Southampton look like a small town.
All the same, it’s a relief to turn off the main road and take what I hope is a shortcut toward the shop. This alleyway is so old and worn down by time that the stones dip into a V in the center, and my hobnail shoes make me clumsy as I continue on my way. Oh, for a pair of Miss Irene’s dove-gray boots, of such soft leather they would never blister, and light on the feet instead of heavy—
The bat swoops overhead again, so close I think it’s diving for my cap.
Though I feel a chill, I don’t let my imagination run away with me; instead, I focus on the practicalities and clutch my cap to my head. If some fool bat steals part of my uniform, the Lisles will make me pay for a new one.
What time is it? No telling—I’ve never owned anything so fancy as a wristwatch, and there’s no church tower clock to be seen here. Surely no shop will be open at this hour, but Lady Regina has it in her head that things are done differently in cities. I take heart as I turn a corner and see a group of men walking along—not ruffians like the sailors, but gentlemen in fine hats and coats. They won’t bother me.
I hasten my steps so that I’ll fall in only a few feet behind them. They seem to be heading toward the shop, if I’ve understood the directions the hotel concierge rather brusquely gave me. That gives me a little protection for the last bit of my journey. Breathing easier, I let my mind wander to tomorrow’s voyage—my first-ever glimpse of the ocean, my first-ever time to leave England—
And, if I have my way, the last I shall ever see of my home country—
“You like to eavesdrop.”
Caught off guard, I look up at the gentleman who has turned to face me. He, and all the others in his group, have stopped in their tracks. I drop a quick curtsy. “No, sir. I wasn’t listening, sir. I beg your pardon, sir.” That’s the truth, too: One of the first things you learn, as a servant, is how to ignore conversations you don’t care to hear. Otherwise you’d go half-mad with boredom.
In the twilight shadows, I can’t quite make out his features—only the dark spade of his Vandyke beard against his too-pale skin, and the uncanny glint in his eyes. His expensive pocket watch, worth more than ten years’ of my salary, dangles from a fob, oddly scratched for something so priceless. He tilts his head slightly as he studies me. “You beg, you say.”
“Beg your pardon, sir,” I repeat, and hurry past them without waiting to be excused. Normally I’d never be so rude to gentlemen, but these are strangers, and probably they hoped to amuse themselves by making me grovel. I’m in a hurry, thank you very much.
I cast one worried glance behind me, expecting to see them either laughing at me or already on their way. Instead, they’re all gone. As if they had vanished.
Unnerved, I try to remember what they said that they were so displeased I might have overheard—though I was paying them no mind, I can recall a few words and phrases now. “Valuable influence,” they said. And “must be close by.” A name: “Marlowe.” And something about “let him know he’s being watched.”
That does sound a bit suspicious, but surely they know, whatever it is they’re up to, there’s nothing any servant girl could do to stop them.
I try to refocus on my errand. Where was I supposed to take that last turn? Is this the name of the street? I can find no signs. It can’t be more than ten minutes until nightfall, and finding my way home after dark will be difficult.
Then I hear footsteps, heavy and disti
I look behind me but can see no one. The footsteps are coming from some other angle, one I can’t see. So probably whoever is coming can’t see me either and is headed in this direction by no more than coincidence. But it unnerves me for no reason I can name. I turn to continue on my way, then gasp as I realize I am no longer alone.
A man is standing with me in the alley—not one of the frightening group from a few moments ago, but a young man, perhaps only a few years older than I am. He has the rich chestnut curls of a poet and the broad shoulders of a farmhand. His eyes are those of a hunted criminal.
Was it his footsteps I heard? Impossible—they were from another direction. And he too is looking into the not-so-distant dark. His alarm is greater than my own.
“Come with me,” he says.
“I beg your pardon, sir, but I can’t.” Does he take me for a streetwalker? How horrifying. And yet he looks well-bred in his handsome suit and gleaming shoes; surely he must recognize what my uniform means. “I’ve an errand to run—”
“Damn your errand.” His voice is rough, his broad hand tense as it closes around my upper arm. “If you don’t come with me now, you’re dead.”
Is he threatening me? It sounds like it, and feels like it too from the rough way he drags me along with him as he starts walking quickly through the alley back toward the main street. And yet I don’t believe that’s what is happening here. Whatever’s happening is something I don’t understand.
“Sir,” I protest. “Let me go. I can find my way to the main road on my own.”
“You’ll be dead before you go ten steps without me.” His hand is warm as it clasps my arm—more than warm, hot. As if he burned with fever. I can hear our pursuers coming closer. “Stay by my side and walk faster. And for the love of God, don’t look back.”
I wonder that he doesn’t suggest we run, but I realize that it’s all he can do to walk himself—he’s almost staggering, and not in the way Layton Lisle does after he’s downed two bottles of wine. It’s as though the man is in pain. And yet his fingers dig into my flesh with an almost unnatural strength.
The steps behind us change. No longer do they sound like footsteps. Instead they’re softer—and yet they click upon the cobblestones—
As I’m unable to wrest myself free from my captor, I defy him by looking back. And there I see the wolf.
The scream rips through my throat even as the dark wolf pounces, its enormous body seeming to black out the last light of the day. I’m pulled to the side just in time by the young man, who slams me against the wall of the nearest building and flattens his body against mine, his back to my front.
“What’s happening?” I gasp. Wolves attacking in the middle of the city? And this—this enormous black creature, snarling as it paces back and forth—I had never imagined a wolf could be so large.
“Leave us,” the young man says, as if the wolf could understand. “Leave us now!”
The wolf cocks its head—not like an inquisitive dog, but an almost human gesture. Its teeth are still bared, hot saliva dripping from its jaws. A deep growl rumbles through its chest, and its golden eyes seem to be locked on me, not the man guarding me.
“Go now!” The young man sounds desperate now, as well he might. I can feel the hard, quick rise and fall of his chest against me with every ragged breath, and his muscles are taut beneath my palms braced against his shoulders.
And yet somehow, it works. The wolf simply lopes away.
“What in the world was that?” I say as my rescuer slumps forward. “It looked to be a wolf.”
“It was.” He sounds exhausted.
“But why would a wolf—” Be here in Southampton, find his way to an inner alley instead of preying on people and animals he would have had to pass on the way, and give up when spoken to sharply? None of it makes any sense. But I know what I saw, and what this man did for me. “Thank you, sir. For your kind help.”
When I look back at him, though, he doesn’t look pleased. He looks crueler than the wolf ever did.
“Leave me,” he says. His eyes have that uncanny glint to them again, though now he looks less hunted. More criminal. “If you don’t leave me now, you’re dead.”
I can’t tell if he’s warning me or threatening me. Either way, I don’t have to be told twice. I run out of the alleyway toward the shop, not looking back once until I reach the store’s door. It is, of course, closed.
All the way back to the hotel, and all the way through Mrs. Horne’s lecture on my tardiness and inadequacy as a ladies’ maid, I am only half-present. In my mind, I’m still in the alleyway, repeating the events over and over, braving the fear I felt in an effort to make sense of it all.
I don’t understand what happened to me in that alley, or what the wolf was doing, or the intentions of the man who seemed to save me and threaten me within the same minute. Even as I go to bed, I keep turning it over. It must have been some sort of freak occurrence, the wolf, and if the man who rescued me was behaving strangely—well, maybe he was a sailor after all. One better dressed than most, but just as given to drink.
But I can’t shake the thought of it until I realize, all in an instant, that this is the last night I will ever spend in England.
That pulls me into the here and now as nothing else could. I tug my thin blanket more securely around myself and think of everything I’m leaving behind. My home village. Mum. The wheat fields where I used to play. Daisy and Matthew. Everything from my life before. The voyage before me seems more perilous and frightening than anything that happened in the alley.
Yet I know that this is the best chance I’ll ever have to make a new life for myself. Quite possibly it’s the only chance.
No, it’s not too late for me to turn back. But I won’t.
APRIL 10, 1912
It’s a fine spring morning at the seaside—the sort of thing I’ve dreamt of my whole life. Novels describe the scene by saying that the air is fresh and the blue water dappled with sunlight. I’ve pictured it a thousand times, up in my dark attic. This morning, the very first thing I thought was, At last I will see the ocean.
But the ocean isn’t blue, not this close to land; it’s the same silt-brown color as the millpond, except with an eerie greenish cast to the waves. The harbor is no peaceful oasis for a young girl to stroll; instead it’s more packed with people than the streets were last night—poor people, rich ones, fine lace up against coarse weave, and the smell of sweat thicker in the air than that of seawater. People shout at one another, some happy, others impatient or angry, but the fevered energy of the throng makes it hard to tell which is which. Crammed in the water are as many ships as could be made to fit, including our liner—the largest of them all. The ship is the only thing I see here that’s actually beautiful. Stark black and white, with vibrant red smokestacks reaching into the sky. It’s so enormous, so graceful, so perfect in its way that it’s hard to think of it as anything built by human hands. It looks more like a mountain range.
At least, more like the way novels describe mountain ranges. I’ve never been to one of those either.
“Enough dawdling, Tess,” says Lady Regina, who, as she is fond of reminding everyone, is the wife of my employer, the Viscount Lisle. “Or do you want to be left on the dock?”
“No, ma’am.” Caught daydreaming again. I’m lucky Lady Regina doesn’t light into me about it the way she usually does. Probably she has spied one of her society friends in this crowd and doesn’t want to be seen dressing down a servant in public.
“Mother, you forget.” Irene—the elder daughter of the family, precisely my age, with a face as wholesome as it is plain—gives me an uncertain smile. “You ought to call her ‘Davies,’ now that she’s my ladies’ maid. It’s more respectful.”
“I’ll give Tess respect when she’s earned it.” Lady Regina looks down her long nose at me, as I hurry to catch up. I readjust my grip as I go; none of the hatboxes are that heavy on thei
“Is that Peregrine Lewis?” says Layton, the lone son and heir of the Lisle family. He’s long and lean, nearly bony, with sharp shoulders and elbows. He peers through the people around us and smiles so that his thin mustache curls. “Seeing his aunt off, I suppose. Polishing her trunks and begging for postcards. The way he licks her boots and fawns for her! It’s vile.”
“He won’t inherit his fortune from his parents, so he must be attentive to the family he has.” Irene glances up at her brother; her lace-gloved hands knotted together at her waist. She is always so shy, even when she’s trying to defend another. “He hasn’t had your advantages.”
“Still, one must have some pride,” Layton insists, oblivious as ever to the fact that he’s following his mother like an obedient lapdog.
Next to me, Ned mutters, “Noodle.”
This one word makes me bite my lip to hold in the laugh. It’s a nickname Ned gave Layton below stairs, and it’s stuck: Layton is just that skinny, that pale, and that limp. He was almost handsome during his university years; I used to have a bit of a crush, before I was old enough to know better. But the bloom of youth is fading for him much faster than it does for most.
“You’re lucky to have a position at all, disrespectful as you are.” Mrs. Horne, even grumpier than usual, glares at both of us as she shepherds her charge along—little Beatrice, Lady Regina’s change-of-life baby. Only four years old, Beatrice is wearing a straw hat bedecked with ribbons that cost more money than I make in a year. “Both of you, look lively. It’s an honor to be brought on a journey such as this, and like as not the most excitement you’ll ever have in your lives. So attempt to do your work properly!”
This won’t be the most excitement I’ll ever have, I swear to myself. First of all, last night—whatever happened with the wolf and the handsome young man—well, I don’t know what else you’d call it, but it was exciting.
More than that, though, I have plans for my future. Plans more thrilling than any life Horne’s ever dreamed of.
Fateful by Claudia Gray / Young Adult / Romance & Love / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes