in her absence

“Why in her absence doth the world appear
As void of her, a vacant wilderness?
E'en while thou sighest the shiver of her dress
Makes blessèd music in each happier ear
About her home. Why feed on gloom and fear
As earth were empty of her loveliness?
Set rather all thy loving mind to guess?
Her sweet seclusion, as when thou art near.
Still thy belovèd rises every morn,
And in the holy stillness of her room
Dresses her dainty beauty at the glass;
And, while thy tears divide the night forlorn,
Her soft light heart-beats in the breathing gloom
Record the maiden moments as they pass.” 

Sonnet XXXVII, "Why in her absence doth the world appear”
John Barlas (pseud. Evelyn Douglas), 1889 

Three days.

It’d been three days since she’d run out the front door, leaving it gaping wide open.  Leaving her standing atop the grand stair to the second floor, her hands gripping the banister tightly, her lips drawn just as tightly closed.

Oh, she’d gone looking for her, of course.  The first night she moved from shadow to shadow, cautiously gazing through the smoke-stained windows of pubs and other dens of iniquity, both afraid of seeing her huddled in some corner and silently hoping to catch just a glimpse of her face, just to be certain she was still alright.  Alright, of course, was a relative statement…she was certain neither of them were quite alright.  The second night was much the same, flitting from alleyway to alleyway, hoping that she’d find her, fearing what she might find if she did. The streets of this city hadn’t been safe for any woman to walk alone for a very long time, and while she knew her charge was resourceful, well.


It was best not to think about that.

She rose from another restless slumber, her eyes blinking quickly at the blinding light that poured through the windows of her room.  The previous few days had been filled with what she had come to know as typical London drear for this time of year.  A mix of clouds, light, all pervading misting rain and cold, chilling humidity hung in the air like a cloud come to earth. Thinking little of what someone passing in the street might think, she slowly rose from the tangled sheets of her bed and drew the thick curtains closed, wrapping her room in darkness again.  It was so very tempting to curl back up in that bed again, but she knew that sleep wouldn’t come.  It hadn’t come at all the past nights as her mind raced after returning from another failed search, second guessing everything she had said and done up to this point.

A sigh escaped her lips as she pulled on yesterday’s clothes…brown cotton trousers, white cotton blouse.  Her fingers nimbly buttoned the blouse closed, and she bent to pull on a pair of socks before slipping her feet into plain black boots. Without a thought she donned a black brocade waistcoat, buttoning it closed as she had the blouse. Without so much as a second look, and certainly not turning a glance to the mirror atop the dresser, she quietly made her way downstairs.

Her stomach growled as she reached the bottom step.  Three days ago, she’d have already smelled breakfast cooking on the stove…thick slices of ham, eggs, potatoes frying up, their individual scents a simple but heady culinary fragrance enticing her to eat.  Today the air was barren, scentless, absent.  She sighed again, making her way to the kitchen where she silently cut a rough chunk of bread from the wrapped loaf nearest the stove. Tossing it on an almost clean plate, she opened the ice box, where the remains of a roast from 4 nights ago sat, still chilled. There was barely enough there for a meal, but she didn’t care. This too she placed on her plate. She sat at the small preparation table in the kitchen, gazing sullenly at the cold meal before her. Without thought, or any hope of enjoyment, she began to eat. Her fingers tore at the cold meat, pulling it roughly from the bone and silently bringing it to her mouth.  She chewed, barely tasting what she ate, methodically stripping the roast’s bone bare before eating the slice of bread she’d cut.

She half thought about just tossing the plate aside as she finished eating…after all, it wasn’t as if anyone would notice or raise a fuss.  In the end she thought better of it.  There was still hope after all.  There was still hope that luck would win out and she’d at least know that the girl was safe.  As much as she was tempted to, it was no time to give in to despair or resignation to failure.  She placed the plate back on a counter quietly, turned and made her way to the basement.  There was very little she could do during the day, mind, but she could ensure her skills lost none of their edge.

Perhaps a bit of exercise will snap me out of it, she thought as she unlocked the basement door.  She thought about that, too…as the house was empty again, save for herself, what need was there in locking the door?  As she slowly made her way down the steps into the almost welcoming darkness of the basement, she thought back yet again on the events that led to this point. 

Part One: Of Discoveries and Disappointments 

There’d been a knock on the door.

She was expecting one, of course…after all, a few carefully spoken words here and there made certain that news of a wealthy household in need of domestic help spread quickly through the streets of London.  A careful look in the mirror assured her that her gloves and cowl obscured her form from view.  While it was easy to assume that a single female in a house this size was sadly a widow who’d inherited everything, the truth was far more complex.  A final glance at the mirror, then, and then quickly off to the door.

Dark brown eyes, darker brown hair, and pale skin greeted her.  A young girl, certainly no more than 17 or 18 at the most, stood before her, dressed in an ill fitting drab grey dress.  The girl’s hands nervously twisted a pair of worn gloves between them.  Her eyes were wide and nervous, while her lips quivered slightly, echoing that nervousness.  She tried to take in the tall form that stood before her, tried ever so hard to make out some kind of shape within the heavy cowl that obscured the woman’s features from view.  Finally, after a deep breath, she spoke.

‘M…Madame Vastravosky?’

‘Yes, that would be me, young lady.  Am I to assume you are here to inquire about the position?’

A short silence fell while the girl fumbled for words.

‘Y-yes, madam.  If the position is still available, madam.’

Vastra smiled…not that the girl could see it, of course.  ‘Yes, the position is still open.  You are, in fact, the first to stop by to inquire.  Please, come in, and we can discuss the position and your particulars.’

She stepped aside, sweeping one arm inward in a welcoming gesture.  The young girl stepped nervously into the entry hall, her eyes widening as she saw the grand stair, the wooden panel work on the walls, the cut crystal chandelier that reflected light in a cascade of rainbows through the room.  She tried not to gape, but knew she was failing to keep her wonder under wraps.

The girl jumped as the door clicked closed behind her, and turned just in time to see the tall woman glide past her silently.

‘Come…we shall sit in the library and discuss the matter at hand.  Follow me.’

Down a hall, then a quick turn to the left, and the two ladies stood in a room with a high ceiling.  Shelves lined the walls from floor to that same ceiling, broken only by a fireplace on the opposite wall.  The girl breathed in, the scent of old books filling her nose.  She watched as the tall, mysterious woman…Madame Vastravosky…sat in a high backed chair.  Vastra motioned for the girl to join her, and she nervously did, sitting in a matching chair directly across from her.

‘So, Miss…’

‘Jenny, madam.’  She paused, wincing slightly at the gross informality she’d just shown.

‘Sorry, madam…Jennifer Flint, madam.’

Vastra chuckled quietly, trying to set the girl at ease.  ‘Please…you can relax.  You needn’t end every sentence with madam.  Jenny is a lovely name as well…it suits you.  So if you would like, I will address you in just that manner.’

‘Yes ma…’

She paused again.

‘Yes.  I’d like that.’

‘Good!’ Vastra exclaimed.  ‘That’s settled.  Now, shall I assume you have some basic understanding of what would be required of you here should I employ you?’

Jenny took a deep breath.  ‘Well…I would assume cooking, cleaning…regular trips to the market for foodstuffs and other essentials.  I could certainly handle those tasks.’

Vastra nodded.  ‘I am quite sure of that.  You seem the kind of girl for whom hard work is no stranger.  Might I take a look at your references then, Jenny?’

Jenny looked down into her lap at the request.  ‘I…haven’t exactly got any, madam.’  She looked up in time to see Vastra stand up and walk over to a window, the gauzy curtains filtering the light slightly.

‘I see.  And how exactly do you plan to find employment without references, young lady?’

Jenny sniffled quietly.  ‘2 months ago, I was attending a girls’ school. My mother and father insisted on it.  One morning I was awoken by the headmistress, informing me that mother and father had been on a ship that had sunk off the Welsh coast. They were never found.’

Vastra turned back to face Jenny, seeing the tears beginning to flow from the girl’s eyes.  She stood there, waiting for the girl to continue.

‘I came back to London, but all of their possessions were already being sold off.  My father had run up some debts, and his debtors were trying to get back theirs. I was left with nothing, save for a little money that had been put away for me.  It was enough to keep me in a small room while I tried to find a position somewhere to make my way.’

A second sniffle.  ‘But like you said, madam…no one will hire someone without experience or references.’

Two months.  The girl…Jenny…had been trying to make it on her own for two months.  Two months ago, Vastra would not have given the girl a second thought, thinking of her the same way she thought of her kind in general.  Two months ago, however, she hadn’t met a strange man who claimed to be from another world, and who taught her the meaning of the word mercy.

‘The world is a very harsh place, Jenny,’ Vastra said, taking a deep breath.  ‘I know that I need not tell you that at great length, having heard your tale.’

‘It’s not a tale, madam!’ Jenny exclaimed, her carefully composed accent crumbling as she slipped into a slightly rougher, working class accent.

Vastra laughed at that, her laughter silvery, sinewy, almost musical ‘And you’ve some spark in you.  I like that, Jenny.’

She sat back down across from Jenny, eyeing her carefully.  In just about every way, Jenny seemed the direct opposite of Vastra’s first employee, a woman named Katharine Adams. 

She’d come with stellar references, was charming, and really seemed to be a perfect fit across the board.  The house ran smoothly, allowing Vastra to focus on matters of far more importance…until she came back in from one of her irregular nocturnal excursions.  She heard a something wooden push closed as someone ran back up the stairs.  Curious, Vastra walked to the front hall, where she saw a drawer on the desk slightly open.  She knew exactly what was in the drawer; it was, after all, where she kept a small amount of money to be used for day to day expenses.  The drawer was kept locked unless she was counting out money for a purchase, and she had no doubts what she’d find if she pulled it open.

Katharine put in her notice the next morning.  Vastra wasn’t surprised by the announcement, but it seemed Katharine was when she wasn’t pressed for a reason why.  That afternoon she was cleared out of her room, and Vastra had begun to spread the word that she was in need of new domestic help.

Jenny sat there, still nervous, wondering what her prospective employer was thinking and certain that she’d somehow ruined what seemed to be her last chance at anything resembling normalcy and stability.  She briefly considered dropping to her knees and begging for a chance, but she felt that pleas such as she was considering would fall on deaf ears here.  Instead she waited for the inevitable.

‘There is one thing that causes me hesitation here, Jenny,’ Vastra finally said, breaking the uneasy silence in the room.

‘Yes, madam?’ Jenny cautiously replied.

‘Your clothes,’ Vastra said, simply.

Jenny blinked a few times and swallowed before speaking.  ‘My clothes, madam?’

Within the folds of her cowl, Vastra smiled.  It was almost cruel playing with her this way, but if the girl was going to work here, she would have to get used to it sooner or later.  There was no better time to begin than now.  ‘Yes, Jenny.  Your clothes are completely unsuitable for a young lady in my employ.’

Jenny sat there, processing what she just heard.  ‘In…in your employ, madam?’

‘That is what I said, yes.’

‘You…you’re going to employ me?’

Vastra stood, stretching slightly.  ‘I do believe that is what I am implying, yes.  If you would like me to make it clearer to you, I…’

She was cut off as Jenny jumped up from the chair and hugged her tightly.  ‘Oh, thank you, madam!  I won’t let you down!  I swear!  Thank you!’

Vastra wrapped her arms lightly around the girl…around Jenny…holding her as the reality of a new life struck her.  She felt the girl shuddering against her, tears freely falling as she clung to her new employer.  Without thinking she lightly stroked the girl’s back and waited for the tears to subside. 

What am I doing, she thought to herself. And what on Earth am I feeling?  With a…human, no less? 

The tears finally quieting, Jenny stepped back, wiping her eyes and nose with the back of one hand.  ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, madam…I didn’t mean…’

‘Hush, Jenny,’ Vastra said.  ‘I can tell you’ve had a very trying time lately.  A short bit ago, I could have said the same thing.  But someone showed me kindness, and now perhaps I can repay that kindness.’

She held out a hand, and Jenny took it.  She could feel the warmth of the girl’s hand through the thin leather of her gloves, and hoped that Jenny could not quite make out the coolness of her own skin through the same.  She was shocked at how tightly the girl clenched at her hand, and shocked further still by the quickening of her heartbeat at that touch.

‘Come…I’ll show you to your room.  I assume you will need to collect your belongings…I can ring for a carriage if that would be a help.