Within the foyer, and sitting prim and proper in a high-backed chair—her spine as straight as a poker and her shadow constant and unwavering in the flickering light of the hearth—was Lady Agnes Ironside, her hair a fiery brand of curls atop an ashen face and her gown black as soot. Her freckles flared like cinders as she spoke.
“Undoubtedly the duke is exceedingly put upon by that presumptuous woman,” she said, her red-lipped smile stiff and sharp. “His patience will fray, given time, and with its unraveling will come the consolidation of his feelings in regard to other persons more deserving of the station and status of his especial acquaintance.”
The other ladies sat to one side of the table, their three shadows trembling among the velvet-and-white wallpaper. They were as ash, too, but were not so constant in countenance; rather, had a window been opened late in that Winter’s night a breeze would have blown them to utter dissolution.
“And, of course, his truer feelings will bear upon him in time,” Lady Ironside said, taking a sip of tea from her teacup. The teacup was smeared with shadows on one side, and gleamed white on the other side, like a heathen’s bone exhumed in an ancient temple. “He will not abandon himself or his truer feelings, nor will he dishonor himself or the more deserving among his considerations by protracting this foolish infatuation. That presumptuous naif cannot dissuade him from his better sensibilities. Society, rank, and expectation shall all prevail.”
The three women shivered in the airy foyer, despite the hearth. Lady Ironside remained unmoved, however. Not one patch of skin betrayed the heat of her conviction with goosebumps or tautness. Winter himself might whisper down her corset and she would melt him with her most languid shrug. Or so she fancied.
“And do not think that I am unaware of his previous attachments,” Lady Ironside said to those shades in her foyer. “Each of you enjoyed his special attentions for a time, and each of you suffered for his capricious nature. Yet, I evince a certain defiance in my own circumstances, for I am—unlike the three of you—peerless in my pedigree and accomplishments. For instance, not one of you were ever sufficient in the art of the piano. I have been regarded as singular pianist distinguished by my interpretations of Mozart. Moreover, I am a soprano that— had necessity in life existed and privilege been absent—I could have sustained a life with the lofty heights of my voice. To these obvious virtues there must be added my natural charms, of course, and my sensibility as a friend and confidante. In all circles of society I flourish with natural acumen, and would do so whether in a small soiree of friends or, indeed, the castle of the Queen Victoria herself. No man would find a superior consort anywhere in all of England for the diversity of societies one encounters here. And, being naturally adaptive, I would be the superior consort anywhere else in the world. I am, if anything, quick to learn and overcome. I am as a fish to water, as you all well know.”
Lady Ironside did not flush in embarrassment as she proclaimed her attributes, but sipped between each trait as if outlining the basic facts of a ledger’s contents. The three shades nodded sympathetically, but said nothing.
“The Duke will see the error in his estimation soon enough,” she continued. “With more temperate reflection he will come to understand that he has taken to a lowly, common oil lamp to illuminate his nights while the fires of Mt. Olympus await him here. With me. What warmth is there among the common hearths of England compared to the hearths of Hera and Aphrodite combined? He is chilled in her company, I assure you. Absolutely chilled.”
Lady Ironside sipped again from her teacup, coolly eyeing the three women before her. A door opened within her manor, and with it came the tendrils of a cool night breeze. The three pale shades quivered and then dissipated like ash into shadow. Lady Ironside sat alone, untouched by the coldness. There was a sharply needled fire in her heart, and atop the head of this needle danced fallen angels all afire with the host of the Inferno, burning with all of its hope and hurt and betrayal and embittered love.
“That must be William returning,” Lady Ironside announced. She set her teacup aside and crossed her hands, one atop the other, in her lap. She listened for the footsteps of her messenger as they approached. They seemed slow; reluctant.
At length, his figure appeared in the door, bringing with it the smells of horses and sweat and the countryside. He cleared his throat.
“Come in, William,” she said. “Report to me at once.”
“As you wish, Miss Ironside,” he said. He hesitated nonetheless, clearing his throat once again, and then stepped into the foyer. He was a lean, middle-aged man in a rider’s coat with long tails. He stood before her with his hands behind his back and his eyes averted into the fire of the hearth. “The Duke...” he began to say, but hesitated.
“Come, come, William,” the lady said. “Do not vex my nerves with suspense.”
“He is to be married to the young maiden,” William said. He looked as a dog awaiting a strike upon the nose. Instead, to his astonishment, his ear was struck with something ever the more unsettling than a spiteful hand. Lady Ironside giggled.
“She is no maiden,” Lady Ironside said, wry amusement playing about her lips. “No more than any of my guests here.” She gestured to the empty couch.
William did not glance at the empty couch, but kept his eyes in the fire.
“Do you not agree, ladies?” Lady Ironside said. “All of you were fooled by your own complacency. The Duke would not have kept to his word for any of you, for you gave away your honor so easily.”
William went to the hearth and used the iron poker to stir the fire to a greater flame. The night’s ride had been a frigid one.
“The Duke will abandon his newest tart as he has these three tarts past,” Lady Ironside said, her tongue prodding the air more sharply than the poker in William’s hand. “And then he will apply to my sympathies. Naturally, I will forgive him with majestic magnanimity, and we will be married, but there will be an interim when he must offer his pride in sincere totality to me. I am not a hard woman, but my passions are to be cloyed for the rigors they have endured during these three weeks of cold distance. I am not simply another shade in exile on the River Styx. I am Aphrodite and Hera. I am Diana and Athena. I am not some common crumpet with a disproportional sense of self. My vanity is meted accordingly and my virtue remains intact and intractable, regardless of what some circles may claim.” Her lips quivered in a sneer for a moment, and her whole being was aglow with the cinders of resentment. “There is no doubting the incumbency placed upon his good will, nor the inducement I provoke in him toward his own honor as a gentleman of noble station. My three friends here could not have, in good faith, expected any reciprocation of obligation in regard to the Duke and their own improprieties. No, indeed, they were grand fools to think otherwise. I am no such fool.”
William cleared his throat in the silence, and stirred the fire in the hearth. Lady Ironside’s shadow loomed large in the foyer, and did not flicker or flag as the flames swayed with the intrusion of the poker.
“William,” she said, her voice suddenly tremulous. “When can I expect the Duke’s arrival?”
William paused in his labor, dumbfounded as the light from the hearth flared and subsided as if rallying for its own death throes. His mouth gawped, the words needed for the moment escaping amorphously from between his floundering lips. Silence was master of the household, then, and his decree was brutal. The moment of his reign passed, however, as did the tremor in Lady Ironside’s voice as she resumed.
“In a fortnight, naturally,” she said with her habitual confidence. “That will be more than sufficient time to travel the short distance in comfort of his carriage. Yet, I fear dispensing with the tart will require more time, and so a fortnight will suffice exceedingly well. Though a tart, she should be afforded an honorable discharge from his company, as he condescended to do for the other three ladies here gathered. The Duke is a considerate gentleman and must placate such sensitive situations, however inconvenient they may be to the superior affections between the two of us.”
Lady Ironside lifted her teacup again to her lips, sipped, and set the teacup down. The porcelain trembled as it touched the plate.
“And this interval of separation shall only stoke the love between us. Absence makes the heart fonder, and my Duke is beyond fond of me now.” She suddenly paused and turned to look at William’s shadowy figure stooping in front of the fire. “Pray, in what spirit did you find the Duke?”
William mechanically stirred the kindling. “Pleasant,” he said. “Most pleasant, I presume. I was not granted an audience, but I was assured by his butler that the Duke was in high spirits. His household was bustling with preparations for a ball.”
“Indeed?” Lady Ironside said, a confusion in her green eyes. “A ball?” She sighed, and her freckles seemed to flare across her cheeks and bosom. “To amuse himself in light of my absence, no doubt. He feels it keenly and must exact extravagant distractions to diverge his forlorn disposition. Whereas those other tarts amounted to little more than a seasonal romance—no, a holiday of fickle distraction finished before evening Mass might begin—his affection for me is a lodestar without which he would be adrift and aimless.”
William stifled a cough as the hearth’s fire belched smoke and cinder into his face.
“Miss Ironside,” he said, “should you not be retiring to bed? The hour grows late...and cold.”
“I feel no coldness, William,” she said. “I am a pillar of flame against such natural caprices.”
“Even so,” William said, hesitantly, “it is not good for a lady’s constitution to linger so late in the Wintertime.”
“The Spring will be here soon enough,” she said.
William grimaced at his own words. “Not afore a fortnight, my lady. Nor, I fear, thereafter.”
Her mouth twisted—but with the strain of anger or despair, he could not discern—and she rose from her high-backed chair. She did not bid her servant a good night, nor the three guests haunting her with their pitiful expressions. Instead, she turned and retreated from the foyer with a torpid stride. Her voice quavered in the hall.
“This house is too hot. I should like to winter someplace cooler.”
Later that night, in the depths of the witching hour, William coughed, startling himself awake. Sighing, he sat up in his bed and blinked into the uniform darkness of his quarters. The fire in his hearth was nothing but smoldering embers. He found himself drawn to the singular window serving the room with its prospect. Pulling his robe about him, he attended the window with bleary eyes that smeared the orange moon along the cataracts of the window. A few blinks and the cold moonlit landscape crystallized. The garden sprawled below, its hedges buried with the supple powder of the year’s first snow. The gazebo was as a white beehive. The latticework of the arbor was bereft of its vines and flowers. This was all to be expected, and yet he felt a revelation soon to be at hand. For a moment he stared, not knowing what had drawn him from bed. He was turning back to bed when he glimpsed a figure dancing in the snow. The figure’s nakedness burned with flecks of cinders beneath her fiery red tresses. He was reminded of the old tales his Irish grandmother once told him of the Leanan Sidhe, that monstrous fairy that would lure unwary men to their deaths. Or was the figure a Bean Sidhe, portending death in the Ironside estate?
William shivered, blinked, and then saw the figure no more. Thinking the figure a conjuration of drink, dreaminess, and his own desires, William staggered back to bed, surrendering the vision to the darkness of sleep.
Upon the morning the housekeeper set about the manor to rekindle the hearths. She found Lady Ironside laying in bed, a pallor snuffing out her freckles. Her fiery red hair had gone gray as ash and lay as lax as soot. Though heavily laden with blankets, and having a hearth that had never extinguished throughout the night, the once radiant mistress was now cold and clammy and colorless. Before the close of the morning she had given over the ghost from her frigid vessel.
The Duke, it must be said, married the fifth woman to have enkindled his fancy, and was no more put out by the news of the death of the fourth than news of the third, second, or first.