What had probably been a rather cramped space even for a small spy did fit her perfectly. The space I had thought of as an emergency retreat for her, she saw as a refuge, perhaps even a playroom.
“It’s a safe place for you. A place to come and hide if you feel you are in danger and you can’t get to me. Or if I tell you there is danger and you must run and hide.”
She looked at me earnestly, not meeting my eyes, but her pale gaze wandering over my face. “I see. Of course. Well, then, I shall need candles, and a tinderbox. And something to keep water in, and something with a tight lid for keeping hard bread. So that I shall not be hungry if I have to hide for quite a long time. And a cushion and a blanket against the chill. And perhaps a few books.”
I stared at her, aghast. “No! No, Bee, I’d never leave you hidden here for days at a time! Wait … a few books? Do you truly read that well?”
The expression on her face would not have been as surprised if I’d asked her if she could breathe. “Of course. Can’t everyone?”
“No. Generally, one has to be taught to read. I know your mother showed you letters, but I didn’t think …” I stared at her in amazement. I had watched her at play with her pen and her book, thinking that she did no more than practice random letters. The note she had written to her sister had been a simple one, just a few lines. I now recalled she had asked for paper so she could write down her dreams; I thought she had meant her odd drawings. I quelled my sudden desire to know what she wrote, to see what she dreamed. I would wait until she offered to share it with me.
“Mama read to me. Her big beautiful book about herbs and flowers, the one Lady Patience gave her. She read it very slowly, pointing at each word. She had told me the letters and the sounds. So I learned.”
Molly had come to reading late, and mastered it with great difficulty. And I knew immediately the book she had read to Bee, one that had not pages of paper, but narrow slabs of wood with the words and the illustrations engraved in them, and the herbs and flowers carved and then painted in their correct colors. Patience had treasured that gift from me. And Molly had taught our daughter to read from it.
I had been woolgathering. I looked down at her.
“What happened to Lady Patience? Mama told me many stories about her, but never the end of her story.”
“The end of her story.” I had been there the day my stepmother’s story had ended. I thought of it now, and it suddenly took on a completely different significance to me. I cleared my throat. “Well. It was a day in early spring. The plum trees had begun to waken from the winter, and Lady Patience wanted them pruned before the buds burst into flowers. She was quite an old lady by then, but still very fussy about her gardens. So she insisted on leaning out an upper window and shouting instructions to the workers pruning her trees.”
I had to smile at the memory. Bee was almost looking at me, her face intent with interest, her brow wrinkled. “Did she fall out the window?”
“No. For a wonder, no, she didn’t fall. But she wasn’t happy with how they were doing the pruning. So she declared that she was going out to make them do it as she wished, and to bring back some of the trimmings to force into bloom for the table. I offered to go fetch her some, but no, she was off to her room and then came clumping back down in her boots and a heavy wool cloak and out she went.” I paused. I remembered it all so clearly. The blue sky, the blustery wind, and Patience’s eyes snapping with indignation that the orchard crew was ignoring her.
“She was gone for a little while. I was in the morning room when I heard the door slam. She was calling for me to come and take some of the cuttings. I stepped out in the hall, and here she came with a great armful of them, dropping twigs and bits of moss as she came. I was going to take them from her when she suddenly stopped where she was. She stared, and her mouth fell open, and her cheeks that were pink with cold went even pinker. Then she shouted, ‘Chivalry! There you are!’ And she flung up her arms, and the branches went everywhere. She opened her arms wide and took two running steps past me. And then she fell.”
Tears suddenly prickled my eyes. I blinked but could not stop them.
“And she was dead,” Bee whispered.
“Yes,” I said hoarsely. I recalled the loose weight of her as I gathered her and turned her faceup in my arms. She was dead and staring, but smiling still. Smiling.
“She thought you were her dead husband when she saw you.”
“No.” I shook my head. “She didn’t look at me. She was looking past me, down the hallway behind me. I don’t know what she saw.”