The red mark on Rose’s face had calmed down by later that evening, but I hadn’t. I felt like my emotions were whirring around in me too quickly and violently to ever be tamed. I sat on the bed, I paced, I sat, I paced. Rose didn’t know what to do with me.
“I don’t think he’ll come after me again, if that’s what you’re worried about,” she said, twisting a length of hair round her finger. “After what you said in the dining room I’m sure Sebastian has told him to stay away from me.”
“It’s not you I’m worried about, it’s me,” I said “You didn’t see his face, he hates me even more than he did before, if that’s possible.”
“Oh, Mercy,” she sighed, getting into bed, “I’m sure he doesn’t hate you, he’s just annoyed that he got caught out. Why don’t you come to bed and get some rest? It’s been an eventful day.”
I got into bed, but I couldn’t rest. I was wound up like a tightly coiled spring. Images of Jasper and Rose went round and round in my head until I couldn’t stand it anymore. When I heard that Rose was asleep, I got out of bed and dressed quickly, then slipped out the door.
Of all the crazy things I had done recently, this was perhaps the most craziest and dangerous. But I couldn’t let it go. I needed something to happen, and now. Like I had in my dream, I slipped down the dark narrow stairwell and along the hallway. I turned the knob of Jasper’s door handle and stepped into his chamber.
The moonlight showed a shape underneath the covers, breathing steadily. I went over and knelt next to the bed so the light was behind me, but full upon Jasper’s perfect sleeping face. Forgetting the ugly scene at dinner and all his slights towards me, in that moment all I could see was beauty, and my heart expanded with love.
As if feeling my presence, Jasper stirred and woke. “Rose?” he murmured sleepily, “Is that you?”
I didn’t correct him, although I knew it was wrong of me. I had a sense of déjà vu as he took my hand and pulled me into bed with him, down into the soft covers and his warm embrace. I was so startled with joy I could hardly think. I felt like I was in heaven. He nuzzled my neck and whispered sweet nothings, and I was so happy I didn’t even stop to think they were meant for another.
“Oh, yes, Jasper, yes!” I whispered, as he reached up to kiss my lips and, before I could stop him, brushed one hand along my cheekbone. He stopped mid-stroke after feeling the pits on my face, and his body froze. Scrambling into action, he quickly lit one of the candles on his bedside table.
The light illuminated my face and I put my arm across it to shield me from the glare and the accusation that I knew was coming. Jasper pulled my arm away and recoiled when he saw it was me and not his beloved Rose. He inched away from me as far as he could up against the headboard and scrubbed at his mouth with the back of his hand. This made me angry.
“I’m not infectious, Jasper, don’t you know anything about the pox? Once you’ve had it you can never have it again.” I crawled over to him in the hope he would resume his affection, but he quickly jumped up from the bed.
“How dare you come in here and pretend to be Rose, do you really think I would’ve kissed you if I’d known it was you?” he snapped icily, snatching up a blanket from the chair, “You’re crazy, that disease has made you crazy.”
Before I knew what was happening, he’d thrown the blanket over my head and wrestled me off the bed to the ground. It was a moment before fear kicked in, and then I struggled with all my might, feeling that he was angry enough to really smother me to death. I screamed for Sebastian and kicked out my feet. I managed to get Jasper in the shin, he grunted and let go of an edge of the blanket. As soon as I was out, I grabbed his whip and brought it down with all my might on his back. I kicked him and he grabbed my ankle, pulling out my leg from under me. I screamed again, full force.
I heard running feet along the corridor and Sebastian burst into the chamber in his nightshirt.
“What on earth’s going on here?!” he shouted, looking about wildly. Jasper lay on the floor looking dazed and dishevelled, and I ran into Sebastian’s arms.
“He...he tried to kill me,” I managed.
“Is this true, Jasper?” said Sebastian, sounding incredulous.
“She came in here, Seb, and threw herself at me, what pray tell was I meant to do? I was only defending myself.”
Sebastian made a strangled noise and drew me hurriedly from the chamber. I couldn’t stop crying and shaking from the shock of Jasper hating me that much he would try and kill me. Sebastian took me to his own chamber and bade me to sit on his bed while he got me a cup of water.
“Oh, Mercy” he sighed “You shouldn’t have done that, Jasper is, ahem, deathly afraid of the pox, as you’ve just discovered. I’ve told him to get inoculated, but he’s too afraid of being in any contact with the pox for that. Still, that’s no excuse for what he just did to you.”
I was still shaking. Was it fear of the pox that had made Jasper try to snuff the life out of me, or a darker force of his nature? I really didn’t want to wait around and find out, I didn’t feel safe in this house any more. Whatever feelings of belonging I’d had in the rectory were gone, the spell was broken. I got up off the bed and stood looking down at Sebastian. He might be the kindest man I’d known apart from my father, but he’d always be Jasper’s friend, and always forgive him for whatever wrongs he did me.
“Thank you, sir, I will go to my chamber now, I am sorry for disturbing your sleep.”
“Get some rest, Mercy, I’m sure Jasper will have forgotten all about it by tomorrow. We’ll say no more about it.” He smiled and patted my hand.
Outside Sebastian’s door I stood there, feeling like my mind had detached itself from my body. There was no way on earth Jasper would ever forget, how could I remain here? Suddenly I had a strong feeling that everything would be all right, despite the mess I was in. Somehow by confronting Jasper I had given myself the gift of choice and now, standing at the crossroads, one path loomed before me strange, mysterious and brazen in its daring, the other led to whatever Jasper chose to throw my way next when he recovered.
Breathing heavily with a mixture of emotion and excitement, I quickly went up to my chamber and lit a candle. Rose didn’t wake. I grabbed her gypsy getup, which had been freshly washed, and put it on, along with the sturdy boots and then the hat, tucking up my long dark hair so it was out of sight. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and stared. In the flickering gloom, I looked like a swarthy gypsy boy, my pox scars lending an authenticity to the illusion that Rose’s perfect complexion never could. I laughed softly.
Rose woke up then and groggily stared at me, her green eyes widening when she saw my getup.
‘Wha…?” she started. I hastily went to her bedside.
“I’m leaving, Rose,” I whispered, “Hush now, it’s for the best.” I said as she started to protest.
“But where will you go, what will you do?”. The plan came fully-formed to my mind as if bidden by angels.
“I’m going away, Rose, to a place where my face will not cause hate as it does here.”
Rose started to cry, “But you will be hurt, it’s dangerous out there!” I smiled wryly at this.
“It’s more dangerous at this moment to stay in this house, believe me. Don’t worry I’ll cut my hair off at the first chance, and if that fails the pox will keep any men’s hands from me as you said yourself. Now dry your tears and please tell Sebastian that I...no wait, I will write him a note before I go and leave it on his desk. Take care, Rose, you will be safe with Sebastian watching out for you.”
Rose wiped her eyes on the sheet and hopped out of bed. “If you must go, take this at least!”
She thrust her butchers knife into my hand and I stowed it in my bundle along with my money purse and a few other belongings. Grabbing my shawl I wrapped it tightly around my shoulders to bear me some warmth. I blew her a kiss and left her looking after me like a startled rabbit, but it had to be done. I felt no fear, only a strange kind of determination. I slunk quietly down the stairs and padded along dark hallway.
In Sebastian’s study there was some moonlight to see by but dawn was not far away as I could hear a few birds tweeting outside in the stillness. I lit a candle and hurriedly scratched a note with his quill, my writing was not as good as my reading but I hoped he’d get the gist of it.
I am leaving to the one place where I won’t cause you any more trouble, you have helped me find it by teaching me to read. I am sorry I did not get a chance to take my leave in person. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me this eve. Please give Jasper this letter, I took it without meaning to hurt him but he needs it back. Do not fret about me, I will be safe with God looking out for me, like He has always done. Please tell Maggie goodbye and I will write mother soon. Watch over Rose.
Your maid and friend,
The tears threatened to come then. but I held them back and carefully placed Jasper’s letter on top of my own, laying beside them the slim green novel that had taught me everything I needed to know about Venice. My goodbye written, I strode purposefully to the kitchen before I changed my mind. I took down my grey coat from its hook for the last time but left my basket where it lay on the floor. I could hear Maggie’s soft snores as she lay in her tiny chamber, and I could smell the faint stale odour of the previous night’s rabbit stew. The breakfast things lay carefully prepared on the counter. I hovered, savouring the safe familiar space which was soon to become a mere memory.
As I turned the handle of the back door and stepped out into the cold black night, it felt so good and so right to leave, to make my own destiny, come what may. Swerving off the servant’s path onto the gravel drive, my boots made a satisfying crunching noise as I walked towards the road. From now on I would be a traveller creating my own bright, colourful path.
At the end of the drive I turned and looked back at the rectory. Scarlet fingers of dawn were appearing on the horizon, but Jasper’s window lay in darkness. As I watched I thought, but couldn’t be sure, that I saw his curtain twitch slightly.
I turned again, thrust my cold hands deep into my coat pockets and started walking into town to hitch a ride on a cart to London, my heart beating in anticipation of the journey ahead. My warm breath left white puffs of frosty air hanging in the wake of my passing, then just like that, they were gone.