One

The grey criss-crossing of leaden diamonds in the window panes made a protective cage, shutting out the cold bleak winter. Shutting out the hurrying heads, bobbing and bent and bustling on their daily business. Shutting out the undesirable characters, the masters of crime and scandal.

The fire glowed orange in the grate, and a bear-pelt rug lay flattened and lifeless aside the hearth. The mantlepiece was salmon-pink marble, decoratively adorned with a festive arch of ivy and evergreen from which hung tiny golden bells on blue velvet ribbons. Faces glared down from every wall, granite-expressioned gargoyles with heavy-lidded eyes, hooked noses and swollen lips like large splodgy pansies. The walls themselves were pannelled with dark plum-ish wood, and the door too was pannelled in the same way, so that it was oddly disguised as its unhinged companions.

Suddenly a hollow knock sounded from behind the door, wherever it was, and a slippery voice bade the knocker enter in a half-whisper, half-whine. There was a squeak of hinges, presumably from that elusive door as it swung open, and two hesitant footsteps echoed on the dark plum-ish wooden flooring.

"Your governess awaits you," offered a squirrel-like housemaid. "My lady," she added quickly, as there was a slight movement from the couch, which faced the hearth, and ignored the door, wherever the cursed thing be.

There was a noise like the crisp snipping of small sharp scissors, then a rustle, and a sigh.

"Please inform my governess," said the slippery voice from the couch, "that I am not well enough to attend my lessons today."

There was a creasing of squirrel-coloured eyebrows, and the housemaid took another two steps, further into the room.

"My lady," she said nervously, "you said that yesterday, but you refuse all offers of fetching the doctor, or a herb dealer, or sleep, or rest or food or...or..."

The couch sighed again, this time prolonging the sound in a way suggesting great talents of patience and restrained impulses.

"And you said you was ill the day before yesterday as well," the squirrel's pipe continued, apparently gaining in confidence courtesy of the sigh, rather than having it ebb away, as had obviously been intended. "And the day before that, and the day before that too." The voice paused as small fingers counted with the eager twitch of a squirrel. "That's ten days now, that you've sent the governess away," said the housemaid triumphantly; "my lady."

The couch made the flicking sound of someone picking the dirt from under her fingernails, and the patient sigh came for a third time.

"Please inform my governess that I will be unable to attend my lessons today," said the couch with smooth precision and careful reigning in of an ivory temper.

"My lady," bobbed the housemaid, skipping over the parquet flooring and closing the door, somewhere, with a small click.

As soon as the door was invisible once again, there was a vigorous kicking from behind the couch, a blurred pinwheel of legs and petticoats, and two satin slippers flew from two feet and struck the grim bulbous-eyed face of an old dame right on the nose. The dame's face hung, perhaps, on the inside of the door. A sound aim.

Then there was a scuffling, and a sound of nails grating on the dry skin of a pale ankle. The sounds relaxed, briefly, and so did the figure on the couch, if there was one, for the next second, the underside of the couch sagged alarmingly, and the thin strip of firelight relfected on the polished wood under the couch vanished. A muffled bump penetrated the air, punctuated by a gruff curse: "Maggots!"

The couch broken, the fire merely glowing embers, and the governess diverted, the petticoated person who was sitting in the morning room in the early afternoon heaved herself to her feet, tottered over to the nearest French window overlooking a dark damp backstreet, unlatched the casements and swung her legs over the sill.

Anyone watching from the street would have seen a flurry of petticoats and uneven stockings, most of which slid right off in the scrimmage and into a brownish puddle. The feet dropped right into two holey black leather boots, which were well-made but worn to scraps with use, and white hands pulled a rust-coloured shawl over gold-lighted hair. The shawl tassels hung in a white face, and white teeth chewed with preoccupied unconsciousness.

There was a glint of sea-green eyes as they scanned the surroundings in a split second; then the watcher would have seen the flapping underside of two black boots as they pelted down the street and around a corner into the bustling market square, and the figure was swallowed into the crowds.

The End

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