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A Human Stain
By Kelly Robson, Sam Wolfe Connelly
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2017 Kelly Robson
All rights reserved.
Peter's little French nursemaid was just the type of rosy young thing Helen liked, but there was something strange about her mouth. She was shy and wouldn't speak, but that was no matter. Helen could keep the conversation going all by herself.
"Our journey was awful. Paris to Strasbourg clattered along fast enough, but the leg to Munich would have been quicker by cart. And Salzburg! The train was outpaced by a donkey."
Helen laughed at her own joke. Mimi tied a knot on a neat patch of darning and began working on another stocking.
Helen had first seen the nursemaid's pretty face that morning, looking down from one of the house's highest windows as she and Bärchen Lambrecht rowed across the lake with their luggage crammed in a tippy little skiff. Even at a distance, Helen could tell she was a beauty.
Bärchen had retreated to the library as soon as they walked through the front door, no doubt to cry in private over his brother's death after holding in his grief through the long trip from Paris. Helen had been left with the choice to sit in the kitchen with two dour servants, lurk alone in the moldering front parlor, or carry her coffee cup up the narrow spiral staircase and see that beauty up close.
The climb was only a little higher than the Parisian garret Helen had lived in the past three months, but the stairs were so steep she had been puffing hard by the time she got to the top. The effort was worthwhile, though. If the best cure for a broken heart was a new young love, Helen suspected hers would be soon mended.
"We had a melancholy journey. Herr Lambrecht was deeply saddened to arrive here at his childhood home without his brother to welcome him. He didn't want to leave Paris." Helen sipped her cooling coffee. "Have you ever been to Paris?"
Mimi kept her head down. So shy. Couldn't even bring herself to answer a simple question.
Peter sat on the rug and stacked the gilded letter blocks Bärchen had brought him. For a newly-orphaned child, he seemed content enough, but he was pale, his bloodless skin nearly translucent against the deep blue velvet of his jacket. He seemed far too big for nursery toys — six or seven years old, she thought. Nearly old enough to be sent away to school, but what did Helen know about children? In any case, he seemed a good-natured, quiet boy. Nimble, graceful, even. He took care to keep the blocks on the rug when he toppled the stack.
She ought to ask him to put the blocks in alphabet order, see how much his mother had taught him before she had passed away. But not today, and probably not tomorrow, either. A motherless, fatherless boy deserved a holiday, and she was tired from travel. The servants here were bound to be old-fashioned, but none of them would judge her for relaxing in a sunny window with a cup of coffee after a long journey.
They would judge her, though, if they thought she was Bärchen's mistress. She would be at Meresee all summer, so she needed to be on good terms with them — and especially with Mimi.
"We traveled in separate cars, of course. Herr Lambrecht is a proper, old-fashioned sort of gentleman." Helen stifled a laugh. Bärchen was nothing of the sort, but certainly no danger to any woman. "The ladies' coach was comfortable and elegant, but just as slow as the rest of the train."
Still no reaction. It was a feeble joke, but Helen doubted the nursemaid ever heard better. Perhaps the girl was simple. But so lovely. Roses and snow and dark, dark hair. Eighteen or twenty, no more. What a shame about her mouth. Bad teeth perhaps.
Helen twisted in her seat and looked out the window. The Meresee was a narrow blade of lake hemmed in tight by the Bavarian Alps. Their peaks tore into the summer sky like teeth on a ragged jaw, doubled in the mirror surface of the lake below. It was just the sort of alpine vista that sent English tourists skittering across the Alps with their easels and folding chairs, pencils and watercolors.
The view of the house itself was unmatched. Helen had been expecting something grand, but as they had rowed up the lake, she was surprised she hadn't seen Bärchen's family home reproduced in every print shop from London to Berlin, alongside famous views of Schloss Neuschwanstein and Schloss Hohenschwangau. Schloss Meresee was a miniature version of those grand castles — tall and narrow, as if someone had carved off a piece of Neuschwanstein's oldest wing and set it down on the edge of the lake. Only four storeys, but with no other structure for scale it towered above the shore, the rake of its rooflines echoing the peaks above, gray stone walls picked out in relief against the steep, forested mountainside. Not a true castle — no keep or tower. But add a turret or two, and that's what the tourists would call it.
No tourists here to admire it, though. Too remote. No roads, no neighbors, no inns or hotels. From what Helen could see as she sat high in the fourth floor nursery window, the valley was deserted. Not even a hut or cabin on the lakeshore.
She'd never been to a place so isolated. Winter would make it even more lonely, but by then she would be long gone. Back in London, at worst, unless her luck changed.
When she turned from the window, Peter had disappeared. The door swung on its hinges.
"Where did Peter go?" Helen asked.
Mimi didn't answer.
"To fetch a toy, perhaps?"
Mimi bent closer to her needle. Helen carried her coffee cup to the door and called out softly in German. "Peter, come back to the nursery this instant." When there was no answer, she repeated it in French.
"I suppose Peter does this often," Helen said. "He thinks it's fun to hide from you."
Mimi's lips quivered. "Oui," she said.
"Come along then, show me his hiding places."
The nursemaid ignored her. Helen resisted the urge to pluck the darning from Mimi's hands.
"If I were newly orphaned, I might hide too, just to see if anyone cared enough to search for me. Won't you help me look?" Helen smiled, pouring all her charm into the request. A not inconsiderable amount, to judge by the effect she had on Parisian women, but it was no use. Mimi might be made of stone.
"To hell with you," she said in English under her breath, and slammed the nursery door behind her.
It was barely even an oath. She knew much filthier curses in a variety of languages. Her last lover had liked to hear her swear. But no more. That life had cast Helen off. All she had left in Paris were her debts.
The clock chimed noon. When it stopped, the house was silent. Not a squeak or creak. No sign of Bärchen or the servants, no sound from the attics above or the floors below. She padded over to the staircase and gazed down the dizzying stone spiral that formed the house's hollow spine. Steps fanned out from the spiral, each one polished and worn down in the center from centuries of use.
"Peter," she called. "Come back to the nursery, please."
"All right," she sang out. "I'm coming to find you."
Who could blame the child for wanting to play a game? Peter had no playmates. She could indulge him, just this once. And it gave her a good excuse to snoop through the house.
* * *
By the time Helen had worked her way through the top two floors, it was obvious that the servants were outmatched by the housekeeping. The heavy old furniture was scarred and peeling, the blankets and drapes threadbare and musty, the carpets veiled with a fine layer of cobwebs that separated and curled around her every footstep. The surfaces were furred with a fine white dust that coated the back of her throat and lay salty on her tongue. After a half hour of wiggling under beds and rifling through closets and wardrobes, she was thirsty as if she'd been wandering the desert.
In old houses, the worst furniture was banished to the highest floors. As Helen descended, she expected the furnishings to become newer, lighter, prettier, if just as dusty. In the main rooms, the ones Peter's mother would have used, the furniture was the same: blackened oak carved into intricate birds, fish, and beasts. The sort of furniture that infested Black Forest hunting lodges, but raw and awkward, as if one of the family's great-uncles had taken up a late-in-life passion for wood carving and filled the house with his amateur efforts.
Still, if she could get the servants to clean it properly, she might adopt the large sitting room as her own. She could teach Peter just as well there as in the nursery. It would save her from climbing up and down stairs all day long. And though the sofa was backed by a winding serpent with a gaping maw, it was still a more likely setting for seducing a nursemaid than a drafty nursery window seat.
Under one of the beds she found a thin rib from a rack of lamb, riddled with tooth marks. Somewhere in the house was a dog. She'd have to take care to make friends with it.
Still no sign of Peter. Perhaps he was a troubled child, despite his placid looks. If so, this summer wouldn't be the holiday Bärchen had promised. She'd found him in a booth at Bistro Bélon Bourriche, downing himself in cognac. Within five minutes, he'd offered to pay her to join him for the summer at his family home and teach his nephew English. It would be easy, he said. Bärchen knew how badly she needed money. He was always so kind — famous for his generosity among the boys of Montparnasse and Pigalle.
Helen tapped the rib in her palm as she descended to the ground floor. There, the staircase widened and spread into the foyer, forming a wide, grand structure. At the back of the foyer, the stairs continued through a narrow slot in the floor. To the cellars, no doubt. Exploring down there would be an adventure.
Helen's trunk still sat by the front door, waiting for the steward to bring it upstairs. On the near side of the foyer, tobacco smoke leaked from the library. It smelled heavenly. She hadn't been able to afford cigarettes for months. She'd almost ceased yearning for the taste of tobacco, but her mouth watered for it now. Bärchen would give her a cigarette, if she asked for one. But no. She wouldn't disturb him. He had kept a brave face all through their journey. He deserved some time alone with his grief.
She padded into the murky parlor opposite the library and pulled aside the heavy green drapes, holding her breath against the dust. The sun was high above the mountains. The lake gleamed with light. Dust motes swarmed the air. The sunlight turned the oak furniture chalky, the heavy brocade upholstery nearly pastel. The walls were festooned with hunting trophies — stuffed and mounted heads of deer, wild goats, even two wolves and a bear. Their glass eyes stared down through the cobwebs as if alarmed by the state of the housekeeping.
She skated her finger through the dust on the windowsill. P-E-T-ER, she wrote in block letters. When she began the boy's lessons there'd be no need for work books and pencils. Any flat surface could be used as a slate. It might embarrass the servants into doing their work.
Stepping back from the window, her foot jittered over a lump on the floor. Two tiny bones nestled under the carpet's green fringe — dry old gnawed leavings from a pair of veal chops. She tucked them in her pocket with the lamb bone. Then in the dining room she found a jawbone under a chair — small, from a roast piglet. She put it in her pocket.
Helen found her way to the kitchen at the back of the ground floor. An old woman chopped carrots at the table, her wrinkled jowls quivering with every blow of the knife. Beside her, the steward crouched over a cup of coffee. He was even older than the cook, his skin liver-spotted with age. They watched as Helen poured herself a glass of water from the stoneware jug.
"Peter likes to play games," she said in German. "I can't find him anywhere."
The cook began fussing with the coffee pot. The steward kept to his seat. "We haven't seen the boy, Fräulein York."
"I hardly expected bad behavior from him on my very first morning at Meresee."
"The boy is with the nursemaid. He is always with the nursemaid." The steward's tone was stern.
"How can you say that? He's certainly not with her now." She brushed cobwebs from her dress. "I've searched the house thoroughly, as you can very well see."
"You must continue to look for him, Fräulein," the steward said.
The cook bit into a carrot. Her jowls wobbled with every crunch.
They were united against her, but it only made sense. They were old country people and she was just an English stranger in a dirty, dusty dress. Raising her voice would win her no friends.
"Could you bring my trunk up to my room?" She smiled brightly. "I'd like to change out of my traveling clothes."
"Yes, Fräulein York," the steward said.
The cook went back to chopping carrots. The steward sipped his coffee. Did they expect her to retreat now?
"There is still the matter of Peter," Helen said.
The cook's knife slipped. Carrots scattered across the floor.
"The French girl takes care of the boy." The cook's words were barely understandable, some kind of antique form of Bavarian. "He's not allowed in the kitchen."
The steward's mouth worked, thin lips stretching over his stained teeth.
"Is that true?" Helen asked the steward. "Why not?"
The steward covered the cook's hand with his own. "The boy's welfare is your business now, Fräulein."
* * *
Helen found Peter at the back of the freezing cellar, hunkering in front of a door set deep into rock. The walls were caked with frost. The boy's breath puffed like smoke.
"Aren't you cold?" she asked. "Come back upstairs now."
"Bitte, miss," the boy said. He wedged two fingers under the door, then crouched lower, head bobbing as he worked them deeper and deeper. His hair was neatly parted, two blond wings on either side of a streak of skin pale as a grub.
Whatever he was up to, whatever he thought he was going to find on the other side of the door, he was fully engrossed by it. Helen let him have his fun for a few minutes while she poked around the cellar, ducking under the low spines of the vaulted ceiling. On the wall opposite the door, bottles were stacked into head-sized alcoves in pyramids of six. She wiped the dust off a few labels. French, and not that old. Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy. More than three hundred bottles. Enough to last the summer.
The cellar smelled salty. It must have been used for aging and preserving meat, in the past. The cold air's salty tang flooded her dry mouth with spit. What she wouldn't give for a piece of pork right now, hot and juicy. Her stomach growled. Perhaps the cook could be persuaded to let her explore the kitchen larder.
Helen wandered back to the boy. "Come along, Peter, that's enough. Mimi is waiting for you."
The light from her candle jittered across the brass plate bolted to the door's face. The tarnished metal was crusted with frost. She stepped closer, lifting her candle. It was a shield — griffins, an eagle, a crown.
She nudged Peter's foot with her toe. "Time to go back upstairs." He was stretched out on his belly now. "Peter, come along this instant." An edge came into her voice. She was tired of being ignored by everyone in the house.
He pulled something from under the door and put it in his mouth.
"Stop that." She grabbed Peter's collar and hauled him across the cellar to the stairs. He pitched forward onto his hands and knees. The object popped out of his mouth and bounced off the bottom step.
Helen picked it up and turned it over in her palm. It was a tiny bone, slender, fragile, and wet with spit.
She stared at Peter. "That's disgusting. What are you thinking?"
"Mama," he sobbed. His thin shoulders quivered under the velvet jacket. "Mama."
Remorse knifed through her. She tossed the bone aside, scooped him into her arms, and hauled him upstairs. "Hush," she said, patting his quaking back as he sobbed.
Tobacco smoke leaking from the library had turned the air in the foyer gray. Her trunk still crouched by the front door.
Helen lowered Peter to his feet. He was heavy. She couldn't possibly carry him up to the nursery. She'd be gasping.
Helen squeezed his bony shoulders. "You're a good boy, aren't you?" He wiped his nose on his sleeve and nodded. "Good, no more crying."
She lugged the trunk upstairs and dropped it in her room. Then she took the boy's hand and called up the spine of the staircase for Mimi.
When her pretty face appeared at the top of the spiral, Helen shooed the boy upstairs.
"Take care of him, won't you?" Helen said. "There'll be no lessons today. Not tomorrow, either. Then we'll see."
"Oui," Mimi said.
* * *
When Bärchen came to dinner he was already drunk. The scarlet cheeks above his brown beard were so bright it looked like he'd been slapped.
"So many letters. My brother's desk is stuffed to bursting." Bärchen offered Helen a cigarette. "I can't understand them. I have no head for business, Mausi."
Helen blew smoke at him. "You always say that, but you seem to manage your own affairs well enough."
"I must go to Munich for advice. I'll be back soon, I promise. Two days at most."
"Don't stay away too long. You'll come back to an empty wine cellar and a pregnant nursemaid."
He giggled. "If that happens, it must be God's will."
Excerpted from A Human Stain by Kelly Robson, Sam Wolfe Connelly. Copyright © 2017 Kelly Robson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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