I have long abhorred black. It is a great abyss, sucking in the colours of the rainbow and wringing the life from them. The moniker of death. Nonetheless, I brave the darkness one last time to retrieve something precious. Plunging my hand past heavy gowns of the offensive colour, I rummage deep in the chest. Near the bottom, my fingers bump into a velvet box. Victory! Gripping it, I pull it out, and my throat goes dry. What I am about to do is as rebellious as Jezebel herself.
Inside, my mother’s single pearl attached to a silver chain rests on indigo satin. My hand trembles as I remove the keepsake and fasten it around my neck. Shortly after I married, on my very first Christmas as a young bride, Mr. White forbade me to wear my mother’s necklace, saying it didn’t befit a woman of my elevated station. Fingering the pearl, I relish its coolness, and defiance wells. This year I will celebrate Christmas with holly and laughter and a large, stuffed goose instead of dark looks and criticism. Too many years have I spent shut away in a stagnant townhouse without a morsel of cheer. No more. Today I’m free, finally and completely my own person, leastwise once I sign all the paperwork.
I toss the empty case back into the chest and slam the lid, then rise—and a genuine smile curves my lips. Is it wicked to embrace such elation? Then so be it. Never again will I cower before a man—a promise to myself and to God.
“Mrs. White?” Betty raps at my chamber door and ducks inside. Her bleached apron is stark against her black servant’s gown, and my smile fades. How much would it cost to reissue the staff with pewter grey liveries instead? Yet another matter to take up with the solicitor when he arrives in an hour.
“Yes, Betty?” I soften my tone. Harsh words make her flinch even now, though it’s been a year since my husband raged about the townhouse.
“My pardon for disturbing you, mum,” she dips her head, “but a Mr. Barlow is here, awaiting you in the sitting room.”
“Barlow?” I roll the name around with my tongue and find it a completely foreign flavour. “Who is that?”
The ruffle on Betty’s cap trembles where it meets her brow. “Says he’s with Smudge and Gruber, mum.”
I glance at the clock ticking away on the mantle. Fifty-six minutes remain until I expect Mr. Smudge. A shadow clouds my mind, as dark as the mourning gowns I’ve laid to rest. Was this Mr. Barlow here with ill tidings? Frowning, I thank Betty and leave my chamber.
Memories bombard me like thrown tomatoes as I scurry down the corridor. There, where September sun shines through the windowpanes, my husband threatened to push me out the glass. I speed past the vigil lantern that carved a small scar into my neck when he’d swung it at me. And at the top of the stairs, I press my hand to my stomach. How many times had Mr. White said he ought to shove me down the stairway and be done with me?
Ghosts. All ghosts. My husband is well and truly gone. I descend the stairs, hopefully for one of the last times. I cannot leave soon enough this house of horror.
A thick man, hardly taller than I, stands looking out through the sheers at Wellington Street, either enthralled by the day’s traffic or lost in thought. I clear my throat. When he turns, sunlight bounces off his spectacles.
“Good day, Mrs. White.” He bows his head. “Mr. Percival Barlow, clerk to Mr. Gruber, at your service.”
I study his dark hair and somewhat pasty skin, but neither the name nor the face correlate with any memory I can dredge up. I take a seat on the settee and direct him to an adjacent chair. “To what do I owe this visit, Mr. Barlow?”
He settles a leather brief bag on his lap and unbuckles the straps while he speaks. “Normally I make the rounds for Mr. Gruber. Unlike Mr. Smudge, he rarely leaves the office. However, today I took it upon myself to add Mr. Smudge’s clients to my stops as well.” He pulls out a sheaf of papers, then lifts his face to me. “I regret to inform you your lawyer, Mr. Smudge, took a fall from a horse yesterday and broke his leg. In short, I am here to get your signature on the documents he intended for you to sign.”
He hands over the papers, and I page through them. Strange how a lifetime of ambition can be condensed into nothing more than a stack of parchment.
Mr. Barlow offers me a pen. “Each document represents one of your deceased husband’s holdings. Sign your name on the bottom lines and the businesses will be sold, the proceeds of which shall come to you.”
Surely Mr. White is rolling over in his grave as I write my name on the first page, selling off a dry goods warehouse in Birmingham. He’d married me, a girl five decades his junior, in order to avoid the travesty of dying without an heir—and made me pay with each passing year in which I didn’t give him a son.
“You should be very well off for the rest of your days, Mrs. White.” Mr. Barlow’s low voice drowns out the scratching of my pen. “I daresay you shall be able to do whatever it is you fancy.”
His words slam into me, and my pen hovers above the line on the last page. Whatever I fancy? La! The only fancy I’d clung to the past year was the hope of leaving behind this townhouse and settling elsewhere, far from London. Escaping the past. Starting a whole new chapter of life. But what? And where? Flight had so preoccupied my mind that I’d neglected to give a thought as to where I’d land.
My gaze sharpens on the heading of the page in my lap. Nottingham Lace and Hose. Nottingham? Why not? It’s as good a place as any.
I set the pen on the tea table then hold out the unsigned paper to Mr. Barlow. “Tell me of this business, sir.”
His big eyes widen as he grasps the page between finger and thumb, and while he silently reads, his lips fold into a pout. “It appears this is a lace manufacturing company, one of your husband’s smaller holdings. His possession was at 51%, making him the majority owner but not by much. It says here,” he spears his finger midway down the document, “that once you’ve relinquished your allotment, the co-owner intends to purchase that share for sole proprietorship.”
Mr. Barlow shoves the paper back at me. “Not to worry, Mrs. White. There is nothing untoward about this paper. Simply sign it, and I shall be on my way.”
I finger my mother’s necklace, leaving the paper to dangle from Mr. Barlow’s fingers. “Tell me, sir, what happens if I do not sign that document?”
“Not sign?” His head recoils as if I’ve slapped him. “Why would you not? Surely you do not intend to pursue the majority ownership of some small, dismal manufacturing company in the middle of nowhere. For without your signature on this page, the holding falls to you—an unheard-of position for a woman.”
My fingers snap closed around the pearl, the small hairs at the back of my neck bristling. It may be a poor decision, but I’ve been told one too many times what to do, how to live, when to breathe and eat and walk. A scream wells in my throat, and I use its energy to lift my chin. “Yes, Mr. Barlow. That is exactly what I intend.”
His wide mouth parts, then closes as if words have bunched up behind his teeth and he’s too afraid to let them loose. Finally he sinks back against the cushion. “Are you certain of this, Mrs. White? It’s a different world north of here, and manufacturing is a harsh and unforgiving trade. I fear a woman of your stature may not last long in such an environment.”
I stifle a smile. Let him oppose me. It only empowers me more. Because even if I suffer, this time it will be due to my choice. “I am certain, sir.”
His skin greys to the shade of yesterday’s porridge, and he fumbles inside his coat pocket to pull out a beat-up gold coin. He holds it out to me on an upturned palm.
I pluck the coin from his hand and hold it to the light streaming in through the window. I’ve never seen the likes of such. The edges are chipped and gouged. A raised X takes up the most of one side. Words I cannot read encircle the other. I angle my head at Mr. Barlow. “What is this?”
“It’s a second-chance coin, Mrs. White.” He pushes the paper for Nottingham Lace and Hose back at me across the tea table. “I should like to give you a second chance to reconsider your decision.”
I offer back the coin. “No need, sir. My mind is quite made up.”
He blows out a sigh, the kind that condemns me for being such a daft female, and rises to his feet, collecting all the papers save for the lace company. “Then I suppose I am finished here. I bid you good day, madam. And good luck.”
I rise as well, following. “But your coin, sir.”
Pausing on the threshold, he turns to me. “Keep it. I have a feeling you may need it, especially with your new business partner. I only wish I had third- and fourth-chance coins to give you as well.”
He pivots, and I am left alone with the piece of cold metal in my hand and a knotted bundle of hope and fear in my belly.