Content warning: “The Pandora” deals with child endangerment and mental abuse.
It was a year to the day of our arrival that Mary — Cordelia as we’d come to call her — left us. Left us with a fat purse of pound notes, a letter of recommendation, and not a stitch more than the clothes on her back. Left us with her eyes bright and a bit mad, as if expecting Mr. Reid at any minute to change his mind. I watched her, mute in my apparent victory, unable to comprehend why she might look so happy. Believing ridiculously that she was putting on a show to save her wounded pride. But at the bottom of the stairs, just before she entered the street, I heard her laugh.
Laugh. A sound she hadn’t made in months. A true sound, a true emotion. A klaxon.
I stepped towards the threshold.
Mr. Reid closed the townhouse door.
I had pitied her for being sent away a failure; now I hated her for leaving me behind without quite understanding why. I pressed my hands to my corset stays, wishing for a moment alone to think.
Mr. Reid brought my hand to his lips with a formal flourish and then let go. He had kissed Mary’s hand many times. Never mine. The intimacy both burned and shamed me. I cast my gaze down.
“Do not let her trouble your thoughts further. She was my mistake, not yours.” A rare sentiment from him, guilt. He was always so sure of everything. “Pity she did not rise to the challenge. You, my steady Portia, were the true student after all.”
“Where will she go?” And how? Would she walk the way to London centre alone? Or hail a carriage? It was a cold spring morning, rain a promise on the wind, no shawl on her shoulders. Where would she, Mary — my rival, my sister by arrangement, and possibly my only friend — sleep tonight? It would do me no good to wonder aloud; Mr. Reid did not like what he called emotional outbursts, so instead I looked to him for some assurance with as much of an unmoved countenance I could manage.
“A letter as fine as that will gain her the employ of any house,” he said. “And her education will make her all the more attractive. Even what little she learned.” He sniffed, a habit deployed whenever he found something below his expectations. A noise I had become quite familiar with in these last weeks as Mary, the star pupil of the pair of us, began to fail over and over.
“At fourteen?” No home, no master, no better than either of us when we were at the foundling house before we were chosen by Mr. Reid.
Smiling. I couldn’t get her smile out of my head. When had she last smiled, truly?
He ignored my question, and clapped his hands together. “We’ll be having guests tonight.”
I turned from the closed door, my mind’s eyes still imagining Mary — Cordelia just that morning when we both rose from our beds and Cordelia not even ten minutes ago — gathering her skirts to run, to put as much distance between her and the house as her feet could manage.
“Guests,” I repeated.
“Yes, my friend Raymond,” he said. “And Georgie.” Sniff.
That was Mr. Cox and Miss Saville. Mr. Cox had been there the day they had taken me out of the foundling house a year ago. Taken Mary, too, and brought us here to live in the rented apartment. Miss Saville was Mr. Cox’s female companion, someone Mr. Reid only barely tolerated in person, and spoke harshly of in her absence. Neither Mary nor I had been permitted to socialize with Mr. Reid’s guests for longer than a few minutes of polite greetings, though their presence in the house was always a raucous one that we’d listen to from behind our bedroom door.
Mr. Reid, impatient for a smile, said with deliberate enthusiasm, “We are to celebrate the next stage of your education.”
Celebrate the only companion I’d known this last year, leaving? Celebrate her failure?
I stared at the closed door for a long time.
What did Mary know?
“So, it’s just you now,” Miss Saville said later that evening. She drew me to sit with her on a settee off to one side of the parlor while Mr. Reid and Mr. Cox opened the brandy. Coquettish, Mr. Reid would call it, Miss Saville’s smile. The kind a good woman wasn’t supposed to make. It was after dinner, and I was terribly full and flush from the sip of wine I’d had.
She leaned forward, and the silk of her robe à l’anglaise, a spring green with richly embroidered carnations, sighed with every movement she made. Her red hair, unpowdered as was becoming popular yet no less curled or coiffed, glittered with pearl-tipped hair pins to keep it all in place. “And how do you feel about this … new arrangement?”
“Most excited.” I sounded too gleeful to my own ears, and furiously thought what I should have said. I played with a lock of my own mouse-brown hair that slipped from my mob cap. “I am of course sad that Cor—Mary lost her opportunity to better herself, but I shall not waste my own chance.”
“You won’t find it dull, on your own?”
I looked around the parlor for inspiration, then saw the pile of folios and books stacked on the edge of a side table that Mary and I had only just yesterday begun. “But I will have the books, all the lessons. No more sharing. What finer tutor could I ask for?”
It had been true, for a while. I had envied Mary’s ease with the studies, and Mr. Reid’s singular interest in her. He would often pit us against each other, and she would come out the winner no matter how hard I tried. The venture had, until recently, been so easy for her, and she cared so little, while I studied in every spare moment and could only grasp at second place. I should be happy, I told myself, yet the worry remained.
“Yes, your lessons,” she said, unconvinced. “Handsome man, your tutor.”
Gossipy. Another thing Mr. Reid didn’t like and was quick to say so. I pressed myself into the back of the settee, wishing I had brandy, then wishing just as hard none of us did.
Miss Saville must have read the trouble on my face, because she said in a lower, conciliatory tone, “I mean only that it will be lonely, soon, for you. Mr. Cox and I won’t be here to make the evenings gay for him. Who else will you keep you company? Mr. Reid is in London so much for business. What then?”
“I don’t know, miss.”
“I have a gift for you,” she said. She clapped her hands against the ruffles of her silks before taking my hand in hers, as though we were friends and she was about to show me something marvelous. “Come.”
Mr. Reid frowned as we made to go, but Mr. Cox stopped him, brandy in hand. Miss Saville said something witty in French judging by how Mr. Cox laughed so and looked pointedly at Mr. Reid. Mr. Reid had taught us Latin and Greek, but French had been precluded to us. Mr. Reid only forced a smiled. Still, he permitted Miss Saville to draw me away. For the first time that evening, I allowed myself a moment to be truly excited.
Inside the guest room there was a large, rectangular white box dressed with a red ribbon sleek and stark as a cross. The box came up to my breastbone, though only to Miss Saville’s waist. When I arrived at the founding house three years ago, I hadn’t been much taller than the box. I began apologizing at once, telling her I could not accept whatever lay inside.
“How old are you?” she asked.
“And no girls here your own age?”
“Not anymore, miss.”
“Then you cannot say no.” She lifted the lid away as though gently intruding into a song bird’s nest.
Inside lay the most beautiful, perfect porcelain doll I had ever laid eyes on.
Her eyes drew me first, long painted lashes shielding pale lavender irises that cleverly appeared to follow me with interest wherever I went. Apple-cheeked, coral lips in wide, friendly smile. Her hair was so pale a gold that it took up the color of whatever was closest: bronze from the candlelight, green from Miss Saville’s dress, to a smoky grey from my own plain gown. Her dress was the equal to Miss Seville’s but red like dark apples, with gold stitching as fine as a Christening gown.
How many broken dolls had I played with at the orphanage? Torn clothes, missing eyes, broken hands, heads cracked under the pelt of hair. And never getting to keep one for yourself. A doll was everyone’s doll, never yours, and they each wore it for the world to see.
She was utterly perfect, and she was to be mine?
“It’s a Pandora,” Miss Saville said. “Dressmakers for kings and queens make them to wear tiny perfect copies of whatever is in season. It’s several years old now, but well-cared for as you can see.”
“Truly,” I asked, still fearing it might be taken away. “For me?”
“Yes. A girl mustn’t be alone with no one to confide in.” I was about to protest but she brought me around to her like a mother might, or so I’ve imagined, to take my chin in her fingers. “You must keep a part of yourself for yourself. You must have something that belongs to only you. Let her be your sister in all but flesh and she will—”
Mr. Reid cleared his throat from the doorway. “Georgie, what’s this?”
Miss Saville let go of my chin, and smiled sweetly. “A goodbye gift.”
“She’s not to be spoiled. Or to spend her time on frivolous things.”
“I think she’s hardly at risk of that,” she said, making a sweeping gesture at my simple grey, cotton dress. I would have thought my dress immeasurably fine compared to the patched and threadbare clothes I wore before, but next to the doll, I looked a house maid. “Lionel, the child will need something.”
“She’ll have—” but he broke off, and looked at me a while. Then the doll. He curled his lip a fraction, then turned away and gave it no more of his attention. “It’s only six months.”
I asked, “Are you leaving, Miss Saville?”
Her expression turned sour. She flicked an acid glare at Mr. Reid. “Really, Lionel.”
The next morning, a carriage arrived with Mr. Reid’s things already packed in bright-buckled chests and new valises. He had even sent things on ahead some weeks ago. Mr. Reid did not live with us but rented our apartments from a widow who owned the building. She was content to leave us to ourselves, an indifference I did not trust easily after my years at the foundling house with its every-nosy nuns who never ceased with their rules, their questions or their punishments. While Mr. Reid spent his morning saying his goodbyes to Mr. Cox and Miss Saville, I listened to them from upstairs as I began to pack what little of the rented apartments we actually owned.
“You’ve taken care of the paperwork?” Mr. Reid asked sharply. His voice always carried so.
“Yes, everything’s filed,” Mr. Cox replied. “You sure about this? Your Rousseau experiment is—”
“What a bore, that man,” Miss Seville said. “You’d be better obsessed with Voltaire.”
“Georgie,” Mr. Cox said reproachfully, but with a little laugh. “You know how she is.”
“I wonder what kind of woman she’d have turned out under different circumstances,” Mr. Reid said.
A foot stamp, and a snort. “I’ll be in our carriage, Raymond.”
Their voices lowered once Miss Saville left, so I returned with the last of the packing.
I say our things, but now with Mary gone they were just mine. Our books had become my books, our writing supplies my own. Her frocks mine, too, her shoes, her shawl. I sat on the rented bed with Mary’s hairbrush and wondered at her leaving all over again.
She hadn’t wanted any of them. Were the clothes gold gilt, made of silk? Of course not. But they were soundly made, and warm. Something you could be proud of wearing. A girl who, after living in comforts we couldn’t have dreamt of when packed in tight with fifty other dirty, cold and unwanted orphans, had nearly run out the front door as if ever warm surface bore the plague.
A girl like me.
A year of being Portia, not Jane, and I would still sometimes forget that Portia was his name for me. Mr. Reid, so suddenly at the door, frowned, and for a terrible moment I thought I could see him thinking, I made the wrong choice.
“Sorry. It’s only…” It felt wrong to consider them all mine. Like I was stealing from her. “I do not know what to with Cordelia’s things. Should we send them on?”
“To where?” He laughed, then composed himself. Sniffed. “These were gifts Mary did not earn. They’re yours now. Care for them well.”
When Mary and I had first been taken from the foundling house, the nuns were told we were to be house maids for a lord. Instead we stayed with Mr. Reid and began our studies in secret. Cordelia and Portia were the names he’d given us. Aspirational, he called them, names we would earn when we transformed from foundlings to good women. Good women, he’d told us from that very first day, would be learned, useful and stoic.
Good women would also be good wives. As we practiced our Latin, our physics and our maths, we made the copper pots shine, kept the stoop swept, ourselves fed, all under the removed auspices of the disinterested widow Mr. Reid paid to see to that part of our education. At night when he was gone, we would make a game of guessing what kind of mad lord would have so poorly educated maids that they would be able to discuss chemistry at length but have no idea how to clean the kitchen hob.
It gloomily settled on me that these chores would now be mine alone.
Now that she was just Mary again, I envied her. A little.
Mr. Reid spied my gift, the doll still wrapped in silk, box cover to one side, and curled his lip a fraction. “Do hurry up.” He left me to it.
I quickly collected the rest into two small trunks, rusted and scratched, barely able to hold it all. The room loomed bare and empty, save for the doll sitting like a little red heart in the middle of it. Her box was nearly as long as one trunk, and so fine itself. Surely, I could not leave it here, and that was not Mr. Reid’s intentions, no matter how much he glowered.
In the end, I wore three layers of dress and stashed the oldest and poorest of the clothing that hardly fit me anymore into the mattress stuffing. The doll, swaddled between shifts and stockings, made its way snug across the channel while I grew ill and clamped onto Mr. Reid arm for support.
“Come, you must be of braver stuff that that. It is but a boat.” He shook me loose.
“I have never been on a boat, sir.” Let alone a boat to take me to France. I shivered as the white cliffs receded and cold dark water lapped the sides.
“Can you swim?”
He sniffed. “Then be sure to keep away from the sides.”
The cottage Mr. Reid had rented, a day’s journey by coach from where we landed in France, was itself a simple affair. Two stories, solid stone, thatched roof and a low fence. Behind, dark fields were just starting to show lines of wheat. A thin forest to the east broke into rolling pasture south and west, barely green, and there was a cold, clean brook not far from the cottage.
“Why come all this way?” Not knowing the language made me nervous.
“Less distraction,” he said, assessing the view from the coach window. “Less interference.”
“But what of your practice?” Mr. Reid, a prosperous lawyer, was frequently away on business.
“You will be my practice,” he said gravely. “We shall finish your education.”
I had nothing more to say to that.
He left me to pull my own trunks down as he negotiated with the drivers for assistance with his own things. Everything of his would be brought into what would be his office on the main floor, he said as I struggled to dislodge the first of my battered trunks. They asked him if they should help me, but he laughed, and said, “But see what an independent girl she is!” So they paid me no mind after that.
I dragged the first trunk, far too heavy for me to lift, into the cottage. The trunk’s brass corner bumper caught on the uneven stone of the threshold and sent me sprawling to the floor. My knees took the brunt of it while my hands came away from the wood gummy from old polish and dust that would no doubt be counted among the duties I was to take care of once we were settled. Still smarting, I resisted the urge to hurry with the rest of my belongings, and instead stole a few moments to wander this new space before Mr. Reid claimed it as his own.
The cottage was thick-aired and warm despite the small windows and afternoon shade, making it feel small. My nose tickled from the thatch roof, and what smelled like mould. Abandoned furniture heavy with the echoes of families I could not imagine stood at the ready to be used again, but were sparse and hard-edged where they lurked in the shadows. So bare compared to the gloss and softness of the flat Mr. Reid had rented for us and made homelike from mine and Mary’s efforts, and sadder somehow than even the foundling house, which had no softness at all but was filled with voices from dusk to dawn. I hardened myself for the days to come and got to work.
I had just gotten the other trunk up to the second floor and divested myself of two petticoats when Mr. Reid shouted up an order for a thorough cleaning of every room except his new office, which he would keep for himself, bed and all, behind a lock he had the men help him install. Confidentiality, he always replied when I expressed the slightest interest in his belongings or his work, along with vague promises to show me some other time. My own unpacking would have to wait.
That night, over a basic meal hastily made with what little we had, he rejoined me to begin my new lessons, but I begged off, feeling so tired. He grumbled but agreed. I put the last of the plates away. He mumbled something behind me I was too tired to hear clearly.
Then footsteps behind me, purposeful, swift.
“Should I call you Jane then?”
I swerved my head, unthinking.
His hand struck my cheek.
I crumpled, undone by the shock of it. I had been hit before — by other men, by the nuns — but not by him, not once since Mary and I had come to him.
“What is your name?”
I stood straighter, trying to quell my shaking. “Portia.”
“See that it is so.”
I hurried without rushing upstairs to what would be my room.
The room was tiny and the stone walls cold with two slender beds, one against each wall. A children’s room. I closed my door and began to unpack my things by candlelight. I numbly removed one item at a time, tired, yes, but unable to ignore the sounds of Mr. Reid below me as he bashed about, talking to himself. He had never stayed the night in the rented apartment. His own apartments were, I was assured, quite sumptuous thanks to his father’s money, but further from the heart of town and all it offered an important man. Often he had Mr. Cox over, usually past supper and often into their cups, vigorously debating between themselves, before leaving sometime after the street lamps were lit, drawn away by that lecture or this play.
There would be no lectures here. No plays.
At last I came to the Pandora, still in her box but no longer wrapped in my and Cor–Mary’s stockings. Mr. Reid had impressed on us the excellence of the Greeks: their history, their democracy, their arts, and of course their legends. He struggled, he’d said once, in deciding whether to name us after Shakespearean women or Greek heroines. I was very nearly Atalanta, and Cordelia Antigone. I wondered why a doll would share her name with the woman who loosed evil on the world, but decided not to ask Mr. Reid, lest reminding him of the doll was bother enough for him to bid me to be rid of it.
Because Lady Saville was right. I was, for the first time in my life, uniquely alone.
The candlelight turned the doll’s hair burnished gold and her violet eyes found mine straight away. She was finer than anything I had ever owned, finer than perhaps anything Mr. Reid had owned. I lifted her out carefully, startled by her cold porcelain hands and face, and laid her on the second bed.
I snuffed the candle and burrowed under my thin covers. With the candle gone, the chill in the room deepened and my teeth started to chatter. I rubbed my hands and arms, all while watching the Pandora lie as still like Mary used to, and at once I was cheered despite the cold, despite what tomorrow might bring.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said, as my eyes grew heavy.
From the darkness, an answer, no more than a whisper: “I’ll always be here.”
I lay transfixed, waiting for another sound, any sound, so hard my head began to pound, but none came that night.
The next morning, after I had finished breakfast and the morning chores, I brought my lessons downstairs, the ones we had been working on before Mary was sent away. Mr. Reid was in his makeshift office, door closed, so I set myself up at the table with my books and waited.
When he finally presented himself, sometime around noon, rumpled and frowning, he stopped in his tracks looking as if I had offended him.
He stared at my books. “Yes, of course.” He paced back and forth several times. “I want you to fill the bath out back.”
“More washing?” Everything in the house was as clean as it could be with the tools I had. I don’t think I could ever quite get rid of the grime, but everything had been dusted and set right for living. More water wouldn’t help.
“Fill it from the river. Very top.”
And then he went back into his office.
I slumped in my chair and closed my lesson book.
It took me several hours to fill the tub. It was as tall as my shoulders, so nearly five feet high. More like a barrel than tub and round enough to fit both my travel trunks. I passed the well uncounted times as I filled up my bucket from the river that ran two hundred yards from the cottage. After two hours my hands were rubbed raw and my shoulders ached. Once finished, I returned to the cottage just in time to begin the evening meal.
It wasn’t until after dinner, when I had cleaned up our dishes and lit the lamps, that Mr. Reid checked his pocket watch and announced we would go outside. I went for my shawl; he said I would not need it.
Outside, there was a crescent moon and a few thin clouds, making for a cold night. Mr. Reid looked fine in his heavy wool jacket, blond hair silver by moonlight and his smile shining ivory. I hugged my arms, goose-fleshed under my plain dress, and hurried after him.
We came to the tub and its dark water.
“What are the qualities of a good woman, Portia?”
This I knew by rote. “She must be kind and hardworking, patient and precise. She must…eschew material things and must better her mind.”
“She must also be stoic,” he said. “Do you know what stoic means?”
I looked at the tub of water. “She must endure hardship without complaint.”
I didn’t struggle as he lifted me into the water, and I held on to the rim with cold wet fingers as the water sloshed over the sides. I wasn’t to stand, but to stay submerged up to my chin until morning. I watched him with such intensity that I could count the stitches in his sleeves as he walked back to the warmth of the cottage without another word.
Mr. Reid came to get me just before dawn. I could not lift myself, only mew weakly as he hauled me out of the tub and bid me walk back to the cottage. I tripped and stumbled, crying and so tired, all while he grumbled at my lack of spirit. I must have inspired some pity, as he gave me permission to lie down, and then we would review my Physics. An offer I would have leapt at before but in that moment, I only cared about getting warm again.
Stairs an agony, wanting nothing more than my bed, I opened the door.
My heart buckled when I saw her, the Pandora, sitting up on the bed as if she had been posed, scarlet dress fanned out around her. I hadn’t touched her since I’d laid her down. I suddenly, fiercely hated the idea that he had touched her, this single thing that belonged to me. Wet and dripping, I marched to the bed and laid her flat again, and then stripped down and weakly wrung out my clothes for hanging on the sill. He’d brought a bucket of coals at least, so there was warmth in the room. I shut the window tight to keep what little heat there was inside.
Hair and head bundled, wearing something blessedly dry, I heard a sound halfway between a crack and a thud. I turned towards the sound and nearly bolted out of my skin to see the doll exactly as she was as if I hadn’t moved her–me, the only other person in the room!
I made a strangling noise and fell to the foot of my bed, hiding behind the footboard and stared.
The doll’s head turned slowly on its neck. To look at me.
Behind my fingers, I whispered low, “What are you?”
“What are you?” the Pandora parroted back. Her lips never moved, but it was she that spoke, hers the voice that echoed in room. She went on, blithe and spirited like Miss Saville when sparring with Mr. Cox and Mr. Reid. “I am as I was made, by the hands and minds of those that shaped me. You are no different.”
I had heard tales of girls in the work houses losing their senses after merciless work hours. I had not slept since the night before, and might very well be fevered. Yet everything I heard, everything I saw, was no lie.
“I’m real,” I said, braver. “I’m a girl.”
“Am I not a girl?” Was that the creak of a porcelain neck moving? Her eyes moved enough for her whole body, and held me pinned. “Do I not wear dresses and delicate shoes? Is my hair not in the latest fashion? Am I not kept locked away for fear of breaking or theft?”
“Do you speak in anything but riddles?”
“Only when someone asks the right question, and then I might answer in kind.”
I thought on this a while, still watching. It was only a doll, even if it talked. How much a danger could it be? Truly, my mind was fevered. “Have you…always been this way?”
“What is always? How can I measure time if I myself do not age?” The lightness ebbed from her voice. “It is a kind of eternity, in here.”
“Did you speak to Miss Saville?”
The Pandora said sulkily, “When I came to her, she was much too old to hear me, as you can. She didn’t need me.”
“And I need you?”
“Every girl needs me,” she said. “Sooner or later.”
“I need sleep,” I said, cross and tired like a child, and resenting myself or it.
“Rest,” the Pandora said.
My body ached for the bed, yet I wavered. “What if Mr. Reid calls.” It was no question. He would call and be quarrelsome, for as much as I did not sleep last night, neither had he; he’d kept the fireplace lit and I could see his silhouette passing in front of the window all night long.
“I will wake you,” she answered, solemn as a prayer.
What else could I do? Perhaps the vision of her, a soul to confide in, just as Miss Saville had said, would disappear as my mind righted with sleep. Or not. In truth, I was too exhausted to care, though a small, mad part of me hoped the Pandora wouldn’t be a fever dream. That someone would be there when I woke.
There were not enough blankets in the world to get warm, but sleep took me anyway.
I ground my face into the pillow.
Again, patient: “Jane.”
“Portia,” I mumbled.
“Portia, then,” came the response, snappish. “He wants you.”
I woke with a cold start, and stared at the doll. Pandora. It did not move, it did not speak, but true to whatever had woken me, there were loud footfalls downstairs, and the sound of crockery slamming tables. I slid out of bed, hair still damp in places. Pinned it back, pulled on a clean frock, and, sparing only a quick look at the other bed, ran downstairs.
He looked as disagreeable as if he’d had a night out with his philosopher friends. When he saw me, he calmed at once, and set the pitcher down. He left me the rest of the work, readying both supper and table, and we ate silence-–me, still sore and chilled, him eating and going through a pile of correspondence as if I wasn’t even there.
Only when the last of the mail was finished did he regard me at all. He leaned back in his chair, and after a pregnant pause, said. “You disappointed me.”
“My pardon, sir?”
“Sleeping so late. All your crying.”
“I’m sorry, sir. I was so very cold and tired, sir.”
“Cold is, like many things in this life, something to be endured. To be stalwart in the face of challenges. That’s why, at great expense, I’ve brought you here to complete your education. To foster in you a sense of good purpose and fortitude in a world that would cultivate neither.” His gaze flicked towards the window that overlooked the back of the cottage, towards the river, his voice thick. “You know I do this for you.”
The memory of that cold water phantomed along my flesh.
“But my studies. My physics. Or if I might learn some French–“
“You will continue with your Greek,” he said sharply. I lowered my head, gaze fixed on the table as he went on. “This is but the first of many challenges, Portia. Steel yourself and become the woman I know you can be.”
I bit my tongue to stop from crying at the table.
He noisily opened a French broadsheet. Without sparing a glance at me, he said, “Tomorrow, refill the tub.”
After putting away the last of the dishes, and cleaning what I could, I fled upstairs to be alone, forgetting of course that I wasn’t. My haste to enter became hesitation, so I crept inside the room, candle ahead of me. The doll didn’t speak or move, but sat where it had been left. I tiptoed towards my bed, acutely miserable and deciding it would be better to just sleep.
I cupped the flame and went to blow the candle out.
“You needn’t suffer him and his education.”
I blew too hard, frightened by the sudden forcefulness of doll’s voice, and spattered wax onto my hands. “It will turn me into a proper woman,” I said, brushing the cooling flakes away in the darkness. I climbed into bed, hearing the Pandora’s head move on its porcelain neck.
“Do you feel more proper after yesterday?”
I stared at my pillow, and said softly, “No.”
“Why don’t you run away?”
I coughed on unspent tears. “Where would I go? I haven’t a pound to my name, and can’t speak a word of French. Where d’you think I’d end up? No better than a foundling. Worse, probably.” I thought of Mary and her money and grew truly angry then. She had been laughing at me, because she’d gotten away. She’d known. How jealous I’d been when she began those private lessons, right before she turned so quiet and cold. I thought her ungrateful. I thought terrible things, and all of them wrong. I was snide to her, and sometimes cruel.
Of course she didn’t tell me.
“Besides,” I said to mollify myself, “there are worse masters.”
The doll laughed, so loud I worried he might hear. But no sound came from below, so I loosened my grip on the pillow. Another night in the water. I should sleep as much as I could.
“What if,” the doll began, “you didn’t have to be…there… when the worst happened?”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s say I took your place.”
That made me actually smile. “I think he would notice a doll in my place.”
“Would he? I wonder.” Before I could respond, the Pandora said, “I don’t mean something so obvious. Have you thought about it, at all, what it means that I am in here speaking to you from this body?”
“I haven’t tried to think about you much at all. You frighten me. Or I’ve gone mad. Are you a spirit?” I lowered my voice. “Or a demon?”
“A spirit is close enough. I live inside this shell but I don’t always have to. I could, for example, take your place.”
“How do you mean?”
“Our bodies would stay as they are, but you would be safe in here, and I would be in you.”
“Why would you want to be in me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“You mean to steal me!”
“Never! It would just be trading places, and only to spare you from things you’d rather not endure.”
I thought on this. “Like … the tub?”
“Like the tub.”
I squirmed under the covers. “And whatever else he’s planned for me.”
“Why?” Mary had been my friend. Or at least the kind of friend you are when you didn’t have the choice to be otherwise. We quarreled, of course, and competed against each other for his praises in the endless tests he’d devise for us. We did want to please him. And why shouldn’t we? He gave us good food and lodgings and he educated us. We owed him everything and were afraid of it ending. But never once would Mary have taken my punishment for burning the bread, or ruining a jacket. Or I for hers. Perhaps we always knew there would only be room for one of us in the end. “Why would you want that?”
“I would take anything over nothing,” the Pandora said. “I am so hungry for feeling. For warmth, for cold. For light, for darkness. Trade with me–I promise, I will only take the parts of it you cannot bear.”
“And you won’t…keep me?”
Her laugher was just a shade from cruel. “Why would I keep a girl, when you are trapped as surely as I am? I just desire a taste of living, that’s all.” And then, gently: “Let me do this for you.”
“Sleep on it,” the doll said. “Answer me in the morning.”
I did as he asked all day without complaint. I cleaned of course, but also walked to town to deliver his correspondence, retrieve packages containing his mail and purchase supplies for the larder. Mostly done in pantomime as I had only his list in French and no words of my own to use. Once back, I set myself to the drudgery of filling the tub from the river. During our evening meal, Mr. Reid chattered on about some lawyer who had died in England and news of French troops traveling to the Americas, all while I intensely focused on my pudding.
When he made motion for us to go outside, I begged him for a moment alone upstairs to prepare. He had been pleased with my silence all evening, and when I asked to delay, his face had grown red-–about to berate me I was sure-–but at the word prepare, his expression turned into something like pride. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
I hurried upstairs, braiding my hair and pinning it up as I went so at least part of me would be dry.
In the room, the Pandora lay motionless on the other bed.
“How do I…?”
“Touch my cheek.”
The porcelain was ice cold, like river water. I shuddered, wanting to draw away but hungry for any relief. I could not stand another night in the tub. “And?”
“And say, ‘I welcome you.'”
“That’s all?” I had expected something more, true sorcery. Would it be so easy? Or was my mind playing tricks and this was all madness?
“Do not begrudge a gift,” the Pandora said quietly. “Shall I make it hard, the way he does? Is that all you know?”
I shook my head. “I—I welcome you.”
I went in and under, subsumed in the instant. There was a sickening vertigo as something rose up to reach me, took me by the soul, and pulled me down. I was cold, I was struggling, and then I was spent. I floated a while, wherever I was, until I heard a voice: “Open your eyes.”
It took me a moment to realize that they were already open, I just wasn’t looking out them. When I did, the room was Wonderland-large and the Pandora-—me-— a giantess. Was that how I looked? On instinct, I reached out for her, but my limbs would not obey. Even to move my neck was the greatest effort and I only managed the smallest tick.
“It is very heavy, my body. But you are safe as houses.” She-as-me leaned down to kiss my tiny forehead and the sensation was a blaze of heat. Welcome heat to the utter absence of it inside the doll, where everything was muffled and thick, the world around me feeling only partly real. Yet what I felt was a better cold, I knew, than what lay in store for her.
“Be…careful?” Had I spoken?
“Yes,” she answered. She took up the candle and I could see my own face clearly, transformed smooth like marble and fierce in a way I could never be. In a distracted voice, she said, “I will return.”
I listened to her take the stairs in measured pace, listened, too, as the country door that opened up behind the cottage moved on its hinges, to the sound of Mr. Reid welcoming her, and then the sound of a body slipping into water without complaint.
I passed the night in a fitful slumber, waking often into a state like those dreams where yours eyes are open but you cannot move for heaven or earth. Time, too, was hard to measure, just as she’d said. Dawn came sooner than felt right, sky paling in ribbons. And then she was in the room, wet and paler, standing over the bed.
Standing too long. Was she changing her mind? I struggled to speak, urgency welling up inside me like a hundred needles.
She sat on the bed and slowly unpinned my hair, water beading off her arms and falling on the porcelain. Then at last, she made as I had done last night, and touched my borrowed cheek. “Thank you.”
The vertigo took me gently, perhaps because I wasn’t fighting it. My eyes were my eyes again, my hand my hands. I swung on my feet, about to fall over.
“Breathe,” said Pandora.
I sucked in a greedy lungful, over and over again, and then laughed. I hadn’t breathed all night, and only just understood it to be so! I was wet and cold and aching but me! Me, again.
“Thank you,” I said, more grateful than the day Mr. Reid and Mr. Cox had signed the papers for me. “Oh god.”
“Don’t weep,” she said, porcelain eyes dry. “He doesn’t like crying.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I know.” I had good excuse to dry my face with the towels and quickly changed into new clothes. I opened my mouth to ask what had happened but just then, he demanded me downstairs. I looked back at Pandora. Utterly still and perfect as ever, save for a single dark spot of water on her dress.
I hurried to Mr. Reid. He was in good spirits, still wearing the heavy woollen coat that kept him warm all night. He gave me a long list of chores to take care of, and told me to be quiet for he would be sleeping. There would be no sleeping for me, but it made no matter. I took his list and smiled.
And the look he gave me: beatific. I even said so, proud of having learned the word and being able to use it now.
I worked harder to please him that day than I had since we’d arrived.
That night, after our supper, Mr. Reid invested several hours in tutoring. I learned about Lord Cavendish’s discovery of hydrogen, and he even let me read from the English broadsheets I’d brought back for him.
That night, tired as I was from the day’s efforts, I dreaded heading to my room and dispelling my happy moment. It was grossly unfair of me, for my present happiness was entirely due to her.
She did not rebuke me when I entered, or speak a word until I was tucked in bed.
“He was pleased with you,” she said. Not a question.
“Yes. Thank you.”
“I would spare you what I can.”
Would she? Mary wouldn’t have. But Mary knew more than I did. What did the Pandora know?
“Is this your life? Living inside…there…unless someone…lets you out?”
“There are worse fates.”
I thought back to the Foundling house, and what came before it. “There are.”
“And I am quite safe,” she said, “as you discovered. No one thinks to look at me twice.”
I stared at her over the edge of my pillow. “I would.”
“Just remember: when you need me, I am here.”
My relief shuddered. Mr. Reid had not mentioned there would be another session in the tub, at least not to me. He had in fact planned a day of new tutoring. Physics. Surely, she had proven whatever it was he needed to see? I tightened the quilt around me, the chill so difficult to dispel. Sleep in my own body did came easily, but my dreams were stretched and huge while I was very small inside them.
We went walking the day after. He allowed me a shawl and we brought a small basket of sandwiches. Despite the cold spring and a struggling start, summer had warmed enough so that the field grass grew wild and high. Far beyond the river, lavender bloomed early under a steady sun.
He quizzed me on my Greek and maths. He took neither pleasure in my right answers nor offence in those I got wrong, merely corrected me and moved on to the next subject. We were more than a half hour’s walk from the cottage on the edge of a large farm estate, the boundary marked by a line of yew and blackthorn. It was a touch shady for our lunch, but if he so wished it, who was I to say? I set down the basket.
“Over there.” He gestured to a spot out under the trees. I went to take the basket with me but he shook his head. I walked to where he wished, heart beating hard.
He made a show of checking the wind, but I think he was looking to see if anyone was nearby. Satisfied, he pulled out a pistol from inside his jacket.
“Are you steady, Portia?” He took aim. At me.
I squeaked, “Sir?”
“Do not move.”
“Sir!” But my cry was drowned out by the first shot. Dirt powdered up at my feet. I jumped to the side.
“Don’t you dare move,” he shouted, pressing another bullet into the pistol. Gun smoke smeared before his face.
“Please stop!” I was shaking so. My shawl fell and tangled at my feet. “Please.”
“Trust must be implicit, perfect. Stand still,” he commanded. Then: “I’m not that good a shot.”
I closed my eyes so tight they hurt and forced my legs to keep standing, even though all I wanted was to collapse to the ground. The mingled stench of gunpowder and lavender so thick in my nostrils, my throat, I nearly choked.
I stood and trembled and wept as he shot every bullet he’d brought.
No one heard me cry but him.
Later, back at the cottage, he gave me a dressing down for my terrible display, demanding to know, “Where was yesterday’s girl who stared me in the eyes and never shook once?” He broke no weeping, and, after our dinner meal, when I’d eaten little and could not be entreated to go over any of my lessons, he sent me to bed.
By candlelight, I began to repair my dress. Three holes and a broken hem and I could not scrub the smell of gunpowder from it.
“Did he tell you?” I finally whispered, fingers still numb enough that I pricked them over and over without feeling any pain. “That this was his plan?”
“No,” Pandora said, lifeless except for her disembodied voice. “No plan. Only that there would be more tests, and that you should strive to meet them.”
“What will I do?”
“I can —”
“But I won’t know, will I?” Fat tears fell and splattered my ruined dress. I crumpled it on purpose. I would never wear it again. “His tests are random,” I said, old cotton tearing as I pulled. “Any time of the day.”
“Tell him,” Pandora began slowly, as if puzzling something out, “tell him if he wants your best effort for these tests, he must give you a chance to ready yourself. At least in the beginning. He’ll agree.” Her tone turned certain. “He’s hungry for you to succeed.”
Pandora was right. The next day I made my case. I didn’t even have to argue. “Meditation is an ancient art highly praised by some,” he said, thawing the disappointment in his face as he considered. “You must have heard me taking about it. Excellent. Very well, then.” He left me alone that day to do as I liked. As I liked. That meant a scouring of the cottage and another trip to deliver his correspondence. He was writing a storm these days. I’d need ink for him as well. More paper.
The next day, Mr. Reid readied his pistol and I readied myself. Pandora’s porcelain, still so cold to the touch, waited for me and without hesitation I said, “I welcome you.”
That was how it was for the next weeks. It wasn’t every day, and it wasn’t always the gun. I did not know what truly passed between Pandora and Mr. Reid, but I would hear gunshots, or her scrambling on the roof top to be made to stand there for hours. She, I, did it all without complaint, and his care for me increased daily. I grew comfortable enough to not feel like I had to hold on to awareness when I was inside the doll. I could even sleep, meaning I had that much more energy left for my own studies and chores. He indulged my interest in physics and history, and even taught a word or two of French. Merci. Oui.
It was a strange life, one I couldn’t have imagined back in my pallet at the foundling house, but comfortable in its own way. I thought of Mary often. Had those shillings been worth it? Had they been enough?
How much would be enough?
One night, late, I was aroused from the not-sleep of the doll and found myself in my own flesh.
Flesh that burned.
“What did you do?” All down my arms were splatters of wax grown cold. I scraped them off with my fingernails and realized I was wearing only a shift. It was well dark, too; we had exchanged places early that morning. Why had she lingered so long? “What happened?”
“He sent me to town, to deliver his mail, buy gin. Buy many things. My arms were sore.” Pandora sounded distant, irritated and yet amused. “He wanted to tire me, I think. He is suspicious.”
I scraped more wax away. “But after that. What did he do?”
“Have you ever been into his office?” She didn’t let me answer. “After I came back, he unlocked the door and brought me inside. We went through the paces of your studies of which I know too little. He grew frustrated with me,” she said, as though she had been the one frustrated, instead of afraid as I would have been. “There was a beaker over a low flame, and he would add another candle to it, all afternoon. I thought it was an experiment, and I suppose it was. He’d meant the wax you.”
I looked at the wax remnants and the welts on my skin where it had landed.
“Never mind that. Read the letter.”
“The letter?” I could feel something pressed against my abdomen under my corset. A folded letter, ‘s seal broken. “You stole it?”
She laughed darkly. “You’ll thank me.”
“I won’t thank you when he comes to punish me for it!”
“Read it,” Pandora snarled.
I huddled by the candle and read the stolen letter. It was addressed to Mr. Cox, began with salutations, and followed with a request for books and a lengthy diatribe about whatever Mr. Cox had proposed in his last letter. I looked to Pandora and while she did not move to egg me on there was an intensity to her painted stare. Another page, and Mr. Reid demanded that Mr. Cox tell Miss Saville there was no point in sending me any letters because he had destroyed every one.
She’d written, and he kept it from me? Why?
At the end of the last page was news of me. “What does he mean, the experiment is done? That I’m … ready? For what?”
“To be a wife.”
If in all my life I could have been struck down by words alone, it was those words and the dread that followed them. I clung to the bed rail, the letter a leaf trapped in the branch of my hand. “Wife for whom?”
“Your eager groom is downstairs.”
All that had been kindness before, no matter how small, became foul. All rare comforts, bribes. And every bit of cruelty dressed up as education — ah, I would have spat on the floor. “We have to leave!”
Stupid doll. Keeping things from me. “And you’ll stop me?” Had I but known! Or known in England!
“Where would you go?” Pandora said very quietly, softer than the sound her neck made as it turned to face me. “You haven’t a pound to your name, and you can’t speak a word of French. Where do you think you’d end up?”
I shivered at the echo of my own words. “I can’t marry him. Won’t.” But so far from England. Not pound or a penny. Even Mr. Reid had no coins here. It was all drafts to be signed, made good by his bank in England. Without him I had nothing.
“It’s the wisest thing to do,” she said lightly. “Sensible. Safe.”
“He’s waiting for your answer. He asked today when we had finished.” The doll’s painted smile looked grimly satisfied. “But I left that to you.”
“You’ve goaded him on. You want to be me, me forever!”
The Pandora laughed the way Mr. Reid would when I had gotten something terribly wrong out of ignorance. “Why would I be you, girl? Why would I consign myself to a life of misery under that man, or even under the pall of womanhood? I may be hungry for the sensations of life, but I will not just take any body as my own.”
“I don’t want you.”
“Say yes.” Violet eyes gleamed with some plan. Her joints might grind, unfinished porcelain working against each other, but her lips could not move. Yet she smiled anyways. “Would I be so terrible a master?”
The next morning, I steeled myself with a stolen sip of gin and acted like nothing had changed. Easier with the gin. I stoked the fire, made a simple breakfast, poured tea. Everything that might keep my hands occupied, might keep my eye from him. I was sure I would give it all away.
Mr. Reid came out of his locked office late and tousled, his jacked unbuttoned. Each of us seemed startled by the other, and it took a while for us to simply eat. He quizzed me mechanically and I answered with rote perfection regardless of the topic. This pleased him, but he still watched my every move. Waiting.
At last, I said, “Yes.”
His cheeks became scarlet as he looked away, struggling with ungentlemanly joy before he came to himself again, all cold duty. “I am … blessed to hear it.” He left the table, went into his room, and came out with a package already bound and letters sealed: he’d known I’d say yes. What other answer could there be? The porridge sat hard in my stomach.
“I need you to bring these to town and mail them.” He said they would arrange our passage back to England immediately. We would set out on the morrow. Then he came round the table and took my chin in his hands, and said, with strange affection, “My Portia.”
I forced a smile, and swallowed back my heart.
He snapped his hand back as though I were a lit stove, and then hid himself in his office.
I hurried through the motions of cleaning, and then bolted to town. I ran most of the way, wondering again at the packages, but not having Pandora’s bravery to open them. Passage to England. Would they admit me alone? A girl of thirteen with a purse of banknotes and a beaten trunk? They’d think it all stolen. They’d only return me to him.
What he’d done in the name of his love; what might he do in fury?
I had to go back and see through Pandora’s plan.
At the cottage, he was busy with his work, and so I had to be. I moved like an automaton, eyes down, and the house silent between us. I scrubbed every pot, beat the rugs, and then pulled out both trunks. I packed nearly everything, but kept the Pandora’s box under her bed.
When dinner came, neither of us ate much. He watched my every move with more intensity than ever before, as if I were some new creature to study.
“Good night, Portia,” he said, as I went to creep upstairs.
“… Good night.”
I moved without hurrying, though I longed to run. Upstairs, I made myself ready and Pandora, too. I left no candle lit, guided my trembling hands by moonlight through the unshuttered window. I fussed over Pandora herself, who calmly directed me to lay her on her side in my bed, face to the window, and to bulk up her body with pillows I’d torn in half and stitched into smaller lumps. Tiny as I was, it didn’t take much to evoke the shape of something larger in my bed than just a doll. All while I worked, my ears fixed on his movements downstairs as he paced across the cottage, screwing up the courage.
I heard the first squeak of the staircase, and nearly cried out.
“Shh,” Pandora said, mother-patient. “You know what to do.”
But did we? Pandora was all confidence, but even she could not guarantee the outcome. Only girls could hear her, she said, and only girls could speak the words. So long as flesh touched porcelain, we had a chance.
I had a chance.
I crawled under my bed with my remaining pillow and huddled in the darkness.
Candlelight proceeded his steady steps up to my doorway. He did not knock, instead giving the unlocked door a gentle push. I could see his boots, the cuffs of his pants, nothing else. I all but strangled the pillow as he came closer, stuffed the corner of it into my mouth as he sat on the bed.
“Do you know how proud I am of you?” he began. “What I’ve helped you become? My greatest achievement. The books I will write, the young women who will be better than they are now, with you having lead the way. My Portia.” A long silence, then a rustle of fabric. “Portia?”
I knew my part, yet my tongue grew thick and clumsy.
“Yes, s–my love?”
He leaned in. The bed creaked. “Your cheek is cold. Oh, Portia. In the eyes of god, it is not yet done, but…since we are to be husband and wife…”
From under the bed, I whispered, “I…I welcome you.”
Mr. Reid groaned, and then fell slack to the floor. I gasped and cowered behind the pillow. Glassy-eyed, he stared at me a long while without sense. I feared he was dead, feared next he was not. I stayed paralyzed under the bed, unable to flee and afraid to touch him.
He blinked once at long last, then again. His eyes locked on me, then his face split into a manic grin.
I pushed myself to the wall; he pushed himself up to his feet. He stomped in his boots, he cackled. Shouted like a man doused with water. Then he ran from the room, toppling the candle, crashing down the stairs, and out the cottage door.
I finally found my legs and scurried out from under the bed, avoiding the smothered candle. At the window, I watched him run into the fields and disappear.
Leaving me alone. With it.
The doll now lay on its back, eyes to the sky. I hesitated, then looked for some spark of life inside it. How hard it had been to make the smallest movement when it was me. Did I imagine a flash of anger in those painted eyes? The hint of it was enough. I pulled out Pandora’s box, stuffed the doll inside, and slammed the lid closed. I knotted the ribbons to be sure.
He came back the next morning. Pandora did, rather. His singing startled a group of wrens from the trees and so woke me. I had fallen asleep at the windowsill wrapped in my covers, too afraid to move from where I could watch for both of the creatures that my life so depended on. Pandora no longer careened like a drunkard, but the way he moved was still entirely different from Mr. Reid. A normally hunched, suspicious walk became a stride that took up space and delighted in its own natural movements.
I spared one look at the Pandora’s box. It hadn’t budged from where I left it on the floor. I hurried downstairs.
I found him shrugging off Mr. Reid’s coat and kicking off his boots, grin still plastered on his face.
“Where did you go?”
“Where didn’t I go? As fast and as far as these legs could take me! And back again. Oh, Portia–” and he swept me up and spun me around, “–do you know how marvelous this is? We’re free, you and I. Free.”
“But he’s upstairs!”
“In the doll! Not in you, and certainly not in me. Not ever again! Eh, maybe thirty years from now. We’ll see.” He set me down, then mistook my confusion. “Look at this face, at these hands and think. Such things unlock the world for us. You and I will be prisoners no more!” He rushed into the office, door gaping, and came out with the bundle. “All our travel papers, pounds plenty, and passage booked. We need only leave this place and enjoy the plans he made.”
“Marriage, the return to England. The ship’s captain will do it. Oh, don’t balk! I promise, you’d rather me as your husband than him. And who best knows you now? Who might best protect you? Me.”
I had known what I thought was kindness before. I did not want to be caught by it again. Yet ever word Pandora spoke was true. Still. “We did this so I wouldn’t have to marry him!”
“We mustn’t do anything that would raise suspicion. The way is all prepared, but we must go to England if we are to secure his fortunes as our own. Besides, what about Miss Saville? Wouldn’t you like to see her again? I am sure Mr. Cox is a much more agreeable a man as well. Either way, we must be the people they think we are for just a little longer. Gather everything, as we said.”
I could not help but look up towards the bedroom, imagining all the rage coiled inside those lifeless limbs. “What if he escapes? We should leave him here.”
Pandora became grave, took hold of my shoulders. “We bring the doll. I may have need of it again.” Then he laughed, fell into a chair and dangled his knee across the armrest looking rakish and sly in a way I could never imagine Reid affecting.
I made to speak, but he waved me away with a flick of his hand. “Go, pack the rest of everything. Don’t give me that face. I wouldn’t know how. Besides, how much I have done for you, and how much endured?” He made a great, satisfying sigh. “I made him love us so that all this would be possible.”
Another day spent in a rented carriage with every lick of baggage tied to the back. From Calais to Dover, we’d cross the channel and be back in England.
Back, not as Mr. Reid and his ward but as husband and wife.
Pandora was nothing but jovial. Happy in everything, amazed by the horses, chatting with coachman, devouring the pies we bought to eat. The boat was a marvel to him. “I have never been allowed on deck,” he whispered into my ear, arm too tight around mine. Once we were aboard, he entrusted me with the satchel that contained all our documents and signed banknotes while he enthusiastically pestered several men on deck with questions as they prepared to make sail. I heard his voice, carried on the wind, asking if the Captain might be able to make our nuptials official. “My Portia asked we wait until just by the cliffs of Dover. We were married in France, but what good is their law in England, eh?” The resulting laughter curdled my stomach but kindled something else I didn’t yet have a name for. I had to move, to walk, so I headed down to the stern to be away from them all and to stare while at the choppy water.
But I could not stop from looking at the old battered trunks under the netting. Ours would be a quick passage, no point to stow the load. I knew exactly which trunk he was in, even the direction he faced. A seaman’s knife wasn’t hard to find, and only three cuts freed the trunk. Hidden from the others on deck by the rest of the pallet, I took out the Pandora’s box.
In the light of day, the doll’s hair had no color at all. Seawater splashed the dress, leaving salt rings. The painted smile had become a grimace, those violet eyes so much wider than before.
What had kindled in me flared to fury.
“You wretched, horrible man. Mary and I were girls. We did all that you asked to please you. I’d been good, the best I knew how! And all for this?” I held up my left hand, the plain wedding band found in Mr. Reid’s office too large for my small fingers. I choked on the thought he may well have believed I would grow into it like a pair of shoes. I shook the doll, daring it to move, to say anything. Sunlight caught on the porcelain brow, and I thought, fleetingly, of fragile things.
The sea worked hard against the boat, gulls hungry and wheeling above us.
I remembered Pandora’s words: I may have need of it again. I knew how hard it was to move when inside the doll, but move it could. Which meant he could. He’d be so angry. What could go into the doll, surely, could come out. And where would Mr. Reid go, if freed? Back into his body. The pistol shots rang in my ears all over again.
Shielding the doll with my body, I walked to the edge of the railing. Somewhere behind me, Pandora shouted in delight as a large wave struck the bow. The wind was high, and France receded. We would be in England soon.
I eyed the dark, cold water. It would be so easy to let the doll slip. Blame the boatsmen, a rough sea. Pandora surely couldn’t be as angry, ever, as Mr. Reid.
The painted doll’s eyes were more black than violet. I could hear a violent cry from somewhere both far away and very close, thrumming in my very hands.
No, never again.
“God forgive me.”
I smashed the doll’s head against the wood.
Porcelain breaks so easy. All light died in those painted eyes. Fragments of china fell into the sea and then in a fit to be rid of it, I threw the doll over. The sea greedily sucked it under the waves.
On the bow, cries of alarm. I ran forward, the cliffs of Dover rising as Pandora fell, crumpling into a tangle of limbs like a cut marionette. I barked out a noise that did not sound like my own before clamping my hands across my mouth. Two seamen rushed forward, one crying for a doctor. I ran to my would-be husband, but another man prevented me from getting near.
“Let them work.”
“Let me see!”
I struggled past and saw with mine own eyes-—Mr. Reid struck down, glassy-eyed again and still. I watched for the jolt of Pandora as he reasserted himself over Mr. Reid’s flesh and bones, but none came. None came.
We were drawing up to dock by then. Some shouted for aid, while a few, faces ashen, crossed their breasts and looked heavenward.
I unclenched my fists, and in doing so the wedding ring slid off my finger. It struck the deck with the clarity of a bell.
A sailor turned to me, hat in his hands. “His heart I think. My condolences, Mrs. Reid.”
I looked at him blankly, hands wringing the satchel’s strap. “That’s not my name.”
“Ma’am? Or Miss?” He looked immediately uncomfortable. “Portia, was it?”
A weight lifted, a gift stolen, and one and only chance. “That’s not my name!”
I bolted down the gangplank just as it reached up to the ship. My foot struck English soil. I tripped, fell, got back up.
“Come back! Miss! Portia!”
Running, running, satchel slamming against my hip.
Running as hard and as fast as my feet could take me.
I am Jane. I am Jane. I am Jane.
Copyright 2020 Stephanie Charette
About the Author
Stephanie Charette is a raven-brained writer from the wilds of northern Ontario who fled the eternal snow for the West Coast. Her work has appeared in Podcastle and Shimmer, and she’s a graduate of Viable Paradise and Taos Toolbox. A word of warning: don’t let her borrow your pen.