It had not been two months since Lady Strandberg had left the castle, but she could not take it anymore. She had to conclude this, one way or another. Things had to change and it had to start with her sister. After all that she had done for Gladys, she would never have thought her to be so manipulative, cruel and guilty of such a hateful crime. It was not to be borne with and although she would never denounce her own flesh and blood, she could not have her by her side any longer for she would never forgive her treachery. This, she was determined to tell her sister face to face as soon as she arrived at Strandberg Park; she could not delay it anymore. As she sat in the barouche with the maid beside her – holding baby Winston, she did not notice the discomfort of Mr Benjamin Middleton, the steward. He probably would never know what was distressing his mistress in such a way that she had not been herself in weeks.
Absentmindedly, Grace was looking at the changing landscape by the window, holding on tight to her purse where lay her sister’s horrifying letter. Little did she know that soon, she would never be able to accomplish all that she had set out to do.
The barouche had been going at a good pace, for the road was quite nice in these parts of the country. The sparse trees of the forest on either side gave an impression of lightness on this fine early morning of spring. Such disposition did not warn them though when they came; cloaked and masked like road bandits used to be when attacking a carriage. Without any sound, a heavy blow to the head killed the driver while another rider took care of stopping the horses. The next one to go down was Mr Middleton who valiantly stepped out to protect the women and child. The maid ran out the barouche box, screaming and still holding a now crying baby. A kick in the head from one of the riders stayed her in her tracks; she fell face down which resulted in both being silenced. In the carriage, Lady Strandberg was petrified although one could see her sob heavily at times, but tears were absent from her cheeks.
The leader of the bandits hopped in, keeping a foot out on the last step. He took his mask and his hat of, smiled and said politely:
- “Good morning Lady.”
As she did not return the greeting, he violently hit the inside wall of the box, which startled her, and bringing his own face closer to her, he repeated almost gallantly:
- “I said, good morning Lady.”
- “Good morning sir,” she answered in a whisper.
- “Good girl!” He laughed heartily while sitting down beside her. He pulled out a hunting knife and as he was dreamily looking at the blade, said to Lady Strandberg:
- “Today is your lucky day. Do you know why?”
- “No, I cannot imagine why, sir,” her voice was even lower than that of a whisper.
- “Would you like to know?” to which she nodded still holding on tight to her purse as pure habit.
- “It is your lucky day because you will not have to pretend to care for his Lordship anymore. You are free.”
She looked horrified, as she understood his meaning; she closed her eyes and he stabbed her until she stopped moving: the deed was done. He ceased the purse and they left without a look back.
It was noon already and the party should already have arrived. Gladys was in the church, praying for the safe return of her sister, when a voice started reading:
My dear Sister,
I have found no rest ever since you hid me in the church. You have been to many lengths to protect me from your husband, of whom I have always been jealous. I am not as clever with words as you are, so I will bluntly write what I must. I have not deserved any of your heartfelt attentions since our parents died.
Did you ever wonder why I reacted the way I did after their passing two years ago, while our dear sister Abigail mourned them with such dignity despite her young age? Did you ever wonder, sister?
The voice was that of Mrs Lynch; it was unmistakeable. Gladys turned around and saw Mrs Lynch who was slowly coming towards her; she was holding Grace’s purse in one hand and the letter in the other; yes, she was walking without permission, with Grace’s things wearing Grace’s gown, in HER church and reading her own PRIVATE words. Mrs. Lynch went on:
However, I am growing envious of your child and must therefore let the truth out before it is too late. I am so very fond of you my dear Grace. You have such kindness about you and so much strength at the same time that it pains me to have to hurt you so.
It was I, who killed them after your wedding to Lord Strandberg. I took their lives for their consent to your marriage deprived me of a sister. They would never have agreed to let me come and live with you and, I fear, neither would have his Lordship. I call him that, but I still despise him and believe that he does not deserve you. Nonetheless, I wanted to be with you and I knew that without our parents, you would take care of me. I am ashamed to say that I did not care much for Abigail then.
In the end, my dear sister, it does something awful to one, that of taking a human life. The secret is far too heavy to bear alone; the guilt, unfortunately, cannot be shared. You see, I am not a monster after all. Of course, you may use this letter in any way you see fit. I am only relieved that I told you because I know you understand me better than anyone does. I trust in you to do the right thing and must, therefore, leave my fate to your care once more.
Please do not hate me forever.
- “Ladida Ladida.”
“Touching, and yet, I do not know how I should act,” said finally Mrs Lynch looking amused at Gladys when she tried to take back the letter already out of reach. “You see, I had not thought of that, but now you have given me the perfect culprit.”
Gladys was taken aback for the first time in her life. She looked puzzled and stopped moving.
- “Did you not hear the ‘sad’ news?” laughed Mrs Lynch. “Poor little Miss Gladys has not been informed… oh, but wait, this is only because nobody knows that she is here. Should we tell his Lordship?”
- “No!” cried Gladys, not understanding what was implied in Mrs Lynch’s mockery. “Please do not tell,” she begged.
- “Very well, but you must do something for me, in exchange for my silence – although, he’ll know either way.”
- “Anything! Please do not tell him that she hid me,” implored Gladys, still not fathoming the truth behind the clues given to her.
- “He’ll know you were here.”
- “Tell him I escaped, but do not betray her actions or he will kill her! Please.”
- “You will go back to your sister’s room and take back the letter you left for her. The one in which you are telling about me. I do not want Lord Strandberg to find it and I see no occasion for me to go into that room, now that the Lady of the castle is dead.” She looked so vicious as she uttered these last words that Gladys thought she would lose her mind.
- “No! You are lying,” she finally cried out. “She cannot be; she has to come back, she must,” she fell to her knees on the cold stone floor of the Church. “She has not forgiven me yet,” she said, heartbroken.
Enjoying every second of the torture she was inflicting, Mrs Lynch finished with:
- “Take the letter, burn it and leave. I will know if you did not, so do as I say.”
She looked at Gladys haughtily and as she was heading back, Gladys asked with great restraint:
- “Why?” To which she did not receive any answer.
She took a few deep breaths and as she stood up, all traces of humanity had left Gladys’ face. Her eyes looked as evil as Mrs Lynch was; her past wilderness had been nothing compared to the savagery growing now in her heart. For the last time, she went to Grace’s chambers through secret passages known only to her and her big sister; she did as instructed and took back the letter, but she did not burn it.
An hour or so later, the letter safely hidden in the chest pocket of her dark green petticoat, she walked away in her muddy shoes. She did not look where she was going, because she did not need to; she had gone this path so many times that she knew the place of each grain of dirt, stone and root. She tightened her grip around her chest as a coach passed her without slowing down, but she did not look up; she just went on; smiling almost malevolently, she stared down in a scary and threatening manner. She crossed the path of villagers, but nobody knew who she was; she resembled a wild beast trying to hide a freshly caught prey; she walked fast through the village, crossed the stone bridge and into the forest – or what was left of it. She suddenly saw it: the wall she had built for her sister’s birthday the year of her arrival at Strandberg Park. She took the letter out and, staring at it with the same insane and malevolent intensity she had, she hunkered down and began digging at the foot of the wall with her bare hands. She dug up an old metal box, opened it and -without any other sentiment, added the letter to the content, closed the box and buried it again. She stood up, looked at the burial site in a somewhat softened way and said:
- “Goodbye Grace… for now.”
♣ ♣ ♣
[To be continued]