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Three to One
Elsa’s eyes scanned the room warily, lingering on the shadowy recesses. Seeing the room was deserted, she waltzed into the parlour, stopping in front the large gilt-framed mirror. Her eyes had not adjusted to the dim light but she could tell her cheeks were uncharacteristically flushed. She impulsively smoothed her dishevelled hair and tried to tame the sparkle in her eyes. Elsa’s hands were trembling slightly with excitement as she pulled on her white cap.
It had been hard to steal away; Lorina had become very demanding lately. But this morning Elsa had spun her a tale about visiting a sick relative, and slipped away. It had been blissful, as they hadn’t seen one another in such a long time. It was torturous to see him weekly, but never able speak to him. To watch him caress Lorina’s hair and brush his lips against hers…
The bell rang raucously, startling Elsa out of her thoughts.
It was Lorina’s bell. Elsa hurried up the stairs, muttering profanities under her breath.
“There you are Elsa,” Lorina spoke silkily, a sound like pouring melted chocolate.
She was reclining on her bed; her face cupped in the gentle curve of her hand. If you didn’t know you’d never guess Lorina was ill.
The illness had started when she was barely thirteen. From that week on Elsa was appointed to care for Lorina.
“I will wear the sweet blue silk, Elsa,” Lorina gestured to a cascade of flounced silk and billowing underskirts flung over a chair, “Blue is Victor’s favourite colour, you know; he’s calling in tonight,”
“He’s coming over, tonight?” Elsa was a little surprised; Victor hadn’t mentioned it but then he was so unpredictable.
“Yes, Elsa.” she spoke slowly and articulately addressing Elsa as if she a was a child, “Now, are you going to dress me or am I going to have to dress myself?”
Victor tried to adopt a blasé pose, his tall frame sprawling awkwardly as he lounged in the undersized armchair.
He chewed his lower lip, his brow creased.
It was so difficult, Victor brooded, why must he be attracted to Elsa? She wasn’t rich, or charming, witty, not even beautiful.
She had delicate features of muted, inconspicuous prettiness that could be easily overlooked.
Her face was crowded, with a small sharp chin, above which a ludicrously wide mouth fought for space with a snubbed nose dotted with freckles. But her eyes were beguiling; a hue somewhere between turquoise and violet like a vein, framed by pale lashes.
Lorina on the other hand was undoubtedly exquisite—It was like comparing a linnet to a peacock.
The soft patter of footsteps reached Victor’s ear and he hastily resumed his nonchalant pose. Elsa stood in the doorway, white capped, eyes demurely lowered.
“Excuse me, sir,” she murmured, and he could see the shadow of a coquettish smile on her lips, “I thought I’d better dust the mantelpiece,”
“Naturally,” he replied mischievously
Lorina smoothed her dress, examined her upswept chignon one last time and with outward composure and inward turmoil made her way to the parlour. The short journey seemed to take an age. Down the richly carpeted staircase, along the meandering corridors…at last! She could see Victor, framed by the doorway. Lorina hastened forward.
“Victor! There you-” she began brightly but stopped.
Elsa was standing by the mantelpiece, an idle duster in her hand. And Victor, her fiancé, occupied the space that should have separated them. In that moment Lorina understood everything and searing anger seemed to ooze from her punctured heart.
When they heard Lorina’s voice, they broke apart. Elsa commenced to dust the mantelpiece and Victor strode forward.
She refused to look.
“Lorina!” Victor tried again, putting a hand upon her arm.
She leapt backwards, hissing like a cat.
“You will leave my house now, “ she whispered gutturally, “and you will never come back,”
“You will go now.”
At the doorway Victor looked back and met Lorina’s eyes, they were hard and angry and unyielding. All this time Elsa had not stopped dusting. Dusting so furiously her whole arm ached.
Elsa felt Lorina’s presence behind her and stopped, looked up.
Lorina stood there her lovely face contorted, ugly.
The tiny attic room was freezing. The icy wind forced through the gaps in large ill-fitted windows. Elsa lay in bed, shivering.
She felt exhausted, but her mind wouldn’t let her sleep.
The word “workhouse” rang in her ears, again and again, until it filled her head. She had heard tales of girls who been sent there. Starving girls without any hope or pride left. They became sad shadows, their eyes lost their sparkle, laughter was a long forgotten sound; they did nothing except work.
Or they went mad.
Madness terrified her. More than sickness, destitution or even death.
An abrupt rapping on her door woke Elsa. It was Mrs. Tullock the housekeeper.
“Miss Lorina has taken ill, Elsa. Fetch Doctor Forsythe at once!”
Lorina lay in bed listless, eyes clouded with pain. The doctor examined her for a long time; held the hot hand in both his own.
He beckoned to Elsa, leading her outside the bedroom.
“Her condition is serious. Miss Lorina needs constant nursing, is that clear? I will prescribe a tincture to relieve pain, help her sleep; to be given to her three times daily,”
He handed her the hastily scribbled prescription, and left.
Two drops rosewater, one part laudanum to three parts milk.
An idea began to form in her mind, a small embryo of idea. It wormed into her brain, mutating, evolving.
Elsa mixed the tincture carefully, two drops rosewater, three parts laudanum to one part milk.
She carried it upstairs, painstakingly, one step at a time.
“This’ll help you sleep Miss…”