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A Letter from India

Lord Hampden had retired hours before and was sleeping soundly in his four-poster bed when the door creaked open slowly and his wife’s maid Molly entered his room. She tiptoed quietly but purposefully to the old man’s bedside where he was lying on his stomach, his face turned away from her. She eased the decorative pillow from beside his head, hiked up her dress and climbed on his back. Quickly, before he could awaken and cry out, she clapped the pillow firmly over his head and clenched her knees around his ribs, hanging on tightly as he kicked and bucked like an unbroken horse. She had never held a man between her legs before and did not expect the sudden rush of physical pleasure. The incongruity of this feeling in the situation almost made her retch, but she held on in spite of it, exerting all of her will to tame the old man’s narrow and bony back as she pushed hard on the pillow.

As the man struggled less, Molly began to cry silently, the tears spilling down her cheeks. A little sob burst from her mouth and startled her so that for a second she loosened her grip on the pillow. Lord Hampden’s head moved slightly, and she cried out.

Then she resumed her pressure on the pillow.

Gradually, she felt the fight seep out of the gentleman. His violent jarring movements subsided to a few tentative shudders until he relaxed and settled peacefully beneath her. Still she continued frozen in her position, her legs locked over the body, her arms pushing the pillow tightly over the head of the man, who no longer struggled.

Finally, Molly dismounted slowly and quietly, still keeping the pillow in its position. She stood and watched the man on the bed for any sign of movement. When nothing happened, she let go, and the pillow dropped to the floor. At that moment, the body seemed to shudder ever so slightly. Molly, startled into action, grabbed the pillow from the floor and swiftly pressed it over his head again, smothering her own cry as she did so. Another eternity passed before she lifted it again and looked down on the bed where the old man’s body lay. It did not move now.

Sister Mary Carmichael awoke from her dream with a strangled cry. She was sweating and her heart was racing. For a moment, as she lay there in the darkness, she felt as though she were still in that room so long ago and far away. She could still feel the panic that had swirled around and threatened to overtake her. Her hands tingled painfully as the blood began to circulate in them again.

She waited until her heart rate returned to normal. She lay there until she was present in this place again. She looked around the tiny room– four white-washed walls, bare except for the massive cross with the battered and bleeding Jesus hanging on it. Within the walls, only her bed and a small table with a Bible and a closet where her habit hung– her home now, the place where she belonged.

Sister Mary got up from the bed and went to the chapel to pray as she always did after this particular nightmare. Only, she knew that it wasn’t a dream, but a memory of something that happened a long time ago in a manor house in England. When she was young, Mary had gone to work there as a lady’s maid to Lady Hampden.

“Her ladyship,” the housekeeper said to the cook in her most sarcastic tone, “would like a pitcher of milk for her tea taken out to the garden flagstones.”

Molly’s ears burned to hear her mistress spoken of so disrespectfully.

“Well, la-di-da,” the cook continued in the same vain. She took a jug from the ice box and handed it to Molly. “Take this to the governess, I mean, her ladyship.”

Molly grabbed the pitcher and turned to leave the room quickly. Not yet secure in her hands, it went flying from her fingers to smash on the hearthstones.

“Molly, you Irish idiot! Pick up that broken jug and go tell your mistress why there is no milk for her tea.”

Molly silently cursed the housekeeper and the cook who were both scowling at her. They were cross old witches who hadn’t given her a moment’s peace in the two months since she had come to Hampden Hall to be a lady’s maid. It was their fault she had gotten angry and dropped the pitcher of milk, their nasty tongues demeaning the nicest mistress she had ever known just because she had risen above her station and married the master. She picked up the pieces of the pitcher, careful not to cut herself, threw them in the ash bin and escaped out the door to the garden to bring the news to her mistress.

“Lady Hampden,” she said, looking down at the flagstones. “I’ve broken the pitcher of milk in my haste to bring it to you, and so you will have no milk for your tea.”

“That’s all right, Molly. I’ve had quite enough tea.”

Molly felt her eyes fill with tears. It was ridiculous. In all of her life she had never been treated so well, and yet she had never cried before. It was a point of pride with her that she never showed the hurt she felt, so why should she cry now?

“Oh my dear Molly!” Lady Hampden sprang up from her chaise and put her arm around Molly’s waist. Startled by the tender touch of another, Molly could not hold back the tears that had been building within her. She wept, hiding her face against her mistress’s shoulder.

“There, there, Molly.” Lady Hampden patted Molly’s back, making it heave even more with the sobs. “What are you crying about?”

Molly couldn’t say. It wasn’t the meanness of her fellow servants. She was used to that. Even in Ireland she had been unpopular, insinuating her way from scullery maid to lady’s maid in an Anglo-Irish household. Even before that, her prostitute mother had been, if not mean, at best absent. No, it wasn’t their cruelty, but rather her mistress’s kindness that made her cry.

Since Molly’s answer was not forthcoming, Lady Hampden continued. “What’s the matter, Molly? Are you homesick?”

Not bloody likely, Molly thought, but here was a ready, plausible excuse, so she took and embellished it. “Yes. I’ve written my mother in Ireland every week since I’ve been here, and I’ve only ever received one reply.” It was the truth, but it scarcely caused her any sorrow.

“Cheer up, Molly. You must remember your mother is very busy, dear. I’m sure she still loves you and hasn’t forgotten you.”

Molly nodded and wiped her eyes on the rough muslin of her sleeve pretending to be reassured, but knowing her own mother well enough to doubt it was true.

“At least that’s what I tell myself, dear Molly. That’s what I try to convince myself whenever I wait in vain for a letter from my mother.”

Molly was surprised. “What! Doesn’t your mother write you either? How can that be?”

“But it’s true, Molly, and my mother is even farther away. She married a factor in the East India Company four years ago and went with him to India. I have not heard a word from her since that time, not even one letter, as you have, and just like you, I have been a faithful correspondent. I have resolved, dear Molly, that I will continue to write to my mother, even if the great blue ocean swallows every letter. And you shall continue to write your mother as well, shall you not?”

“Yes, mistress, I shall,” Molly promised. No one in her life had ever cared about her as Lady Hampden did. To think that her mother would have deserted her! It made Molly determined to be even more devoted to her mistress than she already was.

The next morning Molly was summoned as usual to her lady’s room to help her dress. “What would you like wear this morning, madam?” It always seemed strange to Molly to call someone ‘madam’ who was so near in age to herself.

“I’m going walking, Molly, so I want something warm and some sturdy shoes too, dear.”

Molly went to fetch them.

“Would you like to come with me, Molly? I would like to have someone to talk with and Lord Hampden is going into town this morning.”

“Of course, ma’am.” Molly tried to keep from smiling with her happiness at being included.

“That reminds me,” her mistress continued. “After our discussion yesterday, I wrote a letter to my mother. I want to give it to his lordship so he can post it in town. Don’t let me forget to bring it when we go down.”

Molly and her lady entered the drawing room and Lord Hampden stood up to come and greet his wife. He was a little stooped and frail. Molly had been surprised the first time she met them because of the difference in the couple’s ages. Though he was old enough to be her father, he was still a handsome man, and he treated his wife well. Molly could see why her mistress might have fallen in love with him. Still, Molly didn’t think he was good enough for his wife. She couldn’t really say why she thought so or why she didn’t like him.

The gentleman took his wife’s arm and affectionately kissed her cheek. 

“Good morning, dear. I didn’t expect to see you before I was off.”

“I have a letter for my mother that I wanted to give you before you left. Would you check in at the post office to see if any post has come for me while you are in town?”

“Of course, my dear. As I always do, you know.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it. Now, Molly and I are going for a walk, so good morning to you, dear.”

He smiled and the women went out. As they stepped outside into the cool morning drizzle, Lady Hampden shuddered. “It’s cold, Molly. I had my gloves with me before when we were upstairs, but I can’t seem to find them now. Where did I leave them?”

“I believe you put them down on the table just inside the drawing room, ma’am. I’ll go and fetch them.”

Molly went back in the house and stepped inside the door of the drawing room. Lord Hampden was standing beside the fire at the other end of the large room. As Molly watched unseen, he threw Lady Hampden’s letter into the fire. She was astonished. Quickly, she regained her composure, picked up her lady’s gloves and walked quietly out so as not to be noticed.

She did not say a word to Lady Hampden about the incident on their walk. Frankly, she did not quite believe her own eyes. What if it was merely a scrap of paper he had thrown in the fire? After all, she had been some distance away. In spite of what it looked like, she would have to be sure before she said anything. When she returned to the house after the walk, she would go to Lord Hampden’s room to look around. Perhaps she would find some evidence that would confirm her dawning suspicion of Lord Hampden. She was not even sure what she suspected him of, but there was something suspicious about destroying his wife’s letter! Perhaps he was trying to keep her from corresponding with her mother for some reason. Perhaps he had other letters of Lady Hampden’s that he had not sent. Perhaps there were letters from her mother that he had never given to his wife. Molly wanted to find such a letter if it existed and deliver it to her mistress.

Molly went to his room, looking furtively about her to make sure no one saw her enter. She opened his desk drawer and rifled through his papers, her heart pounding in her chest. The lord and his man-servant would be away for some time yet, she tried to reassure herself. But what if someone else should discover her there? How could she explain what she was doing rummaging through his private papers?

She tried to settle herself to look at each paper she touched. They were mainly legal documents, long sheets of paper with wax seals on them. Underneath these there were a few personal letters. These she examined closely until she found one written in a lady’s hand that was not her mistress’s. She verified the name of the sender. It was Mrs. Joseph Baird, the name Lady Hampden had said was her mother’s. Molly quickly stashed the letter under her pinafore and went to her own room to read it.

Sister Mary Carmichael, deep in her memory of that fateful day before the death of Lord Hampden, nevertheless heard the sounds of the other nuns beginning to stir in the convent. They would be coming to the chapel soon for morning prayers, and she would be discovered. Annoyed, she got up and went to her cell to get dressed.

After she was dressed in her habit, Sister Mary picked up her Bible from the bedisde table. Folded neatly in the back of the book was her only possession from the time before the murder, its pages so worn and crincled that some of the words were now illegible, but Sister Mary had long since memorized the text. The first time she had read it, she had been physically ill. She had rolled it up and sewn it into the hem of one of her dresses, understanding that it must never be found. It had left England with her.

She did not regret that she had it still. Its physical presence was a strange comfor to her expecially at times like this when the guilt of her sin overwhelmed her. When she read it, it brought the presence of her former mistress into the room with her. Whenever she read it, Sister Mary knew that she was not insane, that indeed there were crimes that were worse than murder.

She unfolded it now and spread it on the bed to read.

My dear Lord Hampden,

Now that it has all been arranged, I feel so much more at peace. I could not in good conscience leave England and travel all the way to India without first finding a suitable place for my daughter to be settled. Your kind offer to engage her as a governess for your children is exactly appropriate. Now you may reap the benefit of all the money that you have invested in her education over the years. It has been difficult for me to raise my daughter alone until now and to keep her parentage hidden from all. It would never have been possible without your financial assistance. Your generosity to her, and to me, may at last be rewarded, and finally, I may rest assured that she is safe under the protection of her very own father (although no one shall ever know the truth of this from my lips).

I cannot begin to express to you my deep sense of gratitude and relief at your kind offer.

Your humble and grateful servant,

Mrs. Joseph Baird

She tasted again the acrid bile that arose in her throat when she’d read the letter for the first time and begun to understand its meaning.

Sister Mary heard the bell summoning the nuns to the chapel. Quickly she folded the letter and replaced it in her Bible. Then she stood up, smoothed out her habit and went to morning prayers.

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