Miss Jessel had been gone three weeks and five days, and Miles was leaving tomorrow.
Flora went meekly to bed when the time came, but she pinched herself to keep from sleeping as Mrs. Grose’s heavy, comforting steps faded away from the door. Then she listened in the dark to the quiet tick of the clock over the hearth in her room, counting the seconds and breathing quietly. (Miles had told her the best way to fake sleep was to snore. Flora had replied firmly that although she was quite sure such tactics worked for rude boys, they would not be convincing from a young lady, thank you very much.)
When enough time seemed to have passed (even though she had lost track of her count thinking about Miles: she had never been as nimble as her brother, who could play the piano and hold a conversation at the same time, all without missing a beat), Flora held her breath and sat up slowly, her eyes widening in the dim room. She could just see through the darkness, the outlines of the pictures on the walls, and a line of moonlight from the window where the curtains drew together. Flora swung her legs over the side of the bed and stood up carefully, still listening hard as she fumbled in the dark for her stockings. Not a sound.
She would never have dared sneak out of bed when Miss Jessel was here. Not to say Miss Jessel would have cared much (would she even have noticed?) but it was precisely her uncaring, her graceful coolness, that had caught at Flora, had frightened Flora of ever displeasing her.
In fact Flora had liked Miss Jessel very much. (Not quite, she corrected herself: it was more that she had wanted very much to be liked by Miss Jessel. Flora's own liking had not come into it.) She did not like to think how long Miss Jessel might have silently held it against her, if she had ever found Flora out of bed in nothing but her nightdress. But she is gone now, thought Flora, and now she will never--
Flora stopped dead. She had been about to pass by the very door of Miss Jessel’s room. The whole house should have been lying still and silent, but Flora could hear papers rustling behind the door. Heart pounding, she listened closer. Flora heard the scrape of a drawer opening. But she pinched herself again, annoyed with herself for being afraid. She jerked the latch up and open.
Of course it was only Miles inside. (Flora had known all along it was Miles: had she not gotten up out of bed expressly so she and he could meet and say goodbye?) Miles was crouched like a monkey on the chair at Miss Jessel’s desk, snooping through her things by the light of a stolen candle. He had the gall to shush Flora as she stood, foolish and relieved, at the doorway.
“Close the door, child,” he whispered fiercely, grinning at her like a fiend. Flora made a monstrous face at him, and scored: he laughed aloud as the latch clicked shut behind her.
“Shshshsh, yourself!” she said, reprovingly. She hopped up to sit beside Miles in the chair, elbowing him over to make room and peering over his shoulder at the papers he had taken from the drawers.
“Is this all there is?” she asked, sifting curiously through the untidy pile. It was only old school things: instructions and lists and penmanship lessons. Miss Jessel’s script was voluptuously beautiful, all curves and swirling lines. Deciphering those lines had always made Flora feel queer. Seeing them now was much worse: the letters blurred together and she had to close her eyes for a frantic moment, feeling faint and sick.
“Yes, that’s all,” said Miles, petulantly. He hadn't noticed. “I was looking for her diary, but it must already have been taken away. That would have been a find, though!” He fluttered his lashes and put a hand to his forehead, pretending to swoon. “Oh, Mr. Quint, oh, Peter, why ever don’t you love me?”
Flora giggled and hugged her brother around the middle, still looking at the pages on the desk. “You sound just like her, Miles. Maybe you’ll be an actor.” She sifted through the pile to a sheet covered in Miles’ scrawl, and snorted. “Actually acting would be perfect for you. You’d never have to write anything ever again. You shall be the next Edmund Kean, after that school dismisses you for bad spelling.”
Miles scowled at the offending sheet, but the scowl turned into a half-smile when he looked back up at his sister.
“Of course your writing is perfect, child. I suppose, when I am a great actor, I might let you to keep my accounts for me.”
“Oh no, certainly not,” said Flora, primly. “Proper young ladies never consort with actors, because actors are Men of Ill Repute.” She wagged a finger at him. “Miss Jessel told me so.”
“Yes, well,” said Miles. “She’d know.”
This time neither of them laughed. Flora began to worry again. She thought about the darkness in the hallways, and she thought about the empty rooms. She wondered what it would be like when the rooms really were empty, when Miles was gone. She wondered if Miles was worried, too. She wished they could just leave now, together.
“You will want to work harder at that school,” she said, softly. “It’s your chance to get away from here.”
(Maybe we could live in the woods, she thought, wildly. Like Hansel and Gretel. But someone would find us.)
Aloud, she added, “I wish I could go away, too.”
“Of course you do, you poor thing,” said Miles. “You know I’ll have a frightfully good time without you, Flora.”
“No you won't," cried Flora. "You’ll miss me.”
“And I’ll miss you,” said Miles. “But I’ll see you at holidays, and you know I’ll tell you everything. I promise I shall. Just don’t be blue, Flora dear.”
He kissed her cheek.
“And when we’re old enough, I’ll take you away with me. It’ll be like in the song.” He hummed a few notes. "Lavender's green, remember? I shall be king, and you--”
“But who told you so?” interrupted Flora, miserably. “How can you know?”
“I told myself,” said Miles. “You see, you do remember.”