She woke to the sound of birdsong.
At first she just lay in bed, luxuriating in laziness, enjoying the sounds of the morning. Eventually, the sense of chores to be done combined with bladder pressure to push her out of bed and onto her feet.
Carefully making her way through the shadowy room to the window, she opened the curtains. Brilliantly blue skies with a few fluffy clouds in the distance. The verdant landscape surrounding her home. Birds flitting from tree to tree, singing the praises of the morning.
It was going to be a beautiful day.
* * *
A low conversation ensued. Only a few words could be discerned: “derailed”, “deliveries”, “Vivace”. After a few minutes, they came out. “Cattleya, would you please bring the list of today’s deliveries for the eastern region and join me in my office?”
“Yes, sir.” Cattleya strode to a filing cabinet. Rummaging for a moment, she retrieved a folder, then entered the president’s office, closing the door behind her.
They looked at each other. Iris broke the silence. “What’s up, Benedict?”
He sighed. “A train derailed on the eastern line last night. Huge mess, probably take four days at least to get it all sorted out, and the line is blocked.” He tossed her the newspaper; they gathered around to read the front-page article.
Erica’s eyes widened. “Oh my. Was anyone hurt?”
Violet pointed to a paragraph halfway down. “Several injuries, but only two serious. No deaths.”
“Yeah, but this is bad news for us. We had a bunch of mail on that train. It’s all gonna be delayed now. Cattleya and Lux and the boss are going over the list to see which ones were urgent, who they need to inform, what has to be recopied and sent again some other way.”
Violet looked up at Benedict’s words. She stepped to the large map of Leidenschaftlich and the surrounding countries that hung on the wall. Her finger traced the rail line from Leiden, eastwards to Vivace, then continued past. It stopped abruptly.
She whirled, walking rapidly to the writing room where she kept her typewriter. “Excuse me!” The door closed behind her. After a minute, rapid typing could be heard.
Perhaps five minutes later, she emerged, carrying a sealed envelope. Stepping to the office door, she knocked, waited for an answer, and entered.
Iris and Erica looked at each other. Iris drifted generally toward the door; Erica, feeling vaguely guilty, followed. Violet and the president were speaking; she couldn’t make out any words. Cattleya asked a question; Violet replied. Suddenly the president’s voice rose. “You what?” A quiet reply in Violet’s impassive voice. The president’s voice again, incredulous. “After seven years?!” More conversation. It sounded like they were arguing.
Sudden footsteps. Iris and Erica jumped, turned to the wall, pretended to study the map hung there. The door opened. “All right, all right. If you think it’s so important, you can go. Here, you’ll need this.” He pulled out his wallet, counted out some money. “Benedict!”
Benedict sprang to his feet. “Yes, sir!”
“Violet is making an urgent delivery. You’re driving. Just locally, she’ll be taking a commercial service for the main part of the trip. Take her where she needs to go. Speed is essential.”
A nod. “Yes, sir.” He followed Violet out.
* * *
Klara excused herself, stepping out to the powder room. After taking care of the necessary, she left the stall and found another girl from their party standing at the mirror. What was her name? She’d forgotten.
“Hi!” she greeted the newcomer, washing her hands. “Great party, isn’t it?”
The other girl seemed distracted. “Oh … yeah,” she answered without enthusiasm.
Klara started freshening her makeup. “Are you all right? You sound kind of down.”
A strained smile appeared on the other girl’s face. “Oh … thanks. It’s nothing.”
“You’re Maria’s friend, aren’t you? I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten your name. I’m Klara.”
The girl’s eyes widened; her lips repeated the name silently. A hand flew to her mouth, then she ran to a stall. “Excuse me, please!”
Klara stared at the closed door. Gosh, did I say something wrong?
* * *
The client nodded absently. She looked around. “I haven’t been here in a long time. About eight miles to our destination, would you say?”
“Uh, yeah. That sounds about right.”
“All right. Here’s the remainder of your payment. Thank you, you did your best.” She started walking down the road, then stopped, turned, bowed. “I’m very sorry for your misfortune. I wish you the best of luck with the repairs.”
“Miss! You’re not going to walk all that way, are you? It’ll be coming on to night soon!”
“Yes. I can’t wait for the repairs. This must be delivered today.”
“Look at the sky!”
She looked up briefly at the ominous dark clouds. “The pouch is waterproof. I have an umbrella if I need it.”
“Look, miss, why don’t you come back to town with me and hire another car there? It’s no more than three miles that way, I’m sure.”
“I can’t. I don’t have any money left.”
“Shucks, miss, you didn’t owe us this much. Not when I didn’t get you there and back. I should return half of this at least.”
She considered this. “Are you certain there will be cars for hire? It wasn’t a very large town.”
He scratched his head. “Well … no, I don’t recollect any. Haven’t spent much time there.”
She shook her head. “If there aren’t, it will add another six miles on foot. I dare not risk it. This must be delivered today.” She bowed again, turned, resumed walking.
“Miss, please, wait!” He hurried after her. “I can’t let you go alone. A lady walking on the road all by herself? At night?”
She looked down. “Forgive me, sir … you have a limp, don’t you?”
He scowled. “Yeah. Old war wound. I can walk, though.”
She shook her head. “Yes, you can, but after a mile or two, it will be worse.” She bowed again. “Please forgive me … you would slow me down. I must get there as soon as possible.” She turned. “I must go. Please contact my employer to negotiate appropriate payment. Don’t worry, sir. I’m in no danger.”
He stared after her.
* * *
She shook her head. “I’m very sorry, miss. No one has come.”
The young mistress hung her head. “What could have happened?”
“There, there, miss! I’m sure it will arrive eventually. There was probably a rail accident, or something like that.”
A nod. “I suppose. And if that happened, maybe people were hurt, too. I shouldn’t get so upset over a late package.” She wiped at her eyes.
“Did you have a good time with your friends?”
“Oh … well enough.” She looked up, essayed a smile. “Come, I’ve neglected my studies long enough. We were going to do history next, I think?”
“Yes, miss. The interbellum period. Do you want to change first?”
The mistress looked down at her fancy clothes. “Oh … right. I’ll meet you in the study.” She hurried upstairs to her room.
The tutor smiled, nodding. A good, tough lesson today, she thought. Cover the interbellum period in enough detail, she’ll forget all about what’s troubling her. Distant thunder rumbled as she turned toward the study.
* * *
The boss looked up. “What have we got, Theo?”
The scout in the tree peered through his spyglass. “Lady. Alone. On foot. Real nice clothes, quality. Big gem on ’er collar. Carryin’ a pouch.”
Lars gaped. “Yer havin’ me on. Alone? Are ye sure?”
“Can see ’arf a mile behind her. There’s nobbut ’er.”
“How long till she gets ’ere?”
“We got about ten minutes, I’d say.”
“Arright, shimmy down. Rudi! Henrik! Get yer arses in gear, it’s payday!”
“What we got, Lars?”
“A lady with a gem an’ maybe some other stuff. Alone an’ on foot, if ye can credit it.”
Henrik chortled. “Yer kiddin’! That’s luck. What’s she think she’s doin’?”
Rudi leered. “I know what she’ll be doin’ in another quarter-hour.”
Lars wheeled on him. “An’ just what’s that supposed ta mean, Rudi?”
Rudi was taken aback. “Aw, Lars, I didn’t mean nuffin by it.”
Lars shook his head grimly. “Yeah, you bloody well did mean somethin’ by it, an’ it ain’t the first time, neither. I warned you, didn’t I? Twice, I warned you. I won’t stand for that kinda talk, an’ how d’ye think Steffi feels about it? You can just take yerself bloody off, Rudi. Yer out.”
Outrage flared. “What, right before a big score? When we been barely gettin’ by fer weeks?”
“Shoulda thought o’ that before you opened yer big mouth. Yer out, I said. Piss off, an’ don’t come back, not if you know what’s good for you.”
Rudi stalked off, muttering imprecations. Lars continued, “All right, we got about eight minutes left, let’s get a move on.” He led off toward the highway.
Henrik sidled up to Steffi, spoke under his breath. “Hey, Steffi?”
She cut her eyes at him. “Wotcher want?”
“Look, I don’t like that kinda talk neither, but ain’t Lars takin’ it kinda personal?”
She looked at him in mingled exasperation and pity. “You really don’t know?” He shook his head. “Well, yer the new guy. He useta have a sister. Ella. Nice kid, real fond o’ her, he was. Some bastid took advantage o’ her one night.” She sighed. “She was never the same after that. Took to drinkin’. One night she went offa bridge.” A pause. “Never been sure if it was on purpose.” She cut her eyes at him again. “Get it now?”
He nodded, wide-eyed. “Yeah. Thanks.” He took himself off.
As they approached, Lars pointed to Theo and Henrik, then to a big bush adjoining the highway. They nodded, hiding behind it and peering through the branches. Lars and Steffi took up position behind another bush some fifteen yards down the road.
It was just beginning to get dark when the lady appeared. She walked to within five yards of the first bush; then she stopped. Sniffed the air. Looked at the first bush; then the second.
“Are you robbers?” No one answered. “I’m sorry, I cannot help you. I have no money. The jewels I’m carrying are for a young lady, and must be delivered today. And the jewel I’m wearing is very dear to me. I will not let you have any of them.”
Steffi couldn’t believe her ears. She must be crazy. Everyone remained silent, waiting. The lady peered at the bushes again, then sighed. “I suppose I’ll have to demonstrate.” She began walking down the road again.
Theo and Henrik slipped out silently, taking up position behind her. Lars waited until she was midway between the bushes, then stepped out. Steffi followed. The lady stopped, crouched. “That’s far enough, miss. We’ll be taking them jewels you was just talkin’ about. Then our lady friend here’ll pat you down an’ make sure you ain’t holdin’ out on us. An’ then you can go your way unharmed. None o’ us blokes’ll lay a finger on you, long as you behave yerself.”
She looked over her shoulder, noting their positions, then turned back to Lars. “And as I said, I will not let you have any of them.”
Lars sighed. “Grab ’er, boys.” Theo and Henrik closed on her, cautious, arms out, ready to stop a break to either side. The lady stood her ground, not even turning around. “Don’t be any rougher than ye hafta, the poor lady ain’t right in the head …” He trailed off, squinting at her.
“Great Goddess …” he hissed. Suddenly he was bellowing. “Stop! Stop! Back away from ’er, now!” They stumbled back from the lady, looking confused. “Pax, lady, pax!”
Steffi stared at him incredulously. “Lars? Wot the …?” Crap, she’d said his name. You never used names on a job.
“Stand down, everyone! The job’s off. We ain’t robbin’ this lady, we ain’t botherin’ ’er in any way. She could kill the lot of us without breakin’ a sweat.” He was shaking.
The lady straightened from her crouch. “I don’t do that anymore. You saved your men some bruises, that’s all.” She walked slowly toward him, stopping a few yards away. “I don’t recognize you, sir. But it’s clear you recognize me.”
“Yes, miss. Saw you in action once near Machtig. Not likely to forget it. You’re the girl who was always with that major, Boog, Boogan …”
“Major Bougainvillea. Yes.”
He stepped aside, bowed. “Very sorry to have troubled you.”
She nodded, walked down the road. Then she stopped, turned. “Your dialect keeps improving. You weren’t an officer, were you?”
“Sergeant, miss. I served under Major Verlaine.”
“Well, sergeant, do you mind if I ask why you’re robbing travelers on the road these days?”
He hung his head. “Fair question, miss. Couldn’t hold a job, afterwards. Couldn’t sleep. Kept waking up screaming from nightmares about the things I’d seen. Got fired from one job after another. Ended up here.”
She nodded, seeming to understand completely. “If you can clean yourself up and make your way to Leiden, go to the C. H. Postal Company. Tell them Miss Evergarden sent you. Ask to speak with President Hodgins. He used to be Colonel Hodgins. Tell him the truth. All of it. He may be able to find you honest work. He’ll try, anyway.” She waved an arm, taking in Steffi, Theo, Henrik. “Maybe your companions, too, if you’re willing to vouch for them. If they want to do something better with their lives than this.” A flash of lightning in the distance punctuated her words.
He nodded slowly. “Hodgins. Miss Evergarden. Thank you, miss. I’ll do that. Good evening to you.”
“Good evening, sergeant.” She turned to go.
“Miss, miss, wait!” She turned back. “There’s another fellow. I just kicked him out of the gang. He might be laying for you, down the road.” He paused. “He’s a bad ’un. I think he wants to do more than just rob you, if you take my meaning. And he’s a sneaky one, too, can walk real quiet, a lot quieter than these two. Carries a blackjack. Watch your back.”
She nodded. “I will. Thank you, sergeant.” She walked on.
He stood straight, saluted her receding back. “Thank you, Miss Evergarden.”
* * *
She felt awful, fretting like this when so many people had worse problems, but she couldn’t help herself. Emily was probably right … a rail accident, a road accident, something that had unavoidably delayed her package. Just delayed, not destroyed, please not destroyed …
Her head hurt. Her heart hurt. She paced. She ached. This is foolish. Of course it won’t come now. I should go to bed. Still she paced. The clock struck the quarter hour. She sighed. Stopped pacing. Enough. I am going to bed. She turned decisively.
A clanking sound came from the door.
She stared at it, wide-eyed. Surely not at this hour? The knocker sounded again.
She flew to the door, threw it open, heedless of any possible danger. The figure standing at the door held out a pouch, bowing. “Miss Magnolia! Please accept my sincere apologies for the lateness of this delivery!”
She stared at the woman she had not seen in over seven years. “Violet? Is that you?” She reached forward, touching the woman’s cheek in disbelief. “Violet! You’re freezing! Please, come inside!” She pulled the Doll inside, shut the door behind her. “Dear Goddess, you’re soaked! We must get you out of these wet clothes at once!”
Violet held out the pouch again. “Please, Miss Magnolia. Anne. It’s your birthday package.”
“Violet!” She stamped her foot. “That can wait! You’ll catch your death if we don’t get you warmed up!” She took the dripping pouch, left it on the floor next to the door, drew Violet up the stairs. “Come, please. We have to get you out of these clothes.” Violet followed meekly.
Ten minutes later, she led the way downstairs again. Violet had been vigorously toweled off and was wearing one of her bathrobes. Anne hurried ahead, stoked up the fire. “Please, sit as close as you can stand to. We must get you warmed up. Dear Goddess, Violet, how long were you walking in that downpour?”
“About half an hour, I think. I had an umbrella, but the wind ruined it. I left it on the road somewhere.”
Anne shook her head. “Oh, Violet.” She sat behind Violet, pressing her body against her back to help warm her. She was shivering. “What on earth were you thinking?”
“The package had to be delivered today. I’m sorry it was so late. The train carrying your package was derailed in Leidenschaftlich. It’ll take several days before they have everything gathered up.”
“How’d you find my package? Don’t tell me you just dug through it all! A train carries carfuls and carfuls of mail, Violet! I’ve seen them loading it!”
Violet shook her head. “No, it’s still there. I retyped your letter and bought another gift of the type your mother instructed us to buy. I would have arrived this afternoon, but the car broke down. I had to walk the last eight miles or so. I’m sorry.”
“Violet! Don’t you dare apologize again! I can’t believe you! You retyped my letter — what, from memory? After seven years?” Violet nodded. “And, and you came all this way, and walked eight miles, through the rain, just to make sure it arrived on my birthday?” She hugged Violet harder. “Violet, that was very sweet, but please never do that again! You could have caught pneumonia! You still might catch it! And, dear Goddess, they say there are robbers on the Vivace road …”
Violet nodded. “There are. Well, there were. I hope they’ll take my advice.”
“Violet! You mean they stopped you? Are you all right?!”
“I’m fine, except for being cold. I didn’t even have to hurt anyone. I thought I would, but their leader recognized me and called them off. We were in a battle together once.”
Her jaw dropped. “You were in the war?”
“That’s how I lost my arms.”
Anne shook her head. “I think I’ve blown all my fuses. I can’t get excited about anything any more. Here, turn around. Let’s warm the other side.” She hugged Violet again. “Why’d you have to deliver it yourself? Did you stop being a Doll?”
“No, I’m still a Doll. It’s just … I didn’t feel like I could trust anyone else to understand how important it was, that the package should arrive today. It’s your birthday, Anne. You’re fifteen years old today. I typed all of the letters your mother wanted you to have. I know what’s in every one of them you’ve read. I can guess how important they must be to you.”
Anne sniffed. “You’re right. They are important. They’re the most important thing that happens all year. Oh!” She stood, went to the door. “And I haven’t even opened this one yet.” She walked back to Violet, felt her forehead, her cheek. “Are you feeling warmer now?” She hugged her again. The shivering had stopped.
“Yes, I feel much better now.”
“Oh! I should have made you some hot tea!” She flew to the kitchen and put the kettle on, then returned to the living room. “You’ll stay the night, won’t you? You need to rest and warm up, and I’m going to check you for fever every few hours. I’m serious, Violet. Any signs of a fever, I’m going straight for the doctor.”
“Well then, let’s see what’s in this package you went to so much trouble to deliver.” She opened the pouch, pulled out the letter.
“It’s verbatim, I’m certain it is. You can check when the other one arrives.”
Anne smiled, kissed her cheek. “I won’t. I trust you.” She opened the letter, read it. Tears pooled in her eyes, ran down her face. “This always happens. You wrote good letters, Violet.”
Violet shook her head. “Clara wrote good letters. I just made some suggestions here and there. Wording. Phrasing. I helped, but it was mostly your mother, Anne. She loved you so much.”
Anne brushed tears from her eyes. “I know.” She rummaged in the pouch. “Earrings, she said. Oh, Violet. They’re beautiful.”
Violet looked at her through the twinkling jewels. “I’m glad you like them. I picked them out myself. Cattleya helped with the first ones, but she was busy today.”
“Oh, and I’ll be getting another pair when the package arrives from the train, won’t I? Gosh, Violet, I don’t think my mother paid your company to buy me two pair of earrings in one year …”
“Please accept this gift from the C. H. Postal Company. It’s our pleasure. Well, we didn’t settle it entirely. But if the president doesn’t want to pay for them, I’ll pay him back, and it’ll be a gift from me, instead. Happy birthday, Anne.”
“Oh!” She hugged Violet impulsively. “Thank you, Violet. Thank you. This is so lovely. But please, promise me you won’t try so hard next time! Not if it means you have to risk pneumonia and robbers!”
“I promise … that I’ll bring a raincoat next time. And I’ll have Benedict look the car over before I leave.”
“Oh, Violet. I suppose that’s the most I can get you to promise.” The kettle whistled. She went to make the tea.
“Here you are.” She giggled, handing Violet a cup and saucer. “And in a short time …”
Violet smiled. “It will be discharged from my body and eventually return to the ground.”
They laughed together, drinking their tea.
… these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.
— Herodotus, c. 440 BCE; describing the courier service of the ancient Persians.
The Histories, Book 8, Chapter 98, as translated by A. D. Godley.