WHEN THE parlor door opened, seven pairs of eyes gazed curiously at the white-faced woman who emerged, pressing a handkerchief to her brow.
“Oh,” she mumbled. “Oh dear. Oh dear.” She staggered across the entrance hall and out the main door.
The elderly lady who had introduced herself as Felicia turned to the remaining applicants, ensconced on wooden benches set against the walls. “Which of you is next?”
A stiff-backed, reed-thin woman stalked to the parlor door. “Miss Blimpstone,” she announced imperiously.
Felicia scuttled ahead of her to make the introduction, and the door closed again.
My heavens, Jane Ryder thought, tugging her shabby portmanteau closer to her knees. Since her arrival, four other applicants had stumbled away in similar fashion. The mysterious employer must be a tyrant of the first order.
“What do you suppose is going on in there?” whispered the nervous young woman seated beside her. “I thought this was to be an interview for a secretarial position.”
“Of course it is,” Jane assured her. “Were you sent by the Farbes Agency, too?”
“I came from Simon and Sillaright. They have always placed me well before, but only in temporary positions. Not many employers will take on a female for more than a fortnight.”
Jane nodded. She had yet to find a position for even so brief a period and still owed Mrs. Tucker for a week’s lodging. The widow had turned her out that very morning in favor of a boarder with ready cash.
She glanced at the women sitting on the bench across from her. All were staring fretfully at the parlor door, as if expecting it to burst into flames.
Jane rather wished that it would. A bit of fire and brimstone would send the others scampering, leaving the field to her. She’d been the last to arrive, after lugging all her worldly possessions for three miles in a sleet storm, and feared that another candidate would secure the job before it was her turn to be interviewed.
At this point she didn’t care if it was Satan himself holding court inside that parlor. Better a warm night in hell than the one she faced on the icy streets.
She sat a little straighter on the hard bench, willing steel into her spine. Perhaps it had been a mistake coming to London, but there was no going back now. And surely she was overdue for a helping of good luck.
The Farbes Agency had not sent her out for a single interview since she registered with them a month ago. Nor did they have one for her today, until she bullied her way past the clerks and bearded Mr. Farbes in his office. A kindly, rather befuddled man, he apologized profusely for neglecting her.
“But, Miss Ryder, there are so few positions to be had in December,” he had said. “With the gentry gone to their country estates for the holidays it is quite impossible to turn up anything appropriate. Could you come back in a few weeks, when Parliament is seated?”
“No I could not,” she replied. And when she refused to be budged, demanding that he search his files for even the most inconsequential of openings, he reluctantly pulled a folder from his drawer and spread it open on the desk.
“In the normal course of things,” he said, “I’d not wish to be involved with this matter. You may be sure I have sent no one to apply for the position. Disreputable business!” Shuddering, he dipped his pen in the ink pot. “But if you insist, Miss Ryder, I shall give you the direction. For all I know, the position may have been filled long since, but this is all I have to offer at the moment.”
Now she was here, and the position had obviously not been filled. Whatever that position was. She had rushed off before thinking to ask for details. Impulsiveness has already got you in a great load of trouble, she scolded herself. One day it will be the death of you, my girl.
The parlor door opened with a groan of metal hinges, and Miss Blimpstone stomped out, her narrow cheeks clenching and unclenching as if she were sucking on a lemon. “Leave now if you know what’s good for you,” she advised contemptuously. “Spare yourselves the indignity I have just endured.”
Two applicants, including the girl who had spoken to Jane, leapt to their feet and followed Miss Blimpstone. Jane crossed her fingers for luck. Only three to go, and then she would have her chance.
In the next half hour, Felicia called them in one by one. All emerged whiter than paper or blushing furiously. They shook their heads at Jane as they walked past, a silent warning to escape while she could.
She straightened her skirts, waiting eagerly to be summoned. It’s only the two of us now, she told the mysterious figure behind the door. Whatever it requires, I must find a way to make you keep me.
Felicia beckoned then, inquired her name, and led her into a large, cluttered room lit only at the far end by two braces of candles and a flickering fire. Heavy tapestries lined the walls, and curtains of deep crimson velvet hung over the window. Jane wove among chairs, sofas, and claw-footed tables strewn with knickknacks, following Felicia on shaky legs.
Near the hearth was a small figure huddled in a Bath chair. Rather like a spider in its web, Jane thought, able to distinguish only a shape outlined by the flames behind it. A long-fingered hand with painted nails raised a lorgnette.
“Jane Ryder, is it?” The voice rang clear as a brass bell. “Not much of a name, Jane Ryder.”
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