Soon the stink and crowds gave way to gardens dotted with trees, and rows of grand buildings that towered above our heads, made of stones and bricks. The shoddy carriage stopped before one of the grandest.
Mr. Grimsby got out and exchanged coins with the driver, who gaped and stared after us as we walked up to the gate. A uniformed man nodded at Mr. Grimsby and opened the gate for us without looking at me, and Mr. Grimsby led me up to the house.
The house was the color of stone, the front of which seemed to be held up by white columns. It towered several stories into the air. Mr. Grimsby gracefully ascended the front stairs and stopped before a gleaming wooden door. It opened immediately, as had the gate.
Mr. Grimsby held out his hand. “After you, young Miss.”
I stepped in. The lamps were lit, though it was only midday. Mr. Grimsby led me down a short dark hall, then showed me into a large room.
Dark gray light filtered in through the windows, which were skirted by heavy drapes the color of cream. A magnificent fixture hung from the center of the ceiling, dripping with crystals and lit candles. Flourishes curled in the plaster around it, and a white stone fireplace so tall I could step into it anchored the center of the room.
A woman holding a candle appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She was dressed in brown, her gray hair tied loosely at her neck. A strip of black cloth encircled the upper sleeve of one arm.
“Ah, Mrs. Dover.” Mr. Grimsby nodded at her.
“Mr. Grimsby,” she said. “You’ve returned with the ship’s cargo, I see.”
He cleared his throat. “Is the lady in?”
“She is not yet returned from church,” Mrs. Dover said, examining me. “Let me get a good look at her. Step forward, girl.”
I looked at Mr. Grimsby. He nodded. I took a step toward Mrs. Dover.
“Pretty,” Mrs. Dover said approvingly. “Though in dire need of new clothes and a good washing up.”
“Please prepare the young miss for the lady’s arrival.”
“Yes, Mr. Grimsby,” she said, and beckoned to me. “What’s your name, girl?”
“She’s a bit shy,” Mr. Grimsby said.
“Of course,” Mrs. Dover said. “I’ll have one of the maids set your things in your room. Come then. Let’s get you washed up.”
My shoes thunked on the wide-planked wooden floors. She walked me to the back of the house, where a hound of some sort stood at the foot of the stairs, baring its teeth at me.
“Dash,” Mrs. Dover scolded. “Shoo.” She waved her hand at the dog. The dog did not move.
Mrs. Dover looked at me queerly, then called out, “Miss Smith!” A harried-looking young girl with soot on her cheeks appeared, brushing her palms on her skirt.
“Yes, Mrs. Dover?”
“Take Dash outside, please.”
“Yes, Mrs. Dover.” The girl reached for the dog’s collar. He snapped at her, but she didn’t flinch. She just fixed a grip on the dog’s thick scruff, and he yipped as she ushered him away from the stairs. Mrs. Dover went up them, and I followed behind. I glanced behind me. The dog watched me as I ascended the stairs.
At the third landing Mrs. Dover led me down a hall bracketed by carved woodwork. “Each room’s named for a color—the blue room, the red room, the lavender room, the gray room, and so on. The green room belongs to the lady. The blue room is to be yours, I believe.” She showed me into it. It was precisely the same color as the clothes Uncle used to always wear. I nearly gasped at the familiarity of it. A large copper basin waited for me in the corner. Steam curled from the lip.
I let Mrs. Dover undress me, let her scrub me without mercy in the scalding water. I gritted my teeth and did not make a sound, even as she tore a comb through my knotted hair.
When she finished, she dressed me and opened my trunk.
“Hmm,” she said disapprovingly as she picked through the clothing I had purchased for myself in India. Then she lifted up my doll with her thumb and forefinger. “What’s this?”
“It’s mine,” I said.
“So she speaks, does she.” Mrs. Dover looked amused. “Well, we can wash it, though there might be no saving it, I’m afraid.”
I snatched my doll from her hand.
“Mrs. Dover,” a crisp, brittle voice said from behind me. “Is there a problem?”
A look of surprise transformed Mrs. Dover’s face. “No, of course not, my lady.”
I turned to face a figure draped in black. Her face was veiled by black fabric that reflected no light, the same fabric as her gown. It rustled with each tiny, delicate step she took toward me. She seemed to be floating, gliding over the floor.
“I should have a look at the girl my husband brought from across the world,” the woman said, and swept the veil from her face.
My memories of her husband painted him as old and frail, but this woman was neither. She had ash blond hair that was braided in a crown around her face. Jet-black earrings dangled from her ears. The stones glittered in the dim light.
“You are older than I thought you would be,” she said. “How old are you, child?”
I lowered my eyes to the floor. “I do not know, Lady.”
The woman clapped her hands together. “How darling! You speak as if you were born and raised in the West End and not in the jungles of India. My husband purchased you a fine education, it seems.”
I thought of Uncle and Sister. “Yes, Lady.”
“If only he had lived to see it,” she said queerly. “He wrote a great deal about you in his papers.”
I did not know what to say to that, so I remained quiet.
“Well, you are in my care now, and I will treat you as if you were my own daughter. I would have insisted Mr. Bray draw up the paperwork to officially make you my ward, as my husband desired, except you would then be expected to mourn for him as well, and I would not mar your arrival with such darkness.”
I bowed my head.
She looked at the room we stood in. “My husband instructed me very clearly to place you in the blue room, but I think a different one would be more suitable. Come, child.”
I followed the woman in black, and she led me to an even larger room. The walls were painted a pale mint color, ornamented with gold candleholders in the shape of flowers. A cream-colored bed with a full canopy and skirt stood in the center of the room. No wonder I’d been scrubbed so harshly.
“Yes,” she said, looking around. “This room is much more suitable for a young girl. So much lighter! Mrs. Dover, the curtains?”