Adapted From A Story by Nora Ryeman
Amongst Miss Melford's intimate friends, when I was a boarder at her school, was a silvery-haired, stately lady, known as Mrs. Dace, who in her early life had been gouvernante to the Imperial children at the court of the Czar. Her old friends and pupils wrote to her frequently, and she still took a keen interest in the Slav, and in things Slavonic.
When her Russian friends--the Petrovskys--came to England, they left their youngest child, Irene, as a pupil at Miss Melford's school, to pursue her education while they travelled in Western Europe for a while.
Irene Petrovsky was a pretty little thing, with flaxen hair and clear blue eyes, and we called her the Snow Flower, after that beautiful Siberian plant which blooms only in midwinter. I have never forgotten her first appearance at the school. When Miss Melford led her into the classroom we all looked up at the small figure in its plain white cloth frock trimmed with golden sable, and admired the tiny fair curls which clustered round her white brow. She made a grand court curtsey, and then sat silently, like a wee white flower, in a corner.
We elder pupils were made guardians of the younger ones in Miss Melford's school, and it was my duty as Irene's guardian to take her to rest in the little white nest next to mine in the long dormitory. In the middle of the first night I was disturbed by a faint sobbing near me, and I sat up to listen. The sobs proceeded from the bed of the little Russian girl, and I found she was crying for her elder sister, who, she said, used to take her in her arms and hold her by the hand until she fell asleep. A happy thought came to me; my white nest was larger than hers. So I bade her creep into it, which she readily did, and nestled up to me, like a trembling, affrighted little bird, falling at last into a calm, sweet sleep.
From that time forward we two were firm friends, and the girls used to call the Little Russ, Gloria's shadow.
She was very grateful, and I in my turn grew to love her dearly; so dearly that when her father, the count, came to take her home, in consequence of the death of her mother, I felt as if I had lost a little sister.
Ever after this our little snow flower was a fragrant memory to me. I often thought of her, and wondered as I watched the white clouds moving across the summer sky, or the silver moon shining in the heavens, whether she too was looking out upon the same fair scene from the other side the sea and thinking of her some time sister of Miss Melford's school.
AFTER MANY DAYS.
Some years after I had left the school financial difficulties beset my uncle's affairs. Aunt Ducie died in the midst of them, and Uncle Gervase did not long survive. Our household goods went under the auctioneer's hammer, our beautiful home became the home of strangers, and I went to live in an obscure quarter of a distant town. My means being exceeding small, I took rooms in a small house in a semi-rural suburb, and from thence began to look for work for pen and pencil. I had learned to draw, and had succeeded in one or two small attempts at story telling, and with my pen and pencil for crutches, and with youth and hope on my side, I started out with nervous confidence upon the highway of fame.
Cherry-Tree Avenue was a long, narrow street within a stone's throw of the grim, grey castellated towers of the county gaol, and the weekly tenants who took the small, red-brick houses were continually changing.
Facing us was No. 3, Magdala Terrace, a house which was empty for some weeks, but one April evening a large van full of new furniture drove up to it, followed by a respectable looking man and woman of the artisan class, who soon began to set the house in order. Before sleep had fallen on the shabby street a cab drove up to No. 3, and from it stepped a woman, tall, slight, and closely veiled. I had been to the pillar box to post an answer to an advertisement, and it happened that I passed the door of the newly let house as the cab drew up. Without waiting to be summoned, the trim young woman came out to welcome the new-comer, and said in French:
"Madame, the place is poor, but clean, and quiet, and," lowering her voice, "fitted for observation."
In spite of my own anxieties I wondered who the stranger could be, and why the little house was to be an observatory. Then I remembered the vicinity of the big gaol, and thought that madame might have an interest in one of the black sheep incarcerated there.
Very soon strange rumours began to circulate amongst the dwellers in the avenue. The bright young woman was madame's foster sister; madame herself was of high degree, a countess, or one of even nobler rank, travelling in disguise; the quiet, dark young man, her foster sister's husband, was a woodcarver, who was out of work and only too glad to serve the foreign lady, who out of generous pity had come to stay with them.
I, of course, gave no credence to these seemingly absurd reports, but, all the same, I was aware that there was a mystery at No. 3. The lady was young, beautiful, and distinguished looking, she had dark, pathetic, haunting eyes, which reminded me forcibly of other eyes I had seen, but when and where I could not recall; and though her dresses were dark, they were chic, the word Paris was writ plain on all her toques.
Madame made no friends, and it was clear from the first that she desired to be undisturbed, at any rate by her neighbours. Every now and again there were visitors at No 3, but these were strangers, foreign looking visitors, cloaked, swarthy and sombre men who came and went, one of whom I overheard say in French as he flicked the ash from his cigar: "Chut! the rat keeps in his hole, he will not stir."
At Maytime, in the early gloaming, the foreign lady and I met in the narrow street.
We met face to face, and passed each other with a slight bow of recognition; a moment after I heard soft, hurried footfalls, and the strange lady was by my side.
She held out an envelope addressed to me, saying:
"Pardon me, if I mistake not, you dropped this. Is it not so?"
I thanked her, and took the letter, saying:
"It is mine, and I should have troubled had I lost it."
This little incident broke down our old-time reserve, and saying:
"I go to-morrow," she placed a bunch of amber roses she was carrying in my hand. I thanked her, and asked by what name I might remember her?
"As Nadine," she whispered softly. "I need not ask you yours."
The mention of the name electrified me. Here was I bidding farewell to Nadine, whose little sister Irene, our sweet snow flower, I had loved and lost at the old school far away.
Nadine noticed my excitement, and putting her finger to her lips, cautioned me to silence. But I was not to be denied.
"Irene?" I said in a whisper, "Irene, where is Irene?"
"Hush!" she said, taking me by the arm and drawing me in at the open doorway of No. 3. "Speak of it not again. Irene fell a victim to our cruel Russian laws, and lies beside her husband among the snow tombs of Siberia."
The next morning the strange dark house was empty. The woodcarver and his wife, and the beautiful Nadine, had vanished with the shadows of the night.
Smiles and Good Fortune,
Teresa Thomas Bohannon
Author of the Regency Romance novel, A Very Merry Chase
Founder of The LadyWeb Family Of Informational & Educational Websites
– W. Somerset Maugham (1874 - 1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915