Arthur Wilburn’s face was steely and belligerent both by choice and a peculiar twist of fate. The physical traits of his lineage had been mirrored almost to perfection from father to son for the past five generations. It was precisely his perceived rebellion and almost palpable strength that drew women to him like crazed moths to a scorching flame. Yet nothing drove them madder than his thirty years old unwavering loyalty to just one of them: his wife Madeline.
The men were as usual, of the opinion that women were a weak, sentimental and hopeless, brainless bunch. They were unanimously wondering how on Earth an insensitive, insolent and proud beast such as Arthur Wilburn had been able to fall so deeply in love with such a gracious French woman. She had been only nineteen at the time he’d met her in Paris. But it was more of a puzzle in the minds of these bitter ones how the sweet, poetic beauty could have ever harbored any feelings for him in return.
Obvious enough, the only one person who held the answer to the latter was Madeline Wilburn. A month spent at Arthur’s side thirty years ago in La Ville-Lumière had more than convinced her that he was an arrogant, loud-mouthed ox. A vain one too, at age twenty four. Yet it was enough to dig a little deeper to find a warm and tender Arthur with a vulnerable soul hiding from life’s blows underneath his pugnacious exterior. Too bad he had taken a few too many by the time they had met and was stubbornly refusing to give up the game of pretenses.
It took Madeline twenty years to learn that women are not destined to reform men. It took her another ten to get used to the bitter aftertaste of the realization. She still loved her husband with a lover’s passion, a friend’s fondness and a somehow motherly affection. But her heart had hardened along with Arthur’s face just as his soul slowly began to turn rigid and unyielding after the loss of their only child almost eighteen years ago.
At forty nine, Madeline didn’t show her age, but her smile bore no responsive warmth and her honey-colored eyes had long lost their glow that had crowned her as the most beautiful woman in the society since her arrival in the Empire City in 1981. She was now an untouchable beauty whose dispassionate gaze sent icy shivers down people’s spines and drew a long trail of whispers behind her. Some compassionate, some reverent, but most of them bursting with boiling curiosity: was it her husband who’d turned her into cold stone, or her daughter’s kidnapping? Rumors that Madeline faced with dignified stoicism beneath which bled a broken heart. Too bad tonight was another endless party night when she’ll have to front again pitiful stares from married women, sympathetic handshakes from their males, and inviting nods from old matrons who never failed to skillfully allude to her marriage just as they were diligently forecasting the weather.
Madeline sighed inwardly and started twisting her dark mahogany hair into an elaborate bun, absently pinning it. Maybe Elisabeth would have had dark mahogany hair too if she had survived. Maybe she did. Elisabeth… The name had ultimately been Arthur’s choice after a seven months long fiery debate.
“It is going to be a girl, Madeline,” Arthur had said the moment the pregnancy was announced. “We will call her Elisabeth.”
Madeline had looked at him with shock. Half because she had expected a different reaction from a man who had just found out he was going to be a father, but also bewildered by the choice of the name.
“Elisabeth sounds nothing like a baby, dear. It is awfully biblical. It means ‘God's promise,’ ‘Oath of God,’ ‘I am God’s daughter.’ You cannot possibly think of your child as a nun. It is pathetic,” she had said, her voice softly blurred by her French accent.
“It’s not biblical, it’s royal.” He had dismissed her argument with a wave of his hand.
Everything in Arthur’s life had to have majesty, she had thought. From the way he behaved with those who surrounded him, from family and friends down to his servants, to the opulence of the parties he hosted, and the pompousness of his tenure when he dealt with his business partners. Even the condo he’d chosen as his residence in his apartment building in Manhattan's Upper Side was obscenely snobbish with its entirely French Louis XV style interior decoration. The condo was a modern building redecorated on the inside to borrow a classic, provocatively towering look. But that was Arthur, a pompous warm-at-heart who defied life’s blows by imprinting his belligerence in everything that belonged to him. And now it was his baby’s turn to be branded.
“I am not giving birth to a princess, Arthur.” Madeline had rolled her eyes with visible frustration, knowing too well she was fighting an already lost battle.
“Oh, yes, you are.” He had stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest and they stayed that way for another seven months until the name ‘Elisabeth Wilburn’ was elegantly printed with winding letters on a commemorative birth certificate. Not only had Arthur been right as to the sex of the baby, but a princess she was with her little face and minuscule hands poking out of silky white, porcelain doll clothes embroidered with the initials EW. So was she dressed the day of her kidnapping. In white.
Madeline finished sticking the pins in her bun and sprayed a hint of Poison behind her ears. It was almost six o’clock, and the table was being set for an early dinner. She was supposed to be downstairs supervising the butlers, not frozen in front of the mirror picking a forbidden lock she had sworn a million times not to tamper with anymore. Arthur’s heart would silently contract with pain if he knew what a cheat she was, breaking the promise not to obsessively push into her mind the same nightmare again and again, almost eighteen years on. Turning from this memory she left the room and descended the stairs with small, quiet steps, running the tips of her fingers over the lacquer of the balustrade.
The heavy velvet curtains had been already pulled closed in the dining room, although the sun was still up in the sky. The chandeliers were gleaming on the high ceiling, their soft radiance delicately mirrored on the silver cutlery.
Arthur’s face lit up at the sight of his wife. His features always softened in her presence, his heart too. She still melted him.
“You’re late,” he announced to her. He courteously helped her sit down, pushing the chair beneath her as she took her place at the far end of the table. His gaze quickly swept her.
She could see the unspoken discontent that briefly flashed across his face before he regained his composure.
Of course Arthur was unhappy. She was once more wearing black for tonight’s party. This was a battle that Madeline had won. There had been a few throughout their marriage. Black represented Madeline’s removal from their society. Her rebellion against the shallow rumormongers and their vitriol, but also against him for continuing to make her go.
“It is not even six, dear.” Madeline glanced at the hands of the Grandfather clock.
Arthur stood stiff with impatience in front of his chair.
“I don’t even understand why we have to dine at home when we are going to a party.” He forced himself to keep his voice down. “There will be plenty of food there. If we don’t leave right now we will be late, and the Devins will take it as a slap in their faces, you know them. They will think that we only went there out of perfunctory duty.” He finally sat down.
“Well, they would be right as far as I am concerned, dear.” Madeline heaved a sigh in irritation at the world he wanted to inhabit and drag her along to.
Feeding before they went avoided the long tables where a decadent cornucopia of meals was arranged for the guests to take their pick. Those were the worst possible place to linger at a party. A whole herd of curious guests would without doubt corner her, sneaking skillful questions in between mouthfuls of food.
The sadness in her voice made Arthur jerk his stare to her face just as he was occupying himself with placing a napkin on his lap. He sighed.
“I think it’s time to stop pretending, Madeline,” he said, his voice now charged with tension and tenderness all at once. “Stop protecting my feelings, and let’s talk about it. You just can’t let go, that’s what it is. It’s not the fact that they gossip about the happiness of our marriage, or that they ask you personal questions about me.”
Madeline’s heart skipped a beat. She knew what was coming. “It is not what you think, Arthur,” she started feebly, averting her gaze.
“It’s not?” He stared at her and it nailed her soul, even though she wasn’t looking directly at him. “Can you tell me that every time you stand in front of the mirror you are not asking yourself if she would look like you?”
His words made her blink back tears, but she stood her ground, her back ramrod straight. He wasn’t being cruel, she knew that. It had taken her a long time to realize that his hurt ran as deep as hers, perhaps even more, because he bore her burden on his shoulders on top of his.
“Time is not a good healer, isn’t it?” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
He forced a sad smile past his lips, desperate to quell her distress.
“This is because you never speak about your grief, Madeline. You just hide it, trying to protect me. I think that we are in bad need to talk about it and…”
His words died at the sound of the butler’s voice exploding with profound indignation across the walls. The old servant burst into the dining room behind a short, fat man, holding his chin up and his back straight with impeccable dignity as it was fit for a man of his station.
“Mr. Rockwood, you are not permitted to walk in these premises, unless and until I announce your arrival and the Master allows you to enter,” the butler huffed at the unexpected guest.
Madeline’s grief receded in a corner for a moment. William had been their butler for seventeen years. He considered himself part of the family by now, taking more often than not the liberty to make rules of his own and terrorize guests and servants alike as he pleased. This was not the first time when a guest got rewarded with bluster for being a nuisance or for breaching the house rules.
The sound of George Rockwood’s steps crashing against the marble floor ceased abruptly and the rumble of his heavy breathing filled the room. The investigator clasped his chest with fingers whitened at the knuckles while the other hand jerked outwards in a silent prayer to his hosts to wait a little.
A tinge of alarm tickled Madeline at the back of her mind. She stood up and rushed to grab a glass of water then approached her guest with slow, reluctant steps. “It is all right, Mr. Rockwood, take your time,” she said.
George Rockwood stared at her with wild, desperate eyes then his gaze roved over her husband’s face. “Mr. Wilburn,” he managed to utter. “Mr. Wilburn,” he repeated in a harsh gurgle, “I have news for you, sir, Madam… We found Miss Elisabeth!”