It was late in the afternoon as the warning groans of thunder approached ominously in the distance. The storm had grown worse as the hours passed and now dark, rumbling clouds were passing slowly overhead, bringing with them an eerie silence that sent all sane men running for shelter. Within minutes, a thick rain was blanketing the land and a cold wind was howling around the stony corners of the ailing mansion.
Gladys Humphrey, head of the servants at Tyler Hall, was not one to be rattled by the dramatic whimsy of Mother Nature. Instead, she paced herself between securing the shutters and stoking the fires throughout the three-story building. Still, despite her outward show of confidence, even she had to admit that this was quite a ferocious storm arriving so early in spring. From experience, she knew that the worst had yet to come. Just as well, she reasoned. The sooner the storm arrived, the sooner it would leave this family to rest in peace.
Poor Isabel Tyler, the Baroness, had gone through agony trying to calm her young daughter. Little Serena was terrified of the booming thunder and fiery lightning. Only a few minutes had passed since the child was finally calmed down enough to sleep, yet each second since then had seemed an eternity as everyone waited to hear the child pitifully wailing once more.
Normally the Baroness would have let the nanny put Serena to bed. This night though, the child had thrown a great tantrum, begging her mother to tuck her in. It moved Isabel to tears to see her nine-year-old daughter so distraught. Unable to calm her by any other means, Isabel relented and pulled Serena into her arms, intent to put her own daughter to bed for a change.
It had been touching to see the sniffling nine-year-old huddled against her mother’s side, being ushered upstairs like a toddler. It might have been the storm that caused Serena to throw such a fit, but Mrs. Humphrey had her suspicions.
Four years earlier, when Serena had just turned five, she was still clinging to her mother like a baby. That was when Baron Sherman Tyler declared that Isabel lavished far too much attention on their daughter. He demanded a nanny be hired full-time despite his wife’s pleading. He insisted Serena would grow up spoiled if they didn’t break her of her childish habits. He would not have it, he’d declared.
Heidi, the new nanny, took over most of Isabel’s nightly activities with Serena. She dressed and bathed the young girl without Isabel's assistance. Then, at Sherman’s insistence, Heidi began tucking Serena into bed at such an early hour that Isabel scarcely had a chance to see her some days. Isabel had begged Sherman to let her do more with Serena, but he refused, saying it was for the best. Of course, it was standard practice at the time to have hired help tending the children, but Isabel had never wanted to raise her daughter in that manner.
Watching it all play out from a distance, Gladys Humphrey had her suspicions about the Baron’s motives. She suspected the Baron was actually jealous of his own daughter. It was greed for his wife, not love for his needful daughter that brought about the changes in the household.
For nearly four years, the Baron persisted in trying to separate Isabel and the girl. It started with the nanny seeing to the child's basic needs. Then, professional tutors were hired to teach their daughter all the domestic affairs of life. Soon, it seemed there was nothing left for Isabel to do with Serena except to watch her grow.
Isabel lived with such indignity in silence, quietly yearning to be with her daughter. Tonight though, Serena’s panicked screams seemed to be the breaking point for them both. Sherman had come close to striking Serena when she clung to Isabel’s side, refusing to let go. He lost control of his temper and reacted completely without thinking. As he raised his hand toward Serena, Isabel pulled her daughter close to her bosom.
"Let me pass to the stairs with her this minute, Sherman. Step aside! How can you be so barbaric as to strike our child when she only wants our love and comfort? How could you deny me the right to soothe my own daughter? I won’t tolerate it any longer. She is mine and I will do with her as I please. Now let me pass to the stairs or I’ll be going out the front door!"
That tirade, the first to ever come from Isabel, sobered Sherman instantly. He looked almost bewildered by her outrage. His eyes, having grown so wide and cruel before, now closed in defeat. He sighed deeply and stepped aside allowing them both access to the stairs.
When she reached the second step, he shouted beseechingly to her. His voice cracked as he spoke, but he couldn't stop himself even when the servants watched with something akin to pity for him. "Isabel!" He cried out. "Please forgive me! I would never wish to hurt you. I love you more than I can say... All I've ever dreamed to gain is your love, devotion and attention... Please..." His last words were whispered so softly she almost didn't hear them. She did not turn when he walked to the front door and left the house. The sound of the enormous door closing was the only hint that he had gone out.
Gladys had seen the look in his eyes when he left. The dejected look on his face resembled a man who had just lost his best friend. Never had Sherman looked so assaulted. Knowing how few friends he did have, Mrs. Humphrey didn't doubt that was exactly how he felt. Still, she couldn’t muster any sympathy for his plight. Sherman was a greedy man who thought of no one but himself when it came to getting what he wanted.
That argument had all transpired hours ago now. Gladys raised her eyes to the staircase as Isabel finally emerged from the upper floors. She appeared to be walking with an air of peace surrounding her that the servant hadn’t seen in years. The tense and unhappy gloom that normally shrouded the delicate Baroness was gone.
"Does the child sleep at last," Gladys asked her mistress. She could still hear the echoes of the child's tantrum even now.
"She is peaceful under her covers. I sang her a few quiet songs and that seemed to soothe her. I might need to speak with Heidi though. I was a bit cross with her upstairs when she tried to intervene on Sherman's behalf. It just seemed to heighten Serena's misery and—I don't know... I just lost my temper, I suppose."
A new growl of thunder passed overhead as the house lit up brightly with a sharp bolt of lightning. Both women fairly jumped and stared wide-eyed at one another. A moment later they were nervously laughing over the unexpectedness of it. After all, they were grown women.
"I don’t imagine this storm will last much longer. It seems to be moving quickly now that it’s here." Mrs. Humphrey’s voice sounded certain of it, almost...
"I agree, but I do hope My Lord will be back soon. It’s such a fierce night out there." Isabel stared at the huge oak doors, willing them to open with her mind.
Gladys eyed Isabel with a curious grin. She wondered how such a delicate woman had come to be with a man like Sherman. The two were nothing alike. Until tonight, Isabel had never shown a hint of being anything other than the mild tempered mistress.
Sherman was absolutely nothing of the kind. He was harsh and cruel to everyone. The only person he had ever shown the kinder side of himself to was Isabel. Yet, even his kind side was a bitter thing. The man was filled with nothing but greed and contempt for the world. He had cold, rancid green eyes that easily matched his dour disposition. Despite all that, Isabel was now staring out the front window, fearing he might fall ill out in the storm.
Gladys thought Sherman had gotten exactly what he deserved, but it would do no good to tell that to Isabel. Instead, she said, "My apologies, Your Grace, but I would assume he's out for the night. However, I think he just might be treating you as his lordship when he does finally make his way back home. Pardon my plain speaking."
Of course Isabel would forgive the older woman. She'd grown accustomed to the woman's bold ways long ago. Gladys rarely censured her thoughts. Somehow it simply fit her appearance. The woman had to be well into her fifties, although she hadn't slowed a day in her life. Her hair was a mass of gray curls and she had put on a good amount of weight over the years, but she always passed on sage advice to Isabel. She was wise beyond her years, with very little intimidating her—not even the Baron's foul temper. That was probably the reason she and Gladys got along so well. There were very few people in Tyler Hall who would dare to speak against Sherman or question his authority. Gladys did. Whether right or wrong, she always let loose her opinion of things.
Long ago, Gladys had told Isabel that she needed to stand up to the man, but sadly, she never had. Only now did she admit that perhaps the older woman had been right all along. She should have done it a long time ago.
As a fresh wave of thunder boomed overhead, the wind picked up tremendously. Heavy raindrops were beginning to pelt the front door. Isabel had to shout to be heard over the deafening noise.
"I'm going to secure these front windows! Why don't you check the shutters in the kitchen and the back rooms," she called out.
"Aye, Your Grace!" Gladys shouted with a nod, grateful for something to do.
As the old woman scuttled through the kitchen door, a stiff breeze half-closed it behind her. Isabel turned and began to work quickly to prevent the wind from chilling the house any further than it already had.
She opened each window, assuring herself that the shutters were latched firmly in place. An icy rain drenched her shirtfront and the wind was chilling her straight through as she moved. No doubt, she would come down with the flu for this, but it had to be done. It was amazing they hadn’t already lost a window to the frenzied weather outside.
At last, the final shutter was secured and she slammed the window behind it. The room seemed unusually calm for the moment and Isabel breathed a small sigh of relief. Just then, the sound of a faint noise caught her attention.
Her eyes turned to focus on the front door as she listened quietly. A strange sort of tapping repeated itself against the tall wooden frame. The sound of it haunted her almost immediately. It stopped for a second, then picked up again with great fervor.
Isabel was held frozen in place. That was not the sound of raindrops hitting the wood. She hesitantly moved forward to touch the iron latch to open the door, but instinctive fear caused her to pull back.
"Gladys!" She shouted out in fright. She swallowed convulsively and began to turn, but her servant was already bolting into the room through the kitchen door.
The old woman had grabbed a small iron pot the moment she heard the alarm in her mistress’s voice. As she entered the room she held the weapon high in her hands. It was a menacing sight to behold.
"Lord," Gladys shouted. "From the sound of your voice, I thought a man had grabbed you from the window." She immediately lowered the pan, but not entirely when Isabel held a finger to her lips and shushed her.
Isabel pointed to the door and whispered, "There is someone out on the doorstep."
Mrs. Humphrey heard it too now. The persistent tapping was only a little louder than rain hitting the windows.
"Who do you suppose it is?" Isabel asked nervously. Sherman was gone. She wasn't certain when he'd be back if there was trouble. She could only continue to stare at the door indecisively as the faint knocking continued. It seemed an eternity that she stood there so pensive and hesitant.
"There is only one way we’re going to find out who is calling,” Gladys finally complained with a loud huff of resignation. She was the one who finally broke out of that moment of paralysis. Straightening her backbone, she stepped forward and reached out to open the door. “I can’t imagine who’d be fool enough to be out on a night like this one—“
"No!" Isabel rushed forward to block her path. "It could be a stranger come for trouble!"
"Your Grace, I'll take that responsibility if you'll step aside. Trust me when I say there'll be no one pushing his way past me!" Stiffening her lips and bracing herself, Gladys raised the pan and deftly set Isabel away from the door. "No need to fret, Your Grace. If it's a beggar here to cause trouble, I'll see a quick end to his begging."
Isabel stood behind her with wide eyes as Gladys poised herself with the pan held high. The door was suddenly thrown wide open and they looked down to see a child crouched tightly against the door-jamb. The small hand that had been knocking flew up defensively to ward off the women who seemed ready to attack as her other arm gripped her waist stiffly. She was obviously in great pain. The girl was completely drenched from head to toe with a trail of blood and dirt streaming down the stone steps beneath her curled legs.
Both women gasped in horror, unable to believe what they were seeing. The child was shivering madly, sobbing in tears that ripped at their hearts. It was obvious someone had beaten and terrorized the girl.
“Bring her inside! Bring her in,” Isabel implored Gladys as her hands covered her mouth in complete shock.
As large as the old woman was, she swiftly bent to lift the girl from the step to carry her into the house. Isabel closed and bolted the door at once, hovering close behind them. Who she was and how she had come to be there were questions that could be answered later. Right now, this child needed their help.
Isabel welcomed the girl into Tyler Hall without giving a single thought about how Sherman might react. She didn’t really care what he might do or say. This child needed help! Her maternal instincts had been abandoned far too long already. The immediate pull on her heartstrings were something she simply couldn’t ignore. No matter what happened next, she was going to take care of this child.
There was no question about it. It was simply a matter of fact…