She really hadn’t known.
No one believed her, of course. The more sympathetic among her friends said “Oh, poor Althea, you must have been terrified, of course you couldn’t tell anyone.” Her detractors—her sisters foremost among them—all said “Of course she knew. She just didn’t care. Those poor women.”
No one had actually suggested that she might be involved in the murders, of course. Once the bodies had been identified, it was obvious that she had still been in the nursery for most of them. The youngest of the lot had been dead for several years before Lord Bluebeard moved into the neighborhood, so no one could imply that she was a murderess herself.
Still, she’d kept silent, went the whispers, and that made her an accomplice, didn’t it?
She caught herself wishing that her husband were still alive, so that she could talk to him about it.
“And that is very nearly insane,” Althea told the mirror in her bedroom, “since he was the one who killed all those poor women in the first place.”
She still couldn’t believe it. She knew that it was true, of course, she’d been the one to go into that awful charnel room in the first place.
Whatever his other faults—ha—he’d been easy to talk to. She had never exactly been in love with him, but they’d been good friends. His offer of marriage had gotten her away from her house and the prying of her sisters.
She set the hairbrush down and went to the window. Trees looked back at her. She was living in the hunting lodge, now, many miles away from the accursed manor house.
She wanted to go home. Even knowing that awful room was there, even knowing what was in it. The manor had been her home for twenty-seven years. She was the mistress of it. She knew every inch of it, except for the room at the top of the tallest tower, and….well.
“Well,” she said aloud. “Well. Here we are.”
They asked the same question, all of them, friends and foes alike. “How could you not look? How could you live with that room there and never look into it?”
The answer was simple enough. She’d never looked because she had believed that she already knew what was inside.
Her father had a room that his daughters were not allowed to look into, and her sisters, prying and spying as they always did, had jimmied the lock one day and snuck in. Althea had peeped around the doorframe, half-curious, half-terrified.
It wasn’t much. A dusty room with big chairs leaking stuffing and taxidermy on the walls. Glassy-eyed deer stared down at her. There was a side table with some etchings of naked nymphs doing improbable things with goat-legged men. Her sisters thought this was hysterical. She just felt sick.
Her sisters had always been like that. She had never been allowed a diary, a corner of the room, even a single box that was not opened and pawed through. Her sisters wanted to make sure that she had no secrets, so she kept them all behind her eyes and committed nothing to paper.
When Bluebeard had brought her home from the honeymoon and handed her the great iron ring of keys, he had singled out the smallest one and said “This opens the door at the top of the tower. That is my room. Never, ever open it.”
Aha, she thought, another room of overstuffed furniture and pornographic etchings. Probably bad taxidermy as well. Well, everyone is allowed their privacy.
She pried the ring off the keys and handed it back to him. “You should keep this, then.”
He stared at her, his eyes absolutely blank. She did not know him well enough yet to read his moods, and so she laughed a little and said “My dear, don’t you think I know how men are? Everyone needs a room to put their feet up. Take the key.”
The key was very small in his large hand, and gleamed as golden as her wedding ring. “But—”
“Really, I can’t think why I’d want the key,” she said. “I’m not giving you the key to my diary. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”
“Ah—no, of course not—I—” He took a step back. “But—ah—if I should lose my key, I will want to know that there is another one—”
“Oh, well, quite sensible,” she said. She plucked the key from his hands, looked around the room—they were in the library—and saw a bookend on a high shelf, in the shape of a woman holding an urn. “There, that will do.” She pulled out a chair, climbed onto it—Bluebeard hurried to grab the chair back and steady her—and dropped the key into the urn. “There. If you lose yours, you know where it is now, and none of the maids will bother to dust it up there.” She brushed her hands together.
“You are a marvel,” said Bluebeard, lifting her down from the chair, and kissed her forehead.
He had not been a bad husband, truly he hadn’t. He had even been concerned with her relationship with her sisters. When he left on travel, which he sometimes did, he always suggested that she invite her sisters to stay with her.
“Most certainly not,” she said, sitting in the library again, in her favorite chair. Her husband grasped the back of the chair and looked down at her, and she tilted her head back to look up at him. She smiled upside down into his eyes. “My sisters are appalling people, and I have no desire to have them here, prying into everything and telling me how to do everything better and leaving me no scrap of home to call my own.”
“Family is important,” he said, looking down at her. He sounded sad, and she remembered that he had no family of his own.
“We’re each other’s family,” Althea said firmly, putting her hand over his on the back of the chair.
He turned his hand under hers and squeezed her fingers. “Still, your sisters—I hate to think of you isolated—”
She sighed. It was important to him, apparently, and she was determined to be a good wife, since it had already become obvious that there would be no children between them. “If you insist. But I will not have them here, you understand? I will go to the townhouse and receive them there.”
There had been an enormous party at the townhouse. In the middle of it, she had gone to her bedroom to change her shoes—the white ones had always pinched her feet, but they looked so elegant—and found her oldest sister rifling through her jewelry box and her middle sister going through the drawers of her vanity.
“Sister, dear,” said the oldest, leering, expecting her to ignore the intrusion, as she always had.
But she did not ignore it. She was no longer a little girl in a patched frock, but a married woman with a home and husband of her own. She bared her teeth and said “Get out. Go downstairs and leave gracefully, or I’ll have the footmen throw you out. You’re not welcome here any longer.”
“Althea, dear,” said her middle sister, trying to tuck her hand under Althea’s arm. “We’re your sisters. We just want to make sure you’re all right.”
“Then ask me,” she snapped. “You won’t find the answer at the bottom of the jewelry box. No, get out! I am sick to death of both of you.”
They left. Althea left the party in the hands of her aunt and went upstairs, pleading headache.
Thank god for Bluebeard. Otherwise she’d still be at home, dealing with those…those prying harpies. Not a shred of privacy to her name.
Her husband understood. When she said that she was sick of both of them, that they were appalling, that she would have nothing more to do with either of them, he did not argue. When she burst into furious tears at the end of it, he said “Oh, my dear—” and opened his arms, and she cried into the blue curls of his beard until her nose was red and she looked a fright.
He had apparently been a very evil man, but not actually a bad one. Althea had spent the last few months trying to get her mind around how such a thing was possible.
At the end, he’d tried to spare her. She remembered that, when everyone turned on him, when they’d dug up the bones and thrown them into the river.
Years had passed. Any blue in his beard had long since been replaced by gray. He no longer travelled for business or rode to hounds. Althea herself moved more slowly, and felt the weather in her bones.
They had not shared a bed for many years, but they were friends. Probably there had been other women, but he was always discreet, and Althea never faulted him. There had certainly not been other women for a number of years, nor other men either.
They spent evenings in the library. She would read funny passages aloud to him and he would laugh. They played chess. He usually won, but he was a patient teacher and occasionally she surprised him.
On that last night, he moved restlessly away from the chessboard, rubbing his left arm and gazing out the window.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
He turned toward her and grasped her hands, his eyes fierce. “Althea—my love—promise me something.”
“Anything,” she said. She did not like the pallor of his face, or the way he kept rubbing his arm. “What can I do?”
“When I die—when I am dead—”
“Don’t talk like that!”
“It will happen soon. I was already well-aged when we were wed. I have lasted much longer than I expected, probably because of you, my dear. But it will happen. I can hear Death tapping at the walls. I know him—very well. I owe him this.”
Althea put a hand to her mouth.
“Promise me,” he said, “that when I am dead, you will burn the house down.”
“The manor,” he said impatiently. He clasped his wrist to his chest, looking really angry, angrier than she had ever seen him look. “Take the furniture out if you must, take your clothes, whatever you want to keep—but burn it to the ground. Leave the doors opened. It must burn.”
“You’re mad,” she said unsteadily. “This is my home! I live here too! I can’t just—why?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. He sank to his knees in front of her. “Please. If you have ever loved me—if we have been friends these last few years—”
“You aren’t well,” she said, standing up. “You’re delirious, that’s all. I’m going to send for the doctor. It will be all right, my love, it’s probably just a touch of the influenza—”
She put a hand on his forehead, and he groaned. He was ice cold, not hot.
“Please,” he said. He fell over on his side, curled in a ball, and she stood helplessly in front of him, not knowing what to do. “Please.”
When the servants found them the next morning, she was staring dry-eyed out the window, and Bluebeard’s body was already cold.
She wished now that she had listened to him.
If the house had been burned—oh, if only! Then she might be a respectable widow. They might whisper that she had gone mad, to burn such a marvelous house as a funeral pyre, but they would not stare at her with such mingled pity and disgust.
But she had not burned it. Instead she had been swept into the usual business of widowhood—papers to sort through and allotments to settle. He had left most of his affairs in good order, but there were a few things missing, and she had to turn the house over looking for them, while the lawyers tapped their feet and sent politely worded notes about vital it all was that they receive this by such-and-such a time to avoid some unspecified unpleasantness.
At last, with one of the lawyers actually in the house, she had remembered the room at the top of the tower.
“There’s one other place I suppose it could be,” she said dubiously. “My husband’s study—I never went in there. But I suppose it’s possible.”
“Were there papers in there?” asked the lawyer.
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Althea. “I still haven’t gone in there. Let me find the key.”
She had to get a chair into the library, and then check three or four bookends—was it the elephant with the saddle, or the woman with the urn, or the dragon clutching the treasure chest?—until she found the key. There were cobwebs in the urn, but nothing more. The key was as brilliantly gold as it had been the day that Bluebeard had handed it to her.
They went up the stairs to the top of the tower—stupid having a tower in a manor house, but the previous earl had been fond of eccentric architecture—and Althea fitted the key to the door.
“The dust is probably appalling,” she said. “Nobody’s been in here in six months, and I doubt my husband kept it up very well. He was a dear thing, but not much of a housekeep—”
She pushed the door open, with the lawyer at her back.
No overstuffed chairs. No etchings. Bare floors, bare walls—and them. The previous wives of Bluebeard.
The irony was that there was bad taxidermy after all. He hadn’t been good at it. Those poor women. Bad enough that he had killed them at all, but their bodies were preserved so badly that they barely looked human. At first she had thought they were festival costumes with poorly-constructed masks, draped over dress-maker’s dummies. Something. Not people.
Cobwebs draped each of the figures. There were seven in all.
“What on earth…” she said, peering more closely. “What are—oh god—”
When Althea realized what they were, she sat down in the middle of the floor and put her hands over her face. The lawyer caught her shoulder. “Miss—miss—” and then, bless him, he picked her up bodily and carried her out of that terrible room.
She didn’t go back. They had men out—constables and investigators and who knew what. They went into the room and took the pitiful contents out. Althea laid in bed for three days, her mind a great roaring silence, and then her sisters arrived and she rose off her bed long enough to throw them out again.
Once she was up, she figured that she might as well stay up. She packed the entire household up in a week, left most of the furniture to the lawyers to auction off, and went to the hunting lodge in the country. Before the horses were even unloaded, she went into every room, throwing the doors and windows open, letting light shine into every crack of the house.
There were no dead women there. She moved in at once.
It was not a bad place. It was rougher than the manor house, and the cook complained endlessly about the stove, but be damned if she was moving to the townhouse to be the butt of pity and accusation. She walked through the woods every day, wearing mourning black, not entirely sure who she was mourning for.
She still missed her husband sometimes. Every time it felt like a betrayal of those women—those other wives—and yet it was what she felt. Twenty-seven years of living with someone, sharing their bed and crying on their shoulder, were not so easily erased. There was a great deal of guilt and fury as well—enough to fill an ocean, enough to make her pound her fists on the walls and howl—but there was no one she could talk to. No one else had even been in this situation. The one person she could always talk to, the one who would have listened, was dead. And a murderer. But mostly dead.
When the lawyers found her at last, and made their report, she learned that she had a great deal of money. A murderer’s estate was automatically forfeit to the Crown, but apparently her husband had, in the last few months of his life, put everything into a trust in her name—except for the manor house.
Very well. Let it be someone else’s problem now.
She also learned that around the neck of each of his dead wives had been a necklace, and on each necklace hung a brilliant golden key.
“How frustrating that must have been for him,” she said, and laughed a little to herself. Her laughter sounded rusty and disused, but it was a laugh all the same.
She really hadn’t known.
She’d just thought that that the world was a complicated place, and everyone in it deserved a little bit of privacy, and perhaps a room of one’s own.
Author’s Note: This story first appeared on the blog at Red Wombat Studio, under the name Ursula Vernon. It is included in the Toad Words anthology.