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The manor that lay atop the lush green hillside looked forlorn and empty. Its white-washed walls were cracked, and the slate gray roof tiles had begun to tumble, bowing to the elements after two centuries of torture. Ivy slunk down the face of the house like a veil, clouding the windows and smothering the handsome oak door.
The manor had only one occupant, a young woman whose mother had been laid to rest not one month before. Four gravestones now cast their shadows on the manor's garden and the inhabitant's mind: two adults, a young man, and an infant.
The young woman who lived in the manor had been branded by the townspeople: she was “of unsound mind” according to the laced-up doctor, “crackers upstairs” said the blood-spattered butcher.
But as she rattled around the manor, Nancy was content.
The grand piano was the only item in the parlor not covered either by a dull white sheet or a thick layer of dust. It gleamed its pride to the room, and it was the one thing Nancy truly cared for. For hours she would place herself before it, straight-backed and focused, her satin-gloved hands moving across the keys like shadows, white on white, blending and blurring in pure harmony. Nancy loved the piano, the constant risk of a wrong note to destroy a swift tune, the way speed and patience went hand-in-hand to control the resonant notes.
She sang too, her voice sweet and careful, and though the French windows were firmly latched, the sound would flow out like liquid emotion, haunting the grounds and chilling the lake.
That was what drew him there, the sleek silver-haired banker in his black suit and starched shirt. His shoes, so used to tapping his presence on polished floors, crunched with every step along the sweeping gravel drive. He could hear Nancy, her voice muffled by the thick walls but still clean and beautiful, entwined with the sound of the piano.
The front door was obscured by ivy, but he followed the voice through a side door that had been left open, through the dull rooms with their shuttered windows, where slats of light illuminated the waltzing dust.
The voice had reached a peak. It rang out, consuming the banker, and a single drop of sweat slid down his forehead. He loosened his tie with his thumb and forefinger before raising his hand, gently pinching the brim of his hat, and casting it to the floor. It swirled like a coin before rattling to a halt. All lay still, except for Nancy's voice that soared like a bird song beyond the closed door that challenged the banker.
Palms flat against the cool wood, he gave a gentle push and the door swung open, inviting him into the room, which blinded him with its sudden brightness. The banker squinted into the light, and Nancy's slender form swam into view.
The banker stood in the doorway, his great hulking shadow frozen. His gray eyes swept over the room, then came to rest on Nancy's bowed head. She glanced up, searching his face for aggression or danger, the piano tune never faltering. In the second that her eyes locked with his, time slowed and he drank in the details of her face: The thick dark hair, coiled into a plait that dangled over one shoulder like twine. The piercing amber eyes that had seen the horrors of life too soon and ruined the mind they veiled. The emerald ball gown, tattered and filthy, the material hanging in loose drapes around her thin frame.
She was pale and skeletal, but her song was beautiful, and the banker stood in the doorway and listened. The words seemed to be in another tongue, but the melody told of love lost and bitter tears, and the banker bowed his head with respect for all that was gone.
When the piece flowed into silence, Nancy clasped her hands in her lap and stared straight ahead. The banker turned and left the manor.
He returned every afternoon, always without a word of greeting, praise, or farewell. The days began to shorten, the sun weakening, and on the day when the first raindrops fell from the sky, flinging themselves upon the manor grounds, he did not come.
The sky was washed with gray, the house bathed in its ethereal glow, and Nancy watched for him. She stood at the window until the moon rose, and when her tears had dried along with the rain, she turned away, slipping through the house, out the side door and down the sweeping drive into the sleeping town, the thin blade in her hand glinting its purpose by the light of the stars.
When she returned, her steps were heavy and labored, for she bore a great weight. His arms were slung about her shoulders, and his feet dragged along the gravel path, grating and scratching like a trapped animal. She carried him with surprising strength into to the parlor, and lay him upon the lush carpet while she tugged the dust sheet from the chaise lounge that faced the piano.
Then she stooped, lying down beside him. Her long fingers smoothed his silver hair and stroked his damp brow. His eyelids flickered and he gave a guttering choke, but Nancy spoke soothing words to him.
She kissed his paling cheek and heaved him upright onto the seat she had prepared for him, where his head lolled grotesquely on his shoulder, exposing the scarlet gash that was dribbling dark droplets onto his starched white shirt.
Nancy smiled down at him, as she had once smiled at the infant child sleeping in her arms, before turning, her emerald gown swirling about her, and placing herself at the piano.
She would play for him forever more.