Day 24 and 2 installments. Yay!! Over double my word count 3 days running I think. So here’s installment A.
Elizabeth was waiting for Victor’s return and he had barely landed through the door before she was there asking the news.
“It is done. She is found guilty and condemned.”
Elizabeth turned deathly pale and it seemed to him that a lesser woman would have collapsed beneath the weight of his dreadful news.
“There is more,” he added softly. “She has confessed.”
She remained standing but contrived to turn even paler yet and emitted a small whimper. “But how can that be?!” How can it be that Justine, our precious charge, entrusted to us when barely walking, could be the source of all our sorrows? I relied firmly on her innocence. Could I be so fooled? Her virtue appeared unassailable. She had not been herself of late, it’s true, but there was no malevolence visible in her, just a sad confusion. Oh Victor, what have I partaken in? For I have endeavoured to assist her in all manner of ways since her return.”
“I have no answer for you, cousin,” he replied, guiding her to the library and sitting her by the fire. “I am no better at measuring human nature than you are, for even now I am near convinced of her innocence!”
It was then their father entered with the same news. “Well, the matter is concluded. The treacherous girl has been condemned. I just received the news. To add insult, the villain has the audacity to ask for a visit from Elizabeth! Can you imagine it? She has confessed you know and yet still believes herself deserving of rights.”
“She asked for me?” Elizabeth was stunned.
“I said it was out of the question of course. I was tempted to throw the fellow out bodily for even passing on such a request.”
Elizabeth’s demeanour changed, as she straightened her back and firmed her shoulders. “Father,” she said, quiet but firm in her tone. “You needn’t have answered for me. Naturally, I will go.”
“How could you possibly entertain such an idea!?” asked her father, aghast.
“I failed somewhere, father. I must know how. Whether I will find my answers in a prison confrontation, I do not know, but I will certainly not find them sitting at home.”
“She will not be alone father, I promise. I will attend with her.” Victor was in need of answers also, as well as concerned for his cousin’s well-being.
“Madness,” their father sighed, but without conviction. He took a seat at his desk in the corner, but took up no papers.
Elizabeth visited the convicted girl that afternoon. Victor gripped her hand as they entered the prison, but her strength would have held without his support, he knew. For Elizabeth’s part she was shocked at how weakened Victor was upon their entering, and his trembling traveled through her palms. They released each other when Justine entered. The women’s interview would be their own.
Justine’s first thought was to throw herself at the skirts of her mistress, but decided against it. Instead she simply stood erect and manacled in front of the woman. She stood with more dignity than a confessed murderer ought was the thought that ran through the minds of both Victor and Elizabeth.
“I thank you for seeing me, dear lady,” was her hushed greeting. She did not look at her but kept her eyes lowered.
“I have come, but why? Why have you called me Justine? Do you have new tortures to inflict upon me?”
Justine gave a sob, and that was when she collapsed at her lady’s feet. She grasped her skirts and lamented. “Dear lady, oh my dear, dear lady. I could not bear it if I went to my death without assuring you of my innocence. That you would believe that your love and generosity could be returned with such horrible thanks. You who take responsibility for all, should not feel responsibility for this. Please know that your humble servant had no hand in it.” Justine wiped the tears from her eyes and stood, newly collected. She motioned to a table and its two mean, wooden chairs. They sat.
“But if you are innocent, why should you confess?” asked Elizabeth.
“I was forced into it, my dear lady. I was haunted by my confessor. Tortured day and night, even before the trial and its verdict. I would receive no absolution, would descend into hell and purgatory. I would be excommunicated! The tortures of this life, even an ignominious death, I could bear, dear lady, but to bear these same tortures into the afterlife — it was too much. I confessed. I gave a lie in exchange for peace. I do not know what this lie will cost me before our God, but as He knows my innocence, I believe he will not count it against me. But I could not have you count it against me dear lady. You, whom I love so much, who has loved me, no. That I could not have. Your opinion is all that I value in this life.” She stopped and gave a single sob. “I am sorry, dear lady. Perhaps I should not have burdened you with this. You would have probably been happier otherwise. I…I apologize.”
“Oh no, Justine. I will always prefer truth, no matter how hard. You do not know what this means to me. I was so convinced of your innocence, and to find my judgement so ill conceived, that was the greater burden, dear child. But to hear your assurances once more brings me great solace, though obvious heart break with it. Please forgive me for having even momentarily doubted you.” She reached her hands across the table. Justine kept hers in her lap.
“Oh dear lady!” she sobbed and then raised her hands. She clasped both of Elizabeth’s and kissed them. “Dear, dear lady.” She continued her sobbing and landed more kisses on Elizabeth’s hands. “You do not know what this means to me. If I die, I die happy in the knowledge that at least you know the truth.” She suddenly spied Victor standing in a corner. “Oh sir, forgive me. I am so distracted. I did not notice you. Please, sir, I know that it is a lot to ask under these circumstances, but know, as your sweet cousin knows, that I am innocent.”
Victor came forward, but found himself unable to answer her, so despondent was he over their exchange. He had hoped against hope that maybe he was incorrect in his assumptions, but it had proved otherwise. He had no doubt that Justine was wrongly condemned, a victim of his terrible meddling with forces he had no right to.
“You have no worries there, Justine,” Elizabeth assured her. “For where I have wavered, Victor has been steadfast. He has never doubted your innocence.”
“I thank you, sir,” said Justine.
Victor wished to scream, so appalled was he at this terrible situation. He nodded to her and fought back his tears. He was unsuccessful.
The two women spoke a little longer, going over old memories, mostly about William. They even laughed. “I knew him from his birth. It is a great sadness that he is gone,” remarked Justine.
“I will talk to who I can, Justine. I will reverse this injustice,” Elizabeth promised. She left the table and moved towards Victor. She squeezed his hand. “We will both work on your behalf.”
“I thank you. But know that no matter what the outcome you have brought me great peace and happiness. God bless and keep you both.” She rose and gave a small, dignified bow and artfully blinked back her tears. They were dismissed.
Elizabeth was true to her word and appealed to all she could appeal to, but to no avail. The decision remained. Justine died the next morning. Elizabeth and Victor were devastated.