Cat shut the door and locked it behind her. She stood off to the side of her bedroom window, her eyes scanning the garden square for Marlena X. Taxis rolled to a stop. Smartly dressed women came in groups and alone, up the path towards the Carlisle house. A photographer – Cat assumed it was the reporter from the Times – snapped photos of the guests as they headed up the walkway, like brides walking up the aisle.
At precisely seventeen minutes past eleven, Cat tucked the Britannia magazine under her arm and headed down the stairs, mindful of the sound of clinking teacups and the low murmur of women’s voices. She let herself into Benton’s office. Once inside, she closed the door, locked it, and listened for two minutes exactly. All she needed was Alicia to come searching for her. She felt the usual pang of guilt at the way she had treated her friend, but shook it off. More important things were in play now.
When no one interrupted her, she moved over to Benton’s desk and squatted down to face the safe behind it. She used the combination that her husband had shared with her fifteen years earlier – their wedding anniversary – hoping that it still worked. She turned the dial to the final number, and with a click the safe popped open. There, on the top was an exact replica of the envelope that Reginald had given Cat yesterday. She was about to switch it and hurry away, when curiosity got the best of her.
Careful to keep things exactly as she found them, Cat pulled a stack of documents out of the safe. Many had been in there for decades and carried a musty smell that caused Cat to sneeze. Keeping them in order, she went through the pile of deeds, letters written to Benton by his grandfather, and Benton’s childhood stamp collection.
At the very bottom of the pile was a thick envelope, a milky rectangle of fine paper. Cat recognised Freddy Sykes’s childish handwriting scrawled across the front. The message made her blood boil. Benton, Allow this to serve as a gentleman’s IOU – Two thousand pounds on my word. Cheers, F. Freddy Sykes owed her husband quite a bit of money. Interesting, especially considering how stingy Benton was with her. After she placed everything back in the safe, she tucked the documents she switched back into the magazine, closed the safe, and moved over to the door, where she stood listening, not daring to breathe.
She heard Alicia, as she addressed the women passionately about the need for an orphanage devoted to educating the children, so they could have a means to support themselves when they came of age and ventured out into the world. Before her bout of influenza, Cat would have been the woman doing the speaking to the group.
Cat opened the door and peeked out into the hallway. Once sure that no one was about, she crept up the stairs and shut the bedroom door behind her. When she was safely inside her room, she exhaled, as an uncontrollable shudder of relief ran through her body. She sank down, her back sliding against the door as her knees buckled. In the back of her mind a frisson of hope bloomed. She had done something useful for the first time in her life, and taken one small step towards freedom. The risk had been immeasurable, but she had triumphed.
She was going to leave Benton. She knew that once she left the house, there would be no chance of a reconciliation. Benton would never take her back, even if he wouldn’t divorce her. That was a risk she was willing to take. She stood up, brushed off her skirt, and moved across the room where she opened the curtains halfway. She put the Britannia magazine with the switched documents in her big handbag, thought better of it, and wedged the envelope up under her writing desk. No one would ever find it there. She had followed instructions. Everything had gone according to plan. Now all she had to do was wait.