Atoned

By Kayla Coleman All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance

A Man worth Killing

“You mean to say that Mr. Yultiere had you kill him at a dinner party where you could have been seen- and were! I remind you- all because he was ill?” Millicent didn’t notice she had begun pacing around the large room; her heel lightly scuffing the hardwood floors as Mr. Atwin watched her transfixed.

“Yes,” said William. “Mr. Yultiere was already dying from a tumor in his lungs. As the days passed since he first learned of it, his symptoms grew worse and more painful. He paid to be killed after enjoying his final night surrounded by friends at the dinner party. There were three of us in on it, but I was the one who had to do the actual bidding.” Millicent glanced over at Mr. Atwin who was now staring distantly out the front windows at the misty skies as his thumb played with his lower lip. “I killed in the war, so I was the seemly choice for him.”

“This isn’t war though Mr. Atwin.” Millicent stopped pacing the floor.

Mr. Atwin lowered his right hand from his lip and stared right at Ms. Ballard. “How many times have I told you to please call me William?”

The dull light filtering in through the windows gave a soft glow to part of Millicent’s face and chest as she drew a deep breath. “Fine. William,” she corrected. “This isn’t war. This is Devon Shire, England… where taking the life of an innocent man- paid or unpaid by him- is against the law! They will look for someone to place the blame upon, and what will you do when it is some innocent soul and not you? Will you let them go to prison William? Will you let them hang?” Mr. Atwin watched Millicent with fixed attention as her anger swelled inside her breast and her words grew more sharp. It wasn’t often one saw a lady not afraid of how she may be perceived. To William, she was fearless.

“I did what I had to do,” was all that he could say. “He was in pain-,”

“So you put him down like a lame animal?” Millicent shouted.

“Naïve, naïve… oh how you still have a lot to learn of this world Ms. Ballard.” There was a brief pause of silence, as the two listened to the light pattering of rain against the windows outside. When he had collected his thoughts, William looked at Millicent and said calmly. “I do not expect you to accept or sympathize with what I did. I just need you to know that it was not my decision, but his, and I merely did what he asked for me because I understood the suffering that he was going through.”

A dim haze blocked out the room, and for a moment Millicent was somewhere deep within the recesses of her imagination where the sound of gunshots blared in the distance, and before her stood William- with his coat torn down the side as crimson blood seeped out from the wound into the fibers of his uniform.

“I’m sorry,” Millicent whispered before she’d even realized she was talking. With her heart and mind in constant battle over the severity of a single man’s acts, she didn’t realize how much she had de-humanized him so profusely when the crime that he’d committed was done would respect and empathy for a man he knew only wanted an end to a period of suffering that could have otherwise consumed the life that he wanted to remember dearly.

Millicent moved in the natural light so that the deeply apologetic expression sculpted into the smooth lines of her face, could be clearly seen by William. “I should be going,” she said as she tucked a loose tendril of auburn hair behind her ear.

Millicent turned away from Mr. Atwin and began to leave even though a greater force compelled her to stay right where she was. William was quick to interrupt the silence. “Ms. Ballard,” he said quite suddenly. “Please return later so I may paint, won’t you?” Millicent paused in the hallway just outside the room and looked up at the man standing in the still as a statue in the center of the floor.

“I will see you at two,” she said, and then she was gone. William didn’t move as he listened to the front door open and close softly, and watched as Millicent walked back out into the rain with her umbrella held high above her head to keep her auburn hair and pressed gown dry. As quickly as he had watched her appear from the mist earlier that morning, she disappeared back into it, exactly how he didn’t want her to leave his life.

***

“What were you doing at Mr. Atwin’s?” Millicent quickly looked up from her dripping umbrella as she stepped inside the manor to find her younger brother anxiously awaiting her return.

“Well Alexander, noisy boys don’t get biscuits you hear?” Think Millicent think, she told herself quickly. “If you must know, I went to see about our arrangement for painting later today, and invited him to lunch here this afternoon.” Which you forgot to do, she was reminded.

“Well, wouldn’t he be coming here for lunch anyways? He hasn’t any food at the guest house has he?”

“You’re quite right. Silly me, he said the same thing when I asked. I must’ve forgotten.” Millicent smiled and rubbed her brother’s blonde locks lovingly before sending him off back to his own devices.

When her brother finally ran off, Millicent continued into the drawing room where she found her sister seated on one of the cushioned chairs with embroidery in her lap. “Why do you have such a distaste for Mr. Atwin Mill? What has the man ever done to you to deserve the back of your hand?”

Millicent rolled her eyes at her sister. “Do all of you not have lives of your own to manage, that you must cross-examine mine? Didn’t you see that I invited him to lunch just now? I don’t dislike he man per say. I just don’t warm to a stranger in my home quite as you all do.”

Eloise watched her sister closely, with those same hazel-green eyes fixed on her sister like she was staring at a different version of herself. Millicent found the nerve to move from the doorway to sit in the windowsill where her novel awaited her return. “Forgive me if I’m cautious about my siblings being around a stranger. How much do we really know about Mr. Atwin Eloise? Do you even know how old he is? Where he lived before this? What family he might have elsewhere? What he did in the war? Or if he has a wife somewhere?”

“Father knows him Millicent. Do you not trust that our own father has our best interest in mind? If Mr. Atwin wasn’t a good man, then Father wouldn’t have welcomed him into our home.” It’s as simple as that. Millicent sighed loud enough for her sister to hear and see, raised her book in front of her gaze, and ended the conversation right then.

***

“I see you brought your own book this time,” he said when Millicent entered the room and resumed her position on the chaise the same as before. “The lace on your sleeve is tucked in however.” Mr. Atwin approached Millicent quickly with his hand reached out to touch her arm. She glanced down and looked at her sleeve, then held it out for him to fix. “And I just need to adjust your scarf slightly so that it looks as close as possible to last time...”

As he leaned in, he caught the scent of the perfume she’d dabbed on her neck after changing into the dress he was sketching. “You’ll tell me if you are uncomfortable?” he asked in almost a whisper. Millicent’s heart raced. “Or will you simply run out of here like last time?” Ms. Ballard let out a sigh, probably louder than she needed to do to get her point across. It worked none-the-less. Mr. Atwin laughed and retreated to his stool and easel where he picked up where he left off with his initial sketch.

“You’ve never told me what you enjoy doing in your free time?” asked William from behind the canvas.

“Oh,” said Millicent glancing up from her book. You can’t say that you love racing your horses through the forest, she thought. That’s not lady-like. Nor could she say that she simply enjoyed reading in the garden when the weather permitted for fear that she would sound to romantic… “I like to ride horses,” she blurted before she could think of an alternative. Mr. Atwin glanced over his easel to give her a glimpse of warm smile.

“I wouldn’t take you as one who rides properly all of the time? Am I wrong to assume that you enjoy racing astride when you are on your own?” Millicent lifted the book in front of her face to cover her rosy cheeks.

“Perhaps,” she said into the creamy pages. When William next glanced up, Millicent notice him freeze, then lower his charcoal from the sketch.

Growing worrisome quite quickly, Millicent glanced over her shoulder at the curtains draped in the windows. “What is it?” she asked glancing back at William. He shrugged and rose from his stool abruptly. “I saw shadows in the curtain, I believe one of your parents might be here.” Millicent sat up on the chaise suddenly, as though trying to hide something that she wasn’t doing while Mr. Atwin went to get the door.

“Oh Mr. Atwin!” came a shrill of laughter from the front door. Millicent went completely still. It was none other than the voice of Ms. Katherine Taylor along with the side chatter of the younger Ballard daughter.

“Please, do come in,” greeted William warmly as he led the ladies into the main room where Millicent waited.

“Oh Mill!” beamed Ms. Taylor. Millicent set down her book and rose from the chaise, and rose to greet her friend who was skimming the contents of the large room with a speculative smirk upon her thin tinted lips.

“Hello Katherine,” she replied with a smile that hid her confusion and jealousy. She placed a kiss on either side of her friend’s cheeks before taking a step back. “What are you two doing here?”

“Well we wanted to see how things were progressing silly!” said Ms. Taylor who paraded past Mr. Atwin with a strong whiff of floral perfume trailing behind her. Millicent exchanged glances with her sister whose expression seemed just as surprised as Millicent’s. Mr. Atwin quietly greeted Eloise before quickly turning his attention to the prying Ms. Taylor.

“I’m still sketching,” he pointed out. “I should be able to start painting by the end of today though.”

Ms. Taylor gave a quiet hum as she eyed his work from different angles. Millicent started to move towards the easel, curious to see what he had down so far, but was blocked by Mr. Atwin like a tall sturdy rugged tree… “I’m afraid I don’t let my clients see the work until it’s finished,” he told her softly. Millicent smiled, trying to hide the warmth in her chest at the smooth sound of his voice just then.

Eloise peered around the easel and smiled. “Quite a figure you have to capture Mill. Must be an interesting subject to have Mr. Atwin, isn’t she?” Eloise winked with her deep auburn curls practically pouring out of her pinned up hair. Millicent tried to hide her annoyance eat her sister when she turned away, but William knew that she was uncomfortable.

“If you two wouldn’t mind Ms. Taylor, Ms. Ballard, I would like to get a little more work done this afternoon so I can start painting.”

Ms. Taylor’s face lit up at the thought. “Oh of course! How foolish of me to keep you from your work Mr. Atwin! Paint away! I’ll arrange with your mother to have you come for tea here within the next few days Mill! Perhaps I can you pick you up in my carriage tomorrow to ride together to Mr. Yultiere’s funeral at the church?” The funeral. That’s tomorrow. Barely able to respond, Millicent nodded and flashed a false smile as her friend and sister left to return to the manor.

“You will be going won’t you?” Millicent asked once the door was closed.

William reappeared, standing in the hallway just outside the main room with his hand combing through his hair as he gave an intense thinking expression. “Yes, of course I’ll be going,” he replied solemnly. “Now where were we?”

Her eyes wandered from her book to around the room, remembering the life and laughter echoing in the walls when she was younger when her mother was a socialite. A few canvases rested up against the desk that must’ve been moved from the other room into here. Peering a little more to the right of the easel, Millicent eyed the papers strewn about its surface. “Do you have any other artwork you’ve done since you’ve been here?” she inquired curiously.

“Just small things I’ve done here and there. Nothing important as this…” replied William without once tearing his eyes from the canvas. Setting down her book on the back of the chaise, Millicent rose softly and quietly to straighten out her dress.

“May I have a look?” she asked as she started for the solid oak drawing top.

“They’re ra-ther- personal,” stuttered Mr. Atwin who couldn’t make up his mind fast enough. Par of him wanted to turn the easel away from Ms. Ballard’s direction so she couldn’t see what he was currently working on, while the other part wanted race across the room to collect all of his scattered thoughts off of the drawing top. Fumbling, he set down his paints and turned the easel before quickly rising to cross the room.

It was too late however, as Ms. Ballard laid eyes upon his beautiful works, painted and sketched from his deepest thoughts. On the table were sketches of Ballard Place looking from the guest house, the pond itself, and then there were the light color paintings squared on parchment… ones of Millicent’s silhouette strolling out by the pond with her parasol in hand, one of the rear window looking out of the drawing room with Millicent seated on the windowsill with her gaze fixed on her book, and then there was one of a room glowing with the gold light of the chandeliers as a woman in a sea foam gown was in the midst of twirling on the floor, with her chin lifted towards the ceiling, her eyes closed, and a smile upon her lips. The red hair was an unmistakable giveaway that it was meant to be her.

Millicent smiled to herself, recognizing the beauty in all of them, yet completely unaware of the conflicting feelings William was experiencing while watching her interpret his closed heart.

“They’re stunning,” she whispered as she let her fingers trace over the dry texture of one of the paintings.

“They’re not all so blissful,” was all he could say. Millicent glanced up at William, seeing the grey storm clouds churning in his blue irises.

“What do you mean?” she asked confused.

William finally moved away from where he waited, and went around the other side of the desk. Grabbing his leather bound sketching parchment, he set it on top of the other drawings and paintings, and opened it for Millicent to see. There, on the first page was the dark charcoal scene of death etched upon the face of a fellow soldier. Then there were the grey stormy skies and the blood soaked flowers. He quickly shut it when he turned the next page, but Millicent had already caught a glimpse of a man on his knees at the foot of the cross. She knew that it was him, repenting for his sins. He didn’t make eye contact with her when he spoke. “I think we’re done for today. I’ve begun painting so I will only need to see you one or two more times.”

“Very well,” she whispered under her breath. “Good day William.”

The dreary mists of Sunday morning broke with the warm light of an autumn sun across the shire. It would have been a day much like all of the other Sundays, if it had not been for the funeral of Mr. Yultiere set to take place in the church yard after the morning service.

The collection of attendees to the service was not much larger than usual, Millicent noted to herself. Mr. Yultiere wasn’t necessarily a very sociable man among society, and nor did he have any kin to mourn his sudden death.

Adorned in a simple black gown with a collar of black lace as custom for the occasion, Millicent Ballard joined her siblings and parents to the church while Mr. Atwin assured that he would ensue shortly after he took care of one quick errand on the other side of the town.

Tracking mud on their shoes into the chapel, the Ballard children filed in behind the Fairweathers, who never missed a service and were sure to let everyone know just how dedicated they were to their faith. The Ballard’s on the other hand, teetered on the borderline of regular attendees ever since Mrs. Ballard took ill. Whenever she wasn’t feeling in the spirits to leave the manor on a Sunday morning, nor would her family for she didn’t want to be left behind to miss out. She’d rather them all miss out than just her.

“Morning Ballard family, pleased that you could join us in prayer this morning,” greeted Joseph Turner, the altar boy.

“Morning to you too young Joseph,” replied Mrs. Ballard with a curt nod of her head before ushering her children down the pew in the third row. “Alexander, save a seat for Mr. Atwin down on the end will you dear? He should be along shortly, and wouldn’t want to have to stand in the back.” Although no one really ever had to stand in the back, Millicent thought to herself. The church could in fact be considered a small cathedral with seating for thirty. Although she’d prefer him not here at all.

The entrance door shut with a loud clank of the handle, and the religious head cleared his throat. Hymns. They would start with hymns, he explained before signaling for everyone to begin. Millicent glanced over her shoulder at the door where the altar boy waited for the late few who would trickle in. Still no William.

Three songs in, the door behind them opened suddenly, almost with a loud thud as it swung for the wall. All singing ceased and eyes turned to see one startled Joseph moving out of the way so that the man could make his entrance. Millicent nearly burst out with laughter at the sight of Mr. Atwin, almost just as startled as the church-goers, for he had underestimated his arrival. Taking off his hat, he bowed his head to everyone, and snuck down the side aisle to stand beside Alexander. Millicent’s brother gave the man a mean grin as he punched him lightly in the arm.

“Well done,” he whispered to Mr. Atwin who shared a quick smile before the singing picked up once more. The service proceeded in the usual manner with the eulogy given by the Bishop before everyone followed the procession out into the church graveyard where the innocent man was lowered into the earth for all eternity.

Millicent couldn’t break her attention away from the cold wet earth being shoveled on top of the wooden casket, each landing with a softer thud than the last as the wood slowly disappeared from sight. How could he stand there like that? She thought to herself. And watch the man he killed, be buried in the ground as everyone watched solemnly. Beyond the graveyard though, came the unsettling presence Ms. Ballard had felt several times before. When she glanced up from the hole in the ground that had everyone else transfixed, she caught sight of the large man in a black coat with a high dark collar and black top hat to match his soulless eyes. He watched Millicent with an unfaltering gaze that she knew could only mean one thing. She was being watched to make sure she didn’t speak.

In small groups of two or three, slowly the congregation dispersed to go about their days, likely to never speak of the matter again seeing as the body just placed in the ground had no real impact on any of their lives. Millicent wasn’t going to stop speaking about him though, especially to Mr. Atwin… she couldn’t let it go. And if she was going to be followed for the rest of her days, then the man responsible deserved to live in his own kind of hell hearing about the man he killed every time he talked to the woman he admired.

“Do you need a ride back to the estate William my boy?” Asked Mr. Ballard, all too oblivious to the unspoken tension between his daughter and the murderer staying under his roof.

“I walked here, and I think that I will walk back. It is a fair day and I could use the fresh air to clear my mind.”

“We all could use that every now and again most certainly!” cried the old man agreeing. “We will see you back at the estate them. Are you ready to go my dear?” he asked as he placed a comforting hand on his daughter’s back.

“I was actually thinking of paying a visit to Katherine, Father. I should be back in time for afternoon tea if you’d like.”

Mr. Ballard smiled at his daughter with a gleam in his weary eyes as he smiled and bid her farewell. She set off before Mr. Atwin could ask to walk with her. Still, upon his own accord, the man walked briskly down the churchyard steps out into the cobblestone street to call after Ms. Ballard. “Have a blessed day Mr. Atwin,” she called without ever peering over her shoulder to give the man any chance to talk.

Still, her heart fluttered at the thought of the man standing there in the middle of the street watching her leave him rejected.

Mill wasn’t planning on actually going to Katherine’s place. She instead took the long way home off the main road, following the nature path that cut across the Ellingst property and landed her at the far end of her family’s estate where she carefully wandered past the guest house where Mr. Atwin might already be if he took the regular route home.

She was tempted to stop and knock on his door, but she didn’t have a valid excuse- especially after she had just turned him away in town. Besides, she thought to herself. He may not even be home. On that note, she tried to push the man as far from her present thoughts as possible.

The moment she walked through the back door into the manor, any hope of trying to forget about the man for a day was dashed. “Oh hello Millicent dearie! Did you have a nice walk home? How is Ms. Katherine doing? Such a pity she wasn’t at service- did she say why she wasn’t there? The Lord doesn’t like inconsistency. One must be committed to serve and worship our Father in Heaven.” Millicent stood and waited for her mother to finish talking; all too aware of Mr. Atwin’s gaze fixed solely on her.

“She thought she might have caught a cold, Mother. She can’t be sure yet but she wanted to stay home to keep from exerting herself.”

“Well I certainly hope you didn’t get too close to her if she’s taken ill! The last thing I want is for my darling girl to fall ill as well! We must have Martha make the girl some of her bone broth soup. No one can make it quite like her. And as for you my dear, you should go freshen up and change. Mr. Atwin here was looking to finish his sessions with you today.” Millicent glanced from her mother to the man standing to her right.

“Haven’t you got somewhere to be today Mr. Atwin?” she asked perhaps a little to snidely for her mother’s taste.

“Millicent Ballard! That is no way to talk to the poor man! Be grateful he is taking time out of his day to paint your lovely portrait for me. Don’t you wish to make your mother happy?”

“Yes, Mama. Of course I wish to make you happy,” she replied. “I simply meant that I remember Mr. Atwin saying something about a meeting with an old friend today, and therefore thought that he was otherwise preoccupied.”

Somewhat confused, but clearly catching on to her meaning, Mr. Atwin cast Millicent a devious smirk. “That isn’t until late this evening. I have most of this afternoon at my disposal Ms. Ballard.”

Millicent suppressed the urge to mock the man’s devilishly handsome face, and quickly left up the stairs to her room.

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