THE ANASTASIA SYNDROME
From "The Anastasia Syndrome"
With a combination of reluctance and relief, Judith closed the book she had been studying and laid her pen on top of her thick notebook. She had been working steadily for hours, and her back felt cramped as she pushed back the old-fashioned swivel chair and got up from the desk. The day was overcast. Long ago, she had turned on the powerful desk light she had bought to replace the elaborately fringed Victorian lamp which belonged in this furnished rental flat in the Knightsbridge district of London.
Flexing her arms and shoulders, Judith walked over to the window and looked down at Montpelier Street. At 33, the grayness of the January day was already merging with the approaching dusk and the slight shudder of the windowpanes testified that the wind was still brisk. Unconsciously she smiled, remembering the letter she had received in answer to her inquiry about this place:
"Dear Judith Chase,
The flat will be available from 1 September until 1 May. Your references are most satisfactory, and it is a comfort to me to know that you will be engaged in writing your new book. The Civil War in seventeenth-century England has proved marvelously fertile to romantic writers and it is gratifying that a serious historical writer of your stature has chosen it. The flat is unpretentious but spacious and I think you will find it adequate. The lift is frequently out of order; however, three flights of stairs are not too formidable, do you think? I personally climb them by choice."
The letter ended with a precise, spidery signature: "Beatrice Ardsley." Judith knew from mutual friends that Lady Ardsley was 83.
Her fingertips touched the windowsill and she felt the cold, raw air forcing its way through the wooden frame. Shivering, Judith decided that she would have just enough time for a hot bath, if she hurried. Outside, the street was almost empty. The few pedestrians were scurrying along rapidly, their heads bent into their necks, coat collars rolled up. As she turned away, she saw a toddler running down the street just below her window. Horrified, Judith watched as the little girl tripped and fell into the road. If a car came around the corner, the driver wouldn't see her in time. There was an elderly man halfway down the street. She pulled at the window to scream for him to help, but then a young woman appeared from nowhere, darted into the road, scooped up the child and cradled it in her arms.
"Mummy, Mummy," Judith heard it cry.
She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands as she heard herself wailing aloud, "Mummy, Mummy." Oh God. Not again!
She forced herself to open her eyes. As she had expected, the woman and toddler had vanished. Only the old man was there, making his careful way along the sidewalk.
The phone rang as she was fastening a diamond pin to the jacket of her silk faille cocktail suit. It was Stephen.
"Darling, how did the writing go today?" he asked.
"Very well, I think." Judith felt her pulse quicken. Forty-six years old and her heart leaped like a schoolgirl's at the sound of Stephen's voice.
"Judith, there's a bloody emergency Cabinet meeting and it's running late. Do you mind terribly meeting me at Fiona's? I'll send the car."
"Don't do that. A taxi will be quicker. If you're late, it's state business. If I'm late, it's bad business."
Stephen laughed. "God, you do make my life easy!" His voice lowered. "I'm besotted with you, Judith. Let's only stay as long as we must at the party, then go off for a quiet dinner together."
"Perfect. Good-bye, Stephen. I love you."
Judith replaced the receiver, a smile playing on her lips. Two months ago, she had been seated at a dinner party next to Sir Stephen Hallett. "Quite the biggest catch in England," her hostess, Fiona Collins, confided. "Stunning looks. Charming. Brilliant. Home Secretary. It's common knowledge that he'll be the next Prime Minister. And darling Judith, best of all, he's eligible."
"I met Stephen Hallett once or twice in Washington years ago," Judith said. "Kenneth and I liked him very much. But I came to England to write a book, not to get involved with a man, charming or not."
"Oh nonsense," Fiona snapped. "You've been widowed for 10 years. That's quite long enough. You've made your name as an important writer. Darling, it really is nice to have a man around the house, especially if the house turns out to be 10 Downing Street. My bones tell me that you and Stephen would be perfect together. Judith, you're a beautiful woman, but you always send out signals saying 'Stay away, I'm not interested.' Don't do that tonight, please."
She had not sent out those signals. And that night Stephen had escorted her home and come up for a nightcap. They had talked till nearly dawn. When he left, he had kissed her lightly on the lips. "If I have passed a more pleasant evening in my life, I don't remember it," he had whispered.
Copyright © 1989 by Mary Higgins Clark