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The Silent Companions By Laura Purcell

Elsie Bainbridge is newly married, newly widowed and pregnant when she is shipped off to her late-husband’s remote family seat to grieve away from London society’s prying eyes. She is also in solitary confinement in an asylum, rendered mute by the horrifying events that unfolded between then and now. Outside her cell, she hears the word “murderess” muttered again and again. She knows it's aimed at her, but she can't remember why. All she knows is no one will show her a mirror, and her hands... well, something isn’t quite right. Shifting expertly between 1865, “the present” (whenever that may be) and 1635, this is an old-school gothic chiller and an extremely satisfying one at that. SB

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THE SILENT COMPANIONS

Laura Purcell

£12.99, Raven Books

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Elsie Bainbridge is newly married, newly widowed and pregnant when she is shipped off to her late-husband’s remote family seat to grieve away from London society’s prying eyes. She is also in solitary confinement in an asylum, rendered mute by the horrifying events that unfolded between then and now. Outside her cell, she hears the word “murderess” muttered again and again. She knows it's aimed at her, but she can't remember why. All she knows is no one will show her a mirror, and her hands... well, something isn’t quite right. Shifting expertly between 1865, “the present” (whenever that may be) and 1635, this is an old-school gothic chiller and an extremely satisfying one at that. SB

Chapter:

One

ST JOSEPH’S HOSPITAL

The new doctor took her by surprise. Not that there was anything unusual in his arrival – doctors came and went often enough. But this one was young. New to the profession, as well as the place. There was a brightness to him that made her eyes ache.

‘This is her? Mrs Bainbridge?’ The Mrs was a nice touch. She could not remember the last time she had been given a title. It played like a tune she could only just recall. He looked up from his notes, intent upon her. ‘Mrs Bainbridge, my name is Dr Shepherd. I am here to help you. To make sure we are giving you the sufficient level of care.’

Care. She wanted to stand up from where she sat on the edge of the bed, take his arm and gently guide him to the door. This place was not for innocents. Next to the stocky, middle-aged hag of an attendant he looked so vibrant, so alive. The limewashed walls had not yet leeched the colour from his face or dulled the tone of his voice. In his eyes she saw the gleam of interest. This disturbed her more than the attendant’s scowl.

‘Mrs Bainbridge? Do you understand?’

‘Told you.’ The attendant sniffed. ‘You’ll get nothing from her.’

The doctor sighed. Tucking his papers under his arm, he came farther into her cell. ‘That does happen. Often in cases of great distress. Sometimes the shock is so intense that it renders the patient unable to speak. It seems likely, does it not?’

They bubbled up, the words in her chest. Her ribs ached and her lips tingled with the force of them. But they were ghosts, echoes of things that had been. She would never experience them again.

He bent forward so that his head was level with hers. She was acutely aware of his eyes, wide and unblinking behind his spectacles. Palest rings of mint green.

‘It can be cured. With time and patience. I have seen it done.’

The attendant sucked in a disapproving breath. ‘Don’t get close, doctor. She’s a fierce one, all right. Spat in my face once.’ How steadily he watched her. He was close enough for her to smell him: carbolic soap, cloves. Memory flickered like a tinderbox. She refused to let the flint spark.

‘You do not wish to recall what happened to you. But you can talk. The smoke inhalation was by no means bad enough to render you mute.’

‘She won’t talk, doctor. This one’s no fool. Knows where they’ll put her if she ain’t in here.’

‘But she can write?’ He looked about the room. ‘Why is there nothing here for her to write with? Have you not tried to communicate with her?’

‘Wouldn’t trust her with a pen.’

‘A slate then, and chalk. You will find them in my room.’ He shed in his pocket and thrust a key at the attendant. ‘Fetch them. Now, if you please.’

With a frown, the attendant took the key and shuffled out the door.

They were alone. She felt his eyes upon her – not hard but uncomfortable, like the tickle of an insect crawling over her leg.

‘Medicine is changing, Mrs Bainbridge. I am not a man who will give you electric shocks or plunge you into cold baths. I want to help.’ He cocked his head. ‘You must know that certain . . . accusations have been made against you. Some people suggest you should be moved to a more secure facility. Or that perhaps you do not belong in an asylum at all.’

Accusations. They never explained the basis of the charge, only called her a killer, and for a while she had lived up to the reputation: throwing cups; scratching the nurses. But now she had a room of her own and stronger medication, it was too much effort to act the part. She would rather sleep. Forget.

‘I am here to decide your fate. But in order to help you, I need you to help me. I need you to tell me what happened.’ As if he could understand. She had seen things beyond the comprehension of his small, scientific brain. Things he would deny were possible until they stole up beside him and pressed their worn, splintered hands against his.

A dimple appeared in his left cheek as he smiled. ‘I see what you are thinking. Every patient says the same, that I won’t believe them. I confess, there are many delusions here, but few are without foundation. Some experience has formed them. Even if it sounds extraordinary, I should like to hear it – what you think happened. Sometimes, the brain cannot cope with the information it has to process.

It makes sense of trauma in odd ways. If I can hear what your mind tells you, I might be able to understand how it works.’

She smiled back. It was an unpleasant smile; the one that made the nurses edge away. He didn’t flinch.

‘And perhaps we can turn your predicament to our advantage. When a trauma has occurred, it often helps the victim to write it down. In a detached way. As if it happened to someone else.’ The door whined; the attendant had returned with the chalk and slate in hand. Dr Shepherd took them and reached towards the bed, offering the items like an olive branch. ‘So then, Mrs Bainbridge. Will you try for me? Write something.’

Tentatively, she reached out and picked up the chalk. It sat strangely in her hand. After all this time, she could not remember how to begin. She pressed the tip to the slate and drew a vertical line. It squeaked – an awful, high-pitched squeal that set her teeth on edge. She panicked, pushed too hard. The end of the chalk snapped off.

‘I really do think a pencil would be easier for her. Look, she is not dangerous. She is simply trying to do as we ask.’

The attendant glared. ‘On your head be it, doctor. I’ll bring one later.’

She managed to scrape out some letters. They were faint, but she was afraid to use force again. Just visible on the slate was a shaky Hello.

Dr Shepherd rewarded her with another smile. ‘That’s it! Keep practising. Do you think you could build it up, Mrs Bainbridge, and do as I asked? Write down all you remember?’

As easy as that.

He was too young. Too fresh and full of hope to realise there would be times in his life he would want to erase – whole years of unbearable moments.

She had pushed them down so deep that she could only reach one or two. Enough to confirm she did not want the rest. Whenever she tried to think back, she saw them. Their awful faces barring the way to the past.

She used the cuff of her sleeve to wipe the slate clean and write again. Why?

He blinked behind his glasses. ‘Well . . . Why do you think?’

Cure.

‘That’s right.’ The dimple appeared again. ‘Imagine if we could cure you? Set you free of this hospital?’

God love him. No.

‘No? But . . . I do not understand.’

‘Told you, doctor,’ said the attendant in her harsh, magpie voice. ‘She did it, all right.’

She tucked her legs up and lay at on the bed. Her head throbbed. She raised her hands to her scalp and gripped, trying to hold things in place. Bristles prickled from her shaved head. Hair growing, months passing, locked away.

How long had it been? A year, she supposed. She could ask them, write the question on the slate, but she feared to learn the truth.

Surely it was time for her medicine, time to deaden the world?

‘Mrs Bainbridge? Mrs Bainbridge, are you well?’

She kept her eyes shut. Enough, enough. Four words, and she had written too much.

‘Perhaps I have pushed her too hard for today,’ he said. But still he hovered, an unsettling presence by her bed.

This was all wrong. Her mind was thawing.

Finally, she heard him straighten up. Keys jangled, a door creaked open.

‘Who next?’

The door closed and muffled their voices. Their words and steps petered away down the corridor.

She was alone, but the isolation did not comfort her as it used to. Noises that usually went unnoticed came painfully loud: the rattle of a lock, laughter far away.

Frantic, she buried her face beneath her pillow and tried to forget.

***

The truth. She could not stop thinking about it during the cold grey hours of silence.

They didn’t get newspapers in the day room – at least, not when she had been allowed in there – but rumours had a way of seeping under doors and through cracks in the walls. Journalists’ lies made it into the asylum long before she did. Ever since she awoke in this place, she had been given a new name: murderess.

Other patients, attendants, even the nurses when they thought no one could hear: they twisted their mouths and bared their teeth as they said it, ravenous. Murderess. As if they wanted to frighten her. Her.

It wasn’t the injustice she loathed but the noise, its syllables hissing in her ears like – No.

She shifted in bed and hugged her goose-pimpled arms tight, trying to hold herself together. Until now she had been safe. Safe behind the walls, safe behind her silence, safe with the beautiful drugs that drowned out the past. But the new doctor . . . He was the clock signalling with a dread knell that her time was finished. Perhaps you do not belong in an asylum at all.

Panic spiralled in her chest.

Back again to the same three options. Say nothing and be presumed guilty. Destination: the gallows. Say nothing and, by some miracle, be acquitted. Destination: the cold, sharp world outside, no medicine to help her forget.

Only one choice remained – the truth. But what was that?

Gazing back to the past, the only faces she saw clearly were those of her parents. Around them, shadowy figures massed. Figures full of hate that had terrified her and twisted the course of her life.

But no one would believe that.

A full moon shone in silvery lines through the window at the top of the wall, touching her head. She lay there, watching it, when the thought came to her. In this place of misrule, everything was upside down. The truth was mad, beyond the realms of any healthy imagination. And that was why the truth was the only thing guaranteed to keep her under lock and key.

She slid from the bed onto the floor. It was cold and faintly sticky. No matter how many times they mopped it, the scent of piss hung in the air. She crouched down beside her bed, finally facing the bulky shadow across the room.

Dr Shepherd had ordered it put there: the first new item in an unchanging landscape. Just a desk. But it was another instrument to crack open the charnel house and exhume all she had buried.

With her pulse pounding in her neck, she crawled across the floor. Somehow she felt safer down low, crouched beneath it, looking up the notched legs. Wood. She shivered.

Surely there was no reason to be cautious, here. Surely they could not take any piece of wood and . . . It wasn’t possible. But then none of it was possible. None of it made the least bit of sense. Yet it had happened.

Slowly, she stood and surveyed the surface of the desk. Dr Shepherd had left all the implements out for her: paper and a thick, blunt-ended pencil.

She pulled a page towards her. In the gloom she saw a void of white, waiting for her words. She swallowed the pain in her throat. How could she relive it? How could she bring herself to do it to them, all over again?

She peered into the blank page, trying to see, somewhere in its vast expanse of nothing, that other woman from long ago.

Two

THE BRIDGE, 1865

I am not dead.

Elsie recited the words as her carriage sluiced through country roads, churning up clods of mud. The wheels made a wet, sucking noise. I am not dead. But it was hard to believe, looking through the rain-spattered window at the ghost of her reflection: pale skin; cadaverous cheeks; curls eclipsed by black gauze.

Outside the sky was iron grey, the monotony broken only by crows. Mile after mile and the scenery did not change. Stubble fields, skeletal trees. They are burying me, she realised. They are burying me along with Rupert.

It wasn’t meant to be like this. They should have been back in London by now; the house thrown open, spilling over with wine and candles. This season vivid dyes were in fashion. The salons would be awash with azuline, mauve, magenta and Paris green. She should be there at the centre of it: invited to every diamond-spangled party; hanging on the arm of the host in his striped waistcoat; the first lady escorted into the dining room. The new bride always went first.

But not a widow. A widow shied from the light and entombed herself with grief. She became a mermaid drowning in black crêpe, like the Queen. Elsie sighed and stared into the hollow reflection of her eyes. She must be a terrible wife, for she did not long for seclusion. Sitting in silence musing on Rupert’s virtues would not help her grief. Only distraction could do that. She wanted to attend the theatre, to ride up and down on the rattling omnibuses. She would rather be anywhere than alone in these bleak fields.

Well, not quite alone. Sarah sat hunched on the squabs opposite, poring over a battered leather volume. Her wide mouth moved as she read, whispering the words. Elsie despised her already. Those mud-brown, bovine eyes that held no spark of intelligence, the pinched cheekbones and the lanky hair that always dribbled out of her bonnet. She’d seen shop girls with more refinement.

‘She’ll be company for you,’ Rupert had promised. ‘Just watch her while I’m down at The Bridge. Show her a few sights. The poor girl doesn’t get out much.’

He wasn’t exaggerating. His cousin Sarah ate, breathed and blinked – occasionally she read. That was it. There was no initiative, no yearning to better her position. She’d been content in her little rut as companion to a crippled old lady until the crone died.

As a good cousin, Rupert had taken her in. But it was Elsie who was stuck with her now.

Yellow, fan-shaped leaves came swooping down from the chestnut trees and landed on the roof of the carriage. Pat, pat. Earth upon the coffin.

Only another hour or two, and the sun would start to set.

‘How much longer?’

Sarah looked up from the page with glazed eyes. ‘Hmm?’

‘How long?’

‘Until . . .?’

Dear God. ‘Until we arrive.’

‘I don’t know. I have never been to The Bridge.’

‘What? You haven’t seen it either?’ It was incomprehensible. For an ancient family, the Bainbridges didn’t take much pride in their ancestral seat. Even Rupert, at the age of forty-five, had possessed no memory of the place. He only seemed to recollect he owned an estate when the lawyers were ratifying their marriage contract. ‘I cannot believe it. Did you not visit even when you were little?’

‘No. My parents often spoke of the gardens, but I never saw them. Rupert took no interest in the place until . . .’

‘Until he met me,’ Elsie finished.

She swallowed back the tears. They had been so close, hadn’t they, to creating the perfect life together? Rupert had gone up to make the estate ready for spring and the heir who would arrive to inherit it. But now he’d left her, with no experience of running a country house, to cope with the family legacy and an impending child, alone. She envisaged herself nursing a baby in a mouldering parlour with tattered, pea-green upholstery and a clock on the mantel swathed in cobwebs.

The horses’ hooves squelched outside. The windows began to mist. Elsie pulled down her sleeve and rubbed it against the glass. Dreary images lumbered past. Everything was overgrown and shabby. Remnants of a grey brick wall poked up from the grass like tombstones, while clover and bracken swarmed around. Nature was coming into its own, reclaiming the space with brambles and moss.

How could the road to Rupert’s house be in such a state? He was a fastidious businessman, good with numbers, balanced in his books. So why would he let one of his possessions degenerate into this mess?

The carriage rattled and stopped abruptly. Peters cursed from up on the box.

Sarah closed her book and placed it aside. ‘What’s happening?’

‘I think we’re getting near.’ Leaning forward, she peered as far into the distance as she could. A light mist snaked up from the river running alongside the track and shrouded the horizon.

Surely they were at Fayford by now? It seemed as if they had been jolting along for hours. Boarding the train at London in the smudged, whisky-coloured dawn felt like an occurrence of last week, not this morning.

Peters snapped his whip. The horses snorted and strained in their harness, but the carriage only swayed.

‘What now?’

The whip cracked again. Hooves sloshed in the mud. Knuckles rapped on the roof. ‘Hello in there? You’ll have to get out, ma’am.’

‘Out?’ she repeated. ‘We cannot get out in this filth!’

Peters jumped off the box, landing with a splat. In a few wet steps he was at the door, swinging it open. Mist swept in and played around the threshold. ‘No choice, I’m afraid, ma’am. The wheel’s stuck fast. All we can do is yank at it and hope the horses do the rest. The less weight in the coach, the better.’

‘Surely two ladies do not weigh so very much?’

‘Enough to make a difference,’ he said bluntly.

Elsie groaned. The fog pressed against her cheek, damp as a dog’s breath, carrying the scent of water and a deep, earthy tang.

Sarah tucked her book away and picked up her skirts. She paused, petticoats lifted above her ankles. ‘After you, Mrs Bainbridge.’

In other circumstances, Elsie would be pleased to have Sarah defer to her. But this time, she would rather not go first. The mist had already built with surprising speed. She could just make out the shape of Peters and his hand, reaching towards her. ‘The steps?’ she asked, without much hope.

‘Can’t get ’em down at this angle, ma’am. You’ll have to jump. It’s only a little way. I’ll catch you.’

All her dignity had come to this. Heaving a sigh, she closed her eyes and sprang. Peters’s hand touched her waist for an instant before he set her down in the mud.

‘Now you, miss.’

Elsie stumbled away from the carriage, not wanting Sarah’s big feet to land on her train. It was like walking on rice pudding. Her boots slipped and stuck at strange angles. She could not see where she placed them; the mist floated up to her knees, obscuring everything below. Perhaps that was as well – she did not want to see the hem of her new bombazine gown edged with filth.

More chestnut trees appeared in patches through the fog. She had never encountered anything like this; it was not yellow and sulphurous like a London Particular, it did not hang, but moved. As the clouds of silver and grey slid to the side, they revealed a cracked wall by the line of trees. Bricks had fallen from it, leaving gaping holes like missing teeth. About halfway up there was an empty, rotting window frame. She tried to see clearly, but the images dissolved as the fog glided back.

‘Peters? What is this ghastly building?’

A cry ripped through the damp air. Elsie spun round, her heart pounding, but only white mist met her eyes.

‘Easy now, miss.’ Peters’s voice. ‘You’re all right.’

She released her breath and watched it seep into the mist. ‘What’s going on? I cannot see you. Did Sarah fall?’

‘No, no. I caught her in time.’

Probably the most excitement the girl had experienced all year. A jest was on the tip of her tongue, but then she heard another sound: lower, more insistent. A deep, stretched groan. The horses must have heard it too, for they jinked in their harness.

‘Peters? What was that?’

The noise came again: bass and mournful. She didn’t like it. She wasn’t used to these country sounds and mists – nor did she wish to be. Lifting her train, she tottered back to the carriage. She moved too fast. Her foot slid, the ground slipped beneath her and her shoulder blades smacked against the mud.

Elsie lay on her back, stunned. Cool slime oozed into the gap between her collar and her bonnet.

‘Mrs Bainbridge? Where are you?’

The blow had knocked the breath from her. She wasn’t hurt – she had no concerns for the baby, but she could not find her voice. She stared up into the billowing white. Moisture soaked through her gown. Somewhere, in a distant part of her brain, she cried over the damage to her black bombazine.

‘Mrs Bainbridge?’

That groan came once more, closer now. The mist moved like a restless spirit above her. She sensed a shape over her head, a presence. She croaked feebly.

‘Mrs Bainbridge!’

Elsie cringed as she saw them, inches from her face: two soulless eyes. A wet nose. Black wings like a bat. It sniffed her, then it lowed. Lowed.

A cow. It was just a cow, tethered by a length of frayed rope. Her voice came flowing back on a tide of embarrassment. ‘Shoo! Get away, I have no food for you.’

It did not move. She wondered if it could – it was not a healthy creature. A stringy neck supported its head and flies hovered over its jutting ribs. Poor brute.

‘There you are!’ Peters moved the cow out of the way with a few kicks. ‘What happened, ma’am? Are you all right? Let me help you.’

It took four attempts before he managed to heave her up. Her dress left the bog with a sticky rip. Ruined.

Peters gave a crooked smile. ‘Not to worry, ma’am. Don’t look like a place you need to dress up, does it?’

She peered over his shoulder, where the last tendrils of mist were twisting away. Surely not. Surely the village floating into view could not be Fayford?

A row of tumbledown cottages squatted beneath the trees, each with a smashed window or battered door. Holes in the walls had been hastily patched over with mud and dung. Broken thatch made a pathetic attempt to stretch over the rooftops, but it was flecked with mould.

‘No wonder we got stuck.’ Peters gestured to the road owing before the cottages. It was little more than a brown river. ‘Welcome to Fayford, ma’am.’

‘This cannot possibly be Fayford,’ she told him.

Sarah’s pale face appeared beside them. ‘I think it is!’ she breathed. ‘Oh, heavens.’

Elsie could only gape. It was bad enough to be trapped in the country, but here? Marrying Rupert was meant to lift her above her station, provide her with well-fed cottagers and humble tenants.

‘Stay there, ladies,’ said Peters. ‘I’m going to get this wheel out while the mist is clear.’ He walked back carefully over the mud.

Sarah crept up next to Elsie. For once, Elsie was glad of her presence. ‘I hoped for pleasant country walks, Mrs Bainbridge, but I fear we will have to stay indoors this winter.’

Indoors. The word was like a key turning in a lock. That old, trapped feeling from childhood. How could she take her mind off Rupert if she had to stay indoors?

There were books, she supposed. Card games. It would not take long for them to become tedious.

‘Did Mrs Crabbly ever teach you how to play backgammon, Sarah?’

‘Oh yes. And then of course . . .’ She froze, eyes widening. ‘Sarah? What is it?’

She twitched her head at the cottages. Elsie turned. Grubby faces hovered by the windows. Wretched people, worse than the cow.

‘They must be my tenants.’ She raised a hand, feeling she should signal to them, but her courage faltered.

‘Should we—’ Sarah squirmed. ‘Should we try to talk to them?’

‘No. Stay away.’

‘But they look so miserable!’

They did. Elsie cudgelled her brains for ways to help. Visit them with a basket and read a Bible passage? That was what rich ladies did, wasn’t it? Somehow she didn’t think they would appreciate the effort.

A horse whinnied. She heard a curse and turned to see the carriage wheel burst from the quagmire with an almighty gurgle, spraying mud over Peters.

‘Well,’ he said, casting a wry glance at Elsie’s gown. ‘That makes two of us.’

The carriage rolled forward a few paces. Behind it, Elsie saw the battered ruins of a church. Its spire had disappeared, leaving only a jagged spike of wood. Yellow, sparse grass surrounded it, crammed close with headstones. Someone watched them from the lychgate.

Bubbles fizzed in Elsie’s stomach. The baby. She put one hand on her muddy bodice and used the other to take Sarah’s arm. ‘Come on. Back in the carriage.’

‘Oh, yes.’ Sarah scrambled forward. ‘Let us get to the house as soon as possible!’

Elsie could not share her enthusiasm. For if this rat’s nest was the village, what on earth would they find at the house?

Three

The river whispered to them; a rushing, disembodied sound. Moss-speckled stone formed a bridge across the water – it must be the very bridge from which the house took its name.

It was not like any of the bridges in London. Instead of modern architecture and engineering, Elsie saw crumbling arches teased by foam and spray. A pair of discoloured stone lions flanked the posts on either side of the water. It made her think of drawbridges, the Tower of London – Traitors’ Gate.

But this river was not like the Thames; it was not grey or brown but clear. She squinted, her eyes catching a flick beneath the surface. Dark shapes, swirling. Fish?

When they reached the other side, an old gatehouse sprang up as if from nowhere. Peters slowed the carriage, but no one came out to greet them. Elsie put the window down, wincing at the sensation of her clammy sleeve moving against her arm. ‘Carry on, Peters.’

‘There!’ cried Sarah. ‘The house is there.’

The road sloped down across a range of hills, where the sun was beginning to set. At the very end, crouching in a horseshoe of red and orange trees, was The Bridge.

Elsie put up her veil. She saw a low-slung Jacobean building with three gables on the roof, a central lantern tower and redbrick chimneys looming behind. Ivy poured out of the eaves and engulfed the turrets at either end of the house. It looked dead.

Everything was dead. Parterres lay prostrate beneath the soulless gaze of the windows, the hedges brown and riddled with holes. Vines choked the flowerbeds. Even the lawns were yellow and sparse, as if a contagion spread slowly throughout the grounds. Only the thistle thrived, its purple spikes bristling from amidst the coloured gravel.

The carriage drew to a halt on a gravel sweep, opposite the fountain that formed the centrepiece of the decaying grounds. Once, when the stone was white and the sculpted figures of dogs on top were new, it must have been a handsome structure. No water sprang up from the jets. Cracks wiggled across the empty basin.

Sarah drew back. ‘They’re all out to see us,’ she said. ‘The entire staff!’

Elsie’s stomach plunged. She had been too busy staring at the gardens. Now she observed three women dressed in black waiting outside the house. Two wore white caps and aprons while the third was bare-headed, showing a coil of iron hair. Beside her stood a stiff, formal-looking man.

Elsie looked down at her skirts. They were patched like a rusty iron gate. Mud made the bombazine heavy and caused it to cling around her knees. What would her new servants think if they saw her in such a state? She would be neater and cleaner in her factory clothes.

‘A mistress must meet her household. But I had hoped not to do it caked in mud.’

Without warning, the carriage door swung open. She jumped. A young man stood before her, his slim figure clad in a black suit.

‘Oh Jolyon, it’s you. Thank goodness.’

‘Elsie? What on earth happened?’ His light brown hair was swept back from his face, as if to highlight the dismay written there.

‘An accident. The carriage wheel got stuck and I fell—’ She gestured to her skirt. ‘I can’t see the household like this. Send them back inside.’

He hesitated. His cheeks flushed beside his whiskers. ‘But . . . It would look so strange. What am I supposed to say?’

‘I don’t know! Tell them anything!’ She heard the brittle sound of her own voice and felt dangerously close to tears. ‘Make up some excuse.’

‘Very well.’ Jolyon closed the door and stood back. She saw him turn, the breeze lifting a curl of hair at his collar.

‘Mrs Bainbridge is . . . indisposed. She will have to go straight to her bed. Set a re and send up some tea.’

Mumbles sounded outside, but then there was the welcome crunch of feet trudging back over gravel. Elsie breathed a sigh of relief. She did not have to face them – not yet.

Of all people, Elsie found servants the most judgemental: jealous of their master’s station, since it was tied closely to their own. Rupert’s London household had turned their noses up at her when she arrived from the match factory. Her confession that she hadn’t kept domestic help since her mother died had sealed their contempt. Only respect for Rupert, and Rupert’s warning glances, made them civil.

Sarah leant forward. ‘What will you do? You’ll need to get changed straight away, without being seen. And Rosie isn’t here!’

No. Rosie was unwilling to leave her London life and wages to live in this backwater. Elsie could not blame her. And to be honest, she was secretly relieved. She’d never felt comfortable changing in front of her lady’s maid, having strange hands against her skin. But she would need to hire another one soon, if just for appearances’ sake. She did not want to get the reputation of being one of those eccentric widows populating the countryside.

‘I daresay I’ll manage without Rosie for now.’

Sarah’s face brightened. ‘I could help you with the buttons at the back. I’m good at buttons.’

Well, that made one thing.

Jolyon appeared back beside the door, opened it again and extended a hand. ‘The staff are safely inside. Come on now, climb out.’

She struggled down the steps and landed awkwardly with a sprinkle of stones. Jolyon raised his eyebrows at her dress. ‘Good heavens.’

She snatched her hand away.

While he helped Sarah down, she looked over the house. It revealed nothing. Curtains were drawn across the windows in an unrelenting screen of black. Ivy fluttered against the wall.

‘Come. The trunks you sent ahead are in your room.’

They climbed a shallow flight of steps to the open door. Before they crossed the threshold, a musty tang reached out and forced its way up Elsie’s nostrils. Someone had tried to cover it with a softer, powdery note. There were scents of a linen drawer: lavender and green herbs.

Jolyon walked briskly on, as he did in London, his footsteps tapping over a grey stone floor set with lozenges. Elsie and Sarah dawdled behind him, keen for a look at the house.

The door opened straight into the Great Hall, a cavern of antique splendour. Medieval details stood out: a suit of armour, shortswords displayed in fans on the wall and worm-eaten roof beams above.

‘Did you know Charles I and his queen once stayed here?’ asked Sarah. ‘My mother told me. Imagine them, walking right across this floor!’

Elsie was more concerned with the fire blazing in a black iron grate. She hurried towards it and held her gloved hands out to the flames. She was used to coal; there was something unnerving about these crackling logs and the deep, sweet smell of their smoke. It reminded her of the deal they used in the match factory to make the splints. The way it split under the saw.

She looked away. Either side of the replace stood two heavy wooden doors, embossed with iron.

‘Elsie.’ Jolyon sounded impatient. ‘There will be a fire in your room.’

‘Yes, but I—’ She turned, and the muscles in her face set like wax. Under the stairs. She had not noticed it before. A long, narrow box lay on a table in the centre of an oriental rug. ‘Is that . . .?’

Jolyon hung his head. ‘Yes. He was in the drawing room at first. But the housekeeper informs me it is easier to keep this room aired and fresh.’

Of course: the smell of herbs. Elsie reared back, feeling her insides curl. She wanted to remember Rupert smiling and dapper, as he had always been, not as a lifeless doll on display.

She cleared her throat. ‘I see. And at least the neighbours will not have to traipse through the house when they come to pay their respects.’ That dreadful listlessness which had possessed her when she first heard of Rupert’s death started up, but she pushed it back down. She did not want to be swamped by grief or bitterness – she only yearned to pretend it had never, ever happened.

‘There do not seem to be many neighbours.’ Jolyon leant on the banister. ‘Only the vicar has come so far.’

How terribly sad that was. In London, men would be honoured to see Rupert one last time. She regretted, once again, that they had not brought him back to town for a fine burial, but Jolyon had said it was impossible.

Sarah walked to the coffin and peered in. ‘He looks peaceful. Dear man, he deserves to be.’ She turned to Elsie and held out a hand. ‘Come, Mrs Bainbridge, and look.’

‘No.’

‘It’s all right. Come. It will do you good to see how serene he is. It will help with the grief.’

She severely doubted that. ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Mrs Bainbridge—’

A log exploded in the grate. Elsie yelped and jumped forwards. A shower of sparks dusted her skirts and melted to ash before they reached the rug. ‘Goodness.’ She put a hand to her chest. ‘These old fires. I could have been set alight.’

‘Hardly.’ Jolyon ran his fingers through his hair. ‘We must get you upstairs before the servants come and – Elsie? Elsie, are you listening to me?’

The leap away from the re had done it. She was close enough to see the peaks of Rupert’s profile rising over white satin: the grey-blue tip of a nose; eyelashes; curls of salt-and-pepper hair. It was too late to look away. She inched forward, each footstep placed with the care she would use to approach a sleeping child. Gradually, the high wall of the coffin receded.

Breath left her in a rush. It was not Rupert. Not really. What lay before her was an imitation, as cold and featureless as a stone effigy. Its hair was perfectly greased in place, with no hint of the curl that always fell over Rupert’s left eye. The broken veins that had adorned Rupert’s cheek were a mere smudge of grey. Even his moustache looked false, standing out prominently from drying skin.

How that moustache had tickled. She felt it again at her cheek, under her nose. The way she had always laughed when he kissed her. Laughter was Rupert’s gift. It felt wrong to stand around him solemn and silent. He would not have wanted that.

As her eyes travelled down to his chin and the dots of stubble that would now never grow, she noticed small, blue flecks on the skin. They reminded her of childhood and sewing needles, sucking hard on a finger.

Of course, they were splinters. But why would he have splinters on his face?

‘Elsie.’ Jolyon’s voice was firm. ‘We must go up. There will be time enough to say goodbye tomorrow.’

She nodded and rubbed her eyes. It was not hard to drag herself away. Whatever Sarah thought, staring into a coffin was nothing like bidding farewell to her husband. The time for that had passed with his last breath. All they had in the casket was a pale shadow of the man who had once been Rupert Bainbridge.

Four

It took two flights of steps before they cleared the beams of the Great Hall and emerged onto a small landing. Only a few lamps were lit, flaring in patches and revealing red flock wallpaper.

‘This way,’ said Jolyon, turning left.

Puffs of dust rose beneath Elsie’s feet as she followed, her damp skirts swishing against the carpet. The corridor conveyed an air of shabby grandeur. Tapestry sofas lurked against the walls with chipped marble busts dotted in between. They were horrible things, watching her with dead expressions, shadows creeping over their cheekbones and sinking into the sockets of their eyes. She didn’t recognise any as famous writers or philosophers. Perhaps they were previous owners of The Bridge? She searched their impassive faces for a trace of Rupert but found none.

Jolyon took a turn to the right, then another quickly to the left. They came up against an arched door. ‘This is the guest suite,’ he explained. ‘I thought you would be comfortable here, Miss Bainbridge.’

Sarah blinked. ‘A suite, just for me?’

‘Yes indeed.’ He gave a tight smile. ‘Your box is in there. I will sleep down the hall by the servants’ stairs.’ He gestured with a sweep of his arm. ‘Mrs Bainbridge is in a mirror suite on the other wing.’

Elsie raised her eyebrows. A mirror suite. Was that the level to which she had sunk? ‘How thrilling. We’ll be just like twins.’ She tried to keep the tartness from her voice but feared she did not succeed.

‘I will just settle in,’ Sarah said awkwardly. ‘Then I will come and help you dress, Mrs Bainbridge.’

‘Take all the time you need,’ said Jolyon. ‘I will show my sister to her room. Then we will enjoy a late dinner together.’

‘Thank you.’

Grabbing Elsie’s arm, he frogmarched her back the way they had come. ‘You must not treat Sarah like a servant,’ he grunted.

‘Indeed I won’t, for she does no work to earn her living. She is a spinster here on my charity, is she not?’

‘She was the only family Bainbridge had.’

Elsie tossed her head. ‘That is not true. I was Rupert’s family. I was his next of kin.’

‘Oh yes, you managed to convince him of that.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’

Jolyon slowed to a halt. He peered over his shoulder, checking there were no servants loitering in the shadows. ‘I am sorry. That was crass of me. It is not your fault. But I thought Bainbridge and I had agreed, before the marriage, exactly what would happen in this situation. It was a gentleman’s agreement. But Bainbridge . . .’

Unease crept into her stomach. ‘What are you saying?’

‘He did not tell you? Bainbridge changed his will a month before he died. His solicitor read it to me.’

‘What did it say?’

‘He left it all to you. Everything. The house in London, The Bridge, his share in the match factory. No one else benefits in the least.’

Of course he did. A month ago – that was when she told him about the baby.

To think that after all she had been through, she had managed to marry a considerate man, a prudent man – and lost him. Careless, Ma would have said. Just like you, Elisabeth.

‘Is it strange that he should change his will? I am his wife, I am carrying his child. Surely the arrangement is perfectly natural?’

‘It would be. A year or two down the line and I would have no quarrel with it.’ Shaking his head, he moved off down the corridor.

She tried to keep up, unable to concentrate on the path he took; the wine-red walls seemed to billow like cloth. ‘I don’t understand. Rupert has acted like an angel. This is the answer to my prayers.’

‘No, it is not. Think, Elsie, think! How does it look? A man everyone thought was a confirmed bachelor marries a woman ten years his junior and invests in her brother’s factory. He changes his will to make her the sole beneficiary. Then, a mere month later, he is dead. A man who appeared as strong as an ox is dead, and nobody knows how.’

Glacier crystals formed in her chest. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. No one would suggest—’

‘Oh, they are suggesting it, I assure you. And whispering it. Think of the match factory. Think of my good name! I have to steer through this storm of gossip, alone.’

She stumbled. That was why Jolyon wanted her in the country, why he refused to move Rupert’s body back to London for burial: scandal.

She remembered the last scandal. Police officers in their iron hats, taking down statements. The whispers that buzzed in her wake like a trail of flies and those hungry, pointed looks. Years of it. It would take years to fade away.

‘Dear God, Jo. How long will the baby and I have to stay in this place?’

He inched. For the first time, she noticed the pain shining in his eyes. ‘Damn it, Elsie, what is wrong with you? I am telling you about a stain on our name, on the factory, and all you can think about is how long you will be away from London. Do you even miss Rupert?’

She missed him like air. ‘You know I do.’

‘Well, I must say you do a good job of hiding it. He was a good man, a great man. Without him we would have lost the factory.’

‘I know.’

He stopped at the end of the corridor. ‘This is your room. Perhaps once you are settled inside, you will have the decency to grieve.’

‘I am grieving,’ she snapped. ‘I just do it in a different manner to you.’ Pushing past him, she flung open the door and slammed it behind her.

She closed her eyes and leant back, both palms at against the wood, before she exhaled and sank to the floor. Jolyon had always been so. She should not take his words to heart. Twelve years her junior, he had always been at leisure to feel, to cry. It was Elsie who endured. And hadn’t that been the point? To keep little Jolyon in ignorance of what she suffered?

After a few minutes, she was mistress of herself. She rubbed her forehead and opened her eyes. A clean, bright room lay before her with windows on either side, one facing out to the semicircle of russet trees that embraced the house and the other angled across at the west wing, where Sarah was staying. Her trunks lay heaped in the corner. A re sizzled in the grate and Elsie was relieved to see a washstand beside it. Strands of steam rose from the ewer. Hot water.

She heard Ma’s voice, clear in her ear. Silly girl, making such a fuss. Let’s wash all those bad thoughts away.

Climbing to her feet, she stripped off her gloves and went to splash her face. Her sore eyes instantly felt better and the towel she used to wipe her skin was wonderfully soft – whatever the flaws of the place, she could not fault the housekeeper.

A heavy four-poster bed carved in rosewood loomed against the far wall. Cream bedclothes embroidered with flowers were spread across it. Then came the dressing table, its three-piece mirror swathed in black fabric. She sighed. It was the first looking glass she had seen since leaving the station. Time to assess the damage done by her tumble in the mud.

Placing the towel back on its rail, she walked over and sat on the stool. She drew the black material aside. It was a foolish superstition: covering mirrors to stop the dead from becoming trapped. Nothing was held inside the glass except three blonde-haired, brown-eyed women, each one a sorry state. Her gauze veil uttered at the nape of her neck like a netted crow. Windblown curls frizzed around her forehead and, despite her brief wash, a smear of mud remained on her right cheekbone. Elsie scrubbed until it melted away. Thank goodness she had refused to see the servants.

Slowly, she reached up her weary arms to remove her bonnet and cap, and begin the long task of unpinning her hair. Her fingers were not as nimble as they used to be – she had grown accustomed to having Rosie do it. But Rosie and all the comforts of that past life were miles away.

A pin snagged on a tangle and made her gasp. She dropped her hands, upset beyond reason at this small annoyance. How did this happen? she asked the dishevelled women before her. They had no answer.

The glass here was cold and harsh. It did not contain the smiling, pretty bride she had stared at such a short time ago. Unbidden, a scene rose up in her memory: Rupert, standing behind her that first night and brushing her hair. Pride in his face, ashes of the silver-backed brush. A feeling of safety and trust, so rare, as she considered his reversed image. She could have loved him.

The marriage was a business relationship, cement to secure Rupert’s investment in the match factory, but that night she had truly looked at the man and realised she could grow to love him. In time. Alas, time was the one thing they did not have.

A tap at the door made her start.

‘Buttons?’ Sarah’s voice.

‘Yes. Come in, Sarah.’

Sarah had swapped her travelling dress for an evening gown that had seen better days. Black dye mottled it in uneven patches. She hardly looked presentable, but at least she’d plaited her mousy hair. ‘Have you chosen a gown? I could ask one of the maids if there is a flatiron . . .’

‘No. Please just dig out a nightgown.’ If Jolyon wanted her to grieve, that’s what she would do. She would act exactly as he had, after Ma. That would serve him. He would see how irritating and useless it was to have her whimpering upstairs.

Sarah’s reflection twisted its hands in the mirror. ‘But . . . dinner . . .’

‘I’m not going down. I have no appetite.’

‘But – but I cannot have dinner alone with Mr Livingstone! What would people say? We are barely acquainted!’

Irritated, Elsie rose to her feet and went to find a nightgown herself. Had Sarah really been a lady’s companion? She should know better than to stand and argue with her mistress. ‘Nonsense. You must have spoken to Jolyon at the wedding.’

‘I was not at your wedding. Mrs Crabbly was taken ill. Do you not remember?’

‘Oh.’ Elsie took a moment to pull a nightgown from a trunk and arrange her face before she turned. ‘Of course not. You will have to forgive me. That day . . .’ She looked down at the white cotton in her hands. ‘It all passed in such a happy blur.’

Honiton lace, orange blossom. She had never thought to be a bride. One put aside such fancies after the age of twenty-five. For Elsie, the prospect had seemed even less likely. She despaired of nding someone she could trust, but Rupert had been different. He carried something in the air around him, an aura innately good.

‘I understand,’ said Sarah. ‘Now come here. Let us see about that dress.’

Elsie would rather have changed by herself, but there was no choice. She could hardly tell Rupert’s cousin that she owned a buttonhook – only whores were meant to use them.

Sarah worked deftly, her fingers moving over Elsie’s shoulders and down her waist like the lightest taps of rain. The gown fell whispering into her hands. ‘Such fine material. I do hope the mud will wash out.’

‘Perhaps you can take it downstairs for me. There must be a scullery maid who will put it in the copper without telling for a crown.’

Sarah nodded. She folded the gown and hugged it to her chest. ‘And . . . the rest?’ She shot a coy look at the cage of petticoats, spring steel and hoops holding Elsie in. ‘You will be able to manage—?’

‘Oh yes.’ Self-conscious, she put her hands to the tapes securing her crinoline. ‘I didn’t always have a maid, you know.’

It was Sarah’s silence and stillness that made Elsie’s flesh creep. Her eyes fixed on Elsie’s waist and expanded, darker and strangely glittering.

‘Sarah?’

Sarah shook herself. ‘Yes. Very well. I’ll be on my way.’

Elsie looked down at her body, confused. What had made Sarah stare? With a painful jolt, she realised: her hands. She had taken her gloves off to wash her face and revealed her hands in all their chapped ugliness. Work-hardened hands, factory hands. Not a lady’s hands.

But before Elsie could say anything in her defence, Sarah opened the door and walked out.

Five

ST JOSEPH’S HOSPITAL

It appeared overnight. No sooner did she lift her head from the pillow and wipe her gritty eyes than she saw it. Alien. Wrong.

She stumbled out of bed, her feet slapping against the cold floor. It hung before her. She narrowed her eyes. It hurt to look, too bright, but she dare not remove her gaze. Yellow. Brown. Swirling lines and shapes.

It had arrived without her knowing. If she looked away, would it move again? Though it was mute it seemed to scream, to crash inside her head.

She could not go back to bed; she had to hold it at bay. Daylight trickled through the high windows, stark and limewashed like the walls. Its beams crept across the floor, then past her. At last the door clicked open.

‘Mrs Bainbridge.’

It was Dr Shepherd.

Without turning, she raised a shaking hand and extended her index finger.

‘Oh. You have seen the painting.’ The air shifted as he arrived by her shoulder. ‘I hope it is to your liking.’

The silence stretched.

‘It brightens the place, does it not? I thought that, since you are not permitted to go in the day room and the exercise yard with the other patients, you might appreciate a bit of colour.’ He transferred his weight to the other foot. ‘This is the direction our hospital is taking. We will no longer subject our patients to bleak cells. This is a refuge for recuperation. There must be cheerful, stimulating things.’

She saw now what the artist had tried to capture: a nursery scene. A sunlit room with a mother cooing over a crib. Her dress was like a daffodil, her hair like spun gold. There were white roses in a vase, standing upon a table by the baby.

‘Does it . . . Does it trouble you, Mrs Bainbridge?’

She nodded.

‘And why is that?’ His shoes creaked as he retrieved her slate. Although the pencil was better for writing her story, the chalk and slate made conversation easier. He placed them into her hands. ‘Tell me.’

Again. He was chiselling away at her, piece by piece. That was his plan, she supposed. To strip out every inch of her; another confession, another memory until she was spent.

Already they came at night: dreams which were really ashes of the past. Landscapes of blood, wood and fire. She did not want them. How far back into the squalid past must she delve before he considered her unbalanced and left her alone?

‘Do you not like the colour? Does it not cheer your spirit and remind you of better times?’

She shook her head. Better times. He assumed she had those, in her past.

‘I am sorry to have caused you distress. Believe me, I meant only to bring pleasure.’ He sighed. ‘Will you sit down? I will arrange to have the painting removed once we are finished.’

With her gaze trained on the floor, she stumbled back to the bed and sat down, gripping the chalk and slate as tightly as if they were weapons. As if they could defend her.

‘Do not take this little setback to heart,’ he said. ‘I am pleased with your progress. I read what you wrote. I see you have followed my advice and written as if the events happened to someone else.’ She could not look up at him; she was intensely aware of the painting, hanging there. Its brushstrokes, its frame. He forced a chuckle. ‘Memory is a tricky one. They’re funny, aren’t they, the details that you recall? That cow—!’

She picked up the chalk, still clumsy. The cow is not funny.

He bowed his head. ‘I did not mean – forgive me. It was wrong of me to laugh.’

Yes.

But actually, she envied him that chuckle. Envied the fact he still could laugh.

Laughter, conversation, music – all these things felt like relics, activities her ancestors may have adopted, long ago, but carried no relevance for her.

She looked back at the desk.

‘You stare so intently at the desk. What is it that upsets you?’

Her fingers trembled as she wrote. Wood.

‘Wood. You dislike wood?’

The word conjured other sounds: the whoosh of a saw, a door slamming shut.

‘Interesting. Most interesting. Of course, after the fire and your injury . . . Perhaps that is why?’

She blinked at him.

‘Perhaps that is why you do not like wood. Because it reminds you of the fire. Because it burns.’

The fire?

He was too quick. He was living at a rate three times the speed of her drugged, undersea world. Was that why her arms appeared so scarred, why they never let her see a looking glass? Had she been in a fire?

‘But of course, there could be other reasons. I have been perusing your file.’ For the first time, she noticed the papers he carried beneath his arm. He spread them on the desk: her past laid out, exposed, like a body on the slab at a mortuary. ‘You grew up, I see, in a match factory. First it was owned by your father, and upon his death it passed into trust until you and your brother came of age. I expect you saw a good deal of wood and fire in a match factory.’

That, too? Nothing was sacred – all must be dredged up.

Doubt bloomed in her chest and he must have sensed it, for he said, ‘I trust you understand it is not idle curiosity that prompts my investigation. Nor is it merely a desire to cure you – although I hope I shall do that, too. I am charged by the hospital and the police to write a report.’ He picked two papers up from the desk and came over to her. ‘When you first arrived, there was no question of interrogating you. Your injuries were too great.’ He showed her the first item: a newspaper clipping with an engraving. It gave a grainy impression of someone swamped in bandages, dark patches appearing where blood had seeped through the linen. ‘But now you are physically, if not mentally, recovered, it has become a matter of some importance to establish the cause of the fire.’

He was not implying . . . That mummy in the engraving was not her? Panic seized her. The paper was dated over a year ago. All that time had passed, yet she remembered little more than a cow and the faces of painted wooden figures.

He sat beside her on the bed. She inched away. The heat of his body, the smell of him – it was all too real.

‘The remains of four bodies were found. Two of the deaths had been registered already. It is these other two we must account for.’ He pushed his spectacles up his nose. ‘There is likely to be an inquest. Given your current condition, I will probably be asked to speak on your behalf. So you see why I must push you for information. Find the truth. I want to help.’

He kept saying that. Repetition only made it sound false. Presumably, what he really wanted was to establish his career by solving her case.

But even if she did not trust him, he was right about one thing: there must be a statement. However painful, she had to press on and remember the rest, or she might end up dangling from the end of a noose.

The gallows shouldn’t scare her. God knew there was little enough left to live for. But it was instinct, she supposed, burrowed deep within her, fighting like a feral animal. She did not want to die – only to sleep, safe, here. Cocooned by white walls and drugs.

Splinters of gold flickered before her eyes. His glasses; he was leaning close, peering into her face. ‘You may not remember everything yet, but I am sure we can do it between us – wake the part of your mind that lies dormant.’

She shifted away from him, making the bed creak. Putting the chalk against the slate, she began to write awkwardly.

Squeak, squeak. That was her voice now, it seemed: a high, abrasive sound, devoid of words.

Where was the fire?

Dr Shepherd’s eyebrows shot up. ‘You do not recall the fire? Your injury?’

Vague images floated back. She remembered a thousand insects of pain gnawing at her back. An odd impression of nurses, medicinal scents. All of it was too far down – she had layers and layers to peel back before she could reach it clearly.

Placing one hand on her shoulder, Dr Shepherd took the slate from her fingers. She thought, for an instant, that he was going to hold her hand. But then she realised he was showing her: showing her the shining, marbled skin at her wrist. Gently, he folded back the coarse sleeve of her gown. Pink patches welled up around her elbow, misshapen, wrinkled like old fruit. Scars burnt so deep they would never be erased. Yes, she saw it now. They were burns. How had she not realised before?

‘This,’ he said, laying her hand back down, ‘this photo- graph was taken a few weeks ago. Do you recall?’

She recalled the ash and the smoke, the way they had seemed to burst inside her head. But when he slid the photograph onto her lap, the face looking back was a stranger. It was a woman – at least, the striped gown and kerchief tied around the neck seemed to suggest it was a woman – but her hair was stubby, growing in tufts from a mottled scalp. Dark, bumpy skin stretched over her cheeks. One eye sagged at the lower lid.

She saw her own name written underneath.

Elisabeth Bainbridge. Detained on suspicion of arson.

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Laura Purcell
Historical fiction

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