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Upon the Chance that You Should Hear Things
The pain of parting is nothing to
the joy of meeting again.
- Charles Dickens
Unfortunately for Emma, the hip-bath needed scrubbing, the boilers needed to be refilled with coal, and, of course, bread did not bake itself. Matilde, she thought rather enviously, as she dusted off the simple furniture that was positioned in the kitchen, could have been the one polishing the pans and making sure the house was warm. “Urgh,” Emma groaned to herself, brushing flour off the table and pulling her hair back into a knot. “My best dress has patches in it, and my finest jewellery has a single paste garnet in its setting. I miss Matilde, I miss having a scullery maid.” The moment the complaint left her lips, she regretted her words. At one point, Matilde did help with small household chores, when Emma’s husband could afford to employ a maid. Emma needed not to rely on her anymore, although having the lovely young girl around certainly had provided some needed company.
“I’m home, Emma,” Charles announced as he entered the room, removing his tattered frockcoat. Kissing her quickly on the cheek, he sank into a chair and plucked an apple from a bowl on the kitchen table. “Not a particularly good day at work, I’m afraid.”
Her heart fell with a dull thud. She had been hoping he would bring good news, something slightly cheerful. “How so, darling?” she murmured, bracing herself for a further blow.
Charles sighed, biting into the apple, seeming to be searching for the right words to say. “It seems... that my business... will run out of finances sooner than we previously perceived. It is doubtful that we will make it through the next year, the way things are playing out.” His wan and distraught face conceded anguish.
Putting down her cleaning rag, Emma took a seat next to him, smoothing his hair and kissing his cheek. “It’s all right, Charles,” she consoled. “It is not your doing. You are not at fault. These are difficult times for many. ”
“But if not mine, then whose fault?” he wondered, burying his face in his hands. “Is it not my own business? Should I not have foreseen the withdrawal of my business partner? Should I not have bought a less expensive printing press, and not believed that a more costly one would eventually pay itself off?” He lifted his head. “I’m a ruined man, Emma. We are done for,” he concluded quietly.
Rather lost for words at that point, she swiftly brushed his cheek with her lips. “Love, I can manage with not having brand new clothes. I just want you to be happy.”
Charles looked at her fondly, and smiled faintly. “I’m sorry for moping, my pet,” he whispered. “Times are grim, eh?” He rummaged through his trouser pockets and pulled out a newspaper clipping. “The Star, September the eighth, eighteen eighty-eight,” he recited, squinting slightly to read the fine print. “Annie Chapman, forty-eight years old, widow of John Chapman, known prostitute, is found brutally mutilated on Hanbury Street by a carman named John Davis. Her grotesque murder is believed to be the work of the same man who murdered Polly Nichols on the thirty-first of August. Known by several names such as the Whitechapel Murderer and Jack the Ripper, this fellow seems to be starting a campaign of terror in London.” Putting down the paper, he ran his fingers through his greying ash-brown hair. “None of this murder business is quite helping, Emma. I worry about you, being here alone all the time. If anything were to happen to you...” he trailed off, seemingly too horrified to consider the ominous possibilities.
Indignant, Emma straightened up. “Worried for me?” she inquired menacingly, somewhat surprising herself. “Charles, both those silly women were known prostitutes. Are you insinuating that I am a ladybird?”
“No- treasure, nev-”
“While I appreciate your concern, I must say that I have every confidence in myself that I am more than capable of making sure I am not... taken advantage of,” she trailed off on a rather lame note.
Charles paled. “I’m quite sorry, darling. It’s been quite stressful as of late.” He frowned, his brow creasing. A lone tear tricked down his cheek, nicked and scarred from the cut of an inattentive shaving blade. “I’ve failed you, dearest.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You haven’t fai-”
“I have, Emma!”he snapped. He clutched at his hair, his eyes suddenly becoming incensed. “You are my wife, and my job is to protect you! But I have ruined a business venture, and have thus brought us to penury!” He began to laugh hysterically, tears threatening to pour over, to showcase his moment of weakness. “It is just as well that we cannot have children! Can you imagine having little ones, dressing them up, loving them desperately, only to have to watch them starve and die, and having to bury them in little coffins?”
But he stopped abruptly, evidently seeing her silently weeping. She looked at him beseechingly, as if wondering how it all went wrong, and asking him if he could make it all better, make it go away.
“I love you,” she whispered, and left the small room without another word, leaving him to wallow in silent misery.
Waking up beside him in bed the next morning, Emma pulled back the thin quilt and tiptoed out of the small bedroom soundlessly. Humming to herself and trying to forget their quarrel the night before, she brewed a small pot of tea and made some porridge, wishing that they had enough money to buy marmalade for breakfast toast. The smaller sacrifices, she reminded herself, would pay off in the long run.
Without warning, she heard a faint rapping on the front door, followed by a muffled “Courier!” Thank goodness for a bit of post to distract us, she thought, absorbed in sweetening the porridge. “Charles, there’s a courier outside! I think we’ve got a parcel,” she called up the stairs connecting the kitchen to their attic bedroom.
“All right,” he called sleepily. A few minutes later, he marched down the stairs, donning a sleeping robe. He crossed the room to the hallway, halting in front of the door. “Who goes there, and what is your business?” he demanded drowsily, not quite succeeding at an attempt at intimidation.
“Courier, sir, bearing a package.”
“All right,” Charles replied, thrusting open the door and beckoning for Emma to join him. When she did, standing there was indeed a courier, but he didn’t seem quite right. Curiously devoid of facial expression, he wore a formal postman attire, but his coat was worn and looked as if it hadn’t been properly washed in years. With his shoes scuffed and dirty socks, his jet-black, perfectly coiffed hair looked out of place. The only discerning thing that Emma could make out regarding his exact identity was a well-loved glinty name placard that simply read “WILLIAM”.
“I bring a package for a Missus Emma Toulson, care of Mister Charles Toulson,” William recited off a slip of delivery paper, with a mostly indistinguishable but faintly Cockney accent. He drew a parcel tied up with twine from his messenger bag, and, ignoring Charles, handed it briskly to Emma. “I presume you are the Missus Toulson?”
“I am,” she replied cautiously, accepting the bundle. The man unnerved her, plain and simple. She turned to her husband to see if he shared her unease. He too looked perplexed, but too lethargic to make any further judgements. She continued, “May I ask who sent the package? There’s no name on here.”
William, she supposed, simply looked at her blankly. “May I ask for your signature of consent?” he asked, handing her a paper and a rubber stamp.
“I am not stamping anything until I am informed of the sender!” Emma exclaimed, alarmed. “Did you not hear me?” She glanced at Charles, who now looked concerned.
“I am sorry, but I cannot divulge that information,” William responded. “Now, if you could please sign th-”
“My wife is merely trying to ask who sent this package!” Charles irately interjected. “Not what its contents are, or the personal matters of the sender, but just the name of him!”
“Charles-” Emma began, but he was profusely angered.
“Are you going to tell her the identity, or are we going to have to report you to your supervisor?” he pressed.
“Supervisor?” William gave him an odd look. “Now, I have other errands to run, so I will leave you with the package. Good day to you.” He turned as if to leave, but Charles grabbed his shoulder.
“Now sir, you have not answered any of our questions!” he badgered him.
The courier once more maintained a look of furtive blankness. “Good-bye, sir.”
“Let him leave, Charles,” Emma blurted unexpectedly. “He’s not going to tell us anything. We might as well let him be on his way.”
Charles paused, and then reluctantly released William from the tiny stoop. “Very well.”
Brushing himself off and straightening his name placard, the courier tipped his cap and gave an eerily complacent grin. Turning on his heel, he left the front steps of the house and walked down the street, slowly fading into the London fog.
“What in blazes was that about?” Charles demanded as he slammed the door shut, and stormed into the kitchen. Worried, Emma followed him. “That ridiculous chap made absolutely no sense whatsoever. Why did he not answer any of my questions?”
“I’m not sure, darling,” Emma answered absentmindedly, absorbing herself instead into staring at the package resting on the chintz tablecloth. She had already ascertained it was quite heavy. Charles went into the bedroom to change out of his night-clothes. “Should I open it? I must admit, I’m quite curious.”
“I cannot deny my curiosity either,” her husband conceded sheepishly, returning into the kitchen. After a moment, he continued, “While it could be dangerous, what if in it lies the answer to all our problems? It’s a foolish hope, but what else do we have to hope for right now?”
Smiling softly, Emma pried apart the knot, fingers shaking slightly. Removing the brown paper, she revealed a box, but it was so much more than just a box. It was a wooden box, made of elder, and ornately carved,depicting a beautiful woman with a pomegranate. Picking it up and examining the sides, she found a tiny knob that, she discovered, wound up as if to play music. “A music box,” she whispered softly, recalling owning such a thing as a small child. But when she went to open the box to unearth its contents, she found herself overcome with uneasy apprehension, unable to open the lid, too.
Charles, who had been watching her closely, inquired, “What’s wrong, Emma?”
“Nothing, Charles,” she murmured, entranced by the thought of what lay inside the box. “I was... wondering who sent this to me, that’s all.” Across their meager breakfast scraps, her eyes met his, suddenly worried. “You don’t think that this was a mix-up, do you? Who in the world would send me such a lovely gift?”
“That odd courier seemed quite positive it was for you,” Charles replied, furrowing his brow. “Whoever it was who sent it must have intended for you to get it.”
Nodding slowly, she slowly unclasped the golden latch that secured the music box, and steeled herself for what was inside. And she gasped when she saw.
Inside on a bed of plush purple velvet lay a ruby necklace, more ornate and grand than Emma had ever seen in pictures of royalty. No less than ten dazzling gems were encased in gold, strung together by a golden connecting chain. The clasp was studded with, as she realized with a gasp, emeralds whose hue would put any of the Queen’s jewellery to shame.
“Oh my,” she breathed, a tear slipping down her nose. “Oh my goodness.” Who would send her such a lovely gift, one that not only made her feel like a lady, but could save them from financial disaster, could solve everything? It was so beautiful, the way it shined, and she could only imagine how it would make her eyes look...
“It must be stolen,” Charles reasoned harshly, his eyes scrutinizing the necklace’s detailed structure. “From the royal family, or from a museum, or something like that. Why would we receive such a gift?”
“Why say that it is impossible?” she whispered, eyes now transfixed on the box, exploring the masterful carving, the subtle valleys and peaks that made up the maiden’s face. “Now, who do you say this woman is, this one here on this box?”
“Did you not hear me, Emma? Whoever sent this must have stolen it and wishes to pin the blame on us for whatever reason!” Charles persisted, now looking genuinely apprehensive.
“But it was you who said that the courier was insistent that it was to be delivered to me!” Emma exclaimed. “Are you saying that I cannot receive nice presents, that I do not deserve to be happy?”
“Of course not! But do you not find it curious that some peculiar man shows up on our doorstep, and gives us a music box, which contains a necklace usually worn by royalty? And, furthermore, he pretends he has not heard what we have said when we address him? Does nothing strike you as out of the ordinary?” Charles stood up, pacing back and forth for a minute, and came to a halt. “Hold on.”
“What?” she retorted, annoyed with his gruffness.
“Wind up the music box. See what happens, what music plays.”
She complied, vexed that she had not thought of that earlier. Winding up the knob as far as it would go, she released it, and let the music tinkle out.
It was a hauntingly beautiful tune that poured out of the little box and into the small flat. So unearthly it was that it gave her goose flesh just listening to it. She glanced at Charles, who seemed enchanted, almost hypnotised by the notes. When it slowed down and the eerie melody ceased to play, she closed the lid. The two of them simply sat there in the kitchen, porridge and tea long forgotten.
“I have heard that piece before,”Charles whispered after a few long moments. “It is Robert Schumann’s Fairy Tales, which only fits into who I believe the box depicts. The maiden on the box is Persephone, daughter of the Greek goddess Demeter. I remember studying the culture of the Greek people as a university student. There is a myth telling about when Hades, god of the dead and the underworld, tricked Persephone into being his bride. After dragging her into his kingdom, he gave her fruit of the underworld, a pomegranate, and when she ate the seeds, she had no choice but to remain there for a while.”
“But why would this girl be carved on such a music box?”
“Perhaps for the same reason you were sent that ruby necklace? I haven’t the slightest.”
“All right,” Emma sighed. Opening the lid once more, she noticed then a slip of parchment that had been secured underneath the heavy necklace. Her breath caught, and she carefully pulled the paper out. It read:
I believe these beautiful gems would compliment your visage.
Please wear them
And I will live a happy man
I obtained this jewellery from an acquaintance
Who would be happy to know that you are wearing it.
The box is mine
But such a lovely gift needed a beautiful case
With a beautiful girl on the front.
I hope you wear the necklace, and that I will see you wear it
If you would do me the honor, I will be meeting a friend
nine days before the ninth month dies
at the evening mass at our sacred place.
I hope to see these gems one last time.
-A man of many masks
“We need to contact Scotland-yard,” Charles demanded, his voice shaking, the spell of the melody evaporated. “You are being watched, and you are unsafe as long as you are without protection.”
“No,” Emma asserted, her voice soft but firm. “We’re keeping the box, and the necklace. That is,” she added hurriedly, “only until we can sell them.”
“Emma! Do you not realize how foolish you’re be-”
“Dear, someone sent us a priceless necklace and a music box worth perhaps a small fortune. We cannot surrender them to Scotland-yard, as they would likely have us do. Do you not see? All of our crises can be fixed, thanks to a stroke of good fortune!”
He paused for a moment, considering the options and looking at the clock . “Fine. We may keep it for a short while,” he consented. “But, by God, Emma, if it is ill-gotten or if something happens to you, know that I will consider it my doing.”
“Very well,” she nodded and kissed his cheek. “All right, darling, after I boil the water for tea once more, would you like some porridge?”
“Oh, Em, you simply must try to do something slightly more interesting with your hair,” Miranda Fletcher groaned, casting a pitying look on her best friend’s tight bun. The two of them were having their weekly afternoon tea, merely sitting and chatting in Miranda’s parlor. “You look absolutely stuffy, darling.”
Emma grinned. “Thank you, Miranda.” She absentmindedly released her hair and attempted to pull it into a knot, but was absorbed in, for the umpteenth time, trying to decipher the mystery man’s identity. A man of many names... but that could be so many people- a thief, a spy, a troupe performer...
“Come now, your hair is all askew,” Miranda fussed, adroitly snatching the simple brass comb that gathered Emma’s hair and sliding it into place. “Are you sure you do not want me to style yours like mine? It would look quite becoming on you.”
“No, thank you,” she smiled, admiring her friend’s remarkably bright blue dress that clashed brilliantly with her blazing red, elegantly fashioned hair. “Now, I’ve been quite behind on all of our gossip. Perhaps you could inform me of all the goings-on in sleepy little Lambeth?” she teased, knowing her friend was quite the renowned gossip.
“Well,” Miranda started, eyes gleaming, “by now you must have heard of poor Annie Chapman, who was slaughtered by that crazy madman.”
“Jack the Ripper? But of course,” Emma shuddered.
“Yes, that very man. However, my neighbor Catherine was childhood friends with the deceased, and passed on some new information to me at tea this past Tuesday. Apparently, he did not just leave claiming her life.”
“What else did he take from her?”
“A priceless heirloom, apparently borrowed from a wealthy friend. Catherine visited with Annie right before her demise, and she saw the object on her. However, when she saw a picture of the corpse in the papers, it was nowhere to be seen. There was no chance for it to be looted after the murder, so all fingers point to this mystery man.”
Emma’s head started throbbing, matching the pace of her racing heart. “And, pray tell, what was that... heirloom, as you said?”
“Why, I cannot be completely certain, but I have been told it was a...a necklace, I believe.”
“N-necklace?” she stammered, her pulse racing . “Do you know what gems it was comprised of?”
“I believe my neighbor Catherine told me garnets... no, not garnets, they were ru-”
“Rubies,” Emma finished for Miranda, her body feeling as if it had just been doused by ice-cold water. “With an emerald-studded clasp.”
“You seem to know an awful lot about this necklace,” Miranda frowned in surprise, confusion shadowing her face. “Are you sure you’re feeling quite right, Emma? You’re looking rather peaky as of late.”
Emma sat there, as if frozen to her chair. When she regained the conscious ability to speak, she nodded. “Yes, Miranda. I am well.”
It could only have been from him, and she was sure of that. Everything, unfortunately enough, added up, and she could not fathom how she did not realize it before.
I obtained this jewellery from an acquaintance who would be happy to know that you are wearing it... that line was almost laughable. Would Annie Chapman be happy that Jack the Ripper murdered her for pleasure, and stole her prized necklace to give away to some unsuspecting poor woman?
If you would do me the honor, I will be meeting a friend nine days before the ninth month dies... this part was fairly obvious. He wanted her to meet her on twenty-second of September, possibly with a friend, but she doubted that was true.
At the evening mass at our sacred place...the closest chapel-she assumed he meant this by sacred place- was Upton Chapel. They were to convene at the eight-o-clock mass there...
Emma was scared, so horribly terrified. She wasn’t foolish. She knew he wanted to overpower her, to extract favors from her before he finished her off.
She could feel Charles staring at her worriedly as she sat in their small parlor, music box in hand, winding up the knob. She would let the notes overtake her, desperately wishing for them to tell her what to do. When they ceased to play, she would wind it up again, for its music had become her opiate.
She spent more time with the box than she would with Charles, because his misery was contagious. Her husband was spending hours in bed every morning, often not even going to work. His appetite decreased so dramatically that he would not eat so much as bread crumbs. His friends and business acquaintances often would attempt to visit him, but he would gruffly tell Emma to tell them he wasn’t home whenever the doorbell rang. The time they spent together, he looked worried, but refused her affection. It was misery living in that house, and it was unbearable. So she would sit with the box, her friend, and the music would comfort her. Charles would accuse her of being obsessed, but she denied it, only to spark a half-hearted argument that usually resulted in him retreating to their room. They were barely still sleeping in the same bed; he would shift over as far as he could without falling off when she would enter the room.
Was it worth the pain of living, to prolong her life, if her husband no longer accepted her touch, if her home fell into gloom, if she could not bear children that would love her? Was the wretchedness worth bearing?
She was there on the steps, the autumn wind ruffling her skirt. Churchgoers were filing into the chapel, but she simply stood there on the damp stone. She bore no other adornment besides the necklace that rested on her collarbone, and the faded satchel she carried, bulging with some object.
Once the last person had entered, she was alone, quite alone in the night. Tears resting in her eyes, she did not regret anything, but she could not help but feel a slight sense of dread. What was to commence was only her fault. She thought of Charles, and wondered if he could live without her. Her wet eyes blurring, she closed them, picturing his face on their wedding day. He had looked so carefree then...
A need to fill the void of silence overcame her, so she drew the music box out of her prim carpetbag. Turning the knob more slowly than usual, she released it. Eerily, the music crept out and reverberated off the chapel’s surrounding stone walls.
And from the darkness that enveloped her, she heard a ghastly voice, humming in her ear. It was singing along with the notes perfectly with a dark glee. For the tiniest space of a moment, she felt a horrible pain in her breast, tormenting agony unlike anything she had ever felt.
Like Persephone being dragged into the underworld, she fell into blackness.
The world was on fire, but icy black. All she knew was the thick curtain of blackness that swallowed her, making it difficult for her to distinguish anything.
“It makes absolutely no sense! Why her? She is not anything like those other women!”
Let me out of here!
Where is... here?
“Sir, your wife is very weak. You are only causing her damage by holding her hand.”
“Damn it, I’ll hold my wife’s hand if I bloody well want to!”
You do love me...
“She has lost a substantial amount of blood. However, it is quite a miracle that she was only stabbed the once and there was a witness passing by to scare off the culprit. The wound barely missed her heart. Any closer, and she would have died instantly.”
Weeping. “Emma.... she is not expected to live, is she?”
“I’m afraid the chances are rather slim, Mr. Toulson.”
So this is it.
Dying. This is what it feels like...
I love you, Charles.
Why can’t I speak? Charles? Charles?
She tried to open her mouth and cry out, to tell him how much she adored him, how foolish she had been, how she wanted to take everything back. But wicked Hades was to have his way, and she was mute, gagged by Death.
“Emma... Emma dearest. Can you hear me?”
Yes, I can hear you!
“Stay here darling, stay here with me! How can I go on without you? How can I live? Why did you go to the chapel, to die? Was life that miserable?”
It was torture, for she wanted to say no, how lovely her life was, how she wished she could stay...how mad she had been to want to leave this life, how horribly foolish she had been to want anything else but to be with him....
She heard him whisper gravely. “This is unfair. How are you to die in peace if you believe that I am to live a life of suffering? I am a selfish wretch.”
No, you could never be... it was I who chose to die.
A gentle kiss on her cheek. “Sweet dreams, Emma. I love you.”
As I love you.
The black chasm rose up around her, threatening to swallow her if she did not hang on to her consciousness. But her heart was filled with love because of his words.
She let go.