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Author's note: This was orignially a school piece, but I just though I'd put it up here to see if anyone enjoyed reading it!
March 17th 1880
“Come on now, Miss Isabel. It’s time for you to go to bed.”
I looked up mournfully from my dolls at Mary’s voice. I had just finished arranging them into families, their lumpy forms scattered across the fresh nursery carpet, and the idea of sleeping now, just as I was ready to begin my game, seemed akin to torture.
At the time, I had been spending a lot of time with Thomas, a boy just a year older than me, but who could already do long division and was far quicker than me at climbing trees. One time, maybe trying to impress his superior knowledge on me, he had sat me down and told me all about the current war, and how cruelly the ‘evil’ Boers were treating their captives. The stories he told were almost certainly a fiction created to try and impress me, but they also worked. Since that day, I had become convinced that my nurse maid was a spy all the way from Africa, and that she planned to kill me in my sleep one night. Half of the time I would regard her with a strange respect, and the other half I was petrified that if I said the wrong thing and behaved poorly, she would take me away and eat me or something else equally savage.
That evening, I was in the former mood, and it took, therefore, only a small confrontation to get me changed into my nightgown and into bed. Tucked up, under my thin blanket, I watched as Mary quickly tidied away my toys.
“Good night then Isabella. Sleep well.”
I swallowed softly. “Mary?”
The woman hesitated in the doorway, and when she turned back, her usually imposing face seemed to have softened a little. “What is it?”
“I don’t like this new room.” I managed to snuffle out, feeling embarrassed, and I saw Mary’s shoulder’s drop slightly.
“Well what’s wrong with it Miss?” Her gaze darted around as she spoke, as if expecting to find some physical abnormality. I burrowed deeper down into the sheets.
“It doesn’t feel right.” I hesitated. “It’s scary.”
She didn’t draw back from the door, and her face cleared, apparently glad that my problem was so mundane and had been confronted so many times before. “Don’t worry. Miss Isabel. You’ll be fine. It’s just new and scary because you aren’t used to it yet. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”
With that pitiful reassurance, she turned and left. The door closed softly, with a quiet snick as the latch fell into place.
I squirmed further down the bed and pulled the sheet over my head, trying to tell myself that I was back in Hawthorne Crescent and not this new, unfamiliar house. I silently repeated a childish mantra over and over: ‘I’m safe. Nothing is going to happen.’ until I almost believed it. Slowly, my heart’s thudding seemed less violent and my breaths slowed to a regular rhythm. My eyes slowly flickered shut. Then, the first footstep echoed through the room. My first thought was that Mary had returned to check on me, but as the steps continued to sound, I realised that they were too firm, as though the approaching figure was incredibly heavy. I froze under the blankets, not daring to raise my head and see whatever fiend was approaching. A hoarse snort rang out barely inches from my face and I whimpered softly to myself, compacting my foetal position more tightly and biting my lip to stop myself from shaking. As my sheet was carefully raised by an unseen hand, a rush of hot air tickled at the back of my neck. I squeezed my eyes even more tightly shut, trying to remember one of the many prayers we had been taught at Sunday School. Then, without warning, a voice rang out.
“Leave her alone.” It was a rich tone: male and very warm. I found my shaking slow a little and the sound of retreating footsteps rang out. “It’s all right. You can open your eyes.”
Slowly, I followed the instructions, clutching my sweat drenched sheet to me as I did, like some kind of shield. As unexpected light flooded my vision, I tightened my grip and the figure before me swam into focus. He was male and in his mid thirties, with neat hair and a handsome face. My hands relaxed a little but I still did not move.
“I am James. What is your name?” He offered me his hand and after a second, I took it. His grip was firm and reassuringly human.
“Isabella Buckland, daughter of Colonel Buckland, but you can call me Isabel.” I was blushing for some reason as I spoke, desperate to impress the mysterious stranger. As he nodded, I was already sliding out of my bed, to stand beside the man. We were, as I had expected, no longer in my room. My feet were resting on what appeared to be a grey mist, and the area around me seemed entirely shrouded in darkness. The only light was provided by a candle gripped tightly in my rescuers hand. He saw me looking and smiled slight.
“ Well then Isabel. You don’t need to worry about monsters anymore. I’ll look after you.”
Despite the promise being simply words, I relaxed. Then, without warning, the heavy candle in the man’s hands flickered and died. Through the darkness, a familiar voice echoed out and a little of the tension drained from my muscles.
“It looks like the candle needs relighting. Would you like to do it for me Isabel?”
I would have laughed at him, and said not to be stupid and that I didn’t have any matches, if he hadn’t made me feel so grown up and special. So instead, I said: “Yes please.” In the most subdued voice that I could manage. And somehow there were matches in my hand, and I lit the candle with them, trying not to seem surprised. Once the light had reappeared, we stood in silence, watching the hot wax drip slowly towards the floor.
“Are you an angel?” I finally asked, staring at his dark, unreadable eyes in awe.
The man laughed softly. “Me? No. I’m not an angel.” He looked straight at me, and brushed
a thin strand of hair from my face. “Good night Isabel. Sleep well.” He whispered softly, and, for once entirely obedient, l did.
March 21st 1888
The ballroom was too hot and too sticky for any of us to look our best. Several of the girls I knew had waltzed past, an almost perceptible, entirely unladylike sheen of sweat painting their faces. I fanned myself gently, trying to remain pristine, and smiled tiredly at my latest partner, as his voice buzzed dully at my ears.
Mother’s choices for me this evening had so far been rather poor. My full dance card, which at the start of the evening had sent tingles of anticipation running through me, now seemed to taunt me with a promise of countless long hours left to endure. Each of the men I had danced with, though rich and entirely eligible, had been at least twice my age, with lank hair, portly stomachs and sharp, greedy eyes. So many times, I had had to laugh after listening to a dull story, simpering in a way that apparently only I knew was fake, saying:
“Oh Mr Bacon, I never understood how thrilling banking could be!” or “Oh really? You own Manorsford Manor? I have always thought of it as one of England’s most beautiful properties. How I should love to go there!” And they each of them had lapped it up and gone away smiling a little more smugly. Inside, I was slowly shrivelling away, as each of my thin tendrils of hope were crushed by the arrival of a new dance partner, just the same as the ones before. Whenever I had discussed balls with James, his derogatory comments about their tedium had seemed odd and only yesterday, I had laughingly assured him that I would dance with hundreds of handsome young men tonight. Now I understood his dislike of the events and regretted the rash words I had spoken: he would know the truth, even if I tried lying to him.
I spun around to see a plump man, around the age of my father standing behind me, hand outstretched and heavy beads of sweat decorating his forehead like an exotic crown. As he caught sight of my face, a slight frown creased that damp expanse, and he flushed like a young girl. Inside my heart sank.
“Yes? You are...” I checked my dance card discreetly, struggling to pick out letters from the mass of copperplate curls that supposedly made up a name, “Mr Banbury?” I shook his hand awkwardly, glad of my thin gloves.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” he muttered, checking a gilded pocket watch hurriedly. I felt a sick, disappointed nausea churn in my stomach, and tried to smile as he continued. “I must say, I had heard that you were... younger.” His insensitive, rude words were not a shock, and it was barely a struggle to keep my face composed. I had heard the same opinion from many other tongues, who had been expecting yet another innocent debutante.
“I’m eighteen. People have told me frequently that I look old for my age.”
“Ah. I’m sorry.” Mr Banbury adjusted his tie, coughing softly to himself, apparently in an attempt to cover his social shortcomings. We shuffled awkwardly for a moment, until a new tune began to play, and the other couples started to move onto the dance floor. After a second, the man offered me his hand and after an uncomfortable second, I took it, trying my best to glide elegantly onto the dance floor and not simply run as far as I could in the opposite direction. Sadly for me, Banbury was not only a poor looker but also a poor dancer and to compound the two facts, he seemed to assume I would want to talk with him throughout the entire set.
“...Of course I own several properties, but my main home is in Wiltshire. I have a rather expansive estate there you see: Marshfield Hall. I believe that it has around one hundred acres of land...” His voice just continued droning on in a dull buzz as I tried to focus on the increasingly complex dance steps.
“I see. That sounds beautiful.” I nodded, as though having listened intently.
“Yes well, the land is only really useful when I want to host a hunting party. For most social activities, I tend to prefer my small lodge in...”
I cut in sweetly, before he could begin telling me about yet another property. “Oh, you hunt?”
“Yes.” He sounded annoyed that I had diverted his lecture. “Anything really: foxes, hares, birds, deer... it’s quite relaxing.”
“Oh the poor animals!” I couldn’t help the childish squeal from escaping me, and immediately felt my cheeks colour. Mr Banbury seemed to see me properly for the first time.
“Why do you say that? Those creatures are only there for our needs. It is man’s right as superior beings to use the lives of animals as we see fit. Why should I not kill animals in sport if that is how I choose to exact that right?” Under the man’s lardy exterior, I spotted a glimpse of intellect and my respect for him grew ever so slightly.
“But surely causing animals pain simply to relieve your own personal stress is utterly unjust? And where does this supposed human superiority come from? If you recall, animals were created by God before us humans: we were an afterthought. It is entirely possible that animals are sentient creatures, and what you think of as a simple stress relief is akin to genocide from their perspective!” As I slowed my argument, I saw a slight smile tug on those heavy cheeks.
“So the little girl has some backbone. Interesting.” As the song slowed, the man led me to the side of the floor, placing a careful finger under my chin, to lift it for a closer inspection. “You really are an unusual young woman, Miss Buckland. It would be a pleasure to see you again.”
I struggled not to pull away as he leaned closer to me, thick breath misting on my face. And then, in the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar figure: well built, handsome and utterly unlike the hordes of sweaty old men that surrounded me. He was like an angel walking amongst us. My mouth instinctively formed the comfortable name, and his head swivelled slowly towards me. For a long second, our eyes locked, the pinkish lighting casting a blush across his face. I took a step away from my potential suitor, hardly daring to breath. My mind sought out a desperate lie.
“I’m sorry. My chaperone wishes to speak with me.” Before he could protest, I turned and began to push my way through the crowd. All around me, people were talking and laughing, voices loud and self important, the air heavy with stifling perfume and the floor crowded by so many bodies that I was afraid of becoming lost. But just as I began to wonder if I had imagined his face, I looked up to find him before me, more real and solid than any other man in the room.
“James.” My voice was softer than planned, but he heard me anyway, and smiled ever so slightly. I carefully drew off my glove, handing trembling slightly, and rested it on his cheek. Below my fingers, I could feel the minute contours of soft flesh, which gave slightly under my touch. In that moment, I thought that I had never seen anyone so beautiful. “It’s you. It’s really you. I’ve dreamed-“
“Lets not talk about that now.” James took my hand, stroking it softly with his long fingers- they were so graceful!- and then tightened his grip, drawing me to him. “We should dance.” I felt his hand brush against my shoulder, fluttering like a small butterfly for a moment, before settling softly in place. I moved towards him cautiously, beginning to sway slowly in time with the music that had just begun to play, matching each of the tiny movement of his body with one of my own. His hand on my waist was soft and soothing, and through it I found myself drawing the strength to remain upright, despite the sudden weakness of my legs.
As we danced, I could feel angry gazes burning into me, as my dance card lay discarded on the floor, neat rows of names ignored in favour of yet another hour spent with James. We had certainly danced together for far longer than was in any way acceptable, and we had waltzed past countless couples, who muttered softly at our passage, refusing to look our way, but the time we spent melted into one continuous stream, from which I could barely differentiate separate events. All there was was James: his soft touch, and his dark eyes, from which I could not look away. From which I did not want to look away.
April 23rd 1888
“Let me see! Let me see!” Charlotte squealed, grabbing my hand roughly, even as I tried to laugh off her excitement. She inspected my finger thoroughly, turning it over, so that the thin gold band, decorated with several small gems, flashed and glittered in the morning light. “As soon as I saw it in the Times, I just had to come over!”
I flushed as the other girls voiced their similar sentiments, and my hand was roughly jerked between them, as a chorus of appreciative noises rang out.
“So, who is this Mr Wolverton?” Elisabeth asked, as she peered closely at my ring.
I swallowed slowly, smoothing down my neatly styled hair. “He owns several large houses across the country and the Wolverton family is of good standing.”
Elisabeth groaned dramatically. “But how did you meet him? What’s he like?”
I stifled a laugh. “Oh. Well, James is lovely. Really lovely. I met him at that ball last month.”
Now the other girls’ attention was entirely focused on me:
“Only last month?!”
“Isn’t that a little improper?”
“Surely you should have waited a little longer?”
“Wait, you’re marrying James Wolverton?“ That was the pretty Felicity, her blonde curls bouncing as she gesticulated excitedly. We all looked over at her, mocking her ignorance with our eyes, but no one spoke, for fear of appearing rude in front of the group.
“Well yes, I am. Of course.” I smiled sweetly at her.
“No, but haven’t you heard about him?” Felicity’s eyes were wide, and I shook my head cautiously. “Well I knew a girl who went to stay with her Aunt in Oakhampton, and she said that there was a house, miles outside of town, owned by a Mr James Wolverton. Apparently the man had lived there for years, all alone apart from one or two servants and he never attended any social functions. I heard that the man has had a string of younger wives, but they’ve all died.” The girls looked over at me, faces suddenly serious, and I found the knot in my stomach dissolve easily. I laughed.
“Well that can’t be James! He’s only ten years older than me, at the very most. Anyway, he isn’t that type of a man.”
Felicity looked at me, eyes narrowed under her long, dark lashes, and said, “Just be careful Isabel.” In that second, she didn’t feel like the youngest of the group, and her doll-like features seemed to have taken on a dark mysterious aura. But then the moment was broken as the girls tittered softly amongst themselves, apparently uncomfortable with the heavy atmosphere, and I found myself distracted by talks of clothes, handbags and wedding dresses. As the group filed out, Felicity’s goodbye embrace seemed to last a little longer than it ever had before.
June 17th 1888
The carriage jolted uncomfortably beneath me, as we collided with yet another rut in the worn country road, and my breath caught. Clutched in one hand was the letter from James, that I had been rereading for almost all of the journey. I didn’t dare to release it, even to steady myself.
I am unthinkably sorry to leave you at such short notice, especially so soon after our wedding. I had hoped to personally welcome you to your future home. However, pressing business has come up in London, to which I must attend and as your family are ready for you to leave, I believe that the best course of action is for you to make the journey to Rutherford Hall without me, and I will join you after a day or so. I am sure that you will find the staff friendly and welcoming, and should you need anything, there is a small village within a short walk’s distance.
Therefore, until I can return to you, I commend you my heart.
Back in the safety of my home, making the journey alone had seemed reasonable, but now, as I sat in the rickety carriage, watching the unfamiliar grey countryside glide past my window, I felt horribly vulnerable.
“This is Rutherford Hall now, coming up on the horizon. You can see it just there.”
I peered over in the direction in which my driver had pointed. As our journey had progressed, city had become forest, which had become fields and then finally the moor through which we were travelling. For a moment, all I could see was the heavy, damp fog but then it parted slowly, like a pair of heavy velvet curtains, to reveal a huge, dark silhouette. The house was a tangled mass of spires, towers and staring windows, a heavy shadow cast across nearly half of the massive form by the dull sun. My breath caught, and my chest suddenly felt crushed, not simply by my tight corset.
The carriage drew to a shaky stop, sending a spray of gravel flying from its wheels. Carefully, I unlocked the door, and not waiting for the driver to offer me a hand, stepped softly down onto the driveway. Seen this close up, the building was even more imposing. It seemed to stretch up all the way to the sky, without a splash of colour or life to soften its harsh exterior. Gently raising my skirt with one hand, so that it would not trail on the muddy ground, I took cautious steps towards the imposing double doors that would lead me to my new home, and the dark faced woman who had just emerged from inside. Her grey streaked hair was pulled back into a tight bun, stretching her severe face slightly with its tightness, and her long dress was plain and a faded black.
“You must be Miss Buckland. I’ve heard a lot about you.” She didn’t offer me a hand, and her cold expression didn’t warm in the slightest.
“Actually, it’s Mrs Wolverton. James and I are married, after all.” I found myself saying.
The woman sniffed slightly. “Yes, so I’ve heard.” Before I could comment, she turned slightly away, and continued. ”Very well. My name is Mrs Doyle. I am the housekeeper here at Rutherford. This,” she gestured to a slightly stooped man, half hidden in the shadowy entrance hall. “is Layton, the butler here. If you need anything, just ask him. He will show you around the house now.” She nodded curtly, as if satisfied, then turned away from me. Apparently I was dismissed. Glancing back at the coach driver fumbling with my cases, I felt suddenly adrift, as though any ties I may have had with the rest of the world had suddenly, brutally, been shattered.
“Come on then, if you’re coming.” The paper thin voice drew my gaze, and I watched as Layton turned away from me, slipping back into the dark house, like a fleeting memory or half remembered dream. His gait was long and shuffling, one leg dragging slightly, so that it left a track in the dusty hall floor. After a moment, taking in one last breath of the clear air and dull sun, that was burnishing the late afternoon sky with bright gold, I turned and followed after him, letting the dark mouth of the hall swallow me up, like some great, terrible monster.
As I descended into the beast’s belly, tailing Layton like a lost puppy, I found myself relaxing a little. From within, the house was disappointingly ordinary. The corridors were large enough to be comfortable, and there were no hidden passages or glaring portraits of long forgotten family members to watch my movements with haunting gazes, clinging to my back like thin gossamer threads of a spider’s web. As we circled the house slowly, the butler pointed out each door, and named it with a soft murmur.
“The private dining room... Mr Wolverton’s study... guest bedroom...”
I knew after only five minute that I was going to be perpetually lost for at least the next few months, but I didn’t dare ask Layton to repeat any of his croaking labels at each location.
Finally, we rounded the final corner, to see two doors.
“That’ll be your bedroom on the left. Excuse me now.” The man ducked away, leering at me with age-darkened teeth, and I shuddered.
“Excuse me?” I called after him, and his compacted form grew still. “What about the other room?”
The man didn’t turn. “Just a way into the attic. The flooring is all rotten so the room isn’t safe for use any more. We don’t go in there.” Then, apparently worried that he had said too much, the man shuffled away, leaving me alone. I stood for a moment, poised in uncertainty, before, in a blur of action, I threw myself at the forbidden door, heaving my weight against it, as I twisted the handle sharply. There was no movement, simply a low click as the lock jammed. I slumped back, disappointed and intensely aware of my surroundings once more. There was a small cobweb stretched over the corner of the door, its fine tendrils almost invisible, and the wooden frame was dirty but my hand, with which I had turned the handle, was still clean, with no hint of dust. Despite Layton’s words, the room had been used, and very recently. I suddenly desperately wished that James was with me, as I turned back to the room that would be mine.
Dinner that night was a subdued affair. Apparently, without James here to accompany me, the household staff were as unsure as I, on what exactly the custom was. Eventually, I found myself eating dinner alone but for Mrs Doyle, who seemed to resent my presence as much as I was uncomfortable in hers, and as we slowly sipped at our soup, we didn’t once speak. Finally, when the dishes had been cleared away, I excused myself, on the grounds of a slight headache, and after refusing the offer of a guide, began making my way back to my room. What could have been a long trip, considering my ignorance of the hall’s floor plan, was, mercifully, cut short when I saw Layton hauling the rest of my cases upstairs. I followed him discreetly, until my room finally came into view, reassuringly familiar. After a quick wash, I changed out of my dress and finally sunk into bed, eyelids flickering with exhaustion from the long day. It had been so different to the romantic homecoming I had imagined just a few weeks ago, where James swept me up in his arms, and carried me over the threshold. Feeling yet another wave of exhaustion sweep over me, my muscles relaxed and I felt my consciousness slip away.
“How do you like it?” James was setting a quick pace, and I struggled to keep up with him.
Pretending to fiddle with a bracelet, I debated my answer. “The house is lovely.” I finally said, but he sensed my hesitancy.
“But... the staff don’t seem to like me very much.” I gripped James’ forearm, dragging him to a halt. “And I wish that you were with me.”
He laughed, and stroked my hair softly. “Don’t worry. I’ll be with you soon.” He kissed my forehead so lightly that it felt as though a feather had brushed against my skin. I touched the spot his lips had met gently.
“Who cares about London? Who cares about business? I need you here with me.”
He didn’t reply, gaze distant, and I leant my head back to rest on his chest.
“Shall we light your candle now?” I spotted a small pyramid of matches lying in our path, and we drew to a halt, James seemingly awoken from his distracted stupor.
The grey morning light sent strange patterns of light across the polished wood table, which twisted and danced in strange patterns each time I moved my head. Taking a bite of my bread, I looked out of the large window that displayed the extensive house grounds, framed, like a portrait, by a pair of heavy velvet curtains.
“I shall be going into town today. There a few things I need to purchase.” I announced, looking up at the young servant girl, probably only a year or two younger than me, who was hovering behind me, heavy coffee pot shaking in her hands. “What is the quickest route?”
The girl blinked in surprise. “Well that would be across the moor Ma’am. But you can only go that way if the weather is nice. Sometimes we’re stuck here if it floods.” Her face flushed. “It’s quite a long walk if you don’t mind me saying so ma’am. If you need anything, one of us could go and fetch it for you, if you’d like.”
“No, it’s fine thank you Abby.” I said. That was, I thought, her name. “A long walk will do me good this morning.“ I pushed my plate away. “Please let me know if there is any post.”
She was right: the walk was a long one. I revelled in the fresh, clean air, appreciating each careful, booted step I was putting between myself and the unfriendly house. I hadn’t seen Mrs Doyle all morning, and that was the way I wanted to keep it. In the end, it was nearly two hours before the small cluster of buildings came into view over the ridge of a small hill. Breathing a small sigh of relief that I hadn’t set off in the wrong direction, I carefully picked my way down the grassy mound, to stand on a cobbled street, lined by three or four small shops and a quiet pub. I stood, taking in the sleepy, small town atmosphere for a blissful moment, before strolling comfortably towards the nearest of the shops.
A quiet bell rang as I entered, jolting the drowsing shop keeper to full alertness. He smiled at me, and I replied in cautious turn, as I examined some of the goods. The whole room smelt of leather, and the counter was surprisingly new looking for such a small business. Pulling out a small pen, and sheaf of writing paper, I placed them next to the man, prompting another, apparently genuine grin from the trader.
“You visiting someone here?” He asked, as I fumbled with my coins. Apparently, trade was slow and he was keen to stave of boredom for a short while.
“No, I’ve just moved here.” I smiled at him sweetly, aware of his eyes wandering across my neatly styled hair, and flattering, fashionable dress. “With my husband.”
He nodded, apparently not affected. “Thought I hadn’t seen your face before. I’m sure I’ll see you around then. Where do you live?” His round face seemed genuinely interested, and I felt myself flush slightly.
“Rutherford Hall. Just across the moor, so I doubt that you’ll see me so much.” As I spoke, I saw the man’s friendly grin slip.
“Oh. Well I think that you’re all paid up. Maybe you should leave now.” He refused to meet my eyes.
“I’m sorry. Is there something wrong?” I wasn’t sure why, suddenly, I was being treated with such hostility.
“It’s just... that house. He’s lived there for years, you know, and he’s still exactly the same.”
“Who? James?” I laughed, but the man cut me off, expression grave.
“And those poor young women... there’s something ungodly about that house. I’m sorry.” He pressed the change into my hand hurriedly. “But like I said. You should leave now.”
I turned, and stumbled out of the shop, the bell tolling mournfully behind me like that of a funeral. Suddenly, I lacked any motivation to visit the rest of the childishly small shops, and turned back towards the long stretch of moorland that rose before me in a sharp crest, like some repulsive wave. And there, on the horizon, loomed Rutherford Hall. Sighing, I hitched my skirts up carefully to avoid dirtying them, before beginning to pick my way along the interminable route back.
As I finally neared the house, a light drizzle had begun to fall, misting around my shoulders, and working thin strands of hair from my neatly styled bun. I was feeling disproportionately tired, an odd fatigue having worked itself into my bones and body and taken root there, to suck away my energy and transform it to pure apathy like some strange engine: breaking down my vitality to form exhaustion. My bones seemed to ache from their core, and my skin felt oddly sensitive. I stumbled into the shelter of the house, wiping my shoulders dry wearily. Then I took in the figure poised, back toward me, and I felt a burst of sudden exhilaration.
“James!” I exclaimed.
He turned, and a smile split his face broadly. “Isabel! How are you?”
I didn’t bother to reply, flinging myself into his arms. He stroked my hair softly, as I took in deep breaths of his scent. We stayed frozen, linked in one another’s embrace for a long moment, not daring to shift even slightly, for fear of breaking the connection between us.
“Oh. Mr Wolverton. You’re home. We weren’t expecting you until the evening.” The tone was a surprisingly pleasant one, and as I pulled away from James to locate the speaker, I felt my eyes bulge slightly. Mrs Doyle was standing before us, hands clasped neatly in front of her apron, and a smile painting her worn features. “Is there anything you need?” She leant forwards as though meaning to carry James’ battered case upstairs for him, but he waved her away.
“I’m fine!” He looked over at me. “She treats me like I’m a child.” James shook his head slightly, as though dismissing the problem, then looked between us, sharing his warm smile equally. “I’m sure the two of you have been getting on..?”
“Like a house on fire, sir.” Mrs Doyle replied quickly, and I could see that her smile was forced.
“Yes. She’s been very... welcoming.” I added. We did not make eye contact.
James clapped his hands, clearly pleased at our insincere responses. “Well I’m glad to hear it. Ah, Mrs Doyle, some friends from London will be coming down tomorrow to stay with us, so I would appreciate it if you could make up two of the guest bedrooms.”
“Of course. I’ll see to it now.” Turning on her heel, the woman disappeared down the corridor, dark dress and fast pace making her look like some withered, overgrown bat, flapping its way along the shadowy passageway. I watched her for a second, before turning back to James.
“I missed you last night Isabel.” He said, stroking my cheek gently.
“I missed you too James. But at least...” I wasn’t sure how to say it.
“At least what?” His long fingers had stopped their movement, resting on my face like overgrown spiders.
“At least we can always see one another at night, like we always have done.”
I knew immediately that I had said the wrong thing. My husband gently removed his hand from my face, and for a moment, neither of us spoke. Then finally, he stepped back, picking up his case.
“I should put this away.” He seemed almost embarrassed at his reaction. “Would you accompany me?”
I smiled, linking my arm in his proffered one. “Oh, how exciting!” We both smiled at my parody of so many girls my age: excited at any opportunity a man could supply. “That would be delightful Mr Wolverton. Lead the way.”
As we climbed the stairs we were both laughing softly.
June 23rd 1888
It was dark when I awoke, with only a thin sliver of pale moonlight making its way through the curtains, to lay a pale line across my face. For a moment, I was unsure what had woken me. A second before, I had been speaking with James, like every night, and now I was sat bolt upright in bed, nightgown damp with sweat. Pulling myself out of bed, I fumbled for the porcelain jug and bowl, which were in place on the nightstand for my morning preparations. I was pouring a little of the water out, meaning to cool my face, when I heard it: A sort of low, scratching sound ringing out from downstairs. I froze, unsure of what to do. James was sleeping at the other end of the passageway, but I didn’t want to wake him for such a small problem. It was probably just a rat or something after all. And yet... I found myself pulling on my thin gown to conceal my dignity a little, and carefully lighting a candle, despite the logical part of me screaming that I should go back to bed and forget that I had heard anything at all. My door was heavy, and let out the groan of an old man as I forced its stiff hinges open, but outside, on the hallway, was total stillness. My candle’s flickering flame sent odd, distorted light shimmering along the long corridor, and for a second there was absolute silence. I took my first, careful step forwards, just as another sound echoed: a hushed murmuring that reverberated softly in rippling waves of sound. I swallowed dryly, and adjusted my grip on the candle holder, knuckles suddenly white at the confirmation of the unknown presence that was occupying the house. I took a deep breath, and another step forwards, trying not to shiver at the sudden draught that was whistling around the corridor, tugging at my thin nightclothes and candle flame. As I neared the large staircase, I felt my steps hesitate yet again. ‘I could wake James’, I realised. ’Wake James and tell him everything. Leave this to him.’ But I despised the idea of such weakness. So, ignoring the heart that was pounding at the skin of my chest as though it was trying to break through, I rounded the stairway, ready to face the intruders in my new home, that I knew would be standing at the bottom. Before I could see them, the slight breeze seemed to suddenly gain power, and my candle was snuffed out in an instant, leaving me to stand dumbly in absolute darkness.
“Hello? Is someone there?” It was a woman’s voice, rich and well bred.
“Who are you?” I demanded, voice squeaking slightly.
A throaty chuckle answered me. “Oh you must be new. It’s Tim and Madeline Lloyd. You
were expecting us tomorrow, but we decided it made more sense to get the journey all over and done with tonight.”
I felt myself let out the breath I’d been holding. “Alright. Just let me wake James.
I’m sure he’ll want to see you.”
“It’s alright, I’m here.” The vice was tired, and I spun around to see James, hair wild,
clutching another candle, this one lit. “Now what is going on?”
“It’s us James!” The woman called up, and James blinked for a second into the gloom, before
apparently recognising the figures.
“Maddy! What a lovely surprise, we didn’t expect you until the morning.” Despite his words,
there was an undercurrent of bitterness in my husband’s voice. “Come up here so we can see you.”
The couple complied, both moving, despite the woman’s bright tone, tiredly as they drew
into the candle’s dim light. The man, Tim looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, with a drawn face, receding hairline, and almost undernourished figure. His quick, sporadic movements, and dull eyes suggested a man who spent a lot of time worrying. His wife, in contrast was wearing a comfortable, satisfied smirk. She only looked to be around twenty five, but her heavy perfume and bright, expensive clothes seemed to create a persona with far more authority than one would expect of a young woman. I felt strangely sorry that her large, brash personality was being stifled by such a choking, grey husband who had probably been forced on her. I smiled at her warmly.
“Well you look as young as ever, don’t you.” James smiled, before gesturing towards me. “Maddy, Tim- this is Isabel, my wife.” My husband squeezed my hand tightly as he
spoke. The couple turned to me, offering their greetings, one enthusiastically, and the other with
clear reticence. I replied to them both with what I hoped was a charming smile.
“Well, it’s very late. We’ve set up two of the guest rooms for you. I’m sure you know the
way without me.” He seemed to be speaking directly to the woman, and for a second I felt a pang of jealousy, until he reached over to rest his hand on my waist gently.
“I’m sorry that we woke you. “ The woman looked straight at me. “I’m sure a girl like you
enjoys her dreams.”
I suddenly realised that I was dressed only in my nightclothes and blushed slightly. The
woman turned back to James.
“Well, good night then.” She seemed as eager to get to bed as I was.
“Yes. Good night.” we responded politely.
June 26th 1888
I reached for another cucumber sandwich, careful not to brush the jam with my spotless white gloves. They were made of the finest French silk and oh so fashionable. It seemed a shame that each time I wanted to eat, I was risking their cleanliness simply because of a misplaced jar of condiment that I didn’t dare to touch, due to its sticky exterior. I sighed. Sometimes, life simply wasn’t fair.
Taking a delicate bite of the sandwich which I had struggled so hard to obtain, I turned my attention back to the conversation taking place around the table.
“And so what do you do, Tim?” James asked politely.
“I’m an artist.” The man blushed, liked one half his age, and I frowned. So the marriage
hadn’t been arranged for money. I wondered what on earth had brought the pair together. I glanced over at Maddy, as she had insisted I call her on the very first day, eyes half closed in the hot sunlight.
“Did you finally finish decorating the west wing?” She asked, one bare foot lolling gently in
the air as she let her shoe drop to the ground.
James frowned. “What- Oh yes, years ago. I could show you if you’d like.”
We all rose awkwardly, but Maddy frowned. “Oh surely you don’t want to come Issy? You
can see the rooms any day, it shan’t be very interesting I’m afraid!” She laughed, the sound bell-like and clear. Then she turned to her husband. “And you darling, you’ll keep her company, won’t you?”
Tim nodded mutely, and we both sat, in perfect synchronicity. We watched as the
two figures began picking their way across the lawn, James turning back to smile at me encouragingly, once. I groaned internally: being stuck with Tim for at least half an hour was not in the least bit a desirable prospect to me. For a long while, we simply sat in silence, taking uncomfortable bites of the wide spread of food laid out on the table.
“So how are you adjusting to being Mrs Wolverton? It can’t be easy.” Tim’s voice was so
soft that at first I thought I had imagined it.
“Ah no, it’s not, but I’m fine.” I looked over at him. “I can’t imagine Maddy having any
He smiled softly. “No. But Maddy is rather... atypical in many ways. Many young girls find it
hard.” He peered over the table at me. “Though I suppose that you’re not such a young girl really.”
“Oh. I see.” He wiped his eyes, that seemed to be suddenly watering. “Well then I’m very
sorry for you.”
As I opened my mouth to ask him what exactly he meant by such a comment, James and
Maddy returned. They seemed cheerful, and the atmosphere was immediately lightened.
“Having fun?” She asked, as James moved to stand behind me.
Tim nodded weakly. “Isabel here was just asking me how you two know one
another.” He lied, “Isn’t that right?”
Biting my tongue, I smiled at the group sweetly. “Yes it is.”
Maddy laughed. “Oh we’ve known one another for simply decades, isn’t that right James?”
He smiled. “Yes, we have. Don’t you remember how-”
But Maddy cut him off. “Now, Tim, we really need to get going if we want to get back
home in time for Lady Barkley’s dinner party.”
“Do we want to get home for Lady Barkley’s dinner party?” Tim asked, so softly that I
think that only I heard him.
“Now this weekend has been simply wonderful, thank you so much for letting us stay.”
Maddy looked over at me. “It’s been charming to meet you. We must keep in touch.”
I nodded, only a little overwhelmed.
“Well it was lovely to see you again.” James planted a polite kiss on Maddy’s cheek that I
tried to ignore, before shaking Tim’s hand. “I had Layton bring your cases down so they should be in the hall. Will your carriage be here yet?...”
As the two spoke, I exchanged an awkward farewell with Tim. At first he offered me
his hand to shake, but as I moved to do so, he seemed to remember that I was a woman, and snatched it away. For a second, he hovered, apparently deliberating, before swooping in, to land a respectfully soft kiss on my cheek. I barely felt it land.
Then the couple were off, leaving me and James alone again. I watched as their carriage skittered along the gravel path, reclining in the warmth of knowing James was nearby.
“Are you all right?” He said a little later that evening. “You seem very quiet.”
I was. Because all I could hear, no matter what James said to me, was Tim’s parting words as he had kissed me goodbye. Incredibly soft, and at the same time, horribly sinister: “Be very careful...”
March 23rd 1891
“Oh James dear, let me take your coat. And look at you! Still as young as ever. It’s like you
haven’t aged a day...” Lady Galloway fussed around us, bubbling cheerily, as she removed the thick jackets that had shielded us from the chill wind outside on our way. Her home was smaller than the name of Galloway would suggest, but James had told me on the journey that the old woman had recently passed on the family home to her son, and was happy with her smaller townhouse now that she had reached fifty five. Dinner parties were held just as frequently here as they had been back in Hartsfield Manor.
“Well look at you, Julia. Still as lovely as the first time I met you.” James laughed, offering her
my dark jacket to hang with the collection of furs belonging to other guests.
“You charmer.” The woman waved away his compliment with mock annoyance. “And this
must be your sister?” She looked straight at me.
I felt my heart sink, and averted my eyes, all friendliness towards the woman evaporated
instantly. “His wife.” I corrected her coldly, watching our hostess quickly try to cover her surprise. Yes, it was true that I looked rather older than twenty two, but surely not that old? I patted my cheek worriedly as Lady Galloway tried to cover her slip.
“Well James is a lucky man then. I assumed that he wouldn’t be able to find such a beautiful
woman who would take him as a husband!”
We all laughed politely, pretending that we believed her. Then, blessedly, the next set of
guests arrived, and we found ourselves making our way through to the dining room, with the rest of the party. Immediately, we found ourselves being introduced to another couple:
“Dr Harry Freeman. This is my wife, Jane.” The hearty looking man shook both our
hands vigorously, smiling widely. “We’re from up in Devon, quite a few miles away. There’s a small village there, just on the edge of the moor, where I have a practice.”
“Oh, but we live in Rutherford Hall! We are practically neighbours!” I exclaimed.
James nodded. “Yes, you must come for dinner with us one evening.”
The wife, Jane, smiled sweetly, as her husband enthusiastically voiced his agreement. As the
two men became engaged in enthusiastically debating the result of a recent cricket match, Jane and I drew slightly aside.
“So how long have you been married to Mr Wolverton?” She asked, voice quiet but pretty.
“Over three years.” I told her politely, and she nodded.
“I see. Harry and I have been together nearly six years now. I think,” Her voice became timid.
“That I should find it rather fearful living out on the moors as you do.”
I smiled, remembering my early fear. “You quickly adapt.” I said.
“Spoken with true wisdom.” Jane nodded. “I’m sorry, but was this your first marriage?”
“Yes.” I smiled at her. “James is truly wonderful. Is it hard to be wife to a doctor; such a busy
“Oh no!” Jane’s pale face lit up a little. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. We’re not of the
same class as people like you of course: really, I think Lady Galloway only invited us because she felt that she ought to, but we do enjoy the chance to attend parties like this every once in a while.”
I suddenly understood Jane’s discomfort a little, and forced a little more warmth into my
smile. “Of course. Well, I think that is the bell for dinner. You will sit next to me, won’t you?”
The woman flushed slightly in pleasure. “Of course.”
The meal was a pleasant one, with many interesting figures making up the table. Jane, who remained a little apart from the flurry of conversation, had a charming husband who despite his lack of status or wealth, led most of the discussion. He seemed to have none of his wife’s insecurity or lack of confidence. I found myself caught up several times in a debate, where I came out on the side of opposing opinion to the man, yet still felt no ill-will towards him, despite his victory. The doctor was, I decided half-way through dessert, a unique specimen. The rest of the party seemed almost dull by comparison.
Finally, when the faces around me had been flushed red from the deep burgundy wine, and the platter of cheese and biscuits was bare but for the one, slightly squashed grape that no one dared to touch, James stood up, and announced that we needed to leave, in order to get back home before morning.
“Would you care to join us?” He asked the Freemans.
For a moment, they hesitated, apparently torn between a free journey home and manners,
before the doctor, smiling again, said: “We would be delighted, if that’s alright.”
James lightly assured them that it was no problem at all.
When we finally arrived home, it was only just night still, and very near to the next morning. I had fallen asleep halfway, lulled by the rocking of the carriage to the extent that I had awoken to find my head resting on James’ chest. His eyes had been half closed too. The doctor and his wife were both entirely awake, posture perfect and clothing neat. I felt a little ashamed to be seen in such a state, as I tucked one of my many wayward strands of hair back into the bun.
“This is us now.” The couple looked out of the window, as we drew up to a fairly large brick
house. It was true, that when compared with Rutherford it seemed almost pitiful, but the building certainly contrasted with the small market town where it was situated. I decided that for all her humility, Jane did herself a disservice.
“Well it was nice to meet you. You must come up to the hall for dinner soon.” James reached
across the small carriage to shake the doctor’s hand. I smiled politely. The door was opened, and the Freemans attempted to make their way out, without colliding with us. After a minute of fruitless labour, I climbed down. With enough space created to move freely, both figures clambered out after me. For a second, the doctor regarded me. Then, softly, he said:
“Here’s my card.” One was produced and tucked discreetly into my palm. “I feel like you may
need help sometime. Don’t be afraid to turn to us. Jane would love to see you again, I’m sure.” Then, his voice increased in volume. “It’s been a pleasure, Mrs Wolverton. Have a safe journey home.”
I nodded in response, lost for words, and stepped carefully back into the carriage. I closed
the small door sharply, watching the couple through its small window until they were simply a speck in the distance.
May 1st 1891
Gathering up my modest purchases into my purse, I turned to leave the shop, when I saw a familiar, slightly grey looking face.
“Jane!” I shifted the basket on my arm a little higher up, above my elbow. “How are you?
Both of you?”
The woman seemed surprised that I had recognised her. “Very well, thank you.” She
hesitated. “Would you like to come in for tea? I’ve just finished in town.” Jane didn’t expect me to accept: it was clear in her face.
My smile, which I had often been told was my best feature, widened. “I’d love to.”
I recognised the house immediately. It was still rather imposing, compared to the single storey buildings that surrounded it, and probably would have looked more at home in the city. Jane opened the door carefully, to reveal a small hallway, heavily decorated with photographs.
“Harry’s hobby.” She offered, seeing my surprised gaze. “Sorry- it’s a bit of a mess in here.”
As we trailed into the parlour, Jane began hurriedly tidying away some of the precarious stacks of books that covered most of the surfaces. The house was crammed with impressive looking medical tomes, standing like soldiers in imposing lines, ready to assault an unwary reader with complex terms and confusing diagrams. I noticed that the majority looked as though they had only been opened once or twice. “Nancy!” She called. “Could you prepare tea for my guest and I please?” A young looking woman emerged from one of the many rooms, dressed in a dark maid’s uniform. It seemed a shame: she was very pretty, and her features were almost noble. Perhaps the girl was from a family fallen on hard times, I mused. Or the product of an illicit affair.
“Of course ma’am. Will there be anything else?”
“No, that’s fine, thank you Nancy.”
The girl nodded, slipping quietly out of the door, to prepare the tray. I wondered dully why
our servants were incapable of responding so courteously, an image of Mrs Doyle flashing into my mind. Sometimes, I thought that James was a fool for keeping her on.
At that moment, the door to the house slammed loudly. I looked over at Jane to see her
“Hello darling, I’m home!” It was Harry, strong voice ringing around the house.
“I’m in here James. Mrs Wolverton is here too.” Her soft voice was tinged with fear, perhaps
that her husband would embarrass her in front of me. For not the first time, I found myself stunned by the couple’s contrasting personalities.
“Well hello!” He swept in, raising his arm in salutation. “What a lovely surprise. Mind if I join
you for tea?”
We assured him that we didn’t, and the man collapsed onto a nearby chair.
“What a day. Mrs Setterfield is convinced that I need to prescribe her a course of herbal
medicine, when really all she needs is a good bleeding. Nothing I say will sway her, and in the end, she set her husband on me. I thought that he was going to start biting at my ankles!” The doctor laughed. The door swung open, and the maid, Nancy, appeared, bearing a heavily laden tray. Harry picked up one of the piles of imposing medical journals, moving it carefully to one side to create space for the tea-tray. Then he leant forward, suddenly, to regard me closely. The looseness was gone from his muscles. “Mrs Wolverton. I don’t mean to be rude, but is it correct that you are still fairly young?”
Nancy slipped quietly out the door, and Jane quickly busied herself with pouring tea.
I tried to smile. “Yes, I suppose. I’m twen-”. I wasn’t sure whether or not to disclose my exact
age, suddenly afraid of impropriety since having left my teens.
“Believe me, I do not wish to offend you, but it is true that you look rather older than that, is
I sniffed, ready to reply coldly, when I felt something within me crumple, and my shoulders
sagged. “Several people have made that observation recently. I have always looked mature for my age, but I never imagined that it was severe enough to warrant concern. Perhaps it has worsened in the past few years.”
He nodded slowly. “I just the other day read a description of a similar case, by one Otto
Werner, I believe. The pile there brought it to mind you see.” The doctor gestured wildly, and I nodded, impatient. “The article described several occurrences of a malady in young people, in their early twenties, who seemed to age far more rapidly than would be expected of them. I just wonder, if you have become...” he coughed softly. “...afflicted by the same ailment.” Suddenly, he seemed to realise what he had said. “I’m sorry. That was rude of me. And now I’ve ruined your tea. I’m sure...”
I cut off his ashamed ramblings. “I am not offended, Doctor Freeman. I trust in your
judgement. The possibility may be entirely valid.” I smiled, resting my hand on his wrist to still his nervous movement. “Are there any treatments or tests known?”
“None. The condition seems to be rare. But I could give you a number for this Dr Werner,
and I’m sure he could help.” He pulled a pen from his pocket and scribbled a number in his battered leather notebook. Tearing the page out, he presented it to me with a flourish.
“Thank you.” I felt a sudden release as though some shackle upon me had been sprung. “I
will be sure to do that.”
Outside, a small droplet of rain hit the pavement.
“I suppose I really should be leaving.” I set my small teacup down gently. Its rose petal
pattern was the same as that of our empty plates and also the tablecloth- a level of detail that seemed unlike Jane. “It’s been lovely, thank you, but James will probably be worrying where I’ve gone.” Looking out at the grey sky and water streaked window, I grimaced. “Especially in this weather.”
The doctor rose courteously from his chair, saying that he would fetch my coat, as Jane told
me enthusiastically that it had been no problem at all, and I was welcome to return at any time. She seemed to have gained a little confidence towards me, like an animal slowly tamed, learning to trust its trainer as time passed. I had remained at the doctor’s house for several hours, enjoying pleasant conversation and the fine spread, and during our countless cups of tea, the barriers that had existed between us all had slowly dissolved before our eyes. It was a pleasant knowledge to be aware of.
“Here you go.” Harry had returned, and I shrugged on the heavy garment that he
“Thank you so much. It’s been lovely.” We exchanged polite goodbyes and then, as our
voices died down, I finally plucked up the resolve to take the first, reluctant steps out of the Freeman’s sheltering home. Immediately I was struck by the thick wind. It slapped me across both cheeks harshly, whipping around me in tight, sharp edged spirals, which were softened only by the moisture contained within. The sleepy town seemed painted in heavy grey fog, that dripped across my vision in long rivulets each time that a heavy droplet fell across my eyes. Rain hit the ground in a rapid staccato sheet, the impact sending up a fountain of smaller, crystalline droplets. I could almost see the tiny pellets of water ricocheting back towards the sky where they belonged, for an instant free to fly away from the multitude of quiet streets. Then quickly, too quickly, the earth reclaimed its hold on each and every transparent bead and slammed them back to the storm’s harsh will: to defeat those like I who were foolish enough to challenge it. I tried to bury myself deeper into the coat that was already just as sodden as my body, praying that I could remain strong and not breakdown and cry. The tears, if they came, would be invisible on my wet cheeks.
Finally, I reached the edge of town. I was shivering in heavy, sporadic bursts as the icy chill cut at my skin wildly, and my hair was wild, but the idea of turning back seemed impossible. All I could think of was the warmth of home, and James. My foot stretched forward onto the boggy grass, and sunk straight through it. The incessant rain had turned what should have been firm earth into a dirty swamp that was nearly impassable. I let out a cry of despair, feeling incredibly vulnerable. For a moment, my brain was wiped of coherent thought, as my emotions took control, and I imagined myself spending the night curled up on the ground, right there, hair like that of a caveman, and dress ruined. I briefly considered crying, but then my logical side kicked in, and I found myself berating myself for such an outburst. I would simply have to stay with the Freemans for a night. They were pleasant enough people: they wouldn’t turn me away.
Turning, I began to slowly pick my way back along the puddle of a street, whimpering softly when a particularly strong gust of wind or rain assailed me. Finally I faced the door. My hand snaked out to reach the heavy brass knocker, curling around it tightly and gripping it like my life raft in the storm. The door took a little time to open, and I found an illogical panic rising within me.
“Isabel? Are you alright?”
I tried to regain a little of my composure as I spoke to the couple. “The moor has been
flooded by the rain. I won’t be able to get home till at least the morning. Do you know where I could stay tonight?”
The pair looked at one another. “Why you must stay here!” Jane ushered me inside before I
could politely insist that I didn’t wish to be a burden on them. “You must change out of those wet things.” she began bustling about. “Else you will catch an awful chill.”
At a direction from his wife, the doctor carefully removed my dripping coat, and told me that
I should put my shoes out next to the fire. Once I had done so, Jane, with the help of the maid, Nancy, helped me to shuffle upstairs. I was shivering now, so violently that I was almost incapable of coherent speech, but with one of them on each shoulder to guide me, I found myself directed upstairs to a bath full of warm water.
“You call us once you’re done.” Jane and Nancy backed away, once the wet, heavy laces of
my dress had been untied.
“Really, you....” I couldn’t find the words to express my gratitude fully, so instead I finally
said simply, “Thank you.”
As I relaxed in the blissfully warm tub, feeling its heat relight the fire within me, and seeping into my skin to flush it a warm pink instead of its earlier corpse-like shade, I heard a knock at the door.
“I’ve put some clothes outside for you when you’re finished. They’re mine so the dress might
be a little long, but you can’t wear those wet things.” It was Jane.
“Thank you so much.” I called to her. “You really didn’t need to go to all this trouble-”
“It’s no trouble.” She cut off my words. “Really.”
I soon finished in the tub, revelling in the feel of warmth that enveloped me, and found myself ashamed of my earlier weakness. ‘It was only a little rain’, I scolded myself. Pulling in the neatly folded pile of clothes from where Jane had left them, I felt yet another surge of gratitude towards the woman. The fit was fairly good, despite her warning, and I didn’t feel in the least bit improper. The corset was difficult to lace up without a maid, but I eventually managed to complete it to my satisfaction. As I pulled on the dress, I felt it scratch at my skin slightly. For all its ornate design, the fabric was of a poorer quality to that which I was used to. Feeling suddenly ashamed for no reason I could clearly define, I quickly finished dressing, sweeping my hair up simply, so as to keep it from my face, after rubbing it dry.
As I carefully made my way downstairs, afraid of tripping on the skirt’s excess fabric, the Doctor and wife welcomed me with warm smiles.
“Ah, Isabel. Please, come and join us for dinner.” The doctor gestured at the spare place
beside him. “Nancy is just making up your room.”
I sat down beside him gratefully, not daring to say a word.
The meal was simple but hearty and as we said Grace, I found my mouth watering at the overpowering smell of chicken and herbs.
Harry laughed as he watched me try to maintain dignity whilst tearing into the meal.
“We have a wonderful cook. She can make something wonderful out of the most basic of ingredients. We’re very lucky.”
As the evening went on, I noticed the sky lightening, and soon, the rain stopped. When I suggested that I return to the house, however, the couple refused, telling me that it was best to be safe and that I should spend the night. I retired a little later than usual after being caught up in the doctor’s series of amusing anecdotes about the ignorance of some of his patients and the unusual cases he had been called upon to treat. Jane, again, lent me a nightgown, which after some struggle, I finally managed to pull on, and sank gratefully into the comfortable bed that had been prepared for me. Sleep descended upon me almost immediately, cloaking me in an exhausted darkness, where the cold and wet would no longer touch me.
“Isabel? Are you there?”
“James?” I smiled at the figure before me. “Don’t worry, I’m staying with the Freemans, since
the moor is so flooded. You remember them, don’t you?-”
“For God’s sake, be quiet!” James spat at me. Had I not known him as a well dispositioned
man, I would have described his tone as venomous. “I have no interest in you and your petty difficulties.” He grasped a rough hold of my wrist. “I am in a critical state. This is very important, do you understand?”
I nodded, scared.
“Mrs Doyle is visiting family, so I gave the rest of the staff a half day as well. After the rain
had stopped, I went out onto the balcony, and I-I-“ He slammed a fist against the invisible boundaries surrounding us.
I swallowed, eyes wide with comprehension. “Are you- James, are you alright?”
He looked up at me, eyes dull and knuckles bleeding. “No Isabel. I’m not alright. I need you
here. Please, come quickly.” He seemed stuck by sudden realisation. “And bring the doctor too if you can. Isabel I-”
“It’s alright James.” I muttered softly, stroking his hair. “I love you too. Wait for me. I’ll come
He smiled softly, but said nothing.
I found myself awake, sitting bolt upright in bed, borrowed nightgown slightly damp. For a minute, my brain faltered, like an overworked engine as it struggled to transpose the events of a dream into reality.
“James.” I breathed. Then my feet were scrabbling against the floor, and I was pulling on my
clothes, barely noticing that they were still damp, and my fingers shakingly did up the multitude of buttons, laces and ties adorning my dress. I didn’t bother to check my hair or appearance in the small mirror. Rushing out of my room, I found myself collide solidly with Harry’s broad chest.
“What’s all this about?” He asked kindly.
For a second, I was so overwhelmed with fear that I could barely speak. “It’s James!” I finally
cried. “He’s-oh God!-and he might-!” I broke off, unable to continue hand pressed to my lips, until something in my brain suddenly connected. “You must come! You’re a doctor, aren’t you? Please, I don’t know what will happen to him. He needs help quickly!”
Gripping my wrists tightly as I tried to push passed him, the doctor frowned wearily. “I’m
sorry Mrs Wolverton, but I really have no idea what you mean.”
Jane had arrived now at the end of the corridor, looking still drunk on the fine vintage of
sleep, rubbing her eyes tiredly.
I tried to collect myself. “James is in a critical condition Doctor. We need to get to the hall
quickly.” Sensing his objection, I struggled to find a plausible explanation for my knowledge and found none. “It seems fantastical, I know, but I assure you that this is no childish prank. I am being deadly serious with you.”
“Do not worry,” he told me, hiding a smile, “I do not see you as the type for pranks.”
“Then please Doctor.” I implored him. “Please-I beg you! Trust me. My husband needs you.”
I met his eyes evenly, but the quaver in my voice was impossible to hide. The silence stretched on, as none of us moved. Then, finally:
“Jane. Get my coat and bag. I shall be going to Rutherford Hall.”
I smiled gratefully at the doctor, but his expression was grave, and he did not speak for a
long time. As we carefully began our walk across the still soft marsh, he turned to me and said: “I don’t know whether I would prefer for you to be right or wrong.” The rest of the hurried journey was in silence.
As we neared the imposing building, which I had only just begun to think of as home, I felt my heart begin to hammer against my chest, furiously pumping blood around my body as I sucked in deep lungful after deep lungful, of air. I felt as though I had been nicked by some strange arrow, the head of which was coated in fear. At the first contact I had felt nothing, but now the poison had begun to work its way into my blood stream, and grab a hold of my vital organs.
“The balcony, he said.” I muttered softly, head buzzing with blood. We rounded a corner,
and I found myself suddenly unable to go on. “I can’t look.” I whispered. “I’m too afraid.” Leaning against the heavy brick wall, not thinking of the dark smudges it would leave on my pale jacket, I shook my head once more, sense heavy and overly slow.
The doctor shrugged. “Very well. I will go on alone.”
I watched him turn the corner, hastily buttoned shirt flapping around him, as the chill breeze puffed. The minute I waited seemed horribly long, as though time only existed outside the little bubble of eternity in which I was stood, where each moment was a lifetime. There was a lump of dark moss on the wall besides me, and I brushed at it gently with my fingertips, watching the tiny antennae upon it sway from side to side in the cool night air. The lichen’s velvety texture provided sharp contrast as my hand progressed to the aged brick work, with its multitude of tiny, sharp breaks upon the red surface. Red, like blood. I took another slow breath, feeling the blood rushing through my ears, beating in strange rhythms. Instinctively, I found my fingers tapping in time with my pulse, against the cold stone, still damp from the earlier rain.
“I’ve found him!” Harry rounded the corner wildly, face damp with sweat. He was breathing
heavily. “He wants you there with him. I think you should hurry.” Barely stopping, he turned on his heel, disappearing back the way he came as his feet struck out a quick rhythm on the stone slabs. Finally, my stupor fell away, and kicking off my useless, soft shoes, I followed after the echoing footsteps as quickly as I was able to.
James was lying on the ground, but as I drew near, he seemed to regain a little strength. I didn’t dare to look at his body, the crumpled pile of flesh and bone that trailed behind him, instead choosing to focus on those rich dark eyes. The perfect eyes, which I had first fallen in love with. I could see pain reflected across his face- pain and fear that could only be tempered slightly by the relief of our arrival, and as I drew near, James stretched his hand out towards me, clearly indicating that I should take it. I nodded silently, and grasped his cold palm in my own. He seemed to draw strength from it, a slight smile tugging at the corner of his mouth despite the hurt reflected in his face. There was blood crusted under his hair, I noticed. A crystalline formation, like a crown of crimson jewels, decorating his scalp. I touched it softly.
“Does it hurt?” Then I shook my head, dismissing the words. “Don’t worry. The doctor will fix
it. You’re going to be alright.” I felt pale tears well up in my eyes: sapphires for his rubies.
“Don’t leave me.” James met my eyes, finally seeing me properly. “You make me strong.”
The next morning dawned crisp and clear, the light horribly bright on my tired eyelids. As I slowly clawed my way back to consciousness, I became aware of a hand resting in mine. James’ hand, I realised. Then the memories flooded back. A rush of hazy, sepia coloured recollections marched across my dozing eyelids, drilling tiny holes into my brain into which to settle and make themselves comfortable for as long as they were present to cause me pain. I felt a sudden jolt of fear flutter in my heart, that the worst had happened, and the hand that I clutched was that of a corpse. My eyes snapped open, to take in the bedroom. The stiffness I was feeling seemed to have been caused by my uncomfortable position for most of the early morning, curled in a hard wood chair of deep, glazed beech that I recognised as one of the ones from the dining room. I fought to stretch, looking over at the still form beside me. In the cool morning sun, James’ pale body seemed to glow softly with an unearthly, pearlescent white light, looking oddly beautiful, despite the damage that had been done to it.
“Morning.” He smiled at me, eyes flickering open.
I breathed a deep sigh of relief, leaning back in my chair. I didn’t dare to release his hand, for
fear that he would melt away like an illusion.
“How are you feeling?” I asked him gently, hand fluttering from its place in my lap with
desire to reach out and touch his cheek, or brush the strand of hair from his face, just to remind myself of his solidity. That he was truly here. My exhaustion melted away, as I devoured every contour of his face with my gaze, down to the tiny bend at the tip of his nose. “You look beautiful.”, I told him.
He laughed, and I heard the scratch of his throat. “Trust me, I don’t feel it. You’ll stay with
me, won’t you, while I recover?”
“Are you going to be alright?” I found myself asking, and immediately cursed my tongue for
“Yes. The doctor says that I’m very lucky. At first, last night, he didn’t think-” James seemed
to sense the discomfort he was provoking within me with his words, and cut off sharply. “Well, anyway, it turned out that I wasn’t hurt as badly as he thought. I’m expected to make a full recovery. It’s a miracle really.” He laughed softly, apparently able to ignore his pain in the place of relief, and I joined in uncertainly, watching his smooth face crumple with amusement.
“Well it’s lucky that I was staying with the doctor last night.” I finally replied.
“Yes. He invited you for tea on Wednesday, actually.” James seemed suddenly grave.
“Isabel... what you and I have is special, you understand that, don’t you?”
I nodded, ignoring the sick feeling building in my abdomen.
“I think that it’s important that we keep it that way. If you accept his invitation, then please,
remember that.” He had gripped my hand with both of his, eyes wide and impassioned, as though possessed with some raging fire of supernatural origin. His gaze was unblinking as it locked with mine, and I felt as though, somewhere, a key was being turned to close yet another constraint around me.
Slowly, I nodded in response. “I always think of you James.” I managed to croak. “You know
He smiled- a flickering ghost of humour that descended onto his face for a moment, then
disappeared. “I know. People are all the same.”
At precisely thirty minutes past twelve on the Wednesday, I pulled on my jacket from where it was stored in the hallway, and left the Hall. Early in the week, I had written a polite reply to the Freemans, saying that I would have to decline their request. That piece of paper had found itself torn up into countless pieces to form a pool of ragged confetti at the bottom of my bin. So I had written another letter, this time accepting, and in a rash moment of resolve, had posted it myself, to ensure that I couldn’t later back out. James’ goodbye kiss still lingering on my cheek, and his soft acceptance of my decision ringing in my ears, I set off across the moor.
I arrived an hour and a half later, and in that moment, poised outside the weathered front door, I once again considered escape- an impassioned flight home, never looking back once. Before I could move, the door swung open.
“Mrs Wolverton! I’m sorry, please come in.” Nancy gestured inside politely. She had
changed out of her dark uniform, and was now wearing a pretty summer dress, that was far too light for such a day, with heavy grey clouds rolling thickly above our heads and a slight breeze biting at any exposed skin, but her coat was thick and would offer a little protection. “It’s my day off.” she explained apologetically. “Shall I let Dr & Mrs Freeman know you’re here before I leave?”
I shook my head. “No, I’m sure they’ve heard us. Thank you.”
She stepped quickly to one side, and I took slow steps into the house. Behind me, I heard the
front door slam as the maid left.
“Isabel? Is that you?” A voice called from the parlour. The doctor’s.
I smoothed my hair quickly, and took a slow breath, before replying. “Yes, Nancy let me in,
“Well come through, instead of hovering in the hallway. We’re in the parlour.”
I followed their instructions obediently, careful not to disturb one of the many teetering
piles of books that had appeared since I last visited, as I picked my way through the house. The parlour was a little tidier than the hall, and fortuitously lit up by the thin cracks of sun appearing through the clouds outside. Jane set aside the thin novel she was reading as I entered, and Harry nodded at me to sit down, a thick pipe clenched between his teeth.
“It’s lovely to see you.” Jane’s awkwardness had returned as she addressed me, voice
unsteady.”How is James doing?”
“Well,” I told her. “He seems to be recovering quickly. I believe that if we didn’t insist that he
remained in bed, he would be up and around the house in a trice!”
Only I smiled.
“Ah, I see. I may need to check in on him this week. When would be convenient?” The
doctor blew a slow stream of smoke from between his teeth as he spoke.
“Any time really.” My response was just slightly over-quick, and we all noticed it.
Harry Freeman leant slowly forward, to rest his elbows on the table. “And thus, are the
formalities completed.” He spoke as though partway through instructing an audience. “You are a bright young woman, Mrs Wolverton, so I will not treat you as anything else. You know what prompted this invitation, and skirting around the subject will do none of us any good. For the last few days I have driven myself near crazy trying to understand what happened that night. If you could tell me your side of the story, I’m sure that it would ease my mind considerably. Would you consent to do so?” He seemed as unsure as I was, as to what my response would be. His forthright nature had once again taken me by surprise, my resolve to say nothing crumbling at his direct question.
“I can’t.” I finally managed to choke out, James’ voice ringing in my ears, reminding me that
all people were the same. What did that mean? Was it a warning, or a fact? My head spun. “I made a promise that I wouldn’t.” Flushing, I began to rise from my chair, hastily pulling together my belongings. “I’m sorry. I made a mistake in coming here.”
“What if it was a story?” My refusal appeared to have had no effect on the doctor. “A once
upon a time? Please Isabel. Don’t you trust us?” His words were woven with emotion.
I blinked slowly, no longer moving.
“Once upon a time,” The doctor began. “There was a woman named Isabel.”
“Not a woman.” I corrected him, voice barely audible. “A girl. A little girl named Issy, who
was afraid of the dark.”
The couple watched, wide eyed as I turned back to face them.
I laughed softly, trying to find the words to tell them the story I knew so well. “It was her
first night in a new house, where the floor boards creaked and everything smelt strange, and her nurse maid didn’t really have the time to ease her fears.” I swallowed. “So she lay in bed, not daring to go to sleep, but dozing off anyway, and when she finally closed her eyes, that night Issy dreamed.
“She dreamed of monsters that wanted to hunt her down and eat her, and demons that
danced around in hideous rituals, and all sorts of dark shadows that you can never really see straight on, but you know are out to get you. She dreamed of all the worst things in the world, but on that same night, she also dreamed of an angel, who would fight them for her. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. She wanted to impress him, to please him and she realised that she would do anything for him. To her, the man seemed so much more than human, and she worshiped him rightfully. He promised that he would protect Issy from all the horrors of normal people’s dreams, and she felt so pleased that he had chosen her that she never even asked him the most obvious question. She just knew that he was an angel- her angel, and that was enough.
“He replaced her dreams. Instead of confused sagas of incomprehensible events, she spent
what felt like hours, simply talking to him. She came to know him, and as she grew up, he was less like a father or guardian, and more like a lover or partner.”
I flushed. “Of course, they never- but he was there for her. That was what mattered. When
she needed someone to confide in or support her, she turned to him, and he, in turn, would let her know a little about himself and his life. Somewhere along the way, he stopped being a dream, and became a real person, but he never stopped being an angel to Issy. Then one day, just as the prospect of a dull marriage to a dull husband seemed inescapable, he arrived in her world. More real than anyone else she knew. And then the angel saved her again, sweeping her away from all the tedious parties and silly social functions to his home, where she became his bride. But she still dreamed of him every night, and though they never talked about it, they both knew that it was something special.” My voice faded away, as I took in the stunned expressions on the faces of my listeners. Sitting down quickly in the silence, I took a slow sip of the cup of tea nearest to me, the warm liquid soothing my suddenly dry throat.
The doctor was the first to find his tongue. “And that angel was James.” There was only a
hint of question in his voice, for which I was indescribably grateful.
“That’s beautiful. The dreams- what are they like?” It was Jane, voice softer than I had ever
heard it before, and tinged with wistfulness.
“Like it’s just the two of us in the whole world and nothing else exists.” I tried to find the
words to describe my nights. “It’s as though James and I are all that’s been created, right back there in the Beginning.” I laughed. “Oh, and that candle, of course.”
“Candle?” The doctor’s face was set with concentration.
“Yes. I light it every night.” I was still unsure if inside the Freemans were laughing at me.
The doctor settled back into his chair. “Oh, there’s nothing really, it’s just... I think that you
should be very careful.”
“Why? It’s lovely.” His wife interjected. “Like something out of a novel.”
My eyes fell upon the copy of ‘Wuthering Heights’ beside her again.
“Ye-es.” The doctor replied, sounding unconvinced. “But there’s something about it all that
worries me. The fact that you’ve never seen James mature...the candle...” He looked straight at me. “And that promise to protect you. I know that James is your angel, but even angels have a price. I wonder what you husband has taken from you.” He was staring at my face.
I returned home slowly, mind reeling with what I had done. For the first time in my life, I had spilled the one secret I held; that I had promised James would always be ours alone. As I stumbled across the moor my feet catching on the tufts of tough grass, the doctor’s words rang in my ears: ‘Be very careful...’. I shook my head as though trying to clear my ears of water, reminding myself that James loved me, and would never do anything to hurt me. I told myself that the doctor was simply jealous and didn’t know the full story, but the words seemed to echo hollowly even within my mind. When I finally reached the hall, my racing heart had not slowed by one uneven beat.
The entrance hall seemed oddly quiet, with a layer of silence lying upon it like a dust jacket.
“I’m home!” I called out, and the words rung back at me almost mockingly. Carefully making
my way up the grand main staircase, I found myself reminded of the days when that was the only part of Rutherford that was familiar, and I didn’t know how to find the dining hall for breakfast. A smile quirked up the edge of my mouth as I turned into the corridor leading to James’ room. “Hello? I’m back!” I opened the door carefully, afraid of disturbing my husband, but it swung open to reveal an empty bed, sheets still crumpled with the imprint of a restless body. “James?” I asked dumbly to the empty room, stepping further in.
“He is taking tea in the grounds. Shall I let him know that you are home?”
I spun around at the cold woman’s voice. “Mrs Doyle. Thank you.” My tone didn’t betray the
slightest hint of gratitude. “There’s no need, to do that. I have a few things I need to attend to.” I turned back to the window, trying to ignore her bitter, jealous face, with its mass of creases and harsh, angular cheekbones. Outside, as she had said, James was sitting comfortably at the small table, supposed bone fractures causing him no discomfort as he sipped his tea.
“We didn’t expect you back yet.” Mrs Doyle made it sound like a failing of mine.
She stared at me blankly.
“We didn’t expect you back yet, Ma’am. I expect you to address me with the correct respect
Mrs Doyle, or else you will not address me at all.”
The woman sneered slightly. “Of course.” There was a clear gap at the end of her sentence,
before she turned heel and made her way out of the room.
I had to take several slow breaths, until my dislike for her subsided adequately that I could
think what I would do next. Outside, I saw James’ eyes lazily rise to the window. Our gazes collided violently, and held one another for a long moment. I saw recognition flash in James’ eyes. Then he turned away, face unchanged, and for a second, I thought I saw a hint of a sneer tug at his lips. My grip on the windowsill tightened, hands trembling in their gloves. I swallowed hard. Was I just seeing what I wanted to, after the doctor’s gloomy premonition? Or had I really been so blind as to miss something? Something constantly present in my life, with which I was presented daily without realising? The room felt suddenly stifling, and I couldn’t breathe properly, the hot air burning my lungs. I stumbled out into the hallway, and turned towards my room, wanting nothing more than to lie down and sleep. As I tumbled along the corridor, I thought that I saw, for a brief moment, Mrs Doyle, standing at the foot of the stairs, watching me. I didn’t look over, but I could imagine the satisfied smile on her face.
The door to my room was near now, as was the usual uncomfortable feeling present every time I neared the bedroom entrance. The feeling that there was something just out of sight, over my shoulder, that I should be watching. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck prickle slightly and took a deep breath. Then I looked over my shoulder.
Standing there, solidly, as though taunting me, was the second door. The locked door that I had managed to ignore ever since I moved in, blocking it from my mind. Something constantly present in my life, with which I was presented daily without realising. I swallowed slowly.
“Mrs Doyle?” I called.
The woman took her time to reach me, walking slowly, and clearly begrudging every step. As
she saw my hand resting upon the doorknob, I thought that I saw a flash of fear in her eyes. “What is it?” She asked, lips tightly pursed.
“I should like the key to this room, please.” I told her, trying to stop my voice from shaking.
“I can’t do that.” She told me delightedly. “Only the master is allowed in there. Ma’am.” The
title was clearly derisive, and I tried to ignore it.
“Well I want to go in, so get me the key.” I snapped at her.
“I can’t do that. The master has forbidden it.” Her face was paler than even its usual shade.
“Fine.” I muttered. “Thank you ever so much.”
She smiled at me horribly, pleased by my failure, and unafraid to show her feelings. I walked
straight past her, not looking back. Out of the stuffy hallway, out of the front hall and out of the house. I picked my way through the garden carefully, skirting around the edges of the walls and away from the grass lawn, for fear that James would appear in front of me, and ask what I had been doing: why I hadn’t let him know that I had arrived home. Asking if I was avoiding him. But by some miracle, I met no one on my way through the ground, and soon I was standing outside the small wooden shed, where the ground keeper stored his various tools. I quickly looked around, to ensure that I was alone, then opened the small door and stepped inside. It was almost totally dark and smelt heavily of wood smoke and damp. I had to stand frozen for a minute until my eyes could adjust to the lack of light and I could avoid the variety of dangerous looking implements by which I was surrounded. I fumbled along the walls, searching each inch of them carefully. Finally, I felt my hands close around a worn wooden handle, and as I lifted the heavy equipment into a thin crack of light where the door didn’t quite meet the frame, its stained metal head was illuminated. I shifted the axe to my other hand, that was not yet aching, and burst out of the shed, like a prisoner freed from jail.
The hatchet slashed into the wood awkwardly, and I struggled to pull it away, taking long strips of wood with me. I was sweating now and my heart felt gripped by a cold fear that was as difficult to simply brush off as a biting wind and the chill it caused. A part of me wanted to back away, and resettle into careful normality, where there was no risk and no mystery, and I could just ignore the things that scared me. As the axe thudded once more into the hard wood, that splintered wildly beneath my blow, a part of me silently reflected that it was probably already too late to back out. Once more I had dived too deep underwater and there was no longer a chance to come up for air. I just had to keep battering at the door until it gave in, and not think about what I would find inside.
Finally, the door lay in tatters on the ground, like torn strips of cloth, frozen solid in the chill air. I peered through the ragged hole before me, not daring to let go of the badly painted handle that I still gripped at my side. Inside seemed to be darker than the hallway, and a misty cobweb swung in front of the hole I had made. For all that though, the room didn’t seem unused. Inside, I was beginning to pick out a clean floor that didn’t look the least bit unsafe. Breathing heavily from my exertions, I took one last look down the corridor, before ducking through the broken door, stupidly mindful of my soft dress and the sharp edges that could tear it.
I straightened awkwardly, as soon as I was through, brushing debris from my knotted hair and taking slow, cautious steps deeper inside the room all the time, not daring to put down the axe that was now raised in front of my face like a weapon.
“Hello?” I whispered softly. There was no response, as I peered through the disconcertingly clear air. I felt a wave of shudders run across my body, tickling at my skin like a hundred watching eyes. Taking a final look around, I finally decided that I really was alone in the crypt like room, and carefully placed the hatchet against one of the smooth plaster walls, not daring to touch them myself for fear that their normality was an illusion that would dissolve upon impact, and I would reveal a wall of grinning skulls or some other childhood nightmare. There was very little in the room, but for a small wooden dresser, and a trail of small alcoves that ran across each of the five walls. They looked empty, but as I approached the nearest, I saw a small metal disk, coated in a pool of once melted, now solid wax, and topped with a heavy sprinkling of dust. Not knowing why, I swallowed slowly, my blood feeling as chill as if it had been replaced with icy water. I shuddered and moved to the next alcove. They were all the same- a burned out candle lying there as though it had been untouched for years and nothing else. As I finally reached the last one, my heart seemed to pound so hard that it lifted itself to the base of my throat, blocking my breath. The world seemed to dance with bright, dizzy lights as I focused on the familiar candle that I saw every night, here half burnt out, and roughly scratched with fourteen small letters. ‘Isabel Buckland’. I backed away, nausea gripping my stomach and gaze still fixed hideously on the name. I couldn’t look away, until my back thudded against the small cabinet. I spun around, mind working so fast that I couldn’t track the frantic blur of connections being made, as I pulled open the top drawer. Inside, smiling up at me, was my own face, painted with naivety. It was one of the photographs James had had taken of the two of us just after our wedding, but in this copy, he had been torn out to leave just me. Hands trembling, I lifted the wad of papers out of the drawer and placed the familiar shot to the bottom of the pile. As I did so, a new photo was revealed- one that I also knew well. It was a photograph of me, aged around eight, standing proudly with my Father outside the newly built Royal Albert Institute, smiling broadly for the photographer. I remembered that day well- my Father had been one of the fellows there and the whole family had tagged along to the ceremony, excited by the chance of seeing the selected royals who were attending. The photo had been displayed in several showrooms afterwards. It would have been easy to get a copy from the photographer. I felt sick, as I thrust that photograph to the bottom of the pile. Now a new face was staring up at me- dark haired and unfamiliar but pretty, posing at her wedding. Beside her smiling face was an empty space where the paper had been torn. Below that was a portrait of a pretty toddler with brown hair, and then an incredibly lifelike sketch of a young woman, then a beaming ten year old. My heart rate seemed to quicken as I flipped through the pile increasingly quickly.
”Looking for something?” James asked.
The papers slipped from between my fingers to scatter across the floor. Each showed a girl or woman smiling up at me: countless unrecognised faces. No, not countless, I realised. Because there was a girl there for every candle I had seen.
“What did you take from me James?” I asked him softly, voice trembling in time with my gloved hands. “You protected me from my dreams all those years. What did that cost? The same as it did all these other girls?”
He laughed, taking a long, confident step towards me. “You know, I had you pegged as a lot less intelligent than most of them, but this? This is pretty good. Not even the smart ones thought to come in here. It made them uneasy, and so they ignored it.”
“And then what?” I asked softly, licking my lips. “What happened to them then?” I began to edge slowly sideways, away from him.
My husband’s smile widened. “Isn’t it so much more fun when you work it out yourself?”
“What have you taken from me?” I asked again. I was nearly there now: could nearly reach it.
“The only thing you have that’s worth taking.”
I nodded slowly, a hand fluttering to my cheek. ”My beauty.”
To my surprise, James laughed. “Beauty? Oh don’t flatter yourself. I wouldn’t have chosen you if that were what I needed.” He chuckled again- a repulsive sound. “No. What you traded with me was your youth. Your health and vitality. Far more practical and much longer lasting when you think about it.” He smirked once more, and I finally lunged to the side, grabbing a hold of the axe propped against the wall. Its flaking paint rubbed against my hand as I raised it in front of my body. James, seeing my movement, had darted forwards with me, and was now clutching his arm tightly. Fat red droplets oozed from the deep cut along his arm, where he had collided with my blade in the scuffle. Even as I watched, the bleeding stopped, and when he wiped off the remaining blood, I saw that there was no mark left on James’ arm. He smiled again, seeing my gaze.
“Thank you. As long as you’re here, I can feed off you.” He gestured at the axe clutched in my hand, mockingly. “Oh come on, as long as you’re still alive, there’s no chance that you’ll do me any harm. I’ll just siphon off a little more of your strength and you’ll get a little weaker.” His face assumed an expression of clearly feigned thoughtfulness. “Would that count as suicide do you suppose?”
I lunged at him, frantically slashing through the air with the axe. The whole scene seemed so bizarre- like one of the dreams I had traded away years ago, and I could hardly comprehend that the figure before me was the man I had thought I loved. As I hesitated, panting heavily, I heard him laugh again. There was blood now, trickling along his face, arms and chest, but somehow I wasn’t repelled by it. All I felt was anger as the injuries I had inflicted slowly closed up, and a blanket of even greater weariness settled upon me.
“What are you?” I whispered. “Are you some kind of demon?”
James smiled lightly, like he had always done, but his voice was infused with some dark tone that was entirely unfamiliar. “I made a deal.” He finally said. “A better deal than yours, I must say, and I knew the rules. My soul was always tarnished,” He told me almost conversationally. “I killed a man, you see. But I was offered a chance to avoid my eternal damnation for a little while, by securing pure souls and staining them just like I was once.”
I shook my head. “But I never did anything-“
“From the minute that you lit that first candle with me, your soul was just as damned as mine.” His eyes were no longer joking- there was a dark truth reflected in those shadowy irises.
I nodded slowly. Then I lunged at him once more, and the axe whistled through empty space to fall with a clatter to the floor. I reeled, off-balance and caught out by James’ disappearance. For a second, I thought he had vanished, using some other dark magics, but then he cried out loudly from the floor, and I looked down to see him curled on the floor, teeth clenched and forehead sweaty. I looked around wildly to try and find the source of his pain, but there was none.
“Isabel.” He cried, sounding for all the world as if he cared for me.
I watched him sadly. “I thought you were an angel.” I said.
I don’t know how long I stood, lost in his pain-wracked face, but after what felt like an eternity, a blur of dark movement caught my eye, and I swung around, to find myself face to face with Mrs Doyle.
“Oh sir...” She moaned softly, dropping to her knees beside James’ twitching form. Then, her eye narrowed to snap up to me, and she stood quietly. “Did you do this?” Her tone held only a thin trace of sanity. “Did you do this?!” She shook my shoulders wildly, even as I pleaded my innocence. My brain bounced roughly in my skull and I struggled to see. “I came to help him and look what I find. You’ve killed him. You’ve killed him!” Her scream echoed through the room, and I finally managed to push the withered woman away from me. On the other side of the room, the door fell from its frame. As both our heads snapped around, Layton, playing the faithful butler as always, stumbled through the empty space, closely followed by Abby, the maid.
“We heard screamin-” he began, voice soft, then cut off sharply as he caught sight of James, still convulsing on the floor. “Abby, you’d best call a doctor.” he told her firmly. “Mrs Doyle, can you help me carry him to his bed?”
After a second, the woman nodded. “Yes. Of course...” Her voice was quiet, probably weakened by her outburst moments ago. I stood and watched as my husband was carried, limp, from the floor. Then, feeling strangely numb, I followed their path out of the room, with its thick silence, my only interest being to sleep for as long as I could, and maybe, just maybe, dream again. I was apparently, the only person to have noticed another, previously unseen and unusually ornate candle burst into flame when James collapsed.
“What will you do now?” A woman stood beside me, dressed in an exquisite red ball gown. It seemed to be in an exotic style, clinging to her curves and slit almost indecently up one side to reveal her leg.
“I’m not sure.” I murmured. “I’ve already given away half of my life to James.” The thought seemed too horrible, so I changed track. “I suppose I shan’t marry again. Not looking like this.” It was hard to admit, but each time I glanced into one of the smooth pools that we passed in the cool forest, I found myself haunted by my aged face. There was no hint of the youthful beauty I had once possessed there anymore.
“Wouldn’t you want a way to get back those years?” The woman was paying me full attention now, as her dress misted into a high necked ball gown like those slated for fashion next year. “And then maybe a little longer after that? Five years...ten years...twenty years....maybe even fifty or more?”
I looked over at my companion. “What are you offering me?”
She smiled, ruby lips curling upwards towards the mass of black curls clipped high on her head. ”A deal. Probably a very familiar one.” She stopped, and turned to face me. Her red dress was suddenly low cut, with a wide, heavy skirt. “James broke the rules. I need someone to take his place.”
I knew that I should refuse. But I was curious and I was afraid, and so I said, “What did James do?”
“He told you about his deal, and that your soul was damned. For that, he’s been punished. I’m sure that you won’t make the same mistake.”
“I haven’t agreed to anything yet.” I told her, carefully interlacing my fingers across my stomach. My dress was pure white, and incredibly simple. “Just tell me exactly what you’re offering me.” I could see the faces of all the girls that had come before me in my mind’s eye, stares cold and accusing. I tried to bat them away.
“Very well. I’m offering you a chance to postpone, maybe even avoid your soul’s damnation, and when you do arrive in Hell, you will be treated like an honoured guest, rather than another soul to be tortured.” Her eyes were entirely black, I realised, with no white or iris. The effect should have been disconcerting but somehow added to the woman’s dark allure. “You get your looks back twice over, and become young again. In exchange, you give us souls.”
I swallowed slowly. “How many others have made this deal?”
“Quite a few.” The women frowned. “Aside from James, there were probably around twenty others as of yesterday. I believe you know one of them- a Madeline Lloyd.”
“Maddy?” Somehow the name was both unexpected, and already present in my mind.
“Yes. She’s had many husbands, all of whom belong to us now.” The woman settled herself on a rock, crossing her legs slowly. Her dress was scandalously short now, revealing a pair of long, pale legs, and tied behind her neck. It was still a bright, burning red. “It makes the exchange of energy easier, if you keep your donor close. Remember that for later.”
I started. ”I still haven’t agreed to anything.”
My companion stretched out, yawning quietly. “That’s true.” Her eyes locked on mine. “So what’s it going to be?”
I woke up reluctantly, stretching slowly in the warm sunlight. James hadn’t been an angel: he’d been something far less than that in the end. Childish fantasies are simply that- fantasies, and dreams should always end when we wake up. Maybe that is the reason that as I listened to Mrs Doyle sobbing quietly in the next room along that morning, I smiled quietly to myself. Or maybe I was just pleased that summer had finally come.