A short story for Christmas from Essie Fox, author of The Somnambulist and Elijah’s Mermaid . Essie’s dark Victorian mystery The Goddess & The Thief is out now in paperback, eBook and audio.
In her dream it was the night of her wedding. She was standing in the bedroom, looking out through the open window. Her husband was close at her side. Her head rested heavy against his bare shoulder. His fingers played through her loosened hair as they gazed at the lights of a firework display. Every tree on the heath was a black silhouette above which the skies filled with cascading fountains; colours which gleamed iridescent as jewels – all the rubies and emeralds and sapphires and pearls that fizzed and then melted away into dust . . .
Another explosion. Too real. Too loud. Elizabeth woke with a startled gasp, the stench of sulphur thick in her nose as she struggled to lift her head from the pillow. She felt panicked and claustrophobic, at first unable to move her limbs which were locked in the twisting restraint of sheets. She wondered if she had gone blind, until she recalled the silk tie at her eyes and – oh – what a relief it was, when her fumbling fingers had worked the knot free and her vision had been restored again, eyes blinking while straining through dawning light to see that the candle’s flame had died. But probably only a moment ago, for lingering still was the gauze of white, the trail of a questioning mark on the air that asked: Where has my husband gone?
‘Henry?’ Her voice was a timid croak, whereas during the night she’d been brazen, crying out at the touch of his caress. And, what was it – what was it that Henry said? Ah yes, she remembered every word:
This is my Christmas gift to you. Death is nothing but a charade; a thinly veiled door to enlightened bliss.
Gift. Death. Charade. Bliss. How sweetly poetical those words. But Henry had been a plain-speaking man – her lover of less than three short months when taken away by the cholera. Since then, every day she had dressed in black, rarely venturing out in public again; until yesterday, when everything changed.
The afternoon of Christmas Eve and her sister-in-law, Sophia, had appeared on one of her brief visitations and then proceeded to insist that Elizabeth come to dine that night. A small affair, or so she’d assured. But Sophia’s promise had proved to be false. When Elizabeth arrived – and late – she discovered herself to be but one of the other twelve invited guests.
Sophia’s butler imparted this news while hanging her coat upon the stand, then dusting the snowflakes from her hat. She watched his hands, as quick and deft as they had ever been before. But the man who had once stood tall and proud was much reduced by age these days. His shoulders were stooping. His breaths came short. His hair was no more than a few stray wisps to mock the freckled dome beneath.
How cruel the years could be. Elizabeth exhaled a sigh. But little time for such morbid thoughts when the dining room doors were opened up, and Sophia was rushing forward to greet her, pressing rouged lips to Elizabeth’s cheek before murmuring with excitement through the tickling flutter of her fan, ‘My dear, the meal has started. You must come through without delay. I’m seating you next to Edward Hayes. It’s such a coup to have him here . . . really, the finest clairvoyant in London.’
Elizabeth stammered her response, ‘A . . . a clairvoyant. Oh! I really don’t think …I…’
Sophia interrupted. No concern for her sister-in-law’s distress. ‘My dear, why be so nervous? Mr Hayes is perfectly charming. And what do I care for the rumours? What if he is the bastard son of some notorious baronet! Whatever he is, it’s clear to see that the gentleman has good breeding. Such delicacy. Such a special gift.’
‘A gift?’ Elizabeth murmured, overcome with a sense of foreboding.
‘Mr Hayes is quite the magician. You will see later on, when he gives a display. He appears in the very best of homes. They say Mr Darwin has been intrigued by some of the spectacles achieved, though…’ Sophia paused, and when she smiled the rotting black of teeth was shown. ‘It is true, not everyone approves. Dickens called him a fraudulent conjurer! And, as to that awful Browning man . . .by all accounts when the two of them met the poet became so furious he was almost frothing at the mouth! But then, we all know of his jealousies, and how he cannot abide the fact that his wife is so drawn to the spirit world.’
Elizabeth lifted a hand to her brow. The skin was prickling and hot. When her fingers dropped to her side again they plucked at the silk of her evening gown. She took a deep breath to steady herself before walking on across the hall: a shadow in Sophia’s wake as her host bustled back to the dining room. Sophia’s satins crackled. Elizabeth’s skirts gave a slippery hush as they brushed against a Christmas tree. Its branches were fragrant with oily pine resin. A tinkling of music too, as hanging crystal ornaments trembled against silvered walnuts.
There were countless red ribbons on tiny red candles. The flames of those candles shimmered gold with a light that spread into the room beyond, through which dark shadows draped upon the marble tops of consoles, or danced on silver platters with cheeses, fruits, and sugared pies. And the table! What a sight it was!
Elizabeth feared it might collapse beneath the weight of a large roasted turkey, along with a goose, pheasants and quail, and vegetables of just about every description. Cutlery clinked. Glasses chinked to welcome her into the company. And there, but an hour later, when her champagne glass had been twice drained, she found herself to be intrigued by the man who was seated on her left.
How low, how mellifluous his voice. And when she dared to turn his way, to sneak a glance at Edward Hayes, she noticed his cheek, as soft as a girl’s, and his pale moustache, as fine as silk. At least, that’s how she presumed it would feel if her fingers ever dared to stroke. How shameful it was … that stab of desire, that slipping sensation in her loins. She tried to imagine Henry’s moustache – how wiry, black and coarse it was, and the way it had often grazed her flesh. The memory scratched around her mind, along with the melody of sound: the gossip and laughter, half-heard conversations, the cutlery scraping on china plates, the popping of corks as wine was poured. A liquid dark and red as blood.
Was Elizabeth tipsy? Was that why she made no protest when she dropped a napkin from her hand, when Mr Hayes reached down one arm and his fingers strayed beneath her hems, and remained there far longer than could have been decent?
Could he really be as audacious as that? Before she could even think to react, the man resumed his upright stance. But while taking the napkin, as fingers touched, she was trapped in the unblinking gaze of two such pale, glass blue eyes – and the lilting tone of concern in his voice when he said, ‘Forgive me, Lady Garsington, but I see you are wearing mourning rings. Has your loved one been recently lost?’
She opened her mouth to answer but the voice that rang out was not her own. It came from the top of the table where the hawk-eared Sophia was calling, ‘Oh, Mr Hayes, if you only knew the jewels my sister hides away! You may not think to see her now … always decked as she is in dreary jet … but once she was quite dazzling. Every head would turn when she entered a room. Is that not so, Elizabeth?’
Elizabeth met Sophia’s gaze. The narrowed green eyes set below a tiara. The emerald crown on a nest of grey ringlets. The hair primped and curled so rigidly it might as well be metal-made. Sophia’s heart is iron, she thought. Why must she always play the queen? What is the cause of her jealousy? Surely, it cannot be the jewels . . . the jewels Sophia’s mother owned … that she then gave to Henry …that my husband gave to me?’
Staring back in stark dismay, Elizabeth’s words were restrained, but a little breathless when she said, ‘Those stones are but baubles to me now. I would happily give them all away. I would give anything…if only my husband, if only…’
She swallowed hard at the stone of grief that lodged so firmly in her throat. Grief, but also anger, to know how dowdy and drab she must look when surrounded by Sophia’s friends; all the glistening colours and frothings of lace that adorned the other female guests. Blinking back the sting of tears, she felt horribly conspicuous. The next moments stretched out – an eternity – until she saw Sophia rise and pronounce that the ladies should leave the men to smoke their cigars, to play their cards – except for Mr Hayes – Mr Hayes whose hand steered Elizabeth’s arm as both obeyed their host’s command and followed the crush of trailing hems; out to the hall, past the Christmas tree, down the passage to the orangery.
A table was draped in black satin. A perfect match for Elizabeth’s gown, and perhaps it would work as a camouflage against which she might disappear. She was much relieved when the jets were doused, when she felt herself merge with the shadows around; all the knife-sharp fronds of jagged ferns, and above them, above the great glass dome, a full white moon was shining down with such a vibrant radiance it might be a giant’s spying eye. From the opposite side of the table, the whites of the eyes of Edward Hayes were gleaming bright when he asked the guests to form a chain by linking hands with whoever was sitting on either side – then making a plea that the bond not be broken, whatever events might next occur.
He was so intense; so serious. How Elizabeth wished she could ‘believe’. But disappointment was not far off in the form of Sophia’s girlish squeals when a disembodied hand appeared to hover above the tablecloth. This is just a silly game! Elizabeth had to bite her tongue to stop her thoughts from spilling out. That hand is clearly made of wax. And as to the slimy stain it leaves. How disgusting! It looks like some bodily mucus.
The hand was gone, and who knew where, but matters were far from being improved by the onslaught of rappings and jangling bells when the table began to levitate. It reached a certain height and then began to shudder, violently shifting back and forth before dropping back down with a rattling thud – after which, when all was still again, when the frightened mutterings had died, the clairvoyant groaned and closed his eyes.
That was truly alarming, when his head lolled forward onto his breast, when such deep and mournful moans were heard, and how, when he started to speak again, his voice was much lower, as if it belonged to – as if it belonged to –
‘Oh…is it Henry?’ Elizabeth gasped, struggling to draw any breath in her lungs when the medium raised his head again, when his eyes fused with hers and the glassy blue appeared to burn as black as coal. A silence, then his chanting drone,
There is no pain, though grief lives on. I yearn to reach out through the ether, to tell you I only sleep and wait until we are reunited… as we were before…on our wedding day.
A white rosebud appeared out of nowhere and dropped to table before her. It smelled sweet, and yet oddly peppery; as had the blooms in her bridal bouquet. And when Mr. Hayes continued to speak it seemed every word was intended for her, and every word from Henry’s lips, until she could stand it no longer and dragged her hands free and pushed back her chair; iron legs screeching loud on the marble floor; a horrible noise that still rang in her ears when – as one hand clutched the phantom rose, as the other pressed hard to a hammering heart, she attempted some semblance of dignity, thanking Sophia and saying goodnight to all of the other female guests. But barely a glance did she give Mr Hayes, even when he called out with his urgent farewell as she fled towards the open doors, as her nose filled with perfumes of jasmine and lily: the aromas of marriage, and of death.
During the drive back to Hampstead, Elizabeth slouched in the carriage seat. Her brow pressed hard to the window glass as she stared at street lamps on the route. A swimming chain of gold and jet. A spell that had her mesmerised. She shook her head to clear her thoughts and focused upon her reflection instead. A misty ghost that woman seemed. The face of the bride she had once been. Eyes shining. Fair curls stuck to tear-damp cheeks.
More tears of frustration when she was home, and only then coming to realise that she’d left her reticule behind. Without any key she had to wait, shivering beneath the porch, her knocking hands grown numb with cold before the door was opened up by the maid who had clearly been sleeping, who looked bleary, stifling her yawns – until her mistress took pity and sent her back to her attic bed.
Alone in the hallway, she shrugged off her coat and let it fall to the floor below. She looked around through the dingy light, where no tree was festooned, where no garlands were hung. She trudged her way up winding stairs and entered the gloom of her own room, and only then did she release her grasp on the medium’s spirit rose.
Placing it down on the dressing table, next to the casket with her jewels, she went to stand before the hearth to try and garner any warmth remaining in the dwindling flames. But her fingers were clumsy, still almost numb when struggling with buttons, with ribbons, with stays, until she was wearing nothing more but the muslin of her under shift. In that, she perched upon the stool before the dressing table’s glass, raising both hands to her head until every pin and comb was free, and still working at knots in the loosened hair while lost in thoughts of Edward Hayes.
What had he called when she made her escape? His words had been cryptic. A riddle. It was something about the coming dawn. Some truth the light would then expose. She looked at the little rose and sighed. Any light in her world had long since died. Why, even the bed’s ornate brass ends cast shadows round her like a cage; the prison in which she now reached out to lift the silver casket lid. As she did so there came the hiss of coals. Yellow flames were darting in the hearth, dipping and coiling like living snakes as they drew out the glimmer of the stones – all the lustrous reds and greens and blues. The wedding gift her husband gave, one Christmas Eve so long ago.
Will he return, as the medium said? It was foolish to contemplate such things. And yet, she felt a glimmer of hope, a shivering frisson of anticipation while one fingertip caressed her lips, then stroked on down to the neck of her shift – when she heard the sudden warning. The lonely toll of the mantel clock. Twelve hollow, high, vibrating chimes.
Another Christmas day had come, and with it the fire surged again.
The candle’s flame guttered as if in a draught and, somewhere, it must be downstairs in the house, there was the rattle of a chain, the dull thumping thud of a closing door, a creaking tread upon the stairs, and then, the sudden awful bang. The knock of a hand upon her door.
‘Henry?’ Her voice was thin and hoarse.
His answer was barely audible above the whine of hinges as the door began to open, stopping when only just ajar. Impossible to see him there or any detail of the man, but the words were clearly spoken, ‘Close your eyes and I will join you, my love. But the living must never look on the dead. If you see me, the charm will be broken.’
She closed her eyes and waited. Her heart was pounding in her breast. The skin prickled up on the back of her neck to sense her husband’s slow approach. And was that a breeze that followed him in, or was that his hand, a butterfly touch as deathly cold fingers stroked over her shoulder, pushing the veil of hair aside, making her moan – a moan of regret when his hand was drawn away again – when she felt his breath upon her cheek?
‘Don’t be afraid.’ He soothed her while knotting the scarf to blind her eyes. Then gently, so gently, he urged her to rise, and led his bride towards the bed. And there he was tenderer than she remembered, and when at last he lay still at her side, as his breath mingled warm and moist with hers, he whispered the sing-song lullaby that lulled her into dreaming sleep: ‘In the morning the scales will fall from your eyes. In the morning the truth will be known at last. You will see… with the coming of the dawn.’
And now, it was the morning. The fire was a heap of cold grey ash. From the gap in the open doorway a furtive smudging of dreary light was falling, as if a blessing, on the pillow’s indentation where Henry’s sleeping head had lain. The proof – her heart quickened to think of it – that her husband really had returned.
The proof was in her body too, unusually stiff and sore it was when she swung her legs from the mattress edge and limped to the window and drew back the shutters, and heard the peel of distant bells. Such a joyous celebration. Such a glorious blaze of morning light was falling on the cold iced panes, all white with the bloom of frost flowers.
Turning back to the room with a smile on her lips, she was sitting on the dressing stool when that happy expression became a grimace – because something was different. Something was wrong. The silver casket still lay on the table, exactly as she’d left it. But none of her treasures remained inside; only a wilting rosebud, its petals already turning brown. And beneath its stem a plain white card upon which something had been inked.
Two letters entwined to spell: E. H.
Elizabeth and Henry?
Motes of dust were swirling round, like tiny jewels they glittered. While staring at those, while her fugged mind cleared, Elizabeth had to face ‘the truth’. E. H. also spelled the initials of no other but Edward Hayes. Edward Hayes must have had her hypnotised. Edward Hayes must have found her reticule, and the keys with which to enter her home … and had there been letters to show her address, or had Sophia provided that? She could not bear to think of it, that any game could be so cruel, that she’d been the dupe of such a joke …of this theft she could never hope to expose without also damning her own reputation. The widow who dreamed of loving the dead!
She slumped forward and started to retch, and only when the dry heaves had subsided was she able to open her eyes once more, looking down at the fingers in her lap as they twisted at the muslin cloth. How ugly they were, those hands, the skin loose and swollen and slugged with veins. The hands of a stranger, of someone old!
She raised her gaze to the glass instead, and there within its silvered depths she saw a drooling slackened mouth. She saw two bloodshot rheumy eyes, gaunt cheeks that had melted into jowls, and her hair – her hair that had once been her glory, that Henry had always loved to stroke – its gold was grey, and lank, and dull.
She thought of her dream, of the firework display that once gilded the sky on her wedding night. Now, every colour leached away, and only the crimson walls around to mirror the staining of the blood when she smashed her palm against the glass. The pain of it caused her to howl in despair – for all that was lost – that would never return.
The Goddess & the Thief is out now in paperback, eBook and audio.
Listen to a chilling festive audio clip now.