Authors: Alyxandra Harvey
was nine years old when my mother decided it was time I took part in the family business. I was pretty enough now, she said, that I might be of use. I'd grown into my ears and my long neck and might be clever enough to handle myself. Besides which, she claimed, she had no other option.
So that December, full of Christmas cheer and mulled wine, she'd changed her mind. It wasn't until later that I realized it wasn't Christmas cheer that had prompted her but desperation.
Still, she'd promised me a visit to an actual bookshop, where I might even be able to purchase my very own book if I did well. Until then I had read only discarded magazines or books tossed out into the alleys behind the shops and fine houses because of unsightly stains of damp or smoke damage.
I wasn't entirely sure what was happening, only that it was vitally important. Even Colin, who was just two years older than me but fancied himself more mature, now looked grim. He'd come with his mother from Ireland and had been orphaned and survived as a crossing boy, sweeping the street clean for the gentry, when my mother found him. She brought him home a month earlier to live with us, also contingent on how well we did that night. Crossing boys who were growing tall enough and strong enough to muscle the fine folk of Mayfair didn't get many tips. Not to mention that he was a fair hand at pickpocketing and had to change corners every day so he wouldn't get caught.
The snow was gathering slowly in the muddy streets as we left Cheapside. It turned the gray stones and dirty gutters into a landscape made of gingerbread and buttercream frosting. It made me hungry just to see it. My stomach growled loudly. Mother sent me a disapproving glance.
“Violet, a lady does not betray bodily needs.”
I nodded, looking down at my feet.
“A lady gets to eat, don't she?” Colin murmured, but not so loud that she could hear him. He slipped me the end of a potato, wrapped in a rag, from his pocket. Usually it was insects he delighted in pulling out of his pockets, to see me squirm. Christmas cheer must be contagious. I wished it would last all the year long.
“But what will you eat?” I whispered back.
“I'm not hungry.”
He was lying. We'd both had a single muffin for breakfast and nothing since. I took a bite and handed him the other half.
“We'll share,” I said. And then I hurried ahead so he wouldn't be able to give it back.
Lanterns burned in grimy windows, turning them to fine crystal. Swirls danced around us, like bunnies made of snow. Ice hung from lampposts and glittered on carriage wheels. I heard singing from a pub and weeping from the next doorway. When the sun finished its descent into the Thames, the frigid wind shattered the softness.
I was wearing my very best dressâthe one with only a few tears and scorch marks along the hemâand layers of flannel petticoats against the cold. Best of all was the red capelet Colin gave me that morning. He didn't say much, just shoved it at me, mumbling something about the holidays. I'd never had my own capelet before and I fancied myself very grown-up and distinguished. It didn't matter a bit that it was ragged on one side and smelled damp, or that the tip of my chilled nose was currently the same shade of red.
“I'm going to get my very own copy of
,” I said, changing my mind for the third time since we'd left home. I read the first chapter once, furtively, in a dark corner of a shop before one of the clerks chased me off.
“I'd rather read about pirates,” Colin said disdainfully.
“Pirates! But they never bathe.”
“But they carry blunderbusses and have adventures. They meet krakens.” He'd sailed from Ireland when he was eight years old and, though he wouldn't talk about the details of it, he fancied himself an expert on pirates. “There are no krakens in
, I reckon.”
I couldn't argue with that.
“I could get
The Goblin Market
by Christina Rossetti,” I suggested. “It's bound to have goblins.”
“I suppose,” he grudgingly admitted.
I was secretly entranced with the idea of a lady novelist. I should dearly love to be one. Or maybe a goblin-fighting pirate queen. It was difficult to choose sometimes.
“I could teach you to read,” I offered again. “I think you'd like it.”
“I can read,” he scowled, but I knew he was lying again.
“Enough, you two,” Mother snapped, without even turning her head to look at us. Our mouths shut instantly, as if she were a mesmerist. “I've been preparing for tonight for nearly a month now. Be quiet and look smart.”
We walked for nearly an hour in silence. It never occurred to me at the time that other folk would have hired a hackney from their front door, instead of flagging one a block away from their destination. Mother wanted to arrive in proper fashion and didn't want the widow to know we were poor. I wasn't sure what the number of coins to our name had to do with talking to the dead, but then, as Mother often said, I had a lot to learn. So I never asked.
Mother didn't like to be questioned.
So I never asked her about the flowers sewn into the hem of her dress or the vial of liquid she'd slipped into my pocket either.
The townhouse we were delivered to was very grand, even with the windows curtained in black and the knocker muffled. The widow had recently acquired that status then. We went up the front steps, not going around back to the servants' entrance where we surely belonged. I knew that much of the world. My stomach gave a funny little hitch. I slipped my hand into Colin's. He didn't grimace at me like he sometimes did; he just squeezed back.
The door swung open and a rotund butler with a curling mustache greeted us in hushed tones after Mother introduced herself. He didn't shout at us or drive us around to the proper entrance. He only stepped aside to let us in.
“Mrs. Gordon is expecting you. If you'll be so good as to follow me please.”
I'd never heard anyone speak half so well as he did and there wasn't a single mend in his fine pressed suit, not even near the seams or pockets. The hall was draped in black, paintings and mirrors decorously covered, gaslights burning low. Even the drawing room, which was the same size as our entire flat, was somber despite the gilded furniture and seashell lamps. An elderly woman wearing a gown of bombazine, the dull black material all widows wore, sat placidly on a sofa larger than my bed. Another woman sat across from her, napping.
“Mrs. Willoughby, welcome.”
“Mrs. Gordon.” My mother bowed her head in greeting. “Allow me to offer my most sincere condolences. And may I present my daughter, Violet.”
“Aren't you a pretty thing.” Her smile wobbled. “My daughter had hair just like that when she was little.” My mother's insistence on wrapping my hair into perfect ringlets the previous night suddenly made sense. It wasn't a style that was currently popular. “Come closer, gel, I don't bite.” Perhaps not, but she smelled like talc and too much perfume and lemon drops. But since she offered me one of those lemon drops, I was inclined to like her.
“Tell me, child, do you see spirits, like your mother does?”
I swallowed, glancing at my mother. Her eyes narrowed warningly. And her eyes never narrowed like that in public; she was afraid of looking as if she had wrinkles.
“No, ma'am,” I said quietly.
“My gifts only came upon me after I lost my own dear husband,” Mother added smoothly, her eyes now glistening prettily. “And so I understand your pain very well indeed, Mrs. Gordon.”
The other old lady gave such a loud snore that she woke herself up. I tried not to giggle.
“Eh? What's that now?”
Mrs. Gordon poked her with her cane. “Wake up, Agatha. The Spiritualist medium has arrived.”
“Horace is dead, you daft cow,” Agatha said bluntly. “You're wasting your pennies.”
Mrs. Gordon sniffed. “They're mine to waste, so be quiet, you old fool.” She reached out to pat my hand. She wasn't wearing gloves and her skin was dry and papery, marked with brown spots. “Never mind her,” she said. “That's my sister, Miss Hartington. She's an old witch.”
I was instantly burning with curiosity. “I've read about witches,” I confessed. “Are you really one?”
“Violet! What a thing to say,” Mother said.
But Miss Hartington only laughed. “I am, my girl. The very devil of one.” She squinted at me. “You do look like my niece. We were sorry to lose her so young.” She cleared her throat briskly, then frowned at my mother. “Come to rob my sister then, have you?”
“Certainly not,” Mother replied, her smile brittle.
“This fashion for talking to the dead is pure poppycock, if you ask me. Dead is dead.”
“Agatha, that's rude even for you,” Mrs. Gordon said. “Shall we begin, Mrs. Willoughby, before my sister's abominable manners drive you clear away?”
“I am at your service, ma'am,” Mother said to Mrs. Gordon. Then, turning to Miss Hartington, she replied, “I assure you, there is considerable evidence to the contrary.”
We moved to a round table draped in a lace cloth. I itched to stroke it. It looked like fairy wings all stitched together.
“Come sit next to me,” Mrs. Gordon said to me. Mother hid a smile of triumph. It made me queasy to see it. Colin was still standing by the door. I sat next to Mrs. Gordon.
“Could we please have hot chocolate?” I asked as my mother had instructed, even though it was very rude of me.
“Violet, such rudeness,” she said straightaway.
I was confused. My smile started to slip. Mrs. Gordon patted my hand again. Mother had suggested I ought to cry to get the hot chocolate, but I couldn't quite manage it.
“I'll ring for a pot,” Mrs. Gordon offered. “If it won't disturb your work, Mrs. Willoughby?”
“Not at all,” my mother assured her graciously. “I apologize for my daughter's manners. She is perhaps full young to be out in society this way, but she so likes to see the Christmas bows on the houses at this time of year. I couldn't bear to leave her behind. A mother, as you well know, would do anything for her child.”
Mrs. Gordon nodded while her sister rang for the tea cart. “My own Amelia loved Christmas.”
The long-deceased Amelia was why my mother had decided to bring me along. I was meant to distract Mrs. Gordon, to keep her off balance. It was a cruel thing to do to a sad old woman.
I stared at my mother mutinously. She pinched me under the table hard enough to leave a welt and make my eyes water.
The hot chocolate finally arrived and everyone except for Colin was offered a delicate porcelain tea cup. The sweet aroma of chocolate and cream smelled so good, it nearly made the whole night worthwhile. I'd never tasted any before and I sincerely hoped to taste it again soon, and often. I drank greedily until my mother spoke.
“We'll start with a prayer.”
That was my next cue. As everyone closed their eyes and bowed their heads, I slipped the small bottle of liquid out of my pocket and tipped a little into each of the ladies' cups. Mother said it was medicine, brewed from opium flowers, and that nothing made from flowers could ever be harmful. Hot chocolate was meant to mask the bitter taste, as the ladies mustn't find out they were drinking laudanum. She was very emphatic about that. I still didn't understand why it had to be a secret, if it was harmless flower juice. I hesitated for a fraction of a second until my mother opened one eye.
“We'll sing the traditional hymns now,” she said. She made us sing three of the longest songs in her repertoire until all of our throats were dry. Meanwhile, Colin had smothered the fire, just enough to let a chill creep over us. The old women reached for their cups, taking several deep, restorative swallows.
Mother had us hold hands. “Horace Gordon, we call on you, beloved dead, to speak to us.”
Mrs. Gordon's fingers trembled. She looked eagerly around the room.
“Horace Gordon,” Mother called again, louder. We all reflexively looked at her. Colin seized the moment to toss a handkerchief packed with Epsom salts and table salt into the dying fire. It flared high, tinged with green and yellow, then burned white when the Epsom salts in the center of the bundle caught.
Mrs. Gordon caught her breath. Even Miss Hartington looked impressed.
And then the laudanum took effect. Their pupils dilated so that they really did look like sinister old witches. I cringed.
“He's here!” Mrs. Gordon exclaimed. “Oh, Horace!”
Mother tilted her head as if she were listening to ghostly voices. I peered into the shadows, looking for a transparent foot or ectoplasmic cloak. Disappointed, I saw only Colin and a small fluttering ball of dust under one of the sofa legs.
“Mr. Gordon would like me to tell you that he is well,” Mother said. “He is happy on the other side and is with your Amelia.”