Table of Contents
ALSO BY KATHARINE MCMAHON
The Alchemist’s Daughter
The Rose of Sebastopol
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS
Published by the Penguin Group
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Originally published in the United Kingdom by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2009
First published in the United States by G. P. Putnam’s Sons 2010
Copyright © 2009 by Katharine McMahon
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any
printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy
of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
“The Kind Ghosts” is quoted from
The War Poems of Wilfred Owen,
edited and introduced by Jon Stallworthy (Chatto & Windus, 1994).
Graciously provided by Chatto & Windus, Random House UK
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The crimson rooms / Katharine McMahon.
eISBN : 978-1-101-18531-5
1. Women lawyers—England—Fiction. 2. Murder—Investigation—Fiction.
3. Birth parents—Identification—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
THE KIND GHOSTS
She sleeps on soft, last breaths; but no ghost looms
Out of the stillness of her palace wall,
Her wall of boys on boys and dooms on dooms.
She dreams of golden gardens and sweet glooms,
Not marvelling why her roses never fall
Nor what red mouths were torn to make their blooms.
The shades keep down which well might roam her hall.
Quiet their blood lies in her crimson rooms
And she is not afraid of their footfall.
They move not from her tapestries, their pall,
Nor pace her terraces, their hecatombs,
Lest aught she be disturbed, or grieved at all.
JULY 30, 1918
MAY 1924, LONDON
followed my brother across a plateau
where a bitter wind howled and the sky flashed. A sudden glare revealed churned earth and a monstrous coil of metal. My brother marched ahead, immaculate in his cap and pressed uniform. I tried to keep up but floundered thigh-deep in mud. Though I thrashed and scrabbled, there was nothing to hold on to, neither root nor rock.
At last I wrenched a foot free but James was now yards ahead, far beyond my reach. I clutched at my thigh with both hands and hauled until it was released and I could crawl forward. The front of my nightgown was a sheet of freezing sludge.
He trod lightly, springing from one dry patch to another. The sky flickered again, and this time I saw a man fallen like a puppet on the wire, back arched, legs splayed. And in the next flash there was another boy, perhaps fifty yards ahead, waving. Tears made runnels down his filthy cheeks, his mouth gaped, and the lower half of his body was a mash of blood and bone.
I faltered again. “James,” I cried, through lips clogged with mud, “come back,” but he didn’t hear me. His arms were extended toward the boy.
The sky roared. Above a shudder of gunfire came the earsplitting whizz and crack of a shell. I yelled again, “James,” but my voice was drowned by an explosion that swiped my brother off his feet, plucked him upward, and crucified him against a violent flare of light.
He thumped back to earth.
He was facedown, one arm torn away at the shoulder. When he raised his head, I saw that the side of his face had been blown off and an eyeball dangled by a thread in the space where his right cheek should have been.
He looked at me with his good eye, a chip of ice.
“It’s me, Jamie. Don’t you know me?”
The eye went on staring.
“I’ll be there in a minute, Jamie. One minute. Please wait . . .”
The mud held me fast and the night thundered again. If only I could reach him, hold his face to my breast. Then he would be covered up and made warm, healed. In a shattering racket of shellfire I fought the grip of mud that dragged me deeper, deeper, away from James, and filled my mouth, nostrils, and eyes.
Another pause, this time prolonged. I was hot, breathless, shaking, my eyelashes wet. Moonlight shone through the thin bedroom curtains. My skirt and jacket hung ghostly on the wardrobe door, my heap of underclothes shimmered.
From two floors down came a knock on the front door.
I fumbled for my watch, carried it to the window, found it was two thirty-five. Though I yearned to be back inside the dream—this time I had so nearly reached my brother—already my hands were struggling with the sleeves of my dressing gown, my feet had pushed into their slippers.
The landing was quiet. Thank heavens nobody else had heard the knocking, no sign even of Prudence, jowls aquiver, hairnet remorselessly pinned to thinning hair. Stairs groaned under my bare feet. My hand, still trembling from the dream, skimmed the banister; and my heel caught on the last stair rod. In the hall the trapped smells of the house fluttered like moths: dinners, rose water, endurance.
Knock, knock, knock-knock
. “Oh, please be quiet,” I muttered. A seepage of yellow from the lamp outside oozed through the fanlight and fell across the hats on the hall stand—James’s boater, Father’s trilby—and the silvery haze of looking glass. I grasped the latch, my jaw tightened to conceal whatever emotion, other than outrage (surely permissible in the circumstances), might be thrust upon me.
A child of about six stood on the doorstep under the spread beams of light, his face upturned; a neat, rectangular brow, shadowed eyes, lower lip drooping with sleeplessness. My body sagged so that I clung to the door-frame for support. Dear God, James, stepped from my dream, whole, a child again. In a moment his clenched fist would unfurl to reveal the best, the shiniest, the weightiest marble.
My voice was a thread. “No. No, it can’t be.”
“Forgive us if we woke you,” came a voice from farther down the steps and dimly I registered a transatlantic twang. “Evelyn, is it? I would have known you anywhere. You are so like your brother and he described you so fondly, your hair especially.”
A woman’s head appeared level with the child’s shoulder, her face bony and neat-featured, with a pointed chin. Despite her confident words she seemed high-strung as a cat; the sinews in her neck were taut and her eyes too wide-open. Extending a small, gloved hand, she said: “I’m Meredith Duffy, and this is my boy Edmund. Perhaps we should not have woken you but the boat got in very late and though I thought of looking for a hotel, in the end I decided to come right on here.”
I stared at the exhausted boy, who swayed slightly. “James,” I murmured. “Jamie.”