Chapter no 14

The Silent Companions

Advent brought with it a decided decline in the weather. Mist prowled over the hills and steamed up the windows. Every time the front door opened, wind gusted in with the silver-grey scent of rain. But Elsie had promised Mr Underwood she would start attending services again, and you couldn’t break a promise to a vicar, especially near Christmas.

In October, at Rupert’s funeral, she had barely noticed the state of All Souls Church. Concentrating on the awful presence of the coffin and the body trapped within, Elsie had let her surroundings blur to nothing. But now she saw the structure take a solid form around her. It was wretched. Cold, damp and in dire need of repair.

The family pew was at the front. Elsie and Sarah were a little late and had to shuffle past rows of threadbare villagers to take their place. All the wretches looked, but none met Elsie’s eye; they gave furtive, sideways glances beneath their eyelashes. Perhaps they still considered a widow bad luck.

Thankfully, the Bainbridge pew was built up and screened at the back with wood. Holes pocked the structure – she had to dust down the seat before she dared to sit on it.

‘Worm,’ Sarah whispered, wrinkling up her nose.

The pew door thunked shut beside them. Elsie shuddered. Locked in a wooden enclosure with the worms – it was not much different to being buried alive.

Worms were not the only discomfort. Cobwebs laced the arches and there was a relentless drip from the leaking roof. Although holly

from The Bridge gardens decorated the windowsills, the place looked dreary, far from festive. It carried a mineral smell, slick and wet.

Sarah looked queasy as she surveyed her surroundings. She still wore a bandage on her hand. The apothecary at Torbury St Jude said the cut was not infected, but Elsie had her doubts. It was nearly two months now. Surely the wound should scab, at the very least?

‘Are you a little off-colour, Sarah?’

‘Yes . . . It is this church. When I think of my poor cousin Rupert, resting forever in such a place!’

Elsie could not answer for tears.

When she was young, she’d liked going to church. It was a place where she could walk in a higher atmosphere and breathe a higher air. But at some point – it must have been around the time Pa died –her feelings had changed. Church became a giant magnifying glass focused on her face with a crowd of people peering through. Today was not much different. The Fayford poor might not meet her eye but they were alert to her presence, like hounds scenting blood.

They went through the usual routine: hymns; a gospel reading; Mr Underwood’s thoughts; the lighting of the Advent candle. By the end Sarah was trembling from cold. Elsie heard her voice shudder over the words for ‘Rock of Ages’. She stretched out her arm, meaning to put it around Sarah’s shoulders, when a twang in the pit of her stomach pulled her up short.

Sarah looked at her, pop-eyed. ‘Mrs Bainbridge?’

She placed a hand to her bodice and felt it again beneath the buttons: something within, kicking back.

‘Is it the baby?’ ‘Yes. It quickens.’

Sarah beamed. Without asking for permission, she placed her palm on Elsie’s belly.

A curious sensation: Sarah’s heat on the surface of her skin; the child pushing back on the wet, slippery side within. Horrible, in fact. One Bainbridge on the outside, one locked away behind flesh, and she was no more than a thin barrier, a wall through which they could communicate.

She looked down at the black crêpe of her dress and at Sarah’s gloved hand, grey against it. She had the strangest feeling that it was

not her stomach at all – not any more. It was only a shell. She was a shell, and another body, a foreign body, was growing inside.



Elsie decided to walk back to The Bridge. Movement, she thought, would get her blood flowing and dispel the peculiar sense of invasion. Helen agreed to accompany her. Sarah was half-dead with cold and Mabel’s leg could not carry her such a distance, so they took the carriage with Mrs Holt.

Rain had fallen during the service, leaving the footpaths slick, plastered pewter with dead leaves. Snails crept out from the undergrowth to stretch their necks. Once or twice Elsie had to step sharply aside onto the wet grass to avoid crushing them.

‘Dear me, ma’am, Mabel will have to change your clothes as soon as you get back,’ Helen said. ‘Won’t do for you to catch cold, not in your condition.’

‘Thank you, Helen, I will make sure she does.’ Her ankles felt cool and numb. Another ruined pair of stockings. She only prayed her crêpe did not shrivel in the damp air.

Her boots tapped in a discordant rhythm as they crossed the bridge with the stone lions. Fine, white vapour rose up from the river. It put her in mind of the match factory. If she closed her eyes, she could imagine the smell of phosphorus, haunting her. She loathed that odour, but somehow she needed it; it was bound up in home, in Jolyon.

What would Jolyon be doing now? Making the arrangements for new girls in the dipping rooms, perhaps, and getting ready to leave the place for Christmas. Once he returned to The Bridge, she was bound to feel like herself again. This interlude without him had unsettled her. It was not natural to be separated from him.

Helen cleared her throat. ‘Ma’am?’ ‘Yes, Helen?’

‘May I ask something?’

Elsie ducked her head to avoid the dripping fingers of a branch. ‘Very well.’

‘What happened to your hands, ma’am?’ ‘Whatever do you mean?’

‘Your hands. I’ve never seen you take your gloves off. I thought perhaps . . . maybe you hurt them?’

They prickled and throbbed beneath her black lace gloves: echoes of Helen’s own hands; calloused, with swelling joints and stains ground into the skin. ‘You are right, Helen. There was an accident. They were burnt.’

Helen whistled between her teeth. ‘That’s bad luck. You can’t be too careful with fire, ma’am. Knew a woman in Torbury St Jude, once. Her little daughter’s dress caught light on a candle and up she goes in flames.’

Elsie felt the cold creeping into her bones. ‘Is it much farther now?’

‘Not overmuch. Two more bends and you’ll see the gardens.’ Helen wiped the moisture from her face with the back of her hand. The chill, damp air only made her red skin look rosier. ‘But while we’re out here, ma’am, I did wonder . . . have you been back in the nursery?’

‘Certainly not. I have had no occasion to go there.’ ‘Oh.’ A short pause. ‘Ma’am, can I ask another thing?’

‘Good lord, I thought this was a walk, not an inquisition.’

‘Sorry, ma’am. Only I wondered if we’d be getting some more help when the baby comes? What with Mabel being promoted and all the extra clouts and such, I won’t have time to catch my breath.’

Or ask so many questions.

‘Naturally, I will hire nurses for the baby at Lady Day. I have other expenses for the present.’

They must be drawing close now; she could hear the sound of shears clipping in the gardens.

Hopefully they would make it inside before another onslaught of rain. The clouds were building in formation, ready to attack. With the sun shining behind them they glowed, gunmetal grey.

‘We had better send the gardeners home for the day,’ she said. ‘They will get too wet working in this weather.’

Helen raised her eyebrows. ‘I didn’t think the gardeners were come today.’

‘Of course they have come, can’t you hear them? Listen.’ Helen shook her head.

‘They’re deadheading flowers or trimming the hedges. You really cannot hear it?’ The sound was growing louder, like a blade against a whetstone. Snip, snip. Elsie stopped walking and put her hand on Helen’s arm, forcing her to pause. ‘There.’

Helen blinked. She looked thoroughly witless. Elsie had never seen a more witless look – she wondered if Helen practised it.

‘Never mind.’

Just as Helen promised, another two turns brought the gardens into sight. Evergreen foliage showed vivid against the backdrop of the sky. Elsie spotted a crow hopping between the dying hedges, but no gardeners. They must be working around the other side.

‘I hope you won’t be too downcast this Christmas, ma’am,’ Helen said. ‘What with the poor master and all . . . The first Christmas is always difficult.’


‘Master were only a few years older than me. Seems so cruel . . .’ Of all the servants, it was Helen who mentioned Rupert the most.

Perhaps it was, as she said, the similarity in their ages, or the fact that she had found his body.

‘You sound as if you were fond of your master, Helen. I am glad to hear it.’

She gave a half-hearted smile. ‘He always spoke kindly to me. I thought it was nice of him, to notice his staff.’

Heaven knew the London ones didn’t deserve his notice. Spiteful ingrates, they were, for all their efficiency.

‘And then,’ Helen went on, ‘he’d tell me little things about his day.

Like reading that book, and finding the letters in the nursery.’

The nursery again. Elsie shuddered as a raindrop fell from a branch and trickled down her back. ‘You must give up this fancy, Helen. You have already told me that Mr Bainbridge presumed the letters were left that way by the previous occupant. He did not think it was a ghost.’

‘No,’ she admitted. ‘But he didn’t know I’d tidied them up the week before and put them all in a box. And he never saw the writing in the dust. Mother, it said, that day. Usually it’s a whole sentence.’ Elsie did not want to hear that sentence, but Helen was clearly going to tell her. ‘Mother hurt me, it says.’

She couldn’t answer.

They were nearing the house. Elsie clopped around the dew-sprinkled hedges. They gave off a green, mossy smell. She could still hear those relentless shears, and the sound began to grate on her nerves.

As they drew level with the stone fountain, Helen chirped up again. ‘What do you think it is then, ma’am? Writing to me?’

‘It is Mabel,’ she snapped, irritated. ‘Playing a joke on you. She writes it and then pretends she cannot see it. Nothing could be simpler.’

‘Mabel? But she can’t even read her own name, ma’am, let alone—’ The end of Helen’s sentence disappeared in a gasp.

Elsie snapped around to face her. ‘What? What is it?’ The roses had fled from Helen’s cheeks. Even her lips were pale. ‘Are you unwell?’

Helen extended a finger, pointing.

Elsie didn’t want to see. She didn’t want her eyes to follow the direction of that finger, but they would drift, slowly, without her volition, trained by some fatal instinct.

The wooden girl stood looking out of the card-room window. Shadows like twigs obscured her face. Antlers – they were antlers. She was placed directly underneath the stag’s head. But that was not what caught Elsie’s eye: it was the window to the left.

The rectangle with a muddy hand printed on the glass. ‘Perhaps the gardeners . . .’

‘No.’ Helen swallowed. ‘Look, the mark’s on the inside.’

It was difficult to breathe. The baby was moving, turning somersaults in her stomach. Still the air rang with the sound of those damned shears: snip, snip.

Elsie shook herself. A mountain out of a molehill – that’s what Ma would say. Mabel, or even Helen herself, could have made the mark by accident.

‘Nonsense. You cannot see if the print is inside or out from all the way over here.’

Elsie strode forward with more determination than she felt. Helen’s voice pleaded with her to stop, but she could not change course now. Her feet moved without her – she was left behind.

Another step and the muddy print bobbed closer, coming into focus. Too small. It could not be a gardener. This was a child’s hand.

She drew to a halt just before the window, so near that her breath misted the glass. As it cleared, she saw her own face reflected back, overlaying the wooden features of the companion. Only it was not her face – not really. It was pale and warped, ugly with fear.

Trembling, Elsie reached out her glove and placed her palm against the mud hand. Helen was right. The print came from the other side.

‘Ma’am? Can you see it? Is there writing?’

She opened her mouth to reply when a flicker, a small movement behind the glass, drew her attention. She recoiled.

‘Ma’am? Are you all right?’

She managed a nod; she could not speak.

The companion no longer looked out across the grounds. She stared, dead and unblinking, right into Elsie’s soul.

Mabel had not been lying. Its eyes moved.



Draughts flowed down the maroon corridor. Shadows rocked across the flock wallpaper as the gas lamps fired up with a roar. Elsie huddled in her shawl, cowering against Sarah’s shoulder. She had never felt so overpowered, so swallowed as she did in this house.

‘This one,’ said Sarah. She extended a finger and let the tip hover an inch away from the painting. ‘Do you see? Behind the woman’s skirts?’

It was a baroque piece, close to the style of Vermeer. A plump blonde woman with tired eyes sat before a birdcage. She held out her hand to a sparrow perched inside. Light hit them from the left, falling full upon her face. She was pretty, if a little jowly. Coral ribbons threaded through her hair, echoing the shade of the fur-trimmed mantle about her shoulders. Butter-cream skirts tumbled out from her waist, and clutching at them was a girl. A fey girl with that odd, puppet-like appearance prevalent among children in early portraiture. She did not look at the sparrow but gazed, intently, up at the lady’s face.

Giddiness washed over her. ‘It’s her. Sarah, it’s her. It’s the same girl as the companion.’


Elsie’s fingers clutched Sarah’s sleeve, wrinkling the lavender fabric. ‘Do you hear . . .?’

‘The builders,’ Sarah said softly.

Elsie gulped a breath. Air rushed into her lungs, soured by the taste of paint. Of course, it was not the sound that came at night, so reminiscent of a saw – it was a real saw. Real decorators, ready to make her house presentable. ‘Of course. I forgot.’

Sarah returned to the picture. ‘I thought she looked like the companion too. Perhaps a bit younger. But here is the really interesting thing. Look at the writing on the frame.’

‘Sixteen-thirty,’ Elsie read.

‘Yes. And the name. Anne Bainbridge with her daughter Henrietta Maria.’

‘Henrietta Maria.’

‘But they called her Hetta.’ ‘How do you know?’

‘She is one of my ancestors! Hetta, the gypsy boy, the companions – they are all in the diary we found in the garret. Poor Hetta was mute. Her mother wasn’t meant to have any more children, but she took some herbs and Hetta was born without a proper tongue. Poor girl! You know how it was in those days, they thought afflicted children were cursed. She was left out of everything. Just a sweet, lonely girl . . . I cannot believe – I mean, even supposing that her eyes did move . . .’

‘They moved.’

‘Well.’ Sarah’s brows drew together. She had never laughed – Elsie was eternally grateful for that. Sarah tackled the problem as if it were a complicated sum that needed to be solved. ‘What if the wooden figure is channelling the spirit of this Henrietta Maria Bainbridge? Does it follow that she means us harm? I cannot believe it.’ She shook her head. ‘Hetta just wants someone to look after her. A friend. She was so alone. I know how that feels.’

Elsie shuddered. ‘Is this what we have come to now? Talk of ghosts and spirit possession?’

‘Do you not believe in the spirits?’ Sarah looked astounded. Elsie might as well have said she didn’t believe in colour. ‘I can assure you they are real, Mrs Bainbridge. I’ve seen them. A mesmerist visited Mrs Crabbly, and a medium, to contact her dead husband. All the rich old ladies do it in London. It’s quite safe. It’s a science. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’

Then why did her pulse beat so thick? ‘I am afraid. I’m afraid of the gypsy companion and the woman with the child on her lap. There’s something the matter with them. They feel . . . wrong.’

‘Perhaps what you saw on the glass was Hetta’s hand, reaching out to us? We should try to make contact with her. I’ve read a book about séances. I attempted to summon my parents once—’

Elsie groaned. ‘In God’s name, no! You must stop talking as if this is a real child. I had Mrs Holt lock her in the cellar with all the others, for goodness’ sake!’

‘It’s not as foolish as it sounds. There was a real child. This picture and the diary prove it. I am trying to recall what happened in the last diary entry I read . . . Anne’s husband gave her your diamond necklace, I remember that. Did you know it was commissioned especially for the visit of Charles I?’

‘That is hardly relevant right now.’

‘No, I suppose not . . . Oh yes, poor Hetta was forbidden to attend the court masque! Her father was afraid she would shame him.’

Elsie took a steadying breath and tried to conceal her irritation. ‘I doubt a spirit would take the trouble to haunt us over a court masque she missed two hundred years ago.’

‘No,’ Sarah said thoughtfully. ‘There must be something else. I will have to finish reading the diary. If only I had grabbed the second volume before the garret door jammed!’

‘The man is working on the door now. When he is done we will fetch the book and see if we can find a clue.’

There was a way forwards, she just had to keep her terror under control for a while longer. In two weeks it would be Christmas. Her new dresses would arrive and Jolyon would come down. He would bring plum pudding, oranges studded with cloves, parcels wrapped in coloured ribbon; all the warmth and vibrancy she had lacked. Everything would be all right once Jolyon arrived, she told herself.

Then she heard the scream. ‘Mabel! It sounds like Mabel.’

They tumbled down the corridor to the Lantern Gallery. Mrs Holt and Helen galloped up the staircase from below to meet them. Helen still had a wet apron and a wooden clothes-beater in her hand. She wielded it like a weapon.

‘Mrs Bainbridge! Miss Bainbridge. What is the matter?’ Mrs Holt looked stricken.

‘We don’t know,’ Sarah said. ‘We think it’s Mabel, upstairs.’

Their feet thumped on the risers. Elsie was out of breath and her bodice cut under her arms, but she managed to gain the landing first. She took three steps before colliding with a shape hurtling in the opposite direction.

‘Mabel! Mabel!’ The girl looked almost feral. Tears streamed down her face. Elsie seized her shoulders and held her steady. ‘What has happened?’

‘How could you? How could you?’ Her fists pounded against Elsie’s breast. ‘How can you be so wicked? Oh, oh!’

‘What? What are you talking about?’

‘You know! You know!’ Mabel’s knees gave way; she crumpled to the floor. ‘It weren’t funny. I was that scared . . .’ She began to sob.

Elsie released her and looked helplessly from Sarah to Mrs Holt and then to Helen. ‘Helen, can you try to get some sense from her?’

Helen laid her beater on the floor. Tentatively, she placed a hand on Mabel’s shoulder. ‘Hush, now. What happened? It wasn’t . . .’ She dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘Did you see another one?’

‘She – she—’ Mabel could barely speak. ‘She must have put it in my room. Knows I hates them! All part of some – some joke!’

Prickles darted up and down Elsie’s skin. ‘What is in your room, Mabel?’

‘As if you don’t know! One of them things!’

She looked at Sarah. ‘No. That cannot be. Mrs Holt locked all the companions in the cellar. I saw her do it.’

‘Not this one. I never seen it before.’

Blood thumped in her ears. ‘No. No, I will not believe this.’

Rigid with determination, Elsie stalked down the corridor. She would see it with her own eyes. She would prove them wrong.

The door swung open with ease, revealing Mabel’s narrow bed, the washstand and the prints on the wall.

It was standing in the hip bath.

A stout woman, brushing her hair. Her kirtle was the colour of pickled gherkins. She wore dirty linen oversleeves and an apron that fell to her ankles. Her expression teased as she swept the brush

through the ends of her wavy brown hair, the other hand smoothing behind. It was a flirtatious look, yet somehow hostile.

‘Go on then,’ Elsie croaked. She was light-headed with a sense of her own bravado. ‘Move if you’re going to do it. Move, damn you, move!’

The eyes remained still. But she heard, just at the edge of her consciousness, the sound of bristles tearing through dry hair. The scent of roses flared up, thick and choking. Suddenly it was very warm.

Her mind would not stand it. Whirling round, she slammed the door shut and ran back down the corridor. Her legs refused to move with their usual speed. She was slow now, weighted by the baby. Vulnerable.

The others were waiting on the landing. They had coaxed Mabel onto a chair and she was dry-faced, very pale.

‘It was locked,’ Mrs Holt said. ‘I swear it was locked. Mrs Bainbridge doesn’t have the key, Mabel. I just don’t understand how this has happened.’

‘Mabel.’ Elsie tried to keep her voice steady but it was a strange, swooping thing, beyond her control. ‘All of you. I want you to think, very carefully. Who has been in the house? We have had tradesmen and workmen. Gardeners. I want you to make a list. Someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, is playing a trick upon us. Putting handprints on the windows and . . .’ She frowned, distracted by a glint of light. ‘Mabel, are you wearing my diamonds?’ Colour flared into the maid’s cheeks. ‘I were warming them, ma’am. That’s what Helen says they do, in the fancy houses. Ain’t it,

Helen? Warm the mistress’s pearls.’

‘Warming them?’ Sarah cried. ‘A likely story! Mrs Bainbridge cannot even wear them during her mourning.’

Elsie had ridden a crest of anxiety all day. It had to break. Anger flickered through her fear and she seized it with both hands. ‘Take them off!’ she shouted. ‘Take them off at once!’ Fresh tears spurting, Mabel grappled at the base of her neck, but her hair was tangled in the chain. ‘If you don’t take them off this minute, I will send you out of this house!’

Helen stepped in with her steady, chafed hands. She unfastened the clasp and pulled the necklace away. Threads of Mabel’s dark hair

still clung to the chain.

‘Didn’t mean no harm,’ Mabel muttered, rocking. ‘Didn’t mean no harm, didn’t deserve no bloody thing in my room.’

There was a bang, then a shout rang out in the east wing.

Elsie’s eyes met Sarah’s. ‘It sounds like they have prised the garret door open,’ she whispered. ‘Go and get the second part of that diary.’

Sarah went at once.

Mrs Holt paced up and down, pressing her hands together. ‘Dear me, dear me. What a to-do! And the laundry not even finished . . .’

Elsie looked at Mabel, shivering in Helen’s arms. She felt calmer now; slightly ashamed of her harsh words. ‘Look, Mabel, whatever you think, I did not place that companion in your room. I am starting to hate them just as much as you do.’

Mabel looked up at her, but she could not read the expression.

Sarah returned at a run, breathless and empty-handed. She looked queer. Pale, shivering like a whippet.

‘Sarah, what is it? Has the book gone?’

‘No, it’s there but she didn’t . . .’ She gulped down a breath. ‘She didn’t want me to take it. I could feel that the poor soul didn’t want me to read it.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘She was in there.’ Sarah’s chin trembled. ‘Hetta was in the garret.’



It was cold enough for snow, but Peters and Stilford sweated as they stood in the yard, swinging down the axe-heads again and again, thunkthunk. Piece by piece, chunk by chunk, the wood splintered away, first brown then maggot-white, stringy and harder to cut. Peters rested for a moment, one hand on his hip. A miscellany of body parts lay heaped before him: wooden heads, severed wooden hands.

Elsie huddled by the kitchen door with Sarah and the female servants, wearing her heaviest cloak. She wished she were a man. If she had strength to pick up an axe she would do it; hack that gypsy boy’s face to bits. She thought of the circular saw in the match factory, newly cut splints rattling from its teeth into the trough. A shiver ran through her.

‘It seems such a shame,’ whined Sarah. ‘They are antiques! My ancestor Anne Bainbridge bought them in sixteen thirty-five. Could we not at least have tried to sell them?’

‘Who would pay good money to have a bunch of dolls give them the willies?’ Mabel cried. ‘They’d have to be touched in the head, ma’am.’

Sarah bit her lips. She was unhappy and it made Elsie feel uncomfortable. By rights, the companions belonged to a descendant of Bainbridge blood – not an interloper, a mere Bainbridge by marriage. She was destroying Sarah’s heritage. But what else was she supposed to do? Have them cropping up all over the house like jackin-the-boxes, scaring the life out of them all?

‘The extra firewood will come in handy for the winter,’ Mrs Holt put in.

Elsie’s skin itched. ‘No. I do not want to burn them inside the house. I do not think that would be . . . wise.’

‘Could I give it to the villagers then, madam? In Fayford?’

The axe whistled through the air again, followed by the clop of falling wood.

‘Perhaps it is best if we just burn them here, in the yard.’

Mrs Holt did not reply, but Elsie heard her little cluck of disapproval.

Was she being foolish? It did seem silly, now the companions lay dismembered on the cobbles – a nervous reaction from an overwrought female. And yet the horses were uneasy, their ears flat, the whites of their eyes rolling. Beatrice the cow was keeping well back in her stable, lipping another clump of hay from her net. The animals knew. Animals always sensed these things.

‘Right then,’ Peters panted. Perspiration ran into his eyes. ‘Last one.’

They all turned to look at the one Sarah called Hetta. Poised, silent and alone, she gazed over the massacred remains of her fellows; her smile serene, the white rose against her breast.

Elsie did not think she could watch Peters chop this last one up. What would it be like to see the lineaments of that face, so like her own in childhood, fractured? The past amputated, then going up in flames.

Peters took a step forwards.

‘No!’ It was Sarah. ‘No, please. We cannot! Not Hetta. She has suffered enough already.’

Elsie averted her head so that the side of her bonnet hid Sarah and the companion from view. ‘We have to, Sarah. There is something about these things, something . . . wrong.’

‘How do you know it is wrong? You only know that it scares you.’

A child’s hand on the window, the slide of those eyes . . .

‘Yes, it scares me. That is reason enough. What do you think it is doing to my baby, having all these jumps and frights?’

‘But Hetta is my ancestor. I’ve read about her, I feel that I know her.’ Sarah’s voice slid from pleading to desperation. ‘What if she is trying to contact us? If she is asking me to right an injustice? I cannot fail her!’They said that, didn’t they? That the murdered could not rest but wandered, seeking justice. Elsie knew for a fact it was nonsense. It must be that old woman Mrs Crabbly, putting notions into Sarah’s head. Mesmerism, indeed!

‘Miss Sarah,’ said Mrs Holt, ‘if I may be so bold as to say so . . . I’ve lived in this house since I was a young woman. We never had any ghosts!’

Helen sniffed.

‘But you are not related to Hetta!’ There was a fanatic energy about Sarah. ‘She would not try to reach you. We are alike, she and I. Please let me keep her. At least until I have finished the diary.’

A sound came from the pile of companions – a dry creaking, like beams settling. She had to decide. Soon it would grow dark.

‘Do it,’ Mabel whispered. ‘Hack her up and burn the buggers to hell.’

Mrs Holt whirled round. ‘Mabel!’

Elsie sighed. The world was full of them, past and present: sad, lonely little girls. She has suffered enough already. Was Sarah talking about Hetta, or herself?

Elsie had already taken Sarah’s house and her diamond necklace.

There was no doubt what Rupert would want her to do now.

‘Sarah may keep Hetta, if it is so important to her. But mark me, I want it kept locked up in the garret, not in my house, not anywhere near my baby.’

‘Oh thank you, thank you, Mrs Bainbridge!’ Sarah squealed. ‘I know you are doing the right thing.’ A red circle glowed on either cheek. Her eyes were glittering, like frost.

‘In the garret, do you understand?’

‘Yes, yes. I will keep her in the garret, that is no trouble at all.’

Sarah seized Hetta as if she were snatching her from the jaws of death. She held the painted side against her body, but she could not manoeuvre it with her bad hand.

‘Who will help me move her upstairs?’ Both Mabel and Helen stepped back.

‘For heaven’s sake!’ cried Mrs Holt. She jangled her keys and unlocked the kitchen door. ‘Come along then, Miss Sarah. My girls have become afraid of their own shadows.’

As soon as they were inside, Elsie withdrew a box of matches from her pocket. Peters held out his hand, but she shook her head. She wanted to set the fire herself.

‘About time, too,’ whispered Mabel.

Elsie approached the woodpile. The wind picked up and her veil billowed out behind her like dark smoke. She had a vision of herself, standing there, black and solemn.

The companions were a jigsaw of parts: the gypsy’s hair, scalped; that horrendous stiff baby, severed in half. They could not scare her now. Withdrawing a matchstick, she scratched it along the sandpaper.

A spark, a flare of blue, then the orange flame. Warmth prickled through her gloves. She watched the light bob in the breeze, feeling the power there in her fingers, ready to release with a single flick. She could smell the smoke already.

‘Do it, ma’am,’ Helen urged. She let the match fall.

Wood cracked and the pile burst into a blaze. An eye watched her from beneath a flicker of flame. It melted, bleeding down the cheek, the colours running.

You'll Also Like