Chapter no 18

The Silent Companions

Elsie awoke to three explosions of pain. The first in the small of her back, raking down into her thighs. The other beat her skull, at the top towards the crown, where it then radiated into her face. She felt her lip, swollen where her tooth had punctured the skin.

But these injuries were nothing compared to the third: the ripping claws in her belly.

They started softly, plucking at her internal chords, steadily building the rhythm until she screamed. Whoever nursed her pressed a bitter, sour-smelling liquid to her lips. She felt a scalding torrent of blood between her legs then fell back, exhausted.

She slept without dreams. Something hovered at the edge of her consciousness – as a scavenger hovers over a dying animal, waiting to swoop – but it did not strike.

She was caught in an ever-shifting kaleidoscope: she smelt the stale tang of unwashed skin and syrupy blood; tasted aloes and castor oil; heard Jolyon’s voice and another she did not recognise. She only gleaned a few sentences, but they were sufficient.

‘Wood? Inside her?’

‘In there with the baby. Poor thing was splintered. I never saw anything like it.’

The baby.

It was missing. Amputated. She could not feel its motions or the bubbles inside.

I am no longer two. I am alone.

Christmastide must have come and gone, for when she crawled out from the fog one dreary morning Sarah was sitting in the room, soberly dressed, eating a collection of cold meats that looked like leftovers. Mabel fussed about the wardrobe, wearing the new uniform Elsie remembered buying for her Christmas box.

Her mouth tasted horrific. She groaned. ‘My tonic. Give me . . .’ Drugs. She cared not what; opium, morphine, chloral.

Sarah started at the sound of her voice. Dabbing her mouth with a napkin, she hurried over to the bed and took Elsie’s hand. She had lost weight, making her face look longer and more horse-like than ever. There were shadows around her eye sockets, the irises glittering with unshed tears.

‘Tonic,’ Elsie said again. Her breath grated in her chest. In another moment the pain would rise up to meet her; she felt it building, gathering its strength.

Sarah shook her head. ‘The doctor says not to give you too much.’ ‘The doctor! He has not felt anything like this.’

‘He says you must eat. I can give you bread and water, or beef tea .

. .’

‘I’m not hungry.’ Her tongue yearned for the astringent taste of opium; her head begged for sleep. It was aching now, turning over jagged objects and trying to pound them into memories. She wanted to cry – but no, that would hurt more. ‘For the love of God, give me the tonic.’

‘The doctor—’

‘The doctor is a man. He can have no comprehension of this pain.’ Tears spilled onto Sarah’s sallow cheeks. She squeezed Elsie’s hand so hard that it hurt. ‘Oh, Mrs Bainbridge. I’m so sorry. It would have

been a little bit of Rupert, wouldn’t it?’

Pain flooded back, but not into her stomach. ‘Where is it? Where is my baby?’

‘With his father. Mr Underwood was very kind. He christened the little stranger and laid him to rest in the family vault. He was not supposed to. It will be our secret.’

A little stranger. Grown in secret, buried in secret, always in the dark. Elsie felt her mouth open like a wound – wet, raw. ‘But then –I will never see him!’

‘We wanted to wait for you, but you were so ill. We could not delay any longer.’ Sarah shifted. Her corset creaked. ‘I can tell you what he looked like. He was very small. Dainty. We could only just tell that he was a boy.’

‘And . . . splintered?’ ‘Who told you that?’

‘So it is true! I thought, I hoped, that I’d dreamed Jolyon saying it.

Sarah, how could he possibly . . .’

Sarah shook her head. ‘I cannot tell you how. Even the doctor cannot say. I only know what I saw.’

‘What . . . did you see?’

She looked away. ‘Please, Mrs Bainbridge, I do not wish to speak of it. Do not make me.’

‘It is my child.’

‘His skin had splinters,’ Sarah whispered, closing her eyes. ‘All over.’

Pictures tried to form but Elsie would not let them, could not endure them. ‘His name. What did they christen him?’

‘Edgar Rupert.’ ‘Edgar!

Sarah blinked at her. ‘Was – was that wrong? Mr Livingstone said it was your father’s name.’

‘Yes.’ She sank back against the pillow, nauseous. ‘It was.’

Mabel closed the wardrobe. Pressing herself against the walls, she glided round the room and through the door.

‘Was Jolyon very angry?’

‘Angry? God bless you, Mrs Bainbridge, why would he be angry?

He has shown nothing but concern.’

No doubt that was true, but he would rue this lost opportunity as bitterly as Elsie did. She had lost the heir, the future of their business, lost him in a moment of – what? No, Ma, not carelessness. Something worse, something lurking at the back of her mind . . .

‘Beatrice,’ she gasped. ‘Beatrice.’ Sarah’s hand grew rigid beneath hers. ‘Oh Sarah, tell me I imagined it.’

‘I cannot. The poor creature. The dress . . . Mrs Bainbridge, what happened? You were not out of my sight for ten minutes.’

‘It was delivered. Mr Underwood . . . He said he found it on the front step.’

‘Yes, he told me. But how then were you at the top of the stairs?’

A cold finger lay across her heart. ‘Oh God. Did you see it? Is it still there? What did you do with it?’

‘Hush, hush.’ Sarah tried to hold her hands steady, but she was trembling too. ‘Do you mean Hetta?’

‘No. Rupert.’

Sarah dropped her hands with a cry. ‘Rupert?

‘There was one of him.’ She closed her eyes, trying to push away the memory, but it was no use. ‘A companion of Rupert, Sarah. He looked . . . Oh God, he looked wretched.’

‘No! No, you must be mistaken, Mrs Bainbridge. That is not in the house. No one has seen it.’

‘It was right on the top step.’

‘Good God.’ Sarah’s lips trembled, wilting rose petals ready to drop. ‘I never meant – I’m so sorry, Mrs Bainbridge. You know, don’t you, that I would never put Hetta in the Great Hall? She was in the garret, I promise. She was locked up in the garret, I do not understand how . . .’ She fell silent. Muscles twitched in her face, as if she were fighting with an emotion. ‘The truth is, it happened in the diary. Anne’s diary. A horse was mutilated, right after she bought the companions. And I’m starting to think that maybe . . . maybe Anne was a witch, after all. She writes about these potions she used to conceive Hetta . . . Perhaps that’s what Hetta is trying to do: warn us of her mother’s power.’

Elsie closed her eyes. Every inch of her throbbed. She was beginning to wish she had never woken up. Sleep was simple, safe. ‘Sarah, have you mentioned any of this to Jolyon? Or to Mr Underwood?’

‘Yes.’ Suddenly her tone hardened. ‘I told your brother, and I begged Mr Underwood to perform an exorcism. They would not believe me. They had a talk, and then they made me see the physician.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Oh, he gave me some beastly medicine. He was more concerned with this.’ Sarah held up her hand, still bandaged. ‘The skin has gone white and soft around the cut. He thinks it is infected.’

An infection making Sarah see things. The medical men always had some explanation, but this one was insufficient. Elsie did not

have an infection – nor did the maids. How could he rationalise what they saw?

‘The worst of it is,’ Sarah cried, ‘they want to separate us! Mr Livingstone is taking you back to London at the end of the month.’

‘London?’ Elsie’s eyes snapped open. Right now, London sounded as far away as Heaven.

‘To convalesce. He says a change of scene will be beneficial.’ ‘But what about you?’

Sarah was struggling to hold in tears. ‘The gentlemen say I am nervous. They think the trip would be too much of a stimulant for me and I had better rest here. Without you.’

Elsie scoffed. ‘Rest? In this house?’

‘I used to love this house, I thought it was where I belonged. Until

. . .’ Sarah met her eyes, beseeching. ‘I don’t know what to do, Mrs Bainbridge. You will be in London while I am here, alone, with . . . Whatever it is. Whatever they are. Tell me what to do.’

‘Burn it. Burn Hetta.’

Sarah hesitated. ‘As you burnt the others?’ ‘Yes.’

‘You did burn them, after I took Hetta inside?’ ‘Of course.’

Sarah’s hands were in her hair, distractedly tugging it out of its pins. ‘You are sure that you burnt them?’

‘Of course I am sure! Peters and the maids watched me.’ ‘Good God.’

‘What? Sarah? What is it?’

‘They are back, Mrs Bainbridge.’ Her voice broke. ‘The companions are all back in the house.’

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