Chapter no 24

The Silent Companions

Elsie sat rock solid on the squabs, staring straight ahead as the carriage rumbled towards Fayford. Outside, the weather was mild. Pale, soft light showed buds in the hedgerows and blossom on every tree. But this year spring was a spiteful mockery.

Her cheeks felt hard, like set wax. A thrush trilled in the woods and it seemed the most painful, jarring noise she had ever heard.

How could this have happened?

An accident, Mrs Holt said. Mabel was washing greens for the servants’ dinner and didn’t take the time to dry her hands before preparing the meat. The cleaver must have slipped.

Slipped. A convenient word: out of control; hard to hold, even in the mouth. Too fast. You could not prove a slip. Elsie knew that well.

But if Mabel’s hand had slipped, why didn’t she run for help? Why did nobody hear her scream? How could it be that no one knew about the accident until Helen found her in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, a vertical slash running from her wrist to her elbow?

Only one answer offered: she did not want help. She had intended


‘This is my fault.’ Jolyon had sucked on a cigar and exhaled

forcefully through his nose as he paced up and down the office. ‘I was angry. I accused her of those dreadful things. Easter is approaching, she must have been so afraid of returning to the workhouse that she . . .’

‘I do not know that you were wrong, to accuse her as you did.’

‘How can you talk so?’

‘Think, Jolyon. This suicide – if suicide it was – confirms, rather than disproves, your suspicions. So often, this type of thing is an act of remorse. If she played a trick on me and it killed my baby . . . Well, who could live with that?’

He took another sharp puff. ‘Either way,’ he said into the smoke,

‘my words have pushed a girl towards self-murder. There is blood on my hands.’ And he had stared at his fingers, shaking on the shaft of his cigar. ‘You must go down at once, Elsie. I have business to finish here, but I will follow you as soon as I can.’

Whatever the truth, they would maintain Mrs Holt’s conclusion: an accident. The least they could do was ensure Mabel was buried in hallowed ground.

To think of all that life and bold-faced cheek, gone. Death lent the girl a dignity she had never possessed in life. They would stand around her coffin silent, respectful, expecting her to wake up any moment and ask them what they were moping about.

A cold hand twisted her gut as they approached the village. The spring sunlight did nothing to improve the cottages. Weeds sprouted from the mouldering thatch on the roofs. She shifted on the seat, feeling something unwind deep within her. She was wiggling back into all her old fears, donning the superstitions like an old cloak.

She put up her veil and looked out at the chestnut trees brooding over the church. White blossom wilted between the new leaves on the branches. Was that Sarah, by the south entrance? She peered through the window but the figures behind the stone wall were so small and blurred that she could not make them out. Of course it was possible that Sarah would be at church, making arrangements. What would she say about the death? What would Mr Underwood say? It was such a terrible mess.

Her carriage trundled over the bridge. Water gurgled beneath, seeming to laugh at her misfortune. There was something wrong about The Bridge. In London, she had learnt to scoff at her fear as nonsense, but now she was back she could feel it, creeping, slithering. Something dark and insidious, all the way down to the roots of the plants that grew in the garden. It was not just the past, those strange events Sarah spoke of from Anne Bainbridge’s diary. The very fabric of the building was bad. Elsie could face the match

factory where she had suffered as a child, but this . . . this place made her nervous.

When Mabel was buried, she would take Sarah back to London with her and shut up the house for good.

As the carriage turned and wound down the drive, the sun flared over the hills, burnishing the grass. From this distance everything was made up of shadow and light; the shrubbery glowed, the bricks fell dark, the windows blazed.

It was not until Peters drew the carriage round before the fountain that the flames died in the windows and Elsie saw the sight that struck her heart cold.

It could not be.

She threw the carriage door open and stumbled, blinking, onto the gravel.

‘Ma’am?’ Peters sounded anxious. ‘Wait there, I’ll come and help you.’

‘No,’ Elsie moaned. ‘No, you’re dead.’ Watching, as she always did, just watching.

‘Ma’am?’ A crunch as Peters jumped down from the box. Ma couldn’t have, she didn’t enjoy watching?

‘Are you unwell?’

Elsie paid him no heed. She had never noticed before, but she saw it now – that flicker of morbid excitement in the pupils. It was the look of someone before the scaffold, come to watch a hanging. Bloodthirsty.

‘Oh, no, Ma.’ The thought was worse than anything else, worse than the act itself.

Peters was shaking her arm now, his voice tight. ‘Mrs Bainbridge?

Mrs Bainbridge? What’s wrong, what are you staring at?’ ‘The companion. Look!’

‘Companion? No, ma’am. I chopped them up, remember?’

‘Not that one.’ She extended her hand. There was a kind of satisfaction in pointing her out, like a victim accusing her attacker in court. ‘It’s my mother.’


‘In the window! Look, man!’

But Peters stepped back, shaking his head. ‘There’s . . . there’s nothing in the window, ma’am.’

It couldn’t be true. She clutched her forehead with both hands. ‘Look again.’

‘I’m looking. The window’s empty.’ Peters was moving slowly, holding out his hands, the way he might try to placate a dangerous dog. ‘Let me fetch Mrs Holt, ma’am. Sit you down, get you a nice cup of tea.’

‘No. No! She’s in there, I’ll show you.’ ‘Please, ma’am!’

She was beyond reason, beyond even fear. She ran up the steps to the front door and streaked into the empty Great Hall. Sawdust scented the air. A fire popped and crackled in the grate.

‘Ma! Ma!’ She marched on through the drawing room, calling out for her mother. A thousand echoes rang in that cry: childhood pleas from years ago. Now, as then, only silence responded.

The music room. ‘Ma!’ Her voice bounced back from the high, moulded ceiling. She shouldn’t be surprised. Ma never came to help, not even when Elsie was bleeding and desperate and screaming her name. ‘Please, Ma, just this once!’

Tears burnt in her eyes as she stumbled into the card room. She never should have done it. She never would have had to do it, if Ma had only—

A voice erupted from deep within her, rumbling up, pouring out of her mouth in a raw scream. She fell to her knees.

‘Mrs Bainbridge!’ Peters’s boots on the carpet beside her. ‘Mrs Bainbridge, what’s – oh, good God!’

He staggered against the wall, holding it for support, as he saw what she saw.

The stag’s head no longer hung against the wall. It had fallen, antlers first. But it did not fall unimpeded.

Helen lay there beneath it. Impaled, skewered, penetrated.

Blood welled from a dip where her eye had been. The muscles around it still twitched, as if they could blink out the horn lance sticking through the eyeball, pinning Helen to the carpet.

Fluid ran from her lips. They were moving – trying to move – but she was drowning. A hideous gurgle left her at the same time Peters threw up.

Elsie swayed. Images were blurring, vanishing. Or rather, she was vanishing – withdrawing from the carnage before her to hide

somewhere, deep inside.

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