Chapter no 26

The Silent Companions

The room was tender with Elsie at first. Objects retreated to a considerate distance, hazy around the edges, withholding their full weight. Panic hovered in a place she could sense but not quite feel.

Light played upon the ceiling in ripples. She fluttered her eyelashes.

‘Elsie.’ Pressure upon her hand. ‘Mrs Holt, make a hot posset!

Quickly! She’s awake!’

Clanging downstairs. It was all too sharp, penetrating the soft fuzz.

‘Elsie, dear Elsie. Thank goodness.’ Gradually, Sarah’s strong features became defined.

‘I am not . . .’ Her mouth tasted metallic. She tried again. ‘Why am I . . .’ No memory would stay still long enough for her to catch hold of it. She saw a deer, then a match . . . They darted away again.

‘Do not try to speak. The doctor says we must keep you quiet. I have telegrammed for Mr Livingstone, he will come at once.’

She looked around. It was all there: the heavy bedposts carved with grapes and flowers; the washstand; the triple mirror on the dressing table. Features of The Bridge returning like a long-forgotten dream. She could not process them.

Jolyon was coming. Jolyon, her constant, her ballast. She must hold on to that. But why was he not here with her now? He was upset, wasn’t he? Mourning over something. Ma. No, Mabel. Mabel. Helen. She jolted upright, drenched in cold sweat. ‘Helen! She was –she—’

Sarah’s hand pressed on her shoulder, laying her back against the pillows. ‘Hush, hush. I know.’ She swallowed. ‘We were at the church, Mrs Holt and I, talking to Mr Underwood about Mabel’s funeral. But now it seems . . . Now we will have to hold two.’

Elsie shut her eyes. It was with her still: Helen’s strawberry face staring up from the carpet in all its mangled horror. ‘How? How could this happen?’

Sarah took a trembling breath. ‘We had the constable come down from Torbury St Jude. Then some inspectors. Peters gave a statement. From all they can conjecture, it was some kind of terrible accident. Helen must have been cleaning the stag, they said, when . .


Lights flashed behind her eyelids. ‘But you don’t believe that, Sarah. I can hear it in your voice. You don’t believe a word of it.’

She felt Sarah edge closer. ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘Tell me.’

Sarah burst into tears.

Elsie’s eyes snapped open. Sarah’s face was scrunched into a wet, red mess. She struggled to breathe through her heaving sobs. ‘Sarah? What is it?’

‘This is my fault. It is all my f-fault.’ ‘How can you possibly think that?’

Sarah’s jaw quivered. ‘I – Oh, how can I tell you? It was me, Mrs Bainbridge. I t-took your d-diamonds!’

Vomit rose to the back of her throat. Mabel did not steal the diamonds: she was innocent. Innocent and pushed to a desperate act through Elsie’s mistake.

‘I just wanted something f-from my f-family. Then Mabel got into trouble and I – I didn’t know what to do. I never thought . . .’

Blood, running hot over her hands.

‘I was going to tell you at Easter,’ Sarah gabbled on. ‘I was going to tell everyone the truth, I swear it. But then Helen decided that the companions must have stolen the necklace! She . . .’ Sarah screwed up her mouth, pained. ‘She wanted to burn them again. She took Hetta from me and threw her onto the kitchen fire!’

Weak and sick, Elsie pressed her hands to her temples. ‘I don’t understand. Why did she suspect the companions?’

‘That’s what Mrs Holt didn’t tell you. There was a companion, Elsie, in the kitchen with Mabel. One I have never seen before, some kind of cook.’

Pinpricks ran up Elsie’s arms. ‘I saw a companion of my own mother, Sarah, standing in the window. Right where the handprint was.’

‘You see? They are multiplying. I think fire only makes them more powerful. And there never would have been a fire, were it not for my stupid, stupid—’

‘You could have asked me for the diamonds,’ Elsie cut in. ‘I would not have refused you.’

Sarah hung her head. ‘I am so ashamed. It is almost as if . . . I could not help myself. But it is not only me. Hetta was obsessed with them too, obsessed with the companions and the diamond necklace. I’ve been looking at the records Mr Underwood brought, finding out all I can about Anne. Usually there is scant material to go on for a woman in the sixteen-hundreds, but I found records on Anne because . . . because of the way she died.’

Elsie could not bring herself to ask.

‘She was burnt,’ Sarah whispered. ‘Burnt at the stake for a witch.’ ‘A witch? She is the witch the villagers still fear?’

‘Yes. And with good reason. The records say she killed people, Elsie. But in the diary, she is not wicked. She thought she was using white magic, the old herbal remedies of the wise-women. But she must have made a mistake. Her poor daughter was born without a proper tongue and something else, something evil . . .’

Elsie didn’t want to believe it. At the factory, she had talked herself out of believing it. But here, back in this house where Rupert had died, where his siblings had died, she could feel it. The old, old fear. No amount of reason or logic could erase that feeling. She had known evil from a child – recognised its velvet voice.

A knock fell on the door. They both jumped. ‘Hot posset.’ Mrs Holt.

‘Come in,’ Elsie croaked.

The steam entered first, laced with warm nutmeg and treacle. Mrs Holt appeared carrying a tray and a cup spilling over with clouds of heat. New lines dragged around her mouth and made it look hinged.

The whites of her eyes, always jaundiced, were now shot with ribbons of red.

Elsie took the cup. Milky, sweet scents teased at her nostrils. Her stomach begged for sustenance, but she couldn’t bring herself to drink. She didn’t want to swallow anything from this house. She didn’t want it inside her.

‘Miss Sarah, I think you had better leave the mistress be for now.

Remember, she needs her rest. The doctor said so.’ ‘But—’ Sarah started.

‘I really must insist. Pardon me, miss, but Mr Livingstone will never forgive me if he arrives and finds I haven’t followed the doctor’s orders.’

Sarah stroked Elsie’s hair. Leaning in close to her ear, she whispered, ‘I will be back later. We should sleep in the same room from now on. I don’t feel safe alone.’

Elsie nodded. She did not ask what Sarah meant by alone. No one was truly alone. Not ever, not in this house.

Sarah swept up her skirts and left the room. Elsie heard her footsteps, treading the familiar boards to the library. Mrs Holt remained.

The housekeeper’s gaze possessed a hardness Elsie had not detected before. ‘Will there be anything else, madam?’ The madam was a forced, horrible sound.

‘Oh, Mrs Holt. I am so sorry. I cannot imagine what you are feeling. First Mabel and then Helen.’

‘I loved those girls like my own daughters. There was no harm in them. And now they are stiff and stretched in the cold larder, and I will have to bury them. Both of them!’ Mrs Holt broke down. Elsie averted her eyes and let her cry it out. The noise alone was terrible.

‘I was wrong to blame them,’ Elsie ventured at last. ‘They did not trick me or kill my cow. I know that now. There is something else at work, something in this house.’

A spasm crossed Mrs Holt’s face. ‘I have kept this house for nigh on forty years. We never had any hauntings or deaths before you came along.’

‘Before Rupert came along,’ Elsie corrected her softly.

‘They’d still be alive if it wasn’t for you. If you hadn’t come storming in, clomping about, throwing open doors that were meant

to stay shut.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Mrs Holt snatched her eyes away.

‘“Doors that were meant to stay shut?” I don’t understand you.

Are you talking about the garret?’

The elder woman’s ribcage rose and fell, jangling her cameo brooch. ‘I was meant to keep it secret. The old Mr Bainbridge ordered me, right from the day I arrived here, to keep the garret locked and never discuss it.’

‘But why?’

‘I don’t know. He said there were things in there, things that troubled his wife. Books.’

‘A diary?’

As she said that, she remembered that there were two diaries. Two volumes. Sarah did not mention if she had ever retrieved the second one. Perhaps it was still there.

‘Maybe. I don’t recall what books they were. I never had reason to recall until you turned up.’

Elsie’s grip tightened on the cup. ‘What – what happened to Rupert’s mother? How did she die?’

‘Blessed if I know.’

‘You must have an idea. What were her symptoms?’

‘I tell you, I don’t know! For all anyone told me, she could be drawing breath yet.’

Elsie lay stunned. ‘You were there,’ she said, incredulous. ‘You said. You talked of when you lost the mistress.’

Mrs Holt closed her eyes, seemed to wrestle with her memories. ‘No. No, she didn’t die. She was . . .’


‘We lost Mrs Bainbridge, but it wasn’t to death. It was her mind.

Her own mind got her in the end.’

Elsie’s hands started to shake. The cup clattered against the saucer. ‘Are you saying that her husband put her in an asylum?’

Mrs Holt gave her a long look. ‘We never told Master Rupert. Just said that she’d died, and it was true, in a sense. That lunatic wasn’t Mrs Bainbridge, not any more. I’ve seen hysteria, madam. I’ve seen a woman driven mad with her novel reading and her brain fevers. I’ve seen that look in your eye before.’

‘But am not mad!’ Mrs Holt did not reply. ‘You know I am not. You were there, Mrs Holt. You saw the companions. You saw them burnt to ash and reappear from nowhere.’

Mrs Holt shook her head. ‘Maybe it’s losing a child that does it to your poor mind . . . God help me. I didn’t listen to the ravings of the last Mrs Bainbridge and I’ll be damned if I’ll listen to yours.’

Turning on her heel, she strode from the room and closed the door. Elsie heard her sharp steps echo through the corridor and down, down, descending the spiral staircase behind the wall.



The night hung heavy and interminable. Sarah lay beside her in the bed, her mousy hair spread out on the pillow. Her chest rose and fell beneath her ruffled nightgown. How could she sleep?

One window stood ajar, letting a gasp of air into the stuffy room, but it was not refreshing; it smelt warm and herbal. Outside, a barn owl screeched to its mate.

Rupert’s mother waltzed in circles around Elsie’s head. She had slept in this house, walked in the gardens. A lunatic? Or a fellow victim? She remembered that tattered, plundered crib in the nursery and shuddered.

Sarah shifted in the bed. Her body made the sheets too hot, but Elsie did not move. She kept her eyes open, waiting. Knowing it would come.


Hissss. It was so soft, it might have been a breeze passing through the room. But there was no breeze tonight.

Hiss. She couldn’t stand it any longer. She had to find out. She had to get the second volume of that godforsaken diary and discover what Rupert’s mother had known.

Carefully, she slid her feet out from under the covers and placed them on the carpet. The bed rustled, but Sarah did not stir. Elsie reached beneath the pillow for the matches she kept there every night, like a talisman.

There was a snuffed-out candle in the holder on the dressing table. She picked it up as she passed. It made more sense to light the wick when she was outside in the corridor – then she could leave Sarah asleep, safe from the danger she was walking into.

Hiss, hiss.

She moved one leg after the other, forcing herself on, her hand out before her, feeling the way. Expecting, at any second, the sickening touch of wood.

Her palm collided with something. She flinched – it was the bedroom door handle, just the door handle. She leant against it and listened, stretching her senses to locate the next hiss, but nothing came.

She struggled to open the door, her nails clicking against the handle as she gripped it. She pushed down and eased the door open a fraction.

A wall of heat met her. It was like opening the door of a kitchen range. The scents of rose and thyme entwined about her, insinuating themselves into the fabric of her nightgown. Light the candle, light the candle. Neither light nor fire would protect her but she needed them, needed them like air.

The match flared in her trembling hand, sending shadows snaking out into the corridor. She would not look up, not until the candle was lit. It took every ounce of concentration to connect the flame with the wick. At last it caught; she shook out the match and let it drop steaming to the floor.

Quickly, quickly. She had to move but her hand refused to raise the candle, refused to do anything but grip the metal holder until her knuckle turned white. Close to tears, she finally managed to thrust the candle out ahead of her. The breath sealed in her chest.

The maroon corridor stretched before her, cross-hatched with shadows. Silver pools of moonlight dotted the path to the stairs. Three companions stood waiting, their eyes gleaming with a revolting hunger.

She would not scream, she would not scream. They were only pieces of wood.

Pieces of wood that can move.

She would have to move quicker – that was all. She could make it, she could do it. It was like jumping, like lighting a match. One. Two. Three.

Her tread was steady, far steadier than her careering heartbeat. Each time her foot hit the floor, the candle jogged and bumped in its holder. Light surged and retracted but the flame didn’t go out.

Sawdust bloomed from the carpet as she approached the first companion. Through the candlelit haze she made out the figure of a woman. A woman without arms.

Her throat squeezed as she drew level. The woman had long, matted hair and eyes alight with a ghastly vivacity. Familiar, somehow. She had seen those eyes before, knew them well . . .


Rupert’s mother, the other Mrs Bainbridge. A strait waistcoat concealed her arms. She was helpless, begging Elsie with an expression so lifelike that it cut her to the heart. Beneath the clumsy rhythm of Elsie’s pulse came a wail, thin and pathetic. She could hear her. Elsie could hear Rupert’s mother, crying.

Her skin pricked, tensed for the shock of contact – it did not come. Somehow, her feet kept walking; she passed by, unscathed, and moved towards the next companion.

This must be the cook that Sarah spoke of: she gripped a meat cleaver in her doughy hands. Blood streaked her apron and the coif that covered her hair. Red paint, just paint. Yet it carried the rancid smell of the real thing. Combined with the scent of roses and thyme it was a nauseous mixture, unbearable.

Again Elsie overtook the companion, this stab of fear deeper than the last. Terror knocked her vision aslant. She barely saw the last companion, the old woman with the child on her lap. Guided by memory, she turned past the Lantern Gallery and made her way to the stairs leading to the garret.

The staircase was empty. Relieved, drunk with a sense of her own bravery, she broke into a run and took the steps two at a time. Shadows wheeled around her, scuttling back to the corners. She had beaten them. She would get that diary.

As she rounded the newel post and gained the landing, a sound stopped her in her tracks. Her eyes shot back down the staircase. They were all there – every companion she had walked past –staggered like children in a game of grandmother’s footsteps; one on the treads, the other two at intervals down the corridor.

They had followed her. Hiss.

Her gaze flew up: more companions had appeared, drawn to her like flies to a corpse. They were guarding the whitewashed passage

that led to the garret. Hiss. Back again – the companion on the stairs had moved, ever so slightly.

Inch by inch, step by step, they were coming for her. ‘God help me, please help me.’

She could not watch them all at once.

With a cry of agony, she wrenched herself away from the banisters and charged down the corridor. The candle blew out but she did not stop, could not stop; she kept going, pushing her way on. They didn’t want her near the diary, and that was exactly why she must read it. She would read it if it was the last thing she ever did.

She shoved past the companions, hitting them with her shoulders, sending them rattling against the Dutch tiles. Nearly there, nearly there. She stubbed her toe and almost cried out for joy. It was a step – the first of the steps up to the garret.

She scrabbled for another match. The pack fell skittering to the floor but she managed to grab one stick, tight in her fist. She struck it on the wall and relit the candle.

The door to the garret was open.

Hiss. The sound made her nauseous. She could not stop – they were coming up close behind her. She stormed up the steps, whipped round and slammed the garret door shut. Just in time. Through the closing gap, she caught sight of a sinister painted smile and wide, vulpine eyes.

Her lungs seared in her chest. It was a labour to breathe with the dust and that dank, below-ground smell tainting the atmosphere. She felt close to fainting, and there was still the long run back to the bedroom. If she could get there. What if they barred her way out? What if they came through the door?

She spun around frantically, looking for the diary. Dust flew up like feathers in a hen-coop. As it cleared, she saw two glowing emerald eyes.


She had never been so pleased to see a creature in all her life. She ran to the table where he lay and put her candle down. Greedily, her fingers burrowed into his fur. The warmth of his skin, the beat of blood behind his ear, was comforting beyond measure. Something else alive – naturally alive. He could not help her, but she would rather face the companions with him than brave them alone.

Mewing, Jasper stood and bowed in a long, luxurious stretch. His claws extended and retracted again. As they went in, they took a nick out of the surface below him. Leather. Worn and faded, but the scent was unmistakable. Jasper leapt elegantly to the floor and revealed what he had been sleeping on: ‘The Diary of Anne Bainbridge’. Elsie seized it and pressed it to her chest. It was still warm.

She should read it here – here, now, while she had the chance. Her fingers flicked through the pages but it was no good. She could not focus, could not read. It was all a jumble to her.

Just then, she felt it on her shoulder: sharp as the lick of a knife. Screaming, she whirled round. In the instant before the candle went out, she saw a wooden mouth grinning at her.

‘No! Jasper!’

His mew sounded at the other side of the room; his claws tapped as he swatted the door open and slunk away. He could see in the dark. She just had to follow him.

Lurching forwards, she gripped the diary in her hand and fumbled back the way she had come, towards the door and the staircase beyond. Or at least, she thought it was the way she had come. She could not see an inch before her nose. Companions must be massing round the door – she sensed them in the air: the force pressing down; malevolent, full of hate.

Her hand knocked against a table – papers slid to the floor. She couldn’t see, she couldn’t breathe . . .

All at once, the floor tilted beneath her. She grabbed at the air and felt a scream boiling out from her lips. Then she fell.

A corner of the diary jolted into her ribcage as she came to an abrupt stop. Her legs burnt, her chest squeezed. What had happened? Groaning, she kicked her feet out. She could move them. They were free, but she was stuck fast.

Understanding slammed into her: the floorboards had opened again. She was caught in the hole Mabel had fallen down.

Hiss, hiss.

Trapped, cornered. And all the while, the companions were coming closer.

She kicked wildly. She had to pull herself up, but one hand was clamped hard to her chest, nursing the diary, while the other waved uselessly in the dark, unable to catch hold of anything solid.

Hiss, hiss. She heard rather than saw them move: the slow, painful scrape of the wooden base against the floor. Pinpricks ran down her neck. Something hard pressed against the back of her head.

‘No, no, no!’

With a final desperate convulsion, she flailed her legs.

There was a long, low creak. Then suddenly she was falling, falling, until her spine smacked into the floor.

She lay paralysed by shock and pain.

At last, with great difficulty, she turned her head and saw the rocking horse sway at her side. The floor had given way. She was in the nursery.

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