Chapter no 30

The Silent Companions

Morning came and the clock in the Great Hall chimed ten before Sarah returned. Sunlight streamed through the open curtains and stretched her shadow, bending it up the wall. In her lavender gown, her frame appeared shrunken. She did not smile as she came into the room, trailing bandages as if she were a mummy burst from the tomb, and holding a bowl of water.

‘Sarah, thank goodness. I thought I should never see you.’

‘I’ve come to change your bandages,’ Sarah answered, loudly. ‘It must be done to avoid infection.’ She kicked the door shut and dropped her voice to a whisper. ‘There, that will buy us a bit of time.’

Elsie watched her lay the linen strips and the bowl on the dressing table. ‘What is it, Sarah?’

Sarah glanced at the door. ‘In a moment. Come, give me your hand.’ She sat beside the bed and took Elsie’s hand into her lap.

Elsie winced as Sarah peeled a piece of fabric, dried on with blood, away from her palm. ‘I read the diary,’ she whispered.

‘And? Tell me!’

She paused, knowing she would never be able to convey the despair and chilling guilt in those last pages. The voice she needed belonged to Anne, belonged to another time. ‘You were right. About Anne. She never intended to cause harm. It was all one terrible string of events she could not control.’ Her breath snagged, but she did not need to conceal it – at the same moment the bandage fell away,

exposing her wounds to the air. Most had scabbed over, but one or two still wept.

Strange, that Elsie’s hands were healing faster than Sarah’s single cut. Even an infection should have settled down by now.

‘But what happened to poor Hetta?’ ‘Anne . . . Anne killed Hetta.’

‘She killed her own child!’

‘She had to!’ A defensive flare that had nothing to do with Anne. ‘The evil you spoke of. Something about a potion and a spell? It was in Hetta. Bound up in her. Anne had to kill her and save what remained of her family. She had to save her boys.’

Sarah frowned, thoughtful. She wet a cloth in the bowl of water and passed it gently over Elsie’s palm. The wounds sighed with relief. ‘Then it is not Hetta’s ghost, haunting us?’

‘Not that exactly. It is more than that. I think . . . The companions were there when Hetta died. Anne wrote that her blood flowed to the feet of them. They absorbed it, do you see? The evil moved into them.’

‘But what does it want?’

‘I have no idea.’ Did evil have wants and needs? Surely not, surely that would make it too human. No longer a tug from the depths of the abyss, but something sentient that could surface in anyone. In her.

‘Perhaps the evil is seeking something.’ Sarah’s breath came hot against her skin. ‘Seeking . . . a more permanent host.’

A queasy silence fell as they considered the implications of that.

Splinters. On Rupert, on the baby. Something trying to get in.

Sarah unrolled a fresh bandage and pressed it to the centre of Elsie’s palm. ‘While it stays in the companions, it is trapped inside the house.’

‘Then we have to stop it, before it can escape.’

Sarah bound up Elsie’s wounds and tied a knot in the bandage. Then, at last, she exhaled. ‘We cannot stop it. We do not have time. All we can do is flee.’

‘Flee?’ Elsie cried. ‘We can’t just run! What if it hurts other people?’

‘Perhaps it will hurt other people, Elsie! But I am not concerned for other people. I am only concerned for you.’ Elsie wanted to

withdraw her hand. There was something in Sarah’s eyes that demanded too much. ‘Listen to me, please. I have been alone all my life. You could not call Mrs Crabbly family, not with her scolding and her horrid cross ways. And Rupert . . . Well, there was a time when I thought Rupert might marry me. I thought he might sweep in and save me from the life of a lady’s companion. But you know what happened there.’

Elsie did not know what to say.

‘Then I met you. And you were kind to me. I started to think perhaps . . . you might let me be your friend, after all. That I could be of use to you.’

‘You have been, Sarah. You are the only person in the world who believes me, who understands. You have been the best of friends.’

‘I have never had a friend before.’ Her grip on Elsie’s injured hand was painfully tight. ‘And I’ll be damned if I let them take you away from me.’

‘The companions?’

‘Not the companions! The doctors!’

Her body stiffened beneath the sheets. ‘Why would . . . why would doctors take me away?’

‘I’m sorry, Elsie. I didn’t want to tell you, but Mr Livingstone has made up his mind. He said it himself, at dinner last night. He’s written to an asylum.’

Panic stretched its arms deep into her chest. It must be a mistake. Of course, it must be – Jolyon would never have her committed! But Sarah’s depthless brown eyes told another story.

‘What, exactly, did he tell you?’

‘That you were very ill.’ Gently, she folded Elsie’s hand back onto the bed. ‘He said he had suspected it for some time. Then he asked me to pack up all of your things because some men were coming, some medical men, to examine you. That they would take you with them and you would probably be gone for a good while.’

Falling – that was what it felt like. Plummeting off the side of a cliff with nothing but rocks below. Jolyon, betray her? The boy she had bled for, surrendered her youth to raise. No, he would never . . . Unless. Unless he had not been asleep after all.

‘You are sure of this, Sarah? You are absolutely sure?’

Sarah nodded. Strands of hair drooped, listless, fallen free of their pins. ‘I went to the library. I saw the letters he has written.’

‘But you know I am not mad!’

‘Of course I do. And that’s why I’ve decided.’ She threw her chin up, defiant. ‘I am going to get you out of here. Tonight.’

Elsie had a terrible urge to laugh. That shocked, hysterical laughter that only came when all hope was gone. ‘How do you propose to do that? Think of my leg.’

‘I’ve found a walking stick. You can use it to lean upon.’ ‘It will make a noise. They’ll hear it on the stairs.’

Roses bloomed in Sarah’s cheeks. ‘There is something . . . something I can do at supper. I used to do it for Mrs Crabbly, when she was griping.’ Elsie stared at her. ‘A little drop into the drinks, to make them sleep heavily.’

Elsie had the feeling she had misjudged Sarah all along. ‘Did you really? Did you really drug Mrs Crabbly just to get some peace?’

A roguish grin spread over Sarah’s face. ‘We have all done things we are a little ashamed of, Mrs Bainbridge.’



Night fell swiftly. All afternoon rain pattered against the windows. Each time Elsie awoke from a doze, the clouds had grown a little darker. She closed her eyes to a gunpowder sky, and opened them to find it had deepened to tar black. It was time.

Elsie staggered out of bed before she had the chance to fall back asleep. With great difficulty, she tied on the cloak Sarah had left out for her and put a fresh box of matches in the pocket. A laudanum haze filled her vision. Every muscle protested at her folly. How would she even make it down the stairs?

The stick was too fragile, trembling under her weight as she limped to the door. If the companions came, she would not be able to run.

But what choice did she have?

Two soft thuds on the door. Elsie’s head jerked up. ‘Come in,’ she whispered.

The door opened silently and Sarah slid in, bringing with her an aura of golden light. She carried an oil lantern in each hand.

‘Here.’ Shadows cavorted across her face as she handed a lantern to Elsie. Her pupils reflected the light.

‘Are they both asleep?’

‘There was a small problem,’ Sarah said. ‘Mr Livingstone went to the library. I’m afraid he’s drifted off in there. He will have a stiff neck when he wakes.’

Worry bunched in her chest. Now it came down to it, she was weak. She did not want to leave him behind. ‘Sarah . . . Perhaps we should wait. We need to plan it out. Where will we go, what will we do?’

Sarah stared at her. ‘There is no time. We have enough money between us to get on a train.’

‘But . . . I can’t just abandon Jolyon. What if the companions go after him? What if they use him as their host?’

‘Will you be able to stop them, if you are here?’ ‘No . . . But—’

‘Will you be able to protect him from inside an asylum?’

Elsie closed her eyes. There was no way to win. Whatever choice she made, she lost Jolyon. And what was her life, then?

‘I can’t . . .’

‘You are not betraying him, Elsie. It is he who has given up on you.’

Reluctantly, she nodded. Better to take her chances with Sarah than spend a lifetime trapped behind high walls. She would not let someone force her, not ever again.

Sarah led the way. Elsie limped after her. Everything was in gloom.

Not even the gas lights burnt.

All she could hear were Sarah’s footsteps and the steady tap, tap of her stick. The lantern in her hand bounced to her uneven gait, illuminating flashes of maroon carpet.

Suddenly, Sarah froze. Elsie could not stop in time. There was a thud and the sound of glass breaking, oil spilling. Shadows flooded in as the corridor grew a shade darker. Sarah had dropped her lantern.

‘Quick.’ She jerked round and snatched the remaining light from Elsie. The moment she held it aloft, they gasped.

Seven companions skulked beside the stairs.

It was too dark to make out their faces. Only silhouettes loomed, large against the wall as the lantern trembled in Sarah’s hand. Elsie cast a glance over her shoulder, remembering how they had come before, from both sides, like a pack of wolves. She could see nothing solid, only a trickle of yellow running down from the ceiling at the end of the corridor.

‘Sarah, what—’ Before she finished, she heard Jolyon’s snore. Confused images slotted together and then she realised: the yellow stripe was a lamp burning in the library. The library door was open. She clutched at Sarah’s gown. ‘He’s in there all alone. I can’t leave him, not with them out here.’

Sarah’s eyes were fixed on the companions. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Jolyon!’

‘But you being in the house won’t stop them!’

Her bad leg started to shake. ‘He’s left the door open.’ ‘What difference does it make?’

She was right. There was logic, but then there was also the heart: the heart of a woman who had raised a boy alone from when he was five years of age. Elsie couldn’t leave him. At the very least, she had to shut the door.

‘Keep watching them,’ she cried, and pivoted on her stick.

Thinking only of Jolyon, she plunged back into the corridor.

Her stick tapped in time to her frantic pulse. She heard Sarah’s shout of alarm, but already it sounded far away. She was drowning in darkness. Her eyes flew about, seeking relief from unrelenting black. JolyonJust concentrate on Jolyon. Despite the pain scalding her ribs, despite the numb weakness of her left leg, she pressed on towards the crack of light.

She thought she would drop. Pain, fear and laudanum engulfed her. Only the unnatural chill rolling out of the library and the dank, mouldy smell cut through the haze. She stumbled gasping across the threshold. Jolyon sat slumped at the desk in the alcove, his head resting on the polished surface.

Hobbling closer, she saw the movement of his eyes beneath their lids and the slow thump of a pulse in his neck. Alive. He was just sleeping. His breath fluttered the paper beneath his cheek.

It was only by chance that she noticed the letterhead. She was on the point of turning away, but her eye caught at the script, printed

like a scream.

St Joseph’s Hospital for the Insane

For a moment everything fell still. Then her heart kicked back in, drumming blood into her head with painful beats. She stumbled from the room.

That one word ricocheted around her skull: insane.

She could not doubt Sarah any longer. Jolyon really did think she was mad. He had given her up. The pain of that was worse than the cracked ribs. Slamming the door shut, she turned and fought her way through the darkness, back along the corridor.

‘Please, Elsie!’ Sarah’s strangled voice led her forward. ‘Are you there? I can’t stare at these things any longer.’

‘Have they moved?’

‘Only their eyes. They were watching you.’ Elsie shivered.

If only she could see clearly. She could not relight the broken lantern, for the oil had soaked into the carpet. Dare she fire up a wall lamp? Surely the light of just one would not wake Jolyon?

With her free hand, she pulled on the lever.

‘Here, Sarah, take my matches. I’ll hold the lantern while you light the gas.’

Sarah obeyed and the flame leapt into life. Light splashed on the red flock wallpaper, the marble busts. ‘Oh my. They look a little closer.’

‘We cannot stop watching them,’ Elsie told her. ‘I’ll go down the stairs first with the lantern, to watch out for any in the Great Hall. You walk backwards and keep an eye on these ones.’

Sarah’s fingers tightened around the matchbox. ‘Backwards? Why me?’

Elsie thumped her stick impatiently on the floor. ‘It will be hard enough for me going forwards.’

They stood, back to back. Thank heaven they were dressed simply, with no puffing crinolines. Elsie felt Sarah’s shoulders against hers, the damp sweat through her gown. ‘Ready?’

Sarah’s gasp of air. ‘Ready.’

She scooped her skirts into the hand that held the stick, the material giving grip to her slippery palm. ‘Come on, then.’

Her legs were shaking – not just the bad one. One step. Two. Slowly, slowly, Sarah’s heels bumping at hers. The lantern’s cloud of light careered around the stairwell, showing flashes of carpet and wallpaper. No companions.

‘Last one,’ Elsie whispered, and they stumbled onto a small landing. One flight down, another to go.

Hiss, hiss.

Sarah’s shoulders turned rigid. ‘I can’t see them any more. The gas lamp . . . it’s too far away.’

‘Light a match. It’s just a little farther.’

From above them came a slow scratch. Elsie pictured them, dragging their monstrous bases across the floorboards.

Exhaustion threatened to swamp her, but she couldn’t surrender to it. Thump, thump went her stick on the stairs, her leg nearly buckling. With each step Sarah bumped into her, sending pain spiralling through her chest. And all the while, shadows rolled up behind them.

Hiss, hiss.

Finally the lantern glinted on metal and flashed over the blue and gold Bainbridge coat of arms. The Great Hall was in sight. They were nearly there.

‘Elsie! Elsie, I feel something!’

They were on the last step. Elsie hurried to reach the safety of the floor, but she stumbled.

No, no. Her stick skidded, the lantern wavered. Fire shot up her bad leg. Sarah screamed. There it was: the floor, hard and level beneath her shoes. Elsie tottered and somehow managed to regain her balance.

They had made it into the Great Hall. ‘Dear me! Miss Sarah!’

Light, sneaking in from the far side of the Great Hall. Elsie’s heart leapt to her throat.

‘How could you?’

Gasping, squinting, she turned to face the voice. The green baize door to the servants’ side stood open. Mrs Holt outlined in fire, lit from behind. She fumbled, there was a pop, and then a lamp sprang to life.

‘Well, well.’ Mrs Holt’s footsteps sounded on the flags, clipped, judgemental. ‘Who would have thought? I might have expected it from you,’ she gave a sharp nod in Elsie’s direction. ‘But Miss Sarah! You ought to know better.’

Disorientated, Elsie let the lantern fall from her hand. Mrs Holt lit another lamp.

‘You!’ Sarah, shrill, behind her. ‘You’re meant to be . . . Why aren’t you asleep?’

‘God forgive you, girl, don’t you think I know poppy tea when I smell it? I knew you were up to something, but I never imagined you would try and take her out! Whatever possessed you?’

Where were the companions? The Great Hall materialised around her. Suits of armour, swords, the oriental rug. There were no companions. There was only Mrs Holt and the pant of the gas lamps. ‘You are trying to take her away from me!’ Sarah screeched. Her hand latched on Elsie’s arm. ‘I won’t let you. She is no lunatic! They were right here, did you not see them? Didn’t you hear them, you

foolish old woman?’

The fight was still in Sarah. Not Elsie. Feeling had ebbed away, leaving her an empty shell. There went disappointment. Fear laid pooled at her feet. The last dregs remaining were something like relief. At least now, she would not leave Jolyon.

‘I heard nothing. There was nothing.’ Revulsion twisted Mrs Holt’s features. ‘Heaven above! You’re just as crazy as she is!’

Sarah’s jaw jutted. For a moment, it really looked as if she would strike Mrs Holt, but then furniture crashed upstairs and footsteps clopped, unsteady, until Jolyon appeared in the gallery. He looked like a man in his cups: flushed, his hair out at angles. ‘What is this?’ He blinked at them, wrestling words from his drugged sleep. ‘I heard a scream and – Elsie? Is that you?’

‘It is both the ladies, Mr Livingstone,’ Mrs Holt called up. ‘I caught them trying to escape.’


‘I’m afraid they drugged you, Mr Livingstone. They are cunning.

Far more dangerous than we feared.’

Elsie would never forget the expression on his face: the blend of fear and wrath. For it was no longer Jolyon staring at her behind those red-rimmed, hazel eyes. Her dear boy spluttered out of

existence with Mrs Holt’s words. In his place stood someone else, someone she’d prayed never to see again so long as she lived.

It was Pa.



‘Let me out!’ Elsie’s palm slammed into the wood again and again, rattling the door on its hinges. Each blow vibrated through her ribs with white-hot pain, yet she did not stop. She could not stop. ‘Jolyon, unlock the door this instant!’

‘I cannot do that.’

‘Please! Let me out! I have been in here all night!’ Her voice soared off pitch. Hysterical, crazed. Even to her own ears, it sounded like confirmation of his diagnosis. ‘Jolyon!’

‘You are not well. I should have known.’ She heard his shoulder shift against the door. ‘I should have suspected long ago.’

Her hand hovered an inch away from the wood. She was filling up with smoke; behind her eyes, her stomach, underneath her tongue. Bitter, choking smoke that was the past and the present, engulfing her with acrid fumes.

‘What are you talking about?’ How false it sounded. A line given to an actress in a play.

‘After Ma—’ ‘No!’

‘I saw you, Elsie. I saw you put the pillow over her face—’

‘It wasn’t like that!’ she shrieked, jangling the handle again. ‘Listen to me, I can explain—’

‘I cannot believe a word you say!’

‘She was in too much pain. She was already on death’s door, it wasn’t a sin.’

‘Not a sin!’ he exploded. ‘Good God. Maybe poor Ma was right all along. Maybe she was not mad. The things she accused you of . . .’

‘All I ever did, I did for you.’

She heard a sob break from him. ‘You did not do that in my name.

You did not kill my mother for my sake.’

‘Jolyon, look. There are things I never told you, things—’

‘Stop!’ His hand knocked back from the other side. ‘Please, do not make me listen to it. Your words will send me mad too. Help is coming. I just need to keep you safe until the men arrive.’

‘Men from St Joseph’s?’

‘Mrs Holt has gone with the telegram now. It is the best place for you. They might be able to . . .’ He trailed off.

Tears streaked down her face. How could this be happening?

Each day the impossible became a reality, but it was easier to believe in wooden assassins than it was to accept that Jolyon, her Jolyon, was against her.

She pressed her forehead to the door. Under the white paint, she could make out the pattern and knots in the wood, as if it were not just a barrier between them but a living thing, complete with veins and sinews.

‘Jolyon, consider again.’ She struggled to keep her breath steady, to sound like a sane person. ‘You know this is not in keeping with my character. With your own lips, you told Mr Underwood you would stake your life on my nerves.’

‘They are broken, and my heart with them.’

She laid her palm flat, imagining his head pressed to the wood. If only he would look at her. If he looked into her eyes, he would know she was telling the truth. ‘You are too hasty. Ask Sarah—’

‘I have sent Sarah to her own suite! I cannot have her coming to your room, encouraging you in your delusions.’

She slid to the carpet, landing painfully on her bad knee. ‘You cannot confine Sarah,’ she tried again. ‘You have no authority over her. You cannot treat us like prisoners.’

‘It is for your own safety. I know what is best for you.’ But he didn’t even know who she was.

She remained on the floor, empty and spent. Presently, Jolyon’s footsteps sounded in the corridor. The library door opened and then closed.

Shadows of trees lay on the carpet by the window. Inch by inch, they lengthened across the floor. A detached part of her wondered which would get her first – the companions or the asylum. Perhaps Mrs Holt had sealed her fate by now; spelt out her doom in wires and crackles and clicks. Already, she felt the cold of a hospital dormitory closing in around her.

Did she deserve it? Perhaps she did. Not for the companions, but for the other things. Pa, Ma. She could blot them out but they never left her; they ran, dark, in her bloodstream. In Jolyon.

It was perhaps an hour later when she heard the noise: soft, at first, a crackle like logs yielding to a flame. She darted a look at the fire but the wood had burnt out. Again it came: a scratching, whispering sound. Right outside her door.

Elsie cocked her head, listening. This time she heard little clicks.

Then a door, creaking open.

Jolyon’s wordless exclamation made her jump. Perhaps it was Mrs Holt returned? But there were no footsteps, no voices. Just that distant rustle, like twigs snapping. Or tiny bones.

She lay down awkwardly on the floor. The sliver of light under the door only revealed a stretch of maroon carpet.

Jolyon screamed.

She bolted upright, wincing as pain seared along her ribs. ‘Jo?’ She tried the door handle. Still locked. He cried out again, a strangled word that sounded like her name. ‘Jolyon!’

Now the sounds were amplified. Twisting, slithering. She thought of animals thrashing in the undergrowth, ensnared by branches. Dear God, what was happening?

‘Elsie!’ An anguished scream, bubbling with liquid.

Furiously, she pumped at the handle, hammered on the door. She couldn’t get to him. She couldn’t get out.

No torture could be more maddening: to hear and not to see; to be powerless while he howled. The air became stifling, impossible to breathe, pressing in close, close.

Elsie cast about the room for an object to batter the door with. Her roving eyes fell upon the dressing table and she shot up a prayer of gratitude. Why hadn’t she thought of them before?

She dashed over, ignoring the pain in her knee, and seized a handful of hairpins. With sweating palms, she bent the first pin and tried to get it in the keyhole. It missed. Again she lined it up, and again it skidded out of control. ‘God damn!’ Her hands shook as if she had the ague.

Glass smashed.

‘Come on, come on.’ At last, she threaded the pin into the hole but it rattled and she couldn’t feel the tumblers. ‘Please!’

Hiss. The pin fell from her hand. Hiss.

There was another shout, and Jolyon’s voice died out. The silence was deafening.

Seizing another pin, she bent it with her teeth and thrust it in the lock. Relief surged when the tumblers clicked and moved, and the door yielded to her hand.

In the corridor everything was still. She hobbled out, gritting her teeth. Footsteps pounded to her left. When she turned, she saw Sarah hurtling in her direction, wild-eyed, Jasper at her heels.

‘Elsie! What happened? I heard screaming.’ ‘Jolyon,’ she gasped. ‘Jolyon.’

Sarah’s eyes widened. ‘Not them?’

A noise burst from her lips: keening, animal. She had never known a pain like it. ‘No! Please God, no.’

Without another word, Sarah nudged her shoulder under Elsie’s armpit and helped her to the library.

It was a wreck. Books lay spreadeagled on the floor with their pages hanging loose. The carpet was a graveyard of paper, glass and shrivelled leaves. As they stumbled farther into the room, Elsie saw rips in the curtains which fluttered and danced in the breeze.

‘Jolyon?’ It did not sound like her voice – did not sound like his name.

Ink splattered across the desk, splintered with shards of green glass from the lamp, but the chair behind stood empty.

‘Elsie! Over there!’

She whirled round. The gypsy boy with his crook loomed before the fire. Something inhuman flickered in the flat face. Her eyes followed the direction of his crook.

The middle window was smashed to a spider web. Cracks radiated from a central, ragged hole. Something snagged on one of the points. Material. Hair?

The tattered curtains waved, frantic, motioning her away. But her feet moved without her permission, hopelessly drawn across the carpet, crunching on glass, to stand where the wind could slap her face.

Dozens of Elsies stared back at her from the shattered window, each one a different shape. Elongated, squashed, missing mouths; her face melting. And she saw that the cracks were edged with blood.

Taking a deep breath, she peered down from the sill.

Her Jolyon, her boy, lay face down on the gravel, his neck at an impossible angle. Dead.

The curtains gusted around, embracing her as she screamed.



Once, when she was very young, Pa had burst her eardrum. It created a noise, a noise so intense that it was somehow more than sound, drowning everything but its insistent ring.

After the noise had come severe pain. Burrowing into her head and making her dizzy, slackening her face. She felt everything and nothing.

It must have happened again, for she could not see or hear. Time slipped past her as if she were no longer there.

Suddenly she slammed back into herself, finding herself propped up behind the desk in the remains of the leather chair. Horsehair prickled through slashes in the fabric, rough against her tender skin.

Sarah was on her left, waving a bottle of smelling salts under her nose. To the right stood Mrs Holt.

‘Another terrible accident?’ she was saying. ‘My eye! It’s her, you daft girl. She’s not right in the head. I’m going for the police.’

‘It was the companions, Mrs Holt! Elsie had only just come out of her room, I saw the door open. There is no conceivable way she could have got in here and . . .’ Sarah saw Elsie stirring back to life, and put the smelling salts down.

‘I reckon Mr Livingstone missed a trick when he wrote that telegram,’ Mrs Holt muttered. ‘He ought to have had you both committed.’

Even his name was a blow to the gut. There was no Mr Livingstone now, no good to come of all her sorrow: there was just the wreck of a handsome young man lying splayed on the gravel like a fallen bird. ‘My baby,’ her numb lips said. ‘My boy.’

‘See?’ Mrs Holt jerked her head. ‘Crackers.’ She leant in close so Elsie could see the nets of wrinkles around her eyes and smell her old, peppery breath. ‘You might have lost a baby, madam, but that is nothing to losing a daughter full grown, the hope of your life. Seeing her skewered like a piece of meat on a roasting jack!’ Her face looked frightful, distorted with tears. ‘God knows I should pity you for your malady, but I can’t. I can’t do it. I only pray I’ll see you swing for what you did to her.’

At any other time, her mind might have put the pieces together. But Elsie found herself staring at Mrs Holt with the same confusion that was lining Sarah’s brow. ‘What are you talking about? What daughter?’

Mrs Holt ran a hand over her ravaged face. ‘I suppose there is no need to keep the secret, now. There was a reason Mr Bainbridge called me his angel. There was also a reason that I came out here to the middle of nowhere.’

‘Oh!’ Sarah breathed. ‘You were carrying his child.’

She closed her eyes and nodded. ‘I was. You see, my mistress was so unwell and he needed . . . He was not a bad man. He wanted to do the right thing by both of us.’

‘So he advanced you. Gave you a house where you would be free from gossip.’

‘I hid the babe away at first. Then later, I trained her up to work alongside me in the house. I wasn’t daft, I never expected Helen to be raised with Master Rupert.’

Helen. Helen was your daughter? And so . . .’ Sarah placed a hand on her chest. ‘My cousin?’

‘She was. That wretched woman sitting before us has taken family from you too, Miss Sarah. You must let me go for the police.’

Elsie did not fear Mrs Holt’s hatred. She yearned to cling to her as someone who had felt this same pain and survived. Or had she? The woman remonstrating with Sarah was not the same Mrs Holt she had met that first night. She was a hardened version, an iron version, bitter at heart.

‘Go,’ Elsie said. ‘Please. Go for the police.’ Mrs Holt blinked her watery eyes.

‘No,’ Sarah cried. ‘No, Elsie, you are not thinking straight. You have to get out of here before the people from the asylum come and


‘Let them come. What does it matter, now?’ ‘It matters to me! I need you!’

Elsie laid her head back against the chair. ‘I won’t leave Jolyon. I won’t have strange hands washing him and laying him out. I’ll be there when he’s buried as I was there when he was born.’

Sarah exhaled, her shoulders sagging. ‘Then I suppose . . . Mrs Holt is right. We must go for the police, or the asylum people will

send for them the moment they arrive. It will look worse for us all if that happens.’

‘Three bodies in the house,’ said Mrs Holt. ‘Three.’

‘One of them outside. Come, let us bring him in before I go to fetch the constable.’

‘You?’ spat Mrs Holt. ‘Why would I trust you to go for the police?

Only last night, you were trying to break her loose!’

Sarah laid a hand on Mrs Holt’s shoulder and turned her away from Elsie, towards the fireplace. ‘It is a long trek to Torbury St Jude. You have been there and back today already.’

‘But will you honestly—’ Her sentence ended abruptly. Something was changing, shifting beneath her expression. ‘Did you do that?’ she hissed.

‘Do what?’

‘That!’ Mrs Holt’s arm flailed out at the hearth. ‘Was that you or was it her?’

‘I do not understand you.’

But Elsie did. She saw the change that had taken place while their backs were turned to the fireplace. Her skin crawled.

‘It wasn’t like that when I came into the room. Look at it!’ Frantic white lines marked the wood. Deep, angry gashes. The eyes of the gypsy boy had been scratched out.



Needles of rain hurtled past the open door. The afternoon air smelt strange: peaty and rich. Elsie tried to focus on the scent, to lose herself in it; anything to distance herself from the terrible scene playing out before her eyes.

Neither Mrs Holt nor Sarah was strong. They half pushed, half dragged Jolyon’s body across the threshold. His head lolled, grotesque. Flecks of gravel stuck to his cheeks and the lashes framing his open hazel eyes.

She had always tried to save him. God, how she had tried.

They laid him out like a broken puppet on the same oriental rug where Rupert’s coffin had sat. Mrs Holt folded Jolyon’s sprawled arms so that the hands rested, overlapped, on his stomach. She frowned. ‘There are splinters on his fingers.’

Elsie flinched.

‘There were splinters on Rupert,’ Sarah said. ‘And the baby.’

The housekeeper’s lips twitched. Elsie could see her struggling with the unpalatable truth: believing; not wanting to believe; trying to prove herself wrong.

‘Did Mabel or Helen have splinters?’ Sarah asked.

‘I didn’t see. I didn’t check.’ Mrs Holt took a step. Stopped. ‘I might . . . go and look.’ She darted another glance at Elsie.

Elsie understood. The housekeeper wanted to hate her. She would rather find Elsie’s bloody fingerprints around Helen’s neck than a spray of splinters.

Poor Mrs Holt. Far better to believe your child was murdered quickly rather than stalked, living their last moments in a paroxysm of fear. She watched the old woman disappear behind the baize door and her heart went with her.

‘I don’t understand.’ Sarah bit at a strand of her hair, agitated. ‘What does this thing want? What did it fail to find in Rupert, or the baby? What does it need, exactly?’

She swayed on her feet. ‘I do not know, Sarah, and I do not want to know. I am only thankful Jolyon is free of it now. I won’t give it another chance. Fetch me some water, please. I am going to wash him.’

Sarah hesitated. ‘I’m not sure that you can. If the police come to investigate, they will want to see him . . . as he was.’

‘As he was!’ A dry sob came out. ‘Dear God, we all want that.’

Sarah hung her head. ‘You do . . . You still want me to go for the police?’

‘Yes! Someone has to help us. We cannot face this alone.’

‘But they will not believe in the companions! What if they arrest us?’

Prison, the asylum. It was all the same, without Jolyon. ‘Then let them arrest us. At least we will be out of this damned house.’

Sarah went to fetch her bonnet and tied the ribbons hurriedly beneath her chin. While she pulled on her mittens, Elsie gazed at the baize door. Mrs Holt had not made a sound since she had passed through it.

‘Do not worry, Mrs Bainbridge. We will get through this, you and

I. It seems impossible now, but . . . Somehow we will rebuild our

lives. Together.’ Sarah squeezed Elsie’s shoulder. ‘I think Rupert would have liked that.’

No doubt Sarah meant it kindly, but Elsie could not endure her saccharine words. She pulled away.

Sarah opened the door again, letting in a fine spray of rain. The gardens were soaked. The hedges dripped and water cascaded from the jowls of the stone dog like drool. Sarah put one foot out of the door.

‘Wait!’ Elsie reached into her pocket and gave Sarah her purse. ‘Take this, in case you run into trouble. It will pay for lodging or a conveyance home.’

Bestowing one last look on her, Sarah ventured out into the rain. Elsie watched her go: a hunched, grey figure crunching over the gravel, growing darker and darker as the shadow of the house fell over her. She crossed the hills and disappeared from sight.

Less than ten minutes later, the mist descended.

She slumped down by the fireplace and sat with her legs stretched out, next to Jolyon. Or what passed for Jolyon: the cruel, blue-grey parody of him. She did not want to store this image of her boy: waxy and puffed; features imprinted with horror; vicious cuts to the dear skin. But she knew it would encroach, stealthily, and overwrite all the happier times. Death, once conceived, was rapacious. It took all with it.

Every tick of the grandfather clock echoed through the Great Hall. The rain drummed in counterpoint. Elsie sensed the clouds pressing down, blotting out the sun. Taking her head in her bandaged hands, she waited.

She did not dare to close her eyes. With her back to the wall, she kept a vigil. The companions might take Jolyon’s life, but she’d be damned if they desecrated his body with more splinters. She knew how that felt – to be invaded, against your will. She would never, never let that happen to him.

Time crawled by. Nothing moved. All she saw was grey stillness; all she heard was the constant patter on the windows. It was a kind of torture.

Her mind wandered down the misty paths to Torbury St Jude; saw Sarah lost, falling into the river, dragged beneath the current by her sodden skirts like the gypsy girl in Anne’s diary. She slapped her

cheeks and tried to steer her thoughts in a better direction. They twirled for a moment and then, dizzy, stumbled towards Jolyon. No. After two hours had passed, she thought she would lose her mind.

Stiff in her joints, she clambered to her feet with a groan. Still the rain fell, light but insistent. Everything looked the same as it had in the morning. She felt she had lived ten lifetimes since then.

The air was turning. Odour rose slowly, like a blush from Jolyon’s corpse, stealing the smell of bay leaves and lime that had always been a part of him. He looked so dirty and neglected: streaks of mud on his hands, fragments of glass sparkling in his tangled hair. Police be hanged – she was going to wash her boy.

She limped through the baize door into the servants’ quarters. It creaked shut behind her, encasing her in cold stone.

Last time she entered this passage there had been a staff of five. Now the hallways carried an air of abandonment. Gone was the sound of the kitchen range and the smell of soap. No oil lamps shone.

As she edged towards the kitchen to fetch water, she passed the housekeeper’s room. The door was shut. Had Mrs Holt sat there alone, all this time, in the dark?

Her hand hovered over the panels, unsure. If Mrs Holt wanted to be by herself, she had no right to disturb her. She had just made up her mind to walk away when she heard a sound from inside.

Not a sob, as she expected. Something lower, prolonged. A groan or a creak, like old bones.

She reached for the doorknob, but she did not turn it. The pulse drummed in her throat.

Creeeak. A draught crept under the door and touched her ankles.

She had to get back to Jolyon, she had to— Just as she turned away, Jasper cried out.

It immobilised her. That pathetic, reedy sound, so like a baby’s wail. She tried to shove it aside and harden her heart but it came again, louder this time. Piercing. Then the same creak.

‘Damn it, Jasper.’ Berating herself, she turned the knob and pushed.

The room glided into view. Elsie tightened her injured fingers around the jamb, driving her nails into the wood.

Every drawer of Mrs Holt’s desk stood open. Papers covered the little table with the floral cloth. Jasper sat on it, mewling, as the various receipts and recipes fluttered beneath him. Diamonds of rain spotted his black fur. The window gaped wide open.

‘What . . .?’ One of the chairs was missing. ‘Jasper, where is Mrs—’

The creak sounded, right by her ear. She spun around. The air clogged in her throat.

It was the movement she saw first – gentle, like a tree swaying in the wind. Only then did she begin to make sense of it: the creak, not of wood, but of hemp; the swinging feet. Her gaze travelled up the black dress to slumped shoulders and a face that belonged to no one: blue-red; the eyes popping; the tongue lolling out. The housekeeper had looped a noose around a hook in the ceiling. All that had once been Mrs Holt hung there, suspended like a sack of grain.

Nausea pushed up from her stomach. As the skirts waved back and forth, she caught flashes of a wooden face behind them, a maid’s face made terrible by fear. Helen.

She reached out and snatched Jasper from the table.

Fear dominated her pain as she skidded out of the door, through the passages, into the kitchen. Hiss, hiss. Oh yes, they were coming now. They had only waited for her to see Mrs Holt’s nightmare before starting her own.

Her hand fumbled with the yard door. ‘Come on, come on.’ Jasper scratched with her.

It creaked and groaned, but it would not move. The door was locked.


The housekeeper’s room – Mrs Holt had the bunch of keys. She just needed to get in there and – no, damn it, she didn’t need to rob a corpse of keys, she could climb out of the open window in the room. Why hadn’t she thought of it before?

Hiss, hiss. Inside her brain, buzzing along her thoughts. Hiss. ‘Shut up!’ she screamed. ‘Shut the hell up!’

She was forced to stoop down and place Jasper at her feet. Pain burnt: hot needles up and down her leg, flames raging in her chest. Then that feeling inside her head as the hiss came again, a firecracker going off.

Jasper mewed and trotted forwards, turning back to see if she would follow. With great difficulty, she limped after him.

Hiss, hiss. Different from the sound that haunted her dreams: now she heard the steam of the factory in it. A saw too, but not one cutting through wood. It ripped through some other substance, spraying liquid.


The white-paint letters spelling Housekeeper swam into view. Those letters were on the front of the door – but hadn’t she left it open?


Locked. Another door, locked. She threw her shoulder against the panels, crying out in pain and frustration. Her fists pummelled, useless, on the wood.

Hiss, hiss.

Jasper hissed back. He prowled off down the stone passage.

Hunting. ‘Wait.’

She stumbled after him. Pain flared and threw black shapes before her eyes. She had to ignore it, she could not give in now. This agony was nothing compared to—


Shock kicked her in the stomach, then in the chest. She did recognise the sound. It was in her, part of her, yet her brain was smothering it and refusing to let the memory rise.


Objects slapping into the trough. Not splints. Softer, wetter. They reached the baize door.

Jasper gathered himself and pounced. The door burst open, magnifying the sound and the smell – not roses this time but phosphorus, burning wood and scorched metal. A sharp, sickly note rising high above it all. Blood.

She staggered into the Great Hall. The wind whooped, gleefully hurtling rain against the windows. Light was fading fast. The dying fire touched Jolyon’s face with orange streaks, and beside him—

‘No!’ The word ripped from her, taking her insides with it. Jasper screeched and arched his back.

Another companion: one she had carried for too long. His leering face, the hefty, brutal muscle of him.

Pa. Hiss.

She could not feel the pain in her ribs any longer. Other sensations took control. It was so much worse than she remembered; not just the terror but the anger, impotence and disgust.


‘You can’t have him! Get away!’

She went to move but her bad leg crumpled beneath her and she was on her knees, retching.

‘Get away from him!’ Hiss.

She stared at her hands, splayed out on the grey and black flags. Her bandages were peeling off. There, under the recent wounds, sat the scars of old – the sin seared into her skin.


The dam gave way. She remembered it all. And she did not regret it.

She was there in the factory, twelve years old, crouching with her box of matches, her veins pumping with the beat of her heart. Lighting the fire, too hasty, all fingers and thumbs. Once again she felt its vengeful warmth answering the fury that raged inside her. And she did not mind that it had burnt her hands because then she became the blaze, became the flames, became the lure to her father who ran like a madman to try and put it out.

Did he see her? She hoped he saw her, as Ma did, that split second before he fell. The child he had abused barrelling into his leg, pushing him straight into the circular saw.

Hiss, hiss. The machinery struggling to cope, the clogged blades. Gore slopping into the trough. A kind of fizz as blood sprayed out across the floor, making the match girls shriek. But then the noise turned into a whirring, a clunking as bones jammed the teeth. Steam panted out from the machine. The saw gave a death rattle. All fell still, and Jolyon was safe.

Until now.

‘You . . . can’t . . . have . . . him!’

Jasper sprang before she did, claws flashing by the embers of the fire. The Pa companion toppled, leering still, into the grate.

A puff of smoke, a crack. Then he leapt up in flames.

Jasper skittered back from the fire. It was going too fast; snaking down the length of the companion, throwing out sparks like luminous fleas. No natural fire could burn like that.

Smoke stung her eyes. She grabbed Jasper and climbed, unsteady, to her feet.

A log popped and the oriental rug caught alight. ‘Jolyon!’

But it had him in its grasp. Orange tongues jumped and writhed, reflected on the swords that hung on the wall. She watched it dance, fascinated, appalled, until she began to cough.

She wheeled around and saw the wavering outlines of companions everywhere: on the stairs, peering down from the gallery, standing in every door. Barring her way.

It was hot. So hot. Jasper’s fur made her arms sweat.

Charred snowflakes of ash fluttered in the air. She could no longer make out which companion was which; she could not even see the front door.

There was nothing but the flames.

A window. Spluttering, she fought her way towards a rectangle shining through the smoke. The window overlooking the drive. This was where they had stood, Hetta and the gypsy boy, watching her. Knowing this would happen.

Cradling Jasper in one arm, she hammered on the window with her spare hand. Hot glass – unbearably hot.

‘Come on!’

That old, familiar scorch on her palms. This was how she had won before – fighting through the pain. She could do it. She could make her body do anything. She had learnt the hard way.

She hit the glass again. Again. Her knuckles screamed and she brought them back, dripping blood. Again. The glass cracked.

The fire roared behind her. She felt its breath, wringing sweat out from the back of her neck. Of course, she had let the air get at it. She had made it worse.

‘Quick, Jasper, quick!’

He was a muddle of flailing limbs and claws, trying to press his paws either side of the hole and stop her from posting him through it. But she was rough, impervious to him. The glass cracked again and she pushed him outside with it, yowling furiously.

Heat gusted up her back. She felt her skin lift and tighten. The pain. The pain, rummaging through her clothes with its burning hands.

She didn’t think. There was no time to think – she took a few steps back and ran, as Jolyon must have done, straight at the glass. With her arms protecting her face, she hurtled into the window and shattered it to pieces.

A fork of fire lashed out behind her, but she was already on the ground, beating at her gown, rolling across the gravel and smothering the flames. Rain fell and extinguished the last of it. Too late. The damage was done – she could feel her skin blister and pop in the ruthless air.

Jasper had raced up the closest tree. His green eyes peered down at her as she crawled, steaming and half dead, into the damp gardens. She had to get away from the fire. From the house.

Her muscles were shrieking. Black smuts danced in her vision and threatened to take over. This was the limit: the fountain. Her body would go no further. She slumped over the rim, red-raw arms dangling into the basin.

A gust of wind blew across the hills. She smelt it on the breeze: roses and thyme, peppering the smoke. She coughed.

‘Mrs Bainbridge!’ Sarah?

She peered through the shimmering, heat-hazed garden. But it was not Sarah she saw. There was a companion, by the topiary. The one who started it all: Hetta.

‘Mrs Bainbridge! Good Lord!’

It sounded like Sarah’s voice, coming from the other end of the gardens, although she couldn’t be sure. She could hear two voices at once, one lapping over the other.

As she stared fixedly at Hetta a dark shape, a taller shape, ran through the gardens, over the gravel towards her. Human. Whether it was male or female, she could not tell. It seemed to her that two

were moving there, not one. Both of them, holding out their hands for her.

‘Mrs Bainbridge!’

When she came to there was another calling her name, a nurse with a face like a rat. Her surroundings were white and sterile. She smelt carbolic soap. Urine. Pain was stitched into her skin.

She cracked open her parched mouth to speak, but only a croak hobbled over her lips. Her voice was gone – gone with the memory and the smoke.

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