Chapter no 4

The Silent Companions

Elsie jerked upright at a knock on the door, bemused by her surroundings. The grey afternoon had deepened into the charcoal of an autumn evening. The fire burnt low in the grate. Only a single candle flickered on the dressing table, a winding sheet of hard wax down its side. Memory lurched back: she was stuck in the country –and Rupert was dead.

The knock came again. She reached for her lace gloves and pulled them on. ‘Enter,’ she croaked. Her mouth tasted stale. How long had she been asleep?

The door creaked open. Metal clattered against crockery and a short young woman, perhaps about eighteen years of age, edged across the threshold carrying a tray.

‘Ma’am.’ She placed the tray on the dressing table, fired up the gas lamp and lit it using the candle.

Elsie blinked. Surely it was a trick of her eyes – was this really her housemaid? She was filthy from the kitchen, soot streaking her coarse apron. Her face was not altogether plain; she had long lashes and thick, rosy lips that would have been pleasing were they not quirked in an impertinent expression. She wore no cap. Her dark hair was parted down the middle in a severe fashion, then looped behind her ears into a knot at the back of her head.

Did such a creature pass for a housemaid in this part of the country? If Elsie had known this, she would not have worried about her own appearance earlier.

‘Ma’am,’ the girl said again. Belatedly, she bobbed an awkward curtsy. The tray rattled. ‘Mr Livingstone said you might be hungry.’

‘Oh.’ She could not say if that were true: the combination of smells arising from the tray left her ravenous and nauseated in equal measures. ‘Yes. That was very kind of him. I will take the tray here.’ She propped a bolster behind her back.

The girl came forward. She did not have the careful gait of the servants in London; her bold stride jogged the bowl and sent soup trickling over the rim. Depositing the tray on Elsie’s legs with a thunk, she stepped back and bent her knees in another curtsy.

Elsie didn’t know whether to be offended or amused. The girl was clearly a bumpkin. ‘And you are . . .?’

‘Mabel Cousins. The maid.’ She had an odd voice; a blend between a cockney twang and a country drawl. ‘Ma’am.’

It occurred to Elsie that perhaps Mabel was not usually permitted above stairs. They may have grown desperate for a pair of hands and sent anyone. From the way she eyed the pile of Elsie’s clothes on the floor and the lace collar of her nightgown, you would think she had never seen anything so costly in her life. ‘Are you the housemaid? The kitchen-maid?’

Mabel shrugged. ‘Just the maid. Me and Helen. Tain’t no others.’ ‘Well then, that makes you the maid-of-all-work.’

‘If you say so. Ma’am.’

Elsie adjusted the tray on her lap. Steam rose from the surface of a yellow-brown soup flecked with herbs. Next to it sat a dish of broiled beef and a cream-coloured, lumpy substance that looked like chicken fricassee. She was hungry, but the idea of food turned her stomach. Grimacing, she picked up a spoon and plunged it into the soup.

She was surprised to see Mabel still standing there. What on earth was she waiting for? ‘You may go, Mabel. I don’t require anything else.’

‘Oh.’ At least she had the grace to blush. Wiping her hands on her apron, she gave another hopeless curtsy. ‘Sorry. Ma’am. The Bridge ain’t had no mistress for nigh on forty years. We ain’t used to it.’

Elsie lowered her spoon and let the soup slide back into the bowl. ‘Really? That long? How very strange. I wonder why?’

‘There were a bunch of servants what died, I think. In the old days. Put the family off living here. I heard talk in the village –something about a skeleton they dug up in King George’s time. A skeleton in the garden! Imagine that!’

Really, there was so much dead in that garden, it did not come as much of a surprise.

‘Indeed! You grew up in the village of Fayford, I suppose?’

Mabel’s crack of laughter made her jump. The maid threw back her head like a common woman at a music theatre.

This would not do – it would not do at all. ‘Do I amuse you, Mabel?’ she snapped.

‘Lord bless you, ma’am.’ Mabel wiped an eye with the edge of her apron. ‘No one from the village works here.’

‘And why might that be?’

‘They’re scared of the place. Gives ’em the morbs.’

Weight settled around her neck. Superstition? Premonition? Whatever it was, she did not want Mabel to see it. ‘Well, that seems very foolish. It was only a skeleton. There is nothing to be afraid of, is there?’ Mabel shrugged. ‘That will be all, Mabel.’

‘Very good, ma’am.’ Without a curtsy she turned, extinguished the lamp and strode out of the door. She didn’t bother to close it behind her.

‘Mabel!’ Elsie called. ‘You turned off the light by mistake, I cannot see to . . .’

But she could already hear Mabel’s flat feet thudding down the stairs.



Nobody came to close the door or remove the food. Despairing, Elsie placed her untouched dinner tray on the floor and dropped back against the pillows.

When she awoke, the room was as black as a weeping veil. The fire had expired, leaving the air chill. The taint of that damned soup still hung in the air, making her stomach writhe. How could the maid just leave it there to fester and grow foul? She would have to speak with the housekeeper in the morning.

It was then that she heard it: a low rasp, like a saw against wood.

She went rigid.

Had she really heard that? The senses could play tricks in the dark. But then it came again. Hiss.

She did not want to deal with another problem tonight. Surely if she kept wrapped up with her eyes shut, the noise would go away? Hiss, hiss. A rhythmic, abrasive sound. Hiss hiss, hiss hiss. What was it?

She pulled the cover up over her ear until it muffled the noise. At last, it stopped. Her head drooped with the weight of exhaustion. It was probably some foolish nonsense; animals in the woods. She would not recognise their sounds – she had always slept in a town. It was silent now, and she could go back to sleep . . .

Hiss, hiss. She started up, every inch of her electrified. Hiss. Teeth against wood. Scraping.

Blindly, she groped under the pillow for her matchbox. It was not there. Of course it was not there, she hadn’t unpacked yet. Her hand felt empty, vulnerable, without the box. She had to be careful, she mustn’t spiral into panic.

Half falling from the bed, she fumbled in the dark for a gas lever, a tinderbox, anything. Her fingers only met hard pools of wax where the candle had melted. Hiss, hiss.

The darkness was absolute – her eyes refused to adjust. It wasn’t like London; there were no streetlamps outside. She was forced to inch along, feeling her way forwards. The leg of the dressing table, a round, springy shape – a hoop of her crinoline. She manoeuvred around it, ears tensed for the sound. The very stillness felt heavy –charged, as if it were waiting.

She placed her hand down and felt it sink into something. She recoiled and cried out. There was a crash and liquid seeped through her nightgown. The odours of chicken and beef announced she had crawled straight into her dinner tray.

Hiss, hiss. Elsie flung herself away from the tray. Black, nothing but black before her eyes. How could she get out of this room?

Finally, she made out a shade of grey. She crawled towards it and felt a solid surface. The door. Struggling to her feet, she groped for the handle and pulled the door open.

It was brighter in the corridor. She took a few steps out, her feet sinking in the dusty carpet. Little clouds floated up as she moved.

There was nothing to suggest what had made the noise. Everything was still. Moonlight fell through the lantern tower in silver bars and the marble busts glowed.

Hiss, hiss. Elsie headed in the direction of the sound. She had to stop it – she would never sleep with that racket. Hiss, hiss. It came faster, frantic. Her feet matched its pace as they turned past the gallery, towards the stairs. She was certain: it was coming from above.

The steps led to a narrow landing with whitewashed walls. The top floor of the house, traditionally the domain of servants. She followed the sound down a corridor, past the lantern tower, until the beacon of moonlight faded to a muted glow. Soft flooring gave way to cold tiles underfoot. She shivered, wishing she had brought a wrap or a blanket with her. She felt small, exposed in cotton and lace.

She stopped to rest and get her bearings. Up ahead, a faint yellow circle stained the wall.

Hiss, hiss. The noise was close. She put one foot forward – and felt something brush her leg.

‘Damn it!’ she cried out. She reeled, nearly losing her balance. ‘Damn, damn.’

Tiny clicks sounded on the tiles. She did not dare to look down and see what made them.

The rasping, sawing noise was everywhere around her, like the voice of God. And just below it, a steady beat. Footsteps.

A yellow orb floated into the darkness, drifting towards her. Elsie braced herself, hardly knowing what she expected.

The orb was coming closer. The figure of a woman loomed up behind it, her shadow stretched along the tiles at her heels. She saw Elsie, gasped – and they were plunged into darkness once more.

Hiss, hiss. Again something sleek and warm swept against her calf.

This time Elsie cried out.

‘Mrs Bainbridge?’ There was a sound like fabric ripping, then the flare of a match. A woman’s face appeared in a flickering halo. She was well past middle-age with wrinkles puckering her skin. ‘Bless me! Is that you, Mrs Bainbridge, up at this hour? You gave me a fright. I blew my candle right out.’

Elsie’s lips flapped, trying to find purchase. ‘I came . . . The sound

. . .’ As she spoke, it started up again, that terrible hiss, hiss.

The woman nodded. Her eyes were liquid and jaundiced in the candlelight, as if her irises were swimming in honey. ‘I’ll show you the problem, madam. Please follow me.’

She turned, taking the candle with her. The gloom was all the more fearsome after a moment of illumination. In her tired fancy Elsie imagined a second pair of footsteps, padding behind her.

‘I am the housekeeper here, Mrs Bainbridge. My name is Edna Holt. I had hoped to meet you under more traditional circumstances, but it can’t be helped.’ Her voice was gentle and respectful, without the awful drawl of Mabel’s speech. Elsie followed the sound of it, a rope tethering her to a world of reality and servants rather than the phantasmagoria that raged inside her imagination. ‘I trust you are a little better now, madam? I heard you were unwell.’

‘Yes. Yes, all I needed was sleep. But then—’ The rasping noise cut her off. It hissed and scratched as Mrs Holt stopped at the end of the corridor beside a case of wooden stairs.

What could it be? The circular saw in the factory made a sound vaguely similar, but it was rapid, more staccato. This was drawn out. Like a slow, slow rip.

Something glided over her feet, tickling her legs as it passed. She gasped. A small, dark shape moved up the steps ahead. ‘Mrs Holt! Do you not see it?’ Two glowing slits of green materialised beside the door at the top of the stairs. Elsie’s breath locked in her throat. ‘God have mercy.’

‘I know,’ Mrs Holt said kindly. But she was not looking at Elsie –her eyes were fixed on the door. ‘I know, Jasper. Come down.’

Shapes fell into place – Elsie saw a little black cat, loping back down the stairs to Mrs Holt’s side. A cat. She had never felt so foolish.

‘I think it must be rats, madam. Or possibly squirrels. Something with gnawing teeth. They drive poor Jasper here distracted.’

The cat paced a protective circle around them, muttering in the depths of his throat. His coat and tail swished against their skirts.

‘Well,’ Elsie said, regaining the use of her voice, ‘we must get a man up there to look. A nest is soon cleared out.’

‘Ah, madam, but that’s the problem.’ With her spare hand, Mrs Holt pulled a bunch of keys from her belt and held them up. ‘The

garret was closed up years ago, before my time here. None of these fit the lock.’

‘You mean to tell me there is no way of gaining access?’ The housekeeper shook her head. ‘Then someone must take an axe to the door. I cannot allow these creatures to nest unmolested. Think what they might do to the fabric of the building! Why, the whole place could fall down around our ears.’

The candle danced beneath her breath. She could not make out Mrs Holt’s expression. ‘Don’t upset yourself, madam. They can’t have wreaked much havoc. I’ve only heard them the past few weeks. Only, really, since the master came down.’

They both grew still. Elsie was suddenly aware of the body, three floors below – maybe beneath the very spot where her feet arched away from the cold tiles. She hugged herself. ‘And what did Mr Bainbridge say about the matter?’

‘Much the same as you, madam. He was going to write to Torbury St Jude for a man . . . I don’t know if he ever did.’

All the unsent letters, the unspoken words. It was as if Rupert had left the party in the middle of a dance. She ached with the need for him to come and make everything simple, to remove the burden from her shoulders.

‘Well, Mrs Holt, I will check his library in the morning and see what I find. If I have no luck, I will write myself.’

The housekeeper paused. When her voice came it was infinitely softer; a verbal caress. ‘Very good, madam. Now I had better be lighting you back to bed. Tomorrow will be a long and weary day, heaven knows.’

Elsie wondered for a moment what she meant. Then realisation burst upon her: they had only been waiting for her arrival. Tomorrow, they would bury Rupert.

Her knees sagged. Mrs Holt’s spare hand came quickly under her elbow. ‘Easy, madam.’

All at once she was aware of her nightgown, damp with soup and sauce against her legs, and the cat’s little tongue licking it clean. Revolting.

She thought of the mess she had made in her bedroom, then the mess she had made with Jolyon. Her eyelids grew unbearably heavy. ‘I think you are right, Mrs Holt. I had better get back to bed.’



The sky was a cold, hard blue, devoid of clouds. Brisk wind kept the trees constantly in motion. A confetti of green, yellow and brown leaves lay strewn over the paths, crunching as the carriage wheels ploughed through them. Elsie was astonished just how far into the distance she could see, even submerged beneath her weeping veil. There were no soot flecks in the air; no pall of coal smoke dimmed the light. It unnerved her.

‘Yes, this is the right day for Rupert,’ Sarah sighed. ‘Busy and bright, just like him.’ Her long, horsey face looked worse than yesterday, washed out and baggy-eyed after she had sat up all night with Rupert’s body.

Elsie regretted not keeping watch herself. In the Great Hall, right at the bottom of the house, she would not have been troubled by the scratching noise; Sarah made no mention of having heard it. And Rupert deserved a last vigil. She had not intended to slight him, but with the baby in her belly, she had grown selfish for her own comfort. Sleep, fire and an easy chair had become the vital things in her life.

She leant her head against the window. The land looked better in sunshine. She made out larch and elm growing between the chestnut trees, and a squirrel loping across their path. It paused on its hind legs, watching the funeral procession pass, then shot up the nearest trunk.

The featherman went first, a tray of black plumes balanced upon his head. Next came the mute with his staff. His hat trailed a weeper below his waist.

‘You have put on a good show for him.’ Elsie reached out and squeezed Jolyon’s hand, keen to remove the tension between them. ‘I’m grateful.’

‘It is no more than he deserved.’

Rupert’s coffin gleamed from the hearse. Poor Rupert, trapped forever in this dismal place. Overlooked for eternity by that abysmal church with only half a steeple. When they married, Elsie had never doubted they would spend eternity buried side by side. She might have to review that plan.

As the carriages ground to a halt, she was relieved to see that none of the villagers had ventured to their windows, although it did

surprise her. At home a funeral was a spectacle. Here it seemed like no remarkable occurrence.

Jolyon picked up his cane. ‘It is time.’ His black cloak swished as he climbed down the steps and offered his hand, first to Elsie and then to Sarah.

She felt fragile once she touched the ground; as light as one of the twigs blowing about the churchyard. She didn’t know how to behave.

Ma had been hysterical when Pa died. Remembering her shuddering sobs, Elsie felt an instant failure as a wife. She could not cry. She spent her days holding the knowledge of Rupert’s death at a distance, like a dagger against her throat, afraid to let it plunge in and bring with it understanding. Her only sensations were numbness and nausea.

Blasted Sarah started crying the moment she was installed on Jolyon’s other arm. The sight of her tears filled Elsie with an anger she could not justify.

‘Mr Livingstone. Mrs Bainbridge, Miss Bainbridge. My sincere condolences.’

Elsie curtsied before the vicar. Through the net of her weeping veil she made out a young man with dirty blond hair. He had a long nose and large chin that suggested good breeding, but his stole was grimy, off-white.

‘I have only had the pleasure of meeting Mr Livingstone before. My name is Underwood. Richard Underwood.’ A genteel voice, each letter enunciated. What was such a man doing with the dire living of Fayford? Surely his connections could do better for him? As he folded his hands over a prayer book and held it against his stomach, Elsie noticed holes in the sleeves of his cassock. ‘Now I must ask you ladies, before we begin, if you are sure that you feel equal to the service? There is no shame in resting at home.’

Sarah unleashed a fresh burst of tears.

‘There there, Miss Bainbridge,’ said Jolyon. ‘Are you – would you – it is as Mr Underwood says. Would you rather stay in the carriage?’ He looked over at Elsie for help. She nearly smirked. He wanted a sister with keener sensibilities, did he?

Mr Underwood stepped in. ‘My dear Miss Bainbridge, take comfort. Here is my arm.’ He detached her from Jolyon with such

delicacy that Elsie was convinced: he must be a gentleman. Slowly, he guided Sarah away. ‘You may sit in the vicarage until you are restored. My maid will fetch you some tea. Salts? Do you have salts?’

Sarah made a gasping reply that Elsie did not catch.

‘Very good. Look, just here.’ His house was one of the unsavoury hovels encroaching on the burial ground – hardly a home befitting a vicar. She was almost worried about Sarah sitting in there for the length of the service; it looked as if you could catch typhoid from the place. ‘Ethel, fetch the stool. You are to watch over this lady for me. Make her a sweet tea.’

A bony hag with missing teeth appeared in the doorway. ‘But it’s the last of—’

‘I am aware of that, Ethel,’ he said sharply. ‘Now do as I ask.’ Grumbling, the woman ushered Sarah inside and closed the door. Mr Underwood returned to them, seemingly unfazed.

‘That was very kind of you, sir. Thank you,’ Jolyon said.

‘No trouble at all. Mrs Bainbridge, are we quite safe with you?’ ‘I would answer for her nerves with my life,’ Jolyon replied.

Underwood appraised her with interest. His eyes were wide but strangely hooded; they peered, rather than looked. ‘Very good. Now, Mrs Bainbridge, I will go to the door of the church and meet the coffin. That will go in first, then the mourners will follow.’

She nodded. It was all she could do.

The pall-bearers heaved the coffin onto their shoulders and shuffled forwards. Wind crept beneath the black velvet pall, flapping it in time with their steps. The Bainbridge crest waved in flashes: blue, gold, blue, gold then an axe.

She tugged on Jolyon’s arm. ‘I need to sit down.’

Weather-beaten gravestones lined the path to the church door: their inscriptions crude. Three memorials in a row bore the name John Smith with dates barely two years apart. Then came another pair, beside a rosebush, both Jane Price, 1859.

Elsie kept her gaze lowered. She did not want to see the mourners climbing out of their carriages or meet their commiserating gaze. Just months ago she had walked in the other direction, decked in silk and myrtle with the peal of wedding bells behind her. She had looked down at her white dress and known that the spinster Miss

Livingstone was gone forever. Here stood Mrs Bainbridge, a fresh creation, newborn.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. How quickly fortune turned. The woman who walked into church after this coffin – who was she now? Livingstone, Bainbridge? Maybe neither. Maybe she was not a person Elsie wanted to know.



‘It was a lovely service.’ A fat gentleman took her hand and pressed it against his moustache. He reeked of tobacco.

‘Yes. Just – lovely,’ she said for the thousandth time. ‘Thank you for coming. Please, won’t you take a memorial card?’ She slipped her glove out of his sweaty grasp and replaced it with a piece of black-edged card. Then she moved on to the next one.

They looked ridiculous: these men of the City with their fine hatbands, braying voices and cigars, huddled together in a dilapidated graveyard. What must they think of Rupert’s family seat and his factory wife?

The sun had faded to a primrose disc yet still she paraded up and down the line of strangers, thanking them. Handing out Rupert’s life, compressed to a bare set of facts on a monochrome card.

In affectionate remembrance of Rupert Jonathan Bainbridge

Who departed this life 3 October 1865 in the forty-fifth year of his age Interred in the family vault, All Souls Church, Fayford


Jolyon played his part, passing from group to group, accepting their condolences. It was him the guests had come to see – few of them knew her. Would they really notice if she slipped away? Perhaps she should go and find her old companion, the starved cow. At least that miserable creature had shown some interest in her.

She stood for a moment, gazing abstractedly through the net squares of her veil. Birds she did not even have a name for called in the trees beyond. Fat, inquisitive ones that looked like London pigeons except they were beige. Bold, black scavengers. Rooks? Jackdaws? Ravens? She had never really known the difference. One she did recognise – a magpie – rattled at her from the lychgate. The

cobalt stripe on his tail pointed to the poorest of the gravestones: lopsided, devoured by lichen and thistle.

‘You are wondering about the gravestones.’ The voice made her start. She swivelled round to see Mr Underwood, standing unobtrusively by her side. His hands were tucked under his surplice; either he was cold or he was hiding the holes in his sleeves.

‘Yes, I was. There seem to be an awful lot with the same names.’

He sighed. ‘There are. And no matter what I say to my parishioners, there continue to be. The people . . . Well. I need not dress it up for you, Mrs Bainbridge. You see how the village is. The people do not have hope. They do not even hope that their babies will live, and so they reuse names. Over there,’ he pulled out a hand and gestured to the Jane Prices she had seen earlier. ‘Those two little girls were alive at the same time. The elder was ailing and the babe was born sickly. They died within a month of each other.’

‘What a terrible thing. Those poor girls! But at least their folk remember them with a stone.’

‘A slim comfort.’

‘You think so? Have you ever been to London, Mr Underwood?’ His brow furrowed. ‘On occasion. Before I took my orders.’ ‘Then you will have seen the burying grounds? Twenty-foot

shafts, one coffin stacked atop another, all the way to the surface. Horrible places. I’ve heard of bodies being disturbed, even dismembered, to make way for fresh corpses. So I say it is a mercy to be laid in your own plot of land under a stone with a name, even if it is a borrowed one. There are far worse things a parent can do.’

He peered at her, reassessing her. ‘To be sure.’

She judged it prudent to turn the topic. ‘My maid told me that a skeleton was discovered on my own property, years ago. Would you happen to know if that is buried here also, Mr Underwood?’

‘Which skeleton would that be?’

She blinked. ‘I do not understand you.’

‘There have been . . . a few,’ he admitted. ‘But it is a very old house, Mrs Bainbridge. There is no cause to be alarmed.’

Mabel’s words made more sense now. It would be silly for maids to steer clear of the house over a single skeleton, but she could understand they might be put off by multiple discoveries. No one wanted to come across a pile of bones while performing their duties.

‘I am not alarmed, only . . . surprised. My late husband did not know much about the history of the house.’

‘It is a strange one. The estate was left empty during and after the Civil War. Then, with the Restoration, the family began to come back. Never for very long, though. The Bainbridge family had a nasty habit of losing their heirs, and the house often passed to second sons who never returned to claim it.’

‘How very sad.’

‘Business kept them away, I expect.’ He folded his arms. ‘There are many records in Torbury St Jude; I would be happy to fetch some if you have an interest?’

From the sound of it, the history would read like a bad penny dreadful. The last thing she wanted was a tale of death and skeletons. But Mr Underwood looked so earnest as he offered, she did not have the heart to rebuff him. ‘You are most kind.’

They fell silent, watching the graves. No hothouse flowers adorned the ground. Instead, thistles prickled. Their purple blooms were fading, turning to clutches of wispy seed.

‘Perhaps, Mrs Bainbridge, I will go and fetch your cousin for you,’ he said at last. ‘I trust she will be recovered.’

‘Yes. I hope she will. Thank you.’ She inclined her head as he strode away, his blond fringe bouncing around his temples.

The magpie had flown. She stared at the gate where it had sat, thinking of the little Jane Prices. Her veil fluttered in the breeze and made it look as if their graves were undulating. Waving to her.



Elsie awoke in a bad mood. For a second night, she had not slept well. The infuriating hiss had begun again, although it only lasted for an hour. After it stopped she had lain uneasy, teasing her mind for a way to help the village, and remembering poor Rupert in the chill crypt.

The bed was far too large without him. Although she was not the sort of wife that slept curled up around her husband, there was something reassuring about Rupert’s presence beneath the sheets and the occasional creak he made as he turned. It was as though he was guarding her. Without him, the other side of the mattress yawned

cold and sinister. So much space, so much opportunity for something else to slip in.

Without any assistance forthcoming from the maids, she dressed herself and managed to pin on her widow’s cap before making her way downstairs.

Mr Underwood’s words continued to trouble her. There must be something she could do for Fayford. She hadn’t seen any of the children, but judging by the state of the cow they would be skin and bones. Who knew what domestic horror they faced? Yet if their parents were afraid of the Bainbridges and their skeleton house, she could hardly go barging in with her goodwill basket and a condescending smile. It would be better to—

Motes danced in the air before her, making her cough. She stopped and glanced down at the steps. Her black skirts had brushed up a cloud of the stuff: a powder, unlike ordinary dust. Denser. She bent down, pinching a speck between her thumb and index finger. The grains were beige and coarse.

She raised her fingers to her nose. Her nostrils flared with scents that took her back to the factory. Something sharp and clean: linseed. And beneath that a deeper, nutty aroma. She sneezed. Yes – it was sawdust.


Sawdust, phosphorous, the whirl of the cutting blade . . .

Hurriedly, she brushed it away and slapped out her skirts, not wanting a trace of the stuff upon her.

Perhaps it was the beams supporting the ceiling; they might be crumbling, like everything else at The Bridge. She would have to ask Mrs Holt later on.

As she stood, the stairwell wobbled – she was going to faint. Leaning against the banister, she tottered down the last steps. Breathe, breathe.

Sometimes it happened like that; the slightest thing would hurtle her back in time, resurrect memories and reduce her to the state of a frightened child.

With the blood roaring in her ears, she reached the Great Hall and sucked in a ragged breath. She was here now, safe.

The past had taken enough from her already – she would not let it have her adult years too.

She took the door to the left of the fireplace and entered the dining room. Jolyon and Sarah were already seated at a mahogany table, the dandelion-gold brocade on the wall throwing a sickly shade over their skin. They took their napkins off their laps and rose to their feet as she entered.

‘There you are.’ Jolyon dabbed his mouth. ‘I am afraid we started without you. We were not sure if you would be down.’

The grandfather clock chimed.

‘I must go on as usual, I suppose.’ Her voice shook. She slumped into the chair Jolyon pulled out for her, just in time.

Servants lurked by the sideboard – the shabby maid Mabel and an older woman who must be Helen. She was a stout, jolly-looking thing, her face flushed in a permanent strawberry hue – no doubt the effect of standing over hot water for many years. Wisps of ginger hair escaped her cap at the temples. Elsie guessed her age at around forty.

Supervising both maids was a tall grey-haired man. He looked as if he had never smiled in his life.

Jolyon poured coffee while Helen served up buttered eggs on toast with herring, but the sawdust smell had turned Elsie’s stomach. She took her fork and toyed with the wobbly pile of egg.

‘Miss Bainbridge was just telling me about her time in the vicar’s house.’ Jolyon lifted the tails of his coat and sat back down beside her.

Sarah blushed up to the roots of her lanky hair. ‘Wasn’t it good of him, Mrs Bainbridge, to take me in like that? When he was so busy?’


‘He strikes me as a superior sort of man,’ Jolyon observed. ‘Not bred for the church, I think. At any rate, not a church in Fayford.’

‘No, he wasn’t,’ Sarah gabbled, warming to her subject. ‘He left a rich family and an inheritance to try and do some good. His father cut him off without a penny, but he had a little of his own money. He used it to get the living at Fayford. Did you ever hear of such a noble thing?’

Elsie placed a morsel of food in her mouth and chewed slowly. It was a mistake – the texture of the egg made her want to gag.

‘Are you well, Mrs Bainbridge?’

‘Yes, yes.’ She touched a napkin to her mouth and discreetly spat out the egg. ‘But what about you? Have you recovered from your faintness yesterday?’

‘Yes, thank you. I am much stronger today.’

‘I am glad to hear it. I expect you have had enough of funerals, after the death of Mrs Crabbly and your parents.’

‘Yes.’ Sarah took a shaky sip of her tea. ‘Although I didn’t attend Mrs Crabbly’s burial. She was awfully old-fashioned like that. She would have turned in her grave to know there had been a woman present at her funeral. But my parents . . .’ She stared into her tea.

‘Rupert did not tell me much about your parents,’ Elsie said gently.

‘Well, I can scarcely tell you more. I expect Rupert was better acquainted with them than I ever was. They put me out to Mrs Crabbly when I was eight, to train as a companion. We were never wealthy, you see, on our side of the family. Something to do with an argument between my grandfather and his father. So we all worked. My parents did not have a great deal of time for me.’ Sarah took another gulp of tea, as if to give her strength. ‘And then they were gone. There was no money for a funeral. I couldn’t have buried them if Rupert had not . . . He was always so good to me.’ Her voice thickened. ‘I wish . . .’

Embarrassed, Elsie picked up her fork and shredded her herring. She was beginning to regret treating the girl so flippantly. Sarah may be dull as ditchwater, but she had suffered. ‘I am so sorry.’

Jolyon cleared his throat. ‘We understand, Miss Bainbridge.’ He did not meet Elsie’s eye. ‘We also lost our parents at a young age.’

Sarah shook her head, hair slipping from her chignon. ‘It doesn’t do to dwell upon it. But you can see why I was so grateful to Mr Underwood and his servant for looking after me. Did you know that Mr Underwood gave me the very last of his tea? I felt awful taking it. His cupboards were so sparse. Only a sliver of sugar, and absolutely no milk!’

‘Milk!’ Elsie speared a piece of herring triumphantly. ‘Of course, that is the answer. That is how I can help the village! Jolyon, you must make enquiries. I am going to adopt the cow.’

Jolyon snorted into his coffee. The maids shifted by the sideboard. ‘What cow?’

‘The cow I saw on my way here. Poor old beast, it looked quite done in. The more I think on it, the more I believe she was asking me for help. If I buy the cow, I can bring her here to get nice and fat, and then she will produce milk. We can make cheese. And I can give the milk and the cheese to the villagers, for free.’

‘You are a goose, Elsie.’ He placed his cup down. ‘Why not simply call on the villagers with a basket?’

‘It will feel less condescending this way. Don’t you think?’

Jolyon raised his hands. ‘It does not matter what I say. You are sure to do just as you please. But you will have to get Mr Stilford here, or Mrs Holt, to make your enquiries. I am returning to London by this afternoon’s train.’

‘This afternoon!’

‘I am afraid so. Speaking to the gentlemen at the funeral made me realise how pressing business matters are.’

‘But . . .’ How could he abandon her, leave her alone with Sarah? ‘When will you be back?’

‘Not for a good while, I should think.’ His lips compressed; she sensed there were things he could not say in front of Sarah. ‘I am sorry, Elsie. But I have to go back. For the factory.’

And how could she argue with that? She, who had given so much for that place?

‘Of course. Of course, I understand.’



When Jolyon’s carriage departed in a spray of gravel, Elsie was left despondent. The place felt even bigger, emptier without him. She wandered around her room and the summer parlour but found nothing to do.

Grey clouds bubbled up outside. Wind lashed at the trees. Even the light within the house was subdued and grainy. All she could hear was the tick of the clock, the groaning of the walls and a maid, brushing a hearth somewhere on the first floor.

She did not like being alone in this house: she felt it was watching her. Sensing her movements within its walls, as she felt the baby flutter inside her belly.

It was no good. She needed company, no matter how dire. After two hours of boredom she padded down the maroon corridor, past

the ghastly marble busts, towards Sarah’s room.

Knocking once, she entered to find Sarah curled up on her bed with a book and Mrs Holt’s cat, Jasper. The room was remarkably like her own – only, as Jolyon had said, mirrored. The trees waving outside Sarah’s windows were a treasury of gold and bronze; Elsie’s side had the coppers, the burnt reds.

‘Oh! Mrs Bainbridge. I did not expect you.’ Sarah placed a mark in her book and rose, embarrassed, to her feet. Jasper merely watched her – he did not forfeit his spot on the bed. ‘I’m sorry. Did you need me?’

‘Yes. As a matter of fact, I am going to explore the house. I want you to join me.’

‘Explore?’ Sarah’s brown eyes widened. ‘Why, are we – I mean . . .

I suppose Mrs Holt won’t mind?’

‘Mrs Holt? What has she to do with it? This is my house. I can do as I like.’

‘Yes. I suppose you can.’ For a moment, Sarah’s wide mouth sagged. Perhaps it occurred to her, as it did to Elsie, that she had been pushed out of the inheritance. But then a happier thought seemed to inspire Sarah, for she smiled and said, ‘This house has belonged to my family for a long time. It is the only part of them I still have. A connection. I would like to explore ever so much.’

Elsie held out her gloved hand. ‘Come along, then.’

Sarah hesitated. Elsie suddenly remembered exposing her coarse hands the night they had first arrived: palms the colour and texture of pork rind. She tried not to let the consciousness show on her face.

‘What are you afraid of?’

With a quick release of breath, Sarah stepped forwards.

They started at the very bottom of the house. The Bridge was, in fact, much larger than they had imagined. It seemed to twist into itself. Leading off the Great Hall, across from the fireplace Elsie had warmed herself at that first night, they found a drawing room panelled with dark wood up to shoulder height. Blue-grey paper covered the rest of the walls; its shade reminded Elsie of dead cornflowers. It was a cold room, full of marble urns and tapestries.

‘Why would you withdraw here?’ she asked. ‘I’d wager there are workhouses decorated with more warmth.’

The drawing room connected to a vast, powder-pink space filled with instruments. A mottled harp leant against the window, as if pining to get out. One of its strings had snapped. Elsie ran her eyes up the rose-coloured curtains that blocked out the daylight. The ceiling was scalloped, like the white icing around the top of a cake.

Sarah flew towards the grand piano, opened it and pressed a key. A plume of dust rose up with the note. ‘I can play the piano,’ she said. ‘Just little pieces. Mrs Crabbly used to like them. I will play for you tonight.’

It was a testament to how dreary Elsie felt that she actually looked forward to it.

Next came a card room, decorated in green. A stuffed stag head loomed over them from the wall, his antlers casting shadows like the branches of a tree.

‘How macabre.’ Elsie wrinkled her nose.

‘Do you really think so?’ Sarah gazed up at the mounted head. The fur was dirty. Each light brown eyelash was carefully separated, revealing the ebony marbles encased within the sockets. ‘There’s beauty in it. Ordinarily this fellow would be rotting, but instead he is here, still majestic. Preserved forever.’

‘Stuck in The Bridge for the rest of his days? I can’t envy him that.’

The stag marked the end of the wing; there was no escape but back through the music room and drawing room. When they returned to the Great Hall, the red-haired maid emerged from the green baize door on the servants’ side.

‘Helen!’ The maid pulled up sharp at the sound of Elsie’s voice. ‘It is Helen, isn’t it?’ She nodded dumbly and her legs bent in a curtsy far superior to Mabel’s. ‘Helen, now that the funeral is over, I want you to turn the pictures on the second storey. And anywhere else, for that matter. Miss Bainbridge and I want to look at the portraits. Can you do that for me?’

‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘Excellent.’

Curtsying again, Helen turned and went back through the baize door. They heard her feet through the walls, climbing the spiral staircase. Elsie and Sarah ascended the wider, carpeted steps reserved for the family.

‘There was sawdust here earlier,’ Elsie said, watching carefully. ‘It seems to have gone.’

The first floor started off well, with a honey-coloured parlour adjoining a billiard room in the west wing. But as they made their way to the east wing, Elsie felt a nauseous chill take hold of her. Some sixth sense told her what they were about to see.

‘Oh, look, Mrs Bainbridge! How darling!’ Sarah dashed forward, leaving her leaning on the door jamb. ‘Look at the little nursery!’

A child might have played there only yesterday. It was spotless. The flower-patterned paper showed no signs of age and the carpet, a bright chintz of red and yellow, had been beaten and washed. A rocking horse stood proud and gleaming in the centre of the room, little dapples of white across its rump. Sarah pushed it and giggled as it bumped on green castors.

Elsie looked around. The horse was not the only toy. Dolls were arranged round a miniature table set out for tea. On the floor beside them was a wooden Noah’s ark, complete with animals. A high screen sat in front of the fireplace. Within range of the heat hung a cot trimmed with swathes of lemon fabric. It was joined by an iron bedstead covered in a patchwork quilt for an older child. Her throat closed up.

‘There is a schoolroom beyond,’ said Sarah.

‘I think I have done enough exploring for the day.’

She drifted back to the gallery and looked down on the Great Hall. The grey and black flags danced before her eyes. Dear God, she couldn’t do it. They might as well ask her to go to Oxford and sit an exam. She could not be an ordinary mother to an ordinary baby.

All those toys, the memorabilia of childhood. Perhaps it was different if you grew up happy, with memories of your father dandling you on his knee and your mother kissing your tears away. But for Elsie there was nothing but fear. Fear for the baby. Fear of the baby.

Jolyon had turned out all right, she reminded herself. But it was easier with Jolyon being a boy. What if Rupert’s baby was born a girl? She could not love a daughter that looked like her. She could not bear to glance upon a mirror of her past without being sick.

‘Mrs Bainbridge?’ Sarah crept to her side. ‘Are you unwell?’ ‘No. Just . . . weary.’

‘Will we explore again tomorrow?’

‘There is not much left to see. The library and the summer parlour are on the same floor as our bedrooms, we can go there any time. And then there is only . . .’ Her brow grew tight with the memory of the garret. That night and the sound rasping just beyond the door, out of reach. What had it been?

She could not believe it was rats – not a noise like that. She wanted to know the truth. Raising a hand, she pulled a pin from underneath her cap. Two blonde curls tumbled down.

‘Mrs Bainbridge?’

‘How would you like to see me pick a lock?’



The passageway on the third floor appeared less eerie by daylight. It was a different corridor to the one she had cringed down. The Dutch tiles revealed their copper colour and clacked beneath her boots. She noticed clouds of damp and little cracks she had not seen on the walls before.

‘I don’t believe you, Mrs Bainbridge. You are poking fun at me.

You cannot really pick a lock.’

Elsie grinned. ‘You will see. I am a most resourceful woman.’ She turned the hairpin between her gloved fingers. It had been a long time since she’d done this. There were no locked doors at the factory, these days.

A pattering sounded on the tiles behind. She looked round and saw Jasper, scampering to join them.

‘Oh, bless him.’ Sarah stopped to wait. When Jasper drew level with her he brushed against her leg, making her dress sigh.

‘How fortunate you are, Sarah. You have a firm friend there.’ It was strange, but she did not seem able to traverse this corridor without the cat. Was he guarding something? Or did his arrival mean Mrs Holt was nearby? It was one thing to let Sarah see her pick a lock; quite another to do it before the housekeeper. ‘Come along then. Hurry. We must do this while the light is still good.’

She saw the door at the end of the corridor; three shallow steps rising to a barrier of chipped wood. It did not look sturdy. She did not see how it could contain a nest of squirrels or rats. Surely their rapacious little teeth would have gnawed through it by now?

She was just about to mount the steps when Jasper streaked past her, mewing. ‘Foolish chap!’ He stood before the door as he had done that night, green eyes shining, and miaowed. She turned to Sarah. ‘Perhaps it is a good thing we have him with us. Mrs Holt thinks there may be some type of rodent living there.’ Sarah shuddered. ‘Don’t be afraid. They cannot hurt you. And the cat will kill them.’

‘I do not think I can watch that. I hate mice.’

‘Very well. You stand back here, then, while I attend to the lock. Jasper and I will go through.’ She paused. Hopefully she was not about to make one of the skeletal discoveries Mr Underwood had mentioned. ‘I must confess, I am curious to see what manner of beast is in there. You would not believe the strange sound they made.’

‘Oh! But I have heard it, at night. Is this where it comes from?’ Sarah looked at the door with wide eyes. Something in her expression made Elsie’s stomach clench. ‘Could – could an animal produce that sound?’

Jasper mewed, and scratched at the door. It was a dull imitation of the hiss she heard at night. Thin white lines marked the wood where he had worried it over time. ‘Jasper. Come away.’

He looked at her, his emerald eyes inscrutable, his paw suspended.

Then he swatted the door again. It creaked ajar.

Sarah stepped back. ‘Look! It’s open.’

Elsie could not believe her luck. ‘Mrs Holt must have written to Torbury St Jude for a locksmith. I didn’t expect her to be so prompt.’ She jammed the hairpin back under her cap. ‘I’m going in to explore.’

No creatures skittered out from the opening – that was a good sign. Mounting the steps, she stood next to Jasper and peeked inside. The air was still and heavy. There were no rats, no squirrels, no skeletons; just trunks and old furniture. Dust coated every surface, thick as velvet. ‘Sarah,’ she called back. ‘It’s quite safe.’ She coughed, then sneezed. ‘Rather dusty, but safe.’

She pushed the door and watched it swing back on its hinges with a prolonged whine. She expected Jasper to dart in ahead of her, but instead he turned tail and fled back the way they had come. She laughed; coughed again. ‘Cats. They are such perverse creatures, are they not?’

She took four steps into the room, her hem sweeping up a cloud of dust. The garret looked as if time had stood still for centuries. Cobwebs festooned the corners but no insects writhed within them; all were dead in cocoons or shrivelled and dry. By the far wall slumped a clock that no longer ticked. Its face was smashed and the hands hung at odd angles. Holland sheets covered square shapes that might be portraits.

She walked to a table beside the smeared window. It was heaped with yellow-paged books. Dust obscured the titles. With the tip of one finger she prodded through the pile. A few volumes lower down the stack still had clean covers. Treatises on gardening from two centuries back. Some leather-bound pads that looked like journals. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and a Generall Historie of Plantes by Gerard. ‘Sarah, come in!’ She tried not to inhale too much dust as she called. ‘There are no mice. But there are books.’

Sarah’s long face appeared, hovering beside the door. ‘Books?’ ‘Yes, if you can still read them. Mouldy old things! I think some of

these have been here since the Norman Conquest at least.’

Sarah padded to her side. ‘Oh! My goodness.’ Reverently, she picked up the volumes with the tips of her fingers. Tidemarks misted some of the pages; others were as yellow and thin as onion skin. ‘Receipts. Ingredients. A list of farrier bills. Oh, look at this! Sixteen thirty-five! Can you believe it?’ She blew to clear dust from the cover. ‘“The Diary of Anne Bainbridge”. Two volumes of it. Why, she must be one of my ancestors!’

‘Not a very interesting one, if her diaries have been rotting here for two hundred years,’ Elsie observed. She put a foot out and tested the floorboard. It creaked, but held. ‘I wonder what could be under these sheets?’ She threw one back with a flourish. Dust exploded out. They both gagged for breath. When the air cleared, it revealed a rocking chair and a small case that looked like a physician’s travelling store of medicine. Elsie pulled it open. Clear glass bottles with cork stoppers rattled inside. ‘Must have been an apothecary in the family,’ she said. ‘The residue at the bottom looks like herbs.’

Sarah turned, clutching a book against her bosom. ‘Let me see.’ She took two steps towards Elsie – then shrieked.

Elsie dropped the bottle she was holding. It cracked open and released a mouldy, underground smell. ‘What? What is it?’

‘There’s something there . . . Eyes.’

‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous . . .’ Her voice subsided as she followed Sarah’s gaze.

Sarah was right. Green-brown eyes lurked in the shadows at the back of the room. A white sheet concealed most of the face, but she could see the pupils, trained on her with an unnatural scrutiny.

‘A painting. It is just a painting, Sarah. Look, it does not blink.’

Elsie dug through the clutter, pulling and pushing objects out of her way. Dust powdered her dress grey, trailing from the hem in ribbons. The painted eyes kindled as she grew closer, as if greeting an old friend.

Elsie seized the end of the sheet covering the portrait and dragged it away. The material snagged as it moved, finally coming loose with a ripping sound.

‘Oh!’ Sarah cried. ‘It’s . . . it’s . . .’ It’s me, Elsie thought with horror.

It was a girl, about nine or ten. A button nose and pursed lips. Eyes that simultaneously beckoned and dared you to come closer. She was staring into the face of the child she had been: the girl with her youth ripped out.

How? Her mind stuttered and stopped. The face before her eyes was her own, yet she felt no kinship with it. Go away, she wanted to scream. Go away, I am afraid of you.

‘It is not a painting,’ Sarah said. ‘That is – it’s painted, but it is not a canvas. It seems to be free-standing.’ She put her book down, pushed forwards and poked her head around the back of the figure. ‘Ah, no. It is flat. But it has a wooden prop, you see?’

Elsie’s field of vision expanded. The face shrank into proportion and she saw the painted girl in full. Waist-height, like a real child, the figure represented was dressed in olive silk with a gold lace trim. A tissue apron drifted around her legs. She did not have blonde hair like Elsie; it was red-brown and piled up onto her head in a kind of pyramid, threaded with orange ribbon and beads. She held a basket of roses and herbs at her waist. The other hand was raised, pressing a white bloom against her heart. She was not of this century; perhaps not even of the last.

‘Remarkable.’ Sarah rested a hand on the outline of a shoulder. The colours had faded with age and there were little scuffs on the

woodwork. ‘It is as if someone has cut out the figure from a painting and mounted it on a plank of wood.’

‘Does it . . . Does it not remind you of anyone?’

Sarah nibbled her lower lip. ‘A little. Around the eyes. It must be one of the Bainbridge ancestors. We cannot be surprised if she looks a bit like Rupert.’

‘Rupert?’ she repeated incredulously. But then she saw it: just a whisper, creeping through the chipped paint. She looks like me and Rupert. Her heart seized. Was this what her baby would look like?

Sarah ran her hand along the wooden edge of the arm. ‘She’s beautiful. We must take her downstairs. Let’s put her in the Great Hall. We might be able to lift her between us. If we – oh!’ She sprang back. A shard of wood impaled her palm. ‘Ouch.’

‘Come here.’ Carefully, Elsie held Sarah’s fingers within her gloved ones. ‘Grit your teeth. One, two – three!’

The splinter slid out. Beads of blood welled up from the puncture mark; Sarah raised it to her mouth and sucked.

‘These antiques do fall apart,’ Elsie said. ‘Probably best to leave the thing where it is.’

‘Oh no, Mrs Bainbridge, please! I would so love to have her in the house.’

Elsie shivered. ‘Well, perhaps you should get a servant to move it for you,’ she said reluctantly. ‘Thicker skin.’

Behind them, the floorboards screeched. ‘Dash it!’

Elsie spun around. Mabel the maid lay crumpled beside the door with her skirts spread about her.

‘Heaven above, what are you doing, Mabel?’

‘Tain’t nothing I’ve done! Floorboard gave way and swallowed me foot!’

‘Goodness me!’ Sarah rushed forward, her own injury forgotten. ‘Are you hurt? Can you feel the ankle?’

‘Yes, I can darn well feel it! Hurts like hell.’ Mabel bit down on a spurt of pain. ‘Miss.’

Taking an arm each, Elsie and Sarah wedged their shoulders beneath Mabel’s armpits and hauled her free. A smell emerged from the hole in the boards; something reeking of wet ashes and decomposition.

Seated on the floor, Mabel reached out to prod her ankle. ‘Torn right through to my stocking. Lucky the whole bleedin’ leg didn’t come off.’

‘We had better fetch Mrs Holt,’ said Elsie. ‘I am sure she will have a poultice to put on it. Whatever were you doing, Mabel, sneaking up behind us?’

Mabel lowered her chin onto her chest. She looked more truculent than ever. ‘Didn’t mean no harm. This door ain’t been open since I come here. Wondered what was inside. Then I heard Miss Sarah cry out, like. Thought she needed help. Lot of thanks I gets for it,’ she added sourly.

‘I’m very grateful,’ Sarah said. ‘Come here, I’ll wrap your skirt around the cut. Keep pushing on it until we can bind it with some bandages.’ She moved tenderly, but Mabel still moaned. ‘How strange that you should come in just then! Mrs Bainbridge and I were about to fetch you. We wanted your help moving our new discovery downstairs.’

‘What discovery?’ Sarah pointed to the wooden figure. Mabel looked up and recoiled. ‘Bleedin’ heck. What’s that?’

‘Mabel,’ Elsie said, ‘I appreciate you are injured but that is no excuse for your continued bad language. Please remember the company you are in.’

‘Sorry, ma’am,’ she mumbled, although she did not sound contrite. ‘It’s just – I never seen anything like that before. What is it, a picture?’

‘No. We believe it is some kind of ornament for the floor. A standing figure. Not a statue or a painting but somewhere in between.’

‘I don’t like it.’ Mabel’s jaw set. ‘Looks at me funny. Would give me the creeps, something like that.’

‘Hogwash,’ said Elsie. ‘It is no different from the portraits that hang in the corridor.’

‘It is,’ Mabel insisted. ‘It’s nasty. Don’t like it.’

Elsie’s skin prickled. She found it uncanny herself, but she was not about to admit that to a servant. ‘It is not necessary for you to like it. You are required only to move it for Miss Sarah and clean it.’

Mabel pouted. As if coming to her defence, a fresh pulse of blood pushed up through the gash on her ankle. ‘Can’t do no cleaning now,

can I?’

Elsie sighed. ‘I suppose I had better fetch Helen.’



Helen regarded the wooden figure, hands planted on her broad hips. Crinkles appeared beside her eyes as she squinted through the dust. ‘Is this new, ma’am?’

‘New?’ Elsie echoed. ‘No, I expect it is very old.’

‘No, ma’am, I meant new to the house. I’m sure the master had something like it.’

A spasm in her shoulder muscles. To hear Rupert spoken of like that, as if he were still present, still in charge here. ‘He never mentioned such an object to me. We didn’t have one in London, and if he found one here . . . Well, I have not seen another around the house, have you?’

Helen shrugged and picked up the figure. ‘Can’t say I have, ma’am.’

‘Then what makes you suppose Mr Bainbridge owned one?’

‘He was a nice man, Mr Bainbridge,’ Helen said as she manoeuvred the wooden figure past the hole in the floor and out through the garret door. ‘No airs about him. He used to chat with me, when I was dusting in the library. One day he starts to tell me about figures from Amsterdam, just like this one. Said he was researching them from a book.’

Outside in the corridor, Elsie squashed her crinoline against the wall to make space. ‘Indeed? I cannot think why that topic would interest him.’

‘Me neither, ma’am. I didn’t ask, because I just presumed he owned one.’

Rupert always possessed an active, enquiring mind. That was what led him to Livingstone’s match factory. He loved the idea of progress and new inventions. She had not realised he was interested in the past, too.

Helen’s words made her feel better about taking the strange wooden girl downstairs. It might be unsettling, but it was another link to Rupert. He might have warmed to the figure himself, if he had ever opened the garret.

‘Did Mr Bainbridge say what these figures were, Helen?’

‘Called them companions. Silent companions.’

Elsie’s lips curled. She looked down the corridor to where Sarah supported a limping Mabel. ‘Did you hear that, Sarah? Helen calls it a companion! Mrs Crabbly might have saved her money. Your species have been replaced by wooden statues.’

‘Oh, how wicked you are!’ Sarah laughed. ‘I would dearly love to see a piece of wood plump cushions, read poetry, play the piano and make gruel. If it did, I’d get one myself.’

Helen pulled her sleeve down over her knuckles and tucked the companion under her arm. It lay horizontally, as if it had fallen into a swoon.

‘This way,’ said Elsie. ‘Miss Sarah wants it in the Great Hall. Not too close to the fire, mind. She can greet our guests as they arrive.’

‘Guests, ma’am?’

She grimaced. ‘You are right. I don’t suppose we will have any for a while.’

‘Oh!’ Sarah pulled up in the corridor ahead of them. ‘Mrs Bainbridge, would you mind going back? I’m terribly sorry . . . I left one of the diaries behind. What with poor Mabel’s accident, I forgot to pick up the second volume. I would so dearly love to read my ancestor’s story.’

Elsie glanced over her shoulder. She did not want to be running up and down; she was already tired out by the day’s exertion. ‘Can it not wait until later? I—’ She stopped, confused. The door to the garret was shut. She had not heard it close. ‘Helen,’ she scolded, ‘I told you to leave the garret door open. God knows it needs a good airing.’

‘I didn’t close it, ma’am.’

‘Didn’t close it? What do you think that is, then?’ She pointed back.

Helen puffed out her red cheeks. ‘Sorry, ma’am. I don’t remember doing it.’

Where did Mrs Holt find such servants? ‘will go and open it,’ she sighed, ‘while I fetch Miss Sarah’s book.’

‘Thank you ever so much, I do appreciate it. If you could leave it in my room I would be most grateful,’ Sarah called. ‘It might have a record of the visit from Charles I! I will put Mabel to bed. And perhaps you might see if Mrs Holt—’

‘Yes, yes, I will fetch her too.’ She walked back with sharp, irritable steps, her crinoline bouncing behind her. What was the point of being mistress of the house if you had to do all the work yourself?

Remembering how Jasper had simply swatted the door open, she stretched out a hand as she approached the garret. Her palm struck the wood hard; her shoulder jolted back. She grunted and tried again, using a little more force. The door did not budge. ‘What?’ She reached for the doorknob; rattled it from side to side. It would not turn. ‘Damnation.’

There must be something in the latch that stuck – that was why it had jammed before. They would need to get someone in to replace the mechanism, or perhaps fit a whole new door. Another job to be done.

Wearily, Elsie retraced her steps and began the long descent to the ground floor. Really, she was not feeling entirely well. It must be this house: the weight of it pressing on her. After she had spoken with Mrs Holt, she would have a lie-down.

She passed Helen in the Great Hall, adjusting the companion beside the window. ‘Thought I’d set her here,’ Helen grinned, ‘so as she can see out.’ She cocked her head. ‘Looks a bit like you, she does, ma’am.’

In the stronger light the wooden girl’s resemblance to Elsie was more pronounced. It made the skin on her scalp tingle.

‘A little. Isn’t that strange?’ Taking one last look, she crossed over to the west wing and disappeared through the green baize door of the servants’ quarters.

On this side of the wall, the air was thick with mingled smells of soap, ash and burnt fat. A warren of bare walls and stone wound deeper into the house, the path just visible through oily light.

Mrs Holt’s room was marked Housekeeper with white letters. Elsie knocked on the door – the second time today that she had knocked for admittance to a room in her own house.

‘Come in.’

She squeezed into a room with an atmosphere that reminded her of pea soup. A single lamp burnt upon the desk, throwing an anaemic glow over Mrs Holt’s papers and drawers. The housekeeper

turned in her plain wooden chair and, seeing her mistress, started to her feet. ‘Why, Mrs Bainbridge! This is unexpected. Please come in.’

A little table was set for tea with blue and white cups. Elsie sat down in relief. She was too ashamed of her weariness to ask for a drink, but she wished Mrs Holt would offer one.

‘I was going to come and see you,’ Mrs Holt confessed as she tidied the papers on her desk. ‘We’ve just had a delivery from Torbury St Jude and I wanted to consult you about the menus I’ve drawn up.’

‘I am sure they will suit perfectly well. We will live very quietly, Miss Sarah and I, until Mr Livingstone returns.’

‘I expect you will, madam. But that is no reason not to enjoy your food.’

‘Very true. Actually, Mrs Holt, while I am down here . . . There is a matter I need to discuss with you.’

‘Yes, madam?’

It was only Mrs Holt looking back at her with those bleared, yellow eyes, so why did it feel like a furious light trained upon her face? She swallowed, not knowing how to start. This was nothing to be ashamed of, she reminded herself. This baby was conceived honestly, however misbegotten it might feel. ‘We will soon be in need of . . . extra staff. Yet Mabel has led me to believe that no person from Fayford will consent to work at this house?’

‘Ah.’ The lines in Mrs Holt’s face deepened. Elsie nodded for her to sit. ‘It’s a very strange situation, madam. There’s been a long feud between the village and the family – dating back, I think, all the way to the Civil War. They believe one of our ladies was a witch, or some other silly thing.’

Elsie stared down at the tablecloth and its small wreaths of embroidered flowers. When Mabel had said the villagers were afraid of the house, she had imagined ghosts and goblins, not a witch. But everyone knew that in those days women could be, and often were, accused of witchcraft for all manner of things. ‘Did you at least try to recruit in Fayford, Mrs Holt?’

‘Oh yes. But you see my case was not helped by the Roberts family. One of them was a footman here around the turn of the century, and he met with an unlucky accident.’

‘What do you mean, accident?’

Mrs Holt pressed a hand to her chest and adjusted a cameo brooch. ‘No one is sure how it happened. The poor soul fell all the way from the gallery into the Great Hall. Broke his neck, of course. A great tragedy. But some of the Roberts maintain, even now, that he was pushed.’

‘By whom?’

‘Well, that particular master lost his wife shortly after. There’s a story about the Roberts man being the wife’s admirer . . . You know how these things go.’ Mrs Holt waved her hand. The flesh upon it was like chicken skin. ‘A jealous husband, taking revenge.’

‘Upon my word, the village seems full of stories, and all of them about us.’

Mrs Holt smiled. ‘Country folk, madam. They must have something to keep the winter nights occupied. But have no fear. I am sure we will find some excellent workers elsewhere, for both your house and your garden.’

‘Let us hope so.’ Clearing her throat, she went on, ‘You see, I have cause to be particular about my staff. There will soon be – I mean, come spring – I have reason to hope there may be . . .’ Heat rushed to her face. There was no delicate way to say it.

‘You don’t mean . . . Bless me, Mrs Bainbridge, are you telling me that you have sprained your ankle?’

Sprained your ankle. She hadn’t heard that expression in years – a common phrase, but it did the trick. ‘Yes. The baby should arrive in May.’ It was unsettling to see tears sparkle in the old lady’s eyes. Embarrassed, she hurried on. ‘I will need nursemaids, and also a new lady’s maid for myself. I mean to go into Torbury St Jude and visit the Registry Office. Is that where you found Mabel and Helen?’

Mrs Holt opened her mouth. Closed it. ‘I – I did not have a large salary to offer, madam. And given the deserted nature of the estate, without a resident family or opportunity for progression . . .’ She twisted in her chair. ‘I found it better to take girls from the workhouse, madam.’

‘The workhouse,’ she said flatly. Of course, that explained so much. ‘I suppose they did not have any formal training?’

Mrs Holt blushed. ‘Helen did.’

‘And how exactly did Helen come to leave service?’

Again, Mrs Holt fiddled with her brooch. ‘I have not enquired into it.’

‘I must say, I am astonished you could think such women suitable for employment in my house! You knew nothing of their characters. How did you ascertain if they were honest? And how can I trust them near my child? Mabel is a terrible influence. She has left trays of food to grow foul in my room. The language she uses, her inability to even curtsy – I cannot risk my child copying such behaviour!’

‘I can only apologise. I will speak to her, madam. They’re not used to serving a mistress and perhaps I have been too soft on them, in the past.’ She took a breath. ‘But I’ve found their general cleaning and cooking quite satisfactory.’

‘I wish that I could say the same. The amount of dust in the maroon corridor is phenomenal. I even found sawdust, of all things, upon the stairs – where could that have come from? Some of the carpets look as if they have never been beaten, which I cannot comprehend when the nursery is in such perfect order.’

Mrs Holt’s head jerked up. ‘The nursery?’

‘Yes. That is one room I will thankfully have no need to prepare. It is practically ready for my child.’

Mrs Holt looked at her strangely. ‘Perhaps there has been some confusion. The girls rarely go into the nursery.’

‘You are mistaken, Mrs Holt. They have even been brushing the rocking horse and setting up dollies’ tea parties.’

‘Dear me.’ Mrs Holt shook her head. ‘I had no idea. Helen told me she was afraid of that room. Everything was covered up with dustsheets.’

‘Not this morning. Come, I will show you.’ She stood.

Mrs Holt rose too, grasping at the keys dangling from her waist. ‘I hardly ever go there,’ she confessed. ‘The servants’ stairs lead up to the landing just outside. If you do not mind?’

‘Not at all. I am quite capable of going up servants’ stairs.’

Elsie spoke bravely, but she had cause to regret it. There was no space for her crinoline; it jammed and stuck out behind her in a hefty tail which she lugged from step to step.

They emerged onto the landing she had crossed with Sarah earlier that day. She followed Mrs Holt to the door. Once again, that tense,

unsettled feeling held her captive. It is just a nursery, she told herself. There is no need to cry.

Mrs Holt jangled the keys at her waist and slipped one into the lock. It clicked as the tumblers moved.

‘But it was not locked when—’ It could not be. It was simply not possible.

The airy, perfectly manicured room had perished. Tatty curtains covered the windows, admitting only sparks of light. The dolls were gone. The ark was gone. A few toy chests remained, but they were coated in the dust of countless years. Great white sheets, like those in the garret, formed lumpy shapes where the rocking horse and the cot had been. Rust spotted the firescreen and the iron bedstead.

Mrs Holt did not speak.

‘I – it’s not—’ Words swarmed into her mouth, but she could not form any of them. How could it be? Striding over to the crib, she took hold of the sheet. ‘Right here, there was the most beautiful . . .’ She gasped. As the sheet slithered away, a musty smell of camphor welled up. The shape of the crib endured, but the delicate draperies were moth-eaten and stained.

‘I didn’t think the girls would trouble it much,’ Mrs Holt said carefully. ‘It’s a sad place. Not opened except for a sweep every few months, since the little ones went.’

Elsie stared at her. The nursery had been glorious. She could not have imagined the things she had seen. Sarah was there too – she had pushed the horse.

‘What – what did you say? The little ones?’

Metal keys clunked together as Mrs Holt shifted her stance. ‘Yes, God bless them.’

‘Whose little ones?’

‘The – the master and mistress. That is, Master Rupert’s parents.

He was the third child – or so I was told.’

Elsie leant against the crib. It creaked. ‘You knew Rupert’s parents? Before they died?’

‘I did, madam. I did.’ All at once she looked older and profoundly sad. ‘I worked for them in London. Just a lass I was, then. Saw Master Rupert delivered.’ Her voice grew hoarse. ‘He – he was the first of the babes to be born away from The Bridge. The others died, they said, before the move. That was the reason they relocated to

London.’ She looked away. ‘You can imagine how it would be, living in a house where you have lost a child.’

‘The other babies died?’ Elsie looked down at the decaying crib and felt sick. She released the edge and it swayed, empty. God, what a heritage for her baby: a nervous mother and a nursery of death. ‘Mrs Holt, I do not wish to upset you. But—’ She took a hesitant step towards her. ‘You were one of the last people to see my husband alive. No one has told me exactly how he died. He did not write that he was ill. Was he taken, suddenly?’

Mrs Holt withdrew a handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes. ‘Ah, madam. It was a shock to us all. He seemed hale and hearty –perhaps a little preoccupied. I was under the impression he was not sleeping. But he did not seem like to die!’

‘And then . . .?’ She held her breath.

‘Helen found him. Gave a shriek I won’t ever forget. Chilled me to the very bone, it did.’

‘But how? How did he die?’

‘Peacefully madam, don’t you fret. Peacefully. In his bed, tucked up warm.’

‘Not my bed?’

‘No, no. The bedroom just next door. The coroner thought it was his heart. They can give out suddenly, he said. Sometimes a person carries an unsound heart all their life and they never know until –well, they never know.’

So the heart that was so warm and kind had burnt itself out. She sighed. ‘I hope there was not much pain. I saw splinters, near his neck. Do you have any idea how they got there?’

Mrs Holt narrowed her eyes. ‘Splinters? I don’t know, madam. Sometimes those embalmers do strange things. But as to how Helen found him, it didn’t look like there was a struggle. A sudden seizure, maybe. His eyes were open.’ A tear leaked out of her eye and made a tributary of one of her wrinkles. ‘I saw his eyes open, madam, and I closed them for him. God forgive us, what a world this is.’

‘A cruel world to the Bainbridges.’ Elsie thought for a moment. ‘But Mrs Holt, you said you were present when Rupert was born in London. How did you come to be here?’

She patted her eyes and folded the handkerchief, staring down at it. ‘That was the master’s doing.’

‘Rupert’s father?’

‘Yes.’ She hesitated – Elsie thought she was choosing her words with care. ‘He was fond of me. I helped him with the missus. She was in a bad way, the poor love. Never really recovered from the birth. Just before we lost her, she had the strangest notions about this place. Used to rattle on about it with a kind of . . . wild sadness.’

‘What do you mean by strange notions?’

Mrs Holt shook her head. ‘I don’t know. Couldn’t make much sense of it. She used to talk about this nursery and the rocking horse a great deal. All gibberish. But after she went, thoughts of it troubled the master too. That’s why he asked me to come. Said his wife would rest easier, knowing someone was keeping an eye on the house.’ The trace of a smile played at the corners of her bracketed mouth. ‘I didn’t want to go. Didn’t want to leave little Rupert just when he was learning to walk. But the master talked me round, in the end.’


She laughed. ‘Flattery. Flattery and bribery, what else? For a girl so young to be promoted to housekeeper – that’s not an opportunity you turn down. Not if you want to keep your mother in her old age. He was a hard, strange man was Mr Bainbridge, but he said the most curious thing. It’s stayed with me ever since. “That house needs someone young and pure,” he told me. “Someone good. Without bitterness. You must be its angel, Edna.” Silly, isn’t it? But it touched me. I’ve always tried, since that day. Tried to be the angel he thought I was.’

Elsie chewed her lip again. The skin was hot and raw. ‘No. It’s not silly. But why did Rupert not come to live with you after his father died? It would have made sense for him to come here.’

‘I would have liked that.’ Mrs Holt looked fondly at the shape of the rocking horse in its shroud. ‘But family on his mother’s side took him in. Town people. Didn’t have time for jaunts to the country.’

‘But all that time! Weren’t they ever curious to see the house?’ ‘Well, they were his mother’s people. They knew about the other

poor mites dying here, and how she jabbered on about the place. Didn’t think she would forgive them if they brought her child back.’ It seemed absurd that no one had attempted to claim the house for all this time. No lurking, four-times-removed connection. ‘It is

astonishing how unlucky a family can be. Three children and nothing remains.’

Mrs Holt cleared her throat. ‘Except . . .’

Except her own baby. She placed a hand on her stomach. The nausea returned.

‘I have been very neglectful, Mrs Holt. All this talk of Rupert’s family has made me forget my original errand. I came to tell you that Mabel has hurt her leg. She was following me in the garret.’

‘The garret, madam?’

‘Yes. There is another thing I have forgotten. I was supposed to thank you. It was so good of you to write after we spoke. But whoever you got in will have to come back, I’m afraid. The door is quite stuck again.’

Mrs Holt regarded her as if she had sprouted a second head. ‘I don’t understand . . .’

‘The door,’ Elsie repeated. ‘The door to the garret. You had someone come from Torbury to open it and it has got stuck again. I need you to write them another letter.’

‘But – but I can’t. I think there must be some mistake—’

‘For heaven’s sake, why? Why cannot you fetch the person back in?’

Mrs Holt shrank away. ‘Because, madam, I never wrote to Torbury St Jude.’

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