Chapter no 6

The Silent Companions

There were two.

Elsie stared from one to the other, searching for a clue in their inscrutable wooden faces. One smiling her knowing, little-girl smile; the second, the interloper, a boy dressed for work in the fields. He faced to the right, leaning against a shepherd’s crook. Black hair straggled out from beneath his cap, framing a sombre, tawny face.

‘Who are you?’ she wondered aloud, as if he could answer.

There was something distasteful about the boy. He seemed untrustworthy, wayward.

‘Where have you come from?’

Perhaps Helen had found him in the garret? But no – the garret was jammed shut. Wasn’t it? Her mind wobbled. After the strange business with the nursery, she could not be quite sure about anything.

She blinked rapidly, hoping one flick of the eyelids would show the gypsy boy gone and only the little girl with the flowers standing beside her window. But it was no use: he stayed put.

Unsettled, she turned her back and walked towards the stairs. She would not mention this new companion to anyone yet – not until she was sure. She’d already made a fool of herself in front of Mrs Holt.

Perhaps it was grief making her see things? Grief worked strangely on the mind – people always said so. But after all she had endured, it did not seem likely that Rupert’s death would be the weight to unbalance her.

Her skirts puffed as she mounted the stairs; she ignored them, ignored the patina of sawdust they swept up. She would not think of the past, only the task in hand: she would go to the library and write for a man to fix the garret.

The library was on the second floor, the first room off the corridor branching away from her suite to the back of the house. Elsie had not troubled herself to enter it before. To her mind, a library was the domain of men, saturated in tobacco and deep thought.

There was no quibble with this door; it opened smoothly, gliding over worn carpet without a catch. She put one foot over the threshold and shivered. It was like stepping through the doorway of a tomb. And just like a tomb the library was dark and stale, tainted with the smell of leaf mulch.

Striding across the carpet to a trio of windows, she pushed back the floor-length curtains, coughing as dust fell from the valances. Pearly light crept in. The trees outside looked more ragged than before; patches of their flaming foliage had been extinguished and dropped down to the gravel. The flowerbeds were full of thistles. Winter was coming on fast.

She turned back to face the door. Still ajar – that was a good sign. She was not going mad. As for her shivers, the cause of them was clear: an empty fireplace yawned to her right, breathing out gusts of cold air as the wind swept down the chimney.

Now the curtains were open, she saw the room was not as she had expected. Library was a pretentious name for what was merely a shallow chamber, curved at one end, with perhaps five or six bookcases set along the wall. A polished, heavily built desk stood in an alcove, facing the fire, with a green-shaded lamp hanging over the writing space.

She approached it and sat down. The chair felt heavenly, easing the nag in her back and limbs.

She looked at the desk. The inkwell lay open, the feathers of a quill poking from the top. Rupert. He would have sat here, the pen ready for his left hand. His legs had touched this squeaking, slippery leather chair, yet nothing of his warmth remained.

She missed him terribly. Missed him and hated him. How could he abandon her? He was meant to be her saviour, her reward, the rich man who swept into the factory and fell in love below his station.

She could not face the days ahead without him. She could not raise a child and cope with all the memories that stirred. She needed him.

Tears blurred her eyes as she groped for one drawer after another, yanking them open. The runners groaned and the metal handles rattled. She had to keep busy, she had to write to someone about the hole in the garret floor. There was serious work to do before a baby could live in The Bridge.

Sheaves of paper fluttered out of the drawers. She would have to go through every one and find out how far Rupert’s plans had progressed. The horrid nursery would be completely refurbished –that much she knew. She might even move it; she hated to think of her own baby in the room where Rupert’s siblings had died. They had space enough for a day nursery and a night nursery, not to mention—

Her hands fell still.

Something winked at her from the depth of a drawer. She bent closer. There, again – tiny sparkles scattered across the green lining. She reached in and closed her fingers around a velvet pouch. It felt heavy. She drew it out and dropped it with a thud on the desk.

The pouch looked old but not shabby; adorned, rather than eaten by time. It was designed to tie shut with drawstrings, but a rolled-up scroll of paper held the mouth open. Elsie did not hesitate: she upended the pouch and spilled its contents onto the desk.

The dazzle made her pull back in her chair. A rainbow-coloured stream rippled into a coil. She put out a finger to touch it; felt the solidity of jewels through her gloves. ‘It cannot be,’ she gasped, picking it up. But it was: a necklace dripping with diamonds.

The gems caught the light from a hundred different angles, blazing like white fire. Brilliants iced the chain all the way to the centre, where marquise-cut stones formed a twinkling bow. From it hung three enormous pear drops, each looking more expensive than the house itself.

Mesmerised, she laid the necklace back down on the desk and stared at it. The chain looked ancient, but the diamonds were flawless. She could not see a single cloud; only that hot, white flare that melted to colour at the edges.

But the scroll. What was on the scroll? She plucked up the paper and smoothed it out.

My dearest wife,

Like a conjurer, I wave my wand and – behold! Look what arrived from the bank vault in Torbury St Jude!

I can imagine the look on your face as you open this parcel. You did not realise you were marrying into a family with heirlooms, did you? The Bainbridge diamonds have been handed down for generations. Legend has it they were pulled from the river on the squire’s fishing line! My father locked them away when my mother died and I have not seen them since. How well they will look around your beautiful neck! I only wish I had fetched them in time for the wedding.

I find there is more work to do at The Bridge than we anticipated. Besides redecoration and gardening costs – which are substantial – I now fear we will need to hire a rat-catcher. Over the past few nights I have been kept awake by a terrible sound coming from the garret. The housekeeper does not have the key, and although I tried to force the lock, I only succeeded in hurting myself. After I write to you, I must send for a locksmith and find out what is in there. If the cat does not take the vermin down, I must employ another man.

Rest assured I will not permit you to set a foot inside the house until it is quite worthy of you and our dear little stranger. I miss you both and await your next letter with much impatience.

Yours forever, Rupert

Her hands would not stop shaking. The paper jerked wildly. All at once it ripped, and she began to cry.

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