Chapter no 8

The Silent Companions

The day was bright and crisp as an apple as their carriage tumbled back from town, packed tight with packages. Chips of periwinkle sky showed through the bare tree branches.

‘They are so beautiful. May I see them once more?’ Sarah reached out with her bandaged hand. A hint of blood bloomed to the surface. Although she had cut herself on the companion a week ago and the wound was only small, it showed no signs of healing.

Elsie passed over the package. ‘Take care, or we’ll need to go back and have them cleaned all over again.’

‘I will not get my bandage near the gems. See, I only need that hand to unwrap them.’ Sarah smoothed out the material and sighed like a girl in love. ‘I never knew we had diamonds in the family.’

After a clean and polish at the jeweller’s in Torbury St Jude, the diamond necklace shone brighter than ever. The pear drops flashed cinnamon, then white, then blue, as light streaked through the carriage window.

Elsie turned her face away. Whenever she looked at the necklace she thought of Rupert’s letter, his dear voice coming to her from beyond the grave. Rest assured I will not permit you to set a foot inside the house until it is quite worthy of you. If only he had known. ‘Rupert wrote that they were locked in a bank vault until he

arrived at The Bridge.’

‘I do not wonder at it.’ Sarah wet her lips. ‘When I think of my ancestors wearing this necklace . . . Perhaps even Anne Bainbridge,

whose diary I’m reading! These diamonds might have touched her skin, moved with her. It is almost too wonderful to comprehend.’

The ancestors again. Every time Sarah mentioned them, Elsie felt another stitch of guilt. The girl had lost her family and now here was her cousin’s widow, snatching her inheritance away. If Elsie had found the diamonds by accident, perhaps she would have let Sarah take them. But Rupert’s letter made it clear what he wanted. She could never give away his last gift to her.

‘But Mrs Bainbridge, you will not be able to wear diamonds until your year of mourning is over! What a shame. I should so like to see them every day.’

‘I am only grateful that you can see them. After that episode with Mrs Holt, I was beginning to fear I had run mad.’

‘You are not going mad.’ Sarah rewrapped the package. ‘Did any of the shopkeepers treat you like a madwoman today?’

‘Thankfully, no.’ Elsie had to admit that the trip had brightened her spirits. Amidst the bustle of Torbury St Jude, the market stalls, knife-grinders and cabs hurrying to and from the station, it was difficult to think of sombre matters. She had visited a carpenter, a builder and a draper to discuss her plans for the house. Then, with Sarah’s period of half-mourning fast approaching, they went to order new gowns for her in lavender and grey. Elsie would remain in black – but that did not stop her from commissioning some new dresses to fit her growing belly.

‘I have spent my life with an elderly person,’ Sarah went on. ‘Believe me, I know the signs of a mind beginning to wander.’

‘Do they include placing reckless orders for home improvements and spending a fortune on new dresses?’

‘No, indeed! If you are going mad,’ said Sarah, checking her injured hand, ‘then so am I.’

Unable to stop herself, Elsie reached out and seized Sarah’s wrist. ‘You did see them? You saw the dolls and the animals in the nursery?’

‘Yes. They were beautiful! There is no possible way that . . .’ Trouble puckered her brow. ‘I cannot understand. It all seems like some monstrous joke. But Mrs Holt is not the sort of woman to amuse herself in that way. Maybe there was a misunderstanding? She led you to some other room?’

‘That’s hardly likely. Why would there be two nurseries, one a hideous mirror of the other?’

‘We have mirror suites,’ Sarah pointed out. Absent-mindedly, she chewed on the lock of hair hanging down beside her mouth.

Fayford looked better in the sun. The mud road had dried to a rutted track. Some of the villagers had ventured outside their cottages. Elsie waved to them. They pulled their forelocks in acknowledgement, but she noticed them hustle their scrawny children back inside, as if it were unlucky to have her eye fall upon them. With all their superstitions, they probably thought widows spread bad fortune.

‘Sarah, what about the second companion? Did you see him also?’ ‘The gypsy boy. Yes, I told you.’

‘You are sure?’

‘Of course. There are two.’ But how?

They were on the bridge now, flanked by stone lions. Elsie gave an involuntary shudder as they crossed the water. ‘I shall have to speak to Helen. But I presumed she would tell me if she’d found another one. I have never known such slipshod maids.’

The gatehouse flitted past them and they started to roll down the hills towards The Bridge. Above, the clouds swept along at speed, casting shadows over the turf. The gardeners she had hired were out. Some pruned bushes while others knelt in the parterres, uprooting dead flowers.

The horses drew to a halt before the house. Through the window, she saw the silhouettes of the companions waiting in the Great Hall. Two companions.

The butler who never smiled, Mr Stilford, opened the carriage door and let down the steps with an efficient clunk, clunk. As soon as they touched the gravel, he turned and spoke to Peters. ‘You will find a new charge when you take the horses round, Mr Peters. It seems they have a companion.’

Carefully negotiating the passage of her crinoline, Elsie stumbled down beside him onto the gravel. ‘A companion?’

‘Your cow has arrived, madam.’

She had almost forgotten. Dancing back towards the carriage, she gave Sarah her hand and pulled her out. ‘It’s the cow, Sarah. My little

adopted cow. We will have a merry afternoon settling her in.’ She was glad not to be forced back into the house. ‘Take the boxes inside, would you?’ she asked Stilford. ‘We are going to see her.’

With one hand grasping Sarah and the other clamping down her skirts, she made her way past the scattered dirt and tools left by the gardeners to the stable block behind the house. It was a horseshoe of decrepit brick buildings. Paint peeled in curls from the hunter-green doors. A clock was mounted on the roof, but its hands hung still at a quarter to ten. Even the weathervane beside it had rusted to a halt in the east.

The cow did not look out of place beside these derelict objects. She stood next to the man who held her rope, her large black head hanging in dejection.

‘Oh!’ Sarah’s voice shot up a pitch. ‘Mr Underwood has brought her.’

It was indeed Mr Underwood: Elsie did not recognise him at first. He was dressed differently: a tweed trouser and jacket combination, clearly second-hand, hung from his tall frame. A low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat squashed his fringe over his forehead.

‘Mrs Bainbridge. Miss Bainbridge.’ He shook their hands. ‘A pleasure. I trust Miss Bainbridge is recovered from her faintness since we last met?’

Sarah’s cheeks glowed. ‘Oh yes. Much, much recovered.’ When he smiled, she released an absurd little giggle.

So that’s how it was.

‘But it appears that you have hurt your hand?’

Sarah touched the bandage. ‘Yes. Just a scratch. How kind, how very kind of you to notice!’

‘I must thank you for escorting my ward to The Bridge,’ Elsie cut in. ‘Dear thing. She has not even raised her head to look at us.’ The poor animal seemed to expect nothing more than future misery. ‘We will feed her up and get her healthy in no time. And she will need a name.’

‘Betsy,’ Sarah suggested. ‘Or Daisy.’

‘For heaven’s sake, have a little imagination. Something more poetic.’

‘She does not look very poetic at present,’ Underwood observed.

‘On the contrary! She is a distressed soul coming out of purgatory into a perfect cow-heaven – if that is not a blasphemous thing to say, Mr Underwood.’

A smile tickled his lips. ‘She is Dante’s Beatrice, then?’

Elsie didn’t know who that was, but she liked the sound of the name. ‘Beatrice the cow.’

‘Well, I hope her expectations will be as grand as her name.’

Peters came and took the rope from Underwood’s hand. Softly clicking his tongue, he encouraged Beatrice to follow him to a stall. She shambled off, her overgrown hooves slipping on the cobbles.

‘I was so pleased,’ said Underwood, ‘when Mrs Holt told me of your plan to take the cow. Usually the villagers are reluctant to deal with the big house. But with winter coming on, they finally saw the sense of it.’

‘I should think so! I offered a pretty price for a bag of bones.’ As soon as she said the words, she regretted them. She sounded just like her father.

‘I know, Mrs Bainbridge. You were very good to suggest the trade, I am well aware of that. You must not take their little eccentricities amiss. Poor people can be very proud.’

Elsie thought of the match girls, of Pa’s grasping fingers. ‘Not in London,’ she said.



Elsie took Mr Underwood to the first floor. She felt it would be beneficial to bring a vicar near the nursery. His presence might banish . . . whatever it was. Whatever was making her and Sarah see things that were not there.

With Mabel laid up, the house was increasingly worse for wear. Elsie found a peppering of woodchips on the landing and long, deep scratches in the floor, as though heavy objects had been dragged across it. Thankfully the parlour remained presentable, pleasantly warmed by the afternoon sun.

Elsie gestured to a sofa upholstered in pale daffodil silk and bid Underwood sit down. She rang a bell for tea, without holding much hope for its success.

‘A delightful room, Mrs Bainbridge. I like the framed butterflies exceedingly. But who are our friends?’

She followed his gaze. ‘Oh!’

Standing either side of the dwindling fire were the companions. But weren’t they just . . . Hadn’t she seen them in the Great Hall?

The girl looked sweetly apologetic, pressing the white rose to her chest as if begging for indulgence. But not the boy; his baleful eyes met hers with a direct challenge.

Sarah moved to take a chair opposite Mr Underwood. ‘We found them in the garret a few days ago. They are curious items, are they not? Our housemaid must have brought them upstairs.’

But why would Helen do that? Did she make the scratches on the floor as she pulled them along?

‘It is very clever artistry,’ Underwood replied. ‘They look almost as if they would speak.’

Sarah giggled. Elsie tried to laugh, but it came out in a strained wheeze. ‘I do find myself a little lonely, knocking around this old place. These figures are my guests until I am permitted to invite real ones. But if I ever tell you that they have started talking to me, Mr Underwood, I give you permission to send me to Bedlam.’

He smiled gently. ‘I am sorry to learn you are lonely. We shall always be happy to see you at church. Come along on Sunday.’

Unexpectedly, her throat closed up with tears. She looked down at her hands. For the first time in her widowhood, she felt she might scream and howl like Ma. ‘I shall. I daresay it looks odd that I have not come before, but I did not feel . . . I was not equal to it. But I have had some encouragement today. The villagers seemed almost friendly as we drove past.’

‘But of course. It is all thanks to – erm – Beatrice. I told everyone about your plan to feed her up and pass on the milk. She has not been healthy enough to produce for many a year. Butter and milk will make a huge difference to the villagers’ lives. Especially the children.’

‘To be sure. I would do more if I could. I would employ the people. Do you know why they will not work for my family? Is it just the skeletons we spoke of? Mrs Holt said there was also an accident with a footman, years back?’

‘Well . . .’ He paused, fingers twitching at his lip. ‘It seems to be a mixture of folk tales and superstition. I quite forgot to fetch you

those records I mentioned, Mrs Bainbridge, but I remember there was some balderdash about a suspected witch.’

Sarah sat forward with interest. ‘That could be the diary I am reading! Anne Bainbridge, my ancestor. She had a talent with herbs and made brews for good luck. She seemed to think she had a power. Did the villagers really believe she was a witch?’

Mr Underwood sighed. ‘It is very likely, Miss Bainbridge. People were not rational back then. And your family have been unlucky with their servants. Several have died in accidents, and of course the village wants someone to blame . . .’ He held up his hands. ‘This is how rumours are born. But I have hopes that, with education, we might eradicate superstition in the next generation. I must admit, Mrs Bainbridge, to being a trifle radical in my notions. I believe every child should have an education, regardless of their circumstances. They should be given the tools they need in this world.’

‘I could not agree more.’ She recalled little Jolyon with his abacus, tongue stuck out in concentration. It created a painful knot in her chest. ‘Perhaps you should set up a school here?’

The smile lighting his face was so wide and genuine that for a moment she saw why Sarah admired him. ‘Would you help me?’

‘When I can. Miss Bainbridge would be more fitted to the task. She will be out of mourning in less than a month. She can do many things that would not be seemly for a widow.’

‘Oh yes, do let me help, Mr Underwood!’ Sarah clapped her hands together. Her bandage muffled the sound. ‘I think it’s a wonderful idea. Mrs Crabbly left me a little legacy, and I will make a donation. We must help the children.’

Suddenly the gravestones were before her eyes again. Buried under a borrowed name. Those poor little girls . . . She would not keep all of Rupert’s money for her own baby. There were other children: unprotected, vulnerable.

The thought made her queasy. A sour taste was filling her mouth. She rose abruptly to her feet. Things shimmered, became uncertain and shifting. ‘Will you . . . Please excuse me? I must . . . go and see after that tea.’

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the first companion. It had never looked so much like her. Her own face,

watching her.

She had to hurry from the room before she was sick.

Wooden railing bordered the gallery, cordoning off the drop into the Great Hall. Elsie had to walk all the way around the edge of the square to reach the water closet. Ordinarily, that was not a hardship, but nausea made the distance feel tremendous. She reached out and used the rail to support herself. It creaked. She thought of the footman Mrs Holt mentioned, toppling to his death, and withdrew her hand.

A floorboard moaned across the gallery. Helen was hurrying towards her from the opposite direction, her cheeks as red as apples. The strings of her cap were untied and flapped around her shoulders.

Elsie sucked in a breath. ‘Helen? Where is the tea tray?’

‘Mrs Holt’s making it, ma’am.’ Helen jogged the last few steps, her chin wobbling over the collar of her dress. ‘I hope you’ll pardon me but I wanted to speak with you . . . alone.’

Just then, Sarah tittered from inside the parlour. The companion’s face floated back into her mind.

‘Helen, fetch me a chamber pot. Quickly.’



Once Elsie had expelled her burden and drunk a glass of water, she became aware of her surroundings. Helen had sat her on the worn baize of the billiard table with her feet dangling over the edge. Next door, in the parlour, she could hear spoons clinking against china. Mrs Holt must have finally served tea.

‘I told Mrs Holt I needed to stay with you, for a bit, in case . . . in case you go again.’ Helen spoke in a whisper, her eyes continually darting to the wall. ‘I don’t have long, ma’am. May I speak to you now?’

Elsie was hardly in the mood to deal with staff, but Helen had saved her from vomiting and fainting in the corridor. She owed her an open ear, at least.

‘Yes, I can spare a moment. Please go on.’

‘I . . .’ Helen stopped, at a loss. She looked down and began playing with her apron. ‘I don’t really know how to start, ma’am. Only . . . Mrs Holt told me you’ve been in the nursery.’

Heat, creeping across her scalp. ‘Yes.’

‘Did you . . .’ Another twist of the apron. ‘Did you see anything, ma’am?’

Elsie grabbed the edge of the billiard table. A joke, surely? Mrs Holt had let slip her reaction to the nursery and the maid was teasing her.

The housekeeper in Rupert’s London home had tried to trick Elsie into serving dinner as early as two o’clock, to make her look common in front of the guests. Servants could tell she only had trade money – or shop money, as they called it. Without breeding, they thought her fair game.

‘What, exactly, is it you expected me to see there?’

She waited for the description she had given Mrs Holt of the crib and the toys. But instead, Helen said, ‘Writing.’


Helen dropped her apron. ‘I shouldn’t have said anything. Please, ma’am, forget I spoke.’

‘Have you seen writing in the nursery, Helen?’

She made a frantic hushing motion. ‘Don’t let Mrs Holt hear you. She hates anything like that. Even bought herself a black cat to prove superstitions are nonsense. But ever since the master came down, something’s been . . . strange, here.’

If she was acting, she was good. She had the jittery hands of a woman unnerved.

Elsie chose her next words with care. ‘I think you found Mr Bainbridge, Helen? After he died? It is only natural that you would feel on edge after a death in the house. Perhaps . . .’

Helen shook her head. ‘I thought of that, ma’am, when Mabel never noticed it. And I thought how there’s enough camphor to kill a cat in that nursery, so the fumes might be sending me giddy. But the master . . . he saw it too.’

Elsie wobbled on the edge of the table. ‘Writing?’

‘No . . . not exactly. It’s only me that sees the writing, in the dust. Like a finger did it. But Master’s was different. He saw the wooden alphabets, laid out in a word.’

‘What word, Helen? Could you read it?’

‘Oh yes. Mrs Holt taught me my letters.’ Even now, a touch of pride. ‘Mabel still don’t know hers.’

‘Never mind that, what was the word? What did it say?’

Helen grimaced. ‘Mother. It said Mother.’

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