At the top of the stairs a gas mantle glowed, casting grotesque shadows as Louisa moved first towards and then away from it. Hearing her sister’s footfall, Emily appeared in the doorway of the old dressing room, beckoning her away from the stairs to the second floor.
Louisa followed her into the room where their mother lay. It was barely big enough for a single bed, a chair and a small chest, but sported a miniature cast-iron fireplace, the grate shaped like a shell. As a girl, Louisa had longed for this room to be hers, but it was usually reserved for guests.
‘It’s warmer here than upstairs,’ Emily explained. ‘And Mamma moved down to be handy for him.’ With a curt nod, she indicated the best bedroom next door. ‘He was raving day and night.’
But Louisa was more concerned for their mother. Against crisp white pillows she looked like an aged china doll, her fifty-odd years revealed more in greying hair than in the smooth round face, flushed with fever, which a lifetime of insecurity had barely marked. Pale blue eyes fluttered open and a weak smile touched her lips as she recognized her eldest daughter.
‘I’m staying for a couple of days or so,’ Louisa explained, taking those burning fingers between her own cool ones. ‘So Bessie and Emily can get some rest.’
‘You’re a good girl,’ Mary Elliott whispered. Her eyes flickered and turned towards Emily. ‘How’s Mr Devereux?’
‘Oh, don’t trouble yourself about him. Emily says his fever’s gone and he’ll be up and about in no time. You concentrate on getting better.’
She nodded and was quiet for a moment, then, with evident anxiety, asked: ‘Has Blanche come yet?’
Louisa’s heart sank. In times of emergency, her other sister was always missing. She cleared her throat. ‘She’ll be here tomorrow, Mamma. You get some sleep now.’
On the landing, Emily stood in the shadows, her olive skin and gypsy eyes a surprising contrast to her sister’s autumn fairness. In some agitation, she said: ‘I wish she’d come. I sent word this afternoon.’
‘Oh, she’ll come,’ Louisa promised grimly, ‘if I have to drag her here by her bootlaces. Don’t worry.’
‘I can’t help it,’ the younger girl confessed. ‘It’s that dreadful man. He’s young and strong, and he nearly died. What chance does Mamma stand?’ Suddenly, dark little Emily burst into tears.
Louisa hugged her sister. ‘It’s a shock, I know – and you’re tired. We’re not used to Mamma being ill, are we? But she’s not going to die — we’ll make sure she doesn’t.’
Turning her distress into anger, Emily directed it at their unseen guest. ‘Some gentleman!’ she sniffed, screwing her damp handkerchief into a ball and rubbing furiously at her eyes. ‘Why did he have to come here to be ill? With Harker’s down the road and all the other big places to choose from? If he’s as well-heeled as Mamma seems to think, what’s he doing here?’
It was a valid question; one to which Louisa had no answer. She listened in silence as her sister questioned their mother’s wisdom in letting the best room to a total stranger, almost smiling as she heard the list of all his sins. Not only had their guest lacked consideration by falling ill as soon as he arrived, but it seemed he bitterly resented their ministrations, cursing Emily particularly, in language which was hardly fit for a barrack room.
‘Perhaps he’s a soldier,’ Louisa observed.
‘Well, he’d better have some money, is all I can say. Dr Mackenzie’s been every single day, dressing that arm of his.’
‘What’s wrong with his arm?’
‘Well, it’s more his wrist – looks like he’s been stabbed or clawed, or something.’ Emily shuddered. ‘You should see it, it’s horrible.’
‘No, I’d rather not.’ But at her sister’s muttered forebodings, she smiled, patting her shoulder. ‘I prescribe a cup of cocoa and some sleep.’
‘Don’t laugh, Louisa. I’m telling you he’s trouble — I can feel it in my bones.’
‘Oh, you and your bones!’ she teased. ‘You’re worse than Bessie. You’ll be reading the tea-leaves, next.’
The man they discussed lay propped against pillows, a book open but unread beside him. He heard the whispered voices, but there had been whispers, comings and goings, all day. He knew that Mary Elliott, of the gentle hands and insistent voice, was ill, perhaps dying, stricken by the same fever which had almost extinguished his own life.
With sudden, bitter longing, he wished she had let him die. Death would have released him from every vow, wiped the ledger clean for all eternity. It had been so wonderfully attractive: soft, painless, inviting. But she had banished it; used his Christian name, invoked the memory of his mother, asked about Charlotte – God! what had he babbled about Charlotte? – and ultimately sworn at him, using his own curses to shock him into consciousness. And then she had called him a coward; a low, skulking, snivelling boy, afraid of life’s realities, letting fear and misery persuade him that death was the easy way out. Even now, he winced at the memory of that scathing tone.
He wished he could tell her, before it was too late, that he was sorry, not really a coward, merely tired and disillusioned, the bearer of too much guilt and pain.
Fatigue dragged at him, numbing his mind; those stinging thoughts sank like stones into black water, and he sank with them into sleep.
At half-past ten Bessie looked into the dressing room on her way up to bed. She brought a jug of sweetened lemon juice for Mary Elliott and a pot of strong tea to keep Louisa awake, assuring her that their guest was settled for the night.
‘I’ve been in to see him,’ she whispered, ‘and he’s fast asleep. The fever’s down, so he should rest quiet for a change — he’s had us all up and running, day and night, since he arrived. Anyway, he’s a lot better, quite the gentleman when he’s in his right mind!’
Louisa smiled. ‘I’m glad to hear it. Emily was telling me about him. She sounded quite put out.’
‘Aye, we’ve had a rare education in curses,’ Bessie sighed. ‘Miss Mary’s been a saint, though, she really has — but he wasn’t so bad with her. If he does start again,’ she said firmly, ‘don’t try and tackle him on your own. Come up for me.’
Promising to do that, Louisa closed the door and settled down with her book. By the time the clock downstairs struck twelve, she was well into Hardy’s Trumpet-Major, a book she had read more than once, an old favourite guaranteed to see her through the night.
Her mother’s breathing was harsh but regular; her temperature high, but not rising. Every hour, Louisa gave her a few sips of the lemon drink and watched the night tick slowly by. A little after two her eyes began to feel heavy; she dozed for a while, then something disturbed her, the book thudded to the floor and, startled, she jerked upright.
Anxiously, she touched Mary Elliott’s burning forehead, felt for the pulse at her wrist; but she was sleeping soundly enough. As Louisa retrieved her book, there came from the other room a low, anguished cry, immediately repeated. With a sudden shiver of apprehension she contemplated calling Bessie, but it seemed unfair to disturb her. If their strange guest should prove impossible to quieten, then she would ask for help.
More from prudence than fear, she turned to ignite a taper before unlocking the communicating door. By that small glow she could see the bed’s foot on her right and, with petticoats quietly rustling, tiptoed towards the chest of drawers, where an oil lamp usually stood. As she reached out to light it, that deep, powerful voice cried out again. She turned, hardly daring to breathe, dazzled by the small flame and unable to see clearly beyond it.
For several seconds she stood quite still, gradually realizing that the stranger was held fast by a dream. The glow of the lamp revealed the room’s old, familiar furniture, the large double bed and its briefly quiet occupant. His short, dark hair, ruffled by sleep, gave an impression of youth which was somehow less than frightening. Softly, she called his name. He began to moan afresh, hands clasping and unclasping the pillow, following the dream.
She called his name again, to no avail. Compassion lent her courage. She was used to children having nightmares, and their panic if suddenly disturbed. Approaching the bed, she began to speak quietly, using soothing, reassuring words.
Always, he was going home, a seemingly endless journey across a storm-racked sea, plagued by the noise of wind and waves, and the throat-catching fear of drowning. There was nausea too, so strong it would invariably almost wake him, but not quite. Enough for his conscious mind to reassure him; then, having got him in its grip, the scene would change, the nightmare would begin in earnest.
Lofty and sinister, the avenue of araucarias, bane of his childhood, blotted out the stars; he ran through it in the darkness, guided by an arch of moonlight ahead. The avenue at White Leigh was noted for its magnificence, but in the dream it seemed without end, every step weighted by fear and loathing, the dead spiked fingers of the trees reaching out, tearing at arms and face and clothes.
At last, sweating and shivering, he gained the open ellipse of lawn before the house, and, in the moonlight, all was as it should be: solid, familiar and beautiful. Inside, relief turned to shock. The rooms were lifeless, derelict, a single shutter hanging brokenly from an upper window. He wandered through those once-happy rooms, seeing ghosts amongst the dust-shrouds, pursued by memories, in search of something, or someone, he had loved and lost.
At the head of the staircase, there was Charlotte, insubstantial as a shaft of moonlight. Her hair rippled in silvery waves around her shoulders, and he stood transfixed until she called his name. Even as he mounted the stairs he was never sure that she was real. His terror began when they reached her room. For the room was not White Leigh, but the one they had shared in the beginning, at the Devereux house, with its mirrors and those ice-blue, light-reflecting satins. He longed to pull her away, out of that place, take her to somewhere with a blazing fire, where he could enfold her in his arms and warm her with his own life-blood.
The longer he stayed, the less able he was to move. She stood by a long pier-glass, a double diaphanous image, beckoning, tantalizing, laughing at his predicament. Desiring, pleading, the more he begged the more she laughed. Until, pitying him at last, she came and raised him up, drew him with her to the bed, kissing him with a passion and fervour she had never displayed in life. He was always fooled. That part of the dream was always the most real; the most shaming afterwards, for he could feel himself entering her, experiencing the whole gamut of emotions she invariably inspired: love, hate, longing, loathing; a desire for mastery, for satisfaction; an overwhelming need to repay all the pain and anguish she had ever caused. But as he approached the point of climax, he would look into her eyes, seeing not love, nor desire, only naked and terrifying hatred.
Nails raked his neck, attacked his face, became the talons of a predatory animal. He tried to tear them away and could not; his hands sought her throat and found it, squeezing, squeezing, squeezing…
The pattern of the nightmare changed. While he pleaded and Charlotte laughed, another figure appeared, hazy and indistinct. As though reproved, Charlotte ceased her taunting, and, as her power receded, relief flooded his mind. Words penetrated his consciousness, and an image of Mary Elliott’s strangely youthful, twinkling smile. But this voice was unfamiliar; he struggled to put a face to it, and realized he was awake.
Elongated, forget-me-not eyes regarded him anxiously from beneath thick brown lashes. Bewildered, he stared back, wondering if she was as insubstantial as the terror which on previous nights had felt as real as her hand on his brow. Always, the nightmare had stayed with him. He had been but dimly aware of Mary Elliott’s presence, and sometimes a dark-eyed girl he confused with his brother’s wife. Yet now he recognized the dream for what it was. Like a man dragged into the sun from a bottomless well of despair, he felt light-headed with relief.
Chapter 2, part 2 coming in the next few days