After years of promising to return, in the end I was called back to Whitby by the coincidence of two deaths. It seemed strange that my second cousin, Bella Firth, and my great-uncle, Thaddeus Sterne, with more than fifty years separating them in age, should quit the world within days of each other, the former unnoticed by the world at large, the latter, as befitting a well-known local personage, with considerable public grief.
Although I’d known at heart there was no choice, I’d debated briefly about sending my condolences from London, telling myself that the Firths would understand, and that no one was likely to notice one mourner less amongst the crowd at Old Uncle Thaddeus’s funeral. Or even to recognise me after so many years. Besides, the journey was not one I would normally have chosen to make in the first week of January.
With the short afternoon closing in, I closed my eyes and dozed, waking with a sudden jolt to find that the train had stopped. It took me a moment to identify the sounds, but somewhere in the darkness ahead the engine was releasing regular gouts of steam; enough to suggest to my sleeping mind the rush of waves across a sandy beach and a buffeting wind along the piers. The memory made me shiver. Rubbing at the window with my glove, I saw that in the last half-hour a few dancing flakes of snow had become a misty blur of white.
Alice, my maid, compressed her lips in what was more of a grimace than a smile. ‘We’ll be lucky to reach York at this rate, ma’am, never mind Whitby.’
To attend Bella’s funeral I had to be there by noon the next day. Anxiety pressed while the snow threatened to make a nonsense of this journey and everything connected with it.
When the train finally crawled into the station at York, I made an effort to be one of the first onto the platform. Leaving Alice to deal with the luggage, I hurried to the enquiry office, to find all trains were at a standstill because of the blizzard. The main lines north and south would be cleared as soon as possible, the clerk said; and with luck it should take no more than a few hours. But when I mentioned Whitby and the North York Moors, he grimaced and shook his head. Not even twentieth-century wonders could overcome the weather and Whitby’s geographic isolation.
As I hastened away, I was vaguely aware of a tall, heavily built man standing to one side of me in the crowd. I moved past him and hurried off to find Alice. A few minutes later, with the porter in tow, we made our way to the hotel, only to find the place unbearably crowded. People jostled and elbowed their way to the front desk, where it seemed the prize of a room might be had for those who pushed hardest. Drawing myself up to my full height, I managed to secure some attention and the use of a room at the back of the hotel. Alice was unimpressed, but with an easy chair as well as a wash-stand and military-style bed, it was better than nothing.
Since there was barely room for two people to move about, I glanced in the glass, secured a few recalcitrant curls and adjusted my raven’s-wing hat. Leaving Alice to arrange our overnight things, I headed back through the foyer to the station concourse.
Cold though it was, I felt in need of fresh air and exercise after all those hours cooped up on the train. Head down against the swirl of snowflakes coming in from the left, I almost cannoned into a large man, well muffled against the weather, who was approaching from the right. With an apology and a quick side-step I managed to avoid his steadying arms, and only as I continued on my way did I question a sudden sense of familiarity. From his height and build he was possibly one of my innumerable cousins, a distant member of the Sterne clan returning home for Old Uncle Thaddeus’s funeral; but when I turned to look again, he was no longer to be seen.
The air was acrid with soot and sulphur, alive with the chuntering of engines and sudden, echoing bursts of steam; perhaps not the ideal place to go walking, but infinitely preferable to the fug of overcrowded public rooms. Evidently I was not alone in my opinion, since the platforms were by no means deserted, despite the icy wind funnelling through that great arcade. It was dark between the iron pillars, with dazzling pools of light here and there, shadows moving and flickering with the wind, and, at the far end of the platform, an extraordinary display which had drawn quite a crowd. Illuminated by electric lights just within the arch, snow was whirling and falling in an endless cascade, like goose-down at Christmas, to lie as invitingly as a freshly made bed across the tracks.
At least it seemed that way to me, but then I was thinking longingly of featherbeds and soft white linen. The fall of flakes was mesmeric. The crowd grew and we stood gazing up at the station’s proscenium arch like an audience at a first night. Strangers were talking to one another, and I was aware but not listening, when a man behind me said with gruff amusement: ‘If one could only reproduce that effect on stage, the show would be a sell-out for the season!’
I knew the voice, its quality and intonation, even though the pitch was deeper than I remembered. At first I thought he was speaking to someone else, and was terrified to turn, but when I did, I saw only the man I’d run into outside the hotel, the one I’d felt gazing at me earlier. My mouth twitched into a polite half-smile as my eyes skimmed over him and away, and then flashed back with shock.
The broad-brimmed hat shadowed his face; removing it, he bowed briefly and gave a wry smile, quite at variance with the intensity of his gaze. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘It is Damaris Sterne – just as I thought.’
It was years since anyone had called me by my given name. I knew him then. Under the lights his eyes were unchanged, and in the moment of recognition my smile froze. For several seconds I stood in rigid disbelief; then, hard on the heels of shock came a surge of guilt so hot it seemed to scorch my face and throat. The pain made nonsense of the years between: our last meeting might have been a matter of days ago instead of half a lifetime.
Totally unprepared, I took a step backwards and almost fell; would have done so had it not been for the steadying hand at my elbow. Even so, a stranger’s help would have been more welcome. Angrily, I shook him off, not wanting to be reminded of the first time, all those years ago, when he’d pulled me back from the edge of a cliff.
The second excerpt from Moon Rising will be posted 13th October 2015. The full ebook will be available on 31st October 2015