Daughter of the House
Daughter of the House
Published by HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2015
Copyright © Rosie Thomas 2015
Cover layout design © HarperCollinsPublishers Ltd 2016
Cover design by Dominic Forbes © HarperCollinsPublishers 2016
Cover photograph © Malgorzata Maj/Arcangel Images
Rosie Thomas asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
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Source ISBN: 9780007512089
Ebook Edition © May 2016 ISBN: 9780007512072
For James and Flora
14 February 2015
Table of Contents
Mr and Mrs Devil Wix and their three children made a vivid picture as they strolled towards the steamer jetty. Devil wore a loose blue flannel coat with patch pockets, and a straw hat that he tipped to the other holidaymakers. His wife Eliza’s short steps were dictated by the fashionably narrow hem of her rose-pink and dove-grey hobble skirt. She had dressed her hair under a grey turban with a matching pink feather cockade.
Arthur, the youngest child, dashed ahead in his enthusiasm to get aboard the pleasure boat before doubling back to chivvy his family. Cornelius and Nancy trailed behind with Phyllis, their paid companion. Cornelius’s slumped shoulders revealed how much he would have preferred to spend the morning out on the heathland with his butterfly net. He was gloomily asserting to Nancy that with the swell that was running out in the bay they would certainly all be seasick. It was very like him to adopt nautical terms without having ever ventured out to sea.
Nancy only half-listened. She was watching the little procession of guests strolling from their hotel towards the sea, and to her dismay she saw that the Clares and Mr Feather were also planning to take the excursion. Her mother, Eliza, had chatted to Mrs Clare on the hotel terrace, and on one or two evenings Mrs Clare had invited Eliza to sit with her after dinner in the drawing room. Once the two men had enjoyed their cigars they had joined them too. Devil had not been present to keep Eliza company, of course. He was almost always in London, because of the theatre. He was only here with his family now because it was a Sunday afternoon and there would be no stage show until tomorrow evening.
Nancy and Cornelius and Arthur had been introduced to Mrs Clare and to her husband and brother, and they had endured the usual polite conversations. Arthur and Mr Clare talked about cricket while Mrs Clare’s pale blue eyes assessed Nancy’s clothes. Nancy knew she was dressed too brightly. Her cerise coat marked her out, instead of concealing her in mouse-grey or mole-brown folds like the daughter of a conventional family. She tried not to mind about this, noticing on her own part that Mrs Clare looked quite prim and colourless next to Eliza’s abundant glamour.
Mr Feather was Mrs Clare’s brother, and it was his presence more than the others’ that made Nancy feel uncomfortable. Mrs Clare was always anxiously glancing at him, almost as if she suspected he might be angry and she was obliged to soothe him, but whenever Nancy looked in his direction he was staring at her. She couldn’t help returning his look even though she tried very hard not to. His dark eyes seemed to drill into her temple or the back of her head. Whenever he spoke to her it was always in a low voice and with a sympathetic half-smile, as though she had already confided something incriminating to him. His manner seemed to suggest they held an experience in common, and Nancy particularly hated this because she did have a secret. But she held it so deep within herself that she had never told a soul, and certainly not Mr Feather. How could the man know about her Uncanny? And if he didn’t know, why did he watch her with such close interest?
His presence was like one of her father’s hidden stage magnets, dragging her closer and weighing her down, and now he was coming on the steamer trip with them. Was she never to take a step in any direction without the man’s unwelcome concern reaching out for her, like the tentacles of an octopus? She could feel the tickle of one on the back of her neck right at this moment. She wanted to slap it away.
‘Come along, dear,’ Phyllis said.
The companion was clutching the frame of her bag in two hands and looking as if she was already seasick. Poor thing, Nancy thought. Why must her father always sweep them all along with his enthusiasms? The steamer trip had been his idea and Eliza had taken some persuasion before she agreed to it.
The Wixes joined the short queue to board the steamer. Arthur struck up a talk about the Eton versus Harrow cricket match with two boys of his own age. Devil had promised to take his sons to Lord’s for the Schools’ Day in a month’s time and Arthur was already working himself into a froth of excitement.
‘Half a crown’s on Eton,’ one boy taunted and Arthur feinted a punch at him. The three of them chased up the short gangway and sprang down into the launch.
When it was Nancy’s turn a seaman with a full beard took her hand and called her ‘miss’ as she stepped down to the rocking deck. She hesitated. Although she couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary the smells of engine oil and seawater and boat varnish were overpowering, and that was always a sign. All her instincts were to leap back to safety on dry land.
The man’s grasp tightened.
‘I won’t let you fall, missy. Step this way.’
Salt-caked sisal matting was laid on the deck in case any of the ladies should lose her footing. Nancy felt she had no choice but to take the seat that was offered to her. Hampered by her fashionable skirt Eliza needed a helping hand on either side before she could step down. Devil escorted her to a cushioned bench under the awning and Phyllis nervously sat further along towards the rail.
Nancy watched the boatmen making their preparations for departure. Heavy ropes dragging swags of weed were hauled through the water and thick-legged boys in ragged trousers applied their backs to the capstan. The air was thick with more layers of stink, of tar and brass polish and coal smoke. Nancy had to swallow hard.
Devil chose a seat in the open nearer to the bow. He beckoned to some of the younger children and they sidled towards him. He winked at his little audience, making a show of flexing his fingers and pushing back the cuffs of his coat. One of Arthur’s new friends was playing with a cricket ball and as soon as he spotted it Devil held out his hand. The boy was reluctant but at a stern nod from his father he passed it over. He watched apprehensively as Devil tossed the ball high in the air. Even though the boat was rocking he caught it without an upward glance, as Nancy knew he would. With a casual flick of the wrist he threw the ball a second time, higher still. A big wave slammed the boat against the jetty, causing a gentleman to stumble as he squeezed between the crowded benches, but again the ball was drawn back to Devil’s hand as if magnetised. Three more times he threw and caught, defying the boat’s pitching. The owner of the ball had relaxed enough to smile as the ball flew upwards one more time.
There was a beat, stretched by the breeze and the shriek of a gull gliding overhead. This time there was no satisfying slap from the leather dropping into Devil’s cupped palm.
Devil took off his straw hat and peered inside it, scratching his head in astonishment. Several children looked down to the deck and others peered over the side, but there was no clatter or splash.
‘It’s gone,’ the owner wailed.
Devil replaced his hat.
‘Sorry about this, old chap,’ he murmured to the boy. ‘I’ll make it up to you somehow.’
Peering around, he noticed a girl with a posy basket set on her lap.
‘May I perhaps have a look in your basket, miss?’
Seated a little to one side Mrs Clare raised her eyebrows at her brother and almost imperceptibly pursed her lips. No one else was meant to see, but Nancy did. She hated it when her father chose to be conspicuous in this way – even though he had always been the same – and she turned her head in anguish. A yard away, on the jetty, the bearded captain and one of the other sailors spoke urgently together. They had been considering the wind and the sky but the bearded man indicated the full boat and the jaunty pennants snapping in the breeze. With his big sea boot he kicked the boat away from the moorings, leaping inboard over the widening gap at the very last moment. There was a roar from the engine and a churn of green water, a sailor snatched up the last end of rope and dropped it into a loop, and the steamer’s bow swung out into the bay. Nancy sneaked a look towards her father and saw that – of course – he had produced the cricket ball from the little girl’s basket. The boy grabbed it back and stowed it inside his coat as Devil bowed over his doffed hat.
Please, no more, Nancy prayed with a twelve-year-old’s disloyal fervour.
It seemed that she was heard because Devil came back to sit beside Eliza under the awning.
Arthur and his companions were gamely ragging each other and Cornelius had never looked up from his book. The steamer ploughed the length of the pier and then drove out into the stiff wind. Spume flew and Phyllis’s hands tightened on the cane handles of her bag. In trying not to look longingly at the pier amusements Nancy made the mistake of meeting Mr Feather’s eye again. Beadily he held her gaze and she thought there was a glimmer of superior amusement, as if the pleasure craft and the crew and the benches lined with ladies and gentlemen in their holiday outfits had all been placed there for just the two of them to observe, and enjoy.
It was intolerable.
The prow reared upwards. The view of the houses clustered at the side of the bay vanished behind a wall of green as a huge wave lifted the steamer. Spray scattered over the laughing gentlemen and bolder boys in the forward seats, sending them scurrying for the shelter of the awning even though a crewman shouted that they were to hold tight and keep their places. A second later the boat pitched down – and down – into the wave trough. Phyllis let out a mouse’s squeak of alarm. Nancy wondered if the budding apprehension she was experiencing inside her ribcage, like a dark flower beginning to unfurl, might be the beginning of seasickness. It was not, she told herself firmly. At least Mr Feather had transferred his attention to Mrs Clare. He was patting his sister’s hand and reassuring her.
Cornelius raised his head. Another huge wave lifted and tossed the boat down again. Eliza was the only one of the ladies who did not show any sign of dismay. She sat upright, seeming quite ready to meet the salt wind and the flung diamonds of spray.
The land dropped further behind them. After a few minutes Nancy grew used to the motion. It was even quite exhilarating to watch the glassy rollers with their curling lips of white foam as they swept towards them, and to feel the sharp upwards swing and then the answering downwards plunge as the boat cleaved through the water. The beat of the engine was steady, and her bearded sailor stood squarely in the wheelhouse with his pipe between his teeth and his eyes on the horizon. He looked just like a hero in a book.
‘I say!’ Arthur sang out. His childish grin split his face. Arthur loved all kinds of roughhousing.
Phyllis’s face had taken on a sweaty glimmer. She left her seat, treading with exaggerated care, and the gentleman next to her supported her arm and handed her closer to the rail. She sank down, her handkerchief to her mouth.
‘Oh dear, poor Phyllis,’ Eliza murmured.
She stood up too and took short, swaying steps to the companion’s side. Phyllis fended her off, clearly indicating that she preferred to be left to suffer alone. Eliza returned to her husband. The steamer turned slightly in its circuit of the bay and immediately pitched even more threateningly as the waves caught it broadside. Mrs Clare got unsteadily to her feet and joined Phyllis. One of the gentlemen had to make the same move and Nancy became aware that the talk and laughter had faded. Most of the passengers were sitting in silence. The stink of smoke and hot oil was not helping matters. Nancy uneasily scanned the faces, and black petals further unfurled in her chest. Two sailors passed down the twin gangways, moving with easy confidence. One of them ducked into the wheelhouse and conferred with the captain.
‘Pappy?’ Nancy said. His nod reassured her.
Mrs Clare leaned miserably over the rail. As if she set the proper example in this and in all other social matters, some others followed suit.
The bearded captain surrendered the wheel and took a megaphone from its cabinet. Bracing himself at the wheelhouse door he announced, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, the sea is not going to be our friend this morning. We’ll make an early turn about. We don’t want any of our passengers to feel uncomfortable aboard Queen Mab.’
The engine laboured as they swung round in an arc, the churn of water at the stern swallowed by a wave that broke over the gunwale as it surged past them. The steamer bobbed and rolled, seeming for the first time unequal to the job of keeping afloat.
Devil said merrily, ‘Will we get our shillings back, do you think?’
At least the waves now swept them towards the welcome shore. Phyllis laid her forehead against the rail. Within quite a short time they were nearing the seaward end of the pier, where the strollers and fishermen were clearly visible. Cornelius’s book was closed in his lap but he held his place with his forefinger.
There came a lurch and a shriek of protesting machinery, and then a rending noise like metal plates being crunched up and pitched on a metal floor. When this din stopped the engine had stopped too, and in the strange quiet the buffet of wind and the waves churning beneath the pier sounded even louder.
From Cornelius’s expression Nancy knew that something must have gone seriously wrong.
The steamer rolled heavily as its prow turned through the water, unable to make headway without engine power. Two sailors dashed to the rail, pushing aside the passengers in their hurry. One of them grabbed a fender and the other took a boathook. Turning to her hero, Nancy saw that the pipe was gone. He fought with the wheel, trying to bring his boat round, but wind and current swept it towards the pier supports.
A woman pressed her hand to her mouth, stifling a scream.
The male passengers began shouting and dashing to the seaward side, propelling their children and womenfolk away from the looming pier. The people on the walkways were now far above them and at the lower level yawned an underworld of heaving water and dripping iron stanchions.
Devil caught Eliza tightly at his side. Arthur was trapped in the press of people who had fled to the far rail.
‘For God’s sake hold on,’ Devil bellowed to his family.
The sailor made a stab with his boathook, but the sturdy pole splintered as the Queen Mab smashed into the pier.
The force of the impact threw the steamer sideways. The outer rail dipped and water flowed over it before the vessel sluggishly rolled in the opposite direction, sending bodies tumbling across the decks and falling against the benches. Cornelius lunged towards his sister and caught her by the arm to stop her skidding down the crazily angled gangway. A confusion of shouts and screams tore the air. Water poured everywhere, covering the decks and the seats and flooding into the wheelhouse.
Devil supported his wife as the water rose past his knees. She was trapped by the weight of her sodden skirt. A barnacled ladder on the nearest pier support rose to an opening that was already jammed with shocked faces. An arm reached down with a dangling lifebelt and Devil somehow hoisted Eliza up the lowest metal rungs. She grasped the lifebelt and men began to haul her up from above. Only when she was safe did Devil turn to look for his children.
Nancy saw all this, as if from the depths of the Uncanny.
Cornelius shouted her name as icy water sucked round her knees. A wave slammed into her chest; she was torn away and thrown against the submerged rail. All around there were people in the water, splashing and flailing as the Queen Mab went down.
To her horror she saw Arthur amongst them. His blond head was darkened with the hair plastered against his skull. Nancy let the next wave lift her free of the sinking vessel. Her skirt caught between her legs as she tried to kick out. She was submerged, sinking into bubbling depths with her hair fanning out like seaweed. Somehow she freed her limbs and frantically fought her way upwards. Her face broke the surface and she gulped for air.
There were boats approaching, and at the same time men with ropes came swarming down the pier stanchions. A half-submerged dark shape was bobbing close at hand and she recognised it as one of the boat’s wooden benches, the green seat cushion still attached. She launched herself at it and somehow caught hold. She took a sobbing breath, trying to remember where she had seen Arthur in the water. Clawing back the hair that clogged her eyes and mouth she yelled his name.
The waves were dotted with hats and cushions and a dark floating web that had been a woman’s shawl. Rotating as far as she could without losing her hold on the seat she caught sight of him. He had torn off his coat and his shirt billowed in the swell. When she glimpsed his face it was dead white, frighteningly like a corpse.
But Arthur knew how to swim.
She screamed again, ‘Arthur. Here, Arthur. Swim to me.’
He caught sight of her and tried to reach out, a splashy scramble that brought him no closer. He was already exhausted by his efforts to stay afloat. His head seemed to sink lower in the water.
Powered by desperation Nancy kicked towards him, towing her makeshift raft. Arthur’s shirt ballooned as another wave caught and released them. They were only a yard apart now. Filling her lungs with a huge breath Nancy let go of the bench. She splashed frantically to her brother and at last caught hold of him. They clung together and there was a long, suffocating and terrible moment when it seemed certain they were going to drag each other down. But then Arthur seemed to revive a little. He struck out with his free arm and Nancy followed suit and somehow they propelled themselves through the water to reach the floating bench. They grabbed it at the same instant. The seat wallowed and sank deeper but it was just buoyant enough to support them both.
A rowing boat swayed on the crest of the next wave.
‘Two children here,’ a man at the prow shouted.
Nancy’s layers of clothes were dragging her down. It took every ounce of her strength to keep her head above the waves, but somehow she managed also to watch Arthur and make sure his grip was secure. He shuddered and coughed as the waves tipped their raft up and down. Water sluiced over his head and she screamed at him to hold on.
An oar thrust past Nancy’s ear and then a grappling hook caught the slats of the bench. A man’s hand reached for and snatched the collar of her coat. She felt herself being towed in to the side of the rowing boat where more sturdy arms supported her. The boat rocked fiercely and she howled at her rescuers, ‘Save my brother.’
‘Your brother’ll be right enough,’ someone shouted back.
A man in a jersey leaned right down into the waves and tried to lift her, but it took another fellow to help him and they hauled on her wrists and arms and then her heavy body until her hips cleared the side and she tumbled into the bottom of the boat. Her petticoats and even her drawers were all on show but she didn’t give it a thought.
She fought to sit upright and her rescuers steadied her.
‘We’ve got ’im. You’m a brave girl, ain’t you?’
A sodden, inert mass was hoisted and deposited beside her.
Sobbing and spitting up water she half-crawled to him. His shirt was twisted up to his armpits and his exposed skin was mottled but his eyes opened, startlingly blue in his blanched face. Two of the boatmen bent at the oars and Nancy glimpsed the looming corner of the pier as they swung away from the wreck. The third wrapped a coat around the shuddering boy, and then did the same for Nancy.
‘You’ll be good as new,’ their rescuer said.
The grim faces of the three men told Nancy that they were the fortunate ones.
Arthur lay half in her lap with his eyes fixed on her face. His breath came in shallow gulps but he was clearly reviving. Through chattering teeth he gasped, ‘Mama? Where’s Mama?’
Nancy stretched upright to look back at the pier. Eliza had reached the ladder and the lifebelt, and must have been saved.
But where was Cornelius? Phyllis? And their father?
The water was dotted with floating debris and rescue boats that had made the short trip out from the beach. She saw some steamer passengers in the other boats, and others being helped up to the pier walkway, but she recognised none of them. The Queen Mab was almost submerged. The funnel and the wheelhouse tilted at a crazy angle, and the jaunty awning had been torn to tatters by the force of the waves.
The black flower grew so big that it filled her whole chest.
Their boat rode a wave close in to the beach and a man in big rubber waders strode out to them. He swept Nancy into his arms and carried her to the shingly rim, where she was passed along a chain of hands and finally set down on the sand where a blanket immediately enveloped her. Arthur was given the same treatment, and the boat pushed out again.
‘My father,’ Nancy screamed. ‘Where is he?’
Her legs gave way beneath her. A woman in an apron knelt to take her in her arms and wrap the blanket tighter. Nancy thought she recognised her from the cockle stall on the beach corner.
‘There you are, my love. You’m all right now. Don’t you worry.’
She was shuddering now like Arthur, great uncontrollable waves of cold and panic sweeping over her. ‘My other brother. I have to find them. Phyllis was with us too. Where are they?’
‘Your daddy will be here, I’m sure. Where are you staying, my darling?’
Someone else was trying to make her drink warm milk out of a thick white cup. The smell of it was unbearable. Her teeth rattled on the rim before she managed to turn her face away. Arthur drank his although his head was hanging and he seemed too shocked to speak.
‘Terrible,’ a voice said nearby. ‘I seen one drowned at least.’
‘Not now, Mary,’ another reprimanded.
The little boats straggled back to the beach with the last of the rescued passengers. Women and children were passed ashore as Nancy and Arthur had been, to be immediately swaddled in makeshift coverings. Arthur’s friend with the cricket ball was amongst them. He was crying and trying to hide his tears. Nancy sat with her arms wrapped round her knees in an attempt to control her shivers. Her eyes stung from the salt and the effort of scanning the beach for her family.
A shadow fell across her. Mr Feather loomed tall and black like the gnomon of a sundial. One of the rescuers had draped a rough blanket over his wet clothes, giving him the look of an Old Testament prophet. The resemblance was strengthened when he raised one hand and brought it to rest on the top of her head. The uneasy sense of being weighted down that she felt in his presence now became real. She tried to duck away but his hand pinned her beneath it like one of Cornelius’s butterflies in a case. In the shingle beside her feet she saw a pink shell, the size and shape of a child’s fingernail.
In a hoarse voice he begged, ‘She slipped away from me. Where is she now? Tell me what you see. Is she here or has she passed?’
‘I can’t see anything.’ Nancy was close to sobbing. The man did know her secret, her way of seeing with her inside eyes, into places no one else saw. Ever since she was a little girl she had possessed the ability. When she was small she linked the waking dreams with her sleeping dreams, and she assumed that everyone had the two different kinds. She was almost thirteen now, and as she grew away from childhood she understood – because no else ever mentioned such a thing – that the wakeful dreams were somehow hers alone.
He crouched to bring his mouth closer to her ear. ‘Yes, you can. As soon as I set eyes on you, I knew you were a seer. Where is my Helena?’
She tried to shake off his hand, but she was paralysed. It seemed that her head was no longer made of bone and skin because it was softening and lightening to the point where it threatened to float off her shoulders. The blood noisily surged in her veins.
The beach and the rescuers melted away. Instead of the sand and a slice of busy sea she saw billows of mud with the skeletons of trees poking up like crooked fingers. At the same time a foul smell wrapped round her. She coughed in disgust and tried to pull away, but Feather still restrained her.
The smell became overpowering, nauseating. She blinked and the mud churned and there were broken men lying in it. Dozens of them were strewn as far as the eye could see, dying and already dead, with smirched or shattered faces gazing up at the white sky.
She had no idea where this horrifying place could be. All she knew was that this inside vision was made somehow sharper and more real by the man’s hand resting on the top of her head.
She screwed her eyes shut. Tears burned the inner lids. She whispered, ‘Please. Please make it stop.’
Mercifully the scene was already fading. It had been no more than a glimpse. As swiftly as it had come the smell ebbed away, carrying the mud and the wounded and dead with it. Her head grew heavy once more and wobbled on her neck, and the man’s hand lifted at last.
He murmured, ‘Don’t be frightened. You are a seer. You might even think of your ability as a gift. Some of us do.’
She didn’t want to be any sort of us, not in a company with this man who excluded her father and mother and even Neelie and Arthur.
Then to her joy she saw Devil. He was searching the knots of people lined up on the beach. She scrambled to her feet and now Feather did not try to hold her back.
‘Pappy! We’re here.’
She ran at him and pressed her face against his soaked clothes as he hugged her. Neither of them could find words. Arthur came more slowly, white with shock, and Devil bent his head over his two children.
‘Thank God,’ he murmured.
‘Mama?’ Arthur managed to ask.
‘She is safe. Cornelius is with her.’
Nancy’s question was not answered. Devil thanked the cockle seller and her helpers and shepherded his children away from the rescue scene. At the pier entrance Eliza and Cornelius had been searching amongst the passengers who had been brought in that way. As soon as she saw them Eliza ran, tripping up in the constricting skirt. Tears were running down her face, her smart turban was gone and her hair had come down in thick hanks. Nancy had never seen her composed mother in such a way and the sight was deeply shocking.
Devil hustled them away from the beach. Nancy didn’t look back to see if Mr Feather was still searching for his sister. Devil said they must get back to the hotel immediately, to warmth and dry clothing. Some of the townspeople had brought drays and fish wagons down to the promenade to ferry survivors, but these had now set off and it seemed that the Wixes must either walk or take the little pleasure tram that ran to their hotel from the pier. Its driver looked incongruous in his smart braided uniform as he tried to hurry their shivering group towards it.
‘But where is Phyllis?’ Nancy demanded. Eliza was trying to massage some warmth into Arthur’s blanketed body. Cornelius took Nancy’s hand and tucked it under his arm.
‘We don’t know,’ he said.
‘Where is she?’
‘The men are looking for her,’ Devil answered.
‘We can’t go without her,’ Nancy flamed.
Her father’s face darkened. ‘There’s nothing you can do here, Nancy. Do as you are told.’
The toy tram trundled towards the hotel, leaving behind the rescue scene and the stricken steamer. It was wrong to be perched like carefree holidaymakers under the little canopy. In Nancy’s head the wind seemed to chivvy the fragments of the day, briefly pasting lurid, disjointed images of the steamer and their escape from it over the innocent seaside landscape.
Arthur had still barely spoken.
Eliza told him, ‘You’re safe now. You did very well, you know, to take care of your sister. Papa and I are proud of you.’
The tram rocked around the curve of track. Arthur turned his coin-bright profile towards Nancy. There was a tick of silence during which she prepared to accept whatever he would say. He was younger than her by fifteen months, but she was only a girl. Cornelius was watching her too from beneath his heavy eyelids. Cornelius often saw more than he would afterwards admit to.
‘I didn’t take care of her,’ Arthur said.
It must have been the salt in his throat and chest that made his treble voice crack and emerge an octave lower.
‘Nancy saved me. She was safe but she let go and came for me. The boatman told her she was a brave girl.’ There was another silence before he added, ‘So you see, actually I was rather useless.’
The last words came out in a boy’s piping voice once more.
Nancy noticed that her skirt was beginning to dry, leaving wavy tidemarks of salt. She was thinking that from today – or from the day before yesterday, really – everything would be different. You could never un-see what you had seen; that much was clear without any intervention from the Uncanny or Mr Feather.
‘No, Arthur, you weren’t useless at all,’ she mumbled.
Eliza cupped Nancy’s chin and lifted it so their eyes met. Her fingers were icy cold and the grey in her matted hair was revealed. With the blanket over her shoulders she could have been one of the cockle women, but still she commanded attention. Nancy yearned for the warmth of her approval.
Eliza asked, ‘Is that what happened?’
Arthur’s honesty was brave because it had cost him something. Nancy had done what she did without thinking, and therefore she hadn’t really and truly been brave at all. So she reluctantly nodded because to claim any more would have felt like an untruth.
‘Good girl,’ Eliza said, and Nancy stored up this praise like treasure.
‘Well done, Zenobia.’
At her father’s insistence Nancy had been named after the queen of the Asian desert kingdom of Palmyra, and Devil invariably used her formal name on significant occasions. But there had never been a day like this one. Nancy shifted closer to him on the narrow seat, he put his arm round her and she nestled against him.
At the hotel Eliza took charge of running a hot bath in the clanking bathroom at the end of the corridor. Usually it was Phyllis who filled baths and laid out nightclothes and brought hot-water bottles when they were needed. Her absence shouted at every turn.
When Nancy was dressed Cornelius and Arthur came to her room. Cornelius settled himself at the foot of his sister’s bed and Nancy rested her feet against his solid thigh. Of all of them he seemed the best survivor – he told her that after he had lost sight of her and Arthur he had paddled to the pier ladder and clung on to the lowest rung until all the women and children had climbed to safety. Devil had swum several times between the pier and the stricken steamer, desperately searching the water for the two of them.
Arthur remained silent, standing with his back to them and apparently staring out at the heathland. Finally he spun round.
‘I want to be a brave man,’ he blurted out.
The possibility that he might not be, that bravery was not the automatic right of boys of his sort, was deeply disturbing to him.
Cornelius blinked behind his glasses. Nancy said quickly, ‘Of course you will be.’
Arthur’s mouth quivered. He was on the point of tears.
‘And I want Phyllis to come back.’
Late that afternoon Devil and Eliza broke the news to their children that the companion’s body had been recovered from the sea.
Four of the forty people aboard the Queen Mab had lost their lives. The others were Mr and Mrs Clare and the youngest passenger, the little girl with the posy basket. Nancy couldn’t put out of her mind how Devil’s first thought had been for Eliza, and she imagined how Mr Clare must also have struggled to save his wife, never giving up until the waves claimed him too. That evening, the Clares’ usual table in the dining room was covered with a cloth but left unlaid.
In her bed, after the strange dinner where almost no one in the room spoke or ate much and the rattle of cutlery seemed too loud to bear, Nancy was unable to sleep. For the last year Phyllis had been with her to make sure she brushed her hair and placed her shoes side by side under her chair. Now the gaunt little hotel bedroom was full of strange shadows, and although she forced herself to lie still her head seethed with unwelcome images.
She lay awake for so long that sleep seemed impossibly remote. The procession of images through her mind led her to the Palmyra, to one of the theatre’s private boxes. She was watching a performance but she wasn’t enjoying the stage spectacle because Devil was in danger, and she was the only one in the audience who knew it. When she tried to call a warning no sound came because her voice was stuck in her throat. Nor could she run to save him because her legs and arms were frozen. The audience was shouting, black mouths flapping open as waves of noise crashed over the stage. Nancy sweated and gasped as she struggled to break out of her paralysis.
Her father grinned straight at her and then glanced up into the shadowed recess above the stage where scenery and mirrors were suspended out of sight. He swept off his silk hat and began to make a bow.
There came a terrible rush of air and a black pit opened at his feet. Nancy had once been shown the dark realm of machinery and pulleys and ladders that lay beneath the stage. Devil tipped forwards, slowly, like a giant puppet, and disappeared into the darkness. Too late, her voice tore out of her throat. The roaring filled her mouth with scarlet noise and she thrashed in the coils of her clothing that had now become slippery and voluminous.
Phyllis appeared in the audience, her face white and round as the full moon, and then she was gone and Nancy’s face was pressed up against the cold bars of the box. To her relief she found that the metal bars belonged to the hotel bedstead, not a box at the Palmyra. She was tangled up in the bedcovers and she writhed to set herself free.
She had fallen asleep after all and it had only been a nightmare, nothing more.
She had no idea of the time, but the depth of darkness suggested that it was the lowest hour of the night. She was sweating and shivering and her mouth was parched. Her water glass was empty. Phyllis had not filled it up for her.
Phyllis was dead.
Nancy slid out of bed and haphazardly drew on some clothes. She set out for the distant bathroom but in her confused state she remembered there were windows on the half-landing just beyond it. She was taken with the idea of looking out of one of the windows at the shifting sea. It wouldn’t be soothing, but it might be something like looking the enemy in the eye. Feeling her way along the wall she shuffled through the darkness. In an angle of the stairs a little triangular bay jutted out towards the sea. She sank down on a window seat and pressed her forehead to the cold glass.
There were bobbing lights out on the water but she thought at first that the beach below the terrace was deserted.
Then, looking harder, she saw that there was someone out there. A figure like a black stone pillar stood alone, staring in the direction of the pier. From the set of his shoulders, the angle of his head, Nancy knew it was Mr Feather.
She watched him for a long time but he didn’t move. The black flower was withering in her chest, its petals falling into soft dust.
A month later, on the Saturday of the Eton and Harrow Match, Devil left the house very early without telling anyone where he was going. Arthur boiled with fury and anguish, demanding of Eliza every five minutes when she thought he would come back.
‘We’ll be late, Mama. I can’t bear it. He promised, you know. He did, didn’t he?’
‘Hush, Arthur. Mama doesn’t know any more than you do,’ Nancy said. She could see that Eliza was particularly weary this morning. Her mother suffered from back pain and other ailments that were not discussed, and the holiday in Kent had been planned so she could rest and recover some strength in the sea air. The loss of the Queen Mab had been the end of that, and Phyllis’s death had left the Wixes’ London house muddled and freighted with unacknowledged grief.
It was ten-thirty before Devil reappeared. Cornelius had been out with his butterfly net to a patch of buddleia that grew on the canal towpath near to the house, and he saw the surprise first. He hurried in to find Nancy.
‘You’d better come and look,’ he called. She followed him outside to see what was causing a commotion in their quiet road, and she was not amazed to discover that it was her father.
Devil beamed behind the steering wheel of a motor car. He wore gauntlets and a tweed cap and he looked delighted with the world and himself. Arthur had already vaulted into the passenger’s seat. Devil leaned out to kiss his wife on the lips.
‘What do you think?’ Without waiting for an answer he called over her shoulder to Nancy and Cornelius, ‘Quite a handsome machine, eh?’
Arthur’s tow-blond head bobbed up and down. ‘Pappy says it’s a De Dion-Bouton landaulet,’ he shouted.
Two or three of the men from the street, hands in pockets and hats on the backs of their heads, were murmuring over the long, polished bonnet. Brass fittings glittered bright in the cloudy air. Devil kept the engine running and the machine purred and shivered like a big sleek animal. Nancy jumped on to the wooden running board. There was an open seat at the back, reached by its own door. Cornelius sprang in at the other side and they jigged up and down on the leather upholstery.
‘Can I drive?’ Cornelius demanded.
‘D’you fancy the job of chauffeur, Con?’ Devil laughed. ‘Let me show you how she runs first. Arthur, sit in the back, please. Make room for your mother up here.’
Eliza was all cold lines. She hesitated, but found no option other than to step up into the seat next to her husband.
‘Where are we going?’ she icily demanded.
Devil grinned. ‘To Lord’s, where else? We’re all dressed up and ready for Arthur’s special day, aren’t we?’
He eased a lever and the car rolled forward. He swung the wheel and they were soon bowling along the high road, overtaking a tram with a blast on the horn and a rush of speed. Cornelius sat with his palms flat on his thighs, rocking with pleasure, and Arthur chanted ‘De Dion-Bouton’ over and over.
‘She ran smooth as silk, all the way from the chap in Sydenham who sold it to me,’ Devil preened.
Eliza said, ‘Please tell me you haven’t paid good money for this motor car.’
‘It’s not new. Built in 1908, but hardly driven. Rather a bargain.’
Eliza’s voice rose. ‘You’ve bought it? A car, at a time like this?’
The three children glanced at each other.
‘What better time? We deserve to be happy. Everyone has been so cast down since the steamer, I thought a surprise would cheer you all up.’
Eliza’s gloved hand struck her husband’s arm.
‘Damn you,’ she hissed.
He looked down at her, and the car briefly swerved and rocked before he corrected it.
‘Don’t be a shrew, Eliza.’
She sat in silence all the way to the cricket ground. As they drew near to it the crowds heading for the match turned to stare at them. Devil waved as if he were the King.
‘Let’s have a happy day, shall we?’ Devil pleaded with her. ‘Arthur will soon be at Harrow, Cornelius is leaving school. We should enjoy being together while we can.’
As usual, Nancy was not mentioned. She was the middle child, and a girl.
Eliza was looking forward to meeting her sister Faith, with her husband Matthew Shaw and their three children, and to sharing a picnic luncheon with them. It was her choice either to enjoy herself or to let Devil’s misguided gesture mar the day. The two small vertical clefts between her eyebrows melted away.
‘We’ll talk about this machine later,’ she said, allowing her husband to help her down. Devil winked over his shoulder at Nancy and Cornelius. Arthur had already run to the gate, unable to contemplate missing a single ball.
It was a chilly day for July, with low clouds seeming almost to touch the roof of the pavilion. Under the muted sky the grass flared with a saturated, emerald brilliance. In the luncheon interval, when the ladies left their seats in the stands to mingle in the outfield with the other family groups, they covered their shoulders with wraps and kept their parasols furled.
After their picnic the sisters strolled arm in arm, drawing plenty of interested glances from the other spectators. Faith’s vast hat was festooned with flowers and veiling while Eliza had chosen a tall, narrow toque with a single extravagant plume that curled almost to her shoulder. The hat made her look like an Egyptian queen.
Nancy and her cousin Lizzie Shaw followed them, arms linked in an unconscious reflection of their mothers. Nancy had turned thirteen last week and to mark this milestone Eliza had given her a pair of glacé leather shoes with raised heels, and her first pair of silk stockings. After her usual lisle bulletproofs the whispery silk left her ankles feeling naked, and she stepped a little unsteadily on the unaccustomed heels. The day was supposed to be a celebration of Arthur’s imminent entry into Harrow and the ranks of public-school men, but for Nancy it retained the queasy, brittle veneer that had become familiar since the loss of the Queen Mab. She did what was expected of her, at school and at home, but she couldn’t shake off the sense that none of it mattered. What did it even mean to be alive, she wondered, when death always hovered so close?
Phyllis had disappeared as if she had never existed, and they hadn’t even attended her funeral. Nancy had asked Eliza if she might go, but Eliza had replied that it would not be suitable. If Nancy even tried to talk about the companion, Eliza shook her head.
‘My poor Nancy. It’s hard to come to terms with it at your age, but people do die. The best way is to look forwards, and try not to dwell on the past.’
Nancy began to wonder about the events in her parents’ history that made them so fiercely intent on the here and now, and so unwilling to acknowledge what was past.
Lizzie tugged at her wrist and flashed a grin. Miss Elizabeth Shaw was a red-lipped young woman of twenty-one, with dark eyelashes and a ripe giggle. She had trained as a shorthand typist before taking a job with the managing director of a tea-importing company. She liked to describe herself as a career woman, tilting her head on the stalk of her pretty neck as she did so and laughing in a way that was not in the least self-deprecating. Lizzie declared interests in the suffragist movement, although Nancy privately believed that this might be as much to discountenance her conventional parents as from real conviction.
‘Guy Earle is a handsome boy, don’t you think?’
She was referring to the Harrow captain, at the same time as observing the progress of a pair of uniformed young army officers who were strolling in the opposite direction.
Lizzie let out a spurt of laughter. ‘Come off it, Nancy. You’re not a baby. You like boys, don’t you?’
‘I like my brothers and my cousins. I don’t know any others.’
Lizzie’s brothers Rowland and Edwin were sleek young City men in their mid-twenties, one a stockbroker and the other employed in a bank.
Her cousin laughed again. ‘Oh, darling Nancy. You will, I promise.’
Their fathers leaned against the front wall of one of the stands, smoking as they watched the crowds passing in front of them. Devil had never been interested in cricket and barely understood the rules of the game, but he was quite happy to issue his thoughts on the bowling.
Nancy’s uncle Matthew Shaw was hardly any better informed. He was a solid, uxorious man who had long ago – when the Shaws and Eliza first met Devil Wix – been the manager of a waxworks gallery. Since those early days he had taken over the running of his late father-in-law’s wholesale greengrocery business and was building up a sideline in fruit importing. He was a capable businessman and Devil had more than once tried to recruit him to manage the theatre – in tandem with himself, naturally. Matthew always rejected these advances. He loved Eliza Wix as a sister, but he considered his in-laws to be a racy and a risky combination. Matthew was aware that the Palmyra was forever on a precarious footing, and it mystified him that year after year Devil was able to keep it afloat, constantly reinventing and rejuvenating what was (for all its proprietor’s claims) a Victorian variety hall.
‘Arthur’s happy,’ Matthew observed.
The boy could be seen at the foot of the pavilion steps as he tried to catch an off-pitch glimpse of his team heroes.
‘He’s got good reason. This match is in the bag.’
Matthew nodded. They all knew that Cornelius was not quite like other boys and would never tread the conventional path, so Devil had determined that his younger son should go to a great public school. Arthur was a gifted cricketer but he was only average at his lessons, unlike Cornelius who was an encyclopaedic authority on the few subjects that interested him – Lepidoptera and the classical orders of architecture amongst them. So it had been a day of rejoicing in the Wix family when after months of tutoring Arthur narrowly passed the Common Entrance exam for Harrow. For Devil and Eliza it was a measure of how far they had risen in the world.
Eliza’s late father had been a wholesale greengrocer and Devil’s course had been even more dramatic. He ran away from a bleak village childhood, and in his early days in London he had slept in the streets. Now that he was a theatre impresario, even though the foundations of his prosperity were not as secure as they appeared, these precarious origins were not much recalled – even with Faith and Matthew. Arthur was now only weeks away from entering Harrow School, and although he and Faith thought it both pretentious and extravagant of the Wixes to be sending their boy to one of the great public schools, Matthew had to acknowledge that Devil’s partisan attitude was justified today.
The Shaw brothers reappeared from their excursion to the Lord’s Hotel, carrying a beery waft with them. Rowland laced his hands behind his head and stretched his legs beneath the seat in front. He swallowed a belch.
‘I’m quite ready. Play can resume.’
Arthur raced round the ellipse of grass and bounded up to his family.
‘Earle and the rest of our fellows are pretty confident,’ he announced, as if he had taken his lunch in the pavilion with them.
Bats under their arms, two Eton men strode out to the wicket.
Eliza had taken a glass of hock with her picnic. She remarked, ‘How lovely it is to be all together like this. We must come again next year, don’t you think?’
‘Please, Mama, hush,’ Arthur cried in anguish.
Nancy rested her chin on doubled fists. She longed to lose herself in the game like everyone else, but the scent of mown grass rose and surged into the crannies of her head. A tilt of perspective replaced the cricket pitch with mud and shattered trees and the sad remains of men.
She resisted the swamp with all her strength, clenching her teeth until her jaw creaked. No one was looking at her. Flags in front of the pavilion stirred in the summer breeze and she heard the cheering for a boundary as if it came from a long way off.
Perhaps strength of will was what was needed. The Uncanny mustn’t be allowed to claim her.
From now on, she must try to be the one who claimed it.
The white figures of the cricketers swam against the grass but they remained themselves. The smell of grass was now only a midsummer scent mingling with strawberries and her mother’s perfume.
I won’t think about the other place, she repeated. I shall try to be more like Arthur and Lizzie.
As if to endorse her strength of will her father nudged her and winked.
‘What do you think of this, eh?’
She swallowed hard. ‘So exciting.’
Bob Fowler, the Eton captain, was finally caught out.
‘Now we’re secure,’ Arthur crowed.
But Eton’s tenth-wicket partnership suddenly began to hit the Harrow bowling all over the field. Astonishingly, fifty runs were put on in only half an hour.
In the tea interval Devil and the three Shaw men walked to the boundary to watch groundsmen dragging up the heavy roller. The sky was lightening at last and a pale bar of sunlight crept between clouds to fall across the face of the Grand Stand. In a state of unbearable tension Arthur could only jiggle in his seat. The Shaw men stopped ribbing him.
A succession of wickets fell before the Harrow captain came out to bat. He staunched the flow with a score of thirteen, but then he was caught off a savage yorker.
Arthur could not help himself. He jumped up and yelled, ‘No! Earle’s not out. It was a bump ball, I saw it. Not out, I say.’ Faces turned to him.
‘Arthur,’ Devil said sharply. He knew enough about cricket to recognise unsporting behaviour.
Harrow’s tenth man could be seen sprinting out of one of the tea tents with a cream bun still grasped in his hand, urgently summoned to prepare for his innings. The last stand put on a desperate thirteen runs.
‘Come on,’ Arthur gasped.
But then, at one minute to six, the end came. The batsman played inside a ball that did not turn as expected, and was caught in the slips. The roar from the crowd was loud enough to lift the roofs. It swelled over Regent’s Park and the villas of St John’s Wood. Eton had won the match by nine runs.
Arthur blinked at the tumult of Eton boys and families surging on to the pitch. He pulled his straw hat down towards his ears until the crown threatened to split from the brim.
‘I don’t know how that happened,’ he whispered. ‘It’s beyond comprehension.’
Cornelius placed his bookmark.
‘Are we going home now?’
The pandemonium in the ground was growing and the exuberant crowds seemed denser than they had done all day.
‘It will take for ever to make our way to the underground in this crush,’ Matthew complained.
‘And I am afraid I must leave you and take the De Dion to the theatre,’ Devil apologised. He adjusted the brim of his hat with the Harrow colours to a more rakish angle and smoothed the flanks of his striped blazer. In less than an hour he would be in his white tie and tailcoat, ready to step out on the Palmyra stage as the evening’s master of ceremonies.
‘I’m glad you have your motor car, and the rest of us are in no hurry,’ Eliza observed.
Devil kissed her on the cheek and offered Faith the same salute. To Arthur he said, ‘Next year, there will be another match. And in five years’ time you will be lifting your bat in the Harrow eleven.’
Arthur set his smooth jaw as he stared into this dizzy future. A second later Devil had vanished into the crowd.
The rest of the party agreed that they might as well allow the hubbub to die down. The four women took a stroll round the outfield. Lizzie was saying that her boss Mr Hastings was a tremendous oarsman and she greatly preferred rowing to cricket as a spectator sport. Perhaps next year Nancy might like to come with her and some lively girls to Henley? This year they had had so much fun – a broad wink – and she was sure Nancy would adore it.
A man was standing beside the perimeter wall, shading his eyes from the weak sun as he looked towards them. His dark coat made him incongruous amongst the other spectators in their light summer clothes. As they drew abreast he stepped into their path.
‘Mrs Wix? Nancy?’
It was Mr Feather.
He tried to lock his gaze with Nancy’s but after the smallest nod in his direction she fixed her attention on the pavilion roof. Her heart banged uncomfortably against her ribs. Faith and Lizzie politely withdrew a little distance.
‘How are you?’ Eliza murmured to him. The man’s gaunt appearance startled her. ‘I am so sorry about Mrs Clare.’
‘Thank you. It was a terrible … it is not … I had hoped …’
He struggled for the words and then bowed his head. In a man who had been so fluent the inarticulacy was even more shocking than his altered looks.
Eliza placed her hand on his sleeve.
‘Perhaps Nancy might bring you a glass of lemonade?’
Nancy stared at the buttons of his coat so as not to see his face, and still his proximity made her shiver.
I don’t want to be a seer.
Mr Feather collected himself and sadly nodded.
‘Lemonade? That is kind, but no, thank you. I should offer my condolences in return, for the loss you also suffered on that day.’
‘Phyllis was our children’s companion. Very sad, of course, but she was not a relative.’
Eliza’s tone indicated that the topic was closed. Nancy shot her a glance, wondering how her mother could sometimes seem so devoid of feelings.
A young man hurried towards them. He called out, ‘Lawrence? So sorry, I had to speak to a chap I was … ah? Hullo!’
With an effort Lawrence Feather produced a smile. ‘Not at all, Lycett. I too have bumped into some friends. Mrs Wix, Miss Wix, may I introduce Mr Lycett Stone?’
He was a tall, plump and dishevelled Etonian in top hat and elaborate waistcoat. He grinned and removed the hat with a flourish, clearly elated by the match. Unconfined by the topper his curly hair gave him the look of an overgrown Cupid. Nancy didn’t want to stare, but she was struck by the young man’s exuberance. She thought it would have been fun to hear his account of the game. More fun than listening to Arthur, at any rate.
The young man beamed. ‘Well, I have to say, it’s been a great day.’
‘You must be delighted,’ Eliza agreed.
‘Eh? Oh dear. Your boy’s a Harrovian, I assume?’
‘Yes, he will be.’
Lycett Stone pursed his full lips and did his best to look sympathetic, but unruly satisfaction spilled out of him.
‘Next year,’ he consoled. ‘There’s always next year.’
Lawrence Feather looked even more sombre beside this vision of merriment. He murmured, ‘I shouldn’t detain you any longer, Mrs Wix. But may I call on you at some convenient time?’
Eliza agreed, mainly out of pity for the state he was in. The strange pair said goodbye and moved off into the crowd as Faith and Lizzie rejoined them.
‘Who was that?’ Lizzie Shaw demanded.
Eliza explained the circumstances in which they had last seen Lawrence Feather.
‘Oh, I see. Actually I meant the other one, the Eton boy.’
‘I don’t know, Lizzie,’ Eliza said. ‘His name is Lycett Stone. Why do you ask?’
‘He looked rather jolly.’
It was almost seven o’clock and the crowds were thinning out at last. The two families had planned to eat supper together but Rowland and Edwin Shaw excused themselves, saying they were going on to meet some fellows for a drink. The brothers shared a set of bachelor rooms in Holloway. Only Lizzie still lived with her mother and father, and she had privately confided to Nancy that she didn’t intend to remain there much longer. As they threaded their way to St John’s Wood underground station Lizzie was still volubly talking.
‘We are liberated women in this family. We don’t need overseeing and chaperoning every time we step out of the front door, do we? Look at your mama. Even in her day she was able to live in a ladies’ rooming house and work as an artists’ model.’
This wasn’t news to Nancy or anyone else. Eliza loved to reminisce about her artistic and theatrical days.
The Wixes lived beside the Regent’s Canal at Islington. It was a pretty house, rising three storeys above a basement area enclosed by railings. There were curled wrought-iron balconies at the tall windows, and the play of light over the water was caught in the rippled old glass. Only ten years before the canal had been busy with laden barges drawn by huge slow horses, but lately the furniture-makers of the area had begun to receive their timbers by motor wagon and the channel now bloomed with carpets of green weed.
Devil had bought the house for Eliza shortly after Cornelius was born, borrowing the money at a high rate of interest from a private bank. The heavy repayments on the loan had begun the serious undermining of the Wixes’ finances. The theatre business and their home lives had rocked on more or less unstable foundations ever since.
When they reached the house Eliza had to stop and lean against the railings to catch her breath. She seemed too tired even to search for her key.
‘Mama?’ Nancy said in concern.
Arthur ran up the steps to ring the bell and the door was grudgingly cracked open by Cook.
‘Evening, mum, Mrs Shaw, Mr Shaw.’
The cook was not pleased to see visitors for supper, especially since it was Peggy’s evening off.
The Wixes kept two servants in the house, Mrs Frost the cook (‘An aptly named person,’ Cornelius had remarked), and a housemaid. Nancy loyally insisted that she wouldn’t accept any replacement for Phyllis. A daily woman came in to do the heavy cleaning and laundry, her morose little husband did odd jobs, and a smeary-faced boy appeared in the mornings to clean the shoes and run any necessary errands.
‘There’s only cold cuts, mum,’ Cook called after Eliza as the sisters went upstairs to take off their hats. ‘I reckon I could boil up a few spuds, if you really need me to.’
In her bedroom Eliza drew the hatpins from her plumed toque and set it on the dressing table. Faith steered her to the chair at the window.
‘There. Sit for a moment.’
‘Matthew …’ Eliza began.
‘… will be glad to read the newspaper in peace for half an hour,’ Faith finished for her. ‘Shall I ask Cook to bring us a pot of tea?’
‘By all means. She will certainly give notice if you do. It will save me the trouble of dismissing her.’
Faith only laughed. She was well used to the state of semi-warfare between Eliza and the cook.
‘No tea, then. Something stronger?’
A silver tray with a bottle and glasses stood on Devil’s dressing stand. Faith placed a weak gin and water in her sister’s hand and watched her take two swallows.
‘I don’t know where I’d be without you, Faith.’
Eliza and her sister were close, and had become even more so in recent years. As a young woman Eliza had dismissed Faith’s choice of marriage and motherhood as unadventurous, but she was generous enough now to acknowledge that for all her youthful insistence on freedom they had ended up in more or less the same place. How age enamels us, she would say. It builds up in layers and locks us inside our own skin, stopping us from breaking out, preventing the outside from burrowing in.
Faith said, ‘You’d do perfectly well, but you don’t have to because I am here. Is it bad today?’
Eliza closed her eyes. Her fingers splayed over her lower belly as if to support the failures and collapses within.
‘My back aches, a little.’
‘What else, then? Is it Devil?’
There was a long pause.
‘No more than usual.’
Faith didn’t ask, ‘Who is it this time?’ but she might well have done.
There was always someone: an actress or a dancer from the theatre, a waitress from one of the supper clubs, or a young girl met across a shop counter when he was choosing a pair of gloves or a bottle of scent for Eliza.
That was the strange thing.
Apart from the few years at the beginning of their married life, before Cornelius was born, Devil had been incapable of fidelity. Yet even when his pursuit of women was at its most fervent, Devil had always been – so it seemed to Faith and Matthew – utterly obsessed with his wife.
Faith said, ‘He adores you.’
Eliza gave a thin sigh. It was not the first time the two of them had discussed the matter.
‘That’s partly the trouble. I can’t satisfy his craving, and the more I fail in that the more he longs for what he imagines I am withholding.’
It wasn’t just sex, although sex lay at the root of it. Once they had been well suited. But then Cornelius had come, or rather a brutal doctor with a pair of forceps had dragged him into the world, and after that there had been a change. Pain and distress made Eliza hesitant, even though she had tried to pretend otherwise, and although Devil had done his best he had in the end read her hesitancy as reluctance. He was cast as the importuner and Eliza as the withholder, and although the front line of their battle constantly shifted, sometimes dressed up as comedy and at others bitterly rancorous, there was always a battle.
Almost five years after Cornelius Nancy had arrived easily, but Arthur’s birth hardly more than a year after that had been almost as difficult as his brother’s.
Nowadays Devil propitiated his wife with expensive comforts and sea air. Accepting her reliance on new doctors and patent cures, he squandered too much time and energy on the Palmyra, arguing that otherwise the theatre could not generate the money he needed to care for his family. Devil regarded the diversions of motor cars and women as just that, and would have claimed – in the circumstances – they were nothing less than he deserved. Eliza didn’t see it the same way, and she was angry with him. All the images of herself that she had created as a young woman had been to do with strength and freedom, and now she possessed neither. She was little better than an invalid, and she had become dependent on her unreliable husband for everything.
Eliza sat upright. She squeezed her glass so tightly that it might have shattered.
‘How has this happened to me? Here I sit like a wilting girl. I’m ashamed of myself, Faith.’
‘There is no shame in what you have suffered.’
‘I am weak.’
Faith shot back at her, ‘We’re women. We’re all weak. You don’t have a monopoly on the condition.’
Faith was not usually so blunt. Eliza stuck out her glass, still miraculously intact. They were both smiling, almost girls again.
‘We’ll have to endure it, I suppose. Give me some more gin before we go down and feast on the boiled spuds.’
On the floor above Lizzie stuck her head out of Nancy’s bedroom window and – to Nancy’s astonished awe – smoked a cigarette.
‘Do you want one?’
‘No. I mean … I don’t mind, but I don’t smoke.’
‘Terrible, isn’t it? I caught the habit from some of the girls at work and now I’m completely hooked.’
Cornelius rapped on the door and Lizzie quickly ground out the cigarette on the windowsill before tossing the end into the grey air.
Cornelius called, ‘Cook says to come now if you don’t want it cold.’
‘It was cold to start with, wasn’t it?’ Lizzie laughed.
The stage door was in a narrow alley that ran from the Strand towards the Embankment. Devil stepped inside. The doorman in his wooden cubicle passed over a sheaf of post and wished him a good evening.
‘Who won the match, sir?’
‘Eton, I’m sorry to say.’
‘Mr Arthur’ll be disappointed.’
‘That’s hardly the word.’
Devil made his way down a dark passageway lit by a single overhead bulb and up a short flight of bare wooden stairs. There was a strong smell of worn clothing, congealed grease, and mice.
The theatre owner and manager’s office had brown-painted walls and was hardly wide enough for a cluttered desk. The lighting was no better or brighter than in the corridor outside. He propped himself on a corner of the desk and quickly shuffled through the mail. It was all bills, mostly final demands, and at the bottom of the heap he found a flyer for the new show at a rival theatre. The type was blocky, modern and rather eye-catching. Devil screwed the sheet up and threw it at the wastebasket.
The backstage manager Anthony Ellis stuck his head round the door.
‘All right, Mr Wix?’
‘Hullo, Anthony. What was the house like this afternoon?’
‘Better. Might be two hundred.’
Devil nodded. The capacity of the Palmyra was two hundred and fifty. Its intimate scale made it perfect for performances of magic, although even when it was full it was an exacting task to make it pay well. There was no profit to be taken out of a thin house.
‘Thirty until the up,’ Anthony reminded him.
The stage manager withdrew. Devil heard him tread along the corridor to the door of the main dressing area. He knew every creak of the old floorboards, every scrape of a hinge and click of a switch. The other performers all made ready in one chaotic room, ducking behind screens and crowding at a single mirror. The Palmyra was not noted for its backstage luxury. All resources were lavished on the front of house.
Devil whistled as he stripped off his blazer and soft-collared shirt. He stood in his vest at a broken piece of mirror and rapidly applied a layer of make-up, then worked over the arches of his eyebrows with a dark pencil before finally reddening his lips with a crimson crayon. When he was finished he removed his starched shirt from the hanger and slipped it on, careful to keep the folds away from his painted face. He fixed his collar with an old stud and deftly tied his white butterfly.
Once he was fully costumed he stood in front of the glass again. He rubbed brilliantine through his greying hair, the gloss turning it darker. Then he briskly applied a pair of old wooden-backed hairbrushes to the sides and top.
Devil was fifty-four years old and still a notably handsome man.
By this time Anthony Ellis was coming back to call the ten. Devil walked through the skein of cramped passageways to the wings. Stagehands in shirtsleeves greeted him as he passed. From the pit he could hear the small orchestra tuning up. As he took his place behind the house curtain a stooping elderly woman hurried from a niche to brush the shoulders of his coat. Sylvia Aynscoe was the wardrobe mistress and dresser, and she had been employed at the Palmyra almost since the beginning.
She gave him a compressed smile before twitching the points of his collar into place. Sylvia was an old ally of Eliza’s. It was through the unobtrusive conduit of the dresser that news of everything that happened at the Palmyra found its way back to Islington.
At two minutes to the up Devil was poised on the balls of his feet like an athlete ready to sprint. He flexed his white-gloved fingers and patted the props in the concealed pockets in his coat. The rustle and chatter of the audience through the heavy green velvet drapes sounded like the sea.
The first act of the current show was a dance illusion routine. Four girls in laced satin pumps and scanty dresses of sequinned tulle softly padded to their positions behind him. The best-looking of the four, an elfin girl with a dancer’s taut body, knew better than to try to attract his attention at this tense moment. She turned her head instead to catch her reflection in one of the mirrors. A tall plume of white feathers nodded from a tiny tiara, darts of radiance flashing from the paste gems.
The orchestra struck up the national anthem and the audience rose to its feet. As soon as they had resumed their seats Devil stepped out between the tabs. The bright circle of the following spot tightened on him as he smiled into the heart of the expectant house. He was glad to see that it was better than two hundred. All the stalls were occupied and only a score of seats in the gallery were empty. Pale faces gazed down at him from two tiers of gilt-fronted boxes at the sides of the stage. He let his eyes sweep over the rows of seats.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the home of magic and illusion. We have a magnificent and intriguing show for you tonight.’
Devil pivoted. When he turned again a ringmaster’s whip had appeared in his hand. He cracked the whip and a mirrored ball spun on the boards at his feet; he cracked it a second time and the ball rose like a giant soap bubble and floated away.
Laughter and applause spread through his veins, lovely as warmth in winter. Even though he was pinioned in the lights he could see out to the slender pillars that were carved to resemble palm stems, and the fronds of painted plaster leaves. Gilt-framed lozenges of bright paint glimmered at him. His voice rose into the graceful cupola surmounting the auditorium. Devil thought of his theatre as a jewel box that his audience could open, only a few feet removed from the din of the Strand. He offered them opulence in exchange for the mundane world.
He loved every brick and plank of the place.
The giant bubble sank again. Another flick of the whip broke it into real soap bubbles that drifted out over the double fauteuils at the front of the stalls and gently vanished.
Devil swept his bow and backed into the wings.
The curtain rose at once on the dancers. Four girls arched their taut bodies against four triangular columns. Two faces of the columns were mirrored and the third was black.
The orchestra began to play ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart’.
The columns were mounted on spindles, and in the recess beneath their feet a stagehand turned a drum and the columns silently revolved. The girls moved into their dance. Four were multiplied to eight, and the mirrors reflected their reflections until sixty-four splintered images danced into the light, were swallowed up by the turning darkness, and then pirouetted into view again. Dozens of white plumes swayed and the jewels shot points of fire.
The audience drew a collective breath and the applause for this vision almost drowned out the music.
Devil watched from the wings. The elfin dancer spun en pointe and her blank gaze passed over his face. But on the next turn their eyes locked for a fraction of a second. No one else saw it, but the ghost of her smile for him was multiplied into infinity.
Devil lifted his gloved hand in a small salute. He turned away through the wings, and returned to his office where the bills were still piled on his desk.
The housemaid brought in the tray and placed it on the table.
‘Anything else, Mrs Wix?’
Eliza ran her eye over the tea service with the pattern of forget-me-nots, the silver pot and sugar tongs, and the two varieties of cake on a tiered plate.
‘Thank you, Peggy, that will be all.’ When the girl had left the room Eliza said to her guest, ‘Now, Mr Feather, how do you take your tea?’
The man had called on her twice before. On the first occasion she had been out at Faith’s and on the second she had told Peggy to say she was not at home. When he turned up for the third time she realised that he would go on knocking at her front door day after day until she did agree to see him, so she had let him in. Lawrence Feather was not a welcome guest, but now he was here she would at least show him that she ran a proper household.
Feather was not the man to be deflected from his purpose by tea or sponge cake. As soon as he could he put his cup aside and leaned forward.
‘I need your help,’ he said.
She inclined her head. ‘Really? In what way?’
‘I think you don’t believe in psychism, Mrs Wix?’
She frowned. ‘I have seen plenty of stage cheats and music-hall fakery. Clutching icy hands, floating mists, bells clanging when there is no one to ring them, that sort of thing. There is no real harm in it, as entertainment for those who are so inclined. But there has never been a so-called manifestation that couldn’t be explained away by hidden wires, a yard or two of fine muslin, a human arm in a black sleeve. All in a darkened room, naturally. Possibly I am too coarse to be susceptible to the real thing, Mr Feather.’
He did not flinch. He just looked at her, his eyes glowing like coals in their hollow sockets.
‘I don’t believe you are in the least coarse, Mrs Wix. Let me put it to you in a different way. Are you quite certain that there are no senses on the fringe of human consciousness, nothing whatsoever beyond the range of what is accepted as normal or physical?’
‘I think none of us can be quite certain of that. I was talking about those cheap stage performances I have seen with my own eyes and know to be fraudulent. You are speaking of different matters, perhaps.’
The man probably conveyed all sorts of damaging nonsense to the lost and bereaved who made up his audiences. She was suspicious of him and his motives.
He lifted his hand. ‘You know, of course, that I lost my sister Helena, and my dear brother-in-law, when the steamer sank. We spoke of it when we met at Lord’s.’
‘Yes. You have my sympathy.’
‘Thank you. You and your family suffered your own loss. However, Mrs Wix, I am not married. Helena was all I had. I loved her dearly. Perhaps even too dearly.’
There was a shiver of a pause. Feather’s tongue moistened his lips before he smoothly continued, ‘Our parents passed years ago and we have no other siblings. She was my lieutenant in my work, and she knew everything about my efforts to open a conduit from this world to the regions beyond.’
He anticipated the obvious question.
‘You are wondering, since this is my claimed expertise, if I am able to speak to her now, or if she has in any way reached out to me?’
His voice sank to a whisper. He seemed on the brink of tears.
‘I have tried. I have tried with all my heart, and every fibre of my capacity. There is a tumult of voices out there, crying and calling, clamouring for me to open their channels, but there is no Helena.’
Eliza could not help feeling sympathy, even for a charlatan.
‘Only once, on the night she passed, did I hear anything. I stood on the beach in front of the hotel and I wanted to die from grief. I hoped I would die, God forgive me. Then Helena spoke suddenly to me out of the silence. She said, “I am here.”’
‘Was that a comfort to you?’
He nodded. ‘Yes. Oh yes, it was the greatest comfort. But that was all she said, even though I stood for hours in the same place, waiting and hoping. Since that night there has been nothing. No word and no sign – except for one significant thing.’
The calculating glance he gave her was at odds with his grieving demeanour and her sympathy faded.
‘What is that?’
‘I was invited at the last moment to attend the Schools Match by my godson, the child of an old friend, a young man thoughtful in his efforts to lift me out of my sorrow. I almost didn’t go, but I didn’t want to reject a kindness.’
‘You introduced us.’ Eliza recalled the plump boy’s merriment.
‘I did. And there at Lord’s I saw your daughter again. Mrs Wix, I could only interpret such a coincidence as no coincidence at all, but a sign from Helena.’
‘Yes. You know that Nancy has unusual psychic powers?’
This must stop immediately, Eliza thought. She stood up, stretching to her full height.
‘To encounter people by chance at a public-school cricket match is not a sign of any kind. My daughter is thirteen years old. She has no powers. I don’t want you to speak of her in relation to your beliefs. I would like you to leave my house now, and never to come here again.’
A spasm of pain darted from the small of her back and travelled down her thighs and into her calves, making her gasp. She held on to the back of her chair for support. Lawrence Feather gazed into her face as if he knew and understood what she felt.
He murmured, ‘Thirteen is a crucial age for a young girl. The senses are newly awakened, and the powers are as sharp and subtle as they ever will be. Nancy is a clairvoyant and precognisant, I knew it the instant I saw her in the saloon of the hotel.’
Eliza straightened as the pain released her.
‘No, Mrs Wix. Truth. I am certain that Helena intends Nancy to be our channel. I have come here to ask you – to beg you – to let me be your daughter’s control. She could be a great medium some day.’
‘This is impertinent nonsense. Please go now or I shall have to call for help.’
‘You won’t allow me to consult Nancy herself?’
‘Most definitely I will not.’
Downstairs the front door slammed.
Cornelius was at his new place of work, Devil was at the theatre and Arthur was spending the day with a friend. The arrival could only be Nancy herself. Eliza had sent her to the draper’s shop at the far end of the Essex Road to buy a length of tweed for a new winter coat. Eliza had given her some other commissions to attend to on the way back, and she had only let Lawrence Feather into the house in the expectation that he would be long gone by the time Nancy returned.
‘Stay here,’ she ordered, hoping to intercept her daughter and send her straight to her room. But she was too late. Pink-cheeked from the brisk walk, Nancy appeared in the doorway carrying a brown paper parcel tied with string.
‘I have the tweed but Ransom’s is closed today for family reasons, the notice in the window says. Oh.’
‘Good afternoon, Nancy,’ Lawrence Feather said.
Nancy’s stricken expression convinced Eliza that something significant had already taken place between her daughter and the medium. Unwelcome speculations raced through her mind. Nancy’s childhood had been sheltered and – by her parents’ standards – privileged, and she was as innocent as a much younger girl. That was what Eliza and Devil had intended for her, and they had schemed and struggled to make it happen.
Eliza thought quickly. If she dismissed the man now, he would not give up. She imagined him lying in wait for Nancy, watching her movements from a niche across the canal and springing out to seize her by the arm in some deserted street. In her own youth she had suffered a similar attack and the memory of it would never leave her.
It would be better to confront this business. She wished Devil were here, but then Devil’s response would certainly be aggressive and Lawrence Feather might be better handled with greater cunning. Eliza took her seat again. She seemed to consider and then reach a decision.
‘Please join us, Nancy. Mr Feather and I were talking about his sad loss and then a little about his psychic theories.’
She spoke neutrally, as if the theories related to nothing more controversial than gardening or dog breeding.
Nancy obediently sat behind the shelter of the tea table. She glanced from her mother to the visitor.
Feather didn’t hesitate.
‘You will recall what happened on that terrible morning, Nancy, when I found you on the beach?’
Nancy pressed her lips between her teeth. ‘Yes.’
‘I was explaining to your mother that I had already recognised you as one of our number. It is one of my best-developed skills, and a source of particular satisfaction to me, to adopt and encourage new practitioners in the psychic arts.’
Eliza almost smiled. The man was preeningly vain, and his absurdity immediately made him seem less alarming. Nancy was young, but she would surely see that he was ridiculous.
‘That morning we shared a psychic experience, did we not? I told you that you are a seer, and you should not be afraid of your gift.’
‘Is this what happened, Nancy?’
Nancy gave the smallest possible nod. She felt as if she were being goaded into an awkward place between the rock of her mother’s hostility and the chasm of Mr Feather’s horrible powers. Then it came to her, with a surge of rebellion, that neither of them could really know about the Uncanny. Mr Feather might have tipped her deeper into it, with his heavy hand on her head, but he didn’t see inside her. He hadn’t glimpsed the mud and the trees and the shattered men, nor had her mother.
The Uncanny was hers alone. The privacy of it seemed suddenly to be her strength as much as a weakness. At the Lord’s match, she had even established some control over it. She didn’t know what the gift really was or why it had been granted to her, but maybe the man was right. There would be a use for it.
‘What else?’ Eliza asked.
Nancy slowly shook her head.
‘I know you will tell me the truth, Nancy.’
Eliza expected nothing less than absolute candour.
‘There is nothing, Mama.’
Feather put in, ‘Mrs Wix, this is not the place to discuss such matters but I assure you …’
Eliza held up her hand.
‘The psychic arts.’ Her tone was wintry, with mockery in it keen as a blade. ‘Mr Feather has a theory, Nancy. He believes that there are voices from beyond the grave, and it is his work, or profession – he tells me that he is a professional medium – to channel them, as he calls it. It’s in relation to this work that Mr Feather has called today to ask a favour of you.’
Eliza was confident now. She had all the ammunition she needed.
‘He believes that you can help him to speak to Mrs Clare.’
Nancy’s dry lips cracked and made her wince. ‘But Mrs Clare is dead. And Phyllis and Mr Clare and the little girl.’
‘Yes, very sadly that is true. Unfortunately, Mr Feather can’t reach his late sister on the other side or hear her messages himself, despite his skills. He believes that you will be able to do this for him. Under his control, that is.’
There was a silence. Lawrence Feather’s eyes implored Nancy. She sank lower in her chair.
Eliza asked, ‘Do you think you can do this, Nancy?’
The monosyllable dropped into stillness. With a stage artist’s timing Eliza let the silence gather and deepen. At last she said, ‘There you are. You asked to be allowed to consult my daughter, and against my preference you have been able to do so. You have your answer, Mr Feather.’
He started forwards in his chair. ‘Nancy, please listen to me. You and I both know …’
Eliza cut him short. She stood again, ignoring the pains in her back. Her demeanour was so forbidding that the medium fell silent.
‘There’s nothing more to be discussed.’
She crossed to the door and held it open.
Only when she had seen him out of the house and watched him walking to the tram stop did she return to Nancy. The girl was hunched in her chair, her arms wrapped around herself. Eliza believed the child was telling the truth – she was too obedient to do otherwise – but the afternoon’s events were still troubling.
‘What nonsense. The poor man must be unbalanced by grief.’
Nancy raised her head. ‘Perhaps,’ she said.
Her gaze seemed clouded, no longer quite that of an innocent child.
‘I ask you one more time, Nancy. Are you quite sure that nothing untoward happened with that man? Did he touch or even speak to you in any way that was improper?’
Nancy’s face flooded with colour.
‘No, not at all.’
‘Then why does his presence trouble you? It’s obvious that it does.’
‘I’m not denying it, Mama. He is strange, and to see him makes me think of the steamer and Phyllis.’
It was an oblique version of the truth and Nancy reddened at even slightly misrepresenting herself to her mother.
Eliza considered. Nancy wasn’t an actress, she couldn’t feign distress so convincingly. The Queen Mab had been a shocking experience for all three children, and it was natural for Nancy to be upset by the reminder. She put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders.
Eliza and Devil had decided that they should not dwell on the circumstances of the tragedy. In their own experience the best way to deal with shocking events was to leave them in the past. She hugged Nancy briefly and then released her.
‘You will not have to meet that man again.’
‘What is it?’
‘Is there such a thing as psychism? Can the dead speak to us?’
Eliza hesitated. It was a long time since she had been able to command the reverie. Long ago, by emptying her mind on an exhaled breath, she had been able to slip into a peaceful dimension of intense colours. She had been a rebellious child, and she had used the ability as a shield against adult wrath and a refuge from tedium. Later when she had taken employment as an artists’ model, she had made professional use of the reverie to hold her pose in the life-drawing class.
The power had gradually deserted her at about the time she fell in love with Devil, and she supposed now that the condition had been connected with the physical and emotional changes of young womanhood. She had never heard voices from the other side, and she was sure that her innocent reverie was no channel to the supernatural.
Devil had been the one who claimed that he saw ghosts. But then Devil had suffered such hardships and horrors during his childhood it was hardly surprising his imagination had turned macabre. Yet he too had grown out of his susceptibility. He had not spoken of his ghosts for many years now.
Eliza considered herself to be a rational woman with modern ideas. Her scepticism was founded in years of exposure to the tricks and devices of stage illusionists.
‘No, the dead do not speak to us,’ she answered at length. ‘But as you already know there are some people who claim they do.’
‘Why do they do that?’
She patted Nancy’s hand. The naivety of the question reassured her. It was time to finish this conversation and move on to healthier topics.
‘For money, or perhaps for public attention,’ she smiled. ‘Now, look at the time. You should go and dress, or we will be late at Aunt Faith’s.’
Nancy went upstairs. Across the landing, in the larger front bedroom shared by Cornelius and Arthur, Arthur’s school trunk and boxes were packed and corded ready for the carrier. Tomorrow, Devil and Eliza would drive their son to Harrow School in the De Dion-Bouton. The motor car had been polished to a state of glittering perfection by old Gibb, the chauffeur-mechanic Devil had employed to look after it.
In contrast to his brother’s success, Cornelius had recently become a clerk in a shipping office. Every day he carried sandwiches packed in a tin box to his place of work and he had described to Nancy how he sat on a bench in a nearby graveyard to eat them.
‘I like it. It’s peaceful.’
He dismissed all questions about his colleagues or the actual work he performed, but this surprised no one. Cornelius was never communicative.
Nancy leaned on the windowsill, as Lizzie had done when she smoked the startling cigarette. From here she could look straight down into the basement area where the mangle stood under its tin roof. A little iron bridge led from the dining room across to the garden where Eliza liked to grow flowers for their fragrance. The strong perfume of night-scented jasmine was already drifting upwards.
She hadn’t confided in her mother. She had the not altogether unpleasant sense of having cut her moorings.
She had said No to Mr Feather because it was true in the broad sense. She didn’t think she could speak to Mrs Clare.
Yet she did know that there had been an unnatural relationship between Mr Feather and his sister. Helena Clare had been afraid of him; Nancy had clearly seen it in her face. Instead of the garden lying below her she saw a boathouse and a moored boat with cushioned seats. Outside, shafts of greenish light struck across lake water and in the shadowy interior two bodies grappled and then locked together. The rowing boat violently rocked. She was witnessing something horrible and wrong, and she was disgusted as well as afraid.
It was a mild evening, still early, but the hairs on Nancy’s forearms rose.
She drew her head inside and slammed the window on the Uncanny. An unexpected glint of light on metal caught her eye and she crossed to her dressing table to see what it was. Lying next to her hairbrush was a silver locket she had never seen before. The chain was neatly folded but it was tarnished, as was the locket itself. She picked it up and cupped it in the hollow of her hand. There was a faint design of engraved leaves on the front and traces of dirt caught in the filigree. Unwillingly, she turned the piece over.
The initials engraved on the reverse were HMF.
Her hand shook but she slipped her thumbnail into the crease between the halves of the locket and prised it open. Within lay two locks of hair, twisted to form a ring and bound with scarlet thread. The tiny circlet was damp and earth was matted in it.
She closed the locket and dropped it on the dressing table. She knew whose initials these must be, and whose heads the two locks of hair had come from.
Arthur raced up the stairs, his boots skidding on the linoleum. He drummed on Nancy’s door.
‘Wait,’ she told him.
When she glanced down again the dressing table was bare except for her hairbrush and comb.
The Shaws lived in a suburban enclave of substantial new red-brick villas to the north of Maida Vale. It was a highly respectable area marked out by pleached limes and encaustic tiles, leafy in summer and scented in winter with coal smoke and damp earth. The Shaws’ house had a projecting double-height bay topped off with a conical turret roofed in slate, for which Devil had mockingly nicknamed it Bavaria after one of Ludwig’s fantasy castles. Their own smaller, more gracefully proportioned house was a hundred years older but the stink of the tanneries to the east often crept around it, and decaying hovels and factories crowded at the margins of the canal basin only yards from their door. Yet Devil would not hear of a move to anywhere more rural. He loathed suburbia and claimed to have a physical aversion to open countryside.
Matthew came to the door dressed in shirtsleeves and a woollen waistcoat. He loved his home and presiding over his table, and was always a happier man on his own territory. Devil was formal in a starched collar and a fitted coat. He raised an eyebrow as the men shook hands.
‘On your way up to bed, Matty?’
Laughing, Matthew ruffled Arthur’s hair. Arthur bore this with good humour, even though in a year or so he would easily top his uncle in height.
‘Here he is, the scholar. You’ll be talking to us in Latin or Greek by Christmas, Arthur, eh?’
‘I already know Latin and Greek, Uncle Matthew.’
Faith came forward, rosy-cheeked and handsome in a new blue dress.
‘So we are all together again. Rowland and Edwin have come from Town specially to give you a send-off, Arthur.’
Rowland stuck out a hand. ‘Arthur, my boy. We’ve been waiting for you. Come out for a smoke with us?’
‘Rowland, please,’ Faith remonstrated.
Arthur glowed. He admired his adult cousins and he liked nothing better than listening to their knowing talk about girls and business. The three of them went outside to a little stone-paved terrace bordered with azalea bushes and Japanese maples. Lizzie made a point of taking Nancy by the arm and leading her to the window seat at the other end of the room for a cosy talk. Cornelius sat calmly. As always he gave the impression of being busy with his own thoughts.
The first breath of autumn in the air gave Matthew the excuse to light a fire, and as the day faded Faith turned on the lamps under their painted-glass shades. Pools of brightness lay on the rugs and fringed cushions and upholstered stools. The crowded, homely room was stuffed with mementoes. Faith loved to arrange framed photographs on the lid of the piano, showing her children at every stage from dimpled babyhood to the latest one of Edwin on a bicycling holiday with his friends from the bank.
Later Matthew led the way into the dining room. Arthur was given the place of honour at the head of the table. Candles burned in a branched pewter candlestick and there were new napkins and a matching table runner.
Faith had only one little housemaid and a daily char and she did most of the lighter domestic work and all the cooking herself. She was an excellent plain cook and her dishes always arrived hot at the table and in the proper sequence. This made a contrast with Islington, where matters were not always so smoothly arranged even though there were more hands to do the work. Domestic comforts always put Devil in a good humour. He tilted back in his chair and grinned across the table at his wife.
Lizzie and Nancy carried plates up from the kitchen. Lizzie took the opportunity to continue the talk they had begun on the window seat, saying, ‘You do look a bit cheesed off, my girl. What’s up?’
Cheesed off wasn’t exactly it, but Nancy was touched that her cousin had noticed.
‘I am a little, I suppose.’
Lizzie’s dark eyebrows rose.
‘Battles at home, eh? Don’t tell me you are getting to be a rebellious creature, Nancy?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘If so let me tell you, life will not get any easier from now on.’
Nancy glanced over her shoulder and said hastily, ‘Oh no, nothing like that. But can I ask you something?’
She blurted out, ‘Do you ever feel solitary? As if there are millions of people swarming around you, and yet no one knows who you are?’
Her cousin shrewdly eyed her.
‘I used to, all the time. My dear brothers, you know, deaf and blind to half the world. My father is a Victorian figure and my mother is equally historic. Of course she is, and Aunt Eliza too. They don’t understand modern life. We have to make our own way, and we won’t allow the men to dictate to us. Gaining the vote is only the beginning of it. You’ll find out you’re not alone, just as soon as you start making your own women friends.’
‘I won’t always feel like an outsider?’
Lizzie nudged her ribs. ‘You’re not an outsider. You’ve got me, for a start. You’ll grow into yourself. That’s what happens.’
She enjoyed offering advice as a woman of the world.
‘Tell you what, Nance. Why don’t you come with me to one of my suffragist meetings? There are all sorts of jolly interesting women for you to meet, and there’s no boring formality to it.’
‘Aren’t they evening meetings? I shouldn’t think I’d be allowed to come.’
In the dining room doorway Lizzie paused and winked.
‘Shhhh. We’ll say I am escorting you to … I know, to an orchestral concert.’
Nancy had to laugh.
Matthew brandished the carving knife. ‘Splendid.’
Nancy slid into her chair, consoled by Lizzie’s brisk affection. She glanced round the circle of faces and told herself that here was a loving and happy family. The locket belonged to the Uncanny. And so did Helena Clare, née Feather.
After dinner they enjoyed some music. Matthew had a strong tenor voice and Faith accompanied him for two or three songs, and then the sisters played a piano duet. Under protest, with his voice sliding and cracking, Arthur performed ‘In the Lion’s Cage’, a comic ditty that had been his party piece since he was six years old. Edwin joined in the choruses, miming the lion’s antics until they all shook with laughter.
Finally Rowland rolled up his shirtsleeves, bit a cigarette between his teeth and crashed into a ragtime tune. He played with such wild energy that no one minded the wrong notes. The rugs had been pushed back and they were all laughing and dancing, even Cornelius. The two-step was beyond him but he hopped from foot to foot, managing not to trample on his sister’s feet.
There had been a glass of wine for everyone at dinner, to drink a toast to Arthur and wish him luck, and Nancy felt the heat of alcohol flushing through her veins. She flung her arms around Cornelius’s jigging bulk.
‘I love you, Neelie,’ she smiled.
He answered solemnly, ‘And I you.’
Devil seized Faith’s modern glass fire screen. He tipped it on one side and balanced it on two stools. He stroked his wrists and flexed his hands, the signal for magic.
A bright penny lay in the palm of his left hand. He threw it in the air, caught it and pressed it down to the glass. They all heard the clink.
Devil made a show of crouching close to the screen. He slid his right palm underneath the glass so it matched the left and pressed downwards with great force. Then with a great sweep he lifted the upper hand and revealed the penny shining in the lower palm. It seemed that he had forced it through an unbroken sheet of glass.
Everyone laughed and clapped. Arthur ran to his father.
‘Disguise, distraction, deception, misdirection,’ he chanted.
‘Very good, my boy. You are one-tenth of the way to becoming a magician.’
‘And I know the other nine-tenths, Pappy, don’t I?’
‘Practice,’ they all chorused.
At the door as they were leaving Eliza kissed her sister.
‘That was a golden evening,’ she said.
‘It was, wasn’t it?’ Faith smiled.
In the jolting murk of the train Arthur sighed.
‘I’m jolly well going to miss you all, you know.’
Cornelius frowned. ‘I would say the same, Arthur, but no one would believe me.’
‘Idiot,’ Arthur mumbled. He was almost asleep.
Eliza’s head rested against Devil’s shoulder and her gloved hand lay in his.
The fire in the outer office had sunk to an ashy heap with no more than a red glimmer at its heart. Glancing at the clock on the wall, Nancy set aside the sheaf of invoices she was filing. Only just four o’clock on a bitter January afternoon. The managing director’s secretary was in the inner office with the door closed. Nancy stooped over the hearth to stir the embers with the poker, then tipped a scoop of coke. A rising puff of dust filled her throat and made her eyes water. She rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, but that only reminded her that she had chilblains on her knuckles and the stubborn remains of a head cold.
On the way back to her desk she stuck her head out of the door. She heard the rat-a-tat clatter of the small press running in the print room downstairs and a snatch of someone whistling before Jinny Main’s hooting laughter rose up the stairwell. Nancy sighed. Up here she had only the ticking clock and Miss Dent for company. She was hardly back in her seat before Jinny herself looked in.
‘Got a minute, Nance? I could do with a hand down there.’
Nancy followed Jinny down the stone stairs. Her friend’s brown overall was ink-stained, pulled in at the waist with a thick leather belt. Her hair was tied up in a scarf to keep it clear of the machinery. During the war when she worked on the print floor Nancy had dressed the same, and she kept her own work coat hanging on a peg in the women’s lavatory at the back of the building. But in her new position as office assistant she must wear more suitable clothing, or so Miss Dent had advised her. Uncertain of herself and hoping for the best, Nancy now dressed in a jersey with a plain flannel skirt, fixing her hair with a pair of cloisonné combs Arthur had brought back from Antwerp.
‘Take the other end of this blasted trolley,’ Jinny ordered.
Old Desmond the machine minder was shifting flat sheets ready for the collating machine and there was no one else free to help. Using the trolley they manoeuvred the finished copies of the left-wing magazine New Measure through two sets of doors to the dispatch room.
‘That’s my girls,’ the dispatch manager greeted them approvingly. Frank was another old man who had worked through the war at Lennox & Ringland. ‘Let’s pack ’em before that van driver sticks his ugly mug in here.’
Jinny counted out the magazines in batches of two dozen, Frank wrapped them in brown paper and Nancy finished the packages with string. The job was soon done. It was only a short print run, a typical job for L & R. Frank stood upright, wincing.
‘The knee still hurts, does it?’ Jinny asked. She had sympathy for everyone.
‘I’ll live, darling. Look at you, Nancy Wix. Black smuts all over your pretty face.’
Frank pulled a handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and dabbed at her cheek. The hanky smelt bad and she craned her neck away. At least he hadn’t spat on it first.
‘So long, Frankie,’ Jinny called, taking her arm. ‘See you in the morning, eh?’
The two girls escaped the pipe-smoke fug of the dispatch room just as the van driver arrived for the magazines.
‘C’mon. Let’s have a quick cuppa,’ Jinny muttered.
‘Ma Dent …’
‘You can tell Ma Dent we shifted and packed the whole run of New Measure for Frankie Fingers, can’t you?’
There was a tiny kitchen beyond the typesetting benches. The girls passed behind two printers perched at the keyboards of the rattling Linotype machines, their copy pegged beside them and their hands flying over the keys. On occasions even Nancy had been called upon to work a machine shift, but since the armistice the men had come back to take up their old jobs. Jinny was relegated to the hand-setting benches and Nancy made the best of the uncongenial work upstairs in the office.
Nancy filled the kettle at the single cold tap and lit the gas ring. She rinsed a pair of cups and swiped them with a drying-up cloth. The printworks floor was noisy and dirty, thick with oil and acrid fumes from the machinery, but she loved it.
There was nowhere to sit down so when the brew was ready they leaned against the sink.
Jinny smacked her lips. ‘That’s better. Here, Nance. Have one of these. The jam ones are good.’
She took the biscuit and ate it while her friend rolled and smoked a cigarette. Even now, this made Nancy think of her cousin Lizzie.
Poor Lizzie. Or not so poor nowadays, Nancy reminded herself. Lizzie had been unlucky, but she had refused to let circumstances get the better of her.
Jinny’s cigarette tilted in the corner of her mouth. She was squinting at her friend through a haze of smoke.
They rarely spoke about Nancy’s Uncanny but Jinny did not dismiss it, or even seem to regard it as particularly strange.
‘There are more things than we understand, I know that much,’ she shrugged. ‘I don’t need an old freak like Mrs Bullock Dodd to make me believe or not believe. Remember?’
It was Lizzie Shaw who took Nancy to her first suffragist meeting in 1911, but by the time she was fifteen Nancy had been drawn into the Women’s Social and Political Union on her own account.
Nancy knew how her mother’s independent spirit had been worn down by her circumstances, and she thought that her own future was unlikely to be any different unless women came together with a shared intent.
Why should men own almost all the property and retain all the power?
The answer came to her in the clear voice of the WSPU.
Because the men gave themselves permission to do so.
Nancy and her fellow campaigners believed that change could only come if women won the right to vote. Why should there not be women Members of Parliament, even, to speak up for other women?
Her family were sceptical about her gradual political awakening. Eliza advised her that she would do better to find a steady, well-paid job and ideally a rich husband, but she made no particular objection to Nancy attending meetings in the meantime. Devil laughed and referred to ‘my daughter, the radical’, which was one way of not taking her seriously because she was only a girl. Cornelius was indifferent to politics and organised protest of any kind, but Arthur was opposed to all her ideas.
‘Why do you want to boss men around? Men look after girls, always have done, and you should be glad of that.’
‘I don’t want to boss anyone. I want my voice to be heard, the same as yours.’
Her little brother was now a head taller than her. He looked down at her in bafflement.
As the years passed, at meetings and on marches Nancy made new friends. These women were different from the girls in her class at school, and even from the far less conventional company backstage at the Palmyra. They weren’t like Lizzie Shaw either. As Nancy had suspected she might, Lizzie turned out to be only a part-time suffragist. She loved the rhetoric, and the mischief of behaving badly, but she was too interested in having fun to spend her free time handing out leaflets in the rain or splashing paint on banners.
Although they did not meet on that night, Jinny had been present at the first WSPU meeting Nancy ever attended. When she shyly followed Lizzie into a drab hall behind a Methodist chapel, the space was swelling with a sound that Nancy had never heard before. It was a loud chorus of women’s voices, rising unconfined, uncut by rumbling male noise. Their talk sounded as exuberant as birdsong.
A woman had mounted the platform, dressed with refined elegance, a cameo brooch at her throat. Her grey hair was arranged under a felt hat with a purple, white and green badge pinned to it.
‘Good evening, friends,’ she said, and silence fell at once.
Nancy learned that the Honourable Mrs Frances Templeton was the chairman of this section of the WSPU. She opened the meeting with a series of reports, from news of leafleting initiatives to the present condition of hunger strikers in Holloway Prison, and Nancy had been astonished and enthralled to find herself apparently at the hub of these important protests.
After the business of the evening was concluded, Mrs Templeton had introduced a speaker. Mamie Bullock Dodd was an American Spiritualist who had lectured them on the links between their organisations.
She boomed in a rich tenor voice, ‘Many Spiritualists are suffragists, and socialists too. “Those terrible triplets, connected by the same umbilical cord and nursed from the same bottle.” That is a quote, but I will not dignify the gentleman by speaking his name.’
Mrs Bullock Dodd had attempted to conduct a seance but it had not been a success. The packed benches of militant suffragists did not give off the faintest whiff of psychism, and Nancy and Lizzie had got the giggles so badly that Mrs Templeton had frowned at them from the platform. Mrs Dodd struggled gamely on. Were they aware that Spiritualism was the only religious movement in the world that acknowledged the equality of women and men? They were all women of the twin spheres. A woman was a communication from heaven to earth and the spirits of the universe breathed through her lips.
A bareheaded girl had jumped up.
‘Will the spirits breathe us rights at the ballot box, then? A vote’s what I’m after. I’ll ’andle my menfolk in my own way, thanks very much, wi’out the spirits’ ’elp. ’Cept those my ’usband drinks when ’e can afford ’em. I’ll worry about the hereafter when I gets there.’
Lizzie had to cram her handkerchief between her teeth to stifle her gasps. But oddly enough Mrs Dodd’s vaporous claims had made Nancy feel better. As she represented them the Spiritualists didn’t sound threatening or even eerie and if this was Lawrence Feather’s domain, there was nothing to fear. The Uncanny still lay within her, and it was hers alone.
Once they discovered that they had both been present, Jinny and Nancy sometimes laughed about the evening. Nowadays Nancy considered Spiritualism to be an eccentric but benign cul-de-sac, although the spirits themselves were a different matter.
Nancy met Jinny Main in a café after a rally in Parliament Square. She was fifteen, and Jinny was two years older. She was struck at once by her grace. Jinny listened to what other people had to say even when it was nonsense, and she never said a bad word about anyone. She was motherless and her father was a drinker, but she never complained about her difficult life.
‘I’m lucky compared with some,’ she said, with her enclosed smile. She wasn’t otherwise vain about her appearance but she did mind about the protruding teeth that overcrowded her square jaw.
Jinny was employed as a printer’s devil. She was boyish enough to be inconspicuous in a male environment, and she worked as hard as any of the men. One evening before the next meeting her new friend took Nancy to Lennox & Ringland to show her round the printworks floor. Jinny was setting up the type for a new WSPU leaflet and Nancy watched in fascination as she demonstrated how to hand set.
‘You need good eyesight and quick fingers. This is eight-point type,’ she said.
Each tiny letter had to be read backwards, picked and dropped into a metal slug, spaced to form complete lines that also had to be read backwards.
‘Have a go,’ she invited.
Nancy fumbled her way through five words. Jinny grinned and took a pull of her efforts, then held up the result.
‘Omadood barm besarves amather. Really?’
They laughed until they had to prop themselves up against the bench.
Nancy’s version of ‘one good turn deserves another’ became their comfort phrase.
‘Omadood barm,’ Jinny would call to her as the insults and catcalls flew over their heads from the anti-suffragist masses.
Nancy left school in 1913, just before her sixteenth birthday. A dismal interval followed in which she was supposed to be learning French and, if she was to be anything like the girls she had been at school with, beginning to cast around for a husband. Neither of these activities appealed to her and she begged her father to let her do something useful at the Palmyra instead. Devil insisted there was nothing suitable. Nancy understood that his expectations were different when it came to Cornelius and Arthur. When they were much younger Devil had always been murmuring about ‘Wix and Sons’, and as the daughter she was being advised to train as a bilingual secretary to some businessman.
‘Commerce is where the future lies. It is a much better world for you than the theatre. You will have the security of a career,’ Eliza said. Infuriatingly, since Nancy knew that her mother had not placed great emphasis on suitability or security in her own younger days.
‘I am never going to be bilingual’.
‘Apply yourself, Nancy. Mamselle Schenck says that you have a good brain.’
Lucie Schenck was a middle-aged French lady who was supposed to be teaching her the language.
Then seemingly without warning, like a thunderclap out of a summer sky, the war came.
It did not end before Christmas, even though most people had been certain that it would, and Mlle Schenck hurried back to her family in a village only ten miles from Neuve Chapelle. At the same time Jinny Main told Nancy that so many of the skilled men were leaving their benches at Lennox & Ringland to join up that no one remained to print the pamphlets and journals. Dust was gathering on the typesetting machines. Within a week she had applied for a job alongside Jinny, and was employed at once as the print floor dogsbody. Jinny herself had been promoted to Linotype operator.
At the end of 1914 Jinny volunteered to be a nurse with the London Ambulance Column. From the front, the wounded men were evacuated by train to the French coast and from there brought across the Channel to be loaded on to another train. Finally the LAC met them in London and drove them onwards to their final hospital destination. At the railway stations the ambulances were sometimes overwhelmed by crowds of well-wishers who had come to cheer the men home.
The LAC organisers were used to dealing with a different class of girl, and they advised Jinny that she did not have the required nursing qualifications. But she stood her ground in the matron’s office and insisted they at least recruit her as a driver. She was a country girl who knew how to operate farm machinery so they agreed in the end to let her try the work. Her supervisor later told her she hadn’t been expected to last a week, but Jinny settled into it and spent many of her nights threading her stretcher cases through the dark streets. Nancy would cover for her on the days when she crawled away to sleep in a cupboard, unable to stay awake any longer.
On the busiest ‘push’ nights when the trains pulled in with a seemingly unending stream of smashed bones and bloodied dressings, Nancy helped out at the Column HQ in Regent’s Park. She begged but Eliza had refused to let her train for proper nursing, so her work was little more than folding blankets and smoothing laundered slips on to stretcher pillows, or even making cocoa for the dispatch riders. But it was something.
Those nights deepened her friendship with Jinny. Day after day, in an attempt to bridge the chasm between the demands of the night and the ordinary working world, the two girls talked and shared their secrets.
Early one morning, as they sat in the fresh air under an unfurling chestnut tree in Regent’s Park to recover from an unusually bad night, Jinny told Nancy about the grey coaches.
Tacked on to the end of some of the hospital trains from France were locked carriages with blanked-out windows. The doors were never unlocked while the regular wounded were being unloaded, but plain grey vans discreetly waited until the rest of the train was empty. The ordinary ambulance drivers did not ask questions and no one speculated about the men who must be inside the coaches. There was no cheering for them.
Nancy listened to this account in silence.
This time in the Uncanny she did not see anything clearly and that was a mercy, but she could hear all too well. There was darkness barred with slats of light, a terrible weeping, and a husky voice that tonelessly whispered, ‘All gone,’ over and over. And there was a low growling, sounding less like a man than an animal, a wounded bear or some other creature she did not even know.
Jinny saw her face. ‘I’m sorry,’ she cried. ‘It’s your other sight, isn’t it? I didn’t mean to wake it up, Nance.’
Nancy had never told another soul, but she had described to Jinny how as a girl she had glimpsed the war long before it had begun.
She breathed deeply. ‘It’s all right. We’re both all right, aren’t we? It’s the soldiers. They’re dying, not us.’
Worse than dying, some of them, she now understood.
Cornelius was out there, and her cousins Rowland and Edwin. Arthur was still too young to enlist but he was already at Sandhurst on an accelerated officer-training programme. Even Arthur would soon be going to France.
Jinny clasped her hand until the voices faded. Sunshine sparkled on the grass as they walked to a café to buy a bun for breakfast before catching the bus to Lennox & Ringland.
It was at the beginning of 1915 that Cornelius had suddenly decided he must join up in the ranks.
Devil was too old to fight in France, but he believed in doing his duty. He devised a series of shows for the Palmyra that featured comedy routines, patriotic songs and choruses, and uplifting speeches from popular public figures. They were called ‘Union Jack Nights’, and seats were given away to men in uniform. On one of these nights, Cornelius was sitting in a front fauteuil. Devil had asked him to watch the performance and give him some ideas for improving the static sets. A soloist came out to the apron to perform a song about joining up. The chorus went, ‘I do like you, cockie, now you’ve got yer khaki on.’ The women sitting in the seats near Cornelius sang and clapped and the singer marched down from the stage. Passing through the audience she stopped in front of Cornelius and handed him a white feather.
The next morning he went out to the recruitment office. He didn’t tell Devil and Eliza about his intentions, and even Nancy only heard about it afterwards. He was examined by a medical officer and – to his intense humiliation – immediately classified as medically unfit.
A different man might have accepted this judgement and looked for useful war work at home, but the normal rules could not be made to fit Cornelius. As always, only his personal logic applied. Once he had decided it was what he must do, he could not contemplate not going to France. He loved motor vehicles and driving with a passion that had begun with Devil’s De Dion-Bouton, and he concluded that if he was not to be a soldier he must be an ambulance driver.
He volunteered, and within days he was on the Western Front.
The field dressing stations were canvas shelters crammed with wounded and dying men. Cornelius and the other drivers collected the injured from the dressing stations and ferried them behind the lines, through the mud and chaos of the nearby battle, to the clearing hospital. The hopeless cases were set aside, and there were more than enough of those, but men with even the smallest chance of survival were roughly patched up and transferred to slow, crowded casualty trains.
Thus two people who Nancy dearly loved had formed the first and final links in this long rescue chain, and she was proud of them both.
At last the war to end all wars came to an end.
After the armistice Cornelius finally came home. Arthur also survived, although he remained in France with his regiment. Edwin and Rowland Shaw were among the many thousands of men who did not come back. The landscape of the Uncanny was thronged with lost and dead men, but if her cousins and others she had known were amongst them Nancy did not distinguish them. It was like being a mechanical conduit for images that were distressing but not connected to her, and for this she was deeply grateful.
Recalled to the present by a nudge from Jinny, Nancy collected herself. ‘What were we saying?’
Jinny said gently, ‘How’s your brother?’
‘Not bad, thank you. Some days better than others.’
Some days for Cornelius were very bad.
‘Is there any more tea in that pot?’
Nancy sloshed thick brown brew into their cups.
‘Why don’t you come out with us tonight, Nance? Me and Joycey and some of the others are going to have our tea at Willby’s and then quite likely a half-pint at the Eagle.’
Nancy liked poached eggs on thick slices of buttered toast, and the pleasant heat in the neighbouring saloon bar afterwards when Jinny’s friends crowded round a beer-ringed table to argue about communism or rights for women. The war had changed the group’s political objectives, as it had changed everything else, because women had the vote now – or some of them did.
‘There’s still a lot of work to be done,’ they agreed.
For the last two years the group had been all female, but just recently one or two soldier boyfriends had reappeared. The men perched suspiciously on the edge of the circle and their presence changed the whole atmosphere.
She shook her head. ‘I can’t tonight. Ma’s expecting me home.’
‘Fair enough. Better get back to it, I suppose.’
‘See you tomorrow.’
Miss Dent was at her typewriter. The keys clacked like hailstones on cobbles and the carriage return pinged every few seconds.
Mr Lennox strolled out of his office.
‘Find me the Platt correspondence file, Miss Wix, please.’
She knelt at the lowest drawer of a tin filing cabinet and extracted the folder. His shoes looked as though someone polished them every morning and she wondered whose job this might be. Most certainly Mr Lennox did not shine his own shoes. There weren’t many domestic servants these days, but perhaps his wife did it for him.
It was twenty to six. Miss Dent collected Mr Lennox’s signature on a handful of urgent letters. ‘Shall I take those down to the post?’ Nancy asked.
Five minutes later she had completed her errand and was free to make her way home. Although it was an easy bus journey to Islington from the printworks in an alley behind Fleet Street, Nancy usually preferred to walk. She told herself she was saving the fare and she needed the exercise, but the truth was that she was in no hurry to get back home.
Pulling up her coat collar against the rain she headed towards St Paul’s. The pavements were crowded with home-going workers, the street lamps down Ludgate Hill burnishing their wet umbrellas so that they resembled insects’ wings. Nancy had no umbrella. She lifted her face and let the thin, cold drizzle wash away the grime of the day.
Fleet Street was always busy but tonight the road was at a standstill, choked with idling buses and wagons bearing great webs of paper to the newspaper printworks. She stopped for a moment at the kerb, intending to cross over to buy Cornelius an evening paper from an old news vendor who always gave her a cheerful good evening. But the stationary vehicles offered no room to pass. In the distance she could hear shouting followed by a ragged burst of cheering.
She became aware of a big cream-coloured car standing motionless just three feet away. A man was leaning forward in the rear seat, and she noticed the chauffeur’s peaked cap as he tilted his head to listen to what his passenger was saying. A deep blast on the car’s horn followed. Hooting was perfectly pointless, she thought impatiently, because anyone could see that the road was blocked all the way to Ludgate Circus. She was about to step off the pavement and somehow worm her way between the vehicles and through the clouds of exhaust fumes, but she hesitated for two seconds for a last look at the elongated curves of the cream bonnet. The raised black eyebrow of the wheel arch was close enough for her to have stroked it with her fingertips. As she hung there, the car door was thrown open and the passenger stepped out. The polished handle just grazed her elbow.
‘I am so sorry. I almost knocked you over.’
The man was tall, wearing a soft hat. He lifted it politely and she saw smooth fair hair and a narrow, chiselled face.
‘It’s all right. I was staring at your car instead of crossing the road.’
‘Were you? Do you like it?’
‘My father would. He loves cars. He used to have a De Dion-Bouton before the war but he had to sell it.’
‘Poor chap, that must have been hard for him. They are beautiful machines.’
‘He has a Ford now.’
The man raised a sympathetic eyebrow. ‘Quite serviceable, I should think. This one is a Daimler, the new model.’
As he spoke, the car gave a shudder and the engine stalled. The man gently shoved the running board with the shiny toe of his shoe. ‘Not as reliable as a De Dion, as you can see. What’s the trouble this time, Higgs?’
The chauffeur hurried to unclip and fold back the bonnet.
‘Spark-ignition again, Mr Maitland, I’d say. Don’t like the rain, it seems.’
Mr Maitland stared down the street.
He asked Nancy, ‘Do you know what’s causing the delay?’
The chanting and cheering was louder and she could hear the shrill, familiar blasts of police whistles.
‘A march or protest of some sort. Heading for the Embankment, probably. Is there a vote in Parliament tonight?’
He frowned. ‘Yes. I wonder who it is this time? Jobless ex-servicemen, coal miners? Suffragettes?’
She disliked this form of the word. ‘I would know if it was suffragists because I would be with them. But women do have the vote now, you know. Some of us do, at any rate.’
‘Not you, you are too young.’
‘I am twenty-one.’
He looked at her, and she found herself staring straight back. She had to tilt her head to meet his eyes.
He added, ‘I’m not unsympathetic to unemployed men, by the way, or to the miners. I shouldn’t have let impatience with the car and the hold-up get the better of me. I apologise again.’
Nancy marched a few steps on the spot to indicate how free she was, not encumbered even by an umbrella. The felt brim of her hat was beginning to droop with the weight of damp.
‘I usually find walking is the best way. It’s fast, free and good for you.’
‘Yes, on this occasion you’ll certainly get wherever you are going before me. Are you in a hurry?’
She hesitated. ‘Not really. I’m on my way home.’
‘I was in a hurry. But I’m already late, and I expect I’ll be invited to plenty more dull City dinners.’
Poor Higgs folded a piece of sacking to protect his trousers and knelt to peer underneath the Daimler. The buses and lorries had not moved which meant the police must have closed the road.
‘Would you like to come and have a drink?’
No, Nancy prepared to say, but another unexpected instinct shouted Yes, oh yes.
‘There’s a place just down that alley,’ she pointed.
‘Very good.’ Mr Maitland cheerfully told Higgs that they would be waiting inside, out of the rain, and swept Nancy towards an inviting doorway.
The pub was well known to Nancy and she didn’t think about the row of workmen at the bar, or the cindery fire, or the reek of spilled beer rising from the bare floorboards. But the man took all this in before pulling out a chair for her at the table closest to the hearth. Only when he had made her comfortable did he remove his own coat and white silk scarf. He was wearing immaculate evening dress, quite different from the kind Devil wore on stage. He spoke two words to the usually surly publican who came running with kindling to restore the fire. He called Mr Maitland ‘sir’ without a flicker of insolence.
Nancy asked for a half of bitter, and two polished glasses were set in front of them without any spillage on the table. This man was used to being served.
‘Do you usually drink beer?’ he asked her.
‘Yes.’ It was hardly worth pointing out that she liked whisky but couldn’t afford it, or gin, or even sherry.
Although he didn’t smile readily, he had an unusual dimple high on his left cheek that seemed to deepen when he was amused. Nancy took off her sorry hat and her hair came down with it. He looked more closely at her.
‘My name is Gil Maitland.’
‘How do you do? I am Nancy Wix.’
‘I am pleased to meet you, Miss Wix.’
She could almost believe this, because he seemed suddenly to be in a much better humour. A slow tide of blood rose from her throat to her cheeks. The warmth of the bar made her nose run and her chilblains itched almost unbearably. She had to sniff, and clench her fists to stop herself clawing at her knuckles. Gil Maitland took out a folded handkerchief and handed it over. It was thick and starched and almost certainly monogrammed.
When she tried to hand it back he said, ‘Please, keep it.’
There would be plenty more handkerchiefs where this one had come from, she thought, laid in a tallboy by a laundry maid overseen by the valet. From this single detail she found she could imagine all the ease of Gil Maitland’s life. With Jinny Main and their other friends she would have dismissed him as the enemy, but now she felt oddly benign towards him. He was only a man, another human being, and his high assurance didn’t repel her in the least.
The exact opposite, in fact.
She wanted to laugh, from amusement and happiness, and he saw it and now he did smile. Gil Maitland would not miss much, she realised.
‘Well, Miss Wix. Who are you and what do you do?’
Because he asked questions that were sufficiently interested without being over-inquisitive, and because he listened to her answers, she confided far more about Lennox & Ringland and her family and the Palmyra than she would ordinarily have done. Mr Maitland smoked two cigarettes, gold-tipped with black papers, and drank his beer.
‘Now it’s your turn. Who are you?’ she asked at the end.
‘I’m afraid I have nothing so exotic to tell.’
Nancy had never thought of her background as anything of the kind, and the notion was surprising.
All in all Gil Maitland was a surprising person.
‘I am just a businessman,’ he added.
‘No, that’s not fair. You let me babble on for ages so you should tell me your story in return.’
Was she being rude? Nancy wasn’t sure. She just wanted to go on sitting here, looking at him and talking.
There was the cleft in the cheek again. ‘I am afraid of boring you. What would you like to know? My grandfather made his fortune importing Indian cotton and setting up Manchester factories. My father was a chemical engineer, and he developed and patented the Maitland Process.’ He cocked an eyebrow at her. ‘Can you really be interested in all this? The Maitland Process is a method by which large quantities of fabric can be cheaply and permanently dyed and printed.’
‘I see.’ She could imagine, at any rate.
‘I am an economist. I have broadened the scope of our businesses and I am investing in new methods of manufacture. Maitland’s creates employment and generates wealth, you know. Perhaps you disapprove of capitalism?’
‘Of course I do.’
After a moment Gil Maitland laughed, and so did she.
‘I’d have been disappointed to hear otherwise,’ he said.
She would have liked to begin a debate, as she had done several times in this very pub, with such a plum representative of the other faction. She was disappointed when she saw the chauffeur discreetly approaching.
‘Excuse me, Mr Maitland. Just to let you know the car’s running again, and the road is open.’
Did she imagine it, or was Gil Maitland also disappointed?
‘Thank you, Higgs.’
Mr Maitland helped her into her coat and she did her best to fix her hat. His eyes were steady as she twitched the hopeless brim.
‘I hope you will let me give you a lift?’
Nancy buttoned her gloves. She was trying to work out how old he was. Perhaps in his mid- to late-thirties, she decided.
‘Well … thank you. I’d rather like a ride home in a Daimler. I’ll be able to tell my father all about it.’
The big car glided up Faringdon Road. Perched in the leather interior Nancy wondered what it would be like to be married to a man like Gil Maitland. He hadn’t mentioned a wife, and she had deliberately not asked him.
It would be rather wonderful, she thought.
For the first time, Eliza’s perennial advice to look for a rich husband made sense. Fortunately the darkness hid her blazing cheeks.
Don’t be so bloody ridiculous, she told herself. That’s not what you want at all.
The car drew up much too soon beside the canal and Higgs opened the passenger door for her.
‘Thank you. That was very interesting,’ she told Mr Maitland as she stepped out.
‘It was interesting for me too. Goodnight, Nancy.’
The car slid away. It was still raining.
Goodnight, Gil, she whispered to herself.
Puddles of molten metal lay on the steps of the house. It was only rainwater caught in the worn hollows of the stone, but ever since she could remember she had thought it looked like mercury in the lamplight. Devil used a phial of mercury in one of his illusions, and when they were small she and Cornelius had loved the way the metal broke up into tiny globules before a twitch of the glass saucer collected it into a seamless pool again.
Smiling at this memory as well as with the residual pleasure of her encounter with Mr Maitland, Nancy put her key in the lock. The door swung open into the quiet house.
She took off her coat and shook it out before draping it on the hall stand. Droplets darkened the dusty runner. Rubbing her inflamed knuckles, she made her way down a flight of stairs to the kitchen. It was empty but the room was warm at least. This was no longer the steamy domain of the cook and housemaid. Peggy was at home in Kent with her widowed mother and almost as soon as the war started Mrs Frost had left to work in the munitions.
Nowadays Eliza and Nancy ran the household between them. Devil spent long hours at the Palmyra, Arthur was still abroad and Cornelius – Nancy’s lips tightened – Cornelius was not likely to care whether or not the steps had been swept or if the butcher’s boy had brought the wrong order yet again.
She flung open the door of the iron range and stoked the fire. She thought what a great deal of making and tending fires must have gone on all through her childhood, yet she had never paid any attention to the work.
There was a saucepan pushed to one side of the hob and she peered at the contents. Enough of an Irish stew remained to make a meal for the three of them if she added some more spuds and a few carrots. The situation was really quite promising.
Nancy went up two flights of stairs and knocked at her mother’s door.
Eliza had been reading. She took off her spectacles and laid them on the table, pinching the bridge of her nose and blinking. Her dark hair had turned grey and the hollows in her cheeks had deepened. Eliza still drew glances in the street, although she claimed not to care in the least about her appearance. Whether she did or not she had retained her theatrical way of piling on colour on colour, twisting a pair of necklaces together and sticking a discarded bird’s feather in a hatband. These days she looked rare, and not a little forbidding.
‘I thought you might have gone out with your friend Jinny.’
When Cornelius first came home, Jinny had called several times to sit with him. She understood something of what he must have experienced, and Cornelius would sometimes talk to her when he could speak to no one else. Eliza had been grateful for this intervention – grateful for anything at all that seemed to help her son – but she still didn’t quite approve of Jinny. The girl was a suffragette, a radical, a print shop assistant, and she was not likely to help Nancy up in the world. Rather the opposite. Now the war was over Eliza thought Nancy should be putting her expensive education and refined upbringing to better use.
Nancy said, ‘No, not today. How has he been?’
Eliza shuffled to her feet and Nancy immediately went to her. Under her hands her mother’s arms felt thin enough to snap. For a brief second they embraced, wordlessly holding each other close. Nancy thought, let me hold you, but Eliza moved to the door in order to listen to the silence of the house.
‘He must be asleep,’ she said. ‘There’s a letter from Arthur, by the way.’
Nancy took it and eagerly skimmed the flimsy blue pages.
Arthur was at the Brigade HQ in Belgium, to which his regiment was attached as part of the mopping-up operations that must continue for months to come. As always he wrote cheerfully about his superiors and their eccentricities, about excursions into the nearby town with his brother officers, and the football matches and other entertainments laid on for the men.
Pa, there is an officer here called Bolton who is quite a decent conjuror. Have I told you about him? He’s not in your class of course, but he can do some party tricks with a pack of cards and a trio of handkerchiefs. On Saturday I helped him out with a show (in truth I dressed up as his female assistant in skirts and a fetching wig) and the men all howled with laughter. I advise you to book us for the old Palmyra while you still have the chance.
Nancy slipped the letter back into its envelope. Arthur never spoke about the real work he had to do. For the soldiers still in France there were so many bodies to be collected, identities to be established, graves to be dug and information to be filed. But at least Arthur was alive and safe. It was hard that Aunt Faith had to grieve for both her boys.
Nancy smiled at Eliza with all the brightness she could muster. ‘We can have dinner, Ma, as soon as the vegetables are done.’
‘Leave that to me. You go up and see him.’
Cornelius still occupied his boyhood room. She put her mouth close to the door and spoke in a low voice. He could not bear loud noises.
‘Neelie? Are you awake?’
He was sitting in his usual place in the chair beside the bed. His shoulders slumped and his big red hands hung between his knees.
‘How are you tonight?’ she asked gently. He blinked at her. Behind his spectacles his eyes were swollen.
‘Is it time? Do they need us? Wait, I’ll fill my water bottle. Some poor fellow will need a drink.’ He looked at the walls, his face quivering with confusion, before seizing her hand. He was in anguish.
‘What are you doing here, Nancy? It’s not safe. So close to the guns. Can’t you hear them?’
Fresh tears ran down his face.
‘It’s all right, Neelie. You’re at home with us now, remember?’ She drew his head against her heart and stroked his hair. The rhythm of her heartbeat seemed to comfort him.
Uncertainly he whispered, ‘What’s that?’ And then, ‘I must have been dreaming.’
Cornelius’s waking dreams were so intense that he lived in them more than in the present world. She understood that, of course.
Cornelius drove his motor ambulance for three years, with only short breaks for recuperative leave. When the end of the fighting came he was the longest-serving driver in his detachment. Only when he was no longer needed, when there were no more stretchers to load under the canvas roof of his ambulance and when he did not have to sluice any more blood and human debris from its metal floor before setting off on the next outward journey, only then did he crumble from within.
Cornelius had not come home in one of the grey coaches. He had travelled alone by passenger ferry, telling no one that he was on his way. One evening in Islington Nancy had opened the front door to find him standing there, his pack at his feet as if he couldn’t carry the burden another step.
It seemed at first that he was nearly himself. A little subdued, but that was not a surprise. He had never had much to say during his short home leaves. Then day by day he seemed to be losing an invisible battle of his own. He retreated to his bedroom and began to weep.
‘Yes, Neelie, you were dreaming.’
She didn’t know whether to wish him consciousness or oblivion.
The Wixes’ doctor prescribed rest and sedatives, but the medicine only sent Cornelius into a heavy sleep from which he woke up dulled and tearful. The only times he seemed a little better were after Jinny’s visits, when the two of them sat and talked behind a closed door.
Nancy would try to help him to talk by asking, ‘Neelie? What were the other ambulance drivers like?’ or ‘Tell me about that little town, remember, the one you wrote to me about? With the lace half-curtains at all the windows and the one bell ringing for Mass?’
He would only shake his head and she understood that she was clumsy, although she did not know what she could say that would be any different.
There were a few hopeful signs. He seemed to enjoy Devil’s reminiscences about drives in the old car, or his eyes would settle on his mother’s gaudy scarves and glint with sudden wild amusement. He had a shelf of his old books and sometimes he would take one down and stare at the pictures of butterflies. He no longer drew architectural details, even recoiling from the sketch tablet and pencils when Nancy found them for him.
His family could only offer the security of home, and pray that the tears would stop in time.
‘Would you like some dinner?’ she asked.
Cornelius’s head jerked as if he was surprised to notice the green velvet curtains and the jug of water placed on his night table. He stared at the empty bed on the opposite side of the room.
She told him, ‘There’s a letter from Arthur. He’s been doing magic shows for the men.’
‘Magic? Is that so?’
Arm in arm they slowly descended. In his carpet slippers Cornelius shambled like an old man.
Eliza had set knives and forks on the little gate-legged table in the kitchen corner where Cook and Peggy used to sit in the afternoons to look at the penny papers. The family rarely used the dining room these days except when Devil glared and complained that it was not much different from living in Maria Hayes’s place, back in the old rookery of St Giles. When Devil next ate dinner at home Eliza laid the table upstairs with the best plates and lit two candles in the silver candlesticks. He smiled a little sadly at the sight and kissed the back of her neck.
Nancy guided Cornelius to his chair as Eliza ladled stew. He dipped his head and ate quickly, anxiously glancing at the clock between mouthfuls.
‘Can’t sit here all night. They’ll be lined up, you know. Rows of them.’
Eliza ate hardly a mouthful. She didn’t watch her son but it was clear that every bone in her body shivered for him.
‘Did you go out today?’ Nancy asked her. Cornelius didn’t need someone to be with him all the time. He seemed less distressed if he was left in peace.
‘I walked up as far as the market. I had to get soap and matches and lard and about a dozen other things.’
‘You didn’t carry all that shopping home, Ma, did you?’
Nancy didn’t know much more about Eliza’s afflictions than she had done as a girl, but she was certain that she was not allowed to lift anything heavy. Eliza waved a dismissive hand.
‘It was very busy. Crowds of miserable people, looking sick and exhausted. A woman right in front of me was coughing like a walrus.’
Nancy laughed. ‘Do walruses cough?’
Cornelius suddenly lifted his head. ‘They do. Although perhaps it’s more of a bark.’
The women smiled in astonishment. It was an unexpected glimpse of the boy he had once been, to be authoritative about walruses. Eliza covered his hand with hers.
‘My dear son,’ she murmured.
Very quietly Nancy pushed back her chair and slipped out of the kitchen.
Up in the drawing room she idly parted the curtains so she could look down into the pitch-black garden. She could see no further than the twigs poking up from the iron balustrade and these were overlaid by reflections of the room behind her. She caught an overpowering scent of summer roses and damp earth as one of the tall doors suddenly swung open and a child came in from the darkness.
It was a little girl. Water streamed from her hair.
Nancy stood transfixed. The apparition was so lonely and small. A long time seemed to pass.
‘What do you want?’ she asked at last.
The child didn’t speak. Instead she reached out her small hand. It seemed she was trying to lead Nancy outside. Although she was not afraid of her, Nancy could not help but recoil.
‘I can’t come with you.’
Nancy could see the pallor of the child’s scalp where the locks of wet hair parted. She shivered. The desolation emanating from the little thing chilled the room.
‘Tell me what you want,’ Nancy begged.
She shook her head and her small hand drew back. A sharp gust of wind stirred the heavy curtains as the girl stepped out into the night.
As soon as she was gone frustration swept over Nancy. It was deeply distressing to have seen the apparition and yet been unable to help her.
She sat down in her father’s armchair, closing her eyes to allow herself to recover. The scent of flowers faded.
Nancy feared the Uncanny much less than she had done when Mr Feather placed his hand on her head. She had borrowed Cornelius’s big dictionary to look up the terms associated with psychism, ‘clairvoyant’ and ‘telepathy’ and ‘precognition’, puzzling over the definitions set out in what she had later learned to recognise as tiny six-point type. Clairvoyant took her to ‘mentally perceiving objects or events at a distance, or concealed from sight, or in the future, attributed to certain persons’, which might account for her glimpse of the trenches long before they had been dug but still fell quite a long way short of explaining the Uncanny. ‘Communications from one mind to another’ and ‘foreknowledge’ did not illuminate much either.
There was no defining the state, she concluded, any more than there was any way of properly controlling it. It was something that happened to her, like the fits Cornelius had occasionally suffered when he was much younger. The difference was that her fits were invisible to everyone else.
Her private theory was that perhaps past and present and future time did not run in a straight line. She imagined that they streamed in curls and loops, doubling back and crossing over each other, and that there were tiny flaws in the gossamer membrane that held them apart. Through these cracks, was it not possible that glimpses of different times, shadows of people who were gone or had not yet arrived, might seep into the here and now? And equally, might not the curls and loops shift as time spooled by, causing the cracks to close again?
Some people might be more than usually sensitive to such leakages, she reasoned. It was not a lucky gift, at least not as Mr Feather had suggested. She remembered a girl at her school admired by everyone for having perfect musical pitch, but the same girl found it almost physically painful to listen to off-key playing. She would shudder and put her hands over her ears.
Such gifts were not always welcome, or comfortable to possess.
Eliza was shaking her.
‘He’s gone upstairs to bed.’ Eliza was rubbing her hands together, her shoulders drawn close to her ears. ‘Why is it so cold in here?’
Nancy struggled to collect herself. ‘Has he? Is it?’
The corners of Eliza’s mouth turned down. Nancy knew how capable she was of kindling her mother’s irritation, but it saddened her to be made aware of it over and over again. Eliza unconditionally adored her sons but she measured her daughter against her own yardstick. Nancy must fulfil her mother’s ambitions for her, which had once been Eliza’s for herself. Eliza particularly disliked the notion that her child might be keeping something from her.
‘What are you hiding?’ she had once snapped when Nancy was much younger.
Flippantly Nancy had held out her upturned palms to show that there was nothing concealed there.
Eliza slapped them.
‘That’s enough. You are not a conjuror.’
Nancy wished she could be more the daughter Eliza wanted. She regretted the distance between them because it seemed so small, and yet was so impossible to bridge.
She took her mother’s hands now. ‘Ma?’
Eliza’s fingers were dry and hot. Nancy touched her forehead and found that it was burning too.
‘You’re not well.’
Eliza’s head drooped in defeat. She sighed, ‘Nancy, I am so tired of illness.’
Eliza let herself be led upstairs to bed. Their roles could suddenly reverse and in one second switch back again.
Once she had settled her mother under the eiderdown and listened at Cornelius’s door, Nancy wandered back through the darkened house. She was too concerned about Eliza to spare much thought for the little apparition, but she went into the drawing room and stood on the same spot. There was nothing there now and when she opened the doors overlooking the garden only cold, damp air swept in. But there was something at the back of her, like the palm of a hand moving just a hair’s breadth away from her head. She spun round, almost crying out, and searched the empty room. She walked the length of it and opened the front curtains.
A man in a long overcoat stood next to the railing topping the canal embankment. At first his face was hidden under the brim of his hat, but then he seemed to sense her watching him and looked up.
It was Lawrence Feather. She knew him at once, even though she had not set eyes on him since the day Eliza dispatched him from this room, more than eight years ago. He had stood in just the same way, motionless and intent, on the beach outside the hotel and she had looked down on him from a bay window.
A cold current crept through her, raising the hairs at the nape of her neck. The Uncanny was powerful, closer than it had been since the day of the Queen Mab. She had thought for a long time that she controlled it but now it spilled through the air and possessed her.
Feather stood for another moment, locking her eyes with his. Then with an exaggerated gesture he raised his hat to her, and walked slowly away.
Inside her head Nancy tried to defy him. She watched him turn the corner where the canal entered the tunnel and she thought – or perhaps she spoke the words aloud – if you are dead you can’t affect us. If you are not, there is nothing here that concerns you.
She closed the curtains tight, leaving not a chink between them, and continued her way downstairs. In the kitchen she made herself comfortable in a chair close to the range where she could hear the soft hissing of coals.
She had been sitting deep in thought for perhaps half an hour when her father came in. Devil was in his old tweed overcoat, his face not quite scrubbed bare of stage make-up and his regular smell of bay rum and cigar smoke spiked with fumes of brandy.
‘You’re up late, Nancy.’
She found a smile.
‘I was about to make a cup of cocoa. Would you like one?’
‘Keeping up your wartime skills, eh?’
He teased her, but he was proud of her work for Jinny’s column. Unlike Eliza, Devil was fond of Jinny. He asked about her while Nancy warmed and whisked the milk.
‘Got a young man yet, has she? A nice warm armful like that, she must have someone.’
Devil chuckled. ‘A young girl then?’
‘I don’t know. Don’t be nosy.’
They both laughed and Nancy forgot her anxieties. She loved the rare occasions when she had her father to herself. She handed him his cocoa mug and he thoughtfully sipped.
‘It would taste much better with a splash of brandy.’
She ignored him.
‘And you?’ he asked.
‘Do I have a nice young girl?’
Devil had the grace to look slightly abashed.
‘I’d like to see you with a couple of admirers. You’re young and pretty. You should be having some fun and misbehaving, kissing someone under a full moon, instead of going off to work every day at your printers and coming home to your mother and me and Neelie. Eh?’
He sandwiched her feet between his on the rag rug.
She smiled. ‘Misbehaving? Is that what fun is?’
Until tonight the only men Nancy had known were just back from the war, no longer eager to snatch every opportunity for a kiss and a joke. Now they were home for good they seemed aware of an uncertain future.
Gil Maitland was different, and she thought he was thrillingly unlike any male she had ever encountered. Unfortunately there had been no glimpse of any moon, and he had not been remotely eager for a kiss.
Devil raised an eyebrow. ‘Of course. What’s wrong with dancing to jazz bands, may I ask? Dressing up and drinking cocktails?’
‘Nothing at all.’
She told him about having tea and a jam biscuit with Jinny, and the puddle of rain on the steps that looked like mercury. She wanted to keep the Daimler and its owner to herself. Nor did she say I saw a ghost. Maybe two.
Devil didn’t notice any reticence. He loved to reminisce about his old tricks.
‘Mercury, eh? Ah, that was a good illusion, the Melting Wand. Maybe I should bring back some of the old favourites. Nostalgia plays well, or it used to. Listen to me, I’m getting old. Modern is what counts nowadays, isn’t it?’
‘Was it a decent house tonight?’
Like Eliza, Devil had gone grey. It was only when he smiled that he looked as rakishly handsome as ever. He didn’t smile now.
‘No,’ he admitted.
The Palmyra was going through a particularly thin time. Public tastes had changed, and it seemed that spectacular magic shows belonged to a happier and less cynical age.
‘Are you worried, Pa?’
He tried to shrug off the question. ‘Luckily I am not the worrying kind. Otherwise I’d have worn myself into the grave long ago.’
Nancy couldn’t remember a time when even the air they breathed had not been clouded with uncertainty about the theatre. But their impending poverty was usually Eliza’s refrain, and Devil’s chorus had always been that they should spend money and leave the making of it to him.
Tonight was different, though, in so many respects.
‘What can we do?’
‘My lovely girl. Thank you for that “we”, but the Palmyra is your old dad’s concern. Always has been.’
Once it had been his and Eliza’s together. Nowadays his wife was too infirm. Cornelius couldn’t help, and Arthur was doubly absent because they had chosen to make him inviolate. Arthur was now an army officer, with a classical education. He would never be allowed to step back across the divide into a disreputable and precarious life in the theatre.
A quick rush of love for her father caught in Nancy’s throat. To hide her emotion she gathered up the empty cups and took them to the sink.
‘How was your mama this evening?’
‘She wasn’t very well. I saw her into bed.’
Devil leapt to his feet.
‘What? Why didn’t you tell me?’
His wife, and the theatre. Always Devil’s true, twin poles.
‘She’s asleep now.’
‘I’ll go up to her. Goodnight, my girl.’
His lips brushed her forehead and he hurried away.
Nancy washed up the saucepan and crockery and left them on the scrubbed draining board. She damped the fire, and looked around the room for what needed to be done in the morning before she quietly made her own way to bed.
Devil came to Nancy’s room long before daylight.
He said hoarsely, ‘Your mother is ill.’
Nancy pushed back the bedcovers and ran. She found Eliza sweating and semi-delirious. When she put her hand to her forehead she moaned and twisted in the soaking sheets.
Devil asked, ‘Where has she been? What did she do yesterday?’
Nancy’s mouth went dry with fear. There had been a woman who coughed like a walrus. Cornelius had raised his head at the word.
‘She went to Chapel Market.’
A crowded place, ripe for the spreading of infection.
Eliza’s skin had taken on a strange blue tinge and she fought to draw in air through lungs that audibly bubbled with mucus. The intervals between each breath and the next seemed endless.
Father and daughter stared at each other across the tumbled bed. Neither of them uttered the word, but they didn’t need to. Devil’s face turned the colour of clay.
Through her rising terror Nancy tried to speak calmly. She would have to take charge of the situation; instinctively she knew that her father could not. ‘We must cool her down and help her to breathe. Bring me some water, washing cloths, towels.’
He hurried away, his slippers flapping on the linoleum of the landing.
Nancy slipped her arm beneath Eliza’s shoulders, and her heart twisted with love as well as fear as she supported their negligible weight. Eliza clutched at her wrist. Her eyes were wide and wild with fever.
‘Carlo?’ she gasped. And then another word that might have been Christmas.
‘Hush, Ma. Just try to lie still and breathe. We’re taking care of you.’
Devil returned as Nancy peeled away the sodden bed-clothes.
‘Now bring some dry sheets and a clean nightdress.’
He seemed relieved to do whatever he was told. She heard him fling open the doors of the big linen press on the landing.
Nancy wrung out a washcloth in an enamel bowl. She sponged her mother’s forehead and chest and then drew the sheet from beneath her before wrapping her in the towels. All the time she murmured as if to a distressed child, there, let’s get you dry, we’ll take care of you, I know it hurts.
She held her close, her lips against her burning forehead. Already the skin was pearled with fresh sweat. Nancy’s eyes met Devil’s.
‘You must go for the doctor.’
His nod held all their misgivings. Medical attention was not easy to find. Many doctors were still in France, attending to soldiers who couldn’t yet be brought back home. Others had dispersed to the overflowing military hospitals, and the voluntary nurses as well as the paid ones had mostly followed them.
Devil pulled on trousers over his pyjamas. ‘I’ll ask Cornelius’s man to come, shall I?’
‘Carlo,’ Eliza muttered again, and then ‘Jakey? Jake, speak up. They can’t hear you in the gallery.’
She gave a sudden wild laugh and just as abruptly a spray of reddish foam came out of her mouth. Nancy wiped her lips and chin.
You are not going to die, she silently insisted. Don’t even consider it, because I won’t let you. I need you too much.
She held her until she seemed calmer. Racking shivers followed on from the sweating. Gently she laid her back against the pillows and pulled the hem of the soaked nightdress up to her mother’s thighs. Eliza’s hand descended like a claw and tried to prevent her from lifting it further.
‘It’s not Carlo, Mama, it’s me,’ Nancy whispered. ‘No one else is here to see anything.’
Tears rolled from the corners of Eliza’s eyes but she was too sick to protest further. Nancy lifted her mother’s hips and pulled up the nightdress. What she saw made her catch her breath in shock. Eliza’s belly was a pillow of white flesh scored with deep creases. Nancy knew only her own neat anatomy, and the glimpse of her mother’s damaged body made her gasp with shock.
Even in the grip of the fever Eliza knew what was to be seen. Her lips stretched in a rictus of distress.
‘I’m sorry.’ Nancy removed the garment and threw it aside, then as gently as she could she towelled her mother’s body and dressed her again. She spread a clean sheet on Devil’s side of the bed and hoisted her on to the fresh bedclothes. She covered her with the blankets, smoothed her hair off her face and held her in her arms, wordlessly praying. Eliza’s eyes were half-closed. Each successive breath seemed to be dragged out of her body.
Nancy listened to the steady ticking of the bedroom clock, counting the seconds as they built into slow minutes.
At last she heard the front door rattle and two pairs of boots treading up the stairs.
Dr Vassilis was a very old man with straggling whiskers and a bald domed head. He had clearly dressed in haste. His metal-framed spectacles chafed flaky patches at the bridge of his nose. The Wixes knew that he was kind, because Cornelius was not afraid of him, but he was not the best doctor in London.
He put his bag down on the end of the bed and took out a muslin mask that he hooked over his ears. Eliza saw his half-blanked face and writhed away in terror. Devil and Nancy had to hold her down so the old man could lower his stethoscope to her fluttering chest.
The doctor stepped back after making his quick examination.
‘Spanish influenza is highly contagious,’ he muttered in his Greek-accented English. ‘To nurse her I advise you both, three layers of muslin, so, over the nose and mouth.’
‘To hell with the muslin, tell me about my wife.’
Vassilis shook his head at Devil. He looked like an old sheep.
‘You will do no good to be sick like she is.’
‘What can we do?’ Nancy begged.
‘Aspirins is the best medicine. Keep her warm, if she will drink let her have it, watch her carefully.’
‘Is that all?’
Vassilis nodded sadly. ‘I can tell you, it is in a way hopeful that your mother is older and not so strong. This flu, I don’t know why – and I am only a doctor, perhaps it is God himself who understands these things – it seems to like the young and the strong best of all. They die like this,’ he clicked his bony fingers, ‘and the weaker ones, babies and old people, they stay alive.’ He shrugged.
Devil gripped one of the brass bed knobs so tightly that his knuckles whitened. For once he was completely in the room, no other concern colouring his expression, his face stripped naked by anxiety. Nancy’s thoughts flicked to her mother’s ruined body and just as quickly she steered them away again. She could read love for his wife plainly written in Devil’s face. He would be a smaller man without her. Nancy had always assumed that it was Devil who led the way, charming other people and pleasing himself, while Eliza resented his glamour. Now it occurred to her that he was only trying to deflect some of the power she held over him.
What a complicated measure men and women were obliged to dance, she thought. She didn’t include herself in this company, or even wonder when her own dance might begin.
The doctor took a brown vial from his bag. ‘Two of these for her, every four hours. A high dose but it is best in such a case.’
At the door, as Devil was showing him out, he asked, ‘How is Cornelius?’
‘The same,’ Devil told him.
But that was not quite true. When daylight came and it seemed that Eliza was poised on the very margin between life and death, Cornelius slipped into the room.
Nancy got up from the bedside to try to warn him or perhaps to shield him but he gently put her aside. He studied his mother’s congested face and listened to her breathing, then lifted her wrist to count her pulse. He was composed, although he understood how ill she was. Eliza opened her eyes and saw him.
‘There, Ma,’ Cornelius soothed. ‘I’m here.’
The winter light crept across the floor. The three watchers sat in silence until Devil’s chin drooped on to his chest and he fell into an exhausted doze. Nancy tensed with Eliza’s every breath but Cornelius remained impassive. When Eliza coughed so hard that she retched up mouthfuls of pink mucus he wiped it away and afterwards moistened her lips with a few drops of water.
An hour passed and then another. There was no change, but Eliza still breathed.
‘We should send for Aunt Faith,’ Nancy said at last.
Devil lifted his head. ‘I will do it.’ He was glad of anything that was not just waiting.
It was time for another dose. Cornelius took the bottle from Nancy and administered the pills, doing it more deftly than she could have done. She saw that he had somehow been hooked from his despair into the detached state that must have allowed him to do his work in France. It was odd to feel any satisfaction on this terrible morning but she did feel it, and it grew stronger when her brother touched her arm and said in a voice that was almost his own, ‘She is holding on, you know.’
When Faith arrived two hours later in response to Devil’s telegram, Eliza had fallen uneasily asleep. Her features were sharp and her eyes had sunk deep into their sockets.
Nancy and Faith wordlessly hugged each other.
Faith was wearing the dark clothes she had put on after Rowland was killed on the Somme. His death had come only a little more than a year after Edwin succumbed to his wounds at Ypres. Faith’s happiness now was all in her grandson, Lizzie’s child, although there had not been so much satisfaction when the baby came far too soon after Lizzie’s hasty wedding. The marriage had not lasted many months into the war and the whereabouts of little Thomas Shaw Hooper’s father were not now known.
Matthew Shaw said, ‘You couldn’t trust that man as far as you could throw him. I knew it the minute he walked through my front door.’
Nowadays Lizzie never spoke of Jack Hooper, although when she first met him she had talked of nothing else. She had breathed in Nancy’s ear, ‘God, he’s so handsome. He makes me feel like a queen and a she-devil, both at the same time.’
And then she had laughed, a strange glittering laughter that made Nancy jealous. Nancy had not then been able to imagine what passion must feel like, but now it occurred to her that she had experienced the softest premonitory whisper of it. Was it only a matter of hours ago that she had sat talking to Gil Maitland? Yesterday evening seemed to belong in another life.
Devil made room for Faith at one side of the bed and Cornelius sat opposite them. There was no space for Nancy, so at Faith’s suggestion she slipped away to make tea. The fire had gone out and the kitchen was chilly. She brought in a basket of kindling from the lean-to in the back area, lit a twisted horseshoe of newspaper and set the kettle on the hob. Her chilblains flared and she clawed absently at them. While she was waiting for the water to boil she rummaged in the drawers of the old dresser and after quite a long search found what she was looking for, a small roll of butter muslin that Mrs Frost must have used for making raspberry jelly. Devil liked jelly, although none had been made in this kitchen for several years. She laid the muslin to one side, acknowledging that it was too late now to try to protect anyone from infection. But it was the memory of sweet red jelly that prompted her to carve slices off yesterday’s loaf and toast them in front of the yellow fire. She laid a tray with butter and shop jam and carried it up to the drawing room, not even glancing out of the window at the spot where Lawrence Feather had appeared last night.
Eliza was still fitfully sleeping. Her mouth hung open and her jaw sagged. Nancy gave a cup of tea to Faith and sent Devil and Cornelius downstairs for theirs.
Nancy murmured, ‘I’ve heard that the first twenty-four hours are the worst. If she can survive the night, you know …’
Faith answered, ‘Your mother will, if anyone can. I have seen her do it before. After Cornelius was born she was more dead than alive, then a few hours later she was sitting up and trying to nurse him and insisting that he was going to live too. Matthew and I sent for the priest to baptise him, we were so certain that he wouldn’t last the day.’
‘Was she always the same?’
Faith said, ‘Yes. Always.’
Nancy almost smiled. There were no compromises in Eliza except for those forced on her by life’s reverses, and she bowed under those with little grace.
Eliza’s fits of coughing shook the house. They could only hold her arms and hope that the spasms would not crack her ribs. When the latest one subsided Faith folded a damp cloth with some drops of eau de cologne and placed it on her forehead while Nancy sponged her wrists with cold water. The pillow was sweat-soaked so they placed a fresh towel under her head.
The two women talked in low voices.
Nancy asked, ‘Carlo was the dwarf, wasn’t he? She keeps saying his name.’
‘Carlo was your father’s stage partner in the very first days of the Palmyra. Eliza and I went to see them perform an act called The Philosopher’s Illusion.’
Nancy had often heard it described. The trick turned on the dwarf’s miniature stature, which he concealed from the audience throughout by walking on stilts.
‘Carlo was in love with her, poor fellow. They all were,’ Faith added.
‘Who was Jakey? Ma talked about him too.’
Faith was distracted. ‘The boy? He was in the company back then. He could act rather well. I think he went on to another theatre and much bigger things.’
Nancy bent her head and laced her fingers with her mother’s. Eliza’s wedding ring was loose on the bone.
Devil and Cornelius came back, somewhat restored by toast and tea.
The day wore on. At the end of the afternoon Nancy walked up the road to the post office. The cold air was like a slap after the close fug of the sickroom. She telephoned Miss Dent, to let her know that she would have to be away from work for as long as her mother needed to be nursed. Miss Dent accepted her apologies with a brief word of sympathy and didn’t ask her when she expected to return to work.
At home again Nancy found Faith busy in the kitchen and hearty smells of cooking drifting up through the house. She tried to thank her, but Faith would hear none of it.
‘Who else needs me? Not Lizzie. And Matthew can look out for Tommy just as well as I can.’
Nancy put her arms around her aunt’s plump shoulders.
‘All the same, thank you,’ she said.
Soon there was a hot meal ready for Devil and Cornelius. The men ate quickly and gratefully. Cornelius brooded in silence but at least he didn’t mutter about the wounded waiting for his help, or watch the clock as if every spoonful might cost a man’s life.
Devil didn’t even contemplate going to the Palmyra for the evening performance.
‘Anthony will have to manage,’ he shrugged.
The evening slid into night. Devil dozed at the bedside with his head on his folded arms and Nancy and Faith took it in turns to lie down in Nancy’s bedroom. Cornelius padded between his own room and Eliza’s, and Nancy found his withdrawn vigilance oddly reassuring. He picked up the latest letter from Arthur and scanned it.
‘Have you sent for him? He would get compassionate leave, I think.’
Devil briefly shook his head. They all understood that he delayed because Arthur was to be shielded as far as possible.
‘Ah. Well, maybe it’s for the best. I think the crisis may be almost over.’
It seemed that Cornelius was right. The next time Eliza woke she was too weak to lift her head but she knew them all. Her eyes always came back to Devil.
Dr Vassilis was visibly surprised when he called the next day, but he pretended to have foreseen the improvement. He examined her before stepping well back to remove his muslin mask.
‘Yes, you see, it is just like I told you. It is not the strongest ones who survive. Last night I have a young man die, sick for one day and pfffff, he goes like blowing out this.’ He pointed to the candle in its holder on the night table. The family stared at him, not at all comforted, and the doctor snapped his bag shut. To Cornelius he said in a more cheerful voice, ‘How are you, my friend?’
Cornelius considered the question.
‘There has been more than enough dying, doctor. To sit and brood on it as I have been doing is not helpful. I find nursing my mother a more useful occupation.’
Vassilis looked shrewdly at him.
‘That is a fine discovery, Mr Wix.’
The doctor bowed and wished them good day. After she had seen him out Nancy gave way in private to tears of relief. To manage her feelings for Devil and Cornelius’s sake she set herself the job of laundering all the soiled bed linen and towels. In the scullery she put water on to boil and found a kind of painful oblivion in plunging her arms deep in the enamel wash tub and scrubbing with the laundry soap until her muscles ached. She tipped the scummy water down the stone sink and ran a fresh tub. She rinsed everything twice and fed the clean items through the mangle, leaning down on the heavy handle with all the weight of her body. She pegged out sheets under the tin roof that partly covered the back area and draped the towels on the wooden maiden suspended from the kitchen ceiling. Her arms were scalded crimson to the elbows.
Faith found her as she was finishing the work.
‘Nancy? Look at you. Doesn’t Eliza send out to a laundry?’
‘The boy came for it yesterday when we were all too busy. Anyway I needed to do it myself, and it’s made me feel much better. Is Ma sleeping?’
‘She is. Cornelius is with her. Your father’s exhausted so I told him to lie down in your room.’
Faith regarded her with an odd expression.
‘Aunt Faith? Is something wrong?’
‘You are so like her, you know.’
Nancy was taken aback.
Her whole life was coloured by being unlike her mother and by wishing to resemble her more closely.
‘Not in your looks, although since you have grown up I see more of her in you every day. In your stubbornness, I mean. You won’t ever give up once you have fixed on an idea. Even when you were tiny, if you wanted to play with a toy you would have it, however hard the boys tried to take it off you. You wouldn’t yell, but you kept your eyes and your little hands fastened tight on it. Lizzie always understood the power of a bargain. She’d hand over the ball so as to get herself something better. You have your mother’s energy too.’ Faith pointed at the white ramparts of sheets, stirring in the wind. ‘She would have done that, before her strength went.’
‘Poor Ma,’ Nancy sighed.
She hadn’t been aware that she possessed Eliza’s iron will. Nancy’s own impression was of inhabiting the margins of her family. She stayed on the outskirts and kept quiet, mostly because of the Uncanny and her conviction that she had to protect it and keep it secret. Her way of camouflaging her difference was to be unobtrusive in plain sight.
She took it for granted that her father loved her, in the way that fathers always loved their only daughters, but she didn’t think he knew or understood her particularly well, any more than Eliza did. Most of her parents’ energies, after all, were applied to each other. The memory of the Queen Mab returned, and how her father’s first and strongest instinct had been to save his wife.
Nancy wiped her damp forehead with the back of her hand. Her shoulders ached from lifting and mangling wet towels, and there was a new and less manageable ache in her that she did not yet recognise. She wondered how it ever came about that you loved someone like a husband or wife, and were loved back. It seemed too complicated to happen very often and yet the suggestion of it was everywhere, except in her own life.
Faith saw her expression.
‘Nancy, dear. You’re very tired. You’ll be ill yourself if you don’t take care.’
‘It’s not that, Aunt Faith.’
‘What is it, then?’
Faith’s motherly concern touched her, and the ache faded a little. But Nancy’s instinct was always to parry a direct question so she turned aside and asked, ‘Will Ma get well?’
Faith used a folded cloth to lift a pan of scalding water. Clouds of steam billowed between them.
‘I believe she will recover from this bout, yes.’
Nancy could see that her aunt was disappointed by her reticence.
The next day Eliza was a little better. The sweating and shivering stopped, although the terrible cough persisted. The day after that Faith held her while Nancy fed her two or three spoonfuls of soup.
The household adjusted to the rhythms of nursing Eliza. Faith spent the days helping Nancy and Cornelius in Islington, but she returned to Matthew every evening because he complained so much about Lizzie’s cooking and standards of housekeeping.
After the end of her marriage Lizzie went back to her parents, although she confided to Nancy that it was difficult to live in a house that had become a shrine to Edwin and Rowland. Their boyhood possessions were preserved like relics and there were photographs of the dead sons everywhere. Nancy couldn’t say much in response to this, because Lizzie must think it unfair that Cornelius and Arthur were both still alive.
Lizzie had adopted a brisk manner that could make her seem a little hard. She had to give up her beloved job with the tea importer once she became a mother, but afterwards she had quickly yielded the daily care of Tommy to Faith, in favour of helping her father with the family greengrocery. The loss of his sons had aged Matthew Shaw, and Lizzie had energy and an undeniable talent for business. She made herself useful and then indispensable and she claimed a healthy wage for her efforts. Her short tenure as Jack Hooper’s wife had left her with a fierce desire for independence.
‘Mama shouldn’t have to run back and forth every day like this. My father could quite easily fry himself an egg,’ Lizzie said when she called one evening to see Eliza. ‘Although he doesn’t believe eggs and frying pans should be a man’s work.’
Nancy had sewn a set of muslin masks and her cousin wore one as she hovered uncertainly at the bedside. The women all agreed that little Tommy must be protected from infection, but there was also an understanding that Lizzie couldn’t be involved in caring for anyone who was ill. She was not a nurse, she would have insisted, and she had no talent for such things.
Lizzie had been unable to hide her shock at Eliza’s changed appearance. She chatted to her a little too brightly and disconnectedly through the layers of her mask, and was relieved when Nancy led her away before Eliza got overtired.
The cousins retreated downstairs. Lizzie stood by the kitchen range, tapped a cigarette on her thumbnail and expertly clicked a lighter. She had shortened her skirts and her hair and had recently started painting her lips. The dark lipstick stained the butt of the cigarette.
Exhaling sharply she exclaimed, ‘Poor Nancy. What a ghastly time you have all been through.’
Nancy accepted a cigarette and puffed inexpertly.
‘She’s getting better, that’s all that matters.’
‘She looks terrible.’
Lizzie was always blunt. To change the subject Nancy said, ‘What about you?’
Lizzie shrugged. ‘Tommy’s happy. He’ll start school in the autumn. My life’s all work, more’s the pity. I’d like a nice new boyfriend. I expect you would too, eh? You and I are both going to deserve some proper fun quite soon, darling.’
Devil had said the same thing.
‘Soon,’ Nancy said. She would have liked to believe it, and sometimes as she did the endless household chores she allowed herself a fantasy in which Gil Maitland’s cream Daimler drew up outside the house or in front of Lennox & Ringland. He knew where she lived and her place of work, but as the days passed and there was no evidence of him she told herself that of course a man like Gil was not going to materialise and sweep her off her feet. He had whiled away an hour in her company and given her a lift home because it was raining. Nothing more.
You are not Cinderella or a princess in a fairy tale. You are Nancy Wix. You can dream, but a dream is all it is.
Lizzie winked at her and began to talk about business. She quickly became animated. People needed novelty and some little luxuries, she declared. With the shipping routes open again and overseas trade growing, she was establishing a network of relationships with importers of exotic fruits. Pineapples from South America, mangoes from India, figs from the Mediterranean shores, all these could be brought in the holds of cargo ships and unloaded at the London or Liverpool docks. The dewy fruits would make their way, via the modern wholesale warehouse Lizzie had encouraged her father to acquire, to every quality greengrocer in the country. The miracle of refrigeration made all this easy, Lizzie explained, waving her hands. She still wore her wedding ring, Nancy noted.
‘Just wait and see. There will be a fresh pineapple or a peach on every table, I promise you. Not only in the great houses where the dukes and lords have their own hothouses.’
Nancy wondered if the war had been fought even partly to make a pineapple available to everyone who might desire one, but she said nothing. There had been so many unexpected outcomes of the conflict that the real impact seemed impossible to discern. Married women and those over thirty could vote and one of them had even been elected to Parliament. After all the suffragists’ meetings, and the broken windows and arson and arrests and prison sentences, it had taken the greater war to win the battle for them.
‘The how doesn’t matter,’ Jinny insisted. ‘It’s the what that counts.’
After a week at home, during which his growing distraction and restlessness reflected Eliza’s steady recovery, Devil announced that he must get back to the Palmyra.
‘Anthony Ellis does his best,’ he said, which meant that the manager’s best wasn’t good enough.
He confessed to Nancy that there was a crisis of loyalty to deal with because some of the artistes had not been paid for their most recent performances. They had refused to go onstage and he had been forced to cancel shows. There was an embarrassment concerning available funds, he said. Audiences had been sparse for weeks because people feared the influenza, but an almost empty theatre still cost the same to run as it did when full.
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