To celebrate the release of His Wicked Shadow in paperback, here's Chapter One to whet your appetite...
I have always hated summer. England is supposed to be damp and grey, and I love it for that. In the height of summer when the heat hangs in a shimmering haze, I always feel a sense of foreboding. People aren’t themselves in extreme heat – inertia and insomnia lead to discontent and unrest. I spend any heat wave in a near constant state of nausea, waiting for the storms and the rain of autumn to make it all better.
The grounds of Rowston House are magnificent at the best of times, but in the dust of high summer the pale stones seem bleached and worn. Ivy peels away from the walls, the leaves wilting in the heat.
Everything looks decayed and ugly beneath the bright glare of a sun too close, be it a person or a house.
On one of those hot summer days, we met Mrs Demdike. The ground was parched and cracked, and the air was full of dust and that inescapable heat. Perhaps I hate it because of the unnatural stillness when trees and plants remain motionless, and all that moves is the air, sinking and oppressive. I remember on this particular day there was no breeze to stir the trees. Even the insects seemed to have hidden from the heat.
Juliet and I lay, flopped down on our fronts beneath a tree in the garden, playing with her Noah’s ark. It was a beautiful toy, almost as long as we were tall, made of carved wood and painted in bright colours. We had taken good care of it too, and every animal still had his partner. The varnish gleamed in the bright afternoon sun and the yellow and orange paint seemed to glow.
The Elliots’ Great Dane had trotted over to see what we were doing, but we shooed him away. The tiny carved mice had already passed through his system once and had never seemed quite as clean again, even though they had been thoroughly scrubbed once they were recovered. He lay at a distance from us, sprawled in the speckled shade, lazily watching the wooden procession form.
Lindsey also watched as we played. Juliet’s cousin was four years our senior, and he was a pale, weak boy with a head of lank yellow hair. Even though he always seemed to be there, he never joined in our games. We didn’t want him to and he never asked. Instead he watched, keeping one eye on the Great Dane, just in case he suddenly turned vicious and attacked.
A shout distracted me from my search for the second snake, almost invisible in the dry, brash green of the scorched grass. My father was laughing, jostling shoulders with Juliet’s father, the Viscount. They both ran for my father’s ball, sent into the shade of the trees where the grass was long.
My mother and Lady Lincoln were also watching from their table in the shade of the house, and they were both laughing and smiling. I remember marvelling at how happy everyone seemed. Juliet’s parents and mine seemed so fresh in their pale linen skirts and shirts, and so pleased with life, even on that, the hottest of days.
Father and the Viscount crashed out of the trees, still laughing. A cluck of disapproval came from behind me, deeper beneath the shade of the broad oak tree under which we lay. Juliet’s Aunt Olivia was sitting on a chair embroidering a long cotton scroll with the Magnificat, but raised her eyes from her work to shake her head in, if not disgust, then something close to it.
‘Acting like boys at their age, and in this heat too,’ she murmured to herself before raising her voice to make her displeasure known more politely. ‘Do take care running around in this heat, won’t you?’
My father turned and bowed his head in acknowledgement, but her advice went unheeded. The gathering was wild with fun. Heat had taken the older men back to boyhood.
While the rest of the party was revelling in the August sun, Juliet’s Aunt Olivia was a chill blot on the corner of my vision. She looked pale, despite the heavy temperatures, and was dressed in the clothes she had, to my knowledge, always worn. Her black dress was of heavy cotton with wide skirts that dragged across the floors, a neckline that rose to her chin, and narrow, tapering sleeves that fitted to her wrists.
There was little about her ensemble to catch the eye, apart from the dull shine of the tiny jet buttons and a narrow frill of a plain black lace. The details were small and subtle, but the vanity was there, and I had caught Aunt Olivia casting a proud eye over the tiny carved buttons on her wrists as they caught the light when she sewed more than once.
‘Don’t you be running around too, Lindsey.’ Aunt Olivia (who I could not be discouraged into calling Mrs Elliot, as was her proper name to me) contented herself with fussing over her son. Juliet and I exchanged speaking looks. We couldn’t think of a time when Lindsey had ever run anywhere.
‘Your hit, James.’ My father beckoned to Juliet’s brother, who was in the middle of what appeared to be a very satisfying stretch.
I turned to watch him, my nine-year-old eyes wide and shy over the tall boy who paused in the lawn, cocking his head to one side as he considered his shot.
‘That’s my boy!’ The Viscount shouted with barely suppressed laughter. ‘Knock him out into the trees!’
I felt, rather than saw Aunt Olivia roll her eyes. James squinted at the lawn, noting the lay of my father’s red ball against the grass. He paused and peered around it before going down on one knee to observe it from ground level.
‘Oh come on!’ Father spluttered in good humour. ‘Some time this year, if you please.’
James grinned and flashed a quick look over his shoulder. He winked at me, and I felt myself go pink all over. He had such nice hair. It was cut short to the back of his neck but fell in dark curls over his eyes. My stomach flipped and I just stared back, my hand clammily wrapped around the one wooden snake I had managed to locate.
Lifting his mallet, James gave a wild swing and, by sheer luck managed to punt his yellow ball through the two remaining hoops and hit the peg with a resounding thunk.
Juliet clapped her hands furiously and ran over to hug James, who picked her up and spun her round. I watched on and wished I could join in, but there was something unapproachable about him. I suppose I was in awe of him really, although he was just a normal boy. After the whooping and celebrations had passed, during which his father ruffled his hair and his mother gave him a kiss on the cheek, James walked over and stretched out on the grass beside Juliet and me.
I felt even warmer as he watched us. My fingers, already clammy with heat seemed to swell to fat, greasy sausages, and I clumsily pawed at the animals, wishing desperately that he would go away but also wanting him to stay. It made me quite cross, and I found myself frowning at a blade of grass for a long moment.
‘What are you thinking about?’ he asked, suddenly.
My head snapped back and I stared at him, mouth ajar. My mind was a blank.
‘I wish we had a flood like Noah,’ I said eventually, the words tumbling out of my mouth in my haste to just say something, anything.
‘Elinor!’ Aunt Olivia dropped her work and covered Lindsey’s ears, where he sat at her feet. ‘Don’t be so wicked.’
‘She didn’t mean it like that, Aunt.’ Juliet looked up from her hippopotamus. ‘She just doesn’t like it when it’s so hot.’
I nodded eagerly.
‘Why is it wicked? It would get rid of all the bad people, like God did.’ James lay back in the grass and stared up through the motionless leaves.
Aunt Olivia didn’t answer and just looked pained, pushing her chin so far into her neck that it appeared to dissolve to nothing.
‘Why don’t you girls run along and play somewhere else? No, not you Lindsey.’ She smoothed the tendrils of his hair which lay, damp with perspiration on his forehead. ‘You can stay here with Mother. We can start your lessons once we’ve been to see Grandfather.’
The heat of the day was only marginally more suffocating than Aunt Olivia’s presence, and we gladly left her and Lindsey, who I couldn’t help but think of as poor Lindsey, to his education. James remained sprawled on the grass, absently running his fingertips over the neatly cropped blades.
Hand in hand and tailed by the dog, Juliet and I wandered into the relative cool of the trees that bordered the lawn. They thickened into a woodland that covered the western edge of the Elliot estate and dispersed, a mile or so distant at the village. Between the trees the air still shimmered, but with midges and flies rather than heat. Shafts of light gleamed between the trees, illuminating the rising dust that was disturbed by our tread. My palms were sticky with sweat and I felt it begin to pool between Juliet’s hand and mine.
‘Do you have your money?’ Juliet whispered.
I nodded. I had carried it carefully for the past month in the little pocket tied to my waist, ever since our resolve had been made. Now had been our first opportunity to sneak away. I held the coins tightly in my fist, where they quickly became warm and clammy. I wasn’t going to risk losing them, not now we were finally going to see Mrs Demdike.
We approached the clearing cautiously through the mesh of trees, crushing the dried, dead flowers that bordered her little plot beneath our feet. They crunched into dust. The Great Dane was glued between us, calmly waiting for us to move forward. His presence gave us courage and, hand in hand, Juliet and I stepped out of the trees.
Mrs Demdike lived in a small one-nighter hut, which had been on Elliot land for as long as anyone could remember. Certainly for longer than Juliet and I could remember, and for even longer than James could. At three years our senior, he seemed the fount of all knowledge, and liked to stress our youthful ignorance whenever possible. I loved him regardless.
The house, if it could be called by that name, was a small, tumbledown thing with buckled walls and a sloping, rickety roof. It looked as though it had dropped out of a fairytale, which I thought was apt considering its owner was, on James’ good authority, a witch. It was certainly true that Mrs Demdike (whose first name had been lost to time and spinsterhood) gave out herbal remedies to the local villagers, and regularly told fortunes in return for a few coins here and there, or gifts of food and ale. It was for a fortune telling that we had come.
Shaded by the surrounding trees, which grew tall and gangly overhead, the glade in which the little house sat was cool. I felt heat prickling on my neck and arms from the exertion of moving on such a hot day, yet I remember that as Juliet and I approached, we both suddenly shivered. We exchanged looks, and I was disheartened to see the flash of fear in her eyes. I gripped her hand tighter in the hope of reassuring us both, and raised a shaking fist to tap on the door.
Silence followed and I dared hope she wasn’t in. Then a voice creaked out, rough with disuse.
‘Come in, children.’
I pushed on the splintering wood, and we entered her presence.
The cottage was dark, lit only by the patchy light that trickled through the trees. Tattered rags hung over the glassless windows, adding to the gloom. Mrs Demdike was propped up in the corner of the room on an old wooden chair covered with blankets. Even in the intense heat of summer she was cocooned in layers of fabric; swathes of black linens and cottons wrapped her person, yet she looked pale and cool.
She gestured towards the low bench by her feet with a white, slender hand dotted with brown spots, and watched as we shuffled slowly forward to take our places. The dog sprawled on the dirt floor by the door and yawned.
I shuffled my feet uncomfortably in my shoes, feeling self-conscious as her eyes seemed to linger on me for slightly longer than they had on Juliet. In the dim light her black eyes seemed to twinkle through the swags of wrinkled skin that hemmed them. Juliet sat bolt upright on the bench beside me, her hands twitching at the hem of her gown. It was only the comforting presence of the dog that stopped me from running.
‘So,’ Mrs Demdike said, breaching the silence that hung heavy over the room. ‘What brings you here?’
As those sharp eyes scanned over us, Juliet swallowed and extended her palms with a whispered, ‘Please?’
Mrs Demdike chuckled before bending over the proffered hands, turning them this way and that to examine them thoroughly in the dim light.
‘Ah. You will do well, I think.’
Juliet let out the breath she had been holding.
‘Yes,’ Mrs Demdike continued, and I thought I noticed a tinge of regret in her voice. ‘The trouble will pass you by. A charmed life, I daresay.’ She ended with almost a sneer, and despite her good fortune, Juliet snatched her hands back almost as soon as the old lady loosened her grip.
‘And you?’ She turned to me with disinterest. ‘You want me to tell your fortune as well?’
I nodded and hesitantly put my hands forward. She took them in a limp grip to pass a cursory eye over them. Suddenly her grip tightened, and she leaned forward, poring over whatever she could read in my palms. She turned them this way and that, making my wrist crack in the process. I whimpered at her roughness, but she ignored me.
‘Well,’ she said by and bye, her voice rough and low. ‘It would seem that your fortune is far more exciting. You will live in what they call interesting times, child.’
There was a pause as she stared at my hands for a few moments longer. Then she whispered, almost to herself,
‘So it will end with you. I think that is for the best.’
She released my hands and I stared at them, trying to see what had kept her so engrossed. They were just the same hands they had always been; small, damp and flushed, and any secrets they held were lost on me. Juliet fidgeted once more on the seat beside me, and I was stirred out of my fruitless contemplation. At a cough, we handed over our precious coins, and left the cottage with the dog in tow. As soon as the door closed behind us, we took one another’s hands and ran.
We didn’t get far before we had to slow down due to the heat, but despite the nausea and prickly heat that engulfed me, we still hurried back to the house. It truly felt as hot as hell that day. As we ran through the dry leaves and tripped over twigs and roots, we didn’t say a word and I felt unable to meet Juliet’s eye. My head felt like it was expanding – my brain was growing in the heat but my skull wasn’t growing to accommodate it. My eyes drooped as I ran, and although my chest felt tight and sick, I concentrated only on my now desperate wish to just go home.
When we finally made it to where the dusty road divided into two, Juliet and I parted with only a wave goodbye, and I returned to my parents’ house, and she headed off to Rowston.
Our cottage sat back from the lane, built low and squat with white walls supported by black beams. It was topped with a thick thatch that I thought looked as though it was so heavy it would fall off if a bird sat on it. It was nothing to Rowston, as my Mother often said. She thought we were poor, which I suppose we were, at least relative to the Elliots.
The haze of heat that hovered over the ground seemed to shimmer more than before, and I steadied myself on the fencepost that bordered our little garden as the grass swam dizzily before my eyes. My head felt so heavy, and I would have cried with the nausea that clawed at my throat, but my eyes were too hot and dry for tears.
I staggered into the house through the kitchen, feeling sicker than I’d ever felt before. The first person to see me was Jane, the wiry and highly capable lady who cooked for us. She took one look at me before sitting me down with a damp cloth on my forehead and a large glass of water. I can’t remember much that happened after that. Once Father came home he lifted me up to bed, where I remained for three sticky, confused days, tossing and turning in damp sheets.
The doctor said it was heatstroke, to which I have always been prone, but in my clouded mind I felt sure it was something Mrs Demdike had done. Her face scowled over mine every time I closed my eyes, and when I slept it was fitful and plagued by nightmares of shadows and, more than images, an intense feeling of foreboding.
I remained feverish and bedbound for three days until the heat wave broke. A storm hit us, and once the rain had died down all the windows in the house were thrown open. With moisture in the air and raindrops still clinging to the window frames, the hot spell seemed like it had been a dream. We were back in green and pleasant England, and all was well. As I regained my senses, it seemed obvious that Mrs Demdike wasn’t a witch. Since I was well again Mother was able to lecture me on how stupid I’d been to go running around in the heat. I didn’t tell her what Juliet and I had been doing. I was sure she would have disapproved and I swore vehemently that I would never do anything that she would disapprove of again. After all, she’d often told me that “Mother knows best”. It must be true.
Juliet came to visit once I was better, clutching a small wicker basket containing a big glass bottle of lemonade and a brown paper bag bursting with pear drops. We sat on the grass in the garden so as not to make a mess, and sipped the bitter drink from large, brimming glasses.
‘James made me tell him what we’d done,’ Juliet said suddenly.
I was appalled, and almost swallowed my pear drop.
She had the good grace to look sheepish.
‘I was upset because you were poorly and I thought it was our fault because of the’- she paused and looked around shiftily before continuing in a whisper. ‘The fortune telling. James made me tell him what was wrong.’
‘Will he tell?’ I pictured him in my head, remembering the conspiratorial wink he had given me a few days earlier. My stomach tightened into a knot.
Juliet shook her head.
‘No, but he said we were silly for going. He said it wasn’t good to play with things we didn’t understand, and he said that was what Father would say if he knew about it. He made me promise not to go again.’
No problems there.
‘Never.’ We linked our little fingers together to seal the deal.
‘I’m so glad it isn’t hot anymore.’ I lay back in the cool grass and looked up at the cloud-speckled sky. The cold dampness prickled through my thin cotton gown, and I felt strangely at peace. ‘Mother says it’ll be the last heat wave this year because it’s almost September.’
And almost time for James to go to school, I thought, although I didn’t say it. I told Juliet everything else, but it seemed impossible to explain the way I felt when I saw her brother. I remember that he made me feel very happy, and very scared at the same time.
‘Grandfather wasn’t very well in the heat either, Ellie.’ Juliet said, her amber eyes wide and her face solemn. ‘We had to be very quiet and tiptoe around the house. Aunt Olivia was frantic.’
I could easily imagine that. Aunt Olivia was frantic at the slightest excuse. She would hurry everywhere with her head down and talk in an agitated whisper. All her movements were jerky, like a caged animal, and she always seemed to be on the verge of tears. Nobody liked it when Aunt Olivia got frantic.
‘Do you think he’ll die?’ I asked in a blunt whisper.
‘He is terribly old. Father’s the Earl anyway, really. I heard him and Mother talking and she said it would probably be better for Grandfather if he did die because he can’t be very happy. Then she started crying and it was all very quiet for a long time.’
Juliet stared at her lemonade and looked very sad. In the nine years of my life so far I had barely spared the Earl a thought, but when I had, I had seen him as a sort of non-person – more like wallpaper than anything else. He never spoke and barely moved except for when he was wheeled from one room to another, and I hadn’t given any thought to how he must feel. I assumed he never felt anything. As we sat in the cool, crisp garden, drinking lemonade and crunching pear drops, I wondered, if I couldn’t do any of those things, would I still want to be alive? Then Jane called us in for lunch, and I promptly forgot all about it.
Juliet was sent home in the afternoon as the skies crowded with clouds and it began to look like rain. It was an afternoon like any other, and I played with my dolls and sewed dresses for them from one of Mother’s old skirts. I think I was happy that afternoon, and for once it was our little house, with my somewhat discontented mother and quiet father, that was happier than the wealthy, titled family at Rowston House.
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