The crypt of St Bride’s is cold, colder than the air outside, and I welcome it, find it invigorating, for I did not sleep well, nor have I done since my return. Florie, long gone, chose last night to haunt my dreams. Her face and figure—not as I saw them that final occasion—were perfect and pink and plump and whole. We spoke of old times, all the childish play we’d shared, hide’n’seek in the empty rooms and dusty attics of Norwood Hall, the tarts and pies and treats we’d stolen and eaten beneath the great oak in Mathilda’s Wood, not far from the churchyard. We chatted as friends, but when, moved and ecstatic, I reached out to touch her hand, she changed, her beauty gone and ripped, and she appeared to me the way I’d left her.
I’d woken with a start to find my room flooded with daylight and Florie herself pulling back the blue velvet drapes around my bed. I screamed, I admit it, and scrambled away from what I thought to be a phantasm, only to blink and realise it was the little maid, poor Mary, shaking with fright.
“I brought your breakfast, sir. I’m sorry. I heard you speaking and thought you were awake already, otherwise I’d never have—”
I waved a hand. “Not to worry. I dreamed is all. A nightmare.” I sat up, propped myself against the pillows and shooed her when she tried to help me. The thought of her touch instilled as much strange dread as intense arousal, and the dark voice in my mind threatened to sing. “Go, leave me.”
I escaped the house not long after, tramped across the fields, and came here to visit my parents.
Only the smallest amount of light filters down, but my eyes adjust quickly. I run my hands over the marble curves, dips and hollows, apexes and nadirs of my progenitors’ effigies, and those of other forebears, some bearing medieval armour, others not quite so ancient, all in an attitude of pious prayer. I feel calmer, but I cannot shake thoughts of Florie.
Florie James, the housekeeper’s daughter, no more than a few years older than I, a beauty fully formed and the object of my affections. My heart was hers, and hers should have been mine. But then . . . Oh, Florie, so many years since my leaving yet you’re never entirely forgotten.
And thoughts—oh, insistent thoughts!—of Mary the little maid, who looks now so like Florie did then. So alike that when I arrived at the Hall two weeks ago and Mrs James made the introductions I was certain my heart would fail me. So alike that I pondered her parentage—Mrs James had shared Father’s bed far more than Mother ever had; was it possible Florie and Mary were sisters?
Now as I stare into the corners of the tomb, ideas darting to and fro, the stale air smells strangely intense, earthy. In the darkness the motes and gillings seem to swirl and coalesce, disperse then gather back together as if trying to form a shape . . .
A sound drops into the silence, sharp and sudden, which I at first think is stone scraping on stone. The wheeling particles shiver and disappear, with nothing left in their place. I catch my breath and turn slowly, seeking the source of the noise.
“Hello?” A male voice, soft, almost feminine. The scrape of stone again and I realise it’s mingled with the slap of shoe leather: small rocks caught in the tread of the soles. I look at the steps that, smoothed by years of use and tilted by an earth that shifts to its own rhythms and desires, lead up into the church proper. A pair of scuffed boots can be seen, then more as their owner shuffles his way down. The vicar, dressed in fusty black trousers and frock coat, waistcoat over a white shirt with one of those new-fangled dog collars, makes himself known. Some of my acquaintance would call him a crow, but he seems to me more like a shadow given form.
I swallow my own sigh of relief—I have become fanciful with exhaustion, with returning home, with my strange dreams, with the injury—and move into the light at the bottom of the staircase. The thin man startles, gasps, and I smile. To soften the blow, I am quick to introduce myself.
“Good day, Vicar. I’m Archie Norwood.”
He relaxes a little, but looks no less put out, wondering, no doubt, how I got in. I dangle Father’s heavy keychain. “My family have always had access. We endowed the original church, you know, and keep God’s representatives in their living.”
He chooses not to comment, though I sense he’d argue if he felt on more secure ground.
If I were a known quantity. Instead, he says, “Mrs James said you were coming to Norwood.” I notice he does not say “home.”
“Indeed. I came to pay my respects.” It took an age before the solicitor’s letter found me; by the time it was in my hand, the wax seal cracked and the corner of the missive torn in haste, my parents had been dead for nigh on five months. No goodbyes, no reproaches, no chance of deathbed reconciliations, acts of contrition or forgiveness, or other such events for which many folk long. I suffer no illusions: had Mother welcomed Father’s conjugal attentions more often, had another legitimate child appeared, I’d never have been recalled. “How long have you been drawing wages from Norwood, Vicar?”
“Two years in October,” he says.
“That’s a fine start for a man in his first position. Two years is a good length to stay in any one spot,” I say, for he’s rather young and I doubt he’s had a place anywhere else. The barb hits home and I delight to see him blanche at the implied threat. That’s right, you snipe, remember which side of the bread your butter’s on; keep the master happy.
I stand beside him, eye to eye, to see if he will challenge. He merely drops his gaze, and we ascend to the nave, and walk slowly along the aisle, neither hurrying lest it show weakness, an urge to flee.
I say, “I saw the foxfire.”
He stiffens, his nose twitches, and I see sweat break out on his top lip though it is by no means hot. “Whatever do you mean?”
“The corpselights on top of the graves. I saw them as we drove past the night of my arrival.” And I had, thinking there were considerably more than I remembered from my childhood.
He shakes his head. I step out into the sunshine and as soon as I’ve crossed the threshold, he closes the door behind me and I hear the snap of a latch being shot over a muffled “You must be mistaken.”
I wonder how he can possibly say that, a man in his position. But perhaps he’s never seen the wisp of soul escape from the body as a person dies; too busy reading from his prayer book, eyes pinned to the page hoping it’s the key to a promised Heaven, not watching the dreadfulness of the corpse releasing its grip on life.
I move off the stoop, off the path, and pick my way through the headstones, some new, most old and weathered and leaning to one side where the ground has subsided. I weave towards the North wall, which is waist-high. Though Florie is buried in here, I do not seek her grave, nor do I examine the dying yew tree. I look to Mathilda’s Wood, which separates St Bride’s from the rolling grounds of Norwood Hall. In there, somewhere, beneath the spreading boughs, under thick green grass and dense undergrowth, in there is the ancient god-oak, and at its roots, my plantings.
The landscape before me is at once foreign and familiar; almost twenty years have passed since I laid eyes on this particular arrangement of wood and rill, hill and dale. Since I was exiled; yet here I stand. It is the moment, wrote the solicitor who was ignorant of the reasons for my youthful departure, to return home and take up your position and your responsibilities to the Hall and village. It is the chance, Archibald, to be the man your father wished you to be. A rather rich comment from someone who’d never met me. And yet I did as bid, partially from curiosity, partially from the boredom that inevitably comes of wintering in Toronto, and partially from a strange yearning, a pull towards the place that, no matter how long I’d been gone, was always home. I took passage on a steamship, spent the seemingly interminable days at sea thinking back on all the hearts I’d left behind.
I think upon them again and unconsciously make a fist of my left hand, feel the bandages tighten, the skin split and break beneath. I grit my teeth. I belong here, I tell myself. I’ll not be chased by womanish fears or fancies. This earth is mine as are all in it.
“Where will you go, do you think, Mrs James?” I ask when the housekeeper delivers my luncheon tray. I’ve passed most of the day in Father’s study, working through his papers and familiarising myself with the running of the estate, the rents that might be expected from tenants, the details of the vicar’s living, Father’s investments in the East India Company among others, how many staff maintain the Hall, and the like.
“Whatever do you mean, Master Archie?” Her mouth thins into a straight line, though I can see a tremor in the hands she’s folded neatly in front of her black dress.
“When you retire, of course. You’re getting close, surely,” I say smoothly, watching her only from the corner of my eye. She pales and swallows, and I continue, “I can arrange for a cottage in the village. Father would want you taken care of.”
“I’ve lived in this house since I was sixteen.” Her voice trembles. “I’ve lived here longer than you ever did.”
“Ah, but I own Norwood Hall, Mrs James, and you do not.” I smile at her. “No one should hold on too long.”
She draws herself up proudly. She’s still beautiful and I imagine she held my father’s eye right until he died. Longer than my mother did, certainly. It strikes me that she’s a portrait of how Florie might have looked had she been given the chance to age.
“I shall consider your offer, Master Archie,” Mrs James says with dignity. “Mrs James?”
“What of her?”
“Is she your daughter?”
“Is she my father’s daughter?”
She does not answer, but her movements as she leaves the room are jerky, as if a charge of electricity is playing havoc with her limbs. My sense of satisfaction is something I recognise as petty, but it gives me no less pleasure. Oh, I’ll not get rid of her quite yet; it would be like removing a cog from a fine timepiece when you’ve no replacement. But arrangements will be made. If I am honest her presence has become more and more oppressive; she dogs my steps, hiding her interference under the guise of offered help. Every time my eyes find the delicate figure of Mary, little Mary, sweet Mary, invariably Mrs James arrives to bustle the girl to another task elsewhere.
And there is the itch, the scratch, of something that may be guilt, though I’ve always felt myself immune to it. When Mrs James is gone, my mind will settle. And Mary, sweet Mary will be alone.
I sit at the window of the bedchamber that once belonged to my father, staring out beyond the glass at a night-land which seems to re-shape and shift as I watch, as if I’m on a moving train. Far off I can see the flicker of lights dancing hither and yon between the trees in Matilda’s Wood. Lovers? Poachers? The foxfire from St Bride’s gone a-wandering? Something else? I have not yet walked there myself, but not through fear. It simply has not felt right to do so. I always entered the Wood with intent; I’ll not break that habit now simply for the sake of old times.
I run the fingers of my right hand over the back of the left; liberal amounts of salve are applied to the burns morning and evening when fresh bandages are wrapped. Not many nights after my arrival, drunk on too much brandy and triumph, I fell asleep by the fireplace in the parlour. I dreamt the dreams of another man, a man different from myself, who’d had children and hopes, a son and heir, and a daughter he could not acknowledge. A man who’d lost both and found his life hollowed. When I was woken—by pain and the stench of burnt flesh—it was to discover that in slumber my left arm had fallen from the armrest and the snifter with it. Alcohol splashed on the carpet and into the fire, and enough of a trail was laid down that the flames leapt surely from hearth to hand.
The doctor says I will be scarred but should have use of the limb, for the most part. He has given me laudanum, but even the opiate cannot quiet my nightly struggles with chimeras and reminiscences. I consider retreating to my own bedroom, my old room, where no memories but my own linger.
No. This house is mine, all of it. This earth is mine as are all in it.
I watch the lights until they dim and disappear, as if they’ve grown bored. My lids are heavy and it will not matter whether I fall asleep in this chair or my bed, the dreams will come whether I will them or not: of Florie when I thought she was mine, when I believed she was safe with me no matter what else I may have done; of Florie as I left her, and of others, too, but I cannot recall their faces for they were not as important. And of Mary, sweet Mary, who smiles at me and blushes when I greet her; Mary who wears Florie’s face.
I remind myself there is nothing to fear, that I am but a victim of weariness and recollections grown malignant in the darkness. I remind myself that I was drunk the night of my injury, exhausted by travel, and delirious with pain. I remind myself of all this and yet I cannot shake the feeling that I heard something else that distant evening. A sound above my own screams, above the panicked response of the servants: the noise of the parlour door being pulled shut on a chorus of girlish giggles and sniggers.
The days pass like seasons, seemingly endless then suddenly gone as if without warning. I spend the sunlit hours being Lord of the Manor, learning my craft, learning the people around me, the staff and the villagers. I spend the sunlit hours walking the fields and checking boundaries against old maps to ensure my rights are not infringed, speaking with gamekeepers about poachers, and colliers about charcoal production. I spend the sunlit hours trying to distract and exhaust myself in the hope of untroubled slumber.
My hand has not healed, at least not properly. Gripping cutlery and drinking vessels is painful, as is dressing myself, and most other activities that require manual dexterity. It is not getting worse, the doctor tells me, but not better. Some nights I think I would rather chop it off than tolerate this insistent pain any longer. I take the laudanum, which dulls the ache, but lowers my control, my inhibitions; it lets the dark voice inside me tug at the reins, and I have become less and less resistant to its pull.
When Mary, little Mary, sweet Mary, Mary with Florie’s face daily tends to my wound and changes the dressings, the siren song is at its loudest; so loud in fact I wonder that the girl cannot hear its chant. This morning as she bends over the red-raw wound, tenderly ministering, I lean forward in my seat, barely aware of what I do—barely caring—breathing deeply of her scent as a wolf sniffs the air, closer, closer until at last she realises what’s happening. She catches my stare and in that moment, those precious seconds, she is mine for the taking, and anticipation howls through me . . .
“Mary, you have duties elsewhere.” Mrs James speaks sharply, having entered the room silent as a shadow. She watches the fresh young thing bob a curtsy, and then takes over my treatment.
“You’re not sleeping at all well, are you, Master Archie?” There is no compassion in her tone.
“I sleep, but I dream.”
“Yes, you’ve the look of a ’mare-ridden man,” she says, failing to cover her satisfaction, and I wonder for a panicked moment what she knows.
Can she have somehow divined that mine were the hands around her other daughter’s throat? That I was the one to see Florence with her eyes staring wide and fearful and, yes! disbelieving? That I left Florie propped up in one corner of the graveyard, against a yew tree, her bodice ripped open and her heart torn out with the knife Father had once given me?
Could she know that Florie, whom I’d adored forever it seemed, had laughed in astonishment when I told her I’d give up everything for her, that I didn’t care if she were my half-sister or not, that I wanted only her. Florie, who’d gently said we were dear friends, but she loved Jem Hayworth and none other. Florie, whose heart was never found.
Then I recognise this madness for what it is: paranoia, sleep-deprived fancy. Mrs James cannot know what form my dreams take, she cannot know the torments I experience in repose, the laughter and jeers from the mouths of women I cannot see, cannot find, cannot catch.
No, her dislike of me, her combative turns, are nothing more than natural antipathy. Though she’s never liked me, not even when I was a child, there is no reason for her to know. Father had seen to that, letting blame fall on Florie’s intended, while ensuring I escaped the consequences of my actions. He’d intuited what I’d done—to his bastard daughter, to my own half-sister—without realising the full extent of my activities. He thought there was only one.
Do not do it again, Father had said, and do not come home. We’re sending you to university. All your financial needs shall be met, you will want for nothing. But do not return to Norwood. Not while we live.
But I have done it again. And again and again and again for girls are easily cut from the herd, tempted with sweets and flowers, cheap hair combs and lace handkerchiefs; with promises as insubstantial as candyfloss and wishes. Oh, I have done it so many times, seeking ever and anon to recapture the experience, the sensation, that came with Florie and Florie alone—all those lasses before, and all those after, never gave the same thrill. Never even approached it.
And when I buried Florie’s dear heart, encoffined in a condensed milk cannikin because she was so sweet, at the foot of the ancient oak Matilda’s Wood, I at last realised she’d never been safe with me. That this was all I’d ever wanted to do to her, just as I’d done it to others, although none had ever provide the ecstasy of Florie. Florie, whose heart was not alone.
I’ve sown such votives around the world, sometimes a single flower, sometimes two or more. The container depending entirely on the level of gratification I’d derived from the experience. In San Francisco, for example, a rusty biscuit box held the tickers of seven ladies of the night. In Boston, that of a steel magnate’s daughter found its final resting place in a carved casket of ebony inlaid with mother-of-pearl. In Paris, the cardiac pumps of fourteen gypsy streetwalkers had been packed easily into a series of tobacco tins and I still wondered what their small size said about their bearers. In Shanghai I’d crammed forty-seven into a middling-sized drum, weighted it down with a brick and dropped it into the harbour at midnight.
“There you are, Master Archie. That will see you through,” says Mrs James, drawing me out of my reverie. She finishes tying off the bandages and gives a smile fit to make winter shiver. As I stare into her pale blue eyes, I wonder if Mary, little Mary, sweet Mary, will provide me with the same rapture Florie did.
It takes three days before I can find the girl alone. Three days of watching and waiting, stalking and stealth. Three days before I spy her wandering across the fields with a basket over her arm to forage for the mushrooms I told Mrs James I wanted for breakfast. I sneak out of the house, having made sure that the housekeeper is occupied elsewhere.
I’m breathless by the time I catch her up, just on the fringe of the Wood, beneath the boughs, straying from the path. She doesn’t hear me, and I tiptoe along behind her, observing as she thinks herself alone, drinking in the joy on her face when she finds a cluster of fat fungi, as she plucks and places them tenderly in the wicker container. When I can bear it no more I say, “Mary.”
She does not jump, nor startle. She seems unsurprised to see me there, offers a tremulous smile. She’s fearful but biddable as I reach for her. She takes my fingers with only a little hesitation, and nods as much with resignation as agreement. Compliance is all I require so I may get the upper hand. I lead my lamb, my bride, further into the forest.
She neatly, precisely, places her basket on the grass, then lifts her face, closes her eyes and puckers her lips as if this is a learned trick. I almost laugh, but draw close instead and press my mouth to hers. At first I caress her throat, then tighten, tighten, tighten my grip until she realises her danger and begins, too late, to struggle. In those moments she is Florie again, to the very life . . . to the very death. She manages to gouge a thumb into my injured hand and the pain is blinding white. My fist makes her nose bleed, her eyes roll. I grasp her neck again and hold hard until she gives that final shake and shudder, and her spirit breaks away, drifting from body to air. I let her fall, then sit back to catch my breath, and pull the hunting knife from my belt.
The moment should have lasted longer. I feel bereft, robbed, cheated.
The blade slices easily through her bodice until creamy skin, the delicate peaches of her budding breasts, the soft rounded belly, are exposed. Lightly, I run the scalpel-sharp edge along her chest, watching as the meat briefly indents before recovering, until I increase the pressure just below the rib cage and the flesh surrenders a ruby welling . . . but then Mary, little Mary, sweet Mary, is gone.
She disintegrates, bursts into a swirling universe of dust and ashes, and there is nothing left of her, not even her clothes, not even the basket. Yet in that tiny moment, that widened second between explosion and disappearance, I see quite clearly: her face replaced by Florie’s, smiling cruelly up at me.
I break stride at St Bride’s, but not for safety or sanctuary, nor for the comfort of confession or to beg redemption. I do not enter the church at all, but pause only in the graveyard to help myself to a shovel carelessly left behind by the sexton, then race into the Wood where I’d once thought to stride in quiet triumph. The thick canopy of leaves above throws darkness down upon me, and every shadow shifts, every shape is alive.
I stumble and fall more times than I can count, moving as if pursued, as if pulled along, and in truth I am both these things: I must see. I must know if she rests still or roams. If I am merely maddened by nightmares and opiates, or if indeed she haunts me.
The answer lies at the foot of the tree where I’d sewn all my dearest hearts, my first and finest, my ’prentice works. I must dig and dig and dig until I reach them, and see for myself that they remain. That all of my past deeds have not been undone, are not simply some wonderful, dreadful fever-wish.
I collide with the trunk of the god-oak. Skin is torn from my face, my lower lip splits, and a tooth loosens. I pick myself up, heedless of these things, and stab at the ground with the shovel.
I dig. I dig and dig and dig. I dig for what seems too long. Have my treasures sunk, somehow plummeted? That’s to be expected when the earth moves, shifts, settles. But what if . . . what if they were never . . .
My joy is unbounded when I reach them at last, that precious accumulation of snuff boxes, candy containers, food cans, little purses, hessian sacks, even some few delicate glass jars. Atop this tiny mountain is the tin, where I’d placed my last flower; the label peeled away long ago, but I’d know it anywhere. I lean down and survey them all, watch the miniscule scraps of fabric and paper, grass and seeds, roots and clumps of dirt, all begin to fall in small avalanches, the sound a trickle that seems like thunder.
Then I realise the cascades of debris is the result of many feet, coming through the trees, heedless of noise. I look up and see that my seedlings had indeed been planted deeper than I recalled, far deeper than I’d put them. The mouth of the hole I’ve dug is more than six feet away, six feet up to salvation. One moment there is only trees, the next faces appear. I recognise every one, how could I not? Twelve of them, pretty maids all in a row, including Florie, each with a reddish brown stain on her burial shroud, where blood had seeped through despite the undertaker’s efforts. All where the hearts were taken.
Florie does not rest. None of them do.
“Do you know,” comes a voice I know and loathe, “that she came back to me? I never thought Jem Hayworth did that terrible thing to my lovely girl, but your father swore . . . She returned, though, my beautiful Florie, and the others followed, all begging for help, all lonely, all crying out so I could barely sleep at the thought of the injustice done. I invited them into the house, made them welcome.” She peeks over the edge; by her side stands little Mary, sweet Mary. Mrs James laughs and it’s a thing to freeze the breath, to stop the blood. “Your parents were mad by the end; old houses always have ghosts, but not like these.”
“Mrs James,” I whimper and reach hopelessly up.
“And this one, my Mary, my last, my dearest, my daughter of smoke and sadness, of vengeance and rage.” She looks at me, a gaze like a dagger. “My lamb, my lure, my darling stalking goat.”
Mrs James, and all those pretty maids smile, and, for a moment, a stupid fool’s second, I think it’s for me, with fond remembrance. Then I recall their terror and their pleadings; that not a thing they’d said could have stayed my hand. And they begin to giggle, echoes of the laughter that’s haunted my hours both sleeping and waking, and dirt pours over the sides of the pit as they use their tiny feet to kick it into the grave I’ve unwittingly dug for myself. Then the ground itself—This earth is mine as are all in it!—assists, the soil walls moving, moving, moving together, until all I can smell is damp earth, all I can taste is decay, all I can see is blackness, and all I can hear, dully, is Mrs James crooning, “Good bye, Master Archie, sleep well.”
Originally published in Murder Ballads, edited by Mark Beech.