Each day throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas, we’re bringing you gifts of recipes, stories, activities and competitions for the whole family. Today Essie Fox, author of The Somnambulist and Elijah’s Mermaid has given us a short story to share. So sit back and enjoy, The Dreamer…
In her dream it was the night of her wedding. She was standing in the bedroom, looking out through the open window. Her husband was close at her side. Her head was resting against his bare shoulder as, together, they watched the firework display. Every tree on the heath was a black silhouette above which the skies filled with cascading fountains; colours which gleamed iridescent as jewels – all the rubies and emeralds and sapphires and pearls that fizzed and then melted away into dust . . .
Another explosion. Too real. Too loud. Elizabeth woke with a startled gasp, the stench of sulphur thick in her nose as she struggled to lift her head from the pillow. She felt panicked and claustrophobic, at first unable to move her limbs which were locked in the twisting restraint of the sheets. She wondered if she had gone blind until she recalled the silk tie at her eyes and – oh – what a relief it was, when her fumbling fingers had worked the knot free and her vision had been restored again, eyes blinking while straining through dawning light to see that the candle’s flame had died. But probably only a moment ago, for lingering still was the gauze of white, the trail of a questioning mark on the air that asked: Where has my husband gone?
‘Henry?’ Her voice was a timid croak, whereas during the night she’d been brazen, crying out at the touch of his caress. And, what was it – what was it that Henry said? Ah yes, she remembered now: ‘This is my Christmas gift to you. Death is nothing but a charade; a thinly veiled door to enlightened bliss.’
Gift. Death. Charade. Bliss. How sweetly poetical those words. But Henry had been a plain-speaking man – her lover of less than three short months when taken away by the cholera. Since then, every day she had dressed in black, rarely venturing out in public again; until yesterday, when everything changed.
The afternoon of Christmas Eve and her sister-in-law, Sophia, had appeared on one of her brief visitations and then proceeded to insist that Elizabeth come to dinner that night. A small affair, or so she assured, but Sophia’s promise had proved to be false. When Elizabeth arrived – and late – she discovered herself to be but one of twelve other invited guests.
Sophia’s butler imparted this news while hanging her coat upon the stand, then dusting the snowflakes from her hat. She watched his hands, as quick and deft as they had ever been before, but the man who had once stood tall and proud was much reduced by age these days. His shoulders were stooping. His breaths came short. His hair was no more than a few stray wisps to mock the freckled dome beneath.
How cruel the years could be. Elizabeth exhaled a sigh. But little time for such morbid thoughts when the dining room doors were opened up, and Sophia was rushing forward to greet her, pressing rouged lips to Elizabeth’s cheek before murmuring with excitement through the tickling flutter of her fan, ‘My dear, the meal has started. You must come through without delay. I’m seating you next to Edward Hayes. It’s such a coup to have him here . . . really, the finest clairvoyant in London.’
Elizabeth stammered her response, ‘A . . . a clairvoyant. Oh! I really don’t think …I…’
Sophia interrupted. No concern for her sister-in-law’s distress. ‘My dear, why be so nervous? Mr Hayes is perfectly charming. And what do I care for the rumours? What if he is the bastard son of some notorious baronet! Whatever he is, it’s clear to see that the gentleman has good breeding. Such delicacy. Such a special gift.’
‘A gift?’ Elizabeth murmured, overcome with a sense of foreboding.
‘Mr Hayes is quite the magician. He has appeared in the very best homes. They say Mr Darwin was intrigued by some of the spectacles achieved, though…’ Sophia paused, and when she smiled at Elizabeth the black of rotting teeth were bared. ‘It is true, not everyone approves. Dickens called him a fraudulent conjurer! And, as to the poet, that Browning man . . .’ Sophia snorted her contempt, ‘By all accounts when the two of them met he was almost frothing at the mouth. But then, we all know of his jealousies, and his wife so obsessed with the spirit world.’
Elizabeth lifted a hand to her brow where the skin was prickling and hot, and when her fingers dropped again they plucked at the cloth of her evening gown; black silk too cold, too slippery. She took a deep breath to steady herself, then followed in Sophia’s wake. Her skirts brushed against a Christmas tree. Its fragrant branches were dripping with crystals, silvered walnuts, red ribbons and candles; their flames a shimmer of red and gold to echo the hues in the dining room. There, dark shadows danced over the walls, or trembled on marble consoles where silver platters held cheeses and fruits, nuts and blancmanges, sugared mince pies. The table, what a sight it was! Elizabeth feared it might collapse beneath the weight of a large roasted turkey, along with a goose, pheasants and quail, and vegetables of just about every description. Cutlery clinked. Glasses chinked – and welcomed her into the company where, less than an hour later, when the wine in her glass had been twice drained, Elizabeth relaxed again. More than that, she found herself intrigued by the man who was seated on her left. How low, how mellifluous his voice. But when she dared to turn his way and sneak a glance at Edward Hayes, she noticed his cheek, as soft as a girl’s, and his pale moustache, as fine as silk. At least, that’s how she presumed it would feel, if her fingers ever dared to stroke.
She blushed with shame to feel desire; that slipping sensation in her loins. She found herself thinking of Henry’s moustache – how wiry and black and coarse it was – and the way it had grazed against her flesh. And what was the musky perfume that seemed to exude from Edward Hayes? Was it that which caused the room to whirl, walls spinning all around her, along with the melody of sound: the gossip and laughter, half-heard conversations, the cutlery scraping on china plates, the popping of corks as more wine was poured; that liquid dark and red as blood?
Could she be intoxicated, as unused as she was to alcohol? Was that why she made no protest when she dropped a napkin from her hand, when Mr Hayes reached down one arm, when his fingers strayed beneath her hems and remained there far longer than could have been decent? Could he really be as audacious as that?
Mr Hayes was sitting, erect again, and the napkin returned to her trembling hands, when she found herself trapped in the young man’s gaze – his clear, unblinking, glass blue eyes – and the lilting tone of concern in his voice when he said, ‘Forgive me, Lady Garsington, but I see you are wearing mourning rings. Has your loved one been recently lost?’
Before she could open her mouth to reply, the hawk-eared Sophia was calling out from her place at the top of the table. ‘Oh, Mr Hayes, if you only knew the jewels my sister hides away! You may not think to see her now, always decked as she is in dreary jet, but once she was quite dazzling. Every head would turn when she entered a room. She quite stole my brother’s heart away.’
Staring back in stark dismay, Elizabeth met Sophia’s gaze. Above narrowed green eyes a tiara was set, the emerald crown on a nest of grey ringlets; the hair primped and curled so rigidly that it might as well be metal-made. Sophia’s heart is iron, she thought. Why must she always play the queen? What is the cause of her jealousy? Surely, it cannot be the jewels . . . the jewels Sophia’s mother owned . . . that Henry then passed on to me?’
Elizabeth found her tongue to speak and her words were restrained, but breathless, ‘What are those stones but baubles? I would give them all up. I would give anything…if only my husband, if only…’
She swallowed hard at the stone of grief that had lodged so firmly in her throat. She knew herself to be dowdy and drab when surrounded by Sophia’s friends; all the glistening satins and frothings of lace that adorned the other female guests. Blinking back the sting of tears, the next moments stretched out – an eternity – until she saw Sophia rise and pronounce that the gentlemen should be left, to smoke their cigars, to play their cards – except for Mr Hayes of course – Mr Hayes whose cool hand steered Elizabeth’s arm as both obeyed their host’s command and followed the crush of the crinolines to enter the dimly-lit orangery.
Another table was draped in black satin. A perfect match for Elizabeth’s gown. Perhaps it would work as a camouflage against which she might disappear. She was much relieved when the jets were doused, when she felt herself merge with the shadows around, though a watery glow still trickled in through a gap in the half-closed double doors. It picked out the curling shapes of ferns, the jagged fronds, as sharp as knives. Above them, above the great glass dome, a full white moon was shining down, and with such a vibrant radiance that it might be a giant’s spying eye.
From the opposite side of the table, Edward Hayes was speaking boldly, the white moons of his eyes also gleaming bright when asking the guests to form a chain by linking hands with those each side – then making a plea that the bond not be broken, whatever events might next occur.
He was so intense; so serious. How Elizabeth wished she could ‘believe’. But disappointment was not far off in the form of Sophia’s girlish squeals when a disembodied hand appeared to hover above the table.
This is silly! Elizabeth bit her tongue. That hand is clearly made of wax. And as to the slimy stain it leaves. How disgusting! It looks like some bodily mucus.
The hand was gone, and who knew where, but matters were far from being improved by the onslaught of rappings and tinkling bells when the table began to levitate. It shuddered violently back and forth before dropping down with a rattling thud, after which, when all was still again, when the gasps and mutterings had died, the clairvoyant groaned and closed his eyes. And yet, it was so alarming to see his head lolling forward like that, to hear his deep and mournful moan and how, when he started to speak again, his voice was much lower, as if it belonged to – as if it belonged to –
‘Oh…is it Henry?’ Elizabeth gasped. She struggled to draw any breath in her lungs, and when the medium raised his head, his eyes were staring, fused with hers – and the blue was much darker – it was almost black – when he opened his mouth and began to chant, ‘There is no pain, though grief lives on. I yearn to reach out through the ether, to tell you I only sleep and wait until we are reunited… as we were before…on our wedding day.’
A white rosebud dropped into Elizabeth’s lap. It smelled sweet and yet oddly peppery, as had the blooms in her bridal bouquet. And when Mr. Hayes continued to speak it seemed every word was intended for her, and every word from Henry’s lips, until she could stand it no longer and dragged her hands free and pushed back her chair; iron legs screeching loud on the marble floor – a horrible noise that still rang in her ears when, as one hand clutched the phantom rose and the other pressed hard to a hammering heart she attempted some semblance of dignity, and thanked Sophia and said goodnight to all of the other female guests. But barely a glance did she give to Hayes, even when he called out with his urgent farewell as she walked towards the double doors, as her nose filled with perfumes of jasmine and lily: the pungent aromas of marriage, and death.
During the drive back to Hampstead, Elizabeth slouched in the carriage seat. Her brow pressed hard to the window glass as she stared at the lamps which lined the route, a swimming chain of gold and jet; a spell that had her mesmerised. She shook her head to clear her thoughts and focused upon her reflection instead. A misty ghost that woman seemed. The face of the bride that she’d once been; eyes shining, fair curls stuck to tear-damp cheeks.
More tears of frustration when she was home, only then coming to realise that she’d left her reticule behind. Without any key she had to wait, shivering beneath the porch, her knocking hands grown numb with cold before the door was opened. The maid who was standing behind it looked bleary, trying her best to stifle a yawn while uttering apologies – until her mistress took pity and sent the girl back to her attic bed.
Alone in the hallway, she shrugged off her coat. It fell in a damp puddled heap on the floor. She looked around through the dingy light, where no tree was festooned, where no garlands were hung. She trudged on up the winding stairs and entered the gloomy chill of her room, and only then did she release her grasp on the medium’s spirit rose.
After setting the bloom on the table, next to the casket with her jewels, she stood a while before the hearth where her hands reached out for any warmth that might remain in dwindling flames. But her fingertips were still clumsy and numb when struggling with buttons, with ribbons, with stays, until she wore only her muslin shift and perched on the edge of the dressing stool. Raising both hands behind her head, when every pin and comb was free, her hair fell like a veil at her shoulders though which her fingers continued to tease, absent-mindedly working out a knot while lost in more thoughts of Edward Hayes.
What had he called when she made her escape? His words had been cryptic. A riddle. It was something about the coming dawn. Some truth the light would then expose.
She looked again at the rose and sighed. Any light in her world had long since died. Why, even the shadows on the walls looked more like the wavering bars of a cage. Within that prison she reached for the casket. As she lifted the filigree dome of the lid there came the soft shifting hiss of coals. Yellow flames darted up in the hearth behind to dip and coil like living snakes, to draw out the fiery glimmer of stones – all the lustrous reds and greens and blues. The gems her husband gave her, one Christmas Eve, so long ago.
Will he return, as the clairvoyant said? Elizabeth knew she was foolish even to contemplate such a thing. And yet, she felt a glimmer of hope, a shivering frisson of anticipation. With one finger she traced the bow of her lips, then stroked on down to the neck of her shift – when she heard the sudden warning. The lonely toll of the mantel clock. Twelve hollow, high, vibrating chimes.
Another Christmas day had come, and with it the fire surged again. The candle’s flame guttered as if in a draught, and somewhere, it must be downstairs in the house, there was the rattle of a chain, a dull thumping thud, then the creaking tread of footsteps rising on the stairs. And then she heard the awful bang. The sudden knock upon her door.
‘Henry?’ Her voice was thin and hoarse.
His answer was barely audible above the whine of hinges as the door swung open, just ajar. ‘Close your eyes and I will join you, my love. But the living must never look on the dead. If you see me, the charm will be broken.’
She closed her eyes and waited. Her heart was pounding in her breast. The skin prickled up on the back of her neck to sense her husband’s slow approach. And was that a breeze that followed him in, or was that his hand, a butterfly touch as deathly cold fingers stroked over her shoulder, pushing the loosened hair aside, making her moan – a moan of regret when his hand was drawn away again – when she felt his breath upon her cheek?
‘Don’t be afraid.’ He soothed her while knotting the scarf to blind her eyes. Then gently, so gently, he urged her to rise, and led his bride towards the bed. And there he was tenderer than she remembered. And when at last he lay still at her side, as his breath mingled warm and moist with hers, he whispered the sing-song lullaby that lulled her into dreaming sleep: ‘In the morning the scales will fall from your eyes. In the morning the truth will be known at last. You will see… with the coming of the dawn.’
And now, it was the morning. Last night’s fire was a heap of cold grey ash. A furtive smudging of dreary light was creeping in through some gaps in the shutters to fall, as if a blessing, on the pillow’s indentation where Henry had lain his sleeping head. The proof – her heart quickened to think of it now – that her husband really had returned.
The proof was in her body too, unusually stiff and sore it was when she swung her legs from the mattress edge and limped to the window and drew back the shutters, and heard the peel of distant bells. Such a joyous celebration.
She turned back to the room with a smile on her lips, and was sitting on the dressing stool when that happy expression became a grimace – because something was different. Something was wrong.
The silver casket still lay on the table, exactly as she’d left it. But none of her treasures remained inside. The white rosebud was lying in their place; its petals already wilting, and beneath that was a plain white card upon which two initials had been inked. Two letters entwined to spell: E. H.
Elizabeth and Henry?
How cruel was the sun that morning, so brightly shafting into the room where motes of dust glittered like diamonds of light. And while staring at them, while her fugged mind cleared, Elizabeth had to face ‘the truth’. E. H. also spelled the initials of no other but Edward Hayes. Edward Hayes must have had her hypnotised. Edward Hayes must have found her reticule, and the keys with which to enter her home, and the letters inside to show her address – or had Sophia provided that?
She could not bear to think of it. Once again she felt trapped and impotent; the pathetic but of some wicked joke. And how could she ever expose the theft, or seek any justice or recompense without also damning her own reputation? The widow who dreamed of loving the dead?
She slumped forward and started to retch, and only when the dry heaves had subsided was she able to open her eyes once more, looking down at the fingers in her lap as they twisted at the muslin cloth.
How ugly they were, those hands, the skin loose and swollen and slugged with veins. The hands of a stranger, of someone old. She raised her gaze to the glass instead, and there in its silvered shifting depths she saw a drooling slackened mouth. She saw two bloodshot rheumy eyes, and gaunt cheeks that had long since melted to jowls, and her hair – her hair that had once been her glory, that Henry had loved to stroke – its gold was now grey, and lank, and dull.
She thought of her dream, of the fireworks that once gilded the sky on her wedding night. Now, that memory’s colour leeched away. There were only the crimson walls around to mirror the colour of the blood when she smashed her palm against the glass. The pain of it caused her to howl in despair – for all that was lost – that would never return.