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Quiet as a stone

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Fingers laced upon his lap, Norrell sat deathly still. Gaze unfixed, he realised, for the first time, how silent his library was when empty of occupants; it had been a long while since he was truly alone. That, he supposed, was a library’s purpose: thick doors, sealed sashes and well-stocked bookshelves kept out the noise of the outside world, creating a calm eye within a wider storm.

Norrell glanced at Childermass’ desk, its surface small and tidy, contents inconspicuous — a contradiction to the man usually sat at it. In the centre sat his stacked cards. Whoever told him of Childermass’ passing had placed them there; Norrell could not recall who it was that delivered the news. The cards might offer comfort or guidance but, bereft of their reader, they were mere props.

Turning to the window, Norrell stared through it. The thick cloud cover was a pallid shade of grey, but not exactly grey, more like white. Then again, not exactly white either, since streaks of chimney smoke hung in the air like shadows cast against the sky.

A sudden gust shook the sashes and Norrell flinched at the sound of them hitting together. There was decidedly too much noise in London, and too much dirt. It was preferable indoors, in the clean and the quiet. An abundance of people generated an abundance of foul odours, carriages, dangers, fetid gutters... gunshots, blood.

He turned to Childermass to complain about it.

“Mr Norrell?”

He had not heard Lascelles knock, or approach his desk. His posture seemed that of a man without a care in the world.

“The Poles have left, through the servants’ entrance, and rumours of the French spy have already begun to circulate.” Lascelles waited for a response and continued when none came. “Do not trouble yourself with statements, sir. I’ll offer one on your behalf.”

Norrell lowered his head; he did not wish to talk or to plan. He should never have come to London. There was no peace here. Time spent sitting or reading quietly was considered wasted, when there were soirees to attend.

At length, Norrell asked, “Where is he?”

“Childermass?” Lascelles seemed almost affronted Childermass remained at the forefront of Norrell’s mind when there were far more pressing matters to attend. “In the butler’s pantry.” Bowing his head a small degree, he turned to leave.

Norrell’s heart leapt. “Will he be taken away?”

“I will see to it,” Lascelles replied.

“I should like to visit him.”

Meeting Norrell’s gaze, Lascelles raised an eyebrow. He opened his mouth and went to speak but appeared to decide against it. Affecting a sympathetic smile—most out of place on his slim, sharp face—he nodded.

Uncertain if it was proper to ask such a thing of Lascelles, but having no one to correct him, Norrell asked if arrangements could be made for his mourning dress to be laid out.

“Forgive me, sir,” Lascelles said, unable to withhold the opinion caught in his throat a moment longer, “but, is it entirely appropriate?” When Norrell failed to catch his meaning, he added, “For a servant?”

The glare Norrell gave in response was all the answer Lascelles would receive.

“Of course,” he said. “I’ll see to it now.”

When Norrell finally appeared in the entrance hall, the crowd gathered there—servants mostly— silenced in an instant. An air of solemnity overcame everyone who turned to him; they felt Childermass’ loss keenly and knew their master would too. Drawlight could be heard outside, announcing, to anyone who might listen, the awful cowardice of the French emissary sent to rid England of its foremost magician, and the courage shown by brave Mr Norrell and his faithful associates.

Lascelles strode into the hall from the drawing-room, instructing a footman who was following him.

“Oh—” He stopped mid-sentence and mid-step as he noticed Norrell and waved the footman away. “You should be resting, sir,” he encouraged, stepping closer. “Allow me to deal with all of this.”

“I need someone to show me to the pantry,” Norrell admitted quietly. He had a vague sense of the layout of the servant floors but did not fancy getting lost when his destination was of such great import.

“Ah, you’d appreciate my company.” Sure of himself, Lascelles took Norrell’s arm.

“No, no thank you. Davey, would you show me the way?”

Davey nodded and opened a door leading off of the entrance hall. “This way, sir.”

To the sound of Lascelles’ scoffed annoyance—which he ignored—Norrell followed Davey down a narrow, spiralled staircase and through a thin corridor, until they reached the pantry.

“Childermass is in here, sir,” Davey confirmed. Bowing his head, he made his exit, leaving Norrell alone in the corridor with the lamentable task of saying farewell to his man of business.

Norrell stared at the door, a yard or two in front of him. He knew he must approach it, but something stopped him crossing the space: weight in his legs, stiffness in his muscles, and a fear-induced ache that begged him not to move, not to look, and not to open the door.

Inhaling a deep, shaking breath, Norrell told himself it was just a few steps, steps like those taken while crossing the library, or following Davey. Despite his desire to run, freeze or even fall to his knees, these few steps were like any others. Reaching for the doorknob with determination, he turned it.

Peering into the pantry, the door opened a crack, Norrell saw the end of the serving table and two stockinged feet. Staring at them, motionless and familiar, his bottom lip trembled. He noticed blood had been mopped from the floor hastily, streaks of red remaining on the stone. The streaks filled him with dread, reminiscent of the blood that spread further and further from Childermass’ body while he lay on the pavement, dying. Nevertheless, Norrell knew he must persevere. This was the last chance he had to be strong for Childermass — he owed him this.

Closing the door behind him, a chill walked the length of Norrell’s spine and he shuddered despite himself. Childermass’ supine body laid the length of the serving table, quiet and unassuming; he looked shorter when laying down, his frame slighter without the coat usually about him. Pale light filtered in through the high window, illuminating Childermass’ face. Dust danced in the air above him, glinting in the light, no breath to move it away. The pantry was not the ideal place to say goodbye to a man Norrell had known longer than any other, but it was better than the deadhouse.

Somehow, Norrell found enough strength within himself to approach the table. Once close enough, he discovered Childermass’ expression was peaceful, his features relaxed and eyes closed as though in a deep, tranquil slumber. There was no pain for him now, only the persistent embrace of eternal sleep.

Breathing was so natural a thing that, at first, Norrell found himself fooled into seeing Childermass’ chest rise and fall, so pressed a palm to it to prove himself wrong. Usually, cloth retained body heat, was suppled by movement, but Childermass’ waistcoat felt cold and stiff, an unsettling sensation. The garment’s shoulder bore a hole, not the kind for darning, but one responsible for its wearer’s death.

The shot and powder, Norrell had not loaded and the pistol, he had not fired, but the fault was his alone. Lady Pole’s punishment, she had meant for him. Childermass simply got in her way.

“I am sorry, Childermass,” Norrell whispered.

Childermass’ bloodied neck-cloth lay open, his waistcoat re-buttoned unevenly. Around the bullet hole, the dirty-grey fabric displayed gunpowder burns. Dried blood caked the curls at his temple and the creases of his left palm. Norrell was reluctant to focus on these things but his gaze drew to them regardless. He wanted to look at Childermass as a whole, not a collection of dire tableaus.

Knowing this would be the last time he would look upon him, Norrell took care to note the shade of Childermass’ eyelashes and the shape of his lips. His mouth would not smile again, never speak, and his eyes never open. The realisation hit Norrell in the chest, leaving him hollow and winded. It compelled him to touch — a rare urge indeed. Stroking his hand over Childermass’ coarse cheek, he let out a single sob, unable to hold back emotion stoppered since Childermass fell to the pavement; his skin felt cold, his hair somehow brittle already.

“Forgive me,” he begged, smoothing a thumb over the curve of Childermass’ cheekbone while he wept. “Please forgive me.” He knew Childermass would, he always did.

After wiping his tears with a sleeve, Norrell kissed his once loyal servant’s cheek. At the same time, he inhaled Childermass’ scent—lingering in his hair and clothes—one he knew well, that he considered a comfort. He would never smell it again. If he did, rediscovering it on a visit to Hurtfew perhaps, enduring in his few belongings, it would only be a painful reminder of what he had lost.

This was farewell, then. Taking Childermass’ hand from where it lay, Norrell rubbed a thumb over his knuckles. It was only then he realised how painful the next moment would be to endure — harder than witnessing Childermass lying here, as cold and as quiet as a stone. Leaving, letting go of his hand, and walking away from Childermass’ body, was final, his last chance to see him in this life. Bringing Childermass’ hand to his lips, he kissed it lightly.

“Sleep well, Childermass.”

After one more look at the other man’s face, an image sure to never fade from his memory, Norrell used the last of his courage to turn away.

Approaching the pantry door, he wondered how long he had spent in this room. Somehow, it felt like not enough time and all too much at once. Walking away from Childermass was agonising, as predicted, Norrell’s steps faltering and difficult.

Pulling open the door, he heard a sound: creaking, like the beams of a ship beneath the weight of its mast. All candles extinguished and the daylight faded, engulfing Norrell in sudden, and almost total darkness.

“Who goes there?” he called out, his breath white smoke in the bitter gloom.

A distant bell rang.

From within the darkness came a voice, indistinct and impossible to discern if belonging to a man or woman. It spoke in a language he did not understand, but Norrell felt the timbre of the voice in his heart and bones and flesh, as though he had longed to hear it all his life. His thoughts and fears slowed, lost their urgency, and his mind quietened. The soles of his feet grew roots into the stone beneath him, leaving his body fixed in place.

For a moment, Norrell understood everything and nothing, from the whole of English magic to a void of isolated, debilitating darkness.

In the next moment, the candles relit and the room’s warmth returned. Behind him, Norrell heard Childermass gasp for air.