Chapter 1: The Light and The Darkness
Autumn into winter, 1900
Their return journey from Cornwall to Hampstead was uneventful, the strained pact between Clara and Kitty only evidenced by the comparative silence in their carriage. Upon reaching home, a delighted Tom was there to greet them at the garden gate, although he pretended to complain to Clara: “I was master of everything when you were away, and now you’ve gone and spoilt my fantasy.”
The household soon settled into its former ways. The only difference, thought Kitty, was that Nathan was more and more absent. Even when he was at home, he was invariably secreted away in his study and often took his meals in there. She wasn’t naive enough to think this withdrawal was because he wanted to avoid her – he was simply dealing with the increased demands of his work – but even so, she missed their irregular dinners.
Perhaps it was for the best: it allowed her stirred-up feelings to settle. However, Kitty could still feel a dull tug at her heart whenever she thought of Nathan. She remembered her father long ago, explaining the country phrase: ‘What lies beneath, should be left beneath’. Don’t stir up what’s past, he’d said. Don’t try to uncover what shouldn’t be uncovered. So she took her residual feelings, and buried them deep, and built a mound of earth on top and turned away from it.
She sometimes thought of leaving the Applebys’, to avoid any more awkwardness – she felt assured that Charlotte would provide her with a reference that would ensure another posting. But then she would sit closely by Maddie as the young girl practised her reading; or meet Nathan by chance in the hallway as he rushed to yet another speaking engagement, and she knew why she stayed: because of her love and affection for these people.
Autumn started to drift its way in swathes of tumbledown leaves across the parks and avenues of the city. As the longer evenings began to blunt the days with darkness, the dim gaslight lamps scattered throughout the Applebys’ house were no longer considered sufficient.
Charlotte had a new scheme: to provide the household with the superior brightness of electric light. Ernest had already installed an electrical generator in the basement of his residence, and now had, as he called it, “the instant brilliance of white light” afforded by electric fittings.
Charlotte knew that she could cajole Nathan into supporting her idea, although he would surely present a logical argument against it. She went and perched on the edge of Nathan’s desk in his study, swaying her leg so that he glanced down in happy distraction from the paper he’d been writing.
“So… what do you think?” Charlotte asked neutrally.
“Of the idea?” Nathan put down his pen and took off his eyeglasses, placing them to one side. “I think it will be expensive. I’ve heard firsthand from Ernest that his generator has failed. And Mrs Vanderbilt’s residence famously caught fire – don’t you recall?”
“I think it will work,” she assured him, even though she had no evidence to support her theory. “And we can keep oil lamps in case the generator ever fails.”
“You truly are the most blindly optimistic person I have ever met!” laughed Nathan, catching hold of her and swinging her round, so that she sat directly in front of him on the desk. “I can deny you nothing.”
“In that case…” replied Charlotte, tantalisingly lifting the hem of her skirt, Nathan’s eyes following the direction of her slender fingers as she pulled the fabric up and up. “Can you deny me now?”
“We’ll be late for dinner,” he murmured, his smile at odds with his words.
“Who cares? Nathan, just because we no longer share a marital bed, doesn’t mean that we can’t…” she teased him.
Nathan pulled her down onto his lap, half-written papers slipping off the desk. Neither of them noticed, and they were very late for dinner that evening.
With Nathan and Charlotte’s marital accord at the heart of the house, the days dimmed slowly until the onset of winter cloaked the city. The weather was foul and frosty outside, so the arrival of electric light in the household was greeted with even more fanfare.
The extended family – including Oscar, Ernest and Gilbert – all gathered in the front hall for the grand switch-on. Mrs Gilroy thought about all these people’s boots making scratches on her polished parquet and sighed. Albert paced in rings and Maddie jumped around in circles with him. Finally, a tired-looking Nathan appeared from the basement and announced dramatically: “It’s ready! Charlotte – will you light the eternal flame?”
“An Appleby’s always lit the flame,” said Charlotte mockingly. Oscar and Clara, who were surreptitiously holding hands at the back of the group, moved closer together. Gilbert gazed across at Kitty, hoping she would notice his look of still-sincere fondness.
Ernest merely called Albert to heel, and said pleasantly to Nathan: “Come on, my man, enough of the theatrics. Let us have light!”
Charlotte pressed a switch. There was a faint buzz – which they all would become accustomed to in the following days and months – before the light shone. Ahhhhhhh, went the gathered group; all except for Ernest, who was feeding Albert a biscuit he’d hidden in his waistcoat pocket. The light was indeed brilliant. Maddie danced over to Kitty, pulling at her hand and pointing skyward at the small chandelier: “Look! Look!”
“With this light, we won’t never need to go to bed now,” gasped Tom, staring upwards. “We can stay up forever and ever.”
“Except this light is very expensive Tom,” grumbled Mrs Gilroy, who was standing next to him. “You mustn’t go wasting it. So says Mrs Appleby.”
“I think this is the best of Mrs Appleby’s ideas yet,” replied Tom, open-mouthed with wonder. “I’ll guard the light like a dragon guards its treasure. I shall curl up around it and protect it and…”
“Alright Tom, enough of your flights of fancy,” chided Mrs Gilroy. The light hurt her eyes. She didn’t know why they had to keep on having all these new things. The light cast by the leaping flames in an open hearth was what she’d grown up with, and that was good enough.
In the end, Nathan’s warning came true, as the generator failed after only two weeks, so that the household descended into darkness when the sun dipped down and oil lamps and candles were once again common currency.
Mrs Gilroy, whose sister in Yorkshire was ailing, had asked for a week’s leave to attend her bedside. She had left an irritable Clara in charge, who was now ordering Tom about like a sea captain to their galley crew. The net total of all this was that, ‘below stairs’ as well as ‘above stairs’, the entire household was increasingly tired and on edge.
It was past midnight on the fourth day of the ‘electricity drought’, when Kitty was woken by a thudding noise that rose up from the bowels of the house. She took her candle and crept to the top of the main staircase, where she could see Nathan and Charlotte down below, lit only by the flickering flames of two candles that were perched on a side table. It threw their shadows into exaggerated shapes on the floor.
“No. No, I will not stop. I will not stop asking why!” groaned Nathan. He was crouched down, dressed only in his nightshirt. He covered his eyes with one arm when he spoke the next words: “Please, don’t say I will do that. Please. Don’t. I cannot stand it. Why do you accuse me of such a thing?”
Charlotte was crouched by Nathan, her arm extended towards him, but at enough distance that she didn’t touch him in his somnambulant state. “Nathan,” she said gently. “Please. Please wake up. This is just your nightmare. None of it is real.” She wiped her eyes – whether from tiredness or from being overcome with emotion, Kitty could not tell.
Nathan lowered his arm from his eyes, but stared unseeingly. Kitty was frozen in position. She wanted to help, but at the same time, she felt she was witness to a macabre theatre performance that she should not be viewing.
At that moment, the doorbell chimed, and Charlotte left Nathan’s side momentarily to let in the midnight visitor. It was Oscar, his sturdy form blocking out some of the light as he went to stand over Nathan, tilting his head to assess his patient.
After some moments, he guided Charlotte to the other side of the hallway; she constantly glancing backwards to her husband’s trembling form, while Oscar did nothing but gaze upon her face with utmost concern. “Charlotte, in this instance, I may need to administer more than the prescribed dose.”
“Do what you need to do. I trust your judgement as a doctor. Goodness knows, Nathan cannot administer to himself,” replied Charlotte, although she shook her head all the while, as if in disbelief.
Charlotte looked away as Oscar unstoppered a small vial and dipped a syringe into its contents. He took Nathan’s arm and rolled up the sleeve with deft expertise, Kitty watching in horror all the while as the syringe sank into the skin. Nathan tipped over onto the floor in a dejected heap, while Charlotte covered her mouth to stop her cry.
Oscar seemed to know what to do after that. He carried Nathan’s prone body into the parlour, and Charlotte went to wake up a befuddled Clara to ask her to stoke the fire.
Returning to the hall, Oscar called up the stairs: “Are you going to crouch there like a startled mouse all this while, or will you do something to aid us in this matter?”
It took Kitty a few moments to realise that he was addressing her. She descended the stairs clumsily, in a semi-trance. Oscar took her firmly by the wrist. “Do you know where the brandy is kept? There’s a locked cabinet in the kitchen. The key hangs at the back of the pantry. Bring some for Charlotte.”
Kitty did as he asked, questioning neither his commanding tone nor his brusqueness. When she had finally located the liquor and brought back a glassful for Charlotte, they were all gathered round Nathan in the parlour.
He was slumped awkwardly in his usual seat, now conscious but looking dazed. Charlotte was kneeling in front of him on a low stool, head bent low in the manner of a churchgoer at Holy Communion. Clara stood to one side of the fireplace, casting glances at Oscar. And Oscar, standing centrally in this grouping: legs apart to assert himself; one hand in his breast pocket in the manner of Napoleon.
Kitty bent down by Charlotte to give her the brandy. When Charlotte looked up, Kitty saw her face was smudged and puffy with tears. “Thank you, Kitty,” said Charlotte. Looking about her, Charlotte seemed to realise how public Nathan’s outburst had been. “Thank you all. I’m sure that Nathan feels equally grateful.” She looked back towards her husband, who was still dazed and at sea on whatever drug Oscar had administered.
Charlotte made an effort to pull herself back to upright, and then took charge of the situation: “Clara – thank you again for your assistance. I think that will be all we need for tonight.” Clara nodded and exited the room, glancing with admiration at the proud form of Oscar all the while. Once Clara was safely gone, Charlotte turned in her seat to ask: “Kitty – I know how strong you are. Can you stay with Nathan a short time, while I discuss something with Oscar?”
“Of course,” said Kitty. As Charlotte rose, Kitty moved to take her place in front of Nathan. She wondered how many times Mrs Gilroy had assisted Charlotte in this way. Part of her didn’t want to see him at all in this state; it was at odds with the general picture she had built of him.
Some minutes passed, where all that Kitty could hear was the faint hiss of coals on the fire, the regular tick of the mantelpiece clock and the murmurs of Charlotte and Oscar’s conversation, as they huddled in the hallway.
“Kitty.” said Nathan suddenly, in a whisper. He wasn’t looking at her, but staring into the midst of the fire. “Kitty. I know what you are thinking. You are thinking I am weak. But truly, I cannot bear it. The dreams. Always the same. I dream of the dead. Or I imagine things may happen that should not.”
“What things?” asked Kitty.
“Premonitions. Visions of things to come. A tragedy, perhaps. They want to drag me back into the darkness.” Nathan bent his head and rubbed his eyes, exhausted. She found it hard not to reach out and stroke his hair, take him in her arms and tell him: the darkness can’t claim you, the visions aren’t real.
“None of it can hurt you Nathan, you know that,” she reassured him instead, leaning forward so that the gap between them grew smaller.
“I know. I am in the absurd position that I can diagnose myself. Aberrant behaviour is my specialism. And this is aberrant, do you not think?” Nathan shook his head. “No. Best to keep it well hid. Think of my reputation if this came to light. The learned doctor, tortured by paranoid nocturnal fantasies, cannot cure himself.”
“But you must get help!” started Kitty. “Your colleagues…”
“My colleagues mustn’t know. These drugs – they alleviate the problem somewhat,” shrugged Nathan. “But it’s in my mind. It’s deep within me.”
At that moment, he turned to look at Kitty, normally so confident and brave. Viewing her pale, scared face made him remember himself and realise that he had confided too much. He sank back down within his chair, as if willing it to swallow him up, and said no more than: “Can you bring me some water?”
Kitty nodded wordlessly, and rising, crossed the room towards the hallway. On the threshold, she hesitated, aware that Charlotte and Oscar were still holding their whispered conversation just across from her. She stood still and silent, waiting for an appropriate moment to venture past them.
“At times I can’t take it any longer; yet I love him so much. There has to be a way to help him recover!” Charlotte was saying. “Otherwise I don’t know what will happen.”
“You fear that he will do himself some harm?” asked Oscar, evidently worried.
“Yes, perhaps. I don’t know. I just don’t know.” Charlotte looked as if she was collapsing downwards and inwards.
“Perhaps we can increase his medication; the drug is strong, but it loses its potency over time,” offered Oscar, ever practical.
“Whatever you think is best. Will you consult with Dr Allam? In confidence of course – perhaps you can give out it is for one of Nathan’s patients?”
“Whatever you wish, Charlotte. I am as desirous of his recovery as you are.” In the shadows, Kitty could see that he covered Charlotte’s slender hand with his own square palm, a gesture that was at once in solidarity and startlingly over-familiar.
Following Nathan’s episode, he was bedridden for three days. Oscar cancelled all of Nathan’s standing engagements and was a regular visitor to the house, bringing his reassurances and his doctor’s bag. Charlotte was also at home, keeping watch over her husband. Maddie wanted to know when she could visit her father, and drew many pictures of bright flowers, green fields and stick figures with angel wings, all to aid his recovery.
Kitty wondered if she dared look in on Nathan. She wanted so much to see him, to help him, to do anything in her power to stop what was happening to him. And his words to her echoed in her mind: ‘They want to drag me back into the darkness.’ Who were ‘they’? And when had the darkness claimed him before?
Chapter 2: The Studio
Ellen Terry was one of the most celebrated actresses of the Victorian age. A photograph of her (actually taken by Julia Margaret Cameron, not Madame Stappes!) is referred to in this chapter.
When creating the character of Madame Stappes and what she wears, I was thinking of Marlene Dietrich in the 1920s and 30s as Madame is unconventional, sexually ambiguous, and ahead of her time.
The speech Madame Stappes gives about being labelled an activist is partly taken from an interview with Peppermint, a trans woman who was a contestant on ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ (Source: The Observer magazine, 30 July 2017).
After the dark few days of Nathan’s confinement, Charlotte tried in vain to limit his work engagements, asking Oscar to aid her in her supplications. But once Nathan was fully back to himself again, he wrongly believed himself invincible. To the astonishment of his wife, he announced that he was going on a short lecture tour to Canada in the new year: “They have entreated me to visit Montreal on many occasions, and I cannot refuse them yet again.”
“You can, and you must!” begged Charlotte, dismayed at his lack of concern for his own well-being.
Nathan remained adamant. Charlotte grew angry. The rest of the household tiptoed around them, aware that any other upset might cause an eruption.
Fortunately, a welcome diversion soon came in the form of a visit from Madame Stappes, who Charlotte had been acquainted with in her early days as a photographer. Her forthcoming visit was the talk of the household.
“She’s taken pictures of everyone. She took that portrait of Ellen Terry,” said Clara, scraping the master’s nightshirt up and down the washboard, the water in the washtub bubbling with lye soap.
“Ellen Terry?” gasped Tom. “Does she know her then?”
“She knows everyone,” Clara corrected him, putting some wet clothes through the mangle and dreaming that Madame would pick her as a model.
Even Charlotte, normally so at ease, anticipated Madame’s visit with something approaching awe, confiding to Kitty at dinner: “When I was a photographer, I never aspired to artistry. I merely took portraits of debutantes and dogs. But Madame’s portraits are something to behold.”
Madame’s reputation may have preceded her, but upon meeting her, she was even more of an imposing figure. Almost as tall as Nathan, she wore heeled boots that made her tower even higher. Her appearance was deliberately theatrical, with clothes that called attention to the wearer – for dinner at the Applebys’, she wore a man’s dress suit with a crimson sash.
Kitty found it hard not to stare when faced with this daring, self-assured vision. Madame was adept at involving everyone in her immediate vicinity, and they came unresistingly, like iron filings drawn to a powerful magnet. Only Nathan – late to the dinner table once again – seemed immune, although when she teased him about his lack of social decorum, he was clearly trying hard not to blush.
Madame also reproached Charlotte for not continuing with her photography: “You have lapsed, have you not? Really, you must take up the profession again. I could multiply myself manifold times, and still have enough portrait commissions to last a year or more.”
“I really should,” lamented Charlotte. “I still rent my studio – the one above the milliner’s, do you remember? But so many important pursuits take up my time: the campaign for women’s suffrage, for one.”
“Ah, the vote!” laughed Madame. “Yes, we women may not vote because,” and here she waggled her finger towards Nathan sternly, “these men say we are the weaker sex and our smaller brains cannot cope with such important decisions.”
Nathan wisely chose not to respond to this goading, instead studying his dinner plate with apparent fascination. Charlotte looked between the two of them and laughed uproariously – her friend brought out the worst in her. “You are welcome to make use of my studio while you are here, Adèle. It will save you having to rent a place for the short term.”
“That is a very gracious offer. And in return, I am happy to photograph any member of your household, gratis. Nathan, perhaps?” Madame declared, teasing again.
“Not me,” Nathan replied immediately. “Charlotte knows how much I hate having my portrait taken. It involves standing still for far too long.”
“I nominate Kitty,” said Charlotte, still caught up in the giddy midst of her friend’s mood. “Kitty loves to sit and read – you could capture her on a chaise longue with a book in hand. Such a natural pose!”
“As you know, natural is not my forte,” Madame pronounced drily, turning to face Kitty directly to take her fully into her gaze. “Yet here is such untainted raw material.”
“Madame Stappes!” admonished Charlotte, pretending to be shocked.
“I do think Kitty should be allowed to make that decision,” said Nathan solemnly, glancing up from his meal and casting a look of silent solidarity in Kitty’s direction.
“I think I should like to,” said Kitty without hesitation. She was far less concerned about the photographic portrait itself, but she wanted to spend longer in the company of this mesmerising woman. Sitting for a portrait provided an excuse to do just that.
“I am very pleased,” nodded Madame, staring at Kitty unabashed all the while. “Now, you must think of which character you want to be.”
“Character..?” asked Kitty, mystified.
“All of Madame’s clients choose to become a character – from literature, history, myth and legend,” explained Charlotte helpfully. “Madame’s photography is about creating a theatrical scene and placing the characters within it.”
“So we will need a costume, and props. I will personally undertake to make up your face with powder and rouge,” continued Madame, still gazing at Kitty fixedly. “I see you: not as lost in your book, no… I see you as proud Britannia. You have strength within you. Or perhaps Boudicca? No, too bold. Now that I observe you more: Red Riding Hood, lost in the forest, her cape pulled close about her, but determined to make her way.”
Kitty blushed – Madame was uncannily perceptive. Charlotte laughed again and clapped her hands in delight. Nathan sighed imperceptibly and drained his wine glass, thinking that he would invite Gilbert and Ernest to dine tomorrow as a welcome alternative.
Kitty’s portrait sitting was arranged for the following Tuesday, although in the meantime Madame sent her personal tailor to fit Kitty for her costume. Kitty had never been so fussed over before. When she finally made her way to the studio itself, its appearance came as an anti-climax.
The studio was up a narrow flight of stairs, above a milliner’s shop on Kendal Street near Hyde Park. The shop window was gaudily dressed with women’s bonnets of all sizes. In contrast, the front entrance to the studio was dreary, the staircase dimly lit and the interior doorway unprepossessing.
However, once inside the studio, that initial impression was overturned. The bright lights focused on a rustic chair with a fur blanket partially draped over it. Madame sent Kitty into the corner behind a folding screen, “to attire yourself”, then stalked here and there impatiently, encouraging Kitty to “come and sit once you are costumed.”
Once sat in the chair, Madame brought out her bag of rouge and powders, and peered closely at Kitty as she set to work “to effect the final transformation.” Kitty was near enough to smell the violet scent of her perfume and to see that, up close, Madame was much older than she had first thought.
“Now, you must tell me your life story,” said Madame as she applied the rouge in circles to Kitty’s cheeks.
Kitty thought of the last time she had related this short, uneventful tale – the first night of her employment with the Applebys – and how little she had progressed since then. She wanted to find out more about Madame though, so replied boldly: “I imagine your story is significantly more interesting – I’m fascinated to hear how you became a photographer. It is unusual for a woman, even in this age of change.”
Madame took a step back to inspect her work so far, then moved in again to dab red tint on Kitty’s lips. “My life? Oh, my life! It has been a carousel of ups and downs. I was a farmer’s daughter in the Loire. Crops and more crops across an expanse of flat land, as far as the eye could see. I escaped to Paris – a romantic notion – and my height and my look caught the attention of a painter. I became his model: he would pose me in the most absurd ways. He started to use photographic plates as a way of capturing my poses for his preparatory sketches.
“I became fixated on photography. Not on the technology itself: that was a necessary bore. But the aesthetic factors; the theatre of it all: composition, lighting, costume – the chance to create an elaborate fantasy.
“I adopted an excessive character. You English have now borrowed our word ‘flamboyant’, I believe? The flamboyant Madame Stappes, instead of plain Adèle Lefebvre. It attracted more clients and meant that I gained access to grander households. So. That is me.” Madame took a step back again to judge her handiwork, and seemed satisfied. Kitty was wilting a little under the lights and in her heavy cape. “Now for you. I have become a very keen observer of human expressions through my years as a photographer. The face always reveals what the speech or the gestures do not. A photographer hides behind their apparatus, and the sitter reveals his or herself.”
“And what do you see in my face?” Kitty dared to ask.
“I see a desire for more. I had that in me when I arrived in Paris. You will not remain satisfied with what you have now. And there is a secret that you fear others may find out, that is betrayed in your looks.”
Kitty glanced at Madame, feeling her rouged cheeks turning redder. “How do you know?”
Madame returned her gaze unflinchingly. “I saw it. Your countenance changed immediately, unwittingly, when he walked into the room,” she said, much more softly now. Kitty felt as if she was wilting further in the intense glare of the studio lights. “I am not surprised. Nathan is handsome, but completely unaware of his appeal. I have seen that gaze on many women’s faces. And Charlotte is his equal – she attracts others with her unbridled enthusiasm and trusting nature.”
Seeing the worry etched on Kitty’s face, Madame continued: “I will not impart any of this to Charlotte, do not fear. We cannot help it if we are attracted to those we cannot hope to be with.
“Women like us are unfortunate to be born into an age where we cannot have everything we please, because of our social status and our sex. Consider this – one client called me an ‘activist’, because of what I do, how I dress, how I dare to be!
“I didn’t choose to be an activist. Yet anyone who lives their life openly, in a form that opposes the status quo, becomes one. If you’re unapologetic in living your life, in attempting to do what others can without even pausing to consider the luck of their birthright, then you’re labelled an activist. But once you’ve tasted freedom, you can’t easily give it up.”
Madame Stappes put down her brushes, rouge and powder and looked away. It was as if her mask had slipped – she suddenly looked tired and downcast. But then as suddenly as her true self had slipped through, she concealed it with artifice again, striding to the camera and taking up her position. “Now. Turn so you are slightly in profile, and tilt your head.”
While Madame instructed her to pose, Kitty reflected on her words. Here was a woman who had constructed a life through sheer force of will, through being courageous where others might not dare. Her bravery was to be applauded. Yet despite all of this, Kitty saw the loneliness at the heart of Madame’s lifestyle – she was neither prince nor pauper, but occupied a solitary place out on her own.
Leaving the studio with promises to visit Madame in Paris – promises she couldn’t hope to keep – Kitty decided to walk back to Hampstead via Regent’s Park and St John’s Wood, a particularly pleasant route. Having taken the underground train with Maddie out of necessity on several occasions, Kitty had started to loathe the cramped carriages and stale air, so she walked above ground whenever she could.
Skirting round the boating lake in the park, Kitty saw a familiar figure hailing her. It was Oscar. She forced a smile as he approached. She wasn’t entirely sure why she didn’t like him – he certainly made himself useful. Maybe that was it – he went to so much effort to appear indispensible, and Kitty distrusted his motives.
“Kitty!” Oscar was in a jovial mood. “What are you doing here? And so transformed – really, the rouge suits you!”
Kitty had not managed to take off the tinted make up which had stained her face at the studio, so her cheeks and lips were still red. If this had been Nathan, she would have been glad of the compliment, but with Oscar, she doubted its sincerity. She murmured her thanks, leaving a few moments of awkward silence before Oscar held out his arm to her and said: “Shall we walk?”
“I really should be getting back,” Kitty protested.
Oscar remained undeterred: “In that case, we shall walk in the direction of the Applebys’. I have an appointment with a patient in St John’s Wood. Madness is impartial; it affects the rich as much as the poor, although the rich can afford to be treated. My private practice is growing by the day – Nathan is too busy to take on any new patients, so he refers them to me.”
Kitty thought inwardly that Oscar had benefitted greatly from his association with Nathan and Charlotte Appleby. The couple were too good to him; too trusting.
Oscar made some banal comments about the seasonal beauty of the park, then pulled her elbow more firmly into the crook of his arm, as if taking her into his confidence: “You know, we are not so different, you and I. We are both caught in between two worlds – trying to break out of one and climb up into the other. I am quite surprised you continue with tutoring at the Applebys’ – I know that Charlotte is too.”
There it was again – his brazen assurance that he was a close confidant of Charlotte’s.
“I like it there. I like teaching Maddie, and I love…” Kitty trailed off.
“You do not need to give me reasons why!” laughed Oscar, and then segued slyly: “Speaking of people that we admire – how is Nathan coping? I must tell you: I am gravely concerned about him.”
Kitty didn’t answer this leading question. Oscar knew more than anyone about Nathan’s condition; she did not know what he expected her to say. Oscar mistakenly took her silence for agreement, so he continued: “I know you care for him – and if you do, you must endeavour to persuade him against overwhelming himself with work. His mind is more fragile than he dares admit.”
“What possible influence can I have, when his own wife..!” began Kitty sharply, immediately regretting her words. Ever sensitive when it came to discussion about Nathan, she wondered momentarily if Clara had broken their pact and told Oscar about Kitty’s hidden affections.
“‘His own wife’ has had to contend with Nathan’s agitation for much, much longer. Charlotte is far more worn down with his care than you or I,” said Oscar coldly, then he righted himself and donned his gentlemanly affectations. “Here is my turning: I must take my leave. Forgive me; I asked too much. You shouldn’t be tasked with helping to care for him.” Oscar doffed his hat to her, and walked away abruptly.
“It’s not too much..!” protested Kitty to Oscar’s retreating back. He strolled away down the avenue, apparently unperturbed. Kitty was left fuming. Oscar had no right to command her to do anything, yet he had made her feel guilty for her apparent lack of concern. And they had nothing in common, apart from their wish to rise above their given station in life. Her approach was through hard work and continual education; whereas Oscar’s method was all guile, obsequiousness and false flattery.
Standing on the quiet avenue, the sky silver-blue above her head, Kitty pledged a double vow: that she would never be like Oscar, and that she would help to keep Nathan safe from harm.
A week after Madame Stappes’ fleeting visit, Charlotte came to find Kitty late one evening, tucked away in her usual corner of the library. Kitty was attempting to read Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ and not feel scandalised, while Nathan was scrambling amongst the shelves in the opposite corner, searching for an old edition of Gray’s Anatomy that he had promised to Oscar.
“I thought I’d find you in here!” exclaimed Charlotte, having entered the room without Kitty having noticed. “This came for you: I think it’s your portrait.” Charlotte handed her a rectangle wrapped in gauze and golden ribbon.
Kitty hastily opened the package; Charlotte trying to refrain all the while from gazing over her shoulder to view the photograph. “Oh.”
As Kitty’s face was unreadable, Charlotte couldn’t resist peeping at Madame Stappes’ artistry. “‘Oh’? Not ‘oh’, Kitty. You look beautiful! Madame has captured you so well – look at the light and shadow on your face and hair.” Charlotte’s compliments cascaded over her, making Kitty feel pleased and strangely subdued in equal measure.
Madame had indeed captured her, and embellished her. In the image, Kitty was sat partly in profile, the light reflecting off her face smoothing her features. Her curls tumbled over her shoulder. Her loose gown was open at the neck and her dark red, hooded cape trailed down and along the floor.
Nathan, disturbed by the commotion, had wandered over in curiosity. “Nathan,” implored Charlotte. “You must view Kitty’s portrait and give us your considered opinion of how well she looks.”
“Hmmm,” pondered Nathan, when Kitty had reluctantly handed him the photograph. “I see. A vague resemblance, I suppose. Some sleight of hand. And what is this costume she had you dressed in?”
“Nathan!” scolded Charlotte. “You are being really quite rude.”
“Kitty knows it is all in jest, do you not?” smiled Nathan. Kitty, who had thought his comments were a serious judgement, returned a weak smile in relief.
“And your true opinion?” asked Charlotte.
“I’m at a loss to find an adequate description…” began Nathan, then stopped as he spotted something. “Oh wait, there’s a card.”
Taped to the reverse of the frame was a note from Madame Stappes, which Nathan duly handed to Kitty: ‘Ma belle Kitty: Sois fort. Sois courageux. Bats-toi pour avoir ce que tu veux.’
“I don’t speak French,” said Kitty, embarrassed by her lack of knowledge. The words could have been hieroglyphics for all that they made sense to her.
“May I?” said Nathan, taking the paper and holding it away from him, so he could read the curling letters without his eyeglasses. He spent some moments reviewing the note. “If I trust in my schoolboy French, this translates as something like: ‘My beautiful Kitty. Be strong. Be bold. Fight for what you want.’ Well! I had not taken Madame Stappes for a philosopher, but that is excellent counsel.” Nathan returned the note to her, smiling slightly in amusement.
Kitty felt even more embarrassed now. Quickly gathering up her book and the photograph, she asked: “Please, can you excuse me?”
Charlotte nodded her assent, thinking privately that their tutor was yet to be schooled in accepting compliments.
Kitty walked away as swiftly as she dared, leaving Nathan and Charlotte in the library. Turning back as she ascended the stairs, she saw the couple framed by the open doorway. Nathan was already absorbed again in searching the shelves and Charlotte had joined him at his side. Their dispute about Nathan’s lecture tour was now seemingly forgotten.
In that moment, she felt utterly wretched. ‘Fight for what you want’ was an impossibility.
Chapter 3: The Cinematograph
The gramophone and cinematograph were both inventions of the era.
An advert from 1900 for the Berliner gramophone. I don’t know if it had a microphone attachment though : )
The ‘cinematograph’ show at Alexandra Palace is a product of my imagination, but reflects the growing popularity of moving-picture shows during this period, including the Lumière brothers’ Cinématographe.
London, January – February 1901
The turn of the year was uneventful: after Madame Stappes’ departure, it felt as if the festive period had come and gone already. Clara and Tom decorated the kitchen mantelpiece with pine cones and holly, but Mrs Gilroy would have no more than that.
One positive result of Madame’s visit was that Charlotte was encouraged into taking up photography again, casting about amongst her social circle for potential commissions. She was often out of the house at her studio, as well as her other pursuits taking up her time and energy.
In early January, as Nathan’s departure to Canada grew ever closer, the entente cordial between him and Charlotte was broken. Sitting in the warm nursery, Kitty heard Charlotte entering his study below to try and persuade him once more against this trip; a mission which prompted a battle of stubborn wills. Maddie, sitting on Kitty’s lap, could hear their argument and pressed close to her tutor. Kitty stroked the girl’s hair absent-mindedly, her mind elsewhere.
Oscar’s words about caring for Nathan had hurt her, but given that Charlotte could not sway his determination to go abroad, what effect could she possibly have? Instead, Kitty hoped and prayed that he would not become exhausted again and succumb to visions. She did not think that Nathan had confided in her out of trust that dark night, but the drugs Oscar administered had made him disorientated enough to reveal his tormented mind.
So Nathan left for his lecture tour. And on the 22nd of January, while Nathan was still in Canada, the British realm was shocked into silence by the death of Queen Victoria.
Her death was not entirely unexpected – she had been ailing and in relative seclusion for a number of years – but its immediate impact was tangible in all walks of life. A period of public mourning was to be observed, with the furthest reaches of the empire instructed: “All persons will remain in deep mourning up to 6th March inclusive and in half mourning up to 17th April inclusive.”
The British people had not buried a monarch for over half a century, so thousands lined the streets for the gun carriage procession that carried the queen across London, from Waterloo to Paddington railway stations, from where the cortège proceeded by train to Windsor Castle for the royal funeral.
The day following the state funeral, the mood in the Appleby household was sombre, with everyone in full mourning dress. Charlotte had received a telegram from Nathan that morning, which made her miss him even more: ‘INSTRUCTIONS FROM THE CONSULATE TO OBSERVE OFFICIAL MOURNING. REMAINING DATES OF LECTURE TOUR IN DOUBT. DEEPEST LOVE TO YOU ALL.’ The card that the telegram was printed on was edged in black.
Even the welcome arrival of Ernest and Gilbert for dinner did little to revive the mood. After a joint of lamb over-cooked by a distracted Mrs Gilroy, they all retired to the parlour, where Gilbert read aloud the latest news.
“Details of the funeral and interment,” read Gilbert directly from the newspaper headline. “The monarch was dressed in a white dress and her wedding veil, with a white draped coffin. Mementos commemorating her husband, extended family, friends and servants were laid in the coffin with her. She will be interred in the mausoleum at Windsor Castle, alongside Prince Albert.” Upon mention of his name, Albert looked up, whined, then replaced his head on his paws contentedly when Ernest stroked his fur. “The inscription above their tomb reads ‘Vale desideratissime’: ‘Farewell, most beloved’.”
“They are finally reunited in death,” reflected Ernest, “after our dear Queen mourned half her life for him.”
“Not ‘Queen’ any longer,” said Charlotte sadly. “We have a King now. Nathan has said that he may return early from his tour of Canada – the organisers think that the subject matter is not appropriate in the present circumstances and that audiences for his lectures will dwindle. I will be glad to have him home again.”
Nathan’s homecoming was greatly anticipated by all: by Charlotte, by Maddie – and silently, secretly longed for by Kitty. When he returned three days later, he looked tired but was ebullient, despite his black suit signalling the strict observation of official mourning.
Maddie was overjoyed when Nathan revealed his gift to her – a Berliner gramophone.
“Nathan, really – ” began Charlotte. “It’s too much! It’s a machine, not a toy.”
But Nathan’s enthusiasm for his purchase drew them all around. Maddie perched on his knee while he explained how to operate the machine, with Charlotte and Kitty stood close behind them.
“Here – you place the disc… very… carefully,” he explained patiently to Maddie. “Then the arm – can you see the needle at the very end? That follows the grooves cut into the disc and plays the music. The sound comes out of this horn right here.”
“Can I play it?” asked Maddie in wonderment.
“Of course,” smiled Nathan. “You turn the little handle here.”
Maddie duly turned the handle, and Lil Hawthorne sang out the opening lines to ‘Don’t Cry Little Girl, Don’t Cry’ in a wavering soprano. Maddie’s mouth formed a round ‘o’ of astonishment and she forgot to wind the handle, meaning the record slowed, the voice recording dipped and then trailed off completely.
Kitty noticed that Charlotte had laid her hand on Nathan’s shoulder, and that he had inclined his head so that his cheek now brushed her fingers. She felt more out of place than ever and wanted to flee the room.
“And I brought back another treat,” said Nathan with a flourish. “I have purchased some blank discs, and a microphone attachment, so that we can record each other secret messages.”
Maddie beamed with sheer excitement. “What shall I say?”
“Say anything you like. But you only have one disc, so you must practise before you record your message.”
Maddie duly pondered what she would say on her recording. Nathan’s hand had now slid up to his shoulder and he intertwined his fingers with Charlotte’s; any dissent prior to his trip now forgotten.
“Such is the pace of change,” he reflected, as they all admired the gramophone. “An advance in every year, and an innovation in every decade.”
Nathan’s return cheered his family, but meant Kitty was now more confused than ever. Her buried feelings were rising to the surface, and she wasn’t sure that she could stop her expression betraying her thoughts.
After some weeks, a regular pattern re-established itself. Nathan and Charlotte were both exceptionally busy with their various endeavours. Kitty would take Maddie to museums, or sit with her while she read Grimm’s fairy tales, or wrote in copperplate script in her notebooks.
Nathan did not appear to wake at night, although Kitty wondered if Oscar had increased the dosage of the drug he administered to much higher levels, so that Nathan could continue without being dragged down into the deeper recesses of his consciousness. His mood was affected though – on some days, he was exuberant; on other days, he would close the door to his study firmly and ask to be disturbed by no-one.
The only variance to Kitty’s daily routine was when she found out a cousin of hers – who she had met some years previously when he visited Norfolk – was bedridden with influenza. He sent a message entreating her to visit him in Wood Green, as his wife had also succumbed to the illness, and none of their neighbours was “the sort to help a man in need.”
Charlotte waved away her apologies when she asked for leave to visit her relative. “We will manage, Kitty! Take all the time you need. I will ask Clara or Mrs Gilroy to occupy Maddie.”
Her cousin’s unkempt house was down a dreary lane, so at odds with the world that she’d grown used to in Hampstead. After successive afternoons tending to him and his wife, Kitty wanted to escape into fresher air and walked home via Alexandra Park. She could see people converging on the glass and wrought iron pleasure palace that stood on the brow of the hill. Her curiosity piqued, she drew closer and read the advertising poster pasted outside the doors, the black calligraphic curlicues proclaiming:
Special Cinematograph show
In the Great Hall
At Alexandra Palace
In commemoration of Her Majesty
A recording of her funeral procession across London
Kitty looked back down the hill and saw crowds beginning to form and converge. The show was due to start in less than half an hour. There was a double pull for the masses – the chance to see the funeral procession, and in the new form of the moving picture. She hesitated if she should go, but the idea of being in a hall packed with people was not appealing to her; she disliked being constricted.
However, at that moment, she spotted Nathan striding purposefully up the hill, his shape tall and lean. Even amongst the crowd, he stood out to her. She waited for him, willing him to see her.
“What a chance meeting!” smiled Nathan, having seen her hovering by the poster. “Are you attending the cinematograph show?”
Kitty gave a brief explanation of her cousin’s illness, whereupon Nathan commiserated: “I’m sorry Kitty; I had no idea. I’m too caught up in my work to notice when those around me need assistance; do forgive me. Perhaps I can look in on him and his wife? I have a physician’s training, so can do something to aid them, I hope.”
Kitty was dismayed at the idea of Nathan visiting her cousin’s meagre house and seeing where she came from; what type of people she was related to. “They have a doctor attending them, but I thank you for your concern; it is touching.”
“As you wish. Are you going in to the showing? It is quite something, I’ve heard,” enquired Nathan, his gaze following the backs of those who were proceeding towards the open doors of the Great Hall.
“I’m not sure. Are you?” she responded, trying to keep her tone even and light.
Nathan nodded his head: “The film itself holds no interest for me; I’ve had enough of death to last more than a lifetime. I came to see another glorious invention: moving pictures will be the theatre of the next age, I assure you. I have a spare ticket – Gilbert absconded at the last minute; he’s having trouble with his latest chapter.”
“When is Gilbert not having trouble…” she laughed.
“… with his latest chapter? My thoughts exactly. Will you be his substitute? I think I’d much prefer your company to his anyway. When he is stuck in the midst of his writing dilemmas, he is impossible to be with.”
“Of course,” smiled Kitty.
Nathan held out his black-clad arm to her, and they joined the others milling around the grand entrance. Inside, the Great Hall was packed with the jostle and sway of more than six hundred bodies eager to see the picture. Kitty curled her hand tighter around Nathan’s forearm as he guided them to a gap in the crowd, but soon others had joined them and they were stuck together. She was so close to him, she could feel the heat from his body seeping into hers.
Once the film started, the crowd fell silent, as the organ played solemnly over the silent footage of the funeral procession. The horse-drawn carriages on the screen, rendered in black and white, jumped unnaturally as the film reel was fed through the cinematograph.
Kitty started to feel like the world was bearing down on her. She lost hold of Nathan’s arm as the crowd parted them. The noise from the organ became unbearable; the crush prevented her from breathing. Pressed in the midst of the pack, she could do nothing except slide down to the floor. Then the lights in the hall seemed to dim, blur and slowly go out.
When Kitty revived, she was once again outside, but this time laid on a bench in the park, the palace still looming right behind her. Nathan was kneeling on the ground, holding her wrist. “Just stay still,” he cautioned, when she tried to sit up. “You fainted.”
“How did I..?”
“I carried you,” he replied simply, as if his gallant act was nothing more than commonplace. “It was good that we were close to the back of the hall, and others opened up a path for us. I’ve asked for some water; they should bring it out soon. Really, they shouldn’t have so many people crammed into that hall. I apologise for being the cause of this.”
“Not at all!” she murmured. She felt absurd, lying like this; Nathan crouched with a look of concern by her side. His fingers felt cool on her wrist as he checked her pulse.
“Your pulse is elevated, and your skin is burning,” he said simply, lowering her wrist. He was back to being the practical doctor. “You said your cousin was ill – what with?”
“The ’flu. Both him and his wife.”
“Then that is the obvious explanation. They have passed the contagion on to you. I’m afraid you will need to rest and recover for more than the five minutes you’re currently allowing yourself,” said Nathan wryly. “I’ll hail us a cab – do you think that you can walk down the hill? It’s a short distance, and you can lean on me all you like.”
“But I’m perfectly fine!” Kitty insisted. But when she tried to sit up, the landscape started to swirl and tilt.
“Perhaps we should sit here awhile, and venture to walk once you’ve had some water. You need liquids and rest.”
“Is that your prescription, Dr Appleby?”
“It is. Do you doubt my professional judgement?” he replied, a small smile starting in the corners of his mouth. He stood to greet a man who had come rushing up with a tumbler of water. “Thank you,” he nodded, and passed the cup to Kitty. “Small sips.”
“I believe I have the best doctor in London, so I shall adhere to your excellent professional advice,” Kitty tried to joke, as she gladly sipped the water: her throat was sore and scratchy.
Kitty wished that they were sitting atop this hill in different circumstances. She wished that the crowds now leaving the showing would just melt away and leave the two of them alone together. But most of all, she wished for the coolness of her pillow and the comfort of her bed. Nathan was right: she was feeling dreadful.
Once they had made their way home, Nathan ordered her straight to bed. Despite his hectic routine, he made sure to visit her bedside and check her recovery daily, alongside Charlotte, who brought her an arrangement of crocuses and snowdrops and a pile of books from the library. Wisely, the couple had stopped Maddie from visiting.
“Young children are particularly susceptible to these illnesses; they have not built up a tolerance,” explained Nathan on one of his daily visits. “Although Maddie begged me to give you this, and instructed me – what was it? – oh yes: I am not to see the contents, but to leave them with Miss Kitty and she should peruse them by herself. I was too impressed that my child knows the word ‘peruse’ and can use it correctly, to scold her for being so forthright.”
Nathan handed her a piece of paper that was folded into four. As soon as he’d left, she looked inside the folds. There was a child’s drawing of three figures, with the words ‘Wishing you well’ written underneath. One figure was a child – clearly Maddie. One was a man, tall with black hair. And the other must be Charlotte. Yet the third figure had curling yellow hair escaping from behind her ears.
Kitty took the paper, re-folded it, and put it in her drawer under her few other keepsakes. She would need to keep it hidden.
While she was ill, the person who most surprised Kitty with their solicitousness was Clara, who would be sent to bring her cups of weak tea with some wafers. It was Clara who suggested that she could sit and read awhile “because I know my letters better than anyone else here”.
So Clara sat and read to her. Haltingly, without much understanding; but it cheered Kitty tremendously. She felt like the rupture between the two of them the previous summer was now mended.
One evening, when Clara had read most of a chapter and Kitty was succumbing to its soporific effect, she was roused by a change in Clara’s tone.
“Where did you get this?” Clara was holding up the necklace with the broken leaf, having picked it out of a pot on Kitty’s bedside table. “I’ve always wanted such an ornament. May I try it on?”
Kitty was taken aback by how much Clara liked the trinket, so she nodded a ‘yes’. Clara hung the necklace round her neck and studied herself in the glass on the far wall, turning to and fro. “It doesn’t catch the light much, but it is very fine. Was it a present from a beau?”
“No. I bought it – when I first arrived in London. Someone helped me, and begged me to buy this in return. I have a strange superstition that it brings me luck.”
“It’s not about luck,” laughed Clara, undoing the clasp and sitting on the end of Kitty’s bed. “It’s about love. The two halves of the leaf make one whole. You give one half away to your intended, if they ever go away from you. They keep it as a remembrance. I’ve asked Oscar to buy me such a token when we are married: I am taken with the idea that, when he goes on his grand lecture tours, he will carry such a delicate reminder of me with him.”
Clara reached out and tipped the necklace into Kitty’s hand. “I’ll finish the chapter tomorrow. You look tired. I cannot wait for your recovery: Charlotte has me doing the work of two people at once and I am near to fainting myself.”
When Clara had left, Kitty felt a fool for assuming that her kindness was anything but selfishly motivated. Then she studied the leaf, feeling the fragile metal in her hand. Clara was right – the two halves fit together perfectly. How many times had she put on the necklace, and not seen that in the design?
London, March 1901
Once Kitty had fully recovered, she could resume tutoring Maddie and saw far less of Nathan than when he’d been her medic. While she had lain sick, her buried feelings had clawed to reach the surface. She resolved to have more care now when she was around her employer.
After Maddie’s lessons had finished one evening, and Clara was drawing the girl’s bath, Kitty escaped to the place where she knew she could find solitude and other worlds for her to visit: the household library. On entering, she was startled to see Nathan in the corner – on her seat, as she’d come to think of it – clearly absorbed in whatever he was reading.
He hadn’t noticed her enter, and didn’t look up from his book when she tiptoed across to the opposite bookshelf, taking hold of the first book that came to hand and making her way back towards the open door.
She couldn’t help but glance over again as she left. He was still completely unaware. His head had tipped so far forward that the tips of his fringe almost reached the page. She could feel her skin tingle and forgot to catch her breath. Holding on to the doorframe, she clutched her book and crossed the hallway outside; glad he hadn’t noticed her standing there dumbstruck like a silly girl.
“Kitty?” It was Charlotte, looking purposeful, ascending the stairs. “Have you seen Nathan anywhere?”
“Yes. He’s in the library,” said Kitty mildly, hoping her expression wasn’t giving her inner thoughts away.
“Thank you.” Charlotte disappeared through the doorway into the library. Kitty knew that she wouldn’t hesitate to approach her husband and disturb his reverie. She trod softly upstairs, hoping that the book she’d chosen would provide solace.
“Nathan? I’ve been standing here for nearly half a minute and I don’t think you’d noticed.” Charlotte, who had been standing opposite him expectantly, slid into the armchair next to him.
“Not so!” argued Nathan light-heartedly, finally looking up from his book. “I always notice when you walk into a room.”
“I like coming here, where we first met. Do you remember?” Charlotte had come to photograph a society gathering at Nathan’s aunt’s – she and Nathan’s uncle had occupied the house at the time.
“I will never forget. You walked in here so boldly, with all your equipment. I was struck dumb.” Nathan trailed his finger through the air, as if he was tracing the movement that Charlotte had made across the library floor, years ago at the party.
“I remember! You put up the tripod wrongly. I didn’t point it out,” laughed Charlotte.
“You could have asked me to spell my own name, or put up a ladder to the moon that night. I would have fumbled each and every task you gave me,” shrugged Nathan.
“I still have that photograph, you know. You were so awkward, standing right on the edge.”
“And I felt awkward in your company for a good few months – as if every word I spoke was stumbling off my tongue.”
“Thank goodness I’m so forgiving,” smiled Charlotte.
“Thank goodness!” replied Nathan, taking her hand lightly and stroking the backs of her fingers. “Is it dinner time already?”
“Not quite. I came to talk to you about Maddie. She has scratched one of her gramophone discs and it won’t play any more. She has been quite upset.”
“Toys will get broken. She will forget her upset in time,” replied Nathan contemplatively.
“But Nathan… it’s not a toy. It’s irreplaceable. Unless you plan to visit Canada again soon, in which case: I will forbid such a visit. You mustn’t buy her these ‘playthings’. She wants your love and attention. She doesn’t want an absent father who brings her expensive gifts every so often.”
Nathan let go of Charlotte’s hand and squeezed the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. “I know. I’m sorry. I get absorbed in my work and… I swore not to make the same mistake again.”
“And you won’t,” replied Charlotte adamantly. “But it would be good if you were more at home, sometimes. We’re all worried about you.”
“We?” enquired Nathan, pretending nonchalance.
“Me. Your friends. Your colleagues…”
“… don’t know,” interrupted Nathan. “But if you mean Oscar… I would say he’s just as attentive of you, as he is solicitous of my well-being.”
“Nathan! Oscar is trying to help. If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I’d manage.”
“Perhaps that’s how he’d like it to be?” replied Nathan sharply.
“You mustn’t be jealous. He means nothing to me – not in that way. But you aren’t… there, not when you’re in the midst of your sleeping state. You don’t see the impact of it on those around you. Oscar’s medication has calmed it and, for that small mercy, I can’t thank him enough.”
“I’m sorry that my illness is such a worry,” replied Nathan, struggling to conceal his sarcasm. “And I certainly don’t see Oscar as a threat. We should talk more about suitable parenting though. If you’d like me to be more present as a parent, you should look to change your own habits. You are hardly about the house.”
“And you resent me my freedom, when you can so readily have yours? That is hardly fair, Nathan!” retorted Charlotte.
“Maddie needs a mother, as well as a father.”
“I think Kitty has taken on that role very well, haven’t you observed? And if we are talking about Oscar being overly attentive… well then, Kitty tries very hard not to show how much attention she’d like to devote to you.” Charlotte’s passion, usually diverted into worthwhile pursuits, was at its worst when she was angry.
“Charlotte, she is our daughter’s tutor. She is not employed to be a surrogate mother.”
“And you are not expected to be her doctor. Yet you have been very adamant about caring for her yourself. Would you have done the same for Clara, or Mrs Gilroy?”
“I’m sorry that you resent me giving my time as a professional, for free. She fainted only a step away from me. What was I supposed to do?”
“You shouldn’t give her hope. Haven’t you noticed, she unfurls like a flower in a ray of sun whenever you so much as speak to her!”
“She is our daughter’s tutor; nothing more than that. I speak to her merely because you are so often out of the house; you leave me with her as a dinner companion. She would be a friend, perhaps, if it wasn’t…”
“If it wasn’t for what, Nathan! Her lowly status? Her ill breeding? Her lack of innate culture? You sound just like your father, and you always swore that you never wanted to sound like him.”
“And we swore never to argue like this again, and yet here we are,” returned Nathan simply, gazing at Charlotte unwaveringly. Charlotte looked as if she was about to speak again, but then bit down hard on her lower lip. She turned to walk out of the door, letting it fall to loudly behind her.
Later that evening, Clara brought the uneaten food from the dinner table back down to the kitchen.
“Neither of them,” she pronounced. “It’s a bad argument when it’s neither of them at dinner.”
Mrs Gilroy sighed and came over to inspect the untouched plates, the gravy congealing on the meat and vegetables. Tom followed quickly behind her. “All the more for me! I wish they’d argue more often. My belly is fuller then.”
Mrs Gilroy turned on him and said gravely: “Your belly might be filled, but just you think, you’ve profited from someone else’s misery.”
Tom sat down with the stolen plate and chewed the cold food thoughtfully. He didn’t wish ill on the Applebys. Despite the richness of the food, it tasted wrong in his mouth.
Once Tom had eaten his fill and, clutching at his stomach, gone groaning to bed, Mrs Gilroy cleared the remains from the plates and looked out through the faintly frosted scullery window at the bleak night. She thought of the time when the Applebys had arrived here, and how much she wanted this young couple to be happy. Little did she know it yet, but the household they had constructed in the past five years would splinter, crack and be dispersed in less than a month’s time, despite all of Mrs Gilroy’s best wishes.
After another few days of froideur, Charlotte announced she would be spending Sunday afternoon at the studio, in order to process some portrait sittings she had photographed. Nathan, who was meeting with a wall of sheer ice every time he tried to speak with her, also decided to be out of the house and planned a welcome visit to Gilbert’s, who could always be relied upon to cheer him.
Despite appearances, the couple had taken one another’s words to heart – they each wanted to spend more time with Maddie, and as a family. Yet words were far easier to deliver than deeds were to enact: they both found it hard to divest themselves of their former habits. But Charlotte promised herself that this trip to the studio would be her last for a while, and Nathan thought he would make a detour on the Heath on his return, and find some spring flowers to bring back for Charlotte’s bedroom mantelpiece.
Mrs Gilroy, busy in the kitchen during the late afternoon, suddenly felt a strange pain in her chest, as if her heart was heaving up and out of her. Tom helped her to a bench. “Water, water,” she gasped. She had only had this feeling once before, and it was a portent of bad tidings. She waved away Tom’s hands reaching to help her up. “I’ll be fine. Just something sent my heart a-fluttering, is all.”
By evening, the sun had dipped on the Heath, and there was still no sign of either Charlotte or Nathan. The household was unusually silent, with Maddie already abed and the servants ill at ease. Nathan was often absent, but it was unlike Charlotte not to send word when she had been detained. So Tom kept watch on the garden path from the basement window, only seeing a pair of stumbling, booted feet as it grew dusk and the low light made it almost too dim to see.
The house bell chimed, and chimed, and chimed. Clara, recently returned home from her Sunday jaunt and succumbing to a late doze, woke up and went to take her position, only to find Tom had beaten her to it and let in the visitor.
It was Oscar. Only a more bedraggled, deranged sight there could not have been, for he was covered in soot and his hair was unkempt. “Water, water,” he gasped, and fell onto one of the hallway chairs, before a distraught Clara came with a glassful. His hand was unsteady as he took gulps of the clear liquid, spilling some of it before it reached his mouth.
“Whatever is the matter, Oscar?” pleaded Clara. “Are you hurt?” She reached down and took the glass from him. “Tom, more water please.” Tom, never one to be without words, obeyed wordlessly.
They were soon all gathered in the hall due to the commotion – Clara, Tom, Kitty and Mrs Gilroy, who took one look at this coal-black apparition and feared that her misgivings were coming true.
“There’s a fire – at the milliner’s below Charlotte’s studio. No-one has seen her leave. I thought – I thought…” Oscar looked about him desperately, willing himself to see Charlotte amongst the gathering, as if by that very effort she might appear. The streaks of cool tears on his face betrayed his fears. Kitty, for once, did not doubt the sincerity of his emotion.
“Where is Nathan? Has he returned?” Kitty asked those standing around her. It was as if she’d asked a group of mannequins, for they all stood stock still and no-one said anything. Kitty, despite the clanging in her chest instead of her usual steady heartbeat, decided to take control: “Tom, go and look for Mr Nathan. He was due to be visiting Mr Fennings’ today. He may have been waylaid there.” She hoped – she prayed. “Look about for him everywhere you can; everywhere he may be. And find out news of Charlotte if you can. You’re a brave boy.”
Tom nodded, still wordless, and flew down the path into the dying gloom.
“Clara – can you make Oscar more comfortable?” she continued, seeing Oscar’s shaking form on the chair. “Bring him blankets and light a fire in the parlour. Mrs Gilroy, can you make something restorative – some warm brandy and sugar water, perhaps?”
Everyone went about their duties in silent procession. No-one said what they thought, or what they feared.
After nightfall, Nathan finally arrived home, although not with Tom in tow. He held a small bunch of winter aconites and grape hyacinths in his hand, being prepared to present these to Charlotte and ask for her apologies. He was not prepared to see Kitty and Mrs Gilroy, ashen-faced, awaiting him on the doorstep. They told him what had happened quickly, softly; helping him up and taking him inside when he fell.
“I must go… I must go!” he argued, struggling to free himself of their containing hands. But then Tom appeared on the doorstep, like a timid ghost. The cold, damp night air had seeped in, and the hallway felt chill and dank.
“What’s the news?” said Mrs Gilroy, steering Tom inside and finding an overcoat to wrap him in.
From inside this shell, Tom said the words: “You can’t get near the place. There’s cordons. They haven’t found her, not yet…” His usual fearlessness escaped him as he looked at Nathan: so expectant, so willing to hear good news.
After that, the household descended into a long night. None of them could sleep, except Maddie, blissfully innocent of all this. Despite everyone’s wishes, Nathan escaped to try and approach the site of the fire, returning two hours later from out of the dark, with a smoke-blackened face and trembling gait.
It wasn’t until near dawn, and the presence of officials on their doorstep, that anyone would believe what had truly happened. The flowers that Nathan had gathered wilted and drooped on the hall table, where they had been left scattered.
Sorry for not putting 'Major character death' in the tags - I thought it would be a MASSIVE spoiler for anyone reading from the start of the series. Plus, it propels nearly everything that's to come in Part 3!