Dec. 12, 1851
MY VERY DEAR OLDERSHAW,
I shall never forgive you for sending me here. After all, is it not your hand I see threading my life-line, since the days I was still innocent and beyond?
But I digress.
MY VERY DEAR DIARY,
I must say, for dear Mrs Oldershaw—Mother Jezebel, purveyor in paints, powders, and human flesh—is in another country, and no more do we correspond. I have my Drops, and let this be friend enough. I hear the terrible sound of a massacred Bach from the stateroom. May the wretched girl who plays it chain herself to the instrument and throw it into the sea.
Shall I capture recent events? Had I loved Ozias Midwinter and his dreadful name more than the virtues of a settled estate, had I encountered him in better days, had I not attempted to murder his dearest friend (and how dear, I wonder? Perhaps Miss Milroy will live to suspect her sweetheart's affections), I might yet be with him in penury and want. Else I might be dead in a poisoned room.
Let my pen not dwell on blighted misery. Diary, I spared his life, wrote a moving note promising my own death, thought better of it, and now I travel to America.
Shall it be a promised land, or bereft of all civilised interest? I have my Drops. I shall survive the voyage thus.
Feb. 24, 1852
Let it be known that Miss Gwilt has arrived in the Promised Land. Picture a wasp's nest teeming with bustling maggots. Not one of said maggots can pronounce my name.
Shall I call myself 'Miss Guilt' and have done with it? Perhaps 'Miss Gut', with the twang of hog-farmers and ordure? Even when I wear my veil, there is no respect shown to a lady. Insolence, brute force, and the art of the boast rule the day.
Some of these dreadful people show endless fascination with my nomenclature, and inquire kindly if I am related to a dook or perhaps lawd. For Gwilt is such an odd name, that a title ought to attach by way of compensation! Let them believe as they will. I maintain a dignified reticence, which drives curiosity more than any lie could have done.
I have found employment, and in a profession where I retain at least some of my sanity and cleanliness. It is a strictly female concern, in a house full of velvet, clinging linen, shrill voices, endless shrieks, and longing tears. It is a house of Spiritualism, where we medium devotees practice our arts on housewives with far more money than wit. The colour of my hair is auspicious. I have recruited a spirit guide of the improbable name Roderigo de Montaverde a Ferro. I have learnt the many uses of trails of muslin, luminous paint, and false hands.
I have made arrangements to rent a better piano in the house, dear Diary.
A terrible day—I listen to sufficient stupidity day in and out so as to leave my brain mummified, ossified, and dripping out of the back of my skull to ruin my hair.
My mind works on despite myself. I am a desperate schemer, intriguer, and occasional poisoner. Can I leave that part of myself in the old world? My first husband dared to whip me. My second grew cold to me in his heart, before I almost killed him. Perhaps I have done with all men. Perhaps I should take the women's side, though I hate women as much as I do men. I grow like a tiger, and bear no company.
The capricious moods of a medium stand in for the capricious mood of spirits, or Kindly Ones ...
One of my clients grows almost attached, dear Diary. A tall woman of a certain age, as they say here. I dared to give her a few pointers as to appearance that she has taken into account. She saw me in the street, she claims, and felt immediately a spiritual pull of affinity. My hair is indeed distinct!
She is a pedestrian and credulous female, greedy and grasping, yet not without sympathy. Mrs Phinea Ratcliffe binds her thick auburn hair up in tight puffs below an expensive hat. She pours drops into her dark, expressive eyes, and lightens her skin with chalk and bismuth. I think I detect black half-moons at the base of her fingernails. There is a creak and sway when she walks, trussing up her figure. She is not fleshy, though a shade too ample by some fools' standards. Married young, she says, with poor dear Ratcliffe deceased these several years. Mrs Phinea is socially distinguished in her own circles, by her word for it in any case, and is severely encumbered by her wealthy cousin's virginal young daughter.
Let me describe the family circumstances. Jacob Ferris-Smith founded the family fortunes. One of these American millionaires who seem to spring up like mushrooms after rain. Sometimes I believe there is one on every street corner. They make their fortunes in hog bellies, piecing together railroad sidings for all of Maine, crowning themselves the king of ladies' hairpins, or some such concept. Ageing, dyspeptic, inattentive, and caring only for his next million and a safe digestive biscuit. Since Madame Vere de Vere Ferris-Smith passed out of this world, the millionaire kindly took in her cousin, Widow Ratcliffe, to host his suppers and rein in his daughter.
Ratcliffe hates Miss Blancheflor like poison. For who could not? Miss Blancheflor Ferris-Smith is eighteen, dewy, naive, an heiress, spoilt, beautiful, and has never had to lift a finger in her life. I inevitably picture Miss Neelie Milroy when I hear of her, though Ratcliffe describes Miss Ferris-Smith as far more slender. Doubtless the hatred between the widow and her cousin is mutual; by the sounds of it Miss Blancheflor attempts charming scenes with herself as persecuted, nobly-bearing victim.
Enter the suitors of Blancheflor. Widow Ratcliffe describes them fairly well. Only two matter. The first is Lanceval Lucas, equally young and wealthy and handsome. Mrs Ratcliffe desires him for herself; I think that his wealth and name and protection are her goal as much as his fair face and manner. The second is Hans Solus, a poverty-stricken and disreputable though handsome wastrel. He has become Mrs Ratcliffe's friend, as like flies to like. But their conspiracy is a failure, and Blancheflor is to wed Lanceval in a millionaire's wedding of the year.
Can the ceremony be stopped in time? Widow Ratcliffe begs. Are the spirits able to intervene? Wealth should not marry wealth; it is so inconsiderate on others.
MY DEAR DIARY,
Against any kind of better judgment, I condescend to pay a visit. How American millionaires live! Visit these marvellous mansions if one wishes to see mismanagement, overspending, cheap ornaments, terrible cooking, and bad pianos.
Blancheflor Ferris-Smith is akin to Miss Neelie Milroy in at least one way: her hands move across the keys with the same grace as a bunch of raw sausages tied to her fingers. Were I potentate-queen of some Eastern suzerainty, I'd not have hands cut off as punishment for theft; only for bad music would I give this penalty.
Miss Ratcliffe passes me off as an old friend of hers, en route on a journey to other relatives. My appearance is unobjectionable to these Americans. I rather think the millionaire appreciates me. I arrange flowers for the dinner-table, choose scents to make his dreary digestive biscuits a little more palatable, and play songs sung in his youth. I am grateful that there are one or two where the melody is two-tenths more than an insipid nothing of clamour and wretched sentiment. Such little, studied attentions win easy favour!
Miss Ferris-Smith is a marble statue: complexion blue-white like weak sour milk, hair the requisite gold, eyes palely wide and troubled by strong light. She faintly expects to be adored by all, and is delicate enough to tremble and pout at anything that could contain double innuendo. The most delicate always have the filthiest minds. She makes no secret that she is above her cousin Mrs Ratcliffe, and far, far above little me.
The urge grows in me to break every bone in Miss Ferris-Smith's fingers, the very next time she attempts the piano. Let me see what plans Mrs Ratcliffe makes for her.
I come to the conclusion that Madame Vere Ferris-Smith did two good deeds in her life, and one tremendously ill. Firstly, she was kind enough to die, and leave a wealthy widower behind. Secondly, she purchased good music in her piano room, little as her husband and daughter appreciate it.
Thirdly, she birthed Blancheflor. And so I shall never forgive her.
The house is dead and there is nothing to do, nothing worth the doing bar the moments I snatch on the piano. The millionaire's women lead a life imprisoned and apart. The house is kept dimmed to funereal light (to save dear Blancheflor's eyes, you see!), and I swear I smell decaying flowers wherever I walk within. Miss Ferris-Smith sits, sighs, and expresses that maybe her headache is a little strong to go out today. Mrs Ratcliffe occupies herself in dress, and pesters me when she is troubled.
"You see we live in the inside of a tomb," Phinea tells me. "There is nothing so lonely and tedious as a household of women, Miss Gwilt."
"In my misguided youth, I once thought I would join a convent," I replied.
I do not know why I said it. Americans dislike papistry; it did me no favour.
"By two years, I was sickened of other women," I told her. "And yet men please me no better."
"Dear Cousin Jacob took me in when I had nothing and no one," Phinea said, "and so I am a humble pensioner on his bounty. If I could tell you how I hate and loathe this life, Miss Gwilt ..."
At that moment fell the soft, soft tread of Blancheflor on the rugs. We fell into thankful, awkward silence; I went and arranged the girl's favourite pillows.
Phinea, being still most excited about my spiritual gifts, declared a seance in this house. The event was attended by Lanceval Lucas, Hans Solus, Miss Blancheflor, Phinea Ratcliffe, and myself.
I shall not bore you with trifling details on hidden chalks, strings, toe-tappers, and mixtures inserted into the lamp-wicks. Nor shall I extract humour from Blancheflor's trifling wailings and weepings about whether Spiritualism is quite 'nice', while the minx's weak eyes burned with pure curiosity.
They are a pair of sharp little eyes, for all that, and watch cousin Phinea when she is looking away.
Lance Lucas reminds me inextricably of that fool Allan Armadale. There is no worse excoriation. He is tall and fair exactly like his bride, as if they were brother and sister rather than lovers. No thought but hers passes his lips. I do not know why he is so dear to Phinea. He has an ample, settled income.
Hans Solus is a dark-browed man with a personality, and his wits more obviously about him than Lucas. He asked me several searching questions that ventured on impertinence. My spirit guide senses his disbelief.
One strange event occurred during the seance. I had an alphabet-bag full of tiled letters. In the darkness, we all chose three letters by spirit guidance. Then, we shuffled them together to find what they would say. When I relit the lamps, I expected a nonsense word that I could reshape to my fancy; but instead in the centre there was spelt ...
I suspect Hans Solus. When I was a schoolgirl of fifteen, I would have thought this hilarious.
I took my Drops following the seance, before finding my bed. In came Phinea. My hand slipped as I tried to conceal the bottle.
"What is that?" she asked abruptly, eyes wide with drops of her own. "A sleeping draught? My dear, I've known that you take something for ages. My father was a doctor, you see. You shouldn't take so much; it will only do you a grave ill. It might even poison you ..."
And Phinea laughed, at length and uneasily. I know when the devil stirs in another woman. I did not help her; I merely listened; but listened with great interest.
"We do not like dangerous substances in this house. I use a little atropine for my eyes, which I'm sure the servants know," Phinea said, in a tight, controlled voice. "A little weakness!"
"What does your housekeeper use to get rid of vermin?" I asked her.
I must later destroy this dangerous document, dear Diary of mine.
"She is very careless about the arsenic," Phinea said. "I remind her and remind her, but she does not listen. Are you the same, Miss Gwilt? Do you know, if you were to drink about—oh—" She placed her hands fairly accurately on the level of my Drops. "You should never wake up. Sometimes I think death in this house would be the same as living."
"I am sorry you despise it so. To some people, your situation would be comfortable," I replied, though my feelings were not so far from Phinea Ratcliffe's. Many humans have always reminded me of rats and other vermin—and made me wish for remedy.
"You are like me," Phinea said. "You know what it means to scratch and claw your way up from nothing. I still have nothing but what Ferris-Smith and his daughter allow me. I hate this house and I hate her, I hate her. And if only Lance saw a world without her ..."
"You think morbidly," I told her, and revelled in my sense of power. "What do you want with that whey-faced boy Lance? I have seen you in society and you do not lack for admiration."
Also, a broomstick with a hank of straw tied to it would have more personality than Lanceval Lucas, but I did not say this.
"You do not understand," Phinea said, and with a sigh and flutter of upholstery sank into the bed next to me. "When I met Lance, he was kind, so very kind. He listened to all I said, and he made me smile. He treated most people that way, but I thought he was particularly close to me. One winter, he arranged ice-skating parties with a select few friends. I had not skated before, and he taught me. We went around his pond together ... He was patient, and we laughed at my falls.
"The season after that, Blancheflor entered society. I think she wanted to ruin my love on purpose, for she could have had any other man she desired. They were engaged in the blink of an eye and have been inseparable ever since. He is changed in manner now, but I know that the old Lance still lives."
In Phinea Ratcliffe's imagination, no doubt!
"I will win him back," Phinea said, and left unsaid: by fair means or foul. Delicately, airily, she kissed me on the two inches of air above my cheek. "So glad we had this talk, dear. You've cheered me. I know I can trust you to take my side."
The intended words of a velvet-edged threat, no doubt! My profit thus far lies on Phinea Ratcliffe, and so I am on her side. Her mental disturbance is great if she dares trust me.
I have no earthly idea why people insist upon confiding their dearest secrets to me.
Often, they are inconsiderate enough to do it in a room adjacent to me with raised, clearly audible voices. Particularly if one presses a glass to the door.
Hans Solus came to take some tea and liven our weary household, and ended in a tete-a-tete with fair Blancheflor Ferris-Smith. Scene: the wilting white lily upon a chaise longue, attended by the dark cavalier before her upon one knee.
"It is not too late," he tells her, in strong baritone. "Forget what everyone else expects from you. You have bewitched me, enthralled me, and I accept it with all my being. My passion won't be tamed or corralled. Have the courage to fly away with me. Marry me before the sun sets."
"Dear Mister Solus," whispers Blancheflor in dulcet tones, "I fear you are ill of sunstroke."
"You know what I am ill of, and it is you." No doubt, the black flashing eyes of the gentleman affix the lady's like a pin through a chloroformed butterfly. "You've engaged yourself to a fool and pretend you know nothing of what you have done to me. But I tell you I love you more than your pasteboard prince ever could. I know you better than he ever could."
"Mister Solus, you must not talk this way," Blancheflor sighs and flutters.
"You have called me Hans for a year!" bursts our anti-hero.
"I allowed you a liberty because we were such dear, dear friends ... but Lance would not like me to address another gentleman improperly," minces Blancheflor.
"Lance would flutter out of a fifth floor window if you crooked your little finger at him," says Hans grimly. "If I cracked open his skull, it would be empty as a pastry case. You deserve more than a man without a single thought left in his head. Remember that I know you, Blancheflor. I know your faults and your strengths. You are more than anyone else suspects, and I love you the more because of your wickednesses."
"How horrid of you to me, a helpless girl. You know I am motherless and alone in the world, and you berate me so." The heroine sniffles wetly—in a delicate and ladylike fashion, of course, bowed down by the weight of this cruel world.
"Shall I speak honestly, then? Your eyes may be weak but your spine is steel. You are determined to have your way, and have it, by posing on the sofa at opportune times and letting all know of your convenient illness. Your friends are all uglier than you. You are either the queen of your society, or nothing. You mercilessly make your cousin Phinea bend to your will—you resent her as an interloper to your independent action. You fear becoming close to people, because some will know your secrets. You gather gossip and piece it together like your endless embroidery, like a spider in her web. You're quick to comprehend, and your mind is mathematical. I wouldn't be surprised if you advise your father on stocks. And I love you for your ruthless, brilliant mind."
At the time, the sincerity of Hans Solus' declaration struck me. Here was a man who knew his lover for all she was, and loved her the more. Had I found my Midwinter to be one such, I thought ... But I miss him less with each passing day. There are others in the world, and my mind was not made for long regrets.
I did not hear Blancheflor's reply to the declaration. A door slammed. Exeunt the participants of the scene in charming disarray. Phinea's favourite did not have much of a chance to win the golden cup, I thought.
I did not expect that, three days hence and the eve of the wedding, Blancheflor should be found, dead, with a wound to her heart gouting scarlet blood ...
The business of a coroner's inquest is too much for me, and I wear my privacy veil at all times. Fortunately, I went nowhere near Blancheflor's boudoir on the night of her death, as Jacob Ferris-Smith testified on my behalf.
I ought to run. Those quibbling journalists will search and find my past. They will drag it into the open like an executed man quartered between four horses, and say that since a woman has been accused once of murder she must have committed others.
But I did not do this one.
Perhaps because I am spiritless and irresolute I will claim my share of blackmail. Phinea and the millionaire urge me to remain in this time of grief. Everything about this house is odious to me.
I cannot even play piano in a house of mourning. I have but one consolation.
I shiver as I read the above, and with most of me still wish to be out of it. Phinea came to my bedroom and wept crocodile tears over me. The lace of my nightgown may never be the same again. She is ashen and pallid, and I think there is a fear in her eyes other and above the obvious. She pleads me to stay - 'after all, someone must play propriety between me and my cousin-in-law, as if evil-minded gossips would give any credence to such a ridiculous idea.'
Let me set down the coroner's findings in order, Diary, that I may realise what risk there is.
Blancheflor, to be married on the morrow, was fussing over trivial details in her satin and pearl wedding gown, pale as her anaemic complexion, a vast confection of white lace and loops that resembled a dropsied ewe caught in a snowstorm. Blancheflor summoned Phinea and a maid to attend her in the dress. Phinea was the last to depart, and bade her a cheerful good-night. It was a balmy May evening, the house stuffy and the outside air deliciously cool.
In the morning, the door was locked on the inside, a window open—or so I deduce, since the breakfast maid spoke of the deathly cold—and Blancheflor was dead, her fingers upon the fatal dagger buried in her heart. The dagger was a wedding gift from Phinea, an ornamental yet sharp-toothed thing worked in gold and emerald.
When I later walked in the garden, solacing my very understandable horror with the beauties of nature, I noticed that the thick, heavy, durable vines below Blancheflor's first floor window were pulled about and bruised, as if some mischievous gardener's boy had carelessly clambered up on them. I have told no one of this.
A dear old family doctor conducted a brief examination of the corpse with the dagger in her hand. He noted some irregularity about the fingernails and hair. Nonetheless, he recommended the coroner to bring a verdict of suicide in unsound mind. Would that I knew such doctors!
The wedding-gifts lie mouldering in the attic, the wedding-breakfast is thrown away with other scraps, and Blancheflor is buried next to her mother in the family tomb.
Now I know what troubles me about Phinea. There is no exultation in her at the death of her enemy, hidden or otherwise. There is only a strange shivering fear.
Enter the pas de deux of Phinea and Lance, comforting one another in shared grief. Any stuffing Lance may have had is knocked out of him. He's all air inside, a stale meringue above nothing. He weeps, sits, and does nothing. How weak and contemptible is Phinea to encourage him! A solid kick from a donkey to the rear would do him more good than a thousand gentle consolations.
Lance has decided he needs to see his Blancheflor one last time, in the tomb. Well, in the time passed since her decease, I'm sure the sight will enlighten him.
Jacob Ferris-Smith and I ranged against him, dissuading the plan; nobly, Phinea defended his wish alone and carried the day. They go tomorrow. It is all sickening.
Phinea trespassed in my room again, asking cautiously for favours.
"With your spiritual gifts, Lydia," she asked me, "you must come. Assure Lance that Blancheflor is beyond his reach."
I really must tell her that my spiritual gifts are even falser than her complexion.
"The spirit and body are separate," I told her haughtily, inventing all as I went along, "ka and ba-ka, as the ancient Egyptians expressed. As we all agree that Blancheflor was a lovely and virtuous girl tragically dead before her time, her spirit is with the angels and shall not linger by her body."
"Please come, Lydia. You are a comfort in these trying times," she asked. I do not think she wants to let me far out of her sight.
"Think of happier ones," I told her. "You were close to your father, the doctor?"
Phinea bit her lip, then recklessly stumbled on toward the trap. "Papa and I were everything to each other. I went little into society until I married, and so Papa and Mama and I were all in all to each other. I now have no family but for Jacob Ferris-Smith, and few enough true friends."
I smiled falsely. "I can see you as a little girl. Picking herbs for your father; mixing his tinctures; accompanying him on his rounds. I perceive your past as a daring young girl, running wild away from society in a plain comfortable smock." These maudlin things seemed true enough. "I imagine you tore your smock many a time, clambering up and down trees and vines in the wild."
Phinea's breath tightened, and her lips thinned. She bit at her lower lip, washing it with bloodless pallor. "There your visions are wrong," she said with a deathly calmness, "climbing trees was very unladylike and I knew it even then."
Strangely, it gave me more respect for Phinea that she did not immediately confess to clambering down the broken vines outside Blancheflor's window after stabbing the girl and locking the door.
We journeyed to the Ferris-Smith family crypt. An English squire would laugh it to scorn. The thing is exactly one generation old, festooned with cheap gargoyles grimacing at naked juvenile angels. Only one other Ferris-Smith grave lies there, Vere de Vere, mother of Blancheflor.
With the company of two crypt-gardeners, we walked into the tomb. Lance fell to his knees before Blancheflor's white marble, weeping. Phinea comforted him gently. The muscular gardeners levered open the marble monstrosity housing Blancheflor's mortal remains.
We saw a collection of dust in the white marble corners of the tomb, and nothing more.
The bride had vanished from the tomb.
When one claims extraordinary spiritual gifts, it is sad indeed that people are foolish enough to believe one!
Certain people, quite irresponsibly, believe that my spiritual abilities are sure to lead to Blancheflor's missing corpse. Perhaps next they will accuse me of consorting with resurrection-men. I have taken my Drops to succour myself in this time of need. Phinea is deathly afraid, with a face like she herself is the corpse.
My spirit guide has very sensibly suggested making inquiries of the doctor who prepared for the inquest, and oversaw Blancheflor's burial rites. Doctor Isling is likeliest by far to be behind foul play. He has sweaty hands and a wandering eye, and that is proof enough of anything.
Or perhaps the impertinent Hans Solus, overcome by his dark love? Blancheflor's own father Jacob, deluded into believing her miraculously alive? Or indeed the sexton of the graveyard, or an unknown criminal bent on mischief! As the Oldershaw would say, I have seen all sides of life in my time. This particular crime is unaccountable to me.
Perhaps certain people will place me inside their confidence as time goes by.
Perhaps I should take up fishing. I believe I should enjoy fitting a squirming worm upon the end of a hook, slowly.
Phinea generously offered me full half of her summer wardrobe's allowance—to which I accepted, gracefully. She took me on a walk around the park, in mourning, and introduced me to a music-agent and a line of credit. Then at last she capitulated.
"Lydia," she told me, waking me up in the middle of the night with a candlestick, "it was I who stabbed Blancheflor to the heart. Yes, it was I! And I know that you know, and I have been thinking over whether I ought to also kill you ..."
A charming woman indeed!
"But there is more you must know," she said. "Over the past two months I fed Blancheflor enough arsenic to kill several elephants, and watched her eat it. The doctor noticed its effect on her nails and hair. There is no mistake. And yet it did not kill her. She watched me, and she tormented me.
"I did not go to her room that night intending to strike her with the dagger. But as soon as we were alone, she taunted me about Lance. She said ... you can imagine what she said. Lance never loved me, and he would be her toy for as long as he lived. I could not bear it. I took up the dagger and struck her. Her breast gouted with blood. She was finally surprised at me.
"When I could see no heartbeat in her, I locked the door from the inside with gloves on. Then I clambered out of the window and down the vines. I returned to my own room from a side passage. No one saw me.
"I thought it was all over. But her body is gone, and I do not know why. I tell you now that I am afraid."
I ought to leave these people for now and for good, Diary. A railway to the Midwest or Deep South or possibly Far East calls my name. I do not think I have aroused sufficient hatred for anyone to trace me with ill intent.
And yet I fear that my knowledge is as dangerous as anything else in this affair, and ignorance shall not protect me.
For that reason, I suggested a plan of action to Phinea. We shall hold a seance with my Spiritualist colleagues, and in return for a small financial consideration they will learn all they can about the principal suspects in this incident.
In a dark room with many people jostling after spiritual visions, it's amazing what useful objects can be extracted from pockets ... and returned after investigation.
There is no useful information extracted about Jacob Ferris-Smith. I have endured several long rambling conversations with him myself, featuring the death of his dear wife Vere de Vere at a shockingly early age in the flower of her beauty and how much like Blancheflor the woman was, a classic Southern lady in every particular, so delicate and frail and ill and fearing the least particle of sunlight on her complexion.
Considering she died of her complaint, I assume she was nothing like Blancheflor.
Jacob rambles and rambles to me about his own disturbed impotency. Set him aside.
Lance Lucas has given orders to servants to paint an entire room of his house in black and store memoirs and portraits of his precious Blancheflor in there. Sympathetic Phinea will gain admission to that, no doubt, and see if his disturbed mind chose that sanctum as a better resting-place for her corpse.
Hans Solus is without doubt an adventurer. I know my own tribe of Macaire when I meet them. His lodgings are exceedingly modest, but he is supposed to own some dilapidated property in the city. A few bribes to street Arabs can help us locate his travels.
Doctor Quentin Isling is a vain old dodderer, and that is the kindest thing I may say about him. However, he offers us a lead. When his pockets were rifled at the seance, he proved to have a new pocket watch and ring. He's come into money recently. He was in charge of the burial rites. If I were a private detective, a bribe to him would be my first thought.
It has been rather chilly of late. I think Phinea has a cold that requires medical instruction.
I am too distraught to write. There has been another death.
Phinea and I found Doctor Quentin Isling in his consulting-room, dead of a slit throat. A bloody smile leaked from his skin. His hands were stiffened into bone-white claws, as if he tried to fight his murderer. He had been dead some hours when we called.
(I do not think Phinea guilty of this one. She was prostrated by shock. I was obliged to give her some of my own Drops to avoid any imprudent sayings from her.)
The police detectives do not believe it simple robbery. They hunt for a man of sufficient muscular strength to slit a throat. One name lurks in my mind, but I fear to say it. If this murder is linked to Blancheflor, there is only one man with the strength and willpower to be guilty.
"I had nightmares in my childhood," Phinea told me, white-faced and sitting on a sofa. I had enjoyed the pleasure of helping her through a nauseous episode; she did not take to my Drops. "Stories my father told me. Of monsters who took other men's blood from them, monsters who steal other men's bodies and souls to survive.
"These monsters are pale and bloodless, with no such thing as compassion in them. Their eyes are a ghastly, expressionless blue. They closed themselves in prisons with hundreds of victims, and they learnt a way to live forever. They took the blood of their prisoners, storing it in huge vats. Then they drained every drop of blood from their own bodies, and with it every remnant of human kindness. They treated the stolen blood with herbs, rituals, and electricity, and gave it to themselves.
"They lived forever, even as their victims died. They needed fresh blood to sustain the artificial life in their veins, and so they continued to feed on men's and women's lives."
"A morbid fairy tale," I told her. "Shades of Bluebeard, I daresay. What makes you muse on this?"
"Because I am a doctor's daughter," Phinea told me, "and there was not nearly enough blood shed from Doctor Isling's wound."
Diary, I admit that I slapped her, and invited her to pull herself together. Nor am I ashamed of it.
"I cannot believe in monsters," I said.
"Then you have never visited the South of our glorious country," Phinea retorted. "It is not personal experience, but I know human nature. When people wield power of life, death, and property over others they become monsters as terrible as any from a tale."
I had not taken her for an abolitionist. It is not a particularly fashionable cause. Thus I muttered something with no committal.
I know myself that Ozias Midwinter was more able than ninety-nine percent of humanity; I cared nothing about the drop of negro blood in his veins. However, it would be imprudent to mention a connection with a man like him in America, land of the free.
Why did Phinea quickly bring up that the slavery question was impersonal to her, when I had said nothing to the contrary?
Information and bribery have guided us to Hans Solus' dilapidated property: a large isolated house in one of the worst areas in the city, other buildings shying away and falling down around it. The man himself and a caretaker or two are the most frequent visitors; the caretaker's identity changes frequently.
"Hans and I were never lovers, but we were friends and allies," Phinea told me. "I hoped he would win Blancheflor away from Lance. I always believed him a decent man. I have reason to suppose that he is."
"He has never blackmailed you, has he?" I asked on a whim.
"You are not usually a fool, Lydia," Phinea said.
"I see it this way," I replied, "he bribed the doctor for Blancheflor's body and killed him to avoid the secret revealed. A man who claims to be passionately in love often does strange, disturbing, and violent things."
A music-master blew his brains out for me, a rich young man signed a marriage certificate for me, a disreputable captain committed bigamy for me, and Ozias Midwinter slept in a poisoned room for me. It's enough to drive a woman to despair.
"I do not wish detectives to pry into Hans' secrets," Phinea said. "Do you think that two women with privacy veils could travel with little incident? I think at a time when Hans is not generally present. If we find that he took Blancheflor, or that he didn't, this will be done with."
She is frightened of something worse than finding Blancheflor's corpse. We must quell that fear in her eyes.
I write so I may believe myself. I write so that I might have a permanent record of these events, events so terrifying that they burn themselves to the insides of my eyelids. Events so unbelievable and horrid that I write to convince myself they ever happened at all.
This morning, Phinea Ratcliffe and I heavily swathed ourselves in privacy veils. Phinea helped herself to one of her cousin Jacob's revolvers. Due to her backwoods upbringing, she knows how to use them.
At ten thirty-nine in the morning, Phinea and I left on our walk. I recall the time, because I glanced at the clock in the hallway the moment before the door closed on us. We took a back alley route. I can still list the streets we travelled. We took a streetcar, numbered 51.
We reached Hans Solus' property in the disreputable part of town at approximately half past eleven. The door was locked, and so Phinea crept around the side and employed her climbing skills. She slipped in an open window and let me in through the door. Phinea has her uses.
The upper part of the house seemed deserted. It was a three storey building. We saw no signs of any living being as we explored the top floors. The floor in the third storey was almost entirely fallen in. The whole thing was in a condition of great disrepair.
Noises from the deep cellars drove us downward. My boarding school days taught me how to properly employ a hairpin. I picked a lock or two, and we progressed into the depths.
There, in the cellars, the house was maintained. The walls were smooth and the floor clean as if it saw many pairs of feet. We heard noises, clinking and metallic, and the faint sound of a human voice, weeping.
We walked down into the deepest cellar. I lit a candle from my purse, one of the tools of my new trade. The light ghoulishly flickered against the dark walls. We opened the last door.
There, we saw the pale fair woman chained to the floor, dressed in her grave-clothes, weeping and crying for help.
"Even my first husband did not go this far!" I said, as I could not help it. The girl's feet were manacled with heavy steel chains to a lowered recess in the cellar. She gazed up at us, the only source of light in the darkness.
"Help me," Blancheflor Ferris-Smith pleaded desperately, "free me!"
I recall my thought was that she somehow survived Phinea's murder attempt. I had read claims of similar sensational events. It made my position dangerous, as a so-called friend of Phinea. It reflects ill to be the acquaintance of an attempted murderess.
My thought was that Blancheflor Ferris-Smith ought to die.
"Phinea," Blancheflor Ferris-Smith said, as her face stretched into a pained smile, "dear Cousin Phinea. I have been so t-terribly frightened! Hans k-kidnapped me, and said he would keep me prisoner until I married him! Please, save me. I will do anything for you if you'll only save me."
"You remember how you died, don't you?" Phinea snapped. I noted that she shook as if she was still afraid of the chained woman.
"You stabbed me, because you loved poor Lance. I forgive you." Blanceflor's eyes filled with pitying tears. "I will say nothing about it, I promise, if you only save me from Hans. I have missed everyone at home, even you."
"How did you survive?" Phinea interrogated. It was a question to which I also dearly wished to konw the answer.
"D-doctor Isling knew ..." Blancheflor whispered faintly, swaying in her chains. "It was c-catalepsy. I bled, but I was not dead. He saw money in it, so he asked Hans to b-bribe him. I am trapped here, and every day Hans comes to force me to marry ..."
I stumbled down to free her. I was innocent of crimes toward her, and I expected that she should reward me. Diary, I declare that my mind was confused.
Phinea pinched me. I still have the bruise.
"I do not believe you. I saw how much you bled," she said. "I have also seen catalepsy. The form of it you claim to have had is more common among writers of sensational fiction than reality. And then you were buried, Blancheflor. You were in an airless marble tomb for more than four-and-twenty hours.
"You are dead, and you are not coming back."
I had slipped further down the cellar steps. Blancheflor flew at me with speed I would not have thought possible. She grasped my throat, and I swear that her nails were sharp as claws.
"Set me free," pleaded Blancheflor, and her voice was still meek and vulnerable, "and I w-will not hurt your friend. I have little against her ..."
The door above was flung open, and Hans Solus shouted her name. Her grip gave slightly, and I pushed myself away from Blancheflor's embrace. I understood nothing of this.
"Phinea, is that you? Miss Gwilt? I am sorry to see you here." Hans Solus sketched out a bow to us, his dusky face reddened by the glow of his dark-lantern. "I realise how this looks. I am doing this because I love her, because I would like to see her free. But I know what you must think of me."
I did not know what to think of it. Blancheflor's fingers had torn my privacy veil.
"Oh, I know what she is," Phinea said. "She is one of those who live on others' deaths. The monsters birthed from the plantations. I've heard the stories, from when my parents ran away from Georgia."
"You know, Lydia," Blanceflor hissed, "Phinea's mother was a piece of white trash who ran off with a nigger."
It was not the crudity that surprised me, but the way this Blancheflor changed mood and voice so suddenly. She was a chameleon, and perhaps nearly as fine an actress as I!
"My father had Italian blood," Phinea stammered, as if it was a lie she'd told before.
Hans Solus shrugged. "These whispers are so damaging, aren't they? Trust me, I know the feeling. You've nothing to fear from me. You and I aren't so different, Mrs Ratcliffe.
"Let me tell you my story," Solus said. "At an early age, I met one of these creatures myself. The experience altered me, and since I reached my majority I have spent my time and sunken most of my fortune into finding and defeating them. We call them the Un-dead, the aluka, or vampire.
"I've wanted to find a way to turn Blancheflor back. She enslaved that poor fool Lance, but she can't help her instincts. If we can turn these creatures human once more, we'll be able to redeem their souls and give them a chance. So you see, this is how I love her."
"You can't change me or confine me like an animal, Hans," Blancheflor sang out. "I have the power to live forever, and power over weaker minds. Come here, Miss Gwilt!"
I began to do exactly as she asked. I do not believe I was thinking clearly. Perhaps it was a delayed effect of my Drops.
"I'm sorry, Blanche. But I can't allow this to happen!"
The gun's retort sung through my poor ears. Phinea fired three shots from the revolver. She showed excellent aim: not one of them hit me. She also showed exceedingly poor aim. Blancheflor, moving more quickly than any other mortal I had seen, lifted a length of chain to the path of a bullet. She should have been hit also, but she showed no pain.
The chain weakened, and snapped. Blancheflor was able to set herself free. Hans Solus shouted something, and tried to stop her with a pistol of his own. She rushed past the steps and pushed me over on her way, and with bare feet she raced through the door.
I landed next to a length of broken chain, and I saw the damage Blancheflor had done.
"A barefoot woman in petticoats running through the street," called Hans Solus, "she cannot be hard to find. Come on!" Phinea hastened after him.
But not one person on the streets reported seeing such a girl. Hans Solus called for several dubious associates to help him in his search, and yet all was lost.
"We fight the Un-dead together," he explained briefly, "Mark the Knife, Matthew Gypsy, and Cat Lucia. There are several others in the same cause."
"You've made a terrible mistake this night," said the one woman among their band, a tall spare female who wore her dress like a potato sack. "The vampire escaped, a powerful one. How many innocents will she kill?"
"I would say you've made a terrible mistake!" Phinea repeated. "I can never show my face in society again, if she has told. People will not believe what she really is."
"But ask yourself," Hans Solus said, "what does Blancheflor really want?"
Phinea talked to me that night, sitting in a garret belonging to one of the vampire hunters.
"All my life I have suffered," she said tightly. "My parents fled their home state to the north where they could be together, and where my father could be a doctor. When I grew up with them, we kept to our own society. It was much later that I learnt the reason why. My father was descended from slaves as well as white men.
"Ratcliffe was a wealthy man, but he won me by blackmail. If I did not agree to become his, he would have told our town where my father came from. My married life was unpleasant, but at least we moved in good society. However, my husband managed to lose his money by the time he died. By then, my parents were also dead and their secrets with them. I was alone, so I cast myself upon the last family I knew of. Vere Bedford was my mother's cousin, and that was about the sum of my knowledge.
"I disliked Blancheflor from the first. Now I know I was justified in doing so."
"I was a lady's maid in England when I was twelve," I admitted to her. If she was to be foolish, I could show her my own set of foolish whims. "My mistress wished to run away with the wastrel of her choosing and needed a forger. I committed the crime for her, and for the rest of her life her family blamed it all upon me. But I made them pay for it. One has to scratch and claw one's way upward. Or downward."
"Since you now use spiritual gifts to make your way in life," said Phinea, "I am surprised you knew and guessed nothing about those supernatural monsters."
"Please remember that I am from England," I demurred.
It was at that point Hans Solus returned with the devastating news, the news that sent us back to the Ferris-Smith home. We made certain to visit and be seen at a drygoods shop in that area of town, so that the alibi was close to certain.
Jacob Ferris-Smith was also found dead. I know this. Similar to Isling, his throat was slit but scarcely any blood was seen. He died in his study, the room adjoining the piano-room, his favourite haunt. As if the murderer knew where he would be.
When Phinea and I returned home in a cab, a squad of detectives were there to meet and interrogate us. The path to the next victim was clear: it would be Phinea, and quite probably me as well.
Can we avert this fate? Phinea and I spent the night securing locks, laying rosemary and maple wreaths against the doors, gathering Bibles, letting water flow, and torturing ourselves awake with anticipation.
Another matter troubles me. If Blancheflor was chained up in the cellars since her burial, then who murdered Isling and drained the blood from his body?
I continue my record. I woke and found the sky outside was a faint blue, early in the morning. Phinea's head was on my shoulder, and she was asleep.
"Tell me more of your monster stories," I asked. "They replaced all the blood in their bodies with stolen, treated blood, and from then can only live from others. Eternal youth and beauty—there are many who would pay a million pounds for this! I wonder why they have not sold their secrets ..."
How Mother Oldershaw would bite herself at this missed opportunity.
"Because they devour other people," Phinea said acidly, "there are at least some who would never stand for that."
Yes, for it is customary to devour people the old-fashioned way, only!
"You say they can transform others to be like themselves, by draining blood and feeding their own to the victim," I said. "Why was Blancheflor changed, and by whom?"
Phinea said several words I had doubted she knew. "I am a fool, triply a fool," she said. "Dawn comes. We must return to the tomb."
The Un-dead, the vampire hunters say, hunt prey by nights. Sunlight weakens but does not destroy them. Rather like, I suppose, aged beauties who need coloured lampshades to exist. The day or in a crowd of people offer fewer opportunities for them to attack.
We found the obliging gardeners, and offered them another bribe.
"Ten years," they muttered, "it's not going to be a pretty sight."
"Don't worry, most decay will be on the underside of the body," Phinea said.
I attempted to smooth matters over. "My dear gentlemen, we only need to make sure it is still there. I truly wish it wasn't so, but we have reason to suspect theft."
"Oh, do be quiet, Lydia," Phinea snapped. Her body vibrated with the tension, like an overstrained piano wire. The men levered open Vere's tomb, chipping away at the marble. They held handkerchiefs to their faces, fearing stench.
The lid separated from the coffin. A richly dressed woman lay within. Her marble-pale arms were crossed over her chest, and her honey-coloured hair was arranged in flawless waves. In short, she was beautiful enough for me to wish to scratch her eyes out, the cat.
And a goodly dollop of fear was mixed with our petty jealousy.
Vere Ferris-Smith opened her eyes, blue eyes like her daughter's, the empty emotionless hue of rainwater on a mirror. Phinea's face faded to ash and her mouth gaped open like a singularly unattractive toad.
I spoke crudely, I know, a dreadful improvisation. "It's your daughter. She betrayed you," I croaked. "She commissioned the hunters to kill you this night. If you don't believe us, they're outside."
And in that same swift moment we beheld an empty coffin. The gardeners lay on the ground, face downward. The doors of the tomb were open. Phinea bent to examine the men. As Vere had passed them, she'd attacked them with speed surpassing the eye's ability to perceive. Both throats were a red gaping ruin. Vere had not even bothered to drink. The men and their two pairs of eyes were dead, leaving only we who had kindly warned the master vampire.
We had warned her truly, of course. Hans Solus' band had come for our protection. Among other things.
"You told me the truth, which is why I have not yet killed you," a woman's thrilling voice rang out. Vere Ferris-Smith's mouth was cherry red, and not a thread on her rich gown was damaged. Her walk swayed like a mesmerist's pendulum through the shadows of the tomb. "It is daylight. This disposes me to hear you. If I dislike what I hear ..." Her dead blue eyes did not need to flicker to the men on the ground. "And please, I beg you, do not scream."
I stepped aside, for the bloodstains on the floor would have ruined my fine new boots. "It was you who killed and fed on Isling, wasn't it?" I asked her. If there's one truth of human nature that holds in living and undead abomination alike—it is that everyone loves to talk of their favourite subject, themselves.
Vere Ferris-Smith shrugged her beautiful shoulders with an illusion of modesty. "My dear, a lady doesn't discuss her gustatory habits in public."
"You didn't know who had stolen Blancheflor from the tomb, for it happened in daylight. The doctor did not answer your questions," I said. He must have been astonished and terrified at the sight of a corpse looking so magnificent, and I guessed that she had not thought to offer him money. "It was clever of you to find him out. And no one knew it was you, not in the least. I so admire a perfect murder."
"We do not call it murder. We call it our birthright," the vampire said.
"And I suppose that is what your daughter thinks of it too, which is why she betrayed you. Shall your cousin and I go outside and tell the hunters that the trail is cold and they must depart? You need a human for that," I said. "But I want something in return."
"They always do," Madam Vere said, and smiled the sort of charming smile that indicates a promise will never be kept.
"Your daughter is ungrateful," I said. "But I, I would be loyal if you made me like yourself. You're dazzingly beautiful, ageless, powerful. I have my own trifling skills to offer you: a passing knowledge of poisons; immortal music; a knowledge of mankind and its corruptions, won by bitter experience; and pure gratitude."
And then came the responding screech. "Fine words spoken by a traitor indeed!"
Blancheflor, like and unlike the Christ on Resurrection-day, split her stone tomb in two with the force of her awakening. "I allowed you in my house, and you conspired with Phinea to murder me!" The second vampire flew up from her tomb, her pale hair flying about her face like a witch in a storm. She wore one of her old familiar gowns above the white graveclothes we'd seen her in last, blemished by droplets of blood on the sleeves. "Mother, don't believe a word of this witch's lies!"
"You killed your own father," I pointed out. "Not only because you were hungry. Because you were sick of confinement. It's a desire I understand. My first husband locked me up in a country house where I spoke to no other living being than him. Presently, he died. Your father first, and next your mother. Because you want your freedom, and now your mother's the only one standing in your way."
Blancheflor pouted haughtily, the red blood of her recent feast flushing her cheeks. She appeared more vital than ever before; freedom did much more for her beauty than her pretence to be a wilted lily.
"Such insolence. Mother, we should kill them both," she complained. The glance she shot below her eyelashes was full of resentment—for she was still a child to her mother.
"I have seen your music-room, madame," I said to Vere, a little confused by the correct form of address for a dead married woman. "You were the only one in the house who'd trade that wretched Cora the Indian Maiden ditty for Chopin, Czerny, Clementi. How I marvelled to find your collection lying idle under so much dust. This is all I offer: the touch of my fingers."
And I stood closer to her, breathing delicately, the warm blood in my cheeks drawing the dead woman's gaze.
"The most interesting offer I have heard in years," said Vere. Her fingertips brushed my face for a single moment. We understood each other very well. The corner of her mouth turned the slightest bit upward.
"I forced my daughter to learn music," Vere said, "but it was always torture to hear her attempts to practice, I'm afraid. Perhaps you ..."
"Mother!" Blancheflor wailed, and in that single moment her attention was utterly devoted to the master vampire, and away from prey.
And this gave Phinea the opportunity she needed to draw her revolver and shoot Blancheflor through the head.
I screamed at the top of my voice. And after that I remember a red mist, and terrible pain.
The End of the Matter.
The events that happened I piece together from short and sharp memories, flashes like brief moments of sunlight on a shard of broken glass.
Blancheflor fell to the marble floor, an ugly red hole through her empty skull. Vere descended on me, to exact payment for my betrayal. The vampire hunters rushed in at the sound of my scream.
I clutched at my throat, voiceless and clogged with blood. In a flash, Hans Solus fought hand-to-hand with the master vampire, even while the undead woman he loved was gone. Not a gun, but a sword; cold steel against a monster.
He drove the sword into Vere's breast and held her impaled on it, even while she tore him open piece by bloody piece. Cat Lucia his hunter friend threw a glass bottle alight with fire at Vere's back, which broke open and set her alight.
The hunters Mark the Knife and Matthew rushed in. Vere flung Hans back with impossible strength, cracking his bones against the walls of the tomb. I saw what Vere did to the man once called Mark. She ripped him apart with her bare hands. This was the power of a master vampire. His separate limbs lay in bloody piles on the floor.
But all was not lost. In another flash, Hans struggled to his feet for a last effort. I saw him pin Vere down at the last. The others took a flaming iron stake and thrust it through her heart. This, I was told, was how Hans Solus perished. He could not redeem or reverse his love Blancheflor, and so he died with the one who had turned her.
Blancheflor would probably have been quite satisfied with this, had not Phinea chopped off her head and burnt it into ashes along with her body. I felt the gore drip across my body like a rain of searing fire.
There was a great fire in the tombs that day, and it was thought nothing and no one were saved from it. And it was found that same day that Lanceval Lucas had died within his own house, inside his mourning-room for Blancheflor, at the very same time that Phinea cut off her undead head. A hollow husk, he could not live when his mistress died. Inside him was only grave-dust and a few dead flies.
The vampire hunters melted away to their clandestine byways like gutter-water flowing always downward, and I believe went to investigate wendigo activity in Milwaukee.
I lay suspended between life and death in Phinea's room.
When I woke I was more and less than myself. A Lydia Gwilt beautiful and inescapably attention-drawing, with ivory skin and locks the colour of blood, whose looks were still strongest at night by a candle's glow. A Lydia Gwilt strengthened to play a piano or lift the instrument with one hand. A Lydia Gwilt armoured against former addictions, Drops now seeming tasteless and disgusting. I craved a liquid far more interesting.
I have not eaten Phinea. She preserved me, lying to the vampire hunters that I was unchanged. And besides, she and I have grown quite close.
"My wretched cousin's will gives me a mere ten thousand," Phinea complained above my sickbed, and threw a glass against the wall. "I daresay the charity of idiots who benefit will gain nothing from the house! The servants have all left this horrible haunted place."
"You are incorrect, my dear. He left you nothing, for he had no chance to do it." Daylight around us patterned the coverlet in golden bars around the curtains, and I blinked to spare my poor eyes. "Your cousin Jacob Ferris-Smith was married the day before his death, which revoked all previous wills."
I knew perfectly well that Phinea had pleaded some sharpened iron stakes from the vampire hunters. Convulsively, her hand reached toward the dressing-table.
"You really are a viper," she breathed. She gives me the prettiest compliments.
"I comforted him in his loneliness, and in the house of mourning, Jacob and I felt it best to keep our wedding a secret," I said. "Since he died so soon, I am glad I gave him some happiness."
Two red dots glowed in Phinea's cheeks, giving her a finely attractive colour. "Treacherous two-faced carbuncle-sored syphilitic slatternly overpadded bitch-suckling bedswerving draggletailed pestilential pandarous whore!"
"But I am afraid I neglected to mention to dear Jacob that I am already married to a man in England," I said. "Indeed my second husband is unworthy of mention, and I have come to learn that I now care for him as little as he for me. I think he loves another, and I can just find it within myself to wish him happiness, as I hope he wishes me."
"People in general are so wretchedly inquisitive when it is a question of a large amount of money," said Phinea, her hair falling down and her bosom heaving in excitement. "So it is only a matter of time before your bigamy is discovered—and what then?"
"Why, my dear Phinea," I said, sitting up in bed, "we will gather as much as we can of our ill-gotten gains, sell up, and leave town. We have journeys to travel, discoveries to make, men to deceive, and music to play. I feel I have all the time in the world ... and I should like very much for you to share it with me."
Then, dear Diary, Phinea and I reached the end of our story, or at least a very interesting beginning. I have always loathed the prurient and despicable fixations of men, and so I draw a veil over precisely what Phinea and I did together. For in love, after all, like must follow like, and the truest affection comes when each knows and treasures the darkest depths of the other.
So begins the second immortal career of Lydia Gwilt, intriguer, adventurer, lover, and vampire. The darkness of a new evening beckons us, and this poor little record draws to a close forever.