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All Told

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All told, it’s another six months before Edith leaves England behind. Had she the power to write the end of her own story, she would have strode away from Allerdale Hall and spent a night in the snow-blanketed town, to recover her wits and wash the blood from her body. Then she would have bought herself a mourning dress, taken the first train to Liverpool, and sailed from the country within the week.

She does not have this power. She limps from Allerdale Hall instead, huddled close to Alan, unsure as to which of them is propping the other up, but staggering forward nonetheless. All she wants is to leave this wretched house, but when the men of the town come over the hill, her invigorating fury drains away. The agony in her broken leg doubles and redoubles again. The wind cuts cruelly through her nightdress, and every breath she takes begins to tear her lungs. She tastes blood. She cannot feel her feet or fingers.

The police are there.

Some young men seat Edith on a cart, and help Alan up beside her; his wounds seem to blaze with heat, even as he shivers. The two of them lean together for warmth amidst a rising babble of voices. She cannot seem to hear the words themselves – it is just noise to her, a droning louder than poor Alan’s laboured breathing in her ears. She searches for a detail to set her mind on, and spots a tall man with grey whiskers and an air of great authority. He says something to three constables, and the uniformed men array themselves at the gate and set to work on turning back those townsmen who seem intent on going in.

She draws a sharp breath as she turns her head, and a coughing fit takes her, wracking her body. When it finally subsides, Alan’s arms are around her, and her chin is wet with blood. “Is there a physician?” Alan asks. “She’s been poisoned.” Edith wipes her chin with a trembling hand and turns her head to see who he’s talking to.

The grey-whiskered man looks up at them, shrewd eyes darting from Alan’s face to hers, to her chin, to her dress, to Alan’s blood-soaked clothes. “There’s one in town,” he says evenly. “I’ll send a lad ahead by horse – he’ll be waiting at the post office. And when he’s finished with you, I’ll have to ask you some questions.”

The journey back to town is long and grim.

*

The grey-whiskered man is a police inspector named Barrymore. The doctor is a stout, pink-faced man named Bloom who, despite Edith’s protests, treats her before Alan. Alan is in the other room with Barrymore as Bloom re-sets Edith’s leg, and through her clenched teeth she thinks to ask if anyone is staunching Alan’s wounds.

Bloom pats his sweating face with a handkerchief and tells her that she’s not to worry about anything when she’s in such a delicate condition, and she briefly pictures bashing in his head with the shovel that she dropped by Lucille’s body. Then he bends to tie off her splint, his hands moving so carefully over her leg, and she feels ill.

When she can bear to speak again, she tells him about Lucille’s poisoned tea. He opens a case and moves to prepare a syringe of sedative. “Don’t bother,” she murmers, and faints.

She dreams of Thomas. She dreams she is in their bed, and Thomas is with her, his face as pale as snow. “Darling,” he whispers, but the pillow beneath his cheek is stained with blood, and when she reaches for him, a dreadful breath stirs the hair on the back of her neck. Thomas doesn’t move, but his hollow eyes dart upwards and then shut. “Edith,” he says, his hands passing over hers like smoke; Edith feels paralysed, afraid to turn around. Is it her mother’s blackened skull she’ll see? Is it her cold, diseased breath that Edith feels gusting over her neck, here to deliver a warning that comes too late? Or will she turn her head and see Lucille’s cleaver swinging down?

She swallows her dread and begins to roll over, and wakes gasping at the pain in her leg.

“Careful, there,” murmers Barrymore by the head of her bed. She pants and grits her teeth, easing her bad leg back into the hollow it has made in the blankets.

So occupied, she almost misses the hiss and crackle of a match being struck, but she is seized immediately by the smell of Barrymore’s pipe-smoke. It smells like the kind her father smoked, a thick, sweet smell. In her mind, his creased and smiling face is overlaid with the corpse’s caved-in skull, like two slides projected together, the latter horror sliding inexorably over the image she tries to remember. Tears prickle in her eyes. She pretends it is only the pain that caused them, and sweeps them away with her fingers. Barrymore is seated on a stool by her pillow, and she must turn her head awkwardly to look him in the eye. She does not know his purpose in positioning himself so, but she can guess. “How is Alan?” she asks.

Barrymore sucks his pipe and hums. “Well enough,” he says. “He’s been seen to, and the doctor has him resting now. He’d an interesting story to tell, but it sounded like yours would be even more so.”

“Mine,” she says. “Yes. I can tell you a story, all right. But this one’s not just mine.”

She is careful, when she tells the story. She doesn’t mention grim corpses, dripping blood-red clay. She doesn’t mention lurching ghosts, trying to push her from the house before she met the same fate as they. Instead, she starts at the very beginning, and tells him of the Sharpes coming to America, her father’s horrible death, and Thomas sweeping her off her feet in her time of grief. She tells him of Lucille’s coldness, and Thomas’ mysterious instructions. Barrymore fetches her a cup of water and she tells him of Enola’s case in the basement, the vats of clay, and her poor, clever predecessor’s wax cylinders. She tells him of Lucille’s tea, and Lucille’s temper. She talks until, at Barrymore’s gentle prompting, she can’t avoid telling him of Thomas’ absence from her bed, and in a low, halting voice, confesses how she went exploring one night and found him in his sister’s instead.

Barrymore writes calm, diligent notes, and doesn’t even pause when she gets to that part. She brings the cup to her lips, and is bothered to find it empty; she is not willing to put it down. Instead she grasps it between her hands and stares at the bottom of it, angered by the unfaltering scratch of Barrymore’s pen across the paper. Is he so unsurprised? Can he not sympathise even a little with her shock, her immediate reach for an alternative explanation when she discovered the truth about her husband? “Well?” Edith says, when the silence stretches too long. “What do you think?”

“I think,” the Inspector says, “That I have never heard a better retelling of Bluebeard.” She bristles and he holds a hand up. “Peace. I didn’t say I disbelieve you. The Sharpes have always been the subject of gossip, for anyone who heard about the death of their mother. Sir Thomas was providing work with that mining invention of his, so the county forgave the scandals of the past, but we didn’t forget. No-one forgets a story like that. But they don’t pry, either. Sounds, perhaps, like someone should have pried after all, but there’s not many willing to, when it’s gentry.”

Edith twists the cup in her hands. “What will happen, sir?”

Barrymore sniffs, and taps the ashes of his pipe out against the heel of his boot. They drift to the ground in a shower of soot. “We’ll investigate the house,” he says, tucking the pipe back into his jacket. “We’ll look for the case, as you say, and the cylinders, and any other evidence we can find to corroborate your story. Doctor Bloom says you are sick, and if we find poison, that’ll help you. Your Doctor McMichael has been stabbed several times, and says as you do that Miss Sharpe was vicious and wicked, and expected Sir Thomas to help her. If what you both say is true, then the trial should go in your favour.”

Carefully, Edith puts the cup down on the side-table. Her hands only shake a little bit. “I will be sure to contact a lawyer,” she says.

Barrymore says, “As you will,” and puts his notebook away. He’s missed a patch of stubble by his ear when shaving, she notices, when he bends down to straighten his trouser-legs. “Don’t go anywhere, Mrs. Sharpe,” he says, “And do get some rest. I will need to speak to you again tomorrow, once we have investigated the house.”

*

Edith feels well enough the next day to sit up with Alan as they take their breakfast, and so they see the grim procession of police-escorted wagons that rumble past the post office. The contents of each wagon are draped in canvas, spotted here and there with clay like bloodstains blooming through bandages, dripping red on the slushy ground. Barrymore declines to tell them what he found in the house, but he does so with grave courtesy and recommends the town’s inn as a comfortable place, run by a hygienic and reputable woman.

The investigation and the arrangement of lawyers takes months; they are obliged to wait several weeks simply for the arrival of evidence from Edith’s family lawyer and Alan’s too, the letter Thomas sent her, the funds she had almost been persuaded to give over to her in-laws, and Alan’s own grounds for suspicion. It is clear, her English barrister tells her, that the Sharpes did indeed lure in and murder several women for their money. It is clear that Edith had every reason to fear for her life. It is also clear, and a matter of her own confession, that Edith killed Lucille Sharpe – and here he gives her such a stern and pitying look that she feels like a child, feeble-minded and foolish, as if every instinct had not cried out to explain herself. As if the story had not demanded it be told.

In the meantime, it’s a scandal. While the town remembered the Sharpe’s old sins, it seems the rest of the country had hoarded them for a rainy day – and now here the downpour comes. Alan finds her at breakfast engrossed in the morning paper. The headline reads:

HORRORS AT ALLERDALE HALL

Brother and Sister Lured Heiresses to their Doom

Newest Wife Escapes with her Life – But Will she Hang?

“Oh no,” Alan says quietly, but Edith barely hears him. The article itself is as lurid as the headline, but somewhat less factual: the author lists twelve wives in total, including some minor continental royalty, and states that the red clay of the hill is a result of their bodies being buried in parts around the estate. It’s nonsense. It’s an insult. It’s terribly written. Her fingers spasm; she crumples the whole broadsheet up into a ball, stands with such quickness that the chair totters, and pitches the offending paper onto the hearth. The ink and cheap paper catch and flare before dissolving into ash.

She’s satisfied, but a bit sorry for her behaviour when she sees Alan’s worried look. His upset is the last thing she wants; he’s already pouring every resource he’s got into having her properly defended in court. “Don’t mind me,” she says, lowering herself carefully back into the chair. “It’s only the shoddy journalism that upsets me.”

Alan tries to smile. He has a copy of the Times of London in his hand. “Would you like a tonic?” he asks, and shows her page two, where the sober facts of Thomas and Lucille’s deaths and the public record of their sordid past are laid out in dry prose.

Edith itches. The fire in the hearth catches her eye, and though the newspaper is gone and the flames have died down, she sees them flare and jump in her mind’s eye, fed by her manuscript a page at a time. Lucille looked so calm, destroying everything Edith had worked for, taking everything she had left, convinced that even Edith’s husband was hers to take and destroy as she wished.

And only Edith knows that. If she doesn’t tell this story right, nobody will. She catches Alan’s eye, and now he smiles again, just a crinkle at the corner of his eye, genuine. “Help me to my writing desk, please,” she says, and he is already there to take her arm.

*

Her barrister is confident he can save her – “All I need to do is convince the judge that you feared a violent madwoman was about to take your life, and the press has done half my persuading for me,” he says – and she has little to do but heal and write, so write she does. She writes fervidly and feverishly, in small odd hours and all through the day. She writes until she is exhausted, and when she is not writing, it is because she has hit a part that is too painful to dwell upon, too complex to explain. In the end, she elects to leave nothing out. She thinks not at all of the reader, only of explaining it to herself. Her leg heals, but the ache remains. All useful trans-Atlantic correspondence has been received, and Barrymore has long since concluded his investigation. The day of the trial comes.

The result is an anti-climax that would take the wind out of her sails, had she stopped writing long enough to raise them. She sits before the judge with a buzzing in her ears, and answers questions when they are put to her – firmly, and as fully as she may. The judge clears her and Alan of all wrongdoing, and she walks from the old courthouse on shaking legs.

“We’re free, Edith,” Alan says happily, “We can go home.”

“Never any doubt,” her barrister says serenely. “The charges were perfunctory, and nobody who survived the Sharpes wished to pursue the matter.”

“What do you say?” Alan says, eyes shining when she meets them. He’s so sincere, shining like the sun in front of her. “Shall we prepare for the voyage?”

She thinks of Thomas’ lovely face and dissembling words, dazzling and baffling. His reassurances had so often made her feel like a foolish little girl questioning things she ought not to, until she realised that that had been his goal. She thinks, perhaps, he really did love her, but didn’t know until the end quite what love meant. She thinks perhaps that neither did she.

The barrister clears his throat. “There is still the matter of your estate, Mrs. Sharpe.” Alan’s eye twitches, and he swallows, but he sets his mouth and nods and looks to her.

“Thank you, Mr. Selmy,” she says. She takes Alan’s hand. “Alan, go on ahead of me. I’ll follow when I’m done here. The people in that town deserve the work. They deserve the clay. They can have Allerdale Hall as far as I’m concerned, but I’d like to talk to the people who worked with Thomas, to see what they think. And I’d like to say goodbye.”

She has no intention of setting foot on Crimson Peak ever again, though the snows have long since melted and summer is coming in. She would like, nonetheless, to resolve the matter once and for all. She would like to complete her story.

Alan thinks, and nods, and squeezes her hands. “And when you’re finished?”

She looks him in the eye and smiles. “When I’m finished,” she says, “I’m coming home.”

*

On Edith’s last night in England, she undresses alone in a hotel room in Liverpool and stretches the ache out of her leg. On the desk is a letter from her agent. The first chapter is to be published in the Strand, under a pen-name cobbled together from her mother’s maiden name and her father’s initials. She changed all the names, of course, but wonders if these flimsy pseudonyms will be transparent to a public so enamoured of the Allerdale scandal. It is too late to worry now, and Alan is waiting for her.

She dreams of nothing, but that it is dark, and cool, and she is lying in bed upon crisp sheets. She sees nothing, but feels the air move by her head. She hears nothing, but smells iron, cold earth and warm blood together. Then a press of lips to her forehead, soft and cold, and a whisper: “Darling.”

She leaves England in the morning, and does not return.

END