Clara Bennett placed her hands, palms down, on the black tablecloth, wrapped her ankles around the chair legs, and curled her toes further into the leather uppers of her laced boots. She tensed her buttocks. The seventeen-year-old had had no intention of joining this spooky little soiree but her Aunt Gwen — whose little finger touched her own this very moment — had, in her typically persuasive way, convinced her otherwise. They had been sitting on the patio at the back of the house and had just finished a lunch of roasted pork sandwiches and watercress soup. The two of them had sipped tea and had basked in the intermittent rays of the afternoon sun. Her face turned skyward, Clara had enjoyed watching the pillars of light as they had muscled their way through the bloated grey belly of a broiling nimbus. It had been a changeable September so far; although the last forty-eight hours had been relatively consistent in a sporadically-regular-downpour way. With her eyes closed, and with a smile on her face, Aunt Gwen had remarked how nice it would be if the clouds would finally clear. It was the twenty-second, after all, and wouldn’t it be delightful if her guests for the evening event could gaze out on their closest satellite while in its full glory. “It will burn red on its rearing,” Gwen had said. “Silver on the climb to its zenith.”
“And it will undoubtedly ooze glorious ectoplasm on the ascent.” As soon as the words had left her mouth, Clara had had to bite her tongue to keep her laughter from escaping. Gwen had peered at her niece over her horn-rimmed spectacles. “Are you quite finished, dear?”
Clara couldn’t help but giggle. “Go on, aunt, please.”
“Yes, well, the spectacle of a harvest moon would be so in keeping with the theme of the evening, I believe. It's like adding a pinch of spice to the pleasantries, dear.” Her aunt had then suddenly pushed back in her chair, her head darting side to side like an inquisitive sparrow. Once she had finished scanning the vicinity for possible onlookers and earwiggers — of which there were none — she had then leaned in like a conspirator, anyway. “Mrs Lowry is unwell,” she had breathed from the corner of her mouth. “She and her companion, Miss Rossiter, cannot join us this evening.” And then, beseechingly: “Clara, dear, Madame Starling will not proceed if the numbers are incorrect. We simply must bring the total count to eight, so we need two more bodies. I’m quite sure yourself and Emcee would find it most entertaining.” Aunt Gwen had looked away then. Clara had followed her gaze to the curving green of the topiary boulevard that lay as a pastoral sweep of emerald before the patio. Her aunt’s voice had softened, had come almost from afar. “Besides, dear, I have a curious idea you should be present this evening. You might even find it enlightening.” Without giving Clara a chance to respond, her aunt had patted her niece’s knee and had jumped to her feet. “We start at six-thirty p.m. Have Wrigley deliver Marie-Claire’s invitation right away, why don’t you?” Clara had only stared at the woman. “Wrigley? Not Dorian?”
“Dorian is helping me with the gargoyle packages, dear,” Gwen explained. “We decided the boxes were too big. Too heavy. Dorian is constructing smaller packages. If we can get them to a certain size, we will not need to pay so much in stamp duties.” Clara’s aunt shook her head. “We’re certainly not giving much room to my little stone men.”
“The gargoyles for Bayeux Cathedral?” But I thought you had already sent them?”
“No, dear,” her aunt had said. “Because Bayeux isn’t the only gothic beast that demands my work. I now have Chartres and Reimes to supply. I understand that Bayeux’s bishop had showcased my sculptures to other French edifices, and now, instead of shipping just the two boxes to Bayeux, we also have Chartres and Reimes to consider! I wanted to send them all together … to keep the costs low, you understand.”
Clara raised an eyebrow. “I am impressed. I knew your work would travel across Europe, but this seems to be a most fortuitous start for you.”
Gwen waved a hand, “It’s hardly Notre Dame, dear. But, yes, Gwen’s Gargoyles is having a strong debut in the churches of France, at least. “
“You are a most talented woman, aunt.”
Gwen looked uncomfortable. “Six-thirty in the parlour?” She said, deflecting the praise. “See you then, dear!” Clara had stopped the woman just as she had begun to skip across the flagstone patio that led to the cool interior of Blaenau. “Aunt?” Gwen had turned. “Why must it be eight participants?”
“Well, dear, Madame Starling is said to choose her numbers for the event, at the first meeting. She told me ‘eight,’ so this is the number I aim to provide the medium.” She scratched her chin. “Well, I am happy you are so gung-ho about joining us. Toodle-pip for now.” She had watched her aunt sail through the French doors and into the imposing Belgravia residence. Clara had thought to protest, to remind her aunt that if her father found out, things wouldn’t end well. For either of them. But as she had risen from her chair, she had already begun to warm to the idea. With little to occupy herself that evening, and presented with the opportunity to spend time with her good friend, Marie-Claire Honfleur, Clara had ended up believing it a splendid notion indeed. So much so, that she now sat, along with six other apprehensive ladies, and one representative of the dead, in a circle of fidgeting hands and shallow breathing.
She leaned forward, feeling the network of lace in the tablecloth ride silkily under her palms. She studied the face of the woman across from her, but before Clara could form a coherent string of internal commentary, the stern face of her father swam before her eyes. Fighting an absurd urge to laugh, Clara pressed her palms hard against the textured fabric of the cloth, hoping the self-created tension would accost her focus away from the spectre of the angry man. But the imagined Graham Bennett, now looking fit to combust, in a plopping-wet geyser of burst arteries and blood vessels, just gripped her further. Clara tensed against another wave of laughter and twitched her head to the left. A feeling of warmth nestled in her chest, and she smiled at the woman before her. Her aunt’s eyes were closed, but Clara could see her lips moving in silent prayer. As to which Gods or Goddesses she communicated with, was anyone’s guess. It seemed to Clara that her aunt had a different deity for each day of the week; all of them outside the Judeo-Christian domains. The young woman came close to Gwen’s ear. “I don’t think your gorgon gods will be of much use to us this evening, aunt,” she said, fighting to keep her laughter from rising. Gwen’s head snapped around. “Medusa was no goddess, Clara. She was a monster. And I am just now wondering if the two of you might be related.” Clara laughed, and without breaking little-finger-contact, she tickled the side of her aunt’s hand. Lady Cadwaladyr’s face creased into a pained expression. Clara knew this particular bearing well—on a near constant basis her aunt fought to hold back fits of laughter while in the company of her playful niece — and the latter admired her aunt’s continued efforts for maintaining a contrived, staid composure. Even if she did look like a constipated hen in the struggle. Clara smiled. Who could not love this woman? She had barely finished the thought when her mind switched to Graham Bennett once more. Because the young woman’s father was one such soul who might not admire her aunt as much as she. She straightened her spine and sat up tall, her skin alive with the sensation of her father’s inspecting gaze. If she drew attention to herself while she was in London, Clara fully understood the consequences her antics could bring. Her already patriarchally-pinched-upon freedom would close in on her further. As it was, she could barely breathe with all the suffocating familial scrutiny, and Clara knew the variety of horrors such social imprisonment would almost certainly carry. To confirm her fears, Clara’s mind promptly spewed up the mental imagery to accompany the steely terror that had crept in around her heart. A plain looking woman in a drab dress— evidently a spinster if her comportment were any measure — sitting by a limestone hearth, in a dreary stone cottage. Alone but for the cat that sat on her nest of unkempt hair, two that lay curled in her lap, and a good handful snaking around her ankles. But the grip on Clara’s heart became more constricting when the next round of mind-made images hit. The same solitary woman in an identical setting. Cats draped over her and every available surface inside the humble thatch. Only, in this daydream, the woman … the woman … Clara tried to shake the image away with a jolt of her head. She swallowed, and without opening her eyes, wiped away the veil of perspiration that had gathered on her brow. She squeezed her eyes tighter, hoping to shoehorn the vision in her brain into the external world. But the clarity of the perception only increased. Along with the chaotic thump of her heart. Because no matter how hard she squeezed her eyelids together, the vision of the Clara Bennett in her mind's-eye just kept … embroidering! Her pulse quickened as she watched the imaginary version of herself pull a length of beastly thread through the thatched roof of a grotesquely-sweet Cotswold cottage. The woman in her imagination reached for an item that lay atop a rough-hewn side table. A book of some kind. Oh, the horrors! A scrapbook! Clara very nearly passed out from the sight of it. Something bumped against her shin, making her eyes shoot open. She blinked and looked across the table. Through the halo of dim light cast by the solitary oil-lamp centrepiece, Clara caught the twinkle in the eyes of her best friend. Marie-Claire Honfleur winked, then pursed her lips into humourless lines. She stuck out her chest, and looked down her nose, crossing her eyes as she did so. Her ordinarily pretty features puckered up until her best friend’s face became a perfect parody of privileged irritation. Clara bit her lip. Marie-Claire’s imitation of the imperious young woman sitting to her left was astonishingly accurate, if a little on the course side. Clara’s eyes flicked to Marie-Claire’s target. Miss Belinda Little. Or, as the brazen Emcee liked to call her: Be-little Little. Of course, the words that came out of the Mademoiselle’s mouth sounded more like: Beleetle Leetle. An entirely appropriate name to Clara’s mind, no matter how it was pronounced. Personally, she couldn’t stand the woman. Clara had never met anyone with such a thoroughly abandoned moral compass as Belinda Little. She couldn’t count how many times she’d heard Belinda’s name spat, so venomously, from the lips of well-heeled ladies at the best of the London tea houses. Almost with sympathy, she also suspected Lady Little must find it quite a challenge to keep friends. With friends like Belinda, one might opt, instead, for the proverbial enemy. Cynical, perhaps, but the circumstantial evidence for such a stance against Miss Little’s character, was here tonight. Belinda’s most recent victim sat quietly, and fairly diagonally, from the young Little, and to the right of Clara. The latter turned her head slightly to take in Belinda’s latest casualty: Louisa Hollander. Poor Louisa. She had had no idea that Belinda would be here tonight. Clara felt quite sure Miss Hollander wouldn’t be seated at this table now, blinking in disbelief at the cold-blooded beauty across from her. Aunt Gwen, Clara knew, hadn’t invited Louisa Hollander personally. She could never be capable of such cruelty. No, Gwen Cadwaladyr-Rees had invited the woman to the right of Louisa, the slightly drunk, Lady Betsy Hollander, Louisa’s aunt. And so it was, that Louisa’s discomfiting presence was precisely because Lady Hollander had desired a chaperone for the evening. And from the amount of alcohol the older Hollander had imbibed, Clara ascertained that a chaperone had been a sensible idea. Betsy’s gloved hands may well have been obediently pressed to the table, but her eyes remained glued to her partially finished sherry, which she had placed, with considerable care, next to the oil lamp. Clara turned her gaze back to the younger Hollander and felt her heart sink for the woman. She had no doubt the current torture Louisa endured would only increase as the evening progressed. How could it not, when she was face-to-face with such a sly and vicious opponent? On the table, next to Clara’s hand, Louisa’s fingers jumped uncontrollably. Clara slid her own across Louisa’s and gave it a brief squeeze. She felt the woman tense momentarily, but then heard Louisa’s sigh of relief. “Thank you, Miss Bennet,” she whispered from the left side of her mouth. Her words set off an airy cascade of fragrant rose petals.
“Please,” Clara murmured, breathing in the floral scent. “It is I who needs comforting right now.” She flicked her head toward the medium, Madame Starling. “I feel positively naked under the scrutiny of the all-seeing-peacock eye.” Louisa’s eyes flew to the clairvoyant. From the medium’s deep green turban, a peacock feather bobbed. The iridescent eye of the colourful plume seemed to survey each of the inhabitants of the room with its glossy pupil. Louisa ducked and brought a white-gloved hand to her mouth to stifle her giggle. “Do you think I was spotted?” She whispered.
“Oh, most definitely,” Clara joked. “Your very soul has just been appraised, I'm sure." Louisa laughed again, and Clara, happy that the young woman had relaxed considerably, turned her focus to the last participant at the table. A big-boned lady, sporting a large, flat face, brought the number of bodies to the required ‘eight.’ Lady Daphne Dwerryhouse sat between Marie-Claire and Madame Starling. Clara’s lips curled upward as she witnessed Lady Dwerryhouse pop a French Fancy — whole, no less — into her mouth. She chewed and made a commendable effort to keep her lips together, but a piece of pink fondant flew from her mouth. Lady Dwerryhouse covered her candied projectile quickly, by following the medium’s instructions of placing her palms on the table. It proved a successful way to conceal her misdemeanours in etiquette. One could arguably count on Daphne’s presence at … well, any given social event, truthfully. Providing there was a free sherry or a complimentary chive scone on offer, Lady Dwerryhouse’s presence was very nearly guaranteed. Clara had seen the lady in action, swooping in on resplendent buffet tables, or accosting unsuspecting servants with their silver trays of sweet alcoholic beverages. Daphne Dwerryhouse was very likely one of the wealthiest women in Europe. She owned land over most of the continent, and also a breathtaking amount in the Lake District and southern Scotland. But Lady Daphne abhorred spending money when unnecessary, and the copious invitations she received, to attend opulent social gatherings, saw to it that her personal food bills were kept to a minimum.
Madame Starling drew in a deep breath, bringing Clara out of her character analyses. “I believe we are all ready?” The clairvoyant let everyone settle into position. “Let us begin.”
Clara felt a chill creep up the length of her spine. It swirled like an uninvited draft around her neck. She was not a superstitious woman, by any means, nor did she wholeheartedly believe in the channelled information that was about to be relayed to her comrades in the room, but her hand flew from the table to the reticule in her lap, nonetheless. Clara quickly snaked her fingers through the drawstring enclosure and brushed her thumb across the smooth resin of the pendant she kept in the beaded purse. She might not be able to feel the tiny creature that lay suspended in the bauble’s interior, but the soft curves of the peculiar gem gave her comfort by its own merit. Madame Starling cleared her throat and looked directly at Clara, which forced the young woman to bring her hand back to the table.
Evelyn Starling, medium extraordinaire — or so it was purported — began sucking in long gulps of air, the peacock feather flouncing outward from the centre of her turban as she breathed. Clara felt a slight tremor along the side of her hand, and she watched, as Louisa Hollander’s little finger hooked around her own. A small measure of comfort, but, indeed, Clara felt the peace in it.
Madame Starling started moaning. Clara noted how the ladies’ shoulders shot up close to their ears. She found this reasonably amusing until she discovered that her own quarters had bunched up to within a hair’s breadth of her temples.
Belinda Little leaned across the table, her bright blonde hair presenting itself as a murky grey in the dull corona of the oil lamp. “Forgive me, Madame Starling?” She said. “Who shall be first to ask questions from those from the afterlife realms? I have some queries I should like to pose, and—”
One of Evelyn Starling’s eyelids flew open. She pinned Belinda with a glittering pupil. “My dear,” she said, her peacock feather simultaneously bobbing and staring. “The spirits avail themselves as and when, and to whom and where, they wish. One does not simply pick the subject, time and place of spiritual discourse. Now, if you wouldn’t object, I should like —”
“Please,” Belinda said, her lips scraping upwards in a brittle smile. So backed by insincerity the gesture was, that it looked painful for her to configure her features in such a way. Belinda forced a coquettish laugh, while her flinty grey eyes remained hard and unreadable. “Forgive my interruption, and, please, proceed.”
Starling’s eye snapped shut, and the table’s occupants waited patiently while the ‘medium extraordinaire’ cycled through the heavy breathing and moaning routine once more. Clara jumped when both of the medium’s eyes flew open suddenly. In near perfect timing to the channeller’s frenzied eyeball-reveal, Aunt Gwen sunk her nails into Clara’s little finger. To the right of her, she could hear Louisa Hollander’s breath change from a steady tide to a rapid and hectic whirlpool. She wanted to reach out — to rub Louisa’s back — but she was scared to break the circle. And seeing the other ladies, their faces pulled into twisty terror, but managing to keep their hands in place, Clara felt inclined to do the same.
Evelyn’s mouth fell open, exposing two rows of ramshackle enamel. The medium let out a whooshing sigh, lifted her hand, and pointed. Clara’s head followed the woman’s arm all the way to her finger, and to where that knobby finger aimed: At a stunned Belinda Little. The sound that came from Madame Starling’s mouth could not be described as a woman’s voice, much less human. The medium’s words flew like ashes on a cold wind; as if they had decayed even before they had left her thin lips. She kept her liver-spotted finger pointed directly at Belinda Little’s flawless forehead. The contrast between the two anatomical specimens was startling.
“The children,” Evelyn Starling rasped. “The children. They will not remain quiet. They insist … the children.” Her eyelids fluttered, and through the rapid lid movement, Clara could see only the whites of the clairvoyant’s eyes. “The children,” Evelyn said again. “They are … they are running. Yes, running.” Her eyes fluttered ever more violently, and her next question came out sounding more like herself even if a little querulous. “What? What are you running from, children?”
Clara looked directly at Belinda, curious as to how the young woman was handling this bizarre confrontation with the spirits. Oh, dear, not terribly well, then. Clara silently observed Belinda’s body take on a subtle vibration, building rapidly to a whole-body tremor until her royal blue satin dress murmured in time with her shaking.
Madame Starling’s hands flew to her head, squishing the all-seeing eye in the process. From her wrist, Clara caught sight of a bolt of red. A scarlet ribbon dangled from the scalloped sleeve of her dress. There was no symmetry in the clairvoyant’s fashion, however, as the other sleeve’s ribbon track lay completely unadorned. “The building is falling!” Evelyn very nearly screamed, cowering under her fluttering hands. “The building … it’s crashing. It’s crashing to the ground!” The Madame’s neck snapped backwards suddenly until her face looked up at the poorly lit ceiling rose. Belinda Little went horribly pale. Horribly, terribly pale. Her pupils began to dilate at the same moment the clairvoyant brought her hands to her neck. Madame Starling started coughing, her fingers digging at her throat in a wild scramble. “Choking,” the medium wheezed, still scratching at her throat.
Betsy Hollander’s face turned almost translucent, making her rouge stand out in grotesque relief against her new-found pallor. She made a noise that sounded very much like the warble of a discombobulated turkey and lunged for her sherry. She threw the contents of the crystal glass to the back of her throat with an expertise that surely must have taken years of studied practice. Clara also withdrew one hand from the table. Only her comfort didn’t come from an alcoholic beverage, as had Lady Hollander’s. She reached for the golden bauble inside her purse, instead. She worked her fingertips across the glossy surface, palmed the soothing, circular weight of it, and soon felt a thread of equilibrium steal into her being. But it was very quickly followed by a torrent of relief for the fact that she hadn’t been the one who Madame Starling’s spirits had called upon. Evelyn’s deathly rattle continued unabated however. “It’s the dust,” the seer choked, finally. “Dust everywhere. Broken bones. The books … all the books are gone. Ruined. Smashed like children’s skulls…” Her voice became an insane rasp as if crammed full of masonry grit and jagged pebbles. “Their home … gone. Gone … in a cloud of dust. Lives … ruined. So much dust … so…much … dust.” The medium’s body dropped forward into another coughing fit. Belinda Little, as white as a bleached sheet, tipped sideways from her chair and in a rustle of satin, the woman tumbled to the floor.