Cora Oakley leaned against the lace-trimmed pillows. Sweat trickled from her hairline down her forehead, along her nose, across her upper lip and formed a salty pool in the puckered skin at the corner of her mouth. She was hardly aware of it. Tentacles of pain stretched from her throbbing jaw down her neck to her shoulder. The whole right side of her face felt afire. It had been three days since the tooth had been drawn and the dentist had promised the wound would soon settle.
Why must men always lie about everything? thought Cora. She touched the swollen flesh and winced.
The turret room had been hers since she’d come to Fourways. Most of it was in a velvet semi-darkness but she lay on the edge of a pool of light cast by a lamp on the bedside cabinet. The china base of the lamp was painted with violets. Inside the bulbous glass shade the flame, fed by the fuel store inside the base, twisted and jumped angrily like an imprisoned imp wanting to be free to create mischief.
I’m going to change my room, Cora decided. I don’t like this room. I’ve never liked it.
William had said this was to be her room. His room was at the other side of the house. That was hardly the normal arrangement for married couples but William wanted it that way and she knew why.
As if thought of her husband had called him up, the door opened and he came in, carrying a small tray.
‘Here we are,’ he said. He put the tray down on the table, by the lamp. ‘I handed over Perkins’s prescription. Baxter gave me this.’
Cora turned her head so that she could see the familiar little bottle with its handwritten label Laudanum, and beneath this, in brackets, Tincture of Opium.
‘Baxter tells me there are new things coming along now for pain such as toothache. I told him you preferred to stick with what you knew.’ He paused as if expecting she would say something. When she didn’t, he went on briskly. ‘Well, there’s a jug of water, a glass and a teaspoon. Do you want to take it now?’ He stretched out his hand to the bottle.
Cora rolled her head from side to side on the pillow in negation. She just wished he’d go away. She knew how to dose herself. The laudanum had been a friend for a long time now, one she could turn to in the depths of the black depression which haunted her. She would sleep undisturbed by the raging inflamed gum around the empty socket where the tooth had been. Yet even the prospect of sleep filled her with a prickle of apprehension. Recently, her sleep had been beset with nightmares. In despair, she asked herself if, awake or asleep, she was never to have peace?
‘Very well, then,’ William said. He stooped and planted a passionless kiss on her damp forehead. ‘Goodnight.’
As he walked to the door, she found her voice and called, ‘William!’
He turned, his hand on the doorknob, his dark eyebrows raised. Even in her present distress, she thought how handsome he was. She understood bitterly how a feather-headed seventeen-year-old such as she had been when they’d met, could have fallen in love with him. Fallen so completely for a man who was completely rotten, through and through.
She said, as clearly as she could through the swelling and pain, ‘I intend to dismiss Daisy in the morning.’
‘Doesn’t she care for the boy properly?’ His voice was cold.
‘I don’t like her attitude.’
‘In what way?’ Even though he stood in the shadows, she could see the contempt on his face, hear it in his voice.
He must think I’m stupid, she thought. But she was in too much pain to argue. Instead, she said, ‘You have made me an object of pity and ridicule in the eyes of everyone who knows us.’
‘You’re talking nonsense,’ he said briefly. He opened the door.
‘It’s too much,’ Cora said, her tongue moving with difficulty in her mouth. ‘Not again, William. I won’t stand for it again.’
He didn’t answer and as he moved through the open door she called, ‘There must be an end to it, William!’
She had dared to use the word he couldn’t abide. He swung back. ‘Must?’
Driven by her pain and despair, she retorted, ‘I shall seek a separation.’
She saw the corner of his mouth twitch, as if he was going to smile. But all he said was, ‘Perhaps in the morning you’ll make more sense.’ And then he was gone.
* * *
‘Goodnight, then, Mr Watchett,’ said Martha Button.
She closed the kitchen door on the gardener and locked it. For good measure she then shot the bolts top and bottom and having done this, checked the window. Having satisfied herself that none but the most determined intruder could get into the kitchen, she cast a look of satisfaction around the room.
The kitchen range needed a good going over with blacklead but Lucy could do that in the morning. Keep the girl occupied. Mrs Button’s eagle eye fell on the two glasses on the table and the sherry bottle. She put the bottle away in the cupboard and rinsed the sherry glasses, dried them and put them away, too. After a moment’s hesitation, she gathered up the small plate on the table and rinsed that. All these things could also have been left for Lucy to do but there were some things, unlike the tiresome and messy job of blackleading the range, to which it was better not to draw a housemaid’s attention. Not that Mrs Button and Mr Watchett weren’t entitled to a glass of sherry and a gossip of an evening, but it was always important to keep the respect of one’s underlings and not give them any cause to laugh at you behind your back.
It was getting late. Watchett had stayed longer than usual. Mrs Button went out into the main hall. A single gasmantle still glimmered there, hissing softly, though the other downstairs rooms were in darkness. The atmosphere was heavy with unseen presences as a house is at night. The grandfather clock marked the time as almost eleven. She went to check that the bolts on the front door were in place. Of course, Mr Oakley checked the door last thing, but tonight her employer had seemed absent in his manner. He’d retired early, before ten. She’d heard him go upstairs. Well, as she’d said to Watchett, it wasn’t surprising he’d got things on his mind.
‘I could see it coming, Mr Watchett. As soon as that girl Daisy Joss set foot in this house. Far too pretty for her own good.’
‘Ah,’ said Watchett. ‘Never no good came from hiring any Joss.’
‘And poor Mrs Oakley in the state she’s in from her tooth. Having it pulled out, I mean. I really don’t know why she didn’t go up to London to a dentist used to dealing with gentlefolk. As it is, she’s been in a terrible state ever since that local fellow yanked it out.’
‘Doorknob and a piece of string,’ said Watchett. ‘Best way to get a tooth out.’
‘It couldn’t have done more harm!’ sniffed Mrs Button.
The front door was bolted. She nodded and went to turn off the gasjet. In doing so, she caught sight of herself in the mirror and paused to pat her hair which was a curious mahogany colour. Then she made her way back to the kitchen and stepped through into the adjacent lobby from which the backstairs ran up to the upper floors. All alone as she was down here, she could’ve gone up the main staircase, but habit died hard. Backstairs were for servants, and though she was definitely an upper servant of the very best kind, she took herself to her bed by this route, through the darkened house, candlestick in hand.
Around her the house creaked and groaned in the falling temperature. On the first floor, the backstairs came out at the end of the corridor, right by the door to the turret room where Mrs Oakley slept. As Mrs Button turned to go up the next flight to the rooms under the eaves where she had both her own sleeping quarters and a little room designated her sitting room, she heard a sudden crash.
It was followed immediately by a cry. A cry so strange, so unearthly, she couldn’t believe it was human. If it came from anything in this world at all, it seemed a tortured squeal issued by some animal in agony. Her heart leapt painfully and with her free hand she sketched the sign of the cross. She was a cradle Catholic, though her observance of any religion had been noticeable by its absence for many years. Now, sensing she was to be tested in some way in which she couldn’t cope without divine help, she sought the comforting token of her childhood faith.
There was no doubt both sounds had come from behind Mrs Oakley’s door. Fearfully, the housekeeper approached and after a moment’s hesitation, tapped. ‘Mrs Oakley, ma’am?’
There was no reply and yet, her ear pressed to the door panel, she thought she heard movement, a rushing sound, a strange rasping breath. Then, quite clearly, a strangled gurgle and another squeal, cut off midway as if the air supply to it had been interrupted.
Not knowing what she would see, and filled now with sheer panic, Mrs Button seized the knob and threw the door open.
‘Oh, my God, my God!’ The housekeeper clasped her throat with her free hand.
An infernal scene met her eyes, a medieval hell in which a figure lying on the carpet twisted and turned surrounded by flames and a dancing red and yellow light. The air was foul with a pungent stench, making Mrs Button retch and cough. It was compounded of burning wool, lamp oil, scorched flesh and an overpowering odour which struck her as familiar though for the moment, she didn’t identify it. The bedside lamp lay in broken fragments on the blackened and smouldering carpet. Amongst the shards was something which struck her as odd but all this was noticed in the split second before her whole attention focused on it.
The creature, that burning thing, jerked and twitched on the floor uttering sobbing breaths as if it would scream but could not. The housekeeper tremblingly set down her candlestick and took a step forward and then, seized with terror and revulsion, stepped back again. To her horrified gaze, the creature raised itself by some superhuman effort amid the bonfire and reached out one blackened, peeling talon in mute supplication. As it did so, its long hair caught the flame and burst into a dreadful halo. The creature squealed on a high, thin inhuman note which died away as if the lungs had been squeezed empty of air and then fell back.
Mrs Button gasped, ‘Mrs Oakley! Oh, Mrs Oakley!’