Book excerpt

The Midnight Witch

Paula Brackston; Read by Marisa Calin

Macmillan Audio

1.
LONDON, 1913
 
 
The dead are seldom silent.
They have their stories to tell and their gift of foresight to share. All that is required for them to be heard is that someone be willing to listen. I have been listening to the dead all my life, and they never clamor more loudly for my attention than at a funeral. This is in part due to proximity, of course. Here I stand, beside an open grave, somber in black, quiet, watching, waiting, pain constricting my chest more tightly than the stays of my corset, and all around me souls stir. But they must wait. Wait to be called. Now is not the time. I know they are eager to speak to me, and I value their trust in me, but wait they must.
It is always important, what the dead have to say. At least, they consider it so. As if departing this world has conferred upon their every single utterance a dignity, a value, that was not present while they trod the ground instead of sleeping beneath it. There are times their insistence and their self-importance tire me, I admit. Times such as now, when I am far too consumed by grief to want to hear them. Even so, I can never forget, must never forget that sometimes their words are indeed of great value. Necromancers through the ages have known this; we have learned to listen to their bold prophecies and their whispered warnings. What would the genteel lords and ladies assembled here today think, I wonder, if they knew that among them now are those who summon spirits from the past to divine the future? What would they think of me if I were to tell them I am most at ease in a catacomb, or sitting in a graveyard cloaked in darkness, talking softly with those who have crossed the Rubicon and dwell in the Land of Night? That I find comfort and solace in the companionship of the dead, as my ancestors did before me? What would they say if I told them I have always harbored a secret fondness for coffins? There is something about their sleek lines, the rich tones of the burred walnut, the gleam of the brass fittings, the comforting thought of a place of rest and safety, that appeals to me.
Now, though, as I watch my father’s coffin being lowered into its grave, no amount of admiration for its workmanship can distract me from the loneliness I feel. My father was not an openly affectionate man—most thought him rather cold and aloof—but he loved me, and now he is gone. At twenty-one I should be excited about the future. Instead I feel only the sadness of loss, and the weight of duty upon my shoulders. My brother will inherit the role of duke and all that goes with it, but I am heir to my father’s other title. A position that bestowed upon him both immense power and fearsome responsibility. And now it is my turn. I am to become the new Head Witch of the Lazarus Coven.
As I stand at the graveside I let my gaze sweep over the gathered mourners. Hundreds have turned out to pay their last respects to the late duke, but only a handful among us know that the coffin which is the current focus of attention, and which is now being lowered into the damp, dark earth, is, in point of fact, empty. The August sunshine has warmed the soil so that its musky scent drifts up from the open grave. To me the aroma is familiar and stirring. It smells of long ago, of ages past, of loved ones moved from this world to the next, of death and rebirth, of rot and regeneration. As the smell fills my nostrils I identify the presence of cleansing worms and busy beetles, and under it all, from nearby newly filled graves, the subtle beginnings of sweet decay. I am not the only one to detect the presence of disintegration. From the branches of a majestic cedar comes the agitated cawing of sharp-beaked rooks.
The heat of the summer afternoon is starting to tell on many of the mourners. The pool of black the gathered company presents seems to ripple as women sway unsteadily in their heavy gowns, their restricting corsets robbing them of much of what little air there is. Here and there fans are worked listlessly. The men fare no better beneath their top hats, and some pluck at their starched collars. The relentlessly high temperatures of this summer of 1913 are not conducive to comfort for anyone dressed for a society funeral. Even the gleaming black carriage horses, despite standing in the shade of an ancient yew tree, fidget, causing the blackened ostrich plumes on their bridles to shudder and flutter in the inappropriately cheerful sunshine.
I feel my mother’s grip on my arm tighten. Her gloved fingers dig into the night-black crape of my sleeve. She looks worryingly frail.
“Mama?” I whisper as close to her ear as her elaborately veiled hat will allow. “Mama, are you quite well?”
“Oh, Lilith, my dear. I do feel a little faint.”
The dowager duchess teeters alarmingly.
“Freddie!” I hiss at my brother, who stands only a few paces off but wears an expression that places him in another world entirely. “Freddie, for heaven’s sake, help Mama.”
“What? Yes, yes, of course. Now then, Mama. Steady as she goes.” He smiles weakly, slipping his arm around our mother’s tiny waist. “Not long now,” he murmurs. “Soon be over,” he adds, as much to himself as anyone else.
I take in the pale couple that comprise my family and wonder if I am equal to the task of looking after them. They need me to be strong. To take Father’s place. But how can I? How can I? My mother’s very existence has been defined by her husband for such a long time. She was a duchess for so many years, and now she must alter her view of herself, of her position, to become Lady Annabel. She finds this modern, fast-changing world confusing and illogical, and overhanging us all is the possibility of war. She is adrift, and I must be her safe haven. It is so typical of Mama that she insisted on such a grand and lengthy funeral. She has overseen every detail—from the number and variety of lilies, to the breed of the carriage horses, and the funereal livery of the footmen. I understand that she is sure in her mind that she knows precisely what her beloved Robert would have wanted. She believes it is expected of her as the duke’s widow to carry out his wishes. However keenly she feels her grief, she will not let it show. However lost she knows herself to be, she will present a small point of stoic dignity at the center of the cortege. Only those closest to her will be aware of how much she is suffering. I know the truth of it. My mother is burying not simply an adored spouse, but the greater part of herself. Freddie and I will go into the world and have lives of our own; she will remain in privileged purgatory, from now until the moment of her own death, no longer duchess, no longer wife, no longer with a purpose of place around which she can shape her existence.
And Freddie. Freddie has singular problems which require singular remedies. Perhaps he can be persuaded to move out to our country estate in Radnorshire, far away from the destructive temptations on offer in the city. It would be a solution of sorts. But how will I succeed where even Father failed? Freddie knows what he would be giving up if he went back to Radnor Hall. I fear he would as soon jump into Father’s grave.
That brother of yours will bring you to ruin!
Who is that? Who speaks to me unbidden, uncalled, unsummoned? What spirit would venture to do such a thing? Who is there?
One who watches you, Daughter of the Night. One who knows you, and your worthless brother, better than you know yourselves.
I must close my mind to this unwelcome, unfamiliar voice! Despite the relentless heat of the day I feel a sudden chill. Spirits may become restless, may long to communicate, but still they wait to be called. I will not listen. Not now. Now it is the living who need me. Freddie, perhaps, most of all.
Watching him as he attempts to support Mama he appears almost as insubstantial as she does. His skin has about it a transparency that seems to reveal the vulnerability underneath. Tiny beads of sweat glisten on his brow. He leans heavily on his cane, as if he cannot bear his own weight, let alone that of anyone else.
I remember the first time Father brought us here, Freddie and me. It was gone midnight, and the house was quiet. He came to the nursery, and told Nanny to get us up and dressed. I could have been no more than nine years old, so Freddie must have been seven. It was certainly strange, to be roused from our beds in the dark hours, and to leave in the carriage with only our father. I recall Nanny’s anxious face watching at the window as we left. Did she know? I wonder. Did she know about Father? Did she know where he was taking us?
He had the driver park the carriage at the gate to the cemetery, and then led us through the narrow paths between the graves. He walked quickly, and Freddie and I had to trot and scamper to keep up. I remember feeling a little excited at such a mysterious outing, but I was not afraid. My poor baby brother, however, was so dreadfully scared. By the time we reached our destination—this very spot—he was crying quite loudly, so that Father had to scold him and insist that he be quiet. We stood still then, among the tombs and statuary, letting the dark settle about us. I heard an owl screech, and several bats flitted past, their wing beats causing the warm summer air to stir against my face. Father said nothing, gave us no instructions, told us not a thing about what was expected of us. He merely had us stand silently among the dead, wrapped in the night. Freddie fidgeted the whole time, stifling his sobs as best he could. But I was quite content. I felt … at home.
I take Mama’s arm once more and hold on firmly. The vicar presses slowly on with the service, his voice flat and monotonous, like a distant bell, weathered and cracked, echoing the dying heartbeats of the man whose body we commit to the earth, and whose soul we commend to God. Except that his body is absent, and his soul will linger a while yet.
*   *   *
Beside a mournful statue of an angel, sheltering in the relative coolness of its winged shadow, and at some remove from the main company attending the duke’s funeral, Nicholas Stricklend, permanent private secretary to the minister for Foreign Affairs, waits and watches. He has no desire to engage in small talk with others in attendance. Nor does he wish to give his condolences to the chief mourners. He wants merely to observe. To witness the interment. To assure himself that the leader of the Lazarus Coven is indeed dead and gone, once and for all, no longer occupying that privileged position of power and influence.
A squirrel scampers by close to where Stricklend stands. The quick movement of its claws on the dust-dry ground scuffs up fallen pine needles, some of which land on the senior ranking civil servant’s spotless shoes. He regards the needles with distaste. Their presence offends him. He does not consider himself unrealistic in his expectations of life; he is aware that perfection, however sincerely strived for, is often unattainable. However, it is his habit to aim for nothing less, so that even when his attempts fall short, a high standard is maintained. What he finds irksome almost beyond endurance is the way in which the actions of others on occasion cause his cherished ideal to be compromised. Focusing on his shoes he exhales firmly, directing his breath effortlessly, as if it were within everyone’s capabilities, the distance to his feet so that the pine needles are blown away as on a zephyr, and his shoes regain their matchless shine. The squirrel, sensing danger, freezes. Its face registers first fear and then pain, as it drops to the ground. After one small gasp it is stilled forever. The nearby rooks fall silent.
Stricklend returns his attention to the family of the recently deceased duke. He met Lord Robert’s widow several times when she was still the duchess of Radnor. No doubt she would remember him, just as she would remember all her guests. She would naturally value her reputation as an excellent hostess but now, even so soon after the duke’s passing, she appears to Stricklend diminished. Her husband’s illness had been protracted and his death prepared for, but still the shock of it shows. Though her face might be veiled, her demeanor, her deportment, her seeming lack of substance are plainly visible. On her right, her son, Frederick, presents a picture of almost equal frailty. The young man is tall and good-looking, with the family’s black hair and fine, aristocratic features, but he is painfully thin, and there is a restlessness about him that gives him away. Stricklend doubts the youth will make a good duke. He will not come close to filling his father’s shoes.
The person who is of real interest to him, however, is the slim figure to the left of the dowager duchess. Lady Lilith Montgomery, only daughter and eldest child of the late Lord Robert Montgomery, sixth duke of Radnor, wears her striking beauty casually yet with dignity. She does not flaunt the head-turning loveliness with which she has been blessed any more than she would flaunt her position of privilege as the daughter, and now sister, of a duke. There is about her an air of seriousness. An earnestness. A self-contained strength, that Stricklend finds both admirable and attractive. He witnessed her coming out into society through the summer with careful attention. But it is not her feminine attributes that matter to him. Nor her social standing. What is of concern to him, what he is keenly interested in, is her ability to take on the mantle of Head Witch in her father’s place. Only time will tell if she is up to the task. If she is not, it will be a bad day for the Lazarus Coven. A very bad day indeed. It will also be a singularly good day for Nicholas Stricklend.
*   *   *
Despite the weight of his valise, the bulk of his knapsack of artist’s materials, and the awkward legginess of the easel he carries on his shoulder, Bram Cardale traverses the cemetery with a vigorous step. Being tall and strong means his luggage is less burdensome for him than it might have been for others, added to which a sense of purpose lends energy to his stride. He is glad of the shortcut, for he has walked a mile or more already, but he could happily travel until sunset, for today he begins his new life. Behind him lie burned bridges, disregarded offers of secure employment, and the comfort and stability of his family home. Ahead lies nothing certain, save that he is to lodge with the renowned and feted sculptor, Richard Mangan, and he is, at last, to attempt to become the painter he believes himself capable of being. Such a leap of faith shocked his parents. His father took it particularly badly.
“But, lad, you’ve a position waiting for you at the factory. You’d throw it all up to … to what? Paint pictures?”
“It’s what I was meant to do, Father.”
“All of a sudden our life, what we do, that’s not good enough for you?”
“I don’t expect you to understand.”
“You’re right about that.”
“Can’t you be pleased for me?”
“Pleased you’re going off on the rim of your hat to live in a house of adulterers and heaven knows who else instead of taking your place here, where you belong? Oh, aye, I’m certain to be pleased about that.”
Bram had not attempted to win his father round to the idea of his chosen future. He had dried his mother’s tears and promised to write. There had been a moment, when she had looked deep into him in the way only she could, when he had faltered. She had touched his cheek with such tenderness, such concern … but if he did not go now he feared he would remain forever living a half-life, his talent, his art, his need to create, stifled and smothered. He could not tolerate such an existence. True, there could be no guarantees of success, and he might end up alone in London, a failed nobody, his talent exposed as an illusion. He risked one manner of madness if he went, and another, a slower more tortuous insanity, if he stayed. He had caught the evening train from Sheffield that very night. Guilt dogged his footsteps, but with each passing mile his certainty that he was doing the right thing grew.
The energy of London, the vibrant hum of the place, the sheer scale, all speak to him of possibilities and of freedom. He could not paint properly while still living under his father’s shadow, living a provincial life, where he was hampered by his family’s expectations of him. He knows he is acting selfishly, but if he must paint—and it seems he is driven by some irresistible force to do so—he must find a place and a company conducive to artistic expression and endeavor. He had written to Richard Mangan scarce hoping for a response, so when he was invited to take rooms in his house he knew it was an opportunity he could not pass up. Here was his chance to give vent to his ambition.
As he approaches the halfway point on the path to the east gate of the graveyard, Bram is struck by the number of mourners attending a burial. Large funerals are not uncommon in Sheffield but he has witnessed nothing of this kind before. He pauses in his journey, sliding his easel to the ground for a moment. He can make out several funeral carriages, all drawn by very fine horses, each black as coal, and draped in heavy velvet. The hearse itself might no longer be in attendance, but the remaining conveyances are no less impressive or flamboyantly liveried. Each has painted on its doors and embroidered on the drapery of the horses the emblem of a dragonfly, delicate and slim, its body shimmering green. Mourners stand a dozen rows deep, at least two hundred of them. Close to the grave the chief mourners look to Bram to present a touchingly small family. The young woman wears a broad hat with a long spotted veil, but he can discern elegant deportment and fine features even so. And a graceful, slender neck, the only part of her not swathed in black. Bram finds the whiteness of this small, exposed area of flesh somehow startling. Erotic, almost. A shaft of sunlight cuts through the branches of the lone cedar tree to illuminate the trio at the graveside, so that the fabric of their clothes, though cellar-black, reflects the light with such brilliance that the glare causes him to squint.
He wonders at once how he would paint such a phenomenon, how he would capture on canvas the strength of that light in the midst of such gloom. A familiar excitement stirs within him at the idea of the challenge. His pulse quickens. Images flash through his mind, light upon dark, dark upon light, blocks of color and bold brush strokes. In that moment of inspiration all is possible. He drops his luggage to the ground and scrabbles in his knapsack, pulling out board and paper, digging deeper for dusty shards of charcoal. He supports the board with one arm, pinning the paper to it with his fingers at the top. In his right hand he grasps the charcoal and turns to stand facing the scene he wishes to capture. He is in the full glare of the sun, and can feel perspiration beading his brow, dampening his hair. His hat offers more heat than shade, so he pushes it from his head, letting it lie where it falls on the parched ground. He frowns against the glare of the blank page, hesitating only a moment before beginning to sketch. A passing couple comment sharply on his inappropriate behavior. He is immune to their criticism. He knows he is witness to the grief of strangers, and he knows his actions could be seen as callous or disrespectful. The small part of him that still pays heed to such conventions, however, is stamped down by the urgency of his desire to depict what he sees, to immortalize that moment. It is not merely the juxtaposition of shapes, of sunlight and shadow, of patterns and elegant lines he wishes to show. Nor is he interested in recording a comment on society and its cherished traditions. It is the very essence of his subjects he strives to transpose to his picture.
To show what cannot be seen one must first represent what can be seen, he tells himself.
His mind works as swiftly as his hand as he draws. Deft, energetic marks begin to fill the paper.
It is my lot to spend my life in pursuit of the impossible. To reveal what is hidden. But am I able? Am I equal to the task?
He continues to work even as he feels his head spin with the heat of the day and the intensity of his concentration. Even as curious onlookers pause to peer over his shoulder. He works on, seeking to show the brilliance of life in the midst of a ceremony for the dead. Even as the vicar closes his good book. Even as the beautiful, slender girl beside the open grave raises her head and finds herself to be beneath his fervent gaze.


 
Copyright © 2014 by Paula Brackston
PAULA BRACKSTON is the New York Times bestselling author of The Witch’s Daughter and The Winter Witch. She has a master’s degree in creative writing from Lancaster University in the UK.  She lives in Wales with her family.