Parting the Veil by Paulette Kennedy
Port of Southampton
England was freedom. For Eliza, there was a certain kind of irony in that.
A sharp blast of steam announced the SS Evangelina’s arrival, coal smoke billowing from its twin stacks. Eliza steadied herself against the railing, her pulse fast behind her ears. On the other side of a gangway, a new life awaited. A life free of black dresses and scandal, where no one would see the spinster in the crepe-shrouded house on Metairie Road. Here, they’d only see a woman poised between twenty and thirty, with coppery blond hair and blue eyes set in a foxlike face. Best of all, there wouldn’t be a whisper of shame to endure. Not a raised eyebrow or single narrowed glance across a ballroom.
At least, that’s what she hoped.
The ship found its berth, coming up so snugly abreast a sleek ocean liner that Eliza could have tossed a ball over its railing. She repinned her hat and joined the uneven queue jostling toward the lower deck.
“Liza! There you are. You’re always running off.” It was Lydia, her skirts beaten back by the wind as she pushed through the crowd. “Goodness. This weather is a bit cool for summer, isn’t it? I hope we’ve brought the right sort of clothes.”
Eliza looked up at the heavy, lowering clouds. It was beastly cold—colder than she’d ever thought summer could be—but she would grow used to it.
A life written by her own hand was worth a thousand cold summer days.
“Allons-y, cher. Getting off this boat and away from the water will warm us.” Eliza grasped Lydia’s sleeve and led her through the jumble of passengers onto a wharf bristling with cranes as high as church steeples. In the distance, a locomotive whistle pierced the briny air.
“Where do we find the trains?” Lydia asked.
“I’m not sure.” Eliza stood on tiptoe to see over the throng of people. Many seemed to be tourists, given their wan and sickly faces, but across the way, she spied a burly stevedore loading barrels onto a wagon. “He looks like a local fellow. Perhaps he can help. I’ll puzzle out the trains if you’ll go to customs to fetch our trunks.”
“All right,” Lydia said. “But don’t go running off again, and don’t be too friendly with strange men. It makes you seem louche.”
Eliza shooed Lydia on her way and went toward the stevedore, using her parasol to steady her wobbly steps. He offered a gap-toothed grin and doffed his cap. “Good day, love.”
“I’m so sorry to interrupt your work. But you wouldn’t happen to know where I’d find the train for Cheltenbridge, would you?”
“Cheltenbridge, eh? Idn’t much there. Most Americans are on their way to London.” He scratched beneath his close-cropped hair and replaced his cap. “There’s no direct line, miss. The four o’clock from Winchester is the next train, and you’ll need to ride to West Moors to make the connection.”
She blew a puff of air through her lips. Complicated railway schedules made her head hurt. “That business sounds a bit confusing for a newcomer. Perhaps we’d better hire a carriage.”
“Right, then. You’ll see hansoms at the end of the pier. Welcome to ’ampshire at any rate, love.”
Eliza thanked him, then strode toward the carnivalesque pavilion, where a gold-and-white carousel spun with a raucous tune. She purchased a tin of cigarettes from a roving vendor and perched on a nearby crate to wait for Lydia. As she smoked, she took in a marionette show across the pier, the puppets beating one another with sticks beneath a red-and-white-striped canopy. After a few minutes of the queer puppet-beating, Lydia came along with a porter in tow, their freshly stamped trunks on a hand truck.
Just as the stevedore had said, the edge of the boardwalk was lined with hansom cabs hitched to sturdy ponies. A bowlegged driver climbed down from a rickety trap and limped toward them. “Where to, then?” he asked.
“Fourteen Hammond Lane, Cheltenbridge.” Eliza pulled a creased envelope from her pocket and squinted at the return address. “At least, I think.” She offered the letter to the driver for a look, and he nodded.
“That’ll be extra, of course.” His rheumy gaze rested on the jade cameo pinned to the lapel of her traveling suit. “Anythin’ outside S’oton proper is extra. Twelve shillings.”
Merde.How much was twelve shillings? “I’m afraid I only have American money.”
“It’ll do. Three dollars on arrival.”
Lydia’s brown eyes narrowed. “Three dollars?”
“Fine. Two dollars. Firm.”
“How about one?”
The driver sneered. Eliza nudged her sister’s hand. “Lyddie, two dollars is an honest day’s wages and he likely won’t have another fare. You’re being petty.”
Lydia shook her chestnut curls and opened the door to the cab. “I may be petty, but you’re far too easy with our money.”
Giving a resigned sigh, Eliza settled next to Lydia on the worn leather seat, brittle tufts of horsehair poking through the upholstery. The driver loaded their trunks, climbed up to his bench, and cracked his whip. With a lurch, they trotted away from the pier and the bellowing steamship that had carried them far from New Orleans and everything familiar.
Once on their way, Lydia dropped into a deep, snoring sleep beside Eliza. As they reached the outskirts of a forest thick with birches, Eliza reopened the letter that had set her on her journey. It was dated March 6, 1899, the spidery writing barely legible on the ink-spotted page.
If you have received this letter, it will mean I have departed this life for the next.
You may not remember who I am, as you were very young when we met. Your maman was quite dear to me, having watched her grow up on St. Martin. As I am a widow without issue, it is my wish that my estate fall to you upon my death. You will have the full terms of the bequest from my solicitor, who will meet with you upon your arrival to Hampshire.
Sherbourne House was once grand, and I have hopes you’ll care for it well. After your troubles, you may find a new beginning will be just the thing to restore your spirit. It is my dearest hope that you find happiness here with a family of your own. It warms my heart to think of the laughter of children in these halls.
“We’re nearly there, ladies.”
The driver’s brusque voice startled Eliza from her reading, quiet as he’d been for most of their journey. She folded the letter and tucked it away. “How much further?” she asked.
“Only a few more miles. We’ll turn onto the lane after the village.”
The afternoon swiftly fell to evening as they rolled through Cheltenbridge, passing a collection of whitewashed shops nestled around a square. Vendors offered their wares on tables along the curb, boasting silk cravats in bright colors and trilbies stacked in neat rows. The village women milled about on their errands, wearing simple calicos and wide-brimmed hats. It was altogether languorous and quaint compared with the bustle of Canal Street. The air was fresher here, cleaner—unspoiled by the fetid miasma of disease and mold.
After they crossed over the arched bridge the town had been named for, the road became an earthen lane rutted by wagon wheels. They went through the turning, the cab creaking and groaning with the effort. There was a sudden break in the trees, revealing the eaves and mansard roof of a large mansion.
“Now there’s a blasted wreck of a place,” the driver snarled. He spat out the side of his mouth. Eliza’s stomach rolled. “Me mum worked there as a girl. Said it was haunted and the walls crawled around the edges of your eyes. Still . . . shame to let a fine house like that go.”
Eliza leaned forward, perking up. “Did you say it was haunted?”
“That’s right. Me mum weren’t prone to no fancy.”
Whether there were spirits about the place or not, he was right concerning the letting go; the gardens around the house were a rampant tangle of rosebushes and Italian cypress swaying behind a gate adorned with twining ebony serpents. The unkempt gardens obscured most of the mansion’s façade, but the roofline was lovely, punctuated by a row of arched transom windows. It was the sort of house meant to sit in one’s imagination and take up residence. Eliza looked up at its high oriel window and wondered who lived inside.
They bounced on for a bit, until a squat gatehouse with a copper roof appeared to their left. The words Sherbourne House were pressed into its cornerstone, along with the address and its date of construction: 1759. The gates were padlocked, their spiked ironwork forbidding and cold.
Eliza nudged Lydia. She jerked awake with a snort. “We’re here. The solicitor said a groundskeeper would be about to open the gates, but I don’t see anyone.”
“Is there a bell?” Lydia craned her neck. “It certainly seems desolate, doesn’t it?”
“You should see the neighboring estate—according to our driver, we’ll be living next to a haunted house. It looks like something from a penny dreadful.”
The driver cleared his throat and spat again. “I needs to be getting back to my wife and a warm dinner, good ladies. But for another dollar, I can stay put with ye ’til someone shows up. There’s been reports of a highwayman around these parts.”
“That’s quite all right, sir,” Eliza said. “You’ve already been more than accommodating.” She dug through her chatelaine bag, pawing past peanut hulls and meal cards until she produced two silver dollars and a few bits of change for good measure. She pushed them through the hinged opening at the top of the hansom, and the driver released the door to the cab. He unloaded their luggage with an abundance of sighing before turning his rig to trot away with nary a glance behind him.
Eliza peered over the ivy-tangled gate. “Hello?” she called, cupping her hands around her mouth. They waited for an answering call and were met with silence. No light shone through the purple dusk, and no sound stirred beyond the chirruping of toads. The air had grown dank and sodden, threatening rain. Eliza rubbed her arms to fight the chill. For a moment, a wave of helplessness washed over her, but there was no time for that now. Not after months of planning. Not when everything she’d hoped for was within reach.
“What should we do?” Lydia banged the lock against the gate in frustration.
“I’m not sure,” Eliza said, “but I’ve a fierce need to relieve myself. That carriage ride was a bit long for my bladder.”
“Can’t you wait until we’re inside?”
“Why? There’s no one here.” Eliza pushed behind the thick branches of a yew bordering the gates and gathered her skirts to squat. Suddenly, there was a scurrying, and a sharp face with beetle-dark eyes emerged from the shadows. Eliza leapt to her feet. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment.
“You Miss Elizabeth Sullivan?” the man asked, squinting at her through the gate’s fretwork.
Eliza ran a hand over her rumpled skirts and came out. “I am. And this is my sister, Lydia.”
“I be Giles Mason. Groundskeeper.”
Lydia shifted from side to side, wearing her impatience like most women wore perfume. “Can we please come in, sir? It’s so cold.”
“Right, then.” Mason fiddled with the padlock, then cranked a pulley wheel. The gate swung free with a metallic groan. “House idn’t rightly comfortable—housekeeper quit after Lady Sherbourne died. You’d probably rather a hot toddy and a room at the pub.”
“We’ll endure the discomfort, Mr. Mason,” Eliza said. “It’s been a tiring day.”
He gave a terse nod and disappeared into the gatehouse. A moment later, he produced a hand-drawn wagon and loaded their trunks with surprising vigor, then motioned for them to follow along the gravel drive.
At first glance, Sherbourne House was statelier than Eliza had imagined. Made of yellow limestone, it sat upon a small plateau in the Georgian style, flanked by a formal garden. An oak tree stood in front of the terrace, as ancient and gnarled as the trees in Louisiana, lacking only a raiment of Spanish moss. Mason left their trunks on the terrace and led them beneath the portico. He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and worked the lock. The door swung open, scraping an arc on the dusty marble floor.
Eliza blinked as they crossed the threshold, her vision adjusting to the liminal light. She pulled off her gloves and spun in a circle, taking in the high coffered ceiling and paneled walls. Woven tapestries hung along the foyer, depicting naval battles and pastoral scenes.
“I’ll fetch some candles,” Mason said. “There’s gas, but I’d not chance it until you have an inspector come out. House been boarded up like this one the next town over blew to high heaven when the new tenants moved in. Rats chewed through the lines.”
“Comforting thought,” Lydia murmured after he’d gone. “Can you imagine?”
Eliza’s shoulders sagged. “I’m fairly certain that won’t happen to us.”
A few moments later, a flickering came from the rear of the house, and Mason reemerged with a multitiered candelabra. The flames cast ghoulish shadows beneath his eyes. “I gathered as many candles as I could find and left them in the kitchen. I’ll fetch a boilermaker tomorrow, first thing. Bedchambers are upstairs. Chamber pots under the beds.” He raised an eyebrow at Eliza and smiled, showing a row of crooked, gray teeth. “No need to do your business on the verge again, miss.”
Eliza returned his smile and took the candelabra, the tallow rancid in her nostrils. “Thank you, Mr. Mason.”
“Right. I’ll be in the carriage house should you need anything.”
The old man trudged off, leaving Lydia and Eliza at the foot of an L-shaped staircase. They went up, finding a narrow hallway at the top lined with closed doors, a tattered runner snaking over the wooden floor. Eliza opened the first door they came to. The scent of stale ashes wafted out as they entered. A small four-poster bed stood in the corner of the room, its velvet canopy shrouded in a fine layer of dust. The carpet was worn through in places, the mirror above the dressing table foxed with black spots. Eliza’s white face floated like a specter within. The entire room held a sad, gothic fustiness.
“Shall we sleep in the same room tonight?” Eliza set the candelabra on the bedside table. Light jumped across the ceiling, throwing their shadows large upon the wall.
“Yes. I’m not wandering through the rest of this house alone.” Lydia turned down the bed. Dust bounced from the quilted counterpane, drawing a ragged cough from Eliza. “This place could do with a good airing out.”
They freshened up as best they could, then helped each other undress down to their chemises. Eliza nestled beside Lydia under the musty sheets. “I do hope Tante Theo didn’t die in this bed.”
“Wouldn’t that be a thing, to find her ghost staring at us in the middle of the night?” Lydia tied a silk scarf over her loosened curls, blew out the candles, and flopped back onto the mattress. “Tomorrow, we’ll burn a little sage to freshen things.”
“Tomorrow, cher.” Eliza wadded the lumpy pillows beneath her head and closed her eyes. Sleep crawled up and found her quickly, sitting heavily on her chest.
Eliza flew awake, paralyzed, her heart racing like a wild thing. Not again. A scream threatened at the back of her throat. Black, watery shadows loomed in the corners. Eliza closed her eyes and opened them again, grounding her senses in the here and now. She traced the pleats on the canopy with her eyes and counted: One, two, three. Slowly, her pulse steadied. Four, five, six. The feeling returned to her fingers. She gripped the edge of the mattress until they ached. Seven, eight, nine, ten. Her head ceased its crazed spinning. She could breathe.
The dream had been too real this time. Too much like a memory. She could still feel the sharp, choking sting of water and the weight of her dress dragging her to the bottom of the pond, no matter how hard she fought for the surface. But she wasn’t drowning. She was safe in England. Home.
Moonlight streamed through the drapes and limned the room with silver, creating a chiaroscuro painting out of otherwise normal objects. In the distance, thunder crackled a warning. The wind picked up, tearing through the eaves with a wicked howl. A shutter came loose and began thumping against the house, steady as a carpenter’s hammer. Eliza pushed the covers aside, careful not to wake Lydia, and crossed to the casement.
The moon cut a clean, gray path on the ground, broken only by the shadows of scudding clouds. She swung open the sash. Frigid air slammed her full in the face. As she leaned out to pull the wayward shutter to the sill, a familiar sound met her ears. She strained to listen. Hoofbeats.
Suddenly, a horse and rider burst through the trees bordering the ruined mansion she’d seen from the road. They tore across the heath at a full gallop, the horseman’s caped coat flaring out behind him. He sat well in his saddle—riding high in his stirrups as he made a clean jump over a low stone wall and returned to a run. The horse was big and rawboned, perhaps a warmblood or a Friesian. Impressive animal. Bred for kings and war.
A fierce gust of wind hissed through the trees. The shutter tore free from Eliza’s hand and slammed into the side of the house with a crack as loud as a pistol shot. The rider slowed, pivoting in his saddle. From this distance, she could only make out the moonlit oval of his face, but his eyes seemed to meet hers for a long moment. She gasped and took a step backward, the hem of her gown luffing over the sill.
Clouds raced to cover the moon. Sharp droplets spat at the windowpanes as the earthy scent of rain dampened the air. The rider turned and urged his horse back to speed. They were soon gone, disappearing into the birchwood forest. Eliza pulled the drapes closed against the storm, her imagination uncoiling.