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The House on Vesper Sands
Author: Paraic O'Donnell

 


I. REQUIEM ÆTERNAM

 

February 1893

 

 

IN HALF MOON Street, just as she came near to the house, Esther Tull felt the first gentleness of the snow.

She paused at the front steps, setting down her case and extending a gloved hand to the railing. It was not that she felt weak, though she had feared she might. The pain was returning, but it was not yet more than she could bear. It was only that she wanted to look up. The longing was small and simple, and it came to her the moment the first flakes touched her cheek. How delicate they felt. Tender, almost, in the rawness of the air. As a child, Esther had felt a peculiar wonder when it snowed. It was like an enchantment, altering the world and making it quiet. She wanted to lift her face, as she had done then, to the soft tumble of smudges crowding the darkness.

She resisted the urge. She would not look up. There was no joy in such things now. Not in this place, on this of all nights. Instead, taking her left hand from the railing, Esther tugged her right free of its glove. She turned it cautiously, offering her cupped palm to the air, closing her eyes as she waited. A faintness that was almost nothing, then a tiny ache of cold.

At the front door, she collected herself before raising her hand to ring. She looked about her, considering. The servants’ entrance would have been more usual, but for some time now she had been directed not to use it. Esther was given no explanation for this practice and knew better than to inquire further. She twisted the brass turn to sound the bell. Some time would pass, as always, before Mr. Carew saw fit to admit her. No doubt he could bestir himself when the occasion demanded it, but as she turned in from Piccadilly she had heard the striking of half past eight from St. James’s. At this hour no other callers would be expected. Not at this house.

When he appeared at last, he greeted her in his usual fashion, lowering his chin in its swaddle of jowls and raising his hand before he spoke to conceal some imagined cough.

“Well, Miss Tull.” He glanced at the air above her. “That is a bad dose of weather you have brought. We must hope it will not delay His Lordship’s return.”

Esther said nothing in reply. She stood just as she was on the top step, waiting until he should bid her come in. Mr. Carew gazed out into the street a moment longer, then returned his attention to her, as if remembering that she was present. Stooping towards her, he made a show of plucking something from her coat, examining his fingertips as he drew them away.

“Come along, Miss Tull.” He adjusted his bulk, making just enough room to let her pass. “You will be no good to us perished upon the steps.”

Esther followed him through the grand entrance hall, where objects particularly prized by Lord Strythe were mounted on pedestals or loomed in dim recesses. She had never cared to examine these closely, or thought it her place to do so. She was usually conducted without ceremony to the servants’ stairs at the rear of the house. But Mr. Carew paused now before a vacant plinth.

“His Lordship waits upon Lady Ashenden this evening, who is giving a gala ball in his honour. It is to be a grand affair, by all accounts. You will recall the specimen that was mounted here?”

Esther looked in discomfort at the pedestal.

“I’m sure you would, if you saw it again,” Mr. Carew said. “It is a rare bird, Miss Tull, a most notable creature, His Lordship says, that was found in Manchuria or some such place. It has a proper name, but you would have no use for that. It is very like a phoenix, I am told. A great prize, even in such a collection as his. Do you think you could name the price of it?”

With both hands, Esther clasped the handle of her sewing case. Her discomfort had sharpened, though she hoped she gave no sign of it. She shook her head.

“Come now.” Mr. Carew placed his feet a little apart and thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers. It was an unseemly posture, but he felt quite at liberty in her presence. She averted her face.

“You are paler even than usual, Miss Tull. I trust you are not unwell?”

Esther drew in a careful breath. “I am quite well, Mr. Carew.”

“Well, then,” he said. “You must give me your guess as to its price. You do not mean to tell me that you are a woman who does not know the price of things?”

He did not disguise his smirk. She had lived honestly for many years, but it had not always been so. It was useful to them—to Lord Strythe and his underlings—to keep her in mind of what they knew.

“I cannot imagine what the price of it might be, Mr. Carew. I am no judge of such things.”

His features lapsed in dissatisfaction. “Miss Tull,” he said. “Permit yourself one guess, if you please.”

Esther drew her shoulders back and let out a long breath. “Ten pounds,” she said.

Mr. Carew arched away from her as if in horror, bringing the back of his hand to his brow. “Oh, Miss Tull,” he said. “Ten? Ten pounds? Is that a great sum, do you think?”

He looked away, shaking with voiceless laughter.

“Ten pounds, she says, for a bird that is very nearly a cousin to the phoenix? For a bird that might have taken wing from the ashes of a fire? Why, it is very nearly priceless, but such is His Lordship’s generosity that he intends to offer it for auction at the gala. The proceeds are to go to his new institution.” When Esther made no reply, he grew stern again and repeated himself. “Such is his generosity, Miss Tull.”

She could not bring herself to respond, only lowering her head in a manner that might appear deferential. She sensed that he was not entirely satisfied by this, but he was distracted at that moment by the appearance of a serving boy. He was a slight youth of thirteen or fourteen—Esther had seen him on other occasions—and encumbered by a mass of white flowers very nearly half his own size.

“Begging your pardon, Mr. Carew,” he said. “I was to give you word, you said, when the arrangement come in.”

“Go and stand them in water, you mongrel, before the carpet is ruined. The dust from the lilies is a curse. Has the instrument maker come?”

“No sign yet, sir.”

“Be sure to tell me when he does. There are instructions from His Lordship. Get along with you now.” Carew produced a plump pocket watch and clucked at it in disapproval. “Come, Miss Tull,” he said, as if the delay had been of her making. “We haven’t the whole night to stand around gawking.”

The workroom was on the fourth floor. Mr. Carew was not sprightly, and he made slow going of the climb. At each landing he paused to fuss over some small task—to rub at some invisible smear or inspect the wick of a lamp—until he had recovered his breath. Esther had often chafed at having to keep to his pace. She knew the way well enough, and might have made the ascent alone in half the time, had the circumstances been otherwise. But she was glad tonight to remain unheeded at his back, and to be spared any greater exertion. The climb had disturbed the wounds. She was conscious now of a rupturing, of a seeping heat. Some sound might escape her, if it worsened. Something might show.

Mr. Carew lumbered onwards, giving no sign that he had taken notice, and she saw nothing else that seemed out of the ordinary. A footman stood aside as they approached, a cloak of freshly brushed velvet draped over one arm. Behind certain doors, when they passed, subdued conversations could be heard, or the muted clamour of servants at some obscure but pressing business. In this house, a great deal happened that went unseen.

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