The morning paper, as always, proves an invaluable source of the latest lurid news in Her Majesty's realm. In overwrought prose, I read about a woman who drowned her three children, a strangling in Oxford, a parrot that can predict the future, an unsolved crime scene. The last report piques my interest: three members of the nobility have been found inexplicably dead, with their throats torn out. Seemingly self-inflicted. And in each case, the witnesses independently tell of a strange, almost bitter scent that lingers days after the removal of the corpses. The most recent autopsies have been inconclusive.
I hesitate, before stowing this prospective case in my coat pocket. Although I am curious as to my brother's opinion on the matter, I cannot find it in myself to indulge my penchant for mystery-solving at a time like this. March has crept into May, and before I was aware of it all, June had arrived, the damp, unwelcome visitor that it is. The papers celebrate the anniversary of the Queen's coronation, but I think only of Riff's death. I turn over the other item delivered today, the telegraph, wondering if I should, instead, humor Mary with a visit to one of her cousins. This house reminds me of all I have lost, and I just want to forget for a while.
A quick search for my brother finds him under the trees with Mary and Oscar. The grass is still damp from yesterday's rain, but one of the maids has wisely spread out a blanket. At one corner, Mary hums as she weaves together another daisy chain. Only a keen eye will note that the distance between her and my brother is greater than that between her and Oscar. One of her daisy chains hangs around Cassian's neck, as he occasionally nudges Jezabel's hand when he stops petting him.
I'm not convinced of the dog's identity, but I can't say I'm bothered by its presence. I still remember the day it came to stay with us at the mansion. It took me three tries to understand what my brother was going on about. From his blotchy complexion, I thought he had been crying over one of his animals: perhaps one had died—eaten by a predator, or hunted mistakenly by a villager. Instead, he told me, in breathless fragments, that Cassian had returned, that it certainly was him, there was no other explanation. The diagonal patch of fur that he eagerly pointed out was hardly convincing, but the way the puppy simply sat on its haunches, completely at ease and perhaps even a little grumpy, endeared it to me. After all the misery that this house has seen, some new life might brighten it, I reasoned. Whether or not it is the reincarnation of Cassian, I may never know, but I will give my brother this, for it seems cruel to spoil his happiness, no matter how frail it might be.
The night it arrived, one of the maids tried to keep it in the kitchens, but it broke free, and as if it had a magnetic draw to my brother, refused to budge from its position outside his door, like a perturbed sentinel. This continued on for several nights, until eventually, we allotted it a cushion for it to sleep on, at the foot of Jezabel's bed. Even if it is merely a dog, its presence has decreased the frequency of his night terrors, and while I miss sleeping next to my brother, I am glad that my comfort is less necessary than it used to be.
"Here." Mary extends the finished daisy chain to Oscar, who places it next to his teacup. "Oh, no, that won't do," she continues. "You must wear it."
"Mary, men can't do that," Oscar protests.
"Oh, but you must, if we are to be wed," Mary taunts, her eyes alight with childish amusement.
Oscar attempts to appeal to my brother. "Come, we men must stick together!"
"You should listen to her," Jezabel replies, without looking up from his novel. Absentmindedly, he turns the page. "You'll never hear the end of it, if you don't."
Mary nearly laughs in approval. "Why, yes, Oscar. I shan't forget it."
Reluctantly, Oscar wears it, and although he feigns defeat, I catch his small smile at the way Mary claps her hands together in joy. I revel in her happiness for a few moments, before making my presence known.
"Oh, big brother!" Mary beams at me, and for a moment, I forget all my cares. "I'll make you one too."
"My other brother-in-law!" Oscar seizes the opportunity to embrace me; I suspect him of sublimating his feelings for me into protecting Mary, but I have grown accustomed to it. I think he is lonely without Mary and me. However, his disregard for personal space irritates me, and I push him aside.
"Are you being a nuisance again?" I ask him, as I settle down beside Jezabel,
"You're terribly unfair. How is a man to win against two brothers?"
"That's your problem, isn't it?" I smirk. I turn to my brother, and with a tone of feigned casualness, I tell him, "If Oscar gets too irritating, you can always hide his body in the shed."
"How cruel you are," Oscar protests. He pouts, but it does not last for long: he returns to babbling about the birds nestling in a nearby tree.
My attention turns to my brother, who sets the novel down. The Woman in White, I note. I haven't read it; I prefer the sordid autobiographies, the morbid crimes. Uncle Neil, mercifully, has yet to discover my collection of Jack the Ripper clippings and reports.
"Are you going down to London?" Jezabel asks me, carefully nonchalant.
I shake my head. "I got a telegram from one of my-our cousins in Manchester." If Jezabel noticed my slight correction, he says nothing on it, and so I continue, relieved. "Rose wanted to see Mary again, and I was wondering if you wanted to come along. I could use some company."
He thinks on it a little, not entirely convinced, and so I play my ace in the hole. "Besides," I add, "I hear she has a truly magnificent collection of Arabian horses. I'm sure Aunt Margaret won't object to our taking some on a ride while the girls have their reunion."
"Aright," he agrees, but he still seems reluctant.
What goes unsaid is the problem that Father has left us—the problem of living that neither my brother and I can seem to solve. The anniversary of Father and Riff's death will be among us in less than a week. Although it is not a physical entity—only attached to the purely human realm of dates—it exerts its pull on me, drawing me in like the tides: it consumes my waking hours, and I find myself more short-tempered than usual. It casts a pallor over the entire house: Mary has redoubled her efforts at cheeriness, bustling about with her ready smiles, but when she thinks herself alone, her shoulders droop from weariness and she sighs like her heart is breaking. Jezabel, on the other hand, has taken the opposite approach, and has refused twice now in the past few days to come down for dinner, opting instead to brood alone, despite my insistence that starving himself would only worry Uncle Neil and me. Part of me fears that this is the prelude to a melancholy that will never lift, despite my efforts. Sometimes, I catch Jezabel simply staring out the windows, as expressionless as one of Mary's dolls, or reading words that do not register with him, for he'll read the same page several times. And I, I cannot bear to think on all I have lost, so I will lose myself in the little affairs of Mary, until the week has passed and the curse lifted. Perhaps it is unfair to Riff, to not mark his passing, but the weight his death left is so heavy that I fear it will suffocate the last of my will.
Perhaps a trip to Manchester will suffice to take our minds off the anniversary.
Much of the carriage ride is spent listening to Mary prattle on about her cousin Rose, but as the land passes by, all I can think on is Father's words: And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden. Is this, then, Nod? Cain's land, to live out the rest of his days? As hard as I try, this is not my country, for even among the family, I am marked. I am the one most intertwined with Father, even now. Do I have a country, or am I truly the one in exile? After all, I am the one, not Cain, who has eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and whose eyes are opened, irrevocably. As much as I try to put the past aside, I find that it has a way of getting loose, bleeding into the present.
Perhaps this entire affair is a Gordian knot, impossible to untangle. But how, then, do I sever myself from Father, when I cannot determine which parts are mine and which are borne of his hand? Should I just arbitrarily decide then, what belongs to whom? But that is a useless endeavor, for I cannot find my way back to the garden, back to a state free of sin. These fragments Father left will have to suffice, but I cannot seem to make them into something viable. Even now, with the passage of time, that age-old remedy for every ill, I am still lacking something that I fear—or, perhaps, know—cannot be returned to me.
There always remains a distance between the world and I, that I neither cannot bridge nor erase. Often, I feel as if I am merely playing charades with the others, pretending at being whole. A masquerade, then, that only I am aware of. Often, I think the world has moved on without me, while I arrange and re-arrange the pieces that are left of me. Trying to find the solution that may not even exist.
Mary interrupts my thoughts. "Don't you want lunch?" She offers me a wrapped sandwich, with her impossibly tiny hands. "Anna made sure there was one without any meat."
I shake my head. "Perhaps later."
Cain, unfortunately, recognizes my strategy. "You really should."
A conflict within me ensues, between the rational, coldly logical part that doubts he means any harm and the terror of my instincts that tell me that his insistence signifies that this is a trap.
Mary picks precisely the wrong time to press on. "You'll get sick if you don't eat."
My pulse starts to race again. My first impulse is to bolt, but I'm trapped here in the carriage, with these people who do not understand the sense of helplessness that comes from being controlled from the inside.
"No," I reply, a little more harshly than I intended, as I unconsciously move closer to the door.
Confusion and worry register on her face, and under that is that ever-present fear that I inspire in her. At the sight, I want to hit her so badly, to strike the childish concern straight off her face. Her cornflower-blue eyes, full of innocence and possibility and sadness, sicken me. Her thoughts are as clear as if she had spoken them; street-child that she is, she cannot fathom how someone would willingly refuse to eat, would willingly do what I have done. Although Cain tries to keep her unaware of the going-ons in the house, she is hardly a dull child. Unwise at times, but terribly clever. I would not be surprised if this is her childish attempt to remedy the situation—to appeal to a vestige of affection she hopes I have for her.
She is terribly wrong on that account. I care little for her, as I see in her only another filthy human who will despoil the natural world. Had things been different, I might have come to see her as a substitute for my sisters, but I cannot erase the fear she has of me, and she cannot undo what Father has wrought with her soft, careful words.
Over Cain's warning look, Oscar immediately intervenes, in that joking manner of his. (I wonder if he has ever taken anything seriously in his life.) "Come now, you'll just make her worry, and we can't have that."
Of course not. Mary's innocence is paramount to anything else. The glass fantasy she lives in must be preserved, even when the dream has long since ended. If Cain were honest with himself, he would have realized that his coddling does her no justice. But, I suppose, he is only trying to give her what he never had—at my expense. Always my expense. And suddenly, throwing myself out of the moving carriage seems perfectly reasonable.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, Cain takes notice of my state. "Later," he concedes, quietly, knowing that I was merely stalling. The note of disappointment in his voice wounds me, wounds the part of me that cannot refrain from trying to please, no matter the cost.
An uncomfortable silence lapses amongst us: an unpleasant brew of fear and unease. Mary alternates between watching Cain and I, eyes large from worry. Peeking out from under her sun-bonnet, as if she wants nothing more than to hide; Oscar tries to distract her with an anecdote, but there is a pause in her smiles and haughty remarks.
Cassian jumps onto my lap, no doubt a gesture meant to soothe, but I push him aside, gently but firmly. I don't want his pity. The wounded look he gives me, ears lowered, as he retreats next to Mary, almost brings me to tears, and so I stare out the window, unable to meet his gaze. Trying to keep myself from trembling with an overwhelming sense of shame at my inability to adjust to this new world—to live without Father. Repressing the urge to break something—anything—I cross my arms against the disappointment and fear from my companions. I don't know why they expected anything different from me; I'm not any different. I'm just as ugly inside as I have always been.
Anger comes over me, at Cain's decision to not allow me to grieve alone on the anniversary of Father's death, at Oscar's feigned concern, anger at Mary's lack of tacit. But most of all, I am angry with myself—I am the one out of place.
The Carlyle residence has always been a little overstuffed, even by the standards of the aristocracy, and as I navigate through plumes of flowers and silver trinkets, I mentally prepare myself for tonight's affair. Having been isolated from my extended family for most of my life, I still find visiting them a little unnerving, knowing my reputation—and the cursed blood in my veins. Still, I cannot let Father keep me from my family. He cannot have this. Rose is pleasant enough to me, but she cannot disguise her love for Mary; despite my happiness that Mary has been accepted so warmly in spite of her birth, I find myself battling the ranklings of jealousy that she has it so easy when I must prove myself again and again.
As the day carries on into evening, Mary is put to bed, against her protests that she is old enough to attend. A deeply bored sigh comes from Cassian, as he lies down under the piano bench. My brother has not adopted his typical vacant stare, but rather keeps twisting a corner of his coat, irritation on his face. Well, I can handle that. I carefully slip my hand over his, to reassure him, but as soon as I make contact, he jerks his hand away and turns away from me. Well then. I cannot keep a small wave of annoyance from coming over me. If he wants to act like an angry, spoiled child after all we have been through, then he can do so alone.
While I wish Mary had not pressed him, I wish he could understand that she did so out of love, not malice. It is not fair to make her worry, when she has already been through so much. Why does he feel entitled to act as though he is the only one affected by the anniversary? I have spent the past few nights unable to sleep under the covers because their heaviness reminds me of Father's weight, on those nights when the whippings did not suffice. It is such a strange thing, when ordinary, insignificant details begin to take on a life of their own. Blankets, roses, phrases. The way the morning light falls through the space Riff has left. It is as though my grief has taken a life of its own, somehow, demanding to be known.
Part of me wants to commiserate with Jezabel, to see if I am not alone in this feelings, given that he is the only other one left of my past, but the other part is, strangely enough, hurt that he refused my comfort. And I wonder if Riff ever felt this way with me: upset that I cannot trust so easily, after all these years, and guilt over his death drags at me again. Perhaps I am asking an impossible feat of my brother, but I cannot bear to be alone with my thoughts at such a time. If I am honest, I want someone to take Riff's place again: to take care of me and the household. To accompany me and to give me respite, no matter how brief. Instead, I find myself helpless again, and too weary to deal with what will no doubt become another slide into the fog.
The guests begin to trickle in. Lord Pendleton, one of Father's associates, briefly discusses with me some of Father's business interests in coal, and uncomfortable, I find myself longing to escape.
I remember how Riff used to make a cage out of his arms for my fearful bird of a heart, and I long for the past again. To be cradled in certainty. But I could not ask it of Jezabel, to be Riff's substitute, when I am the only one keeping him from the abyss of his own mind.
Frustration and perhaps even resentment seem to govern our relationship, as of late. I cannot deny that I am upset with him, for retreating to his old ways of pushing everyone away, in the hopes that isolation will improve the situation.
It might be a trick of the time, but I find myself longing for the past when I could let another shoulder my burdens, instead of carrying the weight of two. If I have never had a childhood, I also seem to have skipped over the carefree days of early adulthood.
Spotting my brother, I weave around Lady Jane, preoccupied with a painting. She gives me a look as if longing to say something to me, but I am not in the mood to hear yet another admission of love. It nearly bores me, to have women throw themselves at me, for the face I wear, for my inheritance, for my title.
Away from prying ears, I stop him. "Do eat something," I say wearily. "You're being very selfish."
Jezabel gives me a long, cold look. "It is none of your concern."
"You act as though you are the only one who suffers around here." As the words fall, I immediately long to take them back. Weariness has made me harsher than I am, and his momentary, wide-eyed look of hurt pains me. In that moment, fear rules me: fear that I have damaged our relationship beyond repair, that I have pushed him too hard and he will lash out at me. And then his expression abruptly vanishes, replaced by one of petulance, and relief rushes over me.
He fumbles for an adequate retort, and finding none, storms off.
Jezabel spends the entire dinner pointedly ignoring me—a considerable feat considering that we are seated next to each other. I meet his childishness with some of my own. Unlike Riff, however, he pretends not to care, as the woman next to me, a daughter of some earl, grows increasingly flustered at my flirtations. He, in return, puts on a facade of sweet earnestness and naivety, entertaining Rose with what must be the highlights of his medical endeavors. I notice that he is omitting the disturbing parts and modifying it into the travels of a country doctor, when it ought to be something akin to a penny dreadful.
Annoyed, I return to my neighbor, speaking loud enough that he can hear me as well. "Do tell, what phase is the moon in tonight?"
"A new moon, I think ," she replies, perplexed at my question. "Yes, it must be."
I feign an exhale of worry. "How dreadful. That's when the inccubi come out." Although Jezabel maintains his charming act with considerable skill, I notice him briefly raise an incredulous eyebrow. Encouraged, I continue. "You must be careful: the incubi love to feed on the souls of pretty maidens." It's a line I have used on another girl, but this one's eyes light up all the same. Jezabel, on the other hand, chokes on his wine.
Pleased that I have broken through his resolve, I pass the rest of the meal driving my neighbor mad with little hints, and have almost grown bored of the entire affair, when the group decides to divide up along gender lines. As I depart to the smoking room with the men, I give her a seductive smile, making sure that my brother notices. He, however, still makes no remark on it, and I consider bedding her, just to get a rise out of him. It wouldn't be the first time I used that particular tactic of revenge, although that place of honor used to belong to Riff.
Soon, the air fills with pipe smoke and laughter, as Lord Gilroy relates the highlights of his hunting trip abroad. I catch Jezabel's distaste when the deer in the story is finally slaughtered—to roars of approval. His hand tightens around the stem of his glass, and for a moment, pity comes over me. Although hunting is a favorite pastime of the aristocracy, I have not indulged in it precisely for his sake, and because that I find no pleasure in seeing the hounds rend some fox into pieces. The odds seem unfair, somehow.
The group disperses for some fresh air, and I have begun to make my way over to Jezabel, who, by now, has progressed to glaring at Lord Gilroy, when I hear a shriek from the drawing room. Rushing to the source, I find Lady Jane, pale and trembling. She clasps a hand to her mouth.
"Oh, it's dreadful," she stammers. "Don't look."
Sprawled across the balcony is Lord Pendleton. His throat opened, and a scent of bitter almonds lingering in the evening air.