Charlotte markham and the house of darkling

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Charlotte Markhamand theHouseofDarkling

Michael Boccacino

Dedication

For my mother

Contents

Cover

Title Page

Dedication

Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Part 2

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Part 3

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Acknowledgments

P.S.: Insights, Interviews & More . . .

About the author

About the book

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Advance Praise forCharlotte Markham and the House of Darkling

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

Part 1

The Other Side

CHAPTER 1

The Unraveling of Nanny Prum

Every night I dreamt of the dead. In dreams those who have been lost can be found, gliding on fragments of memory through the dark veil of sleep to ensnare themselves within the remains of the day, to pretend for a moment like a lifetime that they might still be alive and well, waiting by the bedside when the dream is done. They never were, but I could not stop myself from wishing for the possibility that everything I remembered was a mistake, a nightmare taken too literally by the imagination. But morning always came, and with it the startling realization that the dead continued to be so, and that I remained alone.

That night the pleasant rest of black, unthinking oblivion gave way to a dimly lit ballroom without any ceiling or walls, a place lost in the bleak abyss of time. Crystal chandeliers hung above the marble flooring untethered to any surface, threatening to crash down upon the guests, who were dressed in moldering finery that would have been out of fashion decades before. The dance began with a slow, melodious waltz that felt akin to a waking sleep, and I let it wash over me, swaying with the rhythm until someone from behind took me into his arms. I did not need to see his face; I knew who it was. My late husband, Jonathan, turned with me across the ballroom, faster and faster, never reaching any wall or barrier, never colliding with another couple, until he dipped me deeply. My mother and father were next to us, warm and whole, younger than I ever remembered them being. This was the dance of the dead.

The music stopped. My husband let go of me and bowed before retreating into the dark place beyond the ballroom. The room began to fill with people I did not recognize—leering strangers with faces that were really masks, ready to slip at any moment. My parents disappeared into the crowd. I tried to find them, but the crowd was too large and the music began again, this time an eerie, cruel sound, a broken music box filled with regret. A man appeared before me dressed all in black, his features cloaked in shadow. As he took my hand I knew with a certainty that only dreams can provide that he was not a stranger; we had met before. His hands were cold and his lips, though I could not see them, were smiling. The other dancers spun around us until they blurred together. He pulled me close against his body, into the darkness that surrounded him until I was falling, the chandeliers trailing away as I spun through the void, screaming into nothingness.

I woke upon the realization that the screams were not my own. A woman was shrieking in the night. At first I was deeply annoyed, for anyone blessed with the company of another could at least have the decency to keep their nocturnal enjoyments to themselves. But then I wondered at the length of the cry, and the tone. Whatever was happening didn't sound very pleasurable, and if it was meant to be, then both parties involved had failed. There was something primal and finite in it, and when it stopped it did not begin again. The sound had come from outside my window, and for a moment I thought to tell my father, but then I remembered that he was dead and my heart fell as I lost him all over again. The feeling passed quickly, as it was something I was accustomed to; the same thing happened at the end of every dream.

I shook my head, refusing to dwell on it. A woman was in trouble, and there were not many who lived within the confines of the estate that I would not count as my friends. I threw off the blankets and ran to the wardrobe, pulling out my warm dressing gown. Winter was coming, and the house was growing colder every evening. I pulled my hair over one shoulder, like my mother used to, thinking how much it was like hers—soft and pale gold in the moonlight, lacking only her distinctive scent of lilac and jasmine. I observed myself quickly in the mirror. Every photograph of my mother had been lost in a fire years before, and when in need of comfort or strength I could sometimes find traces of her in my own features. Though I was taller than she had been, I had the same short, pointed nose and lips that were always slightly parted, as if I had something to say (which I often did), and hazel eyes like my father's. I slid the robe over my white cotton nightgown, the one Jonathan had loved so much, and left my room.

Everton was a large country house, and while it had once been very fine, it had fallen into a comfortable state of disrepair well before my arrival nine months earlier. The burgundy carpets in the hallway were worn and fraying at the edges; the gaslights, turned down to candle flames with just enough light to cast rich black shadows along the walls, were tarnished; the floral pattern of the wallpaper cracked and withered on the vines as it peeled away from the walls. This condition was not for lack of trying. Mrs. Norman, the housekeeper, seemed to hire new maids daily in her futile efforts to bring the house back to its former glory, but it was no use. The manor continued to crumble away. Just the week before, the cook claimed to have seen mice scurrying about her kitchen. The other servants had started to whisper that the spirit of the house, if there ever were such a thing, had died with its mistress the year before.

For my part I did not mind the imperfections of the place. There was a warmth to it, a kind of intimacy that only comes with age, like the creases around the mouth that appear after years of excessive smiling, or a favorite blanket worn down from friendly use. It was certainly less intimidating than the cold, austere manors found in the larger towns and cities. Everton was happily flawed, like any person of true merit. It was a house of character, and I sustained that thought as I padded down the dark hallway.

The children had their nanny in a room connected to the nursery, but all the same I felt responsible as their governess to look in on them. Nanny Prum was known to drink after putting the children to bed. She was a very silly drunk, tripping over carpets and talking to birdcages as if they were party guests in a very high-pitched voice that was not at all like the deep baritone she usually employed while sober. Because of her predilections she slept very deeply, and a random sound in the night was unlikely to disturb her whereas it could very well tip the younger of the two boys into a web of nightmares that the both of us would then have to spend the remainder of the evening cooing and coddling away.

The door opened as I approached it, and a small head with wild blond hair emerged from the gloom, peering in my direction with round green eyes.

“Charlotte?”

“Go back to sleep, James.” I took him gently by the hand and led him back into the room, but not before he stuck out his bottom lip with indignation.

“But I heard a noise and Nanny isn't in her room and I'm scared,” he said in a single breath. I sat him down on his bed and smoothed out his hair, brushing it away from his face as his older brother, Paul, growled dangerously from beneath a mound of covers at the other end of the room, apparently as resolute in not being disturbed by the nocturnal rustlings of the house as his five-year-old brother was in taking part in them. James had left Nanny Prum's door half open.

“Are you sure she's not there?” I asked him in a voice just above a whisper. The little boy nodded carefully, wide-eyed and eager to be of help in the strange business of adults that only takes place when children are asleep in bed. I lifted him so that he straddled my waist and entered the nanny's room.

The bed was indeed empty, and I began to worry. Nanny Prum was not the sort of person to leave the children unattended, and she was certainly not the type to wander the grounds of the estate at night, even while intoxicated. She was a woman of some physical substance, and there were few people in the village who were not intimidated by her girth.

I tucked James back into bed and stroked his forehead until he fell asleep again. Paul continued undeterred from his slumber, and I sat in Nanny's rocking chair curled into a blanket like an old maid, which was how I felt—full of maternal feeling for the children and anxiety at the absence of my friend and confidant. Only a year before I would have been lying next to my husband in bed, the mistress of my own estate. How odd are the places one finds oneself as time passes. It's best not to look back, but how can one resist? I slept very briefly, the specters of the past only just uncoiling from my subconscious like a blot of ink unspooling itself in a pool of water, before the door to the nursery was opened by one of the maids.

“Mrs. Markham?” she whispered in surprise. I put a finger to my lips and met her by the door, careful not to wake the children. She appeared very frightened, and I placed my hand over hers. She was shaking.

“What is it, Ellen?”

The maid closed her eyes and grasped the silver cross that hung around her neck with callused fingers. She was a stout, rotund woman, never one to talk out of turn and hardly ever intimidated by anything, but all decorum seemed to have left her as she took my hand and kissed it. Her lips were as rough as her hands looked.

“Oh, thank the Lord, Charlotte! When I went to your room and found it empty, I was certain that . . .” She stopped herself and sighed. “You're needed in the kitchen.”

“At this hour?”

“It's a dreadful thing, too dreadful to mention so close to the ears of the children, be they sleeping or awake. I'll keep watch over them while you're gone.”

She patted my hand but would tell me no more than she already had, so I left the boys in her care. The house was still dark, but now there were footsteps in addition to my own, and voices. In another room, a woman who was not Nanny Prum spoke quickly in a trembling voice. I crept along the hallway, down the grand staircase, through the dining room, and into the kitchen, where a small group of people had gathered over a pale figure collapsed on the cool stone floor. It was Susannah Larken, the apprentice seamstress from the village, wife of the local barkeep, and my friend.

Her head was in the large lap of Mrs. Mulbus, the cook, who knelt on the ground and stroked the side of the poor girl's face, which was now nearly as red as her hair. Mrs. Norman, the housekeeper, and Fredricks, the butler, stood anxiously beside them.

I bent down and took her hand. The wild look in Susannah's eyes abated slightly, and her breathing returned to normal.

“Oh, Charlotte, it was dreadful!” She blinked away tears and began to sob.

Mrs. Norman, a severe, controlling woman with a hook nose and an anxious, birdlike disposition, continued speaking where my friend could not. “There's been a murder,” she said with a hungry, ghoulish enthusiasm.

I wanted to slap the housekeeper's face for her repulsive insensitivity, but I restrained myself as Susannah sat up and continued her story.

“I was taking Mr. Wallace home from the pub. He'd had a bit too much to drink, and Lionel was busy behind the bar. Mrs. Wallace couldn't be bothered to collect him. You know how that woman is.”

I nodded in agreement. Mildred Wallace was the village busybody, eager to know everyone else's business so that she might forget her own. For years her husband had been the most loyal customer of the Larken brothers' pub, the Crooked Stool, but she continued to deny it, telling anyone who would listen how much her dear Edgar loved his nighttime strolls about the village.

Susannah curled her lip into a sneer. “Wouldn't lift a finger to help a soul, not even her own husband. I took him home to his cottage and went back by the path along the lake. That's when I heard the scream, that terrible sound, and I saw them at the edge of the forest behind Everton. There was a man standing over a woman on the ground, a man dressed all in black.” Suddenly I remembered the man from my dream. My mouth went dry and a chill prickled across the surface of my skin. I brushed the thought aside as mere coincidence and begged her to go on.

“Lionel had given me the club, just in case I had any trouble.” She fingered the wooden bat at her side, a small, heavy thing with just enough force to knock some sense into a drunken attacker, but perhaps not enough to ward off someone with murder on his mind.

“I ran over to help her, but there was nothing to be done . . .” Her voice gave out, and she closed her eyes as if to stop herself from seeing it all again. I squeezed her hand, and brought it to my cheek.

“Who was it, Susannah?”

She took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

“It was Nanny Prum . . . all in pieces. Like she'd come apart from the inside.”

I looked up at the others, but none of them could meet my gaze. They were all lost in shock. Even Mrs. Norman's unpleasant interest in the matter had soured. For myself I could not believe that something so horrific could possibly have happened in a village as quiet as Blackfield, at a house as great and noble as Everton. I believed Susannah and everything she said, but just as I did when I woke from my nightmares, wishing them real and everyone I ever loved still alive and well, I hoped that there had been a misunderstanding, some mistake, perhaps a play of shadows and moonlight over the ground that had made the situation more grotesque than it actually was.

“The constable . . .” I spoke up weakly but felt as if I might be sick, for when I said it aloud I knew that there could have been no mistake. Susannah, having worked for many years in a dress shop and in a pub, had an eye for detail no matter how small. Something unspeakable had happened to Nanny Prum in the woods. Who would tell the children?

Fredricks spoke up in a wavering, nervous voice that was not much different from the one he normally used. “Mr. Darrow and Roland have already gone to fetch him.”

“He saved my life . . .” Susannah's eyes began to glaze over again with a look lost in terror and madness. Her nails dug into the flesh of my hand. “When I ran to help her, the man in black tried to come toward me. He smelled dreadful, like the very depths of Hell. It was so strong it burned my throat. I nearly fainted, but then Roland was there and the man fled into the woods. He saved my life.” She started to sob again, but then caught herself. “Someone must tell Lionel.”

“Of course.” I looked to Fredricks, and he left to fetch Susannah's husband, who was probably still closing down the pub. Mrs. Mulbus made a pot of tea while we waited for the constable to arrive. He was not much help when he did.

“Looks like wild animals to me” was the first thing he said after he swept into the kitchen with Roland, the groundskeeper of the estate, whose burly appearance belied a gentle, soft-spoken disposition. He nodded to me as he leaned against the wall, recovering from what I could only imagine to be an extended state of exhaustion and shock. Constable Brickner, a portly, balding man with a weak chin and a mustache too large for his face, was not a popular man. Whatever the crime, he didn't inspect it so much as pass judgment on it, disregarding facts and eyewitness accounts in favor of his own infallible opinion. Luckily, his opinion was easily swayed by whomever he last spoke with, and all anyone had to do to win an argument was to be the last one to speak to him before the case was closed.

Behind him, the door stood open, the dark of the forest beyond fractured in the moonlight until Mr. Darrow, the master of the house, stepped forward to follow the constable inside, his skin pale and radiant against the shadows, his dark blond hair tangled and windswept, his cheeks mottled from the cold. He looked at me directly as he crossed the threshold into the kitchen, and in his eyes I saw that it was as bad as anything I could imagine. We were the closest to Nanny Prum, and for a moment it was just the two of us in the kitchen, framed in that moment of time by the beginnings of grief and an almost conversational familiarity with death.

“But there was a man, I saw him!” Susannah was feeling much better now and sitting at the cutting table, eating from a plate of biscuits that Mrs. Mulbus was nearly forcing into her mouth with meaty fingers.

Brickner stroked his mustache and squinted. “Surely no man could dothat.” He did not elaborate, but the emphasis on the word was enough for me to envision what was left of my friend on the floor of the forest. Nanny Prum had been a force of nature in her own right, and whatever happened to her, it would have taken an enormous amount of strength in addition to the obvious brutality.

“Perhaps he found the body before you did and ran off for fear of being mistaken for a killer.” Constable Brickner picked up two biscuits, and then another, eating each in a single bite. Eventually Susannah pushed the plate toward him, but Mrs. Mulbus took it away with a look of disgust before he could finish them all off.

“He came toward me when I tried to go to her. He was going to attack me.” Susannah's voice began to rise, but Brickner shook his head with blustering confidence.

“No man in town could do such a thing. Must have been an animal. I'm sure of it.”

Susannah stood from her chair, but Lionel came in at that moment with Fredricks and instead of launching herself at the constable, as she appeared ready to do, she collapsed into the arms of her husband. He took her home, a sobbing mess of nerves, while Mr. Darrow joined Roland and Brickner in collecting the remains of Nanny Prum. Mrs. Mulbus cleaned the kitchen after everyone had left, while Mrs. Norman and I went back to our rooms.

“Someone will have to tell the children,” said the housekeeper.

I wondered if she was assigning me the task or asking to do it herself, so all I gave her was a weary nod of the head. I did not look forward to the days ahead. The children had already seen too much death in recent years with the passing of their mother, the late Mrs. Darrow, the year before, and the loss of another woman from their lives was bound to do untold damage to the boys' already broken hearts.

“Tomorrow,” I said quietly. When I relieved Ellen of her watch over the children, they were, fortunately, fast asleep. I returned to my room and slipped out of my winter robe, back beneath the covers of the bed, already chilled from my absence. But I could not sleep. I rarely dreamt of the same thing twice, but that night I could not repel the fear that if I closed my eyes I would find myself once more in the infinite and mysterious ballroom, my lost loved ones now accompanied by the large, imposing figure of Nanny Prum, dancing amid a room full of strangers led by the man in black, further and further into the darkness.

I rose from my bed and paused at the door to my room, fingertips grazing the doorknob with trepidation, knowing full well what would happen if I left my chamber and wandered the dim corridors of Everton until I found refuge in the place I went when the nightmares became too much to bear.

I opened the door and stepped into the hallway. The air was cool inside the house, but the carpet was soft and warm against the soles of my feet. I ventured up the stairwell of the east wing and came to a set of double doors I had discovered on a similar evening months earlier, just after my arrival at Everton.

The loss of Jonathan had felt especially fresh that night, but I refused to cry alone in my room. I needed to separate myself from the sorrow, to put it somewhere and lock it away for safekeeping, where it would be waiting for me to take it out again on other lonely nights, so that I might explore it in the darkness that lay beyond midnight.

The space behind the double doors might have once been a music room, but the instruments had been covered in sheets and stacked against the walls for storage. The only piece of furniture that remained was a simple divan. I had found Mr. Darrow standing before the window gazing pensively into the night. I tried to turn back, but he had already noticed my presence and beckoned for me to join him.

“This was her favorite room. She played music, you know . . . the harp, piano, violin . . . They said she was a prodigy when she was young.”

“Jonathan liked the accordion. It was utterly ridiculous, but he always made me laugh with the dance he did as he played.” I smiled at the memory and noticed that Mr. Darrow was staring at me with a curious look, as if he were searching for something in my eyes. I turned away.

“There are times I'm in town, or in the city, when I see a woman from behind. I know it can't be her, but her hair may be just right, and her dress so familiar that I want to take her into my arms before she can turn around and break the illusion. Am I insane?”

“Grief makes us all mad. I often imagine that I'm able to speak with him one last time.”

“What do you say?”

My throat tightened, but still I smiled, a portrait of Victorian composure despite the maelstrom of pain and regret that spun so quickly in my chest I felt as if it would tear my flesh away in strips from the inside out, until nothing would be left and everything I felt erupted out of me to devour the world.

“So many things. What would you say to your wife?”

“I would tell her about the boys, as best I could. She loved them so. I'm afraid I've been rather distant with them. I would ask for her forgiveness on that point as well.”

“She would forgive you.”

“You're a kind soul, Mrs. Markham.”

“We're only as kind as people perceive us to be.” I almost finished by calling him Jonathan, but caught myself before the word could form on my lips. Instead it stayed with me, calming the whirl of emotion that had built inside, and even though I kept the name in the silence that settled over us as we sat down beside one another on the divan, I knew that I had given it to him already. From that night on, we became nocturnal confidants, meeting in the sanctuary of the music room whenever fate and mourning compelled us to happen upon one another and remember aloud our lost loved ones as the sky beyond the windowpane turned with the stars into morning. At times our sessions together would only end when the sun threatened to appear over the horizon; at others they would continue on until a lull in the conversation became punctuated by a prolonged stare, or an accidental touch of one hand against the other charged the space between us with something unspoken and unacknowledged. We filled the music room with many things, but always left them there when we were done.

It was with great relief and little surprise that I found Mr. Darrow on the divan the night of Nanny Prum's murder, and together we sat in the darkness to wordlessly become reacquainted with the third member of our party: death.

CHAPTER 2

An Inconvenient Holiday

The funeral was held at St. Michael's Church, a little toy parish on top of a hill overlooking the quaint village graveyard overrun with wildflowers and ivy. The vicar, Mr. Scott, a middle-aged bachelor with hair so fine and delicate it seemed to float over his head like a halo, gave an unusually somber sermon, only sporadically interrupted by Mr. Wallace's drunken outbursts. The poor man hadn't stopped drinking since he'd heard what almost happened to Susannah after she took him home from the pub the week before. His wife, Mildred, stood stiffly beside him clutching his arm, trying not to grunt as she struggled to keep him standing through the service. The two of them swayed back and forth, nearly making the rest of the mourners seasick. In a way, I felt that Nanny Prum would have approved of the spectacle.

I stood with the Darrow family at the front of the church, before the colossal casket that Mr. Darrow had purchased. Nanny Prum had no family, or at least none that she ever spoke of, and so Mr. Darrow had spared no expense with the costs of the funeral. She had been a large woman in life, and the size of her coffin only highlighted the strangeness of her demise. Stranger still were the boys themselves. James held my hand and fidgeted in his seat, unable to stay interested in even something as extreme as the murder of his nanny. He did not cry, whereas his older brother, Paul, wept so profusely that the entire front of his shirt grew damp with tears. I tried to comfort him—to take his hand, to kiss his forehead, as I had seen Nanny Prum do so many times before—but he refused to be touched, preferring instead to be alone in his grief.

Mr. Darrow sat on the other side of the children with a glazed expression, his bright blue eyes lost in some distant memory. I had come into his employment only three months after the death of his wife, but I imagined her funeral must have looked very similar to Nanny Prum's: the same people, the same graveyard, even the same time of year. Death, it seemed, was another season, an inconvenient holiday put aside like any unpleasant responsibility, only to reappear once it's been forgotten, a reminder that time has passed, life has changed, and that nothing ever stays the same.

The next day Mrs. Norman and I put away Nanny Prum's things. Constable Brickner and his men had already been through her room looking for clues, despite his insistence against the evidence that the attack had been perpetrated by some wild animal. They were careless and cavalier in their search efforts, leaving the dresser drawers overturned on the bed and her belongings scattered across the floor.

There was very little clothing, only a couple of severe, high-collared black cotton dresses and a soft velvet maroon gown that she wore for special occasions. There were also books: a King James Bible, a volume of fairy tales, and a novel of some romantic melodrama told in three parts. I found a small wooden chest next to her bed filled with scraps of paper, pieces of jewelry, and faded pictures. I supposed it was a memory box, and I imagined her going through it each night before bed, thinking of all the children she had ever raised, gone off into the world, grown and with families and memories of their own. Perhaps she consoled herself by thinking that they thought of her every now and then when they remembered their youth, and that they might have smiled when they did.

“I warned her this would happen.” Mrs. Norman stood in the shadow of the wardrobe, sliding dresses from their hangers and folding them in a sharp, mechanical fashion with her thin, birdlike fingers. She did not turn in my direction as she spoke. The wardrobe was now empty, and the contents of the room were slowly being siphoned away.

“What did you tell her?”

The housekeeper went still for a moment, and then craned her neck toward the entrance of the room, listening to the ambient sounds that filled the house: women gossiping and snickering beneath their breath, heavy footsteps on creaking floorboards, a distant cough, metal scraping against wood . . . She added to them as she crept to the door and closed it with a soft click. Mrs. Norman took my arm and sat us on the bed, where she brought her face close to mine and began speaking with quiet urgency.

“That she was in terrible danger.” A wave of dread went through me, and as she continued I could only think of the man in black standing over Nanny Prum's body, poised to lash out at Susannah. “Someone must watch over this family, now that dear Mrs. Darrow has left us, God rest her soul, and I do what I can in my way. I clean up afternoon tea, every afternoon tea, and one can't help it if one sees something in the leaves.” She pursed her lips, and appeared for a moment wearier than I had ever seen her before. “Someone must watch over them, and warn them when necessary of the things that are coming. There is evil here. I did my part, I warned Nanny Prum, but she failed to heed my advice.”

This was the longest conversation I'd had with the housekeeper in my nine months at Everton, and while her words were jarring, she spoke with a conviction that I could not ignore. “What did you tell her, Mrs. Norman?”

“There was a man in her life. Who, I'm not sure. But he meant her harm, and from what Susannah Larken saw, he meant her a great deal more than that.”

“Have you told anyone else?”

“What would be the point? Most people no longer believe.” Mrs. Norman suddenly took my hand and looked into my eyes. “Do you believe, Charlotte?”

I thought of my childhood in India, of the holy men and mystics, and of my mother gasping for air in her sickbed. I had been alone with her when she finally died, my father shouting at the doctor just outside the door. I never told him about the man in black who suddenly appeared next to her bedside. The room was dimly lit, so I could not make out his features, but when he moved in to touch my mother's body, I launched myself at him, kicking and biting with all my might. In the instant I reached him he was gone. My father reentered the room with the doctor a moment later and lost himself in his grief. There had been no time for the man to escape unnoticed and so I said nothing, thinking it all a dream until years later when my father and I were dining in the conservatory of our estate.

One moment he was smoking his pipe, gesticulating wildly at the azaleas as he explained his feelings about a certain political party, a wreath of smoke around his head, and the next he was grabbing his chest and slumping to the tiled floor. I cradled him in my lap and refused to cry before the doctor could arrive. When the bell rang, my father's manservant left us to answer the door, but I could sense we were not truly alone. The man in black stood by my side, wiping a bead of sweat from my father's brow. I knew then that he had died in my arms.

“Who are you?” I shouted at the stranger. He placed a gloved hand beneath my face and tilted it to meet his own. Even at such a close proximity his features were occluded by a perpetual shroud of gloom. I shrank back in horror and clung tightly to my father, but the man stepped away from us, the plant life in his immediate vicinity shriveling to brown decay and dust.

When I was married I told Jonathan about what I had experienced with my mother and father. At first I wasn't sure he had believed me, but then he wrapped his arms around my waist and whispered in my ear: “I believe that the world is far more complicated than we could ever possibly understand. Perhaps you saw a hint of something that most people aren't meant to see. Death comes to us all, my love.”

And so it did. The fire came for my husband only a few months later, and as he lay dying on the charred remains of our estate, I was met by the man in black for a third time. I was too weak to attack him or to even shout after him as he closed Jonathan's eyes with his gloved fingers. But I did ask him a question: “Do you cause this, or are you simply a vulture come to pick at the bones of my life?”

He tilted his head to the side, but whether or not it was some kind of response, I never knew. In the morning they found me still clutching my husband's body, the trees and grass around us suddenly withered and dead, though the fire had never made it to the forest.

With each passing year I became more convinced that it was as Jonathan had said; for whatever reason, Death made himself known to me as he took the souls of my loved ones to the Other Side. I said none of this to Mrs. Norman. Instead I met her gaze and replied: “I believe that the world is far more complicated than we could ever possibly understand.”

“So you'll believe me if I tell you that you're in danger?”

“What sort of danger?”

“The same as Nanny Prum. A man waits for you. He watches you.”

My face suddenly grew very hot, though I could not decide if it was due to panic or anger. Susannah had seen a man dressed all in black. If it was the same one that I had encountered, then was I being stalked by Death? And if so, then who might he take next? I was nearly shaking.

“How do I stop him?”

“Be careful. Be watchful.” She lifted the trunk from the bed and took it out of the room, providing a knowing look in my direction, and then said nothing more on the matter. We put everything else away, into boxes and cloth sacks, and left them in the hallway. Roland would load Nanny Prum's belongings into the wagon and take them to the church. There would be a bazaar at the start of winter, and the people of Blackfield would pick through Nanny Prum's things, dispersing her memories like seeds on the wind.

In the days that followed the funeral, I moved into the room connected to the nursery and filled the empty spaces with pieces of myself. I couldn't help but wonder, in the morbid way of all people who have lost more than once, what would be made of my things if I were to die before my time. There was the wedding ring I placed in a drawer of the table next to my bed, unable to wear it any longer, the weight of the thing too great a burden to bear; a lock of my mother's hair, bound in a thin blue ribbon, her scent intact, that I used for a place holder in the book upon my nightstand; my father's pipe, with a crack in its bowl, a dried husk of Sunday afternoons in his study, on his lap, reciting poetry, now with my mother's jewelry in a small box in the wardrobe. This was where I kept my memories, ensconced in little tokens that would be meaningless to anyone else. I wondered how people would remember me, what might cause them to stop, many years later, and pause for a moment to recall a woman named Charlotte.

To remember Nanny Prum I kept an ivory brooch that she used to wear about her throat, engraved with the image of a woman. Perhaps it was her mother or her grandmother? I never asked. Perhaps she had bought it secondhand at a bazaar, or took it to remember a lost friend as I did. It was elegant in a simple way, and it reminded me of the time we first met, during my first day at Everton.

Jonathan had not been the only one to perish in the fire. Six members of the household staff had died as well, leaving families with no means to support themselves. Against the wishes of our lawyer, Mr. Croydon, I used what wealth I had at my disposal to provide them with an element of comfort, though it could never have replaced the loved ones they had lost. I could not have lived with myself otherwise, and the thought of making a new home for myself, orphaned, widowed, and alone, was too much to bear. I still had my father's military pension. It was not enough to continue the kind of life I had been accustomed to, and so Mr. Croydon begrudgingly agreed to find me some kind of employment as a governess, where I could insert myself into someone else's life and family, if only for a little while.

Within a matter of weeks I found myself wandering the hallways of Everton, admiring a painting of a bleak, gray landscape, the signature of the work an enigmatic “L. Darrow,” when a hefty woman in heavily starched black skirts and the aforementioned brooch waddled down the corridor to meet me.

“Mrs. Markham!” Her voice barreled off the walls in a loud, rolling crescendo. She approached me with open arms, and her thin, wide lips stretched into an effortless smile rounded off by apple-colored cheeks. The woman would have been plain if her sense of cheerfulness hadn't been so infectious. I found myself laughing as the stranger embraced me with thick, fleshy arms.

“Wonderful to meet you, my dear! I'm Nanny Prum.” She released me from her grip and I quickly tried to catch my breath.

“The pleasure's all mine.”

The woman cackled and slapped me on the back with a hand like a round steak. She took my arm and led me down the hallway.

“I expect we'll be like sisters, or at the very least a pair of silly aunties to little James and Paul! Such good boys, sweeter children I've never known. Very different temperaments, mind you, but sweet just the same. I wouldn't go so far as to call them angels, because they are children, after all, but their hearts are in the right place. Although I suppose you're more concerned with their minds, hmm?”

“Their well-being is my primary concern.”

Nanny Prum nodded in approval and led us up the grand staircase, careful to avoid the holes in the red fabric that covered the stairs, and the cracks that had started to appear in the wood.

“So you've met Mr. Darrow?”

“Yes, he seems to be a fine sort of gentleman.”

“To be sure, very fine and rather strapping if you ask me. But then his late wife, the boys' mother, was also very beautiful. Such a pair they made! So sad that she was taken from this world so young. But it is not for us to dwell on such things. We must help the childrenforget.”

“I'm not sure I would sayforget,exactly . . .”

In hindsight, it was the first and only disagreement we ever had, and one, I'm sorry to say, that I would win. I would not let the children forget their late mother, or their nanny.

We turned the corner at a painting of a nocturnal landscape with a castle looming in the distance. Nanny Prum pointed to it as we passed.

“Mrs. Darrow enjoyed the fine arts: painting, singing, sculpting, that sort of thing. Although I daresay she had a rather morbid aesthetic.” She stopped at the end of the hallway and entered the nursery.

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