3 Great Historical Novels

Contents

1. The Silver Thread – Kylie Fitzpatrick

2. The Conductor – Sarah Quigley

3. Habits of the House – Fay Weldon

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For my parents, Philippa and Bryon, with love. Silver Thread.

The Way of Heaven is to benefit others and not to injure.

Lao-Tzu (sixth century
BC
)

The grey walls of Millbank receded until they were a dark huddle on the edge of the world. The sun spread across the water, refracting into shards where their oars dipped.

A light that would leave scars.

The Thames snaked towards the sea, carrying the procession of rowing boats, in each a huddle of silent women. The last boat was piled with luggage of modest proportions; canvas sacks, wicker baskets and battered hat boxes. And a single trunk.

The small liberties of freedom – a walk to the market or an idle afternoon in the sun – were hopes once. Now a length of ribbon would seem like freedom. Still, what could be worse than Millbank prison?

For those who had left their children, there was only the grief. Against this, the guilt of any crime was incidental.

At the mouth of the river the currents collided, creating ridges of tidal water frilled with dirty foam. The Thames was opening to the sea. The white water churned like a bilious stomach. Behind the boats, the rising sun traced a copper edge along rooftops and chimneys; a burnished London; a trick of the light.

There was time for one last glance at the receding city; a moment to take in its outline and shape. Once the entire world, London now looked no larger than a page in a picture book, and so pretty that it might be the Otherworld.

All of a sudden the light changed, revealing the new
factories
along the banks, their chimney stacks exhaling wraiths of smoke, their pipes leaking into the inky river.

Ahead of them lay an unfathomable voyage and a land beyond the seas. This farewell to London might be for ever. Now, there was only the sea, and the shadowy form of a ship appearing through the fog. Drawing closer still, they could read the name painted at the towering prow of their new prison.

Rajah
.

I am told that in your country, opium smoking is
forbidden
under severe penalties. This means that you are aware of how harmful it is. So long as you do not take it yourselves, but continue to make it and tempt the people of China to buy it, such conduct is repugnant to human feeling and at variance with the Way of Heaven.

‘Your country lies 20,000 leagues away; but for all that, The Way of Heaven holds good for you as it does for us, and your instincts are no different from ours; for nowhere are men so blind as not to distinguish what brings profit and what does harm.

 

From a letter to Queen Victoria from
Imperial High Commissioner Lin Zexu, 1839

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven;

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendour of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

          S
T
P
ATRICK
(
FIFTH CENTURY BC
)

Do not think of him.

Rhia had been not thinking about William all afternoon and it showed. She squinted: the pattern was crooked.

Everything was out of shape lately.
Serpentine
, Mamo would have said.
Life does not always beat an even rhythm, Rhiannon. It meanders like chords on a harp.
The resonance of the old woman’s voice seemed to move the air. She could almost be in the room. Rhia let her paintbrush drop into the tray. She had tried to resurrect the pattern all afternoon and it still looked as wrinkled as silk moiré. Now the light was only fit for catching swirls of dust, the sun so low that it filtered through the canvas, making her pigments as translucent as coloured glass.

She blamed William. He should not have called.

It could have been a day given, with the front room all to herself and nothing to do but paint. It could have been. The question was, would her father understand that she’d had to tell William what had happened in Greystones all those years ago? It was unlikely.

To Connor Mahoney, truth was a holy thing. So was
chastity
. And marriage. This was the kind of rhetoric he had brandished since Rhia was old enough to irk him. She had always been expert at it. She understood, now, that it depended on the nature of the truth, and that discretion outranked
honesty
. Sadly, she possessed neither.

A carriage bell tinkled and, not for the first time that day, Rhia wished herself in Greystones, walking barefoot on the shale, listening only to the sea and the gulls.

Connor Mahoney’s boots tapped briskly up the stairs.

Rhia removed her smock. She paced to the front window. She smoothed her hair in its reflection and paced back to the fireplace. There was absolutely no need to tell him that she had upset his cherished William. It would all blow over and they would be married next February as scheduled. The time for having a say in such matters was past – the fact remained that no one else had offered. The fact remained that she had not fallen in love.

Or else, she had not fallen for love.

Rhia shivered and cast about for her shawl. The air had moved again.

Mamo despised cynicism.

Connor Mahoney’s voice murmured in the hallway, talking to Hannah. Rhia retrieved her shawl from the floor and turned to the fire, her back to the door. She softened her gaze, looking for shapes in the flames, dancing like dervishes. She willed them to lend her their grace. Rhia could sense her father’s
mood through the wall. He was unusually irritable lately. This was most definitely not the time to tell him that she had insulted her fiancé.

The door opened.

‘Rhia.’

Strange how you could tell someone was angry with you just by the way they spoke your name. She could think of nothing she had done to rile him lately.

‘Father.’

His jaw was squared for a fight. His anger made him look old and ugly, though his frame was trim and his thick hair still as bright as copper. He snapped a folded piece of paper at her. ‘I’ve had a letter from William.’

Rhia had not expected this. ‘From William?’ Her voice sounded high and unnatural. The letter must have been written as soon as he had left her.

‘He has withdrawn his offer,’ said her father.

‘Withdrawn his—!I am to be …’ Rhia strode to the door and back, smashing a pipe dish to the floor with her skirts. She took a breath. ‘I am not a
property
,’ she spat. The flames had lent her nothing. She clenched her fists, took another breath and suddenly felt like laughing. She lowered her eyes and stared hard at the pattern on the Persian rug. It only reminded her of her failed painting. Persians could design patterns fit for the feet of a goddess.

‘Until you are married, you are
as my property,
and I will not have you become a burden on this household.’ He was almost choking on the words but they hit their mark. He had never called her a burden before. He would regret it, she thought, though with almighty self-restraint she held her tongue. She would say the wrong thing and he would see that she was unrepentant – relieved rather than ashamed.

He paced between the cutting table and the wall of shelves where the cloth was stored, his hair falling across his
spectacles
, his cheeks hot with emotion. He was not finished. ‘You should have been married years ago, and now I wonder if
anyone
will have you.’

Rhia had wondered the same thing herself.

He stood with his back to her, talking to the bolts of fabric. ‘William O’Donahue is a respectable and successful merchant. He would have been a great asset to this family – to the
business
.’

Rhia flinched. Restraint be damned. ‘Is that what this is about? The
business
? William is a dullard who does not dare to wed a woman who is cleverer than he. I’m
glad
I need not see his face each day!’

Her father spun and glared at her, his eyes burning. ‘I did not raise you to have opinions! If it were not for your … were it not for your mother’s family, then you would be like any agreeable Dublin girl. Instead, you read the papers and tour the city like a milkmaid. I see now that you have deliberately offended William in order that he be forced to cancel the engagement. What in tarnation did you say to him?’

‘I did no such thing! I would not.’ Rhia lowered her voice. ‘I told him what happened the winter Michael Kelly was arrested.’

Connor Mahoney was silent. When he finally spoke, his voice was hoarse. ‘You told him that you helped those tenants; that you made a Protestant landlord look like a blackguard?’

Rhia held his gaze. She had only done what anyone with an ounce of compassion would have. The weavers were being evicted because their rent was not paid. It was the middle of winter. They might have starved. They would certainly have frozen. She had taken them to Mamo’s cottage. Not long after, Michael Kelly’s boys torched a shipment belonging to the same
landlord, a tea merchant. He, the landlord, came after Michael, who broke his nose. Michael was transported.

Her father was glaring at her. She had not answered him. ‘Yes, I told him,’ she said quietly.

‘Foolish girl. O’Donahue is a business associate of the man Michael Kelly assaulted.’

‘All the more reason not to marry him.’

‘You are a devil in petticoats!’ He slammed the flat of his hand on the table.

‘And you are a damned tyrant! I should have married Thomas Kelly, at least he loves me.’

He had once.

‘You will not breed with a weaver!’ He strode to the door and stopped with his hand on the knob. Without looking at her he said, ‘We shall discuss this further when your mother returns. I will dine at my club.’

He left the room.

She stood shaking with anger, her fingernails digging into her palms. ‘I am not a child!’ Rhia called after him, but the second she heard the front door close she collapsed onto the Chesterfield, feeling every bit a child. He was right, she should be married by now. William O’Donahue was from Belfast; he had not encountered her reputation before they met, and now she had turned him against her.

Hannah knocked before she entered. She had no doubt heard everything, even if she hadn’t had her ear to the door. She scurried about more than was necessary, poking at the fire and lighting the lamps. ‘Will you have supper in here, miss?

‘I’m a devil in petticoats, Hannah.’

The maid chuckled. ‘Well I never heard that one before. He’s only in a mood.’

‘He’s been in a mood for months. This time last year we
would never have closed the front room for an entire day. And now I’ve turned away the only man in Dublin who might have married me.’

‘I’ll tell Tilly to make dumplings,’ Hannah said, and hurried away as though nothing could be more pressing.

Rhia crossed the room and picked up her paintbrush. The motif was a spray of orange and yellow calendula. If she could make it right, everything else might straighten out too. When her father got home they would make amends. They never slept on a quarrel.

 

At the sound of Hannah’s voice, Rhia’s eyes flickered open. She was on the Chesterfield and Hannah was leaning over her, reeking of tooth powder and glycerine. ‘There’s a fire!’ she puffed breathlessly. The candlestick in her plump hand tipped dangerously. Its flame cast skittish shadows around the walls and was the only fire in sight, as far as Rhia could see.

She swung her feet to the floor in a tangle of skirts, catching Hannah below the knees. The maid clutched the arm of the Chesterfield to steady herself; Rhia stumbled around in the dark. There was something she had to remember. What? Shouldn’t there be smoke? She found the door to the hallway.

‘Quick, Hannah, wake the others, we must get everyone out of the house!’

‘It’s not in the house,’ puffed Hannah, following her. ‘It’s at Merchant’s Quay. The night-soil men saw it.’

The storehouse.

Rhia ran up the dark hallway towards the stairs, though she couldn’t think why. Boots? She collided with the banister in the dark, hitting her head and cursing. She could do without boots.

Hannah was behind her when she turned, her nightgown as voluminous as sailcloth. ‘I’ve got Tom hitching up, and his
brother’s taken the steed to fetch your mam. Don’t forget your cloak! And where’s your blessed boots? Merciful heavens, and Mr Mahoney’s not home yet …’

Rhia stopped. This was what she needed to remember. ‘What is the time, Hannah?’

Hannah didn’t know. She had found the boots and followed Rhia back down the hallway chattering anxiously. She mustn’t worry – her da would still be at his club, he wasn’t exactly going to be at the quay after the soil collection, was he? And would she please put on these blessed boots? It was the first of November, after all.

Rhia stood at the front door, fumbling with the clasp of her old red cloak. There was no time to button boots. Of course he would still be at the club. He would be playing another game of cribbage, or talking about the new looms; or he’d decided to have another brandy or two because his daughter wasn’t to be married to a tea merchant after all.

Outside, Tom the groom had hitched the two-seater and the horses were shifting and snorting restlessly, their breath
trailing
mist in the air. Tom was bleary-eyed, his pale hair in a tangle beneath his cap. He reeked of poteen. He nodded when Rhia climbed up beside him and slapped the reins before she was seated. The horses lurched forwards and she clutched the hammercloth to stop from toppling backwards. She searched her mind for a prayer.

The chaise almost tipped as they clattered through St Auden’s Gate and past St Patrick’s. Rhia glanced at the
cathedral
. Would the saint give a damn about an irresolute Catholic?

Save our storehouse and I’ll stop the cursing.

Was it enough?

And I’ll attend church.

They’d reached an unsafe speed. Rhia looked sideways at
Tom, tilted forwards, enjoying himself: the groom was a
lunatic
at the reins even when he’d not been at the drink. She should take them from him, but she wasn’t sure that she’d do any
better
. The mare was on edge; her ears pricked back.

‘Slow down, Tom! She’ll bolt if she gets any faster.’

Tom nodded. ‘Aye, we’ll not stop before Kilkenny if Epona bolts. But I reckon Mr Mahoney’s at the storehouse.’

‘He’s not. He’s at his club.’

‘He’s not. It’s gone two.’

Rhia’s heart pitched. The club closed at one. ‘Well then he’s gone to the quay to supervise the firefighters.’ This seemed reasonable.

The sky above the waterfront was lit up as if all the saints of Dublin were swinging their blessed lanterns above Merchant’s Quay. As they rounded the corner of the last alley, Rhia braced herself to see the entire waterfront ablaze. But only the Mahoney storehouse was burning. This was somehow more devastating.

Rhia leapt clear of the chaise before the wheels stopped. Connor Mahoney would be close to the front of the crowd, perhaps with the
gardaí
. She pushed her way through the press of spectators, their faces glowing eerily in the blaze. A wall of flames rose from the stone foundations where only yesterday had stood a wall of brick. The air was poisonous with fumes, the heat staggering. The quay was lit like a carnival, with
people
still arriving to watch along the opposite shore.

She could not see him.

She darted between fists of spectators, trying to see beyond the line of
garda
í
keeping the crowd back. She searched the faces of the men by the waterside. He must be on the other side, closer to the storehouse, but she would have to get around the
gardaí
. She moved along the edges of the crowd, as close to the
furnace as she could get without being overcome by the heat. She might have got a little closer but someone grabbed her wrist, twisting it like a rope. The rough, unwashed wool of a
garda
’s tunic was suddenly in her face.

‘Tuilli!’
She spat before she could remember her wager with the saint. Perhaps cursing in Irish didn’t count?

‘Who are you calling bastard, you wee tinker?’ The
garda’
s expression was as dirty as his face. Rhia held his gaze and tried yanking her arm away, but his fingers pressed into the flesh of her wrist.

‘Loose your hand or I’ll bite it!’ she snapped.

His hand was like a slipknot, fastening tighter when she twisted. He was strong. A ghost of a smile twitched at his lips. ‘You don’t want to be getting too close to a burning building, now. It could all come down faster than your legs can carry you away.’

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