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Authors: Jacqueline Lepore

Tags: #Fiction, #General

Descent Into Dust

BOOK: Descent Into Dust
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Descent into Dust
Jacqueline Lepore

Contents

Chapter One

I was twenty-three years of age in March of 1862…

Chapter Two

I awoke early the following day, startled out of sleep…

Chapter Three

I girded myself against the tickle of apprehension. “Marius’s tree?”

Chapter Four

I took to bed straight away, tired and distraught and…

Chapter Five

By the time the soup course was concluded, I decided…

Chapter Six

I understand that is the second time you have come…

Chapter Seven

I sought Mr. Fox the following day as soon as I…

Chapter Eight

Henrietta and Miss Harris were at the breakfast table with…

Chapter Nine

I was bundled away by Sebastian, who held me close…

Chapter Ten

We returned to the house under cover of the last…

Chapter Eleven

We arranged to meet in the small room across the…

Chapter Twelve

I am not speaking to you, of course,” Sebastian said…

Chapter Thirteen

That evening, after a tense supper, I played cards with…

Chapter Fourteen

As soon as I was able to slip away unnoticed,…

Chapter Fifteen

Father Luke was aware of Marius. Of this I was…

Chapter Sixteen

Sebastian was feeling poorly again. His complexion was pasty and…

Chapter Seventeen

Thus it was night when we set out to kill…

Chapter Eighteen

We did not go back to Dulwich Manor. I was…

Chapter Nineteen

I opened my eyes the following morning and my first…

Chapter Twenty

March came to a close, and the rains of April…

Chapter Twenty-One

Corruptio optimi pessima. The corruption of the best is worst.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Fox and I said prayers from the missal I’d taken…

Chapter Twenty-Three

The abject hopelessness of realizing how stupidly we’d misjudged the…

Chapter Twenty-Four

I have been thinking,” Valerian Fox said as I entered…

Chapter Twenty-Five

It was after midnight when Dom Alliot brought me down…

Chapter Twenty-Six

When I told this to Dom Beauclaire, I was wary…

Chapter Twenty-seven

We found a ship leaving from Boulogne-sur-Mer. Fox let a…

Chapter Twenty-Eight

At Bassingstoke, I braced for the storm. I knew Valerian…

Chapter Twenty-Nine

It was the Eve of Saint George and once the…

Chapter Thirty

The plain where the head of the Great Stone Serpent…

Chapter Thirty-One

Let her come to me.” Marius’s voice swelled around us,…

Chapter Thirty-Two

In the days that followed, in each hour upon hour…

A+ Author Insights, Extras & More…

Acknowledgments

Other Books by Jacqueline Lepore

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

Come in under the shadow of this red rock,
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” (1922)

I
mages of shadow and dust—how these words shattered me when I read them in this recently published poem, penned by one who could never know my story. Though the poet was a stranger, his verse took me in its fist and cast me on a rushing flood tide into the past, back to all which I have held in secret for this long time.

With these words beckoning, rattling around in my brain and giving me no peace (
I will show you fear in a handful of dust
), I cannot resist the pull of memory. And though it is many decades later, it all comes back to me; back even to those early days when the terror was new and I was dangerously untrained. When I was young and did not yet know I had a secret.

And I think it is time. I feel it is. Time to tell my story. A truly remarkable story.

This is the tale of when I…Well, I can hardly say it outright. You would only shake your head in disbelief. What I am about to tell you requires faith. It should unfold exactly the way it happened, for perhaps then you will see how it was—and know that every word is the absolute truth.

Chapter One

I
was twenty-three years of age in March of 1862 when I traveled to my cousin’s home in the countryside of Wiltshire. The fifth day of that wretched month found me huddled in my carriage, the drizzly gray gloom outside soaking a bone-deep chill into every aching part of my body, which had been roughly abused by the long confinement and ill-kept roads I’d traveled coming up from Dartmoor.

I did not know then that these would be the closing days of ordinary life. The only suggestion of the monumental changes about to occur was the headache that had come upon me after my crossing of the Dart River. The pain, as fine as tiny needles being pushed into my temples, increased as I traversed the chalk downs and approached Dulwich Manor.

At the time, I assumed this was due to anxiety, for my younger sister and her new husband were among the guests invited for an extended stay at my cousin’s sprawling country house. As I was long accustomed to contending with Alyssa without anything like this haunting megrim, I suppose I should not have made this rather obvious misattribution. But how could I have thought differently, back then?

The house was a large, ugly thing, squatting low on the land like a spider on a softly rounded hilltop. Stones blacked with lichen and soot formed a plain rectangle of unadorned walls dotted liberally with cross-hatched windows, lying dormant under leaden skies. There was no sign of life about it or any of the outbuildings. Everyone had taken shelter from the rain.

I emerged into a light drizzle and drew the cowl of my cloak over my head. At the top of the impressive set of carved steps, a very correct-looking butler awaited. “Emma Andrews, Mrs. Dulwich’s cousin,” I told him.

He did not quite meet my gaze, as all good servants manage not to do, as he opened the door wider and ushered me inside to a vaulted hall. I was instantly struck by the feeling of being very, very small in a very, very large place. The gas jets on the wall leaked only a small puddle of light in which I stood; beyond that, I saw only shadowy hints of the rest of the room.

“I shall tell madam you have arrived,” the butler intoned soberly.

Once alone, I quickly checked my appearance in a pier glass hung on the wall. I was decidedly damp. My hair was nearly a ruin. The expensive gown I had donned that morning, thinking it would lend me courage, had been a bad choice. There was nothing to be done about the crushed silk. A smart travel dress would have been better, had I owned one. But such things
required seamstress consultations and fittings, all amounting to too much time, time I never seemed to make room for in my ordinary routines. I did take comfort in the fine brushed wool of my cloak, which Simon, my husband, had given me for Christmas last year, a month before he died. It was of excellent quality.

A voice brought me up sharp. “I am most put out that the weather is foul,” my cousin, Mary, said as she swept into the hall. “I wanted to show the house to its full advantage.”

She posed regally in the hall of the Jacobean house, her pride radiating from her. She knew her surroundings elevated her, as wealth is apt to do. She had married well and that is always a woman’s conceit.

And yet, it had not been mine. My late husband, Simon, had left me his wealth, something I found made my rather ordinary life a bit more convenient than it had previously been, but little else had changed because of it. I certainly took no pride in showing it off.

“The house is magnificent, Mary. I am anxious to see what you have done with its restoration. It seems very grand indeed.”

That pleased her, thawed her a bit. She cocked her chin at me and turned slightly so that I might press a kiss upon her cheek, in a rather pretentious gesture for a woman only three years my senior. But I complied. I have no trouble indulging others’ vanities, if they are harmless.

“Come then, Emma,” she said, “the parlor is through here. Give Penwys your cloak. Alyssa and Alan have already arrived. I know she is anxious to see you. Penwys will see your things are delivered to your room and the servants will put everything to rights. You’ll want to freshen up.”

I did, but it would take too much time and I was feeling
impatient to join the others. “I can go upstairs after my things have been unpacked. And to tell you the truth, a cuppa right now would be lovely.”

“Very well,” she said primly.

She was showing off a bit, taking on the same airs Alyssa was so fond of. And just as with my sister, they had the tendency to prick my sore spot and make me wicked.

“But please direct your man to be very careful with my portmanteau,” I said. “It is old, and I take extra care of it since it had been my mother’s.”

The mention of my beautiful, tragic mother changed her expression to one rife with thoughts best left unsaid. “Your belongings will be treated with the respect they deserve.”

We proceeded together down a short corridor. Above, a series of large arches stretched across the high ceiling like ribs, giving me the unsettling feeling of traversing the interior of a vast corporeal chest. My eye was caught by some words carved at the apex of the last of these stone vaults, just above the heavy double doors beyond which I could hear the muffled sounds of conversation. An odd place for decoration, I mused. It would be easily overlooked as it was placed high overhead. But I could read the three words.

Corruptio optimi pessima.

I stopped. Something strange and unpleasant fluttered through me. The air went crisp, as if ionizing in preparation for an electrical strike.

Mary saw me staring. “Interesting, isn’t it? Those carvings are all over the house. The man who built the original manor was a bishop, back before Henry, when the papists still had the run of the place.” She laughed. “It’s a curiously religious dwell
ing, as a result, and I’ve kept it that way through the restoration. These ominous sayings carved here and there are terribly quaint, don’t you agree?”

My voice was dry as dust. “Do you know what it means?”

She must have forgotten my unfortunate habit of overburdening my brain with reading, for she thought I didn’t know. “I believe it means ‘The best of men are incorruptible.’”

It did not. The fact that she didn’t know made my unease grow. It felt to me—very strongly so—that it should be important for the owner of this house to understand what was written into its very bones. The correct translation was “Corruption of the best is worst.”

The fingers of pain in my forehead dug deeper and my hand pressed at my temple as Mary flung open the doors to the drawing room. “Emma has finally arrived,” she announced as she swept me inside.

My eyes sought and found the woman seated on the long divan. Alyssa, my sister, nearly five years my junior—luminously beautiful, newly married, and still very much annoyed with me for my intractable stubbornness in insisting on not being anything like her.

Roger, Mary’s husband, a tall, lanky fellow with a crown of curls that never came close to appearing tame, hurried toward me. “Emma, you are absolutely glowing with good health.” He embraced me, then bent to kiss my hand in the French manner. “I daresay your loveliness increases each time I see you. I trust you are faring well these days?”

He was thinking of Simon—of my loss, and his, for they had been friends. His sincere affection touched me as it had three years ago on the occasion of my father’s death. Then, too, he
had shown special solicitude toward me, even over my sister’s delicate sobs.

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