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Authors: Michael Ford

The Poisoned House

BOOK: The Poisoned House
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To Mum and Dad

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Foreword

The following papers were kindly donated to the British Library by Anne Merchant, the current owner of 112 Park Avenue, the property formerly known as Greave Hall. The papers were reportedly uncovered during renovation of the house, in the locked drawer of a bureau in the attic. They appear to record several months in the year 1855 of the life of Abigail Tamper, a teenage girl who lived and worked at that address. Every effort has been made to transcribe faithfully the details of the handwritten manuscript.

Many people and events within the script are difficult to verify with certainty, although investigations are ongoing. Pages from the original can be viewed in situ at the discretion of the librarian.

Emily Verbeck

Assistant Curator

Victorian manuscripts

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Chapter 1

The stone steps to the basement were ice-cold under my bare feet. In the scullery, the copper gleamed dimly and the floor hadn’t been swept. Through the kitchen wall, Cook was snoring. If she’d taken her normal measure of gin before falling into bed, then she’d sleep through a hurricane.

Rowena brushed past my leg, purring softly, so I bent down and stroked her beneath the chin. I’d named her myself when she was found skulking around the stables three years before. She was fat now, and I was sorry I wouldn’t get to know her little kittens when they came.

I unbolted the coal store door and pushed it open inch by inch. A cold draught of coal dust blew over me, the smell reminding me of Adam, the delivery boy. The stores were low, so it wasn’t hard to clamber over the top and push open the hatch, then pulled on my shoes. I climbed out under a starlit sky.

I let the hatch close as slowly as if it were made of porcelain, then headed across the yard to the main gate. The hinges gave a tiny squeak and I was out on the road. I crossed it and slid down the bank into the Park.

The sack on my back already felt heavy. In it were my best dress and the cardigan knitted by my mother, together with my father’s watch, half a loaf of stale bread and a jar of pickles. I had no money – Mrs Cotton kept all my wages, and it would have made her suspicious had I asked for them.

I’d promised myself I wouldn’t look back, but halfway across the Park, in the shadow of a plane tree, I couldn’t help myself. The lake was still as a mirror, and through the hushed pools of light from the gas lamps on the far side of the road, Greave Hall loomed dormant in darkness, the windows black.

No, not all of them.

A yellow glow spread behind the curtain upstairs.

Her bedroom.

For several seconds, my feet seemed as rooted as the tree I rested by. I watched the faint glimmer of a candle. How could she have known?

‘Abi!’ called a man’s voice. ‘Abigail?’

It was Rob Willmett, the footman. Mrs Cotton had him up already.

I turned and ran, my pumps slapping on the path.

The gates on to the road were locked, but I didn’t have much flesh on my bones. I pushed a leg between the cold cast-iron railings and squeezed through.

On the other side, I sprinted across the deserted Mall. To my right Horse Guards Parade was empty and silent. It had been eleven months since we were permitted half a day to watch the soldiers at their exercises. His Lordship’s son Samuel had been among them.

A police whistle trilled far off. Surely not looking for me? Not already?

The struts and beams of the new station at Charing Cross rose in the darkness behind. I ran across a square. It was New Year’s Day in the year of Our Lord 1855 and on the ground lay remnants of the previous night’s celebration: shreds of bunting, bones of fish and fowl and rotting fruit aplenty. I picked my way through them and reached the pedestal where the statue of Charles I sits in his saddle. Rob used to say they erected the statue without a head, as a reminder of the king’s death. He was joking with me, like he always did.

I heard the clip-clop of iron-shod hoofs and another whistle, closer this time. I flattened myself against the statue’s base, and watched my breath curl off into the night. There was nowhere to go without being seen.

‘Miss Tamper!’ called a deep voice – not Rob’s. ‘Miss Tamper! Are you here?’

I took small steps along my hiding place, tracing the stone with my fingertips, until I could look out from behind the statue’s base. Coming off The Mall, and carrying a lantern in one hand, was a constable on his mount. His tone was stern. ‘You don’t want to cause trouble for His Lordship, Miss Tamper.’

I ducked back out of sight.

Not for Lord Greave, no. But if Mrs Cotton lost any sleep, then I wouldn’t let my conscience dwell on it.

‘Come home now, Abigail, and all will be well.’ His words were breathless and impatient.

A half-rotten turnip lay on the ground by my foot. I crouched and picked it up. Assaulting a member of Her Majesty’s finest was not in my upbringing, but at that moment Greave Hall held a good deal more dread for me than the law.

I peeked again at the mounted officer. The horse twitched its head towards me and snorted through wide nostrils. The man turned as well.

‘There you are, young lady,’ he said. ‘That’s enough nonsense for tonight, no?’

‘I won’t go back,’ I whispered, steeling myself as much as addressing the constable.

‘What’s that, miss?’ He spurred his horse in my direction and set it at a shambling gait. With each step the lantern in his hand rocked back and forth.

‘I won’t go back!’ I shouted. I hurled the vegetable right at him. My aim was good, and it smacked into his shoulder, knocking the lantern from his hand. The glass smashed on the stone, sucking the light away.

‘What’s this?’ he cried.

His horse reared, wheeling from the ground, and the constable lost his saddle, landing with a great thump in the road.

Any sympathy I had for him flared and died like a candle caught in a draught, and I was off between two bollard posts quicker than a hare.

‘Wait there!’ he bellowed. ‘Assault!’

The alley was dark, and the doors on either side were bolted shut. The smell of animals – wet fur and feed – was thick in the air, and the ground pockmarked with puddles. I ran through them, the filthy water splashing my stockings and surely ruining my shoes. I heard the policeman’s heavy feet behind.

The alley branched two ways and I took the passage on the left. It was narrower still, and a trail of squeaking rats scurried out of my path. I lost track of the turns I followed, and didn’t stop to check my progress until I reached the back yard of a tavern called The Fiddler. I jumped over a wheelbarrow left outside and skidded up against a rough door. I found a sodden, split barrel and crouched behind it, ears afire for any sound.

I stayed there while the sweat cooled on my forehead. After a few minutes I was sure the policeman wasn’t following, so I got up and walked off, finding a wider, but unlit street of houses. My clothes were ragged and my body ached from head to toe. I was further from Greave Hall than ever before and completely lost, but I felt no fear.

When morning came, I told myself, I’d look for somewhere to change my soiled clothes, then begin the search for a new place.

My name would have to change, of course, and without references I could hope for little better than parlourmaid duties. But I was fifteen in six weeks, and in time I could hope for advancement.

A hand fell on my shoulder.

‘Hello, Miss Tamper.’

I squealed and spun round. The constable’s hat was askew and his face flushed dark with anger. I pulled away, but his grip was strong.

‘Let me go!’ I cried.

‘I’m taking you home to Greave Hall, Miss Tamper,’ he said, dragging me by my arm.

I fought him, kicking at his legs and thumping against his chest. I’m ashamed to say I became like an animal, and even tried to sink my teeth into his arm.

‘It’s not my home!’ I screamed. ‘I won’t go back!’

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Chapter 2

I must have fallen into a faint. The sharp stink of hartshorn woke me, and I opened my eyes to the face of a man I recognised, but whose name I couldn’t recall. About fifty years of age, with a grave expression, he wore a tie under his thick white beard. Though indoors, he hadn’t removed his hat.

‘. . . and this mark, Mrs Cotton,’ he was saying. ‘How did she get this?’

The man’s cool fingers pressed lightly on my cheek. I winced. Mrs Cotton had slapped me on Christmas Day, for slipping Rowena a scrap of beef. The bruise had spread across my cheek deep purple like a swollen storm cloud. In the days after it had faded to a sickly green tidemark.

‘The child must have been running around the corridors after dark,’ replied Mrs Cotton. ‘You’ve seen tonight how uncontrolled she is, Doctor.’

It was Dr Ingle, of course – His Lordship’s physician. Was he here just for me?

I wanted to speak out, to tell him that the housekeeper was not telling the truth, but the words left my lips half asleep. I was lying on Cook’s cot in the kitchen, with a blanket pulled up to my chin. The small wood fire was lit and crackling. Rob stood at one side, a head taller than Mrs Cotton, whose eyes were like chips of coal, black and ready to burn.

‘Well, I’m done here, Mrs Cotton,’ said the doctor. ‘I think the young miss should be excused duties for the remainder of the day. There’s nothing wrong with her as such, but her skin is pale and she’s thin for her age.’ He looked at me over the top of his glasses for a moment. ‘Does she eat enough?’

‘Her appetite is as healthy as Mr Willmett’s here,’ said Mrs Cotton with a brittle laugh. I noticed now that she was wearing a thick housecoat over her nightgown. Her sister, His Lordship’s wife Eleanor, had died many years before, and Mrs Cotton liked to make use of the dead woman’s wardrobe.

The doctor snapped his satchel shut and Rob stepped forward.

‘Your payment, Dr Ingle . . .’

His words met a raised hand. ‘See that Miss Tamper has a glass of warmed milk and some rest. Understood?’

Rob nodded.

I listened as their footsteps echoed in the servants’ hall, and then up the main stairs. Mrs Cotton’s eyes settled on mine with a look I knew all too well. But I wasn’t going to cry.

I heard the clatter of a pan behind me and raised myself on my elbow to see Cook bustling by the stove.

‘Leave us, Deirdre,’ said Mrs Cotton.

Cook paused, her back to me. ‘But Dr Ingle said –’

‘Leave us now, please,’ said Mrs Cotton. The light from a candle played over the housekeeper’s face as the tendons shifted under her skin.

Cook hung up the pan again and wrung her hands. She gave a quiet ‘Yes, ma’am’ and was gone.

Mrs Cotton slid in two short steps to my side, and took a seat on the bench, her back straight as a board. I pulled the blanket tighter around me.

‘Where did you think you’d go, Miss Tamper?’ she asked. Her voice was low, the anger restrained like water gathering at a dam, ready to burst.

‘I just wanted some fresh air,’ I said. We both knew it wasn’t true, but a lie seemed the only way. Her eyes blinked, and I saw the first flecks of fire in the black of her pupils.

‘Some air.’ It was not a question, and her mouth twisted around the rotten taste of the words. ‘You are aware of the rules of this house, are you not?’

I nodded. I knew all the rules: no talking in the family rooms, no using the main stairs, no visitors, no speaking unless first spoken to, a smart appearance at all times. The list was never-ending.

But the rule she was referring to at that moment was no doubt the curfew. For me, it extended from eleven at night until six in the morning and was unbreakable. Between those times, Greave Hall was my prison.

‘You know,’ she said, almost wistfully, taking in the kitchen with a sweep of her eyes, ‘I don’t think I even heard you. I just
knew
you were up to something. That’s what makes me good at my job, Miss Tamper. I know everything that happens under this roof.’ Her eyes flicked on to me once more. ‘Did you really think I would just let you go?’ I could tell she didn’t want an answer, so I didn’t speak. ‘How did you get out?’ she asked.

She obviously hadn’t seen the open bolt on the coal store. Well, I wasn’t going to give her any satisfaction. I kept my silence, and her face hardened.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said.

Mrs Cotton reached under her apron. I wondered if it was going to be the strip of leather, her favourite thrashing tool. Cold dread crept over my skin.

But it was worse. She pulled out a single folded sheet. I knew what it was immediately – the letter I’d tucked under Lizzy’s door, ready for when she returned from New Year’s at her sister’s in Battersea.

The housekeeper reached to bring the lamp closer and opened the paper. She recited the letter in her cracked voice, measuring each word against the silence.


Dear Elizabeth, forgive me,
’ she read.
‘I cannot stay here any longer. By the time you read this, I will be gone. I hardly have to tell you why.’
Mrs Cotton paused. She licked her lips. ‘
I doubt that they will try very hard to look for me – a scullery maid can be got in a matter of hours in London. Until a replacement is found, I hope that you are not overburdened with my duties. Your loving friend, Abigail
.’

I swallowed and my throat tightened. I couldn’t look into Mrs Cotton’s eyes any longer and instead stared at the paper clutched in her fingers, the signed admission of my guilt. If there had been more time I would have chosen my words more carefully, but I’d wanted to get as far as possible before dawn.


P.S.
Please burn this
,’ she ended. ‘How clever of you.’

My lip shook, but still I didn’t cry. She held the letter above the candle flame. A corner blackened, then the fire took hold. As my words were consumed, she leant over me and dropped the paper in the grate. ‘Your wish is fulfilled,’ she said.

The smoke from the charred paper was bitter.

Mrs Cotton’s hand smoothed my blanket and her eyes travelled from me to the doorway beyond, then back again. Her head cocked a fraction.

‘And what did you say to Constable Armstrong, Abigail?’

Her voice was a whisper now, so that neither Cook nor Rob could overhear. I knew she was worried that I had given something away – about how she treated us, or how she abused her position in the house.

‘I said nothing,’ I lied. The housekeeper didn’t need to know about my helpless tears in front of the policeman, how I’d cursed her name and everything about my life at Greave Hall.

Her fingers found my arm beneath the blanket. I gasped as her nails dug into my skin. It felt as though she was trying to rip my flesh away.

Her expression was still as a portrait – only her eyes blazed.

‘Nothing at all?’ she asked.

‘Not a thing!’ I said, wriggling to free myself. The pain was like a burn from the range, but it didn’t stop. ‘Not a thing – I swear!’

Mrs Cotton released me and stood, turning away. She spoke to the empty room. ‘The constable was kind enough to forget this evening’s unhappy incident,’ she said, ‘if only out of fondness for my brother.’

Blood seeped from the half-moon gouges in my arm.

Brother-in-law
, I thought.
His Lordship is only stuck with you because his wife died
.

‘But I cannot be so lenient,’ continued Mrs Cotton. ‘You have betrayed my trust, that of His Lordship and that of God.’ In that order, I supposed. ‘I have hardly had time to think about your punishment.’ Her eyes fell to something on the floor, and I pushed myself up to look. It was the hessian sack.

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘I almost forgot.’

She peered into the sack and shook her head. ‘What a pity,’ she said. ‘Your clothes are all crumpled!’

‘I’ll press them,’ I said.

She pulled out the cardigan. ‘And your mother made you this, didn’t she?’ There was a smile creeping around her lips.

‘Yes, ma’am,’ I said.

She stood up, went to the little wood fire, and dropped it into the flames.

‘No!’ I said, jumping up.

The wool sizzled as it caught.

‘I shall expect you to set the fires at half past five,’ said Mrs Cotton. ‘Now get yourself to bed.’

She fixed me with a hawk-eyed glare as I made my way on unsteady feet to the scullery. I tried not to look at the fire and the cardigan that had smelled of my mother and now smelled of burnt straw. The bolt to the coal store, I saw, was pushed across. Someone was looking out for me, at least.

I took to the servants’ stairs again, up to my room in the attic. Mrs Cotton had thrown off the top sheet on my bed to reveal the rolled-up tablecloth beneath. I’d hoped it would look enough like a sleeping body to fool anyone checking.

Hot tears gathered behind my eyes, but I held them back. God knows I’d cried enough in the past year. No time for crying tonight.

I poured water from the jug and bathed my arm until the bleeding stopped. If she hated me so much, why couldn’t she just let me go? Reliable staff were hard to come by, for sure, but finding someone to do the most menial jobs in the house wouldn’t have taken long. The only conclusion I could reach was that she needed to be cruel to someone, and I filled that role so well.

I wound my father’s watch. Ten turns as always, in remembrance of the man I’d never met. If he’d lived, perhaps things would have been different. My mother wouldn’t have had to come and work at Greave Hall. She wouldn’t have fallen ill. I’d likely never have met Mrs Cotton.

Beneath me, the house went back to sleep as the clock chimed a distant three o’clock. In two and a half hours, a new day would begin. It would be like every other – without hope, without respite. Without my mother.

The bed was damp as wet earth as I slipped between the sheets.

BOOK: The Poisoned House
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