The House on Highgate Hill
copyright 2016, Ann Michaels
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Where the Other Begins
Love and Death
Shall Waken From Their Sleep
Neither liberty Nor Safety
Wisdom Comes With Winters
Scratch a Lover
Between The Lines
Light on Broken Glass
More Than Kin.
Searching For a Magic Door
Vaulting Love…Or Ambition
You Would Not Be Without Friends.
The House on Highgate Hill
Where the Other Begins
Footsteps echoed on stone somewhere within the heart of the house, and Adoria Thorne froze like an animal of prey. Soon enough, Adoria’s wits retuned and she swiftly snuffed out the single candle and sat in the darkness listening to the deep moan of the wind, as it rattled the leaded window pane, and to the unmistakable sound of the approaching footsteps.
Uncle Howell had returned.
Leaning out of the hooded oak porter’s chair, where she sat reading, Adoria peered out the narrow window, set deeply in the stone of her room, where she saw, in a few clicking seconds, a black night bird wing past, and two figures, like wafts of smoke, disappear into the belly of the cemetery; she felt her heart contract with apprehension. Her uncle, generally, disappeared for long stretches at a time, doing God only knows what, and when he returned, it was as though he brought with him an ill wind.
Staring out into the dark cold night, Adoria then became aware of the whitish weeping angel, rising up like a giant finger from with the misty grounds of Highgate Cemetery; an old and familiar friend. But she thought that she could also discern a small nimbus of light, through the ragged mist, coming from where her father’s grave was located. Adoria shivered, her poor father. She would visit his grave tomorrow, if she was able. This would bring her comfort.
A heavy gloom hung about the house on Highgate Hill, as Adoria rose stiffly in the frigid room the next morning and poured the freezing water from the grimy ewer, into the cracked basin. The housekeeper, if that’s what Mrs Grast could rightly be called, barely performed her role in the house.
Adoria did find simple and scanty helpings of food left out for her three times a day, by Mrs Grast, and her few pieces of clothing were washed every so often, and hung back in her carved walnut armoire. But the house was rarely cleaned, and so, it had grown increasingly dusty, damp and neglected.
Adoria, however, kept to her room and another small adjoining room, which was filled from floor to ceiling, with old leather, bound books. This room, which had belonged to her father, also contained a large, cracked leather Chesterfield lounge chair and a Cabinet of Curiosity, filled with stuffed birds, polished stones, strange and unusual shells, a collection of antlers and claws, insects skewered to boards, and other paraphernalia, collected by her late father.
At a small oak table, by the Cabinet of Curiosity, Adoria was sitting eating her morning repast, a grey lump of porridge and luke-warm tea, when the handle of the door from the passageway began to turn. With a groan, the door opened and Adoria’s Uncle Howell slid into the room.
Tall and thin, with a head like an Easter Island Statue, and black hair which curled on each temple like the Devil’s horns, Uncle Howell loomed over Adoria, causing her heart to flutter like a cornered bird. She looked up fleetingly into the large and cavernous shadows of his face, and waited for him to speak. She knew better than to speak first, for Uncle Howell was of the belief that women should be submissive and silent.
‘So niece, you have been comfortable and industrious, I trust? ‘Uncle Howell droned, in his usual sneering and sermonical manner. Adoria inclined her head, as was required, and waited.
Adoria nodded, even though this house on Highgate Hill was hardly comfortable; drafty and dusty as it was. And how she was to be ‘industrious’, was beyond her, when all she could do during the long and dragging hours was read, clean her room and sew items of clothing, when she was given a piece of cloth. Willingly, she would have cleaned the whole of this dilapidated house, but Mrs Grast had been outraged when she had first tried, and her complaints had sent the quiet but pernicious fury of her uncle, Adoria’s way.
That was seven years ago, when Adoria had been ten years of age; some months after her father had died in highly mysterious circumstances.
Adoria had been emerging from the months of suffocating grief, when she had looked about her and found that her home had descended into squalor. She also noticed that the housekeeper, Mrs Beadell had been sent away -- or had left, which left the cook, Mrs Grast, to fulfil all household roles. This upheaval in those wretched weeks of mourning had further caused Adoria to feel adrift and abandoned. But in an attempt to right her world on its axis and bring some order to chaos, she set about washing windows and floors, scrubbing walls and tiles, polishing and waxing woodwork, and beating the dust from the heavy window coverings.
As she was cleaning, she discovered that her Uncle Howell no longer dwelt in the basement, but now occupied the large bedroom, which had only recently belonged to her father. She had been shocked to find her uncle’s greasy faded suit, hanging in her father’s wardrobe; to see his food encrusted plates set about the room, and the grubby spot where he slept, on the linen sheets of the Jacobean four poster bed, which had long been in her mother’s family. Adoria did not much care for her uncle, but now she realised that he was her sole guardian.
Her uncle had come upon her as she went across the hall to inspect her mother’s always closed bedroom, with its intense green wallpaper and deep green bedspread. He had ordered Adoria to cease cleaning and to withdraw to her own portion of the house. This made Adoria feel like an interloper, and an alien, in the house into which she had been born, and always lived. The reality remained, however, that, although she was the beneficiary of her mother’s will, she would have no rights in this house, and over her own affairs, until she reached the age of 21.
That very afternoon, not long after Adoria lay down her feather duster, and went to collect some cloth from the washing line, she had found her grey pet kitten, dead. Strangled, it was, and laid out cold and lifeless, on the stone step. She ran, in a fog of tears and heartache, clattering back up the stone stairs to her room, only to find her yellow canary lying rigid on the sandy bottom of its cage, departed from this life.
Adoria had received the message loud and clear: she would remain in her small portion of the house, minding her own business, or else.
Becoming aware that Uncle Howell had spoken to her again, and that he was expecting an answer, Adoria, returned to the present from these troubling memories of the past.
‘I wish you to be present in the front parlour, at the hour of two, to meet a very special guest, who will be soon residing with us’.
Nodding dumbly, Adoria felt a quavering within, as her blood chilled, and her mind seemed to fill with buzzing insects.
As the sun made its late and pallid appearance on that frigid winter morning, Adoria slipped out the back door, down a damp and narrow alleyway next-to the house, and across the dark snaking road, through the lichgate, and into the cemetery.
Winding her way around tilting gravestones festooned with ivy, and crumbling statues of angels; a lordly but decaying Sarcophagus, which was sinking into the soft earth, and slowly being smothered by verdant vines, Adoria came to her father’s grave: a slab of undressed stone chosen by her uncle. Her father’s epitaph was very simple:
Dr. John Thorne
Departed this life June 6, 1854.
Next to Adoria’s father’s grave, lay the remains of her dead mother. But lying on the sagging stone, of her mother’s grave, was the prone figure of pale young man, with glossy black hair, clutching a bunch of snowdrops, in his unmoving hand.
Love and Death.
It was a very cold night, so Sebastian Hathaway lit a small fire inside the tiny mausoleum with twigs and branches that he had collected from the cemetery grounds earlier. The fire had smoked a bit, so he briefly opened the heavy metal door, to let some of the smoke escape.
Soon, the fire began to burn cleanly and Sebastian closed the door and took out his bread and a long metal skewer that he had hidden for the purpose. He began to toast his bread and boil water for tea.
Sebastian had lived at Highgate Cemetery for several years, since he was about thirteen years old. Soon he would turn 17 and he was hoping that his employer, Mr Jackel, would honour his promise, and let Sebastian take on some of his own jobs. This would allow Sebastian to make more money, and, hopefully, he would then be able to move away from the cemetery, into lodgings.
Mr Jackel and his wife had been friends of Sebastian’s parents, living near them on Broad Street, Soho. But Sebastian’s parents died from cholera back in 1854, after drinking the water from the local public water pump, contaminated by a mother washing her baby’s dirty linen in the town well. Mr and Mrs Jackel didn’t trust the water, and drank beer: this saved them.
At the time, Sebastian had been staying with his grandfather, who was a gravedigger at Highgate Cemetery. His grandfather had fallen into a newly dug grave, when the sandy soil had given way, and he had injured his leg. So Sebastian was sent to take his grandfather’s place, to ensure the old man did not lose his job.
Sebastian was lucky that he was away from Soho during the fatal attacks of cholera, but he was unlucky enough to lose both his parent’s during the epidemic.
Mr Jackel, his parent’s good friend, who worked as a photographer, regretted that he could not offer the orphaned Sebastian a home, as his wife, who was childless, liked it that way. He did, however, offer Sebastian a job. And so, Sebastian had remained living with his old grandfather in a hut on the grounds of Highgate Cemetery, and from there, he would walk and run the one hour to the city and back every day, to learn the photography craft.
Last year, Sebastian’s tough old grandfather had died, after suffering from a putrid sore throat and fever, and Sebastian was left all alone in the world. Sebastian then had to move out of the old shack, to make way for another gravedigger, but he did not move far. For years, he had been aware of small stone mausoleum, which contained a single crumbling stone coffin. But nobody ever seemed to visit that mausoleum, which sat alone in a desolate corner of the cemetery, with its unlocked door. So, Sebastian moved in.
Perhaps, the mausoleum was not the most comfortable abode, and perhaps, living in a cemetery was a lonely and unnerving experience for a young man, but Sebastian knew that one day, he could move away from this friendless place into his own digs, if, he worked hard enough, and he was lucky.
For the last few years, Sebastian had been learning the art of photography with Mr Jackel, who specialised in individual and family portraits, and post-mortem photography. Sebastian was also an adept faker: adding colour to the black and white film, by hand. He hoped to open his own photography studio one day. But how he would find the money to do this, he did not know.
This Sunday morning, Sebastian had attended church early. As usual, not a single person spoke or looked at him, and as usual, he felt like he was a ghost or spirit roaming the earth, which could not be seen by the living.
Ducking across a road, avoiding horse drawn carriages, as people, rich and poor milled around him, and the many chimneys belched smoke into air, heavy with fog, Sebastian thought about the Great Stink which had occurred a few years back, during the summer of 1858.
The problem, it seemed, had centred around the Thames River, which flowed through the great London metropolis, as it was used as a water source, and as a place to discharge all manner of effluent and waste. An intense heat wave, however, during the hottest summer months, had brought the Thames problems to a pustulent head, as human waste and assorted pollution stewed, and fermented in the simmering heat.
Reluctant to do anything which would require large amounts of money, members of parliament set about coating their own curtains in a mixture of chloride and lime, but this didn’t work. Then, they considered moving the entire government away from the Westminster area, even though the buildings were new. Lately, there was talk about making significant structural changes to the Thames and its use. Sebastian hoped that something would change, as he skidded across the manure sodden streets, and was hit by yet another seething stench, with rose up strongly despite the frigid air.
Stopping to buy some cooked eels and a baked potato from a street cart, Sebastian munched on these warm victuals, as he trekked back to his mausoleum home.
Entering Highgate Cemetery was altogether a different experience to walking through the sooty, noisy and sinking streets of London. Here there was a kind of chaotic beauty of rambling gravestones and soaring stone angels, and crosses. And nature was free here, with birds singing their sweet operatic cacophony: a parallel universe of life and death.
Running forward, with purpose, Sebastian’s tall and athletic frame bounded through the grass, grabbing some early snowdrops in one hand, from under a beech tree. He ran toward a granite gravestone, which was covered with moss and etched with the name ‘Parthenia Ashton’. He threw himself down upon the sinking stone on top of her cemetery plot, and read again, those words engraved upon the stone under her name:
‘Waiting for thee’
And in that position, in the soft winter sun, he fell asleep.
Shall Waken From Their Sleep.
Adoria didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know if this young man lying so still and cold upon the gravestone was alive or dead. So she just stood there, uncertain and irresolute.
Time passed and she began to note the rise and fall of the young man’s chest; she became aware of the twittering of birds and the slow rush of the wind, and she began to relax.
She turned back to her father’s grave and began to whisper, very softly, her thoughts and feelings; her fears and hopes, to that unyielding stone on which her father’s name was etched, choosing to believe that her father’s spirit existed here in some form, and that he could hear her.
She began to speak of her uncle and how he had informed her that she was to meet someone, who would be coming to live in the house, this afternoon. Then, by inches, she became aware that the young man had raised his head from the ground, and that he was resting upon one elbow, and speaking to her.
‘Sounds as if your uncle is trying to marry you off, Miss’ he said in a grave and thoughtful manner.
Adoria swung around and she stared into a pair of midnight blue eyes.
‘But why?’ she breathed.
‘I don’t know Miss, you tell me?’
So Adoria sat down next to that well-made young man, with the black hair and porcelain skin and told him about how her father had died 7 years ago. And how her Uncle Howell, a strange and sinister man, who had once lived in the basement, now occupied her father’s bedroom and ruled the house, as her guardian.
‘From what I understand -- what I read in a book -- I have no real rights or autonomy, and cannot claim my home until I have reached the age of 21. Then, I can ask my uncle and Mrs Grast to leave.’
‘Unless’, said the young man thoughtfully, ‘your uncle arranges to have you married off before hand, so that all your property goes to your husband.’
Staring at him unblinkingly, Adoria, whispered, ‘then I would never be free’.
The young man nodded and said, ‘my name is Sebastian, Miss’.
‘Adoria Thorne’, was her simple reply, softened with a fleeting smile.
‘But where is your mother, Adoria?’
‘She is here’, Adoria, answered, pointing to the gravestone on which Sebastian lay so comfortably.
Sebastian looked from the gravestone and back to Adoria: his mouth a perfect ‘O’.
When Sebastian first came to live with his grandfather he had been mired in a deep sadness, from the sudden loss of his parents, who seemed to have suddenly disappeared into the swirling miasma. It was like the place in the universe that, their little family had occupied, had never existed. Or, had only been part of some fragile night dream.
Days, he would spend, trailing about the graveyard, reading the gravestones and talking to statues. These had been his only friends.
Dimly, as if through glass, he would hear his grandfather say to the other gravediggers, ‘the lad is touched in the head’. Perhaps he was, he thought. His parents’ death had made him feel half-crazy with grief and loneliness. And then, he had come across the beguiling words on Parthenia Ashton’s tombstone:
‘Waiting for thee’
In his almost unhinged state, he had felt that these words were meant for him. And even when he began to recover, and return to something like his old self, he was left with the feeling that Parthenia Ashton was something real; a ghost or a spirit, who was somewhere just beyond his reach, waiting for him, alone.
Of course, Sebastian had only fallen in love with the idea of Parthenia Ashton and the idea that someone could be waiting beyond the grave. It gave him hope that he may see his parents again one day. So, it was a shock for Sebastian to meet Adoria, a flesh and blood person, who had a greater claim to Parthenia Ashton, than himself. However, suddenly, a discrepancy in Adoria’s story became very obvious to him, and he narrowed his eyes, and looked at her sideways, and asked:
‘So, why does your mother have different last name to you? Are you married?’
Adoria cast her eyes downward and stared at her hands, which lay quietly in her lap.
‘No……because my mother and father were not married.’ She looked up at Sebastian suddenly, daring him to sneer at her now, but his face only registered surprise and curiosity.
‘You see, my mother’s parents were missionaries: that was their life’s work. So when they decided to pursue their evangelical mission across the seas to Africa, in an attempt to fulfil Christ’s words to ‘go yea into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature’, they choose to leave their young daughter at home, in England, in the care of a widowed aunt. That aunt, a seemingly respectable and sober woman, chose not to tell my mother that her parents had died from malaria, only a year after they had left England. And she did not tell my mother that the house’ she pointed across the road, ‘would be hers to inherit when she came of age’. No, she treated my mother like a servant and did not allow her any schooling.’
Sebastian nodded his head, encouraging Adoria to continue her tale. But Adoria was staring into the distance, unseeing, and wondering for the first time, whether her parents’ had been invited to visit that land, by the people of Africa, or, if they had they just gone there anyway. Her mind felt confused by this thought.
Shaking her head, like a wet cat, as though to clear it, Adoria continued her story.
‘When she was 15, my mother was forced into marriage, with an old man, who was in league with the aunt.’ Adoria fell silent again for a moment and stared into the distance again, lost in her own thoughts. Soon, she continued, ‘When mother married, she lost any rights to the house and property. Legally she no longer existed. However, the old man, Mr Orson Ashton, died one week after the marriage…..in the marriage bed, one night….. and, my mother’s aunt, had no chance to even profit from her devious machinations.’
‘So, if the old man was dead, why is it that your mother did not marry your father’, quizzed Sebastian staring at Adoria with those penetrating blue eyes.
‘…..I have not been quite truthful’, Adoria murmured….. ‘You see, my mother found herself with child from the….. attentions of her husband… the old man, Orson Ashton. But the man I choose to call my father was the doctor who helped deliver her child: me that is. After my mother was brought to bed, she told the doctor the whole sorry story and he stood up to the aunt and threatened her with the law, if she attempted to use violence or coercion against my mother again. Father…. Dr Thorne…. admitted to me, whilst telling me this story, when I was younger, that really, there was little that he could have actually done’.
‘But still, why did the good doctor, the man you call ‘father’, not marry your mother? After all, the old man was dead and buried.’
‘Dr Thorne, or ‘Father’, as I called him, was the very best of men; he wanted my mother to retain her independence and her property. And, as we lived up here quite isolated and without neighbours about us, they did not put much store or bother by what other people may think of their arrangement’.
‘And yet, this good man has left you, Adoria Ashton, as you really are, to the mercy of your Uncle Howell?’
Uncle Howell, you see, is my father’s… Dr Thorne’s….identical twin.
Neither liberty Nor Safety.
After Adoria had run back across the road, toward the brooding Gothic pile, in which she lived, Sebastian roamed about the cemetery, shoulders hunched, wondering if he would ever see Adoria again. One moment he was sure that he would, and the next moment he was filled with a hopelessness that he had lost a potential friend, because he had said too much. Then he would think, surely, from what she said to me, her horrid uncle will soon force her into marriage; after which, Sebastian would berate himself for not rushing across the road and helping Adoria, who had stirred up his emotions and his thoughts so thoroughly.
After lunch, back in her room, Adoria tided her long, dark red hair, and washed her hands and face. Then, after taking a couple of deep breaths, she straightened her spine and began to make her way downstairs to the parlour, which sat at the front of the house.
Adoria, had not been in the parlour room for years, and yet, she remembered it well. But it seemed so long ago now that Adoria’s mother had sat upon that striped silk chair, in this room, to do her embroidery, in the morning sun, which stretched its long fingers into the room’s dark corners, for many months of the year.
Knocking tentatively on the solid arch-topped door, Adoria heard footsteps, deliberate and heavy, moving toward her. As the door slowly swung open, she was greeted by the tall stooping figure of her Uncle Howell, who suddenly reminded her of a desiccated praying mantis, pinned to a board, in the Cabinet of Curiosity. He bowed slightly, with his eyes, as usual, sliding away from her. He stepped aside and she walked into the room.
Immediately, Adoria noticed the grim faced Mrs Grast, standing in the shadows, eyeballing her with those eyes of stone. Then, Adoria became aware of a young man standing next-to Mrs Grast, observing Adoria closely.
Uncle Howell strode on spindly legs, with long steps, to stand between Adoria and the young man and commenced introductions.
‘Adoria, I would like you to meet my son, Ivor Thorne.
The young man bowed slightly and Adoria made the barest of curtsies; her head registering surprise about his paternity, silently and privately.
‘Ivor has recently come down from Oxford’, Uncle Howell intoned.
Ivor looked grave for a moment, and then said, as though wanting to clarify something, ‘I was not part of the fast set, my dear cousin. I was a scholar, destined for a school master -- when I can obtain a place’. Ivor then smiled, showing perfect white teeth.
Adoria felt a war wage within herself, as she could not help but be charmed by this modest and serious young man, with his soft brown eyes and dark golden curls. And yet, she felt this was her uncle’s plan.
They sat down to take tea, Mrs Grast pouring.
‘Many of the fellows were real peacocks up at Oxford’, Ivor continued, after the initial stunted small talk had spluttered out, in an amiable attempt to make conversation. ‘They were more interested in their ruffled shirts, London tailors and the size of their cigars. I was not regarded by this clique as being enough of a gentleman, not having their money, nor their appetite for hunting, gambling and drinking’.
Adoria smiled and Ivor smiled back.
‘My son will be staying here in Highgate with us for a while’, Mrs Grast cut in, pushing herself forward, with her teeth barred and her eyes like cannon balls.
Losing her composure, at this further revelation, Adoria spilt her tea. So she extracted the white handkerchief, hidden within her sleeve, and began to mop the liquid from her grown, with furious concentration. It gave her time to think.
There was the hum of quiet in the room and the whir of unasked questions. Uncle Howell looked aggrieved; Adoria guessed that he did not condone Mrs Grast’s disclosure. He would have preferred that she stayed quiet, and in the background. Mrs Grast, however, obviously wanted to stake her claim.
‘I will not stay long, Miss Adoria, just until I get on my feet, so to speak’, Ivor said apologetically. Adoria wondered if Ivor was genuine. Had he managed to rise above his Mendelian Inheritance? Or, was he just a very good actor?
‘I shall stay in the basement, Miss Adoria, and there will be no trouble for you on my part.’ Ivor added earnestly. ‘I also dabble in painting, however, and attempt to bring the fruits of my imagination onto the canvas. Perhaps you will allow me to paint your likeness sometime?’
‘At a loss for words, Adoria dumbly nodded.
Rising to his feet, Uncle Howell bid Adoria ‘good afternoon’, which was her signal to leave. As she left the room, she looked back, momentarily, to see the three of them seat themselves down and resume their tête-à-tête.
Opening the door to the Cabinet of Curiosity, Adoria, took out various pieces from the collection and held them in her hand. She felt the fine roughness of a piece of white coral, a smooth round polished gemstone, like a tiger’s eye, and the skeleton of an ancient sea creature. Then she carefully took out her favourite article, a long thin twisting object, labelled ‘Unicorn’s Horn’.
Dr Thorne, whom Adoria still thought of as her father, had told her once how unicorn horns were considered to have great healing powers. They were very valuable, and were used by royalty to make sceptres and thrones and to detect poison in food, and by many others, in potions and medicines. Not so long ago, however, unicorn horns were revealed to actually be the teeth of a certain type of whale, called a narwhal, but Adoria didn’t know this, so she still half believed in the object’s purported magical properties.
Magical thinking is often very comforting for those who are powerless and at the mercy of others. And this was the case for Adoria. She had no ability to engage in intrigues and stratagems against her uncle, or to change his plans and plots, so she simply held what she believed to be a unicorn horn for a while, and closed her eyes, and hoped that she could make it to her 21st birthday without being forced to marry.
Sighing heavily and taking up her book, Adoria resumed reading Jane Eyre. She was up to an exciting part where Jane and Mr Rochester are about to be married. With intense concentration, like she had left the world around her, Adoria was absorbed into her reading world. Suddenly she threw the book down upon the table and walked quickly away to the window. She felt troubled. She could feel no sympathy with Mr Rochester, who had locked his wife away, and pretended that she didn’t exist. Perhaps his wife was an unbalanced lunatic, but maybe, she became that way after she was locked away. She wondered: could Mr Rochester’s version of events be believed?
Adoria felt that it would be easy to slip into an unhinged state, when one is so much alone, with only the thoughts in one’s own head for company. Often feeling untethered to anyone, and quite friendless herself, Adoria, at times, struggled to maintain her peace of mind and good sense. Sometimes, she became despondent and dispirited, and so, she could empathise with Mr Rochester’s wife, Berta.
As Adoria peered out from the window at the leafless tree outside, tapping gently on her window with its gnarled claw, she caught sight of her new friend Sebastian, who was hiding behind a shrub in the small garden, in front of the house. She tried waving to him, but it was as though she was miles underwater: he could not see or hear her.
Eager to speak with her new friend again, Adoria threw on her cloak, and flew, soundlessly down the back stairwell, along the side laneway, looking up briefly at the abandoned old house next door, and into the front garden, where she found Sebastian peering into the dark reflecting glass of the front window.
Jumping about a foot into the air when Adoria came up behind him, Sebastian looked nervous and relieved at the same time. Adoria, however, grabbed Sebastian’s arm and led him out of the front garden, across the road and into the cemetery.
‘What on earth were you doing?’ Adoria asked in a shrieking whisper.
‘I was worried about you….and I thought……I don’t know what I thought, really. Only that I wanted to help you’.
‘You’ll get me into difficulty with my uncle, that’s what you’ll do!’ Adoria said more reasonably, but she looked pleased now and half smiled.
‘Come and see where I live’, Sebastian said on an impulse, grabbing Adoria’s hand.
And so they flew across the soft grass, through small patches of crunching snow, which had fallen overnight, around graves as large as a small carriage, and statues which stood like sentries, unmoving and silent, year after year.
They pushed through a clump of huddling trees and came to Sebastian’s mausoleum. He pushed the door open. The room was dark, cold and uninviting. Adoria turned to Sebastian and touched his arm. They walked into the leaden interior and Sebastian explained how his parents had died, and how he came to be living in the cemetery. At least I have a home, Adoria thought.
She wondered how she could help this young man, but then it came to her that, he was better able to help himself than she was. He has a job and prospects. I am only viewed as marriage material, she thought sadly.
Adoria looked over at the remains of a small fire, of charcoal and burnt twigs; she took in the pile of old coats, set on top of a wooden pallet in the corner, where he slept, and she gazed at a small metal box, which must contain some scanty bits of food. She had no words.
‘Come outside, I want to show you about’, Sebastian said suddenly. He grabbed Adoria’s arm and off they ran, out of the door; they were soon cantering along a wooded pathway, with Sebastian zipping here and there to show Adoria some of the cemetery’s inhabitants.
‘This is a Mr George Wombwell, Miss Adoria’, Sebastian stated excitedly, coming to a halt in front of a large tomb, on which a stone lion lay. ‘The lion’s name is Nero. He belonged to Mr Wombwell here and toured about with Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie. Mr Wombewell, also, had kangaroos, giraffes, a gorilla, monkeys and lots of other animals.’ He continued, ‘my employer, Mr Jackel told me how, one year at the Bartholomew Fair, Mr Wombwell’s elephant died and a rival put up a sign ‘The Only Live Elephant in the Fair’. Mr Wombwell wasn’t about to give up, though. He put up his own sign: ‘The Only Dead Elephant in the Fair’ and next thing, his exhibit was mobbed by huge crowds, eager to see and poke a dead elephant’.
Adoria’s eyes darkened and took on a shuttered look.
‘I can’t approve, Sebastian. Taking these animals from their homelands was cruel, and many died’, Adoria said solemnly. She had read about Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, in old newspapers which she had found under the Cabinet of Curiosity.
Sebastian’s smile disappeared and he looked thoughtful.
So they ran about visiting Sebastian’s graveyard friends, some of whom resided in the Dissenters’ section. Adoria was worried by this, and looked at Sebastian questioningly; Uncle Howell was strictly Church of England, although he did not actually allow her to attend the church on the summit of Highgate Hill.
‘I believe there is more than one path to the truth, Adoria’, Sebastian smiled, but said no more.
Startled by a snapping branch behind her, Adoria, swung quickly around to see an old man bent over like a badger, disappearing into a dingy patch of trees.
‘Don’t be scared Miss Adoria, that be only William Forte, the last Hermit of Highgate. You may see many others here too; a hunting party pursing a stag from St John’s Wood, and those who do not wish to go through the village yonder, as they pass this way toward Scotland and the north.
But Adoria did not answer, for as she watched the hermit, he seemingly vanished into the air, without a trace.
Wisdom Comes With Winters.
‘Would you believe, cousin Adoria, that yesterday when I stopped at Highgate Village to ask directions to this delightful house, I was met by an odd fellow wearing some type of barrister’s outfit and carrying a pair of stag horns’, remarked Ivor Thorne, as he sat sketching Adoria, who was sitting in the parlour drinking tea, on the following day.
‘This gent, then more or less forced me to make a pledge over the horns that, I would never eat brown bread if I could get white bread, nor drink weak beer, if I could obtain strong beer. It was altogether most particular.’
‘And I suppose that you were then declared to be a ‘Freemen of Highgate’? And offered the chance to kiss the prettiest maid who could be found at the inn?’ Adoria ventured.
‘Indeed I was’, replied Ivor with surprise.
‘It is an ingrained tradition of these parts, Cousin Ivor. ‘But we have Lord Byron to thank for its continued popularity. He wrote of the ‘worship of the solemn Horn,’ at Highgate, in his poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’.
‘Why yes, I do recall those fine lines now that you mention them dearest Adoria. What a lark!’
Mrs Grast sat in an old brown leather chair, as chaperone, in a dark corner of the room, seeming to blend into the brown of the dusty curtains. The whites of her eyes, however, glowed like two crescents from the stygian corner, reminding the pair of her watching presence.
The acid clay smell of Ivor’s paints permeated the air, as Ivor and Adoria remained quiet for some time, with the silence punctuated only by the clock marking the passing time and the syncopated clacking of Mrs Grast’s knitting needles.
‘I think that my sketch is almost complete; perhaps, I will soon apply the paint’.
‘May I have a peek, Cousin’, Adoria asked meekly.
‘Indeed not!’ Ivor replied with mock outrage. ‘I must have some pretext to keep you curious and willing to take tea with me on other occasions’.
‘You need no false inducements’ Adoria, replied politely. ‘As I am perfectly willing to take tea with you; your company is more than satisfactory’.
Ivor bowed and smiled.
Becoming serious for a moment, Adoria again, thought, how surprising it was, that, Uncle Howell and Mrs Grast, could have produced such a charming and handsome son. And yet, she could most definitely see Ivor’s resemblance to his parent’s. Except in Ivor, their features were transformed into a form and appearance which was most pleasing.
Also, Adoria could not but help feeling happy that Ivor sought her company, so that he could paint her picture. It made the usual dragging day; bubble along more happily than usual. And she was able to venture out of the two rooms, which she usually inhabited, to converse and have a laugh.
‘So where did you grow up Cousin Ivor?’
The young man hesitated. His body and pencil stopped moving, and his face became expressionless.
‘I do not mean to intrude!’ Adoria told him with feeling; stretching out a hand, as though to comfort or placate.
There was a momentary void of silence, between the ticking of the clock and the waiting knitting needles, when Adoria thought that Ivor was angry.
‘Sorry but….’ He glanced at Mrs Grast. The crescent moons of her eyes were trained on him.
‘I attended boarding school from the time I was very young, Cousin Adoria. And I have very cloudy memories of my parents from my youth.’ He nodded toward Mrs Grast. ‘I stayed here at this house a few times, in the basement, but I arrived on those occasions in the middle of the night. That is why I did not know my way, when journeying here.’
‘But I am sure that I never clapped eyes on you before’, Adoria declared, puzzled.
‘No…..I was given strict orders to remain in the basement…..but every afternoon, I would manage to escape into the cemetery…..I even met a friend there once or twice. Or perhaps I dreamed it’. Sebastian said quietly, as he looked out to the cemetery from the narrow window.
‘But who made you stay in the basement?’
‘Oh, Dr Thorne was the one who arranged everything’, he said quietly. ‘He didn’t want to disturb the lady’.
‘You mean my mother’.
Just then, Mrs Grast rose from her chair. A beam of light struck her face and I could see that she was angry. Her whole head glimmered in the patch of light and seemed detached from her body, which was absorbed by the shadows.
‘I have things to do’ she said rudely. ‘Pack up your things Sebastian and you girl’, she said, glaring at Adoria, ‘it is time to go to your room.’
Back upstairs in the room which housed the Cabinet of Curiosity, Adoria was walking back and forth across the timber floor, deep in thought. On a sudden impulse, she ran over to the immense bookshelves, which soared to the ceiling, jam packed with books, and began to pull various slim volumes from the shelves.
These leather covered volumes, had sat undisturbed since Dr Thorne’s untimely death 7 years ago. Containing Dr Thorne’s appointments, their contents were considered to be too mundane and boring to bother looking at. Even the police, who had briefly considered Dr Thorne’s death in his chair, at his medical practice in Pimlico, somewhat suspicious, had confined their interest to his most recent diary and to the empty box of chocolates, which had been found in the drawer of his desk, next to his body. This nest of diaries, however, spanned various years of the past.
A puff of dust erupted from the diaries as Adoria thumped them down onto the table. But she did not notice this, as she quickly flicked through many discoloured pages. She looked for the date of her mother’s death and found it. The writing was very difficult to read, but Adoria, deciphering carefully, could make out:-
April 9, 1851
Parthenia passed from this earthly plane today. For some months she suffered from headaches and confusion, progressing to a bilious fever, bloody flux, and violent convulsions. Usual remedies at my disposal, i.e.: milk, linseed, vinegar, sugar water and whites of egg, proved useless.
How very odd and impersonal thought Adoria as she read these few scrawled lines of writing. She then cast her mind back to that time when she had been about 3 or 4 years of age. But she could remember little, other than her distress, confusion and painful heartache. In her mind’s eye, she could conjure a vision of her mother sewing, as she sat on the striped chair, in a swathe of sunlight, in the front parlour. Other scenes flitted through her mind. She remembered her mother being ill, and thin, laying in that bed. And she remembered how Dr Thorne and Uncle Howell had approved of the awful decorating job undertaken by Mrs Grast, some weeks before her death, simply because they were colour blind and had no notion how awful her mother’s room looked. Of course, mother herself had loved it; she said that the colour made her feel like she was out in the fields: in nature.
Turning the stiff yellowing paper, Adoria scanned many pages, reading short notes jotted down about medical visits and procedures, which were integral to Dr Thorne’s profession. She read another short note, some weeks before her mother’s death, which simply said:
My dear Parthenia describes her pain as ‘being like a ball of red fire’.
Then she saw the words scrawled under the date, December 24, 1849
Sebastian to arrive at 11 pm.
What does this mean? Wondered Adoria.
Scratch a Lover
It was Sebastian’s Saturday habit to walk and partly hitch a ride to the public bathhouse located at Goulston Square, Whitechapel. He would try to arrive as early as possible, at the bathhouse, before the crowds, and before the water, and amenities, showed the effects of too much dirt and too many bodies. As he would bathe, Sebastian would wash out his spare shirt, bought from a second-hand clothes stall on Monmouth Street, and afterwards, pass it through one of the wringers. Later, back at the cemetery, he would spread the shirt over a bush, in a quiet part of the cemetery, to dry.
So as Sebastian left his mausoleum home early Monday morning, wearing his clean shirt, he gazed up at the tall thin house in which Adoria lived. As his eyes scanned the windows on the ground floor, he saw the figure of a young man, standing at a window, looking intently at him. Sebastian was struck by a sense of recognition, but he couldn’t place where he had encountered this person before. He didn’t have time to think about it now, however, as he rushed quickly onward. Sebastian had to pick up an order of silver salts, which were needed to coat the glass photography plates, as he and Mr Jackel had an important outdoor photography session today.
A fearsome volley of howling and guttural noises shattered the night air. Adoria shuddered cruelly awake, in time to hear the clock in the parlour strike the hour of one. She slipped out of bed into air so cold that it cut about her ankles like knives. She threw on her cloak and crept into the dark hallway; then she moved along, feeling her way, as though she was blind, until she came to the back stairway. By instinct and touch she felt her way down each step and then moved along another hallway of stone, until she came near the kitchen and the place where Mrs Grast dwelt.
A doorway hung open and the howling was coming from within. Adoria, moved behind a heavy velvet curtain that covered a window, and watched, as Mrs Grast bustled into that room. The howling stopped as suddenly.
Within that room laid the twisted body of Adoria’s mother’s aunt; the woman who had been appointed guardian of the young Parthenia, when her parents had left this country, to pursue their missionary work. However, not long after the coming of Dr Thorne, the aunt had suffered an apoplexy, which resulted in paralysis and an inability to speak. And so, for many years, the aunt’s world had been in this room, behind the kitchen, of the house, on Highgate Hill.
Adoria never went near the room, for if she did, the old aunt would commence the same fearful and blood chilling keening, which had just wrenched Adoria from sleep. The only person, who could attend the old aunt, without the accompaniment of wailing and baying distress, was Mrs Grast. This made Mrs Grast indispensable, unfortunately.
Inching her way out from behind the curtain, and creeping along the stone corridor, Adoria came to the open doorway, where the candlelight filled the room with a feeble glow and she peeped in. Inside, Mrs Grast was holding the old lady in a sitting position and helping her to drink from a small beaked cup. Mrs Grast was also murmuring soft words to the sick old woman. This is what Adoria heard:
‘Drink mother and then you can sleep’.
More confused than ever, Adoria slipped back to her room.
Between The Lines.
After work had finished for the day, Sebastian bought some pea soup and a baked potato from a food cart. He was hungry and the food tasted good, especially since he hadn’t had time to eat all day, owing to the sheer volume of work and the many appointments to have photos taken. It seemed that everyone wanted to have their faces and families recorded for posterity, and with improving methods and tumbling prices, many more could afford to do so.
Just in the last few months, Mr Jackel had learnt of a new photography technique, called melainotype, which he had introduced to the business. As the only studio about who was using this particular technique, which was not only a much easier means to produce a photograph, but also much faster, and cheaper, business was brisk. In minutes, Sebastian could apply a negative image onto a thin iron plate, and then, apply paints and enamel, before coating with a collodion emulsion. Sebastian wasn’t sure how well the photos would last, but the cheapness made it very popular, just now.
The jog homeward to the cemetery seemed to take an age on this cold evening; light flakes of snow were falling and Sebastian felt forlorn, as he passed windows where he could see the cosy glow of a warm fire burning in the grate and white wisps of smoke floating upwards into the dark. Cooking smells reached out to him, of fried onions, toasting bread and the nutty brew of coffee. He trudged onward, however, and soon enough came to the bottom of Highgate Hill.
Walking up a hill at a fairly brisk pace is generally a good way to get warm, but tonight, was especially cold and the snow which had turned to sleet, had managed to drip inside the old waxed jacket that Mr Jackel had given him.
As he passed Adoria’s house, he began to feel the relief that he was almost home, seep through him. But suddenly, he felt a strong arm leap out and grab him roughly by the shoulder; he found he could not make a sound.
Tossing and turning all night in her bed was Adoria’s fate after she crept back under the covers that night. Lying there, her mind rushed and surged like waves, thinking about the implications of Mrs Grast’s words. Could the old lady, her mother’s aunt, really be Mrs Grast’s mother? And what other things have been hidden from me? She wondered. But before she finally slid into a shallow sleep of exhaustion, toward the early morning, Adoria decided that she was going to search this house, to try and learn what was really going on.
It was close to lunchtime before Adoria actually emerged from her bed on that Monday. It did not matter, however, as Uncle Howell was away doing whatever he did, and Mrs Grast didn’t care. Briefly, Adoria wondered what Ivor was doing, but she thought that it was likely that he was painting or hanging about waiting for the post to arrive, in the hope that an offer of a place as a school teacher or private tutor would be delivered.
After dressing and eating her fossilised breakfast, which had sat for hours on the table near the Cabinet of Curiosity, Adoria looked about her and pondered where she would start her search. She gazed up at the sheer cliff of books and realised that she had never even thought to look at the books lined up near the top of the ceiling. Should she bother? She wondered. It was hard to imagine that anything useful would be found up there, but having had the thought, she decided it was worth a look. But how to get up there? Then, Adoria noticed that a narrow shelf next to the Cabinet of Curiosity actually looked like a ladder. Removing the fairly ordinary small rocks and shells that were displayed on its shelves, Adoria was able to unclip the shelf from the wall, and it became obvious, that, this was indeed a ladder, which she could extend and make much longer.
Carrying the ladder, which had been right in front of her for years, in disguise, over to the bookshelf, Adoria noticed that there were various small notches in the floor, in front of the shelf, where the ladder legs could be fitted. She decided to start looking on one side and move along.
As she climbed up the vibrating ladder, Adoria felt a bit dizzy. I don’t like heights, she thought. But never- the- less, she continued climbing.
The first book she picked up was called Horrible Revenge, Or, The Monster Of Italy!! Adoria flicked through the pages and soon determined that it was a bit of a potboiler, about a fellow who kept his wife in a dungeon, bringing her food in a human skull.
Most of the books Adoria sifted through looked very dull, filled with drawings of birds and maps and debates about how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. Another book called The Devil’s Elixirs had been hidden up here, Adoria surmised, due to its scandalous content. And the book next to it, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, also seemed somewhat radical.
Carefully Adoria climbed down from the ladder and moved along to the next shelf and continued her search, where she found more excruciatingly boring tomes, covered with layers of dust. Adoria then came to six volumes called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. These leather bound books looked mind numbing, and she was about to skip past them, when on second thoughts, she decided that she would take a look at them, in order to be thorough. However, the books she soon found were housed inside a cardboard box container, which made them very heavy.
Adoria simply tried to pull the first volume out of the container, so she could have a look, but the whole box slipped from her hands, almost causing her to lose her grip on the ladder. She watched helplessly as the volumes, in their snug case, crashed loudly to the floor. Suddenly feeling tired and despondent, Adoria descended the ladder and proceeded to return it to its place, on the wall as a shelf. She put the shells and rock collection carefully back, and then, pushed the fallen book set under the table out of sight, with her black boot.
Entering the room without a knock, Mrs Grast placed Adoria’s lunch on the table without a word and soon after quit the room.
Flopping down with a sigh, Adoria proceeded to eat her soup and chew thoughtfully on her bread.
‘I hope that I didn’t frighten you!’ Ivor exclaimed, as he caught sight of Sebastian’s startled face in a beam of moonlight.
‘Well you did, as a matter of a fact, but I do recall you now, so I believe that I can forgive you’.
Ivor smiled. ‘I saw you this morning. I couldn’t sleep and I was looking out the window to pass the time, when I saw you walking past……actually, I was only thinking of you yesterday, and how we met all those years ago’.
‘I have always wondered if I dreamed it. I couldn’t be certain, as I was bit odd for a long time after my parents’ death’, Sebastian said sadly.
‘We were both parentless creatures and I felt a bond between us for this reason and many others. But, believe it or not,’ he paused for a moment before continuing, ‘ it seems that I now have parents; they have been presented to me recently, and yet, I have known them for years, but not known them, if you catch my convoluted meaning’.
Sebastian suddenly looked wary and his eyes seemed to snap, as he realised belatedly that Ivor was that guest at Adoria’s house.
‘I have some tea and fruit cake in my pocket, let me come with you and we can talk’, Ivor requested quietly, as though he knew the reasons for Sebastian’s sudden coldness.
‘Well……I suppose so……come along then’.
And the pair disappeared into the darkness of the cemetery, without being aware that Uncle Howell followed close behind.
Light on Broken Glass.
For some years, Adoria had been writing ghost stories. The desire to do so was perhaps a natural development of living across the road from a cemetery, and the death of those people who had been so close to her: her mother and Dr Thorne, within her living memory. But the actual spark which ignited Adoria’s fire to write was, Dr Thorne sharing some of his experiences with her, one evening. He related how he had visited many homes, and some public places as a young doctor, where people had claimed emphatically, to have seen ghosts. He left these medical visits somewhat jittery, his mind in turmoil. But it had come to him, eventually, that the hissing sound of gas lamps and a rather nasty smell, had been the commonality in these locations, and so, he had concluded that leaking gas had caused hallucinations.
Adoria wasn’t entirely convinced by his argument, as she hoped that ghosts were true, only, she had never seen any for herself. But she was inspired to conjure up and bring forth ghosts from her imagination, not only for company, but as a manifestation of her hope that there was more in this world than what was material.
So Adoria was busy writing her tale, set in a creepy castle in the highlands of Scotland, when she found herself standing up, and walking out of her room, and out into the corridor. She made her way to the back staircase that mostly, only she used. But instead of going down as she usually did, she made her way upwards, towards the attics.
As far as she knew, no one bothered with the attics much. They were just a place to store things that were not thrown away; like, old clothes, magazines, newspapers, broken furniture and assorted other oddments.
The stairs were dusty, like most everything else in this house. And all was quiet now, but if you ventured up here, near the rafters in the months of April or May, you would likely hear the odd tapping or clicking sound of the deathwatch beetles, as they banged their heads against the wood, sending out messages for a potential mate. It is thought that the rather morbid name of this insect may have come about in medieval times, when people would be sitting in a quiet house, with an ill or dying person, and they would hear the head butting of the beetles, which they interpreted as sounds coming from the devil, impatiently waiting for a soul.
Pushing the heavy door open, it groaned and Adoria was transported from darkness into light, as the large windows up here freely admitted the afternoon sun. Immediately, Adoria began to open boxes and sift through jumbled piles of cast off belongings, which existed up here in a kind of limbo.
Gradually Adoria became engrossed and absorbed with her task, as she glanced through crumbling newspapers, which told exciting stories of interest, usefulness, advice, adventure, disaster and outrage. She learnt in a newspaper from 1850, that on 31 March of that year, the paddle steamer RMS Royal Adelaide, which was on its way from Cork to London, had sunk off Margate, taking its 250 passengers with it to the bottom of the sea. She learnt that in that same year, Charles Dickens’ novel, David Copperfield, became available to buy as a book. And, although she had never been into London City, she now knew from a newspaper dated February, 11, 1852, that the first public toilets for women had opened in Bedford Street, London on that day. From a 1851 newspaper, a few words told of the passing of the Arsenic Act 1851; an attempt to stem the many poisonings by putting restrictions on the sale. And then, she came across a report of the Broad Street cholera, in Soho, which had carried away Sebastian’s parents. It was if the world, amazing and grotesque as it was, had been unlocked, with the mere opening of a newspaper.
Reluctantly Adoria set aside the newspapers after a while, and moved toward a rather non-descript looking timber tallboy. She could not open it. Hunting around for a key, Adoria tripped over a gruesome elephant foot umbrella stand and almost landed on a pair of elephant tusks. She shivered and thought that the fashion for preserving and retaining parts of animals was despicable; however, she did not realise that her much valued ‘unicorn horn’ fell into that category.
Unable to find a key to the tallboy, Adoria pulled down some books which were piled on top and sat down upon a large tin of Scheele’s Green pigment. Firstly, she took down a rather shabby Bible. She opened it up, and saw that the cardboard of the inside cover was covered with some untidy scrawled writing. She read these names:
This is an old Bible belonging to one the Thorne children, most likely, thought Adoria.
The other book was some type of account book, with the name of tradesmen, bills and servants wages written tidily within. Fairly boring she thought, as she flipped to the front of the book to read the words:
Mrs Rachael Grast
The plot has just thickened, thought Adoria. Then, the thought popped into her mind that, she must somehow visit Hampstead and find Blackwood Hall.
Ivor and Sebastian walked through the dark cemetery. It was cold, ice was in the air and all was quiet save the soft whistle of the wind. They came to the grave stones’ of Parthenia Aston and Dr John Thorne, and they stopped for a moment.
‘Dr Thorne is your uncle?’ asked Sebastian.
‘Yes, yes I believe so’, answered Ivor, with uncertainty. ‘I was told to call him, and his brother, ‘uncle’, when I was a young chap; he was always kind to me, as I recall. And yet, I have now been told that he, whom I called, Uncle Howell, is in fact my father. It is most puzzling!’
Sebastian glanced quickly over at Ivor. ‘It is odd that you had no parents all those years ago, when you comforted me, after I had lost my parents’. Now, you have parents, people whom you knew all that time. It is all too strange!’
Nodding slowly, Ivor said nothing, but looked solemn.
Sebastian changed the subject, away from painful past bruises.
‘I met Adoria here recently…..she was talking out loud to Dr Thorne’ spirit. She views him as her father, although, she knows that her real father was the old man Asthon’, he pointed to a nearby grave marker, which shone phosphorescent in a river of moonlight, ‘whom her aunt forced her young mother to marry’.
‘And that aunt, I have been told, is my grandmother’, added Ivor ruefully.
‘You mean Parthenia Ashton’s aunt?’ asked Sebastian, puzzled, looking down at Adoria’s mother’s grave.
Ivor said nothing, but swung around and called out into the pressing darkness:
‘Why do you follow me, sir?’
There was a crackle of twigs, as though someone was moving close by, near a small thicket of shrubs. Ivor and Sebastian waited, but no one appeared.
Adoria continued her search of the attic for a while, but could find nothing more that would provide any more relevant information, so she went back to her part of the house. She sat down at the table, next to the Cabinet of Curiosity, and continued writing her ghost story.
Slowly, Adoria become enveloped in her fictional world. Her body may have sat at a wooden table, at a house on Highgate Hill, but her mind was elsewhere, dashing through hanging cobwebs, along corridors of a medieval castle, pursued by a nameless horror. After a time, however, she looked up and saw that the daylight was fading, as she gazed out the window directly opposite her, which faced out toward the laneway, which ran beside the house. The looming abandoned house next-door, the only neighbour, looked like it had been coloured in with charcoal. Adoria felt her head drop to the table and she fell into a dreamless sleep.
The aroma of bread entering Adoria’s nose, and hitting her brain, woke her. She found that a plate of soup and some bread had been placed next to her on the table. She realised that she was hungry.
Grabbing the metal spoon, Adoria began to eat and tear the bread into pieces and toss it into her soup. It was full dark now and she wondered what Sebastian and Ivor were doing. It was good to have other people to think about; people who were perhaps friends. It was then that she kicked her toe on the box of books under the table and she bent down and pulled out Volume One of ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’. She ran her hands over the aged soft leather cover, and over the important and bold looking letters of the title. She then, tried to open the book, but found that the cover was a lid. This was a hollow book: a book safe!
Inside the book, Adoria found a collection of miniatures, with a few photos sitting on top. The first photo was of a small boy, holding a wooden cup and ball toy, and wearing a sailor suit. Turning the photo over, Adoria saw the words, ‘Ivor aged 3’, written in black ink. She stared at the photo for a while, transfixed by the innocent eyes and chubby cheeks of the young Ivor: his unconscious beauty.
The next photo depicted Mrs Grast, albeit, somewhat younger and quite beautiful, holding Ivor on her knee; he was in the same sailor suit but, they both looked uncomfortable and ready to break apart and flee in opposite directions, as soon as they could. Then Adoria picked up a tiny oval water colour portrait miniature of a refined, looking lady, with dark hair and wistful eyes. On the back, lettered in ornate gold calligraphy, she gazed at the words: ‘Wilhelmina Thorne, 1813’. Adoria had seen that name written inside the front cover of the Bible that she had found in the attic.
The next miniature was of three boys. The younger two were obviously Dr Thorne and his twin, Uncle Howell, aged about 7 or 8, wearing Eton suits. However, the other boy was older, about 18 or 20, and much more handsome than his brothers. And very familiar somehow. Adoria stared at this picture for a long while, before she set it aside.
The last miniature revealed who that handsome man was, as Adoria, recognised the enamel as one that her mother had once kept hidden inside the armoire that, Adoria now used, which had disappeared long ago, after her mother’s death, without Adoria quite realising it. A realisation flared within Adoria’s churning mind that, her father, the old man, Orson Ashton, was the older brother of Dr Thorne’s and Uncle Howell!
But why did he have a different last name?
Matters became even more confusing, when Adoria noticed what seemed to be a piece of folded canvas on the bottom of the book safe. She carefully picked it up and found that the canvas was somewhat stiff and almost glued together. So carefully, she pulled and coxed the canvas apart, noting the almost illegible words on the back; she read, ‘the Ashton sisters of Lockwood Hall, Wilhelmina, Ophelia and Regan ’. As she laid the brittle canvas out flat on the table, she saw three young women aged from about 15 to 18. But it was the eldest sister, Wilhelmina, who captured Adoria’s attention, because the eldest Ashton sister was to become Dr Thorne, Uncle Howell’s, and Orson Ashton’s mother, and indeed, Adoria now realised, her grandmother.
Hearing footsteps coming along the stone passageway, Adoria quickly scooped up the photos, canvas and miniatures and shoved them back into the book safe, and with only a second to spare, tossed the whole thing under the table, just as the door flew open.
Adoria looked up guiltily.
‘What’s the matter, cousin? You look like you have been caught riffling through the family jewels, Ivor said jovially’. Luckily, he didn’t wait for a response, but ploughed onward with what he had come to say.
‘It seems that I have been offered a place as a tutor’, he proclaimed heartily.
Staring at him, her mind still with the contents of the book safe under the table, Adoria, struggled to grasp some control of her mind and bring it back from the tumbling rooms that were opening up within.
‘So, congratulate me dear cousin’, Ivor demanded, good-naturedly.
Running forward, Adoria grabbed his hand and fairly frothed with congratulations and well wishes for his future. Then, they walked out of the room together, with Ivor telling her that he would return with his painting things, if she was in agreement. She nodded. Then, he began explaining with great humour, how he would soon discipline his three young male students, if they did not work diligently.
‘I shall take a dunce’s cap with me and I shall procure what the Scottish call ‘a tawse’ – a leather strap which I shall use to discipline the recalcitrant young puppies’.
Adoria looked at him aghast. Surely, you wouldn’t think to use such, such….violent methods?’
Sobering, as he began to walk down the stairs, as Adoria leant over the railing watching him, Ivor, stopped and stood still, and looked thoughtful and a little grim.
‘Sometimes you do what you must’. And then he continued his descent.
Before he reached the bottom, Ivor called upwards to the carefully watching Adoria.
‘Uncle Howell….I mean father, wishes me to stay here, but I am adamant, I must and will, make my own way in this world.’
And with that, he was gone.
More than Kin.
Adoria awoke feeling stiff and uncomfortable, to find herself still lodged in the oak porter’s chair, next to the window. It must have been very late, she felt, and it was bitterly cold. She had been dreaming about explosions, or something like that; it was hard to remember now, as the fragile tendrils of the dream were dissolving fast.
An unmistakable crack came from the window next to her, causing her to jump with shock. Adoria rose, and ran forward to see what could be causing such a disturbance. She peered out into the gloomy night, and saw a layer of white blanketing the surroundings. With a start, she also noticed a figure, poised to throw another stone and she quickly, and perhaps stupidly, pushed up the window sill and waved her arms about like an agitated octopus, in remonstrance.
It was Sebastian, he was standing near the clothesline, and he was signalling for her to come down. She felt fission of anxiety and unease. Unmarried, young ladies simply did not meet young men, alone, in the middle of the night. He is my friend, she said very firmly to herself. So she grabbed her cloak and down she sped, as silent as a bird winging through the night.
As she neared Sebastian, Adoria could see that he was humming with excitement.
‘I have something to show you’, he burst out, breathlessly. ‘Come out into the lane, where there is some moonlight’.
They crept along and slipped through the wooden gate and found themselves in the moonlit laneway. Sebastian then shoved his hand into his back pocket and took out some small photographs.
‘Mr Jackel, my employer has me organize his photo archive whenever I have some spare time; it is an ongoing project and one that I find daunting and fascinating. But today, as I was attempting to bring some order to his collections, I thought to look up the names ‘Ashton’ and ‘Thorne’ and this is what I found.
The moonlight fell onto a photo of Parthenia Ashton, Adoria’s mother, on her wedding day. She stood, in her wedding finery, petite, with a dreamy expression, standing next-to her towering, handsome husband, Orson Ashton.
I was always led to believe, by Dr Thorne, that my real father, Orson Ashton, was a terrible old man. I cannot believe this now that I have seen this photo.
Sebastian next produced a photo of the old aunt, who now lived as an invalid in a room behind the kitchen, holding Parthenia’s hand as a small girl. There was a palpable affection between the pair, as they held hands. On a nearby table, Adoria could see two dog-eared books by the brothers Grimm: ‘Cinderella’ and ‘Little Snow-White’.
‘You must prepare yourself for this next one’, Sebastian said, as he looked at Adoria searchingly. ‘This is a post-mortem photo of your grandfather, Victor Thorne, who died in 1839. It seems that he was a gambler and a drunkard and he lost all his money, and the estate that his wife had brought to the marriage.’
She stared at the photo of a thin bearded man, propped up in an ornate carved chair, flanked by two Irish setters.
‘How do you know this?’
‘I asked my employer, Mr Jackel, about this photo: he had a lot to say.’
‘Oh!’ was Adoria’s short response.
‘Your father, Orson, luckily as it turned out, was adopted by a cousin of his mothers, whose own son --your grandfather-- had died whilst undertaking missionary work in Africa. Orson Thorne took on that gentleman’s last name, and in time, would have inherited the estates, when the old Baron died. He also married the Baron’s granddaughter, that is, your mother, Parthenia, who already had property of her own’, he pointed to the house, which seemed to be watching and listening with interest.
‘This house’, he gestured toward the fallen-in ruin on the other side of the laneway, which towered over them, ‘also belongs to you. It used to belong to the Thorne’s, until Victor Thorne lost it to Baron Ashton in a game of Faro. I think that, Baron Ashton, by making your father, Orson, his heir, felt that he would return the property to the Thorne’s, in this roundabout way. However, your father died, and since a mere girl—you, that is—could not inherit the Baron’s estate – you only inherited this little kingdom.
‘This is so strange!’ gasped Adoria. But wait a minute, what of the aunt, and Mrs Grast?’
‘Hush, I am coming to that’. But shhh, what was that?’ Sebastian spun around like a Whirling Dervish and peered out into the solid darkness.
‘I did not hear anything’, Adoria replied impatiently.
Looking a bit rattled, Sebastian continued. ‘The aunt, Mrs Grast’s mother, is a poor and distant relation to both the Ashton’s and the Thorne’s. She married a fellow in the navy, who was sent out to Australia to deliver a load of convicts. Mr Jackel said that this fellow so much liked what he saw when he got out to that southern land that, he decided to stay. And he managed to procure himself some land, probably taken away from the Aboriginal people, and never returned to his family, which left the aunt in a very insecure position.’
So Mrs Grast is really the daughter of my mother’s aunt?’
‘Yes and despite what Dr Thorne told you, she was said to be a good and caring guardian to your mother. But she took on that role after…..’
‘After what?’ Cried Adoria.
‘Well, for a number of years, the aunt and her daughter, who later became Mrs Grast, lived with the Thorne’s, earning their keep as household help; the aunt, as a housekeeper, who trained up her daughter for the role. When the aunt moved over here to Highgate Hill, to take care of your mother, Mrs Grast took over the job, as housekeeper for the Thorne’s. She was very young at the time, but quiet efficient’
The pair were silent and thoughtful for a moment. Then, Adoria realised how cold she was, standing there in her cloth slippers, on a carpet of snow.
‘So Ivor is indeed the son of Mrs Grast?’ Adoria asked softly.
‘So it seems, but legally, his father is listed as Tom Grast, the Thorne’s gardener, and Mrs Grast’s late husband.’
Then, from the velvety shadows stepped Ivor himself; his face like marble, his eyes flashing like a lighthouse signalling stormy, deep water ahead.
‘So who is my father, Sebastian? Since you know so much’, Ivor said sneeringly.
‘I’m not sure Ivor’, Sebastian replied nervously.
‘I myself have always suspected that Dr Thorne was my father, as it was he who paid for my education and arranged for my visits here, in the early days. Now, his brother, whom I always called Uncle Howell, claims to be my father. And he and ‘mother ‘claim the right to tell me who to marry’; Sebastian stared hard at Adoria, who shrunk into the shadows to escape his accusing eyes.
‘Well, I bid you both good night. I leave before daybreak tomorrow, to take up my new post, and I do not expect to return here before 6 months has elapsed.’
He bowed and was gone.
Adoria watched as Sebastian stared after him, his face bereft. And as there seemed to be no more to say, Adoria and Sebastian drifted back to their allotted places in the world, to brood and wonder.
Sebastian hardly slept for what remained of that night. He tossed and turned on his pallet bed and constantly tried to rearrange his motley coat collection around him in a feeble attempt to keep out the creeping fingers of cold air. His mind too, kept rolling over the same scene, of Adoria’s shock and Ivor’s cold fury, as they stood in that moon-lit laneway, only hours before.
Finally, Sebastian rose from the bed and began to dress, with a little more care than usual, as today, he and Mr Jackel would be attending a spiritualists’ convention, where they would be producing ‘ghost photos’, using long exposure times. Mr Jackel would position the spiritualists in the foreground of the photo, and then, Sebastian would sneak around behind the group and walk slowing through the frame. This would cause Sebastian to appear transparent and ghostly, as the light sensitive emulsion, would only partly register his moving appearance. The group knew, of course, that a trick was involved, but it seemed that they were even more desperate to believe in ghosts.
A hansom cab was parked outside Adoria’s house, with a single horse stamping its hooves on the frozen ground. Then the front door of the house flew open, and Ivor came rushing down the front stairs, ramming his hat upon his golden curls. He stopped in mid-stream, as he noticed the figure of Sebastian, a short distance away. Then, finding his voice, he called:
‘Off to work are you? I am going through London, jump in’.
Simply nodding his head, Sebastian leapt into the cab beside Ivor, and after some stamping and lusty snorting from the horse, off they went, with a clink of the harness.
Together in the dark womblike interior of the cab, Sebastian and Ivor became almost shy and reticent to talk. Finally, after a long and uncomfortable silence, broken only by the trotting hooves and the creak and sway of the cab Sebastian cleared his throat and hesitantly spoke.
‘Will you marry Adoria?’
Ivor trembled as though startled and then turned his head to look at Sebastian as though in slow motion. ‘I may do so. To save her’.
‘I thought so’, was Sebastian’s only reply, as he turned away to stare sightlessly out the window.
Searching For a Magic Door.
When she awoke the next morning, Adoria knew that Ivor had gone, as she could feel the withdrawal of the almost intangible vitality and buoyancy that he had brought with him, to the house, had been withdrawn. All around her the house was returning to that withered and lifeless feeling, of before.
Throwing off her blankets, Adoria washed and breakfasted. Then she took down the map from the bookshelf and set to work examining it, as it would show her how to get to Blackwood Hall, at Hampstead. Adoria believed that if she walked at a brisk pace, she should make it to Blackwood Hall in about 40-50 minutes. She planned to leave as soon as possible after Mrs Grast had brought her lunch, and hopefully, she would be home before anyone realised that she had even gone. Of course, Adoria hadn’t actually been anywhere by herself before – as far as she knew -so this was going to be quite an adventure.
Just after midday, Adoria crept down the backstairs, wearing her heavy grey woollen cape and hood; she snuck down the laneway, slunk past the front of the house, and then began to run madly, as if in a kind of panic.
Adoria soon began to run out of puff, and so, she slowed down to walking at a brisk pace along the mushy ground. Gradually she began to feel a sense of freedom, as she strode along purposefully, on that cold and clear day. And soon, she even began to enjoy herself.
Walking along lanes, past woodlands and tranquil ponds, Adoria observed ducks and many other types of birds going about their daily business. As she passed a little rise in the path, however, her eyes fell upon a splendorous mansion, which gleamed like phosphorus in the soft afternoon sunshine. In the grounds of the mansion, she could see a little girl dressed in a red woollen cape, bopping along on a tiny grey pony, with the bonneted nurse looking onward, ready to pounce. All about that estate were glorious parklands and soft verdant grasses; a perfect place for a cossetted life of well-being. A picture of Sebastian living in the cemetery came to her mind, and Adoria turned away from that Shangri-La, and began to wonder how such people came by their money.
Soon she forgot about the mansion, and her questioning thoughts, as she went over a stone bridge and looked down into a picturesque valley, where she saw a large hare moving like a lightning bolt, amongst the green foliage. Moving along, she passed by a little round house with a pointed roof; a quite suitable place for the wee folk. On closer inspection, Adoria thought that the house looked a bit like a well with a roof. But then, looking about her, she found the many skeletal trees surrounding it, rather unearthly, and so, she began to run, as though the hounds of hell pursued her, which is the result of reading too many German fairy tales in one’s youth.
At the top of a little hill, Adoria gazed out toward majestic manor houses dotted about on lush parcels of land. Then, looking out into the distance, she saw a great huddle of buildings, surrounded by many roads and decided that this must be London town. This caused a great burst of excitement to erupt within her breast. When she recovered, she continued on her way, and soon, she came to Hampstead Grove, where she abruptly found herself fronting Blackwood Hall.
The imposing brown brick three story building was set well back from the road. It had a centrally placed Roman Doric portico and a doorway and windows set off by white fluted surrounds.
Suddenly, Adoria felt unsure. She couldn’t simply march up to the front door and present herself. So she began to walk along past the front of the house, where she noticed a small gate, which she thought was most likely there for the use of servants and tradesmen. There must also be a back laneway, she reasoned -- for carriages.
Unclipping the gate, she walked up the freshly swept pathway, and soon, came to a wooden door, which was propped open with a brick. Adoria poked her head around the door, where she saw a small flagstone passage, which led to a veritable maze. However, a door to the right was wide open and it led into a fair-sized kitchen.
At that moment, a short and round, apple faced woman, with a nose like an overripe gooseberry looked up quizzically and said.
‘Can I help you there, young miss?’
‘If you’ll pardon me ma’am, I am hoping that you can help me. I am looking for information about the Thorne family, who I believe used to live in this house some years ago’.
The cook seemed to be considering Adoria’s inquiry as she continued rolling the pastry top for a peach pie, which stood roofless near her elbow.
‘I can’t help you miss, but if you go along that there passageway, through the first green baize doorway, you’ll come upon the housekeeper, Mrs Silver’s, office. I think she may be able to help you, with what you wish to know ‘.
‘Thank-you ma’am’, Adoria said, as she moved off into the dark corridor.
Outside the housekeeper’s door, Adoria knocked, with a sharp rap, and soon, heard swift tapping footstep heading toward her.
The door flew open and Adoria was faced by a neat woman, in a black stuff dress and a spotless white apron. Her greying blonde hair was pinned up under her starched cap and her sea green eyes were trained upon the interloper at her door.
‘Good day to you Mrs Silver, I hope you will excuse my intrusion, but I am seeking some information about a family who used to live in this house, by the name of Thorne…. and also a Mrs Grast’. She said hurriedly.
Mrs Silver’s face did not change, but her eyes sharpened to little points and she asked evenly, ‘So why should I share any information I have with you then? Are you perhaps, related to the Thorne family?’
‘My name is Adoria Ashton. It is a complicated story ma’am, but yes, my father was of the Thorne family, although he changed his name’.
‘Ah, I see, then……well, come in; you may take a seat and I will have Betsy bring us some tea’.
Gratefully, Adoria walked into the snug little room, lit by an apple wood fire, burning happily in the grate, and sat down on a small overstuffed chair, which faced a dainty timber table, decorated with flowers of inlaid wood. Mrs Silver disappeared for a moment, probably to arrange the tea, and then, closing the door, came in, and sat at an almost identical chair, opposite Adoria and placed her hands in her lap, saying nothing.
After a few minutes, the tea and crumpets came, and Mrs Silver poured, and waited, as Adoria nibbled on her warm crumpet, dripping with honey.
‘I shall tell you dear what I know,’ Mrs Silver, said, as she closed her eyes for a moment to think.
‘Mrs Grast left this establishment in 1843, at the age of 17. That is also the year that her son was born. Her husband, whom she married at 15, however, had died in the year before this, so there was no chance that he was the boy’s father. So she had to leave, if you catch my meaning. Sometime after this, I heard that Mrs Grast was working as a cook, at the same establishment at which her mother had gone, some years before, to care for an orphan niece.’ Mrs Silver nodded her at Adoria, before continuing.
‘Mrs Grast’s mother, Mrs Walker –your mother’s aunt-- had been abandoned by her husband, a sea captain, in the early 1820s, when her daughter was a mere babe. So she had been installed here, ostensibly, as housekeeper, to earn her keep -- a respectable occupation open to poor relations.’ Mrs Silver grimaced, causing Adoria to think that this had also been Mrs Silver’s fate.
‘If you will excuse me for being so blunt ma’am, who do you believe to be the father of Mrs Grast’s Child?’ Adoria asked. Time was getting on and she needed to hurry matters along.
‘Well now, it was widely believed that the twins, John and Howell Thorne, were responsible. Which one of them, no one could say. However, they were young, about 12 years, I think, so I thought it unlikely. Others may tell you that, the old man, Victor Thorne, was the father, but he died back in 1839, so that was impossible. It is my belief that it was the older boy, Orson, who was to become, Orson Ashton, that fathered, Mrs Grast’s son’, as he was much at home that year, having finished his schooling.
Gasping and clutching the arms of her chair, Adoria momentarily couldn’t speak. Then, with her mouth feeling numb, she said:
‘But that would make Mrs Grast’s son, Ivor Thorne, my half-brother’.
The housekeeper simply nodded and took a sip of her tea.
‘Orson Thorne was a very wild young man, by all accounts. Handsome it is said, and he did have a way with the lasses. But so I have heard, he made his young wife –your mother-- miserable in that first week of marriage. And he also managed to exert some undue influence over Mrs Walker, the aunt, I have been told.’
‘How do you know all this?’ Adoria asked, mystified.
‘I have been working at this house for a long time. I was the personal maid to Mrs Wilhelmina Thorne, before I took over the housekeeper role, with the new owners, who require few servants, as they are much retired. I was even here when Mrs Walker was the housekeeper; she trained me, along with her daughter. Mrs Walker and I came from similar backgrounds, you see. Our fathers were both impoverished school teachers, who had no money to leave us.’
‘But what makes you so sure about Orson Ashton and Mrs Grast?’ Adoria asked boldly.
‘Well, my dear, I saw them with my own two eyes. As an upper servant, I had access to many of the rooms here, which may have been empty, but still needed cleaning. Let me say no more on that topic, however’.
Mr Silver then placed her tea cup down firmly into its saucer and stood up. ‘I’m sorry to have upset you my dear. But please excuse me, as I must return to my work.
Thanking Mrs Silver, Adoria pulled on her gloves and went out the door. She walked down the dark corridor, and was just going through the green baize door, when Mr Silver called out:
‘One moment my dear, let me give you this’.
Adoria turned around and found a small and fairly dirty calico purse, being pushed into her hands. I found this a few years ago, hidden under a loose floor board in my office. I was never certain what I should do with it. I believe that it belonged to Mrs Grast’.
Despite her surprise, Adoria managed to thank the housekeeper properly, and take her leave. She then sped home, with the sky darkening with every step she took.
Dashing up the back steps, Adoria’s heart was thumping with fear. But no food had yet been set out for her, and nobody had noticed that she had gone anywhere at all.
It was dark when Sebastian and Mr Jackel left the home of Mrs Jemima Batwig, a rich widow who ran a weekly spiritualist group. Mrs Batwig had lost her husband, and son, 5 years before, when they perished during a fire at the sewing machine factory, which the family owned. These bereavements had almost turned the good woman’s mind, so intense was her grief. She had been saved, however, by her daughter carting her along to meet a famous American medium, who had journeyed from that land, to London.
Now, Mrs Batwig’s life’s work was dedicated to contacting her various dead relatives, especially her dearly loved and missed, husband and son. She was devoted to the cause, and had spent a carriage load of money on it.
This day, Sebastian had experienced a séance, various women claiming to go into deep trances whilst speaking with odd deep voices of the dead, and various rapping’s and bell ringing’s, which were met with great joy by the odd assortment of ladies and single gentleman. Sebastian didn’t believe in any part of this theatre, but he understood the overwhelming devastation that grief and loss could bring, and how solace must come from wherever you can find it.
Sebastian did believe, however, that there was a part of a person that could endure the wrecking ball of time, disease and death. But he believed that this essence could only be found out in the natural world.
‘Come home with me for a something to eat young Sebastian’, Mr Jackel called out as they walked along at a brisk clip, even though they were weighed down with equipment, in order to get warm and get home faster.
Sebastian thought about the offer for a few seconds, and then, nodded his head in agreement. It had been a while since he had set foot in the old neighbourhood. And as an active and well-muscled young man of over 6ft in height, he was often hungry and hated to turn down the offer of a free dinner.
Over dinner, there was no need for Sebastian to talk much, as Mrs Jackel gossiped and nattered full pelt. Sebastian didn’t mind though, because it was warm inside the familiar Soho house, and he was feeling pleasantly full, for the first time in quite a while. At around 8 o clock, he bid the Jackel’s goodnight, and set off along the mostly deserted streets, for his cold trek home. As he rounded a corner, he saw a Papist Church, with the doors fully open and a warm glow coming from within. Before he knew what he was doing, he found that he had gone through that doorway and he had sat down on one of the hard timber pews.
To his taste, the Catholic Churches were a bit too melodramic. However, as Sebastian sat staring straight ahead at the altar, which glowed in the soft golden light, he found himself feeling calm and peaceful. He imagined that this feeling was not so much different to the Buddhist meditations that he had heard so much about.
Absent mindedly he picked up the Bible lying open face down next to him on the bench, and read:
O LORD, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble.
It suddenly struck Sebastian that Pathenia’s epitaph echoed these words. And suddenly, the epitaph on Parthenia Ashton’s grave stone seemed less comforting, and more like a cry for help, from that land beyond life.
Vaulting Love…Or Ambition.
Going into her bedroom, Adoria shut the door and took out the grubby calico purse that Mrs Silver had given to her, which had supposedly belonged to the young Mrs Grast. She unfastened the rough wooden button and peeped inside, where she saw various folded pieces of paper that appeared to have been torn out of a book.
Picking out one of the well folded papers, Adoria unfurled it and saw that it was a page taken from an encyclopaedia, about Empress Catherine I of Russia. Quickly reading the page, Adoria learnt that the Empress Catherine had begun life in a family of impoverished Lithuanian peasants and her parents had died of the plague. At the age of 18, Catherine was captured and taken to Moscow, where she became a maidservant to an important government official. During his time, she met the Russian Emperor, Peter the Great, and became involved with him romantically. Even more interesting, was the fact that the monarch actually married Catherine, even though she was illiterate and from humble origins.
The next folded piece of paper detailed the life of Barbara Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine, who was born in 1641 and who became the mistress of King Charles II, of England. She bore Charles five children, which he acknowledged, even though she had a reputation of being bad-tempered and domineering.
The next page was a short excerpt about a woman called Karin Mansdotten who was born in 1560. The young Karin had worked with her mother, a humble fruit and nut seller, but she ended up marrying the King of Sweden.
These few artefacts from the past, most likely provided an insight into the younger Mrs Grast’s mind, Adoria thought. Mrs Grast had, perhaps, been in love with the young Orson Thorne, who became Orson Ashton, the heir to a significant estate, and these papers, removed from an encyclopaedia, probably sustained her hope, that he may marry her, despite the difference in their situations, and perhaps, tempers.
How devastated Mrs Grast must have been when my father cast both her and her child off, and instead, married a rich young heiress: my mother, thought Adoria. And yet, and yet, Mrs Grast still lives - in my house too- and my parents are both dead.
On Saturday afternoon, Adoria found Sebastian in the cemetery mooning about and looking mournful, near her mother’s grave; she thought his behaviour was a bit odd, but she simply ignored it and began a long account of all the things that she had found out recently.
Strangely, Sebastian looked almost pleased at some of this information, but he said, ‘we are still missing plenty of pieces here.’ He then stopped, scrunched up his eyes and pursed his lips. There is something I’m not quite catching, though. Tell me again about your investigations in the attic’
She told him again about finding the newspapers, and reading them. She did not mention again the news article about the Soho cholera epidemic, which had killed his parents, as was still recovering from his forlorn eyes. Then she mentioned the gruesome elephant’s foot umbrella stand, the family Bible and how she had sat down upon a pot of Scheele’s Green pigment.
‘That is it!’ he cried. ‘Mr Jackel won’t touch Scheele’s Green pigment; he says its poison, as it contains arsenic and that it can make you sick and even kill you.’
‘What kind of things is it used for?’ Adoria asked with a heavy sinking feeling.
‘It’s used in green paints, wallpaper, fabric dyes and even candles, and believe it or not, in food’.
‘My mother’s bedroom, the room in which she died, is painted green, and her bedspread is green. I remember saying that the colour made me ill, but Dr Thorne said I would get used to it. Of course, it didn’t matter to him: he was colour blind.’
In the deep part of the night, Adoria was woken again by screaming, coming from the room of her mother’s old aunt. This time, the old lady was crying loudly, and at intervals, she would break into bone chilling screams. Again, Adoria left her bed and made her way down to the room behind the kitchen, where the old invalid dwelt.
Watching from behind the heavy curtain, she observed Mrs Grast, head from the kitchen into that narrow, dank bedchamber. Quickly, Adoria scurried forward, and peered around the doorway, into the dark hole of the room. This time, she saw Mrs Grast standing, hand on hips, glaring at her mother, and this time, she noticed the look of abject terror in the old lady’s eyes and the copies of Cinderella and Little Snow-White, which sat upon the bedside table.
The puzzle pieces were coming together. But what part did Dr Thorne and his brother Howell play in all of this? Wondered Adoria. And even more to the point: what could she do about any of it?
The outside world was still quite a mystery to Adoria, and she had no real notion of going to the police, who as far as she knew, consisted only of men, who most likely only cared about men’s business.
She went and sat down and stared out of the window for a long while, to think. She simply stared out at the cold day, with its slate sky and leaden clouds and she felt heavy with sadness; to think that Dr Thorne, whom she had loved as a father, could possibly be complicit in such terrible crimes and even murder; which went so profoundly against the Hippocratic Oath of, ‘do no harm’.
She recalled how Dr Thorne would spend long hours lounging in the porter’s chair, munching on home cooked cakes and biscuits, next to the Cabinet of Curiosity, reading his various learned tomes on philosophy. She glanced up to the book shelf, to the book he would often take down, in such a way, and with such an expression on his face, that Adoria would think, at the time, that it must be a very dear friend. He would sit, sigh and then quoting from the book say:
Reading and sauntering and lounging and dosing, which I call thinking, is my supreme Happiness.
Getting up, Adoria quickly crossed the floor and took down that book and looked through it, but the only thing of interest was a hand written quote by Dr Thorne on the back inside cover, which said:
The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster.
Sensing a movement close by, Adoria looked up, and found her Uncle Howell staring at her with those cold eyes of his. She closed the book with a snap.
Slipping through the gate and out of the cemetery, Sebastian knew what he was doing was insanely foolhardy, but his mind kept returning to those newspapers that Adoria had told him were lying about in the attic, and so, he had decided that he would slip up the backstairs of Adoria’s house, while there was still light in the day, and have a look.
It was easy enough to get into the house, and creep up the deserted back stairs. He also found plenty of light in the room as he sat down to read; not on the can of Scheele’s Green pigment of course!
As he was reading through the newspapers, it occurred to Sebastian to look if something had been written about Dr Thorne’s death. So he dug about in the piles, trying to find a paper from early June 1854. He found a little stack of papers from June of that year, tied about with brown string, and began scouring the pages. On the date the 25th of June, Sebastian noticed a section at the back of the paper titled: Police Reports. He ran his eye down the various reports of ‘elopement’ and ‘assaulting a constable’, until he found what he was looking for.
On June 6, 1854, Dr John Thorne, a medical practitioner of Pimlico, London, was found dead in his surgery chair by his brother, a Mr Howell Thorne, an apothecary of London.
An empty box of chocolates which was found at the scene, was tested, and found to possess lethal traces of strychnine. No wrapping paper or evidence of the chocolates being posted could be found, however.
It was suggested by investigating officers that, Dr Thorne, may have injected the chocolates himself, with the poison, at his home on Highgate Hill, where his brother, who occupied the basement rooms, also kept many of his tinctures, herbs and elixirs. The brother also came under suspicion, although no firm evidence could be found.
Yesterday, the police closed the case due to insufficient evidence and have marked Dr Thorne’s death as being a death by an unknown hand.
In his excitement, Sebastian jumped up and clattered down the stairs. He raced along the long musty smelling hallway and ran into the room which he believed Adoria inhabited, and which, housed the Cabinet of Curiosity. And then, he came face to face with Adoria and her Uncle Howell, who had stopped staring at each other, in order to stare at him.
‘We know all about you evil plots and how you poisoned Adoria’s mother with that arsenic laden wallpaper’, Sebastian burst out.
Uncle Howell said nothing; he only scrutinized Sebastian as though he was an insect that he would like to pin on a board.
Sebastian kept going.
‘We also know that Adoria’s father was yours, and Dr Thorne’s, elder brother. And we know that the old aunt brought Mrs Grast to live here, when she was with child. And that child, Ivor Thorne, is probably Orson Ashton’s child, and so, Adoria’s half-brother.’
At this, Uncle Howell said ‘I see’.
‘We know that Dr Thorne was poisoned with cyanide filled chocolates and I know that Adoria has been kept a prisoner here, and that, you are trying to force her to marry Ivor, even though he is probably her brother.
Suddenly, the passion seemed to leave Sebastian and he looked afraid. Nobody spoke and the silence filled the room like a live thing.
Then, Uncle Howell sat down and he looked deflated and disturbed. And then he said, flatly:
‘You have a got a number of things quite wrong, however. My brother and I came here to live to protect your mother. She became confused and delusional after Orson, our brother died, so soon after the wedding.’
He stopped and a single tear fell from his eye.
‘I can’t tell you how sorry I am about the wallpaper. Neither of us realised, as we are colour blind; such an idea did not occur, to me at least.’ He turned and looked at Adoria. ‘I stayed on living here to protect you from her. I knew when she killed your pets, in that time after my brother died, that I could not leave. But understand, she told me that Ivor was my son.’
Adoria looked confused as he continued.
‘I could not ask her to leave. I had no right to do that. And I did not accuse her of anything, either. I simply observed and tried to keep you away from her, in a safer part of the house’.
‘Do you believe that Ivor is your son?’Adoria asked.
Uncle Howell closed his eyes and sighed. ‘She had all of us on a string, for so many years. There were many occasions that she would make herself…. available to me when I was home from school…..and it was possible, and I wanted to believe it. Who would not wish for such a son?’
Adoria did not respond to her uncle as she was sniffing the air. ‘I smell smoke’, she said.
‘So do I!’ Sebastian agreed.
Uncle Howell dashed out the door and along to passage. He returned and reported: ‘the whole house is on fire.’
The three of them stood frozen for a moment, and then, Uncle Howell said ‘follow me. There is a reason why I insisted that Adoria stay in this section of the house and you will find out why.’
Hesitating for only a moment, Adoria and Sebastian followed Uncle Howell into Adoria’s bedroom, where he gestured for Sebastian to help him move the heavy walnut armoire. The smell of the smoke was rising through the wooden floor boards quite strongly now, and Uncle Howell said, ‘cover your face with a bit of cloth, if you can.’
Adoria grabbed her cloak from the nearby hook and Uncle Howell and Sebastian used their coats.
The armoire was moved, to reveal a door. Uncle Howell lurched forward, turned the handle and threw the door open. They ran through, plunged down several stairs, pushed through another door and found themselves tumbling out into the back staircase, and through swirling smoke, they cluttered and stumbled downward.
When they came out into the yard, Uncle Howell led them across the road, into the cemetery.
‘There is nothing we can do. A bucket and well water would have no purchase against these flames. I am sorry’, he said, turning to Adoria, ‘all is lost. But I must return and see if there is anyone alive’.
They watched, as Uncle Howell ran on spindly legs toward the burning house.
In no time, the house was consumed by the inferno, and then, the roof began to fall in.
Soon, only a blackened skeleton remained. It seemed to take no time at all.
‘What shall become of me? I have nothing left’, Adoria moaned.
‘No so, not so, my dear’ Uncle Howell, a blackened and gasping figure, who emerged from the sooty fog, replied. ‘You own these two parcels of land here, which you can sell, and in the meantime, we may live at the rooms in Pimlico, left to me by brother, Dr Thorne.
‘What of Mrs Grast and the old aunt, sir’, asked Sebastian, almost against his will.
‘I was too late, that part of the house was first to go’.
Adoria suddenly had the strangest feeling, like she was a canary, whose cage had dissolved, leaving her alone in a great forest.
You Would Not Be Without Friends.
Starting a new life can be very thrilling and somewhat frightening, and this was the case for Adoria, as residing in Pimlico, was a far cry from her former existence. For a start, Sebastian quite naturally moved away from the cemetery, to live with Adoria and Uncle Howell, where he occupied a small room at the back of the building, which had once been used as a storeroom. In fact, many of Dr Thorne’s possessions were still piled up in boxes and on shelves in that room. And it was those things, on the shelves, which Sebastian had discovered after he had moved some boxes aside, which now gave him nightmares. However, these ‘horrors’, were merely human anatomical and pathological specimens, floating about in jars.
Adoria found that she was somewhat freer than she had ever been before. Whist Sebastian and Uncle Howell were away, she would slip out of the house and explore. She found that Westminster Abbey was within walking distance: a place of royal coronations and burials. So she went there and gazed at its Gothic beauty and thought and wondered about the great people and important events that had happened and been honoured here.
Enthralled even by the streets and houses, Adoria never tired of looking at the rows of ivory Italianate stucco terraces, of Pimlico; she delighted in sheltering under their Doric porticos when rain would arrive during her adventures, and she would watch on, as the well-dressed residents went about their day, with such an air of aplomb and confidence, that it took her breath away.
Sebastian, however, was not as happy, as he knew that the cholera that had killed his parents, had also reached Pimlico, killing many here. Also, Soho was but 20 minutes’ walk away, which was near enough to give him a sense of anxiety and far enough for him to feel like an exile. Sebastian also missed the birds, the trees and his familiar graveyard friends of Highgate Cemetery; who may not have been alive, but who had never- the- less, saved and comforted him, during the worst of times.
Then Ivor came home. He arrived one raining day, bringing his battered travelling trunk and a cheerless expression.
‘Teaching was not quite what I expected. It is much more difficult than I thought’, he lamented.
‘How so?’ Sebastian enquired.
‘Well, I naturally assumed that my students would wish to learn. However, what I learned is that, this is not always the case. These particular students only wish to torment me and make my life a living hell’.
‘But their parents, surely, they did support you?’ Adoria earnestly enquired.
Slowly shaking his head, Ivor replied, ‘No, no, they did not’.
And so, Ivor too joined their little family.
It was about a week later; a day of inclement weather, and gusting winds, which found Adoria snugly settled in a comfortable chair, writing a story; a crime story, which was her latest writing passion.
Returning chilled and wet from assisting Mr Jackel and Sebastian colouring photos, Ivor joined Adoria, next to the toasty coal fire, and took up her story and began to read.
‘This is very good, Adoria! We must have this printed, and if you will allow, I have a drawing in mind that would do very well for the cover’.
‘That would be wonderful, Ivor!’ Adoria cried.
And so, they set to work.
A month later, Adoria’s first story called, ‘A Skeleton in My Cupboard’, by A. E. Ashton, was delivered to some select London bookshops. It did not cause any great interest at first, but as the months went by, the interest in it increased slowly, and then, suddenly, the book itself caused quite a stir. This happened when the case of the nurse murderer, Catherine Wilson, broke in the newspapers, in February 1862. Strangely, the case eerily echoed Adoria’s fictional story, in many ways.
In Adoria’s tale, her main character was a ladies’ companion, who made herself so indispensable to her elderly employers that, they would make her the beneficiary of their will. After a time, after she got more comfortable, she would cook her employer a pie, made with belladonna berries that, she had found in hedgerows and woodlands and watch them, as they died, hallucinating, in pain and distress and deep in delirium. In the real life story, the nurse, Catherine Wilson, was a person who would befriend a sick person of means, and then, after she managed to get them to change their will, leaving their possessions to her, she would administer poison, and despatch them from life.
Adoria’s book managed to excite her many readers, who fancied themselves to be amateur sleuths; as a general belief grew that, the writer of ‘A Skeleton in My Cupboard’ must possess important psychic abilities, and so, they wanted to know who she was. This meant that the various newspapers, about London, kept up a steady stream of written articles, interrogating who the author, A. E. Ashton might possibly be, and what this writer might know about other murders. Eventually, of course, Adoria Ashton was revealed to be the writer of that disturbing and prophetic tale, which presaged terrible murders , and from that time, Adoria could hardly advance anywhere outside her front door, without being pursued by newspaper men, and rabid amateur detectives.
So she stayed in, and fairly soon, she began to feel trapped and ensnared as a rabbit, in a trap, waiting for a pack of hounds to arrive.
Uncle Howell was seldom about the rooms at Pimlico, which was not so much different from how things had been back at the house of Highgate Hill. However, now that Ivor was aware that he was probably Adoria’s half-brother, the friendship between them strengthened considerably; although, often, she felt excluded from that older alliance, which existed between Ivor and Sebastian.
Despite the unforeseen circumstances surrounding Adoria’s first published book, she continued writing. Of course, the free publicity surrounding that first book, had ensured that it sold very well, and riding on that success, so did the second published work, called ‘Cold Comfort at Midnight’. Adoria, to her great delight, was beginning to earn quite a bit of her own money.
Then, one morning as she was looking over some of Ivor’s art work, which was to become part of the London Art season’s, Show Sunday, there was a knock at the door. As the maid was away at the market purchasing food for the evening meal, Adoria picked herself up and opened the door.
The man who faced her was tall and well dressed in a neat black wool suit. His face was serious, but pleasant, and his eyes had that certain spark of intelligence, in their brown depths. The man had taken off his hat and was holding it in front of him.
‘Good morning sir, how may I assist you?’ Adoria inquired.
‘Good morning to you Miss Ashton, my name is Fennimore Bigland. I am a solicitor with the firm Lewis and Claymore. I am sorry to intrude on you like this, but I wonder if I might come in and speak with you, about a very delicate and grave matter.’
Hesitating and wondering what the correct thing to do was, Adoria just stood like a fish pulled from the Thames for a moment. Then, she said, ‘Please come in sir’.
Leading Mr Bigland into the small room that she used as a parlour, Adoria bid the man sit down.
‘If you would like refreshments sir, you will have to accept my clumsy attempts, as the maid is presently otherwise occupied’.
‘No, no, I assure you, there is no need ….I am simply here on business’, he said almost nervously.
So Adoria sat, with her hands resting in her lap, and waited.
‘Well, this is difficult Miss Ashton. I am not quite sure where to begin.’
He coughed and then began. ‘The firm I work for has been administering your estate for a number of years. In fact, it was Baron Ashton, many years ago, who placed his trust in us to oversee his orphan great granddaughter’s affairs. With the death of your mother, a Dr John Thorne became your guardian, and since his death, his brother, a Mr Howell Thorne, has taken on this role.’
‘I was about three when my mother was taken from me, and ten years of age when Dr Thorne passed away’, Adoria added sadly.
‘These are indeed grievous losses, Miss Ashton. However, it was after Dr Thorn died that we began to notice many discrepancies in your financial records. Dr Thorne had left your inheritance intact. In fact, he added to it with certain judicious investments, which were approved by us. However, Mr Howell Thorne, proceeded, during his guardianship, to make many extravagant withdrawals, for many assorted purposes. For example, just lately, for your education at a Swiss Finish School, and funds needed for your debut into society’.
‘But I have never been to school let alone a Swiss Finishing School. Or for that matter, into society’.
‘We learned this recently, thanks to your successful venture into authorship and subsequent fame’.
Adoria waited for Mr Bigland to continue.
‘Late last year, the terrible event of your home burning down, occurred. This was no doubt a terrible loss to you in so many ways. But Mr Howell Thorne, has recently attempted to sell those parcels of land that belong to you on Highgate Hill…..but luckily, the police investigation managed to put on stop on that process. ’
‘Police investigation?’ Adoria asked taken aback.
‘Yes.’ He paused. ‘The investigation is now a criminal matter. You see, evidence of two decapitated and burnt bodies was found in the ruins of your house.’
‘How terrible! But why did I not know about this?’ Adoria cried.
‘We did not know of your whereabouts. But also, the investigation has been conducted with extreme caution, as it was a relative of Mr Howell Thorne’s who first alerted the police, and us, that his mother, and his grandmother, have not been seen since that house succumbed to fire ’.
Adoria nodded slowly, understanding that Ivor had initiated the investigation, and that, his mother and grandmother were dead, by some terrible deed of violence.
‘Detectives from Scotland Yard want to interview you, as soon as possible………..They have told me that you can’t stay here….. it may not be safe.’
Adoria gave a start and said, ‘Do you think that I am in danger?’
‘Yes Miss Ashton, we do’.
‘In light of the evident crimes that have occurred at your former house on Highgate Hill, the police also felt that it would be a judicious move to exhume your father, Orson Ashton’s body, to determine if his body exhibited any signs of foul play.’
‘Oh how awful!’ Adoria cried at this new revelation.
‘His body was exhumed and the Marsh test was conducted, but no evidence of arsenic was found. However, Detective Baker managed to track down a few old acquaintances of your father and it seems that he was a habitual user of Dr Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer, which I have been told, contained significant levels of narcotic substances.’
‘But what does this mean?’
‘It means that it is likely that your father’s death was brought on by self-administered narcotic poisons. Of course, we cannot be sure. Getting back to the matter at hand, we also have reason to believe that your young friend Sebastian Hathaway saved your life, by coming into your house on that night of fire. We think that Howell Thorne must have felt that his plans had gone astray at that point. Or that he was risking too much, if he tried to grapple with that healthy and strong young man.’
Paling considerably, Adoria muttered, ‘I never thought…how easily taken in and gullible I have been’.
A short time later, two detectives from Scotland Yard arrived, and Adoria had to pack up some clothes and some of her more important belongings. She was then led away to be questioned about her life at Highgate Hill and the events of the night of the fire. Then, Adoria was taken to a safe house. And for a long time, her life was not her own. She was shunted from house to house and then, from dingy room, to even more dingy room. She continued writing but began to feel very depressed.
It was about six months later that Ivor and Sebastian were allowed to visit Adoria. She was so happy to see them that she threw her arms around each of them in turn and wept copiously on their carefully brushed coats.
After drying her tears, they sat down on the sagging chairs, which furnished her mouldy room, and Ivor began to explain how things stood.
‘Dearest Adoria, the police tell me that they have found no trace of Uncle Howell. He has flown the coop, so to speak.’
Interrupting him, Adoria, asked with great agitation, ‘but I simply can’t live my life as a prisoner!’
‘No, you can’t, Miss Adoria’, Sebastian said softly.
‘The police want you to change your name and your appearance and to go and live somewhere where you are not known…..like Wales or Scotland.’
‘Wales or Scotland’, Adoria repeated in amazement. ‘But I didn’t commit any crime. Why must I be the one who is punished?’
This neither could answer.
A week later, Adoria, Ivor and Sebastian set off for Holyhead, part of Anglesey in the country of Wales. The trio figured that Holyhead, with its famous port, would be a great place to leave from, if they needed to go in a hurry.
For two months they were happy there. Adoria bought Sebastian some photography equipment and he soon set to work. Ivor continued his painting and sold some of his works to a famous Liberal Party politician. Then, one afternoon, Adoria, having a break from writing, took a trip out to Holyhead Mountain in a carriage with Ivor. They spent a pleasant few hours sauntering about the Roman Watchtower and prehistoric standing stones, and then, tired and happy, took the journey home, as the afternoon sun was making its descent.
It was as the carriage rattled down one of Holyhead’s cobblestone streets that Adoria saw the reflection of Uncle Howell, as he stood gazing into the window of an estate agent’s office. Perhaps he saw her, or maybe he did not. But when Adoria brought Ivor’s attention to the tall, crane- like man, he was striding away at a fabulous pace and soon swallowed by the evening shadows.
That night, the trio of friends, departed Holyhead from the water, as many have done for thousands of years, making their way to Ireland.
The years went by, and Adoria never married, nor did she ever enter into a relationship of great intimacy with anyone, other than her loyal dog, Duff. She found that she was unable to allow any person to get too close to her. It was like she had grown layers of protection and defences underneath her skin, as a result of her experiences. However, with her books and her work, she no longer felt so lonely, when alone.
As to Ivor and Sebastian, she saw them from time to time, but they had drifted away from her, to pursue their own life trajectories and she was never able to bring back that closeness and understanding that, they had once shared.
And in all those years, she crossed the path of Uncle Howell only twice more. And so fleeting were these glimpses of her nemesis that, she was never entirely sure if she had dreamed them. She was always left wondering too, how much, Dr Thorne and her mother’s aunt were complicit in the crimes of Uncle Howell and Mrs Grast. She could never puzzle this out, as she moved about, from place to place, always, always, looking over her shoulder.
With her parents dead and living in an isolated house on Highgate Hill, across from the cemetery, Adoria leads a very small and fearful life, cut off from the world. She has little knowledge of her true situation and lacks the control and ability to shape her own destiny; she is like a fly caught in a trap. Adoria does, however, have one hope that, she may be able to reach the age of 21, without being forced to marry. But, her Uncle Howell seems to have other plans. As Adoria becomes aware that women in the Victorian era have little agency, she also begins to realise that, there is much that she does not know about the people and situations around her; she begins to investigate, and manages to find her voice, despite the forces set against her.