Blackfeather Chapter 21

“Their surname is Markham,” Kate said.

His face fell as the name left her lips. Then he was dashing past her into the house. She hurried after him, kicking off her wet slippers at the doorway. The angel had swept through the living room and into the dining room, where she found him stooping over her papers. He searched down the list of names on the tree she had drawn up. When he reached the end, his shoulders slumped.

“Evelyn,” he whispered, staring at the page. “Is Evelyn Markham on your list of names to research?”

“I don’t recognise the name, let me check.”

Kate walked barefoot across the floor, picked up a spiral notebook from the table and flipped over the pages.

“No, she’s not on the list. Who is she?”

Ash dragged a hand down his face.

“Evelyn was sweet and gentle, a hopeless romantic, fragile and delicate and her brother crushed and broke her.”

His eyes were shiny with unshed tears, and the edge in his voice made it clear to Kate that Evelyn occupied a special place in his heart. He shook his head, irritated by the discovery of yet another link to the past. He went to the other room and returned with the open diary, held out towards her.

“Shouldn’t I wait? I’ve already read one entry today.”

“This is too important.”

His forceful tone reminded her how powerful he was, like the night he had ordered her to stay put while he rushed off to kill a demon. Then he softened.

“Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe tonight.”

As Kate took the journal, his fingertips stroked hers and he gave her a crooked smile, but his frown stayed put. Something was obviously troubling him. She took a seat at the table and began to read for the second time that day.

 

17th August 1873

I am standing in the park below the iron bridge, watching up the path with butterflies in my stomach and my semi-human heart beating so hard I am sure it will drown out the bass drum I can hear from the nearby bandstand. The few people who pass by this out of the way corner nod their heads or tip their hats in my direction as they take their promenade and open topped carriages pulled by sleek horses glide over the bridge above on this fine Sunday afternoon. There are few children about, the poor children of the area aren’t allowed here and those that are with their nurses are not encouraged to be boisterous.

I am wearing the clothes of a gentleman of the day, a black frock coat and trousers with a contrasting waistcoat in navy blue over a white shirt and of course, a top hat. I brush an imagined speck of dirt from my sleeve and take a deep breath to steady myself.

Who would ever have thought that I could feel so nervous. Nervous, expectant and deliriously happy, for today is the day I meet Evelyn – Catherine reincarnated as a young woman, born into a wealthy shipping family, in the reign of Queen Victoria. She is not aware of our impending meeting, but the future is rushing to meet her as I wait.

And then I hear it, the distant yapping of a small dog. It gets louder and I stand firm as a small brown and white rocket hurtles out from beneath a rhododendron bush, scattering petals in a shower of pink, and speeds towards me across the grass. The dog stops at my feet and looks up at me, head cocked on one side, his ears flopping in different directions as he barks a greeting.

I crouch down and fondle his head.

“Hello Bertie,” I say and he pushes his head against my palm.

When I stand again he runs circles around me, barking madly and tugging at my trouser legs.

I hear her voice before I see her.

“Bertie! Bertie!” she calls.

I can’t help but smile. And then she rounds the corner, running awkwardly in the yellow, floor length, bustled silk dress and cream, buttoned-up boots. She slows to a walk when she sees Bertie trying in vain to get me to play with him.

I scoop the little terrier up and stride to meet her, a wide grin on my face.

“I’m so sorry,” she says, her breath coming in ragged gasps.

She takes the dog from my arms and drops him to the ground. He immediately runs off again, but doesn’t stray too far.

“Thank you for catching him.”

“My pleasure.”

“Oh, he’s ruined your coat,” she says.

I brush the short white dog hairs clinging to the fabric of the frock coat away, without taking my eyes from her face.

I gaze at her, drinking in her features. Her eyes are the beautiful deep blue of Austrian lakes and her hair, which has come loose from its bun, is a rich auburn. She is beautiful, as always. But now that we are face to face I can also see how ill she looks. Her chest rises and falls quickly as she gets her breath back from the chase, she is pale, too pale, and a sheen of perspiration covers her forehead and upper lip. It’s not simply that her corsets are too tight or that the high necked, long sleeved dress is too stuffy for the hot Summer’s day. As I look deeper I see a black ooze coursing through her veins. Poison! It is so endemic that I wonder how she is able to stand at all, and no sooner has this thought crossed my mind than she swoons into my open arms.

I help her to a nearby bench and offer her my handkerchief. She holds it to her mouth and coughs into it, trying not to retch and vomit.

“I’m so sorry,” she says again. “It’s such a hot day.”

“How long have you been ill?” I ask.

“Too long… I suppose it started within a year of my parents’ deaths. They were lost at sea on one of Papa’s ships. That’s almost three years ago now. But I have Sebastian to take care of me.”

“Sebastian?”

“My brother.”

A shadow passes over the sun, and the air becomes chill. Evelyn notices nothing, but I take it as a warning. She pushes herself up off the seat, is overcome by dizziness and falls back.

“Allow me to escort you home, Miss Markham,” I say, rising and offering my arm to her.

She doesn’t think to wonder how I know her name.

She leans against me, then remembers the dog.

“Bertie, where have you got to now?”

He is off sniffing at a squirrel’s trail and ignores her calls. I give a little whistle and he comes to heel immediately, falling in to an easy trot at my side.

“How did you do that? He never does anything I tell him. If he hadn’t gone dashing past the maid and out the front door I wouldn’t have had to chase him. When Sebastian finds out I’ve left the house he’ll be worried sick.”

We walk slowly back the way she came, out of the park and across the road to a newly built mansion. The construction of the houses had begun a few years earlier, at the same time as the park they surrounded; some were still being built. Evelyn told me her family had been among the first to purchase one of the grand houses, then her parents had sailed to New York on one of her father’s steamships and on the return journey from Nova Scotia, The City of Boston had disappeared, without trace of wreckage or survivors.

“Sebastian says my illness comes from not getting over the shock of losing them,” she said.

I know otherwise, but say nothing. I don’t want to meet Sebastian, but as we reach Evelyn’s front door, it is pulled open with force and he comes running down the steps.

“Evelyn, where have you been, you know you’re not well enough to go out on your own.”

He stops in his tracks when he sees me and his eyes narrow.

“Stop fussing dear brother, I am well taken care of.”

Bertie gives Sebastian a wide birth as he skitters up the steps and into the house. Smart dog, I think. I study Sebastian’s appearance as Evelyn explains what happened. He is immaculately dressed in high-waisted black trousers and a white sleeved shirt, the collar ironed down to wing points. His waistcoat is an expensive green and gold silk and a wide gold coloured Ascot tie is at his throat. His short black hair is combed back from his face in a side parting and he has close trimmed sideburns and a moustache. His eyes are the same deep shade of blue as Evelyn’s, but where hers are soft and welcoming, his are hard and piercing. We each know who and what the other is.

Evelyn puts her hand on my arm. Her brother scowls, but she doesn’t notice.

“Perhaps you’d care to come to tea one afternoon this week so I can repay your kindness.”

“I’m sure Mr…” he raises questioning eyebrows at me.

“Ash, just Ash.”

“I’m sure – Ash,” he says my name with vitriolic hatred. “Has better things to do.”

“Not really,” I say, turning to Evelyn and bowing slightly. “I’d be honoured, Miss Markham.”

“Call me Evie,” she says with an innocent smile. “I know we’ve only just met, but I feel I’ve known you all my life.”

Sebastian and I glare at one another as Evelyn confirms the day and time I am to call, then he takes her elbow and all but drags her away. He looks back over his shoulder with a sneer as he slams the door shut.

I stay close to the house, standing beneath the lamp post by the iron bridge. The trees that surround the house shield it from the prying eyes of ordinary passers-by, but I watch, through Evelyn’s mind, all that happens until my appointed visit.

Sebastian is, on the surface, very caring towards her, but it is not the care a brother should have for his sister. He is too attentive, finding any excuse to touch her. When she tires of him he brings her tea laced with laudanum; it keeps her sick, compliant and above all dependent on him. She is unaware what ails her, believes everything he tells her and doesn’t see that his declarations of love are not brotherly, but lustful.

When she sleeps he watches from her doorway, barely able to keep himself from her bed. The only thing that calls more strongly to him is the book and dagger he recently acquired from a fellow occultist at his club, in a “lucky” hand of poker. Once he has achieved immortality he intends to find a way for Evelyn to be with him for all eternity – as his bride.

 

19th August 1873

I arrive early for my visit and am shown by the maid, a wide eyed girl of sixteen, to the parlour. Evelyn is seated on a chaise longue. A fire burns in the grate, despite the Summer heat. Her pupils are pinpricks, a sure indication of laudanum poisoning. She raises her hand to me and as I take it I do what I can to dispel the effects of the toxin. She perks up instantly, the colour returning to her cheeks, her true beauty shining through.

She finds the strength to move to the table, situated by the bay window and tells Alice to bring in tea.

“Will Sebastian be joining us?” I ask.

“I do hope not,” she whispers. “I love him dearly, but he can be very tiresome.”

“Perhaps after tea I could escort you on a short walk through the park.”

Her face lights up at the idea.

“Oh really, do you think we could? That would be splendid. I so rarely get to go out and poor Bertie needs his exercise.”

“It will be my pleasure.”

We make small talk over tea and sponge cake. I pretend to sip my drink and refuse the cake. Evelyn finds she has a better appetite than usual and eats both slices.

“I don’t know why,” she says, shyly, “but your presence seems to fortify me.”

“Then perhaps we should spend more time together.”

The shine in Evelyn’s eyes and her smile affirm her desire for that, but it quickly fades.

“I’m not sure Sebastian will approve. I keep telling him it’s time he introduced me around at his social events, but he doesn’t seem to want to marry me off like most men would burdened with their sisters as he is. I sometimes think he means to keep me a spinster all my life.”

I’m sure he has no intention of letting her marry anyone other than himself in his incestuous fantasies, but I reassure her otherwise.

“Perhaps he is waiting for the right suitor.”

She gives a despondent nod of agreement.

“Perhaps one has already found you,” I add, boldly taking her hand.

I know I shouldn’t get carried away by my own fantasies of being with her, but I am helpless in her presence, just as I was when Catherine wished to see an angel. I must remember that the consequences of those actions led us to this and restrain myself.

She looks up, eyes full of surprise and hope and I notice she leaves her hand in mine.

*  *  *

After tea, we quietly leave the house and repair to the park. The longer Evelyn is in my company the healthier she appears. Later, she slips back into the house, but we have made promises to meet secretly, as often as possible, below the iron bridge, where we first met and in the days that follow our relationship blossoms into love.

Idyllic Summer days are spent hand in hand, she never asks me where I go when we aren’t together or how I earn a living. None of that matters to Evelyn, but I would be stupid if I thought that Sebastian hasn’t noticed the change in her or that he doesn’t know of our secret love trysts. For once I am not that naïve.

 

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