The Devil of Moravia : Old Noah, via Dead Man’s Lane

River, lights, nighttime

Image : Pixabay

Edmund has a race against time to save Frances … and endangers his very soul to do so. To read his previous adventures, see below.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four, twenty five and twenty six.


… ‘Fortunately, I enjoy the company of you and your friends and wish to keep it for a long, long time. So go and I shall watch your Frances. Take Samuel with you. I would not wish you to come to any harm and the man is so wonderfully useful in matters of violence.’

And so it was Samuel and I went forth on our dreadful mission. To entrap an innocent to their bloody fate so that my love might live.

Dusk was falling as we ventured into the street, and a fine rain was falling with it, misting the air with a warm dampness that soon gathered into glittering beads on our lashes. At first neither of us uttered a word, for there was an air about Samuel’s house, a shadow so black and fearful that it occluded all attempts at conversation. It was not until we had walked over half a mile that Samuel spoke.

‘I was ever a bad man, Edmund.’

This much of his character was self-evident, so I made no further commment.

He continued. ‘But I only ever took what others were willing to give. What was owed me.’

As this was so clearly a falsehood, I made no reply. He seemed about to say more, but then we heard the crowing – loud as a hundred dawns – from the cock pit at Whitehall and he sank once more into a festering silence. The Thames wallowed before us wreathed in vapours and when we reached the narrow flight that is Whitehall Stairs the treads were slippery with grease and rain, but I glimpsed the waterman’s lamp as we approached the jetty and we were soon boarded on a wherry, wrapped in blankets, scudding downriver, enveloped by the tang of the city’s heart.

No more speech passed between us as we eased into the pull and pause of the boat. But as we alighted at Tooly Stairs by London Bridge and watched the waterman ease away with his next fare, Samuel spoke again.

He laid his hand upon my arm, staying my progress from the river to the dark, matted maze of Southwark. ‘You have not asked me,’ he said.

There had been no linksman waiting at the Stairs. All I could see of my companion was what the night was willing to reveal to me and that was a hollowed man, a man of deep eye sockets and deeper sorrows.

‘What am I to ask you?’

He fussed at his neck with trembling fingers. ‘You know some of Frances’ tale, how you and she are linked. But I carry my own burden.’

It was dark, the only light was that which reflected from the river and its bobbing cargoes, but still I knew what he held forth in his fingers. A rectangle of dark metal hung upon a silver chain. I knew he wished to tell me all, to share the weight of his horrors with another soul who might show him a little of what Slatina never could – pure, human pity. It was all I could do not to strike the man where he stood, not to curse and spit on him for all the tragedies that now befell my Frances. For surely, if she had not fallen under his spell then she would not be lying in that bed, turning to a living shade.

I held up my hand as if to fend him off. ‘Do not speak to me. I will not hear it.’ I shook him off then, heading away from the water. ‘We must find Old Noah. He will have what we need.’

It is with shame I admit those low, dank streets are second home to me. Dead Man’s Lane, Crucifix Lane, Dirty Lane, all as well known to me as the flecks and markings of my own cheek, and any man who passes through the Borough wishing to taste its dubious delights must deal with Old Noah or else be washed up on the foreshore, a curiosity for the mudlarks to chuckle over.

We walked to the Dog and Bear through the pits and pools of the tanneries, our eyes stinging, throats burning from the stench and rot. Under the low, dripping eaves we passed, below a drooping thatch so blackened with smoke from the mills it seemed to weep ink.

On the threshold of the inn, Samuel took my arm again, the locket clutched tightly in his palm. He gave me such a beseeching look, a look of such worldly pain, I could not help but be moved.

‘Who were they?’

He shook his head sorrowfully. ‘I think perhaps the girl was named Esther. Though it may have been Sarah. I have it in my mind it was a name from one of the Testaments. The other …’ Tears welled in his eyes. ‘I cannot remember, Edmund. And when I am in my senses that thought pins me through more than any other. That I do not know his name.’ He looked about him.  ‘They were young, alone, unworldly. Innocents come to this ungodly hole. They wept, Edmund. Clutching at these hands, begging me for mercy. They were so afraid.’

‘What happened to them?’

‘What happens to all who fall in Slatina’s web. Death. What else is there?’

I thought of that cupboard with its terrible hoard. ‘How long … How often?’

He held up a trembling hand to silence me. ‘I cannot say how many have died for us. Only that I am too weak, too afraid of pain not to kill again.’ He gripped my hand then, pulling me to him. ‘Release Frances from this agony, Edmund. Leave her to starve, to die.’

He smelled of hung game, warm and meaty. I forced him away, pushing wide the door and walked into the inn.

‘Better to let her die,’ he called after me, ‘than for her to live with what she has become.’

But all I could think of was her hand in mine. Of somehow freeing her from her curse. Of killing Slatina.

 

The Devil of Moravia : Dreams forsaken, mocked and crushed to dust

 

 

Finally, Edmund is learning the truth about Slatina and tragically about his love Frances too. But can he save her and himself from the Devil of Moravia’s clutches?

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four and twenty five.


‘… But I can take take this puny clay and make it last at least a little longer than its usual span. Sadly, there is a price to pay for my generosity.’

The dead child, the locket that had hung so guiltily about my love’s neck – her sudden illness. Finally, realisation shattered through me. ‘Frances has become your creature.’

Again that laugh, parched as a sealed tomb. ‘Yes, Edmund. Frances is mine. Frances, Samuel … And yourself.’

Slatina slammed the larder door, sending the black specks flying into the air. He pulled a kerchief from his sleeve, wiping his hands as if keen to rid himself from any possible contagion.

Still my thoughts buzzed, flitting into confusion as if they were the same dots of rank insect life. There was so much I failed to understand. ‘What have you done to her? How can she be so close to death, when last I saw her she was so well?’

His lip twisted into a bitter curl. ‘It seems your Frances has had a change of heart. When first I met her, she had sunk so low, I believe I might have convinced her of any depravity and she would have leapt at it like a hound at the kill. But now …’ He scowled. ‘Now she has some fancy that she might still live a good and decent life.’

He stared deep into my eyes then and I held his gaze, I think seeing him clearly for the first time. The whites of his eyes were not pure white or even yellowed with age, but crazed over with red veins, the network so complex and knitted, one might say they were more blushed than not. The irises were not brown as I had previously believed, but reddish, the colour of an oft-used butcher’s slab, of liver, of ox’s blood.

Gripping my wrist, he pulled me close to him, I unable to resist. ‘Believe me, Edmund when I say – the lady has gone too far to return to needlecrafts and homemaking. She imagines running from me, does she not? I found her skulking about the house like a light fingered maid pilfering bread and blankets. She imagined she could slip in and out without my knowing. She imagines she can begin life anew – with you.’ He laughed then, low and rumbling like storm water through a culvert. ‘She. Can. Not.’

I confess the presence of the man – those liverish eyes – had left me for a few moments incapable of speech, robbed me of all fight and movement. But at his disdain, the open mockery of our hopes now crushed in his clawed hand, some courage returned to me. ‘Who are you to deny us our future? She is a free gentlewoman. She has a right to leave this hellish pit and come away with me now. In fact I demand it.’

He smiled then, his flaking lips stetched so wide I felt the skin were like to snap, revealing the flesh beneath. ‘Ah, Edmund. Your childlike hopes have been a pleasant distraction.’ The smile snapped closed, quick as a trap on its prey. ‘But they will be put aside. Hear me. Frances is a creature caught between two worlds. She is not a human woman anymore, neither is she made of eternal flesh as myself. You yearn to make her well again, to return the roses to those dear cheeks? She must do but one thing.’ His eyes flicked to the horrid larder and its festering contents. ‘Feed.’

One word. It was but one word. And yet in its utterance all my hopes shattered about me, falling as shards, each with a dagger point sharp enough to pierce my foolish heart. I had entertained escape, freedom, a future filled with love, sweet industry … children. All had been turned against me, each fancy pressing into my soul creating the most keenly felt of wounds.

I felt my body sag beneath the weight of my reality. ‘What must I do?’

The smile returned, merriment flashing in those offal-coloured eyes. ‘It is simple. Go out into the night and procure your love a fresh meal.’

‘How …?’

Finally he released me, smoothing my sleeves, picking specks from my coat. ‘You are of a class used to getting whatever you wish. You must know the stews, the boroughs, the narrow alleyways running with filth where a gentleman may hire his fancy for the night.’

I dropped my head in shame, for of course he was right on every count.

‘Go forth into London and find meat.’

‘What of Frances? How I can I be sure …’ I dared not voice the dark thoughts that had begun to boil in the back of my mind, but I did not need to. It was as if he could read them imprinted on my face.

‘You think I would hurt her while you are trawling the squalid haunts of the city?’ He raised his finger. ‘Edmund, I could kill her – I could kill you all – with one touch of my finger. You live through my indulgence.’ The room seemed to heat then, as if a furnace had been lit beneath our feet. In the deep wells of his eyes seemed to burn coals, red hot, sparking with the potential for destruction, for the destruction of the whole world. ‘Your every breath, your every movement is permitted because I wish you to exist.’ The coals dimmed a little then. ‘Fortunately, I enjoy the company of you and your friends and wish to keep it for a long, long time. So go and I shall watch your Frances. Take Samuel with you. I would not wish you to come to any harm and the man is so wonderfully useful in matters of violence.’

And so it was Samuel and I went forth on our dreadful mission. To entrap an innocent to their bloody fate so that my love might live.

The Devil of Moravia : Shedu, Asura, Vetalas, Shaitan

Upside down spider on a web

Image : Pixabay

Frances is gravely ill. Are Edmund’s dreams of happiness to be snatched away before they’ve had a chance to flower into reality? Read on.

And if  you’d like to catch up with the story so far, please do here and happy reading.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two and twenty three.


 

Samuel was hunched in the corner of the room, a brandy bottle clutched in his hands. ‘Coral Flitting was not refined or genteel. But she was a kind soul. Ever willing to laugh.’ He sobbed, the saddest, most desolate sound imaginable.

With a heart of lead, dreading the answer, I asked, ‘What happened here, Samuel? What has become of Miss Flitting and this poor child?’

He merely stared at me, as if lacking in sense or comprehension. Then he said, ‘When I was a child I read tales of creatures who could bewitch a man, take his life hostage and twist his mind until the threads of it spun apart like a rope undone. I never believed such tales, Edmund, even as a child.’ He fixed me with a desperate, haunted expression. ‘Now I know such creatures move among us. That they are closer than I ever considered -‘

I went to ask him what he meant by this, but he looked up suddenly. Slatina had crept, silent as a corpse to stand in the doorway. Samuel shot me a look then stared at the bottle in his hands.

Suddenly terrified at Frances’ poor state, disturbed by Samuel’s slump into self pity, I leapt towards the Moravian. ‘I demand to know what has happened here.’

His lip curled into a cruel smile as he said, ‘You are the most pathetic of men. You bluster and shout, believing you have a right to things you do not.’ His face set hard as he said, ‘Every thread of clothing you wear belongs to me. Every coin in your purse. The bed you sleep in. Every part of your life you enjoy at my indulgence. Do not fool yourself otherwise.’

He was right, of course. I had gambled away my own fortune and almost my every possession had appeared since Slatina’s mysterious arrival.

Still, my heart was breaking to see how frail Frances had become and all I could think was how I could possibly save her. Swallowing what little pride remained me, I said, ‘I beg you, allow me to call a physician to see to her.’

He laughed then, a hard, cold, mirthless laugh that sliced at my heart.

‘This ailment cannot be cured by leeches or bloodletting or any ridiculous tincture to balance the humours. This ailment can be cured by Miss Frances alone.’

I grew suddenly furious at the man’s insensitivity, for it was clear Frances was but hours from death. ‘You are a beast!’ I cried, lunging at him. ‘A man not fit to live in her sight.’

I rushed at him then, my hands raised to take him by the throat. I did not care what happened to me, my senses had fled clear away. All I thought was to choke the life from the heartless animal that mocked the passing of such a beautiful, faultless creature, that the world would not miss me in it and would be far the better for the hole that Slatina would leave behind.

As I went to grab him, something extraordinary happened, something I have dwelt on through long, sleepless, tortured nights since, a thing that makes no earthly sense but happened all the same. For as I drew within reach of him, Slatina leapt upwards, his body twisting as he jumped, his arms bending backwards to a sickening, unnatural degree until he gripped the ceiling. I lost my footing, falling to the floor and there I stayed, helpless to move, unable to tear my gaze from the abomination occurring above me. For like a spider, Slatina crept across the plaster as if it were the ground, holding himself aloft with the merest touch of hands and feet.

None who I have told have believed what I saw to be true – not the constable, not countless physicians employed to judge the state of my shattered mind, not my own barrister. But I swear in this final testament that what I say is true – that Slatina crept across that ceiling as easily as a fly grips a window pane. As easily as a serpent crawls on its belly.

For this is the truth – he was not human. He was not of this world.

Having traversed the room from one corner to the other, he dropped to the carpet onto his feet, light and agile as a cat.

I regained my tongue only enough to stutter, ‘What kind of creature are you?’

Smoothing his hair, he smiled. ‘Some have called me Shedu but I have many names –  Asura, Vetalas, ShaitanJinn.’

‘Demon!’ hissed Samuel.

Slatina’s smile broadened further as he bowed graciously. ‘Another world, another name.’

I could hardly swallow, could hardly breathe as I said, ‘What do you want here?’

He stepped forward then, pulling me to my feet with a force so strong three men could not have withstood him. ‘To live, Edmund. That is all. Come, walk with me a while.’

He tried to lead me to the door but I resisted, gazing at Frances, her eyes now closed, her breath laboured.

As if reading from my mind, he said, ‘You may yet save her. But first you must understand what sickens her.’ He held me at arms length, staring deep into my eyes. ‘Though I warn you. Once you know the truth, you may not wish to save her.’

I dismissed his words as ridiculous. For I loved her so purely, with such a passionate heart, I could not imagine her capable of anything so awful I would not forgive her in a moment.

It was all I could do to nod, to allow myself to be led from that dark chamber and once more onto the hall beyond.

As if we were old friends reacquainted after a long absence, Slatina laced his arm through mine. ‘Allow me to tell you how I met your love.’

 

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Some small chink of happiness

 


Frances had a narrow escape, but what will our two friends do now? How can they extricate themselves from the web woven around them? Read on to find out. See below to catch up with the story so far.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one and twenty two.


 

Her eyes were swollen with tears, brimming on her cheeks like a river breaking its banks after a heavy storm. She seemed so lost, so hopeless as she struggled to say the words.

‘… and I did not push him away.’

Suddenly there was a loud knock and without pause the door swung open. There stood Slatina, a thin smile curling on his lips.

He gave a small, gracious bow, greeted Frances most cordially and enquired after her health.

Frances regained some semblance of composure, answering she was quite well. He then informed us in the most obsequious manner that breakfast was served, waiting a moment for a response. When none was forthcoming he bowed once more and left us.

The moment he had gone, Frances gripped my hand, nails digging into my palm. ‘That man is on your staff?’

It was only then the queerness of my situation struck me, for I could no more call Slatina ‘staff’ than I could call Samuel Gordon a gentleman. I did not pay Slatina for any of the tasks which he performed and yet he ran the household, organised meals, paid tradesmen, dealt with the Red Men … I had allowed another man to control my life and yet I could not ascertain exactly how this state of affairs had come about.

I confirmed that the Moravian dwelt under my roof and her face turned ashen.

‘You must know this from the evening of the ball.’ I said. ‘Samuel and yourself spoke with him.’

She shook her head most vehemently. ‘I thought he was a guest only. You said he helped you regain your fortune, I never imagined he dwelt here.’

She jumped to her feet, as if to leave, then just as suddenly staggered, blinked, swooned a little and slumped back into her chair. Putting a hand to her forehead, she muttered, ‘I cannot stay here. I cannot.’ Looking at me with a fearful gaze, she whispered, ‘You are not safe sharing the house with that man.’

A rebuttal sprang to my lips but was just as quickly stoppered. For as many kindnesses as Slatina had done me, had he not also brought woes? The burial of the earth angels, that bacchanalian ball, the dubious alliance with Samuel Gordon – all were of his doing.

A fog seemed to clear from my mind. We must flee the city, travel to the country, free ourselves of Gordon and Slatina. Perhaps in the clean, clear air of Barnes or Chiswick, we might develop a plan of a more permanent nature. I shared my thoughts with Frances and after a moment’s hesitation, she was in agreement. I suggested hailing a carriage and leaving with no more than we could carry, however, she insisted she fetch a change of clothing and a reticule of items of which only a woman might feel the want. And so it was with tremulous hearts, we slipped silently into the street, I hailing a passing sedan chair to convey her home.

As I closed the chair door she gripped my hand once more. ‘Take great care, Edmund. Be watchful. Trust no one who claims to be your friend. Trust only the beating of your heart and your own good sense.’ With one last, fearful look, she whispered, ‘Know I always loved you.’

Then she was gone, leaving me flushed with feeling, with a renewed sense of hope that all was not lost between us. It was only as she disappeared from view I recalled she had yet to tell me how she came by her locket. And who was pictured within.

I did not return to the house, for I had taken my pocket book with me and what money I could find without encountering Slatina or the Red Men. The place no longer had the warm embrace of home, but the chill damp air of a charnel house and I was glad to leave it behind, perhaps forever.

We were to meet at the sign of the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden and I ventured to walk there, buying bread, half a round of cheese, a bottle of small ale and a mug of oysters on my way. I did not doubt Frances would be hungry and thirsty when we next met and I entertained a sweet delusion of she and I breaking the loaf together, eating simply and heartily.

As the house grew ever more distant, so my spirits lifted, the gloom which had rested about me like a heavy cape falling away. Frances and I had suffered much. Did we not deserve our freedom, some small chink of happiness together?

The day wore on. At first I enjoyed watching the pedlars, the costers with their baskets of foodstuffs, the girls selling ribbons from trays about their necks. But noon came and went, the sun began to sink low behind the portico of St Paul’s church and the ribbon sellers and costers giving way to panderers, streetwalkers spewing from the bawdy houses as freely as wine from a jug.

Soon the sun had vanished entirely, leaving me – for want of a good coat – shivering through the toll of church bells. Six in the evening – a full three hours past our agreed assignation. Fear plucked at my chest like fingers across a viol. She could not have missed me, nor I her, for we had been most exacting on the time and place of our meeting. I imagined her once again prey to base criminals, in the grip of another Josias Candle. I could not bear to wait longer and in a state of some agitation, I determined to make my way to Hampstead, to the home of her parents, Lord and Lady Kindley. Although I feared for my reception there, it seemed my sole option, for I knew of nowhere else she might be.

It was not an inconsiderable walk to Hampstead, across the drained marsh now named the Vale of Health, though with its dun coloured birds and air of must and rot I could see no reason why it was so named. Footsore, besmirched with mud, limping a little from falling in a concealed brook, I finally knocked upon the door of Burgh House.

The footman who opened the door flushed when I spoke of Frances. ‘That lady is no longer here, sir.’

Weary as I was, I would brook no dissembling, but demanded from the man what he meant by this.

He flushed a deeper pink. ‘I mean sir, she no longer resides here, but in … another place.’

With this he made to shut the door, however, I foresaw his intentions and stepped forward, blocking his attempts. We tussled for a moment, but he soon saw I would not be moved and signalled me to step onto the pavement, with him following close behind.

He spoke close to me and quietly, so he might not be heard by any within.

‘Miss Frances has not dwelt here for some months, sir. She …,’ now the poor man was the colour of a Red Man’s coat, ‘she went to live with … a man.’

‘A man?’ My heart beat full in my chest. ‘Which man?’

Now the servant paled, his voice dropping lower still. ‘A bad man, sir. A gentleman by name but not by reputation.’

It was like a thunder clap crashing over me, like lightning striking my head, my shoulders – my heart. For I need not be told who this ‘gentleman’ was.

Frances had thrown her lot in with the Devil. She was with Samuel Longmire Gordon.

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : The welcoming darkness

What has happened to Frances and why does she feel such affinity to Edmund? Read on to find out more and see below to read previous instalments.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty and twenty one.


 

‘A hand grabbed my wrist, pulled me forward, the light blinding me. Again, hands were on me, tugging me this way and that. There was laughter, a hand on my back, then my shoulder – one on my throat. Something tugged at my skirts.

‘Had I been spared one terrible fate only to succumb to another?

‘The grip on my throat tightened, unforgiving as a noose. The little light I saw began to sparkle and dance, cut to pieces by my failing sight. I would wish to say I thought of our Saviour, of his kind hand resting upon me, gathering me home, but fear had gripped my callow heart and I could think only of how little breath remained me, how many moments were left of my existence. As the night fully dimmed, I believe I thought of my mother and father, my little brother, how they would mourn my loss, lay flowers on my grave in the coming years before they lay themselves in the earth.

‘Then the pain and fear fell away, cold took me and there was only chill darkness, a sweet sinking nothingness that I know I shall only feel again at the moment of my true passing.

‘Perhaps I died a moment then. Perhaps I had merely sunk into a faint. Whichever, the next moment I was aware, pain pierced my skull, my throat, my limbs, my chest. I tried to claw back the embrace of the cold, to drift back to that numb state my body and mind had crossed into. But someone was shaking me most hideously and though I beat at them with my fists I could not free myself from their iron grip.

‘I opened my eyes. Atop me was a beast, long matted hair falling over its foul, snarling face, its eyes burning red, the weight of it pushing me into the mud, that seemed to suck at my back, pulling me into the earth. My mind raced. I was on the brink of death and here it seemed, a demon had come to claim me. I began to fight, kicking, punching the creature, clawing at its eyes, but it was too heavy, its grip too assured. Still I fought and as it shifted its weight to one side I snatched my knee up sharply, hoping to dislodge it for good.

‘There was a cry, a deep groan and the beast rolled aside, falling to the ground beside me. I thought to scramble away, to run for home, but my skirts were trapped beneath the demon and as I struggled to pull them free, I heard a voice.

‘”By, Sam. Bested by an alley cat.”

‘And the voice fell to an amused, breathless chuckling. This threw me, made me pause in my efforts to escape, for I did not imagine a demon to be called Sam, or indeed for the soldiers of Satan to be capable of such thoroughly human laughter. Then I heard some movement, a lanthorn was taken up from behind me and its flickering light revealed the scene.

‘I was still in the physical realm, still in Vauxhall Gardens, for I could just make the shape of the pagoda against the pale glow of the half moon. The lamp light danced and flickered quite madly, coming closer until it shone above my head.

“Sam,” called that same voice. “Do you live, man?”

‘Then the demon beside me shifted, rolling over, the hair sliding aside to reveal a face twisted in pain, but altogether human.

“Aye, for now,” replied the face.

‘As the flame flickered on those sharp cheeks, those fox-like features, a memory came to me of a small boy dancing, taper in hand as a paper city blazed …

“You’re the child,” I gasped. “The child who burned Hamburgh.”

‘The man laughed at my horror, my ridiculous words. But dipped his head in a mocking imitation of good manners.

“Samuel Longmire Gordon,” he said. “And you are Frances Lucretia Kindley.”‘

Frances paused then, her agitated fingers dancing at her lips.

‘Perhaps it was at that moment I was lost. Sitting in the Vauxhall mud, staring into his eyes. His expression was one I had never witnessed before. It was as if he knew me utterly, could look inside my mind and see the deepest workings, divine every ignoble thought and silent curse and selfish deed and accept it all. Nay, not accept – welcome it. He welcomed every darkness in me, encouraged them to thrive.

‘And there was something more, something blacker still. I would shudder to speak of it to any other than you. For there was a hunger there too, Edmund, a desire for possession.’

Her hands were shaking as she reached for mine.

‘He meant to own me, to have complete power over every part of me and even in that moment …’ She shuddered. ‘Even then, I believe I should have been helpless to resist him.’

She shook her head. ‘Then the spell was broken by his companion, a man I later knew as Josias Candle, who took reached to pull him to his feet.

“Come,” he said, “The night falls deeper and there is little more sport to have here.”

‘That Candle was the one who had his hand about my throat I little doubt and what his plans were for me, I am loath to contemplate. Samuel had at least saved me from that fate, just as Candle himself  saved me from the girl and her sharp boned accomplice. That these two men were dangerous there was no doubting also. That they prowled the gardens in search of sport of the most heinous kind I knew in my marrow and that in itself should have made me run for a constable.

‘Instead, I allowed Samuel to help me to my feet, to reclaim my cloak, to remove a little of the mud from my heels and skirt. He returned my necklace and bracelet too and it was only later I wondered at what happened to my attackers, where they had fallen. If they lie somewhere still, unmourned, unrecovered. I stood motionless as marble as Josias fetched a carriage to take me home, as Samuel pressed a shilling on the driver to pay for the journey.

‘That I permitted all of these things to pass shows a weakness in me, a thread of indecency I had not thought dwelt in my soul. But as Samuel handed me into the carriage, I found a defining proof that I belonged more in this devilish company than with the sweet, good society my parents dwell in. For Samuel snatched me to him, pressed his lips against my cheek …’

Her eyes were swollen with tears, brimming on her cheeks like a river breaking its banks after a heavy storm. She seemed so lost, so hopeless as she struggled to say the words.

‘… and I did not push him away.’

Suddenly there was a loud knock and without pause the door swung open. There stood Slatina, a thin smile curling on his lips.

The Devil of Moravia : Two halves of the same flesh

Wilted roses, dying flowers

Image : Pixabay

Frances has returned to Edmund, but who caused her injuries and what is the meaning behind those mysterious lockets? See here to catch up with the story so far – One, two, three, four, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen.


 

For hanging from that fine gold chain was a locket no larger than the smallest prayer book, with a carved gold frame of leaves and woodland creatures, its body of a dense, dark metal I did not recognise …

We gazed, bewildered, amazed, terrified, into each others eyes. She slipped her chill hand into mine, squeezing my fingertips.

‘Tell me,’ she said.

And so I began to share the story of myself and Slatina. From that night when his appearance like a child of the tempest halted the gun in my hand, to the promise he had extracted from me, to our visit to Samuel’s foul abode, to the ball and her own return to my life. As I spoke I felt myself grow more agitated, as if excited by the very act of sharing my story, as if the telling would lighten a burden which had grown too heavy to bear. I reached the events of the ball, describing what I had seen delicately, in a form fitting for a lady to hear … and then my mouth was stoppered. For I had reached Slatina and my foray into the crypt and the burial of the earth angels.

All the while I had been speaking, Frances had held my hand gently in her own, the heat from her spreading into me, warming not just my physical self but my soul also. For in those moments, though I felt horror thrilling through my veins, her steady, unflinching gaze, the press of her fingers on mine were an anchor, a sign that life and hope and happiness may not yet be lost, but might one day prove to be a new reality.

As the telling of those murdered women approached all changed. My heart faltered, losing all courage. Up until that point in my sorry tale I had been a fool, a pawn carried along by men of powerful persuasion and hidden intention. But at this, at the thought of the crypt and the bodies and that unblessed grave, there could be no forgiveness. No good motive. Only a selfish desire to preserve my own life and liberty.

Frances sensed my caution, felt me hesitate. She drew my hand further into her own, so that our palms laid flat against each other, fitting together so neatly they might have been two halves of the same flesh.

‘Edmund,’ she whispered. ‘There is more, I know it. I feel you recoil from yourself, from the path you have walked, from the things you have seen and done.’

Now the sunlight shone brightly through the room, I could see how her face had lost the girlish glow that once drew me to her. How deep the circles had grown below her eyes, how the colour had deepened, to a weary purple hue. But it was her eyes themselves that had changed the most. Gone was that spark of mischief, that wry amusement at the world and its convolutions. And there was one other thing that had flown from her, one other flicker that had once lit every conversation, every silent, loving glance. Hope.

Perhaps the Edmund of before might have been less drawn to this new Frances, cast his eye about for a younger bloom to pick. But I saw in her the earnest, loving woman she had become through suffering, more kin to me than any other living soul. And so I felt my heart cling closer to hers than ever.

She squeezed my hand yet more tightly until it seemed we would become one under the pressure. ‘But you must know that we are together in this.’

Her hand rested gently on her own locket and I understood for the first time that we might both have secrets of which we were justly ashamed. So falteringly – the words dropping heavily from my mouth like clods of earth into a grave – I told her of the angels. As I reached the end of the sordid tale and my voice dropped to silence, I felt exhausted, as if every moment of the telling had been a mile walked, wringing the equivalent energy from my body. I cannot say I felt unburdened or my conscience had eased in any noticeable way. I still felt bruised from the telling, as skin will remain sore for somewhile even after a splinter is removed.

I watched her face closely for signs of revulsion, was aware of the pressure on my hand, trying to gauge whether her grip had eased. But nothing seemed to change in her attitude other than her eyes looked a little more troubled, a little more distanced. I did not dare speak, not wishing to force her into making any kind of statement until she was ready.

When she did finally speak her throat was hoarse as if she had been shouting.

‘Are we both such wicked people? Surely there would be some thief, some cut-throat more deserving of what we have endured?’

Noises were reaching us from beyond the barrier of the drawing room door, the scuffings and murmurings that make up the domestic music of any home. The day had reached its proper beginning, the Red Men were abroad and it seemed certain the spell that had fallen upon us in that early morning silence would soon be broken. I knew I must ask what had happened to Frances before the world swept her away from me once more.

‘Can you tell me?’ This was all that passed my lips, but it was as if an electric charge had passed from myself into her, for her lip began to quiver, her hand shake in mine, the tremor passing to her arm into her body until the whole shivered.

I fetched what remained of the brandy, watched as she was forced to use both hands to hold the glass to her lips. After a few sips of liquor her tremor eased, though it did not pass entirely for some while.

‘Please, Frances. If you cannot bear to tell me everything -‘

With this she shook her head, placing the glass down so heavily on the table I feared it would break.

Again she reached for me, gripping my wrist. ‘You are my only ally, Edmund. It is so clear to me now. You alone can understand all that has passed. The terrible spell I have been under. You are my only hope of deliverance from this wretched state. It is merely …’ She paused, gazed about the room in such an agitated manner and for so long, I feared she had forgotten my presence. Finally she said, ‘If I keep it all in my mind, I could perhaps persuade myself it is some fantasy, a disorder of the senses. Speaking of it aloud …’ she smiled sadly, ‘… makes it reality.’ She shook her head. ‘Such foolishness. Nothing is so real than what I have lately experienced.’

She sipped the last of her brandy as I stoked the fire back to life, though this was more for comfort than a need of warmth. As I settled back into my chair and the glass was emptied, she talked.

‘I cannot say exactly what was the beginning of it all, for the order of things has become jumbled in my mind. Perhaps it was the gift of a gilded rose, or a melody from a time long passed whistled from the inky shadows. Whichever it was, I have been a puppet in the hands of men, in a labyrinthe of suffering from which I have been unable to escape …’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : A loving future stolen away

Damaged mannequin, cracked head

Image : Pixabay


Haunted by the dead and his own misdeeds, Edmund is on the ropes again. And now his old love has returned to him …

See here to catch up with the story so far – One, two, three, four, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen and eighteen.


 

Frances Kindley stood on the step. She was much changed – her hair was tangled about her shoulders, her dress stained to the knee with filth from the street. The collar and one cuff of her dress were torn and she had a reddish blue mark on her cheek which I took to be the beginnings of a bruise.

‘Edmund,’ she whispered through cracked lips. ‘Please.’

At those words every hurt that had passed between us melted away. I was powerless to do anything but take her hand and lead her inside.

There was no one to call upon to fetch water and bandages, but still I would not have summoned the Red Men to help me, for as Frances leaned on my arm for support, as I gently led her to the drawing room, lowered her more gently still into the waiting armchair, she was mine to care for and mine alone. As I tended her, as I went about setting and lighting fires and warming water, fetching iodine liquid and cloths to bind and cleanse her wounds, it seemed right it should be me who cared for her, as if those small acts of kindness would go some way to erase the pains I had caused her and she me.

For a while we spoke little and only then in whispers as I asked her to move a little right or left or forward so I could dress her seemingly endless wounds. She, biddable as a tired and chastened child after a day’s rambling through fields, did everything I asked with small, grateful smiles and sighs.

Once, many years before, I would have torn myself in two with desire to touch her so tenderly, so intimately. I believed I had loved her back then, through our long engagement. But that morning, after all the recent nightmares I had endured, it was through helping to mend that poor, broken woman, as she gave herself over with complete trust into my hands that I felt true love for her. Yes, I believe we loved each other at that moment, caught as in a bulb of glass, a secret world of our own.

When finally her wounds were stinging clean and she had changed from her torn and filthy gown into one of my poor passed mother’s, I put a pan of brandy on the trivet to warm and set to work combing the tangles from her hair.

On arrival her manner had been one of extreme agitation, but the heat of the fire and my ministrations worked to loosen the hold of her own nervous distraction and as I eased lengths of straw and grass from her hair she sighed, leaning back in the chair.

As her manner calmed, so I absorbed the miasma of her anxiety from the air. Every wound of hers was like a blunt nail, questing into my heart. Red rings circled each wrist as if she had been recently bound; her fingernails were torn, each tip abraded as if they had scratched against a wall, her feet and toes similarly scuffed; along with the bruise on her cheek – now turning the colour of ripe damsons – she wore another on her chin, another on her brow, countless more on her arms, the most worrying a pattern of bruises on her upper arm. I did not need to press my own hand against this last to know someone had gripped her roughly. Someone strong. Someone who cared little for the fact she was a slight young woman of only twenty three summers.

It was as I combed and dressed her hair I discovered the most disturbing feature of her injuries – a bald and raw patch of scalp, black with dried blood, the hair clean torn away, never to regrow. The sight made me shiver, made the foul shadows of the earth angels and that monstrous hook rise up again. With a touch as soft as my clumsy, shaking hands could manage, I combed her hair over that gored scalp, laid down the comb and poured us a glass of warm brandy each.

A log cracked and spat in the flames, shaking ash to the floor. The clock ticked on, chimed the quarter then the half hour. Frances sat with eyes closed and I believed she had fallen into a doze when she suddenly spoke.

‘You were cruel to me, Edmund.’

The truth of her words struck like a flaming arrow to my heart. I could not deny it.

‘You drank and you gambled and you wasted what promise you had on low women and degeneracy.’

Her eyes were open now, sparkling in the firelight.

‘But your cruellest trick was to promise me a loving future and steal it from me.’

‘Frances, I -‘

‘After all your behaviour it was you who broke our engagement. What a fool I was not to break my promise first. At that time I believed I would never recover from the shame, from the hurt – from losing a love so long cherished. And yet.’ Here she broke off, hand juddering at her mouth as if she wished to stop the sound of her own pain escaping. ‘And yet, I would wish those days of our engagement back again. For they seem like a blessing compared to all I have endured over these last days.’

I could stay silent on the subject no longer. Rising from my chair, I fell to my knees before her, my hands clasping hers. ‘What has befallen you?’ The sight of her burrowed into my mind, my chest, the possibilities of that torn and misused soul too much to bear. ‘You owe me nothing. But please, allow me to be your friend now. Tell me, who has done this to you.’

Her face, which had softened with tears and my kind words grew suddenly alarmed, her eyes widening in shock, her lips trembling. She reached out an unsteady hand, clasping at my neck.

‘Where did you get this?’ she whispered.

At first, I was confused at what she could mean, then I felt the tug of a chain. It was the locket. I had hung it round my neck just moments before her knocking roused me. What could I tell her? That God had put the jewel in my path to remind me of my sins? Would she mock me? Would she recoil in horror as I described my terrible crimes? I was struck dumb as the dead, unable to speak or even move.

Then her hand travelled to her own neck, to the fine gold chain there. How did I not see it? Perhaps I was too distracted by her suffering and my own. Perhaps, by some mystical art, it was hidden from my view. Whatever the explanation, I saw it now and clearly.

For hanging from that fine gold chain was a locket no larger than the smallest prayer book, with a carved gold frame of leaves and woodland creatures, its body of a dense, dark metal I did not recognise …

We gazed, bewildered, amazed, terrified, into each others eyes. She slipped her chill hand into mine, squeezing my fingertips.

‘Tell me,’ she said.