The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.
The dead man’s daughter opens the door.
She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.
“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.
The girl doesn’t recognise me although I worked in this house for nigh on a year—but that is because it was only me watching her and not she me. When my mother finally left us it became apparent she would not provide Hector with any more children, let alone a son who might take over from him. He decided I should learn his craft and the sign above the entrance to the workshop was changed—not to Ballantyne & Daughter, though. Ballantyne & Other.
“Speak, you idiot,” Father hisses, as though it’s important he whisper. No one has heard Hector Ballantyne these last eight months, not since what appeared to be an unseasonal cold carried him off.
The blue eyes, red-rimmed from crying, should look ugly, unpalatable in the lovely oval face, but grief becomes Lucette D’Aguillar. Everything becomes her, from the black mourning gown to the severe, scraped back coiffure that is the heritage of the bereaved, because she is that rare thing: born lucky.
“Yes?” she asks as if I have no right to interrupt the grieving house.
I slip the cap from my head, feel the mess it makes of my hair, and hold it in front of me like a shield. My nails are broken and my hands scarred and stained from the tints and varnish I use on the wood. I curl my fingers under the fabric of the cap to hide them as much as I can.
“I’m here about the coffin,” I say. “It’s Hepsibah. Hepsibah Ballantyne.”
Her stare remains blank, but she steps aside and lets me in. By rights, I should have gone to the back door, the servants’ entrance. Hector would have—did so all his life—but I provide a valuable service. If they trust me to create a death-bed for their nearest and dearest, they can let me in the front door. Everyone knows there’s been a death—it’s impossible to hide in the big houses—I will not creep in as though my calling is shameful. Hector grumbled the first few times I presented myself in this manner—or rather shrieked, subsided to a grumble afterwards—but as I said to him, what were they going to do?
I’m the only coffin-maker in the city. They let me in.
I follow Lucette to a parlour washed with tasteful shades of gray and hung with white lace curtains so fine it seems they must be made by spinners with eight legs. She takes note of herself in the large mirror above the mantle. Her mother is seated on a chaise; she too regards her own reflection, making sure she still exists. Lucette joins her and they look askance at me. Father makes sounds of disgust and he is right to do so. He will stay quiet here; even though no one can hear him but me, he will not distract me. He will not interrupt business.
“Your mirror should be covered,” I say as I sit, uninvited, in a fine armchair that hugs me like a gentle, sleepy bear. I arrange the skirts of my brown mourning meetings dress and rest my hands on the arms of the chair, then remember how unsightly they are and clasp them in my lap. Black ribbons alone decorate the mirror’s edges, a fashionable nod to custom, but not much protection. “All of your mirrors. To be safe. Until the body is removed.”
They exchange a glance, affronted.
“The choice is yours, of course. I’m given to understand that some families are delighted to have a remnant of the deceased take up residence in their mirrors. They enjoy the sensation of being watched constantly. It makes them feel not so alone.” I smile as if I am kind. “And the dead seem to like it, especially the unexpectedly dead. Without time to prepare themselves, they tend to cling to the ones they loved. Did you suspect your husband’s heart was weak or was it a terrible surprise?”
Madame D’Aguillar hands her black shawl to Lucette, who covers the mirror with it then rejoins her mother.
“You have kept the body wrapped?” I ask, and they nod. I nod in return, to tell them they’ve done only just enough. That they are foolish, vain women who put their own reflections ahead of keeping a soul in a body. “Good. Now, how may I be of assistance?”
This puts them on the back foot once again, makes them my supplicants. They must ask for what they want. Both look put out and it gives me the meanest little thrill, to see them thus. I smile again: Let me help you.
“A coffin is what we need. Why else would you be here?” snipes Madame. Lucette puts a hand on the woman’s arm.
“We need your services, Hepsibah.” My heart skips to hear my name on her lips. “We need your help.”
Yes, they do. They need a coffin-maker. They need a death-bed to keep the deceased in, to make sure he doesn’t haunt the lives they want to live from this point on. They need my art.
“I would recommend an ebony-wood coffin, lined with the finest silk padding stuffed with lavender to help the soul to rest. Gold fittings will ensure strength of binding. And I would affix three golden locks on the casket, to make sure. Three is safest, strongest.” Then I name a price—down to the quarter-gold to make the sum seem considered—one that would cause honest women to baulk, to shout, to accuse me of the extortion I’m committing.
Madame D’Aguillar simply says, “Lucette, take Miss Ballantyne to the study and give her the down payment.”
Oh, how they must want him kept under!
I rise and make a slight curtsy before I follow Lucette’s gracefully swaying skirts to the back of the house.
I politely look away as she fumbles with the lockbox in the third drawer of the enormous oak desk her father recently occupied. When she hands me the small leather pouch of gold pieces, her fingers touch my palm and I think I see a spark in her eyes. I believe she feels it, too, and I colour to be so naked before her. I slide my eyes to the portrait of her dearly departed, but she grasps my hand and holds it tight.
“Please, Hepsibah, please make his coffin well. Keep him beneath. Keep us—keep me—safe.” She presses her lips to my palm; they are damp, slightly parted, and ever-so-soft! My breath escapes me, my lungs feel bereft. She trails her slim, pink cat’s tongue along my lifeline, down to my wrist where the pulse beats blue and hard and gives me away. There is a noise outside in the hall, the scuttling of a servant. Lucette smiles and steps back, dropping my hand reluctantly.
I remember to breathe, dip my head, made subservient by my desire. Hector has been silent all this time. I see him standing behind her, gnarled fingers trying desperately to caress her swan’s neck, but failing, passing through her. I feel a rage shake me, but control myself. I nod again, forcing confidence into my motions, meeting her eyes, bold as brass, reading a promise there.
“I need to see the body, take my measurements, make preparations. I must do this alone.”
“Stupid little harlot.” Hector has more than broken his silence, again and again, since we returned to the workshop. I have not answered him because I sense in his tone envy.
“How hard for you, Father, to have no more strength than a fart, all noise and wind.”
If he were able, he would throw anything he could find around the space, chisels and planes and whetstones, with no thought for the damage to implements expensive to replace. The tools of our trade inherited from forefathers too many to number. The pieces of wood purchased at great expense and treated with eldritch care to keep the dead below.
I ignore his huffing and puffing and continue with Master D’Aguillar’s casket. It is now the required shape and dimensions, held together with sturdy iron nails and the stinking adhesive made of human marrow and boiled bones I’m carefully applying to the place where one plank meets another to ensure there are no gaps through which something ephemeral might escape. On the furthest bench, far enough away to keep it safe from the stains and paints and tints, lies the pale lilac silk sack that I’ve stuffed with goose down and lavender flowers. This evening, I will quilt it with tiny, precise stitches then fit it into the casket, this time using a sweet smelling glue to hold it in place and cover the stink of the marrow sealant.
We may inflate the charge for our services, certainly, but the Ballantynes never offer anything but their finest work.
I make the holes for the handles and hinges, boring them with a hand-drill engraved with Hector’s initials—not long before his death, the drill that had been passed down for nearly one hundred years broke, the turning handle shearing off in his hand and tearing open his palm. He had another made at great expense. It is almost new; I can pretend the initials are mine, that the shiny thing is mine alone.
“Did you get it?” asks Hector, tired of his sulk.
I nod, screwing the first hinge into place; the dull golden glow looks almost dirty in the dim light of the workshop. Soon I will light the lamps so I can work through the night; that way I will be able to see Lucette again tomorrow without appearing too eager, without having to manufacture some excuse to cross her threshold once more.
I straighten with ill grace and stretch. In the pocket of my skirt, next to a compact set of pliers, is a small tin, once used for Hector’s cheap snuff. It rattles as I open it. Inside: a tooth, black and rotten at its centre and stinking more than it should. There is a sizable chunk of flesh still attached to the root and underneath the scent of decay is a telltale hint of foxglove. Master D’Aguillar shall enter the earth before his time, and I have something to add to our collection of contagions that will not be recognised or questioned.
“Ah, lovely!” says Hector. “Subtle. You could have learned something from them. Cold in a teacup—it wasn’t very inventive, was it? I expected a better death, y’know.”
“It wasn’t a cold in a teacup, Father.” I hold up the new hand drill. “It was the old drill, the handle was impregnated with apple seed poison and I filed away the pinion to weaken everything. All it needed was a tiny open wound. Inventive enough for you, Hector?”
He looks put out, circles back to his new favourite torment. “That girl, she doesn’t want you.”
I breathe deeply. “Events say otherwise.”
“Fool. Desperate sad little fool. How did I raise such an idiot child? Didn’t I teach you to look through people? Anyone could see you’re not good enough for the likes of Miss Lucette D’Aguillar.” He laughs. “Will you dream of her, Hepsibah?”
I throw the hand drill at him; it passes through his lean outline and hits the wall with an almighty metallic sound.
“I kept you wrapped! I covered the mirrors! I made your casket myself and sealed it tight—how can you still be here?” I yell.
Hector smiles. “Perhaps I’m not. Perhaps you’re so lonely, daughter, that you thought me back.”
“If I were lonely I can think of better company to conjure.” But there may be something in what he says, though it makes me hurt.
“Ah, there’s none like your own family, your dear old Da who loves your very skin.”
“When I have her,” I say quietly, “I won’t need you.”
Ghost or fervid imagining, it stops him—he sees his true end—and he has no reply but spite, “Why would anyone want you?”
“You did, Father, or has death dimmed your memory?”
Shame will silence even the dead and he dissolves, leaving me alone for a while at least.
I breathe deeply to steady my hands and begin to measure for the placement of the locks.
“The casket is ready,” I say, keeping the disappointment from my voice as best I can. Lucette is nowhere in evidence. An upstairs maid answered my knock and brought me to the parlour once more where the widow receives me reluctantly. The door angel did not even open its eyes.
Madame nods. “I shall send grooms with a dray this afternoon, if that will suffice.” But she does not frame it as a question.
“That is acceptable. My payment?”
“Will be made on the day of the funeral—which will be tomorrow. Will you call again?” She smiles with all the charm of the rictus of the dead. “I would not wish to waste your time.”
I return her smile, “My customers have no choice but to wait upon my convenience.” I rise. “I will see myself out. Until tomorrow.”
Outside in the mid-morning sun I make my way down the stone front steps that are set a little too far apart. This morning I combed my hair, pinched colour into my cheeks, and stained my lips with a tinted wax that had once belonged to my mother; all for nought. I am about to set foot on the neatly swept path, when a hand snakes out from the bushes to the right and I’m pulled under hanging branches, behind a screen of sickly strong jasmine.
Lucette darts her tongue between my lips, giving me a taste of her, but pulling back when I try to explore the honeyed cave of her mouth in turn. She giggles breathlessly, chest rising and falling, as if this is nothing more than an adventure. She does not quake as I do, she is a silly little girl playing at lust. I know this; I know this but it does not make me hesitate. It does not make my hope die.
I reach out and grasp her forearms, drawing her roughly in. She falls against me and I show her what a kiss is. I show her what longing is. I let my yearning burn into her, hoping that she will be branded by the tip of my tongue, the tips of my fingers, the tips of my breasts. I will have her here, under the parlour window where her mother sits and waits. I will tumble her and bury my mouth where it will make her moan and shake, here on the grass where we might be found at any moment. And I will make her mine if through no other means than shame; her shame will bind us, and make her mine.
“Whore,” says Hector in my ear, making his first appearance since yesterday. Timed perfectly, it stops me cold and in that moment when I hesitate, Lucette remembers herself and struggles. She steps away again, breathing hard, laughing through a fractured, uncertain smile.
“When he is beneath,” she tells me. A promise, a vow, a hint, a tease. “When he is beneath,” I repeat, mouthing it like a prayer, then make my unsteady way home.
I stood in the churchyard this morning, hidden away, and watched them bury Master D’Aguillar. Professional pride for the most part. Hector stood beside me, nodding with more approval than he’d ever shown in life, a truce mutually agreed for the moment.
“Hepsibah, you’ve done us proud. It’s beautiful work.”
And it was. The ebony-wood and the gold caught the sun and shone as if surrounded by a halo of light. No one could have complained about the effect the theatrics added to the interment. I noticed the admiring glances of the family’s friends, neighbours and acquaintances, as the entrance to the D’Aguillar crypt was opened and four husky men of the household carried the casket down into the darkness.
And I watched Lucette. Watched her weep and support her mother; watched them both perform their grief like mummers. When the crowds thinned and there was just the two of them and their retainers to make their way to the black coach and four plumed horses, Lucette seemed to sense herself watched. Her eyes found me standing beside a white stone cross that tilted where the earth had sunk. She gave a strange little smile and inclined her head just-so.
“Beautiful girl,” said Hector, his tone rueful.
“Yes,” I answered, tensing for a new battle, but nothing came. We waited in the shade until the funeral party dispersed.
“When will you go to collect?” he asked.
“This afternoon, when the wake is done.”
He nodded and kept his thoughts to himself.
Lucette brings a black lacquered tray, balancing a teapot, two cups and saucers, a creamer, sugar boat and silver cutlery. There are two delicate almond biscuits perched on a ridiculously small plate. The servants have been given the afternoon off. Her mother is upstairs resting.
“The house has been so full of people,” she says, placing the tray on the parquetry table between us. I want to grab at her, bury my fingers in her hair and kiss her breath away, but broken china might not be the ideal start. I hold my hands in my lap. I wonder if she notices that I filed back my nails, made them neat? That the stains on my skin are lighter than they were, after hours of scrubbing with lye soap?
She reaches into the pocket of her black dress and pulls forth a leather pouch, twin to the one she gave me barely two days ago. She holds it out and smiles. As soon as my hand touches it, she relinquishes the strings so our fingers do not meet.
“There! Our business is at an end.” She turns the teapot five times clockwise with one hand and arranges the spoons on the saucers to her satisfaction.
“At an end?” I ask.
Her look is pitying, then she laughs. “I thought for a while there I might actually have to let you tumble me! Still and all, it would have been worth it, to have him safely away.” She sighs. “You did such beautiful work, Hepsibah, I am grateful for that. Don’t ever think I’m not.”
I am not stupid enough to protest, to weep, to beg, to ask if she is joking, playing with my heart. But when she passes me a cup, my hand shakes so badly that the tea shudders over the rim. Some pools in the saucer, more splashes onto my hand and scalds me. I manage to put the mess down as she fusses, calling for a maid, then realises no one will come.
“I won’t be a moment,” she says and leaves to make her way to the kitchen and cleaning cloths.
I rub my shaking hands down my skirts and feel a hard lump. Buried deep in the right hand pocket is the tin. It makes a sad, promising sound as I tap on the lid before I open it. I tip the contents into her empty cup, then pour tea over it, letting the poisoned tooth steep until I hear her bustling back along the corridor. I fish it out with a spoon, careful not to touch it with my bare hands and put it away. I add a little cream to her cup.
She wipes my red hot hand with a cool wet cloth, then wraps the limb kindly. Lucette sits opposite me and I hand her the cup of tea and give a fond smile for her, and for Hector who has appeared at her shoulder.
“Thank you, Hepsibah.”
“You are most welcome, Miss D’Aguillar.”
I watch her lift the fine china to her pink, pink lips and drink deeply.
It will be enough, slow acting, but sufficient. This house will be bereft again.
When I am called upon to ply my trade a second time I will bring a mirror with me. In the quiet room when we two are alone, I will unwrap Lucette and run my fingers across her skin and find all the secret places she denied me and she will be mine and mine alone whether she wishes it or no.
I take my leave and wish her well.
“Repeat business,” says Father gleefully as he falls into step beside me. “Not too much, not enough to draw attention to us, but enough to keep bread on the table.”
In a day or two, I shall knock once more on the Widow D’Aguillar’s front door.
Copyright © Angela Slatter
Reprinted with permission