The House of Kitty Conneely, Connemara
Do you know what I am going to tell you? This is it now: a vision of the missing child has come to me.
How did the vision arrive, you will want to know. Lookit, as I have grown older my powers have amplified. You would not know me now to look at me, I have withered in the face and there is a head of hair on me as white as foam, but the goings-on inside my mind are so full of wonders you would not credit. How else may I talk to you, friend of my heart, save through the marvels of the mind, for we have long been parted?
You could say that in my own way I have migrated to the deep, just as you have. I see things behind my eyes as if reflected in water. I send out invisible feelers from the spirit of my head like a lobster into the currents around me and from time to time I receive a transmission.
In that way, last night, I saw the child. She was in a place far from here. She is grown now, but hang me, Nora, if I did not recognise her.
I must tell you that she is frightened and in danger. She has been ill-used and by the blood of Brigid I will not stand for it. When I saw her plight I was swept anew by fury. Indeed that vengeful tide has been long rising to its occasion.
Seventeen years have passed since that terrible afternoon on the strand and the loss it left behind. I have had a poor time of it since then with only bitterness and wrath for company. It was my wish to bind a curse on those villains at that time, but I feared that it might by chance harm the child. And to tell the truth, my powers were weak then. I had lost the force of them. I suppose you may be surprised by that. You always knew me as a sure woman who had many people cured with herbs, and I could talk well-shaped stones out of their hiding places under the earth. Many a neighbour man came to me for help in that regard when he was building a house.
But you will remember, Nora, how I suffered for my ways of knowing. People in the parish said I would pay a price for my knowledge and God help me, I did. They say that a woman with powers must sacrifice something to them, and so it was.
I found I could not conceive a child. Sure though, you knew that. But what you do not know is this: I made a promise at a holy well to give up making cures. In return I asked the well to let me get a little babe.
I put away my herbs, Nora. Yet no child came to me.
But now that I have entered my late years, I find my powers are renewed. Perhaps God has taken pity on me for all my years of emptiness, sure that is it. There is nothing I cannot do these days, my friend, once I set my mind to it, bar flying up in the sky. And so those sinful people must watch out for me! Had they cherished the girl, in spite of what they did, I might have thought to stay my hand.
But what am I thinking to let them off the hook? I have brooded too long on the greediness of those who believe another’s life is theirs to spend. And I have felt every class of despair at the desperate want of justice in this world.
I know, Nora, that dark ways were never to your liking, but I declare in all sincerity that strong measures are called for to punish those who harmed us.
I myself, Kitty Conneely, am able for the task. That woman there and that man there will pay for the past. They must pay a penalty. I will bring back our girl, if I can do it, and take their daughter away from them. In that way, the grief will be put off me and cast on to them. Sure, it will not be an easy thing to bring off. A soul of iron is needed for such work. I know right enough that the words that are used to bind a curse are violent and irrevocable.
But God forgive me if this is not deserved three times over.
With brutal suddenness my mind wakes from its stupor and surprises a girl in the looking glass. Her face is as white as paste, her black hair unravelled.
She stares at me with eyes that are dark pools.
Her shift slides from one lascivious shoulder, gaping open at the front, nakedness beneath. I see that her pockets are still securely tied around her waist, a detail that strikes me as absurd given the air of desecration that hangs over her. There is a string of tiny teeth, or pearls rather, at her throat. She raises her hand to the necklace – which I recognise, it belongs to Eliza Waterland – and my own hand touches the pearls.
Oh, God. My own hand.
The wretched reflection belongs to me.
I am shocked to find myself in such a state, my brain untethered, my senses at a stagger. Do I even know where I am? In a closet, evidently. It belongs to a gentleman, I see. Shaving brush, soap, cologne laid out on a silver tray in front of the looking glass. A pitcher and a basin. I reach with shaking hands for the pitcher.
Because I must wash away the blood smeared on my chest and on my forearms and on one of my feet. I seem to have trodden in blood.
In a wild movement I dash myself with water. As I scrub my skin with the hem of my shift, the numbness begins to lift. Many parts of me inside and out are hurting. I cease my foolish laundering. Because now I understand that I am in a place of danger and I must make an escape.
Quitting the closet, I rush to a door at the far end of – of, I see it is a bedchamber. There is a bedstead. Rumpled linen shows behind ponderous velvet hangings. I do not care about the bed. I want the door.
But the door is fast. Who has locked me in?
I tug at the handle, a sob trying to scramble up the walls of my throat. It threatens to burst from my mouth with a howl that will bring servants running. I swallow it down, but still, panic flops around in my stomach looking for a way out.
I turn to face the chamber. I do so with extreme reluctance as if there is something there I do not wish to see. The light is dim – the candles have consumed themselves – and the air is stale and sickening. The window curtains are drawn, but blades of light show between them. The sly gleam of a steel chimney piece catches my eye. Could he have left the key there? (And who is this he? I do not know.) Alas, there is no sign of a key on the chimney piece or on the hulking bureau. But my search brings me in proximity to a couch.
I cannot avoid noticing that my clothes are lying in a distressed strew on the floor and that, oddly enough, someone has dropped a bloody razor on the tangle of my stockings. My gaze fixes on the blade and then insists, against my will, on travelling towards the thing over there between the couch and one of the windows.
Oh, dear God. There is the he. Lying face down where he fell. He must have been there for some time because the blood that spurted out of him has turned black upon the carpet like a monstrous blot. I swear that I did not kill him. I do not believe I did. I couldn’t have. I do not even recognise him. I cannot say that I know who he is. I cannot admit that I know who he is.
But now I am awake to my predicament. It does not take a genius to foresee how this picture will be interpreted when the door is cracked open by constables. They will make a connection between the dead man and me that will bind me as a murderess and the thread of my life will end in a noose or transportation.
I need the doorkey.
There is a coat here, tossed over the back of a chair. Reaching into the slit of its pockets in search of the key I am overwhelmed by a sensation of disgust and then suddenly I am burning, inexplicably, with shame as if it is my own fault that I have come to this. I snatch away my empty hand. Oh, Lord, the key, where is the key? Did it fall from his pocket to the floor? My hand, floundering about, brushes against something beneath the couch that feels like a dead mouse. With a choking cry I draw back – and the abruptness of my movement sweeps an object into view. It is a suede moneybag. A glance shows the glint of a guinea or two and a few shillings and pennies. I shove the bag into one of my pockets and now I think to step into my crushed gown and petticoat. Tie the petticoat clumsily. Where are my shoes? Here they are near the bureau. Was I wearing a hat? My mantle is missing, too, and my hairpins are lost. I cannot put up my hair. No matter, it really is of no matter at all to go abroad with my hair undressed. And my bloodied stockings – I will leave them off.
Suddenly, a noise comes to my ear and with it a wash of horror. I freeze, the nape of my neck prickling, and eye the door. Someone is tapping at it.
As the tapping sounds again, a whimper of fear escapes from my mouth. I stand, rigid with tension, waiting for discoverers to burst in and drag me away.
And then it dawns on me that the sound does not come from the door at all, but from quite the opposite direction.
I tread a line of watery light towards one of the window curtains and heave it to one side. The tapping comes from a sycamore that is scratching at the glaze with its fingertips as if it is trying to attract my attention. On throwing open the window, I find that I am on the third storey of a house in an unfamiliar street of handsome townhouses. The street lies half in shadow. The pavement is unattainably far below. Craning my head to look towards the roof of the house, I see no way out in that direction either. The sky seems lower than usual as if it has been crammed into a space too small for it. There is a cloud directly overhead threatening rain.
I can feel hysteria gathering itself for an assault on my reason, but before it can pounce, the sycamore comes to my assistance. The young leaves in the topmost branches begin to rustle loudly, which draws me to stare into the green crown. With my ear alert to the excited whispering of leaves and the murmur of branches, a thought sparks in my mind.
And all at once, I am inspired to a course of action. There is a possibility of escape!
Withdrawing from the window, I scan the chamber for the material I need. My gaze slides over the bloodied shape on the floor and rests on the bedstead. I dash towards it and seize one of the velvet bedcurtains. The thing resists me at first, but it is easily defeated by the rage that surges through my arm and it dives with a wrench from its fixings, its brass rings clanging against the bedpost.
But as I flounder with the bedcurtain, I hear a muffled metallic groan. The handle of the door is moving. Someone in the hall is trying to enter.
Fear flutters in the pit of my stomach. In the deathly silence of the bedchamber I have the impression that the lurker at the door is straining to make out, as closely as I, what is happening on the other side. Then there is a vague sound, which I take to be a receding footfall. Surely it is a servant who has gone now to fetch a key and a superior. In a cold sweat I spring to my task, dragging the curtain to the window. I struggle to wind the velvet around my torso, leaving my arms free. I wriggle on to the sill like an insect half-emerged from its cocoon and without thinking, and yet with an arm flung across my forehead to protect my eyes, I throw myself out of the window into the void.
I feel, for an instant, gloriously light and liberated.
Though it is a harebrained hope, I have placed my faith in the tall sycamore growing by the window. It may just possibly break my fall, but I will not be surprised if instead I should meet the paving stones below with a crash and be struck dead. That, too, would be a form of escape. It is a fate that seems likely as I pitch into the sycamore’s upreaching arms. The tree fumbles its catch and the scrabbling branchlets in the canopy fail to detain me. With a cracking, snapping, downrushing sound, I slither through the branches in a blur, my hands grasping futilely at sparse leaves and springy green twigs. Fortunately the tree grows more dense towards its lower branches and the stuff wrapped around me snags on them, slowing my fall – and then all at once my tumbling ceases and I find myself lodged about twenty feet above the ground in the sycamore’s twisted arms. For a few minutes I am afraid to move.
A gentle rain begins to patter among the leaves.
Footsteps approach and fade in the street and there is the clip-clopping of horses’ hooves and the thrum of wheels, but I remain unremarked. No one turns their gaze skyward to discover what has littered the footpath with vegetation. I reach for the branch above and manage to depend from it, my feet groping for a foothold below. My velvet casing collapses in folds beneath my knees and I kick free of it, wriggling through the branches. There is a drop of about ten feet to the ground. I wait for a passing chaise to quit the street – in fact the postilion spots me, his mouth falling agape, but he must ride on – and then I let go first my shoes and then myself.
The fall knocks me off my feet and jars my knees, but I am in order, I find. I suppress my jubilation, because I must armour myself against emotion, absolutely, and I retrieve my shoes and the bedcurtain, which I drape from my shoulders to serve as a cloak.
Where should I go? What shall I do?
I stare through the drizzle at looming houses with smooth facades the colour of curds. They are much grander than Mr Paine’s house in Poland Street. Even if I could find my way back to Soho from this unknown quarter, there is no going home for me. I must accept that fact.
Suddenly I sense movement from behind a tall groundfloor window and glimpse a shadowy figure in the house in front of me. God’s teeth, how could I be so stupid! Here is the dwelling from which I have only now escaped. You fool, Em! Someone in there has seen you loitering in the street. Run for your life!
I dash towards the nearest corner.
As I round it at a scurry, a glance over my shoulder shows a person in livery emerging from the house, his head turning in my direction.
I break into a sprint up a street with a slight ascent, searching urgently for a way to duck my pursuer. I plunge into the narrow entranceway of a mews – and at once someone paws at my arm. It is a cadger, after a coin. I cry, ‘A shilling for you if you will show me shelter from the rain!’ The cadger points vaguely towards a door that stands ajar and I run towards it. The door admits me into a dismal hall that smells of ashes and mould. I have the impression of household offices at the rear of a dwelling. Pulling the door to, I shoulder past a threadbare curtain. There is a flight of stairs ahead, ending in a closed door.
Through the flimsy door I hear the sound of footsteps striking the cobbles in the mews. They come ever closer. Surely they must belong to the servant of the house I have just fled. The footsteps stop and I listen with bated breath to the burble of men’s voices. I can hardly hear them over the drumming of my heart. Doubtless the cadger will give me away if he is offered money. My hope is that the footman, who has left his post in haste, will not have a coin to hand.
Silence falls. Then the creak of the opening door. As a figure darkens the doorway I form my hands into puny fists, determined that I shall not be taken without a fight.
It is the cadger, with his hand outstretched. Is there anyone with him? No, he only wants my shilling. He snatches the coin I offer without meeting my eye. In a whisper, I ask if he will tell me my whereabouts, since I am practically a stranger to London, but he affects not to hear me. Instead, he lifts an arm and gazes in consternation at a stain on the sleeve of his grimy pink suit, as if he had just noticed this taint on an otherwise spotless ensemble. Strings of damp hair cling to his pate and he has the air of a man beyond all hope. He looks nervously over his shoulder and says that he will escort me outside so that I may be on my way. But that jumpy glance has told me all I need to know. Behind the door, my pursuer lies in wait.
I push past the cadger towards the stairs. As I reach the bottom step, the gloom in the hall fluctuates. The back door has opened and the sound of violent footsteps turns my stomach to water. Up the stairs I rush and fling myself through the door into a parlour. There is a glimpse of startled faces. I tear through a grand vestibule and out the front of the house and sprint away.
I reach a street corner, gulping at the air. But I cannot get my breath, because I am confronted by a sight that causes me to gasp anew. I have arrived nearly exactly where I started: in the thoroughfare of well-bred pale stone houses. There, some fifteen yards away, is my friend the sycamore tree.
With a cry of despair, I spin on my heel and race off in the thickening rain without the slightest idea where I am going.
As I hasten onwards, my hair drooping under the influence of the rain, it occurs to me that I do not have my makeshift cloak. I must have lost it during my wild charge, but I have no recollection of its falling from my shoulders. How unreliable is memory. Mine has locked away the events of yesterday evening and refuses to show them to me. Have I somehow brought this forgetfulness to bear on myself because I lack the moral fibre to admit to a crime? Well, here is something I will admit: I feel, somehow, guilty. As I slope along in this fading light I expect at any second to feel a heavy hand grasp my arm. I expect to be detained under suspicion.
Just now I almost cannoned into a gentleman stepping out of a print shop. He barely acknowledged the collision for his head was lowered over a news sheet that claimed all his attention. No doubt he will soon be riveted by my story, which is that of a bolting lady’s maid and a body slashed to ribbons at a patrician address. The printers will junket with my likeness and my name and no one will care for the truth – whatever that should be – or even listen to my part. If only I had the protection of the Waterlands. If only they could stand up for me and vouch for my good character – but I cannot drag them into this. Imagine the publicity. The embarrassment of it.
I am dodging and diving now among constricted streets and evening is coming on. The public lighting here is very scant and I fear that the cloaked figures appearing at the mouths of the dark entryways around me cannot be other than villains and wildbloods. The thought of being abroad in this hard town at night adds weight to my already considerable burden of fright. It is with some relief that I discern the rumble of heavy traffic nearby and I head towards it in search of the security of a crowd.
I find myself on the edge of a manic thoroughfare watching a whirligig of carriages, carts and unstoppable sedan chairs. I hover at the kerb, shivering and panting. A long minute passes before my eye falls with a start of recognition on a red brick building on the far side of the road.
I believe I know this place! Is it not Piccadilly?
Eliza and I came here the other day with Mr Paine – it already seems a lifetime ago – to visit his perukemaker, who keeps a shop in that building. I remember we were almost mown down by a coach coming out of the inn next door. The inn has a substantial frontage, cleft by a covered archway. As I gaze at it my heart suddenly lifts. For here is my way out of London.
In a second I have struck out, dodging pats of dung and riders who insist on bringing their steeds to a canter even in the jam of traffic. The inn is called the White Bear, I see. The schedule inscribed on its door tells me that coaches and diligences depart from here daily at five o’clock in the morning for the port of Dover. There is also a night coach at seven for Bristol and all points west. In a flash, patting at the moneybag in my pocket, I resolve to take the night coach. Dover would be more convenient for France – without an explanation for the scene I awoke to this afternoon, what can I do to save my life but flee from England? But I cannot delay until morning for the coach south. I will try for a passage from Bristol.
And yet I hesitate to enter the yard of the White Bear. Should I return to Eliza in Poland Street and tell her what has happened – or rather that I do not know what has happened? She would never take me for a murderess, would she? And perhaps Mr Paine could help. But I know it is pointless to entertain such a notion. It is beyond their skills to smooth over such an unholy mess. Mrs Waterland could do it, perhaps, but she is two hundred miles away in Cheshire. And besides . . .
It gives me a queer feeling to say this, but a shiver comes over me at the thought of Poland Street and intuition tells me to stay away.
I pass under a covered entrance-way into a long yard made gloomy by the rain and by dilapidated wooden dwelling houses that rise three storeys above the stables and coach houses and hinder the light. There is a straggling crowd standing at shelter in a doorway.
A voice cries, ‘Looking for a seat, missus?’ A crone in a frayed mantle and a cross-barred petticoat jerks her thumb towards a door set in a crook of the wall.
It leads to a vestibule and a booking office. Huddled up on a stool at a sloping desk in a corner of the office, next to a window glazed with imperfect glass, the bookkeeper has just lit an evening candle. The atmosphere is pungent with the stink of rancid tallow. There is a large plan of London affixed to the wall with a red line running through it like a knife cut.
The bookkeeper raises his head with a sideways glance that gives him a shifty look. He is a swarthy man with many chins and a twisted wig cut as close as a lawn. He says at once that he can offer me nothing, neither for Dover nor for Bristol.
I am aware that my appearance must present a slatternly sight and I fear the bookkeeper does not believe I have the funds to buy a seat. But perhaps he sees my desperation, because he offers me a constrained smile and says that an outside place is available on the night coach, but only as far as Reading. At the George Inn in Reading I may hope to connect with a morning coach to Bristol.
The inept X that I make on a page of his ledger is quite convincing, I believe, and so is the lie regarding the name I give him. ‘Ann Jones’ slips easily to my tongue.
The night coach west has turned out to be a disreputable piece of work. There are ten of us heaped up here on the roof like human baggage: an apprehensive woman with red, gummed hair under a white cap, holding a child tightly to her chest; a whiskery, oblong-shaped couple; and a cluster of rough men talking out of the sides of their mouths. ‘Last night was a belter, all right,’ says one of them. Another blows out his cheeks with a hoot of laughter, ‘You’re right there, Frank. Blow me tight if it weren’t.’ The inside of the coach is swarming with drovers and their dogs. They are staging up to Swindon, I hear, after selling their beasts at Smithfield. Our coach is aptly named the Demon – certainly it seems to possess an unclean spirit. Two enormous lamps on each side of the body and another on the hind boot show up the deficiencies of the turnout – the unkempt horses in cobbled-together harness, the driver in a tatty greatcoat, and the lack of a guard. The boot is packed with bags of wool, apparently. ‘Or so they say,’ one of the men remarks with a tap on the side of his nose. I cannot make out his meaning exactly, but there is an unsavoury air about the entire enterprise and I have the feeling that our journey is likely to be exposed to every possibility of mishap.
I am riven by the fear of capture. The half-hour I was obliged to wait before the coach departed felt intolerable. I hung about in an agony of nerves, trying to keep out of sight in the stables. But even though we are on our way now, staggering through the western precincts of London, I expect at every stage to find us flagged down and myself arrested. What a pathetic dodge it was to give a false name to the bookkeeper at the White Bear. That will not fool a determined hunter for a second.
My memory still refuses to disclose the sequence of events that brought me to that bloody bedchamber, and this amnesia makes me suspect myself. Shall I wake up tomorrow to find that I have killed a man? I will admit that, like most people, I have a capacity for anger and animosity, but does that make me capable of taking a life? Will you believe me when I say that I am innocent? I yearn for that understanding.
The light has gone and our surroundings are as dark as a bag now. It suddenly occurs to me to wonder: who is this you to whom I plead my case?
At the village of Hammersmith we changed horses and a knave in a mashed hat and a sour coat took a seat by my side. I am frightened of him. His head lolls on his shoulders with the reeling of the coach like something unhinged. He keeps pestering me with a black velvet scarf, which I am sure he has stolen. ‘Come now, wench,’ he wheedles, ‘only pay me a little florin for this lovely scarf.’ The harassment continues as we cross a heath in a descending fog. The road is a queasy one and the darkness intensifies my fear.
‘Give us a florin then.’ The nagger dangles the scarf in my face. He grins at the fellow sitting on the other side of him,
who is similarly ragtag and sinister. ‘She won’t pay up,’ he sniggers. ‘What do you say, shall we make her?’
Fortunately for me, his neighbour chooses that moment to vomit over the railing of the coach. By the time the ensuing commotion has settled, there are dull spots of light visible ahead. The presence of an inn must not please my tormenter at all, because he seizes his chance, as soon as the Demon slows, to make a hurried departure. In fact he scuttles with such haste on to the packets piled in the boot and thence to the road that he leaves behind the scarf. And now it is mine.
I wrap myself in the scarf ’s soft velvet. What a boon it is in this sharp night air. And its blackness offers a fleeting sensation of invisibility. Nevertheless, I eye with anxiety the arrival of a new passenger. He is a well-upholstered individual carrying a pannier – the coach sagged quite significantly as he came aboard – but as he settles among us with a genial expression on his big face, my tension slightly eases. The pannier contains a brace of leverets, he announces. They have hung for twenty-four hours and he does not expect them to raise a stink. The woman with the child looks up and observes that there is nothing worse than a green leveret. She ducks her head suddenly as if regretting her remark and presses her lips to the forehead of the sleeping toddler in a flutter of kisses that seem to have the effect of reassuring herself as much as the child.
She is not alone in her need of comfort. My own longing for solace is so grievous, I have begun to pour out my woes to a phantom auditor. To you.
The horses that have been put on at our last change are wretchedly used up – an old piebald with swollen hind legs and a couple of nags that can scarcely stand, with bald patches on their coats where the harness has rubbed – yet somehow we lurch on, hour after hour in the black night, occasionally shifting our haunches on the hard roof. I continue faint and cold and worrying at things that are beyond my understanding. Why, for instance, am I dressed in my good gown and petticoat? For I have suddenly recognised them as such – is not the gown my best blue lustring satin and the petticoat the peach taffeta that Mrs Waterland gave me to wear in London? I have stared a hole in my petticoat this past hour, but I cannot bring to mind in any way the occasion that caused me to put on this attire.
This coach is fiendishly uncomfortable and yet I am so tired I almost dozed off just now despite the cold mist and the jouncing about. But I forced myself awake. I should not like to lose my grip on this brass rail and crash overboard. On my journey down to London with Eliza, the driver set off so precipitously from one of the inns – I think it was the Cock in Stoney Stratford – that a woman fell from the roof of the coach. I remember glimpsing a cinnamon petticoat spilled on the cobbles. There ensued an altercation between the coachman and the woman’s husband, the coachman shouting that it was not his fault the passenger had not secured herself, and since she was not dead he had nothing to answer and must get on. The other outsiders threw down the couple’s luggage and a bundle, which turned out to be a small child. With a crack of the lash and a hiho, we set off, abandoning the injured family in the yard.
I have learned my lesson in that regard. Here I cling securely to my perch, not daring to get down even to stretch my legs between stages. In any case, now that we are in full night, there are watchmen stationed at the yards of the inns. They are well rewarded, I have read, for apprehending suspects of felonies. And so I imprison myself on the roof of the Demon, afraid most of the time even to catch the eye of my fellow passengers. Above, black clouds sail across a black sky. Below, the wheels thunder.
To whom do I make these observations?
It is to you: my mysterious, nameless mother.
Of course it is you to whom my story is addressed. It is you whom I desire to convince of my truthfulness.
I have nothing at all of you save for the knowledge that you gave birth to me. But this stark fact, that I am connected to you by an unbreakable bond of blood, is the only prop I have in my hour of need. How strange and rare and potent those words: my mother. The thought of you at this bleakest of times makes my soul feel less forsaken, even though you are dead.
Because I am sure you must be dead – you are, aren’t you? Well, I will not let that be an obstacle. You seem very real to me now. Often unseeable things seem real to me. I have always been prey to torrents of sense impressions. It is as though none of my doors is ever quite closed. Is that a tendency I inherited from you? Perhaps you might have thought, too, as I do, that there is more to the world than meets the eye. I will even go so far as to say that the human mind might have a capacity for communication that has not yet been entirely revealed to us. That possibility excites me. It brings me to wonder if you could even actually hear me now or read my thoughts, in a manner of speaking, from some other plane of existence.
Well. You see I go too far with these notions. I will admit that I am fanciful.
It is such a comfort to talk to you.
I beseech you with all my heart to listen to me – for if not you, who else?
Excerpted from Turning the Stones by Debra Daley. Copyright © 2014 by Debra Daley.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus Editions, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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