Holloway / A STUDY IN SILKS
London, April 4, 1888
10:45 p.m. Wednesday
Evelina froze, a breath half taken catching in her throat, nerves tingling down every limb. She sat unmov- ing for a long moment, searching the shadows cast by her candle on the dusty attic floorboards.
Slowly, methodically, her gaze probed each corner of the space around her. Stacks of trunks and boxes made elephantine humps in the darkness. Furniture lurked phantomlike under dust covers. Attics were for storage of the useless and forgotten, for memories and the occasional secret. The only creatures that should be moving up here were ghosts and mice. Yet she’d heard something else. Or sensed it.
Still barely daring to breathe, Evelina carefully set the minuscule piece of machinery she held back into its box, resting her tiny long-nosed pliers next to it. Her fingers lingered on the casket for a moment, caressing her brass and steel creation almost tenderly. Most nights, she retreated to the attic to work in private after the rest of Hilliard House had retired. This was the one place, the one time, she enjoyed the absolute freedom to indulge her talents. No one else came up here, especially not this late.
And yet, she heard the creak of the door at the bottom of the attic stairs, then a footfall. Someone was coming. Odd, because the household had retired early—His Lordship had declared himself and his lady in need of a quiet night in. Therefore, no one dared to so much as rustle a candy wrapper tonight.
So who was up and about? Apprehension prickled along her arms. In the privacy of her own mind, Evelina Cooper gave a very improper curse.
There were any number of reasons why a young lady, gently reared by a respectable grandmamma, did not want to be caught hiding in the attic in the dead of night. First would be the inevitable assumption that she was meeting a lover. Why was it that no one imagined a young lady might have more weighty interests?
Second, whatever trouble she got into would automatically rebound on her best friend, Imogen Roth. Hilliard House belonged to her schoolmate’s high-and-mighty father, Lord Bancroft, and Evelina was a guest for the Season at Imogen’s request. If she were caught doing anything even mildly scandalous, Lord B was more likely to mount both their heads on his study wall than to listen to excuses.
And an unladylike fascination with mechanics was enough to cause comment. It was time to vanish, thoroughly and quickly. She snuffed the candle with her bare fingers. Moonlight slanted through the window, painting the attic in a watery light. She gathered up the scatter of parts and tools she’d strewn about the floor and placed them into the box, careful not to make a clatter. After a last glance around, she closed the lid and silently hid the box and candle behind a rolled-up carpet leaning against the wall.
Evelina’s stomach cramped with tension. There wasn’t just one pair of heavy feet coming up the stairs. She definitely heard two. Damnation!
Her mind went blank for a split second, as devoid of ideas as a pristine sheet of paper. There was only the single exit. She had to hide, but where? The third reason she absolutely, categorically could not be caught was because her box didn’t just hold tools; it held implements of magic. That fact would raise more questions than she was prepared to answer.
The footsteps were loud now, nearly to the top of the stairs. She could see the flash of a lantern swinging to and fro. Male voices filled the cavernous gloom. Servants, by their accents. The deep voices of big, strong brutes.
“Why the bloody hell is it always something in the attic they want moved?” one grumbled.
“ ’Cause if it were easy, they wouldn’t be paying us to lug it down the stairs, would they?” said the other. “Now shut it and do your job.”
With desperate haste, Evelina pulled off her shoes and stockings and stuffed them behind the carpet with her box. Then she bolted for the window and carefully pushed up the sash, hoping the noise the two men made was enough to hide the scrape of wood on wood.
A blast of night air ruffled her hair. Gathering her skirts tight, she crawled out the window, balancing on the narrow decorative ledge that ran along the outside of the house. It was lucky she was wearing a plain work dress, not much fancier than one of the maid’s uniforms. If she’d been dressed in a dinner gown with a bustle and miles of petticoats, she would never have managed. Fortunately, she’d abandoned all that nonsense during her late-night sessions, letting herself bend and breathe free.
Her bare toes felt for the cool stone, sensitive to every dip and ridge. The ledge was just wider than her foot, easy enough to walk on if one had good balance. The voices were getting louder. Anxiety nipped at her heels. Her knees trembled with the effort to hold herself back, not to move too quickly. She had no trouble with heights, but haste could literally be her downfall.
Taking a breath, Evelina edged away from the window, not daring to take the time to close it behind her. One step, then two, and she was out of sight. Even if they guessed someone else had been there, no one would look for one of Lord Bancroft’s houseguests clinging like a bug to the wall. Of course, how many graduates of the Wollaston Academy for Young Ladies numbered walking a tightrope among their accomplishments? Then again, how many were orphans with one grandmother in charge of a country estate and another who told fortunes with Ploughman’s Paramount Circus? In some ways, Evelina had spent her whole life on a narrow ledge, balanced between two completely different worlds.
She gripped the wall behind her, inching farther still from the open window. With any luck, she would find another unlocked window and crawl back inside. While she was safe from the servants within the house, too many neighbors had a good view of her perch. The house had a large walled garden behind it, a legacy from a rural past, but now it faced onto busy Beaulieu Square. To either side of Hilliard House, arches of terraced homes flanked a circular garden.
Perhaps she would have been better off ducking under a dust cover? But then, she had always been more inclined to take risks than to hide. That was half her problem. She might have learned to act like a lady, but she still didn’t think like one. Ladies didn’t sneak about, and they certainly didn’t attempt unheard-of experiments just to prove to them- selves that they were every bit as smart as a man—and clever enough to attend a university college—but that was exactly what Evelina was doing in her attic retreat. She took risks, but not without a reason.
The wind snatched strands of her dark hair and whipped it around her face. She caught bits of sound: the clop-clop of horses, a distant pianoforte murdering a Chopin ballade, the muffled notes of a female voice coming from just around the corner of the house. Evelina caught a man’s answering tones, harshly ordering the woman, half buried beneath the chime of church bells. Eleven? How had it become so late?
She edged along, curious to catch more of the conversation, but the voices had died away. Her path toward them was blocked anyway. An oak tree grew beside the house, one of its thick branches angling up to scrape against the gutters. Evelina could easily reach it with one hand. Then two. She pulled herself up, swinging one leg over the rough trunk. Her skirts hitched, bunched, and generally got in the way, but she got to her feet and was soon moving cautiously toward the heavy foliage nearer the trunk. It wasn’t perfect cover, but a girl in a tree was a lot less visible than a girl silhouetted against a moonlit wall.
Evelina paused, crouching low and balancing with one hand on a neighboring branch. Bits of bark scraped the tender soles of her feet, but she forgot the discomfort in a momentary rush of exhilaration. It was so rare that she got to really use her body since she had passed the divide between girl and woman. At Imogen’s house, where she could roam almost at will, Evelina enjoyed the freedom to think and work. But even at Hilliard House, a lady did not clamber about in trees.
She let the April wind play with her hair and skirts. It was chill, the scent of rain reminding her spring was slow to give way to summer. From up here she could see a sliver of London, gaslights tracking in zigzags across the richer parts of the city. And, besides the lamps on the streets, in- dividual homes sported their own displays beside their doors, on balconies, or wherever smaller globes could be mounted. The more prosperous a household was, the more of the fashionable—and expensive—lights it had, until the richest parts of the city sparkled like the jewels of a fairyland queen.
The lights nearby showed a faint gold tinge, while those farther away were blue or green or red. The color of the glass globes marked the district and the company that provided them—and, by extension, which of the so-called steam barons controlled the light and heat for the people who lived there. According to Lord Bancroft, the owners of the great coal and gas companies had divided London—divided all the Empire in fact—into uneven slices like a pie. Steam was their mainstay, but they had bought up other things, like coal mines, railways, and even some factories. She understood the colored lights were a symbol of their stranglehold, but it did make for a pretty sight when the lamps came on at night.
Of course, there were always exceptions—those houses that sat dark and cold. There were whole neighborhoods like that in the poor districts like Whitechapel, but the rich streets had them, too. They were called the Disconnected, these people who had either lost all their money or, even worse, lost the favor of the steam barons.
The thought went by in a moment, as fleeting as the breeze, but it was enough to distract her. When she shifted her weight to move again, her foot slipped. For a wild, heart-stopping moment, she felt herself falling. Leaves and branches rushed toward her, clawing at her hair and face. Reflexively, she hooked a leg around the branch while her hands flailed for something to grip. Then, with a hoarse gasp, she caught herself.
Now Evelina hung upside down, a gentlewoman’s version of a tree sloth. Waves of panic slid beneath the surface of her control, threatening to crack her to pieces. She squeezed her eyes closed, refusing to give in to the tears of fright and embarrassment prickling for release.
The voice came from inside her head, but she felt the light pressure of the greeting like a finger prodding her consciousness. She opened her eyes. A faint, slightly luminous green smudge hung inches from her face.
“Hello,” she muttered.
The light bobbed, seeming to look her over. What are you doing?
Evelina bit back a scathing retort. The creature was a deva, a nature spirit. They seemed to bear the characteristics of different elements: wood or air, fire or water, or maybe a combination in between. Some were tiny and others huge and fierce. The countryside was thick with them, though city gardens sometimes had spirits, too. This one had probably claimed the tree as its home. Those of the Blood—like her fortune-telling grandmother’s side of the family—could see them. Everyone else called them the stuff of fairy tales.
Just Evelina’s luck if someone found her stuck in a tree talking to an invisible creature. Lord B would send her packing before she could say “Bedlam.” Of course, it would be worse if anyone actually believed she could talk to na- ture spirits. That counted as magic, deemed by most as immoral and by the courts as illegal. Just today, they’d arrested a witch who was also a renowned actress named Nellie Reynolds. If someone as popular as her wasn’t safe, Evelina didn’t stand a chance.
I asked, the deva repeated in a tart voice, what you are doing in my tree?
“I’m stuck. I was running away, and I fell.” What had she been thinking? Evelina cursed her idiocy. She wasn’t one of the Fabulous Flying Coopers anymore and hadn’t been on a tightrope since she was a child.
You should leave climbing to cats.
She just growled by way of response. Using her legs for leverage, she started to squirm in an effort to haul herself upright. Unfortunately, there were no handholds to help her get to the top side of the branch. It was a matter of pure strength and balance, both of which seemed to be fading fast. Her arms were starting to shake. I’m getting soft.
The thought made her jaw clench. “Give me some help, deva!”
Of course, it didn’t. They never did unless compelled, and her tools—the needle and grains of amber she used in the spell with which she bound a spirit—were in the wretched box, hidden where bothersome servants couldn’t find it. Making a last effort, Evelina wriggled and twisted until she found new handholds. When she finally got her bearings, she was facing the other way, toward the house, but she was upright again.
The deva had vanished. “Thanks for nothing,” she muttered. Now she had scrapes on her palms, and she was sure she’d heard her hem tear on the stump of a twig. Still, she had got herself back up on the branch. That counted for something.
She glanced toward the attic window, hoping against hope that the servants had left. No, she could still see their lamplight. What were they looking for?
More carefully this time, she moved along the upward-sloping branch just far enough to get a better view. Not too close, though. She didn’t want them to see her looking in.
The men had hung their oil lantern from a hook in the ceiling. A pool of light spread over the scene, far brighter than that of Evelina’s candle. Now that she saw the men’s faces, she recognized them as Lord Bancroft’s grooms. From what she’d observed, he used them frequently for odd, hard-to-explain tasks.
Five huge brass-studded steamer trunks had been taken from a stack against the wall and moved onto the floor. Evelina remembered they bore a maker’s mark from Austria, where Lord Bancroft had served as ambassador.
“What’s in these?” asked one groom. She could just hear them through the open window.
“Don’t know.” The other stopped, wiping his forehead on his sleeve.
“Figure if we have to take them cross-country, we should know, eh?” The first one bent down, pulling out his pocket knife and worrying at the lock. She heard the click of the heavy mechanism. Heavy metal hasps sprang open, as if triggered by springs.
Evelina watched intently, fascination outweighing the cold and the discomfort of her seat. It took both men to lift the lid of the trunk. One of them stepped back, seeming to recoil with disgust.
“God in Heaven,” the man cursed. “It smells like something died in there.”
Evelina’s eyes widened, and she gripped the branch even tighter. The scent didn’t reach her, but her skin prickled as if doused with magnetic energy. Stale, bad energy that left her fearful of the dark.
The interior of the trunk was lined with blue satin and sculpted to hold the limbs, head, and torso of a dismembered body. Panic clenched her belly, and Evelina gasped loudly before she could stop herself. Good God, what is this?
Then she caught sight of the metal joints at the shoulders and hips. The body wasn’t human. In fact, it was covered in coarse, dun-colored ticking, and the face and hands were painted porcelain, just like a child’s doll. An automaton. But it looked just real enough to send another shiver down her spine. She must not have been the only one to feel that way. The man pulled the lid down with a bang, shutting the frightful thing from sight.
She felt an almost palpable relief. That had to be the ugliest automaton ever made, the face staring and slack-jawed. Was it one of Lord Bancroft’s souvenirs from Austria? She’d never heard anyone mention such a thing. Did each of those trunks have a monstrosity like that inside?
Of course, the appearance of the clockwork girl wasn’t the most interesting thing. Even from where Evelina sat in the tree, she could tell the automaton vibrated with magic. And not any magic, but sorcery of the wickedest kind.
A chill of relief, anxiety, and a peculiar kind of terror shivered through her. What she had just witnessed was both a shield and an Achilles’ heel. Whatever secrets Evelina was hiding, she now knew the impeccable Lord Bancroft was concealing much, much worse.