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"The plot and characters are skillfully developed and greatly enhanced by the aura of malevolence that permeates the mood of Fisher's Faustian novel." -Horn Book Reviews
"Fisher does a lot right in this Dickensian tale as she spins a spooky story and portrays a ghastly mansion that readers can just about touch, taste, and smell. A book for those who really love atmospheric tales with literary quality." -School Library Journal
"Darkly atmospheric, this Faustian update is both compelling and accessible with an ending that interrogates notions of good and evil without belaboring the point...Fisher's evocative prose easily creates a perfectly crafted gothic backdrop....an ideal companion for a gloomy afternoon." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books review
In the dream, she hurried down an endless corridor lined with books. Shelf on shelf they towered over her head, leaning out, frowning down, disapproving. She knew they wanted to fall on her and crush her.
Nervous, she walked faster, wishing she had a ladder so she could climb up to them, the thousands of heavy volumes, the folios, encyclopedias, vast flat atlases, thin slivers of poetry. There were books bound in vellum and calfskin, unicorn and dragon skin, some still with wings and sleepy eyes that blinked at her; fastened and locked with clasps and huge keys and chains that encircled them like prisoners. Fat Bibles, expensively crusted with gold, filled a whole shelf, their cameos of dead emperors high and dim and sneering. All out of reach.
Uneasy, she tiptoed now. Even a breath would make them topple, a whisper set off an avalanche of pages, crashing spines.
Then she stopped.
She had come to a thin mirror, squeezed between shelves, and it showed her own sudden reflection. In the grimy glass she was wearing a rich girl’s clothes. A blue dress, ruched and glinting with pearls. Her hair was clean and brushed; on her feet, wonderfully frail ivory slippers. Astonished, she stared at herself. A cat came out of the shadows and sat there, eyes bright.
“What do you think of this?” she said to it. “I’m a lady.”
She turned, gathering handfuls of the skirt. It was silk, fine and delicate, but as she touched it, it withered and shriveled until she held only cobwebs, fistfuls of sticky, filthy dust.
Something crashed past her shoulder.
She jerked back, heart pounding.
A book had fallen.
It lay there in the dust. She crouched and opened it, her knees breaking through the disintegrating dress. It was clasped with great hinges like a gate; creaking it wide, she read one enormous word.
Then, in curly letters underneath:
Being the Arte of Transmuting Base and Useless Metal into Gold
The page was dusted with gold. It came off on her fingers, and her hands were shining with it, but before she could turn it over, another book crashed, and then more, a whole stack wobbling and thundering behind her, sending echoes and dust flying into her eyes. The corridor rang with vibrations, all the precarious heaps above her quivering.
And in the mirror, quite suddenly, she saw a boy watching her. He was faint and strange through the grime, and he separated into a double image, so that there were two of him. Then he put his hand out through the glass and caught hold of hers.
Martha was shaking her hard. “For mercy’s sake! It’s seven o’clock!”
Sarah sat up quickly. Sweat was cold on her. Through the rag nailed over the window a gray light gleamed. “What?” she mumbled.
“You’re late! You know what she said! This morning of all mornings!” Martha hurried out. “You won’t have time to eat a morsel.”
Shivering, the dream dissolved in seconds, Sarah scrambled out of the trundle bed. Her clothes were flung over a chair; she dragged them on: the harsh gray skirt, the jacket that used to be Martha’s son’s, the patched shawl. Forcing her feet into icy boots, she laced them desperately, dragged the curtain wide, and ran into the dark kitchen, where Martha pushed a crust and a comb into her hands, holding the baby expertly on her hip. “You’ll lose this situation, my girl.”
“I wish I could.” Sarah dragged the comb through her hair. “I could earn more in the workhouse,” she said, pin between teeth.
“Aye. And learn less.”
“I don’t get to learn much. And I hate that woman.”
“There’s worse,” Martha said darkly. “Besides, it would kill your father. The last of the Trevelyans in a dame school is one thing. In the workhouse is another.” Taking the comb back she said quietly, “He’s been awake a while.” Sarah paused, reluctant. Then she went through the door in the corner.
Her father’s room was always dim. He lay on his side, facing away from her, as if that helped him to breathe. When he turned, his face was clammy and pale, his hair whiter than the pillow.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said.
“I’m off to work.”
“Is it today?” he wheezed.
She cursed herself for telling him. He’d probably been brooding on it all night.
“You know what.” He struggled to sit up; she had to pull the thin bolster up behind him. “All the grand visitors. All the lords and ladies. Coming to inspect you, look down their noses at you.”
Sarcasm made him cough. She poured the medicine hastily into the blue cup and helped him drink it. When he lay back she said, “They won’t look at me. I’m no one. And I’m late.”
“Mind you take no nonsense. They’ll know you. If your grandfather hadn’t gambled it all away, we’d be the ones being bowed and scraped to, inspecting schools, giving prizes, my lord this, my lady that.”
“Yes, I know,” she said impatiently. He was back on the old subject, the old grievance. It haunted him, always. She edged away.
“It’s money, Sarah. That’s all they’ve got. You’ve got family. A pedigree going back to the Norman kings. They can’t say that. Not that fat mayor or that interfering old bag from the Grange . . .”
“Lie still, Papa,” she muttered. “I’ve got to go.”
As she reached the door he caught his breath. Blue at the lips, he gasped, “I suppose he’ll be there.”
“That stinking upstart. The one who stole our house.”
All down the lane she cursed herself with irritated names. It was bad enough that she had to skivvy for Old Mother Hubbard in her paltry little school without him imagining all the gentry of the parish gossiping about her.
“That’s Sarah Trevelyan.”
“Not the Trevelyans?”
“The ones who lost all their money.”
“The ones who lost Darkwater Hall.”
It was late. She ran, around the corner and into the stone-walled lane that trickled down to the sea, a squall of salty rain slapping her in the face. Leaping every puddle, she climbed the stile and squelched over Martinmas Field, the sheep scattering with low bleats. On the far side the wall had slipped, and she paused on the wobbling stones at the top to catch her breath.
And saw what she saw every morning.
Darkwater Hall rose on the cliff top of High Bluff. Turreted and bleak, its facade of gothic windows caught the blear light and gleamed, facing out to sea. Down its roofs and gables the rain ran in sheets, and the peculiarly grotesque gargoyles that her great-grandfather had insisted on in his eccentric plan spat and grinned evilly into the tangle of gardens below.
From here, she could just see the main door. Outside it, a carriage had pulled up; a sleek, black equipage with two gray horses, each blinkered. They pawed the ground restlessly, and as she watched, a hunched footman came down from the house and opened the carriage door. She watched, intent.
The house—their house—had long been empty. Lord Azrael had arrived suddenly, last week. Martha had gossiped about it to Jack, always stopping when Sarah came in. How her father had found out, she didn’t know.
A man stepped down. She was surprised; she’d expected someone old, withered and ugly. But this man was young, dark haired with a neat, barely visible clipped beard. He walked with a limp, and his frockcoat looked expensive. At the top of the steps he paused. Then he turned and looked up.
She ducked, wobbling.
The dark man didn’t move. Ignoring the horses and the impatient footman, he stared out across the fields, the wind blowing his hair. As if he knew someone was watching him.
Sarah shivered. Rain ran down her neck. For a second she felt as if she were balancing not on a wall but on the edge of some terrible pit, and if she moved she would plummet, head over heels into darkness.
Then the new owner of Darkwater turned and went inside his house.
The giddiness passed. The stones slewed sideways. She jumped, splashed puddle water up her stocking, and ran. In the distance a cracked bell was clanking relentlessly. By the time she got to the school she was breathless, the crust jammed unnoticed in her pocket, her left foot soaked from a leak in her boot. Praying they hadn’t gone in yet, she tore around the great oak tree and flung herself in at the gate.
The courtyard was empty.
“Blast!” she hissed.
She turned the knob quietly.
Inside the tiny porch, shawls and caps dripped. Immediately the smell of the place enfolded her, and she frowned. She hated this smell. Damp clothes, smoke, polish, sweat. And fear.
She creaked the door open and went in.
“So! You’ve finally decided to arrive!” Mrs. Hubbard was squeezed into the pulpit of her desk, a dark ominous whale of a woman, pinned and brooched into a vast starched gown of bombazine black. Her best, Sarah realized.
“I’m sorry,” she said tightly. “My father—”
“Your father is a convenient excuse too frequently employed.” Mrs. Hubbard raised a magnificent lorgnette, which magnified her small black eyes, and looked Sarah up and down in distaste. “Dear me. You could have made more effort in your dress. I wasn’t expecting flounces and bows, but even a family as horridly reduced as yours should have managed better. You’re a disgrace, dearie. What are you?”
“A disgrace,” Sarah muttered automatically.
“This is an important day for me.” Mrs. Hubbard stabbed a pointing ?ngernail at the class; they seemed to huddle down further without even seeing it. “My establishment is noted, noted, mind you, for its discipline. On the day when my patrons inspect it, you turn up looking like a workhouse brat. There are plenty of others who could have this situation.” She opened her desk, took a pinch of snuff, and sniffed it daintily. “I ain’t too fussy, dear, about who cleans the privies. Now. Stove ?rst. Then sweep.”
Sarah turned and went for the bucket in silent relief. Old Mother Hubbard must be preoccupied. Otherwise the tirade would have gone on and on.
Above the smeared mirror next to the world map a notice said CLEAN HANDS REVEAL A CLEAN HEART in smug letters. She ignored them and hastily brushed wisps of her hair back, seeing her red face, chapped from the wind. In the back row Elsie Tate gave her a spiteful glance. Elsie was one of the favored pupils; her mother paid extra fees for her little darling to learn deportment and dancing. Watching her stagger around on Thursday afternoons with a pile of books on her head, Sarah thought grimly, was almost worth all the rest. The dame school was one dingy room. Tilted ranks of ancient tables descended in three tiers to an open space where Mrs. Hubbard’s pulpit rose like a tower. The desk had a power of its own. Even when she tottered down from it—which was rare—it cast its dark shadow of fear. The class was terrorized by its silence.
The front row was six tiny boys and an even tinier girl, who never spoke. Today she was crying again, Sarah noticed, the tears hurriedly mopped into her sleeve before they touched the precious slate. No one took any notice.
“Class.” Mrs. Hubbard polished her lorgnette in gloved fingers. “Gibbon. From yesterday. Begin.”
Hands reached for chalk. The morning exercise wasalways the same—the painstaking copying of Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire—probably the only book on the shelf, Sarah thought sourly, that the old bag ever bothered to open. The children’s chilblained fingers made careful copperplate on the slates, the older few in the back dipping pens into tiny inkpots, in agonies not to blot the cheap yellow paper.
Sarah didn’t have time to watch. The room was bitterly cold; she took the bucket out and ?lled it with coal, picking the largest pieces out of the ?lthy heap next to the privies. Soon her hands were black; she pushed her hair back and felt the smudge of soot down her face. Back inside, she stoked the small stove and lit it; it was carefully placed to face the pulpit, so no one else got much bene?t. Every tiny scrabble of noise she made seemed huge; the room was a deep well of silence. Next she swept, the coarse scraping of the bristles raising a cloud of dust that hung in the air, so that a boy coughed and Mrs. Hubbard’s glare nailed him like an owl on a mouse.
“Do that again, luvvie, and I’ll mark your card. You’re a dolt. What are you?”
“A dolt,” the boy breathed in terror.
Mrs. Hubbard smiled. She raised her desk lid, poured a tot of gin into a tiny glass, and drank it. Her fingers mopped daintily at her lips.
It was a terrible morning. The tension in the room grew as the clock ticked on, ominous as the gray thunderclouds that gathered outside. Gulls cried over the roof; Mrs. Hubbard glowered up as if she wanted to dismiss them on the spot. She was tetchy and irritable and more and more coldly humorous as twelve o’clock came nearer. Her fingers tapped a drum roll of impatience on the desk, so that a few of the younger ones glanced up and were caught, staring hypnotized with dread. And always she was listening, her small eyes darting to the door.
Sarah was working grimly. Every corner of the paintwork had to be wiped, colonies of spiders and woodlice eliminated without fuss. She had to arrange the books, dust the pictures of Queen Victoria, Albert, and Gladstone, straighten the world map, give out supplies of beautifully new pens and pencils that would only be used for the duration of the governors’ visit. Mrs. Hubbard kept these in a box and used the same ones every year. Finally, the privies had to be cleaned; a stinking job Sarah loathed, but at least she was out of the stifling schoolroom.
Emptying the bucket, she paused a moment, leaning against the stone wall, letting the wind touch her face, salty from the sea. She despised and hated the school. At least, the way it was now. It might have been a happy place, with real learning; if she stayed on long enough she might become the teacher herself. But the thought of years of this turned her cold. It was only the books that kept her here.
There was a small shelf of them over the old mantelpiece. Mrs. Hubbard never looked at them, but on Friday nights after everyone had gone and she had scrubbed the floor, Sarah read them. Mr. Dickens’s novels, and Jane Austen’s, and a book about old Greek gods and a great battle at Troy that lasted ten years. And there were two histories too, all about the Normans and Stuarts and Tudors, that really told you about them, not like Mrs. Hubbard, who insisted on nothing but dates and names. There was an atlas with maps of utterly strange places; the Hindu Kush, Rhodesia, Paris. And above all, there was half an encyclopedia, A to M, with satisfying articles on how steam is made from coal, and how animals see in the dark. She had read them all, and was beginning again this week. That was knowledge, she thought. Real learning. She wanted more of it. If she had money she’d buy books of her own, but that was a hopeless dream. Like the library at Darkwater Hall.
A gull screamed a warning. She scowled, and went back in.
The class were chanting tables in a breathless gabble.
Mrs. Hubbard snapped, “Enough.”
Her black eyes watched them as Sarah gathered up the slates hastily. The classroom was a semicircle of fear, the tiny girl at the front rocking with anxiety. “Stop that!” Mrs. Hubbard barked.
The girl froze.
Sarah scanned the slates quickly. She hated this. If she said yes, someone would suffer. If she said no, she’d suffer. “No,” she said, glancing up.
“Liar,” Mrs. Hubbard said. “What are you?”
“A liar, Mrs. Hubbard.”
“Put them there. I’ll look at them myself, later.” The class relaxed a fraction. They knew she wouldn’t bother. “Second row. Monarchs of England. Begin.”
She never used their names. It was as if that would make them people, and she didn’t want people. Just dolts, and liars, and sniveling scared faces. Sarah backed off to the corner cupboard and stacked the slates inside. The boy—Archie, it was—was chanting in a monotone, careful not to sound too clever, or too slow. Mrs. Hubbard listened, half to him and half for the door, turning her snuffbox over and over.
“Enough.” She looked bored.
Archie sat down instantly.
Sarah saw who was next reflected in the glass, and winced. It would have to be Emmeline.
Emmeline Rowney was thin. She had something wrong with one of her eyes; it never looked at you straight. She was scrawny and came from a family who could hardly pay the fee; her mother slaved as a washerwoman to get enough. Maybe that was why Mrs. Hubbard enjoyed Emmeline so much.
The girl stood up, licked her lips, and said carefully, “Edward the Third, Richard the Second, Henry the . . . Fifth, Henry . . .”
Mrs. Hubbard jerked upright. She seemed overjoyed.
“What? What did you say?”
“Repeat it! After the infamous weakling Richard, who?”
“Henry,” Emmeline whispered.
“F . . . Fifth.”
The whole class was already rigid, and seemed to stiffen even more, as if not showing any emotion was their only safety. Except for their eyes, which all moved in fascinated horror, toward the dim object that hung behind the door.
“Come down here!” Mrs. Hubbard said.
Emmeline looked as if she would faint. “Henry the Fourth,” she gasped. “It was him I meant.”
“Indeed? I’m so glad to hear that, dearie. Don’t keep me waiting.”
The girl came down. She was white, her hands clenched in front of her, her frizzy hair coming undone from the plait at the back. Her nose ran; she wiped it on her sleeve.
Mrs. Hubbard turned majestically to Sarah. “Fetch it,” she commanded.
Sarah frowned. She went slowly behind the desk to the dim corner. All eyes followed her.
The cane leaned in its darkness. This was its place; a thin sliver of power, barely seen, but it dominated the whole room, all their lives, their sleep. Not always the same one, of course; Mrs. Hubbard wore out two or three a year. Now Sarah picked it up, seeing the ends of the bamboo were already split. It felt light and cruel, a swishing thing, ridged, the leather around the handle soiled with sweat, a hard grip. Every time she touched it she felt its attraction; she almost wanted to use it, to see how it would feel to wield that power.
Mrs. Hubbard squeezed out of the pulpit, uncreasing and uncrackling like a great dark puffball of sweat and pomander oils, the black bun of her hair glossy and tight, stabbed with hairpins.
Emmeline sobbed. Something broke in her; all the pent-up agony came tumbling out. “Please ma’am I’m sorry I’ll learn it honest I will but don’t give me the switch because me da he gives me enough and he’ll go mad he will . . .”
Mrs. Hubbard smiled with pleasure. “An enlightened parent. I’m sure you will learn it; I fully intend to present you, dearie, with a few reminders of your current failure. However, as it’s such an important day, and I don’t wish to get too . . . flustered, I will not use the cane.” The class’s silence was a blank astonishment.
Emmeline sniveled. “You won’t?” She sniffed, incredulous.
Mrs. Hubbard took a large pinch of snuff. “No, I won’t.” She inhaled the brown powder into her huge left nostril, then her right, and smiled.
“Sarah will do it instead.”
Somewhere outside, under the gray clouds, a gull began calling, a high, anxious mew.
Sarah felt its fear close around her. “Me?” she said.
“You.” Mrs. Hubbard’s tiny black eyes watched her shrewdly. “I’ve watched you, dearie. You’re keen. You could have your own little place one day, just like this.” She glanced playfully at Emmeline. “Five will do. Hand out, and if you flinch you’ll have two extra.” Sarah frowned, watching the little girl’s palm rise up toward her, a small, trembling, fragile thing, pitifully dirty. Its openness beckoned her; part of her longed to crack down on it with the bamboo cane, to feel that quick swish end with the cry of pain. But the rest of her was annoyed. She didn’t particularly care about Emmeline, or any of them. Sometimes she felt sorry for them. But it would be folly to lose her job over this. Five quick smacks and it would all be over.
“Are you hesitating?” Mrs. Hubbard snapped.
“Of course not.”
“Good. Don’t forget you’re just a menial here, girl. What are you?”
Sarah was silent.
Suddenly she saw the door at the back was open. There were footsteps, a rustle of silks. The visitors had finally arrived.
And with them stubbornness, that swept over her like a wave, so that she straightened her shoulders and drew up her chin. She was a Trevelyan, and all the pride clamped down inside her for so long came scorching up, a wave of heat in her neck and face. She glared at Mrs. Hubbard’s rolls of fat. And didn’t answer. The instant was huge as it passed; the terrible instant when Mrs. Hubbard—and the class—realized the usual echo wouldn’t be coming.
Mrs. Hubbard’s chest swelled with wrath. Appalled, the class watched. Emmeline’s hand, wavering with weariness, descended and came abruptly up again.
Mrs. Hubbard snatched the cane. “I had high hopes of you. Thought you’d go far. But I know what this is, this is pride!”
She spat the word like venom. “Always thought yourself a cut above the rest, haven’t you, dearie. A snobby little madam. Miss Sarah Trevelyan of Darkwater Hall, that’s what you think you are. But your family were all drunks and tyrants and womanizers. And all I see is a scruffy little pupil teacher on three shillings a week. Your face is red, your clothes stink, and there’s a leak in one of your boots. That’s the truth. That’s all you are.” And at the back of the room, suddenly, Sarah saw him watching her, the stranger from Darkwater Hall, the one they called Lord Azrael. Their eyes met; he looked sympathetic. She jerked her gaze away, silent with fury. “Give the cuts,” Mrs. Hubbard barked, “or take them yourself.”
Sarah smiled, spiteful. “I’ll take them.”
Posted October 18, 2014
Posted September 22, 2013
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Posted February 7, 2013
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