Rose spent two days after the ball holed up in her room in what was becoming regular embarrassment, before finally venturing into town. She entered the apothecary, only to see Samuel’s younger brother at the counter.
‘Good morning, where’s Samuel?’
‘On a house call. Left me here.’
He offered no other explanation or conversation. Not in need of any herbs, Rose left him to his tedium.
It had been colder at the seaside lately, the grey ocean lapping at the harbour and spraying a mist of salt over the town. Rose had been hiking her petticoat higher as to avoid the damp mud; she noticed Hank standing outside a ribbon shop.
Rose’s heart leapt to her throat. Surely he wasn’t meandering about the town with a debutante, was he?
About to march over and drag her brother away from the shop, a figure stepped out from the open door. Amongst the grey and brown of her surroundings, Lydia’s brilliance. Adorning a big smile and twirling ribbons in her gloved hands, she walked to Hank while Rose gawked.
Her boots squelched in the mud as she moved to approach them, faltering in her steps as Lydia playfully shook the bunch of ribbons over Hank’s head. Rose slipped, landing on her behind with a yelp that pushed the air from her lungs.
The pair turned their heads to the commotion, and if Rose weren’t so pale from the shock of her fall, she would’ve been red in the face.
‘Rose,’ Hank said as he strolled over. ‘What are you doing falling on the road?’
‘I didn’t purposely set out to fall,’ she snapped. He pulled her up with a violent tug, her arm almost disconnecting from the socket. ‘Careful, you lout!’
He looked at ease as usual, she observed once she was upright again. There was no sign of fluster or embarrassment. With a glance over his shoulder, she could see that Lydia had lingered at the ribbon shop. Her face was once again curious in that way that made Rose’s spine shudder.
‘I should be asking what you are doing at a ribbon shop with Lydia,’ she said quietly.
He hummed nonchalantly. ‘She asked me to accompany her for shopping.’
Rose looked her brother up and down. Hank was hardly a suitable shopping partner, in his plain coat and top hat. He was a man who wore his father’s hand-me-downs often, much to the chagrin of his fashionable older sister. Rose wondered why, of all siblings, Lydia had deemed Hank the most apt for the trip.
‘Off the road, you two!’ a vendor shouted.
Rose gathered her dignity and tugged her brother back to where Lydia stood observing the scene. She mustered a greeting that was weak in comparison to Lydia’s warm beam.
‘Lydia, had I known you were planning to shop for ribbons, I would have called upon you before I left this morning.’
‘No, I wouldn’t want to inconvenience you. Mr Pembroke is very pleasant company, after all.’
Rose’s smile fell a little before she caught it. ‘Indeed?’
The three began their journey home as the sea spray became heavier. Rose matched Lydia’s pace, waiting until her brother was ahead before turning to speak in a hushed manner.
‘You don’t need to call him “Mr Pembroke”, you know. He may be the heir to the manor but he’s still your cousin.’
‘I simply want to give the due respect,’ Lydia replied.
‘Yes, but he is still only your cousin. His ego will grow something dreadful at this rate,’ Rose insisted, attempting a joke to ease her awkwardness.
‘Do you often go into town without a chaperone?’ Lydia asked, meeting Rose’s gaze.
‘I… well, yes.’ Rose could barely stammer out an answer, absolutely floored by her question. ‘I go to the apothecary–’
‘I thought it prudent to ask my gentleman cousin to accompany me to town, given that it would be inappropriate for me to go on my own during the social season. Who knows what would transpire if I’m spotted with a suitor… or single young man otherwise.’
After her monologue, Lydia was silent for a moment. ‘You have mud on your petticoat.’
She then quickened her pace to walk alongside Hank, leaving Rose to trudge behind pathetically.
‘Good lord, what is all this?’
The echo of Mary’s exclamation had summoned Rose to the vestibule, where multiple vases of flowers in varying degrees of wilting sat against the wall.
Rose had been hiding in her room every time a housemaid would call for Lydia at the delivery of another bouquet each day. She had no idea what to make of Lydia’s implications and would rather avoid the situation entirely—the situation being Lydia herself.
‘You are quite the popular pair!’ Mary said to Rose, shucking off her shawl and bonnet to give to the maid. ‘At the last ball, you barely spoke to anyone. Where has all this come from?’
‘It’s all for Lydia. From Mr Keats.’
Mary looked at the flowers again with a raised brow.
‘What are you here for, anyway?’ Rose asked.
‘What a lovely way to greet your sister. Perhaps some lessons in manners could increase your prospects.’
Rose mocked her half-heartedly. She couldn’t be bothered to feel sorry for herself anymore. The argument with her cousin had taken precedent over being ignored at three social events. She couldn’t decide how to feel, and she hadn’t seen Samuel to ask for his opinion on the matter.
A loud shatter was heard from the study, followed by a shout of surprise. Rose exchanged looks with Mary and nearly tripped over her skirt in her rush. She wrenched open the door to see her father at his desk, shirt covered in tea and looking rather shocked.
‘Papa, what happened?’ Mary cried, pushing past her sister to fuss over him.
Rose followed her and rounded the desk to see pieces of china broken on the floor. Some tea had splashed on the floor and the varnished wood of the desk, but most of it had been soaked up by his white linen shirt.
‘My teacup is ruined,’ he murmured, letting Mary dab at his chest with a handkerchief as she called for help. ‘Confounded hands.’
Rose looked at his hands, surprised to the right stained black across the palm. His quill lay abandoned on the paper, surrounded by similar ink stains. A piddling whisper tickled the back of her brain, a thought half-finished.
‘Have you been having your medicine, Papa?’ she asked.
He looked at her and frowned in thought, but Mary spoke before he could answer. ‘The herbal water he drinks? Don’t you fetch the herbs from the Lockhart apothecary every fortnight?’
A moment later, a maid hurried into the room with a broom in hand and set to sweep up the mess. Rose took the chance to go to the kitchen. She scanned the drying rack, searching for the familiar bundle of herbs. It was nowhere to be seen.
Mary appeared at her shoulder, upset. ‘Do you mean to tell me that you forgot to buy Papa’s medicine?’
‘No!’ Rose said. ‘I went five days ago. You can ask Lydia; she came with me.’
The whisper in her brain became clearer. Mary was saying something, but Rose didn’t pay her any attention. She remembered what Lydia had asked Samuel in the shop last week.
She excused herself from the kitchen, ignoring Mary’s quickfire questions. She dodged the incoming maids with dustpans full of broken teacup and ascended the stairs to the first floor. The door to Lydia’s bedroom, which had once belonged to Mary, was shut. She rapped her knuckles against the wood, waiting a moment. There was no reply, so she knocked again.
Rose called her cousin’s name and twisted the doorknob. She stepped into an empty room. Lydia was nowhere to be seen.
Rose glanced around the tidy bedroom. She considered where one would hide a bundle of herbs so that the maids wouldn’t find it. She peeked under the pillows, behind the curtains, and in the cupboard. There was nothing of interest, and her heart beat faster the longer she loitered in the room.
The desk seemed unused, decorated in a stack of blank paper and a dry inkpot. Rose took her chances there, holding her breath as she pulled the side drawer open. The contents hit the side of the drawer’s interior with a thud: a small pouch, a palm-sized bible, and a large hardcover book.
Snatching the tiny pouch, Rose pulled the drawstrings to see dried leaves inside, brown and crushed beyond recognition. Tentatively, she put the pouch to her nose and sniffed. It was lavender—not quite what she was searching for.
Next, she opened the bible. Rose almost gasped aloud in shock at the ink-stained pages inside, passages crossed out in messy lines. The indentations of the lines were so deep that the ink leaked onto pages behind. She quickly shut the bible and dropped it on the desk.
The hardcover book glared at her from its place in the drawer, as if goading her to open it. The cover was embossed with swirling embellishments yet lacking a succinct title. Rather than pick it up, she flicked the cover and flyleaf back.
Spiritualism, the first page read.
Rose had never heard of it before. Her stomach flipped and roiled, yet she pushed through her nervousness and turned the page. A list of contents greeted her, as well as a folded note.
She was mildly surprised by how her hands shook as she grasped it. She unfolded the paper. It was filled with scribbles, the musings of a busy mind. She saw words such as table-moving, mesmerism, among crude drawings of plants. She saw what looked like a recipe and squinted to read it but couldn’t recognise the ingredients nor figure out what it could possibly be a recipe for.
Shoes clicked loudly upon the stairs. Rose closed the book and swept the bible and pouch back into the drawer before closing it. She turned just as Mary appeared at the threshold, almost collapsing with relief.
‘What are you doing in here?’ she asked.
‘I wanted Lydia to support my claim, but she appears to be away.’
Mary nodded and didn’t remain on the subject any further. Rose exited the room after her, reaching behind her to shut the door before she realised that the note was still in her hand.
Lingering at the top of the stairs, Rose tried one more time to decipher the scrawled page. Familiarising herself with the messy script, she recognised what the recipe was.
It was a spell.
Author: Kyrah Honner is a Wiri Luritja writer based in Meanjin. She likes to write disturbing fiction. You can find more of her previous works on ScratchThat.
Artist: Irene Liao is a visual art student from Taiwan who aims to present figurative human art through her watercolour pieces.
Editors: Brock Scholte and Breeh Botsford