Aspiring to join the Geographical Society meant that of Rose’s skillset, research was her forte. Luckily enough, her family’s manor boasted a sizeable library ranging from feminist fiction to scientific hypotheses. She had spent a great deal of her childhood browsing the atlas to fuel her dreams of expeditions through the Sahara Desert and visits to the Taj Mahal.
Returning to the reliable familiarity of the library, she searched the spines of the non-fiction section for Spiritualism. To her growing dismay there seemed to be nothing of the sort.
She chewed her thumbnail for a moment, deliberating.
The door creaked open. Rose ignored it, expecting to see a housemaid making the dusting rounds. The voice that addressed her was quite the opposite.
‘Hmm? Oh, Rosanna, what are you doing here?’ her father asked. The question seemed absent-minded, since he continued to make his way to the large oak bookshelf at the head of the library reserved for ledgers.
Rose watched as he proceeded to attempt to shove another ledger into the cramped shelf at eyelevel, grunting and muttering with his efforts.
‘Papa,’ she said hesitantly. ‘Do you know if there are any books in here about… “spiritualism”?’
He peered at her over his shoulder. ‘Spirit-what now?’
‘“Spiritualism”. Or “mesmerism”. Or, erm, “table-moving”.’ Rose was beginning to regret asking her father, who could not even store a tax ledger on the correct shelf.
‘What strange words you toss at me, child. Have a look at the humbug section. There’s sure to be some mention of walking tables, ha.’
He nodded to the far side of the library, then returned to his struggle. Rose ran her fingers along the books, realising that by “humbug”, he meant fiction. She recognised various stories she hadn’t bothered to read, fiction never being a source of interest for her. The journey of her fingertips stopped at a title that piqued her interest, out of place between The Modern Prometheus and Ozymandias.
She took it in her hands. The Occult in Great Britain. She peeled open the cover, papers bonded together by time. The list of contents presented more words she didn’t know; mentions of Shakespeare; and chronicles of witch trials. And there, at the bottom of the list, was what she was looking for.
Page three hundred and forty-two. Emerging practices: spiritualism.
The next clue was the note, which burned a hole under her pillow. She knew the perfect person to help her make sense of it.
Rose burst into the apothecary. The customer at the counter turned in place to glower at the intruder, startled by the high-pitched ring of the bell. Rose faltered, veering on her heel to browse the shelves. Eventually the lady left, but not without casting another dirty look. She ignored it and marched up to the counter.
She slapped the note onto the desk, not bothering with pretences. ‘What do you make of this?’
Samuel unfolded the paper, now thoroughly creased from the repetitive reading-and-stashing that Rose had inflicted upon it. His eyebrows furrowed as he read, gathering closer until they touched the further his eyes skimmed.
‘What an odd note,’ he said, looking up. ‘You haven’t gone mad on me, have you, Rose?’
‘You know very well I didn’t write this. I found this in Lydia’s desk drawer among other shocking things.’ Rose described in detail what she had discovered, and Samuel’s eyebrows unfurrowed and instead rose nearly to his hairline.
‘What are the plants she named? Do you recognise them? Aren’t they spell ingredients?’
‘Spell ingredients?’ he repeated incredulously.
Rose sighed loudly, taking the paper to point out the listed elements. ‘Well, it certainly isn’t a recipe. Alongside all this “spiritualism” hokum, what else could it be than a love spell?’
‘It could be a poultice–’
‘She’s cast some sort of spell to draw the attention of any eligible bachelors—not to mention she has a fixation on my brother! She’s probably charmed him to do her bidding and introduce her to any remaining bachelors.’
‘That’s a very–’
‘Don’t you see? This is why I’ve had such rotten luck during the season! She has them spellbound and she’s been stealing my own father’s medicine to thus steal my prospects–’
Rose’s mouth shut with a click of her teeth. Samuel had never raised his voice at her before, not even as quick-tempered children. He fixated a hard gaze at her, lip curled in… anger? Disgust? He was silent for far too long and a chill scurried up Rose’s spine, inducing goosebumps. She didn’t dare speak.
Samuel took the note from her again, folding it and pocketing it in his apron.
‘I know that it is discouraging—humiliating, even—as a debutante, to receive no notice from gentlemen during the social season. I know that you’ve had many recent changes in your life. But to create these allegations, to deduce that your cousin has been practicing dark magic to keep all marriage prospects away from you is—is insanity at worse, selfishness at best! You cannot blame her for the misfortune you are experiencing.’
Rose bristled, ready to defend herself when he spoke again. He turned to face the back storage.
‘Would it be so terrible to not marry rich?’
He then went into the back, silently dismissing Rose. She stood there for a heartbeat, silent in shame and disbelief. He would not help her. Her upper lip stiffened and she leaned over the counter.
‘Yes, it would!’ she shouted, and left.
She was not quite sure if she was telling the truth anymore.
Rose’s inquiry came to a head on a Sunday. The family arrived home from church, a flurry of bonnets and hats and cloaks. She watched Lydia in her periphery as a maid unbuttoned her coat. She glanced at her from the corner of her eye as they ate breakfast in the dining room. She waited until the golden mane disappeared up the stairs before following.
Rose had decided that the only answers she would receive would come from confrontation. She took a deep breath to steel herself and knocked on Lydia’s door.
‘Are you looking for me, cousin?’ Lydia’s voice came from behind her.
She whirled on the spot, stepping to see into her own bedroom. Lydia sat primly on the bed, still clad in her church finery. She smiled sweetly, as usual.
‘What are you doing in my bedroom?’ Rose now stood at the threshold.
Lydia shrugged. ‘You’ve been looking at me all morning. I assume you would like to speak to me about something.’
Rose felt that Lydia was a step ahead of her and was now bewildered. She stammered, barely able to begin a sentence. Lydia tilted her head, waiting for some sense to come out of her cousin’s mouth. It was patronising, and Rose felt a stab of anger fuel her voice.
‘I know what you’ve been doing. About your interests in the occult.’
‘I beg your pardon?’ Lydia replied, eyes widening.
‘I found your book. And your bible that you’ve destroyed, while you attend church with us as if you don’t follow your own dogma.’
‘Whatever are you talking about?’ Lydia asked, laughing awkwardly, but Rose would not falter now.
She stepped forward. ‘I know what spiritualism is. You communicate with the dead and ask them to pave your path. I know that you took my father’s herbs to use them in your séances. You turn every eye your way to have free choice of a husband and you’ve charmed my brother to help you do it!’
Lydia’s smile had faded during Rose’s speech, replaced by a dark and dangerous stare. She stood from the bed. ‘That’s quite enough out of you, dearest cousin.’
Rose shook her head. ‘No, what you’re doing is immoral and ungodly!’
Her cousin pushed past her, and Rose leapt to grab at her sleeve to stop her from leaving. Lydia aggressively shook her off, and shut the door. She turned to look at her with that unsettling expression.
‘My, but you are intelligent, Cousin Rose. Yes, I practice spiritualism. Yes, I took your father’s herbs—they were useless anyway. Nothing works. Nothing is working. I have communicated with no dead, no spirits.’ She became more hysterical as she spoke, smiling again but without mirth.
She collapsed against the door, hands in her hair. ‘They never spoke to me in life, and now they shall never speak to me in death.’
‘Death is not the end. I had hoped you would understand, Rose. I had hoped that Mr Pembroke would understand.’
‘Your brother! Surely, you both can understand the boundaries one would push to speak with a loved one,’ Lydia said, nearing on a wail. Her despair was tangible, permeating the room and choking Rose so she almost missed what she said.
Her parents, she realised. Lydia had been trying to contact her parents beyond the grave.
‘But,’ Rose said, struggling to find her words. ‘But you’ve put a spell on the suitors!’
‘There is no spell! All I am guilty of is trying to communicate with my dead parents, in vain.’
‘Then why won’t any of the suitors speak to me?’
‘I don’t know!’ Lydia’s answer was shrill.
The door was pushed against them, making the two girls stumble into each other. Rose caught Lydia and stepped backwards. Hank stood in the doorway, a cue and chalk in his hand from the billiard room. Two maids stood by his side: all three of them were wide-eyed. Rose and Lydia stared back at them, equally as wide-eyed.
‘What’s going on here? Are you fighting?’
Rose pointed to her cousin. ‘She’s done something to you, and the suitors to keep them away from me!’ She knew it was childish, malicious even, but she could not find any other explanation.
Hank looked between the two of them. ‘Her? No, I’ve told the suitors to stay away from you, Rose.’
He nodded his head, as clueless as any other Pembroke man. ‘They’re all a bunch of ruffians. I don’t want them marrying my sister. I’m quite popular in the town, you see, so they listen to me.’
Rose was once again speechless.
Rose stood outside, hugging herself over her coat. She was hesitant to enter, to have another confrontation. She resigned herself, however, and opened the door.
The apothecary was empty, as usual. No one stood behind the counter nor came when the bell rang, so Rose cleared her throat and called out, hoping that the sound of her voice wouldn’t deter him.
Samuel entered the shop from the back, face unreadable.
‘I have so much to tell you,’ she said by way of greeting, but she knew that wasn’t what he was waiting to hear.
She moved closer to the counter. ‘First of all being that I’m sorry. I fabricated outlandish things to justify how upset I was, and you were right for being cross with me.’
He hummed in acknowledgement of her apology.
‘Second,’ she continued, ‘is more of a notice. I’ve noticed that I couldn’t find a suitable husband at any of the debutante balls… because the most suitable husband was never there. He was in his shop.’
Samuel blinked once, then twice. He looked around the apothecary, as if to confirm with himself, before levelling his gaze to Rose with a shy smile.
‘But I can’t fund your aspirations.’
She shook her head. ‘I’ll find another way.’
His smile grew until it was the one that normally greeted Rose, imperfect and kind. He held a hand over the counter, and she placed hers in it. They enjoyed the private moment in silence, looking at each other.
‘Besides,’ Rose eventually said, pulling away. ‘I believe my brother owes me a fee of inconvenience.’
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