Squamous with a Chance of Rain (A Prosperity Story)

Squamous with a Chance of Rain (A Prosperity Story), by Alexis Hall
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-227-1
eBook release: 
Jan 5, 2015
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pdf, mobi, html, epub
Word count: 
15,900
Page count: 
77
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This title is #3 of the Prosperity series.

This title is part of the Liberty & Other Stories: A Prosperity Collecction collection. Check out the collection discount!

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Dear Dr. Howard,

The enclosed comprises the complete personal correspondence of Patient #137 prior to her admittance to Bethlem Royal Hospital.

It is my hope that these documents will provide valuable insight into the events immediately preceding her current episode and may, therefore, usefully inform your treatment of her.

Since arrival, her behaviour has been characterised by long periods of docility, punctuated by outbursts of hysteria, in the grip of which she has seduced into deviant behaviour a nurse, a Quaker, and two representatives of the Fallen Women’s Society.

She has also spoken in unknown, inhuman languages, inscribed the floor with malignant, ever-shifting runes, and revealed to the other inmates an infinite sky of alien constellations, much to the distress of the staff.

I trust you will have greater success with her than we have.

Yours sincerely,
Dr. L. Phillips

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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24 August 1859

Mrs. Miggles’s Boarding House for the Genteelly Impoverished, London

My dearest Miriam,

I write to congratulate you on your wedding and to send you all my very best hopes and wishes for your future happiness. From the portrait you so kindly enclosed with your last letter, I can certainly agree that Lord Bodgeringham possesses several qualities valuable in a husband: to wit, extensive facial hair, and a slightly confused expression. I am sure you will do very well with him and still better with his thirty thousand a year.

I do, however, wonder if you will sometimes have occasion to recall that final summer we spent together at Miss Githers’s Finishing School. I confess I miss our walks, and I think of them often, particularly when the hour has grown late and I find myself awake, alone, and idle. I think most particularly of the delightful countryside in that part of the world, and the innocent pleasures it afforded, for as you know, I am ravishingly fond of landscapes. My thoughts dwell most especially upon that secret place, in those days known only to myself I’ll warrant, where two velvet-soft hills rose sweetly to enchant the viewer’s eye, and below them, a tender valley with a hidden cleft where I oftentimes did linger, plucking meadow flowers and other such girlish fancies.

Unfortunately now is not a time for fancies, girlish or otherwise, for misfortune has come upon me in something of a deluge, and I find myself caught without an umbrella. In swift succession then, I have lost both my position and an uncle—though I confess I am rather more concerned about the former than the latter, for Uncle Ridgewell was something of an eccentric who lived much of his life abroad. You may recall that Miss Githers was always chastising me for my unfeeling, unfeminine ways, but I simply do not see how I can grieve someone I never met and who, moreover, was so inconsiderate as to die a pauper.

I am honestly a little cross with him. In every novel I have ever read, the untimely demise of a mysterious relative has always led to the heroine inheriting a substantial fortune, and all I have received for my trouble is a battered, iron-banded travelling trunk full of papers, and a frankly exorbitant bill for funeral expenses. I can only presume he was not the right sort of uncle and that, perhaps, I am not the right sort of heroine. I blame my hair, you know. If only it had been golden instead of this dreary brown, and curly instead of straight, I might have been a duchess by now.

Nor were the circumstances of my uncle’s death propitious—although, then again, I imagine few are, at least for the deceased. Accounts are somewhat equivocal, but from what I understand, he lately returned from an expedition to the Dark Continent in possession of a peculiar idol he had, shall we say, obtained without consent from the native people of that region. I understand that it has since been dispatched to the British Museum for study, but I did find several sketches of it amongst his papers. They depict a corpulent, somewhat anthropoid, bat-winged creature, excessively festooned in tentacles. Even rendered ineptly by my uncle’s pencil, it seems to radiate a profound and all-consuming malevolence and an otherness that is itself a kind of monstrousness. He depicted the entity sitting upon a pedestal scrawled with indecipherable characters, which were also infused with the same alien malignancy. It seemed as though Uncle Ridgewell had made some attempt to translate them, but as my linguistic abilities extend no further than conversational French (voulez-vous coucher & etc., I’m sure you recall) I could decipher very little. And, truthfully, I saw no reason to try, for the symbols distressed me. They seemed so distant in both conception and execution from anything we might understand as language, or even, perhaps, thought: a way of being vastly and coldly beyond anything human reason could encompass.

Forgive me, dear Miriam, I grow quite macabre, and I have not yet come to the darkest part of this peculiar tale. My uncle died no natural death. He was murdered by a group of miscellaneous ruffians armed with shotguns, who burst into his rooms late one night. Inspector Jarvis of Scotland Yard informed me yesterday that they have taken the priest into custody, but the dilettante has fled the country, and they have yet to catch the accountant. What am I to make of this? What on earth could Uncle Ridgewell have done to earn the ire of such disparate individuals?

I suppose I shall never know. I have gone through his papers quite carefully, but most of them are deranged scribblings and laundry lists. And since I am not to conveniently inherit a fortune or, for that matter, a pot in which to perform an intimate elimination, I must focus my attention on my future, or lack thereof. I suppose I must apply to the agency for a new position, but as I was unfortunately discharged from my last one without a reference, I am not hopeful.

It really was the most wretched business. As I have already written to you at length on this subject, I need not soil this paper with my opinion of the Fitzhammonds, but you can surely imagine my horror and outrage when I was called into Mr. Fitzhammond’s study to answer (oh I can barely put it down, my pen shakes so at the injustice of it all!) a charge of unnatural advances to his eldest daughter. Maria is simply dreadful—a pot roast in pink sarsenet, whose behaviour to me has grown increasingly bold since she turned sixteen. Needless to say, I would rather seek satisfaction with a broom handle than lay hand upon her, and this was clearly her revenge. Her father harassed and chided me for over an hour on the subject, and at last, pushed beyond endurance by his impertinent inquisition, I told him I had not seduced Maria and nor would I because she was deeply ill-favoured. And then he ranted for some considerable time about his little Maria being good enough to entertain the depraved lusts of any right-thinking pervert, and fired me.

So, here I am again, back in London, friendless, penniless, and jobless with blasphemous symbols swimming constantly behind my eyes like the afterimage of suns. Ah well. How does that saying go? When God closes a door, somebody opens a window and dumps a chamber pot over your head.

I remain,

Your loving Jane

***


2 September 1859

Mrs. Miggles’s Boarding House for the Genteelly Impoverished, London

My dearest Miriam,

Thank you kindly for the description of the latest additions to your wardrobe. Sheer black satin, you say, with wicked little bows? How intriguing. Though you may have to tell me more about it before I am able to render a sound sartorial opinion. I look forward to your next missive.

As for myself, I cannot lie. Things have been difficult of late. The investigation into the death of Uncle Ridgewell was concluded, not to put too fine a point on it, inconclusively, with a judgement in which the phrase “the balance of his mind disturbed” featured prominently. And having gone through his paperwork, I am inclined to agree. By the final pages, the writing in his journal resembled nothing so much as the vile scrawlings upon the idol pedestal: over and over and over again, the most disturbing invocations to beings who slumber beyond the stars. I must have spent too long in their perusal for the hieroglyphics have lately taken on a peculiar clarity to me, as though I learned them long ago.

However, putting aside these grotesque mysteries, I do have some good tidings to share. After several fruitless pilgrimages to the agency, where I was told in no uncertain terms there was nothing suitable for me (emphasis theirs), I have at last secured a new position with a family in Cornwall. The head of the household is, I understand, a retired skycaptain, a widower, with seven children. His wife passed away some years ago, and frankly, I cannot blame her. Apparently they have had some trouble retaining governesses in recent years, and I was asked for most particularly.

Should this trouble me, I wonder? One hears such stories. There was that red-haired girl hired at exorbitant expense to impersonate the daughter of the household for reasons that still strike me as manifestly implausible. Or the business with the fellow with the black beard on the bicycle. Or our poor dear friend from school who strangled that little boy in the woods one evening. Of course, she always was terribly sensitive, and having attempted to teach the rudiments of civilisation to little boys myself, I can well understand why she might have succumbed to murderous hysteria.

I did make some enquiries of the previous governesses, but unfortunately none of them have answered my letters. If I had any spare funds, I could hire a consulting detective, but I do rather dislike consulting detectives, and my finances are so deeply unhealthy as to be practically consumptive. I shall simply have to be sensible. I will not ride any bicycles, explore any attics, wander around any woods late at night, or strangle any children. And if anyone should happen to want me to wear any clothing other than my own, I will tell them no. How difficult can it be? What can possibly go wrong? A skycaptain with seven children. What is so fearsome about that?

But I must apologise for this hasty letter. I have to make my preparations for the journey, and several challenging decisions lie before me. For example, should I pack the grey worsted or the grey nankeen? And will I need the grey organdie in the wilds of Cornwall? Glamorous, is it not, the life of a governess? Though, to tell the truth, I am not entirely without hope. I understand the place is something of a smuggler’s haven. I suppose I must take care lest I am set upon and brutally ravished by a wild-eyed, wild-haired skypirate in tall boots and scarlet petticoats. That would be simply dreadful. I had best take the organdie.

Just in case.

I remain,

Your ever hopeful Jane

***

12 September 1859

Vanstone Hall, Cornwall

My dearest Miriam,

I am safely arrived, unravished, in Cornwall. I may have to abandon all hopes in that direction. A would-be despoiler would be hard pressed even to find me, for in this part of the country, night sets in at two in the afternoon and does not depart again until midway through the morning. The daylight, if so it may be called, is a thin, pallid waif, who swoons and sighs and does not linger long. If only the rest of us had such liberty. It began to rain about twenty miles from Vanstone Hall and has not ceased since. The sky shifts sullenly through shades of granite, and the air possesses a uniquely clammy quality as though one breathes through damp flannel.

In short, it’s charming here. Do visit.

Oh, I so envy you Italy. And your poor husband recalled suddenly to India. Just in idle curiosity—I could stand to hear a little more about the Venetian comtessa.

As for Vanstone Hall, it is your typical sprawling English pile: golden stone and symmetry and terrible, terrible draughts. The grey-green lawns stretch all the way to the sea, which twists and turns beneath the clouds like an unquiet dreamer, but otherwise we are surrounded on all sides by a dense black forest which smothers what little light the sky bestows. The captain himself spends the majority of his time in a decommissioned airship, and the children, as a consequence, have been left to run wild. The housekeeper, a black-clad gargoyle called Mrs. Smith, took one look at me as I climbed, wind-buffeted and bedraggled from the carriage, and declared that I would not last a day. If she thought to menace me, she misjudged the matter severely, as I have always rather appreciated being underestimated. It allows one to relax.

While my meagre possessions were being taken up to my room, Captain Vanstone honoured me with an introduction. He is a tall, dark gentleman of the expected military bearing, not unhandsome, I suppose (were one to be interested in that sort of thing), if his features were not marred by the harshness of his mouth and the coldness of his very blue eyes. We shook hands, and he regarded me most intently, enquiring if I was indeed the niece of Ridgewell Harris. I saw no reason to deny it, and he continued to stare at me, as though some thought or recollection troubled him, until Mrs. Smith cleared her throat, which seemed to recall him to himself. Whereupon he produced a whistle from the pocket of his coat, and sounded a naval call. In response, there was a mighty clamour from the second floor, and his seven children came galloping down the stairs and stood at attention in the entrance hall.

My dear, I cannot tell you how deeply I was impressed. In all my years of governessing, which admittedly do not number so many, I do not know how such a marvellous idea had not already occurred to me, for there is no task so demoralising or exhausting as rounding up children. He had even prepared a whistle for my use, and I thanked him with true sincerity for his kindness. When he left us, I bade the children introduce themselves. The eldest, Abigail, informed me she was sixteen and did not need a governess, to which I responded that she had one and had therefore better accustom herself to it for the sake of her own comfort. Next came Benjamin, Chloe, and David, who said he was incorrigible, for the previous governess had told him so. “Then I will see that you are appropriately corridged,” said I. And, finally, Esther, Faith, and Grace.

Once we had all met each other, I dismissed the children to bed and went up to my room, for the hour was already very late, and I was exhausted from my journey. In truth, I have not slept well these past nights, for I have been beset by the same unsettling dream: I am lost and alone amidst the measureless ruins of an ancient city, its aether-smoothed, oddly angled stonework thick with stardust and tarnished by untold centuries. And when I look up, I see no familiar constellations, merely a great emptiness through which the cold vastness of the universe seeps.

I remain,

Your somewhat troubled Jane

***

21 September 1859

Vanstone Hall, Cornwall

My dearest Miriam,

Thank you for your wise advice on how to induce a peaceful slumber. I tried it diligently the other night, keeping the image of my dear, kind friend clear in my mind, and I found it most efficacious. I still dreamed of that ruined city, but I eased more pleasantly into sleep.

We are settling into a routine here. I have subjected the children to a week of Latin irregular verbs, which has them nicely subdued, and I believe I am growing accustomed to the savageries of the Cornish weather and the hostility of the land that awaits me beyond the high iron gates that enclose our forest. It is almost as though the moor has garbed itself to match the sky, for it is little more than a blackened desert of stones, withered heather, and storm-twisted trees. Conscious of my own strictures not to wander foolishly about forbidding locales, I have been obliged to largely restrict myself to the house, though even that is not without its inconveniences, for it seems as though I cannot take two steps in this dreary place without encountering Mrs. Smith. I should wonder if she is following me, but she never has anything to say to me, just dark looks to bestow and an irritating facility for appearing without warning and vanishing into shadows as though she were a part of them.

Honestly, it is beginning to take a toll on my nerves.

Which, perhaps, might explain why I sometimes fancy I feel the walls in the empty rooms breathing, and I become seized with the fear that they may all inhale simultaneously and crush me to pieces. And the other night I stepped onto my balcony for air and for a moment, just for a moment, it seemed as though the sky matched the sky in my nightmares: vast, cold, starless. But it was probably just the weather, which has been dreadfully overcast of late.

Dear me, I am turning into such a dull correspondent. There is a noticeable and, to my mind, distressing lack of Bavarian princesses here in Cornwall, and even the gossip is about six years old, for conversation in the servants’ hall (not that I pay it much heed) still revolves around the unsavoury circumstances under which the captain’s wife passed away. Mysterious deaths, it seems, are like hackney carriages. One can go for extended periods without encountering a single one, and then several turn up all at once.

Amalthea Vanstone’s portrait, painted not long before her death, hangs at the head of the main stairwell. It shows a remarkably beautiful woman, pale skinned, with a mane of thick, curling black hair and eyes not one shade lighter. I think the artist must have flattered her, for she looks no older than I do (although it is possible I have grown prematurely raddled as a consequence of my unnatural urges), and I am sure had I been delivered of seven children in such improbable haste I would not be sitting on a swing with my skirts full of rose petals.

It is a fine piece, I am sure, but I cannot like it. There is something about her eyes. And the light catches the picture so strangely sometimes that I think her feet are lumpen and somewhat resemble— Oh, oh, disregard me, Miriam. This is nonsense. I do wish I could sleep untroubled. I think I may have to take action, I mean beyond that which you have already so eloquently recommended.

Mrs. Vanstone must have been the daughter of one of the neighbouring families, for apparently it was all quite sudden: a love match. She died when the captain was away on active duty, and the extremity of his anguish led him to take up permanent residence in his old airship.

You know, if this is romance, I want no part of it. But the tale grows even stranger still.

The other night, after I had finished marching the children to bed, I was unexpectedly summoned by the captain himself. Mrs. Smith eyed me most suspiciously as I ascended the rope ladder to the ship, which I actually rather resented for it was not as though I was thinking to myself, “My evening would be so very much improved if I spent it in the company of a fecund, grief-stricken eccentric.”

He met me in what must have been the captain’s cabin, though it was now a sort of study, awash in books and papers (I confess, I checked for deranged scrawling and was relieved to note his hand was a precise copperplate), and full of complex mechanical devices I presume are used to navigate the skies.

“Miss Grey.” He watched me just as intently as he had the first time we met. “Sit.”

After a moment, I sat, and we were silent for some considerable time.

“You must forgive me,” he said at last, “I have grown too accustomed to giving orders. I have lost whatever gentleness of expression I once possessed.”

“Please,” I returned, “do not trouble yourself on my account. If I took offence every time someone addressed me without forethought or courtesy, I should be an extremely angry woman.”

He frowned, I think in some confusion. Handsome, perhaps, but like most of his sex not overly lavished in mental acuity.

He tried again: “Miss Grey, no doubt you are surprised that I would wish to speak to you.”

“Surprised that my employer would arbitrarily impose upon me? Of course not, that is why I am here, is it not?”

“You are here to be a governess to my— Ah.” I think he was younger than his manner suggested, for he flushed at that. “You are severe, Miss Grey.”

“I prefer to think of myself as honest, sir.”

His fine eyes flashed at me. “Do you wish me to apologise?”

“Not particularly.”

“Oh.” He looked almost disappointed. One of those.

“Would you be so kind,” I asked, “as to tell me why you wished to see me?”

As it turned out, he wanted to discuss, of all things, my Uncle Ridgewell, and his manner throughout the thinly disguised interrogation that followed was quite peculiar, even for a gentleman who voluntarily passes his days in a metal sepulchre. I told him what little I knew of my uncle’s life and death, which is not much more than I have already relayed to you in these letters, but he seemed dissatisfied with my answers and continued to press me far beyond the point of politeness.

It was unsettling and, to be frank, irritating. The whole business. As is the fact I seem to have misplaced my whistle, which means I am reduced to communicating verbally with the children.

I remain,

Your severely exasperated Jane

***

29 September 1859

Vanstone Hall, Cornwall

My dearest Miriam,

While I was in Altarnun, posting my last letter to you, I was feeling somewhat, shall we say, frayed, so I paid a visit to the local druggist in the hope of at least temporarily soothing my sleep-related difficulties. Apparently it is not uncommon for sensitive young ladies to suffer discombobulation as a consequence of upheaval in their personal circumstances, and admittedly, my personal circumstances have been somewhat uncertain of late, so I allowed him to prescribe me a small measure of laudanum. I was cautious at first, but I do believe it has helped. I still dream, but somehow less vividly, and the house feels less oppressive to me and the children less irritating. When I return again to the village, I must procure a larger bottle. The tiny vial I was given would barely medicate a distressed fly.

The captain continues to treat me with a strange mixture of suspicion and curiosity. I am called to his study nearly every evening now, and sometimes during the day I catch his eyes upon me, though he acts as though it was merely happenstance that he was near me at all. The other night, as I was preparing to leave, he abruptly put out a hand as if to hold me back and said, “Do you think me handsome, Miss Grey?”

Heaven save me. I confess I was in some eagerness to depart, for the night had closed around us like a great black hand, and it had been some hours since I had last taken laudanum, otherwise I might have leavened my response with some degree of tact. “No, sir,” I told him.

He looked startled, while I wrestled to conceal my frustration. I mean, really. What had he been expecting? “Yes, sir, your odd behaviour and air of brooding melancholy lubricates my nethers”? Oh forgive me, Miriam, for my impropriety of expression. I have been so out of sorts of late. And, of course, being a gently reared young lady, I know nothing of nethers, nor of their lubrication. But when the captain’s bewilderment had passed, he laughed and said rather warmly, “You are a very singular creature.”

And since that was certainly no topic I wished to discuss with him, I went on hastily. “You must forgive me, sir, I spoke too bluntly. You appear to have all your appendages in the correct quantity and configuration, and that is truly all the aesthetic judgement on the male form I may render. Good night.”

Thankfully, he let me go after that, and I hurried to my bed. My gas lamp, which I was sure I had refilled earlier, but perhaps I had not for my sense of time is a little disturbed, sputtered out as soon as it was most inconvenient for it to do so, leaving me stranded equidistant between the captain’s ship and the house, with nothing to light my way. It is strange, is it not, how night can distort one’s perceptions of distance, for I felt the woods pressing terribly close just then, with a sort of dark weight behind them, like bodies crushed up in a crowd. And the closer I drew to the house, the closer the trees seemed to grow to me, as though we were all engaged in an on-my-part-reluctant game of Grandmother’s Footsteps.

Except, of course we were not, for they were trees. Trees! And I have read Mary Wollstonecraft.

Though I heard them laughing, laughing in a jangle of high-pitched voices, as I ran for the door, made it through, and slammed it closed behind me. Despite the lateness of the hour, Mrs. Smith was there in the entrance, and I almost fancied she had been waiting for me. But she simply turned away, and vanished into the shadows as though she had never been there at all.

In her portrait, Mrs. Vanstone smiles with sharp teeth.

Oh, Miriam, Miriam, please write back soon.

Your,

Jane

***

30 September 1859

Vanstone Hall, Cornwall

My dearest Miriam,

You must forgive me for my last letter. I really do not know what strange humour was upon me when I wrote it. Trees moving in the dark. Well, of course trees move in the dark. It is called wind. And, yes, Mrs. Vanstone is smiling in her picture, but in a perfectly everyday manner. I feel an unspeakable fool, and I am covered with shame you witnessed me fall prey to such absurdities. I assure you I am once again in complete control of my faculties, and shall remain so, thanks to the laudanum, which has been absolutely invaluable in helping me regain my equilibrium.

And, despite my manifest lack of interest in doing so, I seem to have made some progress on unravelling the dark secret of Vanstone Hall. A few days after my . . . moment of temporarily heightened irrationality . . . the captain called me to his study as usual, bade me sit, paced about awhile, and then began thus:

“Miss Grey, I owe you an apology.”

I confess, in my naïveté, I sat there waiting to hear how sorry he was for persistently importuning a poor governess with already limited free time, but it was not to be.

“I have misjudged you” he went on. “I think I can trust you.” He went to one knee before me and looked intently into my eyes. “I can trust you, can I not, Miss Grey?”

I smothered a sigh. “If you must.”

He stood and began pacing again. I could tell it was going to be a long evening. “You have heard,” he said at last, “something of the tragedy of my wife’s death.”

“Something.”

“There is more to the story, Miss Grey, than is commonly known. You see, I do not believe my wife died a natural death. I believe she was murdered.”

“Oh dear.”

“Indeed, Miss Grey. Indeed. And by none other than my own sister.”

That seemed implausibly dramatic. But I did not say so aloud. Instead, I asked what reason he had to suspect his sister of killing his wife.

“My sister—” his face darkened “—my sister has always been somewhat queer. Wilful. She declined several offers of marriage, with the result that she is unwed, unprotected, and on the shelf, and spends all her time gallivanting about the globe with her equally peculiar friends.”

I gazed dreamily out of the porthole into the deepening night. “How terrible for her.”

“She made no attempt to conceal her aversion to Amalthea. Her hatred was unreasoned and unreasoning. My wife was a good woman, Miss Grey, a kind, loving, virtuous woman.”

Had he continued in this vein much longer, he would likely have swayed me into sympathy with the murderer. “If I may say, sir, many of us entertain antipathy for the people around us. We do not necessarily kill them.”

“You do not know my sister and the ruffians with whom she associates. One of them is an accountant, for God’s sake. I cannot imagine a less suitable companion for a gentlewoman.”

An eerie premonition prickled across my skin.

Meanwhile Captain Vanstone had retired to the far end of the room, where he stood, half in shadow, with the candlelight flickering disjointedly across his features. I am sure it would have made fine viewing for a correctly disposed audience.

“Diana was here at the Hall, with Ridgewell Harris, when my wife passed away. That was why I initially sought you out. I thought you might have some connection to the business.”

“Absolutely not, sir.” I was internally cursing my uncle for all I was worth, and in the vilest terms my maidenly mind could muster. It was apparently not enough that the man should leave me nothing but a box of insane ramblings. He had now contrived, from beyond the grave no less, to embroil me in the plot of a three-volume novel. A particularly hackneyed three-volume novel at that.

“Or, at least, I’d hoped,” went on Captain Vanstone almost pleadingly, “you might have been able to shed some light on the matter. I never saw her body, Miss Grey, never heard anything but the vaguest stories. I searched for evidence, but I hardly understood what I was looking for.” He ran a hand through his hair, disordering its usual precision. “I don’t understand it. What possible reason could my sister and Ridgewell Harris have to murder my wife?”

I adopted my calm voice. It is very practiced from years of governessing. “Perhaps that is because they had no reason. Perhaps she did indeed die in a tragic, mysterious accident for no particular reason, leaving behind no body. Such things do happen.”

“Perhaps you are right.” He let out a long, broken sigh, and turned suddenly. “Oh, Miss Grey, what would I do without you?”

“Why, I’m not sure, sir. Take earlier nights, I suspect.”

He went on as though he had not heard me, as his sex are so wont to do. “Seeing you there, so neat, so prosaic in your grey dress, has reminded me how terribly lonely these years have been.”

“Perhaps you should get out more. Meet some new people. Take up a hobby.”

He gazed at me sorrowfully. “Is there nothing, Miss Grey? Among his papers? Some hint, some clue, anything at all?”

Suddenly the symbols from my uncle’s journals were blazing behind my eyes, so clear, so harsh, stripping me like bones beneath the desert sun.

“I beg your pardon, Miss Grey?”

I must have spoken, but I had no recollection of it. My throat felt tight and oddly raw.

“Do you need a handkerchief?”

I told him I was well, quite well, only tired. He released my hand—when had he taken it?—and I tromped back to the house, retiring rather shakily to my room.

I suppose I must have felt some degree of pity for the man, for I did spend some time, when I rightly should have been resting, examining my uncle’s journals more closely. At no point did I find anything relating to Diana, the captain, or Amalthea Vanstone. But then I’m not sure sensible murderers keep diaries. What would they write? “Murdered innocent woman, weather continues fine”?

The symbols that are not symbols anymore are so loud in my head tonight. I feel they are etched upon me, inside out, in the light of a universe of dying stars. I shall take some laudanum. That will surely help.

I remain,

Your loving Jane