October 15, 2012

The Beauty of Wynona


The Beauty of Wynona
by D. Thomas Minton

I. Arrival at Penketh

Our carriage jerked to a stop before wide stairs leading up to the pillared entrance of Penketh Manor, the country estate of Mr. Prufit and his new wife. The end of our long journey north from London should have been a joyous occasion, but Master Hurlock, the world's foremost portraitist, frowned as he squinted out into the afternoon sunlight.

"I am not up for this, Stevens." Master Hurlock drew back from the carriage window, letting the curtain drop and casting us back into shadow. A man of modest build and swarthy complexion, he looked unusually small in the darkness of the carriage, as if he had been reduced under the weight of his concerns.

I had initially attributed my master's recent melancholy to an imbalance of humors, but of late, I had begun to suspect that he had taken recent allegations, always spoken under breath, to heart. Unlike lesser portraitists, Master Hurlock did not simply paint people; he painted beauty. I have seen it with my own eyes, and I do not understand it, but he would spread his paint on canvas, and it would become more than just strokes of pigment in the likeness of his subject. Some men have said that Master Hurlock's paintings were so beautiful that they diminished their subject. Others have implied that he drained the beauty of those he painted with dark magik and encased it in a prison of ochre and lime for posterity. I knew these claims to be false slander by small men.

"Without this commission, sir, I fear they will put you in debtor's prison."

For many months we had lain idle, our last commission, Mrs. Giddings of Lexington Cross, having been completed before the ice broke on the Thames. During this time, Master Hurlock, pleading ennui, had turned down three commissions, all of them promising lucrative remunerations. By the time Mrs. Prufit's man arrived with her generous offer, I had already limited our visits to the butcher and turned away the woman who came round fortnightly to tidy the windows and thrash the carpets.

Master Hurlock sighed. "As always you are right, Stevens. What would I do without you?"

I followed Master Hurlock from the carriage. As I directed the footmen in the careful removal of our luggage, the door to the manor swung open and a portly man of advancing years strode out to the top of the stairs. He wore a starched shirt with a rounded collar, riding pants, and high boots stained with mud. In the crook of his right elbow, he balanced a rifle. His prodigious mustache was waxed into fashionable points and his ample sideburns blended into a fringe of salt and pepper hair that ringed his balding pate like a laurel wreath. He handed his rifle to one of the servants and gazed down over us, unencumbered.

"Mr. Prufit," I whispered to my master. "He is an avid hunter and clay pigeon shooter. A man of considerable emotion." One of my primary duties was to advise my master on people. While Master Hurlock had no peer with oils and canvas, he was a novice with flesh and blood.

Apparently satisfied with the impression made upon us, Mr. Prufit came down the steps. Even at his age and with his slight but noticeable limp, he was an imposing figure, but Mr. Prufit was more than a physical presence. He carried about him an aura of command, much like a decorated general's coat. This did not surprise me given his military experiences during the Russian War.

"So you are Mr. Hurlock," said Mr. Prufit, his mustachio vibrating. His eyes appraised my master, as if weighing him for market

"I am." Master Hurlock extended his hand.

Mr. Prufit shook it gently, as if concerned he might break it if he were to seize it with his usual force. "Baines will show your man to your room and then where he will stay." Mr. Prufit's intonation in reference to me made clear my status. I would be staying in the attic with the servants, not a side room near my master, an arrangement to which I had grown accustomed over the years.

"Once you have had time to refresh, you will join me in the parlor. My wife is eager to make your acquaintance. Now, if you will excuse me." With that, Mr. Prufit climbed the stairs, retrieved his rifle, and disappeared inside.

II. Meeting Lady Prufit

Mr. Baines, a wiry man with a pinched face and fastidiously manicured hair, showed us to a small but comfortable guest room on the second floor. While the furniture was of the highest refinement, the walls were covered with portraits of inferior quality by men of name, but little talent. My master studied them politely while I unpacked his shirts and trousers and arranged them in the bureau.

After Master Hurlock had washed away the road's dust and changed into a clean shirt, we joined Mr. Prufit in the parlor. Master Hurlock accepted the offer of gin, although I knew it to be a drink he did not favor, his taste running more towards refined scotch.

While Mr. Prufit poured the drinks along the side board, my master examined a daguerreotype of a young man in military regalia. The youth, no more than a tender seventeen years, bore a resemblance to the elder Prufit, but was obviously not the same man.

"John Henry, my son," said Mr. Prufit, his face gone pale. "He was killed at Sevastopol."

"My condolences," Master Hurlock said.

Mr. Prufit interposed himself between Master Hurlock and the daguerreotype. He motioned to a floral wing chair on the opposite side of the room. "Sit. I wish to talk before my wife arrives."

My master sat in the indicated chair. I stood against the wall, unnoticed.

"I must be frank with you, Mr. Hurlock. This portrait was not my idea. If I had known of this commission earlier, you would not be here."

My master squirmed in his chair.

"If anything happens to my wife, I will kill you."

Master Hurlock's drink stopped halfway to his mouth. His face blanched white as a boiled potato. The glass rattled on the table top as he set it down. "I assure you, sir, that threats are unnecessary."

Mr. Prufit smiled, his grin wide and predatory. "I wanted to make sure we understood each other."

At that moment, the sliding door opposite Master Hurlock opened, flooding the parlor with light. But it was more than just the afternoon light that chased away the shadows. Mrs. Wynona Prufit, who was not even half her husband's age, radiated a golden light all her own, and it was her radiance, not the afternoon sun, that lit the room.

She had more than physical beauty, which for her was, without doubt, considerable in itself. She had an inner beauty that glowed beneath her perfectly unblemished skin and lit her eyes like sapphire lamps. Everything about her was grace, from the gentle spiral curls of her blond hair and the delicate curve of her neck as it tapered into slender shoulders to the way she floated through the light like a naiad in honey.

If I could soak up her essence, I was certain it would sustain me for an eternity. Yet standing in her presence, I felt base and ugly, a creature unworthy of even looking upon her.

She dropped into a graceful curtsy and extended a delicate hand. "Master Hurlock," she said, "you do me great honor to come here."

Master Hurlock stumbled to his feet. "I--I--" His ears flushed pink. "You honor me, Mrs. Prufit," he finally said. Bending, he pressed his forehead to her fingers.

As my master spoke, Mr. Prufit's smile flattened into a sinister line. Had he a knife, I feared he would have gutted and splayed my master upon the floral divan.

To my considerable surprise, Mrs. Prufit then curtsied before me. “You must be Mr. Stevens,” she said upon straightening. “Penketh Manor welcomes you.”

I was rendered slack-jawed. Never in my years of service have the genteel approached me with such genuine warmth. More often, their eyes have passed over me like I were an uninvited but innocuous spectral emanation: I was either unseen or unworthy of their acknowledgment.

How I managed to recover before Mrs. Prufit turned away, I am not certain, but I bowed deeply and said, “The honor is mine.”

"What time tomorrow shall we begin?" Mrs. Prufit asked.

"I will need to see the sitting room first," said Master Hurlock. "The light will dictate the time."

Mr. Prufit stepped between his wife and my master. "How long will this portrait take?" he asked gruffly.

"Putting a time on art is difficult, Mr. Prufit, but most commissions are finished in a few weeks--"

"A few weeks? I will pay you double to be finished by the end of this week."

"Titus, don't be a boor," said Mrs. Prufit. Even her frown could not mar her beauty.

Mr. Prufit smiled weakly at his young wife. "We are here to spend time together, Wynona. It is best to finish this business quickly."

"It may be possible to paint Mrs. Prufit and then finish the portrait's background in London," my master said.

Mrs. Prufit’s frown deepened, as did my dislike for her husband. I had heard that Mr. Prufit, in his jealousy, had sequestered his new bride at Penketh to keep her away from the eyes of other men. She was, most certainly, a sought-after prize by the fashionable young gentlemen of London.

Mr. Prufit turned Master Hurlock away from his wife and walked him toward the door. "Baines will show you the room selected for the sitting. I expect you have many things to prepare."

My master gazed back at Mrs. Prufit. He shook his head, as if to clear it of too much intoxication. "Yes, quite correct, Mr. Prufit. Stevens, fetch the etui and easel."


III. An Unexpected Dinner Party

The location selected by Mrs. Prufit had large windows that flooded the room with warm light. A set of French doors opened onto a flagstone patio overlooking a lush yet manicured garden of trellised roses, forsythia bushes, and beds of creeping myrtle, red and yellow zinnias, and vibrant dahlias. Ordinarily the focal center of a garden, the Prufit's gazebo stood off to one side like a forgotten child in the shade of a copse of beech trees. Instead, a large sun dial stood center, surrounded by rich beds of aster.

I arranged the divan and end table that my master had selected for the work and then laid his brushes as he liked: the horse hair brushes ordered by size and shape to the right of his easel, the sable ones similarly aligned on the left.

As I worked, my master selected his paints, gently setting a rainbow of jars in his easel tray. I never touched his paints. Master Hurlock mixed his own oils from mortared cadmium, titanium, and cobalt, eschewing the mass-produced tubes that had become fashionable of late among lesser portraitists. Master Hurlock often said that not even all God's skill could overcome inferior pigment.

Finally, I set his canvas in place. It would be the last time I touched it until I framed the finished portrait prior to delivering it to its owner.

As we finished our preparatory work, Mr. Baines arrived to announce dinner. He led us to the parlor adjacent to the dining room. As we approached, I heard unfamiliar voices within.

"Will there be other guests, Mr. Baines?" I asked.

"Mr. Prufit has taken the liberty to invite a few friends."

"I wish we had been informed."

"There is no need for concern. The guests are few and friendly. Your master should have no difficulties." Mr. Baines swept opened the parlor doors and the small crowd within fell silent.

Master Hurlock took a step back. I gently nudged him forward with a hand in the small of his back.

Mrs. Prufit took my master's arm, while I stepped off to the side.

I immediately recognized Mr. Blackstone and his wife. They were well-known around London for their charitable works, and I knew them to be good friends of Mr. Prufit. Mr. Blackstone, a short man with copious facial hair and a war wound that had crippled his left arm, had served with Mr. Prufit during the Russian conflict at Balaklava. His wife, a slender woman with silver hair and a penchant for flashy jewels, clung to his good arm.

Also present was a young priest, who I assumed was the local clergy. Mrs. Prufit introduced him as Reverend Cooper. He said little and his eyes darted about like a nervous lamb. By the way he fingered his collar, I assumed he was new to the Parish and likely to the cloth.

Presently, Mr. Baines announced that dinner was ready, so everyone retired to the dining room. Mrs. Prufit, who sat at one end of the table, led my master to his seat directly on her left. Reverend Cooper sat on my master's left. The Blackstones lined the opposite side, and at the table's head sat Mr. Prufit.

I took my usual position along the wall behind my master.

The first course was set and served, and the staff fell back to their stations along the perimeter or into the kitchen. Presently, the conversation turned to Master Hurlock.

"I understand you have been commissioned to paint Mrs. Prufit," said Mrs. Blackstone. "While your reputation precedes you, of course, have you painted anyone I might know?"

My master set his spoon aside and took up his fish fork. The smell of stewed trout was strong. "Perhaps you know Mrs. Sanders? I finished her portrait last year. Or Mr. Thomas. I was quite pleased with his result."

"You recently finished a commission for Mrs. Giddings, did you not?" asked Mr. Prufit.

His question made me straighten. He asked as if he already knew the answer, even though he tried to speak with an innocuous intonation.

"Indeed," my master said, not seeming to notice. "I finished it several months ago."

"I did not realize Mrs. Giddings had sat for you recently," said Mrs. Blackstone quietly. "A pity, is it not?"

"I do not understand," my master said.

Mrs. Blackstone placed her hand over her breast. She appeared flustered, as if suffering an attack of the vapors.

"Mrs. Giddings' health has not been good," Mr. Blackstone said.

"I had not heard," said Master Hurlock. "She was an exceptional study." While I knew my master did not intend it, his statement sounded aloof, almost clinical and cold.

"I have heard that her illness is unusual," said Mr. Prufit.

"Mr. Giddings remarked to me several weeks ago that his wife's condition has the medical community baffled," said Mr. Blackstone. "It’s as if her life force has been drained out of her."

"It is not the consumption?" Mrs. Prufit asked.

"No, no," said Mr. Blackstone. He dabbed a piece of trout out of his copious beard with his linen napkin. "I have heard that it is not a condition of the body at all, but of the soul."

Mrs. Prufit gasped. "The soul!"

Everyone stopped eating. Mrs. Blackstone dropped her fork.

"Perhaps this is not appropriate conversation for dinner," Reverend Cooper said.

"I agree," said Mr. Blackstone. "This is better conversation for dessert." He chuckled, but when no one else responded, his laughter trailed away.

The first course ended and the servants removed the dishes. The guests talked quietly and drank sherry while they awaited the entrées. Presently, lamb cutlets with peas, braised veal, and larded sweetbread arrived. While the guests were served, Mrs. Prufit said, "Reverend, you would be considered an expert on matters of the soul. Have you any observations regarding poor Mrs. Giddings?"

Reverend Cooper squirmed under the attention of the table. He set his fork aside and took a deep breath. "A matter of the soul," he said absently, as if considering the phrase for the first time. "That is, of course, the providence of God and His will is mysterious. But you mentioned, Mr. Blackstone, that the doctors can find no physical ailment to explain her condition. I would venture that they have not looked hard enough. The soul is a powerful force; for it to simply drain away is unlikely. Unless--but, no."

"Unless what, Reverend?" asked Mrs. Prufit.

"I must apologize, but I would rather not discuss such topics."

"Come now, Reverend, we are all adults here," Mr. Blackstone said. "You suspect foul play of a spiritual nature."

"I did not say that."

"But you do not deny it," said Mr. Prufit without looking up from sawing off a chunk of veal.

"Are you suggesting that Mrs. Giddings has been cursed?" Mrs. Prufit asked. "But who could do such a thing?"

Mr. Blackstone waved his fork around, his eyes sparkling. "The real question, Mrs. Prufit, is not who, but what?"

Everyone at the table began to talk at once, except for my master. He had stopped eating his veal and put his fork down on the edge of his plate.

Gradually the clamor subsided.

"You speak as if you know something of this topic," said Reverend Cooper to Mr. Blackstone.

"Only what I have read," said Mr. Blackstone with a false modesty.

"My Henry reads many books." Mrs. Blackstone's voice trilled with pride.

Mr. Blackstone ignored his wife's adulations. "It is true I have read numerous books on spiritualism. The topic may be fashionable and peopled with charlatans, but I believe there is some truth to it."

Again the table broke out into murmurs.

Mr. Blackstone waited for the conversation to subside again. The sparkle in his eyes had not faded. When all attention had turned back toward him, he said, "The spirit world is rife with things we are just beginning to understand. I recently read a translation of a text by a little known Russian spiritualist called Bogdanov. He surmises that because both the spiritual and the mortal worlds were made by God, that both must have similarities."

"An appropriate supposition," said Reverend Cooper.

"So by extension, Bogdanov postulates that within each world the structure of nature must be the same. In our world we have animals that prey on others. It is the natural order that lions eat zebras and zebras eat grass--"

"And that we shoot lions," said Mr. Prufit with a chuckle. His guests joined in.

Mr. Blackstone smiled, but I could tell he was perturbed by the interruption. "Yes, yes, we humans sit above it all in our rightful place in God’s image--"

"Unless you believe that Darwin chap, then we are devolved from apes." Mr. Prufit’s comment triggered a lengthy side discussion of Charles Darwin and his theories. While this transpired, the staff cleared the remnants of the entrées and brought the second course, a haunch of venison, boiled capon, a braised ham, and a saddle of lamb.

Savory aromas filling the room left my mouth watering. I had not eaten since a wholly inadequate meal at a small tavern in Guildford. I did my best to focus on the discussion as it turned away from Mr. Darwin and returned to the Russian spiritualist.

"If Bogdanov is correct," said Mr. Blackstone, "then it would follow that the spiritual world is also structured with a hierarchy of forms and natural roles."

Mrs. Prufit leaned forward. "So you believe in spiritual predators and prey?"


The table fell silent for a moment while they ruminated on Mr. Blackstone's theory.

"What has this to do with Mrs. Giddings?" asked Mrs. Blackstone.

"Obviously something has attacked her spiritually," said Mr. Blackstone matter-of-factly.

I fought the urge to loosen my collar, which seemed suddenly to constrict my breathing.

Reverend Cooper began to speak, but stopped. His face crinkled in contemplation. "We all know the spirit world exists," he said finally. "If we believe the self-professed spiritualists, we can even communicate across that barrier between the living and the dead--and no, Mrs. Prufit, I do not believe we mortals can do that because that is the providence of God, but that is another matter entirely. But how can a... predator, as you describe it Mr. Blackstone, attack a spirit that has not crossed over and is still contained within a mortal vessel."

"A good question." Mrs. Blackstone stared expectantly at her husband.

Mr. Blackstone rubbed at his jowls. "I don't know."

"Perhaps," said Mr. Prufit, "this predator does not reside in the spiritual world, but has assumed a mortal body." As he said this last, he stared at Master Hurlock.

The room went quiet. The guest looked from one to the other.

As if the air had been drained away, I found it difficult to breath. I wiped at a sheen of sweat on my brow.

Mrs. Blackstone coughed awkwardly. The spell broken, the diners resumed eating.

"How do you suppose such a creature would come to exist?" asked Mrs. Prufit.

"It would need to be summoned, of course," said Mr. Prufit, "or perhaps a pact with evil has caused some corruption of a mortal soul." The ominous tone of his voice put a pall over the dinner table.

The diners said nothing more through the remainder of the second course. They began to speak again in guarded tones as the third course was laid. Even at my close proximity, I could barely hear their words over the clink of silver on porcelain. Once the final course had been consumed and several pastries had been sampled, Mr. Prufit invited the men to share brandy in the parlor. My master, never one for flawless etiquette, declined.

"The long ride up from London has taken its toll," he said. "I wish to be rested for Mrs. Prufit's first sitting tomorrow morning. I hope you will excuse me." With those words, he retired for the night.

IV. A Conversation Overheard

The dinner conversation had unsettled my master more than I had realized. To calm his nerves, I urged him to drink a draft of laudanum. Once he had downed the tonic, his body eased noticeably, and before I had finished brushing and hanging his coat and trousers he was asleep. I doused the lamps and left him.

Still unsettled myself, I decided to forgo sleep and take a walk in the garden. I descended the main stair, and passed the parlor where we had first met Mrs. Prufit. As I turned into the corridor leading to the sitting room, I jerked to a halt.

A narrow rectangle of light, cast through a cracked door, was splashed across the floor and up the wall. I could hear voices, but they were sufficiently muted that I could not make out the words.

I nearly turned away, but hesitated when I heard Mr. Prufit say, "He is responsible. I have no proof as yet, but I am certain. Did you notice how quiet he became during dinner?"

"Keep your voice down," said Mr. Blackstone.

I crept closer to the door. Cigar smoke tickled my nose, and I pinched back a sneeze.

"I did not like this Hurlock fellow from the beginning," said Mr. Prufit.

"I have viewed Mrs. Giddings. Indeed, I believe she has been fed upon by some spirit predator, but I am not convinced yet, Titus."

"Who else could it be, Henry?"

I found I was holding my breath.

"I don't know," said Mr. Blackstone. "I personally viewed many of Hurlock's other patrons from the past two years, and none of them displayed any adverse symptoms. Mrs. Giddings' condition may be unrelated."

I exhaled through clenched teeth.

"We've worked too hard on this, Henry. Wynona is perfect, and needs to stay that way for six more days. If anything were to blemish her spirit, it would ruin everything. Had I known earlier she had contacted this Hurlock, I would have interceded and put an end to it."

Mr. Blackstone harrumphed. "You still had a chance to cancel this commission, but that's what happens when you put old Nebuchadnezzar out to grass, Titus."

Mr. Prufit sniffed loudly. "No need to be coarse."

"What is done is done," said Mr. Blackstone with finality. "So what do we do from here?"

A moment of silence passed, and I feared that they had somehow detected my presence. I exhaled quietly when Mr. Prufit spoke again.

"I know someone who can prove Hurlock is our man--or whatever. Shall I make arrangements?"

"And if he is, then what? We can't just get rid of him. Someone would notice."

A wave of fear flooded over me, and I put a hand to the wall for support.

"True, Henry," said Mr. Prufit, "but we can't risk this going awry. We will need to deal with--what was that?"

I too had heard it, a loud clatter from the kitchen, like a clumsy oaf had knocked metal pans onto the floor. While not loud enough to wake those upstairs, it was surprisingly loud in the hallway. Wanting to remain undetected, I retreated to my room in the attic.

As I sat in the dark unable to sleep, I considered departing Penketh Manor immediately, but, after considerable struggle, I dismissed the idea. I did not believe Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone were sufficiently desperate to commit murder...at least, not yet. This did not ease my worry, however, because I was unsure if I had actually reached this conclusion logically or if I had convinced myself of its truth because of the circumstances.

While my master’s safety was foremost in my mind, I also could not let Mrs. Prufit come to harm. I could not accept that she would knowingly be involved in any nefarious plot. I did not know the danger that threatened her, but she was too important to both my master and me.

After hours ruminating on these matters, exhaustion overtook me, and I drifted into a restless slumber.


V. Discoveries

We had arranged with Mrs. Prufit to begin promptly at ten o'clock the next morning. Master Hurlock and I arrived in the studio an hour before to finalize the placement of the furniture with respect to the morning light and arrange fresh-cut asters in their urn. As the hour neared, my master loaded his palette with his oils.

Precisely as the mantel clocked chimed the hour, the doors to the studio swept opened and Mrs. Prufit arrived.

Her dress of blue silk, trimmed with pearls and lace, accented the color of her eyes. Her hair was worn up in a neat bundle atop her head, except for two golden ringlets that cascaded down the sides of her face. Her radiance straightened my shoulders, and, for the moment, lifted my fatigue and worry. She was the morning sun burning off the night's mist.

This euphoria, however, did not last, for close upon her heels entered Mr. Prufit.

Master Hurlock frowned and fumbled his palette, but managed to keep his hold.

Mrs. Prufit threw a disapproving glance toward her husband but said nothing. I sensed this was an addendum to an ongoing disagreement. She sat on the divan with her legs folded up under her, and I helped to arrange her dress to accentuate the way the light played off its folds.

Mr. Prufit stood off to the side, his arms folded across his waistcoat, his face pinched into a scowl. Even his mustachio seemed to glare hostilely.

"Mr. Prufit," my master said diplomatically. "The act of painting is stimulating for the artist, but, I must confess, is frightfully boring for the observer."

"Do not concern yourself, Mr. Hurlock. I am interested in the craft and will not be a nuisance."

I wanted to say that his very presence was a nuisance. But then, perhaps that was his intention. This impudence rankled me. He would succeed only in compromising the integrity of the portrait. I wondered how long my master would allow such conditions to exist before he became more direct. Master Hurlock disliked conflict, but he disliked an inferior portrait even more.

My master took up a slender stick of charcoal and drew in fits--entirely different from his typical sure strokes--glancing frequently over his shoulder at Mr. Prufit. After redrawing several times the oval that would become Mrs. Prufit's angelic face, Master Hurlock put down his charcoal.

"Mr. Prufit, I would be distressed if my presence kept you from important business."

Mr. Prufit causally checked his gold pocket watch. "I have nothing to attend to at the moment."

Master Hurlock frowned. He took up the charcoal again and continued to work, but the longer he labored, the more his hand began to shake. Once he could no longer draw a flat line, he stepped back in embarrassment and dropped his charcoal into the easel tray.

"Sir, perhaps a tincture of chamomile would help?"

He looked at me as if hearing my voice for the first time that morning. "I think that might be a good idea," he said. "Mrs. Prufit, you may step out to refresh for a few minutes, if it pleases."

I went to retrieve the tincture. As I walked down the corridor, I approached the door to the room where I had overheard Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone talking the previous night. Unlike earlier that morning, the door now stood ajar, perhaps left open by one of the maids. My curiosity piqued, I nudged the door farther open.

Along the opposite wall, a mantel and fireplace of luminescent Sienna marble formed the focal center of Penketh Manor's library. To either side and covering the remainder the of the opposite wall, rosewood bookcases stretched from the parquet floor to the open timbered ceiling. The shelves burst with gilt-bound tomes of all sizes and styles. Several wing chairs, an ornate desk of darkly lacquered mahogany, and a solid wooden table sat on islands of rich Moroccan carpet. The odor of varnish and fine tobacco filled the chamber.

My eyes, however, swept over these fineries with little interest. I had seen many gentlemen's libraries and most were primarily show for boorish men who would as soon wear a ladies frock as crack the leather binding of a book.

What drew my eye in Mr. Prufit's athenaeum, was a single shelf sealed behind frosted glass doors. More specifically, the frosted glass doors were sealed with a prominent brass lock.

Seeing no one around, I entered and went directly to them. Behind the swirls of opaque glass were books, but I could discern no details other than the fact they did not look like the cheaply bound volumes of a more lascivious nature that were popular with some gentlemen. I tried the doors, but they were locked and sturdy.

I turned to leave, but four daguerreotypes on the desk caught my interest. While I appreciate the miracles of science, I have always found the daguerreotype to be a poor substitute for a portrait by a master. These specific images, however, caught my eye not for what they were, but for what they were not. All four images were of Mr. Prufit's son, John Henry. It is not unusual for a father to have images of his son, but as I now thought back, I had seen no evidence at Penketh of Mr. Prufit's daughter. I knew that he had a daughter who resided in London with her maternal aunt, an arrangement enacted by Mr. Prufit following his second wife's death when the girl was a toddler. I have no children of my own--my life is not one such that children are feasible--but I wondered what would bring a man to surround himself by specters of his lost son, while ignoring his living daughter.

"May I help you, Mr. Stevens?"

I jumped at the sound of Mr. Baines' voice. "I was simply admiring your master's daguerreotypes," I said. "I have noticed that all are of his son. Are there any of his daughter?"

Mr. Baines said nothing, so I let the question hang, hoping the silence would encourage him to speak when he otherwise might not. However, he remained unrattled and said nothing, as any good man would.

"Forgive me if I seem to pry," I said. "I am simply interested in images such as these."

The corners of Mr. Baines' mouth rose slightly. "I am aware of no other images, Mr. Stevens."

"He must have been very fond of the lad."

"Aren't all fathers fond of their sons?"

My throat tightened, which, after all these years, surprised me. I looked away. "If only that were true, Mr. Baines."

"Mr. Prufit was devastated by his son's death. Only recently does he seem to have reconciled his grief."

"Mrs. Prufit is an exceptional woman."

Mr. Baines arched an eyebrow but said nothing more. The silence now made me uncomfortable.

"Forgive me, Mr. Baines, but I need to tend to a matter for Master Hurlock." His gaze prickled the back of my neck as I hastily retreated to my master's room.

While I procured the tincture of chamomile from the kit of remedies and tonics, movement out the window caught my attention. Mr. Blackstone stepped from behind the gazebo, wearing his red riding coat and carrying a burlap sack. He checked his pocket watch and glanced back toward the house. After a moment, Mr. Prufit joined him, and the two disappeared into the copse.

Intrigued, I slipped the bottle of tincture into my coat pocket and went out the kitchen door. The morning sun had burned off the dew, but the heat of the day had not yet settled in. After acquiring my bearings, I cut through the manor's vegetable garden, passed through an ivied gate and approached the gazebo across an expanse of freshly-mown lawn.

Across the garden, the French doors into the studio stood open, and within I saw Master Hurlock at his easel. With Mr. Prufit no longer a distraction, I anticipated my master had calmed sufficiently to make progress on the portrait and that my absence would go unnoticed.

I reached the edge of the copse of trees and saw no easy path. In the shade, the dew had not burned off, and I noticed a trail on the lawn leading into a recently disturbed cleft in the undergrowth. I pushed through the small dogwoods, and found myself on a trail that wound through the beech trunks and a scattering of buckthorn and elderberry.

My shoes, wholly unsuited for a cross land excursion, clicked as I stepped forward. Moss had overgrown the edges of a flat stone, nearly obscuring it. Much like a garden trail, a line of such stones wound deeper into the copse, its regularity marred periodically by tree roots.

I moved slowly along this trail, trying not to make a sound, but the hard soles of my shoes were incapable of stealth. I thought for certain that Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone would hear me, no matter how far ahead they might be.

After some distance I lost the trail. It must have turned, while I had proceeded straight. I backtracked, hoping to reacquire it, but I succeeded only in turning myself about and getting thoroughly lost.

I chided my carelessness. While I was certain I could find my way back if I simply chose a direction and held the course, I had no knowledge of the size of the copse, and I did not welcome spending my entire day getting back to Penketh. I pulled my coat a little snugger about me and turned a slow revolution trying to acquire my bearings.

I heard the faint sound of Mr. Prufit’s voice off to my left. I was certain he would view my presence unkindly, but I also knew he would return to the manor house at some point, and following him was a better prospect than striking out on my own. Besides, had I not followed him and Mr. Blackstone to learn their purpose?

I slowly picked my way through a tangle of ferns and low creeping cover, placing each step with care so I did not snap any twigs. The undergrowth, which had been relatively sparse, grew denser, obscuring my vision.

Mr. Prufit's voice grew in volume. I could hear him clearly, but oddly, I could not discern what he was saying. With a suddenness that nearly staggered me, I realized I could hear him perfectly, only his words were not in the Queen's English. I listened intently, but he spoke no language that I recognized.

I continued to edge forward into the trees. I paused when Mr. Blackstone joined Mr. Prufit in a haunting chant sung in a minor key. The deep resonance of their voices set my nerves vibrating.

Sensing they were very near, but unable to see them through the dense shrubs, I crouched down and crawled forward on my knees. I stopped suddenly when I noticed Mr. Blackstone's red riding jacket. Uncertain if I had been detected, I remained still, moving only my eyes within their sockets as I searched for Mr. Prufit.

After a moment, I realized that Mr. Blackstone's coat was not upon his shoulders, but had been removed and hung across a shrub.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of movement to my left. In a small clearing, Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone stood several feet apart, facing each other. Between them was a solid block of dark stone, ornately carved along its edges, but intervening vegetation obscured the pattern so I could see no motif.

The scent of burning incense reached my nose.

I realized with a rush of fear that they were performing some type of arcane ritual, perhaps consecrating an altar.

I almost emitted a yelp, but managed to hold my tongue. All of this talk of spirit predators acquired a sinister relevance. Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone were more than curious amateurs; it appeared that they had moved beyond that into practitioners.

My gut had the hollow feeling I sometimes get at the end of a winter night, when I have not eaten since the evening meal and my room is damp and cold and black as the depths of a grave. I thought it wise to immediately depart Penketh, but again I dismissed the idea. The danger to Mrs. Prufit had now become tangible and sinister. That I might avert her harm made me stay.

VI. Messages from the Beyond

An hour later, I slipped back into Penketh the same way I had left, but now the kitchen buzzed with cooks seasoning racks of meats and kneading mountains of spongy dough, while maids clattered dishes in a large sink and polished silverware.

I learned from a scullery maid that another guest was expected that evening: Madame Borevsky, a noted medium from Liverpool who had family in the area.

Later, when I informed Master Hurlock of the new guest, he reacted with an unexpected smile. "Some light entertainment will be better than all that talk of spirit predators," he said.

I was not as certain as my master, however. While I knew that mediums were frauds peddling a good show, I also knew a charlatan willing to say anything to make a quid was as dangerous as a true practitioner of dark magik. Try as I might to dismiss this Madame Borevsky, I simply could not shake free the tendrils of dread in which I found myself entangled.

At precisely the appointed hour, I helped my master into his coat and we descended to the parlor. We arrived to find the room a flurry of activity. Mr. Baines directed the footmen in positioning a circular table in the center of the room. This required considerable rearrangement of the furniture. The table placed, a maid spread a lace cloth on it while the footmen unfolded six wooden chairs. The guests, gathered around the perimeter, watched the activity with interest while sipping drinks.

Mrs. Prufit met us at the entry with Madame Borevsky in tow. The spiritualist was a diminutive woman with a thick braid of rich black hair pulled over her left shoulder so it hung down to her waist. She wore what I had come to consider the medium's uniform: a lacy dress that seemed more confection than cloth, jangly oversized bracelets and earrings, and thick face paint that did little to draw attention from her cleaver-like blade of a nose.

My master hesitantly shook Madame Borevsky's hand, almost as if he expected her to shout out his imminent doom.

Mr. Prufit cleared his throat and the polite conversation died down. "Madame Borevsky has kindly agreed to conduct a seance."

A grin split Madame Borevsky's face. She directed my master to sit to her right. Mr. Prufit took the chair to her left, and the others took seats around the table.

Mrs. Blackstone clapped her hands excitedly and giggled like a child. "I do love a good seance," she said. She placed her hands flat on the table, and the rest of the guests followed suit.

Mr. Baines pulled the heavy drapes and dimmed the lamps. He retreated to the dining room, pulling the doors shut and leaving me alone in the darkened room with the six shapes at the table.

"Reach out to the spirit world." Madame Borevsky’s voice had deepened and she now spoke with a distinctly foreign accent. It seemed that all mediums these days were from exotic places on the continent. Whatever happened to good home-grown mediums?

"Reach out to a loved one who has passed over that boundary. Call someone you trust to this room."

For a moment, nothing happened. I could hear everyone in the room breathing, and the air grew stuffy with the dining room doors closed.

"Everyone must try," said Madame Borevsky, her tone almost chiding. "Negative energy will bar the spirits. Believe, and they will come."

At least a minute passed in which nothing happened. By now pearls of perspiration beaded my hairline. A trickle of sweat inched its way down the channel of my spine.

The table began to rattle on its legs. The noise made me jump.

"There is a spirits among us," said Madame Borevsky. "A woman wearing a pale blue dress and holding... I can't quite make it out, but maybe a flower?"

Mrs. Blackstone gasped. "That's my mother. I miss you, mother."

"She is trying to tell me something..."

I saw no evidence of Mrs. Blackstone's mother among us. The table continued to rattle, a noise I now found disconcerting. I could not shake the feeling that Madame Borevsky was more than she appeared.

"She is pointing to something around her neck," continued Madame Borevsky. "It looks like a locket."

"My mourning locket! I've lost it. I am sorry, mother; do you know where it is?"

"She says that it is not lost and that it will find you soon."

Mrs. Blackstone heaved a sigh of relief and nearly burst into tears.

The rattling of the table increased. Instead of just turning on the floor, it began to bounce about.

The action startled me sufficiently that I bumped back into the wall. I had seen such vigorous tilting on one other occasion. The medium involved had later been exposed as a fraud, who by use of intricate parlor tricks, had made tables levitate and dance. But I could not see how such a feat could have been done here. I had watched the table assembled. No wires or other gimmicks could have been installed.

Madame Borevsky began to chant an incantation that was in no language that I recognized.

My throat tightened. I stared wide-eyed as the table bounced like a hound beneath a treed fox.

"What's happening?" Mrs. Prufit exclaimed.

"Madame Borevsky, what is it? What do you see?" Mr. Prufit asked in a rush.

A sharp pain shot through my stomach, like a hunger pain, but much stronger. It ricocheted through my body like a ball of black lead shot. Doubling over, I sucked air through my clenched teeth and pushed back against it. I managed not to scream.

Madame Borevsky did, however. At the same time she flew back out of her chair.

The table caromed wildly, striking Mr. Prufit and toppling him onto the floor. Mr. Blackstone grabbed Mrs. Prufit from her chair and shielded her as the table swung around. The edge of it crashed into his back. He grunted and stumbled to the ground, scattering chairs, but taking Mrs. Prufit with him, safely in his arms.

Mrs. Blackstone raised her hands to protect her face and exclaimed a loud plea to God to protect her.

The table flipped up on edge and flew into the wall no more than an arm's length from where I stood. A large framed mirror shattered as it hit the floor. The table fell still, its energy spent. For a long moment, silence shrouded the room.

Light flood the parlor as Mr. Baines opened the dining room doors.

I squinted in the brightness.

Master Hurlock sat on the floor looking shaken but otherwise unharmed. I went to his side, but he brushed off my attempts to help him. "Let me sit for a moment."

"Madame Borevsky!" Mr. Prufit pushed himself to his knees and crawled over to Madame Borevsky who lay in a heap of petticoats.

I looked away from her exposed undergarments and legs.

"Is anyone hurt?" Mr. Blackstone had left Mrs. Prufit sitting on the floor and gone to his wife who clutched her crucifix. The color had drained from her face.

Mrs. Prufit, with Mr. Baine's assistance, got to her feet. She clung to his arm unsteadily.

Mr. Prufit had righted Madame Borevsky. The medium breathed loudly and tried to speak, but the words got caught in her throat. Finally she managed to force them out. "A spirit... A dark spirit... In this room... Ripped from the other side..." She swooned, then, into Mr. Prufit's arms.

In the commotion, I do not think anyone had heard her except Mr. Prufit and me. Mr. Prufit glared disapprovingly in my master's direction.

Needless to say, the evening was in greater shambles than the parlor. Madame Borevsky recovered, but still felt faint. Mr. Prufit insisted on personally escorting her home. Mrs. Prufit and the Blackstones retired to their rooms, no longer feeling social.

My master, shaken by the evening's events, also decided to retire.


VII. Decisions

Creases furrowed Master Hurlock's brow as I helped him undress. I turned down his bed, and he sat on the edge, watching me fold and lay his trousers over a chair back. He did not move while I brushed his coat and hung it in the armoire.

"Tell me, Stevens,” he said at length. “Am I good man?"

His question stupefied me, and in the moment I could not respond and before he turned his face away, I saw pain wash over his features.

"Forgive me, sir. My hesitation was not a condemnation, but the result of my surprise at your doubt. You are a good man." While any gentlemen would have responded thusly to his master regardless of the truth, I spoke with genuine sincerity. Master Hurlock had lifted me from the gutters and opium dens of the East End and given me the opportunity to see that I could be more than a parasite feeding on the cankerous underbelly of society. What he saw in me on that day that I had tagged him as my next mark, I do not know, but his kindness then and through twenty-five years of service had allowed me to regain some thread of my lost humanity.

Master Hurlock forced a wan smile, but I could see he found no comfort in my assurance. "Do you think it possible that a man can unknowingly weave evil?"

I knew now what this was about: the allegations of dark magik that had occupied the lips of the London gossipmongers. "I think men are capable only of what is in their hearts. A man with only good in his heart will do what is good."

"But this matter with Mrs. Giddings…"

"Coincidence, sir, nothing more." I turned away, unable to the meet his eyes for fear that he would not believe me. I went to the sideboard and mixed a draught of laudanum to ease his nerves.

"This commission..." Master Hurlock shook his head. "I have never painted one such as Mrs. Prufit. If I were twice the artist I am, I do not think I could paint her justly, but even the poor shadow that I put on my canvas will be worthy to hang in the Royal Academy."

I helped him under the covers and handed him the glass.

"There are many reasons to stay, Stevens," my master continued, "and equally many to leave."

I pushed the glass toward his lips. His uncertainty tore at my conscience, and I wanted to ease his turmoil, as much for him as for me. "It has been a hard day, sir. Make no decisions tonight."

He drank the laudanum, and I took the glass and set it on the bureau.

Master Hurlock lay back on his pillow. Already his eyes grew heavy. "I must finish this portrait..."

I extinguished the lamp.

"...it will be my piece de resistance."

I stood in the dark unsure what to do. Master Hurlock was in danger, a danger that was not of his doing, but to leave now carried its own risks. I owed it to Master Hurlock to sacrifice any needs I may have for him. My shoulders slumped as I realized that the instinct for self-preservation was stronger than any bond I had to him. If any hope remained that we could both achieve our needs, then I could not bring myself to leave. I needed to learn what lengths Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone would go to insure their plot. I knew of only one place to learn more.

VIII. The Secrets Under Glass

With the rest of the household indisposed and Mr. Prufit not yet returned, I crept down unobserved to the library. I left the door cracked wide enough to allow in sufficient light from the corridor so I could maneuver without incident and went directly to the frosted glass doors.

As a gentleman, I am embarrassed to admit that I possess certain skills that would be common place among ruffians and the uncouth. I pulled a pick from my coat pocket, and confident that no one was within hearing range, proceeded to rake the tumblers of the brass lock holding the glass doors shut. Being a lock of more than common craftsmanship, it took several attempts to open it.

Behind the glass doors were a dozen or so worn tomes. The writing on the spines was either non-existent or faded beyond legibility, but otherwise the books appeared in good condition considering their apparent age. I unshelved a volume and was surprised to find it in Latin with English translation. It was handwritten with neatly drawn letters that were easy to read. Upon reviewing the frontispiece, I nearly dropped the book. The image of a winged demonic creature carrying a sword surrounded by candles and arcane symbols disturbed me. But its title is what sent a shiver through me: "Key to the Gate of Hell."

Resisting my desire to drop the book, I opened to a random page to find the text was written backwards. I understand this to be a common practice for magical incantations, where the transcriber of the book fears that the mere act of writing the words would cause the spell to be enacted. Afraid, I returned the volume to the shelf and closed the glass doors. With my jacket sleeve I buffed away any smudges I may have left. With only more questions, I retired, troubled, to my room.

IX. News From London

I can understand a man, desperate and destitute and loveless, seeking dangerous knowledge in hopes of improving his lot, but Mr. Prufit seemed none of these. He had wealth and comfort and the graces of the Queen and, most significantly, the companionship of a radiant woman. What more could he want that would drive him to risk all these bounties? How did Mrs. Prufit fit into his plot? These questions churned my gut like one of those Indian dishes from a London streethawker.

I eventually drifted off with no decisions made, only to awaken with a start sometime later. My lingering fatigue suggested that I had slept only minutes, but grey morning light leaked beneath the shade on my room's small window. I glanced at the clock on my bedside table. Seeing the lateness of the hour, I sprang from my sweat-damp sheets. I dressed and, still straightening my tie, rushed from my room, hoping that my master, too, had overslept.

My stomach tightened when I found his room empty. My initial fear--that Mr. Prufit had disposed of Master Hurlock--was allayed when I noticed my master's shaving brush still held a trace of fresh lather, his armoire door hung open, and several coats and pairs of trousers were strewn around the room.

I found my master at his easel. Skillfully he attacked the canvas with precise strokes of his brush, much like an accomplished fencer might wield his epee. The portrait had begun to coalesce, and I could see that this painting, would indeed, be his master work.

I was startled to find Mr. Prufit propped in a corner like a forgotten trinket. He did not scowl or jeer; in truth, I do not think he even noticed me enter, his gaze was so locked upon the strokes of my master's brush.

I stepped off to the side, unwilling to disrupt with a word or sound.

Not long thereafter, however, Mr. Blackstone burst into the room. "Titus, urgent news from London," he said. "Mrs. Giddings is dead."

Mrs. Prufit gasped and covered her mouth with a gloved hand. For the first time, my master's hand faltered.

A hollowness filled me.

"There is more." Mr. Blackstone gazed at my master. "Perhaps we should retire to somewhere private."

Mr. Prufit nodded and the two men departed.

Master Hurlock set his brush aside. His jaw hung slack, and he had the quizzical look of a man whose previous night's binge had left him in a strange room.

Mrs. Prufit’s face had gone pale. I feared she might swoon. "Perhaps some water, Mrs. Prufit?"

She smiled weakly at me and seemed to regain some of her color. "That would be wonderful, Mr. Stevens."

While I was indeed concerned about Mrs. Prufit's condition, I had an ulterior motive for my offer. Seeing no one in the hallway, I paused at the library door. I heard Mr. Blackstone speaking within.

"Prior to coming to Penketh, I commissioned Lucius Santonelli to investigate. He is exceedingly gifted and knowledgeable in spiritual matters, but not one of those overly public figures who attracts a great deal of attention."

"I know of Santonelli," said Mr. Prufit. "His reputation is good."

I heard a clinking noise as a drink was poured.

"I received word from him this morning," Mr. Blackstone said. "As we suspected, he detected extensive damage to Mrs. Giddings spiritual force. He described her as tattered."

"Tattered?" Mr. Prufit said with surprise.

"It sounds like it was worse than we suspected," said Mr. Blackstone.

"And what about Hurlock?" asked Mr. Prufit.

"Santonelli had a chance to examine Hurlock’s painting. It had--how did he put it--an unusual odor to it."


"Yes, odor," said Mr. Blackstone.

"What does that mean?'

"Spirits leave a trace of their presence where ever they pass. You and I can't sense it, but people like Santonelli are attuned to such things. He described it as akin to a lady's perfume, although much less alluring. Apparently, Mrs. Giddings had a distinct odor on her, and it matched the one on the painting."

"First Madame Borevsky's finding of a dark spirit in the vicinity and now this. It can be no one else, Henry. Are you now convinced?"

"I am," Mr. Blackstone said without hesitation.

I should have retreated then, retrieved my master, and made a fast departure from Penketh Manor, but my legs did not respond to my mind's desperate urgings.

"We need to get Wynona away from Hurlock," Mr. Prufit said.

"Yes, and we must not allow this creature to escape," said Mr. Blackstone. "It will surely attack again."

"An exorcism then."

My stomach tightened at the word.

"Assuming he, or should I say it can be detained." Mr. Prufit's voice moved away from the door as he spoke. I heard the sound of a drawer opening. "I think we should be prepared for whatever needs to be done." A series of metallic clicks stood the hairs on the back of my neck on end. I recognized the sound of a revolver cylinder being opened, examined, and snapped back into place.

My legs began to move, almost of their own accord, carrying me quickly back to the studio.


X. A Gentleman No More

Master Hurlock lowered his brush as I entered. He had been working on the portrait's background. "Stevens, you look unhinged."

On the patio, Mrs. Prufit gazed over the garden, her blue dress shimmering in the mid-morning sun.

"We need to depart, sir."

"Depart?" He dabbed his brush into a dollop of cadmium blue.

"There isn't time to explain, sir." I crossed the studio to retrieve his etui from near the French doors. There would be no time to pack anything, but at least all would not be lost.

"Explain you must. I cannot leave now."

Before I could insist further, Mr. Prufit burst into the studio followed by Mr. Blackstone. "Mr. Hurlock, I must ask you to come with me," Mr. Prufit said.

"Mr. Prufit, can this not wait? The light--"

Having seemingly escaped notice for the moment, I slipped behind the drapery next to the French doors and peered from between the panels.

Mrs. Prufit brushed past my hiding spot as she came in from the patio and stopped an arm's length in front of me. "Titus, what is this?"

"Wynona, dear," Mr. Prufit said, "this business does not concern you."

"Sir," said Master Hurlock, "There is no need for that tone with the lady."

Mr. Prufit's glare swung over to my master. "And you will remember whose house you are in."

Master Hurlock stumbled back as if Mr. Prufit's gaze had been a blunt object.

"Titus!" Mrs. Prufit made his name a reprimand. "This is outrageous."

"This is for your own safety, Wynona. For the last time Hurlock, come with me."

"I don't like your tone, sir." Master Hurlock set aside his palette. "I think I am finished here."

"You leave me no recourse." Mr. Prufit drew his pistol from the waistbelt beneath his jacket.

My master made an audible noise, neither word nor scream. He immediately raised his hands.

Mr. Prufit brandished the pistol in the direction he wanted my master to move.

"Titus, what has gotten into you?" Mrs. Prufit asked after she had recovered her wits.

"Now is not the time, Wynona." Mr. Prufit's military training had asserted itself; his voice was calm and even. The pistol, an old military-issue Webley Bentley revolver, was steady in his hand.

"Now is not the time?" Mrs. Prufit’s voice rose an octave as she spoke.

Mr. Prufit ignored his wife. "Henry, find his man. He was here a moment ago."

I pulled behind a satin panel. It would take only moments for Mr. Blackstone to find me, yet my thoughts, much like my body, were paralyzed.

I heard a commotion and a loud crash that sounded like a piece of furniture splintering. Mrs. Prufit screamed, and I felt her back into the curtain that hid me.

I grabbed her by the wrist. "I'm a friend," I whispered and pulled her through the French doors onto the patio. She came without struggle. I could see by her glazed look that she had been rendered witless by the events.

I drew up at the edge of the patio and turned back toward the French doors. I have never been a courageous man, and, being no match for two armed men, I ordinarily would have left without hesitation, but I owed Master Hurlock a great debt for all he had done. My hesitation was but a brief moment, but it was enough.

A loud crack startled me. At the same time it shattered Mrs. Prufit's trance. She screamed and ran down the steps into the garden.

I looked back toward the studio. To go back would surely have been my end. A second shot rang out, and I realized with regret that I could do nothing more for my master.

I managed to catch Mrs. Prufit as she entered the copse of trees behind the gazebo. I seized her wrist and pulled her to a stop. Her pulse throbbing against my finger tips made me aware of how alive she was.

"What is happening?" Mrs. Prufit asked, wide-eyed.

Through the trees, I saw Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone descend the patio steps and start across the garden in our direction.

With my master gone, nothing held me to Penketh. There was only Mrs. Prufit. "I will show you," I said. Gently I pulled her deeper into the copse, and she came without resistance. I located the stone path and followed it as carefully as I could. I got turned around more than once, but eventually found what I sought.

"Oh my." Mrs. Prufit covered her mouth with her hand.

We approached the stone block, and for the first time I realized that it was not simply an altar, but a tomb. Inscribed on it were ancient Talmudic glyphs and symbols, most of which I only recognized from the popular press. Atop the sarcophagus lay a shallow dish filled with ashes surrounded by stubs of numerous candles. Near these items, the name of John Henry Prufit was carved into the lid followed by the dates 1838-1856.

The tomb, the book, and a living spirit filled with enough purity and power to--

"I can't allow this happen," I said.

"What is this?"

"Your husband must not be allowed to violate the laws that divide this world from the next."

"I do not understand."

"Mr. Prufit wishes to pry open the portal between the land of the living and the world of spirit, to put flesh anew on his son's long dead bones, and rip him back to the mortal world. To do this, a living spirit must be traded, a vibrant and good spirit." In her eyes I saw disbelief and wondered if I could convince her.

"I am to be sacrificed?" she asked hesitantly. Her eyes darted from the candles to my face to the name of her husband’s dead son. As she continued to speak, her voice gained strength, rising almost to the point of anger. "My husband is going to kill me to raise his dead son?"

I heard the sound of voices in the woods. Mr. Prufit and Mr. Blackstone had fanned out and were coordinating their search. We were now trapped between them.

"What are we to do?" she asked.

I smelled fear underneath her sweet perfume. I felt the heat of her body across the cool air. In my years as gentleman to Master Hurlock, I have basked in the radiance of more power and beauty than most mortal men have seen in life and dream combined. Mrs. Prufit made them all look like sullied rags discarded into a ditch.

"You must go back to them," I said. She began to protests, but I silenced her with upraised hands. "If they find you here with me, things will not end well for either of us. Tell them I took you and that you managed to escape. At your first opportunity, flee Penketh and never return." I could see the doubt in her face, and I wondered if this plan would succeed. I had already failed Master Hurlock. I could not fail again. "There is something more I must do," I said. I considered just doing what I needed without a word, but for some reason, I could not do it without her consent. "I can make it so that you are no good for their ritual."


I shrugged my shoulders, not sure how much to say for fear of scaring her into the woods. "It won't hurt."

Her breathing had stopped even though her mouth hung open. She looked ready to break and run, but then her jaw clenched firmly shut and she raised her chin defiantly.

Slowly I encircled her with my arms and pulled her close to me. I could feel her life force, throbbing and plentiful. I had not realized the depth of my need. I drank deeply of her golden essence, sweet as divine honey. With each draught my hunger grew. It had been so long since I had last been sated, and it had cost Mrs. Giddings her life. I would not let that happen to Mrs. Prufit.

Mrs. Prufit gasped, although I am certain she felt nothing. She put her arms around me and buried her face into my neck. I could feel her breath on my reawakening skin.

It was an effort to stop myself from taking too much, but I fought the urge and pushed her away when I was confident she would no longer be any good to Mr. Prufit. I would find what more I needed elsewhere.

She stumbled back against the grave. I sensed she was diminished, her soul wounded and tattered. While her beauty was still considerable and, unlike poor Mrs. Giddings, she would live a long, fruitful life, I could sense the damage I had done. I was a vandal who had taken a knife to the Mona Lisa.

Mrs. Prufit put a hand on my cheek. Her delicate fingers burned warmly against my skin. Her expression of confusion slowly softened. With her gaining enlightenment, I expected horror or pity to surface in her eyes, but instead I saw compassion. "You were one like John Henry."

I was not accustomed to admitting who, or what I was, but she deserved to know. "My father brought me back, even knowing I would become this. Normal sustenance cannot sustain my body, because my flesh was, and still is, dead. If he had loved me, he would have let me go instead of making me this...monster."

"You are no monster, Mr. Stevens." She looked toward the sound of Mr. Prufit's voice. It had grown close. "I will lead them away from here, so you can escape.”

Escape to where, I wondered. Back to the streets of the East End to prey on the sordid souls that lurked in the darkness? Master Hurlock had shown me that humanity still lived within this monstrous being. I could not return to that life, but what options would I have when the need returned?

“God speed to you, Mr. Stevens," Mrs. Prufit said. She fled into the forest.

I turned toward the sound of Mr. Prufit’s voice. He was very near. I would take no more innocent souls, I decided, as I moved quickly into the shadows.


* * *

D. Thomas Minton lives and writes speculative fiction from the middle of Pacific Ocean. His stories have appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction,, and numerous other publications. His idle scribblings hold court at dthomasminton.com and always appreciate a visitor.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?

My primary advice to people who want to write historical fiction is to get the facts right. That may seem obvious (or at least I thought it was when I first started), but I quickly learned it's not as simple as it sounds. While inevitably things will be wrong, historical fiction should strive to be accurate to the time and place, so do the research to understand how people spoke, thought, and acted, instead of simply moving modern characters and situations onto a historical backdrop. The effort will give the story depth and may even open up unexpected ideas to explore.