Part 1 – Summer 1909
“Ursula, you must not speak such vulgar and irreverent language!” protested Agnes Miller, who promptly giggled in her high register at the surprising embarrassment of Ursula’s disgustingly obscene words. “Your tongue will simply fall off at this very moment; I am unwaveringly sure of it.”
“Oh, contrary to your wanton beliefs, my dear, sweet Agnes, my tongue has never been so supplanted in all of its twenty-three years!” retorted Ursula Poole, “and it shall remain so until I perish from this very earth.”
The two ladies sat outside in the bright summer light around a beautifully carved wooden table; they perched themselves out in the exquisitely manicured garden of Ashton Woods to take in the air and to get away from the men who spent this morning curiously indoors. Rather odd, one would think. The clouds were beginning to appear, if only marginally. The heat was stifling and surprising, especially since there had been an onslaught of rain these past several days.
Around the embellished table sat four other women: Gladys Barrow, Eugenia Mayfield, Poppy Sutton, and Edith Wilby. All were in their twenties as well, though Gladys, that most unfortunate creature, looked to be in her mid-forties (some horrifically scarring accident left her face in irreparable shambles).
Delightfully droll the conversation was, though all but Agnes Miller agreed on that point. Edith Wilby remained perfectly silent, however, as she unquestionably loathed this sort of female gathering she has always been forced to attend; her face gleamed with disinterest. A perfectly light breeze circulated the table, rustling the women’s dresses, napkins, eyes, and conversations.
“Perhaps we should start back again,” suggested Eugenia. “I was off gazing at the lilies—those that only a proper English countryside villa can provide—and completely missed such vulgarities issuing from Ursula’s obviously wretched mouth.”
“You are always off gazing at something or other, aren’t you Eugenia?” questioned Gladys in her unexpectedly low voice (another hopeless circumstance for this poor woman). “What could you possibly be thinking about?”
“Oh, why nothing at all, Gladys. That’s the beauty of it. Pushing out my thoughts is one of my greatest strengths. That and my ability to capture men who have yet to realize their desire for me.”
“You are quite the spider, aren’t you, Ms. Mayfield? Just catching them up like dumbfounded flies in that pink and lacy web of yours,” said Poppy.
“I successfully accomplish two types of speaking, Ms. Poppy Sutton. Only one is less vocal than the other,” replied Eugenia with her natural wit and indecency.
“Why, we are a match made in heaven, aren’t we Eugenia?” proffered Ursula. “I must undeniably be your twin, as we share the very same assets! I feel as if we are sisters who have known each other for eternity.”
“I was one to believe that we were off the subject of your repugnant lips.” Agnes Miller stood up from her chair and sauntered closer to the white lilies Eugenia so longingly gazed at beforehand. They sparkled in the shimmering sunlight, still blistered with morning dew. She took up her pink parasol and it bloomed above her head.
“Come now, Agnes; be reasonable,” stated Gladys.
“It’s so absurdly despicable this morning,” she replied, looking up into the achingly bright light.
“Oh, please be careful, Agnes. Do not spend your time gazing into the sun. It’s killed many a person before, surely. Or at least affected their sight.”
“That would be such a pity, wouldn’t it?” Ursula muttered under her breath.
There was a slight pause in the conversation, a buckle upon the mouths of the women. Though, curiosity got the best of them, and Eugenia repeated her desire: “Shall we start back again, Ursula? I had missed your point moments ago.”
“We’re treading on a troubled track, I am absolutely sure of it!”
“Agnes, please. This shall all be over in one solitary second and then you may rejoin us if you so desire,” Poppy told her. “Look at dear Edith. She’s said nary a word and looks completely at ease.”
Edith aggressively glared at Poppy but remained quite mute; she did not want to pursue this avenue, which would undoubtedly result in an un-lady-like debacle.
“Now, Ursula, what were you about to say?” asked Eugenia emphatically. She leaned in closer with considerable anticipation.
“Such vile, contemptible nonsense,” mumbled Agnes to herself.
“Well, just like a firework—”
An ache was forming within his head, as if it were scraping upward toward his skull, searching for a way out but finding an impenetrable barrier in its path, blocking any possibility of escape.
“Come now, Dexter Wilby, sit yourself down here and relax yourself,” spoke Charles Grant to his dear friend. “Have a fag if you are so worried about Purcell’s arrival; surely that would help. Don’t let’s get all excited over nothing, my friend.”
“He really ought to be here by now, don’t you think, Charles?” questioned Dex Wilby. Even though he had been properly dressed by Jennings, his trusted valet-butler, he looked unkempt and worn down, perhaps with worry, as it seemed to be, or something of the unconscious; in any case, it was unquestionably clear as to the state of his current appearance. His dark, shadowy-colored hair, smoothed back mere moments ago, now hides part of his face, making him look slightly crazed. His hands visibly shook.
“Ju-just calm yourself d-down, D-Dex,” stammered William McVeigh. The poor man was affected with a sublime stutter, and thus seldom spoke unless absolutely necessary. He had a strong sense of composure, though, and was usually the one who quieted any sort of storm that may be brewing. He offered the same suggestion as Charles, and Dex leaned over, grabbed a cigarette from his golden case, and lit it with a match.
“This is to be a relaxing weekend in the country, dear boy,” spoke Edward Hall, looking as tall and formidable as ever. “Perhaps get your mind off of Purcell and back to the festivities of this afternoon. We shall all go riding, or hunting, or fishing, or something along those lines. I’m sure your father has it all figured out. Hunting, I’d suppose.”
Ashton Woods, the country villa in which these people are currently stationed, belonged to James Anderson Wilby. His family has owned the estate for several decades after, of course, it fell into the hands of James’s great-grandfather Adam Wilby from some indeterminate legal matter from Lord Edward Ashton that has almost never been brought up in polite conversation. Nevertheless, riches swiftly flowed into the Wilby family, and a more than comfortable life was present at Ashton Woods.
“Yes, I think perhaps a hunt is planned for later this afternoon,” Dex stated glumly. He never particularly enjoyed a hunt, but his father did and so he felt obliged to always partake in such occasions. In any case, the hunt would perhaps be postponed, not only because of Oliver’s tardiness but also the possibility of a storm. The butt of his cigarette glowed a brilliant orange-red color, and the smoke washed away into the darkness of the humid air within the drawing room.
Felicity Wilby, a gangly, freckly girl of about twelve years of age, barreled down the bright grassy knoll and through the overgrown meadow to escape to the small, slightly secluded pond, which sat near the edge of Ashton Woods. The Mermaid’s Trench, she called it, was hardly bigger than a standard room, but it cradled a variety of aquatic life, even in its smallest of crannies, and that excited her curiosity immensely.
At the far side of Mermaid’s Trench, bolted down, plunged through the soggy earth, rested a stiffened diving board. Although this pond was small in width, it had a great depth. Felicity would occasionally practice her diving skills, but that would be inappropriate today. It would take her ages to dispose of the clinging water if she submerged today. The temperature wasn’t particularly warm, anyway, and so she decided to simply perch on the diving board and stare into the hazy blue.
Trombone, Felicity’s incorrigible but lovable pet cat—her domesticated “lion”—sauntered over toward her. He had a certain gait, one that made him look as if he only possessed three walking appendages; however, he truly contained all four. Perhaps he was vying for attention wherever he went. It didn’t matter, though. Felicity remained in love with that silly, shaggy beast. Trombone scrunched up his face and sneezed several times in succession. He was allergic to the sun, you see.
Mermaid’s Trench, which usually had a ferocious current of activity, was rather muted this particular summer day. No frogs were hopping or burping or unleashing their tongues upon unsuspecting prey; no dragonflies were skimming around the top of the waters. It seemed almost devoid of any aquatic life. Only once did she miraculously witness a miniscule guppy jump out the water to attempt a fly capture; it failed tremendously. The water lilies lingered on the surface, bobbing slightly if a minor wave swam by. Otherwise, static.
Perchance the pond was cursed, however. Ever since… Sometimes, shadows… But she decided to think on something else.
Felicity said to herself aloud, “Perhaps Oliver would fancy the sight of Mermaid’s Trench?” She knew the answer already and laughed.
Oliver Purcell was a young man who often visited Ashton Woods for several months, beginning in summer. Felicity had known he would like to see Mermaid Trench, as she always escorted him to that little slice of paradise when he came to visit. Oliver was muscular, blonde, and tall—much taller than she—and he usually doted upon Felicity’s older siblings, Dexter and Edith (perhaps because of the closeness in their ages; Dexter was twenty-four, Edith was twenty, and Oliver fell somewhere in between).
Trombone sneezed again. Felicity looked down to see the feline shifting positions and curling up into a furry orb. Her attention diverted back to Mermaid’s Trench. Miniscule ripples floated across the top; she imagined these as horrific wave crashes for the small flying things that usually balanced on the watery surface. She dipped her hand into the bath and then removed it, watching the water form slim lines down her palm and back to its rippled reservoir.
The sun shone on Mermaid’s Trench. It was getting hot, and Felicity knew she should return; she’ll try to avoid the superfluous individuals who were currently spaced throughout the home and garden. She heard their echoes already, and that displeased her. Felicity glanced down to find the cat and noticed a vaguely human figure shimmering on the water’s surface; it looked like her, but perhaps it wasn’t. The little ripples twisted the image just so.
Scooping up Trombone—who jerked and groaned from the viciously sudden skyward movement—Felicity meandered back through the foliage toward the domineering fortress, the antediluvian and colossal trees shadowing the top of her bright, butter mellow head.
“See, Agnes, we’ve completely finished that conversation; it shall never be brought up again,” Ursula stated mischievously. Everyone there, including the relatively naïve Agnes, knew the entire conversation would be repeated multiple times over the course of the weekend.
Agnes swiveled around, closed her parasol, and retreated back to her seat. She was not accustomed to this sort of talk. Her mother rejected it, and, thus, so did she.
“Did you hear about Florence Wells? Her terrible cousin is coming for a visit.”
The air seemed boiling and any notion of a breeze left the women to glisten with pimples of sweat.
Ursula swiveled around and asked her neighbor, “Tell us, dear Edith, did you have a successful trip in, oh where was it, Barcelona? Such a queer destination for a holiday. Did you ride a mule perchance? If I were a gambling woman, I would undoubtedly bet as much. I’m astounded you did not holiday in Italy. That’s much more fashionable, don’t you agree? Oh, everyone says that Italy is much chicer. I heard that Honeychurch girl holidayed in Florence; she went with her aunt, I believe. You went with your Aunt Briony, is that correct, dear?”
Ursula and the rest twisted their bony necks toward Edith and glared, waiting for a reaction from their taciturn acquaintance.
Edith, ignoring Ursula’s remarks completely, abruptly stood straight up, said, “Excuse me; I suddenly feel quite ill,” and glided back to the house in much haste, her dress swaying aggressively behind her.
“What ever is the matter with her?” asked Gladys. “We’re all roasting out here. At least we have the decency to manage ourselves in uncomfortable situations,” which meant much more than just the present issue. “Cheeky.” She picked up a cucumber sandwich, placed it in her mouth, and chewed rather grotesquely, her morning sweat rolling down her beaky nose onto sandwich, dampening the soft, chewy bread.
The grandfather clock sighed some chimes and then promptly shut down, as if that was the only opportunity to make its mark at any given hour; its hands shown noon.
Dexter Wilby sucked in and blew out a controlled puff of grisly grey smoke, which clawed and clambered its way through the air until it disappeared into nothingness. He then sat up, straightening his back and firmly planting his feet down on the oak floor. Glancing at the miniature clock that hung from his jacket, Dex found it to be two minutes past noon and replaced the clock into the appropriate pocket. He inhaled then exhaled, with less control this time.
His unhappiness seemed to breed, and now all the men appeared to be sulking in an unsuitable fashion, considering how glorious this weekend will surely be. Not even McVeigh could surmise an adequately uplifting phrase to lighten the mood. But then Hall offered a suggestion: “How about we leave you to it, Wilby? I think us lads need some fresh air, and those women will certainly need some interruption from their sisterly and holy chats.”
A round of agreeing headshakes flittered about the room, and Wilby responded, “Quite right.” The gentlemen escorted themselves out into the garden and Dex remained in solitude, which was actually preferable due to his present state of mind. They left in a cacophony, leaving a peaceful reticence.
Dex tapped his foot on the floor in rapid repetition, making a heavy clanking sound reverberate throughout the room. Looking ahead, he found the framed painting of St. Jude atop the fireplace; he wasn’t particularly religious, but Dex often found himself glancing at St. Jude, hoping for some sort of remedy. He thought himself a lost cause, mostly because his mother often told him as much. Ophelia Wilby was a dominating force, and she placed such a cycle of hardships on her children that Sisyphus would be grateful of his own constant problems. Her smoky breath drew nightmares in his sleep.
But enough of her. Inhale, exhale; do not overreact, dear boy. You’ve waited this long, Dex. What’s a few more hours of ragged breathing and foot tapping? Dex, stop tapping your foot. What would your father say? Patty and Felicity? Why is the temperature so ghastly infernal today? Such heathens! What grim night visions! The clock is pitter-pattering again. But I shan’t check it again. Worry rears nothing but more worry. Surely—
He grabbed his pocket watch and checked the time once more: 12:12. His foot continued to tap monotonously, endlessly. His fag burned out, and grabbed another; it burned, and he inhaled that ghostly presence.
The vivid, gloomy, sticky light of August broke through the stain-glassed windows on the far side of the room, painting a cascade of harmonious colors upon the floor wooden floor, Dex’s feet and face. He stood up in the middle of the floor, and remained static, not going left, not going right.
Trombone leapt from Felicity’s cradling grasp and onto the waving grass beside her. He reviled being carried, though he usually dealt with it. His owner continued to walk at a leisurely pace beside him. Felicity had given up hope that Oliver would arrive on time, though he never had in the past, so her tall expectations were quite unfounded. She walked under Ashton Woods’s ancient trees, their jagged yet strong branches groping outward and upward to the cloudless August sky, catching the sunlight in their hands.
Felicity enjoyed her lackadaisical approach to her walk home. There was no urgent desire to return and spectate amongst everyone else; even the occasional greeting by the elders left Felicity a smidgen reticent. If only her good friend Dolores were here; she would have made everything better.
Nevertheless, she continued down the grassy path with Trombone beside her, who was now chasing after a bee, unaware of any potential dangers that lie in such an endeavor. A horde of ants was piling out of and into their underground burrow, and Trombone hissed his unpleasantness. Gentle birds flitted overhead, their voices cascading into Felicity’s ears; the sound was peaceful and relaxing, and she began to daydream.
It was mostly about her mother, Ophelia. Felicity remembered her mother’s cool, comforting touch, and the way she would say darling whenever she spoke directly to her; Ophelia’s voice, Felicity recalled, seemed crumpled yet sonorous, and always contained a hint of honeyed rasp, a strangely inviting sound. If only she wasn’t stolen away, so many years prior.
Felicity missed her mother desperately. It had been six years—nearly half of her life—since Felicity last saw Ophelia. She didn’t quite understand as to why this was, but she trusted her father implicitly. She would do anything to get her mother back, though. Anything at all.
It soon became breezy; the wind ruffled Felicity’s dress. Trombone looked up at her and rubbed against her leg, meowing affectionately; or, as affectionately as a cat could. She could see the underbellies of the tree leaves above her, and she knew it was about to rain. Her mother told her as much. However so many years ago.
She evaluated the skies and came to the same conclusion.
As most would agree, it was harshly unsettling to feel one’s own stomach violently compressing and then lunging ascendant. Edith skirted behind an impeccable stripe of decorated topiaries and vomited rather unceremoniously. Such a rare occurrence caused immense discomfort and distress, and left an acidic bite on the tongue and a curdling shock on the teeth.
Edith suddenly felt deeply morose and unreservedly confounded by this certain predicament. These emotions came rather unexpectedly as there was no forewarning of any sort of illness. Perhaps it was an ill-prepared meal or some other sort of disastrous plague going round the English countryside. She decided to place blame on Ursula, for her sheer annoying personality. And the others as well because, well, why not? Might as well.
Nevertheless, Edith was, and rightfully so, apprehensive. If this condition had not originated from poorly produced food nor the displeasure of her former party, then, perhaps, something from her recent holiday had created this unwelcome circumstance, as she had only been back at Ashton Woods for three days.
Edith recovered herself. She clawed at some luminescent emerald grass and spread it about her production, and she then straightened herself up, checking her clothing for any sort of unsavory residue. Instead of returning to the mind-numbing festivities at the table, she headed back to the house. Along the way she passed the men, who were happily migrating toward the women, smoking their fine cigarettes and howling with cheer. She opened the door, and, upon entering, noticed Dexter in his customary state of being: restless worry, slight panic, wide-eyed surprise.
Edith had opened and closed the door rapidly, and, in the beams of the vivid August light, walked over to her older brother. Dexter could tell her mood was changed from mere hours before—when she begrudgingly left with the other girls outside—and decided to transform his own demeanor to compensate, a philosophy he had adapted to long ago.
Dexter had a complicated relationship with his first sister. Though close in age, and a relatively happy childhood together, they had increasingly drifted apart in recent years. Nowadays, their relationship consisted mostly of polite hellos and the occasional mockery of the other, but hardly ever moved beyond that. A full conversation was a rarity and silence was a regular staple whenever congregated.
Edith sauntered over to the couch and sat in the position where her brother formerly presided. “You’re looking unwell,” Dexter told her. He noticed her slightly shaking frame, a quiver upon her lip, a glassy quality to her eyes.
“Yes. Well, the heat was unbearable. And the others, too. They were nearly as intolerable as the sun.” She smiled slightly, let a strained chuckle through.
Dexter laughed himself, as he was in agreement with Edith. He looked at his sister and gently smirked. Still standing, though, he began to pace; a bit of sweat lingered on the shoulder blades, gravity willing it to slink down his back. Silence, their common friend, settled in. Edith gazed up to the ceiling, breathed in, breathed out, watched the black, putrid shadows roaming on the crackling walls, foreign beasts and persons past colorlessly jumping up and down. There was clearly something on her mind, but Dexter held his tongue.
“Oliver, then,” interjected Edith, betraying that swollen silence. “Have you heard anything?”
Of course he would be brought into the conversation; it was a matter of when. His presence was expected by everyone; he was intended to be talked about, almost in mythological terms. “No,” he said bluntly, “but he should arrive presently.” His fingers began playing a tune on his right thigh; nervousness led him to the comfort of music, and thus piano playing in the air tended to soothe that sensation.
This movement was odd but recognizable to Edith, as Dexter tended to act thus when anxiety strangled his nerves. He always had this fretful apprehension, an unending worriness, as far back as she could remember.
When Edith was eight, a Mr. George Ellis was to attend a dinner held by the Wilbys. She was excited, giddy at the fact that someone else would be joining their home, even for a briefest visit. Edith was an explorer, a wondering wanderer, and any new person—interesting or not—was a person who would change the day’s atmosphere, a promising specimen ripe for inspection. Mr. Ellis was a rotund, pompous, arrogant man—not a particularly good role model for such a youth—who travelled the world (an exciting fact for Edith). Dexter was less excited for Mr. Ellis’ arrival. A generally energetic boy, his demeanor changed drastically when George Ellis’ visit was announced; he slowed, moved inward on himself, quieted, began tapping his foot, his fingers; his blue, whispering soul curled round itself, shrunk. Novelty became uncomfortable. Dexter did not glance at Mr. Ellis for the dinner’s entirety. Not once. Edith, however, chatted with him almost constantly, investigating his travels, his life. They got on swimmingly; he inspired her. She wanted to travel with him to uncharted lands, to get out of her chair and see the world (a desire that betrayed her now). Mr. Ellis left that evening after the dessert course. Edith was devastated to see her newfound friend leave; Dexter was exhilarated to return to normalcy. That was the last the Wilbys heard of Mr. George Ellis, who tragically perished in a fire, but left an mbira, a small thumb piano, to her, as he promised her a trinket from his travels.
“He’ll be here soon, Edith. I’m sure of it.”
“Yes, of course,” she responded.
“Have you seen Felicity recently?”
“Hmm, no. She left for Mermaid Trench this morning, but I haven’t seen her since. I bet she’ll be back soon. It’s getting too warm outside and she knows better than to stay outdoors.”
“I expect she’s on her way.”
They sunk back into silence. Their conversation seemed to end. Dexter began playing the air and Edith stared neatly at her knees, her soft, lengthy hair gliding down upon her breast.
Felicity realized that she was incurably bored, incapable of finding much interest in anything at all. Not even Trombone, who scampered beside her, could hold her absolute attention.
She was nearing home and thought, again, of her friend Dolores. Felicity often felt her presence around the grounds of Ashton Woods, even though she had been gone for more than a year now. For, you see, Dolores was found dead the previous summer, waterlogged in Mermaid Trench. Felicity’s world was turned sideways, flattened in utter destruction. She collapsed, her bones instantaneously weak from grief; she cried ceaselessly for weeks on end—and for good reason. Dolores was her closest friend, and to hear of her sudden and mysterious death was earth-shattering; to have it occur at her home was just as petrifying. A long spell of nothingness waved over her, and not even Gideon Lark, her favorite groundskeeper, could boost her spirits. The individual responsible for Dolores’ death was never found, though months of rigorous investigation took place. Today her emotions were relatively back to normal, as much as they could be considering the circumstances. She promised herself not to slip into these dark doldrums, and the return of Oliver brought back happier memories, those of laughter and springtime bliss. Nevertheless, Felicity’s thoughts frequently travelled to Dolores. Oftentimes she even believed she had spotted her friend wondering on the grounds, in the shadows of trees or disjointed crooks within her timeworn home; a gleaming specter, a reminder.
Trombone brushed against Felicity’s shins and she gently plucked him from the ground. She arrived at her home and opened the door, dropping Trombone onto the creaky wooden floors. Entering the room, she closed the door behind her and saw her brother and sister. The cat scampered past and out of sight. Dexter looked forward and Edith stood up, both catching sight of their sister.
Felicity ran to them and hugged them individually.
“Hello, monkey,” Dexter said.
“Hello, goose,” her sister told her.
“Are we all here waiting for Oliver?” Felicity asked them. Both of them nodded their heads in agreement. Their eyes flicked between them. An energy was bubbling between their bodies, noticeable to the trained eye.
Echoes of laughter travelled from the outdoors, and then suddenly turned to echoes of shrill discontent.
They all sat down and waited. Outside it began to rain.