I’ve mentioned to you, Dear Reader, that Caroline was indeed my inspiration for The Woman in White. When, in the summer of 1854, my brother, Charley, and my friend John Millais came upon this apparition in white robes rushing from the garden of a North London villa in the moonlight—it was Caroline, of course, fleeing from her brute of a husband, who had, she told me at the time, been keeping her prisoner by mesmeric means—I, alone of the three of us men, had pursued her. And I had believed her about her drunken thug of a wealthy husband, a certain George Robert G——, and about how her life with one-year-old Carrie had been one of imprisonment and mental torture.
Some years later, Caroline had informed me that George Robert G—— had died. How she received this information I did not know nor ask (even while recognising how improbable it was that she had received it at all, since she had been living in my home all those years since the night she’d fled weeping across Charlton Street in the moonlight). But I accepted the news as fact and never asked her about it. For all these years, we had both pretended that she was Mrs Elizabeth G——— I had given her the name Caroline when she had come under my care—who had been victimised by her husband with both mesmerism and a fireplace poker.
The probable truth, I had thought at the time—and had no reason to change my mind about the matter now fourteen years later—was that Caroline had been fleeing from a pimp or client turned violent that summer night in 1854.
“You see the advantages to Carrie over the next few years if our girl can say and show that she is from an established family,” Caroline went on, speaking to my back. Her voice had a slight quaver to it now.
The “our girl” made me angry. I had always treated Carrie with the same love and generosity as if she had been my daughter. But she was not. She never would be. This was a sort of blackmail going on, a strategy I had reason to believe that Caroline had known well in the time before I rescued her, and I would have none of it.
“Wilkie, my dearest, you must admit that I have always been understanding when you have told me that your frail and aged mother was the absolute encumbrance to you marrying.”
“Yes,” I said.
“But with Harriet’s passing, you are free now?”
“Free to marry if you like?”
“Yes.” I kept my face turned to the window and the street.
She waited for me to say something else. I did not. After a long moment in which I could clearly hear every swing of the pendulum in the tall clock in the hallway beyond, Caroline turned and left my study.
But I knew this was not the end of the conversation. She had another and final card to play—one she thought foolproof. And I knew she would play it soon. What she did not know was that I had a full hand of cards to play myself. And more up my sleeve.
SCRABBLINGS. THERE ARE scrabblings.”
I had been wakened much earlier than usual—a check of my watch showed it to be not yet nine o’clock—and I was alarmed by the phalanx of faces hovering over me: Caroline, Carrie, my servant George, George’s wife, Besse, who acted as our parlourmaid.
“What?” I said again, sitting up in bed. This invasion of my bedchamber before breakfast was intolerable.
“There are scrabbling sounds,” repeated Caroline.
“What are you talking about? Where?”
“In h’our stairs, sir,” said George, his face red with embarrassment at being brought into my bedroom. This was obviously Caroline’s doing.
“The servants’ staircase?” I said, rubbing my eyes. The previous night had not been a morphine-assisted one, but my head ached anyway. Abominably.
“They’ve been hearing it on every storey of the house,” said Caroline. Her voice was as loud and grating as a Welsh calliope. “Now I’ve heard it as well. It’s as if there’s a great rat in there. Scrabbling up and down.”
“Rat?” I said. “We had the exterminators here last autumn when we did all the work on the house and updated the plumbing.” I put deliberate emphasis on the last word.
Caroline had the good grace to blush, but she did not desist. “There’s something in the servants’ staircase.”
“George,” I said, “haven’t you looked into this?”
“Aye, sir, Mr Collins, I ’ave. I went in, sir, and oop and doon following the noise, sir. But each time I got close, it… I haven’t found it, sir.”
“Do you think it’s rats?”
George was always a little slow, but he had rarely looked as completely half-witted as he did while wrestling with this question. “It sounds like one great ’un, sir,” he said at last. “Not rats so much, sir, as… a single bloody great rat, beggin’ your pardon, misses.”
“This is absurd,” I said. “Everyone get out. I will dress and be down in a minute and find and kill this ‘single bloody great rat’ of yours. And then perhaps you’ll all be so kind as to let a sick man get his rest.”
I CHOSE TO enter the stairway on the kitchen level so she could not get below me.
I was certain that I knew what had been making the noise. In truth, I wondered why I’d not seen the woman with green skin and tusks for teeth before this during the eight months we had been in the new house. The Other Wilkie had come along from Melcombe Place easily enough.
But why can the others now hear her?
In all the years the woman with the green skin had occupied my previous servants’ staircases in the dark, no one but I had ever heard or seen her. I was certain of that.
Are the Gods of the Black Lands making her more real the way they have the Other Wilkie?
I set that disturbing thought aside and lifted the candle from the table. I’d ordered the others not to come into the kitchen with me and to stay away from all of the doorways to the servants’ stairway on each storey of the tall house.
The woman with green skin and tusked teeth had drawn blood on my throat before this, long before Drood, the scarab, and the Gods of the Black Land had entered my life. I had no doubt that she could kill me now if I allowed her the proximity and opportunity. I had no intention of allowing her either.
Opening the door slightly, I removed Detective Hatchery’s heavy pistol from my jacket pocket.
With the door closed behind me, the servants’ staircase was almost absolutely dark. There were no windows along this side of the house, and the few candles in the wall sconces had not been lighted. The staircase was unusually—and disturbingly—steep and narrow, rising straight for three storeys before pausing on a short landing and continuing two storeys in the opposite direction to the attic.
I listened for a moment before starting up the stairs. Nothing. Candle in my left hand, pistol in my right, and stairway so narrow that my elbows on each arm brushed the walls, I moved quietly up the steps.
Halfway between the ground floor and first floor, I paused to light the first wall candle.
There was no candle there, although one of our parlourmaid’s daughter’s jobs was to replace them regularly. Leaning closer, I could see scratches and gouges on the firmly fixed old sconce, as if something had ripped the half-burned candle there out with claws. Or with teeth.
I paused to listen again. The softest of scuttling sounds came from somewhere above me.
The woman with green skin and tusked teeth had never made a loud sound before, I realised. She had always glided up and down stairs, towards or away from me, as if her bare feet barely touched the steps.
But that had been in my other houses. This servants’ stairway may have had more resonance for such malign spirits.
How had Shernwold died? She had fallen down these very steps and broken her neck, but why had she been in the servants’ staircase?
Investigating the sounds of rats?
And why had she fallen?
The candles missing from their sconces as if eaten?
I continued up to the first storey, paused in front of that doorway a moment—the doors were old and thick, and no sound came t
The second candle was also missing from its sconce.
Something scuttled and scraped most audibly from not too far above me now.
“Hallo?” I called softly. I confess to feeling some sense of real power as I extended the pistol. If the woman with green skin had been corporeal enough to leave scratches on my neck—and she had—then she was corporeal enough to feel the effects of one of these bullets. Or several of them.
How many bullets were in the cylinder?
Nine, I remembered from that day Detective Hatchery had pressed the pistol into my hand, telling me as I went down to King Lazaree’s den that I should have something to defend myself from the rats. I even remembered what he had said about the calibre.…
“They’re forty-two calibre, sir. Nine should be more than sufficient for your average rat… four-legged or two-legged, as the case may be.”
I stifled the giggle that rose in my throat now.
At the second-storey door, the staircase behind and beneath me, only dimly illuminated by my flickering candle, seemed so steep as to be vertical. It—and perhaps lack of breakfast and the after-effects of my three glasses of morning laudanum—gave me a sense of vertigo.
Something sounding far too much like claws on plaster or wood scrabbled above me.
“Show yourself!” I cried into the darkness. I confess that this was mere bravado, a hope that George, Caroline, Besse, and the girl, Agnes, might hear me. But they were, presumably, two storeys below me now. And the doors were very thick.
I began climbing even more slowly, the pistol directly in front of me and swinging from side to side like an absurdly heavy weather vane in variable winds.
The scrabbling was not only louder now, but it seemed to have a direction. I could not tell if it came from the third-storey landing, where the staircase turned back in the opposite direction, or from somewhere between me and that landing. I made a mental note to have at least one window set into the thick brick-and-masonry outer wall there at the landing if no place else.
I took three more steps.
I cannot tell you, Dear Reader, from where the apparition of my woman with green skin and yellow tusk-teeth had originally come from, only that she had been with me since my early childhood. I remember her entering our nursery when Charles was sleeping. I remember seeing her in the attic of my father’s house when I had been so imprudent as to explore that dark and cobwebbed space when I was nine or ten years of age.
They say that familiarity breeds freedom from fear, but that is not quite the case. The green-skinned wench—her face was not of any living woman I had ever known, although I sometimes thought that she reminded me a bit of the first governess Charley and I had ever had—gave me the shudders every time I encountered her, but I knew from experience that I could fight her off when she lunged at me.
But no one else has ever heard her before. She’s never made a sound before.
I took another three steps towards the third-storey landing and stopped.
The scraping and scurrying were much louder now. The sound seemed very close above me, although now the pale circumference of candlelight extended almost to the landing itself. But it was very loud and—I understood George’s fear now—very ratlike indeed. Scrabble-scrape. Silence. Scrabble scrabble scrabble scrape. Silence. Scrabble scrabble.
“I have a surprise for you,” I said, cocking the massive pistol one-handedly with some difficulty. I remembered Hatchery saying that the large bottom barrel was a sort of shotgun. I wished now that he’d given me shells for it.
Two more steps up and I could see the landing. It was empty.
The scrabbling came again. It seemed to be above and even behind me.
I raised the candle over my head and peered straight up.
The scrabbling had turned to wild screaming and I stood there, frozen, listening to the screaming for a full minute or more before realising that it was coming from me.
Turning to flee, I pounded down the stairs, reached the second- storey door, shook it while screaming, looked up over my shoulder, screamed again. I fired the pistol at least twice, knowing that it would do no good. It did not. Running and clattering down the stairs again—the first-storey door also locked from the other side—I screamed as something moist and foul dripped from… from above… and then I was hurtling down the stairway again, ricocheting from wall to wall. I dropped the candle and it went out. Something brushed my hair from above, curled along the back of my neck. Whirling in the absolute darkness, I fired the revolver twice more, tripped, fell headfirst down the last dozen steps.
I do not know to this day how I managed not to lose the pistol or shoot myself with it. Screaming more loudly now, I lay in a heap at the bottom of the steps and pounded at the ground-floor door.
Something strong and thin and very long wrapped itself around my right boot and ripped it off my foot. If I had buckled the boot properly before coming in, I would have been dragged back up the staircase with it.
Screaming again, I fired a final shot up into the darkness, tore open the door, and—blinded by the light—fell forward onto the long boards of the kitchen floor. Flailing wildly with both feet, I kicked the heavy door shut behind me.
George ran in despite my earlier commands for no one to be in the room. I could see Caroline’s and the other two female faces staring white and round and open-mouthed from the doorway to the hall.
I almost pulled George down to the floor as I fiercely grabbed his lapel and whispered wildly to him, “Lock it! Lock the door! Lock it! Now!”
George did so, throwing the totally inadequate tiny bolt home. There was no sound from the other side. My panting and gasping seemed to fill the kitchen.
Getting to my knees and then to my feet, the pistol still raised and cocked, I pulled George back tight against me and hissed in his ear, “Get as much lumber as you need and as many men as you need. I want all the staircase doors nailed shut and then boarded over within the half hour. Do you understand? Do… you… understand?”
George nodded, pulled himself free from my grip, and ran out to get what he needed.
I backed out of the kitchen, never taking my eyes from the far-too-frail door to the stairway.
“Wilkie…” began Caroline, setting her hand on my shoulder but then jerking it away as I jumped.
“It was rats,” I gasped, uncocking the pistol that was suddenly too heavy for me to hold. I tried to remember how many bullets I had fired but could not. I would count the remaining ones later. “It was only rats.”
“Wilkie…” Caroline began again.
I shook her off and went up to my bedroom to vomit into the basin and find my flask.
Caroline played her trump card on Wednesday, the twenty-ninth of April, the day before the Russia, carrying Dickens and Dolby on the last leg of their long voyage, was scheduled to drop anchor in Queenstown Harbour.
Caroline knew that I was in a good mood, although she had no idea of all the reasons why. Those reasons were clear enough to me. When Charles Dickens had sailed for America the previous November, he had been the master and I the eager apprentice; now The Moonstone in serial form was the hit of the nation, crowds at the Wellington Street offices of All the Year Round were larger with each number released, and commoner and nobility both were hanging on each new instalment to see just who had stolen the diamond and how. And I was secure in the sure and certain knowledge that even the cleverest reader among them would never be able to guess.
When Charles Dickens had sailed for America the previous November, my play No Thoroughfare—and it was, indeed, my play, after all the rewrites, revisions, and fresh ideas I had poured into it since the previous autumn—had been just a dream in early rehearsal. Now it was a bona fide hit and had already run at the Adelphi Theatre for more than one hundred and thirty sold-out evening performances. There were eager negotiations under
Finally, Mother’s death, while saddening me (and horrifying me with its insectoid aspects and uncertainty of cause) had also liberated me. Now, at the age of forty-four, I had finally and fully become a man unto myself.
So Caroline sensed that despite the incident of the servants’ stairway (after two weeks I still would not go into the kitchen or any part of the upper hallways near the heavily nailed, boarded over, and fully sealed doors), and despite frequent relapses and the continuing pain that required larger doses of laudanum and morphine just to allow me to work a few hours each day, I was in the best mood I had enjoyed for years.
Dickens had left in November thinking of himself as the Master and me as protégé; he was returning (ill and disabled, from all accounts) to find me as the popular-selling novelist, successful playwright, and fully independent man I now was. We would meet this time as equals (at the very least).
And, I was increasingly convinced, we both carried Drood’s scarabs in our skulls. That fact alone brought a grim new equality to our relationship.
CAROLINE CAME TO ME that Wednesday morning while I was in the bath. Perhaps she thought this was when I would be at my most mellow… or at least at my most pliable.
“Wilkie, my dear, I have been thinking about our earlier conversation.”
“Which conversation is that?” I asked, even though I knew full well. My spectacles had steamed over and I reached for a nearby towel and squinted while I wiped the lenses clear. Caroline became a great white-and-pink lumpy blur.
“The one about Lizzie moving into society and about the future of our own relationship under this roof,” she said, sounding very nervous indeed.
I, on the other hand, was completely calm as I set the tiny spectacles back on my nose. “Yes?”
“I have decided, Wilkie, that for our Lizzie… Carrie… to have the proper advantages in life, her mother really must be married and she part of a stable family.”
“I could not agree more,” I said. The steam from my bath rose to the ceiling and curled to all sides. Caroline’s face was flushed red with it.
Drood by Dan Simmons / Horror / Mystery & Detective / Fantasy have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes