Tuesday, March 26, 2013

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF INCORPORATE THINGS: Chapter 3.1


Chapter Three, Part 1:

I looked up at Mrs. Northe, wide-eyed. "Should I...be in finer dress for dinner?" Suddenly the knee-buckling certainty that I could never suitably fill the role of Lady Denbury nearly caused me to stumble against my mentor and substitute mother. I'd turned the poor man down anyway. I'd be lucky if he had the patience to ask me again. My throat felt dry, and I tried to recover myself.

"If you'd like to dress, I've kept something for you upstairs." She chuckled. "But the company here is hardly the kind for that sort of ceremony."

"Did I ruin everything?" I whispered, seeing that Jonathon was eagerly responding to my father's awkward prompt about something museum related.

"I don't know, did you?" she whispered back, flashing a maddeningly mischievous grin.

"Maybe." I sighed. "I'm so sorry about dinner, I didn't know you planned anything—"

"Oh, this is hardly for you. Toasting your engagement would have been a delightful distraction. But with the papers being the way they are—"

"You saw about the Association, they're being targeted, just like Jonathon was—"

"Of course and I've already taken action, which is why this dinner is more important than when, exactly, you accept that dear boy's hand. Come along, let's make introductions." She gestured me forward down the entrance foyer and into the lavish dining room, and I was reminded of all the reasons why I was eternally grateful for her. Though being indebted to anyone chafed at my "woeful sense of independence," as my father called it.

All the best and finest was laid out, glittering and appetizing. The room was as rich and lush in carpeting and drapery as it was in the spread of food before us in crystal, silver, and gold-trimmed china with peacock feather patterns.

I wondered about the elegant silver-haired man in a fine navy suit near the head of the table, but it was the sight of Reverend Blessing, who had helped lead the charge in our recent battle against demons, that had me beaming a smile. And then I recognized another face at the table, a haunted red-headed woman I'd last seen backstage at Nathaniel Veil's show.

"Many of you are acquainted, save for this fine chap here to my right," Mrs. Northe began, brushing a satin-gloved hand that spoke of great familiarity across the gentleman’s shoulder. My father's jaw clenched imperceptibly. No one but me would have seen it, but after spending much of my life mute, I read body language as if it were spoken. "This is Senator Rupert Bishop," Mrs. Northe went on, "nobly representing our state in Washington. Rupert and I were childhood friends and attended our first s√©ance together, when was that..."

"Good God," the silver-haired man exclaimed, the chiseled angles of his face curving into a gamesome expression. "Nearly thirty years ago."

Mrs. Northe made a face and batted a hand. "Why did I ask? To be clear, we were children when we called our first ghost. Rupert's hair turned to winter at twenty, so let's just not speculate about our ages." Everyone chuckled. Mrs. Northe turned her charming presence to my father, and his jaw eased. "This is Gareth Stewart of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and his daughter Miss Natalie." I offered what felt like a somewhat awkward smile. She did not introduce Jonathon. He hadn't entered the room and was perhaps still lingering in the hall.

My father bowed his head to the assembled company and addressed Mr. Bishop. "Pleasure to meet you, Senator. My late wife was grateful for your support of her causes. You may have met her, she was always out and about..." he said with soft fondness that made me ache for the woman I'd never known, save for the fact she saved my life twice, once from the grave. She died for me when I was four, pushing me out of the way of a reckless carriage, and her spirit returned to save me yet again, from a demon's grip.

"Helen Stewart, you must mean, what a loss," the senator said quietly. That my mother had made an impact a senator could recall more than a decade after her death caused a lump to rise in my throat. My father nodded briefly, by now steeled to the loss but never unaffected by the mention of her name in public.

"She was the toast of our ASPCA benefits," Reverend Blessing piped in with his sonorous voice, a brilliant smile flashing a white crescent across his brown skin.

"Yes, she was," Senator Bishop added. "As passionate against animal cruelty as she was to cruelty to any creature!" Bishop shared in the reverend's warm smile before turning kind, gray-green eyes to my father and then to me. "Mister and Miss Stewart, I'm sorry to say I've been in Washington when your Metropolitan soirees grace the upper echelon of the town. Let's coordinate, as I'd love to attend one in the future."

"We'd be honored to have you, sir," my father replied.

Jonathon entered. I hoped he hadn't been out there pouting. Whatever his mood, he was

the picture of calm stoicism as he bowed his head to the assembled company and spoke with crisp softness that could hold a room in thrall. "Reverend Blessing, sir, good to see you, and why, Miss Kent," Jonathon murmured, turning to the redhead who was sitting a seat apart from everyone, dressed all in black as was the custom of Mister Veil's Association. "I..."

"Didn't expect to see me here?" Her tone was clipped with a fine London accent made more pointed by her anxiety. She set her pretty lips into a prim line, her eyes glittering with tears that she held back. "Yes. I couldn't have predicted it either. But as you well know Mrs. Northe is a godsend."

"Miss Lavinia Kent." Mrs. Northe gestured, presenting the poor, haunted girl before shooing us all into our places at the table.

"I'm afraid I still don't entirely understand what occurred, Miss Kent," Senator Bishop began gently, leaning his tall form closer across the table in a way that was engaged but nonthreatening. "Papers never tell the full story, nor an unbiased one. Could I ask you to elaborate?"

Lavinia stared into her soup as she spoke, seasoning the broth with an occasional tear, her British accent lighter for her years in New York. "We had seen the leaflet for a "cure for melancholy" at Nathaniel's show, in the program. I know he"—she looked up guiltily at Jonathon—"and you, Lord Denbury, had asked me to go take them all out. And I did, but I kept one. It haunted me, called to me. I wanted to know what it was about, and I wasn't the only one who had kept one of those papers. Curiosity is such a temptation. I inquired after the address, and a package was simply sent to my home in reply, a few vials and testimonial tracts. We distributed the drug and awaited bliss. For those of us who've attempted suicide, we hoped for salvation. It was instead an invitation to hell. True, the serum had an amazing effect. Opposite what it promised. Intense euphoria became torture. There was nothing to stop us, least of all ourselves."

Her bright eyes were reddened by tears, her mouth twisted with shame and pain as she continued. "And that's the horror of it. See, we've learned to combat our demons; we were just looking for a bit of help. But this hurt instead, the cut direct. What's the worst insult to weary people who valiantly manage to control their demons? Take away their control and make them the demon. There's nothing more cruel."

There was a quiet silence. Not tense, but merely empathetic. Her words paralleled Jonathon's experience eerily. I looked over and saw the same haunted visage I recognized from the days when his soul was trapped in a painting while a demon ran around in his likeness. Mrs. Northe broke the quiet gently by prompting. "Miss Kent's family was going to—"

"Send me off to a histrionic ward," Lavinia finished harshly what Mrs. Northe had begun delicately.

"But the senator and I told them there was no need for that, and I offered to take her in," Mrs. Northe replied.

"We've seen too many delicate souls, gifted souls, ruined by a world that doesn't understand," the elegant Senator Bishop added. "You remind me so much of my ward, Clara, gifted and sensitive. If I hadn't taken her in after her parents' death, I don't know what would've become of her. Some souls simply aren't for this earth. And yet, we are put here for a reason. To help those who are here understand that life is so much more than the limited dimensions of a first glance."

Lavinia clung to the senator's words as if they were a rope leading her out of a dark tunnel. I liked this man. I agreed with his words heartily and was compelled by his demeanor, his effortless magnetism, but something ate at me. Something that wasn't the senator's fault at all, but Mrs. Northe's...

What about Margaret Hathorn? Poor, misled, and maddening Maggie, who had stupidly gone and unwittingly cracked open dark matters she had no business in, all because Mrs. Northe didn't seem to want to bother with her. All because Mrs. Northe had ignored Maggie for me. Maggie was Mrs. Northe's niece, family; I'd just been a poor mute girl wrapped up in a magical curse, and I'd swiftly become Mrs. Northe's cause celebre. Maggie ended up courting evil into her own home, evil that nearly killed us both, because Mrs. Northe hadn't taken her seriously enough to intervene before the girl was too far gone. And yet, Miss Kent was worthy of salvation?

Where was Maggie? Had she been left to rot in some histrionic ward instead? Maggie was an idiot, certainly, but all she'd ever wanted was to be included, though she didn't understand the first thing about Spiritualism and what she did know was wrong. Mrs. Northe had no patience for Maggie's constant sensationalism, a trait I'd never allowed myself. I hadn't had the luxury of romanticizing dark magic. It had always been trying to kill me. I wanted to raise this issue, to demand an answer about why Mrs. Northe continued to fail her, but Lavinia continued and so I held my tongue. Though I caught Mrs. Northe's eye, looking at my hand to the side of the fine china where I'd clutched a finely pressed napkin too tightly, my knuckles white. I stared at the fine table setting and tried to remember which silverware setting went with which course and felt sick to my stomach again.

"My family never understood me," Lavinia replied to the senator, "but after this, they have no wish to see me, ever again. They're back to England out of embarrassment, it would seem. I hope they don't try to get Nathaniel arrested—"

"I won't have it," Jonathon exclaimed. "We'll bring the Master's Society to heel—"

"With care," Mrs. Northe cautioned. "With evidence. That is what we need. Evidence. Now more than ever, you mustn't be headstrong but measured." She turned to Lavinia. "Do you think being in England will cause Mr. Veil more trouble than here?"

"If he returns to New York, I can try to offer some measure of protection. I've...resources," the senator said mysteriously.

Lavinia lit up. "Whatever your advice may be, my friends, I'll take. And however I can help, I am in your debt."

"We'll find a way you can be useful and find ways to put your talents to work," the senator said, with the sort of assurance that made you believe in God, that everything had its time and its season.

"And we'll find those responsible," Jonathon murmured. Lavinia just looked over at him with wide, aquamarine eyes and nodded. Sometimes the idea of a vengeful God was a comfort too.

"The appropriate authorities will," my father added, giving Jonathon a warning glance. There would be no discussion of Mister Brinkman the British spy at the table, clearly.

"I pray daily for resolution of all your affairs, Lord Denbury," Reverend Blessing said, clasping his dark hands together.

"Thank you," Jonathon replied. "I'll have to return to England at some point and settle the last of it, and I'll need all the prayers I can get."

I hadn't thought about his needing to return home again, but of course. What if he went and never came back? I'd given him nothing to tether him here, to me. New York was not his home. He'd been kidnapped here. I suddenly had no appetite whatsoever, feeling whatever I'd gained might truly be lost thanks to nerves, youth, and stubbornness.

The revered led us in a brief and prosaic grace, and we then took to our first course, a golden broth soup. After a moment, the reverend added, "Do let me know, Lord Denbury, if there is anything I can do in the meantime."

"Can I visit those greyhounds of yours?" Jonathon asked with a small smile. "Those two girls could brighten any man's spirit. Good thing about dogs, so loyal, so forgiving, don't really care about any of your particulars, just take to you in good faith," he said gamesomely, but every word was a stab at me. I became fascinated by turning the spoon in the broth so that I wouldn't look at him or blurt out something pleading, silly, or defensive. I'd been silent for so many years, and in that time, my thoughts had no reins, as there was no danger of them finding voice. I had to be careful I didn't let something fly from my mental stable that would do more damage than good.

The reverend erupted in a low, endearing chuckle as Jonathon referenced his hounds rescued from a coursing run where they'd been mistreated. "Bunny and Blue were just as fond of you, my lord," the reverend replied. "Let's plan a day in the park; they're a sight to see out there. Appreciate them while you can, our rescuer found a permanent home for them. A Bronx farm." Blessing's deep brown eyes misted over. "It'll kill me to see them go, but I watch them strain toward any open door. Every living thing must be allowed to let run in the space that suits them..." His attachment to the veritable zoo of his house was one of the reasons I'd so instantly trusted him with my life. That and he was a damn good exorcist when called to be one. He looked up with a sudden grin. "But Mrs. Dawn has a new commission for me, a smaller pup who needs nothing but care. Little Sallie isn't seeing well these days, so being inside would be a blessing, with someone to dote on her a bit. That I can do."

"On the feast of Saint Francis, reverend, I'm coming to your house. That Assisi fellow would be well pleased with you," Senator Bishop said with a chuckle, making the reverend beam even brighter.

Mrs. Northe sat at the head of the table like a queen, she fit the regal role so well. She must have felt my gaze upon her for she turned to me, and in that moment I saw how truly tired she was. Not old. But tired. An old soul who was done. Ready to retire. Not from this world, but from the battles this world threw at her. Adding to the list of my many questions, I wondered just what all had happened during her recent escape to Chicago. When she spoke, I wondered if she'd read my mind. Likely she had. She could do that sometimes. At least get the sense of things.

"Friends, I have gathered you here because it should surprise no one to hear that there is still unfinished business. What happened to Lord Denbury and his portrait was one thing. The business at the hospital with the reanimate creature was another. The chemicals given to the Association is another. Master's Society resources are growing, and that's the clock we must turn back. All the assets they've gained we must reclaim. My visit to Chicago was as harrowing and challenging. The experiments that we've been seeing are going on in other cities too. Chicago I know for certain. Possibly others in the East. Industrial towns. The Master's Society has been looking to harness industry. I can only imagine they'd like to do so for their terrible inversion of life, taking the isolated incidents we've seen and mass producing them. Manufacturing horror. There's a deeper agenda at work, that of controlling through fear, but they'll have no stage upon which to play if we gain control of the means of their production."

"How do you know all this? That's quite the sweeping vision," my father asked wearily.

"Yes, Gareth," she replied sadly. It was still odd to hear anyone refer to him with such familiarity. He'd never let anyone so close. "It's the vision my best friend had upon her deathbed. It's why I had to go out to Chicago to be at her side. She needed to tell me what she was seeing. What the possibilities could be if we don't nip this Society in the bud."

Everyone at the table swallowed hard and I felt light-headed with recollection. The murmur of demons echoing in my mind was all too easy to bring back. My father's hands were clenched, white-knuckled. He didn't want to be wrapped up in this. But the woman he was courting was forcing him to confront what we'd been dealing with for months, and better it come from her than from me. Mrs. Northe continued:

"Spiritualist friends of mine in three major cities have begun to seek out the weed at its heart and rip it from the ground. There is much work to be done. We must pinpoint the epicenter of the Master's Society's New York operation, confiscate any paperwork, and track down the source, laboratory, and masterminds of the latest assault."

Jonathon chimed in, directing all his words to Mrs. Northe, a heavy weight about his generally powerful carriage. "Last week, I received a missive from the London 'Master' with instructions to look in on Doctor Stevens, purveyor of the chemical in Miss Kent's incident, and report back, just as I was instructed to do with Doctor Preston. This is presumably before any news of what happened to Preston reached them, though I'm not sure by what channels it could have; Preston's operation was small and his demonic aide was bested.” Jonathon gave Reverend Blessing a small, grateful smile. “However, the address of Stevens and the address of the supposed 'New York Office' were both vacant. Either I was being fooled, or the events surrounding Preston made Stevens disappear. So I've no longer the lead I hoped I had."

I stared at Jonathon. This was news to me, both the missive and his having inspected the premises on his own. I felt betrayed. He knew I wanted to be involved, for him to never undertake playing a demon doppelganger on his own. That a demon had once worn his face was enough to set anyone on edge, but his hiding things only undermined the type of partnership I thought we'd been building. He did not meet my gaze, and I wondered just how much he hadn't been telling me in our past weeks of laying low.

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(End of Chapter 3.1 -- Copyright 2013 Leanna Renee Hieber, The Magic Most Foul saga - If you like what you see, please share this link with friends, Tweet it, FB, + it! Pick up a copy of Magic Most Foul saga books 1 and 2: Darker Still and The Twisted Tragedy of Miss Natalie Stewart and/or please consider donating to the cause via the donate button on the sidebar! Donations go directly to support the editorial staff and future production costs, please note the two nifty prize levels. Cheers! Happy haunting! See you next Tuesday!)

1 comment:

houndstooth said...

It's good to see Sallie made an appearance of her own! If Lord Denbury thinks we Greyhounds won't see through his sneakiness, he has another thing coming. First that lousy proposal and now keeping secrets!

Bunny