Authors: Deborah White
For Al and Nik, with love
He who loves wickedness
Cloaks himself in the odour of sanctity.
At his coming will be great plagues.
He seeks the one who holds the key to life,
The true daughter and the red-haired maiden.
When she is found, then all will hear
Thoth’s mighty voice
And the wicked shall be made small as dust
Before the storm.
It was the funeral that afternoon. People would be coming back to the house after the burial. A few old friends. A couple of distant cousins. No religious service though. Grandma hadn’t believed in any of that.
“If there is a God, Claire,” she’d said, “then he isn’t in the churches. He doesn’t speak through them. No, when you find wickedness in this world, don’t look to anyone else to save you from it. You have only yourself.”
Now she was dead and Claire was sent running upstairs to fetch chairs. People would need somewhere to sit as they sipped their drinks and ate their sandwiches. As they laughed too loudly, saying what a shame it always took a death to bring them together like this.
She found a bentwood chair on the landing. It was light as a feather, so she took that down first.
“Any more?” said Claire’s mum, sounding fussed and distracted. Looking tired, and
. “Try Grandma’s bedroom.”
She didn’t hear Claire’s sharp intake of breath. Had no time anyway for a daughter who might not want to go into the room where Grandma had died just a week before.
So there she was, standing outside Grandma’s bedroom door, feeling unsteady and afraid. She had to take a deep breath before she could turn the brass knob and push open the door into the wide silence of the room.
Heavy lace curtains filtered only a very little light through the bay of the window, but Claire could still see, just.
There was the big bed, so high off the ground that Grandma had needed a stool to climb in. A chest of drawers to one side, at the right height for a mirror. A small clock, still ticking. A hairbrush, strands of Grandma’s long dark hair caught in it. A pillbox. A jewellery case, already lightly covered with a talcum of dust. And on the other side of the bed, a heavy looking carved oak chair with Grandma’s silk dressing gown still tumbled over it.
“Claire! What are you doing? I need those chairs now, not next week!”
“Coming! I’m coming!” She hurried to pick up the dressing gown, breathing in as she did, an echo of the sharp smell that was Grandma. And it was then that she uncovered it. An emerald-green box, resting on the seat of the chair and shimmering softly in the half light.
She dropped the dressing gown onto the bed, then hunkered down on her heels so she could get a better look. It wasn’t very big. As long as her hand, and a hand’s length deep. And when she plucked up the courage to touch it, it was as smooth as glass under her fingers.
It was unexpectedly light. It almost seemed to float in her hands. She turned it this way and that, looking to see if there was any clue as to what it might be. There was nothing. It wasn’t decorated at all, except for a faint line marking the edge of the lid. She looked closer. There was an oval etched deep in black, just at the place you’d expect a keyhole to be. And etched inside the oval, a crocodile’s head resting on the palm of an outstretched hand. She knew at once that it was some sort of hieroglyph. She’d seen writing just like it at the museum.
“Claire! Hurry up will you?”
Giving the box one last look and quite forgetting about taking the chair, she tumbled down the stairs, breathless, thinking,
I’ll ask Mum about it later. When everyone’s gone. Maybe she’ll know what it is.
But maybe she wouldn’t ask, because Claire’s dad had come to the funeral. Uninvited. Looking like a stranger in his charcoal-grey suit and black tie. And her mum had got very emotional when he’d said, “Let me take them back home, Jill. Give you some space.”
Them being Claire and her little sister Michaela. Micky for short.
“Space,” she’d shouted at him, loud enough for everyone to hear. A split-second’s uncomfortable silence, then a crescendo of embarrassed chatter. “I thought you were the one who needed that… to, what was it… find out who you really are?” Her face was drained of colour. Her hands clenched so tight her knuckles showed white. “Well I know
you are. You’re weak and selfish. No, you can’t have them. Their home’s here, in their grandmother’s house. It’s my house now and they’re staying.”
My name is Margrat Jennet. I live in the house of Nicholas Robert Benedict, physician. For my mother and father are both dead and I fear, now, for my own life. But I do not think he means to harm me – yet. For I make him think there is still hope of a daughter, a precious girl child.
When he presses close. When I feel the warmth of his breath sweet on my cheek. When I feel the heat of his body, and see the tremor of pulse in his neck, I do not move away. My heart beats very fast. I feel a prickle of fear raise the hairs on the nape of my neck.
“Ah, Margrat,” he says. “You smell of the sweet meadow hay.”
And I tremble like the harvest mouse in hiding, as the swish, swish, swish of the scythe draws near.
He said that my mother made him my guardian. Certainly I did see a will, made after my father’s death.
It was in my mother’s hand, and bore her true signature. It may have been that she was forced to sign. But I think she did so in good faith. For who would not trust such a man? He is known everywhere. In high, and in low places. And he is fine and handsome. Tall, and smooth-skinned. He has dark eyes burning like coals. The hot, restless smell of him when he is close makes me afraid, yet draws me in. Like a moth to the candle’s flame.
These thoughts shame me. I am tested every minute of every day, and may fail to hold out against him. So I have vowed to write down everything I know and place it somewhere safe, so that, God willing, any who come after me will be forewarned and may be saved.
Later, in the bedroom Claire was having to share with Micky – when it was dark, and the only sounds were the sharp cracks and creaks of an old house settling, the soft shallow whispering sound of Micky breathing – Claire thought about what her mother had said. My house. They’re staying. Typical. Everything always revolved around what her mum wanted.
Claire’s own breathing quickened. She wanted her mum and dad to sort out their lives, so that she could get on with hers. She wanted to be lying in her own bed, in her own room, in her old house. She wanted to be kept awake at night worrying about those things that her mum and dad would think were trivial and unimportant. Friendships: Katrin and Jade. Jade, who had three tattoos and her nose, eyebrow and belly button pierced. Katrin who didn’t and never would. Because Katrin was going places
and already knew that, where she wanted to go, appearances mattered. That most people don’t take the time or trouble to see what’s swimming below the surface. That acting the part is, most of the time, all that you need to do.
And Claire. Not knowing how she fitted in. Anywhere. Being afraid she would be the sort of person who had the tattoo and piercing, but only where it didn’t show. Being afraid because she hadn’t felt anything when Grandma had died. Nothing at all. And that wasn’t right was it? Only to feel relief, because she hadn’t liked her. Had been scared of her even. Had found her fierce intelligence, dark moods and oppressive silences unsettling.
Claire sat up. Threw back the covers. The cold chill of the room hit her like a wave. She swung her legs over the side of the bed. Felt panic closing her throat and beads of sweat forming at her hairline. And all the while dispassionately observing her own terror.
But Micky didn’t wake.
Claire crawled into Micky’s bed. Rolled Micky
onto her side to make room. Folded her body round Micky’s, needing to breathe in, just this once, the soft, sour, familiar smell of her skin, her hair. Felt the brittle, chicken-winged boniness of her and clung tight.
It began ten months before my 14th birthday. On the 27th day of February, 1665. In weather so cruel and bitterly cold, birds fell clear out of the sky, and a boy was found frozen to death, just a step away, in Jerusalem Alley. But I gave no thought to that. The river was iced so thick that a frost fair was set out upon it. I’d heard there were any number of stalls and entertainments and I wanted to go.
My father had given me a little money for some work I had done for him in his shop; unpacking a leather bag that had recently come into his possession, and was full of scrolls covered in strange writing. Not letters, but pictures used as signs. My father had said they were hieroglyphics, the language of the Ancient Egyptians. And there was no one still alive who could understand it, but there were many who tried.
“For it was believed, Margrat,” my father leaned
in close to me. His voice fell to a whisper, “that the Egyptians knew many wondrous secrets and anyone able to decipher their language would be privy to them. How powerful and rich they would be then.”
Oh! I determined at once that I would be the one to unlock those secrets. How happy my mother would be with me if I could. For we would be rich. Have wealth enough for her to forgive me the sin of being born with red hair. But until then I meant to spend the money that I did have as quick as I could, before my mother took it from me.
And that is how I first met with Doctor Nicholas Robert Benedict.
I had been at the fair a long while, for there was plenty to see. I’d watched a puppet show, a rope-walker and the horse and carriage races. I’d bought a new ribbon and some lace to trim my dress. I’d paid my pennies to an old woman in a fortune-teller’s booth. She took my money, read my palm, and told me she could see nothing but blackness. Which made me very cross, for that is no future at all. And so I stepped out of the booth in such a temper, I slipped on the ice and the shock of it took my breath clean away. My ankle turned under
me and I would have fallen, but a man sprang forward and caught me. He held me tight in a clasp as hard as iron. I looked up into his eyes, deep and black as the night sky with no stars to light it.
Then I heard him say, “Margrat!”
“Do I know you, sir?” I asked, pulling back. There was something familiar about the smell of him and it disturbed me.
He smiled, and I noticed that his teeth were not rotten and black at all, but very white and even. His breath did not smell of decay, as most people’s did, but was as sweet as honey.
“I saw you in your father’s shop when I was enquiring after Egyptian scrolls,” he said. “You seemed in a hurry then too. You pushed so close past me as I came in at the door, that a strand of your hair caught in the pin on my cloak. It was such a perfect red gold, that I took it for an omen of good fortune and kept it.”
Then, before I had a moment to reflect on that, he told me his name.
I gasped and felt a hot flush flood my face. For this was the man all London seemed in awe of. His name spoken in excited whispers: Doctor Nicholas Benedict! Have you heard? He performs miracles and cures the sick! He is more wealthy than Croesus. Has more charms
than the Devil himself. And, can you believe it, no wife to care for him.
Now he was asking if he might take me home, as his carriage was waiting nearby. Oh! Such moments are what fate turns on. I felt it, as if the world had stopped spinning for a heartbeat and I had stepped clean out of time.
He moved in close and took my arm. “Come, there is nothing to be afraid of.”
Which seemed true, for it was said that he was always at Court and was a close friend of the King. Besides, my house was not far away, and the streets were full of people.
And he was such a fine, well-dressed gentleman. He wore a hat made of beaver fur trimmed with an ostrich feather. He carried a black lacquered cane, with a snake’s head in silver and on his finger was a diamond ring.
I had met with many men of quality in my father’s shop, behind St Paul’s, where he dealt in rare books and manuscripts. But I had met no man before this, of whom all London seemed in awe.
So with my ankle beginning to swell and painful to walk on, I thanked him. Let him lift me up into the carriage. Sit so close to me, that I could feel the heat
from his body, and smell the sweet spiciness of his perfume. And though he spoke softly to me, I was struck quite dumb. My tongue tied into a thousand knots, and I was never in all my life so pleased to reach home.
Our maid Jane came to the door and her mouth dropped open at the sight of me, Margrat Jennet, brought home in such a fine carriage.
The Doctor jumped out, then reached up to help me down. I felt his hands circle my waist inside my cloak. I felt his diamond ring pricking my side, and his thumbs pressing hard into my ribs as he lifted me out. My face came level with his. He drew in his breath and must have drawn mine in with it, for I had none left. And the world lost all its colour, and I was falling down.
When I awoke at last, it was to candle and firelight. The sound of coals hissing and shifting in the grate. Jane asleep on the truckle at the end of my bed. My hair loose and damp with sweat, spread out, my father said, like rays of the sun. Then other voices, and the door opening and my mother taking my hand and whispering excitedly in my ear, “Doctor Nicholas Benedict, no less. In my house, and tending to the
health of my daughter! Be nice to him, my poppet, won’t you?”
Even my father seemed amazed and grateful for it.
“It was a lucky day you met with the Doctor, Margrat. For he is just lately returned from Egypt, and without his help you would have been lost. For you were sick to your very soul, he said, and tied to this world only by a thread. But by some magic he learned on his travels, he brought you back to us.”
My father turned, smiled, and held out his hand. “Now he has come to see if you are feeling better.” And the Doctor stepped forward out of the shadows.
I struggled to sit upright, but I was weak.
“Shh. Be calm. Lie still now.” The Doctor leaned in so close over me that I could see how the pulse in his neck quickened. How tiny prickles of sweat formed on his forehead and upper lip. Like hot breath on a cold windowpane.
Lightly stroking my hair back from my forehead, he said, “The fever is not yet gone.” Then he loosened the ribbons around the neck of my nightgown, and the tips of his fingers brushed the length of my collarbone.
Now he saw the ring on the braid about my neck, and I thought all was undone. For I had stolen the ring. Taken it from a leather bag full of scrolls I had
unpacked for my father just a few days before. It had been tied on a thin braid of woven red linen. Not a beautiful ring, studded with precious jewels, but fashioned in plain gold, inset with an oval blue stone. The stone was carved with a crocodile’s head resting upon the palm of an outstretched hand. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
I had tried it on at once, but it was so small it would not pass over the first joint on the ring finger of either hand, though I pushed and pushed. My hands are not dainty like my mother’s.
At least, I thought, it will fit snug on my little finger, but it was too loose. Even so I meant to have it. But I knew that even if my father would let me keep it, my mother would not. If she thought it had worth, she would make my father sell it. So I had tied the ring on its braid around my neck.
I ought not to have taken it. I know that. But I liked the feel of it, resting warm and heavy against my skin.
How heavy it felt now, and hot. As if it were burning deep into my flesh. I looked up into the Doctor’s eyes. Saw myself reflected small in them. Then, leaning in towards me, his mouth close to my ear, he whispered something so strange I felt a quiver of fear flood through
“Tell no one about the ring, Margrat. And do not wear it on your finger on pain of death. But keep it on its braid around your neck always, for its hieroglyphics protect you from Sekhmet. Her messengers, carrying pestilence, are even now spreading out through the lanes and alleyways of London. For the hour is near, and I must keep you safe. I have need of you, Margrat.”