The scream ripped through the frozen air, sharp as a knife.
Liston Bradshaw sat bolt upright in bed, his quick breaths mist‑ ing in the freezing air. Outside a snowstorm raged, and the wind tore around Top Withens Hall, imprisoning it in a howling, furious vor‑ tex of noise. When the dreadful cry sounded for the second time, Liston stumbled out of bed, dragging on his breeches and shoving his bare feet into his boots. Careering down the stairs into the hall, he heard his father’s violent shouts.
“Begone with you, demon, begone!” Clifton Bradshaw railed at thin air. Liston arrived to see his father swivelling this way and that, a rusty old sword from above the fireplace in his hand, as he jabbed at and threatened empty spaces. His eyes were wild with fright and red with drink. The hounds barked madly at his side, in turn cow‑ ering from and snarling at some invisible threat. “Show yourself, and let me fight you!”
“What is it, Pa?” Liston asked as the latest scream died away, and he searched out every dark corner for the phantom intruder. “Why are we cursed so?”
“I’m mortal afraid that she has come back to claim my soul,” Clifton told his son, his voice trembling.
“Who? Is there someone outside?” Liston went to the door, grabbing a poker from the fireplace.
“There’s no one outside, fool,” Bradshaw spat. “This fury comes from within the house. It comes to take revenge.”“This fury comes from within the house. It comes to take revenge.”
When the wailing came again, it was heavy with a piercing, plaintive sorrow that soaked the very air in grief. His father was right. There was no mistaking it: the cries were coming from the oldest part of the house, from the rooms that his father had shut up on the day Liston’s mother died, and none had set foot in them since.
“Mary.” Bradshaw’s face crumbled as he spoke his dead wife’s name aloud, dragging the sword across the stone flags. “Mary, why do you hate me so? Please, I beg you. Tell me what you want from me!”
“Pa?” Liston called after him uncertainly.
“Are you coming, or will you be a milksop all your life?”
Liston swallowed his misgivings and followed his father into the perfect dark.
The dull jangle of heavy keys, the clunk of the stiff lock opening and the creak of the old door echoed in the night, and Liston held his breath. His mother’s mausoleum had been unlocked.
The rush of air that greeted them was stiff with ice.
Liston shuddered as he stepped over the threshold into the old house. Thirteen years since his mother had gone to God. Thirteen years since his father had shut off these rooms, keeping the only key on his belt at all times, even when he slept. In all that time there had been no fire in the grate, not even a candle lit at the window.
It was as cold and silent as the grave.
“Mary?” Liston was stunned to hear his father’s voice thick with raw and bloody sorrow. “Mary, is it you? Are you coming back to me, my darling? Mary, answer me!”
As they entered what had once been his mother’s bedchamber, it was as if time stopped. The storm quietened in an instant, and suddenly every corner was lit up by the full moon, almost as bright as day. The ancient box bed crouched in the corner, as if it might pounce at any moment. The few things that his mother had owned were still laid out on the dressing table, and a howling wind swept in through a shattered window, leaving jagged, frosted shards glinting in the moonlight.
What had happened here?
Bradshaw fell to his knees on the dust-covered floor, tearing at his hair. “Mary, I’m here. Come back to me. I beg you. Please, please, tell me you forgive me.”
For the space of one sharp inward breath, there was silence. Then the screaming began again, so loud that Liston felt for a mo‑ ment it was coming from within him. Furiously his father grabbed the poker from him and dug it into the gaps of the drystone chimney breast, forcing out one stone and then another. Dropping the poker, he frantically began to pull the loose stones out, until, at last, a great cascade of them tumbled onto the floor, making the rotten boards tremble.
The shrieking stopped, as if cut short by a smothering hand.
Warily Liston took a step closer to see what his father was staring at. There, tucked into a sooty alcove more than halfway up the chimney, was something bundled and bound into a blackened cloth parcel of considerable size.
“Fetch it down, then,” his father commanded him, and though he felt a sense of dread in his gut unlike any he had ever known, Liston obeyed his father. Though it was large, the parcel was light as a feather, shifting in his arms. As he laid it down, all the fear Liston felt drained suddenly away, and he was left only with horror.
“Out of my way.” Bradshaw elbowed his son to one side, taking the knife from his belt, slicing through the bindings and revealing to the night what had been hidden within.
“Dear God in heaven, deliver us from evil,” Liston whispered as he fell back on his heels at the sight.
“I’d say that God was nowhere to be found when this occurred,” his father replied.
For contained within the desiccated cloth were the skull and bones of a child.
Though the fire was banked and burning brightly, and she was wrapped in her warmest shawl, Anne had never felt so cold, not even during her father’s lengthy sermon in church yesterday. At least on a Sunday, there was the rest of the congregation to create a com‑ munity of warmth among them. On this freezing December Mon‑ day, however, the air was thick with frost, without and within, as evidenced by the filigree etched onto every window. And the paper that Anne had laid out on her writing desk was still as pristine as the last fresh snowfall.
“Emily, you have yet to write to Ellen and thank her for her let‑ ter,” Charlotte told her sister from her seat at the table, a neat pile of correspondence before her. “As it is, Ellen is vexed with me for not visiting Brookroyd recently. I find myself having to beg her not to scold me further! Please don’t compound the matter with ill man‑ ners. If you write a note now, I can enclose it with my letter. Perhaps she will forgive me, for honestly her letter is as prickly as the holly leaf on the mantel, and quite unfair. A person cannot help that they are occupied with writing, detecting and disastrous brothers, not that I have told her about the first two. And now we are marooned in the midst of all this snow. I am surprised that Ellen cannot under‑ stand that which is quite plain.”
“Ellen is your oldest and dearest friend, Charlotte,” Anne re‑ minded her sister mildly. “Do not hold her regret at not seeing you against her. Think of all that she is managing, with her brother ill again and sent to the asylum.”
Charlotte pursed her lips, just as Anne knew she would. If there was one thing Charlotte did not like, it was to have her own short‑ comings revealed to her.
“Well, at least I have written to her, Anne, and sent your regards as you requested,” Charlotte said primly. “Emily is ignoring her completely, and that, I would say, is the worse transgression.”
“Heavens!” Emily replied, with a deep sigh as she stood at the window peering into the freezing air. “Cannot you see I am occupied?”
“Occupied?” Charlotte snorted. “By standing?”
“By thinking,” Emily said. “Though I realise this is an endeavour that you are largely unfamiliar with. I have received a request that though on the one hand it would give me great pleasure in its execution, it would also require me to be . . . social . . . and nice to those I am not at all interested in. In short, other people.”
“You should decline immediately,” Charlotte advised. “If I recall, and I do my best not to recall, your last social engagement resulted in us moving to Brussels.”
“That is not true!” Anne laughed. “Emily, what request has been made of you?”
“One Lord and Lady Hartley,” Emily said, handing a letter headed with a coat of arms to Anne as if it were imbued with some terrible plague, “most often of London, but sometimes of that ghastly gothic folly Oakhope Hall, wish me to play at a musical evening they are arranging for some charitable cause. Apparently, word of my prowess as a pianist has somehow reached their notice.”
“Lord and Lady Hartley?” Charlotte whipped the letter out of Anne’s hand and was examining it intensely before Anne was able to read one line. “But, Emily, they are very great and important people. You must know that.”
“I know that they are very rich,” Emily said. “And I know that some, Charlotte, dear, equate riches with status.”
“Their wealth is an aside. Lady Hartley is a famous philanthropist. Her charitable work has eased the suffering of many a poor soul here in the North, where she grew up. I have heard it said she converses with Thackeray, and Mrs. Gaskell . . . and has even been received by Her Majesty the Queen. You must accept!”
“Must I?” Emily turned to look at her older sister. “There will be dozens of accomplished young women of good families lining up to play a pretty piece. What on earth does she want with a Brontë daughter?”
“‘What does she want with you?’ is a more pertinent question,” Charlotte said, unable to hide her regret at not receiving such a prestigious request.
“You should have practised your lessons more, Charlotte,” Emily said. “It seems the great Lady Hartley has no use for someone who is expert in talking.”
“But you will do it,” Charlotte said. “Imagine what an acquaintance with the Hartleys might do for us. And just at this moment when we have sent our poetry out into the world. It might make all the difference to our success, Emily. To have our work put before the eyes of important personages, to have their patronage, could change our fortunes entirely.”
“Sister dear,” Emily sighed. “I care no more for who sees our rhymes than I do for writing ridiculously superfluous thank-you notes for thank‑you notes’ sake. All that will happen is that I will write to Ellen saying ‘Thank for your letter,’ and then Ellen will write to me, thanking me for my letter, and then I shall be obliged to write her and so on for all eternity. To save us all some precious time, I shall trust that Ellen knows me well enough to know that I am always most thankful!”
“I do believe that we are all rather strained by being so much indoors,” Anne interjected quickly, noting how the colour rose in Charlotte’s cheeks. “Perhaps if we took a walk around the table, put all thoughts of letters and recitals aside for a moment and shared our ideas aloud . . . ?”
Anne often wondered what would become of her sisters if she was not present to mediate with them. Though Emily and Charlotte loved each other fiercely, they each took a perverse delight in irritat‑ ing the other. Charlotte knew that Emily would always resist any‑ thing Charlotte asked her to do, and Emily was perfectly aware that Charlotte would not be able to rest until she was certain that every‑ thing had been properly done. They goaded each other out of bore‑ dom, competition and a new sense of unease that neither of them would admit to. For Anne was certain that this most recent skirmish had nothing to do with the banks of snow that seemed to engulf them, or their continuing lack of paid employment. She was sure that it was because just recently, after a series of polite refusals, Charlotte had sent their collected poems to the publisher Aylott and Jones, asking if they would consider them for publication. There were eyes outside their own on their work once more, and soon they would know if there was any merit to their efforts. It was terrifying.
Emily could barely speak of it without having to storm off in a fluster, and as for Charlotte, well, it did not help that last month she had written to Monsieur Héger, after waiting the six long months he had bade her, and now she was in a state of torture, desperate for a reply. Anne had hoped the passing time, the distraction of detec‑ tions and their book might divert her sister from her devotion to that individual, but still her longing for his favour lived on within her, like a fever that would not abate. The wait for the post had become a fraught affair that had so far resulted only in double disappointment, and now this Lady Hartley business would only distress and vex her more, for Charlotte would so dearly have loved to move amongst those rarefied circles that Emily cared for not one jot. Christmas was meant to be a time of family, of communion, com‑ panionship, contentment and prayer, and yet . . .
What they all needed—what Anne herself longed for—was adventure.
“When the world looks like this, I wonder if it will ever thaw again,” Emily said eventually as the moment of tension eased. “I believe I prefer it, despite the cold. I can almost imagine it unsullied by man entirely. In fact, perhaps Keeper and I shall go out for a walk and enjoy a few minutes of believing I am the only human being left alive.”
“You cannot go out in this cold, Emily,” Charlotte said. “You will catch your death.”
“Well, at least that would be more interesting than this interminable period of sitting still. There has been no detecting for weeks,” Emily lamented. “Nothing of any note anyway, and frankly I’d rather not detect at all if all I am being asked to investigate is the disappearance of a cow.”
“Cows matter a great deal to some people,” Charlotte countered.
“Mr. Hawthorne was delighted to have Gracie returned to him, and I do believe he will think twice about gambling her away again in the future.”
“Yes, and that was all well and good,” Emily sighed. “But it’s not quite the same as our summer adventure, is it? Why, we haven’t been terrified for our lives on any single day or night for the last four months.”
“I was rather concerned by my last cold,” Charlotte said. “Perhaps it might be more helpful for us to talk about the fears and anxieties that concern us regarding our submission to Aylott and Jones,” Anne suggested. “For if we voice our feelings, share the burden of our worries, we may lessen them.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Charlotte said.
“What a horrifying prospect,” Emily said, adding thoughtfully, “Perhaps we should advertise Bell Brothers and Company in the paper—spread word of our services further afield. I’m sure that Brad‑ ford is rife with immorality of all kinds.”
“There is a good deal more law enforcement in Bradford,” Charlotte said, disconsolate. “Constables everywhere you look spoiling the fun.”
“Soon we will have word of our book of rhymes,” Anne persisted. “Our names, or rather the names Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell, will be out in the world, for praise or condemnation. And should it be praise, then, well, we should have material ready. For, sisters, we will never make a living from detecting. But we may from our writing.”
Emily sat down in a sulk, her gaze trained on Charlotte.
“She will not stop talking about it, will she?” she said, jerking her head in Anne’s direction.
“She’s clearly very nervous,” Charlotte said. “As her older sisters, we should try to calm her.”
“It would soothe me a great deal if you would first calm yourselves,” Anne said. “Stop fighting like a pair of sparrows and face what truly ails you. If we concentrate our efforts in our novels, then we will all feel much more settled. I am going to write about a governess.” Anne smiled as she recalled the idea that she had been unwinding in her head for the last few days. “My heroine shall be ordinary and plain, decent and good and at the mercy of wicked children and unpleasant gentlemen.”
“Who on earth would want to read about a governess?” Charlotte said. “I was thinking about writing about a young woman who is exceptionally bright and brilliant, and how she finds herself drawn to a much older professor ” Charlotte’s cheeks pinkened at the thought of it.
“Clearly you both need reminding that we are attempting to write fiction and not our autobiographies,” Emily sighed, shaking her head. “We are the architects of Gondal and Angria. If we cannot conjure up something truly remarkable, then we should not try at all.”
“Very well, then, what revolutionary idea are you proposing?” Charlotte asked.
“I do not know,” Emily admitted, dropping her chin. “If I go out on to the moors, they talk to me in song and verse, and I can write a hundred poems in a day. But this dreary business of putting one word after another to make a book—it’s much more laborious than one would imagine.”
“Well, then.” As much as they infuriated her, which was a very great deal, Anne was pleased to see the tension between her sisters begin to ebb away. “Let us walk and talk around the table as I suggested, and see what arises.”
But Anne had scarcely pulled back her chair when there was a quiet knock at the door and their housekeeper of many years, dear‑ est Tabby, entered, her pallor greyish, and her mouth set in a thin,
firm line that spoke of deep discomfort and unease.
“Tabby, are you quite well?” Anne asked her, taking her hand and drawing her to her chair. “Whatever is the matter?”
“I am not,” Tabby said. “For there has been a discovery made—a most diabolical one. A discovery of a body, and I am very afraid that if something is not done about it, all that we know and love will be engulfed by evil.”
From The Diabolical Bones by Bella Ellis. Used with the permission of the publisher, Berkeley. Copyright © 2020 by Bella Ellis.