The House of Whispers

Laura Purcell

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The House of Whispers, by Laura Purcell. When a young maid moves to a cliffside home to care for a mute and paralyzed old woman, she does not realize the dark history that the woman is not able to tell: about terrible disease, a mysterious attempt to house prisoners in seaside caves, and mysterious creatures who roam the land, in search of souls to claim and steal away.

I did not expect to start this position without recalling the be- ginning of my employment in Hanover Square. Much as I try to forget, that day is etched upon my memory. I was bound to make comparisons. But I was not prepared for a contrast this stark.

It is nearly four o’clock in the morning. The Falmouth coaching inn reeks of stale beer and tooth rot. Its grizzled landlady will not allow me the use of a chamber unless I pay for the entire night, so instead I crouch behind the cover of a nearby bush and attempt to change my costume in the poor light.

I have sunk low indeed. It pains me to recall how happy I was when I secured the position of Lady Rose’s maid. My fond hopes that this time I would have some luck. Mother and I sewed a new dress and I donned it carefully, standing stiff to prevent the material from creasing.

‘Don’t ruin it,’ Mother said.

She was not talking just about the dress.

Now I am scrunching a bloodied gown and gloves into a ball and pushing them as far beneath my other belongings as they will go.

Now I am scrunching a bloodied gown and gloves into a ball and pushing them as far beneath my other belongings as they will go. Most of the gore has dried, even that clinging to the palms of my hands. I spit on them and rub them together before pulling on fresh gloves.

The linen bundle at the top of my trunk is still wrapped tight. Gingerly, I shake it. There is no sickening jangle of bro- ken porcelain. Relief pushes tears into my eyes.

I close the trunk and lock it. Struggling out from the bush, I dust myself down and find a place to stand beside the inn, where I have arranged to meet my new employer. The night remains like pitch and I am thankful for its secrecy.

What a miserable beginning!

I had hoped . . . But those were the thoughts of a green girl.

I keep thinking I can blot out the past. I do not deserve to be happy here.

Only one thing can aid me. I put the cold rim of the hip flask to my lips and suck.

It is empty.

Of course – the man who fell from the roof. Once again I see his gaping mouth, his face torn with pain. And wicked as it is, I begrudge him every drop. He is like to die, anyhow. My liquor will have done him no good. I should have kept it for myself.

Without gin, memories will swim up to the surface. I must not panic.

I start forwards to the inn, where whole casks and bottles of spirits wait inside, but as I do so a harness jingles to my right. A pony-trap edges out of the darkness, driven by an old man.

‘Miss Why?’

Dismay pounds me so flat that I forget to respond to my assumed name.

‘Hester Why?’ he repeats. ‘Yes.’ Too loud, too quick.

‘I’m come to fetch ee to Morvoren House.’

He is bent nearly double over the reins. As for the pony, it is a poor-blooded thing, indifferently bred. It throws up its head and snorts, as if it does not think much of me either.

‘I have a trunk.’

The old man does not dismount to help me. His face is weath- ered and hard, like the heel of a foot. Two eyes peep out from narrow slits below his forehead. Perhaps he is purblind.

My tired arms just manage to hoist up my trunk. I follow it without a modicum of elegance. A change from Hanover Square, indeed. There, a carriage with yellow brocade squabs, matching curtains and liveried footmen ferried me and Lady Rose such short distances. I am fortunate that the wind is so fierce; I need no excuse for the watering of my eyes.

‘And what is your name?’ I enquire. ‘Gerren.’

Gerren clicks his tongue. He steers the trap away from the yard and my last chance of precious gin, out into the world beyond.

We soon leave the lights and bustle of the Falmouth coach- ing inn far behind. To my eyes, the darkness seems absolute. Our lamps are woefully feeble, illuminating only the rump of our pony as it jogs along. Each hoof beat resonates through my hips. It is almost enough to make me miss the springs of the Mail coach.

Mile follows mile. Cobbles give way to a rutted dirt track. Our trap is exposed to the four winds, buffeted this way and that. Sleet strikes my cheeks, each drop a cold pinprick. I draw my knees close together, fold my arms and try to imagine my- self far away.

Hours seem to pass.

Finally, the wheel bumps on a pothole and jerks me from my doze. Is that the sea I hear, mumbling to itself? Such a strange sound: fretful and louder than I expected. I lean forwards, eager for my first glimpse. But what I see makes me shudder.

A sheer drop yawns to my left, perhaps twenty feet, terminating in a flash of sand and black water. Lost in dreams, I had not observed that our rickety pony-trap was scaling the side of a cliff.

My stomach churns along with the waters below. One of the few consolations I had cherished before this night was that I should behold the ocean at last. I had imagined it blue, serene. What seethes beneath me is dark, frighteningly powerful: a cauldron of demons.

At length, dawn grazes the horizon. The clouds are too heavy for much of a display; only the faintest ribbons of peach and lemon unfurl. Nonetheless, there is the hope of light, and colour steadily returns to the landscape. To my left, the sea softens to shingle grey. Gulls materialise, their white bellies wheeling above us. They sing a dirge at the coming of the sun, mournful and foreboding, telling me to turn back.

‘We be on Morvoren land now,’ Gerren croaks. It startles me to hear his voice.

‘I did not notice us pass through any gates,’ I observe. Most landowners zealously guard their game against poach-

ers, but I see there is little cause for that up here. The land is not arable but scrubby, with clumps of thrift and heather. No hares brave the exposed position. The only birds are dull of feather.

‘There. See it?’

After the nightmare journey and wizened driver, I half expect to behold a gloomy castle straight from the pages of Mrs Radcliffe’s novels. But Morvoren House stands sentinel on the crest of the cliff, braving the elements with stern indifference. It is wide and squat, two stories high, finished in grey mortar with an assortment of small stones protruding from the walls – roughcast, I believe it is called. Chimneys crown the grey slate roof. One of them is steaming.

There is no courtyard. No fountains play; no wooded groves lurk at the rear of the house. A stable block and a thin scattering of ash trees prove the only additions to the landscape.

There is no danger it will remind me of Hanover Square. I close my eyes for a moment, relieved and disappointed in equal measures.

Why would someone choose to make their home up here instead of in the valleys? I have heard that fishermen keep cottages set into the cliffs, but there is no sign of them. In fact, there is little hint of society at all save for this one, incongruous gentleman’s abode stood close to the precipice.

Our pony stumbles to a halt beside the front door. Something crunches beneath our wheels. Perhaps it was once a gravel drive. It is merely stony grass now.

All of the window shutters remain closed. The house appears blind but untroubled. Yes, that is the prevailing impression Morvoren makes upon me: one of stoic calm. As if it has always been here, and will always remain, despite the frenzy of the sea beneath.

I struggle down from the trap and retrieve my trunk. My limbs are stiffer and far less willing than when I climbed up.

By grey morning light, my lacing appears only slightly skewed; rather a miracle considering that it was done in the dark.

At any rate, I am not covered in blood.

The front door is an old wooden thing; it does not appear terribly thick. Light pulses around the cracks at the edges—a candle, moving behind. A bolt slides.

I swallow, hard.

This is the moment, the climax of my journey. The vague, shadowy future I have imagined for myself is to become a reality.

Without my hip flask, I feel unfit to face it. The door clunks open.

A girl of sixteen years of age, or thereabouts, appears, a woollen shawl wrapped around her throat and shoulders. She holds a candle but the wind snuffs the flame out in a matter of seconds.

‘Get thee inside!’ she bawls to me above the wind.

She shuffles back, as far inside as she can manage while propping the door open with her foot. I scent dough, and something like cinnamon.

My legs cannot convey me and my trunk fast enough.

The girl slams the door behind us with a sound of relief. She does not mention Gerren, still outside, and I am not minded to recall him to her memory.

With her free hand, she begins to rub at my shoulder, as if she would chafe warmth into me.

‘Look at thee, poor thing! Soaked through and wisht as the moon. I’m Merryn,’ she adds with a smile. She has a winsome way and a personable face, despite a large birthmark that mottles one cheek. ‘Always up afore the rest of un.’

‘Miss Why,’ I introduce myself. I have remembered, this time. ‘Oh, don’t I know it! Naught but “Miss Why this” and “Miss

Why that” all week. Follow on. We’ll soon get thee warm.’

Of all the welcomes I imagined, I had least expected this. Back in London, a scullery maid would be afraid to address an upper servant, let alone a woman more than ten years her senior. ‘Don’t mind thy boots on the floor. I’ll be scrubbin’ un later, anyhow.’

Her words rouse me to observe my surroundings.

We are standing in a grand entrance hall, incongruous with the outside of the house. All is stucco and classical without a trace of colour. Grapevines are moulded into the ceiling; Greek gods stare down from a pediment above the fireplace. It puts me in mind of the displays in confectioners’ windows: shapes made entirely of meringue.

It is not at all like the dazzle of crystal and sienna marble in Hanover Square.

Merryn leads me through a baize door that conceals the servants’ quarters. Coffee-toasted air elicits a growl from my stomach. We enter a long, narrow kitchen where a fire crackles merrily, its orange light dancing in the copper saucepans that hang upon the wall.

The only occupant here is a stout woman of middle age, round- faced and smiling as she unwraps a loaf from its linen folds.

‘Miss Why! Here already. You must be exhausted. Sit you down—Merryn, take her shawl and hang it to dry. Come closer to the fire. That’s right. I’ll cut you a slice of this bread and Merryn can fix us some tea.’

Sensation returns to my skin, painful at first. My clothes steam in the heat. It requires all of my composure not to lunge for the victuals laid out before me and wolf them down. I must make a good impression.

‘Goodness, how thy hands do shake!’ Merryn cries as she pours my tea. ‘Take care thee don’t catch a chill.’

Yes. Let her think it is the cold.

‘We usually break our fast in the servants’ hall,’ the older woman informs me. ‘But that’s not for another hour or so yet. I thought you’d rather take refreshment here, and then I’ll show you about the house. There’s time enough to meet the others later.’

‘Thank you. Mrs . . .?’

‘Quinn.’ She offers another smile. One of her front teeth is missing. ‘You only know me by post.’

‘Mrs Quinn!’ I cry. ‘So it was with you that I corresponded!

Forgive me, I had no idea.’

This woman, then, is the housekeeper! I had expected some- one more austere. She does not carry a bearing of authority or dress finer than Merryn; both wear a woven striped-cotton gown and linen apron. The only distinction is in her cap, which sports a pink ribbon; Merryn’s does not.

‘We’re a small staff with plenty of work to go around. I’m not above helping in the kitchen.’ She speaks with a quiet pride. ‘Just imagine how pleased I was to find a lady’s maid with your nursing skills! You’re rare, you are.’

Merryn watches me with a girlish, admiring grin.

‘It is not so very remarkable. My father was an army saw- bones, my mother a midwife. I could not help but learn from them.’

‘All the same, we’re lucky to have you.’ Though her voice is kind, she regards me quizzically, and I focus on the food to hide my blush. I know what she is thinking, for I hear it myself: the accent I have gleaned from Hanover Square. My diction does not correlate with the upbringing I have described. ‘Your letters of character were handsome.’

Forgeries always are.


From THE HOUSE OF WHISPERS by Laura Purcell, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Laura Purcell

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