The Pursuit of William Abbey

Claire North

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Pursuit of William Abbey, by Claire North. The novel takes place in South Africa in the 1880s, when a doctor witnesses the murder of a young boy and is haunted by the child’s spirit, even as he flees to the ends of the earth.

I have six brothers and sisters, he said. The eldest, Carmine, died on 8 July 1884 at 11.23 p.m. She was a nurse, as you are, and I suppose the person I loved more than any other. That’s why the shadow killed her, of course. Her husband saw it slither from her body at the instant of her death, drag itself up by broken arm and blistered limb. He said it lurched, feet still buried in the heart of her, and looked around their parlour in Houndsditch for a moment as if trying to orientate itself, then put its gaze to the south and shuffled out of the room, right through the wall. It was fading from his sight before it left his house. You have to have the curse, or be present at the moment of dying, to ever see the shadow clearly.

Langa. His name was Langa.

I knew none of this until the telegram came. The message was delivered by a Xhosa man in a blue uniform on a dusty horse.


Carmine  dead  STOP  Died  suddenly  8th  this month  STOP  Buried  St  Saviour’s  STOP


That was all.

Forty-three days after that, the letter from her husband arrived, outlining the further details of my sister’s end, but by then I had already begun to suspect that it wasn’t a random act that had killed her, but me myself, and my shadow.

I should tell you something of the place I grew up.

I was raised on the outskirts of London, in Highgate. I say the outskirts—when I was born, it was still a leafy hill looking down to the city, but now these things are almost indistinguishable, city from town from village from field. My father, Clifton Abbey, was a banker with aspirations to being accepted among men too rich to ever have need of common sense. My mother, Eugenia, was a hypochondriac. These were their two defining characteristics.

There was a time when my parents loved each other.

I have sat with my mother when the shadow is near, and looked her in the eye and known the truth of it. She was not sure she would love him when they married, but resolved to love him nonetheless with such a strength of passion, duty and determination that his every fault vanished before her eyes, and his nobler qualities were built up to a tower of strength. Can it therefore be said that she didn’t love him, having shaped him to such a creature?

Maybe the worst that can be said is that she loved the idea of her husband, and for a while that was enough.

Maybe the worst that can be said is that she loved the idea of her husband, and for a while that was enough. She aspired to be a good wife, but their mutual sense of what this meant was unconducive. A good wife is quiet in company. A good wife is dutiful in the bedroom but does not enjoy sex, because for a woman to enjoy copulation is to be in some profound way unclean. A good wife manages the household so that the man need not, without complaint and without question. A good wife ensures that the children’s governess is strict and honourable, and that the baby does not cry while the husband works. She has only a few female friends, who are as good as she, and no male ones whatsoever. She predicts her husband’s needs, and is grateful for the financial support he provides. All these things my mother aspired to be, above and beyond all else, and for a while it worked, until being all these things and nothing else, she became lonely, disturbed and a little mad.

When her first child was born, Carmine, my father reported that she was a very beautiful baby, and that when she had a brother she would make the perfect companion for the little boy. And ten months later, my mother gave birth to Edward, and my father cried with joy—actually cried—and I would not have believed he was capable of such feelings if I had not heard my mother speak of it when the knowing was on me.

But children often die when they are young, and the next child was born stillborn, and eleven months after that my brother Andrew came along, and a year and a half after that there was Ernestine, then a child whose name was never spoken who died three days into life, then Gregory, then me, and finally my youngest sister Anne. After Anne, there was one more child born prematurely and too weak to live. But by then it was clear that both Edward and Andrew were going to grow to be strong, healthy boys, and my parents did not attempt to have children again, and my mother retreated to her rooms upstairs, her duty done.

My father, being a good husband, did not take a mistress.

My mother, being a good wife, did not complain. She did not complain of loneliness, or of the hole in her body torn by childbirth that meant she was plagued by painful, persistent urinary incontinence. She did not complain that her children were all raised by other women, or that she had nothing to say, nothing to do, no learning or occupation. Instead, she acquired an endless succession of medical complications, which she also handled without complaint. Her belly swelled hugely, then contracted in a single night. Her skin broke out in violent red spots, and then faded to sallow grey. She lost her hair, then it re-grew, curly like fresh ferns. She lost her appetite, then gorged on nothing but potatoes for almost a month. She ballooned. She shrank. Her feet became purple, humongous, then her hands, then they reverted again to normal. The doctors announced that she had a woman’s hysteria. I would say that this war has given us enough men struck blind without ever bleeding, and more soldiers become cripples without a single blow being inflicted, that perhaps the time has come to alter the language of such things.

By the time Carmine was fifteen, she was already running much of the house, as my mother waxed and waned in her upstairs room. My father’s prophecy had been made truth—my eldest sister was nurse, teacher, sometimes even maid to my brothers, charged with constantly watching over them and ensuring that they did not bump their knees or eat boiled sweets. At the end of the day she would present herself with the whole clan in my father’s study and deliver a report on our well-being. Edward and Andrew are doing well with letters. Ernestine has been attending to her singing. Gregory continues to improve his handwriting. William and Anne have been diligent in their prayers.

When Edward and Andrew were shipped off to boarding school, with Gregory and me put under the more formal supervision of a tutor for most of the day—a butcher of Latin, bleeder of pious proverbs—it was naturally assumed that Carmine would marry. She had been such a dutiful child that there could be no question of her refusing a suitable match if one were found, so when she was discovered kissing Ivor, the watchmaker’s boy, the shock was so great that my mother went blind for two days.

The whole business was hushed up, and Carmine sent to live with my uncle in Kettering. If anything could purge a girl of reckless ideas, it was Kettering.

Unfortunately, my uncle had a wife with some distinctly modern notions. Despite having declared sympathies for Chartists, suffragists and other agitators, no one really paid her much attention, and she was tolerated as a good Christian woman, visiting the sick, poor and needy on a regular basis and generally showing a vigour that induced in my mother one of the few scowls of hatred she ever showed in all her long years of confinement. Had my parents realised that my aunt actually went so far as to tend the sick and talk to the needy, they might have forbid Carmine from going north at all.

As it was, they didn’t. They assumed my aunt’s goodness was nothing more than the standard once-monthly disposing of meagre charity to the grateful unwashed. So when Carmine wrote home saying that she had been visiting the infirmary, they thought nothing of it, and were frankly astonished when she declared her intention to abandon Kettering, marriage and conventional wisdom and enrol with the Nightingale School for Nurses.

Furious letters and telegrams flew, but by the time my father realised how earnest Carmine was and got on a train to put things straight, he was too late. She was already on her way, and the mistress of the school declared in a letter written in a tiny, stiff hand that Carmine demonstrated precisely the kind of character the Nightingale sisters looked for.

My father abandoned the chase, his pride and his daughter. Though not ostracised in the way Gregory would later be, she was rarely spoken of, almost never welcomed at family functions, and her picture was removed from the staircase wall.

I was twelve when my sister qualified as a nurse, and she was invited to the house of Florence Nightingale herself to be blessed by the lady of the lamp. My brothers were all off at boarding school, and my father had long since lost interest in his younger offspring. I was an underfoot annoyance, left in the care of governesses and tutors who cared as little for me as I did for them. I read alone, played alone, and dreamt of breaking free and exploring the world. And Carmine, my rebellious, dangerous oldest sister was my hero.

When I was finally sent to boarding school, I was informed I should regularly write to my family; any boy who didn’t fulfil this ritual requirement would go without supper, or receive a few swipes of the cane for repeated offences. I naturally wished to eat and avoid pain, so would write to my father and mother, who almost never replied, or to Edward or Andrew, who absolutely never replied. As other boys received correspondence from home and I did not, I became even more isolated in my eccentric little world, and in this way and without any particular fanfare, I wrote one day to Carmine. She was, after all, family, and my teachers had no knowledge of the shame that was attached to her name. It wasn’t a very good letter: a general well-wishing upon her birthday, which I got wrong by several days, and a hope that she was enjoying being a nurse—something of that sort.

Four days later, what a reply I received! As warm and lively a rush of words as I had ever dreamt of, a cascade of affection and enquiry for my well-being, my hopes and my education; exhortations to look after myself and, of course, take more walks and breathe more fresh air (nursing felt much as physicians did on this topic—if walking and fresh air couldn’t cure your malady, you were in considerable difficulty)—and to write regularly.

So began a correspondence. In Carmine I found all the warmth and joy I had lacked at home, and in me I think Carmine found a connection with the family that had forsaken her, however feeble it might be through the pen of a fourteen-year-old boy.

Sometimes, when I returned to London, I would sneak away to see her, and we would have tea and cake and I would feel marvellously mature and responsible, and she would tell me about nursing and her secret fiancé, who felt that more votes for men, and eventually even votes for women, was both a social necessity and an inevitability, and my head swam and my heart soared and I loved her.

I loved her, and it is testimony to her excellence that growing up did not diminish my affection, but if anything made it stronger. When boyish illusions were swept away and I began to perceive the real Carmine beneath the sisterly care, I saw that she was more herself, more whole in her heart and her stories, than anyone else I had ever known. I was a spider’s web of humanity, blown and torn in the slightest of breezes, and longed to be as solid and majestic as she.

When I declared my intention to become a doctor, my father never suspected that it was Carmine’s voice that had pushed me down this path, and, my older brothers having already fulfilled their purpose by entering finance, law and government, I was given apathetic permission to follow this less than ideal career.

Carmine kept me going through my years of inadequacy and doubt at university. She had raised me where my mother had not, then carried me to manhood while my father fussed with his papers and ink.

I loved her more than I ever loved the woman I thought I had fancied and for whose affections I had been banished to Natal. And whatever you love the most is the thing the shadow kills. That is the first lesson of the curse that was laid upon me.


From The Pursuit of William Abbey by Claire North. Used with the permission of the publisher, Orbit. Copyright © 2019 by Claire North.

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