Chapter 19

A torch blazed on the porch, illuminating the arched portico in the most soul-quenching way.

My own lamp lit a patch of the path before me, gradually revealing a lack of cracks.

As I sensed rather than saw the stand of oaks to my right, I felt more than ever the magnitude of their power. They towered like the domes of cathedrals. The earth between them was a holy ground of leaves; a dancery for the fairies. 

I discerned with my waning light sections of trunk and crown, noting how the giants had grown in alliance like brothers, one allowing for another’s branch to advance horizontally, while a bough belonging to the first stretched around the latter to the sky.

Their strength seemed to transmit itself into my bones as I stood beholding their tableau with a revelation: it was the house that had been giving me my feet. 

I had been becoming less timid, more an intrepid man than the diffident waif I had been for most of my life. 

Surveying the noble oaks, I sensed that my evolution would continue until all my grief had transmuted into personal strength. 

I mounted the steps, unlocked the door, and Emma bounded out, eager for fresh air and corporeal relief. She flitted on delicate feet to a weedy tree, anointed it, and wound round the oaks as I looked past the night — toward the bluff that had hosted the summer parties of Miss Bellefey’s childhood, filled with flowers and twinship. 

Behind me, a sudden thud resounded from the house. A swift gust rushed up the porch, my lantern blew out, and the torch was quelled to embers.

A feeling of familiarity rippled over me. I thought I felt the passage of a person — as I had in the bay room on my first night. 

Of course, Mrs. Jameson was not present in the evenings, and I was the only inhabitant of the house. 

Not knowing what I would find, I willed myself into the dark interior. I felt for a brass candlestick in the drawing room, lit it, and followed the thumping down the corridor. 

I gasped when I rounded the corners into the kitchen. 

Bent over the chopping block, Lumble was throwing the neck of a chicken against the edge. 

I heard a final wallop, followed by the sound of liquid draining into a pot. 

“Good God, Lumble, I had no notion you would be here.”

I set the candlestick down, for Lumble had two candelabras flooding the workspace with luminosity.

“Supper for you,” was the raspy reply of the person in the distinctive greatcoat.

Certain that Mrs. Jameson would no longer be in attendance, I had intended to retire with a book and a pipe in lieu of supper.

But Lumble was now dousing the fowl in a boiling kettle, then dredging it up with a silver meat fork and nimbly plucking steaming feathers. 

“It’s very kind of you, Lumble.”

Lumble impaled the chicken with an iron skewer and plunked it onto the spit. 

“Was it Mrs. Jameson’s day off?” 

Lumble cleaved a row of carrots.

“A Jameson supper would not appear when a gentleman alters his routine.” 

This axiom was matched by a wry simper.

“How did you know I altered my routine? And by ‘appear,’ are you suggesting that Mrs. Jameson and her suppers are ghosts?”

Lumble eyed me with an expression that seemed to convey amusement. 

“Been keeping an eye out for you since you came. As for Jameson and her suppers, I know not.”

“‘I know not’ is essentially how she, too, answers my queries.”

Making no comment, Lumble lobbed carrots, potatoes, and onions into a copper pan, which was then popped onto the hearth directly beneath the spit to catch the drippings. 

“I did not think I was hungry, Lumble, but I believe I’ll relish every bite. I hope you’ll join me.”

Receiving no response, I repaired to the dining room and retrieved the two least-ragged chairs, which I set near the hearth. 

As Lumble hacked apples with the blunt cleaver — too blunt, clearly, to have decapitated the chicken swiftly — a tattered elbow gestured toward a quantity of stoneware bottles on the edge of the chopping block. 

“Elderflower ale.”

I opened one for each of us and imbibed a sip. It was herby, sour, and rich.

“Heavens, Lumble, this is nectar.”

“Brewed by my own hand.”

“I envy your skills. Having been reared a gentleman, I have ‘few practical applications,’ as my former father-in-law-to-be pointed out not an hour ago.”

“Was an orphan myself,” Lumble mused. “But not bred a blue blood. Reared a kitchen monkey.”

“A kitchen monkey!” I cried, for I admired the phrase. Like a powder monkey on a ship, but in a cookery. 

“And a jank-of-all-trades.”

“A jank-of-all-trades?”

“Making up words is one of ‘em,” Lumble rasped, jamming a round of dough over a plate of apples soaked in maple syrup. 

I envisioned young Lumble as a kitchen boy, then a scullery maid, and could not guess which role had been played. Perhaps, I thought, “jank” was a fusion of Jack and Jane. 

“Seems a clever word,” I said. “I hope you feel it honors you.”

Lumble’s usually flat eyes seemed to almost flash with gratitude.

While my fellow orphan was occupied with preparations, my eye was enchanted by the way the copper cookware caught the firelight. 

Emma took a stealthy sniff of the greatcoat, then dashed out of the room. I strolled after her into the conservatory. 

While previously I had glimpsed only tangles of dead leaves in cracked pots, I found among the decay a living orange tree, several varieties of thriving orchid, and a jasmine in flower that covered a corner of the windows. 

It was the fragrance that roused me to the existence of these exotics — a faint scent that lay in the air like the perfume of Elysium. 

Flowers, I thought, are emissaries from paradise who remind us where our deepest selves long to return.

Feeling a hunger for summer, I stepped out into the garden to greet not the warm-night pulse of crickets, but the eerie beauty of autumn.

I had not yet had time to explore this enchanted terrain. At its center was a gazebo, columned like a temple, carpeted in leaves of birch and ash. To the south were a greenhouse and a cottage, both crumbling from roof to base. To the north, beside a willow, was the spot I looked upon each night from my window when I attempted to discern where the woman in white had gone. 

I looked up at the window, half-anticipating an alabaster swish. But the glass was dark against my ebbing flame and the crescent moon. 

Ahead of me, topiaries were shaped, statues were intact, and chrysanthemums bloomed in deep shades of wine and indigo. I held the candle up to behold another willow, its golden fronds draping into a pond whose waters plinked with the sounds of languorous fish. 

I realized, then, that I dreamed of this garden during my short bursts of post-dawn sleep. I dreamed not only of lost sapphires, but of undiscovered flora beneath my chamber, and of other rooms inside the house that I had yet to even perceive. 

In these dreams I knew that opening the portals would reveal fresh perspectives about my life and my desires — just as I sensed when awake that the house was a key to expanding my soul. 

I reflected now that the woman in white was likely connected to this, and I wondered where she vanished to, when my chamber bore no passage other than my locked door.

Ever enchanted, ever bewildered, I called Emma and we strolled back to the kitchen, where the reddened paw of Lumble was basting the chicken with a buttered brush. 

Hunched over the stone-backed fire, Lumble resembled a breadmaker in ancient Alexandria, or a votary of Hestia, goddess of the hearth. 

Brusque movements transposed provisions from grate to table, and soon we were devouring the most succulent poultry and vegetables, markedly more life-giving than Mrs. Jameson’s collops of roast beef. 

Lumble shoveled vittles with one hand and swigged ale with the other. While thick arms moved gruffly, long oval nails crowned the ruddy hands with an incongruous grace. Lumble’s cheeks and neck were hairless, but golden bristles trimmed a softly contoured chin. Ordinarily unctious, Lumble’s mane tonight was voluminous and cleanly. The greatcoat remained on at table, and while tatty, lacked its previous odor. 

Mrs. Jameson — whatever her nature — had struck me from the start as having a tenuous air. Yet I determined that Lumble was indubitably solid, for I happened to graze carnate warmth as we each cut a breast from the fowl. 

“I am made of meat,” Lumble assured me with a wry smile. 

“You seem to be,” I concurred. “And you and my landlord both seem to possess the ability to read my mind.”

Lumble chewed silently.

“Of course, the house bears certain vagaries that cause one to wonder.”

“About what?”

“Who are the personages associated with this house? Who is the woman in white who I see in the night? What is her connection to the lady’s chamber on the south wing? What happened in the bay room? Are there hidden passageways?”

Lumble snickered over a mouthful of carrots.

“Any more mysteries?”

“Why are there localized storms? How are so many repairs made every day in the span of eight hours?”

Lumble regarded the fire as we ate our drumsticks. 

At length, the rasp philosophized: “Humans know less than they think.” 

“Pray, what do you mean?”

“Ask the fire. It knows better than me.” 

Lumble snapped open two more bottles, and I nodded, accepting another ale. 

“The elements are wise,” I agreed. “Similarly, I observe the animals, and I note that they are rarely perturbed.”

Indeed, Emma lay at my feet, her belly full of scraps, and the Admiral sat upon the table, his eyes gleaming at the prospect of being offered the chicken’s carcass. 

“They know,” Lumble said, rising heavily, “that such questions have muddy answers.” 

“Indeed, many mysteries are insoluble. And the capacity of reason is exaggerated.” 

Perhaps, I thought, my purpose is to plumb the numinous until I accept the unknown

Yet I felt I should learn what I could.

Lumble shuffled back with the pie.

“I’ve been curious,” I said, “about why Mr. Griffin said nothing of Mrs. Jameson. In fact, he said I would not be ‘bothered’ but once a year for the rent.”

“Jameson bothers you?”

“On the contrary, she is kind to clean the house and prepare my supper.” 

“Attentive, is she?”

I tittered at the sardonic tone, for it suggested that Lumble considered Mrs. Jameson a spectre. And in fact, I was leaning in that direction more and more myself.

“I can’t quite say that,” I said. “She is attentive to the house, certainly, but I have determined that since her presence is limited, I must learn how to attend to many of my own needs.”

“A gentleman should have a valet.”

“Should one? The general mentioned the same, yet I’ve been thinking…”


“Need I say? You seem to be quite aware of my thoughts, which is why I didn’t clarify who the general is.”

“Someone different from The Admiral?”

We shared a chuckle. 

“My guess,” Lumble said, spooning a bite of caramelized sugar from the edge of the pie dish, “is he’s the ‘former father-in-law-to-be’ you mentioned before.”

I nodded as Lumble filled a clay pipe, and I my briar.

“I can guess your thoughts some,” Lumble rasped, flicking tobacco from the ample bosom of the greatcoat. “But not all.”

“I suppose I sometimes have an intuitive awareness of others’ thoughts too,” I said. “But not with the staggering exactitude of you or Mr. Griffin.”

“And a valet? Too ‘disproportionate,’ I reckon?”

“Precisely,” I said, astounded, as usual, at the incisive surmise.

I had been thinking since I met Miss Bellefey that perhaps it would be fitting to hire a valet. Certainly I could afford to pay one, for I had saved considerably by boarding at Mrs. Vane’s, and now I had the even lesser expense of a dollar per annum. 

But I had always felt dismayed at the disproportion between master and servant. While I was grateful for cooks who saved me from the dyspepsy purveyed by street vendors, I was more content when attending to my own toilet, however perfunctorily. I had been raised a gentleman; I had learned how to speak to servants as servants by observing Mundy and his family. But I disliked the fact that some people were perceived as superior to others. 

Simultaneously, I understood that everyone had different lots in life. My own lot had veered from son to orphan to newsboy to ward so fast that each transformation made me reel. I could have been a servant or a vagrant as easily as a gentleman or a writer. 

Often in my life I had wondered, was I a gentleman or a beggar? 

“You may be as equivocal as me,” Lumble rasped.

My fellow orphan, who indeed I had more in common with than perhaps either of us had imagined, teetered up and started submerging cookware in a kettle of boiling water.

“Do you live nearby?” I asked, doing my best — without much skill — to help.

“If I am not a ghost.”

“I don’t think you’re as spectral as certain parties associated with this house. Perhaps if you have a superordinary nature, you are more of a domovoy.”


“A girl at my orphanage told tales from her homeland. She said a domovoy was like a house sprite.”

“A sprite, eh?”

This amused Lumble, who exited the kitchen with a spirited “Goodnight.”

Before my final question could be evaded, I followed Lumble to the hall and proffered the lantern. 

“You’ll need this,” I said. “If you are not a ghost.”

“I am accustomed to walking in the dark.”

“Take it anyway,” I said, filling it with oil and setting it alight. “And thank you, Lumble. You did me a kindness by preparing that feast. And indeed by ushering me into an enigma the first time I came here. Will you do me one more by telling me why you would not enter the house when you came for the rent? And yet you entered tonight?

“Grounds were clear tonight.”

“So it is not you who clears them?”

Lumble chuckled and, lantern in hand, lugged the door open and shuffled out. 

Upstairs, no warm fire awaited me. 

I smoked a pipe in the cold, reviewing the relief of being with Miss Bellefey, and hoping she would meet me in the park on the morrow.

Once in bed, expecting to slumber like a bear, I descended swiftly into the depths of sleep. 

But when I woke with a start in the middle of the night, there at my bedside was the diaphanous presence of the woman in white.

I was spellbound to sense that she evoked a quality I had not noticed before.

Chapter 20 →

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