Mr. Charles M. Gracie was the sort of man that attracted unexpected confidences, perhaps because his was a colorless and flat personality. It was the simplest thing in the world to see in his dull face whatever one wished to see there and, as he had never in his life betrayed a secret or spoken an indiscreet word, it had become the custom among his circle of friends to unburden whatever indignity, humiliation, horror, or sin, mortal or cardinal, in his ear.
Mr. Gracie himself did not mind these confidences; in point of fact he rather enjoyed them. Lacking the requisite imagination for torrid love affairs, questions of honor, and the exploits of the scallywag, and without especially strong appetites, he found that the miseries, shames, and ecstasies of his friends stood him in good stead of a more stimulating sort of life and he was quite contented with his lot. He had a sizable income, inherited from a half dozen different, unprolific relatives, and he occupied himself with the more tedious tasks incumbent on at least one member of a few charitable boards and with the collecting of curiosities. This last pastime was not regulated by any sort of particular interest or study; rather, he surrounded himself with whatever objects piqued his interest, in much the same way that he clung close to those friends who led the stormiest lives.
Not all of his acquaintance were of this sort, however, and it was one of these less passionately inclined friends who came to visit him at the unseasonably late hour of nine o’clock on a frosty February night in 18–. The man in question, a rather portly, bewhiskered man, was a younger son, untitled, but well cushioned with an aristocratic bloodline that could be traced to Henry VII, with a substantial income by inheritance and a rather more bloated one earned by a popular and populous medical practice, a youthful rebellion that had matured into respectability. Rather prim in temperament, Sir Horace liked to classify people, much as an ornithologist notes the species of a passing bird in his notebook, and was a rather notorious gossip, which rather swelled, than diminished, his practice, but at heart, he was well disposed to anyone who lived chiefly as a Christian ought and who was pleasant company. He was a widower, of perhaps fifty years of age, and he lived in a large, fashionable house with his young daughter, Arabella, recently come out and already reputed a great beauty, even if she did have a rather weak chin.
Mr. Gracie greeted his friend with his usual chilly civility and invited him to take an armchair by the fire. Having exchanged the expected courtesies regarding the cold weather, the two men held close their steaming glasses of toddy and regarded the logs crackling blithely on the hearth. Mr. Gracie did not remark on the odd hour Sir Horace had chosen for his call, but waited placidly for the confidence he anticipated was to be his.
“I wonder if I might have a word, Gracie,” said Sir Horace, after a ripe five minutes of mute uneasiness. “It’s rather awkward, and I did think of seeing old Featherstone about it, but I don’t think it’s precisely a question of law. And it isn’t one of medicine either, or I’d think of a solution myself, or consult with someone, if need be. To be frank, I don’t know just how to define it, but it’s a strange case, a truly odd case, and I would dearly like a word of advice.”
Mr. Gracie fixed his mild grey eyes on his friend and took a sip of his toddy. He didn’t smile and yet one might have sworn that encouragement could be read upon his face, stamped as plain as the inky letters of a freshly printed page.
“It’s Arabella, Gracie,” said Sir Horace, nodding and furrowing his brow. “At first, I feared it was madness, but it’s no madness at all. I did think it was so at first, but it’s not, I tell you. I wish I knew the words to explain.”
“What does she do?” asked Gracie.
“It’s as though I lived with two people, with Arabella herself and with some other creature, some sort of anti-Arabella, but it’s not a case of a split personality. I’ve read all the books, all the papers, and that’s simply not what it is. And besides, she’s suffered no shock; on the contrary, one couldn’t search out in all the civilized world a happier, more contented girl. She’s had all a girl could wish for, dream of; I’ve given her everything and been a devoted father to her. I even entertained the idea that I myself had gone mad, and was imagining the whole thing. But, my dear Gracie, I couldn’t imagine such a thing, not even if I swilled laudanum like a Soho harlot.”
“I do not quite understand. If you could explain more plainly, Sir Horace, perhaps I could better comprehend the nature of your dilemma.”
“Perhaps you had better come to see her then, and observe for yourself. I’ve no knack for all this.” Sir Horace dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. “I’ll even tell you this, Gracie. I have been so perplexed and worried that I thought of looking up a hypnotist. I, look up a hypnotist? I’d be the laughingstock of all London. You know as well as I that spiritualism, that theosophical tosh, is all nonsense. And then I thought of a priest, a papist, you know, but I couldn’t stomach it. Yet, I hardly know what to make of what’s happening under my own roof.”
“Don’t worry, now. I shall come and visit tomorrow. Perhaps, after all, there’s some obvious explanation that you, being so close to her, can’t perceive. I doubt there is any need for popery.”
“That’s a clever idea, Gracie. There it is: I knew I was right in coming to you.”
The two men agreed that the following evening, Gracie would come to supper and observe the strange, inexplicable behavior Sir Horace was at a loss to describe, let alone explain.
The following evening, Gracie arrived at Number 15 Bartlett Street precisely five minutes past seven, a fact to which later he could attest with perfect certainty, as he extracted his watch to remark the hour just before he rang the bell. Sir Horace awaited him with an impatient anxiety in the parlor, which faced the square. The maidservant was closing the drapes against the deepening fog when Gracie was shown in.
“Ah, there you are, my friend. I do hope you’ve come with sharp eyes and a sharper appetite.” Sir Horace barked out a keen-edged laugh, his eyes twitching. “There’s to be turtle soup.”
“Since we’re on the subject of turtles, I’ve only the other day acquired a most curious specimen from the West Indies – “
At this moment, Arabella swept into the room. She was smiling, a picture of wafting contentment, in a gown of pink trimmed with green and white rosettes.
“Mr. Gracie! How do you do?” Her voice was breathy and tinkling, an aural echo of the sparkling opals sprinkled in her blonde hair. Her teeth were pearly and square, like those of a china doll, and her eyes were a striking green, flecked with a feline gold.
“I am very well, Miss Arabella. I hope you are well,” said Mr. Gracie, bowing solemnly and abandoning his discourse on West Indian turtles. Sir Horace made him an anxious wink over Arabella’s shoulder as Gracie straightened out into his usual stiff posture.
The conversation was, as so often in mixed company, quite dull. Sir Horace was not in his usual form and hardly seemed to know what sort of rumors were making the rounds, while Mr. Gracie knew little of topics of interest, as he assumed, to ladies. Arabella was unperturbed. She replied to all inquiries with a delicately arch good humor and teased Gracie about the moths he had lately had shipped from some obscure place in Bavaria or wherever it was (it was actually Vladivostok). Supper was a pleasanter affair, for Sir Horace relaxed under the influence of good food and the turtle soup was excellent and furthermore provided an opening for a return to the West Indian turtle shell. After supper, Arabella withdrew to the parlor, leaving the two men to their brandy. She began to play the piano.
“I might have known it would be so,” said Sir Horace. “She’s quite herself tonight. It’s almost as though the other one knew I was going to ask you to supper, precisely to take note of her, and so didn’t come out.”
“The other one? My dear Sir Horace, you know I’m not a man hasty to make judgments, but I begin to wonder if you don’t need a lengthy holiday. You might come with me to this place in Italy, Pess – Pessaro or something. An antique dealer there wrote me about some objects of interest there, a very ancient astrolabe for one, and there were also – “
“No, Gracie, I tell you, I don’t need a holiday. There’s something wrong in this house, something wrong with Arabella. Perhaps you won’t believe me, perhaps you’ll even believe I’m mad, but I tell you, there is something at work that I cannot understand.”
Sir Horace’s lips were set in an unaccustomed solemnity. Gracie swirled his brandy round and stared at the tablecloth. The sound of the piano suddenly stopped, mid-measure. He glanced up and saw from the clock on the wall that it was precisely ten minutes to nine.
“Now, you’ll see, Gracie. I fear now, truly, that you’ll see.” Sir Horace had gone ghastly white. The door flew open. Gracie raised his eyes. He gazed perhaps a minute at the figure at the door and then tumbled to the floor in a dead faint.
Few were truly saddened by the sudden onset of Mr. Gracie’s grave illness, though many regretted the loss of a safe and sympathetic confidant. Sir Horace showed unusual devotion towards his friend, attending him through many painful nights and insisting on supporting him bodily even as the lawyer and the notary came with their documents and seals and the minister came with his bible and salutary injunctions to prayer. When the fever finally broke, Gracie was left in a chill torpor, a near soporose state that appeared to all who saw him quite hopeless. He occasionally murmured something about the hour and insisted no matter what was said to him that the trouble had begun at five past seven and would never be over if he couldn’t get past ten minutes to nine.
Sir Horace, who generally retained his good spirits even when attending the most hopeless cases, seemed struck by a sort of pessimism. It began to be said that the two men had been such fast friends that naturally Sir Horace could be expected to be uncommonly downcast, though but the week before no one would have considered their friendship marked by an especial esteem. Sir Horace’s usual prolixity had given way before a grim wall of silence, punctuated with dour shakes of the head and long, blowing sighs, in itself such an untoward occurrence that more than one acquaintance began to grow anxious for the doctor, who until then had never known a day of ill health.
On a cold day in March, the sun succeeded in grubbing its way through the dirty clouds and one such acquaintance, Mr. Featherstone, barrister and friend of Sir Horace and Mr. Gracie, was to be found taking the air with a purposeful stride. The morning had been occupied with the reading of a will and he was tastefully and mournfully attired in a sober suit and a somber expression. Finding himself in the vicinity of Gracie’s house, he betook himself there to inquire after the patient and to persuade his attending physician to stop, from what he had heard, neglecting his own health so recklessly.
He was shown into the parlor, while the butler went up to fetch Sir Horace. Gracie’s table was strewn with correspondence, a neat pile of unopened letters on an ivory and silver dish, a half dozen opened letters with their seals broken, and what appeared to be an unfinished draft to a certain Signor Rossi in Pesaro. A packing box was stacked in the corner and a stray wisp of straw lay next it. Featherstone, finding that Sir Horace took so long, sat himself in an armchair.
Perhaps a quarter of an hour later, Sir Horace came down, dejected and quite clearly in need of sleep.
“I say, old fellow, I know you’re the doctor, but if I were in your place, I should order myself to bed,” said Featherstone.
“The crisis could come any time now, Featherstone. I would be remiss if I left now, even for a few hours.”
“Then, the case is quite as serious as rumored?”
“I’m afraid it is hopelessly serious.”
“Poor chap. Though, thankfully he has such a friend as you to attend him, Sir Horace. That should be some consolation.”
“None at all, Featherstone. I daren’t leave Gracie an hour, and there’s Arabella alone in the house with no one to look after her. She wrote me that the maidservant went off her head and left, and the cook will insist on staying with her sister till her lying in. If it weren’t for Gracie…”
“I shouldn’t worry about Arabella. After all, she’s a clever girl and perfectly capable of amusing herself. I might look in on her this afternoon. I might pass on your greetings, or even a note, if you cared to write one.”
Sir Horace bit his lip. His usual ruddy complexion was chalky in the feeble sunlight.
“Really, Sir Horace, it would be no trouble at all, I promise you. And I should so like to do you a good turn. I’m quite affected by your devotion to our friend and crave, truly, to be a help to you.”
“Featherstone, I don’t know if you should see Arabella. I can’t explain. Perhaps in a few hours, if Gracie’s resting comfortably, I’ll take a cab and look in on her. But I simply can’t consider your offer, though you don’t know how I’m tempted. News of her would be welcome indeed.”
“I think you need a holiday, my friend. Once all this is over, for good or for bad, I will insist that you take a holiday. You and Arabella could make a tour of the continent. I won’t take any more of your time. I’ll stop by again in a few days and see how poor Gracie’s getting on.”
Sir Horace seemed only halfway relieved by this rejoinder, but Featherstone resolved immediately to make his way to Bartlett Street and urge Arabella to send round a reassuring letter at once. It wouldn’t do, thought Featherstone, to increase the doctor’s anxiety any further with petty domestic troubles and Arabella, he thought, ought to be more considerate of her father’s health. Still, Arabella was young, too young to understand the gravity of the affair. In all likelihood she had no recollection of her mother’s death and the girl had ever been the very apple of her father’s eye, ever coddled and spoon-fed. The troubles of other people could not have been anything more momentous to her than passing grey clouds.
Featherstone rang the bell at the house on Bartlett Street, but he nearly stumbled backwards down the steps when Hastings opened the door. Hastings, Sir Horace’s manservant for close on to thirty years, had such a ghastly expression on his face that Featherstone cried out at the sight of it.
“I say, man, whatever has happened?”
“Pardon me, Mr. Featherstone, but it’s all as usual here,” said Hastings, all the color drained from his face. With reluctance he took Featherstone’s proffered hat and stick. “Sir Horace is not at home, sir. He’s away on a case.”
“I know, Hastings; I’ve just come from Mr. Gracie’s house. I’m afraid the case is very bad, very bad indeed.”
“Did the master send you, sir?”
“Not precisely, Hastings, but I thought I might look in on Miss Arabella, so that I could set Sir Horace’s mind at rest on that score.”
“Sir Horace asked you to visit Miss Arabella, sir?”
“Now, Hastings, I don’t know what’s come over you. If Miss Arabella is at home, please announce me, and if not, I’d like to leave her a note.”
Hastings opened his mouth, but a step was heard on the upper stair, and his face fell into the lineaments of horror.
“Oh, do come back another time, sir, another time!”
Featherstone’s eyes fell on a descending shadow, angularly deformed by the contour of the stair. Hastings gulped audibly.
“Please forgive me, sir,” he pleaded, and he shoved Featherstone out the door, flinging his hat and stick behind him.
Featherstone was torn between outrage at such treatment and a chill, aching dread that gripped him whenever he recalled the shadow he had seen on the stair. It had been that of a woman’s figure, of that he was sure, but there had been something perverse, something strange, something unnatural in that form that he could not identify. He returned to his own house and the ministrations of his decrepit housekeeper, lying in wait with his slippers and dressing gown. He assured her he didn’t want any supper and shut himself up in his study. He was undecided as to what course he ought to take. Without a doubt, Sir Horace was required at Number 15 Bartlett Street and yet it was equally needful that he remain with Gracie. He thought of writing to Sir Horace, or of rushing back to coax him back home, but then, he might equally put all his rhetorical power into persuading him to stay by Gracie unto the bitter end. He thought of writing to Arabella and yet he shrunk from doing so. He could hardly return after being so ignominiously dismissed and yet if Arabella were unwell, if she needed assistance, he felt duty-bound to aid her by whatever means possible. Whatever was at work in that house, and what it was he could not conceive, had a sinister cast that frightened him as nothing had since he was a child and afraid of the dark. That night, he could not sleep, but tossed in his bed, composing missive after missive, first to Sir Horace, then to Arabella, even, at dawn, to Gracie, as though Gracie were mixed up in the business.
The next morning at breakfast, Featherstone decided, in the fog of his enervated state, to look in on Gracie again, but as he stared, unseeing, into his cup of tea, the housekeeper stumped in, with a thick packet in her wrinkled paw.
“This just arrived for you, sir, by special messenger.”
Featherstone took up the packet and weighed it in his hand. He swallowed the last of his tea and strode to his study, ordering as he went that he was not to be disturbed unless news were come from Sir Horace. Closing the door and locking it behind him, he examined more closely the writing of the address. It was, if he were not mistaken, the hand of Sir Horace. He sat behind his writing desk and looked further upon the packet, clutching his letter opener in his fist. He was not an imaginative man, thought Featherstone to himself, and yet the thought of what might lie in that packet appalled him. Screwing his courage to the sticking place, he opened the packet, and found therein three documents. The first was familiar, for it was a copy of Sir Horace’s will. The second was a sealed letter, with Featherstone’s name scribbled emphatically across its front and the third a set of papers, tied round with a thick cord. Featherstone opened the letter and read it:
“My dear Featherstone,
“God grant that you are well and safe in your own home. Hastings has written me, and recounted me the scene that occurred at Bartlett Street. He is most aggrieved and has begged me to ask your pardon once more. I can promise you that you have cause to be grateful for his rough treatment. I ought to have explained, but didn’t dare and you went to Arabella for my sake – I know that. And yet, I can only pray that this letter finds you unscathed, if that is possible.
“Gracie is dead. He died at three o’clock. I may go myself any minute and I have been frantically wondering what I ought to do for my household. The servants will abandon Arabella if I die, for those that have remained stay only for my sake, and I am sorry for them.
“Featherstone, I implore you – do not return to my house. Do not so much as attempt to write to Arabella. Do not attempt to see me again.
“I would not be your friend if I didn’t forbid you, and I remain your friend, etc.”
Thus ran the letter and a more uncharacteristic missive could not have been written and yet there it was. Featherstone berated himself. They were all falling prey to some mass hysteria. Sir Horace had taken ill after his exhausting efforts to save Gracie’s skin and perhaps he, Featherstone, was going to be ill himself. For all that, he could not convince himself to go back to Bartlett Street and he determined that, in the event that Sir Horace was as ill as he had written, a clerk would be assigned to execute the will. Exhausted and chilled, Featherstone retired to his bed and fell into a troubled sleep.
The next morning, Featherstone’s housekeeper, Mrs. Snow, bustled into the office to dust and tidy and found on the desk the set of papers still bound in cord. She didn’t read the accompanying letter, for she was not an inquisitive person and knew well that her primary value to her master lay in her incurious discretion. The set of papers, however, held an odd attraction for her, of a sort that no letter, book, or paper had ever held in all the many years she had tidied Mr. Featherstone’s desk, so often laden with documents revealing jealously guarded secrets and shames. She longed to unbind the cord and read whatever was written there. When she left the study, she felt still the magnetic longing to know what was contained in that packet and over the hours of tidying, scrubbing, and scolding, it increased rather than lessened.
At teatime, Featherstone set himself on the parlor sofa and Mrs. Snow saw her chance. She brought the tea things and lay them out, pouring the milk and the tea in the precise proportion favored by her employer. She then sidled back to the study and retrieved the set of papers, which seemed to burn in her hand, and gingerly approached Featherstone in the parlor.
“Sir, I couldn’t help but notice that you had left this on your table, and it seems to be of some importance, sir.” She held it out with trembling hand, her lips quivering as she scrutinized the unbroken cords.
The color drained from Featherstone’s face, but he took the papers. Mrs. Snow leaned forward, all proprieties forgotten, and finally scurried behind the sofa to read in tandem with her master. Written in a feminine hand, with an abundance of curling strokes, the papers seemed to be the pages of a diary. Scrawled at the bottom of the first page, in Sir Horace’s hand, were these words: If you must know, Featherstone, read this after my death, but not before. It’s the only explanation I can offer.
Featherstone glanced at his watch. It was half past five, or rather twenty five past, to be precise. His professional instincts, so cultivated and heretofore trustworthy, abandoned him. The delicate curlicues of the feminine penmanship drew his eyes with an irresistible allure.
“What a strange feeling I had today! I should so like to describe it, for it was frightening, but deliciously so, and it arrived without warning. I felt as though I were the sky itself and some great thunderstorm passed over me, or through me, or by some means was me. What a curious notion! Went to Mrs. Stapleton’s for a new hat this afternoon. I convinced her the taffeta bow was horrid.
“That odd feeling I had months ago came back today, and stayed with me for perhaps an hour. It’s as though I cease to care for anyone but myself and it would be the greatest pleasure to crush some little creature’s skull in my bare hand. It hasn’t entirely left. I won’t tell anyone of this. It might be said that I’d sampled the brandy, but I haven’t touched it. I want to feel it again, whatever it is. I want it to come back.
“Father walked into my room today while I was wrapped up in myself, feeling that strangeness. He turned so ghastly white and fled the room. So I looked at myself in the glass. I will not describe what I saw there. The feeling has left me now and I’m left cold and bereft, but I pray it won’t return. I won’t think about it ever again. I must not.
“How the time flies fast! Father behaves so queerly lately and I begin to wonder if he shouldn’t have a holiday, though naturally we couldn’t go away this season of all seasons! I have come out and how splendid it is! If I have a complaint, it is only that the hours, sometimes the days, fly by so quickly that it is almost as if I couldn’t remember them and yet I am not tired at all. Tomorrow I am going to see Mrs. Faraday’s botanical garden and Mr. Dreiser, that fascinating German gentleman visiting them, will be there. He has the most darling moustache, so much more chic than anything the other gentlemen have.
“I have never felt better in my life, but I am rather unsettled. I could swear that it was the 18th and yet here in my hand is a newspaper with the 19th printed upon it. I must have mistaken the dates ages ago, for the only other explanation could be that I slept a day and two nights entire. What nonsense. I must dress now and I have the loveliest, heavenliest blue silk.
“My kitten has been killed. Its poor little body was found on the kitchen stair, quite crushed. The staff insist they are all innocent, but I suspect it was that ugly groom I never cared for and I have dismissed him. At least, they all seemed quite properly sorry. I didn’t care much for the kitten, but it was my own and no one else’s to dispose of. I have sent a letter, anonymous of course, to Harold Bingley, saying I’m in love with him and I will slap his face when he proposes tonight. I am lovelier than I have ever been and I intend to have four proposals at least before I accept someone.
“The insolence of the staff in this house is unbearable. How beastly they all are! And Father won’t stop staring at me when he thinks I can’t see. But I do see and it makes me livid. As though I were about to fly at him with a poker! It’s utterly
“Mr. Gracie, Father’s funny little friend, always on about some boring thing, dusty old books and specimens and so on, came to supper today and was taken ill. Father wouldn’t let me see him and is gone to care for him. I’m quite desolate. I imagine we won’t go to Mrs. Faraday’s ball tomorrow evening now. I feel hot all over. Perhaps I’ve taken a fever, or, oh God, not ”
Featherstone stared at the unfinished phrase and the blot of ink below it. Behind him, Mrs. Snow stirred.
“There’s a last page, sir,” she said.
He put aside the page for February and froze, struck dumb, unable to move. Scrawled over the page in an unfamiliar, slovenly hand, he read this:
“Too late, Arabella. You’re all mine now.”
Gianna Ward-Vetrano is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Her fiction has appeared in Scoundrel Time and THAT Literary Review. She also has a blog, The Unbearable Bookishness of Blogging (www.unbearablebookishness.com), where she has written about literature, cinema, and feminism since 2013. She is the recipient of the Julia Keith Shrout Short Story Prize, awarded by the University of California, Berkeley.