The Weakness of Hearts by Kate Williams

The carter left me too early, and I had to walk up the hill, dragging my bags. The house was black against the sky by then, and the moon was covered by dirty clouds. The trees bent over toward me and their look was not welcoming. A squat woman with keys at her side opened to the banging of my door.

‘They are all abed,’ she said. ‘We were expecting you at five.’

I could see nothing past her but a few flickering candles. You would think a grand house like this one might have a chandelier.

[private]‘Lateness,’ she said, as I crammed past her and smelt her, hard onions and coins.

I nodded, as I walked into the narrow hall. What was to say? That the coach had stopped at an inn on the way, where I did not know, and there had not just been a place to eat and horsemen in corners, but stalls, like a fair. There were usual things, pans and vegetables and boxes of firewood, but then grander stalls with flounces, haberdashers’ things, hats, ribbons, skeins of silk for pretty girls, ones with calm hair and blue eyes, not me, and piles of cakes and gingerbread for little boys. It was not those that drew my eye. After a lifetime of girls, I had had my fill of sugar. It was the stacks of old books, sitting in front of a man who looked even more aged, his hair so untidy under his hat that it looked as if it had been half torn from his head. Women flocked around the ribbons like flecks of colour on a painting, but he sat there, still, as if not caring that the people around him seemed not to want his wares.

He looked at me and smiled. ‘Books for you, Miss? Maps, recipes, stories, I have them all. Even spells, if they would interest.’ I had thought of a story book, when I came close. I had never had my own book, only borrowed time with those of others, and I desired a story more than anything. But then, as he held out one and there was gold on the spine, I could not stop but look more.

‘Any spell you might desire, Miss,’ he said. ‘Catch a sweetheart, ruin an enemy, kill the evil spirit, chase away the demons.’

‘Magic is a temptation for weak minds,’ remembering what the minister had said when he came to investigate a craze for fortune telling at the school.

‘All minds are weak, Madam. Some can be made stronger, with methods such as this book.’

And I do not know why it was, but it was something about the girls flurrying nearby me, their talk, and not wanting to be like them, never, and I gave him the coins I had saved for so long, over hours and weeks and months of listening to their lazy French and correcting their composition and being laughed at for poverty, and then in a moment, the book was in my hands. ‘You will find it useful, Miss,’ he said, bowing a little.

It was then, only after all the flim-flamming around him and the staring that I realised time had gone quicker than I could credit, and I had missed my coach. So I had to wait for another and beg my way on, and use up almost the last of the coins I had toiled so hard to gain. And then I was late and the family were all abed and it was the worst start that could be to my time at Radleigh Manor, which I had for so long seen as the beginning of my freedom. All the way, I clutched the book in my hand and did not open the goldy cover. If I had sacrificed so much for it, I should force myself to make the pages worth their while.

I thought in the cart and decided I did not dislike the notion of spells. Better than religion, those hard chairs they made us sit in, every day, listening to sermons by fat men who ate well after lecturing us. I could not bear that.

The housekeeper left me in a small upstairs room. ‘There is no one to help you prepare for the night,’ she said. ‘But I imagine you are not accustomed to assistance.’ She was right. I was no girl from a good family brought low by money, and sent out to earn her living. I was an unclaimed child, taken in for the goodness of Mrs Pennyfather’s heart, and now sent to Radleigh with a strange moment of luck, a place above my station.

Next morning, I awoke and the sun was streaming through my windows. They had left me to slumber and no one had awoken me. And that is when I knew. There were enemies. I pulled on my clothes as best I could, took myself downstairs, through corridors that wound. A footman stood outside one door, his face covered over with displeasure as he looked at me.

‘The family dine there,’ he said. ‘Master and his children, that is. The servants have already breakfasted. I imagine Mr Merrycroft will see you in his study after breakfast.’ He made a move so slight, not even twitching an eyebrow, as if I was not even worthy of such effort.

I waited outside the study, standing up forever although it was surely not even one full hour. Finally, when it seemed to me as if my legs were beginning to bend under me, a tall man came forwards, a woman in uniform with a scraped face behind him, and then two children of about ten or so, both in white, hands resting clasped. I could not tell if they were boy or girl. Their faces were round and there was something not distinct about them, as if they were clay models shaped by infants.

‘Miss Glass? We did not see you last night. But now, you can begin immediately with your duties. These are my children, Alfred and Albertina.’ His hand gestured and I still could not tell the genders. ‘You will go up to the schoolroom, and begin with geography. On the wall, there is a table of your classes at what time, and you will follow that.’ He touched one of the children on the head, as if to push it forward, but he or she stayed at its place, resolute.

‘I have never seen children who look so alike.’ I suspect it was uncalled for of me to speak so, but I could not help it. There seemed not a feature apart.

‘They are not ordinary brother and sister. Two children born at the same time, from the same seed.’ The hand that he then rested on their head was not kind, I thought. ‘They replace their mother. She died to have them.’

I held my palm towards the child nearest me. He – or she – did not take it. My fingers rested in the air before I took them back to my side.

‘Go,’ Mr. Merrycroft said. ‘Thompson will show you the way.’

Pinch-face bobbed, and then turned on her heel. The two children trotted after and I began to follow. Up we went, through staircases that wound around and turned and narrow halls that came so close I thought they might fall on my head, and nowhere a window to lighten our way. All the while, the pair of them walked on ahead, their white gowns flickering in the dark.

We came to a door, and Thompson took a set of keys from her skirt and poked one into the hole. It clicked and creaked and the door flung open. I stood behind the three of them and looked at a room that was surprisingly large and full of air. There were even four windows, not unclean, and there were spots of sun on the floor.

‘Your room, Miss Glass,’ said Thompson, and then before you would know, she had shut the door behind her and gone back out into the dark. The two children positioned themselves either side of the window. Their faces glittered next to the panes.

‘Geography,’ I said, hating the quiver of my voice as it emerged. Had I not had worse than this? Whole classes of girls who had laughed and paid no attention and still I had won over them. But I stared into the greyish eyes of these two and felt nothing more than a desire to cry out. It was as if even their cheeks had eyes in, that stared back and mocked. I tried to think of my most wilful charges at Mrs Pennyfather’s – Julieta Pilking, who would try to pull my hair, Sarah Bellow, who would sing out bridal tunes at me, for they said I would never marry. And yet I could not make them seem anything but very little, naughty girls who would be wed themselves soon enough.

‘Which of you is Alfred and which is Albertina?’

The one on the right shrugged. ‘We could be either, if you prefer, Miss. Or both.’

‘I would like to know which is which.’

A shake of the head. The other stayed silent, staring back.

‘Well, then. I shall call you Alfred and you Albertina,’ I said to the speaker, thinking that there had been a slight gruffness to his voice. ‘Sit down and let us begin our geography.’  I walked to the bookshelf at the end of the room and found it well equipped. I pulled out ‘The Geography of France’ and began to read.

Then, for the next hour, they tormented me.  They sat quietly, still, gazing at me with their grey eyes. All the time, I talked of the Alps and the rivers and the large flat area in the centre that only worsened the weather, they stared. If someone had come in, they might see nothing but obedience. But I knew they were worse and more wicked than any of the noisiest Pennyfather girls. I asked questions, but they made no answer. When I put out a question, I listened to the silence and then answered it myself. The minutes on the clock slid by as if time was backwards before it came forwards, and the cruelty was worse than three hundred calling-out Pennyfather girls. At the end of the hour, I walked over to the large plans, written in ink on handsome paper, and then attached to the wall. Each day was divided, in wide, curving script – history, comprehension, mathematics, drawing, art. I drew my hand up to the ‘A’ of Art.

‘Who wrote this?’ I was almost talking to myself. And then one responded. ‘Miss Jenner.’

I turned and looked, hardly able to credit that one had spoke.

‘She came before you,’ said the one I was sure was Albertina.

My predecessor. I had not been aware. I had thought from the letter I received from the housekeeper that the children had been at school.

‘How long did she stay?’ I touched the curve of the A once more. It was so thick that you would almost think it just drawn.

‘Who knows?’ sang out Albertina behind me. ‘She is gone now.’

I suppose they had played her with this dumbness too, this malice, and she had hurried away in tears.

‘Where did she go?’

And they both stared back at me, without speech, their faces like white clay once more. The one I was sure was Albertina propped her hands into her lap. I moved my hand down the lessons.

Driven away by these two. I would not be the same. Indeed, I had no choice. I had no family and Mrs Pennyfather would never take me back. I had to make my best of what I found here. If I did not leave here with a reference, I could not think what I would do. No chance of getting further work without a character. I would be lost, and that would be the truth.

So I turned away from the paper and smiled at the two demons in front of me. ‘History,’ I announced. ‘What were you learning with Miss Jenner?’

They gave me no reply. ‘Well then. The Hundred Years War.’

I read out some pages to them about the battles and the politics and the struggle for territory. The valour of Henry V. And then I looked up. Albertina – or so I thought – regarded me with her pale grey eyes.

‘Did they have witches in the Hundred Years War?’

‘I do not know.’

‘I heard they did. Men hunted for them. And then they burned them at the stake.’

‘The flames ate them and then their flesh turned and melted,’ said the other.

‘I know nothing about such matters. I believe there was Joan of Arc, but she did not deserve to die. She heard voices and thought she heard God. But we are not talking of the French, yet. Come. The Battle of Bauge.’

‘Do you think it must hurt to be burned, Miss?’

‘I cannot imagine.’

‘But then you are glass. You would not burn. You would break into pieces.’

I stared at her, and then Alfred next to her, and I could not help it. My legs began to shake. It was the look in her eye when she said, ‘break into pieces’. There was only a flicker, only a moment in the pale iris of her eye – but I knew I had seen evil.  It shone out to me, just as clearly as you might see goodness in the kind touch of a nun.

‘The Earl of Buchan,’ I continued. ‘Let us think of bravery.’

At one, Thompson came with trays for their lunch. ‘You dine with the servants,’ she said to me. I would not. I would not go to the hall below, laughing girls, mocking me. Instead, I waited and I asked her if she could show me the way to my own chamber. She told me to turn left, then right, right again, along the corridor and up the stairs and around the spiral, and then up and right again. I put her directions in my head, even with her bad sour tone.

When I finally arrived at my room, after all those hours of walking, I threw myself onto the bed. I told myself that I must have courage, but I could not find it. Instead I thought of what the man had said about the weakness of souls and temptation crawled into my mind. Kill an evil spirit. I took the book of spells from my bundle and touched over the gold on the cover. I opened it, and the paper crackled. I thumbed pages of catching husbands or curing children or turning sickness from your body, until I came across the one I desired. Chasing the evil spirit. I ran my hand down the list. The receipt did not look too troublesome. It would leave the patient in a daze for eight or ten moons, and after that he would wake and all bad demons would be chased from his body.

Nothing happened that day, of course it did not. I returned to the classroom and went through Miss Jenner’s timetable of mathematics, then comprehension. They would not say or write a single thing. I had weeks of this, and Thompson’s sharp face, and the master who brushed past me and the servants who laughed, and it all began to rise up in me, faster each day.

The desire grew and grew and I suppose that was the thing. Alfred and Albertina became for me demons, whose hearts must be prevented from breaking the world around them. Months of their cruelty and strangeness, and I knew then that I had to do my task. When I took one day off, I walked into the village and bought the things from my receipt. I mixed it in my room, balanced the composite parts. I did not feel fear.

Every day, they sat there staring back at me as I read and followed Miss Jenner’s timetable, and I thought of how I would return them to goodness, soon enough. I had been brought here from Mrs Pennyfather’s for a purpose.

Miss Jenner was in my mind when I put the receipt in their cups. I tipped in the receipt, thinking of her weeping in her room, and fearful of where else she might go. ‘You may find it useful,’ the man at the stall had said. The twins would be in their daze, and would remain so, as the evil spirits left them, for at least eight days, perhaps more. I imagined them awaking, usual, sweet children, and how grateful the master would be to me.

Next morning, I woke expecting to hear the whole house in fear at the daze and the sound of the doctor called. But all was bustling as usual. I threw myself out of bed, seized with excitement all the same, found my way downstairs, and every step I took, the noises were only those of the family as usual.

The same footman was there, his eyebrow raised. I could not bear it. I walked past him into the door. Mr Merrycroft, Alfred and Albertina turned to look at me. They stared. I looked at them.

A slow smile spread across Albertina’s face, the first I had ever seen. Her eye twitched.

In front of Mr Merrycroft, on the table, was my bundle and my book of spells. And then there was a sound from outside, of men arriving and wheels and voices, and I knew I had moved from an instant in the minds of others from good to bad.

Albertina touched her pale mouth. ‘I was right, Miss Glass,’ she said. ‘It must hurt to burn.’[/private]

Kate Williams

Kate Williams’  previous books are England's Mistress, a biography of Emma Hamilton, and Becoming Queen, about the young Queen Victoria. She has presented television and radio programmes on Victorian history and her debut novel, The Pleasures of Men, a tale about a young woman obsessed with a serial killer in 1840, will be published by Penguin later this year.

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