From The Collected Writings of Sir Edward Fitzwilliam, volume I
On the twenty-fourth day of June, in the year 1852, I was visited by my twin brother’s spirit.
I was a passenger on a steamship, the Archimedes, sailing from Dublin to Anglesey, and it was close to midnight. The captain had told us they expected an electrical storm that night and that we should stay in our cabins, but I was most keen to witness the phenomenon of a great storm at sea, and so I ventured onto the deck despite his warnings.
It was like no other storm I had ever experienced. I could sense the electricity that saturated the atmosphere before a single bolt of lightning struck. Indeed, the very air seemed to hum with it, and the distinctive pungent odour of ozone gas—so named by Professor Schönbein, whose experiments into the electrolysis of water were of particular interest to me at that time—was all around me. When I glanced up at the sky, there was a faint, luminous glow over the brim of my hat, eerie and bluish white, and even though I knew it was produced by electromagnetism, it was no less beautiful or miraculous for that. I stared at that glow for long minutes, even discerning tiny sparks dancing there.
And then the lightning came. Mighty enough to tear the very heavens in two, it seemed, and I cried out in alarm, muttering some half-remembered prayer from my childhood as I clutched at the side of the Archimedes. Again the lightning struck, and again, each bolt seeming to disappear into the black depths of the churning sea. I admit, I was frightened then, and wished I had heeded the captain’s words. But just as I was about to run below deck, a voice spoke to me, a voice as dear to me as my own. My brother, George. My twin.
“Ward,” he said. “Ward. Can you hear me?”
I whirled on the spot, heart pounding, searching the empty deck for him. I called his name, over and over, and cried out, “I can’t see you! Where are you?”
My rational mind supplied a rational answer: George was in Burma. His regiment had recently served at the Siege of Rangoon. He could not possibly be on a steamer to Anglesey with me, and yet I’d heard his voice!
“Everything will be all right, Ward,” George said. “All will be well.”
That was all he said. A moment later, a physical pain wrenched through my body, worse than anything I’d ever felt, even in the worst days of my long childhood sickness. I cannot do justice to that pain in mere words. It was as though one of those great lightning bolts had struck my very heart and sundered it in two. It sent me to my knees. I fell heavily to the wet wooden deck, crying out my brother’s name.
I felt George’s absence—the moment he was gone—much as I’d felt his presence. It was negative to positive, opposite and equal, an emptiness to match and cancel out his sudden, shocking appearance. He was dead. I knew it—felt it—with a terrible finality. And though I called his name, over and over, weeping, I knew he would not return.
I dragged myself to my feet and began to search the deck of the Archimedes, hoping to find some lingering sign of George’s fleeting visit, but it was not until I finally raised my eyes from the deck, beaten, that I saw it. Quivering at the very top of the ship’s mast: a strange and luminous violet-blue light, like a huge flame atop some monstrous candle. Ethereal and otherworldly.
I knew what this was, had read reports of these spirit candles, as the Welsh sailors called them. Or St. Elmo’s fire, as I knew it.
And as I stared, awestruck, I was filled with sudden certainty: that it was all connected somehow. The electric storm, the sea, the ozone, my bond with George. Some or all of these elements had combined to defy the laws of man as I knew them and bring my twin to me in the terrible moment of his death.
It was in that instant that my life’s work was conceived.
2nd April 1853
Roscarrock House, Porthkennack
The new mare was as fine a horse as Nick had ever seen. Proud and lovely with her dapple-grey coat, ivory mane, and delicate, high-stepping legs.
“What do you think of her?” old Godfrey asked, without looking at Nick. He leaned over the paddock fence, his eyes on the mare, but Nick could hear a betraying note of eagerness in his tone. “Do you think Isabella will like her?”
Nick, who’d been chewing on a stalk of grass, spat out a stray seed and said, “Those are two different questions.”
Godfrey gave an impatient sigh and turned his head. At seventy-eight he was still hale, a big man with a shock of silver hair. There was a slight stoop to those broad shoulders these days, and the big hands gripping the top of the fence were spotted with pale brown marks, but he was as active as he’d always been. Still rode every day.
“Answer them separately then,” Godfrey demanded.
Nick watched the mare canter round the field, in no hurry to respond. He knew that Godfrey hated that Nick didn’t rush to do his bidding like everyone else. In a way though, Godfrey liked that about it him too. Or, at least, he respected it.
At last Nick looked at Godfrey and gave his verdict. “It’s rare to find a grasni as fine as this one.”
A brief flicker of distaste crossed Godfrey’s face at Nick’s use of the Romany word, but his satisfaction at Nick’s approval soon chased it away.
“It is,” he agreed. He respected Nick’s opinion on horses more than anyone else’s. Said that Nick had an instinct for them. Sometimes he said he should have left Nick in the stables, working with the horses, instead of educating him to take on the elevated position of Godfrey’s steward. But that was usually only when he was irritated with Nick.
“I’m not certain, though,” Nick continued, calmly, “that she’s the right animal for Miss Isabella.”
“Why ever not?” Godfrey demanded, his grin falling away.
Nick smiled, watching the mare as she tossed her head. “Just look at her. She’s a handful.”
“Isabella is a fine horsewoman,” Godfrey snapped. “She has a wonderful seat—better than her brother.”
Nick ignored that flicker of bad temper, his expression neutral. Godfrey was a domineering old martinet who controlled his household with an iron hand and sought to control everyone else who came into his vicinity too, but he couldn’t control Nick. He might be Nick’s employer, his landlord too, but Nick made sure Godfrey knew that if Nick had to walk away from his position and his cottage, he’d do it without a second thought. And he never let Godfrey see him getting riled. He reacted to all the old man’s bluster with the same calm equanimity.
No matter what it cost him to do it.
“Miss Isabella has an excellent seat,” he agreed now, his tone mild, “but you know she’s careless with her hands at times. She damaged Acteon’s mouth last month, pulling too hard at the reins. She didn’t mean to hurt him, but she was showing off, being reckless.”
He didn’t waste his breath agreeing that she was indeed a superior rider to her brother, Harry. Godfrey was the only person permitted to criticise his heir.
Beside him, Godfrey gave a harrumph in poor-spirited acknowledgement of Nick’s point, and they fell into silence, both turning back to the paddock.
The mare was cantering playfully round the perimeter now, and Nick found himself imagining what it would be like to ride her himself, to let her have her head on the long beach at Constantine Bay with no saddle between them. He’d hug her flanks with his thighs and bend low over her neck as she galloped, and something of her would be in him and something of him in her as they raced.
Gaze fixed on the mare, Nick made a soft, clicking noise in his throat. Her pointed ears flickered, and she slowed her pace, turning her head in his direction. She paused, as though considering, then changed direction, swinging round to walk towards him. He reached into his pocket as she approached, drawing out a slightly shrivelled russet apple. He offered it to her from his flat hand, and she eyed it—then him—carefully. At last, though, she lowered her great head to accept the tribute, taking it almost delicately, her moist breath huffing against his palm. He patted her powerful neck as she munched the fruit.
Godfrey tutted. “Bloody typical. I couldn’t get her to come near me when I tried earlier.” His tone was light, but it carried an irritable edge. He and Nick shared a passion for horses, but Nick had an affinity with them—with all animals—that far outstripped Godfrey’s mere knowledge, and at times, Godfrey seemed almost resentful of Nick for it.
The mare butted Nick’s shoulder with her beautiful head and whickered softly, demanding his attention, blatantly ignoring Godfrey.
“You’re a flirt,” Nick told her. “A bad ’un, through and through.” Her neck was warm and powerful under his hand. She was quick with the magic of life, and again, he found himself wishing fiercely he could ride her.
The mare tossed her head, as though insulted by his words, but even as she did so, she stepped closer, bumping him affectionately with her nose.
Godfrey made a disgusted noise. “Christ, she is flirting with you. Bloody animal wouldn’t even look at me!”
“Ayes, you like me fine, don’t you?” Nick agreed, addressing the mare. “Maybe you’ve decided I’m husband material.” He chuckled softly.
She gave him a look at that but stood her ground, docile as he patted her. When Godfrey stretched a hand out to her, though, she sidestepped, then turned and walked away. Slowly, as though to insult him.
Godfrey huffed a sigh. Nick took pity on him. “You did well to get her for the price you did,” he said. “She should’ve gone for twice that.”
That was all it took to cheer Godfrey up. Soon he was telling Nick the story of the auction for the second time that day, reliving the glory of his success.
Godfrey Roscarrock was a man who liked to speak far more than he liked to listen. He dominated every conversation he was part of, and though he was a fine storyteller, Nick had heard all his stories a dozen times or more. He was used to only half listening as the old man talked, and that was what he did now, grunting occasionally when Godfrey paused for breath. In truth, though, his attention was on the mare as she slowly circled the paddock.
After a while, another head butted him, below his knee this time. Nick looked down to meet the gaze of the white bulldog sitting at his feet, its unlovely face made uglier by a missing eye.
He smiled at the dog. “Did you think I’d forgotten you?” he asked Snow, bending down to ruffle the silky flaps of the dog’s ears.
“That ugly mutt’s still trailing after you, I see,” Godfrey said disapprovingly. He kept a few hunting dogs, but was not a man to make a pet of an animal and couldn’t understand why Nick would.
“He’s a good dog,” Nick said mildly. Godfrey just grunted, and they fell silent again.
Nick began tracking the mare’s gait, fixing his gaze on her as she circled the paddock over and over. She had a slightly unusual high-stepping gait that made him wonder what she’d been used for before Godfrey had bought her.
He was about to ask just that, when Godfrey prodded his arm and said, “Well? Have you?”
Realising he’d missed something, Nick said, “Have I what?”
Godfrey’s mouth tightened. “I knew you weren’t listening.”
Nick didn’t bother to defend himself. As Ma used to say, “No point saying sorry when you’re not, is there?”
“I said, have you seen Sir Edward?” Godfrey said.
Godfrey gave an impatient huff. “Sir Edward Fitzwilliam—the fellow who’s built that new house up by the Hole. He’s calling it Varhak Manor. Apparently he’s some kind of scientist.” Godfrey said scientist as though it was the most ridiculous idea he’d ever heard, adding dismissively, “He must be a madman to build something up there—the bloody place’s liable to fall into the sea!”
Nick used to play at the Hole when he was a lad. The village children were all fascinated by it—an eighty-foot-high cavern that stretched from cliff top to seabed. When Nick was little, and Ma used to tell him stories about the piskey folk, she said the cliff had been gored by a giant bull. He’d believed her for years. That was just what it looked like after all, as though a huge horn had been driven into the cliff and torn back out again.
Back when Nick used to be friends with the village boys, they’d dare each other to stand at the edge, as close as they could get without falling in. They’d sway there, buffeted by the high coastal winds, waiting for the great rushes of seawater that would explode up through the rocky crevice at high tide, like spurts from a whale’s blowhole, soaking them, sending them running away, shrieking with laughter.
He’d seen the new house—this Varhak Manor—being built when he was out walking, and had wondered who it was for. It was a strange place to build somewhere to live. Not that the house was particularly near the Hole itself. But still.
“I’ve seen the house,” Nick said. “It’s a handsome place.”
Godfrey made a face. “You think so? I think it’s quite ugly. But I suppose that’s the modern style.” He sniffed.
“It’s not as beautiful as Roscarrock House,” Nick agreed, shrugging, and that much was true. Roscarrock House was supremely elegant with its mullioned windows and long gallery, its weathered walls dressed in robes of ivy. The scientist’s house was very different, square and strong, the edges of its brand-new sandstone bricks immaculate and sharp. Nick had been surprised to find that he liked the brutal, modern look of it, but he did.
“What’s more,” Godfrey continued, his tone displeased, “I don’t know anyone who’s even met this Sir Edward yet. Apparently he arrived in Porthkennack a fortnight ago and hasn’t so much as paid a call on anyone. Hasn’t even been seen in the village yet.”
That would bother Godfrey. As far as he was concerned, the Roscarrocks were the most important family in the county, and he would certainly regard this Sir Edward’s neglect of him as an insult.
Not to mention being wildly jealous of his title, Nick thought, suppressing a grin.
“Why d’you ask if I’d seen him if you know no one else has?” he asked, puzzled.
“I thought you might have caught a glimpse on one of your wanderings,” Godfrey said carelessly. He cast Nick a sly glance. “Always up on those cliff tops, aren’t you? Just like your mother. Must be her Gypsy blood coming through.”
Nick smiled thinly. He knew Godfrey meant that as an insult, but Nick refused to take it as one. Even as a very young child, he had known he was different. His skin was darker than most people’s round here, whether in summer or winter, and his hair wasn’t merely black, it was so black it shone with a bluish lustre in the sun, like the plumage on a crow. The only sign of his gadjo side, his father, was his eyes. These were a distinctive and very light silver grey, bright against his tawny skin. They marked him as an outcast on both sides. Not Roma. Not Cornishman. Not . . . anything.
His mother hadn’t ever belonged in Porthkennack, but she’d had no choice but to stay. Her own father had refused to allow her to return to her people after she’d run off with the English gadjo. Not that it changed how she thought of herself—or Nick.
“We are Roma,” she would tell him, fiercely. “You should leave here and join the family when I am gone. When they see how you are with the grai, they will know you are Roma through and through, and let you travel with them.”
He’d hated when she talked like that, about dying. She’d been too young to talk like that. But she had died young after all, and now he wondered if somehow she had always known that was her fate. If the stories she spun about her fortune-telling had some kernel of truth in them, even though she’d told Nick they were just foolish nonsense she made up for the gadjikane villagers, to make a little money.
Nick had never met his mother’s people—he didn’t know if he wanted to—but they came back to Cornwall every second year, and he knew they would be in Penzance this summer. Lately he’d found himself thinking about going to see them, to meet Ma’s father and give him the news of his daughter’s death. Nick wondered if he would care. Ma had always spoken of her father with loyal affection, yet he was the one who had cast her out and refused to allow her to return to her people when Nick’s father abandoned her, forcing her to find another way to survive.
He wondered too if he would feel a connection to the old man. To any of them. If he would be tempted to travel with them if they asked him to. To leave Porthkennack behind and take up a life on the road. That was what Ma had wanted. That was her dream for him.
Nick pushed himself back from the fence.
“I should be getting on,” he said. “I’ve to see Jessop about that damaged wall.”
Godfrey nodded, distant now. “Join me for supper in the library,” he said. “Six o’clock. You can give me a proper report then.”
Nick nodded, then turned on his heel and strode away, Snow lumbering and wheezing in his wake.