A Gathering Storm (A Porthkennack novel)
This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.
When grief-stricken scientist Sir Edward Fitzwilliam provokes public scorn by defending a sham spiritualist, he’s forced to retreat to Porthkennack to lick his wounds. Ward’s reputation is in tatters, but he’s determined to continue the work he began after the death of his beloved brother.
In Porthkennack, Ward meets Nicholas Hearn, land steward to the Roscarrock family. Ward becomes convinced that Nick, whose Romany mother was reportedly clairvoyant, is the perfect man to assist with his work. But Nick—who has reason to distrust the whims of wealthy men—is loath to agree. Until Fate steps in to lend a hand.
Despite Nick’s misgivings, he discovers that Ward is not the high-handed aristocrat he first thought. And when passion ignites between them, Nick learns there’s much more to love than the rushed, clandestine encounters he’s used to. Nevertheless, Nick’s sure that wealthy, educated Ward will never see him as an equal.
A storm is gathering, but with Nick’s self-doubts and Ward’s growing obsession, the fragile bond between the two men may not be strong enough to withstand it.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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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.
From The Collected Writings of Sir Edward Fitzwilliam, volume I
My brother George—my identical twin—preceded me into the world by six minutes. As boys we were as one, so much so that even our parents could not tell us apart. Our thoughts were as one too, and often we would speak the exact same words spontaneously. This changed forever, however, shortly after my eleventh birthday.
Father had taken George, being the eldest son and heir to the title, to town with him, and while they were away, my sister Honoria and I both fell ill with the disease now called diphtheria and in those days called the morbid sore throat.
My poor sister had the misfortune of falling ill first. As is well-known, victims of this cruel disease grow a putrid, grey, membranous substance in the throat that coats the tonsils and larynx. Within a week of taking to her bed, my sister could barely breathe and seemed like to suffocate. In desperation, and despite the warnings of our nurse, Mother called in a surgeon to try to cut some of the stuff away and ease the passage of air to her lungs. By all accounts, it was bloody work—certainly, I could hear Honoria’s screams from the other end of the house. Unable to withstand the shock of the ordeal, she died a few days later.
I was spared this treatment but had to withstand endless days of struggling to breathe, dragging the tiniest threads of air through my clogged throat. I grew convinced my fate was to die from asphyxiation—something I cherish an utter dread of even now. At last, however, the membrane came loose and I could breathe again. The relief this brought was sadly short-lived as I was then afflicted by a weakening of the heart and paralysis, first of the face and then of the limbs. For weeks I could do nothing but lie and be tended to, like a newborn. Many times my parents were told they must expect my death. That this did not come to pass was, I feel quite sure, due to my mother’s tireless care for me, and her determination that I would live.
Slowly, I recovered, but I was left with two permanent reminders of the disease. The first was a harsh, unbeautiful voice, my larynx having been permanently damaged. Even today, I cringe to hear my speaking voice and my laughter, which sounds like the barking of a dog. The second was the change in my similarity to my twin. While my body had been doing everything it could to resist death, George’s had continued to grow. I never quite caught up to him. By the time we were one-and-twenty, he was five foot ten inches with broad shoulders and strong arms, while I was three inches shorter and far slighter.
* * * * * * *
4th April 1853
Messrs Godritch & Godolphin, Solicitors, Porthkennack
“Now, tell me,” Mr. Godolphin said, settling back in his chair, “how may I help you, Sir Edward?”
Ward regarded Mr. Godolphin over the polished expanse of his desk. Godolphin was the only solicitor in Porthkennack, Mr. Godritch having passed away some twenty years before. He was an unremarkable-looking man in late middle age, with a small paunch, thinning grey hair, and a rather rosy nose, the cause of which became plain when he insisted on breaking open a bottle of sherry, despite it still being afore noon. Ward’s glass of amber wine sat on the desk before him, untouched, as Godolphin sipped contentedly at his own.
“It is a rather unusual matter,” Ward said. Godolphin’s gaze flickered briefly at Ward’s harsh, toneless voice. That was a more restrained response than during their introduction a few minutes before. Soon Godolphin would cease to react at all. It usually took a couple of meetings for people to become accustomed to it. Ward was used to such reactions, but still, they irritated him.
Godolphin offered him a serene smile. “My practice is small but I am yet to be asked to deal with any matter beyond my abilities. Tell me—is it a question of property? Or perhaps you need to discuss your will? It is never too early to put arrangements in place—”
“I need subjects,” Ward interrupted. “As many as you can get me.”
“Subjects?” The solicitor frowned at him across his broad walnut desk. “Subjects? I’m not sure I follow.”
“As you may have heard, I am a scientist, Mr. Godolphin. I am also fortunate to come from a family of some considerable means. I visited this area last year and became convinced it was the ideal place in which to carry out my work. That is why I purchased the land on which I subsequently built Varhak Manor.”
“I was aware of that,” Mr. Godolphin said, inclining his head in acknowledgement. “Having acted for Mr. Roscarrock in that transaction, as you will no doubt recall.”
“Of course,” Ward said, though in truth he hadn’t known, nor did he care. He’d left all the legal business to Mr. Embleton, his solicitor in London.
“I first decided to purchase property in Cornwall,” he went on, “due to the weather conditions here. The work I am doing now is concerned with the impact of atmospheric electricity and electromagnetism on . . . certain spiritual and psychic phenomena. Since this part of the English coastline is prone to storms, it’s well situated for my experiments, as well as being not too far from London.” Ward leaned forward, over the desk, warming to his subject now. “The particular reason I selected Porthkennack, though, was because of the so-called ‘Round Hole’ situated at the edge of my property—”
“The Hole?” Mr. Godolphin interjected, his tone doubtful.
“Oh yes. I realise having a huge great hole in the ground might be off-putting for most buyers, but for me, it was the very reason I wanted this land. The conditions inside that crevice would usually only be found during a storm at sea. The air is constantly saturated with droplets of sea water, and there are frequent surges from sea level. I fully expect that in the course of an electromagnetic storm, these unusual conditions will be enhanced, and indeed I hope to take steps to further enhance them myself. For one thing, I’m installing certain equipment at the base of the Hole to stimulate production of ozone gas. Are you familiar with ozone g—”
Ward blinked at that and for the first time noticed that Godolphin looked . . . frankly bamboozled.
“Excuse me,” the lawyer said, “but I’m not sure I am entirely following you. What does all this have to do with these subjects you want me to help you with?”
“I beg your pardon,” Ward said, flushing. “I get a little ahead of myself sometimes, when I start talking about my work.”
“That’s quite all right,” Godolphin said. “And perfectly understandable. But if you could perhaps explain what it is you need my assistance with, that may . . . expedite matters.”
“Very well.” Ward paused and took a deep breath. This was the part he found more difficult. “It is my hypothesis—given the right person and the right conditions of electromagnetic and atmospheric activity—that it is possible for a living man to communicate with spirits.”
Godolphin’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth. Closed it again. Then he picked up the sherry bottle, poured himself another large glass, and threw half of it back.
Ward waited. He was well aware, painfully so, of how most people, especially educated people, viewed his work. But he also hoped that Godolphin, as a professional man with a living to make, would agree to help him regardless of his views regarding what Ward was trying to achieve.
Eventually Godolphin said, “Are you a spiritualist, Sir Edward?”
Ward shook his head. “By no means. Make no mistake, Mr. Godolphin, I am a scientist, first and always. I have witnessed some marvellous things in my life that others have ascribed to magic or religion, but there is nothing I have seen that I do not firmly believe may be perfectly explained by science, if not now, then someday.”
Godolphin considered that and finally said, “What is it you want me to do?”
“In order to conduct my experiments, I require various things”—Ward counted some of them off on his fingers—“electromagnetic activity, sea water, ozone gas. These are all things I am able to obtain in some form or other. There is one thing I need, however, that I have been unable to get: human subjects. It is this ingredient I require your assistance with.” Ward paused, then added, “I am willing to pay any volunteers you find me a generous sum for their assistance—and, of course, a fee to you for acting as my agent in this matter.”
“What sort of person is it that you seek?” Godolphin asked. “Do you require your subjects to be literate, for example? What will they be asked to do?”
Ward shook his head. “There is no need for them to be able to read or write. I will need them to tell me what they are experiencing, but that is all. My only real stipulation is that it would help if they have recently experienced a family bereavement.” He saw the lawyer frowning at that bluntly stated requirement. “As for what they will be asked to do, well, nothing much at all: merely submit to being put into a trance—”
“A trance?” Godolphin sounded taken aback. “Do you mean mesmerism? If you mean to put them to sleep and press pins into them or some such thing, I’m afraid I could not countenance assisting you with any such endeavour.” He gave a dry chuckle to lighten his words, but Ward could see he meant it seriously.
“No, no, of course not,” Ward reassured. “Nothing like that, Mr. Godolphin. I am not a circus performer. The reason I put my subjects into an hypnotic trance—which is in a fact a very subtly altered state from the usual—is not to deprive them of the ability to sense things, as the mesmerists purport to do, but rather to enhance their mental concentration. By focusing my subjects’ minds in this way, I hope to unlock what I believe is a latent ability we all have to reach beyond the boundary of the visible world we perceive around us.”
As usual when he spoke of his work, Ward began to feel happier, excited at the prospect of the efforts that lay ahead, and of the tantalising possibility of success. He realised he was smiling, and that Godolphin was considering him with what looked like curious interest, no longer the wary man of business, but one man taking his measure of another.
At length, Godolphin nodded. “Very well, Sir Edward. Let us give this a try. I will do what I can to help you find some subjects, and we will see how we go.” He rang the bell at the side of his desk and seconds later, the young man who had greeted Ward when he first arrived popped his head round the door.
“You rang, Mr. Godolphin?”
“Ah, Mr. Gwynn. Please come in,” Godolphin said. “We have a contract of agency to draw up.”
* * * * * * *
Godolphin was as good as his word, but over the next several weeks, the few subjects he was able to send Ward’s way proved to be worse than useless.
Agnes Penrose, a frowsy woman of about forty, blushed every time Ward asked her a question, could barely stammer out an answer, and was impossible to hypnotise due to her inability to maintain her gaze where Ward needed it to be to achieve the requisite state.
Thomas Cadzow, a strapping young farm labourer, appeared a better prospect, at least at first. He succumbed to the trance state with ease, but it transpired he’d never suffered a bereavement in his life—not only were his mother, father, and six siblings alive and well, but all four grandparents and two great-grandparents were in fine fettle too. The man hadn’t lost so much as a pet cat.
The worst, though, was Jago Jones, a sullen man who’d recently lost his place on one of the local fishing crews after being drunk and incapable one too many times. Silent at the outset, in his trance he grew tearful and spoke like a frightened child till Ward, alarmed, woke him. On waking, Jago was mortified to find himself cowering and wet faced. He claimed to remember nothing of what had occurred and grew angry with Ward, though all Ward had done was ask him to call to mind his dead father. He stormed out of Varhak Manor insisting Ward had been trying to possess him with witchcraft.
A few days later, Godolphin called on Ward.
Pipp showed him into Ward’s study, and he dropped into the chair opposite Ward’s desk with a heavy sigh.
“Is something wrong?” Ward asked.
“Mr. Jones’s family are swearing blind he’s been abed since he returned from undergoing your experiments,” Godolphin told Ward flatly. “They say he’s unable to see, hear, or speak since you put him in a trance.”
Ward frowned. “Well, I can assure you, he was able to do all those things when he walked out my house shouting at the top of his voice.”
Godolphin nodded wearily. “I pointed out to them he must’ve got home somehow. Nevertheless, that’s what they claim. And if they start spreading that rumour, your chances of getting any more subjects for your experiments will dwindle to nothing, I’m afraid.”
Ward gave a harsh bark of laughter. “Well, that couldn’t be much worse than what I’ve had so far.”
Godolphin sighed again. “Yes, I know and I’m sorry for it, but the truth is, the villagers have been more wary of your experiments than I expected them to be. It’s not so much the hypnotism that bothers them as the rumours that your work involves electricity. Most people round here have lost men to storms at sea at some time or another, and they don’t consider that such things are to be trifled with.”
“Believe me, no one has more respect for the power of an electrical storm than I,” Ward replied. “I wouldn’t consider putting anyone in any kind of danger. For God’s sake, I’m erecting lightning rods round the Hole so that when I’m working in storm conditions, any strikes will be harmlessly discharged!”
“That’s not how the villagers see it,” Godolphin said, shrugging. “So far as they’re concerned, your lightning rods attract lightning, and they can’t understand why on earth you’d want to do that.”
“Oh, for God’s sake!” Ward exclaimed, throwing up his hands. “That’s ridiculous!”
“But that’s how they think,” Godolphin pointed out patiently. “And that’s why I’ve not been able to find anyone else willing to be a subject. Mind, I’ll keep looking, but in the meantime, if you want the Jones family to be quiet, I suspect you’re going to have to pay them some money.”
As much as that rankled, Ward hadn’t spent months building Varhak Manor and planning the work he would carry out there, only to throw his efforts away now by allowing the Jones family to defame him the length and breadth of the county. Besides, as much as he doubted the truth of their claims over Jago’s incapacity, he still felt faintly guilty every time he remembered the sight of the man weeping like a babe. And so, in the end, he instructed Godolphin to offer the Jones clan twenty pounds in exchange for their silence, and they happily took it.
Jago Jones was, of course, walking and talking as well as anyone else within a day of the money being handed over. He blew the lot at a boxing match at Trebudannon, got spectacularly drunk, overturned his buggy on the way home, and caved in his skull. He died three days later.
Within a week, the whole county was whispering that his death was down to Sir Edward Fitzwilliam’s mysterious electromagnetic experiments.
After that, there were no more subjects from Mr. Godolphin.
28th April 1853
The Hope & Anchor Inn, Porthkennack
“Well now, me ’ansome, what will you be having this fine day?”
Martha Trevylyn winked at Nick over the scarred wood of the bar and thrust her ample bosom out a little further. She was known to be a lusty one, Martha, and she’d made it plain to Nick on more than one occasion that she fancied him.
“A pint of ale, if you please, Martha.”
“No smile for me today?” she teased, lifting up on tiptoe to unhook a metal tankard from the beam above her. Nick just grunted in reply, and she sighed dramatically. “It’s a sin, is what it is, a man like you never cracking a smile. I daresay you’d be twice as lovely to look at if you did.”
“I’m hardly lovely to look at,” Nick scoffed, but Martha laughed.
“What’ve you to be so glum about anyway?” she demanded as she pumped out the frothy ale. “It’s a lovely day. The blossom’s on the trees, it’s warm as high summer, and the maypole’s going up today for the Young Oss on Sunday. If it stays like this, we’ll be dancing late into the night.”
“It is—not that you’re one for dancing.” She set the tankard down in front of him and lifted the coins he’d laid there.
He took a swig of the ale. “That’s true enough—I’ve two left feet.”
She eyed him, unimpressed. “No use lying to me, Nick Hearn. I seen you dance with Jenny Lamb three years ago, and you were fine. Better than fine.”
Nick forced a smile. “Jenny was a determined lass.”
Martha laughed. “Oh, she’s determined all right! I’ll wager you’re relieved she married the schoolteacher and laid off you. We was all sure she’d set her cap at you.”
Nick’s smile felt fixed and stiff, and he didn’t know what to say. He’d felt a lot of things over Jenny’s marriage to Gabe Meadows, but relief wasn’t one of them.
“Promise you’ll give me at least one dance, Nick,” Martha wheedled. She sent him a wicked look from under her lashes, the sort of look that should have given him a cockstand, but never would.
“We’ll see,” he said at last. “Mayhap I’ll fancy a jig come May Day, if I can get five minutes’ peace and quiet to drink this good ale.”
Martha put her hands on her hips and glared at him, mock-offended. “I swear you prefer the company of that ugly dog to me.”
Nick glanced down at Snow, who lifted his head and gave a little grunt, as though he knew he was being talked about.
“Well,” Nick said. “He talks less.”
Laughing, Martha sauntered off to see to her next customer, and Snow set his heavy head back down on his paws.
The inn was busy, despite it being the middle of the day. On a warm day like this, a working man liked a cool pint of ale to quench his thirst, and the place was full of labourers, fishermen, and other men who worked in the village and on the surrounding farms. There were a number of men his own age who Nick had attended the village school with and played with as a lad. Till the interest Godfrey Roscarrock had taken in him had marked him out as different from them.
Nick turned round to face the room, leaning one elbow on the bar behind him. He raised his tankard and drank deeply, enjoying the light, hoppy ale. He’d been out riding round the estate all morning and had been nursing his thirst in anticipation of this drink.
When he finally lowered the tankard, he glanced around the inn, nodding a few civil greetings at the other patrons without bothering to initiate conversation. He was a man of few words. He knew some people reckoned he thought he was better than everyone else because he’d risen from being Darklis Hearn’s bastard to being steward to the Roscarrock family, but that was their lookout. He couldn’t help what people thought or didn’t think.
When Nick finished his ale and turned to set his empty tankard down on the bar, Jim, the innkeeper, caught his eye. He raised a questioning brow at Nick.
Another? was the unspoken question.
Nick swithered briefly, then nodded, and Jim brought a fresh tankard to him a minute later. He was halfway through his second ale when the door of the inn opened and a newcomer arrived—or rather, two newcomers. The first man was plainly a toff. He was elegantly dressed, all in shades of brown, and had the typical air of a rich man—the air of someone used to getting what he wanted, whenever he wanted it. He strode inside and looked boldly around, not bothering to shield his curiosity about the gathered clientele. The second, older man seemed to be the first man’s servant. He appeared far less comfortable, his gaze flicking nervously about the room from behind his half-moon spectacles.
Gradually, the taproom fell silent. The toff removed his hat and regarded the inn’s patrons with bright-eyed interest. He had a willowy sort of youthful grace—Nick guessed him to be somewhere in his twenties. His neatly side-parted hair was dark blond and his golden-brown eyes shone with intelligence and unconcealed curiosity. There was a delicacy to his clean-shaven face, with its fine, symmetrical features, yet there was firmness there too. Determination in the sharp jut of his jaw, boldness in the unshirking gaze.
Unexpectedly, desire rolled in Nick’s belly, cresting like a wave that broke and flooded through him. The strength of his reaction took him by surprise, and he had to glance away briefly to consciously school his expression before he allowed himself to look back.
The toff offered the assembled company a smile. “Good afternoon, gentlemen,” he said. Or rather barked.
Christ, that voice. The man might be fair, but his voice was scraping and hoarse. Nick waited for him to clear his throat, but he didn’t, merely continued in the same harsh tone.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am your new neighbour, Sir Edward Fitzwilliam. I live close to the Hole—I’m sure you all know it. You may be aware that I’ve built a house there, where I carry out my work.” He offered another of those engaging smiles. “I am a scientist.”
“We know what you are,” a voice assured him from the back of the inn. “You’re the one messing around with ’lectricity and putting up lightning rods.”
Sir Edward craned his neck, trying to find the owner of that voice. “Well, that’s rather an oversimplification, but in essence, yes. I am investigating certain effects of electromagnetism, amongst other things. It is, as I’m sure you all know, an area that is being studied in some depth at this time. No doubt you’re all familiar with the work of Mr. Faraday.”
“Oh, to be sure!” someone else said, with a snort. “We’re regular professors here at the Hope and Anchor.”
That voice was closer, and familiar to Nick. Jed Hammett, one of Nick’s boyhood friends. These days he was a fisherman—at least, he was when his brothers could extract him from the village hostelries. He liked his rum, did Jed, and he was a belligerent drunk as Nick knew too well, having had more than one run-in with the man when he was in his cups, when Jed would decide that Nick had gotten above himself and needed taking down a peg or two.
There were a few muted chuckles at Jed’s comment. Sir Edward frowned, as though not quite sure if he was being laughed at, which he was, of course—at least as blatantly as a group of working men would ever laugh at a titled gentleman in broad daylight. Nick glanced about the taproom, taking in the shared glances and grins of the other patrons. On the other side of the room, Sir Edward’s servant looked like he wished the ground would swallow him up. Nick lifted his tankard and took another swallow of ale, waiting to see what would happen next.
“Well,” Sir Edward said, turning his head to address his comments to Jed. “Perhaps you might be interested in assisting with my experiments then? For that is my purpose today—I am seeking volunteers, and I am, of course, prepared to pay. Generously.”
He gazed at the assembled company with a bright, expectant look that made Nick’s gut twist. There was a spark of something in that hopeful look, something vital and rare. Something that he knew the other men in the taproom would see as nothing more than foolishness. That thought bothered Nick more than it ought to have, and he turned determinedly away to face the bar again, setting his tankard down on the wet wood and hunching over it, wanting nothing to do with that handsome, intriguing young man. Beside him, Snow pressed in close, his short, powerful body warm against Nick’s calf.
“So, milord, what would these volunteers ’ave to do?”
That was Jed again, the rich, round burr of his Cornish accent a stark contrast to Sir Edward’s upper-class rasp.
“Very little. Merely allow me to put them into an hypnotic trance, then open their minds to whatever messages might come to them from—” He faltered.
“From?” Jed prompted.
When Sir Edward spoke again, his voice sounded even harsher than before. More brusque. “From the spiritual plane—beyond the veil, if you will.”
“Beyond the veil?” Jed repeated, his words infused with real amusement now. There were some subdued chuckles from the other patrons too, and a few more backs turned on Sir Edward as some of them grew bored with the scene, preferring to buy themselves more beer. Jim took a flurry of orders while Martha began gathering in the empty tankards that were pushed forward.
“You want us to speak to spirits? What do you think we are?” the first voice from the back of the room called out. “Gypsies with crystal balls?”
More laughter greeted that, a little less subdued this time. Some ineffective shushing followed. Tense and angry, and still facing away from the excruciating scene between the toff and Jed Hammett, Nick gripped his tankard so hard his knuckles turned white. As though sensing his emotions, Snow rubbed his head against Nick’s leg, and Nick leaned down to give him a reassuring pat.
“Well now,” Jed chuckled behind Nick, “if it’s a Gypsy you’re looking for, milord, we’ve got someone right up your street.”
Nick stayed where he was, his back firmly to the room, but he knew from experience that more jibes would likely be coming, which probably meant that one of his regular half-joking, half-aggressive confrontations with Jed was inevitable. He really wasn’t in the mood for it today. Not in front of this comely young man with his devil’s bark of a voice who seemed to be oddly oblivious to being mocked.
But perhaps Sir Edward wasn’t as oblivious as Nick thought, for when he answered Jed, his voice was all icy anger. “Kindly do not presume to tell me what I’m looking for,” he snapped.
The impact of that was instantaneous. The muted chuckles died away, replaced by a newly respectful silence, and as pleased as he was to hear Jed being set down, Nick couldn’t stop his lip curling at that. This was typical, wasn’t it? The rich, titled gentleman presenting himself, uninvited, in the taproom of the local inn and expecting respect to be handed to him on a silver platter. Then reminding them all of his power when he didn’t get it.
Nick half expected Jed, a notorious hothead in his cups, to snap back. But perhaps the fisherman hadn’t yet had enough rum for that since, after a tense moment, he chuckled again and said, “I beg your pardon, milord, I didn’t mean to offend you. Why don’t you tell us what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can ’elp you.”
“As I said, I’m looking for volunteers,” Sir Edward replied stiffly. “I need subjects to work with me on my experiments—as many as I can get. I’ll take anyone who’s willing, but—and I apologise for the indelicacy of this—the recently bereaved would be especially welcome.”
Nick blinked at those succinct and coolly spoken words.
“The recently bereaved would be especially welcome.”
The toff said that as though it was an incidental thing. As though being recently bereaved was like having a particular colour of eyes.
“The bereaved?” Jed parroted, unconsciously reflecting Nick’s thoughts. “Why would they be especially welcome?”
“It’s been theorised that the recently bereaved are more receptive to communications from . . . the other side,” Sir Edward explained stiffly.
“Oh, I see, it’s been theorised, has it? Well I never!” Jed’s clumsy sarcasm mimicked the man’s upper-class intonation—so perhaps he’d had enough rum to be foolish after all. But this time no laughter greeted Jed’s mockery, only silence. An uncomfortable, difficult silence that stretched and waited for Sir Edward’s reaction.
“It seems,” Sir Edward said at last, his rasping voice pricking at Nick’s jagged nerves, “that I was mistaken in coming here. Furthermore, it seems—” and here he paused, before continuing in a louder voice that addressed everyone in the taproom, not only Jed “—that the men of Porthkennack don’t have nearly as much backbone as I’d thought they would. To be frank, I’m astonished to find that there is not one among you that isn’t too craven to take part in a few simple scientific experiments.”
The nature of the silence in the room shifted at that and the men slouching against the bar beside Nick began, slowly, to turn around to face Sir Edward again. With a muttered curse, Nick turned too, resenting his own foolish inability to mind his own business, while Snow circled Nick’s legs anxiously, butting his head against Nick’s calves.
The scientist stood in the middle of the taproom, his angry gaze travelling over the men gathered around him. His golden-brown eyes glittered with injured pride and his determined jaw was rigid—perhaps from biting back yet more ill-considered words. Again, Nick’s senses tingled in response to the man. He had a spark in him that called to Nick. Like the quickness of Godfrey’s new dappled-grey mare, or the glimmer of life he’d seen in Snow when he’d first laid eyes on the dog’s torn-up body in that alleyway in Truro. Why that should be, Nick had no idea. It made his brows draw together with displeasure till he was fairly glaring.
Jed said quietly but ominously, “Did I ’ear you right, milord? Did you just call the men in this taproom cowards? After what you did to Jago Jones?”
Jed was a big man. He topped Nick by at least three inches and Sir Edward by more like six. In bulk, he probably outweighed the scientist near enough two to one. Yet Sir Edward was uncowed. He glared at the big Cornishman with scorn in his eyes.
“Any man in this room who won’t accept my offer because of Mr. Jones isn’t just a coward, he’s a fool,” Sir Edward spat.
There were a few intakes of breath at that, and some uneasy murmuring.