Miss Harriet B. Elder
The Daily Mail & Times
December 5th, 189-
Dear Miss Elder,
You called upon me yesterday eve with the news that my father-in- law, the former Earl of Ravenglass, had arrived at a peaceful end, at long last, in the prison chamber where he was kept for the past seven years. You asked if I might be able to add to the obituary of this former Lord of the British Exchequer and low-fallen great man for your readers by giving some personal anecdote or other that might serve to make him more sympathetic. I find that I am not able to do so without further tarnishing his name, but upon reflection I recalled –indeed I had never forgotten and had written down in my girlhood diary – an incident regarding his wife, when she was Marchioness, from some years ago that you might find revealing.
It was in the year 184- and my Aunt Blassage from Lancaster, visited my family in the rectory here, upon the Ravenglass Manor estate. After she had gone, she left my mother as a gift, a lovely lacework collar, made in the Isle of Man, where Aunt had recently journeyed. My mother declared it beautiful if a great waste of money. She went out insufficiently to wear it, and anyway a Vicar’s wife, as Aunt B. should well know, oughtn’t to display such Vanities upon her Person.
I suggested that mother give it to Her Ladyship, the Marchioness Bella of Ravenglass, who, though she went out even less than mother, we both knew, wore such collars, and who would thereby be particularly obligated to us by its receipt. I think my mother was so surprized I did not ask the collar for own self, that she assented to my plan.
The following afternoon I took it wrapped in fine piece of slightly used muslin up to the Manor House. Mrs. Ounch, the housekeeper, sought to take it from me, promising to pass it on, but I wondered if it would ever get past the servant’s hall, and I reminded her that at Her Ladyship’s last birth day celebration she had particularly asked me to pay her a call. It was therefore with a rather poor grace, that Ounch agreed to convey my message to her mistress, and a few minutes later I was ushered upstairs and into the winter garden, albeit it was only November, and still inordinately temperate out of doors.
I would have been amazed to see the Marchioness out of her mechanical contraption of a movable wheeled wooden chair and she was not that day. She was in fact, sitting amid its surrounding pillows, and had been placed in a pool of green filtered sunlight, surrounded by oversize dracenas, colossal rubber plants, jungles of orchidaceous vines and lianas, giant pink amaryllis and other flora and vegetation of a tropical nature that I was unfamiliar with then but have since come to know. Somewhere above us, a skylight window must have been left ajar as three quite large, iridescent, brilliantly coloured, bottle green horseflies slowly swirled about the vicinity, shaping unhurried figure eights in the pollen-mottled air.
I thought the Marchioness asleep, since she was silent, unmoving and her eyes shut, but I curtseyed anyway and went up to her as close as I dared and laid the muslin upon her lap and opened it up, and quietly whispered, revealing and explicating the fineness of jet-work inter-stitched with the inky lace.
Although she could be no older than five and thirty, from this near, she revealed a face covered with strangely old looking skin and a meshwork of fine lines, especially around her pursed mouth and the almost bruised, dark looking undersides of her eyes. She smelled of Lilac Water yet also, like an older person, rather musty in fact, and there was also another, sharper and somehow Asiatic aroma from nearby. A moment later I was able to trace it as deriving from a narrow violet coloured glass vial with a carved glass stopper and also from a slender, chased silver chalice that could hold no more than half a draught of a drink. Both items were placed upon a wheeled wooden slatted table evidently constructed to complement and accompany her movable chair.
I was about to stand up and go over to the vial for a closer look at the writing, which appeared from this angle to be medically prescriptive, when I felt her hand upon mine and looked up. Her great grey eyes opened slits, then wider, albeit without anything like recognition of me even though her mouth became more wrinkled as it opened slightly in an approximation of a moue.
"How charming!" she hissed more than whispered.
"My Lady? Ma’am? I’ve taken the liberty of . . . ? And I’ve brought you a gift my mother . . .?"
I touched the muslin and her large, veined hands lifted the collar before her eyes.
"From the Isle of Man, my Lady. Hand made by the inhabitants, of course."
She held it up to the light. "How very intricate," it now came out a whisper. "I accept it, yes. It will go with my . . . jade taffeta bodice."
She returned it to its muslin bed, where a horsefly landed upon it.
She made no effort to brush it off and when I did so, she stopped me.
"Don’t you like Nature, young Miss?"
"I do My Lady, very much so."
"Very much so?"
"Yes, My Lady, unlike most girls I am unafraid of animals or . . . anything in nature. Our dear father lectures us that we must share the world with our animated brethren."
"Yes. So we must," she whispered hoarsely. "And if you really like Nature . . .?"
"Then you will very much like my Precita."
So saying she moved a hand to her throat upon which she wore a large, deep-green malachite locket, almost square, set in gold, and hung by three strands of gold beads.
No sooner was the locket opened, than I saw it held some white furry object. One of her dried-blood red fingernails gently probed the centre of the locket and on the instant several limbs jumped out around it, grasping the nail closely. Immediately the large furry white thing crawled out of the locket and across her hand, and almost too quickly to follow, rushed onto her throat, crossed onto her long hair, and stopped only when atop her head where it rested long enough for me to fully make it out.
I’d been greatly surprised, for it moved in a fashion unlike any other creature I’d ever seen except perhaps a spider; not quite scuttling as crabs and lobsters do upon the strand yet similar to them; unlike them, it didn’t locomote sideways and yet it went so very quickly. I could now see that it was some species of spider, though very large, quite furry and the colour of clotted cream, with a beige hue only upon its head and what seemed to be the curved gripping claws of its front arms.
"You do like Nature," she now hissed at me. "You haven’t fallen back, screaming and rushing out of the room on your hands and knees like most of the fool girls in this house."
"It’s remarkable," I said. "In truth, My Lady, what manner of animal is it? It seems an arachnid in shape and limb but it’s so large! And furred like a mouse or . . ."
"It is an arachnid, as you say. A subspecies called a tarantula. But while related, it is not a whit like those of that name we know here in the old world, those black and ugly brutes with their bags of gut and blood red stain. No," she went on, "It’s from the Sonoran desert. Do you know where that is?"
"In North America, I believe, My Lady: In the north-western part of the Mexican Empire."
"So you are intelligent after all. Do you know what it likes to eat?"
"I should think," I said, "other creatures from that locality: insects and small rodents and lizards and suchlike."
"Yes," she hissed, "And not little girls, which is why you did not flee from it." She paused. "Would you like to touch Precita? To pet her?"
Though subtly horrified, I was most curious. "May I? I’ll be very gentle."
With a single hand she lifted the tarantula which covered the entire back of her hand and brought it down to the muslin and slowly petted it, until I swore I could hear it purr like a kitten.
"Now you may," she said and I followed suit, amazed at its silk like fur and its little movements as though coming closer into being caressed.
"You came here not merely to call, nor simply to gift me, you’re far too intelligent a girl for that merely," she said, as we now took turns with the spider.
"It’s true, my lady, I came to ask a boon for my dear brother, Rudolf whom you may remember."
"How could I not remember him? For of late he is to be found all over this house whenever my son, Roland, is here."
"I hope, My Lady, that my brother does not displease you."
"He neither pleases, nor displeases. He is Roland’s after all and no business of mine."
I knew neither what she meant, nor how to take it, pro or no, so I went on, as we doubly caressed the furred, cream-colored arachnid.
"He is of age to continue his schooling. To a college of some sort he must go, yet my father has not lifted one finger to make it so."
"He is not a good scholar?" she asked.
"Quite good, My Lady. Yet he is in want of . . ." I knew not what to say and settled for, "in want of …. Patronage."
"I have not held in my hand even one shilling in more than a decade," she said sadly, an admittance that I must say amazed me.
"Even so, a word or two from Your Ladyship on the matter. To your son, Roland. Or better yet, to His Lordship. A scholar’s stipend after all, although immense to such as we, is but a pittance to …"
She stopped me with another hiss, and I thought my mission lost.
"He is afraid?" she asked very quietly yet very clearly.
"My brother, Ma’am? I think is afraid of no one alive!" Then I understood," You mean my father, the Vicar? Yes, he is afraid! And especially to ask anything of Lord Ravenglass, no matter how much it is needed. He fears him greatly, I believe."
"And rightly, too. For Lord Ravenglass is powerful and thus much to be feared," she added and I thought my cause a lost one.
"Still," she went on, "It’s true that I may now and then wield an iota of influence. If only because he wishes no possible . . . "she sought for the words, settling upon, "possibly solid, provable grounds of dissatisfaction."
"Ah, My Lady," I almost cried, lifting my hand off the creature. "My entire family would be so utterly obliged to you."
"But on condition," she stopped my effusions. "Only that you will join your brother in attending a college. For if he is as intelligent as you are, he would want it. And your parents too."
"I would like that very much, since indeed my parents do believe in girls being educated and have helped me to advance this far in the cottage-school."
"Then I shall have a little project," the Marchioness said, and for the first time I heard a smidgen of pleasure in her voice. "Wherein I may somehow alter the way things are."
Precita suddenly moved forward from out of her caress. And I couldn’t help but notice that one of the bottle green flies had landed nearby, as before, on a particular weave of muslin.
The Marchioness lifted her hand lightly and very gently lifted mine away at the same time.
Precita slowly stood up and I could see the hair on its limbs stand up too. Still, it didn’t move. Before it and thoroughly heedless, the bottle green fly turned about upon the spot of muslin, it’s feelers and antennae immersed in some area therein from which it hoped to gain sustenance. Precita meanwhile waited, and almost thrummed like a purring cat, but remained utterly unmoving the longest time. I was almost about to look away when Precita shot forward and in a half second had the fly caught between its longest palps, had turned it about, thrust out of some openings a network of glistening thread and had wrapped the fly in wet netting.
It worked so quickly, now using several of its legs, that though I observed most carefully I could not make out, how the fly became so mummified. Then Precita stopped, held the fly just so before its high placed little head with five black eyes. She thrust out a single tiny near-invisible needle into the mass, and stung again and again until the fly went still, its alarmed buzzing silenced. "Now Precita shall dine at leisure," the Marchioness said, slipping back into her languid hiss of a voice. I watched the tarantula hold the wrapped fly in front of itself as though admiring its work, then crawl up her Ladyship’s arm, onto her breast, and from there into the ajar malachite box, where it settled in as though into a nest.
She shut the box, then reached over for the purple glass vial and let several thick liquid drops slowly descend into the chalice, where she indolently swirled the liquid.
Before she could bring the chalice to her mouth, I curtseyed, and began to withdraw.
"You won’t forget my brother!" I dared to remind her, suspecting what Lethe was contained in that draught she raised to her lips.
"I assuredly won’t forget neither you nor your brother," she softly said, then tossed back the liquid and I could smell it fully now and identify it as Laudanum from its bouquet like rotten almonds and overripe peaches.
Having sipped, she went very still, although her eyes remained open, staring into some baroquely fanciful Beyond, as I slowly backed out of the winter garden.
The Marchioness was as good as her word, and both my brother and I attended college. I until completion of my courses, and he for two years, before he left to obtain a commission in Her Majesty’s Imperial Navy where he has served ever since.
Signed, Lady Lillian of Ravenglass