Book 3 : Emily Chambers Spirit Medium Trilogy
London, Spring 1880
“Something’s wrong,” said the spirit of Lord Fulham.
“So I see.” I squinted at the flickering entity standing beside the piano in Lady Willoughby’s drawing room. The seven members of my audience watched me as I focused on the ghost they could neither see nor hear. Whether their expressions were mostly curious or afraid or a little of both, I didn’t notice. I was much too intent on Lord Fulham.
He had been seventy-two when he’d died but was still a tall figure, albeit shaped like a wine barrel with a round, full middle. Yet he was not an imposing spirit. He trembled like a flame fighting a draught and was as transparent as a piece of fine muslin. I had never met a spirit that manifested so poorly.
“Are you about to cross?” I asked him.
He gave a nervous shake of his head. “I can’t. None of us can.”
“I cannot stay here. It’s much too difficult.” His voice drifted off along with his body, but only for a moment before both returned even weaker. “The effort…costs…too much…” His wide eyes implored me, but to what end, I didn’t know. If he weren’t a ghost, I’d say he looked afraid, but what could a dead man possibly fear?
I was about to ask him when he disappeared altogether.
“Lord Fulham! Lord Fulham, return to me, please. Your loved ones wish to speak with you.”
“Emily?” whispered my sister, Celia, sitting beside me at the table. “Is everything all right? You look like you’ve seen a… Oh, never mind.”
Cold dread prickled my skin. Summoning spirits was an imprecise activity. Some had already crossed over to the Otherworld and could not hear my call, let alone act upon it. Others didn’t want to revisit the living and simply ignored me. But never had I known ghosts that heard my call and wanted to come but could not.
Until yesterday. Lord Fulham was the second ghost in two days who had not been able to remain in our realm.
“Emily?” Celia prompted. “Is Lord Fulham’s spirit with us?”
“He was,” I said. “But he’s gone.”
“Gone where?” Lady Preston asked from her position on the opposite side of the table. The elegant countess clutched the hand of her friend, our hostess and Lord Fulham’s daughter, Lady Willoughby, sitting next to her. The unease in her voice tugged at me. Lady Preston was particularly sensitive about communicating with the dead, having lost her son Jacob and then finding him again through me. Or, more accurately, she’d found his spirit.
“He has returned to the Waiting Area.” I turned to my audience, which consisted of Celia plus six ladies from the upper echelons of London Society. It was the most elite séance we’d ever had, thanks to Lady Preston who’d suggested our services to Lady Willoughby. I didn’t like disappointing them, but what else could I do?
“I’m sorry, Lady Willoughby.” I gave her a sympathetic smile that I’d seen Celia use many times with the bereaved. She was very good when it came to death and dealing with mourners. Quite an expert, in fact. Undertakers could learn much from her simple, heart-felt gestures. I was the only one aware that she was acting. “He would like to speak to you,” I went on, “but he…needs to crossover.”
I congratulated myself on a lie well told. Not a single one of the audience appeared to disbelieve me. They did, however, seem disappointed to be missing out on the spectacle of objects moving around the drawing room, and indeed Lady Willoughby sniffed into her handkerchief. She had dearly wanted to speak to her father.
Only Celia frowned in puzzlement. She was still frowning when Lady Willoughby rose and tugged the bell cord for tea.
“What a shame,” said Adelaide Beaufort, Lady Preston’s daughter, sitting on my other side at the small rectangular table. She and I were the same age and had developed a friendship in the previous weeks once it became known I’d communicated with her brother’s ghost. “I believe Lady Willoughby wanted to ask her father where he’d hidden the key to his wine cellar. No one can find it, you see, and he had a very fine collection.”
As she spoke, my gaze drifted to Lady Willoughby herself. Our hostess straightened, wrinkled her nose as if she smelled something off, and turned her shoulder to me.
“She doesn’t look too disappointed anymore,” I muttered. “Adelaide, did your mother find it difficult to convince Lady Willoughby to host this event?”
Adelaide studied her fingernails. An avoidance tactic if ever I saw one. “A little.” She cringed. “Sorry, I shouldn’t tell you.”
“No, it’s all right. I thought she seemed enthusiastic at first, but now…now she looks at me as if I were a fraud.”
“Oh, Emily. You’re not a fraud. Mother and I both know it. Forget what others think.”
I smiled as sweetly as I could. “Of course.” But I couldn’t forget. Celia’s and my independence depended upon the public believing us. Our income wasn’t particularly high, but we had begun to make good money thanks to Lady Preston urging her friends to engage us. Sometimes we had two bookings during the day and another in the evening, quite unheard of until now. I liked to be busy. It kept me from thinking about Jacob Beaufort and that I hadn’t seen him since we’d sent a rather horrible ghost back two weeks ago after he possessed a number of our friends.
I missed him. I felt hollow without him, like an empty shell washed up on the shore.
“Once they see you having a conversation with a ghost, they’ll know that you are a genuine medium,” Adelaide went on. She watched the other guests beneath half-lowered lashes, a stern set to her brow that defied anyone to question my authenticity. She was like a bulldog, albeit a pretty, blonde one.
“It’s hard to have a conversation with a spirit when they cannot talk to you for very long,” I said, pretending not to notice the way all the other guests avoided my gaze.
“Lord Fulham couldn’t stay?” Adelaide asked.
“No. The same thing happened with another spirit yesterday. Neither she nor Lord Fulham had the strength to remain. There is something happening in the Waiting Area. Both appeared more faded than usual and neither was able to appear for long. Lord Fulham said it was too difficult.” I didn’t tell her about the frightened look on his face. It was a look that had unsettled me, but I saw no reason to worry Adelaide.
“Jacob will know more,” Adelaide said with certainty. “You should summon him and ask.”
I would dearly love to do precisely that, but I wasn’t sure of the reception I’d receive from him. He’d made it clear the last time we met that he wished to end whatever lay between us. He’d driven the point home by not coming to me since.
A footman entered carrying a tea service on a silver tray. I watched as he deposited cups, saucers, teapot, and other pieces on the table. A lull snuffed out the conversations and I looked up to see everyone watching me. I cast my audience a genteel smile and rose.
“Celia, shall we?”
“Let me gather my things.” Celia liked to linger at afternoon séances, especially if our hostess was one of Society’s leading ladies. I used to think it was because she enjoyed the sandwiches and buns, but now I knew it was because she wanted to make contacts among London’s elite. The fact she did not wish to stay and chat to Lady Willoughby and her guests meant she knew something was wrong and wished to question me.
I sighed. Celia’s interrogations were little better than her lectures and always tested my endurance.
Adelaide put a gentle hand on my arm, staying me. There was a gleam in her blue eyes and a flush to her cheeks that wasn’t there before. “I wanted to ask you about my coming out ball.”
“Celia and I will both be there,” I said, cheering a little at the thought. “Did you not get our reply?”
“Oh, yes! We did. I’m so pleased you can come.”
“Then what is it? If you need advice on gowns then I’m afraid I’m not the best person to ask.” Celia and I could ill afford a new outfit each for the ball, and she had decided I alone would receive one while she wore something older. We’d relied on the dressmaker to advise us of the latest in evening fashions as we had so little experience. People like us were never invited to balls. Ever.
“I have not received an answer from George and the ball is only five days away.” She shot a glance at her mother, conversing with Lady Willoughby and an elderly woman with a black veil covering her eyes. “Do you think he’ll come?”
“I didn’t know George’s presence was so important to you.”
“Oh. It is. Of course it is. I want all my friends there.” She fiddled with a lock of hair at her temple, but it wasn’t out of place. It never was. Adelaide had perfect hair, unlike mine, which was coal black and as messy as a child’s scribble when I let it loose from its tight arrangement.
“I’m glad you consider George a friend after such a short acquaintance. He’s a good man.” I’d met George Culvert only recently, but already we were as close as two friends of the opposite sex could be without taking the relationship further. He was an acquaintance of Jacob’s and a demonologist with an extensive library on supernatural subjects. It was thanks to his books and his help that Jacob and I had stopped demons and evil spirits from overrunning London.
“He is,” Adelaide said quietly. “The best.” She blushed again.
“Have you developed feelings for him?” Perhaps it was a little too direct, but I wasn’t fond of dancing around important subjects. And what could be more important than the hearts of two dear friends?
Adelaide’s blush deepened and she lowered her head but not before I saw her cast another glance at her mother. “The Culverts are not the sort of family of which we approve.” It was such an odd thing for her to say that I wondered if she were merely repeating words uttered by her parents. Although George was wealthy, his mother was a social-climbing, small-minded woman, and the late Mr. Culvert had been an eccentric with an interest in the supernatural, like George himself. I could not see the cynical and upright Lord Preston sitting down to dine with a demonologist. Which was why Adelaide’s invitation to George had been such a surprise. Her invitation to me was even more extraordinary. Her father didn’t like me. He’d called me a fraud to my face and ordered me off his property more than once. Adelaide and her mother must have convinced him somehow, but even so, I wasn’t looking forward to seeing him on the night.
“Nevertheless, George is a good man, as you say,” Adelaide whispered behind her hand, as if she’d said something wicked.
I opened my mouth to question her further when a middle-aged man walked into the drawing room. Behind him, ducking a little beneath the doorway, stood Lord Preston.
“My dear!” cried Lady Willoughby. She jumped to her feet, knocking the table. The teacups rattled in their saucers. “You’re home early.”
“No one was at the club except for Preston here,” said Lord Willoughby. He bowed to his wife. “My apologies, but I wasn’t aware you had guests this afternoon.” His friendly gap-toothed smile was bestowed to each of the ladies in turn. Until he got to me. It slipped right off his face. “Er…I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.”
Lady Willoughby looked like an insect frozen in a block of ice. Her large eyes bulged, accentuating the thinness of her face and long neck. “Oh, uh, yes. This is Miss Emily Chambers and her sister, Miss Celia Chambers.”
“You!” Lord Preston stepped forward, looking like a thundercloud about to ruin a picnic. “What are you doing here?”
“We were just leaving.” I didn’t want an ugly confrontation with him, not in front of women we wanted—needed—as our customers, and not while Lady Preston and Adelaide were present. It would only humiliate them. Something that Lord Preston seemed to care little about.
Adelaide made a small, wheezing sound of misery, but her mother was all action. She moved smoothly to Lord Preston’s side and clasped his arm. “What a lovely surprise,” she said, situating herself between her husband and me. It didn’t do any good. He simply glared at me over the top of her head. “This is a fortuitous meeting,” she went on in her placating voice. “You can escort us home. Perhaps we’ll send the carriage ahead and we all three can walk. It’s not far and the day is pleasant.”
Lord Preston blinked. He looked down at his wife and his expression softened. It was only then that I noticed the whiteness of Lady Preston’s knuckles as they gripped his arm. He couldn’t fail to have felt her fingers through his coat sleeve.
Celia looped her arm through mine and hustled me toward our hostess. “Thank you for your kind invitation,” she said as if they were old friends and we had not come to conduct business. Trade of any sort was frowned upon by Upper Society. People should not be seen to earn money, or heard to talk about working for a living. Work was vulgar, coarse, something only the middle and lower classes needed to do. I didn’t think we could afford to worry about such niceties, but Celia thought otherwise. She didn’t ask Lady Willoughby about payment, nor did she sell our services to any of the other ladies present. It was as if we’d simply stopped by for afternoon tea.
“I’m sorry Lord Fulham couldn’t oblige us by staying longer,” I said. I felt Celia twitch beside me. So be it. I wanted to give Lady Willoughby an explanation for her father’s all-too-brief visit. Whether she believed me or not, I couldn’t say, although her polite smile did seem a little pained. “Sometimes it happens. The spirit world is unpredictable.”
Lord Preston muttered something from the doorway. It was probably just as well that I couldn’t hear him because it mustn’t have been kind if Lady Preston’s tight-lipped expression was anything to go by. She tugged her husband aside so that we could leave the drawing room. I didn’t want to pass him, but I had no choice.
“Goodbye, Adelaide,” I said to my friend.
She gave me a reassuring smile, which I returned to the best of my ability. Then I was alongside Lord and Lady Preston. Despite Celia’s attempt to drag me past, I paused. And beamed.
“Thank you, Lady Preston,” I said. “It’s been lovely to see you again.”
“And you, Miss Chambers. You and your sister are always welcome at our house.”
I won’t deny that it felt good to see Lord Preston’s face turn a deep shade of violet. He did manage not to splutter his outrage and retract his wife’s offer, which must have taken a great deal of effort.
“We shall see you at the ball,” Lady Preston went on.
Lord Preston grunted but held his tongue.
Celia finally drew me forward and we were met outside the drawing room by the butler. He escorted us to the front door and paid Celia the amount due for the séance.
“I thought Lord Preston was going to argue with you right in front of everyone,” she said once we were on the pavement out the front of the Willoughbys’ townhouse.
“I thought his head was going to explode.” I laughed. I was feeling reckless and ridiculous all of a sudden. Surviving a battle with Lord Preston always did that to me, and I had not only survived on this occasion, I had won.
We walked through the exclusive area of Belgravia, past tall, slender buildings and along streets swept clean of mud and horse dung. But not even Belgravia could escape London’s soot. It dusted front porch steps and window shutters, nestled into the grooves between bricks, and threw a veil across the sky, shielding us from the sun.
“It seems Lord Preston knows we’re going to Adelaide’s ball,” I said, sobering. “I was a little afraid that we’d turn up on the night and he’d throw us out.”
“You thought Lady Preston hadn’t discussed it with him first?” Celia scoffed. “Of course she had. She wouldn’t invite anyone against her husband’s wishes.”
“I suppose not.” I had assumed my invitation was sent before he was shown the guest list to ensure it couldn’t be retracted. George’s invitation too. “But why would he agree to have me there when he can’t bear the sight of me?”
“Because it’s obviously important to Adelaide,” Celia said. “He wants to make her happy. She is his only surviving child after all.”
I stopped and stared at her. She stopped too. “What is it?” she asked.
“You amaze me sometimes, Celia. That was quite an astute observation.”
“You don’t have the monopoly on cleverness in this family, you know.”
I couldn’t think of any response that wouldn’t offend her so I continued walking. “I admit that I had assumed Lord Preston wouldn’t care about Adelaide’s wishes.”
“On some things, perhaps not, but on this matter it seems he does. His wife’s wishes too, of course.”
That lulled me into a thoughtful silence. Perhaps Lord Preston wasn’t the tyrant I’d originally pegged him to be.
“Did Lord Fulham’s spirit say anything to you?” Celia asked, stopping at the intersection with busy Sloane Street. “From the look on your face, I’d say he did and that it wasn’t something you liked hearing. He didn’t insult you, did he?”
“No. He appeared much faded and very weak.”
“As with Madame Friage yesterday.”
I’d told Celia my concerns following our last séance, but both of us had dismissed Madame Friage’s faintness at the time. We’d assumed she was about to crossover from the Waiting Area to the Otherworld, but now Lord Fulham had appeared just as faded, and he had said he was not going to cross. That he could not, and nor could the other spirits.
The steady stream of omnibuses and coaches meant we had to concentrate as we crossed Sloane Street and neither of us spoke until we reached the other side.
I rounded on Celia as she shook her skirt to dislodge some of the street grime that had dared cling to its hem. “I’m worried,” I said. “Something is wrong in the Waiting Area.”
“It would appear so.”
“We must do something. I should summon J—”
“No! You will not summon him. We can work around this little problem without him.”
Work around? Little problem? “Celia, what are you talking about? This is a potential disaster, not only for the poor spirits who can’t cross, but for our business too. If word gets out that ghosts aren’t co-operating, then our bookings will dry up. I can’t conduct a séance without ghosts.” If anything would propel Celia into action it would be the mention of our income dwindling.
“You could pretend the spirits are present.”
“Celia!” I could no more act my way through an entire séance than I could perform on a stage in front of hundreds of people. The latter had been another of Celia’s wild schemes only the week before, one I’d refused to participate in.
“It may be the only way.” She clutched my hand and looked at me with an expression that hardened her pretty features, and wrinkled her otherwise smooth brow. “Emily, we cannot afford to lose any customers.”
A carriage rolled up and the window was pushed down by a hand clad in a brown leather glove. Lord Preston’s hand, going by the family’s coat of arms on the carriage door.
The first voice I heard was not Lord Preston’s, however, but his wife’s. “Please, leave her be, Reginald. There’s no need to create a scene.”
Celia took my arm. The sharp talons of her fingers pierced through the layers of my clothing. “Is there something we can do for you, my lord?” she asked coolly.
Lord Preston’s face appeared through the window, his tall hat skimming the top of the frame. He was handsome, for an older man, but his prominent brow made him look angry all the time. Or perhaps being angry all of the time was what had made his brow so pronounced in the first place.
“Do not think I’ve given up,” he snarled. “Do not think you’ve gotten away with anything, Miss Chambers. You are a fraud. Your tricks are heartless and cruel and I will discredit you.”
Celia took a step back as if he’d pushed her but I stood my ground, even as she tried to pull me away from the coach. I would not give into him. I was many things—a fatherless bastard of African descent, a woman of trade, and a magnet for trouble—but I was not a fraud.
“Is that all, my lord?” I asked with the sweetest voice I could muster through my seething anger. “Because I’m very busy and there’s a ghost over there who wishes to speak to me.” It was a lie, but it made him look in the direction of my nod, which I found perversely amusing.
“Reginald, please,” came Lady Preston’s pleading voice from within the carriage. “Let’s go. For Adelaide’s sake.”
I thought I heard sniffing, but I could have been mistaken. The rumbling of dozens of wheels and clip clop of horses’ hooves along Sloane Street was enough to drown out most small sounds.
“Cease your fraudulent act, Miss Chambers,” Lord Preston said, his voice lowered enough that I could still hear it but probably not his wife and daughter behind him. “For their sakes, if not for your own.” He withdrew into the cabin and pulled up the window with a violent shove. The coach rolled away and joined the traffic.
I stared after it. My heart kicked violently inside my chest as if it were restarting after having ceased. My hands began to shake and I clasped them tightly together so that Celia didn’t notice.
“What a rude, horrid man,” she said. “Pay him no mind. His words are just that, words. As long as he doesn’t repeat them at the ball, all will be well, and I do believe he’ll keep his opinions to himself that night.”
I hoped she was right. He might be prepared to discredit me in front of his family, but he had refrained in public so far. That wasn’t to say he wouldn’t have a few private, quiet words with his friends over dinner. I wouldn’t put anything past Lord Preston when it came to smearing my reputation.
“It dumbfounds me that a father would say such things to his daughter’s friend,” I said.
“Not even if he thought he was right?” Celia asked, steering me down the pavement. “Perhaps he thinks he’s protecting her from further hurt. She and her mother have suffered greatly from Jacob’s death, and if he truly believes you are indeed a fraud, he would not want you hurting them further with what he thinks are lies.”
Sometimes I hated it when she made sense. “Stop making excuses for him, Celia. He’s awful and that’s that.”
“His manners could certainly do with some improving. Whoever said the upper classes were the most polite got it wrong. In my opinion, they are the most ill-mannered.”
We walked side by side past shops and distinctive red brick houses until we reached Druids Way. I planted my hand on my hat to stop it being blown off in the sudden breeze that always greeted us in our street. Celia had a ribbon beneath her chin keeping her bonnet securely in place so that she could continue to hold my arm and carry the carpet bag.
With my head bent into the wind, I didn’t see the spirit until we reached the steps leading up to our front door. He was sitting on the top step, his forehead resting on arms crossed over his knees. I couldn’t see his face, but I didn’t need to. I knew who it was, even though the difference in him was profound.
He lifted his head and I was struck by the weariness that shadowed his eyes. His shoulders were stooped, as if they carried a load too heavy to bear. “Em.”
I pulled free of Celia and ran to him. “What’s happened?” I squatted before him and touched his cheek. It was cooler than usual. “You’re so faint.” Despite Madame Friage and Lord Fulham both appearing extremely faded, I hadn’t thought Jacob would suffer the same fate. He was more solid than every other spirit I’d encountered. Whereas they were smudged at the edges, he was as sharp and bold to me as any live person.
Not any more. Whatever had befallen them affected Jacob as well. Which meant he was struggling to remain in our realm.
Jacob closed his hand over mine. It didn’t feel as solid as usual, and that scared me. “I’m growing fainter because I’m dying, Em.”
“But you’re already dead.”
He gave me a crooked smile. “Yes, but not like this. This is different. If I continue to fade, I’ll no longer exist as a conscious entity. None of us will.”
No. It wasn’t possible. There must be some horrible mistake. But Jacob didn’t look like a man in error. He closed his eyes and tipped his head forward onto his knees again.
“What’s he saying?” Celia asked.
My throat tightened but I managed to speak, albeit softly. “He says he, and all the spirits in the Waiting Area, are going to become nothing.”