Excerpt: The Memory Keeper

Book 1 : The 2nd Freak House Trilogy

The Memory Keeper by C.J. Archer

CHAPTER 1

Hertfordshire, Spring 1889

“What do you want to be goin’ to Freak House for, miss?” asked the driver as he hauled my valise onto the rear of his wagon.

Freak House?” I scrutinized his moustache for any signs of mirth, since I couldn’t see the mouth beneath it. The unkempt shrubbery didn’t so much as twitch. “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. My destination is Frakingham House. Please tell me this is the village of Harborough.” I looked back to the railway station. The handful of passengers who’d alighted the train alongside me had dispersed and the locomotive was long gone. Not even a wisp of steam remained in the cool air of dusk. Only the stationmaster remained on the platform, fob watch in hand. The sign beside him confirmed that I hadn’t made a mistake.

The wagon driver chuckled. “Aye, this is Harborough and it’s Frakingham House I’ll be takin’ you to, if that’s where you wish to go.” He held out his hand to me. “We local folk sometimes call it that. No harm meant, no harm done, eh?” I accepted his assistance and stepped up, settling myself on the driver’s seat; there was nowhere else to sit. I’d been lucky to secure the small wagon at all. I’d expected Jack or Samuel to meet me, but I hadn’t recognized anyone on the platform. After inquiring of the stationmaster if one of the waiting coaches or carts belonged to Frakingham House, and having been informed that they did not, he’d hailed a passing driver on his way out of the village. The stationmaster assured me the fellow was reliable and honest, but if I preferred to wait for word to be sent to Frakingham House to send Mr. Langley’s carriage to fetch me, then I was welcome to sit in the waiting room. I reluctantly took the offer of the passerby. It would be dark soon and driving in the dark could be even more perilous than sitting beside and aged and crooked little man.

The driver gathered up the reins and urged his horse forward. “I’m Billings. What’s yer name, miss?”

“Charity. Charity Evans.”

“And what’s a pretty girl like you wantin’ with them… uh, people up at Freak House, eh?” Were all country folk nosey? Nobody in London would be so impertinent. “I have an acquaintance there.”

“Mrs. Langley or Miss Langley? Both seem nice enough, although Miss Langley don’t give me the time o’ day. Mrs. Langley was ill some months back, before she married, but I saw her looking bonny again just the other day.”

I allowed him to talk on and did not correct him. It was neither Mrs. Hannah Langley nor Miss Sylvia Langley whom I’d come to meet. I knew them both, however, and they were friendly enough, although Sylvia was somewhat aloof towards me. I supposed that was to be expected considering she had both feet firmly on one of the upper rungs of society and I didn’t even have a toe-hold on the bottom one. It didn’t matter. I only hoped she wouldn’t make Hannah feel uncomfortable for inviting me. I didn’t want to cause trouble between the two of them now that they were related through marriage.

I inhaled deeply, breathing in the fresh country air, and resisted the urge to remove my hat and let the breeze loosen my hair. Instead, I clamped a hand down on the crown to keep it from flying off. “If you don’t mind,” I told Billings, “I’d like to observe the countryside in peace until we reach the house. The evening is quite lovely for driving.”

“That it is, miss, that it is.” He mercifully didn’t ask any more questions. Indeed, it was I who asked him one several minutes later as we turned off the main road and drove through enormous iron gates.

“Have we arrived?”

“Aye, miss. The house is looking like its old self again now that it’s been fixed. The fire did some damage, but you can’t tell no more.”

As he finished speaking, the house came into view at the end of the long drive. My breath caught in my throat at the magnificent sight. I knew the owner, Mr. August Langley, was a wealthy man, but seeing his house hammered home just how wealthy. The majestic building stamped its importance on the surrounding landscape of green lawns and hedges like a glowering king. Its chimneys stretched toward the sky, as if they would rip out the clouds and replace them with gray smoke. A medieval knight wouldn’t look out of place striding behind the crenellated turrets, nor would a forlorn maiden sitting in the window embrasure of one of the towers.

A shiver slithered down my spine. I may like Jack and Hannah Langley, but their house sent doubts burrowing into my mind. It seemed to be the sort of place where shadows lingered, even on a bright day, and whispers echoed when no one was about. It seemed a fitting residence for a man like Jack’s uncle, August Langley. I’d been told the scientist conducted his experiments in a laboratory inside; what those experiments were, I didn’t know, nor did I wish to find out.

“I heard about the fire,” I muttered. The sound of my own voice roused me and I looked away from the house. We drove down an avenue of trees. Beyond the row to our right, the crumbling walls of a ruin crept to the edge of a lake. The water sparkled beneath the last rays of sunshine. A dense wood stretched behind it, almost up to the side of the house. If one did not look at the house itself, it was otherwise a tranquil country scene.

But the house could not be ignored. It demanded attention, and I was glad I wouldn’t be staying long. As soon as Samuel Gladstone erased some of my memories, I would leave.

Billings drew the horses to a halt and stepped down from the seat. He saw to my valise as I looked up at the arched front door, with its thick iron hinges and knocker. I shivered again. The door alone made me feel quite small.

“Want me to stay until someone comes?” Billings asked, glancing at the western horizon where the sun had begun its descent.

“Thank you, but no. I’m expected.”

He gave the door a dubious look. “Don’t seem like it.”

“I assure you, I am.” He shrugged and trudged back to his wagon. “I best be goin’ anyway. The wife’ll have supper waitin’.” I thanked him and lifted my hand to knock. The door was opened before I could put fist to wood. A tall, handsome man with dark hair stood just inside. He blinked back at me, a rather stupid expression on his face. Then he grinned.

“Charity!”

We did an awkward little dance where he bowed while I went to hug him. We laughed. “It’s so good to see you, Tommy. Look at you in your work suit. You look like a penguin.”

“Seen many penguins in London?” He laughed again. “I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow.” He glanced past me to where the wagon rattled away up the drive. “Who was that?”

“A man from the village named Billings kindly offered to drive me from the station. What made you think I was coming tomorrow? My letter clearly stated the eighteenth. Today is the eighteenth.”

“Clearly?” he mimicked. “Are you sure?”

I did not press the issue. Perhaps I’d not written the date well enough to be understood. My penmanship was something I needed to work on if I wanted to fit in at Frakingham House. That and not falling back into the London cant of my youth.

I tugged on my cuffs, more out of habit than any real attempt to hide the scars on the backs of my hands. The sleeves were long and I wore gloves anyway. The tugging was something I did when I was anxious. Hopefully my nerves would settle once the memories of the events that had caused the scars were erased.

“Come inside,” Tommy said. “The others will be pleased to see you.”

He picked up my valise and deposited it at the base of a set of stairs that swept up to a landing then split off in opposite directions. My gaze followed the ascent of the supporting stone arches and columns to the vaulted octagonal ceiling high above. If I felt small near the front door, I felt distinctly miniature in the entrance hall.

“It can be overwhelming at first,” Tommy said quietly. “You get used to it.”

“It reminds me of a cathedral.”

“Mr. Langley wouldn’t want to hear that. He doesn’t even like going to church on Sundays.” He winked. “Come on, I’ll take you to Jack and the others.”

I untied my hat and removed my gloves. “Is that how you address all your guests?” I asked, setting hat and gloves on my valise.

“Only the ones I knew from before.”

Before. Before he became footman at Frakingham House. Before Jack became August Langley’s nephew. Before. I remembered that time. It wasn’t all bad. Thanks to Jack’s unusual ability to set fire to anything, and his nimble fingers, we’d been warm, had food in our bellies, and nobody had bothered us. I liked “before.” It was the time after, when Tommy and Jack had gone, that I was keen to forget.

I went to tug on my sleeves again, but caught myself and stopped. “Lead the way, Dawson,” I said, calling him by his surname as masters called their servants.

“I’m just Tommy here.” He smiled and I smiled back. It felt odd that he was a servant in the house where I was a guest, yet I was happy that he had good employment.

That was important for people like us. People who’d come from nowhere and who had nothing. I too had good work at the school. I felt valued there. It was why I wanted to give it my best, my all. To do that, I needed to be free of the nightmares that kept me awake. I couldn’t wait to return to the children in my care. I hoped they didn’t miss me too much. Well, perhaps a little. Enough to know that I was wanted.

He led me through an arched door, along a short corridor to another. He entered first and stepped to the side, giving me a view of Jack, Hannah, Sylvia and Samuel sitting at a card table. I expected Tommy to announce my name formally, but there was no time for him to say anything.

“Charity!” Hannah cried. “You’re here!” She leapt up and rushed to embrace me.

“You’re early,” Jack said, kissing my cheek after his wife let me go. “I thought you weren’t coming until tomorrow.”

“Today,” I told him. “The eighteenth.” Next time I would write the date in words rather than numbers to avoid misunderstandings.

Sylvia did not get up, but smiled politely and welcomed me. It was clear from the lack of warmth in her greeting that she didn’t like having a woman of dubious moral character in her drawing room. Perhaps she thought I would sully the furniture with my breath or some such nonsense. There were women out there with those views. I should know, I’d encountered many.

Samuel approached and extended his hand to take mine. I held back, but not out of habit this time. Being near Samuel, with all his handsome perfection, reminded me how ugly my scars were. Yet it was more than that. For some reason, Samuel made me aware of how low I was, how uneducated and uncouth. It wasn’t his fault; he’d always behaved in a gentlemanly way toward me. The combination of his charm and hypnotism made me nervous, however. I planned on spending as little time in his company as possible.

A flicker of surprise marred his smooth brow then he bowed. When he straightened, he was once more the smiling gentleman. There was no hint that he thought me odd for keeping my hands to myself. He would learn the reason for the scars soon enough.

“Hello, Charity,” he finally said. He was an extraordinarily handsome man with sky-blue eyes, tousled sandy hair and a ready smile. Indeed, he was almost too handsome, at least for me. It was those types of gentlemen who’d gotten me into trouble before.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to meet you,” he went on. “The stationmaster should have sent word.”

“There wasn’t time,” I said. “It grew late. Besides, a very pleasant man named Billings drove me.”

“Pleasant? You mean he didn’t chew off your ear with gossip?” Sylvia pulled a face. “If he’s been saying things about us again, I’ll… I’ll see that he regrets it.”

“I told him I was too tired for conversation,” I said quickly.

“Syl, don’t worry about what others are saying,” Jack chided his cousin. “Billings is harmless. Besides, he has no idea what we do up here. If he did, he’d probably be saying far worse things than merely calling us freaks.”

I swallowed. What was Mr. Langley concocting in his laboratory? It was bad enough knowing Jack could start fires at any moment and Samuel could get a woman—indeed, anyone—to do his will with a few spoken words, but at least I knew what they were capable of and I trusted them to control themselves. I knew so little about August Langley. Despite having asked Jack in the past, he’d not told me what his uncle was working on. If it was a cure for disease, why wouldn’t he say?

“Jack, stop it,” Sylvia snapped. “It’s not a joke. You may not mind being called a freak, since you are one, but I’m not and nor is Hannah, anymore.”

“Thank you,” Hannah said, wryly. “She’s right though, Jack. You’re scaring Charity.” She hooked her arm through mine. “I can assure you, we’re all quite normal. Even Bollard.”

“Bollard?”

“August’s assistant. You’ll meet him at dinner.”

“I’m sure you’d like to go to your room to freshen up,” Sylvia said to me. “I’ll take you,” Hannah offered. “Tommy will bring your valise.”

“I will,” Samuel said. Sylvia clicked her tongue.

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s Tommy’s job, not yours. Good lord,” she muttered. “A pretty woman comes to stay and suddenly none of the men remember their proper place.” I’m sure her words were meant to scold Samuel, but her gaze wandered over Tommy before returning to me. I looked down at my feet to hide my reddening face. I hoped I hadn’t made an enemy of her already. Then again, I suspected the things she didn’t like about me were the things I couldn’t change—my background and my appearance. I’d been called everything from pretty to striking, and not always in a kindly tone. I did try to keep my blonde hair tightly bound, and I usually only wore black or gray to avoid drawing attention to myself. Some women liked to be seen and hated being ignored; I wanted to blend in and be left alone.

“Don’t mind Sylvia,” Hannah said to me as we walked back towards the entrance hall. “She can be a little petty, sometimes. It’s best to ignore her. Don’t you agree, Tommy?”

“I find Miss Langley impossible to ignore,” he said from behind us. “She’s very, uh, noticeable.”

Hannah giggled and squeezed my arm as if sharing a secret with me, but I had no idea what it could be. I’m sure Tommy was speaking with the utmost respect for his mistress and was referring to her pretty face and golden hair, not her bold personality.

“I am so glad you agreed to come,” Hannah said as we walked side-by-side up the grand staircase. Our footfalls were somewhat deadened by the plush crimson carpet covering the steps, but our voices echoed. “I wasn’t sure if you would, at first, and I admit that your letter consenting to the scheme came as a surprise. A pleasant one, I might add. I do think it’ll work.”

My skin prickled at the thought of the path I was about to take. Although I was determined to go through with the hypnosis to remove some of my memories, the thought of being entirely under another person’s spell, even for just a few moments, sent cold fingers of fear wrapping around my insides. Particularly when the one casting the spell, so to speak, was a man, and a charming, handsome one at that. I’d sworn to avoid men like Samuel Gladstone. At least I would be among friends with Jack, Hannah and Tommy.

Especially Jack. Of everyone, he knew me best. He knew my weaknesses, my fears, my hopes and dreams. He even knew a little about my nightmares and what caused them, but not in great detail. It was after talking to him at a Christmas ball held by my employers, the Beauforts, that the idea of hypnosis was first mentioned. Nothing more came of it for some weeks, while Hannah battled her illness and they raced to find a cure. It was only two weeks ago, after their wedding, that they had been in London and we once again met up at the Beauforts’ house, for a celebratory dinner.

The wedding had been an intimate affair with only the residents of Frakingham House in attendance. Hannah had not even invited her guardian, Lord Wade. She and Jack wrote to the Beauforts, Culverts and me after the event, expressing their desire to call upon us all as the new Mr. and Mrs. Langley. It had been a lovely evening, even though I felt somewhat out of place being the only one not residing in a grand mansion.

With such kind people surrounding me, I was quickly put at ease again. It was testament to the humble upbringings of not only Hannah and Jack, but also Mrs. Beaufort, too. It was also a testament to Hannah’s love and trust in her husband that she accepted me as a friend so readily.

My history with Jack was such that she had every right to hate being in my presence. I wasn’t sure I’d be so accepting of my husband’s prior lover. Jack was my first and I was his. We’d been far too young for all of that, but we hadn’t known any better, with no adults of good moral fiber to guide us. Nor did we know what we were doing, at first; it just seemed like the natural thing to do under the circumstances. Besides, everyone was doing it in our circle of abandoned and orphaned children.

Perhaps if we’d waited things would have worked out differently between us, but then again, he was deliriously happy with his new wife and I was no longer in love with him, so it would seem everything worked out well enough. Still, I wished I’d held onto my virtue longer. It may have led me to make different choices, and I’d made some terrible ones in the past. But that was all behind me now. Or it would be, after Samuel hypnotized me.

Tommy deposited my valise on the floor near the bed and left us. The housekeeper arrived with a maid and quickly prepared the room. They lit a small fire in the grate then they too left.

“Do you need assistance to change for dinner?” Hannah asked.

“No, thank you. My dress is simple enough that I can manage on my own.” I tried not to admire her dress as I said it, but it was quite impossible. It may have been a day gown, but it was not something I’d ever worn. It was a deep blue that set off the red of her hair beautifully. The fabric draped across the front of the skirt was embellished with a knotted fringe and braided trim in cream. It must have cost more than my monthly wage, which was quite generous for a mere teacher.

“The chill should disappear soon, now that the fire is lit,” she said, stoking it. She paused and laughed. “It’s ironic, isn’t it? I used to hate the warmth, now I can never seem to be warm enough.”

“You are quite well, now?” I asked, somewhat hesitantly. It wasn’t polite conversation to discuss illness, particularly of the nature that Hannah’s had been. She seemed quite open about it, and indeed spoke freely of the events that led to the cure when I’d last seen her at the Beauforts’ townhouse. Until then, I hadn’t been aware of her fire starting. They’d kept that information from me, to protect me. Jack knew her ability would frighten me, as his had of late.

“Yes, thank you,” she said. “Fortunately there’s been no relapse. Mr. Langley—August—has ordered me to remain here for a few more days, so that he can observe me, but as soon as he gives me a clean bill of health, Jack and I will be off on our honeymoon.”

“I’m so happy for you,” I said. “For you both. I’ve never seen Jack more content.”

She took my hands in her own. I let her, something I rarely did. “Thank you, Charity. It means a lot to hear you say it. I know how much he means to you, and you to him. I promise to take good care of him.”

I laughed. “He led me to believe he’s the one taking care of you.”

“He would say that. He’s a man.” She winked. “I’ll have Samuel escort you down to dinner at eight. Will that give you long enough?”

“Ample, but… please just send a maid. There’s no need to trouble Samuel. Or anyone else,” I quickly added. “Indeed, I’m sure I’ll find my way on my own.” Dear lord, could I sound more like a dim-wit? I blamed Samuel. He was making me nervous and he wasn’t even there.

She winked again and smiled. My entire body cringed in horror; she thought I liked Samuel. I wanted to tell her that it wasn’t the case and that he made me anxious, but then I would have to tell her why. And I didn’t know why. It wasn’t something I could fathom, let alone explain.

“I hope my early arrival hasn’t upset the household,” I said. “The mix-up was entirely my fault. I was sure I wrote the eighteenth in my letter to Jack, but I must have written the nineteenth.”

“Eighteenth, nineteenth, what’s one day? We’re glad you’re here. All of us.” She winked again. Time to change the subject. “Hannah, may I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Samuel hypnotized you once, didn’t he?” She nodded. “When he worked for a London hypnotist. It was how we met. It turned out that Dr. Werner was a fraud, but Samuel is quite legitimate.”

“Did he… did it hurt?”

“Not at all. I didn’t feel anything. It was like falling asleep then waking up again.”

“But… were you aware of Samuel? Could you… feel him inside your head?”

“No, nothing. Charity, are you quite sure you want to do this?”

“Yes. My mind is even more made up, now that you’ve assured me you didn’t even know he was there.”

“We-ell.” She bit her lip and winced. “I should confess that when Samuel hypnotized me, he could not get into my mind. Not like he can with other people. He told me he was met with a wall that he couldn’t break through. You see, a memory block had already been put there and that stopped any further exploration under hypnosis. Your mind will be open to Samuel. If you’re not prepared for him to see your memories, then you shouldn’t go through with it.”

I touched the scar on the back of my right hand. It was the worst of the two. The skin from my knuckles to my wrist puckered like a prune. It had been painful at the time, but not as painful as watching a man die. The man who’d been my lover, my benefactor, my tormentor. The man who would soon be obliterated from my memories.

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