Haunting Violet Page 1



I was nine years old when my mother decided it was time I took part in the family business. I was pretty enough now, she said, that I might be of use. I’d grown into my ears and my long neck and might be clever enough to handle myself. Besides which, she claimed, she had no other option.

So that December, full of Christmas cheer and mulled wine, she’d changed her mind. It wasn’t until later that I realized it wasn’t Christmas cheer that had prompted her but desperation.

Still, she’d promised me a visit to an actual bookshop, where I might even be able to purchase my very own book if I did well. Until then I had read only discarded magazines or books tossed out into the alleys behind the shops and fine houses because of unsightly stains of damp or smoke damage.

I wasn’t entirely sure what was happening, only that it was vitally important. Even Colin, who was just two years older than me but fancied himself more mature, now looked grim. He’d come with his mother from Ireland and had been orphaned and survived as a crossing boy, sweeping the street clean for the gentry, when my mother found him. She brought him home a month earlier to live with us, also contingent on how well we did that night. Crossing boys who were growing tall enough and strong enough to muscle the fine folk of Mayfair didn’t get many tips. Not to mention that he was a fair hand at pickpocketing and had to change corners every day so he wouldn’t get caught.

The snow was gathering slowly in the muddy streets as we left Cheapside. It turned the gray stones and dirty gutters into a landscape made of gingerbread and buttercream frosting. It made me hungry just to see it. My stomach growled loudly. Mother sent me a disapproving glance.

“Violet, a lady does not betray bodily needs.”

I nodded, looking down at my feet.

“A lady gets to eat, don’t she?” Colin murmured, but not so loud that she could hear him. He slipped me the end of a potato, wrapped in a rag, from his pocket. Usually it was insects he delighted in pulling out of his pockets, to see me squirm. Christmas cheer must be contagious. I wished it would last all the year long.

“But what will you eat?” I whispered back.

“I’m not hungry.”

He was lying. We’d both had a single muffin for breakfast and nothing since. I took a bite and handed him the other half.

“We’ll share,” I said. And then I hurried ahead so he wouldn’t be able to give it back.

Lanterns burned in grimy windows, turning them to fine crystal. Swirls danced around us, like bunnies made of snow. Ice hung from lampposts and glittered on carriage wheels. I heard singing from a pub and weeping from the next doorway. When the sun finished its descent into the Thames, the frigid wind shattered the softness.

I was wearing my very best dress—the one with only a few tears and scorch marks along the hem—and layers of flannel petticoats against the cold. Best of all was the red capelet Colin gave me that morning. He didn’t say much, just shoved it at me, mumbling something about the holidays. I’d never had my own capelet before and I fancied myself very grown-up and distinguished. It didn’t matter a bit that it was ragged on one side and smelled damp, or that the tip of my chilled nose was currently the same shade of red.

“I’m going to get my very own copy of Jane Eyre,” I said, changing my mind for the third time since we’d left home. I read the first chapter once, furtively, in a dark corner of a shop before one of the clerks chased me off.

“I’d rather read about pirates,” Colin said disdainfully.

“Pirates! But they never bathe.”

“But they carry blunderbusses and have adventures. They meet krakens.” He’d sailed from Ireland when he was eight years old and, though he wouldn’t talk about the details of it, he fancied himself an expert on pirates. “There are no krakens in Jane Eyre, I reckon.”

I couldn’t argue with that.

“I could get The Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti,” I suggested. “It’s bound to have goblins.”

“I suppose,” he grudgingly admitted.

I was secretly entranced with the idea of a lady novelist. I should dearly love to be one. Or maybe a goblin-fighting pirate queen. It was difficult to choose sometimes.

“I could teach you to read,” I offered again. “I think you’d like it.”

“I can read,” he scowled, but I knew he was lying again.

“Enough, you two,” Mother snapped, without even turning her head to look at us. Our mouths shut instantly, as if she were a mesmerist. “I’ve been preparing for tonight for nearly a month now. Be quiet and look smart.”

We walked for nearly an hour in silence. It never occurred to me at the time that other folk would have hired a hackney from their front door, instead of flagging one a block away from their destination. Mother wanted to arrive in proper fashion and didn’t want the widow to know we were poor. I wasn’t sure what the number of coins to our name had to do with talking to the dead, but then, as Mother often said, I had a lot to learn. So I never asked.

Mother didn’t like to be questioned.

So I never asked her about the flowers sewn into the hem of her dress or the vial of liquid she’d slipped into my pocket either.

The townhouse we were delivered to was very grand, even with the windows curtained in black and the knocker muffled. The widow had recently acquired that status then. We went up the front steps, not going around back to the servants’ entrance where we surely belonged. I knew that much of the world. My stomach gave a funny little hitch. I slipped my hand into Colin’s. He didn’t grimace at me like he sometimes did; he just squeezed back.