Gas lamps in the streets blurred by the rain, and the party was in full swing when the carriage pulled up at the front door of my friend’s London house. As I disembarked, looking over my shoulder, I could see the Thames making its sluggish way to the heart of the city, dusk settling like a bruise on the horizon.
Having unpinned my hat and handed my travelling cloak to the waiting manservant, I smoothed my skirts and joined the throng, feeling a frisson of something in the air.
Women in their best gowns, skirts were swirling as they fanned themselves under the heat of the numerous gaslights and candelabra, pouting prettily up at their companions. The men were more conservatively attired in sombre suits, but here and there, a splash of colour by way of a kerchief in breast pockets or cummerbunds.
Annabelle ran towards me on seeing me enter the room. "Oh, darling! I was afraid you wouldn't arrive in time! It's just too exciting; we have a magician this evening!"
Since school, Annabelle and I had been friends, but I still found her way of punctuating each sentence with several exclamation marks somewhat irritating. She was dressed in an overblown gown in deep magenta with a plunging neckline over which her breasts bubbled.
I patted my hair, which had started to form wisps during the carriage ride from the station. My hair was a barometer; it was always an accurate indicator of impending cold and rain.
“Your hair looks lovely, dear heart!” Annabelle exclaimed, accurately reading my gesture. “Now do come and meet Major Carruthers; he is newly arrived back from the Boer War and has some wonderful stories!”
My childhood friend towed me in a determined fashion to meet the bewhiskered, waistcoated, fat and sweating major surrounded by a small group of simpering women.
After exchanging a few banal pleasantries, I extricated myself from the overbearing attentions of the war veteran. Seeing a passing tray of savouries, I helped myself to a tiny, puffed pastry, which, on popping into my mouth, I discovered was filled with fish and a creamy sauce.
As I was digesting this delicacy, a tall, handsome man with black wavy hair and green eyes the colour of ocean spray appeared at my elbow. He smiled down at me from his superior height of (I approximated) six feet three.
“I have not had the pleasure of seeing you at one of these soirees before,” he murmured deep and melodiously.
"I ah, well, no, that is….." Oh, for God's sake woman, get a grip, "I care for my elderly father, and we live somewhat out of the city, so I have to catch the locomotive to come into town.”
My new acquaintance nodded. "What a wonderful invention the steam train is, no? I remember my first experience accompanying my mother to London as a young boy. As the train roared past, I could dimly make out the silhouettes of two men shovelling coal into the hot furnace of the train’s belly, their faces flushed, hands blackened by the coal they were feeding into the beast in the engine." The stranger paused, looking into the distance, but I could tell that he saw a scene from long ago.
"I heard the blast of the train's horn and was left with the acrid stench of coal after its passing. I felt like I had seen a view of the future; it was frightening but exciting at the same time."
He smiled self-deprecatingly, returning to the room and me, gazing up at him. “But here am I, prattling on. May I introduce myself? My name is Arthur Tirips; I have am here this evening to entertain the gathering."
The penny dropped; this man was the magician that Annabelle had spoken of. I did not wish to appear cynical or rude, so I simply nodded and smiled.
He took my gesture as encouragement and asked me, “have you seen a demonstration of magic before?”
In truth, I had, as a small child, at a friend's party and had found it rather frightening, but I did not want to admit this to my handsome companion. "I, ah, yes, it was some time ago; I don't really remember it," I finished lamely.
Mr Tirips regarded me for quite some time, saying nothing, and I could feel my face getting warm, my breath coming more shallowly. It was as if he was looking into the depths of my soul and found it wanting. I felt as if my bodice had been laced too tightly.
“Well,” he said softly, his eyes eloquent, “I am sure you will enjoy my demonstration of magic.” With that, he bowed to me and, turning on his heel, went to set up his props, leaving a whiff of brimstone in his wake.
With his departure, I felt I could breathe more easily. I could not say why, but it was as if a weight that had been sitting on my chest lifted.
Just then, Annabelle came careering towards me, her hair all askew and the neckline of her gown somewhat awry. What on earth had she been up to?
"Oh dearest, do come and sit down! Mr Tirips is about to begin his entertainment! It’s just too exciting!”
"Annabelle," I interrupted her, "your hair is untidy, and your decolletage shows more than it should."
She glanced down at the neckline of her gown and giggled like a schoolgirl. “Oh my! I don’t know how that happened!”
I glanced over her shoulder and saw the fat, sweaty major, all handlebar moustache quivering and waistcoat buttons straining over his substantial paunch, leer at me. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck begin to stand up. What sort of alchemy was at work in the room?
"Now, dear heart, don't be cross! Come, let us take our seats and watch the magic show!" Exclaimed Annabelle, propelling me to the front row of chairs.
The servants had lit extra lamps to allow for more light, and after everyone was seated comfortably, Mr Tirips began. It seemed pretty innocuous; a simple trick involving three cups and a small ball, then a bunch of paper flowers turned into a pigeon. A ripple of applause went around the overheated room.
Suddenly, I found that the room felt much warmer; people were talking more loudly, laughing like donkeys, braying and guffawing. In the light of the gas lamps, people's faces appeared distorted, bloated, red and shiny, their teeth bared like wolves, spittle flying from their mouths as they sought to outdo each other with this exclamation or reaction to the evening’s proceedings.
I began to feel quite uncomfortable; odd, not ill exactly, but I felt as if my surroundings were not quite real, and sights and sounds seemed to be coming from a great distance, now clear, now out of focus. And all the while, I was aware of Mr Tirip's clear, green eyes upon my face as he held out a deck of cards to one of the ladies, now pulling out a string of silk scarves, a rabbit out of a box, a coin from behind a gentleman's large ear, sparks of coloured light sparking from his fingers, accompanied by oohs and aahs from the assembly.
I felt for the small gold cross on a chain under my high-necked gown. My father had given it to me at my confirmation, and I recalled him looking down at me with a gentle smile. "It will guard you against evil; touch it when you feel frightened or lonely."
I have worn it ever since, not just a piece of much-loved jewellery, but a talisman, a touchstone after all these years.
Mr Tirips' tricks became even odder and more inexplicable. The excitement and hilarity in the room mounted with every bizarre trick he performed, people trying to explain the possible way they were done, pushing and shoving each other in their enthusiasm.
Then, abruptly my attention was caught by a three-quarter length mirror leaning against a pile of boxes to the right of the impromptu stage.
To my consternation and with a mounting sense of extreme dread, I saw a change in the mirror’s surface. I peered fixedly at the mirror, the happenings of the room fading into the background.
As I gazed in horror into the space before me, a shape began to form, swirling mist at first, or so I thought, but then it crystallised and became more solid. It coalesced into a figure. I could see the outline now, and I felt my heart gripped by an unseen, sinister force.
I stood up so quickly I overturned my chair, and Annabelle jumped up next to me.
"What is it, darling?" she cried, seeing my horrified expression.
"Nothing, nothing, I, I, that is, I need to get some fresh air." Spinning around, I made for the door, desperate to be outside and away from the unseen forces in the room.
Annabelle was right behind me. “What is it? What did you see?” she demanded, her face flushed, her eyes bright, neither scared nor disturbed.
I took a deep gulp of the cool night air. "I began to feel a little light-headed," I told her by explanation. "Could you please ask for the carriage to be brought around? I should be getting home to papa."
“But dearest, you’ve not been here long, and the entertainment is only—”
“Please, Annabelle!” I snapped.
She blinked at my tone. "Well, of course, darling, if that is what you want, but it seems such a shame-"
“You can tell me all about it when you come for tea next week,” I interjected. Annabelle came for afternoon tea every week; my ailing father looked forward to it immensely.
“Just give me a moment,” she replied, “I will get Crabbe to arrange for the carriage to be brought around.”
My friend turned away, beckoning to a hovering servant, asking him to fetch my hat and cloak.
I stood upon the step, clutching my elbows, hugging myself, suddenly conscious of the cold and feeling ridiculous at my sudden departure from the revelries. A blackbird pinked a sudden warning from the undergrowth, mirroring my mood.
The manservant returned, and as he was helping me on with my outdoor attire, I heard a cheer and a burst of enthusiastic applause from the main drawing-room. So, the evening's display must have concluded. I felt relieved; whatever had been in that room was now gone.
Annabelle returned, and as we were saying our goodbyes, the carriage appeared, drawn by the family’s trusty horse, Robin. I ascended into the cosy interior, saying that we would look forward to seeing Annabelle next week.
The sun had set entirely now, and the sky was a thick, dark blanket. After a short ride to the station, the carriage deposited me at the waiting-room door. As I watched it disappear into the night, listening to the fading sounds of Robin’s hooves, I felt an onset of loneliness, as if the last vestiges of human life had left with the horse and trap.
The railway waiting room was as cold as charity, the only fire the one in the stationmaster's room next door. After punching my ticket, he had touched his cap and retired to his quarters, shutting the door firmly behind him.
I sat upon the bench seat, my feet turning to ice, hearing the tick-tock of the British Watch Company clock hanging on the opposite wall. The clock's ticking sounded very loud in the quiet room, the pendulum seeming to grow like the biscuit that Alice had eaten in the hallway. The silence surrounding the clock amplified until no other sounds existed other than the repetitive movement of the weight, backwards and forwards. I watched the motion, hypnotised; then, by some alchemy, it was as if time stood still, and the pendulum hung motionless.
I could hear the wind moaning like an old crone outside the window in the resultant void. I became aware of my heart beating, the meaty clicks of the efficient pump within my chest working as designed. I looked up into the wavering gaslight and could see dust motes descending to settle in a fine film upon the stripped wooden floorboards.
To my relief, in the distance, I heard the faint labouring of the train puffing its way up the slight incline. It arrived a few minutes after in a cloud of steam and smoke. I glanced to the left and right down the empty platform, then boarded and settled into one of the second-class carriages after placing my bag on my seat. The whistle blew, and the train chugged out of the station.
Just as I was making myself comfortable, the door to the carriage slid open with a bang, and the handsome magician from Annabelle’s party walked in carrying a large portmanteau. He threw himself into the seat opposite, breathing heavily.
I stared at him in astonishment; I had neither seen nor heard anyone else approach the station or enter the waiting room, yet he was in front of me.
The sense of unease that I had experienced earlier that evening returned, plus interest. I felt the hairs on my forearms ripple under the long sleeves of my gown.
He removed his hat, placed it next to him, then stowed his luggage under the seat as I had done my bag. He sat back, resting his head against the worn leather, and looked at me with his sea-green eyes.
I squirmed slightly under his scrutiny.
“So, I ask again, do you believe in magic?” He asked softly.
Should I flatter him or tell the truth? I had been raised to tell the truth. I cleared my throat. “No, I don’t believe in magic," I said firmly.
He smiled slowly and replied, “neither do I.”
And promptly vanished.
E Atkinson lives in rural Australia with her husband a menagerie of animals.
She self-published her first book in March 2021 and the second in September 2021. She has nearly finished the final book in the trilogy set in Australia and ending in the European trenches of the Great War.