By Megan M. Davies-Ostrom
Rachel propped herself up and studied the bell her step-mother, Eleanor, had placed on the bedside table.
Rachel liked the sound of bells. Throaty church bells, strident dinner bells, and the sweet little bell on Miss Kitty’s collar that chimed as she came running for the milk Cook put out each morning. She especially liked the bells in the mausoleums in the old family graveyard beyond the garden and long-handled silver bells like the one Eleanor had just given her. Those reminded her of Mother.
Mother had owned a little bell. It had sat on her bedside table next to her reading glasses and her beloved books. Later, when the books and glasses had gone out with the dustman, it had sat next to the silver spoon and the big bottles of tonic—Dr. Oliver Mundy’s Special Restorative Treatment and Mother Abigail’s Rejuvenating and Energizing Sipping Syrup—that father and Eleanor (she’d been Nurse Bolton then) administered every morning and every night.
Now, at fifteen, Rachel’s memories of her early childhood were hazy; a kaleidoscope of pinafores and petticoats, nursemaids and nannies, lazy afternoons in the sun-drenched gardens, and rainbow-hued tea-parties beneath the stained-glass windows in the library, her dolls all lined up in a row on the faded Turkish rug. Mother was faded too, like a dress washed too many times. The memories of her face had gone blurry round the edges. But Rachel remembered the warmth of her arms and the smell of her perfume—bergamot and lemon. And she remembered the bells.
Mother’s illness had been a long, slow one, dragging across the years of Rachel’s early childhood like watercolour paints across a canvas. Daily life had hobbled along beneath those thin, translucent hues, but it had been coloured, all the same. Rachel remembered it piecemeal now, and with no particular fright or sadness. She’d been very young, and from start to finish the whole thing had seemed somehow inevitable. Mostly, she remembered the bells.
She remembered there’d been arguments to start, raised voices in the drawing room and upstairs hall, days of simmering anger like storm clouds that burst suddenly into thunder and lightning, sending the whole household scurrying for shelter. Rachel hadn’t known what her parents were fighting about, back then. At the time it had seemed far removed from her little world, a war between distant gods in comparison to the earthly dramas of the nursery and the ongoing feud between Nanny and Cook. Cold dinners and burnt puddings were, after all, no laughing matter. But she’d known they argued, loudly and often. No one in the house could have missed it.
She had one clear memory of Mother from that time, sitting beside her on a bench in the garden, throwing bread-crumbs to the fish in the ornamental pond. Mother had been radiant in her tea-gown, but her face, usually bright and mobile, had been hard.
“Never trust them, Rachel, my darling,” Mother had said. “Never trust them when they say they love you as you are. They don’t mean it. What they mean to say is that they love what they imagine you to be. A romantic ideal, an illusion, a lie. They love the fiction of an intelligent wife, but reality’s a different matter. They’ll try to change you…it’s a battle no one wins.”
When the arguments stopped, things became even worse. The house had filled with a heavy, waiting silence; storm clouds amassing on the horizon. Rachel remembered the thickness of it, the bulk, filling the halls where servants crept on cat-quiet feet, drowning out all laughter and play. During those long, fraught weeks, Mother had spent her days in the gardens or the parlour, while Father paced endlessly round his study and the billiard room. The staff had huddled, whispering, in corners, and even Nanny and Cook had been on edge. Everyone, it seemed, had been waiting for the inevitable tempest.
Conciliation had come instead—a surprise to all save Father—carried high on wings of thoughtful notes, gifts of books and flowers, soft words, and winning smiles. Rachel remembered how light the house had felt then, how happy. She remembered Mother laughing again, flipping through her new books in the drawing room after dinner and reading passages aloud. She remembered Father being kind. He’d started bringing Mother tea—a very special blend he’d found in the city, just for her. For a while, things had been bright and lovely.
Then the dizzy spells had started, and the moments of sudden, inexplicable weakness. Rachel remembered hesitant, stumbling steps in the garden and pens dropped from fingers gone limp. There were tonics, brought home by Father. Tonics in coloured glass bottles with strange names and even stranger smells that had made Rachel wrinkle her nose and stick out her tongue. Nurse Bolton had arrived soon after and was installed in the spare bedroom next to Mother’s.
“Medicine,” Nurse Bolton had said, when Rachel asked about the bottles, and why Mother needed so very many. “To make your mother well again. Don’t you want her to be well?”
Fainting, fatigue, headaches, and stomach pains had followed. Mother had retired to her bed, and the little silver bell, once used rarely, had begun to sing day and night. Help to rise, bathe, and dress—although rising and dressing soon stopped—help to visit the water-closet, eat, and drink. Help to sit up and see Rachel when Nanny brought her to visit. The little silver bell had become Mother’s voice; it’s delicate, tinkling chimes as familiar and beloved to Rachel as any human sound could be.
Mother had died when Rachel was nine. It was the silence she’d noticed first. No more chimes. No more little ringing bell. The house had echoed with its absence.
Rachel remembered that day, too. She remembered Father and Nurse Bolton had argued after lunch, huddled in the hall outside the library where no one should have been. Rachel had heard their sharp, whispered voices from her favourite spot behind the chesterfield, cross-legged on the Turkish rug with an atlas in her lap.
“It isn’t working,” Nurse Bolton had hissed.
“You have to be patient,” Father had snapped in reply. “These things take time.”
“Four years, Edward. It’s been four years. I think I’ve been patient enough, don’t you?”
Father had sworn under his breath. A few hours later, he’d gone to Mother’s rooms and stayed there for a very long time.
That same evening, Father had come to the nursery and sat on the little chair by the fireplace. Dark shadows creased the skin beneath his eyes, and his hands had chased each other like restless birds—clasping a knee, tweaking a cuff, brushing a thread from his sleeve—refusing to settle. His hair had been rumpled and his collar askew, and when he’d told Rachel that Mother was gone to a better place, she’d wondered where she’d gone. Maybe the seaside, or the Cotswolds, or maybe even India. She wondered if his disarray came from helping Mother set off on her voyage. After all, she wasn’t strong. She couldn’t have managed her luggage on her own. It was only when Nanny and Nelly, the upstairs maid, had started to cry that she’d realized he’d meant Mother was gone to Heaven and not on vacation, and then she’d cried too.
Father had taken Rachel out of the nursery. They’d walked down the hall to the warm, stale room, where he’d led her to the bedside and told her to say goodbye. Rachel remembered the smell that had lain under the sweet scent of lavender sachet and the astringent tonics—something sour and sweet, like fly-blown fruit or a forgotten chamber pot. She remembered Mother’s face, very pale and very thin, with spots of high colour on each bony cheek. She remembered the bruises on that slender neck. But most of all she remembered the bell, silent and still on the bedside table. It was the mute bell that had upset her the most.
Perhaps that’s why she hadn’t been scared when, the next night, after a hasty, ill-attended funeral and even faster interment, a bell had begun to ring. Not the little silver bell, which still sat unspeaking on the bedside table, but the other one; the one in the graveyard behind the gardens. The one in the mausoleum. The one Nanny had told her was, “for if the dead weren’t quite dead after all.”
It had rung all night. The whole house had awakened, everyone in a panic. Rachel had stood by the nursery window and looked over the garden to the graveyard beyond, while Nelly gasped and fanned herself with a copy of the Ladies Weekly Journal, and Nanny gulped the medicinal wine she kept hidden in the wardrobe. Out in the hall, Rachel had heard Father and Nurse Bolton, their voices shrill in the tolling, echoing darkness. Up and down the stairs they’d clattered, lighting lamps, cursing, and shouting, screaming at everyone to be quiet and calm down.
“It’s a trick of the wind; of putrefaction,” Father had bellowed, and Rachel had heard fear in his voice, tremors under iron.
“It’s nothing, nothing at all!” Nurse Bolton had shrieked, and Rachel had imagined her pulling at her hair, her face ugly with terror.
Rachel hadn’t been scared, because Rachel knew better. Mother’s voice was in the bell and in that mournful knelling. She was saying goodbye. Ringing accusations. Chiming promises.
By morning the bell had stopped.
Yes, Rachel had always loved bells, and this one from Eleanor was just like Mother’s. How soon they forget, Rachel thought as she traced its silhouette with loving eyes. How soon they think I forget. She could almost hear it already, a sweet chime on the very edge of earshot—a peal, a promise. Or maybe that was the other bell she was hearing. The one by the mausoleum.
“I’m so sorry you’re feeling unwell, Rachel,” Eleanor said, with a bright, brittle smile that stretched too far and showed too many teeth. “But if you drink some more of your special tea, I’m sure you’ll perk up soon. I’ll be back with some tonic to help you feel better. Just ring the little bell if you need anything.”
“I will, Eleanor,” Rachel promised, with a smile she hoped looked as weak and watery as her step-mother took her to be. “I just know I’ll feel better soon.”
When Eleanor was gone, she slipped from bed and poured the tea into the potted palm. The poor thing looked yellow and sickly, but that was hardly a surprise given the circumstances. Rachel padded to the window and looked across the garden to the mausoleums, where Mother’s other bell sang a vengeful song only she could hear.
“Soon,” she whispered, fingertips to glass. The bell tolled in agreement.
She returned to her bed and slid beneath the covers, reaching under her pillow with one hand to find the knife she’d hidden there earlier that morning while the house still slept. She plucked the little bell from the bedside table and gave it a ring, smiling at its silvery chime.
“I’ll feel better soon.”