The Wax Artist is currently on sale for £1.99 / $2.99 for Kindle. So, if you haven’t read it yet and quite fancy a mystery set in Georgian Edinburgh, now might be a good time to get your e-copy! Head here to buy.
As it’s on sale, I thought now was a good time to publish the first chapter of the book on my blog! Intrigued? Then have a read below.
I’d watched him die on the North Bridge scores of times. It never got any easier to witness it.
Today I prayed I wouldn’t have to. I had an appointment to keep; a duty, however unwanted, to perform, and I could not afford to be delayed. I could not keep those who had summoned me waiting. Of course, the spirits had other ideas. They always did. Halfway across the bridge, I felt time slip back a little, sensed the lost stones grow up beneath my feet. Shuddered along with their tremors, and braced myself for their fall. I saw him then, the lithe young man with a book in his hand, standing where he always was against the low stone wall. He turned to look at me, smiling and tipping his hat as though it was me that he’d been waiting for. Then he stumbled, the ground beneath him shaking with an uncommon violence as the ghost of an abutment gave way. My heart swelled with the urge to cry out, then broke with the knowledge that it was futile.
This happened long ago, I reminded myself. There is nothing you can do about it now.
I turned away, not wishing to look as the crumbling stones finally betrayed him, gifting him to the earth below. Under my feet, the ground stilled as time slid again; forwards now, the past surrendering to the present, the old acquiescing to the new. When I looked back, the bridge had healed, and the man was gone.
Gone, at least, until the next time I saw him. I recalled his small nod, his smile, and wondered who he’d been waiting for. Wondered if they were the reason why he returned to that same spot, time after time. Wondered where he was now. Roaming the valley perhaps, with all those other restless souls? I gazed over the wall, regarding the spirits of Edinburgh’s drowned and dispossessed as they wandered the barren land which lay beyond the markets sheltering in the shadow of the bridge’s great arches. I pitied them the loss of their watery grave. There had been a loch down there once, known as the Nor Loch, but it had been shrunk long ago by draining. All that remained of it was now obscured from view by the earthen mound which grew bigger each year, fed by the builders’ waste of the New Town.
The old gave way to the new; it was how it was meant to be. But that wasn’t to say that the past didn’t mourn its losses.
A sharp gust of wind brought me back to the present, and I found myself reaching up to shield my bonnet from its grasp. My thoughts returned to my appointment, and my earlier urgency gripped me once more. The dead might have all eternity to rue their lot, but I had only a few minutes to get to Hill Street.
I hurried across the bridge, glad to leave its haunting sights behind me, and made my way towards George Street, the great wide boulevard which ran through the centre of the New Town. I didn’t come here often, but I never found it difficult to negotiate my way around. I was used to navigating the old part of the city, its webs of wynds and closes piled high by the centuries. This place was the work of mere decades, built under a regimen of order and symmetry to tempt the city’s wealthiest inhabitants away from their chaotic, antiquated dwellings. I found its vistas unappealing, but not confusing.
I rounded the corner on to Frederick Street and stopped for a moment, feeling out of breath. Immediately I noticed the quiet; this side of town might always be busy with Edinburgh’s well-to-dos, but it was peaceful to me. It was still new enough that it was mostly only the living who walked its immaculate streets. I breathed deeply, noting rather begrudgingly that its air smelt better, too. I took the final steps of my journey at a steadier pace, conscious of the company I was about to keep. It was bad enough that I was here, dressed in my best but still not quite passing muster, my dress well-worn, the soles of my shoes thick with Canongate filth; I didn’t need to appear flustered as well. I needed to seem composed, refined. I needed to be all those things I used to be. I caught sight of my reflection in a window, sighing my disapproval at my flushed cheeks and the frizz of red-brown hair escaping my bonnet. I thought once more about those poor souls roaming that desolate valley between the towns, utterly out of place and time. For a moment I understood how they must feel.
I found my destination with ease, about halfway down Hill Street. The house was just as Jane had described it: identical to all the adjoining houses, fashioned in a grey stone and punctuated by neat lines of sash windows. Elegant, Jane had called it, when she’d brought the invitation to me. I hadn’t commented; I’d been too absorbed in reading the little card’s details.
Mrs Charlotte Andrews requests the pleasure of your company… Thursday next… two o’ clock…
They want you to perform a reading, Jane had explained, but that detail had only perturbed me more. Why were they seeking such a service? And why had Jane been foolhardy enough to mention my name?
I made my way along the lane which ran behind Hill Street, where I assumed I would find the servants’ entrance to the house. Although I had an invitation to visit, I didn’t believe that invitation extended to the likes of me wandering through the family’s front door. I knocked briskly on what I hoped was the correct door, and after a few moments Jane answered. She looked different in her maid’s attire; younger than her twenty-five years, with a red glow in her cheeks and sweat on her brow which hinted at the relentless nature of the work. She liked it here, she’d once told me. It reminded her of growing up in the border country. Sometimes, at night, she could even hear corncrakes calling out from the surrounding fields, upon which streets had not yet been built.
‘I’m glad to see you, Miss Rose,’ Jane said, beckoning me to come inside. ‘The family are expecting you. They will receive you in the parlour.’
I nodded and smiled, partly in agreement and partly out of amusement at her formality. It was not really so long ago that we worked together in the tavern.
‘How are you, Jane? We didn’t get much chance to speak when you called the other day.’
‘No – sorry, Ailsa. I had to go to market, and I was in an awful rush to get back to help the Misses Andrews dress for dinner. There aren’t many of us here, so I must help with everything,’ she said, lowering her voice.
‘But you are well? Still happy?’
Jane nodded. ‘I don’t miss tavern work, if that’s what you mean. Come on, I’d better take you up and introduce you. It is after two now and you shouldn’t keep them waiting, and the mistress will scold me if I’m caught blethering downstairs. Although, perhaps you’d best take those shoes off first. I think they’re beyond even the boot-scraper’s help,’ she added, with a wary glance at my feet.
I did as I was bid, then followed Jane up the stairs and into the parlour, a well-appointed room at the rear of the house, fashioned in a pleasing pale green. The colour reminded me of my home in Paris, and before I could prevent it, its many hues flashed before my eyes. Greens, yellows, reds. A touch of blue along the staircase which led to our apartment. I pushed the thought from my mind, fixing a smile on my face and gave a polite bow as Jane announced my arrival to the family, who were enjoying tea around a fine mahogany table in the centre of the room. Four intrigued faces turned to examine me; a woman in her middle years, who I presumed to be Mrs Andrews, two younger women who were likely the Misses Andrews, and a fair-haired man of whom I knew nothing at all. Their interrogative stares made me conscious again of my faded dress and stockinged feet. I’d had finer clothes back in Paris, but those were gone now too.
The older woman spoke first. ‘Ah, Miss Rose. Very pleased to make your acquaintance. Please, do sit down. Jane, bring up a fresh tea set, with another cup for Miss Rose.’ Her voice was soft but commanding, its notes surprising to my ear. Not Scottish, I thought. English. She smiled slightly at me; if she was irritated by my lateness, she didn’t show it.
Jane left promptly with her orders, cutting me adrift as I fumbled with a heavy wooden chair. In the end the man rose from his seat to assist me, prompting a stifled giggle from one of the young ladies. Her mother shot her a stern look.
‘Miss Rose, allow me to introduce Mr Henry Turner, and my daughters, Miss Clara and Miss Grace. Thank you for coming to attend upon us this afternoon. It is a fine day, I see. I hope your journey across town was not too arduous.’
I thought briefly about that young man, about how this time I couldn’t bear to watch him fall. Arduous, indeed.
‘Not at all, Mrs Andrews. There was a little wind on the bridge, but then there is always a wind blowing between the towns.’
My remark prompted more laughter, this time from both sisters. They were strikingly different to look at; one shared her mother’s slender, dark features, with near-black hair and deep brown eyes, whilst the other was fair, blue-eyed and a little plump. Neither of them could be much more than one-and-twenty, and both were beautiful in their distinct ways. I imagined the suitors were lining up for their hands.
‘It was Grace, my youngest daughter, who prompted our invitation to you,’ Mrs Andrews continued, giving a nod of acknowledgement to the fair-haired girl. ‘I understand you’re acquainted with our maid, Jane. Grace tells me that Jane has shared some stories of your…talents. My daughter has an enthusiasm for these matters, and was inclined to make your acquaintance so that you might be able to read her leaves.’
Of course. Typical Jane. The matter had unfolded much as I expected, but that didn’t mean it rankled any less. I could hear my mother’s warning echo in my ear.
Be careful who you trust, ma chérie.
‘I’d be happy to oblige you,’ I replied.
Jane returned briefly with the tea set. She managed to avoid catching my eye, which was just as well as I couldn’t be sure I wouldn’t scowl at her. After she’d laid out the required wares and left, Mrs Andrews retrieved a key and unlocked the tea chest which sat atop a mahogany table across the room. I watched as she filled an attractive porcelain bowl with leaves before placing it in the centre of the table.
‘I’ll let you do the honours, Miss Rose,’ Mrs Andrews said.
‘In fact, Mrs Andrews, I’m afraid the practice requires that each person makes their own cup of tea. Leaves first, then hot water. The leaves must remain in the bottom of the cup.’
Mrs Andrews curled her lip, partly at me and partly at Grace, who shrank a little across the table. I was being tolerated. But then, my sort always were.
‘I see. Well, girls, you heard Miss Rose. You too, Henry. Make your tea.’
I watched with some amusement at the show of refinement and delicacy as one by one, each concocted their brew. I realised how unused I was to company such as this; too accustomed now to the rough manners of the tavern, to the clink of ale mugs and the stink of whisky and sweat. It had been many years since I had sat and enjoyed tea in a room such as this. The thought unsettled me, and I brushed it aside.
‘Miss Rose, that is an unusual accent. Pray, do tell us where you are from,’ the elder sister, Clara, said as she stirred a spoon in her cup.
I felt the heat grow in my cheeks as four pairs of eyes bored into me. I worked hard to conceal my accent, but it could always be detected by a well-attuned ear.
‘I spent my childhood in France,’ I replied. ‘But I have lived in Edinburgh for many years now.’
Grace gave a little snort. ‘France, indeed! Jane never mentioned that. I do hope you’re no admirer of Monsieur Napoleon, Miss Rose.’
‘Upon my word, Grace!’ Henry interjected before I could answer. ‘What an assertion to put to Miss Rose. I am sure that, given her long residence in Edinburgh, she is no friend to the revolution. Am I right, Miss Rose?’
I nodded. ‘You are indeed, sir. On the question of Monsieur Bonaparte, I would say that I welcome the current peace. Long may it last.’
‘Yes, yes, very good,’ said Mrs Andrews, before sipping her tea. ‘I presume I may now drink this, and that we may dispense with all talk of politics.’
I nodded my agreement, and poured a cup of my own. I hadn’t answered badly, but when in polite society it was very often impossible to say the right thing.
‘Have you any family in Edinburgh, Miss Rose? Parents, or siblings, perhaps?’ Clara’s dark gaze remained intently upon me as she pursued her line of questioning.
I shook my head. ‘I’m afraid not. I have no siblings, and my parents are dead.’
A half-truth, but I wasn’t prepared to part with the full story of my upbringing. Indeed, I didn’t know the half of it myself.
‘That is sad, being alone in a strange city,’ Grace lamented. ‘We are strangers here too, but at least we have each other for company.’
‘Hush, hush,’ her sister urged, ‘or you shall be revealing all our secrets and there will be no point in Miss Rose’s divining for us at all. Although, I must agree with my sister that it is sad – and unusual.’
Unusual. Perhaps it was in her world, but it was all too common in mine. Clara continued to regard me, and I wondered if she felt as I did, if she could sense the chasm between us. The valley between the towns. The empty space which separated our lives. After a moment she looked away, and I decided it was best to move on.
‘Has anyone finished their tea?’
Henry sat back in his chair, his casual pose seeming to mock me. ‘I confess I have finished, but I am going to decline a reading from you, Miss Rose. I mean no offence, but such amusements are the preserve of young ladies with heads full of novels and nonsense.’
I nodded, inwardly cursing Jane once again. This was exactly why it wasn’t worth my trouble to do readings. Too much risk. Too much unbelief.
‘Oh, do ignore him, Miss Rose. He is an utter blockhead,’ Grace said. She pushed her cup towards me. ‘I asked Mama to invite you here. I would like to go first.’
I took her cup, examining the messy, wet swirls of leaves clambering up its sides. ‘You are a young woman of great sensibility, Miss Grace. I see that you love to dance and that you play the piano very well.’
Grace beamed at me. ‘Yes, indeed. Yes, it’s true. My playing is far superior to Clara’s.’
Henry clicked his tongue in disapproval. ‘Dear Grace, how easily led you are. Most young ladies in Edinburgh will like to dance and to play the piano. Mere guesswork, and that is all.’
‘You are happy more often than not,’ I continued, undeterred by Henry. In truth this was turning out to be an interesting cup. ‘But I can see your circumstances have been difficult of late. There has been a division in the family, I believe. Yes, a separation, leading you here to Edinburgh.’
I didn’t need to have the sight to understand that I’d touched a nerve. Mrs Andrews sat bolt upright, sending the remainder of her tea swishing around her cup.
‘An easy supposition, Miss Rose, if you’ve read the newspapers in these last twelve months.’
‘I have not, madam,’ I replied, ‘but I shall leave that line of enquiry as it is, since it is clearly vexing.’ I looked back at Grace. ‘Is there anything in particular you wish to know?’
‘Marriage,’ her mother snapped, before Grace could answer. ‘Can you see anything on the matter of her marriage?’
I looked back at Grace’s cup. In truth, I could see little. Her leaves were scattered all over the place, much like her feelings. ‘You will have many suitors to choose from, and you will have a difficult decision to make. But I see that you will be happy.’
Grace giggled. Mrs Andrews, however, was far from impressed.
‘That is all very well, but do you have a name? Who will she marry?’
‘I’m afraid I don’t have a name, Mrs Andrews. Sometimes during a reading, names will make themselves known, but it is rare.’
‘Well yes, I imagine that would be far too specific,’ Henry scoffed.
‘Indeed. Let us see whether you have better luck with Clara,’ Mrs Andrews said, tight-lipped. ‘My dear, pass Miss Rose your cup.’
Clara did as instructed, her cool fingers brushing mine as we leaned across the table. I felt her feelings as they seeped from her skin; restlessness, anxiety, panic. Love. I caught her gaze for the briefest moment, watched as she extinguished the spark. I wondered how often she had to bury those feelings beneath that well-rehearsed serenity. In my hand her cup grew warm, the neat arrangement of soggy leaves readying themselves to reveal her secrets.
Then I looked down, and realised it wasn’t the leaves that were speaking to me at all.
A dark corridor. A flash of yellow paint. A man, his lips upon a woman’s neck.
A flickering candle, running with molten wax, its wick almost spent. A stone staircase. A woman’s body tumbling down, a soft blur of muslin and limbs.
A face, running with blood.
The vision broke, torn apart like pages from a book. In my hand her cup shook, and the delicate porcelain cracked. The red trickled away, succumbing to the black, and I knew what was coming next. I knew before I saw him. I knew before I heard him cry.
‘Pierre,’ I whispered, just as the ground greeted me, and the darkness swallowed me whole.