This is the first scene from "A Ghost in Gaslight", a story that will eventually be the first part of the new novel, Donovan's Twist. Join me now in London, in the summer of 1856.
Streaming inward over the summer windows, fine lace, fine shadows dance just out of reach tickling the ordinary brown hair out of its long braid. Susan Pickering in her maiden’s bed, plumped up on pillows, with a prince of Faery’s sketchbook on her knees.
By promise and instinct, stealing light from the painted globes of the lamp in a prodigal expense of oil, her pencil skates across the paper almost on its own. Shading and correcting as she goes, Susan’s left hand follows the magic; the rebellious hand that no governess has been able to bind or slap or exorcise into submission.
Round spectacles slide to the tip of her straight English nose. In a pause for breath, a finger tip shoves them back into place, then finds the paper again.
As always. the pictures swarming over the paper seem only partly her own, drawn from memory, perhaps, or a dream—but whose? A cat curled on a cushion, a stone well head, caged bird, a parade of monks gliding through a pointed Gothic archway in a ruined priory. People she knew, delicately approached, talked of automatic writing and spirits. They could have no idea, knew no more than she.
A fresh page opens under her hand. The drawing this time grows more slowly, deliberately
Where is he tonight, she wonders, shading the planes of broad cheekbones, the star at the corner of his mouth. They would marry at Christmas, perhaps. A year after their first meeting, Or next year, or the year after that, or when she could no longer bear to keep her last secrets. If he is not tired of waiting. If she has not gotten old. But where was he now, her wandering lodger, her beloved? Anywhere, somewhere, chasing a story. Chasing, chased, chaste. A modest smile pleats the corners of her eyes, creases the small mouth lighting the plain face. Sensible Susan transformed. Ned Donovan, crack reporter, ridiculous, transforming, would laugh out loud. A few more strokes add a collar, the shoulders of his coat; sketch him into a scene she has only imagined. Finally, pencil thrust behind her ear, Susan Pickering sits back admiring her work and God’s. Vibrating to the magic waiting in this image as well as the others. Something is coming, that much she knows, and she will need him. She has to know more.
“Show me,” Susan whispers, and settles back into her pillows to watch.
Nothing happens, not at once. Then with aching slowness the pencil lines begin to shift, lines cross-hatching, overlapping in an illusion of movement like the flickering figures in a zoetrope machine. The expression falls, the mouth loses its humor, the face turns away from her to look over his shoulder at something she did not put there. A smudge, a smear of graphite a figure in flailing rags quite small but expanding and more solid as if racing towards him, but the distance is very great, reaching out for Ned. Or for Susan.
She gasps and shakes the book. “No, no. He can’t see it. He can’t see it. Donovan, turn around!” The magic has always been silent. Even if she raises her voice he cannot hear her. “Oh what good is it if I can’t… No!”
The smudge is a busy, roiling mass of scribbles and fluttering lines. No shape, no face. Wicked. Hungry. Mad. But all around her the sultry airs of an English summer have become a desert wind, a sirocco drawing all joy and hope from the room, from her life. It is coming for them both.
A gum eraser flies into the plain, unremarkable fingers. She dashes it against the frozen figure, scrubbing it away. And someone screams.