It’s Fridaaaaay – and that means it’s almost time to put aside those pesky real people clothes, get back into our pyjamas and dream away the weekend with a good book. (A social life? I laugh in the face of your social life.) There’s a nip in the air that feels disconcertingly like Autumn – certainly a time of year to curl up on the sofa and forget the outside world. So with that in mind, boy, do we have the perfect book for you.
Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People is a chilling Victorian mystery set in the Yorkshire village of Halfoak, where the old tales hold sway and myth bleeds into everyday life. After his cousin is murdered, Albie Mirralls determines to investigate her death, but in superstitious Halfoak, answers are slippery and further tragedy is just a step away . . .
Sounds thrilling? You’d be right. But don’t take my word for it – have a read of the first chapter and judge for yourself.
It was at the Great Exhibition that I first saw my cousin, and even then I could not but think of it as a convergence, not merely of the great new powers of industry and machines with those of hill and tree, but of different times. Here was the future, loud and brash and busy, and here all the idle repose and gawping of the past, drawn to this place to marvel upon its arrival. The year was 1851, and that was utterly apt, for the apex of the century had been crested and we were now rushing headlong towards the next at a pace that must surely increase a thousandfold before its end.
I can still recall my first words to young Lizzie, as I already thought of her then, though I blush at the memory. I can only apologise for being what I was: young and rather callow and a little too pleased with myself. I was tall, dressed in a new silk top hat and floral waistcoat, and sporting, best of all in my own eyes, my first real moustache. I smiled down at the shy creature, under the gaze of my father and her own, and said, ‘How do you find this, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations?’
Under the modest and rather worn brim of her bonnet, her plump lip twitched. A single blonde curl bobbed prettily. I should say that Lizzie – or Elizabeth Thurlston, as she was then – was my rural cousin, a denizen of the fair lands far to the north of our capital, and she had come up to London by train with so many others to admire all the wonders within the Crystal Palace. We had timed our own visit accordingly, though it had entailed a reorganisation of our plans so that we could attend on a one-shilling day, rather than our appointed Friday, when the charge was increased to two shillings and sixpence. It was especially crowded; the roads had been all but blocked with omnibuses, cabs, private broughams and flies. Of course we did not mention it when we met them beneath the great elm tree which stood near the Prince of Wales Gate. I was not, I hope, so irredeemably without good qualities as that.
‘I ’aven’t seen it yet, Cousin,’ she replied, her voice as gentle as the bounds of propriety could command, although with the unfortunate trace of Yorkshire in her vowels.
Still, I couldn’t help but recollect that whereas my mother had married well, her sister was said by all accounts to have married somewhat low, and as such I had never had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of my cousin until this very day. And yet the great progress of the iron rail had been so rapid that such meetings must surely have become rather commonplace. It was said that half the population would make their pilgrimage to see the Great Exhibition before its end, though afterwards I discovered that the nearer number would be a third; still a remarkable total.
I glanced up at the towering elm which marked our meeting place. Outside, the day was of mixed character. Spears of bright light occasionally found their way between lowering grey clouds, so that it was unclear whether rain or sunshine would come to dominate. The tree filtered it all, casting a cooling shadow across our faces. It had been said that the opponents of the exhibition – for such did exist, if it can be imagined – had fought most bitterly against the felling of Hyde Park’s ancient trees to permit the construction of the Crystal Palace. Not wishing to let anything impede their progress, the committee had duly made some alteration in their design, and as a result the trees themselves had been enclosed within a barrel-vaulted transept, held aloft by soaring arms of iron; a feature which I now felt had come to be the glory of the whole.
My father, at his most expansive, exchanged some pleasantry with his brother-in-law and indicated the way forward into the exhibition. The commotion of it already rang in our ears: the rhythmic thrumming of cotton manufacture, of steam-driven machinery and marine engines; the clatter of hydraulic presses and the rattle of the latest Jacquard looms. It was wonderful and it was fearful, and I tried to peer beneath Lizzie’s bonnet once more, thinking of a sudden that I should very much like to see the expression in her eyes.
My father broke in upon my thoughts with a sharp, ‘Take Lizzie’s arm, Albie,’ and I had no time to cast a remonstrative glance at his use of the diminutive form of my Christian name before her little hand – somewhat browned by days spent out of doors – slipped around my left elbow. I had no further opportunity to spy upon her features as we processed together side by side into the bustle and the noise, surrounded not only by the heady sound of industry, but the endless murmuring of a thousand human conversations.
We wandered at liberty and without design, through the exhibits of the colonies and other nations, before returning to the western side of the structure, where was housed all the progress and pride that our own fine country could offer. I forget what it was of which we spoke. We watched the inexplicable operations of piston and cog, smiled over splendid silks, tapestries and exquisite china and gasped at the magnificent Koh-i-Noor diamond. We stood apart whilst her father pressed through the crowds of men dressed in their smock-frocks to see a noisy flaxcrushing machine and a mechanical reaper. Then all the latest medical and scientific apparatus was spread before us, as well as the accomplishments of modern horology in the form of intricate watches and clocks, their numerous ticks and springs giving way all at once to the midday chimes.
Lizzie raised her chin to me, and I saw the delight in her nut-brown eyes before my father cried out, ‘Look! Let us see whether we shall have a storm.’
It was then that I was introduced to a most curious exhibit: that of the Tempest Prognosticator.
We waited for a school of charity girls, bedecked in wide white collars and straw bonnets, to move aside before we gathered around it. At first, it was unclear what it was we were gazing upon. Concentric rings of what appeared to be brass surrounded a central pillar turned from shining ebony or some other dark wood, culminating in a device a little like a crown, a little like a bell.
‘A barometer,’ my father pronounced. ‘Most ingenious! Science and the powers of animal instinct, working in harmony . . .’
Animal instinct? I knew not of what he spoke. I found my attention already wandering a little, for Lizzie had begun to trace a ring around the exhibit, running one finger along the rail, and when she saw me watching, a little smile almost mischievous in nature crossed her lips. Then she leaned in, her eyes narrowing, and she wrinkled her nose.
I found myself peering more closely to see what had disturbed her countenance, and then I did and I recoiled. At the base of the instrument, arranged in a circle, were twelve bottles, and in each bottle, if I did not mistake myself, was a leech, each vile curled form pressed against the glass.
I turned to my father. I do not know if I managed to keep the disgust from my face, but if I did not he gave no sign of noticing.
‘Leeches have a singular talent, besides their medical advantages,’ he proclaimed. ‘They have a certain sensitivity to electrical conditions in the atmosphere. When a coming storm is detected, they endeavour to climb out of their prisons, a motion that is sensed by these small hammers – there! – causing them to strike the bell. The more agitated they become, the worse the storm and the more the bell shall strike.’ He laughed. ‘But the jury is motionless and the bell is silent. Thus, we shall have no storm!’
He never suspected how very wrong he was, and yet no one else spoke. We merely contemplated the strange, almost alchemical-seeming invention, and my father smiled as if he had dreamed it up himself.
After a time I found I did not know where to look and so instead I read the information which accompanied the exhibit. I noticed with a start that its creator was named, of all things, Dr Merryweather; but I had no wit to make a humorous remark upon it, for I could not help but think of what must be entailed in the care of such an instrument. Clocks must be wound after all, and this, too, must surely place certain demands upon its owner. I imagined a maid polishing the glass, oiling the shining metal, brushing dust from the smooth wood. And what then? Would the possessor of such a thing have to take each leech, freeing it however momentarily from its confinement, and in order to preserve its life, press each in turn against his skin? The thought reduced me almost to gloom, a most unaccustomed state for my then self, and presently we moved on and I hardly know where it was we went or what we looked upon. I only know that Lizzie’s arm was in mine once more, and that she was quite unaffected; as I suppose she should have been, being a child almost of nature herself.
At last we came to a crystal fountain, and its liquid tones sang away my melancholy. It was situated by another great elm, or perhaps the same one, my senses and my memory being, by then, entirely dazzled. Lizzie did not appear to notice. She chattered away about how they would break their journey, since rail hadn’t yet come to Halfoak, and I became a little confused, thinking at first she said our folk; and then I understood, but she was already speculating that maybe one day it would, and then she could get about quite easily. And there she stopped as a new sound impinged upon our senses.
One of the exhibited organs, a device intended, I believe, for the Queen’s Procession, had begun to ring out, accompanying the tinkling of the fountain with a new tune, one I instantly recognised. It had been published some few years before and was already quite familiar. I had barely named the melody in my mind when Lizzie slipped her hand from my arm, clutched both instead in front of her, drew in a deep breath and began to sing.
All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
As she sang, her voice suddenly rising strong and pure above it all, the sunlight speared through the crystal of the roof, through the great boughs of the tree, and laid its dappling upon her, a finer lace than any the exhibition could offer. I realised that conversations had quieted, that people around us had stopped to listen just as if Lizzie were an exhibit herself, made not of wood or iron or glass but of flesh and blood. She was an angel; she was a bird. I watched her as she sang of all God’s creatures, of flowers and glowing colours and of tiny wings; of the greenwood and the meadow, the sunset and the morning. She sang with her eyes closed, as if conscious of no one, the small coarseness in her speech quite untraceable in her song.
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
How apposite it was! And then her song was done and the tones of the organ faded away, and I realised that everything around me was just as it had been: the machinery, the busyness, all the rushing progress of our age. Time had started again, and I shook my head at my own muddle-headedness as she rejoined our small party. I could not think of what to say, and yet I felt I should speak. Such, I believe, is ever the impetuosity of youth.
‘Just as our good queen has named herself Victoria,’ I said, ‘choosing to forgo her first given name, Alexandrina, and instead named herself – why, I think you should rather be a Linnet than a Lizzie!’
I felt my father’s eyes upon my face and I let out a small spurt of laughter along with my words.
The lady did not reply; she merely dipped in a rather artless yet charming curtsy.
Her father laughed too, and I only realised then how little I had heard him speak when he barked out in rough tones, ‘’Appen she should make it Vicky, then, and you shall be Vicky and Albie!’
I knew by the white press of my father’s lips the extent of his disapprobation and horror at such a suggestion. I do not know if our relatives from the north ever knew it, but he was a still pool whose waters ran deep, and I could sense the anger simmering within him, even if his voice remained low. With an even greater excess of the politeness that ever characterised his conversation he wished them well for the long journey that was ahead of them.
He told them of our pressing engagements and the demands of the City, and on both our parts, he took our leave.
I nodded at Mr Thurlston and shook his hand and had time only to press Lizzie’s palm in mine before we were hurrying away; before I had even time to gather myself or properly say good-bye. It was only then, as we left through the high and shining doors and put the palace of crystal behind us, threading through the bustle towards the grey rooftops beyond, that it even occurred to me to remember that our good queen, besides choosing the name by which she should be known, had elected to marry her own first cousin.
And yet my father had no cause for either fear or anger. I did not see Lizzie again, not for many a year; and even then, it was not for some time after she was dead.
DUH DUH DUH!
See! I told you it was good. The Hidden People is out now in hardback and ebook, and the paperback will be released on October 5th. You lucky, lucky people.