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Sydenham Halloween 1874
Nellie wraps herself in her new fur coat, the black Beaver fur that her father brought her from Marshal and Snellgrove in town yesterday as one of her twentieth birthday presents. Carefully she nestles her pendant under the furs where it can’t catch upon anything or get lost. She can’t believe how grown up she feels with all these expensive gifts but Papa again told her how proud he is of her with her business running along splendidly and the invitations for her latest viewing of photos laying ready to be addressed on the hall table.
Funny having a birthday on Halloween but she’s always thought of it as lucky , as if all the fireworks and celebrations going on are specifically for her. .At least she doesn’t have to go to the churchyard and polish bones as the French are purported to do on November the 1st although she thinks perhaps that’s just a nasty story to make the English feel superior. .Today there is an expectant feeling in the air; she can sense it tingling in her skin as if new doorways into her mind have been opened up by what happened last night. It’s not necessarily a comfortable feeling and she shivers turning to bend over and warm her long kid gloves in front of the roaring log fire before she rolls them onto her hands. She is standing in the music room looking out towards the summer house and she thinks she will take the tunnel into the woods today, so she doesn’t have to meet anybody. Especially not the annoying gamekeeper who likes to keep her talking for hours about partridges and pheasants, as if she cares at all about such things especially the clutch of dead ones that he habitually has hanging from his gaming bag, neither does she want to soil her soft kid boots crossing the highway and she’s definitely not in the mood for talking this afternoon.
Papa had the tunnel built from below the summerhouse down to the folly in the woods so that they never had to cross the road or go near the railway track to get out for their long walks. It meant that they could bypass the glimpses of the city beneath them which is all too often shrouded with its yellow fog of coal fire haze and the nasty smells that blow their way occasionally. No, here on the hill Henry had wanted there to be no sense of the pollution of industry to sully the lives of his small precious family, none of the sickness and consumption that comes with the labours of the workforce. His precious ones must have all that they desire, all that his very new money can buy and it isn’t really necessary for them to know how he came by it. Her younger brother has been packed off to Oxford with all the trappings of a gentleman and so it is just his precious clever Nellie left at home now. This part of Sydenham is for the nouveau riche, the tone lifted by the artistic set, the music clique, and also the influx of diplomats, people like the German Ambassador in the next door mansion. It has become a playground for the rich with all the marvellous events and talks going on in the shiny Crystal Palace next door.
Last night was extraordinary if she thinks about it, which she does briefly before turning the key on the lock to the French windows and stepping out into the garden. Her mother had managed to inveigle the great Madame Blavatsky to hold a private séance in the drawing room. She had been giving an early evening lecture on Theosophy at ‘’The Crystal Palace ‘’ and Mama had promised her plenty of money if she would honour them with her presence. She’d whispered to Nellie that she wanted to be able to talk to her little brother who had died of the consumption as a small boy and she still missed him. Madame Blavatsky has been causing a great stir in the press and polite ‘’at homes’’, in the city with stories of her ability to talk with the spirits of dearly departed loved ones. It wasn’t the first time that Edith had got all soppy eyed over something that had happened when she was four and her brother Richard only two. It was as if this early loss drove the melancholy tone in her life, as if her living children have never been enough for her. Nellie has become increasingly unsympathetic of the story over the years, but if a ghost child could actually be conjured up, for the evening’s entertainment well that would be interesting. If the Madame could do that for her mother then she might truly become a believer.
Nellie loved her mother but was very aware that the once beautiful debutante was excruciatingly bored tucked away here in the quasi countryside far from the gossip and parties of Central London that she was brought up with. So was it any wonder that she provided herself with unusual entertainment to keep the melancholia at bay? That and the daily doses of laudanum for her headaches kept Edith from ending up semi hysterical, and bothering dear Papa with the dreaded hypochondria that brought the Dr and his formidable leather bag. Last week it had been wine tasting, lots of gurgling and spitting into silver buckets and talk of a hint of raspberry and overtones of oak in the red wine at table, and now it seemed that ectoplasm was on the menu for her entertainment.
Of course all the important neighbours had to be invited, including the handsome but notorious Arthur Sullivan and his latest conquest no doubt, and the pretty Scott Russell girls Rachel and Louise with their lovely mother Harriet. All three of the Scott Russell women seemed to hanker after the young Sullivan although Nellie couldn’t for the life of her understand why. Papa had declared that it was all tosh and nonsense and retired to his club in the city for the evening with Sir George Grove , but Nellie had been intrigued enough to attend.
Nellie walks across the leaves, her small kid boots crunching on the still visible traces of frost and she instinctively pulls the fur closer around her neck to keep at bay a sudden chill in the air. She looks around her, the day is bright and autumnal, later she will have to give that piano recital that she is dreading, why oh why do her parents insist that she take piano lessons? There is no doubt in her mind that she is totally untalented when it comes to music and it is a big embarrassment as so many of the young girls in the area obviously are. Why listen to Nellie when you can go to a marvellous Schubert or Liszt concert in the Crystal Palace instead? No she has definitely decided to put her foot down this time and refuse to do any more of these excruciating evenings, but now at least for an hour or so she is free to do what she likes.
Her chaperone Miss Tindley is resting and at twenty years old today Nellie is up for some measure of freedom and adventure, even if it’s only an afternoon walk in the woods.. She has been educated for the last few years by Miss Tindley after a severe bout of pleurisy left her weak and susceptible to infection and so she has had to leave her beloved friends at the girl’s school down Westwood Hill. She still sees them all sometimes in their uniform when she is on shopping trips on the high road with Mama, but if she if honest she doesn’t really miss it all. She has her music lessons and the dance classes on a Friday at ‘’The Palace’’ and lately she has become ever more fascinated with the art of photography, and it is no longer just a passing hobby but has become her main focus of attention. She has enrolled in classes with Mr Delamotte who took all the photographs of the palace being rebuilt here on the hill. He was a friend of father’s and rather whiskery and disgusting but the magic of the darkroom is simply too engrossing to be denied and that is what she truly wants to become, a photographer in the genre of the wonderful Julia Margaret Cameron whose photographic exhibitions she has seen in the drawing rooms of private views in Holland Park along with the good and the great.
The whole process is fascinating in itself and Mr Delamotte has taught her all his techniques which she is pursuing in her make shift darkroom in the cellar. She has had to get the gardener to help her make all the platforms she uses for her trays of chemicals and the whole process is cumbersome and worryingly full of the use of dangerous chemicals; but the results she is starting to see make it all worthwhile .
First the sheet of glass is cleaned, she uses glass plates roughly 12 x 10 inch. A solution of collodion (gun cotton dissolved in ether and alcohol mixed with salts) is then poured evenly over the plate and made sensitive to light in the dark room with a coating of silver nitrate salts. The damp plate is then ready to be placed in the camera. Nellie uses a standard sliding-box camera and a French made Jamin lens with a fixed aperture of f3.6 and a focal length of roughly 12 inches. After removing the lens cap the exposure time required is between three and seven minutes. She then takes the glass plate back to the dark room still damp (thus ‘wet plate’ or ‘wet collodion’ negative) and a solution of developer is poured over it. The negative is washed and then bathed in cyanide to fix the image and remove unexposed silver salts. It’s washed again and finally coated with varnish to enable multiple prints to be made from the plate without damaging it.
It has taken her quite a few months to hone the technique with many worrying mistakes but now she is perfect at it and she is ready to make her very own albumen prints. When she started taking photos at sixteen she had to get her negatives developed for her but now she is proud to be able to do it herself, and do it brilliantly. This is a very new process that only became widely used around four years ago. Thin plain paper is coated with a layer of egg white containing salt. The albumenised paper is then sensitised with silver nitrate solution and left to dry before use. Contact prints are made using a frame to sandwich together the negative and the paper in daylight, the image appearing or ‘coming out’ through the effect of light on the albumen paper. Thus the size of the negative generally determines the size of the print. The print is then toned to make it permanent and to add colour. On top of all this Nellie sometimes uses the process of water colours to tint the print , the whole thing is a huge learning curve for her and she is only just beginning to concentrate on the portrait side of it of which she is particularly interested.
Nellie sighs and sits in the warmth of the summerhouse, the sun making pools of rainbow coloured light on the floor as it soaks in through the stained glass windows. She gazes across the park and sees her old pony grazing in the paddock at the end of the trees. He must be twenty eight by now and she suddenly feels a stab of guilt at the fact that she hasn’t been down to take him a carrot recently. She empties her mind and turns her face to the light feeling its pale warmth gently soothe her, she yawns with all the excitement last night it had been hard to get to sleep and her lack of rest is catching up on her.
She thinks back to the night before and smiles; if she is being honest with herself it really was rather terrifying! They had all filed into the dining room which was in total darkness lit only by the light of one oil lamp on a sideboard. Blavatsky herself looked extremely forbidding and rather stately, not a person to be argued with and so they had all immediately felt subdued, even the haughty Edith, yes instantly her mother had become as pliable as a child . It was almost as if from the moment that Blavatsky entered the house she had cast a spell on them, holding them hypnotised. Nellie would have loved to set up her tripod and camera in a corner of the room but had been forcibly refused permission and told that it was prohibited by one of the Madame’s companions. Ectoplasm it seems is allergic to the science of photography.
They had been told to link hands and Madame Blavatsky asked for their forefingers to be placed on the wine glass in the centre of the table. Then the room had become really cold, even though there was a fire blazing in the grate and suddenly the glass had begun to whizz across the polished surface of the table spelling out answers to all the ladies questions. Mama had asked for the spirit of her small dead brother to come to the table but Blavatsky hadn’t been able to conjure him up for her, in fact it was all going along fairly smoothly until it had come to Nellie’s turn. She had asked first of all when she would meet the man she would fall in love with and all the ladies had been shocked. Was not she supposed to ask when she would meet the man she would marry?
Nellie doesn’t really think that marriage is what it is cracked up to be, unless of course you desire cartloads of children. She herself would like one or two but she is not sure that marriage will suit her. If she becomes an artist or photographer then she can run away to Paris and have her own money and the crassness of Victoriana won’t bother her. No, far better to search for love although she has fears that it isn’t provident to go out looking for love , but better to let it find you . The glass had seemed to hesitate for a moment, hovering in the middle of the table and then began to whizz between them again spelling out the word ‘’soon’’.
All well and good, but when she had asked how she would meet him that had seemed to cause total havoc. The wine glass had whizzed around in smaller and smaller circles and then simply flown off the table and smashed against the wall and at the same moment the oil lamp had blown out. All was confusion for a few moments and in the dark Nellie had felt a sort of intense warmth flow through her whole body as if she was being flooded with light. When it reached the top of her heads her brain exploded into a thousand fragments of blissful feeling like falling crystals, she can’t remember any more than this but it was the most exquisite feeling that she has ever come across. Apparently she had fainted but she has no recollection of any of this, she just remembers gasping in disgust as Miss Tindley thrust smelling salts under her nostrils. She had woken in the music room ten minutes later, covered in a blanket and shivering wildly. Miss Tindley was looking disapprovingly down at her from above, her long aquiline nose pinched and red at the tip which seemed to make it stand out from her sallow face and she looked more bird like than ever. As she lay there trying to get a hold on what had just happened she could hear the hum of voices and the swish of heavy skirts passing the door, but the ceiling kept threatening to crash in on her and she was forced to lie back close her eyes and simply concentrate on breathing. The guests and Madame Blavatsky had all left in a flurry of carriages and whispers and her Mama had taken to her bed with one of her migraines.
Nellie sighs and fiddles with her gloves buttoning the tiny pearl buttons and smoothing them into a straight line along her forearm. When she thinks about it, she does have this terrible habit of ruining things without really understanding how. Why, ever since she was a small child she could be counted on to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. After the séance an autumn storm had blown up outside in the garden as if in sympathy with the strange happenings in the house and all the gas lamps seemed to be sputtering and finally out of working order, even though they live near one of the biggest gasworks in London down at Bell Green in Lower Sydenham. She had lain in bed listening to the trees scraping against her bedroom window and had felt slightly scared wondering if they had unleashed anything seriously dangerous with their dabbling. She doesn’t really believe in ghosts but there had definitely been a sense of the ‘’other world’’ in the dining room that night.
The wallpaper in her room, a swirling design of ivy leaves around crumbled walls had become slightly sinister in the firelight and she was sure that she had the distinct impression that there was some person trying to escape from the clinging tendrils of the ivy. She’d had to shut her eyes tightly and bury her head in her pillow in order to shake the idea from her mind’s eye. However this morning had dawned clear and bright, Mama and Papa taken the carriage to church and here she was escaping for a few hours, what could be a better birthday present that some precious hours of freedom?
She feels around beside the grate of the cast iron ornamental fireplace in the summerhouse and finds the small iron lever that is fashioned to look like part of the design on the grate. It pulls perfectly upwards on its oiled hinges and she steps back as the whole side of the wall moves silently away from her. The opening immediately divulges stone steps leading down into the semi darkness beneath, and she lights the lantern kept there specifically for this purpose. This tunnel had been one of her best ever birthday presents , her father had first showed it to her on her birthday when she was ten years old, and it was one of their many secrets, mother knew nothing about it thank goodness. Edith’s imagination had a horrid habit of running away with itself as it is, they certainly don’t need to provide compost for it by letting her into all the mysteries built into the fabric of the house. This isn’t the only tunnel that the architect incorporated into the designs but it’s the one that Nellie loves to use the most.
The opening to the tunnel recedes to a round globule of daylight behind her as she descends further into the gloom, she turns a corner and there at her feet is what appears to be a pathway of coloured light. The roof of the tunnel is covered in mosaics depicting the judgement of Paris. Floating Goddesses flit above her head and Aphrodite holds out the golden apple of discord to the handsome dark haired boy promising him the love of the world’s most beautiful woman Helen of Troy if he will only choose her.as the most glorious of the Goddesses on Mount Olympus. The light is funnelling through the ventilation shafts cut into the roof, small slits where the daylight seeps in, carefully disguised from above and perfectly aligned to the gradient of the hill so that no rain water can infiltrate. Nellie loves it down here; she feels like she has stepped into a fairy tale, there really isn’t enough magic in her daily life but living in a magical house helps towards soothing the bonds of being a young single woman in a man’s society. Why she’d be more useful joining the women’s suffrage movement than learning embroidery with Miss Tindlay but there is no telling her mother that.
It’s silent in the tunnel as if she the butterfly is in a cocoon, or even in nature’s womb, in hibernation waiting to burst forth in the spring like Persephone. She blushes slightly as she thinks of the rape of Persephone , she’s been reading an awful lot of Greek legends and tragedies recently;, she had discovered reams of them at the British Library on her trips into town when she was supposed to be dress shopping. Often she wishes that she didn’t have a brain at all because that is what seems to cause the trouble, too much thinking which leads to yearning after things that she can’t have. The air shifts in texture and lightens as she reaches the end of the tunnel, a twitch of a small lever on her left at shoulder level and she is in the folly in the woods, the golden light of the sun blinding her for a second before she steps out into the demure light in the folly. Papa built it here for picnics on summer days and also roasting marshmallows and making hot chocolate on the small stove in the crisp autumn days when they go for one of their long walks.
It’s hot and musty in here and she flings open the blue door and steps out into the strong sunlight in the woods. It’s still warm outside her fur feels almost cumbersome to her and she unbuttons her coat, her pendant swings out from her dress catching the light and she hurriedly scoops it back to rest once more against the dove grey silk.. She takes the downward slope towards the small stream, her boots sinking into the soft bed of leaves and not making a sound. She walks for a full ten minutes in a large circular path thinking about nothing in particular only the sound of squirrels rustling through the leaves as they scamper up the trees with their winter hoard. The small stream is trickling its watery music somewhere to her left and the holly bushes are bright with berries, making her think of blood and Christmas. Soon too soon there will be the long winter months to come when it will be too snowy to do much walking. There will be long boring ‘’at homes’’ where mother will trot out the local hideous candidates for her perusal,
——Does she seriously think that Nellie is going to marry one of these bores? —
Even the lascivious Arthur Sullivan has been invited to try his luck and it’s fairly common knowledge that he has bedded more than one of the young ladies of the neighbourhood. He might be a musical genius but his darting eyes and bushy whiskers do nothing for Nellie, she can’t imagine why women should fall for him, nor does she intend to find out as he would so obviously like her too. Her clear brow creases into a furrow when she thinks of the last time he came for dinner and insisted on trying to put his hand on her leg under the table. It’s time she told Papa to send him packing
The woods are empty of other walkers and for this she is grateful, but then in the distance she hears the laughter of children and suddenly realising that she has left the folly unlocked and that it might be a dangerous place for small children she hurries back. Rounding a corner she sees two small boys dressed in unusual garments their dark heads bent together over something in the ground by the folly. They look up and see her and hesitate for a second , but she is good with small children they seem to immediately trust her and she gives them one of her huge smiles and a wink and holds out a small gloved hand in greeting.
‘’Good afternoon, I’m Nellie, who are you two handsome boys?’’
The smaller one is shy and looks down scraping the leaves at his feet into a muddy pile but the elder pipes up with.
‘’We’re Toby and Ollie, and we live in a big house on the hill, and our Dad is just behind us and he’s John’’.
Nellie looks behind them for a second and sees a tall handsome man descending the hill towards them, for some reason just the sight of him in the distance makes her chest a little bit tighter and her heart skip a beat. Then she remembers the children and looks to where Oliver is holding onto her hand tightly and looking up at her in a bemused fashion.
‘’ Why are you wearing these kind of clothes’’
Toby asks stroking her fur in a kind of wonderment.
‘‘’Are you in a play in the theatre about the old days, some sort of history thing, because normal ladies don’t look like you. You look like you come from a book or a fairy tale. Look Ollie she’s got kind of stardust in her hair’’.
The boys look up to where the sunlight is indeed surrounding her in a sparkling gold halo of light, Toby looks down at his hand, it’s very cold and where it is grasping the girls hand his fingers seem to be touching ice, he tries to take his hand away but its stuck and for a second he feels frightened. But then no, there’s his dad not far away and Ollie is looking at Nellie adoringly, playing with a very sparkly necklace that she has around her neck and she has such pretty smiley eyes, surely nothing can be wrong with them talking to her can it?
Nellie is delighted with her find and even more so with the handsome father in hot pursuit who has nearly reached within calling distance to them. On a complete whim she bends and whispers to them.
‘’ Would you like to play a little hide and seek with your father? If you come inside with me I have something to show you that I think you’ll find interesting. ‘’
Her face is so open and trustworthy that Toby doesn’t hesitate, only Ollie holds back a little and tells her.
‘’Mum says never to go with strangers, and Dad might be cross’’
Nellie pushes the curls back from his small worried face and tells him reassuringly.
‘’Well it seems we are practically neighbours, I live in a big house on the hill too, and it’s only for a second, your father will easily find you, this I promise.’’
She has no specific plan in mind, she simply thinks that the boys might like the adventure of the tunnel and if she leaves all the doorways open then their father will follow them inside and that will be a meeting that she simply can’t wait for. Niggling at the back of her brain is a feeling that something is slightly out of kilter, that the boys don’t really look like any of her older cousins children, that the air around them is too bright, that she has a ringing in her ears which she has never come across before, but she ignores all the hints at differentness. She’s simply a little oversensitive after last night’s séance that’s all.
She turns and moves through the blue door of the folly, the boys giggle and turn to wave briefly to their father, once inside they gasp in surprise as the stare into the tunnel. The tunnel door is open and almost instantly they are all three of them skipping down into the cool mosaic archway with its smell of deep moss and the sunlight through the slits in the roof playing over the Grecian Goddesses at the feast of Zeus. For a few minutes they move in unison down the passageway together, she looks behind her for the handsome father but behind them there is only the empty passageway and the echo of her footsteps. The boys are running ahead shouting and jumping in the air, and they turn the corner just before the entrance to the summerhouse and in so doing move out of her line of sight for a moment. The door up into the summerhouse is now open in front of them although she was sure that it had closed behind her.
Suddenly she realises instinctually that something is going very wrong; the air is thick and dank and the sun has disappeared. There are puddles of water at her feet while the mosaic on the ceiling is overgrown with creepers, the light almost non-existent. She calls out to her two companions but they are gone, vanished as if they had never been and she is alone and dishevelled, slightly out of breath and unsure of what is happening. From somewhere behind her she hears the sound of a man calling frantically, his voice echoing and bouncing down the now empty tunnel.
Without looking back she picks up her skirts and runs and she doesn’t stop until she stumbles up into the light of her own summerhouse and collapses on the cushions breathing heavily. Her gloves are gone, her hair is all over her shoulders and her new fur coat has a tear, but apart from that everything is the same as it was. The little boys are nowhere to be seen, this troubles her for a moment but then she imagines that in the confusion of the past few minutes they may have doubled back and joined their father. Yes that must be it what other explanation could there be?
Catching her breath she hears the bell for tea and pulls herself together. Maybe it was all just one of her own fantasies, but where did the little boys go and who was that man? Patting down her hair in the glass of the windows and rubbing at a grass stain on her skirt she walks briskly back into the house. She is just in time to take tea and a long hot bath before getting ready for dinner and her piano recital. No doubt Mama will have invited the usual pasty faced youths or a few dowager old men whose wives have died some gruesome death in childbirth in order to pursue her out of her singleton life, but this time she is very sure that she isn’t interested in any of them, it doesn’t matter how handsome they are.
Now she is determined to meet the man in the woods and if he lives in one of the houses along the Hill then it shouldn’t be difficult to find him. As for his wife, well, wives can be dealt with, she has seen it done before and in the very worst case scenario they can always elope to the Italian Riviera with the two little boys and she can become a monumental scandal. She can make her livelihood taking photographs of rich Italian weddings and he can grow an olive grove or whatever it is that you do on a hill in Italy
She smiles to herself, yes if nothing else she is determined that her life will be interesting in a way that her mother’s never was nor can ever hope to be. Only a tiny part of her brain tells her that she is behaving like something out of a 2d novel and not at all as she would wish, but something in the light today has turned her from the rational to the extraordinary and she can’t wait to find out what it is.