Novel excerpt: Knives in the orchard

Excerpts from A Thousand Perfect Things

This title has been released in trade paper. E-book formats available on August 27.

Check out some excerpts from my new novel, A Thousand Perfect Things! I’ve  chosen scenes that will minimize spoilers while still giving a flavor of the story. Each week I’ll post an excerpt on this blog, then add it to the Excerpts page. This is the second excerpt. You will also find this on the Excerpts page, along with previous excerpts.

 

Excerpt #2

Knives in the Orchard

Tori Harding, an 18 year old Victorian woman living at Glyndehill Manor in Shropshire, is an avid student of natural history, having been trained since childhood by her famous botanist grandfather, Sir Charles. Tonight, he is missing from his study, a concern because he has episodes of dementia. Tori must find him in the dark, with a threatening storm underway.

 

With Anna gone, Tori went out by the front door of the greenhouse and entered the pruned-back perennial garden, pulling her cape close against gusts of wind. Piano music trickled out from the parlor. Light poured through the windows of the great house faintly highlighting the sycamore trees. Empty.

She hurried past the gardener’s cottage–dark since he and his wife were on spring holiday–and on to the stables. In her rush, she produced a rolling gait that she had grown quite accustomed to. A few drops of rain needled in on the wind. Her grandpapa could be anywhere, and it was very cold, even for February.

With the great house now far enough behind to prevent hearing, Tori called for her grandfather, receiving no answer. He could be anywhere, but surely he had not gone so far. She should sneak back and take the rear stairs lest anyone think she had run recklessly outdoors in the conviction that Sir Charles had begun wandering. He was surely in his room now. However, just then she spied a gleam in the distance–a lantern–perhaps in the apple orchard. She hurried on, scrambling over the stile in the split log fence and into the barley pasture, undulating and sere in the moonlight. Clouds scudded and stacked above her, bringing harder rain and flickers of lightning. By its sickly light, she saw her way through the stubble.

A lantern flashed again among the trees. Following the light, she entered the orchard and spied her grandfather immediately. He was dressed for an evening’s work at the cottage, without hat or overcoat. The wind whipped at his hair and his cravat had come undone, flapping at his throat.

Turning around and around under the fruit trees, he held the lantern aloft, and cried out, “You would have lost it all! All! I did what I had to, what I thought was best.”

Oh, he was raving. The image stabbed at her most forcefully, her grandfather raising his lantern, talking to trees. Oh, Grandpapa . . . but he would catch his death, she must guide him back, and quickly.

Turning about, still looking above, receiving the now pelting rain in his face, he shouted, “Easy to make judgments now! But were you there? Were you? It was war, I tell you. The forest would have taken it, taken it all!”

As she came into his lantern light, he looked at her as though he didn’t recognize her. “Grandpapa. What are you doing?”

His hair was matted down, his top coat slicked to his frame, so much thinner than she had realized.

“All of you,” he muttered in her direction. “You all stand in judgment.”

Her cloak was soaked through, lying upon her back like a saturated pelt. If she was this cold, he must be frightfully exposed. “Let us go back!”

“Back!” he scoffed. Staggering away, he strode farther into the grove, gesturing wildly. “Look at this orchard!” He held up his lantern. “Do you see apples? No, you do not. But when they come in their season, how do they know what to do and when?”

Plunging after him, she tried to take his arm, but he evaded her.

He stalked on, deeper into the orchard, under the arbor of branches. They were no drier for that; the rain crept down in a steady progression from a thousand twigs. “They have their green ways, piari, their own knowledge.”

Here in the midst of the storm his voice grew calm and pedantic. “The ways of natural science. Yet science is full of mystery. We search for truths, but we are often wrong, pursuing dead ends. Is it not credible that God has given us magic to ease the path? That if we combine the disciplines, we shall know more than with each one separately?”

“Yes, Grandpapa, of course you are right. We shall write our paper!” For a moment the trees with their gnarly arms took on a decidedly purple cast. This was not a good place to be. “Pray come back, now,” she said. “We’ll catch our death.”

His voice grew suddenly tender. “Don’t be afraid,” he said.

“No. But we must go home.” She tugged on his arm. Amid the patter of rain, she thought she heard claws crabbing along a branch. “Please, Grandpapa!”

His mood swerving, he wrenched his arm away. “You want the safety of the old ways.”

“No, Grandpapa, but pray let us leave!”

The lantern had given its last and the flame guttered out. In the darkness came his voice, calm and penetrating: “I think it has come for me.”

She looked up in alarm. Above her the canopy was black, a greasy wet tangle.

“Do you not see it?”

The trees were masses of tossing black branches, but as they swayed, after-images of purple remained. She whispered, “It is something strange, but I know not what. The colors . . .”

Suddenly she was in a very great hurry to be away. This place could hide any mayhem the thing had in mind. They must get into the open. She snatched the dead lantern from Sir Charles and let it drop to the ground.

Though the house was too far to see, she took her grandpapa’s elbow, and pulled him in the direction of the meadow. “Hurry,” she urged him, practically dragging him along.

At the edge of the trees, there interposed a gully that she had not crossed to get there. She could hear its runoff sluicing through. Heedless of the muddy bank, she descended with Sir Charles in tow, but he slipped, landing in the water.

“Help over here! Help!” she cried.

Piari,” he said as he sat in the mud. “There is decorum to be observed in the Society.”

Crouching, she helped Sir Charles stand and they clambered up the other side, thoroughly begrimed. She looked about her, concerned now whether he could walk back unaided.  “Help in the orchard!” she called out again, even while despairing of being heard.

A “halloo” from across the pasture; they had been found. Anna must have alerted her father after all.

She and Sir Charles held on to each other, managing between them to make progress across the meadow. Over there, swaying lanterns pricked the darkness. The two of them staggered on in the increasingly heavy rain, Grandpapa leaning heavily on her arm. He stopped now and then to look behind, as though expecting the shadowy owl to come bursting out of the apple trees, claws extended.

Oh! Here was someone coming with a lantern, someone looming large in a great oiled cloak. It was Captain Muir-Smith.

Seeing them, he hurried forward. “Miss Harding! Are you all right?”

“Yes, we are . . . we are . . . Please help Sir Charles.”

Muir-Smith put one arm around Sir Charles, while with his other hand holding the lantern aloft, he gave his elbow to Tori.

“They send magic,” Sir Charles cried amid the exertion of walking. “Does it go over the Bridge, do you think?”

“We shall get you home and dry, sir,” Muir-Smith said, “it’s not far now.”

Sir Charles turned querulous. “I said, is it over the Bridge, or is it not?”

Struggling on, Muir-Smith said, “I know not, sir, but you’ll do better with a sip of brandy and a good fire.” They had come to the stile in the fence. Muir-Smith passed the lantern to Tori and effortlessly lifted Sir Charles over.

As he did so, Tori looked back to the orchard.

In a trembling flash of lightning, the orchard filled with light. But it was not an orchard any longer. Each tree branch was replaced with lances, or skewers, long and thin. They spread out in vase-like formation from the trunks, pointing in all directions, gleaming blue and gray and purple; a horrifying transmutation.

Sir Charles caught a glimpse of this–of something–and grimaced, his face taking on a reflection of faint purple. Oh, were the grotesqueries never to end?

Deposited on the other side of the stile, Sir Charles yanked his arm away from the captain. “‘Tis magic. But one has to look. You’re not one who looks, that is plain!”

Staring at the altered trees in dread, Tori turned away and clambered over the stile, eager for a barrier between her and the orchard, even if only a log fence.

Muir-Smith said, “Can you take his arm? I fear he is quite chilled through. Calm him, if you can.”

“He doesn’t need to be calm.” She looked at the captain, and his sturdy common sense grated exceedingly. “Can’t someone listen to him?” she demanded. “There is magic over there!” She pointed wildly, and Muir-Smith looked, but now all was in shadow, devoid of lightning, without the lances. Frustrated and shaken, she exclaimed, “There is magic in the world. But you all refuse to see–it’s just as he said!” To her dismay, she found herself quite undone. Thankfully the rain hid the tears that now ran down her cheeks.

Muir-Smith reached out to her, saying, “First, out of the rain, Miss Harding.” He took her forearm and turned her toward the path, gathering a now belligerent Sir Charles firmly by the waist.

“Sensible girl. Resist the bully!” Sir Charles cried. “Teach a soldier about courage, by God!”

“We will stake our claims upon courage or not,” Muir-Smith said, “but we will do so in the parlor. I must insist.” And with that, he had them both in tow. Tori acquiesced, embarrassed at her outburst. She almost caught the captain by the arm to say, Look, Captain. Look. Let down your guard and see, really see! But digging for buried truths was but a hobby to him.

Sir Charles growled, “The parlor, he says. The parlor . . .”

Now more lights, with Jackson running across the front lawn toward them and Papa just rounding the gardener’s shed. Tori was highly aware that the sight greeting them was mad: she and Sir Charles spattered with mud and brambles, drenched to the bone and shivering.

Tori gripped Muir-Smith’s arm, desperate to salvage what she could of the affair. “Pray do not mention magic, Captain . . . that Sir Charles said it was in the orchard.”

Her grandfather teetered.

“I will carry you, sir,” Muir-Smith said to him.

“Keep away, by God!” Sir Charles shouted.

But taking a few steps forward, Sir Charles collapsed, caught by the captain. He carried Sir Charles toward the house.

Her father was at her side. “Astoria. Why didn’t you call me? My dear, come inside.” His arm went around her shoulder and he would have led her in Muir-Smith’s wake, but she caught a glimpse of something in the cottage window. An outline, moving.

“I left a lantern in the cottage. I’ll be in the parlor directly!” She peeled away before it could be suggested that she send a maid.

Hoping her father wouldn’t follow her–she did not want her lie about the lantern exposed–she rushed toward the cottage.

Entering the library, she quickly found the lantern and lit it with a packet of strikables. The room was empty. She went through to the greenhouse. Round the long trestle tables with their pots and trays of seedlings, she searched most thoroughly. Nothing but Solanum lycopersicum, tomatoes, the various species of Lathyrus, sweet pea, and the hundreds more of Sir Charles’s nursery.

Returning to the library, she stopped in surprise before the herbarium book. There was a sprinkling of soil on the page. Then she noticed that the Remington was no longer loaded with a sheet of manuscript as it had been before. The monograph lay to one side. She picked up the top page, page forty-four, and stared at the corner. It was torn and wrinkled, as though someone had not known how to extract the page from the roller.

Her stomach had been slowly twisting and now wrung into a deeper clench.

Tori saw the tracks, faint but unmistakable. Across the table, heading to and from the direction of the window, were wet tracks, four inches across, of three toes forward, one back.

Using a cloth, she wiped everything clean. There were marks left behind on the wood. Faint scratches from the claws could not be rubbed out. Hands shaking, heart still thrumming in her chest, she went to the window to secure it, pulling the latch down–unnecessarily, for it was already closed.

A noise at the outside door caused her a most acute start. Colonel Harding stood there.

He surveyed the library which he did not often visit. “Why didn’t you summon me? I may be fairly useless in the lives of my young ladies, but I like to think I would be suited to running across a pasture with a lantern.”

“I thought he was just in the rose garden, and then I went a little further . . .” Her voice was hoarse and shaking.

“Across the barley fields to the apple orchard. In the pelting rain.”

“I should not have done,” she whispered. “I apologize, Papa.”

“No need, my dear.” He put his arm through hers and led her out through the cottage and into the great house where Prue and her mother’s maid were waiting with blankets and a great fuss.

“Grandpapa . . .” she croaked, with all that was left of her voice.

“He’s bundled off to bed, miss,” Prue said. “Rest will do him a world of good, I’m sure.”

Tori determined that she would keep a vigil by her grandfather’s bed tonight. Something had entered his library a few moments ago through a window that had been latched. It had come in dripping rainwater and bits of bark. She believed it to have been the owl.

But whatever it was, it could read.

 

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