The Gilded Conspiracy | Part One
On the twenty-third day of January in eighteen hundred and sixty-five, Grandfather Harrison disappeared. Adelaide Harrison’s grandmother did not dress in her widow’s weeds, and every silver object in the Harrison home vanished with him. Every piece of it, including the timepiece from the grandfather clock in their drawing room.
The previous year Ada’s aunt passed away and sure signs of mourning were present throughout their estate. Anything made of silver was covered with gauzy black fabric in an attempt to ward off potential ghostly visitors. And all members of the Harrison family wore their heavily starched mourning clothes. Expensive funeral pamphlets were printed for the occasion.
The same cannot be said for Grandfather Harrison.
Nearly a year later London is back in deep winter, Grandfather Harrison is missing and no one but Ada seemed to pay that fact heed.
The moment Ada woke the vibrant colors of the family’s drawing room called to her. There’s something about that room, Ada thought as shades of crimson, emerald and gold played across her mind. Grandmother Harrison began redecorating it the day after Ada’s grandfather disappeared. She thought back to her father’s disapproval of the plan:
“It’s an utterly unnecessary expenditure,” Father chided when Grandmother announced her intentions.
Ada’s grandmother, a steadfast lady in her decision making, rarely deviated once she made up her mind, “England has changed with the coming of Queen Victoria. So must we.”
Cora, one of the Harrison family’s several house servants, bustled into Ada’s room to dress her. Ada was cinched into a delicately layered gown she was as though she were going off to a garden picnic. As Cora’s nimble fingers wove pins and pearls and ivory combs into her chestnut locks the scent of bacon drifting up the stairs caused Ada to fidget in her chair. The moment Cora was done Ada flew down the steep stairs, best she could with a full skirt.
Just to lay on the floor of Grandmother’s drawing room.
Early morning rays of sunlight threw themselves across the room the moment she entered and basked her body in warmth. In the wake of her grandfather’s disappearance it was now the only warmth she knew. The light stretched from carpet to paisley-papered wall and flecks of dust move in and out of the beams as she surveyed the round table already set up with the morning meal.
Toast stood straight and tall in a silver rack, one end gleaming as the metal caught sunlight. A bowl of butter sat nearby followed by two soft boiled brown eggs in porcelain egg cups and finally . . . bacon.
A note on Ada’s plate caught her eye and she read it as she took a slice of toast from the rack;
“Paying calls this morn’ with Mrs. Bell. Look for our return late afternoon.”
It was just as Ada expected. Life was moving on as though Grandfather Harrison never existed. Thoughts of the very same bacon that drew Ada down the stairs now soured her appetite. Her stomach churned not from hunger but grief. Nervousness. Loneliness.
Late afternoon. Ada ignored the laid out breakfast and looked to her family’s longcase clock. The large gilded hour hand, which should be on the eight o’clock hour, was still missing. Its small hand remained stuck at the half hour mark. The roman numerals, carved into the ivory disc, somehow glowed in the morning light.
It’s been that way for a whole year.
Ada first noticed it when her grandmother decided to redecorate the drawing room. She prayed that the eldest member of the Harrison family wouldn’t change the ornamented ceiling; that was the only thing that stayed the same. “Always look up, never down,” Grandfather told her once after she noticed the flirtatious ways girls used on men. “Let them see you, not you through your eyelashes.”
Ada pulled her grandfather’s worn leather copy of The Rose and the Ring from the new, grandiose bookcase Grandmother installed on their side of the tall fireplace. Clutching the book to her as she sat on the plush carpet Ada sniffed the air. Aside from the lingering scent of bacon and smoke from the crackling fire in the hearth, the drawing room now held a hint of something else.
Something familiar yet unfamiliar.
What IS it?
Try as she might Ada could not concentrate on the words of William Thackeray. She watched, instead, the beams of light from the bay window as the hour wore on. Shutting the book with a sigh and, ignoring the ribs of her corset digging into her back, lay fully on the floor to stare at the ornamented ceiling.
Always look up. Never down.
Ada breathed in as deeply as she could again, the restricting corset seemingly tightening on its own as thoughts of her missing, beloved grandfather still gnawed on her heart.
There it was again. A perplexing scent seemed to settle on the floor, not as heavily as her mother’s lavender perfume. That pleasant reminder constantly lingered on the stairwell and in the foyer. This was a different scent. Ominous. As ominous as the dark green wallpaper that hugged every corner of the drawing room.
And it filled Ada with a great sense of apprehension.
“Oh, Miss Ada, yo’ su’ be wrinklin’ yo’ dress ag’in.”
Ada didn’t even hear Tilly enter the room. She propped herself up on her elbows as the elderly maid set a full vase of flowers on the breakfast table. “Cora has yet to complain.”
Tilly stacked the porcelain plates into a haphazard pile and softly tsked in disapproval of the ignored meal. “O’ course she dinna compla’n to yo.’” She shook her head and picked up the stack of China, preparing to make her escape back to the kitchen.
“Tilly, do you know what’s happening in this house?”
Tilly stopped in the doorway and turned back, “Whot d’yo mean?”
“That unusual smell. The missing clock hand? Every piece of our silver?”
“Yo’ ask me tha’ e’ry mo’n, mi’lady. Don’t yo’ wor’y about all that.” and with that Tilly was gone, leaving the toast rack and butter dish behind.
Ada sat back up. Her fingers, engulfed by the carpet, felt something she never noticed before. An oddly shaped object under the carpet, one that ought not be there, created a barely noticeable bump in an otherwise impeccable room. Hurriedly as she could in a corset and full skirt she rolled onto her stomach and tried to figure out how to get a look at it. For in a room full of furniture, several large, plush rugs, and a breakfast table, the task will not be an easy one.
Standing Ada set the book on the table and took notice of the flowers in the vase.
Where does one get roses in deep winter?
Forget the roses, Ada thought. I must get at whatever is making that bump…