VIII. She Was a Phantom of Delight

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'You are one of the missing daughters of Arthur Jerome!' I yelled in shock, and I remembered that it took a while for the news to register. She stared at me with sad eyes. I could tell the horrid secret laboured at her breast. Distributing her secret to an otherwise stranger did not, as I saw presently, unchain her burdens. I pressed on, shifting my tone of surprise to one of comfort. 'You must be exhausted. Here, let's sit for a moment.'

I took her into her bed chambers and sat her down on her bed. She pulled out a family portrait from the table near her bed and pointed at one of the young women. 'That is me,' she said, melancholic in her memory. 'I was the second oldest daughter of my father, Arthur.'

'Where did you go after the entire town thought you disappeared?'

Antonia sighed. 'After the deaths of the third and fourth oldest of my siblings, all drowned in chains, I decided to abandon the village and head further North, to Scotland. It was an awful burden, after my father died, to care for four younger sisters. I married a year after my father died, in 1815, and my husband could not trouble himself with my family no longer. The youngest, she disappeared in the night in 1817. The fourth eldest, Ethel, died in 1818. When Margaret, the third eldest, died in 1822, that's when I decided to leave. We left Emma, the second-youngest, in the care of a distant Aunt, and the deaths stopped. Unfortunately, Emma died in 1837 giving birth to her child, my nephew. He died 2 years ago; he did not wake up one night.'

I ought not to doubt the words of a grieving woman, whose voice quivered and echoed in the small bed chamber. I could see her slipping into despondency as she relayed her story to me. It was a sad tale indeed, and one that I sympathised with.

'Do you have some semblance of an idea to who murdered four of your sisters, and your father, too?' I asked, entirely desperate to the revelation of a name. Any name would have helped. After the spirit of the eldest, whom I later learned her name was Ruth, visited me in the night with a warning, I had felt nothing but terror beat in the back of my ribcage. An all-pervading presence lingered around me; I could feel it, watching me.

To my utter disappointment, Antonia rolled her head in a negative. 'I do apologise for not knowing, it is still a mystery to me to this day. And I apologise for burdening you with my dark secrets, for they may cause you harm should you get too close.'

I could only respond with a line from one of my beloved novels of a Gothic writer I admired greatly. 'A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and vice,' I told her. She understood instantly, and it soothed her heavy heart. 'In knowing your secrets, Antonia Jerome, I am now armed with knowledge and wisdom, so that I may look upon the unknown with educated eyes. The spirit, a woman, must be involved in the terror of your family history, for she has been ever-watching.'

The woman before me reached out a hand and held mine. While this kind of affection was unprecedented in my usual manner of interaction, I allowed it, for doing so mollified her shaking and moaning.

'I must be going, and leave you to your rest,' I said calmly, as if lulling a new-born to slumber. I broke away from her deathly hand, and stood, and though she protested, my heart pitied the decaying form. Antonia had been rather lively in previous days, but on the current day, she succumbed to her older age, for nearing fifty did not come without its downfalls.

'You must be off?' She said before I could leave.

'Indeed. I have a matter with my Uncle, although I have a feeling he will be out day-drinking. In any case, I shall implore him of what he knows about this whole business. I will be back momentarily. Please take care.'

And with that, I left her in her bed and headed downstairs. After only a few days in Dove Cottage, the familiarity of it felt like home to me. I knew which stair would creak under my weight, thus I skipped it and headed for the door. I grabbed my wrap from a hanger near the door and exited.

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