Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
“Drink the blood! Drink the blood!”
Tessa jumped and cursed at the ancient African Grey parrot in the silver cage. She had been in her new position only a fortnight and that bird was already giving her nightmares. The thing was withered and grumpy and he repeated the creepiest nonsense. Tessa was charged with covering the cage at night so the bird wouldn’t be disturbed. She also had to feed the damn thing and clean his cage.
The parrot, by the name of Quincy, would as soon bite you as look at you, and he seemed to hate Tessa especially. He screamed if she entered the room and tried frantically to get at her fingers when she opened the door. Tessa had gotten some gloves from the gardener to protect against Quincy’s savage beak, but there was nothing to protect her maid’s uniform from the dried shit that he inevitably would fling at her. For an old timer, Quincy had no shortage of energy.
“Is Quincy talking rubbish again?” Mrs. Desmond, the housekeeper, announced her presence with the clinking of the many keys she wore at her waist. Tessa curtsied promptly before answering.
“He does say the queerest things. Wherever did he learn that phrase?”
“The one about -” Tessa hesitated before whispering, “drinking blood.”
“Oh… that. I can’t say, really. Some would believe he learned it from Mr. Murdock. He was a footman who ended up at the asylum in the next county, but Quincy was scaring the new hires long before Murdock went loopy.” Mrs. Desmond smiled. Tessa had taken to the housekeeper immediately, for she was a kindly woman who seemed eager to make the new maid feel at home. When Mrs. Desmond had learned that Tessa was an orphan she had clucked her tongue but kept her silence, which Tessa liked. She was tired of being pitied.
“There now Miss Tessa, don’t you worry about Quincy. If he were a person he would be at the asylum too. He’s a mad old bird, and nothing more. It is often that I’ve wished Lady Eastman weren’t so attached to him. Mina hated him too.”
“Mina?” Tessa asked.
“The young lady you replaced.” Mrs. Desmond said.
“If I may,” Tessa asked, “why was she dismissed? I don’t mean to pry, but I know that she left unusually fast, I wouldn’t want to repeat her error.”
“Yes, she was dismissed within a year. Mina just wasn’t the right fit for this house. ” Mrs. Desmond said, but she avoided Tessa’s gaze.
“Look in the Dark Mirror,” Quincy said softly. Tessa shuddered.
The mysterious and little seen lady of the house went by the name of Eastman, and she often asked to have Quincy brought to her room. Mrs. Desmond would have two of the footmen carry the parrot in his heavy cage, and Lady Eastman would shut herself in with him for hours on end, to the point where Tessa was sure she knew exactly who was teaching the bird those creepy sayings. She supposed she couldn’t blame the old lady, she was older than any of the staff knew, and in her bed most of the time. Tessa had heard the serving girls talking about whether she was dying at last, and there was wild speculation about whom the estate might pass to when that time came.
No one knew whether Lady Eastman had any living relatives. She certainly didn’t receive visitors, although she sent out and took in a great many letters from the post. Occasionally Tessa was asked to deliver the letters to the post office, although she didn’t recognize any of the names- Doctor VanMartin, Monsieur Li, Messrs. Poulin, Sowers and Worth. None of these names were local ones. Still, Tessa enjoyed the hour long carriage ride; it was an opportunity to rest her feet, and the task was much coveted by the other staff.
Thus, Tessa passed her time, dreaming of the day where she might climb the ranks in the household, and then eventually be recommended by Mrs. Desmond to a higher position at a more esteemed household. Not that the Eastman Estate was anything to sneer at, quite the contrary, but it was rather out of the way of most of the civilized world, and the whole place was awfully dark and dreary.
Set out in the middle of a bleak looking countryside, the Italianate style home had been completed in the early 1800s according to the fashion and taste of the time. The result was pleasing to the eye, but the interior left much to be desired. The Eastman family crest was in shades of crimson, but Lady Eastman had redecorated after her husband’s early death in the colors of her maiden family name, which was Rookby. This meant a raven on a silver field, so that as a result the entire estate was draped in black and seemed to be in eternal mourning. Lady Eastman had never remarried.
As the summer started to fade into autumn, Tessa found that she had grown comfortable with the routine of her new position. Mrs. Desmond would give her a few keys in the mornings, which would open the rooms that she was assigned to clean. Usually these were guest rooms that were hardly ever used, but they were kept in working order just the same. Tessa would dust, or sometimes air the bedding if it had been a while. The estate was enormous, and Tessa sometimes found herself lost while looking for a particular chamber. One morning, Tessa was given only one key, and instructed to clean the study on the fourth floor, and to check the books for signs of decay or rodents. She tried to mask her displeasure, but Mrs. Desmond frowned.
“No sour faces Miss Tessa, you’ve escaped silver polishing duty.”
Tessa swallowed the reply that was on her tongue, since Mrs. Desmond was her superior, but she actually enjoyed silver polishing. Tessa was usually assigned with at least one of the other staff members, and she enjoyed talking with them. They all had such interesting stories. Cleaning the study promised a day of solitude and boredom, and a lot of sneezing.
However, when Tessa found the door she was looking for, she discovered that it was open a crack, although there was no light within. She couldn’t say why, but Tessa felt nervous as she pushed the door open. The blackness of the room seemed to swallow any light from the hallway, and she realized that the drapes must have been drawn shut. Strange for the door to be open, had no one noticed it? Any room that wasn’t used regularly was always locked tight upon Mrs. Desmond’s orders.
Taking a deep breath, Tessa strode across the room and threw open the drapes. A high pitched shriek burst from one corner of the room and Tessa nearly fainted with shock. Turning, she beheld a skeletal figure in a dusty armchair, arms crossed over its face.
“Close the drapes you damned fool!” The person cried.
Tessa hurried to comply, her hands trembling as she returned the room to darkness once more.
“Now light the lamps, so I know whom I will be dismissing.” The voice, coming from the darkness, was hoarse and crackled like old leaves. Tessa hurried to comply, taking a match from her apron pocket, dropping it, and lighting a second. She looked around in vain for a lamp, but it was difficult to see. She cried out as the flame burned her fingers and she dropped the spent match to join the first on the floor.
“The lamp is on the desk to your left,” The voice said impatiently.
Tessa lit a third match, and the room was illuminated at last, although the darkness seemed reluctant to leave, and hovered near the creature in the chair, casting her deep in shadow. Tessa realized that this must be Lady Eastman.
“My lady, please, I had no idea you were here.” Tessa said timorously.
“I have no doubt of that,” Lady Eastman snorted, but she no longer sounded as angry, “come closer, I didn’t realize you were a young girl; that makes a difference.”
“I beg your pardon, my lady?” Tessa asked.
“Come closer,” The voice snapped like dry twigs, and Tessa walked forward, kneeling beside the chair at Lady Eastman’s gesture.
“You’re lovely, not at all like Mina,” Lady Eastman wheezed, her version of laughter. Tessa couldn’t have said the same for Lady Eastman. The lady of the house looked as though she were ready to lie in the grave. Pale skin was stretched too tightly on her small face. Her eyes were heavily shadowed, and there were only a few wisps of hair clinging to her scalp. A silver dressing gown in beautiful heavy fabric draped over her thin neck and sagged back from her spare shoulders. Tessa noticed black ravens embroidered on the collar.
“What is your name?” Lady Eastman asked.
“Tessa?” Lady Eastman repeated, as if tasting the word. “What an unfortunate name you have. But it’s common enough and will have to do. Now tell me, lovely little Tessa, are you a little slattern like Mina? Do you enjoy male company?”
“No ma’am,” Tessa replied slowly, feeling shocked, “I haven’t had the occasion to meet many gentlemen.”
“Ah, that’s good. Very promising. And your family, do you write to them regularly?”
Tessa stiffened defensively.
“I have no family, I was sent here when I came of age from the orphanage in Southerton.”
“That’s a pity,” said Lady Eastman, although she didn’t sound as though she pitied Tessa. “Did you learn to read at all in that orphanage?”
“Oh, yes, I’m quite fond of reading.” Tessa said. It was one of her few pleasures, and she half hoped that Lady Eastman was about to offer her the use of the library or something similar.
“Very well, that is all I need to know. Be a good girl and go fetch Mrs. Desmond for me.”
Tessa was very glad to take her leave, remembering only at the last to dip a curtsy to her employer before retreating.
She found Mrs. Desmond easily enough, overseeing the kitchen where the cook was complaining about the quality of the sugar. Mrs. Desmond’s eyes opened wide when Tessa explained what had happened, but she nodded and left quickly enough after being told that she had been summoned. Before departing she told Tessa to assist Regan in polishing the silver, which Tessa was happy to do, but when Mrs. Desmond returned she had a queer look, and said that it was Lady Eastman’s wish that Tessa attend her in her bedroom every morning and read to her. Regan’s eyes were like saucers when she heard this, and Tessa felt sure that she looked much the same. True, she had hoped Lady Eastman would bestow some kindness on a fellow bibliophile, but the idea of reading to that frightening old woman made Tessa cringe.
Later, Tessa would think back on Mrs. Desmond, and how she had not been her usual self when she gave these instructions. The housekeeper would never converse in a friendly manner with Tessa again.
Lady Eastman’s room was in the west wing of the house on the fourth floor. The window to her bedroom overlooked the gardens, but the curtains were always shut tight, so she saw neither blooming flowers nor bloody sunset. Mrs. Desmond said that many years ago, Lady Eastman had kept the window open day and night, but had preferred to keep herself shut in almost total darkness after the death of her husband.
Tessa eased open the heavy door to Lady Eastman’s room and closed it behind her, as she had previously been instructed. Someone, probably Mrs. Desmond, had already been in to light some of the lamps and start the fireplace.
Lady Eastman was settled back against her pillows in a large four poster bed and she smiled as the young maid entered. Quincy stood on the far side of the bed in his cage, uncharacteristically quiet. His glittering eyes watched Tessa too.
“Well, how do you like my bedroom?” Lady Eastman asked.
Tessa looked around, there were many porcelain figures, and art on the walls depicting people that Tessa supposed were long dead relatives, but what fascinated her the most was a mirror that had been hung on the back of the door. It was framed in silver, and studded with opals. The face of the mirror was a smoky black, and Tessa thought that it must have been saved from a fire. A strange thing to have in one’s bedroom though, since it cast no reflection. Perhaps Lady Eastman had kept it as a memento of some kind. The mirror wasn’t any more special than anything else in the room, but Tessa felt drawn to it somehow. She stood in front of it, and squinted, as though by doing so she could clear the surface. It seemed to shimmer for a moment, and Tessa rubbed her eyes, sure she had been imagining things. She turned and saw that Lady Eastman was studying her with narrowed eyes, waiting for a response.
“Your room is very beautiful.” Tessa said.
“Is there something you like in particular?” Lady Eastman asked, her voice almost sly.
“There were a great many things, Lady. However, my favorite is this mirror with the blackened surface. It seems to have been burnt, and yet the frame remains exquisite.”
“You like the Dark Mirror, do you?” Lady Eastman chuckled, “and you have such pretty words to describe it. Well, let me tell you – that mirror which is as black as the night came to me from a far away land. I paid very dearly for it – and why do you think that is?”
“I thought it was caused by a fire, but now- I don’t know, my Lady.”
“Do you believe in curses, child?”
“I do not, my lady. They are pure fiction, meant to frighten and entertain.” Tessa wondered what Lady Eastman wanted from her. Fear? She wouldn’t get it.
“You are a foolish girl, but that’s all the better for me. Come read to me.” Lady Eastman pointed to a straight backed chair beside her bed, a book already upon it, and Tessa bowed her head, feeling as though she had been gravely out of place. She sat and began to read, blushing when she realized that she was reading a particularly racy gothic romance. But then, elderly women were probably prone to the same fantasies as the young, so she was able to bear it a bit, only, she wished Quincy would stop staring at her. After an hour had passed, Lady Eastman raised her hand to signal Tessa to stop, and she asked her to look once more into the dark mirror.
“What do you see?” Lady Eastman asked.
“Nothing, my lady.” Tessa replied, wondering what in the world the woman expected her to say.
“As I thought. You may go.” Lady Eastman turned away and started whispering to Quincy. Tessa winced at this display of madness and edged out of the room.
Lady Eastman rarely conversed with her after that first day. Tessa would stoke her fire in the morning once the autumn turned cold, and Lady Eastman would command her to read from the same gothic romance. Quincy was always in the room waiting for Tessa, and he would ruffle his feathers restlessly until she had sat down. Each time before Tessa left, Lady Eastman told her to look into the Dark Mirror and see if she noticed anything different. Tessa knew now that Lady Eastman had gone quite mad, as the mirror always looked the same to her, but the only person she could have confided in was Mrs. Desmond, and the housekeeper was openly avoiding her.
One day, the mirror looked different.
“It’s changed.” Tessa said wonderingly. Her eyes were fixed on the mirror, she couldn’t have imagined this. She backed away slightly, feeling disturbed for reasons she couldn’t have explained.
“What? What did you say?” Lady Eastman’s voice was alert and attentive. This in itself was unusual, as she had, as a rule, been very bored after their first meeting. Each time Tessa had said that the mirror remained unchanged Lady Eastman had grown more and more disinterested in her.
“The opals are pink now – not white, and the surface is clearer. I think- I can see something moving.”
“Can you?” Lady Eastman’s voice was harsh and heavy, and very close.
Tessa turned away from the mirror and saw that Lady Eastman had moved to all fours at the end of her bed, mere feet from where Tessa now stood. The old woman’s gnarled hands had clawed into the sheets and were digging into the mattress, but her face was what truly spooked the maid. Lady Eastman was perspiring, and her eyes were bulging with some sort of crazed excitement. Rivulets of sweat tracked down her face and had soaked the front of her nightdress. Tessa gave a frightened gasp at the sight and backed toward the door. She had no idea what it meant, but the moving figure in the mirror felt evil somehow, and Lady Eastman was acting so queerly.
“You should be in bed,” Tessa cried.
“Yes…. yes.” Lady Eastman sat back suddenly on her knees. Her eyes closed, and when they opened they had a frighteningly distant look, it was as if she had suddenly come back from a journey to the edge of the universe. A thin line of saliva escaped from the corner of her mouth. Tessa found that she was shaking, and she tried to steady herself.
“My apologies,” Lady Eastman gave Tessa a strange smile, “I am told that I am not always myself these days. Never mind the mirror, in certain lights it can be quite mesmerizing, but it is a parlor trick, nothing more.”
Tessa looked doubtfully at the mirror. The shadow within seemed to grow still. She felt like a mouse being watched by a house cat who had been biding his time for far too long. Quincy, at the side of the bed as always, made a low croaking sound that Tessa tried to ignore.
“If you say so, my lady.” Tessa said.
“Come, help me get back under this quilt. My strength is failing me. I had thought there was no hope… but there is… yes. I cannot be mistaken. The opals, they are alight… The promise…. the trade.”
Alarmed, Tessa ran toward the bed and helped Lady Eastman to get comfortable again. Her aged employer was no longer making any sense. Clearly she was having an episode of some kind, and despite the fact that the old woman gave her the creeps, Tessa felt a bit sorry for her too. The both of them were alike after all, for Lady Eastman had no one to care whether she lived or died except her servants. The old woman sighed once she settled back against the pillows. As Tessa bent to tuck the quilt under her chin she found that Lady Eastman was cupping her cheek, almost tenderly.
“So young, and full of life. I would suck the youth straight from your sweet lips, if I could.”
“I beg your pardon?” Tessa jerked away, too quickly, for the Lady Eastman’s fingernails cut her cheek in two thin lines. Tessa pressed a hand to her injured cheek, and stared with horror at the figure in the bed.
“Did I say something?” Lady Eastman’s eyes were wide and innocent. She truly was mad after all.
“Not at all, my lady. Please get some rest.” Tessa bowed and exited the room, but not fast enough to miss what Quincy said next.
“Drink the blood!”
Tessa began dreading her hour in Lady Eastman’s room after that. The mirror no longer moved for her, but the figure in it was still there and it seemed to change positions. The opals were always darkening in color to the point where Tessa believed she might be catching the madness from Lady Eastman. Of course Lady Eastman herself was bad enough. Even Quincy was preferable company when compared to that creepy old woman, although he hadn’t warmed to Tessa at all despite all the time he spent listening to her voice.
“He won’t warm up to you, either,” Regan warned her one afternoon, “That bird, he doesn’t like the new girls.”
“Well, I’m not a new girl anymore.” Tessa had protested. In the next moment, Mrs. Desmond had cleared her throat loudly, and the girls conversation had ended there. Tessa thought that Mrs. Desmond had grown even colder toward her in the last month or so, and she couldn’t help feeling hurt by it, for she noticed Mrs. Desmond was on friendly terms with everyone else in the house.
One morning, while on her way for her reading session, she overheard Mrs. Desmond conversing with Lady Eastman in the lady’s room.
“I suppose you will need me to clean up.” Mrs. Desmond was saying, her voice was very informal for someone who was speaking with her employer. Tessa paused, too intrigued to interrupt.
“Yes, it’s nearly ready.”
“And the bird?”
“Quincy has spoken with the creature and is in agreement. He said today is soon enough. The girl’s voice and face has piqued the creatures interest. I was worried at first, it took such a long time to awaken.” Lady Eastman was speaking with more urgency now.
“That settles it, then.” Said Mrs. Desmond.
Tessa clamped a hand over her mouth in horror mixed with amusement. Mrs. Desmond was pretending the bird could talk! Was she pandering to Lady Eastman’s ravings? Or did she share the madness? The conversation had turned so strange.
“I will expect my share of ten years, as before, for my silence.” Mrs. Desmond said crisply.
“As you wish, just make sure the floor is empty.”
“No need to remind me of that. The others have been sent to air out the bedrooms in the guest wing. They’ll be busy for hours. Of course, I’ll need to start dismissing some of the younger girls who didn’t work out.”
Tessa had little warning, the carpet muffled Mrs. Desmond’s footsteps. The door opened suddenly and Tessa had to pretend to be surprised. Evidently she wasn’t a good actress, because Mrs. Desmond’s eyes grew narrow at the sight of her.
“Have you been here long?” The housekeeper asked suspiciously.
“Not at all, I was just a bit late this morning.” Tessa lied.
“Come in, then.”
Tessa hesitated, but Mrs. Desmond pulled her into the room and shut the door behind them. She made no move to leave. Tessa saw that in the chair where she usually sat, instead of a book there was an open box with silver knife that glinted in the lamp light.
“Well, stoke the fire, girl.” Mrs. Desmond commanded. All the warmth had gone from her voice, and she was quite the stranger now. Tessa performed the task clumsily, she was nervous at this change of routine and she keenly felt the eyes of Mrs. Desmond and Lady Eastman on her back all the while. Quincy made a small hissing noise as the fire sprang to life.
“Please, it’s finished. May I go now?”
“Not until you look into the mirror.” Mrs. Desmond said quietly.
“You knew Lady Eastman kept asking me to do that?” Tessa was confused. She looked to Lady Eastman, who was rising from her bed with difficulty. Mrs. Desmond made a move as if to help her.
“Never mind that,” Lady Eastman rasped, “get to it. I’m feeling weak.”
Mrs. Desmond shoved Tessa toward the mirror as Lady Eastman came to stand behind them. The opals had gone black, with streaks of red veining their surface. The last of the smoke that had clouded the surface began to recede. To her horror, Tessa realized that she could see what was in the mirror clearly for the first time, and it was not her reflection that was shown.
A horned creature of darkness and flames stood on cloven feet, its clawed hands pressed against the glass. The body was upright and manlike, but the face was pure animal, and seemed to shift as she looked. As Tessa watched, feeling rooted to the floor, it opened its mouth and gushed out dark smoke that somehow floated into the room. It spoke gutturally in a language that Tessa did not know. A strange voice spoke with it, and Tessa realized that Quincy was mimicking the creature, speaking the words in unison.
“Open her vein!” Mrs. Desmond roared as she grabbed Tessa’s arm. Tessa struggled and her eyes widened as she saw that Lady Eastman was holding the silver knife. With great effort, Tessa twisted and drove her knee into Mrs. Desmond’s stomach. There was a great whoosh of air as Mrs. Desmond recoiled, and Tessa cried out as she felt a sharp pain in her back. She flailed, and managed to connect her elbow with Lady Eastman’s nose- it made a sickening crunch, and the old woman cursed.
Tessa reached for the doorknob, waves of pain coursing down her back, she was sure she had been stabbed. It didn’t matter. She had to flee. But the figure in the mirror was reaching toward her, its fingers, impossibly, breached the surface and radiated heat as they reached for her face. She felt her flesh crisp and burn, and all she could smell was smoke. Tessa ducked and threw the door open, fleeing into the hall. Mrs. Desmond was shouting her name angrily, but Tessa was already halfway down the stairs. There were so many flights of stairs, and all the while she heard footsteps behind her. Horribly, she thought she heard the sound of hooves as well. Tessa stumbled once, twice, and made it to the front door. She ran into the chilly late autumn air, out into the desolate countryside.
She couldn’t let them catch her.
Credit: C.F. Campbell