It’s my stop on the #blogtour for The Widow of Pale Harbour by Hester Fox today, and I am thrilled to be sharing an extract with you!
This was the fourth dead raven to appear on Sophronia Carver’s front path in as many weeks, and there was no explaining it away as coincidence this time.
Except that this one wasn’t dead, not quite.
Sophronia had never killed a living creature before, but as she stared down at the raven and its crooked, twitching wings on her front path, she got the queasy feeling that the most hu- mane course of action might be to snap the poor thing’s neck.
Tugging her shawl tighter against the chill, salty air, she crouched down to peer at the bird. Its feathers were blue and black—darker even than her own inky hair—and as irides- cent as the ocean on a moonless night. The bird stared back at her, unmoving except for the slow blink of its glassy eye. She wanted very much to reach out a finger and stroke its slick feathers, but that somehow felt like a breach of confidence, like telling a secret that did not belong to her.
“Helen?” she called, without tearing her gaze away from the bird.
“Helen, come quickly.”
Slowly rising to her feet, she gazed about the estate grounds and craned her neck to squint at the roof of the great old house, silhouetted against the heavy clouds. Perhaps the bird had fallen from the eaves. Or perhaps Duchess had felled it, though the old cat could barely bring down a mouse. That at least would explain how it had come to be lain so carefully across the center of the front path, as if it were some sort of pagan offering.
When Sophronia had come across the first dead raven, she had assumed it had been the victim of some sort of sickness, or perhaps weakened by storm winds. The next two she had likewise justified, but with a growing sense of uneasiness.
A prickle of cold blossomed down her spine as she realized that she could no longer dismiss the dead and injured birds. Someone—or something—was leaving them for her to find.
She stiffened, with a darting glance about her, as if someone might be lurking just beyond the broad lawn or out past the gate, watching her. But there was no one—the only movement the breeze through the flaming autumn trees, the only sound the faraway cry of a gull.
The path was supposed to be Safe. The entire grounds of the estate were supposed to be Safe. It was only out past the wrought-iron gate and into the town beyond that chaos and uncertainty reigned. Better to stay inside the grounds, where she had control. Sophronia had long ago learned to push all the bad memories and specters out of the house and into the world beyond, firmly shutting her heart and mind against them. So to see a creature in distress, so close to death—well, that was not Safe.
“Helen?” Sophronia called, louder this time, her voice car- rying up the path to where the front door stood open. A mo- ment later, a pale woman of about forty, her dark hair pulled severely back from her face, appeared in the doorway. She frowned at the sight of her mistress standing over the bird.
“Duchess must have caught it,” Sophronia said with a shake of her head as the woman stepped briskly over to where she was standing.
Helen gave her a skeptical look, and then leaned down to examine the bird for herself. “Duchess couldn’t catch her own tail,” she said, scorn edging her husky voice. “It’s the town brats making trouble again, I’d wager.”
Sophronia pressed her lips together tightly. They’d certainly had their share of children from the town coming up to the house, peeking through the windows and knocking at the door, all so that they could earn the distinction among their friends for glimpsing the infamous widow.
Suddenly, it was too unbearable to look at the exposed and broken bird a moment longer. Sophronia might have called for Garrett, the groundskeeper, but he was out on the far end of the property, cutting back the grass. Helen was capable and strong, though, and had a way with animals. “You’ll try to save it, won’t you? And if you can’t, you’ll make it…” Her words trailed off, but her meaning was unmistakable. Quick.
Carefully, Helen positioned her hands under the motionless bird, holding it slightly away from her as she lifted it. She ran a practiced hand along its wings, her dark brows furrowing in a mixture of concern and anger, as if the cruelty of human- kind never ceased to surprise her. “Wings are both broken. And there’s something wrong with its foot.” But then she caught Sophronia’s anxious look and softened. “I’ll see what I can do, Sophy.”
Sophronia gave her a warm smile and watched Helen whisk the raven off to the carriage house, her movements brisk and efficient, her posture as neat as a pin. She had taken Helen on as a servant and companion during her early days as a lonely young bride, but over the years, the older woman had proved herself to be a true friend in every sense. Now it was just the two of them against the world, as Helen was so often wont to remind her.
The first raindrops were starting to fall when Sophronia fi- nally allowed herself to stop thinking of the crooked bird and what it might mean and return indoors. Before the thump of the raven landing on the path had startled her from her rev- erie, Sophronia had been watching the storm roll in upstairs. Her late husband had always pompously referred to the large room lined with bay windows as the “upper piazza,” taking the big old house’s name, Castle Carver, to heart. Sophronia liked to watch storms approach from there; it was a sort of en- tertainment, drawing back the curtains like those in a theater, the harbor and endless gray sky a stage on which the rowdy gulls acted their plays.
She wandered through the house, unsettled. There were submissions to her late husband’s magazine piling up, submis- sions for which she was now responsible. Usually she enjoyed curling up in the parlor, tucked under a warm quilt with a cup of tea as she read through the stories and essays, curat- ing which ones she would send along to the board for publi- cation. But the raven had rattled her, and Sophronia was too anxious to read.
Instead, she continued back upstairs and threw the win- dows open. The rain was picking up now, the clouds building into something even heavier and more expectant. There was no moment so promising, so exciting, as the moment be- fore a storm broke. Living on the Maine harbor, with naught but a finger of land to separate her home from the gray At- lantic, she had the opportunity to witness many storms, all from the safety of her window. On clear days, she could see the old lighthouse jutting out on the rocky promontory outside of town, winking back at her from its empty windows, an ally in her solitude. In the other direction lay a lonesome expanse of trees, dark and wild. It was a deceptively beautiful landscape, the sheer scale of woods and ocean promising end- less possibilities, but in reality, it only swallowed up the hopes and dreams of young brides. At least on stormy days, the mist softened the harsh realities of the world, cloaked its darkness.
But today’s storm was different; she could feel it reverberating in her bones. Perhaps the raven had been a harbinger of things to come, an omen. Or perhaps it was just as Helen said—children from the town playing their cruel tricks on her, just like they had for years since her husband had died so violently and suddenly.
Sophronia sighed, drumming her fingers against the windowsill. God, she was so weary of it all. Weary of the solitude, weary of the little town, its people and their narrow minds, weary of the shell she had become. Tonight, she and Helen would eat a small supper in silence—they had few words left to say that weren’t old and stale, used up over the years—and then they would sit in the parlor, play a game of cards, and perhaps Sophronia would read a book or philosophical pamphlet while Helen plucked away at the old pianoforte. Tomor- row the laundry girl, Fanny, would come, and hopefully bring some gossip or news with her. They would chat for a little, and then Fanny would leave, and stillness would settle back over the house. It would be the same as every other day, but monotony was the price of safety. If the grand old house was indeed a castle, then Sophronia was its ghost, forever trapped, restless and roaming the halls.
She leaned out to close the window, but paused, letting the wind sweep up around her in an invigorating embrace. The building energy of the storm electrified her bones and caused tears to prick her eyes. Yes, there was something different about this storm. Change was sweeping toward Pale Harbor, and God knew, she needed it.
Sounds like a whole lot of gothic goodness to me! The Widow of Pale Harbour is out now in paperback and ebook format and you can buy it here
My thanks go to Jessica Lee and HQ Stories for the invitation to the tour and my gorgeous finished copy. If you enjoyed my post, please do check out my others and also the other stops on the #blogtour (see below).