Discoveries of the Delightful & Gruesome Kind: An Excerpt from The Charmed
The massive structure, three times the size of St Paul’s Cathedral, towered over the surrounding parkland. A feat of engineering and design, its shining glass panels, iron pillars and arched ribs reached for the sky, catching and reflecting the sun’s rays in a dancing kaleidoscope of light.
Symmetrical plate glass walls extended either side of a domed transept, also made of glass. The building had been designed by Joseph Paxton, the Duke of Devonshire’s head gardener and the man responsible for the famous Stove House and lily house Alice had visited at Chatsworth. The Crystal Palace resembled the glasshouse conservatories Paxton was celebrated for but the scale of this structure and its over-sized spans defied belief. It wasn’t just impressive in form and function, it was breathtakingly beautiful. If someone had told Alice the panes of glass were in fact made of crystal, she would have believed them. She was utterly bewitched.
‘It’s just so…so…large,’ the Viscount offered, shaking his head as he came to stand next to Alice in front of the building.
‘One thousand, eight hundred and forty-eight feet long,’ Alice said. ‘More than one hundred and thirty omnibus carriages from end-to-end by my calculations,’ she added in George’s direction, hoping to impress him.
George though was in deep conversation with Mrs Alden, so Alice settled for an understated and approving, ‘Indeed,’ from her uncle. Fortunately all of his earlier trepidation had disappeared as if by magic. Alice imagined that the Viscount’s active imagination had been diverted and captured instead by the Palace, now he had seen it in person.
Without waiting for the others, Alice strode toward the main entrance, absorbing the murmur of thousands of voices and the clanking of machinery, spilling from the building. She joined the line for the turnstile and let her attention be drawn to the palace interior.
Impossibly the building appeared even larger on the inside. Light flooded the vast space that enveloped her, spilling from the soaring walls and ceiling above. The air was fragrant with a curious mix of woody, spicy and aromatic scents.
Booths and displays with colourful banners lined the walls in every direction. Chattering people from all walks of life and in all modes of costume bustled around each other, eager to explore what appeared to be a mini city.
As she reached the centre of the hall, another awe-inspiring sight arrested her. A multi-tiered crystal fountain stood proudly where the northern and southern transepts met the east and west wings, its shimmering waters cascading down into a glittering pool at its base. Beyond the fountain two fully mature elm trees stretched skywards above the galleries. Alice had read that the transept had been added to accommodate the two trees in Hyde Park instead of felling them for construction. It was a brilliant example of necessity being the mother of invention.
‘What do you wish to see first, my dearest?’ George had appeared next to Alice. ‘There are many fine exhibits of lacework and tapestries that I have seen ladies practically swoon over.’
Mrs Alden and George had visited the Exhibition twice already, in spite of the latter’s disapproval of it in principle. But this wasn’t entirely unusual, as ladies and gentlemen of means must attend on multiple occasions, to be seen as much to see.
Alice glanced from one end of the building to the next and exhaled. She had marked hundreds of items in her catalogue – self-suspending trousers, a miniature working colliery, waterproof paper – but she kept coming back to the same thing. ‘First I wish to see Hancock’s exhibits.’
George raised a brow. ‘Hancock?’
‘The ornithologist I told you about.’
‘Ahh,’ George nodded. ‘Don’t you find such things a little macabre?’ George screwed up his nose. ‘Dead animals.’ George was a gentle soul and squeamish by nature – completely at odds with his towering six-foot-plus frame.
‘Of course I would prefer to see them alive – you know how much I like birds, but those on display here are specimens rarely ever seen. Creatures you must travel to far flung lands to have a chance of seeing, and well…’ Alice’s voice trailed away. She didn’t want to admit that visiting those places was an impossibility she may never conquer.
George gave Alice a sympathetic smile. ‘I’ll take you to see all the stuffed birds your heart desires?’
‘Sparrows,’ the Viscount affirmed from Alice’s other side with a tap of his cane on the timber floor.
‘I don’t think they have stuffed sparrows, Uncle.’
The Viscount indicated the elms with a knowing tilt of his head. ‘A host of sparrows found their way into the building and nested in the elms before the glaziers completed the roof. Messy, disease-ridden things. Couldn’t shoot them,’ he waved his cane through the air, ‘on account of all the glass. Her Majesty sent for my dear friend, the Duke of Wellington, to be rid of them.’
‘Why, of course Her Majesty would look to Waterloo’s grand victor,’ Mrs Alden said without showing the slightest surprise at the abrupt change of subject.
The Viscount nodded with approval. ‘Sparrowhawks. That’s what he recommended. It worked too…but…’ his wiry brows furrowed, ‘…how well do you think they cleaned up their mess?’ Alice’s uncle peered around as if looking for evidence of disease.
George read Alice’s concern and turned to the Viscount. ‘My dear fellow. The world’s greatest inventions are all housed under this roof. The Prince would have made sure nothing – especially a few measly sparrows – would compromise the exhibits or visitors.’
‘It’s true,’ Alice attested. ‘Mr Paxton himself invented special machines to clean the floors at night.’ She didn’t add that the trailing of thousands of ladies’ skirts had rendered the machines redundant.
The Viscount shifted from one foot to the other as if weighing up the likelihood of being afflicted by a sparrow-related ailment.
‘George, how about you take the Viscount to see the steam engines?’ Mrs Alden suggested. ‘They are far from the trees,’ she added with a smile directed at Alice’s uncle. ‘And I’ll take Alice to see her birds. We can meet back at the fountain.’
‘Oh, yes that sounds splendid,’ Alice said.
George patted the Viscount on the back. ‘Splendid!’
The Viscount wrung his hands together but allowed George to lead him away.
Mrs Alden linked arms with Alice. ‘So what is the location of the main exhibit you wish to see?’
Alice reached into her purse for the catalogue, but as she did, a passerby bumped heavily into her shoulder and the book dropped to the ground.
‘Are you alright?’ A middle-aged man with sideburns that grazed his chin and an indigo cravat tied at the front of his throat, stood in front of her. His kind eyes scanned her for injury. Alice recognised him immediately.
‘I’m…I’m…,’ she stammered.
‘Mr Paxton,’ Mrs Alden curtsied. ‘It is quite the honour.’
‘Here.’ A young man standing beside Mr Paxton handed Alice her catalogue with an easy smile.
Mr Paxton acknowledged Mrs Alden’s greeting with a nod but turned back to Alice. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m fine, thank you,’ she hurriedly curtsied, ‘Mr Paxton.’
‘I’m sorry, but have we met before? It seems these days that I meet a thousand new people daily,’ he said with an apologetic smile.
‘Oh no,’ Alice gushed, ‘we haven’t met in person. But I have seen you at work at Chatsworth and admired your work on many occasions.’
‘This is the Countess Conway.’ Mrs Alden stepped forward and indicated Alice, who tried to disguise her discomfort at her title being used. ‘And I am Mrs Alden. A friend of the Countess and her uncle the Viscount Hyde.’
Realisation washed over Mr Paxton’s face. ‘Of course…The Viscount and my employer, the Duke of Devonshire are well acquainted.’ He bowed to both ladies. ‘Lady Conway, Mrs Alden, a pleasure.’
He then indicated the young man who had picked up Alice’s book. ‘And this is Mr Ashley.’
Mr Ashley tipped his hat. ‘Charmed,’ he said with dancing eyes that twinkled in the phantasmic light of the palace.
‘Mr Ashley is apprentice to the Exhibition’s Caretaker,’ Mr Paxton continued as he glanced around. ‘Ahhh. Mr Symond.’
Mr Paxton gestured to a tall man standing a couple of feet behind him, who Alice hadn’t even noticed before now. Mr Symond was as tall as George, she estimated, but had a leaner, more agile build. His wavy hair and moustache were an unremarkable shade of brown. His brows appeared permanently arched over eyes that constantly roved his surroundings. He seemed either ignorant or indifferent to Mr Paxton’s attempt at introduction. A fact that miffed Alice, as she was used to having people’s attention.
‘A pleasure to meet you, Mr Symond,’ she said with a hint of sarcasm.
A weighty silence followed before Mr Symond finally deigned to acknowledge Alice and Mrs Alden, first with a slight nod, then a gaze that was as sharp and angular as his jaw line. His blue-green eyes reminded her of jewels frozen in ice.
Just as swiftly Mr Symond went back to surveying the crowd.
‘Please forgive my master,’ Mr Ashley proffered in a hushed voice. ‘He takes his role as Caretaker very seriously. He is permanently vigilant for anything amiss at the Exhibition.’
‘Of course,’ Alice replied with a polite smile, hiding her immediate dislike for the sour man. Yet she was determined he wouldn’t destroy her enjoyment of the Exhibition.
‘Is it true that you used the Amazonian giant water lily as inspiration for the ridge and furrow system used first at Chatsworth’s lily house and also here at the Palace,’ she asked Mr Paxton in a flood of words.
Mr Paxton, who must have heard the question many times before, had the good nature to respond with a generous smile. ‘I was quite struck by the underside of the leaves and the network of flexible cross-ribs that gave it the strength to support a child.’
Alice sighed. ‘I so wish I’d been there to see your daughter Annie standing on one of the leaves. It must have been quite a sight!’
‘It was,’ Mr Ashley said brightly and patted Mr Paxton on his back.
‘The ridge and furrow system at the lily house, the way it maximises the light and ventilation…but this…’ Alice looked all around her and sighed again. ‘It’s something completely…unexpected.’ She locked a serious gaze on Mr Paxton. ‘It’s just as they say in the newspapers; it’s like a fairy palace!’
Mr Paxton and Mr Ashley exchanged an amused look, but Mr Symond sniffed loudly.
‘You seem to have an unusual interest in architecture,’ Mr Symond said in such a way that most definitely was not a compliment. Alice was surprised he’d fallen short of adding, ‘for a lady’ to his statement.
She met his discerning stare, daring him to insult her further.
‘Lady Conway is interested in many things,’ Mrs Alden retorted in an uncharacteristically snippy tone. ‘If you will excuse us, we would like to see some of those things.’ She went to steer Alice away by the arm.
Mr Paxton held his hands up in protest. ‘Please, let me do the honour of showing you around a few exhibits.’
‘Thank you, Mr Paxton,’ Mrs Alden said, ‘but that won’t be necessary. I’m sure you have other matters and guests to tend to.’ She tugged at Alice’s arm but the latter wouldn’t budge.
Mr Ashley caught Alice’s eye then winked. ‘There are no more important guests at this very moment than you, Mrs Alden, and Lady—’
‘Alice. Just Alice.’
Mr Ashley grinned. ‘No one more important than you and Alice. What do you say, Mr Paxton?’
Mr Paxton chuckled. ‘I say, let’s begin the tour.’ He held out his arm for Alice, which she gratefully took, extricating herself from Mrs Alden’s grip.
Mr Ashley clapped his hands together. ‘We must start where everyone starts…the Koh-i-Noor diamond. One of the most mysterious and captivating gems in the world.’ He added the last part in a theatrical voice.
Mr Symond rolled his eyes and spun on his heels while Mrs Alden muttered, behind Alice, something about Mr Hancock’s stuffed birds.
‘I would love to see the diamond,’ Alice said. The birds weren’t going anywhere – they were stuffed after all – but the opportunity for a guided tour from Joseph Paxton himself would never arise again. She didn’t even care that the newspapers had declared the diamond a disappointment, describing it as “colourless” and poorly cut.
Mr Paxton led Alice to the centre of the nave in the eastern transept where a surging crowd ringed a gilded iron cage that was twice the height of the onlookers. Policemen attempted to control the crowd but were nearly being carried off their feet. One of the officers was in conversation with Mr Symond who scrutinised the crowd before striding away.
‘The Koh-i-Noor, which means “Mountain of Light” in Persian, is the largest diamond in the world,’ Mr Paxton said. ‘It is believed to have originated in India before being seized by a Persian King. It changed hands many times, in war and conquest, before being presented to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria.’
Alice nodded politely. He was telling her nothing she didn’t already know.
‘The most advanced security measures have been put in place to protect the diamond,’ Mr Paxton continued. ‘At night, on the touch of a spring, the Koh-i-Noor drops into an impregnable iron safe. The same thing happens if anyone tries to remove it from the display. Mr Symond oversaw the ingenious design with the manufacturers of an unbreakable lock.’
Mr Ashley spoke to a policeman who made way for them to approach the display.
‘Some say that the diamond is cursed,’ Mr Ashley said dramatically. ‘A Hindu description of the diamond says that the person who owns the diamond, also owns the world, but if that person is a man they will only know misfortune.’
Alice raised a quizzical brow. This was something she hadn’t heard before. ‘So only a woman can own or wear it?’
‘A woman or a God.’ He winked again.
Alice couldn’t quite figure out if Mr Ashley was joking with his references to curses and more than one God.
Mr Paxton frowned. ‘It’s just a myth, of course, Mr Ashley.’
Mr Ashley nodded vigorously. ‘A myth. Of course.’
Alice peered through the bars of the cage at a glass dome in the centre. Beneath the dome, displayed on red velvet, was a diamond – the Koh-i-Noor – about the size of a pigeon’s egg, flanked by two smaller diamonds.
She squinted to get a better view through the bars and glass. For as long as she could remember, Alice possessed a remarkable eye – an ability to see things that others missed and what came into focus was as disappointing as she’d feared.
It was unlike any diamond she had ever seen before and it did lack lustre. But it did have colour. Undesirable colour. The diamond was flawed at its core. Its heart was marred by yellow flecks, preventing the diamond from being cut as it should and effectively refracting light.
She stepped back from the cage with a heaviness in her own heart. ‘I believe it is cursed,’ she said quietly.
Mr Paxton’s brow bunched in concern. ‘What makes you say that, Lady Alice?’
‘The diamond bears the scars of the conflicts and conquests that have brought it here. Perhaps it should be returned to its home.’
There was an earnest silence among Alice’s companions, though she did notice that Mr Symond was back and the coldness in his eyes had been momentarily replaced by curiosity.
Mrs Alden was the first to speak. ‘Quite right,’ she asserted, gripping Alice’s arm tightly. ‘Let’s go look at something more pleasant.’ She led Alice away from the cage and into the nearby Egyptian and Turkish exhibits.
As Mrs Alden enthused over lush carpets and rugs featuring intricate geometric patterns and floral motifs, Alice occupied herself with a case of coral and other ornaments.
Mr Paxton and Mr Ashley some time after approached her. ‘I’m so sorry, Lady Alice,’ Mr Paxton said. ‘I didn’t mean for you to get upset.’
Alice shook her head emphatically. ‘Oh no, Mr Paxton. You have nothing to apologise for. Sometimes I get carried away with my thoughts. You see there is a whole world of questions out there that remain unanswered.’
Mr Ashley gave a cheeky grin. ‘And that world is even bigger than you think.’
Mr Symond who was hovering at a small distance, screwed his mouth up in distaste then addressed his apprentice and Mr Paxton. ‘May I have a private word with you two gentlemen?’
The trio moved away from Alice leaving her to further explore the exhibits. There were silver cups and saucers, assorted bottles of scents and a display of ostrich feathers. Wanting to see the feathers in a different light, she took several steps backward and her heels knocked up against something firm behind a decorative rug that hung against a dividing curtain. She cautiously pushed the fabric aside to reveal a body slumped against the wall. The body of a young woman, her eyes wide and lifeless.
Alice’s breath leapt from her throat. She hurried to check the woman for a pulse, but there was none and there was no warmth in her skin. She looked for signs of obvious injury, but couldn’t see any. She looked again. Her high-necked collar was askew. Two buttons were missing. Alice peered closer. Red bands traversed her neck. The woman had been strangled.
Alice stood back up, her mind racing as she tried to make sense of the situation. Who could have committed such a heinous act, amid the crowds of the Exhibition?
‘Alice.’ A familiar female voice. ‘Alice, there you are.’ Mrs Alden materialised beside her. ‘I’ve been looking for you every—’ Mrs Alden’s gaze fell on the woman’s body and she screamed.
‘She’s dead! A woman’s dead.’
People – so many people – rushed at Alice and Mrs Alden. A crescendo of cadaverous chatter rolled toward them like an all-consuming tidal wave. Alice tugged at her own collar, fighting to breathe.
‘Step back!’ Mr Paxton was there first, standing between Alice and the crowd. ‘Make some room!’
‘Deep breaths, Lady Alice. Deep breaths,’ Mr Paxton prompted.
Then Mr Ashley was there with three policemen, and they stopped the onlookers from getting too close. Mr Symond was nowhere to be seen, presumably he was looking for the culprit.
Alice sucked in chestfuls of air. By the time Paxton had examined the woman’s body himself, Alice’s breathing had returned to almost normal.
Mr Paxton tugged at his cravat. ‘I’m sorry to ask this, but I need you to do something for me.’
Alice gave a tiny nod.
‘We can’t panic everyone. A scandal like this will be the end of the Exhibition. I want to say that this is your friend and that she has just fainted.’
‘Fainted!’ Mrs Alden objected. ‘The girl is dead.’
Mr Paxton lowered his head. ‘Yes. I am very sorry for it.’ He looked up again and put his hand over his heart. ‘And I can assure you that we will have the matter fully investigated. But right now we need the crowds to leave and go back to their business. The Prince. Her Majesty. They will be relying on us.’
Mrs Alden cast Alice a questioning look. She nodded in response. She couldn’t be responsible for destroying the Great Exhibition.
Mr Paxton spoke to the policemen and Mr Ashley, before announcing to the crowd that the woman had merely fainted. The crowd slowly began to disperse. Their chatter now laden with disappointment.
‘We must go find your uncle,’ Mrs Alden said gently.
‘I’m sorry, but the police will want to speak to Lady Alice,’ Mr Paxton said. ‘I’ll take care of her and make sure she gets home safe.’
Mrs Alden reached for Alice’s hand. Hers was warm and comforting, drastically different to that of the young woman propped against the wall. ‘Will you be alright?’
Alice nodded again. It seemed words were beyond her.
‘Can I rely on your discretion, Mrs Alden?’
‘Believe me, Mr Paxton.’ Mrs Alden glanced at the body and cringed. ‘I don’t wish to think of, or speak of this ever again. Not to anyone, not even your uncle, Alice.’
Mrs Alden squeezed her hand then walked away. Alice watched her leave through the crowd, moving with an unaffected confidence that only Mrs Alden could possess in such circumstances. A figure stepped aside for her, a sturdy fellow dressed as a country gentleman, wearing a felt riding hat with a pheasant feather tucked in its brim. His pallor was as stark as the murder victim’s. He then looked back in Alice’s direction and caught her eye. His craggy features froze. He blinked rapidly before turning and running away.
A chill surged through Alice’s body. Had she just seen the killer?
This was not what she had imagined when she’d yearned for great spectacles at the Exhibition.
The above is an excerpt from The Charmed, the first book in my Fae of the Crystal Palace series – Bridgerton meets Sherlock Holmes with fae!
“A young woman who believes in impossibilities in Victorian England, discovers secrets, magic and perhaps even love beyond her wildest imagination…she just needs to solve a couple of murders first.”
The Charmed will be available in November 2023. You can pre-order/purchase here.
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