There were owls in the nursery when James was a boy. The room was papered in a pattern of winding branches, amongst which great green parent owls perched in identical courting couples. Beneath each pair, a trio of green owlets huddled, their sharp beaks slightly ajar. They sat between big, thistling green flowers with tiny white blossoms which made James think of mother-of-pearl buttons, the kind on Charlotte’s Sunday dress. When he was alone in the nursery, James thought he could hear the owls chatter together softly, like monkeys, scratching and scratching their claws against the endless green branches. But when Charlotte was there, they were quiet, because she had told them that if they did not behave, she would get her box of watercolours and paint out their eyes.
At night James would hear the real owls screech outside and imagine them gliding through the dark. Sometimes there was the high sudden cry of a fox. And sometimes there was a noise from the house itself, a whispering creaking sound, as if the walls were sighing.
Often he would slip out of bed and down the corridor to Charlotte’s room. Charlotte would always be sound asleep: face down on the pillow, though Mrs. Rowley, the housekeeper, said it was unnatural and would lead to Charlotte being smothered to death one of these days. James would slip under the blankets and lie down topsy-turvy, with his head at the bottom of the bed, his feet near the top. Charlotte would sometimes murmur and kick halfheartedly against him, then fall asleep again, and James would do the same, his feet pressed against her back until they grew warm. They would lie all night like that, snug as the pair of pistols that lived in the blue-lined case in Father’s study.
When morning came James liked to wake early, open Charlotte’s bedroom window and look down onto the grounds of Aiskew Hall, which went on for as far as he could see. There were wide lawns and gardens edged by paths and stately, lovely old trees—oaks and horse chestnuts and copper beeches and silver birches. Between the trees there were two grassy mounds. These were the icehouses, which now held gardening tools and other odd things.
At a distance, the gardens still had the illusion of being neat and well tended, as they had been before James and Charlotte were born. Long ago, in the prosperous days, there had been people to look after things: gardeners and undergardeners, two gamekeepers and a carpenter. A fire engine, too, drawn by horses. Now there was only Griswold, strange and grim-faced and sixty-three. There had been a young Griswold once—the gardener’s son, who had been expected to take over from his father and who instead went off to foreign parts and then died (fighting the Shantee, said Ann, the housemaid. James thought perhaps this was a sort of banshee).
After his son went away, Griswold had been left alone to wage a vain and bitter war against the gardens. He shot the rabbits but they came back, grazing the lawns at their leisure. The mighty rhododendron bushes flourished unchecked, and in the orchard the trees turned wild and the apples were eaten by blackbirds.
At the end of the hall gardens, the ground gave way to a sudden drop that felt like the edge of the world. Below was a ditch full of nettles, which was called a ha-ha. Beyond that there were wide flat fields for miles, green and gold in the spring, red-brown earth in the winter. There were oak trees and black sheep grazing and the ruins of a small Grecian temple, where long ago the ladies of the hall would sit to enjoy their books and needlework. Part of the roof had given way, and the pillars looked slightly crooked. It was not safe to sit there any more.
Charlotte had heard Mrs. Rowley say that people in Aiskew village thought it was a scandal to leave the hall so neglected. Before now the hall people had always done their part in the village: there had been treats for the Sunday-school children; sometimes the hall ladies would take baskets to the villagers who were poor or ill. More than that, there was any amount of work at the hall: mouths to be fed, washing to be done, windows to be cleaned, horses to be stabled. It had been a fine place, back in the old days. Now it was mostly shut up. Everyone wondered why Charlotte and James’s father troubled himself to keep the house at all, since he did nothing with it.
Charlotte thought that if Mother were still alive, then Father would have lived with them, at least some of the time, when he could be spared from his business, and the people in the village would have been friendlier. As things were, nobody much cared for James and her. Even Mrs. Rowley seemed to prefer them to be elsewhere: outside in the gardens or at their lessons or in the nursery, anywhere as long as they were out of the way.
When Father had left Charlotte and James at Aiskew after Mother’s death, he had said that he would make all the proper arrangements. Then they did not hear from him for a long while. Eventually he wrote to tell Mrs. Rowley that he had engaged a governess. The letter went on to say that he would approach Mrs. Chickering, his aunt, who might be able to make a long visit to Aiskew, to help Mrs. Rowley set things in order and make the place comfortable again. Once all this was done, perhaps he could be spared from business long enough to come back to Yorkshire himself and see them.
At first they were all of them—Charlotte and James, Mrs. Rowley and Ann, and Mrs. Scholes, the cook—in the habit of speaking as if Mrs. Chickering might arrive any day. But months went by, and she did not appear. It was her health, Mrs. Rowley said, sounding rather scornful. Mrs. Chickering never seemed strong enough to travel. A year passed, then another.
Ann and Mrs. Scholes were the only servants at Aiskew—apart from Griswold, who scarcely counted. They were both up from York and spent a great deal of time huddled in the kitchen for warmth, complaining over the remoteness of the house, the dreariness of the mists, and the loneliness of their situation. Sometimes there was a governess for Charlotte and James—but these ladies never stayed for very long.
So Charlotte did her best: they would have to be brave, she told James, and she devised ordeals for them to perform—walking down one of the long corridors alone after dark, or keeping one’s head under the bathwater for a minute at a time. Or—this was worst of all—shutting oneself in the priest hole in the library.
The library was full of treasures. The cousin—the very distant cousin who had owned the hall before them—had bought books at a fearful rate, adding to an already extensive collection. There was no one to stop Charlotte and James from taking what they wanted, poring over whichever old, delicious-smelling volumes they chose.
It was a beautiful room, too: there was a red carpet and red-and-gold paper on the walls and a beautiful marble fireplace with a pattern of grapes carved all the way round.
The priest hole had been added to the house by the cousin. He had many romantic ideas and had lavished money on trifles. Much of the grounds and the farmland had been sold to pay the resulting debts, and the estate had been much reduced, and the cousin had died in Italy of grief or something else.
The cousin had thought that the priest hole might make the house seem older than it really was, though why he should have wanted this neither Charlotte nor James could have said. It was frightening inside—stuffy and smelling of wood and polish. Ann sometimes left dusters and brooms in there, and if you weren’t careful you could knock them over in the dark. The door to the priest hole was hidden, fitted cunningly behind one of the bookshelves. It opened with a secret spring concealed behind a dummy book—Fungi of the British Isles, Vol. II. The false spine was scruffy claret-coloured leather, faded from the touch of many hands. If you didn’t know which one it was, you might never find it. From inside the priest hole, there was no way of getting out again.
You passed the ordeal if you didn’t scream for help. When the door was shut, it was so close to your face that it felt difficult to breathe. There was no light. It felt as if everyone outside had gone away and there would be no one ever coming to let you out.
They did not do this ordeal often—only when the door’s fascination grew too much. It was the best ordeal of all and would make you the bravest, Charlotte said. And this was good, because if you did enough ordeals, you would be grown up.
One June morning, when Charlotte was nine and a half and James was five, she took a box of coloured chalks out to the terrace and set about teaching him his letters. This was necessary because Miss Prince, their latest governess, had gone home to Shropshire two weeks earlier without being able to make James properly acquainted with any letter other than S (with which, for reasons he was unable to explain, he had an odd fascination).
The terrace had large flagstones which would grow warm in the sun, so that in the hottest days of summer it was pleasant to walk over them barefoot. Charlotte took a piece of white chalk and drew a large A onto one of the stones. Then she moved a little way along, stooped again, and drew B.
“What’re you doing?” James asked.
Charlotte glanced up, brushing her hair out of her eyes with a chalky hand. It left a dusting of white at the top of her head, making her look as if she were wearing a powdered wig, like a lady of a hundred years ago.
“You have to know the alphabet,” she said.
“Why?” James asked, staring at A with vague mistrustful remembrance.
Charlotte looked up from F with a frown. “Because you have to. What would you do if you grew up and you couldn’t read? People would think you were ignorant.”
She said ignorant in a disagreeable way she had learned from Miss Prince—leaning on the ig, making it sound like a finger jab to the ribs.
James scowled. “I don’t care.”
“Well, Father probably thinks you can read already,” Charlotte said, and drew N—it came out bigger than she had intended, all pointed angles, making James think of a gate locked shut.
He watched her in silence and made no further argument. After a moment, he went over to where she was kneeling, the twenty-sixth flagstone, and inspected what she had drawn. It was an angry angular slash, a diagonal stroke, its elbows pointing both directions in a standoffish sort of way.
“What’s that?” James asked, pointing at it with his foot.
“It’s Z,” said Charlotte.
“It looks like half an hourglass.”
“Well, it isn’t.” Charlotte stood up and brushed the dust from her hands. “Now go and stand by the fountain.”
James did as he was told. The fountain was a bone-dry stone bowl at the middle of the terrace, supported by three naked cherubs with mossy legs and expressions of baffled malignity. One of them was missing his nose, and this misfortune, which ought to have made James feel sorry for him, only made him the most hateful of the three.
Charlotte had climbed onto the low wall of the terrace and was pacing up and down. “When I call the letter, you have to go and stand on it.”
Excerpted from The Quick by Lauren Owen. Copyright © 2014 by Lauren Owen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.