Secrets in the Poison by Kat Devitt

Mabel waited in the corridor crumpled on the floor, as crumpled as the taffeta of her wedding dress. She pressed her back against the wall for certainty, wanting to merge with the wood.

Rivulets streamed down her cheeks onto her netted veil. She stared ahead at the wallpaper’s print, fixated on a lark among the peace lilies, singing her song for all to hear.

But Mabel was not that bird; her song, as dead as her fiancé, lying in the room on the other side of that wall.

****

"Somebody—help!" Sophia tore at his throat as she untied his cravat. "Help! God, please, help!"

She managed to get his valet's knot undone.

Breathe. He needed to breathe.

"Help!"

His white cravat slipped to the floor as Sophia touched his pale, bluish lips, froth smudged at the corner of his mouth. She needed to save him, though she knew he was gone.

She kissed the hollow of his pale cheek, scratchy still from his shave this morning.

Footsteps clamored in the hall, above Mabel's wails.

"You have left me with her. With Mabel," she whispered in Nash’s ear, as if once more, her breath pricked gooseflesh into his skin.

Sophia heard, in the hall, a gruff "Dear God, why are you writhing on the floor?"

Her answer: "Nash...”

Another sob split through the house.

Sophia edged from her brother, her fingertips sliding over his lips. One last hush, one last secret, taken with his spirit.

A scrape of boots against the floorboards. "What has—?"

Albert strode into the bedroom at a rough pace. His question fell from his mouth and into the silence. One quick glance and he knew as well as Sophia.

"Come away from him, Sophia, and help Mabel up from her grief." He swallowed, hard, seizing control of his emotions. "I must call for a doctor."

And from the bedroom he charged, without thinking of his orders to her.

Sophia turned back to her brother and lay her head on his chest over his dead heart. She inhaled the last traces of his scent. Bitter almonds.

****

Albert ran with a trill in his mind. He thought of nothing and everything. He thought of how his greatest friend lay in his bed, dead, and their beloved Mabel lay on the floor outside Nash’s chamber, now his tomb.

Thumps down the stairs, as wild as his beating heart. Albert’s feet carried him to the guests huddled out in the gardens amid seas of lavender and honeysuckle. Bees flew from flower to flower alighting on their velvet petals, sunlight threw curtains over the lawns, and rabbits darted from shrubbery to shrubbery.

Without folly or care, the guests waited in the greenery for the groom and his bride to emerge from the house and proceed on to the ceremony. Their village pastor, Reverend White, stood at the forefront with his little black Bible in one hand, his silver pocket watch in the other.

“Here comes Albert!” he called.

One by one, sets of eyes turned to Albert, ready to get on with the day.

Another trill played through him.

“Someone. Someone, a doctor. Anyone.” Albert slumped forward, his hands on his knees. “Good God.” He panted through his panic. “Nash. It’s Nash.”

Murmurs among the guests. Ladies flicked open their fans, whispered to their neighbors. Gray whiskers on the older fellows twitched. Albert tamped down his guilt.

Reverend White tucked his watch into his pocket. “What has happened to Nash?”

“He’s not breathing. Someone, fetch a doctor,” Albert said.

Movement to the left caught his attention: Sir Calvin Powell, Nash’s father, broke from the crowd. “What has happened to Nash?” he cried. “Albert, what of him?” Albert opened his mouth, but Sir Calvin did not wait for an answer. He hurried for the house, for his son.

****

Mabel buried him in her heart before she buried him in the grave. And then she buried him.

On the evening of an April day, Mabel listened to Reverend White recite his parting prayer. By now she would have been Nash’s wife for two weeks, but she was not even his widow. She was, in fact, nothing to him, and her nothingness was even etched into the granite of his headstone.

IN MEMORY OF NASH POWELL, THE ONE 
SON AND HEIR TO SIR CALVIN POWELL. 
BORN ON JANUARY 31ST, 1852, RETURNED 
TO THE ARMS OF THE LORD ON DECEMBER 
14TH, 1880. AGED 28 YEARS.

Our passions, gone.

Our history, gone.

Even his lies were eradicated from his headstone.

Mabel turned away.

She drifted off into the sea of tombstones, each a marker of another life that had held meaning to someone else.

“Mabel,” she heard, softly called. She glanced behind to see Albert trailing.

“My grief is too wild,” she said. She paused beneath the wings of a marble angel. “I cannot stay, or I will begin to cry again. And Sophia hates me for it. I know. She glares at me whenever I begin to... to...”

“Cry, if you must.” He came and enfolded her into his arms. “I will not fault you for it.” His voice was tight, he wanted to give certainty, strength, but within him was brokenness.

“You are my dearest friend.”

Albert rested his chin on her head. “I know.”

She tensed at his hand on the small of her back, and at the guilt of it all. “I thought he meant to call off the wedding.”

“Do not think on it. On him, on this day.”

“How can I not? He loved another.”

Her tears ran harder. She clamped her eyes shut, as if she could escape the guilt by wading into her own blackness.

“Mabel, you are shaking. Please.” He took a long breath, as if he inhaled the scent of her.

“Albert, thank you for all you’ve told me. And all you’ve done, and all you do.” She shuddered. “Even with his lies, I would have married him.”

He held her ensnared, held her as if she were a possession, but inside this hollow of her body she harbored the last of Nash’s love, and in it all, the truth.

“I will never love another as I did Nash.”

“I know.”

And then he let go.

And walked away.

He returned to the funeral.

Mabel caught Sophia’s glower, but turned away as quickly as she had caught her.

She stood beneath the angel’s wings, alone, and watched as Nash’s family and friends scattered dirt onto his coffin.

****

Sophia passed beneath a winged gargoyle, keeper of the family’s secrets, as she followed Sir Calvin into their home: its cold, dead eyes beat down upon them from its perch above the entryway.

Those eyes had frightened her in childhood. Nash often held her hand as she passed, as Orpheus led Eurydice through the underworld only to lose her again.

Her eyes.

Her own eyes filled with tears. I have lost him, Sophia thought. I have lost him forever.

Those last moments recurred to her as the door creaked shut: his teacup to his lips, his taking a huge gulp, his face strained and nervous until a pain set into him. Froth at the corner of his mouth, struggling to his feet, staggering to the bedroom.

She had lost her Orpheus.

“Excuse me.” At their footsteps a servant, a stout fellow with a balding pate, emerged from a corridor to the entrance hall. “Sir, a man waits in the parlor.”

“Do you know what he wants?”

“Only to speak with you. And Miss Powell, sir.” The servant worked his hands together. “He gave his name. Detective Hastings.”

The servant said no more as the name of the man in the parlor implied his business. She bounded with anxiety. Her breathing shortened, her pulse quickened.

And she wondered what this man wanted to know.

Her father started ahead, and she followed. In the parlor was a man sipping tea from a porcelain cup. He rose when they entered, placing the teacup aside. He did not bow, but only studied Sophia with cold, dead eyes.

“To what do we owe the pleasure, Detective?” said Sir Calvin.

“I would like permission to speak with your daughter.”

“Why when I am here? We have just returned from Nash’s funeral and, as you can see, my daughter is weary and wishes to retire for the night. If you wish to speak to anyone, please let it be I.”

“I shall reshape my request.” Detective Hastings drew himself to his full height. “I must speak with your daughter, and her alone.”

Sophia came from her father’s shadow. “I will speak with you.”

“Are you certain, Sophia? It has been a terribly long day.”

“If I can be of help.” Sophia paused and took her father’s great paw into hers and squeezed it. “I must.”

To Detective Hastings, he said, “You have my permission, but do not keep her long,” and he departed from the parlor.

She had no place to hide.

She turned to Detective Hastings and met with the gray stones, observing her slightest movement. He brushed at his black frock coat, his mustache twitching at his analysis of her.

Sophia drew herself to her fullest height. “How may I assist you, Detective Hastings?”

“I am here to hear your story. Of when your brother died.”

Sophia shuddered at the need to relive Nash’s death, but it was a need, and Hastings would not go away until she answered him, for it seemed to her his fortitude was stronger than stone.

“We always took tea in the parlor adjoining his bedroom. Well, he always drank coffee, while I enjoyed the tea.”

Detective Hastings retrieved a small journal from his coat pocket and began to jot on its pages. “Did he have coffee that morning?”

“Tea. He drank coffee to energize him, but that morning was his wedding, he wanted to calm his nerves.”

He pointed with his pen to the porcelain teacup on the table. “Did you drink from similar cups?”

“From that very set.”

His mustache twitched as he scribbled. “Continue, Miss Powell.”

“He downed his tea quickly, while I put my cup off to the side. I was telling him a story about the love of Orpheus and Eurydice.”

He paused and wrote nothing.

“Nash started to froth at the mouth and convulse.” Sophia swallowed hard. “Right when I was explaining Hades’ deal made with Orpheus to free his wife. He struggled to his feet and staggered to his bedchamber. I followed after him, screaming his name. Then he collapsed onto his bed.”

“And Mabel, his fiancé, entered the room in that moment?”

She darkened. “She took in the scene and began to screech and wail.”

“Her beloved was dying.” His mustache twitched. “I am unsurprised.”

“She dropped to the floor in the hallway, leaving me to revive Nash. I tried. I truly tried, but by that time, he was gone from me. Slipped into Hades.”

Tears pearled at the corners of her eyes, but she wiped at them with the knuckles of her fingers. She had not allowed herself to cry since she lay beside the corpse, she would not do so again until she was freed, and until the suspicion burning inside her was doused, and by proof.



“Do you remember anything more?” Detective Hastings supplied a handkerchief from yet another pocket.

“No.” Sophia took it. “I recall nothing else.”

“Nothing strange about the tea? Not a strange coloring? Not a—?”

“It all happened so quickly.”

“The coroner found grains of cyanide within his stomach. He had been poisoned by prussic acid.”

“Prussic acid?”

“Again, cyanide.”

“Yes, I understand what it is.” Weakening, she sank into the nearest chair. “It is only...”

Sophia shook her head at it. She never dared to believe that Mabel was capable of poisoning her brother.

“'It is only'?” Detective Hastings narrowed his eyes.

“It is only you come into my home to question me, but no other.”

“You were the last at Nash’s side.” He straightened, his mouth firm. “And no other.”

“Detective, what is it you insinuate?”

“I will be back in two days’ time with a small team to examine this house.”

“You think I did it?” Sophia gripped the arms of the chair. “You think I would murder my brother, my beloved?”

“He was Mabel’s beloved, not yours.” He grabbed a top hat from a nearby chair and placed it on his head. “I will speak with your father before I leave, and he will consent to the search of his home. Whether he wants it or not.”

He strode towards the door when it suited him. When he thought she was pressed and pinned.

Sophia stared at the notches in the floorboards. She considered this new turn.

She must find someone close to her thorn.

Someone to walk as her shadow.

And then, as if the answer rose from the floor, she knew who to approach with her greatest suspicions.

****

Albert kneeled in prayer, inside the church at the village’s center. Fortitude in the quiet, where wishes and grievances joined in one to ascend to our Lord’s ear. Even if He was not listening, Albert still prayed. He thought Nash could hear.

But, no, Albert’s old friend sat beside him on the pew. Nash heard his faint whispers as he stared at the cross on the altar. Of how he missed him. How he wanted his return. But seeing his condition was permanent, he asked for Nash’s blessing in making Mabel his.

He dropped his gaze to the floor and squeezed his hands tighter, begging anything divine to show Nash’s ghost did not mind if he, in time, took his fiancé. For she was never his bride, never his widow.

“You took her from me last spring and I allowed it,” Albert whispered. “I let her into your arms, even as you knew I adored her, and as I knew she was only a part of your ruse.”

He waited.

One other, in the rear of the church, muttered his prayers; otherwise, the pews were empty. Reverend White was absent for it was not Sunday. He was saying his words over another wedding, Albert believed.

He waited.

No answer.

Alone, he kneeled.

The rickety wood of the pew groaned as someone kneeled beside him. Their legs almost brushed, the warmth from the flesh touched him, held him, and he believed for a moment that Nash was near.

“Albert.”

It was a woman’s voice.

He opened his eyes.

Sophia.

“Why are you here?”

“Your man said I’d find you at the church.” She met his glance from beneath the rim of her black bonnet.

Albert sighed. “What is it?”

“I came to pray for the Lord’s mercy. For I am being made to seem guilty of a crime.”

Albert stared after her.

“What is it you want of me?” he asked, diverted by the simple wooden cross boring down upon them.

“You ought to ask who accuses me, and of what.” She bit her bottom lip. “Detective Hastings, a man from town, will search my father’s house tomorrow, for any evidence of my doing in Nash’s death. He said Nash was poisoned by prussic acid, he stopped short of accusing me of murder.”

He stared at her hard and he sensed, felt in his soul, that Nash was nearby but not for his sake, rather, for the sake of his sister, whom he once called his Eurydice.

“You know of my love for Nash.” She took his hand into hers. “I’d never harm him. Not for any incentive. He was my Orpheus. I came to seek your help. I need you to look into somebody. The one who I know killed him.”

“Whom is it you accuse?” Albert tensed.

She glanced down at her black kid gloves, at their hands intertwined. “Mabel.”

Albert shot upwards, breaking her hold. In the back pews the other had ceased his muttering. His gaze was hot on his back but Albert ignored him, and he ignored the possibility that Nash’s ghost drew nearer.

“You fool,” he hissed. “In your desperation, you’d cast suspicion on anyone. And it's no secret you loathe Mabel. For she interfered with your perversities.”

She reached for his hand, once more, but he stumbled from her. “Sit down, you are in a church.”

“I could be in God’s palace and I’d not care.”

“Listen to me...”

“To whom? To one who was her brother’s whore?”

****

“Miss.” Mabel’s housekeeper, her one of three servants, entered the sitting room. “You have a gentleman visitor here.”

She raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sunlight straining through the window and turned in her seat to find her housekeeper with a rather severe-looking man. He could’ve been Medusa’s brother.

“I'm Detective Hastings.” He craned his neck in a bow. “I am here to speak with you on the matter of Nash Powell’s death.”

“Please, take a seat.”

“Well.” Detective Hastings sat on the edge of a wooden chair, stiff and ugly. “I am here to seek answers.”

“I may supply them.”

He retrieved a journal from the pocket of his black frock coat. “Let us begin with your wedding day.”

Mabel shook as she began, “I dressed for the wedding. I was ready early while Nash was taking his time in his preparations. I found myself overwrought and decided to head out to the gardens to walk out my nerves. On my way I saw Albert emerge from the kitchens.”

His mustache twitched as he scribbled.

“I made my way into the gardens.”

She sank into the memory, could almost smell the lavender and honeysuckle drifting along the breeze. A lark sang in the background, while she, in nerves, was robbed of breath.

“I paced by the rose bushes. I was increasingly nervous. I thought Nash wanted to call off the wedding.”

“Why was that?”

“He was taking tea with Sophia. As was their morning custom. But she never liked me. I only discovered her reasons two weeks ago, through Albert. I thought she was trying to convince him to cry off.”

His mustache twitched.

“I saw the guests gathering in the gardens. I wondered what was taking them so long, to drink a cup of blasted tea. And so I went into the house, I climbed the stairs to the study, and I heard a clatter. I hurried upstairs and saw Nash, collapsing onto his bed with froth dripping from his mouth.”

“And what of Sophia Powell? What was she doing?”

“She was trying to save him.” His mustache twitched again. “Sophia would never harm him,” she said. “She loved her brother.” She glanced down at the miniature of Nash. “Abnormally so.”

In his eyes Mabel saw his secrets. Still she loved him for the heart cannot stop singing in its desires, not when one has known no other.

“What of this Albert?”

“What of him?” He only stared, waiting for her to offer more information. “Albert courted me last spring. I allowed him to hope for two good months before I met Nash, through him. He and Nash were friends from childhood, and when I met Nash I knew love for the first time.”

“Do you believe Albert harbors feelings for you?”

Her lashes dampened with tears. “He has helped me grieve for my Nash. He has offered me his shoulder.”

He snapped his journal shut and rose from his chair. “Thank you for these answers.”

Mabel offered him her hand. “I thank you for your work. In what you do to give truth and peace to those who can no longer speak for themselves.”

He stared at the tips of her fingers for a long moment and then took her hand, squeezed it. “I must go, Miss.” He strode from the sitting room.

She sat there a moment staring into the miniature, at those eyes, both familiar and far, and she realized an answer.

****

“I am sorry my father is gone from the house.” Sophia saw the servants had prepared the room, refreshments were on the side table. She motioned for Albert to take a chair. “He is with Reverend White. Discussing Nash’s eulogy, which will be heard at church on Sunday.”

“No matter. I came to meet with you.” He sank into a wingback, his gaze upon her. “And only you.”

She stared down at the teacups on the table. On his cup the golden rim was chipped; hers held no faults.

Chipped.

Steam rose and curled off of the tea, vanished into the air, hot and fresh from the kitchens and ready to burn the tongue. Between the cups lay a plate of lemon tarts and biscuits paired with the brew.

“She’s the one.” Albert plucked a biscuit from the plate. “On reflection, I see her motives as you do.”

Sophia paused with her hand on a chair’s back, poised to take a seat. “What changed your mind?”

“I tried to see Mabel through your eyes.”

“And what did you spy?”

“A woman filled with anger.” He bit into the biscuit. “A woman who learned of a secret, and saw she was to be part of a ruse. That she was to be played.”

Her nails dug into the upholstery.

“She was jealous of you.” He smiled.

Sophia turned on him. She could not show him her tears. She walked to the window which let onto the sun setting over the gardens and fields. She pressed her fingertips against the window’s glass. In the distance she heard cicadas in a chorus.

“At the church, I saw your passions for Mabel. I knew you fancied her but I never suspected the flames burned so. I still do not understand what has made you see my view.”

“It is true that I have always loved her. I wanted her for myself, but I stepped aside for Nash. She discarded me easily when she met him and I allowed him to fill her with—false promises.”

“Moments before Nash died I was reciting to him the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. I wanted to remind him of our love. I wanted him to cry off, but he wouldn't.”

Albert reached for another biscuit and she thought of the quality of his eyes just before he started to froth and clutch at his throat: filled with hope and reflection.

“He was as good as yours, Eurydice.

Sophia darkened at this ridicule. She was about to tell him to leave when she noticed a difference, something in the teacups. The chipped cup was no longer before him, but by her seat.

She fixed her gaze to him, and he grinned, showing teeth and all.

“Will you not sit?” he said, gesturing towards the chair opposite his. “I wish to make a plan with you for discovering Mabel’s guilt.”

The cogs of her mind shifting and spinning, slowly taking up speed.

And she realized an answer.

A knock came at the door.

Sophia let a sigh, a shudder: “I will go answer that.”

“Why not let a servant handle it?”

She plucked an excuse from the air as he plucked another biscuit from the plate. She slipped from the parlor, she tried to calm her pace, to not give any signs or indications. His eyes seared her backside as she retreated. She thought of the gargoyle. With each step she devised a plan.

She arrived at the door.

She threw it open and there stood Mabel.

“Goodness! You look as though you’ve seen a ghost.”

Sophia glanced back over her shoulder.

He was not there.

“I came to tell you...”

Mabel waited for Sophia to look into her eyes. And Sophia saw that she wore around her neck the locket Nash had given her at their betrothal. “I know what happened to Nash.”

“I know as well.”

“Do you?”

“Yes.” Sophia came closer to her, dropping to a whisper. “And I am with the murderer now.”


Kat Devitt is a Pushcart Prize nominee. Her work has appeared in TWJ Magazine, Bold + Italic, Scarlet Leaf Review, Ariel Chart, and Fiction on the Web, with upcoming publications in The Blotter Magazine and Magazine of History & Fiction. She acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic. She's working hard on many more short stories, and she's researching for a novel. Stay tuned for more... In the meantime, please check out her website at katdevitt.com.