It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling and it was almost dark as Harry opened his eyes and came out of his reverie. He had always though that Jeremy, his eldest cousin, would inherit the family estate one day. However, to his great surprise, a series of unfortunate events had ensured that every one of his cousins perished before reaching the age of thirty – with the result that Harry suddenly found himself heir to Locksby Hall and to a lifestyle he had never dreamed of.
He was around twenty-five at this time – a pale, dark-haired boy, good-looking in a somewhat Byronic fashion – and had recently become engaged to a young lady of his acquaintance named Mildred. Mildred was rather clever, although her family were decidedly middle class, and told Harry straightaway that it was obvious something untoward had happened to the Granville side of the family and that it might be an idea to visit Locksby and investigate.
“After all,” she said, staring at him with determined eyes, “I don’t want to find myself a widow a year or two after we marry – or for you to die before we have a chance of living in that house.”
Harry privately thought this last remark rather calculating but said nothing. He was a little in awe of Mildred’s efficiency and the way she had so effortlessly arranged their engagement before he had realised he wanted to marry her.
And so it was that the two of them arrived at Locksby one fine December afternoon just as twilight was beginning to make its presence felt. The weak beams from a waning winter sun cast a sickly yellow tinge over the crisp, white snow as the horses trotted through the wrought iron gates of the hall and along the half a mile or so of leafy driveway.
It was then that he saw her. The woman was so pale that her paper-white skin almost blended in with her surroundings. Her lips too were devoid of colour and her hair so light that it was barely noticeable even though it flowed over her shoulders, unchecked by shawl or bonnet. She was lying helplessly in the snow as if she had fallen from a horse or been attacked by a footpad, and her white dress seemed inadequate protection against the biting cold that must be seeping into every part of her.
He might not have noticed her had it not been for her eyes which glowed like coals amidst the white of her face and clothes and the white of the snow. She looked at him and her eyes burned into him as if she could see into his very soul, igniting a spark of something strange within his heart and loins so that for one moment of madness, he felt compelled to leap from the carriage and gather her into his arms.
“Harry!” Mildred’s voice sounded sharply, breaking the unknown woman’s spell. “What are you staring at?”
A warm blush stained his cheeks and he started guiltily, wondering if she had discerned his indiscretion.
“What are you looking at?” she repeated.
His gaze flickered towards her and then back to the snowy landscape outside, but the woman had already faded into the dusk. He wondered now if she had ever been there at all.
His uncle’s snug was ridiculously warm, thanks to the roaring log fire and the thick, heavy, velvet curtains. Sir Granville sat with his right leg propped up on a pouffe, a glass of brandy in his hand and a decanter at his side.
“So, this is the filly who’s trapped you, eh?” he remarked as Harry stammeringly introduced Mildred. “Not much of a looker, but then your aunt Honoria – God rest her soul! – wasn’t a beauty either. Still, I expect you’ve had time to sow your wild oats by now. What are you? Twenty-seven?”
“Twenty-five,” Harry muttered, his face flaming with embarrassment. Mildred was the only woman he had ever kissed, but his uncle’s coarse remark had filled his mind with an image of the woman in the snow.
Meanwhile, Mildred regarded her soon-to-be uncle coolly. “Looks aren’t everything,” she said. “Harry needs a wife who can keep him in order and ensure he stays alive for long enough to enjoy his inheritance.”
“So, the girl’s got spirit,” the old man muttered as if to himself. Turning back to Mildred, he added, “Do you play mah-jong? I haven’t had a decent game in years.”
Harry sat dozing by the fireside, the murmur of conversation between his uncle and fiancée a faint hum in the background as they placed their tiles. His mind dwelt on his deceased cousins and Sir Granville’s reticence about exactly how they had died. He was not a superstitious man, but he found himself wondering about family curses.
In the warmth of the fire, his eyelids began to close and he found himself in a half-dreaming, half-wakeful state in which voices blurred around him and he was himself and yet not himself, walking through the snow covered grounds with the woman he had seen earlier – except this time, she had colour in her lips and cheeks and the long hair that rippled down her back was as dark as his own.
They reached the disused summerhouse and he looked at the girl expectantly, already beginning to burn with lust for her. She faltered and he grabbed her roughly, opening the door with his other hand and almost dragging her inside.
Her fear escaped in sobs. “Please, Sir. It’s not right. Your wife...”
“What Honoria doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” he said thickly, desire now taking over.
Blocking out the sound of her cries, he took what he wanted.
Harry came to with a start, his heart beating wildly and his pulse racing. Had his uncle really deflowered the girl? He looked across at the heavily-built man playing mah-jong, at his florid face and swollen, gout-ridden legs, and could not imagine him ever being the lusty young swain from his recent dream.
The clock struck ten. Mildred yawned. “Time for bed, I think,” she said. “Don’t stay up too late talking to your uncle, Harry.”
It was around midnight when Harry finally stumbled up the staircase and made his way to the solitary bedroom he had been assigned. His room, when he entered it, was decidedly chilly. He should have told the maid to light a fire. Perhaps if he closed the curtains…
He was just reaching for the heavy damask material when his eye caught sight of her. What she was doing on his balcony, he did not know; but she must be freezing in that thin, white gown. Her eyes turned to him imploringly, as if begging shelter from the elements, and he could not refuse her – although a tiny part of him wondered what Mildred would say if she knew.
“What are you doing out there?” he asked as he opened the window and let her in. Then, noticing she was shivering, he continued, “Let me fetch a blanket to warm you up.”
He could feel the cold chill of winter emanating from her as she glided into the room and he knew instinctively that one blanket would not be enough.
“Why don’t you take the bed?” he suggested, ushering her over to the large, curtained fourposter. “I can sleep in the chair,” he added gallantly.
She said nothing in reply; merely slid beneath the sheets and blankets and counterpane, shivering as she pulled the covers around her.
Finally, she spoke. “Will you not lie beside me and let me feel your warmth?”
As if in a dream, he let his feet lead him over to the bed and to the pale beauty who waited for him. Pulling off his jacket, he wondered whether he should remove his trousers also or whether that would be regarded as improper – he could not divest himself fully and put on his nightshirt in front of her! – but his fingers seemed to be acting of their own accord, undoing his buttons with an almost indecent haste until he stood clad in just his shirt and underthings before climbing into bed with her.
Putting his arms around her was like embracing a block of ice. An intense coldness seeped into him as he held her, chilling him to the marrow and numbing his toes and fingertips as if he were outside in the snow. He gasped with shock, realising that this poor creature must have endured severe weather conditions for days. It was a wonder she was still alive.
“Are you feeling any warmer?” he asked after some minutes.
Her eyes were closed and there seemed to be a look of satisfaction on her face.
“A little, maybe,” she replied without looking at him.
He wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw a hint of colour staining her lips.
Eventually, they fell asleep, Harry’s arms still wrapped around the unknown woman. She had not offered her name and he was reluctant to ask, although it seemed ill-mannered somehow to be lying in such close proximity without a formal introduction.
When morning came, his bedfellow had vanished. He felt concerned: if anything, his room was colder now than it had been the previous evening and the snow-covered grounds would be chillier still. Even the water on his washstand was frozen, and his fingertips were too numb to button up his trousers.
The cold he felt seemed to have sapped his strength. When he finally managed to crawl downstairs, Mildred regarded him in horror. “Are you ill?” she demanded. “You look like a ghost.”
Catching sight of his reflection in the large, burnished mirror above over the sideboard, he admitted she was right. His face was almost as white as the woman he had recently lain with; and the guilt he felt did not enhance his colour.
After breakfast, Mildred dragged him into his uncle’s library. There was no fire and the cold gnawed at his bones. He felt chilled from the inside out.
“What are you looking for?” he asked as she began pulling dusty notebooks off a shelf.
“Clues,” she said without looking up. “Your uncle told me last night that he used to keep a diary. I think he had some idea of publishing his memoirs one day. If I find the notebooks that correspond to your cousins’ deaths, we might be able to see some sort of pattern.”
Harry thought she was wasting her time. Jeremy had died in a boating mishap; Jonathan had fallen from his horse; and Jonquil had somehow miscalculated his step and tumbled from the top of the staircase, breaking his neck in the process. As far as he could see, there was nothing to link the deaths unless it was that they had all been accidental. Ignoring his fiancée’s activity, he sank down into a winged leather armchair and closed his eyes.
In his dream, the woman stood once more on his balcony, her formerly pale cheeks flushed and her long hair tinted a dark gold. He found himself reaching for her, wanting to feel her in his arms once more; and when she glided to the bed, he followed her, pulling off his cravat and his jacket as he did so and pausing only to remove his trousers before he climbed in after her. This time, she turned towards him and he knew he was going to kiss her. Her lips were cold, but after the first, initial shock, he let himself be consumed by the icy feeling that crept into his bones and blood as their lips merged and their limbs tangled, knowing that Mildred would never feel such desire for him nor he for her.
As if discovered in flagrante, he started, waking himself up. For a moment, he blinked at Mildred, irrationally angry with her for having interrupted his secret dalliance.
“I fear you are unwell,” she said, regarding his feverish eyes. “Let me feel your head.”
The heat of her fingers seemed to burn him and he retreated in shock.
“You’re like a slab of ice!” she exclaimed. “Harry, I think you must have caught a chill. You should go back to bed at once.”
Meekly, he let himself be bundled up the stairs and into the large, cold room.
“You need a fire,” Mildred declared. “And a warming pan. I’ll order it straightaway.”
The genuine concern on her face made him wonder if she truly loved him after all.
He fell asleep almost immediately, wrapping the comforting coldness around him like a blanket. As the icy chill seeped through his bones, he could almost imagine the woman lay beside him once more and his body yearned for her.
His dreams were fitful. He was back in his uncle’s body, looking at the stern face of his wife as she told him how ‘this unpleasantness’ would be dealt with.
“She’ll have to leave.” Honoria’s words were calm and factual. “You can give her some money towards the upkeep of her child, but I won’t have that creature under my roof any longer.” There was a pause. “You have three legitimate sons and that should be enough for any man.”
Time whirled like a blizzard of snow. He saw the girl thrust out into the unforgiving winter weather with only a shawl for protection; then, moments later, one of the gardeners had been called into the study, his muddy boots leaving marks on the Persian rug as he haltingly told the story of the frozen body discovered earlier that morning.
Thick and fast the memories came – were they really memories if they were not your own? One moment he was sitting in a boat, straining at the oars as the laughing eyes of a pale beauty fired his soul; the next, he was floundering in the water, fighting for his life as long fingers wrapped themselves around his wrists and dragged him under the surface. He was galloping across the fields, exulting in the fine, spring morning, at one with his father’s Arab stallion; and then a shape rose from the bracken, startling his horse so that it reared and threw him. The last thing he knew was the woman’s eyes burning into him like coals – almost as if she were exultant at his death. He stood at the top of the staircase, ready to make his grand entrance as the heir to Locksby, thinking that he would be more wary than his brothers – you wouldn’t catch him in a boat or on a horse! A sound behind him made him turn slightly. A beautiful creature stood there with skin as pale as snow and eyes that seemed to penetrate his soul. He had to have her, but as he reached for her hand, she leaned forward and pushed. He had no time to wonder why as he toppled headlong down the marble stairs.
He awoke with a start before his body hit the floor. His heart was thumping wildly and his pulse raced. It was only a dream, but it had seemed so vivid.
It was then that he noticed the figure lying beside him. Her skin was still the colour of snow, but her lips were a definite red and her hair had turned a most becoming shade of brown. He knew now who she was and what she wanted; but he was unable to summon any fear. Instead, a calm acceptance seeped through him. His uncle had taken her life: it seemed only fitting that she should have his in exchange.
As if still in a dream, he let her place her arms about him and felt the now familiar shock of her coldness seeping into him. Closing his eyes, he let the icy sensation creep through his bones and blood, embracing the sleepy numbness that threatened to overwhelm him. “Not long now, my darling,” he thought he heard her say as he began drifting into unconsciousness.
“Harry!” Mildred’s voice brought him back to reality. He opened his eyes slowly, realising with a shock that the girl was still lying next to him.
“Harry,” - Mildred’s tone was dangerously quiet – “you need to get out of that bed now unless you want to end up like your cousins.”
Her words washed over him, seeming unimportant against the deliciousness of lying in the unknown woman’s arms.
“Harry...” This time, Mildred’s voice sounded less certain, almost as if she were pleading with him.
He lay immobile, unable to respond even if he had wanted to. Cold fingers stroked the hair from his forehead and he began to brace himself for the inevitable.
In desperation, Mildred crossed the room, striding over to the bed and grabbing his face roughly with her hot, burning hands.
“She can’t have you. You’re mine, Harry: mine and no one else’s.”
The lips she placed on his own seared into him and he felt the agony of her heat as it began to invade his frozen body.
Stop! he wanted to tell her. Let the pale lady have me. But Mildred pressed on regardless, kissing life back into his body so that he almost wept with frustration.
At last he broke free of her, his fevered brow an unwelcome sensation after so many hours of perfect coldness. He turned to the woman at his side, thinking to offer some sort of apology for his fiancée’s rudeness, but where she had lain he saw only a pile of rapidly melting snow.
“You killed her...” His breath escaped in a whisper. “I loved her – and you killed her!”
“Harry...” He had never heard Mildred sound frightened before.
“I loved her,” he repeated roughly, ignoring the tears that now stood in Mildred’s eyes.
“She was killing you, Harry. Surely you understand that?”
He did not answer, his mind already searching for a way to bring her back to him; but as Mildred continued to sob, he knew it was too late.