The Mistress of Crumble Hall by a woman of significant wealth and scandal

Sometimes I write mock Penny Dreadfuls to de-stress.

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The following work was found in the ruin of a Victorian public toilet in Kentish Town, London, in 2006. The convenience, as they were called, had been converted into an underground lending library for the homeless. Upon the conversion of the toilet into a pop-up pub, the books were donated to the London archives, and these letters, collected in a penny dreadful, were discovered and sent for publishing. The gothic nature of the work suggests that it was written shortly after the long eighteenth century. Though not explicitly stated, experts suspect that the “Fanny,” or “F.B.” is writer Frances Burney, famous for her first hand account of undergoing a mastectomy. It is speculated that “Mira,” is writer Mary Leapor, a writer from a few decades earlier whose poetic persona she nicknamed “Mira,” in the poem, “Crumble Hall.” It is thought that the woman Fanny writes to, Hannah, is writer Hannah Moore, and the reason she would not reply to Fanny’s letters was her deep religiousness. She rejected all things related to the occult. Preservation experts worked to restore the original image from the penny dreadful to be used in this re-issue.

The Mistress of Crumble Hall

by a woman of significant wealth and scandal

Dear Reader,

On October 31, 1812, I began receiving letters from a woman by the name of Mira. She had no salutation, and no surname. The writers’ hand was light and the ink hardly legible. They included no return address, and were composed of poems and riddles. I have never known a woman named Mira, and her letters came more and more frequently. I have included many in this manuscript. I began to write about them to an old friend of mine, Hannah. We had not spoken in years, as she believed my play “The Witlings” to be making fun of her (I suppose it was, in a way), but I needed to confide in someone not entirely separate from my life but someone who was still a part of it. She never replied to my letters, just as I never replied to Mira’s. It has been two years, and when I am not haunted by my operation, I am haunted by Mira. I feel her in the walls of my home, and I am not convinced that she is entirely real. I am no longer convinced that I, myself, am entirely real.

− F.B.
12 January, 1813
Crumble Hall, London

31 October, 1812
Fanny:

Mercurian limbs tangle in a forbidden bed
The cold passageway damp against my fingers
I fall into the folds
And listen through the wet walls.

− Yours in shadows,
Mira

14 November, 1812

Fanny:

“Qui me tiendra ce sein—?”
Recoil, recoil
Surgical yellow, the grit of the day grinds beneath your bare back
A sharp pinch as a sliver of wood makes its way into the shoulder
The wood is replaced with lumpy mattresses
An aged sheet cradles your nakedness.

− Yours in shadows,
Mira

14 November, 1812

Fanny:

The black experiment seeps into the bed
Wracked with sobs, they leave and you are left to the agony
This primitive and uncertain operation
Where is your pulse?
Whose cold fingers grip your breast?

− Yours in shadows,
Mira

 

31 November, 1812

Fanny:

A cross hovers in the air, transcribed by a hand
Your cells dissolve into the bleak air
Your hand meets the cold glass of a cordial
The room is stuffed with lint
Your veins are stuffed with lint
A panicked fuzz spreads through the skin
And the glint of polished steel curls into the corner of your eye
The blade drags and tears and pulls
The flesh and stringy bits pulled apart like chicken off of the bone
A metallic feast on your breast
The flesh flopping away from the bone
Ice-tinged air rushing in and licking at the wound

− Yours in shadows,
Mira

Dearest Hannah,

On All Hallow’s eve, I began to receive letters from a woman named Mira, whom I do not know. They are cryptic and in the form of strange poems. They are written on scraps of paper and left in the post box. Often, there is the scent of mouse droppings or dead flowers. They feel damp, and decayed. They feel voyeuristic; the writer perfectly described my mastectomy and I feel as though she knows me. I stayed up until dawn on several occasions to try and glimpse her placing them in the post box, to no avail. Each morning, the maid brings me my tea and I hold my breath. I have asked her to stop bringing the post, and instead wake up before the rest of the house and rush to the box. Each time there is a letter, my heart leaps and I feel faint. I am not sure what to do. A religious woman such as yourself may be able to help me. Write back as soon as possible, please, my dear friend.

− F.B.
1 December, 1812
Crumble Hall, London

 

2 December, 1812

Fanny:

“This match
can be lit anywhere
strike it on a book
the rough wood of your kitchen table
let the glow
of the flame
brighten these dark
London streets.”

I bought a frozen charlotte doll
for my daughter.
3 days of wages
for a piece of porcelain
in a matchbox.

The little matchstick girl died in the cold
without a coat
but, did she glow?

My daughter kept the doll beneath her head
while she slept
I looked in on her, holding a chunk of flesh
in my hand
out the corner of my eye
a yellow light
that I couldn’t quite catch.

(Oh, F. She will not answer you.)

− Yours in shadows,
Mira

Mira:

Are you a witch? A spectre? Is this Elsa, are you a foul creature? The neighbourhood scoundrel? A bored young mother? Who are you, and what do you want with me?

− F.B.
6 December, 1812
Crumble Hall, London

6 December, 1812

Fanny:

The post comes late,
Must the sun always set
And cast shadows in your drawing room?

− Yours in shadows,
Mira

 

Dearest Hannah,

I wrote to the wretch, and sat by the box for hours. Passers-by gave me queer looks. Before I got up to leave, I peaked inside and found another letter. How did it get there? How could it get there? She spoke of my drawing room. I rush through the drawing room whenever I pass it, now.

− F.B.
7 December, 1812
Crumble Hall, London

 

10 December, 1812

Seal up the postbox with mortar
Stuff it full of bricks and leaves
Nail shut the letter slot in the door
The witch will find a way to get
What she needs.

Mira

Hannah:

Yesterday eve I opened the front door for some air before tucking in. I heard a shriek and was hit with a cold wind, and immediately closed the door! Robert cried out from the study, wondering what was the matter, and the maid rushed downstairs. I felt weak. Elsa fetched a glass of whiskey and Robert carried me to bed. I explained the whole ordeal with the letters to him and he laughed—laughed! I couldn’t believe it. I showed him the letters, which I’ve been keeping in a box underneath our bed, and he told me it must be some scoundrel that wanders the streets. I gulped down the water and lay awake in bed, listening to Robert’s disbelieving snores. I rolled over to try and sleep, and in the window I saw a black figure. It called after me—Fanny! Fanny! It whistled like the wind, and shrieked like a goat, but it was undoubtedly my name being called. I tried to stir Robert, to show him—to convince him of what I’d seen, but I could not move. It was as if I was tied to the bed, bound and gagged. I felt my heart beating in my phantom breast, like it would burst out. In the window, her face was covered in bumps, like bites or sores, and her jaw was dissolved on one side—you could see her yellow teeth—oh! How they glowed! It was a horrific sight, the witch—Mira. Such a foul spectre. She did not meet my eyes, and I felt as if the fibres connecting my spine to my brain were being severed. I do not remember falling asleep, but when I woke, I woke with her voice in my head, calling my name again. When I slipped my hand under my pillow in hopes I would fall back asleep, I felt something damp, wet. I lifted the pillow and beneath it was a foetal hedgehog, still warm, but dead. I screamed. Robert and Elsa rushed up the stairs, their hurry must have obscured their clothing; they both looked a little dishevelled. I was inconsolable, so Robert led me to the guest room with the blue paint and the yellow curtains. Elsa brought me lemon tonic and cucumber sandwiches, and Robert read to me. Later, a doctor came. He claimed that I am having a hysteric episode, possibly linked to my surgery—but I know what I saw. For now I am to stay in bed, with Elsa close by, but I will find the witch, and she will burn.

− F.B.
12 December, 1812
Crumble Hall, London

12 December, 1812

She will not write to you, Fanny.
He will not come to you, Fanny.
The maid will not watch you, Fanny.
But worry not,
For underneath these walls I move
And I will keep you close
And quiet
And comfortable.

Once, I too was trapped in this room.
Then, there were bars on the windows
And disease wracked me
From all corners of my being
There is no way out
But to become the dry air
Of Crumble Hall

Mira

 

Mira:

Leave me be, my husband wants to send me away and he continues to exchange looks with the maid, as if I am not right in front of them. I do not belong in this room. I do not deserve to be followed by spectres at night, to be terrorized by you.

− F.B.
13 December, 1812

 

Dearest Hannah,

I have been in this room for nearly a fortnight, now. I have begun a story about my experiences, entitled, “The Grey Doves.” The witch has kept quiet in the past few days, but dust has begun collecting on the armoire, and I rarely see Robert anymore. My wound is sore, from laying here with nothing else to fixate on. I expect bedsores any day now. Elsa told me that a nurse will be here every night and that tomorrow the doctor will return to assess me.

The Grey Doves

            We moved into the Hall on September the first. It took two months for the letters to begin appearing, but the building had a sterile fullness to it. Though the stone was typical and the carpets delicate, the rooms painted soothing colours, it felt like an empty hospital room. Before the letters began occurring, I would sit in the drawing room with a book in hand, or my stitching, and the pages would flutter as it there was a breeze. My thread would catch on the impossible wind. If I was up past daylight, my candles would flicker out, once the breeze knocked one over, spilling wax onto my sampler.

− F.B.
17 December, 1812
Crumble Hall, London

 

19 December, 1812

Remember the surgeon’s scalpel on your breast?
The sinew and vessels
Tearing against the knife?
Remember the dull, thudding, scraping
Of the knife hitting bone?

Remember
The stoic faces
Spattered with your blood?
Remember not to trust anyone
But yourself
And your friend,
Mira.

 

Mira:

Leave me be, please. I am weak. The doctor says my state is declining, but it is because I am confined to this wretched room. Stop staring at me and blowing in my ear. Stop it—Stop it!

 

20 December

Fanny,

You know I cannot leave you,
You will die without me.
If you join me, you can stay here
With me
In the walls
We can watch together.
Inflict despair on the husband that keeps you locked
And the maid who is dishonest
Who wants to keep you from your beloved.
Join me
Join me
Join me

Mira
20 December

 

24 December, 1812

Dear Esther:

I am sorry to say that your sister has gone. She must have left in the night, she was very ill. Our maid has gone also. I found Fanny’s journal and a bundle of letters that appear to have not been sent. Fanny suffered from hysteria and I am sending a team to look for her. She was suffering great delusions. I keep seeing her out of the corner of my eye, so I believe she might be hiding in the house or in the yard. I haven’t caught up with her. Last night I heard a scream that sounded like the maid, but I found no one. It is strange. I will write once I find Fanny. Happy Christmas.

All the best,
Robert
Crumble Hall, London

 

Note: Fanny did not return, and Robert went bankrupt over sending search parties after his wife, who he claimed he saw inside and outside the home for years after her disappearance. The maid, Elsa, was found dead in a park near the home three days after her disappearance. (Esther, 1816)

 

 

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