The Paradoxicon lies in the grounds of Effingham Hall, somewhere out on the edge of SaxonBury EastMidlington, and is owned by the noble Partridge family. An old and esteemed branch of the Royal line, the Partridges have resided at Effingham as long as it has existed. Twelve generations of Partridges, each more apathetic than the last, and they’ve cared for the Paradoxicon for five of those generations, since it appeared within their walls, within walls of its own. Locked and mysterious.
The key appeared at the same time as the garden, sat snugly in the great golden lock on the thick, ebony door, but they have never turned it. A Paradoxicon is a dangerous place. One never knows what might grow inside its walls. Some plants are monsters in disguise. The same is also true of people. Never more so than with the majority of the Partridges.
On the morning of the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month of the year of the Briar Rose, the snow that had settled for the past week in luminous mounds across the houses and gardens, capping the walls of the Paradoxicon in a neat, rounded collar has all but melted away, leaving only sad looking crusts of brownish slush. Robins sing lofty choruses in the bare branches of the trees beneath the cloister along the Western wall of Effingham hall and, in the stables, the hounds howl in unholy unison.
It’s a little after ten, roughly an hour after the breaking of the fast in the long, sun-dappled Yellow Parlour, that the cry of alarm is raised by the nursery nurses in the East Wing. The head of these twittering hens, the nanny, a pragmatic, apple-cheeked creature named Olgiva, grabs up her skirts and runs with unusual panic into the Red Salon, which is neither red nor strictly a salon, but has been adopted as such by the ladies of the house due to its most pleasing aspects upon the gardens.
Bobbing frantically as she enters, Olgiva all but shouts, ‘Begging pardon, miladies, but milady Elspetha is missing!’ What she doesn’t say, what she holds on the tip of her tongue like a bitter seed she wants to spit but can’t, is the reason for her distress. Not so much the missing child, but where she might have gone.
‘No need to squawk so, girl!’ the Dowager Partridge admonishes, raising her pince-nez to a disapproving pair of sleepy almond-hued eyes.
‘Sorry ma’am, no ma’am, but the Governess was certain she was with the Seamstress and the Seamstress was convinced her Ladyship was in the small parlour with the Language Master, who himself was categorical that she was with the young fellow Armistice, practising her watercolours. But ma’am she is with none of them. We are unable to find her!’
Lady Carolinde Partridge blinks slowly from her incumbent position upon the chaise-longue by the window. ‘Did somebody say something about Elspetha?’
‘The girl says she’s gorn missing.’ The Dowager declares, lowering her pince-nez and raising her delicate china cup to sup a sip of sweet tea. ‘I must say it sounds perfectly nonsensical. How on earth does one lose a Lady?’
‘Well,’ muses her daughter, staring thoughtfully out of the window, ‘Elspetha is very small for her age.’
Olgiva blinks in some perturbance and squeaks, fighting to keep any reproof from her tone, her place is not such that she’s given leave to reprove, ‘Miladies, her ladyship! Should I raise the groundsmen to search for her?’
Lady Carolinda waggles a hand weakly. ‘By all means, you’d best. My husband, his Lordship, will be most aggrieved should I allow his favourite daughter to disappear for good. Heaven knows why. Elspetha’s not anywhere near as elegant as her elder sister Amalintha, who dear friends insist is the very spit of me, and has none of my Angusbarne’s brains. Trust Erastuce to pick the least perfect child for his favourite, he always was contrary, but then he’s only a Viscount. It’s to be expected.’
‘She’ll make some poor nobleman a most disagreeable wife,’ the Dowager declares, almost as an afterthought, before snatching up a delicate rose biscuit and biting right into the closest petal.
Olgiva takes her leave and races to Gorbled, the head gardener, rousing him from his hothouse to round up the groundsmen. She’s awash with anxious nerves. Elspetha might indeed lack elegance, and is most assuredly not near as clever as her brother, if cleverness can be gauged by a wanton love of all things financial that is, but she has a madness of sorts that Olgiva’s mother would have called ‘an excess of will’. Elspetha is, in fact, fearless, and often beyond foolish. And she has a bee in her bonnet.
The gardens of Effingham hall are large and varied. Nearest to the hall itself are the Orchard, the mazes, the Rose gardens, the hothouses and the lawns. Beyond lie knots of woodland, the deer runs, the secret gardens, both walled and cleverly hidden, the lakes, the Orangery and the Paradoxicon. Swiftly frustrated with the groundsmen’s tentative forays into the maze and the Orchard, where Elspetha most assuredly isn’t, and aware Gorbled won’t give credence to anything a woman might say, Olgiva heads off alone across the great lawn toward the distant walls of the Paradoxicon, tall and too dark against insipid clouds.
After two hours of slipping past various grottos and woods, barrelling helter skelter through the deer run, fearful of the flighty, antlered beasts, and trailing through each secret garden, Olgiva reaches what the family and their staff have come to call the Blackening, a strip of land that simply died when the garden appeared all those centuries ago. In the dusty black she sees what she fears most, tiny footprints. Olgiva takes a deep breath and steps across the border and into the Gibbling forest which is not a forest, nor even a wood, more a series of groves; weeping willows ancient and arthritic, their limbs warped and bent.
These willows shelter the Paradoxicon, growing in soft, spongy ground that was once the old trout lake, now long since dried out to mud thanks to its most unusual burden and covered in these multitudes of twisted willows and thick, sphagnum moss that bounces beneath Olgiva’s feet as she walks. Turtle-doves labour through the air, weaving under and through the branches chirruping like frogs, their hard shells glistening in the soft light. All is quiet bar their high-pitched song, and Olgiva is certain she hears the willows weeping.
Through the drooping branches she can already see the deep grey walls of the Paradoxicon, thick, sheer granite, so perfectly smooth and glassy their ladyships could use it to adjust their curls and powder their cheeks. So reflective in fact that she can see the willows cloned into infinity within their glistening surface. They seem to her forbidding, those walls, but she chides herself that of course they would, for this garden is forbidden to even the Lord of the house and she is but a simple nursemaid.
Picking her way between trunks and over knotted rises of gnarled roots, Olgiva makes her way to the wall. She looks one way, and then the other, but she can’t see the door. Sighing, she decides to follow her left hand, knowing the door to be somewhere along the South side, because servants love to gossip when they can, and begins to walk beside the wall. It towers above her, seeming to touch the heavens and goes on and on for so long she wonders if she will ever reach the corner.
When she does she finds that the willows have grown too close both to the wall and to each other here and she must weave among them like the cumbersome turtle-doves to where the great ebony door of the Paradoxicon cleaves the granite. Olgiva stops at the sight of it, her hands clutched into her skirts. The door is open, just as she had guessed it might be in her direst imaginings. She bites her lip.
‘Oh hell’s bladder,’ she mutters to herself. ‘I’m in a right mess now and no mistaking. Should’ve kept a closer eye. I knew she’d try something.’
Elspetha’s been fascinated by the Paradoxicon for weeks. Having just turned thirteen, the age ladies of the Partridge household are expected to memorise their family history, she learned the truth about the strange granite-walled mystery at the rear of their lands and became obsessed with knowing what lay within it that could possibly be so dangerous and unnatural as to keep her entire family from ever going near. Olgiva warned and threatened and cajoled, but to no avail, what Elspetha wants no force can keep her from.
‘Bethesba alone knows what’s happened to her ladyship,’ she mutters, gathering up her skirts and hopping over a gnarl of roots rather like a fisted hand. ‘Silly girl needs a darn good switching to the behind.’ Olgiva drops her skirts and covers her mouth, astonished at the cheek of it. ‘You’re not on the croft, Olgiva Jelgaddeth,’ she hisses to herself and, gathering her skirts again, heads purposefully for the open door, her heart pounding fit to break a rib.
Inside, the garden is at first glance so startlingly ordinary she’s stopped in her tracks. The first section, walled off and graced with its own door almost parallel to the entrance, is a well tended lawn, mowed to dense, close-cut perfection that would set Gorbled to weep with envy, bordered by a soft, dense frill of lavender. The scent of the blooms overwhelms the air, thick and cloying as clouds in summer. It’s only as she begins to tread once again across the grass that Olgiva realises how quiet the garden is, and begins to feel as though she’s being watched.
In the centre of the lawn, halfway to the other door, she stops again and looks around. There’s nothing. Nobody. Only the rearing walls, the gaping door with the willows beyond, the lawn, the lavender, and her. Olgiva peers at the lavender. It’s unlike any she’s ever seen. Too wispy by half, too bright a purple, and what business does lavender have flowering at this time of year, when the nip of frost is in the air and the snow only just melted?
As the question passes through her mind, bringing with it a niggling trickle of icy fear, the lavender opens millions upon millions of deep purple eyes, and stares at her, unblinking. Shrieking, Olgiva gathers her skirts and races for the other door, sure her heart has stopped from fright and not caring quite frankly what the lavender makes of the spectacle of her petticoats and stockings on display, though at any other time such a consideration would be of the highest priority. Bursting into the next garden, Olgiva stops for a second to catch her breath and then hurries on.
This garden appears as innocuous as the last, all grass and something bright and floral spilling in profusion from every border, but Olgiva already mistrusts it and scurries through, quick and nervous as a mouse, barely sparing a glance for the borders to right and left. It’s clear Elspetha is not here, and she doesn’t want to see whatever else is. Past this garden, through the next door, lies an Orchard. It is, unsurprisingly, no ordinary orchard. There is only one tree, right at the centre, a vast thing, so tall it seems at its crown to touch the very heavens. All the rest of the trees that should be in rows beside it are marked by empty holes.
Although she’s frightened, Olgiva peeks down the nearest hole, and rears back with a squeal. It’s endless. A pit so deep it repels light and swallows the eyes. She edges in to the Orchard, more fearful of the holes than anything else, even the tree at their centre, but bound to find her charge no matter what. She hopes her charge hasn’t taken a tumble down one of these holes. That’d likely be her head as well as her position. It doesn’t bear thinking of.
‘Milady,’ she calls out, misliking the high, reedy tenor of her voice. ‘Are you here?’
‘Nanny! Come see! You won’t believe your eyes!’
Olgiva almost faints with relief. The shout comes from the tree at the centre. From somewhere among the snaking branches, behind an almost luxuriant growth of wide, complicated red leaves. She’s about to respond when the voice comes again.
‘Don’t listen to her,’ it says, cheerfully. ‘She’s not me. Well, she is, but strictly speaking she’s not the original me.’
‘But you could never tell,’ says the same voice, with equal cheer.
‘Oh no, it’s quite remarkable,’ continues her charge merrily. ‘We shall have fun!’
‘Oh yes indeed!’
Her fear of the holes quite forgotten in the certainty that her charge has finally gone barking mad, Olgiva races to the tree and stares up into its branches. There, sat side by side in identical plum velvet winter coats over deep damask silken skirts, sit two Elspethas, utterly indistinguishable from one another. They both smile at her, that selfsame beguiling, untrustworthy glimmer.
‘Hello, nanny,’ they trill.
‘Saints preserve us,’ she cries, clutching at her breast. ‘Whatever’s happened? His Lordship is like to turf me out in the cold without so much as a reference.’
One of the Elspetha’s utters a pretty little giggle. ‘This,’ she declares, sounding very much like her grandmother the Dowager in her importance, ‘is a Pair Tree.’
‘Yes,’ the other Elspetha chimes in, swinging her legs to and fro as though she’s not a care in the world, let alone a sudden, unnatural identical twin. ‘The gardener told me so, and so it is. Because, look,’ she raises a delicate, white hand at her companion, ‘it made another me.’
‘Another me, you mean,’ says the other Elspetha, looking somewhat put out.
‘You. Me. We’re both we,’ her twin replies.
‘Well, I suppose that’s true,’ allows the Elspetha who claims to be the original. ‘But I imagine, as with twins, like my brothers Barnabury and Braithwake, it’s important who was born first. And that,’ she concludes which much satisfaction, ‘was decidedly me.’
‘If you insist, but I’m definitely prettier.’
‘Girls!’ screams Olgiva, quite beside herself, though nowhere near as much as her charge. ‘Who on earth is the gardener?’
‘I met him in the first garden,’ declares the apparently less pretty and most genuine Elspetha. ‘He was watering the Lavendeyes.’
‘And where, pray tell, is he now?’ Olgiva demands, crossing her arms to match her temper.
‘I haven’t a clue, nanny Ollie. I expect he’s somewhere, but he said the garden’s very big. It goes on for miles. It’s not all here.’
‘Not all here?’ Olgiva is on the verge of unleashing her sanity.
‘No,’ says the other Elspetha brightly, looking as pretty as she feels. ‘It’s everywhere at once. That’s how the plants are so unusual. They’re not local, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Olgiva struggles for a moment between anger and hysteria, but having been a nanny at large houses in charge of impudent and often outrageous young nobles for the majority of her life, practicality storms in from behind for an overwhelming victory. Recovering her authority, Olgiva points imperiously at the ground.
‘I don’t care what this tree is, or which Lady Elspetha Partridge is which, you’ll both get you down from that tree this instant if you know what’s good for you. We’re taking this to his Lordship.’
Elspetha the less pretty screws up her face, looking quite as ugly as can be. If she weren’t up a tree, she’d probably stamp her little foot. ‘Not papa, Ollie! You can’t!’
‘Oh and can’t I now? I’ll have you know, miladies, that I’m not paid for nonsense such as this, and by Hegrad’s teats I’ll not be taking no responsibility for it! Now get you down this instant before I’m of a mind to come up after you and hie you down by your pretty earholes.’
The two ladies scramble down and dust off their skirts. ‘No need to take on so,’ grumbles the one. ‘We weren’t planning to stay up there forever.’
‘You need only have asked,’ mumbles the other, looking mulish.
Olgiva ignores both and hustles them ahead of her, keeping them between the rows of holes. Through the garden beyond the Orchard and then the garden of the Lavendeyes, that she outright refuses to acknowledge, despite their curious gazes, and out of the door she harries them, clucking and tutting disapproval. There, Olgiva spins on her heel, hauls each large ebony panel of the door firmly shut and turns the golden key decisively in the lock.
‘There now. As it should be,’ she declares, then turns on them a warning eye. ‘And so it shall stay if you’ve even a wit of sense in those pretty little heads.’
‘Do we have to tell papa?’ asks the less pretty Elspetha plaintively. ‘He’ll be ever so cross.’
‘And how, pray tell, do we explain there being two of you if we don’t?’ asks Olgiva of her aggravating charge.
‘We could take turns,’ pipes up the prettier Elspetha, causing her twin to leap up and down with delight.
‘Oh what a marvellous idea!’ she squeaks. ‘Say we can, Ollie. Please. You know mama and papa won’t notice, they never pay any attention to us children at all unless they ask to see us, and only papa ever bothers, and only on a Sunday after the hunt when he’s feeling sentimental. Besides, if they find out I managed to get into the Paradoxicon, you know who they’ll blame, and it’s not like I can defend you. I can’t let them think I’m naughty, as well as stupid and inelegant, can I?’
‘Why you sly little minx,’ snaps Olgiva. ‘I ought to box your ears for you.’
‘Please,’ beg the two Elspethas in concert, their eyes huge and doe-like.
‘We promise to behave,’ says one.
‘On our lives,’ says the other.
Olgiva thinks for a moment. As little as she likes it it’ll be her who takes the blame for the impudence and impetuosity of Lady Elspetha. Never mind that she couldn’t contain the child in an iron box, their Lord and Ladyship would blame any and all faults in their precious offspring on faulty nannying. She’ll lose her job, her livelihood to boot. And she’s never been much good at milking goats, hoeing weeds or darning socks. She’d make a worse crofter’s wife than either Elspetha will make for a noble.
She turns to face the two of them head on. ‘Do you swear you’ll not let up the pretence in their presence? You’ll have to share exactly, no squabbling, no matter how much one of you might have to miss whilst taking turns.’
The two girls press their hands together and nod their heads. ‘We swear.’
‘Then I suppose I’ll allow it. I don’t reckon I’ve much of a choice.’ The matching pair squeal delight, throwing their arms about their nanny and squeezing until she thinks she might pop. She pushes them away. ‘Don’t you be cupboard loving me, you little wretches. You’ve given me no end of trouble. We’ll have to let the staff in the East wing know for a start,’ she tells them sternly. ‘And we’ll have to sneak back. I’ll present one of you to their ladyships as soon as we’re done explaining to the staff and tell them you were in the Orangery. It’s just as far and explains our absence. I’ll tell their Ladyships you had a hankering for fruit.’
The Elspethas bob, perfect imitations of little ladies, a mirror for their older sister, the Lady Amalintha. Olgiva doesn’t even allow herself to imagine the horror of two Amalinthas. It’s enough to make her blood run to ice. ‘Yes, nanny,’ they say and, holding hands, they skip on ahead through the Gibbling forest, jumping to try and catch the turtle-doves as they flit clumsily overhead. Olgiva shakes her head and picks up her skirts, hurrying in their wake.
‘Who ever heard of such a nonsense, at yuletide, too,’ she mutters to herself with no small indignation. ‘Of all the things that could have happened; a Partridge, in a Pair Tree!’
© Ren Warom 2012