The opening chapter of The Devoted Sister, Livia James’s new novel.
From across the hushed, fetid courtroom, the prosecutor, Mr Partington, peers at me over his spectacles, throwing me a look that says, now we have her, a smirk spreading across his pock-marked face. He waits. Is he expecting something from me in return? A stretching of my lips, into what I hope is a reassuring smile, appears to satisfy him.
The courthouse is packed, men and women, young and old, squeezed in, hot limbs pressed up against each other. As one, we all turn towards the dock. The sight of her deceitful face brings the sting of acid to the back of my throat.
‘Mrs Wilbraham,’ the prosecutor says again, flapping his papers to attract her attention. The sudden movement shifts the stagnant air, the stench of sweat mixing with the cheap, rose scent of the woman in front of me. I put my handkerchief to my nose.
Mr Partington strides towards the dock, clicks his fingers in front of her face, eliciting a burst of snorts and sniggers from the onlookers, but nothing from her.
She stares straight ahead, seems not to recognise her own name. I twist my handkerchief around my finger, tight, tighter, until the skin turns bloodless. Did she ever see herself as Mrs Wilbraham? When the vicar pronounced them man and wife, did she close her ears, her heart, to those sacred words that joined them together till death did them part?
‘Mrs Wilbraham, please could you explain what happened on the night of the seventh of December.’
Her body jerks as if she’s been wrenched from a dream. Slowly, she stands, eyelids blinking, her bitten nails digging into the mahogany of the dock. And yet, despite her dishevelment, there’s something about her: her height conveys an arrogance, the slimness of her waist an allure, a potent, bewitching combination with which I know she intends to hoodwink the jury.
‘I—’ She stops, swallows, starts again. ‘I had returned from an outing.’
She nods. ‘To visit with a friend.’
‘Could you be so kind as to tell us the name of this friend, Mrs Wilbraham?’ Partington draws out the word friend, glances at the jury, bristly eyebrows raised. Arms crossed, the twelve jurors raise their eyebrows back at him.
A flush of scarlet stains her porcelain face. She’s like a doll. Edmund’s words come back to me and they are as true now as they were when he uttered them; her waxen skin reminding me of a china doll that my mother once owned. How it had frightened the five-year-old me, with its soulless eyes, a grimace for a mouth and an alabaster sheen that told me no blood could possibly flow through its veins.
‘How is that relevant—’
The defence lawyer heaves himself up. ‘Yes, m’Lud. How is this—’
‘No matter, we may come back to that later,’ says Partington, casting another pointed look at the jury. ‘Please carry on, Mrs Wilbraham.’
‘I got back a little before seven. The rectory was in darkness; Edmund was at Evening Prayer. The front door was locked, so I made my way around to the gate in the garden wall. I let myself in, walked towards the house, but then, then something made me turn…’
‘Turn? What? A noise? A scream? A voice calling you?’
She closes her eyes, opens them again, shakes her head. ‘I cannot say. A feeling. Just a feeling.’
‘A feeling.’ Partington pronounces the word as if he’s never heard it before. ‘Do you often get these feelings?’
‘What? No. I… I can’t explain it.’
His gaze flicks to the jury and then back to her. ‘So what did you do then, when you had this feeling?’
‘I walked towards the plunge pool.’
There’s a murmur from the jury. She lifts her chin. ‘It’s what they do on the Continent. Bathing in the cold water cures all ailments.’
‘It certainly did that all right!’ someone shouts from the back of the courtroom. The murmuring turns into cackles, the mirth spreading around the room like an epidemic of cholera. How dare they? I long to put my hands over my ears to block out the noise.
‘Silence.’ The bang of the judge’s gavel makes us all start.
‘You walked towards the plunge pool and…’ Partington encourages her with a nod.
‘It was dark. I reached the edge of the pool and—’ Her chest rises beneath her corset as if she’s fighting for air. Part of me hopes the air will not come, that she will drop down dead where she stands; but the other part of me wants to deny her so easy an ending, wants her to suffer, and wants that suffering to be deep, never-ending, as mine has been.
‘And then I saw him. Edmund. In the water.’
The word shoots out of my mouth and ricochets around the room. From all directions, curious eyes turn towards me. All except hers. Her neck is bent as if she is praying. The judge points his finger at me, his wig shaking from side to side.
Partington ignores me. ‘So, he was in the water when you got there? Am I right?’
She hesitates. ‘Yes.’
‘I see.’ He pushes his glasses up his nose, takes hold of the lapels of his heavy robe, and begins to stroll around the room. ‘I see. Hmm. I see.’
What is he doing? He’s not going to let her get away with this lie, is he? I cough, trying to get his attention. He stops suddenly, a yard away from the dock, and stares at her.
She puts her hand to her throat, her fingers clutching at the necklace that Edmund gave her – my necklace.
‘So, Mrs Wilbraham, let me understand this correctly: you didn’t argue with him, push him so that he toppled into the water, his forehead hitting the statue as he fell? You didn’t kneel on the side of the plunge pool and hold his head until the water suffocated him, and he could breathe no more?’
‘No.’ Every drop of blood departs that ashen face. ‘No.’
The prosecutor waves his chubby hand in my direction. ‘And yet, the witness says she returned shortly after you did, has told this court that she could hear you arguing as she came along the lane, that she came into the garden and saw you push your husband, so that he fell and hit his head, and that you then knelt down and pressed on the back of his head until the life had left him.’
I bite on my knuckles to stop myself from crying out.
‘No.’ She is sinking, her body folding in on itself.
‘But other people heard you arguing, Mrs Wilbraham.’ He returns to his bench, retrieves his notes, pretending to study them. ‘Mrs Chappell, who lives a hundred yards from the rectory, heard, as she said earlier, raised voices. And Mr James, a passer-by, also heard shouting. Are you saying they are lying, Mrs Wilbraham? Are you saying that Miss Wilbraham, an honourable Christian, a woman who does much charitable work in this area, is lying?’
She licks her pale lips, takes a deep breath.
‘There was an argument but—’
‘Ah, now we are getting to the bottom of things,’ Partington says.
‘There was an argument,’ she continues.
‘So you were arguing with your husband.’
She shakes her head. ‘No, not with Edmund.’
‘Then with whom, Mrs Wilbraham?’
Her chin dips as she stares at those thin, white fingers.
Without moving her head, her eyes find mine, but then sweep past me, along the row to where I know he sits. The animal stink of his fear invades my nostrils and I cover my nose with my handkerchief to stop myself from gagging.
‘Mrs Wilbraham.’ The prosecutor sighs. ‘With whom were you arguing?’
It’s as if the whole courtroom is holding its breath. Or maybe it’s just me who is waiting, waiting to see if she will forsake him now, the man who she once told me she loved more than life itself. I’d had a flicker of sympathy for her then, knowing how she felt, understanding the agony that a love so buried could bring.
The judge studies the clock high above the door, leans forward. ‘Answer the question, please, Mrs Wilbraham.’
Her meagre lips open, but nothing comes out of her lying mouth.
The judge slaps his hand onto the bench in front of him.
Partington raises his eyebrows.
The acid stings at the back of my throat.
‘No-one,’ she says, her voice shaking. ‘No-one.’