Read An Excerpt
The door creaked open as the maid stepped into the room, where a myriad of exotic birds and flowers competed with each other, in a flattened jungle of leaf gold and petals of magenta. On the walls, butterflies were pinned, framed and labelled, and all around her, a dizzying quietness, except for a scratching sound made by a little finch that was kept in a cage by the window.
In the maid’s hand was a key which she turned in the lock of her mistress’ wardrobe, crouching down low to pull out the brushing tray. The scent of lavender bags rose from the opened drawer, as she lifted it up, revealing a hidden compartment and a different scent altogether. Dried ink and woody parchment. Enveloped by this scent, the maid bound the bundle of letters together with a knot of rattan cord.
It was still snowing outside. Thick pelts were falling silently beyond the huge arched window which led her down into the hall. Pushing the door open, she left nothing behind, only a flurry of air and the bracing cold bite of December.
Flora’s instructions had been clear. Her mistress had been agitated for over a month, pacing the floors, wringing her hands, then suddenly announced, in that way of hers. “I am decided. Make your way back to London and deliver the letters, Flora. You know where to find them. Then, do exactly as I’ve instructed.” And who was she to question anything? She was just the messenger, a mere servant, thought Flora as she wrestled with her pocket watch, but she needn’t have worried. Because right on time, the regular omnibus veered around the corner of Nightingale Walk, with a deafening clutter of hooves.
Flora clambered into the coach, and holding the letters close, drifted a little with the earliness of it all, but then was jolted back by the cry of, “Next stop, Great Russell Street.”
Her heart pounding, Flora looked skywards at the towering Colossus before her and sprang up the steps, each bound made quiet by the falling snow. She knocked at the huge, oak door with a resonating thud, to hear a shuffle and the rattling of keys.
“Go easy I say, or you’ll bring the door down,” a voice said through a grate. Flora showed the scroll of letters, as the porter opened the door and nodded her in.
“Sit yourself down and I’ll find you a nip of something. It’s perishing out there.”
She shook her head, refusing the offer. The porter shrugged. “Dr. Canning never arrives early, nor any of the other curators, but if you like, we can go and look for him.”
The museum was pitch black, crypt like as the pair moved slowly illuminated by a tallow, up the central stairs past row upon row of shells, bones, mummified creatures. The mosaic tiled floor clipped and echoed, as they turned down a corridor until finally the flame licked around a bend, where -
“Would you fathom it, I could have sworn...”
A single lamp burned, igniting a collection of minerals into a spectacular firework display. And Flora saw her fear and the scroll of letters in her hand, reflected in a glass cabinet, where a myriad of tiny birds had been caught in iridescent flight. And to the left of the hummingbirds, a door with a brass nameplate which announced, “Dr. John Canning, Anthropologist and Naturalist.”
The door opened and a man ruffled his hair, a half smile upon his face.
“Ah, excellent. I’ve been expecting these letters for some time,” Dr. Canning said, as he ushered Flora into the room, smoothing out the first of them - a scroll of golden, weather beaten parchment. He put on a pair of glasses, sat back in his chair and began.