Megan Shepherd’s The Madman’s Daughter is a dark, breathless, beautifully-written gothic thriller of murder, madness and a mysterious island…
The basement hallways in King’s College of Medical Research were dark, even in the daytime.
At night they were like a grave.
Rats crawled through corridors that dripped with cold perspiration. The chill in the sunken rooms kept the specimens from rotting and numbed my own flesh, too, through the worn layers of my dress. When I cleaned those rooms, late at night after the medical students had gone home to their warm beds, the sound of my hard-bristle brush echoed in the operating theater, down the twisting halls, into the storage spaces where they kept the things of nightmares. Other people’s nightmares, that is. Dead flesh and sharpened scalpels didn’t bother me. I was my father’s daughter, after all. My nightmares were made of darker things.
My brush paused against the mortar, frozen by a familiar sound from down the hall: the unwelcome tap-tap-tap of footsteps that meant Dr Hastings had stayed late. I scrubbed harder, furiously, but blood had a way of seeping into the tiles so not even hours of work could get them clean.
The footsteps came closer until they stopped right behind me.
‘How’s it coming, then, Juliet?’ His warm breath brushed the back of my neck.
Keep your eyes down, I told myself, scouring the bloodstained squares of mortar so hard that my own knuckles bled.
‘Well, Doctor.’ I kept it short, hoping he would leave, but he didn’t.
Overhead the electric bulbs snapped and clicked. I glanced at the silver tips of his shoes, so brightly polished that I could see the reflection of his balding scalp and milky eyes watching me. He wasn’t the only professor who worked late, or the only one whose gaze lingered too long on my bent-over backside. But the smell of lye and other chemicals on my clothes deterred the others. Dr Hastings seemed to relish it.
He slipped his pale fingers around my wrist. I dropped the brush in surprise. ‘Your knuckles are bleeding,’ he said, pulling me to my feet.
‘It’s the cold. It chaps my skin.’ I tried to tug my hand back, but he held firm. ‘It’s nothing.’
His eyes followed the sleeve of my muslin dress to the stained apron and frayed hem, a dress that not even my father’s poorest servants would have worn. But that was many years ago, when we lived in the big house on Belgrave Square, where my closet burst with furs and silks and soft lacy things I’d worn only once or twice, since Mother threw out the previous year’s fashions like bathwater.
That was before the scandal.
Now, men seldom looked at my clothes for long. When a girl fell from privilege, men were less interested in her ratty skirts than in what lay underneath, and Dr Hastings was no different. His eyes settled on my face. My friend Lucy told me I looked like the lead actress at the Brixton, a Frenchwoman with high cheekbones and skin pale as bone, even paler against the dark, straight hair she wore swept up in a Swiss-style chignon. I kept my own hair in a simple braid, though a few strands always managed to slip out.
Dr Hastings reached up to tuck them behind my ear, his fingers rough as parchment against my temple. I cringed inside but fought to keep my face blank. Better to give no reaction so he wouldn’t be encouraged. But my shaking hands betrayed me.
Dr Hastings smiled thinly. The tip of his tongue snaked out from between his lips.
Suddenly the sound of groaning hinges made him startle.
My heart pounded wildly at this chance to slip away. Mrs Bell, the lead maid, stuck her gray head through the cracked door. Her mouth curved in its perpetual frown as her beady eyes darted between the professor and me. I’d never been so glad to see her wrinkled face.
‘Juliet, out with you,’ she barked. ‘Mary’s gone and broken a lamp, and we need another set of hands.’
I stepped away from Dr Hastings, relief rolling off me like a cold sweat. My eyes met Mrs Bell’s briefly as I slipped into the hall. I knew that look. She couldn’t watch out for me all the time.
One day, she might not be there to intercede.
The moment I was free of those dark hallways, I dashed into the street toward Covent Garden as the moon hovered low over London’s skyline. The harsh wind bit at my calves through worn wool stockings as I waited for a carriage to pass. Across the street a figure stood in the lee of the big wooden bandstand’s staircase.
‘You awful creature,’ Lucy said, slipping out of the shadows. She hugged the collar of her fur coat around her long neck. Her cheeks and nose were red beneath a light sheen of French powder. ‘I’ve been waiting an hour.’
‘I’m sorry.’ I leaned in and pressed my cheek to hers. Her parents would be horrified to know she had snuck out to meet me. They had encouraged our friendship when Father was London’s most famous surgeon, but were quick to forbid her to see me after his banishment.
Luckily for me, Lucy loved to disobey.
‘They’ve had me working late all week opening up some old rooms,’ I said. ‘I’ll be cleaning cobwebs out of my hair for days.’
She pretended to pluck something distasteful from my hair and grimaced. We both laughed. ‘Honestly, I don’t know how you can stand that work, with the rats and beetles and, my God, whatever else lurks down there.’ Her blue eyes gleamed mischievously. ‘Anyway, come on. The boys are waiting.’ She snatched my hand, and we hurried across the courtyard to a redbrick building with a stone staircase. Lucy banged the horse-head knocker twice.
The door swung open, and a young man with thick chestnut hair and a fine suit appeared. He had Lucy’s same fair skin and wide-set eyes, so this must be the cousin she’d told me about. I timidly evaluated his tall forehead, the helix of his ears that projected only a hair too far from the skull.
Good-looking, I concluded. He studied me wordlessly in return, in my third-hand coat, with worn elbows and frayed satin trim, that must have looked so out of place next to Lucy’s finely tailored one. But to his credit, his grin didn’t falter for a moment. She must have warned him she was bringing a street urchin and not to say anything rude.
‘Let us in, Adam,’ Lucy said, pushing past him. ‘My toes are freezing to the street.’
I slipped in behind her. Shrugging off her coat, she said, ‘Adam, this is the friend I’ve told you about. Not a penny to her name, can’t cook, but God, just look at her.’
My face went red, and I shot Lucy a withering look, but Adam only smiled. ‘Lucy’s nothing if not blunt,’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I’m used to it. I’ve heard far worse come out of her mouth. And she’s right, at least about the last part.’
I jerked my head toward him, expecting a leer. But he was being sincere, which only left me feeling more at a loss for words.
‘Where are they?’ Lucy asked, ignoring us. A bawdy roar spilled from a back room, and Lucy grinned and headed toward the sound. I expected Adam to follow her. But his gaze found me instead. He smiled again.
Startled, I paused a second too long. This was new. No vulgar winks, no glances at my chest. I was supposed to say something pleasant. But instead I drew a breath in, like a secret I had to keep close. I knew how to handle cruelty, not kindness.
‘May I take your coat?’ he asked. I realized I had my arms wrapped tightly around my chest, though it was pleasantly warm inside the house.
I forced my arms apart and slid the coat off. ‘Thank you.’ My voice was barely audible.
We followed Lucy down the hall to a sitting room where a group of lanky medical students reclined on leather sofas, sipping glasses of honey-colored liquid. Winter examinations had just ended, and they were clearly deep into their celebration.
This was the kind of thing Lucy adored – breaking up a boys’ club, drinking gin and playing cards and reveling in their shocked faces. She got away with it under the pretense of visiting her cousin, though this was a far step from the elderly aunt’s parlor where Lucy was supposed to be meeting him.
Adam stepped forward to join the crowd, laughing at something someone said. I tried to feel at ease in the unfamiliar crowd, too aware of my shabby dress and chapped hands. Smile, Mother would have whispered. You belonged among these people, once. But first I needed to gauge how drunk they were, the lay of the room, who was most likely not to laugh at my poor clothes. Analyzing, always analyzing – I couldn’t feel safe until I knew every aspect of what I was facing.
Mother had been so confident around other people, always able to talk about the church sermon that morning, about the rising price of coffee. But I’d taken after my father when it came to social situations. Awkward. Shy. More apt to study the crowd like some social experiment than to join in.
Lucy had tucked herself on the sofa between a blond-haired boy and one with a face as red as an apple. A half-empty rum bottle dangled from her graceful fingers. When she saw me hanging back in the doorway, she stood and sauntered over.
‘The sooner you find a husband,’ she growled playfully, ‘the sooner you can stop scrubbing floors. So pick one of them and say something charming.’
I swallowed. My eyes drifted to Adam. ‘Lucy, men like these don’t marry girls like me.’
‘You haven’t the faintest idea what men want. They don’t want some snobbish porridge-faced brat plucking at needlepoint all day.’
‘Yes, but I’m a maid.’
‘A temporary situation.’ She waved it away, as if my last few years of backbreaking work were nothing more than a lark. She jabbed me in the side. ‘You come from money. From class. So show a little.’
She held the bottle out to me. I wanted to tell her that sipping rum straight from a bottle wasn’t exactly showing class, but I’d only earn myself another jab.
I glanced at Adam. I’d never been good at guessing people’s feelings. I had to study their reactions instead. And in this situation, it didn’t take much to conclude I wasn’t what these men wanted, despite Lucy’s insistence.
But maybe I could pretend to be. Hesitantly, I took a sip.
The blond boy tugged Lucy to the sofa next to him. ‘You must help us end a debate, Miss Radcliffe. Cecil says the human body contains 210 bones, and I say 211.’
Lucy batted her pretty lashes. ‘Well, I’m sure I don’t know.’
I sighed and leaned into the doorframe.
The boy took her chin in his hand. ‘If you’ll be so good as to hold still, I’ll count, and we can find our answer.’ He touched a finger to her skull. ‘One.’ I rolled my eyes as the boy dropped his finger lower, to her shoulder bones. ‘Two. And three.’ His finger ran slowly, seductively, along her clavicle. ‘Four.’ Then his finger traced even lower, to the thin skin covering her breastbone. ‘Five,’ he said, so drawn out that I could smell the rum on his breath.
I cleared my throat. The other boys watched, riveted, as the boy’s finger drifted lower and lower over Lucy’s neckline. Why not just skip the pretense and grab her breast? Lucy was no better, giggling like she was enjoying it. Exasperated, I slapped his pasty hand off her chest.
The whole room went still.
‘Wait your turn, darling,’ the boy said, and they all laughed. He turned back to Lucy, holding up that ridiculous finger.
‘206,’ I said.
This got their attention. Lucy took the bottle from my hand and fell back against the leather sofa with an exasperated sigh.
‘I beg your pardon?’ the boy said.
‘206,’ I repeated, feeling my cheeks warm. ‘There are 206 bones in the body. I would think, as a medical student, you would know that.’
Lucy’s head shook at my hopelessness, but her lips cracked in a smile regardless. The blond boy’s mouth went slack.
I continued before he could think. ‘If you doubt me, tell me how many bones are in the human hand.’ The boys took no offense at my remark. On the contrary, they seemed all the more drawn to me for it. Maybe I was the kind of girl they wanted, after all.
Lucy’s only acknowledgment was an approving tip of the rum bottle in my direction.
‘I’ll take that wager,’ Adam interrupted, leveling his handsome green eyes at me.
Lucy jumped up and wrapped her arm around my shoulders. ‘Oh, good! And what’s the wager, then? I’ll not have Juliet risk her reputation for less than a kiss.’
I immediately turned red, but Adam only grinned. ‘My prize, if I am right, shall be a kiss. And if I am wrong—’
‘If you are wrong’ – I interjected, feeling reckless; I grabbed the rum from Lucy and tipped the bottle back, letting the liquid warmth chase away my insecurity – ‘you must call on me wearing a lady’s bonnet.’
He walked around the sofa and took the bottle. The confidence in his step told me he didn’t intend to lose. He set the bottle on the side table and skimmed his forefinger tantalizingly along the delicate bones in the back of my hand.
I parted my lips, curling my toes to keep from jerking my hand away. This wasn’t Dr Hastings, I told myself. Adam was hardly shoving his hand down my neckline. It was just an innocent touch.
‘Twenty-four,’ he said.
I felt a triumphant swell. ‘Wrong. Twenty-seven.’ Lucy gave my leg a pinch and I remembered to smile. This was supposed to be flirtatious. Fun.
Adam’s eyes danced devilishly. ‘And how would a girl know such things?’
I straightened. ‘Whether I’m right or wrong has nothing to do with gender.’ I paused. ‘Also, I’m right.’
Adam smirked. ‘Girls don’t study science.’
My confidence faltered. I knew how many bones there were in the human hand because I was my father’s daughter. When I was a child, Father would give physiology lessons to our servant boy, Montgomery, to spite those who claimed the lower classes were incapable of learning. He considered women naturally deficient, however, so I would hide in the laboratory closet during lessons, and Montgomery would slip me books to study. But I could hardly tell these young men that. Every medical student knew the name Moreau. They would remember the scandal.
Lucy jumped to my defense. ‘Juliet knows more than the lot of you. She works in the medical building. She’s probably spent more time around cadavers than you lily spirits.’
I gritted my teeth, wishing she hadn’t told them. It was one thing to be a maid, another to clean the laboratory after their botched surgeries. But Adam arched an eyebrow, interested.
‘Is that so? Well then, I have a different wager for you, miss.’ His eyes danced with something more dangerous than a kiss. ‘I have a key to the college, and you must know your way around. Let’s find one of your skeletons and count for ourselves.’
Glances darted among the other boys like sparks in a fire. They prodded one another, goading each other on in anticipation of the idea of a clandestine trip into the bowels of the medical building.
Lucy gave me an impish shrug. ‘Why not?’
I hesitated. I’d spent enough time in those dank halls. There was a darkness there that had worked its way into the hollow spaces between my bones. A darkness that clung to the hallways like my father’s shadow, smelling of formaldehyde and his favorite apricot preserves. Tonight was supposed to be about escaping the darkness – if not in the arms of a future husband, at least in a few lighthearted moments.
I shook my head.
But the boys had made up their minds, and there was no convincing them otherwise. ‘Are you trying to get out of a kiss?’ Adam teased.
I didn’t respond. My desire for flirtation had evaporated at the mention of the university basements. But if Lucy didn’t balk at the idea of seeing a skeleton, surely I shouldn’t.
I cleaned the cobwebs from their creaky bones every night. So what was holding me back?
Lucy leaned in and whispered in my ear. ‘Adam wants to impress you with how brave he is, you idiot. Swoon when you see the skeleton and fall into his arms. Men love that sort of thing.’
My stomach tightened. God, was this what normal girls did? Feign weakness? I could never imagine Mother, with all her strict morals, doing something so scandalous as slipping into forbidden hallways on a dare. But Father – he wouldn’t have hesitated. He would have been the one egging them on.
Dash it. I snatched the rum and poured the last few swallows down my throat. The boys cheered. I ignored the queasy feeling in my stomach – not from the rum, but from the thought of those dark hallways we were soon to enter.