by Lauren Santamaria, 9-I | 5 March 2021
The Twelve Chimes
If the person you held closest to your heart were to pass from this world without warning, how would you feel? What would you do? I'm sure you would cry a river for them, mourning their loss and regretting having not spent enough time with them. There would be a huge void in your heart, lost by their death that no one could ever fill up again.
But what if that incident led to a hoard of secrets being revealed, letting you realize that everything you believed in your life to be true was false?
On a fair day in late June, I ran through the fields of poppies and daisies near my home. Since I had quite a stately family, we could afford a lavish garden nearby. Ms. Green’s lessons with me would take a pause every summer, leaving me free to explore the world as much as I desired. Scampering through the grassy shrubs, I felt the tender wind blowing past my body as I lay on the green bed. Nature’s choir was singing appassionato, as the birds were chirping in perfect harmony.
“Hello, little one. How are the skies today? Is it a good day to sail?”, I asked a tiny bluebird perched on my finger. The creature’s body was adorned with a beauteous shade of blue and orange, like the colors of the sea and land juxtaposed next to each other. On its face was a kindly smile, as if it were welcoming me to listen to its next performance. When it opened its mouth, a splendid sound came out that I could listen to all day. My garden was my favorite place to be in due to all the secrets hiding around each corner about animals and plants.
The late morning rolled over, and my stomach grew hungry for food. “Sorry, little one, but I cannot stay here forever. I am not a bird that eats worms like you. I promise that in the future, we will meet again,”, I told the bird, who looked slightly dismayed. Slowly standing up from where I lay on the grass, I ran to my home for lunch.
When I entered, however, I was met with a mysterious noise. The grandfather’s clock at the end of the hall was chiming loudly despite having never chimed before. This was no ordinary alarm either. It resembled a funeral toll, with its dark, somber tone, and it rang a total of 12 times. Shaking my head, I looked at the ancient thing again. No longer did it resonate, which brought me relief, as I feared that I was trapped in a fever dream.
“Mommy! Mommy! Where are you? Is lunch ready?”, I called out several times as I knocked on her bedroom door. Camille Stoneham, my mother, was no ordinary woman, but a celebrated opera singer in Portsmouth, where I was born and raised. She was part of a notably musically talented family that included Samuel, a conductor, and Richard, a composer. Her voice was commonly likened to that of a nightingale, and her habit of dressing in golden dresses earned her the nickname of ‘the Golden Nightingale’. This great success earned her a luxurious mansion, as well as a tight schedule, as she was frequently too busy for me. Nonetheless, we still managed to spend many pleasant moments together.
Finally, after waiting long enough, I grew impatient and decided stepping into her chamber to speak to her myself would be the next best option. Placing my ear against the door, I heard nothing. "She must have her hands full trying on new outfits or sleeping very late after too much work,”, I told myself. Gently pushing the door open, my heart dropped when I saw her lying on the bed in the sleep of death. That golden hair and pure complexion remained intact, but her eyes were shut tight forever and her body was limp and lifeless.
Loss of an Angel
Overwhelmed with grief, I fell to my knees with my mother’s body in my hands. The sole thought I could think about at that moment was whether this was all a horrible nightmare and that in reality, my life is not crumbling to pieces. People often tell me that inflicting pain upon myself would be a reliable way to determine that. However, with the stinging that was in my heart, I didn’t need to pinch myself anymore.
“I’m sorry, Lilly, but she is gone,”, a male voice sorrowfully uttered. It came from Raymond Dallas-Cross, a zoologist and my stepfather. He married my mother when I was just a baby, so I didn’t know anything about my biological father. All I knew about him was that his smile was more golden than the sun in the morning, or so Camille would say. Staring at the broken strings holding her up, I could certainly tell that there was no turning back for her, as cut strings were an indicator of death.
After word had gone out, the rest of the Stoneham family came over to our house to grieve the loss of the Golden Nightingale. With her unique slender body, round facial shape, pale skin, golden hair, and dark brown eyes, she resembled a goddess in ancient myths. Now, in death, she looked like an angel fallen from heaven.
Not long after the news was passed on, a group of coroners arrived to investigate the scene. “Could you please step aside, young lady?”, one of them asked as the family was escorted out of the office to leave work to the professionals. As I waited outside for the research results, I felt like a camel burdened by the metaphorical straw of guilt. The life goal for many of us in the family was to allow our musical talent to flourish as much as possible. I, despite being able to carry a tune well and play the trumpet, did not have much interest in becoming part of a symphony. Continuing to weep, I was not only plagued by the thought of never seeing my beloved relative again, but also the possibility that I had failed to please her.
“It was a carpenter ant bite,”, one of the men said as he stepped out.
“Really?”, Raymond asked, his jaw dropping in disbelief. The creatures could grow to be 25 millimeters long and were a huge threat to us puppets and our lives, as their bites can penetrate through our woody exteriors. “Well, I'm glad I didn’t get bit,”, he added. Turning to us, he announced, “From now on, I shall have the house washed with chemicals so that any pests will be exterminated. As a father, it is my duty to ensure that little Lilly over here is safe.”
Some days later, her funeral was held. Despite her glamorous lifestyle, the procession was a standard procession, as regardless of how successful one is, they are all equal in the afterlife. I wore a black dress with dainty ruffles at the base of the skirt and a pretty bow on the front, accompanied by my favorite white bonnet. To soothe the pain, I also brought my toy bear, Pete, as hugging him always helps me calm down and feel less awful. I've often been told that as a 12-year-old, I was too old to own a stuffed animal, but as long as it’s precious to me, I don’t care very much.
Around the family of the deceased, stood her many fans and admirers, wailing like banshees over the loss of a woman they greatly admired. In addition to being incredibly talented, my mother was also exceptionally intelligent, defying cultural norms about the female roles in society. She was never afraid to do dirty work either, which is why countless men from across England envied Raymond.
Minutes later, Father Wickes stepped up to his podium. “It is with great sorrow that I announce the passing of Camille Anne Stoneham. She was an inspiring figure and a devoted mother who stood for so many admirable things. May the Great Puppeteer continue to smile upon her soul in heaven.” The elderly priest knew her personally as a friend and was sniffing between his words.
Now that the funeral started, we said a series of prayers to our deity to give her a peaceful rest in paradise. This family was a rather religious one, and I had to pray harder than ever for my lifelong role model. I imagined that if she died young, her beauty would be preserved forever, as people in heaven wouldn’t age. As I stared at her corpse that was neatly placed in a coffin at the altar, I could picture her soul floating high, controlled by a hand sticking out from the clouds pulling on glowing white strings.
When that part of the procession was over, it was time for the march. My cousins and I were put in our parents’ carriages driven by men with stoic expressions trying to hide their sadness. A couple of minutes after we began walking, it literally rained on our parade. I suppose it would fit the melancholic tone of today.
However, there was something sinister I happened to notice. Since my vehicle was moving at a human’s walking pace, I could easily see my stepfather’s face, who was standing next to me. If one looked closely enough, they could spot an eerie grin creeping across his mouth that would last for a few seconds before vanishing. It was as if he were internally rejoicing over the death of his wife. Not wanting to be plagued by feelings of fear, I tried to look away, pretending nothing happened, and hugged my bear.
That wasn’t the only unusual thing that happened during the march. As the final length of our journey came, I heard a growling noise that grew increasingly louder. Darting my eyes around the area, I quietly gulped, fearing the worst. Just as I expected, there was a terrible beast in our midst in the form of a tiger, which pounced on Camille’s body.
“What’s happening?”, I shouted, covering my eyes.
“Where did that monster come from?”, one of my aunts yelled.
“Stop that thing before it destroys anything!”, Father Wickes cried.
Not showing any fear, my father grabbed the creature’s jaws, holding them wide open so that it couldn’t bite down. This seemed to have a magical effect on the tiger, as it was no longer acting like a ravenous wild animal, rather, a passive domestic cat. Hanging its head low, it walked away from the family. Raymond researched animals for years before meeting my mother, so he naturally developed a unique way of communicating with them.
“Do not worry, for the beast has been taken care of,”, he told us in a very cool, unflappable manner. “Let us finish this ceremony.”
The drizzle soon ended, and that’s when our procession reached the Alexander Deer Cemetery, where a headstone was created for my mother. It read ‘Camille Anne Stoneham-Dallas-Cross – February 20, 1819 – June 26, 1855 – May she join the heavenly choir’. Dismounting their carriages, two of my uncles gently picked up her coffin and placed it in its proper place. This is where a dead puppet was to rest under maintenance by the managers of the cemetery to ensure the body can last as long as possible without getting corroded.
“Who would like to give the first tribute?”, Father Wickes asked. Stepping in front of the rest, I politely said, “I suppose I can do it since I’m her only child.” The rest quietly made way for me.
Now, I had no script prepared beforehand, so I, like many of the others would, made lines up as I went along. “She had a lot of good on her, and she was the best teacher I could ever ask for. Not only was her soul as beautiful as her face, but it was as melodious and heartwarming as the voice she would use to sing to me. I will hope she’ll have fun hunting for gold and adventure in the afterlife, and a grand space in my heart will be reserved for her forever.”
This made my relatives melt away in happiness, as there was no greater love than that between a mother and child. Next, it was Raymond who had to speak.
“Her loss shall remain one of the greatest sorrows I've ever felt in my life, as every time I spent with her felt like pure angelic magic. I will miss waking up in the morning to the sound of her rehearsing at the balcony. It's a massive shame Camille had to go so soon, as there were countless moments that could have been...”. From these words alone, one would think that he felt profound grief over her, but based on his facial expressions, this was far from it. Every now and then, he would make an odd smirk that radiated with self-satisfaction. I seemed to have been the only one who noticed this, and they sent chills down my spine whenever they occurred. I would have said something like “Daddy, what’s happening?”, but my instincts said that it would be an inappropriate time.
Some minutes later, everyone was finished reciting their tribute to the deceased person, and her coffin was placed in its proper position. I then gave my final lamentation to the woman, knowing that now that she was freed from the weight of this world, her soul would be forever happy after having accomplished the reason she was put on this earth.
For the next couple days, my spirit had lost its vigor. Before, I was always lively and cheery, eager to learn about the secrets of life and enjoy some happy moments. Now, however, all that emotion was lost. I could still be happy, such as when I heard the ice cream truck driving before my mansion, but overall, I had become emotionally numb.
After her death, Father had claimed Mother’s money, so he is now living the dream with his crew of friends. It appears all the sorrows of losing a loved one had been let go from his head, and he was now facing towards the future. Since he was so busy partying and attending lavish events across England, he had little time to spend with me, meaning I could often be seen lounging around the house, walking around the gardens slowly, eating a lot, sleeping, and occasionally crying. Listening to the sounds of nature just didn’t seem enjoyable anymore, partly because the person that made me realize the divinity of music is gone.
Then, another feeling overcame me. Staring at the window of his bedroom, I realized that I had seldom entered my father’s room. He was always a very busy man, and he was constantly staying up late at night testing out new experiments in all kinds of fields such as paleontology, chemistry, and art. People would often call him the modern Leonardo da Vinci, and I would certainly agree with that. Since he probably wouldn’t be home any time soon, I figured that I had to take advantage of this opportunity.
Walking into his chamber, I was met with an amazing array of curious things. There was a looking glass, ceramic figurines of animals, a plastic heart, and all kinds of fossils placed on his table. Hung on his wall were charts displaying the results of all his outrageous scientific tests, and there were realistic bird feathers scattered on the floor. His studying place must have been as unbelievable as his mind.
One thing caught my attention most of all though, and it was his notebook. The book was made of sturdy leather, which didn’t show much damage despite it having several stains and marks on it due to age. Unlocking its gold pendant, I began reading a letter he wrote on November 2, 1849. It was short and sweet:
“Ms. Alice Harris-Fan, I entrust that you are ready with the philodendron.”
You may have already guessed the first question that came to mind: who is this woman? And what did he want from her? I had the entire day and house to myself, so I packed a bottle of water and ran outside, asking every neighbor if they recognized the name. Alas, I had no luck. Tired and slightly disappointed, I wandered to the docks near my mansion, as water gave me order of mind.
“Need anything, Ms. Lilly?”, a male voice with an Italian accent asked from out of the blue as I roamed the place. Looking before me, I realized that it came from a swarthy man sitting on a crate sharpening a sword. His long black hair was unkempt, and he dressed like your stereotypical pirate from a fairy book. If he were neater, I think he would have been quite handsome.
Reaching out my hand to shake his hand, I curtsied a bow and said, “Thank you, sir.” Due to my famous family, I had grown used to complete strangers using my name.
“My name is Marco Di Luca. Seafarer from Sicily and part-time navy soldier. You look lost. Do you need directions to any place?”
“There’s this lady that I'm looking for called Alice Harris-Fan. Do you happen to have heard of her?”
“Oh yes! She’s a member of the world’s oldest profession in Essex. Daughter of Chinese junk merchant Zheng Fan, who’s goods are frankly the same junk as the boat they’re sold on.” My eyes widened in shock upon hearing that comment. “Don’t be fooled by her occupation as a “mondana” though, as she’s one of the nicest ladies I've met in a while.” After that, he covered his mouth for a second. “Excuse my French, young lady...”
“There’s nothing to apologize over. I've watched countless plays in my life; I've seen and heard much worse,”, I told him. Continuing our conversation, I asked, "You were friends?”
“Very much. Back in 1846, I embarked on a journey to visit southern England. From my friends back in Italy, I heard that there were plenty of beauties to see in that city. She was one of them, and I was immediately impressed by her intelligence and grace. The other women in the house where somewhat astonished that I, a man, had come to visit not to sleep with her, but I didn’t mind, for a wonderful friendship had blossomed out of an unlikely place. That's why I stayed there for longer than I previously expected.”
“That’s very nice to hear.”
Standing up from his seat, Marco extended his hand to me. “Why don’t we continue this conversation on my ship? We're about to embark on a great mission to Essex, and there are so many wonderful sights for you to witness!”
“How long is this going to take? Are you sure it’s going to be safe for a girl like me?”
“You don’t have to fear! I've spent the last 20 years of my life sailing the seven seas, exploring the six continents, and witnessing things horrendous enough to make baby Jesus cry. You're going to be safe in my arms! Plus, there’s plenty of interesting wildlife to be seen.” He then took my hand and brought me to the deck of his ship for our adventure.
The Bounding Waves
What I feasted my eyes upon was unlike anything I could have dreamed of. Colossal masts were hoisted high above my head with enormous white sails puffed up with wind. At the back was a cabin that he used as a bedroom. From where I stood, it looked like the perfect view of the gentle skies. Many times before, I had watched operas with nautical themes, but they were nothing like the real deal looking back in hindsight.
“Congratulations, you are officially the first woman on my ship. You seem to be loving it too!”, Marco called to me.
“Definitely! This is a daydream,”, I replied before getting thrown off my feet. A mighty gust of wind blew over the harbor, and he began steering the ship away into the unknown. The sailor was having the time of his life and was laughing and cheering as the boat zoomed past the raging waves like a carriage racing through the streets. Meanwhile, I was struggling to regain my balance and held on tight to one of the masts to ensure I didn’t slip away.
Soon, I grew used to the thrashing water and unstable ship. Marco and I soon met again on the deck. Leaning over the ledge, he called me over. “Take a look at this, Lilly! You wouldn’t believe it!”
Below us were a variety of aquatic creatures frolicking around. There was a pod of orcas playing and splashing around with their cousins, an octopus, a massive school of fish, and even a squid battling a whale in the distance. I suspected more and more that I was venturing into a book, as these were the kinds of things one would expect to see in dreams and stories. “Honestly, I'm growing hungry!”, I exclaimed to the captain, as one wouldn’t hear each other if they spoke normally against the roaring waves.
Standing on a barrel on the deck, I got an exhilarating perspective of the raging ocean. It put me in the mood to go hunting for buried treasures, even though he was no buccaneer. Leaning out on the edge of the deck, Marco screamed as he seemingly fell off the ship without anything to hold onto, plunging me into a terrible panic. “No! You can’t be!”, I cried in disbelief about having lost him.
Just when I thought I had lost another friend forever, the Sicilian sailor gradually helped himself up the side of the ship, using the rope for support. “Wasn’t that the surprise of the decade? Imagine what it would have been like if more people saw this!”, he laughed.
“That was not funny at all! I sincerely thought you died...”
“Sorry, maybe that joke wasn’t in the best taste. I guess I should have considered something else.”
“Good idea,”, I answered. “Anything would be better than the dread of the death of somebody I just met.”
“What about me pulling a live baby octopus from the ocean and throwing it on your face to see how it would think of a human?”
“No way! You and your terrible ideas!”, I jokingly exclaimed.
For the rest of the voyage, we stayed in his chamber for safekeeping from any possible storms at sea. Despite the belief of sailors having poor nutrition, Marco had a sizeable stash of fruits and vegetables in the pantry, and we were able to have a tasty lunch. His sofa was also surprisingly comfortable, as I ended up shortly napping in it. I suppose if you’re going to spend most of your life at sea, you need a pleasant place to live.
That evening, when a rosy hue filled the sky and I sat on his sofa daydreaming, the door flew open, and the sailor captain told me, “Ms. Lilly, we have arrived at our destination. Let's go!”. I was relieved to be able to escape, as my legs were aching to move around in a larger area.
When we stepped out of the docks, we were met with a busy flock of marionettes and their pets shouting their wares, conversing, arguing, going about with their daily lives, and generally making a great uproar. This was a break from Portsmouth, as it’s usually very peaceful and quiet there. Not only were there Europeans in this city, but also puppets from Bali and Japan anchored at the docks to make trades with England.
“How many times have I told you, you little brat, that I cannot keep up with you?!”, an angry old lady shouted as she feebly followed a dog scampering through the streets.
“Did you hear about Maggie kissing Pete the other day? I still don’t believe it,”, one gossipy boy told another.
“What do you think’s wrong with that guy?”, a fisherman asked his friend as the pair smoked.
Smiling with pride, Marco patted my head. “Ah, the glorious city of Essex. Just as chaotic as I remembered it. That's why I love it so much.” He then guided me down the crowded streets, making sure neither of us got chased by a dog.
Naturally, as I strolled at a leisurely pace, people began to drop what they were doing and stare at me. “Hang on... isn’t that the daughter of Camille Stoneham? And what’s she doing with that man?”, some voices in the crowd wondered, suspicious of the credibility of Marco. “I don’t know about you, but I’d be wary of him if I were you,”, another voice replied.
Turning to the spectators, he loudly said, “I work for the Italian government and the young lady has specially chosen me to be her guard. You have nothing to worry about.”
Soon, we reached a building with the words ‘Heaven’s Demons’ written on it in a large red font. I could already tell that we were approaching a house of ill repute. Stepping on the doormat, Marco knocked on the door. We were then answered by a tall woman with fair skin, scarlet lips and pronounced cheekbones. Her hair was long and the color of gold, and she wore a blue and white dress and a face of friendliness. I knew exactly who it was.
“Ms. Harris-Fan, I'm so glad to meet you again!”, the sailor told her heartily. “This is Alice over here,”, he turned to me.
“Di Luca, long time no see!”, the Essex lady told him as they embraced. Looking into my direction, she asked, “Is that really you, Lilly Stoneham? That's your name, right?”
“Very much. Lilly Cecilia Stoneham, at your service,”, I curtsied as I introduced myself. After we had acquainted each other, I showed her my father’s notebook that I happened to have brought. “Now, the reason we came over here is that I must ask you about a very strange letter I found.”
Before I could continue though, an elderly woman stood next to Alice. “I’m sorry, but since you’re a minor, I must ask you to leave.”
“No worries. I know the perfect place for our interrogation. Follow me.” She led us down the busy roads of Essex to a humble restaurant called The Union Jack House, which, like its name would suggest, proudly displayed the flag of the United Kingdom in front of it. The seats inside were snuggly, and there were lots of eye-catching paintings hung on the walls resembling medieval tapestries. Alice ordered us tall glasses of water that I quickly downed and a hefty pork chop.
Wiping my mouth clean, I picked up the notebook again. “Now, Ms. Alice, I have recently found a letter written by my father, Raymond Dallas-Cross, to you. Would you care to explain it?”
The blonde lady had a look of dread on her face, and her body stiffened up. It even appeared like she was on the verge of tears. “Calm down, my dearest,”, Marco comforted her as he held her hand. After taking a few deep breaths, she looked much better.
“I’m awfully sorry about that-”
“Don’t worry, Lilly. You need to investigate your case. I just need to keep it together.” Alice then inhaled several times, which made her feel better. “Many years ago, Raymond visited me in Essex. He was a cheerful man with a great sense of humor, which is why I fell for him. He would often suggest that we’d be together in the future. But as time went on though, it became clear that he was wanting something – the flowers kept in the nearby garden I cultivated, some of them being poisonous.”
“Like which species?”
“Rhododendron, for instance. Belladonna too. He would constantly hint that he was going to use it in a potion he was planning on making. Growing wary of the man and his intentions, I pretended not to know how to harvest the plants. This gradually made him angrier at me until he decided to take matters into his own hands. One night, he visited me again, this time in a noticeably more choleric mood than usual. I would have thought his humors were displaced that night, but he suddenly shouted at me for being so uncooperative. Before I could fight back, my vision blacked out, and I collapsed on the floor.”
“How did it feel?”, I asked, alarmed.
“Not good at all. Whenever I moved, I felt creaky and painful, and I needed lots of oil to make my limbs function properly. Fortunately, I was able to recover with time, but I really felt depressed and traumatized afterwards. The worst was yet to be discovered, unfortunately, as when I visited the garden near my house, I was horrified to see that a large portion of my flowers had been stolen. I immediately knew who was responsible for this.”
“I do hope you’re feeling much better now.”
“Definitely,”, Alice said. “My time of peace was soon interrupted when Raymond suddenly returned to my home, acting nonchalantly as if what he did to me that other night never happened. I tried to politely confront him about his actions, but his mouth had such a passionate feel to it that made me fall for him again. He continued to visit me a few more times until he abandoned me forever, never to visit me again.”
“I feel sorry for what happened to you,”, I comforted her. “Now, could you please tell me when these happened?”
“We first met in 1849, and he vanished from my life in the spring of 1850. That was probably for the better, as I can’t imagine having to live with a monster like him for any longer.”
“Don’t worry, Alice. I’ve had my fair share of sadness too, such as the death of my mother. Together, we can help each other laugh away my sorrows.” Marco placed his arm over her shoulder, which brought that smile back to her face. “The fact that you were able to survive your encounter with him and keep your composure during this interview shows that you truly are a strong woman,”, he added.
“Thank you, honey. I don’t know what I could do without you,”, she grinned lovingly.
“Anyway, it’s dinner time. It is meant to be a time of joy,”, I told the two. We then laughed and reveled around in the restaurant, singing with the other customers, playing darts, and watching a show by the other customers while also having conversations with the Essex lady. Her voice emanated with ardor and class, and I could listen to it all day.
Looking at Marco, who was downing a beer, I told him, “I’m starting to love her already.”
“See? What did I tell you? Alice Harris-Fan is far from your typical Essex girl.”
A couple minutes later, I turned to my companions. “Mr. Di Luca, could you please take me home? I don’t want to get Daddy angry after having learned what he’s capable of.”
“Very much. In fact, we can go now,”, he answered as he stood up.
“Could I come along too? I want to help you bring him to justice,”, Alice asked.
“Perfect. I didn’t even have to ask!”
A Master Plan
Fortunately, the following morning, when we arrived at my home, the place was still empty, as Raymond has brought the entire household with him for an important voyage to France. As I investigated, Marco and Alice explored the backyards and hid in the bushes in case the rest returned at an unexpected time. They were to listen for a bell I would ring if I found anything of interest.
Searching his bedroom like a treasure hunter searching for pearls in the grains of sand, I kept an eye out for every detail. Eventually, my nose caught the whiff of a certain scent that seemed to be coming from one of his drawers. It was a pleasant odor, like one of the fragrances you see in the perfume store. Sliding open the drawer, I discovered a bundle of deadly nightshade flowers, or belladonnas, as they would be called. Not only that, but there were also wisterias, hydrangeas, azaleas, and all kinds of other poisonous flowers. He was keeping an entire arboretum of these under our noses.
“How very mysterious…”, I muttered, investigating more of his room. I then stumbled upon a textbook at the base of his pile titled ‘A List of All the Plants That Can Kill You’. It detailed every known deadly species of plant, accompanied with photographs and sketches of said plant. Just then, I remembered that when I found Camille’s body, there was a floral scent around it. Now, everything was starting to add up…
This list of dangerous flowers wasn’t the only odd thing I discovered in Father’s room. I also happened to notice a book titled ‘How to Keep and Train a Tiger’, which gave instructions on how to raise a tiger as a pet while it’s separated from its natural habitat. Flipping through the pages, I had flashbacks of that cat that disturbed Mother’s funeral. Raymond was unusually calm throughout the ordeal and showed no fear of the animal. What if he were the one taking care of the thing? It would be the only reasonable explanation. Picking up all the books and carrying them on my head, I rang the bell multiple times in shock and rushed downstairs to meet my companions.
Wide-eyed in disbelief, the pair stared with their eyes fixed on the paper I was writing showing all the known details. “During Mommy’s funeral, there was this tiger that pounced out from seemingly nowhere and almost tore her corpse apart. Seemingly unafraid of the creature, Daddy approached it, and he seemed to pacify its mood. There was also a smell that hung around the scene of her death that I later identified as that of belladonna. I have just uncovered a couple of books that show a connection between these details and him.” Showing them to my friends, I allowed them to skim through them for a couple seconds.
Neither of them could believe what they had seen. “Alice, you said that he wanted some poisonous plants from you, but he eventually decided to steal them from your garden. Since he knew that they are deadly, he used them to kill my mother.”
“But why exactly would he do that? Would that mean that he never sincerely loved you and Camille?”, Marco asked.
“Lately, he has seemingly been spending Mommy’s money as fast as water drips from a spout. It would appear as though he only married her to kill her and inherit her wealth,”, I deduced. Stating my theory wasn’t easy at all, as it was difficult being faced with the cold, hard, ugly truth.
“Well, if there’s anything you’ll need, we’ll be over here in the garden. Hopefully, we’ll find a foolproof hiding place where no one can find us,”, the Italian sailor told me confidently.
Just then, we heard the sounds of horses neighing and walking, as well as my father’s voice. “Speak of the devil! Let's go!”, Alice gasped, grabbing her companion’s hand and jumping into the shrubs while carefully watching and listening to what was happening outside. Raymond then stepped out of our family carriage with a prideful smile on his face.
“Hello there! How's my little girl been doing?”, he asked as we hugged.
“Very well. I've been able to keep myself busy throughout your trip.” As I spoke, I tried to hide the anger and disgust inside me, which wasn’t easy.
“It’s a shame the trip was reserved only for adults. You'd have had the time of your life, as there was an entire story book’s worth of majestic sights that seemingly came out of a fairy tale. Come inside; I'll tell you everything there.”
Skipping past the garden, I noticed Marco’s thumb poking past the leaves. “Take care, child. Don't fall victim to any of his traps.”
Preparing seats at the dining table, I listened to all of my father’s grandiose tales. These included conversations with the richest men in Paris, strolls down pathways illuminated by evening lanterns, trips down raging rivers, hunting in the forests of Lyon, and meals with some of the most delectable food one could dream of. “Here are some macarons for you,”, he said, reaching out from his bag to hand me some food. Despite all my trust of him being shattered, I didn’t want to give it away just yet.
Every time I made eye contact with him, a new negative feeling for him was sparked. Years ago, when I was still an innocent, whenever I looked at his face, I would smile, and he would smile back. Looking back at it now, I realized that those expression were not of joy – they merely had facades of happiness to hide the greed and selfishness within. We had been fooled all these years into thinking he was the exact opposite of what he truly was.
The Night All Hell Broke Loose
Later that day, when the evening came and the sun began to lower itself from the sky, I peeked into the living room to see Father on his favorite couch reading a newspaper. Glad to see him distracted, I snuck back to my bedroom with a sack that I filled with my books, musical instruments, pencils, pens, inkwells, and all the other necessities. It was time for me to leave the house, as I didn’t want to risk living with such a person anymore.
Just when I was about to sneak out, I noticed that there was a painting of Camille, Raymond, and I hanging on the wall. It was made when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and it was part of a series of paintings showing the Stoneham family in all their glory. Picking it up, I felt a sharp sting in my eyes and heart, as I couldn’t bear seeing my father’s face anymore. Taking a deep breath, I told myself repeatedly that it was time to let it all go. I had to cut out a part of my life in order to start a new one from scratch. That's when I threw the object on the floor, causing the frame to smash into a million pieces.
Staring at the mess I made, I kneeled down and gave into my desire to weep, as I was still devastating upon learning the truth. This also gave me a feeling of guilt of not having found out about his plan and rescued Mother before it was too late. But the damage had already been done, and I had to deal with it. I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. Plus, crying gave me a strange kind of satisfaction. Leonardo da Vinci did say that tears come not from the brain, but from the heart. I would fully agree to that.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before a strange prickling feeling tingled across my back, as if someone were standing over me. I stood completely still, trying not to anger whoever it was.
“If you love your mother so much, why don’t you join her?’, a voice whispered into my ear. That was when I accidentally fell on the floor. Looking up, I realized that because of my fall, I dodged a sharpened knife that was just inches away from my shoulder blades, wielded by none other than Raymond Dallas-Cross himself.
“You lied to us!!”, I screamed. “For years, we have been deceived into thinking that you are an honest man who loves his family and would do anything to keep his stepdaughter safe. You have seduced the public and my mother with your empty words and promises while preparing to rat on us. But most of all, you lied to me. I thought all my childhood that you would be a wonderful father, when in reality, all you did was create a false image to dupe me into believing you really were.”
“What happened to that sweet little girl I always knew?”, he asked in his usual cool manner. “This will not have lasting effects either. I'm just going to give you what your heart has been desiring for a couple days...”. As he spoke the last sentence, he held up his knife in a sickening way. He then tossed it in my direction, with me successfully dodging it again.
As our battle was about to get heated, my two friends jumped into the scene. “She is innocent! If you lay even one of your twisted fingers on Ms. Lilly, I'm sending you to Davy Jones’s locker!”, Marco shouted as he tossed his own sword at Raymond, which flew out the open window.
Surprised at the sight of the Essex woman, he approached Alice, running his fingers through her hair with a glint of lust in his eyes. “Ms. Harris-Fan! How I missed you so much-”
Pushing him aside forcefully, she yelled, “Get off me, rat! Last time I saw you, you were scavenging the sewers.”
This made Father even angrier and caused him to lunge furiously in our direction. We were all able to dodge it once again. Letting me mount his back with my bag zipped tight, Marco fled like a rabbit fleeing from his prey with Alice as our hunter raged down the halls, breaking random objects in his path. Soon, we successfully escaped the gates of my mansion and hid behind a stagecoach parked there. I thought we’d be safe, until we heard the neighing of the family horse getting louder and louder.
“Let’s head this way!”, the Sicilian navy soldier screamed as we continued to run for our lives. It didn’t seem as if we’d survive any longer, as our top running speed was no match for that of a horse. The roads were also exceptionally grimy that evening, with Alice’s dress getting stained terribly. Turning behind us, I saw the rage-filled eyes of my father as he kept ordering his steed to go faster. “Wait, I have an idea. This way!”, the Italian shouted as he led us to the city bridge.
Climbing down the ledge with Marco’s help, we squeezed ourselves between the base of the bridge and the land it was built on. There were rapid trotting noises overhead, as Raymond, thinking we jumped off the bridge and into the river, sent his entire horse leaping into the deep waters. It began neighing panickily, begging to be helped out of the river. His owner tried swimming away, only for him to be pulled further from the land by his poor pet imploring for help. This noise did not last long though, as it eventually sunk to its watery grave.
Once the surface became as still as it should be, the sailor stood up from his hiding place, shouting into the air, “This is what you call karma!” before throwing another dagger he happened to have.
Realizing what had just happened, a swarm of journalists and newspaper men crowded the river, creating a great tumult trying to investigate what happened. Their voices, which were seemingly trying to block the others out, sounded like a hive of buzzing bees to my ears. I couldn’t hear myself think and had to ask everyone to calm down several times to no avail. Finally, having had enough, I climbed to the top of a wooden crate pile and shouted, “PLEASE LISTEN TO ME!!!”, at the top of my lungs, which made the reporters quiet at last.
Clearing his throat, one reporter asked, “Ms. Lilly Stoneham, could you please explain to us the details surrounding your father’s death?”
“Recently, Marco, Alice, and I discovered evidence that he was conniving to murder my mother ever since they married. It was in the form of several books I found in his room about how to train tigers and poisonous plants, as there was a tiger that mysteriously appeared at her funeral to disrupt it. I smelt a rat about him ever since I noticed him smirking throughout her procession.” Showing the books as evidence, I saw disbelief on the investigators’ faces that an outwardly normal man could be so calculating and bloodthirsty.
“What did he try to do?”, another reporter asked me.
“After learning the truth, I decided to pack my bags and run away from home. He caught me and tried to stab me with a knife. That's when my friends over here appeared so that we could flee together. We were chased throughout the streets until we crawled under this bridge. Thinking we fell over it, he jumped into the river, unable to swim across. Sensing that the coast was clear, we emerged from our hiding place.”
Stepping next to me, Alice added, “Excuse me, but I have something to add. 10 years ago, he visited me in my brothel in Essex, where we would spend time and have conversations together. He seemed very friendly on the surface, but his true colors showed, as he would grow increasingly intent on getting several poisonous specimens of flowers I grew in my garden. Knowing that he was planning on using them for illegal purposes, I refused to give in to his request. Then, one night, he got angry at me and drugged me, which gave him the opportunity to steal my flowers. That man was very unpredictable, and I could never tell if he were sincere about his attraction towards me.”
It wasn’t long until the entire Stoneham family, shocked over what happened, came over to learn more about what happened. “Praise the Great Puppeteer! Cecilia, are you okay?”, Julia, my grandmother, called as she ran to my direction with her arms stretched out. “Have no fear, as we are all unharmed,”, I told her calmly as we had a large hug.
“We couldn’t have done it without you,”, Marco thanked me as he and Alice joined in the embrace.
“Most of all, I'm glad I could make a new friend,”, the blonde woman added. “Where I lived, the only one I could rely on to keep me company was the man in the moon, and many men would value me solely for my body. But I now feel happy on the inside upon having met you.”
“You’re the best!”, I replied.
Just then, a new problem occurred to me. “Who’s going to be my guardian? I’m only 12 years old, I can’t live alone.”
“Leave it to me,”, an elderly male voice said.
Turning to the back, we realized it was that of Samuel Stoneham, my grandfather. In his time, he was a renowned orchestra conductor, helping his musicians play Bach in such a smooth, harmonious way. He also worked as a music teacher and sometimes helped me with my trumpet lessons if he were unoccupied.
Placing his hand on my shoulder, he told me, “After all you accomplished, you deserve a world of love and care. Until death reaches us, Julia and I shall take care of you.”
Glancing at Marco and Alice, he told them, “For your contributions in solving this case, you shall be given a mansion commissioned especially by me. In the meantime, you two may stay in some of the guest bedrooms in Camille’s house.”
“No thanks, I've got a family back in Italy,”, the navy soldier answered. “But you are very kind. I'll be sure to visit you sometime later this year if I can.”
“Oh, thank you so much!”, Alice cheered, hopping joyfully in the air. “Looks like it’s time for me to head home and pack my bags there. I've been missing your ship too, Marco,”, she said to her long-time best friend as they ran to the docks.
Walking with my grandfather to the house, I told him, “I’m honestly still shocked at how Raymond was able to deceive us for 9 years.”
“Don’t feel ashamed of yourself for having fell victim to a liar’s traps. We should study how to detect lies as a family someday. Fine words butter no parsnips, you’d know. But like I said, it’s not our fault. Let's have some fun when we get home.” We then strolled nonchalantly down the winding paths of Portsmouth and past all the anxious interviewers back home.
Now, if the person you held closest to your heart were revealed to be unfaithful, what would you do? I'm sure you would cry a river for them, regretting having poured out an ocean of love to the wrong person. However, what if I told you that your waters would be smoother after the maelstrom, and that for every wicked man in your life, there would be many steadfast ones to come? With my own loyal new friends, I am now living the dream in Camille’s house. We are all safe and happy.