Lady Sarah Lucretia attended most parties on her husband’s behalf, and when at Knole House, she became captivated by a portrait of Mrs Axford, Hannah Lightfoot: the rose sash bows on her white satin dress that glimmered more like gold, and a smile of someone who had lost all bearing on the world.
‘She went missing,’ a kind lady told her, ’twice.’ She left her clandestine husband to be the mistress, the wife of George III. But she vanished for good soon after.
By late autumn, 1923, the mystery had festered in her mind. She wandered the corridors of her house, muttering soundless words like a sleepwalker. She believed that people’s spirits lived on wandering, testimony to Truth. All she wanted was to find Hannah Lightfoot’s spirit.
She spent many nights, weeks even, sleeping alone. She never spared time to query her husband’s whereabouts. And, with the absence of her maid, it fell to Mrs Halliday to neglect her kitchen duties to worry about her Lady’s growing interest in the irrational. .
After many attempts to communicate, it appeared they were right. Hannah had vanished. None of her history books of George III mentioned her. She was a myth, and this disturbed her. Her feverish captivation with the portrait’s story would only be cured by clarity. She sought the spirit of Isaac, her first husband, for months sifting through calling voices, ceaseless, to locate his wandering spirit.
A trickle of cold, silver light from a full moon bathed St Martin’s of Ludgate, where he stood with his back to her, his shadow bent by the curb. Lady Lucretia was sure it was him.
‘Isaac,’ she called. The words – a thin fog, which gave the moon a tender aureole – flooded the silent street. A newspaper fizzled. There was an echo of clipping horse hooves.
She approached, fumbling with her lace gloves. Her face flushed as if a red butterfly had rested on her nose with its wings across her cheekbones. If anyone knew what happened to Hannah Lightfoot it was him, where it all started.
A distant metallic crash cued a chilling wind. She was sure of it. Her blood froze in its flow. Her cheeks flushed to a faint bluish hue. Off flew her crimson beret – a blow that left her expecting to hear her late mother call her a flapper. Only then with the loss of her favourite hat did her fearlessness subside, opening her to listless dangers. No one knew where she was, not even Mrs Halliday. Stupid. Stupid.
She shut her eyes, for even they were freezing. Wind pummelled from all sides. She lost direction. She could make out disembodied syllables, a range of airy vowels and hard stresses. The voice she had spent months trying to decipher, to communicate with, it was here.
She listened. And as the vowels fused to consonants and words arranged, she no longer felt the rush of the breeze. She opened her eyes to find that the street she was standing in no longer belonged to her age.
What happened to Hannah? For six years I wanted an answer to that question. When I had my answer the city revealed its ugliness, the pollution flowing from the street into the court. I spent the rest of my life sworn to keeping to myself.
I never imagined that I’d ever be so repulsed by London. Father had sent me here to install a sense of civility in me, to banish the fairy tales of ‘fat-armed maids,’ he said, ‘who have nothing better to do in between scrubbing clothes than fill little boys’ heads with darkness.’ It was a city fresh and bright, on the forefront of it all. I saw prototypes of steam engines, long before James Watt was inspired to do the same, cloaked beneath rags on wagons drawn by a team of four, which made St Pauls look small.
Over there, Sarah, is The Green Canister and the Three Sugar Loaves, the pride of John Barton. I remember that spilling cornucopia, beneath St Pauls. Powder blue from Jamaica. Sugar from Antigua. Coffee sacks from Trinidad.
Barton always told the boys under his indenture to lay the sacks down like the dead. Performance was in all life, in anything as trivial as a blink. theatre or life, there was no fathoming the difference. But among the mist, I knew one thing for certain. Hannah, that fair quaker, who appeared in front of me on this may day, was alive.
There she was, Hannah Lightfoot. Sarah Lucretia cocked her head, squinted to blur her figure. It must have been the angle. Her nose was longer, like a well rounded arrow. A unkempt frizz spewing from her black bonnet. A smile that stretched towards her right cheekbone. And her dress was indistinguishable from a puddle on a drab November’s day. She was nothing like the impression of her at Knole House, which Sarah remembered. She lacked the swept, clean inhuman composure. Here, she looked real. She had dimensions.
Thousands of timelines were unravelling in front her. A stagecoach jolted on an uneven stone. A sack of coffee split in the arms of an apprentice of the Green Canister. The browsers and the apprentice jumped back in shock as if to evade the jab of an adder. John Barton, raised by instinct, emerged from the doorway to deliver a whack to his apprentice’s cheek. A small urchin chasing a mangy stray with a stick was almost flattened by the oncoming traffic, without a flinch. Everything was so vibrant, real, there, to feel, smell, and hear. The time left its colourful imprints on her skin, as if she had been dipped into a pool of paints, which would persist for the rest of her life. She had spent as little as a minute in the vision of the past, still with enough time to trace every unravelling narrative. Many dared not look at her distasteful appearance as she made her way towards the Green Canister, its spilled coffee sack, and Hannah Lightfoot. It was all so real.
In a blink of an eye, everything which had been living disappeared. Sarah was returned to the night of her own age. A lone hackney coach emerged from the darkness. The driver gave her a strange look. For what reason would a Lady of her standing be wandering these streets. It was not safe and it would ease his mind if he took her back to her home.
She was unsure in what age she stood, 1923 or 1753. For this scene had signs of both. She shaded her eyes to let them temper to her old surroundings of the dark street of Ludgate Hill, beneath the new moon. She would fare better, she thought, in the driver’s company than she would walking home on these streets. And with that, she accepted his favour.
Some weeks had passed for Lady Lucretia after the incident, and life continued as usual. She recorded no disturbances in her sleep. She was neither feeling better nor worse. And like many late evening parties with her husband, whether with the Sackvilles or the Viscount of Bath, the visions of Hannah Lightfoot perished as if a dream. She found her red beret right where it should be in her wardrobe, and she passed time taking solemn walks amongst the landscape of her estate. She weaved through the cedars, chestnuts, and oaks swollen with galls – all planted by a landscaper named Brown – kicking through manes of golden brown leaves. None of her memories of the vibrant street stirred her. Though, it would be premature for us to end the story here, to assume that one extraordinary voyage was all that would happen to Lady Sarah Lucretia. This would be as foolish as mistaking the mustering of men for the landing party.
It was six or seven months until the mystery of Hannah Lightfoot would unleash all its uncertainty into her life. She was in the sitting room. The window was wide open, for she could feel the sweat on the edging on her pores. She was unable to find company in Mrs Halliday’s shouting outside or in the twittering of little birds that looked like renaissance gentry. The fact of her loneliness was seeping in. To forget, she was knitting herself a scarf, counting beneath her breath her stitches.
One, two, three, four. Then she heard a whisper. As if the heating pipes were talking to her. She sat as motionless as a deer, trying to examine the danger. Nothing. Five, Six. It had to be something. No. She continued to count whilst her mind became distracted by the origin of the whisper. She explored every possibility from mice chewing through the walls to a whimper carried in a weak breeze from the tropics. while her mouth continued to count. Soon she was annoyed that she had counted to 156 and her knitwork was deformed. She threw it down and sought to locate the origin of the noise.
Her eye caught the gramophone. She pressed her ear to the brass horn, which was shaped like a calla lily, and sure enough she heard the whisper. She could not place the voice, though she recognised it for certain. Shutting her eyes, she was able to make out words, coming together as they had done on that frosty night in Ludgate.
For those first few Saturday evenings, I ate with the Lightfoots. They had not seen my wife, their daughter, either. St James’ Palace could be seen from their windows, unpicking the stitches of everything I believed. I became aware of London’s pungent smell of burnt timber and horse flesh, but as the thread unravelled it became more potent with the stench of blood.
I could not bring myself to attend another dinner with them. I scarcely believed it would be the last I saw of them. Instead I spent my time petitioning at the palace to hear from her, my wife. I was never heard. I thought I was alone in my suffering before the rumours spread. The whispers crept through the taverns and the courts. Hannah Lightfoot was the mistress of Lord Chatham. A young surgeon had won the heart of a fair quaker. And Hannah Lightfoot was spotted in Weymouth with a respectable looking gentleman. It was difficult to know which was true.
I wandered the country picking up the threads. In Weymouth I’d shout for her and people tried to ignore my desperation. I could feel myself wrapped in pity. Those six years were a blur to me, so much so that I became as elusive as Hannah had become.
A bunch of emissaries and a young lady stopped me one night during one of my fits. It brought me to such a sudden stop that those tumultuous years crashed into the back of me. They came under the cover of a new moon – like the one where you found me – and told me of the Prince of Wales’ – George III to you – plans to marry Mrs Axford. They promised a generous payment for my silence.
“Hannah Lightfoot is dead,” they told me. It would be wise for me to leave the city, go home, where I would not disrupt the order of things. I was never cut out for life in the capital. I knew from that putrid stench since I had dined with the Lightfoots, that it would have been easier to make me disappear. But the Crown Prince had greater apprehensions than the precarious nature of his future wife. I kept to the story they told me. I was a widower. I never told anyone, not even my second wife, Mary. The Bartletts never believed it, but luckily no one cares what the people say in Warminster.
When I think back to my days as a novice, when I believed John Barton, there was one way of doing things. The art of every profession was deeply ingrained in the fibres of the earth. Now, I see that the truth existed no more in the court than it did on the tongues of my aunts and the fat-armed maidens. The Hannah Lightfoot that married the future George III was not my Hannah – mine was dead – but the portrait was endowed with my surname? When I was told of their marriage, I had dreams of the chapel bells tolling in celebration. Others confirmed it with similar stories. And soon she disappeared from the King too. I never like to be one of those who claim they were the instrument that changed history, but I am not wrong when I say that I had a part to play in his madness. They say the King would run screaming down the passageways in just his nightgown, calling for the woman of his eye. When Queen Charlotte was brought to him he always sobbed.
The drawing room door squealed open, restored to her senses, haunted by the echoes of Isaac’s story. Mrs. Halliday stood in the doorway with an arched brow, and her chubby fingers clasping the doorknob. Sarah Lucretia felt embarrassed and irritated to be found on her knees, with her ear to a soundless gramophone. She felt like a child again, sitting beneath the condemning frown of her mother.
“Since His Lordship is out, I was wondering if you’d like to review the week’s menu?”
“And where is he?” the Lady Lucretia replied.
Was this the fate of it all? Into fleeting words. Her footprints swallowed up behind her by thick undergrowths of thorns and nettles? Was this all her life would become? Fiction, like Hannah. No one knows when she died or where she went.
The voice of Isaac still hurling around her head, through one ear into the other. Was it just one voice? Because now, wherever she would go, she would be frightfully aware of the parliament in her head questioning everything she was sure about. She watched wallpaper peel from the walls around her. Behind them, wriggling worms of red, yellow, green, and blue, of which, from afar, would appear to be a yarn of wool. It was impossible to track one head to its tail in an endless wriggle behind every wall, book, and syllable.
She broke from her trance as soon as Mrs Halliday was turning away without an answer. Sarah called for her help since her maid was missing. Without her, she would have never been able to decide what she needed, and reduce the entirety of her possessions to just two suitcases.
“Could you leave my husband a note, please?”
Mrs Halliday nodded, shaking off her frown. Sarah felt as if her decision had earned Mrs Halliday’s respect.
It was only two o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun had not quite reached its highest point. The clocks of the house ticked one after the other. The lawns outside were of an emerald or maybe a lime green. Sarah embraced Mrs Halliday. She was not sure when she would next see her.
Sarah would always remember her last moments as the Lady Lucretia. The house and Mrs Halliday shrinking in the back window of the carriage, how frightened she was by the ugliness of the world. Sometimes she imagined different scenes of her husband and maid finding Mrs Halliday’s note. Some dramatic, some underwhelming. This must be what it feels like to be dead.