An Indie Next Pick
Now in paperback, Natasha Pulley's "witty, entrancing novel . . . burnishes her reputation as a gifted storyteller" (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
In 1859, ex–East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall with an injury that almost cost him his leg. When the India Office recruits him for an expedition to fetch quinineessential for the treatment of malariafrom deep within Peru, he knows it's a terrible idea; nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who's made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is eager to escape the strange events plaguing his family's crumbling estate, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for the edge of the Amazon.
There he meets Raphael, a priest around whom the villagers spin unsettling stories of impossible disappearances, cursed woods, and living stone. Merrick must separate truth from fairy tale, and gradually he realizes that Raphael is the key to a legacy left by generations of Tremayne explorers before him, one which will prove more valuable than quinine, and far more dangerous.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Natasha Pulley, the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, studied English literature at Oxford University and earned a creative writing M.A. at the University of East Anglia. She lives in Bath, England.
Read an Excerpt
Heligan estate, Cornwall August 1859
Although I hadn't been shot at for years, it took me a long time to understand that the bang wasn't artillery. I sat up in bed to look out of the window, half-balanced on my elbows, but there was nothing except a spray of slate shards and moss on the little gravel path three floors below. There had been a storm in the night, huge, one of those that takes days and days to form and gives everyone a headache, and the rain must have finally worked loose some old roof tiles. In its bell jar, which kept damp from the mechanisms, the clock thunked around to twenty past seven. I sat still, listening, because I'd been sure the noise had been much louder than a few smashed tiles.
The bunches of plants drying in the rafters were pattering seeds into their paper bags. Somewhere above them, on the roof, the weathervane squeaked. Nothing else fell. Once my heart was convinced there was no gunfire, I tried to slide my cane out from under the dog.
'Gulliver.' I gave it a tug.
She rolled over and lay at an unnatural angle while I got dressed, paws crooked under their own weight. When I stroked her ears, she bumped her nose into my stomach, trying to herd me back into bed. Gigantic anyway and overfed, she was as heavy as me and almost managed it, but even with a cane I could still just about outmanoeuvre a sleepy St Bernard.
'No, sorry. Time for a walk,' I said. 'Let's see if the greenhouse is still in one piece.'
She snorted at me but padded through the door when I opened it for her, my head bowed because the rafters were low. Outside were six steep steps which she took at an old lady's pace, although in fact she was quite young. The way was so narrow that her sides touched the walls. There were polished parts on the wainscoting that represented a year of morning and evening passages, by far the most looked-after section of wall anywhere in the house. I eased down after her. My leg hurt but I got down four steps before I had to pause, which was a big improvement on six months ago.
Along the corridor were dislocated views over the gardens through windows whose panes had been made from patchworks of older stained glass, full of truncated bits of Latin and saints' robes, all of them rattly on the windward side. The cold and the damp seeped in round the edges. When I came home after a long time away it was always freshly horrible that there were happy slugs and moss in the inside grooves, but I'd been back for long enough now to have lapsed into a hopeless effort not to see it.
Down the dark stretch on the next stairs - ten steps, none quite the same height - I ran my hand along the wall to keep my balance. The door at the bottom stuck fast at less than halfway open. Gulliver had to squeeze through and I turned sideways. Though the landing looked just as poky as the last, it led out suddenly on to the main staircase, where all the portraits of previous Tremaynes and Lemons hung down the left-hand wall. Nearer the top were people in army uniforms and nicely rumpled silk whose names I didn't know, and down near the door of Charles's study were the few I would have recognised out of context: a couple of our mother's brothers, and the aunt who'd taught me to shoot. Last was our grandfather, who looked like me, blond and fast-ageing. A still-life of some fruit hung where our father should have been.
Now, there was a carpet of pine needles and broken bits of timber over the middle of the floor. I twisted round to see upward. Although there were, on my side, three floors to the house, on this side it was just galleries off the staircase. The ceiling was the roof. Being windowless, it was usually gloomy, with deep shadows between the vaults of the rafters, but now there was quite a big hole. Hanging down through it was a rotten branch still attached, just, to the old pine tree. It had been defying gravity for months.
I slid down the banister rather than bother with the stairs, and Gulliver lolloped down next to me. Through the hole in the ceiling, the old pine kept up its rain of needles. I watched it for a second before I went underneath, but nothing creaked.
Gulliver opened the front door by walking into it. She knew where she was going and trotted round to Charles's study window, where she swept her tail to and fro over the gravel and sprayed me with rainwater because the path was full of puddles. So was the lawn. They were reflecting the sky lavender and grey. From outside, the tree seemed more or less all right, except for the rotten branch still suspended over the hole in the roof. I still had no idea what it was, the tree. Some kind of sequoia, but it was white, like a silver birch, and it had grown monstrous. Despite its size, it had a stunted list that suggested it ought to have been ten times bigger, the white bark full of awkward knots and abortive half-grown branches with no needles on them. Up in the canopy was a whole parliament of nests. Although it was noisy in the mornings usually, the crows must all have been out doing crow things for now.
I tapped on Charles's window. His shadow struggled up and swung across between his crutches. When he lined up with my reflection in the lilac morning light, we almost looked alike.
'I'll get some gardeners to go up and cut down that branch before it falls,' I said through the glass, then leaned back as he shoved it open. The frame stuck and it needed some force. 'What are we doing about the roof?'
'We're not doing anything about the roof,' he said, 'and I'd rather not have gardeners in the house.'
'I'd rather not have a tree in the house,' I said, 'so stay there and don't look.'
I heard a saw There were gardeners by the tree, just beginning to cut the trunk. I hadn't seen from the front door, which stood at the wrong angle, but they had already tied ropes round the far side to guide the fall.
'What are they doing?' I said slowly.
'Cutting it down. You're right, it's not safe. And this way we can have some firewood we're not paying for.'
I didn't say that making firewood from that tree was like using pound notes for kindling, or worse, given the effort it had taken to bring it here. It was from Peru and our grandfather had built one of the greenhouses specially for it. But I knew what Charles would say. He would say it wasn't pound notes; it might have cost a lot to bring and to grow, but the tree wasn't worth anything now it was here. It would be like burning rupees if you never intended to go to India again and didn't know anyone else who would.
'Charles, you can't,' I tried, with no heart.
'We're past keeping things from sentiment.'
As opposed to the ten generations' worth of rubbish taking up eighteen of twenty rooms inside —'
'Ridiculous thing to have planted by the house in any case. The roots are coming up through the kitchen floor, for God's sake.'
I let my breath out and tried not to feel angry. That I'd grown up among the roots of that tree, that Dad had climbed it with me and read me stories in the lowest branch; none of it meant a thing to him and there would be no making him understand. He had hated our father and that was that. He had hated him so much that if I said I hadn't, he couldn't conceive that it might be anything but a strange lie.
'They can save some of the timber to plank up the roof, then,' I said.
'Merrick, I told you, we can't afford to do anything about the roof; I can't have workmen in —'
'There's a hole in the bloody roof, Charles, and we've got timber. We've got eleven gardeners.'
'Don't swear at me. It should be done properly —'
'But we can't do it properly, you just said.'
'Just,' he said, 'leave it alone.'
I laughed. 'I'm not being rained on every time I come into the house because you're too proud to fix the roof. Talk about spiting your face.'
'I don't mind rain,' he said.
'Other people do.'
'Merrick. I said —'
'I heard what you said, but since what you said was stupid, we're not going to do that.'
He ignored me. 'There's a letter for you.'
I managed to hesitate only for a second when I saw the seal of the India Office before I folded it into my waistcoat. I liked fighting with Charles - if I was disagreeing with him it was proof I hadn't been beaten down altogether yet - but seeing the seal made the scar on my leg pang and I had to go more slowly.
Gulliver led the way on the crooked path, which was sometimes gravel, sometimes cobbles, and sometimes only a flatter line of moss along the edge of the lawn. Once we were close to the big tree, the roots pushed up underfoot in bumps and contorted twists. There had used to be rainforest flora all around them: a great litter of orchids, huge, plate-leaved lilies in the marshy patches, and clusters of carnivorous things with spines that closed fast if you poked one. Charles had had it all torn up when he moved the driveway to iron out the hairpin bend. It had made things difficult for the apple carts. I paused to tell the gardeners to save some timber for the roof. They snatched a glance between each other and said of course. They knew better than to ask why we couldn't bring in workmen from Truro for proper repairs.
Having found early on after coming home from China that I couldn't sit in the house all day, I'd gone exploring and rediscovered the old greenhouse. It was down in the valley, which hadn't seen any work since our grandfather had been alive. Because the wind funnelled right up from the sea sometimes, the trees there were blasted and strangely shaped. Some had leaves only on one side and one yew had bent right forward over the glass roof, old and dead and brittle. No matter how often I came in and out, the doors rained moss and spiders. When I'd found the place it had been overgrown. Nobody had asked for it back, so I stole it. I'd never be a gardener again, not like I had been, but although the loss of the profession had smashed over me like a tsunami, the interest behind it had turned out to be waterproof. I had forty-two types of fern and rescued tropical plants growing inside now, so densely that they pressed up against the walls.
The greenhouse stood on the edge of a tiny graveyard. The graves looked like somebody had dropped them there. They were a random, leaning clutter, some far spaced and some not, one half-hidden by the roots of a wind-warped tree that had spilled over the granite and tipped it sideways. There had once been a chapel, but all that was left of it were some stone steps and half a window frame. Dad's grave was the only one noticeable straightaway. There was a statue that looked down at the headstone, or it did usually. After the storm, one of the trees had fallen where the statue had been, but somebody prescient had moved it fifteen feet to one side.
When I got to the greenhouse, I saw that I'd left the door open, again. It worried me, because no matter how often I did it, I could never remember. I checked the inside lock without much hope. The key was gone, which wouldn't have mattered, but the same ring had my housekeys on it too. It was the third time I'd left it open since coming home, and the third time the crows had stolen the keys. It had taken me days to work out what had happened the first time and even then only when they brought the keys back to swap for a shilling I'd left on the bench.
I took down the jar of nails and coins on the shelf and sat for a while shining them up with turpentine. When they were gleaming I set them out on the step. I paused when I saw the floor was damp, dripped on, but there was nothing wrong with the roof. The little mechanisms that misted the air in the summer were bone dry. Not for the first time, I wondered if it hadn't been me who had left the door ajar at all, but someone else coming in to get out of the rain. But I'd asked before, and everyone had always said no.
In stealing the keys, the crows had knocked the map of Peru sideways. I straightened it up. I'd taken it from our grandfather's collection. It wasn't all of Peru, only the part he'd lived in. A district well into the interior, Caravaya. Half of it was beyond the Andes and after the line of the mountains there wasn't much, but he had sketched on a dragon with an amiable face and folded wings. At first glance it was a piece of whimsy but I knew why he had drawn it. There was a river there, in the shape of a dragon, but the territory was uncharted and he'd never taken the measure of the land. I only knew because whenever I saw the little picture, a nursery rhyme floated about at the back of my mind. It was about a dragon and a river and a mountain, but I couldn't fit the words into the tune any more.
Peru had been where I was meant to go, where I was meant to be now, if nothing had happened to my leg; I was supposed to be fetching cuttings from calisaya cinchona trees to begin a new plantation in India. The only cinchona forests in the world grew in Peru, and the only treatment in the world for malaria was quinine - derived from cinchona bark. Malaria was getting worse and worse in India, which was doing unpromising things to the trade revenue of the India Office. I'd put the map up when I'd thought I might recover enough to go. Still holding it between my fingertips I realised that all it was now was the fossil of a dead chance. I was never going to go. I propped it up on the floor instead, facing away.
Wanting to get it over with, I pulled open the letter and unfolded it against a tray of pansy seedlings. The paper was embossed and thick. Across it was my old manager's beautiful handwriting in dark black ink.
Expedition to Peru going ahead. December start. Report to the India Office for November 15th at the latest.
I turned the paper over and cast around for the pencil I used for plant labels.
Cannot go to Peru,. Cannot walk. Ask Charles Ledger, he's good.
I stuffed it back into the envelope, readdressed it to India House, tied it up with string and dropped it in the spare plant pot to take out later.
A crow bumped into the glass in front of me. It fell on to the grass but hopped up again, ruffling its feathers. I tapped on the window to see if it was all right. It looked, bright-eyed and alert still. Another fluttered down next to it, and another shot overhead. There were dozens of them, everywhere, and most were fluttering in a great funnel above the graves. Some were far up in the sky, circling as though they were looking for something. I thought it was carrion at first. I went out.
Anyone got my keys?' I called, then stopped walking, because I had almost come to what they were interested in. It was a broken amphora, the one that usually rested against the statue, but whoever had moved the statue had forgotten about it. It had spilled a spray of glass shells and tiny vials across the leafy moss. I frowned, because I hadn't known it had anything in it at all. The shells were bright and winking even in the drizzly sun. I went down on my good knee to pick one up. It came attached by a dead weed to three or four others, which plinked together and trickled old sand over my knuckles. Caught in the glass were burned imperfections and bursts of odd colour where scraps of iron or copper had been mixed up in it. There were dead sea things in two of them.
The vials were sealed shut. I broke the wax on one. Inside was something fine and white. I leaned down to it. Salt.
Not liking my being there, the crows wheeled away, towards the house and their nests in the big tree.
When I went back to the greenhouse, the crows had traded some glass shells for the pennies, but there was still no sign of my keys. Gulliver whined and nudged at me as I sat down. I stroked her ears. It made me jump when she barked. In the little space it was loud.
She whined again and hid under the old couch. A couch is an odd thing to have in a greenhouse, but it had always been there. It was Regency, all twirling mahogany scrollwork and sun-faded upholstery. I couldn't tell what colour it had been, and some patches were so worn out that the calico lining showed through. I'd never sat on it - I couldn't lean back if I was sitting down now - but there was an impression of a person on the left side that must have been my father or his, which I liked.
I couldn't lean down from sitting either, so I had to take my feet off the ground and ease down on my hands to see underneath.
'Come on, girl.'
St Bernards have human mannerisms. They sigh a lot when they're fed up, and Gulliver, at least, always put her paw over her eyes when she was unhappy. I laughed, but then stopped when I saw what was by my hand. It was the watermark of a bootprint. The sole was a different pattern to mine, no pattern at all, and much bigger.
Excerpted from "The Bedlam Stacks"
Copyright © 2017 Natasha Pulley.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
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