Don't go into the woods, they told her.
But she knew better . . .
Killingly, 1897. The female students of Mount Holyoke - an elite university in a sleepy rural town - are famous for their beauty and charm. Except for plain, quiet Agnes and Bertha, who spend their time reading, writing and wandering the dark woods of Killingly, and do not seem interested in ballgowns or young men.
One autumn morning, Bertha vanishes - and the peaceful town of Killingly fractures into chaos. While a search team dredges the pond where she might have drowned, a private detective arrives in town and begins an investigation, discovering before long that this plain, quiet girl was keeping a terrible secret. The truth, if revealed, could put Agnes's life in mortal danger - and shatter the glittering reputation of Mount Holyoke forever...
A gothic, turn-of-the-century campus thriller about female desire, rage and ambition, perfect for fans of TRIFLERS NEED NOT APPLY, THE BINDING and FINGERSMITH . . .
'A haunting story . . . will stay with me long after reading' ELIZABETH LEE, author of Cunning Women
'Completely engrossing. Unforgettable!' MARTHA CONWAY, author of The Physician's Daughter
'A story of women who defy strict rules' KATE MANNING, author of My Notorious Life
'A superb novel, suffused with dread' ELIZABETH MCKENZIE, author of The Dog of the North
'Extraordinary fiction' JULIA PHILLIPS, author of National Book Award Finalist Disappearing Earth
Release date: June 6, 2023
Publisher: Soho Crime
Print pages: 360
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That morning Agnes was drawing the cracked pelvis of a beaver. She had found it in the woods near Upper Lake, where the men had been searching for Bertha. Usually she could collect only chipmunk bones or rabbit or squirrel. She’d never drawn a beaver before.
The men were still searching for Bertha. Agnes had wondered, briefly, what else they might find in the ponds. Perhaps there were other girls who had vanished in the College woods, other bones tangled in the roots of the pines along the grassy edges of the water. The bow of the clavicle, the bowl of the pelvis. She had wanted to see. But it was habit now to keep to herself, to appear as unobjectionable as possible. Mute as the white cross hung upon her wall and banal as the cross-stitched hymns beside it. She’d been spared freckles and red or black hair; hers was dark brown like soaked wood and lay flatter against her head than was fashionable. She and Bertha simply scraped their damp hair back after a washing—because dowdiness was permissible, even godly. Dowdiness had been a shield for them both.
Agnes had a narrow room on the third floor of Porter Hall, a slim little desk and chair designed for the ministers’ daughters who thronged the College. Bertha had fit these chairs well. Agnes herself was not narrow. She was a broad spare girl of twenty, trim but tall and square-shouldered and square-hipped. She never drew self-portraits, though she was a fine draughtswoman in the anatomical mode. She did not wish to look at herself long enough to see the truth of her body, how its overlapping rectangles would sit like bare fenced pastures on the page: Agnes Sullivan, all enclosure.
The girls on her hall usually left her alone, as they had left Bertha alone, because they disliked her almost as much as they had disliked Bertha. They still disliked Bertha, in the midst of their fluttering about her mysterious fate. Their dull antipathy did not bother Agnes. Being alone meant that she could concentrate on her work. But Agnes could not trust, any longer, that she would be left alone. Not after what she had done.
There were certain things Bertha had told Agnes that she might still need to do.
Bertha had said: You must lie. No one knows anything, no one can prove anything. Just us. So you can’t—you can’t give in. You must go on. Be strong.
Bertha said, as she kissed Agnes’s hand: I don’t want you to leave college. But you might have to.
And Agnes said: No. I won’t.
Bertha had been missing for one full day. Agnes bent closer to her sketch. Her pencil feathered in a shadow on the page: the fissure in the beaver’s bone, where its strength had failed.
WHILE AGNES DREW, the Reverend John Hyrcanus Mellish and his older daughter, Florence, stood outside the president’s office in a dark anteroom with thick red carpets that made the place feel muffled, like a silent cavern of some massive body. The building, Mary Lyon Hall, was massive, too—another collegiate Gothic cathedral of rough red stone with a grand clock tower that pierced the gray sky. Florence found herself struggling to breathe inside its bulk. She had been struggling to breathe since the telegram arrived.
Florence and her father had taken the train up from Killingly through Worcester shortly after dawn. The Reverend had dozed against the window while Florence sat straight beside him in miserable anticipation, her stockinged knees thick lumps under her skirt, and drummed her heels against one another to keep blood moving in her feet. They’d changed trains again in Springfield, in a station astringent with the smell of urine even in the chilly weather. A filthy boy
had tried to lift Florence’s purse and cried when she shoved him back, and Florence had thought, Nobody is getting what he wants today.
Despite the cold she had taken off her gloves and spent the last hour of the journey picking at the base of her left thumbnail until it bled—an old, bad habit to keep panic at bay. Even in the dim light of the anteroom, now, she could see a brown dapple on the green fabric of her glove.
Mrs. Mead opened the office door herself: a sturdy older woman in a black gabardine dress and a starched blouse with a fringed lace collar that nearly touched her prominent ears. Her gaze was clear and cold. She couldn’t have been more different from delicate Mrs. Ward, who had been the College’s president in Florence’s time. Florence remembered waiting outside Mrs. Ward’s office on a sunny May morning, preparing to make her apologies for her departure from Mount Holyoke after only one year. She had blamed her mother’s poor health, and Mrs. Ward, a trusting soul, had been most understanding.
“Miss Mellish, Reverend Mellish, come in,” Mrs. Mead said, shortly, and waited for Florence to settle her father in a chair. “I am very sorry for your distress. I will tell you all I know.”
There wasn’t much to tell and Mrs. Mead made short work of it. She described the dragging of the lakes and the teams of searchers in the woods: men were walking the banks of the Connecticut River in case Bertha had gone out on one of her long hikes alone and tumbled in; the police were finding a Parrott gun to fire over the water, to raise the corpse with the force of its concussion. Mrs. Mead said “the corpse” quite calmly, with no gulping or quavering. “Of course,” she added, and here she seemed to warm, the way an iron warms in fire, “there is still reason to hope that she has not drowned—that we will find her alive, soon.”
As they exited the building, the crisp air forced a gasp from Florence’s lungs. It was not a sob. She would not allow that.
Her father tugged at her elbow.
“I want to look over the campus,” the Reverend said, his gaze tracking up Prospect Hill, the promontory that stretched along the College’s eastern border. From there, you could command a view toward both Upper and Lower Lake, surveying the manicured trees and impressive structures of the freshly expanded campus. She knew what he wanted. He was hungry to discern Bertha camouflaged like a dryad among those trees and buildings. Desperate to search her out, drag her away from the College, just as Florence had once been dragged away.
“She’s not here,” she whispered, knowing he wouldn’t hear.
But it was easier to obey than to argue, most of the time. They made their slow way
to the bridge across the brook at Lower Lake, and with each step Florence heard Mrs. Mead’s voice. The corpse, she thought, the corpse.
Even in her time at the school they’d told the story of the Lady of Lower Lake, a senior so distraught over her failing grades that she’d flung herself to a hanging death from this bridge while stabbing a dagger into her own heart. As a young woman Florence had thought this tale comically baroque, especially its coda—the voice of the dead girl echoing from beneath the bridge when a classmate crossed it. Help me, the girl had cried, I’m down here, while her body cooled in the pond water.
As they crossed the bridge now Florence felt as if her whole body had opened wide like the bell of an ear trumpet, attuned to every sound. A kind of listening that stalled the breath. Once Florence had been practiced at this kind of listening. She had imagined, more than once, how Bertha would sound when pleading for help and what she would do to rescue Bertha. She’d spent the train ride from Killingly rehearsing those visions in new detail. Over and over she’d enfolded that conjured-up Bertha in her arms, smelled the grassy tang of sweat along her hairline, squeezed her fierce little body—and in every fantasy Bertha would finally struggle free of Florence’s arms and pat Florence’s cheek and smile, just as she had as a baby.
But no sounds came from below the bridge. Just absence, Bertha’s absence, echoing.
Florence’s father was a husk beside her. He clung to her round arm and puffed weak steam into the air as they ascended the slope. Once he had been an imposing man, though he had never been the sort of minister who thundered from the pulpit. Instead he’d merely looked at you with those flat brown eyes, looked and put his hand on your shoulder, and pressed a firm thumb into the divot below your collar-bone. He had been compelling.
On this campus he drew eyes only because he was a man and Bertha’s father. In the hours since they’d learned that Bertha was gone, the young women of Mount Holyoke had begun creeping around the cold campus with books clasped to quivering bosoms. The girls directed polite smiles at the Mellishes, but their eyes showed wide and white as Florence and the Reverend passed by. She could almost hear their silent prayers: for Bertha’s safety, of course, but really to ward off loss and threat.
That Sunday’s mandatory prayer meeting would have an unusual fervency and more clutching of hands than was common. At church, Bible study, their YWCA sessions—all day the girls would pass tremors from palm to clammy palm.
Florence and her father limped up the walk to the grand gazebo at the top of the hill, another addition. Empty now, but big enough for ten girls to picnic under its shingled roof, or twenty if they were cozy. Florence had heard a girl call it the Pepper Box. The Reverend leaned against the gazebo’s steps to catch his breath, and Florence turned away to look out over the campus. The morning sun softened the harsh shapes of the new buildings. If she had not been compressing an endless shriek in her belly all would have appeared tranquil and safe. The boathouse, the two tree-lined avenues and winding gravel paths, the wrought iron lampposts, the few streets of South Hadley past the College gates—and then the woods rolling endlessly into the distance, and Bertha lost somewhere within them.
The message from Mrs. Mead arrived at the rooming house at nearly eleven that night. They’d turned down the late supper the lady owner, Mrs. Goren, had tried to press upon them. In her small still room, Florence had been trying to read a book of poems and feeling her attention skitter off the page. The peal of the doorbell startled her up and into her father’s room, where Mrs. Goren hand-delivered the message and hovered to hear its brief contents: Some news, come quickly.
The Reverend lectured through the short carriage ride back to campus. He was trying to tell Florence that she should not worry overmuch. Bertha’s disappearance was a matter of faith, like any trial. “Florence,” he said, “if God wills that she be found, she will be found. We must not fail in our duties because our afflictions increase. God blesses the open-hearted.”
Florence was no defiant agnostic, as Bertha was. Bertha liked to flash her eyes covertly at Florence during John’s tirades about the Satanic malignancy he saw in modern society and the duties of a faithful congregation. Bertha liked to question her father endlessly on what she called “dogma”; Florence preferred to think of God as a light so powerful not even the Reverend’s sins could blot it out. But to hear her father make himself a martyr, to cast Bertha as a sacrifice in service of his piety—
“We are not living in a parable, Father. She’s in danger. She could be sick. Someone might have taken her. I won’t fold my hands in prayer when I could be searching—”
“Bertha,” John said out of shocked habit, used to rebuking the other daughter for irreverence, then caught himself. “That is—Florence—”
“Don’t speak to me,” she said, quietly, and tucked her gloved hands away when he fumbled to take one in his own.
The anteroom was empty, their footfalls deadened by its thick carpet. Mrs. Mead looked up as they entered her shadowy office. She was alone; she was frowning. “Reverend, Miss Mellish. I won’t waste your time with pleasantries. A report has just come in of a girl in Boston, at the City Hospital, calling herself Bertha Miller. I have no other information. If you can travel to Boston now, the police there will take you to her.”
Dread and relief thrashed around in Florence’s chest like a pair of stunned fish. “Of course,” she said, “we’ll leave—”
“No.” John looked to Mrs. Mead. “I will go alone. Dr. Hammond will be here soon. He will direct you.”
Henry Hammond, their family doctor, was the first person her father had contacted when the telegram arrived from the College about Bertha’s disappearance. The Reverend had ordered the bewildered delivery boy to go next to Hammond’s house, to deputize the doctor to seek out the South Hadley sheriff while they went straight to campus. Florence had been left to pack furiously while John sat reading his Bible, seeking what guidance it could offer in the case of a lost child. Now she was to stay here under Hammond’s direction while her father went to rescue Bertha?
Florence’s feelings were scattered and terrible, like the mess of little foul creatures that scuttle out from an overturned log on the forest floor. She had to go to Boston. She had to.
“You’ll need me to help.” Her throat clotted. “Bertha will need me.”
“Florence,” the Reverend Mellish said. “No.”
“I must know if—”
She looked to Mrs. Mead for support, but the woman’s expression was opaque—no motherly comfort to be found. Florence wanted to howl. But instead she stood with eyes downcast beside her father as he made arrangements with Mrs. Mead to travel
Florence accompanied the Reverend to the tiny Holyoke station to catch the three a.m. Boston & Maine and half lifted him up the rail coach’s narrow steel steps with the help of the timid young policeman who’d driven them. The skies were black as tar and the platform dim and quiet, lantern-lit.
She returned to the rooming house and tried to rest. In her rattled dreams circled specters of Bertha’s face: A Bertha with bared teeth and wildcat eyes, like her uncle David in the asylum just before his death. A Bertha, anguished, with some criminal’s hands on her dear body. A white-faced Bertha whose closed lids were sluiced with stream water and hair thickened with a coronet of muddy leaves.
AGNES DID NOT DREAM that night—or if she did, we cannot see it. Her mind was segmented as the chambers of a shell and similarly armored. Unless we mean to pry her open, oyster-like, there are things we cannot know about Agnes Sullivan until we have traversed those chambers.
There were many things no one at Mount Holyoke College knew about Agnes.
That she was born in a skip behind the factory where her mother Nora wove cloth. As a baby Agnes had been unrewarding, silent and stiff in Nora’s arms.
That her sister, Adelaide, was born in Agnes’s own small bed, not the one Nora sometimes shared with her sot of a husband. The sisters would share the bed until Agnes left for college. Slowly, she would grow accustomed to Adelaide’s body alongside hers, the only embrace she’d ever welcomed besides Bertha’s. When Agnes was alone in the room—which was rare—she would sometimes strip back the thin sheet and curl herself into the bloodstain Adelaide’s birth had left on the mattress ticking, like the print of a massive spread-winged bird, and spread her fingers out upon it.
That their father had died of his habitual drunkenness when Agnes was seven and Adelaide four, with two babies born dead between them. Her mother didn’t have the money to bury him, so Agnes had to help carry him down the tenement stairs from their third-floor room and roll him into the gutter, where the early morning patrol would haul him away for burial on the city’s charity. Two days later Agnes overheard the neighbor women murmuring about how long the city kept bodies waiting to be claimed. She had despised her father, but for four months she had nightmares about his round white belly puffing in some city morgue basement, his fingers swelling, his red beard inching out into tangles. Then the nightmares stopped and she hardly spared him a thought again, asleep or awake.
That Agnes learned
the best student in her grade in the local public school and won small scholarships for her recitations: nothing extravagant, but enough to pay for Sunday beef dinners during one cold winter and to buy her and her sister new boots in another.
That Miss Kelly, a once-Catholic Congregationalist who lived up the lane in the nicer part of their neighborhood, had read the tiny item about those scholarships in the Herald and had looked up Agnes’s mother to offer her guidance. Miss Kelly was plain and small and terribly freckled, but to Agnes she also seemed bright against the drab walls of their apartment, lit up by her calm certainty in her own talents, her earnest desire to better Agnes, to school her. It was Miss Kelly who thought of sending her to Mount Holyoke, her own alma mater. Miss Kelly taught her to scour the Irish from her speech and warned her that she’d have to hide her faith at the College. She didn’t know that what Agnes really worshipped was the earthly body, its strung tendons and ligaments, its stony structures. “It will be worth it, Agnes dear, I promise you,” she said, clasping Agnes’s broad hand with her tiny fingers. “It is the best education you could receive. It will do everything for you.”
That her sister Adelaide fell pregnant while working as a housemaid for the Allens in the fall of Agnes’s freshman year and tried to hang herself from the coat hook in their apartment after Mrs. Allen threw her out. When Nora found her she was half-strangled, her heart hardly beating. She lost the baby—poor lamb, said all Nora’s friends, though they were grateful, too. Nora wouldn’t have to choose whether to feed herself or her grandchild, whether or not to abandon the little thing to Saint Mary’s Asylum, which was as good as killing it with her own hands. But Adelaide was, as a result, not quite herself. She could no longer manage anything more complicated than piecework done at their kitchen table; she limped, she forgot how to read. Miss Kelly no longer talked of recommending Adelaide for admission to Mount Holyoke as she had Agnes. So Agnes resolved to do everything for Adelaide herself, if the College could not.
That Nora still worked in the same factory to support herself and Adelaide, though she was forty-six and not hearty and surrounded by girls a third her age doing the same work faster and better.
That Agnes rarely had money to send home and prided herself on never asking for any.
That she worked tirelessly on her drawings not only because she sought perfection for its own sake but because she thought she might be able to work as a medical draughtsman if she could train her hand to be precise enough. Already, the other girls paid her to correct their lab sketches. Her dream was to be a surgeon; she would apply to medical school, and she thought sh
e might even earn a spot. But she had learned to be practical; she had learned always to have two routes of escape.
That she had only been kissed once, by a boy from her school who trapped her in an alley when she was walking home late from Miss Kelly’s and pressed her into the wall and put his dirty hand up her skirt and thrust his dirty fingers into her as if she were a glove. As if she were water, all give and no resistance. As if she were nothing. His mouth tasted of blood and rot. She cut the back of her head on the brick getting away from him—but she cut his cheek with her knife.
That she was still prepared to marry, if she had to, to provide for her mother and Adelaide.
But that she was determined it would not be necessary.
BERTHA KNEW ALL THESE things. But Bertha was not at the College—not anymore.
Henry Hammond met Deputy Sheriff F. W. Brockway of the Holyoke police at the Holyoke train station and had his hand shaken energetically. Brockway was young—perhaps forty, scrawny, the sort of fellow who gestured a great deal as he spoke. He was electric with the tension of the search.
Hammond had not known if the local police would welcome his presence, given that he was not a member of the family, but Brockway seemed relieved to deal with him rather than the distraught sister or aged father. “Not what you want to discuss with the family, the sort of trials that might lead a respectable girl to commit a desperate act,” Brockway said as they hurried to the police cart, and Hammond suppressed a flicker of rage.
They rolled through browning fields as Brockway blathered about how they’d found the Parrott gun, which had been sheltering in the barn of a Northampton reservist tasked with maintaining it. They were going to meet his convoy of men and artillery and horses at the Connecticut River near Smith’s Ferry, where a brook entered the river and pooled under a small bridge. It was Brockway’s opinion that if Bertha Mellish had gone into the water, whether willingly or not, she was most likely to have done so near this bridge and this pool. If her body was trapped in the pool’s silty hollow or bogged down somewhere nearby in the curls of the river’s course, the cannonball’s force might dislodge it.
“Yes, of course,” Hammond said, only half listening. He was certain Bertha had not gone into any water, in this river or elsewhere, but it was clear that the police meant to focus their attention on the Connecticut until they were satisfied of that fact as well. “Are there other leads in the case?”
“A man came to the station right after we put the word out.” Brockway flicked the reins once more against the backs of the two cart horses. “Said he saw her on the road to Mount Holyoke the day she disappeared. My men found some boot prints going from the road to the riverbank. No tracks back. Little feet, like a child’s, almost.”
Her sweet small feet. Hammond felt a frisson of dread and suppressed that, too. “How do you know the prints weren’t old?”
Brockway shrugged. “Difficult to tell with the freeze and thaw. It’s been bright this month. Unusual.”
As they arrived at the river Hammond took a moment to set himself right—smoothing his hair under his hat, polishing his glasses. “You must tell me how I can help,” he said to the deputy sheriff as they climbed down from the cart. Brockway might’ve been callow but he was in charge of this search, and Hammond had no standing to question the police’s methods. He was only John Mellish’s representative, as far as they knew.
Brockway gave him an unseemly grin. He was too young to have been in the War, so of course he found the cannon-firing exciting. “Just stand back, Doctor.”
The gun was manned by an elderly ex-sergeant from the Tenth Massachusetts Battery, who talked to the horses as softly as he must have at Ream’s Station, and by four old cannoneers, one still a coal deliveryman, one a retired fireman, one a druggist, and one too shambling from years of drink to show any evidence of his profession. Hammond spoke with them all as they readied themselves. There was comfort in talking with fellow veterans, and he had the greatest respect for artillerymen; in battle, they might have been based behind the lines, but their work made them targets for every galloping bravo on the field. The ex-sergeant, he discovered, had been an insurance man. Hammond watched him survey his comrades and linger on the last man with a regard that suggested a blunt professional pity toward someone he would not, under any inducement, have sold a life policy.
“You knew the girl,” the
ex-sergeant said to Hammond as they watched two of the other men worm out the bore and swab it, set the range, and aim.
“Yes,” he said, suddenly stricken, “yes,” and stepped back to let them fire.
The ex-sergeant pulled the lanyard and sent the round crashing into the underbrush on the opposite side of the river. It wasn’t just a boom; the gun had a shrill top note, a ripping shriek and whistle, and a cavernous depth to its report that settled in the men’s bellies. They’d grown used to it during the war and they did not flinch. But they sympathized with the shying horses and the terrified crows scattering from the woods on the near riverbank, and Hammond, standing with the deputy sheriff’s searchers, wondered how many old men in the valley had just lifted their heads from their work and looked toward a window or the horizon, seeking out the danger that matched that sound.
He couldn’t escape the feeling that the men had just sounded Bertha’s death knell. A tremendous echoing call along the floor of the valley, bigger in the ears than any church bell. Everyone at the College must have heard it. Florence Mellish must have heard it.
The sergeant watched the policemen pick their way along the brown banks of the river and peer into its murk. The cannoneers weren’t needed any longer—one shot would have to be sufficient, as there were farms nearby and more blasts might upset the livestock—but they stood around the rifle for a while, talking to each other and the horses, until it was clear that no bodies were going to rise up from the river’s depths. Then they packed up all the rifle’s gear, the sight and the swab and the wire, the lanyard and the firing table, and turned their backs on the river.
Nearby, the police dragged chains up Batchelder Brook for several hours before being thwarted by ice and came up with nothing useful—some trash and a mess of branches and leaves, a deer’s half-consumed carcass. Later they dragged the river with grappling hooks, too, and stretched a net across it miles downstream. They drew down the lakes on campus and found a number of glinting hairpins, a smashed hat that might once have been blue, a belt buckle, a cluster of old bricks, half a teacup, the nickel-plated clasp from a handbag, and the sodden remains of several textbooks still bound together with a leather strap, probably thrown in jubilantly by a Holyoke girl at the end of term.
There was no hint of Bertha among the wet weeds.
on charity, just as her father was buried on it. She had been
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