Lost History of Dreams
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A post-mortem photographer unearths dark secrets from the past that may hold the key to his future in this “sensual, twisting gothic tale…in the tradition of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights ” ( BookPage). All love stories are ghost stories in disguise. “This one happily succeeds at both” ( Kirkus Reviews, starred review). When famed Byronesque poet Hugh de Bonne is discovered dead in his bath one morning, his cousin Robert Highstead, a post-mortem photographer, is charged with a simple task: transport Hugh’s remains for burial in a chapel. This chapel, a stained-glass folly set on the moors, was built by de Bonne sixteen years earlier to house the remains of his beloved wife and muse, Ada. Since then, the chapel has been locked and abandoned, a pilgrimage site for the rabid fans of de Bonne’s last book, The Lost History of Dreams. However, Ada’s grief-stricken niece refuses to open the glass chapel for Robert unless he agrees to her bargain: before he can lay Hugh to rest, Robert must record Isabelle’s story of Ada and Hugh’s ill-fated marriage over the course of five nights. As the mystery of Ada and Hugh’s relationship unfolds, so too does the secret behind Robert’s own marriage—including that of his fragile wife, Sida, who has not been the same since a tragic accident three years earlier and the origins of his morbid profession that has him seeing things he shouldn’t...things from beyond the grave. Blurring the line between the past and the present, truth and fiction, and ultimately, life and death, The Lost History of Dreams is “a surrealist, haunting tale of suspense where every prediction turns out to be merely a step toward a bigger reveal” ( Booklist).
Release date: April 9, 2019
Publisher: Atria Books
Print pages: 320
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Lost History of Dreams
Excerpted from The Lost History of Dreams by Hugh de Bonne, published 1837 by Chapman & Hall, London.
Whilst the life inside her grew so round
The dream was lost as it was found.
Such was it thus : Aft their vows
Orpheus slept espoused
Silenced as the One Who Ends
Came ’mid Helios to transcend
Amor’s gilt clad arrow.
Yet in the morn, Eurydice found no sorrow :
Her eyes clamped mate, her devotion bright.
Cried she : ‘ ’ Tis love, not sun, that draws the light,
And Thou, my Spouse, shall be my fame.’
She knew not when her annunciation came
Amid Moon, not Sun. For no serpent smites
Along the ground. Instead, it bites
And leaves no sound.
Robert Highstead’s workday ended with a letter thrust inside his pocket. Before that, it was spent in a second-story parlor in Kensington, squinting into a camera at a corpse.
Through the camera’s viewing glass, Robert watched a young woman lying as if asleep, her hands cupped against her breast like she’d been called to cradle a dove. She appeared upside down on the viewing glass as though floating. It was a pose Robert had witnessed hundreds of times in the past three years: the serene smile upon the lips, the closed eyelids, the awkwardly draped shawl across the shoulders that a loved one took upon herself to orchestrate. A last display of care before consignment to the grave. The only variant today was a small book, The Lost History of Dreams, by an author Robert had never heard of. The volume was splayed across the woman’s belly, as though she’d just set it down to rest her eyes.
The thin cry of an infant revealed the cause of the woman’s demise. From the blood-stiffened linens thrown in a heap against a limewashed wall to the slack-shouldered midwife napping beside the wash basin, Robert understood the woman had labored long and hard. “The noblest of sacrifices,” he’d told her sister and husband, to help them grasp whatever comfort they could. Their muffled sobs gave hint to the ineffectuality of language. The winter air inside the parlor was weighed with the tinge of iron despite the geraniums set on the window ledge, the ice beneath the coffin boards. Not that it mattered—after all, Robert had work to do. He needed to be in Belgravia in two hours for a thirteen-year-old consumptive whose family yearned for a last portrait while she could still acknowledge their presence.
Robert unlatched a long wooden box to remove the silver-coated copper plate for the daguerreotype. He’d already buffed it to a mirrorlike sheen before exposing it to iodine and bromine fumes. As he reached toward his camera, his eyes tripped to the clock on the mantel as he thought of his wife. She hadn’t come home the previous evening—a not uncommon occurrence in their three years of marriage. Nor did it help that this was the third corpse he’d daguerreotyped since breakfast. Though Robert was accustomed to such sights, today it felt too much.
The widower, who was dressed in the modest clothes of a merchant, approached Robert, the newborn in his arms bawling. “She . . . she was lovely,” he said, his eyes reddening.
Robert tutted between his teeth. “I’m so sorry.” The more often he repeated the words, the less currency they seemed worth. He set the frame containing the plate inside the camera with a slide that felt as visceral as anything he’d experienced of late.
“Now the camera is ready,” he announced, ignoring the slight stench already rising from the corpse; the ice wasn’t helping. “The process will take little time, sir. Less than a minute.”
The widower pressed a palm against his eyes. “I appreciate how quickly you arrived. Very good of you. My sister claims you’re the best daguerreotypist of this sort.”
“I promise to use all the skills of my art, sir.” Robert’s heart lurched with sympathy; at least he still had his wife, wherever she was. She always comes back. “If there’s anything else I can do to offer comfort . . .”
The widower’s eyes fixed on Robert with a wet desperation. “Can . . . can you make her look as she did when she was alive, Mr. Highstead?”
“Ah, I understand! The daguerreotype will record your wife so your daughter—”
“Son. We’re naming him Charles. After her.” The widower indicated his wife’s corpse with a tight nod. “My wife’s name was Charlotte. Those who care for her called her Lottie.”
“Then your son Charles will have something by which to recall his dear mother’s life.”
Robert next took out a thick binder from his satchel. “If you’d care to look at our Catalogue of Possibilities,” he said mildly, setting it before the widower. The leather binding was gilded with the motto “Secure the shadow ’ere the substance fade.” The catalogue showed a journeyman’s ransom of items to spill shillings on. The silver-bordered frame bearing a capsule for a lock of hair. The velvet-lined glass mounts. The alternate views of the departed. Images of the family gathered around the corpse, faces pinched from the effort of not shifting for the camera. The stillborn babies supported by black-cloaked figures.
“Are they alive?” the widower asked.
“Sometimes,” Robert replied. He possessed little pride for his ability to pose an infant in a mother’s lifeless arms without the exposure blurring. A few drops of Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup worked wonders, though he hated how it affected the child. Yet there was something about his employment Robert couldn’t turn from. Something compelling. He told himself it was because he was offering comfort by transforming loss into proof of memory. Sometimes the daguerreotype seemed like sorcery itself, especially when he saw the image emerge from the plate like a ghost from the ethers. But it was more than this.
“For an additional fee, the image can be hand-tinted,” Robert added, pointing at a colored daguerreotype. Pink-hued gum arabic over silver foil. Flesh over bones.
Once coins were exchanged and bills of sale signed, Robert began the delicate process of daguerreotyping the corpse. He steadied his breath as he stared through the glass. He took the lens cap off with a flash of his palm, letting light record shadow on the plate. He ignored the widower’s sobs, the tearful last confessions of love. After all, they weren’t directed for his ears, but to those who could no longer hear. As Robert counted down the seconds of exposure, he anticipated what he would find when he developed the daguerreotype. For he knew in each person’s image he would discover the lost history of their lives: the scars, the wrinkles, the dreams never fulfilled. Or, worse, the lack thereof.
And then a messenger had walked in and thrust the letter into Robert’s pocket.
“How did you find me?” he’d asked the messenger, a towheaded boy of no more than fifteen. But the messenger had no answer, for he was already out the door.
The letter remained unopened for the remainder of Robert’s afternoon. But it was not forgotten: he’d found himself unable to daguerreotype the consumptive in Belgravia, the first time he’d ever not shown for a client.
Instead of taking a carriage after he’d received the letter, Robert used his disturbance as an excuse to walk toward Clerkenwell. Toward home. He hoped the exercise would calm him. The simplest thing would be to read the letter. To learn the worst. He couldn’t. Not yet.
He detoured along Oxford Street, though it took him out of his way. Even on a frigid February day, Oxford Street offered the distraction of shop-lined pavements crowded with silk-clad pedestrians. Such was the effect of Robert’s step—he dragged his left leg to compensate for the weight of his daguerreotype traveling case—that some paused in his wake. Robert understood their interest wasn’t because he was particularly handsome. With his thick pale hair and fair skin, his were the type of looks better described as sensitive than arresting; even now, three years after he’d left Oxford, he resembled the scholar of history he’d been. It was because Robert understood that even they, strangers to him in every sense of the word, knew there was something about him. Something somber. He noted their attention, but he’d grown used to it in the same way a butcher ignores the flies buzzing about his shop. After so much time daguerreotyping corpses, Robert understood death hung off him. Sometimes he imagined it possessing a physical form, like a martyr in a Flemish painting. Other times he fretted he smelled of decay, though he washed his hands nightly in carbolic acid followed by castile soap. This regimen left the skin on his hands reddened, but he couldn’t bring himself to forego it.
By the time Robert approached Theobald Road, the shock of the letter still hadn’t worn off. He walked quickly, bypassing narrow lanes snaking up into fog-draped indistinction. His pace only slowed once he turned left on Grays Inn Lane at the intersection where it met Laystall Street. His boarding house.
He ascended the four flights of stairs to his room, ignoring his landlady’s solicitous greeting. He didn’t bother to ask whether his wife had returned home; he knew Mrs. Clarke never noticed Sida’s comings and goings. Anyway, for once Sida didn’t dominate his worries. Mrs. Clarke’s orange-striped tabby followed him upstairs, mewing plaintively. The cat understood Robert was good for a saucer of milk, but not today.
Once his door was shut, Robert settled the traveling case onto the floor in the room.
The room was enough for his needs. It contained a bed, a milk-painted dresser, a table the width of his lap for meals, and two wicker chairs. A long worktable held a glittering stack of silvered copper plates he’d begun polishing with pumice powder and oil; his business required a constant supply. Quarter plates, which measured about three by four inches, were Robert’s favorite, for they required only his compact Richebourg daguerreotype outfit. He didn’t like to work with daguerreotypes smaller than this—too hard to view without a magnifying glass. He possessed a camera expressly for this purpose, but preferred not to carry it along with the quarter-plate one. However, if business improved, he planned to invest in a newer American-style full-plate camera. As for the room itself, its walls were angled. No art could be hung on them, which perturbed Sida, who liked to draw, but the view from the windows was compensation. They looked out on chimney pots and muddled skies, where birds collected at dusk. On clear days, he could even spy St. Paul’s to the south. When it grew foggy, Robert swore he could see coal dust suspended midair. The dust would enter his room, lining the plates in grey even after he closed the windows. Regardless, he preferred the windows open despite coal dust and the occasional errant crow at dusk.
Tonight the room was empty of crows. It was also empty of Sida.
Robert sank onto their bed, uncertain if he was relieved or disappointed she wasn’t there. If the letter’s sender was as expected, it might upset her more than him.
Relieved, he decided. Better she not know. She’ll return. She always does. Yet he feared this time would be different.
What troubled Robert most about Sida’s absences wasn’t the possibility of her betraying him; he knew she was too devoted for that. Nor was it loneliness; Robert was the sort of man who found as much companionship in a book as he did in humanity. It was that he never understood the perimeters of her comings and goings.
When they were together, Robert knew his marriage was a fair trade. Apart, it was difficult to think of anything save Sida’s unpredictable ways. He often wished he could stay home to watch over her. He’d bring her pomegranate seeds and mint tea, red wine and gentle kisses. He’d provide her with peace. But this could never be. Though Robert was the son of landed gentry, he’d abandoned his land right after they’d married.
The letter reasserted its hold. He glanced anew at the door. What if Sida showed? To distract himself, he’d read. Ovid’s Metamorphoses would do. While at Oxford, he’d written an acclaimed history of Ovid’s world. His second book, a biography of Ovid, had been slow work: the poet had spent the later part of his life in undocumented exile.
Still, the comfort of old obsessions called. He shifted the book onto his chest and read in Latin: Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved?
The words blurred before his sight. Sida or no, the letter would not be ignored.
He drew the letter from his pocket like it was a snake. It was postmarked Belvedere, Kent. Where he’d grown up. It was addressed in a hand he knew well, though he hadn’t seen it since his marriage. His brother’s.
“Shit,” he said.
Just then the door creaked open. He let the letter slide from his fingers.
Sida’s form was silhouetted against sunlight from the landing. She was wearing a blue-grey silk gown, the one she’d married him in. The sleeves were unusually full about the shoulders, a style she was fond of. He ignored the dark stains marring the bodice; they hadn’t been able to launder them out. Robert’s eyes passed hungrily over her. Sida looked as she ever did: petite, fine-boned, doe-eyed. Her ebony hair was unplaited about her shoulders, damp from an unseen rain. The moisture brought out the gleaming curls of her hair, which reminded him of a Titian Madonna he’d shown her at the National Gallery, the first time she’d ever viewed art in a museum.
“You’re back,” he said, hoping she wouldn’t notice the letter on the floor. “I missed you.”
Sida smiled in answer, letting her Kashmir shawl drop as she approached him. The shawl was one her father had brought from India; he’d been a lascar who’d married an English woman when the East India Company had brought him to London. Sida had been employed as a seamstress when Robert first met her. Later he learned her uncle had forced her into service after her parents’ death, but he hadn’t cared. His brother had.
He opened his arms wide. She slid into them, the gesture easy. This was what he’d needed—not money, not family favor, nor universities at Oxford. This was why he lived in this fourth-story room where birds trespassed at dusk.
How light she felt in his arms! How soft! It no longer mattered that his days were spent daguerreotyping the dead. Besides, he was good at it. Instead of writing about history, he was capturing it on a silver-lined plate for generations to come. As for Sida, what did it matter she wasn’t as she’d been before their marriage? Neither was he. All this was proof they were fated to be together. They’d never be parted.
“I love you,” he murmured. “Only you.”
Robert raised himself above his wife on their bed, ignoring the letter below. Whatever was in it couldn’t be more important than her. The candle beside the bed cast shadows along her cheek, accentuating the bones beneath. He wove his fingers into hers, his skin pale against her dusky hand. He grew aroused, but didn’t dare venture further. Instead, he rested his cheek against her breast, his hand on her waist. Her bodice was soft with moisture.
As the room darkened with the shadows of winter, husband and wife lay together on their bed, head to head, eye to eye, Robert’s breath the only sound in the room before Sida’s eyes lit on the letter.
It is not an average day when a gentleman is asked by his brother to daguerreotype a deceased cousin. The day is even less average when the gentleman in question has never heard of this cousin.
Once Sida spied the letter, Robert could no longer ignore it. She’d forced him to read it. “You can’t avoid the past, Robert,” she’d said, her lips pursing as she prepared for what might be.
His brother, John, had written on a sheet dated the eighth of February 1850:
From methods too ungentlemanly to set in words, I have learned of your return to London and your uncommon occupation. Though I’d intended to leave you undisturbed, I now have urgent need of your services for our cousin, Hugh de Bonne. I am uncertain of the logistics of such an endeavor on your end. Regardless, I implore you to arrive on the eleven o’clock coach the morning of the tenth. If you send word confirming your arrival, I’ll have Durkin meet you with the carriage.
If you or your wife ever bore me affection, I beg you not to ignore my request.
Robert hadn’t sent word, so no one met him at the coach stand. He’d walked the two miles to his family home alone, the handle of the traveling case containing his daguerreotype outfit pulling at his hands. He was grateful for the walk, for it enabled him to gather his thoughts. Death changes everything, he mulled, yet nothing. When he’d eloped with Sida, it hadn’t been his intention to never speak with his brother. Nor did he bear him ill will. Their estrangement had happened as many do, wrought from good intentions and solidified by discomfort. By the time he’d abandoned Oxford for London, Robert had convinced himself the estrangement was for the best. Now he didn’t know what he believed.
The manor house his family had occupied for only two generations was as Robert had recalled: an imposing presence built of red Georgian brick and white granite. The fields surrounding were the same too: separated by hedgerows, stone walls, and hegemony. There was a lovely garden hidden behind the house, one planted by his mother soon after his father had acquired the estate. Robert assumed this hadn’t changed either though both of his parents were gone. The air was so sweet, so pure. So different from the fetid fogs of London. Robert opened his mouth and sucked in air. It felt soft as honey against his tongue, as sweet as summer grass. This he’d forgotten.
A bevy of large black crows darted out of the hedgerows at Robert’s approach, raucous and rude. Once he reached the portico, he set the traveling case and tripod down and smoothed his best black overcoat. He surveyed the brass knocker for a good long minute. His face looked pale and strained in its curved reflection.
A moment after he’d pulled the knocker, the oak door was opened by a plump woman whose face was creased with wrinkles. Mary, the housekeeper. She’d aged since he’d last seen her; her flesh had crumpled around brown eyes once considered fine in the village. He’d never been especially fond of her, but he’d appreciated her loyalty. She’d taken over the household upon his mother’s death when he was nine, and hadn’t wavered since.
The door halted midway, Mary’s face caught in what appeared an attempt to smile. Her expression gave Robert the sense he’d become a ghost visiting the living, rather than the flesh and blood tied to this house.
“You didn’t expect me.” Robert also attempted to smile, but failed. “Am I so greatly altered?”
She shook her head. “You look the same. Perhaps leaner. Greyer. I just never thought to see you again after . . . after your marriage.” Her tone grew odd. “Master John said you weren’t coming. I’d heard they found you in London, that your brother hired a detective. I didn’t believe it, after over three years.”
“Has it been so long?” He knew exactly how long it had been.
“April 1846. Everyone still speaks of it. Three months after your brother returned from India. After your father’s death.”
“Indeed. May I come in?” With his equipment beside his feet, he felt like a tinker begging for a meal. “I’m here to daguerreotype my cousin.”
At last Mary relented to open the door. She even bobbed a curtsey after casting a wary eye at his trunk. “Shall I have Durkin bring it to your room? I assume you’ll be staying the night.”
“Best I take it—it’s fragile. I’m only here for the day.”
Robert stepped over the threshold of his family home for the first time since his marriage. The long dark hallway was as he remembered. Narrow. Cold. Crowned by tall ceilings paneled in dark wood and gold-flecked wallpaper, all markers of plenty. How removed he’d grown from his birthright. Even if he wasn’t the eldest son, he’d still been raised like a prince in a fief. He’d been expected to live a gentrified existence, to devote his life to scholarship and ease. To marry an heiress, not a penniless seamstress.
“This way,” Mary said. “To your brother’s study.”
He followed the housekeeper, cradling his case and tripod. Mary continued to sneak gapes over her shoulder.
“ ’ Tis a wonder to see you, sir.”
“And you.” Robert’s nerves thrummed. “Perhaps you should announce me first.”
“Master John is out with his dogs. I don’t know when he’ll return.”
“Then it’s best you take me directly to my cousin.”
To daguerreotype him. Robert’s stomach tightened, surprising him.
“He’s laid out in Master John’s study.”
“Thank you, Mary.” Perhaps there were mourners already congregated there, partaking of funeral cakes and ham, though Robert doubted it; the house felt too still. No crape over the mirrors either; some believed this prevented the departing soul from being trapped in the glass.
Mary stopped before the door of John’s study. “I’ll leave you to it, sir.”
Robert bent his head inside. The study looked considerably different than the last time he’d been there three years earlier. Though the study had then held a coffin too, the room had been adorned with the trappings of authority and exoticism: a long mahogany desk scented with sandalwood, marble busts copied from ancient ones, silk tapestries from faraway lands. Now the only items of furniture inhabiting the study were the desk and a chaise draped in purple moiré. The chaise had been in his mother’s bedroom; Robert had a distant memory of lying on it when his head ached, her French perfume enveloping him like a song. It was before this chaise that his cousin’s open coffin rested across a pair of saw horses.
This was his cousin. His cousin who was dead.
Though it made little sense, Robert stepped toward the coffin as though not to disturb.
The last time he’d been in John’s study, the coffin had been made of plain pine; Robert had insisted on it, yearning for simplicity. The coffin was also smaller, built to house the corpse of a young woman. This time, the coffin was constructed of dark lacquered wood swathed in deep purple velvet. The color of royalty. It was deep enough that his cousin’s corpse remained hidden. This was a relief to Robert—he wasn’t ready to view him yet. What had been his cousin’s name? Hugh? Wasn’t it a French name? For some reason, he resisted remembering. He’d never even heard of him until yesterday. Regardless, he had work to do.
Robert wiped his brow and set down the tripod and the heavy wood case containing his daguerreotype outfit. He unbolted the leather straps; the buckles and slides reminded him of the livery on a horse’s head. He lifted the boxes containing the silvered copper plates, the bottles of chemicals and pigments. Finally, he removed the camera itself. It was a large box bound in honey-colored wood and glass. Boxes within boxes Locked and contained. However, once he set his camera on the tripod, he forgot where he was, the task he was to do, shifting from family member to daguerreotypist. It was easier than he’d imagined, like putting on a hat before going outside.
Robert examined the corpse. Hugh looked as he’d expected: like the corpse of a man well past the middle of his life. He was thin and tall, his auburn hair dulled by white, his hands ropey with veins and bone. No one could argue he wasn’t dressed elegantly, his ensemble unlike anything Robert had ever seen his wife sew. Hugh wore a well-tailored dark-hued frock coat. Beneath it, a black velvet collar was attached to his linen, which was fastened by an elaborately bowed necktie; his trousers were cut of the same fine wool as the coat, as though to match. Hugh reclined in the coffin, one long arm curved across his chest, as though overcome by surprise when his heart stilled.
“What did you die of?” Robert whispered. “Where did you die?”
Hugh revealed no sign of disease beyond approaching threescore years. Nor did he bear the stench of decomposition; the subtle scent of almond indicated he’d been embalmed in arsenic mixed with spirits of wine. The high color on his cheeks suggested carmine had been added to the mixture. Embalmed or no, Hugh’s closed eyes had already sunken into his face. He must have passed about two weeks earlier and in another land; a small brass plaque set inside the coffin latch was engraved with a Geneva address. Hugh had traveled far to come home.
Inspired by the grandeur of Hugh’s coffin and clothes, Robert would use his finest supplies. A gilding of gold chloride after fixing the plate with mercury. This would grant the daguerreotype the appearance of warmth—something his cousin’s body now decidedly lacked in death.
Once the camera was positioned, Robert surveyed his cousin upside down on the viewing glass. Even after opening the drapes, the light was low. In such a case, Robert would move the corpse into a more advantageous pose. He’d even use a teaspoon to adjust the focus of their eyes, but the thought of this repulsed him—even if he’d never met him before, this was his cousin, not some stranger. In all of Robert’s dealings as a daguerreotypist, he’d grown to think of death akin to a train pulling away—his job was to help the survivors wave goodbye. Now, after viewing his cousin’s corpse, he was reminded death was a door slamming shut. Especially as he recalled that small pine box three years earlier.
A deep shudder rose from within him.
What to do?
The answer came unbidden: We do what we must. He’d take a portrait of his cousin’s face in repose, cropped closely. A longer exposure would compensate for the low light. Once he developed the daguerreotype, he’d leave before his brother discovered his presence. He’d be done with his past—or as much as was possible.
Robert tucked his head beneath the black cloth covering the back of the camera. Reached for the silver-coated plate for the daguerreotype. Stared into the glass finder one last time.
His wife’s face stared back at him.
Robert dropped the silvered plate. As soon as it clattered to the floor, Sida disappeared; Hugh’s corpse returned. Not that it mattered—Robert knew no one could see her but him. He’d had three years since Sida’s death to become accustomed to her ways: the silent arrivals in the dark of night, the glimpses of her blue gown in tangled crowds. This time, though, he knew he’d imagined her. The proof was in the circumstance: the last time he’d been here, it was to bury her. Her ghost rarely showed outside their home. In the few occasions Robert had ventured beyond London, she’d never followed. He was still desperately short of sleep. His memories were affecting him.
Robert stepped away from his camera shaking his head, his hands. Anything to pull himself from the past. Yet the memory of that humble pine box remained, as tangible a presence as the corpse of Hugh de Bonne. Sida’s
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