Tilly’s Dolls

Ottilie Harwood lived in one wing of Sedgwick Hall, and her widowed father lived in the other. She knew him mainly through traces: the scent of pipe smoke, a crumpled newspaper, the pursed lips of the housekeeper Miss Frement. But today, on her eighth birthday, she had been summoned to meet with him.

Miss Frement steered Tilly in to the library with a bony red hand. Her father sat in a huge blood-coloured leather armchair, peering at a copy of Hardwicke’s Science Gossip through a pair of dainty spectacles perched on his broad, whiskery face. He took a few moments to finish reading and fixed Tilly with an appraising glare before beckoning for her to come forward. He picked up a dove grey box tied with a blue velvet ribbon from the table beside him and held it out to her.

“This is for you, Ottilie. But you must promise to be a good girl.”

“I will,” she said quietly, and took the box. He sat back and picked up Science Gossip again, the signal for Miss Frement to usher Tilly away.

Every birthday for as long as she could remember Tilly’s father had given her a doll. Each one had a serene porcelain face, cornflower blue eyes, and soft ringlets of golden hair. They were gorgeously dressed. One wore a butter yellow calico day dress, another a peacock blue taffeta gown which crackled and gleamed. A coppery velvet cloak, a smart crimson riding habit with shining brass buttons. This doll was wearing a beautiful green silk gown which whispered as Miss Frement unwrapped her. The housekeeper exclaimed in delight and reminded Tilly what a lucky girl she was as she placed the new doll on the nursery shelf beside the others.

Tilly liked to look at the dolls, but she didn’t know how to play with them; sometimes she would have a tea party and they would sit in silence together in front of their empty china cups. She longed for a friend, or failing that, a pet. She’d asked many times for a kitten or a puppy or a monkey or a parrot as a companion, but was always denied. Instead she befriended the snails, worms, and toads which she found in the grounds, bringing them inside to die slowly on the plush, rose pink carpet of her pristine doll’s house.

“And look! A parcel from your aunt,” Miss Frement said. Tilly liked her aunt Ada. She had the same soft eyes and frizzy hair as her mother, and once gave Tilly a peppermint humbug. Her aunt had barely visited Sedgwick Hall since Tilly’s mother died. She remembered shouting coming from the library, Ada’s angry chirps gradually submerged in her father’s thunder, and then Ada’s damp, smiling face disappearing into the dark of her carriage.

“Oh, how nice – see, Miss?” Miss Frement’s voice cut into the memory. She was holding out a book. On the cover was a picture of a brown bear in a snowy pine forest, framed by a border of tumbling orange monkeys under a scarlet title. “Animal Pictures and Stories,” Tilly read aloud. In the picture a man pointed a gun at the bear.

That evening Tilly heard the telephone ring, a rare and exciting event. She crept out onto the landing of the grand staircase and squatted down behind the bannisters as her father boomed into the glossy black handset. She shrank as his voice rose, but then heard something which sent a thrill through her whole body.

“The Society can damn well wait… Yes, of course it is… Yes! It’s eating, drinking, sleeping, walking around the tank. It’s intelligent. It needs training. It won’t cooperate.… No…. No – just growls…”

Tilly didn’t hear the rest. There was an animal in the house, and she knew where to find it.

After the servants had gone to bed Tilly stole out of her room with the lamp from her bedside. In bare feet she went carefully along the landing and down the wide staircase, making her way along an unfamiliar corridor panelled with dark wood the colour of treacle. She passed disdainful portraits of their ancestors, and a forest of horns attached to bleached skulls, some branching, some sharp, some twisted like paper. A tiger’s golden eyes gleamed in the light of her lamp, wrinkled muzzle and fangs bared in a frozen snarl. Tilly shivered. With excitement or fear, she couldn’t tell.

When she reached her father’s study she pushed the heavy door open just wide enough to slip inside, closing it behind her with a dull click. The room had a smoky smell, cut with something sharp as vinegar. On every wall shelves reached up to the ceiling. They were filled with books, swollen glass orbs, brass instruments hatched with delicate signs and symbols, and bottles of amber liquid with pale shapes squashed against the glass. Her father’s desk was in the middle of the room, stacked with papers, more books, and collapsing leather-bound journals.

Tilly saw a rectangular glass tank in an alcove on the far side of the room and tiptoed towards it. Peering through the glass the first thing she saw was the furniture. A bed. A mahogany chair. A miniature table, just like the ones in her doll’s house. Bringing the lamp closer she saw a tiny, naked woman sitting on the floor of the tank and looking back at her.

She didn’t look at all like Tilly’s dolls. Her skin was brown and speckled like an egg, covered in knots and pits like a potato. Her hair was a thick nest down to her shoulders, the dark green of pine needles, and she seemed to be wearing a headdress made of leaves. She had rolls of fat around her middle, and her breasts hung down above a furry green triangle between her thick haunches and hairy legs, crossed in a seat.

Tilly gaped in surprise. She noticed a handwritten label on the front of the tank, which read ‘Mandragora, No. 8, Female’. She looked into the woman’s tiny face, no bigger than a penny.

“Hello?” She whispered. “Mandragora. Is that your name?”

The woman gave no response, only stared back at her with an expression Tilly didn’t understand.

Tilly returned the following night with half a slice of bread and jam, which she’d hidden in the pocket of her pinafore at tea.

“Mandragora, I’ve brought you something to eat!” she whispered. Mandragora looked at the sticky mass and then back at Tilly, who broke off a corner of the bread and put it in her mouth to show that it was safe.

As Tilly lifted the lid, a sour, earthy smell rose from the tank. She placed a morsel of bread on the miniature table, then withdrew her hand and watched as Mandragora approached. She sniffed the bread, and tore off a tiny handful to eat. After a couple of bites she reached for some more.

Tilly was overjoyed. Her words tumbled out breathlessly. “I’m so pleased you like it! It’s raspberry jam which is my favourite but I like apricot too. I’ll get some so you can try it. I’ll take you out of here, you can sit in my pocket and I’ll take you upstairs and make sure father never finds you. You can live in my doll’s house! It’s a real house, your own house not a box with glass walls. You’ll have beautiful dresses, and we can have tea together…”

Mandragora chewed watchfully and Tilly wondered if she understood. As she finished her crumb of bread, the tiny woman took a step forward. Tilly slowly reached into the tank and closed her hand around Mandragora, carefully lifting her out. She was hot, and so soft. Tilly could feel her little heart flickering fiercely in her palm. Her hands – so small! – rested on Tilly’s thumb.

Tilly placed her down on the counter but didn’t open her hand. Mandragora wriggled. Tilly leaned down and studied her with wide eyes, before yelping in pain as Mandragora jammed a long splinter of wood into her thumb and bolted out of her hand.

“No! Wait!” Tilly cried as Mandragora ran behind the tank, leapt onto a cluttered shelf, and disappeared into the shadows behind a row of bottles.

Hot tears spilled down Tilly’s cheeks. She let out a high wail as her father appeared in the doorway. He shouted at her, and shook her, but she was already desolate, reeling from the pain of that tiny spear plunged at once into her thumb and deep into her heart.

Her father raged for weeks. He tore up his whole study looking for his missing mandrake specimen. He ordered the servants to clear everything out of the cupboards and drawers, remove all the books and bottles, even bring up the floorboards. Traps were laid, poison set out. But of course, she was never caught.

At first, crumbs of food started to go missing. Then small objects: a thimble, a hatpin, some string, a half-empty box of matches. Miss Frement didn’t mention this last item to Lord Harwood, although she was distressed by the thought of the little demon burning Sedgwick Hall to the ground. She began to make discreet enquiries after other housekeeping positions.

For her part, locked in the nursery as punishment, Tilly imagined that she saw Mandragora constantly, always from the corner of her eye. Darting between the table legs, scurrying along the skirting board, or clambering up the curtains. At night she listened for Mandragora’s swift feet padding over the floorboards under her bed, wondering if she would open her eyes to find the little face inches from her own.

One chilly morning Tilly was woken by muffled shouting, and a distant crashing noise. She heard footsteps on the stairs, but no one came with her breakfast. She peered out of the keyhole and saw a maid run past, crying. She heard men’s low, gruff voices in the hall. She sat on her bed, perplexed and hungry.

After a time Miss Frement came in, her face pinched and grey. With her was a bald man in a tweed suit who introduced himself as Dr Barnwell and sat down beside her. He said that he didn’t believe in coddling young people, so she must know the truth of the matter, even though it was horrid, and therefore she must be very brave. That was how she learned that her father was dead. He was found in his bed, having been stabbed in the eye with a hatpin.

“Oh,” she said, as they looked at her expectantly. She felt nothing. She wasn’t sure what she was expected to feel, but nothing seemed to be enough. The doctor patted her hand and said “Good girl. We’ll have cook bring you some beef broth and cake.”

She heard the nursery door lock behind them with a click, and felt her stomach growl. Looking up at the row of dolls sitting stiffly on the shelf in their silks and taffeta, eyes glossy and cold, she noticed for the first time that something was missing.

It was agreed that Tilly would move out of Sedgwick Hall immediately, and go to stay with her mother’s sister Ada and her family in Pindleton. This pleased Tilly immensely. She hadn’t visited Pindleton since she was very small but she remembered a square, sandy-coloured house with a wide lawn and an apple tree, crumpets, laughter, and a ginger cat. Her nephew had only been a baby then, but she’d liked him well enough. She was thrilled by the thought of a playmate.

When her aunt arrived at the Hall in her smart carriage she threw her arms around Tilly and squeezed her hard. She smelled of lavender. Her aunt and Miss Frement began bustling about among the cases and packages in the hall, and Tilly slipped out to stand on the front steps, shyly watching the driver feed the chestnut mare.

She heard a soft tap-tap beside her. Following the noise with her eyes down to an ornamental planter beside the door, she saw a slight rustle among the primulas. Tilly tensed all over. Mandragora stood half-hidden among the blossoms, looking up at her, wild green hair blending with the leaves. Gathered around her was the brown velvet cloak from one of the dolls. It was tied at the waist with string, and Tilly saw the glint of a sewing needle tucked into the belt like a sword. They stared at each other. The horse whinnied, and shifted on the gravel. As Ada appeared on the steps Mandragora disappeared into the flowers.

“Well Tilly, we best be off,” her aunt said kindly, and they climbed into the carriage as the footman finished loading up the cases. Miss Frement waited with her arms folded tightly, her expression somewhere between concern and relief.

“Be good, Miss. If you change your mind about your dolls write to us and we’ll send them on to you.” Tilly nodded. The carriage lurched forward and they swept down the long drive and through the gates. A few moments later Tilly looked out of the window and through a gap in the trees saw Sedgwick Hall again, shrunken and pale in the distance. It looked just like a doll’s house. 

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