Pallid Ada, The Crippled Heiress

Herewith, Chapter One of Pallid Ada, The Crippled Heiress, originally published in weekly parts between 1851 and 1854.

The wind was howling across the desolate moors. It was an incredibly howly wind, and they were almost unbelievably desolate moors. Such desolation has seldom been howled upon by wild winds anywhere, ever, throughout the records of time, since the unimaginably distant past when the moors were an alluvial plain across which roamed weird primitive beasts. Once those beasts howled here, now it was the wind, ferocious in its onslaught upon the barren emptiness of the moors. Barren and empty and desolate but for a tiny ramshackle near-dilapidated cottage hunched alongside the single faint path that stretched across the moors, twisting and winding and leading none knew where. It was in this vile brickish habitude that Pallid Ada, the Crippled Heiress, eked out her sorrowful existence.

And sorrowful it was indeed, for Pallid Ada lived alone save for the company of her wizened uncle and even more wizened aunt, both near-blind and shrivelled and filthy and irascible. To them, Pallid Ada was more drudge than niece, and she skivvied all day and all night, every day and every night, with barely a moment’s rest, without them showing a scrap of gratitude. Quite the opposite, in fact. Pallid Ada was spat upon and insulted and shouted at, and had either her wizened uncle or wizened aunt had the strength they would have beaten her with broomhandles and flung breakable household objects at her head.

Pallid Ada’s ghastly pallor was due to a fundamental ignorance, or at the very least misunderstanding, of vitamins. She subsisted on slops-in-the-pot and sop-in-the-pan, and though from time to time she went out on to the desolate moors foraging for vegetables, such foraging was always hopeless, there being no farms for many miles around. The only greenstuffs she might ever find were rotten things chucked out of passing carts, and few carts were ever seen lumbering along the faint path across the moors, for the moors were horribly desolate and wild winds howled.

Lack of vitamins, too, may have had something to do with Pallid Ada’s becripplement, the precise nature of which would bring tears to the eyes of the most hard-hearted reader. For crutches, the poor pallid creature had only a couple of bits of worm-eaten timber salvaged from the wreck of the ship upon which she had been a passenger, and from which she had been hurled into the pitiless sea, many a moon ago. The ship was sailing for a distant land of pomposity and riches when it was boarded by pirates from the Symbionese Liberation Army’s maritime wing. They carried out acts of the most gross moral degeneration among both passengers and crew before scuppering the ship on a rocky atoll. Clinging to the two pieces of timber upon which she now hobbled about the semi-dilapidated cottage on the moors, Pallid Ada, monstrously violated and newly becrippled, drifted in the broiling sea for weeks and weeks before being washed up on the shingle of a foul tempestuous stretch of coastline. Soaked in seawater, exhausted, vitamin deficient and with the pallor of curd, the half-dead girl was found by a kindly Christian gentleman who was roaming the strand collecting geological specimens in a little bag. He took her to his coastal manse and fed her on broth, and gradually she recovered her wits as she lay on a sofa in his conservatory surrounded by tweeting budgerigars in birdcages. In the evenings, the Christian gentleman sat with her, reciting improving passages from the Old Testament.

Pallid Ada’s pallor grew less, and the first faint flush of health appeared on her cheeks. Eventually she grew strong enough to begin dragging herself around the conservatory on her makeshift crutches, and before long the whole lower floor of the manse was hers to explore. Now she ate her broth in the dining room, where linnets sang in birdcages and there was a cabinet of interesting geological specimens to look at. The kindly gentleman was often out, traipsing up and down the beach gathering additions to his collection, and when he was home he rarely spoke except when reading from his big leather-bound Bible, but Pallid Ada felt safe and secure. And as her own troubles faded, she became aware that often, her Christian rescuer’s brow was furrowed and his posture stooped and his fingernails gnawed to the quick, as if he were careworn, crushed perhaps by the weight of an awful family secret he durst not divulge to his pallid crippled houseguest.

Had Pallid Ada not been such an innocent, she may have intuited that the gentleman’s clouded countenance was connected in some wise to the thumping and scraping noises she had begun to notice, which set the ground floor ceilings all a-tremor. If it happened that the gentleman was with her, reading his Bible or munching on a celery stick as his frugal luncheon, when the noises from above shattered the peace and drowned out the tweeting of the cagebirds, he would rise from his chair and excuse himself, and she would hear him clump up the stairs, and shortly afterwards the thumps and scrapes would cease. It was to be many months before Pallid Ada learned their cause and origin.

But one dreadful day, her idyll ended. She was reclining on the sofa, fashioning a pin cushion out of a couple of old rags and a handful of kapok, when of a sudden a panting hobbledehoy scampered in from without. Pallid Ada recognised him as the trustworthy local urchin who was employed to carry messages between the manse and the village. Scarce able to draw breath, the boy told Pallid Ada of the calamity that had befallen her benefactor. The kindly Christian gentleman had been collecting seashells at a deserted part of the beach when a hideous aquatic monster reared up from beneath the waves and grasped him in its savage lobsterian claws. He had time to cry out for the mercy of God before the monster, flailing and thrashing, dragged him into the sea, and plunged into the cold black depths.

No sooner had the urchin imparted his terrible news than the thumping and scraping sounded from above. Without the kindly gentleman present to climb the stairs and make it cease, howsoever he did so, the mysterious noise continued, and grew louder and louder, until poor Pallid Ada covered her dainty ears in fright. And then, with a mighty crash, the ceiling stopped shaking and the noise did stop… only to be replaced by an even more menacing sound of something descending the staircase. Pallid Ada was transfixed with terror, and her cheeks which had so recently had a healthy rosy bloom were once again bleached to a deathly pallor.

Then, into the conservatory lumbered a misshapen wretch with filthy matted locks straggling down almost to his huge ungainly feet. He was dressed in noisome rags and his eyes were those of an unhinged maniac.

“Cripes!” cried the hobbledehoy, “Tis the kindly old gentleman’s weak-brained brother, who has not been seen in this parish since before I was born!”

Pallid Ada swooned.

When she awoke, the pallid cripple found herself bound hand and foot on the back of a cart. She could tell, from its jiggery juddery bumpety progress, that she was travelling along pitted rutted rustic lanes, pulled by exhausted horses. She wondered who it was who was in the cab, shouting his head off in guttural gibberish and repeatedly striking the miserable steeds with a whip. The reader will not take too long to guess that it was the kindly Christian’s maniac brother. But what may surprise any but the most astute is the knowledge that this vile abductor was merely following the command of Pallid Ada’s wizened uncle and wizened aunt.

Ever since the yet uncrippled girl had set out on her journey from Mistress Pilbeam’s Academy For Naive Young Virgins, to voyage across the seas and claim her inheritance, her dastardly ancient relatives had been plotting to have her waylaid and brought to their ramshackle cottage battered by howling winds, out on the desolate moors, there to be enslaved as their drudge, working her fingers to the bone and fed on slops-in-the-pot and sop-in-the-pan. Oh, how they cursed as their evil plans went all kim kam with the intervention of the kindly gentleman! And then how they cackled with fiendish glee as their eldritch powers gained strength and their spirit communications with the manse-trapped maniac bore fruit. And what an evil fruit it was, as cankerous and rotten as the innards of the apple with which the serpent tempted Eve!

So it was that Pallid Ada, the Crippled Heiress, was brought to the cottage where we found her at the beginning of this chronicle. Alas, she has much yet to suffer before our tale is done.

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