‘The Hands that Clasp in Jealousy’s Name’
Crofton & Smythe, said the sign over the door. Lady Felicia Darsborough looked at the dingy windows doubtfully before entering. She was loathe to touch the handle, but she’d left Peter and the chauffeur packing boxes from Wilkin’s. The bell over the door gave a dreary tinkle as she passed through, and her skirts rustled in the narrow space.
A man, probably either Crofton or Smythe, looked up from behind his tall desk at her entrance and bowed. He was small and weedy, much smaller than the Lady herself, and wore thick round spectacles that made him look owlish. Lady Darsborough hardly bestowed more than a cursory glance upon him as she moved about the store.
It was crowded with tall glass cases. Everything from cheap pearls to gaudy family heirlooms was displayed on worn black velvet, and boxes and cases were piled haphazardly beneath the stands. The air was dusty and close, and the oily lamps cast a ghostly pallor on the brilliant stones.
“I don’t know what Augusta meant,” she said under her breath as she passed the jewelry. “I can’t see anything especially fine here.”
The man was watching her closely, squinching his eyes behind his glasses. They narrowed furthest when she reached a stand near the back corner. The Lady glanced at the necklace upon the pedestal and froze.
She dug in her skirt pocket and produced a pair of eyeglasses, with which she peered intently at the necklace. From a distance, it looked like a black lace choker, but as one got nearer, the fine obsidian and diamonds woven into the filigreed metal became apparent. Lady Darsborough poured over every inch of the finery. It was small, probably only big enough to fit around her pudgy neck, but so wide it would lay some inches over her collarbone. The design was unusual, coming in two thick bands around from the clasp behind and ending in two knobs connected in front, precisely where the hollow of the throat would be. The plaque beneath read simply, The Hands.
“Excuse me, you there.” She said, looking at the owlish man, who was still watching her. “How much is this?”
“Ah.” The man replied, slinking around the desk and coming to stand beside her. “Well that would depend. How much would you offer for it? As you can see, it’s a very unusual piece. None like it in the world, so you might say it’s one of a kind. That won’t come cheap.”
The Lady scowled. “Yes, yes. Alright, as you say.”
She named a price, well into the five digits, and the man leaned his head doubtfully to one side.
“Well…such a rare item…” He dithered.
Lady Darsborough huffed eloquently and doubled her offer. The man nodded.
“Very nicely done. Very nice indeed. Let me just wrap it for you.”
He wrapped it in shiny silver paper and handed it over, eyeing Lady Felicia with a peculiar expression.
“If there’s any, ah, dissatisfaction with it, don’t hesitate to return it. I’m Smythe, of Crofton & Smythe. I appreciate your business ma’am. Good day to you.”
Nodding, Lady Darsborough exited and found Peter and her chauffer York waiting.
When her guests arrived for the fashionable dinner party that evening, Lady Darsborough met them in a flowing emerald dress, the new choker fastened around her neck. Lady Augusta Bernard made many exclamations over it, lauding her own good taste in shops while Lady Darsborough preened. Her husband, Lord Thomas Darsborough, was melting by her side, very stiff in his suit, with beads of sweat on his brow and nothing to say to anyone. He was usually in office or conversing with members of Parliament, not entertaining guests in his own unfamiliar home.
Lady Darsborough was in her prime, however, and she floated and conversed with the Chancellors and the Sirs and Madams, all at or well above her age, completely happy and at ease. All the Ladies were busy praising themselves and their husbands much too loudly to hear anyone else, and all the husbands were busy avoiding their wives and talking about politics.
The party was going exactly as planned when the disturbance arrived. Three young ladies, accompanied by their mother, Dame Lucy Toffingham, entered in a swath of silks and satins and fine jewels. The Toffingham girls were celebrities in high society, partly for their charm and partly for their stunning good looks.
Lady Darsborough flushed when she saw her husband, along with nearly all the other males, look appreciatively at the young girls. Their wives frowned as one, and many pulled their husbands into very pointed conversations with other older couples, or backed into parties of two or three in corners to gossip savagely about the girls. Their mother too was very beautiful, and much thinner than her peers.
Ballooning out indignantly, Lady Darsborough yanked her husband out of eyesight of the pretty birds and set him to talking with the Lord Chancellor. He wilted noticeably under the stern eyes and claxon voice of the Lord, but was safe for a while at least. His wife, satisfied, left him to it. She checked on the refreshments, admonished a waiter, and pulled at the choker, which was becoming a bit tight.
She joined Lady Augusta by the doors, near enough to the Toffinghams to see them laughing in the praise of all the single men.
“Tarts.” Said Augusta adroitly. “I’d like to know how well-bred they really are. I’ve heard the woman is common, you know. But her husband trumped up some title for her or another.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time a man made a fool of himself over a pretty girl.” Lady Darsborough said, pulling on the choker. “I wonder they came at all. Of course I had to invite them, Lord Toffingham is head of the party, but all the same…”
“Yes.” Lady Augusta nodded. “It was selfish of them. I wonder their mother lets them out like that. Shameful.”
Lady Darsborough glowered at the girls, pulling harder on her necklace. It was becoming really tight. She remembered sourly her own golden days, when she had been prettier and thinner than these beauties. But they were long gone, and no amount of Asian medicine or creams or treatments could regain the youth or shrink the fat. Her painted brows lowered angrily. Oh, her lost youth. It was reflected in the faces of every woman there; with their hair pulled and fastened tight, or hidden under wigs, the paints and powders used to desperately hide the fanning wrinkles, the corsets pulled to agony around thickened waists. Yes, it was deplorable, and a rage of jealousy sprang up in Lady Darsborough’s breast, hot and strong. She choked slightly on the necklace.
“Excuse me, won’t you?” She said to Lady Augusta, and fled from the room, heaving at the choker.
She reached the deserted Grand Hall and clutched at her neck, her fingers working at the clasp at the back. But it was small, and she fumbled, panting, unable to undo it. Her eyes bugged, and she gasped for breath, fell to her knees, her hands still scrabbling at the tiny fastening.
It clutched tighter and tighter around her throat, and she rolled, her tongue lolled out, pulling at the front of the necklace, desperately trying to break the bonds.
With a last gag, Lady Darsborough lay dead in the Grand Hall. A passing waiter, come too late to aid, cried in shock, dropping his tray of goblets. He ran to find Lord Darsborough, and soon the entire party was gathered around the shabby remains of the Lady, clucking and making astonished noises. The Toffingham girls shed beautiful tears of remorse, and the Lord blinked stupidly as the police and doctors rushed about. No one noticed the absence of the necklace, nor the faint black smudge around the Lady’s throat.
At Crofton & Smythe, the owlish man looked around from his books as a faint clink resounded through the empty shop. His eyes found the dark corner, where a necklace of obsidian and diamond glinted from its pedestal.