In “Too Fond,” by author Leanna Renee Hieber, Eloise Browne’s leaden heart becomes softened by the entrance into her world of Mr. McGill, the owner of the nearby mill. His tragic story and her compassionate gift tangle themselves into something altogether new… and not altogether welcome.
This short story was edited and acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Melissa Singer.
When Mr. McGill, the mill owner, bought the lovely Bloomsbury townhouse across from Eloise’s shop, her heart—an instrument that she’d begun to think was made of lead—buoyed. She could feel its pulse again. He was handsome, tall, perfectly framed, his frock-coat silhouette that of a catalogue feature. The gleam of his green eyes and the gamesome sweep of his russet hair were not the whole of her joy. It was that he was so taken with her work.
While he’d entered the shop to “procure a pretty bauble,” he soon abandoned his quest for a trinket, seeming rendered breathless by Eloise’s craft and stating that he wished he’d saved something of his mother’s locks so he might have presented her with a commission. While no purchases were made that afternoon, there were significant gains: McGill his first neighborhood friend, Eloise a blush.
Mr. Browne didn’t mind that his daughter had begun to outshine him so long as she outsold his jewelry business. Eloise Browne’s memento mori were renowned throughout London. Particularly since the death of Prince Albert, mourning accessories were all the rage, Her Majesty having a most difficult time with her husband’s passing.
Mr. McGill told Eloise that he believed, like she did, that human hair was indeed a priceless treasure, and that the wondrous pieces of remembrance and romance she wove into intricate patterns and pressed safely behind glass lockets like insects trapped in amber contained not just the base material of human remains, but a sliver of the subject’s soul. McGill insisted Eloise’s success was due to her belief in the inherent magic of the process, her ardent confidence that captured bits of soul lived on inside her work. At her core, he claimed, she must be magical.
“Little sorceress,” he called her, in an accent that bounced and tripped like her heartbeat did when he entered, sending the bells on her shop door jingling. Scottish, she assumed from his brogue. He was a bit too forward with her, always leaning a little too close over the glass counters full of ornately set gems and empty lockets waiting to receive tresses of hair transformed into sculptural masterpieces. He stared at her a little too long and a little too intently, as she imagined an artist might gaze upon his model. She wondered if the models ever blushed like she did.
Perhaps the Scots were a more forward people in general. Eloise didn’t know; her social circle was miniscule and she was shy. Her mother had long since died and her father had given up trying to marry her off. He was relatively content now that the growing cachet of his daughter’s jewelry brought in income.
Eloise had last been so affected by the charming broker who had handled the sale of their Bloomsbury property. The business having done well enough to allow for an expansion, a whole side of the shop could now be devoted purely to her delicate craft. But the broker died, unexpectedly, and it was Eloise’s greatest regret that she had not obtained a lock of his hair so that she might wind it into a fragile bow, press it in glass, and wear it against her heart, so that his base materials might warm that lonely organ. Perhaps she might have even entwined strands of his hair with her own. Nothing could possibly be more intimate. Perhaps this McGill was her second chance.
As McGill’s townhouse was being renovated and its rooms fitted entirely with gas pipes, he’d frequently pass the time in her ground-floor shop. He sang her ballads and sea shanties as she worked, blushing, never having felt so alive as she sat weaving the hair of the dead in her trembling fingers. The other shopgirls, who didn’t work near the hours Eloise put in, would gossip about McGill loud enough for her to hear, but left her well-enough alone. They thought Eloise, and her work, too morbid. That suited Eloise fine; she didn’t like them either.
Fearing she’d not see him nearly so often once he settled in, Eloise hoped the renovations would go on indefinitely. Silently she prayed he’d ask her to share his home. The words “Mrs. McGill” sent thrills up her spine when she whispered them to her bedroom mirror as she unpinned her hair from its prison atop her head.
But in due time the townhouse was fully equipped with gas fixtures and all manner of modern conveniences, ready for permanent occupancy.
Soon after, he brought her into the shop. Beautiful and flame-haired.
She was fresh off the boat from some small Scottish village and very recently wed to the carefree man Eloise so admired; their swift nuptials were evidenced by Mr. McGill’s needing to buy his lovely young bride a ring. Eloise pretended that she had business in the back of the store and had her father help them find something suitable.
She stood at the storeroom door and waited for McGill’s booming voice and his wife’s lilting one—her accent far thicker than his—to recede, for silence to again comfortably overtake her one small corner amidst London’s loud chaos.
“Lovely couple,” her father exclaimed once he’d seen them off, bursting into the back room and startling Eloise, who had begun to feel safe in the shadows. “Why can’t you find a man like that?”
“Haven’t a clue . . .” Eloise murmured, pretending that she’d needed a box of clasps and taking them to her worktable.
She hoped that the parents of the dead little girl whose black hair she braided and formed into the figure of a bird didn’t mind if there were a few tears mixed in among the locks.
It was unchristian to be jealous, and so she tried dearly not to be. Attempting to alter the bent of her heart like alchemists of old, she tried transforming the green-eyed monster into a substance more charitable. But all she could think of was how much she yearned for McGill’s green eyes to look upon and possess her.
A crushing guilt seized her, then, when she swelled with hope the moment Mr. McGill entered the very next day. He looked haunted and terrible. Had something happened? Had Mrs. McGill broken his heart and left him?
“She . . . I . . . I didn’t think to tell her . . .” Mr. McGill murmured, clearly in the first throes of shock and grief. His face was ashen, his lips moved in numb confession. “I just . . . didn’t think . . . she . . . blew out the gas lamp before going to sleep. We were to honeymoon on the morrow and I was out, making the last of our travel arrangements . . . I stopped by the mill to receive congratulations from my foremen—admittedly the hour grew a bit late . . . I should have said—warned her . . . but she blew them out. I found her lying upstairs peacefully, beautifully. Dead. Drifted off to a sleep from which she’ll never awake . . .”
These tragic mistakes had been quite common in London when gas pipes first were fitted into hotels and homes; people simply didn’t know better. To them, a flame was a flame. People didn’t normally sleep with a lit flame beside them, so they blew it out and laid their heads confidently against their pillows while the escaping gas sent them quietly to eternal rest.
“We take it for granted now, but she didn’t know. Her little cottage didn’t have such luxury, none of the village did— How could I be so daft?!” McGill cried, raking a violent hand through his russet hair, a clump coming loose and catching in his jagged, bitten fingernails. Eloise quelled the urge to dart to his side and gather the strands. “I must . . . make arrangements . . . a funeral . . .” He stumbled to the door, opening it, the bells’ jingling a jarring slam against the glass.
“I could . . . make a locket for you,” Eloise blurted. “Just . . . bring me her . . .”
McGill did not turn around, only nodded. “Yes, yes. Thank you, Miss Browne. I would like that.”
That evening Eloise watched from her window as a carriage unloaded a coffin. A parade of top-hatted men, likely foremen and solicitors from his mill, moved in a steady stream up and down the townhouse stoop.
Her guilt was mixed in equal part with joy, which only heightened the guilt in a sickening pendulum. If she could just help him through this pain . . . She better than anyone understood death and loss, she was best equipped. She was his little sorceress . . . just what this fresh widower needed.
The coffin was carted away, heavier than when it had arrived, weighted with the lifeless mass of the fiery redhead who had stepped so daintily into her store.
Out, out, brief candle!
McGill entered the shop the next day with a long lock of orange-red hair, like a streamer, clutched between his forefinger and thumb. As he passed the tress across the glass countertop and Eloise received it gingerly, he began waxing rhapsodic.
“I feel her, Miss Browne. I hear the soft intake of her breath as I turn the lamps. Fire needs to breathe. Fire is so human, really.”
Eloise only nodded and thought again of Shakespeare.
It took a few days to complete the piece; Eloise rushed nothing and used fine wire, thread, and paste to keep every delicate strand in place. She began weaving the locks into an elaborate Celtic knot. McGill stopped in to check the progress and was pleased with what he saw.
“Yes, yes, the unending knot . . . A knot of eternal love . . .” His green gaze was far away, glassy. He looked as though he hadn’t slept in days. “Miss Browne, tell me again that the soul lives on after death.”
“With all my heart I know it to be true,” she replied, tying a few coppery strands together.
“Not only do I feel her but I see her. There in the gas flame, in its small blue sliver, I see her face. You don’t suppose that in blowing out that flame, her soul simply transferred, slipped into those quiet jets? When I turn the key and the flame grows taller and hotter in the lamp, I swear I see her whole head, her hair all afire, just like it always was in the sunlight.” McGill was staring at Eloise too long and too hard again and she had to shift her focus to the very hair in question.
“I . . . I suppose if you see her, some part of her is there,” Eloise murmured, “though I do believe the remaining presence of a soul might have more to do with the living than the dead.”
“Meaning those who remain are the soul’s tether?”
That night, Eloise noticed the lamps on the top floor of McGill’s townhouse were burning bright. Very bright. Too bright.
The following afternoon, as McGill entered to pick up the finished pendant, wearied as if years had elapsed in a day, Eloise stopped him when he slid pound notes across the glass.
“No, Mr. McGill, I’ll not accept your money. This is in sympathy,” she said, and bit her lip as he leaned over the counter so that she could clasp the chain about his neck. Close. Their cheeks so close.
He stared down at the orange-red strands so gracefully braided and knotted. “You’ve a gift, of that there is no doubt, Miss Browne.”
“Be . . . careful,” Eloise cautioned. “With the lamps. Don’t look so hard for something you’re desperate to see. There are other things your eyes might miss.” She wished she could more pointedly beg him to see her instead.
“But I see her, Miss Browne. I see my bride . . .”
“Staring into fire won’t bring her back, Mr. McGill. Won’t you . . . Can’t you let her go?” Eloise asked in barely more than a whisper.
Mr. McGill stared at her, those gleaming green eyes going dim. “I can’t. I am too fond.”
He turned and left the shop.
Eloise awoke in the middle of the night to the clang of a fireman’s bell. Shooting bolt upright in her rooms above the shop, she was first on the block to be dressed and out the door. The upper floor of the townhouse across the street was black and smoldering.
“Someone had his lamp far too high,” muttered a fireman as he and his crew passed, two of them carrying a stretcher. A motionless form lay concealed by a sheet; spreading dark patches—Eloise shuddered to think of what—marred the fabric’s pristine whiteness.
“Oh my God,” Eloise murmured, breaking through the small crowd that had begun to gather, elbowing past onlookers as the firefighters placed the stretcher on the sidewalk. The smell of burnt flesh turned Eloise’s stomach yet she still pressed forward.
“Miss—” One fireman blocked her with his ash-dusted arm.
“I have to see him, please—” Eloise gasped.
“Miss, you don’t want to—”
The fireman stepped aside.
She threw back the sheet. In the dim yellow glow of the flickering streetlamps, the shocking horror of a charred face was barely recognizable as McGill’s. A fine dark suit had blended with the charcoal of his skin, the glass of a small reflective disc had melted and fused to his sternum. His wife’s locket.
One patch of his unmistakable russet hair sprang wildly from his flaking scalp. The tress danced faintly in the breeze. Eloise rejoiced. Plucking a small scissors she kept always in her coat pocket—a necessity of her work—she sheared the lock, replaced the sheet over McGill’s blackened face, and walked calmly away.
Eloise worked through the night, molding McGill’s hair into the shape of a heart, tying it in place with strands plucked from her own blond tresses. Setting the piece behind brass-framed glass, clasping it firmly shut, slipping the pendant onto a delicate golden chain, she let its gentle weight fall between her breasts to nestle against her heart. There, the pulse of her own blood would keep a part of him alive.
The next morning, she was seated alone in the empty shop when she heard the sound of the bells at the door, but faint, as though they came from very far away. She glanced up.
There was Mr. McGill.
Transparent. Wavering and grey. Floating about a foot off the floor.
His ghost stared at her, confused. Then vanished.
Every day he returned, for weeks, months, a year, and Eloise’s pulse quickened every time at the dreamlike sound of the bells, her skittering heartbeat reminding her she was alive though she held tokens of death in her hands.
“Won’t you . . . let me go?” he murmured, his voice an echo, glancing distantly off her ear. But not so distant that she could not hear the desperation therein.
She stared at him, through him. Her eyes watered. Her lips pursed into a small bow; she could feel her cheeks dimple in that expression her father declared demure but in reality was his daughter clamping down upon a scream, a shriek, a plea for a life more loudly and thoroughly lived.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered then. “I can’t. I am too fond.”
“Too Fond” copyright © 2012 by Leanna Renee Hieber
Art copyright © 2012 by Sam Wolfe Connelly