The Marvelous Magic of Miss Mabel
Chapter One An Unusual Beginning
Saturday, April 23, 1887, 10:01 p.m.
THE NIGHT MABEL ARRIVED, NORA Ratcliff was getting ready for bed. She had just taken the pins out of her hair and given it a good brush when a soft knocking sounded on the door. “Now, who in the world can that be?” Nora said, tying her nightcap under her chin as she hurried down the stairs. The Ratcliff residence was a sturdy brick house, three stories high, with a profusion of roses blooming in the garden, and when Nora opened the door, their fragrant scent wafted toward her on the warm, salty air. “Hello?” she called out, standing barefoot in her long white nightgown and straining her eyes against
the gloom. There was nobody in sight. “Hello,” she called again.
A snuffling noise came from one of the large terra-cotta flowerpots that stood on either side of the front door, and hurrying over, Nora Ratcliff found herself looking down into the scrunched-up face of a tiny baby.
A blanket of ferns covered the child, and she was nestled in the rich, soft earth, which Nora had been planning to plant lavender in. The baby squished handfuls of soil between her fingers and gazed solemnly up at Nora. She gave a tiny sneeze as an earthworm crawled over her foot. “And where in heavens did you come from?” Nora said, scooping the child into her arms. She hurried down the path and looked back and forth along Oak Lane.
On the other side of the road, huddled under a streetlamp, stood a young woman. Her hair was long and matted. She wore a ragged dress, and Nora could see that her feet were bare. Lifting her head, she looked over at Nora Ratcliff and with a great deal of anguish, choked out, “Please take care of my baby,” just as a carriage came swaying around the corner.
The woman ran off, and Nora stepped back from the curb, cradling the infant close as the Cranfords’ buggy trotted past. Returning from a late dinner somewhere, no doubt. Mrs. Cranford enjoyed her gossip as much
as her food, and the sight of Nora Ratcliff standing outside in her nightgown, clutching a baby to her chest, would certainly set tongues wagging.
“I can’t keep you, little one,” Nora said wistfully. Nora’s husband, Dr. Ratcliff, had been dead for ten years now, struck down by the influenza. Her parents were long buried, and she had not been blessed with children of her own. The baby reached out and grasped one of the ribbons on Nora’s nightcap. She opened her eyes wide, and for a few moments they observed each other. From somewhere deep inside Nora, a vast well of feelings bubbled up, feelings from all the years of trying, and all the babies she couldn’t have. It was at that precise instant that Nora Ratcliff suddenly and completely changed her mind.
“I shall call you Mabel,” she announced to the night, “after my own mother.” And hurrying back up the path, she was met at the door by her two housemaids, Daisy and Flora.
“I thought I heard noises,” Daisy gasped. “Mam, what are you doing out here?”
“And what in heaven’s name is that?” Flora said, her eyes fixed on the bundle in Nora’s arms.
“It is a baby,” Nora replied, swooping past them into the library. She nodded at the leather armchair, pulled up in front of the still smoldering fire. Daisy quickly
removed a pile of books from the seat, and Nora settled herself into the chair. “This is Mabel,” she said. “I found her in one of the flowerpots outside, and she will be living with me from now on.”
Daisy opened her mouth, but no words came out.
Flora’s face turned an angry crimson. “In a flowerpot,” she squawked.
“Of course this will mean more work for you both, but I shall find a good nanny.”
“No, mam. I mean yes, mam,” Daisy said, grasping the back of the chair.
“This is an unusual situation, I am aware of that,” Nora remarked, wondering at the sanity of her decision. “And if either of you feel the need to leave, I quite understand and will provide you with an excellent reference.”
“Then I will be packing my bags and going,” Flora said, her whole body wobbling with indignation. “You have no idea where that child is from. Living under the same roof as a flowerpot baby. I don’t think so.” And turning around, Flora marched from the room.
“Will you be needing a reference too, Daisy?” Nora asked with a sigh.
“Oh no, mam.” Daisy gave her head a vigorous shake. “I would never do that, mam. You have always been good to me. And you don’t need to go hiring any nursemaids,”
she added firmly. “I’ve got a soft spot for babies.”
As word of Mabel’s arrival spread, tongues most certainly did wag. Nora Ratcliff’s baby was the talk of Melton Bay.
“Are you sure you know what you are getting in to?” Mrs. Cranford said the following afternoon. There had been a steady stream of ladies visiting the Ratcliff residence, drinking tea and nibbling currant cake while warning Nora of the horrors that awaited her.
“This is most unusual,” Mrs. Fitzwilliam murmured.
“It is one thing to knit caps for the street urchins but quite another to bring one into your home,” Mrs. Cranford advised. “You don’t know where the child is from. You know nothing about her. Except that you found her in a flowerpot!”
“I know she needs a home,” Nora replied boldly. But the ladies shook their heads in quiet disapproval, whispering behind their fans. And when it became clear that baby Mabel was there to stay, Nora found that the ladies of Melton Bay didn’t visit quite so frequently. And in time she had no afternoon callers at all.
Mabel grew steadily, feeding on the boiled milk and sugar water that Daisy mixed together. Her hair sprouted like thistledown, and she liked to crawl
around the house, trying to catch the sunbeams that danced across the rug. Every day she discovered something new, sticking her fingers into spiderwebs, or peeling apart a cabbage to find out what was inside. “Inquisitive little monkey, aren’t you?” Daisy would say affectionately, removing Mabel from whatever mischief she had gotten in.
Nora believed it was all the good sea air that kept her daughter (for that is how she had come to think of Mabel) so healthy. As Mabel got older, she was often taken down to the beach. She liked to pick the hermit crabs up in her fingers and peer inside their shells. Mabel let them crawl over her legs, and one time popped a crab into her mouth to see if it tasted of the ocean. Little Eliza Cranford and her sisters would squeal in horror at such behavior, refusing to let Mabel join in their games. The nannies of Melton Bay had been instructed to keep their charges away from Mabel, and it was this, more than anything, that broke Nora’s heart. Whenever Mabel trotted over to a group of children, wanting to show them her beach finds, they were ushered off to play somewhere else.
One hot August bank holiday, when Mabel was three, Nora took her to the pier to watch the Punch and Judy show. Mabel loved the little outdoor puppet theater,
and they could hear children laughing as they made their way through the crowds. Hordes of day-trippers had taken the steam train into Melton Bay, and Nora held tight to Mabel’s hand as they walked. She stopped for a moment in front of a stall selling baskets, letting go of Mabel briefly to examine a wide, flat basket, perfect for carrying roses.
“That’s three shillings,” the woman behind the counter said.
“It’s lovely,” Nora replied, admiring the tightness of the weave. She glanced down to check on Mabel, but there was no sign of her. Nora spun around wildly, her mouth going dry. “Mabel?” she cried, turning her head back and forth. “Mabel? Where are you?” The sound of the organ grinder drowned out her words. A little monkey darted through the crowds, holding out a hat for coins. The monkey jumped in front of Nora, but she ignored it, searching for a glimpse of Mabel’s yellow bonnet.
And there it was, ducking inside the fortune-teller’s booth, which had been painted a deep purple color sprinkled with glittery silver stars—just the sort of thing to attract a curious little girl. Nora dashed toward the booth. She pushed aside the curtain to see Mabel standing quite still, staring openmouthed at the imposing figure sitting behind a table. A framed certificate announced that this was Madame Lena
Sweeny, member of the fortune-tellers’ guild.
“Welcome,” Madame Sweeny said, in a voice like melted honey.
“We are not here for a reading,” Nora Ratcliff said swiftly, taking in the fortune-teller’s purple gown and feather-trimmed witch’s hat.
Madame Lena Sweeny appeared not to hear. She beckoned to Mabel, who climbed into the chair opposite. Madame Sweeny reached for Mabel’s left hand, clasping it between both of hers. Stretching out her swanlike neck, she bent over and gazed into Mabel’s palm. Nora watched nervously as the fortune-teller studied the little hand without blinking. Then she sat up and beckoned to Nora. “Please, show me yours.”
“I really didn’t come in for a reading,” Nora said, but she nevertheless picked up Mabel and placed the child squarely on her knees, holding out her own hand. Once again, Madame Sweeny extended her neck and gracefully lowered her head, contemplating Nora’s palm. Suddenly nervous about what she might be told, Nora Ratcliff could feel her heart pounding as Madame Sweeny ran her fingers lightly across her skin.
“Does your husband have a history of magic in his family?” she murmured.
“Good heavens, no.” Nora laughed nervously. “None whatsoever.”
“Then this child is not yours.”
“What on earth do you mean? Of course Mabel belongs to me.”
Madame Sweeny lifted her gaze. “This child has magic running in her veins.”
“Magic?” Nora swallowed, feeling her heart palpitations speed up.
“Strong magic,” Madame Sweeny replied. “You say it doesn’t come from your husband’s side, and yet your palm reveals that you have not a drop of magical blood. It often skips generations, many generations, but there is no trace of witchcraft in your family line.”
“My father always said we were a practical lot,” Nora confirmed, “had our feet planted firmly on the ground. . . . I probably have soil running in my veins,” she added, trying to make light of the conversation.
Madame Sweeny didn’t smile. “Sometime in the next few years,” she continued, “this little girl will show signs of her gift.” She leaned forward, tapping her long pointed nails on the table. “Be aware that magic is often triggered by a keen passion, when the child is doing something she loves and feels excited about. She may start to lift off the ground,” Madame Sweeny warned. “Or send objects floating around the room. Things may spark when she touches them, or change color. Magic in children is extremely unstable until they have learned to control it.”
“So what do I do?” Nora questioned rather anxiously. “Having no experience with witchcraft myself.”
“Watch her closely,” Madame Sweeny advised in a somber voice. “She has an inquisitive nature to go with her magic, and that can be a dangerous combination.”