Some of the formatting went wonky or missing. Apologies if I missed putting any of it back in.
Caroline woke on the edge of memory. All vibrant hues and resentment. Contradictory, the beauty crafted by her mind’s eye and the utter rage that accompanied it. Like a delicate lyric set against a strident melody.
Somewhere, in the far reaches of her consciousness, a thought shivered. Danced and provoked. She almost opened her eyes to see it. Almost raised a hand to reach out.
But the stillness, warm and soft, it coddled her. Sang to her amidst the color and fury. Rolling over and under, Caroline billowed and soared, lifting out of the world. Yet, she could still feel the world beneath her, its silken, downy comforts. Somehow, she was both above and below. In her body and not in it.
“Hello.” She heard her own voice murmur in the darkness. She couldn’t recall opening her mouth.
And no one answered her.
The only sound was the soft hum of a household in use. The only scent spiced honey – her own perfume. Nothing noxious to nose or ears. Only silence. And solitude. Serenity, shimmering slowly around her – seductive and sumptuous – she let it drag her back down into her dreams.
The sunswept hills of the English countryside burst with an outlandish display of color – reds, purples, oranges, blues, yellows – stretching in arcs and patterns as far as the eye could see only to be swallowed up in an endless cerulean sky.
It was a deceptively idyllic setting for betrayal.
Watching the puffy, white clouds drift by overhead from the window of the landau, Caroline knew the only souls who traveled this road were either betrayer or betrayed, or those being paid for their services – servants or commissions. Since she was neither servant nor commission, she could only assume she was one of the former, and since none of the day’s events had been planned or promoted by her, she supposed that left her only one possible role in all of this.
Let’s overnight in the country, Dear. I’m told the tulips are not to be missed this year.
Caroline wished she could feel some measure of surprise, a smidgeon, a soupçon, but she wasn’t addle-brained. No doubt she would prove much less problematic for Thomas if she were. She also wouldn’t be in this position, keeping calm and passive through the middle of the rolling landscape, knowing she was headed toward a firing squad. Figurative, of course. Thomas couldn’t really off her. Not without a load of questions. His one lethal plot, he had already used up. He would be a madman himself to try it again.
I’ve told Mack to take us back by a different route.
Dear god, she hated him. She may not have been a skilled navigator, but Caroline could tell which side of the carriage the sun was on as they left the small inn and continued moving in the same direction – away from London, not toward it.
She could also read, and had watched Thomas as they passed the sign warning them they were entering private property. His moment of panic. The quick dart of his eyes her way. As if he feared she might suddenly know. As if it would make any difference if Caroline did know.
Well, she knew. Had known for months. She wasn’t immune to Thomas’s hints, dropped to and for others. To friends, family, neighbors, the vicar, anyone who would listen to him talk really.
She reads all the time. Or has her maid read to her. She doesn’t want to do much else it seems. I think she likes her stories more than real life. Said in jest.
Yes, of course, please come for a visit. But could it wait until next month? Caroline doesn’t always allow the staff to clean. She goes through these phases. Whispered.
If you wouldn’t mind praying a bit extra for my wife, Vicar. I worry sometimes she isn’t well. A plea for sympathy.
‘Setting the stage,’ they called it, from the theater lingo meaning to prepare the set for an actor about to put on a big, heart-wrenching performance. Thomas, no doubt, would emote his insides out onto the floor. He had been rehearsing non-stop for weeks.
“Are you warm? I’ll open another window.”
She could still run, she supposed, leap from the carriage and dash through the wayward impressionist painting that had co-opted the Surrey Hills. But what would that accomplish but to provide further evidence? Assure all those who witnessed it that, indeed, Thomas was a very put-upon man and was doing the only thing he could do given his difficult circumstances.
No, she would not be doing him such a favor. If she had any intention of physically resisting, she would have done so back in London when the carriage pulled up with a hired driver instead of Floyd. But she was tired, frankly, of the wait. The prolonged knowledge of Thomas’s intentions for her was torment. And a bit of an annoyance, really. Like a fly buzzing nonstop around her head. If what was going to happen was going to happen, she wanted to get it over and done with, rather than wait for whatever brute squad her husband might call to drag her from her bed in the middle of the night.
“Is there a problem?”
Thomas was the one who was anxious, sweaty, tense, and fidgeting, demonstrated now by the swipe of his sleeve across his brow and the brisk manner with which he threw open the carriage door, causing it to groan at it hinges, the instant they rolled to a stop.
“Private property, Sir.” The hulking man who halted their carriage stood in Thomas’s open door, and Thomas jerked another glance Caroline’s way.
My, what a razor’s edge he had been on all day. A shame. Truly. He probably hadn’t even noticed the flowers or the sky or that the cucumbers in the sandwiches Mary had made them the morning before were still perfectly crisp and deliciously flavorful. They went in perfect combination with the fresh-baked brown bread and hint of basil oil. If Caroline could say one thing about Thomas’s distant cousin who had come to keep house for them, and for whom her husband had been pining every moment since, it was that she was outstanding in the kitchen.
“Only a precaution. Could I have your name, Sir?”
“Yes, of course. It’s Ajax. Thomas Ajax.”
“Ajax. Yeah, all right. Open the gate! Have a good day, Sir. Miss.” The hulking man stepped away, and with an unsteady nod, Thomas pulled the carriage door closed, glancing to Caroline once more.
Caroline stared back, not sure which was more insulting, that he was doing this to her or that he thought her completely oblivious of it up until this point.
No answers or pleas forthcoming, Thomas’s guilt at last got the better of him and he turned his eyes away.
The second time Caroline woke was to a song – a boisterous, spontaneous melody not far beyond the silent sphere in which she had been left.
It’s a party
I’m the party
Dancing in the night so gay
Music, food, a lady new
Banquet, ball, a big soiree
Eruption of laughter trailing after the lyrics, it churned some cognition out of Caroline. Blew some of the cobwebs off her gauzed brain.
Lady new? That had to be her, didn’t it? She was the most recent arrival there. Had to be. But the lyric couldn’t possibly be a literal one. No one would be throwing her a welcome party here, a banquet, ball, or soiree.
It was ridicule, she realized. Ridicule to go along with her confinement. They would ensure, since she wasn’t mad when she arrived, she would be by the time she left. Maybe that was the true meaning of a “madhouse,” a place where one was driven to madness.
That seemed exactly the sort of outcome Thomas would hope to achieve by bringing her to this place.
This mansion of illusion.
This palatial country estate that looked like a dream, but could only house nightmares.
It was a thought that required action. A fighting spirit. Whatever vim and vigor she had left inside of her. But, first, Caroline had to open her eyes. And, in trying to do so, she found her will already starting to fade. To break. To kiss her mockingly on the cheek and flit off into the atmosphere.
It was easier to just give in. To the emptiness. To the apathy. To the sleepiness. If only for a short while.
At some point it would wear off, whatever substance they had forced into her veins. The abyss would disappear, the lull would sharpen, and she would feel the full, brutal gravity of her abandonment. It would yank her back down to Earth with an excruciating thud.
Prospect utterly unappealing, Caroline chose to delay it. To allow her muscles to relax and to sink once more into oblivion.
A mile or so after the forbidding iron gate opened and closed behind them, a sprawling manor house came into view, nothing at all like Caroline was expecting. Where there should have been drab, dirty stonework and iron bars, the house was as bright as a sunray with its yellow skin and crisp white accents.
Clouds hanging big and unnaturally perky in the blue sky behind it, Caroline waited for the winds to change. Where was England’s signature gray? Its spitting rain? The thunder and lightning that threatened to unleash God’s eternal damnation over the land?
Ominous things should be backed by ominous skies.
This place, with its bright exterior and green-slated dormers and gables, was a picture postcard meant to lure visitors to the Surrey Hills. Caroline could imagine its caption:
Come! See our beauty!
Drop your women off along the way!
On the front lawn, those women worked, the ones who had come before her. Dressed in common, matching frocks, they had to be residents of the place, made to keep the grounds clean and ornamented so the men who rode up to dispose of their wives or mothers or daughters had something pleasant to look at. Whether that pleasant sight was the gardens themselves or so many women down on their knees was up for debate.
“Caroline.” Disembarking from the carriage, Thomas held out a hand in the shadow of the door.
Yes, God forbid I break my ankle on the walk to my own judgment. Caroline brushed past him, stepping onto the hard-packed dirt drive of her own free will.
Sunlight hitting and warming her instantly, she understood the place’s appeal, even as she pulled on her sun hat to shield her eyes. The house presented itself as a retreat. A perfect country getaway. It was designed to make such an impression. An estate so lovely and charming that men like Thomas could garner respect and adoration while doing their very worst.
You must be a saint. Caroline could imagine their society acquaintances patting him on his poor martyr head. To spring for such a lovely place for your crazy wife when Bedlam is right here in the city.
“Mr. Ajax.” Descending the stone stairs outside the house’s tall wooden doors, a sandy-haired man in thick spectacles and a plaid-accented suit shook Thomas’s hand. “Welcome. I’m Dr. Rand.”
“Dr. Rand? I thought I would be meeting with Dr. Todson today.”
Yes, Thomas would think that. He would expect nothing less than to meet with the person whose name was on the plaque next to the front door.
Dr. Todson’s Home for Women
– the nameplate shown through the ivy in polished and beveled bronze letters. How very quaint it sounded. Not ‘Hospital.’ Not ‘Asylum.’ Not ‘Institution.’ Home. Like a place women might actually choose to be. Caroline supposed ‘Dr. Todson’s House of Torture and Neglect’ simply wasn’t good advertising.
“Oh no, Sir. As you can imagine, Dr. Todson keeps a very busy schedule. I take care of the day-to-day matters in the doctor’s stead, including the welcoming of potential residents. But don’t worry, you’ll still have your two signatures. Dr. Todson trusts my judgment.”
Two signatures. That was all it took. To determine a woman too much of a burden and lock her safely away from polite society. The word of her husband, or any male relation, and two doctors’ names on a slip of paper. The woman, for her part, didn’t have to do anything. Anything, that was, but exist. Caroline could state that fact with some authority, because she had lived for more than thirty-five years doing scarcely more than existing.
“Mrs. Ajax.” Dr. Rand moved past Thomas, and Caroline gave him her full attention. Her calmest, most rational attention. He was handsome, in an offhanded sort of way, as if he worried little about it one way or the other. His gaze surprisingly soft. “I’m Dr. Rand. It’s a pleasure to meet you. How are you?”
Some sort of polite response typically in order, there was nothing typical about this. In fact, a typical response might be considered highly atypical in the moment. Crazy even. What sort of sane person smiled a reply as she was threatened with her own commitment? Realizing there was no good option – she was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t – Caroline huffed a small breath, shaking her head, saying nothing.
“I imagine this must be very difficult for you,” Dr. Rand gleaned from her silence, and it was a fine act, Caroline had to admit. He sounded truly sympathetic. “We’ll try to make it as painless as we can. Please.”
Lifting an arm, he indicated the way – up the stone stairs and through the wooden doors – and, gathering her skirts, Caroline ignored both the men who flanked her, looking up at the enchanting façade of the provincial palace, with its gentle colors and climbing ivy, cursing its deceit.
Three steps up, a small sound commanded her attention, and she glanced to the woman re-potting a plant next to the front door. Hair black, eyes black, the woman’s face, slightly round and prominent of cheekbone, was striking. Soothing, in a strange sort of way. And most uncommon around London, its contours indicated she came from somewhere further to the east.
When it met Caroline’s own, the stranger’s dark gaze seemed to commiserate for a moment. To sympathize and to try to comfort. Before thick pink lips turned up in a subdued smirk, meant for Caroline’s eyes alone, and Caroline felt the sting of her delight. This woman was glad to see her dropped off there, glad to see her marched through the front door of a madhouse to defend her own sanity.
Bruised more by the stranger’s casual malice than by that of Thomas – perhaps, because she expected nothing better of him – Caroline tried to hold her head up. To retain her composure. She could be angry to a point, but she couldn’t let her anger overwhelm her. She had one purpose now and one purpose only, to show them she had no business being there. No business being there at all.
“Mrs. Ajax,” Dr. Rand began once they were formally seated in his parlor-like office. No desk, no examination table, just several armchairs and a fainting couch to swoon upon should the threat of her impending incarceration become too much to bear. “Or do you prefer Caroline? May I call you Caroline?”
“Call me whatever you like,” Caroline said, and Dr. Rand’s blue eyes flicked up as a resident of the house, made to serve as assistant, entered the room with tea. Lukewarm, Caroline did hope. They really shouldn’t be arming the crazies with scalding hot beverages.
“Thank you, Margaret.” Dr. Rand smiled as the woman left them, returning his attention to Caroline as the door closed behind her. “Mr. Ajax tells us you’ve been having some difficulties lately.”
“What sort of difficulties?”
“I was hoping you would tell me that.”
“I couldn’t begin to read Thomas’s mind.”
A most proper response. To read Thomas’s mind would be telepathy, and belief in telepathy was almost certainly grounds for immediate commitment. Of course, as a woman, just knowing the word “telepathy” was likely grounds. Even more so if they found out she had read it in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. So, channeling her life’s training, Caroline schooled her expression to look as insipid and clueless as possible.
“Maybe not,” Dr. Rand said. “But you can tell me how you’ve been feeling of late.”
How she’d been feeling? Did people care about such things now?
Sit down, Caroline.
Wear this, Caroline.
Be nice, Caroline.
Don’t look so dour, Caroline.
As far as she could tell, life was about one’s observable actions, not one’s feelings.
Assailed, though, by the question, Caroline couldn’t help but formulate an answer. How did she feel? She felt like a ghost in her own life. Flitting through it. Observing. Having absolutely no impact at all. But that wasn’t just “of late.” She had almost always felt that way. “I feel fine.”
“Ask her about the cleaning.” Evidently dissatisfied with the speed or tack of Dr. Rand’s questions, Thomas shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
“What about the cleaning?” Dr. Rand asked.
“What about it?” Caroline said.
“Mr. Ajax says you don’t allow the staff in your home to clean.”
Oh, Dear Thomas. Simplistic, absolute Thomas. That was one very clear-cut way of looking at something nuanced.
“That simply isn’t true.”
“Would you care to explain that to me?”
“The staff cleans when the house needs cleaning. They don’t when it doesn’t. I see no need for them to walk around polishing bookcases and railings each day that have a layer of soot upon them again by the following morning. It’s noisy, it stirs the air, and it’s hopeless.”
Throwing up a hand as if Caroline had just signed her own commitment papers, Thomas looked absurdly pleased with himself. Remarkable really, considering Thomas never looked pleased. Though, if he were to, it would certainly be with himself.
One might say it was he, Thomas, who demanded absolute spotlessness in his home, or perhaps just liked snapping at the servants for finding a speck on a mantle, who behaved in an absurd way. But pointing blame at her husband was certainly no means of talking herself into freedom, so Caroline withheld the recrimination, and Dr. Rand edged forward in his chair as if trying to find it.
“So, what does the staff do all day?” he asked.
“Their jobs. They do have other assignments.”
“Those do not take all day,” Thomas complained.
“You play cards and lose money at horse races! If you believe in leisure time, why shouldn’t they?”
Thomas expelling a sudden, boisterous laugh, Caroline felt the cold melt of regret down her spine. She had made a mistake. Already. Thomas baited her, and she bit. Arguing on behalf of their servants, or even sounding as if she was, was certainly considered a condition of some sort in a woman of means, and Caroline floundered for a way to bring the focus back to herself.
“I get headaches.” Looking to Dr. Rand, she found his eyes had never left her. Watching for her psychosis to reveal itself. “I get them often and they are unbearable. Too much unnecessary noise and dust makes them worse.”
“Yes, your headaches. You take laudanum for those?” Dr. Rand asked.
“It was prescribed for me by my doctor.”
Watching him make the note in his leather-bound book, Caroline felt her solid foundation begin to crack. He knew everything, she realized. Every fact Thomas could possibly use against her, Dr. Rand already had.
“Do you like reality, Caroline?” Dr. Rand stared into her eyes, and Caroline knew the right answer – What else is there? – but it would make no difference if she said it. Even if she executed it flawlessly. Not a flinch. Not an instant’s hesitation. No mistake could put her in this place, and no stream of perfect replies could get her out. She didn’t know why she thought they could. Why she thought it would be different for her. Why she believed, for a single instant, she could talk her way out of this, make anyone hear her reason. All that mattered was her husband said she was mad and was willing to pay this man to believe him.
Thomas giving a tiny scoff of satisfaction, because he had spoon-fed the doctor all the right questions and knew exactly how this was going to play out for him, the fury Caroline had tempered into vague interest all day consumed her. One glance at his smug, satisfied face, and all thoughts of self-preservation went straight out of her head.
Flying out of her chair, she saw the surprise on Thomas’s face before she caught him by his shoulders and they tumbled together onto the floor. One knee thrust into his side, she dug her fingernails into his skin, feeling the warm, wet flow of satisfaction as she dragged bloody tracks down his cheeks.
“Mrs. Ajax.” Dr. Rand rose to his feet, but made only a weak man’s attempt to come between them. Or Caroline was just that strong at the moment. She could feel the slight tug at her shoulder, but it wasn’t half the effort it would take to dislodge her. “You must stop this.”
As if a verbal scolding could even begin to contain her wrath.
Thomas fighting back was far more effective, as he restrained one of her wrists, but, even then, Caroline got in another good swipe at him, taking blood and skin away with it.
“Go ahead.” Through his pain, Thomas turned venomous, spitting the words in a whisper as Dr. Rand moved for the door. “You’re only proving to them you’re insane.”
“They’re going to put me in here anyway. You should at least feel pain.”
“A little help in here!”
Seconds later, Caroline was wrapped up, arms closing around her waist and plucking her bodily off of Thomas.
“Took you a minute,” Thomas said as Dr. Rand helped him to his feet, and Caroline watched the blood flow from the many wounds on his face with intense pleasure. She may not have saved herself, but at least she knew now how she would spend her next few days, praying some of those scratches would scar. Thomas should have a reminder of this. She certainly would.
“I hope you’ll be well, Caroline.” Thomas played the part of the grieving husband with flair and dramatics, and it set Caroline’s hair on fire.
“I hope you’ll ride off a cliff on your… way… bach… ta…”
Words starting to slur, she glanced down at the syringe that jutted out of her inner elbow. So much cold coursing through her, she hadn’t even felt it go in. The ice in her veins.
Then, the warmth.
The next sounds that woke her were nearer. Neither voice nor song, they came in the form of thumps, soft but intrusive, not far beyond her feet, and it took Caroline’s debilitated brain several seconds to recognize it as the sounds of someone coming through the door.
Shock bending her upright at the waist, her eyes flashed wide, but unfocused, and she reached out as she swayed, finding a puffy handhold to steady her as she struggled for awareness.
A small room with a door, at last she blinked into view. A cell of some sort? It had to be. The fainting couch she sat on was very much like the one in Dr. Rand’s office, narrow and ornamental, but surprisingly plush, while soft light emanating from somewhere overhead revealed a lack of any additional furnishings.
All she had time to recognize before the door pressed open, Caroline tried to scurry backwards on the couch. Tried. But her compromised strength wouldn’t carry her far, and it wouldn’t matter if it did. There was no place to go. Whichever direction she moved, she had only as far as the four walls, and that would do nothing but prolong whatever was coming to her.
She had heard stories about places like this. One couldn’t help but hear them. Madhouses were ripe sources of sensationalist gossip. Even with the new, gentler personas they were trying to promote. But though she had listened, along with everybody else, it occurred to Caroline now, with a stuttering heart and quivering bowel, she had never had any desire to learn how those stories ended.
Nightmare scenarios vying for dominance in her mind, she didn’t expect to hear her name so softly spoken, nor the voice of a woman speaking it.
She certainly didn’t expect to see a woman she recognized, even if only in passing. But she did recognize the woman when she came into view. It was the same woman from the front stoop, the black-eyed, lovely-faced woman who smirked at her bad fortune as she had entered this place.
“It’s all right.” The woman wasn’t smirking now. Crouching next to the fainting couch, she gazed up into Caroline’s face, eyes once again sympathetic. “Are you all right?”
Certainly not all right, not even sure she was all right with the woman asking her that, Caroline stared back, wondering whether she might be hallucinating as the light cast its faint yellow glow down over them, sending golden streaks through the stranger’s black hair, giving her an ethereal look like a displaced angel.
“I’m Lei,” the woman said. “I need you to come with me.”
“I can’t. I’m…” Weak. Caroline was weak. Terribly and cripplingly so. And muddled. But she couldn’t tell this stranger that. Who knew what havoc the woman might wreak with the information? “I’m sick.”
“It’s the serum. Now that you’re awake, it will wear off more quickly. Can you walk?”
“I don’t know. I think so.”
“See if you can get up.”
Searching for the floor with slightly numbed feet, Caroline made an attempt. Or, rather, she thought about making it. She didn’t actually move at all. Not on her first or her second try. On the third, with considerable support, she was able to rise, but was so unsteady she fell instantly into Lei and felt like a puppet being pulled on strings.
“A little unsteady.” Lei’s voice was a breathy whisper against her cheek. “But I think you can make it.”
“Where? Where are we going?”
“I’m taking you out of here.”
Bizarre as the notion sounded, Lei looked perfectly serious, and remarkably calm, as Caroline looked to her in the low light of the room. “You can get out?”
“Come with me and I’ll show you.”
“What if they see us?”
“It will be all right. Trust me.”
It was a very strange thing for Lei to say. What reason did Caroline have to trust her? To trust anyone in that place? What choice did she have not to? Too unsteady to walk on her own, she didn’t even have the choice to move without assistance, and staying in that room waiting for whatever might come along next had to be a worse option, so she leaned on Lei all the way out the door of the fainting cell and down the darkened hall.
“This isn’t the right door.” Not entirely conscious of her surroundings or what was happening inside her own body, Caroline did know that. The wood door she had walked through to enter the house was taller with far more elaborate carvings than the wood door Lei led her up to now.
“We can’t go that way,” Lei said as she pulled the door open, and Caroline stared into the depths beyond it. The weakly lit stairs. The smell of earth rising up to tickle her nose.
“I don’t…” Equal parts woozy and trepidatious, she put her hand on the doorframe to stop Lei from maneuvering her through it. “I don’t want to go down there.”
Lei glanced to her in the shadows, dark eyes searching Caroline’s face, a soft smile coming to her lips that was less amusement than comfort. “It will be all right, Caroline. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
Again, Caroline had no cause to believe that. She was in a madhouse. Lei was in the same madhouse. And a complete stranger to her. Caroline knew no more than her name and her face and the words that came out of her mouth. Yet, she did believe her. She did trust Lei when she said it. At least enough to let Lei ease her through the door and down toward the underworld.
“Where are we going?” Chill seeping through her dress from the stone walls, fear bloomed, wild and rapid, inside Caroline’s chest with every downward step. This was how she expected the place to look from the outside. Dank, inhospitable gray. Like a prison. Or a dungeon.
“Not much further,” Lei said when they reached the bottom, and they walked on, passing through several narrow corridors, all with the same half-lit gloom, through a doorway to an empty room.
Empty, that was, but for a second door. Though, it was clear at first glance that door wasn’t a way out. Crafted out of iron, giant gold wheel sitting at its center, an extensive network of levers and dials surrounding it, it was quite obviously the door of a vault.
“What are you doing?” Caroline asked as Lei settled her against a nearby wall to turn to the vault’s switches.
“Just one second.” Lei’s eyes already scanned the levers and dials, tight smile jumping to her lips as she started to flip and to slide them. Mere seconds later, with a gratified spin of the wheel, she pulled the vault door open and light spilled from its interior, quite unexpected, but entirely welcome in the otherwise dreary space.
“Caroline.” Lei held out her hand, and, pushing off the wall, Caroline shuffled unsteadily to her side, relying on Lei’s strength and embrace when her knees gave out as she reached her.
Gold? Jewels? Her only guesses as to what might be inside, Caroline managed to be absolutely stunned by the vault’s contents.
Dressed up like a room, or rather a portion of a room, with an armchair and an oval side table on a red Persian rug, elaborate floor lamp producing the light that filtered from its recesses, the vault held what had to be the most elegant specter Caroline could ever expect to see.
That specter was perched in the armchair, dressed in a dark green coattail jacket over a dusty rose bodice and a lighter green skirt, the absolute picture of grace and civility. The picture of grace and civility with a sly grin and a silver pocket watch clutched in her hand.
“Incredible, Lei. That’s your fastest time yet.” Sliding the watch into her jacket, the specter turned brown eyes on Caroline, and Caroline felt faint and afflicted under their focused attention. “Hello, Caroline,” she said. “I’m Dr. Todson.”
If daggers from the eyes were actual, physical daggers, Paul Browning would be dead in the middle of Tavistock Square. The sniveling little ratbag.
Perched on a bench at the edge of an abnormally balmy London day, Eirinn felt the chill of the shade at her back and the fire of fury upon her face. She knew envy only punished the sufferer, but she couldn’t help but pick at her own wounds. Watching Paul Browning take his praise, the pats on his back, the boys clambering to be in his orbit for managing barely passing marks felt like a direct mockery of her and all that she wanted in the world. Not only was Paul Browning a bully who made a point of reminding Eirinn of her place every opportunity given him, he was also an idiot. An idiot who would succeed. Because polite society dictated that he should. He was simply too well-born, too connected, and too male not to.
“Want me to break any of his limbs for ya? Or all of ‘em maybe?”
Hearing the footsteps approach from behind before they landed at her shoulder, Eirinn wasn’t worried. While she had little doubt any one of these unlicked cubs would stab her in the back if they thought they could get away with it, she knew her back was well-guarded and the punishment for them would be quick and severe.
They knew it too.
Which was good.
This academic season had been a particularly vitriolic one. The new professor, Mr. Hays, recently transferred from King’s College and a proponent of women in higher education, had decided to make an example out of Eirinn. To show the world women could, and should, learn just as well as men. To that end, he had the audacity to call on Eirinn frequently for answers, and, when he did, Eirinn had the audacity to answer correctly. It was a dangerous game with no clear-cut winners when Eirinn wasn’t supposed to be officially playing.
“I can lure Braining around a building with the smell of slop. No one will know it was me who did it.”
Smile quirking her lips – both at the insult and the offer – Eirinn glanced to where Rand stood amused with himself, but ever alert, behind her, like a soldier in service to a queen. A fact that was somewhat humorous in its own right. Were they at home, it would be Rand causing her grief and Eirinn doing the threatening.
“My God, Rand. I appreciate your willingness to take out Braining, but it’s hardly worth the risk to your future. You’re worth ten of him and a million more men.”
“Yeah. Maybe.” Coming around the bench’s end, Rand sat down beside her, but at a respectable distance with his hands on his knees where any nosey passersby could see. Not for their own sakes – who cared what others thought? – but for the sake of Eirinn’s parents. It was already a talking point that the Todsons allowed Rand to serve as her chaperone at all.
Can you believe it? A male servant, and a YOUNG man at that, they whispered to each other after church and over tea.
Everyone knew Rand’s mother, Mrs. Ballentine – Bally to those who knew and adored her – would be the far more appropriate choice. But Eirinn’s parents weren’t particularly susceptible to arbitrary rules or idle gossip. Nor were they willing to take a risk. Many of the boys at University College didn’t want Eirinn in their lecture halls, regardless of the fact she was only allowed to sit and listen and not to actually matriculate, but no one was going to make as much of a deal out of it with a six-foot-two pillar of protective muscle close by.
“You ready to head home?” Rand asked after a few quiet minutes.
“I suppose there’s no reason to continue to sit here,” Eirinn said.
That was the brutal truth of the matter. She could sit all day, glaring and brooding, but it wasn’t going to change anything. The young men she had spent the past few weeks with would still continue on in their studies and be awarded their degrees to practice medicine, and Eirinn would be coddled for her shocking interest in human anatomy, given a condescending smile, and be sent back to the home sphere to do womanly things with womanly virtue.
Dinner was at seven o’clock. Dinner always endeavored to be at seven o’clock in the Todson household, and Papa always endeavored to be in his chair on time. What point is success, he asked Eirinn once, bopping her on the nose, if one isn’t home to dine with his family? And though she was only a young girl at the time, Eirinn had always remembered it.
Success was nothing, she supposed, to a man like her father if he couldn’t keep to his own schedule. As a boy, he never got to eat dinner with his Ma, Pa, brothers and sisters. Half his family worked the coal mines and the other half the paper mills, each with their appointed jobs to do. Separated from sunup to sundown, they scarcely got a word in passing, let alone full meals together.
If success for Papa wasn’t all that he had accomplished, burrowing his way from that shack outside of Langley Moor to their house in Mayfair through sheer, persistent digging, but eating with his wife and daughter each night, Eirinn and Mama could see to it. No matter how many times he told them to eat without him if he wasn’t there on time. We were playing Hearts and lost track of the hour. Or The roast took longer than expected, Bally would lie for them. There was always some excuse to be found.
Tonight, though, tonight Papa wasn’t just on time, he was home early, coming through the door with a whistle and time enough to change his jacket and comb his hair before he came into the dining room.
“You look nice,” Eirinn said with just a tinge of suspicion. Papa, with his thick dark hair and easy good looks, cleaned up as handsome as just about any man in town, but he was far more likely to toss off his jacket and loosen his cravat around them.
“Thank you very much,” Papa returned, running a hand down his checked jacket front, pleased that she had noticed. “I had to clean up somewhat. We are celebrating.”
“Celebrating? What are we celebrating?” Eirinn asked.
“What are we…?” Glancing to Mama with a bemused expression, Papa seemed to hold the secrets of the universe in his very eyes. Papa often looked like that, on the verge of some great discovery. “You, of course.”
“Me. Why me? What did I do?” Eirinn asked.
“Your last day of advanced medical theory.” Much to her chagrin, he remembered. “We haven’t the day wrong, have we? I was certain it was today.”
“It was today.” Realizing what was happening, and why Mama had been so chipper ever since she returned home from university, Eirinn busied herself with her napkin, taking it from its triangular fold to spread across her lap, wondering how she was supposed to eat with the pressing ache in the cavity of her chest.
“And? How did you fare?” Papa asked her.
“I fared fine,” Eirinn said.
She had made it home in one piece with some new knowledge in her head. Given the circumstances, Eirinn wasn’t sure how much better it could have gone. But Papa didn’t just look as if he held secrets. He did have a few tucked up his sleeve. And he loved to do this, needle her about something he already knew and see if she would first confess. Tonight, at least, Eirinn had the luxury of knowing she had nothing worthy of confessing.
“I stopped by the university to speak with Everett on my way home.”
“Ah.” Small sound worrying her throat, Eirinn should have considered that possibility. Papa was friendly with Mr. Hays in a passing fashion, and an expert at getting information in roundabout ways.
“He told me, had you been allowed to test, you surely would have had the highest score in class.”
“Did he?” Eirinn feigned surprise, despite the fact the information wasn’t new to her. Mr. Hays announced it to the class that very afternoon. Eirinn was his shining example, his paradigm of female pupildom. A prototype. So, he slapped her publicly on the back and spread the target already there.
“Oh, Eirinn, that’s wonderful.” Mama smiled. Eirinn didn’t look up to see it, but she could hear it in her voice. The affection. The pride. “And not at all a surprise to us. Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
“Because it doesn’t matter, does it?” Frustration flaring, Eirinn’s voice cracked on a sob, and she felt both of the emotions, the simmering anger and the utter hopelessness. She hated feeling this way, so sorry for herself. Self-pity wasn’t going to get her anywhere. Only hard work and persistence would do that, and, even then, it could only get her as far as women were permitted to go.
“It may not matter now, or feel as if it does,” Papa said, and if he were in less of a position to know, she might not have listened. If Papa had been born into this house, instead of clawing his way into it. But Papa knew exactly what it meant to be told over and over the odds were not in his favor, only to beat them in the end. “You will be a doctor one day, Eir, if that’s what you want. Women in the United States are already being licensed as physicians. If all else fails, we will put you on a ship and educate you there.”
Where I will have to stay if I want to practice, Eirinn thought. Because, degree or not, no hospital in England was going to employ a woman.
But she had no doubt her parents would do just what Papa said. They would spend every last penny they had in pursuit of the life that she wanted. But why should they have to? Why should her parents – her father who worked himself ragged in the mines at five years old, her mother who loved him before she dare should – have to spend all they had worked so hard to build together to get Eirinn exactly the same title as snotty Paul Browning who lived two streets over and was completely unaware of how stupid or lucky he was?
“All right.” Eirinn forced a smile, not feeling it at all. “But, if this is a celebration, where are Bally and Rand? Shouldn’t they be in here?”
“They’ll be in after dinner with the cake,” Mama said. Softly. Disappointed.
For good reason.
There wasn’t a cake baked in their house by Bally alone. Mama was the hostess of many a party and celebration, and she liked to do the work that needed doing with her own two hands. She and Bally had probably spent the better part of their day trying to make this dinner special for Eirinn.
“Thank you, Mama,” Eirinn said, and Mama forced a smile too, but there was a melancholy in her eyes Eirinn felt cruel for putting there.
Papa grew up on the road and in the underground. He lit streetlamps at dusk and snuffed them in the mornings, working every waking hour between to rise above his meager beginnings.
Mama loved him before it was possible to love him. She waited years to marry, putting off other enthusiastic suitors, until Papa was able to make enough of himself to earn her parents’ approval.
I knew who he was the first time I met him, she always said to Eirinn. I felt like I knew him in another lifetime. And Eirinn believed it.
Her parents had done all the hard work. They had built a life on her father’s shoulders and her mother’s devotion. The least she could do was be grateful.
Night fell on the house like a Poe story. Not entirely gloomy, but haunted with the memories of a young girl. Four years old, running half-naked through the halls, perilously curious. Nine years old, nose in a book, vexingly precocious. Fifteen years old, hands folded – quieter, sadder – fading confidence hiding behind perfect poise.
In the light of her lamp, Eirinn watched older versions of herself disappear into the shadows.
On the first-floor landing, she was startled by voices, intimately familiar, but unexpected at this time of night, and the murmured sounds drew her gaze to the soft glow of candlelight that still flickered beneath her parents’ bedroom door. Guilty once more. Not only had she ruined their dinner, she was clearly keeping them awake. She knew of nothing else that could be so occupying her parents’ minds, and, sure enough, the conversation proved out as she drifted toward their door, canting her head closer to listen.
“…to Everett. He has contacts in America. I’m certain some university there will admit her.”
“We cannot send her to America, Simon. For God’s sake. The country is at war with itself.”
“Exactly. All those young men rushing off into battle. With the lack of available students, they should be happy to fill a vacancy.”
“That is not funny,” Mama said, but Eirinn could hear the trace of amusement in her voice.
It was fascinating, she had always thought, how differently people spoke to each other behind closed doors. The jokes they shared. The improprieties they indulged in. Millions of things that should never be said had to have been said between two people in intimate confidence.
“I know,” Papa admitted, and it was followed by a long spell of silence.
Wondering if they were finished, knowing she should stop listening in regardless, that she should either knock or leave, Eirinn was just on the verge of sneaking off when Mama spoke again.
“I do wish you wouldn’t get her hopes up like that.”
Statement gluing her to the spot, she wished for a second that she had left. That was the problem with listening in on other people’s conversations. One never knew what she might hear.
“I just want her to believe she can have anything she wants.”
“Why, when it isn’t true?”
Words striking her with the venom of a snake, Eirinn had to remind herself she was never meant to be in their path. She was the one with her ear to the serpent’s mouth. Mama would never say these things in front of her.
“One day, it will be.”
“Will it? I’ve been waiting more than forty years and it hasn’t happened yet,” Mama said, and there was a longing in it. A sorrow. Like some long forlorn acceptance. “You have done everything in the world to make this life for us.” Her voice growing softer, Eirinn had to press recklessly close to the door to hear. “You have given Eir every opportunity. Do you know how helpless it feels that there is nothing I can do to open them up for her?”
Pained sob and shuffle of linens coming from behind the door, Eirinn knew Papa was embracing Mama as she cried. She shouldn’t be listening to this. If her mother wanted her to know her concerns, her torment, she would tell her.
But it was also good she had heard it. Because she forgot sometimes. She forgot that all Papa had done, his personal glory, their family’s great success story, he had done only because he had the right to do it. Mama was born into a far better life than him – all her needs provided for, no cause to work or scrap to survive – but was it a better life? Papa could drag himself through the grime of a coal mine into a lovely home and a gentleman’s station, but what if their places had been reversed? Where would Mama be right now if she had been the one born into poverty? There was very little room for men to climb through the cracks of caste. For women, there was none.
I should leave. The thought went through Eirinn’s mind again, but hearing Mama weeping through the door, she couldn’t. She couldn’t just let Mama cry on her behalf, and, almost reflexively, she raised her hand to knock.
“Yes? Who is it?”
“It’s me, Papa.”
“Eir, come in.”
Putting on a brave face so they wouldn’t know she had heard anything – everything – Eirinn pressed open the door to her parents’ bedroom, revealing them just as she expected to find them, side by side in bed, separated just enough not to make her blush.
“Are you all right?” Mama looked much too worried, tears still shining in her eyes, like dew through a greenhouse window, and it struck Eirinn with inspiration.
Mama used to smile more too, it occurred to her. All their smiles were so much easier to come by when Eirinn was young.
“I’m fine. I was just wondering, could we go to Kew Gardens tomorrow?”
Joy instantly appearing on Mama’s face, like a rainbow through the storm, it was everything Eirinn hoped it would be. Mama was so surprised, so instantly eager, it wiped out all traces of despair.
“I can’t remember the last time we rode out there.”
“I know. I think it’s high time we did. My memories of our days there are so good. I think it would make me feel better.”
“Yes. Of course, we can. I would love that,” Mama breathed.
“Sorry, Papa. Since you do have work to do, maybe you can join us next time. After all, the museum is terribly behind shed-jule.” Eirinn overemphasized the word as she had heard it from the mouths of Papa’s stuffy fellow investors. He would always be a risk for them, the man who came from nothing managing their precious fortunes, and they reminded him of it, in small, petty ways, as often as they could.
“I am quite all right with that. You should have time alone with your mother. But I would love to see you on your way back through the city. You can route right through Chelsea. We’ll have tea and I can show you the progress on the museum.”
“That sounds nice too.” Hand wrapping around Papa’s arm, Mama gave it an affectionate squeeze. “Eir?”
“That sounds perfect,” Eirinn agreed, and, watching her parents go from sorrow to delight in an instant, she realized she felt better already.