Friday, October 2,
"Yesterday began the medical session. [At Middlesex Hospital] the inaugural address was given by Dr. W. Essex Winter. He warned against the necessary effect of methodical teaching in developing too much uniformity in opinion and method, and encouraged them to assert their own individuality as much as possible. . . . Curiosity, he observed, was mental appetite; when it was aroused the utmost advantage should be taken of it."
--The Times, October 2, 1896
Soot landed and became grease, pungent and clinging, coating the inside of the nose, the throat--trains were a splendid equalizer, he had always thought. It was like an epic experiment. Representatives of every class and station, every gradation of intelligence, character, fortitude, and moral fiber exposed to a common irritant, responding accordingly, for the edification and pleasure of the informed scientific observer. He often came to Victoria Station when he was in want of inspiration. Sweat, noise, and dirt stirred the intellect in a way that quiet repose could not. Ambrose Gennett found that thought intriguing, and set a theory to simmer at the back of his mind as he watched.
He was ambling to catch the 8:19 to Liverpool Street, scanning heads as he always did when a crowd made scrutiny safe. He collected a nose here, a scabrous complexion there, a curiously deformed ear. He locked eyes with a nameless fellow regular, a man in striped trousers with a salesman's gaudy watch chain. The other man glanced away with sharp embarrassment. Gennett noted an ill-kept scalp and moved on to study others.
It was the women he was interested in. And not in that way, not in the obvious way.
He watched their shoulders and chins and their smooth gloved hands, dipping in and out of dainty net purses, dragging handkerchiefs across noses that dripped. He saw when they let their eyes trail slyly after a stranger and when they shied from the male gaze as if burnt. He did not linger over slender waists or even, as happened when ladies struggled with steps into carriages, the odd ankle, titillatingly exposed. Titillation was not his object. How long had men of science averted their eyes in fear of such puerile misunderstanding? How could one be content with current knowledge, the constricting limits of what could be done for patients and still call oneself a doctor? There, a nurse glanced with venom at an errant charge. Beside her, a flower-seller licked her lips when a well-fed young woman, her gait too loose for maidenhood and her gaze too frank, strode by in striped finery. A threadbare maid passed by and neither spared her a glance, wrapped as they were in their shells of self-satisfaction and envy. The maid--
He looked again. Perhaps that female was not a maid. She moved quickly as if she knew where in the station she should be--and Victoria was a large and unforgiving station--but also swiveled her head this way and that, as if searching. Yet was not looking at faces. He abandoned his covetous flower-seller and paid closer attention. His glove was on the handle of the last first-class carriage when he saw it. At the third-class end of the platform the woman collided with a man. From Gennett's vantage point it was difficult to tell who had been at fault. The man took the woman by the shoulders and half lifted her out of his path. The crowd made way the way city crowds did, shifting with their eyes averted to give the disturbance space but not attention. In the reordering, another man's suitcase, balanced on his shoulder, struck the woman's head. She went down as if shot. For a moment her hat bounced like a skipping stone across the roiling surface of the crowd before falling to the platform floor. Gennett was at her side before he was aware he was moving.
"Are you all right, Miss?"
She seemed not to hear him. She was on her knees, snatching her hat from the gauntlet of shuffling feet. A trio of artificial cherries sagged from the band at a defeated angle. She tried to stand, fighting for balance, but clung to the hat as if it were more precious than her head. All the while her fingers made a frantic circuit of the brim, testing for cracks. The sight moved him in a new and unknown way.
"Miss?" She had to crane her neck to look at him. She was really no larger than a child. "Are you all right? You should take more heed of obstacles. The blow was severe." The blow would perhaps explain the turmoil in her face, a hybrid of anxiety and confusion. Quite a tiny face, squeezed beneath a spectacular forehead: a perfect dome of alabaster, bulging slightly--from pronounced faculties of intuition and reflection--shockingly white against the gray and dun of coats. It was enough to make him wish that he still believed in phrenology. He felt an impulse, disturbing and unprecedented, to reach out and test her skull's messages with his own hands, pressing her luminous skin with his thumbs.
"Am I--you were sent?"
Her accent was not refined, but not overtly common, either. Perhaps a shopgirl half trained to ape the monied classes? He would need to draw her out into conversation. "The blow," he said deliberately. "Please do not think you can ignore such an injury. It would be most unwise."
"This is what comes of lying to your mother."
"I'm sorry?" He ventured the briefest glance over his shoulder but there was no one else to whom she might be speaking.
"She's in danger, however you pretend not to see." Her lip quirked. It was a very pink lip. "Because of the meddling. You try to help but you're a fool to think that there's anything you can do."
She hunched to hide her face from him as she stabbed pins to anchor her hat to her hair. He flinched at her careless aim, as if it were his belly at risk instead of her glorious brow. His eyes twisted away from her groping hands to her feet. . . .
She wore beaded evening slippers. Their soles were never meant to stray from parquet and were gouged now with gravel and glass. The needlework alone was five times the value of her headgear. And her dress--a silk hem, lush violet, peeped from beneath her cheap coat like fruit from a cracked rind.
"Miss, you must allow me to help, I absolutely insist." He had just enough time to escort her to a hospital, perhaps even a few minutes for questions. He was intrigued, obviously, but it was unthinkable that she be left on a station floor in her state of confusion. "Your thoughts are distressing to you, I believe? There are signs in operation here that you do not understand." She dropped a hatpin and met his eye.
He had seen every kind of fantasist and every kind of liar. He had heard families denying that anything was amiss while their daughters and sons screamed and tore at the restraints, ranting of plots and persecution and divine instructions, angels and demons that whispered in voices only they could hear. He had as fine a clinical sense as any for the borders between falsehood and delusion and truth. Her expression made his gut fold up like an envelope.
She knew him. He would swear to it. It wasn't censure; that he could brush off like mud from his boots. It was the sympathy in her face that pierced him through, as if she perceived in an instant his troubles and regretted them, even if she did not hate him for his failings. She spoke in the tone he used with patients when the news was bad. "The signs are clear. Your lies will catch up. It won't be year's end before the eclipse."
"Miss, your acquaintance, I have not--you must allow me to help you. I am a doctor."
Her eyes snapped wide, not in empathy this time but in fear. "The Cup--the messenger would be in disguise!"
She slipped like a needle into the crowd. Elbows that made way for her blocked his pursuit. He heard throats cleared and umbrellas rustled with emphasis; the crowd was not blind to everything. He knew how pursuit must look. He could defy it, but not pretend that he did not hear. It was only a moment that the freeze of disapproval held him but that was enough; he had lost her. It might have ended there, in the greasy soot of the station, an inexplicable moment, had she not turned back. It was the briefest glance. Her face appeared in the crowd on the stairs, unreadable in the distance. Then she vanished again behind the horizon of strangers. It was a crumb for him, a little raveling string where one moment snags on another, ready to be pulled.
She was gone by the time he reached the exit. He could have turned back to catch the next train, but he left the station and hailed a cab instead. "Belgravia, please. Forty-nine Eaton Place." He pulled a bit of paper from his breast pocket--it was the letter of invitation to this morning's conference, but no matter--to make notes on the back. Lying to your mother, and she is in danger. What else? His pen scattered ink in tempo with the ruts in the road. "And make haste," he called to the driver. Nothing had been wrong at his last visit, though he couldn't recall when that last visit home had been.
Eaton Place was at its best in the autumn. Weak light softened the unrelieved white of the house fronts and made them intimate, like a duchess taking visitors in her retiring room. Cubitt's Georgian proportions were never better realized than here; each pillared portico just so, each lamp and window box placed by one master hand. Chopin had given his first London recital at Eaton Place. This was long before the Gennetts had bought, but streets had long memories, even in London. Ambrose's name was on the ninety-nine-year lease, his mother's widow's portion having been in cash, which he kept for her in the uneventful four percents. His name was on these investments as well. He paid her bills directly from the dividend accounts, including his half sister Ernestine's allowance and a bit of pin money for Ernestine's aunt, Emily Featherstone, and reinvested the remainder. His small constituency of women had come through the depressions of the early nineties with barely a hiccup of income. The house was maintained as scrupulously. Her house, he schooled himself, as he always did. The illusion of hospitality suited them both. He took the steps two at a time.
Violent squawking broke out even before he rang the bell. Over the din a voice barked "Quy-et! Quy-et!" in two staccato syllables. The woman who flung open the door was crisply aproned and capped, and held at arms length a baroque wire cage in which a gray parrot stamped and whistled with energy. The woman spoke, once she knew herself to be heard, with ambitious diction. Her beady-eyed resemblance to the bird was nothing short of tragic. His mother had never in her life taken on a good-looking maid.
He was scarcely settled in the second-floor drawing room before his mother entered. The parrot was instantly docile, creeping up the side of its cage to poke its beak out toward the handle. It nibbled Ruth's fingers as she spoke.
"My dear! I knew it was you. I had a feeling, and Albert became quite excited, which he always does. He's so fond of you." Albert nibbled, indifferent. "But why didn't you send word? We would have kept breakfast out on the sideboard for you. But you'll want a cup of tea. Ernestine and Emily have already gone to make their morning calls. I know we're not on the telephone but surely a note--"
"The club's banned stationery completely, Mother. Hadn't you heard? All relics of print are an offense to progress." His cheek brushed hers in an abbreviated kiss as he drew her aside. "Tell me, are you feeling quite well this morning? None of those twinges in your ankles?"
"Ambrose?" She looked around her in case the servants may have heard her own son referring openly to her limbs. "You are very silly. Do come and sit. Of course you would like a cup of tea?"
"I'm just stopping in. That is, I was passing by, and I thought, why not? Or rather--you are quite all right? You have had no . . . surprises, distressing news, anything like that?"
"How had you heard so quickly?"
A seasick swimming afflicted his inner ear. He suffered it for an extraordinarily long moment before she said, "Your cousin's spaniel shows no improvement! None! And after such a sustained and disagreeable course of treatment! So shocking, sit down and I will tell you all about it. Unless you will be hurrying away to some engagement? You are always so busy."
He opened his mouth to agree, then stuffed the note-covered letter of invitation farther down in his pocket. "Not in the least. This is the King Charles spaniel with the respiratory complaint?"
The chat weaved erratically as the hour advanced. Ruth had not lived in Edinburgh since before her first marriage, but spoke as though she had moved from King's Way that morning. Even if he hadn't been listening for hints of danger his contribution would have been limited to polite noises. He understood that his mother spoke to know her own mind and each thought was voiced, turned over, and fitted to the jigsaw by hand. Gennett interrupted her only when the conversation swerved to the pets of unrelated persons. "How are the neighbors, then? The house? You haven't heard any vexing news about those new flats they're proposing?"
He studied her minutely but could see no sign of perturbation, even at his admittedly odd line of questioning. All at once his fears from the station fell away; she was perfectly well. Everything was well. Hard observation burned away anxiety but left him scorched and raw; exposed, had anyone the means to see his rank stupidity, listening to a strange woman babbling prophecy. . . .
His mother's good breeding would not permit conversation to falter, however distracted her companion: ". . . a pleasant day now that the rain has passed. It is most agreeable to see you before luncheon. I doubt that we have enjoyed your company at the visiting hour since you took up with that third hospital. How refreshing that at least someone there recognizes how improper it is to monopolize a gentleman's time."
She laid a touch of emphasis on gentleman. He was in no state to reopen that. "I'm on my way there now, actually." He kissed her again and busied himself consulting his pocket watch while the girl brought his coat.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from In the Tenth House by Laura Dietz. Copyright © 2007 by Laura Dietz. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.