“Hysteria is often excited in women by indigestion.”
(On Diseases Peculiar to Women, Dr. Hugh Lenox Hodge, 1860)
June 1865, Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
Vita was sitting on the front stairs in a shaft of sunlight reading On Diseases Peculiar to Women when they carried the Boston man into her house. Her mother and sister had gone to visit Aunt Norbert in town, and Vita was waiting for her father to emerge from his office, which was directly across from the staircase. She knew he was in there although for the last thirty minutes – she squinted at the watch pinned upside down to the shoulder of her dress – she’d heard nothing, not even the shush of a newspaper page turning.
‘What does he do in there all day?’ Vita asked Sweetie, her brother’s parakeet, who was perched on her shoulder. Sweetie repositioned her claws and butted her soft pale head against Vita’s ear – the triangular fossa. Triangular fossa, scapha, auricular lobule, Vita recited to herself. Parts of the outer ear.
The book’s pages were mostly uncut since it had only arrived yesterday, from England; everything was still slow because of the war. In one hand Vita wielded a silver letter opener like a surgeon’s knife, slicing the crisp, cream-colored pages to reveal row after row of dark print like so many ants marching from one idea to the next. But her neck was getting sore, and the light from the landing window dropped to almost nothing whenever a cloud passed over the sun. She was about to give up her vigil when she heard the sound of carriage wheels on the gravel drive, and then a man shouting:
‘Dr. Tenney! Dr. Tenney!’
A minute later the front door banged open and two men came into the house carrying a third man by the armpits and ankles. As Vita stood up, Sweetie flew off her shoulder to the fixed safety of the newel post.
Maneuvering, the men knocked over the little oak table with its double-wick lamp. Now there was glass on the floor.
‘Dar?’ Vita called. Like her brother and sister, Vita always called her father Dar and her mother Mitty – her older brother Freddy’s attempt at saying their names, Arthur and Marie, when he was a baby.
Her father opened his door and stood in the doorway, unshaven and wearing the same gray waistcoat he’d been wearing for three weeks straight. For some reason he looked at Vita first.
‘Stop that shouting.’
Sherman Tillings, who owned the saddlery and the public stable and had a wife named Thankful, was at the injured man’s head; Vita didn’t recognize the other man.
‘We was just changing horses for the Boston coach,’ Mr. Tillings explained. ‘He collapsed on the porch, didn’t say a word. Where can we set him?’
Her father directed them to the long sofa against the windows in his office, where the light was best.
‘Not one word,’ Mr. Tillings went on, lowering the man onto the green velvet upholstery. ‘A Boston man. You see where his forehead is swelling? Cracked the rail when he fell.’
The man’s face – closed eyes, open mouth – had a waxy tinge, like skin on hot milk. Was he breathing? Vita, who had seen many an injured man brought into their house, stared at his chest but couldn’t make out a rise and fall.
‘Shall I fetch a blanket?’ she asked. It’s important to keep the extremities warm, her father always said. He sat down on the stool next to the sofa and put his ear to the man’s mouth. Then he placed two fingers against his wrist.
‘No pulse,’ he announced.
He told Tillings to prop the fellow up while he opened a bottle of whiskey. Holding the bottle by the neck, he pushed back the man’s head and poured a glug down his throat. ‘To encourage the swallowing reflex.’ But the man didn’t swallow. Two uneven streams ran down either side of his beard.
‘Get a hot poker, set it against his head, that’ll shock him awake,’ Tillings said.
‘Or blow tobacco smoke into his mouth,’ suggested the other man – the coach driver? – who was small and freckled with wiry red hair.
‘Nonsense.’ Her father began massaging the man’s chest. ‘But perhaps I can work up the heart.’
‘Work it up?’ Vita asked. The human heart, with its auricles and ventricles and valves, its precise oscillation, was, to her, a miracle of engineering. She had seen her father perform countless exceptional procedures – setting badly broken bones, draining pustulous head wounds, and once he made an incision into a man’s bladder to extract a stone the size of a fig – but she had never seen him restart a stopped heart. Scientifically, it seemed impossible, but there was so much she didn’t know. She stepped closer.
‘I thought you were getting a blanket,’ her father said.
When she came back into the room they were pushing the man forward and back, bending him at the waist as though he were a lever. They stopped long enough for Vita to spread the tartan blanket over his legs. The man’s eyes were not altogether closed although he was clearly unseeing. He had a craggy round face with a cluster of white warts under one eye; whiskey drops glistened on his beard. She touched the top of his hand. It was still warm. Of course, she thought, it will take a while for blood in the body to cool.
The three men began again to pull him up and shake him, set him down, pull him up. Meanwhile her father was becoming angrier and angrier, as though the unlucky man was clinging to death just to vex him.
‘Enough!’ he said at last. ‘He’s clearly past saving.’
Mr. Tillings, his face solemn, stepped back and took off his hat. By now the Boston man’s mouth was fully open, and his neck and shoulders seemed unnaturally still. For a moment, looking at him, Vita could almost understand it: how the body, with its layered, exact systems and its rhythmic machinery, might at any moment halt absolutely. Here was proof. However, the next moment the man, a stranger on her father’s green sofa, didn’t seem quite real.
‘Rupture of the heart,’ her father said with his usual authority. But how did he know?
After the men left – Vita could hear Mr. Tillings arguing with the coach driver about the man’s belongings as they carried him out of the house – she watched her father pour himself a shot of the whiskey, drink it, and pour a second shot. He had a long thin nose with wide nostrils, which widened further into little round caves of distaste when he was annoyed.
They widened now. ‘I’ll just get on with my work, then,’ he said, seeing that Vita was still standing there.
But this was her chance.
She looked around, steeling herself for her task. She hadn’t been in her father’s office for weeks; no one had. He wouldn’t even let Gemma clean it. As children the room had always been off limits to them, which meant that whenever Dar was gone Vita and her brother Freddy would sneak in. Dar had a peculiar collection of what he called ‘my curiosities,’ which included ancient nested bleeding bowls, Roman instruments for pulling teeth, and a set of mandibles he’d gotten as a prize while studying medicine at Yale – a seagull, a porcupine, and a snake. Framed pictures of iridescent beetles hung on the walls like soldiers awaiting inspection, and he kept a two-tailed lizard in a jar of liquid on his desk.
Once Freddy bet Vita a penny that she wouldn’t touch both tails of the lizard; she won the penny easily. Sometimes even without Freddy, if Dar was out, Vita pulled books from the bookshelves to read about the uses of quinine or how to reset a dislodged shoulder. She had always been healthy – no trouble sleeping, a good appetite, and although she was clumsy (her father was always scolding her for that), she never broke any bones. There were times she almost wished she had an affliction that she could diagnose. But at least she could read about them, and as a child – before the war – the more gruesome the illnesses were, the more she liked them.
Now the bookshelves were visibly covered with fine ashy dust. Vita half expected to find something horrible or secretive in here, something her father didn’t want to be seen. However, except for the stacks of yellowing newspapers piled up on the floor, the room seemed much the same. What struck her most was the smell, which was heavy and densely male: sweat and stale tobacco smoke and wool clothes that needed airing. She looked down at his set of mandibles and picked up her favorite, the snake. A bone as smooth as glass.
‘And take that blanket with you as you go,’ he said. ‘Best to have Mrs. Oakum wash it.’
She put the snake mandible back on the painted tray with the others, turning it slightly so it faced the door.
‘Dar,’ she said, lifting the blanket and beginning to fold it. Her heart pumped out a couple of hard beats. ‘I’ve discovered something. Well, I’ve known it for a long time. But it’s important.’
She waited for him to look at her but he didn’t. He slid his hand in his pocket and then took it back out.
She went on in a rush: ‘I want to study medicine. I want to be a doctor, like you.’
‘What’s that?’ He put his hand in his other pocket and pulled out a pouch of tobacco.
‘A doctor. I want to study to become a doctor. I’ve looked into it, and there are colleges that I can apply to. That accept women, I mean. Medical colleges. One in Philadelphia and one in Boston.’ Although she’d practiced this speech a hundred times, she found herself stumbling her way around the points she wanted to make. ‘I could start in the fall. It wouldn’t cost that much. If you let me.’
Dar set the tobacco pouch down on his desk and turned to lock his whiskey and shot glass into the cabinet behind him. He said, with his back to her, ‘You want to help people, is that it?’
She hadn’t thought about it that way. ‘Well – yes. I suppose. That is, I’ve always been interested in biology and medicine. The art of healing.’ One of his own pet phrases.
‘The art of healing, I see. And you’ve decided to apply to medical college so you can do that?’
‘And you would like to attend this fall? This is what you’re proposing?’
She nodded, but he still wasn’t looking at her. ‘I – yes. If I can. If they’ll have me.’
For a shining, unreal moment she thought he would say all right then, go. His mood swings had become excessive in the last few months. For days at a time he ignored her, and then suddenly he berated her for nothing.
‘Well then,’ he said now, ‘you’re a fool.’
Her heart dropped. ‘Why?’
He began to fill his pipe. ‘Obviously you don’t know the first thing about it. You can’t just apply to medical college; first you must find a sponsor, a doctor who will mentor you so that you can gain practical experience. A preceptor, he’s called. You assist him during the day, seeing patients and so on, and then you go home at night to study up on your own. Cheselden on the bones, Jones on the muscles, Vansweiten on humoral pathology. Also Haller, Quincy; I could name a dozen more. You must know these texts inside and out before you even begin to approach the college dean. He’ll ask you, you know. You’ll be required to submit to an interview, and he’ll want to know what you’ve read and what you’ve memorized. It took me almost a year to learn enough just to be interviewed, and I was a fast reader.’
‘I’m a fast reader,’ Vita said.
‘Anyway it’s unnecessary. There are quite enough men in the world to serve as doctors. You’d only get in their way.’
She had thought of this argument. ‘There may be women who are more comfortable seeing a woman – having a woman examine them.’
‘Then they’re being childish.’ He bent to turn the snake mandible around so it faced his desk instead of the door. ‘It’s unnecessary,’ he said again. ‘You’re eighteen years old now, and the war is over. The time has come for you to accept your station in life.’
She felt the heat rise in her face. ‘My station in life? What station is that?’
‘Vita. Lower your voice.’
Vita’s voice was naturally low-pitched and loud – ’mannish,’ her younger sister Amelia called it – and the slightest hint of emotion made it go even louder. It surprised people in part because Vita herself was so small; Amelia, at seventeen, was taller than Vita was at eighteen. Vita had her mother’s thick black hair, whereas Amelia was blonde like Dar. The only thing that Vita shared with her father, as far as she could tell, was a bad temper. Though of course Dar never admitted he had a temper. He called his outbursts ‘setting things to rights.’
‘What is my station?’ Vita repeated. She was still clutching the tartan blanket; one lopsided triangle had fallen outside the folds and she squished the errant piece up, trying to hide it. Her hands were shaking.
‘You know very well. To marry, to have babies. Boys in particular. That’s every woman’s duty after a war. To replace the men we’ve lost.’
But here his voice faltered, and Vita felt something dark and raw pulse in the deepest part of herself. It had only been two months since they received the telegram about Freddy. Their horses still wore black ribbons in their manes.
‘It’s time you married. I’ve thought it out. You’ll have a double wedding, with your sister. That will save on expense.’
‘A double wedding? But, Dar, I’m not – I don’t have anyone to marry, even if I wanted to. What I want is to follow in your footsteps.’ Maybe appealing to his vanity would help? ‘I want to be a doctor, like you. Like Freddy was going to.’
But at that he turned on her, suddenly furious. ‘You think you can replace your brother?’
She felt the blood drain from her face. ‘No! Nothing like that!’
‘You hope to profit from our loss, like a turkey vulture?’
‘Of course not! I only meant that I want to study medicine, like . . . like he would have.’
Her father was glaring at her now, his nostrils flaring. His cheeks, above his untrimmed beard, were an angry, mottled red. He yanked his door open and stood with his hand on the doorknob, pointedly waiting for her to leave. This conversation was over.
‘No one can take the place of my son.’
’If the groom attempts to kiss his bride any place other than the cheek or the hand, she should announce that nature calls her to the toilet. This will generally dampen his desire.’
(Instruction and Advice for the Young Bride, Mrs. Ruth Smythers, 1894)
Vita didn’t want to take the place of her brother. She wanted, more than anything, for Freddy to still be alive.
At night she sometimes dreamed of him, but his voice was always different, or his hair, or he said things to her that he would never have said in real life. In her dreams he was blander, more complacent. He wasn’t the prankster she knew as a child. Once he put molasses inside Amelia’s boot and he got in real trouble for that since it was always gummy afterwards.
But he was a good brother too, usually letting her in on his games if she asked. He loved being outdoors; climbing trees and fishing, or just walking around the marshes. As a boy he kept little stones or sticks in his pockets that he said looked like animals – a cat, a sitting bear, a giraffe. He was forever bringing home injured birds or motherless kittens. While I’m away, he told Vita, you’re in charge of my pets.
He was seventeen when he signed up with the 28th Regiment of Massachusetts. He survived the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, but at Hatcher’s Run he took a bullet above the elbow and an infection set in. The company’s assistant surgeon decided not to take off the arm, and ten days later Freddy died of gangrene.
On the morning the telegram arrived, a full week after peace had been signed and they’d all been rejoicing because they thought Freddy had made it safely through, Vita’s insides seemed to crumble into ash. She was coming down the staircase reciting to herself the bones of the cranium – frontal, parietal, temporal – when she saw Mitty standing at the front door with a black-edged envelope in her hand. In that instant she knew.
How did they get through the first day? They must have eaten but Vita couldn’t remember what they ate or even sitting at the dinner table. During the night she kept waking up and sobbing into her pillow, and in the morning she found a tiny goose feather in the wet pocket of her gum – the gingiva. She kept it as a memory of her initial grief, which throbbed less as the weeks passed but never went away.
Vita paced the length of her bedroom, digging her nails into the palms of her hands. Once Dar understands how serious I am, she thought, he’ll come around. Won’t he? She worried that, in his eyes at least, she had never been good enough. Sometimes he praised the work she had done for Freddy – a graph or an equation – and that was gratifying. Of course he thought Freddy had done it and praised him, not her, but she knew. Dar didn’t think women were capable of ‘logic and straight lines’; he’d said this more than once, even around Mitty, who once bested their old tutor on a point of geometry. Mitty’s face always flushed with emotion when he said this, but she didn’t try to argue.
Why get into a quarrel, she said when Vita asked her about it. You can’t change other people, you can only change yourself. Wise words, but not particularly helpful. Vita didn’t need to change herself. It was the rest of the world that needed to change.
The sky darkened, and tree branches bent back and forth dramatically in the wind. She heard the front door open and close, and two voices floated up – Mitty and Amelia getting home just before the rain. Vita didn’t go down to see them. Her bedroom was her sanctuary even though it was dark and messy and usually chilly, even in the spring. In the summer, after a humid rain, the walls smelled like raspberries. They lived in a three-story gray saltbox with inconveniently sloped ceilings, and most of the windows were clustered on the house’s southern side (her bedroom faced north). Her father bought the house for its large front parlor, which became his office. All the other rooms were small and cramped, and the pantry made Vita think of an upright coffin.
Her earliest memory had the flavor of sawdust: she was four years old and having a tantrum in the back hall, which had been fitted out the week before with closets. What had she been so upset about? She couldn’t remember. Her chubby legs didn’t have enough room to kick properly without hitting a wall, and that made her angrier. She screamed and kicked and banged her fists as she lay there on her stomach. Carpentry dust rose from cracks in the floorboard, and every large breath – absolutely necessary for a prolonged, solid wail – brought with it a gritty taste.
‘You’ll get a splinter,’ her mother had said, watching her from the doorway. And her father: ‘Ignore her.’
Even at so young an age, Vita sensed that the place she lived was not the place she belonged.
She began to hunt around her bedroom for a pencil bigger than a cigar stub; when she was upset, she wrote lists. The room was cluttered with paper and books, notebooks filled with her observations, and piles of old science journals – her father had several subscriptions mailed to the house. Although there were the usual combs and hairpins on her dressing table, she also kept, in a mason jar lid, the remains of a dry June bug she had dissected.
At last she found a pencil in use as a bookmark (On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals), and licked its end. The combination of the smooth lead and the rough end of shaved wood against her tongue always soothed her. She turned to a blank page in her notebook.
Who does he imagine I’ll marry? she wrote.
She tried to think of all the men she knew who had survived – or never went off to – the war.
Clarence Witt: missing an arm
Tom Fuller: missing a leg
Andrew Meany: not right in the head
Blind; scarred; long gray hairs sprouting from their ears (that was Robinson Jameson, who was at least sixty years old) – they all had something. Vita was a scientist and had trained herself to be observant. Also dispassionate. Even so, by the end she felt tears in her eyes.
There was a knock at her door, and her sister Amelia walked in looking brushed and neat.
‘Dar said you’re in a temper. Did you quarrel again?’
Amelia was the beauty of the family with smooth blonde hair and a nose on the shorter side of Roman. Their mother called Vita handsome rather than pretty, praising her long neck and wide mouth – like a goose, Vita thought.
‘Mitty sent this up for you,’ Amelia said, handing her a piece of cake. ‘Also, look at this. Aunt Norbert gave it to me.’
She held out a narrow pamphlet bound in pliable pasteboard. The title, in heavy black type, modeled the look of scientific tracts: Instructions for the Young Bride, and underneath, in type just as large: By the Wife of a New England Reverend.
Vita read the first sentence aloud:
‘To the sensitive young woman who has had the benefits of a proper upbringing, the wedding day is, ironically, both the happiest and most terrifying day of her life.’
‘Is it satire, do you think?’ Amelia asked.
Vita shoved a big bite of cake into her mouth and skimmed the rest of the paragraph.
‘I don’t think it’s satire,’ she said.
As children, they were divided into types: Freddy was fun, Vita was smart, and Amelia was pretty. When she got older Amelia wanted to be sweet as well as pretty, so her type was amended, reluctantly – no one could decide if she was actually sweet or not. She cried when she saw a dead mouse or a dead sparrow or one of the barn cat’s kittens dead on the lawn, but she laughed a little, too – she said from nerves.
Vita didn’t care about being pretty or sweet. Unlike Amelia, she wasn’t interested in husbands and weddings; she dreamed of a college classroom with dissecting equipment and long rubber aprons and a professor who wrote so rapidly on the board he snapped his chalk in half (she once read a version of this scenario in a story in The Atlantic Monthly). One morning, when Freddy was struggling to draw a diagram of the bones of the human hand – Dar sometimes gave him extra work to give him a leg up, as he put it, for studying medicine – Vita drew the diagram for him, and then she went on to diagram the bones of a leg and foot, as well. ‘To give you a leg up,’ she joked.
‘Say, these are pretty good,’ Freddy had said, looking at her neatly labeled drawings.
‘I think so, too.’
‘Makes me wonder if you’re the one who should be a doctor.’
This being Freddy, she couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
Freddy had shrugged. ‘Sure.’
The idea was like a new spice in a common dish – she wasn’t sure at first if she liked it or not. She imagined herself as an adult carrying her father’s black doctor’s bag, the neat instruments inside held in place by cloth tape, the envelopes of colored powders tucked away in special pouches. Walking into a farmhouse or seeing people in her own home office; feeling foreheads and limp wrists; stirring medicine into a glass of water. A doctor. She hugged the possibility to herself, jealously guarding it, not wanting to be laughed at. She was small, and she was a woman. Maybe it was impossible. But she was good at schoolwork – more than good. She had an excellent memory and she grasped concepts quickly. She was healthy and could walk for miles or stay up all night if needed. Why not?
‘Maybe I will be a doctor,’ she said to Freddy a few weeks later. ‘Maybe we could be doctors together.’ He was the only one she ever mentioned this new, and increasingly exciting, dream to; although she did bring up the idea of going to college from time to time (her father ignored it).
‘As long as you do most of the work,’ Freddy had joked.
Her brother wasn’t stupid or lazy, he just wasn’t interested in books. He liked training animals, and on clear nights in every season he studied the stars. But that hardly mattered to Dar. From the moment Freddy was born, and probably even before, Dar had decided his son would be a doctor like him.
Amelia wasn’t interested in books, either, until old Mr. Denton retired as their tutor and young Holland Granger came to take his place. Even before her sixteenth birthday Amelia began to put her hair up, whereas Vita still wore hers in a long braid that she usually slept in. Seven months after he started tutoring them, Holland resigned and proposed to Amelia. Their wedding was to be in September.
Their Aunt Norbert liked to say that Amelia was old for her age and Vita was young; it was not meant to be a compliment on either side. Holland couldn’t fight in the war because he had a wandering eye, also his right leg was slightly shorter than his left. But none of that bothered Amelia. He was still handsome, especially if he was sitting and his eye was fixed on an object. Amelia sent away to Boston for special shoes she’d seen advertised, to minimize his limp.
‘I wonder where Aunt Norbert got it,’ Vita said, meaning the pamphlet. They were sitting side by side on Vita’s window seat, paging through it.
‘She told me it would see me on my proper way,’ Amelia said, mimicking Aunt Norbert’s sprawling tones. She was good at voices.
Vita laughed in spite of her foul mood. ‘Did she.’
‘She also told me she plans to give me money. For when I’m married.’
‘Money?’ This was a surprise. ‘How much money?’
‘House-buying money, she called it. She said she’d do the same for you when you get married.’
Did Dar know about this plan? Was that the reason for his baffling decision to marry her off? A double wedding, he’d said. Her heart burned when she thought of it.
‘While sex is at best revolting and at worst rather painful,’ she read aloud, ‘it must be endured. Many women have found it useful to have thick cotton nightgowns which they don in a separate room, and which need not be removed during the sex act.’
‘But what is the sex act, I wonder’,’ Amelia asked.
‘You don’t know?’
‘I have a book upstairs.’ That was their classroom. ‘Do you want to look at it?’
Amelia hesitated, and then shrugged in a way that meant yes. Vita felt a thread of cool air skimming her back from a crack in the windowpane behind her. Thick cotton nightgowns, she thought. Well, she wouldn’t let old Robinson Jameson with his hairy ears touch her even so.
‘Listen to this part,’ Amelia said, turning the page.
‘Most men are by nature rather perverted, and if given half a chance would engage in the most disgusting practices, such as mouthing the female body, and offering their own vile bodies to be mouthed in turn.’
They looked at each other. ‘What do you suppose that means?’ Amelia asked.
Vita leaned forward to read the paragraph again. ‘Haven’t a clue.’
Vita, who thought of herself as a scientist, was naturally interested in sex – marital relations, as the reverend’s wife put it. Her first crush had been on the gardener’s son, Nicky Hoag; a serious but friendly boy. He wore short gray pants and a little wool cap, and he helped his father deadhead the roses in the spring, press apples into cider in the fall, weed, wash the paving stones, and tend to anything else that needed tending to in their yard. Sometimes, when Vita went outside, Nicky showed her something interesting – a perfectly shaped wasps’ nest in the V of two branches, or a spider web set so the sunlight made diamonds in it. Once, when he gave her a small misshapen apple, their hands touched; Vita felt a tingle go up her spine. For weeks afterward she relived that moment, and she kept the apple core until it began drawing ants.
She studied pictures of stamen and pistils; not proper intercourse, certainly, but at least reproduction. In terms of observation, it would have been better if they’d lived on a farm. Sometimes Vita stood at the window of their third-floor classroom looking down at the snake of road that went past Carver’s farm, over the old stone bridge, and into town. She could see dots of sheep but not much else, and she used to daydream of following the road all the way out of the town, escaping Lark’s Eye forever. No one else went up to the third floor much – Amelia and Freddy refused to set foot there if they didn’t have a lesson, and Mrs. Oakum didn’t care for the steep staircase.
It was the perfect place to hide a book.
Aristotle’s Masterpiece, it was called – no relation to the philosopher. Mr. Palmer, who owned the only bookshop in town, clearly didn’t look past the title, and moreover he was confused about who Aristotle was since Vita discovered the volume in the mathematics section in the shop’s musty back room. She was fourteen when she brought it home, and the book, though incomprehensible in parts, was on the whole a revelation.
She read it secretly with Gemma, their housemaid and Vita’s friend and co-conspirator. When Gemma came up to her room a few minutes later with a can of lamp oil, Vita prevailed on her to go up to the classroom to fetch it.
‘It turns out Amelia is completely ignorant about everything,’ Vita said.
‘That’s not true!’
Gemma had fair hair and hooded gray eyes, and like Amelia she was taller than Vita even though she was younger. She wore a thin, gray dress too short in the sleeves, and, after coming back with the book, she crossed her arms over her chest, trying to warm herself.
The rain had started pulsing hard against the window. Even in the summer the house could be cold during a rainstorm, and Dr. Tenney didn’t believe in having fires lit in the upstairs rooms.
‘Let’s get under the quilt,’ Vita said. ‘You can tell Mrs. Oakum I asked you to help me find a book, and that wouldn’t even be lying.’
They often used such stratagems. Vita had taught Gemma to read when Gemma was five and they’d been reading together ever since. At the time Gemma’s mother had been the Tenneys’ housemaid; eight years later, when her mother died of stomach cancer, Gemma took her place. Gemma learned everything quickly, from how to combine letters into words to how to repair broken crockery with a piece of thread. If she could squeeze out time she also helped Vita with her experiments up in the classroom. Gemma had long, thin fingers – the fingers of a botanist, Vita fancied, whereas her own were short and stubby.
When the three of them were settled in bed, Vita, in the middle, opened the book.
‘‘Of the Secret Parts in Women,’’ she read aloud.
The external parts in women’s privities are designed by Nature to cover the great orifice, Nature intending that orifice to receive the penis, or yard, in the act of coition.
‘What’s an orifice?’ Amelia asked.
Gemma pointed to the illustration. ‘The man’s maypole goes in there.’
Amelia’s face went pink. ‘Does it hurt?’
Gemma shrugged herself a little further under the quilt. ‘My cousin said only the first time. Trick is not to let the man go too fast.’
A branch of the fir tree began hitting the windowpane: Tap, scrape; tap, scrape. They were sitting up against the headboard, the blankets scrunched around them.
‘Let’s get to a good bit,’ Vita said impatiently. She turned to a page that was grimy from being handled so many times.
The action of the clitoris in women is like that of the penis in men. It is the seat of the greatest pleasure during the act of copulation, and is therefore called the sweetness of love.
‘Disgusting!’ Amelia said, after she’d silently read the page through to the end.
Vita looked at her. ‘Why?’
Amelia shut the book with a slam. Her neck, face, and ears were all an angry red. ‘How can that . . . what he described . . . feel good? It sounds painful and perverted.’
‘But haven’t you ever felt a little thrill of excitement,’ Vita asked, ‘down there? Around Holland?’
Amelia was silent for a moment. Then she said, ‘The author must be lying. I don’t think that’s how it happens. It can’t.’
‘It sounds awkward, and . . . I just can’t imagine it working.’
‘It’s true, though,’ Vita told her.
‘It can’t be.’
Amelia shoved the book at her and jumped off the bed. Vita smiled to herself just a little; she had wanted to shock her. It was annoying how good Amelia pretended to be, and how that meant she got whatever she wanted. She was Dar’s favorite now that Freddy was gone. Maybe she’d always been Dar’s favorite. Whereas I’m thwarted at every turn, Vita thought.
‘Well I don’t believe you,’ Amelia said.
’How comes it that a tall man is seldom wise? By reason that the largeness of his body proceeds from an excess of heat.’
(Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Anonymous, 1717)
Jacob Culhane learned about his father’s death in the middle of the war, nearly six months before he was captured and taken prisoner by the Confederate army. At the time his company was stationed in what proved to be the largest and nicest of all the camps they erected; it was built in a pine grove, laid out in streets, with plenty of shade trees and a clear stream running through it. The canvas hospital tent stood at one end and a stubbly field, with a farmhouse that had been burned down to its stones, stood at the other.
When ordered to the battlefront some five miles away, Jacob and his tent mate Matthew Ames, along with the rest of the infantry, marched with full canteens and haversacks containing three days’ worth of rations: hard tack, salt pork, and a paper twist of speck sugar for their coffee. Jacob and Matthew had signed up on the same day in Cincinnati, and found they both had a liking for trout fishing and ship mechanics – Matthew was a ship carpenter, and Jacob had built up a business fitting steam engines to boats. They’d been fighting side by side now for almost two years.
As they marched down the road Matthew told Jacob about the latest letter from his wife and the mischief their four-year-old had gotten into, involving handfuls of flour and their housecat. It was a cool day in early September with golden leaves fluttering down to the dirt road and a smell of dry earth. Both Matthew and Jacob wore small wooden discs on strings around their neck, which Matthew had made for them a month ago. The discs – lopsided rectangles, really – were carved with their first initial and last name. Some men kept pieces of paper with their addresses in their pockets or pinned to their uniforms; they’d all seen too many corpses mutilated beyond recognition in battle, and if they died they wanted folks back home to know. Jacob could feel the scratch of wood under his shirt like a splinter, shifting slightly as he swung his arms. The trees on either side of the road had the look of women wearing dark, wrinkled skirts, and the wind blew up softly behind the marching men as if urging them on.
They got to the designated field, made camp, and ate dinner. Their division was tasked with holding back the southern advance, and Jacob’s job was to help load canisters – a bag with a hundred bullets – into the cannons. When fired, the canister burst and bullets zoomed out in all directions. The sound was like a hundred angry, wayward bees.
The battle broke out at daybreak when a horde of Confederate soldiers rushed through the trees whooping and shooting, bending to reload, running again. They were viciously good shots although outnumbered and getting hit from two sides. From Jacob’s position he could see them falling in heaps despite the fact they were firing as fast as they could, spraying a bee storm of lead and iron directly at his unit.
Jacob’s ears rang from the noise, and the smoke and confusion seemed to herald the end of the world. But his division held their ground, and after a few hours the rebels retreated. That night Jacob and Matthew slept side by side on blankets under the stars, the air still choked with smoke and the smell of battle: metallic, but also human – blood and flesh and excrement. The next day, advancing again, the rebels gained some ground. In this way three days were spent; basically, as far as Jacob could tell, fighting over one ditch.
The fact that the ditch led to a field and the field to a road and the road to a town wasn’t lost on him, but nor was the fact that scores of men were dying to protect one small rise of mud. All this because six southern states had seceded from the United States after the election of Abraham Lincoln. Four more states soon followed, and northern newspapers began running headlines like ‘Save the Union!’ or ‘Crush the Rebellion!’ When southern troops fired on federal soldiers in Fort Sumter in April, the war officially began. Jacob didn’t feel any particular connection to the southern states, but ever since the day he saw slaves being auctioned on the block in St. Louis he was revolted by slavery – not the idea of it, the inhumane fact of it. Shackled black men were made to stand on blocks too narrow for their feet, and whipped when they fell, and given no water. And that was just the treatment Jacob had seen for himself. How could a country tolerate slavery in one half and condemn it in the other? It felt like a mind shattering and splitting, only it was the whole country. The war lasted longer and was more brutal than anyone ever expected.
On their third day defending the field, Jacob was crouching in the dirt loading more bullets into a canister when he saw Matthew fall. He was only a few yards away and it looked to him at first as though his friend had simply stumbled. But as Jacob scrambled over to help he saw a spray of blood shooting from Matthew’s neck. He covered the wound with his grimy hands, searching for a piece of cloth, a hat, anything, to staunch the flow, but it was too late. Matthew died staring off to the side with a surprised look on his face, his neck and chest wet with bright red blood.
There was no time to mourn him; Jacob had to get back to the cannon or more Union men would be killed. That, he decided later, was the moment his mind clicked off. Altogether clicked off, like a piece of machinery drained of fuel and cutting out. He filled a bullet bag and loaded the cannon. He was no longer a man, no longer human, although his eyes were wet with tears. He filled a bullet bag, loaded it, filled another. Someone else dragged Matthew’s body away.
When his unit was finally relieved and they marched the five miles back to their large, shady camp, Jacob was too exhausted even to eat. He carried in his pocket Matthew’s carved identification tag to send to his wife, M. Ames, the M slanted slightly away from his family name. The wood, a jagged piece of oak stripped of its bark and rubbed with linseed oil, felt as light as a fingernail. He couldn’t begin to think what to write to Matthew’s wife. But before he could do anything, he found a letter addressed to him waiting in his tent.
Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
September 2, 1863
Mr. Jacob Culhane
It saddens me that I must inform you in this way, by letter, of your father’s recent death. I attended him in his final illness, which lasted just under three months. I can only offer the solace – and I hope it is solace – that he did not much suffer in the end. As you are off performing your duty to our great nation in this our time of trouble, Reverend Chenowith has undertaken the responsibility of your father’s last service and burial.
I am deeply sorry for your loss. I pray for your health and safety in these difficult times, and I look forward to seeing you again in Lark’s Eye when this terrible conflict is over.
Most Sincerely Yours,
Dr. Arthur Tenney
Jacob had run away from Lark’s Eye after his mother died when he was fourteen, and he hadn’t set eyes on his father – a bully and a drunk – even once since that day. He held Dr. Tenney’s letter in trembling fingers – trembling from fatigue, he’d thought at the time. He re-folded the paper along its creases and waited to feel something, but inside he was spent. Emptied out. All he wanted to do was close his eyes and be somewhere else.
Six months later this wish was granted when he was captured and taken to Andersonville prison camp. An irony that wasn’t lost on him.
Now, almost two years after he’d received the letter about his father’s death, Jacob found himself returning to Lark’s Eye in an open wagon with four other soldiers who, like himself, had somehow survived the war.
It was June. The peace had been signed in April, and Jacob had been released from Andersonville on the first of May. His plan was to sell his father’s farm and then never set eyes on Lark’s Eye again. It was nearly noon and he was hungry, but then again he was always hungry. The problem was he couldn’t eat much at any one sitting – the effect of near-starvation and bodily neglect during his months at the prison camp.
Nathan Hay, who joined the wagon in West Virginia, wasn’t as thin as Jacob but he had a stump instead of a right hand; and Willie Hawkins, asleep beside him, was missing a leg. Hiram and Johnny Dickerson – brothers who were traveling all the way up to their farm in Barnet, Vermont – featured one working eye between them.
Jacob could hear the American flag that was pinned to the back of the wagon snapping in the wind. They’d started in Kentucky six days ago and yesterday had crossed into Massachusetts after trundling through Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. The wagon driver was an older man who’d been hired by the army to take veterans home; a tedious job, Jacob couldn’t help thinking. Those soldiers who could went by train, but there were still plenty of little towns that the railroads didn’t get near to. Lark’s Eye was only about three miles from a train station, but after so much confinement in prison, Jacob preferred the open ride. Besides, he was in no hurry to get there.
He was sitting with his back against the box sill, facing forward so he could see what was coming. He’d just begun to pick out familiar landmarks – Briggs Marsh, Long Pond, the gravelly road that led to Tinkertown – when he noticed some boys up ahead in the distance. They were kneeling at the edge of the field, examining something. Suddenly they lunged back and there was an ear-splitting series of cracks. The wagon horse startled at the noise, thrashed her head around, and reared up.
A switch flicked on in Jacob’s head. Horses were galloping all around him. Smoke filled the air. The enemy was closing in.
‘March and draw pistols!’ his commander was shouting.
The sharp, sputtering sound of the infantry volley was deafening. There was no time to reload.
The wagon horse came down at a slant and the wagon toppled over, spilling all of the men out onto the road. A thunderous snap sounded as one of the axles broke. Jacob crawled off to the edge of the field, trying to find cover. Bullets were flying but he had no gun. Where was his gun?
‘Some help, here! Aaron’s pinned!’ Nathan Hay was trying to pull the wagon driver out from under a cracked wheel with his one good hand. He looked over at Jacob. But Jacob could only stare back, unable to move.
‘Here, I’ve got him.’ Willie Hawkins, who had an army-issued wooden leg but two good hands, helped pull the driver free. Meanwhile the horse was galloping off, trailing the split wooden shaft behind her. The noise – firecrackers, not artillery – had crackled to a stop. Jacob was shaking all over.
‘That’s all right now, it’s done,’ Hiram Dickerson told him, helping him to his feet. ‘Only boys setting off firecrackers. That’s all.’
Jacob, coming to his senses – he was in Massachusetts, the battles were over – felt a deep shame rise up, and his face burned hot. ‘I’m sorry, I . . .’ He couldn’t find the words to excuse himself. These men had been through what he’d been through. Maybe worse. But they didn’t hesitate, or find themselves lost.
But Hiram only nodded. ‘Don’t worry, son.’ They watched the driver take a few steps on the dirt road to test his ankle. He nodded, It’s fine. ‘Looks like we got away with just some cuts and bruises all around,’ Hiram said. ‘But we’ll need to get the horse.’
‘I’ll do it,’ Jacob offered, ashamed of his frozen inaction, and hoping that at the same time he could walk off his shakes.
The horse was standing near a scrawny pine tree, tired out probably from lugging the shaft behind her. The boys who lit the firecrackers had all scampered off once they saw what they had started. As Jacob neared the horse her tail twitched nervously. He put a hand on her neck. It was sweaty and hot.
‘That’s all right, girl,’ he said. Gradually, his heartbeat slowed. He took the horse by the bridle and got hold of the reins. Her eyes still had a wild, scared look to them, and he wished he had a piece of apple or a carrot to give her. ‘It’ll be all right.’
Jacob volunteered to walk the rest of the way to Lark’s Eye to see if the local blacksmith would come help with the wagon. ‘It’s my stop anyway,’ he said, trying to smile.
The road rose gently, and the sloping dunes to his right hid the water. Jacob could still remember the gritty feel of sand in his ears on windy days. As he approached the town a strange feeling came over him: nostalgia, but also a kind of displacement. The sight of the slanted town sign with its black outline of a lark was familiar but also unreal. Welcome to Lark’s Eye. A sense of enclosure, of being trapped as a child, came back to him. But you’re a free man now, he reminded himself. And there’s no bullying father taking his belt to you.
In town everything looked the same but dustier. The old sail loft and the cotton mill were both shuttered – he wondered where the men worked now – but he could hear voices inside Tillings’ Stables, so that was still open. The old sea captain’s mansion, which used to be visible from where he stood, had apparently been torn down, and the town green was deserted. A New England whaling village past its prime; that was Lark’s Eye. No industry to speak of anymore, no whaling, no boat-building, and its scrubby land had always been almost hopeless for farming.
After he spoke to the blacksmith, Jacob sat down on a bench in the town green to rest and collect his thoughts. It was still a pretty village, with square brick buildings fronting the green and a bandstand where a vendor sometimes sold ice cream in paper cups on summer evenings. Why had the town been named Lark’s Eye? He couldn’t remember. A lark, his mother once told him, could be either lucky or unlucky. If a lark casts its eye upon someone who is ill then that person will recover. But if the lark turns its head away, they will not. This is why some people carry larks into sick rooms, she told him. To give the ill hope. Because when does a bird ever look straight at a person?
When she died, his mother – like his father – had died with only the town doctor beside her, Dr. Tenney. Dr. Tenney had delivered a stillborn son to her, and afterwards couldn’t revive her. Jacob and his younger sister Gracie – his brother Benjy had died of diphtheria the winter before – had spent the hours of his mother’s labor crouching in the crawl space beneath the farmhouse. It stank of sheep excrement and soiled wool, but it felt safer than being up in the house where the close sound of their mother’s pained cries was unbearable. Of course it was worse – much worse – when the muffled cries stopped altogether. His father, as usual, had been outside drinking.
Their family scratched out a living farming and raising sheep. Every one of them worked hard every day – even Gracie, who started scrubbing the sheep dung from his father’s boots when she was four. Their poor excuse of a farmhouse had been built against a hill, with the lower end of it on stumpy stilts; fenced, the partial crawl space became the sheep cove in winter. On bitterly cold nights Jacob used to bring the lambs up to the house to warm them by the fire. If their mothers died, he fed them cows’ milk, holding their little muzzles into a bowl until they learned the mechanics of drinking. They pushed his hand with their wet, pink noses, and sometimes let him pet their craggy wool.
But by now of course the sheep were all gone. Only the land was worth something; what, he didn’t know. He would make an appointment with a banker tomorrow. In the meantime he wanted to find a room in town. Even if the farmhouse was still inhabitable, which he doubted, he didn’t want to stay there. Too many bad memories. Too many ghosts.
I seem to collect them, he thought.
‘You related to old Mr. Grant Culhane, over out near Tinkertown?’ the woman who ran the boarding house, Mrs. Linden, asked him. When Jacob told her he was Grant Culhane’s son, she pulled a pair of spectacles from her apron pocket to inspect him. ‘I see a scant likeness,’ she decided.
Supper was at six every night, breakfast at seven, and candles were included in the weekly rate. From the window of his room Jacob could see the spire of the First Parish Church, where his father, his mother, and his brother Benjy were all buried; his little sister Gracie was buried next to her husband in Illinois. She died when she was only seventeen, in childbirth like their mother.
His bedroom was small and smelled strongly of wood varnish. Besides the narrow bed, there was a washstand, an oak wardrobe with a pair of pineapples carved on the paneled doors, and a small desk with a rush-seated chair pushed up against it. The mirror over the washstand was so small Jacob could only see half his face at a time.
After washing his hands and face and rolling up his cuffs, he pulled a rolled-up plan from his haversack. He laid it out on the desk and used two stones he carried with him for this purpose as paperweights, one on either corner. The plan was his friend Caleb’s plan for a barrel that wouldn’t leak oil. For the past three months Jacob took some time almost every day to darken the lines with a pencil, or to rub out any smudges he’d inadvertently made while rolling and unrolling it. The yellowed paper was grimy and soft at the edges, with a tear as slight as a thread end at the top. Beneath Caleb’s sketches of a barrel and variously shaped staves there was a chemical formula half worked out, lots of Xs and equal signs. And in the corner, Caleb’s slanted initials inside a square: CL.
Caleb Lock. He had taken Jacob under his wing at prison camp; he had saved Jacob’s life. When Jacob arrived at Andersonville, Caleb invited him to share the tent that he and four other men – the Five Knights, they called themselves – had cobbled together out of pine branches and knotted rags. One of the men had died the previous day from pneumonia, and they were looking to replace him.
‘Why me?’ he’d asked Caleb later. They’d never met before; they were strangers. The answer was simple and practical: ‘You had a blanket. We needed a man with a blanket.’ They used it, along with two other blankets, to cover their stick and twig structure. There were no formal tents at Andersonville; you had to build your own shelter somehow, or sleep on the ground.
Jacob unrolled a second, clean sheet of paper that he’d been carrying with him since he left Kentucky, and laid it over Caleb’s plan. Then he anchored the two sheets with the stone paperweights and began tracing the original drawing.
All that remained of Caleb now was this formula, which Jacob couldn’t altogether understand, and which Caleb himself had said wasn’t quite right. I owe it to him to see it’s done properly, Jacob told himself. He would make a fresh copy that he could show to investors, and then build a business out of it. Locke and Culhane, he would call it, though there was no Locke anymore.
Gradually, bending over the paper, Jacob began to feel useful again. When the bell rang for supper, he looked over his work with pride. He rolled the two sheets up together and bound them with twine, and as he went down the stairs he tried to guess at what was for supper. Fried potatoes? Eggs in cream? His sense of smell was not what it once was.
It was fish. Lark’s Eye was a fishing village after all. Even after the whales and whaling ships disappeared, there was still, apparently, fish.
The meal was neither well-cooked nor plentiful, but Jacob had no complaints – compared to what he got at Andersonville it was a king’s feast. Mrs. Linden doled out careful portions to Jacob and to Holland Granger, the other boarder, who had recently been hired as principal for the new high school.
‘There was talk of converting the old Bradford mansion,’ Holland said, cutting into his fish with the side of his fork, ‘but instead we’re building a new building closer to town.’
‘The Bradfords have left?’ Jacob remembered the beautiful bay horses they kept, always a matching pair.
‘Both their sons died, so they’ve moved to Burlington to be near their daughter.’
‘You were living in Cincinnati before the war, if I’m not mistaken?’ Mrs. Linden asked Jacob. ‘Your father was so proud of your successes.’
Jacob doubted that. He probably just enjoyed having something to brag about, for once.
‘A self-made man, he told everyone. Liked to take the credit. Well, but I was sorry to hear about your sister, though.’ After his mother died, Jacob’s father sent Gracie to Illinois to live with their Aunt Nell; Gracie later married a soldier from the same town, and that was where she died. It had been over ten years since Gracie had lived in Lark’s Eye, but everyone knew everyone else’s business here, present or absent.
Mrs. Linden passed him the platter of fish. ‘Grace was about the same age as my Lizzie, if I remember correct. Lizzie got married last year but she’s a widow already. Gets a pension from the government.’ She eyed Jacob appraisingly. ‘You have a wife back in Cincinnati?’
Jacob helped himself to a second piece of haddock, browned to the color of the sandy ocean road and almost as dry.
‘No, no wife. Nothing like that.’
‘Have another buttermilk biscuit. I’m sorry the rise is so poor. My Lizzie is an excellent baker, not like me.’
‘Everything is delicious, Mrs. Linden,’ Holland said. When Mrs. Linden wasn’t looking, he caught Jacob’s eye and winked. Delicious wasn’t exactly the word to describe her cooking. It wasn’t burned, at least.
‘What were you up to in Cincinnati?’ Holland asked Jacob.
‘He was in shipbuilding,’ Mrs. Linden said. ‘Started his own business, even.’ She seemed to know a lot.
‘A small business, but yes, it was my own.’
Jacob was secretly proud of his successes. He had picked up the mechanics of steam power as though pulling the knowledge out of his pocket, a coin that had been there all along. At fourteen he started as a riveter’s assistant, and he worked his way up until he knew enough at twenty to start his own shop.
But that life seemed like somebody else’s now. When he enlisted, he left it behind. ‘We have to go forward,’ Caleb used to say in prison camp, ‘since there’s no going back.’
After dinner, the two men went to the porch to smoke. Holland walked with a slight limp, and Jacob noticed one of his shoes had a thicker heel than the other. Probably this was the reason he sat out the war.
‘Why don’t you come out to Swaby’s and have a drink with me,’ Holland proposed. ‘We can get some decent dessert while we’re at it. If you stay here you’ll find a half a dozen girls on this very porch within the hour wanting to meet you.’
They heard the side door close and saw Mrs. Linden tying her bonnet as she hurried away.
‘See there,’ Holland said with a laugh, ‘I knew it. A nickel says she’s going to fetch that freshly widowed daughter of hers.’
Jacob tapped out his cigar and slipped the stub back into its paper. People were friendlier here than he remembered.
‘Then we better be quick,’ he said.
At the tavern a man barely taller than a child but sporting a beard was behind the bar lining up thick stein glasses, all of them cloudy with age.
‘Evening, Mr. Swaby,’ Holland said. ‘This is Jacob Culhane, visiting from Cincinnati. You remember his father?’
Mr. Swaby looked him over sternly. ‘I do. And I believe he still owed some on his tab when he died.’
Jacob said, ‘Oh, I . . .’ and was feeling in his pockets when Mr. Swaby cocked his head and pursed his lips into a thin-lipped smile.
‘I’m having you on. Mr. Gideon settled six of your father’s spoons on me. D’ya want them back?’
Jacob laughed. ‘Not even if you paid me.’
After they settled themselves in with a bottle at a corner table, Holland lifted his glass. ‘To fathers.’
Jacob didn’t much want to drink to his father, the drunken bastard, but he nodded and put the glass to his lips. Mrs. Swaby came to their table with two plates of pie – strawberry rhubarb tonight – and he cut into the crust neatly and delicately. No tremors tonight, he noticed. That was good.
‘Somehow I find I’m hungrier after one of Mrs. Linden’s suppers than I was before it,’ Holland joked.
Although they were only a year apart in age, they hadn’t met before – Holland had moved to Lark’s Eye after Jacob left it. He was born in Nantucket and came to town as a schoolteacher, but after a couple of years he was hired by Dr. Tenney to act as a private tutor for his children.
‘And now,’ he said, ‘I’m in love with the doctor’s daughter.’
‘Dr. Tenney has a daughter?’
‘Hair like sunlight. Sparkling blue eyes. Smart, but not overly so.’
‘This would be Fred Tenney’s sister?’
‘The very one. Well, the angelic sister, not the shrew.’
‘What about his brother?’
‘There’s no brother, only Fred. Poor man, he died right before the peace was signed. The family is beside themselves with grief.’
Jacob was sorry to hear it. He remembered Fred as being lively and fun. ‘I didn’t know the family, only the doctor if someone was sick, and Fred. Fred was friends with my younger brother Benjy. Every now and again we’d all go shoot water rats together.’ Once, after Benjy died, Fred came by the farm with another young boy to see if Jacob wanted to go rat shooting – vermin hunting, Fred called it. This must have been right before I left Lark’s Eye, Jacob thought. He could remember his mother folding corn cakes into a handkerchief for him to take along with him, her belly hugely pregnant.
‘So what are your plans? Going back to Cincinnati? Or will you work your father’s farm?’
Jacob poured himself another finger of whiskey. ‘What, take on the life of a farmer? No thank you. I’ll sell it if anyone will buy it. I mean to try out Boston next. River travel is pretty well finished, what with the war and the railways. There’s nothing for me in Cincinnati.’
‘I’d like to find some investors for a patent I’ve been working on, and I have a feeling it will be easier there. Also my cousin lives in New Bedford. Well, my cousin’s widow.’
‘Oh, a widow, is it? Mrs. Linden will be sorry to hear about her.’
‘No, no, nothing like that. Just the last of my family.’
‘What’s the patent for?’
‘Boring, really,’ Jacob said. ‘A kind of glue.’ He was drunk enough that didn’t trust himself to talk about the patent, or Caleb, or Andersonville. He didn’t know what he might say.
Holland didn’t press him. ‘Well, good luck with it.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t suppose you’d like a wife to go along with you to Boston? Dr. Tenney’s got another daughter, and he’s looking to pay someone to take her off his hands. He wants a double wedding – easier on his wallet, I suppose.’
Jacob pulled his head back. ‘Not you, too!’
‘You’ll be getting it from everyone, my friend,’ Holland told him cheerfully. ‘Now that the war’s over, we’re all matchmakers, don’t you know.’
’In its full sense the reproductive power means the power to bear a well-developed infant . . . Most of the flat-chested girls who survive their high-powered education are unable to do this.’
(Principles of Biology, Herbert Spencer, 1863)
The First Parish Church was a building Vita wished she never had to look at again, although she did have to look at it – she had to look at it every Sunday, and go inside, and sit on a pew.
It was full of painful memories. The church’s front lawn was where Freddy first reported for duty along with sixteen other Lark’s Eye men. On the day they were called, the church hosted a picnic for the new recruits and set out long tables loaded with turkeys, roast beef, ham, biscuits, pickles, jellies, pies – just about anything you could think of. The men ate plates of food and drank cider and visited with their family and neighbors while a brass band played inspiring, patriotic songs. At four o’clock, when the men marched off in formation toward the train station (a good three miles away), a line of little boys followed them to the end of the town waving small paper flags.
Behind the church was the old curate’s cottage where, once the war was well underway, Vita and Amelia used to sit with the other girls from Lark’s Eye and tear bed sheets or old garments into strips, stitch the long strips together, and roll them up to make bandages. They also knit socks and made lint packs, and they loaded everything into wooden crates to send by train to the Soldiers’ Relief Commission in Boston.
Vita was all thumbs when it came to stitching or knitting, and she wasn’t even all that good at tearing up sheets. But she would do it, and a hundred times more, for Freddy. Mostly she packed the crates, with a book or newspaper propped open against one of them.
But even worse than the long front lawn or the curate’s house was the graveyard next to the church. This was where Freddy was buried.
Inside, the church smelled of varnished wood, musty cotton, and lavender wax. This Sunday, as usual, Vita squirmed while Reverend Chenowith droned on and on from the pulpit, his voice warbly with age but strangely resonant. The weather had finally committed to summer, and hot sunlight streamed in from the long windows. At least, Vita thought, we’re sitting on the shady side.
But when the reverend began to talk about the beauty of sacrifice and duty to your country – staring down at the widows and the families who’d lost sons and grandsons and nephews – she couldn’t take it any longer.
‘I’ve a headache,’ she whispered to Mitty, touching the bridge of her nose. Her mother nodded.
‘Faker,’ Amelia whispered, as Vita left the pew.
It was just as hot outside but at least there was a breeze, and the short spurts of birdsong were a welcome relief after the reverend’s self-important tone. Vita went into the graveyard because it was cooler, and also to look at Freddy’s headstone. So far each time she visited his grave, it was with the feeling – not quite a thought – that this concrete, tangible object, this carved piece of stone, would settle her grief, or at least hold it, so she could let go of the worst of it.
But as usual, standing before it, the headstone seemed as unreal to her as everything else.
Frederick Arthur Tenney. 1846–1865. Beloved son, brother, patriot.
She stared at the words. One day they would have to clean moss and dirt from the chiseled letters and scrub off white worms of bird droppings, but as yet the stone was too new. It was hard to think of his headstone aging, while Freddy did not. Even harder was grasping the fact that Freddy’s death was ongoing – forever.
Jokester, prankster, outdoorsman. He tamed injured birds and adopted motherless squirrels. Always and every day missed.
That’s what she would have carved. She took off her glove and touched the top of the stone. It was smoother and colder than it looked. She could see little sparkles running through it.
From the corner of her eye she sensed movement; a man was walking toward her. She didn’t recognize him, which was strange in a small town with no obvious employment to attract newcomers. The man touched his hat.
He was passing behind her when he stopped; he must have read the headstone.
‘Fred Tenney. I was sorry to hear that he passed. Was he your brother?’
‘You knew him?’
‘Only a little. Holland Granger told me. We’re staying at the same boarding house, Mrs. Linden’s. I’m Jacob Culhane.’ He took off his hat.
‘Oh!’ Vita looked at him closer. ‘I know you! We went shooting once together.’
‘With Freddy. I was wearing a pair of his trousers. You showed me how to hold the gun.’
It was Jacob’s turn to scrutinize her. ‘I remember that, but I thought you were a boy. Freddy’s brother.’
Had she not been standing in a graveyard she might have felt delighted that their trick had worked – as it was, her spirits lifted slightly. She turned to walk out toward the church with him. ‘I wore my hair pinned up in a cap but Freddy said I looked like a girl just the same.’
‘So you two played a joke on me.’
She smiled. ‘That night we couldn’t decide if you knew and were playing along, or if we had truly fooled you.’
The congregation was descending the church steps in splashes of black and deep violet, the color of mourning. Amelia stopped to speak with a few young women from town, but her parents separated themselves from the others when they saw Vita.
‘Dar, this is Mr. Jacob Culhane,’ Vita said. ‘He used to live in Lark’s Eye, he’s Mr. Culhane’s son. You remember?’
‘Jacob Culhane! I haven’t seen you since you were a boy. How many years has it been?’
They moved to the shade of an elm tree, where her father turned his back to the graveyard. As they shook hands, Jacob thanked Dr. Tenney for writing him about his father. He’d just been visiting his grave.
‘Not at all, not at all. Yes, sad news for you. And you a soldier at the time. I almost didn’t want to add to your burden. But a father’s a father. He often spoke of you. Cincinnati, wasn’t it? And your own shipbuilding business? A self-made man. We need more of your kind around here.’
‘I was on the steam engine side. But I’ve given that up now. I thought I’d make a fresh start in Boston.’
Jacob’s hand, Vita noticed, was trembling a little, and he slipped it into his pocket. He had thick dark hair and was clean-shaven, though she could see a few hairs under his ear that he’d missed. He wore low-slung trousers and dusty boots, and he was standing close enough for her to see a small brown mole near his eyelid. For some reason she had the impulse to touch it.
‘Boston, is it?’ Her father glanced at Vita. ‘Well you must come and see me before you go off. How’s tomorrow for you? I’d be interested to hear about your plans.’
The next day was another hot one. Vita had been working all morning on her Latin, and she brought her pages down with her to the kitchen when it was time for tea. Sweetie was perched on her shoulder, and Amelia sat next to her sewing starched black ribbons onto her hatband.
‘I always say a girl can go so far and no farther,’ Mrs. Oakum said as she lifted the heavy kettle from the range and poured hot water into their large, brown, everyday teapot.
Ever since they were little and one of Dar’s male patients had made a sudden half-dressed dash through the dining room to the outside privy, Vita and Amelia and Freddy had had their tea down in the kitchen. While she waited Vita continued to conjugate Latin verbs in ink – ink, because that’s how sure of herself she was. But what she was really thinking about was Dar’s office, and how she could get in there again to look through his books. He mentioned Quincy, and someone named Cheselsomething who wrote about bones. Bones were particularly interesting to her, how they knit together again after a fracture, creating their own new material – but how? She was resolved to pursue her plans to study medicine. Somehow she would get around her father’s objections.
‘Only so far and no farther,’ repeated Mrs. Oakum – Mrs. O. to the family – setting the kettle back on the range. She had a name for her range, which was Susan. ‘Susan’s acting up today,’ Mrs. O. liked to announce when she could not regulate the heat to her liking. She had thin chestnut hair scraped into a bun, a pinched mouth, and eyes set so far apart she had the look of a wolf. This was one of her favorite subjects: what a young woman might expect from life (not very much).
Vita dipped her pen in the inkpot, ignoring the bait. But Amelia, the good child, looked up from her work. ‘And how far is that?’
‘Marriage, of course. A good, firm marriage.’
She made it sound like a spanking. Vita caught Gemma’s eye as Gemma carried the teacups to the table, and they both made faces.
‘What if you don’t want to get married?’ Vita asked.
‘No one wants to get married,’ Mrs. Oakum told her. ‘But I’m sure I’ll find you looking for it anyway soon enough.’
There had once existed a Mr. Oakum but he was long gone – ’dead of a faint heart,’ Mrs. O. liked to say, though Vita had no idea what that meant. She slept in a small bedroom off the kitchen that smelled of camphor and violet water, and acted more like an impoverished aunt helping the family than the family housekeeper. In fact, there was a slim thread of kinship between Mitty and Mrs. O., a shared great uncle or a second cousin, Vita could never remember what. She was constant and eternal, and had a habit of contradicting everything that was said to her. Vita and Freddy used to make a game of it:
‘Mrs. O.,’ Freddy might start, ‘what’s for supper?’
‘Stewed tomatoes and rabbit, not that you’ll be able to eat the tough old thing Perry sold me for meat.’
‘Sounds dreadful,’ Vita said.
‘Not as dreadful as last night’s rooster disguised as chicken.’
‘Oh yes,’ Freddy agreed, ‘that was terrible. But I’m sure tonight’s rabbit will be much better.’
‘Much better! I don’t know about much better,’ said Mrs. Oakum. ‘We’ll see if I still have my place in the morning.’
‘Oh, Mrs. O., surely Dar won’t give you the sack on account of a little bad meat!’ Vita said.
‘He wouldn’t dare. You all could never do without me.’
‘You’re right about that,’ Freddy said.
‘Am I now,’ Mrs. Oakum said, but there she stopped, not quite prepared to go so far as to contradict that statement. Then Freddy would laugh: he’d won. He always won. He was the only one Mrs. Oakum ever favored with a smile, and she often slipped him a wedge of gingerbread or a piece of cake on the sly. The day they received the black-edged letter, Vita found Mrs. O. leaning against the frame of the kitchen doorway, sobbing into her large, red hands.
‘No one will want to marry me anyway,’ Vita said, putting her pen aside, and she waited for Mrs. Oakum’s reflexive contradiction. But to her surprise Mrs. Oakum said, ‘True enough.’
Mrs. O. in agreement? Vita and Gemma stared at each other. Mrs. Oakum lifted the sugar bowl lid to check its contents and said, ‘But for all that, they’ll ask you anyway, and you’ll do your duty by them.’
The world was right-side up again.
‘Them?’ Vita tried for a joke. ‘How many husbands do you imagine I’ll have?’
‘As many as what’s needed to tame you.’
‘That will be quite a large number, then,’ Amelia said.
Vita scowled. She didn’t see why Amelia cared if she, Vita, got married or not. She’s so conventional, Vita thought derisively (and not for the first time); she only wants what every girl is supposed to want: a husband, a tidy house with fitted carpets, and a pair of pearl earrings. The pearl earrings in particular vexed Vita; this was what her sister was asking Dar for, as a wedding present. ‘To match my engagement ring.’ When Vita pointed out that unless she walked about with her hand cupping her ear no one would ever notice they matched, Amelia looked peeved.
‘I’ll notice,’ she said.
‘You might try to notice something actually important instead. Just for a change.’
‘Oh, you mean like irregular endings in a dead language?’
Amelia, for her part, wished Vita wouldn’t draw attention to herself all the time. ‘Don’t read when you’re in town. It looks so odd. And speak quietly, why can’t you? No one here is deaf.’ As if she were the older sister, not Vita.
‘Get that bird off of you, now,’ Mrs. O. told Vita, ‘before you take one of my muffins.’
Vita walked Sweetie over to the birdcage near the kitchen door; Sweetie fluttered from her shoulder to her finger and then hopped onto the little swing inside the cage. Freddy had whittled the swing himself out of a birch stick. He’d also removed the wire door to the cage; he said he wanted all of his animals, even his pet squirrels, to be able to come and go freely.
‘Say good-bye,’ Vita prompted, and Sweetie raised one twig-like claw in salute, a trick Freddy taught her. (She could also bow and make a noise like a door hinge.) After Freddy left for war, Sweetie, in her anxiety, pulled out most of the feathers in her left wing; Vita made soft rolls of paper for her to chew on instead, and gradually Sweetie accepted Vita and Mitty in lieu of Freddy. A relief, but it also caused Vita a pang.
‘Vita is only interested in dry, dull, book facts,’ Amelia said, banking her needle. ‘She has no interest in people. No wonder she doesn’t want to marry.’
‘That’s not why,’ Vita said, stung.
‘Anyway, Dar’s decided.’
Mrs. Oakum set a jug of milk on the table. Her hands were chapped and slightly clawed from all the scrubbing she’d done in her life. ‘Decided what?’
‘She’s to marry the first man he can find for her,’ Amelia said.
‘What? How do you know that?’ Vita asked.
‘I heard him tell Mitty.’
She looked so neat and satisfied, her hands folded on the table, her blonde hair tucked neatly into its knitted black snood, that Vita felt a prick of pure hatred. Gemma made a small grimace, in solidarity, at Vita.
‘That doesn’t mean anything. He can’t force me down the aisle.’
‘So what will you do instead? Stay here and grow old alone?’
‘I’ll go to college.’
‘College!’ Amelia sniffed, her nostrils flaring like Dar’s. ‘Not that old idea.’
‘Why not? I just need to find the money for tuition.’
‘Well, there you are,’ Amelia said as if proving her point, and she raised her left hand to admire her pearl engagement ring. Vita looked down at her own fingers, which were stained with purple ink. She wished that she hadn’t said anything about college. When I’m a doctor, she used to tell herself as a young girl, I’ll prescribe Amelia the most horrid-tasting medicines. Too bad bleeding by leeches was no longer in style.
‘Vita. Amelia,’ Mitty said, coming into the room. Sweetie flew out of her cage and landed on Mitty’s shoulder, greeting her with a peck on her ear. ‘Do you remember that Mr. Culhane was coming today? Well, he’s here now, and Dar wants you to take your tea upstairs with him.’
‘Drink tea with this man? This unmarried man?’ Amelia raised her eyebrows at Vita: You see?
‘Oh hush,’ Vita told her.
Jacob didn’t much care for social visits. He was a farmer’s son; social visits unnerved him. He wasn’t sure why he’d come today except that he’d been invited, and he was bored. Also, he had to admit, he was a little curious to see Fred Tenney’s sister again.
This morning he met with Mr. Gideon at the Savings and Loan, and now he was just waiting to hear what the bank would offer for his father’s land. He wondered if he should go back with his barrel glue plans; perhaps the bank would set him up with a loan as well. That and the sale of the farm would make a good start for his new business, if he could find a cheap workshop to rent. ‘Locke and Culhane.’ He liked to picture the wooden shingle over the door.
‘We’ll join the others in a moment,’ Dr. Tenney said as they sat in his office. ‘How are you, son?’ He looked Jacob up and down, as though he were a horse. ‘It must feel good to be back home. Or do you consider Cincinnati your home?’
The room was musty-smelling, with horrifying instruments on little tables around the room and framed insects on the wall. The floor was piled with old newspapers, and although Dr. Tenney knew Jacob was coming – he’d invited him here – he still had to clear a chair for him when his wife showed Jacob in.
Jacob smoothed his trouser leg with the palm of his hand. ‘I haven’t been back to Cincinnati since the war started.’ He frowned. ‘Yes, it’s good to see Lark’s Eye again.’
‘Remind me what unit were you in?’
‘The 130th Ohio.’
‘A terrible thing, that war,’ Dr. Tenney said. ‘But inevitable.’
That’s what everyone said now, and that’s what everyone said before the war, too. It’s inevitable. Maybe it was. The furious arguments over slavery, states’ rights, and the value of compromise (was it weakness? was it wisdom?) had polarized the country. Statesmen – and commoners – in the South bitterly opposed those in the North, and vice versa; their mutual hostility was fanned by public orators and partisan newspapers. Everyone on either side claimed to be a true patriot. The ones on the other side were foolish at best, evil at worst.
When he joined up, Jacob thought he was a true patriot, too. He was fitted out with boots and a uniform and told he would receive three dollars a week. At the training camp he drilled with the other recruits and had a crash course in military formations, but (true to the North’s inept beginnings) he was not given even one day’s training in loading and firing a rifle – in his case an old Prussian musket, which Jacob had never before seen let alone shot.
He almost wished he had brought his squirrel gun from home. On their first skirmish, half the boys in his unit gave up trying to load their muskets and instead just found cover. The other half could load them but not shoot with any accuracy. Most of them were farmers, a few tradesmen, and one was the son of a county judge. Jacob got four shots off his musket before the mechanism jammed, and then he spent the next hour kneeling behind a thick oak tree trying to fix it, hoping he wouldn’t get shot dead on his first day out.
He told himself he was doing his duty. Denouncing slavery and preserving the Union, however poorly the two sides fit. The South was the rural aristocracy; it was slaves working fields of tobacco, and house parties, and European manners. The North was factory smoke and railroads and crowded cities – modern life.
Jacob didn’t say this to Dr. Tenney, but after his friend Matthew Ames was killed – not to mention all the others, many of them savagely – he stopped believing in the rhetoric of war. What honor was there in killing a man, in slashing or ripping or breaking his body? War was simply a neat rationalization for those who wanted something and could not get it by their intellect. Worse, they had other men do it for them: misguided men, foolish men, brave men, cowardly men, men who had a real desire to fight and hurt and kill, and men who told themselves that by fighting and killing they would somehow advance a greater good.
‘Even now,’ Dr. Tenney was saying, ‘I understand there are some rebel soldiers who won’t admit defeat. Skirmishes in Texas, and so on. Well, someday they’ll see the value of our side. They’ll be forced to.’
Forced to? Jacob looked at the framed beetles on the wall behind Dr. Tenney. Force just piled up bodies until there were not enough men left to fight. Slavery was against the law all across the country, and thank God for that. But as for the rest – the bitterness and distrust, even hatred, of the other side – well, the war hadn’t settled that. Not at all. Men kept on searching out ways to be enemies. He’d seen that clearly at Andersonville among the prisoners, where they were all, supposedly, on the same side.
‘Are they – are your daughters and your wife – are they waiting for us, do you suppose?’ Jacob asked, trying to change the subject.
‘Yes yes,’ Dr. Tenney said. ‘We shouldn’t keep them waiting. First, though, I wanted to tell you a little about my daughter Vita. We’re looking to settle her future. My wife and I. In case you’re, ah, you know, thinking about your future, too.’
So Holland was right about that. Jacob felt himself flush. ‘Oh. Well, that is – I’m not sure I want to make any changes at the moment.’
‘Yes, of course. I understand. You’re a young man just back from battle. Take your time and look about you, of course, of course. But, I thought I would – delicately you know – just mention our plans. In case they should fall in line with your own. Vita is not bad-looking, if I may say. She’s, ah, quite healthy. And a good age for marriage. There will be a substantial dowry going with her as well.’ He named it.
Jacob didn’t know what to say. He thought of Vita standing by the grave of her brother, small but somehow sturdy, planted firmly on the pebbled path as the wind blew back the hem of her dress.
‘No need to answer right away. Just something to consider as you begin your next venture in Boston. The money, and, ah, and so forth. Someone to run your house.’
‘I see. Well, yes.’ Jacob felt himself squirming, literally squirming, on the thin chair cushion. ‘But of course, I hardly know your daughter.’
‘Oh, these modern notions,’ Dr. Tenney said with a strained laugh. ‘You don’t need to know much about a woman. Better not to, in fact.’
Mrs. Tenney and her daughters were sitting on a long, gray sofa when Jacob followed the doctor into the back parlor. Vita was reading a book the size of an apron pocket, while Mrs. Tenney and the other daughter – Holland’s fiancée, he guessed – held embroidery hoops, although only Mrs. Tenney was actually stitching. He was surprised to see a little cream and yellow bird perched on her shoulder.
‘My son’s pet,’ she explained when she saw Jacob looking at the bird. ‘Her name is Sweetie.’
The shiny black fabric of Mrs. Tenney’s mourning dress reminded him of the framed beetles in the doctor’s office, and the bird on her shoulder added to this theme of nature caught and tamed. He smiled uncertainly.
‘Let’s show Mr. Culhane how Sweetie can balance like a seal,’ Amelia suggested. ‘Where’s her ball?’
She was blonde and tall; Vita was smaller, with slanted blue eyes and dark eyebrows. She gave him a twisted smile, her lips compressed. ‘The doctor is taking Fred’s death hard,’ Holland had told him at Swaby’s tavern. ‘I think he simply wants to be alone, no reminders. And Vita looks an awful lot like her brother.’ Jacob had noticed that himself.
Dr. Tenney shooed the bird to the far end of the room. ‘Now none of that nonsense.’ He turned back to Jacob. ‘Amelia is very good at the needle. She’s embroidered every pillow in the room. And you’ve met Vita. My oldest daughter. She’s good at . . .’ He paused.
‘Sugar in your tea?’ Mrs. Tenney asked.
Vita, with an expression Jacob couldn’t quite decipher (disappointment? hope?), said, ‘I’m good at Latin and Greek, Dar. And science, too.’
Both disappointment and hope, Jacob decided – she wants her father’s approval. A craving he remembered too well. Mrs. Tenney handed him a cup with a small almond cookie balanced on the saucer.
‘Latin? Well, that is impressive. I only got up to the fourth grade, myself,’ Jacob said. He took a sip of the weak tea – the import trade was still affected by the war – and set it down beside him. He looked at his hands, which so far were still, but nevertheless he flattened his palms on his thighs to hide any tremors that might start. Reminders of the war could trigger a reaction, the army doctor in Covington had told him, as well as uneasy situations.
No doubt this qualified as an uneasy situation.
He struggled to find something to say. ‘Holland Granger, he was your tutor, I think?’
‘That’s right, but now that he’s engaged, he’s quit us.’ Vita cocked her head like a boy toward her sister.
‘So I hear.’ He turned to Amelia. ‘Congratulations.’
Amelia thanked him. Another pause. Ten more minutes, then he would make his excuses.
‘So I suppose that means no more lessons for either of you.’
‘No. Well, not from him,’ Vita said. She glanced at her father. ‘But I intend to go to college,’ she went on, her voice getting louder.
Dr. Tenney put down his teacup. ‘Now, now. There are no plans for that. If other proposals emerge . . .’ He made a swooping motion with his hand toward Jacob, underscoring his hint.
Jacob nodded, but he was still watching Vita. ‘What would you like to study in college?’
She hesitated. ‘Science. I – I haven’t quite decided which branch. I also like mathematics.’
‘Mathematics?’ That surprised him. ‘Isn’t that hard on a gentle brain?’
‘A gentle brain?’ She laughed at him, actually laughed, and he felt his face flush with heat. This was why he hated social calls. He was always making gaffes like this. Was gentle not a compliment, then?
‘You think I have a gentle brain?’
‘What I meant was – ’
Her face had gone purple, and her voice rose louder. ‘Tell me if you can, Mr. Culhane, what is the square root of two?’
‘The square root?’
‘I’ll give you a hint: it’s an irrational number.’
‘Vita!’ her father said sharply.
She rose from her chair so abruptly she knocked over the side table, and her cup managed to fall on the other side of the rug where it shattered into pieces. She glared at Jacob Culhane who was scrambling to stand up too, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.
Amelia knelt down to start picking up the wet shards of china while Mitty rang the bell for Mrs. Oakum.
‘Vita, sit down! Amelia, stand up,’ Dar said.
Amelia complied; Vita did not. A rhythmic pounding was sounding in her ears, like a teacher rapping on a fist of knuckles. To make matters worse, she felt tears spring to her eyes. Why was everyone always against her?
‘Vita!’ Dar said again.
Jacob Culhane is an oaf, she decided. Yesterday he was all right, but today he’s showing his true colors – prejudiced against women, like everyone else. As she rushed out of the room she caught a glimpse of her sister’s compliant face, looking up at Dar for approval. The daughter who does everything right! Whereas I’m too loud, too opinionated, too interested in books. She felt as though she were being pushed on all sides by a mysterious force, a kind of sideways gravity, which squeezed her body and tried to keep her just exactly where she was: a worn-out whaling village thirty miles from Boston.
‘Oh, now,’ Mrs. Oakum said, meeting Vita in the hallway and seeing her expression. ‘What can be as bad as all that?’
‘Dar wants to marry me off and get rid of me. He doesn’t ask me what I want.’ She could hear the hysteria in her voice.
But Mrs. Oakum – who had fed Vita cups of beef broth by hand and slept in a chair by her bed for three days when Vita was ill with the measles – was clearly unmoved.
‘No one asked me if I wanted to be a housekeeper,’ she said, handing Vita a clean handkerchief, ‘and yet here I stand.’
’Mothers: your worries will evaporate, and you can again apply yourself, after only one dose, energetically to your work.’
(Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup)
Twenty-five years after she was tempted to – but did not – run away with the son of a New Haven bookseller, Marie Tenney found herself wondering if her life would have been better had she decided to go with him.
True, she would have been poor and cut off from her family, and she’d seen enough poverty in Lark’s Eye not to glamorize it. Also true: she would have never held her own three babies in her arms. She wouldn’t have nursed them, or clutched their chubby hands as they toddled between her legs, or listened to their lispy prattle. But she also would never have had this unbearable, constricting pain behind her breastbone when one of them was killed.
She knew that Freddy wasn’t killed in the truest sense of the word. He received a bullet in his arm but survived the battle, only to die ten days later when the army doctor neglected to amputate his infected arm and the infection went to his heart.
But it felt like he was killed. It felt like he was snatched away. Heart infection, Marie thought; a condition that plagues us all.
She was sitting on her chaise lounge by her bedroom window, stirring six drops of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup into her tea. The rust-colored laudanum made her gums feel cottony and dry, but at least it settled her pain for a while. Twice a week she allowed herself this respite. She was afraid if she allowed herself more she would succumb – and she did half wish this – to taking it daily.
She poured a hefty dose of milk into her teacup to dilute the syrup’s bitter taste, and then stirred the clouds away. The slim silver spoon felt like a bone. William Smith – that was the name of the bookseller’s son. What had become of him, she wondered? Probably he was still in New Haven running his father’s shop, but her curiosity was lukewarm at best.
Had she loved him? Even at the time she wasn’t sure, which was why she didn’t take him up on his surprising and romantic idea of elopement. Of course, she thought, sipping her tea, I was also a coward.
The little gold clock on her bookshelf ticked the minutes away while she waited for the laudanum’s effect to take hold, for her grief to distance itself a little, like a shadow growing lighter as the cloud cover changed. Her eyes rested on Riddle, Freddy’s black lab, who was asleep on the rug. William Smith. She wished him well, wherever he was. When she met Arthur a few months later, she felt such relief. Here was a suitor – another suitor – with intelligence and spirit; one who admired her, who listened to her ideas about sanitation (everyone was talking about sanitation) and Henry Moule’s curious earth toilets (she was keen to see one), and who was moreover, she had to admit, the right class of man. A student of medicine, who would one day become a doctor.
She was a snob. Was that her undoing? To be fair she also had the idea that she could help Arthur in his work. She could apply some of her intelligence; she could assist him with his research. Years later she read about another Marie, Marie Pasteur, who helped her husband test his famous vaccines. But as it turned out, once they were married Arthur didn’t want Marie’s help. He didn’t even want, it seemed, her interest. ‘This is for us men to sort out,’ he began to say. ‘You have enough to do with the children.’
Her job was to keep them safe. To prepare them for adult life. She sipped the bitter tea, willing it to work its magic. She hadn’t failed, exactly, but it felt like she had.
The first year they were married, when she was pregnant with Freddy, Marie used to sneak into Arthur’s office to read his magazines and journals when he was out of the house. The Lancet, The American Medical Monthly, The Boston Medical Newsletter. Once, he’d left his patient notebook on his desk, and she sat down to read it cover to cover. The notebook was a great surprise – not his childish handwriting (she’d had letters from him when they were engaged), but rather the conclusions he came to. For his male patients he wrote little enough, and for the women he often just wrote: hysterical complaint.
But her heart always lifted when she saw Arthur with his poorer patients – the mill workers, before the mill closed, or one of the farmers. He displayed real sympathy and spoke to them easily, without condescension. Quick to share a joke as he measured out medicine. This was where he shone.
Marie shifted on her cushion. She didn’t want to think about Arthur. Her head was beginning to feel lighter; it was no longer the heavy iron ball it had been an hour ago. It was time. She set her empty teacup on the tray and pulled out Freddy’s carte d’album, which she’d hidden in the narrow cranny between her chaise lounge and the wall.
There on the first page was her Freddy, standing in uniform and smiling his wide, crooked smile. His ears flapped out slightly beneath his cap. Apparently a man – a civilian – equipped with a camera and tripod had approached the soldiers after they made camp; Freddy had explained it all in the accompanying letter, how the man offered to take staged photographs for a dime apiece for anyone who wanted them.
A day in the life of a soldier.
There was a photograph of men eating breakfast under a roped-up tent (Freddy on the right); men sitting around an open campfire in daylight (Freddy on the left, holding a tin coffee pot); and men digging a ditch (a partial view of Freddy’s back). The last photograph was a formal portrait of the unit with Freddy in the back row holding up the company’s pet dog so that her head was visible to the camera.
What was the name of that dog? She couldn’t remember. In the photographs the men all looked hale and eager. Early days. If she saw them today they would probably have the same hollowed-out expressions she noticed in the soldiers now returning home. Even Freddy, she supposed.
Tucked into the back of the album were his letters. Marie slid one out and began to read from it randomly; this was the best way, she’d found, to make his voice come alive.
. . . I helped Dr. Boutwell as he went down the line of injured men. Since my father was a doctor, he said, I probably knew more and could help more than anyone else. One poor boy was in agony, his intestine was punctured. I couldn’t even help him get comfortable as he died, and I’m most sorry for that. Mitty, I’m not sure if I’m meant to be a doctor, but Dr. Boutwell says it’s always hard at first.
Freddy often mentioned Dr. Boutwell. Dr. Boutwell had been his closest friend in the unit. Besides helping him in the medicine tent, Freddy went bird-watching with him and they regularly hunted for mushrooms after an evening rain. When the doctor was mustered out, Freddy missed him sorely. It was another doctor, the replacement surgeon – an assistant, the commander wrote – who neglected, fatally, to take off Freddy’s arm. Marie didn’t know that man’s name, and she didn’t want to.
She turned to another letter.
. . . We have a company dog, a stray who followed our unit when we broke camp last week. I could tell right away she was suffering from worms, she was so skinny but with a pot belly, and constantly scooting herself along the dirt. I treated her with apple cider vinegar and chopped carrots, like Dar did with Riddle. Now she’s beginning to gain weight. I’ve named her Pinecone, for her color, and we call her Pie.
Pie; that’s right. Marie looked down at Riddle, whose paws quivered as he slept. Chasing a squirrel, perhaps, in a dream. How pleasant it would be to believe that Freddy was only away from home for a while, that he would return with Pie, who would make Riddle jealous, and tend to his animals again. Marie closed her eyes. Could she take enough of Mrs. Winslow’s syrup to believe that?
She opened her eyes to see Vita standing in the doorway, her dark hair wild and loose. ‘Didn’t you hear me knock?’
‘I didn’t. I’m sorry.’ Marie slid the album back into its hiding place. Vita came in and sat down on the bed across from her.
‘Dar can’t really think he can marry me off?’ she said plaintively, without preamble.
Marie’s face felt soft and still – not stiff, but without the means to move, like pond water on a windless day.
‘Mitty, are you listening?’
‘I’m a little tired. No, don’t go,’ she said as Vita began to stand up.
Vita sat down again and ran her hand over one of Amelia’s embroidered pillows. She found a loose thread and began to pull at it. ‘Does he truly want to marry me off, do you think?’
‘I don’t know. Possibly.’
‘But it’s so old-fashioned!’
‘It is, I agree.’
‘Can’t you talk to him?’
Arthur didn’t talk to anyone nowadays, unless it was about mistakes made in the war.
‘Come and sit here, why don’t you. And fetch my brush.’
Marie moved her legs aside so that Vita could sit on the seat cushion beside her. She began to brush Vita’s long hair slowly, careful not to pull too hard. It was full of snarls. It usually was.
‘I should go to college, you know I should. Why can’t he understand that?’
They’d discussed college before, when they were alone. Women’s colleges were cropping up everywhere. But secretly Marie always had her doubts about whether Arthur would agree.
‘You said it yourself, he’s old-fashioned.’
‘Why did you let me share Freddy’s lessons? I should have gone to the school in town.’
‘A tutor is better.’
‘If I’d gone to school in town, I wouldn’t want to go to college. I’d be just like everyone else.’
‘I hope so.’
‘I don’t think you do.’
‘I do, though. In a way I do. Anyway, there’s no one left to marry. If that’s really what he wants.’
‘Well, you don’t have to get married, you know. You can always stay here with me.’
Vita didn’t say anything to that. And really, Marie didn’t blame her for wanting to leave. It’s a small town, she thought, and shrinking every day. The mill and the sail loft had closed before the war, and more and more men were setting off to find work in city factories. When she closed her eyes Marie could see the town literally shrinking: the empty fields spreading dust over houses, the ocean in a sparkle of blue lapping at Mr. Neeley’s shop door. The laudanum inspired her imagination, gave it color and depth.
As she began to work out a knotty whorl of Vita’s hair between her fingers, she thought of how she used to use a wet comb to try to coax a curl from Freddy’s hair when he was a baby. His hair was black, too, but finer; a finely spun dark web. Vita’s hair was soft and thick, like the mane of an exotic, wild animal. Marie always noticed how Arthur frowned whenever Vita quoted some passage from memory, but if Freddy quoted a passage, Arthur clapped him on the back.
‘I often wished I’d had more schooling when I was a girl. I thought that if you were properly educated, you and Amelia, you’d be happier than I was. More prepared. But maybe it was a mistake.’
‘It was a mistake,’ Vita said angrily.
She was so full of energy and purpose. Arthur was like that once, when they were first married. Amelia was the most docile of the family, though she had spirit, too – it came out when she mimicked the townspeople or her aunt; she caught their inflections and absurdities perfectly. But Marie noticed that Amelia never did this when her father was in the room. To him, she presented the picture of the daughter he wanted. Marie almost admired that; Amelia, out of all of them, knew how to get her own way.
Marie had to beg Arthur to let Vita share Freddy’s lessons when Vita was small. ‘She has a fine mind,’ she’d said. This was obvious from the time Vita could talk. Arthur said it didn’t matter, that brains were wasted on a girl. ‘But it will save us money in the long run,’ Marie argued. They were paying the tutor anyway, and the children could share books. ‘Plus Vita could help Freddy.’ ‘You mean Freddy could help Vita,’ he countered. Marie had paused, trying to be diplomatic. ‘They’ll help each other. They’ll spur each other on.’
Arthur thought about that. ‘I suppose a little competition can be good for a boy,’ he finally decided.
Riddle, who’d lifted his head when Vita came in, was asleep again, and snoring. Marie put down her brush, divided Vita’s thick hair into three long strands, and began to braid it. Maybe was her fault that Vita wanted to go to college. Maybe all this had simply been a chance for her to live the life, through her daughter, that hadn’t been offered to her. Vita loved the process of following a logical thread to its end, and as a girl Marie had been the same way.
‘I’ll talk to your father,’ she said, although she suspected she wouldn’t get very far. If only she had her own money! But by Massachusetts law all her money became her husband’s when they married. And even if Vita did find tuition money on her own, Arthur could always go to the college and drag her back home. That was his right as the father of an unmarried woman. Six months ago Marie didn’t think Arthur would ever do something like that, but now she wasn’t so sure.
‘What are you reading at the moment?’ she asked to change the subject.
‘Pliny. Also William Harvey.’
‘Ah. The circulation of the blood.’
‘Yes, he’s interesting. Pliny, though. Everyone speaks his name with such awe, but he thought women having their monthlies could wither plants and dim mirrors just by looking at them.’
Marie let out a tiny wisp of air – more of an acknowledgment that she should laugh, rather than a real laugh. ‘Do you have a ribbon?’ She was holding Vita’s braid in one hand.
She hesitated, and then with her free hand she pulled out Freddy’s photo album from against the wall.
Vita turned her head – gingerly, as Marie was still holding her hair. ‘Are those Freddy’s photographs? I wondered where they were. Were you looking at them just now?’
Marie fished out the coral ribbon she used to mark her place in the album and wound it around the end of Vita’s braid. The laudanum made her feel sleepy and open-hearted. Reflective. Almost soft. She was tired of the armor she wore every day, pretending she could simply carry on with daily life.
‘I suppose I wanted him to be alive for a little while longer,’ Marie said.
Vita pulled her braid around and felt the neat plait. She rubbed her fingertips against the end as though it were a paintbrush she was testing for dryness. Together she and her mother looked down at Freddy’s smiling face, his dark hair, the way the uniform emphasized his shoulders. Marie couldn’t help but think that the other men seemed less distinct. Milkier, somehow. Like Vita, Freddy been full of enthusiasm, only not about books.
When Vita looked up, her eyes were wet.
‘Me too,’ she said.
The second suitor was just as bad as the first, and not nearly as handsome: Stephen Phelps. He wore tight crimson gloves, said ‘Chooseday’ instead of ‘Tuesday,’ and his mouth drooped on one side like an old man’s – he had suffered a series of fits as a newborn. Phelps lived nearby in the town of Closbury; his father was one of Dr. Tenney’s patients.
During the war Phelps served as secretary to someone he made sound very important, but whom no one had ever heard of.
‘Captain Netherfield. I argued to do my part until my father found me the job. I write in a very fine hand. The army wouldn’t take me otherwise, you see.’
This last he said to Holland Granger, nodding at him as if their infirmities made a bond between them. But that was unfair, Vita thought. Phelps had rheumy eyes and a persistent dry cough, and his eyebrows had been partially singed off the previous day. ‘I lit a cigar carelessly,’ he explained, ‘but they will likely grow back.’
As usual they were sitting in the stuffy back parlor, only her mother was upstairs with a headache, lucky thing, and Holland had come by to see Amelia – and now he’s trapped, Vita thought, like the rest of us. Even her father didn’t seem particularly taken with Phelps, although he was the one who invited him.
‘Your father tells me you have plans to go out west?’ he said somewhat stiffly, and then folded his hands in his lap like a schoolmarm listening to a lesson.
‘His property will go to my brother John, and the factories will go to James, but my father’s given me the means to buy twenty-six acres in Oregon.’ He coughed his quick, raspy cough. ‘The money for the land, that is, but not enough to build on it. That’s up to me to raise.’
Here he looked pointedly at Dar, and then at Vita. Vita tried to maintain a bland expression. She was determined today to keep her temper. Her new plan, as discussed with Gemma, was to play the role of the meek daughter, to bide her time, to promise and delay, until Amelia got married. A new plan had occurred to her: why not use her aunt’s promise of house-buying money for tuition? Must it be used for buying a house?
‘I can’t give you a cheque before your sister, Vita, that wouldn’t be right,’ Aunt Norbert had told her when Vita went to see her last Thursday to ask about it. ‘But I will give it to you on her wedding day, the same day I give Amelia hers. And if you are unmarried then, why, I suppose you can use the gift as you wish.’
If Dar won’t help me, Vita thought, I’ll do it myself.
‘Oregon,’ Phelps was saying, ‘is a vast, ripe wilderness. Full of potential. But empty. You won’t find any women there to cook or take in laundry. I must set out with the proper provisions.’ Here he looked at Vita again.
Was she a provision?
‘Don’t tell me that the men there wash their own clothes!’ she couldn’t help saying.
‘Vita!’ Amelia laughed. ‘You’ve never so much as polished a shoe!’
Phelps frowned. ‘Is that right? You cannot clean leather?’
Vita remembered her game. ‘I’m sure I could learn. After all, I’ve learned Latin and Greek.’
‘Oh yes, ladies’ samplers with their little inscriptions. So popular these days.’
‘I mean proper Latin. I’ve been studying it since I was twelve.’
Phelps tilted his head, imitating someone who listened. ‘As you’re a man of science,’ he said to Dr. Tenney, ‘you might like to know about a few exciting new discoveries in the area of farming. Modern techniques on how to aerate the soil.’ He turned back to Vita. ‘To aerate means to add air,’ he explained.
‘I know that.’
He nodded. ‘To add air, yes. Now in Oregon I intend to plant persimmon trees. The persimmon tree produces fruit from the seed in only four years, and the pounded bark can be used to reduce a fever. I happen to have some notes with me, if you are interested?’
Here he looked at Amelia, who said politely, ‘Oh certainly.’
He stood to withdraw a sheath of papers from his pocket and sat down again, fussily, careful to keep his coat from wrinkling.
‘The persimmon has many untapped uses,’ he began, reading from his notes. ‘When the fruit is well mashed and strained through a coarse wire sieve, it can make uncommonly good bread . . .’
Sunlight beat against the freshly washed windows, and the wainscoting beneath the windowpane seemed to melt before her eyes. Vita looked out to the yard, where she could see her mother’s dahlias; at the moment they were only green stalks with large, tight buttons that waved in the wind like planted corn, but in a few days the buttons would begin to open into double buds with lilac and white petals, and fiery red single buds, and her mother’s border dahlias, small white and peach piccolos.
Every spring for as long as Vita could remember, Mitty began her dahlias in pots in the greenhouse with a carefully calculated mixture of chicken manure, potash, and bone – testing for the correct balance of nitrogen and potassium – and then she replanted them in the ground after they sprouted. Mitty was always precise in her proportions, and she wrote down every new finding in a series of notebooks, much like Vita’s own. Gardening, Vita realized, was the perfect cover for a woman interested in science.
When Freddy and Vita were little, Mitty sometimes wrapped their legs in bandages and pretended to make them a dose of quicksilver in a game they, not very creatively, called ‘Ulcers in the Leg.’ Since her father was a doctor and a professor of medicine at Yale – Dar had been one of his students – Mitty knew quite a lot. But she hid her knowledge; she even hid her curiosity. She gardened, and she read the monthly science journals that came to the house, but always on the sly.
‘. . . the tender leaves can be made into tea and its bark used for dye,’ Phelps was saying.
How could her mother stand it, Vita often wondered? How could she suppress her intellectual curiosity this way? It made Vita angry – angrier – at her father, but she was also (she had to admit) disappointed in her mother as well. I won’t be like her, Vita promised herself. I won’t.
‘Pulverized, the bark can also be used to reduce a fever.’
Holland, his head resting against the high back of the sofa, was asleep. Amelia pinched his arm, but although he closed his mouth he didn’t open his eyes. Phelps didn’t notice. He came to the end of his page and lifted his wet, red-rimmed, eyebrowless eyes to look at Vita.
‘Those are just a few thoughts of interest,’ he said, as he began to fold the pages back along their folds. Vita could see her father pull back a yawn, and even Amelia seemed caught in a sleepy stupor. Vita didn’t even try to appear interested. He was an oaf, like Jacob Culhane, but worse because of his silly pretenses. He imagined she didn’t know what aerate meant! A life with him would be a life of being told facts she already knew.
‘My plan is to leave on the first of October,’ Phelps said. He looked pointedly at Vita. ‘And I hope to be married by then.’
‘Surely he hasn’t made an offer already?’ Vita said the next day, in her father’s office, when he summoned her. He was sitting behind his desk and she stood before him like a penitent student. She felt a real moment of panic, but her father hesitated.
‘Not in so many words. But matters move much more quickly these days. And you heard him, he’s primed to leave in a couple of weeks.’
‘But to leave so soon! Think of everything he has to do – all those persimmon seeds to gather.’
Her father didn’t smile. ‘Well, that is what he expects.’
She was half relieved and half incensed – how could Dar want to stick her with that bore for the rest of her life? He was her father; shouldn’t he want more for her? His obvious disappointment in her was always in his voice, so unfairly. Hadn’t she learned German and Latin and a fair amount of Greek? Couldn’t she solve a calculus problem faster than Holland Granger could? But it did no good for Vita to think about all the ways she was clever. In fact it set her back, since it brought on a familiar knife-swipe of frustration.
‘Dar,’ she said, trying to appeal to his reason. ‘Let me study medicine. I’ll find a way to do it. It’s my dream.’
‘Your dream is to be laughed at and ridiculed?’
‘No, to be a doctor. A lady doctor. I wouldn’t be the first – there are hundreds of them now.’ Over two hundred, according to the Boston Medical Journal.
But her father was not impressed. They were like old sparring enemies who came face to face every few months, neither one ever able to claim a lasting victory. He picked up the polished monkey skull on his desk that he used as a paperweight. His eyes glittered.
‘A lady doctor.’ Now he was mocking her. He bounced the skull from hand to hand. ‘Do you know what that means in a city like Boston?’
‘It doesn’t mean a woman practicing medicine?’
‘No, it doesn’t mean a woman practicing medicine. It’s the name of a woman who ends unwanted pregnancies for other women. It has nothing at all to do with being a doctor. Most lady doctors haven’t read so much as a paragraph about the bodily systems. Never heard of chloroform.’
‘First used as an anesthetic in 1847 by Sir James Young Simpson,’ Vita said, falling back to trying to impress him with her knowledge of facts. ‘Just tell me what to read, Dar, and I’ll read it. You know I can do it!’ She could hear her voice rising dangerously, emotionally.
‘I know no such thing. You like to read, yes, and your memory is sufficient.’
With effort, Vita stopped herself from objecting. Her memory was excellent!
‘But being a doctor is more than simply reading books. It requires patience, which you lack. Attention to detail, which you lack. And you must be absolutely thorough with every case, at every step of the way.’
‘Dar, I can do all that. I mean, I can learn to do it. Please let me try!’
‘As a doctor you have to concern yourself with other people, something I have never seen you do. A parakeet doesn’t count.’
‘Give me a chance to prove myself.’
‘It’s unnecessary.’ This was the phrase he used whenever he wanted to shut down a discussion. ‘I told your mother the same when she brought it up last night.’
‘But it is necessary. It’s very necessary!’
‘Vita. Stop shouting. You’re only proving my point. You don’t have the temperament for higher learning. No woman does.’
His head seemed unusually small, wobbling on his neck, and his eyes would not meet hers. Why wouldn’t he acknowledge her accomplishments? Growing up she’d learned to wind her emotions up like a skein of wool, make a tight ball of them, and then hold the ball in place for as long as she could. She turned to leave, afraid that she might pick up one of his antique bleeding bowls and throw it at his head.
‘I expect I’ll receive a letter from Mr. Phelps soon,’ her father told her. ‘And then you must abide by my decision.’
It was his parting shot, and she felt it.
However, the letter, when it came two days later, was not what they expected. ‘As of yesterday evening,’ Phelps wrote, ‘I’m engaged to marry Phoebe Barnes, and could not be happier.’
’Be to her faults a little blind;
Be to her virtues a little kind;
Let all her ways be unconfin’d
And place your padlock on her mind.’
(Advice to married men, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1834)
Phoebe Barnes was a thick-limbed farmer’s daughter, a muscled little pony, who would be an excellent asset for a man going off to the wilderness; whereas I would be useless, Vita thought happily. Phoebe Barnes, what a goose. But thank God for her, really. Let’s just hope she likes persimmons.
It was as near perfect a summer morning as one could wish for: sky like sheeny blue fabric, warm sunlight, a soft breeze with the slightest tang of salt to it. Vita went outside with her notebook in hand. There was a spot against the back of the house between two crooked rhododendron trees where she liked to read or do problems; the trees flanked the kitchen windows, with a cleared space between them. A small, dry refuge. The air smelled like the wild mint that grew in dark patches around the yard.
Vita spread her black crocheted shawl on the ground, settled herself against the house shingles, and opened her notebook.
Prove the sum of the first n integers = n x (n+1) / 2
The smell of bean broth wafted out through the half-open kitchen window, and Vita could hear her mother in the kitchen talking to Mrs. O.
‘And maybe a nice Sunderland pudding for dessert,’ she was saying.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
11 11 11 11 11 11 11 11 11 11 sum
The sum of the first ten integers was 55; she wrote:
11 x 10 / 2 = 55
and then thought about Gauss, the mathematician who solved this proof when he was a boy walking to school, or so the story went. A boy genius, Gauss was. Vita wasn’t a genius, she knew that. Often it took her weeks to work out a proof, and lately there were some proofs she’d had to abandon. She sensed she had gone about as far as she could go in mathematics – science was more her strength – but she still enjoyed trying to puzzle out answers.
She rubbed out a smudge on the paper with her rubber eraser and brushed the crumbs away. As a girl, before the war, she often hid in this spot; in late spring, when the rhododendrons were in bloom, the tree branches with their bright magenta flowers arched over her like an umbrella canopy, and she was almost completely concealed. Freddy might come out with a pet squirrel on his shoulder and never see her, or Mrs. O. to beat the kitchen rug. Vita watched them covertly from her spy hole, although they never did anything she didn’t expect. She found it exciting to be invisible, but also a little lonely.
‘I would think two pints, at least,’ her mother said from inside the kitchen.
‘I’d best check how much flour we have left,’ Mrs. O. said.
Once Freddy enlisted, Vita felt even more isolated and alone. Who could she talk to about her interests, besides Gemma, who was busy with her own work? Amelia made new friends with the girls in town as they rolled bandages for the soldiers or packed lint in the old curate’s cottage, but Vita was irritated by their bland chitchat. When she went along to help she always brought along a book or a newspaper, which she propped open on a barrel to read while she rolled up long strips of cotton cloth, ignoring the others. This was when her father began his obsession with getting the news from all over the country, as many newspapers as he could get delivered. In the Washington paper, Vita read an article about Dorothea Dix, who was in charge of hiring war nurses. Excited, Vita thought she might do something useful – more useful than rolling bandages – and maybe she could also learn from the army surgeons (she would have to be stealthy about that). But when she wrote to Miss Dix via the newspaper, Miss Dix replied in large loopy handwriting that all volunteer nurses must be ‘homely’ women over thirty years old who wore no jewelry or ribbons. Although Vita rarely wore jewelry and hated ribbons of any kind, she was barely sixteen.
She also read about Clara Barton, who took it upon herself to distribute food and water to wounded soldiers in the field – sometimes even when the battle was still raging. Clara Barton wasn’t a nurse, although once she did extract a bullet from a young man’s arm when no help was nearby.
Even better. Vita wrote to her, too. But, like Dorothea Dix, Miss Barton (though in tiny purple script) wrote back to say that Vita was ‘too young to witness the barbarianism of the battlefield. But I commend your spirit, my dear.’
She kept that letter in her pocket for weeks until the paper became as soft as cloth and began to tear when she unfolded it.
Still, the two women gave her encouragement, if only just the fact of them. Maybe her own plans weren’t crazy. Unexpected, yes, but not unimaginable. Over a decade ago, Elizabeth Blackwell graduated from a New York college with a medical degree – the first one awarded to an American woman – and a few years later her sister Emily received her medical degree as well.
Women could become doctors, this was a fact. Vita simply had to keep Dar from finding her an available suitor, and then let Aunt Norbert’s money do the rest. She looked up at the spiky rhododendron branches above her and chewed the end of her pencil, making little mouse marks on the wood. She had to stick with her plan.
‘We’ve not nearly enough.’ Mrs. O’s voice came drifting out again through the open window. ‘We’ll need another half cup for sure. And Gemma’s already gone off to Fenegan’s to pick up the doctor’s boots.’
‘What about Vita, can she go? Where is she?’
Vita held her breath. She didn’t want to be sent on an errand, she wanted today to herself, but she heard Mrs. O. say, ‘Oh she’s right there at the window doing whatever she does out there. Vita!’ she called out. ‘Stop your eavesdropping now, we need you to go pick up some flour.’
Or maybe, Vita thought, shaking rhododendron filaments from her skirt, I’m not as invisible as I’d like to be.
It was such a warm day that she didn’t take her shawl with her. Walking over the stone bridge and along past Carver’s farm Vita let her arms swing freely, like a man. She adjusted Freddy’s old satchel, which she’d started carrying when he left for war. She didn’t like going to town with a basket, it made her feel too much like the other women in town. Ordinary. Like Amelia.
At the top of the road she paused to look down at Lark’s Eye Bay, sparkling in the sun; her aunt lived just opposite the pier in a large butter-colored house with black shutters. It was the largest house in Lark’s Eye, with two cottages in the back for the gardener and cook. The Norbert family made their fortune in shipbuilding and, later, in canning factories along the coast. But as a widow – ’conveniently childless,’ as she liked to put it – Aunt Norbert had made even more money, wisely investing in railroads and oil right before the war.
Aunt Norbert had firm ideas about money. She had firm ideas about diet, penmanship, and the proper size of engagement ring stones (small; or at least smaller than hers). She considered lemon juice a woman’s first line of defense against freckling, and disapproved of men who wore pointed shoes or who said ‘set’ instead of ‘sit.’
‘I serve as a model for the town,’ she liked to say. ‘People watch me for how to act.’
‘Or when to run,’ Freddy used to whisper. His nickname for her was Lady Norbert.
Before she married Ezra Norbert, Clara Toombs had attended, for one year, the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which later became a college. ‘My love of history began there,’ she often said, ‘under the tutelage of Mrs. Elvira Peterson, who also taught embroidery and health and had a tremendous head of hair for a woman of sixty.’
She was proud of her education, cut short when she visited her sister Marie in Lark’s Eye and was proposed to by the much older Ezra Norbert – sixty, gouty, windy, but still with all his money the prize of the town. Vita felt certain that her aunt wouldn’t protest if she used her gift of ‘house-buying money’ for college tuition. Hadn’t she said that if Vita was unmarried on Amelia’s wedding day, she could use the money as she wanted? Vita liked to think that Aunt Norbert would want her to further her own education. She couldn’t understand why the men in her life – well, Dar – were so against it. Freddy would have been on her side. She imagined him arguing for her; she was sure he would have been her champion. And maybe Dar would have listened to him. Maybe, or maybe not.
Vita looked out the shop window at the long dusty field they called Oak Field because it had once been a grove of trees. But every single one of the trees had been harvested long before Vita was born to make hulls and ship masts and spars. These days sand blew over the loose dirt, and nothing grew there but weeds. When it rained it became a gloppy shallow pond of mud. It was amazing to Vita that Amelia – that anyone – wanted to stay in this town.
‘Give my best to your mother,’ Mrs. Neeley said, handing her the sack of flour tied with twine. ‘And tell your sister I have some nice buttons just come in from Boston if she wants to take a look. So much for her to do now, I’m sure! Well, I hope to hear of your being married next thing.’
Vita tucked the flour sack into Freddy’s satchel. ‘No, I don’t think you will, Mrs. Neeley.’
Away from her father she had every confidence in herself. She was resourceful and smart. All her work, all her studies, had been preparation for leaving. Her ambition felt like an unused power; a mountain lion waiting to spring.
Poor Phoebe Barnes, she thought again; but standing outside the shop in the warm sunlight Vita found she couldn’t muster up much pity for Phoebe, she was feeling too pleased with her own freedom. Really, she wanted to laugh. Aunt Norbert liked to say she didn’t realize her own potential to be useful (and to command others, Vita silently added) until she moved to Lark’s Eye. But I’ll be more useful, Vita thought, by moving away.
Only not to Oregon with Stephen Phelps, thank God.
As Jacob crossed the town green, he saw Vita Tenney walking toward him with a smile on her face. Why would she be smiling at him? Then he realized that he was smiling, too.
‘Mr. Culhane,’ she said, stopping to give him her hand.
He was in a good mood. It was a sunny day with a hint of sea breeze, and being back in Lark’s Eye wasn’t as painful as he had feared. In fact, he was beginning to warm to it. Being an adult, and not a trapped child, helped. It was also gratifying to be viewed as a war hero (he wasn’t) and sought after as a bachelor (he was). Just last evening he sat drinking lemonade on Mrs. Linden’s porch with three lovely young women who seemed to compete with their dimples. And here now was Fred Tenney’s sister with her husky voice and sunburned nose, smiling up at him. She was really quite little, he noticed again, although she spoke in a way that commanded attention.
‘I wasn’t sure you would say hello to me,’ he said, ‘after our last meeting.’
‘You caught me on a good day. Tomorrow I might not.’
He raised one eyebrow. ‘I’ve been warned. Shall we develop a signal?’
She laughed. ‘And why are you in a good mood?’
‘Does it show?’ He was carrying a roll of oversized paper, and lifted it slightly. ‘I’ve just been to the bank. I’ve an idea for a patent, and Mr. Gideon has expressed some interest in it. I’m hoping to get a loan.’
‘A patent for what?’
‘Don’t worry, I won’t give your secrets away.’
‘It’s a bit complicated,’ he said.
Vita felt a black stab go straight into her heart. ‘Oh, well then, if it’s complicated,’ she said, kicking herself for stopping to speak to him. As quick as that, her good mood vanished.
But he didn’t notice her change; he was looking down at his paper as he began to unroll it. ‘I’m not sure I understand it. No, that’s not true. I know I don’t understand it. It’s a formula that my friend, a friend from the war, worked out. He’s gone now, didn’t make it.’
He spoke quickly as though to get through that last part as fast as he could. Vita realized he wasn’t calling her abilities into question, but his own. They were standing next to the bandstand in a slice of shade. Jacob held out one end of the thick, curled paper to her and Vita took it, stepping up next to him to look at it.
‘See here,’ he pointed to sketches of labeled barrel parts; the staves, the hoops, the hoop rivets and hoop joints. Also bilge, chime, cant, head – parts Vita had no idea there were names for. ‘We’re trying to make a barrel that doesn’t leak oil. They’re fine for dry goods and even fish, a little water leaking out of a fish barrel is fine, but you lose money if your oil barrel leaks oil. Only a little lost oil in every barrel adds up quickly over time.’
Vita studied the equation underneath the drawings. A warm breeze played over the back of her neck. ‘Is this the formula your friend worked out?’
‘Yes, but it’s not perfect. Caleb was still working on it when – when he died. And I’m not . . . well, I didn’t have much in the way of schooling. I guess I told you that. I’ve a good mind for business, though, and once there’s a model I can push it ahead, but I need a partner to help get the formula right. That’s where the loan comes in, to pay for another salary. And for the workshop too, of course.’
‘It probably needs a glue that’s strong but quick-drying.’
‘That’s it, exactly! At first we were thinking of changing the shape of the barrel staves, but then we decided no, it’s the glue.’
‘Starch-based, or rubber?’ she asked. She’d once read an essay on modern adhesives in one of her father’s science journals.
‘We thought casein glue, made from milk.’
‘Of course; that’s more water-resistant.’
‘You’ve heard of casein?’
‘I’ve read about it. Would you heat the barrels to set the glue?’
‘Vita! Miss Vita!’
From the other end of the green Vita saw Gemma coming toward them; not running, exactly, but walking fast. Her thin face was flushed with excitement.
Jacob began rolling up the thick paper. ‘Well, thank you for indulging me.’ He touched his hat.
‘It wasn’t an indulgence.’
‘Then thank you for turning your gentle mind in the direction of my problem.’
Gentle mind? Was that a joke? He was grinning as he turned to cross the road. So he was teasing her. Had he been teasing the first time he called her mind gentle?
She thought not. She smiled to herself.
‘Vita, you’ll never guess,’ Gemma said, reaching her. There was an exuberance in her expression, like a woman who has just witnessed a great event – a flaming comet, or a tornado touching down.
‘Ruffy’s home,’ she said. ‘And I’ve seen him.’
Ruffy – Randall Barstow, Gemma’s sweetheart – was back from battle.
No one had heard from him in six weeks, not even his mother. He was young, only seventeen, and had signed up in the last months of the war. It was hard to imagine Ruffy as a soldier. He had a slight frame and fine blond hair and was the gentlest boy Vita knew, though his skin was permanently sooty from working at his father’s smithy. It was hard to imagine Ruffy as a blacksmith either, but that Vita had seen for herself.
‘He wrote letters to his ma and to me from the hospital camp,’ Gemma said. ‘But they must have strayed. The nurse in charge of the mail had her hands full, he said, what with all the injured men.’
Ruffy included. One of his hands had been shot off, the left one. He aimed to raise horses now, he told Gemma. Working the anvil with only one hand was impossible, though in truth Ruffy barely had the muscle even with two. His father, who had been a thick, muscular ox as a young man, was bent and crippled after thirty years of heavy work. He was happy to teach his youngest son Rayburn the trade, who at fourteen already had a neck like a bulldog mastiff and the strength to match.
‘Ruffy thinks he can use his army pay to buy a couple of horses. At the beginning he might have to gentle foals on the side, he told me, to raise money. He didn’t have a ring but he asked me anyhow would I marry him, right there outside the post office, and he kissed me where anyone might see! He doesn’t want to wait. I think Mrs. Barstow will give us his grandmother’s ring. Unless his brother got to it first.’
‘Rayburn is only fourteen!’
‘Fifteen last week. He’s got his eye on Phoebe Barnes.’
Too late there, Vita thought. She and Gemma were still standing under the shade of the bandstand. She squeezed Gemma’s arm.
‘Oh Gemma! I’m so happy for you.’
Ruffy was not muscular like his brother, but he was scrappy. He and Gemma would rise in the world; Vita had no doubt. And I’ll rise, too, she promised herself – the words were a talisman. She could see the tops of the marsh roses that grew near the water, and Mr. Neeley, wearing his greengrocer’s apron, stepped outside with a bucket and began to wash his buggy. An ordinary day in an ordinary town. She thought of Jacob Culhane, with his low-slung trousers and dark eyes. Thank you for turning your gentle mind in the direction of my problem.
A jokester, she decided. Like Freddy.
’Once the bride has donned her gown and turned off all the lights, she should lie quietly upon the bed and await her groom. When he comes groping into the room she should make no sound to guide him in her direction. There is always the hope that he will stumble and incur some slight injury, which she can use as an excuse to deny him sexual access.’
(Instruction and Advice for the Young Bride, Mrs. Ruth Smythers, 1894)
’I’ve made arrangements to dine out this evening,’ Vita’s father announced at breakfast a week later, ‘and you two girls will accompany me.’
‘To dine out?’ Vita asked. They never dined out.
‘Where, Dar?’ Amelia asked.
‘You don’t know him. He wants to meet Vita.’
So, another candidate. I’ll have to move fast, Vita thought. She was still building her case: she had Aunt Norbert’s offer of money, which would answer for tuition, and she’d written to her second cousin, Maria Maag, asking if she might live with her in Philadelphia while she looked for a preceptor there. After her apprenticeship she could stay in Philadelphia and attend the Female Medical College of Pennsylvania. Surely when her father realized she wasn’t asking him for anything, he would agree.
Now she was just waiting for an answer from Maria Maag, whom she met only once at her grandfather’s funeral in New Haven. That was over ten years ago.
‘I would be happy to help with your children,’ Vita had written, ‘as part of my room and board.’ Later she thought: Or does she even have children? She couldn’t actually remember, since she barely listened to family news.
When the time came to leave the sky was filled with bloated, leaden clouds, and Dar agreed to give Gemma a lift home. Gemma lived with her aunt and two cousins on a road where the mill workers had lived until the mill closed down; many of the cottages stood abandoned with empty window frames and half-exposed roofs. Gemma’s uncle had worked at the mill until he died, and her aunt made ends meet by making baskets in the winter and working in the Closbury dairy in summer, when they needed extra help.
‘Thank you, Dr. Tenney!’ Gemma said, stepping down from the carriage. ‘For sure I would not have made it home in time.’ She didn’t actually make it home in time now; seconds after she started down the lane, the threatened rain blew in with a swift violence. Vita could see her half-running, half-jumping down the dirt road, which was quickly transforming itself into treacly mud.
‘Poor girl will get soaked,’ Dar said, watching her.
In town he was known for his sympathy. He wasn’t from a wealthy family, not like Mitty; his father had been a postmaster in Connecticut. He’d worked his way through medical college at an apothecary shop, and was consequently one of her grandfather’s favorite students – he’d had to do the same (and then, also like Dar, he’d married a woman with money). Grandfather Toombs himself had bought Arthur Tenney the medical practice in Lark’s Eye, when Lark’s Eye was still a prosperous town.
What had happened, Vita wondered? Was it grief over Freddy, or something more? She looked at her father’s face, wishing she could understand him or anticipate his moods. When she was with him, and they weren’t in the midst of an argument, she almost felt sorry for him. But as soon as he spoke to her, it was as if someone threaded a needle with pure silken anger, which rose twisting from her heart.
They headed inland, ribboning around the swollen marshes. The wind sounded like an urgent message in a language no one could understand. But after only a few minutes the sound of raindrops hitting the bellows top softened, and then subsided altogether.
Just a quick summer downpour.
The carriage pitched uncomfortably along the rough road. Vita peered through the smeary glass windows but the bay was no longer visible. When Mr. Healey turned the horses at the crossroads, Amelia leaned forward to look out, too. A moment later she said, ‘Why, I believe we’re going to Riverside,’ and she stared at Vita with a mixture of surprise and disbelief.
The only person they knew who lived in Riverside was old Robinson Jameson. All at once Vita had a sinking feeling.
‘We’re not going to Mr. Robinson Jameson’s house, are we?’
Her father was leaning back in the corner of his seat with his eyes closed. ‘Oh, do you know him?’ he asked without opening them.
Amelia and Vita gaped at each other, this time in horror.
‘Dar,’ Amelia said. ‘He goes to church with us.’
‘That’s right, he’s a Methodist. I forgot.’
Vita waited for him to say more.
‘Does he have a nephew visiting?’ she asked, not very hopefully.
‘The man is worth a fortune,’ he said.
Uncharacteristically, Amelia took Vita’s hand. Vita could tell she was picturing, as she was, the long gray hairs in Robinson Jameson’s ears, and how his eyes followed young girls as they left the pews.
‘Stop,’ Vita said loudly. ‘Stop the horses.’
The horses continued at the same pace. She raised her voice. ‘Mr. Healey! Please stop!’
Her father opened his eyes. ‘No need to stop, Healey, let’s keep going.’
‘Dar,’ Amelia said. ‘You can’t think to marry Vita off to Mr. Jameson. He’s awful. He really is.’
‘You have a better idea? She didn’t like Culhane, and Phelps didn’t like her.’
‘But Mr. Jameson is so old.’ Amelia was red in the face, struggling to speak. Vita couldn’t help but feel grateful to her for trying to help; her sister usually went to ground at the first sign of trouble. But Robinson Jameson was too much even for her. ‘He – there’s something wrong with him. How he looks at us.’
‘Oh, enough!’ Dar snapped. He glared at Vita as though she had been the one to speak out, not Amelia. ‘He looks at you how any man would look at you, with admiration.’
‘Dar, I can’t get married,’ Vita said. ‘I want to go to college, to become a doctor, like you. Aunt Norbert said she’d pay my tuition – ’ somewhat true – ‘so there will be no burden on you. And I’ve already fulfilled all the academic requirements, algebra and Latin and so on. And I can stay with Mitty’s cousins, the Maags.’ Fingers crossed.
‘I’ll look for a mentor there. A preceptor. Perhaps you know someone, a colleague? You wouldn’t have to recommend me, you could just give me his name.’
‘I wouldn’t do that to him or to you.’
‘Or to myself either.’
‘It’s a disgrace, that’s why. No daughter of mine will dishonor the family that way, not while I still have breath.’
Vita became aware of a faint but persistent rattle: one of the glass windows was loose in its frame and jiggled as they rode over the rutted road. They were approaching Riverside; up ahead she could see the first squat, brick buildings that led into the square. Amelia was still holding her hand. She began to speak faster.
‘It’s no disgrace! There are more and more women doctors every day. Why else would there be an entire college dedicated to their education? More than one college?’
‘To keep them from distracting the men who are doing the real work.’
‘Dar, I’ve dreamed about this since I was a girl.’
‘Wanting something badly is not in itself a recommendation. No. Stop,’ he said as she tried to speak again. ‘I will not allow it. I won’t.’
His voice was rising, too, and his nostrils flared angrily. The horses turned up a long, narrow drive flanked by silvery birch trees and stopped in front of a sand-colored stone house. Mr. Healey hooked the reins and came around to help Amelia out, but Vita’s father opened the opposite door and Vita followed him.
For a moment they were alone; the carriage, streaked with mud and wet leaves, blocked their view of Amelia and Mr. Healey. Vita put her hand on her father’s arm. She could hear, at a distance below them, the river that gave the town its name.
‘I’m not asking you for anything. You needn’t worry about a preceptor, I expect I can find one on my own. And with Aunt Norbert’s money – ’
He pulled his arm away and stared at Vita with such a raw, wild look that for a moment she was scared. His skin whitened, and his teeth, when he opened his mouth to bare them like a dog, were stained gray. His face seemed to suddenly shrink, and then grow.
‘Am I not speaking?’ he hissed. ‘Can you not hear me? Are my words only an irritating noise, a fly against the windowpane, bump bump bump? Bump bump bump?’
His feathery tone had dipped into madness. Vita was so stunned she could say nothing, but nor could she look away. Her father’s eyes solidified into glass and he narrowed them, observing her coldly.
‘You are the pebble in my shoe,’ he told her.
And then, just as quickly, he lost his mad expression as surely as if he had reached up to take off a papier-mâché mask. She watched his features gather and smooth themselves out like dirty fabric ironed into respectability, not quite fresh and clean, but close enough.
But now she’d seen a glimpse of it; the secret self he kept hidden away. No wonder he locked himself in his office all day. It must be a terrible strain. An expression of confusion came over his features, and he looked like the boy he must have once been, whose job it was to take in the world, to try to understand it, rather than to judge.
Shocked as she was, Vita nevertheless wanted to say something to console him, or even, if possible, to negate what she’d seen. She watched him pull out his handkerchief and touch it to his lips, resuming the bearing of that respectable man, Dr. Arthur Tenney. Not knowing what else to do, she followed him around the carriage toward the house.
‘What just happened?’ Amelia asked, seeing her face.
Vita’s shock didn’t wear off until they were nearly finished with the dinner Robinson Jameson had laid out for them: a joint of dry beef, overcooked peas, gummy rolls, and watery mashed potatoes followed by custard with raspberry cream. The long black table was crammed with dishes and candles, and pastoral paintings hung on every inch of the dining room walls, their dusty frames only a thumb’s width apart.
A cramped and uncomfortable meal. Jameson exuded a strong smell of sherry when he greeted them at the door, and then proceeded to drink two bottles of wine more or less by himself at the table.
Vita picked up a tarnished dessert spoon and took a bite of the custard, only to find the cream had slightly but perceptibly soured. She was beginning to understand just how dismal her prospects truly were. Her father wasn’t thinking rationally, so no rational plan would sway him. At the moment he was making mundane conversation – ’I hear the codling moth has spread to orchards in Iowa’ – but his mask could slip again at any time.
Robinson Jameson put a huge spoonful of the spoiled custard into his mouth with no apparent distaste. Greasy food stains (not all of them recent) were spattered down his necktie; Vita felt queasy simply looking at them.
After dessert, not very convincingly, her father made an excuse to leave Vita alone in the dining room with their host, taking Amelia with him. Amelia shot Vita a parting look – sorry! – as she left.
To his credit, Jameson came right to the point. He didn’t want Vita for her father’s money, he told her. He had plenty of money. He wanted the companionship.
‘It’s getting harder and harder for me to button my trousers,’ he said with a leer.
‘Surely a valet can help you with that.’
‘Ha ha!’ He spit when he laughed. ‘I like your energy.’ He lit a cigar and looked her over.
‘I just don’t see myself marrying.’
‘Maybe I can convince you.’
He put his hand on her upper arm, his thumb brushing against the side of her breast.
Vita pulled away. ‘I have other plans.’
‘Oh? And what are these plans?’
‘I’m going to college.’ The likelihood of that was smaller than she cared to calculate, but she could think of nothing else to say.
‘College? For women? A female institution? I’ve always been curious about such places.’ His tongue snaked out to touch his upper lip. ‘Absolutely. By all means.’
Vita stared at him. ‘You wouldn’t object?’
‘Of course not. Take a month, even two. Meanwhile I can do some business in Canada that’s been pressing. We can marry at Christmas.’
Take a month or two. Only this morning this would have enraged her, but now there was a frozen stone in the middle of her chest.
She stood up and left the room. As she passed the closed parlor door she could hear her sister’s voice but she didn’t go to her; instead Vita went straight to the front door, hoping to get outside before Jameson saw her leaving. Luckily he was an old man and moved slowly.
There was still some light in the night sky, and the birch trees along the drive were like silvery columns creaking in the wind. Walking down to the road she felt numb and light, almost weightless. For so many years she’d set her sights on a certain future – leaving Lark’s Eye, going to college, practicing medicine – and without it she didn’t know who she was. She felt like nothing.
As she approached the stone footbridge she heard a tavern door open, and the faint leak of voices before it closed again. Robinson Jameson lived closer to the town square than she’d expected. For a while she listened to the babble of the stream below, the high and low notes of water pursuing its course over and around every obstacle as it rushed toward the sea. The smell of Jameson’s cigar was still in her nose and she leaned over the footbridge. The edge was mossy and damp; the current swirled darkly beneath her. It was not a terribly long way down.
Quick footsteps sounded behind her and before she could turn a heavy hand landed on her arm.
A man was pulling her back from the edge. The smell of cigar was stronger – it hadn’t been Jameson’s cigar she imagined she smelled, but this man’s. She twisted around to look at his face.
‘Mr. Culhane,’ she said, surprised.
Jacob had stayed on in Lark’s Eye a week longer than he expected, and a week longer after that. To his surprise and (to be honest) mortification, the bank had after all turned him down for a loan: ‘We think oil is a losing proposition, in the long run,’ Mr. Gideon told him, ‘and so we don’t believe the barrels need modifying.’ Added to that, they offered only a few pennies per acre for his father’s farm. ‘We’re being conservative about land just at present.’
Suddenly he was no longer the war hero, no longer the local boy who did well and who should be rewarded. At least, that’s how it felt. But instead of indulging his disappointment, he decided to forget about loans and begin tapping investors. Since he was here, he would start with Robinson Jameson, who owned a string of factories in the southern part of the state and two mills in New Hampshire. He put Jacob off twice, finally meeting with him only this afternoon. But he listened to Jacob’s story for less than five minutes before shaking his head. He had a dinner to see to, he told Jacob, and in any case he’d already settled all his investments for the year.
Why in hell hadn’t the man said so to begin with? Jacob had made it clear from the onset that he wanted to set forth a business proposition.
After their meeting Jacob went straight to the tavern down the road from Jameson’s house where he consoled himself with food: stewed pork and glazed carrots and a rich plum tart for dessert. He was able to eat a little bit more at one sitting now, although this meal was the heaviest so far. The tavern keeper brewed a unique cider made with honey and skimmed milk, not as bad as it sounded, and more potent than he let on. Before going back to Mrs. Linden’s, Jacob decided to walk up to the footbridge to clear his head.
That’s when he saw a woman leaning over the edge.
His body drained of sensation. He was back in Andersonville, looking up to see Caleb lean out too far from the muddy stockade wall while doing the repairs he was ordered to, and about to get shot by a guard in the back of the head.
He rushed over and grabbed her by the arm. When she turned he saw it was Vita Tenney. Her chalky face seemed to float above her dark mourning dress, like a ghost.
‘Mr. Culhane,’ she said, surprise in her voice. She pulled away from his grip. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I thought – I’m sorry. Excuse me.’ His right hand was shaking violently. He threw his cigar to the ground and stepped on it, hoping his movement would hide the tremors.
‘Did you imagine I was going to do myself harm?’
‘No, no. I thought . . .’
He trailed off, not wanting to explain himself, but she kept looking at him, waiting for him to finish.
‘Sometimes – because of the war, I suppose – I overreact.’
He didn’t want to go on, he knew it wouldn’t make any sense. In that moment he really did see Caleb. He was back in the prison camp, trying to shout out a warning before it was too late.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again.
She took a long breath. ‘Well. You startled me.’
For a few seconds they looked at each other, not knowing what to say next.
‘You’re a long way from home,’ he said finally. His heartbeat was beginning to return to normal.
‘Yes, we were just visiting Mr. Robinson Jameson. My father and sister are still there. I’ll go back in a moment.’
‘That’s a coincidence. I was there myself earlier today, hoping he’d invest in my patent idea.’
‘That’s right. But he turned me down.’
Vita looked out to the water. They were standing side by side in the middle of the bridge. ‘I was there to hear a marriage proposal, but I turned him down.’
‘You don’t mean to say that your father is trying him now?’ As soon as Jacob said this he regretted it. Vita snapped her head toward him.
‘What do you mean, trying him?’
‘Well . . .’
‘My father talked to you about my dowry?’
He nodded, not wanting to meet her eye.
‘I’m curious, Mr. Culhane. How much is my father offering for me?’
‘It’s all right, tell me.’
‘Six thousand dollars.’
‘And a gold pocket watch that belonged to your grandfather.’
The sun had gone down but it was still light out, a long summer evening. The humid air felt like a pond you could swim in. Vita knew that watch – her father had never liked it. The money, however, astonished her. Six thousand dollars! More than she thought. Much more.
She turned to leave. ‘You needn’t accompany me,’ she said as Jacob began to walk off the bridge with her. ‘I’ll be fine.’
‘It’s my pleasure,’ he said, though he didn’t sound particularly pleased.
The night air smelled gummy with pinesap and they kept to the middle of the road where it was driest. Neither one spoke. Vita felt as though she were in someone else’s skin; or as if, after seeing her father’s mad face, she had shrouded herself with a bed sheet. If only she could.
Six thousand dollars. She could do a lot with six thousand dollars.
When they came to Jameson’s drive she looked up at the tiny lights in the windows above them and thought about Jameson’s leering, scarecrow figure. It’s getting harder for me to button my trousers. She had twenty-four dollars saved in a tea tin, enough to get her to Philadelphia and to live for a couple of months, but nowhere near enough to see her all the way through college. Would Aunt Norbert still give her tuition money if it was expressly against her father’s wishes?
She glanced at Jacob. ‘I take it the bank declined to give you a loan? That’s why you were meeting with Mr. Jameson?’
He nodded. ‘That’s right.’
The wind rustled the tree branches and she glanced up the driveway again. At any moment someone might come down, Jameson or her father, to look for her.
She took a long breath. ‘I have a proposal for you,’ she said. ‘Perhaps we could split the dowry. Marry each other, and split the dowry. You would have money for your workshop, and I could go to college.’
For a moment, silence. Then he said, ‘That’s quite an idea.’
She could tell nothing from his voice.
‘I want to go to medical college. But even before I apply I have to train with a doctor. A preceptor, he’s called. That will cost money, and I’ll also need money for living expenses and of course later for tuition.’ One by one she put each card on the table. ‘My father won’t help me.’
‘I expect not,’ Jacob said. ‘I mean to say, a lady doctor. Not anything I’ve ever heard of, frankly.’
‘A female doctor. A lady doctor means something else,’ she corrected him, as though everyone should know that. ‘And yes, there are some. And there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be one of them. I have an excellent memory and excellent study skills. I’m certain I can carry it off.’
She wished she could see his expression.
‘However, I should be clear,’ she went on. ‘Given my plans, I can’t be a wife to you. A real wife, with babies and so forth, taking care of your home, planning the meals. I can only offer you the money you’d get from my father if you marry me. Half the money.’
‘You don’t think you can do both? Be a wife and be a doctor?’
‘And see to the house and the cooking and nurse babies? While I’m also seeing patients? No.’
He took off his hat and wiped the top of his forehead with the crook of his arm. The movement brought with it his scent – hair tonic and tobacco and something else, something of his own. She remembered his hand on her arm when they stood on the bridge, the sudden nearness of him, startling and thrilling.
‘Two households might be expensive, but remember, you’ll have money to pursue your interests while I pursue mine.’ She was a little amazed at herself; the plan sounded well thought-out even though it had been born not five minutes ago. ‘Three thousand each. That’s what I’m proposing. A marriage in name only.’
She waited. He looked down at the road, studying it.
‘I don’t want to insult you,’ he began.
Her heart plunged but she said, ‘Mr. Culhane, I am so flattened by recent events that I haven’t the energy to be insulted.’
‘I could spend the whole six thousand dollars for my enterprise,’ he told her, ‘and more.’
‘How much do you need?’
‘I was planning to ask five thousand from Mr. Jameson.’
She was silent a moment. ‘Do you think you could find a sponsor for me? To act as my preceptor? He must be a respectable doctor. In Boston, is that right? That’s where you intend to go next?’
‘I think I could.’
‘There’s a medical college in Boston that accepts women. I could live there if you could find a preceptor for me.’
‘Two households will be expensive. What do you say to one household with separate rooms – three or four hundred dollars should cover that.’
She thought it over. ‘All right, I can agree to one house. Why don’t we put five hundred dollars aside for the household, you can have thirty-five hundred, and I’ll take two thousand. Anything left over from the living expenses can be yours at the end.’
Jacob laughed, which surprised her. She heard Robinson Jameson’s front door slam shut and then a man’s voice near the house.
‘All right,’ Jacob said.
‘Yes? You agree?’
He held out his hand. ‘You’d make a good man,’ he told her. She could hear rather than see his smile, and his hand felt pleasantly warm, a giant’s heavy paw clasping her own much smaller one.
A frisson of pleasure shot up her spine.
‘I know that,’ she said.
’It is observed by the Ancients that the human voice is either shrill and puerile, or grave and masculine.’
(Dr. Boerhaave’s Academical Lectures, 1757)
September 1865, Lark’s Eye, Massachusetts
The mahogany table in the Tenneys’ back parlor was crowded with wedding gifts: painted picture frames, narrow-neck vases, porcelain candy dishes, a perfume burner, two pastel drawings of lilies in gilded frames, a silver cruet set, fish knives displayed in a walnut case, and an ewer in the shape of a Roman helmet.
Amelia’s thank-you notes had all been written and posted, but so far Vita had hastily scrawled only one, to her grandmother in New Haven:
Dear Grandmother Toombs,
I am looking for a copy of Osteographia (sometimes called The Anatomy of the Bones) by Dr. William Cheseldon, and I wonder if there’s a copy left among Grandfather’s things? I would be most happy if you would send that to me, should you have it. I can pay for postage.
P.S. Thank you for the nutmeg grinder. It will be very useful when I need to grind nutmeg.
Grandmother Toombs did not think it worth her while to take the journey for only a wedding, but she urged her granddaughters by letter ‘always to remember your duty’ and enclosed a ten-dollar bill and a prayer card for each of them.
Wedding preparations were more tedious than Vita could have imagined, notwithstanding the quiet day they were planning due to Freddy’s death and the recent war: a short ceremony in church followed by breakfast at the hotel in town. Mitty, with Sweetie on her shoulder, supervised the unwrapping of gifts and the packing of trunks with an energy Vita forgot she’d ever had.
She knew nothing of Vita’s plans. Neither did Amelia. ‘Our nefarious agreement,’ Jacob called it, when they were alone.
It gave Vita a little thrill when he said that.
The wedding was now only five days away. Standing on a footstool in the parlor while Polly Gauntt, the dressmaker, tucked and pinned white dress material around her, Vita could hear Amelia bumping a trunk along the upstairs hall. Sunshine streamed into the room, making the porcelain gifts on the table gleam like liquid. Vita angled her book away from the glare.
The arytenoid cartilages are two in number and are provided with muscles, by which the rima of the glottis may be contracted or reduced.
Polly Gauntt grunted. ‘Your sister never jiggles.’
She had to prepare as much as possible before she went to Boston in order to impress her potential preceptor, whoever he turned out to be. She was hugely disadvantaged, being a woman; she must work doubly, trebly hard. Her right arm, holding up the leather-bound book, began to ache.
‘Turn,’ Polly said.
In an hour Jacob would arrive to take her to Reverend MacNair’s house, where they would be witnesses for Gemma and Ruffy’s marriage. Upstairs Vita’s second-best dress was waiting on her bed; Gemma had ironed it and laid it out herself before she left. She would have an even quieter wedding than Vita’s: a few words in the reverend’s parlor followed by a private supper prepared by Ruffy’s mother. Gemma planned to wear her nicest burgundy tartan – which, as she herself said, was practically new, as she made it last winter – and as a wedding gift Mitty had given her a strip of Irish lace she’d had since she was a girl. At Vita’s suggestion, Reverend MacNair had agreed not to use the word ‘obey’ in Gemma and Ruffy’s ceremony. When Jacob heard about that, he laughed.
‘Why get yourself in a bother about a word you hear once in your life and never again?’ he asked.
‘You might hear it again,’ Vita told him. ‘My father says it.’
‘Oh, well, your father’s the old guard. Ruffy and me now, we’re modern men. We don’t believe all that nonsense.’
He and Ruffy, it turned out, had fought under the same commander, though a year apart. By the time Ruffy enlisted Jacob was already in Andersonville. However, to Vita’s surprise, they usually spoke about horses, never the war.
She looked up at his face to make sure he was teasing.
‘If you don’t believe it,’ she asked, teasing in return, ‘then why object to changing the word?’
They were walking in her mother’s greenhouse, where they could be alone. Vita felt the same wash of light-heartedness that she had – she now realized – relied on from Freddy. No one else in her family joked any more.
Jacob picked up a loose geranium flower that had fallen to the tiled floor and pulled off its leaf. He crushed the leaf and held it to his nose.
‘Esteem, obey; doesn’t it come to the same thing?’ He twirled the magenta-colored bud on its stem before holding it out to her.
‘I don’t think it does,’ she said, smiling.
‘It’s only a word.’
She took the flower. ‘Then you won’t mind changing it in our ceremony, too.’
He laughed. ‘Well played,’ he said, and leaned in to kiss her.
They hadn’t kissed when they got engaged that night near the footbridge; that had been a business transaction. And notwithstanding his white teeth and dark hair, the mole near his eyelid that she found so attractive, and the way his trousers hung loosely at his hips, Vita didn’t know at first if she wanted to kiss him. Was kissing part of their agreement?
She was, she had to admit to herself, curious. Maybe even, as the first week went by and he did nothing more than touch her hand, a bit disappointed. At last, a full nine days after their night on the footbridge, in the blue darkness of a summer evening, Jacob said, ‘You’re my pledged bride, and yet I haven’t kissed you. Do you think that’s strange?’
Her chest immediately tightened. They were standing on the gravel drive in front of her house; they’d just eaten supper and Vita was walking him out. Jacob was half turned toward the iron post where his horse was tethered. He looked at her sideways.
‘Not strange. Not exactly,’ she said carefully.
‘Perhaps that’s not included in our nefarious agreement?’
She tried to match his levity. ‘I’m not sure that it is.’ Still, her chest continued to feel tight and, almost without meaning to, she took a step closer.
He stepped closer too, took her by the arm, and kissed her. His aim was slightly off target; he kissed her a second time, harder. It started more awkwardly than she had imagined kisses to start, and there was a kind of shyness to Jacob’s first movement that she felt he was trying to cover up by that second, firmer kiss. As always, she could feel her brain thinking, observing, analyzing, pulling the action apart to study its pieces, while her body felt nothing like a scientist whatsoever: her middle seemed to soften and tingle at the same time.
‘All right then,’ he said, stepping back. He loosened the reins from the tethering post. ‘Now that’s done.’
For a moment she could only stare at him, her breath coming out in short, irregular blows. There. That’s done. Just a necessary formality. Had he wanted to kiss her, or not? Fireflies – photinus ignitis – sparked in the twilight as he swung himself up onto his horse. She half turned away, willing her body to toughen up. Despite her declarations – a marriage in name only – she’d wanted to kiss him.
‘However, I hope we can take up this same conversation tomorrow,’ he said smiling down at her.
So. He’d wanted it, too.
After that there followed weeks of furtive kisses, and sometimes more: his hands on her hips, her face; her fingers finding his trouser pockets and pulling him toward her so they could kiss again. Something hungry in her had started, which she didn’t understand. It was exciting and alarming. She wanted to make notes of these new sensations but she was afraid someone else might read them.
‘The arytenoid cartilages are two in number,’ she recited as Polly Gauntt pulled at the stiff white wedding dress fabric. Her arm, holding up the book, was getting tired. ‘The rima of the glottis may be contracted or reduced.’
‘What’s that, Greek?’ Polly asked, eyeing Vita’s dress sleeve with suspicion. She slid a pin out from between her lips just as Amelia poked her head into the room.
‘Jacob’s coming up the drive.’
Vita’s pulse immediately quickened. She wished, and not for the first time, that she could be cool and distant, not pulled into his – or anyone’s – sphere. Polly Gauntt helped her out of her wedding dress, and as she left the room Vita stashed her book on the gifts table. She ran up the steps two at a time, wiping her sweaty hands on her thin cotton chemise. She felt as though something important was happening, but she wasn’t sure if it had to do with doctoring – she was acting on her dreams at last – or Jacob. No doubt about it, their alliance was confusing and exciting. Was it practical, or sensual? Could it be both?
That was the question she couldn’t answer.
Amelia offered her opinion, though Vita never directly posed the question to her – ’Thank goodness you’ve come to your senses and are acting like a proper woman at last.’
In spite of the fact she would now share her wedding day with her sister, Amelia was pleased Vita was marrying Jacob. Marrying anyone, really. A betrothal, to Amelia, was neither practical nor sensual, it was simply what you did. Vita didn’t bother to argue with her. What was the point?
‘Let me help you with your buttons,’ Amelia said, following Vita into her bedroom.
‘What about Jacob?’
‘Polly will let him in. What about a black ribbon under your collar? Or a brooch?’
She had given Gemma six beautifully embroidered handkerchiefs as a wedding present. Vita had given Gemma a book.
After pinning her own brooch to Vita’s dress, Amelia stepped back to view the effect. Ever since Vita announced her engagement, Amelia had slowly but surely assumed the role of older sister – Vita was in her realm, now.
‘You need about a hundred more hairpins,’ she said.
On the morning of Gemma and Ruffy’s wedding, Jacob found himself thinking about a day he’d gone to the old quarry outside of Lark’s Eye – not swimming, exactly, but walking in the stony-cold water, although he knew how to swim. This was when his mother was still alive, and also his brother Benjy. Benjy was with him that day. Benjy was a funny child, surprising and imaginative, always wishing for impossible, spectacular things. ‘What would you like for your birthday, Benjy?’ ‘The moon on a string!’ he’d say.
The day was fantastically hot, which was why they’d gone to the quarry. How old had he been, eleven? Twelve? And Benjy must have been around seven or eight. For more than an hour they played in the water around the quarry edges, but after a while Benjy climbed out to sit partly in the sun and partly in the shade, both drying off and staying cool. Jacob, not ready yet to leave the water, walked into the deeper parts. In town they said that a horse had fallen in here years ago, and drowned. Not understanding about decomposition, Jacob both feared and thrilled to the idea that he might step on the body.
Another step. Then another. Benjy was watching, or at least Jacob imagined he was, when the stone floor suddenly gave out and Jacob plunged into the wet darkness, which was more surprising than stepping on a horse, although (he thought later) much more likely. The murky water closed over his head and his arms floated up like wings. He didn’t feel panicky, though; after the initial shock he opened his eyes to look around at the mud-green expanse. A sparkle of sunshine glittered to his right, where he could see, surprisingly, tiny snippets of fish. He had left one world and entered another. This world was cold and gripped him around his chest; it was only dimly visible, undulating, craggy, with a slightly metallic taste, but it wasn’t hostile. He could leave it at any time.
Benjy was standing at the edge of the quarry looking for him when Jacob paddled up to the surface. But Benjy didn’t appear worried. More like curious.
‘What did you see? What was down there?’ he asked.
Jacob’s first impulse was to say something fanciful: a castle, a fairy garden. But Benjy was not a good swimmer, and Jacob didn’t want him swimming out to see for himself.
‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘Just water.’
Benjy’s face crumpled. ‘Are you sure nothing else?’
‘Nope. Just muddy, cold water. Is that my shirt you’re wearing?’
Benjy’s expression – always so mobile – instantly transformed to a grin. He stepped back, clearly hoping Jacob would chase him. ‘What shirt?’ he asked.
Now, once again, Jacob felt as though he had taken leave of one world and dropped into another. The old world was cannon fire and imprisonment; it was tics and nightmares and tremors. But for the past five weeks he’d had nothing – not one nightmare, no tics, not even a slight shake in his trigger finger.
Every morning he woke up with a feeling of lightness. He’d come out on the opposite side, at last. And what was war’s opposite after all, he thought, if not family suppers and kissing in greenhouses? He’d left a brutal, complicated world behind him for something much softer.
He didn’t think of it as falling in love, though he didn’t have much experience there. As a young man in Cincinnati, he had twice found himself infatuated with beautiful, unreachable young women – one was a state senator’s daughter – whom he’d met at the charitable teas that were popular then. He wore his new, tight clothes and tried to match the tone of other young men, but he still felt like a farmer’s son.
Araminta; that had been the name of the senator’s daughter. He couldn’t remember the name of the other one. Both now seemed as insubstantial as paper dolls compared to Vita.
Vita was energy made flesh with her quick mind and almost constant motion. She was always getting the side of her dress caught on a splinter of wood in a doorframe, or knocking into a side table. She wore the smallest hoop imaginable – maybe because of this need to keep moving – and once or twice he had sworn she wasn’t wearing a corset under her dress.
He found himself thinking about that. What was under her dress.
At first he hesitated even to take her hand, not sure of the parameters of their agreement. But as the days went by he began to wonder if her hair was as soft as it looked. He noticed how he contrived to touch her, and how he liked to breathe in her scent – vanilla soap and lead pencil and, faintly, something of the leather-bound books she always carried. He liked the tones of her husky voice when she spoke to him, and the way she looked so intently at him when he spoke to her. And when they finally kissed for the first time, Jacob felt a sensation float like a rose petal from the base of his spine to the back of his head. He had an urge to lean in, to pull Vita closer, but instead he stepped back and tried to cover up his desire with a joke.
‘Now that’s done,’ he’d said. Could she hear his forced jocularity? He mounted his horse quickly, not sure if he’d botched it or not. He wanted badly to kiss her again.
And they did kiss again. She seemed almost as eager as he was. And for all her intensity, he felt easier in her presence. She liked his jokes and teases; maybe that was part of it. His hands were steady as he encircled her tiny wrists and drew her closer. Before they kissed Vita always looked up at him with an expression somehow secret and personal, something meant only for him.
Castles and fairy gardens.
A world underwater.
‘Did you decide to hire a buggy?’ Holland asked him at breakfast. ‘Or will you borrow the doctor’s?’
Jacob had discussed with him how he would need a buggy to take Vita and himself to Gemma and Ruffy’s wedding. Holland, who was planning on buying his own carriage after his wedding, had been reading up on the latest models.
‘I was able to get over to Tillings’s yesterday after all, and his price seems fair.’
‘A rather cumbersome contraption, as I recall,’ Holland said.
‘I’d rather not bother the doctor.’
He’d hired a horse from Mr. Tillings after he and Vita announced their engagement and he decided to stay on in Lark’s Eye. The horse, Molly O’Grady, was a sweet-tempered bay although as slow as the summer sun, as his mother used to say. He rode her down to Tillings’s soon after the church bells rang noon and, as arranged, he handed over a newly minted half-dollar for the use of their two-seated buggy for the day. The boy who worked for Mr. Tillings helped Jacob adjust the harness and buckle the crupper beneath the mare’s tail. His name was Frank Pride, and his quick half-smile reminded Jacob a little of his brother Benjy. He had light brown skin and green eyes.
‘Are you related to the Frank Pride who worked for Mr. Norbert some years back?’ Jacob put a hand on Molly O’Grady’s flank to keep her calm while Frank finished tightening the crupper.
‘Yessir, that was my dad. Did you know him?’
‘I used to run errands for him sometimes when I was a boy. I was sorry to hear he’d passed on.’
The boy bowed his head, acknowledging this, while still intent on his task. Frank Pride, Sr., had been the coach driver for Ezra Norbert – Vita’s wealthy uncle. If Jacob was in town, Mr. Pride would pay him a penny to go into a shop and fetch whatever Mr. Norbert wanted fetching that day. He always asked after Jacob’s mother and father. ‘You make sure to help your mother today, son,’ he would say.
Had Mr. Pride once been a slave? Jacob, as a boy, never wondered, but he wondered now as he and Frank rolled the buggy up behind the horse and pushed the shafts in place. During the war, there’d been two runaway slaves who lived with his company when they were stationed near Frankfort, Kentucky. Mag and Nathan, their names were; they’d come from a horse farm in the southern part of the state. They were thin and jittery, and stayed with the company for over a month before crossing the river to Ohio. Their dream, Nathan told Jacob, was to find their way to Canada. To leave Kentucky and this whole cursed country far behind them. Mag had a long, suspiciously straight scar from her shoulder to her wrist, as though someone had started to skin her. Nathan’s back was crossed with whip marks.
‘Is your mother from Lark’s Eye, too?’ Jacob asked Frank.
‘No, she’s Irish, she came from Dublin,’ the boy said. ‘She works in Mrs. Norbert’s kitchen.’
‘Well, try to help her out at home whenever you can,’ Jacob said. He grinned. ‘That’s what your father always said to me.’
They adjusted the slanted buggy top and locked it in place. Jacob climbed up to the seat and touched his hat to Frank, who stepped back to look over the outfit with a professional eye. He nodded and smiled – it looks fine – and then he lifted his hand in farewell.
It was a hot day for September, the last breath of summer. Jacob drove slowly along the road and over the old stone bridge to the Tenneys’ drive, halting the mare under the shade of two cuddling birch trees at the side of the house. He could smell the jasmine planted nearby and he stopped to take a long breath, his hands in his pockets. The sun felt warm on his back.
Before he could knock on the door the seamstress, wearing a hat that resembled a netted pincushion, came out. She was carrying her cumbersome sewing bag in two arms like a baby, and she told Jacob that Miss Vita would be down to the parlor directly. He thanked her as she nudged past him.
‘And a happy day to you, sir,’ she said.
Inside, the house was still and quiet and cool. He wondered if Dr. Tenney was locked in his office as usual. There was no sign of Mrs. Tenney or either of her daughters.
For a while he amused himself in the parlor by looking at the gifts table. He spotted a small leather book half hidden between two painted vases and picked it up; the author was a fellow named Boerhaave. Never heard of him. He flipped through the pages, impressed by the serious language.
‘It is observed by the Ancients,’ he read aloud to Vita when she came in, ‘that the human voice is either shrill and puerile, or grave and masculine.’
He grinned, holding his place in the book with his thumb. ‘Has anyone ever told you that your voice is grave and masculine?’
‘Fairly everyone.’ She took the book from him and put it back behind the vases.
‘Grave and masculine, despite your little size,’ he continued as they went outside. ‘Though to be honest, I’m not sure I would prefer shrill. A shrill voice is harder to ignore.’
‘You would like to ignore me?’
He put his hand on her elbow to help her up into the buggy. ‘I could never ignore you,’ he said.
‘Because of my voice?’
‘Mmm . . . and other things.’
She raised her eyebrows. ‘What other things?’
‘Oh no, I don’t want your head to swell. Anymore than it is,’ he amended. He settled himself on the seat beside her and took up the reins.
‘My head isn’t swollen! I know where I excel, that’s all.’
‘I don’t suppose there is anything you think you’re not good at?’
‘Certainly there is. I’m no good at hat trimming, for one.’
He turned and looked at her small, dark hat, exaggerating his study. ‘Yes, I can see that,’ he said.
She laughed. It felt good to be outside, hot though it was, with a breeze blowing in the salty scent of the ocean.
‘And what about me?’ Jacob asked as they turned toward the old stone bridge. ‘Does my voice please you? Or anything else?’
She pretended to think. ‘Well, let’s see.’ One of the wheels bumped over a rock in the road and she put a hand on the side of the buggy to steady herself. ‘You wear your trousers well.’
To her surprise, his cheeks reddened. ‘Do I?’
‘Oh yes. They cover your abdominal region adequately but not excessively, protecting your vital organs, and they are not too tight, which would infringe upon your digestion.’
By the time she got to vital organs Jacob’s blush had faded and he began to smile good-humoredly.
‘Well that is good news. I would hate to infringe upon my digestion.’
‘It’s one of your better qualities.’
‘Perhaps my best.’ He looked sideways at her. ‘Why don’t you take off your gloves, Vee. I want to feel your tiny hand in my rough and uncouth paw.’
‘Can a paw be uncouth?’ But she took off her glove. His hand was warm and comfortable. ‘Amelia told me that Holland is only allowed to hold her hand if she has gloves on. And he can kiss her once a day, in the evening, on the cheek.’
‘Poor fellow. It must be hard knowing that I got the better choice of Tenney daughters.’
Vita felt a prick of pleasurable surprise. No one ever preferred her over her sister. Had she secretly wanted this, too?
‘And now,’ Jacob said as the reverend’s house came in sight over the hill, ‘we should begin to practice our parts.’
‘And what parts are those?’
‘Two young people in love.’
She laughed again. Her heart rose in her chest.
‘They’ll never believe that,’ she said.
Reverend MacNair was a kind, abstracted man who paid little attention to bodily comfort; his jackets and trousers were made from the roughest homespun, and his lean brick house, as small as a hat shop, was furnished with unpainted furniture and braided rag rugs. The rugs, made by Mrs. MacNair, were maroon and brown and matched the leather covers of the books in the bookcases. Despite her black lace mourning collar and cuffs, Vita felt overly vibrant in her royal blue dress; whereas Gemma, wearing a modest burgundy tartan, appeared perfectly in keeping with the parlor’s decor.
Her face was glowing.
‘Jenny dressed my hair,’ she told Vita in a low voice. ‘What do you think?’
Only this morning she’d been wearing her usual neat gray dress while she cleaned Dar’s boot soles with a wire brush. Somehow she looked younger now: a little girl trying on her mother’s clothes and practicing hairstyles that were much too grownup for her.
To Vita’s surprise, she felt tears in her eyes. ‘You look beautiful.’
Ruffy looked uncomfortable in his Sunday clothes and stiff new shoes. In contrast to Gemma, his face, weathered by the outside life of a soldier, seemed older than his seventeen years, although his eyes were the eyes of a boy in church, not quite sure how to look sufficiently solemn. The left cuff of his suit sleeve had been folded up and neatly sewn in compensation for his missing hand.
‘Thank you for standing up for us,’ Ruffy said formally to Jacob, who laughed and clapped him on his shoulder, saying, ‘It’s nothing, you old soldier.’
After a few minutes Mrs. MacNair showed them their places in the front of the room. It was a short ceremony. Gemma and Ruffy stood with their elbows touching as the reverend read from his Bible, spoke a few words about duty and love, and then asked them to repeat their vows. When he used the word ‘esteem’ instead of ‘obey,’ Jacob caught Vita’s eye and smiled.
Afterward Mrs. MacNair served small glasses of elderberry wine that matched Gemma’s dress and the rugs.
‘May joy and peace surround you,’ she toasted the couple.
Gemma blushed her own, peculiar blush that affected only the tip of her nose and her cheekbones. She was happy. A mundane observance, perhaps, but the truth of it felt like a thumb pressing on Vita’s heart. Gemma was following the natural order of love, whereas Vita had constructed something artificial and planned.
She looked at Jacob as she raised her glass. Their secret was a bond between them, but it also made her feel lonely.
Afterwards they all went outside to see Gemma and Ruffy off. Ruffy had borrowed a little pony cart from the MacNairs, and someone – Mrs. MacNair, probably – had woven blue and white ribbons into the pony’s mane. Ruffy, holding the reins with his good hand, gave a festive shake to start her going.
Yellow dust circled up behind the wheels. Gemma clamped a hand down on her hat and twisted around. ‘Good-bye! Good-bye!’
They would eat a celebratory dinner and afterwards go to their new rooms above the Barstows’ stables. Gemma would still work for the Tenneys but she’d been given leave to arrive later than usual tomorrow: half-past ten.
The MacNairs shook hands with Vita and Jacob and went back inside their house. Gemma is married, Vita thought. It felt strange, and not quite real. When she glanced up at Jacob she saw, to her surprise, that his face was solemn, too.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
From here they could look out across the road to the wide bare fields and marshes that used to be stands of hardwood trees. A few roofs were visible in the town beyond, and ribbons of spindly fir trees, newly planted, encircled some of the farmyards. The ocean was below all that, a hidden power, like memory.
‘It’s nothing,’ Jacob said. ‘Just – the toast Mrs. MacNair gave, that was something my friend Caleb used to say.’
‘The Caleb who drew your barrel plans?’ She tried to think back to the toast.
‘May joy and peace surround us before long. He said it at Christmas, back at Andersonville. It was only the five of us – the Five Knights, we called ourselves. We shared a tent, a very sad kind of shelter – ’ he tried to smile, ‘that Caleb and the others built a couple of weeks before I got there, but it was better than a lot of men had. We’d managed to get a little flour from somewhere and cooked up some pancakes. That was our Christmas treat.’ They used tree sap as syrup – which also helped irritable stomachs – mixed with a bit of sugar that Caleb snuck out in a twist of paper from the cookhouse, where he worked.
‘Near the cookhouse was the storehouse, and just before Christmas the Sanitary Commission had sent two or three dozen hams for Union prisoners, but of course the rebels saved them all for themselves instead. Caleb got hold of a little chunk of one of them, about the size of your hand maybe, and we had that for our Christmas dinner, too. We didn’t have any knives for cutting so we just took turns taking bites.’
Vita hesitated. ‘Caleb was a good friend to you,’ she said.
Jacob could feel the sun on the back of his neck, even hotter now than it was at noon when he rode out to Tillings’s stables. Already it was hard to remember how hungry they’d been all the time, and how sick. Flux. Dysentery. Fevers. They used to dream about tunneling from the cookhouse to the storehouse – Caleb had even managed to pull up a kitchen floorboard – but it never came to anything.
‘He saved my life,’ Jacob said.
On his very first morning at Andersonville, waking up on the cold ground among the worms and flies and excrement, he found Caleb’s piercing blue eyes watching him. He had a fuzz of blond hair and high cheekbones, and Jacob could still hear his voice, raspy and low, as if coming through a fine sieve: Would you like a better sleeping spot? Caleb was cheerful and smart, and he never gave up hope that they would be released. There will be an exchange of prisoners before long, he used to say; the trick is to stay alive until that time comes.
But it was more than a trick. It was the conjurer’s last, most spectacular miracle. By the time they were liberated, more than half the prisoners were so weak they had to be pushed out in wheelbarrows, and of the Five Knights – Caleb, Ethan, Lewis, Tom, and Jacob – only Jacob survived. He might not have been tempted by Dr. Tenney’s proposed dowry had it not been one way to keep Caleb’s dream – the modified oil barrels – alive. And he wasn’t taking advantage of Vita, he told himself, since she herself had proposed the deal.
He could feel her watching him now. Slowly he became aware of layers of sound: the wind, cicadas, a bird clacking, and something scratching in the hedge. He looked down the empty road where a loose swarm of insects hovered drunkenly above the dirt. Vita was standing very still beside him. After a moment she reached out to squeeze his arm, briefly, in sympathy.
He nodded. Then he took off his hat and, with his fingers spread flat, he brushed off one side and then the other. When he replaced his hat on his head he felt marginally better, as if by altering the hat’s condition he had altered his own mood. He held his arm out for Vita to take, and they began to walk back to the buggy.
‘Well, anyway, they’ve done it,’ he said.
‘Who? Gemma and Ruffy?’
He helped her up to the seat, which was covered by a thin washed-out blanket – once pink, he guessed, or maybe blue? – and as she sorted her skirts he climbed up beside her.
‘You know what the Irish say.’
‘What’s that?’ Vita asked.
‘There’s no cure for love except to marry.’
As he unhooked the reins he could feel her looking at him curiously – that intense, penetrating look of hers – as though trying to make out whether he was joking or not.
’A virgin’s desire to marry is known by several signs: her spirit is brisk and inflamed, her body is heated, and she craves sharp and salty food.’
(Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Anonymous, 1717)
The next morning Vita stood at the window with Sweetie on her shoulder a good half an hour before Gemma was due at the house. When Gemma did arrive, she didn’t look any different. She was wearing the same gray dress she always wore, and in the kitchen she put on one of the three nearly identical aprons that she kept at the house; today it was the one with a little round hole near the hem where an oven spark had burned through it.
Mrs. Ruffy Barstow! It was hard to attach that name to Gemma with her bony shoulders and long thin hands.
‘Well?’ Vita prompted when at last Mrs. Oakum went upstairs to sweep the parlor carpets, and they were alone. Gemma began to make the codfish balls they were having for dinner. ‘What was it like?’
Gemma’s nose flushed pink as she chopped fish into flinty particles. ‘I don’t know. It was – well. At first I didn’t know where to look, I was that embarrassed. And you know, I’d never seen his missing hand not covered up before. But it wasn’t bad, just a knob, mostly smooth and regular.’
‘Were you nervous?’
‘Of course! And Ruffy, too, his breath was coming all quick.’ Her knife stilled a moment. ‘It was a bit squirmy, you might say, all arms and legs. I don’t think I ever pictured it right. I was surprised at how close you have to be to make it happen.’
Vita pulled the bowl of butter from its shelf and looked for a spoon. She nodded to Gemma – Go on.
‘Closer than close, every part of you. All your skin touching. I never read about that. You can’t imagine how warm and lovely. Ruffy knew even less than me, I think. I had to sort of push his hoochydink around to where it needed to be.’
They both laughed. The tip of Gemma’s nose was bright pink as she scraped the chopped fish into a basin of water with the blunt edge of her knife. Vita added a spoonful of butter the size of an acorn to the mixture, and Gemma cracked an egg into it.
‘What did Ruffy do next?’ she asked. ‘Did he say anything?’
‘He was breathing so fast he couldn’t talk. At least not the first time.’
‘The first time?’
‘You don’t have to do it only once in a night. He told me that. Also – ’
‘Ruffy doesn’t want a baby,’ Gemma told her, not looking up. ‘Or, not right away. He wants us to save up our money so he can start his own stable and breed horses. For a year, he said. And what do you think? He knows how not to make one.’
‘How not to make one?’
Gemma added cold mashed potatoes to the basin and began stirring everything together.
‘He got up a jar of water with vinegar and baking soda. Then he turned around while I washed myself.’
‘Before, or after?’
‘After. And then wouldn’t you know it a minute later we were back under the covers and him telling me we don’t have to do it just the once. It was dark out by then, or almost.’
‘Tell me more about the vinegar and baking soda.’
Gemma wiped her hands on a striped dishtowel. ‘It cleans you out down there, he says, and that keeps babies from starting.’
‘Does it work?’
Gemma’s nose flushed pink again. ‘We’ll see.’
Vita grabbed a handful of the sticky mixture and began rolling it between her hands to make a ball. Like most girls in Lark’s Eye, Vita and Amelia were taught to help with household tasks – beating rugs outside in the spring, or making cider in autumn. They were New Englanders after all; they were not like the rich families their ancestors had fled from in Europe. They were made from, or had become, sturdier stock.
But Vita wasn’t thinking about codfish even as she reached out to get another handful from the bowl. She was thinking about Gemma’s cousin who had once gone to a woman – a lady doctor, as her father would say – hoping to get rid of a baby, although it didn’t take. Ellie, who was unmarried, now worked in a herring factory on the coast while her mother raised the child. It was hard enough to stop a baby once it started, but Vita had never even heard of how you could keep a baby from starting in the first place. Except, of course, by not lying with a man.
She thought of Jacob’s brown eyes, the dark mole near his eyelid, the way he listened to her and called her Vee. She could understand how Ellie might let that misfortune happen to her. And it was a misfortune for Ellie, a great misfortune, since everyone knew all about it and she had been lucky to get a job ladling glops of herring into tins in a factory line. Vita spotted Ellie a few weeks ago in town wearing cracked boots and a low hat pulled over her forehead. She walked like an old woman already, as if every step was an apology for the space she took up, although she wasn’t much older than Vita.
‘Do you think you could ask Ruffy what he put into the vinegar water?’ Vita asked, wiping her hands. ‘I mean precisely, the exact solution?’
There was a croak and a groan on the kitchen stairs. ‘Stop your gossiping, girls,’ Mrs. O. called out. ‘I’m coming down.’
Vita reached out to squeeze Gemma’s arm. ‘You’re a real married woman now.’
Gemma laughed happily. ‘Hardly,’ she said.
The morning after Gemma and Ruffy’s wedding Jacob almost missed breakfast – unusual for him. He was filling out; his trousers fit him more snugly, and his cheeks had lost their slightly sunken look. He was able to eat more at one sitting, and his hunger had a different feel. Less desperate. Maybe it was simply knowing that there was food for him now any time he wanted.
But that morning he woke late and then lay on his back in bed feeling uneasy in a way he could not at first identify. Something brushed his face – a speck of plaster from the ceiling? He touched the soft pouch beneath his eye with his forefinger. Pop.
It wasn’t dust. The tic beneath his eye had returned.
It felt like the heartbeat of a hummingbird, or a flea that had been caught under his skin and was pushing to get out. He waited, hoping it was temporary. Pop, pop.
His heart sank. He thought all that was over, just like his life as a soldier and prisoner was over. How long could the fingers of war keep their grip on a man?
It must have been Ruffy and Gemma’s wedding that did it, he thought. It brought back memories, and not only about Caleb. Once at Andersonville there was a prisoner who’d found a white dress among the clothes sent every month by the Sanitary Commission, and he wore it all day long, pretending to be a bride. The man – a former sharpshooter from Pittsburgh – put a floppy collar on his head like a veil and he got a good laugh, and later a whipping when it became clear he hadn’t worn the dress just for fun.
But who did anything in Andersonville just for fun? Even Jacob’s own mates, the Five Knights, told jokes only because they knew they had to in order to stay sane, trying to maintain a distance from the horrors of prison life.
What’s the difference between your greatcoat and a baby? One you wear and the other you was.
How are two lovers like two armies? They generally get along until they’re engaged.
One guard had stuffed the sharpshooter’s makeshift veil into the poor man’s mouth while they whipped him. Jacob tried not to look, but the sight of a man being whipped in a dress was seared into his brain.
The smell of fried ham and coffee wafted up to his room, and he could hear Mrs. Linden’s commanding voice followed by the sliding bang of the dining room door. He got out of bed and made his way gingerly to the washstand, keeping a careful balance as if he’d had too much to drink the night before.
He looked into the mirror. The tic wasn’t noticeable unless he stared hard. He washed his face, and then slipped his hands into his two oval palm brushes, which had leather straps instead of handles. He dipped the bristles into the tepid basin water and, using both brushes simultaneously, smoothed back his black hair, one brush to a side. A gentle caress. This sometimes helped.
But the tic pulsed, and pulsed again. Pop. Pop, pop.
The brushes were a gift from his late cousin’s widow, Samantha, a woman Jacob had once asked to marry him. This was right before war was officially declared and everyone was nervous, taking chances or acting out of character, feeling a sea change coming. Even at the time Jacob sensed he didn’t mean it – it was an impulse born from fear rather than love.
Fortunately Samantha told him plainly that she planned never to marry again. She was independent for the first time in her life, and she liked it. Although she wasn’t rich she could live within her means, perhaps taking in a boarder once in a while if she felt a pinch.
‘But aren’t you lonely?’ Jacob had asked.
She smiled. ‘Not at all.’
He put down the hairbrushes and peered at the side of his face again. Was the tic losing its punch? Maybe no one would notice it. But Vita was keenly observant.
I don’t want her pity, he thought.
He could hear Holland Granger humming in the hallway, then changing the tune as he went down the stairs. They’d taken to eating breakfast together, after which Holland went to inspect the work being done on the new high school and Jacob wrote letters, finalizing plans for moving to Boston. He’d found a house and had engaged a woman to cook and clean. This afternoon he planned to stop by the bank to pick up the sale of purchase for his father’s farm, and then he and Holland would ride over to the Tenneys’ together for supper. In less than a week Jacob would be a married man living in Boston. But for a moment, he couldn’t picture it. It felt like a story he’d heard, not a life he would live.
Maybe he didn’t want to live it?
Was he anxious about marrying? Was that why the tic had returned? He thought again about how glad he’d been when Samantha refused him. How he realized that he didn’t want to get married, not really. Maybe he still didn’t.
Marriage is a cage, his father liked to say. Usually when his mother was standing nearby.
Jacob’s cousin, Walter Friel – Samantha’s late husband – had been a stockbroker, and he also inherited his father’s furniture business. He was older than Jacob by a good ten years, but he was always kind to him when they met, treating him like a younger brother, listening seriously to his plans. The Friels lived in New Bedford, where Jacob’s mother was from. This was her side of the family. Walter had been an only child and died childless. Before the war, he went to Cincinnati every six months or so for business and he used to take Jacob out for a meal when he was there. The last time they met they talked about the falling grain prices, the shuttered mills and factories, and all the men out of work. The newspapers were calling it the Panic of 1857. Jacob’s own business held on, but barely; this was when he began to suspect that riverboats were a thing of the past; the future was in rail. Only a few weeks later Walter suffered a fatal stroke, and the next time Jacob saw Samantha – in New Bedford, at the funeral – she embodied what was now, after the war, a familiar sight: a young, beautiful, lively woman dressed head to toe in black.
As Jacob buttoned up a clean shirt he asked himself why he hadn’t thought to invite Samantha to their wedding. She was his only living relative, even if it wasn’t by blood. She still lived in New Bedford and could easily get to Lark’s Eye by train. If he wrote quickly and posted it himself, the letter might get to her tomorrow.
He put a finger on his tic, trying to calm it as you would calm a worked-up dog. He didn’t want to admit weakness, but at the same time he wanted support. Someone from his old world. Like Walter, Samantha always made him feel wanted, even important. Less alone.
He scribbled a note at his desk and slid it into an envelope as he went down the stairs, hoping he wasn’t too late for coffee at least. As the tic pulsed under his eye he thought of the old quarry again; how the cold, stone floor disappeared so suddenly from under his feet. One minute he was above water, the next minute he wasn’t. He could still remember the green murky world when he opened his eyes. The feeling of the slow float down.
Out here, he thought as he walked into the dining room, it’s all shifting sand to begin with.
Vita wondered if there were any books or articles in her father’s office about how to not start a baby. She’d been meaning to do another sweep of his shelves anyway, since Grandmother Toombs never did send her any medical books. This wasn’t all that surprising since she was the least sentimental person Vita had ever met. She’d probably gotten rid of all of her late husband’s tomes and journals within six months of his death. When, as a child, Vita went to New Haven for her grandfather’s funeral, she had watched in amazement as her great-uncle Robert covered his face with a handkerchief, crying and blowing his nose. Vita had never seen a man cry before. Meanwhile her grandmother stood dry-eyed and as stiff as a lampshade in her panoply of black silk, composed enough to scold a maid when she dropped a wet umbrella on the floor.
And so, late in the afternoon, while her father was napping, Vita stole into his office. She had to be quick; Holland and Jacob would be arriving soon for supper, and her father might wake up at any time.
She opened a window, trying to dispel the smell of sweat and spent coals. But as she turned back toward the bookshelves, her attention was caught by an open letter on her father’s desk. The name ‘Fred’ leaped out from the page. Fred . . . Fred, and again, at the bottom, Fred.
She turned the letter over and looked at the signature. Dr. David Boutwell. She turned back and started to read from the beginning.
August 4, 1865
Dear Dr. Tenney,
I have thought of my friend, your son Frederick, many times, and I was immensely sorry to hear of his death. The news of it came to me only this morning, and I wish to offer my most sincere condolences. Your son was a good soldier and a generous friend, and I am sorry that I could not be with him at his last, having left the unit six weeks earlier. Although he was liked by everyone, I believe we shared a special bond. We often went mushroom hunting together, and we were also both interested in identifying local birds and their calls. In fact we had a little competition going on in that area, which I believe he ultimately won.
I thought I might share with you a few of my treasured memories of Fred, times we spent together before I left the unit. In the hospital tent, where he kindly assisted me . . .
Dr. Boutwell described how Freddy bandaged wounded soldiers and held cups of water up to their lips. He assisted Dr. Boutwell with minor surgeries and read to the men as they convalesced, or didn’t. Once, miraculously, Freddy found some brandy ‘from the Lord knows where’ to put in a bowl of milk gruel for a man who was dying – who didn’t last the night – and fed him by hand.
It may give you comfort to know what a fine young man you raised, Dr. Boutwell wrote. He was unselfish and giving to the last.
Vita wiped her cheek quickly, roughly, with the heel of her hand. She became aware of horses clopping up the gravel drive, and moments later voices floated through the open window. Holland and Jacob.
She turned the letter over and put it back on her father’s desk. The Freddy in these stories was the adult Freddy, not her prankster brother. It was the man she didn’t get the chance to know, although she could picture him frowning in concentration, giving an injured man the kind of thoughtful care he gave injured birds when he found them. At home she never saw him pay the same strict attention to any person that he’d paid to his birds and animals. People, to Freddy, were easy; they fended for themselves. They didn’t need his care. Until, apparently, they did.
‘Why not?’ she heard Holland ask from outside the window.
‘Most of the barrels were first used for other things, like beer or molasses, even turpentine. And they leak like the dickens. That’s what I’m aiming to fix.’
Jacob was telling him about his patent idea, the modified barrels for petroleum.
‘Is it a matter of binding the hoops more securely?’ Holland asked. ‘Or modifying the staves?’
By now they were standing so near the window that they would see her if she crossed the room. She straightened the letter on the desk with her fingertips. She wasn’t ready yet to banter or be teased.
‘More like the glue for the staves. I hear that Rockefeller only uses white oak for his barrels, and he cures the staves right where they’re cut, to make them lighter. Cheaper freight costs that way, too. But they still need a better glue.’
‘You know, it occurs to me that Vita likes that sort of thing.’
She froze. Jacob said something she couldn’t make out.
‘Oh, experiments,’ Holland said. ‘Recording results. Retesting, changing the variables. All that. She’s quite disciplined. Too bad she’s a woman.’
‘Well, I can’t agree with you there.’ Vita could hear a smile in Jacob’s voice.
‘There was talk once of her going to college,’ Holland said. ‘Her mother mentioned it. Not a worthwhile expense, in my opinion. I mean, she’s smart enough certainly, but what would be the use? For a woman, that is. Anyway, then the war came.’
‘I don’t see the use of it for anyone,’ Jacob said. ‘I can read and write and do sums. What more do you need? Anyway, Vita and I have an agreement.’
‘Oh, yes? What’s your agreement?’
Vita held her breath.
‘She can read as many books as she wants, but only the books that I give her.’
Holland laughed. ‘Well, then, you had better find a good number of books about oak barrels.’
He doesn’t see the use for college? Is this what he really thinks? A tight knot of anger swirled in Vita’s chest and lasted all through supper.
‘You were the one who didn’t want anyone to know,’ Jacob said when she confronted him later.
‘Because of my father! He’s – ’ she didn’t want to say mad. ‘I don’t know what he might do. Anything. Call off the wedding.’
‘Lock you up in a tower?’
‘Don’t joke,’ she said.
His cheek twitched, and he quickly turned his head. She was walking him out after supper. It was dusk, and the last of the fireflies were signaling each other. She thought of the first time Jacob kissed her, here on this very spot. She shoved the memory away.
‘Is our agreement still on?’ she demanded.
‘Of course it’s still on.’
‘Has my father given you the check?’
‘Why, are you worried?’
Knowing her father, he would pay up but not until after the wedding ceremony, when she was properly tied. ‘I’m sure he’ll be true to his word. He likes you. You’re a self-made man. That’s how he thinks of himself, too.’
Jacob reached out to touch her arm but the movement seemed forced. Was he hiding something? How did he really feel? It occurred to her that he never talked about her studies except as a joke. Like yesterday, when he found her Boerhaave book. Last week when she asked him if he’d found a preceptor for her, he told her not to worry. ‘When we get to Boston I’ll find one,’ he’d said.
‘Do you really think college is no place for a woman?’ she asked him now.
‘I didn’t say that. What I said was I didn’t see its use – for anyone. But I didn’t actually mean it. I was throwing him off the scent.’
‘I don’t see why you had to.’
‘You don’t? All right.’ He looked at his horse. ‘But just so you know, I don’t think that really.’
She wanted to believe him. She fingered the small book in her pocket, Elements of Surgery, which she grabbed at random from her father’s shelf before she left his office. She indulged in an old fantasy: her father would see her performing some complicated procedure, and praise her skill. Her anger shifted, and then stepped back an inch.
‘Well,’ she said. ‘I like that you lied for me.’
‘I did lie for you. I never thought much about college one way or another until I came back to Lark’s Eye.’
‘But you’d like your doctors to be well trained, certainly.’
‘I’d like you to be well trained.’ He took her in his arms, and she didn’t resist.
But she couldn’t help reflecting that in truth she knew very little about him; he left Lark’s Eye when she was still a child. He built a business, fought in the war, was captured, survived. He almost never talked about the war, not even to Ruffy who’d fought in it, too. His attention to her sparked a warmth in her that she hadn’t known she wanted. Maybe they would execute their plan – splitting the dowry, using the money to pay for a preceptor for her and a workshop for him – and then stay together at the end of it. She was beginning to want that. She inhaled his clean smell of starch and soap, and the musky hint of hair tonic.
‘By the way,’ Jacob said as he pulled the stirrups down from the saddle. ‘I’ve invited my cousin Samantha to the wedding.’
‘Who?’ She’d never heard of a cousin.
‘Samantha Friel. My cousin Walter’s widow. You’ll like her, I promise.’
Vita looked up at him. ‘Why should I like her?’
‘She’s very personable. And well read.’
Something bright and energetic colored his expression. He’s proud of this cousin, Vita thought. This Samantha.
‘Not as well read as you, of course,’ he said. ‘And her voice is considerably quieter.’
So they were back to bantering. But she felt crossed with uncomfortable feelings; one of which might, she feared, be jealousy. Why had he never mentioned this cousin before?
‘Is she pretty?’ she couldn’t help asking.
‘Of course!’ He smiled at her. ‘I make it my business only to associate with pretty women.’
Not really the answer she wanted.
’In the case of overexcitement before marriage, a cure can be effected by sleeping on a straw mattress and washing the genitalia with poppy-heads, lettuce, and henbane.’
(Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Anonymous, 1717)
In town Marie noticed a miniature paper flag in the whip-socket of an unfamiliar wagon. It was stopped in front of the hotel, and she guessed that another batch of soldiers was traveling through Lark’s Eye on their way home. Some old whaling man was probably standing them a drink right this minute in the hotel bar, talking up battles and bravery. She decided to put off her errand inside.
‘I thought you wanted to check on the food for the wedding?’ Arthur said as she turned away. He walked as if balancing on uneven sticks; she’d persuaded him to come ‘out in the sunshine’ with her, with the added lure of going to the tavern to see if his favorite whiskey had been delivered. He liked to keep a few bottles at home.
He needed to get out in the world more, Marie thought. That morning, while he was eating breakfast, she took the opportunity to open the smoke-stained curtains in his office. She’d looked around in dismay at the stacks of newspapers on the floor, the piles of unopened letters, the browning curls of apple peels in the ashtrays. Dust mites floated to the carpet like coal detritus, heavy and spent. He’d made a small pocket of industry at his desk: one cleared space where he could set a newspaper to read. She was tempted to throw open the curtained French doors that led to the side yard for air, but she’d have to move two towers of old medical journals simply to get to them.
She spotted Arthur’s red leather appointment diary on top of one of the towers. The last time he wrote in it was over a month ago.
Monday. Collect shoes. Inspect Wilkinson’s horse. Call on Mrs. Everly, complaint of jaw pain.
Tuesday. Wilkinson’s horse. Call on Mrs. Everly if time.
Wednesday. Horse. Call on Mrs. Everly.
Thursday. Call on Mrs. Everly, or ask Quane to see her. Jaw complaint.
Friday. Collect shoes.
Had he ever called on poor Mrs. Everly, who lived alone above her son’s glove shop? Certainly he hadn’t fetched his mended shoes – Mrs. O. had asked Gemma, finally, to collect them – and he never got around to seeing Wilkinson’s horse, either. Wilkinson sold it to a dairy farmer named Dobbs, and Marie knew this only because Arthur complained bitterly about the sale at dinner. But the next morning, when she asked him if he planned to look at another horse, he’d already forgotten about it.
‘Why would I need another horse?’ he’d asked.
‘I mean because Wilkinson sold his.’
‘Did he? Well, it was an old sway-backed thing anyway.’
Marie became momentarily confused. ‘So you did see the horse?’
His face clouded. ‘Certainly. Of course.’ He turned as he spoke, obviously lying.
Now as they shuffled along – Marie slowed her pace to match her husband’s – she said, ‘It’s so nice out. I think I’ll just sit on a bench and wait for you while you collect your whiskey. I can ask Mr. Cummings about the food later.’ She didn’t want Arthur to see any soldiers, it upset him.
But he said, ‘Then I’ll sit, too, and catch my breath.’
They crossed over to the green. Marie chose a bench that faced away from the hotel. Horses were tethered along the road, some attached to buggies, a few with feed sacks hanging from their necks.
She felt an ache in the back of her neck as though she’d been carrying a weight on her head, an ancient woman balancing a water jug on her skull. When they returned home she would go up to her bedroom, close the door, and drink her tea laced with Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup so she could think about Freddy without quite so much anguish. And it was important to think about him, to keep him alive. Once when she was walking in town – this was years ago, before the war certainly – she saw a thin baby bird splayed on the sidewalk, its neck at an odd angle, dead. It was small and featherless, with veins like indigo thread. It must have fallen out of its nest. Its mother hovered and swooped, pecking at passersby, guarding the body. Marie stopped a few paces away to watch, amazed. But a half a minute later the mother bird flew off and didn’t come back. Had she given up? Forgotten? Marie didn’t know what was worse: to see your offspring die; or, after they died, to forget them.
And so she had her laced tea twice a week, and looked at Freddy’s letters and photographs. His jug ears and his army tent. But what did Arthur have? All of his newspapers were nothing but painful reminders, yet she was afraid that without them he’d become untethered completely.
‘I’ve ordered eggs, a decorated ham, birds in season, and fried oysters,’ Marie said, trying to interest him in the wedding meal. ‘And two cakes, of course, a bride’s cake and a groom’s cake. Vita is petitioning for chocolate cream, but Amelia is afraid for their white dresses.’
‘Vita has always been stubborn,’ Arthur said. ‘Like you.’
Marie laughed. ‘And you!’
‘I’m not stubborn. I’m right.’
She looked at him, thinking this was a joke. But his face was pinched inward. It’s still only been five months, she reminded herself. She wondered how long she would be counting time forward from April.
‘Do you remember when Freddy and Vita used to go with you to see patients?’ She should try to bring up pleasant memories – for her own sake as well as for his. ‘It was such a treat for them.’
A sly grin crept across Arthur’s face. ‘Once I asked Vita to give Josiah Whetmore his medicine. I’d measured it myself, of course, first. When we were outside the house I coached her on what to say: ‘Here’s your dose, Mr. Whetmore. You must take it with a glass of water.’ How we howled when she said that!’
‘Why did you howl?’
‘Because she looked so ridiculous; eight years old and about as tall as a minute, telling a grown man what to do.’
Marie still didn’t understand. ‘But you told her to do that.’
‘When we started laughing she couldn’t believe it. Her face! What’s that color – that mixture of purple and red?’
He’d played her for a joke. Marie’s heart burned. She could picture so well Vita as a girl wanting to perform well, expecting praise.
‘Mauve?’ he said.
The wind swirled up, blowing the tree leaves into an eddy of green. Marie told herself she was being foolish for feeling provoked. By now Vita had probably forgotten all about the incident (and poor Josiah Whetmore, she thought, remembering how he hung himself after his own family died). Still, Marie wished she could hug the eight-year-old Vita as she stood inside that farmhouse feeling humiliated and tricked. She wished she could tell her that she had done very well. But it only counted, somehow, if it came from her father.
‘Vita just wanted your approval. She’s always wanted that.’
Arthur paused and seemed to consider this idea. He stared at a colony of spiky goldenrods blooming by the bandstand. Then: ‘What were we speaking about?’ he asked.
His expression was like a little boy’s again. Lost. Marie’s irritation fell away, and its place she felt impotent and lonely. She could smell a faint hint of dry leaves in the air. Soon it would be autumn and her girls would be gone. And then there would be just the two of them left in the house, plus Mrs. Oakum. Gemma might go off with Ruffy someday, but Mrs. Oakum would stay in Lark’s Eye to the end. And Marie’s sister Clara, of course. Marie thought about something her father used to say to Clara as a young girl: You are built for use, not for show. He said this because she was large and had a long bony nose. Marie was considered the pretty daughter, but what good had that done her? Later Clara had eclipsed her anyway by marrying into wealth.
Marie took Arthur’s hand. It felt cold and knuckly. An old man’s hand. ‘We were talking about the wedding breakfast,’ she told him. ‘What flavor of ices would you like to order?’
Vita felt guilty about hiding her plans from her mother, who always encouraged her studies. But she couldn’t risk it. What if Mitty, like Dar, thought that Vita would bring disgrace to the family? Or what if she told Dar, or let something slip?
A woman with a career. How disgraceful was that, really? Certainly there were other women who had careers.
‘You’re not other women,’ Vita could imagine Amelia saying.
Up in her bedroom she checked her books – Tripler’s Handbook on Surgery; Walshe on the Diseases of the Heart and Lungs; Leidy’s Elementary Treatise on Anatomy – and then packed them carefully into her mother’s old maroon carpetbag, which she planned to take with her on the train to Boston. Everything else was secondary – her dresses and monogrammed towels, the bars of vanilla soap Aunt Norbert gave her nieces each Christmas. New stockings, new dresses. Vita would wear the same dress every day for all it mattered to her. Only her books were precious.
The carpetbag had a thick strip of mustard-colored hide sewn onto the bottom to keep out the wet. Packed, it was heavier than it looked. As she pushed the bag under her bed with her foot, she thought about Jacob’s cousin Samantha. Well read, he’d said. She imagined a haughty older woman who would instantly notice Vita’s chewed fingernails. Or was Samantha young and amusing? Personable, he had said. What did that mean?
‘Aunt Norbert is here,’ Amelia announced, knocking two quick knocks on the door and then coming in without waiting for an answer. She looked Vita over. ‘Better wash your face.’
Aunt Norbert had decided to deliver her wedding checks personally. The envelopes were sealed with her husband’s crest, which was copied from the Norbaer family crest in Germany – no relation. She stood in front of the gifts table in the parlor and presented the envelopes with some ceremony and a little speech about economy that Vita didn’t bother to listen to.
When Vita fingered open the envelope flap she gave herself a thin, sharp paper cut in her haste. She put her finger in her mouth. The first thing she looked at was the amount, five hundred dollars. Then she noticed the name: Mr. Jacob Culhane.
‘You’ve written the check out to Jacob?’
Vita looked down again at her aunt’s spidery writing. ‘But how do I make a withdrawal? Must I see the bank manager every time?’
‘Oh my goodness, the bank won’t give you cash money!’
‘You’ll receive an allowance from your husband,’ Mitty explained. ‘For housekeeping.’
‘Like Dar gives Mitty,’ Amelia said.
Aunt Norbert frowned. ‘Do I get a thank you from you, Vita?’
She rose to kiss her aunt. The check was printed on pale yellow paper with a pinkish tint, like a bloodstain. Her father’s check would be made out to Jacob too, of course; she had known this without really thinking about it. In fact, until this moment she had never stopped to consider the practicality of their arrangement.
‘Why can’t I go to the bank myself?’ she asked.
‘Oh Vita!’ her aunt said. ‘Any money or property that a woman brings to a marriage becomes her husband’s. You must know that. It’s all kept in his account.’
Had she known that? It dawned on her for the first time that she would be entirely dependent on Jacob’s honor to keep his side of their bargain.
‘Women are born for sacrifice,’ Amelia said. This was one of Aunt Norbert’s favorite sayings, although she generally said it about other women, not herself.
Aunt Norbert glanced at Amelia sharply; then, satisfied that Amelia did not mean it as a joke (Vita knew that she did), she nodded. ‘Quite right.’
Vita slid the check back in its envelope. The men in this world had thought of everything. Should she worry about Jacob’s intentions? Would he split the money with her as he promised? She would have no lawful recourse if he didn’t. She thought again about this cousin, Samantha. A cousin she hadn’t once heard him mention until yesterday. His words to Holland floated back to her: I see no use for college.
But he’d explained that.
But what if he’d been lying?
Outside the sky darkened dramatically and there was a crack of thunder. Moments later the rain began falling so hard they could hear nothing else, and they went up to the window to watch it. The clouds were long and mottled, like warped marble columns thrown up into the sky. There was another crack of thunder, and then all four women reeled back as something crashed against the window and fell.
Vita stepped up again to look. ‘A robin. It’s dead.’ It was lying on the ground with its tiny beak turned toward her like a beckoning finger. Only seconds ago it had been on the wing, battling the rain, drawing breath. Then: a sudden blow and the heart stops. Vita looked back at Sweetie, safe on her perch in the corner of the parlor.
You’re in charge of my animals while I’m away, Freddy had said. Who would take care of them after she went to Boston? She must talk to Mitty about that.
‘Poor thing,’ Amelia said, about the robin.
‘Poor thing?’ Aunt Norbert fluttered her hand toward the window. The rain was coming down heavily, at a slant. ‘I don’t know what it thought it was doing, flying about in all that.’
’The chaste man enjoys greater brain power.’
(Private Lessons in the Cultivation of Sex Force, Anonymous, 1913)
Ezra Norbert had been a tall man with a sizeable head, and his portrait, which was as long as a door, did not attempt to disguise this. Although also tall, Aunt Norbert’s head was much smaller, a fact she emphasized by wearing her hair scraped back and oiled.
‘My husband took the pledge and I along with him,’ she announced when they were gathered in her front parlor. ‘But as he is gone, I do, on special occasions, allow myself a drop.’
It was the night before the wedding. Aunt Norbert was hosting a ‘family evening’ that included supper and, Vita imagined, some tedious but well-meaning speeches. Her manservant Hunt poured wine from a crystal decanter into enormous cut-glass goblets while Uncle Norbert looked down from his portrait, hard-eyed and judging.
Aunt Norbert handed the first glass to Jacob’s cousin, Mrs. Samantha Friel, who had arrived by train that afternoon. Samantha was younger than Vita expected, tall and good-looking, with a sharp chin and a heart-shaped face. Her top lip curled amiably when she smiled, which was often, and she had dressed her hair in thin ringlets that somehow drew attention to her well-spaced gray eyes. Vita, who allowed Gemma to make braided loops out of her own hair, felt like an unraveling ball of yarn.
‘Please call me Samantha,’ Samantha had said when Jacob introduced her. ‘After all, we’ll be cousins starting tomorrow.’ She claimed she’d been born and raised in Boston, but her voice had a flatness that Vita associated with Maine.
In the dining room, Aunt Norbert’s table was set with her best gold-rimmed china, and all the candles were lit although it was barely eight o’clock. Jacob pulled out a chair for his cousin, who had a large field of skirts to organize. On her index finger she wore a ring with a flat white stone. It seemed to Vita that Jacob held her hand, his thumb covering the ring, longer than was strictly necessary.
Vita sat on the opposite side, facing the two of them. As the soup was ladled out her father turned to Samantha.
‘And what business was your late husband in, Mrs. Friel?’
He had had two glasses of wine already and was almost like his old self, attentive and outgoing, although Vita noticed her mother watching him carefully.
‘Walter was a stockbroker,’ Samantha said. ‘Mexican and European bonds, mostly.’
‘I can’t say I know much about bonds.’
She smiled. ‘Nor me.’
She bent her head to say a few private words to Jacob. The sleeves of her shimmering blue dress did not quite reach her elbows, and her bare arms and neck added to her raw, powerful presence.
She raised her glass.
‘To the brides,’ she said.
After that they spoke generally about rain – would the present good weather hold? – and train travel – Samantha’s cloak had been covered in soot just walking through the Boston station – and Aunt Norbert’s dishes of creamed herring – fresh that day from the nearby fisheries. Over the beef, Samantha began to describe an organization she’d recently joined, the American Social Science Association.
‘I’ve heard of them,’ Vita said, although she hadn’t.
‘Then as you know they believe that science should be applied to solving our social problems. We should study them methodically.’
‘What problems specifically?’ Holland asked.
‘Poverty. Overcrowded housing.’
‘I always think that these issues could be very well addressed by money,’ Vita said. She was forming her opinions on the spot.
Samantha smiled. ‘In a perfect world, yes.’
She commanded attention from all the men at once, even Holland. Vita could sense their interest like a musky odor circling the room. In comparison she felt inconsequential; a dry, dead beetle on a windowsill.
‘Sounds a good cause,’ Dar said. ‘The occupation of any woman should be that of service to others.’
‘Quite right,’ Aunt Norbert agreed, whose own service to others usually took the form of unwanted advice.
Samantha was still looking at Vita. ‘My cousin tells me you’re a scholar,’ she said. ‘I went to Berwick Academy for a couple of terms, but I’m afraid it did me no good.’
‘Don’t let her fool you,’ Jacob said. ‘My cousin is quite smart.’
He sounded like a defending lover.
‘What reading can you recommend?’ Samantha asked. ‘My husband had a subscription to Punch for many years, but I’m afraid I let it lapse during the war.’
‘At the moment I’m reading a book on heart and lung diseases,’ Vita said, her voice loud and strong although she felt exactly the opposite. ‘But that probably wouldn’t interest you.’
Both Mitty and Dar looked over at her sharply. ‘Do you mean you’re reading Walshe?’ her father asked.
‘You should try The Atlantic Monthly,’ Holland suggested. ‘A very good magazine for the modern reader.’
‘You don’t read that,’ Amelia said.
His face colored. ‘Yes, I do. Sometimes I do.’
A tedious meal, and a long one. When Hunt came in with dessert plates, Aunt Norbert rapped on her water glass with the bowl of her spoon.
‘My sister and I have a present we’d like to give on this very grand occasion. From our late father.’ She directed Amelia to fetch a gray silk bag lying on the table under the window. Inside were two gold coins, like tiny burnished buttons.
‘The last of his collection,’ Mitty said.
Samantha craned her long, white neck. ‘How lovely. May I see?’
Vita noticed how eagerly Samantha watched as one of the coins was passed down the table to her. She examined it closely, turning it over in her fingers while at the same time keeping it in clear view like a customer at a jewelry shop, anxious that no one suspect her of thievery.
‘It’s so small.’
‘But worth a good deal for all that,’ Aunt Norbert told her.
‘How much do you reckon?’
Vita waited for her aunt to frown and say something dismissive about money discussions. But instead she said proudly, ‘I’ve been told they could fetch over one hundred dollars each.’
‘My gracious!’ Samantha smiled at Jacob. ‘A nice little nest egg.’
‘It’s an heirloom,’ he said. ‘It’s not meant to be sold.’
‘You, refusing money!’ Samantha laughed. Her face was flushed and her manner seemed almost reckless – the effect of the wine, probably. When Jacob saw Vita watching him, he smiled. Slyly? Contritely? Samantha passed the coin back up the table.
‘I’ll see that they’re put in the hotel safe,’ Aunt Norbert announced, drawing the bag closed with her large, knuckly fingers. The two couples planned to spend the night at the Lark’s Eye Hotel after the wedding and then take the early train to Boston the next day. ‘Best not to keep them lying about – the maids, you know. There’s one coin for each of you.’
Vita started to say thank you but saw her aunt was addressing her remarks to Holland and Jacob.
‘Mrs. Norbert,’ Holland said, ‘you’ve been very generous.’
‘You must call me aunt now,’ she said, nodding once to Holland and once to Jacob. As if counting them, Vita thought.
Despite her uneasiness about Jacob and Samantha – or maybe because of it – Vita drank more wine than she was accustomed to; later, up in her bedroom, her fingers felt sweaty and clumsy as she fumbled with her dress buttons.
She had to get out of this corset. She had to get out of these shoes. She was on her stomach looking under the bed for her shoe buttonhook when her mother walked in. Vita had pushed the carpetbag out from its hiding place and now it stood in the middle of the floor gaping open with all the medical books she’d taken from her father in plain sight. Her mother stared down at them.
‘So you’re reading Walter Walshe,’ Mitty said as she began to unbutton Vita’s dress for her. Vita could feel the happy tug and release down her back as one by one the buttons came undone – sixteen tiny orbs of annoying blue silk. ‘And also Paget? What’s this sudden interest in medicine?’
Vita hesitated. The wedding was tomorrow. What did it matter if she told her mother now? She stepped out of her dress and Mitty began loosening her corset.
‘I want to be a doctor.’
Mitty stopped working on the corset. ‘You want – you want to work as a doctor?’
‘Yes. Like Dar. I want to be trained, go to classes, all of it. And then practice.’
She could smell the last of the whale oil burning in the glass lamp on the mantelpiece. She pulled off her corset and turned around to check her mother’s expression. Surprise, concern. No dismay; but no delight, either. Mitty bent to pick up the brass oilcan that Vita kept next to her fireplace, refilled the lamp, and turned up the flame.
She sat down on the corner of Vita’s bed. Then, in a gesture that Freddy used to call ‘Mitty Being Patient,’ she folded her hands in her lap and tilted her chin up.
‘Why the sudden interest?’ she asked.
‘It’s not sudden. We used to talk about college, remember?’
‘But you never mentioned medicine. When did you decide this?’
‘I’ve wanted to for years. Before the war even. Ever since I was little.’
‘And what about Jacob?’
‘Jacob knows all about it. He said he would help me.’
‘Help you with what?’
Vita blew out air, frustrated. ‘Go to college! Use Dar’s money, the dowry, to pay for medical college, and also to pay for a preceptor before that. And living expenses and so on.’
‘In Boston,’ Mitty said. It was a question.
‘Yes. In Boston. The only thing is, I realized – I’m beginning to realize – that if Jacob changes his mind, I’ll be left with nothing. I’ll have no recourse if he decides to use the dowry for – for something else.’ She thought of how Samantha looked at the little gold coin, assessing it. ‘You refusing money?’ she’d said to Jacob.
‘So this is not a real marriage.’
Vita thought about their kisses and embraces and she flushed, as though she were betraying Jacob, or both of them – but why? Her mother was right, it wasn’t a real marriage. Our nefarious agreement.
‘Mitty, what did you expect? Dar told me I had to get married.’
‘He couldn’t force you, you know.’
‘He wasn’t – he isn’t going to pay for any more schooling, or any more anything, he made that clear. What should I do, just stay here, in this house, in this room, growing old and stupid?’ She was angry now.
‘Is that what you think I am? Old and stupid?’
‘Of course not! But Mitty – ’ It was impossible to make her mother understand. She was still sitting on Vita’s bed with her hands in her lap, but there was movement, her thumbs rubbing against each other, revealing her agitation.
‘Vita,’ she said, ‘listen to me. A woman always has choices. I’ve had choices. I keep my mind busy with my dahlias, my soil experiments. I’ve learned to look for ways to engage my intellect. I read the science journals your father subscribes to after he is through with them. It’s difficult here in Lark’s Eye; it’s not impossible, but it’s difficult. That’s why I wanted more for you. Boston will have so much more to offer. Even if you don’t become a doctor or anything else.’
Vita was standing in her chemise, half-facing her mother, her hand on the opposite bedpost. She traced a nick in the wood with her fingertip. What about your tea, she wanted to say. You want to feel numb; you need that. Twice a week that’s what you need, and you’d probably do it more often if you thought your health wouldn’t suffer. But she couldn’t say that. It wasn’t Mitty’s fault that she was stuck here, bored. Was it?
She felt cold, and she wanted her mother to comfort her. Or better yet, help her to get what she wanted. She plucked her shawl from the foot of the bed and wrapped it around herself, and then sat down on the window seat. ‘Why shouldn’t I become a doctor?’ A challenge.
Her mother’s eyes met hers in the mirror over the mantel.
‘It’s as you say, Jacob might change his mind. And you can’t do anything without a husband’s permission.’
‘A husband’s permission!’
‘Or his help.’
‘But it’s my money. It doesn’t seem right that from tomorrow on Jacob can spend my money however he likes.’
‘Your father’s money,’ Mitty corrected.
‘But it was your money first. Wasn’t it? Money that Grandfather Toombs gave you?’
‘Well, yes and no. He gave it to your father, same as your father is giving money to Jacob.’
‘And it was your mother’s money before that.’
A slight pause. Vita waited. Mitty inclined her head.
‘Don’t you see how unfair that is? It’s like we’re being sold.’
‘Would you rather have nothing?’
‘I would rather be able to have some say in how my money is spent.’
‘It’s the law. I know it doesn’t seem right. But it’s the law.’
‘It’s wrong,’ Vita said.
Mitty let out a long breath. ‘All right. It is wrong. But be realistic. Jacob is a man, and men like to have their creature comforts, no matter what they say beforehand. That’s simply a fact. I thought your father was – would be – different. But after we married – well. Men get more conservative after they marry.’
Vita felt waves of self-pity coming at her again and again almost jauntily, belying their aggressive nature: You can’t, You can’t, You can’t.
‘Just think, Vita, you’ll be living in a city after tomorrow. A large city, where there’ll be many opportunities for you. Public talks and lectures, museums. No matter what, you’ll be able to engage your mind, you can live an interesting life. You don’t need a profession to do that.’
Her mother’s face, in the dim lamplight, was as still as stone. As a headstone, Vita thought. I can’t help it; I want more. But she didn’t know if she could trust Jacob – that was the hard truth. She thought of their last kisses outside Aunt Norbert’s house, when they were saying good-bye. They were facing the water and she could see a twinkle of lights from houses across the small bay. His hand was warm on her arm, and she felt a stirring beneath her skin as though she could trace, inch by inch, the web of blood within her.
‘Tomorrow’s the day,’ he’d said. Had he sounded cool? Calculating?
‘You won’t be safe as a woman alone,’ Mitty told her. ‘A woman in that profession. But if you really must take up something, maybe train as a nurse? That way you could still uphold your wifely responsibilities.’
‘I don’t want to be a nurse. I want to be a doctor.’
‘But being a doctor is very demanding. You’ve seen it yourself – patients at all hours. It’s not suitable for women.’
Vita leaned back against the wooden side panel of her window seat and stretched her legs out lengthwise, sliding her toes under the pillow at the other end to warm them. Why was it so hard to convince everyone? Jacob, in retrospect, was the easiest to persuade. She didn’t really think he had a secret plan with Samantha. That seemed too underhand, too sly.
She closed her eyes. Her father always praised Jacob for being an honest, self-made man. But Jacob’s father had been a drunk. That’s what people said. A mean drunk. You couldn’t trust him, they said. They said this even as he lay in his little farmhouse, dying.
Maybe she couldn’t read the signs.
‘You don’t understand people,’ Amelia liked to tell her. ‘You spend too much time with your books.’
She could picture her sister’s expression, hard and knowing. But what can I do, Vita thought. It’s too late to run away, and anyway that seems melodramatic and childish. Mitty said something she couldn’t quite hear. A moment later the sun was shining brightly in her face and Amelia was leaning over her, shaking her awake. Vita was still stretched out on her window seat. Her bed quilt was draped over her, and Mitty was gone.
‘What are you doing here?’ Amelia said. ‘It’s time to get dressed.’
In the morning, dressed in his tight wedding clothes, his head pounding, Jacob found parts of the previous night difficult to remember. He had taken a room at the Lark’s Eye Tavern, which was closer to the church. Mrs. Swaby had tapped on the door to wake him up. Before he left, he stood at the bar and downed a mouthful of brandy. The liquid sparked his throat, burning a path as it traveled. After that his head felt marginally better as long as he didn’t turn it too quickly.
His hired gig and driver – young Frank Pride, Jr., dressed in a dove-gray suit and cap – waited outside for him.
‘Be careful of your coat, sir,’ Frank said. ‘Pull it down behind you before you sit back, that way you don’t wrinkle it.’
‘You’re a good man, Frank Pride,’ Jacob said, and Frank smiled from ear to ear.
They drove around the town green with the gig’s top down. Thankfully it was an overcast day, otherwise the light would have been painful. This morning Jacob almost wished that he hadn’t invited Samantha to the wedding. Her carefree façade irked him in company. Also her need for everyone to admire her. Of course, he’d known that about her before. She understood so well how to charm. Her smiles contrasted sharply to Vita’s irritated scowls during the meaningless dinner talk. Samantha, he could tell, had despised that scowl. Small talk was her forte.
As they turned up the church drive the sun found a crack in the cloud cover, and Jacob felt it like a spear in his eye. It was important to hold his body naturally, to climb down from the gig steadily, and to stand with a half-smile on his face as he looked up at the church (looming, enormous) while Frank tipped his cap and said, ‘A very happy day for you, sir. Will you need me to wait?’
He couldn’t remember the plan for leaving.
But here was Mrs. Norbert – Aunt Norbert, as he was to call her now – wearing a dress like a tiered purple cake with white icing. She walked toward him faster than a heavy woman in a large tight dress should be able to move.
‘Right on time!’ she told him.
He took her proffered arm, plump and commanding.
‘Thank you, Frank. That’s all, I guess. Best of luck to you.’
They went into the dim church vestibule. His neck felt stiff and he tried not to look around or think too much about what was happening. Best just to fall in line, like a soldier. At least his tic was gone. No tremors, either. When it came time to go up to the altar, Jacob matched his pace to Holland’s; even with his special shoes, Holland still limped if he walked too fast. Jacob didn’t see – or look for – Samantha in the pews.
But when the congregation stood and the music for the brides began (‘Here we go, old man,’ Holland said under his breath) and Jacob saw Vita emerge in white silk and lace, her tiny shoulders carrying the weight of her massive dress, her expression a mystery behind the dotted, cream-colored veil, Jacob felt a warm but strangely light feeling bloom in his chest like a question. He tapped his fingertips against his thighs as he watched her walk toward him, slowly.
Here we are, he thought. Here we go.
’The majority of women (happily for them) are not much troubled by sexual feeling of any kind.’
(The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs, Dr. William Acton, 1883)
The wedding breakfast menu was, pompously, irritatingly, written in French – Aunt Norbert’s doing, no doubt. Galantine en Bellevue, Pâte Mélange á la Parisienne, Terrapins á la Maryland. Vita had a startled moment when she saw their names at the top of the sheet: Madame Vita et Monsieur Jacob Culhane; Madame Amelia et Monsieur Holland Granger.
Vita Culhane. That was her name now. It sounded like the name of someone she had recently met and would presumably get to know, though at the moment she was a stranger. Was this how gamblers felt when the dice left their fingers but before the rolling came to a stop? Time wasn’t suspended so much as empty, a thin slice of space between action and consequence.
She was married.
Jacob leaned in, pressing his forearm against hers. They were sitting at a round table – crystal goblets and maroon-rimmed plates with the hotel initials, set on a white linen cloth – that seemed much too large for only two couples. The blank unreality Vita had experienced in the church was slowly receding, and in its place she felt all the discomforts of her stiff, unyielding dress. She was a puffy caterpillar, Lepidoptera larva, looking up as the hotel waiter set down yet another fresh plate in front of her. Pickled eggs served with a sprig of parsley.
‘I don’t believe your aunt has any feet under that dress,’ Jacob said.
Vita looked over at Aunt Norbert, who was circulating among the tables. Her dress, dyed a vibrant lilac that made her lips and eyelids appear blue, was wider than anyone else’s in the room, even Amelia’s, and completely hid her shoes.
‘Might there be wheels instead?’
She played along. ‘And tiny mice to pull them.’
‘Muscular little fellows.’
They both laughed.
‘I deposited your coins in the hotel safe, marked with your names,’ Aunt Norbert announced to the two couples, braking to a stop at their table. ‘Be sure to collect them before you leave tomorrow morning.’
All four glanced at the dining room door as though they might see right through it to the hotel desk and the safe. Beyond the desk was the wide staircase that led to the guest rooms and beds. The marriage bed. Vita felt a hot pull at the thought of it. After the wedding ceremony, in the church vestibule, Gemma had leaned in to whisper, ‘You must write me straight away. Tell me everything.’
When the grandfather clock in the corner chimed the half hour, the groom’s cake was cut, and then the bride’s cake. After that the two couples stood by the double doors to say good-bye to their guests. The sun glinted through the sparkling clean windows, making Vita sweat. At least she didn’t have to speak with Samantha again; she’d gone back to New Bedford on the noon train, and missed the breakfast.
Her parents were the last to leave.
‘I know you’ll be happy in Boston,’ her mother said.
And then Dar: ‘Be good, and try to speak softly.’
Try to speak softly? This was his advice for marriage? His hair, which Mitty had trimmed that morning, was looking very gray. Would he ever forgive her for ‘disgracing’ him by becoming a doctor? Her old dream fluttered up: Maybe, as time went on, he would learn to be proud of her.
‘I will,’ she lied.
It took two maids and twenty minutes to get her out of her dress, and ten more minutes to get into the next one. In between Vita sponged herself with water from the basin to cool off. When a soft knock sounded on her door, she assumed it was her sister. But she opened the door to Jacob.
‘Oh! Amelia was just going to check up on you and Holland,’ Vita said. ‘She wants to take a stroll before dinner.’
‘We could do that.’ Jacob looked at her. His face was half in shadow. ‘Or we could stay here.’
Her heart rose and began to beat faster as she stepped back to let him in.
He closed the door behind him. Then, without preamble, he bent to kiss her. It was an awkward kiss, as if he recognized this was an important moment and that made him nervous. She was nervous, too. She stretched up trying to reach him, and they both felt the strain at the same time and laughed. After that, it was better.
They kissed again. She could smell wine on his skin. He slid his hands up the sides of her dress and she felt a slow thrill begin at the base of her spine, like a snake uncurling. He stroked the pearl buttons going up her back, each the size of a ripe summer pea.
‘That’s one,’ he said, unbuttoning it. ‘Two. Three.’ At twelve he said, ‘You must have an army of monkeys helping you dress and undress every day.’
She laughed. ‘Why monkeys?’
‘With their tiny little fingers.’
He kissed her neck and skimmed the dress off her shoulders. They were standing next to the canopied bed, ignoring the candied walnuts and dried fruit arranged on a white platter on the table, left for them by the hotel management along with a bottle of wine.
They worked on her layers first: her dress and camisole and petticoat; her corset; her garters and stockings. As layer after layer fell onto the floor, Vita began to feel as though she were preparing to do something extraordinary, like fly. Jacob kissed her bare forearm and then her neck again. She bent to unbutton his pants. By this time they were both sweating and hot.
‘This is hard work,’ she said, ‘this getting to bed.’
He laughed, and she wondered: have I ever made anyone laugh before? Her bridal nightgown had been folded neatly by the hotel maid and placed at the foot of the bed. When she reached for it, Jacob said, ‘No.’
He drew her to him, embracing her tightly. They were both unclothed but she didn’t feel embarrassed. She felt, instead, as though this was right and the other – the heaps of clothes on the floor – was alien and unnatural.
They pushed the pillows off the bed and lay down on top of the coverlet, facing each other. Jacob traced his forefinger down the side of her right breast and over her ribs. He drew an invisible circle on her belly, and another circle lower down. Drawing his desire.
‘I’m going to go slowly,’ he told her. ‘So we can get to know each other.’
‘A little at a time.’
He touched her nipple. ‘A very little at a time.’
The hot September sunlight, creeping in through the gaps in the curtains, gave the room a watery, undersea haze. After a while they started working out the details more seriously, the positions of legs and arms and mouths. As they settled into a spot in the middle of the mattress Vita found herself thinking: here it is. It felt as though doors upon doors were opening inside her, and she understood so much that she never understood just by reading. She didn’t know if she liked it yet, there were moments of raw pain followed by careful adjustments. Still, she felt supernaturally awake and alive. It was as if all at once, and without even thinking, she could speak the language she’d been studying all these years.
But then Jacob pulled himself away and turned onto his side.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
There was a box near the bed, something he’d brought in earlier with his shaving kit. When he lifted the lid she rose up on one elbow to see.
‘A French letter,’ he said. ‘So you don’t get pregnant.’
He explained how it worked while he unrolled it, and when he turned around she saw the sheath, thick as a butcher’s apron, on his penis. A new element entered, raw and cold, but she didn’t want a baby, it was true. He pulled her close again.
Afterward he lay on his back, his arm beneath her neck. He caressed her shoulder lightly. She was staring at the ceiling, warm from this new experience, which she wanted to talk about. But instead she fell into a light sleep. When she opened her eyes again it was darker. The afternoon had passed into twilight. She could hear people talking in the hallway. Through the open window, the unmistakable scent of pipe smoke wafted into the room as someone, whoever was smoking, sat on a rocking chair on the hotel porch beneath them. For a while she listened to the creekah creekah of the rocker. Jacob was lying on his side, watching her.
‘Well,’ he asked. ‘What did you think?’ His teasing tone. She considered her answer.
‘I think I’d like to try it again,’ she said, and he laughed.
They heard the dinner gong but they did not even pause. As Jacob moved inside her she felt closer to something, she didn’t know what. It wasn’t so painful, at least. An early owl hooted, and hooted again. Jacob made a noise in his throat and afterward lay very still for a minute before rolling over and peeling off the second French letter. After that they both slept for a long time.
The third time it was so dark Vita could no longer see anything beyond the bed. They had missed dinner but contented themselves with the walnuts and fruit and the tepid bottle of wine left in their room. After they ate every morsel, they peeled down the coverlet and slipped into the cool sheets.
The wine made both of them tipsy, almost giggly. Once again Jacob began slowly and Vita was reminded of music, the quiet beat of a repeated tempo. It was then she felt the thing like a wave coming, followed by a pulsing burst that stayed within her. A kind of light settled on the top of her head and the hotel went absolutely silent. No owls, no other guests roaming the halls. All the night creatures had retired and the morning birds had not yet awakened. She herself hardly breathed. After a few moments she pulled away and then pressed herself against Jacob’s side, hot and sweaty and in awe of what just happened.
She forgot about the third French letter until he moved his hands down, jerking it off. Coming back into the bed – he scrounged to get under the tousled sheets – he kissed her shoulder. She was trying to think what to say to him when she heard his breath deepen in sleep.
For a while she lay awake beside him. Her body felt heavy, both old and young – how could that be? She touched her bare elbow, embracing herself. Every part of her was tired, and although she hung in this state for several minutes she did not fall asleep. Her neck was uncomfortable, and she swung her arm down to the floor to feel for a pillow.
‘Lift your head,’ she told Jacob. He obeyed, rising just enough for her to slide the pillow beneath his head. Then she found one for herself. When she settled back down on the mattress, he felt for her hand. After a while she thought maybe he had fallen asleep again.
But then he said, his voice groggy, ‘Thank you, Samantha.’
Every molecule in her body seemed to freeze in place. ‘What?’
He turned his head and half opened his eyes.
‘You called me Samantha,’ she told him.
‘Did I? I must have been dreaming.’
‘Were you dreaming?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t remember.’ He pulled her closer and put his nose against her neck. ‘You always smell like vanilla,’ he said. ‘Why is that?’
‘Is there something between you and Samantha?’
‘No. No. I was asleep, that’s all. Well, I did ask her to marry me once, but that was years ago.’
She knew there was something. She pulled out of his embrace and stood up from the bed.
‘Obviously she said no. Where are you going? Come back.’
‘So you were in love with her?’
Her voice was tight, as though she were holding some of her breath back for another purpose. Jacob realized the mistake he’d just made. ‘No. I wasn’t. Not at all. I was lonely. It was right before the war. An impulse. I was relieved when she said no.’
His eyes were adjusting to the dark but still he could only see shapes: the two long rectangular windows, a block of an armchair in between them. Vita was a slender tree with no branches.
‘Come back,’ he said again.
Ivory moonlight trickled in through the curtain. He watched Vita shrug on her chemise and go to the armchair by the window. She sat down, pulled a pillow out from behind her, and held it to her stomach.
‘Have you found a preceptor for me in Boston?’ she asked.
‘Can’t we talk about this in the morning?’
He sighed. ‘Not yet. And actually,’ since the conversation felt inevitable, he struggled to sit up, ‘I wanted to propose something to you.’
There was a decanter of water on the bedside table; he poured a splash into one of the glasses and swallowed it. He felt a little more awake.
‘I was thinking. I wonder if instead of working with a doctor, you might want to work with me on my patent idea? I mean the modified barrels. The formula for the glue compound. Holland gave me the idea. You’re good at science, at experiments; he told me that. Together we might figure it out. A shared project. A partnership.’ It was an idea he’d been thinking about for a couple of days.
A pause. ‘You’re proposing I work on barrel glue,’ Vita said, ‘instead of studying medicine?’
He couldn’t make out her expression. ‘Just for six months or so, maybe a year. Or even, if we both like it, for longer. A partnership,’ he said again. She was silent. ‘Vee, I know you were thinking of becoming a doctor. But is that really feasible? What I’m suggesting is, here’s another way you could put your mind to use. And with me, your husband, as the front man, well you see how much easier that would be for you. As a woman. You wouldn’t have to do it alone.’
‘In other words, my gender wouldn’t get in the way.’
Another pause. ‘What if I don’t want to work on the problem of barrel glue?’
‘I think you’ll find it interesting, actually. But it’s late, let’s talk about it tomorrow. I can explain it all better when I’m not so tired. ‘
He was struggling again to keep his eyes open. He felt like he was half dreaming already. His words, like the furniture in the room, appeared in his mind like differently shaped blocks, visible and material. A partnership, had he said that? That part was important. But he couldn’t help himself, he was falling asleep.
‘All right?’ he asked. But he couldn’t stay awake long enough to hear her answer.
Vita felt as though the pillow she was holding on her lap had become a repository for her emotions; if she didn’t move, if she didn’t shift the pillow, she could take in what Jacob was saying without really feeling it. But that only lasted so long. A syrupy sensation began circling in her body, like a terrible sadness. At the same time her arms and neck felt wooden, and her voice, when she spoke, sounded to her like the strings of an instrument growing slack and taut intermittently. But at last Jacob stopped talking, which was better. Every sentence he said made her feel worse. After a while she could hear his breathing change.
He didn’t answer; he was asleep.
She looked out the window.
So; it was true. They’d made a pledge but he didn’t take the pledge seriously. He didn’t take her seriously. He didn’t want her to study medicine; he didn’t think she could do it. Just like everyone else. And now, legally speaking, she was his. She had no money of her own; every penny was her husband’s by law and he could do what he wanted with it. If he didn’t want to pay college fees, if he didn’t want to pay for a preceptor, no one could make him. She couldn’t make him.
It was not easy to think, and she had to think. Her feet were beginning to feel cold and she got up to look for a blanket. On impulse, she picked up Jacob’s trousers and felt the outside pockets until she found his little black coin purse. In it was the folded check from her father – ‘Payable to Mr. Jacob Culhane,’ useless to her – and also two one-dollar coins. She took the coins and left the check.
Her heart was beating hard in the way it did when she knew she was going to argue with someone, usually her father. She looked in Jacob’s jacket pockets but found nothing, and then she remembered the little box by the bed with the French letters. She carried it to the window and, by the light of the moon, sifted through it. Four more dollars and his signet ring. Also, and this was a surprise, the little sealed envelope from Aunt Norbert containing the gold coin. When had he retrieved it from the hotel safe?
Outside the sky was shifting from jet black to coal black. Vita dressed quickly, her heart still pounding like a hammer against her ribs. A signal she was doing something foolish, or brave? Her worn carpetbag was at the foot of the bed with her books, and she wedged in all the clothes she could fit. Should she write him a note? What could she say?
Downstairs, a slender young man with thinning hair and a walrus mustache sat on a stool behind the hotel desk. For all that it was early, he looked alert and rested.
‘I left something in your care last night,’ Vita said. ‘A small envelope in the safe.’
‘Mrs. Holland Granger.’
The cast-iron safe sat on the counter behind him, a gray box the size of a lion cub with curlicues outlining the door and the scripted word ‘SAFE’ above the lock in case anyone had their doubts. Shuffling through a few items, the clerk found an envelope with the name ‘Granger’ in Aunt Norbert’s handwriting. The coin was a lump at the bottom, scarcely bigger than her dress buttons. Worth one hundred dollars, her aunt had said, and now she had two of them. Enough to make a start.
When she asked when the next train to Boston left, the clerk took out his pocket watch. ‘Mail train in twenty-six minutes. First passenger train’s an hour after that.’
The mail train, then.
‘Would you like me to fetch the conveyance,’ he asked, ‘for you and Mr. Granger?’
‘We’re traveling separately. Yes, the conveyance would be helpful.’
‘Shall I get your trunks? Are they in the back?’
Amelia would forgive her (maybe) for the coin, but never for taking her dresses.
‘That’s all right. My husband will see to our luggage.’
When the clerk went to find the driver Vita stepped into the small coatroom by the hotel door. On the women’s side she found a heavy wool cloak with maroon trim, and put it on. A pair of calfskin gloves had been folded together and left in one of the pockets. Vita measured them against her hand. Too long in the fingers, but they’d do.
She went outside. By now the sky was the color of chimney smoke, and a light but steady breeze was blowing in from the ocean. Lark’s Eye appeared wasted in this light, as though every bush and tree had been dusted with ash. The rockers on the hotel porch looked like a line of tombstones. For so many years, all she wanted was to leave this town and find her true place in the world. She thought about Jacob asleep in the room above her. If he went to the window now, would he see her? She could picture him in bed with his arm slung over his eyes, one foot exposed. For a moment the urge to leave her bag and purloined cloak on the porch steps and go back upstairs, slide under the starched cotton sheet, and feel his warm, long body against hers was stronger than any urge she’d ever felt. If the hotel carriage hadn’t come around just at that moment, she might have.
End of Part One
See https://bit.ly/TPDPreview2 for Part Two