Read an Excerpt
Dr. Learmont, newly appointed general practitioner for the districts of West Masedown and New Eliry, rocks and jolts on the front seat of a trap as it descends the lightly sloping path of Versoie House. He has sore buttocks: the seat’s hard and uncushioned. His companion, Mr. Dean of Hudson and Dean Deliveries (Lydium and Environs Since 1868), doesn’t seem to feel any discomfort. His glazed eyes stare vaguely ahead; his leathery hands, reins woven through their fingers, hover just above his knees. The rattle of glass bottles and the fricative rasp of copper wire against more copper wire rise from the trap’s back and, mixing with the click and shuffle of the horse’s hooves on gravel, hang undisturbed about the still September air. Above the vehicle tall conifers rise straight and inert as columns. Higher, much further out, black birds whirr silently beneath a concave vault of sky.
Between the doctor’s legs are wedged a brown case and a black inhaling apparatus. In his hand he holds a yellow piece of paper. He’s scrutinising this, perplexed, as best he can. From time to time he glances up from it to peer through the curtain of conifers, which reveal, then quickly conceal again, glimpses of mown grass and rows of smaller trees with white fruit and green and red foliage. There’s movement around these: small limbs reaching, touching and separating in a semi-regular pattern, as though practising a butterfly or breaststroke.
The trap rolls through a hanging pall of wood smoke, then turns, clearing the conifers. Now Learmont can see that the limbs belong to children, four or five of them, playing some kind of game. They stand in a loose circle, raising their arms and patting their hands together. Their lips are moving, but no sound’s emerging from them. Occasionally a squawk of laughter ricochets around the orchard, but it’s hard to tell which child it’s coming from. Besides, the laughter doesn’t sound quite right. It sounds distorted, slightly warped—ventriloquised almost, as though piped in from somewhere else. None of the children seem to notice his arrival; none of them, in fact, seem to be aware of their own individual presence outside and beyond that of the moving circle, their separateness given over to its fleshy choreography of multiplied, entwining bodies.
Without jerking the reins or speaking to the horse, Mr. Dean pulls the trap to a halt. Beside it, to its right, a narrow, still stream lies in front of a tall garden wall over which, from the far side, ferns and wisteria are spilling. To the trap’s left, a veined set of rose-bush stems and branches, flowers gone, clings to another wall. The wood-smoke pall comes from beyond this. So, too, does an old man with a rake, emerging from a doorway in the wall to shunt a wheelbarrow across the gravel.
“Hello!” Learmont calls out to him. “Hello?”
The old man stops, sets down his wheelbarrow and looks back at Learmont.
“Can you tell me where to find the main house? The entrance?”
The old man gestures with his free hand: over there. Then, taking up the handle of his wheelbarrow once more, he shuffles past the trap towards the orchard. Learmont listens as his footsteps die away. Eventually he turns to Mr. Dean and says:
“Silent as a tomb.”
Mr. Dean shrugs. Dr. Learmont climbs down onto the gravel, shakes his legs and looks around. The old man seemed to be pointing beyond the overspilling garden wall. This, too, has a small doorway in it.
“Why don’t you wait here?” Learmont suggests to Mr. Dean. “I’ll go and find—” he holds his yellow paper up and scrutinises it again—“this Mr. Carrefax.”
Mr. Dean nods. Dr. Learmont takes his case and inhaler, steps onto a strip of grass and crosses a small wooden bridge above the moat-like stream. Then, lowering his head beneath wisteria that manage to brush it nonetheless, he walks through the doorway.
Inside the garden are chrysanthemums, irises, tulips and anemones, all stacked and tumbling over one another on both sides of a path of uneven mosaic paving stones. Learmont follows the path towards a passageway formed by hedges and a roof of trellis strung with poisonberries and some kind of wiry, light-brown vine whose strands lead off to what look like stables. As he nears the passageway, he can hear a buzzing sound. He stops and listens. It seems to be coming from the stables: an intermittent, mechanical buzz. Learmont thinks of going in and asking the people operating the machinery for more directions, but, reasoning that it might be running on its own, decides instead to continue following the path. This forks to the right and, after passing through a doorway in another wall, splits into a maze-pattern that unfolds across a lawn on whose far side stands another wall containing yet another doorway. Learmont strides across the lawn and steps through this third doorway, which deposits him onto the edge of the orchard he saw as he first arrived. The large, lightly sloping gravel path he descended with Mr. Dean is now on the orchard’s far side, half-hidden by the conifers; a smaller footpath, on which he’s now standing, lies perpendicular to this, between the garden’s outer wall and the orchard’s lower edge. The children are still there, wrapped up in their mute pantomime. Learmont runs his eye beyond them: the rows of small, white-fruited trees give over to an unkempt lawn that, after sixty yards or so, turns into a field on which the odd sheep grazes. The field rises to a ridge; a telegraph line runs across this, then falls down the far side, away from view.
Learmont glances at his paper once again, then turns to his left and follows the footpath along the garden’s outer wall—until he eventually finds, at the end of this, the house.
He rings the bell, then steps back and looks up at the building. Its front is overgrown with ivy that has started to turn red. He rings the bell again, bringing his ear up to the door. This time someone’s heard it: he can hear footsteps approaching. A maid opens for him. She looks flustered: her hair is dishevelled, her sleeves rolled up and her hands and brow wet. A girl of three or four stands behind her, holding a towel. Both maid and girl look at Learmont’s case and inhaler.
“Delivery?” the maid asks.
“Well, I . . . yes,” he answers, holding up his paper. “I’ve come to—”
A man appears from within the house and pushes his way past the maid and child.
“Zinc and selenium?” he barks out.
“That’s in the trap,” Learmont replies. “But I came with it to—”
“And acid? And the reels of copper?” the man interrupts. He’s portly and his voice is booming. He must be forty, forty-four. “Came to—what?”
“I came to deliver the baby.”
“Came to—ah, yes! Deliver: of course! Splendid! You can . . . Yes, let’s see . . . Maureen can show you where . . . You say the copper’s in the drive?”
“Beyond the . . .” Dr. Learmont tries to point back past the gardens, but he can’t remember which direction he’s just come from.
“And there’s a man there with it? Perhaps you could help us to—”
“Sir . . .” the maid says.
“Maureen—what?” the man replies. Maureen gasps at him exasperatedly. He stares at her for a few seconds and then slaps his thigh and tells her: “No, of course: you take the doctor to her. Is everything . . . ?”
“Fine, sir,” Maureen informs him. “Thanks for your concern.”
“Splendid!” he booms. “Well, you just carry on. Maureen will see to it that you have everything you . . . Is that the telegram?”
He’s looking at Learmont’s yellow paper, his eyes glowing with excitement.
“I was a little confused . . .” Learmont begins, but the man grabs the paper off him and begins to read aloud:
“ ‘. . . expected next twenty-four hours’ . . . good . . . ‘parturient in labour since last night . . .’ Excellent! ‘Parturient,’ each letter crystal clear!”
“We weren’t quite sure as to the provenance . . .”
“What—provenance? Hang on: what’s this? ‘Doctor refuested as soon as . . .’? ‘Refuested’? What’s that for a damn word?”
“Sir!” Maureen says.
“She’s heard much worse,” he barks. “ ‘Refuested’? I’ve been . . . That blasted key!”
“Sweet Jesus!” says Maureen. She turns to the child and takes the towel from her. Another woman appears from the hallway, carrying a tray of biscuits out towards the orchard and trailing in her wake a cat. “Go with Miss Hubbard,” Maureen tells the child.
“. . . F . . . Q . . .” the man mumbles, then, barking again: “Provenance?”
“We weren’t quite sure of the telegram’s provenance,” Learmont explains. “It didn’t originate in the post office down the road in Lydium, yet it seemed to come down the same line which—”
“Miss Hubbard,” the man says, “wait.”
The second woman pauses in the doorway. “Yes, Mr. Carrefax?” she asks.
“Miss Hubbard, I can’t hear the children speaking,” he tells her.
“They’re playing, Mr. Carrefax,” she replies.
“Are you sure they’re not signing?”
“I told them that’s not allowed. I think they—”
“What? Told them? Telling them won’t do it on its own! You have to make them speak. All the time!”
The child is reaching her arm up to the tray of biscuits. The cat is watching the child’s efforts closely, still and tense. Maureen takes Learmont’s sleeve and starts to pull him into the house.
“The provenance, good doctor, is right here!” Mr. Carrefax booms at him as he squeezes past. “F and Q notwithstanding. Disappointing. Fixable. The copper! In the drive, you say?”
“There’s a man waiting in a—”
“Splendid! Miss Hubbard, if I can’t hear them I’ll think they’re signing.”
“I’ll do what I can, Mr. Carrefax,” Miss Hubbard tells him.
“At all times!” he barks at her. “I want to hear them speak!”
He strides out with her, heading for the drive. The child follows the biscuits, and the cat follows the child. Maureen leads Dr. Learmont in the other direction, up the staircase. There’s a tapestry hanging above this, a silk weaving that depicts either this same staircase or one very similar to it. They cross the landing at the top and step into a room. A second tapestry hangs on the wall of this: another picture woven in silk, this time of an Oriental scene in which pony-tailed peasants reach up into trees full of the same white fruit as the ones in the orchard. Lower down the tapestry, beneath the trees, more peasants are unravelling dark balls. Beneath them, in the room itself, a woman lies supine on a bed. A bearing-down sheet has been tied around the mattress, but the woman isn’t clutching this. She’s lying back quite peacefully, although her thick brown hair is wet with sweat. A second maid sits beside her on a chair, holding her hand. The woman in the bed smiles vaguely at Learmont.
“Mrs. Carrefax?” he asks her.
She nods. Dr. Learmont sets down his canister and, opening his case across the bed, asks:
“How far apart are your contractions?”
“Three minutes,” she tells him. Her voice is soft and grainy. There’s something slightly unusual about it, something beyond fatigue, that Learmont can’t quite place: it’s not a foreign voice, but not quite native, either. He takes her blood pressure. As he removes the strap her body is seized by a new contraction. Her face scrunches, her mouth opens, but no scream or shout comes from it: just a low, barely perceptible growling. The contraction lasts for ten or fifteen seconds.
“Painful?” Learmont asks her when it’s over.
“It is as though I had been poisoned,” she replies. She turns her head away from him and gazes through the window at the sky.
“Have you been taking any painkillers?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer. He repeats the question.
“She has to see you speaking,” the bedside maid tells him.
“She has to see your lips move, sir. She’s deaf.”
He leans over the bed and waves his hand in front of Mrs. Carrefax’s face; she turns her head towards him. He repeats his question once more. She seems to understand it, but just smiles vaguely back at him again.
“Small doses of laudanum, sir,” the bedside maid says.
“I prefer chloroform,” Learmont says.
Mrs. Carrefax’s eyes light up. Her soft, grainy, strange voice utters the word “Chlorodyne?”
“No, chloroform,” Learmont tells her, pronouncing the name clearly and emphatically. He takes a gauze mask from his case and, fixing this to the end of his inhaler’s tube, straps it round Mrs. Carrefax’s face. He opens a valve on the canister’s neck; a long, slow hissing seeps out as the gas makes its way along the canvas corridor towards her mouth and nose. The muscles in Mrs. Carrefax’s cheeks slacken; her pupils dilate. After half a minute Learmont closes the valve and unstraps the mask. A second contraction soon follows; again the woman’s body seizes up, but her face registers less pain. He refixes the mask, administers more chloroform and watches the silent features further slacken and dilate beneath their gag. When he removes it again, she begins to murmur:
“. . . un fleuve . . . un serpent d’eau noir . . .”
“What’s that?” he asks.
“It is like a fall of velvet,” she tells him. “Black velvet . . . covering a camera . . .”
“That’s the chloroform,” he says.
“. . . a camera,” she tells him, “looking in the dark . . . There is a river with a water snake, swimming towards me . . . More.” Her hand releases the bedside maid’s and gestures to the canister.
“I don’t want to knock you out completely,” Dr. Learmont says. “I’ll let you—”
“Sophie!” Maureen gasps. Learmont follows her eyes towards the doorway. The child is standing in it, watching. Maureen walks over and plants herself in front of her, blocking her view of the room. “You shouldn’t be here!” she scolds—then, softening, scoops her up into her arms and says: “We’ll go and help Frieda make the kenno.” As Learmont listens to her heavy footsteps descending the staircase, another contraction takes hold of Mrs. Carrefax. He takes from his case a bottle of carbolic acid and tells the bedside maid to go and fetch him olive oil.
“Olive oil, sir?” she repeats.
“Yes,” he answers, rolling up his sleeves. “Not long to wait now.”
But there is long to wait: all afternoon, and more. He leaves the room twice: once to stretch his legs in the hallway, from whose window he watches Mr. Carrefax and Mr. Dean carrying the coils of copper wire and crates of bottles through the walled-in garden to the stables; once to eat some sandwiches the maids have knocked up for him. He administers more chloroform and hears, above the hiss, the sound of Mr. Dean’s trap making its way up the gravel path, departing. The contractions continue; Mrs. Carrefax dips into and out of her twilight sleep. Dusk turns into evening, then night.
The final pushes come at half past two. The bedside maid holds Mrs. Carrefax’s shoulders, Mrs. Carrefax grips the bearing-down sheet and the baby’s head appears between her legs—or rather, half-appears behind a glistening film of plasma, a skin-membrane. Learmont has heard of this phenomenon but never witnessed it before: the baby has a caul. The amniotic bag envelops the entire head, a silky hood. As soon as the baby’s fully out, Learmont pinches this away from its skin and peels it upwards from the neck, removing it. He washes off the green-and-red mess covering the rest of the body, ties and cuts the cord, wraps the baby in a sheet and hands it to the mother.
“A boy,” he tells her. “Now we need to get your afterbirth out.”
He starts filling a syringe with epithemalodine. When it’s ready, he takes the baby back from her and places him in the maid’s hands. The baby starts to cry.
“This will sting a little,” Learmont says, tapping the air bubbles out. He straps the gauze mask to the mother’s face again and turns the chloroform back on, then shoots the epithemalodine into the folds of her vagina. Her body flinches; her back arches, then relaxes into the bed again. The placenta follows shortly afterwards. Learmont turns the valve off, looks down at the muffled woman and tells her:
“I’ll get rid of this—unless you want to bury it. Some people do. Some people even fry it up and eat it. And the caul is meant to be a sign of—”
But she cuts him short with a gesture of her hand towards the canister.
“It can’t hurt, I suppose,” he says. “We’ll give it a couple more minutes.” He turns the valve back on. Mrs. Carrefax’s eyes warm and widen. The baby stops crying. For a long while the room is silent but for the hiss of the chloroform and, quieter than this, the intermittent mechanical buzzing he heard earlier, floating in from outside, from the stables.
At dawn he’s fed a breakfast of kippers, eggs and bread. When he’s finished Maureen tells him that Mr. Carrefax would like to see him.
“Where is he?” Learmont asks her.
She snorts and answers: “In his workshop, of course. Follow the house round to the left and you’ll find it, through a doorway in the garden wall.”
There’s dew on the grass and snakes of mist about the tree trunks in the orchard where the children were playing yesterday. Following the perimeter of the house as instructed, Learmont turns away from the orchard and, walking towards a part of the estate he didn’t cross on his way in, passes some kind of enclosed park. A gate is set in its tall wall, its columns topped with obelisk-shaped carvings. Behind the wall, taller, conker trees loom, their leaves all big and yellow. The park drops away as the ivy-coated house wall turns and leads him across a neat lawn held in by low walls, then onwards through a further wall of hedge onto a smaller, unmown lawn around whose far side lime trees stand. He picks a very quiet buzzing sound up as he moves across this, but it’s not the same as the buzzing he heard coming from the stables: this one seems less agitated, less electrical. He understands why as he comes to the lawn’s far side: beehives are set among the limes. He skirts these and passes through a second hedge-wall to emerge into a sub-section of garden in which a rectangular trough-pond sits absolutely still, covered in pea-green slime. At the far end of this sub-section, a door leads back into the walled-in garden he arrived through yesterday. He tries it, but it’s locked. He can hear a metallic snipping sound on the other side.
“Mr. Carrefax?” he calls.
The metallic snipping stops and Mr. Carrefax’s voice booms back:
“What? Who’s that?”
“The doctor,” Learmont calls back. “The baby’s fine and well.”
“Fine and—what? I’ve misplaced the key to this door, I’m afraid. You’ll have to come in through the far side. Follow the wall round.”
It’s not apparent how to do this: the wall’s so overgrown with ivy and with bushes extending outwards like buttresses that it’s hard to tell where it leads. Learmont detours away from it into a long avenue of conker trees behind which lies an apple orchard. The avenue takes him towards a set of smaller houses, but before he reaches these he picks the wall up again, emerging from still swirls of tangled hedge to turn and run beside the narrow, moat-like stream that he crossed yesterday; eventually it passes the same wooden bridge and presents to him, once he’s recrossed this, the same small doorway. He’s come full circle. He bows his head again, steps back through the wisteria onto uneven mosaic paving and moves once more between the rows of stacked-up tulips and chrysanthemums.
The purple of the irises seems stronger, more intense that it did yesterday. The passageway formed by the hedges and trellis seems more closed-in, more laced-over. The wiry, light-brown vines that split from the poisonberries and run off towards the stables seem to have multiplied. When he arrives beneath them he sees that they’re not vines at all: they’re strands of copper wire, and more have been strung up since yesterday. The coils that came with him in Hudson and Dean’s trap are spilling unravelled from the stables’ entrances. Mr. Carrefax is standing over one with metal cutters, measuring a length.
“Hold this,” he tells Learmont, handing him one end.
Dr. Learmont obeys. Mr. Carrefax paces from the stable to a point on the trellis, paying out the length as he goes.
“Twelve feet, I’d say. Remember that. You hungry?”
“I’ve had eggs and kippers and—”
“Kippers and—what? Take kenno with me. There’s some groaning malt as well. Splendid stuff!”
He leads Learmont into one of the stables. Benches of machinery lie under shelves on which sit rows of instruments: telegraph tappers, telephone receivers, large phonograph machines with strips of paper hanging from them, wax cylinders, bottles, objects and instruments whose name and function he can only guess at. On a work table, among metal shavings, are a jug of dark brown liquid, two mugs and some cheesecake. Wiping his hands on a cloth whose surface looks no cleaner than they are, Mr. Carrefax cuts two slices of the cheesecake with a knife, hands one to the doctor, then pours out two mugs of malt.
“Breakfast, lunch, dinner—who knows? Haven’t slept all night,” he tells Learmont. “Your health, Doctor!”
The malt’s refreshing; the cheesecake is rich and sharp. The two men eat and drink in silence for a moment.
“I’ve fixed it,” Mr. Carrefax tells Dr. Learmont after a while.
“Fixed what?” Learmont asks.
“The F and Q firk—quirk, I mean. It wouldn’t have happened if I’d run the wire all the way from here up to the public lines uninterrupted.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Learmont says.
“Aha!” booms Mr. Carrefax. He places a firm hand on Learmont’s back and marches him out to the workshop’s entrance. “Look!” he says, pointing up at the trails of copper running over their heads to merge with the curling poisonberries on the trellis. “Where do you think they end?”
Learmont’s eyes follow the trellis to the wall and the locked door on
whose far side he stood five minutes ago. Among the billowing mesh of
ivy and bushes stands a kind of metal weathercock. The wires are wound
around the base of this like serpents.
“They end there?” he asks.
“Aha!” booms Carrefax again. “Yes—and no! The wires end, but the
signal jumps onwards! Five feet, for the moment. With this copper I’ll be
able to increase it to ten—fifteen even. It’s been jumped further, mind
you. That Italian is out on Salisbury Plain right now, with all his towers
and masts and kites . . . He’s in with the Post Office, you see? Got all the
funding. Always the way! A mentor—nod, wink here and there: proba-
bly a Freemason. The new birth will bear his name no doubt, when it
comes. Boy or girl?”
“The baby? A boy.”
“Splendid! Splendid! Have some more malt and kenno. Came out
smoothly? The girl had to be dragged out. Virtually needed toys set at
the foot of the bed before she’d show.”
“It took a while, but he came calmly in the end. He had a caul.”
“Had a—what? A cold?”
“A caul. A veil around his head: a kind of web. It’s meant to bring
good luck—especially to sailors.”
“Sailors? I tell you, Doctor: get this damn thing working and they
won’t need luck. There’ll be a web around the world for them to send
their signals down. You came with the delivery trap?”
“Yes. The telegraph company’s woman had taken both your messages,
so she knew Hudson and Dean were sending a man down.”
“Splendid! You need transport back, though.”
“Lydium’s not far. I can walk there and take a train.”
“No need to walk!” booms Mr. Carrefax. “I’ll telegraph for a new
trap to come and fetch you.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Dr. Learmont tells him. “The walk will
clear my head.”
“Will clear your—what? I wouldn’t hear of it! Go back into the
house. Rest while I jump your orders clear over the wall.”
Dr. Learmont obeys. He’s too tired not to. He walks back through the irises and chrysanthemums, across the narrow stream, along the avenue of conker trees. The black birds are still whirring high above them; Learmont can’t tell if they’ve multiplied or if it’s just his tiredness breaking the sky’s dome into slow-moving dots. Inside the house, he gathers his possessions back into his case. He can’t find the phials of epithemalodine or the codeine pills, but it’s not important: there are plenty more back in the surgery.
The baby’s feeding; its mother sits up in the bed, calm and contented, while the bedside maid combs her hair, unravelling it like the Chinese women pulling at their strange dark balls in the silk tapestry above them. Maureen stands at the foot of the bed; in front of her, enfolded in her arms, the girl watches her brother silently. They all watch silently: the room is silent but for the clicking lips of the sucking baby and the copper buzzing rising from the garden.
From the Hardcover edition.