The House of Sight and Shadow: A Novelby Nicholas Griffin
In a city still recovering from the ravages of plague and fire, two doctors crisscross the boundaries of morality. It is a challenge that leads Sir Edmund Calcraft, an eminent and notorious anatomist, and Joseph Bendix, his ambitious young student, into playing a dark game with the growing criminal underworld. At the heart of the book lies a haunting love story that… See more details below
In a city still recovering from the ravages of plague and fire, two doctors crisscross the boundaries of morality. It is a challenge that leads Sir Edmund Calcraft, an eminent and notorious anatomist, and Joseph Bendix, his ambitious young student, into playing a dark game with the growing criminal underworld. At the heart of the book lies a haunting love story that both drives and threatens to destroy their quest.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
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- Product dimensions:
- 5.17(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.70(d)
Read an Excerpt
Joseph Bendix looked down upon London from the heights of Blackheath. A musty warmth had parted the skirts of smoke above the city, illuminating her fresh brick, her tight alleys. The sun had baked the surface of the mud, creating a thick crust for their carriage. At noon there were no shadows. Reluctantly, Bendix climbed back into the coach, taking the same position between the two elderly ladies that he had held all the way from Dover. Sharp spokes of light lanced the perforations of tin-sheeted windows, so that all could see the choking dust they breathed.
Their descent into London was accompanied by the eruption of conversation, which Bendix had so carefully quelled through the miles.
“They say,” said Mrs. Sexton, “that there are leopards in the Tower. . . .”
“Perhaps,” added the flat-nosed Mr. Harper, “they still show the two-legged dog that was so prominent during my last visitation.”
“My sister writes,” continued Mrs. Sexton, “that they now display the entire skin of a Moor. Tanned. With the hair on it. Shall you be seeing it, Mr. Bendix?”
“No, madam, I shall not,” said Bendix and stared straight ahead.
“Was there much entertainment in Paris?” inquired Mrs. Sexton.
Bendix held his silence and cursed the lack of funds that condemned him to travel in so ungentlemanly a manner. They bumped and walloped and knocked against one another as the horses strained down the hill. They picked up two more ladies at an inn in Deptford, put one down by the horse ferry at Southwark, and, at the death of the day, finally enteredthe gates of London.
An old Englishman in Paris had told him of the London of his youth. How she had been racked by plague, freshened by fire, rebuilt. Up went a thousand houses, narrow passages returning where men had dreamt of the wide boulevards of Paris and the majesty of St. Petersburg. There were parts erected that held splendour: the embankment of the Thames, the precise angles of Soho Square and St. James. St. Paul’s shone above the city, but even her beauty was not so far from Pudding Lane, from the warped rooftops of Blowbladder Street. But Bendix saw none of this, gazing only at the tempered rind of Mrs. Sexton’s cuticles and the long hairs that curled from her nostrils. Had the coach not carried all his belongings in the world, he would have leaped out and walked alone.
He could hear carriages travelling both in front and behind him. The air was thick, dirtier than in Paris, thought Bendix, and weighed with the heavy smell of horse dung and the laboured breath of driven cattle. Mrs. Sexton held a handkerchief to her nose. The remaining lady from Deptford laughed at her affronted sensibilities.
Mr. Harper leaned forward and tapped Bendix upon the knee with his cane.
“You visit family?” he inquired.
Bendix shook his head in reply. “My father is long departed.”
“Northumberland,” replied Bendix with the start of a smile.
Harper let the conversation die.
By the time they pulled up at the Black Horse, a portion of Bendix’s good humour had returned to him. He helped all of the women down from the coach and hired a broad-backed porter to sweat his belongings up to the room. Opening his trunk, he removed his writing case and immediately scratched a brief note to the doctor, letting him know of his intention to call the following day. He descended with his missive. The landlord advised him not to trust the evening post and proposed two linkboys, sitting by the empty grate. Bendix gave one a pair of pennies to deliver his note and letter of recommendation. The second he hired to guard and guide him up Drury Lane.
He walked for a mixture of edification and amusement—to take a turn about the city in which his parents had been raised. It took him no more than one stretch upon Drury Lane to deduce why his father had abandoned London in favour of the North. The street was abustle with a confused mingling of peoples. The silks of gentlemen, the sight of beggars, children cursed with misshapen limbs. More frightening was the concentration of the unplaceable. Persons he suspected might be actors, women he presumed to be whores, noblemen he supposed as penniless as himself. London, he decided, was a fallen honeycomb, the bees long ago ceding their territory to flightless grubs.
He returned to the Black Horse, paid his linkboy as he extinguished his torch in a bucket of water, and vigorously patted the dust from his breeches. In his room Bendix undressed quickly, sipped at the wine his landlord had left, and finally removed his peruke. The hair beneath was closely shaved, a sphere of stubble flecked with grey. He blew out the candle and walked naked to the window with his glass. Beneath him, in the dim light granted by the tavern, ran a thoroughfare of shadows. He watched the affectionate touch of hand on hand and felt the sharp pang of the lonely. Bendix knew not a soul in the city. Having lost his father’s letters of recommendation many moons ago, he now relied upon one remaining connection. He could not think of a single man who would now write him another. Awaiting his meeting with the doctor, he slept fitfully throughout a hot and anxious night.
The morning found Bendix ensconced at a table in Tom’s Coffee House, a short walk from the Black Horse. He read the Daily Courant, noted the upcoming trials and politicking, and held the news-sheet high to disguise his loneliness. In Paris he had had a small circle of friends, fellow students of medicine. They had drifted from Bendix during his rise, then stood back and crossed their arms to watch him fall.
Mocking Parisians had laughed that London thought itself the centre of civilization. All agreed that the House of Hanover was now established and, as the monarchy began to flourish, Bendix believed King George would encourage his nation with money. Where there was money, there was advancement, opportunity. Great men were found only in great nations. In truth, Bendix’s return was not simply a matter of coin, though he would have insisted on the lie had anyone asked. In the circles in which he had moved, money was a more understandable excuse than love.
He had heard of the doctor, Sir Edmund Calcraft, from his own tutor, Bertrand LeMaître, who had attended the doctor’s lithotomic lectures on the art of cutting for stones at the turn of the century. There was, LeMaître insisted, no man in Europe who cut a patient as well as Calcraft. None with the disrespect necessary for the advancement of knowledge since sixty years ago, when Boyle and Hooke had suffocated birds to measure the “spring” of air in sealed vessels. But Calcraft had not taken a student in twenty years, had not operated in twenty years. Rumour, said LeMaître, held that Calcraft had not left his house in a decade.
“Why,” Bendix had asked, “would he even consider taking me as an apprentice?”
“Why does a man marry if he has no need of children or money?” answered his tutor.
“For love,” replied Bendix immediately.
“Or,” said LeMaître, “for companionship. I shall write you a letter.”
“What does he work on?” asked Bendix.
LeMaître shook his head. It mattered little what Calcraft was studying. Bendix had to leave Paris. “You shall find his observations most interesting.”
Bendix, close and impatient, was now in London. By four the next afternoon Bendix had received no answer to his solicitation to Calcraft. With the sun still bright above, he hired a hackney and directed it to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He had rustled enough gold from the generous LeMaître to ensure a worthy appearance. Indeed, all his money was invested in appearance. A dozen fine suits, each a silken key that might open the doors where the shabby were restrained by servants. They passed down Great Queen’s Street, Bendix admiring the regularity of the façades of fine red brick and heavy wooden eaves. Lincoln’s Inn Fields was an extension of this perfection, broken by the odd arabesque fancy.
The door to Dr. Calcraft’s house was black and freshly painted. Bendix rapped upon it with his knuckles, then quickly examined his sober dress of dark silks. His frock coat remained clean despite the dirt of the hackney. The silver buckles of his shoes gleamed. There was no answer at the door. He rapped again, then attempted to peer into the windows. They were drawn and curtained. Scratching at the skin beneath his peruke, Bendix walked along until he found the mews, then doubled to the back of the house. It seemed dark. Once more he returned to the front and knocked for a third time.
The door was opened by a short man who bowed briefly before Bendix. He was at least as wide about the waist as he was tall, with round, ruddy cheeks that obscured his eyes. Bendix feared he might pop.
“If you would tell Dr. Calcraft that Joseph Bendix calls upon him.”
The spherical servant raised a hand to his face and masked a smile. Bendix noted his extraordinary fingers, fine and tapered like a starfish, and realized at once his mistake.
“Or else a very presumptuous footman,” said the doctor and offered Bendix his starred hand.
“I apologize for my . . .”
“Understandable, quite understandable.” Finally he released Bendix’s hand. “Come in, sir. ’Tis uncommon warm today, and there are fevers about. If you should catch one, I would charge you for your visit.”
Calcraft let Bendix pass before him, studying his face. Bendix imagined how he would be judged. The curls of his French wig, his angled nose, dark eyes. His deportment, he hoped, brimmed with confidence, a necessary trace of arrogance on an otherwise kindly face.
Bendix entered a long hallway of burnished oak and followed his host deep into the house. Though the solemn grandeur of his surroundings was not lost on Bendix, it was muddied by the pervasive odour of wet clothes left to dry in a damp room. No movement of air. Bendix overcame his desire to search out a window.
“You know LeMaître well?” asked Calcraft, following him down the hallway.
“Three years,” said Bendix. “I considered him one of my closest friends in Paris, though he was, of course, my superior in learning.”
“Poor soul,” said Calcraft, “I trust you have more ambition than he. Delightful man, delightful, but an ordinary mind. Has he told you much about me?”
“He said that you would grant me an audience. I doubted it myself.”
“To your left, sir,” said Calcraft, and they passed up a flight of stairs that led directly to a study. To Bendix’s relief, the curtains were parted. A faint breeze accompanied the last of the sun. There was only one chair in the room. Bendix stared at it, wondering how they both would sit. “A drink?” asked the doctor and then directed his guest into the chair.
Bendix nodded, and the doctor poured him a large glass of brandy and tempered it with water. The setting sun lent the woods an orange hue.
Calcraft paced back and forth before his guest, as if it were the most natural manner in which to conduct an interview. He dressed plainly, thought Bendix, lacking all pretensions of the day, bowing neither to French powders nor English perukes. Bendix realized how wrong he had been to guess him a footman. No house-proud man would have let such a sight represent his kingdom. Simple breeches of maroon silk, a chemise of light cream, a pair of tarnished buckles upon his shoes.
“You did well to doubt your admittance, but while LeMaître shall always teach and never practise, he is a master in the art of flattery. He will force a memory upon you. A warm one, uncommonly warm, and while you bask in its light, will ask a favour that seems trivial in comparison. Thus, you sit before me.”
“Might I ask upon the memory?”
“No,” said Calcraft, and then conceded. “He accompanied me, as my assistant, to Oxford a long time ago. We spent the summer chasing up villagers for sixpence. Each of us met ladies. His was temporary, mine divine.”
“I . . .”
“No more, sir. We must speak about you. You are a curious specimen.” Calcraft wagged a finger at him.
“Naturally, sir. He knows something of the changes I have undergone since last we met. This information, I presume, he has passed to you.”
Bendix nodded slowly, knowing so little that he could only hope to draw the doctor out. “It seems, though, as if all that I hear is rumour and gossip. The only certainty, and therefore the only evidence that can be considered in judgement, is of your life before your retirement.”
“Judgement,” chuckled Calcraft, “this is most excellent. Yes, why not? You should judge me, and I you. What do they say of me?”
“You are considered a worthy anatomist.”
The doctor peered up at Bendix. “Come now, man, if you wish to last one minute more in this house you shall have to forget your Continental manners. Politeness, sir, is insincerity. What do they say?”
Bendix took a breath. “They say that your house is built upon bones, curtains stitched of women’s hair, and pillows sewn of eyelids. They say that you are a monster.”
Calcraft paused in his wanderings and sat upon the edge of his desk. “The common folk, Mr. Bendix, are much afeard of anatomy. More so than of Tyburn rope. To be dispatched by justice is a crime indeed, but to be studied for knowledge is barbarity.”
“It is also against the law.”
“Of course,” said the doctor, “the law grants that six bodies a year belong to the College of Surgeons for dissection. One for every second month. Difficult in the coldest months, but imagine the putrification this July. And the crowd, man, imagine the crowd. Two thousand doctors and surgeons crushed about the body, tearing at it like dogs. Arrangements are made. It is unavoidable.” Calcraft walked over to the decanter and returned to fill both their glasses. In the uncomfortable silence, Bendix scratched at his head through his thick peruke. “Remove it, sir,” instructed Calcraft as he sat. With some relief, Bendix unpinned his wig and placed it on the desk. Calcraft looked down upon his grizzled, close-shorn hair.
“Some more, sir. Tell me more of yourself. I know why LeMaître says you come before me. Tell me in your words. Truth, sir. Trust in it for now.”
“You know where I am from, Doctor. I have attended the most reputable courses of anatomy in Europe. I have learned much with my ears and almost nothing with my eyes. Mostly, we studied from the carcasses of dogs.”
“Dogs!” erupted Calcraft. “A dog is no good, no good at all.”
“What I wish from you, Doctor, is an apprenticeship of the most visceral kind. As Dr. LeMaître points out, though I have much to learn from you, perhaps I also have knowledge that you would find desirable.”
“He wrote of your theory,” began Calcraft. “The body’s subservience to the mind. How the physical is entirely subordinate to the cognitive. Almost a dismissal of sickness itself. A bold treatise, I will grant you. And, more impressively, offensive to our Greek ancestors.”
“Indeed,” smiled Bendix.
“Tell me,” asked Calcraft, “what do you believe to be the purpose of the brain? Is it filled with vapours, as Galen says? Does it leak, as Aristotle claims?”
“I do not know.”
“Do you agree with Stahl as to the existence of the anima?”
“You do not have opinions?” asked Calcraft sharply.
“My opinion is that I do not know enough to propose a theory on the substance of the brain that you could not at once smite down. If it is thought that fills the brain,” continued Bendix, “I am here because mine needs fattening.”
“And yet you proposed this theory to LeMaître, on which he granted you your licence. ‘The body is subservient to the mind.’ How did you conclude such a thing without opinions?”
“If I take anything from any man,” said Bendix, “it is from Descartes’s reliance on what is certain. Thereby we can escape the sceptics.”
“Your theory seems to invite them.”
“I am also an adherent of Boerhaave’s. A man may learn much by cutting the dead. My own theory is born of my own eyes. I may discuss—”
“And if, sir,” interrupted Calcraft, “I were to let you absorb my learnings, what will you pay?”
Bendix shifted in his seat. “I have little in the way of income. . . . There was an annuity from my father. It has been withdrawn.”
“Gambling?” asked Calcraft.
“Of a kind,” said Bendix, summoning a brief, helpless shrug that was designed to indicate past weaknesses were no longer present.
Calcraft managed to mask his sympathy with a stern façade. At Bendix’s age he had fallen into debt. He couldn’t help but see in his guest a young and impecunious reflection of himself. “Stand, sir, stand and leave,” said the doctor. “Be back tomorrow, in the light. You shall keep your money. And I shall keep my time. Not all of it, of course, but I shall continue about my business. And where I decide it is allowable, you may attend with me.”
Bendix rose from his seat and could not suppress a smile of elation.
“You have a fine temperament,” said Calcraft and shook Bendix by the hand, “but this shall be a quiet house for you to live in, Joseph. It shall be a poor introduction to London. Yet you are young, sir, and I suspect shall find your own way. You may begin by accompanying yourself to the door.”
Bendix wandered in a happy stupor back towards the Black Horse, dismissive of the doctor’s concerns of London society. As for “youth,” he now despised the word. According to his father, youth had connotations of ignorance, neglect, and insensitivity. Bendix knew what he really meant. Ignorance of money, neglect of its management, insensitivity to one’s patron. It was not until his thirtieth birthday that it occurred to the son that he had not only ignored and neglected his family, but also his own career. Suddenly he sympathized with his father’s concerns, several years too late for his father’s understanding.
In France, money had become a most peculiar thing for Bendix, because it was tied, in a tight silken knot, to love. Money had brought him to the attention of his first love, and his lack of gold had cast him from her realm. The Comtesse had been, in many ways, the perfect first love: older, more patient, kind in doses, most deliberate. Perhaps Bendix was a little too old for first love. Fine-skinned, bright-eyed, an odd mixture of easiness and intensity, he had been used to receiving attention, but never reciprocating it.
The woman he had foolishly seen as his equal viewed him as a foreign diversion. He was a worthy affair, at twenty-seven, ten years her junior. Apparently moneyed, he was also handsome enough to cause ripples of jealousy in her circle. The ladies teased Bendix for his accented French, inquired of his medical knowledge, of his acquaintances in England, and then, behind the Comtesse’s back, trilled his unworthiness and placed small wagers on how long he would last. That the Comtesse kept him for two years spoke much for both his conversation and his earnest tenderness in lovemaking, something that even the garrulous Comtesse could not adequately describe to her friends.
Appearances, however, required a heavier purse than Bendix’s. Gold given by his father bought only a brief respite. Tailors in various corners of Paris unwittingly combined to support Bendix until, eighteen months later, his credit was stopped. So sure was he in the mutual bond of intimate love that he waited only a day to ask the Comtesse for a loan. It was, of all things, the one the Comtesse feared most. In her eyes it immediately reduced Bendix from a lover to a whore. The years swept across her face and Bendix saw something frightening and motherly in her eyes.
“Money?” she repeated, plucking the single word from his soliloquy of love and translating it from its smooth French to give it a rapacious English bite.
Bendix, nodding, understood his mistake, but the word hung over them. When Bendix left her that evening, his approaches resisted, he knew that he would never be admitted into her presence again.
So involved had he become in her life that he had few friends to turn to. Only LeMaître stood by him, advising that the surest way to stitch a broken heart was to put water between oneself and one’s desired. At first, Bendix had not listened to his professor and was crumpled by self-pity. For a full year, his clothes grew dirtier, his creditors more aggressive. It was LeMaître who ultimately forced a loan upon him.
Finally, Bendix’s self-disgust exceeded his love. He remembered how, before the Comtesse interrupted his life, the world of medicine had been his sole obsession. Having once more convinced himself that the real truth of life lay not in love but in work and progress, he had consented to leave Paris behind him. Women were to be ignored. His final days were spent in deep conversation with LeMaître. Theories that had been forced by love to the peripheries of his brain were now harnessed and dragged forward. By the time his coach reached London, his only remaining regret had been for the two lost years he had suffered through the Comtesse’s manipulations. Bendix had not been able to afford to thank LeMaître in anything but words.
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