Readers of The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Arcadia by Iain Pears are sure to be mesmerized by Dan Vyleta’s thrilling blend of Dickensian historical fiction and fantasy, as three young friends scratch the surface of the grown-up world to discover startling wonders—and dangerous secrets.
In an alternate Victorian England those who are wicked are marked by the smoke that pours out of their bodies. The aristocracy are clean, proof of their virtue and right to rule, while the lower classes are drenched in sin and soot.
Thomas Argyle is the only son of a wayward aristocrat. Charlie Cooper is his best friend. When Thomas finds himself under the boot heel of a sadistic headboy in the treacherous halls of their elite boarding school, he and Charlie begin to question the rules of their society. Then the boys meet Livia, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful family. She leads them to a secret laboratory where they learn that smoke may not be as it seems, and together they set out to uncover the truth about their world.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
DAN VYLETA is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s. He holds a Ph.D. in history from King's College, Cambridge. Vyleta is the author of three novels, Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, and The Crooked Maid, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the J.I. Segal Award. An inveterate migrant, Vyleta has lived in Germany, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. He currently resides in Stratford-upon-Avon in England.
Read an Excerpt
T H E T R I P
They make him wait for his punishment.
It’s laundry day the next morning and, having no choice, Thomas throws the sodden, smelly shirt into the basket, along with the week’s underwear and bedclothes. The Soot stain has faded but not disappeared.
It is no consolation to Thomas that many a schoolboy adds his own stained clothes to the growing pile. Each transgression leaves behind its own type of Soot, and those versed in such matters can determine the severity of your crime just by studying the stain’s density and grit. This is why no classes in Smoke and Ethics are scheduled for laundry day: the master, Dr. Renfrew, spends his morning locked in his office, root- ing through boys’ underclothes. The list of those found guilty of “Unclean Thoughts and Actions” is displayed in a glass cabinet before lunch, so that each schoolboy may learn what punishment has been levied on him. Two days of dining-hall service; three pages that have to be copied from the Sec- ond Book of Smoke; a public apology at school assembly. These, for minor transgressions. More serious offences require individual investigation. The boy in question will be called to the master’s study, to answer for his sins. There is a chair there, upholstered in leather, that is equipped with leather straps. The boys call it the dentist’s chair. No teeth are pulled, but the truth, Dr. Renfrew has been known to say, has to be dug up by the roots. For the most serious violations of Good Order even this procedure is seen to be insufficient. They require the calling of something referred to as a “tribu- nal.” So Thomas has heard. There has been no such case in the weeks since he’s been at school.
In class, Thomas sits distracted and is reprimanded when he cannot recite the four principles of Aristotle’s theory of causation. Another boy recites them with glib relish. He is not asked what the four principles mean, how they are used, or what good they may do; nor who this Aris- totle was whose marble bust stands in the school hallway, near the por- trait of Lord Shrewsbury, the school’s esteemed founder. And in general Thomas has found that the school is more interested in the outward form of things rather than their meaning; that learning is a matter of reciting names or dates or numbers: smartly, loudly, and with great conviction. He has proven, thus far, a very bad student.
At lunch, he hardly eats. He is sitting in the school refectory, which has the shape and general dimensions of a chapel and is dreadfully cold. December winds have pushed the snow into the windows. On the outside they are shrouded in dull white that saps the warmth from every ray of sun. On the inside, they bleed cold water from the edges of their metal frames. On the floor, the puddles refreeze and eat away at the unvarnished wood.
Lunch is a cut of hard gammon half hidden under a ladleful of luke- warm peas. Each bite tastes like mud to Thomas, and twice he bites down on the fork by accident, digging the prongs into his tongue. Halfway through the meal Charlie spots him and joins him at the table. One of the teachers held him up after class. Charlie waits until the skinny little boy on service duty has condemned him to his own piece of leathery gammon with its attendant pile of yellowing peas.
“Anything?” he asks.
Thomas shakes his head. “Nothing. Look at them, though. They are all waiting for it. The pupils, and the teachers, too. All of them, impatient. Yearning for the bloody shoe to drop.”
He speaks resentfully and even as the last word leaves his lips, a wisp of Smoke curls from his nostril, too light and thin to leave behind Soot. Charlie disperses it with a quick wave. He is not worried. Hardly anyone gets through the day without a minor transgression, and there have been days when a teacher could be seen flapping at a thread of Smoke pouring from his tongue. The students tend to like these teachers better. In their imperfection they are closer to their own states of grace.
“They can’t send you home.” Charlie sounds like he believes it. “You’ve only just got here.”
“He’ll call you into his office, Renfrew will.” “I suppose so.”
“You’ll have to tell him how it was. No holding back.”
And then Charlie says what’s been on Thomas’s mind all morning. What he hasn’t dared spell out.
“Otherwise he mightn’t let you join the Trip.” Thomas nods and finds his mouth too dry to speak.
The Trip is what everyone has been talking about from the minute he arrived at school. It’s a unique event: there has been nothing like it in the school’s history for close to three decades. Rumour has it that it was Ren- frew who had insisted on the Trip’s revival, and that he has faced fierce opposition, from the teachers, the parents, and from the Board of Gov- ernors itself. It’s hardly surprising. Most decent folk have never been to London. To take a group of schoolboys there is considered extraordinary, almost outlandish. There have been voices suggesting that it will put the whole school in danger. That the boys who go might never return.
Thomas still has trouble finding spit for words. “I want to go” is all he manages before breaking into a dry cough. It does not quite capture what he feels. He needs to see it. The prospect of the Trip is the only thing that’s kept him going these past few weeks. The moment he heard about it was the moment he decided there might be a meaning to his coming to school, a higher purpose. He’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what he expects from their visit to London. A revelation, perhaps. Something that will explain the world to him.
The cough runs its course, exhausts itself in a curse. “That bastard Julius. I could kill the bloody turd.” Charlie’s face is so honest it hurts.
“If you can’t go, Thomas, I won’t—”
Thomas cuts him short because a group of teachers are passing them. They are speaking animatedly, but drop their voices to a whisper the moment they draw level with the boys. Resentment flickers through Thomas’s features, and is followed by another exhalation of pale, thin Smoke. His tongue shows black for a second, but he swallows the Soot. You do that too often, your windpipe roughens and your tonsils start to darken, along with what’s behind. There is a glass jar in the science class- room with a lung so black it looks dipped in tar.
“Look at them whispering. They are enjoying this! Making me stew in my own fat. Why don’t they just get on with it? Put me in the bloody dock!” But Charlie shakes his head, watches the teachers huddle near the door.
“I don’t think they’re talking about you, Thomas. There is something else going on. I noticed it earlier, when I went to the Porter’s Lodge, to see if I had any mail. Master Foybles was there, talking to Cruikshank, the porter. Making inquiries. They are waiting for something, some sort of delivery. And it’s important. Foybles sounded pretty desperate. He kept on saying, ‘You’ll let me know, won’t you? The minute it arrives.’ As though he were suspecting Cruikshank of hiding it away somewhere. Whatever it is.”
Thomas considers this. “Something they need for the Trip?”
“I don’t know,” says Charlie, thoughtful. “If it is, it better come today. If they have to postpone the Trip, they might end up cancelling it altogether.” He cuts a piece of gammon like it’s wronged him somehow, spilling peas on all sides. Thomas curses and turns to his own lunch. Leaving food on your plate is against the rules and carries its own punishment, as though it is proof of some invisible type of Smoke.
They send for him after vespers.
It’s Julius who comes for him, smirking, Thomas can see him all the way down the corridor, an extra flourish to his step. Julius does not say anything. Indeed he does not need to, a gesture is enough, a sort of wave of the hand that starts at the chest and ends up pointing outward, down the length of the hall. Ironic, like he’s a waiter, inviting Thomas to the table. And then Julius leads the way, walking very slowly now, his hands in his pockets, calling to some boys to open the door up ahead.
Making sure everyone knows.
Keeping pace with Julius, trapped behind that slow, slouching, no- haste-no-worry-in-the-world walk: it’s enough to make Thomas’s blood boil. He can taste Smoke on his breath and wonders if he’s showing. A dark gown covers his shirt but he will soon be asked to remove it, no doubt, and expose his linens. He attempts to calm himself, picks Soot out of his teeth with the tip of his tongue. Its bitterness makes him gag.
Julius slows down even further as they approach Dr. Renfrew’s door. The Master of Smoke and Ethics. It’s a new post, that, no older than a year. It used to be the Master of Religion was in charge of all the moral educa- tion, or so Charlie’s told him. When they arrive at the door, Julius pauses, smirks, and shakes his head. Then he walks on, faster now, gesturing for Thomas to keep pace.
It takes Thomas a minute to understand what’s just happened. He is not going to see Dr. Renfrew. There will be no dentist’s chair for him. It’s worse than that. They are heading to the headmaster’s quarters.
There’s to be a tribunal.
The word alone makes him feel sick.
Julius does not knock when they reach the headmaster’s door. This con- fuses Thomas, until they’ve stepped through. It leads not to a room but to a sort of antechamber, like a waiting room at the doctor’s, two long benches on each side, and an icy draft from the row of windows on the right. They are high up here, in one of the school’s towers. Beneath them, the fields of Oxfordshire: a silver sea of frozen moonlight. Down by the brook, a tree rises from the snow-choked grounds, stripped of its leaves by winter. A willow, its drooping branches dipped into the river, their tips trapped in ice. Thomas turns away, shivering, and notices that the door back to the hallway is padded from the inside, to proof it against sound. To protect the headmaster from the school’s noise, no doubt. And so nobody can hear you scream.
Julius stands at the other door, knocks on it gently, with his head boy’s confidence and tact. It opens after only a moment: Renfrew’s face, framed by blond hair and beard.
“You are here, Argyle. Good. Sit.”
Then adds, as Julius turns to leave: “You too.” Renfrew closes the door before Julius can ask why.
They sit on opposite sides, Thomas with his back to the windows, Julius facing them, and the moon. It affords Thomas the opportunity to study him. Something has gone out of the lad, at this “You too.” Some of the swagger, the I-own-the-world certainty. He is chewing his cheek, it appears. A good-looking boy, Thomas is forced to admit, fair-skinned and dark- haired, his long thin whiskers more down than beard. Thomas waits until Julius’s eyes fall on him, then leans forward.
“Does it hurt? The tooth, I mean.”
Julius does not react at once, hides his emotions as he does so well. “You are in trouble,” he says at last. “I am here only as a witness.”
Which is true in all likelihood, but nonetheless he looks a tad ruffled, Julius does, and Thomas cannot help gloating a little over his victory. They looked for the tooth late last night when Charlie and he were trying to clean his shirt, but it was gone. Julius must have picked it up himself. It would have made a nice souvenir. But that was then and now he is here, his hands all sweaty, casting around for bravado. Waiting. How much easier it would be to fight, even to lose: a fist in your face, a nosebleed, an ice bag on your aches. Thomas leans back, tries to unknot his shoulders. The moon is their only light source. When a cloud travels across it, the little waiting room is thrown into darkness. All he can see of Julius now is a shadow, black as Soot.
It must be a quarter of an hour before Renfrew calls them in. Rich, golden gaslight welcomes them; thick carpets that suck all sound from their steps. They are all there, all the masters. There are seven of them— Renfrew-Foybles-Harmon-Swinburne-Barlow-Winslow-Trout—but only three that count. Renfrew is tall and well-built, and still rather young. He wears his hair short, as well as his beard, and favours a dark, belted suit that seems to encase him from neck to ankle. A white silken scarf, worn tight at the throat, vouches for his virtue.
Trout is the headmaster. He is very fat and wears his trousers very high, so that the quantity of flesh between the top of his thighs and the waist- band dwarfs the short sunken chest, adorned though it is with fine lace and ruffles. What he lacks in hair, Trout makes up for in whiskers. His button nose seems lost between the swell of his red cheeks.
Swinburne, finally: the Master of Religion. Where Renfrew is tall, Swinburne is towering, if twisted by age. He wears the cap and smock of his office. The little one sees of his face is mottled with broken veins, the shape and colour of thistles. A beard covers the rest, long and stringy.
Renfrew, Swinburne, Trout: each of them, it is said, entangled in affairs that reach from school to Parliament and Crown. Thomas has often thought of painting them. He is good with a brush. A triptych. He has not decided yet who belongs at the centre.
It’s Renfrew who bids them sit. He points to two chairs that have been pulled up into the middle of the room, making no distinction between them. Compared to the theatricality of Julius’s examination last night, the gesture is almost casual. The masters are standing in clusters, wearing worsted winter suits. Some are holding teacups; Foybles is munching a biscuit. Thomas sits. After a moment’s hesitation Julius follows suit.
“You know why you are here.”
It is a statement, not a question, and Renfrew turns even as he makes it, reaches into a basket, retrieves something. It affords Thomas another moment to look around the room. He sees a leather settee and a brass chandelier; stained-glass windows with scenes from the Scriptures, Saint George with his lance through the dragon’s throat; sees a painting of a fox hunt under a dappled sky; sees cabinets, and doors, and a sideboard with fine china; sees all this, but takes in little, his mind skittish, his skin tingling, nervous, afraid. When Renfrew turns back to them he is holding two shirts. He places one over the back of an unoccupied chair, spreads the other between his hands, displaying the Soot stain; runs his fingertips through it, tests its grit.
And launches into lecture.
“Smoke,” he says, “can have many colours. Often it is light and grey, almost white, with no more odour than a struck match. Then there is yellow Smoke, dense and wet like fog. Blue Smoke that smells acrid, like spoiled milk, and seems to disperse almost as soon as it has formed. Once in a while we witness black Smoke, oily and viscous; it will cling to any- thing it touches. The variations of texture, density, and shade have all been carefully described in the Four Books of Smoke: a taxonomy of forty-three varieties. It is more difficult to establish the precise cause for each type of Smoke. It is a question not only of the offence but of the offender. The thoroughly corrupt breed darker, denser Smoke. Once a person’s moral sickness is sufficiently advanced, all actions are coloured by its stain. Even the most innocent act will—”
“Sin, Master Renfrew.” It’s Swinburne who interrupts him. His voice, familiar from the thrice-weekly sermon, has a shrill intensity all its own. He sounds like the man who ate the boy who ran his fingernails down the blackboard. “It is sin that blackens the soul. Not sickness.”
Renfrew looks up, annoyed, but a glance from the headmaster bids him swallow his reply.
“Sin, then. A difference of nomenclature.” He pauses, collects his thought, digs his fingers into the shirt’s linen. “Smoke, in any case, is easy to read. It is the living, material manifestation of degeneracy. Of sin. Soot, on the other hand, well, that is a different matter. Soot is dead, inert. A spent symptom, and as such inscrutable. Oh, any fool can see how much there is and whether it is fine like sea sand or coarse as a crushed brick. But these are crude measures. It requires a more scientific approach”—here Renfrew smooths down his jacket—“to produce a more sophisticated analysis. I spent my morning bent over a microscope, studying samples from both shirts. There are certain solvents that can cancel the inertness of the substance and, so to speak, temporarily bring it back to life. A concentrated solution of Papaver fuliginosa richteria, heated to eighty-six degrees and infused with—”
Renfrew interrupts himself, his calm self-possession momentarily strained by excitement. He resumes at a different point and in a different voice, gentler, more intimate, drawing a step closer to the boys and speak- ing as though only to them.
“I say I spent the morning analysing these two shirts and I found some- thing unusual. Something disconcerting. A type of Soot I have seen only once before. In a prison.”
He draws closer yet, wets his lips. His voice is not without compassion. “There is a cancer growing in one of you. A moral cancer. Sin”—a flicker of a glance here, over to Swinburne, hostile and ironic—“as black as Adam’s. It requires drastic measures. If it takes hold—if it takes over the organism down to the last cell . . . well, there will be nothing anybody can do.” He pauses, fixes both boys in his sight. “You will be lost.”
For a minute and more after this announcement, Thomas goes deaf. It’s a funny sort of deaf: his ears work just fine but the words he hears do not reach his brain, not in the normal manner where they are sifted for significance and given a place in the hierarchy of meaning. Now they just accumulate.
It’s Julius who is speaking. His tone is measured, if injured.
“Won’t you even ask what happened, Master Renfrew?” he asks. “I thought I had earned some measure of trust at this school, but I see now that I was mistaken. Argyle attacked me. Like a rabid dog. I had no choice but to restrain him. He rubbed his filth into me. The Soot is his. I never smoke.”
Renfrew lets him finish, watches not Julius but the other teachers, some of whom are muttering in support. Thomas, uncomprehending, follows his gaze and finds an accusation written in the masters’ faces. He, Thomas, has done this to one of theirs, they seem to be saying. Has covered him in dirt. Their golden boy. Thomas would like to refute the accusation, but his thoughts just won’t latch on. All he can think is: what does it mean to be “lost”?
“I have had occasion,” Renfrew replies at last, “to collect three sepa- rate statements concerning the incident you are referring to, Mr. Spencer. I believe I have a very accurate impression of how events unfolded. The facts of the matter are these. Both shirts are soiled—from the inside and out. The Soot is of variable quality. But I took samples of this”—he picks from his pocket a glass slide at the centre of which a few grains of Soot hang suspended in a drop of reddish liquid—“from both shirts. I could not determine the origin.
“Both shirts,” he continues, now turning to the teachers, “also bear marks of being tampered with: one very crudely”—a nod to Thomas— “the other rather more sophisticatedly. Almost inexplicably, Mr. Spencer.”
Julius swallows, jerks his head. A crack of panic now mars his voice.
“I wholly reject . . . You will have to answer to my family! It was this boy, this beast . . .”
He trails off, his voice raw with anger. Swinburne rescues him: rushes up, with a rustle of his dark gown, taps Julius on the shoulder, ordering him to shut up. Up close Swinburne smells unaired and musty, like a cel- lar. The smell helps Thomas recover his wits. It is the most real thing in the entire room. That and a knocking, like a hard fist on wood. Nobody reacts to it. It must be his heart.
“Mr. Spencer is innocent.” Swinburne’s voice brooks no dissent. He speaks as though delivering a verdict. “I too made inquiries about the inci- dent last night. The situation is quite clear. It’s that boy’s fault. His Smoke is potent. It infected Spencer.”
“Infected?” Renfrew smiles while the knocking grows louder. “A medical term, Master Swinburne. So unlike you. But you are quite right. Smoke infects. A point only imperfectly understood, I fear. Which is why I insist that both these boys join the Trip tomorrow.”
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the roar of shouts and voices that answers this announcement is that Thomas’s heart appears to stop: it gives a loud final rap and then falls silent. “It mustn’t be,” one of the teachers—Harmon? Winslow?—keeps repeating, high-pitched, squealing, as though giving voice to Thomas’s dismay. A moment later the door is thrown open and the small, dishevelled figure of Cruikshank, the porter, stands on its threshold. He pokes his head into the sudden silence of the room.
“Beg pardon. Knocked till knuckles are raw. No answer. Message for Mast’r Foybles. Urjent, like. If yous please.”
The person thus named is mortified.
“Not now, you fool!” Foybles cries, running across the room and drag- ging the porter out by the arm. Their whispered exchange in the ante- chamber is loud enough to focus all attention on the pair.
“You says, ‘At once,’ you did,” Cruikshank can be heard declaiming. “But to burst in like that,” Foybles berates him. “You fool, you fool.”
All the same he seems elated when he closes the door on the porter and re-joins the company of his peers.
“The delivery has arrived,” he declares, beaming, rubbing his hands in triumph before the room’s atmosphere recalls him to the events that have just transpired there. Rather crushed, he withdraws into a corner and buries his face in a handkerchief for the purpose of clearing out his nasal passages. Like a compass needle momentarily distracted by a magnet, everybody’s focus returns to Renfrew, who remains standing at the centre of the room. But the outrage at his announcement has spent itself, and Thomas’s mind is clear at last.
He is lost.
But he will be going to London.
“There are objections?” Renfrew asks calmly.
Swinburne glares at him, then turns his back and addresses the head- master.
“Master Trout. That boy is a sickness in our midst. He should be sent down at once.”
Swinburne does not even condescend to point a finger at Thomas. But Trout shakes his head.
“Impossible. He has a powerful sponsor. I will hear no more of it.”
Swinburne makes to speak again, but Trout has heaved his heavy figure out of his armchair.
“It is for the Master of Smoke and Ethics to determine the punishment. The government guidelines are quite clear. If Master Renfrew thinks these two boys will benefit from tomorrow’s outing, so be it. Beyond that—” He glances questioningly at Renfrew.
“I will work with each of them upon our return, Headmaster. An intensive programme of reform.” Renfrew’s voice sounds notes of reconciliation. “And, if it will set your mind at rest, dear colleagues, I have a list of pages here from the Book of Smoke that I shall ask them to copy. From the third volume.” He glances at Swinburne. “Passages whose findings have been confirmed by the latest research. Which is more than we can say for much of the book.”
He distributes copies of the list to Thomas and Julius, then lingers at the head boy’s side.
“One more thing, Mr. Spencer. These midnight examinations. They will stop. I alone have the authority to examine the pupils at this school.”
Swinburne is too outraged to swallow his anger. “The school has its traditions. Only a fool meddles with—”
Renfrew cuts him off. His tone, now, is cold and brutal.
“A new era is dawning, Master Swinburne. You’d better get used to it.” He gestures the two boys up and all but pushes them out the door. Outside, in the hallway, Thomas and Julius stop for a moment, dazed. For an instant something like companionship flickers between them, the sense that they have shared a danger, and survived. Then Julius straightens.
“I hate you,” he says and walks away. Not the slightest trace of Smoke rises from his skin. It leaves Thomas wondering what it is about Julius’s hate that is sanctified, and what is so dirty about his own.
“There you are! I’ve been looking all over.”
Charlie corners him just before lights-out. That’s the thing about school: no matter how big it is, there is no place to hide. Each nook, each hour is supervised. Empty rooms are locked and the hallways swarm with boys; porters in the stairwells, and outside it’s too bloody cold.
“They say there’s been a tribunal. In Trout’s office.” “Yes.”
Charlie starts to say something, swallows it, looks him full in the face. His eyes are so full of care for him, it frightens Thomas.
“What did they do to you?” “Nothing.”
“Are you sure?” “Yes.”
Because how can Thomas tell him? That he’s infected. That there is an evil growing in him, so dark and ugly it frightens Renfrew. That one day he will wake up and do something unspeakable. That crime runs in his family.
That he is a dangerous friend to have.
So he says, “They are letting me join the Trip.” And also: “The delivery arrived. The thing they have been waiting for. Cruikshank came and told them.”
Charlie hoots when he hears about the Trip, from relief and from happiness that they’ll be going together. It’s a joy so simple and pure, it makes Thomas ashamed before his friend. He might have apologised— confessed—had not Charlie put a hand on his arm and said, “Let’s go see him. Cruikshank. We have a few minutes.”
He starts running, tugging Thomas along.
“He likes me, Cruikshank does. I chat to him from time to time. He’ll tell me what it is.”
And as they race down the stairs, their feet clattering, each matching the other’s stride, Thomas forgets, almost, that he is a sick boy, a walking blight, the son of a man who has killed.
P O R T E R
Two boys. They come to me with questions. One who strips the truth off things like he’s made of turpentine, and the other with eyes so frank, it inclines you to confession. I talk to the second, naturally, though I keep track of the first. He’s the type you don’t want sneaking up on you from behind.
“The deliv’ry?” I ask, like I don’t quite recall. It’s how you survive in this world. Play dumb, thicken your accent. Makes you invisible: one look and they dismiss you from their minds. The powers that be. But not these boys. Smarter than their teachers, they are. They simply wait me out.
“Oh, nothin’ special,” I say at last. “Sweets, you know. Tea. Biscuits. From someplace in London.”
That’s all I give them, that and the name, to see how they react.
“Nice big stamp on the crate. Beasley and Son. Impor’ and Expor’, Deliv’ries to the Crown.”
They don’t bat an eyelid, not one of them. Innocents, then. Though the quiet one looks like he was born with a knife in his fist. Like he had to cut his way out, and didn’t much mind.
“You goin’ on the Trip, t’morrow, lads?” I ask, though of course I already know.
“Yes, Mr. Cruikshank. Will you be joining us?”
Mr. Cruikshank my arse. Polite little bugger, laying it on nice and thick. Though he certainly looks like he means it. If he puts that sort of look on the right wench down in London, she’ll clean his piping free of charge.
“Oh no. I daresen’t. Too scary for the likes of me. Wouldn’t for all the world. Rather fly to the moon. Safer that.”
Like I haven’t been to London. It’s not fifty miles down the road. Two days’ walk, when I was young. Now all you needs to do is sit yourself on a train. Bring a little roast chicken along. Enjoy the ride.
Still, it’s an odd venture, this Trip of theirs. Times are a-changing. Renfrew’s been receiving letters. Three or four a month. No name on the flap but I can tell it’s the ministry writing from the postal stamp. Richmond upon Thames. You get your map out, you’ll see what you find. New West- minster Palace. The centre of power. Though there’s talk of Parliament moving once again. Farther from London: the walls are already going grey. Trout gets post from the same little post office, but the hand that writes out the address is different, round and feminine, where Renfrew’s man writes like a spider dragging its black guts. Hold it up to the light and you will see the outlines of a rubber stamp. “Victoria Regina,” a fussy signature underneath. A civil servant’s, no doubt, acting for the Crown. Bureaucrats versus lawmakers then; different corridors of power. Makes you wonder what’s inside the letters. And whether Trout and Renfrew ever care to show and tell.
I turn the boys away, in any case, ring the bell for lights-out. And in the morning the coaches arrive, all eleven of them, to carry fifty-eight upper-school boys to the train station. It’s snowed again and the horses are steaming, and don’t one of them shit just as old Swinburne goes walking past. Lovely smell that, fresh horse dung on snow. You want to bottle it and sell it to yer sweetheart.
I watch them go, wrapped in my old blanket. One of the boys looks back at me all the way to the end of the driveway. He don’t wave.
Neither do I.
When they’re gone, I go inside, shovel some coals into the stove, put on a bone for soup. By the time it’s cooked they’ll be pulling in at Oxford.
Reading Group Guide
1. Smoke is a physical marker of sin. And yet Thomas, Charlie,and Livia are increasingly willing to embrace their smoking. As you read the novel, did your attitude towards Smoke change? If so, at what point?
2. If a physical manifestation of sin really existed, so that we could see who is evil and who is not, would the world be a better place?
3. Renfrew tells us that Smoke infects. What are the implications of this? Does the book imply we would be better people if we lived in relative isolation from one another?
4. Social class plays an important role in Smoke. Discuss the complicated relationship between social status and morality, real and perceived.
5. “The most difficult thing,” Charlie tells Lady Naylor, “is to compromise.” What does he mean by that assertion? Do you agree with him?
6. There are a range of characters that might qualify for “villains”. Who best deserves the title?
7. The corruption of innocence permeates the novel (the Beasley & Sons candy and the infection of Mowgli are two examples). Did it inspire you to think in new ways about our responsibilities as adults to our children and their environment? Are children born in innocence, as we like to insist, or in Smoke, as the book maintains?
8. “We made a choice. Pandora’s box. We opened it. Now we have to brave it out,” says Thomas at the close of the novel. Did Thomas, Livia, and Charlie make the right choice? Or was it simply the only choice?
9. What do you think the future holds for the three friends?