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Open to the Possibilities
New York City
Thursday, January 15, 1857
The fog crept in at four o'clock. By seven it had blanketed the city so completely that the efforts of the lamplighters went for naught--the streetlamps were completely obscured, and no carriage lamp was bright enough to pierce the gloom. Beyond the misted windows of the brougham, it was as if the world had fallen away. I could almost believe my husband and I were the only ones left alive on this night, and that the muffled echo of our driver's shouts belonged to something otherworldly, as if the nightmares that plagued me had seeped past my watchfulness to follow me into my waking hours.
But I said none of this to Peter. I was so happy that he'd asked me to come with him that I would have braved any element. I even--foolishly--harbored hope that tonight might be the start of some new understanding between us.
I glanced across at him. His blond hair was bright even in the darkness, and he sat so still he could have been made of stone. I knew he was nervous--as was I--and I looked out the window and said as idly as I could, "Look how heavy the fog is. I wonder that Cullen can even see the road."
"We'll be late," he said brusquely.
"As will everyone else, surely?"
I tried to lighten his mood. "It's a perfect night for it, wouldn't you say? It already looks as if the world is full of ghosts."
His wince was sharp enough that I felt it. "They aren't ghosts, Evie, as I've told you before."
Another misstep. It seemed lately I made nothing but missteps. Quietly I said, "I was joking, Peter."
"Perhaps I shouldn't have brought you after all. If you can't be open to the possibilities--"
"I can be open--"
"You promised not to be the investigator's daughter tonight."
"And I won't be." I leaned forward, putting my gloved hand on his arm. With a twinge of dismay, I felt him stiffen beneath my touch. "I won't disappoint you. I want to see what you see. I do."
He moved his arm so my hand slid away, and reluctantly I sat back against the plushly cushioned leather seat. He looked out the window. His voice was soft as he said, "You know, Evie, he's a miracle worker."
There was something in his words that made me shiver. I moved my feet closer to the brazier and told myself it was due to the damp and penetrating cold, and not the disturbing reverence in my husband's voice. It was a tone I'd been hearing more and more often since his mother had died six months before, and though I'd told him the truth--that I wanted to see what he saw, if only because it would make everything so much easier--I could not hide my alarm that he'd fallen into this fashion of spirit rappers and table tiltings; he was a lawyer, after all, and I'd thought him too rational to believe in such things. Still, I knew too how irrational grief could make one, how all-consuming it could be. I should not be surprised now that he'd found comfort in the idea of his mother's enduring, communicating spirit. God knew he had not looked to me for solace, though I'd hoped desperately that he would.
"We're here," Peter said.
How he knew it, I didn't know--there was nothing outside to show we'd arrived. But then the brougham jerked to a stop, and the fashionably crenelated Gothic brownstone that was Dorothy Bennett's house appeared in the mist before us like some materializing spirit. I had not been to the Bennett mansion in some time, as Dorothy had withdrawn from society almost entirely in the last two years in deference to her invalidism. Now, the sight of it unnerved me. Every window was lit, reflecting against the fog, so the house seemed to stand alone on the block, pulsing with a weirdly macabre life. It looked as if it belonged to one of Mr. Poe's strange and eerie tales.
The carriage door opened, and the frosty damp air rushed inside to displace the heat from the brazier. It smelled oily and reedy, of coal smoke and the river, and though I told myself it was an exaggeration, in that moment it seemed as if the foundation of my marriage depended upon this night, and the mist seemed conjured especially to lend atmosphere, to whittle away at my rationality. I knew how much Peter wanted me to believe in this medium of his, and I was desperate enough to ease our vague, unspoken estrangement that I meant to try. But my upbringing worked against me--I was uncertain I had the skill to pretend, even for Peter.
He stepped out and turned to offer me a hand, and just as he did so, another carriage pulled up, coming so suddenly out of the fog that I started. Peter turned with a frown that grew deeper as a man pushed open its door and stepped out. But for the paleness of his face above his closely groomed beard, he would have blended into the night--dark coat and top hat, dark beard, eyes I knew already to be so dark brown as to be nearly black. Benjamin Rampling, my husband's law partner.
"What are you doing here?" Peter asked sharply.
"Why shouldn't I come? Haven't I been to all the other circles?" Ben's tone was equally sharp.
I'd never heard them speak so to each other. Ben was not only Peter's law partner; he was also my husband's closest friend. He'd been to dinner at our house on many occasions over the last year, and I'd never heard a harsh word between them. It was obvious that they'd argued, though Peter had said nothing of it.
"You said you had too much work."
"That was before I learned you intended to bring your pretty wife." Ben gave me a smile, a flash of white teeth in the shadow of his beard. "I own I was surprised to hear it. A spirit circle doesn't seem quite the fashion for you, Evelyn."
I tried to ease the tension with flippancy. "You think not? But you know how I enjoy spectacle--and Peter assures me I'll never see another like Mr. Jourdain."
"Ah yes. Jourdain, Jourdain, Jourdain. How ever did we live without him?" Ben stepped closer to my husband and put his hand on Peter's arm, saying in a lowered voice, "I must speak with you."
Peter shook his head and pulled impatiently away. "Not now."
"Never, if you mean only to repeat your nonsense from before--"
Even in the darkness, I saw how Ben's eyes flashed with temper. "Peter, this is important. You must listen to me."
"I haven't time for your baseless accusations tonight. We're late enough as it is." Peter held out his hand to me, but I hesitated.
"Whatever is the matter with you two?" I asked.
Peter looked grim. Ben flashed him a glance and said uncomfortably, "Nothing really. A small argument."
It seemed a large one, but I made no comment to that. Instead I said, "I wonder what could possibly be worth jeopardizing Mr. Jourdain's 'miracle.' " When Peter frowned, I explained, "I thought spirits didn't care for disharmony."
"You've been studying spiritualism, Evie?" Ben asked in surprise.
"Well, no, but isn't that what they say?" I eased as close to my husband as I could with my wide crinolines and said with a conciliatory smile, "Come. Surely your disagreement is not so important that you must shout it on the street."
My husband barely looked at me. Instead, he said to Ben, "You're wasting your time. You won't change my mind. Why not just accept it?"
"Because I can't," Ben said. "You know I can't."
Peter's mouth tightened, and he pulled me with him up the walk to the stairs. I glanced over my shoulder at Benjamin, who merely shrugged before he fell into step beside us. We went to the door and Peter lifted the heavy bronze knocker, which was very ornate, with its fashioning of leaves and berries. He rapped it hard once, and then twice, and then the door was opened by a butler, an imperious man who intimidated me immediately, though I thought I hid it well enough.
"Mr. and Mrs. Atherton, Mr. Rampling," he said, stepping aside. "Please come in."
"Good evening, Lambert," my husband said, drawing me inside with the quiet authority of one who had never in his life doubted his place. No one would have known how angry he'd been only moments before. "How is Mrs. Bennett tonight?"
"Quite well, sir," Lambert said, ushering us into a hallway crowded with paintings and gilded furniture, and then closing the door and holding out his hands for scarves and top hats and cloaks. "She's waiting for you in the upstairs parlor."
Peter did not wait to be shown the way but led me up stairs so deeply polished they wavered in the flickering gaslight, as if the surface were water. Benjamin followed closely and silently behind. On the second floor, Peter paused in the hallway before one of many closed doors. He was sweating, I noticed. The house was very warm; even in the hallway I felt the blast from the central heating vents laid in the floor. The wasteful rich, to heat even the hallways, I thought, before I remembered I was one of them. For three years I had been one of them, and still the habit of envy had never quite left me.
Peter opened the door with a flourish, gesturing for me to go before him.
I stepped in, hesitating just beyond the door. Dorothy Bennett's parlor was overwhelming even by Astor standards. It was quite large--my guess was that it spanned the depth of the house--and it had the appearance of being two rooms joined together without thought or concern for whether they matched. The carpet at one end was huge cabbage roses, at the other a geometric pattern. The furniture consisted of many lovely pieces that did not seem to belong together--a mix of gilt and heavy carving and delicacy. Paintings hung from gold cords to cover nearly every square inch of the rose-patterned wallpaper; some I recognized as old masters, though I hadn't the eye to know if they were originals or copies. Every surface was covered with knickknacks, and there was statuary throughout, some marble, some bronze, one or two standing freely while the others resided on tabletops or shelves set into the walls.
Despite all this decoration, my eye was caught by a large round table in the middle of the room. It was pedestaled and heavy, and in its center, two large hands of candles were already burning, sending smoke into the glowing jets of the gasolier above--a huge thing itself, styled as a many-leaved vine, its sconces lily-shaped glass.
"There you are," said a voice, and I turned to see our hostess reclining on a sofa of mahogany and gilt, its arms carved to look like the tail of a great leaping fish, while the legs finished the body, ending in a mouth open and gasping for breath. It was a great, ugly thing, and upon it Dorothy Bennett was a mound of pillows and silk and ribbons and lace, her plump face peering out from it all like that of a wizened china doll. She was surrounded by a cadre of young men. I realized they were her nurses when I saw how they fussed with her pillows and tried to urge her to sip at a bright green liqueur. She waved them all away and motioned us over, saying, "Come, come! My dear Evelyn, how glad I am that Peter's brought you at last, though I must admit I'm surprised."
I reached her and took her fat little hands, decked as they were with rings that had long since grown too small, so her fingers puffed around them like unevenly stuffed sausages. "Surprised? Why is that?"
She shot a glance at my husband. "I'd thought Peter had grown a bit disenchanted with us lately."
"Not disenchanted, no," Peter said quietly.
I laughed. "Oh, hardly. He's talked of nothing but your Mr. Jourdain."
"Well now . . . that's good. That's very good to hear."
"I've never said I don't admire him," Peter said.
I said, "There were never truer words spoken. The way Peter talks, one would think the sun rises and sets upon this medium of yours. I confess I'm a bit nervous to meet such a personage."
Dorothy smiled. "But you mustn't be nervous, child. Michel will put you at ease."
"He's quite a charmer," Ben said as he stepped up beside us. His thick and impeccably macassared hair gleamed darkly in the reflected gaslight. "God knows I've not yet met anyone who wasn't taken with him."
I could not help myself; Ben's comment made me want to be contrary, to be the one person not impressed by this Mr. Jourdain. I had to remind myself that I was here to be persuaded by him, that Peter wanted to share this with me, and for him I had promised to be--what had he said?--open to the possibilities.
"You've told Evelyn of our philosophy, I imagine?" Dorothy asked my husband.
Peter looked shamefaced. I supposed he had no wish to tell her that he'd refused to tell me much at all since he confessed that he'd been speaking to the spirit of his dead mother. It chagrined me still to think of how I'd laughed, how certain I'd been that he was teasing me. What I knew of spirit circles came from the articles in the newspaper about the New York Conference's Sunday meetings in Dodsworth Hall, where spirit rappings and table tiltings were all the fashion; and the summaries given of lectures by the infamous Fox sisters, who had brought spiritualism to the world's attention. I had no patience for such things, and I don't suppose I could be blamed for mocking him, but I'd spent the weeks since trying to apologize. I was thankful Peter had forgiven me enough to bring me here tonight, though I was still uncertain why.
He said, "As busy as I've been, I haven't had the time. She's a heathen still, I'm afraid."
"I see." Dorothy's gaze was uncomfortably piercing as she looked at me. "You think you can be open to the spirits, child?"
"Evelyn's promised to put aside any doubts she might have, haven't you, my dear?" Peter turned to me with a stiff smile.
I nodded obediently. "I'm fascinated by what Peter's told me. I look forward to seeing it for myself."
"I've faith Michel can convert you. Some say I'm too besotted to see, but I swear my dear boy does work miracles." Dorothy motioned to one of her nurses, a man with dark, curling hair, and said, "Charley, go fetch them, will you? Now that the Athertons and Mr. Rampling are here, we can begin." As the nurse hurried off, she turned back to us and said, "They're in the library. They'll be here directly."
The other attendants leaned in on cue, two offering Dorothy an arm, the other reaching behind to help her rise, which she did, wincing in pain, and I looked politely away, and it was then I heard the voices in the hall--high, excited voices--and the flurry of footfalls. Peter took my arm and jerked to attention; I felt the strain in him when a group of people--four men and two women--came into the parlor, and I found myself immediately drawn to one of the most arresting men I had ever seen.