Read an excerpt from Arthur Phillips's latest novel, a Victorian ghost story set in London.
I suppose my prescribed busywork should begin as a ghost story, since that was surely Constance's experience of these events. I fear, however, that the term arouses unreasonable expectations in you. I scarcely expect to frighten you of all people, even if you should read this by snickering candle and creaking floorboards. Or with me lying at your feet.
So. A ghost story! The scene opens in unthreatening daylight, the morning Joseph cast the child out of their bedroom. The horror tales Constance kept at her bedside always opened peacefully, and so shall hers:
The burst of morning sunlight startled the golden dust off the enfolded crimson drapery and drew fine black veins at the edges of the walnut-brown sill. The casement wants repainting, she thought. The distant irregular trills of Angelica's uncertain fingers stumbling across the piano keys downstairs, the floury aroma of the first loaves rising from the kitchen: from within this thick foliage of domestic safety his coiled rage found her unprepared.
"I have suffered this insult too long," he said. "I cannot countenance a single night more of this--this reversal of nature. You encourage this upending of my authority. You delight in it," he accused. "It ends now. Angelica has a bedroom and shall sleep in it. Am I understood? You have made us ridiculous. Are you blind to this? Answer me. Answer!"
"If she should, my dear, after all, call out for me in the night?"
"Then go to her or not. The question is of no significance to me, and I strongly doubt that it is of any to her." Joseph pointed at the small bed, unobtrusive at the foot of their own, as if noticing it for the first time, as if its very existence justified his cruelty. The sight of it refreshed his anger, and he kicked it, pleased to see his boot spoil the bedding. He had calculated the gesture to affect Constance, and she retreated. "Look at me when I am speaking. Would you have us live as a band of Gypsies?" He was shouting now, though she had not contradicted him, had never once in seven years contemplated such rebellion. "Or are you no longer capable of even a single act of obedience? Is that, then, where we have arrived? Move her before I return. Not a word more."
Constance Barton held her tongue before her husband's hectoring. In his imperial mood, when he imagined himself most English even as he strutted like an Italian bravo, reason could sustain no hope of gaining a foothold. "For how long would you have delayed this, if I did not at last relieve you of the womanly decision?" Against the acquiescence of her silence still he raved, intending to lecture her until she pronounced him wise.
But Constance would have been seeing farther than he was: even if Joseph could deceive himself that he was merely moving a child's bed, she knew better. He was blind (or would feign blindness) to the obvious consequences of his decision, and Constance would pay for his intemperance. If he could only be coaxed into waiting a bit longer, their trouble would pass entirely of its own accord. Time would establish a different, cooler sympathy between them. Such was the fate of all husbands and wives. True, Constance's weakened condition (and Angelica's) had demanded that she and Joseph adapt themselves more hurriedly than most, and she was sorry for him in this. She always intended that Angelica would be exiled downstairs, of course, but later, when she no longer required the child's protective presence. They were not distant from that safer shore.
But Joseph would not defer. "You have allowed far too much to elude you." He buttoned his collar. "The child is spoiling. I have allowed you too much rein."
Only with the front door's guarantee that he had departed for his work did Constance descend to the kitchen and, betraying none of her pain at the instruction, asked Nora to prepare the nursery for Angelica, to call in a man to dismantle the child's outgrown bed and haul the blue silk Edwards chair up from the parlor to her new bedside. "For when I read to her," Constance added and fled the Irish girl's mute examination of her.
"Watch, Con--she will celebrate the change," Joseph had promised before departing, either failed kindness or precise cruelty (the child celebrating a separation from her mother). Constance ran her fingers over Angelica's clothing, which hung lightly in her parents' wardrobe. Her playthings occupied such a paltry share of the room's space, and yet he had commanded, "All of this. All of it. Not one piece when I return." Constance transmitted these excessive orders to Nora, as she could not bear to execute them herself.
She escaped with Angelica, found excuses to stay away from the disruption until late in the afternoon. She brought her weekly gifts of money, food, and conversation to the widow Moore but failed to drown her worries in the old woman's routine, grateful tears. She dallied at market, at the tea shop, in the park, watching Angelica play. When they at last returned, as the long-threatened rain broke and fell in warm sheets, she busied herself downstairs, never looking in the direction of the staircase but instead correcting Nora's work, reminding her to air out the closets, inspecting the kitchen. She poked the bread, criticized the slipshod stocking of the pantry, then left Nora in mid-scold to place Angelica at the piano to practice "The Wicked Child and the Gentle." She sat across the room and folded the napkins herself. "Which child are you, my love?" she murmured, but found only sadness in the practiced reply: "The gentle, Mamma."