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."
As the girl's playing broke and reassembled itself, Constance finally forced herself up to the second floor and walked back and forth before the closed door of Angelica's new home. No great shock greeted her inside. In truth, the room's transformation hardly registered, for it had sat six years now in disappointed expectation. Six years earlier, with his new wife seven months expectant, Joseph had without apparent resentment dismantled his beloved home laboratory to make space for a nursery. But God demanded of Constance three efforts before a baby survived to occupy the room. Even then it remained empty, for in the early weeks of Angelica's life, mother and daughter both ailed, and it was far wiser that the newborn should sleep beside her sleepless mother.
In the months that followed, Constance's childbed fever and Angelica's infant maladies ebbed and flowed in opposition, as if between the two linked souls there were only health enough for one, so that a year had passed without it ever being advisable to send the child downstairs to the nursery. Even when Angelica's health restored itself, Dr. Willette had been particularly insistent on the other, more sensitive issue, and so--Constance's solution--it seemed simplest and surest to keep Angelica tentatively asleep within earshot.
Nora had placed the chair beside the bed. She was powerful, the Irish girl, more brawn than fat to have hoisted it by herself. She had arranged Angelica's clothing in the child-sized cherry-wood wardrobe. Bleak, this new enclosure to which Angelica had been sentenced. The bed was too large; Angelica would feel lost in it. The window was loose in its setting, and the noise of the street would surely prevent her sleeping. The bedclothes were tired and dingy in the rain- gray light, books and dolls cheerless in their new places. No wonder he had kept his laboratory here; it was by any standard a dark, nasty room, fit only for the stink and scrape of science. The Princess Elizabeth reclined in a favored position atop the pillows, her legs crossed at the ankle; of course Nora knew Angelica's favorite doll and would make just such a display of her affection for the girl.
The blue chair was too far from the bed. Constance pressed her back against it until it clattered a few inches forward. She sat again, smoothed her dress, then rose and straightened the Princess Elizabeth's legs into a more natural position. She had raised her voice often at Angelica during their day out, barked sharp commands (just as Joseph had done to her) when kindness would have served better. The day she was destined to lose a piece of her child, the day she wished to hold her ever closer and unchanging--that very day, how easily Angelica had irritated her.
This shift of Angelica's residence--this cataclysmic shift of everything--coming so soon after her fourth birthday, likely marked the birth of the girl's earliest lasting memories. All that had come before--the embraces, sacrifices, moments of slow-blinking contentment, the defense of her from some icy cruelty of Joseph's-- none of this would survive in the child as conscious recollection. What was the point of those forgotten years, all the unrecorded kindness? As if life were the telling of a story whose middle and end were incomprehensible without a clearly recalled beginning, or as if the child were ungrateful, culpable for its willful forgetfulness of all the generosity and love shown to it over four years of life, eight months of carrying her, all the agony of the years before.
This, today, marked the moment Angelica's relations with the world changed. She would collect her own history now, would gather from the seeds around her the means to cultivate a garden: these panes of bubbled glass would be her "childhood bedroom window," as Constance's own, she recalled now, had been a circle of colored glass, sliced by wooden dividers into eight wedges like a tart. This would be the scrap of blanket, the texture of which would calibrate Angelica's notion of "soft" for the rest of her life. Her father's step on the stair. His scent. How she would comfort herself in moments of fear.
A stuttered song usurped unfinished scales, but then it, too, stopped short, abandoned in the midst of its second repetition. The unresolved harmony made Constance shudder. A moment later, she heard Angelica's light step on the stair. The girl ran into her new room and leapt upon the bed, swept her doll into her arms. "So here is where the princess secluded herself," she said. "We searched high and low for Your Highness." She ceremoniously touched each of the bed's dark posts in turn, then examined the room from ceiling to floor, playing a prim courtier. She visibly struggled to ask a question, moved her lips silently as she selected her words. Constance could almost read her daughter's thoughts, and at length Angelica said, "Nora says I shall sleep here now."
Constance held her child tightly to her. "I am very sorry, my love."
"Why sorry? Must the princess stay up with you and Papa?"
"Of course not. You are her lady-in-waiting. She would be lost upstairs."
"Here she shall be free of royal worries, for a spell": Angelica unknowingly quoted a storybook. She crossed to the tiny dressing table, dragged its small chair over her mother's protests, stood upon it to peer out the front window. "I can see the road." She stood on her toes at the very edge of the chair's scarlet seat, pressed her hands and nose against the window's loose pane.
"Please be careful, my love. You must not do that."
"But I can see the road. That's a chestnut mare."
"Come to me, please, for a moment. You must promise me that if you need me, you will not hesitate to call or even come and rouse me. I will never be angry if you need me. It shall be just like it was, truly. Sit upon my lap. Yes, the princess too. Now tell, are you pleased with these arrangements your father has dictated for us or no?"
"Oh, yes. He is kind. Is this a tower, because of the window?"
"Not a tower, no. If it is a tower you desire, you slept in a higher point with us, upstairs. It is I, up in the tower."
"But you have no tower window looking at the horses far below, so this is the tower." So the child was happy.
"Will you not be frightened to be alone when you sleep?"
"Oh, Mamma, yes! I will! It's very frightening," and her face reflected the thought of her dark night ahead, but then brightened at once. "But I will be brave as the shepherdess. 'When the woods crow dark / and by faint stars impale / God's light leave its mark / then does her heart wail / God's light leave its mark. . . . When the woods crow dark . . .' "
Constance smoothed the girl's hair, touched the small soft cheeks, brought the round face close. " 'When the woods grow dark / and by faint stars and pale / does God's light leave its mark / then does her heart quail. But . . .' "
"'But her faith's like a lamp,'" Angelica interrupted proudly, but then stumbled again at once. " 'And God . . . God slow, God sl . . .' I can't recall."
"'And God's love is brighter . . . still . . . than . . . ,'" her mother prompted.
"Shall I see a moon through the tower window?"
Angelica's excitement was unmistakable as night approached.
Twice she looked closely at Constance and said with great seriousness, "I am frightened to be alone tonight, Mamma." But Constance did not believe her. Angelica claimed to be afraid only because she could sense--for reasons beyond her understanding--that her mother wished she were frightened. Her claim of fear was an unwanted gift--a child's scribbled drawing--offered in perceptive love.
Still, those transparent lies were the exception to her candid anticipation. Constance washed her, and Angelica spoke of the princess's adventures alone in her tower. Constance brushed her hair while Angelica brushed the princess's, and Angelica asked if she could please go to bed yet. Constance read to her from the blue chair, and in mid-sentence Angelica uncharacteristically claimed fatigue, then sweetly refused her mother's offer to sit with her until she fell asleep.
"Should I leave the door open, my love?"
"No, thank you, Mamma. The princess desires her solitudary."
Constance likely waited in the narrow hall, tidied the linens in the armoire, straightened paintings, lowered lamps, but heard no protest, only muttering court intrigue until that, too, faded.
Downstairs Joseph had still not returned. "Is all well in the child's bedroom, madam?" the maid asked.
"In the nursery, Nora. Yes, thank you."
When Joseph did arrive, he did not inquire but assumed his dictates had been smoothly instituted. He spoke of his day and did not mention Angelica at all, did not even--as they extinguished the downstairs gas and rose to the third story--stop on the second to look upon his child in her new situation. His cold triumph was understood. "Angelica resisted the new arrangements," Constance allowed herself in mild rebellion.
He showed no concern, seemed even to take a certain pleasure in this report or, at least, in Constance carrying out his will despite resistance. She was curious if any description would inspire him even to mere sympathy, let alone a retraction of the deadly orders. Besides, the child's actual satisfaction tonight was surely temporary, and Constance wondered what sort of response he would offer when the child's courage finally broke, and so she said, "Angelica wept herself to sleep, so isolated she feels."
Excerpted from Angelica by Arthur Phillips Copyright © 2007 by Arthur Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.