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The Hands of Fate and Time

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Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey,
Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!
I know both what I want and what might gain,
And yet how profitless to know, to sigh
"Had I been two, another and myself,
"Our head would have o'erlooked the world!" No doubt.

Robert Browning, "Andrea Del Sarto"

“Behold the hands, how they promise, conjure, appeal, menace, pray, supplicate, refuse, beckon, interrogate, admire, confess, cringe, instruct, command, mock and what not besides, with a variation and multiplication of variation which makes the tongue envious.”
Michel de Montaigne

Shrewsbury College
Oxford
1922

"I think," Harriet announced as she made herself comfortable on a small corner of the floor in Phoebe Tucker's room. There was room enough to spare; Phoebe's room typically saw books of varying thickness covering every conceivable surface, flat or otherwise, but her belongings were packed away for the holiday, lending the small room a too-neat quality that bore with it a hint of disconsolateness, as if it too already missed the happy chaos of Phoebe's stacks of books, sheets of paper torn from notebooks spread out across her desk like so many fallen leaves. "I think," she said again, "it is a gentleman's hands I find most intriguing."

This statement was met with a variety of responses, from Lillian Dalton's too-knowing smirk to Ruth Bennett's silence so thoughtful it bordered on naïveté. The intimate gathering of young women that had congregated for cocoa that evening were all quite relieved to be done with Michelmas term and most, Harriet included, were to be making their various ways home on the earliest trains out of Oxford the next morning. But for now -- for now, all was quiet in this neat corner of Shrewsbury (for it was not so everywhere; Harriet could hear quite clearly an enthusiastically off-key rendition of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" coming from, she suspected, the S.C.R.).

"Hands?" asked Phoebe curiously, looking at her own, turning them over and stretching out her fingers. A tiny furrow formed between her brows. "I suppose you can tell a great deal about a man if you look at his hands."

"I cannot abide a man with dirty fingernails," Lillian Dalton murmured, examining her own pale, plump hands with their short, neat nails.

"Oh, sometimes that can't be helped," Phoebe replied cheerfully. That was altogether unsurprising, Harriet thought; archaeology and a pristine manicure seldom ever went together. Lillian only sniffed, her disagreement more than evident.

"Do you mean to say, Harriet," asked Ruth Bennett, a painfully earnest second-year, "that you find a man's hands intriguing as a matter of aesthetic or..." Here, the girl blushed to the roots of her white-blond hair. "O-or do you refer to more... ah, practical applications?"

"Neither," Harriet answered simply. "That a man keeps his fingernails clean is simply a matter of effort. I speak more of an… innate grace, something inherent in his nature that is manifested in his hands." She was doing the subject little credit, she knew. In truth, she wasn't quite sure how they'd stumbled upon this particular topic, or why she found herself sharing a detail that was as personal as it was so intensely difficult to explain.

"I think what Harriet means," Phoebe added, pausing to sip at her cocoa, "is that she would prefer a gentleman whose hands reflect the very best of his nature and personality." She smiled, but not unkindly. "No stubby sausage-fingers for our dear Harriet."

"Oh," Ruth gave a sigh that bordered on longing. "You mean an artist's fingers."

Harriet supposed that was a reasonably accurate description as well. In truth, she was thinking of her father's hands, skilled enough to mend broken bones, but no less gentle or careful for that skill. Hands revealed things about their owners; Phoebe seemed to understand better than the rest, but that in itself was unsurprising. There was a great deal Phoebe understood better than most.

"I once saw a painter with the stubbiest, hairiest fingers in all the world, Harriet," Lillian laughed. "He was painting in Trafalgar Square, and it was the most exquisite rendering, but his hands were quite horrid." She paused, frowning once more at her nails. "To say nothing of all the paint."

Harriet had a sudden flash of dreadful insight and felt a stab of sympathy for any man Dalton married. A future filled with nail-brushes and lye soap loomed before him, and though there wasn't such a man yet, Harriet pitied him all the same.

"How do you keep your hands so clean?" asked Ruth, frowning over her own ink-stained fingertips.

Lillian smiled primly and sipped her cocoa. "Diligence."

Harriet drank deeply from her own cup to smother what she knew would be a wholly inappropriate reply. It was nearly Christmas, after all. She could hold her tongue this once in the interest of goodwill toward all. "Ruth, are there any biscuits left?" she asked mildly.

Ruth nodded and handed over the garishly colored tin. "Honey almond and ginger lemon."

As Harriet crunched into the spicy tart sweetness of the ginger-lemon biscuit, Phoebe canted her head and looked down at Harriet, asking, "So what does this gentleman in possession of the fine hands do to capture your attention and win your heart?" she asked, eyes twinkling.

"I've hardly made plans, you know," retorted Harriet lightly, though she felt the warmth of a blush heating her own cheeks. "I only said I find a gentleman's hands... intriguing." 'License my roving hands, and let them go...' And for the second time in one night, Harriet Vane held her tongue.

"Which implies you a very specific sort in mind. Does Ruth have the right of it? Are you letting your mind take a whimsical turn? Is it an artist you hope to snare someday?"

Looking down into her mug, Harriet finally allowed herself to indulge in a small, secretive smile. "I should think I'm well-matched to an artistic temperament."

"A writer, perhaps?" asked Phoebe, who had the utter temerity to wink.

"Perhaps," answered Harriet, hating this blasted warmth upon cheeks. Nothing short of thrusting her head out the window would suffice to cool the flush, and yet the thought was not as off-putting as it ought to have been.

What could she tell them? That, yes, she did picture some hazy, unfocused future for herself wherein she had made the acquaintance of man possessing the very artistic temperament she fancied herself suited towards? Harriet did not enjoy thinking of herself as a cynic, but neither could she give voice to her innermost thoughts, particularly when they were so... frivolous.

And yet, she could not quite rid herself of vague, half-formed daydreams in which she sometimes indulged, picturing long, spirited discussions and debates on literature, philosophy, and any number of subjects. She imagined her mind's mate -- for if Lillian Dalton could not abide a man with dirty fingernails, Harriet Vane could not respect any man who did not possess a quick wit and an agile mind. Someone intelligent, but with an artistic bent, who would understand her passions without resenting them -- who but another artist, another writer could hope to undertake such a role?

And, of course, there were the hands. Long, slender fingers -- perhaps those fingers had intimate knowledge of music, dancing nimbly over the keys of a piano, or pressing with untold strength and dexterity against the string of a violin or cello. They would not be idle hands -- certainly not. But neither would they be rough with labor, and Harriet knew just as certainly that they would not be the too-soft palms of men lacking any occupation beyond a title and a bit of land. Oh, there might be a smudge of ink along the thumb, or perhaps a smear of paint across one palm; the decoration mattered little to Harriet, as long as it was the hand of one who would see her not as a creature to place upon a pedestal, nor as a lesser being, held always at arm's length, but rather as a partner, one to walk alongside.

"It seems perfectly romantic to me," sighed Ruth, peering morosely into her empty cup. "Harriet will probably find herself living somewhere fashionable, like Bloomsbury and get swept up in the set, you know."

"It's far more likely I'll return home to Pagford first, you realize," remarked Harriet, shaking her head at the younger girl.

"Indeed," Phoebe added, mirth making her eyes twinkle. "One doesn't just go to Bloomsbury. I'm sure one is invited first." She laughed, then her eyes settled on Lillian. "Oh, Lill'," she groaned, "what's wrong now? Don't tell me I've overlooked some obscure but dreadfully important bit of town etiquette."

The dark-haired Lillian turned the mug around in her hands, then took a biscuit from the tin, frowning on it before biting off one corner. "And what if it doesn't turn out?"

"Beg pardon?" Phoebe tilted her head at Lillian. "Come now, we're just having a laugh. We're hardly taking any of this seriously. You and your dirty nails, and Harriet and her hands, and Ruth and her..." She trailed off, casting an expectant look at the younger girl in question.

"Eyes," said Ruth promptly, before ducking her head, as if suddenly overcome with shyness. "I... like pretty eyes."

"Ruth and her eyes," Phoebe said. "Pretty ones."

Harriet smiled, murmuring, "Rich he shall be, that's certain; wise, or I'll none; virtuous, or I'll never cheapen him; fair, or I'll never look on him; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and his hair shall be of what color it please God." She looked at her empty mug of cocoa, wishing suddenly and intensely it was a glass of sherry. "We're not hard to please at all."

"An interesting paraphrase. I take your point, but that… isn't what I meant." Lillian looked briefly at the window; it had steamed on the inside from their laughter and breath, and though it wasn't snowing, it was clearly cold on the opposite side of the glass. "What… happens when we leave?" She swallowed hard. "What do we do next? And what if it doesn't work?"

In truth, it was a question Harriet herself hadn't wanted to dwell too deeply on. Certainly she had plans -- they all did; that was why one came to Shrewsbury. If they wanted to do or be or think or plan, they possessed the tools to bring those thoughts and plans and ideas to fruition out in the world.

But then, Shrewsbury wasn't the rest of the world. And it certainly wasn't the whole world. And yet, many women walked through those doors only to return again and help shape a new generation of eager young minds that they might go forth and do and be and think and plan, hoping that, if they return, it is because they wanted to, and not because they had to. But Harriet suspected this was not always the case.

"What if we find ourselves with no recourse but to return to these hallowed halls and teach?" Harriet asked lightly. Lillian made a distasteful face but nodded, and Harriet lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "We none of us know what may yet happen or could happen or might happen. We only know what we want to happen. Circumstances may take issue with our plans."

"Fate, you mean," offered Phoebe, who had stood up and was collecting dirty cups.

"No," replied Harriet, shaking her head. "I don't think I believe in fate. There are things we can control and things we cannot control. We control what we can and work with what we're given."

"Sound reasoning of course," Lillian admitted on a sigh. "But it answers nothing."

"Maybe the question we want answered most is the one we're least qualified to hear. 'What happens next?'" Harriet sighed and shook her head. "None of us know. None of us can know. It's a bloody difficult -- no, impossible -- question to answer."

The look Phoebe sent her was one that seemed affectionately pitying. "Bloody difficult, perhaps. But all the same, it's a question you'd better get used to hearing, Harriet, dear."

"And it's a question I already have my answer to: read and find out." She gave a grin, though it wasn't particularly mirthful. "I suppose it's a reply that holds true in books as in life. Sometimes we've no choice but to wait and see."

This led, of course, to discussion of a more philosophical bent, with Phoebe continuing her role as the Devil's advocate, arguing in favor of Fate while Ruth and Lillian argued just as vehemently against the very concept of the universe wielding control over all things.

As they talked and bickered, Harriet's eyes returned to the window, now nearly completely fogged over; a crystalline latticework of frost was forming in the corners. And in the cold darkness on the other side of that pane of glass, uncertainty loomed. The question Lillian had asked was a good one -- what happened next? Oh, Harriet was certain enough of immediate events: she would awaken early and board the train to Hertfordshire. She would be home before dinner. Her mother would have decorated for Christmas. She would spend the holiday in the bosom of family before eventually returning to these hallowed halls. But what then?

Then what happens? What comes next?

Harriet supposed she too would have to read and find out.