“The division between within and without in this sense seems to become every year a more subtle and bewildering problem.”
— George Eliot to Harriet Beecher Stowe, letter, 1872
Parliament had not yet reconvened after the Easter holiday. Fashionable London, therefore, had not yet reassembled from its country estates. This annual abandonment of polite precincts to those eccentrics who go to the opera to hear the singing and to the theater to see the acting pleased Gwendolen as she arrived in Grosvenor Place from Offendene that blustery afternoon. She not only found the traffic a bit lighter, the air a bit cleaner, and everything a bit gentler on her modest purse, but the inverted exclusivity of the artists and their patrons did not escape her. She liked to be counted on the side of excellence. An invitation to spend the recess in town with esteemed friends seemed a diploma to her efforts to become a well-taught audience, if never the luminary performer she had once imagined.
The butler took her traveling cloak. “Welcome back, Mrs. Grandcourt.”
“Thank you, Beckett,” she smiled. “I am happy to be back.”
Gwendolen had toiled in the fields of her soul these five years of her widowhood, and she had harvested many nourishing crops once she had uprooted the choking thorns of self-regard. The ornamental flowers of musical and theatrical pursuits did not detract from that fruitful cultivation, Deronda had assured her in his rare but faithful letters from the East.
“Herr and Mrs. Klesmer expect you.” Beckett escorted Gwendolen upstairs.
Seamlessly, she knew, a footman had gone to fetch her luggage, a maid to light the fire in her chamber, and someone else to assemble a tea tray. Tomorrow morning, without a word, a stable hand would saddle a horse for her while she yet sat at her dressing table, that she might ride the Ladies’ Mile in Hyde Park before breakfast. And this very evening, the special gala dinner party, with its eminent guests, would progress as magically as if catered by obliging spirits. Gwendolen rarely envied Catherine Klesmer, née Arrowpoint, her fortune, but since Gwendolen had increasingly taken over household management from her mamma, she had also learned a wider appreciation of what to credit to the means and what to the woman who wielded them. Quetcham’s soirees missed Catherine’s guiding touch.
Beckett held the door and bowed her in. “Refreshments will appear presently. Would you like anything else at this time, Mrs. Grandcourt?”
The drawing room, its tasteful russet furnishings dominated by the concert piano and floor harp, was uninhabited. Gwendolen felt her brow crease. Immediately, she smoothed her expression. “No, thank you, Beckett.”
“Very good, madam. I will announce your arrival.”
Alone, Gwendolen removed her hat and evaluated herself in the glass. Her light-brown hair remained secure in the coils her mamma had pinned this morning. Her celadon striped dress complemented her pale complexion, and her cherished turquoise beads her supple neck. No lines yet seamed a face still under thirty, though she wondered sometimes what furrows that one terrible year had carved on her heart. That she was beautiful had never been in doubt, as far as she knew, but that she could meet her own gaze with neither revulsion nor complacency required tenacious confirmation. To live, she must bear her demons and her angels together. She meant to live.
“My dear Mrs. Grandcourt!” Klesmer exclaimed, striding in before Beckett could fully open the door for him. The composer wore a matching grey waistcoat and trousers, what Gwendolen understood Americans to call a “ditto suit,” and his spectacles dangled from the tips of his long fingers. Only after saluting her hand and cheeks did he replace the lenses in front of eyes more red and shadowed than she was used to seeing them. As a maid deposited a tea tray, Klesmer asked, “How was your journey? And how is Mrs. Davilow? And your sisters, and all our friends near Pennicote?”
“Fine. They are all fine, and send their greetings,” Gwendolen assured him, searching his agitated expression. Once the door had closed again behind Beckett and the maid, she drew Klesmer down onto the velvet sofa with her. “Permit me to save the fond back-fence talk for you and Catherine together.”
“Yes, naturally.” Klesmer squeezed her hand briefly. He leaned against the cushion and ran his fingers through his wild, long hair, which had begun turning white at the temples. “You must have some tea and a morsel of food, my wife declares. Then I may take you up to her. For though she and I may order each other and our household, the physician orders us, and he commands that she rest abed until— well, until.”
Gwendolen sprang to her feet. “What has happened?”
Catherine had “ceased to be unwell,” as people say, months ago, though not yet enough months that she need eschew all engagements. As Mrs. Arrowpoint, Catherine’s often egregious mother, had unblushingly told Gwendolen and her mamma at Quetcham, in the gossip of thirty years before, Lady Charlotte Guest had attended a royal ball in what later arithmetic revealed to have been her sixth month, and had been received openly by the Queen herself in what was later calculated to have been the Queen’s own fourth month, so what might Catherine not do? Yet Lady Guest and the Queen were each mothers many times over. While Catherine had been in a delicate condition on several occasions in her marriage, none had ended happily.
“The doctor is still with her,” Klesmer said.
“Oh?” Gwendolen raised her chin. Then she sank down and poured the tea. She did not allow her hands to shake; she did not permit any of her fears to escape into the physical world. As the true subject was vexatiously unspeakable among well-bred people, Gwendolen ventured instead, “What shall you do about tonight’s dinner party?”
“What? Oh!” Klesmer twined his fingers together and widened his eyes. “I had not even thought about that. I must speak with Maestro Kadosa before he leaves for the continent. And we had invited one of his old students to see him off as well.”
Gwendolen inclined her head. It was one thing to cancel so late with family or one’s customary circle. Sometimes, one simply must regret. But Prince Ernst of Saxe-Meiningen, one of the Queen’s half-nephews, was the maestro’s former student, having studied violin before taking a naval commission, and he was expected tonight with his wife, the Duchess Natalia Petrovna, one of the Tsar’s nieces. Gwendolen knew little of the prince, but in scant months of English residence, the duchess had acquired a wide reputation for a melancholy mein that bristled at any social slight. Provoking her could haunt the Klesmers’ musical protégés amidst society, which would distress Catherine infinitely more than any damage to her own standing.
“Can we leave Catherine’s chair unoccupied?” Klesmer asked.
“An au fait soiree would avoid conjuring Banquo’s ghost.” Gwendolen bent her head to the side. “Do you know a lady currently in town who might fill out our number extempore?” The Mallingers were away at Topping Abbey, and Amabel was not yet quite old enough, in any case. Etiquette required not just a woman without an inconvenient husband to see-saw the seating, but a guest of a rank fine-tuned to not overturn all preparations for the intricacies of precedence.
“The Pentreaths are coming. Perhaps one of their—” Klesmer broke off when the drawing room door opened.
Beckett announced a black-coated gentleman as the latest doctor. A swift exchange of meaningful glances and nuanced bows led Gwendolen to follow Beckett upstairs to Catherine’s chamber while Klesmer remained to receive whatever this physician was willing to impart only tete-a-tete and man to man. Gwendolen had rarely spared a thought for the medical profession until she became a privileged confidant of Catherine’s sadly thwarted maternal yearnings, from which perch she had watched the parade of learned men through the Klesmers’ lives. The only daughter of an only daughter, the English wife of a Bohemian man, past the age of thirty, Catherine was gravely culpable in many eyes. One doctor after another had attended Catherine’s frustrations and tragedies with such varied prescriptions that Gwendolen had come to suspect that they knew no more than she did herself.
Gwendolen found Catherine abed with her hair undone, but wearing a bold red wrapper and supported by pillows. Shifting late-afternoon sunlight surprised shadows from the furniture and mottled Catherine’s sweet countenance. Usually ruddy and sturdy, Catherine had turned pallid and faint, but peeling back her vigor only uncovered her determination.
Catherine smiled wanly as Gwendolen kissed her cheek. “This will not be the week that we had planned for you, I’m afraid. Julius can still escort you to the performances—”
“Do not think of that.” Gwendolen straightened and threw up her chin, her lips pressed together. After a moment, irresistibly, her high voice burst out, “But how are you?”
At her best, Catherine’s bodily appearance was never more than middling, yet, once recognized, the beauty of her brave soul had drawn Gwendolen like a lodestone. This was the model of friendship most congenial to her, the astonishing strength gained through surrender to a well-deserved respect. It was such an apotheosis of Deronda to which she had clung that fateful day off Genoa; thus armed, she had saved herself, battling her own wicked thoughts from crystallizing into an evil act. A saint is but a sinner who chooses rightly in the infinite moment between wanting and doing, and many of us require a human hand to point the way. Worthy though her sisters and cousins and Wessex neighbors might be, feelings of superiority still plagued Gwendolen in their company. Admirers were pleasant; someone to admire was essential. Catherine’s quiet convictions and gentle excellence made it simpler for Gwendolen to be good, and each approach to Catherine’s lying in terrified Gwendolen like bidding bon voyage to an adventure into the volatile East.
At Gwendolen’s question, Catherine folded her hands and dropped her eyes. She seemed to gaze out into a far other world, one closed to Gwendolen. When Catherine looked up again, a tiny, tired smile quirked her lips. “At least this doctor is against gestation stays. These corsetless ‘rational dress’ costumes have done me immense good this time, I am sure.”
“I do see the sense in dispensing with tight lacing while in a delicate condition.”
“But not yet otherwise? I wish you would try it.” Catherine sighed. “I can only say again that my respiration, digestion and circulation have all improved where I never suspected impairment. I would wish that for everyone — such a powerful remedy, immediately available to all, hindered only by mistaken convention!”
“I would sooner go gloveless and shoeless.”
“Have you considered the potential effect on your horsemanship?”
“Touché!” Gwendolen laid a hand over her heart. “The golden arrow is yours yet again.”
As Catherine seemed almost entirely herself, aside from her worn and sallow mein, Gwendolen could pry loose the clutching fingers of fear. Beside Catherine’s accidentally outre literary mother and purposefully defiant musical husband, Catherine usually stood as a bulwark of serene stability and practical sense. Her discreetly radical entry into the corset controversy recalled that she, too, had once lived her own brief scandal, marrying for love and respect beyond class and creed. If one must marry, Gwendolen had told her sisters, Catherine’s was the example to follow.
“But there! You have allowed me to climb up on my hobbyhorse, when I have not yet even welcomed you properly.” Catherine pursed her lips. “I should ask after your journey and your mother, and I will, but not now, because we are running short of time.”
“The dinner party.”
“You will stand in for me as hostess, I trust?”
“Of course. Shall we appeal to one of Lady Pentreath’s granddaughters to fill my place as I fill yours?”
“I wish it were that simple.” Catherine gestured toward the narrow spinet table under the window. A pile of correspondence spilled uncharacteristically askew across it. Catherine grimaced. “Before the medical fuss, the first post this morning brought a note from my mother. Will you read it?”
“Are she and your father unable to come?” Gwendolen asked, crossing the room to pick up the letter.
“No, they are coming. They are in fact bringing another guest. Yes, I know,” Catherine waved away Gwendolen’s raised eyebrows. “I know. There’s more. The acquaintance accompanying them is Miss Cora Hulme.”
The name felt familiar to Gwendolen. She combed her memory. At least it was a female name; this individual could take the spare gentleman’s arm in the procession from the drawing room — which gentleman’s arm proved spare depended on the lady’s rank, of course. The promenade to dine laced a hostess’s own intimate hopes for her guests to the most profound national consciousness of security and success through knowing one’s place. Gwendolen tilted her head inquisitively.
“The American trance lecturer? No?” Catherine shrugged. “My mother has been writing for the spiritualist periodicals, as I am sure you know. They appreciate her contributions most enthusiastically, and she appreciates their enthusiasm. But...”
“But, indeed!” Gwendolen’s eyes widened. “How are we to present such a person to the prince and duchess?”
Catherine spread her hands. “Even the Queen and Gladstone are said to have dabbled. Can you somehow lead them to remember that first?”
Gwendolen tossed her chin with a laugh and settled into a chair to read Mrs. Arrowpoint’s indecently late notice of disrupting her daughter’s hospitality. Spiritualism had made scant impression on Gwendolen; it had never been among the improving topics Deronda at intervals recommended, and her eventual collision with Mrs. Arrowpoint’s Tasso had raised Gwendolen's guard against other literary effusions. Yet Gwendolen was aware of the fashion for mediumistic séances, with table-rapping, ghostly possessions and even materializations, and one could not visit Quetcham without receiving Mrs. Arrowpoint’s assurance that the new science of spiritualism yielded proof of immortality and heralded a reformation of morals destined to uplift all mankind.
While Gwendolen read, Klesmer entered the room. He kissed his wife’s forehead and took her hands in his.
The letter said that Miss Hulme had long been an intimate correspondent of Mrs. Arrowpoint, and that while Miss Hulme did lecture in public under spirit control, she never took a penny for her services, and so remained above social reproach. Mrs. Arrowpoint had apparently confided in Miss Hulme about certain family matters and, when Mrs. Arrowpoint had mentioned this dinner party, Miss Hulme had received spirit guidance that she must impart to Catherine in person.
“We certainly shan’t let this Miss Hulme bother you tonight, Catherine,” Gwendolen decided. “She can send up her card some afternoon when you’re receiving callers. But she does re-balance the table.”
“Strangely, Debrett’s fails to address the relative precedence of an American lady medium,” Catherine said.
Klesmer snorted. “I have heard few ideas more absurd than that the next world communicates through this world’s furniture.”
“That is now all my concern.” Gwendolen stood with a firm nod. “Your concern, Catherine, is growing well. Rest without worries.”
Leaving the Klesmers to bear their weightiest concern, Gwendolen went to shoulder as many of their lighter concerns as she could. Since her troubles, she had learned not only that the dignity of purpose deflects boredom better than any indulgence, but that it may exhilarate where vanity exhausts. Gwendolen spared a fleeting glance at the hall clock and quickened her step down the stairs. Beckett made himself her good right hand as she confirmed that the cook had all ten courses well begun, that the fires were laid, and that the silver was polished and placed, from the fish forks to the epergnes.
“And how do your footmen serve at table now, Beckett?”
“A la russe for an entertainment, madam. We still serve a la francaise when Herr and Mrs. Klesmer — and a family guest such as yourself — dine alone.”
“Excellent. I do not have time to arrange the flowers. Would one of the maids have any talents in that direction?”
“Nellie will be honored, madam.” He summoned the maid who had previously brought the tea.
Up again in the drawing room, Gwendolen annexed the secretary desk with Catherine’s paperwork and confronted the thorny issues of precedence and seating. As host, Klesmer would necessarily take the duchess down to dinner, and the prince Gwendolen in Catherine’s place as hostess. Then Mr. Arrowpoint would take Lady Pentreath, and Lord Pentreath Mrs. Arrowpoint. There, the headache began. Originally, Maestro Kadosa would have given his arm to Gwendolen, and the Reverend Arthur Everett, a fledgling scholar of sacred music, would have escorted Miss Mab Meyrick, one of Catherine’s protégés. Neither Miss Meyrick nor Miss Hulme were appropriate for the maestro. Yet, obviously, Lord Pentreath could accompany none but Mrs. Arrowpoint! Gwendolen puzzled, shifting cards around the slotted case made for this intricate task.
Finally, Gwendolen promoted the maestro to Lady Pentreath’s side and matched Catherine’s own father with the American medium who was, after all, his guest. Gwendolen knew that Catherine and Klesmer would approve, and she presumed that Miss Meyrick would take it in good part for Catherine’s sake. But what of the infamously acute Russian duchess? Gwendolen raised her head and delivered the final list to Beckett.
Up in her chamber, Gwendolen found all in order. Someone had pressed and hung her garments for the party. With the help of Catherine’s own maid, a mature woman who had come with Catherine from Quetcham on her marriage, Gwendolen changed into her pale green evening gown and complemented the low, square décolletage with a matching ribbon tied high on her neck to trail behind her as she moved.
Gwendolen looked in on Catherine and found her asleep, watched over by her husband. Klesmer’s mobile face flickered with shifting emotions, as if under a firework exhibition of fleeting illuminations; after each bright burst, it fell back into a reverent regard. Loathe to disturb this portrait of a domestic devotion that she would have found hardly credible in this world but for their friendship, Gwendolen nevertheless prodded Klesmer off to complete his ablutions. She took herself to the drawing room, where she appreciated the ample flowers, beautifully arranged on many surfaces.
Klesmer was swift indeed for a man so justly distracted, but before he and Gwendolen could exchange more than a glance before the fireplace, the first guests arrived.
Beckett showed in the Arrowpoints and Miss Hulme.
While Klesmer explained his wife’s situation to his parents-in-law, Gwendolen turned to Miss Hulme. The trance medium proved striking, with flaxen hair and a fine figure, and, but for a certain turn of expression hinting a much-weathered soul, she looked hardly out of her teens. Gwendolen said, “I understand that you are recently come from America. How was your voyage?”
“Oh, that was years ago now!” Miss Hulme smiled. She leaned forward confidentially. “Indeed, Mrs. Grandcourt, I feel almost English after so long in London, although I know that every word I speak reveals my first home. I came over then with the Princess Marguerite, and later stayed with Baroness Lowe, and of course Lady Russell while she was here.”
Gwendolen guessed that she was meant to recognize the names. She did not. She did recognize the dilemma of a woman without means. When Gwendolen had hoped that a career on the stage might spare her that of a governess — before she succumbed to that of an ill-gotten marriage — that had been as far as her imagination could then span. Miss Hulme’s imagination and talents had both evidently reached further than Gwendolen’s, winning her a fate more free than, and yet not wholly unlike, what might have been Gwendolen’s with the bishop’s daughters: dependent on maintaining the indulgent patronage of Mrs. Monpert until the last daughter left the nursery, and then on somehow replacing the benefactress before meagre savings ran dry. “Are you now staying with Mrs. Arrowpoint?”
Miss Hulme dimpled. “She has invited me to go with her to Quetcham when they quit town. I understand that you live near there?”
Quickly, then, the other guests arrived: the tall prince and short duchess, the elderly Pentreaths, the Hungarian maestro, the young clergyman and the younger Miss Meyrick. Gwendolen circulated efficiently to both receive each newcomer and arrange the couples for the formal promenade down to the dining room within moments of the last arrival.
The meal itself whirled past in eddies of food and conversation. With so many seated, and cross-talk somewhat hampered by the lush spring bouquets on the table as well as the sideboards, each topic rose and fell a few voices at a time; as long as all were engaged, no one subject could ever encompass the entire company. The duchess gravely asked the maestro about her husband’s youth as his music student and Mr. Arrowpoint about his land in Wessex. Lady Pentreath contrived to show the Reverend Mr. Everett how charming was Miss Meyrick. Mrs. Arrowpoint told Klesmer — not for the first time — about her efforts to organize a national association of British spiritualists. Lord Pentreath enjoyed Miss Hulme’s less spiritual charms in an appropriately aesthetic manner. And with Gwendolen, the prince fell into a discussion of horses that led him to pronounce her a very Rhiannon and declare that next autumn, she must come stay at his country seat and ride to his hounds.
“I would be delighted, your highness — if the duchess rides as well, of course.”
The prince stroked his whiskers. “Perhaps you can persuade her. I don’t hold with banning the stronger ladies from such healthy, wholesome exercise, but it wasn’t quite the thing in her girlhood.”
Gwendolen smiled, taking the invitation for precisely what it was and was not worth. She rarely hunted unless Sir Hugo Mallinger was at Diplow, but when he was, she had the loan of a horse and the company of that most fatherly gentleman, Deronda’s own guardian. Sir Hugo had been unfailingly generous to her since the death of her husband, his nephew, had rendered back to him the otherwise entailed estates that he was now free to leave to his own wife and daughters. With a look at the grim duchess, Gwendolen told the prince, “Happily, one’s girlhood need not set the upper bound of one’s life.”
After dessert, Gwendolen led the ladies to the drawing room, abandoning the gentlemen to their brandy and cigars. The ladies spoke highly of the meal and conveyed through Gwendolen more wishes for Catherine’s health. Then the conversation drifted and splintered. This is the perilous time, Gwendolen thought, when words can most easily trap and wound among some people who know one another and some who do not. She would have liked to ask Miss Meyrick to play the piano for them all until the gentlemen came, but naturally such drawing room performances waited for the whole assembly, at which point it would no longer be necessary, and Klesmer and the maestro would overwhelm Miss Meyrick’s skills in any case.
“Has Mrs. Klesmer known Miss Hulme long?” the duchess asked Gwendolen in a low voice.
“They have not yet met,” Gwendolen answered quickly. “Miss Hulme is an acquaintance of Mrs. Klesmer’s mother, Mrs. Arrowpoint.”
“I see.” The duchess turned to the fireplace. “I heard my husband rally you about hunting. Are you a hunter?”
“I have been.” Gwendolen reminded herself to return the conversation with soft volleys. It was all too easy to presume that she was deservedly, not coincidentally, the center of attention; but none here could know what she deserved, and she stood in Catherine’s place besides. “I understand that you do not hunt, Duchess?”
“No.” The duchess trailed her fingers along the stonework. “People in St. Petersburg also love their country estates, of course, but here it is so odd, as if urban life is but a necessary evil periodically interrupting the dear rural pursuits.”
Lady Pentreath joined them at the fire after a turn around the room accompanied by Miss Hulme. “What talents these young people have now, and what adventures!”
“Do you approve of Miss Hulme’s adventures, Lady Pentreath?” the duchess asked.
The elderly lady grinned. “I enjoy a good story, Duchess.”
“A story may be a lie, or it may be true.” The duchess frowned. “Or some of each.”
Gwendolen left Lady Pentreath and the duchess to each other while she engaged Mrs. Arrowpoint, Miss Meyrick and Miss Hulme in turn, not quite succeeding in drawing them together. She was about to make the circuit once again when the gentlemen joined them at last. Gwendolen looked at Klesmer as at the instrument of her deliverance and waited for him to invite the maestro to play.
Instead, as a sudden bolt through a break in the clouds, Miss Hulme requested everyone’s attention. “Herr Klesmer, Mrs. Grandcourt, you have been so gracious tonight, and this group creates such a pure resonance, I wonder whether you would be so good as to allow me to conduct a séance for you now.”
“Wonderful notion!” Mrs. Arrowpoint exclaimed. “I assure you all, it is as edifying and joyful as prayer.”
Klesmer’s brow sank like mounting stormclouds. The duchess pressed her lips in a thin line; the prince winced as if his stomach had turned sour. The Pentreaths and the maestro looked amused, and Miss Meyrick excited. Mr. Everett glanced about as if unsure whether events had suddenly crossed into his professional responsibility and, if so, what he might do.
Gwendolen laid a gloved hand on Klesmer’s arm. “Perhaps not tonight, Miss Hulme. We do have reason to be somewhat quiet and avoid disturbance.”
“But that is exactly why I must bring this to you! The spirits press upon me that there is great import for one person in this house tonight.”
“My dear Miss Hulme—” Klesmer choked.
“Allow her,” the Duchess Natalia Petrovna interrupted. “Forgive me, Herr Klesmer. I would say — if the spirits wish to speak, let us listen.”
The room held its breath.
Klesmer bowed gallantly to the duchess. “Indeed, let us spurn no word before we have heard it.” When he rose, he made no other movement, his normally active form still.
Gwendolen turned to the medium. “What do you require, Miss Hulme?”
“Only your cooperation, Mrs. Grandcourt.” The beautiful woman smiled earnestly. “The spirits long to come to us. Perhaps as many of us as wish could gather around the playing table here and join hands.”
“We should dim the gas lights as much as we can,” said Mrs. Arrowpoint with authority, signaling to the footman by the door. “Spirits come more readily in the more natural light of burning wax, wood or coal, but even those can inhibit them. The light of the next world differs.”
“That is so,” Miss Hulme granted, “though such mild hinderance would raise but a little barrier on such a night.” She extended her hands and led Lord Pentreath and Mr. Everett to the table. As the gas lights were extinguished or dimmed, all eventually joined her except Klesmer, who seated himself at the piano, and Mr. Arrowpoint, who leaned against the piano and pretended not to see his wife’s dissatisfaction with his choice. Miss Hulme breathed deeply. “We seek the joy of renewed contact with lost loved ones, those we knew and also those who departed before we could know them, but who yet know us in eternity. Mr. Everett, might you introduce our hope in prayer?”
“What? Oh, surely!” Mr. Everett repeated the general intercession from the previous Sunday, and then led them in the Lord’s Prayer. He shuffled his feet and eyed the men at the piano not wholly unlike Dives must have eyed Lazarus and Father Abraham across the great chasm. Mr. Everett held such parlor games harmless, of course, aside from any lamentable awkwardness for his hosts; it seemed astonishingly unlikely that the communion of saints rested more particularly on this jolly girl than any other mortal soul. Still, politeness trapped him. His superiors would understand. His parishioners might not. Mr. Everett tried half-heartedly to drop Miss Meyrick’s and Miss Hulme’s hands; Miss Hulme’s fingers entwined his as smoothly as if he had made the move himself, while Miss Meyrick’s grip caught his as heartily as if she thought he’d slipped.
Across the table, the duchess noticed and frowned.
“Perhaps we could sing a hymn — but quietly,” Miss Hulme added quickly. “Quietly, unaccompanied, to bring our magnetic resonances into harmony.”
“Longfellow’s ‘The Footsteps of the Angels’ has been particularly efficacious in many documented instances,” Mrs. Arrowpoint said. “Do we all know it?”
In the low light, hands joined around the table, they sang. As the last verse trailed off, all sat in expectant silence. Gwendolen called to mind those of her dead from whom she might like to hear, such as her papa, gone before her memories began; she barricaded from her thoughts the dead face that she could never forget, and the still-felt guilt that only she, Deronda and the next world knew. Minutes passed.
More minutes passed. Clasped hands tired and drooped.
When Miss Hulme invited them to sing once again, the last drop of novelty evaporated for Gwendolen. Perilously bored, she closed her eyes and attempted to amuse herself ranking the various voices — from the maestro’s great skill and little talent, Miss Meyrick’s moderate provisions of each, and Gwendolen’s own moderate talent and little skill, all the way to poor Mrs. Arrowpoint’s corvid caw. Across the table from Gwendolen, the duchess sang quietly, in sporadically broken tones. As the dullness swelled until even pride could not contain Gwendolen’s restlessness, a faint breeze chilled the heated room. Miss Meyrick gasped. Gwendolen’s eyes sprang open wide. The duchess sighed. Around the table, hands and arms twitched involuntarily and a faint rapping emerged from the center.
“The spirits are with us.” Miss Hulme sounded pleased. “They wish us to learn something that they see clearly and we do not. Do you desire to identify yourself at this time, gentle spirit?”
A sound like a stick snapping seemed to rise out of the table. Just one, once. Her voice low but unfortunately never soft, Mrs. Arrowpoint announced that one rap conveyed negative, two positive, and three uncertainty. A pair of raps confirmed her cipher. Miss Hulme cajoled the communicative spirit to associate itself with those assembled around the table, inviting each to pose a yea or nay question, or one that might be answered by a number. The guests variously dropped their eyes or caught each other’s glances. Lady Pentreath supplied a rolling litany of questions featuring names Gwendolen did not know; the replies seemed unremarkable, although some made Lord Pentreath smother a laugh in his whiskers.
The duchess asked whether an Emma were present among the gathered spirits; one rap sounded no. The duchess asked whether any of the spirits present knew Emma and might bring news of her; two raps indicated yes. Miss Hulme stiffened, braced her shoulders and threw back her head such that her brilliant hair tumbled half loose from its pins. Excited, Mrs. Arrowpoint whispered that a spirit control was entering Miss Hulme to converse with them directly. They might be honored to learn of mankind’s place and purpose in the cosmos from one who beheld eternity even now.
Gwendolen recoiled. Her vague religious ideas remained untethered where not instructed by her correspondence with Deronda, but her heavy moral fears were entirely her own, continually whetted by remorse. Gwendolen’s penitence and reparation had no endpoint, no signal of absolution; she had scrabbled those handholds from a sheer cliff to arrest an otherwise inevitable plummet into wickedness, and she would hold on until her strength gave out. Climbing fully over the top, reversing her fall, never presented itself to Gwendolen as a possibility, neither through her own instinct nor Deronda’s guidance. She had learned to live in her unseen sackcloth and ashes. She had harnessed that internal scarring to reform the unblemished outer woman. But that the vengeance of the next world might expose her to others than Deronda made her the fox before the hunters. Her heart burst. She could not breathe.
Miss Hulme squared her shoulders in a masculine manner, slid into a posture almost flaccid in its lack of rigidity, and opened her eyes to reveal a narrow gaze entirely unlike her own, expressing nothing but indifference until it fell on Gwendolen.
Violently, Gwendolen tore loose from the mild hands that seemed to imprison her on either side. Her chair fell, swept by her bustle as she spun away from the fateful table and its echoes of the judgments of the dead. Freed, she looked up. And she screamed.
Above the flower-filled krater vase on the sideboard behind her chair, a glowing white spot grew in the very air. Luminous, sepulchral, it emerged from nowhere in this world. It turned toward her. Gwendolen heard her own scream still in her ears, felt it in her throat, shuddered with it through her frame. The ghastly white spectre was a face, a dead face, the face that had foretold her doom from the cursed painting at Offendene and incarnated it on the sea off Genoa. Her scream could not end; the moment would not end; this would be her eternity, chained to her lost moment of vile inaction and his timeless, terrible, dead face.
Though her limbs seemed locked against her, Gwendolen forced her stiff arms up, up, up to the awful apparition. She reached for the face with both hands. With all her bodily might, with all her impetuous intensity, Gwendolen grasped. She would not let go.
Gwendolen’s scream ended and other screams began. The gas lights went out entirely. Furniture moved. The face twisted and turned in Gwendolen’s hands. She held on. Blows landed against her arms and chest. She held on. Her feet were swept out from under her and she tumbled to the ground. Yet she held on.
“You can release Nellie now, Mrs. Grandcourt,” Klesmer said with immense gentleness.
The gas lights were restored to full brightness. Gwendolen found herself kneeling on the rug above a scowling girl in phosphoric face paint and a thin black dress that covered her from chin to toe. “The maid who arranged the flowers?”
Klesmer helped Gwendolen regain her feet and then pulled the bell for Beckett. Mr. Everett stood behind Miss Hulme’s chair with firm hands on her shoulders. Mrs. Arrowpoint had retreated to a sofa with her husband, her face almost as ashen as that of the girl at Gwendolen’s feet. The duchess blinked away tears.
“You said this would work!” Nellie accused Miss Hulme. “Child’s play, you said, snag the silly foreign nob on her dead daughter and we’re sitting pretty again—”
Miss Hulme shook her head slowly, not in denial, but as if clearing the stiffness of an accidental sleep on a train. “The spirit who wished to speak has left us. He will not return.” The medium looked around at each person in attendance, first and last at the maid; Miss Hulme’s puzzled, earnest gaze seemed to search each countenance for answers. “I do not know this girl. What she has done is against everything I believe in. Perhaps she will repent and reveal who engaged her for such vile sabotage.”
Beckett arrived and led Nellie away. Klesmer instructed him to also summon a cab for Miss Hulme, and then to send in the gentlemen’s brandy and some wine and water for the ladies, for the shock. And tea, he added — tea was to English nerves as oil to troubled waters, was Klesmer’s private conviction. Klesmer knew that such jumbling of refreshments was not proper, but he wanted somehow to roll back the evening to before Miss Hulme’s declaration. With an apologetic nod to the maestro, Klesmer invited Miss Meyrick to play the piano for them, and Mr. Everett to turn her pages.
Gwendolen looked down at the lustrous white paint on her gloves and saw her hands shake. She knew how easy it was to blight another’s life, to deal a crushing blow from amidst self-placating, self-deceptive intentions to mitigate that blow. That knowledge gave her no insight into whom to believe now, between the medium and the maid, but, under Deronda’s warm guidance and Catherine’s gentle example, Gwendolen had learned to look into others for signs of such anguish, as for newly-opening needs she might strive to fill. Gwendolen could see that Mrs. Arrowpoint and the duchess, each in her own way, were thus wounded. Gwendolen clasped her hands together to stop their shaking and lifted her chin.
Beckett slipped Miss Hulme away from Mr. Everett’s custody while Miss Meyrick played.
When the music and polite applause had both died away, Gwendolen turned elegantly toward Klesmer. Pitching her high voice to reach the whole company, Gwendolen said, “It occurs to me, Herr Klesmer, that the presence of a lie does not disprove the presence of the truth.”
Mrs. Arrowpoint looked at Gwendolen sharply. The duchess regained some of her color.
“You are entirely correct, Mrs. Grandcourt,” Klesmer said. With a slight twitch of an eyebrow meant only for Gwendolen, he, too, modulated his voice to carry to the company. “All philosophy, religion, statesmanship — and of course the arts — wrestle with that coexistence.” He launched into an energetic discourse on the fundamental truth of real music, perceptible beyond language, penetrating every border, uniting across generations.
As Klesmer sensitively wound his discussion around to the point foremost in each guest’s own experience — military for the prince, ecclesiastical for the clergyman, musical for the maestro, literary for Mrs. Arrowpoint, cosmopolitan for the duchess, social for the Pentreaths and familial for Miss Meyrick — Gwendolen deftly turned those points into respectful questions. With subtle care for the bereaved duchess and flustered Mrs. Arrowpoint, Gwendolen exerted herself to think before she opened her lips each time, that she need not take back any words. She crafted her banter to fly without a sting. This considerate attention — the kind that she had taken for granted for herself in her girlhood, when she thought whatever surrounded her specially for her — gradually restored the dignity that the disrupted séance had rudely torn away.
With each departure that night, Gwendolen received not only cordial thanks to convey to Catherine, but a heartfelt regard in each salute that the giver awarded entirely to Gwendolen herself.
Gwendolen’s next letter to Deronda demanded even more circumspection than usual. Under the unflagging frustration that what is committed to paper may someday fall into any hands and be read by any eyes, Gwendolen struggled for words that would reveal the nature of her terror and triumph that night to him and to no other. That she had held on was what she most needed him to know. She would not let go.
His reply, when it came, was once again her amnesty. She would live. She would be better.
That autumn, Prince Ernst and Duchess Natalia invited Gwendolen, the Klesmers and the Arrowpoints to their country estate. The house party was so intimate that baby Gwendolen accompanied her parents, and the adults so doted on her infant adorableness — already displaying her mother’s sense, her father’s brilliance and her godmother’s beauty to all interested observers — that her nurse had a paid holiday in all but name.
One misty, chilly morning, the other ladies and Klesmer, snug in the breakfast room, watched from a window as Gwendolen rode out with the hunters. Judiciously, Mrs. Arrowpoint remarked, “Mrs. Grandcourt has become a better woman than she was a girl.”
Let us all hope that our fellow mortals must admit as much of us someday: that we will have risen in goodness by our own striving, given more than we took, and smoothed the roads of other lives. The outstretched hands of worthy men and women had lifted Gwendolen; she had then fitted herself to reach out in her turn. Someday, someone will seize upon her as she once did upon Deronda, and she will be equal to that calling.