Authors: Rachael King
This book is dedicated to the memory
of my father Michael King.
Richmond, England, May 1904
Nothing in the letter suggests to Sophie that her husband will arrive home a different man. True, she hasn’t heard from Thomas for some time, but she knows from his agent that he is at least safe, if not happy. Mr Ridewell’s letter comes unexpectedly, stating that Thomas will be arriving on the train from Liverpool at eleven o’clock on Friday. She throws open all the windows in the house — letting in the spring air and startling the vicar who is walking past, swinging an umbrella and checking the sky for rain — and leads her maid Mary in a mission to scrub every surface of the house, driven by a mad energy that has long been absent from her body. As the day comes nearer, however, her joy is replaced by apprehension. She has to steel herself with the knowledge that something has changed; their bond, which seemed so strong in the past, is little more than a daisy chain, stretched between them, that has curled and broken and died.
The train from Liverpool shudders into the station and stops with a sigh. Sheets of steam rise and hiss; flowers of mist swirl and cling to her before thinning and melting away. She has a moment of stillness in which to scan the windows before the doors open and the platform comes alive with a sudden bustle. She braces her body against the crowd. Trunks thud as they hit the ground. A porter pushes a luggage trolley so close that she has to snatch her skirts to her body to prevent them being caught in the wheels and dragged away. Her head jerks about as she scans the faces — many of them obscured by the low brims of hats — looking for her husband. She’s not even sure she will recognise him if she sees him.
A bag crashes against her leg and she reaches out to steady herself, catching a man’s arm. He looks up in surprise and she pulls her hand away.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
The man smiles and touches the rim of his hat with one fat forefinger. A kind smile, from beneath a thick auburn moustache, which she returns before the man spins away, his long brown coat fanning around him, to bark orders. The unfortunate porter he addresses balances several crates and cases on a trolley while struggling to push it at the same time.
Only after the throng clears — after it finally moves away, and the clatter of luggage and the rustle of skirts and cloaks evaporate with it — does she see him. He stands alone. He is a narrow figure in a cloak creased in folds, as if bought off a shelf in Liverpool that day. It swamps him but he appears to be shivering in spite of it. His head is bare and in his arms he holds a large Gladstone bag.
She has imagined this meeting: that she would run at him and he would lift her up and kiss her. She has even fantasised about the feeling of his skin against hers; she has been aching for him.
But it is not to be. Sophie feels his eyes inside her, on her face, in her hair, but he makes no move towards her. His eyebrows are bunched together and his mouth is tightly pursed. But of course, this is how Thomas’s face has arranged itself every day she has known him, a permanently worried expression supported by childlike features, which have always kept him younger than his twenty-seven years.
‘My darling.’ She walks forward, puts her hands on his shoulders and kisses his cheek. It is tough under her lips. His skin is hardened and scarred and his whiskers are coarser, darker. His eyes, level with hers, are corollas of white-blue under slim gold eyebrows. Something in them has changed. They are sharper, colder; his newly tanned skin throws them into stark relief. His pupils tremble and his breath comes in short squeezes. Red, scaly hands hold his bag tight and do not return the embrace.
This is just not how things were meant to be. Her hands still rest on his shoulders and she wants to shake him. To shake him and say, What have you done with my husband? Where is Thomas?
A voice comes from behind her.
She turns her head. The man whose arm she grabbed stands with his large brown bowler hat in his hands. He bows, showing Sophie the top of his head, which has only a thin coating of copper hair. ‘I am Francis Ridewell.’
The agent. She hadn’t seen him inching up to them, hadn’t even heard his shoes on the hard stones.
‘Yes, of course,’ she says. ‘Thank you for bringing my husband home. Your letter was most unexpected.’ Her hands still rest on Thomas’s shoulders. She is surprised to see them there. She pulls them away, reclaiming them.
‘The thing is, madam …’
The man pauses. He gives a flicking motion of his head as he indicates the seat under the awning. He wants her to move away, to sit down with him. She checks her husband. His eyes are closed now. She wavers, uncertain for a moment, but as Mr Ridewell moves away she follows.
He waits for her to sit before doing so himself, and while he fusses around arranging his coat, she asks him, impatient now: ‘Is he all right, Mr Ridewell? Has something happened?’
Mr Ridewell shakes his head. ‘I really don’t know. It’s most peculiar. I received a letter from a man in Brazil informing me of the date Mr Edgar’s ship would be arriving back in Liverpool. He was like this when I met him at the dock. I spoke to the steward of the ship … They thought he was deaf at first. He wouldn’t respond to any questions, not even with a yes or no. But they saw him turn at some commotion on board, and when there was a fire in the hold he came running with everyone else, so he heard the alarm. But they still couldn’t get any words out of him.’
‘I see.’ The steadiness of her own voice surprises her. ‘Has he lost his mind?’
‘Well, that will be for a doctor to decide, madam. I’m afraid I’ve had to look after him this far. His clothes were like rags when he got off the boat in Liverpool, and forgive me for saying …’
‘He smelled. I took him home and gave him a bath and got him a change of clothes from his trunk.’
She looks over at Thomas and sees the frayed cuffs of his trousers where they meet bright new boots.
‘I bought him a cloak — he was freezing — and some shoes.’
‘We will pay you, of course,’ says Sophie. It’s the only thing she can think of, under the circumstances. That she is in debt to this man.
He stops her with a raised palm. ‘I’ve seen to it that the porter has gathered together his crates of specimens. Only one was lost in the fire. There may be some smoke damage in the others. They’re waiting for you at the front gate.’
‘What can have caused this, Mr Ridewell?’
‘I can’t say, madam. I’m very sorry. The Amazon can be a challenging place, so I’m told. I’ve heard of men losing their possessions, their faith and their virtue. But I’ve never heard of anyone losing his ability to speak.’
Before he left for Brazil, Thomas spent long hours in Richmond Park, and Sophie came to think of it as his domain. He scoured every inch of it, turning over rotten pieces of wood, crouching in piles of damp leaves, looking at beetles or waiting patiently for butterflies to appear. He took her on his expeditions with promises of a picnic, but she always ended up sitting with damp skirts on a rug watching him, fending off the ants that crawled up her ankles. He told her he had found more than a hundred species of beetle and thirty types of butterfly; these he had carefully brought home in jars, shutting himself in his study to do whatever it was that he did with them — some process that occupied him indefinitely and sent a poisonous odour through the house.
Insects lined his study — beetles and butterflies mostly, on the walls and crammed into drawers. Sophie felt sick when she went in there, as if they were alive, and she couldn’t stand too close to the walls in case one slipped down her blouse. Thomas teased her about it, running his fingers, like tiny insect feet, down her spine until she squeaked and ran from the room, her shoulders hunched around her ears and goosebumps on her skin.
After he left, she started to walk over the hills of the park every day, at first to feel closer to him, but soon because she enjoyed the exercise. Her thighs grew strong under her skirt, which gave her an unexpected pleasure. She lost some of the plumpness in her cheeks, but she tried to make up for this by always taking an extra serving of pudding. When she emerged from the park, if she met acquaintances strolling towards her, they often turned their heads, aghast at her ruddy complexion, the sheen of sweat on her upper lip, but she didn’t care.
On one of her walks, she saw a fawn up close. She was used to watching the red and the fallow deer from afar, taking care to stay away from the stags when they were rutting, but on this occasion, she startled one as she stood up from a soft place in the bracken, where she had stopped to rest. It gazed at her for a moment, its neck and ears straight and strong, its legs slightly splayed. Its breath came in gusts that shimmered against its sides. She stood for what seemed minutes. Then she saw it. It was crying. Two thick, oily tears welled in its eyes and fell down its face. It dropped its head, as if to wipe them away, before it lifted its legs in a high step and leapt towards the woods. Not graceful like a deer should be, but altogether more
Her friend Agatha told her that if you meet an animal face to face, its spirit stays with you for life, inhabiting a part of your soul. Better a beautiful deer, she said, than a hedgehog, or a wild pig. Then she dropped to her knees on the carpet and performed an impression of a wild boar, snorting and tearing at Sophie’s skirts with imaginary tusks. Sophie laughed so hard that her elbow knocked her teacup and sent it tumbling to the floor.
Agatha also teased her about Captain Fale, who had been a great comfort to Sophie with his visits. He would often accompany the two ladies on strolls around the town, and would come and sit with them on wet afternoons. Sophie had thought at first that he was sweet on Agatha, that she was acting as a chaperone to a blossoming romance, but Agatha dismissed him as desperate and lonely. ‘Besides, Bear,’ she said, ‘he’s rather hoping that Thomas doesn’t come back from the jungle. It’s
he’s in love with.’ Sophie laughed off these comments. She felt sorry for Captain Fale, she thought, because of his leg, and also because all his years in the army had meant that he still hadn’t found a wife, even though he was nearly forty. And he wasn’t bad company. He could be a little pompous at times, but he had a shyness about him that she found endearing.
Most of her time at home was spent sitting with Agatha. They would read, or embroider, or play whist, or imagine the rainforest and what adventures lay within it. Agatha said she would like to explore it, but Sophie’s insides curled at the thought of the damp jungle, the slimy insect life and the natives, who she was convinced were not yet altogether Christian.
Sophie sat every morning before breakfast in the little chapel around the corner. Breathing in the scent of beeswax and the dark stain of the wood, she emptied her mind and sat very still. She closed her eyes and listened to the silence, broken only by the occasional clipping of a horse and carriage outside.
Then she bowed her head and prayed.
Once, before Thomas left for Brazil, she came upon him sitting quietly at the front of the church. She slipped into the pew several rows behind him and watched. The afternoon light glittered through the stained glass window and cast splashes of colour across his body. Her own hands, when she opened them on her lap, were daubed with red light. The warmth of the sun fell on them, like blood. Thomas prayed so long that she thought he was asleep. She crept into the aisle and began to inch towards him. Then he started to sway as he brought his hands up, clasped, to his chest. With his eyes still closed, he wore a rapturous expression.
She had seen that look once before, in the forest, when he appeared to go into a trance. The same intense light appeared on his features, while he squatted like a child in the foul-smelling detritus of the forest floor, a butterfly ensnared by tweezers in one hand, his magnifying glass in the other.
Sophie wasn’t at all surprised in church that day when he pulled his hands apart. A small red butterfly flew out from his fingers and ascended to the ceiling of the church.