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Books by David Liss

The Twelfth Enchantment: Excerpt

The house was astir with activity, which was something most unusual, for its owner, Mr. Richard Lowell, preferred his home to remain a very dour and torpid place. Accordingly, what transpired was activity without delight— that of a graveyard in which the sexton erects a particularly large or novel tombstone. Metaphors of this sort came easily to Miss Lucy Derrick, on whose behalf this commotion centered, for it was her intended husband whom the house prepared to receive. Lucy had no wish to entertain that gentleman. None at all. It was not that Lucy did not wish to marry Mr. Olson, for she had no doubt that marrying him was the most practical thing to do. Nevertheless, she would very much rather avoid the necessity of making conversation with him.

Marriage, as Lucy understood it, involved only infrequent dialogue upon the most essential of subjects, but today her role would be to think of all sorts of engaging things to say, which would not be easy, for Mr. Olson was no great talker. She had not yet discovered how to hold his interest, for their previous exchanges had been at gatherings and assemblies, where dancing or the consumption of punch could stand in for anything resembling an actual exchange of ideas and sentiments.

Mr. Olson’s social charms, such as they were, had no bearing on her decision to marry him. More than anything else, Lucy wished to be free of her uncle’s house on Pepper Street— near, if not exactly in, the most desirable neighborhoods of Nottingham. She wanted sufficient money that she could feed and clothe herself without reminders of the burden presented by these encumbrances. She wanted to be free of prying and critical eyes, free of the perpetual fear of making an error for which she would be punished like a child. She wanted to feel as though her life were her own, that it was a life in which she belonged, in which she had choices, purpose, even some pleasure.

There had been a time when Lucy had hoped for the things all young ladies desire. She had been the sort of girl— which is to say a very ordinary sort of girl of the middle ranks, though perhaps more that sort of girl than most— who took it upon faith that she was destined for a great and adventurous love. She had two older sisters, and surely at least one of them would marry with the family’s security in mind. Their practical unions would free Lucy to follow her heart, and she had longed to do just that.

Lucy no longer believed herself destined for anything in particular. Her life had come to feel alien, as though her soul itself were not hers, but a copy so clever in its construction that it very nearly deceived her own body. She had been thrust into a strange existence, and her real life had been lost in the misty past, like a favorite childhood toy whose features she could not recall even while her longing for it remained painful and vivid.

____

In preparation for Mr. Olson’s arrival, Lucy thought it advisable to make herself as presentable as her limited circumstances would permit, so she had no choice but to depend upon her uncle’s serving woman for aid. Mrs. Quince was near forty, and once handsome herself, but was now faded in both beauty and color. In the three years since Lucy had traveled the near two hundred miles from Kent to Nottingham, she’d seen Mrs. Quince’s hair turn from bright orange to the dull russet of an overripe peach. Her complexion, previously creamy in its pallor, had turned the befreckled sallow of old linen. Lucy did not take actual pleasure in watching the woman’s last charms vanish, but she did experience a sort of grim satisfaction. The only advantage she had over Mrs. Quince, over anyone, was her youth.

Lucy owned little enough that was presentable, and what she had was purchased of her small annuity, resentfully provided by her sister’s husband. Today she wore her best afternoon frock with a bodice en coeur, pale blue with white filigree— charming if one but overlooked the fact that it was suited to fashions popular three or four years past. This was Nottingham, however, and Mr. Olson would be disinclined to notice even if she presented herself in a costume of the second Charles’s reign. Or the first’s. Lucy doubted he would notice much at all, despite her looking quite well that afternoon. She was of slightly below- average stature, somewhat dark of complexion, and, if no striking beauty, she was, in the view of most men, certainly pretty with her long nose, arched brows over large eyes, and moderately, if not excessively, full lips. Mrs. Quince, who was very tall and slender, often called Lucy fat, but Lucy considered herself— in contrast to Mrs. Quince— to be shaped like a woman rather than, let us say, a boy.

It was no comfortable thing to put her appearance in such ungenerous hands, but Lucy thought it wisest to submit herself to the older woman’s grim ministrations. Mrs. Quince had ever been solicitous of Mr. Olson’s connection with Lucy, and had shown cheerless satisfaction with the proposal. Now she helped arrange Lucy’s hair, pulling on it, Lucy suspected, harder than necessary. Still, she was dexterous at such matters, and Mrs. Quince arranged her charge’s hair— just shy of black in its darkness— so that it appeared contained, and yet a few strands wantonly escaped from her bonnet to frame Lucy’s round face. When she was finished, Mrs. Quince paraded her before her sepia- toned mirror, and Lucy flattered herself that Mr. Olson would be getting no frump for his pains. Perhaps if he would flirt, she might like him better.

Mrs. Quince made one last adjustment. “I’ve done what I can,” she said. “Your hair is almost negro in its coarseness, and it clings to your head as though wetted by the rain.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Quince,” Lucy said in a fair approximation of gratitude.

“Thank you, Mrs. Quince,” she repeated, imitating Lucy’s slightly nasal voice. “You might attempt to be polite given that I am making an effort to present you to the world as something respectable.” This she punctuated with a derisive snort.

When she was sixteen, Lucy had briefly run off with a gentleman nearly ten years her senior, but the scheme had been disrupted soon after their departure. Lucy marked this moment as the end of her childhood, the end of her happiness, for during her brief absence, Emily, her beloved elder sister, died from a sudden illness. A year later, Lucy’s father died, and then Martha, the middle sister, entered into an unhappy marriage. One disaster after another, leaving the fabric of Lucy’s life an unrecognizable tangle of thread, and all beginning with her own act of foolish defiance.

Then and now, Lucy could not help but wonder what role her elopement had played in the unmaking of her family. Had she not been so reckless as to run off with Jonas Morrison, would Emily have fallen so suddenly and devastatingly ill? Would her dear sister Emily today be alive? Would her father have died if Emily yet lived? Would Martha have still married their cousin, that horrid clergyman Mr. Buckles? Lucy had sacrificed more hours to merciless speculation upon this subject than could be reckoned. Four years earlier, Lucy had nearly run off with a man, and that remained the most significant thing that could be said about her.

She had believed she truly loved Jonas Morrison, the young gentleman who had once enchanted her, but he had now become the worst of men in her mind. Jonas Morrison, with his easy conversation and his good humor and wit, with his endless card tricks and parlor illusions— pulling brightly colored scarves out of seemingly empty cups or making coins vanish, only to reappear across the room. He had seemed to Lucy the most delightful of men, but his charm had all been a trick, like one of his clever artifices, an act of sleight of hand and misdirection. He was a monster who had encouraged a youthful Lucy to believe his wanton urgings were right and just and dignified, and all these years later, the mere thought of him set her to clenching her teeth and muttering under her breath. All of Lucy’s life had been a game then, with her fi ne home, and many friends, and loving sisters, and her distantly protective father. She’d been safe and free to indulge her fancies and think nothing at all of consequences. Perhaps she had not truly believed in consequences at all.

She believed in them now. The exposure of her scheme had taught her all about consequences and humiliation and regret though, thankfully, not full-fledged scandal. She had been spared that at least, for while word of running off with Mr. Morrison soon became general knowledge, so too did the fact that Lucy was safely brought home without having given up her virtue. She may have been widely regarded as a foolish, impulsive girl, but at least she was not thought a whore. Perhaps her actions would have had more damaging consequences at the time had her family not been torn asunder by her sister’s death, and so the wagging tongues of gossips made little impression upon Lucy or her father at the time. But Mrs. Quince would not permit her to forget what she had done. Early on, she had divined Lucy’s antipathy to the name Jonas Morrison, and so she loved to use it freely. When Mr. Olson had begun to show an interest in Lucy, Mrs. Quince delighted in comparing him to the great Jonas Morrison. The teasing had abated somewhat once it became clear that Mr. Olson’s attentions were serious, for she wanted Lucy gone from the house as much as Lucy wished to depart.

Mrs. Quince now adjusted Lucy’s posture in the mirror and took a step back and examined what she saw, placing a finger to the corner of her mouth in a pose of thoughtful scrutiny. “I feared you would look the whore, as can often happen in these cases. Happily, I was, in the main, mistaken.”

____

Being the sort of man who held punctuality as a cardinal virtue, Mr. Olson arrived at the appointed hour and, upon entering the parlor, bowed stiffly to Lucy. He then turned to Mrs. Quince, as if to say something, and then decided against it. He could make no sense of Mrs. Quince’s standing within the household and so found it convenient to ignore her entirely. During this awkward moment, his eyes lingered for a second or two on Lucy, particularly, she believed, in the area of her neckline. Once he had taken note of her, his eyes did not return to take pleasure in what must soon be his. There was little to be gained in reevaluating merchandise whose quality he had already established.

Like his manners, his dress was plain and without affect. He wore a brown jacket of a somewhat antiquated cut, though he showed his fashion sense by wearing trousers rather than breeches, and a fi ne blue ascot hung clumsily round his neck. His limp brown hair hung slightly long and had been brushed forward in the front, as was the fashion. There was something intense in his sunken eyes that some women found arresting, but Lucy was inclined to find unnerving.

Upon invitation, Mr. Olson sat down in a chair across from her, his posture exceedingly upright. Lucy found her attention to be unusually sharp. It was as though she were seeing Mr. Olson clearly for the very first time. His rigid manner, his mechanical gait, his hooded, appraising gaze, and— at five- and- thirty— his extreme age. There was a faint, and not entirely unpleasant, scent of sawdust and tobacco about him. She had many times told herself that being married to him would not be so very bad, but though she recalled believing this, she could not take hold of the belief now.

To distract herself, Lucy did her best to make amiable conversation. She inquired how he did, and Mr. Olson assured her that he did well. She asked how the work at his mill proceeded, and so discovered that it proceeded apace. She asked after the health of his mother, and he reminded Lucy that his mother had been dead for several years. Perhaps, he speculated, she thought of his Aunt Olson. Lucy, who had not been aware that Mr. Olson had an aunt, conceded that he was quite right.

Theirs had been a cool courtship, with more awkward silences than bright exchanges, so it was perhaps unsurprising that there was so little to discuss now. They had traded a few stiff words and danced at various social events about town over the preceding year. After asking her to dance three times at the assembly last month, Mr. Olson had contacted Lucy’s Uncle Lowell and proposed the marriage to him. Uncle Lowell accepted on her behalf, and, in turn, passed the intelligence along to Mrs. Quince, who related to Lucy the happy news. So it was that without ever having been asked, or having accepted, Lucy was now engaged to marry a man to whom she had little to say. It was therefore much to Lucy’s relief when Uncle Lowell made his entrance into the room, and in her current mood, the irony of these feelings were not lost on her. What wisdom could there be in marrying a man whose conversation was so awkward that the arrival of her uncle must be regarded as an improvement?

Uncle Lowell was a relation by marriage, not blood— the widower of Lucy’s mother’s sister— and demonstrated perhaps more than the inevitable resentment toward an orphaned niece come to live with him. In his middle fifties, Uncle Lowell was a lean man, tall with an unyielding posture. He had some, though by no means much, of his hair, and that which remained was very white and cut short so that it rose up in a comical way at odds with his dour affect. The long, bulbous shape of his nose made his dark eyes appear deeper than their already considerable natural depth. His suit was of the same brown color as Mr. Olson’s, but of a more antiquated cut, with breeches and stockings, and its heavy material gave the impression that any jostling might well liberate a voluminous cloud of dust. Lucy thought that if one but disregarded his quintessentially English attire, her uncle looked remarkably like a picture of a mummified corpse from the Americas she had seen drawn in one of the monthly magazines.

“Yes, yes, you are come, Olson. I’ve kept you waiting, but what of it?” Uncle Lowell demanded, daring Mr. Olson to object. “These affairs of mine could not be put off. A man of business like you will understand.”

What these pressing affairs could be Lucy could not guess, for her uncle had been long disengaged from all serious business. If there was one thing Uncle Lowell prized above money it was quiet, and so having made a fi ne fortune in the Levant trade, he had retired ten years earlier to his ancestral home in Nottingham. The house on Pepper Street was then in a state of disrepair, the Lowell family having not the means it once possessed. Mr. Lowell had altered the family means, but not the family home, and the building remained much decayed from neglect. The very room they sat in testified to that with its uncomfortable chairs, its scratched tables, its dusty, faded pictures, and a Turkey rug so stained, torn, and bleached with sun and age that the original pattern could scarce be divined.

Mr. Olson rose to take Uncle Lowell’s hand with the brave determination of a schoolboy who knows his master’s critical eye is upon him. “A pleasure, sir,” said Mr. Olson, who appeared to derive no pleasure at all.

“The pleasure is mine,” said Uncle Lowell, whose puckered mouth suggested that he derived even less.

“You know Quince, my woman,” he continued, with a blunt jab of his middle finger. “She is my niece’s companion, and will act here in the capacity of my late brother’s wife.”

Her mother had died when Lucy was little more than an infant, and she remembered nothing of her, but she nevertheless resented the comparison. Whatever her mother had been like, she had surely borne no similarity to Mrs. Quince.

Once they were all seated, Mrs. Quince wasted no time in cutting to the heart of the matter. “Mr. Olson, have you discussed with Lucy a date for your wedding?” This was a disingenuous question, as she knew he had not raised the question at all. He had not so much as sent Lucy a note expressing joy at their upcoming union. “I cannot but think the sooner a date is set, the greater will be your happiness,” Mrs. Quince added.

Mr. Olson turned to the serving woman as though the effort strained his neck, but then addressed his answer to Uncle Lowell. “It is not convenient to set a date. The establishment of my mill consumes my time. The machines are new and the workers unaccustomed to their use.”

“Quite right,” said Uncle Lowell. “A man who does not put his business first is a buffoon. And yet,” added he who so wished his niece gone from his home, “I wonder if your efforts would not be aided by the acquisition of a wife to manage your household. You might then freely fi x your mind upon matters of business.”

“You and I think very much alike,” said Mr. Olson. “I should be surprised to find you had considered an option that had eluded me entirely. I conclude the disadvantages of the scheme you suggest most certainly outweigh the benefits. A new wife must bring with her demands and distractions and difficulties to be resolved.”

“Yes, yes, and I suppose you have your hands full with these”—Uncle Lowell waved his hand about the air, a gesture he often reserved for discussions of people he thought contemptible—“Luddites, as they style themselves. You must worry that they will set themselves against your mill.”

“The Luddites are malcontents and brutes,” said Mr. Olson, who now smiled for the first time since his arrival. “They are like children who complain a game is unfair because they have lost. I make twenty pieces of hose at a labor cost that would previously have produced but one, but they say that I take away their employment. It is their own fault for not being so efficient as I.”

Lucy knew of these debates. Everyone in Nottingham did, for Nottinghamshire was the heart of this uprising of laboring men who set out to destroy the machines that had deprived them of their work and, as a result, beggared them. Now the army was in town to stop the Luddites, but everyone said there had been no abatement in the destruction. Not a week went by without a hosiery mill burned or fired upon or broken open and its machinery smashed.

Lucy’s father had always been against these mills, had spoken of them as a curse upon both nature and labor. Once she had stood with him looking upon a pottery mill not far from their home, and he had shaken his head with disgust. “Behold one possible future, Lucy, and a terrible one. These mills strip their laborers of their humanity, and soon enough they may strip it from the rest of us.” Lucy felt herself inclined to side with her late father over her future husband. Indeed, the growing poverty in the county over the past few years only made her more inclined to sympathize with the Luddites. Their wild rhetoric— with talk of their fictional General Ludd— and certainly their violent acts disquieted her, but given the shortages of food that had struck Nottingham, the weakened trade caused by the ongoing war with France, and the general decline in opportunities to earn wages, perhaps wild rhetoric was appropriate.

Though used to keeping such opinions to herself, Lucy now thought she ought to voice what had been her father’s opinions in these matters. “But men lose their livelihood to machines like yours, and the wages you pay can hardly support a family. It is what I read in the newspaper.” Both the man who currently paid her way in the world, as well as the one who proposed to take upon himself that responsibility, stared at her. In response to this silence, Lucy pressed on, affecting a light cheer in her voice. “Do not their grievances have some merit?”

Mr. Olson cleared his throat, perhaps to signal that he would bear the burden of addressing this question, but then paused for many agonizing seconds. At last, after indulging in a leisurely gaze upon his intended bride with an expression of something like surprise, or perhaps with a pinch of distaste, he offered his response to her inquiry. “It is a silly question.”

All her life she had been dismissed as foolish. Emily had ever been the clever one, and Martha the bookish. She, the youngest, was but a silly girl, and her great mistake when she was sixteen had only confirmed to the world that she was an empty- headed thing, incapable of making sound decisions. Perhaps she had been silly once, but are not all children? She was now twenty years of age and did not like for her opinion to be of so little account.

“I find it distressing,” said Uncle Lowell, “that you sympathize with these layabouts over your future husband. Let them open their own mills if they like. Mr. Olson cannot refuse to profit because doing so might cost another man his income.”

Mr. Olson turned to Lucy, his expression an awkward attempt at softness. “I am certain Miss Derrick is only showing the goodness of spirit for which we hold her sex in such esteem. It is, however, my belief that one comment such as hers, while charming, is sufficient. Such a refrain soon becomes shrill.”

“Just so,” said Uncle Lowell. “My late wife always stayed away from my affairs. Lucy, I trust you will do the same.”

Lucy knew her part. It ought to have been the easiest thing in the world for her to say that of course they were correct, that she could not hope to understand the complexities of Mr. Olson’s business. In truth she did not, and though she felt compassion for the men she daily saw in want of food, she did not believe she comprehended either the cause or the solution to the changes that affected the hosiery trade. Yet that she was now being asked to rebuke herself, to promise never again to offer an opinion, infuriated her.

The heavy silence dragged on while the clock ticked and Uncle Lowell attempted to clear something from his throat and Mrs. Quince shot daggers from her eyes.

Lucy was saved from having to speak further by a violent pounding upon the door and the muffled sound of shouting from without. This noise continued for some time, for, other than Mrs. Quince and the cook, Uncle Lowell employed a single servant, the same he had employed for near forty years. This was a stooped old fellow called Ungston who was distressingly slow in his movement, owing to arthritic joints. Lucy, who had grown accustomed to the sounds of the house, noted the distinctive shuffling noise as the aged serving man approached the front door.

“Rather a ruckus,” said Uncle Lowell.

It seemed to Lucy someone ought to have gone to help the old man, but all remained seated, with ears cocked, better to hear whatever there was to be heard—which consisted of Ungston muttering while he unbolted the lock and then the creak of the heavy door.

After that came more shouting, which encouraged them to rise.

“Lucy Derrick!” an unknown man called. His voice was hoarse and ragged, but frighteningly powerful, and yet shrill, like a dog’s howl. “I will speak to Lucy Derrick!”

The voice sent through Lucy a wave of confusion and guilt. She must have done something to cause a man to come to her uncle’s home and cry out her name, but she could not think what that might have been nor to whom she might have done it. Like any young lady, she indulged in mild flirtations, and she enjoyed dancing at the monthly assemblies, but she had made no secretive connections. No one made love to her with serious intent, and she had neither teased nor spurned any man since her arrival in Nottinghamshire. She might be a gentleman’s daughter with some personal charms, but her situation made her an uncertain match.

“What is this?” Her uncle pushed himself up from his chair. His was the sharp tone of a man who suddenly realized he had been cheated. As the burden of his niece was about to be lifted, here came some unexpected trouble to ruin the enterprise. His scalp turned red, and the fringes of his hair appeared to puff out, as a cat’s fur when the creature is agitated.

Lucy did not trust herself to speak, fearing her confusion must be mistaken for culpability, so she only shook her head.

“Stay here,” said Mr. Olson. He no doubt believed there was some other love come to claim his prize, and it would serve him right for his coolness, Lucy thought. Once Mr. Olson had left the room, with Uncle Lowell close behind him, Lucy managed to get to her feet.

“What have you done?” said Mrs. Quince in a low and dangerous voice. She gripped Lucy hard by the wrist and did not let go, though she did no more. On occasion Mrs. Quince would pinch or kick, and once she had even scalded Lucy with hot water, which had left a pale scar on the back of her hand. But Lucy’s engagement to Mr. Olson had changed all that. The balance of power had begun to shift, and Mrs. Quince had been content to abuse Lucy when she was powerless, but it was another thing to take liberties with a young lady on the verge of independence. Still, she gripped hard and made no sign of letting go. “Is this some new Jonas Morrison with whom you play the whore?”

Lucy tried to pull away, but Mrs. Quince would not let go. “I’ve done nothing. I have no notion of who it is. But I wish to see.”

Perhaps Mrs. Quince also wished to see, for she shoved Lucy before her and followed her to the front of the house.

As they approached the door, Lucy saw the intruder standing upon the steps. He no longer cried out, but he spoke loudly and with a great deal of animation. Out in the narrow street, a small gathering of pedestrians, and a single cart man, paused to observe the confusion.

The man on the steps was startling handsome, possessed of an almost feminine beauty. His face was sculpted and even and flawless beneath a wild tangle of black hair. His eyes were wide and dark and moist, even as they appeared red- rimmed and slightly crazed. He wore fashionable clothes— the close- cut jacket, a once- white shirt open at the collar, and buff trousers that were now all the fashion in London. These looked expertly tailored, but they were tattered below the knees and filthy. When she approached as near as she dared, Lucy saw that the man’s boots were torn open upon their soles, and one of his feet appeared oversized and misshapen.

“I must speak to her,” he said. “The leaves are scattered, and I must speak to her.”

Lucy started, as though she’d stumbled into an invisible wall. Scattered leaves? It was as though she’d heard these words before, but she could not remember when, like something she’d dreamed, but long ago, lost in both confusion and time.

“Who are you?” demanded Mr. Olson. “You’ll speak to no one without telling me your name and your business, and perhaps not even then.” His tone was angry but also restrained. Something about the stranger suggested that he was not appearing at his best, and that a certain deference was advised.

“I must speak—” The stranger paused and looked up, meeting Lucy’s eye. Something shifted and softened in his gaze. His eyes went wide, and his posture shifted. He took a deep breath and, for an instant so brief she might have missed it, he smiled, wide and brilliant. “You,” he said. “Are you the lady I seek? Are you Lucy Derrick?”

Lucy found she could not speak, but she managed a slow nod.

The stranger lowered his head for a moment and then looked again at Lucy. “I’ve been sent . . . been made to tell you, that you . . . you must not marry him. You must gather the leaves, but you must not marry him!” He arched his back, threw his head toward the sky, and took a step backwards, missing the step and falling upon his side to the street. With his head down, as if in a posture of religious subjugation, he raised one hand and pointed at Mr. Olson.

Lucy turned away, which was very well, for she heard the ranting man begin to retch like a drunkard, and she took a step back in disgust. She might have retreated into the house entirely, afraid of she knew not what except that this— all of this— was about her. Somehow it was about her, and Lucy felt shame and humiliation afresh. She wanted only to run away, but she then heard gasps, then a woman shrieked, and Mr. Olson cried out in surprise. “It cannot be!” he said in a hushed voice. Upon the street one of the gathered crowd— a woman— called to Jesus to save her.

Unable to contain her curiosity, Lucy crept forward. Peering out into the street, she saw the man bent over, upon all fours like a dog. This strange and disordered and beautiful man was upon the ground. His body convulsed, undulating like a wave, and then he vomited again, emitting a long string of shining, nearly dry, silver pins. They fell from his mouth in a slow and steady stream, tinkling a thin music as they fell upon the steps.

When he looked up, the man locked his eyes with Lucy’s, his expression full of yearning and a desperation so deep that tears came to her eyes. Somehow this astonishing man, this impossible event was about poor, penniless, friendless Lucy Derrick. She wanted to ask him how, to make him explain himself so she and the world would understand, but she could make herself say nothing. Then it was too late, for he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and fell over, utterly insensible to the world.

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2014 © David Liss