Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

Richmond, England, May 1904

Nothing in the letter suggests to Sophie that her husband will arrive home a different man. It is a strange, unfinished kind of a letter, written four months earlier and somehow delayed in its journey to her. She hasn’t heard from Thomas for some time, but she has forced herself not to worry, and, after all, she knows from his agent, Mr. Ridewell, that he is at least safe, if not happy. The letter comes on the very same day she receives an unexpected note from Ridewell 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 recognize 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 mustache, 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 fantasized 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 toward 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.

“Mrs. Edgar.”

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.”