On Growing Ferns and Other Plants in Glass Cases, in the Midst of the Smoke of London
Sometimes, during the night, she wakes to a presence, a creature sliding through the darkness, watching, waiting to descend. She doesn’t dare to look; to move even slightly is to risk waking the child, and it’s for him she knows the ghost has come. There is nothing she can do but remain in utter stillness, beside the boy, so close that she can feel his exhalations on her cheek.
Watching, as his blankets softly rise and fall, and the shadows stir around them, and the dim light plays against the pale blue paper on the wall.
She can hear it then, the boy’s breath quickening as the ghost draws closer. Very faintly, from deep within his chest, the tickling of a wheeze. Just a whisper, but she has become a great student of his breathing, an expert. She knows, then, what is coming. The boy so peaceful now, and yet in seconds, the ghost will be upon him, he will lurch awake, tearing at his sheets, his chest heaving as he throws his covers from the bed. Desperately, she will try to calm him, but to no avail. She will pray: that this attack won’t be the final one, that it will pass as all the others, that the earth will continue on its turning, bringing spring and warmth, the end of winter burning, and perhaps, if fortune smiles, their escape.
A patterning of raindrops at the window . . . a shift in the room’s currents . . . and the wraith halts in its descent. Now, from above, she senses a retreat, the dark smoke whisking back in viscous eddies. Inches away, William’s breath slows again and softens. The wheezing vanishes. For a moment—another hour, perhaps the night—danger has passed.
The attacks—paroxysms, the doctors would call them, though there was no mistaking the focused violence of the assaults—had begun the previous winter, when the boy was six. For half as many years, since her husband’s accident and death, they had been living with her sister, Katherine, in Finsbury, in the spare room on the third floor. Elizabeth had not intended to remain with them so long. Her sister had a family, a husband with a growing reputation, and—now that their two sons were away at school—a social life requiring careful cultivation. And yet where was she to go? Beyond some distant relations in Herefordshire, Katherine was her family. And even if Katherine were concerned solely with others’ opinions, it would have been quite indelicate for her to cast her sister out.
Of course, no one had spoken of reputation; these were Elizabeth’s worries, and ones that plagued her mostly in the moments of her doubt. In fact, Katherine had welcomed her with warmth, and Charles, who himself had grown up without a father, treated William with—if not the attention he had given his own children—affection nonetheless. This wasn’t difficult. William was an easy child: thoughtful, quiet, compliant in his studies, with a beguiling deference, as if he had never outgrown the sense of having just arrived in that new, unfamiliar house. As each morning Charles departed early for the firm, the sisters took breakfast together, while the boy ate at a second, smaller table a few feet away. This was followed by an hour of bathing and dressing, and another reviewing his lessons before the arrival of his tutor. In the afternoon, after the man’s departure, William would clamber into his mother’s lap and recount that day’s Latin or mathematics. She had little interest in either, but it didn’t matter, for she was happy just to look at him, so much like her husband, with Edward’s mop of flax-brown hair, and Edward’s arching, impish eyebrows, and a long, sloping neck that gave his high, stiff collar a dandyish air. And they would read together, or play a game of chess or draughts, or head out into the city, in errand or exploration. Which was where, that December morning, three days before the turn of the year, the problems began.
Later, questioned by the doctors, she would wonder if the illness hadn’t started earlier. Certainly, she had heard him wheezing, coughing. Certainly, there were times when, hurtling up the staircase, he’d grown short of breath. But this was London, after all, and at the peak of Industry. Everywhere were forges and manufactories, tanyards, dyers, iron foundries, glassworks, breweries with their plumes of dark, thick smoke. Once, looking over her shoulder at an illustration of Mount Etna, William, age four then, had pointed at the volcanic vents and shouted, “The Docklands!” Who didn’t cough and wheeze? Alone, discreetly spitting into her handkerchief, she found it specked with grit, and there were days, if the potash kilns were burning, that tears ran down her cheeks. Morwenna, the housemaid, often disappeared to distant rooms to hide her fits of hacking. At the butcher’s, in the piles of pink sheep pluck, the lungs of city animals were ashen black and half the price.
Had she noticed? the doctors asked. Yes, but in the way she noticed everything about her son. The way he twisted his fingers around one another when he was thinking. The way, when he thought she wasn’t looking, he skipped the page in Robinson Crusoe with the engraving of the savages. The way, still, in haste, he sometimes put the left shoe on the right. So: yes, a cough at times, at times shortness of breath. But this was true for all of them; no, she never believed him to be sick.
December, then, the city sodden with Christmas toddy, hearth fires lolling the ash of sea coal into the Thames fog, the sugar mills reburning. That day, they had been up near Clerkenwell, on an errand, when, passing through the dark exhalations of a forge, William, bundled deep in coat and scarf, began to wheeze. It was an inhuman sound; for an instant, she mistook it for the hissing of a steam valve. But then she turned to see him doubled over, hands on his knees, chest heaving.
She fell to him, skirts pooling across the cobbles.
Another whinny, this equine, and bearing down beneath a whip. She swept her son up and carried him out of the black cloud and through the nearest door, into a tavern, where for the next half hour, beneath a lurid painting of gambling monkeys in cuffs and pirate hats, William slowly, very slowly, regained his breath.
And at last he was well, laughing at the monkeys, one of whom, she realized with a start, was rustling a free hand up the frilled skirts of a monkey wench. Time to go! But at the door she paused, gauging the sifting soot that drifted past the window. And if it happened again? she wondered. She didn’t note it then, but that moment marked a beginning. Of a new vigilance, a division of the world, into places where William could breathe and those he couldn’t.
But how else were they to get back home? She took her shawl and wrapped his head so that only his eyes were visible. He watched her, puzzled. “Because of the smoke,” she whispered, as if it could hear her, too.
The second attack came two weeks later, on Ludgate Hill, in the gray pall sliding from the ranks of terrace chimneys. The third, the following morning, when he leapt over a shattered hogshead in the street outside their house. Both short, mercifully so, the shock of the first onslaught now replaced by a gnawing recognition of a new, tenacious presence in their lives. Still, she said nothing about it to Katherine or Charles. She would not worry them, she told herself. It was a passing cold, an inflammation, perhaps a mild asthma he would outgrow. For as long as she recalled, her father, stout and hearty, had regularly suffered a late summer tightness that he spoke of almost amiably as his “little ’heeze.”
There was another shadow to this thought, she knew, which was that she couldn’t trouble Katherine or Charles. That when they had taken her in, it was with the understanding that she would not bring complications. That her mourning would never pass into hysterics. That the boy, pattering gaily down the stairs, reciting Virgil, would remain a gift, and not a burden, someone who brought joy into their home.
And then the fourth attack, in Bloomsbury, where, on the occasion of William’s seventh birthday, the four of them had made a celebratory excursion to the Museum.
They were in the Egyptian hall when it happened. All morning, as they got ready, she had sensed a slight whistle to his breath, but the air was particularly foul that day, an oily coal smoke, dull as aspic, which sifted through the antique glazing of the windows and left a scrim upon the sills. Her own eyes burned as they walked through an amber haze, even Katherine was coughing, and by the time they reached the Museum, all of them were complaining of a soreness in their throats. But the galleries had brought relief, and they were progressing toward the mummies when William, unable to restrain himself, had bolted forward eagerly, only to draw up short as if someone had punched him in the chest. Instantly, Elizabeth was at his side, but when she touched him, he pushed her hand away. Palms braced against his knees. Shoulders rigid, eyes wide, nostrils flared. Even in the dim hall, the cold air, she could see drops of perspiration beading on his forehead, a gathering pallor to his skin.
By then, Katherine and Charles had reached her side. “William? Elizabeth, what’s happening?” But the answer was there before them, sucking at the air, chin jutting like the horrid rictus of a gargoyle, the muscles in his neck pulled taut.
The attack lasted nearly two hours. They moved him from the center of the room and to a bench. A crowd gathered; a doctor was summoned—or promised, for none came. From time to time, a helpful citizen urged the curious to “give the boy some space.” But to Elizabeth, all this was happening as if at a distance. It seemed as though William was so intent on breathing that he was unaware of anything around him, and she was unaware of anything but him. His belly bellowed with every heaving, and when at last the ghost released him from its coils, he gave a cry and crumpled into her lap.
It was dusk when they found themselves outside. There, the smell of heating coal sent her heart into another flurry, yet, thankfully, her son, asleep against her shoulder, didn’t stir.
In a carriage on the way home, the three adults were silent. “We must send for a doctor,” Katherine said at last, but Elizabeth protested. They didn’t need a doctor. It was just the air, she said.
“It’s not the air,” said Katherine. “I breathe the air. There’s something wrong with him.”
Memories now of Edward broken by the calomel purges, retching, pleading for his doctor to stop.
But Charles agreed with Katherine. And he had acquaintances in the Scientific Club: learned, experienced men who would know how to help.
There would be three of them, three learned, experienced men: Watts of Hyde Park, and Moss of Harley Street, and Underwood of the Magdalen Hospital, an expert in diseases of women and childbirth, author of a popular book on physical culture and the raising of boys. One after the other, they climbed the stairs to the nursery, drew out their long stethoscopes from their traveling bags, listened, tapped, prodded, prescribed. The attacks, the fits of wheezing, were indeed symptoms of an asthma, they all concluded, addressing Charles, though they disagreed as to whether it was acute catarrhal asthma or dry catarrhal asthma, or mucous catarrhal asthma, or humoral asthma or pure nervous asthma or symptomatic nervous asthma, or just suffocative catarrh. And then the other possibilities they murmured in lower voices, these words long and Latinate, more like the scientific names for sea creatures than any disease Elizabeth had heard of. But nothing to worry about, not yet.
Three doctors! The thought of one had frightened her enough; had she known there would be three, she never would have consented. But their prescriptions, however different, all had the same effect: they only worsened William’s breathing. The niter prescribed by Watts sent her son into fierce fits of coughing, as did the tobacco, the lobelia, the squills. Moss, in turn, dictated increasing doses of laudanum; when she told him, quietly, eyes lowered, that it had reduced her child to a state of confused, hallucinating languor, he thundered at her that she must rather have him dead. Underwood had nodded sagely when she told him of the others’ failings. Of course: cure must be heroic; they hadn’t done enough! The spasmodic constriction was dependent on an existing irritation of the mucous membrane of the air passages—this must be reckoned with, and forcefully. But she refused his recommendation of a bleeding. And it was only after another attack in late January that she consented to a “mild blistering,” restraining William with a sickening sense of complicity as the doctor ground a single azure fly into a gleaming powder and applied it to excoriations on the boy’s bare chest. This did nothing but throw her son into a frenzy. Eyes wide and accusatory, screaming, Mama, stop him, unsure whether he should fight her or seek the shelter of her embrace.
There would be no more doctors, she told herself after this. The first two were proof enough of Medicine’s uselessness; to believe that a third, a fourth, could cure him was lunacy. But Charles—good, kind Charles—persisted. For God, in constructing the world, had not done so with whimsy. In his twelve years as an engineer, Charles had seen nothing less than the forces of nature reduced down to their most basic forms. Monthly, at the meetings of the Club, he listened as mysteries were unraveled: light dissected into her spectra, electricity spawned by the movements of magnets. In comparison, asthma was nothing. Gravity had been conquered; balloons streamed skyward from the fields of Vauxhall. Lyell had explained the shifting of the continents. Herschel had made a map of Mars.
She couldn’t disagree, of course. Charles was the man who let her son stand on a chair and peer into his microscope, who only chuckled when William was discovered to have added his own illustrations to a volume of Britannica, right on the very plates. She couldn’t disagree: she’d seen what happened when Katherine attempted. How kindly and patient he could be! But it was like arguing with Reason itself.
Yet it was more than just Charles’s authority that secured her acquiescence. William’s illness, she understood, had begun to alter the unspoken terms of their charity. Her gift to them had revealed itself as something broken. Or worse: a threat. For already, he was transforming their home from a place of hope and optimism into one of constant fear and worry. Into a hospital. Already she sensed a reluctance in her sister to host acquaintances. And how could she, when upstairs there was a child of such fragility that any given dinner might be interrupted by a death?
And so it was that when Charles announced the visit of a fourth doctor, an expert in the lungs and auscultation with whom he’d entered into correspondence, Elizabeth said nothing, just reasserted her resolve—there would be no bleeding, no fly, no squills. She would listen, but she wouldn’t let anyone hurt her son.
The new doctor’s name was Forbes. From her window, Elizabeth watched, fist tightening around the curtains, as the carriage pulled up outside their gate that day in early February, and three men in black descended from the cab.
They met in the parlor, a room of fading green wallpaper and green silk-upholstered furniture, where a dim light filtered through the sooted glass. The doctor was removing his gloves as she entered. He was flanked by his two apprentices, young men trussed soberly in sable stock ties, still silvered by the mist. Despite her instinctive antipathy to any man of Medicine, to her surprise she sensed her vigilance yield instantly with this new one. He was tall and older, with Grecian, windswept hair and a calm and quiet to his movements, and she was struck to find herself registering how handsome he was, with concerned blue eyes that studied her as if she were a person of importance. Then Charles directed her to her seat, and Katherine took William to an alcove on the far side of the room.
In contrast to Watts and Moss and Underwood, Forbes had many questions—endless questions, really. He wanted to know about the circumstances of each attack, the presence of similar afflictions in her family and that of her deceased husband, all remedies attempted and their effects. At first, she was succinct in her answers. She worried that she was boring him. For all her love for William, she could not help wondering why this man, this expert, would devote himself so entirely to her son. There was the fee, of course, and the advantages to be gained from curing the nephew of a man like Charles Nash, just as there was—she apprehended as the exam progressed—a particular antipathy to Dr. Underwood. But it was more than this, for as the visit continued, she realized that Forbes already knew much of the story from Charles, and that he had been enticed there less by fee or fame than by the challenge of a particularly severe case. As if her boy were a specimen, offered up by Charles as currency in the great scientific exchanges. Like a rare fossil or the newest galvanic device.
For a moment, this thought broke her reverie, and Elizabeth looked away. Across the room, out of earshot, William was peering at a heavy volume, his hair falling into his eyes, his tie and jacket painting the very image of the scholar at work. How could anyone suggest he was anything but healthy? But now a new appreciation of the gravity of his condition was dawning. There was no doctor after Forbes, she knew. It was—to use the phrase—the very end. The end, and yet this word now appeared to her not with its usual sense of hopelessness, but rather: destination, even destiny. This man would care for him, for her, for them. As if, with his attentive questions, he was gathering up her fears and sadness and making them his own.
At last, it was time for the examination, and William was called to them, asked to undress before a lantern. He was shaking; he, too, recalled the blistering. She drew him to her, stroking his hair, whispering promises that no one would hurt him, never again. She expected the doctor to scold her, but Forbes only smiled gently, without showing his teeth. When they were ready, he began with William’s eyes and nose and mouth, his skin and hair, his nails, pausing only to note faint areas of rash beneath the chin and on the arms. When one of the apprentices removed the stethoscope from its bag, he passed it to his master with the air of handing a scepter to a king. Forbes took it without ceremony, without a glance. It was a wooden tube, burnished with the craftsmanship of an oboe, half the length of those of Watts and Moss and Underwood, which now seemed to have been designed to keep their patients at a distance. As Forbes listened, his head was so close to William that wisps of the doctor’s white hair brushed against the boy’s chest. It tickled. For the first time, William smiled, then let out a nervous giggle, which the doctor silenced with a touch.
The room was still. The doctor’s eyes were closed in concentration as he asked the boy to inhale and exhale, to take quick breaths and long ones, to cough, to lean forward, to lift his arms . . . Watching, Elizabeth at first could only marvel at the beauty of the child, and her heart swelled with such pride that she reflexively touched her fingers to her throat. Something so perfect couldn’t be flawed or broken. The proof was there in his slight, gently rising shoulders, in the way he looked around at everybody watching him, no longer trembling, now proud to be the object of such interest, a look of amusement on his lips. It was only as the exam proceeded that she let her eyes drift to the doctor. Inch by inch, she knew, her son’s lungs were taking form again, in Forbes’s imagination. What could he see? she wondered. She pictured clouds of exquisite carmine filigree, slowly lifting and falling. Until suddenly, across this scene, there flashed an image of sheep pluck, coal dark upon the butcher’s floor.
At last, the doctor stopped.
“You may get dressed,” he said. The boy abided, then bounded into his mother’s lap.
Instead of addressing Charles, Forbes spoke to her.
“You have been given, I think, a diagnosis.”
“My assessment is the same. I might add only that while Dr. Underwood, I believe, felt this to be catarrhal asthma, I would emphasize the component of a spinal irritation. But this is a matter only of degree. You have tried, Mr. Nash tells me, everything, save perhaps bleeding.”
He must have anticipated her protesting, because he raised a finger. “Such a course is not unexpected. There are few diseases less amenable to interference. But there is no need to expose the boy further to such torments. You may stop.”
She held William closer, needing him near. Should she send him from the room? she wondered. Or would this only further frighten him? Forbes went on. “Perhaps if he continues to decline, we can discuss a treatment. For now, I have great confidence that with the avoidance of inciting stimuli, the asthmatic child may achieve a long life, even in so severe a case. This means stimuli both chemical and nervous. The diet must be bland. He must not be frightened, must avoid pain or overexcitement. He must not laugh too much or breathe too deeply. Above all, he must keep from taking cold.”
She nodded in understanding. This was good, wasn’t it? she thought. He might achieve a long life! There was hope, then. Why did she feel as though she would cry?
Outside the high window, the far side of the street was obscured by haze. Cautiously, she asked, “And if the air itself is a stimulus?”
Forbes nodded, for this was what he was coming to. “Then he must avoid the air.”
The solution, of course, was that they must leave London, and as soon as possible. Quickly, Katherine and Charles fell into making arrangements. Charles had an aunt in Newhaven, in Sussex, by the sea. A letter was sent, an answer received. By good fortune, there was a room to spare; his aunt could use an extra hand, though Elizabeth should understand that life would be simple, without the excitements of the city. As for the boy, there were many such refugees in Newhaven who had found the sea air salubrious. The aunt asked only that Elizabeth comport herself as a widow, and not a woman who was “unattached.”
Listening to Katherine and Charles discuss her departure, Elizabeth sensed a rising enthusiasm; they wished to help, she thought, but they were also relieved to be free of William’s sickness, to return to hosting dinners, unhaunted by the wheezing child in the pale blue room above. And she, too, was relieved, by the prospect of departure, of no longer being a burden to her sister, of building a new life, a simpler life, at last.
Preparations progressed quickly. They would travel by private carriage to the Whale Inn in Southwark, where they would get the morning mail coach to Brighton, and from there proceed to Newhaven by the coast road. Charles and Katherine would come along. It would do them good to pass a week in the country, they said, though Elizabeth could not help but feel that they were escorting her out. The day arrived; they woke early; bags were hurried to the carriage. William, who had been plied with promises of seashells and shipwrecks, had dressed himself with an extra ribbon around his waist: her natty little buccaneer. He nearly tumbled down the stairs in excitement. Elizabeth wanted to restrain him, to keep him from overexertion, as Forbes had warned. But it was hard not to feel that their flight was an adventure rather than a doctor’s solemn order. As they entered the carriage, a wind was blowing from the north, clearing the skies ever so slightly, and the street glittered in the light of sunrise. How bright it all was! Columns of yellow tallow glowed in a chandler’s window, green alfalfa dusted the plum tights of the driver, and when they stopped, little boys pushed fistfuls of carnations against the glass. A smile passed between Elizabeth and Katherine. Charles hummed. They were just crossing Blackfriars Bridge, with the factories of Southwark arrayed before them, when the boy began to wheeze.
There have been complications, Charles wrote that evening to Dr. Forbes. The child is too delicate, the coal smoke too pervasive; the trip had to be suspended. Perhaps with summer and the end of winter burning, they could try again.
They were sitting in the parlor, at the same table on which the doctor had carried out his examination. Upstairs, William was sleeping, exhausted; the attack had lasted much of the morning, and they had been forced into another public house to get shelter from the soot. Dazed, Elizabeth watched as Charles folded the letter. How simple it all seemed as he described it! The child was too delicate. And yes, of course, they’d try again.
But the trip had marked a change. Not only by the violence with which the attack descended upon him in the carriage. Not only by the horror of his fishlike thrashing against the walls, the sounds of her sister screaming. Not only by the choking supplications, or the cold in William’s fingers as she grasped his hand.
Instead, the full realization would come later that night, when, at last returning to the room, pausing above the sleeping child, Elizabeth had leaned across the bed to kiss his forehead, and felt the faint thrum of his wheezing on her lips, and understood the ghost, the great constrictor, had followed them home.
Dr. Forbes’s reply was swift, affirmative, and girded with recipes, for inhaled stramonium and a tincture of poppies, to calm the boy and help him rest.
“Summer, then!” said Charles, radiating determination. And they would travel north, and make a great loop and so avoid the mills of Southwark altogether. Perhaps the warmer weather would come early that year. They might even try in May, just three months off.
And Reason had spoken, flexed its muscles. It was simple, a matter of seasons, winds. Why then did she accept Morwenna’s saucers of vinegar, the dried ear of a donkey sent from Cornwall, the spar stones the maid enclosed in a little bag around William’s wrist? For could he make it to May? Every morning, Elizabeth awoke to find someone thinner, paler. He hardly ate. In her dreams at night—the same dreams that conjured up enchanted corridors coursing through the sulfurous fog—he slurped ravenously at glistening stews. But the doctor had warned against anything rich or salted, and William pushed away the tepid clabber Morwenna delivered to their room. He moved as if his whole body were very heavy. By the time February finally turned to March, sapped by the fits at night, by the poppy tincture, he scarcely left his bed.
She read to him. One by one, she brought out all his favorites: a children’s Ovid, Crusoe, books of science and illustrated fairy tales. But how different these stories seemed now! Watching him out of the corner of her eye, she found herself wondering what he thought of them: the mocking vision of a crystal carriage, these fables of children consumed by witches, of mothers offering their firstborns to malicious goblins?
These metamorphoses. A girl transformed into a laurel tree, a crocus, a galloping heifer.
A boy into a murmuring brook.
For I saw the sea come after me as high as a great hill, and as furious as an enemy, which I had no means or strength to contend with: my business was to hold my breath, and raise myself upon the water if I could; and so, by swimming, to preserve my breathing, and pilot myself towards the shore, if possible, my greatest concern now being that the sea, as it would carry me a great way towards the shore when it came on, might not carry me back again . . .
Let us read something different, she would say to him, but by mid-month, he was sleeping much of the day. Alone then, she tried to turn her mind from the thoughts that rose up from the darkness. The blame was hers: she had done something to deserve this. Other times, she felt the needle shift and point toward him. If he didn’t get so frightened. If he ate the food Morwenna prepared him. There must be some solution, some secret he knew the answer to, some reason they had been imprisoned in their tower, in their room with its pale blue paper, that parody of the sky they couldn’t see. Didn’t he wonder? Didn’t he ask himself why his life had become so unlike that of other children? Was that why he couldn’t carry himself to the window and look out? For she couldn’t bear to see them either, hated them, hated all the healthy. Hated the city, dreamed that a great quake would come and flatten the factories and mills.
Oh, to be free of such thoughts! But her sleep was increasingly plagued by them, and she could hardly focus long enough to read a book. All she could manage, really, was to thumb, distractedly, through back issues of Katherine’s magazines: women’s journals and literary quarterlies, but mostly a pair of gardening monthlies, which, with their lists of cultivars, and illustrations of planters overflowing with pelargoniums and moneywort, offered, if briefly, an escape:
“A Report upon the best varieties of Gooseberry.”
“A New Descriptive Catalogue of Roses.”
“A Note upon Black Corinth Grapes.”
And then one day in late March, midway through one of the issues: “On growing Ferns and other Plants in Glass Cases, in the midst of the Smoke of London; and on transplanting Plants from one Country to another, by similar Means.”
William turned. Would she sing to him?
“In a moment, sweetheart. Hush.”
It was but two pages, wedged between an article on Cape heaths and a “Descriptive Notice of the Gardens of Misses Garnier at Wickham,” this filled with exquisite images of rose-lined pathways and trellised garden seats. The author was one N. B. Ward, Esq., of Wellclose Square in Whitechapel, and his article began with an account of how, for many years an avid gardener, he had long dreamed of nothing greater than to have, in the garden of his London home, an old wall covered with ferns and mosses. Many times he had tried to transplant species collected in the woods, but all had died, killed no doubt by smoke blasting from the nearby manufactories. He had all but given up hope when, one day, in a glass bottle in which he was trying to hatch a chrysalis, he spied tiny specks of vegetation, which soon revealed themselves to be a species of Poa and a Nephrodium fern. For the subsequent three years, the plants flourished on his windowsill, dying only when the cap to the bottle rusted and rainwater flooded in. Following this, he had repeated the experiment with over sixty fern species—and here he listed the genera: Adiantum, Aspidium, Asplenium, Blechnum, Cheilanthes, Davallia, Dicksonia, Doodia, Grammitis, Hymenophyllum, Lycopodium, Nephrodium, Niphobolus, Polypodium, Pteris, Trichomanes—as well as flowering plants such as anemone and veronica, all with great success. Indeed, he had stayed up one night watching mushrooms growing in one of his vessels, and had kept, for weeks, in a large glass case closed with oiled silk, a very happy songbird, a species no longer seen in the city, further proving that the effects of smoke were the same on the leaves of plants as on the lungs of animals, and that even the most delicate species could thrive if protected from the London air. It was simply necessary that the cases be sealed so as to allow for the diffusion of gas but not soot, after which there was no reason to suppose that their Edenic contents could not persist ad infinitum. And one could imagine the many applications, from the collection of fragile specimens in far-off Brazil or Van Diemen’s Land, to the brightening effect that such boxes might have on the dreary lodgings of the poor, provided Parliament rescind the onerous tax on glass and . . .
There was more, but by now her fingers were shaking so hard she had to stop.
Bye, baby Bunting,
Mother’s gone a-hunting,
Gone to get a lion’s skin
To wrap the baby Bunting in.
Who of you recall that night in March in 1836? The cold, the mist, the Thames wind sweeping through the alleyways, carrying the knocking of the ships’ hulls, the creaking of the wharfs? Who remembers the way the lanterns winked through the darkness, the broth that slipped down from the smokestacks? Who heard, among the thousands of footsteps, the patter of a haunted
figure, hood drawn closely about her neck? Who saw her hurrying, breaking into a run? Down Bishopsgate, down Houndsditch, down Aldgate, into Whitechapel’s streets?
Did you wonder where she was racing, skin hot, eyes gleaming with tears brought on by weeping, by the sulfur suspended in the fog? Did you think her mad, to brave this night?
Who was there? In Finsbury, in Bishopsgate, in Whitechapel? For someone must have seen her, must have pointed her the way. Was it you who led her? Or did she find it on her own, that house behind the sailors’ church, the windows green with life?
And at the door, a brass knocker in the form of fiddleheads.
The clanking echoed up the stairs.
Silence. Then more knocks, urgent. Then more lights, footsteps.
It was a maid, a girl with bright red cheeks, a glow that seemed to emanate from the home itself.
“I wish to speak with Mr. Ward about his cases.”
Mr. N. B. Ward, Esq. She realized that she didn’t even know his Christian name.
The girl pulled a shawl more closely about her shoulders. “It’s nearly midnight. Is he expecting you?”
And, bewitched, Elizabeth answered, “Yes.”
But such is the power of enchantment that the girl didn’t question her, led her up a long stairway into a room of such green light as to leave her blinking in wonder. There were palms and figs, creepers spilling from their planters, climbing vines and profusions of mosses pressing wetly against their glass enclosures. And ferns, ferns everywhere, suspended from the ceiling, crowding the windowsills, cases upon cases. The maid departed, but Elizabeth didn’t even notice. Now, still breathless from her haste, skin alive, she drifted through the plants as if dreaming, the words of the monthly intoning like hymn. Adiantum, Aspidium, Asplenium . . . The narrow path seemed to lead deeper within the grove, until at last she stopped before a great capsule set on a table and towering nearly two feet above her head. Condensation on the inside of the glass caught the chandelier light, illuminating an explosion of ferns, dark green and emerald, with pale lime stalks curling from their hearts. And in the center of the tableau, and rising from a stone above the rest: a species she had never seen before, frilled, fimbriate, its frond tips fine to translucence, hairs glistening with drops of water. Despite the glass that separated her from the plants, she could taste the moisture in the air.
From somewhere behind her, she heard two sets of footsteps, then the voice of the maid.
“Here, sir. She says you were expecting her.”
The other didn’t answer. In the reflection in the glass, Elizabeth watched a dark figure approaching through the leaves and vines. It was her moment to speak, she knew, her moment to explain her haste, her breathless midnight pilgrimage, her petition. But now that it was time, the words available to her were mocking. This crystal carriage, this corridor, this lion’s skin. Ashamed by her impudence, her lie, her desperation, she couldn’t speak. For what, in truth, was she to say? That Providence had led her to that issue of the Gardener’s Monthly? That even Ward’s own name seemed to be a sign sent to her, with its suggestion of both a hall for convalescence and a child in another’s care? That together, that very night, they could begin to assemble the house of glass, the crystal carriage, that would transport her son to the sea air where he might breathe? Gently, Reason scolded her with its paternal chuckle, kind but firm. For who, what, had led her there, stumbling through the dark streets of Bishopsgate and Whitechapel? What madness, Elizabeth? Come home.
Deep within her pocket, her fingers released the pages torn out of the Monthly, and rose to press against the glass.
“Trichomanes speciosum,” said Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward behind her. “From the woods of Killarney—it is the most delicate of the bristle ferns. Can you see how it is thriving?”
My mother turned. My mother could.