The following is excerpted from Grevious by H. S. Cross. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux April 9th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by H. S. Cross. All rights reserved.
From Grievous (coming out April 9, 2019):
At breakfast in Ely, John could hear himself being cold to Owain though Meg seemed not to notice. It was her birthday; she ate with pleasure, and her cheeks glowed. As if to make a point, Owain kept reaching across the table to kiss her. Of course, it was his right, but to break off conversation repeatedly and murmur My darling little girl was overdoing it, surely.
—Now, John, Owain was saying, you mustn’t hurry this afternoon, not in the slightest.
John and Meg had planned an afternoon in Saffron Walden, to visit the graveyard and to collect Cordelia after school for tea with Mrs. Kneesworth.
—You three have a grand old natter with Mrs. K, the old battle-axe.
—My darling girl.
It would be sickening if it weren’t so transparent: husbands only overdid it when they had something to hide. Likely Owain had not so much started over with her as he had moved the wife to a different town so he could carry on with his pieces in the first. More obvious was Owain’s hostile maneuver in buying a house without a spare room. By many measures the new house was better than the old, but there was no place for John in it. Cordelia had decamped to a cupboard-cum-sewing room and given him her bed, but his neck had begun to ache as soon as he arrived, necessitating another drop.
As they left for the station, Meg put her arm through his. She had been chattering about the new house and town, and now she began to describe the Meeting in Ely, though it sounded as though she’d gone only once. Tradesmen where shouting across the road, and the unsaid pressed like the weight of the scrum.
—Darling, she said, closing her hand around his. Let’s not speak of it. Let’s agree, shall we, not to?
He tried to stop, but she pulled him along.
—You know, don’t you, darling, how grateful I am?
She used the voice that repelled every protest.
—We’re all grateful, for everything you did and are doing.
—I can’t think what you mean.
Sweet, shaming. He sounded like a child and knew it.
—We’ve such a beautiful day. Don’t let’s spoil it.
He followed her, chastened, into the carriage and smiled as she, through a stray association, began to reminisce about the production of Patience they’d both been part of at Cambridge. He’d almost forgotten it, but she conjured every detail.
—Knee breeches vermillion!
A man such as Jamie would simply insist. I’m afraid this won’t do. I’m afraid we must speak of it. It being the madcap string of—what to call them even? Travels? Consultations? Dramatics?—adventures you followed from the moment I left you until the end of August, one hundred and twenty- five interminable days later, when you wrote from Liverpool that We were coming home All of Us, that Everything Was Splendid, that you were, no explanation, Cured. And as for the Splendid New House, it’s plain our holiday arrangements will have to change. But if he said those things, her eyes would overflow, she’d begin coughing, and it would all come around to his spoiling things again.
In Saffron Walden, Meg bought chrysanthemums to put on Delia’s grave. It was something they did every holiday, but this time they found weeds grown up around the headstone. Meg pulled them out with horror and apology, and John realized she was treating him as if he required consolation, presumably for the distress of seeing his wife’s grave untended, this woman dead ten times longer than he’d even known her. Meg was acting as if she were the one whose life was satisfactory, whereas he—wife in the ground, life held hostage by some wretched school— were the one deserving solace. For a moment he froze in fear that she might suggest, obscenely, he marry again.
—It doesn’t seem so long ago, she was saying, does it?
—On the contrary.
He had always believed Delia was pregnant when she died. He’d found markings in her diary that suggested it, and to his shame, rather than grieve at the notion, John had felt only relief that the child had died with her. What sort of creature would it have been, he’d told himself, a child conceived while in his heart he made love to another? He’d always believed it had been a boy, who would now be Cordelia’s age, just old enough to come to the Academy. Now as he carried the grave weeds over to the rough, it occurred to him that the child, if it had indeed existed, would exist still in this very grave, inside her, without name or headstone or even a prayer. Was it wrong to pray for a child you’d no proof existed? Perhaps it was even sacrilegious. This was the kind of question Jamie’s father could answer. You could ask, and he’d listen, and all the embarrassment would vanish as he told you decisively: Yes, pray this; or No, and here is why. Was writing the man so far out of the question? Yet if the Bishop’s portcullis were to raise again for him, Meg would accuse him of backsliding to the superstitions of his childhood.
Did it go against the point of love to keep chambers of one’s self sealed from one’s beloved? Of course it was all hypothetical, wildly so, but if it ever ceased to be hypothetical, he vowed he would renounce the church and conform himself to the Testimonies they affirmed. As they left the cemetery by the far side, he drew a cross in his hand with his middle finger, This is my solemn vow.
John had always been a favorite with Mrs. Kneesworth, and he realized as she welcomed them that he’d neglected her. After everything she’d done to help in March, he’d sent her updates from Paris, but since then not a word. She appeared not to hold it against him and kissed them all repeatedly. Since the Líohts returned, she had seen them only once, when the removers came. Since then she had been trying to get them to pay her a visit, but ah, she understood how very busy they’d been. And Mr. Grieves, dear Mr. Grieves, he knew he was always welcome in her spare room should he ever need accommodation in Saffron Walden. Of course, her room would be nothing to the rooms in the grand new house in Ely. John glanced at Cordelia, who returned an expression roughly equivalent to boys kicking one another under the table.
Mrs. K had made a tower of sandwiches, and although she obviously had a tower of questions, she allowed the conversation to unfold in the customary way: what John was getting up to (a book; an intriguing new boy in his House), how Meg was keeping in Ely (splendidly; plans for next spring’s garden; service with the housebound), how Cordelia was finding the long journey to school (quite short, actually), whether she didn’t after all fancy Mrs. Kneesworth’s spare bedroom (so kind, but no), just how churchy was Ely (rather), how in any case it wasn’t Saffron Walden (never), what the bachelor who’d bought their house was getting up to (travesties).
—And you still haven’t told me about your Grand Tour.
Meg glanced at the clock:
—Your da will be wondering where we’ve got to.
—It’s only five, Cordelia replied. He said not to hurry.
—You mustn’t dash off yet.
And so a monologue was undertaken about their Grand Tour, first by Meg, who put quite a gloss on it, and then by Cordelia. To hear the two of them tell it, the whole thing had been one lark after another, ridiculous foreigners alternating with marvelous foreigners, the account peppered with quaint foreign phrases and their confident assessments of The Germans, The Hungarians, The Swiss, The French, The Italians, The Americans, The Irish.
—And how is Mr. Líoht?
John thought Mrs. K’s voice had turned sour. Shouldn’t she try harder to conceal it? But Mr. Líoht, Meg assured her, had never been better. Business was thriving, and he was compelled to travel less than previously, scarcely at all. In short, there was nothing under the sun that could be judged unsatisfactory.
Mrs. K turned to Cordelia:
—And whatever became of your correspondent, dear?
Cordelia blanched, and John saw her gaze flit to the clock.
—The person who wrote to me in the summer, Mrs. K said. I always assumed it was a young man, but I was never certain.
The girl’s face was flushing, her cup was being set on the table, and a polite smile was forming, one plainly false, yet one John realized he had seen before and taken as true.
—The one you asked to write to me, dear.
—I feel queer.
John had never seen his goddaughter be rude, yet here she was not only interrupting Mrs. K but refusing her mother’s help and now actually pulling Mrs. K into the kitchen.
—Whatever was that? Meg asked.
They’d closed the door, and John could glean nothing through it. The mantel clock ticked louder than a galloping horse and then commenced an elaborate chiming.
—I ought to stay with Mrs. K next time, he said.
—Darling. Don’t be that way.
She flexed her fingers as if they were stiff. He set his cup on the table and took her hand in his. The edge left her face. She sat back on the settee and closed her eyes. His lips beat. He could see the pulse in her throat. It wasn’t too late, couldn’t be. If Christ were to be believed, it never was, not until the end, and that wasn’t yet.
—It was only a young man I met in Budapest, a medical student.
Mrs. K raised her brow.
—It was entirely gallant, but you can understand, can’t you, why I didn’t want to bother my mother with it?
Mrs. K could certainly understand. She’d had a German suitor herself once. This Cordelia had heard many times, but she smiled as if she hadn’t. (Had Tommy Gray not received the update telling him not to write Mrs. K? She’d written it right after the first, at least she’d thought of writing it . . . had she really lost the thread once her father had . . . train, Lourdes—)
—But, Cordelia dear, why would you ask this man to write to me rather than writing yourself?
She pretended to cough again, and Mrs. K fetched some water.
—It’s such a tedious story.
Mrs. K settled into a chair.
Oh, dear, the truth was that they’d been in a rush. Their train was earlier than they thought, and this boy—the medical student?—yes, this poor boy was simply in love with her, and she felt ever so sorry for him and so she’d tried to make him feel useful and asked him to write to Mrs. K for her. But she hadn’t said America! She’d said Austria.
But what about the rest? Mrs. K persisted. He mentioned a doctor, Mr. Felix Rush in Asheville, North Carolina? She took down a tin and produced a letter.
Oh, dear!—she snatched it—What a misunderstanding! There had been an article in a journal about such a man. The boy must have somehow confused it with Austria. He was foreign and tearful and she needed to be rid of him. It had been unwise, she knew, but no harm had come of it.
But what if the young man turned up at her door? He sounded unstable.
But Mrs. K needn’t worry! He was Hungarian and penniless and couldn’t afford to leave Budapest.
Then why had the letter been postmarked Kent? It was an English letter from an English correspondent. It didn’t look foreign and neither did the penmanship.
Was that so? Could she see the envelope? How curious. How entirely curious! But . . . ah, now see, she knew exactly what had happened. What a circus! This penniless Hungarian doctor-in-training had a friend, a kind older doctor from England who was in Budapest at the time lecturing at the medical school. They had spent time together. No, he hadn’t examined her mother, he was a dental doctor. But . . . what must have happened was that her Hungarian—his name was Stefan—Stefan must have been overwhelmed by the prospect of writing in English, even though he so desperately wanted to help, and so he must have got the English dentist to write it for him. And to save the postage, the dentist must have taken it back with him to England and sent it from there. What an adventure! Wasn’t life funny?
H. S. Cross was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. She was educated at Harvard College and has taught at Friends Seminary, among other schools. She lives in New York.