The man you killed taught me a lot about lepidoptera. Butterflies have two sets of wings, the forewings and the hindwings, all of them covered in minute scales—but you don’t want to hear about that.
Of course I was afraid at first, Charles. I never said I wasn’t. Rocco cut quite a menacing figure with his hatchet profile and black hood. The party at Bertie’s had become tedious, so I’d left on my own when it was still twilight. Yes, I know you would have preferred that I not walk home unattended! Jimmy had offered to run me home in his Rolls, but it was such a lovely summer evening, the air caressing my skin. I suppose I was a bit tight—there’d been rather a lot of champagne at the party. I strolled aimlessly for a while, and I was loitering in front of a shop window, contemplating whether a midnight blue satin cloche with feathers might be rather nice for our honeymoon, when Rocco came up behind me and grasped my shoulder. I gave a jump, turned, and let out a pathetic squeak at the sight of him. Then he jammed the cloth soaked in chloroform over my nose and mouth.
I came to on a pallet on the stone floor, and Ernest was peering down at me. I took in his piercing gray eyes beneath wire-rimmed spectacles, his fine and lofty brow, his short pale hair that looked as if it had been touched by electricity. I became aware of a mechanical sound in the room, a purring and a whirring, and saw from the corner of my eye flashes of light in the already harshly lit room.
“Is she awake, Master?”
Behind the slender, fair man in the lab coat loomed Rocco’s black-clad bulk. He had lowered his hood to reveal his bald, egg-shaped head and cruel blue eyes. You’ll be glad to hear that I cowered.
“Don’t be frightened, Miss . . .” Ernest said.
I struggled to a seated position. I was briefly dizzy and nauseated, but I mastered myself. “I am Miss Grand. Vanessa Grand. And I demand to know who you are and where you have taken me, and for what purpose.”
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Grand. I am Dr. Ernest Clive.” He seemed timid, even eager to please me. Unlike you, Ernest was ill-versed in the ways of love, hearts and flowers and everything designed to trap a woman. I was trapped by Ernest, of course, but there was something honest about the arrangement. “I hope my assistant Rocco hasn’t mistreated you.”
“Aside from drugging and abducting me, Rocco has been a perfect gentleman. However, I’m certain my fiancé and my father are looking for me. Is it money you’re after? I’m sure that can be arranged to everyone’s satisfaction.” A bit shakily, I scrambled to my feet and dusted off my green silk frock. “But really it would be best for all concerned if you allowed me simply to walk out of here—”
And then I saw.
The high ceiling with the skylight. The hospital bed equipped with straps and wires. The beakers bubbling with ruby and emerald liquids. The machinery softly chugging up and down. The flashes of electricity crackling in their circuits. The aquarium in which swam . . .
I let out a gasp. Did you see them, Charles? The canaries that swam in the aquarium? The cage full of tropical fish that flew, their scales flashing blue and green and purple? Or were you too busy rescuing me to notice such wonders?
“You needn’t be afraid, Miss Grand,” Ernest said.
“Won’t do you any good, anyway,” Rocco remarked. “Dr. Clive will do as he likes with you!”
“Be quiet, you fool,” Ernest said.
I was transfixed by the fish that seemed for all the world to breathe the air through their gills as they floated in their cage. “Dr. Clive, how is this possible?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he muttered impatiently.
I bridled. “Because I’m a woman?”
“No, Miss Grand. Because no one does. I’m a genius, you see.” He lifted his chin and would not meet my gaze, as if to convey that genius was a proud and lonely lot.
“All this is your handiwork? Dr. Clive, it’s magnificent!” My heart pounded, but there was exhilaration mixed with the fright. In that moment, at least, I knew I was alive.
“Ain’t you going to scream?” Rocco asked dejectedly. “Usually they scream. Even Miss Georgina screamed.”
“Be silent!” Ernest said.
“Who is Miss Georgina?” I asked. I wondered how many women they had brought to the laboratory, and for what purpose.
“My fiancée,” Ernest murmured.
“I see. Have I mentioned that I have one as well? He’ll be searching for me, you know,” I repeated.
“Dr. Clive don’t have no fiancée no more,” Rocco informed me.
“Why? Did you—harm her?” I began to shiver.
“Of course not,” Ernest said. “We were to be married until she saw—all this. I thought she’d be proud of her future husband’s work. Instead she was horrified. She called me mad. Then she married my rival.”
All about us Ernest Clive’s work sparkled and flashed. “What a little idiot Miss Georgina must be,” I said.
Ernest’s glasses had slipped down his nose. He pushed them back up and stared at me. “Miss Grand, do you truly think so?”
Rocco shambled towards me, his big arms swinging. “Don’t listen to her, Master. She’s trying to talk her way ’round you.”
I backed away from Rocco until the cold stone wall stopped me. “What do you mean to do to me?”
When Ernest didn’t reply, Rocco volunteered. “Half woman, half butterfly. Well, wings on a woman, at any rate.”
My eye fell on the bed with the straps, the electrodes. On a little table next to it glinted scalpels and other instruments. I hugged myself and felt the gooseflesh on my arms. “The women who screamed—was it because you tried this procedure on them?” Then I stopped shivering. I turned to Ernest. “I say, would I be able to fly?”
Ernest gave a start. Clearly he wasn’t expecting such a response. Screams, yes, but not this.
“Shall I prepare the electrodes, Master?” Rocco asked.
Ernest appeared not to hear him. He kept staring at me as if I’d only just appeared in the room. Rocco repeated his question, and the doctor seemed to shake himself awake. “Prepare a room for Miss Grand, Rocco. She’s going to be our guest.”
“Do as you’re told. The room nearest the front staircase on the second floor will be the most comfortable, I think.”
Grumbling, Rocco trudged away.
I placed my hand on Ernest’s arm. “You didn’t answer my question, Doctor,” I said. “Will I be able to fly?“
Don’t look at me like that, Charles! When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a doctor like my favorite uncle Anthony, but that, of course, was impossible. I was pretty and clever and would make a good match someday. By the time I met you, I was already laughing the empty laugh of the dead. Oh, it was all amusing—the foxtrots and surreptitious kisses, and knowing that my blonde waves and trim figure gave me power over a handsome man—but with Ernest, I regained the ability to be surprised. Did you really think I wanted to be a society wife pouring out endless tea and listening to endless chatter about frocks and parties and engagements? Did you think I wanted my belly distended by a squirming creature growing within? Talk of being experimented upon! I tell you I wanted to fly.
I was given a room in Ernest’s ancestral estate, full of secret passageways and crumbling staircases. I could have spent years exploring its recesses. At first he had to chase me ’round the laboratory, I was so eager to explore. “What does this one do?” I asked, my hand poised above a lever.
He rushed to my side. “Don’t touch that lever! You’ll blow us all to kingdom come!”
How I laughed! He gazed at me as if I were the one astonishing thing left in all creation. Then he caught me about the waist and kissed me.
It’s true he had tried the experiment on a couple of the village girls, grafting wings on their backs and then removing them when he saw where he’d gone wrong. But there was minimal scarring, and Ernest erased the entire episode from the girls’ minds before he released them. (No, Charles, I do not believe he would have done the same to me.) He hadn’t dared take another girl from the village, lest suspicion fall on him and Rocco—hence Rocco’s trip to London in Ernest’s battered automobile, and my abduction.
Once he got to know me, Ernest no longer wanted to go ahead with the experiment as planned. “I don’t want to cause you pain, my darling,” he said. “We’ll find another girl. You may assist in the procedure, if you like.”
“I can endure the pain,” I told him. “Don’t you dare give another woman this privilege. I believe with all my heart that you can give me the gift of flight.”
His eyes filled with tears, and he clasped my hand and told me he would prove himself worthy of my trust.
How his long, deft fingers traced where the wings would be on my bare shoulder blades, making me shiver deliciously. The original wings had been gray and functional, but Ernest insisted on redesigning them to make them both beautiful and capable of sustaining longer, swifter flights. They were iridescent blue and orange, and they would have been my flesh and bone. Tucked beneath my clothes when I didn’t use them—rather like a penis, don’t you think?—but ready for me to unfurl, to fly bare-breasted and free. I even designed a chemise with slots in the back from which the wings could protrude, in case I wished to fly more modestly attired.
I loved that Ernest wanted to improve upon the wings for me, but it delayed the experiment. If only we had not delayed! It’s hard to believe I was with him for less than a month, we made so many plans. There’s an island—I won’t tell you where. We were going to live there and fill the place with such marvels. It would have been a second Eden, one in which the quest for knowledge went unpunished.
The morning of the experiment, Ernest and I were elated, though our joy was tinged with fear. Even Rocco seemed touched by the magnitude of what we were about to attempt. He was quiet and solemn, respectfully averting his eyes from my partial nudity. Ernest had removed my wings from the refrigeration unit and placed them—I assume you didn’t notice them—on the long table beside the hospital bed on which I sat, the sheet draped around me. All seemed hushed and still, in spite of the crackling volts of power and the chugging of the machinery.
Ernest and I exchanged a last, long look. Then he prepared the syringe, and I held out my arm. He bent to administer the injection, and I held my breath, waiting for the needle’s prick.
When the shot rang out, at first I didn’t understand what had happened. Almost I thought it was part of the procedure, until I saw the shocked confusion in Ernest’s eyes. The syringe clattered to the floor, and Ernest fell.
Then I saw you—my hero.
When Rocco made for you with a snarl, I hoped he would wrest the weapon from your hand and exact vengeance. But alas, you are an excellent shot.
I know you thought it womanly hysteria that made me struggle as you secured the sheet around me. You cared more for my modesty than for Ernest lying in his swiftly spreading blood, his face chalk white, eyes staring behind crooked spectacles, much less for Rocco dragging himself along the floor whimpering in pain. Hysteria, you thought, made me scream and kick and fight you as you slung me in your arms and carried me down the spiral staircase and outdoors. I would have run back to Ernest as soon as you set me on my feet, the mob of villagers with their rifles and scythes be damned—if not for the explosion.
“It’s all over now,” you gloated, pulling me into an entirely unwanted embrace.
You think I’m crazy, don’t you—that he was mad and infected me with his madness. Papa and Mama and my sisters and brothers understand me as little as you do. Mama begs me to be grateful for your “rescue,” to thank you for your pistol shot that laid waste to one of the greatest minds this world has known. I am lucky, she says, to be safely back in London, away from that dreadful place. She says that soon I will have forgotten everything that happened there, like a bad dream, and then you and I will marry! But I will never forgive you for dragging me away as he died on the laboratory floor, without me to hold his hand, to help him into the next world—a world, I trust, full of enough wonders to keep the most brilliant scientist happy. Here I remain, without even his creations to remember him by. Rocco must have pulled that lever, preferring death by his own hand to whatever fate others meant for him. I can’t say I blame him.
Have no fear, I shan’t take my life. Ernest’s work was devoured by the conflagration—gone, the birds that swam and the fish that flew, all gone, my beautiful blue and orange wings—and I have not his genius, but I do have his daring. I shall learn to pilot an aeroplane. Laugh all you want, Charles, but there are women pilots in this world, and I mean to fly. Perhaps I will fly to our island, and then I will be free of the lot of you.