by Alethea Kontis
Minna tried to stand still in front of the mirror, but it wasn’t working. Effie jerked Minna’s hips from side to side, trying to adjust the bustle of her sateen French cream walking dress. Minna stared at the print of the Luck etching she held, then closed her eyes and pressed it to her breast, wishing with all her might for the magic she had given it to seep back into her.
“Would you like some glue?” Minna’s eyes snapped open as her friend’s voice sounded in her ear, dark and exotic as the Greek gypsy girl herself.
“See, now,” said Minna, pointing at their reflections, “your head looks better on this dress than mine does.” Minna folded the Luck etching and tucked it inside her sleeve, desperate for its closeness.
Effie noticed. “Luck doesn’t always mean the good kind.”
“Yes, but Lady Luck is my favorite. At the very least, she’ll make life interesting. And if I’m lucky,” Minna wrinkled her nose, “it’ll all be good.”
“Silly,” said Effie. “You can’t fool me with that brave act. You’re scared to death, admit it.”
Minna sighed and wove her fingers together. “It is true. I am a little scared. Who wouldn’t be? This interview with Lord Astor is so important…”
Effie turned Minna back to the mirror and started pinning up her hair. “I’m still not certain it’s a good idea. This Society of Natural Scientists could be a bunch of fools for all you know. They are men, after all.”
Minna tried to look up at Effie, but her friend forced her head back down and mercilessly drove home another bobby pin. “I need an Alchemist, Effie. A true magic user. I need someone to guide me. My powers have already outgrown anything our mothers can teach.”
“Yes, but you’re a woman,” said Effie. She bent down so that her chin rested atop Minna’s coiffed head. Her thick, wavy locks fell to Minna’s shoulders. “And they are men. So they cannot be trusted.” She gave Minna a playful wink before stepping back a pace and putting her hands on her hips. Minna stopped worrying her hands together and dropped them to her sides.
“Perfection. All you lack now are gloves.”
Minna looked at her hands. The skin of her fingertips was stained with etcher’s ink, their pads callused from acid. Her father’s legacy. Daddy’s little girl.
Jack Willows had been a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers. He had taught his daughter how to handle the cutting tools and the acid, so that Minna might make etchings of her own. He had taught his wife as well—and well enough that a number of Mother’s etchings had even appeared in the newspapers. Minna learned the art from her father, but she learned the magic from her mother. Few people had ever noticed the simple magics Mother had taught her to add to the etchings. Even her father had not known.
Mother had counseled Minna to hold her tongue, to never mention to her father the meanings of the tiny symbols hidden in the details. It was woman’s magic, her mother had whispered to her. Small magic. Old magic. Tales and superstitions handed down through the years. Her father never would have held with such nonsense.
But it wasn’t nonsense. The symbols they etched into the pictures did mean something. They could evoke emotions and protections. Minna had the knack for incorporating patterns of symbols and creating new ones. So her mother had made sure that Minna learned as much as she could from her father.
After his death, the Society had invited her mother to take her husband’s seat and join the ranks of the elite Lady Etchers. Now Minna helped her mother, and continued to learn herself, but at the price of the smooth skin on her hands. Her vanity hated her for it, and her heart broke a little every time she looked at her ruined skin and remembered her father. He had been ignorant of her gift, but still always so proud of her.
Effie’s throaty laugh derailed Minna’s train of thought, and a pair of black kid six-button gloves was thrust into her hands. “Stop looking so serious. You’re not going to a funeral.”
“It will be a funeral if Mother catches me. My funeral.”
“Auntie Charlotte is too busy back at your house scolding some chambermaid for letting mice into the attic.”
Minna could tell Effie was quite pleased with herself over that little prank. She still wasn’t sure how exactly Effie had managed to get them all there. Her magic came from a darker place. It was gypsy magic—ancient, quiet magic that was more felt than seen. Minna’s only jealousy was that it didn’t have to be confined to printed art. But it was nothing compared to what Minna could do if given half a chance. She was sure of it.
“Even if she does catch you,” Effie went on, “you simply tell her that you are paying a professional visit.”
“Mother does not consider the Society of Natural Sciences to be professional.”
“Only because they are not as willing to let women into their ranks as the Painter-Etchers or the Artists are. That makes me question their intelligence—I will agree with her on that. But if Science is what you want, Dearest, than you shall have it. Don’t let anything step in your way, man or mother. Lord Aster will see that you are a bright, intelligent woman, and if he is any man at all he will give you a chance to prove yourself.” She glanced up at the clock. “And if you are late, that will not make a good impression at all.”
“I wish you could come with me,” Minna pleaded.
“Beatrice will be with you.”
“A chaperone hardly counts.”
“Certainly she does. Come now. And you mustn’t forget your book,” Effie said, thrusting the slim black volume into Minna’s hands. “If I didn’t have to help Mama with her séance tonight, I would be fast to your side.”
“I know.” Minna followed Effie down the stairs.
Effie halted at the door, poked her head around, and then motioned for Minna to come. They tiptoed through the parlor, Minna’s smart boots making tiny clicks and clacks against the wooden floor. She was grateful she had Effie to follow through the dark room. A few small gas lamps were lit here and there, only shedding enough light to cast large, wavering shadows on the wall. She caught the faint, warm scent of incense. Effie’s mother was busy preparing the back room for her evening guests and would not trouble them, but they didn’t want to risk drawing attention.
They met stout and silent Beatrice at the back door, where the hired carriage was waiting.
Effie turned to her once more. “Penny in your shoe?”
Minna nodded again, placing a hand on her breast where the small blue charm was pinned beneath her bodice.
“Then you are all set, Dearest.” Effie hugged her tightly. She kissed Minna on either cheek, turned her head to the right and made a spitting sound towards the floor. More luck. “One look at your little book, and Lord Aster will throw himself at your feet, begging you to be his personal apprentice.”
“Well, I don’t know about all that,” said Minna.
“Bah,” said Effie. “You will be marvelous.”
“Only because you say so,” said Minna.
“Extol my virtues later.” Effie turned Minna around and pushed her out the door. “Now go! Go quickly so you can come back and tell me everything!”
Minna dashed into the carriage before she could think up another reason to dally.
The ride to the headquarters of the Royal Society of Natural Scientists was too long and at the same time too short. Beatrice’s silence gave Minna too much time to think about what she was about to do. Outside looking in, it all made perfectly good sense. She was a talented artist, and could etch magic into metal better than her mother. It was only natural that the next step be to study with a true Alchemist, someone who could shape her abilities and steer her beyond her mother’s limitations.
Minna needed to believe that she was meant for greater things than granting luck or easing birth pains. Not that she wanted to stop doing these things, but she wanted to learn a more economical way of doing them. One that didn’t require hours on end spent with knives and acid. She wanted to learn about the world, how it worked, and more importantly how to see it working. She wanted to learn about the stars, what was in them, how to read them. She wanted to learn about people, how to cure them completely and not just stop a cough or break a fever. So she was going to meet with Lord Aster, head of the Society, and plead her case for apprenticeship. She flipped through her small book of illustrations, some of which had already been etched, others that were just waiting for the time to be right. It was a respectable enough sample of her work to impress him. She did not want to leave herself looking like a fool.
She shivered at the thought. Impress Lord Aster? Much easier said than done. Look like a fool? Well that was an unfortunately easy feat to achieve. Lord Aster, Edmond Chamberlain by name, was terrifying even from a distance; a fact Minna had garnered from a few rare glimpses of him at social gatherings. He was uncommonly tall and his shoulders were eternally stooped from bending over to speak to smaller people and reading notes from a podium. His hair was a shock of silver. Grayness befit most men his age, but Lord Aster’s shining silver-white was unsettling. And he was gaunt, a thinness that made his eyes appear shadowed and sunken. He was the very spectre of a man, and looked as though at any moment he could slip into death without giving anyone cause to notice.
Minna had been surprised that he had responded to her request for an appointment—he was well known for his gruff and rather disagreeable nature. Her mother certainly did not care for him, and was quick to voice her opinion to anyone who stood still long enough to listen. But Minna still believed, deep down in her heart, that Lord Aster would see how talented she was and as a result would not be able to turn her away.
She took the glove off one hand and reached into her sleeve to feel the smooth paper of the Luck etching again. She could not feel the ink, but she knew by heart what symbols were hidden in the delicate lines of the portrait. She needed the reassuring touch of the paper against her skin. It was the first print from Minna’s Lady Luck etching; the older the print and the closer to the body, the stronger the magic it offered.
But she knew luck alone would not see her through this interview. Perseverance had gotten her here. She had to rely on her talent now in order to succeed.
The carriage came to a halt, and Minna frantically pulled her gloves back on. Beatrice followed her to the front door, where an equally stout butler led her to a sitting room.
“Miss Willows, Sir.”
“Thank you, Harrison.” His voice was rich and deep. Minna steeled herself and stepped through the doorway. In front of her stood a dashing young man in a dark suit. The white of his cravat matched the unnatural white of his hair, yet he was very evidently not Lord Aster. He snapped a small bow to her. Minna had the presence of mind to bend her knees, but she did not tip her head. Her mind raced. What was going on here?
“Miss Willows, please. First let me apologize. You have been played false, but with all good intention. I intercepted your missive to my uncle and answered it in his stead. I am intrigued by your interest, and wish to discuss it with you. I assure you, had he even deigned to open your letter, he most certainly would not have made this appointment. As it is, we must consider ourselves fortunate that I managed to save it from the fireplace.”
Lord Aster had not even read her letter? He did not even know she was here? All her careful planning and intrigue was for naught, all the nerves unwarranted. She was not on her way to becoming a scientist. She could see it now. Her head swam. She would become a laughingstock. She was a woman! Who was she to think that she could simply be accepted into the most exclusively male Society of them all?
The man must have noticed her floundering, because he offered her a chair. “I apologize again, I did not mean to distress you. Please, sit. Harrison?” he called over his shoulder, “can you please have Mrs. Whitebridge send up a tray?”
The butler stepped out. Minna sat on the couch and looked down at her gloves. The man took a chair opposite her. Her eyes went again to his hair, and the rest of what he had said began to sink in.
“You are Lord Aster’s nephew?”
“More apologies, I am afraid. I seem destined to apologize to you until the end of days. Gabriel Chamberlain, at your service. My father is Lord Aster’s considerably younger half-brother. He decided I was in desperate need of some city refinement, so I have been banished from our country estates until after Christmas.” There was a twinkle in his eye, as though he expected Minna to comment or laugh, but she remained quiet. “I think it’s more a punishment for my uncle than it is for me. Personally, I’ve been enjoying the amusements provided by his little Society.”
Minna couldn’t help but smile.
“You should do that more often,” said Gabriel.
“Smile. If I may make so bold, it is quite becoming.” He straightened. “But exploring such a topic will have you calling me a rogue no doubt, so we will not dwell upon it. You must tell me about the aspirations you expressed in your letter. I would like to know how a bright, beautiful and no doubt talented woman such as yourself comes to have an interest in the Natural Sciences.”
Minna recognized that he was being amusing and charming to put her ease, and despite her disappoint at the way the meeting had turned out, she found herself appreciating his efforts. At the very least, she would have a wonderful story to tell Effie when she returned. Harrison brought the tray, and a moment later Beatrice came forward to serve the tea.
“Are you familiar with my family’s work?” Minna asked him.
“Yes, indeed,” Gabriel said, his large hands dwarfing the fragile teacup. “I have seen the works of both Mr. and Mrs. Jack Willows printed in the Times, and samples grace the walls of many an affluent household. Do you etch as well?”
Minna knew that now was hardly the time for modesty. “Yes, and I believe I am quite talented.”
“As any Willows progeny would be,” said Gabriel. “Might you have a sample of your work with you now?”
She thought he’d never ask. Minna opened her volume to the first page, an illustrated copy of the Luck etching she had secreted in her bodice, and handed him the book. He set down his tea and took a moment to examine the portrait. He excused himself, and stepped over to the lamp to have more light. “You are very talented. The detail on this is fascinating. You must have the patience of Job to fashion it so precisely. Who is the woman?”
“No one,” Minna replied offhandedly. “Just someone I made up. I call her Lady Luck.”
He moved to sit again. “Why do you call her that?”
“Because it’s for a Luck etching.” Had he not noticed? Her father had missed it, of course, but her father had not been an Alchemist.
“A what?” Gabriel asked.
Surely her talents were not as insignificant as all that. Maybe he was testing her. “An etching for Luck. I have the original print here.” She unfolded the paper and traded him for the book. “Look there,” she pointed to the woman’s collar. “Do you not see the symbols?”
Gabriel held the small paper a few inches from his face and angled it to better catch the light. “Why you’re right. My heavens, what precision. If I ever had doubts about your skill as an artist, I certainly don’t now. Remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.”
“I know it’s small magic,” she added quickly, “and you are used to things on a much grander scale. That’s why I’ve come. I believe that I have learned all I can in this area, and I’d like to move on. I was hoping to apprentice myself to one of your Alchemists or perhaps…” she trailed off.
Gabriel stared at her; his dark eyes fixed, his brows furrowed. Oh, no. She had let her mouth run away with her again. When would she ever learn to stop? Silence was called golden for a reason. Gabriel probably had the same ideas as his uncle about women overstepping their bounds and was shocked at what she was suggesting. Well, it was too late now. The words were out, and there was no net that could catch them and bring them back.
Desperate, Minna smiled and attempted to make light of the conversation. “Should I be the one apologizing now?”
Gabriel snapped out of whatever trance he was in, and grinned. “I’m afraid I mistook your words for a moment, Miss Willows. I am sure what you meant to say was that this was a luck charm, like any other superstitious fancy.” He held up the paper. “There is no magic here.”
Minna leapt to her feet, and Gabriel stumbled to do so as well. “Now see here,” she said. “You must admit that the womanly arts have less available to them, more limitations, tighter boundaries inside which they must remain. You may be much better at it than a girl of seventeen, but your lifestyle has afforded you the opportunity to study it at great length. I believe that I am proficient at enough magic to know what it is I’m doing. Since I do not have the freedom of quantity, I practice quality. It may be small, but you cannot deny that it is perfect.”
“My good woman,” Gabriel replied rather condescendingly, “It is neither you nor your talents I doubt, but the existence of magic itself.”
“I am not a child, Mister Chamberlain. You do not have to feign ignorance on my behalf. You are a scientist yourself. If you are involved in your uncle’s Society, I cannot believe that you do not know about this simple force of Nature.”
“I can honestly say I have never experienced it.”
No experience? Well, she could certainly remedy that. Minna opened the book in her hand to a page near the middle, a picture of a house by a stream. The illustration did not hold as much magic as the original etching itself but the symbols were still there, echoes of the promise of magic. She held it out to him.
“I have already told you,” he said, leaning in, “your work is breathtaking, my dear.” He stepped closer. “Fantastic. Charming. Quite the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” He reached out to snatch the book away. “Do you have a print of this etching? I must have it. No, I must have the master itself. It is so simple and yet so… haunting. I must have it. I will give you absolutely anything your heart desires to have it.”
“Turn the page,” she said with confidence.
He flipped to the next page, revealing a simple pastoral setting with a church. A mother and a daughter were on their way inside. The calmness of the image belied the true intent of the hidden symbol.
“This is horrible,” he spat. “Tragic. Sad.” His face contorted with disgust. “You are a despicable woman. Vile. What a wretched woman you are for showing me such a thing. And what a nosy busybody you are for coming here in the first place. You may be able to draw passably well, but your nose is far too large and your insolence…”
Minna had heard enough from that one. She reached out and turned the page herself this time. The illustration here was of a vee of ducks, passing over a stream at sunset.
Gabriel looked at her, his dark eyes pleading. She watched him mouth shape the words: I am so sorry, but no sound escaped. He lifted a hand to his throat. His next silent words were something along the lines of What the Devil…
And in that silence, Minna heard the hammering of a determined fist on the front door.
“My daughter is in there, and I demand to see her at once!”
The bark of her mother’s voice down the hallway snapped Minna to attention. She was caught. Her heart raced as her mother’s voice drew closer, grumbling down the hall and overshadowing the pleas of the butler trailing in her furious wake. Minna winced as the door flew open.
Her mother swept past her in a flurry of rose skirts and snatched the book from Gabriel’s hands. She gave him a withering look, causing the young man to falter before he snapped a bow to her. Finding his voice, he barely managed to croak, “Gabriel Chamberlain.”
“I gathered that from your shining head, young man. God did not choose that color for many of his servants, and it’s a blessed good thing.” She turned to Minna. “Miss Willows does not realize that this cloud has no silver lining. It would have been decent of you to have informed her of that immediately and sent her on her way instead of leading her a merry dance. Such behavior is unbecoming.”
“You are correct, Mrs. Willows,” Gabriel stammered. “I… Please forgive me.”
“Forgiven, and I trust never to be repeated. Good night, Mister Chamberlain.”
“Good night, Mrs. Willows. Miss Willows.” He bowed again, meeting Minna’s eyes for a heartbeat. “It was…illuminating.” Minna was not allowed the luxury of time to bid her farewell before her mother ushered her out of the door.
The ride home was silent. Not merely silent, cold. The longer her mother was quiet, the stronger her voice was when she decided to use it. Minna removed her gloves and picked at the rough spots on her fingertips. She risked a glance at Beatrice. Beatrice met it knowingly. Minna pursed her lips. No need to investigate who had betrayed her.
When the carriage came to a halt, Minna was surprised to find herself not at home, but back at the steps of Effie’s house. Her mother strode up to and through the door determinedly. As luck would have it, someone was there to open it for her. Had there not been, Minna was sure she would have seen the door torn from its hinges as her mother passed.
There was no other carriage in sight, so the séance must have been “successful” and therefore brief. The house was still eerily dark, however, the incense much stronger than it had been when she had left.
Minna’s mother stormed through the house, through the entrance hall and into the kitchen where Effie’s mother was boiling water for coffee in a copper pan on the stove.
“Theodosia, they have gone too far.” Mother did not speak loudly when addressing Effie’s mother by her full name, but her tone roared through Minna’s ears. She tossed the black book on the table. Its slight clatter was akin to the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer on an anvil.
Effie came down the stairs to investigate the commotion, and without misplacing a single step on the stairway performed a perfect pirouette and headed straight back up them.
“Oh no you don’t. Come back down here at once young lady.” Effie stopped mid-step and turned, wincing. “Come along with you, girl.”
Effie trudged back down the stairs, exchanging worried looks with Minna as the pair of them were ushered into the kitchen.
“Sit,” Minna’s mother ordered.
Minna drew up a dining chair and Effie took her time crossing the room to sit beside her. Thea Theda—“Aunt” Theda, as Minna referred to her friend’s mother—was still concentrating on the water. She added four spoonfuls of coffee, and matched them with four more of sugar. She watched it boil up once, twice, then a third time.
Minna felt Effie’s hand searching for hers under the table. She reached out and held it tightly.
Thea Theda poured the coffee into four small cups and handed them out. Minna leaned over her cup and breathed in the dark heady aroma. The addictive smell was deceiving. She didn’t really enjoy the vile brew, sugar or not. But if she could make it down to the mud, Thea Theda would spin it and read the grinds for her. The séances may have been just for show, but there was most assuredly more to her gypsy friends than candles and incense. They were nothing more than tricks to gull the naive.
Minna watched her mother crack open the book and thumb through the pages until she found the second picture she had shown Gabriel, the one with the cottage he was desperate to possess. Thea Theda made a small circle in the air with her finger above the picture, protecting herself from the effect of the illustration before moving in closer to examine it more thoroughly.
“Desire,” Thea Theda muttered, her accent as thick as the coffee.
Mother turned the page.
“Hate,” The H was gutteral, scraping down Minna’s already frayed nerves.
“Silence.” She stuck a bit of her tongue between her teeth and took a sip of her coffee. “You are very talented, pedi.”
“Don’t encourage her, Theda!” Mother closed the book. “Did you teach her this?”
“No.” Thea Theda took another silent sip and stared across the table at Effie. Old chocolate brown eyes met young ones. Effie’s hand squeezed Minna’s painfully.
“You said I could learn the magic. You never said I couldn’t read the books!” Effie cried.
Thea Theda’s voice was deadly calm. “Neh, pethimou, but you should have asked me first.”
“Why? You didn’t ask your mother how to have visions, did you?” Effie spat.
“No,” Thea Theda said curtly. “But I did ask her about it when I had them.”
“Listen to me, girls,” Mother laid her hand on the cover of the book, “there are rules to this kind of thing. Limits. There have to be. Otherwise, it gets out of hand.”
Minna had heard this argument one too many times. If Effie could be passionate, so could she. “I know there are limits! But I want to go beyond them! Don’t you understand? I am better than that! I have the talent! I’m old enough to know!”
Mother’s jaw clenched as she lowered her voice as much as Minna had raised hers. The difference was frightening. “You never did listen did you? You heard, but you never did listen. There is no limit to what you can do. The limits are those you must impose on yourself. Mark me, girls, pay heed for once in your short lives. Those limitations are to keep you from becoming dangerous. You are old enough to see the power only, and naturally you crave that power. What you need to do now is be mature enough to realize that it is the small magics that make the biggest difference.”
Minna let out an exasperated breath and threw her free hand in the air. “How am I going to grow by etching ‘Luck’ and ‘Fertility’?”
Mother turned to the page for Silence and spun it around to Minna. “If you can stop a voice, who is to say that you cannot stop a breath? Answer me that, girl! Where does it end?”
Minna leaned in beside Effie to look at the ducks, idly flying to the south before winter approached. The almost indistinguishable symbols ran along the ripples in the water they flew over, and along the blades of grass that bent in the wind. And there, at the tip of a cattail, was the symbol for speech. Change a line here, a curve there, cross it… her breath caught in her throat as the implications of what she was hearing, what she saw, hit their mark.
She felt Effie’s hand tremble in her own, and could not bring herself to let go. She realized she was crying. It didn’t matter.
Mother closed the book again, and stretched a hand out to her daughter. Their ink-stained fingers intertwined. “You must only put good things out into the world, for whatever you put out into the world comes back to you.”
“Three times,” added Thea Theda.
“Some people believe that, yes,” her mother said to Thea Theda. “Personally, I think that saying was simply made up so that you would be sure to judge the consequences of your actions.”
Thea Theda threw a hand in the air, as if waving that nonsense away.
“This is one of the reasons why the ways of these magics have been passed down from mother to daughter. Long ago, when men had the gift and could harness their power, and as a result caused great devastation. So God withdrew his gift and took the power away from them.”
Minna drew in a breath and held it. She could hardly believe what she was hearing. She always thought they had kept the magic a secret from Father because women were not permitted to practice it. She never would have imagined that Father had not known how to do it. That he had never known. That no man knew.
“No help,” said Thea Theda. “They make their machines and destroy the world anyway.”
Mother stood slowly. “You may stay here with Effie for the night, though I need to see the carriage home. Good night, everyone.” And with that, her mother left the kitchen.
“Come on,” Effie said. “It has been a long night. Let us get some sleep.” Minna nodded and started to follow her out of the kitchen.
“No fortune?” Thea Theda called, waving at Minna’s untouched cup. Even at this point, Minna would always swallow the lukewarm drink like medicine so that she might have a glimpse of things that had happened long ago, or that hadn’t happened yet. Better than the fortune, she liked the stories Thea Theda saw there.
But not tonight.
She had had enough of small magics for tonight.
“No thank you,” Minna replied. “I don’t think I want to know.” She left both cup and book behind and trudged wearily up the stairs.
Even as she stepped into the bedroom Effie started pulling at Minna’s clothes. “Start talking, leave nothing out until you’re done and start with Gabriel.” She sang his name teasingly.
Minna began and retold the story over and over until Effie fell asleep in the bed beside her.
Minna reached over and drew a symbol on her friend’s olive skin with her finger. Sweet dreams. She could have done more, added a swirl, have Effie going off on a ship to be a pirate. Intersect that line with another, and she could have given her flowers and rainbows and love and happiness. But they would not be Effie’s own thoughts and dreams; they would be ones of Minna’s making.
She laid her hands over the invisible lines she had drawn. Sweet dreams. That was enough. She drew the symbol on the back of her own hand, turned her head into the soft pillow, and slept.