Along came a spider

Bulbridge, Wiltshire. September 1954.

Autumn sunshine. Seen through the liquid ambers it was the colour of honey. Thomas Muffitt put his hand on a pane of glass, reaching out to the light. The pane was cold on his palm and he quickly withdrew his hand.

Oh, Patience, can you build me a better world?

“Father?”

Muffitt turned to glance at his daughter, pale and slight, and sombrely shook his head. He pulled the eyeglasses down from his forehead and peered at the spider in the glass jar that had been sent him by a naturalist friend in the Cheviots. At least he thought it was from a friend whom he believed lived in the Cheviots. He screwed open the lid and carefully retrieved the specimen with a pair of forceps. The spider wriggled furiously, but to no avail. He teased it with a pipette until it was angry.

“Patience?”

His daughter put out her arm. He put the spider against her skin. Patience flinched when the spider bit her.

Muffitt quickly replaced the spider in its jar and screwed the lid back on. He then lifted his daughter’s arm and studied the bite. “Ah, good. Two punctures. Perforations two millimetres apart.” He looked at Patience over the top of his glasses. “Any reaction yet?”

“Only the pain from the bite.”

“Let me know.”

“I will, Father.”

She had golden hair. Like autumn sunshine, he thought. Not like her mother at all. But in almost every other respect …

“Very well.” He waved her off. “Very well.”

Patience left and he turned to his notebook. He wrote: unkn. sp. (gen. Scotophaeus? but blue multistranded web like gen. Amaurobius?), found 3 miles nw Alwinton, N’umberland, body 10 millimetres, span 15 millimetres, pedipalpi considerably shorter than 1st leg segment, large protruding chelicerae (gen. Dysdera), diet unkn.

Muffitt pushed his glasses back onto his forehead. Maybe this one, he thought.

His daughter returned briefly to tell him his expected guest had arrived.

#

Patience sat in the bay window of the reading room. She put her book down and looked at the bite. There was some swelling, but that was utterly ordinary, nothing her father would be interested in. She timed her pulse. Utterly, utterly ordinary.

She looked out the window, wondering what it was her father had seen among the trees. It all looked the same to her. Everything always looked the same to her.

#

Lord Willoughby thumbed through the new manuscript of Muffitt’s book.

“I don’t see the change you wanted me to peruse, Thomas – “

Muffitt smiled patiently and flipped the pages back to the title sheet. Under Theatrum insectorum appeared a dedication.

“For my patron and friend, Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby d’Eresby,” the lord read aloud, and blushed. “I say.” But for a moment that was all he could say.

“I thought it fitting, Peregrine. Without your help this book would never have been completed.”

Lord Willoughby cleared his throat. “And you have found a publisher?”

“Zetzner is doing an edition.”

“While hunting for the change last night I could not help notice you persist with giving the arachnids their own subphylum.”

Muffitt said defensively, “Together with horseshoe crabs, ticks, scorpions – “

“Hardly the point.”

Muffitt sighed. “I see no sense in heaping spiders with insects with crabs with centipedes … ” He let the complaint die. “Well, you know all this.”

“Then why keep the word ‘insect’ in the title?”

“Zetzner would not publish it otherwise,” Muffitt said, his voice rising. “They argue that no school or college would pick it up.”

“But Zetzner will publish it if you keep this title?”

“You have the galleys in your hands.”

“It will cause a storm.”

“Good!” Muffitt exclaimed. “The world is always beset by storms. It’s about time a hurricane batted the long-protected heads of naturalists; we’ve had it too easy – too neat – for too long. The world is more complex than we could know.” He swallowed. “More changeable, too.”

“The Royalists will want you behind bars.”

“Parliament will protect me,” he said, not entirely sure how he knew.

“You are an iconoclast.”

“I am a scientist.”

Willoughby snorted. “Oh, there’s a difference?”

#

Patience had tired of the view. In fact, she was feeling pleasantly lethargic, like she had that time her uncle had given her too much sherry to drink. She wondered in what world that had happened. She could not remember if she had an uncle in this one. Her lips were tingling. She touched her nose. It was numb, as if she had been outside in the cold autumn air. She hummed a little nursery rhyme. The light outside was changing.

Father should know about this, she thought, but that fat Lord Willoughby was with him and Willoughby would be angry if she disturbed them.

High overhead she heard the hum of the Liverpool-London airship. She wondered if one day she would be able to travel on one. She would like to visit the Egypt Protectorate, and maybe even further afield, to the kingdoms of Siam or Kalimantan. She wondered what colour the light would be near the tropics.

She did not like Lord Willoughby. He looked at her the same way he looked at one of his prize heifers. No, she corrected herself, the way he looked at one of his gun dogs.

She was very, very tired. The sun was low on the horizon now, the colour of mustard. Darkness was starting to walk the earth, and she would embrace it, use it to find their home, the world her father so desperately wanted to return to, the world he missed so much. The wife he missed so much. Patience could not remember her mother; in this world, at least, she had died giving birth to her.

And in the first world, the primary, she had been far too young. Patience dimly remembered white hands and rose water and carbolic acid. The last from her father’s laboratory, probably, cleaned every day by her mother.

Her memories were drifting.

She was two or three years old, sneaking into the laboratory. Her father was working at his desk, so intent on his notes he did not notice her. There was a spider, so pretty. She let the spider out of the bottle and it bit her. The world shifted rather than changed, moving sideways, and everything was golden for an instant.

Things got very confusing after that. As her father told Patience much later he did not at first know that anything was different, only that his daughter was crying in pain from a spider bite. He searched frantically for the spider but could not find it, and then realised all the spiders in their bottles were out of order, rearranged somehow. That was the first sign, he realised afterwards. The second was that the radio had gone dead, not even hissing static. Then he could not find his wife although only moments before she had been in the room next door: the third and most terrible sign.

If father was right, all worlds came from Patience originally, or her namesake, or ancestor or avatar. The great creator, the weaver of the web that held together the universe, and he tried again and again to get her to recreate that first world, the one with his wife and her mother still in the room next door to the laboratory. It was the sign by which he determined that all his succeeding experiments with Patience and spider envenomation had failed. Yet still he tried, never gave up searching for his wife, hardly caring about the worlds Patience created for him except for how it might help him regain what he had lost, and never stopping to consider what he had.

Things were moving sideways again. A nursery rhyme popped into her head and she sang it with the voice of a small girl.

Little Mary Ester

Sat upon a tester …

#

Fobbing, Essex. September 1954.

Sir Thomas Moffett, Particular to the Earl of Essex, had been searching for the missing link for half his life in this world. When he found it on a cool, autumn day in a copse near his brother’s rectory, he did not at first understand the significance of the specimen in his glass jar. When he returned to the rectory he and his brother had shared a phial of tarantium, and it was some hours before he came out of the stupor and borrowed his brother’s magnifying glass and his copy of Gesner, Wotton and Penny’s Theatrum insectorum. That is when he finally realised his quest was completed.

“This is it,” he said intensely.

William, an amateur naturalist in his own right who specialised in serpents, and who had been watching on with interest, said, “It is what, exactly?”

“A Mygalomorph.”

“Good for it. What in dickens name is a Mygalomorph?”

“A fossil,” Moffett said, standing up suddenly and breathing in deeply.

“Awfully active for a fossil,” William said. “Awfully ugly, too. A brute of an insect.”

Moffett looked severely at his brother. “We’ve had this argument before. Spiders are not insects.” He tapped the jar with a pencil. The spider reared up on its hind legs and tried to strike at the pencil through the glass. Clear drips of venom trickled down the inside of the jar.

“Did you see that?” Moffett asked excitedly.

“Yes. It is an ugly brute.”

“No! The fangs! They operate vertically, straight up and down. Most spiders’ fangs move like pincers.” Moffett moved his arms in and out to demonstrate. William looked on with amusement.

“We have only found Mygalomorphs as fossils before,” Moffett went on, a little impatiently. He turned to Theatrum insectorum. “There,” he said, pointing. William looked at the photograph of an irregularly shaped piece of shale; impressed in the rock was the brother – or sister, he supposed – of the spider in the jar. The caption said Aganippe sp.

“You are being literal, aren’t you?” William asked, new respect in his voice. “This is the first time a live one of these – ” he jabbed at the photograph “ – has been found?”

“Yes. Yes, I think so.”

“Good God.”

#

The queen’s army had given up its siege of London and was now moving north in search of supplies, especially gunpowder. The Earl of Essex had to retreat before it, ironically a victim of his own success: it had been his force that had attacked at great cost the besieging Royalists at Epping, diverting them from their main task.

Thomas and William Moffett said their good-byes hurriedly. The sound of artillery thundered just the other side of Fobbing.

“Have you your specimen?” William asked.

Moffett patted the pannier at the back of his motorcycle.

“Thanks for the book. I don’t know where my copy is. Probably with Patience.”

“Have you heard from her?”

Moffett’s expression did not change, but his voice tightened. “Rupert has his armour astride the main roads to Wiltshire. Nothing is getting through, not even the mail.” He tried to smile bravely. “But Rupert can’t stay there forever.”

“Then perhaps you should not post the spider to her,” William suggested. “Leave it with me.”

“I love you dearly, brother, but you have a rector’s absent mind. You would lose it among the jumble you call a house.”

William nodded. “True.” He grasped Moffett’s shoulder. “For God’s sake be careful. The queen hates scientists as much as she does Parliamentarians, and you are the Earl of Essex’s Particular, which makes you particularly hated. If she gets her hands on you she will have your head.”

Moffett patted the hand. “I will be careful.”

#

For a long while Patience Moffett stared at the messenger. He was no more than a boy, soot-stained cheeks, eyes hollow from hunger and shiny with parliamentary fervor, tatty leather riding gear. An ancient Browning was stuck in his belt; she noticed the safety was off, and wondered if he was aware of it. Was the gun for bravado?

“Miss?” he said, and held out the package again.

She looked at it. Plain brown wrapping and string, her name and address in her father’s scribble. She took it gingerly.

“Did Particular Moffett give you this himself?” she asked.

The messenger nodded. “He was healthy when I saw him,” he said, guessing the next question. “He’s high in the earl’s favour, they say.”

Patience laughed, mostly in relief. “Yes. I believe he is. Thank you.”

Without another word he turned to go.

“Wouldn’t you like some food and drink? A cot for the night?”

He mounted his horse. “Have to get back, Miss, you understand.”

“Of course.” She thought petrol must be desperately short if the army was sending its messengers out on horseback. “Drive … ride … carefully.”

He touched his cap and dug his heels in. A minute later the sound the of the galloping horse faded away; the gallop had been for bravado, too. The woods rustled with a cool breeze. Afternoon shadows played on the lawn. She retreated back into the house, closing the door after her.

She sat in the bay window and carefully opened the package, revealing a small wooden box and a letter.

Dear daughter, the letter read, I know you will realise how important is the enclosed specimen as soon as you look at it. You will also know what to do with it. As you know, it is hard to remember what the first spider was all those worlds ago, but in my bones I feel it was an ancient species.

Essex has won another victory over the queen, but Rupert is behind us now and we’re starting to feel the squeeze. Apparently Hopetoun is on his way, but autumn rains have bogged down his armour. Pray for me as I pray daily for you. All my love, your father. sgd Particular Thomas Moffett, in service to Parliament and the Earl of Essex.

She opened the lid of the box and inside was a perfectly mounted spider, large, black, shiny, forward-projecting chelicerae, and …

She held her breath. No, it isn’t possible. After all these years.

Next to the spider was a phial of its venom. She held it up to the light. Clear as water. No colour at all. How strange, she thought, and then wondered at her own reaction. Why should she expect venom from a Mygalomorph to be the same yellow-white as venom from an Araneomorph?

She collected the tape recorder and the syringe from the top drawer of her father’s desk, loaded the phial into the syringe and quickly injected one millimetre of the venom into the crook of her arm. Almost instantly she cried out in pain. It burned like acid. She fumbled with the recorder’s microphone. By the time she turned it on the pain had spread several centimetres up and down her arm. She talked haltingly into the microphone, recording her reactions. After a while her mouth was producing too much saliva for her to speak clearly. She tried to stand up to collect a notebook and pencil, knowing how important were these first reactions to the envenomation, but the muscles in her limbs would no longer obey her; in fact, they had started twitching slightly. She was sweating as if it was the hottest summer day and she was in her church clothes.

She rested back in the bay seat, staring outside towards the trees. She remembered once a long time ago – and maybe in a different world – that her father had tutored a Sikh student from the Kingdom of Amritsar, and he had told her that God was like a spider; just as the spider’s web came from within it, so did the universe come from God.

The light outside seemed almost solid. Without knowing why a nursery rhyme popped into her head. Her father used to sing it to her when she was a little girl, in another century and in another place. She remembered the lyrics as if she had only heard them yesterday.

Little Miss Mopsey

Sat in a shopsey …

#

Cambridge, Cambridgeshire. September 1954.

Tommy Moufet stared at his grease paint reflection and wondered, very briefly, if there was anything left behind the makeup; if he wiped it all away, would his own face still be there? The next moment it did not matter, his mind focused solely on the performance ahead. He leaned into the mirror and used a sponge to deaden the highlights on his cheeks. There was a knock on the door and the stage boy came in. Moufet glanced in the mirror, realised it was somebody he could be curt with but decided to be magnanimous. He had also seen the Browning in its shoulder holster. He knew the Particulate had issued a warning about the riots, even going so far as to threaten marshal law, but he thought it a bit high-handed of theatre management to give their bloody boys real guns.

“Yes?” Moufet asked in his most Learish voice. Yes, my son, I am old and tired but a good and regal king, at least until the second scene.

“It’s … it’s … “

Moufet put down the sponge and intoned, “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.”

“ … her, Mr Moufet. She’s here.”

For a moment Moufet had no idea what the boy was talking about, because with a sharp pang of sudden misery he knew Shakeshaft was wrong. With a daughter who could create whole universes, existence continually sprung from nothing, or so close to it not to count. How had it all started? He could no longer remember. He could not even remember when or where it had all started. Aeons ago, across genesis after genesis.

“Mr Glenville said he’d told you about her.” The boy was almost desperate.

“Ah,” he said, his mind slinging back to the present, and in his real voice, “Of course.” And he thought, Bloody Peter and his public relations. “Show her up.”

The boy gratefully disappeared. Moufet stood up, looked around uncertainly. How should he greet her? Sitting? He tied his gown. Kneeling? The thought made him giggle. Oh, Christ, the Particulate would have my guts for garters. The thought of garters got him going again. He knew he sounded like one of Cinderella’s tittering sisters.

And he realised in a strange, heady rush, that he did not know who Cinderella was. The name was an echo in an empty room.

Sit down, he told himself, and did so. A second later he crossed his legs. A second after that he leaned further back in the chair and lifted his chin, glanced at himself in the mirror and saw the line between makeup and skin around his neck. He lowered his chin. Reached for his cigarettes. Before he could light one the door opened, she appeared and Tommy Moufet almost forgot himself; if he hadn’t forced himself down he would have been kneeling before her like some Cambridgeshire peasant.

“Mr Moufet?”

He nodded, trying not to make it too imperious.

“I am Margaret Windsor.” She held up the camera and camera bag. “I’ve come to take some publicity shots.”

“Yes, of course. How would you like me?”

Margaret Windsor blinked. “Umm … “

Chrissakes, Moufet thought, what did I say that for? “A reflection? Houston Rogers did that with me in ’49. Turned out rather well. Or if you give me twenty minutes I’ll be in costume and you can do me in a scene. Angus McBean did that one with me in the same year. Dramatic.” He was starting to babble and knew it; he always did that in front of beautiful women. He shut his mouth.

“Have you finished with the makeup?” she asked.

“Not quite.”

“Why don’t you carry on and I’ll just snap away.”

“Snap away?”

The woman nodded absently. He saw then that she was carrying a simple SLR, not one of those bloody plate cameras as large as a stage light. He sighed, and turned back to the mirror. He was about to dab himself with the cigarette, threw it away angrily and retrieved the sponge.

“Have you seen the play?” he asked.

“No,” she said, half her face hidden by the SLR. “But I know Terence, of course.”

“Of course,” he said drolly.

“So I know what it’s all about.”

“Have you done Miss Leighton yet?”

Click.

“After you.”

Moufet puffed out his cheeks. Looked at his face from every angle. He was doing quite a good job of it, but could not recall ever learning how to apply makeup.

Click.

“What is Peter going to do with the … ah … snaps, did he say?”

“Theatre posters, as I understand it. And I have a deal with the Daily Express. Two pounds for exclusive rights.”

Click.

Alarm bells went off in Moufet’s head. “Theatre posters?”

“Uh-huh.”

Click.

“Of me in my dressing room?”

Margaret was checking something on her camera. “Not necessarily. I want a good portrait, so I’ll crop them.”

I bloody hope so. Why couldn’t Peter have used Houston?

Click.

“Peter tells me you’re interested in bugs,” she said.

Moufet froze, the sponge suspended halfway to his nose. “Among other things,” he said carefully.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t care one way or the other.” She grinned at him in the mirror, and added dryly. “Me and the Particulate don’t get on, exactly. Nearly forty years since the revolution and they still don’t trust my family.”

Moufet almost said automatically “For good reason”, but he remembered just in time that the Particulate no longer trusted him either. No science for the common people, apparently. After all, science was knowledge, and knowledge was power, and as far as the Particulate was concerned everything must stay the way it was.

But nothing is the same.

Click.

He gave his reflection one more inspection and sat back. Another knock on the door and the stage boy reappeared. “Thirty minutes, Mr Moufet,” he said, glanced shyly at Margaret and disappeared again.

“Peter says you actually wrote a book about them.”

Moufet cleared his throat. “Have you almost finished? I need some time alone to prepare for the role.”

“You’re playing Mr Martin and Major Pollock?”

Click.

“Terence set it up that way. Miss Leighton is playing two roles as well.”

Margaret nodded. She let the camera hang from her neck, but she seemed reluctant to leave. Moufet looked at her with his polite face, waiting.

“Peter said you have a daughter. Patience.”

“Peter has been saying an awful lot,” he said tightly, the polite face slipping away. Royalty or not, no one trifled with his daughter.

“She helped you with your research, before the Particulate slammed down on independent – “

“Miss Windsor,” he said, stressing the miss, “what are you getting at?”

Margaret tried smiling, but the experiment failed. She put her hand in the camera bag, rifled around for a moment before withdrawing it with a small glass jar. “My father asked me to give you this.”

Moufet hesitated. He could see a curled black shape in the jar and he felt his sudden blaze of curiosity must have shone through his makeup.

She reached out further. “Go on,” she prompted.

He took it from her. His hand touched hers and he wondered if he had committed some blasphemy in doing that. Then his attention was taken entirely by the specimen in the jar. Although he had never seen one before, he knew what it was from story and legend.

“Phoneutria fera,” he whispered. “How did you … ?” He let the question fade on his lips. There was no other family in the world that could have gotten their hands on a specimen of the Brazilian wandering spider, not since the destruction of that country and its vast jungles in the world war of 1912. He knew he must have been a boy then, and had heard stories about the skies being dark for two years afterwards, bringing on famine and revolution, but he had no real memory of the time.

Perhaps he hadn’t really lived through it at all; that seemed to be happening more and more lately.

“Why me?” he asked. “There are hundreds of amateur particulars.”

“The spider is your specialty.”

“Still – “

“And Patience is your daughter.”

Moufet blinked at Margaret. “What do you know – ?”

“Only what father told me.” She looked confused. “I cannot pretend to understand his words, they made no sense, but they obviously meant a great deal to him.”

“What words were those?”

“He said that when the creator walks the ‘darkness of embrace’ the world is born anew.” She blushed with embarrassment. “I told you he made no sense. He stutters, you see – ”

Moufet nodded. “I see. Thank you.”

Margaret breathed deeply. “He thinks you can make the world better for my family.” She stared at Moufet then, as if trying to test the truth of her father’s belief by seeing into his mind. “He has risked a great deal – ”

“I understand. My daughter and I will do what we can.”

She nodded, but did not seem convinced. “Well, that’s all done, then. Time I caught up with Miss Leighton.”

She left without saying another word, not even goodbye. Moufet picked up the glass jar and studied the spider inside it; it may have been his imagination, but he thought it glared at him with malevolence. After a moment his hand started to shake.

#

Patience came out of a deep, dreamless sleep. Her mouth was as dry as a desert and the back of her throat felt like it had been rubbed with sandpaper. There was a glass of water on a night stand near the bay window where she lay curled. She sipped carefully from it, and remembered.

She sat up, suddenly alert. Outside it was still autumn, the light still flowed around the trees like honey. She could feel the cold through the panes of glass.

Sighing with disappointment, Patience scrabbled for her notebook. It was caught in between the folds of her dress. She quickly read the last entry, unclipped the pencil and wrote: Everything is the same.

On the nightstand, beside the glass of water, was a small phial. She picked it up and crossed out the label.

The front door opened. Patience frowned. It was too late for the cleaner and too early for the cook. Then she heard heavy, familiar footfalls.

“Father?”

The door to the sitting room opened and her father entered, obviously exhausted, his clothes spattered with mud.

“I did not hear you arrive … “

“I walked from Bulbridge,” he said and sat down next to her on the bay seat. “It was too late for a taxi.” His shoulders slumped. She could see traces of grease paint under his jaw.

“Why aren’t you in Cambridge? What’s happened to the play?”

“I told Peter I was sick; he got Eric Portman in.”

“What is it? What’s wrong?”

In answer he dug into his coat pocket and drew out the glass jar given him by Margaret Windsor. Patience took it from him immediately.

“I know what this is,” she said slowly.

Her father laid his hand gently on her leg. “Then you know what to do with it.”

“Father, I’m afraid.”

“I know. And I am afraid for you. But this time, this place, is not our home.”

“I don’t know what home is, Father. I have not been allowed to have one.”

Moufet blinked, opened his mouth to say something but closed it again. Patience saw confusion and pain in his expression, and it was almost too much for her. She held his hand and said, “I’m sorry. Of course I know. Home is where mother is.”

“Patience – ”

“But I don’t know that home either. I was only a small child. Now I’m a woman and I find I do want a home. I don’t want to change worlds anymore. I don’t want to learn whose side I’m on this time, learn the names of our friends who were enemies in the world before, see you risk your life for one side and then the other. I want peace and certainty and a future that doesn’t change every time you find a new species of spider.”

“Believe me, Patience, I want this life no more than you, but after searching for your mother for so long we must try again. Once more. Will you try once more, Patience? Will you?”

Little Miss Moufet

Sat on her tuffet …

#

Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire. SEPTEMBER, 1954.

“It was hysterical!” Elizabeth Thomas said, then imitated the contralto voice used in government announcements: “Science is for the people.” She laughed, a sound that was forced but infectious for all that and Patience joined in, not sure what it was they were laughing about. “Imagine following the news with an announcement like that!”

Dressed in a yellow summer dress and sitting in her yellow summer garden, Elizabeth seemed the perfect hostess to Patience who felt uncouth and cumbersome in the older woman’s presence. Bees hummed in the background. Chilled white wine coursed through her brain. She felt pleasantly sleepy.

Elizabeth stopped laughing with a sigh, which seemed very upper-class to Patience, and reached out for the wine bottle, accidentally knocking it over. “Oh, fuck!” she cried, quickly picking up the bottle and at the same time edging out of the way of the spill.

Patience glanced at her father, but he pretended not to have heard the word and continued to smile slightly as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Again, Patience thought it was a typically upper-class thing for a woman to swear like that in front of guests and not even to know she had done it.

There was a “halloo” from the house and Elizabeth’s husband appeared, a large balding man with a face which in a strange way made Patience think of an affable eagle. He was still dressed in a black suit and carried a bowler in one hand and a briefcase in the other. He bent over to kiss his wife who angled her head to present a cheek, then smiled tightly at Patience and more warmly at her father.

“Thomas,” he said in a north country accent and held out his hand.

Thomas Muffet stood up and accepted the hand gladly.

“Did you bring it?”

Muffet retrieved his own briefcase from beside his chair and held it up.

“Excellent. Why don’t you come up to the house now?”

“Oh, Isaiah,” Elizabeth said, pouting. “You’ve just come home. Leave work behind for a couple of hours at least. You and Thomas can yak all you want after dinner.”

“Best to get it over with.” Isaiah said it like an aphorism.

Elizabeth sighed, lost her pout and looked at Patience. “Well, we can stay and play for a while. Let the spoil sports go and nod wisely at each other all they like.”

Her husband barked a laugh, trying to mean it. “Publishing’s nothing to do with wisdom.” He tapped the side of his nose. “It’s to do with nous, and that’s not the same at all. Isn’t that right, Thomas?”

“I couldn’t say,” Muffet said. “Not my field at all.”

“Which is why you’re here,” Isaiah said as if Thomas Muffet had proved his point after all.

Muffet glanced at Patience and raised an eyebrow. “It’s perfectly alright,” she said, unintentionally copying Elizabeth’s accent. “We will cope just fine without you.”

The men left and – Patience thought it strange – the two women fell into an uncomfortable silence. Still the bees buzzed and the wine spread its glow until Patience thought her cheeks must be flashing like polished apples. She watched Isaiah and her father wind their way along the garden path before disappearing behind a dry stone wall.

This world is very pleasant, Patience thought. The summers are warmer. Things seem greener, somehow. We’ve lived through worse. Yet she knew for her father it still wasn’t good enough. As far as he was concerned the only one true act of creation included her mother, and they hadn’t found her yet.

But he had promised it was the last time.

“I’m glad your father brought you along,” Elizabeth said eventually. She looked around her garden. “It’s lovely here, isn’t it? I know you like it. I can tell. The Cotswolds are the most beautiful part of the world.” She frowned slightly. “Except the name of course. Chipping Norton. It’s not as charming and rustic as Stow on the Wold or Bourton on the Water, or as historic as Stratford on Avon or Oxford itself. Chipping Norton. Bloody dreadful, isn’t it? I mean ‘Chipping’ sounds like a substitute for a swear word, don’t you think? Something used by one of those clever dicks who think they’re being so modern by substituting when they should just go ahead and say it. It’s so snide, like they’re winking at you at the same time.”

She smiled in what Patience thought was a self-deprecating way and envied her the mannerism. Patience knew if she tried it would just look studied; “clever-dickish” as Elizabeth might put it.

Elizabeth refilled her glass and went on, her voice rising as she spoke. “I can imagine all these town planners sitting together – with bowlers and briefcases on the table in front of them – trying to figure out what to call this place and one suggests ‘Norton’ and another says – thinking he’s being modern – ‘Oh, not chipping Norton’, and then giggling like a school boy who’s told a fart joke and thinks it’s the cleverest thing ever said in the history of town planning …”

She stopped abruptly. “Oh, fuck it, I’m rabbiting on. Forgive me.”

“No, not at all,” Patience said, knowing even as the words came out they sounded frail and false.

“Well, you and your father should stay for the weekend. We’ll have fireworks in the village tomorrow night.”

“Something special?” Patience asked.

Elizabeth looked at her strangely. “Fifth anniversary of the Restoration, dear.”

“Ah. Of course.” Patience swallowed more wine.

“Good thing, too, or Isaiah would not be able to publish your father’s book.”

“Yes. Very lucky for him.”

“Things must have been hard under the Particulate for you two.”

“We managed,” Patience said, wondering if she sounded defensive, not sure if her memories of the time were real or not.

“Are you going to be a naturalist, too?”

“I already help my father with his experiments.”

Patience saw Elizabeth glance at the crooks of her elbows. The scars were quite small, but against her pale skin they seemed like angry mosquito bites. She folded her arms in her lap. “I make observations and take notes,” she continued.

“Now that your father’s work is going to be published, what will you do next?”

Patience almost said, “Keep on searching”, but stopped herself in time. She shrugged, and felt herself scrunch up defensively. “Carry on, I expect. Father believes he has only scratched the surface of the kingdom of spiders, and he hasn’t even started on ticks and scorpions yet.”

Elizabeth repressed a shiver. “Ugh. Ticks. Awful things. Scorpions, too.”

#

“A whole kingdom unto themselves,” Isaiah mumbled, staring at the contents page of the manuscript. “That’ll set the hornet among the swimmers.”

Muffet blinked at the expression. He dimly remembered something similar but could not put his mind on it.

“You include twizzle-legs and seastingers among them. I find that wonderfully curious. Don’t seastingers have ten legs?”

“That’s true, but anatomically they are related to spiders. They all share a common ancestor.”

“Ah, this evolution you speak of. Erasmus Darwin’s theory.”

Muffet nodded eagerly. “He is close to the mark, I think, but his predecessor, Lamarque, was closer yet.”

“A Frenchman? That will make it popular with the new king’s Royal Society. As long as Germans aren’t involved, all the king’s men are for the Continent. You should see the spats all the gentlemen are wearing in the city these days. What is fashion in Paris one day is fashion in London the day after.”

Isaiah reached into one of his bureau drawers and withdrew a wad of newpound notes. “Will this cover your expenses?”

Muffet took the money, trying hard not to keel over with relief. “Amply. Thank you.”

“You will stay here with Elizabeth and me, of course, through the editing. You and your daughter.”

“That is very generous of you.”

“Not at all. I think Elizabeth and Patience are getting on like … ”

Isaiah’s affable face creased into a frown, as if the thought in his head had simply dissolved.

“Like a house on fire,” Muffet finished for him.

Isaiah’s frown disappeared and his face opened with genuine pleasure. “I like that,” he said, chuckling. “‘Like a house on fire’!”

#

“They are really quite beautiful,” Patience said. “Scorpions, I mean. Not ticks.”

“Really? Even with all those legs? I don’t believe you.”

Elizabeth said it playfully, tipsily, but Patience surprised herself by feeling a flush of anger.

“Yes, beautiful. They hold their tails with the most lovely curve … ” She tried to imitate it with her arm and hand, knowing even as she did so that she was mucking it up, not explaining it at all well. She dropped her arm clumsily. “It is lovely,” she finished lamely.

Elizabeth regarded her with benign forbearance. “I see your point. Scorpions have an art deco tail. In their way, they are very modern.”

Patience laughed despite herself. Elizabeth not only understood, even if she did not agree, she also wanted to ease her guest’s embarrassment. She sipped more of her wine, feeling completely relaxed and unfamiliarly secure. She really did like it here. The people seemed as kind as nature.

But still not home, Patience reminded herself. She did not know what art deco was, exactly, but it sounded temptingly modern.

Given time, she could learn.

#

Patience intercepted her father on his way out of the grand house and took his hands in hers.

“Where are you going?”

He looked at her guiltily, then glanced at the doorman holding open the car door for him. “I have to go to London. I won’t be long.”

“I don’t want you to go.”

“Isaiah has given me … us … a substantial advance.”

“Don’t spend it on your specimens.”

“It’s for us, Patience. We are so close, we cannot stop now.”

“You asked me try once more, and I brought us here. I created this world for us. There is none better. I will not dream again. I don’t want to leave. I like it here.”

“But this is not our home. We don’t belong.”

“I don’t care,” Patience said, her voice rising.

Muffet glanced again, nervously, at the doorman, and said in a hushed voice, “Isaiah and Elizabeth have been very kind to us, but we can’t expect them to let us live in their house all our lives.”

“Don’t be patronising. It’s not the house. It’s this world. It is comfortable, curious and almost familiar. There is no civil war. Science is waking after a long sleep. Life could be a lot worse.”

“It is not our home.”

“We could make it our home.”

Muffet smiled thinly and eased out of his daughter’s grasp. “I will be back soon,” he promised.

#

Elizabeth thought Patience looked wan and worried after her father left for London, so she took her to Oxford. Long established as an agricultural centre, Oxford now had aspirations after the Restoration of making itself as a university town, establishing new halls and laboratories and red brick lodgings, and tempting clerics, philosophers and particulars out from hiding in England and back from exile in France and the Low Countries. The streets were crowded with automobiles and steam caravanserai, and up above gyroliners chuckered in from London to land near roof hangars. The air was yellow with coal dust and kerosene vapour, and it seemed to Patience that everyone moved with great energy and determination. Guild and faculty flags fluttered from almost every building, and hawkers strode up and down outside theatres calling out the cost of lectures scheduled for the day.

Elizabeth showed her the Cathedral of St Mary the Martyr, the patron saint of her descendant Charles the King Returned, and the new college of St Mary Tudor, where theology and science would be taught side-by-side, no longer contained by the strictures of a despotic parliament, and next to the college the large brass globe of the world that marked the English campus of Prince Henry the Navigator’s famous college of physics and mathematics, once closed by the Particulate but open for business once more.

Patience studied everything with wide eyes and almost desperate impatience. She wanted to see everything, attend every lecture and talk, wanted be a part of the new world on display here in Oxford.

The climax of the visit came when Elizabeth showed Patience the new school of anatomy and biology, its buildings still being constructed under the supervision of the Royal College of Surgeons.

“They are looking for zoologists, anthropologists, botanists,” Elizabeth said. “Isaiah is already contracted with the school for their journal and half a dozen text books.” She added, rather archly, “They are also looking for an entomologist.”

Patience understood it was an offer, unofficial but she was sure with some weight behind it. The way Elizabeth had been allowed access to so many schools and colleges proved she was known, if only as the wife of Isaiah Thomas, the kingdom’s foremost publisher, and in her own right as granddaughter of her namesake, the famous editor Elizabeth Goose. But Patience also understood it was an offer of a position for Thomas Muffet. As much as she liked this world, it was still a small place in many ways, and her own future was still pinned to her father’s.

“And female students,” Elizabeth said as if reading Patience’s mind. “The first university school in England to do so.”

Patience, experiencing a lightheaded exhilaration, remembered little of their excursion after that until they returned to the house in Chipping Norton and right away saw her father had returned from London. He was standing on the front steps, talking excitedly with Isaiah, his sample case under one arm. Her exhilaration fled like day before night and a heavy sadness settled on her heart.

#

“You promised. One more time, you said.”

Patience would not look at him. She sat at her dresser, staring out over the gardens that surrounded the house. A peacock strutted across the lawn immediately below, and a dog on some mission or another made a wide circle around it. Above, low clouds that only an hour before had threatened rain were dispersing and blue sky shone sweetly.

Thomas Muffet, kneeling on one knee by Patience, squeezed shut his eyes and shook his head. “Don’t repeat my words to me. I know what I said, and I am sorry. But Patience, you must understand, this world is nothing to me without … ” He stopped, realising what he had said and filled with sudden guilt because of it.

“It’s always her,” Patience said quietly. “Even with me, this world is worth nothing to you?”

“That is not what I meant to say,” he said. “I cannot imagine life without you, my sweet Patience, and this world is close to perfect.” His voice became strained, almost pleading. “But you never knew your mother.”

“She died because of me, I know that.”

Muffet stood, suddenly cool and aloof with self-righteous anger. “I have never accused you of that.”

Patience looked squarely at him and he could not meet her gaze. It was enough.

“I like this world,” she said plainly.

“I know. I am sorry.”

“You are always sorry,” she said, “but never mean it.” She sighed heavily. “When?”

He slumped with relief, and handed her a vial of yellowish Araneomorph venom.

“From the genus Nigma, I think. New species, though. Unnamed.” He started speaking with the rekindled enthusiasm of someone who had won an unexpected victory. “It is the most delicate green spider with a darker green curlicue on the abdomen. Art deco, Thomas called it.” He laughed nervously, almost a titter, then swallowed. “Tonight. After our hosts are asleep. Do it then.”

He kissed her head and left, and for a long while Patience could not move. She was paralysed by the expectation of loss. She looked out into the gardens. The peacock had gone. Elizabeth was there now, talking with a gardener, smiling as brightly as the day. And then, without warning, like the final piece of a jigsaw, she realised how alike Elizabeth was to descriptions her father had given her of her mother. Blond and English, tall and slim, laughing and gentle. Now that she thought on it, Patience realised there even was something of the mother and daughter in their relationship, in the care and consideration Elizabeth had shown her, in the way Patience looked forward to being in her company and wanting to emulate her.

Patience absently rubbed the crook of her elbow. The scars of innumerous bites felt like Braille under the tips of her fingers.

A decision came to her, unsought, unexpected, but right, and having made it she would not wait. She retrieved the hypodermic bag from a drawer in the dresser and prepared the venom. There was hardly any sting at all, and the venom caused nothing but a slight swelling. After a while, though, she was aware of the edge of her vision losing focus and the colour seeping out like spilled wine.

It was easier than she had thought it would be. As the new world formed, Patience concentrated on keeping her distance, regarding it the way she had the view of the garden from her bedroom window. She imagined her father there, and saw him standing on a green hill looking around expectantly. She cried, because she loved him like a daughter should, and her tears became a warm rain gently falling around him. Then she closed her eyes, and when she opened them she was still in Elizabeth and Isaiah’s house, but in her heart was a great hole where her father used to be.

#

Bulbridge, wiltshire. January 1963.

William placed a gentle hand on his brother’s shoulder as he stood by the grave of his wife. The despondency that had fallen on Thomas since the start of her long illness two years before had grown in weight until it seemed it would overwhelm him completely, and nothing William or any of Thomas’s friends could do made any difference to his frame of mind. His fame as a zoologist meant nothing to Thomas anymore, despite the long years of intellectual courage and honesty he had applied in his research and writing.

William sighed. After striving all his life for a place in the sun, Thomas had lost it at the last. If only he and his wife had managed to have children, perhaps there would have been some room for hope.

After a long while, William tucked his hand inside Thomas’s arm and led him away from the grave. Thomas offered no resistance, but his gaze never lifted from the ground. They had reached the hearse when Thomas stopped suddenly and bent down. When he stood, he showed William a tiny, almost transparently green spider on the tip of one finger. Thomas stared at the spider intently, and even as William guided him into the car and they drove away from the cemetery and all his past, he never once took his eyes off it.

 

[“Along came a spider” first appeared in Agog! Ripping Reads, ed Cat Sparks, Agog! Press, 2006.]

 

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