Pride is a poison, a poison that can kill.
At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning in late January, the clock on the mantel chimes. I glance up from my record-keeping to stare out the paned window at the falling rain. The skies are a leaden gray, the tops of the trees swaying in the wind.
Nasty weather to be out in.
Grateful for a crackling fire in the hearth and my wool vest, I dip a pen in the inkwell and continue crafting a detailed summary of my last patient’s condition.
My name is Edward Price. I’ve been the primary physician for the village of Sélestat in the Alsace region of France over the last two decades. After graduating top of my medical class from the University of Montpellier in 1836, I remained in the southeastern part of the country to complete my residency before moving north to Strasbourg in 1840 to be closer to my mother. Her delicate, bird-like constitution collapsed after months of battling consumption until the ironically serene moment when she passed. My father, an English soldier, died at sea when I was an infant. I was thirty-five with a promising career ahead of me, yet with neither parent remaining to share my success.
I occupy the cottage of my youth and retain the services of a middle-aged housemaid, Madame Bernard, who has a husband and a small farm of her own. She maintains my house during the day while I’m out seeing patients and leaves a hot meal prepared in the kitchen every night before she leaves.
Between the housemaid and the liver and white Brittany spaniel who sleeps peacefully by the fire, I have everything I need. A thriving practice, a warm bed at night, and work that fulfills me. I dreamt of little else than being a doctor since I was young, and I’ve striven to abide by the oaths I took when I graduated and entered practice.
A light tap on the office door shakes me out of my reverie.
“Monsieur Price?” Madame Bernard’s voice is gentle, inquiring. She is loath to disturb me when I’m working on my records.
“Come in,” I say, and the door opens.
Woolen dress tucked neatly about her ample waistline, Mme. Bernard delivers a sealed, cream-colored envelope to me on a small silver platter. “This just arrived for you.” She dips in a small curtsy and leaves. The door clicks shut behind her.
Behind me the fire crackles, and the spaniel, Abigail, whines softly and rolls over in her sleep. The envelope is blank other than a red wax seal with an engraved emblem bearing a calligraphic letter “R” on the back.
I run my finger under the seal and pull out the enclosed note, skimming the contents penned in a practiced, aristocratic hand:
Dear Dr. Price,
I am writing to request the necessity of your presence for tea this afternoon at three o’clock. This is a matter of utmost urgency. I would ask you to treat this concern with the greatest delicacy and confidentiality. Tell no one about this meeting. A brougham will be provided for your transport. Bring whatever medical supplies you need to treat a patient with you. Please come alone.
I trust you will live up to your excellent reputation.
I refold the letter and gaze into the fire. My patients are not usually so well-to-do, neither do they send transport to whisk me away to their homes. Cayden Rambert is a renowned artist with a sprawling estate an hour-and-a-half drive from the cottage, close to the outskirts of Strasbourg.
A thread of anxiety wends up my spine. Monsieur Rambert’s request worries me. I fear I am liable to become enmeshed in some personal trial of the gentleman. Though he is known to be a recluse, I have never heard rumors about him being ill. I pride myself on being unwilling to interfere in the private lives of the patients I treat, but I’ve been given no other choice than to accept.
A most disturbing turn of events.
Shortly after one o’clock, a black lacquered brougham turns into the driveway and stops. A footman emerges and announces himself. After donning my best overcoat, I reach for my well-worn black medical bag.
I’ve never had cause to notice how dingy the leather looks until now. My focus has always been on the practice of good medicine, and not appearances, to which my patients have never lodged any complaints.
I head out after the footman into the dreary rain.
Monsieur Rambert mentioned nothing about supper, so I can only presume he will deliver me home after our brief meeting over tea. At least I hope it will be brief.
A knot of anxiety churns in my stomach as I approach the brougham, the horse’s breath steaming in the chill, wintry air.
“Doctor Price, please watch your step.” The footman opens the brougham door.
I nod my head in acknowledgement. The insignia on the side of the door bears the same calligraphic “R” as the red wax seal on Monsieur Rambert’s invitation. Rain patters against my shoulders, drips cold down my neck.
I duck inside the brougham and the footman closes the door. Blue velvet cushions line the seats, and a brocade shade covers the window. I roll it up and watch the countryside drift past under thick storm clouds. We rumble along winding country roads, the sway of the brougham slackening once we transition onto the main thoroughfare to Strasbourg.
By a quarter to three, the horse slows and outside the window, a long, straight driveway leads to a two-story mansion. A series of dormer windows hints at a third floor tucked underneath the peaked roof. Rust-colored stains line the yellowed stone of the edifice, the shutters sealed over a few of the paned windows. The house has a neglected air, the shutters themselves dilapidated remnants of a former elegance, caught unawares in a struggle to maintain a facade of prosperity.
After the footman helps me from the brougham, the driver cracks his whip, and the horse trots off toward the stable.
I hesitate before approaching the house.
Twin curved staircases lead to an arched front door of richly stained solid oak. For all the grandeur of the estate and the pomp in bringing me here, I’m surprised by the level of decay. Mildew lines the cracks in the door and fills my nostrils with a pungent scent.
I lift the bronze knocker and release it. The door opens. A footman in black livery and crisp white gloves beckons me inside.
“Good afternoon,” I say.
“Yes,” I reply. “I’m to meet Monsieur Rambert for tea.”
“Please, this way, Doctor.” His shoes click on the checkered tile floor as he motions me to follow him.
I pause a moment, taking in my surroundings. Before me, a carpeted staircase leads to the second floor of the house, the hallways of which are fronted by the same filigreed railing lining the stairs. An enormous stone arch sits at the top and framed inside is a statue: Adonis on a pedestal, a graceful arm outflung, fingertips reaching for the sky. Framed paintings fill the walls, an alabaster urn graces a side table. I repress a shudder at the dissonant imagery, the god of beauty and desire admixed with the allusion to death.
We arrive at the drawing room and the footman invites me to make myself comfortable, after which he leaves, closing the door behind him. The carpet is threadbare, and a fine coating of dust lingers on the faded furniture. A blazing fire has taken the chill out of the air.
I remove my coat and set down my medical bag. The paintings on the walls are primarily pastoral scenes: fields dotted with wildflowers and grazing sheep, a young shepherd boy, his rounded face illuminated by the sun, staring off into the distance, clearly searching for something. Early works of Rambert’s, no doubt, experimental pieces as he tested out his style, his use of color and light to achieve a Rembrandt-like effect. I step closer and examine the signature on the painting closest to me.
The signature is fluid and indiscrete. The letters could as easily spell out another, similar-sounding name.
“Hm.” I squint, tip my head to the side.
The door clicks open and an elegant man in a dark suit and burgundy-colored waistcoat steps inside. Balanced on the bridge of his nose sits a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles. His hands appear strong, his eyes quick, with a sharp, incisive gleam to them, as if in a moment, he has taken my measure and found me lacking. His overbearing demeanor does not match the image of the sensitive, reclusive artist I had conjured during the long drive here.
Rambert walks with the confidence of one used to giving orders and having them followed. I’ve met his type in medical school, though I must admit, I much prefer to serve among the working classes.
Arrogance chafes me. With entitlement comes false bravado, an unwillingness to accept life as it comes, or to admit weakness. Pride stunts healing, or so I’ve come to believe.
“You must be Dr. Price.” His voice simmers with authority, though he does not extend his hand to shake mine.
I pull my hand away, piqued at his flagrant disrespect. “I am.”
His gaze shifts to the painting I was examining, then back to me. He approaches the side table and pours himself a glass of wine from a crystal decanter. “May I offer you a glass of wine?”
So much for tea. “No, thank you,” I say, warmth rising around my collar. Rambert clearly has no qualms about breaking custom with a newcomer. I must tread carefully so as not to offend him, yet complete the task before me, though he hardly appears ill. “What is the issue which requires my presence?”
He seats himself on a wingback armchair by the fire, and I follow suit on the couch across from him.
“Is that your medical bag?” he asks, making a poor attempt to disguise his disdain at the sight of the worn leather.
I’m losing patience already. “Monsieur Rambert, I must insist you tell me what this meeting is about. Why have you brought me here?”
As urgent as his letter sounded, the man is infuriatingly at ease in his own hauteur. Or testing my resolve. I can’t decide which.
Outside, rain lashes against the windowpane. The wood sputters in the fireplace, throwing off sparks.
“I’ve called you here on account of my sister, Imogen,” he says. “She’s very sick and has been for quite some time.”
He speaks of her dispassionately, the warmth of kinship distinctly lacking in the indifference of his tone. Perhaps this is a form of protection masking the depth of his concern. I am doubtful and wary of his underlying motivation.
“Where is your sister? Does she live here?”
“Yes. I’ve hired a private nurse to care for her. When it comes to Imogen, I spare no expense.” He sets his wine glass down so hard the liquid sloshes, then he rests his wolfish eyes on mine.
My intuition screams a warning. I start to ask about her condition, but he interrupts me.
“Countless doctors have assessed her ailment,” he continues, “and not one of them can agree on the best treatment for her or guarantee me her life will be spared. She is my sister, Dr. Price. I’ve been told she’s dying of consumption, but I will not accept that answer. I will not lose her.”
Though the force of his will doesn’t shock me, his profound objection to the morbidity of a potentially serious illness does. Perhaps it should not. As I mentioned before, working with those of his stature does not appeal to me.
He pushes himself out of the chair and strides toward the painting closest to the fireplace, a pristine, sun-touched landscape of a rolling green countryside. “I am deeply concerned about the estate,” he says. “The holdings have been ours for generations, and I’m unwilling to parcel off the estate as many have advised.”
The abrupt shift in conversation is telling. Dwindling finances are preeminent in his mind. Rambert’s predicament is not unusual among the landed gentry and, as evidenced by the fine muscles working at the side of his temple, the admission did not come easily. True to his class, he is full of airs, and if he feels he has overdrawn on the family fortune to pay for Imogen’s care, no wonder he is resentful of her condition and anxious to have the matter resolved as expeditiously as possible.
Is that it then? Has Imogen’s illness kept him from his artistic pursuits such that the estate is suffering, and he fears they will lose their home?
“Art is our only hope,” he says, turning to me with a hard desperation in his eyes, “if we are to stay afloat.”
At that moment, I should have walked out the door of the drawing room, summoned the brougham, and returned home in blissful ignorance.
Instead, when he asks if I am willing to examine her and lend my expertise, I simply, out of pity, say, “Yes.”
He smiles, vacantly, in a way that doesn’t touch his eyes. “Excellent. I will allow you to examine her under one condition.”
A lump rises in my throat. “What condition is that?”
Rambert lowers his voice. “You must never discuss the details of my sister’s case with anyone. Not any other doctors or even your dearest kin. Her records must be kept anonymous. ‘Jane Doe.’ If you are questioned about Imogen, you must deny having treated or ever having even met her. Are we clear?”
For an artist of such sensitivity in his paintings, Rambert is utterly unyielding when it comes to getting his way.
I swallow, my throat dry. “Perfectly.”
This is not how I prefer to practice medicine. Entanglements box me in. I feel as though I’m working counter to my oath and yet, a woman’s life hangs in the balance.
Standing he says, “Come, I will take you to her.”
Monsieur Rambert guides me up the main staircase, and we traverse a warren of silent, drafty hallways until we stop in front of a large oak door at the far end of the east wing. I can’t help wondering why he would place his invalid sister in as remote a corner of the mansion as this, but I refrain from stating my concerns.
The door squeaks open and I am confronted by the sight of a canopy bed, its sole occupant a woman of no more than thirty-five years, her cheekbones gaunt, her skin pale and waxen, though flushed with feverish spots of red color on her cheeks.
The room is barren of the typical comforts I might expect for a woman of her stature. Barren of books, sewing supplies, or even the scent of fresh flowers, a pervasive gloom saturates the air. The thick curtains are drawn, blotting out the meager midwinter light.
A fire burns low in the grate, yet Imogen is covered in a sheen of sweat, tendrils of dark hair clinging to her neck.
“Imogen, Dr. Price is here to see you,” Rambert says.
The woman moans softly at the sound of her brother’s voice, but her eyes remain closed, her brows furrowed.
“You may proceed with your examination,” he says, standing off to the side, while continuing to closely observe me.
I had not expected him to stay, and I’ll confess, his presence made me anxious. Was I being pressed into giving an opinion contrary to those of my previous colleagues?
No matter what, I will be honest, both with Imogen and her brother.
The fire does nothing to dispel the aroma of sickness in the air. I set my medical bag on a stool next to the bed and press my fingers to the side of the woman’s forehead. She is burning with fever and flinches at my touch. Her eyelids flutter open and she stares at me, frightened for a moment, her dark eyes shining, an unhealthy aura of illness mixed with despair.
Dazed, she studies me.
“Hello, Mademoiselle Rambert,” I say. “I’m Dr. Price, and I’m here to help you, in any way I can.”
Her eyes dart to where her brother stands. “Please,” she gasps, desperate to sit up. She wheezes with cough, the harsh rattle a dark foretelling I am well acquainted with. The same gurgling sound emanated from my mother’s throat hours before she died. Imogen falls back against the pillows.
“Here, let me help you,” I say. “Easy, now.”
Her muscles quiver as, with my assistance, she works to prop herself up in the bed. A long, painful sigh escapes her. She is winded from the effort, bent over like a rag doll.
I remove my stethoscope from my bag and auscultate her chest, requesting she breathe in and out as well as she can. By the time I’m finished, another deep rattle starts behind her ribs and ends in a hacking cough that leaves her breathless.
She reaches for a handkerchief under the pillow and coughs into it, the white linen stained with splatters of blood. Imogen gasps for air, her chest working like a bellows as she collapses back against the headboard, exhausted.
“Admit it, I’m dying,” she says, her gaze riveted on her brother.
“You are not dying,” Rambert interjects. “Let the doctor examine you and tell us what he thinks.” His eyes flash toward me, daring me to object.
I replace the stethoscope in my bag and attempt to gather my nerves. Though I believe in being completely honest with my patients, I also believe in easing their emotional burden, even if that simply means relief from present pain and suffering.
“I believe you have consumption,” I say, “which has taken hold of your lungs. That is why you are coughing up blood. I can offer you medication to help ease the pain.”
Rambert steps forward, his face white. “Dr. Price–”
A knock sounds at the door and, with a glare, he storms past me to open it.
It is the footman, requesting his presence downstairs.
“I’ll return once I’ve taken care of this,” Rambert says, refusing to break eye contact with me.
Once he closes the door behind him, I turn my attention to my patient. Imogen presses her lips together. A single tear trickles down her cheek and lingers on her chin.
I take her delicate, bird-like hand in my own. My heart swells with pity. “This is what the other doctors have told you, isn’t it?”
The muscles of her neck tighten; she holds her words inside, remaining silent.
While I have the time alone with her, I want to ask about Rambert. The nature of their relationship mystifies me. He has taken great pains to see she has care, and yet, there is marked coldness between them. Whether it is borne of deep concern or something more sinister, I cannot say.
“You may call me Imogen.” She sees me closing my medical bag and her gaze darts between me and the door, as if afraid I’ll leave.
“Please, stay,” she says in a harsh whisper, noticeably relieved when I take a seat at the foot of the bed. Her hands flutter overtop the sheets, her brow furrowed in concentration. She is wrestling over what she is about to say, so I proceed for her.
“Why does Monsieur Rambert insist that your medical records are kept private? He requested I keep them anonymous, which I’ll admit, doesn’t sit well with me.”
Imogen sighs, a pale wisp of a sound. “My brother cares about me inasmuch as it affects the estate.”
Her statement makes little sense to me, but it indicates all is not well between them, despite how things might appear on the surface.
“Over the past few years, he’s called over half a dozen doctors to examine me,” she says.
“He is worried about you.”
Imogen scoffs, turns her head to the side. Her lip trembles slightly. She plucks at the sheet with her fingers, the bloody handkerchief balled up in her hand. “What my brother wants is something he can never have.”
“I’m sure he would spare you this if he could,” I say, more to comfort her than from deep-seated conviction.
“You have no idea what he’s capable of. His pride is monstrous.” The vehemence with which she utters this last statement sends her into another paroxysm of coughing. I steady her as her body is racked by painful spasms, and as she settles back afterward to rest, the door opens.
A nurse in a gray dress and starched white apron steps inside bearing a tray with a pot of tea. She walks past me with a curt greeting and sets the tray down on the opposite side of the bed.
She pours a steaming cup and encourages Imogen to drink.
Mademoiselle Rambert shakes her head and pushes the cup away. When the nurse insists, Imogen becomes agitated, spilling the hot liquid on the covers.
The nurse clucks in dismay but does not rebuke Imogen further. She leaves, muttering something about finding a clean towel, and Imogen and I are left alone again.
She casts a pained expression at me. “Where were we?” she asks, her voice strained.
“You were speaking of your brother’s pride, Mademoiselle.”
Imogen slips her arm over the side of the bed and reaches under the mattress. She pulls out a leather-bound journal and pushes it into my hands. “Quick, Doctor,” she rasps, “take it and hide it in your bag. Read it later, I beg you. I need someone to know the truth.”
She trembles in agitation until she sees I have safely buried the journal deep inside my bag. Then she relaxes, the color draining from her cheeks. The effort has cost her. She lies back against the pillows, haggard, dark shadows under her eyes.
“You seem like a decent man, Dr. Price. I cannot say the same for any of the other doctors who have attended me. You will understand my desperation after you look at the journal. I wish to be known for exactly who I am. Will you promise me that?”
“Please, Dr. Price. I trust you. My brother’s pride…it’s a poison. He’s poisoned me.”
Short of breath after the exertion, Imogen lapses into a restless sleep, her enigmatic words imprinted in my mind. Surely her inference is a figurative one and not a serious accusation directed at her brother.
I had hoped to have more time to speak with her about the situation with Rambert, but so far, the nurse has not returned with the towel, or to remove the tea tray. I approach the fire and use the poker to rearrange the logs. The room has taken on a noticeable chill in the damp weather.
In the bottom of my bag now rests a journal containing the truth about a dying woman, a woman who is clearly distraught over a terrible, long-held secret.
While I am confident she is dying of consumption, the fact remains that she and Rambert do not see eye to eye.
I pride myself on my objectivity, and I believe it to be a necessity in the practice of medicine. If I were to personally involve myself in each of my cases, I would run myself aground emotionally within the span of a few months. Practical and down to earth as I appear, inside my chest beats a tender heart.
I wouldn’t have become a physician if I didn’t care deeply, but caring and getting entangled are two entirely separate matters. I impose certain limits to preserve my sanity and my compassion. I’ve seen the result of colleagues pushing themselves to extremes. I don’t want to wind up there myself.
The gentle rise and fall of Imogen’s chest under the sheets heartens me. She has life in her yet, and if it falls within my power to bring the woman a greater measure of peace than she has perhaps known in her entire life, I shall do so. She deserves nothing less.
I remove the journal from my bag and position myself next to the fire. I expect to find personal details documenting the progression of her illness, and perhaps evidence of arguments with her brother over complicated legal aspects of their inheritance.
Ownership of the family estate has fallen to his shoulders as the only male heir. I consider the possibility that, upon her death, he stands to inherit some portion of the family’s wealth. Yet clearly, he is fighting for her survival.
No, there must be another explanation for the coldness I have observed between them.
What I find in the journal is not what I anticipated. The pages are covered with lines of artistic notes about painting techniques, small pencil sketches, architectural renderings of the estate’s botanical gardens, canvas measurements, frame dimensions, and the like.
This is no diary.
It is the sketchbook of an artist, a painter.
Why has Imogen hidden Rambert’s painting notes under her mattress? At the end of each day’s entries, there is a signature. The same signature I noted on the paintings in the drawing room.
Only when I examine the lettering more closely do I see that the curve of the “C” is not as strong as I previously perceived. In fact, it is straighter, more erect. The “C” is an “I.”
Imogen is the real artist!
The journal nearly slips through my fingers into the fire.
Rambert has stolen her identity, showing her paintings as if he is the genius behind the talent. He has taken all the credit his sister, as a female in the male-dominated milieu of artistic achievement, would never be allowed to garner.
No wonder he wants her kept alive. Her talent is keeping the dying estate solvent financially.
Though he might not be poisoning her literally, Rambert is using her, to the detriment of her spirit. Her very soul.
My heart breaks in two, and I weep, wiping my eyes afterward.
While Imogen sleeps, I consider what to do. Sooner or later, the nurse will return. I glance at the teapot, struck by the memory of Imogen refusing the proffered cup. The mention of poison chills me to the bone and I react, perhaps somewhat illogically and out of turn.
Quickly, I open my medical bag, deposit the journal inside, and remove a clean glass bottle. After pouring the remaining contents of the teacup into the container, I seal it tightly.
Though I doubt he’s poisoning her, execution for attempted manslaughter would bring Rambert to ruin faster than if I accused him of extortion and attempted to disprove his identity in a court of law. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, in the event it’s true.
I am halfway back around the bed when the door opens, and the nurse enters. Reflexively, I hide my hands behind my back and close my fingers around the bottle.
I give her a stiff smile.
“Almost finished, Doctor?” She glances inside the open medical bag.
I hold my breath, praying she takes no notice of the journal lying inside my medical bag, or better yet, assumes it is my own, for record-keeping purposes.
“I am,” I say, relieved when she passes by me to collect the tray. “I was waiting for you to return, so I could go over a few instructions with you.”
The nurse presses her hand to Imogen’s forehead, then wipes her face with a damp cloth. “Whatever she needs.”
By her tender concern, she, at least, does not worry me.
While she is distracted, I slip the bottle deep into the recesses of my bag and remove a vial of laudanum with a glass dropper. “She can have ten drops every six hours. Twenty if her pain is intractable.”
I set the bottle on the bedside table and the nurse sweeps past me with the tray. “I’ll keep the medicine, thank you,” she says, placing it in her pocket. She opens the door, watching me as I close my medical bag.
I pause to consider Imogen one final time.
“I’m glad she’s resting,” I say, feeling the weight of the evidence in my bag. I am gazing upon the face, the hands, of an artist the likes of which the world has never known.
Not as Imogen Rambert, anyway.
My heart nearly seizes inside my chest, but I tear myself away and follow the nurse down the length of the dusty corridor to the drawing room, where Rambert waits.
The clock on the mantel chimes four o’clock.
“How do you find her?” Rambert asks, his eyes red-rimmed and glassy, the decanter half empty. He slowly turns from the fire to study me.
“Your sister is gravely ill,” I say, setting my medical bag next to my overcoat. It is not my intention to prolong this conversation, much as I would dearly love to question him about the contents of the journal and force him to provide an answer for his misrepresentation of himself all these years.
For defrauding Imogen of her personhood.
“Can anything more be done?” he asks, pressing his lips in a straight line afterward. He is strangely pale, and I detect a faint tremor as he adjusts his glasses on his nose.
That depends on whether she’s literally been poisoned, I refrain from saying.
The sample will provide me with an answer soon enough. To accuse Cayden Rambert this early would sabotage my career. Despite having fallen on hard times, I am certain Rambert has sufficient reserves of family jewels he could sell to destroy my reputation and put me out of business permanently.
“She is in the final stages of consumption,” I say. “The best we can do is to keep her as comfortable as possible. I’ve provided the nurse with laudanum for her pain. She has been instructed on how to administer it.”
Rambert thumps the mantel with his fist and scowls. “Everyone has given her laudanum! I asked if anything more can be done, Dr. Price! That is why I brought you here. You’re supposed to be the best. What kind of answer have you given me?”
“An honest one.”
“Rubbish!” He seems about to spit on the floor between us, his face red, fists clenched. “You’re no better than the others. Fools, the entire lot of you.”
I put on my overcoat and retrieve my bag, making it clear I intend to leave, that I won’t be drawn into any argument over the matter. Inside, I am fuming.
“You’ll receive a bill by post next week,” I say. “Please call your driver. I would like to be home before dark.”
Rambert steps close enough to me that I can smell the sour alcohol on his breath. Though I’m a head taller, he stares up at me, unblinking, a faint quiver to his upper lip. “Remember what we agreed upon, Price.”
Annoying that he’s dropped my title and more than a little threatening.
“Not a word to anyone about having treated my sister,” he says. “You keep all records of her anonymous.”
I take a step backward, incline my hat toward him. “I will keep my end of our agreement. But Imogen will not be forgotten,” I say. “Not by me.”
Rambert frowns but makes no further remark. He rings for the footman, instructs him to call the driver, and promptly stalks out of the drawing room, his business with me concluded.
I listen for his foot on the staircase but do not hear it. At least for the moment, Imogen is resting peacefully.
When the driver brings the brougham around from the stable, I head out into the chill winter evening, the sun low on the horizon. The rains have finally stopped.
I spend the remainder of the evening in restless pursuit of an answer to my question; is Imogen truly being poisoned by her brother? I work in my office, clearing the papers off my desk to make room for an impromptu laboratory setup.
Mme. Bernard was thoughtful enough to leave behind a baguette and a warm pot of potage, which I gratefully consume, along with a crisp green apple and a glass of wine. Abigail, initially excited to see me, now snores quietly by the fireplace.
The night is dark and cold, though the air feels less damp than it did this morning.
On my desk sits my volunteer in a glass cage with a wire top. He weighs twenty-two grams, has a heart rate of three hundred and ten beats per minute, and a respiratory rate too rapid to calculate. His eyes are bright and eager, his nose twitches constantly. The subject is in perfect physical health.
Though I have a tender spot in my heart for all living beings, I tell myself, and him, that his sacrifice is in the best interest of a dying woman in need of the truth.
He blinks at me without question as I deliver a few drops of the ultraconcentrated tea extract into his mouth with a tiny dropper.
I place him inside the cage, sit down at my desk, and wait.
Minutes tick by. Abigail continues to snore, and the fire crackles in the hearth.
The mouse pads around the bottom of the cage, then presses his paws to the glass wall, sniffing the air.
He does not tire, stiffen, seize, or show any external signs of bleeding. An hour later, he is as bright as the moment I plucked him from the corner of the pantry.
Three hours later, the same.
At nine-thirty, I offer him a piece of cheese and water, for which he appears entirely grateful. I scratch my chin.
Imogen’s assertion was not a literal one, then. Though I am entirely relieved, I suppose I was hoping to ensnare Rambert with solid proof I could take to the authorities that would lead to his arrest, trial, and conviction. Far from simply stealing her talent, he has robbed Imogen of her spirit. Shouldn’t there be a law against such theft?
I remove her journal from inside my medical bag and thumb through it.
All her notes are there, in a clearly feminine hand, detailing her work from years past, some of which I observed myself in the drawing room of the Rambert estate. Her fascination with light is unmistakable, her notes on the techniques of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Caravaggio.
I close the journal and press my palms to my eyes.
Imogen has insisted I take the journal, and yet I do not feel qualified to substantiate a claim as to her artistic identity.
I glance inside the cage. The mouse is alive and well.
The tea never contained any poison. I am a fool to have thought so. Imogen chose her words deliberately to instill a sense of urgency in me. She was afraid I, along with all her previous doctors, would refuse her request to look at the journal.
I have no idea what more she wants me to do than simply read the journal and acknowledge who she is. As I’ve said, I prefer to maintain a professional distance from the personal affairs of my patients. Entanglements trouble me.
The problem is, I cannot forget her face or the depth of her initial despair. The distress on her face after she’d pressed the journal into my hands was palpable.
I make my way upstairs and get what little sleep I can. I wake every hour or two, the same question emblazoned across my mind.
What do I do about Imogen’s journal?
The following day, I finish my morning calls by noon, so I stop by the cottage for lunch. Morbid curiosity drives me to check on the mouse, who is as high-spirited as ever in his glass cage.
Madame Bernard stops at the open door to my office. “Doctor Price?”
“Yes?” I turn around.
“You look exhausted,” she says, taken aback. “Did you not sleep well?”
I wave off the remark and reach for the newspaper she’s extending to me on the silver tray. Underneath is another cream-colored envelope, the same as yesterday. I pick it up and flip it over.
A red wax seal with a calligraphic letter “R” holds the envelope closed.
“Thank you,” I say.
“Do you have many calls this afternoon?”
“Only three,” I say.
Her eyebrows flicker as she gives the mouse in the cage a wary glance. “I’ll leave the smoked ham in the oven,” she says, then turns to leave, closing the door behind her.
I break the seal on the envelope and remove the contents: a handwritten letter from Imogen, alongside an additional sealed envelope with a Paris address penned in her hand.
Dear Dr. Price,
By the time you receive this letter, I fear the worst may have occurred. I want you to know that your visit to me this afternoon was a comfort, despite the news you were forced to deliver. I could tell from the moment we met that you have a kind heart.
I am not in denial about the severity of my condition, nor do I regret dying. I welcome release from my physical suffering, in that sense. My only regret is not having lived long enough to bring more of my inspiration alive on the canvas.
The realm of our imagination is infinite. I pray I will continue to explore it in the hereafter.
I have one final request, if you will be so kind as to oblige me. Will you please deliver the enclosed letter to the address in Paris, along with the journal I gave you? I fear it will be intercepted if I send it by post.
Your tender compassion has brought me greater peace of mind than you can possibly imagine. I am eternally grateful.
In a haze, I finish the rest of the afternoon’s appointments and arrange for a physician’s apprentice in the neighboring village to see my patients the following day. Local gossip at the haberdashers and later at the bakery, confirms that the obscure sister of the reputed artist Cayden Rambert died at home after years of prolonged confinement. No one seeks an explanation otherwise.
After that, I buy a ticket for the earliest morning train to Paris.
I arrive at the address by ten o’clock the next morning and climb the stairs of a stately townhouse on Rue de Rivoli. The white stone exterior bespeaks of inner grandeur, the twinkle of an overhead chandelier glitters through the glass of the polished oak doors.
A maid answers when I knock. I explain briefly why I’ve come and show her the letter, keeping the journal to myself. She delivers me to a drawing room that smells of fine tobacco and brandy.
“Wait here, please,” she says.
Moments later, a pale-haired gentleman in a gray suit arrives. “Louis Merton,” he introduces himself as he shakes my hand warmly. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Fine lines show at the corners of his eyes when he smiles, but his face is otherwise youthful, an exuberant energy radiating off him, as of a newly formed star. He is thirty-nine, forty at the most.
I cannot recall ever having heard his name before; then again, I do not travel in the kinds of circles that renowned artists do.
“You are a physician from Strasbourg?” he asks. “You have traveled far.”
“I was given something to deliver to you personally.”
His eyebrow lifts slightly. “By whom?”
“Imogen Rambert. It was her final wish,” I say, watching dismay loosen his features.
He drops into a nearby chair. “I wasn’t aware she had died. Please, be seated, Dr. Price.”
I sit on a leather settee across from him. “You knew her well, then?” I surmise there is more to their awareness of each other than mere acquaintance, but I reserve judgement on that account. His eyes tell me there was at least affection, if not more.
“I grew up with Cayden Rambert, her brother. We went to school together, though after graduation we lost touch, other than running into each other at dinner parties, dances, that sort of thing. I’ve known Imogen since she was five. An altogether lovely woman.”
A faraway look steals across his face. A moment later, his attention returns. “Once Cayden’s paintings gained popularity, he became rather reclusive. I never understood it. He was so well liked at the university, always surrounded by friends and invitations to social events. I suppose his art turned him inward. I never knew he was so gifted artistically, honestly.”
I suppress a grunt.
“If you don’t mind my asking, how did she die?” He narrows his eyes, deep in consideration. “I assume she was your patient?”
“I’m afraid I cannot disclose that information.”
He waves a hand in the air. “Right, I understand. It was natural, though, not…unexpected?”
I nod vaguely. “She was ill, yes.”
“Well,” he says, rubbing his hands together, “what’s brought you to my doorstep all the way from Strasbourg?”
I hand him the letter. “Imogen asked me specifically to deliver this to you, as well as this,” I say, holding out the journal.
He glances at me, then opens the letter and reads it. Confusion drifts across his face, and he reads the letter a second time before looking inside the journal. He flips back and forth among the pages, returning to the letter, then back to the pages.
Finally, he meets my eye, astonishment lighting his own.
“I, myself, am an artist, Dr. Price, and I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Are you telling me Imogen is the real artist, not Cayden?”
I point to the materials in his grasp. “Judge for yourself, but if you’re asking my opinion, then yes, I believe so.”
“God rest her soul,” he whispers, taking a minute to recover his voice. When he next glances at me, his eyes are misted over, but hard with newfound determination.
“I have a contact inside the Paris Salon,” he says. “Cayd– Imogen’s work was nominated for entry this year. I will make certain the jury sees this information. They need to see this before they announce their final decision.”
“Thank you,” I say. “Imogen was at peace knowing the truth would come out.”
“That’s all I need to hear.”
I take my leave of him and return home on the 5 o’clock train after a walk down the Champs-Elysees for a steaming cup of espresso and a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe.
Two years later, I learn that the Rambert estate has been put up for sale, its furnishings sold, and Cayden Rambert has traveled to Britain to live with relatives. Though I had followed the newspaper reports at the time, to my knowledge, Imogen’s paintings had never made it to the Paris Salon.
I had prevented Rambert from taking further credit for her work. That, at least, is a relief, one boon that has come of my delivery of her journal to Louis Merton.
I would have much preferred for Imogen to receive the credit she was due, but as in all moments of unexpected synchronicity, perhaps Fate is willing to offer me another chance. I receive news of an auction taking place in Strasbourg that will feature a number of Rambert paintings procured from the estate, the remaining few that had not already been sold by Cayden to finance his move to Britain.
I jump at the opportunity and purchase a ticket to the auction.
Seated in the fifth row from the front, I watch as a gilt-framed painting is wheeled out onto the stage, the same painting I observed on first arriving at the Rambert estate: the young shepherd boy, his face lit by the sun, his gaze searching the distant horizon.
Imogen’s words impress themselves on my mind:
The realm of our imagination is infinite. I pray I will continue to explore it in the hereafter.
I am touched deeply at the sight of the painting; indeed, I cannot tear my gaze away. The auctioneer steps behind the podium and announces a beginning bid of fifty francs. I raise my paddle and he increases the bid to one hundred.
The gentleman on my right lifts his paddle.
The bidding war continues, and though I would like to pay close attention and insert my bids when necessary to win the prize, my neighbor on the right taps me on the elbow.
“Beautiful piece of work, isn’t it?” he asks.
I hesitate to engage him in conversation for fear of losing track of the bids, yet he persists, leaning closer to whisper to me, “They say Cayden Rambert had a real shot at the Paris Salon two years ago. If he’d made it, we’d never be able to afford that painting today.”
He gives me a devilish smirk, noting the distinct lack of shine on my boots, the worn fabric along my cuffs. I may not budget for an expert tailor or shoeshine, but I’ve put away a thousand francs in savings, nearly two years’ worth of wages, that might be used for such a purchase as this.
I make a bid for four hundred francs and the wagers continue.
“You really fancy that painting, don’t you?” he asks. “Did you know Cayden Rambert?”
“Not well,” I reply, hoping he’ll leave me alone.
“They say he never painted again after the Salon denied him entry. Rumor has it there was some sort of scandal about him being a fraud, but I don’t believe it,” he says, shaking his head. “I think his sister’s death ruined him. They were quite close, you know.”
I give him a look of utter astonishment.
The auctioneer rambles on, paddles rising in silent bids.
I’m unable to answer my neighbor and, benumbed, I return my attention to the stage.
“Six hundred francs!”
I raise my paddle and wave it fiercely in the air.
“Six hundred fifty, do I have any takers for six hundred fifty francs?”
The auctioneer brings the gavel down. “Sold! To the gentleman in the fifth row.”
I am both relieved and elated, proud that I can now share Imogen’s truth.