I have always admired most those who lead with their eyes, like Mary Anning, for they seem more aware of the world and its workings. That is why I get on best with my eldest sister, Louise. She has gray eyes, like all the Philpots, and says little, but when her eyes fix on you, you take notice.
I have always wanted to lead with my eyes as well, but I have not been so fortunate. I have a prominent jaw, and when I grit my teeth more often than I ought, for the world frustrates me it tenses and sharpens like an axe blade. At a ball once I overheard a potential suitor say he did not dare ask me to dance for fear of cutting himself on my face. I have never really recovered from that remark. It explains why I am a spinster, and why I dance so seldom.
I have longed to move from jaw to eye, but I have noticed that people do not change which feature they lead with, any more than they change in character. And so I am stuck with my strong jaw that puts people off, set in stone like the fossils I collect. Or so I have thought.
I met Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, where she has lived all her life. It was certainly not where I expected to live. London was, of course, specifically Red Lion Square, where we Philpots grew up. Though I had heard of Lyme, as one does of seaside resorts when they become fashionable, we had never visited. We usually went to Sussex towns such as Brighton or Hastings during the summer. When she was alive our mother was keen for us to breathe the fresh air and bathe in the sea, for she subscribed to the views of Dr. Richard Russell, who had written a dissertation about the remarkable creatures benefit of seawater, to bathe in and to drink as well. I refused to drink seawater, but I did swim sometimes. I was at home by the sea, though I never thought that would become a literal truth.
Two years after our parents death, however, my brother announced at dinner one evening his engagement to the daughter of one of our late fathers solicitor friends. We kissed and congratulated John, and Margaret played a celebratory waltz on the piano. But in bed that night I wept, as I suspected my sisters did as well, for our London lives as we knew them were over. Once our brother married there would be neither the place nor the money for us all to live at Red Lion Square. The new Mrs. Philpot would of course want to be mistress of her own home, and fill the house with children. Three sisters was a surfeit, especially when we were unlikely to marry. For Louise and I both knew we were destined to remain spinsters. Because we had little money, our looks and characters were meant to attract husbands, yet ours were too irregular to help us. Though her eyes lifted and brightened her face, Louise was very tall - far taller than most men could manage and had large hands and feet. Moreover, she was so quiet that suitors were unnerved by her, thinking she was judging them. She probably was. As for me, I was small and bony and plain, and I could not flirt, but would try to talk about serious things, and that drove the men away too.
We were to be moved on, then, like sheep shifted from one cropped field to another. And John must be our shepherd.
The next morning he laid on the breakfast table a book he had borrowed from a friend. I thought for your summer holiday you might like to go somewhere new rather than visit our aunt and uncle in Brighton again, he suggested. A little tour, if you like, along the south coast. With the war with France cutting off travel to the Continent, so many more coastal resorts are springing up. There may be places you will like even more than Brighton. Eastbourne, perhaps, or Worthing. Or further afield, to Lymington, or the Dorset coast: Weymouth or Lyme Regis. John was reciting these places as if going down a list in his head, placing a little tick beside each one as he named it. That was how his tidy solicitors mind worked. He had clearly thought through where he wanted us to go, though he would herd us there gently. Have a look to see what you fancy. John tapped the book. Although he said nothing, we all knew we were looking not simply for a holiday destination, but for a new home, where we could live in gently diminished circumstances rather than as London paupers.
Excerpted from Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier. Copyright © 2010 by Tracy Chevalier. Excerpted by permission of Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
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