THE UNQUIET HEART is a richly atmospheric and gripping medical mystery, the second installment in the thrilling Sarah Gilchrist series which began with THE WAGES OF SIN.
The grey stone archway loomed overhead as I dashed through the puddles from my carriage, cursing under my breath.
Julia Latymer was huddled by the wall, sheltering from the rain and smoking. She glanced up at me and nodded.
‘Have they gone up yet?’
She rolled her eyes, shivering. ‘Would I be standing out here in the rain if they had?’
‘You could always wait indoors. Thornhill is.’ I looked towards the building, where Alison Thornhill stood in the glare of the electric light, looking every bit as anxious as I felt.
‘Tried that. She kept blabbering on at me. I’m waiting for Edith.’ Julia shot me a glance, as if daring me to say something.
‘I don’t know what you’re worried about,’ I grumbled. ‘You know you’re top of our class. You’re just standing out here to torment the rest of us into feeling even more anxious.’
‘I’m worried about the same thing as you are,’ Julia snapped. ‘Failing my first year and being sent home in disgrace. Except it wouldn’t be disgrace, because our mothers would be delighted and start casting around for the first suitable bachelor to marry us off to and that would be it. No more lectures, no more exams, no glittering surgical career. Just a husband and a household to manage and the hope that whatever remains of my brains gets passed on to the next generation.’
I stamped my feet, trying to block out both the cold and the grim reality that Julia painted – one that was far closer to my future than to hers. A gust of wet wind battered us. Was that rain or sleet? Perhaps it would snow and we’d be stranded in the medical school and I wouldn’t have to go home to dress for the dreaded evening that awaited us.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I told her stubbornly, believing it because I needed to. ‘We’ll both have passed. We’re just as good at medicine as the men are – better in some cases. Ross might have been able to grow a very fine moustache over the Christmas vac, but he couldn’t diagnose a cold if he was sneezing into his handkerchief.’ Still, I couldn’t help but suspect that when it came down to it, the moustache would be judged as more important even if he scraped an acceptable mark in the examinations and I passed with flying colours.
I should have. All I had ever wanted was to be a doctor, and last autumn I had found myself studying at the University of Edinburgh, which boasted one of the most august medical schools in the world. Nothing should have distracted me from the hours of lectures and dissections, and for the first few months I had lost myself in what felt like a dream world – one of anatomy sketches and chemical formulae, of science and knowledge and finally being treated as though my intelligence was important and not an embarrassing inconvenience. A world in which I was no longer the oddity in the drawing room, trying to discuss education and women’s suffrage, but one of a like-minded group of women who shared my purpose and ambition.
And yet I had found kinship not with my classmates but with a woman I had been meant to cut up as she lay on the dissection table. I had recognised her – recognised myself in her – and found myself stumbling into a world that turned everything I thought I knew on its head. All of which was cold comfort when I realised how little time I had spent studying in the end, and how much it meant to me when it was about to be ripped away.
‘You look like you’re going to be sick,’ Julia said dispassionately. ‘Cigarette? Calms the nerves.’
I looked at her fingers clenching her own cigarette, white-knuckled from more than just the cold, and wondered if it was working. I wondered if Professor Merchiston would let us into the medicine cabinet so that I could take a long, soothing swig from the laudanum bottle – and then just as quickly forced my thoughts away from him. The memory of stumbling through my materia medica oral examination, frantically scrounging up everything I knew about compounds, dosage and poison as he watched me with an unreadable expression for the best part of an hour was not one I wanted to revisit.
‘I’m going inside,’ I muttered. Who knew how many more days I had ahead of me of loitering in university corridors. I should enjoy it while I could. Truth be told, it wasn’t that much warmer indoors, but Alison Thornhill’s delighted embrace took some of the chill out of my bones.
‘I thought you were going to stand out there for ever. It’s cold enough without Julia Latymer taking the temperature down a few degrees with all that icy disapproval.’
‘She offered me a cigarette,’ I said hopefully. ‘That’s the friendliest she’s been all year. I think I’m making progress.’
Alison looked at me pityingly. ‘Gilchrist, it’s January.’
Before I could think of a suitably cutting retort, our conversation was interrupted by excited whoops from a gaggle of the men, and I saw the Dean of Medicine sweep through the corridor carrying a sheaf of papers, which his clerk affixed to the noticeboard as he watched. They fluttered in the breeze as the men crowded around, all as anxious as we were.
‘At this rate, we won’t get through that throng until next Christmas. Do you think if I poke one of them in the kidneys with my umbrella, they’ll move?’
‘I don’t think we’ll have to,’ I said with a sinking heart. A shorter list had also been pinned up, and there were no students fighting to see who ranked where on that. Our names, I realised.
I eased us past the group – some cheering, some looking like they wanted to cry. We should have been there, I thought, anger curdling inside me. My name should have been sandwiched between Alexander Gibson and Malcolm Hughes. We had sat the same exams and yet my name was an afterthought, an embarrassment, shunted off to the side to let the real medical students shine.
‘Is that us?’ Julia marched up to the list with a bravery I didn’t possess. ‘Oh Chri— Ah, cripes, sorry, Mrs Elphinstone.’ The chaperone glowered at her.
‘What’s the matter? Did you fail?’ Much as I hadn’t liked Julia last year, I would never wish for her to fail. I had wished that she would magically disappear, that someone would plant spiders in her bag or that circumstances would somehow conspire so that she lost all her luxurious chestnut hair, but I had never wanted something truly bad to happen.
‘Not exactly,’ she managed, pointing at the marks.
One hundred per cent. In everything. I glanced quickly down to mine, which weren’t as spectacular as Julia’s but were solid enough to prove that I hadn’t sabotaged myself. Nothing below seventy-two but nothing above eighty-nine. It could have been better – should have been – but it was enough to keep me in class and that was good enough for me. I felt my knees buckle with relief.
‘If this is the future of medicine, then God help your patients.’ The rowdy cheers died down and I turned to face Gregory Merchiston, looking distinctly unimpressed at our achievements. I avoided his eyes, and not just because we both knew that my mark in his class should have been higher. It was hard to imagine that he was the same man who had broken down in front of me in Elisabeth Chalmers’ drawing room, raw and exposed as I had never seen him before, his voice thick with emotion, tired eyes shining with tears he was too proud to shed. That his pale, gaunt face had worn stubble that rasped my cheeks, warm breath ghosting across my skin and his mouth finally brushing mine after a moment of delicious agony that seemed to last a lifetime. Had our lips really touched? I wasn’t sure. I could no longer distinguish between reality and the way I had replayed it in my mind again and again in the weeks that followed – including during my examination, where the only sound in the room came from my stammered answers and the rhythmic clicking of the chaperone’s knitting needles as she sat watching us, unaware that she was too late to prevent anything improper from passing between us.
There was nothing of that raw, exposed emotion present in Professor Merchiston today. He stood, his posture taut and his expression forbidding, as his gaze raked over us before finally coming to rest on me. In the dim light, his eyes looked black as coal but lacking its warmth. He turned away and my heart sank. This wouldn’t have happened had I been a man. Probably not, I amended privately, remembering Julia and Edith and the strange embrace I had once caught them in. That was the real reason behind Julia’s civility, I knew, not friendship at all. For once, it wasn’t me whose secrets would see her pilloried at best, expelled at worst. I glanced at my peers, in their sober dresses and neat hair, desperate to avoid any trappings of femininity lest it remind people that their proper place was elsewhere. How many of them were hiding secrets we would do anything to protect? Even now, Julia mistrusted me. It wasn’t as though I was going to stand up one day and announce to the entire lecture theatre that she and Edith were inverts, committing unnatural acts behind closed doors. Frankly, I wasn’t entirely certain what said unnatural acts involved,
although I doubted it was any worse than the lurid and frankly anatomically improbable entertainments the male students boasted of.
But none of it mattered, not now I had incontrovertible proof that I could do this. My love for medicine was requited and nothing else mattered. Not Merchiston, not the tragic events of the previous autumn and certainly not the contents of the box buried deep in my reticule. The sharp smell of formaldehyde and the rich tang of ink reached my nostrils as I entered the lecture theatre, and I felt all my worries fall away. It was inevitable that even with our brief moment of comradeship, it would be Julia who shattered it. Still giddy with the high of coming top of the class – perhaps even the year – I don’t think she meant to be cruel when she called out, ‘That’s two pieces of good news this week for you, Gilchrist, you dark horse! Wasn’t it your name I spied in the
engagement notices of The Times the other day?’
My cheeks burned with shame at the revelation, but it was nothing to what came next.
‘I didn’t know you were engaged.’
Alison wouldn’t meet my eyes. For a while she had been the closest thing to a friend I had, and even if she hadn’t always championed me in front of a mocking crowd, she had at least always tried to buck me up in private. I should have shared this with her.
‘Of course you were always going to be the first to drop out.’ Moira Owen smirked, as though reading my thoughts.
‘You probably only matriculated in the hopes of meeting a nice would-be doctor to marry.’
‘Don’t be beastly,’ Julia said. ‘Women can marry and work – you should know; isn’t your mother a washerwoman?’
Moira flinched. I had been on the receiving end of Julia’s taunts often enough to know that they stung. One of my favourite things about the new world I had found myself in was just how divorced it was from the humdrum banality of home life. I might not have shared the late-night studying sessions over cocoa and crumpets that the students in boarding houses enjoyed, but in the quad I still felt part of things, as though I had sloughed off my old skin and was a new sort of girl. Having my engagement brought out into the open felt like being stripped down to my underthings
in public. I felt exposed, embarrassed as though I had been caught in a particularly private moment. Having my name attached to a murder was hardly going to endear me to all the
people who had already dismissed me as a loose woman, but I wasn’t ashamed of the scandal. I was ashamed of the engagement and all it represented.
‘Delightful as this tea party is, ladies, I thought you had come here intending to learn,’ Merchiston drawled. ‘Miss Gilchrist, there is an equation on the blackboard for correctly calculating a dosage. Kindly come up and solve it – unless you’re too busy planning your trousseau.’
‘Was Professor Chalmers this distracted when he married, Professor?’ I snapped. ‘Or do you think all women have their heads full of feathers and fripperies the moment they’re handed a ring?’
His eyes grew stormy. ‘Much as I hate to involve myself in the personal affairs of students, I find myself agreeing with Miss Owen. You may well fit your studies around the preparations for your wedding. You may even graduate with a ring on your finger. But I find it hard to believe that your future husband, infatuated as I’m sure he is, will ever let you practise medicine. As it stands, you are wasting your time – I will not permit you to waste mine. Now will you solve the bloody equation?’
I picked up the chalk with trembling hands, fighting the urge to throw it at him. He knew how to throw his punches, that much I’d give him. He had homed in on my biggest fear about this whole catastrophe and lanced it in public like a boil. It was unjustified, I fumed, as I solved his damn equation and made my way back to my seat. I caught his eye for a fleeting moment and, rather than
the scorn I expected to see, he looked terribly sad. When he cancelled the rest of our materia medica lecture, claiming a migraine, I felt guiltily relieved that I wouldn’t have to face him.
By the end of the day I was exhausted, emotional and covered in stains I couldn’t – and frankly didn’t want to – identify. Normally all I would want would be a substantial meal and a hot bath, but if I could have stayed out in the drizzle on Teviot Place all night rather than climbing into my uncle’s carriage, I would have done it and gladly. I had seen police carriages stuffed with prisoners, all violent or drunk or both but all looking out through the window with the same expressions of fierce panic, knowing what they were headed towards but with no way of changing their fate. I had
faced horrors that a few years ago I had not imagined even existed. I had walked, head held high, into a roomful of men who thought me weak and stupid and proved that I was just as capable as any of them even as my hands trembled at my sides.
I had faced ridicule, scorn and sheer cruelty but I had never before wanted to run away quite as much as I did in that moment. Once I stepped into that carriage, my freedom was no longer my own – perhaps for ever. But not yet. I would rebel against my family’s wishes one last time, and clear the air with the one person I both wanted to and could not avoid.
I rapped sharply on the roof of the cab. ‘Calhoun? Take me to Newington first. I have a call to pay.’