EXCERPT
from Planetary Bodies
Imogen Rye

1895

She hadn’t planned to be here. Her initial discomfort on entering the chamber wasn’t unexpected because she was uneasy in new places, but now, after the pronouncement, there were greater things on her mind. Seeing his large dark form from a distance at first took her aback.  Perhaps it was the downcast to his face or the way he had gone from filling a room to looking as if it was filling him with its shock and surprise. She could see his sadness overtake outrage in one sweep, a felling blow, the gavel of decision ringing out against her senses. 

Constance turned from him to the sea of faces filling the courtroom. Here a pitying look, there a scowl. All manner of opinion displayed itself in the eyes of men and women who gawped at this display of judgment. One man, a rather erudite-looking fellow, peered intently at her, his spectacles glimmering and magnifying the dark pupils so that they appeared three times their actual size. What message could he be trying to send her? At the same time, she could feel Oscar’s eyes on her though she could not bring herself to look back. He stood in the dock, disheveled by comparison to his usual presentation. His ordinary self, never very ordinary at all, seemed to have turned inward, his long arms draped somewhat pathetically from each sloping shoulder. His clothing was rumpled, a poor approximation of how he might wish to be seen. The green carnation was missing.

The weight of pity and a taste of charcoal arose in her throat. She choked and coughed, attempting to clear it. Inadvertently, her eyes lifted and his face was turned full toward hers with a baleful gaze, the look of a convicted man. There was too little air and no space to move in the courtroom packed with spectators. Papers were being shuffled, lawyers were exchanging harsh whispers, the hum of the crowd was rising and one or two threw determined shouts toward the dais. 

 

Constance knew that no one was more astonished than Oscar himself. As shouts of defense rang out, his face gave away that his heart had been broken. "The worst case I have ever tried," repeated the judge, his mouth working in utter disgust. He glowered at those in the courtroom who continued the chorus of support for their friend. The sudden arc of a rolled newspaper over their heads caused the judge to throw the perpetrator out of the courtroom.

In a flurry, it was all over, and as she was rushed from the chamber to the bright light of day, a quick glance back in his direction went unsatisfied as her husband had been removed forthwith to the confines of a prison she could not begin to imagine. Or to be more precise, it was the thought of Oscar in prison that she could not imagine. Though she had never set foot in one, there were stories enough of those unfortunates whose road had ended in Holloway or Reading and none of them afforded her an image of this man, once so fine and proud, at ease in such a place.

Returning home, she paused on the front landing. Her tears by now dried, she meant to collect herself so neither Cyril nor Vyvyan would catch a glimpse of her tremulous state. She crept quietly upstairs and put pen to paper. Dearest, she wrote, Though I can never tell you how much it pained me to hear the outcome of today’s trial, know that I will make every attempt to put it behind me. My greater concern now is, as it should be, the boys, who need loving assurances that all will be well. I pray that they will not know too much about all that has transpired, for too much knowledge of one’s parents and their intimate affairs can only lead to misery and heartbreak. And no one wants that for them, poor darlings. I think it right, as you suggest, that they be returned to school in familiar surroundings and perhaps join me once again at the half term if all is well. I cannot bear to think what exposure they may face when it comes to that, but in the end, one can only plan and hope for the best. I miss you and hold you with fondness in my heart. Your own Constance. 

•••

Oscar stood steady, for the first time since taking his place in the dock. The tremor in his legs, first from nerves, then from fatigue, had begun to subside. For a moment he felt he could stand there on into the night. What was to stop him? He felt a sudden surge of righteous indignation, but then the ceiling of the courtroom seemed to press in, as if with the weight of a thousand lies. All the tales of trickery and woe of the damned and the defenseless who had stood here before now seemed to have gathered above the heads of those clustered below. Throughout the room there came a low murmur, which rose to a growl, as the judge declared by way of emphasis the pronouncement of the jury. 

“The jury has returned from deliberations. Mr. Wilde, you have been found guilty of the crimes of gross indecency, and I hereby sentence you to be kept to hard labor for a period of two years to commence forthwith. Bailiff, take the prisoner into custody…” At which point, the surge of the crowd and the cries of the most distressed rang out: Shame! It is the shame of the court that must be punished!

From a great height, his lanky body crumpled and he leant one arm on the rail, gripping it unsteadily with the other hand. “And I, my Lord? May I have no word at all?” His words lost energy as they disappeared into the roar of the crowd now frenzied with activity, the surge of bodies pushing forward, hands reaching out to brush a sleeve, to impart a ray of hope, at once to witness and be part of such travesty. The bailiff and two other officers of the court bundled him out of the dock, down several steps and through a narrow doorway. Beyond, the passageway led directly to a small windowless holding room where Oscar was deposited, alone, and the door unceremoniously slammed. Immediately, the ruckus of the courtroom with its voluble inhabitants ceased and no further sound could be heard. 

In the room was a square table with just one hard chair. On being shoved through the doorway, he had slumped into it, not knowing what else to do. Rarely alone, the quiet felt alien and somewhat threatening. His senses were assaulted by the void of ornament, color, and sound and he stood to reassemble his dress. The jacket he’d chosen for the morning’s appearance was, of course, conservative and buttoned near to the throat, but it had come loose from its shoulder moorings and gaped about the neck. Oscar straightened his lapels, readjusted the unruly cuffs, and smoothed his hair. Without benefit of a looking glass, he did the best he could, twirling one lock tidily over each ear. He walked once round the table, grasped the chair back with both hands, and closed his eyes. Still no sound. He could feel his pulse in the palms of each hand. Inside his long boots, he curled and uncurled his toes. He always instructed the cobbler to make his footwear one size larger than necessary. Large shoes were the mark of a confident man. No matter how big they were, he knew he filled them. 

Moving the chair from its sidelong position, he placed it across the table to face the door. He wanted to see whoever came in next without having to turn his head. Oscar’s surprise at the verdict left him feeling wary and alert, yet calm. What he hadn’t expected was the sense of peace as it washed over him, as much a physical sensation as a state of being. There were no thoughts to tamp down, his mind felt oddly unfettered. Instead, his heart swelled. What was this? Where was the anger, the resentment? Aimlessly, he wandered through past grievances, alighting on those who could conceivably bear blame. Bosie? The Marquess? Alfred? Or more directly, the judge himself, or his jury? What surprised him was that as soon as they arrived, such thoughts seemed to evaporate as the work of some power outside himself. Rather than churning over the injustices, he seemed somehow to have been removed from the entire affair. 

Sitting at the table once again, Oscar observed his heart beating squarely in the center of his chest. He ruminated on it, tried to picture what it might look like if he were to thrust his hand through the ribcage and tear it from within. He pictured it held in his large, open hand, dangling ventricles, oozing blood, perhaps still pulsing even disconnected from his corporeal self. He envisioned it remaining alive, a living thing, imbued with its own senses of touch, sight, hearing. His beating heart would move about the world without him, carrying his deeds and misdeeds, leaving him behind. 

The sound of a key rattled in the lock. The door creaked open and a police officer he hadn’t seen before entered. “Right, Guv, let’s have it. We’re off.” He planted his wide stance and gestured to Oscar to get up. Oscar did as he was told, leaving his thoughts behind. Turning to glance over his shoulder as he departed, he watched the organ pulse on the table’s surface.  

•••

Willie K. sat resolute, chin up, eyes down, appearing for all the world as if he were carved of stone. He neither moved nor flinched, not at the sudden drop of a sheaf of files on the table nor at the gust of cold air which buffeted the room as the clerk exited having delivered the required documents. 

The judge entered, sighing heavily and turning his frown toward the respondent. He’d met both husband and wife before, under quite different circumstances, however he felt certain that neither would remember him. At that time, back in eighty-five to be exact, he had acted as junior clerk in the dispensation of the will of the elder William Vanderbilt. Prior to that he had even, coincidentally, ridden in his employer’s carriage to the Masquerade Ball, an affair of such import as to be offered as a special treat so he might catch a glimpse of the extravagance if only from a hundred yards away down 5th Avenue. 

Willie looked up. The judge was thin and he didn’t trust thin men. Why did those in the law or academia always look undernourished? Though he supposed their brains outweighed their bodies, the evidence must mean that a man could only develop one or the other to the level of expertise. In this case, the man, his judge, the one who would determine his fate, carried himself at a slight angle with a slouch that began somewhere in the lower vertebrae and turned his torso a shade to the left. The man appeared twisted and it looked as though he might even be in some degree of pain. Willie’s brow furrowed. He wondered if he should give the judge some assistance as he slowly lumbered toward his seat. The chair had been pulled out and he backed toward it, sitting heavily, then turning his entire body, carefully tucking his knees under the table. He faced Willie and exhaled. Willie couldn’t help but think that if it took this much effort just to get into the room, he might be in for a rude awakening when it came to the terms of the divorce. He almost laughed at his predicament. He certainly wouldn’t be the first man to have a marriage end, but the circumstances were undeniably unique. This was sure to be in the papers by next day, the vultures doing their grubby work, and of course, that was exactly what she wanted. 

•••

In the adjacent room, everything went according to plan. Though she rarely fidgeted, Alva caught her fingers drumming on the table. She stopped herself and used the opportunity to pull tight her gloves, one after the other, a purposeful movement. No one need see her tension. The decision had been made to never lay eyes on him again and so here she was, legal team at her flanks, the judge facing her, power and money at her command. Her soon-to-be ex-husband sat uncomfortably, she knew, in a room nearby. By the end of the day, the decree would be granted and she would be free. 

The room was cold and damp. A faint stale odor permeated the atmosphere, the breath of countless others who had previously aired their protests here. Waiting, Alva’s mind drifted, touching on countless items for attention. Directives to staff, reminders to the children, complaints to be registered not least of which included the interminable delay and the inefficiencies which plagued this entire process. Justice, indeed. To suffer the indignities of a court proceeding was bad enough, but to be made to wait to hear – well, what exactly? Ordinarily, she might feel triumphant under such circumstances. A divorce brought by a woman, a woman of stature, nonetheless, by her – and yet, the expected thrill eluded her. She felt none of the satisfaction, was not energized in the usual manner. This got her thinking about what it was that had brought them here. She sniffed at thoughts of how much, or how little, effort had been expended in the construction of a significant family over two decades, only to tear it apart as she was about to do. Afterward, she might still say that everything had gone according to plan. She was, as it turned out, an optimist. What she hadn’t expected was that it was her husband’s secret, so long hidden even from her, that would put things in motion. 

And the final blow was undignified. She bristled at the memory of his descent to violence aboard the Valiant, built for her, no less. Despite the energy expended in trying to forget, the events of five months earlier kept crowding in where, in the dark of the ship’s belly, drowned by the roar of turbines, a sudden struggle caught her by surprise. She had just finished dressing and Harriet had left her cabin. For the first time since dawn, she was alone, noting the precise staccato of steam and gasket and the thrum of twin engines, altogether a symphony to accompany her thoughts. 

She hadn’t expected anyone else to be in that section of the ship, her private quarters, which could only be reached down a long, narrow passageway beyond the central parlor. Which was why she’d been startled as Willie’s tall form appeared in silhouette behind her while she looked up into the dressing mirror, catching her shoe in the hem of her skirts as she turned, and tripping nearly to her knees.  It was there that he had caught her by the elbows and lifted her to her feet, suddenly finding himself pressed up against his wife, a closeness neither had felt in years. In one swift movement, Willie pulled her through the doorway and into a narrow hall just off the sleeping chamber. Alva’s sharp intake of breath caused him to stop, his hands grasping her shoulders tightly. Here she was, utterly incapacitated and contained within his arms, and looking up at him, her green eyes flashed. 

With a boorish lunge, he pressed himself to her, less an embrace than a threat. She instantly recoiled. In any previous confrontation, Willie would have let his shoulders drop, backed away, given up without a struggle, but in that moment, everything shifted. Perhaps it was the movement of the ship through churning water or the turning of the earth still deeper. Beneath Willie’s grasp was his wife’s sharp agitation and the way she panted her objections only spurred him on. Given the restrictions of the narrow space, their awkward embrace might easily have been abandoned, but Willie was emboldened. It could have been the dark or the strange, forbidden quarters. The prospect of sudden discovery, in any other circumstance, might have added sexual tension to the air, but of this there was none. As he grasped at her corsets, pulling first at the bodice and then at the shoulder, she planted herself, indignant, and above her protestations, Alva heard the snap and rip of seams along her bodice, felt his teeth as they sank into her neck, teeth gnawing at tendons as she strained to free herself. The struggle becoming clownish, losing energy, falling into apathy. His look, as she caught it, inflaming her sensibilities. The mask itself fading to the inevitable look of irony. Hatred was too good for him. 

Each time, the memory caused Alva to shudder. She was vexed, yet remained cool. To be utterly wrested from control – for that was how she saw it and not the other way around – was infuriating. She could give up anything in the world but the steady assurance that she occupied the seat of power within her marriage. Willie’s lurid attack had managed, under the most brutish of circumstances, to have bested her, and yet she would not be defeated.

A sudden slap brought her back to herself, here in the chamber, facing the judge. A clerk had dropped a thick sheaf of files on the table. Alva hated it when no one spoke. The silence resembled a forfeit. “Is this it, then? What in heaven’s name is taking so long?”

The judge eyed Mrs. Vanderbilt, scribbled a few additional notes in the folio that had been provided to him by the clerk, then closed it and cleared his throat. He sniffed, took a handkerchief and wiped his nose, patted his lips and folded it neatly before returning it to his breast pocket. “I daresay we have all we need,” he said simply. “An eyewitness has come forward, it seems, from Paris. A Mrs. Constance Wilde.”

___

IMOGEN RYE lives in Los Angeles. When she is not writing or painting portraits, you may find her arguing over the ripeness of a melon at the Farmer's Market, hogging popcorn at the Laemmle, or running up and down stairs to the beach, camera swinging by a worn strap. www.circasix.com is Imogen's brainchild, and she hangs out @imogen_rye on Twitter, and as imogenrye on Instagram and Facebook. Send her an email at imogenrye@gmail.com – she'd love to hear from you.