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Ecdysis

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Faith found Paul in the darkroom. It wasn't privacy, exactly. Mr Clay used it as well, though less and less frequently now, with his professional responsibilities growing. However, there was no fear of the servants coming in – they were strictly forbidden from entering, in case they disturbed any of Mr Clay's careful photographic processes – which in this house made it as close as they could come.

Since it was already half a laboratory, Faith had taken to keeping her own carefully scavenged collection of tools and specimens there, tucked away in a corner where Mr Clay was unlikely to notice.

Sometimes they spent hours working alongside each other without a word, but today Faith had business. She slipped in quietly and came up behind Paul, who was sitting at the desk, scowling at a book of photographic plates.

“That's the book your father said you couldn't keep,” said Faith, with a flicker of interest that she couldn't disguise. She leaned over his shoulder, as much as her corset would allow her to, and studied the page in front of her. It showed a series of pictures of a monkey. Each one was only slightly different, as if they'd been taken a second apart. If you squinted, the absences began to fill away; you could envision how the muscle propelled the bone, compelling the monkey to move in a certain way. Motion, captured, and thereby understood. She didn't see anything particularly scandalous about it, but she could understand why Paul was fascinated.

Paul shot her a dark glance. He knew she wouldn't tell, but he also knew she would exact her price. They were bonded now in the way that young foxes or cats bonded, with a frequent need to slash and bite at each other.

Faith smiled. “Loan it to me,” she said.

“If you're caught with it --”

“I won't be.”

“-- it would be hell rained down. He would think giving it to you was a hundred times worse than just having it myself. Anyway --” He gave her a sidelong, inscrutable look. “You might not want it.”

He turned back several plates. All of them were similar, a series of images painstakingly documenting each stage of a motion. The first page he turned had a horse running, the second a cat leaping, the third –

The third was a man, photographed from the back, kicking out his leg. On the page opposite him was a woman doing the same. The photographer had documented them just as painstakingly as the monkey, the horse and the cat. They weren't wearing any clothes.

Faith went very still with shock, but only for a moment. A part of her mind was screaming at her that she ought to be horrified, but that part of her was very small, drowned out by keen, avaricious fascination.

The prevailing sense she had of her own form was the one that she saw in the mirror every day: something stuffed with stitches and stays into an abstract shape of womanhood that had no relation to the one created by natural selection. Looking at the woman in the photograph, it was easy to envision her musculature, and the skeleton underneath it. Everything about her body had been created by evolution for a purpose. She wanted to study it, as she would a fossil.

He was right. If she were caught with this particular book, it would be hell rained down on both of them, but she couldn't find it in herself to care.

Paul, watching her face, let out a short huff. “There's never any winning with you, is there?”

Their gazes snagged for a moment, the coiling thrill of shared transgression hanging in the air between them. Then Paul looked away, and hastily closed the book. “Fine – take it. But give it back tomorrow. And don't get caught.” His face was a little red.

“I won't.” Faith took the book and tucked it safely under her arms. “Have you had any ideas?”

Paul scowled down at his now-empty hands. “I did think – but Muybridge is doing it all already. I don't know what else I can do that nobody else has done yet. About the only thing he hasn't photographed is fish.”

“Well – could you do that?”

“An underwater photograph?” Paul sucked in a breath, preparatory to a derisive snort, but instead let it out again in a slow, meditative whoosh. “William Thompson did it once. He lowered the camera on a pole. But to photograph a live creature that way --” He stopped again, his face going distant as he ran through the implications. “It could be done,” he said, finally, and looked back up. “But I couldn't do it alone. It would need four hands, at least. Someone to light the flash-powder.”

Faith looked at him, and saw the slow kindling of anticipation in her face reflected back at her from Paul's.

She said, “It's Hettie's night off tomorrow.” With one less servant in the house, and everyone stretched thin, it was easier to manage not undressing for the night without anyone thinking it peculiar.

Paul said, “I think I know where we can get a boat.”

**

The magazine competition offered a prize of a hundred pounds for the person who could provide the best photograph of a living animal in its natural state. There was no question but that Paul was going to try for it. They needed the money – money of their own, that Paul's father couldn't take away from them – if they were ever going to take their expedition to Mongolia.

It had to be Mongolia. That had been decided on. Faith herself would have been nearly as happy to embark on a fossil excavation in Dorset or Sussex – though Mr Clay would not have been enthusiastic about this plan either. Over the years, as the theories proposed by Darwin and Lamarck lodged themselves further in the collective minds of the scientific community, Mr Clay had grown increasingly mistrustful of the natural sciences. He simply did not want to know.

Oddly, this went a good way towards towards reconciling Faith to the necessity of his existence in their lives. Mr Clay might be a better man than her father in nearly every respect; still, for all his terrible flaws, the Reverend Sunderly had never been content to shutter off his own mind so completely. It was good of Mr Clay leave her something to admire in her father. This did, however, make him about as likely to support Faith's ambitions to become a naturalist as he would have been to support her in an aim to go off to Paris and become an artist's model.

Anyway, it had to be Mongolia now, because of Paul. Last year, Myrtle had taken them to the Museum of Ornamental Art during his school break to see a photography exhibition. She had meant it to be a treat, but Paul had spent the whole trip silent, sullen and scornful.

Faith had come up to him while he was glowering at a portrait of a pair of dubious-looking Balkan children in fancy dress. “I suppose you think you could do better,” she'd said.

“I know I could,” Paul had muttered. “If --” He'd shut his mouth, in a thin hard line.

“The Balkans aren't so far.”

Paul had shifted his flat disgusted stare off the photograph and over to her. “Of course – just round the corner.”

“My father went further,” said Faith, blandly. “Dozens of times.”

A flash of challenge. “How far?”

Faith had had to take some time to think about this, mentally retracing routes on the globe of her father's which Mr Clay still kept in his study. “Mongolia,” she said, finally. Anticipation spun warmly the base of her stomach. “I think Mongolia was the furthest. But it's a long, cold trip. It probably wouldn't be worth it – just for a photograph.”

She'd held his gaze, unblinking like a snake. Sometimes Paul became suddenly sensible at moments like this. Sometimes he'd back down.

But: “Nobody would think it was worth it,” Paul had answered, his eyes locked with hers, “just for a fossil, either.”

The words 'I dare you' were forbidden in the Clay household. It was a well-intentioned but wasted effort on the part of Myrtle and Mr Clay. Paul and Faith didn't need them anymore. With a twist of the intonation or a lift of the brow, a perfectly polite sentence could become a deathly challenge that only Paul and Faith knew about.

And so it was going to be Mongolia, if only they could get there.

A hundred pounds wasn't going to get them there, but it would be a start. Time was beginning to push in on them. Mr Clay, now that he could afford it, wanted Paul to go off and study to be a curate himself. Paul resented the idea of this passionately, and the waste of money more.

As for Faith – every year that passed pushed her further and further into invisibility, buried under increasing numbers of skirts and corsets and bonnets and gloves. It made her desperate, like a rat in a trap, and just as ready to bite. She didn't know how much longer she could wait to be seen.

**

Sneaking out wasn't easy, but they were used to that. Stealing the boat was easy, surprisingly sow. The hardest part was making sure they'd rowed far enough out into the water that they wouldn't accidentally break the camera by scraping it along the seabed. The potential damage to the camera was the most nerve-wracking part of the entire enterprise.

Now it was past three in the morning, and they were well out in the Thames Estuary. They'd tested the water-depth with a pole, and hadn't found the bottom. They both peered downwards, into the darkness of the water and the faint black shadows moving in its depths. “Eels,” Faith said. “I think.”

Eels were good. They would make for an very dramatic photograph.

Paul nodded. With infinite care, he lowered the camera on its pole. They both tensed as they heard the splash when it hit the water. His left hand curled around the string that would allow him to raise the shutter. Faith picked up a pan of magnesium powder in one hand, and a candle in the other.

They waited. Faith made sure to keep her hands steady. If the timing was wrong, this would all have been for nothing.

Now,” said Paul, and Faith lit the candle to the magnesium powder.

The world flamed up with a bang and then filled with smothering smoke. Faith took as deep a breath as her corset would allow, and found herself sucking in white ash. She choked it out, attempted once more to breathe, and then undid all her good work by sucking in another horrified breath. A few flakes of flash-powder had fallen on her sleeve. In the damp of the lake, they were lighting. Her arm was on fire.

Paul, accustomed to the effects of flash-powder, had been intent on the camera, but he turned his head when he heard her hiss in pain. His eyes widened in horror.

Everything seemed to be moving much more slowly than her mind, which felt quite calm and clear. He was about to turn and help her. In order to save her, he'd let the camera go crashing down to the lake-bed.

“Hold onto the camera!” she shouted, trusting him to listen, and hurled herself into the estuary.

She'd imagined herself drowning before, weighed down like the evidence of a murder by a guilty conscience and twelve ludicrous layers of mandatory fabric. She'd imagined herself dying by fire, too, and shot by Ben Crock, and stoned by an angry mob, and torn apart by rats, and dragged down to Hell by a dark angel; at one point any of these fates had seemed plausible enough that it was worth taking time to reconcile herself to them.

It did not turn out to be any more necessary this time than any of the others. She held onto the the side of the boat, soaked and gasping. She saw the heavy bulk of the camera, safely stowed in the boat, and then felt Paul's fingers wrap around her forearms, helping her haul herself further up.

“Did you get the photograph?”

“I think so. You know I won't be able to tell until I develop the negative.” He stared down at her. His face – only a few inches away – was unreadable in the darkness. “I don't think I can haul you back in without overturning the boat.”

“No,” agreed Faith, “I'm too heavy. And I've got too much skirt.” There was a small pause. “Do you have a pocketknife on you?”

“What? Yes.”

“Give it to me, and let go my right arm.”

Paul did not let go either of her arms. “Not until you tell me what you're going to do with it,” he said warily.

“I'm going to cut away my dress and corset,” said Faith, “so I'm lighter, and able to float. Then I can hold onto the boat while you row us back to shore.” She felt light-headed. It didn't matter what straights she was in; what she planned to do – removing her clothing! out of doors! – was nearly unimaginable. Looking at dirty pictures was nothing in comparison. Any woman who did something like that was sunk so far in iniquity that she was essentially irredeemable. She could see from the shocked stillness in Paul's face that he was having the same failure of imagination. “Will you give me the knife?” she asked, and then paused, taking stock of her own anatomy – the way her arms bent, the way her spine curved. The way her corset kept her straight-backed, limiting her movement and preventing her from contorting in the way she would need to, if she were going to free herself from her garments. She swallowed. “Actually,” she muttered, “I think you had better do the corset.

One by one, Paul eased his fingers, very slowly, off her arm. Faith tightened her grip on the boat. Equally slowly, he reached in his pocket for the knife, and then knelt over her. “You're going to have to hold still,” he said, his voice completely blank, “or I might cut you – or capsize the boat.” A pause. “I could still try and haul you in. It might be –”

“No,” said Faith, immediately.

Paul nodded. He leaned over her, carefully, then paused and readjusted the camera for ballast; they were both paying attention to every shift in the boat. Then he shifted his left hand up to her shoulder, for better purchase, and, with his right hand, set to cutting away the fabric of her dress and corset.

Almost immediately, his knife caught on one of her spiral stays and bounced. They both froze.

“You've got to go through the laces to get it off,” said Faith, hearing her voice glassily calm in her own ears. There were goosebumps all up her spine. It was one of the most curious sensations she'd ever felt. The last time she'd been this close to another human being, it had been Howard, back when he was still small enough to carry. “Center back. Otherwise you'll just keep hitting steel.”

Steel?” echoed Paul disgustedly, as his hand groped along her back to find the center. “Why do you – it's like wearing Reading Gaol round your ribs!”

“Quite like,” said Faith.

She felt the point of the knife jerking through the laces of her corset, one by one. As each one fell away, it got both a little easier to breathe, and – for whatever reason - a little bit harder. Then the pressure lifted, and Paul pulled himself carefully backwards into the boat. “I can't reach the ones at the very bottom. You'll have to do those yourself.”

He handed the knife to her, hilt-first.

Faith let out a breath. “Don't let me fall,” she whispered, and let go the side of the boat with her right arm, so that she could take the knife.

She hung one-armed from the rowboat, Paul's fingers digging into her arm hard enough to bruise, and bent her right arm back to slash away at the final two laces of her corset. When it came loose, she ripped it out of her dress, and let it float away into the ocean.

She had to contort herself more for the rest of it. Skirts, crinoline, two petticoats – they floated soddenly around her, tangling her legs, and the idea of what would happen if she let go the boat was so terrifying that she didn't have time to be frightened by any of the rest of it, until suddenly her skirts were all free of their ties and she was kicking them away into the ocean. Her left arm ached terribly from the way she'd had to twist it while she thrashed around. At last, with only her chemise and drawers left, she handed the knife back to Paul, and then let her head drop onto the side of the boat.

She took a breath, and then another. Her whole body was floating on the ocean. She wasn't sinking.

“Faith,” said Paul.

She looked up. He was gripping both of her arms again, but his eyes didn't meet hers, and his face was rather red. Still, his voice was cool and steady. “I'm going to have to let go,” he said, “if I'm going to row us back. Will you be all right, holding on?”

“Yes,” said Faith, and meant it. She felt light as a hot-air balloon.

They were silent as he rowed them back to the shore. They'd been out a long time, longer than they meant. The light of the dawn was just beginning to break. They'd picked a spot that wasn't much frequented, but the later it got, the more chance there was that they would be seen.

Eventually, they got close enough to the shore that Faith could put her feet down and walk along the bottom of the estuary, with one hand on the boat to guide her. Walking along, she felt a sudden sharp pain in her foot. “Hold on a moment,” she said, squeezed her eyes shut, and ducked down into the water to grope along the silt.

When she emerged a moment later, she was holding a shark's tooth half the length of her pinky finger.

Paul was staring at her, wide-eyed, but he quickly turned away as he saw her emerge. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Can we please get back to shore?”

Faith laughed. Her hair, wet, fell along her shoulders and down her back. She noted the shivering of her body as she emerged further and further from the water, but she could barely feel it. It was like she'd sloughed off all her own fears along with her clothes. Without her skirts, her corset, her gloves, what was there to make her a young lady at all? What made her anything besides a furious intellect wrapped up in skin and teeth?

Her fingers curled around the shark's tooth in her hand.

They beached the boat on the estuary shore, Paul pulling it from the front, Faith shoving it from the back. It was the sort of thing they didn't need words to coordinate. Once it was done, Paul busied himself with examining the camera and dismantling the pole-apparatus that they'd used to take the underwater photograph. Faith stood on the sand, and looked down at herself.

The sun was now half-risen. It was the first time in a long while that she'd had the chance to look at herself in daylight. Her toenails seemed sharp and jagged, and her feet were bleeding a little where she'd scraped them on the rocks of the estuary floor. Her skin was milky bluish from the chill. Her waist and ribs were sturdier than they looked in her clothes and corset, more like what she'd seen drawn in anatomy textbooks – more like, but still slightly distorted, she thought, a little too narrow round the center. Her wet chemise and bloomers stuck to her skin, chilling her and obscuring her view. The cold sea wind made her shiver.

She was already as good as naked. At this point, there was hardly anything left to lose. She stripped off what was left of her undergarments, and laid them carefully over the side of the boat to dry. She was already going to have to come up with something wildly clever to explain what had become of the rest of her clothing – but no, if they only got back to the house safely, she could tell Myrtle, and Myrtle would see that it was better to help her cover up for it than to let the servants or anyone else find out. She kept forgetting that Myrtle, practical to the bone, had turned out to be a person who could be counted on.

She didn't know what she was going to say until she said it. “Paul – did you bring enough albumen to take another photograph?”

“Yes,” said Paul, his attention still focused on the camera. “I thought we might have two chances.”

Faith said, “Would you take a picture of me? With the fossil I found? The tooth.”

And no one, if they saw the picture, she thought, would be able to say that she didn't find it. Nobody would be able to take that away from her, ever. She couldn't show it to anyone, yet – but someday –

Paul's head jerked up. He looked full at her, for one moment, and then hastily turned away. His face was burning red.

With flat disbelief, he said, "You want me to take a dirty photograph of you."

"It doesn't have to be dirty,” said Faith. “Not unless you took it that way. It would be a scientific study. Like Muybridge's.” When he didn't respond to that, she added, “It's no different from photographing an eel. A monkey."

"You're not a monkey!"

"That's not what Darwin says!"

"Darwin!” exploded Paul. She could see that his hands were shaking. So were hers, she realized – though it might just be the cold. She wanted to laugh again. She wished he would look at her and shout at her properly. His flare-ups made her feel more real for being the cause of them.

"Paul," she said. "Look at me. What do you see?"

"A bloody mad terror!" said Paul, not looking.

"I dare you," said Faith, recklessly.

Paul's shoulders tensed. He swallowed, and then swung furiously around.

She'd dared him, and that meant no half-measures. He looked at her with a camera's eye -- thorough, assessing and ruthless. Faith ought to have felt exposed. She didn't. She felt seen.

She locked eyes with him, and repeated, "What do you see?"

"A terror," he said again, after another long moment, but his tone was different. "You terrify me."

"I know," said Faith. "Photograph that."