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A Great and Terrible Beauty
by Libba Bray
p.10 God save me from a woman's tears, for I've no strength against them.
p.11 I could ask them for directions back to the marketplace, though my Hindi isn't nearly as good as Father's and for all I know Where is the marketplace may come out as I covet your neighbor's fine cow.
p.42 She attempts one of those confessional smiles, the sort usually seen in reverent portraits of Florence Nightingale. In my experience, such smiles mean that the real message--the one hidden by manners and good posture--will need to be translated.
"I think you shall be very happy here, Miss Doyle."
Translation: That is an order.
"Spence has turned out many wonderful young women who've gone on to make very good marriages.
We don't expect much more from you. Please don't embarrass us.
"Why, you may even be sitting here in my position someday."
If you turn out to be completely unmarriageable, and you don't end up in an Austrian convent making lace nightgowns.
p.52-53 We scurry across the threshold of the quiet, cavernous chapel and take our seats, our footsteps echoing off the marble floors. Arched wood-beamed ceilings soar a good fifteen feet above us. Candelabras line the sides of the church, casting long shadows over the wooden pews. Stained-glass windows line the walls, colorful advertisements for God, pastoral scenes of angels doing angelic sorts of things--visiting villagers, telling them good news, cradling babies. There is the odd panel with a severed gorgon's head, an angel in armor standing next to it, brandishing a sword dripping blood. Can't say that I've heard that particular Bible story--or want to, really. It's a bit gruesome so I turn my attention to the altar where a vicar stands, tall and thin as a scarecrow.
p.53 The vicar, whose name is Reverend Waite, leads us in prayers that begin with "O Lord" and end with our somehow being not worthy--sinners who have always been sinners and will forever be sinners until we die. It isn't the most optimistic outlook I've ever heard. But we're encouraged to keep trying anyway.
p.54-55 There is a great rustling as fifty girls stand at attention and recite the pledge, chins tilted upward toward the future. "Thank you. You may be seated. For those girls who have returned to us this year, you shall set the example for the others. For those who are new to us"--Mrs. Nightwing scans the chapel till she finds me next to Ann--"we expect nothing less than your very best."
Thinking this is our dismissal, I rise from the pew. Ann pulls on my skirt.
"She's just begun," she whispers.
And, indeed, Mrs. Nightwing astonishes me by prattling on about virtue, the well-mannered girl, suitable breakfast fruits, the unfortunate influence of Americans on British society, and her own fondly remembered school days. Time has no meaning. I feel as if I have been left in the desert to die and am waiting eagerly for the vultures to begin their work and end my misery.
p.61 Ann glances at me guiltily and I know what her answer will be. She's going to sit and eat chocolates with the very girls who torment her. And now I know that Ann is as shallow as the rest of them. More than ever I wish I could go home, but there is no more home.
"Well..." Ann says, looking down at her feet.
I should just let her wallow in her discomfort, force her to snub me, but I'm not about to let them get the best of me.
"You should go," I say, flashing a smile that would put the sun to shame. "I really must catch up on my reading."
Yes, after all, if I were to join you, I might enjoy myself, and wouldn't that be a shame? Please, don't spare me another thought.
p.76 I can't believe that I'm here inside a dark, gloomy chapel ready to commit complete sacrilege by stealing. Thou shalt not steal. I seem to recall that as being one of God's I'd rather you didn't lest I have to smite you into ash commandments. Nor do I think it will help my case that I'm stealing what the Church believes is the holy blood of Christ. It's not too late. I could still turn back and go to bed. I could, but I'd forever yield what power I have now to those girls.
p.112 "quiet as feathers falling on snow"
p.116-117 Pippa senses that we're not telling the whole truth. Her eyes take on that suspicious, wounded look girls get when they know they've fallen off the top rung of friendship and someone else has passed them, but they don't know when or how the change took place.
p.149-150 "How revolting" Ann has been flipping through the diary. She's got some sort of illustration in her hands, which she tosses away as if it might burn her.
"What is it?" Pippa rushes over, her curiosity stronger than her pride. We lean in close. It's a drawing of a woman with grapes in her hair coupling with a man in animal skins, a mask with horns adorning his head. The caption reads, The Rites of Spring by Sarah Rees-Toome.
We all gasp and call it disgusting while trying to get a better look.
"Me thinks he's already sprung," I say, giggling in a high voice I don't even recognize as my own.
"What are they doing?" Ann asks, turning quickly away.
"She's lying back and thinking of England!" Pippa shrieks, invoking the phrase that every English mother tells her daughter about carnal acts. We're not supposed to enjoy it. We're just supposed to put our mind on making babies for the future of the Empire and to please our husbands. For some reason, it's Kartik's face that swims inside my eyes. Those heavily fringed orbs of his coming closer, making my lips part. A strange warmth starts in my belly and seeps under every edge of me."
p.217-219 In the dream, I'm running, my feet sinking into the cold, muddy earth with each step. When I stop, I'm at the mouth of Kartik's tent. He's asleep, blankets thrown back, bare chest exposed like a Roman sculpture. A line of dark hair snakes over a taut stomach. It disappears into the waistband of his trousers, into a world I do not know.
His face. His cheeks-nose-lips-eyes. Under the lids, his eyes move back and forth rapidly. Thick lashes rest against the tops of his cheekbones. The nose is strong and straight. It slopes down to a perfect point at the top of his mouth, which is open just slightly to let his breath in and out.
I want to taste that mouth again. Wanting brings me down in a whoosh, feet planted, breathing shallow, head light. There's only the wanting. Bring my lips to his and it's like melting. Those black eyes flutter open, see me. The sculpture comes alive. Every muscle in his arms flexing as he pushes himself up, pulls me under, slides on top. The weight of him forces the air from my lungs like a bellows, but still it comes out as the lightest of sighs. And there's his mouth again on mine, a heat, a pressure, a promise of things to come, a promise I'm rising up to meet.
His fingertips are a whisper on my skin. A thumb inches toward my breast, traces circles over and around. Move my mouth to the salty skin of his neck. Feel my thighs moved apart by a knee. Something inside me falls away. It's as if I've stopped breathing for a moment. I'm hollowed out. Searching.
The warm fingers trail down, hesitate, then brush past a part of me I don't understand yet, a place I haven't let myself explore.
"Wait..." I whisper. He doesn't hear or won't listen. The fingers, strong and sure and not entirely unwanted, are back, the whole of his palm cupped against me. I want to run. I want to stay. I want both things at once. His mouth finds mine. I'm pinned to the earth by his choice. I could just float here, lose myself inside him and come out reborn as someone else. The thumb on my breast rubs my skin into a delicious rawness, as if I've never truly walked in my skin before. My whole body strains up to meet the pressure of him. His choice could be mine. He could swallow me up, if I could just let go. Leg go. Let go. Let go.
My hands slide up against the slick sin of his chest and push him back. He falls away. His weight gone feels like a limb missing and the need to pull him back is nearly overpowering. There's a fine glisten of sweat on his brow as he blinks in his sleep-state, confused and groggy. He's asleep again, just as I found him. A dark angel just out of reach.
p.279-280 Felicity's face clouds over. But an instant later, she's wearing a ripe smile, thinking some naughty thought. "Can you imagine it? If we had this power at Spence?"
"We could do as we wish," Ann adds.
"I'd have a closet filled with the latest fashions. And bushels of money." Pippa giggles.
"I'd be invisible for a day," Felicity adds.
"I wouldn't be," Ann says bitterly.
p.304-305 My heart's a stone, sinking fast. We make polite conversation. Grandmama tells us of her garden and her visiting and all about who is not speaking to whom these days. Tom prattles on about his studies while Ann hangs on his every word as if he were a god. Father is lost to himself. No one asks how I am or what I am doing. They could not care less. We're all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they'd like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with the cool, tepid water of gracious compliance.