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Updated: Nov 30, 2021
The Constellation of Scorpio
by Julyan Peard
The Constellation of Scorpio
Frances Serena Huxtable
December 10th, 1872
Today I am starting a new diary, my Argentine diary, and for Apthorp’s sake, I will be happy here.
January 2nd, 1873
It is strange to inhabit someone else’s house. It is not Felipe’s presence I am aware of, but Antonia’s. What is it about her that makes me so curious? So desirous of knowing more? She possesses a magnetism, which was clear to me the moment I saw her; but not only because she is a handsome woman, or because she wears her long hair loose in a way a lady should never do and states her opinions with the self-assuredness of a man. Rather, it is something about the intensity with which she engages with you asking questions, pondering answers, so that you can almost see in her eyes an unbounded thirst for knowledge. On nights when I cannot sleep, I lie between her cool satin sheets, feeling I know things that only someone intimate with her would know: the way her side of the bed dips away from the center; the way the night’s shadows pattern her wall. Curiosity drives me to delve through her cluttered cupboards and shelves, where I come across odd-shaped pieces of driftwood and arrowheads and desiccated moths pinned to boards; endlessly I peruse her books, and study passages she has marked. In a medical treatise on the health of women, she has underlined references to water cures, women’s infertility, and the dangers of ‘uterine furor.’ (What is this? Apthorp would know, but I cannot bring myself to ask him about something that sounds distinctly unseemly). In a little volume authored by a Mrs. Turner (and published in Boston, but I have not heard of her!), she has heavily marked the following statement: “Woman throw off the shackles and rise to the newness of life!” That would shock some of my friends in Boston.
I would love to explore the workroom on the top floor. But it is the one part of the house she asked us not to use, and I should not like to feel a trespasser.
January 4th, 1873
Why, I wonder, have Antonia and Felipe not have children? How very bleak my life would be without them!
“Take charge of the astronomical observatory in San Esteban,” Apthorp remembers the visiting Argentine statesman saying to him in Boston. “It must be completed and put into operation. Sadly, my own people have let the project languish.”
Apthorp had always wanted to make a noteworthy contribution to science, and he liked what he heard about San Esteban: an unmatched transparency of the skies ideal for star gazing; a place where he would be the undisputed boss; the promise of generous revenues. He jumped at the opportunity. In preparation, he ordered the best quality instruments from the finest craftsmen in the country, and some he requested all the way from Germany: a meridian circle from Repsold with a four and a half-inch aperture, an equatorial refractor fitted with a Fitz object-glass. From Washington, he ordered a copy of Gillis’ indispensable catalogue of seventeen thousand stars charted in Chile. Apthorp’s task was to complete the catalogue.
In their brief stopover in Buenos Aires, whenever Apthorp mentions their final destination, someone says, “You must look up Felipe Zuñiga.” Apthorp learns he is a painter, and that his wife, the beautiful Antonia (and it is his wife everyone goes on about), comes from a prominent family exiled during the troubled political times, when the family moved restlessly from Montevideo to Rio de Janeiro, Philadelphia, and Havana. Antonia, people inform him, is a naturalist and a botanical painter, and the most brilliant woman in the country. In fact, Apthorp has already received a note from her saying that she and her husband will be honored to have an astronomer of such repute stay in their home in San Esteban until he finds permanent accommodation. You will have the house all to yourselves, she has written, for my husband and I are leaving on a European tour. Apthorp is happy to accept her generous offer. Still, he wonders, why is Antonia so trusting when she’s never even met him? But the statesman, now hosting Apthorp in Buenos Aires, explains, “For Antonia Zuñiga, the credentials of science are always enough.”
Now they have arrived in San Esteban. His little girls, Suzy and Lulu, released from the carriage’s long confinement, run ahead towards the arched veranda of a large two-story house, its walls covered in blue and yellow Spanish tiles. They stop suddenly when they encounter a woman who stands under one of the arches wearing a gauzy white shawl that flutters in the warm evening breeze. Laughing softly, she draws the children towards her, even as they struggle in unfamiliar arms. This must be Antonia. Almost regally she turns and beckons to Apthorp and Frances, who, after months of travel from Boston to Buenos Aires and across the pampas to San Esteban, climb down from the carriage weary but elated. To relieve the cramp in his back, Apthorp takes a deep breath and stretches his arms up high over his head.
He likes the look of the place; he thinks this will do nicely until their own place is ready. Far away he sees a winding river and the purple line of high sierras. He is especially pleased with the clear sky.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Antonia says. “Felipe,” she calls, and a tall, slender man emerges from the shadows. His blue eyes and fair hair, soft against his temples, are a contrast to Antonia’s black hair and thick black brows. Despite his slightly rumpled grey jacket, he has an easy elegance.
A handsome couple, Apthorp thinks.
Servants unload the luggage, the cook serves a simple beef dish, after which, Vinnie, the girls’ nanny, takes the girls off to bed and retires herself. Apthorp and Frances join their hosts on the terrace. It is a warm summer evening. A gentle gust pleasantly ruffles Apthorp’s thinning hair, cooling the day’s heat. The last streaks of evening pink retreat into the night.
Antonia intrigues Apthorp. She seems up to date on everything. She plies him with questions about Boston and astronomy and Unitarianism (the pragmatism of American Protestantism, she says, attracts her immensely). Next, learning he’s received his degree in astronomy at the University of Göttingen, she asks him all about Germany. What does he make of the recent short but terrible war? And of Chancellor Bismarck? She turns to Frances. Is it true American women are demanding an education equal to that of their brothers? Frances smiles nervously, and before she can answer, Felipe asks Apthorp, “So tell us: What do you hope to accomplish here?”
“I’m here to map the southern skies,” Apthorp answers. “The northern hemisphere’s been done. But we have only spotty data for the southern chart.”
He dreams of recording a greater number of stars than any other astronomer in history; he’d like to introduce some clarity to the southern skies. Only Frances knows the extent of his ambition.
They talk now of cosmographical pioneers going back to the earliest Iberians, who returned from the New World with exaggerated stories of how the skies in the south, ablaze with larger, brighter and more beautiful signs and shapes than any seen in the north, affected men’s behavior in strange ways.
“We badly need men of science like you to bring progress to our country,” Antonia says. Head slightly down, her eyes latch on to his. “The long night of our Spanish colonial enclosure has not yet ended.” Her gaze is so captivating that Apthorp is no longer weary.
“I have often wondered,” Apthorp addresses Antonia, “Why the Spaniards made such a pitiful contribution to celestial knowledge? In fact, to any knowledge about this part of the world? Their legacy seems to have been ignorance!”
The sharp tone of Antonia’s retort surprises him. “Nothing here is as pristine as it looks. Our local people have accumulated knowledge that would surprise you. Their silence is not always ignorance.”
Apthorp notices Frances. Flyaway strands of her silky brown hair and a hairpin or two have fallen away. She is nodding off to sleep. It’s time for bed.
The next day Antonia and Felipe leave for Buenos Aires, from where they will sail for Europe. With Suzy and Lulu’s peals of high-pitched laughter echoing all around, Apthorp and Frances explore the house. They avoid only Felipe’s and Antonia’s workroom right at the end of the corridor on the upper floor. “The room is locked,” Antonia has said. “I’d be quite ashamed if you saw them in their present disorderly state.”
Apthorp is delighted to find the library filled with scientific books in several languages. There is a copy of Johann Bayer’s great Uranometria alongside Felix de Azara’s Voyage dans l'Amérique méridionale depuis 1781 jusqu'en 1801 and the English edition of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. There are books on flora and fauna and the races of humanity. Apthorp’s interest is piqued by a book titled Für Darwin. It is by Friedrich Müller, an author whose name he does not recognize. Across the flyleaf the dedication is in German: Rio de Janeiro, 1866. To Antonia, In her quest for scientific knowledge, tireless as a man; but always a woman. It is signed Fritz.
It has been surprising to find such a highly educated woman in this back-and-beyond place. It is good to know that there are some people here with inquiring minds, something he and Frances so valued living in Boston.
Later Frances, who likes to practice her little Spanish on anyone she can, tells him she’s heard rumors among the locals about Antonia and Felipe. People say they are godless and that they dabble in sinful things.
“It must take very little to be badly spoken of among these narrow-minded Papists,” Apthorp replies.
January 12th, 1873
Her watercolors hang all over the house. Next to her minutely detailed renderings of local wildflowers, Felipe’s oil paintings of sierras and colonial churches seem dull. She dabs leaves and stalks and petals with astonishingly colorful insects; a bright green caterpillar with a pearl on each segment and bristling hairs; a purple butterfly, its wings framed in jagged black. They are beautiful, but her pictures also impart an unsettling quality. What triumphs in them is the coldly scientific, rather than a celebration of God’s bounty.
February 21st, 1873
Apthorp is encountering one difficulty after another. All the astronomical instruments he needs to carry out his work are sitting in the Customs House in Buenos Aires, and neither Heaven nor Earth and not even the highest authorities in the land seem able to speed the items on their way. Today I went for a walk with the girls. We wandered through a maze of pretty lanes and rambled through woods and balanced on steppingstones to cross pleasantly gurgling streams. The girls tried to catch the tiny golden fishes which kept darting away just as they thought they’d caught one.
Later the neighbors came round with a gift for the girls: a puppy. Oh! The delighted shrieks of glee and merriment! They’ve named him Galileo!
Apthorp doesn’t have time to correspond with Antonia and Felipe, but he is glad that Frances does. The more he sees of local people, the happier he is that Antonia and Felipe live here, and he looks forward to their return. So far, they are the only people with whom he’s had an intelligent conversation. Frances keeps him up to date on their trip, and when she informs him, they’ve decided to stay away at least six months longer than planned, he is disappointed. But, because of the slow way things are moving with the observatory and his house, both still under construction, the delayed return may turn out to be something of a blessing. Clearly, neither will be ready on schedule.
There are days Apthorp thinks that had he known just how difficult things would be he would have turned down the offer. Because of the ineptness of the locals, he has been forced to oversee the building of his house and of the observatory, the latter in a far more unfinished state than the visiting statesman had ever led him to believe. He has to make decisions about masonry and carpentry and plumbing and roofing; in the observatory, he also supervises the installation of the iron floors and stairways and shutters and, the trickiest job of all, the revolving dome.
He can’t believe the dust; it is everywhere. Thin, slippery powder hanging in the air, descending slowly, shrouding clocks and chronometers and telescope lenses, and making the sheets of paper, where he’s recording celestial observations, gritty and unpleasant to touch. Still, despite the dust and the unfinished state of the observatory, he’s wasted no time getting down to his scientific work. When the young assistants he hired in Boston arrive before the astronomical instruments --the latter delayed by the baffling amounts of paperwork demanded by the Argentine customs, all of which moves at snail’s pace-- he puts them to work with small binoculars, with which they map 7,000 stars between the South Pole and 10° north declination.
He feels a glow of satisfaction as he thinks of how much he’s achieved despite the difficult circumstances. Things will certainly be easier once the house is finished, and his home and work are close together.
On cloud-blanketed nights when starwatching is impossible, he writes detailed letters to his scientist friends back home to tell them of his progress (and also to assuage his fear that he might be sinking into oblivion.) He asks them to find him a good photographic assistant so he can continue his work in celestial photography, the newest branch of astronomy that so attracted him in Boston. In addition to charting and labelling stars, he wants to be the first person to photograph the southern skies. When one friend writes to say he’s found a young German physicist familiar with photographic processes, Apthorp telegrams, “Hire him!” and while he waits for the man’s arrival, he has a photographic room set up with a sink and a stoneware water filter and a spacious counter. A few months later, the young physicist arrives. Otto is slightly built and heavily mustached. Introducing himself, he thrusts out a firm hand, which he otherwise keeps just inside his jacket, Napoleon-style.
Apthorp draws up a list of the clusters they will photograph.
Otto unpacks the materials and equipment he’s brought, and places rows of blue glass bottles on the newly built shelves. He tests the chemicals and reagents. He prepares the glass plates for the exposures. On a vividly black night, the young assistant astronomers, together with Apthorp and Otto, assemble in the observatory, and Frances and even Suzy and Lulu are invited along for the occasion of the first celestial photograph of the southern hemisphere. Apthorp prepares to set up the crucial object glass which lies inside the leather case he has brought from Boston, still wrapped in layers of protective velvet. He removes the final protective layer. Everyone crowds around.
They stare at the glass. Shattered into two jagged pieces.
There is a shocked silence, and then a faint dripping sound. Turning to see what it is, Apthorp notices that the water filter is cracked, and water is dripping onto the floor.
Later that night he says to Frances, “I’ve come to expect shoddiness from the locals, but not from the people back home. That’s what’s so infuriating about this delay: someone at home simply didn’t take enough care in packing the instrument.”
Otto comes to the rescue. With the meticulous dedication Apthorp saw among the scientists he worked with in Germany years ago, Otto files, adjusts and cements the pieces back together. To hold them in place, he applies tiny metal clasps and bronze screws that he purchases from the city’s French watchmaker.
“Otto’s an excellent young scientist. I’m lucky to have him here,” Apthorp says to Frances. “Do you know, yesterday I even heard him teach Suzy and Lulu how to count in German!” They got up to twelve, and for the rest of the day, he kept hearing them in the garden outside his office repeating over and over ein to zwölf as they jump-roped. Lulu always got lost around sechs or sieben and Suzy came to the rescue. Whenever he looked up, he saw their bobbing heads.
Finally, on a crisp, almost transparent night, Apthorp takes the first celestial photograph of the southern skies.
He photographs thirty-six stars in the Constellation of Scorpio. Under the revolving dome, and in a silence punctuated only by a ticking clock and Otto’s creaking chair, he guides the great equatorial refractor to make two exposures on a single plate, one at 2:06 a.m. and the other at 3:57 a.m. Each lasts ten minutes. The impressions are imperfect. The brightest stars, trailing broken wisps, aren’t as absolutely circular as they need to be for accurate measuring, and the images are little better than what the naked eye can see. But none of the later star-cluster photographs, not even the lunar photographs for which Apthorp will receive a prize at the Philadelphia Exposition, elate him like that first photograph. The arc of gleaming speckles strewn across the veil of night fill him with the kind of astonishment that had first drawn him to study the skies. From the plate, he makes four enlarged impressions on paper, which he frames and hangs on the wall by his desk. He knows he will encounter arduous times ahead when he will need the images to remind him of the grand reach of his mission.
April 2nd, 1873
It’s been raining every day for the last week. The day suddenly becomes night, lightning rips the sky, and the girls cover their ears waiting for the claps of thunder. They sit at the window and watch our gentle river at the bottom of the valley become a torrent, until, in an hour, a brilliant sun appears, and it’s all over. The storms are always a topic of conversation; everyone here has a story about some disastrous flood.
15 Oranienburger Strasse
April 2nd, 1873
I hope that by now you and your family are comfortably settled in, and that you are enjoying the San Esteban autumn weather, which is always such a relief after the oppressive summer.
We arrived in Germany a week ago from France, and I was not sorry to leave that country. Post-war Paris is all sadness. There is much talk about rehabilitation through the promotion of science, but, in truth, all the Parisians we met talked of nothing but loss, regression and degeneration. Today Berlin is the heartbeat of Europe, and even though it is still bitterly cold, the sense of progress here is so pronounced, that I feel positively warm. Felipe seeks out its artists and I, its scientists . . . We will stop here awhile and then move on to London.
P.S. I think of you in my house with your brilliant husband and those two lovely little girls and I feel happy you are there. You are a lucky woman to have so much!
May 10th, 1873
Thank you for your kind letter. We have settled in very well. Apthorp busies himself with getting the observatory in order, and the girls and I learn Spanish and go for walks. We love to go up the riverbed, where we clamber over rocks and roots and vines to get to our favorite spot, which is where there is a delightful waterfall and a pool of water filled with fish. The girls love to try and catch the fish, but they are always unsuccessful!
I find your library a most congenial place to pass the time. I was overjoyed to find a book of essays by John Burroughs. I know of no other writer who conveys so well my feeling that when I am walking under the canopy of a tree I am in the presence of God.
Yours with kind regards,
3 Wilton Crescent
June 30th, 1873
Felipe and I have been in London almost a month. What a splendid city! It has so much to offer in terms of culture and science. I have been visiting some very inspiring botanical gardens and plant conservatories. The English have an enormous interest in the collection and cultivation of plants from all over the world, and I have encountered some very unusual ones, including our own (American) deliciously sinister Sarracenia! Perhaps you know this one; it has become exceedingly popular here. Their color and sweet fragrance attract the insects on which they feed, which venture down the funnel to enjoy the abundance of sweet nectar, until they slip suddenly into the embrace of fanglike hairs that tighten as they struggle. Is that not quite clever?
When we return, I plan to create a conservatory in our house high in the sierras, where you must visit us. It was once a Jesuit mission, and it is the place I love best in the world, more even than our home in San Esteban. But we are delaying our return: there are so many more places we wish to see.
I am happy your beautiful little girls are enjoying themselves!
I am your friend,
P.S. I agree with you that there is a sort of ecstasy in nature that Burroughs captures well. But, for my taste, he overstates its benevolence. I believe that nature gives us the profusion of roots and vines and colorful birds that you so love but does so ruthlessly. Sometimes, excellence is bred in the cruelest of fashions!
August 30th, 1873
Yesterday, I ventured into Antonia and Felipe’s workroom.
It wasn’t my intention to be inquisitive, but something got the better of me. Suzy and Lulu were playing with Gally, and he bounded all the way up to the top floor, girls in pursuit, calling him down, until the noise and excitement was so great, I went up myself. There was the overexcited puppy, yapping even louder than the girls were shrieking, dashing up and down the corridor, jumping up at the girls, at a bookcase, and at the end door so that it opened very slightly, which was a surprise because I thought Antonia had locked it. After I finally caught Gally and sent the girls downstairs with him, I turned to close the door that stood ajar. I could so easily have pulled it shut; I had no business to enter that room. I would not now be burdened with what I know.
Antonia and Felipe have workspaces at each end of a single large room. Antonio’s paintings are different from the ones that hang on the walls around the house. These are of swarthy boys and young men seated on rocks by the side of a river, wading through water on horseback, one boy dives into the river while another two lean close together watching him. All are unclothed and exposed and unseemly. The largest painting is of a young man indoors. He reclines on an unmade bed, so that his face, curtained by thick, disheveled black hair, is in the background. It is the foreground that dominates: his legs and thighs and his prominent nakedness. I could not look upon the picture, it repelled me so. I retreated quickly to Antonia’s workspace, but I found there no consolation.
On a table are a microscope and scalpels and paint boxes and a notebook thick with hand-written observations and boxes brimming with beetles and scorpions and tarantulas. She has a series of not-quite-completed paintings which are of plants (what kind it is impossible to make out) in various stages of being devoured by ants that run riot over stalks and stems and bedraggled flowers and then converge hungrily on sorry-looking crickets. In one, a tarantula crouches on a denuded branch sucking on the limp body of a red and blue hummingbird. I cannot comprehend Antonia’s cruel vision, but I know I was in terrain where no God-fearing person should venture.
I stood in the hallway taking deep breaths until I recovered my composure. I know I have looked upon a terrible hubris and that at the heart of Antonia and Felipe’s marriage bed lies something dark and forbidden. And yet the very closeness of their workrooms -- the subjects that engage them-- speaks of an understanding and acceptance of each other, as if theirs is a good marriage, a solid partnership. An ungodly partnership?
Later, I asked Apthorp, “At what point does God punish our questioning of His natural order?”
He laughed. “Do you still see God as some vengeful old man weighing things on his scales?”
“But can’t science lead into moral collapse?”
“There is only science that unravels truth, which is the same as revealing God’s goodness.”
What could I have answered? I cannot bring myself to tell Apthorp that in this house I have looked upon such disturbing things.
October 24th, 1873
The observatory is ready. Our house isn’t quite finished, but we are moving in so Apthorp can be closer to his work. It will be uncomfortable after Antonia’s, but I am not sorry to leave.
It is mid-winter when Antonia and Felipe return from Europe; they have been away almost eighteen months. Apthorp sends them an invitation to visit, and they arrive late one afternoon. Antonia has cut her hair. Thick, black curls frame her face. Apthorp has never seen a woman with such short hair. She looks radiant. She demands a full tour, and she and Felipe are full of admiration.
“I never thought I’d see one of these in San Esteban,” Felipe says, inspecting the meridian circle from all sides, walking around the great marble piers on which it is anchored.
Apthorp tells them about the difficulties he’s had getting the instrument, the very centerpiece for his measuring task, set up; and then, about how, when the masons had finally completed the job, he’d discovered that the reticule spider threads, with which the circle provided precise positions, were damaged. “I’m still waiting to really get started!” he complains.
Antonia talks about Paris, where she and Felipe walked through spacious arcades under roofs of glass and iron (still glorious in that crestfallen city); and about the spirit of optimism, they encountered in the new Germany. In England, scientific friends had swept them up into discussions on the implications of Darwin’s theories, and at a talk on evolution and the importance of female choice in selecting a mate, Antonia had had one of those bolts of understanding that transforms lives. If, as Mr. Darwin argued, evolutionary adaptation was random, the speaker asked, then why couldn’t deliberate human intervention make it less so? Indeed, why couldn’t human intervention lead to the perfection of the human race?
“And how might that be done?” Apthorp asks. No conversation has been so stimulating since he left Boston.
“Well, for one thing,” replies Antonia, “women must become actively engaged in selecting fit mating partners.”
Felipe moves across the room and inspects a cabinet of astronomical instruments. Apthorp stands by the window with Frances and Antonia. They watch the sun sink slowly behind the line of mountains. The trees are leafless and wintry. Suzy and Lulu are in the garden, on their knees, heads close to the ground. They are perfectly still. Listening to something? Scrutinizing an insect?
“Just look at those children!” exclaims Antonia. “What wonderful curiosity! This, Frances, is the result of your excellent choice in a mate!”
“Sometimes,” Antonia is whispering now, “I have an enormous sadness that Felipe and I have not been able to have children. In Europe we consulted with specialists. They found nothing wrong with me.”
A wholly inappropriate disclosure thinks Apthorp. He sees Frances stiffen.
“I’m going to tell Vinnie to call the girls in,” she says abruptly. “It’s much too cold for them to be out at this time.” She leaves the room and Antonia stands looking intently at the children, oblivious. Apthorp signals to Felipe, “Come. I want to show you both something. I know it will interest you.” They follow him along a corridor and into his study where, pointing to the photographs above his desk, Apthorp announces dramatically, “The Constellation of Scorpio! The first photograph ever taken of the southern skies!”
Antonia rushes forward. “Oh! This is marvelous! And to think this was taken here, in this backward place! It’s like a good omen. I must have a copy,”
“What Antonia wants, Antonia gets,” murmurs Felipe.
At dinner she is animated. How soon might she get the copy of Scorpio Apthorp has promised her? It will hang in their home in the sierras. She and Felipe plan to spend much of their time there. They want to work with no distractions, and also to get away from the narrowness of San Esteban, a town which, after the European tour, they find more oppressive than ever. Antonia’s silky shawl slips off one shoulder. One of the candles along the center of the table burns down releasing a sickly-sweet smell. Felipe has plans for some great canvases and Antonia is going to build a small conservatory and a garden for the purposes of her research. She has brought seeds from many exotic places.
“You must visit us there!” exclaims Antonia. “You would love the place. It is filled with history. We still have an intact library that once belonged to the Jesuits and, despite what is said about them, they were lovers of science. And astronomers!” Her shawl slides down to the floor and Apthorp reaches for it, his fingers running gently through its tassels.
It is agreed. As soon as work permits, Apthorp and Frances will visit the house in the mountains.
Later, Frances says, “There’s a sort of hunger about Antonia that…” She hesitates. She doesn’t like to be uncharitable, Apthorp knows. “It must be difficult not having children,” she concludes.
By early spring, the meridian circle is at last operational and, once again, this is because of Otto’s unmatched mechanical skills. Day and night, he’s been repairing the spider threads. In fact, Apthorp believes he’s been doing too much. Twice, after Apthorp tells everyone to pack it in, he returns later, only to find Otto still working with the photographic equipment. Otto mutters something about not being able to sleep; the second time, he says he’d forgotten to put away a spectroscope and he doesn’t want any more accidents of broken equipment. Apthorp thinks it odd the way Otto has jumped up looking startled. These days the German seems out of sorts.
“You need a break, Otto,” Apthorp says. “So do we all. Before we start on the circle work, I think our whole team should take a few days off.”
As he walks back to the house, Apthorp decides this is the ideal time for him and Frances to accept the invitation to the sierras. A two days’ ride to the sierras is exactly what he’s in the mood for; and Frances will have her chance to try out her new palomino, bred specially for mountain riding. The children will be fine here with Vinnie.
The evening before they are to leave, Apthorp places the copy of the Scorpio photograph for Antonia between protective cardboard sheets and packs it in his saddle bag.
But later that night Frances says it is her time of the month when she gets cramps and feels awful. Perhaps they can postpone the visit? Apthorp points out that, once the circle work starts, he won’t have another chance for a break, and, after all, Antonia and Felipe have been so kind, it wouldn’t be right to disappoint them. He hides his annoyance that Frances’s condition might interfere with his chance of a few restful days.
“Yes, perhaps you are right,” says Frances --somewhat doubtfully, Apthorp thinks. “You must go on your own. You certainly deserve a break. You’ve done nothing but workday and night for months.”
Early next morning, Apthorp sets out with his servant and guide, José. The ride is one of the pleasantest he’s ever had. The weather is mild, and the sierras are filled with sunlight. He’s glad he’s come without the family, without Frances. Sometimes, he needs to be alone. José is the ideal companion. He hardly speaks, except to warn Apthorp about some danger like a treacherous stretch of path, a protruding branch. He can see tracks no one else can. In the evening, he builds a campfire, choosing the firewood carefully, placing the pieces in such a deliberate manner that it is as if he is preparing for some sacred rite. Sometimes, an utterly simple mind seems to border on wisdom.
Lying under familiar stars in the glow of dying embers, a wind hissing through steely grasses, Apthorp drifts into sleep.
He wakes up, his whole-body tingling. He’s been dreaming of Antonia.
Suddenly, he remembers a favorite refrain of his grimly Presbyterian father: ‘The wheels of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.’
The next day, as they draw near the mission, Antonia rides out to meet them. She rides astride, her skirts hitched up high and her boots laced up all the way to her knees.
“Where’s Frances?” she asks, and when Apthorp tells her, she looks at him for a moment and then, unexpectedly, smiles. She turns her horse and sets off on a fast gallop, and Apthorp follows.
What is it Frances said about Antonia? That she was hungry?
She is also bewitching.
When they reach the house, they find Felipe and a young man sitting at a table, heads bowed. They are playing a board game. Felipe suddenly swoops, laughing in triumph as the young man, under his thick thatch of disheveled black hair, cries out in dismay.
Introduced as Jacobo, he doesn’t join Antonia and Felipe as they show Apthorp around.
This place, Antonia says, was once one of a line of missions that supplied Indians with salvation, and the silver city of Potosí with mules and cows and leather and tallow and wine. She leads the way along a spacious and wide arcade crowned with a tall ribbed and vaulted ceiling. It must once have been quite grand, but now its stucco has patches of damp, and the walls are crumbling. It is flanked by rooms, dark and dank, which, Antonia tells him, were once monks’ quarters that she and Felipe are planning to restore and convert into workspaces. They move on past a courtyard filled with orange fruit trees, until they come to a narrow passageway leading to windowless adobe cells.
“Slave quarters,” Antonia explains. She’s turned several adjacent cells into a small conservatory, replacing mud brick walls with a lean-to extension of glass panes. Under hanging baskets of foliage and flowers Apthorp has never seen are pots of orchids and fuchsias and bird of paradise flowers in full bloom. In the center are troughs filled with long, white-and-purple, funnel-shaped flowers. Standing over them, Apthorp breathes in a pungently sweet fragrance. He bends to take a closer look. Dark, almost maroon lines guide his gaze deep inside the funnels towards barbed bristles.
That evening, as he gets up from the dinner table, Felipe announces he and Jacobo will leave early next morning for Buenos Aires. “So, we won’t see you after tonight. But I leave you in good hands. Antonia knows how to look after her guests,” Felipe smiles at Apthorp. To Antonia he says, “You must show Apthorp our remarkable Jesuit library.”
Sitting across the table from Apthorp, Antonia refills their glasses with dark, syrupy port, a local brew. “Isn’t it strange,” she says, “how intensely we live particular moments, when the totality of our lives is no more than flecks of dust on a vast canvas?” She pushes his glass towards him and, as he reaches for it, she lays her hand on his. Steadily, she stares at him, then smiles. Her allure is overwhelming. He knows he is walking directly into an ensnarement.
‘The wheels of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly small.’ Apthorp can’t get the refrain out of his mind.
He has sinned.
How could he so completely lose his senses? Did the southern skies really affect men in such strange and unexpected ways?
He stares straight ahead all the way home.
As a child, his father called Apthorp one of God’s Elect. “And if an Elect sins," he warned his son, “his punishment is doubly terrible.”
San Esteban Observatory
September 4th, 1874
Last night A. returned from the sierras. He says Antonia and Felipe showed him a conservatory filled with plants. I would have loved the library which has nearly one thousand volumes the Jesuits collected. But he didn’t wholly enjoy his stay, he says. The place is falling apart, and the rooms are humid and cold, and he was sorry I wasn’t there. He says he wants no more breaks, only to focus on his circle work so we can return home as soon as possible. He will allow for no more distractions, not even photography. “That was not the real purpose of my work,” he says, “but an indulgence.”
“Are you happy?” he asked. “Because if you’re not we can leave tomorrow.”
I didn’t want to disappoint him, so I answered, “Yes, I am.”
I cannot fully discern the reason for my uneasiness; I know I should have accompanied A. and not left him to go alone, but I could not bring myself to be under Antonia and Felipe’s roof. I was fearful.
San Esteban Observatory
September 20th, 1874
In fact, I am happy in this queer place. I feel a closeness to Apthorp I haven’t felt for a long time. At night he’s warm and gentle. He gives me pleasure. He whispers, “I love you.”
Some days he’s melancholy, and his headaches are bad. I tell him he’s working too hard. He says it’s because of Otto, who is just out for himself. He’s not interested in doing the real work of astronomy, A. says, only what will bring him quick celebrity. Otto has turned out to be a great disappointment.
San Esteban Observatory
September 23rd, 1874
It is night and the children are asleep. I’m in the observatory. A. says he works better when I am close by. He sits at his desk bent over his computations of declinations and right ascensions. I love to see him so deeply engaged. Lately, he worries too much. He just looked up and smiled that special desirous smile. Only I and the children know it. I have so much to be grateful for.
(In the middle of the night, I wake up with dark thoughts about why A. is having headaches and melancholy days. I dare not write them.)
San Esteban Observatory
December 2nd, 1874
Antonia writes to ask, why don’t we visit them? The mountain air is wonderfully refreshing. She and Felipe are too busy to come into town. She’s enlarging her conservatory and carrying out experiments with native and exotic plants. Apthorp says he can’t spare the time. I’m not sorry.
San Esteban Observatory
December 10th, 1874
Today was Lulu’s birthday. Vinnie made a delicious chocolate cake, three tiers tall. All the astronomers (except for Otto) and their wives came to celebrate. Suzy says that for her birthday she wants a picnic under the fig trees by the river, and not an indoor tea party. It’s months away, but like her papa, she plans ahead. I promised.
San Esteban Observatory
December 22nd, 1874
It seems ironic that Otto, the most fully trained of all the young men and the one who seemed at first to be the most helpful, should turn out to be most troublesome.
Antonia writes to say they won’t be coming into the city this summer; her health is delicate, and she doesn’t want to risk the hot summer.
Will we visit? No.
San Esteban Observatory
February 11th, 1875
Yesterday evening I entered the sitting room after dinner, and there was A., the stern papa, in his armchair with Lulu curled up in his lap sucking away at her thumb (‘Put pepper on her thumb to make her to stop,” he always says). Suzy stood by, reciting the poem she’d been learning all day. A. had on what I call his sidereal look, when his mind wanders far, far away. He was running the tips of his fingers through Lulu’s hair.
San Esteban Observatory
March 26th, 1875
Antonia says that now that the summer is almost over, she and Felipe are coming into town. She has something important to tell me. A. says he’s too busy for visitors. But we can’t be so rude. These people have been generous to us. I do not want to encourage their friendship, but I think I was perhaps oversensitive in my judgment. I’ll invite them after Suzy’s birthday. That important event is this Saturday!
The children’s delighted squeals and yells reach Apthorp, and he knows the long-awaited box from Boston has arrived. Filled with toys and books his mother has sent for the girls and household gadgets for Frances, it also contains the latest journals for him. After lunch, in his office, he browses through them.
A phrase in the lead article in the most recent journal catches his eye: “…old positional astronomy must make room for….” It is about the raging debate on the value of photography to astronomy.
It is a discussion he’s had with Otto, and it turned bitter.
For Otto, the photographic image is an end in itself. The trouble with this young German, like so many of the younger generation now entering the field, is that he seeks fast and easy honors. He wants to tackle the big questions straight away, which, of course, fuel Apthorp’s curiosity as much as anyone’s: How are stars born? How do they die? If their temperatures are so hot, why don’t they burn up? But before any grand theories can be formulated, a scientist must have data. He must be ready to carry out the painstaking, indeed, heroic task of collecting, measuring, and reducing observations.
Otto was simply not doing the work.
“How can we know anything about the physical properties of celestial bodies unless we first know where they are and how they move?” Apthorp often says this to Frances. He doesn’t expect an answer. This is his question about photography: How useful is it in achieving high accuracy about the position of stars? So far, awe-inspiring as celestial images are (and Apthorp is the first to concede this), the meridian circle is still the most important instrument in astronomy.
Fortunately, Otto’s disagreeableness is of no consequence now: a month ago, the man packed his bags and left. What the final trigger was, Apthorp isn’t sure. But he wasn’t sorry to see Otto go. Since he left, Apthorp has had fewer headaches.
Leafing through the most recent issue of the journals, he is startled to see a photograph of a group of stars.
He recognizes it at once: the first impression of Scorpio which he made with Otto’s assistance. Except that the credit gives only Otto’s name.
Apthorp looks again, closely, puzzled. Then things fall into place.
All those times Apthorp surprised Otto working alone at an unlikely hour; the man’s recent moroseness; his abrupt departure: it all made sense.
He can’t get away with it!
Apthorp will write immediately and set the record straight. He will ruin the man’s career forever.
But the damage is already done. A coveted honor has been snatched away.
His eyes rest on the framed impressions of Scorpio above his desk. Antonia also has them.
The wheels of God grind slowly.
Suddenly he feels strangely relieved.
God has been gentle with him. Almost too easily, Apthorp has been let off the hook.
At a flash of red and blue he looks up. Through the window Suzy and Lulu are walking on a low wooden fence that separates the garden from the driveway. They hold their arms out tipping them from one side to another for balance. It is windy. Tree branches wave frantically. Puffy clouds speed across the sky as the girls’ hair spins out in all directions.
Tomorrow is Suzy’s birthday picnic. He hopes it doesn’t rain.
They leave in the first light of dawn. There’s not a cloud in the sky; the day seems like mid-summer; it is so hot. Suzy, dazzling in her brand-new violet riding habit, says, “I love the breeze on my face.” She rides a bay mare alongside Frances and Apthorp and the two young assistant astronomers. Lulu and Vinnie and the two astronomers’ wives are in the sulky that José is driving. Earlier, José has told Apthorp, “Not a good day for the river; it’s going to rain,” but Apthorp has already checked the barometer and he knows the peon is mistaken. Galileo runs next to them until something catches his interest. He disappears for a long while. “I hope Gally hasn’t got lost,” Suzy says. But the dog bounds back, covered with brambles and undergrowth. The sure-footed horses pick their way over prickly scrub and loose rock, the sulky following, until giant pink-and-white granite rocks make it impossible for the vehicle to continue. The passengers get out and unload all their things.
“It’s not long now,” calls out Frances.
Lulu doesn’t want to walk. Apthorp lifts her up onto his saddle and the women hitch their skirts up and everyone helps carry the roasted chicken and turkey and bread and beer and wine as they continue upriver. They walk single file along a narrow riverbank, until it ends, and they have to step carefully on the dry tops of massive boulders that lie across the river. It is easier for the riders as the horses wade straight through the water. Frances stops and waits for the walkers. “Come along, you slowpokes!” she mocks, laughing at the chorus of complaints.
“These rivers here are so unlike the ones at home,” exclaims one of the assistants’ wives.
Suzy slides off her horse to sit on a large rock in the middle of the river. She wants to watch the fish. Lulu wants to see them too. Apthorp gets down with her and they join Suzy. They try to catch the fish but can’t. Apthorp relieves Vinnie of a heavy basket, and they all move on, riders ahead, walkers behind, one of the assistants the slowest, with his portly wife leaning heavily on his arm. With full rucksack and leading a riderless horse, José brings up the rear. He keeps looking up at the sky and shaking his head. No one pays him any attention.
Now the rocks on either side of the river are like towering ramparts. Apthorp points to the high-water marks left by past floods. “Never play in the gullies after rainfall,” he says, as he does every time they come here. Suddenly, they reach an open part of the riverbed. Its bank is thick with entwined fig trees. Amid tufts of wild roses and spiky agaves, a waterfall cascades from way up high.
They all help to spread out the food. “Everything tastes so much better outside,” Suzy chirps. José wanders off to find a grassy patch for the horses; when he returns, he sits on a high rock and watches the picnickers.
After lunch Suzy says, “Mamma, there are so many little fishes at the edge of the river. May I bathe? Vinnie says she’ll watch me.” She runs off with a handful of breadcrumbs for the fish.
A few minutes later Lulu also comes for some breadcrumbs. “Mamma, may I bathe too?”
Vinnie appears, carrying used dishes, and she places them in a pile with the others. She takes a drink of water and returns to the children.
“Should we have allowed them to bathe,” asks Frances. “So soon after eating?”
Through heavy lids, Apthorp looks at Frances leaning against a tree, her eyes closed. She has round red blotches on her arm from exposure to the sun. A tiny ladybird crawls up her arm and under the rim of her sleeve. He knows that flesh.
He closes his eyes again. He hasn’t a trace of headache.
Voices. Chattering. Soothing sounds.
If he opens his eyes, he will see fig trees sprouting from the rocks. Not native. Some Spaniard, some Jesuit more likely, must have brought them to America. Figs are from Mesopotamia. They hung in the Gardens of Babylon, commingling with the earliest astronomers and belly-dancing women with wavy black hair.
Loud voices. A shout.
“¿Qué pasa?” Something in Frances’ voice stops his heart.
He bolts upright and runs to the edge of the river.
Two piles of neatly folded clothes. Two pairs of small shoes.
“Vinnie! Vinnie! Where are you?”
Apthorp stands at the edge of the water. The whole river has risen in a flash. Wildly agitated currents cover the rocks. High up in the sierras it must have poured.
Frances runs in one direction, then the other. Up and down. Gally barks frantically.
“José,” someone calls out.
Head down, muttering to himself, José walks calmly alongside the river as they all wait. “Here is where the first child went in, it was the little one.” He moves a few feet further. “Here you can see where the other child went in. She was running.” Ten more feet. “And here is where the woman ran in. She didn’t take off her shoes.” He points to a pool of swirling water. “The bodies are there. When the water rises, that is where the river is hungriest.”
It isn’t Apthorp’s kind of knowledge: measured, catalogued, computed, and then disseminated in books to cut a path to progress. It is secret and furtive knowledge, kept by mute men like José. “Nothing here,” Antonia had said, “is as pristine as it looks at first.”
By the time they arrive at their house, news of the tragedy has spread. Friends and neighbors and people Apthorp has never set eyes on follow them inside, where they mill around and converse in hushed tones. A woman asks Apthorp something he doesn’t understand. A man and a woman are whispering, the woman has a hand raised to her mouth. The astronomers and their wives empty the picnic satchels, but don’t know where to put things. Frances, off to one side of the room, stares out of a window, immobile.
The door flings open, and there stands an ashen-faced Antonia. She looks around with some puzzlement, then sees Frances. “Oh, my dear! Oh, my dear!” she cries, rushing across the room in a great whirl of white silk.
Apthorp lunges. “Don’t you touch her!” Wrenching Antonia away, he hurls her backwards.
She puts out her arms to regain her balance, revealing a large and pregnant belly.
Glaring defiantly at Apthorp, she places her hands under it.
Slowly, Frances, her eyes wide, also turns to face him.
The trunks have been sent on ahead. Soon the carriage will be here. Apthorp walks through the house to the observatory one last time. He looks at the logarithm tables and computations lying discarded on his desk: fiery clashes and distant annihilations caught in neat columns. Above are his photographs of the Constellation of Scorpio. The shimmering points have always made him feel part of something larger. But he sees now the enveloping blackness dominates the light.
Back in the house, Frances is bent over her diary and, with her fist tight around a pencil, she stabs at each page. The carriage is at the gate. Gently, he takes her arm.
It hasn’t rained since the day of the picnic, three weeks ago. With each step they take, little puffs of dust rise into the air, hang a while, and then settle.
Copyright © 2015 by Julyan Peard.