The Silver Pearl

Joanna Scott
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

The microfilm, as I recall, showed a water stain on the marbled cover, its tentacles extending toward the embossed lettering of the title. The filigreed etching on the frontispiece included a dedication to an earl from his “most obedient servant.” I don’t recall the author’s name, or the name of the earl. I scrolled through the reel so long ago that I’ve forgotten important details. I do remember that an early reader had penned some heated remarks in the margins of the prologue.

It was an odd prologue, to be sure, beginning with a long rant about the general uselessness of art, provoking from the anonymous reader comments that included “vaporous flummery!” and “piffle!” In one passage, over which the reader had scrawled a large X, the author argued forcefully that art has no measurable benefits, art begets only more art, art leads away from truth and offers no antidotes to the world’s problems. The author denounced painting, music, sculpture, and theater before singling out literature, comparing it to the marks left on skin when a mosquito bite is scratched. Concerning education, the author maintained that there are only two subjects worth studying: history, which can teach humanity to avoid repeating stupid mistakes, and “gloriously useful science.”

It became clear that the author regarded science not in its broadest, most traditional sense as any form of knowledge that distinguishes itself from ignorance. Rather, he (she?) was championing only natural science, with its concern for the physical world, its quantifiable results, its classification of facts, and, most important, its predictive powers. The author went on at length about this last quality. I remember that next to the passage, the reader had written a long note that was impossible to decipher no matter how much I turned up the magnification on the machine. This seemed to be the point where the reader stopped reading, for there was no more commentary on the pages that followed.

Turning from the prologue to the first chapter, I was surprised, given the author’s disdain for literature, to find all the trappings of a novel. The chapter opened with a long description of a young girl named Williamina, pale and dark-eyed, wandering along the banks of the River Tay on the outskirts of the city of Dundee. She was dressed in a simple yellow frock, with a lace bonnet tied tightly over her coils of braids. What stood out most to me was that she wore no shoes. I’m not sure if I’m remembering correctly that she squished her bare toes in the mud–perhaps squished is my word–but I’m sure I’m right in recalling that she was prying freshwater mussels from the sides of rocks in the shallows.

Her fingers started to tingle from the cold water, and as she paused in her task to warm her hands in her pockets, the chatter of schoolgirls caught her attention. She watched them hurry along the path. One of the girls waved to her. She waved back. There had been a time when she longed to be among them, to finish her education and learn everything there was to know. She had given up school after her mother died. Now the students seemed as far from reach as a procession of clergy in church, and Williamina could only gaze at them with a distant reverence.

She resumed her search for mussels. Soon she had filled her basket, and she returned to the cottage where she lived with her father. He was a widower who worked as a gilder, and evidence of his trade was apparent in the clutter of gilded picture frames and furniture. Though renowned for his skill, the father produced his goods faster than he could sell them, and he stuffed the cottage with the overflow and then scolded his daughter for failing to keep the rooms dusted and orderly.

The housework could wait, for Williamina had a more important task. She dumped her harvest of mussels onto the table. The clattering reminded her of the sound the waves made along the pebbly edge of the firth. She spread them out and then attacked them with a knife, prying them open one by one. I remember mistakenly thinking as I was reading that the girl was preparing dinner. Instead, I soon learned that she was searching for a delicate gem found only in the freshwater mussels of that region, a type of small pearl, usually no more than a quarter-inch across, with a lustrous silver hue.

A sweat broke out on her forehead as she continued with her concentrated work. It looked like her most recent harvest was going to disappoint her. Only when she had pried open the very last mussel and scooped out the flesh was her effort rewarded. Attached to the shell was the biggest pearl she’d ever found, silver and perfectly round and as big as an acorn!

She added the treasure to her collection of pearls, dropping it into a special jar. This jar, the author took the time to explain, had been intended as a powder jar and was made of frosted glass, painted with pink roses, and crowned with a gilded lid. Unfortunately, the gilder had dropped the jar onto the floor and chipped the glass, and no one wanted it, so he had given it to his daughter. It was the one gift Williamina had ever received from her father, and she cherished it. It was a beautiful vessel, and now that it was filled with pearls the chip in the glass was hardly noticeable.

Williamina loved her father
, but in reality he was a mercenary man who cared for nothing but making a profit. When he heard about a certain eel-faced accountant who was in search of a wife to accompany him to America, Williamina’s father acted quickly. He betrothed his daughter to the eel, or–in terms the eel preferred, given his accounting expertise–the father traded the family asset at fair market value.

And so poor Williamina, sold for five hundred guineas, found herself at sea, en route from Liverpool to Boston in a second-class berth, her slender, finless husband squirming on top of her, his slick back cold to her touch, his energetic sperm wiggling in a pack in pursuit of their prey. She was pregnant by the time she arrived in New England. She dismissed the first episodes of nausea as the lingering effects of seasickness and set about arranging the small furnished flat they’d rented on Greenough Lane, washing the dusty dishes and sweeping up the rat droppings, while her husband went to work as an accountant for a dry goods warehouse.

The eel kept sloppy ledgers, and it only took three months for him to be fired from his job. Williamina, who by then understood the significance of her swelling belly, took out the jar she’d kept hidden in her trunk and sold some of her precious pearls to pay for a rocking bassinette. A daughter with a fine mop of black hair and eyes as dark as her mother’s was born on the 7th of June 1879. The eel reportedly shrank from the sight of the infant. His repulsion was never fully explained, though I suppose the author was implying that the eel felt ashamed at being unable to provide for his family. After a year in Boston, he failed to find new employment. Being an eel, he took advantage of his ability to swim backward and returned across the ocean to Scotland, leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves.

In her husband’s absence, Williamina sold her pearls by the handful to pay the landlord and the grocer. She spent her last and largest pearl, the one as big as an acorn, on a bed for her daughter, who had outgrown the bassinette. After the jar was empty, Williamina went out looking for work. Leaving her daughter in the care of a neighbor, she responded to an advertisement for a seamstress, but after a week’s trial she was dismissed for being too slow with her hemming. She spent many hard months taking in washing and selling flowers on the street.

One day she struck up a conversation with a gentleman who had purchased flowers from her. I remember that he carried an umbrella, though it wasn’t raining, and his cheeks stuck out like mahogany doorknobs above his whiskers. He revealed that the flowers were for his wife, who was out of sorts because their beloved old servant had gone to live with her daughter in Albany. The gentleman asked Williamina if she knew of any girls who were looking for domestic employment. She said she did know of just the right girl, and she agreed to send her to the gentleman’s house in Cambridge. Williamina herself arrived at the address the next day. Upon opening the door, the gentleman had a good long chuckle as he realized that the flower girl had recommended herself. He hired Williamina on the spot.

The gentleman, Williamina learned, was a professor at Harvard. In the weeks that followed, she was surprised to find that the professor showed little interest in the books in his study. He stayed out most every night and slept away the mornings. His wife appeared oblivious to her husband’s dissolute ways. Williamina felt some pity for her, but she was grateful to have steady work and happily accepted when the professor’s wife invited Williamina and her daughter to take up residence in the cozy suite on the third floor.

She enjoyed the peacefulness of her routines and never complained. She dusted and washed and swept and cooked, always keeping one eye on her little daughter, who followed her around the house. She told herself that someday her daughter would go to school, and, unlike her mother, she would complete her education, learning everything there was to know.

If Williamina felt any displeasure in her work, it was in her opinion of the professor. She believed a Harvard professor had a responsibility to be a model of decency for his students. It pained her to hear the front door creak open when he returned home in the morning. She told herself that the professor’s nightly philandering was none of her business, but one day his eyes seemed more bloodshot than usual, and she felt she had to speak out.

“As my father used to say, sir,” she said, pouring him his morning tea at noon, “God made darkness to keep us home at night.”

Her suspicions became clear to the professor, and he set out to defend his innocence in a manner that took Williamina by surprise. He insisted that he had done no wrong and she had judged him unfairly. He even went so far as to invite Williamina to accompany him when he went out the following night. Her first impulse was to take offense, thinking he meant her to indulge with him in unspeakable iniquities. But she soon became convinced by the professor’s frank expression that he could be trusted.

The professor’s wife was cheerful when her maid and her husband left the house together the next evening after dinner. She even promised to read to Williamina’s daughter and tuck her into bed. I remember worrying on Williamina’s behalf. Surely the professor was up to no good, and his wife was in on the conspiracy. My imagination raced ahead of the story as I scrolled through the microfilm. I feared most for Williamina’s daughter, left in the care of the professor’s wife. I couldn’t stand waiting to find out what was going to happen, and I remember skipping over several pages in a panic.

What the author finally revealed, after teasing me with unhappy possibilities, was that Williamina’s employer was a professor of astronomy. He led his servant not to an opium den or a brothel but rather to the College Observatory on Concord Avenue. They climbed the wooden stairs into the dome, where the professor’s students were already busily at work taking turns peering up at the night sky and recording their astronomical observations.

The professor met his charges with a gruff hello. Without introducing his visitor, he gestured to the student at the telescope, who surrendered his place to Williamina. The professor explained to her how to look through the eyepiece and adjust the focus. Soon she was gazing deep into the milky heavens.

She remembered with some sadness the daydreams she used to indulge in when she’d been a young girl. She would have liked to devote her life to the study of the galaxy, or the sea, or the human body, or history, or language, or anything at all, as long as she kept learning. She thought she heard murmurs and laughter coming from behind her. Looking up at the distant stars, she did not confess to the male students that she would rather have spent her nights trying to solve the mysteries of the universe than her days washing the undergarments of her employers. Nor did she give the professor what he wanted and offer exclamations of awe. She did not compare the view through the telescope to a display in a jeweler’s window. She did not even say that she was very grateful to be given the opportunity to visit the Observatory.

Instead, adjusting the knob to sharpen the focus of the powerful telescope, she said, “It’s not just light I see. There’s plenty of dust up in the sky!”

The students laughed heartily at that–of course a maid would see dust–and one of them cried out, “Give the old girl a broom!”

The telescope was trained on the constellation of Orion. The author explained that the professor was trying to account for a new cosmic element that was green when viewed with the naked eye but sometimes showed up as a darker shadow when photographed through the optical tube. He wanted to prove the existence of nebulae in the constellation but so far had failed to produce consistent evidence.

A maid who could see dust in the sky was a vast improvement to the professor’s students, who claimed to see nothing of interest. That alone raised the professor’s estimation of her intellectual abilities. After her turn at the telescope, she said nothing more, but the professor was conscious of the intensity of her attention as she watched from the periphery of the room. On his way home, he asked her if she would mind helping him with his research. She said she wouldn’t mind at all.

In the months that followed, he brought home glass plates for Williamina to examine in her spare time. She studied them at length. Each plate presented to her a complicated blend of light and shadow, with hidden shapes that she could always find if she looked hard enough. The professor taught her how to identify what he called, if I remember correctly, the “spectral emissions of visible hydrogen.” To keep track of her observations, she developed a notation system that the professor adopted for his research. He was delighted with her work, and he was quick to agree when, after her daughter began attending school the following September, Williamina gingerly suggested that she might be more helpful to the professor in his laboratory than in his home.

The microfilm containing this book had been part a collection that was discarded by my library and subsequently destroyed. I haven’t had any luck finding another copy. I have since verified, however, that Williamina Fleming was a real person. You can look her up yourself and find out the basics of her life–that she was born in Scotland, immigrated to America, was abandoned by her husband and later employed as a maid, went to work in a Harvard laboratory, and, in a photograph captured through a telescope, discovered a nebula in the shape of a horse’s head. Her contribution to science accounted for the author’s interest in her, I assume. But the basics won’t tell you much about Williamina. The book included extensive information I haven’t been able to verify, including the following story from the final chapter:

Williamina, by then the mother of a college graduate and grandmother of a young boy, was walking along the beach near the seaside cottage where she had settled in her retirement. Her grandson walked beside her. She carried a bucket to hold whatever her grandson chose to collect. Of the many things that ended up in the bucket, there was, I remember, a piece of yellow quartz, a dried starfish, a piece of bleached driftwood, and an unusual shell that had the length of a razor clam, the concentric ridges of a feathered oyster, and iridescent spots.

They carried the bucket home and examined the contents one by one. Williamina held the quartz up to the window to show her grandson the veins when the light shone through it. She pointed out the suction cups on the legs of the starfish. She set the driftwood on the windowsill. And then, at last, Williamina reached for the seashell.

I paused before scrolling to the final page, and in that interval I experienced an awareness that came as a shock. I realized that I already knew what I was about to read. There was no guessing involved. I cannot forecast the outcome of my life or even tell you what I am going to have for dinner tonight, but before I finished the book, I knew how it would end, as if I’d written it myself. I knew that Williamina would wiggle a knife into the hinge of the shell, forcing it open. I foresaw that after digging away the meat she would find a silver pearl as big as an acorn! I was even right about the exclamation mark. Other readers might have felt the familiar disappointment experienced by an ending that was so obvious, but I was left feeling satisfied, and then, upon reflection, somewhat puzzled. Had the author not realized that by giving his readers the opportunity to see into the future, he had introduced the possibility that the predictions of natural science are rivaled by the prophecies of art?

Joanna Scott is a fiction writer. Her most recent novels are Careers for Women and De Potter’s Grand Tour.
Originally published:
April 1, 2019


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