Verena Swann sat in her carriage, peeking through the curtain at the crowd of mourners filling the avenue. Derbies, bonnets, slick black umbrellas, here and there a pale, wet face like a camellia—pointed straight at her. They were waiting for her to open the door and get out, to become theirs—waiting for a woman who loved her husband so much she would not let him go, even in death.
Leopold, her brother-in-law, peered over her shoulder. “Look at this,” he whispered. “Thousands standing in the rain, for you.”
“For him,” she corrected. It was uncomfortable hearing the thought aloud. This was Theodore’s funeral, after all. They were here to honor him, to recognize the sacrifice he had made for his country.
“There’s no him without you,” said Leopold.
In a practical sense it was true: Verena was not only Theodore’s wife, but also his voice. Since his death, she had learned how to open herself like a door, so that his disembodied spirit could enter and fill her with his thoughts. She fell into a trance, and the two of them became entwined in a way she could not describe. His hand moved her pen. Her mouth formed his words. She shook with his laughter and cried with his sorrow.
Leopold sat back in his seat, clearly moved by the sight of the crowd. “All our hard work is finally paying off, isn’t it?”
The funeral, the crowds—they really were Leopold’s achievement. It was Leopold who had enlisted Verena in a campaign to raise funds for a rescue expedition. Under his direction, they had toured the country, lecturing on the history of Arctic exploration and the wonders of Spiritualism.
In the process, they had built Verena’s talent into a lucrative business. Verena was now the most famous spirit medium in the country. Her public séances were filled to capacity, and her private sittings commanded enormous fees. She was consulted by industrialists, politicians, and European nobility. She and Leopold moved through the upper reaches of New York society, welcome in the very best salons and most exclusive drawing rooms—places a milliner’s daughter would otherwise never have seen.
“You led the way,” she told him.
Leopold gave a self-deprecating shrug. “You realize that nothing will be the same after this, Verena. We will be working on an entirely different level.”
She parted the curtain and looked out again at the sea of umbrellas filling Fifth Avenue. The newspapers had predicted ten thousand, but it seemed like the entire city was there, waiting for her. “What level is that?” she asked.
“Real influence, real wealth.”
There was a knock, and the carriage door opened. A solemn young man in top hat and morning coat stuck his head in. “It’s time, Mrs. Swann.”
She felt something turn upside down inside of her, but did not falter. She lowered her veil, took the young man’s hand, and stepped down to the cobblestones, followed by Leopold.
The crowd was different close-up—powerfully physical. The mourners steamed in the rain like horses. She looked from face to face, stunned by her need for them: to love her, to lift her up like a child and fill her with their electricity.
“Are you all right?” asked Leopold.
“You’re trembling.” He took her arm, moving her down the aisle cleared by the police—with his other hand holding an umbrella over her head. And then he did what he did for her so often: talked her through. “Eyes forward,” he whispered. “Head up. Breathe.
“I said I’m fine.”
“Pay attention. The governor’s waiting up ahead. Remember to thank him for his support.”
The governor met them at the foot of the cathedral stairs. “Mrs. Swann,” he said, taking her hand—he was a client. “At last, he’s home.”
She was surprisingly good at this—polite pleasantries with the rich and influential. “Your help made all the difference, Governor.”
She shook hands with the rest of the party: two congressmen, a senator, the mayor, the police chief, various gangsters and millionaires. Seton Bittersley, editor of the World Dispatch Leader and president of the Clean Living League, gripped her hand tightly in both of his and wouldn’t let go. Police Inspector Wolfscheim saluted, looking martial. Some said the police chief took orders from him, and not the other way around. The Reverend Vorhees murmured something so low and respectful she could not hear it.
Her gaze wandered back to the crowd below. The faces were watching her with a frankly assessing air, as if she were an actor in a play. Of course, they were not mourners, really, but spectators. They had come to submerge themselves in a little piece of history, to be excited and soothed by ritual, to savor the feelings evoked by dead heroes: exaltation, national pride, a sense of the tragic dimensions of life. Some of them may have been in the crowd at the dock when Captain Swann sailed for the Arctic. They may have remembered an indistinct figure at the rail of a ship, waving with great dignity. For most of them, however, he was simply the man in the photograph, a much-reproduced portrait by the expedition photographer, Horatio Portus: Swann dressed in a suit of fur, a noble squint on his handsome, sunburned face. Visible behind him, a landscape of ice, alarming in its white barrenness—a portent of danger and loss.
Did they understand the sacrifice he had made for them? Or the terrible price she had paid to reclaim him?
“Let’s go,” said Leopold.
Verena began to climb the cathedral stairs, her arm still in Leopold’s, her eyes focused on the yellow light of the interior, hazy through the black mesh of her veil. Leopold helped her into the pew, and she was careful to arrange the folds of her dress before sitting. Behind them were the families of the three other expedition members who had not been found, followed by rows of men in black coats, top hats on their laps: the Geographic Society, the Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, the Explorers Club. There was a low hum of conversation, echoing in the stone hall.