Harald Nilssen had guessed rightly that Pritchard’s relations with Anna Wetherell were rather more tormented than his own, but he was mistaken to conclude that the chemist was in love with her. In fact Pritchard’s taste in women was thoroughly orthodox, even juvenile. He would sooner be inclined to fall for a dairymaid than for a whore – however dull the maid, and however striking the whore. He valued purity and simplicity, plain dress, a soft voice, a tractable will, and a small ambition – which is to say, contrast. His ideal woman would perfectly contrast him: she would be knowable where he was unknowable, composed where he was not. She would be a kind of anchor from above and without; she would be a shaft of light, a comfort, a benediction. Anna Wetherell, with all her excess and intoxication, was too like him. He did not hate her for that, exactly – but he pitied her.
In general Pritchard was close-mouthed on the subject of the fairer sex. He did not enjoy speaking about women with other men, a practice which, in his estimation, was always clownish and braying. He kept his silence, and as a consequence his fellows believed him very well accomplished, and women, when they regarded him, believed him enigmatic and profound. He was not unhandsome, and his trade was a good one: he might have been considered a very eligible bachelor, had he worked a little less, and ventured into society a little more. But Pritchard loathed large groups of mixed company, where every man is required to act as a kind of envoy for his sex, and presents his own advantages playfully, under the scrutiny of the room. Large crowds made him stifled and irritable. He preferred close company, and kept few friends – to whom he was fiercely loyal, as he was loyal to Anna, in his own way. The intimacy that he felt when he was with her owed chiefly to the fact that a man is never obliged to discuss his whores with other men: a whore is a private matter, a meal to be eaten alone. It was this aloneness that he sought in Anna. She was a solitude for him; and when he was with her, he kept her at a distance.
Pritchard had truly loved only once in his life – but it had been sixteen years since Mary Menzies became Mary Firkin, and moved to Georgia to pursue a life of cotton and red earth and (so Pritchard had imagined) an expansive slowness, made of wealth and cloudless skies. Whether she had perished – whether Mr. Firkin, too, was living still – whether she had children, born or lost – whether she had aged well, or aged badly – he did not know. She was Mary Menzies in his mind. When he had last seen her she had been twenty-five, dressed simply in sprigged muslin with her hair gathered in ringlets at her temples, her wrists and fingers unadorned; they were sitting in the window box, saying goodbye.
“Joseph,” she had said (he inscribed it in his pocketbook later, to remember it for all of time), “Joseph, I don’t believe you have ever been at peace with good. It is well you never made love to me. You will remember me fondly now. It would not have been so, otherwise.”
He heard quick steps on the other side of the door.
“Oh, it’s you,” was Anna’s only greeting. She was disappointed: she must have been expecting someone else. Pritchard stepped inside without speaking, and closed the door behind him. Anna moved into the quartered patch of light beneath the window.
She was dressed in mourning, but by the old-fashioned style of the gown (the bell-shaped skirt, the pointed waist) and the faded hue of the cloth, Pritchard guessed it had not been tailored for her new: it must have been a gift, or, more likely, something salvaged. He saw that the hem had been let out: two inches of darker black showed as a stripe against the floor. It was a strange thing to behold a whore in mourning – rather like seeing a dandified cleric, or a child with a moustache; it gave one a sense of confusion, Pritchard thought.
Excerpted from The Luminaries. Copyright © 2013 Eleanor Catton. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.