Authors: Jenny Davidson
About the Author
Also by Jenny Davidson
About the Publisher
usk came early at this time of year in Denmark. Together with the unseasonably heavy snow, the half darkness largely concealed the figure of a man balanced on the narrow ledge outside the grand windows of the conservatory at the Mansion of Honor, built by the owners of the Carlsberg Brewery as a home for Denmark’s most distinguished citizen, the world-renowned physicist Niels Bohr.
Through the panes of glass, the man could see the hundreds of guests gathered to celebrate Bohr’s birthday. He waited until the physicist himself had come into view, holding up a champagne flute for the birthday toasts. Then the man reached behind him, his glove brushing along the equipment tucked into his belt—grappling hooks, climbing rope, an electric torch—until it reached the sleek matte black rocket launcher.
Pressing the device up against the window, the man primed it and pulled the trigger.
Even as screams could be heard from party guests scrambling to get away from the device that now lay hissing in the middle of the conservatory, a cloud of gas beginning to fill the room and obscure its occupants, the man outside was letting himself down from the ledge, coiling up his rope, and making his swift way out through the grounds.
A black saloon with dark-tinted windows waited for him at the other side of the wall surrounding the estate. By the time the security officers had found the man’s footprints and begun to follow his tracks, the car was long since off and away.
20 August 1938
Miss Henchman only would say that your great-aunt had sent you abroad, but there was an awful lot of rot talked before school finished about your having eloped with Mr. Petersen! I told the others it couldn’t be so, but I still don’t see why you left before sitting your exams—I am sure you would have done better than any of us. It is spiffy to be done with school forever—I have been assigned to a unit and will begin basic training at the end of the month. I should love to get a letter from you, Sophie—you might write to me in care of my parents, and they will forward it to my regiment. My father is certain that Scotland will go to war with Europe within the next few months, so there is a good chance I will see action before the winter. I take it that this is the best address for me to write you—but why on earth are you living at an Institute for Theoretical Physics? You always were a dark horse—I hope you are very well and that you will spare a thought now and again for
your loving friend,
ophie was lying on her stomach on the bed in her own little room under the eaves, a bedroom with slanted walls and a small window overlooking the trees in the park behind the institute. As she read through Nan’s letter for the third time, she blushed again at the bit about Mr. Petersen— she had once believed herself to be in love with the chemistry teacher, it was true, until the notion was dispelled by the revelation of her feelings for his younger brother, Mikael. Mikael had helped her escape from Scotland and the real danger that she would vanish into the labyrinth of an infernal training scheme instituted by Sophie’s very own great-aunt and designed to brainwash young women, eroding their personalities and subtracting all freedom of will so as to subordinate them to the needs and desires of the country’s most powerful men.
Mikael’s mother, Fru Petersen, had worked for many years as housekeeper and general assistant to the institute’s director, Niels Bohr; she managed purchasing and bookkeeping, ordered and cataloged books for the library, and made arrangements for visitors, including obtaining accommodations in nearby pensions or boardinghouses for anyone who could not be squeezed into the available space at the institute on Blegdamsvej. The Petersen family had long dwelled in one of four flats on the top floor of the institute, which had recently become Sophie’s home also, at least for now, but the influx of scientists seeking refuge from the new European racial laws had placed an increasing strain on the institute’s capacity to house them.
Nan’s father was far from alone in his belief that war was imminent. After England had fallen to the European Federation during the Great War of the 1910s, the states of the New Hanseatic League (with Scotland, Denmark, and Estonia leading the way) had reached a precarious settlement with Europe, a settlement that had lasted decades, but the European Federation’s dictatorial way of behaving within its borders and its territorial aggressiveness outside of them threatened to bring that peace to an end at any moment.
Sophie felt her own personal displacement more sharply than anything she read in the newspapers. The pale sandstone walls and clean lines of Niels Bohr’s institute reminded her painfully of Edinburgh, and in general København struck her as uncannily familiar, though there were small particles of difference between the two cities that made one feel as though one had walked into a fairy-tale alternate universe: the red-tiled roofs, the abundance of bicycles in the streets, the ubiquity of cheese (creamy and crumbly, blue-veined, delicious) at breakfast.
None of this, though, was the sort of thing she could write in a letter to Nan, who was perhaps the least fanciful person Sophie had ever met in her life.
Just then she heard Mikael calling her name from below.
“Sophie! Come quickly; I need your help!”
Outside in the shrubbery, she found Mikael kneeling and trying to coax a small tabby cat from the undergrowth. He filled her in quickly on their task—half a dozen experimental subjects had escaped from the Hungarian chemist Georg de Hevesy’s latest basement adventure in radioisotope research, a rogue macaw (survivor of a previous round of experimentation) having methodically unlatched the clasps on their cages. The cats had gone out through the window into the park that covered the whole tract of land behind the institute, and it was Mikael and Sophie’s job to help round them up again.
Sophie crouched down and held out her hand to the small tabby, rubbing her forefingers against her thumb and making a sort of chirping noise.
The cat stared at her from deep in the undergrowth. Meanwhile Mikael tiptoed in a wide circle around to the back of the bush. As he crept up on the creature, the cat pricked up its ears. A moment later, it had shot out of the brush, a striped blur in the far right of Sophie’s field of vision.
Mikael swore. He had two brown canvas sacks tucked under his belt and held a third one open in his hands, which he let drop as Sophie joined him.
“It’s hopeless,” he said, wiping his brow with his sleeve.
“Let’s try again over by the back wall of the park,” Sophie suggested.
They tramped along the path toward the pond, stopping to splash their faces at the fountain along the way. This time they had better cat-catching luck. A small gray-and-white cat froze as Sophie approached, and Mikael had whisked it into the sack before the cat knew what was what.
The squirming and squalling of the now-animate bag sent Sophie into guilty fits of laughter. They called for Hevesy’s assistant, Miss Levi, and left the sack lying in a spot of shade, then set off to stalk their next target. But as they approached the large black cat sunning himself on the top of the wall, Sophie put out a hand to hold Mikael back.
“It’s Trismegistus, can’t you see?” she whispered.
The red leather collar clearly identified the cat as Sophie and Mikael’s former traveling companion. Mikael always just called the cat Blackie, but though Sophie found the name engraved on the collar’s silver plate pretentious, she had a superstitious preference for using his proper name.
“Trismegistus!” she called.
The cat ignored her and simply went on grooming himself in the sun. The imposing creature’s tenure as the favored intimate of a spiritualist medium—the woman whose murder earlier that summer in Edinburgh had indirectly led to Sophie’s coming to live with Mikael and his mother in København—had given him a supreme degree of self-possession beyond even the usual lot of cats. He spent roughly half of his time indoors, often curled up in a compact mound at the foot of Sophie’s bed, but he enjoyed preying on the population of small mammals and birds in the tame wilderness of the park.
Miss Levi had arrived by now and transferred the wriggling sack of cat into a wheelbarrow that already held several others.
“Will one of you come and help me inside?” she asked.
Mikael asserted the superiority of his own cat-catching prowess, so Sophie, after warning him that he would regret any attempt to exert it on Trismegistus, followed Miss Levi through the grounds to the back of the institute and right up to the service entrance.
The scientist unfastened the padlock on the door set horizontally into the ground, and together she and Sophie gently rolled the barrow down the ramp and up to the array of empty cages in the basement laboratory.
It was a tricky business to get each cat out of its sack and secured in a cage without injury to human or animal, but they managed it with only a few minor scratches.
“What should we do with them now?” Sophie asked.
She rather wished the escaped cats could have stayed escaped, but there was nothing to be gained by refusing to help round them up: some days earlier, they had been injected with a radioactive isotope of phosphorus whose uptake into the skeleton could be measured with great precision, revealing how bone was formed and all sorts of other metabolic secrets. Sophie and Mikael both helped out regularly in the basement laboratory, and Sophie knew the cats’ doom was already sealed. When the time came, the animals would be euthanized and samples of their bone and tissue burned or dissolved in acid so that the precipitated phosphate could be weighed and tested for radioactivity, using a “clicker” or counter that had been modified from the ones the telephone company used to track how many calls were made on a given line.
“Now we must test them,” Miss Levi answered, “to see which ones are ours.”
“Can’t you tell just by looking at them?” said Sophie.
“Oh, no,” Miss Levi said. “I can make a good guess, certainly, but since it’s a matter of life or death for these poor little fellows, I had rather be certain.”
“What will we do with the ones who weren’t in the experiment?” Sophie asked, feeling slightly sick to her stomach.
“We’ll release them back into the park,” said Miss Levi— she had told Sophie to call her Hilde, and she wasn’t at all old, but Sophie felt more comfortable with “Miss Levi”— “but not until we’ve made a very thorough attempt to retrieve all six of the ones that escaped. There’s no point chasing after the same cats all over again!”
It was certainly a two-person job to work out which cats were radioactive. Sophie put on a pair of heavy gardening gloves and held down an animal while Miss Levi briskly pinched each cat’s jaw with one hand and swabbed its mouth for saliva with the other. The wipe test was then passed under the clicker, which went alarmingly active in several cases, including the little gray-and-white cat, which Sophie had hoped might be spared.
They had determined that two of the five captured cats belonged to the original group when Hevesy himself entered the room. He had a charming long face like a dyspeptic turtle, with a slender build and a patina of formality to his manners that made Sophie suspect him of being privately quite sarcastic. As always, he was dressed in an elegant fashion that went against the otherwise casual sartorial culture of the institute, but his brow was dotted anomalously with sweat. He held a bloodstained white silk handkerchief to his left hand, and his clothes bore the marks of the hunt.
Miss Levi clucked over him as she examined the deep slash on the mound of his thumb.
“I take it you couldn’t keep hold of the animal?” she asked.
“I got him, all right,” said Hevesy. “I left the bag outside because the creature was writhing about too powerfully for me to keep hold of it. I deposited the sack in one of the garden rubbish bins and came to you, Miss Levi, for assistance.”
“I’ll go out and get it, Miss Levi,” Sophie volunteered. The feeling of moral queasiness based on complicity with scientific cat killing had given way, over the course of Hevesy’s utterances, to a more specific and acute sense of dismay. She left by the garden entrance and half ran, with the slight limp that was the only physical legacy of the injury she had sustained in the long-ago factory explosion that had killed both her parents, to the garden refuse bins.
One bin was rocking about on its base, an anguished and barely muffled yowl emanating from the container. Sophie removed the lid and grasped the neck of the sack with both hands. It was like trying to hold on to a portion of volcanic magma the size of a plum pudding. Clutching the sack, she felt something punch her quite painfully round about the kidney.
Once she had passed the malevolent bundle over to Miss Levi, the laboratory assistant barely had time to loosen the neck of the sack, pop it through the cage’s opening, and slam the door shut before the cat shot out like a rocket and slammed into the wire wall at the back of the cage.
“It’s Trismegistus!” Sophie cried, her pangs of guilt intensified by the black cat’s sheer physical fury. If he could have stabbed Sophie with a knife, she thought, he would have!
?” Hevesy asked, the smooth surface of his politeness slightly dented by the cat’s awful yowling.
“It’s the cat that came with me from Scotland. Look, he’s got a red collar; none of yours had a collar—oh, please, let him out at once!”
A cursory visual examination confirmed the truth of Sophie’s words.
“Still,” Miss Levi said sensibly, “it will be more prudent to keep him here for now and let him back out only once we have found the others. . . .”
The cat was howling so loudly by this time that the other animals in the room had become agitated.
“Oh, please don’t say that!” Sophie said. “Really, we must let him go—look how he’s upsetting the others!”
This had to be conceded. Even the macaw was fluttering off his perch and screaming, and the cats were making an extraordinary amount of noise.
“I am not so sure,” said Miss Levi, giving the cat a wary look, “that it will be quite
for us to release him inside. Sophie, what do you think?”
The cat seemed also to turn his gaze now in Sophie’s direction, and the thought came very strongly into her mind that he would prefer to be released outdoors, but not at the cost of significant further delay. The cage had two handles, and she hoisted it up in both hands and hurried over and up the stairs out into the garden.
Despite her haste and the enveloping sensation of panic, Sophie placed the cage carefully on the grass and knelt down in front of it.
“Oh, I do hope you will forgive me,” she said, though she felt very silly even as she uttered the words. “I’m terribly sorry you had to go through all this!”
Once the door was open, though, the cat stalked out with a dignity quite at odds with his earlier cannonball-like activity. He slowly picked up speed, first to a brisk trot and then to a low sprint that took him into the invisibility-granting world of the park’s dense undergrowth.
After supper with Mikael and Fru Petersen, Sophie had a quick bath to wash away the grime of cat chasing. Dressed in her pajamas, she joined Mikael in the small sitting room. It was still light outside, but the evening had become quite cool. Summer was over.
Fru Petersen brought them each a mug of cocoa and waved away Mikael’s invitation to sit down.
“I am going to bed,” she said firmly. “I am not fifteen years old; I prefer to go to bed at a reasonable hour, even if it
Saturday tomorrow. . . .”
Once she had left them, silence fell over the room. Sophie and Mikael sat across from each other on the two upholstered chairs. It seemed to Sophie that they hewed to an unspoken agreement at home that even the slightest physical contact was forbidden, though outside Mikael had more than once taken Sophie’s hand and held it gently in his own for a few moments as they walked along together.
Sophie considered this almost heart-stoppingly bold. What if someone saw them? Would Mikael really not mind people thinking Sophie was his—what was the right word?—sweetheart, and he Sophie’s beau?
Her thoughts roamed to the laboratory downstairs.
“Did you ever think it might be wrong,” she asked Mikael, “to keep animals in cages and do things to them that would be considered unacceptable if they weren’t directed toward scientific ends?”
“It’s crossed my mind,” Mikael admitted. He slurped the last dregs of his cocoa—how had he finished his so much more quickly than Sophie?—and set the mug down on the end table. “We eat animals, too, though, don’t we? And wear leather shoes and jackets and belts? Experiments like those ones they’re doing in the basement are almost the only way to come to grips with even the most elementary aspects of physiology, in humans as well as animals—it’s not possible, after all, to experiment on people!”
“No, of course not,” Sophie said, “and I know that Professor Hevesy is engaged in truly important research; only I hope that his next experiment does not require him to kill so many dear little cats!”
As if his appearance had been scripted, the black cat materialized in the doorway, wedging the door a little wider open and weaving his way around the edge of the room toward Sophie. He rubbed his muzzle along the hand she offered him, then sprang up onto the arm of the chair and settled down in the pose preferred by the Egyptian sphinxes.
“He is amazingly intelligent, isn’t he?” Sophie said, giving the cat a series of strong, firm strokes over his brow ridges and ears, a form of patting that made the cat purr like a dynamo.
“Oh, you’re talking about Blackie. . . .”
Sophie gave Mikael a reproachful look, and he started to laugh.
“I suppose you wish I’d call him Trismegistus! But it’s a ridiculous name for a cat, Sophie; it makes the wretched beast sound like the prop of some charlatan of an occult practitioner. Just because he once belonged to a spiritualist medium doesn’t mean he’s not a perfectly ordinary, common-or-garden-variety black cat! Bet you he prefers to be called Blackie—look! Here, Blackie, do you want the last bit of cocoa?”
He picked up the mug and held it about a foot from the ground, tipping it forward in the cat’s direction and jiggling it to slosh the scant remaining liquid around at the bottom. The cat remained impervious to the cocoa’s charms, perhaps because of the affront to his dignity, but more likely because Fru Petersen had already given him herring for supper; Sophie could still slightly smell the residue on his face and whiskers, though he was an irreproachably clean cat who groomed himself at every opportunity and sported an exceptionally thick and glossy coat.
“I agree it’s a bit silly,” Sophie said regretfully, “but really I think he must be called Trismegistus. It suits him, in a slightly sinister way. Perhaps he wouldn’t object to being called Tris for short. What do you think, Tris?”
When she reached under his chin and began rubbing along the bottom of his jaw, his purring swelled to such a degree that Mikael could hear it all the way on the other side of the room.
“Tris it is, then,” he said, with a sigh of resignation so dramatic that Sophie couldn’t help but laugh.
In the absence of anything better to do—his mother would be very annoyed if she saw the mess!—Mikael was plucking the white blossoms off a flowering branch that Fru Petersen had arranged in a sleek white modern vase. The petals mounted in a heap, Mikael registering what he had been doing only when every twig had been stripped bare of blossom; he looked surprised, then picked up the pile of petals in both hands and heaved himself out of his chair to cast them in Sophie’s direction.
The petals descended over Sophie and the cat like snow.
With the last petals still fluttering to the ground, Mikael’s mother leaned her head around the door.
“Still up?” she said. “You two had a long day—I’d say it’s bedtime around now. What a mess you’ve made!”
Sophie cleaned her teeth in the bathroom. Mikael had taken to leaving his toothbrush and the little tin of cleaning powder by the kitchen sink and brushing his teeth there to avoid either enduring or instigating a bathroom wait; Sophie would have been glad to let him go first in the bathroom, but Mikael’s notion of the obligations of the guest-host relationship entwined the pair of them in a merciless web of mutual courtesies.
She left her door open a crack, and a few minutes after she had turned out the bedside light, Trismegistus padded into the room and jumped up onto the bed with the funny little revving-up noise that Sophie found so endearing.
She turned onto her side, and the cat tucked himself into the space between her arms and stomach like a hot, fat, furry sausage. The cat’s companionship was one of Sophie’s greatest consolations in her new Danish life. It wasn’t a bad life, on its own terms, but it had made all of the futures her past self had spent so much time pondering go quite blank.
All she seemed able to do now was wait. When would the dynamiteur Alfred Nobel send word that he was ready to see Sophie? Just before she’d left Scotland, she’d spoken to Nobel on the telephone, and he had promised all sorts of revelations about Sophie’s long-dead parents, but she had never expected such a long time to pass before his next communication. When Nobel did finally reach out to her, would the message be brought by her old chemistry teacher, Mikael’s older brother, Arne?
Would Mikael—but Sophie could hardly stand to think about it, the idea so thoroughly and confusingly excited and shamed her—ever want to kiss her?
Just then the cat reached out his left paw and laid it on Sophie’s forearm, kneading her flesh for a moment and giving her a short, sharp dig with his claws.
“Stop that!” Sophie said, outraged and rolling away from him.
No sooner had she turned her back than the cat raised himself up and picked his way around the blanketed outline of her body to set himself back down along Sophie’s front.
“I do not see why you have to lie on my front side,” she said with fond exasperation, but the cat only purred and settled himself closer by.
For Saturday-morning breakfast, Mikael’s mother always made them crepes filled with apricot jam and sprinkled with powdered sugar, which seemed almost criminally delicious for a meal that in Sophie’s Scottish life had usually been more penitential than mouthwatering—oh, but she must stop making these comparisons! Even when the advantage fell to København, as often seemed the case, there was something reproach-worthy about looking constantly backward. It was better not to let the words
In Scotland . . .
At home . . .
ever cross her lips; it was the lesson of Orpheus and Eurydice, or of Lot’s wife looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt.
After helping with the washing-up (and
, it was nice having hot running water and electric wiring— but there she went with another “In Edinburgh”!), Sophie spent an hour on her history essay. Mikael went to the boys’ school where Niels Bohr had sent his sons, but Sophie had been enrolled as a pupil at a very good English-language coeducational school founded and directed by Bohr’s aunt Hanna Adler. Sophie liked the Fællesskole quite a bit. It was a progressive school, which seemed mostly to mean that children so inclined were allowed to behave very badly, but that lessons were considerably more interesting than at an ordinary school. All but the most daunting teachers were called by their first names, a custom Sophie judged strange but pleasant: the verdict she had reached on almost every aspect of her new life.
At the other side of the dining table, Mikael was covering sheets of paper with intricate penciled calculations, and the example of his easy concentration helped Sophie become fully absorbed in her own essay, which was on the relationship between aboveboard diplomacy and secret operations like espionage or even assassination.
In a way it was like animal vivisection or scientific experimentation. Sophie would much prefer not to euthanize and dissect an animal with her own two hands. Just so might she recoil at the notion of ordering an assassination, let alone assassinating someone herself. But there was a kind of hypocrisy, wasn’t there, in congratulating oneself on not having to descend to such things while simultaneously benefiting from living in a world where espionage and even assassination might be the only way for one’s country to maintain its independence?
She finished a paragraph and started doodling in the margin of the page. Drawing a blank as to what to say next, she decided to consult the encyclopedia, whose gilded black-and-red volumes took up almost a whole shelf in the library downstairs. On a weekday, a noisy game of Ping-Pong might have been under way at the table by the library windows, which were always kept open to clear the haze of tobacco smoke that otherwise hung in the air; the cold air had led someone to put a joke sign above the door (but it would make more sense when winter came!) saying nordpol, with
written underneath for English speakers, and one of the eccentric Russian George Gamow’s trademark drawings of Bohr as Mickey Mouse. Bohr/Mickey was dressed up as Father Christmas and brandished a Ping-Pong racquet at his team of reindeer; it was one of the great mysteries of life how the crude inked figure could so clearly represent all three things at once—Bohr, Mickey, Father Christmas.
Today being Saturday, the library was empty. Leafing her way through to
, Sophie got distracted by
, and she was immersed in
when someone tapped her on the shoulder.
It was Niels Bohr himself. After checking that Sophie did not mind the interruption, he pulled up a chair, tipped back in it, and rested his feet on the table in front of them.
Bohr was kind to everybody, in his own absentminded fashion, but the great surprise of Sophie’s first days in København a month earlier had come when Mikael’s mother informed her that Bohr wished to see Sophie in his office.
Sophie had flinched—it sounded distinctly disciplinary!— whereupon Fru Petersen twisted her mouth in a comical fashion and said, “The only person who is not periodically summoned to the great man’s office is the janitor, and that is because Bohr knows the fellow will only importune him for more funds if they meet face-to-face!”
“What does Professor Bohr want to talk to me about?” Sophie asked, but Fru Petersen couldn’t give her an answer.
So Sophie had duly appeared in the outer sanctuary, the secretary asking her to sit quietly until Bohr was ready to see her. Her heart had been in her mouth as she waited, and she felt almost breathless with nerves. Would he cross-examine her about her visa status, or, worse, about her fairly sketchy knowledge of nuclear physics?
But when she was finally ushered into Bohr’s office, Sophie had seen not an ogre but a kind-faced man whose boyish manner belied the fact of his being in late middle age. The first thing he did was jump out of his seat and rush over to Sophie and clasp her hands in his own, leaning over to look closely into her face.
“A definite resemblance,” he muttered. “It would be an exaggeration to say I’d have known you anywhere—it is difficult to pick out a likeness in the face of a complete stranger on the street—but I see quite a strong look of your father. . . .”
Seeing the puzzled expression on Sophie’s face, he led her to a phalanx of framed photographs on the wall beside the window. There was a row of almost indistinguishable group portraits of the institute’s staff—the earliest ones had only twelve or fourteen people in them, while the more recent ones were populated by several dozen figures—and there in the back right-hand corner of the group photograph for the year 1917 was Sophie’s very own father, who had died (so had her mother) when she was too young to remember him.
“Alan came to the institute as a postdoctoral fellow in 1912,” Bohr had told Sophie. Then he put his finger to the smudge of a half-visible face of a young woman standing at the other edge of the group. She had turned away, as if responding to a comment from someone outside the frame of the picture, and there was something elusive—almost ghostly—about her equivocal presence. “Your mother had already been working here for a year when he came, but it took him many months to persuade her to let him take her out for coffee and cake!”
Sophie had been struck almost dumb with surprise.
“My mother and father met
?” she had asked, after recovering her voice. “At the Institute for Theoretical Physics?”
“Did you not know?” Bohr had said in response, frowning a little and opening a drawer from which he extracted a tin of biscuits. Taking the lid off, he had offered it to Sophie, who chose a rectangular shortbread, and then he himself carefully picked out two chocolate-covered round ones dusted with coconut. He had gone on to tell Sophie the tale of Alan Hunter’s courtship of a shy, charming fellow Scot called Rose Childs, a story hitherto entirely unknown to Sophie, before further endearing himself to her by offering her some fudge from the secret supply in his office cupboard. He had concluded by telling her that
had been a favorite name of his ever since his time as a very junior research fellow in Manchester, when he had taught himself English by reading
and looking up the words he didn’t recognize. “Dickens’s Sophie,” he had added, “lived in Devonshire and was one of ten, as I am sure you know!”
Seeing Bohr again now in the library, the pages of her history essay slightly fluttering (she had pinned them down with a malachite paperweight) in the breeze from the windows, Sophie had to fight the urge to pepper him with more questions about her parents. But though she desperately wanted to learn everything she could, she did not want Bohr to think of Sophie as a person of exclusively genealogical interests. It was hard to shake the sense instilled by her stern guardian, Great-aunt Tabitha, an elderly lady of supreme rectitude who had seen fit to keep Sophie almost entirely in the dark about her antecedents, that questions about one’s deceased parents represented idle curiosity of the most frivolous sort.
The encyclopedia volume still open before her, she asked Bohr the question that had been troubling her as she wrote her essay.
“Say that someone’s leading a double life,” she began, remembering not just Great-aunt Tabitha and her twin role as enlightener and secret keeper for the sinister organization called IRYLNS, but also Sophie’s former history teacher, Miss Chatterjee, and Arne Petersen himself, and the ways their secrets deformed and distorted their other human relationships. When Mikael’s older brother had posed as Sophie’s chemistry teacher in Edinburgh, he had really been working as a secret agent for the reclusive dynamiteur Alfred Nobel. It had taken Sophie quite a long time to apprehend the extent of Arne’s double-dealing, and to add insult to injury, after revealing to Sophie that Nobel had actually connived at a plan to bring Sophie to see him in his . . . Sophie mentally supplied the word
, Arne had simply gone off without doing
about making arrangements for a visit that Sophie perhaps dreaded and looked forward to in equal measure.
“Would you say that it is possible for each strand of that life to be full of integrity,” she asked Bohr, “even if it is lived under conditions of concealment? Or does the ongoing deception tarnish the person’s character regardless, even if each strand of the life seems respectable on its own?”
“Do I detect a question motivated by something other than abstract curiosity?” Bohr asked, his voice kind. He snapped the book shut and took his pipe from his breast pocket, then began the near-interminable process of fiddling that might or might not culminate half an hour later in its finally being lit. “Are you thinking of Arne Petersen?”
Sophie flushed and nodded.
“Do you think I’ll hear from him soon about the visit to Mr. Nobel?” she asked Bohr, hating how pitiful she sounded but unable to stop the words from tumbling out of her mouth.
“I hope so,” Bohr said apologetically, “but it is honestly impossible to say. You know that the institute gets a good deal of its funding from Nobel’s various trusts and foundations; at times I will receive from the man as many as three or four telegrams in a single morning, whereas at other times months may pass without a hint of response even to my most pressing inquiries. It can be highly frustrating, but then that is the price we pay when we deal with these great men. . . .”
He did not seem to use the phrase ironically, and it caused Sophie to bristle slightly on Bohr’s own behalf. Surely Bohr himself was by any rational standard of measurement as great a man as Alfred Nobel!
Just then Mikael peered around the door of the library.
“There you are, Sophie!” he called out. “Professor Bohr, I must claim Sophie for a bicycle ride. . . .”
“We just as well could ride later on, though, couldn’t we?” Sophie said hopefully.
Mikael started laughing, and so did Bohr—alas, bicycle riding was one of the minor banes of Sophie’s Danish existence, and it was well-known throughout the institute that Sophie would have been very glad had the bicycle never been invented.
As they clattered downstairs through the deserted building, Sophie had an appealing sense of the institute’s being their own personal playground. The main building, in addition to the residential flats and guest rooms on the top floor, held laboratory and office space for about fifteen physicists. The ground floor had a big office and reception area for Bohr and his secretary, and an auditorium that could seat almost a hundred people. The basement, served by a goods elevator, housed a chemical laboratory and four big workrooms for experimental research. It was packed full of all sorts of things whose inner workings Sophie did not always fully understand but whose names rolled off the tongue in a most lovely way: a high-tension generator, a grating spectrograph, a precision lathe, drills and saws and sanders, and the delightfully named universal cutting machine. Of course, the universal cutting machine could not really cut
; it was just a name, but Sophie liked the notion that it might be used to cut out a neat strip of sky or a perfect cube of water.
And in a detail like something out of a fairy tale, a seven-meter well had been dug deep below the floor of the basement, with a narrow staircase leading down into it. It had been built for the spectrograph, which had been floated at the bottom of the well in a container of oil meant to minimize vibrations from the trolley cars that ran along Blegdamsvej in front of the institute, but when the vibrations continued to affect the instrument, it had to be moved elsewhere. Now the underground cave was used to produce and store the radioactive isotopes for Hevesy’s tracer experiments, the Hungarian scientist’s slight resemblance to a turtle only compounding Sophie’s sense of its being a magical grotto where frogs might turn into princes if the right person kissed them.
The bicycle shed stood on the east side of the building. By the time Sophie had knocked over several other machines and barked her shins painfully on the lawn mower, Mikael was already riding around outside in circles.
It was not so much that Sophie minded actually riding a bicycle. It was quite enjoyable, really, once one was rolling along, so long as one did not allow oneself to become flustered when a dog took chase or a small child rushed directly out into one’s path. But bicycles themselves were so troublesome and awkward! One banged one’s shins on them and knocked into things as one tried to wheel them out of congested areas, and it still seemed to Sophie impossible to imagine walking and wheeling the wretched contraption at anything like a normal pace.
Intent upon her dislike for two-wheeled transportation, Sophie remained almost oblivious to the route Mikael led them along, except to think that it was a pity the weather was fair and København so attractive, because it led to excessive numbers of people being out and about enjoying themselves and altogether neglecting the possibility that their obstruction of the path of a timid cyclist might pose some danger to themselves and others!
She was taken aback when she realized they had already reached the pier.
“It’s not much of a ride,” Mikael observed as they stretched their legs out in front of them on the sun-warmed dock and unpacked their lunch. This was the magnificent imperial bit of København, almost everything built on a monumental scale.
“It is a nice little bicycle; I will give you that much,” Sophie said, feeling more charitable now that the first part of the ride was over. Mikael loved riding his bike, and had insisted that Sophie must have her own, persuading his mother to mention it to Great-aunt Tabitha, who had wired the money to purchase one just for Sophie, Mikael having rightly noted that there were few things so unhelpful to the timid cyclist as trying to ride a bicycle the wrong size, and that though the institute shed might be full of more or less functional hand-me-downs, they had all been ridden by much taller people than Sophie.
It was blue, Sophie’s favorite color. Mikael had fixed a block to the left pedal to neutralize the leg-length discrepancy Sophie had retained from her childhood injury. Perhaps, in time—in a very
time—she might even learn to love the bicycle?
Mikael offered Sophie a sandwich, which she took and washed down with a swig of lemonade from the bottle. A number of other people were also enjoying proximity to the water, mostly families with children eating ice creams or couples holding hands. Sophie sneaked a glance at Mikael, but it did not really seem as though he was thinking about reaching out for her hand. Just in case, though, she wiped her right hand surreptitiously on her shorts to reduce stickiness.