The Hand on the Wall Page 1


Photographic image of letter received at the Ellingham residence on April 8, 1936.


December 15, 1932

THE SNOW HAD BEEN FALLING FOR HOURS, DRIFTING PAST THE WINDOWS, settling on the sill, forming little landscapes that mimicked the mountains in the distance. Albert Ellingham sat on an overstuffed chair covered in plum-colored velvet. A green marble clock sat before him on a small table, ticking contentedly. Aside from the ticking and the crackling of the fire, there was no sound. The snow muffled the world.

“Surely we should have heard something by now,” he said.

This was to Leonard Holmes Nair, who was stretched on a sofa on the opposite side of the room, covered in a fur rug and reading a French novel. Leo was a painter and a family friend, a tall and lanky reprobate in a blue velvet smoking jacket. The group had been holed up in this private Alpine hospital retreat for two weeks, watching the snow, drinking hot wine, reading, and waiting . . . waiting for the event that had announced itself in the middle of the night. Then the nurses and doctors swept into action, taking the mother-to-be to the luxurious birthing room. When you are one of the richest men in America, you can have an entire Swiss retreat to yourself for the birth of your child.

“These mysterious affairs of nature take time,” Leo said, not looking up.

“It’s been almost nine hours.”

“Albert, stop watching the clock. Have a drink.”

Albert stood and stuffed his hands into his pockets. He paced to a near window, then a farther one, then back to the first. The view was marvelous—the snow, the mountains, the peaked roofs of the Alpine cottages in the valley.

“A drink,” Leo said again. “Ring for one. Ring the—ringie. Ringie dingie. Where is it?”

Albert crossed back to the fireplace and pulled on a gold knob connected to a silk cord. A gentle tinkling could be heard somewhere in the distance. A moment later the doors opened and a young woman came in, dressed in a blue wool dress with a prim nurse’s apron, a white cap nestled on her head.

“Yes, Herr Ellingham?” she said.

“Any news?” he asked.

“I am afraid not, Herr Ellingham.”

“We need glühwein,” Leo said. “Er braucht etwas zu essen. Wurst und Brot. K?se.”

“Ich verstehe, Herr Nair. Ich bringe Ihnen etwas, einen Moment bitte.”

The nurse backed out of the room and drew the doors closed.

“Perhaps something has gone wrong,” Albert said.

“Albert . . .”

“I’m going up there.”

“Albert,” Leo repeated. “My instructions were to sit on you if you attempted it. While I may not be the most athletic man, I am larger than you and I’m entirely deadweight. Let’s turn on the radio. Or would you like to play a game?”

Usually, the offer of a game would settle Albert Ellingham at once, but he continued to pace until the nurse appeared again with a tray containing two ruby-colored glasses of hot wine, along with cold sliced sausage, bread, and cheese.

“Sit,” Leo ordered. “Eat this.”

Albert did not sit. He pointed at the clock instead.

“This clock,” he said, “I bought it the other day, when we were in Zurich, from a dealer. Antique. Eighteenth century. He said it belonged to Marie Antoinette.”

He put his hands on either side of the clock and stared down at it, as if waiting for it to speak to him.

“Possibly nonsense,” he said, lifting the clock. “But for the price I paid, it should be good nonsense. And it has a bit of a secret that is amusing—hidden drawer underneath. You turn it over. There’s a little indentation and you press . . .”

Overhead, there was movement. A yell. Hurried steps. A scream of pain. Albert set the clock down with a thud.

“Sounds like the twilight sleep wore off,” Leo said as he looked at the ceiling. “Dearie me.”

There was more noise—the sharp screams of a woman about to give birth.

Albert and Leo left the cozy study and stood in the much colder anteroom at the foot of the stairs.

“Such gruesome sounds,” Leo said, looking up the dark stairs in concern. “Surely there is a better way to bring life into the world.”

The cries stopped. All was silent for several moments, then the wail of a baby broke through. Albert sprang up the steps two at a time, slipping at the landing in his haste. In the hall above, the young nurse was standing by the door of the birthing room, prepared for his arrival.

“A moment, Herr Ellingham,” she said with a smile. “The cord must be cut.”

“Tell me,” he said, breathless.

“It is a girl, Herr Ellingham.”

“It is a girl,” Albert repeated, wheeling around to face his friend.

“Yes,” Leo said. “I heard.”

“A girl. I thought it would be a girl. I knew it would be a girl. A little girl! I’ll get her the biggest dollhouse in the world, Leo. You could live in it!”

The door cracked open, and Albert pushed past the nurse and hurried inside. The room was dark—the curtains drawn against the snow. There were smells of life—blood and sweat—mingling with the sharp tang of antiseptic. The doctor replaced a breathing mask on a hook on the wall and adjusted the level on a tank of gas. One nurse emptied a white enamel basin full of pink water into a sink. Another nurse pulled wet sheets from the bed, while a third replaced them as they slipped away, snapping the clean sheet in the air and letting it fall gently on the woman below. The nurses crisscrossed the room, opening the curtains and swapping the trays of instruments for pitchers of flowers. It was a graceful, well-practiced ballet, and within minutes, the birthing room felt like a cheerful hotel suite. This was the best private hospital in the world, after all.

Albert’s gaze fixed on his wife, Iris. She was holding a child in a yellow blanket. He was so full of feeling that the room seemed to distort; the beams of the ceiling appeared to bend down to him as if to catch him should he fall as he made his way to her and the child in her arms.

“She is beautiful,” Albert said. “She is extraordinary. She is . . .”

His voice failed him. The baby was bright pink, all balled fists and closed eyes and wails of awareness. She was life itself.

“She’s ours,” Iris said quietly.

“May I hold her?” said someone on the other side of the room. Albert and Iris turned toward the woman in the bed. Her face was flushed and glazed in sweat.

“Of course!” Iris said, going to her. “Of course. Darling, darling, of course.”

Iris gently placed the baby into Flora Robinson’s arms. Flora was weak, still half under the influence of the drugs, her blond hair stuck to her forehead. The nurses pulled the sheets and blankets up over her, tucking them around the baby in her arms. She blinked in amazement at the tiny person she had produced.

“My God,” she said, looking down into the infant’s face. “Is that what I’ve done?”

“You’ve done marvelously,” Iris replied, peeling some of the damp locks back from her friend’s forehead. “Darling, you were a marvel. You were an absolute marvel.”

“May I have a moment, please?” Flora said. “To hold her?”

“It is a good idea,” the nurse said. “For her to hold. It helps the baby. She will have to nurse soon. Perhaps, Herr Ellingham, Frau Ellingham, you can outside go? For a moment only.”

Iris and Albert retreated from the room. Leo had gone back downstairs, so they were alone in the hall.

“She hasn’t said anything about the father, has she?” Albert asked quietly. “I thought she might during . . .”

He waved his hand to indicate nine hours of labor and the birth process.

“No,” Iris whispered back.

“No matter. No matter at all. Should he ever appear, we will deal with him.”

The nurse stepped into the hall, bearing a clipboard with official-looking forms.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Do you have a name for the child?”

Albert looked to Iris, who nodded.

“Alice,” Albert said. “Her name is Alice Madeline Ellingham. And she will be the happiest little girl in the world.”