Edda and Grace, Tufts and Kitty. Two sets of twins, the daughters of the Reverend Thomas Latimer, Rector of St. Mark’s Church of England in the Shire & City of Corunda, New South Wales.
They were sitting on four slender chairs in front of the vast maw of the fireplace, where no fire burned. The very large drawing room was filled with chattering women invited by the Rector’s wife, Maude, to celebrate the event looming in less than a week: the Rector’s four daughters were quitting the Rectory to commence training as nurses at the Corunda Base Hospital.
Less than a week to go, less than a week to go! Edda kept saying to herself as she endured the embarrassment of being on display, her eyes roaming about because she preferred not to look at her stepmother, Maude, dominating the talk as usual, natter, natter, natter.
There was a hole in the wooden floor to the side of Edda’s chair, the last in the row of four; a movement inside it caught her attention and she stiffened, grinning deep within herself. A big rat! A rat was about to invade Mama’s party! Just an inch more, she thought as she watched the head, then I’ll emit a loud gasp and screech “Rat!” at the top of my voice. What fun!
But before Edda could find her voice she actually saw the head, and froze. A polished black wedge with vibrating tongue—huge for what it was!—followed by a polished black body as thick as a woman’s arm—a black body, yes, but beneath it a red belly. And the thing kept on coming and coming, seven feet of red-bellied black snake, lethally venomous. How had it found its way in here?
It was still emerging, ready the moment the tip of its tail was free to make a bolt in some unpredictable direction. The fire tools were on the far side of the hearth, with the oblivious Tufts, Grace, and Kitty in between; she’d never reach them.
Her chair had a padded seat but no arms, and its frail legs tapered to fine round points no bigger than a lipstick tube; Edda drew in a great breath, lifted herself and the chair a few inches, and brought the left front leg down on the middle of the snake’s head. Then she sat, hard and heavy, hands clenched grimly around the sides of the chair seat, determined to ride out the tempest as if she were Jack Thurlow breaking in a horse.
The leg pierced its skull between the eyes and the snake, all seven feet of it, reared high into the air. Someone gave a shrill scream and other screams followed, while Edda Latimer sat and fought to keep the chair leg embedded in the snake’s head. Its body whipped, pounded, crashed around and against her, dealing her blows more savage and punishing than a man’s fist, raining on her so thick and fast that she seemed surrounded by a whirling blur, a threshing shadow.
Women were running everywhere, still screaming, eyes filled with the sight of Edda and the old man snake, unable to get past their panic to help her.
Except for Kitty—pretty Kitty, gritty Kitty—who leaped across the hearth wielding the tomahawk used for last-minute splitting of over-chunky kindling. Wading through the lashing snake’s blows, she severed head from spine in two hacks.
“You can take your weight off the chair now, Eds,” Kitty said to her sister as she dropped the hatchet. “What a monster! You’ll be black and blue from bruises.”
“You’re mad!” sobbed Grace, running tears of shock.
“Fools!” said Tufts fiercely to Edda and Kitty both. The white-faced Reverend Thomas Latimer was too occupied in dealing with his second wife, in rigid hysterics, to do what he longed to do—comfort his wonderfully brave daughters.
The screams and cries were dying down now, and the terror had diminished sufficiently for some of the more intrepid women to cluster around the snake and inspect its mortality for themselves—an enormous thing! And for all that Mrs. Enid Treadby and Mrs. Henrietta Burdum assisted the Rector in soothing Maude, no one except the four twins remembered the original purpose of this ruined gathering. What mattered was that that strange creature Edda Latimer had killed a lethally venomous old man snake, and it was time to run home, there to perpetuate Corunda’s main feminine activity—Gossip and her attendants, Rumour and Speculation.
The four girls moved to an abandoned trolley of goodies, poured tea into frail cups and plundered the cucumber sandwiches.
“Aren’t women fools?” Tufts asked, waving the teapot. “You would swear the sky was going to fall in! Typical you, though, Edda. What did you plan to do if the chair leg didn’t succeed?”
“Then, Tufts, I would have appealed to you for an idea.”
“Huh! You didn’t need to appeal to me because our other brilliant thinker and schemer, Kitty, came to your rescue.” Tufts looked around. “Stone the crows, they’re all going home! Tuck in, girls, we can eat the lot.”
“Mama will take two days to recover from this,” Grace said cheerfully, holding out her cup for more tea. “Rather beats the shock of losing her four unpaid Rectory housemaids.”
Kitty blew a rude noise. “Rubbish, Grace! The shock of losing her unpaid housemaids looms far larger in Mama’s mind than the death of a snake, no matter how big or poisonous.”
“What’s more,” said Tufts, “the first thing Mama will do when she has recovered is serve Edda a sermon on how to kill snakes with decorum and discretion. You created a rumpus.”
“Dear me, yes, so I did,” Edda said placidly, smearing rich red jam and a pile of whipped cream on top of a scone. “Yum! If I hadn’t made a rumpus, the four of us would never have managed to get a scone. All Mama’s cronies would have gobbled them.” She laughed. “Next Monday, girls! Next Monday we start lives of our own. No more Mama. And you know I don’t mean that against you and Tufts, Kitty.”
“I know it well,” said Kitty gruffly.
It wasn’t that Maude Latimer was consciously awful; according to her own lights she was a saint among stepmothers as well as mothers. Grace and Edda had the same father as her own Tufts and Kitty, and there was no discrimination anywhere on the remotest horizon, Maude was quick to tell even the least interested observer of Rectory life. How could four such gorgeous children be irksome to one who adored being a mother? And it might have worked out in reality as it had within Maude’s mind, were it not for a physical accident of destiny. Namely that the junior of Maude’s twins, Kitty, had a degree of beauty beyond her lovely sisters, whom she surpassed as the sun dims the brilliance of the moon.
From Kitty’s infancy all the way to today’s leaving home party, Maude dinned Kitty’s perfections in every ear that came into hearing distance. People’s private opinions were identical to Maude’s public ones, but oh, how tired everybody got when Maude hove into view, Kitty’s hand firmly in hers, and the three other twins walking a pace behind. The consensus of Corunda opinion was that all Maude was really doing was making three implacable enemies for Kitty out of her sisters—how Edda, Grace, and Tufts must hate Kitty! People also concluded that Kitty must be unpleasant, spoiled, and insufferably conceited.
But it didn’t happen that way, though the why was a mystery to everyone save the Rector. He interpreted the love between his girls as solid, tangible evidence of how much God loved them. Of course Maude usurped the praise her husband gave to God as more fairly due to her, and her alone.
The Latimer girls pitied Maude quite as much as they disliked her, and loved her only in the way that bonds females of the same family, whether there be a blood tie or not. And what had united the four girls in their unshakable alliance against Maude was not the plight of the three on the outer perimeter of Maude’s affections, but the plight of Kitty, upon whom all Maude’s affections were concentrated.
Kitty should have been a brash and demanding child; instead she was shy, quiet, retiring. Twenty months older, Edda and Grace noticed well before Tufts did, but once all three saw, they became very concerned about what they recognized as their mother’s effect on Kitty. Just how the conspiracy among them to shield Kitty from Maude gradually began was lost in the fog of infancy, save that as time went on, the conspiracy became stronger.
It was always dominant Edda who took the brunt of the major upheavals, a pattern set when the twelve-year-old Edda caught Kitty attacking her face with a cheese grater, took it from ten-year-old Kitty, and hied her to see Daddy, who was the sweetest and kindest man in the world. And he had dealt with the crisis wonderfully, approaching the problem in the only way he knew, by persuading the little girl that in trying to maim herself, she was insulting God, Who had made her beautiful for some mysterious reason of His own, a reason that one day she would understand.
This held Kitty until the beginning of her last year of school, at the Corunda Ladies’ College, a Church of England institution. By postponing the start of his elder twins’ education and advancing that of his younger, all four girls went through primary and secondary school in the same class, and matriculated together. The headmistress, a dour Scot, welcomed the eleven girls who stayed at school into their final year with a speech designed to depress their expectations from life rather than encourage them.
“Your parents have permitted you to enjoy the fruits of two to four extra years of education by keeping you at C.L.C. until you matriculate,” said she in the rounded tones of one educated at Oxford, “which you will do at the end of this Year of Our Lord 1924. By the time that you matriculate, your education will be superb—as far as education for women goes. You will have university-entrance grounding in English, mathematics, ancient and modern history, geography, basic science, Latin, and Greek.” She paused significantly, then reached her conclusion. “However, the most desirable career available to you will be a suitable marriage. If you choose to remain single and must support yourself, there are two careers open to you: teaching in primary school and some few secondary schools, or secretarial work.”
To which speech Maude Latimer added a postscript over lunch at the Rectory on the next Sunday.
“What drivel!” said Maude with a snort. “Oh, not the suitable marriage! Naturally, girls, you will all achieve that. But no daughter of the Rector of St. Mark’s needs to soil her hands by working for a living. You will live at home and help me keep house until you marry.”
In September 1925, when Edda and Grace were nineteen and Tufts and Kitty eighteen, Kitty went to the Rectory stables and found a length of rope. Having fashioned a loop in one end and flung the rope over a beam, Kitty put her head through the loop and climbed onto an empty oil drum. When Edda found her, she had already kicked the drum over and hung, pathetically quiescent, to rid herself of life. Never able to understand afterward where she found the strength, Edda got Kitty free of the choking rope before any real harm was done.
This time she didn’t take Kitty to the Rector at once. “Oh, dearest baby sister, you can’t, you can’t!” she cried, cheek on the silky mop of hair. “Nothing can be this bad!”
But when Kitty was able to croak answers, Edda knew it was even worse.
“I loathe being beautiful, Edda, I abominate it! If only Mama would shut up, give me some peace! But she doesn’t. To anyone who’ll listen, I’m Helen of Troy. And she—she won’t let me dress down, or not make up my face—Edda, if she could, I swear she’d marry me to the Prince of Wales!”
Edda tried being lighthearted. “Even Mama must have realized you’re not His Royal Highness’s type, Kits. He likes them married, and much older than you are.”
It did get a watery chuckle, but Edda had to talk for far longer and with every ounce of persuasion she owned before Kitty consented to take her problems to her father.
“Kitty, you’re not alone,” Edda argued. “Look at me! I’d sell my soul to the Devil—and I mean that!—for the chance to be a doctor. It’s all I’ve ever wanted, a degree in medicine. But I can’t have it. For one thing, there isn’t the money, and there never will be the money. For another, Daddy doesn’t in his heart of hearts approve—oh, not because he’s against women in the professions, but because of the terrible time everyone gives women in medicine. He doesn’t think it would make me happy. I know he’s wrong, but he refuses to be convinced.”
She took Kitty’s arm and squashed it between strong, slender fingers. “What makes you think you’re the only unhappy one, eh, tell me that? Don’t you think I haven’t considered hanging myself? Well, I have! Not once, but time and time again.”
So by the time that Edda broke the news to Thomas Latimer that Kitty had tried to hang herself, Kitty was malleable clay.
“Oh, my dear, my dear!” he whispered, tears running down his long, handsome face. “For the crime of self-murder, God has a special Hell—no pit of fire, no company in the suffering. Those who commit self-murder wander the vastnesses of eternity forever alone. They never see another face, hear another voice, taste agony or ecstasy! Swear to me, Katherine, that you will never again try to harm yourself in any way!”
She had sworn, and adhered to her oath, though all three of her sisters kept a special eye on Kitty.
And the attempted suicide turned out to have happened at exactly the proper time, thanks to the fact that the Rector of St. Mark’s was a member of the Corunda Base Hospital Board. The week after Kitty’s crisis, the Hospital Board met, and among its business was a mention of the fact that in 1926 the New South Wales Department of Health was introducing a new kind of nurse: a properly trained, educated, registered nurse. This, saw the Rector at once, was a career fit for a girl brought up as a lady. What imbued the Rector with greatest enthusiasm was that the new, properly trained nurses would be required to live in the hospital grounds so that they were on a moment’s call if needed. The pay after deducting board, uniforms, and books was a pittance, but his girls each had a modest dowry of £500, and the pittance meant they wouldn’t need to touch it; Maude was already complaining that four extra mouths at the Rectory were too many to do the housework. Therefore, said the Rector to himself as he sped home in his Model T Ford, why not dangle a nursing career under the noses of his girls? Fit for a lady, living at the hospital, paid a pittance—and (though he was too loyal to voice it, even in his mind) freedom from Maude the Destroyer.
He tackled Edda first, and of course she was madly, wildly enthusiastic; so even Grace, the most reluctant, was relatively easy to enlist. If the thought of being free of Maude worked more powerfully with Grace and Kitty than the prospect of the work itself, did that really matter?
Far harder for the Rector was the single-handed battle he fought on the Hospital Board to persuade his twelve fellow members that Corunda Base should be among the pioneer New Nurse hospitals. Somewhere inside Thomas Latimer’s gracefully gangling gazelle of a body there lurked, so forgotten it was positively moth-eaten, a lion. And for the first time in Corunda’s memory, the lion roared. Teeth bared, claws unsheathed, the lion was a manifestation of the Reverend Latimer that people like Frank Campbell, the Corunda Base Hospital Superintendent, didn’t know how to deal with. So that, highly delighted at what leonine aggression could do, the Reverend Latimer found himself victor on the field.
Sated if not quite glutted, the four Latimer twins looked at each other in quiet triumph. The drawing room was deserted and what tea was left in the pots was stewed, but in each young breast there beat a happy heart.
“Next Monday, no more Maude,” said Kitty.
“Kitty! You can’t call her that, she’s your genuine mother,” said Grace, scandalized.
“I can so too if I want.”
“Shut up, Grace, she’s only celebrating her emancipation,” Edda said, grinning.
Tufts, who was the practical one, stared at the corpse of the snake. “The party’s over,” she said getting up. “Cleanup time, girls.”
Eyes encountering the snake, now surrounded by blood, Grace shuddered. “I don’t mind getting the tea leaves out of the pots, but I am not cleaning that up!”
“Since all you did when the snake arrived was screech and snivel, Grace, you most certainly are cleaning it up,” said Edda.
Tufts chuckled. “Think that’s a mess, Grace? Wait until you’re on the hospital wards!”
Generous mouth turned down ungenerously, Grace folded her arms and glared at her sisters. “I’ll start when I have to, not a minute before,” she said. “Kitty, you created all that blood by chopping off its head, so you do it.” Her mood changed, she giggled. “Oh, girls, fancy! Our days as unpaid housemaids are over! Corunda Base Hospital, here we come!”
“Messes and all,” said Edda.
Because they are two sets of twins, the four Latimer sisters are as close as can be. Yet these vivacious young women each have their own dreams for themselves: Edda wants to be a doctor, Tufts wants to organize everything, Grace won’t be told what to do, and Kitty wishes to be known for something other than her beauty. They are famous throughout New South Wales for their beauty, wit, and ambition, but as they step into womanhood, they are not enthusiastic about the limited prospects life holds for them.
Together they decide to enroll in a training program for nurses—a new option for women of their time, who have previously been largely limited to the role of wives, and preferably mothers. As the Latimer sisters become immersed in hospital life and the demands of their training, they meet people and encounter challenges that spark new maturity and independence. They meet men from all walks of life—local farmers, their professional colleagues, and even men with national roles and reputations—and each sister must make weighty decisions about what she values most. The results are sometimes happy, sometimes heartbreaking, but always . . . bittersweet.
Rendered with McCullough’s trademark historical accuracy, this dramatic coming of age tale is wise in the ways of the human heart, one that will transport readers to a time in history that feels at once exotic and yet not so very distant from our own.