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Sarah Marsh | Exclusive Excerpt A SIGN OF HER OWN

A Sign of Her Own
Sarah Marsh




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February 2024
On Sale: February 6, 2024
384 pages
ISBN: 0778310787
EAN: 9780778310785
Kindle: B0C46L4MBX
Hardcover / e-Book
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Also by Sarah Marsh:
A Sign of Her Own, February 2024
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Today’s mistake is a jar of peaches. It sits on the parlor table, the halves inside plump with sunshine. Mr. Bell, who has un­expectedly come to visit, doesn’t seem to notice the jar at first. He stands by the hearth, too agitated by his enthusiasm to be seated. My fiancé, Harmon Bardsley, stands only to match him, but can’t keep his words apace. I leave my careful watch of their lips and look at the jar because of the word I’ve seen. Surely I’m mistaken. The men aren’t even looking at the jar, so why would they be discussing the peaches?

Peach. Its shape floats on Mr. Bell’s mouth. The pinch of the

p, followed by a rounded push of the lips, sending the last syllable hard across the tongue. My hand nearly reaches for my pocket, as if the feather from our lessons might still be found there. It’s been a long time since I thought of the feather. I would bal­ance it on my knuckles and make it quiver with the puff of my ps. Puh-puh-puh. I stop myself just in time, folding my hands against my skirts. Why has Mr. Bell come?

For now, Harmon leaves me to my guesses. Mr. Bell is arrived in England, and I suppose it is natural to look up old acquain­tances. Never mind my surprise that he should still call me one. He’s simply here to congratulate us on our engagement. Aren’t those his words I see? He stands in the middle of the room with more statesmanship than the last time I saw him, saying Mar­velous news and Marriage is the happiest situation. Adding to his height is a new girth—new, I suppose, since his own mar­riage—and I think for a moment of Mabel. Does she feed him floating islands every night? Beef slathered in gravy? But it’s not only his girth that shrinks the parlor. His voice, although it’s beyond my reach, gives invisible inches to his shoulders. Mean­while Harmon, with his thinness of wrist and waist that mar­riage hasn’t yet had the chance to fatten, has lost his usual flow of words. Yes, yes, he says. No, no.

I try to keep my eyes steady on Mr. Bell. Distractions won’t help me now, although upstairs there’s a letter speaking against him that I know I should have burned. Harmon has no idea about the letter, of course, and surely Mr. Bell doesn’t either. But his next look sends a quiver of alarm right through me. Surely not? I think, as he lowers his chin and his face becomes still with intent.

Peach, he says. He would like some peaches. Nay, he needs some Peaches. Mr. Bell, all the way from America, his name in all the papers, and here he is, asking for my mother’s peaches.

Is it some English custom that I’m yet to learn of? It’s true that my mother’s preserved peaches were the best, coming straight from our orchards in Pawtucket. I gaze at Mr. Bell, feeling once again the lock of our eyes, as firm as hooked arms. I want to look away, but I can’t stop looking at him if I’m to understand his speech. Mr. Bell says a few more words and amongst them I catch Boston. Like it was in Boston, he says.

I’m out of time. It is Mabel, I decide. Mabel Bell has been reminiscing on her home country and the jar of peaches on our table—even if he seemed not to notice it—has prompted Mr. Bell to recall her homesickness.

Of course, I’ll offer Mabel Bell this friendly token of comfort. Without any further hesitation, I reach for the jar as I gather letters in my head—h for horse, hammer, hound—and feel for the starting fr on my lips.

From home, I say, trying to give the h its punch of air. Tak­ing a breath, I add, I hope Mrs. Bell likes them.

Mr. Bell looks surprised. Thank you, he says, accepting the jar. He gazes at the peaches and says, Ah yes.

Taking out a small notebook, he writes: “Speeches. We are talking of speeches! A speech.”

Warmth creeps up my neck and I lower my eyes, but Mr. Bell holds up his hand, as if he can command the halt of my blush.

He says, An error. It is understandable. What I said—

And I watch him say Speeches as his eyebrows lift with a ques­tion. It’s my voice he wants, same as in Boston. I try to focus on his question but all I can think is that of course Mabel Bell doesn’t want the peaches. She isn’t homesick, she doesn’t think back to those days. Yes, I say, when I realize both Harmon and Mr. Bell are waiting for my answer. Yes.

Yolk, Yum, Yield. I drop my chin as best I can. At least the hiss at the end is easier than a hiss at the start. Cakes beat the lonely Scone.

Yes, I say, although other words are stirring in me. I know they’ll bring no good. Yes, I say for a third time, hoping its clean strike will banish them.

Excellent, he says and reaches for his hat. His visit is con­cluded, but my relief is dimmed. Will he relate this anecdote to Mabel? She’d never have made such a mistake herself. I think to stall him, reaching for my notebook so I can inquire after Ma­bel’s health. Does she keep well with the child?

Before I have a chance, Harmon starts up a lively stream of words. They wash toward me with only a few outcrops of sense. The Telephone. Is he talking of the Telephone? Harmon would hardly pass up the chance of this topic. After all, he keeps every newspaper article about the Telephone Fever that has swept the country and has cataloged the Telephone’s appearances at soci­eties and conservatoires and even down a coal mine. He makes one last clutch at Mr. Bell’s attention.

To our surprise, Mr. Bell’s face darkens and Harmon stops his spiel. He glances at me with an anguished smile, as if my lack of comprehension might offer him a rescue line. Oh my dear, he’ll say, I forgot! Then he’ll start repeating himself or fetch a notebook. But both of us are frozen by Mr. Bell’s next word.

Liar, he says. Liar! He swivels round so I have no hope of catching the rest of his words, but my blood has run cold. Did I really think he would visit without making any accusations? Perhaps he knows about the letters after all, or else suspects me. My thoughts start hopping around for defenses to plead, but Harmon is patting the air with his hands and shaking his head. Papers, he’s saying. Believe. Nobody believes everything they read. Nobody!

The Times, I think. There were articles in the papers. They are the cause of Mr. Bell’s distress, not I. He’s the one who stands accused of lying.

Mr. Bell’s celebratory mood is gone. No, he says, and Nothing and Never. The leaden push of n against the soft palate. Nuh. He will have nothing more to do with it. Nothing More and Never Again. Nuh-nuh-nuh.

Harmon’s stance is growing more confident as he starts to talk. This, he knows, is his moment. This is how he can step forward to the great inventor. I watch his lips and imagine what he might be telling Mr. Bell. Hasn’t he said it to me before? He thinks it’s outrageous, he’ll being saying. A clear infringe­ment of Mr. Bell’s patent rights. I fancy he even mentions the Western Union. And as for the Western Union! he might say. He can hardly imagine the stress the lawsuit must have put the Bells under, particularly with Mrs. Bell in her present condition.

But he is talking about the speeches again. Certainly we can help. At this time of need.

Mr. Bell’s face is slackened with his attention. I feel a snag of surprise. I’ve seen that liquid gaze before, when my voice was his goal and not the Telephone. He attended to my words with a contained assessment of their imperfections. Is he bending Harmon to his will as he once did with me? Now he attends to Harmon’s words, and the reassurances that bloom within them. He gives his slow nod, the one that makes you feel that you have given him the gift of satisfaction. Yes, you are right, he says. Thank you, yes.

A sudden laugh rounds his cheeks and jumps inside his shoul­ders. He fetches his hat and extends his hand to Harmon in farewell. It was good to see us. Is this what he says? He heart­ily congratulates us on our approaching betrothal. We must call on Mrs. Bell, of course, we must. I watch his lips for all of these sentiments. And he won’t recount this error, or any of my past ones for that matter. He won’t call me a liar. Those days are long forgotten.

Goodbye, I manage, although my jaw feels made of wood.


After his departure, I turn to Harmon and put my questions onto my fingers. What have I agreed to? Although deep down I already know. To offer up my voice, like old times. Harmon fetches our notebook which is our usual method for communicating complex matters. While I wait, I begin to feel the lapping waves of fear. Haven’t we just started to settle into this new life? Harmon puts the notebook between us, but goes to pour himself a rum-and-water, deliberating. What can he have to ponder? He knows nothing of what happened in Boston. Still, I must wait for him and his reassurances, same as he offered Mr. Bell. I watch the lip of the rum bottle clink against his tumbler. Glass on glass. Clinking is a word my mother taught me. Clink-clink, she said, knocking her glass against mine. To your future.

Impatience rattles through me. I take the notebook from the table and search for some space, flicking through the pages that suggest the happy times to which my mother had raised her glass. Our sentences laced together in uneven lines, some of them smudged with hasty fingerprints or stained with the ices that we ate in Regent’s Park. Harmon calls them our conversation books, and it’s true you might see ease in our carefree scrawls, just like the chatter of a couple walking arm-in-arm. Harmon has learned to buy notebooks that fit the size of his pockets, although there are many times when he prefers the finger alphabet for expediency. He knows that his thin-lipped mouth does little more than flicker, and only his most shapely words are decipherable. It is unfortunate, he once said, when your eyes are sharp for what your ears are not. I told him his lips were to blame as much as my ears, and he laughed.

I present Harmon with a clean page and wait while he pens the explanation neither man offered earlier. Mr. Bell, he writes, is often visiting schools for the deaf-and-dumb. Their teachers are interested to learn more of his methods. And just recently, he had a request for a paper from the Royal Anthropological Society. How better to explain it than with a demonstration from a former pupil? What an honor, Harmon writes, when he is so in demand and has been invited everywhere to demonstrate his new Telephone. Am I aware of the kind of company that Mr. Bell keeps? Just think, he writes, you will speak before a society of Anthropologists. What will come next? The scientists, or even the nobility, of his new acquaintance?

“We must help him,” Harmon writes. “His old work is surely a relief. His detractors are everywhere. His mind is turning to the deaf-and-dumb children again. He must have so little time. We can help Mr. Bell promote Visible Speech. He said you could speak about the Telephone. After all, you were there from the beginning.”

No, I want to tell him. I cannot speak for Mr. Bell like I once did. Why has he asked me? Is it my forgiveness that he wants? Or does he think there is nothing to forgive? My speech would be a confirmation of the fact. I remember the way he looked at me, saying Peaches, peaches, as he scooped me into his gaze. Once Mr. Bell told me things he didn’t dare tell anyone else, not even Mabel, and I won’t tell them to Harmon now, not from loyalty to Mr. Bell, but because of other loyalties, about which Harmon knows nothing.

Besides, there’s the business of the letters. The first one arrived two weeks ago. I knew the sender, Mr. Crane, from America. He’d written: “There is a matter concerning the inventor Mr. Bell with whom I believe you are acquainted. The rightful ownership of the Telephone patents has come under scrutiny and I write to request the assistance of your talented eyes.”

My talented eyes gazed at the letter and knew to burn it. Wouldn’t I lose everything if I agreed and Harmon found out? Ever since my mother’s death I have depended on my stepfather’s goodwill and his promise to my mother to vouch for my safekeeping, a burden that will transfer to Harmon, as his nephew, in three months. Mr. Crane’s letter went into the fire, and I hoped that was the end of it.

Harmon is looking at me. Is everything all right? he asks.

I think of all the Yeses I’ve said today and wonder if my hisses were clean enough.

Yes, I say, and take up the pen. “The only problem,” I write, “is that I didn’t know about the Telephone when I studied with Mr. Bell. I read about it in the papers like everyone else.”

I’m surprised at how my lie thrills me. If Mr. Bell can dismiss the past, why shouldn’t I remake it as I please? But Harmon’s face is fogged with noncomprehension when he looks up from my words. “No,” he writes. “He must have told you something.”

He hands me the notebook and his gaze slides into me, but he’s only seeking an answer.

“It was a long time ago,” I write back.

Harmon studies me. He can’t understand my hesitation as his ideas thunder toward this newly glimpsed prize of Mr. Bell’s favor. His head dips down to the book, the pen. “It was three years ago.”

I disregard the notebook and the formal penning of Harmon’s suggestion. Instead I fix my eyes on him and keep his on me as I spell on my fingers, Mr. Bell might not be happy with my speech. I can’t help hoping that Harmon will agree, and I will be freed from the task on this score. My voice has not stayed the same, I add, without his instruction.

He looks baffled. We will use Visible Speech symbols, he spells back. Your voice will be perfect.

He makes the gesture for “perfect,” his index and thumb pinched into circles. The gesture is the same as the sign used in the language of signs, but I’d never tell him this. Harmon permits the sole use of finger-spelling as the proper method for communicating, since it is basically English on the fingers. The true sign language, however, he disregards as being primitive. He himself has a knack for rapid finger-spelling that springs with precision. I watch his streaming words while thinking of my mother’s clink-clink. Wasn’t she usually right about everything?

I switch back to the notebooks. “He did tell me about a device,” I write, “to help deaf children. It was called a Phonoautograph. I think it gave him the idea for the Telephone.”

My heart stalls when Harmon reads the words. But is there so very much in them? I don’t know any more. And yet Mr. Bell has come back. Harmon treats the suggestion with irritable disappointment. But it’ll have to do. All right, he says. His lips push forward. Is he saying Good? His mouth doesn’t retract after one Good. There must be at least two. Good-good.

Good, I concur, trying to picture Mr. Bell’s symbols for the word as I puff a g from the back of my throat. Summer-time is when we will be wed, but already I fear that Mr. Bell’s visit has changed everything.


Excerpted from A Sign of Her Own @ 2024 by Sarah Marsh, used with permission by Park Row Books.

A SIGN OF HER OWN by Sarah Marsh

A Sign of Her Own

A mesmerizing tale of historical fiction that follows a deaf former student of Alexander Graham Bell as she learns to reclaim her own authentic voice.

Ellen Lark is on the verge of marriage when she and her fiancé receive an unexpected visit from Alexander Graham Bell. Ellen is deaf and for a time she was Bell's student learning visible speech. During their lessons, Bell also confided in her about his dream of producing a device that would transmit the human voice along a wire: the telephone.

Now, on the cusp of wealth and renown, Bell wants Ellen to speak up in support of his claim to the patent of the telephone, which is being challenged by rival inventors. But Ellen has a different story to tell: that of how Bell betrayed her and other deaf pupils in pursuit of his own ambition. Ellen knows that this is her one opportunity to tell the true story—her story—but to do so will risk her engagement, her future prospects and her mother’s last wish for her.

Inspired by Alexander Graham Bell's real deaf students, this stunning historical debut casts new light on the inventor and the invention that would forever change how we communicate.


Historical | Women's Fiction Historical [Park Row, On Sale: February 6, 2024, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780778310785 / eISBN: 9780369747594]

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About Sarah Marsh

Sarah Marsh

Sarah Marsh was short-listed for the Lucy Cavendish Prize in 2019 and selected for the London Library Emerging Writers Programme in 2020.A Sign of Her Own is her first novel, inspired by her experiences of growing up deaf and her family's history of deafness. She lives in London.





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