Aunt Elizabeth answered at least one of my questions the next morning at breakfast.
With great ceremony she asked me if I had slept well. The truth was I had slept miserably, turning to and fro in the unfamiliar bed. I had found myself longing for the considerably smaller but familiar bed of home. My lack lustre response of “Fine,” seemed to suffice for her though, for she proceeded to eat her boiled egg with the overall air of a woman well contented. I watched fascinated as she cut the egg into minute sized pieces and eat it with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal eating the fatted calf.
“Aunt Elizabeth,” I spoke with tentativeness. She had the sort of early morning countenance that suggested an out of place comment or unexpected noise would not bode well.
“Who does Cherry belong to?”
Aunt Elizabeth took a deliberate sip of her tea. She pushed aside her dish and folded her hands on the table in front of her.
“She belongs to me.”
I had gathered that much. I tried rephrasing my question.
“Why is she here?”
“She is my granddaughter.”
Aunt Elizabeth was a grandmother? Gone were the images of a gentle fuzzy woman in a low rocker knitting mittens in the presence of this formidable woman and her black grandeur.
“Oh,” I said rather weakly in response to this startling revelation.
“Do you have any other inappropriately curious questions?”
“No,” was my reply. I had, in fact, intended to ask her who Eddie was.
“Good. We can finish our breakfast in peace and then commence with the rest of the day,” she said, as though my questions were preventing the clock from moving forward.
“Lessons for Cherry do not need to begin for two weeks,” she informed me, in disobedience to her preference of a silent meal. “Cherry is an energetic and playful child, prone to act wildly and recklessly. Pauline has been her nursemaid and is responsible for her care in all hygienic and personal needs. You will be caretaker of her moral, scholastic, and religious training.”
She slid her chair back and stood as though to leave, but continued speaking.
“I expect Cherry’s lesson’s to be taught and carried out to the utmost standards of the current curriculum which you will find in the room that is to be used strictly for school use only. In there you will find everything you need. I expect you will not need to ask me for anything,” in a tone that suggested I had better not, “In the mean time, you will use the next while to acquaint yourself with her and establish a mutual respect between you.”
I took her brisk instructions calmly, as one who is being led down the plank resigns herself to her fate. The care of a child, especially the caretaking of her “moral, scholastic, and religious training”, was far beyond my realm of qualifications. Those areas in my own character were hardly matured. And yet I was to be expected to fulfill them in a child, I was sure, to the hilt.
“Will that suit you?” she prodded.
“Certainly,” I assured her, falsely. I had always considered myself a girl of spunk. But for some reason Aunt Elizabeth’s merest suggestion reduced me to a frightened accomplice, capable of nothing more than complete surrender to her every whim.
“Good,” Aunt Elizabeth smiled her smile, which had the uncanny ability to not resemble a smile at all. “You can begin after breakfast.”
Later that morning, Cherry and I took a romp outside – that is Cherry romped and I wandered- in an endeavour to carry out Aunt Elizabeth’s wishes for a time of acquaintanceship. I found daylight and sunshine to be much kinder to Edenhedge then the grey, gloomy dusk had been, and I was immediately captivated by the grandeur of the grounds. It was clearly evident how it had gotten its name. Gardens, such as I had never seen before, spilled forth in glorious blooms of springtime color, and were surrounded all about by four foot high impeccably neat hedges. Iron wrought benches were set about at random, lending one an invitation to sit and rest for a while. After a lengthy time of wandering around, I would have been inclined to accept but Cherry was an active little firecracker, shooting from one place to the next with an energy that wearied me in watching her. Especially when I discovered her grinning face looking up at me from a torn to destruction flower bed.
“Training indeed,” I fumed inwardly as I marched her inside, covered head to toe in garden soil. “Cherry, for goodness sake, keep your hands off my dress! And stop touching every article of furniture we pass. Look at those grimy fingerprints on the settee!”
I spent the remainder of the day trying to contain her in the nursery. I truly believed I had never spent a more aggravating afternoon in my entire life. Aunt Elizabeth’s warning of wildness and recklessness proved to be true and then some. I was reminded of all the reasons that I didn’t like children. Petulant, unpredictable, bundles of energy that they were. It would seem as though my first encounter with her, when she had listened to my instructions, was something of beginners luck. Now I was her puppet and she knew just what strings to pull.
By the time we were summoned for supper, my last nerve was as taunt as a fiddle string and I felt limp and stupid.
“How was your day,” asked Aunt Elizabeth calmly and unaffectedly when I had slumped into my chair.
“It was terrible,” I began, to which she responded, with a voice equally as calm and unaffected as though she had not heard my answer to her query.
“Good. The same schedule will resume on Monday then.”
I let my frustration out by forking my peas with vehemence.
Was this unexpected gruelling, child rearing nonsense worth the possibility of finding my ideal mate?
I would find out the next day.
When Aunt Elizabeth announced after dinner that we would be attending church the following morning, I immediately conjured up in my mind images of a gothic-like structure, stained glass windows, and stuffy personages, as per what I had come to expect of her particular tastes.
I really should have learned by then, that Aunt Elizabeth was not a woman to be predicted or conformed by expectation. Accordingly, I should not have been surprised to discover the next morning that her church was nothing of the kind – but rather was a quiet country parish, graced by simple furnishings and with a rather mis-fitted congregation filling the rugged pews. In true Elizabethan form, though, she swept into the church with the air of one reigning supreme. I thought I may have seen one woman even curtsey.
We went to the front pew and sat down. Service commenced at our sitting, and as I was wont to do, I immediately tuned the speaker out. If I was restless during the week days, Sunday found me so much more so. God was, and I think I really believed it, infinite, eternal and all-wise. That He was loving, great in mercy and plenteous in grace, I found harder to believe. Or perhaps I chose not to believe it, finding my selfish motives and pettish attitudes far easier to feed when I believed I was not being ‘watched’. Granted, I had the occasional white night, where the reality of my own brevity would stare me in the face, making my heart quake in Godly fear. But nothing strong or lasting, nothing convicting enough to cause me to move. I had done all that was required of me concerning Christianity, I felt. I had accepted Christ as a child, been baptised in my youth, and continued in faithful attendance to church. But deep down, inside the corner chambers of my conscience, behind my facade of carefree living and shallow interest, I knew that I was not right with God.
My eyes followed my wandering thoughts. I looked curiously about at the other female members and was pleased to be assured that I was the best looking one. My vanity was also strengthened in that I noticed a gentleman in the back of the church eyeing me with interest. I coyly played dumb, feigning a deep interest in the babblings of the minister.
I looked sideways at Aunt Elizabeth. Her eyes were closed. Was she sleeping? I let out a false, delicate sneeze and her crystal blue eyes flew open in round attention.
“Shhh!” she hissed in my ear, in a tone that reached a pitch much louder than my little sneeze had.
She stayed alert the rest of service, and I started straight ahead, not daring to risk another violent shushing. In due time, the service concluded. I was all too glad to exit the stuffy building and rejoin the fresh air outside.
“How goes the hunt?” I heard a voice behind me say.
I turned. It was Eddie. Surprised to see him, I involuntarily raised a hand to pat my curls beneath my hat, remembering the state they had been on our first meeting.
“The hunt for what?” I said, knowing full well what he meant.
“A husband,” he countered. “I am curious to know if you’ve found anyone suitable amongst our congregation.”
“I don’t know that there is anyone here who could hold my interest,” I said quickly and falsely. Truthfully, I was feeling quite confident and coquettish.
“What about him?” He inquired, tipping his head towards someone behind me.
I turned to see who he was pointing to only to discover it to be the same gentlemen who had made me the subject of his perusal during the church service.
“Who is he?” I asked, evading the original question.
“That is Thomas Hawkins. A finer match you couldn’t find.” There was laughter behind his voice, but his face was quiet serious.
“He is rather handsome isn’t he,” I stated, forgetful of the recipient of my commentary.
“Quite,” he answered, not at all perturbed. “And every inch a gentlemen. Rich, too. “
“Shall I wait for him to approach or ask for an introduction? Educate me in the preference of your sex.”
“It appears as though you’ll not have to wait,” He said. For indeed, the said Mr. Hawkins was making his way across the church yard in my direction. Eddie turned away from me and assumed what I could only perceive as being a false interest in another conversation. I could tell he was still listening.
“Good morning. I don’t believe we’ve met,” Mr. Hawkins approached me with all the grace and charm I would expect in a gentleman.
He was handsomer upon closer inspection. Usually in my experience, I had found the reverse to be true. But in the happy case of Mr. Thomas Hawkins, nearness was an asset. So flustered was I by his appearance, his demeanour and overall magnetism, that I found myself uncharacteristically discomfited. Mr. Hawkins, bless his heart, overlooked it and carried on our conversation with a calm dignity.
“Mrs. Tinsely has spoken of you often. What is that nature of your stay at Edenhedge?”
I heard Eddie cough behind me. Ignoring him, I explained my duties as a governess to Cherry. He was easy to talk to, companionable and witty. I felt myself drawn to him immediately.
“I would like to talk to you more,” I said truthfully (and not at all desperately), when he appeared to be taking his leave.
“That should be quite possible,” he said with a smile. “I have secured an invitation to Edenhedge next Sunday for dinner.”
So Aunt Elizabeth had her eye on Thomas Hawkins for me too. I grinned to myself as he walked away.
“That went well,” said Eddie reclaiming his spot beside me. After Mr. Hawkins, Eddie looked particularly shoddy. I turned my nose up at him.
“Yes, quite,” I swept away from him. He could poke fun at me all he wanted. I was well on my way to matrimony I was sure.
Quite sure that is until our dinner together.
“Everything was going so well,” I moaned. “Why did he have to laugh?”
I was sitting by the fireplace in the library. Eddie was there, as he had been the first night I had arrived at Edenhedge. Still, I did not know why he occupied Aunt Elizabeth’s library a few evenings of the week. And after my several attempts to pry about the matter were met by dead end answers, my curiosity waned. I only knew that I found reasons to slip down and see if he was there, and if he was, found reasons to stay. As I said before I was a lonely creature. I rather thought of Eddie as a brother, a pleasant companion to whittle away time with. I think I viewed him as a pal, almost as one would see a friendly, shaggy dog. There was no one else to talk with in this rambling, empty house. Eddie interested me. Vain, shallow, friend-hungry creature that I was, he talked to me as an equal. He told me so many clever things and I liked to listen to him talk. It was never about himself...never about Cherry, or Aunt Elizabeth. I couldn’t understand it. Nor did I understand the cordial but brief greeting I had witnessed between him and Aunt Elizabeth in the hallway on one occasion. The whole house and everyone in it seemed fraught with mystery. Yea, even I had fallen prey to the obscurity, for at the moment, my feelings seemed shrouded in a veil of confusion, hidden even to myself.
Thomas Hawkins had come for supper as promised. I had taken special pains with my toilet and must say that I had never looked better, and everything about the evening had seemed to be moving along just excellently. Even Aunt Elizabeth had been in a rare form, being unusually jovial presumably from her Sunday afternoon nap. The conversation between Thomas and I had been vivid and easy and I believe I had been quite on the verge of falling in love.
And then, reader, he laughed.
“Tell me again, how did he laugh?”Eddie asked.
I took no pleasure in the retelling, but I could see clearly that Eddie did. “Did you ever hear Cherry laugh? That was his laugh. Only I am convinced that Cherry’s has more masculine undertones. And did you ever hear in your life, Eddie, a laugh that had a beginning, middle, a huge crescendo and then a crashing, sudden end? Neither did I until tonight.”
“Other than that he had no faults?”
I slumped forward, hands under my chin, resting on my knees. “Other than that, he was absolutely perfect. Oh, how I wish he had a criminal record, or a lisp or a wart! Can I reject him based on a laugh? And yet I can, for I could not bear hearing that laugh the rest of my life. I would not dare to make a joke, lest he open his mouth. It didn’t seem to bother Aunt Elizabeth. That woman seems out to get me. I’ve never seen her witter, or more comical. She must have taken every joke and antidote she has ever heard in her life, and somehow managed to work it into the conversation. “
Eddie laughed at this. How manly, how human, how normal his laugh sounded in comparison! I had learned that it was not something to be taken for granted.
“I suppose it would depend on what the reason is you are so earnestly in pursuit of matrimony. Is it for security? If that be that case you have every reason to jump in with both feet. Thomas is the recent heir to the Hawkins fortune.”
“I want to marry for love,” I said. “Is there any other reason one would get married?”
“People get married for many reasons, Becky. I’m glad you are still innocent enough to believe that it is for love and love alone that we creatures are joined in the holy bonds of matrimony. “
“Eddie, you’re being cynical! I never took you for that kind. I thought you of all people with your ridiculous amount of book knowledge and claims to wisdom would know that love and love only should entice one to marry. You wouldn’t marry for any other reason would you?”
He didn’t answer. Firelight danced across his face causing me to notice again the lines in his face. Catching me gazing at him, he looked over at me and smiled.
“Don’t tell me that the fact that Thomas Hawkins has more money in his back pocket then I will have in my entire lifetime doesn’t do anything to encourage your deepest of affections.”
“Money may guild his laugh,” I grumbled. “But, oh, how shall I ever endure it?”
“I don’t know how to advise you, Becky,” he said, picking up his book to resume the reading I had interrupted when I burst in on him. “Just think though, of what he would have to guild to be with you.”
“With me? There is nothing wrong with me.”
“I rest my case,” he said. Reaching over he patted my head. “There, there friend. Take heart. If worse comes to worse, you can marry him and pray for nothing but sorrow and sobriety in your marriage.”
Moodily, I gazed into the fire. Thomas Hawkins was the beau I would have ordered from the catalogue. Perhaps it was only fair that I pay a fee somewhere.
He came again the following afternoon, in obedience to Aunt Elizabeth’s request the previous evening that he should come and assist her in some matters concerning her estate. Whether she was truly in need of assistance from a lawyer, or she was simply finding an excuse to bring us together again, can be left to the imagination of the reader, knowing what they do about her uncanny ability to cover her own wishes in such cunning deceit, that you found yourself engaged in the most ridiculous occupations.
I ran into him in the corridor just as he was leaving. Literally ran into him, as I was rushing on the heels of Cherry, as she made her tri-daily sprint away from my clutches.
“I’m sorry,” I said breathlessly, gazing up at his handsome face and trying to remember what it was I hadn’t liked about him.
“That’s quite alright,” he said, smilingly. “In fact, I was hoping to run into you. Not this literally, mind you.” And then – he opened his mouth and laughed, and once again I was flooded with confusion, alarm and disgust.
“I was hoping I might induce you to take a drive with me along the shore this evening.” His dark, twinkling eyes suggested that such a hope was only beginning of all he hoped for.
I swallowed down my inhibitions and accepted graciously. It was a shame he was so handsome, otherwise I think that I might have declined him then and there, and been done with this silly hesitancy as a result of his ridiculous laugh. But, oh I could not give up such a prize of a man. How happy I would be to walk around with him on my arm – handsome, rich, successful...so very handsome. I don’t think I had ever seen a face quite so...
“Miss Tinsley?” Mr. Hawkins was looking at me quizzically.
His voice cut through my musings. Such a nice voice. Who would guess that a voice so rich, so melodious could produce such a laugh?
“Would half past seven be suitable?”
“Absolutely,” I gave him a smile most beguiling.
He nodded in farewell and left, and I remained standing in the hallway, lips parted in dreamy thought.
“I hope you accepted his invitation,” Aunt Elizabeth’s crackling, unromantic voice intruded my maiden visions, as she came up behind me.
“Of course,” I said loftily.
“Good,” she said, shaking her grey crimps in my direction. “He has twice your standing, more money than you could count, and is ten times better looking than you are. Don’t you mess things up.”
With this heart-warming encouragement, she swept off, and I trotted meekly off to find Cherry. Goodness knew where she had gotten to.
When Mr. Hawkins’s came in his regal looking carriage to pick me up that evening, I had quite determined and made up my mind to put my wee bit of vanity aside that deemed his laugh unbearable and enjoy his company. With any luck, no situation would arise in during our ride that would cause him to dredge it up and blitz my hopes with its ludicrousness.
“Have you been to the shore yet?” He asked as he assisted me up into the carriage.
“Not yet,” I replied. “I’ve been so busy with Cherry and with getting settled that I’m afraid I haven’t had the time. That and I would much prefer to go with a companion, Mr. Hawkins.” I said the latter part with all the grace and charm I had carefully honed back home in my flirtations. My fluttering lashes were not lost on Mr. Hawkins’s. He clucked the horses with the air of a man who had already conquered and we set off.
“Please, call me, Thomas,” he said, to which I returned the request to call me Rebecca.
“Rebecca,” he rolled the name on his tongue like a morsel of good food. “That is a beautiful name.”
Remembering Eddie’s reaction to my name, I smiled.
It was not a long drive to the shore. I had not imagined it to be so close. It may have been due in large part to the fact that Thomas drove those poor horses as though we were in a race. There was no conversation between us – could not have been for my teeth chattered as we bumped our way along the road. I held on to my hat with the free hand that was not clutching the side of the wagon to avoid being flung off.
“Here we are,” he said, just when I was sure he had dislocated every bone in my body. We had pulled up to what seemed to be a little village of ramshackle houses with tin chimneys and clapboard siding, all crowded and clustered together. An uneven boardwalk ran straight down the middle, leading to a larger wharf at the end. This was the shore?
“This isn’t the shore yet,” Thomas seemed to read the question in my face. “Come, let me show you.” He helped me down from the carriage – good thing, for I truly had the consistency of rubber at the moment- and led me over the rough boards, down to the edge of the wharf.
I was impressed with what I saw when we arrived at the end and did not hide my pleasure from Thomas. I had only seen the ocean one other time that I could remember. Father had some business in a town on the coast when I was about four years old and had brought Mother, Adam and Addie and I along. The memory was vague but I distinctly recalled sinking my feet into the wet sludge, that gooey strip where the sea met the sand. I had an odd and immature urging to do it again.
“It’s beautiful,” I murmured. It truly was. The evening sun was hanging low and brilliant like a great golden orb. It was casting weird and wonderful shadows across the seascape, transforming ordinary water and rock into a thing of unearthly beauty.
“Miss Tinsley. Rebecca,” Suddenly Thomas’ face was looming in front of me, his face blotting out the scene before me in earthly reality. “May I be permitted to tell how fervently I admire you?”
I opened my mouth to say yes. Truly I did. But all at once I heard the sound of his laughter ringing in my ears. So lifelike, that I almost raised my hands to cover them.
“I -I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I’m sorry, Thomas. But-“
“But?” He repeated, his face riddled with confusion.
“I cannot reciprocate your feelings at this time.” What a stupid sounding wooden line! It sounded like a poor example of a declination from the pages of an etiquette book.
“Cannot reciprocate...” He seemed incapable of saying anything that was not a repetition. “I’m sorry, I thought...”
“No, I’m sorry,” I wrung my hands together. I was sincerely sorry. For the first time in my life, I think I regretted where my insincere flirting had led me. “Just take me home. No, don’t take me home. Just leave me here to rot.” I felt awful.
Thomas set his mouth in a grim line. “I will not leave you here.” A gentleman to the bitter end. And he never looked more handsome. I let that be my penitence as we drove away – at a much faster pace than on the drive in if that were possible. When we arrived back at Edenhedge, he even took it so far as to assist me down and walk me to the front door.
Rattled through and through, I bid him a shaky goodnight and went through the door. Once inside, I leaned my back against the hard coolness of it and drew in a deep breath.
“Back so soon?” How Aunt Elizabeth always managed to appear at just the wrong moment, would never cease to amaze me.
“Aunt Elizabeth,” I said slowly and with trepidation. But it had to be said. “I don’t expect that Thomas Hawkins will be around any time soon. I declined his advances this evening.” I cringed and braced myself for the lecture and verbal missiles I was sure were coming.
But oh, that unpredictable woman!
“I do not know what you saw in him in the first place,” she sniffed as she walked away, nose in air. “No man should have a laugh like that. It isn’t decent.”
How was it that a child, twice as small as me with only half my wit, could drive me to such utter and complete distraction? I was to ask myself this every day, often many times a day, during the weeks that followed the beginning of my lessons with Cherry. My own unwillingness to be taught was coming back to me with a vengeance, in the form of a little girl so set against her studies, that I was practically reduced to bragging. Yea, perhaps even some bribing. I resolved to sit down that evening and pen a letter of apology and even financial compensation for the years Miss. Medina sacrificed of her own sanity to drill information into my head.
“Cherry,” I said as patiently as my rigid impatience would allow. “Why don’t you sit down and copy these letters and then perhaps we can take a walk to the shore?”
She clapped her hands together gleefully. “Yes! I want to go see my friends.”
“Alright,” I stated triumphantly, believing I had found my solution. “Finish your alphabet and we will go.”
She pushed her scribbler towards me. “You write. I will go to the shore.”
“That’s not how it works,” I snapped. “You do what I say.”
“Goodbye,” she said pushing her desk out. It hit my shins with force. I could have grabbed her by her six, fat ringlets and shook her. But I didn’t. I did what any person wishing to keep their sanity would have done in my predicament. I grabbed my hat and one of Cherry’s sticky paws, and marched out of the room. To the shore we would go.
“And heaven help us if your Grandmother finds out,” I muttered to myself as we set out. In weighing whether I would rather bear Aunt Elizabeth’s wrath or Cherry’s impossibilities I found the former more gracious in the heat of my aggravation.
It was not a long walk to the shore – longer of course than the ridiculously short amount of time it had taken Thomas and I to get there. Cherry dragged me along, incessantly chattering, till my tender patience almost snapped.
I took in a deep breath of air, tuning her out. Carried on the summer wind, the smell of salt filled my nostrils, calming my agitation and dispelling my frustration. Already I could hear the waves as they broke on the distant shoreline. I loved being this close to the sea. I had been landlocked back home and I relished the luxury of the nearness to the open water.
We arrived to the tiny village I had visited previously with Mr. Hawkins. Without the mercy of the glow of sunset shielding the truth, it looked drab and commonplace. An untidy looking vendor was selling fresh fish from a sketchy looking wheelbarrow. I wrinkled my nose at the dreadful smell.
“There’s their house!” Cherry cried, pointing her finger to a rather run down white-washed bungalow. “I want to visit my friends. Can I please?”
“No, not now,” I said firmly.
“Grandmother takes me sometimes,” she said slyly, as though she knew how to get me to comply.
“Another day perhaps,” I said trying to evoke threatening authority in my tone. Not surprisingly, it did not work. She went sprinting towards the front door before I could catch her.
“Mr. Taylor and his wife live here,” she said, banging her little fist on the red, splintered door. “She is very sick and won’t talk, but she will smile and Mr. Taylor always gives me cookies and lets me play with whatever I want. Mr. Taylor takes care of her all the day. But he is never cross like you are,” this was said impudently.
Confound that Mr. Taylor!
“Cherry, we cannot barge in on them. It isn’t polite,” I said desperately trying to drag her away.
It was too late. I could hear someone walking and fiddling with the lock.
The door opened.
“Mr. Taylor!” squealed Cherry, pushing past him.
It was Eddie.
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