Kerflummxed. I believe that the word had been coined for such a time as this.
Eddie. Eddie was Mr. Taylor. Aunt Elizabeth came here to visit Eddie. Eddie...Eddie was married! I swallowed every bit of startling information as it crossed my preconceived notions. It digested difficultly.
“Becky!” His face mirrored the same astonishment I felt contorting my own features in shades of disbelief.
“What are you doing here?”
I felt as if I was entitled to ask him the same question. But my confusion withheld it.
“I....we...I didn’t know...” My incoherent fumbling for appropriate words revealed my deep surprise and in no way assisted in answering his question.
“We’ve come to play,” announced Cherry, barging ahead, unaware of any startling revelations unfolding about her. I was helpless to stop her.
“If you’re busy...we do not have to stay.” My statement was laced with hints of hope that he would turn us away and I could imagine that the situation presenting itself before me was not so.
“No, come in,” he said, quietly. He stepped aside, giving room for me to enter. I hesitated on the door step, feeling as if I were about to be inevitably thwarted with uncomfortable truths about the one person in my life I truly considered a friend. But as much as I wanted to, I could not very well stand statue-like on Eddie’s steps for the rest of my natural days. Habit propelled me in when I would rather have run, and so I crossed the threshold reluctantly.
His house was small, neat with the general air of ordered simplicity. I had never really thought to imagine where Eddie lived. He always had just sort of...appeared. As silly as it had been for me to assume that he had always simply shown up from the isles of nowhere to sit in Aunt Elizabeth’s library at random, I realized then that that was precisely what I had thought. But if I had given any consideration to his abode, I would never have thought him to live here, in this little bungalow in a salt-swept village by the sea.
Cherry has already made herself at home and was prattling on her customary frank way.
“This is Mrs. Taylor. She doesn’t get up to play with me. She’s awfully sick.” She gestured to a form lying still on the bed, tucked about with a heavy quilt. Curious as I was to see her, proper etiquette would dictate that it would be of the utmost impoliteness to go look at her, and so I continued to stand still, awkwardly hovering by the front door, much like a lumbering fool.
“So,” said Eddie as though to begin a conversation. I don’t think that I had ever seen him uncomfortable. It heightened my agitation.
“So,” I responded weakly. My voice cracked a bit when it came out. I cleared my throat weakly.
“Would you like some tea?” He offered.
“Yes,” I did not, but I wanted something to hold.
He set about accordingly to make the tea. I stared at the back of his head as he worked, wondering what thoughts could possibly be running through it. Did he wonder what I was thinking? What I thought of him? All those evenings in the library...all those shared jokes about marriage, his sage advice about the ways of men and his cheerful banter about my quest for love...and he had been married the whole time? He had teased me, patted my head, clucked my chin, and initiated the warm intimacy of a close companionship, all while this poor woman, his wife, had laid home sick.
I felt completely foolish and about as big as my little charge who was happily contended to make a mess of the bookshelf in the corner. And I was angry. How difficult would it have been for him to mention it? As I stood there, watching him pour the hot water into two cups, I recalled every occasion he had been given to tell me. With each remembered instance, my bitterness and keen feeling of betrayal mounted inside me. So much so, that by the time he reached out to offer me the teacup, I snatched it from him with such an angry suddenness that it caused the substance to slosh out over the rim and land in burning assault on his unsuspecting hand.
“Sorry,” I muttered in a tone that clearly implied otherwise. It hadn’t been intentional, but I silently applauded myself on my well timed clumsiness.
“No matter,” Eddie said, wringing his poor hand in evident pain.
Again, silence crept between. He offered no apology for having deceived me, no explanation as to the reason why. He stood, quiet beside me. I refused to look at him, afraid those kind eyes of his would meet mine and pierce my iron displeasure causing me the blubber out all the tender hurt from which my anger was springing.
“Forgive my manners, Becky. Would you like a seat?”
“No, thank you. I’d rather stand,” I said sulkily and a wee bit righteously as though denying his offer would hurt him back in some way.
“Suit yourself,” he replied kindly.
“I wish you had told me,” I blurted out suddenly. As soon I said the words, I wished fervently that I could grab them from out of the thin air and stuff them back into my disobedient mouth.
“Becky, I’m sorry. It’s not what you think...” He turned to face me. His eyes were so sad, and my resolve wavered. I knew I had to leave before I furthered exposed my feelings.
“Cherry, let’s go. We’re leaving.” I set down my cup quickly, once again causing the hot liquid to escape from the confides of the cup.
For once and without having to ask her twice or offer her my right arm as a bribe the child listened to me, probably bored of all the house had to offer her. She trotted meekly behind as I swung open the door and stepped back out into the tepid air.
“Becky...” Eddie reached out his hand as if to stop me.
“Goodbye, Eddie,” I tried to say it with poignant vehemence, but it came out sounding mostly sad.
He looked so forlorn standing there at the door that I began to feel the hole anger had seared filling with sympathy. I had never seen Eddie dejected. I think for the first time in my life, for just a moment, I felt what it was to pity someone other than myself.
Reader, It was the saddest feeling in the whole world.
I have heard it said that all it takes to win a woman’s heart is to let her know she cannot have you.
In the days that followed, I begged to concur.
It was certainly not romantic feelings that had every emotion in me so utterly entangled, I was sure. No, it was something decidedly more familiar. Without him, I was as lonely as I had ever been...lonelier perhaps, with the grief of a friendship lost. I no longer made visits down to the library, for should he be there, in no longer seemed appropriate. I missed it. I missed our easy comradeship. I longed for his familiar company in this strange world I was living in. I needed his opinions to make sense of mine and his humour to convert my frustrations into laughter.
Reader, perhaps you are thinking that I overreacted in regards to the revelation of Eddie’s being married. Perhaps you wonder why we could not continue being friends as before, and resume our comradeship, which could have possibly been made deeper by the uncovering of truths.
But please remember for a moment, the state of my lonely, fragile, womanly heart. I had invested more into our evenings together than I had realized. For once I had allowed someone into my shallow, friendless company. I had let him see who I was, and yet he had continued to come back. My vanity and stupidity had not discouraged him, nor caused me to turn him away. To discover that the person I had let peek at my vulnerability and take liberties of my esteem had lied to me, landed a disastrous blow on my pride.
I felt a grandiose mixture of panic and relief when Aunt Elizabeth summoned me one evening soon after and told me that I could expect a gentleman suitor of her choosing the following night. Relief came with the idea of having something to throw my attentions into wholeheartedly, which was soon followed by the sheer panic of knowing that I would have to figure it out alone.
“His name is Arthur Sotheby. You want someone smart don’t you?” She asked, as though I previously understood that Arthur Sotheby was a synonym for intelligent.
“Of course,” I said dully, not caring.
“Good. He’s smarter than a black coat on Sunday. Don’t say anything ridiculous.”
It was a fair admonition. I certainly was prone to do so.
Arthur’s mouth was open and he was talking, but as far I was concerned, the man was speaking Chinese. On and on went he, about theories and enigmas and discoveries about which I knew nothing. Five minutes in, I mercifully figured out that he was quite content to have me nod my pretty head in agreement and bat my eyelashes in wonder.
“Oh, how wonderful!” I drawled after I sensed he was concluding yet another tale of scientific exposé.
“Isn’t it?” He countered complacently, leaning back for the first time that evening to take a sip of coffee. Perturbed to find it cold, he wrinkled his nose and set it down.
“I hear you are quite the educational guru yourself,” he said, wagging his finger at me patronizingly.
“Yes,” I said, because saying no would have caused greater discussion.
You may be wondering why I have withheld from describing the man before me thus far. That is because I never thought to notice until now. I think I had been staring at his mouth. I used the lull that followed to study him. He was handsome – not as handsome as Thomas Hawkins of course- but fair to look at nonetheless. In fact, when I squinted my eyes ever so slightly, he looked downright appealing.
“I am not one for beating around the bush Miss Tinsley,” He said brusquely, without beating around the bush.
“I am on the brink of a great, great discovery...one that could make me,” here his tone dropped to a reverent hush, “millions.”
I gazed at him with feigned interest but did not say anything in response. He seemed disappointed in my lack of reaction.
“Oh?” I tried to inflect a note of curiosity in my tone, but it fell decidedly flat.
“Yes,” He leaned forward in genuine earnest. “I have spent years tweaking a theory that may just lead to a brilliant uncovering of new biological hypothesis.”
“Ah,” I said without understanding.
“There is a slight problem though,” He laughed shrilly, brushing imaginary wrinkles from the impeccable crease of his pants. “Money.”
“Money.” He repeated. “I am lacking investors in this idea...investors that would help pay for crucial pieces of equipment needed for establishing my theory. I have looked often and hard for willing investors to smooth out my crippled finances. And this, Miss Tinsley, is where it gets interesting.”
I could not imagine how.
“I am a student of universe, Miss Tinsley. I believe very much in fate and the destiny of complex humanity. I am amazed, no, astounded by the timing of our acquaintance.”
“How so?” said I, quite sure where he was going.
“I have often looked at your dear Aunt and thought her to be one that holds great scientific appreciation.”
“The very one. How alike we think. Remarkable.”
“Mr. Sotheby,” I said impatiently. “I do not like beating around the bush either. Are you asking me to ask my Aunt to invest money into your idea?”
“Miss Tinsley!” He shot out my name on a burst of nervous laughter. “The idea!”
“But you are, no?” I said in a most serious tone.
“Now that you have put it so charmingly, well, yes! I am.”
I stood up.
“Mr. Sotheby,” I stated firmly, but not unkindly. “You are an intelligent, intelligent man. I am confident that you will find a way to cushion out your finances...without injuring my pride and your own.”
His mouth formed a little ‘o’ of surprised displeasure.
“So while I thank you for your most kind flattery in choosing me as a means to your end, I must excuse myself,” and so saying I swept away from the much disturbed Mr. Sotheby.
“But Miss Tinsley! It’s fate!” He called out after me.
When I reached a safe distance from the parlour, I sank into a high backed chair and doubled over and gave into uncontrollable mirth.
But just as quickly as it had begun, my laughter ceased and I let out a sigh.
Aunt Elizabeth was a woman with many unfortunate flaws, but I would not want it to be held to her account that she held me hostage at Edenhedge. Quite the contrary, she urged me on many outings at different times. Whether it was for the purpose of her relief or my good, I know not. Whichever the case, I had, from the beginning, been quite reluctant to pursue any social functions that would take me from the safe, albeit claustrophobic corridors of the house. But when she informed of a box social to take place on the coming Sunday, I could think of no good reason to decline.
I did try though.
“But I haven’t a basket to bring, Aunt Elizabeth,” I protested. “And I cannot cook. Do not worry yourself on my behalf, I have quite resigned myself to die an old maid.”
“I will have one made for you,” she said, undaunted by my heretics.
“I’m not feeling very well,” I said sulkily. “I think I’ll not go.”
“You do look kind of grey and peaked,” agreed my kind Aunt. “All you need is a little social nudge. You are getting positively dusty locked away with that child. Day in and day out you waste away both our time...mostly mine...”
“I know you want to marry me off, Aunt Elizabeth,” I said tritely. “I am sorry I am such a burden to you.”
“Oh, I have given up hope in that regard, child. I thought it was you wanted. Yet, I gave you Mr. Hawkins –“
“He was too handsome.”
“I gave you Mr. Sotheby-”
“He was too smart,” I said with a sigh,
“You see!” ejaculated Aunt Elizabeth, throwing up her hands. Her diamonds glistened in agreement to my foolishness. “You are going to that social my dear, and you are coming away with a husband. “
Then she added darkly. “Or else.”
Whatever sinister implications rested in that threat, I could only imagine..and anything I imagined could not seem worse to me than the prospect of the coming Sunday. I had been dreading Church quite intensely, with measures more of apprehension added to my regular distaste for it. I had not been there since my enlightening trip to the shore. I had missed the previous week on account of one of those convenient lady headaches that work well as an excuse when absence is inexcusable, and knew that this week I must go and inevitably face Eddie.
“Do I hear a five?” The auctioneer’s voice droned out over the sun-speckled crowd that stood, enduring the unseasonably warm weather to engage in once of society’s longest lasting flirtatious and revealing fundraisers.
After a long arduous hour of back and forth shouting, my basket was finally being showcased. It looked wilted now and disgruntled from the wait, not that it had been terribly grand to begin with. I had tied a lavender bow that matched exactly the trim of my hat and shirtwaist. I looked my best. I wanted these men to know exactly who they were fighting for.
“Five,” a hand shot up in the back of the crowd. I was pleased at such a quick show of interest.
“Five fifty,” The moustached gentleman leaning against the oak tree raised the bid.
Pleased, I listened as two other men chimed in higher prices, upping it to fifteen.
And then -
“Twenty,” a voice behind me called out.
I did not have to turn around. I would know that voice anywhere. Eddie was bidding on my basket.
“We have a twenty!” The auctioneer called.
I stared straight ahead, blinded by my anger. The nerve! To bid on my basket when others must know of his attachment. It was one thing to hid his marriage from me...another to act as if it did not exist at all.
“Twenty-two,” The man with moustache moved closer into the crowd.
“Twenty-five,” Eddie shouted.
“We have thirty,” yelled the auctioneer, acknowledging a wave from the back. “Do I hear thirty five?”
“Forty,” Moustache man calmly negotiated.
A light wave of laughter rippled through the crowd.
“Fifty!” Came from the back of the crowd.
“Going once, twice,” the auctioneer crooned. Silence met his cry. “Sold!” The gavel hit the stand. “To the gentleman in the back for a whopping fifty dollars.”
I finally turned to see Eddie, aghast at his behaviour, to find that he had already slipped away. I spotted him, hat in hand making his way out of the church gate.
I summoned all the hurt I felt at being betrayed, all the embarrassment of feeling belittled, and all the confusion of his actions, and ran after him.
“How dare you!” I spat out when I had reached his hearing distance. “You are married! You have a wife at home lying sick and you...” I let my full wrath unleash on him. “You are here making bids on my basket!”
I cut him off. “I cannot begin to fathom what sort of man you are. You lied to me. You came every night to that house and never once said anything about her. You lied to me!”
He turned to look at me then. “This may come as a surprise to you,” His voice was steely, cold. “But not everything is about you.”
I was surprised...mostly because I had never, not once, seen him angry.
“The highest bid was on your basket. I knew if I kept upping it, it would only go higher. The money is to benefit a family whose livelihood depends on the charity of others. Of course I know I’m married. I know I am married every single minute I spend in that house. Enjoy your lunch.” He spun around and left, leaving the gate swinging on its squeaky hinges.
I felt awful. The instant I had begun my tirade I had wished to stop. But I had been propelled by a deep hurt, fuelled by a terrible angst of soul. I was tempted to call after him and say I was sorry. To say that I did know what sort of man he was, and that was what had cut me so.
But I only stood and watched him leave. Once again my selfishness had succeeding in destroying a relationship. I had never tasted so keenly the sour taste of my flaws.
Heartbroken, I turned back to the crowd. I had a lunch date waiting for me.
I discovered in the days that followed that the combination of Aunt Elizabeth and a sore heart was as lethal as any potent toxin. Her speeches grated on me as never before and her insistence that I “perk up” nearly drove me, bags in hand, out of the front gates of Edenhedge, never to look back.
I stayed because I was “directionless” and I would rather bear the agony of Elizabethan ignorance the anger of Elizabethan rage. Besides, I had been actually making some progress in regards to Cherry of late. Perhaps because I had nowhere else to turn, I invested more in the child than I had been wont to do. As a result, she began to show meagre signs of flourishing. If I failed in every other area of my life, I began to be determined to see the education of Cherry through.
Also, the man who had bought my basket in the bidding fiasco, Mark Hampton, had surprised me by being uncharacteristically engaging as oppose to the usual odd personages that had hurled themselves towards me as potential suitors. He had asked if he might come for dinner sometime and I found myself rather pleased at the idea of spending more time with him.
The day of Mark Hampton’s promised visit dawned dark and dreary. I woke up miserable and bear like from a restless night’s sleep. My crossness screamed inwardly at Aunt Elizabeth at breakfast for merely having the audacity to clink her fork in steady and unnecessary consistency against her glass dish. Thankfully, she refrained from making any inappropriate suggestions as to how to conduct myself at dinner that night. I imagine she figured in her weird and wonderful way of thinking that any man that I approved of certainly could not be worth her lecturing.
I grumpily went about preparing Cherry’s lessons for the day. I’m afraid I was very short on patience with the child and she responded by being particularly ornery, so that when the long day had finally ended, I had reached my peak. Like the thunder clouds gathering darkly against the horizon, I was about to break forth and roar. I managed to pull myself together for the dinner, but I knew I did not look my best. Sleepless had left its impression on my face and my attitude afforded me little energy to invest in my toilette.
Mark Hampton, when he arrived though, was gracious enough to treat me kindly and by the time we sat down to dine, his calm discussion had given me temporary peace.
It was not to last long.
Aunt Elizabeth swept in and took her spot at the head of the table where she always sat. I should have gathered from her pinched face and dark eyes that I was not the only member of the house with a foul temperament that day, but I was so accustomed to her general crankiness that I scarce gave it a thought.
We were served out entrees of warm salmon soup, which we consumed in relative silence. Aunt Elizabeth spooned hers in darkly, I tentatively, and Mark hungrily. We, with the exception of my gloom cloud Aunt, chatted meaninglessly about various trite affairs about which we cared little, but leaned on in social situations such as these.
And then....the thunder claps started.
“So, Mr. Hampton,” Aunt Elizabeth spoke finally, pushing away her barely eaten soup. “I presume you are here to mark you territory, as it were.”
Poor Mark’s head flew up in surprise. He looked at me as if to beg for assistance. I was too stunned to speak. Even for my forthright, tactless Aunt, this was a first.
“Oh, never mind answering young man, it was a rhetorical question. Of course you’re here to woo my niece. Unless you have you sights set on me of course.”
I dropped my spoon filled with soup. The pink broth splashed across the white damask cloth.
“I feel obliged to tell you that it is for naught. This girl couldn’t pick a husband if they grew like scallywag cabbages out in the garden. She seems determined to be an old maid. If looks and wealth won’t do it for her, I don’t imagine your bookish, Neanderthal charm will do anything either.”
I was desperate to stop her, but words wouldn’t come.
“Or perhaps she prefers one of those whatsit farm boys I took her away from. After all, as I believe the saying goes you can’t turn a tough pig’s hide into a satin scarf...or something to that effect. Let me warn you that she is a silly, shallow girl. I have never seen the like.”
“Aunt Elizabeth!” I finally spat her name. It came from out of a deep, wounded place. “That’s enough!”
I leapt up from my chair with such suddenness that it caused it to fall back with a terrific thud.
I looked from a stunned Mark, soup spoon still poised in his hand, to Aunt Elizabeth’s lined, aggravated face. Then I laughed. I laughed and laughed till I found myself sobbing.
“Excuse me.” I cried through something that could only be describes as half laugh half cry.
Leaving possibly one of the oddest most unexpected situations I had ever encountered in my short life, I fled from the dining hall.
Suddenly desperate for air, I ran to the front of the house out the front door until I was leaning against the veranda post. I gulped in the damp air greedily, allowing it to steady my breath. My hysterics had ceased, but tears over which I had no controlled continued to stream down my cheeks.
Because Aunt Elizabeth was right. I was shallow. I was a tough pig’s hide that kept out companionship, and shielded myself from feeling love. I had found a friend and lost him because my foolish pride had assumed the worst of him. Shame worked its way into the deepest core of my regret. With each thought and each steadying breath, resolve began to grow within me. It was time to go back to the shore. It was time to make things right.
On foot I started out. Thunder clapped in the distance. The storm was about to begin.
By the time I arrived to the village, the menacing dark clouds had opened and were unleashing all manner of havoc upon the seascape. My impulsive departure from the house meant that I wore only my dress and had no hat. When I reached Eddie’s I was soaked clean through, but remained undaunted and my determination waned not, even when I spotted him. He was sitting on the front step of his house, elbow on knee and head leaning against his fist.
I came and stood before him, arms crossed and shivering.
“Eddie,” I attempted to say boldly, but despite my presumed courage it came out weak, shaky and tear ridden.
My voice seemed to jolt through him and he jumped up. He raised an arm to shield his eyes from the rain and stared at me.
I spoke, stronger this time. “I know I shouldn’t be here. But the thing is...I miss you.”
“Please don’t say anything until I am finished. Or I won’t finish. You made me like you. You made me trust you. You my friend, and then you left. I know it was because I am shallow and stupid and incapable of friendship.”
“The thing is I need my best friend. And I know you are married and that changes everything for us, and I know I don’t have to right to ask anything from you – “
“She’s dying,” He lowered himself to again sit on the low stoop.
“Who’s dying?” I said stupidly, stopping in my incessant rambling to finally grasp the urgency of his interruption.
He didn’t say anything, but lowered his head into his hands, burying his fingers into his unkempt hair.
“Oh...oh, you mean she...you mean your wife? Eddie, is your wife dying?”
“Yes,” his answer was muffled but I heard it all the same.
I stopped in a bewildered silence. I had not known she was that sick. I had imagined appealing to Eddie, apologizing profusely, gaining a warm reception and perhaps an invitation into the home to meet the woman who had captured his heart. Instead I stood immobile in the driving rain, unable to extend a hand of comfort or say something sensible.
“Come inside,” he said wearily, standing up.
“I don’t have to,” I said, unconsciously backing away, as I always did, from the realities of life.
“I want you to,” he said simply, and so of course I went.
I knew instinctively everything was about to change.