“There is someone here to see you,” Mother’s voice hissed frantically in my ear breaking through a sweet, heavy slumber. My eyes fluttered open in response to her sharp whisper and I floundered to recover my sensibilities. I had been curled up on the parlour settee attempting to read but the remnants of my illness and the drowsiness procured by the warm sun filtering through the curtains had lulled me into a deep sleep.
“Who is it?” I muttered groggily, pushing my thick braid of hair over my shoulder and lifting my arms in a sleepy stretch.
“A man,” said Mother demurely as only a mother can.
My eyes snapped open, her words having as much as a waking effect on me as cold water might of.
“What man?” I stood to my feet quickly, my afghan dropping unceremoniously in a heap about my ankles.
“I haven’t a clue,” she said, bustling over to me and tucking a piece of errant hair behind my ear and straightening my sleeves. “He’s out in the foyer talking with your aunt. He asked if you were up to visitors. He’s a homely sort of man, but he seemed nice enough.”
If I had held any doubt of who it was, it flittered away at my mother’s words. Eddie had come to see me at last. Trepidation mounted as I heard steps approaching the room. I clenched my hands together. Or should I fold them? Cross them? Too late. Clenched they would be.
He came into the room. I never understood what the expression “heart constricted” meant until that moment. At the sight of him, my heart constricted.
“How are you feeling?” His voice was deep and tender, and I felt myself grow warm under its caress.
“Better,” I said, but my voice caught as it tripped past my lips, belying my words.
Mother sat herself in a wing backed chair smiling like a Cheshire cat.
“Good.” He noticed Mother and introduced himself.
“And how do you know our Rebecca?” Mother purred, sharpening her claws.
He did not look at me but at his hands. “I’m a friend,” was all he said.
Mother looked from Eddie, to me and back to him and furrowed her brow, as though sizing up the business between us. She well remembered what my taste and inclination had been towards men and I’m sure she wondered if my blushing retreat into myself indicated a change.
“I came to loan you a book,” He said, addressing me. “I came across it the other day and thought you might like it.”
“Wonderful,” I beamed, hoping he read appreciation in my countenance.
If Mother had been curious before, it had now evolved into pure intrigue at his words. Never would she have imagined me responding with that word to anything scholastic.
“I have it here,” he said reaching into the deep pocket of his coat and pulled out a thin volume of what appeared to be poetry. When he handed me the book our fingers touched.
I beg the pardon of all unromantic readers for the following recount of the seconds that trailed our unexpected touch. I cannot explain it other than to say that I felt like everything and everyone in the parlour faded away into an abyss of lost reality. It was only he and I – caught in a shared moment. He held my gaze steadily and in his eyes I caught of glimmer of something profoundly whole and lovely.
Cherry chose that moment to bound into the room, monopolizing it with her energy. The moment faded but the feeling throbbed. Even when Eddie stood, gave a general goodbye and left, I barely noticed ... for I lingered in that moment alone as a thirsty traveller might tarry at a cold spring.
I felt like my world had titled on its axis. I had no desire to set it right.
That so much time had passed since I had first come to Edenhedge was a mystery to me. I felt as though I had lived several lifetimes - and mostly unpleasant ones at that... though by turn some felt as though they had been rich and fulfilled, brimming with promise.
My convalescence was rather gruelling for Mother made it her pet project to ensure I wanted for nothing – even for those things that I did not find myself particularly wanting. For instance, she insisted that fresh cold air was the best thing for my feeble constitution, having read something to that effect in a medical journal. A disciple of modern medicine, she instituted a regime whereby she would have me bundle up as tight as a cocoon with no room for escape and push me out into the garden. I would pace around accordingly, until my strength would run out and I would find my way to a bench – at which point she’d come flying out of the house – for she watched my entire exercise from the window – and hustle me in. And I had thought Aunt Elizabeth’s hen pecking unbearable. That good lady resisted interference by dint of my Mother’s stubbornness I think, and only made the occasional misplaced comment or suggestion to help or hinder as suited her case.
It was upon one of these frosty afternoons as I took my healing turn about the garden, that I found myself brooding in a deep, dark, dangerous way. I had tried desperately to hold onto that wonderful sense of completeness that had baptized me at the shore, but could sense it slipping away from me bit by bit...like granules of sand falling through an hour glass. Time was erasing my confidence that my story would end well. I had come to Edenhedge for a husband but had found a greater love instead. Though intangible, it filled and satisfied me in a way that none of my romances ever had. And yet...reader, I was only human. Though I would never have admitted it to anyone I was waiting for Eddie to come and visit me again. You see, I knew I was getting stronger and that any day now I would no longer have to be wary of travelling. I knew Mother was anxious to return home to Father – and to escape Aunt Elizabeth’s needling – and the thought of returning home before I had at the very least seen Eddie one more time, seemed unbearable. To suggest that I was milking my illness for all its worth would have not been entirely untrue.
Mulling all this over, I lowered myself to the bench. It felt quite wonderful to sit and breathe in the rich, crisp air. Perhaps Mother was right after all. I imagined that I felt the cold wind freeze away the last remnants of my illness and breathe in new purpose. I sat there for a few moments, closing my eyes against the frigid air. I was surprised that Mother had not come bounding out for me yet. As the seconds continued ticking by, my surprise turned into curiosity and my curiosity into wonderment. And then -- I spotted my answer to the question of Mother’s delay winding its way down the garden path. It was Eddie, hands in pocket, head bowed against the wind, walking towards me. Likely Mother had spotted him coming from her perch and demurely withheld herself from coming to get me.
Nothing like a little warning, thought I with a scathing glance towards the house. My nose was red, I could sense it -- and likely shiny. The pieces of hair that escaped from underneath my snug cap were flyaway and frazzled. And I was wearing goulashes. It seemed as far as Eddie was concerned, my vanity was destined to be punished.
I had more or less decided that I still had time to slip away noticed, when Eddie raised his head and gave me a tall wave. I weakly waved back and settled back into my uncomfortable destiny.
“Fancy meeting you here,” He said jovially as he approached hearing distance. I was not sure if he meant it for a joke or not so I gave a soft snicker, the universal response to the unanswerable.
“Cold day, isn’t it?” He reached to where I was sitting and looked down at me.
I did not to know what to say, so I opened my mouth and said, “I love you.”
If sheer horror could kill, I would have keeled over then and there, fresh air notwithstanding. I have never been one to handle humiliation gracefully, so the moment I uttered the fateful words, I did nothing but stare up at him in confounded silence. Eddie’s face could not have looked more stunned than if I had jumped up and shouted “En garde!” In the pitiful quietness that followed, I rather wished I had chosen to do the latter.
If this was a book, perhaps Eddie would have recovered from his momentary surprise and swept me off the bench and declared his mutual love for me. Or perhaps he would have very romantically, stoically, spurned my love. Certainly, if this were a book, Aunt Elizabeth wouldn’t have chosen that precise moment to stick her grey, sober head through the window that overlooked the garden and tell me fiercely to get in “before you freeze your hide stiff.”
I got up numbly and walked towards the house. Eddie still had not moved or spoken, as rigid and emotionless as the ugly, trumpeting cherub that stood behind him in the fountain.
Like a pounding hammer during a vicious headache, Aunt Elizabeth began harping on me the minute I crossed the threshold. She trailed behind me as I walked trance like into the parlour. Mother sat by the fireside, Cherry curled at her feet, thumbing through a picture book. I sank onto the settee and simply stared at them.
“What on earth...?” Mother laid her knitting on her lap. “What’s happened child?”
Aunt Elizabeth snorted. “She’s gone and frozen herself solid, Ida, doing your silly exercises. I’ve never heard of such nonsense. She’ll have consumption soon enough.”
In the days that followed, I bore the full weight of my impudence. The knowledge that I had spoiled everything haunted me, so much so that there were moments I cherished the irrational temptation to run down to the shore and explain away my foolish confession. But rightfully I realized that best thing to do would be to keep away and keep silent. And since by turn that felt impossible, I told Mother I was ready to go home at last.
On my final evening at Edenhedge, I wandered away from the house and down to the gazebo that sat on the edge of the property. Sitting myself on the railing, I gazed out over the icy terrain. The sun was sinking slowly, casting a weird, beautiful rosy glow over the world. I breathed the crisp air in and then let it out softly. A strange, unexplainable peace was embracing me in spite of my aching heart. Deep within myself, I knew that I had found more than I came for...that I was leaving fuller than I had come, more loved than I deserved, and blessedly granted with a new life.
“There you are.” Somehow I had known Eddie was behind me before he even spoke. I jumped down from the railing and turned to face him. I felt the heat rise in my cheeks, and prayed that the dim light hid my embarrassment.
“How are you?” Why was it that every time he spoke I had to resist the inclination to fall into his arms?
“Fine, thank you,” I whispered.
He folded his arms. “It was a beautiful day, wasn’t it?”
He leaned against the railing and looked off into the distance. “Edenhedge is very beautiful this time of year.”
Did we know no other word but beautiful?
“I hear you’re leaving,” It was not spoken as a question and yet it felt like one.
“I am.” I bit my lip and looked at the ground. “It’s time.”
I heard him shift his weight and clear his throat. The silence that hung between us was woven thick with the thousands of things that remained unsaid.
“About the other day,” I decided to jump in with both feet. I had to speak to him, my friend, before I left. “I had no right to say what I did.”
He raked a hand through his tousled hair. “Becky...”
“Let me finish,” I said putting up a hand. If I let him speak I was likely to do something irrational like break into a torrent of tears or a fit of nervous giggles. “You taught me more about love in this past year than I’ve learnt in my whole lifetime. “
He was distracting me. His kind face was marked with understanding and his gentle repetition of my name settled my racing heart even as it made it flutter. I could not believe I had ever found him homely. At the moment, there was no face on earth that could be dearer to me.
“Having your friendship has been the best thing...the best thing...” My voice began to strangle my words.
“Rebecca,” His voice rolled gently over my name. He reached out and grabbed my wrists. “I love you too.”
I stared up at him, caught in the wonder of his words.
“I do,” A smile broke out across face. He lifted his hands from my arms and slid them around my waist. “I would have told you that the other day but you left so quickly. And then I waited to give you time to change your mind. Becky, I haven’t a cent to my name...”
It was my turn to interrupt him. I chose to do it in the most delightful way imaginable.
Eddie left after an hour or so, our parting sweet and solid and stayed with promise. I entered Edenhedge a new woman, crowned with the victorious laurel of having won a man’s heart. And yet that same heart quaked when I thought of confessing to my Aunt the truth of my newly discovered love. Unsure as I was of her reaction, I knew she would disapprove. But I had to tell her. She would need to know that my plans had changed.
When I crept into the parlour, Aunt Elizabeth sat facing the window and in the dusky after light flooding the room, her grim, wrinkled face basked in an unearthly glow.
“Aunt Elizabeth I have something to tell you,” I began tentatively with air of one who has already been defeated.
Turning around at the sound of my voice, her opaque eyes appraised me sceptically, as if doubting anything I would say could possibly be important.
“Yes, what is it child?”
“Edward Taylor and I are engaged to be married,” I dropped each word carefully leaving them suspended on the tense air, sure they would bring the harshest of remarks.
But that unpredictable, unexpected, unequivocal aunt of mine replied after a long suspenseful pause, “It’s about time.” And I could not be exactly sure, but I am nearly positive that her voice trembled with excitement.
It was then I knew in a sudden rush of realization that this was what she had been planning along...why she had set me up with the silliest of men, sabotaged the good and encouraged the bad. Suddenly overcome with emotion I went and knelt before her, taking her thin, bony hands in mine.
“Aunt Elizabeth, I’ve learnt more in this past year than I ever thought possible. I cannot thank you enough for giving me that opportunity.” Impulsively I leaned over and gave her a hug.
She bristled. “Confound it, child. You’re crushing my crinoline.”
But I had never seen her look happier.
My education was complete.
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