AN AUTUMN AFFAIR
People liked to think it was a modern era.
The turn of the century!
But, certainly, in 1899, London's society was as backward and close-minded as it had always been. A woman's reputation was precious and it shattered all too easily.
Everyone knew that when Edith Bryiers left the country during the spring of 1899, that she was a fallen woman. And all because of a stupid rumor Xavier Smythe had started. Which cost Eddie her good name and the support of her family. Laura Thompson –Edith's Grandmother – was the only person to ask if the rumors were true. Only she believed Eddie when she said they weren't.
So on a warm spring day – the sunny weather at odds' with Eddie's mood – Eddie and Mrs. Thompson left England to travel around the continent. It would be three years before they saw English soil again.
Happily they traveled the continent, from Spain and France to Greece and even the North of Africa that one time. Eddie made new friends and began to enjoy her life again. Satisfying her thirst for history and art. All the while, Mrs. Thompson smiled and let her granddaughter get on with it, chasing knowledge.
But Eddie wasn't dumb; she would see her beloved grandmother was growing frail. It was finally during a trip to Florence that it became clear it was time to stop traveling. Together they decided to return to London so Mrs. Thompson could have proper medical care and, luckily, one of Eddie's acquaintances offered her a job as a curator for the Museum.
Edith hoped the past was forgotten. She hoped she could start fresh: Clean and new.
I always did love to travel.
After graduating from University, I began to travel through Europe. Frequently going back to England – London, Northumberland and Cornwall are always mandatory stops – to visit the family and spoil my little sisters and my growing broad of nephews and nieces.
At the age of 25 I was young, rich, titled and had traveled the continent at my heart's desire. The only problem was that I was beginning to feel tired. Going aimlessly from one country to another was beginning to tire me. It felt good going back home.
I stood on the deck of the ship as it left the Italian shore. In a few days I would be back in London.
As the shore grew distant and the sun rose in earnest I let the clean, salty breeze clear my thoughts. The wind was strong and the sea was clam, perfect travel conditions.
I took a deep breath. It was a beautiful, perfect Italian morning. I missed England's rain. A woman's shriek interrupted my thoughts mere seconds before I was hit square in the face with a straw hat, which I caught out of instinct.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" A woman was saying, her voice was a smooth, mellow alto. I looked at her. She was just about my age with brown/red hair and a few golden freckles across the bridge of her nose and she was smiling apologetically. "I'm so sorry, sir."
I handled her the hat. "Yours I assume?"
"Yes." She nodded.
"That was quite a catch, young man." An old lady said as she approached us, walking with a cane in her hand. Here hair was a silvery shade of peach and her features bore some resemblance to the young woman in front of me, so I assumed they were related.
"Thank you, ma'am." I answered. "Lots of practice. I got four sisters and three nieces."
"Well, thank you for saving Eddie's favorite hat." The old lady said. "I'm Laura Thompson and this is my granddaughter Eddie."
"I'm Evencort. James Evencort." I said all smooth.
"Very nice to meet you, Mr. Evencort." Mrs. Thompson said and lightly smacked Eddie on the arm. "Say hi."
"Er… nice to meet you." She said and took my hand and gave it a firm shake.
I felt something very close to an electric jolt run through me. As if something had hit me. And I had the uncanny certainty that my life would never be the same again.
Eddie… I wanted to know more about her.
My grandmother was being completely mortifying. She had been rather embarrassing lately, pushing me in the path of most every man my age we came across.
Five minutes after we meet James Evencort, Grandma was telling him the details of our lives… Ten minutes later he was having breakfast with us in the massive dinning room of the ship.
"So, you ladies are traveling alone?"
"Yes, now it's a new century!" Grandma said enthusiastically. "And we are two young desirable women traveling on our own; I don't see anything wrong with that." Mr. Evencort laughed. "And what about you? Business in Italy?"
"Not at all. I just like Italy, the Cradle of Civilization and all that. Besides, my older brother is the one helping my father run the business. I just travel. Places with rich history are my favorite. If fact, not to brag or anything, but I got a first in history at Oxford."
"Oh… my little Eddie likes history too, she went to Oxford too."
"Really? Which hall?" He asked as if he was really interested.
"Lady Margaret Hall." I said quietly. "I only went for two years."
"Well, I'm certainly glad they began to accept women. I got three sisters and I always found ridiculous that they couldn't pursue higher education just because they were born girls. Lita doesn't mind much; she was never very bright in the academic sense - though she's a very talented artist and a great mother. But Maddy and Sophie do really well at school. They are first in their classes and they go to school with boys too."
"That's really wonderful." Grandma commented. "It always pained me that Eddie's education was limited by her gender. Partially that's why we began to travel, so she would just chase history and art as much as her curiosity told her too. She has learned a lot. Sadly, I'm not as young as I used to be and it's getting hard to keep the pace."
"You're hardly elderly, Grandma." I murmured. "I couldn't wish for a better traveling partner." I said loyally. She had never turned her back on me; I would never turn my back on her.
"Thank you, sweet." She said, sparing me but a glance. "She's just kind because I'm her favorite grandmother." She said to Mr. Evencort.
"Are you planning on staying in London for a while?" Mr. Evencort asked.
"Why, yes." Grandma answered enthusiastically. "Eddie got a job at the British Museum. I'm so very proud of her for it. Roman artifacts are her specialty."
"Oh, Grandma. Please, I'm sure Mr. Evencort has better things to do than to listen to my silly affairs." I said while I blushed like a raspberry. That's the thing with red-heads like me; we go around blushing 90 of the time.
"It's not silly," he assured me. "And please, call me James. Mr. Evencort sounds like what my mother's nana called me when I was little. Actually… it was more like Señor Evencort. She was Spanish."
"How interesting." I said and I meant it.
"Isn't it though?" Mr. Even-James said. "So… the British Museum, eh? I know a few people there. Maybe we have mutual acquaintances." He seemed to be deep in thought and I took the time to really look at him. He was a tall man, perhaps over six feet but only by an inch or so, he had golden-brown eyes, dark hair and a broad smile. All around me I could see other young women throw not-so-discreet glances at him. "Do you know Edmund Rochester?" He asked finally and so suddenly I gave a small start.
I blushed. I had been staring at him and noticing how he had this cute dimple by the left corner of his mouth. "Eh… Mr. Rochester, yes. I meet him while I was in Greece."
"I went to university with him. Good fellow."
"He was actually the one who offered me the job at the museum. He was recently put in charge of the wing where the Roman section is located." I said, conversation flowing now.
"Good thing you met me, then. I can provide you with endless embarrassing stories so you can black mail good old Edmund into doing whatever you want." James said with a devilish grin.
"Why don't you use the stories for your own advantage then?"
"There would be no fun in that." James said, smiling and winking at me.
I laughed. Freely.
I hadn't done that in years. Not since the whole ordeal with Smythe. I had been so sad after that. And then his lies had made that practically all the men I knew began to treat me like a whore, which only made me sadder. Grandma then decided to take me away for a while, but even among the men I had just meet, I could never manage anything more than cool politeness or, like in the case of Mr. Rochester, cool-friendly-work-camaraderie
Just now, with James, I felt free enough to behave the way I used to. Before I had turned shy trying to avoid being noticed because I thought that if people didn't notice I was there they wouldn't whisper about me.
After breakfast, James left to do whatever it was that men usually did on ships but asked if he could escort Grandma and me to dinner that night. Grandma agreed with alacrity before I could even open my mouth. And then we retired to our cabin for a nap. If I was tired I could only imagine how Grandma felt. She tried to hide it, but I knew her illness crept over her slowly but surely. And I just hoped the doctors in London could do something to help her.
Later that day we had a walk in the deck of the ship, and we joined a group of other women for tea. Well, Grandma was being the soul of the gathering. I just sat quietly by, sipping my tea, eating biscuits and reading a book on the ancient Egyptians. Well, that was what I was pretending to be doing. Inwardly, I just kept thinking on what the hell I was going to wear that night.
At six o'clock Grandma said her goodbyes and ushered me back into our cabin so I would get dress for dinner. I chose a pearl gray dress that was modest without appearing prudish. Grandma wore a splendid emerald green gown.
As I braided and pinned my hair Grandma said casually. "Don't you think Mr. Evencort is very handsome?"
"He's handsome." I admitted. There was no way she was going to believe me if I said I hadn't notice. After all, she knew me better than anyone… and you have to know someone to tell if they are lying or not.
"And very thoughtful too." She said. "It was very nice of him to offer to escort us to dinner, don't you think?"
"Well, he probably just has spent too much time aboard and wanted to hear people speak in English." I said as if it meant nothing at all.
"Oh, please! This ship goes to London! It's full of English-speaking people." Grandma said in a huff. "I, personally, think he likes you."
"Don't be silly, Grandma." I said as a traitorous blush began to rise from my neck to cover my cheeks.
"I'm not being silly." She said with a smile. I thought he would push and make some pronouncement about me and our newly acquainted Mr. James Evencort living happily ever after. But Grandma didn't say another world. She just kept looking at me and smiling… and for some reason that gave me more chills than her outright matchmaking could ever have.
I was saved from dueling on these thoughts by a firm knock on the cabin's door. I smoothed my hair and my dress on last time before opening the door. The fact that my grandmother smiled in satisfaction as I did this was not lost on me.
"Are you two lovely ladies ready?" James said with a smile the moment I opened the door.
I was left breathless for a moment. "We are ready."
I smiled at Edith. She looked pretty in her grey dress. It really brought out the gray of her eyes.
I had been thinking about her all day. Funny how that happened. She was really rather shy that morning as we began to talk… but I still wanted to know her better. And then I had made her laugh and I was even more intrigued… so I offered to take her and her grandmother to dinner.
I was left breathless for a moment when I first saw her. Her dress showed a little of her figure, and it looked like she had just the kind of build I liked, all soft and curvy like I always thought women were supposed to be. I covered my surprise at how good she looked by beginning to talk fast, asking is Eddie and her grandmother were ready.
Edith said they were and I offered my arm to her. I tried to offer my arm to Mrs. Thompson as well but she waved me off. We walked together to the formal dinning room.
The three of us sat together in a small table.
"Bedford Square is very close to the museum." I commented about the location where the house Mrs. Thompson and Eddie would occupy in London. We had been talking about how much the city was growing.
"I know, that's why we chose the house to begin with." Eddie said. "It's close to the hospital and to the museum."
I nodded. "My brothers have several housing developments all over the city."
"Do you come from a big family?" Eddie asked eagerly, touching a subject that was very dear to me.
"I don't know if we are many, but we were always a handful. My parents have five children, and I'm stuck right in the middle. My elder brother and sister have already married and I regard their spouses as an extra brother and sister. And then I have two little sisters whom I cherish." I said, warming to the subject. "I also have three nephews and three nieces."
"What are they called?"
"Well, there's Michael, who was named after our uncle, Mama's brother who died way before we were born; and he's married to Jenny. Then comes Lita, which is short for Gabriela, which was my mother's mother's name. My great grandfather named me, James… or the Jaime, the Spanish version of it, was the name of his grandfather. And then there's Sophie who was named after my father's mother. And last but not least, there's Maddy who wasn't named after anyone."
Eddie looked perplexed. "Any reason for that?"
"Not really, just that she's on a league of her own." I answered cheerfully. "She was like the little something extra for my parents, they thought Sophie was going to be the last but then, you know, along came Maddy. Do you have any siblings?"
"A younger half sister." She said quietly. "We don't talk much these days but growing up we were very close."
"Oh, I'm sorry to hear that." I said and couldn't help to ask. "Is there a reason why you two grew apart?"
"Yes." Mrs. Thompson said quickly. "Because their parents are stupid cows. But, please, let's not duel on it…"
There was something forbidding about Mrs. Thompson's voice so I didn't make further conversation but returned to neutral topics such as how nice were the crust rolls and commenting about the other dinners.
Over dessert the band began to play. An Italian sonata…
Out of impulse I asked Edith if she would like to dance. She answered in the affirmative. And I lead her to the dance floor.
One of her small hands rested on my shoulder as I held the other. My own hand lingered at her waist. We fitted very well together.
This was definitely going to be a very interesting trip.
End of Chapter One