Everything I needed to wear beneath my clothes was already in place.
I selected a shirt the color of unspoiled snow, eased my arms into
the sleeves, slowly did up the buttons from narrow waist to chest and
finally to neck. It felt peculiar to wear something on my upper body,
in particular my waist, that did not bind my skin like a glove. How
odd not to feel constricted where one expected to. The trousers that I
slid up over the slight swell of my hips were made of black superfine
wool, and I buttoned these as well. This was even more peculiar, the
sensation of the expensive fabric against my calves and thighs.
A sound in the outer hallway brought me up short. Was someone
coming? The threat of intrusion, of discovery before I’d finished,
terrified me. It was a danger I lived with daily, as natural to my new
life as a lack of danger had been to my old one. But after a long
moment spent stock-still, hearing no more noises, I concluded that
the sounds were of my imagination’s making, a product of my fears.
I was well practiced in the art of tying ties, and I commenced
doing so now, taking up the length of black silk and fitting it around
my collar. Then I took the ends and fashioned a knot that I knew
without looking would fall at a slightly rakish angle. My intention
was to convey that perfect mix of convention (I was wearing a tie)
and indifference to convention (I did not care how that tie looked).
Over all, I put on a black superfine wool coat that matched the
Only then, when I was fully dressed except for shoes, did I turn to
confront my reflection in the looking glass.
And what did I see there?
A clean-shaven young gentleman about sixteen years of age, with
thick black hair so wavy there was almost a curl to it—there would
be, on humid days—and eyes nearly as dark; pale skin; generous lips;
a fine straight nose. The young man looking back at me was handsome
and gave offan air of self-confidence.
There was just one problem; two, actually.
The barely discernible bulge in the front of the trousers had been
created by a carefully balled-up pair of stockings.
And the young gentleman—I—was a girl.
“William, I am so disappointed in you!”
Paul Gardener always addressed his great-nephew as William when
he was displeased with something he had done.
I was seated on a chair by the fireplace, sewing, my long skirts
around me, as I had been just a moment before when a servant at the
door to the drawing room had announced Will. The drawing room
ran the length of the house, from front to back, and had large
windows at either end that cast long shadows now that night was
nearly upon us. The ceiling was a blinding white, while the walls were
painted scarlet, punctuated with well-placed brass candle fixtures; the
master of the house and I were seated at the room’s far end. There was
an enormous area rug, also in scarlet but accented with cream, and a
large bookcase containing all of the master’s favorite volumes, of
which I’d read more than a few.
“Bet.” Will acknowledged me with a nod after first greeting his
great-uncle, as was proper.
“Will.” I returned the nod but saw no reason to rise for the
occasion, although I was happy to see him. I was always happy to see
Will, no matter what the circumstances.
Paul Gardener did not rise either. It was difficult for him to do so
without assistance. In the past few years, he had aged a great deal.
Indeed, both eyes, formerly a sharp blue, were now so fogged by
cataracts that he glimpsed only flashes of the world through thick
clouds, and it was one of my jobs to read to him from the papers or
from books when he was of a mind to be read to. Still, despite his
many infirmities, Paul Gardener took great care in his dress and
appearance; his proud mane of hair was white and thick. I had seen
artists’ renderings of him when he was younger and knew that in his
youth he had been nearly as handsome as Will.
“I had somewhat hoped you would be happy to see me, Uncle,”
Will said with a wry smile.
I dared look at Will no longer for fear I would break out into
laughter, so I cast my gaze back down upon my sewing. It was not so
much that the sewing needed to be done as that I needed something
“Of course I am happy to see you!” the old man sputtered. He
looked befuddled for a moment as he corrected himself, “Well, that
is, if I could
see you.” After that brief moment of befuddlement, he
recalled his outrage. Raising a gnarled fist, he shook the sheet of paper
he held clenched in his hand. It was a letter, and ever since I’d read its
contents to him last week, he’d been holding it pretty much every
moment I had seen him. “What,” he thundered, “is the meaning
Without needing to look at what his great-uncle was holding, Will
knew to what he was referring.
“It means,” he said, “that I have been sent down from school.”
Which is a nice way, I thought, of saying that you have been expelled.
“I understand that!” the old man said. “I may be blind, or near
enough, but I am not stupid. But what I don’t understand—what I
cannot understand, William—is why? ”
Will’s expression softened from its usual air of studied indifference.
Whatever else Will was, he did not like to hurt his great-uncle;
still, he would not do what was against his nature merely to please.
He opened his mouth to speak—perhaps even to make an effort to
sound contrite—but he was stopped by the grandfather clock at the
other end of the room banging out the hour.
“Oh.” Paul Gardener lowered his fist. “It is time for dinner.”
No matter what was going on around him—including storms
outside or within the house—Paul Gardener would have his meals
“The Boers could show up here in London,” Will had said to me
on his last visit home, “they could march up right to our door and
enter, weapons drawn, and Uncle would say, ‘You may kill me in half
an hour, but first I must finish my supper.’ ”
Will approached his great-uncle’s chair and, placing his strong
hand under the elderly man’s elbow, helped him to his feet. “Uncle?”
Will invited, holding his own elbow out so that he might escort the
old man to the dining room.
They were nearly through the doorway when Paul Gardener
paused and cocked his head, listening. His eyesight may have been
awful, but his hearing was perfect.
“Elizabeth?” he called back to me, having detected the absence of
any following footsteps. “Aren’t you dining with us this evening?”
He said this as though I were always welcome at the table, and yet
I always waited to be asked, never assuming anything. I knew that
indeed my presence was not always welcome.
“Of course, sir,” I said, at once setting aside my sewing. It would
never have occurred to me to say no.
As I followed behind them, I saw Will turn his head and glance
back at me over his great-uncle’s shoulder. His smile was devilish, and
I returned it in full.
You, Will, I thought, have just been saved by the bell.
But that saving did not last long, not even through the soup course.