“And I you,” I said with urgency, for to see her at last was to ache less fast — or not as deeply.
We held each other’s gaze and exchanged an affirmation of everything that had ever — and indeed would ever — pass between us.
My hands had remained in hers, and without thinking, I could not help but stroke her thumbs with mine.
I caught this action, and willed my extremities still.
And I asked, “How are you, Miss Bellefey?”
A tear welled in her eye and she scoffed at herself a little as she smoothed it away. As she smiled in her scoff, her radiance shined through from her inner reservoir, and I felt warmth in my abdomen.
She returned her hand to mine — the other had remained in place — and let out a breath.
“Come, Mr. Morgan,” she said, eyeing my loose cravat, “I will tell you. Will you have some tea?”
“I would love nothing more,” I said, and she led me by the hand to the parlor.
Her shoulders were spare, I saw as I followed her, and the loose lemon-colored silk of her gown was gathered with pins at her waist. Her gait conveyed pain in her body, though she retained her grace.
As I observed, longing to provide comfort, her combination of vulnerableness and litheness, I became aware of my own “need for nourishment.” As long ago as it seemed, it was only half an hour before that Mundy had called me “emaciated.”
He exaggerated, but it was true that I was gaunt.
I was also both unshaven and disheveled.
I might have felt self-conscious, yet I was most aware of my exaltation, relief, and astoundment that she had received me.
My mind was bleary.
Yet my heart was clear.
From the moment Miss Bellefey had appeared at the top of the stairs, I had been only dimly aware of Clara and the elder Bellefeys — not out of discourtesy, but by reason of a certain optical preoccupation.
It seemed the general had withdrawn to his study, and —
“Clara! Clara! We must have cakes!” Mrs. Bellefey was saying. “The angel food, and the five sweet spice! You remember, Mr. Morgan, how good those are with the Japanese tea you love so much. And sandwiches, Clara, bring a small mountain of sandwiches! How you love cucumber sandwiches, Catherine! And olives, Clara, they both adore olives…”
The fireplace was aglow with warmth, and two electric lamps cast a blaze that paled the luster of the gas lamps. I feared that the brightness would illumine how my own eyes had welled, but all sights were fixed on plans for tea.
I collected myself, and then Miss Bellefey turned to me and said with her eyes that she would speak to her health when the others had left us.
As we settled ourselves on the sofa, I pulled my cravat more tautly and silently reprimanded myself for not having shaved or polished my boots. I felt undomesticated.
And yet now both of Miss Bellefey’s hands were in mine and I cared about nothing but her. The lamp behind her lit her cheeks like honey, and all that absorbed my awareness was the person I had so missed. She had always communicated to me with her eyes in this way, and now she seemed to be saying that she valued my presence as much as I reveled in hers.
Then she whispered: “You have the eyes of a hunter, Mr. Morgan. Feral and famished.”
I did not know how to respond, until her smile ushered my reply.
“Is it not the hunter’s prey that is wild?” I asked.
“Indeed it is,” she said, “and yet when the hunter is hungry, he too is untamed.”
This was the gentle banter — the very type of discourse — that had beguiled me as much as her beauty, that had thrust me into anguish when it had vanished from my grasp.
“Miss Bellefey…” I started to say, and then Mrs. Bellefey finished detailing a banquet that would nourish a kingdom, and turned to us with all of her warmth and brightness.
Thus I changed my course and remarked, “Your mother is determined that we feast.”
Miss Bellefey laughed in a way that roused my spirits.
“Music to my ears!” her mother exclaimed. “How happy your laughter makes me, my darling.”
“I feel happy too, Mama. And ferociously hungry. Mr. Morgan, I believe you indicated that you are ferally famished?”
“I am indeed,” I said. Understatement seemed my best course.
Mrs. Bellefey’s hands fluttered into the air in a flurry of excitement.
“You see, my darlings? I have said that cake and conversation are the keys to feeling tip-top. You must excuse me, my loves! I must see how Clara is doing with Mrs. Ireland.”
She flew from the room like a hummingbird in search of nectar.
Miss Bellefey turned back to me and I said, “How do you fare? Your mother alarmed me in the park and I felt I must ascertain that you are well.”
There was color blooming in her face, and I felt my own blood coming alive.
She smiled and said, “First I want to tell you that I am anxious to hear how you fare, Mr. Morgan. I am not the only one who is undernourished. You are like a mirror to me, reflecting why others worry, and compelling me in my own desire to fatten you with a thousand angel food cakes and ‘a small mountain of sandwiches!’”
We laughed and I squeezed her hands, urging her to answer my most pressing question.
“Mr. Morgan,” she said. She brushed a stray hair from her eye, and the movement stirred her scent of jasmine and night flowers. “Propriety would have me assure you that I am well. But the truth is — I struggle in body and soul.”
She turned to the fire and I saw that she aimed not to cry. I tightened my hands around hers, and she turned back to me.
Her voice broke slightly as she said, “I suffer a grief that will not leave me. I have for much of my life. Since I said that I could not marry you, I have felt more grief. I try to eat, and I long to enjoy my life, but I am overpowered.”
Her grief, I knew, was for her sister — her twin, Julianna. Grief was my long companion as well, and I foraged for the words to express my accord.
I was at a loss, though my eyes conveyed my thoughts.
And her face brightened as she said, “Though I have, in this moment, a feeling of renewal.”
Like my eyes, my posture disclosed my heart, for I found that I was bowing toward her.
“How can I ensure that you always feel renewed?”
“How you make me wish I could be all you should have!”
“Miss Bellefey,” I said. I looked into her eyes with the directness I had imbibed from her. “I am confused.”
She seemed to search for clarifying words.
“I am also delighted,” I said. “All at once. And I cannot say how relieved I am that you received me. I had languished because I believed you wished to no longer see me.”
“Mr. Morgan,” she said. “Indeed I had hoped to see you as long as you would see me.”
I clapped my hands as if ready to prepare for our nuptials. “So for the rest of your life, and beyond?” I asked in a hopeful tone.
She chuckled at my banter. But then she said — gently, in her manner of emitting heavy words with gentle resonance, “Until you meet the woman who will be your wife.”
My heart dropped into a cavern.
But I had come this far.
And I had been received.
Thus I would not resign.
I took her hands again and said, “I have met her. Her hands are in mine.”
“I mislead you,” she said. “I do not mean to taunt you. I wish for you to understand. I have regretted deeply that I was not able to tell you clearly why I could not marry you. I believe you went away with me having said something about the kind of house you love. I did not speak well; it does not have to do with where you wish to live. Indeed I want you to be happy with where you live and with everything in your life. Which is why — ”
She looked to the fire again. I fumbled for my handkerchief; placed it in her hand. She clasped it and held it to one eye, the firelight burnishing the gold of her hair.
When she turned back to me, she said, “I detest being teary. It makes me feel like an absolute fool.”
“You are not a fool,” I said. “Indeed I know you are uncommonly judicious. If you are tearful, what troubles you is considerable.”
“Thank you, Mr. Morgan. I feel demure, and I am sure you know I am not demure.”
“Indeed, you can be strikingly bold — even shameless at times.”
She laughed with appreciation. “You understand me well,” she said. “I feel like a fool if I cannot control my emotions. I must not cry; I must not fall into a puddle of weeping and cause you or my parents worry or overwhelm. Yet I long to be clear so you can understand.”
“I beg you to say what you long to say. You can tell me anything you like, without fear of puddles.”
She laughed a little, then said, “Clara and my mother will bring the tea soon. I cannot speak plainly about something so embarrassing — particularly not with an audience hovering. Because I will fall into a puddle. I am self-conscious without privacy, and even with it, or perhaps especially with it…”
My ears had sprung at the word “privacy.”
“What if you were to tell me in the park?”
“Where there are only trees to hear you.”
“And you to hear me.”
“Yes and me.”
She nodded. “Perhaps that is best. Though truthfully I do not know how I could ever say it. It is not normal, it is not even natural, and even if I could say it, you would… well, you would certainly understand. And you would be glad to never see me again.”
“I doubt that emphatically. Indeed I am buying the chance to be with you again. The cost is not only renewed rejection, it is explicit rejection. I will take it. Tell me in the privacy of our grove tomorrow. And tell me presently — who is the fool now?”
This amused her — unexpectedly, it seemed — and she said, “How you lighten my mood, Mr. Morgan!”
Like a breeze, Mrs. Bellefey returned with a tray in her hands and Clara, likewise encumbered, in her wake.
“I have the tea, my darlings! We could not find the olives. Mrs. Ireland mixed her horseradish cream to go with the roast beef. Set the sandwiches in the middle, please, Clara — how rich they are in butter! We must all have a sandwich.”
Clara set down the small mountain of sandwiches.
There were, in fact, twin peaks — one cucumber, one roast beef, piled high beside what I had often regarded as the two best-tasting cakes I had ever enjoyed.
Gingerly, Mrs. Bellefey took a seat on the edge of the chair in front of the cat, who rolled onto his back and resumed his doze with his paws in the air.
“Oh my darlings, how delightful!” she said. “But what is new, Mr. Morgan? Pray you must tell us of your friend’s wedding. And did you find happy lodgings? I recall your rooms were not to your liking. Oh I do hope Catherine has not told you anything that would…?”
“No, no, Mama, I did not detail my shortcomings.”
“I am glad, my darling. It just would not aid either of you to discuss the matter.”
“Perhaps not,” Miss Bellefey said, rendering me less than certain as to whether she would meet me in the park the next day.
Then she said, “Please tell us how you are, Mr. Morgan. We have had so much about me, and I have so wanted to hear about you.”
The tenderness in her voice soothed my bones so that for a moment I was lost in my cup, the tea as green as a spring leaf.
Reluctant to dwell on the despair that had consumed me, I described Mundy’s matrimony and reported that I had rented a house in the district to the south.
“Oh! The Lion District?” Mrs. Bellefey asked, her eyes bright.
“Indeed, yes, now that you mention it. It is the Lion District. I have not thought about that name since I was a boy.”
“It is named for the old statues! Oh it was so very beautiful in the Lion District! How I remember picnics overlooking the lake when the girls were small.”
Miss Bellefey was gazing at the fire. She seemed to be recalling the company of her twin.
She stirred from her musings and said, “I am glad you have moved there, Mr. Morgan. I remember well what fun we had on the bluffs. There was one summer we went often, and our Sunday dresses had violets on them, and the grass was strewn with buttercups. Diamond and I made bouquets. Julianna was a jewel, you see, Mr. Morgan, so I called her Diamond. She called me Emerald because I was a cat — short for Catherine — and cats have emerald eyes. Though our own eyes were blue.”
“Are blue,” Mrs. Bellefey nearly whispered. “Your eyes are blue. I thank heaven morning and night that we did not lose you. And remember that I used to call you both my sapphires!”
Miss Bellefey nodded gently, and I found my memory stirring.
“Sapphires,” I said.
My companions regarded me and I said, “I am sorry to interrupt you. I am recalling that I dreamed of a sapphire. It is why I am in this disheveled state. I dreamed as I overslept, and I made such haste to the office that I had forgotten until now.”
“What did you dream?” Miss Bellefey asked.
“There was news of an enormous sapphire. Very famous in the dream. It was a lost sapphire — a legendary sapphire of ancient Egypt. It was discovered in a temple, a very old place of ceremony. It had been safeguarded behind a sealed door. Inside there were golden walls decorated with vibrant hieroglyphs, and the sapphire had rested on an altar for millennia. It was the size of that ostrich egg” — I gestured toward the oval curio on the mantle — “glittering and utterly alive.”
Both ladies appeared entranced as I spoke. Miss Bellefey was like me in that anything to do with ancient civilizations held her in fascination.
“What a marvelous dream, Mr. Morgan,” her mother said. “Discovering magical treasures! Would you not just love to go to Egypt?”
“Oh yes,” Miss Bellefey said. “That is one of the places I long to visit most.”
The passion she spoke with made the five-sweet-spice cake taste ambrosial.
I had not relished victuals so much in months. Mrs. Jameson’s roast beef was hearty, but Mrs. Ireland’s was as tender as a fresh morel.
I looked to Miss Bellefey. She was eating her cucumber sandwich with zest, dipping it into her dollop of horseradish cream, laughing as I mocked myself for spilling tea on my trouser leg.
Mrs. Jameson’s fare filled my belly, but I always concluded her early suppers with a feeling that I was missing a vital nutrient.
That nutrient, I knew, was companionship.
At length, I could see that Miss Bellefey was starting to tire, and indeed so was I. The woman in white had woken me in the night, and I intuited that Miss Bellefey’s sleep had been broken too.
Were she my wife, I would have taken her by the hand to lie down and rest with me.
As it was, with great reluctance I rose from the seat beside my love, murmuring something about Mrs. Jameson pondering my whereabouts — and adding that actually, at this time of evening, I was usually pondering hers.
The ladies rose, and we heard the doorbell ring. Clara hurried through the hall to the front door.
Apollo, the cat, awakened to say hello as the three of us started saying our goodbyes.
Then Clara entered the doorway, a man with a physician’s bag in her wake.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Dr. Dimsby to see you, miss.”