It was three days before she opened the door of Theodore’s room or any part of the wing of the house that had become a private hospital in his last weeks of life. She had shown Bette the places she and her brother had frequented before he was too ill to go out; had taken her even, to his grave and laid a posy of violets there, dry-eyed as the day she had buried him.
Bette had been as serviceable a witness to these things as Eleanor could have ordered herself. In their little tours, she had asked only the questions Eleanor made it clear she would welcome answering. She made no scenes of melodramatic mourning at the graveside, following instead, Eleanor’s reverent but measured example.
Eleanor did not want to lose her equilibrium now. But three days was long enough to wait.
“I suppose I’d better go and see to his room this morning,” Eleanor told Bette across the small breakfast table on the piazza.
“His things are all there—or should be, supposing the staff has followed my orders, and I have no reason to believe they haven’t.”
“His things…” Bette mused quietly, not meeting Eleanor’s eye.
“They need going over. I have to decide what to do with them before the sale.”
She intended to sell the house and the majority of its contents at auction as soon as she could pack away what she wanted to keep and choose an agent.
“Shall I help you?” Bette asked.
Eleanor paused for just a moment. Her first instinct was to beg Bette to simply go and do it for her. But how could Bette decide what to keep and what to sell among such personal detritus?
“No, there’s no need,” she said, lighting a cigarette and finishing the strong little cup of coffee before her.
“You’re certain?” Bette had barely pressed.
Eleanor gave her a strained smile. “Certain,” she said.
But as she crossed the threshold of Theo’s room, she found herself needing, if not an arm to lean on, a reminder that her brother had last been here 18 years ago, rather than just days before. She had not even returned to the room after the burial, but had left it forever after the doctor had shaken his head and covered Theo’s face with the sheet.
In the morning light that filled the window and brightened the room, it seemed to Eleanor that her brother had stepped away for a moment and might return presently, to chide her for being there without his leave. She moved to the bed itself, put a hand on a post and found herself almost faint. She sat down to catch her breath and saw that beside the bed, on a little marble table, lay a copy of Keats, a well-chewed pipe upon its curling cover and a mahogany box inlaid with alabaster that she had given Theo for his eighteenth birthday. There was a little drawer in the table and she guessed it was likely to be full still of clean handkerchiefs with TWS stitched in the corners.
Her eyes welled with tears.