Eden’s shoes pinched her feet as she stepped to the front door of an imposing house on Chestnut Street. She lifted her hat, ran a hand through her hair and rang.
Even in the dark, it was obvious that the house was grand. The door was framed by an arch, just inside which were two marble urns filled with topiary boxwoods and ivy that trailed out of the pots and up the bricks facing the street. There were three stories of large windows and a fourth of attic dormers above them. Several of the ones at the ground level were lit, though curtained, preventing any view of the rooms behind them from the street. Smoke was rising from one of the chimneys though it was only September and not yet really cold.
In a moment, a housemaid in a neat, grey dress with a white apron and cap opened the door and ushered Eden inside.
“Good evening, Miss Smith,” the girl said.
“Good evening, Ginny, thank you,” said Eden handing the maid her hat and gloves.
“Is Miss Prescott with you tonight?”
“No—She has got a headache, I’m afraid.” Eden frowned.
“I’m sorry to hear it, Miss Smith.”
She showed Eden into a parlor and bowed slightly as she turned back to the front door.
The room was lit by candles and a fire burning low in the large hearth. The overall effect was to make the wallpaper flocking appear to undulate and change color from blue to purple to rose to brown as the fire flickered. The large widows at the front of the room were heavily draped in velvet and silk and the floor was covered as the hall had been, in thick Turkey carpets that overlaid each other richly here and there and muffled the guests’ voices.
The room was full of women. Most of them were smoking cigarettes and little ashtrays of marble and glass were placed here and there to accommodate them. As Eden entered, many of them turned and smiled to acknowledge her before returning to their conversations.
Eden’s attention, however, went directly to a corner of the room near the front window. In it sat a glossy japanned sideboard covered with crystal glasses and several decanters filled with liquids ranging from burgundy to pale gold. As she expected, the mistress of the house, Eleanor Stephens, stood there, pouring something from one of the decanters and handing it to a lady in an expensive-looking green satin gown.
Like Eden, Eleanor wore gentlemen’s evening clothes tonight. Unlike Eden, she always dressed in gentlemen’s clothes, and she had exhorted Eden that if she wished, she might do so as well, whenever they were together.
There had never been anyone—perhaps excepting Gertrude—whose good opinion Eden wanted more than Eleanor Stephens’s. The woman was like no one Eden had ever known. She regularly passed as an anonymous man on the streets of Boston and had been instrumental in Eden’s learning how to do it too. She often took Eden with her to gentlemen’s lounges in hotels or to the opera, where she had a box under the name E.W. Stephens. In these places, she called Eden “Ethan” and insisted Eden call her “Elliot.” She was a writer of some acclaim, but the first of her books, published originally in France, had been banned in the United States for several years. In spite of her increasing fame, her writing was still considered controversial and caused raised eyebrows among many of the literature professors at Radcliffe. Nevertheless, Radcliffe received a generous sum from E.W. Stephens, in support of its mission every year.
“I think you’ve met everyone here except my houseguest, Miss Hyland,” Miss Stephens said after a brief greeting. She nodded to someone, sitting on a small couch with Mrs. Wister, an administrator Eden knew from the college. Catching Eleanor’s look, the stranger said a word to Mrs. Wister and rose to meet them in the middle of the room.
“Eden Smith,” Miss Hyland said in what Eden thought was an English accent, “I’ve heard so much about you from Eleanor. She insists this little affair tonight is expressly for the purpose that you and I should meet, in fact.”
Miss Hyland was tall with pale hair and a fair complexion. She looked about midway in age between Eleanor and Eden—perhaps thirty—and like them, wore a men’s haircut and men’s evening clothes. Seeing her, Eden’s heart gave a little leap, just as it had when she had first met Eleanor. But she strove to remain polite and calm as she shook the woman’s ring-covered hand. “Miss Hyland,” she said congenially.
The woman corrected her, “please call me Wil,” she insisted. “My mother committed the travesty of naming me Wilomena, but my friends, over the years have salvaged it.” And she smiled warmly.
“Wil,” said Eden, smiling back.
“Eden, can I get you a drink?” Eleanor asked.
Eden looked back to the japanned cabinet and frowned for a fleeting instant. Eleanor was always offering her drinks, but she had not yet learned to like any of them. “Whatever you’re having, thanks,” she said and turned back to Wil Hyland.
“Does anything in particular bring you to Boston?”
“Eleanor and I are neighbors in London,” she answered. It’s my first trip to America. She’s been trying to get me over for years,” Miss Hyland reached into her jacket, pulled a cigarette from her breast pocket and lit it.
Eleanor returned with two glasses and handed Eden one. “Gin and tonic,” she announced, “in honor of our English visitor.” Eden took the glass and tapped it against Eleanor’s and Wil’s before taking a sip.
“I guess Wil told you she lives near me in London,” Eleanor said as Eden nodded. “But I doubt she mentioned that she’s a poet, as well—quite a celebrated one in certain circles, in fact.”
“Small, inconsequential circles,” Miss Hyland demurred with a smile.
“Nonsense,” her hostess objected. “Wil is too British about it. She has in fact been called ‘important’ by one or two people who ought to know—myself for example.”
“Yourself, for example?” Wil laughed, “for all the time you spend in my country, you are still a typical blustering American.”
“Thank god, for that,” Eleanor said, finishing her drink. “If I didn’t have my father’s property to keep up, I wouldn’t have to spend any time in your dreary little country at all, darling.”
“Don’t believe her, Eden,” Wil said, “Eleanor could never abide being a real American. Tiresome as they are, half her cousins have titles. She needs England, if only to give her somewhere to recuperate when Paris has exhausted her. This country is too full of Puritans for her debauched heart.”
Eleanor Stephens smiled but said nothing, setting her empty glass on a small table and lighting a cigarette instead.
Eden knew Eleanor didn’t really find England dreary. In fact, it was Boston she usually described that way. She spent months of the year in London and had all but given Eden to understand that she came back every spring only because her publishers were here. But she and Wil Hyland were both smiling and laughing, so Eden supposed it was a joke between them.
As Eleanor struck a match, Wil turned to Eden and asked, “when will you be over to meet the rest of London, then?”
“The rest of London?” Eden asked.
“Well—the rest of Eleanor’s London, anyway,” Wil amended.
“Her family?” Eden ventured.
“Oh God no. My ‘family’ is hardly my London—or perhaps I should say I’m not part of theirs.” Eleanor raised an eyebrow. Then, turning to Wil, she added, “She needs to make the acquaintance of Boston a bit better before I start parading her about the globe.”
“Hmm,” Wil said, eyeing Eden “we will all be waiting with bated breath for your debut.”
Eden wasn’t sure what to say. She finished her drink and was glancing about for a place to put her empty glass when, mercifully, the bell rang for dinner.
The parlor maid rolled open a door at the end of the room. It disappeared into the wall, revealing a dining room furnished with a long mahogany table and matching chairs with thick upholstery of subtle damask and satin braid.
On the table itself, crystal in various shapes and sizes flanked thin china. Heavy silver stamped with a family crest sat at every place. Linen napkins folded into crisp swans sat upon the plates and candelabras laden with burning ivory tapers stood across the length of the table.
There was another fireplace in the room, with a marble mantel, above which hung a seascape in oil.
“You have a new picture?” Eden said and walked to it. It was signed “J.F. Kensett.”
“Do you like it?” Eleanor asked as Eden turned from it and found her place next to Eleanor at the table.
“I think so. I’d like to get a look at it in better light,” she answered.
“It’s not as nice as the French one in the library, but I like to have at least one picture of water in every room,” Eleanor said. To Wil Hyland, at her other side, she noted, “Eden has quite an appreciation for art. I believe—tell me if it’s true Eden—she has decided to focus her studies on the history of art and architecture?”
“Yes,” Eden said.
“Well, in that case you must come to Europe,” Wil insisted. “The art and architecture of America has no history.” She looked at Eleanor, “you really must give her the grand tour.”
“All in time, Wil,” Eleanor said.
Eden didn’t know what a grand tour was but it sounded intimidating—and expensive. So she said nothing as the women beside her bantered about what ought to be done with her. Across the table, two women in their early sixties were deeply engaged in a quiet conversation. On the other side of Wil, Mrs. Wister was asking the kitchen maid about some detail of the meal.
The meal was as good as any Eden could have imagined. Eleanor never served anything but the best food in ostentatious amounts. A few of the more modestly dressed ladies picked timidly at their little stuffed hens, but Eden fell to hers with enthusiasm. She had nearly finished her second glass of wine and between it and the gin, she felt herself loosening. “El—” She said, calling Eleanor’s attention from her own food. “Where in Boston can I buy a good watch?” Eden had been using her father’s watch for a year. She wanted to offer him one for Christmas to replace it.
Eleanor smiled. “Well…I’ve never bought a new watch. I’ve got my father’s watch, my grandfather’s watch and my poor brother’s watch. But I do sometimes take them to be cleaned or repaired. I go to Cambridge for it, in fact, not so far from the university. I’ll give you the man’s card before you leave tonight.”
After dinner, the party retired to the music room where Mrs. George DeVries, the wife of a wealthy benefactor to Radcliffe, was to play Beethoven and Miss Francine Smalls, one of Boston’s leading advocates for women’s education, was to sing.
Eleanor poured Eden yet another drink. “You must learn to appreciate my brandy, Eden,” she said, handing her the glass. She lowered her voice. “It will help you to appreciate Francine’s singing.”
“I heard you—you’re horrible,” whispered Wil Hyland as the piano sounded and she sat down to join them.
Eleanor merely finished her own brandy and signaled to the parlor maid to close the music room door.
It was Ginny, the same girl who’d taken Eden’s hat and gloves when she’d come in. Ginny was the housekeeper’s, daughter. She and her brother, Howard, had grown up in Eleanor’s house.
When Eden had first met Eleanor, she had wondered what the servants thought about their mistress’s eccentric habits. Did they never whisper together about a woman in trousers who held all-female dinner parties at which so many of the guests were spinsters or widows who shared households with each other instead of husbands or brothers or grown-up sons?
Then Eden had taken her first carriage ride in Eleanor’s landaulette and had met John Ringles.
John was the footman. One winter day, Eleanor had sent her carriage to collect Eden in Cambridge. Eden came out, dressed in her trousers, nervous that the footman might realize her disguise. But as he touched his hat to salute her, she was struck with the immediate sense that John was not a young man any more than Eden was.
Eleanor had confirmed Eden’s suspicion. Fourteen-year-old Jean had come to the door looking for work and the housekeeper, Mrs. Williams, had taken one look at her and brought her in. It soon became clear that Jean preferred the stable to the parlor and wearing Mrs. Williams’ son’s outgrown clothes to her daughter’s. In a few years, John was the footman and no one called him “Jean” anymore.
Mrs. Williams herself had been widowed since her children were infants. She had made a home with Miss Daley, the cook, ever since. Eleanor had hired them together soon after taking over the household affairs upon her father’s death.
Eden had gradually come to learn that Eleanor’s staff was full of people with one reason or another for reserving judgment on the mistress’s eccentricities. Likewise the mistress reserved judgment on theirs—and she paid better than the going wages.
Miss Francine, as her friends called her, beamed as the small party applauded her singing. Eden had not thought it bad for a lady obviously past the prime of her life, and wondered if she was learning to appreciate brandy after all. But she had other reasons to feel kind hearted towards Miss Francine. The woman had obtained a place for Eden at the college two years ago and had since been paying Eden’s fees with the large inheritance left her by her companion of many years, Beatrice Warner. Eden’s father gave her an allowance, but year-to-year income was uncertain at the Double S ranch, and the place supported four families and a number of hired men. Miss Francine’s benevolence was Eden’s best guarantee of finishing her course at Radcliffe.
Mrs. DeVries, at the piano, smiled at Miss Francine with admiration. It looked as if she had not considered that any of the applause could be due to her playing. Eden marked the smile and wondered where Mrs. DeVries’s husband was tonight. The woman was often at Eleanor’s parties but Mr. DeVries never was. She was the only married woman in the room, though all the ladies were well over 35. Eden was the only student. She didn’t mind, but she missed Gertrude. She might have asked her whether she noticed anything particular about Mrs. DeVries attitude towards Miss Francine.
The guests began to take their leave and Eden asked Eleanor to excuse her too. She had had too much to drink and would suffer for it, but was determined not to miss her early lecture the next morning. Eleanor called for the landaulette and Ginny found Eden’s hat and gloves as she exchanged polite goodnights with Wil Hyland.