“Eden you can’t go dressed like that.”
Gertrude stood before Eden in a crimson satin dress trimmed in black velvet. A sparkling comb and sleek black feathers adorned her elaborate hair. They were expected at Cathy Dickens’s house for a Christmas party. Eden had carefully chosen her black suit and a new tie. She’d added the cufflinks Gertrude had given her for Christmas last year, smiling as she did, imagining that Gertrude would smile too, to see them.
But now Gertrude was frowning. Her words rushed at Eden. “People will be there—Cathy’s parents and lots of Harvard men and—you can’t wear trousers, they’ll be scandalized!”
Eden’s heart raced. Gertrude had never reprimanded her before about her clothes. If anything, she had always acted proud when they went out together as a boy and girl. Now Eden’s face grew hot and she knew she was blushing terribly.
She had not thought about who might be at the party, but now it was at once obvious to her that Gertrude was right. Her friends would all be there but of course, there would also be strangers, and those people might not be so indulgent or amused by Eden’s unusual attire. She would not be anonymous, nor would she be in Eleanor’s house. For being so often at parties in Eleanor’s house was what had made her forget that she could not dress as she pleased at this party too.
“I wasn’t thinking, Gertrude,” she said now. “I’ll just change.” And Eden ran back up the stairs and hastily pulled on a plain black gabardine skirt, changed her tie for a brooch that had belonged to her mother and found a small, black, straw hat. But she did not change her shirt or remove her waistcoat and jacket—or the cufflinks.
Cathy greeted them with embraces at the door and introduced Eden to her parents. Soon, Gertrude had disappeared among the throng of guests.
Eden found herself beside a table laden with cookies and a large crystal bowl filled with something pink. She took two glasses of punch from a girl of about sixteen who said she was Cathy’s sister, and went to find Gertrude in the laughing crowd of Dickens family and friends.
She tried to protect the shallow cups from too much jostling as she moved through narrow spaces behind and between people, all the while, keeping her eyes on the faces, searching for Gertrude. But when Eden finally saw the girl, she stopped quite short and the cup in her left hand shook enough that a splash of punch made it over the rim and dripped down her sleeve, staining her cuff pink.
Gertrude was letting some boy kiss her under a bunch of mistletoe that hung in a doorway between the parlor and the dining room.
It was not much of a kiss, just a peck on the cheek, really. But when it was over, Gertrude’s hands stayed in the boy’s hands and her eyes looked into his with a brightness Eden had seen before in her own private moments with the girl she loved. Eden’s heart pounded as she turned and began to move back to the room with the punch as quickly as she could without spilling anything more.
But when she rounded the corner to enter the room, she nearly lost the punch again, as she all but collided with Sophia Abington.
“Oh, excuse me!” Miss Abington said, looking quickly at Eden. “I’ve made you spill your punch.” She looked at Eden’s spoiled cuff with almost terrified remorse in her eyes.
“No, it’s alright,” Eden said, trying to get the image of Gertrude and the boy out of her mind.
Miss Abington was handing Eden a handkerchief and frowning still. Eden gave the girl the cup she held in her right hand. “Well, would you like some punch?” she asked with a forced smile. She took the handkerchief and dabbed uselessly at her cuff.
“It’s really not your fault,” Eden said, giving up on the cuff and returning the handkerchief. She drank what was left in the cup she held in one nervous gulp. She guessed it was about half champagne and was grateful for the warm tingle she felt as she swallowed.
Sophia Abington sipped at the punch Eden had given her, while Eden looked over the books on the shelves in the room. People came in and out for cookies and drinks and Eden was relieved to recognize none of them.
She was about to ask Cathy’s sister for more of the punch, when a book caught her eye. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, sat dustily between two other books by the same author.
“He wrote more than one?” Eden said aloud, and Miss Abington turned.
“Mr. Douglass…” Miss Abington noted the books Eden was looking at. “Yes.” She took down the one that began A Narrative of the Life…” brushed its cover with her hand and smiled. “Most of it is just the same material revised. I guess a story so profound takes time to tell in just the right way.”
“I guess so,” Eden agreed.
“Do you have a story?” Miss Abington asked.
Eden was startled by the question. “A story?”
“Do you think your life would make a good book, I mean?”
Eden looked at Miss Abington. Part of her wanted to blurt out her romantic hopes for life with Gertrude. But it was hardly a thing to share with a girl she barely knew.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Would yours?”
“Not yet.” She put back the book. “But I hope it will someday.”
Eden’s friends called Sophia Abington prim. They called her timid. They called her sanctimonious. Eden didn’t know her well enough to defend her against such accusations, but she was beginning to suspect the others might be wrong.
“Eden Smith, where have you been?” Eden turned to see a giggling Cathy take a cookie from her sister’s table. “Gertrude is looking for you. And Julia Bloom wants to give you something. And my cousin, Paul, wants to meet you. He has been threatening to go West instead of to college ever since her was fourteen.”
Eden gave Miss Abington a smile and a shrug and followed Cathy out of the room. When she saw that Gertrude was waiting for her, the anxiety she had felt a quarter-hour before flooded over her again. She put a hand to her temple and frowned.
Gertrude seemed not to notice Eden’s distress. “Here you are!” she chimed. “I thought you might bring me some punch, but you disappeared.”
“I’m sorry, Gertie, I was just looking for you,” Eden lied. “I’ve got a terrible headache all of a sudden. I thought I’d catch a streetcar back to Cambridge and see you in the morning.”
Now Cathy was frowning. “But you just arrived. Before you go, just say hello to Paul—” and she turned as if to go find her cousin.
Gertrude was shaking her head. “Have you forgotten? I’m leaving for New York tomorrow. I’m going to stay with my parents tonight,” she reminded Eden.
“Of course,” Eden apologized. “I’m so stupid to forget, it’s just, my head…”
And Eden reached into her pocket to find the gift she’d bought Gertrude and had meant to give her tonight after the party, in a quiet cab ride to the girl’s home in Boston. But there was nothing there.
She’d left the small box with the silver bracelet in the pocket of her trousers.
“Oh Gertie, I’m so sorry, I’ve really made of mess of the evening. I left your present at home…” Eden felt like crying, but didn’t dare. Instead, she gave Gertrude a forlorn look and reached nervously to straighten the tie that wasn’t there, and pulled at her brooch instead.
“Oh never mind, we can do that another time. I’m sorry you aren’t well.” And Gertrude kissed her on the cheek, not unlike she’d kissed the boy under the mistletoe. She took Eden’s hands, gave them a squeeze, said “feel better darling,” and turned back to the party, leaving Eden to let herself out the front door of the house.