The pianist entered in an evening suit and took a bow to scattered applause. He sat on the small bench, arranging the tails of his coat carefully behind him and paused for a moment, then struck the first chord with ferocity. He allowed it to fade and the music began anew in tiny crystalline notes that seemed reluctantly to sound at all, quivering in the air ephemerally and following each other in uneven little rushes, almost as leaves might drop from a tree in a late autumn breeze.
Eden had never heard anything like it in her life and without warning, her eyes clouded with tears. She blinked them back hard, but they fell anyway, and she was glad of the dark music hall. She glanced quickly around her.
On her left, Julia sat waving a fan. On her right, Miss Abington clenched the program in her lap, eyes on the pianist. In the reflected light from the stage, Eden saw that a tear glistened on her cheek too. At a sudden impulse, Eden reached out and picked up the girl’s left hand and she turned at once to meet Eden’s gaze. Eden smiled and pulled Miss Abington’s hand into her lap, enclosing it in both of hers. The girl gave her a little squeeze and turned her eyes back to the piano.
When the music was over, Eden let Sophia Abington’s hand fall and the lights came up on the crowd. The girls around them all began talking at once about how lovely the music had been and where everyone ought to go now that it was over, to discuss it and the many other things that had, for the hour of the performance, gone undiscussed.
Eden demurred on all the plans proposed, insisting she needed to study. Then, stealing an earnest glance at the girl to her right, she leaned toward her to whisper quickly “will you share a cab back with me?”
Miss Abington said nothing, but gave a small nod and an even smaller smile.
Even as she did, Julia took Eden by the arm and declared, “You can’t possibly go home. We’ll have no fun at all without you!” and smiled beneath her eyelashes as the other girls agreed verbosely. But Eden shook her head. She had reading to do, she insisted. And it was no surprise to any of them when Miss Abington insisted the same.
The ride was quiet but easy to Eden’s mind, but once outside her boarding house, she grew shy. She had surprised herself when she had taken Miss Abington’s hand during the concert, and yet, it had made some kind of sense in the moment that she could not recapture now in the low, practical light of the gas lamp by her rooming house door, far from the concert hall and the sounds of the piano.
She was almost afraid to look at Miss Abington as she unlocked the door and opened it for them both, pushing the button for light as they stepped into the hall. But Eden took her hat in her hand and turned to face the girl she had invited home. “Would you like some tea?” she offered.
“Yes please,” the girl answered softly, and the timidity of her voice gave Eden unexpected courage.
“I’ll just go put on a kettle, then,” she said more certainly. “Will you have a seat?” and Eden waved to a little couch by the parlor window before disappearing into the kitchen.
The kettle whistled and in a moment Eden returned.
“There’s a pot and tea in my room, if you don’t mind,” she said.
“Not at all.” And Miss Abington followed Eden up the narrow stairs.
Eden did not put on the electric light in her room. Instead she lit an old oil sconce by the door, and a lamp on her desk by the window. She took down a tea tin and a pot from a narrow recessed shelf that otherwise held nothing but books. She scooped tea in the pot, then poured in the contents of the kettle, and turned to face her guest, who was still standing in the open door, the harsh electric light rendering her a silhouette in its frame.
“Forgive me, please, sit down,” Eden said, nervous again as she gestured to the room’s single chair but for the hard, straight one at the desk. The girl closed the door behind her, settled herself into the ancient stuffed wingback and smiled her quiet thanks.
“You enjoyed the music?” Miss Abington asked unnecessarily as Eden poured tea into a cup sitting on the small desk and handed it to her.
“Very much,” Eden said. “Last year, I heard a number of concerts that I enjoyed, but nothing like the one this evening.”
Eden winced, “No. It’s another of my many ignorances.” She gave a little half-frown. “I suppose it’s nothing special to anyone here, then.”
“Too me, Chopin is very special,” Miss Abington caught Eden’s eye, but quickly looked to her lap. “I fought my mother for years because it’s all I wanted to play. She said Bach was more appropriate for a Boston girl, even Mozart, she said, was better. But I chose Chopin every chance I could. My mother thought I was impossible.”
“I didn’t know you played the piano,” Eden said with surprise. She had never thought of connecting the serious girl to musical interests.
“Well,” Miss Abington demurred, “there’s not so much time for it lately.”
Eden had pulled the desk chair up to face the wingback where she’d put her guest. She sat now, and looked at the girl. “I hope you weren’t offended in the music hall, Miss Abington, when I…” Eden stopped and looked at the girl’s hands, cradling the teacup she’d given her.
“Of course not—” she didn’t require Eden to finish. “But…Eden…oughtn’t you better call me Sophia?” She smiled with more courage than Eden thought she’d ever seen her show when discussing anything but her studies.
“I’d like to.” Eden smiled back. “Sophia.”
Eden felt suddenly awkward in the stiff, straight chair. She shifted her weight and put her cup down on the desk.
“Almost no one calls me that, here,” Sophia said quietly.
“Cathy Dickens does,” Eden said, immediately wishing she could take it back. Noting the single person she’d ever heard call Sophia by her Christian name worked only to confirm the girl’s assertion.
“But she has to. She’s my cousin. Her mother insists that she befriend me.” Sophia smiled wryly.
“Your cousin? I didn’t know that.”
“Her mother is my father’s sister,” Sophia confirmed. “Otherwise, I’d never be invited anywhere, I believe. I don’t really fit in here very well. I know the other girls think I’m too serious. I have even less interest in fashion than most college girls…” She smiled. “And I genuinely prefer my studies to most of their entertainments anyway.”
“I know how you feel,” Eden said, relieved by an opportunity to confess. “I don’t fit here either. ‘Fashion…’” Eden smiled and pulled at her tie. “I sometimes feel there’s not a thing anyone here is interested in that I have ever even heard about, in twenty years of life. Gertrude used to say…” Eden stopped.
Sophia looked up. “What did she say?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Eden said, realizing that for the first time, it really didn’t. She didn’t care what Gertrude had ever said or done. She had not wondered what Gertrude was doing now for weeks. At some moment during the summer, Eden had, without noticing, simply lost the capacity to care about Gertrude or her engagement anymore.
“You though,” Sophia began, “You have a good reason not to fit in with the girls here. Why should you? You have your own people and your own place. But I’m supposed to fit in here. I’ve been raised to this place and these people.”
“It’s not like that for me, though,” Eden said. “I don’t fit in at home either. That’s why I’m here instead.” Eden looked at her hands in her lap. “I suppose we’re a pair of oddities, Sophia Abington,” she said, looking up and smiling, “we should watch out for one another.”
The lamp on the desk flickered and went out.
Eden stood hastily and bent over it, “the wick needs trimming, I’m sorry.”
“You don’t like the electric light?” Sophia asked as Eden pulled out a stump of candle from the desk drawer and lit that.
“Oh—I suppose it’s miraculous. But we don’t have it at home. Don’t you feel there is something unnatural about so much light indoors when it’s dark as pitch outside?”
Sophia said nothing, but smiled.
“I read that the reason you can’t see the stars in Boston is because there is too much electric light,” Eden continued, stepping to the window and drawing back the curtain to squint at the sky.
Sophia rose from her chair, placed her cup on the desk and joined Eden by the window.
“Can’t see the stars in Boston? Why, I see several!” Sophia chided.
“Several?” Eden gave a little laugh. “You should see how many stars are really up there, Sophia. In Arizona, there are more stars than sky. Never mind Boston’s electric light—the night sky in Arizona is brighter with stars. I can’t even describe it. Maybe you’ll see it for yourself someday.”
Eden watched the side of Sophia’s face in the flickering lamplight. But when Sophia turned to her, she looked away.
“I suppose I’d better leave you to your reading,” Sophia said, and stepped back from the window.
Eden put a hand to Sophia’s arm to stay her. “You don’t have to. It’s not so much work as I told Julia it was. I just wanted quiet after the music.”
“I know,” Sophia told her. “But I wasn’t making excuses. I really do need to study.”
“Of course. I’m sorry.”
They stepped back into the brightly lit hallway and down the stairs to the front door. “Let me walk you home,” Eden offered.
“It’s just around the corner,” Sophia smiled.
“Exactly—no trouble at all,” Eden said, taking her hat from a peg in the hall and ushering the girl outside.
Sophia clutched her own hat to her head and looked up. She thought the stars were dazzling. When she looked back down, Eden was smiling at her. “You don’t believe me about the stars in Arizona, but it’s true.”
“I believe you,” Sophia said simply.
They walked on to Sophia’s house in silence. Arriving at the front door, Sophia gave her hand to Eden, who held it as she said, “thanks for coming over. I know you’re busy, but I like talking to you. Maybe you can spare some time for tea again someday?”
Sophia smiled. “I like talking to you too,” she said and opened the door.
“Good evening then, Miss Abington,” Eden said theatrically, tipping her hat at Sophia’s outline against the hall light.
As soon as the door was closed, Sophia leaned against it to catch her breath and still her racing heart. She felt as if she must be glowing a little in all the small places on her body that Eden had touched—her elbow, her arm, her waist, her hands.
She had no studying to do—none in particular anyway. But watching Eden in the window, looking for New England stars had raised in her a longing she couldn’t bear to hide and didn’t dare reveal. If Eden had not agreed to let her go, she might have run away.