The tears burst all containment now and Bette crossed the room to sit beside Eleanor and fold her in her arms.
“Theo…” Eleanor choked as she trembled hard under Bette’s embrace.
Bette held her tight with one arm, stroking her short grey-brown hair with the other. At length, Eleanor pulled away and rose, opened the drawer in the bedside table and removed one of the handkerchiefs that indeed were there and dried her eyes.
“You would think it was yesterday, the way I carry on,” she finally said.
“Did you carry on then?” Bette asked quietly.
“Of course not,” Eleanor said, looking around the room for the mirror that hung above a dry basin on a washstand. She stepped to it, gave herself a frown and turned back to Bette. “I suppose I ought to have done, oughtn’t I?”
Bette gave a little shrug.
“It’s because you are here that I can now.”
Bette did not say, “I might have been here then,” but both of them knew she was not saying it. It was the sentence that naturally ought to come next.
Eleanor walked again to the bedside table, moved the pipe aside and picked up the Keats. “He was so morbid,” she declared with a forced smile, in a tone that was a touch too hard to be bright. “He said Keats would teach him how to properly live his death. I wanted to steal it and hide it from him when he was sleeping, but he was so weak, it seemed unfair. In the end I let him keep it.”
She opened the box. It was empty but for a small gleaming object. She took it out and held it in her palm. It was a ring, identical to the one she had given Eden, stamped with the family crest. It had been given Theodore upon turning twelve. Hers had been her father’s. Such things were not given girls, but after the old man’s death there had been no one to stop her taking it and Theo himself had encouraged her. She had forgotten that her brother had not been buried wearing it anymore than her father had. The rings had been in the family for so many generations, it was not considered proper form to bury them, and yet, Theodore being the last of her father’s family line, it might have been as well to let the ring sleep with him. She was glad it did not. She put it on her finger and sat again, beside Bette.
“I want him back now as much as I did the day he died. I can’t help it. I want him. Poor boy, poor bright, handsome boy, with all his life ahead…”
Bette put an arm around Eleanor, but did not pull her closer. “Poor sister,” she said, “all these years and all the ones to come, without him.”
Eleanor was quiet for a long moment. “Bette,” she said at last, without looking up.
“You say you have forgiven me, but I still want to explain.”
Bette put her hands back in her lap.
“I wanted you then, too. I swear I did. It wasn’t because I didn’t care, because he made me forget you, that I told you not to come.”
“Why then?” Bette finally spoke.
“I was afraid you would make me happy. That you would make me forget him.”
Eleanor turned to Bette now and faced her eyes.
“I didn’t feel it was right to be happy. I didn’t feel it was right even to try. I thought it best to go back to Boston and bury myself in the old house if I couldn’t bury myself here, with him.”
Bette was shaking her head.
“Believe me, Bette, please. It’s the truth.”
“I believe you,” Bette said. “But you were wrong to do it.”
“I know Bette. I wronged you terribly—I wronged myself,” Eleanor said.
“You wronged Theo.”
A line of confusion crossed Eleanor’s brow. “Theo?”
“He wanted you happy. He wanted us to be together.”
“I suppose I can see that he might have…” Eleanor began. But Bette cut her off.
“He did. He wrote to me—in Provence. He thanked me for freeing him from your constant worries. He told me that much as he had rather stay with the living and fall in love too, he could at least die in peace knowing his sister had found happiness and … I still have the letter, but I haven’t read it in years.”
Eleanor stared at Bette in disbelief. But she believed her. It was like Theo—just like him. Of course he had wanted her to be happy. Of course he had adored Bette. She threw her hands up in frustration. “Is the rest of my life to be a long unfurling of continuous evidence that I am history’s greatest fool?” she said.
Bette smiled and took one of Eleanor’s hands. “I rather think,” she said, “that the rest of your life could be a great unfurling of all that Theo hoped most for you. I think this very moment could be the threshold of a new life. I don’t mean that you should forget him—I mean that you should try to live for him, rather than bury yourself for him.”
Eleanor looked around the room. “Will you tell Signora Marini to have them pack up this room and send it all to Boston? I don’t care about the rest of the house. It can go to the auctioneer.”
“I’ll tell her.” Bette rose and left Eleanor alone.