Sophia sat at the end of a long dining table in Dr. Bertrand’s house, surrounded on all sides by children.
Since beginning her studies in the Autumn, Bertrand had been her chief mentor and teacher. It was not an easy relationship. The first time he met her, he had declared to her that he had never seen a woman who was truly capable of a career in medicine, however badly bespectacled, homely girls might feel the need to be useful in their probable spinsterhood.
At first, Sophia had been too intimidated to be offended. Instead, she had quietly worked for him as hard as she could, gradually becoming used to his insults to women as a whole, while he slowly came to grudgingly compliment her for her particular gifts.
She had not felt it possible to decline his invitation to dine at his home in the last week before the Christmas holiday commenced. But now she was here, she discovered that only the doctor, his three girls, and two boys made up the family. Sophia had assumed she would meet Bertrand’s wife at the dinner. She had not known that Mme Bertrand had succumbed to Influenza two years earlier.
In fact, she had almost mistaken the housekeeper for her professor’s wife and was grateful that she had said nothing aloud to give away her confusion before the proper introductions had been made.
The meal was good and the table was boisterous as the children recounted the day’s activities and competed with one another for the attention of their father and his guest.
When they finished eating, the housekeeper began to clear away the dishes. Dr. Bertrand said goodnight to his children, placing the younger ones in the care of the oldest daughter, and took Sophia into a small library with a pleasant fire and a marble table crowded with liquors and sweet wines. He waved at this, asking her what she would like to drink.
Sophia pondered the question, suddenly nervous to be with the man in such intimate quarters alone. If she had known his wife was deceased, she certainly would not have come.
“Just a bit of port, thank you,” she said, switching, now that the children were gone, from French to English.
He poured it for her and another for himself and held it out with a smile. “I would ordinarily have a cigar after dinner, of course, but I will spare my lady guest.”
“Oh—I don’t mind, Dr. Bertrand,” Sophia said. She did mind, but had an impression that he was asking her not to.
“Thank you, dear,” he said now, and she winced at the unprofessional familiarity which, from time to time, he slipped into when speaking to her, even at the hospital.
They sat across from one another in overstuffed velvet chairs before the fire, Dr. Bertrand smoking, Sophia pretending to sip at the port wine which she did not really want.
“The children were delighted by you,” Dr. Bertrand said at length.
“They are delightful children,” Sophia said.
“Do you come from a large family yourself?”
“I am the only surviving child of my parents, I am afraid. There were two others who did not live long past their births,” she told him.
“You like children, however, oui?” he said. “You plan to work among women and children when you are a doctor?”
“Yes,” Sophia said. The room was suddenly far too small. She took a deep breath of smoky air and closed her eyes a moment longer than a blink.
When she looked again at Dr. Bertrand, he had set the cigar in a tray at the table by his elbow and was smiling at her.
“Miss Abington,” he said. “In the past several months I have enjoyed so much working with you. You are a remarkable medical student and will be an excellent doctor soon. I would say so whether or not you were a woman, but the fact that you are…”
There was a tiny pause. It was a great confession from him. Sophia felt she should honor it. “Merci, professor,” she said evenly.
“Non, non!” Dr. Bertrand corrected her. “Pas ‘professor.’ You must call me Guy. We are almost colleagues.”
Sophia said nothing, but her heart beat hard. She wished more than anything to leave the room.
“In fact, Mademoiselle Abington, I must confess that I would like to be much more than colleagues.” Dr. Bertrand put his hands on his knees and leaned forward ever so slightly.
Sophia braced herself as if a train was headed towards her and she, frozen on the track.
“To come right to my point, I have seen no woman since my dear wife’s death who could approach her place in my heart. But your feminine charm, side-by-side with such a practical mind has won me. You would make me the happiest of men if you would agree to marry me.”
Dr. Bertrand leaned back now and put his hands back on the arms of his chair in a gestured of exhausted satisfaction, as if he had just completed a successful operation. His thick eyebrows twitched and his face settled into a nearly smug expression. It was clear to Sophia that he was certain of the positive outcome of this venture.
But why he should be, she could not fathom. Her mind raced across the previous weeks and months, searching for any occasion on which she might have been interpreted as giving him any encouragement for the hopes he had just expressed. She could find nothing there to accuse her.
She sat dumbly, now, wondering how to answer him without giving him offense. He held the keys to her future, being the chief authority over her at the medical school, responsible for reporting her progress and judging her final examinations.
“Dr. Bertrand…Guy,” she began. He smiled as she pronounced his Christian name. “I must confess I am surprised by your proposal. I did not know that you had lost your wife…”
She sipped the port, glad now for an excuse to calm herself and collect her thoughts. And as she did, it came to her that the simple truth might suffice.
“I must beg you to forgive me if in any way I have misled you. We have shared so little of our personal lives. But the fact is, I have made promises to someone else. This ring is the witness to them…” she lifted her left hand slightly.
Dr. Bertrand’s face clouded for just a moment, but he soon recovered himself and smiled a little. “Of course, of course. I ought to have realized a lady such as yourself would not be free. Please accept my apologies for presuming…”
He was so clearly disappointed, looked even a bit embarrassed, and Sophia was almost sorry for him now. “It is so flattering for you to think of me, Dr. Bertrand. I do appreciate the good opinion of so fine a doctor and so good a man as yourself.”
“Not at all,” Dr. Bertrand said. He took up his cigar and puffed at it for a moment before speaking again. “But, now that I know of the existence of your fortunate young man, I am filled with curiosity to meet him. You must bring him back here for dinner soon.”
Sophia hesitated for an uncomfortable moment. Such a problem had not occurred to her. She of course, could not bring Eden to Dr. Bertrand’s house for dinner. Even if Eden was daily taken for a young man in the streets of Paris, Sophia could not imagine engaging in such an intricate deception as to lead Dr. Bertrand to think her one over dinner in his home and ever after into the future when she was working at the hospital on her research.
But just now, the truth would serve her again. Eden was away for the week in London. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible, as we are separated, at present, by the channel,” Sophia said, hoping her tone expressed sufficient polite disappointment.
“Ah! Your young man is English?”
“American—like myself,” Sophia corrected. “But, a painter, who works much of the time in Paris.”
“A painter!” Dr. Bertrand exclaimed. “I fancy myself to be something a collector. I must meet him and see his work.”
“Perhaps, someday.” Sophia smiled, feeling very much like a deceiver now. She put her glass on the table beside her and rose. “I really must get home now, I’m afraid.”
“So soon?” Dr. Bertrand gave a little frown. But he rose too, and Sophia thought she sensed relief from him.
He sent a footman to call his carriage and the housekeeper to bring Sophia her coat and gloves. When the carriage came around, he shook her hand without a trace of over familiarity. “It was lovely to have you Miss Abington. Do forgive my misunderstanding. I hope it will not come between us professionally.”
“No of course not.” Sophia stepped into the waiting carriage.