Sophia turned from the Rue Jacob up the Rue Bonaparte and walked towards the river. Students from the Beaux Arts were gathered under the street lamps across from the school in little clusters, smoking and laughing. They eyed her with half smiles and nods as she passed them. She kept her head high and her features hard in return.
Whenever she walked this way at night with Eden, they nodded and smiled not at Sophia but at what they took for another young man of the art school with a pretty, if practically dressed girl on his arm. Eden usually nodded back while Sophia smiled at the pavement with shy pride.
After years of going about with Eden, Sophia’s heart had stopped fluttering with worry at attention from strangers. No one had ever guessed Eden was not a young man and Sophia almost forgot it herself under such circumstances.
But Eden was not a man. She was not a student at the Beaux Arts. If she were… Sophia had never let her thoughts go even as far as that “if.” But tonight she let them roll on, unchecked by the loyalty that had always stopped her in the past. If Eden were a man Sophia could marry her. She would be someone’s wife. Men like Bertrand would have no cause to think twice about her—whether as a possible bride or a possible hysteric.
To be a wife had never been her ambition. But in the past, the realities of reaching twenty-five years of age and not being one had never been very clear to her. She had not imagined the refusals that might be required of her by men who wanted her. She had not imagined this frightening sense of being a target for any man bored enough to be amused by a woman alone after dark.
She had imagined a comfortable, independent life. She was certain she had no use for what other girls called love. And when love had surprised her after all, it did not offer the security, the social approbation people really talked of when they talked of marriage. In all honesty—she was determined to be honest with herself tonight—her love had caused her as much trouble as it had given her joy.
The separation from her parents, her subsequent life as a stranger in a foreign place and now this difficulty with Dr. Bertrand and a threat to all her hopes at the very moment they ought to be realized…these troubles were all direct effects of her love for Eden. Or perhaps more exactly, they were direct effects of the fact that Eden was not a man.
If only her mother was right and her feelings for Eden were something else—something girlish and shallow, something false or temporary. But her mother, right as she might be about the difficulty it caused, was wrong about the nature of Sophia’s relation to Eden. It was as deep and as real as a marriage, Sophia was certain. To deny it, to dismantle it, would be no easier than a divorce. And divorce, in Sophia’s family, was unthinkable under even the worst of circumstances.
Was this the worst of circumstances? Sophia came to the quai and looked about. Another knot of young men hovered around a bench on the riverbank. What if she was never to be a doctor? Was this life of uncertainty, of subtle but persistent threat, filled with the disapproving frowns of her family, a life she could face if she were not Dr. Abington?
It was the idea of being Dr. Abington that had always given her courage. Young men such as these might stare, they might even say something unrepeatably rude. Men like Dr. Bertrand might call her “cherie” and think her a fool for refusing their suits, even think her a queer old maid. Others might judge her life with Eden to be a scandal. But as Dr. Abington, she could bear such things. The quality of her work, the dignity of her profession, the certainty of her value to the world—to the future—would be her strength. Idle insults and silly gossip would weigh nothing against her self-respect.
But if her love for Eden somehow prevented her becoming a doctor, could she stand against a world of scorn? Was loyalty to Eden worth a life of duplicity, of being whispered about and thought odd and foolish without the compensatory satisfaction of professional respect? In Arizona, all that had mattered was that she should be with Eden; that Eden should paint. But in Paris, so close to attaining her own goal, the question was more complicated. She was more afraid. What if in choosing Eden, she lost all her future hopes and came to regret the choice? Might she lose her love then too? Might she resent Eden and hate herself for her resentment? What kind of bitter life would it be?
She could so easily take up—or pretend to take up—Dr. Bertrand’s way of thinking about Eden. It would put her outside his suspicions. If she collaborated with him to discuss Eden as a “case” it might even raise her in his esteem. Eden would never have to know about it. Sophia wouldn’t dream of asking Eden to actually present herself to Bertrand. Sophia herself would be a satisfactory source of information on the matter. She need not even tell him the truth. She could tell him what he wanted to believe.
Sophia shivered. It was a warm summer night but the train of her thought made her cold. A few words followed by a laugh rose up from the general murmur of the young men at the bench. Sophia glanced at the group to find two of them watching her intently, dark as it was. She cast her eyes to her feet, turned away from the river and walked briskly home.
Marie met her at the door with a questioning glance. But Sophia dismissed her with a small gesture. She stepped to the parlor door. It was slightly ajar and she put her hand on the frame.
“Sophia?” It was Eleanor’s voice.
Sophia froze with shame. She was certain that if Eleanor could see her face now, she would read upon it all the thoughts of the past hour. At the dark riverside, betraying Eden had seemed a possible—perhaps even practical—solution to the dilemma Dr. Bertrand had placed before her. In the warm glow of the lamp lit house, surrounded by the trappings of her life with Eden; of Eleanor’s generosity to them both, such a course of action was unthinkable.
“Goodnight,” Sophia called softly. She walked up the stairs, glanced at the closed door of Eden’s room and turned into her own without another word.