As full of activity and frivolity as Wil had been keeping the place, Eden was lonely. She longed to write to Sophia, but couldn’t. She wrote a little to Eleanor, but it gave her no relief. Eleanor’s perspective was too much like Wil’s or George’s and Eden had enough of that. She wanted Sophia’s view of things. George had called her puritanical; Decker—who had once seemed so innocent himself—portrayed her as a naïve saint. But she was neither of these. She had ideals—certainly—but she was neither an angel nor a scold.
Windmoor simply wasn’t real. It was like a great playground full of oversized children in adults’ clothing. Wil and George worried about whether the rain would stop in time for a weekend hunting party, whether the ladies could be persuaded to play billiards, whether the champagne was chilled enough or the best cigars would last until the next box arrived from London. It was lovely in its way, but it wasn’t life. Eden could barely even paint it, after the first fortnight. It was all of one color and one light—however bright, it grew tiresome.
When the long artists’ weekend was over, the house emptied of everyone but Wil and her actress, George and Alice. To avoid awkward triangles, Eden took Sykes, the puppy, as her partner in the coupling that surrounded her.
She was out with him on a ramble one evening between tea and dinner, considering again a return to London. But Wil wanted her to paint Miss Strether. She had done George and Wil already—the pair of them, sitting opposite one another in the conservatory with tropical flowers over their shoulders and Sykes at George’s feet. She supposed she might as well do the actress. The girl was a little too typically pretty to make it an interesting picture in and of itself. But Eden could place her somewhere dramatic—against an old tapestry or on a carpet before the immense hearth in the dining room—Wil would like that, and Miss Strether would rise theatrically to the occasion.
Eden was thinking of it and watching for Sykes’s return with a stick she had tossed when she all but stumbled into Alice Chamberlain on the path.
“Oh!” Alice said. “I thought I was alone out here. I supposed everyone was dressing.”
“Are we to dress tonight?” Eden frowned. She had hoped that they might be more informal now that the large party had scattered. As much delight as she took in her own evening clothes, the emptiness of the ritual—and the time it all took—was beginning to tire her.
“Oh—I think so—” Alice said as Sykes bounded up and muddied the hem of her dress in enthusiastic greeting. “I’ll have to now, anyway.”
And she stepped to Eden’s side and took her arm as if Eden had offered it, which she had not.
Eden could hardly rebuff the woman, and she walked on, Sykes reprimanded, and keeping obediently now to her opposite heel, as Alice chattered about the people who had left the morning before.
Eden wasn’t interested in gossip and she was not at her ease with the girl at her side, on a path sometimes too narrow, really, for two, and always a bit rougher than made for comfortably walking arm-in-arm. She tried to match her gate to Alice’s and found it not unlike dancing.
Alice seemed to read her thoughts. “Do you remember when we waltzed at Wil’s ball that spring you came to London for the very first time?”
Eden remembered it wincingly. But she betrayed no embarrassment to Alice. “It was a grand party,” she said.
“You were grand—I could see it even then, though you were so shy and nervous. You wore your clothes as well as any man I’ve seen before or since. You weren’t just playing at it like so many of them at Wil’s and Liz’s parties.” Alice stopped and it forced Eden to stop too. Sykes glanced up at her, then wandered off into the underbrush, following a rabbit or a bird.
Eden was about to call the dog back when Alice said, “you are a real gentleman, Monsieur Smith.”
Eden hoped her face didn’t show the warmth she felt rising to it. “Well,” she said, “if we are to dress, I ought to…”
She made as if to walk on, but Alice held her in place. “Wait,” she whispered, her face only inches from Eden’s.
“Sykes!” a voice called. Eden and Alice turned in unison, rapidly unlinking their arms.
The dog bounded up again and behind him came George.
“Oh!” Alice said and rushed to George. “I was just asking Eden if she knew where you’d gone.”
George looked from Alice to Eden without smiling. Eden bent and greeted the dog. “Alice says we’re dressing for dinner,” she said. “I’d better go back.”
She rose and walked swiftly to the house, Sykes wagging along at her side.