Eden 46:1

IMG_3780Eden had spent several weeks in Paris, selling pictures at Durand’s and painting more with Bette. Now she had returned to Boston a bit earlier than expected and she was eager to see Sophia.

She paid for the cab she had taken from the dock and put her portmanteau in the hall while Jack took her trunk upstairs. The sounds of the piano filled the house. It was a piece of Mozart that Sophia had taught Eden to sing to: “twinkle, twinkle, little star.” But the player couldn’t be Sophia. The music halted and started, went awry and halted again.

Mrs. Williams raised her eyebrows at Eden’s questioning face and nodded to the music room.

When Eden walked through the door, the music stopped. “Oh, darling!” Sophia rose from the piano bench and stepped to Eden’s side. “I didn’t hear you come in. Mrs. Williams ought to have told me. You weren’t to land until morning…”

“We arrived early,” Eden said, taking Sophia in her arms for a happy kiss.

“We would have met you if we’d known. I didn’t see the paper this evening.” At these words, Sophia half turned and Eden saw a child of two or three, sitting before the piano.

“We?” Eden asked.

Sophia“Pearl, come meet Eden,” Sophia said, stepping back to the piano and helping the little girl down. Eden looked closer now and saw a mass of brown curls too short to be gathered, but long enough to fall over a pair of eyes that almost filled the thin little face, and so dark as to be nearly black.

Eden bent down to meet the child at her eye level. “Pearl,” she said, reaching for a small hand, “I am Eden. This is my house.”

“Sophie’s house,” said the little girl, not extending her hand towards Eden, but taking a fistful of Sophia’s skirt instead.

“Well, yes. Sophie’s house. But mine too,” Eden insisted, not rising. “In either case, you are very welcome. Is Sophie teaching you to play the piano?”

The child did not respond by word or gesture. Sophia reached down and picked her up. Mrs. Williams was standing in the doorway. Sophia smiled and handed the child into the housekeeper’s arms. “Time for milk and a bath,” she murmured. Pearl continued to eye Eden with suspicion throughout the exchange of her caregivers, but finally lifted her face to kiss Sophia’s cheek before Mrs. Williams carried her away.

“Milk and a bath?” Eden asked.

“She’s been here for a fortnight or so.”

“A fortnight! Where’s her mother?”

“Dead.” Sophia frowned and gestured for Eden to sit. “Do you need something to eat?” she asked.

brandy tray“I ate on the boat,” Eden said, but rather than sitting, she walked to the corner of the room that held Eleanor’s crystal decanters and poured herself a glass of brandy.

“Her mother’s dead?” Eden prompted Sophia to return to the story.

“She came into the hospital directly from the street. It was a late-stage case of tuberculosis. She didn’t live for twenty-four hours. Her little girl—Pearl—was with her.”

“She had no family?” Eden said.

“They have posted notices in several papers, but no one has come forward.”

“Why didn’t they send the little girl to a foundlings’ home?”

Sophia bit her lip and Eden thought she read judgment in her eyes. “I don’t mean she isn’t welcome,” she added.

“No, of course. But you just got home. Sit, darling.” The look on Sophia’s face wasn’t judgment then. It was worry about the rest of the story.

“Pearl refused to go to the nurses from the mission we called,” Sophia continued. “She would not leave her mother’s side, but held onto the poor dead woman’s clothes and screamed and bit the nurse when she tried to remove her by force.”

Eden ran a hand through her hair, finished her brandy and put the glass down.

“I was a few doors down the hall. I heard a child scream and ran into the room. Pearl dropped her mother’s dress and walked to me, buried her face in my skirt and just wailed. I picked her up and she would not let me put her down for the rest of the day.”

Sophia searched Eden’s face for a reaction, but it was cast in evening shadows.  Eden pondered the carpet pattern.

“I brought her here.  She has slowly come to trust Mrs. Williams. But of course, Mrs. Williams is not paid to be a nurse.”

“No.”

Sophia was quiet for a minute. She rose and stepped to the piano. “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” her fingers skipped over the keys absently.

“So she is interviewing someone tomorrow,” Sophia said.

“Interviewing a nurse?” Eden looked up at Sophia. “A nurse to come here?”

“For now…”

“For how long?” Eden asked.

“Well…the little girl is grieving terribly. And I think that this might be the only house she has ever lived in. She cannot be older than three and she seems even younger. I think she was born on the streets. I don’t think she had a day of regular meals in her life before she came here. I can’t imagine when she will be well enough to…”

“We’ll need the nurse then,” Eden said and rose from her chair.

“I can pay for it,” Sophia said.

“Of course you needn’t pay for it. There’s plenty.” Eden stepped to Sophia and kissed her. “Play for me?” she asked.

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Eden 45:4

Eden had never looked at Sophia quite the way she was looking now. Her eyes never left her even as she pulled a piece of charcoal across the fresh canvas she had prepared the evening before.

Sophia felt naked, though the association wasn’t quite right. She was fully dressed, of course, in a simple, but elegant dove grey gown that Eden admired. And she had been naked before Eden more times than she could count but it had not felt like this.

pianoAs she sat at the piano playing a simple Haydn tune, she found her fingers slipping, losing pace with one another, forgetting their way through a piece she had known by heart since she was six years old.

Maybe it wasn’t that she felt naked. Maybe it was that she could sense Eden undressing her as she tried to play, touching her from across the room with her eyes, reaching through the silk folds of her gown, drawing them away, drawing them…

Sophia’s pulse quickened. Haydn sped forward the way music does, forcing the one who plays it to let go of mistakes without regret, to forget what came before and move on. But Sophia dwelt on the mistakes and the music crashed to a stop. She lifted her hands above the keys and sat, fingers trembling, mind racing through the pieces she had thought she would play this morning. She couldn’t recall how to begin any of them.

“Are you all right, darling?”

Sophia looked up and saw Eden through a fog. She blinked but couldn’t clear her vision. Her heart pounded and her hands began to shake outright. She put them in her lap and clamped them between her thighs.

“Sophie—” Eden stepped to her side, still holding the charcoal, “you look…”

Sophia put her right hand, still trembling slightly, on Eden’s stomach, just above the waist of her trousers. She slipped a finger through the button placket of Eden’s shirt and found bare flesh beneath it. She raised her eyes to Eden’s and, with her left hand, took Eden’s right wrist and pulled her to her knees on the floor before the piano stool. Slipping from the stool to her own knees, she slid her hand further inside Eden’s shirt, and clasping Eden about the waist, pulled her to herself.

Eden’s mouth was on hers, though Sophia couldn’t remember how the kiss had started. Eden was taller, and Sophia had to tilt her head to reach her, but she did not let Eden push her back to the floor. She pushed Eden instead. “I want you,” she breathed between kisses, “now.” Eden fell back on her heels, catching herself with her left hand, regaining her balance and grasping for Sophia’s hair as the kisses kept coming.

fireplace“This is why I can’t…” Sophia whispered. She knew now, why she had been afraid to sit for Eden. She was utterly lost to herself. Everything that mattered to her, everything she cared about was effaced by desire.

It took a month to finish the portrait.

Eden 45:3

breakfast - Version 2“All right Eden.” Sophia did not look up from the orange she was peeling.

“All right?”

“I’ll sit for you.” Sophia glanced up at Eden for a moment but did not raise her head.

Eden leaned back in her chair and finished the tea on the table in front of her. The waves rolled gently in and out, a few yards away. A fluttering group of gulls gathered in the sky over a fisherman’s boat. Sophia shook out last evening’s Boston paper.

Eden dared not speak, for fear any further conversation would lead to a retraction of the words that still seemed to hover in the salty air. Instead she rose and walked down the boardwalk to the end of the pier. She held the rail with both hands and leaned out over the water as far as she could, turning her face up to the blue, feeling the sun on her closed eyelids and the breeze in her hair.

Eden 45:2

“You kissed Gertrude.” Sophia had her back to Eden. She was standing by the washbasin in a cotton nightdress, combing out her hair.

The cufflink Eden was unfastening fell to the floor with a clatter. She cursed beneath her breath and knelt to search for it under the chest of drawers where it had rolled.

She found it and stood. “Gertrude kissed me, actually,” Eden said. “But I’m surprised you were watching us.”

“I wasn’t. I came to the back door to ask if she wanted tea before she left and you were kissing her.” Sophia still did not turn.

“She was kissing me,” Eden repeated stupidly.

“She’s married. But I don’t suppose that will ever be a real problem for someone like Gertrude, if she wants something…someone.”

Eden heard neither anger nor sorrow in Sophia’s tone. She could not tell what Sophia felt. “Well, it’s a problem for me,” Eden said, then after a beat, “and I don’t want Gertrude anyway.”

Sophia put her comb beside the basin, splashed water on her face and dried it with a towel. At last she turned to Eden, her eyes cool and tearless, her mouth relaxed but unsmiling.  She walked to the bed and pulled back the counterpane, “What do you want?” she asked.

Eden looked across the bed at Sophia’s soft brown hair falling across her shoulder. “I want to paint you,” she said.

Eden 45:1

“I’m sure it’s wonderful, Eden. Not that I know anything about art.”

Gertrude Brunswick stood admiring herself in Eden’s studio.

“But Charles says you are the best portrait painter in the country and soon everyone will know it,” she continued. “He’s quite taken you up. He wants you to do him next, of course.”

Eden didn’t respond to any of Gertrude’s comments. “It will take some time to dry. Shall I ship it to New York for you then?” she said.

“I suppose that would be best. We’re leaving the cape in another two days,” Gertrude agreed. She smiled at Eden and changed her tone. “Walk with me a moment before I go?”

Eden just nodded and stepped into the hall, taking her hat from a peg by the back door. The two walked across the porch at the back of the house and down the sand-covered planks that led to the shore.

The walkway soon gave way to a pier that took them out over the water several yards and ended where a small rowboat was tied. There they stopped and looked out at the sun slowly setting across the gentle waves.

Eden reached into her pocket and lit a cigarette while Gertrude watched her silently.

“Eden.” Gertrude’s voice was an appeal.

Eden didn’t speak, but glanced at her over the match.

“I wonder if you’d like to come see me in New York sometime? It’s quite lonely when Charles is away—and he’s often away.” Here, she smiled slightly.

“Don’t your children keep you busy?” Eden asked, pretending not to understand Gertrude’s implication.

“They keep the nurses busy. I only see them at bedtime most days.” Gertrude laughed.

Eden thought of Minna—of Nate and the twins—and how hard her sister worked day and night.

“But never mind that. I would like so much to see you more often.” Gertrude’s tone was unmistakable now. “I’ve missed you—since I married.”

“You’ve missed me for four years?” Eden did nothing to keep an incredulous note from her voice. She tapped the ash of her cigarette against the handrail of the pier and looked over the water.

“Nearly five years,” Gertrude corrected. She was quiet for a minute. “No one else could ever love me like you loved me.”

“I’m sure Charles Brunswick loves you rather sufficiently, judging by how much he’s paid me to paint you,” Eden said, sounding to herself as cynical as Eleanor.

“Money isn’t love,” Gertrude said.

“Neither was my adolescent infatuation with you.” Eden threw the stub of her cigarette into the water.

“Don’t be cruel,” Gertrude said with a little frown. “I know I was unkind back then. But I was young and stupid.”

She reached out now and took Eden’s hand, holding it in both of hers.

“Please Eden. I know you love me.”

“You couldn’t be more mistaken,” Eden told her. “I love Sophia.” But she did not take her hand away.

“Sophia Abington?” Gertrude glanced back towards the cottage. “Really…isn’t it only that she is so devoted to you?”

Eden took her hand from Gertrude’s now. “We are devoted to each other.”

“Dowdy Sophia Abington…?”

“Dr. Sophia Abington,” Eden corrected.

“Do you think she’s watching us now?” Gertrude asked Eden.

“No,” Eden said simply.

“Why not?” Gertrude asked, returning to her coy tone.

“There’s nothing to watch, is there?” Eden said, wishing she had another cigarette.

Gertrude took both of Eden’s hands again and pulled her towards her. Their faces were inches apart. “Kiss me, then.” She tipped her face forward but rather than waiting for a response, bounced up on her toes and kissed Eden herself.

Eden pulled away. “That’s enough, Gertrude. I’ll see you to your carriage.”

Eden turned and stepped away, but Gertrude did not move.

“Eden!” she called. “If you love Sophia Abington so much, why have you never painted her?”

Eden stopped and looked at Gertrude, angry now.

But Gertrude was undaunted. “Why?”

Eden’s impatience with Gertrude mingled with irritation at Sophia. “She doesn’t want me to paint her.”

“Why wouldn’t she want you to paint her?” Gertrude asked.

Eden was quiet for a minute. “She has the idea that when I’ve painted her I’ll be finished with her.”

“Is it true?” Gertrude said. “Are you finished with me, now you’ve painted me?”

Eden leveled her gaze at the woman. “No,” she said. “I was finished with you a long time ago.”

Then she turned and walked back to the house, not caring whether anyone saw Gertrude to her carriage or not.

Eden 44:5

Sophia and Eleanor both gasped when Eden pulled the muslin away from the picture.

“It’s stunning,” Eleanor told her.

“They’re going to say it’s the best thing you’ve done yet,” Sophia remarked quietly.

Eden frowned. “It isn’t,” she said. “The best thing I’ve done is the picture of my mother in the music room on Beacon Street.”

“Well, no one has seen that, darling,” Eleanor said.

But Eden was still frowning.

“What is it, Eden, aren’t you happy with it?” Sophia asked.

“I don’t care to have Gertrude Brunswick thought the best thing I’ve ever done.”

“It isn’t Gertrude, it’s your painting, darling,” Eleanor said.

Eden was looking at Sophia.

“I haven’t done it yet—the best thing I could do.”

Sophia still said nothing. But she left the studio and Eleanor looked after her, then at Eden, watching her cross the hall to the dining room where Lucy was setting out hot bowls of clam chowder.

Eden replaced the muslin and left the studio, making a bit more racket on the stairs than was really necessary as she made her way to her room. She didn’t come down for dinner.

Eden 44:4

Mrs. Charles Brunswick was wearing a long glittering gown of silver-threaded chiffon over a deep blue satin dress and draped in a mink cape much out of season for a July morning. It was her husband’s choice, and her husband was paying for the portrait, which would hang prominently in the dining room. Gertrude held the hem of her gown carefully off the floor for fear of dust as she walked slowly around the perimeter of Eden’s studio investigating the paintings piled along the wall. She skimmed by the seascapes and still life but stopped to look closer at the portraits and scenes of children playing on the beach.

“This is nice,” Gertrude said, examining a picture of Vivienne Webb with her small granddaughter on her knee. “She looks a bit familiar, should I know her?”

Eden didn’t turn to see who Gertrude meant, but kept busy with her charcoal and paint, then in arranging the drape behind the couch where Gertrude would sit.

“Is this your cook?” Gertrude asked now, and Eden finally turned.

“Lucy, yes,” Eden smiled. It was her favorite of the paintings she’d done so far in the new studio. Lucy had sat before a butcher block, shelling peas into a copper bowl, humming to herself giving Eden a peaceful sense of home as she had worked. She could recall the tune every time she looked at the picture.

“What about Sophia Abington? You’ve one of her somewhere don’t you?” Gertrude asked.

“No,” Eden said.

“You haven’t painted her?”

“No.”Eden let go of the drapery behind the couch.  “Here,” she said. “Sit down and let me see where the light is going to fall.”

Gertrude sat where Eden directed her and Eden touched her here and there, turning her shoulder one way, tilting her chin another. Then she stepped to her canvas, took up a stick of charcoal and began to sketch.

“Is she not here with you?” Gertrude asked.

“Who?” Eden said.

“Miss Abington. I had thought you lived together. Perhaps Cathy was mistaken. Or I misunderstood,” Gertrude said.

“She works at a hospital in Boston. She comes to the cape when she can.” Eden did not want to talk about Sophia to Gertrude. “Lift your chin a bit?” she said.

“How many sittings do you suppose the picture will require?” Gertrude asked.

“I can’t say today,” Eden said.

“I hope it is enough to give us heaps of time to talk,” Gertrude said, and flashed a smile upon Eden.

Eden kept her eyes on the canvas. “Chin,” she reminded Gertrude.