POSITIONS AND PARTIALITY
‚Jo,‘ yelled Eleanor, making the walls of our small and dusky house tremble in fear of her high-pitched voice. ‚Jo, come quickly!‘
My sister was one to make a big fuss over a small matter in regular intervals. Preferably during the quiet hours after dinner, when her brutally squeaky voice would stand in the most distinguished contrast to the harmonious silence. Confrontation was better avoided, for arguments were impossible to win, as her lingual exploitations were as rich in resources as they were poor in logic. One could all but hide, and hope for the storm to pass without becoming its victim.
My favourite hiding place was in the world of Charles Dickens. I knew every word he had ever cared to collect in a novel by heart. The sentences formed in my mind before my eyes could skim through the letters. But not even a thousand pages forged from fine wood and decorated with the most beautiful of writings were fortress enough to keep my sister at bay, hence my plan to spend a lazy afternoon with my beloved characters was shattered like John Chivery’s hopes to marry Amy in Little Dorrit, book 1, chapter 18.
Eleanor stormed the tiny bedroom like it was the Bastille, and she, La Liberté of the French Revolution. Except that her dress was not torn – though old and well-worn it might be. And instead of a Tricolour, it was her sleeves that flapped about furiously – an exertion that made her face go all red. On second thought, my little sister looked less like a famous painting and more like a mad chicken.
‚Quickly!‘ she demanded and grabbed my arm firmly. In an urgent gallop, she stomped down the tiny, creaking staircase, pulling me behind her.
In the kitchen, I was released and embraced by the strong aroma of food. The glum little room was fearfully warm, for the singular small window was not big enough to let the cooking heat and scents vent. The smell of food never left, as if we were rich and could afford plenty. Eleanor pointed to that very window with an unsteady finger and a shaking voice. ‚Do you see the monstrous spider?‘
‚It is right there above the frame!‘
I took the magnifying glass from the cupboard at my left, which had once belonged to Father, pointed it to where Eleanor was indicating, and exclaimed, ‚Oh, there it is.‘
‚Please, kill it, Jo. I was about to feed the cat when the wretched thing attacked.‘
She threw up her long lashes at me and her eyes grew even bigger than they normally were. They filled to the rim with tears, which never failed to achieve their objective.
I fought the urge to strangle her, which, for a moment, seemed inexpressibly tempting. And surely I would have acted on it, had I not been told to love her from the very day she had been an ugly, wrinkled little lump. According to Darwin, it was not even her fault that she was such an unbearable little creature, but due to the traits she had inherited from our parents – though I did not recall Father or Mother half-fainting at the mere sight of an insect. I did not recall a great many things about them, in general, for the past three months had blocked my memory, making my life prior to the most recent events seem like a blurry dream. Seeing Eleanor fret over inconsequential matters felt strangely normal, and I was almost grateful for it.
A heavy sigh escaped my lips before I mounted the wooden table that had no two legs of the same length, and I reached for the spider to let it crawl onto my finger. Eleanor squealed and ran to the far corner of the kitchen instead of supporting the table, which leaned in a different direction every time I took even a breath. With a loud thud, I jumped onto the brown tiled floor and opened the door to let the spider escape over the rusty handrail that connected our home with the outside world. Only then, Eleanor stopped screaming and squealing and being altogether intolerable.
The lush leaves of the trees around my family’s house rustled in applause of my heroic act. A fresh breeze of warm spring air embraced me, and a glorious quietness settled. I climbed up a nearby tree, as high as I could, before Eleanor could find other employment for me. She would never follow me up a tree, for it was full of bugs.
High above the roof of our small Regency cottage that the sea salt laden air had decorated with deep cracks, I resumed my journey through the streets of Southwark as depicted by Charles Dickens. And though Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam were captivating companions throughout that journey, they failed to take my mind off my dwellings. Troublesome thoughts that I had successfully pushed from my mind this morning returned with a greater force than ever before. I closed my eyes for a moment to collect myself.
‚How many times have I told you not to sleep in the tree,‘ thundered the angry voice of Elizabeth. Even in rage, my older sister sounded as beautiful as she looked. ‚You might take a fall and break your neck.‘
In the past, this conclusion of hers would have been accompanied by Father’s laughter. He would poke his head from a window and insist I was too lucky a girl to ever break anything regardless of the height I fell from because I was like a cat who always landed on its feet. I did not feel so very lucky now that he and Mother were gone.
I opened my eyes and looked down to my sister.
Elizabeth returned home much earlier than expected. Even though she held herself gracefully and took off the bonnet and gloves in the elegant manner that was so natural to her, I could see that her cheeks were crimson with fury. She paced the small, dusky kitchen while she waited for her audience to arrive.
Just like my younger sister, my older sister was in constant need of attention, which was scarce on the Isle of Wight, as not many people lived on it.
My two sisters caused enough commotion for three, therefore, feeling my services were not needed, I mostly remained quiet in the background. After all, capriciousness was part of the charm in a beautiful lady but ugly in a plain one.
Upon hearing Elizabeth, Eleanor ran down the stairs to join us. The stomping of her little feet shook the walls so violently, I was afraid the cottage might cave at any moment.
Seeing Elizabeth’s deep frown, our little sister stopped dead in her tracks, straight as a candle, like a miniature soldier in a white dress.
‚It is unbelievable,‘ Elizabeth uttered in a low, enraged voice.
Eleanor instantly thought she had done something wrong and drew in her breath sharply. Elizabeth had an authority over her I could never dream to achieve.
‚He refused me because I am a woman. I could hardly contain my temper.‘ She looked at us intently, searching for an adequate reaction, but while a spider was an easy opponent for me, my eldest sister’s emotions were not. I felt Eleanor slide up behind me, using me as a shield, her small, sweaty hands clinging to mine, reminding me how young she was.
Tears glistened in Elizabeth’s eyes – not due to the disappointment she feared to have caused her family, but because of the humiliating feeling the rejection had stirred within her. Utterly strength-less, she sank to one of the old chairs and leaned against the table, which shifted its position under the weight of her arm.
Being the eldest of three daughters, Elizabeth had the hardest time accustoming to our new situation. With a gentleman as a father and a pretty enough face, she had always thought herself to be a proper lady. Indeed, she was very accomplished, played the piano, spoke French, and her embroidery was second to none. But if there was one thing I admired her the most for, it was the fact that she had overcome her pride in order to apply for a position as a companion to an elderly gentleman who had only recently moved to Wight. According to rumour, he was nearly blind and deaf, between 120 and 170 years old (accounts varied here), and in desperate need of someone who would read to him. His bad temper had made him mildly famous among our neighbours, as he refused everyone who applied.
‚There is no one else here who would have the means to entertain a companion or a governess. I will have to go away.‘ My oldest sister’s voice matched her expression. She would not find the slightest of pleasures in leaving the comfort, however small, of her family. Folding her arms in front of her chest, Elizabeth tapped nervously on her elbow. Her delicate nail caught on the frill of her sleeve, adding to her overall vexation. As she was forced to uncoil the thread, she looked down on her dress, which was long out of fashion. The space between her eyebrows wrinkled further.
A little while ago, it would have been hard to imagine what being poor meant, but now it was very vivid. We had never led a life in wasteful splendour, but we had had the luxury to spend our father’s income on little things that the heart desired. A new bonnet here, an old book there. That was until last winter. A harsh winter, indeed.
I wanted to say something adequate and soothing, but I could not think of a single thing that I had not already voiced a dozen times over the past weeks. ‚All will be well‘ – all was not well and neither would it miraculously become so; ‚We have us‘ – whatever is left, at least; ‚We will manage, we will find a way‘ – quite evidently, we were neither doing one nor the other; ‚Not all is lost‘ – perhaps not all, but very nearly everything. I feared that if I said any of it, my sister would attack me with a dull and rusty knife, for we had already sold all the silver.
‚It is unthinkable that any of us should leave for any other reason than to marry,‘ said Eleanor, who had always imagined a handsome and wealthy young gentleman to ride into our village on a fiery steed and take her with him, for naturally, she would be the fulfilment of all his dreams. It was enough to make me cry, and from the look of it, Elizabeth was close to tears also. If I started crying, they both would, so instead I caught a loose strand of my hair and curled it around my finger.
The depression in the room was so thick, it was almost tangible. Something had to change. With a swift movement of my hand, I scooped the scissors off the kitchen table and cut off my dark hair, which rained heavily on the floor. My sisters gasped.
‚Elizabeth,‘ I demanded with forced cheerfulness, ‚have you not told the gentleman that you have a brother?‘
ODDNESS AND OLDNESS
‚No man will want you for a wife if this becomes known,‘ Eleanor proclaimed.
‚As of now, to find myself a husband is not the most urgent concern,‘ I said harshly. This was not a moment to think about more problems but to try and solve the most pressing one.
The usually so eloquent Elizabeth was flabbergasted and if I waited for her to restore herself, she would surely say something that would dim my resolve. I briskly walked up the stairs before she regained her composure.
A brittle ladder led through a square hole to the attic. Covered in dust and spider webs, wooden beams formed a cross above my head, the smell of forgotten time hanging in the air. It was a small space and almost empty, bar an old mirror and trunk. The lock of that trunk gave way under creaking protest; its lid hit against the wall and a cloud of dust went up like a thick fog. It made me cough.
How strange that after many months, Father’s clothes still smelled of him. Rummaging through the contents, I picked out a beige shirt that once was white and dark green trousers. I exchanged my black, heavy cotton dress and underskirts for them in the constricted space available. It was strangely liberating. The clothes were too big but much lighter than my usual wear. I picked the first jacket and hat that I came across and slid my arms through the sleeves of the former. Its padded shoulders almost reached my elbows. I rolled up the sleeves as far as they would go.
‚I will not allow this.‘ Elizabeth’s voice startled me. Her face emerged from the hole in the floor. The fury in her eyes illuminated the dark attic. She climbed the ladder and built herself up before me. The old, faded mirror in the corner displayed the vast discrepancy between her and me. Having always been rather plain-looking in comparison to my sisters, I appeared almost inconsequential now with short hair and wearing Father’s clothes that looked wrong on me – it was now a sight I had to get accustomed to. The dresses, handed down to me by my sister, never looked right on me anyway.
‚Am I not ridiculed enough? Is my own sister going to humiliate me and take away every last notion of dignity there is left?‘ she demanded.
‚Hurting you, dearest Elizabeth, is the last thing on my mind,‘ I said quietly, and it was all it took to break the dam of tears. Elizabeth sobbed and yelled at me, but I still descended the ladder and stairs. She followed me as far as to the door, shouting her misery at me as though it was my fault. Her violent words, howling behind me, stung like a million daggers and made me accelerate my pace to get as far and as fast away from them as I could.
Running all the way, I could feel the wind through the thin fabric – there was no petticoat or corset to keep away its invigorating chill, and it was astonishing how much faster I could go wearing trousers instead of a dress, even though the braces were too long, forcing me to readjust them every yard. My brown leather boots, usually hidden underneath a heavy cotton skirt, now freed, hurried through the little forest, down a long dusty gravel road, and over the meadow, where my sisters and I had played as children. I jumped over a stream without bothering to cross the bridge, and had there been a mountain, I felt like I could have jumped over it too.
Everything had progressed so quickly that I did not have time to think. But now, with only the waves crashing against the cliffs in the distance and my soles crunching on the ground for noise, the magnitude of my actions hit me hard. I pulled my hat lower. What was I doing? What made me think this scheme could ever work? I wanted to grab a loose strand of hair and curl it around my finger, as I always did when I was nervous, but all my hand caught was air, and I realised that there was no going back now, because it would be a shame if I had brought upon myself this ugly hair style for nothing.
A cottage rose from above the rolling hills. Yellow bricks, entangled in reddening ivy piled up to the brown roof tiles that were embedded in orange moss. The windows framed nothing but endlessly blue sky. No one had lived in this house for a long time, but, unlike our house, the beautiful building had not aged. It had simply adjusted to the scenery of green puffy meadows and tall trees that reached on to the horizon. Despite the idyllic picture before me, a suffocating tension lay its fingers around my throat.
Perhaps I had been too hasty after all, and the wish to help my family had prevailed over my common sense. How humiliating it would be if the old man saw through my dress-up the moment I walked in. Gossip travelled fast on the small Isle of Wight. However, Father once said that it was better to do one’s best and fail, rather than not to try at all.
My feet reached the porch before my mind did. The heat came to my cheeks. I feared my heart pounding in my chest would be louder than my fist knocking on the door. No one answered.
A strong gust of wind carried in from the sea and pushed the door open noiselessly. A long hallway stretched out before me, running into the light of a tall window.
‚Good afternoon,‘ I shouted through the doorway.
Only the wind answered by pushing me inside.
‚I came for the advertised position,‘ I trailed off as my words disappeared in the vast hall.
A gold-framed mirror hung horizontally in the golden flower field of a detailed wallpaper. I looked more out of place in the reflection than a rabbit among horses. The yellow shimmer of my surroundings highlighted me like the oddity in a fair. Father’s worn old clothes drowned my small figure like the clasp of a monstrous wave. A pair of fearful eyes looked back at me. The skewed hair-cut made strands point in all directions. I tried to ruffle it into something more presentable. It was hard to say whether I looked like a boy, but I certainly did not look like a girl.
The hallway led to a large, airy room with big windows that caught the whole of the setting sun in them. An orange glow lay over the majestic furniture, of which not one piece matched the other. All of it had such an unfamiliar look to it that I could not help but wonder if any two pieces were from the same country.
Among the numerous statues and vases, and other pieces of exotic art, an oil painting, reaching from the marble mantelpiece to the ceiling, caught my attention. A young boy held himself proudly in a suit from another century. Warm brown eyes looked tenderly down on the red armchair in the room. Guided by the gaze, I realised with a start that there was a man sitting in it. He had dosed off with a board of chess in front of him. His head heaved back and forth, going lower each time. Soon his nose would touch the queen. I inhaled sharply, bracing myself for the encounter.
I cleared my throat.
‚Good afternoon, sir,‘ I said thrice, going louder each time, until finally the silver-haired head yanked up.
A wild sound broke from his lungs and he pounced at me. I stumbled back with a start, into the many arms of an Indian statue. On the spur of the moment, and with my heart pounding like thunder, I mumbled an incomprehensible explanation and started to curtsey but remembered I was a boy, and clumsily turned the movement into a bow. My feet got confused and caught on the much-too-long trousers. My arms flew to the sides for balance and knocked over a vase. Before the ancient piece of some foreign history or other could scatter, I dived after it and caught it. Holding it up over my head, I kissed the magnificent Persian carpet.
Trembling laughter shook the air. The old man slumped back into his seat and laughed and laughed. When I was back on my feet and the vase back on its pedestal, he still heaved from the force of the humour he found in my performance.
‚I am here for the position,‘ I said timidly. ‚My sister was here before me, but she was kindly informed that—‘
‚Indeed!‘ he exclaimed. ‚What a darling girl your sister is and handsome too. It is a shame I am such a stubborn old mule.‘ He smiled joyously, as if it was something he was proud of.
I did not know how to answer such a confession and decided it was safest to keep staring at him like an idiot, which I mastered handsomely.
‚Ah! Well, well,‘ the gentleman muttered. ‚Come here, child, come to me. Let me have a look.‘
There was not much distance between us, but I stepped forward nonetheless.
His soft, big hand scratched the fluffy beard of finest silver, then a frown formed on his round, wrinkled face.
A large, polished clock, carved from dark wood, stood behind the gentleman. With every tick-tock, it seemed to become louder. His scrutiny made me frightfully nervous.
Finally, the corners of the gentleman’s mouth twitched into a smile, making his eyes become two small semicircles. He leaned back into the deep red armchair, which had unfamiliar ornaments impregnated onto the rich, silky fabric, and raised one hand.
‚Sit down, my boy.‘ He motioned towards the other armchair opposite him. Stiffly, I moved to my assigned position and sat on the edge of the velvet cushions, afraid of being devoured by them, like a pathetic insect by a magnificent, exotic flower.
‚How old are you, child?‘
‚I am nearly eighteen, sir.‘
‚No, no. That won’t do. You cannot be older than twelve, thirteen at best.‘
‚Now that you mention it, I am just turned thirteen,‘ I lied.
He laughed heartily and I very nearly smiled but thought better of it.
‚Do you care for a game of chess?‘
‚Very much, sir,‘ I answered, then paused and added, ‚Yet I have never played.‘
‚Then I shall teach you,‘ he declared with so much enthusiasm that I dared to believe my disguise had fooled him. Allowing myself to relax only a little bit, I focused on the explanation of the chess rules. With a child-like gleam in his old eyes that resembled the boy in the massive painting, the gentleman pointed out the movements of the pawns. One peculiarity angered me. The queen was very powerful while the king was weak, yet, the game depended entirely upon him. I tried to make my frown look one of like uttermost concentration.
At the end of an hour-long game, which he had played more against himself than against me, having amended every move I had made with great delight, he said he was tired.
‚It was a pleasure meeting you,‘ said he with brisk politeness.
I understood it was time for me to leave. Afraid to ask whether my position was secured, I hesitantly turned my hat in my hands.
‚Ah,‘ he remembered, pointing a finger in the air. With some difficulty, he rose from his throne and slowly walked to a white cupboard, which might as well have been crafted to grace a chamber in Versailles. Paper rustled in his hands and when he turned to me, I was presented with a twenty-pound note. I stared at it blankly.
‚Would you like me to run an errand?‘ I asked, dazzled to be trusted with such a large sum so soon after our first meeting.
‚Your sister mentioned one thing or another, which led me to believe you might find a suitable use for it.‘
‚No, sir, I-‚ I waved my hands before me.
‚None of that,‘ he said sternly.
‚Take it, or you won’t have to come back.‘ All traces of friendliness left his voice and a coldness ran down my back.
I took the money and stuffed it into my pocket. The valuable piece of paper burned a hole of guilt into my trousers.
‚Until tomorrow, then. Be here at ten,‘ he said.
A bright summer evening sky lay overhead as I made for my way home.
WILL AND WISH
Upon my return, my sisters were in the sitting room. It seemed even tinier and more run-down after the eccentric extravagance of the old man’s parlour. But even the most exotic art piece was nothing compared to Elizabeth’s beauty, particularly when she was angry. My sister sat as straight as a candle, with her brows arched up and her lips pursed. All of her attention was consumed by the needle work she was occupied with.
‚I am back,‘ I said, standing in the doorway and turning my hat in my hands as was becoming my wont.
Eleanor looked at me sharply and imitated our older sister by arching her brows, pursing her lips, and straightening her back. Only unlike Elizabeth, she overdid it and looked like she was in pain.
‚Would you care for a cup of tea?‘ I asked.
My mouth was dry and I sure needed one. No one answered. Before I left for the kitchen, I glanced at Elizabeth. She looked like an elegant, cold statue from the old man’s collection.
‚It went well,‘ I told the empty kitchen.
‚I am glad to hear it.‘ I heard Father’s reply, even though I could not see him.
‚Was she very angry after I left?‘ I asked him.
‚Dear me, she raved on and on for as long as you were gone, I can tell you. Her choice of vocabulary made me turn in my grave like a whirlwind,‘ he joked and I laughed.
‚Have you lost your mind completely now?‘ asked Elizabeth in a hoarse voice after following me into the kitchen, which only confirmed Father’s observation.
I did not want to answer her question in the affirmative and I did not want to lie to her, so I merely repeated that it had gone well.
‚We played chess,‘ I told her, ‚and then,‘ I paused as a lump rose in my throat, ‚he gave me twenty pounds.”
‚Twenty pounds?‘ Elizabeth exclaimed with such a high pitch that I could see the crack in my cup extend. ‚You refused it, I hope.‘
I looked at her and then away.
‚Jo,‘ she said with more force, and rested one of her palms on the table, which leaned towards her nearly catapulting my tea cup against the wall. ‚Jo, you refused it, didn’t you?‘
‚I tried, but…‘ I caught the teacup with both hands as Elizabeth put her other hand on the table and leaned further towards me.
‚How dare you?‘ Her voice quivered.
I stared at my hands. The fact that my benefactor was her enemy did not help the situation.
‚We are a respectable family. We do not need charity. We are no beggars, Jo.‘
‚Not yet,‘ I mumbled.
Two circles of fire emerged from her pupils.
‚I have not raised you to accept… tokens.‘ It took all her disgust to pronounce that word. ‚If you receive money, then it is for hard and honest work and nothing else.‘
Trying to escape her furious gaze, which was about to scorch me, I looked down at myself. The large shirt, which was almost slipping from my shoulders, the braces, which would not stay in place for the world, the trousers that looked on me like a saddle would look on a cow – though not entirely honest, it was most definitely hard work.
‚You will give it back tomorrow, is this understood?‘
‚I will keep it and there is nothing you can do about it,‘ I retorted and pushed past her. My heart raced dreadfully when I mounted the steps in quick strides. I slammed the door shut behind me. There was Little Dorrit still faithfully lying on my bed; it was the last book my father had given me – even Little Dorrit would want me to give that money back. But no one could persuade me to part with it now, as it was nothing to the old man, yet everything to us. Surely Little Dorrit would understand. I hugged the book close to me when the door jumped open. I was charged like a gun with angry words for bullets, but it was only Eleanor who entered.
‚You are very stubborn indeed, Joanna Ryde,‘ she said and sat down next to me on my bed.
‚It seems to run in the family.‘
‚It certainly does.‘ She paused, and I tried to estimate in which direction this conversation was going. It was surprising that she had not yet strangled me with accusations that were copies of Elizabeth’s language.
‚Can I see it, Jo?‘
I looked at her.
‚The… money,‘ she whispered conspiratorially.
I pulled it out of my pocket. It was no longer as smooth as it had been. She took it, and her cheeks gained in colour. The eyes sparkled.
‚How pretty it is! Is it not pretty, Jo?‘ Her gaze was captured by the wrinkled piece of paper. ‚Have numbers ever looked this beautiful?‘
‚I do not know that they have,‘ I said, mildly fascinated with my sister’s fascination.
‚Can you imagine how many dresses we could buy? And how many oranges?‘
‚It is not to be spent idly.‘ I grabbed it from her.
‚Oh, let me look at it a little longer,‘ she whimpered.
I held it up but did not let go when she tried to take it, because I was afraid she would spend it if I blinked.
‚I am not proud you took the money,‘ Eleanor stated, ‚yet I am glad it is in our possession.‘
‚You are?‘ I said sceptically and with a readiness to jump her should she criticise me.
She smiled and her features became very pretty.
‚Nonetheless, I do not like this whole scheme. It feels awfully dangerous somehow. And Elizabeth certainly disapproves,‘ she admitted, and I remembered how clever she was when she tried. ‚I hope you won’t need to keep it up for long.‘
‚I do not mind it quite so much.‘
She ruffled my hair, smiled even brighter, and said that she loved me. My shoulders relaxed for the first time today, and I suddenly felt very tired. With my head on my sister’s lap, I dosed off while she patted my head and hummed a melody that Mother used to sing.
Elizabeth and I were much more alike than any of us would admit, although I did not expect I could be as composed as she was, or ever as elegant and handsome. I admired her just as much as she disliked my unconventional manner of dealing with problems. During breakfast, she went back to ignoring me and raising her brows, pursing her lips, and straightening her back.
It did not keep me from going to my new workplace. The old man welcomed me as though I had been in his service for years.
He had no servants. His meals were brought by the son of the only public house owner in the area. I knew him and hid each time he came. Somebody else was employed once a fortnight to do his laundry and another person cleaned the house every now and then. Apart from that, the old man was very independent and liked to do everything himself and his way.
From the very first day onward, he treated me with nothing but kindness and devotion. He never allowed my teacup to remain empty – and what an excellent tea he made, for his storages were filled with the most exquisite herbs from Japan and China. During dinner, I had to have a good reason to refuse a second serving. And there was always fruit on the table because the old man was of the firm belief it might mend the meagreness of my countenance. More importantly however, the old man had many fields of interest and was determined to teach me in all of them. Being a scholar, he had spent his entire life investing both time and fortune in his own education, rather than wasting money on idle riches – although his rooms were stuffed with the strangest things. When I pointed it out, he laughed, and said his house was the beauty of the world in a nutshell. Having been to every continent, he would know. How I envied him for his luxury of knowledge and freedom.
Father, and after him, Elizabeth had taught me Arithmetic Mathematics, French and Latin, but through my new occupation as companion, or rather student, I gained much deeper insights into those and other subject matters. The education the old man gave me was one I would have never dared to dream of. I learnt about Philosophy, improved my notions of History and Politics, broadened my scientific horizon particularly with regard to Darwin’s findings, gained an excellent understanding of the British Law, found myself capable of navigating a frigate (in theory, at least), and read brilliant novels from the old man’s huge private library, which took up most of the first floor. All this inspired me and gave me the impression I could conquer the world with the powers of my mind. The idea of becoming a lawyer grew on me. The old man approved greatly of it and nodded his head eagerly every time I mentioned it.
He was as grateful for a devoted student as I was for a passionate teacher. I learnt to love him dearly as the closest friend I had ever had, and though neither one of us ever addressed the subject, I was sure he felt the same about me, and before long, the old man’s house became my second home.
Even though my sisters could not fathom my enthusiasm, they came to terms with my cross-dressing double-life over the course of a year. Gradually, I talked to Father less and less, but not a day went by without me thinking of him and Mother.
‚Elizabeth, have you heard? Jo wants to become a lawyer,‘ mocked Eleanor as we were having Sunday dinner – one that was made possible by the generosity of my benefactor and teacher. The salary he paid me was ridiculously high. Elizabeth even wanted to hire a maid to which I severely objected, claiming it was better to save as much as we could, while we could.
‚I am not saying that my decision is made. The profession of engineer is just as tempting. A career in medical science is also under consideration. I do not want to be too hasty, of course.‘ I shared these thoughts with her under the illusion that she might be as interested in my career as I was.
‚You cannot be a lawyer or medical engineer or whatever it is,‘ Eleanor spelled out. ‚Just because you are fooling an old, blind, and deaf man, it does not mean you will fool the rest of the Empire. Besides, do you honestly consider living your life as a man?‘ She snickered.
How I wanted to pull her hair, which was neatly tied by a new lace the spoilt girl had acquired only recently. She had not even considered the possibilities I was laying out.
‚First of all, he is neither blind nor deaf. Not yet, at least. And secondly, you do seem to like the advantages of my dress-up, judging by the tut you drape yourself with.‘
Elizabeth allowed her to spend too much money on unnecessary things, and her view of the world was so limited that she did not seem to want to widen her horizon beyond French fashion.
‚If you would rather go back to being as poor as a church mouse, I will wear a dress tomorrow.‘
Eleanor pouted her lips. She would not want to be poor again, just as I would not want to endanger my relationship with my mentor.
As a precaution, I wore trousers at all hours. Even if the old man stayed indoors mostly, and I hardly left our house either, other than to go to him. I did not want to become confused, although Elizabeth claimed I was exactly that. It was her wish that I should limit my walks to the periphery of our cottage and his – so as not to embarrass the family. It was all the same to me, for I looked forward to going over to his house more than I did to returning home. With him, I could speak about all the things in the world. Even mundane things turned to profound conversations with him. Without ever interrupting whatever I was saying, he would take in every word I voiced and deliberate on the answer for a long time before giving a response, making sure he dealt with the subject in the most respectful manner. At home, I would not be heard until I started yelling and fuming, which drastically decreased in frequency. Somehow, I felt it was no longer important to prove my point to my sisters. But then, my family loved me more than I imagined anybody else could ever love me. And I knew to appreciate that.
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