Alice tapped her pen repeatedly against the book that lay open in front of her. Her other hand was pressed to her cheek, supporting her head as she stared down at the endless stream of words and numbers. She glanced at the upper bit of one page, where the title was inscribed: Principles of Economics. It was one of several books she had been studying intensely over the past few months. She ought to be more knowledgeable about the subject, she thought. Her mock exams had high marks; but they weren’t high enough, not for her. To have studied economics since the age of fourteen, an undertaking her father — a man known throughout the country for his keen business sense — had suggested, and to be anything less than perfect… The weight on her heart was heavy.
It wasn’t her father’s approval she was concerned about — the man had repeatedly expressed his unwavering support in any path his daughter chose — it was something more personal than that. Economics wasn’t merely a subject of study, or an entrance to university; it was a gateway to a new life, a new life built through her own hard work, something she could truly be proud of.
Cambridge had been a dream of Alice’s since childhood. The thought of being able to study under some of the most learned professors in the world, to have access to the most magnificent library she had ever laid eyes on, was almost too much excitement to bear. She smiled as she imagined it. To walk under the grand arches every day; to lose herself in that library, surrounded by thousands of books on every subject she could ever care to learn, reading to her heart’s content; to make new friends with like-minded students, people who wouldn’t know where she came from or who her family was, who would respect and trust her, and who she could trust in return… It all seemed so close. Still, it was not a reality quite yet. She looked at her pen, put it down, and sighed, running her fingers through her long hair.
The sound of a bird’s song rung out nearby. Alice lifted her head from its support, wincing slightly as it stung. She stood and stretched, then moved to the window and drew back the curtains. She squinted for a moment as light flooded into the room. She smiled. As she had expected, a red-breasted robin sat on one of the trees outside the window, chirping away merrily.
Mary would like to see this, she thought. Her smile faded.
“Maybe…” she murmured aloud, “Maybe it was wrong of me to be so hard on her…”
Though Mary’s impatience and stubbornness was frustrating at times, Alice truly admired the girl’s passion. Her mood changed with the wind, and when it did, she seemed to be wholly invested in it.
Alice looked back at her book. But she should have respected my wishes, she thought. She began to pace slowly round the room. I have a schedule, and Mary ought to be considerate enough to leave me to it. But… This is her first week here… Perhaps she deserved more of my time. She furrowed her brow. Oh, but none of that matters now, I must return to my studies.
Alice sat back at her desk and picked up her pen once more. She turned her paper over to find nothing underneath it.
“Oh, I’m out,” she said.
She stood and left the study, crossing the hallway to enter her bedroom. She paused as she started to turn the handle on her door. She looked at the door adjacent to hers, the door to Mary’s room.
I wonder what’s in her sketchbook… she thought.
She shook her head. No, I couldn’t, she thought, with some repulsion that she could even consider such a thing. She continued without another thought into her own room and found a new supply of paper at her desk. She took some of it up in her arms. As she turned to leave the room, her eye caught the framed photo of Elli and her that sat on the table by her bed. She set the paper down and picked up the photo.
I wish could have joined Elli this afternoon, Alice thought. I suppose I could have… But… She stood and began pacing again. No, I have to study. I must keep to a tight schedule, or else I won’t be fully prepared for my exams. Cambridge is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I cannot let my guard down. All of my teachers have high expectations for me. I cannot let them down. My classmates — She frowned. They — I have to prove to them that I am capable of this. I am!
Suddenly, a piece of paper fell from behind the frame. Alice picked it up and unfolded it.
“Oh, I’d forgotten about this…” she said. The paper was a slightly yellowed, and decorated round the edges with little flowers. On it was a short note, written in large, bold letters with many flourishes and ornaments. She hesitated, feeling somewhat embarrassed to read it, despite being alone.
How do you find Russia? It’s a charming country, if a bit cold this time of year. I miss it. Someday we should travel there together. I can show you the town I lived in when I was little. I received your letter yesterday. You sentimental girl, we’ve been apart for two weeks, not two years. Mama and I are just fine, don’t you worry about us. I recently learned Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp Minor. I’ll play it for you when you return — If you promise to bring me back a souvenir. Don’t trouble yourself with your studies, Ally. Take time to enjoy yourself. I miss you dearly.
P.S. Don’t forget the souvenir.
Alice fell back onto the bed and stared up at the canopy, clutching the letter to her chest.
Oh, what am I doing? she thought. I’m taking this much too seriously… Elli’s right. Mary was right. I’m only thinking about myself. She’s my guest, and she deserves my attention. It was inconsiderate of me to worry about it, and to treat her as I did… Even if my studies suffer, she — she matters more than marks on an exam.
Alice rose from the bed and sighed deeply. She looked out the window. I hope they’re well, she thought. I hope Elli isn’t too hard on her this time. I wonder how they’re getting along… She looked at the clock on her wall. It was nearly two in the afternoon. They are likely to be hungry when they return. I know Elli won’t refuse tea… She giggled. And Mary wouldn’t refuse anything sweet…
“I’ve got it,” she said, a sudden spark of energy lighting up her mind. “I’ll prepare tea and cakes for them to enjoy when they return. It will — it will be my apology to Mary. Yes, that should be sufficient!”
She opened her wardrobe to find something to wear. An excited flutter ran through her stomach. I had best prepare quickly, she thought. They won’t be long. Perhaps Sebastian would be willing to lend me a hand…