I awoke to the crash of thunder. I looked round. I was in the guest room. I didn’t remember falling asleep. I crawled out of bed and pulled back one of the curtains, peeking outside. The sky was dark, and the rain poured down heavily, so thick that you could only see a few hundred metres in any direction. I listened to the dull roar of the rain and sighed, running my fingers through my hair. I retrieved my sketchbook and opened it up to the drawing I had made the night before. My shading could’ve been better. I blamed it on the low light.
Distantly, I heard the tinkling of something musical. I perked up, turning my ear in the direction of the sound. I stood, and tiptoed slowly along the hardwood floor, my bare feet making as little noise as possible. The sound was coming from the study. Carefully, I turned the doorknob and entered the room.
The study was large, at least twice the size of the room I was staying in. It was lit dimly by sconces in each corner. Black shelves as tall as the ceiling lined the walls, stocked with books on every subject imaginable. In addition to the reference books, theological books, and encyclopaediae were a great number of fictional works. I recognised the name Verne from when Alice mentioned him the day before. Across from the entrance was a rather large window, currently covered by thick red curtains. A matching rug, with golden accents, covered most of the floor. On the far side of the window were two green cushioned chairs with elegant floral patterns, and a small, circular brown table in between them. On the other side of the window was a writing desk, on which sat a globe, several sheets of notes, and an open book.
The music was louder. I walked into the middle of the room and saw Alice, still in her nightgown, sitting on the floor, holding a small item that appeared to be a model of a wooden ship. A slow tune echoed forth from the thing, sounding rather like bells.
“What’s that?” I asked.
Alice looked up, surprised. “Oh, good morning, Mary,” she said, standing. “I didn’t know you were awake. I would’ve made you breakfast,” she continued.
“N-no, it’s fine,” I said, moving my hands back and forth. “I heard music, and I wanted to know where it was coming from.”
“This?” She held up the model. “It’s a music box.” She twisted the knob underneath the model, and the song played once more.
I gasped in amazement and came closer. “It is?” I asked. “I’ve never seen one like this before…”
Alice smiled. “Sometimes I like to imagine I’m the captain… They say this ship was modeled after one that actually existed a long time ago. It belonged to a famous young merchant girl. She was very wealthy, but she worked very hard for what she had… I admire her for that.” She looked at me. “Do you want to see the others?”
“I keep them over here.” She pointed to my right. I followed her hand with my eyes. Interrupting the wall of books was a set of shelves, home to dozens of expensive-looking music boxes and figurines in various shapes and sizes.
I stared in awe. “Where in the world did you get all these?” I asked.
“All over it,” she replied. “Father sometimes brings them back for me from his travels, but I’ve bought many of these from vendors around England. I’ve become quite good at knowing where to look, how old one is, how much it will sell for, that sort of thing. I’ve read much about them.”
She reached up and took one of the figurines down. It was a sculpture of a small child sitting on a staircase. One arm was around her knees, the other at her side, her hand resting on a step. Her chin was pointed upwards. She seemed to be looking for something, or someone.
“This one’s my favourite,” said Alice, smiling. “It was made in Russia, in the eighteen-sixties.” She wound it up, and a slow, wandering tune started to play. It was very pretty, but it made me feel sad in a strange sort of way.
“It sounds lonely.” I said.
“Lonely?” Alice asked. “I think it’s beautiful. It feels like a dream… It’s as though you’re reading something so captivating that you lose track of the time, and forget that there’s even a world outside of the one in your head; and you stop reading, and for a moment, you’re in between the real world and the one in the story…”
Her eyes were bright. She seemed lost in thought as she gazed at the instrument in her hands.
I didn’t really understand what she meant.
The music wound down. Alice carefully placed the figurine back on the shelf. She held her clasped hands low, her head tilted to one side as she admired the collection.
“Alice,” I began. She brought her head up quickly, turning round in surprise.
“Oh! I’m sorry, I was daydreaming. What did you say?”
“I’m getting hungry,” I said sheepishly.
“I forgot, Mary, I apologise. I’ll go ma—”
“No, no!” I said, taking her arm. “I-I can do that myself!”
She looked surprised.
“I mean…” I looked at the window. “Why don’t we go find breakfast in town?”
Alice smiled. “That sounds lovely. I’ll be ready in a moment.”
“Yay!” I exclaimed, hurrying out of the study and to my room, dressing in long, warm clothing. I pranced downstairs, greeted my aunt and uncle, and found Alice waiting for me at the door. She was wearing a dark burgundy coat. She opened the door and stepped out, opening her umbrella. She looked at me with confusion.
“You have an umbrella, don’t you?” she asked.
Oh, right… I didn’t bring mine…
“I-I must’ve forgotten it…” I said, twirling one of the ribbons in my hair with my fingers.
“I’ll get one,” said Sebastian, who had appeared out of nowhere.
“Don’t worry about it, Sebastian,” said Alice. “Come here,” she told me.
I did as I was told. Alice positioned the umbrella over the both of us, pulling me close.
I remembered walking to school in the rain with my mother when I was young. She would hold an umbrella over us, and I would jump in the puddles that I came across. My mother would always scold me for that, but I kept on doing it anyway…
“How’s that?” asked Alice.
I looked up at her, and stumbled backwards. “I-I think I’d like to… Ah—M-Mr. Sebastian, could I have an umbrella of my own, please?“
The man smiled. “Already done, Miss Bennet,” he said, producing one from behind his back.
“Thank you,” I said. I took it and walked out the door.
Alice held her umbrella close. “Let’s be off, then,” she said.
❀ ❀ ❀
We arrived in town shortly. The rain didn’t keep the market-goers away; the streets were filled with the sound of people talking, laughing, and negotiating prices. We found a café hidden away in the corner of the street nearest us and entered. Old wooden chairs and tables lined the interior, and a small fireplace crackled on the far side of the building. The walls were adorned with many paintings, most of them landscapes and depictions of farms or villages. The sound of lively conversation filled the air.
Alice caught me staring at the pictures and leaned towards me, speaking softly. “The man who owns this place used to be a painter,” she explained.
I stopped and focused on one of the paintings. Depicted was a bright blue creek winding through a thick crowding of trees, crystal-clear so that you could see all the little rocks at the bottom. The sun shone through the patches of leaves so that beams of light striking the water and refracting in many directions. I felt my heart lift in excitement. The skill in his work was immediately obvious.
“They’re beautiful,” I said, grinning. I paused. “Why did he stop?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. She looked around the room. “Maybe he never did.”
We found a table and took our seats. A waitress took our orders, and then left us in silence. I looked at Alice. She sipped her tea, looking down at a small pamphlet.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
“Pardon me?” asked Alice, looking up. “Oh, I apologise,” she said, stuffing the pamphlet in her coat. “I shouldn’t be reading that right now.”
“N-no, I didn’t mind,” I said. “What was it about?”
She retrieved it from her coat and gave it to me. “It’s a summary of information about Cambridge,” she said.
“Cambridge?” I asked. “What are you reading about that for?”
“I will be attending next year to study economics,” she said.
“O-oh, really?” I asked. Why did I expect anything less? I gave her the pamphlet back. “Where do you go to school now?”
“I go to an independent school just north of here,” she replied. She took a sip of her tea.
“Do you like it?”
“It’s nice,” she replied.
“Oh, I see,” I said.
“What about you?” she asked. “Where do you plan on going after school?”
“Me? I-I—well, I’m studying lots of things right now you know, and, um—”
I was interrupted by the waitress returning with our orders.
“Here you are, ladies,” she said. My plate was filled with steaming-hot eggs, bacon, sausages, golden-brown hash, and black pudding. My mouth watered at the sight of it. Alice had a single poached egg and some bacon. I began eating immediately.
“What were you saying?” asked Alice, a few minutes into our breakfast.
“I don’t remember,” I lied. I glanced out the window. “There won’t be much to do today,” I remarked.
“There’s plenty to do indoors,” said Alice.
“Not fun things,” I replied.
Alice grinned. “We’ll come up with something. We always did when we were young.”
I remembered how we used to play hide-and-seek round the villa on rainy days. If I was hiding, I always won. Mostly. Sometimes. Other times, I would make up my own games for us to play. But those things seemed childish to me now.
“I have a chess set at home, do you want to play a game after breakfast?” asked Alice.
“S-sure!” I said. I didn’t really remember how to play chess. I was sure it wasn’t that hard.
We finished our meal and Alice paid for our food. We exited the café and walked out into the cold, hard rain. It had picked up since we were inside. Alice looked at the sky.
“Come along, let’s get back before it worsens,” she said.
❀ ❀ ❀
We made it back to the villa quickly. I ran inside as soon as Alice opened the door, closing my umbrella and making my way to the fireplace. I waved my hands in front of it, warming them. Alice removed her coat and started up the steps.
“The chess set is in my study, if you still want to play,” she said.
“Oh, yes!” I exclaimed. I got up and followed, bounding up the stairs to walk by her side. We entered the study. She pulled a wooden box from one of the shelves and brought it over to the table in-between the green chairs. The rain could still be heard softly outside the safety of the warm villa, enveloping the atmosphere with a sense of tranquility.
“This is nice,” I said, almost to myself.
“What was that?” asked Alice.
“O-oh, nothing—” I said. “I was… just thinking how nice a cup of warm tea would be right now.”
“Oh, I’ll get you something,” said Alice, standing quickly.
“N-no!” I said, jumping out of my chair and taking her arm. “Y-you don’t have to do that,” I said.
At that moment, I heard a knock on the door. Alice opened it, and we were greeted by her butler.
“Pardon me for intruding, Miss McCrae, but I just finished preparing some tea, and I thought you and Miss Bennet might like some.”
Alice smiled warmly. “You’re always prepared, Sebastian,” she said.
“It’s Keemun,” said Sebastian, handing her two cups. “Full-leaf, just for you.”
“You know me well, Sebastian,” she said, taking them. “Thank you.”
“Glad to be of service, Miss,” he said. “Do you need anything else?”
“We’re fine, Sebastian, don’t worry about us,” said Alice.
Sebastian smiled. “Thank you, Miss,” he said, leaving.
Alice brought the cups over to the table where I was sitting, and set one of them down in front of me. The tea was of a variety I hadn’t tried before. It smelled almost like orchids. I took a sip. It was sweet. It reminded me of chocolate… I closed my eyes and smiled contentedly, swinging my legs back and forth in my seat.
Alice dusted off the top of the box and slid the lid off to reveal a smooth, checkered board and many playing pieces split into two groups — one half made of maple, and the other of rosewood. I sipped my tea and watched as she set up the board, placing the rooks, bishops, and the like along the first rows and the pawns along the second rows.
“You remember how to play, don’t you?” she asked, resting her elbows on the table, her hands clasped in front of her.
“I think so,” I replied, turning my attention to the pieces in front of me. I took the pawn in front of my right-hand bishop and moved it forward two spaces. That seemed like a good place to start.
Alice moved the pawn in front of her king forward two spaces so that it was diagonal to my own. I needed backup. I moved another pawn forward by one space, so that it formed a diagonal line with my first pawn. There. Now I had a line of defense. Alice captured my initial pawn swiftly. No matter, I was prepared for this. I moved my backup pawn upwards and to the left, capturing her lone pawn. She was back to square one. I smiled. Everything was going as planned.
Suddenly, Alice moved her queen across the board, forming a direct line with my king.
“Checkmate,” she said. I sat in stunned silence.
My face reddened. “N-no fair!” I said, gripping the sides of my chair.
“Want to play again?” she asked.
“Y-yes!” I responded. She set the board back up. This time I kept an eye on my king, leaving as few openings as possible. Before long, she wore me down, beating me once more. I crossed my arms, letting out a frustrated sigh.
“Why are you so good at everything?” I asked.
“You have to think ahead,” she said, setting the board back up. “Go in with a strategy. Don’t just react to your opponent, or you’ll never advance.”
I narrowed my eyes in determination, and made my first move. Then another. And another.
This continued for a little while. I advanced slowly across the board, taking out a few of her pawns. I still lost, but I lasted far longer than I did before.
“You played well,” said Alice.
“I don’t want to play anymore,” I said. I propped my elbow up on the table and rested my head on my hand to look out the window, twirling my hair with my opposite hand. Suddenly, I remembered our conversation at breakfast.
“Alice?” I asked.
“Yes?” She was putting the chess pieces back in the box.
“What did you say you were going to study after school?”
“Economics,” she replied.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a study about money, income, business, and things like that,” she replied.
“Oh.” I thought for a moment. “Why do you want to study that?“
Alice sat back down and crossed her arms in front of her, resting them on table. “My father is an investor, and he’s very respected in his field. I want to continue his legacy.”
“Oh. It doesn’t sound like much fun to me.” I said.
“A lot of people rather enjoy the subject,” she replied, picking up a book from the shelf nearby.
“Do you?” I asked.
“I already told you, I want to continue in my father’s footsteps,” she said, straightening her shoulders.
I looked out the window again. I resumed swinging my legs back and forth, and began to hum to myself.
“Do you like music, Mary?” Alice asked.
“Huh?” I looked up.
“Music,” she repeated. “Do you like it? You hum often.“
I felt my cheeks grow warm. I didn’t realise I had been doing that. “I-I guess so…” I replied.
“Have you thought about learning to sing?” she asked.
“N-no, I couldn’t do that!” I said quickly.
“Perhaps you could learn to play an instrument?”
“M-maybe…” I put my fingertips together.
Alice put her book down and stood up. “Come here,” she said, walking across the room to one of the bookshelves. I followed. She ran along the books with her finger, stopped at a green one with gold binding. She pulled it out and opened it up, the pages crinkling as she did so.
“It’s a book about the instruments of the orchestra,” she said. “You might find something in there that you fancy.”
I took it and flipped to a random page. On it was a detailed description of the violin, with diagrams of the instrument and proper playing technique.
“What does it sound like?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” asked Alice. I was a little ashamed to admit I didn’t really know anything about musical instruments.
“Here, I’ll show you,” she said. She walked to the corner of the room and pulled a cover off of a large box, taller than it was wide. It was a reddish-brown, with oval and diamond patterns on the front. She opened the lid. Inside was a round green object and what looked like a needle. Under the lid was written in golden letters: “EDISON”.
“What is that?” I asked.
“It’s a phonograph,” she replied.
“What does it do?” I asked.
“Listen,” she replied.
She turned the crank on the side of the thing several times, then sifted through a shelf and pulled out a large black disc. She placed it in the machine, and released the brake. Putting one finger on a lever and the other on the needle, she moved it in place. From the mysterious box, music began to play. I gasped in amazement, coming closer and resting my hands on the machine. A violin’s melody sang out, the notes wavering like a human’s voice, as a piano cascaded behind it. The two worked in perfect tandem, it was like a dance between two very different but equally skilled partners.
“Isn’t it lovely?” asked Alice.
“It’s grand,” I replied. “I see a picture in my head — two people dancing, on a dark stage.”
Alice smiled. “All forms of art tell their own stories in different ways. They inspire each other to express the same passion and emotion in ways unique to them, in ways that sometimes words can’t. I’m not an artist, or a musician, or anything like that, but I appreciate it for being able to bring things to life that can’t be expressed on a page.”
She looked at me. “You have a wonderful gift, Mary. I hope you’ll continue to use it. Not everyone is born with a talent like yours.”
“D-do you think so?” I felt embarrassed.
“You find joy and excitement in things that most of the people I know take for granted. Children see the world this way, but as they grow older, they lose these qualities, and forget how to be happy for no other reason than that they’re alive in a world of limitless potential. To be an artist is to take those feelings and capture them so that others can experience them, and through that they can be shared — ‘Somewhere out there, another person felt the way I do, so I know I’m not alone.’”
She took my hands. “Promise me you won’t lose that.”
I stared, silently. Her eyes were serious.
“I-I promise,” I said.
Alice released my hands, and smiled again. “Good.” She looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost noon. “I think it’s time for lunch,” she said, stopping the phonograph.
Author's Note: An earlier revision of the scene at the start of this chapter was performed by Mary's and Alice's voice actresses, Isabelle Amponin and Nicki Jensen. The audio is embedded below, if you would like to hear it. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy!