I woke with a start. Ripples of thunder unfurled like a long, red cloth being rolled out with great force. It was still dark out. I sat up and listened. A minute passed with only a few little rumbles. I began to lie back down when a loud crack jolted me. I sat up again and clutched the duvet to my chest. Groping to my left, I found the lantern and turned it on. I looked at the window, whose curtains were still drawn. The thunder continued.
I hopped out of bed and turned off the lantern, then tiptoed out of my room and down the hallway. Reaching Alice's room, paused, then knocked on the door lightly. Without waiting for a response, I turned the handle slowly and entered the room.
"Alice?" I said. I took a few steps further. "Alice?"
"Mary?" I heard. A light came on, and I saw Alice sitting on her bed.
"The storm is — rather loud, and I—" I put my hands together and held them in front of my chest. "Could I sleep with you?"
Alice smiled. "Certainly," she said. She moved to the side to make room for me. I climbed up and sat beside her.
"Thank you," I said. "It's... sort of silly, I know..."
Alice put her arms around me and held my head underneath hers, rocking me back and forth. "The world is full of scary things," she said. "It's alright to be afraid."
I felt the vibrations of her voice as she held me close. It was soothing.
"In fact," she continued, "I think you're very brave."
"How's that?" I asked, looking up.
"It takes strength to admit your fears. Asking for help can be more difficult than enduring alone."
We sat together in silence for a moment, listening to the rain.
"There's an old story about a lion," Alice said. "This lion was very handsome, very brave, and very powerful; yet he was deathly afraid of roosters."
"Roosters?" I giggled, a little too loudly.
"He was quite upset about it, and terribly embarrassed. One day, he met an elephant who kept flapping his ears about. The lion asked what the matter was, and the elephant said he was trying to keep away gnats — he was afraid that if one bit his ear, he might die."
"Even the most noble of us have our fears," said Alice. "Courage cannot exist without them. You can come to me anytime."
"Thank you," I said.
Alice kissed my forehead. "I love you," she said.
She lowered my head and lay down beside me. I could hardly keep my eyes open anymore. I let them close, and drifted off to sleep.
❀ ❀ ❀
When I opened my eyes, I was sprawled out on Alice's bed. Alice herself was gone. Light filled the room, and the sound of birds chattering filled the air. I couldn't hear any rain, nor thunder.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. On the end table to my left was a note in Alice's small, neat handwriting. I picked it up and rubbed my eyes again to clear my vision.
I hope you slept well. The weather is clear and joyful today. Elli came by at breakfast to enlist my help preparing a picnic for lunch today; we are inviting Nadia to eat with us. I've gone out with Elli to buy things for the picnic. I would have asked you to join us, but I didn't want to wake you. I shall return before noon, and if you like, you are welcome to help me prepare the picnic basket.
May the Lord grant you courage. Lovingly yours,
I put the note aside and looked at the clock on the wall. It was nearly ten. I hopped out of bed and ran to the window, drawing the curtains open. They'll be back soon, I thought. I hurried back to my own room to prepare myself for the day. On my way downstairs, I saw Sebastian walking through the parlour.
"Oh, good morning, Miss Bennet," he said.
"Hi, Sebastian," I replied.
"Shall I have breakfast prepared for you?" he asked.
"Yes, please!" I said, hopping in place.
"Very well," he replied. "What would you like?"
"I don't care," I said.
"I will... tell the chef to do as he pleases," said Sebastian, nodding and beginning to head towards the kitchen. I ran to catch up to him.
"Sebastian, won't you join me for breakfast?"
The man looked at me, his brows furrowed with some confusion. "Miss Bennet," he said, "I don't know that I—"
"I insist!" I interrupted.
"Take a moment to rest, Sebastian," called Uncle Ian from the sitting room.
"As you wish," he replied.
I ran to the kitchen to sit on one of the stools by the counter. Sebastian ducked into the walled-off preparation room for a moment, then returned and sat on the opposite side of the counter. His face was stiff and unsmiling. Despite this, there was an undeniable handsomeness to it.
"Sebastian, are you married?" I asked. I swung my legs back and forth, holding my head in my hands, with my elbows propped up on the countertop.
"I am not," he said. "Such a commitment would interfere with my duties as a butler." He rubbed the fingers of one hand with the thumb and forefinger on the other.
"Then why do you wear a ring?" I asked.
He looked at the small silver band on his third finger and sighed. "It is from a former engagement," he said.
The chef came out from the preparation room and put a cup of tea and a plate in front of me; the plate filled with eggs, potatoes, and bacon. I thanked him, and began to eat.
"And yourself?" asked Sebastian. He grinned. "Is there anyone to whom you owe your affection?"
I blushed. "N-no," I replied. I swallowed what was in my mouth. "I don't really care about that sort of thing."
Sebastian's grin widened. "When I was of your age," he said, "it was the only thing on my mind." He looked down at his hands. "Well, should you ever find yourself in such a relationship... Consider every moment of it a blessing from Providence itself. It will not last forever. But then... neither will your youth."
I heard the front door open in the parlour, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. Alice and Elli entered the kitchen, both holding bags filled with food. They greeted us.
Sebastian stood. "Welcome back, Miss McCrae. Miss Bennet invited me to accompany her during breakfast, I shall return to work presently."
"Oh, Sebastian, please sit," said Alice, placing her bags on the countertop. "You deserve to rest." She came to my side and put her hand on my arm. "Did you see my note to you this morning, Mary?"
"We're going to make sandwiches," said Alice. "You may help me if you like."
"Yes, please!" I replied.
With some help from Sebastian, Alice and I prepared sandwiches, wrapping them neatly and arranging them carefully into a basket. Elli left to find Nadia and take her to where we would be visiting together. After she left the villa, Alice took down a picnic set from a shelf and began to stock it with plates.
"Alice?" I asked.
"Yes, Mary?" Alice replied.
"Are you ever going to marry?"
Alice looked up. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm just curious," I said.
Alice was silent for a moment. "If the Lord wills it," she said. "As I am going to Cambridge next year, I do not suppose I will marry in the near future. Mary, can you get the pitcher for me, please?"
"Mmhmm!" I did as she asked, and she filled the pitcher with tea. I hopped up on a seat by the counter as she began to wash some fruit to add to the basket.
"Do you want to marry?" I asked.
"It has always been a dream of mine," said Alice. "When I was young, I would — this is silly — I would write my name with the surnames of boys to see how it might sound." I snickered. Alice smiled. "Elli makes fun of me for it, even now. She thinks I'm too quick to abandon my freedom as an unmarried girl. Perhaps she's right, but I don't feel that way about it in the slightest. I would love nothing more than to share my life with another." She began placing apples in the picnic basket, and tilted her head to one side. "I would love nothing more than to care for a child of my own. The thought of a future like that brings joy to my heart."
I wasn't surprised by Alice's response. It was hard to relate, though. I'd never thought that far ahead before.
"We ought to hurry," said Alice. "We don't want Elli and Nadia waiting on us. Mary, could you carry the picnic basket for me? I'll carry the tea and the picnic set."
I picked up the picnic set and made my way to the parlour. Alice put the picnic basket around her arm so she could hold her parasol.
"Oh, one moment!" I said, dropping the picnic set.
"What's the matter?" asked Alice.
"I forgot to make your bed," I shouted, halfway up the staircase.
❀ ❀ ❀
The four of us sat in a small clearing by a meadow. The sky was a light blue, with no clouds in sight. Elli was telling us stories from her work. Nadia was eating an apple and listening with great care.
"It's an absolute travesty, a travesty," said Elli. She sat with her legs tucked under her, both pointed to her left; she was leaning on her right hand, and in her left was a cup of tea that moved wildly with the motion of her hand, but somehow she spilled none of it. "They come in and say things like 'I'd like to buy some tea to serve with the pot roast I'm preparing tonight' and then choose white peony of all things. I try to steer them right but half of them won't listen, it drives me right mad."
"I'm sure those that do take the time to listen to your explanations appreciate your knowledge, Elli," said Alice.
"I'm only trying to help them," Elli replied, adjusting her sunhat.
Alice was sitting on the opposite side of me, next to Elli. She put her hand on Elli's shoulder. "You're doing the best you can. You should be proud of yourself."
"Elli, have you ever thought of owning a tea shop when you're older?" I asked. I picked up another sandwich.
"Hmm, sounds like too much work," said Elli. "I'd have quit this job already if the pay wasn't as good as it is. I'll be able to afford a new skirt next week."
"Can I join you when you go shopping for it?" I asked.
"Going to buy something too?" Elli asked.
"I want to look around," I said.
"You know," said Elli, "if you really want to change your looks, you should have your hair cut. Bobs are in right now, darling."
I gripped the ends of my hair. "I like it long!"
She moved to my side and began to play with my hair. "You should at least let me style it. You might like something new. It'll be fun!" I pushed her away and directed my attention to Nadia. She had put her apple aside and was wringing her hands together. Elli had told me that Nadia was usually uncomfortable when she did that. I walked on my knees to sit beside her, and put my hand over hers.
"Are you alright, Nadia?" I asked gently.
Nadia looked up. She didn't say anything.
"Is there something on your mind?" I asked.
Nadia hesitated. "I don't know if I want to grow older," she said.
"Why's that?" I asked, putting my other hand around hers.
"I asked Elli what it's like to be grown-up like her, and her answer scared me." Tears started to well up in her eyes.
"What did you tell her?" Alice asked, scowling at Elli.
Elli couldn't help but grin at the accusation. "Nothing, I swear!"
"I'm talking to you later," said Alice, sternly. She came to Nadia's side and put her arm around her. I backed away. "What are you afraid of, Nadia?" asked Alice.
Nadia started to cry. "I don't—I'm happy with the way my—my life is now. I'm afraid of it being different when I'm older. I'm afraid of what secondary school will be like."
Alice took out a handkerchief and dried Nadia's tears. "It's alright," she said. "I was afraid of growing up when I was your age, too."
Nadia looked at Alice. "You were?"
Alice nodded. "I was tutored privately when I was young. When I was eleven years old, I went to a public school for the first time. It was scary to be around so many people all at once. Because I was afraid, I used to become very cross with children who bothered me, but that only made things worse."
"You were dreadfully uptight," Elli said. Alice ignored her.
"It's easy to become angry or sad or scared when we're doing something new. But God always gives us people in our lives to help us through those times. I met Elli in my second year, and she helped guide me through those difficult times. And you have us."
Nadia nodded and sniffled.
"Nadia," I said. Alice moved back to let Nadia focus on me. "Can you tell me something in particular you're afraid of?"
Nadia thought for a moment. "I'm afraid I won't like the things I like now."
"Don't think about that," I said. "Just think about what you like right now!" I took out my sketchbook and flipped to a page. "I drew this flower yesterday," I said. "I saw it in Alice's garden. You've been studying flowers lately, can you tell me anything about it?"
Nadia took my sketchbook and looked at it for a moment. "Consolida ajacis," she said, slowly and carefully. "It's a larkspur. It grows very quickly. It likes the sun. I like the way it smells. It reminds me of the song a mistle thrush sings." She looked at me. "Your flowers only have four sepals. They ought to have five."
"What's a sepal?" I asked.
Nadia pointed to the base of one of the flowers, just underneath the petals. "They protect the flower while it's growing. After it's grown, sometimes they support it. Together, they are called a calyx."
I nodded to show her I was listening. Flowers seemed very complicated to me.
"Would you like to walk round the meadow and look at the wildflowers?" I asked.
Nadia smiled, revealing the dimple at her left cheek. "Yes, please," she said.
Alice moved closer to Elli. "Eleonora, I have things to inquire of you," she said, taking her by the arm.
"No one remember they heard that!" Elli commanded, blushing. I stifled a laugh. She begrudgingly stood and followed Alice.
I helped Nadia up, and we began to head towards the meadow. We stopped at a patch of small red flowers. I crouched to inspect them.
"Oh! I'll be back!" Nadia said abruptly. She ran to where we had been sitting. I watched her hair float in the wind as she ran. She returned in under a minute.
In her hands was her half-eaten apple.