I clutched my sketchbook to my chest, my grip growing tighter as I paced about my room. Oh, just do it already! I thought. I stopped and narrowed my eyes, looking through the doorway across the hall where Alice's study was.
I walked with purpose, moving quickly enough that I wouldn't have time to reconsider before it was too late.
"Alice!" I said as I entered the room.
"Oh!" A maid turned round in surprise. Alice was nowhere to be seen.
"O-oh, I'm sorry," I said. "I-I was looking for Alice."
"Miss McCrae said she'd be out in the garden," the maid replied. She returned to her dusting.
"Th-thank you," I said. I glanced out the window, then hurried down the stairs on my way outdoors. Stepping outside, I squinted as the bright sky flooded my eyes with light. The air was warm, and the garden had a green glow about it. My pace slowed as I walked along the garden path, where rows of red, white, yellow, and purple flowers stood on either side of me. I relished these walks most days, but right now, I hardly noticed them. I clutched my sketchbook a little tighter. Rounding the corner of the villa, I saw Alice reading at one of the benches near the oak tree. She held her parasol in her lap, shielding her fair skin from the summer sun.
"H-hi, Alice," I said upon reaching her.
"Good afternoon, Mary," she said, looking up. "I missed you at breakfast this morning. How are you?"
I felt my anxiety begin to melt away at the sound of her voice.
"Oh," I said, "I was up rather late last night, so I slept in..."
"What were you up to?" asked Alice.
"I was— I was colouring," I said. I looked down at my sketchbook. "Actually, I... I thought you might like to see some of it — i-if you're interested..."
Alice's tone suddenly became excited. "Would you?" she asked. She moved to the side, and motioned for me to sit with her.
"You look quite charming in that," said Alice, as I sat beside her.
"Oh?" I was wearing a new dress I'd bought from a children's clothing shop the previous day. Elli had convinced me to go, and I ended up finding something I liked (as embarrassing as it was that I had found it there). The dress was a very dark blue, with short sleeves, and white rings round the hem and cuffs that matched my stockings.
"Th-thank you," I said, tugging at the hem. I laid my sketchbook on my lap and opened it up to a page I'd been working on.
"I've been drawing a lot of flowers lately," I said. "This is one I saw in the garden yesterday morning." I turned the page. "And— This is a patch I saw growing by the river the other day. It's hard to draw many of them and have them all look similar..."
Alice leaned in closer and touched the paper. She was silent for a moment as she studied it.
"They're lovely," she said finally, still gazing at the drawing. "I can feel the sun shining on them, and the wind making them dance about... I remember walking in the garden with my grandfather one day after we planted a row of poppies. I must have been six years old... and... I asked him why our Father created flowers. My grandfather told me that 'beauty exists for its own sake; without it, there would be little joy in life.' He said that a rare soul can capture that beauty and reform it in words, on a page, or in song, so that we can experience this joy through the eyes of another."
She looked up at me. "I believe you have that gift."
I felt my cheeks grow warm. "Thank you," I said. "You... really like them?"
"Absolutely," said Alice. "I don't think you should hide your work. It's worth sharing."
"M-maybe so," I said, closing my sketchbook.
"What university do you mean to attend?" asked Alice.
"Huh?" I didn't know what she was talking about.
"You told me that you intend to study art after school, isn't that right? Haven't you decided which university you will be attending?"
"O-oh..." I remembered our conversation. "I..." I looked at my feet. "I didn't tell you the truth..." I began to tear up. "I-I didn't mean to lie, b-but I didn't— You—"
Alice put her arm around my shoulders. "No, no, it's alright," she cooed. She wiped away my tears with her other hand. "Why did you feel as though you couldn't be honest with me?"
"I saw you studying so hard to get into Cambridge," I said, "I felt embarrassed that I wasn't doing the same— th-that I didn't know what I wanted to study..." I fought the urge to squirm away. Alice was just like my mother sometimes.
Alice brushed my hair out of my face. "Mary, it's alright. I only asked because I was curious, and I don't think any less of you for not knowing."
"How— When did you decide you wanted to go to Cambridge?" I asked, sniffing.
Alice leaned back and looked up at the oak tree. "Cambridge has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember," she said. "I chose to study economics when I was fourteen years old."
"Why economics?" I asked.
"I wanted to take after my father," she replied. "When I began to think about what I wanted to pursue, he recommended that I consider economics, as it was what he studied in university, and it was what gave him the knowledge he needed to run his business with success. I've always admired my father, and I feel it's only proper that I continue his legacy."
"Oh... I see," I replied. I stood and picked up my sketchbook.
"Thank you very much for showing me your lovely work," said Alice. "Please, show me more whenever you like. I'd be delighted to see it."
"O-of course!" I said. "I-I'll be going now," I said. "Thank you!" I went inside and returned to my room.
Alice really did like my art... Maybe I could share it with more people? I thought, smiling to myself.
As I began to put my sketchbook away, I noticed the little owl figurine that sat on the end table. I picked it up and turned it around in my hand.
That's right... I thought. The owner of that figurine shop I visited a few weeks ago had given it to me, and in return, he asked to see my work sometime. I looked at the sketchbook in my hand. I supposed it was only fair.
After explaining the situation to Alice, she agreed to accompany me to the shop. I found a hat, and then we set out for town.
❀ ❀ ❀
Alice and I arrived at the shop uneventfully. A bell above the door rang as I stepped inside.
"Hi there!" I heard a man's voice call out. "Hey, I remember you," he said as I approached the desk. "Mary, isn't it?"
"Yes," I said.
"How've you been?" he asked, resuming his carving. I couldn't tell what exactly he was working on.
"I'm well," I said. I held up my sketchbook. "U-um... When I was here last, you asked me to show you my artwork sometime."
"I did," he replied.
"I'd like to show you some of it," I said, placing my sketchbook on the desk. The man put his tools aside and rested his hands on the desk as he leaned in to see.
"Huh," he mumbled, flipping through the pages, rubbing his beard contemplatively. After a moment of silence, he spoke. "You're a still-life artist?"
"I guess so," I said.
"You've got talent," he said. "Your lighting is good. Your perspective is good. That's hard. Your lining is rough, but I think it adds to your style."
"I like drawing like that," I said.
"Good," he replied. "Better to draw with purpose than with none at all." He handed the book back to me. "You've got some fine work in there, lass. Now, what are you going to do with it?"
I stared blankly. I didn't know what to say.
The man smiled. "It's not just going to sit there, is it?"
"W-well," I said, "I've thought I might study it in university..."
"Aye?" he said. "And then what?"
I laughed awkwardly and shuffled my feet.
"Let me tell you," said the man, "it's a noble thing to study at a university. You'll learn much there. But if you're looking to make a life out of doing this..." He sighed. "It's hard. I know that better than anyone. Passion and talent will get you a long way, but not far enough. Need a lot of hard work, and a lot of luck, too."
I felt my cheeks reddening. The man just laughed.
"You don't have to make a living with art," he said. "You can find another job, or find a good man to take care of you and do it in your spare time."
"M-marry?" I stammered.
He laughed again. "Not too sure about that yet, hmm?" He turned his attention to Alice. "My apologies, lass, I don't believe we've met."
"My name is Alice," she replied. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Devin," he replied, nodding his head. "So, what about you?"
"Pardon me?" asked Alice.
"What are your plans for the future?" he asked.
"I'm to study economics at Cambridge University next year," she replied.
"Are you now?" he replied. "Good for you. What for?"
"I'm going to become an investor, like my father," she said.
"Invest— McCrae, he's your father?"
"Yes," said Alice. "Do you know him?"
"He helped an old friend of mine once." He crossed his arms in front of him. "Let me tell you girls something." He paused. "Do what you love. Remember I said that. But be careful, alright? World's a tough place. It's ready to crush your dreams at a moment's notice." He looked at Alice. "If your heart's not in it, you'll never make it. I can tell you that first-hand."
I began to fidget with the hem of my dress.
"But enough of that," he said. He tipped his hat at me. "Thanks for sharing your art with me, lass. You're good. Don't stop."
"Th-thank you!" I said. "Good-bye!"
❀ ❀ ❀
Alice and I returned to the warm summer air, where we began to stroll about the town.
"Alice?" I said. "Do you really think I could become— an artist?"
"If you want to," she said. "Do you?"
I looked down at my sketchbook. "I don't know," I said. I held it to my chest tightly.
"That's alright," said Alice, placing a hand on my shoulder. I felt my shoulders relax, and my grip on my book loosened slightly. I supposed she was right.
"How about you?" I asked. "Do you think you'll become an eco— an investor?"
Alice was silent for a moment. "If the Lord wills it," she said, finally. "Would you like to go for tea, Mary? I'd like to watch you draw something, if that's alright."
I smiled. "Okay!" I said.
I wished I knew what my future held, but in spite of my uncertainty, I knew one thing for sure — Whatever it was, I was going to put my whole heart into it.