"It's magnificent, isn't it? Absolutely transformative." Victoria's unsmiling tone suggested the sort of magnificence of the Sistine Chapel or the Great Sphinx, to be awed by and appreciated in great solemnity. "You must take advantage of these moments as they happen, or else they will pass you by and leave you unchanged and petrified all the length of your days."
It took Elsie quite a bit longer than she felt it should have to work up the nerve to say anything in reply to that assertion. Victoria's words fell like a punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, concluding the journey and the view so neatly that the younger woman found herself unable even to admit that she had understood. And perhaps she hadn't, fully. Victoria spoke of transformations, of growing beyond what she was and what she knew, but Elsie thought she had grown rather a lot already in the short time the doctor had been caring for her. Perhaps not enough to compensate for the stunting pressure of her parents' arguments, with the impetus to keep herself meek and quiet lest they be even more upset by something she said or did, and break the fragile harmony they had composed for themselves.
Victoria looked at Elsie, but Elsie failed to look up in time to see the resigned disappointment in her face; by the time she met the other's eyes Victoria had assumed an expression of loving toleration.
"Perhaps it's not something you understand until you've gotten out into the world and had a few of those moments slip by you," she allowed. "Regret is a teacher of infinite lessons."
Elsie nodded, understanding. There were so many things she regretted not doing; she found she lamented more the not doing of something she wished she had the courage to undertake rather than any single act she had committed. Victoria had provided her with the vivid sight of a woman who cared not a whit for meekness or deference or the seven virtues, who had no husband to please or household to arrange. A woman who, like her sister, had clearly hied off and done what she intended to do, and was still respected and seen as an authority in her own right by Elsie's father and other persons whom Elsie was inclined to heed.
And this last statement seemed to require some sign from her that she had heard and understood Victoria's instruction. "I won't," she promised. "I mean, I won't let anything slip by me."
Victoria smiled knowingly, put an arm around the young girl's shoulders and patted a bit. "Of course," she murmured, reaching around to pluck her shawl and tuck it more securely around her neck. "There, now you won't take a chill and undo all my hard work. But you mustn't let yourself be coddled and swathed in thick blankets all your life. It's all very well for when one's recovering for an illness, but over-swaddling makes one weak. You wouldn't want to be weak, would you?"
Elsie shook her head thoroughly, till wisps of hair escaped their pins in her eagerness.
"Of course not. And you must look out for yourself, because no one else will look out for you. Not just in your body, I mean, that's as simple as eating hearty meals and getting a good night's rest. But also attend to your inner voice, to your proclivities and your natural inclinations because they are the most enduring and secret part that no one else can explain to you or take away, no matter what the psychoanalysts say. This world is hard enough on our sex without you ceding your identity to another person; your identity is your own. Never let anyone tell you otherwise."
Each word hit Elsie like a blow between the shoulders, forcing out from her throat all the lumps of misery and displacement she had swallowed in the years since her sister had left. She had never before been told that it was permissible to disagree with one's parents, and had until now avoided anything that might cause further disruption to the delicate balance of tempers in the household, chiefly her mother's and father's because Elsie herself had no temper at all. Having cured her body, Victoria seemed determined on drawing the poison of her faded mouselike existence out of her mind and instilling a sort of leonid ferocity in its place. There was little to which such a temper could adhere to in Elsie, but neither of them paid much attention to that, Victoria because she was not accustomed to her efforts being met with such inoffensive yet persistent failure, Elsie because she had not yet begun to examine her own motivations or habits.
Nor would she now, not without a bit of handholding and a signpost indicating where to begin. She looked to Victoria for such a sign, or perhaps an instruction booklet or a series of aphorisms and recitations she could write down for her future reference. Victoria did not oblige, waiting instead for Elsie to come up with something more to say.
"My sister was that way," Elsie managed at last. "She ran off, you know, rather than stay in our parents' house a moment longer. It was quite a scandal." Which meant, she decided, that she shouldn't talk about it. But having said all that and committed to some degree of confession perhaps Victoria would take it that she had a drama in her past after all, and therefore was more interesting than her gray and timid exterior indicated at first. She had the disconcerting feeling that Victoria was disappointed in her.
"Oh, any woman who speaks her mind is a scandal sooner or later," Victoria waved a hand, dismissing Elsie and her family dramatics with a wave of the hand at Elsie's shoulder. "I was quite outspoken about my ability to excise a tumor or examine a wound when I was studying at school and in the operating theatre. And in the end, I proved to be as competent as any of them." She looked over at Elsie and modulated her tone a bit, seeing that she had quite overwhelmed the girl's capacity to absorb emotions. "What was your sister's particular quarrel with your parents?"
"I don't remember..." Elsie frowned, looking back out at the gray foam on the waves. "I don't think I quite knew what it was at the time. Everyone was frightfully angry, you see." As though that explained everything, and where Elsie was concerned it did. She would, if forced to participate in a shouting conflict, sink to the floor in distress and refuse to participate until she could find the most inoffensive words possible.
"It's a frightening and awful thing to have one's expectations disappointed," Victoria told her absent-mindedly. "And I would imagine it's doubly so for a parent, who wants nothing but the best for her child."
"But... neither of them knew what was best..." Elsie frowned, wondering if this apparent contradiction could resolve itself.
"Wanting a thing is not always the same as knowing how to get it. And having gotten the thing you were seeking, you might find you didn't want it in the first place."
Elsie didn't understand how that was possible. She knew what it was like to want, to have an ideal or a dream that one yearned for in the passive way of a maiden in a tower, but the idea of achieving something long wished-for and then not wanting it at all, she couldn't fathom. The only thing she had wanted in the past was for her parents to reach an accord and be content with that, she couldn't imagine rejecting that once it was achieved.
"I think..." She took a moment to organize her thoughts under Victoria's curious scrutiny. "I think Leo always did know exactly what she wanted. And I think it must have been something unforgivable, because they don't talk about her anymore."
"Or perhaps they don't understand it," Victoria shook her head with a small, sad smile. "Having been accustomed to their arguments and their way of life for so long, they cannot imagine a world outside of it, and so anything their daughters want that comes from a different place seems strange and unnatural."
Elsie couldn't imagine Leo choosing anything unnatural. Her sister had been one of the most natural people she knew, every word and gesture coming as easily to her as breathing, far from Elsie's need to consider any move she made with great deliberation before she made it. "Leo didn't want anything unnatural," she decided out loud, "She just didn't want to be shut up in the house any longer. That sounds awful, doesn't it," she apologized in the next instant. "But she was always running about with the boys..."
The knowing chuckle from Victoria gave Elsie the impression that she'd said something risque. "The boys aren't so bad, as long as you meet them on your terms and not theirs. Boys will ever and always be a part of your life, and you had best accept that now while you can still make up your mind who you want to be. Your sister seems to have."
Elsie didn't understand, but was too afraid of seeming unintelligent to say so. After a moment Victoria realized this and tucked the girl deeper under her arm with a sigh, planting a gentle kiss on her temple. Elsie had never been treated with such casual affection before. It felt somewhat wanton and brought a flush to her cheeks.
"You could take a lesson from her, you know," Victoria mused as they watched the sun splash into the horizon. "Live your life freely and without hesitation. It's by far preferable to living someone else's."
The evening had not yet descended into night when Victoria came up to the barge; there was still enough light that one could avoid stepping into puddles or tripping over a stray rope. And the patient young doctor at her side made an excellent companion for the anticipated festivities, intrigued by anything new and, today being exhausted by a long and disappointing day in the operating theatre, he would provide stimulation for Elsie and her friends without adding to the unusual estrangement between the womenfolk. She was not accustomed to women of independent mind and means being so aloof to her. There was no reason for discourtesy, so she didn't press it, but it rankled some sense of imposed sisterhood that she felt they were not conforming to, nor the quiet strictures of the tamed woman, neither.
A windswept blonde head popped up on the roof just above her line of sight, then rolled over and down again. Victoria waited patiently for one of them to receive their guests onto the boat, with Noah looking up and down the water.
"I've not managed to find the time to come out this way," he remarked in a respectful murmur. "I didn't imagine it could be so picturesque."
"They keep their boats very clean and well-painted," Victoria said absently, even though she knew a moment later that wasn't what he meant. "I expect they enjoy it here, and would like to continue to do so. The city wouldn't allow them to stay on the river if they were a nuisance or made a filthy mess of the place."
Noah glanced at her and shook his head, as though she had missed the point. Which she supposed she had, not being sure which point he had been trying to make, but she ignored both that headshake and the subsequent irritation when Helen appeared to invite them onto the barge.
"I'm only sorry we haven't been by sooner," Victoria smiled, and she even meant it. Elsie might be collapsing back into herself, but Leo was an enigma she looked forward to understanding and Helen was simply a delight, pliant and reserved but clearly in possession of a well-honed mind of her own. Introductions were made all around, expressions of gratitude and joy at the invitation, and Victoria was considering which approach she wanted to take to inquire where Elsie had hidden herself when Helen turned to Noah.
"I'm sorry, it's frightfully rude of me, but I can't help thinking that I've seen you before around the theatre. Have I done work for you or one of your co-operating surgeons?"
Noah shook his head. "I don't believe so, I don't think I've had opportunity to have any sort of illustrator in, let alone..." His eyes widened in sudden and delighted comprehension. "But, you're Helen Vaughan, you worked with Doctor Edwards, it was your name on that new edition of Doctor Bell's Manual Of the Operations of Surgery. I saw you at the Christmas dinner last year at the South London."
Helen's remote smile warmed, became real, as her eyes animated over their shared remembrances. "You were that stammering lad in the corner, I remember you now," she exclaimed, with rather more friendliness than Victoria felt a casual acquaintance merited. "You looked as though you'd never held a glass of champagne in your life."
"Well. You might not believe it, but I don't make it a custom to take wine or champagne even with meals, except for a glass of red in the evening. I wouldn't say that I had been afraid of the champagne, but I was a little afraid of the behavior it might encourage in my companions and thus myself."
Helen laughed, a beautiful sound more suited to a drawing room than a barge. Victoria hated herself for falling prey to it. "I shouldn't think you had any cause to be afraid of anyone's behavior, that was one of the tamest parties I've been to."
Noah blushed, making some demure agreement and evading any description of other parties they might have shared without knowing, and Victoria found herself excluded from the conversation without having been in the running to participate in the first place.
She listened at the edges, trying to pick out where she went wrong at the outset and how she could politely remind the other two that there was a third person in the room when a pair of boots clapped smartly down the hall. Everyone's head lifted, and only Helen managed a light-hearted greeting. "How's Elsie?"
"Almost ready," Leo kissed her in greeting, then turned what Victoria could only describe as a rakish smile on the crowd. "Hullo."
Leo, quite in contrast to her previous workaday clothes, had dressed herself in a young man's finery for the occasion. Trousers that flattered her in ways that would never have suited Victoria stretched from her waist to her ankles, turned up at the ends to reveal the only shabby part of her, her ship boots. Her shirt was bleached linen and topped with a vest that, if it was not embroidered in ornate silk patterns, gave a wonderful impression of being so. Her hair was combed back and slicked down and her hands slung from her pockets by her thumbs hooked into the fabric, long and slender fingers resting easily on her hips. Victoria had never encountered a woman so gracefully herself and yet mannish at the same time; it stirred her to envy and desire all at once.
"So, who's this, then?" Leo looked Noah up and down as though she were the prospecting young gentleman and he the demure young lady.
Helen stepped forward, a little too quickly, Victoria felt. "This is Noah, he works at the South London Women's Hospital. He's a very promising surgeon, all the head staff say so," she smiled at Noah, who ducked his head in a show of suitable modesty.
Leo nodded, at Noah and at Victoria by way of acknowledging that she, too, was a doctor there, though it seemed to also indicate that she had fallen far short of the presence she hoped to inspire in the room. But she didn't know how to break into the conversation, which rankled her further.
"Helen says it's not half so interesting as it sounds afterwards," Leo began. "But I bet you've got some marvelous stories. She always says she doesn't see anything of interest when she comes home, but she always manages to find something."
Helen shook her head, demurring from the praise in an admirably subtle manner. "When you're accustomed to such things day in and day out, it doesn't occur that it might be of interest..."
And yet, that didn't ring true. Leo took a brazen and outspoken interest in everything around her, and most assuredly in the woman with whom she had chosen to share her home. Victoria could not imagine such a humdrum existence being lived on this boat in which one woman came home and fell into a chair and few words were exchanged, the summation of which amounted to nothing at all. Then, as was taking place now, Leo would badger Helen until she gave out some story or another about some poor wretch who had happened to suffer a gruesome injury or a gross and unusual sickness. The more horrible the details the better. She wondered if Leo wrote some of those pulp novels which the young men enjoyed so much and which Victoria generally found to be repetitive and tasteless.
By this time Noah had told four or five stories of lives saved and sheets drenched in blood, and both the young women were the more animated for it. Victoria attempted to change the topic of conversation at least twice, and only succeeded when Elsie came into the room.
"There's our girl. Feeling better, are you?" Leo came up and embraced her with sisterly affection, conveniently blocking her from Victoria's sight.
"I'm sorry to be late," Elsie addressed the room in shy, self-effacing tones. "I had a frightful headache from the sun and had to lie down for a bit. I'm much better now," she added, putting on a brave face as Leo moved back to the sideboard and Victoria came into her view.
She certainly did look better than she had two days ago. Her skin was burnt pink from the sun, but she had a straightness to her shoulders without being stiff and nervous, and her eyes darted around the room. "Victoria!" she exclaimed, causing everyone to have to avert their gaze so that her delighted cry did not come off too conspicuous. "Oh, it's good of you to come, I thought you would like the boat," Elsie stepped forward and took Victoria's hands in hers, turning a smile like the picture of sunshine on the older woman, who could only nod helplessly and force herself to smile back. She would have to later contrive some excuse to leave early, not too soon after supper but as early as courtesy allowed. This had not come off as expected in any way.
Elsie closed the door to what she now suspected wasn't, in fact, Helen's room and leaned her head against the warm pale-green wood. She felt like ten kinds of a fool, and knew she must look it even worse.
Her cheeks flamed hot and the tears that poured down her face felt even hotter, and tasted of undignified salt. A few tears would have been suitably remorseful, the grief due to a friendship that was not what she had thought it was and would never blossom into the intimate and bountiful companionship she had hoped for.
Of course Victoria preferred Leo. What was preferable in Elsie, when her older sister was full of life and willing to seize every opportunity that brushed at her fingertips, wringing out of it any experience that was to be had? She had said as much back in Cornwall, Elsie should try life to the fullest and find what suited her temperament. Leo radiated confidence in every lift of her head and gesture of her hands; in every step and every word one could be well assured that she knew exactly what she was doing and meant each moment of it. Whereas Elsie was timid, avoided conflict, sought out conciliation and relied upon the impressions of others as to what she should do and who she should be. And she had reckoned that was a good thing, because how could it be wrong to seek the happiness of others?
Elsie brought her head sharply up and back again from where it had fallen to her breast, hitting it against the door. It hurt, so she flung herself down at the small writing desk instead, scattering her half-finished letters and papers and her journal all to one side. The journal in particular landed with a heavy thump that caught Elsie frozen, wondering what the other two must think of her having a temper tantrum so loudly and so late at night.
Again she felt she should go out and apologize to Helen, to Leo. She had made a great mess of things by coming here and bringing with her all of the difficulties that she now saw trailed after her from the moment she was the sole focus of her parents' misguided caretaking. Or if it wasn't them, it was Cornwall itself, and the necessity of maintaining one's composure no matter what absurd set of circumstances life or the embarrassing antics of family members flung you into. It created a shell like a painted porcelain doll which grew increasingly fragile and could be shattered at any moment, yet the longer that shell remained the less there was inside of it. Elsie felt shattered now, and her parents had left her with so little inside of her that there seemed to be nothing she could offer Victoria or anyone in comparison to Leo, who had made it out with her insides intact.
If she had nothing left to offer anyone, Elsie decided, her face still planted between the pages of one of Leo's books which she'd been reading, then she might as well go and resume her place on the mantel. Her family would be worried sick to death about her; they had already called the police and there were warrants issued.
Elsie leaned over and fished a couple unwritten-on pieces of paper from off the floor, shaking and smoothing them into a reasonable facsimile of pristine serenity. She recovered a pen from where it had likewise rolled onto the floor and started to compose a letter. Leo and Helen deserved to have the truth, after all, they had sheltered and tolerated her for so long without remuneration. And her parents deserved to have what peace of mind her presence could bring them, and perhaps the reassurance that all of their efforts from within the limited scope of their imagination had not been in vain. Elsie had seen the wider world now, and she would choose for the moment her limited, docile existence in her parents' home.
Thus heartened, she set her pen more firmly to paper with the reassuring strength of her convictions, and continued to write.