In the short years since Miss Leda Hunter had returned from London to her home on Vane, the deep contralto of Mrs. Jane Vellet had come to signal welcome relief to any number of monotonous tasks or small irritations. She had a knack for turning up just when she was wanted. Of late, however, Miss Leda Hunter had begun to suspect this knack had less to do with any ability on Jane’s part, and more to do with her own feeling that Jane Vellet was, in fact, wanted all the time.
Mrs. Vellet’s calm tones were particularly welcome in the small room that had served as Post Office for Vane since Mr. Hunter Sr. had been postmaster, and where more recently the island’s only telegraph had been installed, and Miss Leda Hunter with it. Standing near the church on an isolated headland, the Post Office saw many of the island’s locals regularly stop in; some more frequently than others. Lately Dr. Jacklers’ visits had been more frequent than most. It was one such visit that Mrs. Jane Vellet had arrived to interrupt.
“Doctor, Miss Hunter,” she acknowledged, smiling her cool smile as she closed the door firmly behind her, a gloved hand holding her wide skirts clear. Her hem was damp. Leda’s hands fluttered over her own gown, smoothing what was already straight, and she forced herself to still abruptly. Jane had wrapped a plain green shawl around herself against the wind, and her cheeks were flushed from the cold.
Dr. Jacklers’ cheek attained a similar affliction, as he nodded curtly and straightened from his lean against the postmistress’ counter.
“Mrs. Vellet,” he said curtly, “I trust The Ladies are well?” Given their age, the doctor’s visits to Mrs. Vellet’s employers were less frequent than might have been expected. It was something of a sore point, Leda observed with amusement.
“Yes, thank you, Doctor,” said Mrs. Vellet. “They have sent me to inquire about the arrival of their shawls, Miss Hunter. They have become somewhat anxious at the delay.”
Leda smiled warmly. “I am happy to be able to relieve them, Mrs. Vellet. I have their package here. Paisley is not so very far away these days. ”
Jacklers laughed. “Fine fripperies, is it? I must leave you ladies to it, then. Do try to remember any questions you have on that, Miss Hunter,” he said, tapping at the periodical lying open before her. “I am only too happy to explain the difficulties you encounter.”
Mrs. Vellet’s smile did not flicker, but her eyes met Leda’s expressively as Jacklers made his goodbyes. The room seemed considerably warmer once he had left. Leda flushed, torn between horror that her irritation with Jacklers’ well-meaning instruction was so obvious and pleasure that the older woman seemed to have noticed what no one else on the island had. Her pleasure was somewhat dampened at the thought of what other feelings might be obvious to Jane Vellet. She took refuge in her official function.
“Shall I send the shawls down to Bull Cove for you?” she asked.
Jane frowned. “Is it very large? I hoped to bring it back myself.” She hesitated. “I am to extend an invitation to you as well, Ma’am. The Ladies felt you would enjoy seeing the shawls yourself, given your time in London.”
It was a matter of conviction with The Ladies that Leda’s sojourn at the Telegraph school in London had made her something of a fashion-plate, and it was all Leda could do to disabuse them of the notion.
They frequently invited her to visit with them to read aloud The Illustrated’s accounts of Paris fashions. She often accepted. The invalids had been close companions of her late father, and Mrs. Vellet often brought their tray into the room. This latter point had rather more weight than she liked to admit.
“They are rather substantial,” said Leda doubtfully. “You had better send Prythe. And please tell The Ladies I will gratefully accept their invitation.”
The Ladies, individually though less commonly known as Mrs. Duqumin and Mrs. Tupper, had lived together in the house at Bull’s Cove for as long as many on the island could remember. At one time they had both been married, although no one on Vane had ever met either husband. Both men had died tragically before Mrs. Duqumin had inherited her family home and returned from the mainland.
Mrs. Tupper, it was rumoured, had married a Dissenter, or possibly an Italian, although it was allowed that perhaps this had been Mrs. Duqumin instead. Regardless of their poor choice in husbands, The Ladies were deeply involved in the good works organised by the parish women, and it was through these works that Leda Hunter had first become aware of Jane Vellet’s rather devastating good sense, shrewd gaze and clear voice.
Initially organized by poor Mrs. Clay, the parish women had fallen into some disarray upon her death. Meetings that ought to have taken two hours took four. The Ladies invariably attended, although they spoke less than most, and always brought Mrs. Vellet along to assist them. Gradually, Leda had noticed that when Jane Vellet made a suggestion, it was often the most practical, and was generally taken up by whatever ladies were present as if it were their own. When the flock strayed from the main point, it was generally Jane Vellet who quietly steered them back with a modest question, or a dry comment.
Almost without realizing, as the year went on, Leda had begun to look to Mrs. Vellet. There was something carefully assessing in her gaze, though she never betrayed a measure of judgement or disrespect on her face. It was only that Leda was watching so closely; it began to feel natural to turn to Mrs. Vellet, and so it had only felt natural when she realized that Mrs. Vellet had begun looking back. There was something conspiratorial in their shared glances, mutual amusement or annoyance acknowledged in a flicker of an eye. A raised eyebrow had once made Mrs. Vellet look down to suppress a smile, and Leda had swum in her feeling of triumph for the rest of the evening.
And now Leda was to visit Bull’s Cove, where doubtless Jane Vellet would serve as she always did, and perhaps be asked to sit and read in her low voice, as had happened before. Leda twisted her gloves and grimaced at her reflection in the glass of her room. She was short, much shorter than Jane, so that she often found herself tilting her face up to listen to the taller woman. Her mouth was dry. She felt unaccountably like she had in school, boarding in London with a set of girls who had at first seemed infinitely superior to her. Impatiently, Leda smoothed her black hair back again, although she had already parted and pinned it twice into a simple coil at the back of her head. Then she set about finding her bonnet, and her composure.
Mrs. Jane Vellet had entered the sitting room unobtrusively as The Ladies and Leda were just beginning to run out of things to admire in their new shawls. Fortunately her arrival inspired new enthusiasm from where the ladies were ensconced by the fire.
“Mrs. Vellet has yet to see our fine new frippery,” said Mrs. Duqumin dryly. Mrs. Tupper extended her arms, grinning, to display her shawl to its full extent.
Lena bit her tongue, and glanced at once to see Mrs. Vellet’s reaction. She was not disappointed to see Jane meet her eye.
“I should not have repeated it,” said Lena, aware that she had not increased Dr. Jackler’s popularity at the cove, and knowing she ought to regret it. She felt a pang that perhaps Mrs. Vellet should think her mean-spirited. Her tongue, her father had once told her, was sharper than sword and pen both.
“They’re beautiful,” said Mrs. Vellet, smiling with genuine pleasure and moving to examine the massive shawl. She ran a hand along the fabric. It was full of rich reds and burgundies, with coloured end-pieces in the Indian style.
“They are quite clever, Mrs. Vellet,” Mrs. Tupper said. “Miss Hunter has been showing me how it can be folded to display each different corner - I think it was certainly worth the expense, and I have been wanting one for so long. We shall have to think who else might like to see it and invite them.”
Mrs. Vellet made a suitably approving response, and began to arrange the tea service.
Mrs. Duqumin settled her new shawl more securely round herself, and held The Illustrated London News closer to her face to read. The room was hot, close to stifling as was usual for the two older women’s comfort, and Mrs. Vellet’s face was tinged pink as she stood near the fire.
“White bonnets are altogether out of favour at present,” read Mrs. Duqumin. “Oh no, Helen, you are out of favour. You will have to discard your cap.”
“I should feel quite at a loss without my cap,” remarked Mrs. Tupper complacently. She continued to fold her shawl at various angles.
“Indeed, my dear,” replied Mrs. Duqumin, “we should hardly recognize you.”
Leda rose to join Mrs. Vellet at the table by the fire, where she was re-organizing pieces off her tray with graceful hands. A bottle of golden liquid glinted in the light next to the tea service. A plate of biscuits sat appealingly at the centre. She smiled politely down at Leda, and waved off her help as she handed a glass to each lady.
“Jane, you must stop here and explain this magazine problem to Miss Hunter,” said Mrs. Tupper. She blinked cozily up from where she had finally arranged the shawl to her satisfaction, and clutched her drink tightly. “I’m certain between the two of you it can be resolved quite simply.”
Leda frowned curiously. “I hadn’t heard there was any problem, but of course I would be happy to help you.”
“Oh no, you must explain it to her, Mrs. Vellet,” Mrs. Duqumin said, “We do rely on Mrs. Vellet. We should have been burnt to a crisp a thousand times were it not for Mrs. Vellet. You must arrange it all together.”
“That’s true,” nodded Mrs. Tupper. “Jane once dampened one of my gowns which was smoldering very conspicuously, and now Margaret is convinced it is only Jane’s presence which keeps us all from combusting.”
Mrs. Vellet protested, and was ignored.
“You must sort it out now,” insisted Mrs. Duqumin, carefully waving the hand which did not hold her drink, and returning to her reading of The Illustrated London. “Sit down, Mrs. Vellet!”
Instead Mrs. Vellet promised a swift return, and arrived with a bundle of papers and figures only a moment later.
“Perhaps we might sit at the table,” suggested Leda, taking part of the pile from her arms.
It was, as The Ladies had claimed, a simple enough problem to solve.
“Many of the reading materials available as part of the subscription library are in terrible condition,” began Mrs. Vellet, “and many of the families in the parish have asked for more recent publications — you know we have been trying to encourage attendance for the men’s regular evening classes, as well as the children’s and women’s classes, and it is felt that perhaps more popular material like Good Words would be an incentive. The collection itself is in considerable disarray, as it was Mrs. Clay who began the project, and she who kept its inventory. I thought perhaps you might be able to recommend some reasonable texts to invest in, or some system of organization.”
Leda realized with some astonishment that Mrs. Vellet was speaking nervously. Impulsively she reached a hand towards her, and interrupted.
“Of course, Mrs. Vellet. This seems a simple and sensible project, and I am happy to help in any way I can. I am surprised I have not seen it mentioned before.”
Mrs. Vellet’s discomfort did not seem to diminish, but she looked frankly at Leda for the first time since they had sat down together. It was her familiar direct gaze.
“I believe the Reverend has found it difficult to hear many of our requests,” she said simply. “The loss of his wife, and the youth of his son, have preoccupied him for so long, and the parishioners have no wish to pain him. Nor do I. Yet the longer we leave it undone...” she hesitated, and looked away. “This seems a simple thing to fix.”
Just as Mrs. Duqumin had predicted, it was easily arranged between them, and Leda felt the heavy satisfaction of taking a problem in hand and taming it. The gratification of choosing meaningful and improving texts was paired with the anticipation of sharing her choices with Jane. The housekeeper began making more trips along the headland, with a frequency that began to rival Dr. Jacklers. Leda was pleased to find their quiet complicity of earlier meetings had returned; Jane’s awkwardness in making her request had been subsumed by her usual sombre grace and flashes of humour.
The modesty of their challenge, however, and the simplicity of the solution necessary, meant their shared work drew quickly to a close. Sitting together in the Post Office, Jane absently poring over a copy of Good Words, Leda checked through the rough list they had created together and realised there was little good reason to arrange another meeting.
Already the nature of their connection had been commented on by Jacklers, with no especial rancor or curiosity. Rather he had tried to praise her for the womanly humility that let her treat inferiors with such natural condescension.
“It is certainly a fine impulse in your sex to temper the rougher impulses of those lesser developed through charity. It shows a very Christian feeling in you.” He had frowned down on her suddenly, perhaps seeing the blades shining in her eyes, and only the sudden interruption of a telegram had allowed her temper to cool.
Now Jane’s long frame was bent over the periodical, mouth teasing into the suggestion of a smile. Leda watched her, and considered a future in which Jane Vellet would not sit comfortably in her office again. It seemed suddenly an easy thing to fix.
Abruptly, Leda stood and, crossing from behind the counter to door, locked it. Jane lifted her head at the click.
“Mrs. Vellet,” Leda began. She licked dry lips and tried to think a sentence into view. She had already muddled her beginning.
“Jane,” she said instead, and stopped again, appalled.
Jane spoke quietly, in the velvet tone that had for so long meant relief and welcome.
“Leda,” she said, and sat very still and very straight as Leda moved towards her. The sound of her skirts was loud as she knelt at Jane’s feet, and lifted her eyes to meet her gaze. “Leda,” she said again.
It was suddenly impossible not to smile, kneeling at Jane’s feet like a supplicant, waiting for the touch of her rough fingers on her cheek.
When Jane had raised her up tall, so that Leda was quite stretched up from her toes, and Jane had bent towards her, and the room had rung with silence, Leda took Jane by the hand and led her into her home. Eventually, they found their way to the study, where Leda’s father had left her his library.
Leda settled Jane into her largest chair, and curled herself once more around her, pushing her face into the curve of her neck. Jane laughed at them both.
“When I first met Mrs. Clay, she would lend me books,” Jane said after a while. “They had a library like this one, finer than the one at Bull’s Cove, and I wanted to know about God. I couldn’t read the Latin or the Greek, but Mrs. Clay lent me the translations, and there was a book. It talked about music, and how all of Creation - the stars, and people - have their own music. Even though we can’t hear it, it’s there. I used to imagine it sounded like fine crystal — the way it rings and goes on forever when tapped.” She watched Leda with her serious, forthright look, full of the same nervous tension that animated her when she first asked for Leda’s help. Leda waited.
“When you came home, and I started to know you, and...and love you, it made me think of that music. How God created harmonies in the world.”
Very deliberately, Leda leaned up to kiss Jane.
“I understand that,” she said.
“I thought the library could help someone else,” Jane said. “I never imagined…”
Leda kissed her again, and again, smoothing the fine lines at her eyes.
“I feel it too,” she said, “That affinity, I feel it too.”