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As usual when she felt lost and empty, Alison sought consolation in the library once more. Though she no longer felt like reading The War of the Worlds, she longed to find solace in the familiar pages of a book…but which one?
Longingly, she ran her fingers along the bindings, remembering how Grandfather had first shown her his private library collection at home. He had taken her small fingers in his and scrolled them across the leather stitching of the books. The sweet aroma of musty pages had met her nostrils as she pulled out the first book he had ever read aloud to her, Pride and Prejudice. She would sit in his lap in the library and he would read the stories aloud like a play, with specialty voices for each character. His portrayals of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham were so exquisitely realistic that as a child she would beg Grandfather to read every book in that way.
With a smile, she relished such tender memories and pulled out the first book that jumped out at her: an ornate leather copy of Emma. Mother had read it so beautifully when she was a girl that Alison had always wished she had a sister named Emma, after the beloved story. Now, everything was just a memory, a remnant. When Mother passed out of her grip with the epidemic so many years before, the world had crumbled down around Alison. Grandfather had meant everything to her and Monet. He was all that they had. And now even he was gone.
Why did we come here anyways? Alison thought bitterly, shoving Emma back into the empty spot of the bookcase. Things were going so fine back in London. Monet was entering her debutante year, I was engaged and we were all so happy. But now? How could I ever be happy again. We weren’t even there for his last few days, the only kin to him in the world. We should never have come here.
Overcome with grief and regret, Alison’s eyes roamed over the bindings hungrily, yearning to find solace in the pages of a beloved friend.
“He always told me that when I feel lost, I could come back home within the familiar pages of an adventure,” Alison murmured softly to herself, stroking the edge of a volume that she did not at first recognize. There was no caption on the side, nor any sign of an author. From the looks of it, no one had touched it in years, for it appeared to have the thickest coat of dust on its pages. Curious, Alison heaved the massive book out of the shelf, sending a rather large dust cloud up into the air.
Judging by the emblem of roses on the trim and soft amber leather, it was a scrapbook, dating at least fifty or so years prior. Tugging open the cover, Alison gasped. In the front were photographs of two young gentlemen dressed in fine attire. They both looked strikingly familiar, and the names underneath it explained why: Henry and George. On the page beside them was a picture of a beautiful young lady with dark curls and stunning features; it was evident that this was the lady from the portrait in Mr. Hamilton’s study.
The name under the picture was Andrea.
“Grandfather…” she said, tracing her fingers over his picture. “And Grandma. So Mr. Hamilton was partly telling the truth after all,” she murmured to herself.
The scrapbook was brimming with pictures of the two men playing croquet, dancing at parties, swimming in lakes, lounging in parlors - typical things that young men did back in the day. Almost every other page was also full of pictures of Andrea, either posing with Henry or George but never both at once. On one page there was even a wedding invitation for Henry and his bride-to-be, which, by the looks of it, George had ripped in two.
Still more pictures of Andrea were on every page. There were pictures of her at her wedding, during her pregnancy, with a young daughter…
And then they abruptly stopped.
And at the very back of the scrapbook there was a wrinkled letter. Though Alison had certainly endured her share of letters for one day, her curiosity got the best of her and she pulled it out. The page was crinkled and yellow with signs of tear drops smearing the ink.
It was addressed to George from Grandfather.
This letter shall be rather long, so I apologize ahead for any inconveniences. I have so much to say on paper that I fear I am not brave enough to say to you in person. I hope that one day we will reconcile our friendship and be cordial once more. And I hope that you will one day find it in you to forgive me for all of the hurt and wrong that I have done to you.
You knew this from the start, but I have always ardently loved Andrea and it was I who began to call her Andy far before you did. I understand how complicated it can be for two brothers to love the same girl, for I have been on your end as well. Whenever I saw her dance with you at festivities or speak alone with you, I felt envious in my spirit and longed to stand in your shoes. Now that I am on that side of her – the intimate side – I pray that someday you will find a way to understand how I feel. I long for you to be happy and joyous with me in my jubilance. She desperately misses you as a friend and longs to hear your laugh and to speak with you. I entreat for you to come and visit us! It would do her heaps of good. She is with child now and is preparing a nursery for our baby. She wishes to see you before her child is born as you shall be its uncle.
I do not think that you completely understand what happened between us. I would like to take you back to that summer evening in 1852. I found Andrea weeping in her room at the estate and I asked her what the matter was. She told me that it was nothing, though I knew that she was clearly put out. At last she told me that she felt betrayed by you, for in her hand was a letter from a girl she claimed was your mistress, though she refused to ever let me lay eyes on it. After feeling dazed at the atrocity of your infidelity, she said that she was downstairs when she overheard a conversation between you and mother and father regarding your personal affairs.
“She is your perfect match, George, darling,” Mother had said. “You’ll never find another one like her, I guarantee it.”
“But, mother, I do not love her anymore. I was blinded by childish fantasies.”
“But think of her family. Think of the dreams you had planned. She will be positively heartbroken.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I’m moving on. Not even you can stop me from calling off the engagement, mother. I love her. Really and truly I do. The other girl is of no importance now and she means nothing to me.”
I knew not what you meant at the moment by these cruel words, brother, but I see now that you were referring to your previous relationship with the maiden Florence McIntyre. From the bottom of my heart, brother, I swear to you that I did not intentionally try to steal Andrea from you or flood with her lies of your infidelity. Please, you must try to understand. I meant no harm to you or to her, but only meant to comfort poor Andrea during her time of greatest distress.
Needless to say, I tried my best to console her but it only made her weep louder. When I asked if I should leave her presence, she only wept more and begged for me to remain by her side. Moments later, she told me that she loved me and then she threw herself upon me, showering my face with sweet kisses. I swear to thee, my brother, that my shock and surprise far surpassed my amusement and pleasure at this moment. I feared of being seen with her, though my heart yearned for her as it always has. You cannot blame me for loving her or being happy in our marriage and it is truly unfair to hold a bitter grudge against me on this matter. Surely, you do not understand the situations I have been in and the circumstances I have had to endure for you. I expect no money from you and certainly never any congratulations or gifts, though I wish that you would at least reconsider poor Andrea’s plea for you to come when the child is born. We shall manage on my own salary, which as of now is extensive, and you can keep to the manor and the money that Father left you with. You will never have to work a day in your life if it did not suit you and yet you are never satisfied.
But back to the explanation of that day. Just as Andrea was expressing her emotions and kissing me, that is unfortunately when you yourself walked in. Brother, I give my word that it was she who kissed me first and declared her love. I, as any passionate lover would have done, went along with her avowal and we ran away to London to get married. She is happy here with me and we have a grand house near Kensington Gardens. She is perfectly contented with life here and we have made each other glad. I hope that our happiness will shine upon you as well someday. In the near future, brother, you shall find a woman whom you love and who loves you in return for whom you are and not by what you have. And once you find that, George, you have found true bliss and peace and comfort. I pray to God that you will find the serenity that I have found in marriage as well someday.
Tell Father that I miss him terribly and give Mother a kiss on the cheek from me. If you do not respond to this, so be it. But if you do, we should like to come and visit the moor once her baby has been delivered. Until then, my brother, you are ever in my thoughts and prayers.
Your Faithful Brother,
Angrily, Alison stashed the letter back into the scrapbook and shoved it into the bookshelf once more.
Why was everything crashing down? Her life was topsy-turvy and everything that she had known since youth was suddenly being contradicted. Mr. Hamilton had been right all along. Though she hated to admit it, Grandfather had lied about his past and about everything. And now he was gone. She would never be able to ask him all of the questions that swirled in her thoughts. He had lied to her face. He had not trusted her enough to tell her.
There was only one question left unanswered. Andrea’s true feelings. Wearily, Alison opened the scrapbook back up again, jumping quickly over the pictures and the pages with the letters from Henry, many of which were half burned or torn. Silently noting that every letter had been either singed or crumpled, she assumed that none of these had been written from Andrea.
If she had even ever written to him regarding the fateful day.
She had to know.
And it had to be today.
Now where would a man hide a letter from the most precious person in the world to him?
Suddenly, the image of Andrea’s painting in Mr. Hamilton’s study came flooding back to her from the day he had told her of their family’s intertwined pasts. The curtains, the desk, the pillows...and the trunk inlaid with gold. And a tasseled key he slyly slid into his pocket, oblivious to her observant eye. She had noticed, but it had seemed to slip away from her thoughts until now.
“Of course!” she said aloud, shoving the scrapbook back into the library shelf, again releasing a billowing cloud of dust into the air.
Picking up her skirts, Alison quietly opened up the library door and looked around to see if anybody was around. Nobody. She could hear giggles from Monet’s bedroom and Mildred’s idle prattle from the parlor. Christopher was with her, along with the Hamiltons, and she could hear the soft murmur of their conversation.
I could get severely punished for this, Alison thought to herself. Technically, I am snooping.
Pushing these troubling thoughts past her, she darted across the hallway, around the main stairwell to the secluded study of Mr. Hamilton. The door was closed, and for a brief heart breaking second, she thought that it may be locked. Anxious to be out of sight, she reached out her hand and clasped her fingers around the brass handle - a tremor swept through her arm like a surge of energy.
But the door creaked slowly open.
The shrill squeak of the rusty hinges made her stop dead in her tracks in fear that someone had heard her. After a moment of silence, she took a breath again and quickly leaped inside, closing the door behind her. To the beating of her own heart, she waited for several minutes by the closed door, afraid that someone had heard her and might come to investigate. But presently the trivial conversation continued and she heard Mildred ask Mrs. Georgiana Hamilton her opinion on the finest quality of lace for her veil.
“Insolent girl,” she grumbled to herself. “She’s worse than Monet!”
Stealing a glance at the large wooden clock in the corner, Alison gasped in spite of herself. It was nearly five o’clock. That meant that Mr. Hamilton would be coming in any moment to get the feather duster to clean Elena’s upstairs nursery like he supposedly did every evening. Sure enough, she saw the feather duster laying gently on the mantle, just waiting to clean its little mistress’ empty room again.
She hadn’t much time.
“But I have not gone to such risks for nothing,” she told herself. “After all, Mr. Hamilton is fond of me, is he not? Because I am the granddaughter of his beloved Andrea, which is lucky for me. He probably would not even have taken us in had I not been her kin.”
She had never necessarily thought of it this way before, but now that the mere supposition had occurred to her, it seemed the most obvious thing in the world. The couple had been declining the girls’ pleas until Mr. Hamilton inquired about Alison’s locket, which had belonged to Andrea, doubtless had even been given to her from him.
“What a coincidence,” she laughed to herself.
Snapping back to reality, Alison picked up the single candle off the desktop and brought it over the table behind the mantle where the trunk alone resided. Gingerly, she extended a hand to the soft, shiny wood and gave the lid a tug.
“Locked,” she hissed.
She could just see all Andrea’s love letters lying in wait below the wood for someone other than its intended reader to behold them. Now that Alison was only inches away, she simply could not walk off empty handed.
Making use of the minimal amount of wax left on the candle stub, she scoured around the desk, checking under papers and balances, in drawers and in cabinets, but to no avail. The little tasseled key was nowhere to be found. Frantically, she looked at the clock to see that she had less than three minutes to find key, get the letter, read it, put it back, lock it again, hide the key and get herself safely upstairs without being caught. She looked under the handkerchief on the table and in between the books on the bookshelf, half expecting to see a hollow book.
Two minutes left.
She looked frenetically around, her eyes darting from the the oil lamp on the desk, a stack of philosophy books, a vase of flowers, a picture of Elena, an inkwell pen and a blue and white speckled tea cup.
She could now hear the parlor party being to subside their chatter. She had only seconds.
One minute left at the most.
Just then, her eyes caught hold of her treasure. Mr. Hamilton’s jacket was laying across the back of the desk chair. And there was a lump in its pocket. Alison shot her hand out and snatched the key out of the coat and held it up to the candlelight. Sure enough, it had the cream tassels hanging from the bronze metal key. Tied onto one of the tassel strings, was a simple silver ring with a large diamond.
Alison stopped short.
She was sure of it.
The tears stung her eyes as she turned around and, hearing the scuffling of chairs from the parlor, slid the key into the lock. With a soft click, the trunk lid opened.
Inside the trunk which was coated in red velvet, there were stacks of letters, pictures, tokens and trinkets all relating to Andrea. Alison gasped, horrified, for many of them were dated well after her marriage to Henry. There were locks of hair, poems they had written of each other, and small trinkets, such as a lacy white shawl, which Alison recognized as the one from the portrait.
For a moment, Alison wondered why she was even here and of what use such letters from a love triangle of ages ago would be to her. The key in her hands seemed to burn her fingers, warning her that what she intended to read was not meant for her and was an invasion of privacy.
Just then, the clock chimed, piercing her ears with its five shrill strokes. Heavy footsteps were just outside the door.
Taking a chance, Alison grabbed the topmost letter - and the most recent - locked the trunk and dropped the key back in the coat pocket. The doorknob was rattling now. Alison had nowhere to go.
Mr. Hamilton shuffled inside the doorway with an inaudible grumble to himself just as Alison disappeared behind the opaque black curtains that shielded the room from any light. Holding her breath and praying that her heart was not beating as loud as it felt like, she listened as Mr. Hamilton slouched into his seat and rustled a few papers. Out of her corner of her eye, she saw him reach his hand into the coat pocket to check that the key was there and then grab the duster off the mantle.
Alison silently thanked God that she had dropped the key back into the pocket during her flight to the window.
“Are you coming with me today, my love?” he said, practically making Alison scream from fear. She had to bite her lip to keep from screaming and giving herself away. Stealing a glance from behind the curtain, she saw that he was standing behind the desk and staring up at Andrea’s painting wistfully. He clasped his hands behind his back and stood up high to kiss the slender hand of the image in the painting. “I always seem to go alone, but today is a cheery day, my darling. The whelp is dead, my b****** of a brother. We are free at last, my dearest, free to to be happy and in love. Come with me, Andy. Come with me today. Let us go see little Elena.”
At first, Alison thought the old man had lost his mind, but he quickly retorted himself.
“No, no, no, no!” he said bitterly, turning away from the hollow eyes of the lady in the portrait. Miserably, he kicked at the desk chair with his boot and a chip of wood went skidding across the floor, but he paid no attention. “It will not happen, my Andrea, because you are dead. As is Elena. She is dead, is she not? And as are you.” He stood for a minute as if pondering the meaning of the fact that both of the people he loved most were no longer alive. With a heart wrenching scream, he pounded his fist on the desk top, sending a chill up Alison’s spine. “You are together,” he whispered, gripping his face in both of his hands. “Without me. So take care of her. Perhaps it is only fair, for I took care of her when she was quite little when Henry forbade you from coming to us here. Now it is your turn. Watch over her, darling. Read her the stories she likes best. It was always fairytales. But they are rubbish. Happily ever afters do not exist and we are living proof,” he cried out. His voice cracked and he leaned over, supporting himself on the table with the trunk. Heavy tears poured down his face and his body heaved with his sobs, making Alison ever more conscious of the fact that she was intruding on her great uncle’s privacy.
“Curse him! Curse that devil,” he screamed, snatching a vase off a shelf and smashing it to the floor. Shards of glass swept across the rug, brushing against the hem of Alison’s gown. As gently as he could, Mr. Hamilton pulled the painting off of its hook on the wall and held the bulky frame lovingly in his arms for a minute, as if imaging he was caressing the real Andrea, and not just an image. Sadly, he stroked her pale, painted face and pressed his lips to her rosy cheeks. Hot tears stung Alison’s eyes at the tender sight of the hunched old man and the beautiful young woman of years ago. “I never liked him,” he grumbled to himself, gently placing the painting to the ground. “Never! Now I’m glad he’s dead. Dead.” He seemed to be processing that word for a minute. “Like you. Like Elena. So now…he is with you and our daughter. And I am not.” With a groan, he hobbled over to his desk and retrieved the little picture of Elena in her dance dress and placed it softly by Andrea’s painting, as if reuniting mother and daughter. Slowly, he dropped to his knees and seated himself next to him, wrapping his arm around Andrea’s painting and stroking little Elena in the faded, crinkled photo. “How I wish I was dead, my Andrea,” he whispered. “Dead, because it would mean that I am with you always and that I would not suffer here anymore, knowing that I had you...I had you, Andy, but he stole you from me!”
More tears slid down Alison’s cheeks as she beheld this breakdown.
I shouldn’t have seen this, she told herself.
Moments passed. The clock struck quarter after five.
Please hurry up and leave, Alison thought anxiously. As if he read her thoughts, or possibly even sensed her presence, Mr. Hamilton turned instantly around and lifted the feather duster up in a salute.
“I will stay here for Alison,” he said.
Alison jumped in surprise, almost losing her footing. She grabbed a corner of the curtain for support and for a split second was in clear view of Mr. Hamilton before she ducked back behind the curtains.
She watched him for what seemed like hours, and listened to his murmur as he talked to himself and to the pictures. At last, she heard him stand up and retrieve a scrapbook from under his desk. From behind the black curtains, she could hear the ripping of paper and smell the fire as it burned up what she later discovered were pictures of her Grandfather.
“I will stay here for Alison because she is your granddaughter. And I will stay here for Christopher because he is my son. And I will stay here for the both of them, that one day maybe my son might marry your granddaughter, and our families will at last be united. They’ll have the live we never did. They’ll do the things we never could. So good night, my one true love. Kiss Elena for me. And if you see Henry tell him that I hate him and that he is a b******, though I’m sure he already knows.”
With that, he marched briskly out of the study and slammed the door behind him.
Once she was sure he was out of hearing range, Alison took a large gasp of air, never realizing how much she had been holding her breath. Without a second’s delay, she stuffed the letter in her pocket and ran with all of her strength out of the study, up the staircase and into the sanctuary of her own bedroom.
“I almost lost everything for you,” she said to the crisp little envelope, gently opening the stiff seal. “So you had better be worth it.”
My Dearest George,
You know my true feelings for you, George, darling, though I beckon you to conceal this from Henry. We found out this month that I am expecting his child, though, my dearest, the joy I feel now is nothing compared the jubilation I felt when I discovered I was carrying my little Elena. You know you have always been the one for me, George, and I am truly regretful about the way things turned out. Though how could you think that I despise you, when you know for a fact that I was and truthfully still am in love with you. Not a day goes by without me regretting my rash decision, my love, for the road I have chosen is not to your satisfaction or mine. I cannot describe or articulate or express in words the complete felicity I felt when I was around you, for I felt an ardent love much stronger than the fondness I feel with Henry. True, I have come to accept my decision and my life, though I silently kiss you in my dreams and always shall. I respect Henry and admire his knowledge and work ethic, but sometimes when it is late at night after supper and we are sitting in the parlor together, I remember the long conversations we would have out on the terrace, where you would just hold me and kiss me and tell me how much you loved me. We would talk about what we would do when we were married and dream of our futures together, and I have never felt so happy. But just the other night, we were sitting in the parlor and I was knitting that scarf for Elena, and I remember looking over at Henry who was sitting his little old rocking chair by the fire place smoking his pipe. He made no attention to me and the whole two hours we sat in the room together that night, he said not a word to me. I remember feeling so lonely. I cannot talk to him anymore, whether he is embarrassed or angry, I know not. Perhaps he feels guilty.
But blame not him, George. The fault is with me and I accept full responsibility. Henry has tried to tell you the reasons why I ran off with him, but sometimes even that seems hardly believable to me, as if it was from a dream. How could I pass it up when you tried to offer me the world and everything you possibly could. I write this knowing that I still love you and knowing that you are still the one that I dream of in secret at night. But I also write this knowing that I am another man’s wife. You could not fathom how many times I wished divorce was less scorned upon by society, and given that I was not now pregnant with Henry’s child, I would probably promptly pack my bags and leave him for good in hopes of a happy ending with you. However, no matter how hard you try to persuade me otherwise, dearest, please know that I cannot do that to Henry and the baby. I have already deprived one child of its mother because of my impudent sin, and I cannot do the same to another, no matter how much I believe it would make me the happiest woman in the world.
The only thing that truly pains me is your agony and it troubles me daily. You once professed your ardent love for me in so animated a language that I believed every word. George, darling, if you ever truly loved me than you would want what is best for me and my happiness, which now would be to be content with the life I live now. There is no way of getting out of it. This, unfortunately, is the path I have chosen, though I love not your brother. Please, I must ask you to stop sending me letters, even though I am my happiest when I read them. If Henry should ever find one, he could charge me with adultery or claim that I am infidel, and how could I live with myself having injured the two men I have loved all my life by simply trying to find love? All that I ask of you now, is that you will try to be content with life in Scarlet Pointe without me. Elena needs a mother, just as you need a wife. I cringe to imagine another woman with you, George, but I know that it is in both your own and Edith’s best interest to take up a mistress. Think of me no longer. Find someone else and try to be happy as I have. Please, darling, I entreat and beg of you to not dwell on me any longer, for it is only adding to the grief and suffering both you and I are succumbed to living with every day.
I love you, as I always have. I loved you even when I was in the church with Henry, though I was trying to deny any of my confused and betrayed feelings because I felt trapped and scared. I had been planning on telling you about the baby that night, so I guess that hearing those words uttered from your lips made my fear all the more painful. I am truly sorry for all of the hurt I have caused and not a day goes by where I don’t wish I could change my decision that day.
Kiss my Elena for me, dear. Tell her that Mother loves her and prays for her every day. I will try to come and visit soon, for Henry is traveling to Paris in a fortnight and I will be free to do as I please.
But then again, perhaps it would be best for you never to see me again, George, for you know that you cannot have me. If were to come to you, I know not whether I would leave again and come home to my loving husband who works hard every day to take care of me and the child I am now carrying. Please, do not attempt to get me to return to live with you and my little Elena anymore, for you know all too well that it cannot be done. I just wish that it had not turned out this way. I was too stubborn and too emphatic to come out and ask you the truth of my discoveries, and now I have grieved us both and doomed our forever lives to be in bondage to those we care little for. Needless to say, I do love your brother and my husband, but never in the way that I know I loved you, my Georgie.
Good night, my love. I will never forget you, George, but unfortunately, you must try to learn to forget me and all our happy memories.
Forever Truly Yours
Drearily, Alison rolled off her bed and walked over to the window sill, laying her head against the glass and staring out across the drizzling moor. Now, she wished she had never read any of it. Every word, every image, every horrendous line of truth was glued to her thoughts now and would forever be.
Andrea had never loved Grandfather.
Grandfather really had run away with Mr. Hamilton’s bride.
Mr. Hamilton had never loved anyone besides Andrea.
And all because of one misunderstanding, they forever lived in separate worlds, locked in two different universes that were but a doorway across. But the bridge of brotherly friendship was never amended.
Life had changed, but not for the better, Alison told herself. She could only imagine what the next few months would bring, what with dealing with Christopher, Mildred, Mason Travers, Monet and the rest of the household.
“You know, Grandma?” she said softly to herself, picturing the tender gaze of the beautiful woman in Mr. Hamilton’s painting. “You sure caused a lot of trouble.”