Everything I needed to wear beneath my clothes was already in place.
I selected a shirt the color of unspoiled snow, eased my arms into
the sleeves, slowly did up the buttons from narrow waist to chest and
finally to neck. It felt peculiar to wear something on my upper body,
in particular my waist, that did not bind my skin like a glove. How
odd not to feel constricted where one expected to. The trousers that I
slid up over the slight swell of my hips were made of black superfine
wool, and I buttoned these as well. This was even more peculiar, the
sensation of the expensive fabric against my calves and thighs.
A sound in the outer hallway brought me up short. Was someone
coming? The threat of intrusion, of discovery before I’d finished,
terrified me. It was a danger I lived with daily, as natural to my new
life as a lack of danger had been to my old one. But after a long
moment spent stock-still, hearing no more noises, I concluded that
the sounds were of my imagination’s making, a product of my fears.
I was well practiced in the art of tying ties, and I commenced
doing so now, taking up the length of black silk and fitting it around
my collar. Then I took the ends and fashioned a knot that I knew
without looking would fall at a slightly rakish angle. My intention
was to convey that perfect mix of convention (I was wearing a tie)
and indifference to convention (I did not care how that tie looked).
Over all, I put on a black superfine wool coat that matched the
Only then, when I was fully dressed except for shoes, did I turn to
confront my reflection in the looking glass.
And what did I see there?
A clean-shaven young gentleman about sixteen years of age, with
thick black hair so wavy there was almost a curl to it—there would
be, on humid days—and eyes nearly as dark; pale skin; generous lips;
a fine straight nose. The young man looking back at me was handsome
and gave offan air of self-confidence.
There was just one problem; two, actually.
The barely discernible bulge in the front of the trousers had been
created by a carefully balled-up pair of stockings.
And the young gentleman—I—was a girl.
“William, I am so disappointed in you!”
Paul Gardener always addressed his great-nephew as William when
he was displeased with something he had done.
I was seated on a chair by the fireplace, sewing, my long skirts
around me, as I had been just a moment before when a servant at the
door to the drawing room had announced Will. The drawing room
ran the length of the house, from front to back, and had large
windows at either end that cast long shadows now that night was
nearly upon us. The ceiling was a blinding white, while the walls were
painted scarlet, punctuated with well-placed brass candle fixtures; the
master of the house and I were seated at the room’s far end. There was
an enormous area rug, also in scarlet but accented with cream, and a
large bookcase containing all of the master’s favorite volumes, of
which I’d read more than a few.
“Bet.” Will acknowledged me with a nod after first greeting his
great-uncle, as was proper.
“Will.” I returned the nod but saw no reason to rise for the
occasion, although I was happy to see him. I was always happy to see
Will, no matter what the circumstances.
Paul Gardener did not rise either. It was difficult for him to do so
without assistance. In the past few years, he had aged a great deal.
Indeed, both eyes, formerly a sharp blue, were now so fogged by
cataracts that he glimpsed only flashes of the world through thick
clouds, and it was one of my jobs to read to him from the papers or
from books when he was of a mind to be read to. Still, despite his
many infirmities, Paul Gardener took great care in his dress and
appearance; his proud mane of hair was white and thick. I had seen
artists’ renderings of him when he was younger and knew that in his
youth he had been nearly as handsome as Will.
“I had somewhat hoped you would be happy to see me, Uncle,”
Will said with a wry smile.
I dared look at Will no longer for fear I would break out into
laughter, so I cast my gaze back down upon my sewing. It was not so
much that the sewing needed to be done as that I needed something
“Of course I am happy to see you!” the old man sputtered. He
looked befuddled for a moment as he corrected himself, “Well, that
is, if I could
see you.” After that brief moment of befuddlement, he
recalled his outrage. Raising a gnarled fist, he shook the sheet of paper
he held clenched in his hand. It was a letter, and ever since I’d read its
contents to him last week, he’d been holding it pretty much every
moment I had seen him. “What,” he thundered, “is the meaning
Without needing to look at what his great-uncle was holding, Will
knew to what he was referring.
“It means,” he said, “that I have been sent down from school.”
Which is a nice way, I thought, of saying that you have been expelled.
“I understand that!” the old man said. “I may be blind, or near
enough, but I am not stupid. But what I don’t understand—what I
cannot understand, William—is why? ”
Will’s expression softened from its usual air of studied indifference.
Whatever else Will was, he did not like to hurt his great-uncle;
still, he would not do what was against his nature merely to please.
He opened his mouth to speak—perhaps even to make an effort to
sound contrite—but he was stopped by the grandfather clock at the
other end of the room banging out the hour.
“Oh.” Paul Gardener lowered his fist. “It is time for dinner.”
No matter what was going on around him—including storms
outside or within the house—Paul Gardener would have his meals
“The Boers could show up here in London,” Will had said to me
on his last visit home, “they could march up right to our door and
enter, weapons drawn, and Uncle would say, ‘You may kill me in half
an hour, but first I must finish my supper.’ ”
Will approached his great-uncle’s chair and, placing his strong
hand under the elderly man’s elbow, helped him to his feet. “Uncle?”
Will invited, holding his own elbow out so that he might escort the
old man to the dining room.
They were nearly through the doorway when Paul Gardener
paused and cocked his head, listening. His eyesight may have been
awful, but his hearing was perfect.
“Elizabeth?” he called back to me, having detected the absence of
any following footsteps. “Aren’t you dining with us this evening?”
He said this as though I were always welcome at the table, and yet
I always waited to be asked, never assuming anything. I knew that
indeed my presence was not always welcome.
“Of course, sir,” I said, at once setting aside my sewing. It would
never have occurred to me to say no.
As I followed behind them, I saw Will turn his head and glance
back at me over his great-uncle’s shoulder. His smile was devilish, and
I returned it in full.
You, Will, I thought, have just been saved by the bell.
But that saving did not last long, not even through the soup course.
“Really, William, how many times does this make that you have
been sent down from a school? Is this the second or the third?”
The dining room was another long room—really, the entire house
was filled with long things—and the walls were covered in white
wallpaper with a rose pattern. There were framed mirrors on three
walls, a china closet, a curio cabinet, and a sideboard on which
breakfast was often set out. A large Oriental carpet covered much of
the hardwood floor, and the chairs we sat on were ornate, the seats
and backs covered in rose crushed velvet, the carved mahogany trim
intricate. The mahogany table itself could have sat twenty easily, but
we three congregated at one end, Paul Gardener at the head while
Will and I faced each other.
Overhead, the chandelier shimmered brilliantly.
“It is the fourth,” Will admitted, at least having the grace to look
embarrassed at this admission.
“The fourth! ”
A maid entered, Molly, and she silently proceeded to bring the
platter of roast beef to the master. Sara followed behind her with the
potatoes, and Ann brought up the rear with the assorted vegetables.
“This last does not really
count as being sent down,” Will said,
smiling as though pleased to be able to make this distinction.
The old man looked surprised. “It doesn’t?”
“Not at all,” Will said as Molly brought the platter to his side.
“Since it was end of term, and we were all going home anyway, this
falls more under the heading of my being requested never to return.”
“Oh.” The old man looked as though his great-nephew had
succeeded in scoring an important point. “I see.”
Sometimes I wondered if there was anything Will couldn’t
Will studied the food on his plate, and I took advantage of his
being preoccupied to look at him.
Will and I had much in common in terms of appearance. Really,
given how alike we were, it was no wonder I sometimes thought of
Will as my brother. I was very tall for a girl, and we were both lean,
although I had some slight curves in places he did not. We both had
dark eyes—although his proud eyebrows were slightly heavier, and
my lashes were longer—and black hair. The texture of our hair was
even similar: wavy with a tendency to curl when the weather was
humid. Of course, my hair was very long while his was trimmed
much shorter. Oh, and I did not need to shave.
Funny, I did not think myself pretty, and yet I did find Will
Those two words called my attention back, and looking to my
side, I saw Molly standing there, waiting for me to serve myself from
The servants always called me Miss Smith whenever the master
and Will were around, but simply Elizabeth when they were not. It
was a thing I had never gotten used to, as though I were two different
people in one body.
“Thank you, Molly,” I said, helping myself.
She dipped a curtsy, as she had done after serving the other two,
but the one she dipped for me seemed to have some irony to it.
Well, who could blame her?
“Elizabeth?” The old man turned to me once all the servants had
left. “Can you remember all the reasons William has been sent down
from school or, er, requested never to return?”
I wondered if he really could have forgotten them. I did not like
being put in a position where I had to say anything negative about
anyone else in the household—my own place felt far too tenuous—
but I could not simply ignore a direct question. Well, perhaps if Will
were the one asking.
“Let me see . . .” I tilted my head toward the ceiling as though it
would take a great effort to remember, as though Will’s scholastic
crimes weren’t so notable that of course they sprang readily to mind.
“The first time was cheating,” I said, then stopped myself. “No,
that’s not right. Will had to build up to that. The first time was lying,
it was the second time that was cheating, the third time was general
mischief—too many fights and that sort of thing—while this last
time, the fourth time—”
I had to stop myself again, truly puzzled. “Why, I don’t know
what the fourth time was. The letter never said.”
His great-uncle and I both turned in Will’s direction, questioning
looks on our faces.
“I, um, set the headmaster’s house on fire,” Will said.
The old man practically jumped out of his seat. “You set—?”
“But there was no one inside it at the time,” Will quickly added.
“You set—? You could
have been arrested! You should have been
arrested! Why weren’t—”
“It was a decrepit house,” Will said. “The headmaster needed a
new one.” Then he laughed. “Really, I think he was rather grateful for
my efforts, but of course he couldn’t say that, so I was merely asked
never to return.”
“You’re an arsonist!”
Will shrugged. “Not if I was never charged with any crime.”
Although I’d often thought that Will could probably get away with
anything, I did marvel at times that schools kept accepting him, given
his history. But then, all I needed to do was look around me, taking in
the evidence of the enormous wealth of Paul Gardener and the power
I knew went with it. As long as Will had a great-uncle who could
buy him out of trouble, schools would continue to accept him; the ones
that had been provoked into expelling him had done so only with great
reluctance and much apologizing. Were it not for his great-uncle’s
money and influence, Will would no doubt have become a social
pariah for his misdeeds, been kept away from the best of society.
“I don’t understand.” The old man threw down his napkin in
despair. “You have had every advantage. And you are smart! Why
must you lie? Why must you cheat? Why must you do all of these
awful . . . things? ”
For once, Will, who always had an answer for everything,
If his great-uncle had asked me, I could have answered that
question. But he hadn’t, and I was glad of that. Will did not like to
hurt his great-uncle, and I did not like to do so either; I would never
even consider it unless something truly important was at stake.
“It is almost,” the old man said, as though he had seized upon a
shrewd thought, “as though you do not want to be at school.”
I almost laughed out loud at this, and from the look on his face,
Will was having a similar reaction.
“But it does not matter what you want,” the old man went on,
steely now, no longer bothering to wonder why Will did the things he
did. “By the end of summer I will have found you yet another school,
no matter who I have to bribe or how much it costs me. I don’t even
care if it is the worst school in all of England—which is probably the
only sort of place that would accept you at this point—this time, you
will not get sent down! ”
We went back in the drawing room, where Paul Gardener asked for
the pudding course to be served, following which he poured a glass of
port and requested that I read to him.
Will made to leave, but, having heard the sound of retreating
footsteps, his great-uncle called him back.
“You will listen to Elizabeth read,” the old man commanded.
“Who knows? You might even learn something.”
So Will slouched in a chair, hands clasped behind his head, long
legs stretched out in front of him, looking bored out of his mind as I
read from King Lear.
The old man liked me to read Shakespeare to him, liked that I had
a talent for creating different voices for all the characters so he never
had to ask me who was speaking, but not many pages in he was
snoring in his seat.
“Come outside with me, Bet?” Will invited.
I placed a piece of red silk ribbon to mark the spot where I’d left
Offreading and gently put the volume aside. Then I followed Will out
of the room, to the rear of the house, and through the French doors
that led to the back garden.
Taking a seat on the curved stone bench, I watched as Will paced
under the early moonlight.
With no more sun, and with summer proper yet to get under way,
it was chilly out. Could we not, I wondered as I rubbed my hands
over my arms for warmth, have discussed whatever Will wanted to
“If I have to go back to that school, I will go mad! ” Will erupted.
“Well,” I said, reasonably enough, “you do not have to go back to
that school. In fact, you cannot go back to that school.”
“Any school, then,” he said, seething.
“Will you please stop pacing?” I said. “It is dizzy-making watching
you go back and forth like this.”
“Fine.” Will still seethed but at least he obeyed my request,
coming to sit beside me.
“Your great-uncle is right,” I said. “Your behavior makes no sense.
You are smart enough to do well in school, very well, and yet you
choose not to. You are good enough not to do the awful things you
do, and yet you choose to do them anyway.”
“Yes, yes, I am a puzzle to everybody.
Please, Bet,” he said. “You’re
not going to say ‘Why, Will?’ to me too, are you?”
“No, of course not. I know why you do as you do. It is because
you do not wish to be where you are.”
“Yes!” His sense of relief at being understood for once was so
strong I could almost reach out and touch it with my hand, touch
him to show my sympathy.
And yet I couldn’t do that. It was rare for me to touch another
person and just as rare to have another person touch me.
So instead I settled for unleashing my anger. Will and I had known
each other long enough that I could
do that in front of him, provided
we were alone; I could
do it in front of no one else in the world.
“And do you have any idea,” I said, “how insanely angry you
He drew back at this, startled.
I continued before he could stop me.
“I can read just as well as you can, Will Gardener! I am just as
smart as you are! And yet I am stuck here, in this house, while
you”—now it was my turn to seethe, and I gestured toward
him with my hand, disgusted—“you are out there in the world!”
“You are right,” he admitted softly. “It is not fair.”
That softness, that sensitivity, was almost harder to bear than his
infuriating behavior. In a way, I felt as though he’d be doing me a
favor if he were to laugh at my ambition. Perhaps if he did, I would
think my desires silly as well, and eventually, one day, I would stop
wanting what I could not have.
“Right,” I said, crossing my arms firmly against my chest. “It is
“But it is the way of the world,” he said.
I did not like this so much. I did not like thinking anything
impossible. But now I worried that if we continued on in this vein, I
would burst into tears of frustration in front of him, and this I did
not want to do.
So I changed the subject.
“Tell me, Will. I know you do not want to be at school—I think
even your great-uncle understands that, even if he does not like
it—but if you could have whatever you wanted, if you could have
your greatest wish, what would you be doing instead?”
“Promise you will not laugh?”
I did not promise. I merely gave him an offended look. The very
idea—as though I could not be trusted not to laugh.
Will took a deep breath and spoke on the exhale. “I should like to
join the military.”
It was a good thing I had made no promise, because I did laugh.
“But that is . . . that is . . . preposterous!” I laughed some more.
“No, it is not.”
“But you are only sixteen!” I laughed even harder. “You are
“No, I am not.” His voice grew enthusiastic; his face became
animated with excitement. “Do you know, Bet, that they have tents
at fairs, stalls in the streets—all you need do is go to one of these
places, say you are of age, and they will believe you. They want to
His words sobered me instantly, the idea that such an idiotically
dangerous thing could
be so ridiculously easy. But then I thought
about it some more and pulled a face.
“Well, if it is that easy, then why don’t you go enlist right now?”
I thought I had him. He was fine at talk. But when it came down
to it, he was too scared to reach for what he wanted.
He gave a nod of his head toward the house, where his great-uncle
snored by the dying fire inside. “Because of him,” he said. “It would
kill him if I left.”
“You leave him all the time when you go to school,” I scoffed.
“Not like this,” he said. “When I go offto school, he has good
reason to be sure that I will come back, and that when I come back I
will be alive.”
Now there was a cheerful thought.
And a sensitive one as well.
It gave me pause to think that, amidst all the lying and cheating
and mischief and arson, Will had managed to grow quite a bit of
compassion for other people.
“I am all he has left,” Will went on.
I was tempted to point out that his great-uncle had me also but I
did know that it wasn’t quite the same thing. Family was not something
that could be replaced, as I well knew. And whatever else I
might be to the old man—helper, reader, on some days even friend—
I was not family.
Will confirmed as much by adding, “I did try to raise the issue
with him last time I was home—I thought perhaps I could join the
military in the usual fashion, go to an appropriate training school first
before entering into the service—but I had to stop when he became
upset. ‘Don’t you realize you are my only remaining relative? If
something happened to you, I would die.’ ” Will attempted a casual
shrug but couldn’t quite pull it off. “It was awful.”
It was awful, to think of the old man so upset. But it was also
awful, perhaps even more so, to think of people
not pursuing the things they wanted most in life.
I had one dream in this world, wanted one thing: the chance to be
at school. Will had that thing I wanted most, and yet he valued it
cheaply, dreamed of something else. Was there not some way Will
and I could both achieve our dreams?
I was thankful that Will was so dejected about the hopelessness of
his situation that, for once, he remained silent long enough to allow
me time to think. That was the thing whenever Will was home: it was
wonderful having his energy fill up the musty corners of the house,
bring life back to the old place, but his energy did fill it up, entirely,
so there was little space for anything but Will.
But now . . .
I asked myself the question again: Was there not some way both
Will and I could achieve our dreams?
And within that blessed silence, I began to see the glimmering of
an idea, which fast formed into a full-fledged plan.
Could we . . . ? If we both agreed . . . ?
As the excitement grew in me, I began to find fault with my own
idea. For one thing, it could never work. For another thing, and
perhaps more important in terms of my own vanity, Will would no
doubt laugh in my face. If he, as evidenced earlier, did not like to be
laughed at, I liked it even less. When you possess little in the world
except your own pride, it is an awful thing to have it taken from you.
But what was I talking about? Why let pride stand in the way of
what I wanted? And why give up and declare a thing impossible
before even trying?
I had to try.
But before that, I did still have to point out, breaking the silence:
“You do realize war is stupid?” I said, eyes narrowing at Will.
“I do know that girls think that,” he allowed.
“And girls are right.” I paused. “Still . . .”
“Still what, Bet?” he prompted when I did not speak for a long time.
Considering how often males were the center of attention in the
household, never mind in the greater world, it was nice to feel as
though I could occupy that place as well, when I had a mind to.
“Let’s see,” I said. “You want something I don’t understand and
have no use for—to go to war. And I want something you think is
silly and do not want—to get an education. Have I got that right?”
Will shrugged, looking perplexed and even a trifle annoyed at
what he no doubt regarded as my pointless statement of the obvious:
facts of life that could never be changed. “I suppose.”
“Perhaps,” I said, feeling the smile stretch across my face, “there is
a way we can help one another out.”