The Shadow Fields, Part Eight
After dinner Grandfather informed me that most of the guests would arrive and stay for only a single day – the twenty-first – but that a few would arrive soon and stay on through Christmas.
To my utter surprise, the first guests to arrive were my Uncle Roger, his wife Evelyn, and their two children, Sam and Rodney.
I was happy to see my uncle. Of course I was. How could I be anything but pleased to see the man who had taken me in after my parents’ deaths?
But even as I ran down the steps to meet him, something pulled me up short and stole the beaming smile from my face. My impulse had been to throw my arms around Uncle Roger and tell him how happy I was that he had come. But I found myself unable to act upon that impulse. Was it shyness brought on by years of separation … or the secret fear that my enthusiasm would not be returned?
How did my Uncle Roger feel about me?
I was willing to believe any explanation – I would have accepted any reason he gave for why he had sent me away and never arranged for my return – but deep within me was the fear that there was no reason beyond my uncle’s desire to be rid of me. How could I rush to welcome him when such doubts were unsettling my heart?
I stopped on the landing and smiled politely – a warm, hospitable smile as befit the lady of the house – as Uncle Roger and his family climbed out of their carriage and started up towards the front entrance.
“Elizabeth, my dear, I am so happy to see you again!” Uncle Roger said when he saw me.
My heart quickened as he embraced me gently. Perhaps he was glad to see me! Perhaps he had not intended to send me away permanently! Could it have all been the result of some unavoidable and misunderstood circumstance?
Uncle Roger smiled down at me. “My Little Beth is not so little any more, is she?”
“She has grown,” I agreed, “and changed a good deal since she saw you last.”
“But not so much that we won’t have a lovely time together this Christmas, I hope?”
Surely, sending me away could never have been what Uncle Roger had wanted.
“No,” I said, the full joy in my smile returning, “She has not changed that much!”
The weeks before Christmas were some of the most beautiful weeks of my life. To my delight I discovered that Uncle Roger was just as jolly as I remembered him. His wife was lovely and delightful, and though I struggled at first to call her “Aunt Evelyn”, she and I soon became wonderful friends. Their sons were adorable and I loved them both, though they found me to be far less fascinating than they found Robert. The older one, Sam, somehow developed the notion that I was his aunt, and soon both he and Rodney were calling me “Aunt ‘lizabeth” in spite of all my efforts to dissuade them.
The weather that December prevented all but the most necessary excursions out of doors. Snow and rain fell almost daily, elevating my hopes of a white Christmas, but dashing any I had of going riding again with Robert. He was kept quite busy anyway (the number of guests having greatly multiplied the number of chores), and I spent a good deal of time each day helping Mrs. Logan, who declared daily that Christmas parties were invented by someone who had never organized one. In spite of her complaints, I knew that she was nearly as anxious for the twenty-first as I.
It was more than a week after my arrival when I finally found a chance to talk to Robert. We brought each other up to date on all of the goings-on in our lives: I told Robert all about my school, my studies, and the people I had met, and he shared all that had taken place at Shadowfield in my absence. Then I moved on to the question I had wanted to ask him.
“Do you know how to dance, or will I have to teach you before the twenty-first?” I said.
Robert gave me a suspicious glance. “Neither one.”
I frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means that I don’t know how to dance, and you’ll not need to teach me.”
I sensed his self-consciousness and smiled. “But who will I dance with on the twenty-first, then?”
“I expect your grandfather will be wantin’ to dance with you, won’t he?”
I rolled my eyes. “Well of course he will, but not for every dance!”
“And your Uncle Roger will doubtless want to dance with you as well.”
Something in Robert’s tone when he spoke of Uncle Roger worried me. “Robert, why did you say it like that?”
“When you mentioned my uncle just now – why did you say it like that?”
Robert looked away.
“Robert, tell me. What bothers you?”
“I don’t like him,” Robert said abruptly.
“Your Uncle Roger. I don’t like him and I don’t trust him.”
“But Robert, why?”
“I don’t know. I suppose it’s because of the way he’s treated you – sending you away all those years ago and now acting as if nothin’s happened –”
“But that’s just it! Don’t you see? He acts as if nothing ever happened; that can only mean that sending me away was never what he wanted, never what he planned on!”
“Do you really believe that?”
I would not have been more hurt if Robert had slapped me. “Of course I believe that! Uncle Roger loves me and he always has!”
Robert finally looked at me again, but looked down and sighed when he saw the tears in my eyes. “Elizabeth, I’m sorry. Maybe you’re right. Maybe your uncle wanted to take you back and he just couldn’t. But don’t get your hopes up.”
I stormed into my room and slammed the door. Tears were running down my face and I couldn’t stop them. I was furious at Robert for suggesting that my uncle’s affection towards me was not genuine. Who was he to make such speculations?
I sat down in a chair near the door and searched both pockets and both sleeves for my handkerchief. Meeting no success, I went to the bureau and found a fresh one, which I took across the room to the window seat with me. Leaning my back against one side, I pulled my knees up and let the partially closed curtains conceal me.
Dinner would be soon. I couldn’t appear as though I had been crying, or Grandfather would ask questions. Uncle Roger would ask questions.
I took several deep breaths and told myself to stop being ridiculous. “Aunt Charlotte raised you to be a lady,” I told myself. “Ladies do not go to pieces like this.”
I was beginning to regain my composure when I happened to glance out the window. The day was not terribly cold, and Uncle Roger and Aunt Evelyn were strolling arm in arm through the gardens below my window. I could not see Aunt Evelyn’s face, but Uncle Roger was smiling, apparently at something she had said. It was a different smile than the one he always gave me – broader, more genuine.
I burst into tears again.
I wasn’t angry at Robert for questioning my uncle’s true feelings, I realized. I was angry at him for resurrecting and confirming my own feelings of doubt and uneasiness. Why had Uncle Roger never arranged for my return? Even if the circumstances had been unavoidable, why hadn’t he at least told me so? Explained to me? Apologized to me? Why didn’t Uncle Roger love me?
I couldn’t hide from the truth any more. No longer could I tuck it away out of sight and pretend it didn’t exist. Never again would I see Uncle Roger’s shallow smile and be able to pretend that it was genuine.
Robert had forced the truth into the light, held it in front of my face and forced me to acknowledge it. And I didn’t know if I could forgive him.