Each OtherPamela Erickson / History & Fiction / Romance & Love
By Pamela Erickson
Copyright © 2012 Pamela Erickson
This novel is a work of fiction. All of the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally.
Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover Art Copyright © 2012 Robert Connery
An eastern gale blew in hard off the Atlantic that night last April. It came with little warning. I was awakened first by the pounding rain and then by a loud rapping sound from the front hallway below. Looking back as I write this, recalling those events for you, it is difficult to bring alive the violence of that storm, unusual for spring.
Finally in the din, I managed to distinguish one sound from another and struggled to maneuver myself, still thick with sleep, down the steep wooden stairway that led to the hallway below. Clutching a small oil lamp with one hand, I held on tightly to the polished banister with the other. At the bottom of the stairs, my feet found a familiar path that led to the heavy front door of the house where loud intermittent knocking sounds continued, but with more hesitation. In those few seconds I thought back to my work during the War nearly thirty year prior, when predawn visitors were common occurrences at my doorstep. In those times, quiet knocks came in distinguishable patterns and were accompanied by barely audible phrases —in passwords —that only I could discern. It was on those nights that I opened my door and my home to strangers: fellow spies who sought shelter, food, and very often. a disguise to enable them to move across the lines, north or south.
Finally alert, I set down the small lamp on a table in the entrance hall and approached the door. It was obvious that my visitor had begun to tire of knocking but kept it up with the hope that he’d eventually be heard. I remember hesitating for a moment with my hand on the latch, wondering who could be at my door in the middle of the night. By then the knocking had weakened to a dull thud. Looking at the lamp and the meager light it cast, I leaned into the wooden door frame and boldly unlatched its heavy lock.
A weary and very wet messenger nodded once and looking a bit relieved, he pulled a roll of thick paper from his sleeve.
“Miss Ann Cunningham?” he asked expectantly. “A message from Mrs. Lydia Dodd. Please hurry, she doesn’t have much time.”
In response to the message’s urgency, we got an early start, just before dawn broke. The roads were rough and thick with mud which caused my driver to take a circuitous route through the city to find passable roads. Finally, the horses and carriage came to an abrupt halt in front of a stately home. With the dawning light I could see the white Georgian white pillars and porch that stretched the full width of the home. Gray clapboards created a monochrome palate for the deep blue shutters that trimmed each white window frame, the front door, and the dozen or so steps that led up to the porch. Bulbs, like tiny green spears, pushed through the damp soil poking between the posts of an iron fence and winding up the bordered walkway.
When the carriage door opened, I gladly rose to a full standing position, tugged at the large brim of my dusky green hat reserved for formal affairs, and gathered up my full skirts the best I could to avoid the muddy street. Remembering the night’s rain, and the unexpected messenger, I was relieved to see the day was clearing; an omen perhaps, for what might lie ahead. After all, this was the house of Lydia Dodd, a woman I had hoped never to meet in my lifetime, or even in the hereafter. I could not change a thing; it was clearly time for our paths to cross.
Turning to the driver, you’ll remember I said, “I don’t know just how long I’ll be here, but please, wait right here for my return.”
“Certainly, Madam,” was his reply.
Opening the latched gate, I remembered passing through this neighborhood before, but I had never had a reason to stop in. I knew the location of the Dodd home, but only passed by, looking at it hesitantly, pretending disinterest. Stepping firmly upon the wet path, dewy grass met the edges of my skirt despite my efforts to keep them dry. At the top step, a servant opened the front door and nodded slightly with his head. He was a tall gentleman, who wore a waist coat and silk ascot. His starched collar and smooth, relaxed appearance told me that he was the family butler, a man who managed the house and its affairs for one who could not.
His face showed many years of composure and I found comfort in the softness of his features, his aging jaw, the color of smooth, rich chocolate.
“Welcome, Miss Cunningham,” he stated, offering a slight bow and closing the door behind me as I entered the wide foyer. He was expecting me. “Please forgive Mrs. Dodd for this urgent call but as her messenger may have told you, it is uncertain how much time she has left.”
I nodded in acknowledgement of this information, and at the name of ‘Mrs. Dodd’ I grew more uneasy.
“Your name, Sir?” I inquired.
“Forgive me, Madam. I am Edward.”
Edward took my cloak and hat and hung both on the coat rack beside the front door as I patted my auburn hair, pulled up and back for the occaision. It was as I was pulling at the fingers of a glove to remove it, that I consciously drew in a deep breath. It felt as if I hadn’t breathed in hours. Sighing to myself, I surveyed the enormous hallway in which I found myself. Etched grapevines in glass sidelights around the door glowed with morning sun while a clipper ship dressed the glass transom directly above. Even with the morning light coming in, a large glass oil lamp sat lighted on a polished table against the far wall. Its reflection was captured in a huge gold-framed mirror mounted above the table, doubling the effects of the lamp.
Down the hallway and towards the back of the house, I could just make out a sunny room with a table covered by a white cloth and a fresh bouquet of flowers lying beside a vase, awaiting arrangement. I felt as if I should make myself at home and arrange the flowers. Indeed, I was curious to see more, but I certainly didn’t want to appear rude.
Finishing up on the other glove, I glanced at the wide maple staircase that would soon direct me upstairs. Wishing to delay the visit, I looked beyond Edward at the many oil portraits that dressed the walls above the wainscoting. The faces of men and women reflected previous years in the past, earlier in the century. Fashionable women adorned with pearls, bonnets, and undoubtedly corsets under those weighty dresses, looked out from perpetuity as did the men; some of whom were dressed in tailored finery while others were in uniform.
That’s when I saw him again.
Crossing the hallway, I approached the portrait hanging at the foot of the stairway. Looking out from the still oils, he caught me by surprise like a bather emerging from a swim onto a glade of unexpected picnickers. I sensed that Edward heard my short tight gasp. I wanted desperately to touch the man framed there, suspended as he was in paint and time.
I stiffened knowing that soon I’d understand why I had been called here to Lydia’s house at all. Truly, she was a woman whom I never wanted to face and I clearly had nothing to share with her.
My thoughts formed into hushed words like breathy staccato notes as if waiting to recognize a movement, a breath from his cheek, a slight smile between us. Instead, a handsome man, dressed in the graduating uniform of a West Point officer, stared back at me, in silence. An aquiline nose and high cheek bones sculpted his face, but the sturdiness of character was lightened by his eyes which seemed to glisten even from the silence of the oil paints dried long ago on an artist’s easel. Quietly, as if in a holy place, I gazed at the portrait with keen intent, then glanced wistfully towards the front door as if another guest was about to appear.
Stepping back to take in the whole of the portrait, Edward must have caught my far off stare.
Edward, still standing by the coat rack, cleared his throat.
“Yes,” I murmured quietly as if coming out of a dream. I handed Edward my gloves and smoothed the tailored pleats of my dress.
“To Mrs. Dodd’s room,” Edward stated as he approached the staircase. With one glance up the maple staircase and another glance at the portrait, swallowing hard, I followed him up to Lydia’s room.