The first thing Anastasia became aware of was warmth; then sunlight on her face. Had she dreamed the whole entire meeting of Greta Thomas? But she could not be under the tree still, for there was no grass tickling her neck. Had it indeed been real? She opened her eyes. All was white; but now it existed in space and time. Slowly she understood her surroundings to be bed curtains, each side tied back with a deep red ribbon. Sitting up, pushing back the stark white comforter and its lace coverlet, Anastasia became aware of the rich green carpet and wooden wainscot, the white walls and ornate ceiling borders. In one corner near the door were two burgundy chairs around a small, carved table. On the bed’s other side was a great window framed by lace curtains. What had happened that she would be asleep in bed?
Dressing she noted the bandage on her forearm: the remnants of a doctor’s work. Oh, dear! Surely things were not that serious? Anastasia treaded quietly down the carpeted hall. She descended the spiral staircase, remembering Mrs. Tundlmire’s idle yet pleasant chatter. On the last step she waited, listening for some sound of life. Was this another dream? Where was everyone?
Then she heard a soft voice say, “I’m sure she will be fine. It was just the excitement that caused her to faint so. As for the cut on her arm, it will heal with barely any mark. I just hope all the glass was removed.”
“Of course you are right.”
Anastasia felt embarrassed as she recognized Greta and Gerard’s voices. Fainted? What a ridiculously stupid thing to do! Oh, if only they would not remember her as a weakling!
“What do you think of her?” Gerard asked.
A muffled giggle echoed out to her. Anastasia could picture Greta’s blue-green eyes laughing as her delicate hand covered her pretty mouth. “I’ve never seen anyone I like so much! Do you know what? I asked father to propose that she come with me to Europe. I hope she agrees!”
Anastasia almost collapsed on the steps. Her first thought had been a sense of hurt from the merriment, then utter surprise, and finally dread. But what was there to dread? Europe was where all people of culture went; perhaps she could prove Mr. Bulfinch wrong and marry well after all; perhaps… Why did she not want to go? Oh, it was rubbish and nonsense! If the perfect Ms. Greta Thomas asked her, she would of course say yes.
“Oh, my little birdie! How are you?” Mrs. Tundlemire hurried towards Anastasia, her gray curls bouncing under her quivering white cap. “I was just coming to see how you were getting on. Oh, don’t blush like I caught you at anything! You don’t yet know you’re way around, do you? Come along this way.”
I do hope Gerard doesn’t think I was eavesdropping. She dared not look behind lest he guess she had. As the prattling Mrs. Tundlemire guided her, Anastasia thought over every word between the siblings. How did Greta know whether she was a worthy companion? After all, what had she done except faint? But her train of thought was lost in the heady monsoon of Mrs. Tundlemire.
Soon Anastasia found herself dramatically announced to a marvelous blue dining room with enough gold candelabras and glistening china to welcome a king. At one end of a table long enough for twenty at least sat two gentlemen: the elderly man who had been so kind to her and Mr. Bulfinch.
“My dear Anastasia!” the latter boomed at the sight of her. Hastily rising, a beaming smile spread over his pallid complexion, he readily embraced her. “Come, sit, my dear. What a dreadful fright you gave us!”
Bewildered Anastasia accepted the proffered seat. What had happened to Mr. Bulfinch? There was no way he was that excited for her good health, not if all she meant was an extra burden for life. Then again, maybe that was it: if she was healthy it was less money expended. Or, as she feared to guess, it was really about Ms. Thomas’ proposal to take her to Europe.
“Thank you very kindly, Mr. Bulfinch,” she said.
“I do hope you are well rested?” the elderly gentleman asked. Despite his whitish hair and trim beard, Anastasia detected the same calm expression, the same piercing blue eyes, the same well-bread manner as Gerard. This must be the elder Mr. Thomas.
“Yes, thank you, sir, for your hospitality. I’m sorry for-”
“No trouble at all, Ms. Bartle. My son has told me much about you, and I am very pleased to serve you.” As if the word was a cue, Mrs. Tundlemire reentered- indeed, when had she left?- with a tray of edibles and tea stuff. “Thank you, Mrs. Tundlemire.” Then he himself, the lord of the house, took the tray and poured out a cup for Anastasia. Politely he offered sugar and cream, then scones and sausage.
Anastasia felt completely humbled and small. No one had ever waited upon her, but to have a man as regal as Mr. Thomas performing such! It was almost unbearable. For once she understood how Peter must have felt at the Last Supper when Christ washed his feet. “Thank you very much, Mr. Thomas.”
“Oh, not at all, not at all,” he murmured happily.
Greta and Gerard entered, both cordially greeting Anastasia, asking after her health. Mr. Bulfinch loudly thanked them again for all they had done, especially their generosity in paying the doctor. At the comment, Anastasia could have fainted again. She was not certain if it was for her stepfather’s uncouthness or the Thomas’ kindness.
However, the small repast dwindled leisurely with conversation flowing from every topic. Most of the comments only half entered Anastasia’s mind. The delicate China-ware fascinated her, especially when the sun fractured itself on the spindly long stems of the glasses or glanced around an etched flower and vine. How was it possible to make glass so thin and still carve into it? She felt like it should shatter if she tried to use it. And then the tea cups opaquely luminated by the light. The delicate forget-me-nots and brilliant roses seemed so real it was difficult to know whether or not their scent wafted to her. It was all so exquisite! She felt like a milkmaid at a princess’s tea party.
Slowly she became aware of tales from Europe becoming more frequent. She found her attention arrested from her metaphorical stroll through the forest garden of glass and light, locked instead into far off realms she had never seen. Gradually, she felt her curiosity aroused; she wanted to see the towering spires of ancient cathedrals, tread the ruins of once mighty castles, touch the stones where pilgrims had knelt, watch an artist imitate the master’s piece de resistance. But it would never happen. Or would it?
“Oh, father! When shall we go back?” Greta suddenly cried.
Chuckling, Mr. Thomas shook his head as he lit his pipe. “When you can find a better companion then I. Sometimes, Mr. Bulfinch, a woman is good company for a man. But there are times when it is better for her to have another woman.”
“I think I understand your point, Mr. Thomas,” the merchant nodded, his oversized belly quivering slightly in his vigorous agreement. “I’m sure many a young lady would be grateful for the opportunity to accompany Ms. Thomas.”
Was it just her imagination, or had Anastasia heard him stress grateful? It was disgusting the way he was almost forcing them to ask her. Why was he making it so blatant that he expected them to ask her? She must refuse now, if only to accommodate for his rudeness.
“Ms. Bartle, would you kindly take a walk with me?” Greta rose stately from her chair, reminding Anastasia more of a fairy princess.
“Of course, Ms. Thomas.” Rising in turn, her eyes met Gerard’s. They seemed strangely melancholy to her. But that must be because Karen was not here.
Silently the two maidens went out to the park. Every leaf sparkled with the fresh fallen rain, every rose and budding flower glistened. It seemed so lovely. For one wild minute, Anastasia hoped they never spoke, just wandered aimlessly through the mysteriously washed world: a princess and her handmaid. But, no, time could not stand still. And she must apologize. “I am so sorry.”
With a slight laugh, so reminiscent of her brother, Greta asked, “For what, my dear?”
“Everything! My bothersome fainting, my stepfather’s rude insinuating-”
She was cut short as Greta laughed clear and free. Threading her arm through Anastasia’s, she said, “Don’t fret, my dear. There is absolutely nothing to apologize for. Besides, Gerard has told me so much about you I just know I love you too much to be upset over yesterday. I wish you were my sister!”
Anastasia was certain it was just a polite speech. Yet, Ms. Thomas seemed genuine enough. “Thank you.”
“Oh, please don’t! I have quite a selfish reason for being so interested in you. You see, ever since I’ve been abroad, Gerard and I have written letters constantly. Well, suddenly he began telling me of a wonderful Ms. Bartle who was so kind and intelligent, such a lady. I told father I had to return to London and meet the damsel myself! And now that I have, I am very happy.”
Anastasia felt her cheeks burn. Gerard had written his sister about her? “Thank you. I’m happy to meet you too.” Oh, that sounded ridiculous!
Greta laughed. “Oh, Anastasia! Don’t be so formal. I want to be your best friend. Now, Gerard told me he asked you and your mother to come along to see the ballet in London. But I want to propose something to you. How would you like to come with me to London and then to Europe?”
Anastasia had not expected her to ask. Well, she had expected it, but not at that moment. “Oh, oh!” What could she say? Surely Ms. Thomas was just being kind and did not really want her along. Or perhaps Gerard’s letters had made her conclude things that displeased her, and now she was removing a temptation for her brother. “Thank you, but I could not possible afford to accompany you to Europe. Mr. Bulfinch-”
“No, no, dear!” Greta laid her free hand on Anastasia’s arm. “I want you as my companion. You won’t need money of any sort.”
“Think of it as an education.”
“This is an opportunity she would not want you to miss. And I know very well that Mr. Bulfinch approves.”
“You don’t have to ask me because of how he acted at the table. I’m sorry-”
“My dear, don’t be.” Her voice was soft and full of compassion. It was the same voice Gerard had used when she cried: like a breeze caught in the tree tops. “I’m not asking for him or Gerard or anyone else. I’m asking for you and me. I know what kind of things Karen and her sidekick are capable of; I used to be in their class. When I finally told father, he took me out, saying he could do a better job educating me abroad. Now I know you are in their class, and because of your personality I dare say you are their torture toy. I want you to have the same chance I do: not only to get away from it, but to experience people who are civil.”
Gerard watched as his sister paced with her arm linked in Anastasia’s. He could tell that both girls were getting emotional: their serious faces told him that tears were close at hand. He wanted and then did not want Anastasia to go. If she went, she would probably meet some dashing European man and get swept off her feet as Greta’s last companion had. But then he could not see Anastasia being so romantic; she would probably be more practical about it and marry some rich lord of something- yet somehow that seemed dishonorable to her character. Anyway, she would forget all about him, if she had not already. But if she stayed, he could still be friends with her. Oh, how selfish! How could he call himself her friend when he did not truly want what was best for her? Then she should go and find someone who would love her properly- someone who was not Gerard Thomas.
Anastasia blinked back tears. No one had ever said such things to her, given her such an exalted chance, such a friendship. “Oh, thank you so much!” She sobbed a little. She felt Greta wrap her arms around her. Somehow she just knew that Greta- the perfect woman, the princess- would help her heal from all her fear of love. This friendship which started at this moment would be the beginning of an Anastasia who was strong, confident, and magnanimous. She only hoped that she could do some good for Greta too.