The sisters were unwrapped and unwound at the door. A brisk and hearty maid helped them out of their coats, scarves, and hats, cooing as she collected the crisp, frozen articles from them. Arms piled high, she left, trailing a scarf as she went.
Another maid arrived in the first one’s place. This one was younger, softer, with little blond curls that escaped from under her cap. She smiled at the sisters and beckoned them to follow her down a dimly lit marble hall.
A quick knock and the door opened wide to reveal a large room, with a crackling, giant fire spitting and crackling in the middle. Ceiling-high shelves towered heavily with leather-bound books. Everywhere the sisters looked, they were met with the inquisitive stares of people holding delicate, crystal coupe glasses filled with champagne sitting in either large leather chairs with brass buttons or low-backed red velvet couches.
The baroness stood waiting for them at the threshold, and seeing their red faces and bright pink noses was instantly delighted.
“Darlings! You walked? What adventuresses you are!” The baroness looked from one to the other and then back again. “Americans!” she pronounced, her hands clasped. “How dashing. So independent. So capable. Come in! Come in! You must meet everyone. We’ve been anticipating you. How we waited! But this explains it. You are walkers!”
The older woman pulled the sisters into the room. An easy enough task as where went one, so did the other. Taking Jane by the hand, Bea followed quickly behind as if caught in her wake.
The murmur in the room stopped as the inhabitants looked to the baroness, then over to the newcomers.
“Darlings,” the baroness said brightly, “our guests have arrived. May I introduce Miss Jane Upton, authoress of Life Aboard Experion.” To which the crowd smiled and murmured their approval. “And her sister, Miss Bea Upton.”
The men looked on in their stiff white shirts and long black coats, the women in their embroidered silk dresses with puffed sleeves and a hint of décolleté.
“I have yet to make the request, but surely you shall all help to persuade the elder Miss Upton to read for us tonight. We would all be most grateful to hear the written word spoken by the authoress herself.”
Jane’s face froze as she peered at the many, many faces lit by the fireplace and the gaslight. Their bright, eager eyes staring at her. Her throat began to close up. Her mouth went dry. She could feel her neck turn hot and red with embarrassment. With one hand the baroness gestured to the room as if to say, They’re waiting.
“Come, everyone. Miss Upton needs a bit of prompting,” and she began to clap. The sound dulled from the silk of her gloved hands. Still, the crowd took their cue and began to clap as well. Politely, eagerly, with a bit of mischief and fun seeing the young authoress’s eyes dart about the room, most likely for an escape.
Jane felt a coupe pressed into her hand and turned to see Bea mouth the word, “Read.”
With a forced smile and a shaking hand, Jane tipped the contents of the glass in her mouth, letting the champagne tickle her throat as it went down. Tears in her eyes, she turned to the baroness and nodded her assent.
“Marvelous. Marvelous,” the elder lady shined, triumphant.
“I haven’t a book, however,” Jane whispered.
The baroness snapped her fingers and a footman quickly arrived with Jane’s book upon a silver tray.
“Page one hundred and fifty-four, if I may make such a specific request of you, my dear. I do so love that part. Now, just stand here by the fire. Can you see all right?”
Jane nodded, a bead of sweat trailing down from her hairline along her right cheek.
“Might I have another glass?” Jane asked and another was quickly pressed into her hand.
“Courage, Jane,” Bea whispered and sat as near as she could to her sister, her eyes beaming with pride and assurance at the same time.
Juggling the glass and the book, Jane emptied the first and open the last. She ran her fingers along the expensive cream paper, marveled for a moment at the leather binding, her name embossed in gold. What a strange creature her book had become in this form. Exotic and precious. Not at all the rough, hard fought beast it was when she took pen to paper.
The footman whisked her glass away. The crowd waited restlessly on the sofas and high-backed chairs. The baroness stood just off to the side, her white-gloved hand held together in front of her heart as if she were in prayer. And Bea closed her eyes, ready to hear it all again.
And so she began.