Mary opened the safe deposit box and stared at a couple of large envelopes and a few smaller ones. She had never taken the time to investigate the contents in the years since her aunt’s death, but now she needed to give Mr. Sullivan documentation about the Eakins painting. The painting’s provenance had not been among the estate papers, and the safe deposit box was the most likely place her aunt would have kept them.
She scooped up the envelopes and stuffed them into her large shoulder bag, relocking the box and pocketing the key. She exited the curtained alcove and told the young woman who had brought the box that she was finished.
Stepping out into the warm late June day, she paused on the sidewalk and lifted her face to the sun. A light breeze teased tendrils of hair loose from her ponytail. It had been a long time since she had felt this carefree outside of her house. Since her involvement with David, she had been trying to go out of the house at least once a week, running little errands on her own, to help her readjust to the outside world. Mary dreaded telling David she had trouble leaving the house, and she figured if she could overcome her phobia with baby steps, maybe he would never have to know. Now that they were engaged, she was more determined than ever to conquer her fear. Her early morning confession to Jared had released some of her tension, and this morning’s outing had progressed much more easily than previous ones.
Awakening a few hours ago to find her head on Jared’s shoulder, she had eased out of his embrace to tiptoe out of the apartment and back to her house. The thought of what Aunt Geraldine would have said had she found her sneaking out of a man’s apartment in the wee hours of the morning made her wince. Mary knew Jared wasn’t one to snuggle and tell, so her reputation would not suffer. Sharing the incident with him had released something inside her that had trapped her into a cage of her own making.
Her new zeal energized her to try public transportation for the first time. Amy raved about Culpeper’s city bus system, which included a stop at the end of her street. Looking up the Culpeper Express online gave her route information. Mary walked to the end of the street, the heels of her sandals clipping on the sidewalk. She waited a few minutes for the big, blue-and-white checked city bus to pull up, and took several deep breaths to prepare for the crowded bus.
“Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye” got her on the bus. She finished the rhyme in her head once seated on the bus. Four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king? The familiar rhythm soothed her frazzled nerves as the bus jounced along Main Street to the bank.
After completing her errand, Mary waited at the bus stop for the return trip, picking up the third verse of “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” She chanted the words softly. “The king was in his counting room, counting out his money. The queen was in the parlor, eating bread and honey.”
Soon the bus lumbered to a wheezing halt, and she climbed aboard, choosing a seat near the back by a window. The bus had fewer people for the return trip, and she breathed a sigh of relief at the nearly empty vehicle. No need to finish the rhyme. Instead, thoughts of how little she had told David about her life swirled in her mind. She hadn’t shared many details about her job, only that she worked in radio. She also hadn’t revealed much at all about her anxiety.
Mary twisted her hands together on her lap. She should have told David more of her background but once at the keyboard, the words wouldn’t come. Besides, she wanted to talk to a flesh-and-blood person. Jared was an obvious choice. She would tell David the next chance she got. No more omissions. She would start her married life in a few weeks and she wanted David to know all her secrets.
The bus driver announced her stop and Mary rose. David would understand why she hadn’t told him about her anxiety earlier. At least, she was pretty sure he would. Having never been in love before, she was somewhat hazy on the protocol.
She walked down the sidewalk and up the front steps. She couldn’t wait to tell David about the Eakins painting. Pausing with the key in the lock, she remembered there had been something recently in one of their chats that made her think David already knew about the painting. She shook her head. How he could know about the portrait without her telling him, she had no idea. Her head began to ache. Mary decided to pull a Scarlet O’Hara and think about it tomorrow.
She entered the house and immediately went into the kitchen to make some tea. While it brewed, she placed the envelopes on the dining room table. Teacup and saucer in hand, she settled at the table and opened the first envelope. This one contained a detailed list of all the artwork and other valuables in the house. Mary skimmed the list, surprised that some of the smaller pictures hanging in various rooms were actually quite valuable. Not as much as the Eakins, but a few were in the low five-figures as of twenty-five years ago.
A second envelope contained papers related to the Eakins. Between archival sheets of paper, Mary read a handwritten bill of sale dated November 12, 1893:
To Joseph and Mary Abbott, one portrait of mother, father, baby, little boy and dog, painted by Thomas Eakins, during the fall of 1893, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. For the sum of One Hundred Dollars.
Eakins’s signature slashed across the bottom of the receipt, much like it appeared on the painting. Mary put that aside and picked up another piece of paper, this one a marriage settlement between Jane Lenox and Marvin Eavenson dated May 3, 1913. Jane must have been the baby in the portrait. The painting was listed as part of the Jane’s dowry.
The next paper traced the painting’s movement to Geraldine Rowland upon the death of her parents, Jane and Marvin Eavenson, and nestled between the pages of that paper and the next was a telegram. The document was faded, its corners brittle. Mary carefully picked it up to read.
10 June 1944
We regret to inform you that Sergeant Walter Trayborne was killed during the Normandy Invasion. You have our deepest sympathies for your loss.
The British War Department
Mary put the telegram aside. Perhaps this Walter was someone special to Geraldine, although her aunt had never mentioned him. The next paper was an official letter from Walter’s commanding officer. She skimmed it, slowing to read a few sentences.
…Walter often talked about you and the life he hoped you two would have. I know he would have wanted you to be happy, and to find love again, when this war is over. ….
Mary shook her head, saddened to think of Geraldine mourning the loss of Walter. At least she assumed it was Geraldine of whom the officer wrote. Her aunt refused to talk about her life at all. Mary used to entertain herself by thinking that Geraldine must have sprung to life at age sixty.
Setting aside the mystery of Walter for now, she stacked the papers relating to the painting’s provenance to show Mr. Sullivan when he came by in the morning. She gathered the rest of the papers to return them to one of the large envelopes. As she slid them inside, an envelope with her name scrawled across the top in Aunt Geraldine’s handwriting slipped free and fell to the table. Mary turned the envelope over and read on the back:
To be opened upon my death. Geraldine Rowland.
Why didn’t she put this with her will? Aunt Geraldine had a long, protracted illness prior to her death, so she would have had time to put this with the other papers the lawyer had given Mary.
Whatever the reason for the twenty years’ delay in getting this envelope, Mary picked up the letter opener and slit the envelope. She gently extracted several sheets of the thick writing paper her aunt preferred and began to read.
If you’re reading this letter, it means I am dead. Perhaps I’m a coward for telling you this way when I won’t be around to answer your questions, but I hope that I will be clear enough.
When you showed up on my doorstep, I wasn’t very welcoming. I had become too set in my ways to know what to do with a lonely, little girl. But there was another reason, one that made it even more difficult to accept and love you.
You might find this hard to believe, but I was a mother once. I had a beautiful little girl. She was the daughter of an English serviceman, Walter Trayborne, who was killed right after the D-Day Invasion someplace in France before we could be married.
Mary dropped the letter on the table. Aunt Geraldine pregnant out of wedlock. Her mind flashed on her attack in college and her aunt’s extreme reaction to the news. Perhaps her aunt feared she would become an unwed mother as well. She picked up the letter and continued.
My parents had been killed in London during the blitz and never knew about the baby. We had been visiting relatives in England when war broke out. My parents decided to stay and help, and sent me off to live in the country. I was 16 when I met my Walt, and we were very much in love. I kept all of our letters in the roll top desk. You have my permission to read them.
Mary looked over at the desk. She hadn’t bothered to go through it thoroughly since her aunt’s death, but now she would find the letters. Maybe if she could read Geraldine and Walter’s love letters, she could make sense of her aunt’s life.
After the war ended, I made my way home with the baby, whom I named Emily after Walter’s mother. Later, I moved down here from Philadelphia, and bought this house with my inheritance to raise my daughter. She was seven at the time. I called myself a widow and no one was the wiser, as there were many war widows in those days.
Emily grew up to be a beauty, but she also grew up willful. When she turned 16, we began to argue constantly. I never told her the truth about her father and I’m sorry to say we parted in anger the day she turned 18. She stormed out of the house and vowed never to return. She kept her promise.
I did receive a letter from her about ten years after she left, but I never opened it. I didn’t want to be reminded of my own mistakes, I suppose. But I kept it and you’ll likely find it among my papers. Over the years, I grew even more bitter and reclusive, shunning everyone’s company and only finding solace in tending my gardens. Then one day, you showed up on my doorstep.
I was shocked at your resemblance to Emily. My second cousin Louisa had mailed the attorney a second letter with more details. When I read that letter, I realized I had been an old fool, but I was too upset and hurt to tell you the truth.
You were not Louisa’s daughter at all. You were Emily’s daughter. My granddaughter.
Mary dropped the pages onto the table. Aunt Geraldine was her grandmother. That old woman, who barely gave her any love or attention, was her grandmother. That meant the two people she had thought were her parents for close to forty years were her distant cousins. She sat frozen in her chair as her mind tried to assimilate the information. Her grandmother. Not her real parents. Who was Emily and where was she now?
Mary gasped at the sound of a male voice from behind her and dropped the papers on the table. She rose and whirled around to Jared, who stood in the doorway to the kitchen, his hair damp from perspiration, and grass clippings clinging to his shirt and jeans.
Her hand on her chest, Mary closed her eyes briefly as she sucked in a deep breath. “Jared, you scared me.”
He took a step closer, then stopped. “I’m so sorry. I knocked on the back door, and I called out when I opened it. I thought you might be upstairs.” He held up his left hand, which was wrapped in a bloodied cloth. “I nicked my hand with the gardening sheers trying to cut back the wisteria bush. I was hoping you had some antiseptic cream and a bandage.”
“Of course. Come to the kitchen sink and wash it off while I find the medical supplies.” She hurried to the downstairs linen closet, where she kept a first aid kit, then raced back into the kitchen. Jared stood in front of the sink, water from the faucet pouring over his palm.
“Let me help.” Mary joined him at the sink. She set the kit on the counter, then reached for his hand. “Did you use soap on it?”
“No, not yet.” Jared winced as her fingers gingerly inspected his palm near the cut. A trickle of blood from the raw wound landed in the white porcelain sink.
“Relax,” she said softly. Her fingers closed around his wrist as she began to gently wash the cut, then dry it. Mary willed her attention to remain on the wound instead of her pulse that quickened at his nearness. She finished bandaging the cut and patted his wrist. “There, all done.”
His blue eyes darkened with an emotion Mary had never seen before, almost like Rhett Butler looked before he kissed Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. Her breath caught in her throat.
Jared stepped back, breaking whatever spell had begun to weave its magic around them. “Thanks for bandaging my hand,” he mumbled. “I’d better get back to work.”
She watched him grab his gloves on the way out of the door. She couldn’t help but wonder if his lips would be as soft as the skin on his wrist. Having never kissed a man in her life, she had no idea if lips were soft or rough. Perhaps it depended on the other person. From his photograph, David’s lips looked like they would be sufficiently soft. But it wasn’t David’s face that danced in her thoughts the rest of the afternoon.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.