Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
Tags: #Literary, #Historical, #Fiction
For my parents and my brother
ne evening, as Hau Maka lay beneath the full moon on the island Marae-toe-hau, he had a dream.
The dream soul of Hau Maka flew toward the rising sun and she passed above seven lands, each of which she inspected. But none of the seven was to her liking. So she continued on her journey, flying farther, over the vast and empty ocean, and for a long time she saw no lands below, only the rolling sea, until finally she reached a sandy shore. Here, the dream soul descended. She stood upon a glistening white beach and saw in the water the fish Mahore. Then the dream soul walked across the land and saw plump fruits of all colors, which she tasted, and were to her pleasure. Each fragrant flower she smelled, plucking a white one to tuck behind her ear. And then the dream soul climbed to the highest point on the land from where she could see the ocean and sky meeting all around her. As she looked at the island, she felt a gentle breeze coming toward her. . . .
Here was where she wanted to live.
When Hau Maka awakened, he found the King Hotu Matua and told him what his dream soul had seen.
“We shall find that land,” said the king.
—The Legend of Hotu Matua, and the
discovery of the island Te Pito O Te Henua
he decisive moment for Germany’s fleet in the Great War was, indisputably, its ill-timed arrival at the Falkland Islands. Having avoided detection by the Allies for three months since the outbreak of hostilities, it was their great misfortune to head straight for the Falklands just hours after the British fleet put in to coal there. Had they borne in and launched an offensive, they would have caught the British in the disarray of refueling. Instead, and for unknown reasons, all eight ships, under the command of Vice Admiral Graf von Spee, tried to escape. Compounding this fatal decision was atypical weather—a bright, cloudless sky hung overhead; there were neither the usual fog banks nor the low-lying squall clouds to afford even momentary concealment. The British, with their superior cruisers, were quick to pursue. From all sides gunfire bombarded the Germans. After three hours of battle, von Spee’s flagship, the
turned over on her beam, heeled gradually to port, and slid into the icy Atlantic, a cloud of black smoke shooting up from the boilers as she submerged. Only a coal collier, which was later interned in Argentina, and the small cruiser
, which was to be run down and blown up in three months, escaped the fiery battle. Within hours, the rest of the squadron met its fate at the bottom of the sea.
The question, then, is what brought about this decisive event. What accounts for von Spee’s inopportune arrival at the Falklands? Why did he order his ships to flee? How did so gallant and skilled an admiral, a man known for his precision, bring about the destruction of the German East Asiatic Squadron and turn, forever, the tides of the Great War?
—Fleet of Misfortune: Graf von Spee and the Impossible Journey Home
14th January 1912
My dearest Max,
I’m unsure as to where you are, but I’m sending this to Grete at Gjellerup Haus in the hopes she’s had word from your household and will forward it.
Alice and I have found ourselves in quite difficult circumstances. One month ago Father passed on and I left my position in Lancashire immediately. Please don’t be angry with me for not writing sooner. I needed time to determine in exactly what station this placed me and, I’m afraid to say, it’s worse than I first suspected. How I should like to curse the textile industry and this endless muddle of strikes. The cost of Father’s faith in English labour, it now appears, has been nearly his entire life savings. By my most modest calculations, the sum left can sustain Alice and me no more than six months. I cannot accept a new position unless I can bring her with me & even your extravagant letter of reference (indispensable demeanour? really, Max) cannot outweigh the obvious difficulty of Alice let loose in a respectable household. The solicitor, who looks to be younger than myself, seems convinced an impoverished twenty-two-year-old woman could not possibly tend to the needs of a nineteen-year-old. He “most emphatically advises,” for Alice’s welfare, for my own welfare, and for the good of the community, that I place her in one of the Crown’s colonies at Bethlam or St. Luke’s. Well, I, in turn, have told him in most unladylike terms that I should sooner lock myself away than Alice. Incarceration is the growing fashion these days. Even as I write this, the Feeble-Minded Control Bill is edging its way through both houses of Parliament. Progress—that’s what the doctors and the legislators like to call it. If it passes, I’m not sure what we will do. Alice has only me, now, and I cannot let her down.
I know we made no promises to one another. But all this past year I was happy so long as I dreamed I might see you again. What could be grander than to think of you giving up everything and coming for me? Forgetting your responsibilities, your life, arriving on my doorstep with a handful of lilies from your garden. How silly that hope now seems. Did you ever realize how childish I could be? But with Father gone, my sense of the world has darkened. I’ve lost the conviction that life eventually works itself out for the best.
I know your frustration at my position. I, too, wish things were different. But to be angry at my situation is also to be angry with Father. How can I blame him for trying to better our prospects? I hope you believe, as I do, that my education was a far more valuable gift than any investment. That I cannot do with it, as you have always wished, something more than help children conjugate verbs and crayon maps of the world, is simply the lot I have inherited. It is best that I accept it. Please don’t think me weak for my resignation. I still share your spirit of fight, only I haven’t the means to indulge it right now.
I am here in England and I’ve not had word from you for months. Your duties no doubt prevent you from writing, but no longer can I afford to hope you will one day appear at my door. We’ve always known you have obligations to your family & your career. What point is there in my wishing you will awake one day able to extract yourself from the life you’ve led for years? I understand clearly now that it will never happen—I will never again see you.
I cherish the time we had together. Not for a moment do I regret our conversations on that shaded bench, the walks in the garden—it still makes me laugh to think that you, of all people, know the name of every plant and shrub. Who would have suspected your love of nature? It’s awful really; I cannot see a flower without thinking of you. But when you left, I could no longer stay in Strasbourg. I could not face your family alone, with only the faintest hope you might return for a day or two in several months.
I know you worry Alice will consume my life, and you think I must look after myself. And these past few weeks, in my mind I’ve listened again to all your arguments. But, dearest, I have to ask myself: what life? Alice is, in truth, the only companion I’ve ever known. For nineteen years she has been my life. To tend to her
to tend to myself. Please understand.
I suppose I must finally come to it: Professor Beazley (Father’s colleague in the Department of Anthropology, and yes, the “jungle man” of whom I sometimes joked) has agreed to look after Alice and me. The University has granted him Father’s position and he has made intelligent investments with his family’s large estate (if only he could have advised Father) that should keep us quite comfortable. We are to be married within the month.
Will it really be so difficult to teach him a thing or two of charm? Perhaps a short lesson in the art of laughter? Never have I known a man so ill at ease; only reading and writing, and the occasional mapmaking, seem to relax him. Maybe if I constantly keep a book propped before him we might forge something of a normal house! No. Oh, Max, what is wrong with me? I shouldn’t joke at his expense. After all, if he hadn’t proposed—well, Alice and I would soon be wandering the East End. Can I really ask for more?
Max, please do not imagine I’ve chosen Professor Beazley over you. I have simply chosen to care for Alice rather than wait for the impossible. I wish I could tell you this in person, but I haven’t that luxury. Perhaps this will make things easier for you. Perhaps you’ve always known this would happen. Long before I did, I think you sensed there was little hope for us. But for me this marks a change, a painful awakening. There is no one but you to whom I can write, no one but you who would understand.
Isn’t it strange? I will be a married woman by the time this reaches you.
Elsa sets her pen down, folds the letter, and tucks it between the pages of her morocco journal. Edward will soon be home. She will post it in the morning, after he has left for the university.
Behind the tall glass windows of the sitting room, dusk is falling. Elsa stands, strikes a match, and lights each branch of the candelabrum. The shadows move across the curtains, the burgundy wallpaper, the thick lacquer of the walnut armoire. From every corner, elegance gleams. And carefully, like a child cautioned against sudden movements, she gathers her black skirt and inches toward the divan. Elsa still cannot imagine this place as her home. It reminds her too much of the houses she has worked in, of the vast, chandeliered dining rooms, the cold carpeted entrance halls. In Strasbourg, in Max’s house, she moved with even greater caution, always kneeling to straighten the corner of a rug, fluffing each gold-fringed pillow as she rose from the sofa, as though the prudence of her movements might make up for, or disguise, the negligence of her emotions.
As she settles on the divan, Elsa feels content with what she has written. Just the right balance of affection and firmness has been struck. She knows that the tone—so much more adult than her other letters—will surprise him. Now
is the one offering apologies. Max won’t have expected her to end things; he has always known the depth of her feelings. But surely he will understand the circumstances. Even if it means upending his ideals about liberty, his belief that all objectives can be reached through ardor, skill, and determination. That was, after all, what he said he admired in her—her ardor. And it was what she loved in him. But of what use is it now? For all his sympathy, Max has never known what it means to be trapped.
Elsa glances at her journal, the envelope’s corner protruding from its pages. How odd that a few sheets of paper bear her decision, that at any moment she can hold them to the candle’s flame, or never post them at all. But her decision is final, and has little to do with Max’s knowledge of it. After all, it will be months before the letter reaches him. Perhaps it’s for herself she has written, to understand once again her predicament, the unsatisfying idea of what now seems her future.
On the table beside her lies Edward’s most recent book:
The Indigenous Peoples of British East Africa.
She extracts the ribbon marking her page and begins reading. The book so far engages her—and how nice, finally, to have the luxury to read such a comprehensive study. Religious practices, domestic life, transfer of property: To each of these Edward has devoted a detailed chapter. Her father always praised his field research skills. The language, though, she finds too formal—
A monthly ritual to grieve the dead allows adolescent members of the tribe to display emotion in the form of tears, yelps, or occasional song
—but she hasn’t told Edward so. “It’s engrossing!” she has announced across the dinner table, the white tablecloth stretched between them like a snow-covered boulevard. “Edward, you really have known such excitement! You’ve seen such wonderful places.” And she has watched a brief smile nudge the reserve from his face: “I am delighted, my dear, that your attention is captured by those studies which have occupied the bulk of my days. The world is filled with other wonderful places ready for study. Perhaps someday you can share in my endeavors. Really, I am touched, in the utmost, by your interest in my work.” It is, thinks Elsa, the least she can do. And how could she not be intrigued by such far-off lands, and the faint promise he might take her to one?