Authors: Emily Grayson
Everyone but Carson.
Oh, she had
excited, all right. She'd gone along with the gushing and the well-wishing and the hushed disclosures of what one really hoped to discover on such a journey. But the fact was, Carson hadn't been sure she should go. Everyone else, though, had seemed so sure for herâeveryone except Harris, of courseâthat Carson had found herself simply sailing along with the prevailing sentiment, because, well, that's what one did.
Now, though, alone on board this vast ship full
of thousands of people, staring past page 103 of
Alice of the Springtime
toward the porthole that revealed the same waves she had seen the day before, and the day before that, she wondered what it was she was hoping to find in Europe. Certainly, based on everything she'd heard or read or seen, she found the idea of Europe exciting in some ill-defined way. Yet she felt a kind of anxiety welling up like a crisis within her, and she recognized it as something she couldn't blame on the rolling of the ocean. It was a feeling of tentativeness that she'd often identified in herselfâa tentativeness that anyone who knew her would have been surprised to learn about. It came precisely from having been assigned no responsibilities or ambitionsâor so Carson had always told herself. But hadn't all the girls she knew from Miss Purslane's been assigned no responsibilities or ambitions, other than to model themselves after their mothers? Yet
suffered no tentativeness. On the contrary. That single responsibility, that sole goal, had quite sufficed. Those girls were just as headstrong and as certain as Harris Black's mother, and they sailed straight for Europe as if it was their destiny, as if it was their due. So what was it about Carson? Alone on the ship for days at a time, she had no choice but to ask herself what she was afraid of. The threat of war? That was real, but as Amanda Black had said, no more real than it ever was. The food? The weather? The travel? The people?
All of these. All of them and none of them at the same time.
On the fourth day of the voyage, Carson began to grasp what it was. She had settled herself in her usual spot, near the rear of the
âthe aft, as she now knew to call it. Leaning back in her deck chair, wrapping herself in a thin wool blanket, she stared out at the ship's wake, that whitish-green churning turbulence billowing backward as far as she could see, narrowing away from the full width of the ship all the way to the infinite nothingness of the horizon. Somewhere out there was home. But not
home. It wasn't just Marlowe where she longed to be at that momentâhad longed to be ever since she felt the first unmistakable jarring in her legs that signaled the ship's slippage from the mainland. It wasn't just the Weatherell estate where she wanted to be. It wasn't even in her own bed. It was in her own bed
as a young girl again.
Carson closed her eyes. She wrapped herself tighter. She could see it now, hear it now: her mother telling her that story about the princess and the prince. That was where she longed to be. That was
she longed to be: someone whose future was certain, was unchangeable; whose future held no
of change, no surprises, no knowledge of a still-distant but nonetheless ever-nearing continent looming larger at her back, with its cities and buildings, its cathedrals and catacombs, its clink of unfamiliar coins, its Babel-like chatter, andâCarson now understoodâits endless array of possibilities.
Aunt Jane and Uncle Lawrence had festooned their suite at Claridge's with ribbons and a banner declaring
, and they had even sent for a tray of small, carefully constructed hors d'oeuvres and yet another silver bucket of champagne on ice. They seemed very pleased with themselves, and Carson made an appropriate effort to seem in turn very pleased with them.
“Oh,” she said, “this is so elaborate. You're treating me as though I'm visiting royalty or something.”
“Believe me,” Aunt Jane replied, taking her by the elbow, “your visit is far more interesting than the one we had recently from a deadly dull Greek prince and his entourage.”
“A prince?” Carson heard herself say. She hadn't meant to blurt this out, to risk seeming so uncouth. She realized as soon as she said it that her aunt was probably kidding. Aunt Jane had a certain bright, impish spirit about her, a playful manner that Carson wasn't used toânot, at any rate, from her mother, who was, after all, Jane's sister. But a prince, it turned out, was precisely what Aunt Jane meant.
“Oh yes,” said Uncle Lawrence. “Since I've been with the governmentâeven in my rather low position, mind youâwe've gotten to know quite a few dignitaries.”
“Lawrie, your position isn't low,” said Aunt Jane. “It's perfectly important.”
“Yes, yes, Janie, I'm chief bottle washer and paper filer, is that it?” Lawrence said with a slight
smile, and again Carson wasn't sure whether or not he was teasing. In truth, she knew little of substance about her aunt and uncle.
Carson,” said Aunt Jane, “and over the summer you'll meet all sorts of people.”
“Quite right. All the wrong sorts,” said Uncle Lawrence, and his wife pushed him gently.
“Now, don't say that, Lawrie,” said Aunt Jane. “You'll scare the girl off. Now, let me get a good look at you, Carson. I haven't seen you in so long. Too long.”
And with that, Aunt Jane reached out and took Carson's hands in her own. Carson felt herself smile shyly, and then she looked back at her aunt and uncle. They hadn't seen her in six years, since a brief swing through Connecticut during some diplomatic trip that had brought Uncle Lawrence to New York City. All that Carson remembered of that meeting was wondering, as she entered the library where her parents and aunt and uncle had gathered for the cocktail hour, whether she should curtsy; these guests were from England, after all. Carson felt herself smiling now at the memory. Back then, she imagined, she must have seemed an awkward girl, tall and thin and, probably, a little dull, at least from the perspective of a worldly couple such as her aunt and uncle.
“You've changed, no surprise,” her aunt announced now. “You're all grown up.”
“I should say so,” Uncle Lawrence echoed. “She's eighteen, Jane, an age at which, if I remember the recesses of my own distant past cor
rectly, nobody wants an aunt hanging on to their limbs for too long.”
“Oh, you,” Aunt Jane said to her husband, but she let go of Carson's hands.
Carson couldn't help herself. She smiled shyly again at all this attention. She, of course, had no idea how much
changed in the past six years. It wasn't in the nature of a typically self-involved twelve-year-old to give a visiting aunt and uncle much thought. Now, though, Carson returned their steady, studying gaze, and realized that she was seeing themâ
seeing themâfor the first time.
They were a smart-looking couple in their midthirties. Jane was tall and lively, her husband pale and balding, but made more attractive by his wry smile. Carson knew that her mother didn't really like Uncle Lawrence very much, but for some reason, she herself did.
she thought to herself. She'd never known that. Or, perhaps, she'd never been
to know that.
“So tell us, Carson,” said Uncle Lawrence, indicating that Carson should sit on the chair opposite the couch, “what you expect to get out of this trip of ours.”
“Oh, well, you know,” Carson began vaguely, and then she parroted back the words that her mother and father had used when they were encouraging her to accept the offer, and that she'd heard her friends use when they'd talked about their own opportunities to go abroad. “It will give me a real education, the kind I've never had be
fore. It will teach me a few things about how people live in other parts of the worldâ”
“Oh, enough,” Uncle Lawrence cut in brusquely. “Don't tell us what you think we want to hear. Tell us what you really think.”
“What I really think?”
“Yes,” encouraged Aunt Jane. “Go on.”
What she really thought. Carson wasn't quite sure how to comply with this request. It surely wasn't one she was used to fielding. But she was tired. She'd been on a ship for days, and then when she'd gotten off the ship, she felt as if she were still on the ship, and in all honesty the train ride from the docks in Southampton to London had done nothing to dispel the notion that she hadn't quite landed on solid ground, what with the rhythmic rocking of the railway carriage, and then there was the time difference between London and Connecticut, so that even though it had crept up on her gradually on board the
she couldn't quite shake the conviction that five in the afternoon, when she joined her aunt and uncle in their drawing room for the kinds of drinks that got served in glass decanters and usually signaled a tipping over into the evening hours, was nonetheless noon at homeâwell, when the request came for her to say what she really thought, Carson actually did.
“I've kind of been dreading the whole thing.”
She raised a hand to her mouth. Her uncle's laughter, however, offered her all the reassurance she needed. Then her aunt's as well. And not just reassurance. Encouragement.
“No offense, please,” she began.
“None taken!” her uncle said.
“But I'm really not one for travel,” Carson went on. “Oh, I know Europe is supposed to be splendid and all, and that in fact it's an exciting placeâfor some good reasons and some less-than-good reasonsâbut I just wanted to stay home this summer and lie around a lot and read, and see my friends, that sort of thing, same as I've always done.”
“I see,” said Aunt Jane, wiping a tear. “You wanted to loaf, and we're making you soak up culture. Is that it?”
“Something like it,” admitted Carson. She was tearing up now, too, though not from laughter. She hadn't been laughing at all, in fact. Her uncle and aunt, she supposed, had found her confusion comical, and Carson herself could appreciate the comic potential of a time-lagged niece blurting out to an aunt and uncle the unholy truth regarding her visit to the Continent. And maybe she was indeed loopy from lack of sleep. But what touched her now, she realized, what really moved her, was the opportunity she'd been given to reveal the feelings she'd been holding inside, and the release that accompanied her finally doing so.
“I promise,” said Aunt Jane, “that there won't be too much soaking up. You're not a sponge, you're a young woman.”
“And a good-looking one,” said Uncle Lawrence. “There will be men here in Europe who will want to get to know you, Carson, even
if you don't particularly want to get to know them. They can be quite forward, you know. It's another thing that the Continent is famous for, even more than its food and its paintings.”
Carson was taken aback by the reference. Yes, her friends had mentioned men when they talked about going abroad this summer, but that, Carson knew, was just so much girl talkâgirls talking about boys but straining to sound grown up and sophisticated.
Carson and her friends knew well how to handle. They'd been doing so for years: receiving the quiet flirtations of a Harris Black, rebuffing them, and receiving still more flirtatious advances in turn. It was a game, one for which she and her friends all understood the rules.
But in Europe? What game of flirtation was played here? Her uncle was right. The men here seemed much more reckless, dressed differently, were more experienced. They called out to women on the street, they whistled, they signaled with their hands. They played a different game, and they played by different rules.
“You don't have to worry,” Carson assured her uncle. “I'm not going to pay any attention to the men here.”
“Good,” he said. “It's one less thing for us to concern ourselves with.”
“Yes,” she said, “one less thing”âas if she were counting down the duties she would have to perform before being allowed to return home.
Over the following week, Carson fulfilled some of those duties. On a whirlwind tour of London, she was taken by her aunt to the Tower of London, Hyde Park, Westminster Abbey. She was then ferried across the English Channel to Paris, where the two women shared a room at the Ritz, shopped in intimate, luxurious boutiques, strolled along the Champs ÃlysÃ©es, outfitted themselves in Chanel suits and wide picture hats, and every evening ate meals that relied heavily on goose fat and truffles.
It was at one of these meals that Carson ate something that would sicken her hours later. She was never exactly sure what it had been: an escargot baked in garlicky butter, maybe, or an oyster sitting cool and gelatinous inside the saucer of its elaborate shell. In the middle of the night, Carson bolted from her bed and went into the marble bathroom she shared with her aunt. She spent the rest of the night in that bathroom, alternately sitting and lying on the cold floor. Her aunt did all she could, stroking Carson's hair, having ice delivered to the room and feeding her niece crushed chips of it, but Carson was desperately ill with the kind of food poisoning that is unrelenting until it has completely run its course.
That course ended around daybreak. Carson, weak as a rag doll, went back to bed and pulled the blankets around herself. Apparently, she thought, this trip to Europe had been too much for her after all. A doctor was called in, an imperious Frenchman with spectacles and a pointed
beard, who took her pulse and peered down her throat, as if searching for the offending morsel of food, and then shrugged, saying something in an incomprehensible torrent of French, and departed. The next day, when finally she was strong enough to sit up in bed and sip a cup of beef tea that had been ordered from room service, Carson announced to her aunt, “I hope you and Uncle Lawrence won't mind very much if I call it a day.”