Evette’s cousin, Claudine, was a spinster. A woman of twenty-eight who never had a husband and no child. The sort of woman who young girls like Evette were discouraged from socializing with for fear that they might catch spinsterhood the way one catches influenza – by too much socialization with the sick. But, being cousins, it was difficult and somewhat awkward for Evette’s parents to completely bar their friendship, so Evette made every attempt, at every opportunity, to visit her “poor, lonely cousin” at her country estate in the spring and summer months.
Claudine always welcomes her cousin happily. An heiress to a modest but lovely estate and a fortune large enough to keep her comfortable if she did not expend it frivolously – which she did not – Claudine was happy in her solitude. She had a passion for books, much like Evette – in this they were spiritual twins – and what she lost in companionship, she gained in freedom. Not having a chaperone in a parent or a husband, and too old for her younger brother to feel he ought to be worried that she may besmirch the family honor with some scandalous act, Claudine was able to collect books as she pleased.
She collected and read them avidly. Books from all places, times and topics. Cooking books and sewing books, sciences and philosophies, poetry collections and novels both appropriate and inappropriate for proper young ladies. Sometimes, there were books too scandalous to speak of. Books that even the free-spirited and (very) open-minded Claudine was embarrassed and hesitant to show her younger, unwed cousin. At just barely twenty, Evette still had the chance to marry well, have children, and be everything she was meant and expected to be.
There had been talk, as of late, however, that Evette was not as sweet with young men as her parents would like. She had fantasies and fancies – quite fantastical ones, mind. Men had attempted to court her and she had been not as receptive as one might imagine. Such fine and distinguished young men. Such handsome young men, Evette’s mother would moan and complain in her letters.
Claudine knew she may be expected to not invite Evette to her country abode. That she might be expected to encourage her to spend the summer frolicking and flirting and finding a proper match, instead of locking herself up in a dusty library with large windows and many books, where the men were only between the pages and not nearly as marriageable as was desired.
Fictional men were as attractive as they were unreachable for the intents of matrimony
Claudine felt that that was exactly what her young cousin desired and her own heart could not quite refuse this refuge to Evette. She had escaped her own destiny by some miracle and it would be quite ungrateful for her to not participate in the salvation of another.
Although she wrote sometimes in the journal she kept of her fear that she was mistaken. That Evette was not at all intending to escape a match, but merely in search of one – a little too romantic for the earthy truths of wedded bliss. Mainly, that it was rarely bliss and mostly dreary contentment. Perhaps what Evette sought was not escape but a great love. There were women like that, after all. The ones who sought something that did not come their way – something that would have been perfectly acceptable and proper if only they could find it. Yet, they were unlucky and life was unkind to them and they found not what they sought. A book could be just as much a comfort to them, as it could in other, more precarious and secret predicaments.
What right did Claudine have to decide that her cousin was one sort of woman and not the other. She tried to get some clarity on the subject over tea, a time or two. Yet Evette was so pure in her own young way that she did not seem to quite understand.
Evette read the romances and the philosophies and ran barefoot in the garden and could have been so many things and not been so many others. “Do you not dream of marriage?” Claudine would ask and Evette would smile and say, “But I do not know, cousin. I dream of children. I do not know if I dream of a husband just so. But I must, mustn’t I, if I dream of children?”
And Claudine, who had never dreamed of either, could not give her an answer.
Then, on one of her visits, Evette brought a friend. Elisabeth was her name. She was beautiful, with the freshest face and golden-red hair. When she wore blue it brought out her eyes and she smiled with the brightness of untarnished girlhood. Evette blushed and smiled and was shy about her ravenous reading habits, afraid that they would be misunderstood.
Thus, the question was decided for Claudine.
She resolved then, to be the elder sister and the librarian for the two young maids under her wing. Elisabeth was no stranger to reading, as it soon became obvious, and Evette showed her gleefully around Claudine’s library. They went for walks in the park – Evette in pale pink or summer white and Elisabeth in sublime violets or enchanting blues. They were like flowers or songbirds among the trees. While they walked, Claudine searched out the best, most scandalous books in her library and laid them out for the girls.
She did this even when her sister, Josephine, came to visit. Josephine poked her head into the library and looked around with some distrust at Claudine on her latter and Evette and Elisabeth bending together over one book, Elisabeth’s hand thoughtlessly on the small of Evette’s back.
Claudine offered her sister tea and pastry, which Josephine declined, but took her outside for words. “You could at least give them some sensible advice to not end up like you,” Josephine said, disapprovingly clucking her tongue.
“But why?” Claudine asked innocently. “I am quite content, sister.” Josephine did not understand, nor would she want to. It was simply the nature of things.
That evening, after they had finished supper, Claudine gave the two girls a small, leather-bound book and smiling mysteriously said, “This is a rare one. Very few copies have been made and it has only been passed around among the chosen and the trusted for its nature is quite sensitive.”
Elisabeth reached out for it first. “What is it about?” she asked, even as she grasp the book tightly, the curiosity in her bright eyes mounting with every second.
“A bit of education,” Claudine said, standing and picking up her skirts. “I think I will retire early, ladies.” She stepped out of the drawing room, but paused just outside to listen for a moment.
She could hear Evette and Elisabeth whispering among themselves, then silence, and then gasps of what seemed to be half-shock and half-delight. Elisabeth’s voice floated out to Claudine in a clear, laughing tone, and Evette’s answered her with more caution. Then all was quiet again and Claudine made her way upstairs, smiling.
She would not pry into what they did or did not do that night, but she would like to imagine that the bright, clear eyed Elisabeth leaned forward and kissed Evette just so on the lips and that Evette invited her to deepen that kiss. That they touched each other in ways they never had before and undid each other’s hair and, later, in private, each other’s corsets. That the little book Claudine gave them served as a guide and an instructor in the way of how women pleased, loved and worshiped each other.
Claudine liked to think that her cousin had been searching after all, and that she had finally found what she had been looking for.