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Aunt Emma

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"Now come here, Mary," said her aunt, as Mary watched the carriage that held her mother and father pull disappear over the last rise and into the mist. There was a little tightening around Mary's heart, as if she were afraid (and she was not, because that would be foolish and flighty) that there might be wicked spirits or highwaymen in the trees to waylay her parents, as if such a thing were possible in this day and age. So she stood by the window a little while longer, until Aunt Emma repeated, "Mary," and Mary caught her breath all at once.

"Yes, Aunt," she said, obedient. She came away from the window, towards her aunt's chair by the fire.

"No, come closer, dear girl." Her aunt held out her hands, imperious. "I shan't bite you."

Aunt Emma frightened Mary. She was such a tall, proud looking woman. Her hair was sleek and shone in the fire and candle-light. Copper-gold, as if it too had a little bit of fire in it. She had such blue eyes. She was not pretty, not really. Her face was too severe. And her clothes were fine, but very plain and dark.

But most of all, she was Papa's older sister, and ordered him around as if he were her son. Now she was sitting in front of a fire, with her hands held out expectantly, and Mama and Papa were both gone. Mary was to be here all through the winter.

Reluctantly, Mary crossed the distance. More reluctantly, she held out her hands and let her aunt take them. It surprised her when her aunt's hands were warm and soft; surprised her more, when the pressure Aunt Emma put in her fingers was gentle; surprised her most, when so was the smile that turned up Aunt Emma's mouth and lit up Aunt Emma's eyes.

"You're afraid of me, are you?" she asked. She put Mary's hands together. One hand on top of the other, as if they were leaves of paper, and then put Mary's hands between her own. Aunt Emma's hands had wrinkles, deeper than Mama's but not so deep as Grandmama before she died. Mary's own hands were small and smooth and pink. "You have nothing to be afraid of here, my dear. Do you know why you've come to stay with me?"

"Ye-es," Mary said, dubious. "Papa wishes me to learn French and Latin and Greek and music from you. And he thinks he and Mama may need to travel. And Henry can go to school, and they did not wish to send me to a school."

Aunt Emma sat back, and then patted the space beside her in the chair. It was a very wide chair. "Come and sit by me, dear. Yes," she said, as Mary obeyed, "that is mostly true. Or, let us say that it is true, but it is not all of the truth. You have also come to stay with me because I asked your parents to send you, rather than send you to a school that would ruin you, or keep you by their sides and ruin you themselves. You see, Mary," and Aunt Emma turned to her a little, now that she was seated, "your mother and father are very dull people."

Mary felt something hot stir in her at once, and felt herself stir to her parents' defence - but Aunt Emma put a hand on her shoulder, and looked kind, and it was so unsettling that Mary closed her mouth again without saying anything. "I am not saying they are bad people, dear," her aunt went on, gently. "They are very good people, in fact, and I love them dearly. But they are not clever, Mary, they are not bright. Neither is your brother; he is cut from their cloth. You are not. You are cut from my father's cloth. From mine."

Her aunt's expression was quite complicated and confusing, when she paused and brushed back a little of Mary's hair. There was sadness in it, but happiness too, and some things that Mary didn't recognize at all. "So I asked them to let me come and stay with you, because I hope I can teach you how to be clever and happy, in this world, which doesn't like clever women very much. I will teach you French, Latin, Greek - and German, my dear, I think German will become very important soon - and mathematics as well, of course. You can use those. But there are many more important things I have to teach you."

Mary didn't understand. And she said so, aloud: "I don't understand you, Aunt."

Aunt Emma's smile was only with her lips; they did not part. "I know. You will, but not yet." She took Mary's chin and tilted it up, then, and said, "The important thing, my dearest niece, is that I am not the terrible witch from a fairy-tale. You didn't come here to be unhappy. I know you will miss your mama and your papa, but I would like us to be good friends. You are a clever, well-behaved girl. If something makes you unhappy, please tell me about it, and we shall see what can be done. Now," and then suddenly Aunt Emma stood up and left Mary unbalanced. "Let us see about dinner."

Again, she held her hand out expectantly.

It was maybe with a bit less fear, though no less confusion, that Mary put her hand in her aunt's this time, and let the grown woman pull her down the stairs to the table.