The sense of urgency within me to see the woman who had captured my thoughts was such that I had to force myself to walk at a normal gait so as not to attract undue attention. I wanted to reach the beeswax-colored colonial as soon as possible, for I had an apprehension (as it happened, unwarranted) that Etna Bliss had already left the residence to return to wherever she had come from. I didnt think she lived with Professor Bliss. If she did, I reasoned, I surely would have heard of this person in their household, or, more likely, have encountered her at a college function. Thrupp had approximately fifty faculty, most of whom lived as if in glass boxes, subject to the keenest scrutiny on the part of students and fellow faculty alike; so much so that it often seemed as though one knew everything there was to know about another in that college and in that village, when, of course, one did not, secrets being the most zealously guarded of possessions.
My gait slowed somewhat as I approached the Bliss residence, naked in December without its canopy of elms. Such a spontaneous decision as I had made to visit this house was quite out of keeping with my habits, and I felt, as a result, uncomfortably rattled and incautious. But with a momentum for which I could not easily account, I was propelled to William Blisss front door. Thus I lifted the door knocker and tipped the hand of fate.
It was some moments before my summons was acknowledged, and when the door was opened, it was by Etna Bliss herself.
Had I had any doubts, in the intervening hours since I had last seen her, about the reality of the thrall in which this woman held me, such uncertainty vanished in her presence. Though she must have moved, to open the door and so forth, there was again such a quality of stillness that one felt recklessly drawn to her as one who traverses a cliff occasionally feels perilously like throwing oneself over the edge. She wore a black-and-bronze-striped dress with bronze lace at the collar and cuffs, a dress that was cut in such a way as to present her bosom as upon a sort of shelf, the effect of which was to make my breath tight within my own chest. Her face shone in the snow-reflected sunlight, and one could see that her hair had been freshly washed and refashioned into coiled plaits that one longed (I longed) to unravel. I was unraveling in her presence.
"Miss Bliss," I said, removing my hat.
"Professor Van Tassel," she said, gazing at me and failing to add the expected pleasantries.
And I felt then what? that already she could see through my fragile carapace? That she understood all there was to know of me? That she knew why I had come and what I would do even before I did?
"Forgive the intrusion," I said, "but I was passing, and I could not help but wonder if your aunt has recovered from her ordeal. I hope Im not disturbing you, but I was thinking this morning about the shock of the event and how it must have affected her." I paused. "And you as well, of course."
"Thank you for asking," she said. "My aunt has had the doctor," she added, and oddly it was not she who invited me to step inside, as good manners surely required, but rather Bliss himself, who moved into the vestibule, half spectacles perched at the end of his nose, and said, "I thought I heard a familiar voice. Van Tassel, come in, come in, so that I may properly thank you for so safely conveying my wife and granddaughter and niece out of harms way last night. What a fright my wife has had. And you, too, of course."
"No fright at all," I said, "though others certainly did and rightfully so."
I stepped over the threshold.
"You must stay for a hot drink," Bliss said, removing his glasses and folding the newspaper he held in his hands. "I should like an account of the event, if you feel up to it."
"Of course," I said.
From All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve. Copyright 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the publisher, Little, Brown & Company.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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