"I have some matters I need to discuss with you. Matters relating to your summer study and so forth," he adds.
Her heart falls at the mention of summer study, since she is anxious to have a break from her singular, yet intense, schooling. Her father, having lost faith in the academies, has taken her education upon himself. Thus she is his sole pupil and he her sole teacher. He remains convinced that this education is progressing at a pace not dreamt of in the academies and seminaries, and that its breadth is unsurpassed anywhere in New England, which is to say the United States. Possibly this is true, Olympia thinks, but she cannot say: It has been four years since she last attended classes with other girls.
"Of course," she answers.
He looks at her once and then lets his eyes drift over her right shoulder and out to sea. He turns and begins to walk back to the cottage. As she gazes at his slightly hunched posture, a physical characteristic she has not ever noticed before, she feels suddenly sad for her father, for the thing that he is losing, which is the guardianship of her childhood.
She floats through the house, appreciating the sculptures made by the white sheets strewn over the furnishings. A coat rack becomes a maiden ghost; a long dining room table an operating theater; a set of chairs piled one on top of the other and shrouded in white becomes a throne. She climbs the stairs in the front hall to her mother's rooms.
Her mother is resting unperturbed on a peacock chaise that has been uncovered and looks directly out to sea. She seems not to notice the man perched on a ladder just outside her window. He has in one hand a bottle of vinegar and in the other a crumpled wad of newsprint. Josiah wears an overall for this task although he also has on a waistcoat and a formal collar underneath. Later, when the windows have been cleaned, he will take off the overall, put his suit coat back on, adjust his cuffs under the sleeves and walk into the study, where he will ask Olympia's father if he wishes his customary glass of London porter. And then Josiah, a man who has been with her father for seventeen years, before her father's marriage and her birth, and who has without complaint taken upon himself the washing of the windows in her mother's rooms because he does not want her view of the ocean to be obscured on this, her first day of her summer visit (even though such a task is thoroughly beneath him), will walk down the long pebbled drive and onto Hampton Street to lay into Ezra Sikes, the new man, who was to have had the house prepared before Olympia's family arrived.
Since Olympia's mother is partial to hues of blue, even in the summer months, she has on that day a wisteria crepe blouse with mother-of-pearl buttons and long deep cuffs that hide her wrist bones and flatter her hands. At her waist is a sash of Persian silk. This preference for blue is to be seen as well in the fabrics of her roomthe pale beryl sateen puff on the bed, the peacock silk brocade of the chaise, the powder velvet drapes at the windows. Her mother's rooms, Olympia thinks, suggest excessive femininity: They form a boudoir, separate, cut off from the rest of the house, the excess not to be condoned, not to be seen by others, not echoed anywhere else in the austere furnishings of the cottage.
Her mother lifts a cup to her lips.
"Your skin is pink," she says to Olympia lightly, but not without a suggestion of parental admonition. Olympia has been told often to wear a hat to protect her face from the sun. But she was unable to forgo for those few happy moments at the water's edge the sensation of heat at the top of her head. She knows, however, that her mother does not seriously begrudge her this small pleasure, despite her inordinate regard for beauty.
Beauty, Olympia has come to understand, has incapacitated her mother and ruined her life, for it has made her dependent upon people who are desirous of seeing her and of serving her: her own father, her husband, her physician and her servants. Indeed, the preservation of beauty seems to be all that remains of her mother's life, as though the other limbs of the spiritindustriousness, curiosity and philanthropyhave atrophied, and only this one appendage has survived. Her mother's hair, which has been hennaed so that it has taken on the color of a roan, is caught with combs at the sides and rolled into a complex series of knots that Olympia herself has yet to master. Her mother has pale, pearl-gray eyes. Her face, which is both handsome and strong, belies her spirit, which is uniquely fragileso fragile that Olympia herself has often seen it splinter into glittering bits.
© 1999 by Anita Shreve
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