“If you will follow me sir, the Baroness is in the garden. She asked that you be brought there.” The butler said, breaking into Mark’s study of the old world glamor of the entranceway where he stood.
“Of course, thank you. What’s your name?” Marks asked as he followed the butler past the stairway and into a large sitting room set behind the stairs. There were double doors that opened into a spacious music room with the far wall made of windows and French doors. A large, baby grand piano sat in the center with a harp off to the side. Comfortable looking couches, love seats and chairs were arranged around the room, all focused on the piano.
“My name is William sir. This way please.” William opened one of the French doors that lead out onto a marble terrace which in turn looked out over a garden filled with shaped shrubbery and flowers that bloomed in several different colors. The blast of color back grounded by the green of the shrubs and lawn created a beautiful, pastoral picture.
The two men walked in silence down the steps and onto a gravel path that lead to a gazebo situated half way through the garden. Marks straitened his tie and cleared his throat as they approached the gazebo. Sitting in a comfortable looking, cushioned wicker chair sat an elderly woman. Her perfectly white hair wasn’t cut short like most older women’s hair but rather fell in waves down her back, partly pulled back by an intricately designed silver clip. Her face was looking away as the two men approached but Marks could see that her skin, though wrinkled with age, was a creamy white. At the sound of footsteps on the gravel, she turned and stood. There was hardly a tremor in her movements as she walked to the edge of the gazebo to greet them. She wore a long, linen, sage green skirt, with a white, linen blouse. Her green eyes took in every detail about Marks in a few seconds. He felt for a moment as if he were being assessed as either friend or foe. He was surprised when relief washed over him when the green eyes softened and with them the woman’s face. She smiled and held out her hand towards him.
“Mr. Marks, how kind of you to come.” She said as he walked up the steps and took her hand. Her grip was strong and steady. Everything about her belayed the fact that according to his research, she was 90 years old. He smiled back, noticing that she had turned his five year search for her into a personal invitation to him. She was in control, and he had a feeling she would stay that way.
“Baroness, it’s a great honor to finally meet you ma’am.” He said. Her eyes sparkled as if she were enjoying some joke he wasn’t party to.
“Well, isn’t that a nice thing to say. Please, have a seat and join me for some tea. William dear, would you be so kind as to bring a tray with something to eat to go with our tea?” The butler nodded and walked off towards the house. Marks sat across the table four chairs surrounded in the center of the gazebo. He placed his briefcase on the table and took out a note book, MP3 recorder and a pen. As he set his briefcase on the floor next to his chair he saw her watching him.
“I hope, with your permission, I might be able to record our conversation.” He said, indicating the recording device. She sat down and leaned back, studying him for a moment.
“Of course, if you wish. I do find it refreshing that in this modern age of electronic devices, you carry a pen and paper with you as well.” She said, tilting her head to one side slightly, a smile playing on her lips. Marks cleared his throat and smiled a little.
“Well, my great grandfather started the tradition of being a reporter in my family. Back then a pen and paper was how things were recorded. The tradition carried over even with all the advancements we’ve made.” He said. He set the recorder in the middle of the table, switched it on and sat back, paper and pen in hand.
“I’m glad to see there is a respect and appreciation for tradition in you Mr. Marks.” She said. “But I still find it interesting as to why you feel I have a story to tell that anyone would find at all interesting.”
“Did you receive the file and paper I sent you to read?” he asked, leaning forward slightly.
“I did, yes. It made for…interesting reading. Are you sure you are a reporter and not a fiction writer? It seems to me the information you sent me would make an interesting book Mr. Marks.”
“I’m an investigative reporter Baroness. It’s my job to write a story. But I’ve never written anything fictional. I find that reality has more to say than anything anyone could make up. And I believe that your story is the most interesting reality I’ve ever come across.” She sat, staring at him, an intensity in her eyes that made him fight the urge to squirm in his seat. It appeared as if out of nowhere and he worked hard to hold that steady, delving, contemplating stare. Even when William returned with a tray of sandwiches and cookies, the two sat staring at each other. For a full minute after William left again there was silence. Then she leaned forward and picked up the rose bud decorated plate with cookies and offered them to him.
“A cookie Mr. Marks? We could be here a while.” She smiled and the look in her eyes became friendly once more. He sighed and relaxed, taking a cookie from the offered plate.
“Thank you.” He said, taking a bite of the cookie, the taste of orange mixed with chocolate filled his mouth and for a second he looked at it, it was very good!
“Good, aren’t they Mr. Marks? My dear friend from long ago taught me how to make the best orange, chocolate chip cookies.” He popped the rest of the cookie in his mouth and once more picked up his pen and paper.
“What was her name?”
“Patience Mr. Marks, patience, all in good time. The file you sent me has told me that you have done your homework, and also that it seems some people think I am no longer alive, or you have a source who doesn’t know how to keep their mouth closed. Either way, you have only a fraction of the story, and fragmented at that. Tell me, how did you find me?”
“It was harder than it should have been given the instant access to information these days. I ran across some files that had been declassified about five and a half years ago. In one file it mentioned your name completely unrelated to your husband. I was curious as to why that was. In every search I did after that, the only time your name was mentioned was in conjunction with his or your public works, which wasn’t much. All of this together made me even more curious. And in case you are wondering, I did find several results that said you had died. But the deeper I dug, the more contradictions I found.” He paused and took a sip of tea from the cup she had poured him.
“My goodness, people are getting sloppy it seems.” She murmured.
“Well, the sloppiness just got me interested. I tried all my regular contacts but got doors shut in my face faster than I ever had. And they stayed shut. Until I found an article, the one I included in the file I sent you. I’ve seen enough pictures of you when you were young to recognize a written description of you. Apparently you saved the life of a war time correspondent named Sam Howe.” He stopped and watched her reaction. He wasn’t prepared for her laughter!
“Oh my goodness! Sam! Trust him to not keep his mouth shut! That man! I was sure he was going to be the death of me.” she laughed.
“I was hoping he was still alive and I could get more information from him. But he died twelve years ago.” Marks said, consulting some notes in his book. Shaking her head she took a sip of her own tea, holding the delicate china cup in two hands, as if warming them from a sudden chill.
“Yes, I remember. I was pleasantly surprised he managed to live to an old age. He seemed determined to keep looking for stories that threatened to make that impossible.”
“His granddaughter was able to help me. She gave me his old papers and buried among them was a letter from you. There was no return address but the post office was still hand stamping the city of origin. The letter mentioned you were taking his advice and had gone home. It took every contact I had to find out where that was. To be honest, I sent the file here not even sure if this was the correct place. But I had to take a chance.” He sat back and looked at her, letting her take the conversation from there.
She sat looking out over the garden, a pensive look on her face. Finally she looked back at him. The same intense look from earlier was back in her eyes.
“And what do you want from me Mr. Marks?” He swallowed, realizing that only total honesty would be accepted right now. He knew she would somehow know if he wasn’t one hundred percent up front.
“I want your story Baroness. I think your public record is only the very tip of the iceberg, just that tiny little piece seen above the water. I think that the bulk of your life is kept out of sight, below the water, that your story is too amazing to be kept silent any longer. You were…are…far more than you appear.”
“You feel there is more to my life than just being a Baroness and living in this beautiful, old home? What do you think that story is about?”
“About a person who overcame trials and hurdles that would have stopped any normal person in their tracks. Someone who served their country for years and never received any proper acknowledgement for their work. Someone who saw and heard things that have defined history. Someone who was responsible for making history. If I’m right, you haven’t just lived one life time, you’ve lived more than anyone could imagine. But for some reason you left the world completely. You let people believe you were dead and hide away here in this beautiful, self-imposed prison.” At the last word he said he saw her eyes flash and she leaned forward. He froze in his seat at the look on her face. Completely gone was the 90 year old woman who had flashes of her younger self come through. Before him was the younger woman, her passion, her strength, determination and command.
“Self-imposed prison? No, not a prison. A haven from the world that tried to rip me apart Mr. Marks!” she said in a barely audible hiss. She held his gaze for a moment longer before sitting back and covering her eyes with one hand, as if trying to block out an image in her mind. Finally, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly she put her hand down and once more fixed him with her gaze. This time though the intensity and command had disappeared again. It was replaced with a look of…sorrow. For a moment that look wrung his heart and he wondered if perhaps, for the first time, he had pushed too far in his search for a story.
“I’m sorry if I’ve caused you pain. One bad side-effect of being a reporter is that we never seem to know when to shut up.” She gave a small laugh and looked at him, a small, sad smile playing on her lips.
“No, Mr. Marks. No. Perhaps, in a way, this life was self-imposed. It’s been so long, I’m not sure if the reasons for it are even relevant anymore. The fact that you were able to find me, no matter how difficult it was, tells me that perhaps I’m not as important as I once was.” She laughed and took a sip of her tea, making a face when she realized it had gone cold. “Maybe that is what stung me and made me react in such a way.”
“So would you be willing to tell me the whole story?” he asked, feeling his pulse quicken in excitement. She looked off into the garden again and closed her eyes, as if listening to something.
“It’s been so long.” She murmured. Marks didn’t reply. He had a strong feeling she wasn’t talking to him. In fact, for some reason he felt suddenly as if they were no longer alone. The large garden seemed to fill with her memories as he watched her slowly gather them to herself. Finally she opened her eyes and took a deep breathe, letting it out slowly. Turning back to him, he swallowed at the look of mixed pain, love and strain on her face. “Very well Mr. Marks. I feel that I can perhaps trust you to be honest with the story. I’m sure I’m making Sam Howe turn summersaults in his grave with frustration, he always wanted this story, but it’s time now. There are rules though.” Marks smiled and leaned forward, excited.
“I was pretty sure there would be,” he said.
“The biggest one is that none of this can be published until after my death.” Marks paused and looked at her. She laughed as if guessing what that look meant. “No, I’m not ill. But I am 90 and have lived a life that should have taken me from this world long ago. You might have to wait a little bit, but I think that patience is a good thing to learn.”
“Of course. Anything you want.” She stood up and motioned him to follow.
“I suppose putting this off is pointless. Come with me. I want to show you something.” He stood up and walked beside her towards the house.
“You’re going to pick and choose what you’re going to tell me, aren’t you?” he said. She smiled up at him, an almost wicked glint in her eyes, and gently took his arm.
“I’m going to tell you a story Mr. Marks. I’m an old woman so I’ll let you choose where to start when you write it all down.”
They walked into the house and through the music room. In the main hall they entered a closed door to the side of the staircase and entered a library. The walls were lined with books between the windows. In the center of the room were couches and chairs and a side table behind one of the couches. On it were several framed pictures. He watched as the Baroness gently picked up one of two young women hugging each other and smiling to the camera.
"Your research won't say anything about this person but she was the most important person in my life. She was the reason I became the woman who's story you are so terribly interested in writing." Marks took the offered picture and looked at the two women. One had long black hair pulled into a pony tale with green eyes that had tears in them, but her whole face was smiling. The other woman had red hair falling around her face, wet and stringy with bright blue eyes and was smiling as well, but he thought the smile seemed slightly forced.
"I recognize you Baroness as a young woman but who is she?" he asked handing the picture back. She took it and looked at it a moment, a sad smile playing on her lips.
"My cousin. You see Mr. Marks, the reports you have read, and the ones you haven't, really got it all wrong. They got her wrong." Taking a deep breath she turned to him and there was a fire in her eyes that made him want to take a step back. But he held his ground and returned her stare. "You will get it right I hope."