© 2011 By C. J. Wells
Disclaimers: See Chapter One. Renee Vivien (1877-1909) was an American poet, Natalie Barney (1976-1972) was an American playwright, and Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) was an American painter. All honed their craft in the Parisian art world and all were openly lesbian. Sarah Berhardt (1844-1923) was one of the most famous stage actresses of all time. All other characters are mine. I'd like to add that in the last chapter, I did a little play on words. Nurgül loosely means “soul filled with light” in Turkish. Yeşilçay is Turkish for green tea. “Nurgül” brand green tea is a fiction, but Nurgül Yeşilçay is a real person; a hot Turkish actress and model who portrayed the part of Ayten in the critically-acclaimed and award-winning German/Turkish film, “The Edge of Heaven (2007).” I highly recommend it. .
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
Lindsay started to feel a tightness in her chest as her anxiousness grew. Neither she nor Rejeanne knew what to expect after being offered to see actual photos of Maggie Needham and Bronwyn Forbes. As the two followed Sir Robert out of the library and down the hall, Lindsay began taking deep breaths while nervously rubbing her hands together. Rejeanne quickly noticed her lover's agitation and decided to break the tension with idle conversation.
“So I'm curious,” she queried to Sir Robert, “If Maggie never hooked up with Bronny, was Lady Harry her first?”
Sir Robert chuckled. “I know that it is fairly easy to assume that most women of that period waited until marriage to experience sexual intimacy, but alas, that is just a fallacy. It was during one of her many conversations with Aunt Gracie that Maggie disclosed she was seventeen when she lost her virginity to a good friend of her father. A rather dodgy sort, the man was in his early forties and married at the time. Maggie insisted that it was fully consensual on her part and that she was quite smitten with the man until he began making unreasonable demands on her. She was also troubled by the fact that, although he had no children with his wife, he had at least twenty offspring that he had fathered with the various slave women in his possession. Maggie concluded that the wife was either barren or wasn't, one might say, putting out.”
Lindsay laughed nervously.
“Anyway,” Sir Robert continued, “Maggie ended it, much to the dismay of that beastly adulterous friend of her father, who had apparently fallen in love with the deliciously beautiful adolescent. And of course, once her father found out, the friendship between the two men dissolved as well.”
“Of course,” Rejeanne said under her breath.
“Maggie's first experience with a woman occurred as a sophomore in college,” Sir Robert added.
“Ah yes, the classic collegiate lesbian encounter,” Rejeanne quipped.
Sir Robert chuckled. “Yes, well, the young lady was Maggie's flat-mate, and the first encounter apparently occurred one rainy night as the two were studying for their end-of-term philosophy exams. Their very discreet affair lasted well into the following year.”
“Oh, I bet it ended badly,” Rejeanne remarked. “Those closeted dyke college dalliances always do. I bet someone caught them in the act or something.”
“Close,” Sir Robert said. “During a mid-term break, the girl's mother discovered some very exotic prose written by Maggie hidden among the girl's textbooks. The girl attempted to accuse Maggie of a one-sided fancy, but her parents weren't convinced. She was summarily removed from the school by her family and subsequently married off to a son of a future Confederate colonel. Of course, Maggie remained and graduated with distinction.”
“Of course,” Rejeanne repeated.
“Maggie had only one other encounter of a sexual nature with a man,” Sir Robert continued. “It was sometime just before she met Bronny, although she never shared the details with Aunt Gracie. Maggie confessed that she remained celibate during her friendship with Bronny, thus Lady Harry was her first sexual encounter in nearly ten years.”
“How long were they together?” Lindsay asked.
“They were fully ensconced until the Earl died after being thrown from his horse,” Sir Robert responded. “That was in 1871. Lady Harry was somewhat overcome with grief and guilt for a time after, so Maggie turned her attentions elsewhere. Harry was finally free to move to Birmingham , however, and eventually she was ready to resume the liaison with Maggie. But Maggie was already in a full courtship with a widow of a watchmaker in Coventry . Harry and Maggie became rather estranged for a time, until Maggie's relationship with the widow ended. She then moved to Birmingham as well, and their relationship was, shall we say, rather intermittent until Maggie got the word of Bronny's death.”
During the conversation, Sir Robert had led the women down a hall to the main staircase and up to the second floor of the manor. From there, the threesome went down an upstairs corridor to a large guest bedroom. The room, like much of the rest of the home, contained antique furnishings. Each wall had hangings, both classic paintings and antique-framed photographs. It was quickly apparent to both Lindsay and Rejeanne that all of the photos were decades old. Sir Robert guided them to a distinctively framed 24-by-36 portrait of a tall Civil War Era Union Army sergeant wearing the signature single-breasted, dark blue infantry frock coat and kepis cap, and holding a long-bore musket. There was a large curtain made of a heavy cloth material taking up the entire background, suggesting that the portrait was taken in a studio. To the right of the soldier was a Union flag. As the two women closed in on the face of the soldier in the portrait, they saw elegantly beautiful features with prominent cheekbones and void of any facial hair common for that time. The lips were smooth and there was a hint of a smile. The eyes appeared almost colorless in the gray-and-white tintype portrait and the left eyebrow was arched slightly higher than the other.
“Xe-na,” Rejeanne whispered.
“I beg your pardon?” Sir Robert asked.
“Nothing,” Rejeanne responded as she looked at Lindsay, whose face flushed at the sight of Sergeant Margaret “Stretch” Needham.
“Pretty fucking freaky, huh,” Rejeanne asked, momentarily forgetting that she was in the presence of a British knight. “Sorry ‘bout that,” she said to Sir Robert.
“No worries,” he responded as he guided Rejeanne over to another, slightly smaller portrait near a window. “This photo of Bronwyn Forbes was among her possessions given to Maggie by Bronny's brother after her death.”
Rejeanne looked at the sepia-toned daguerreotype photograph before her. The girl in the photo appeared to be in her early teens. Her strawberry blonde tresses were styled with the strict part in the middle of her head yet softly padded over her ears. The plaid short-sleeve dress she wore was cut below the shoulder-line exposing her shoulders. She wore a necklace with a cross and a pair of white gloves. She was seated with her hands resting comfortably on her thighs. Her right hand covered her left. The photo only exposed her body from the thighs up, thus the photo provided a far more close-up view of the face than the photo of Maggie. Rejeanne studied the familiar face of Bronwyn Forbes. She studied the hint of freckles, the sharp but soft curve of the eyebrows, the prominent nostrils, the bow-shaped lips and the bright eyes with their slight asymmetrical gaze.
“This photo was taken in 1852, when Bronny was but a 14-year-old lass,” Sir Robert said. “Maggie always carried a leather satchel. When she acquired this photo, she placed it in her satchel and was never without it.”
As Rejeanne continued to study the photo before her, Lindsay was able to tear herself away from the military photo of Maggie and join Rejeanne on the other side of the room. Upon looking at Bronwyn's picture, Lindsay let out a deep sigh. “Oh my God,” she whispered.
“Quite amazing,” Sir Robert responded.
Lindsay looked at Rejeanne. “It's you, Jeannie,” she said. “It's you and Angela and probably Gisela and definitely Gabrielle.”
That remark caused Sir Robert to shoot a startled look at Lindsay. “Gisela?” he asked stunned. “Gabrielle? How do you know?”
Before Lindsay could answer, Rejeanne spoke up, “I'm ready for a second cup of tea.”
* * * *
The threesome returned to the sitting room where Paul arrived shortly thereafter with more tea and cakes. Sir Robert invited the women to be seated before walking over to an antique roll-top desk and retrieving a miniature bronze sculpture that was resting on the top of it. He brought the sculpture of a horse and cloaked rider over to the women. “This statue was commissioned by an Italian nobleman and casted by a Transylvanian dissident in the mid 17 th Century, about one hundred years after the death of Angela Delia,” he said as he gave the sculpture to Lindsay.
Lindsay inspected the sculpture and then handed it to Rejeanne, who poured her fingers over the smooth metal surface of the sculpture. The horse was standing on its hind legs. Its mane and tail were braided. The female rider's right hand bore a long sword raised skyward. The hair of the rider was long and draped over her flowing cloak. After inspecting the sculpture for a few moments, she handed it back to Lindsay while Sir Robert eyed both women intensely for their reaction.
Lindsay looked at Rejeanne. “Do you think that this is someone's rendering of Xena?” Lindsay asked Rejeanne softly.
“If it is, it's all wrong,” Rejeanne responded.
Sir Robert's eyes widened. “What makes you think so?” he asked, thoroughly captivated by the direction of the conversation.
“Xena would never have braided Argo's mane,” Rejeanne insisted.
“Right,” agreed Lindsay as she inspected the sculpture some more. “The clothing is all wrong too,” she added. “Where's the breastplate? Where are her signature boots?”
“Yeah, and why is her scabbard on her hip rather than on her back?” Rejeanne noted.
“This is a pretty crappy rendering of Xena,” Lindsay said as she returned the statue to Sir Robert.
As he grabbed the statue from Lindsay, Sir Robert slightly lowered his eyes in disappointment until Rejeanne's next remark caused his heart to skip a beat.
“That could be Valentina Xerxes.”
Sir Robert nearly dropped the sculpture upon hearing Rejeanne's statement. “What do you know of Valentina Xerxes?” he asked in a demanding tone.
Rejeanne folded her arms, smugly. “She was a warrior, with dark hair and intense blue eyes, who fell in love with a blonde, green-eyed farmer's daughter named Gisela. Angela Delia, a blonde, green-eyed farmer's daughter, wrote a poem about the two a thousand years after their deaths. Marcella Erasmus, who had dark hair and intense blue eyes, probably learned of Valentina and Gisela when she perused through the Xena Scrolls in her daddy's vault. Grand-daddy Erasmus found the scrolls somewhere in the Po Valley where Valentina hid them after obtaining the scrolls from an Ethiopian. And the scrolls, of course, told the tale of Xena of Amphipolis, a warrior with dark hair and intense blue eyes who fell in love with Gabrielle of Potedaia, a blonde, green-eyed farmer's daughter.”
Sir Robert gasped.
“Oh, and by the way,” Rejeanne continued. “Lindsay did competitive fencing in college and my dad was raised on a farm.”
At that moment, the 71-year-old white-haired nobleman began to cry. Concerned, both women leapt from their respective seats and knelt down by his sides. Lindsay placed her left arm around his shoulder and grabbed his right hand in hers. Rejeanne began gently patting his back with her right hand while placing her left hand over Lindsay's. He continued to clutch the sculpture with his left hand.
“Why are you crying?” Rejeanne asked softy.
Sir Robert looked at Rejeanne and then at Lindsay before turning his attention to the large painting of Lady Harry. “When I was 21, I went to my dear Aunt Gracie and confessed to her my, uh, tendency toward homosexuality,” he began. “Aunt Gracie never married, and I long suspected that she, too, was…”
“…a member of the choir?” Lindsay interrupted.
“Precisely,” Sir Robert answered after a slight chuckle. Rejeanne handed to him a tissue from a dispenser on one of the end tables, which he used before continuing. “Aunt Gracie responded to my revelation by admitting her predilection to women. She then began to tell me that Maggie's relationship with her was that of a mentor and confidante. Gracie was only sixteen when she revealed to her dear Auntie Stretch her sexual orientation. That's when Stretch began to confide in Gracie about the true nature of her relationships with Lady Harry and some of the other women in her life. Gracie told me that when Stretch returned to Europe after visiting Bronny's grave, she engrossed herself into the lesbian subculture of London 's art and literary world. Years later, around the turn of the century, she would journey to Paris and meet legendary figures like Renee Vivien, Natalie Barney, Romaine Brooks and Sarah Berhardt, all of whom were years younger than she, but who were equally captivated by the tall and enchanting, elder beauty that was Stretch Needham.
“But in the days following her return to Europe in 1879, Stretch needed to earn a living. Thus, she took a job procuring works of art for various galleries in London, Oxford, Canterbury and Birmingham, an occupation that required frequent trips to Italy, particularly Rome, Milan, Venice and Florence. During this time, she learned to speak some perfunctory Italian, although she was never as remotely fluent as Alemnesh. Anyway, it was during the course of one of her trips to Venice that she happened upon an auction of the collection of a Florentine man named Minaci Calvaresi. Calvaresi had spent much of his life procuring the artwork of the defunct estate of the Erasmus family. It was in 1882 when Maggie went to that auction and saw this sculpture and an original Emilio Iossa painting of the Erasmus family from 1497. She liked the sculpture because it depicted a warrior woman astride a horse, an image to which Maggie could relate. But when she saw Marcella Erasmus' likeness in that painting, something triggered inside of her. Lady Harry's painting of Angela Delia took on a whole new meaning for Stretch.”
“What did she do?” Rejeanne asked.
“She purchased the Iossa, and this sculpture, and took them to Florence where they originated,” Sir Robert answered. “There, she began feverishly researching everything about the Erasmus family. Once she discovered their tie to the scrolls, Marcella's close relationship to Angela, and both women's captivation with the legendary Xena the Conqueror and her consort, the Bard of Potedaia, Maggie began to believe that she, too, was somehow connected to Xena.”
“When did she find out about Valentina and Gisela?” Lindsay asked.
“Maggie lacked the capital, connections or resources to commence a full-scale search for the scrolls on her own,” Sir Robert continued, “but she knew that Lady Harry's dower was sizable and that Harry was always one to accept any opportunity for adventure. Thus, Maggie approached her former lover and recruited her on a mission to find the scrolls. Eventually, they both would learn of the existence of Valentina's translated manuscripts of the scrolls as well.”
“How long did it take for them to find out that the manuscripts existed and the scrolls were hidden in Ethiopia ?” Rejeanne asked.
“Almost eight years,” came Sir Robert's reply.
“That's a long time,” remarked Rejeanne.
“Well, they didn't have Yahoo or Google back then,” Lindsay spoke up.
“Touché,” Rejeanne conceded.
Sir Robert glanced over at his grandfather clock and noticed the time. “I'm very sorry,” he said. “I would very much love to continue this conversation, but I've been invited to a dinner party by an old friend visiting here from Oxford .”
“That's okay,” Rejeanne said.
“I honestly didn't expect our meeting to be this, uh, productive, or I wouldn't have agreed to a conflicting engagement.”
“Not a problem,” Lindsay said as she felt the grumbling in her stomach. “I was going to suggest to Jeannie that we dine at that cute little countryside pub that we passed by on our way here.”
“Ah, Caswell's is delightful,” Sir Robert said. “You must try either their roasted pheasant breast or the haddock.”
“Dude, I'm so hungry, I could eat both,” Rejeanne chimed in.
Sir Robert laughed and then took Rejeanne's hand to kiss it. He was growing ever fonder of the spirited young American woman. His thoughts about Lindsay were far more complex, however. As he was speaking to her, he found himself observing her mannerisms and the tone of her voice. Although he never met Maggie Needham, as she died thirteen years before his birth, he had heard so much about her in his lifetime that he felt he knew her. For Sir Robert, watching Lindsay was like experiencing Maggie's presence. And with everything that the two women revealed to him, he was totally convinced that they were the reincarnated beings of those long passed luminaries. There was one last test for them to take, however. Sir Robert found himself battling from within whether he could trust them enough to reveal that test.
“What is your itinerary for tomorrow?” Sir Robert posed.
“We're having breakfast at the inn,” Lindsay responded, “and then we had hoped that we could meet with you again.”
“How about ten?”
“We can do that,” Lindsay responded.
Sir Robert stood and called for Paul to return with the women's coats. “It's agreed, then,” he said. “Ten in the morning, and I look forward to speaking with you both again.”
* * * *
After dinner at the countryside pub, Lindsay and Rejeanne were eager to return to their hotel suite. It had been a very long and emotional day for both. The long flight, the time change, the drive to Leominster and the need to absorb all to which they had been exposed at Sir Robert's residence had left them physically and psychologically exhausted. It was only shortly after 8:00 p.m. that both women found themselves attired in pajamas and lying beside one another on the hotel bed.
“Wanna watch a little telly?” Rejeanne asked Lindsay in her faux English accent.
“No, hon,” Lindsay responded as she planted a soft kiss on Rejeanne's lips. “If you don't mind, I think I'm just going to crash.”
“Not a problem,” Rejeanne said.
Lindsay nuzzled up against Rejeanne and wrapped one arm around her waist. “Good night, sweetheart,” she whispered as she relaxed her head next to Rejeanne.
“Good night, my love,” Rejeanne replied as she turned on the TV and flipped the channels on the remote to the BBC. Within minutes, Rejeanne's eyes grew ever heavier as she joined Lindsay in a deep slumber.
* * * *
Rejeanne awoke to the sound of a soft wind whipping against the hotel room window. She glanced over at it and into the darkness. She then looked over at the hotel room alarm clock on the bedside table. “Six-twenty-four,” she said quietly to herself, referencing the time on the clock, before turning her attention to her still sleeping lover. Rejeanne began softly caressing the side of Lindsay's face as she reflected on their circumstances. For her, being told in a dream that her soul had lived before was one thing, but bearing witness to that reality in the form of pictures and paintings of those past lives gave her situation a whole new meaning. She found herself straining to remember a thought, a word, a tear shed that could have come from any of those past souls, but only faint images and memories of Gabrielle would surface. Rejeanne especially desired to know more about Gisela, the one past soul who was not documented by either writing or visual means. She wanted to comprehend the world of the young girl in the daguerreotype photo and the woman in the Renaissance painting. She pondered whether knowing them more would help her further understand herself.
Rejeanne continued to stare at a sleeping Lindsay until sleep once again claimed her.
It was 8:30 in the morning when the inn room phone rang as a wake-up call. Lindsay reached over to answer the phone. “Okay, okay,” she said to the receiver, still half dazed. She then turned back to see her lover Rejeanne with head propped up on her hand.
“How long have you been awake?” Lindsay asked.
“Just a few minutes,” came Rejeanne's answer.
“How did you sleep?”
“Like a baby. You?”
“Like a baby.”
“Good,” Rejeanne said before shifting to lie on her back. Lindsay slid over, threw her arm around Rejeanne's waist and kissed her forehead. “I have loved you for two millennia,” she whispered.
“And I you, Lin,” Rejeanne responded as she placed her hand behind Lindsay's head and drew her close for a kiss. “I only wish that I could remember something… anything… from Gisela, Angela or Bronny,” she said afterwards.
“You know what's important, honey,” Lindsay remarked. “is that we achieved far more in our short lives than they were able to accomplish in all of their lives put together.”
“Do you mean hunting for the scrolls?” Rejeanne asked. “Because we haven't quite achieved that yet.”
“No, I mean fulfilling our destinies; you as a writer, me as a philanthropist, and the two of us as committed lovers,” Lindsay professed. “And we're young, Jeannie. There's so much for us yet to do.”
“What do you mean?” Rejeanne asked.
“Well,” Lindsay started. “I had no idea before yesterday that Maggie was so involved in the art world. It makes sense to me that she was, because much of what my foundation does, because of my efforts, is pour money into non-profits that help acquaint at-risk and low-income youth to the visual arts, literature, theater and music. Being a devotee of the arts is part of who I am, and I have been able to spread that love in very beneficial ways.”
“I see,” Rejeanne said quietly.
“And you, my dear,” Lindsay continued. “Look at where you are at 25. Anything you write, about being openly gay, about us, about the scrolls, about reincarnation, could potentially reach a global audience through the internet. You could change the life of every scared closeted lesbian in rural BFE Arkansas about being out and loud and proud. You could literally save lives.”
“Gee, I never thought of it that way,” Rejeanne said reflectively. “From slave, to simple farm girl, to poet, to abolitionist to… me… I have been climbing a staircase and I'm getting ever closer to the top.”
“Yes,” Lindsay recognized. “And don't forget, reformer of evil despots, bloodthirsty warriors, immoral slave owners and Republicans.”
Both women broke out in laughter as they embraced. “Let's get showered and dressed,” Lindsay said. “I wanna eat so that we can get back over to Sir Robert's.
“Yeah, I'm eager to find out what other little trinkets of the past he has up his sleeves,” Rejeanne agreed.
* * * *
After a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, English muffins, sautéed potatoes, pudding, juice and tea, the women left the breakfast area and were heading toward the front door of the Tostig Guest House when they were stopped by the innkeeper. “Excuse me, Madam,” he spoke.
Lindsay turned. “Yes?” she asked.
“Oh no, I'm sorry Madam,” the innkeeper responded. “I am addressing your companion, Miss Piscard.”
“Me?” Rejeanne asked.
“You have a message, Miss,” he responded. “The call came whilst you were at breakfast. The lady left a message.”
The innkeeper handed to Rejeanne a slip with a name, number and short message on it. Upon reading the slip, Rejeanne let out a gasp. “What the fuck!” she exclaimed.
“What's wrong?” Lindsay asked, very concerned. “Who called?”Rejeanne held up the slip of paper. “Fucking Ingrid,” she responded.
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 22
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