Something there?

Julian Quentin, an OC of mine

This is a short story that I wrote for my fiction writing class. I jumped at the chance to write a short story featuring the characters from my novel, Fortis Corde {Strong Hearts}. For some reason I had a difficult time ending it, because I felt as if I had extricated so much from the characters. In the novel there is so much more, and it was challenging (in a positive way) to somehow summarize my main characters into a short story, and their relationships.

 

Anything is possible. Why shouldn’t it be? Diana blinked, jarred by lifting voices. Her excitement collapsed for a moment, before she inhaled and stared at the window. Something about that window, the tree limbs shuddering against it, reminded her of possibility. Very faint possibility.

Perhaps I will meet Captain Lewis in Philadelphia, when I am visiting this Christmas. There will be a banquet, in honor of him, and I shall be there, perhaps. One might have easily called it foolish fancy. But ever since Diana had seen the portrait, and heard the news of Captain Meriwether Lewis, she just couldn’t help herself. If she were honest with herself, she’d admit that her imagination traveled a bit faster than reality.

            And no one noticed just then, of course. Her visiting aunt and uncle took command of everyone’s attention.

If only they would notice. If they intend to meet the heroes, then why can’t I meet them as well?

“Everyone wants to meet Captain Lewis and his comrade, Captain Clark,” said Uncle Charles. “The young heroes of the Young Republic are cutting swathe everywhere, and I believe a riot will be in short order.”

His wife, Matilda, smiled. “And every lady will certainly wish to meet them!”

Oh, wouldn’t they! Diana bowed her head, pulse quickening.

A voice from just behind her startled her. She cast a brusque look over her shoulder.

“Can’t you just see your sisters and cousins all giddy over this?” It was Julian, her childhood playmate and friend of the family for as long as she could remember. Yet, all warm familiarity with him evaporated. Rather like when you drip ink on a book page you took joy in reading. But the ink blots out the words on the page, blurs them together and mars the harmony they once created as intelligible text. Right now, she decided to believe that it was his intolerable derision that caused this change between them.

She nodded, turning back around in her seat. If he could read her thoughts, he might think her giddy. Julian, always so practical—he would find me a ridiculous creature. Diana lifted her chin. But he can’t read my thoughts, can he? And again, she resolved to not care about his opinions. She always did mind before, but this was different. It is always different when one’s fantasies are in danger of being thought ridiculous.

“It is a very great occasion. I might have the chance to attend one such banquet, and hear a toast myself.” Diana did not smooth the tremor of excitement from her tone, and Julian studied her, noting the spark in her eyes.

Diana lifted her eyebrows. “It would be a worthwhile experience, to be sure.”

“To be sure.” He grinned, and raised his own eyebrows.

Diana heard her uncle Charles say something of the celebration in Philadelphia. She turned slightly away from Julian, to listen better to her uncle.

“Matilda and I shall attend one such gathering. It may fall to me to give the explorers a toast, in honor of their journey, their bold expedition.”

“And there will be an extravagance of flirtations,” came Julian’s low voice from behind Diana. She did not respond to his comment. He must mock everything to set himself apart.

“Would it not be fascinating, to hear of the western, unknown lands? Of the ocean far away, on the other side of a wilderness?” Aunt Matilda clasped her hands, beaming.

“Of course, we must all pay homage to them,” Julian said softly. “Especially the girls who have always wanted a hero for a husband.”

Diana turned about in her seat, hardening her expression. “Is it so light a matter, the grandness of this expedition?”

His lips stretched into one of his wry grins. “You appear to feel all enthusiasm for it.”

“Is there something wrong with that?” Diana hoped her eyes sparked enough fire.

“There will be an exhibition with all of the gathered specimens, which President Jefferson requested of the expedition,” Uncle Charles said. “It may very well be something that would interest a person who delights in the natural world.”

Diana shifted in her chair. Of course she would like to see the specimens. She stared at her uncle’s face, waiting for him to glance towards her, to notice the color in her cheeks, the expectancy in her gaze. But everyone might think it odd of me, for I have never cared much for exhibitions. She pushed that thought away.

“Perhaps you should like to come with us, Julian,” Uncle Charles turned his eyes to the young man. Diana stiffened.

“Ah—me?” Julian shot Diana a brisk look, but she pretended to ignore him.

“Yes. You are studying the sciences under your father, are you not?”

“Yes, sir.”

Why wouldn’t they take one of my brothers, one of their own nephews? Not the neighbor—not Julian. All he can do is mock this expedition. Oh, why did he come today, of all days? But Diana’s brothers stood by, their smiles and calm expressions indicating that they didn’t care—whatever happened, they might just shrug it off. And one of them did shrug, and remark, “A perfect thing for you, Julian, as you’re always hunting up something new to read or learn.”

Diana shook her head, her eyes widening. And she felt the need to also tighten her lips. Or else she might say something tinged with sarcasm. Her sarcasm always amused Julian, for some reason.

So it all comes to this? Diana clasped her hands too tightly. Her fingers left red marks on her hands, and she gazed at the window, never blinking until her eyes ached. Diana’s parents, brothers, and Julian’s family admired Uncle Charles and Aunt Matilda, for they kept up with the world and the great happenings in it, and they would appreciate the importance of this expedition. So everyone of course agreed with them, when they singled out Julian and suggested his accompanying them to Philadelphia. Why couldn’t I go? They never notice anything that is worth noticing. Never mind that this is just what Julian would take interest in—never mind that he is studying the natural world. I ought to go. Doesn’t my wanting to go, to meet a famous person, count for anything?

When she did blink, and turned her eyes back into the crowded family and friends around her, Julian was in the middle of all the excitement, and her uncle was grinning at the prospect of taking along this “fine specimen of a young man”.

Julian smiled just as widely, as he and his parents thanked Uncle Charles and his wife for their thoughtfulness. Coldness crept down Diana’s neck, and her shoulders began to ache with stiffness.

Julian edged past her chair on his way out of the parlor with his family. Diana refused to thaw the ice in her eyes, as she glanced at him. He leaned down, so that he could whisper, “I wonder, would you smile if they invited you along as well? It would make for a merry party.”

Diana glared. “Why should it matter if I smile or don’t smile?”

“It brightens the room,” Julian answered, and then strode out the door.

“It occurred to me, Diana, that you might equally enjoy visiting Philadelphia. You needn’t say yes if it wouldn’t suit you, but it did just only occur to me—”

Diana almost gaped, her uncle’s voice ringing around in her ears. The memory of Julian’s laughing voice leapt at her from some corner of her mind: “I wonder, would you smile if they invited you along as well?

I don’t desire his pity. But, his pity had brought this about—Uncle Charles suddenly realizing that he and Matilda might take Diana along as well.

“That is very kind of you, Uncle, to think of me,” she said, muffling her voice deliberately.

“Then you would like to come? Just say the word, and we shall bring it up with your parents. It would be a fine party, with you and young Julian coming along. I am only sorry that your brothers do not care so much for these events.”

“Oh, I am sure my sisters and cousins would be giddy, but not for the sake of the expedition’s discoveries,” Diana said.

Uncle Charles smiled down at her, and shook his head. “What a wit you are. I am sure that such a clever girl as you would find this trip most enjoyable. Matilda is mortified that we didn’t think of it before.”

“You are very kind,” Diana whispered.

 

The only joy in a long coach-trip in humid weather was the prospect of the destination. And the heroes. Only heroes are worth this. Only heroes are worth a person’s smug smiling and dry retorts, and raised eyebrows, and opinionated stares. Diana cramped her neck from keeping her head turned towards the window. She did not want to look at Julian across from her, if she could help it. His cocked hat nodded and jolted on his untamed curls, splaying about his forehead and ears. They perfectly matched his personality.

Diana fidgeted away the time, till evening dropped, an unwelcome barrier between her and Philadelphia. It began to rain halfway through the night and she thought drearily as she pulled on her cloak in the morning, Are heroes worth this? I suppose they are. She supposed. She wanted to be sure, however, and that was impossible. Her mood suspended over her countenance, revealing to her traveling companions that delicacy might be desirable. She wished she could push the curtain aside and search through the rain for a glimpse of a city, for the end of this long jolting road. She clasped and unclasped her hands, clasped and unclasped, cramped her neck, twitched at her skirt and twisted pinches of the cloth between her fingers.

“We’ll be rewarded for this misery soon enough,” Aunt Matilda said to Diana, patting her niece’s hand.

Diana hardly spoke to anyone for the last leg of the journey. Maybe that was due to the fact that no one needed to talk, really, while in such close quarters. And she couldn’t think of anything interesting to discuss anyway. She pushed her mind towards Philadelphia, where there would be Captain Lewis. His portrait flickered through her head. A thrill rushed through her, his face evoking a stream of fresh hope. So, I might have once prattled to Julian about anything and everything. But not now. Not about this.

Her smile felt stiff and unused when she beamed at the sight of Philadelphia, its buildings and church spires welcoming. Perhaps the explorers felt just as I do now—relieved, and so ready for it to all be over.

But it wouldn’t be over—the tension continued on, always unraveling. Diana felt as if she were standing on tiptoe, composure just beyond reach. And the strain of trying to reach for that calm cramped her. Her smile would settle stiffly on her lips, even the morning of the exhibition. As she followed her aunt, uncle, and Julian inside the museum of Charles Wilson Peale, a place stuffed through with specimen and artifacts from the west, a good, warm feeling spread through her, clearing out the chill from beneath her skin. She could not help but laugh when Julian commented on one of the stuffed birds displayed. I guess humor has a way of smoothing things over, making nasty things like nervousness go away. The constant clenching of Diana’s stomach reminded her every other minute of that unease.

“It is a bad habit, your fidgeting with your hands,” Julian said in a soft voice, as they walked through the first exhibition room.

Diana didn’t care about humor anymore. Julian was taking it too far, always making some quip, some flippant remark. She compressed her lips and hurried a little ahead of him.

She wanted to be caught up by the surroundings, by the hanging skins and stuffed animals from somewhere out west. But it all went by in a blur. Anticipation edged at her mind, pricking into her focus on the present moment. Would she encounter one of the explorers? Could Captain Lewis be viewing this exhibition honoring their discoveries?

It all happened rather by chance. In one of the last halls of the exhibition, with Diana’s heart rapidly sinking, her party noted a commotion at one end of the room. They drew near to the gathering cluster of people, who evidently surrounded somebody of importance.

“I believe,” said Uncle Charles, “that one of the gentleman who led the expedition, is at large in the room.”

“Indeed!” Aunt Matilda gasped.

“Here comes the giddiness,” Julian said.

Diana slipped her arm around her uncle’s elbow and quickened her step. He flashed her a crooked smile and matched her pace. “Off to meet the hero,” he said.

Diana took in every detail about Captain Lewis, who she at once recognized by memory. Her tongue clamped to the roof of her mouth, and a chill surged through her. Blast my nervousness.

He stood tall above most other men, and she almost shrank back. An ever-growing group surrounded him, and the chiseled lines of his face, his serious expression, made him seem far away to Diana.

“No fainting, if you please,” Julian said in a murmur. Diana ached to unlatch herself from the crook of her uncle’s arm. She would swerve around and hide behind Julian, as she had once done to shield herself from a nasty dog. But I’m not a little girl anymore. And Julian’s a—a man. Think of what he would say. What would he say? But why would that matter? She wondered as she and Uncle Charles paused at the edge of the crowd.

“We must be introduced to the captain,” Aunt Matilda whispered.

The introduction came. Diana walked forward, guided by her uncle, Julian striding at her other side.

Captain Lewis bowed, and smiled at Diana, at her aunt and uncle, and Julian. She managed to look up for a moment into his eyes, their color smoke-grey. She wondered what sort of person existed behind those eyes. But I can never know that. Only in a dream. And in reality, he was but a stranger. A notable stranger. What was I expecting to happen?

Her cheeks burned. Julian will tease me about my blushing. He’ll call me a silly girl, a funny creature. I know he will.

Uncle Charles commended Captain Lewis, in his musical tone, for the success of the Corps of Discovery. And as he spoke, Julian leaned over to Diana and whispered, “I hope you aren’t ill, Diana. You look a bit feverish.”

Oh, there he goes again. Can’t he know when to be silent?

“We can’t have you getting ill now. It would appear too suspiciously giddy.”

She might have glared at him a day ago. But now, the corner of her mouth twitched, and her color darkened as she suppressed rising mirth. When he spotted the first hint of her smile, he grinned too.

 

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