When we were within about twenty feet of the Institute, the dense mist on the hill cleared, and I had my first actual view of the building. It was massive by my estimation, though I certainly had yet to see much in the way of architecture in my lifetime. The brick mansion loomed above me and I quickly counted seven stories though I supposed there to be a basement and attic as well. Even drenched in ivy, the structural integrity looked sound. However, in its current state of disarray it exuded an abandoned, even forlorn, image.
Willow was now looking expectantly at me, as if a comment was needed. Because I was new, and certainly very ignorant of both mine and Willow's position here, I choose to err on the side of diplomatic neutrality.
"It's rather large". I immediately regretted my mediocre comment as I saw her face fall, and with it my heart. A frown on Willow's face was something I didn't want to see duplicated again. I squeezed her hand and tried again, gesturing towards the top of the building, "What I mean is, it's so grand... and actually a bit sad if I can be forthright".
"You think it's sad?" She dropped my hand then and held them wide, encompassing the building in her outstretched arms, "It's a masterpiece Tara... it's our own little castle on the hill".
With that her hands flopped back to her sides and she looked at me, waiting for more. I attempted to speak a few times, but in my fear of disappointing her, my mouth simply opened and closed a few times.
"I think I should have clarified that it looks sad, as in forlorn, like a puppy without a master. But the potential it has is immense".
"Tara, are you calling the Rosenberg Institute a puppy?" On saying puppy she lightly stamped her right foot on the ground and crossed her arms, glaring at me with a childish pout which quickly fell apart as she grinned uncontrollably.
"At least you're honest Tara; it's so rare that people tell you what they are actually thinking. I know we'll get on just fine here and be wonderful friends and I think you'll be great here with us, I really do. We have so much work to do! Oh - and the building itself just needs some work done here and there, I'm sure Anne has something in mind already... she's really the one that takes care of details around here you know. If I didn't have her here I think I would forget to bathe and I would dress in horribly unfashionable clothes, sort of like the ones I'm wearing now incidentally. Oh my gosh, did I bathe today? That's so awful; do I smell overly much Tara?"
I was again dumbfounded by her ability to speak so much in one single breath and apparently without ever closing one thought before bleeding right into the next. I laughed merrily at her bathing comment and leaned in close to her face, the only unexposed part of her body. I inhaled fully and smelt nothing but sweet lavender soap and something that was undoubtedly and utterly Willow in nature. I wanted to bury my face there in her neck, give her a large hug, and infuse myself with her. She was the single most dynamic and incredible person I had ever met.
"You smell delightful Willow; and you know I'm being honest."
"Well, that's good. I wouldn't want to go scaring away the Southern belles with my smelliness. No sire, no indeed. You'll just have to help me bathe from now on... Oh my god! What I meant by that was that you could remind me. You could come by and I could bathe with you... No! I didn't mean that either! Oh gosh, I only meant that if you were around or near me at the same time that you were going to bathe you could perhaps bring me along and golly this isn't coming out at all like it was in my head... I'm going to stop talking now."
By now Willow was ringing her hands, clearly flustered and embarrassed. Though I don't know how, I completely understood the point she was trying to convey. I set my hands lightly on top of hers and looked into her eyes. For a moment, I forgot what I was going to say, the beauty and rawness in her deep green eyes distracting me from my thoughts.
"I get it Willow. Bathing assistance in optional."
"Oh, cheeky Tara! Bravo." She clapped lightly, clearly relieved that I had helped to diffuse her embarrassment with humor. I curtsied twice in each direction and smiled at her.
"Well Tara, let's go in then so you can meet everyone. I suppose you are curious to know just what it is you are here for."
Indeed I was and I nodded emphatically to let her know. She strode the remaining short distance to a white door on the east side of the building. Grasping the handle and yanking it, she ushered me inside. We entered into the Institute through what I assumed to be a servant's hall. I could immediate smell food cooking and feel heat in the hall. Then, Willow began my tour.
For the next half hour, Willow took me from room to room, explaining the function and purpose of everything we saw in agonizing detail. On the first floor, where we had entered, was the huge kitchen and food pantry. There I met four cooks and maids in charge of the food preparation and serving. Willow made it abundantly clear that while I may see the appearance of Slavery, this was not the case. All of the servants at the Rosenberg Institute were free and fairly paid for their work. She interacted with all of the servants in a friendly and familiar way which was generally foreign, even in liberal houses in the North.
The rest of the first floor consisted of a dining hall, two large rooms arranged as lecture halls, several sitting rooms and, in the far northwest corner, a grand library with more books than I had ever seen in my life. We spent quite a bit of time here. Willow gleefully pointed out that she had personally arranged the books into different sections and alphabetized them. Additionally, she had begun an indexing system using different colored paper to catalog every book. Far from thinking Willow "insane" as she said she'd been told, I thought it was simply marvelous and I knew I would return often to use the many books there.
The second, third and fourth floors contained the many classrooms and offices which were still being prepared for students and instructors. Willow didn't lead me in any detail through these areas yet, saying only that we would need more time than we had today and that I must meet Anne directly. The remaining floors were the rooms for the students and teachers as well as the family and servants. Though I was anxious to get to my own room and put my things away, I was even more eager to meet Anne and learn more about my job.
On the fourth floor, Willow approached a closed door on the end of the hall. As she got to within several feet of it, she began tip-toeing, as if to make as little noise as possible. She looked back at me and gestured for me to do the same. I humored her though I don't think we made any less noise given the creaking floor boards. Willow then leaned into the door, pressing her ear into the wood and listening for a few moments. She raised her hand as if to bang heavily on the door when her stealthy approach was suddenly ruined; the door abruptly opened inwards and Willow topped forward into a heap on the floor.
"Damn it Anne, I swear your hearing is abnormal!" Willow's exclamation was muffled by the coat she was still wearing, now tangled about her head on the floor.
I glanced up, trying not to laugh, and saw a petite blonde woman standing triumphantly over Willow. She was dressed in an elegant walking dress, her hair in impeccable ringlets down past her shoulders. She had the regal bearing of a princess and the confident stance of a warrior; yet in a small and delicate package.
"Silly Willow! Get up so you can introduce me to our guest properly. Stop rolling around down there like an animal. And for god sakes, are you still wearing your coat and scarf?"
Anne then dragged Willow to her feet, unwrapped her from her scarf and took her coat off in one smooth motion. Upon seeing Willow, now uncovered, I couldn't help but gasp. Anne seemed annoyed, though not surprised, at Willow's appearance.
"Trousers again. Willow, you'll be the death of this family you know!"
Willow then snapped up an umbrella propped near the door and held it to her side like a rifle. Bringing her hand up to a jaunty salute at her forehead and standing at attention, she barked at Anne in a very serious voice.
"Ma'am, I'll be wearing a dress when the students get here!" Willow snuck a grin at me.
I couldn't help but giggle since Willow did look a bit like a soldier standing there. She was wearing dark blue woolen trousers, slightly loose on her thin frame. Her shirt was a cream colored man's dress style, rumpled and haphazardly tucked into her belt. I'd never seen a woman in men's clothes before and I had to admit it was very flattering, though truly scandalous. From her ankles and up, Willow's legs where clearly visible. Indeed, her entire bottom half was on display in a way never allowed to women in society. When I realized that I was openly staring, I quickly glance up to find both Willow and Anne looking at me.
Willow seemed somewhat bemused and I blushed fiercely when I realized I'd been caught staring at her legs. Anne's expression was unreadable. She approached me then and held out her hand which I took and curtsied.
"Miss Maclay, It's a pleasure to meet you. I hope Willow's antics haven't scared you off. She's terribly eager to impress you I'm sure, and though we love our Willow she can surely miss the mark sometimes."
From the corner of my vision, I saw Willow roll her eyes and stick her tongue out. Anne then moved behind a desk in what was clearly her study. Letters were piled on every open surface available and she had been in the middle of writing on some parchment which she now moved aside to uncover a plain folder. She gestured for me to sit in one of the chairs placed in front of the desk. Willow sat in the one next to me.
"Mrs. Rosenberg, I assure you that Willow has been charming since I arrived."
"Charming? Willow?" Anne smiled at Willow and laughed. I couldn't place her expression but it seemed almost smug. It was if she knew a secret that I was not privy to. Willow was tapping her fingers on the arm of her chair. She raised one eyebrow to Anne as if to challenge her. Anne cleared her throat and opened the folder sitting on her desk.
"Well, we need to get some details out of the way Miss Maclay. Let me be direct. This institution is unique and therefore I have to keep it somewhat secretive. I assume you picked up on that much?"
I looked to Willow for guidance on how to respond, but she only offered me a small smile.
"I did sense the need to be secretive Mrs. Rosenberg. I assumed by placing the ad in Latin that you only wanted highly educated responses. Also, by using Latin you ensure that the applicant has some level of scientific or religious training. However, the last part was a little trickier for me. 'Vero Athena' translates to 'In Truth Athena', but I didn't know what it meant. I assumed it was a reference to Wisdom."
Anne nodded at me and then spoke to Willow. "I told you that would be too vague." Willow shrugged her shoulders and looked down at her hands.
"Mrs. Maclay," Anne continued "this Institution is very special. When Willow's father and brother, my husband, we're killed, Willow and I were left with a great legacy. Our families taught us things no women of our time were allowed to know. It is our duty to do the same. We teach only girls here. Additionally, it is only women that teach them. It's the only way that we could ensure the secrecy of what we do. We don't teach quilting or manners you see. We teach mathematics, physics, natural sciences, and languages; all the subjects that most women will never be exposed to. However, you were not asked here to teach, though we may have a need for your Latin in the future. You were asked here to provide assistance for our science department."
"This is fascinating Mrs. Rosenberg, and I am very exciting to be involved, but I am confused..." I reached into my coat and extracted the letter that I had offered to Willow earlier. "You said that no men teach here, but in the letter you wrote to me you mentioned that I will be assisting Dr. William Rosenberg. And while it could of course be a pseudonym I am very familiar with Dr. Rosenberg's work in several published articles. In fact, my father met him at a conference in Boston several months ago."
For a few painful moments, which seemed like a lifetime to me, there was complete silence in the room. Anne's face was turning red as she clenched her jaw in anger and Willow was sinking down into her seat as if she wanted to disappear. Anne stood up and yelled at Willow.
"You went to Boston?!?"