I should start by saying I don’t write historical fiction. And it shows.
As usual, with prompts like this one, I take liberties. Yes, the story is set in 1823, and yes it references a famous poet from antiquity, and yes my main characters both hail from early 1900s St. Louis, but…
Oh, heck. Enough with the excuses and apologies, right? This is supposed to be fun. And it was! I love writing about these characters. When we last saw them, Herbert had just proposed to Miss Vida. Now, Herbert has been looking for just the right engagement gift for his fiancé, and he thinks he may have found it—in a marsh in the early nineteenth century. And since they have a time cabinet, off the go!
And off we go.
The Perfect Gift
A swamp was not where Miss Vida expected to celebrate her engagement.
“It’s a marsh, my darling,” Herbert gently corrected. He had departed from the strip of dry ground snaking its way through the tall grasses and now prodded said grasses with his umbrella, looking for something. Miss Vida remained on the ersatz walkway, standing protectively next to Herbert’s shoes and socks. His trouser legs were rolled up to his knees. She shuddered and looked away, the thought of what might be lurking in the water nearly unbearable. She withdrew her fan from her purse, snapped it open, and began fluttering it near her face. The gentle island breeze had faded the longer they stood here, and the clouds had thinned and dissipated.
“Yes, darling,” she said, “but what is it exactly that we’re meant to be doing here? In eighteen twenty-three? When you said we were going to the Greek isles for our holiday, I wasn’t exactly expecting,” she gestured around them with her fan, “this.”
“Light of my life,” he said, “trust me when I say it will be worth it, if I can just find the blessed thing.”
“And what blessed thing are you looking for, exactly? Is it bigger than a breadbox?”
He leaned over, peering into the water as he prodded with his umbrella. “Just slightly larger than that, perhaps, but—ah!”
Herbert began digging at the sediment in earnest, taking the umbrella and working it back and forth. He shifted his grip and began using it as a lever, trying to pry up something that Vida couldn’t see from her vantage. Suddenly, a sloshing, sucking sound bubbled up from the water and Herbert pitched over backwards and went under.
“Herbert!” she shrieked.
But the water wasn’t that deep. He raised the umbrella over his head for balance and reached his other arm into the water. One tug, two rugs, and something in the sediment shifted and broke the surface. He sloshed back to Miss Vida and held out the umbrella.
“Would you mind, dearest?” he asked.
She took it and held the dripping thing at arm’s length while Herbert high stepped through the water back to where he reached below the surface with both hands this time and tugged. Whatever he was digging up gave way easily now, and he hoisted it out of the water. It was a rectangular metal chest, and yes, it was just slightly larger than a breadbox. He sloshed through the marsh toward her and deposited it on dry ground, clambering up after it. Vida stepped back to give him room, and also (and she was not proud of this) to avoid having him drip marsh water on her skirt and shoes.
“Darling, what is it?” she asked.
He smiled, his mustache dripping down his chin. “Oh, just you wait until you see what’s in here, heart.” He dropped to his knees and pried at the latch on the chest, whose ornate design with fauns and centaurs and robe-draped figures was still visible despite being submerged. The latch gave a squeaking protest of metal fatigue but refused to open. Herbert looked up.
“Dearest, I wonder if I might avail myself of one of your hat pins for this particular task?”
She narrowed her eyes at the box before reaching up to her millinery. “I daresay I shan’t need this back once you’ve finished with it.”
Herbert smiled sheepishly as he accepted the implement and got to work. He slid the hat pin between the latch and the box and twisted it one way, then the other, until there was a click and the latch released. Setting down the pin, he gently opened the lid.
“My dear, are you familiar with the Greek poetess Sappho?” he asked.
“Familiar with the name, yes, but if I’m not mistaken, very little of her work survives, isn’t that correct?”
“More accurate to say that very little of her work has been discovered until now—oh, I say.”
Miss Vida leaned closer, and from behind the open lid Herbert lifted what was quite possibly the most exquisite emerald pendant and silver necklace she had ever seen. Her breath caught, and she lifted a hand to her chest by reflex, as if her heart might leap out of her ribcage.
“Oh, Herbert,” she whispered. “That is magnificent.”
He stood and held it up to the light between them. The jewel was set in a silver frame of intricate vinework that continued through the necklace itself.
“This is not at all what I was expecting,” he said, “but something of such surpassing beauty could only be at home around your neck.”
Miss Vida blinked fast to keep the tears at bay while Herbert stood behind her and fixed the clasp, a shiver running through her as his fingers brushed the nape of her neck. The pendant, despite its delicate finery, was heavy, and she felt as if it were going to leave an imprint on her skin. She placed a hand over it and said, “You mentioned this wasn’t what you were expecting.”
“Yes, quite right.” Herbert shook his head and returned to the chest, extracting a thick, heavy-looking scroll. “As I mentioned, very little of Sappho’s work is known in modernity, but that doesn’t mean that it no longer exists.”
His grin bordered on gleeful now. Miss Vida found it contagious. She nodded toward the scroll. “Sappho?”
“Is this what all of those clandestine excursions in the time cabinet have been about?”
For a moment, his smile faltered. “I… thought you were asleep.”
“Darling, I am a creature of the stage. I can act.”
“Well, er, yes. I was pursuing some leads, and—”
She raised a hand. “You have no need to explain yourself. A more jealous type might demand it, but that would not be me.”
He sighed with relief and opened the scroll as she came to look over his shoulder. “The pendant is quite impressive, but this is what I truly wanted to share with you: work not seen in centuries by one of the most famous and mysterious artists in all of civilization. These particular scrolls were on their way to the British Museum when they were lost.”
Miss Vida couldn’t read the script on the parchment, but she recognized the symbols. “You read Greek?”
“Of course, dearest.” He said it as if anything else would be unthinkable.
“I’m still learning things about you, after all this time.”
“I hope I shall always be able to surprise you.” He gestured toward the scroll. “Allow me to translate, if I may.”
She smiled. “Nothing would make me happier.”
As he unfurled the document, he said, “I should point out that Sappho’s verse is… quite passionate. It’s why I spent so much time searching for these. I didn’t think anyone else, not even Shakespeare, could be able to capture, well, how I feel about you.”
Herbert looked up at her, and the undisguised ardor in his expression sent a flush raging through her cheeks. She waved her fan. “I am breathless with anticipation.”