When February winds sliced through fur coats, real and otherwise, della Mirandolla’s was a delicious haven in more ways than one this late evening. Jessica was finally warm enough to pull away from her face the coat forming a barrier to winter’s chill, without crushing the black organdy veil curving from the elegant crown of her hat around her face and chignon.
Her eyes eagerly sweeping the room, Jess’s heart bounced with barely restrained delight to be here, to be meeting him again. Amidst this hubbub of diners relishing escape from a wintery evening with Italian food, wine, and conversation, Jessica strained to locate their table. They liked to be cozy, hidden – and Alfonso della Mirandolla liked to help lovers squirrel away from the world in their romance. So he had found the perfect table that he always seemed to have open for them.
There he was, Alfonso, moving toward her, shaking his head. No, no James yet. But the booth was ready. Taking her hat and coat, handing them off to a waiter, he smiled when Jess paused before sitting. There might be no James, but at her place was a small brown wrapped package — a pun on their first acquaintance — topped with a single, crimson rose.
She couldn’t contain her gentle smile. Why try?
“That’s beautiful,” Alfonso effused. “A woman is only beautiful when she is loved. A great philosopher said that.”
“Claude Rains said that,” Jessica wryly corrected.
“Who says Claude Rains isn’t great?”
“Not I, Alfonso, not I,” Jessica grinned. “Is he here? James, not Claude.”
“No, no. Not yet. He left a message when he had the gift delivered. Sit down. He wanted you to open this while you were waiting. I’ll get you a vase for the rose. A beauty, isn’t it? In winter, too. Sit down.”
Jessica smoothed the skirt of her black, wool-crêpe dress as she sat, one hand briefly touching the gold-braid chevron of the bodice in her quiet delight as the rose was whisked away.
“Go ahead. Open. Is it a book?” della Mirandolla urged.
“Here goes,” Jessica smiled conspiratorially.
Unlike her frugal sister, who liked to save wrapping paper unscathed, Jessica ripped into her present like a Marine getting his first steak after six months in the Pacific.
The cover made her smile. An old collection of Robert Browning.
They both loved Browning. In fact, Jess often thought she saw quite a bit of Browning’s tangy, deliciousmixture of sardonic and romantic in James. Whathe sometimes hesitated to say outright, he expressed by slipping to her in their favorite poet’s words — the romantic sentiments, that is. And, then, just recently, he had even begun to show her some of his own writing.
“Look, there’s a book mark in there,” Alfonso noted excitedly. “What’s marked off? Take a look, eh? Let’s see!”
“Who’s the girlfriend, here, anyway?” Jessica laughed. “All right. Okay. Let’s take a gander.”
Marked were the companion pieces “Natural Magic” and “Magical Nature.” Jessica smiled her delight that James saw her this way:
Ah, look at those lines:
This life was blank as that room;
I let you pass in here. Precaution, indeed?
Walls, ceiling, and floor — not a chance for a
Wide open’s the entrance; where’s cold now,
“That’s beautiful. It’s not Petrach or Danté, but for an Anglaise, that’s beautiful. That fella is in love with you, and how! He must have something special in mind tonight.”
“Oh, listen to you,” Jessica laughed, snapping the book shut. “Anyone would think you were being courted.”
For all her lightness, Jess was a little misty. What girl wouldn’t be? But Jessica wasn’t about to go all mushy in front of the world, so she teased, “Now be honest, Mr. della Mirandolla, am I the only girl to whom he sends books?”
“Not a one since he’s been coming here.”
“I believe you. That handsome face of yours wouldn’t lie to a girl. So, how about some coffee? I need something to take the nip off while I’m waiting for my Prince Charming to ride up in his Yellow Cab. I’m still shivering from the wind out there, and some bad reviews.”
“Coffee will warm you up, but I have a feeling that you’re going to get something even better,” her companion smiled, his eye glancing over her shoulder.
“What’s better than your coffee?”
“How about me?” came a British voice suddenly next to her cheek, his cheek brushing hers.
Jessica’s smile could have lighted the city, or at least drawn the censures of half the burg’s air raid wardens.
Her hand squeezed James’s arm as he came around her and slid into the booth on the other side, but still very close to her.
The rose in a vase made its return via a waiter, and James Crawford cocked an eyebrow and queried, “Does that make up for my being tardy?”
“I think so,” Jess smiled. She loved to take in his features, lean face, straight nose, slightly hooded eyes, dark mustache and hair, the latter of which some people would probably have called a bit too long, but to Jess gave it him just the right touch of the bohemian.
There had been more than a little of the cocky kid in his mien, but in his question there was also a hint of vulnerable hope that he’d pleased her with an extension of his heart in another’s words.
“I just love nice couples,” Alfonso della Mirandolla basked in their romance.
Then the scamp was back in James Crawford’s, “Do you now, Alfonso? Then how about another cup of coffee for me. That way I can thaw out and spend some time with my girl.”
“What’ll do more of the thawing, me or the coffee?” Jess quipped.
“Maybe if Alfonso leaves us alone, we can find that out, love.”
Alfonso della Mirandolla smiled himself off, delighted with another happy affair blooming in his establishment.
“I think he’s been taking Cuddles Sakell lessons,” James surmised.
“More like Henry Armeta,” Jess carried on the joke.
Then James was looking at her, thinking, and not with the hawk gaze of those days when they’d been struggling with their feelings for each other almost as much as they had been against Nazi fifth columnists.
His hands were over hers, and his eyes, his voice were almost like a kid’s with, “Did you really like it, then, love, the rose, the poems?”
“Yes. Very Much.” She looked down at the hands holding hers, the thumb that moved thoughtfully over her knuckles, as he continued, “You know, Jessica, you’ve made me put behind a lot of anger, a lot of frustration. Have I made you forget my having to deceive you over the package? Do you see that wasn’t me, it was the job. Now that the job’s over, do you trust me?”
Jessica nodded, wordlessly, intently, before going on, “That was another time. What you’ve told me, been allowed to tell me about yourself, what I’ve seen in you, it’s changed my mind about a lot of things. It’s funny. I don’t feel as angry about things that people have done to me as I used to. It’s like Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote: “I love thee with the passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s/ faith.”
James quirked a smile, then remarked, “Of course most people would think we’re both a bit daft, hopeless cases, communicating through two dead Brownings. But here’s something in my own words. I have to tell you I love you, Jessica. I don’t know if I have a right to, the way the world is, but I do.”
“The way the world is, I think that we’re damned lucky to have what we do. You know I love you, James. No Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet #43, just straight talk. I love you.”
“So here’s the rough part, love. I can’t ask you to marry me until this war’s over. I want to, I pray to God you love me enough, because even though I’m a so-and-so at times — don’t nod that emphatically — I’m a so-and-so who would try to make you happy.”
“ ‘But’?” Jess added for him uneasily.
James lowered his head to think, his hands squeezing Jessica’s harder, but not enough to hurt her. Then he faced her to say: “But you know what my work is. You know that they won’t keep me in this country forever. When they think I’ll be more useful elsewhere, that’s where I’ll have to go.”
Jessica’s features tightened. “Elsewhere” might mean England, but it probably meant France. Somewhere people would be shooting at him or laying in wait to grab him and pick him clean of what he knew. But she wasn’t cleared to know where, only to shore up his cover while he was still in this country. If they loved each other, that was their problem. Just don’t let it interfere with his work.
“You have orders already, James?”
Her words were low, audible only to James. He shook his head and answered, “You know that I can’t tell you. This may be too much as it is.”
“I know,” she nodded, quietly, then, “So what happens to us, James?”
“I know that I don’t want to lose you, Jessica, but I also know that I haven’t the right to tie you down when I might not be coming back for God knows how long, if at all. Please, don’t shudder like that. I’m not saying this to upset you. I just want to be on the level with you about the future. And I know that when I’m gone that long, you’re not sure if I’m coming back, if you should meet someone better, who would be here for you, no doubts about it . . .”
“Don’t speak too soon, Jessica.”
“I’m not. I know exactly what I’m doing. I’ve done a lot of thinking, too. I don’t bail out when the going gets rough. I’m in for the long haul, come what may.”
James smiled a little disbelievingly, trying not to let himself be too happy with her commitment, knowing what he could cost her. And she knew that he also wrestled with guilty demons about not deserving this kind of happiness after seeing the cost to his family to help him get ahead. But he was winning, she thought; their being together in spite of the way of the world was strengthening him.
Finally, James spoke, “Then all I want to do now is ask you to wait for me. I’m just asking you to be here when I get back, when this damned war is over. If you still believe in us then, if I come back to you as the man you want, then we can make the final decision.”
“I know what I feel, now, James. How do you feel? Do you have any doubts?”
“No,” his answer was decisive. “I know what I want. I see what I need in you. But you need to be sure that I am the person you want, Jessica. I don’t want us to get caught up in war-time fever or for you to feel sorry for me, or for either of us to rush in. I want to build something with you on solid ground. No romanticized castles in the air.”
“I’m not kidding myself about you, James. I see who you are, and that includes your sometimes deserving a kick in the pants, but I love you. I see what I want in you, too. Do you doubt me because I broke up with Larry over you? Do you think that I’m fickle, like, like Angela?”
She was nervous about bringing up the name of her long ago romantic predecessor, but James was unruffled, actually, nonchalantly kidding, “More precisely, Angela wasn’t so much fickle as grasping and ambitious. That part of her didn’t change, just the person she intended to use to get what she wanted. Seriously though, Jessica, I’ve seen too many war widows to want to put you through that.”
“You think I’d suffer any less if something happened to you just because I didn’t have a piece of paper?”
James shook his head, clarifying, “No, no. But I won’t feel that I’m being fair to you unless we wait till all of this is over and we can make plans without a war hanging over our heads. Part of this is selfish, I admit. I don’t want you to discover you’ve made a mistake when it will be that much harder for both of us to fix.”
Clearly James had thought too long and hard about this issue for her to change his mind in one sitting, and she shuddered at the realization that this sitting might be the last for a long time to come. And part of her knew that he was right not to ask her to make a deeper commitment until they could better tell which way was up in this war-ravaged world.
James ended her cogitation with, “I just had to tell you all this now, Jessica, because I don’t know how long before they send me back and I won’t be able to tell you when they do. I’ll just be gone.”
“I won’t hear from you?” It was hard not to shake with a cold fear that rivaled the February night outside.
“Not much. I have worked out that we may be able to exchange some mail via a contact I have in San Francisco. Fortunately for you and I, this makes it seem as if I’m still in the country. You can say that I’m working out there if anyone asks. All in all, you’ll be helping me keep up my cover of being in the Sates, when I’m overseas. But you can imagine that I won’t be able to write you often.”
“Working with the underground and rescuing downed flyers keeps a boy tied up,” Jessica reflected in a voice only audible to James, not particularly enjoying her own humor on this topic.
He didn’t say anything. What could he?
Jess looked him in the eye, though she tried to muffle her worry, “But you don’t know when?”
He hesitated, and Jessica nodded, “I understand. I won’t ask. I know better.”
“Do you still want to wait for me?”
“What do you think, you dope?!”
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Woman’s image: author’s collection
Robert Browning: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
holding hands: Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels