Eisabeth St. Clair arrived in style, it should be said, on a rainy March afternoon. Reaching the hamlet of Bamfield in those days could hardly be called a pleasure trip. The word was soon out:
“Spruce up, young men, a belle is among us.”
Her appearance caused a flutter in the small community with fewer than two hundred residents. In no time did she thrill the hearts of men, married mostly, and put a crimp in the women’s hold over them.
“Let’s look at her in the bright sunshine,” they snickered among themselves, while keeping both eyes peeled at their husbands who might harbour unseemly notions.
No two ways about it, Elisabeth St. Clair was an eye-catching woman, born and raised in nearby Victoria, thirty years ago.
Jeremy Scahill, the head of the Marine Centre, Elisabeth’s employer, compared her, not so silently mind you, to Spenser’s amoret. Gentle as a dove, chaste as a lily, disposed like a seraph.
“What fools men are,” Ruth Scofield informed everyone, including the fish in the sea.
She owned a small general store, the only one within a day’s journey. She had renounced love some thirty years ago, which to her was a game not worth the candle. An early marriage wasn’t exactly made in heaven. Kisses behind the garden gate soon yielded to nagging and scolding. One stormy night her husband left the pit that dug itself deeper by the day, and vowed never to return.
“That’s the only promise he ever kept,” Mrs Scofield proclaimed with that peculiar cackle known in the region.
She harumphed Jeremy Scahill’s notions:
“An epitome of womanly grace she is? What fools men are. That female is as hard-boiled as they come. Mark my words, she is up to no good, this Miss St. Clair is.”
Two months later the boats started to arrive. Soon the government wharves were occupied from end to end. Summer at the West Coast is invariable sunny and warm, albeit somewhat stormy.
Barry Lasco was already ensconced at his summerhouse across the Bamfield inlet. He was locally known as the millionaire, and no less as a dyed-in-the-wool bachelor, who gave women a wide berth. Those sentiments underwent a change, however, when he encountered Miss St. Clair. Although she kept to herself, meeting one another in this small community proved unavoidable. Invitations, rather scarce it must be said, were treated by Elisabeth with consummate adroitness. Visibly touched, blushing in appreciation, she managed to decline with words and gestures that amused rather than offended. The men’s compliments, as much as their admiring glances, she answered with frowns, and nothing else. The women’s appraising looks she met with a beguiling smile and a hearty greeting.
“She is a recluse,” some declared.
“She is a Jezebel,” Mary Sartos asserted, whose husband of thirty years had suddenly acquired a roving eye.
Miss St. Clair made no attempt to entice the menfolk, nor did she try to antagonise the women, who observed her with Argus-eyes. Their female intuition told them that she was anything but a Zuleika: pure, dutiful, and innocent.
“Why did she come to this out-of-the-way place?” it was said.
“Surely not for her health, nor the low paying, seasonal work.”
Curiosity breathed new life into the hearts of some locals, rumours enlivened their workaday routine. Gossip, unkind and sensational at times, made the grapevine hum.
“May I invite you for tea, or coffee perhaps, Miss St. Clair?” Lasco, standing at the gate, called out.
Elisabeth started, turned, and seemed prepared to bound.
“No, thank you,” she replied, visibly annoyed at the unsolicited salutation.
“Oh, well, maybe another time,” he chuckled, while raising his hand in a chipper way.
Barry Lasco, a man past fifty, the inveterate bachelor, was not a misogynist; far from it, but marriage he eschewed strenuously, he deemed it eternal purgatory where both sides stoke the fire, hoping that the other felt the heat more. Anyway, foregoing liberties he cherished, or changing entrenched habits? Not for the sweetest of kisses, he vowed, nor for that divinest of love, Venus on the mountain promises.
Antonio Ricci, Lasco’s friend of many years, usually spent the month of July at his retreat. For inexplicable reasons he harboured a desire that Antonio should skip his visit this year. He neither understood nor questioned why this should be so. Yet the notion recurred, although he deemed it wishful thinking in view of the message that was sent:
“Will be at your gate as usual. Unlimber the liquor.”
They were friends in accordance with the mores of modern days. Two minds of a single thought? Not Barry Lasco and Antonio Ricci, who was blessed with mercurial wit, thus contrasting sharply the other’s morose disposition. Their temperaments were forged in different smithies. What induced one to smile made the other frown. Words of wisdom uttered by Lasco were deemed fatuous by Ricci. Yet they referred to each other as friends, affectionate friends, in fact.
“How was the trip?” Lasco, who stood at the wharf, called out.
“A bit rough past Port Renfrew, but otherwise bearable.”
They greeted each other with hugs and friendly words, then settled down in the garden, which had no equal far and wide. The estate, spread out on the west side of the inlet, had a charm of its own. A wondrous tranquillity permeated that spot; the wind appeared to convey a message: All is well, all is well. The waves, rolling in from the open sea, though breaking noisily on the rocky shore, augured an enchantment that put one’s heart at ease.
“Halcyon reborn,” Antonio informed the mountains beyond.
Ricci saw her first, the sight made him lift his head and crane his neck.
“What do you know, Barry, one of your conquests?” he chaffed.
When Lasco looked up he recognised Miss St. Clair who stood at the boardwalk, evidently lost in thought. Noticing the men’s attention accorded her, she tiptoed away.
“Who is she, Barry?”
“Elisabeth St. Clair, a seasonal worker at the Marine Station.”
“Unattached and unapproachable,” Antonio was informed.
Ricci pooh-poohed the notion, his quick eye discerned what Lasco couldn’t even divine. He wasn’t quite the gay Lothario of Rowe’s ‘The Fair Penitent’, but he did appreciate the fair sex, who in his opinion deserved a man’s homage. He started to whistle one of his catchy tunes, while a roguish expression framed his countenance:
“Hm, unattached and unapproachable, you say? Hm, hm.”
Three days later Ricci presented Miss St. Clair at the Lasco estate.
“She deigns to have a glass of wine with us,” he declared with a bow befitting a Spanish nobleman.