Chapter 1 – Dancing Day 1920

Elizabeth Hunter, known to all as Bessie, sat with a group of friends on the stone stairs of  the London Ontario Normal School awaiting the results of their final examinations. The others 

were nervous, but not her. Bessie had attended every class, took perfect notes, and studied very  hard. There was nothing more to be done but wait. She’d learned from her parents that all you  can do in life is put your best foot forward and keep moving in that direction.  

The fingers of her right hand twisted a curl of lush black hair. Bessie had just gotten a  bob. A grand party was planned for that evening to celebrate those who made the grade and act  as a tonic for those who didn’t. Bessie decided on a different hairdo and purchased a new red  dress to mark the occasion. 

“Your mother is going to have a fit!” one of the girls squealed, reaching out to give  Bessie’s hair a playful tug. 

Bessie laughed. 

“Women in the country don’t wear their hair short,” claimed another. 

“I don’t care,” Bessie replied. “This is the 20th century. It’s my hair and I’ll do with it as I  please.” 

The group of young women, ages 18 to 20, had spent the last year in the city, living in a  boarding house, preparing to be teachers. It wasn’t enough to simply pass. They had to do well in  all manner of subjects from history to English to sciences and arithmetic. There was even a  philosophy course. Bessie didn’t put a lot of stock in that, as she couldn’t determine a practical  application for that field of study. But arithmetic, she loved watching the numbers dance around  on her slate and in her brain, obeying her every wish. If a person knew what they were doing  with numbers, then they could most assuredly succeed in life. 

One of the girls asked Bessie if she was planning on attending the dance. 

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” she exclaimed, rising to her feet, placing her arms out  straight in the air, spinning her body in carefully calibrated arcs and swoops. 

“Where did you learn how?” asked another young woman, clearly not believing her  classmate. She added with a sniff, “They don’t teach country bumpkins how to dance.” “I am not a bumpkin,” Bessie replied, refusing to bite. Her classmate was the always  nasty Gladys, a jealous city girl with lank blonde hair that hung in ragged clumps. Bessie spun  again. “And since you asked so kindly, my grandmother taught me.”  

That was the truth. Granny Hunter was the life of every party. 

The door of the Normal School burst open and a gaggle of students tumbled out. “They’re up! They’re posted!” a chubby girl in a mauve cloche hat called. “Bessie you  aced them!” she added, “Every last one! Go and see! Go and see!” 

As throngs of celebrating classmates entered the school, Bessie paused in front of the  large glass door to consider the reflection of her beauty. It wasn’t a vain thought. It was a  practical one. The greater the beauty the higher the prize at the altar. Bessie stood 5 foot five  with jet black hair, a nicely proportioned body and bright green eyes that could pierce ice.  Granny advised never to get too accustomed to beauty, since it was only a transitional phase.  Before she knew it, Granny claimed Bessie would be an old woman; but tonight those thoughts  were far away, since Bessie only had one thought. How much fun she was going to have at the  party. 

The gymnasium was choked with blue and white bunting, while the tables overflowed  with garlands of multicoloured flowers. Students filled the dance floor. A band was playing  “Pretty Baby.” Bessie sipped a glass of punch, talking to her friends. Gladys stood near the back  of the group, scowling. She’d failed English, which meant she would not be teaching. Bessie felt 

sorry for her housemate, but she’d advised Gladys many times to focus on her studies and not  parading around in front of the boys, so Gladys had really brought ill fortune upon herself. The  band began to play “Everyone’s Crazy on the Foxtrot.” A man cleared his throat. Bessie turned. 

“Will you give me the extreme pleasure of dancing with you?” a tall, handsome young  man asked, bowing so deeply Bessie thought he might be able to kiss his knees. His hair, even  darker than hers, fell across his forehead in a charming flop and his eyes were a clear sky blue. 

Since she had no other offers it would be considered an act of incivility to refuse, Bessie  tilted her head in agreement, and took the stranger’s hand, as he whisked her onto the dance  floor. 

“And your name would be?” she asked. 

“Hannibal,” he replied. 

“What an odd name,” she thought. He didn’t look foreign.  

“I’m Bessie.” 

“I know,” Hannibal replied. “One of my friends taught you history. He claims that you’re  the best student he’s ever had.” 

Bessie smiled demurely, gracefully following Hannibal as he foxtrotted her around the  room, while inwardly she was very pleased. She knew she’d done well, but to be called the best,  was another boon from this already record setting day of personal accomplishments.  The song shifted to an Al Jolson tune, “A Dangerous Girl.” 

“Would you like another dance?” Hannibal asked. 

“Certainly,” she replied. 

“Are you a dangerous girl?” he asked.

“I think I could be,” she replied with a flirtatious smile, and Hannibal seized Bessie by  the waist, expertly twirling her around. 

Spins and twirls were frowned on by most, since there was to be no jumping and  frolicking about at a formal dance, especially ones that were chaperoned. However, that seemed  much too Victorian to Bessie. Where was the fun? There wasn’t any. It was only rules.  

Were others watching? Bessie didn’t know and she didn’t think about it enough to care.  She was 19, had a new hairdo, a new dress, had graduated Normal School at the top of her class,  and would soon be on the road as a professional woman.  

When the song ended and the Charleston began, Hannibal asked her again, Bessie  accepted, and off they went, knees and elbows all akimbo. He flipped her over his back and  pulled her between his legs. He was quite strong. They were a perfect match. When the song  ended everyone clapped. Bessie knew she should sit down and not cause a scene, but she was  laughing too hard and having so much fun, it seemed a shame to end such a perfect night by  doing what was expected of her. Instead, they kept dancing as if they’d been together for years,  oblivious to the stir Gladys was causing with the head chaperone, the principal of the Normal  School and all the rest of her classmates. 

“I had such a lovely time,” Bessie said, as she and Hannibal strolled down Elmwood  Avenue.  

It was well past midnight and she should have been home at 11, but whenever they said  goodnight, one of them said something that initiated an entirely new conversation. Hannibal’s  real name was Edward and he was just starting his PhD with a specialty in classics. Hence the  strange name. Edward was there to discuss history with an old friend who taught at the Normal 

School. His entire focus of study was on ancient battle techniques, and in particular Hannibal, the  great Carthaginian general during the Second Punic War. 

“He refused to admit defeat,” Edward claimed. “He road elephants over the Alps to take  the fight right to the Roman Republic, even though most of animals died falling off mountains.  He persisted and he prevailed.” 

“My goal is to educate children,” Bessie said, making a mental note to research Hannibal  more closely. It sounded like a good lesson in perseverance. 

“My goal is to be a history professor,” Edward said, daring to take Bessie’s hand. She should have refused it, instead her hand was now resting in his palm. Edward’s skin  was warm and soft. Not farmer hands. These were the hands of an educated man. Swinging their  arms in tandem, they continued walking beneath the elms and maples, entering a small leafy  park. A wrought iron bench sat near a fountain. 

“Where are you studying?” she asked. 

“Toronto,” Edward replied. 

“I’ve never been,” she said. 

“You should come and visit,” he replied. “Care to sit?” 

“I really should get home.” 

“Just for a minute.” 

And then Bessie was sitting. And then Edward’s arm was around her shoulder, pulling  her close. 

“I think you’re the loveliest creature I’ve ever seen,” Edward said, tilting Bessie’s chin up  towards his.

Granny’s alarm bells began to ring, but Bessie shushed them. Edward was also the  loveliest creature Bessie had ever seen. She’d never felt like this before. She didn’t even know  such feelings existed. While Bessie was trying to focus her mind on how wicked she was being,  Edward drew her face towards his. She knew she should turn away. She knew she should slap his  bold, sweet, smart, handsome face. But she couldn’t. Instead, she opened her lips and their  mouths met. Edward’s hands delicately traveled over Bessie’s body. When he kissed her neck,  she kissed his. A faint smell of perspiration seeped from his skin. Bessie tasted it. Edward looked  deeply into her eyes, searching for Bessie’s assent. She didn’t say no, she didn’t say yes, because  she didn’t have the time. Whatever was about to happen came to a screeching halt at the sound of  the principal’s voice. 

“Elizabeth Hunter!” the principal shouted. “Come here right now!” 

Bessie and Edward sprang to their feet. Edward was trying to speak, but Bessie couldn’t  hear. She was frozen in the terror of the cold realization of everything she’d done. The rest of the  girls stood behind the principal, the chaperone and her landlady.  

Some mouths were aghast, others pointed fingers, the chaperone sadly shook her head at  the sight of a disgraced young woman. The landlady’s face registered disgust, and there stood  Gladys shouting, “Hussy!” Some of the others took up her chant as Bessie tried not to run past  them, desperate to maintain the only shred of the remnants of dignity she still possessed.  

“Do you realize what you’ve done?” the principal asked as she passed by, head high, on  her way to her room at the boarding house. 

Bessie nodded. She’d destroyed everything she’d worked so hard for. Spat in the faces of  her family, the rules of God and the United Church she believed in so fervently and the promise  she’d made to herself long ago to remain pure until she was married. She’d made a mockery of chastity and polluted herself with sin.

Now she finally understood the perils of the pleasure of the  flesh. When Edward tried to defend her, she brusquely told him to go away. From henceforth,  things were going to change, and Bessie Hunter never wanted to see Edward or Hannibal or  whoever he was, ever again.