Brambles and Thorns(2)

By: Jocelyn Kirk

Mrs. Bellwood leaned forward to pour tea but paused as her daughter entered. She smiled with maternal pride as the young woman gracefully seated herself.

“Do you doubt that you have made a conquest, Elena?” asked Mrs. Bellwood, handing her daughter a cup of tea.

Elena raised the teacup as if she did not intend to answer, but then returned it to its blue-patterned saucer. She moved to a seat next to her mother.

“Mama…on that subject I have something to tell you.”

“What is that, my dear?”

“When the duke and I were dancing last night…the second time…he asked…”

Mrs. Bellwood leaned toward her daughter and unconsciously set the teapot on the hassock instead of the table. “Yes? He asked…?”

“He asked if he might call today.”

“What! The hour is already ten! Pull the bell!”

“Mama…please do not fuss. He did not indicate that he would declare himself…”

“Naïve girl! Of course he is going to! Bella! Bella, come here!”

Bella hurried into the parlor, brushing crumbs from her bodice as she curtsied. Mrs. Bellwood began to issue frantic orders for the proper reception of Sir Lionel Harding, Duke of Simsbury, fourth in line to the British throne, to her breathlessly nodding housekeeper.

“Mama, Mama,” Elena cried. “Have you forgotten the doctor’s orders? You are not to rush about in your usual manner! The heart flutter could return!”

“Nonsense!” rejoined Mrs. Bellwood as she followed the housekeeper out of the parlor. “One must prepare for such a visitor, and who is to do it besides myself? Elena, go immediately to your chamber and begin your toilette. And be sure to wear—”

“Mama, stop! Surely the duke will not call until the afternoon. Gentlemen do not make morning calls!”

“Do not interrupt, my dear! You are very pale this morning, so you must use a bit of rouge. And wear a blue gown. Nothing flatters your golden hair as well as blue.”

“Indeed, ma’am,” added Bella. “Miss Elena’s lily complexion and flaxen hair in blue…I declare…”

“Bella, go about your duties.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Elena sighed and slipped from the room, carrying her tea to the conservatory. From there, sheltered among her mother’s ferns and palms, she could observe the street beyond the gate, where well-dressed ladies and gentlemen strolled and high-stepping horses pulled sleek carriages along the cobblestones.

Elena shifted her view toward the east, trying to catch a glimpse of the tall masts of sailing ships in the harbor. She shaded her eyes against the winter sun lying low on the horizon, surrounded by pink clouds. The sun had festooned the handsome brick houses of Hegler Avenue with bright golden streaks. Elena gazed at the elegant New York City neighborhood, which had been her home for all of her twenty years.

She picked up a small porcelain figurine depicting an elegant lady curtseying, her skirts swirling about her. “Will I say yes today?” she asked the porcelain lady. “Will I say yes and leave you…and all this…behind?” The little figure made no comment as Elena carefully replaced her on the alabaster table.

She pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, took a sip of tea, and placed the cup on a table. She breathed deeply, rose to her feet, and ambled across the solarium, past the ferns in gaily painted pots and the palmetto in its large tub with the rim circled round with figures of Japanese dancers. She brushed her hand across the fronds, feeling the familiar wispy texture.

She reminisced on her first marriage proposal when she was only seventeen. Longing for romance, she wished to accept it, but her mother, with the assistance of her friend Mrs. Lang, dissuaded her.

“Plainer girls must accept the first gentleman making an offer,” Mrs. Lang had stated in her deep, authoritative voice, “but you, Miss Bellwood, may—and must—be discriminating.”

Elena returned to the window, but her eyes refused to focus on the houses and trees and the curving avenue. “I must be charming to the duke,” she whispered. “If I lose this opportunity to marry, I will face another year as a deb, but with the humiliating knowledge that I am older than most of the new beauties…all with mamas determined to marry them well.”