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10 January 1899
Dear Mr. Wood,
I write to you having received your name and address from my husband, John Smith, who has been doing some research at the prison where you currently reside for a novel he is completing. I have never corresponded with a prisoner before. I do not know if, or why, you might have committed the criminal act for which you are serving time. My husband says he believes many of the criminals at Hollow gate to be innocent victims of injustice. I, having never been in any prison, have no way of knowing the truth behind his assertions. I do know, were I in prison and deprived of the companionship of family and friends, I should find it a consolation to have another person with whom to share the occasional thought. I hope I can be that person for you.
Wishing you well,
Mrs. John Smith
One week later, I had my first reply. Though the writing was crude, the paper it was written on still worse, the words themselves were put together rin an educated enough fashion:
Dear Mrs. John Smith,
I do not know why you have taken it upon yourself to do this, but I do sowish you would stop.
31 December 1898
“Mr. and Mrs. John Smith," announced the Collinses' butler as we made our way into their crowded salon at the top of the cascade of stairs, the house yet festooned with the remnants of Christmas, the scents of pine, myrtle, oranges, cinnamon, and cloves in the air, the applewood burning in the fireplace as if the season might never end.
We were twenty-four at dinner.
Beneath one of three chandeliers adorned with glass globes and crystal prisms, I sat near the head of the table, the legs of which were carved to look like a bear's claws, on one of the leather-upholstered chairs in the long scarlet dining room. To the right of me was Joshua Collins, the head of the household. Captain Brimley, portly as ever, was on my other side.
Captain Brimley was thought to be an overly feminine man, but he was a delightful conversationalist, frequently called into service as escort to Lady Collins, Joshua's widowed mother. Lady Collins herself, still a sparkling woman at nearly seventy, had adorned her perpetual mourner's black clothes with jet bead for the occasion and was seated to one side of John at the other end of the table, opposite to me; on John's other side was Joshua's wife, Maeve, a lilac gown softening a natural severity of feature brought about by bearing far too many children.
"Tell me," said the captain, mustache bristling mischievously, "what is your good husband working on now?"
Taking advantage of a lull in the talk as diners bent heads to the soup a la reine, I half shouted down the table, repeating the captain's question.
John set his sterling soup spoon down carefully, planted elbows firmly on the table, rubbed one palm against the other. "Well, Captain," he spoke studiedly into the relative silence that had fallen over the table hard upon my half shout, "I can tell you that if you want to know about my next novel," he paused dramatically, the candelabra before him reflecting as a pleased glint in his eye, "all questions you have will surely be revealed when you purchase a copy upon its publication sometime next year."
The table roared at the captain's expense. All assembled were familiar with John's reluctance to discuss works in progress. The men all rested on family fortunes large enough they needn't work, so in essence John was the only one with a career to speak of. Well, except for Captain Brimley.
"You're a heartless man, John," spoke the captain, mockingly clutching athis chest as though wounded.
"I can tell you this," said John. "It has to do with a prison."
"Which prison?" pressed the captain.
But John had already taken up spoon again, turning his attention away.
Not long afterward, I found myself sitting before the fire at Lady Collins's feet, garnet skirts spread about me, knees tucked under chin. The floor beneath me was solid wood, in keeping with the current practice of using as little carpeting as possible for sanitary reasons; Joshua Collins was nothing if not modern. Listening to the fading murmur of men's voices in the dining room on the other side of the draped portiere, where the men lingered over port and cigars, I recalled being at home earlier in the evening, preparing to go out.
"You look beautiful this evening, Emma," John had said.
John's words came as he stood behind me, while I was seated before the vanity. I suppose I might have taken his words as being the rote delivery of a well-versed husband, were it not that he had spoken similar words, along with declarations of love, every day of our married life.
"I am indeed a lucky man."
I turned my brown eyes upward to meet his blue ones in the mirror. Even were I standing, he would still tower over me, his fair hair and fine features–aquiline nose, affectionate lips, sturdy enough jaw–a full head and a half taller than I.
Behind us in the mirror, I could see the woven coverlet, dust ruffles, and pillow shams of our large four-poster bed, made of solid rosewood, intricately carved, the aubergine sheets rumpled from a fortifying nap.
"Why do you say that?" I asked, twinkling.
After sixteen years of marriage, I knew a number of the reasons he might respond with, but it was still a source of amusement. Would he tell me I was more intelligent than other women? Admire my ankles? Praise the job I was doing raising our six-year-old son, Weston?
He held my gaze as he bent down so his reflection was even with my own, his fair features side by side with the dark ringlets I was fashioning into an elaborate design upon my head even as we spoke. I was aware the darkness of my hair created a strong picture combined with the garnet-colored gown I had selected for the occasion. I knew it was not John's favorite color on me but it was a color I loved nonetheless. The ringlets framed pale skin, my cheekbones still high and firm despite my thirty-four years. In fact, the only part of me that showed my age was a less than girlish fullness to my figure, a fullness John claimed to adore.
"Because you are not in the slightest like the other ladies," he replied.
Then he delicately traced the outline of my mouth with one long finger, and kissed me. It was the kind of kiss any woman who has been married for sixteen years can identify; it said, "I love you, I even still want you, but we are already going to be late for the party, and I have no intention of getting dressed a second time."
Now, seated at Lady Collins's feet, I heard in my mind's ear the words of John playing the "You know what I love about you, Emma?" game. In this instance, I was sure he would say of my solitary and unladylike position on the floor, as all around me the ladies sat properly, opened fans and preened, "It is that you refuse to put on airs."
"You know what I dislike most about my husband?" asked Sara Jamison, adjusting her seasonally jade skirts on the sofa. The abundance of jade needed to cover her overfull figure did nothing for the perpetual florid condition of her moon face, framed as it was by yellow hair.
Sara was frequently the one to set flame to what I thought of as these exercises in futility and, as was also customary, she did not wait for an answer to her rhetorical question before supplying one herself.
"It is that he is possessed of the belief that only I am capable of straightening his handkerchief. Certainly not his valet. Never himself."
It took so little, really.
"Well, I always say," said Hettie Larwood, who always said much and, with a wasp-thin waist and thinning auburn hair, looked like she should eat more," George would not even know which fork to use if I did not repeatedly remind him."
Constance Biltmore said Charles was a poor sport at cards.
If they were going to dislike something most in their husbands, could they not at least find something more substantial to pick at?
And, yet, everyone played, save Maeve, whose husband had just provided an ample meal for all; and Lady Collins, a widow, although I had long suspected when Lord Collins was alive she never skewered him.
"What about you, Emma?" Hettie asked with some degree of asperity. "You never say."
But I just shook my head and smiled shyly, hoping all the while they would read my reluctance to speak out against my husband not as a defiant act of cool superiority but as testimony that John perhaps had so many fatal flaws, I didn't know where to begin!
Why was I even interested in perpetuating such a deception, particularly when to speak out was more in keeping with my nature?
Because, despite my personal inclination, these women–more properly, the men these women were married to–mattered to John's world, mattered a great deal. If, occasionally, I had to be a slightly fictitious woman to help my husband out, what matter that?
I looked at the others, on tête-à-têtes and sofas, their dressed heads close in gossip. In their own way they resembled the putti: the cherubs and cupids cavorting on the curved backs and arms of Joshua's furniture.
The only one I felt a real fondness for was Constance. Timid, even among those who had known her long and presumably well, I recognized the cost to her of publicly criticizing her husband. Of the wives' complaints, hers had been the only one of substance. As I watched her trying to keep up with the gossip of the others, and failing miserably, her guileless blue eyes wide under blond feather brows a shade darker than her white-gold hair, it occurred to me that of all the women, whom I had known for years, I should like to know her better.
"You're not like any of the others, are you?" Lady Collins's words to me were more a conspiratorial observation than a query.
I had always liked Lady Collins.
John was the first of the men to enter. Immediately, before I could move my skirts to make a place for him, he lowered his lanky form to the floor, leaning back on one elbow as he stretched out beside me.
"Know what I love about you, Emma?" He whispered the words, not waiting for my answer. "It is that you refuse to put on airs."
I smiled back at him, the warm glow of the gas fireplace almost like another presence, uniting us in a way that made me feel as though we were momentarily alone. But I said nothing, a brief coldness stealing into me as I reflected how, just occasionally, I felt as though he were an air I had put on–something that suited me best when I wore it out into the world.
Joshua Collins entered, consulting his pocket watch, as though he did not know exactly what time it was right down to the minute.
"The New Year hour draws near," he announced. He struck a pose, elbow casually resting near the marble mantel clock on the fireplace, as the butler distributed champagne glasses. "There is much that has passed in to the history books in the last year. Gladstone has died, Bismarck–"
"Not to mention Lewis Carroll, Stephané Mallarmé, and Theodor Fontane," interjected John.
"Yes, John," Joshua acknowledged indulgently, "you writers have had a very busy year . . . in terms of dying. Still, in less than an hour, we will be entering the last year of the century. Shall we play the resolution game?"
No one objected. Joshua was known for his propensity for seeking out the appropriate game for any occasion, and what better one that night?
"I will go first," Joshua said. "Let's see . . ." He paused long enough to make it appear he had just formulated his resolution on the spot. He raised his glass. "I resolve to host an even better New Year's party next year."
"Hear, hear!" The assembled all toasted his resolve in return.
"Darling?" He turned to Maeve on his right.
"And I resolve to do everything in my power to help," she said.
More "hear, hears" all around.
Next week, I was certain, when we dined at the Larwoods', Maeve would be back to telling us her usual complaint of how infuriating it was when Joshua trimmed his nose hairs within her sight. If she were really daring, she might say she sincerely hoped he never visited any more children upon her–she already had more than her friends could reliably count–but I doubted such honesty would ever be forthcoming.
Paul Jamison resolved to learn how to position his own handkerchief.
George Larwood added his desire to master the individual uses of silverware; not that any of us believed Hettie would ever let him eat much.
Charles Biltmore could not, in all honesty, resolve to be a better sport in the New Year, and so, he resolved to forsake cards altogether. Not that any of us could picture Charles, such a natural at a baize gaming table or at York racing week, his brown hair never cut quite enough, his collar never exactly straight, ever walking away from his passion.
Still, I almost laughed. Had they somehow heard us even through the din of their own loud chatter as they lingered over their port? Or did they know the hearts and minds of those they were married to, in spite of what their wives might think? But to a man, their faces gave away nothing.
Lady Collins declined to make any resolution, concluding, "I am quite sure my words would only come back to haunt me in the following year."
People "hear, heared" her right to dissent, although some looked put out at her refusal to play.
When it came to his turn, John did not hesitate. "I would like to finish the novel I am working on to my satisfaction and I would like to make my wife the happiest woman in the world."
"Unfair," chuckled Joshua Collins. "The rest of us had to content ourselves with one resolution. You cannot now claim for yourself two. You must choose."
"Very well, then." Again John did not hesitate, looking straight into my eyes. "I choose Emma. I will always choose Emma."
At last, it was my turn. Watching the others, it had seemed easy. Now it came to it, however, it felt somehow as though there really would be some profound import attached to my selection, as opposed to the relative unimportance in the greater scheme of things behind Sara Jamison's firmly stated resolve to consume fewer fairy cakes in the coming year.
The room awaited my resolution, some with more patience than others.
I thought of my life so far.
It is perhaps strange to say, but up until this point, I had only thought of my life in a very unthinking sort of way. I knew I was adept at the many roles I was called upon to play. I was a good enough daughter; at least my father thought so. I was good at parties, even if I could not be depended upon to be drawn into every game the other women seemed intent on playing. I would even go so far as to say I liked our social world; for, after all, is there not great human satisfaction to be found in doing a thing well? Inbeing able to retain one's own sense of individuality when in a group and yet somehow manage not to give any serious offense?
Still, outside of being the best mother I could be to Weston, what had I really achieved, save the attachment of myself to John's star?
I had always been preoccupied with being good. It was my strength. It was my weakness. Now I wanted something more.
"I would like very much to be a better person." I spoke the words more fiercely than I had intended.
It was almost the New Year.
John met my gaze steadily, with an approvingly prideful one of his own." Then you shall be," he said, as if it were as simple as that.