“So tell me, Violet, dear,” Lady Carlisle cooed loudly. “What color of gown have you chosen for the ball next weekend?”
The morning thus far had been dismal at best. Of course, the restless night Violet had endured previously did nothing to improve the situation. The night had been long and torturous. She lost count of how many times she relived the events of last evening, from the horrifying revelation of Nigel’s new job until she watched Mr. Stanley disappear into the night. All night she experienced a storm of emotions from sorrow and desperation to elation and confusion. When morning had arrived, she hoped to merely exist silently at her mother’s side, which up until now she had accomplished quite nicely. As Lady Carlisle now posed her question, Violet saw the woman’s lips moving but could not comprehend her words. Though the woman’s lack of hearing caused her to over enunciate and speak loud enough that to make her visitors wince, Violet remained unmoved in her current state of delirium.
“Please forgive my daughter this morning, Sybil.” Sally looked sympathetically at Violet. “We received some rather shocking news last evening and I imagine she did not rest well.”
“What news?” Lady Carlisle’s hungry eyes were eager for the latest gossip. “Nothing too terrible I hope.”
“Nothing that we won’t be able to adjust to, I assure you.” Sally smiled.
Sally Barnes was not one to pass up a good piece of gossip. She viewed other people’s business as her news to share. Yet, when it came to her own business or the business of her family, she was less eager to engage in sharing. So Violet was not surprised in the least that her mother had gracefully side-stepped the question.
“How is Mrs. Inglewood dealing with her broken leg? I know you and she are very good friends.”
Lady Carlisle did not seem to realize her questions had been ignored but plunged right into the news of her friend. “Oh, goodness! Thema’s beside herself with frustration.” Violet resisted the urge to cover her ears at Lady Carlisle’s deafening tone. “The doctor doesn’t want her on it so she is resigned to live in her sitting room for several more weeks, the poor dear. I visit as often as I can.”
“How terrible!” Sally exclaimed.
“What’s that, dear?” Lady Carlisle asked loudly with a hand to her ear.
“I will have to make myself available to go see her,” Sally said more loudly.
“Oh, I’m sure Thelma would adore that!”
Violet tuned out the rest of the conversation and hoped her mother did not expect her company for the visit to Mrs. Inglewood. The woman was a gossip, more so than her beloved friend, Lady Carlisle, and Violet was unsure she could handle the situation. Sipping her tea, she gazed out across the terrace, seeing nothing. Not the birds in the bird bath, not the dog chasing the birds, and certainly not the gardener chasing the dog. She was only vaguely aware that she and her mother had left Lady Carlisle’s home and arrived at the Webb’s shortly before midday.
Not until she saw Nigel unfalteringly descend the front steps of Webb Manor did she finally snap out of her state of oblivion. Surprisingly, she found herself taking a slight step backward as he lifted her hand to his lips. Her behavior won a raised eyebrow from her mother and a curious glance from her betrothed. He was not an enemy or someone to be afraid of, she reminded herself. He was the person who had broken through the dreamlike state she had been in most of the morning – and planned to marry her in the very near future. Perhaps the fact that she did not love him and would be forced to move across the country away from her family caused her to react this way. Or was it that his attentions and affections sparked not even the slightest bit of excitement within her soul while there was another man who could make her heart leap with just his gaze?
Reminding herself that she had nothing to fear, she linked her hand around Nigel’s extended arm. Upon entering the manor, Violet and Sally were seized by Nigel’s beautiful mother, Cynthia. Her perfectly curled rich brown hair shone as satin, her big brown eyes danced with excitement, and her petite form caused the top of her head to barely reach the middle of her son’s chest. Despite her height, Cynthia’s enthusiastic personality was contagious. Violet could not help but smile as the happy woman gave her a hug. Any woman who could have such an optimistic outlook on life, after enduring the things she had, was to be admired. The thought had often crept into Violet’s mind of how someone as serious as Nigel could have been raised by such an energetic woman.
“Come in! Come in!” Cynthia Webb exclaimed when she finished hugging her visitors. “I’ve been thrilled about this meeting all week.”
Nigel rolled his eyes. “If you will excuse me, ladies, I have business that needs tending to. Mother, please don’t expect me for lunch.” Then with a bow, he made his way through a door on one end of the entrance hall. Cynthia shook her head but motioned for Violet and Sally to follow her down the hall and into the drawing room.
Small tables set up around the room. Each of them contained different items – decorations, color swatches, various candles, china and silver, menus, and a few tables had things that Violet did not recognize from where she stood. Seeing all these things meant only one thing. She would need to select various things that she wanted for either the wedding or the engagement ball. She suddenly felt overwhelmed. If she knew the preparation for the wedding would take so much time and effort, she would have asked her father for the money he would have spent on the event and gotten married at Town Hall. However, she knew better than that. To her parents, this was the most important part of her upcoming nuptials.
Suddenly, she was filled with loathing. She didn’t see a need for all this fuss. Were all these material things more important than the promises she and Nigel would be making to each other? Could she compromise what she truly believed and go through with this? She’d always dreamed she would marry for love. A love that would cause her to do anything for the man she loved. Instead, she was marrying a man out of duty and honor and would be spending her time on, what she considered to be nonsense fluff rather than creating a stronger bond with the man she would spend the rest of her life with.
“I thought we could look at few things while we wait for Mrs. Hendricks to finish the meal.” Cynthia’s voice was bright cheery but Violet thought she detected a look of pity on her face. “Let’s start with the place settings for the engagement. Shall we?”
Violet and Sally followed Cynthia to the nearest table that had a half a dozen different settings of china, silver and napkins. Plain white china was encircled by an elegant sliver edging accompanied by dark maroon and navy blue napkins. There was also a setting of pearly white china with tiny pink flowers around the edges and light pink napkins to match. This one stood out the most to Violet and she did not even want to consider the others. One setting was green while others were blue, white with gold edging, and there was even a cream setting with embossed flowers encircling the plates. Before anyone could ask or say anything, she touched the pearly white china with tiny pink flowers. “This is the one I want for the wedding.”
“Oh,” Cynthia breathed. “I have other, perhaps more elegant, choices for the wedding. These were just some I thought might be nice for the engagement.”
“No, I want this set for my wedding dinner,” she said. Then she moved her hand to the plain white china with silver edging. “I want this one for the engagement.”
“Are you sure, dear?” Sally asked. “You haven’t had much time to think on it. We can always come back to this table.”
“Mother, I don’t need more time to think. I already know what I want and no amount of time is going to change that.” Violet glanced away from her mother. “If you don’t like it, just say so, but don’t confuse me into choosing what you want. This is, after all, my wedding.”
Sally looked astonished and abashed but recovered quickly. Her tones were clipped when she spoke. “Fine, we’ll go with these two then. What’s next, Cynthia?”
Violet stood speechless as the women moved on. Certainly she should be taken over her mother’s lap and given a good paddling. Talking back to her mother was not tolerated. But Violet wished only to be honest. She did not like the other settings and it made her upset that her mother would try to influence her into thinking she might want anything else. Not to mention, she wanted this to be over as quickly as possible.
The next table was full of candles; short, tall, fat, thin, and every assortment of colors she could imagine. This was an area Violet did not care much about so she stayed quiet while her mother and Cynthia debated which candles they should use and coordinated colors. When they made a decision, they asked Violet who agreed in order to move on to the next table. This went on for two more tables before a maid entered. Violet breathed a sigh of relief and followed the women into the dining room.
Much to her horror, however, before entering the room, Cynthia swiped a couple menu lists from another table and took them into the dining room. Evidently she wanted to be through with this too, but Violet had hoped to enjoy the meal without the talk of wedding plans.
“I thought we could discuss the meals while we eat. Perhaps then we can spend more time on other things.”
Violet looked down at her plate and suddenly lost her appetite. How she longed to be through with this part of her life. If only….
“Do you have any suggestions for any of the meals, Sally?”
“I have a few thoughts but I’d be interested to hear what you have first.” Sally placed her napkin on her lap.
As the woman debated and ultimately made decisions, Violet sat there lost somewhere between the present and the future. Her mind played scenes of the engagement ball, the dinner, the announcement, and the dance itself. While various visions were presenting themselves in her mind, she never appeared in them. She was a spectator from another world watching the events take place through a hazy mist.
“So is that everything?” she heard Cynthia say.
“No,” Violet said, speaking for the first time at lunch.
“What are we missing?” Sally looked at her daughter with doubt evident on her face.
“I would like a cake on the refreshment table at the wedding.”
“Cake?” Her mother threw a wary look at Cynthia.
“Yes. A butter pecan cake with a touch of rum. Doesn’t that sound delicious? It’s my absolute favorite!”
“Violet, that’s simply inappropriate. It just isn’t done.”
Violet gave a sigh of disgust and lost her sense of control. “Why do you ask for my ideas or my opinions if you don’t like them and aren’t planning to use them?”
“It isn’t that we don’t like them, darling….” Cynthia looked as though she was in possession of a humorous secret.
“That’s right,” Sally agreed. “It’s only that a wedding is too formal of an affair to serve cake.”
“I was under the impression that this is my wedding and I should have what I want? Why is it when I express something I want, you disregard it and do as you wish? Didn’t you already plan your wedding? Why can’t I have cake at mine?!” Violet was venomous and discovered she was out of breath. She knew she was bound to endure a lecture from her father for talking with such disrespect to her mother, but her mother was at the focal point of much irritation right now.
Sally sat there staring at her daughter, stunned for a moment before setting her jaw firmly and looking defiantly away from her. Cynthia, sensing the tension, offered an alternative. “She’s right, Sally, she should have what she wants. And, Violet, darling, your mother makes a valid point. With the guest list, it would be a faux pas to serve cake at the wedding. However, I think it might be possible to serve it during the engagement ball. If cake is something you really have your heart set on, I think that would be the best time to serve it. What do you say, darling?”
Violet looked at her mother who was looking at her plate, chasing a pea across it with her fork. “I suppose I could live with that.”
The remainder of lunch went by without further incident. Following lunch, the three women went back into the drawing room to do some more finalizing of plans. Violet made it a point not to say a word but go along with what was being said. It became obvious that she had been brought along as a spectator and her opinions were not wanted or needed. When she was asked what she thought, she agreed and avoided further confrontation.
After what seemed like an eternity, the finalizations had all been made and Sally and Violet departed Webb Manor and descended upon the Nelsons. Sally’s mood toward Violet had lightened, for which Violet was grateful. Violet had been looking forward to this dismal event with about as much enthusiasm as one would look upon the chore of cleaning an entire room of chamber pots and was thankful her mother’s previously sour mood would not be added to the depressing affair. They were greeted with the utmost protocol and, when they entered the drawing room where they were to be received by Mrs. Nora Nelson and her overbearing daughter, Maggie, Violet was not the least bit surprised when the older girl came floating across the room with an air of haughtiness that was befitting a lawyer’s only daughter.
“Violet, dear,” Maggie drawled loudly, ignoring the glare of annoyance Sally gave her. Nora Nelson, however, seemed overjoyed at her daughter’s jubilation. “It’s so good to see you! It seems simply ages since we last had ourselves a chat.”
“Nice to see you, Maggie.” Violet shook the girl’s hand.
Maggie ushered to a chair and began brushing Violet’s hair from her face and fluffing the sleeves of her dress. “Now tell me everything about the wedding. I’m just dying to know.” Maggie’s sing-song voice and flailing hands as she spoke gave her words a more dramatic air than was necessary.
“Nothing to report that will make it into the history books, I assure you.” Violet spoke with a bit of bitterness in her voice. “Although, heaven knows we’ve tried.”
No one seemed to hear this last part, which she instantly thanked the heavens for.
“Oh, it’ll be marvelous!” Sally sank into a nearby chair. “The musicians we’ve chosen are from Sacramento and played for Governor Irwin this past spring. They are simply wonderful and I don’t believe anyone from these parts has heard them.”
Violet watched the faces of their hostesses as Sally continued to talk of the extravagances of the wedding. It would be the talk of the town for some time to come Violet was certain. Her mother would not hear of doing anything someone else had done previously. If that meant more intense planning and brainstorming sessions, so be it. All this made Violet tired and long for a simple wedding in her parent’s backyard. As it was, they were planning to have the massive event in the chapel with the entirety of the surrounding county invited.
Sally continued to chatter while Nora and Maggie sat enthralled and excited about what would become the gossip of the town. Yet Violet could see that their eyes were seething. At one time Maggie had wanted and expected to marry the eligible Nigel Webb. He had courted her for nearly a year before he switched his marital sights to Violet. Though the engagement had been planned for years, no one outside of the family knew of it. To the Nelsons, Maggie was the daughter of a prestigious lawyer and Violet had connections with people of whom Maggie’s father could only ever dream. Therefore she had received the proposal. After all, Violet had dined with the governor upon occasion, several senators, and had been introduced to the vice president. Not to mention, her dowry could turn any man’s head.
Is that what I am? she wondered briefly. Something to be bought or sold? The thought made her feel sick.
“Are you feeling quite alright, dearest?” Maggie’s sing-song voice drifted through her mind with mock concern. Violet looked up and saw everyone staring at her. “You don’t look so well. Can I get you something?” Maggie placed a small hand upon Violet’s forehead.
Violet pulled away from the girl’s touch. “No, thank you. I’m fine. I’m afraid it has been a very long day and I’m tired.”
“She’s right. We should be getting along. We have not been home since early this morning and we are expecting company this evening.” Sally rose and Violet, relieved, followed suit.
“Oh, who will be accompanying you?” Nora asked, hungry for the information.
“Mr. Webb will be coming over with a colleague of his. They have some business to discuss with Father prior to supper,” Violet said.
It was evident to Violet that Nora thought it was anything but wonderful. “Isn’t he just a fabulous man? You should feel very lucky to have landed someone so high up on the ladder.”
“He is quite the gentleman but luck had nothing to do with it. Why, even if he were the president, if he didn’t treat me well, we would not be discussing the matter.”
“Come along, Violet. We really must be getting on.”
Turning, she followed her mother out of the room and gave herself a pat on the back for infuriating Nora so easily.
* * * * *
Violet found dinner to be very dull that evening. Nigel graced Barnes Hill with his dominating presence accompanied by the equally influential Mr. Samuel Williams. They spent the entire meal discussing the upcoming convention with her father. Evidently, a new state constitution would be drafted by the end of the year, though Violet wasn’t certain what was wrong with the current one or what the new one would contain. However, that discussion, along with various issues surrounding the community, took up the entire meal. Nigel smiled at her a time or two, but gave up trying to draw her into the conversation and then basically ignored her. Following the meal, the men continued their debates and conversation in the drawing room and Violet found she was having a difficult time keeping her eyes open and focused on anything. As the sun began to set, she excused herself with every intention of retiring for the night.
Walking down the hall to the stairs which led to her room, however, she found her feet taking her beyond the stairs, retreating out the servants’ door to the grounds in back of the house. She was shocked to see herself strolling about. She did not make it a habit to walk alone past dark, yet the night air refreshed and rejuvenated her somehow. Her soul needed to feel the outdoors rather than be cooped up in a house or carriage all day long. Sorting out wedding details and using perfect manners as a guest in others’ houses all day, had exhausted her.
Once she reached the fountain in the middle of the yard, she sat on one of the benches and took off her shoes and stockings. The water glittered in the light of the setting sun which grew dimmer by the minute. Still, she sat, dazzled and amazed that something so simple could provide so much pleasure. The fountain was made of granite carved into a little cherub. He was posed above a small pool of water peering mischievously over a rock from which he was hiding. There were tall granite sprigs of grass in various places around him where the water sprayed out, encircled him and trickled down the rock.
In the growing darkness, Violet could still visualize every drop of water as it splashed into the pool beneath, reminding her of the tinkling of little bells at Christmas time. The scene was so magical that she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply of the fresh smell of the air. When she opened her eyes, they were drawn to the clearing beyond the trees. The winds were calm. The grasses in the clearing were quiet. The moonlight slowly grew brighter and she could almost see the wildflowers amongst the vast green of the field. How she longed to be a young girl again. To run carefree through the grasses and wildflowers of the clearing. Sighing, she shook her head and resigned herself to her lonely lot in life as the wife of a politician.
If only there was something she could do to ensure her happiness. Perhaps she could talk someone into moving east with her. Probably not. This was, after all, California. The land of adventure and opportunity. No, nothing could be done. She had agreed to this marriage and was honor bound. All she could do was trudge forward bravely and accept her lot. If only…. She stopped herself before she finished the thought. There was no point in playing the ‘if only…’ game. It got a person nowhere except depressed.
She stood and gently brushed the bottom of her skirt. Looking to the clearing one last time before going back inside, she saw the shadow of a man silhouetted against the night sky. She recognized that outline as the form of the very handsome and mysterious Blake Stanley. What caused him to spend his evenings on horseback staring into the night? What was it that kept him so solitary? Why did she care? With her thoughts now on someone else’s apparent misery and seclusion, she shook her head and, gathering her things, walked barefoot through the grass back to the house.