I glanced at the grandfather clock, meting out the time with each the swing of the pendulum. Mesmerized by its hypnotic swing, I stopped on my way through the front parlour to stare. Each minute watching the pendulum was like watching the axe fall. First on Anne Boleyn, then Catherine Parr, Lady Jane Gray followed, soon enough it would be my turn.
I couldn’t believe he was late again. I knew he had a habit of being ‘fashionably late,’ as he called it, but it just meant he slept in to the last possible moment before deciding to get ready. And it wasn’t as though he could dress quickly either. His “uniform” consisted of at least thirteen pieces, so many more than the ordinary gentleman’s suit. But like the dandy he was, his lateness correlated with his appearance; he always looked impeccable. He derived great pleasure from wreaking havoc, setting up plans for others, controlling the outcome of any given situation.
There were moments at which I considered him more as an ornament to my status than an actual, functioning human being. At others, he proved me wrong, showing me that he was capable of exercising incredible linguistic dexterity, especially with poetry. Each visit from him had been accompanied by a purple carnation and an eloquently penned Petrarchan, Shakespearean, or Spenserian sonnet; they were never written in the conventional manner. He would always play with form and content, declaring one day he would come up with his own, the Ashcroftian sonnet, for me.
Tonight would be different. Tonight was supposed to be different. Tonight he had promised to be early, to behave decorously, and to observe and obey all the niceties of upper class etiquette, but he was nowhere to be seen. He had never been more than two hours late; I had been waiting for three and a half. I paced along the hall and stationed myself before a mirror before adjusting my mask and tucking and untucking a curled strand of hair behind my ear, debating whether it looked better dangling before my mask or not.
“Miss Mirabelle!” exclaimed Carson gliding from dining room to kitchen with a tray in hand, “What are you still doing here?”
“Stressing out, what does it look like?! I’m not going, he’s not coming, I know my parents had doubts about him and now looking back, I should have listened. Now I’ll look the fool,” I sighed, combing my fingers through my hair.
“Now, Miss Mirabelle, don’t be making assumptions about Lord Jonathan. He’s a good man. Always wants the best for you. I’ll bet he’s just up to something special for you, that’s all,” said Carson.
“But Carson, I can’t wait for him any longer. I’m beyond what could possibly be considered ‘fashionably late,’” I said frowning, “I never imagined he’d take so long. I suppose it may be better for me to show up alone than not at all. Oh my poor parents! How will they survive the humiliation? How will I?”
I sank into an armchair, crumpling my cerulean butterfly dress under me as I held my head in my hands, resisting the urge to give into the weaker side of my nature. I was a lady and I would hold onto my dignity so long as I was in the presence of a man, regardless of his social class or age. Carson placed the tray on the side table and knelt down next to me.
“Is it as horrible as you make it out to be, miss?” asked Carson gently.
“Of course it is!” I snapped, narrowing my eyes at him, so that he shrunk back into his place.
I regretted my tone immediately and I offered a small smile as apology for snapping so easily; it was completely unladylike. If I had reservations about crying in the presence of a man, I should have felt the same about my anger. A lady should never let her composure slip. It was a strong belief amongst the upper class that to do so is the beginning of all woe.
Alice, my lady’s maid, had her arms full of dirty linen, was passing through the front hall to the washing room when she caught sight of me still waiting in the hall. Initially, she gave me her usual warm smile, but one look at my costume sent her into hysterics.
“Miss, oh miss, you’ve gone and undone all our work! Let us redo your hair. And look at the state of your dress,” cried Alice, dropping the linens to fuss over me.
“Oh…apologies Alice,” I said rising to my feet to inspect myself in the hallway mirror.
“Upstairs!” said Alice, ushering me from the mirror.
Alice called to another servant girl to finish up with the linens as she headed for the stairs. Assembling several other maids who were responsible for helping dress me each day, Alice fussed about my appearance to them as they rushed into my dressing room from the servants’ entrance in the east corner of my room. They first removed the smudged cosmetics and reapplied an autumn-hued palette, undid my hair from the updo and combing out my hair, adding ruby and citrine gemstones to my hair, changing my butterfly dress for a regal burning bush and handed me a matching mask.
“Say, is that not Lord Christian Windsor?” asked a slow-witted maid, staring distractedly out the window.
I scrambled to her in a frenzy, throwing back the curtains for a better look.
“What’s he doing here?” I demanded
“Perhaps he’s here to escort you to the ball,” tittered another maid, nudging me suggestively.
“That misogynistic narcissist?! I would much rather confess to witchcraft before the Spanish Inquisition than appear at the masquerade on his arm!” I sputtered, the colour rising to my cheeks, resembling my dress.
“Aren’t you being a bit harsh on him? He’s the most eligible bachelor in all of Europe,” reminded Alice, “And you must admit, he writes ever so scripturiently. Besides, who was it that ardently refused to leave his side as a child?”
“Hush, Alice! Don’t ever bring that up again!” I exclaimed.
Twisting a strand of my hair around my index finger, I drew away from the window.
“It’s true, Miss Mirabelle, one day you’ll have to admit it to yourself. You can’t be in denial forever,” smiled Alice.
“Are you out of your mind?” I snorted, trying to divert the conversation elsewhere “He’s a mediocre scholar. Unworthy of the praise you bestow upon him.”
Before the girls could provide any sort of rebuttal in Christian’s defense, a light knock came at the door.
“Miss Mirabelle, young Lord Windsor is in the parlour requesting an audience with you. He is very insistent that it be immediate,” called Carson.
Gathering my dress in my fists, I made my way to the door with the grace of an elephant, leaping over clothes, hair accessories, and masks strewn across the floor. Behind me, my ladies were giggling and whispering about Christian, but mostly about my agility. Alice followed me to the door, opening it for me with that permanent smile she always had for me.
“Miss, remember to smile for him,” whispered Alice, handing me my white lace gloves, “Even if he’s a baboon.”
A small smile tugged at the edges of my mouth and I allowed it to remain there. With a curt nod, I took Carson’s arm and began my descent.
“Good evening Lord Windsor. To what do I owe this pleasure?” I said, curtseying and inclining my head slightly.
Lord Windsor scrambled to his feet and bowed to me; taking my hand gently he led me to the sofa, “Good evening, my lady. It is out of great affection that I bring you this distressful news. Your esteemed Lord Jonathan Ashcroft will not be able to escort you as intended to the masquerade ball at our estate tonight.”
“Would my lord care to elaborate?” I asked.
The smile was now painted onto my face like a macabre scarecrow’s.
Resuming his seat, Lord Windsor continued, “You see, my dear Lady Mirabelle, Lord Ashcroft has left the city in pursuit of pleasures elsewhere. I suspect he could not stand the prospect of being tied down in marriage. By escorting you to this ball, he would have done just that. He is young and does not understand the finer passions of domesticity. From what I’ve heard, he’s run away with a stunner.”
“You–– you had something to do with this, didn’t you?!” I exclaimed, springing from my seat.
Lord Windsor’s smile melted away and he looked straight into my eyes.
“My darling Mirabelle, he may have been my competitor for your affections, but I am a gentleman and would never stoop so low as to do away with my enemy in any way,” replied Lord Windsor earnestly.
I opened my mouth to protest, to protect Jonathan’s reputation, but Christian held up a hand.
“Once a dandy, always a dandy. You know how artificial and charming they all appear to be. You would have lost him young. A man like him knows that only youth holds him immortal and at the height of his youth. What better moment to depart than that? To show how brightly he burned and how quickly that flame can be subdued,” continued Lord Windsor demurely.
“It was as Pater always warned; Jonathan always sought to burn with a hard gemlike flame,” I sighed bitterly, “This is my fault; you’re right, I should have known he’d leave me as quickly as autumn gives way to winter. He hasn’t…been subdued yet, has he?”
“There’s no need to be harsh on yourself, Lady Mirabelle. But no, he’s no fool. He knows he still has a few more years to enjoy,” reassured Lord Windsor.
He stood, extending his hand once more.
I took a deep breath and went against my instinct to refuse him, taking his extended right hand in mine.
We pulled up to the Windsor manor, easily the most extravagant in all of London, sitting on at least four and a half hectares of land. It was built in a traditional English style with some borrowings from our former colony across the Atlantic. As a manor typical of the countryside, it exhibited tall encircling hedges, cast-iron gates and circular driveway featuring a fountain in the centre. However, given that it was in the midst of this great metropolis, the Windsor was striking in comparison to its neighbours. The house itself was quite small, being only about half a hectare in size, leaving ample space for Lady Windsor’s famous Italian rose garden.
As the carriage pulled up to the manor, a footman rushed to open the door of our carriage, but Christian held up a hand and the man resumed his place at the door. Christian leapt from the carriage with a flourish, his tailcoat blazing like the feathers of a phoenix, holding his hand out to me. I took his hand realizing that in my nervousness and deadly hatred for him I didn’t notice I was adorned to match his dress, his family colours.
“My Lady Mirabelle,” said Christian, his smile strained, “Please, try to enjoy yourself even if I am your escort of the evening.”
I mirrored his tense smile as we made our way up the marble stairs to the French double doors. My chest grew heavy as the anchor plunged into ground, begging me to stop as each step became more and more painful to take. I knew what my parents wanted. I knew what Christian demanded. And I couldn’t give it to them. To do so would be to give up who I was. All my education had taught me to resist becoming a mere ornament. As I entered the house I felt the anchor rip away leaving me bare. I was nothing more than a trinket.
“Announcing the arrival of young Lord Christian Windsor and his companion, the ever captivating Lady Mirabelle Evans,” said the Windsor butler loudly.
The full ballroom turned its head as we entered, parting as we made our way into the room. I dared to shoot a look at my parents; their faces were disgustingly haughty. I was ashamed that my parents’ idealizations of who I was to be had now become my reality. Now I would be married to a man who couldn’t appreciate my talents or my intelligence, and who would reduce me to my basest function: for progeny. I turned my attention to Lady and Lord Windsor; their faces reflected the same smug pride of my parents. Next to me, I had never seen Christian burn so brightly. He was mesmerizing and I began to question whether I had made the right choice in refusing him. But it was still inevitable that I would spend the rest of my days rotting behind a veil of artificiality. I became the one thing I loathed more than hypocrisy and there was no way of escaping; I had ensured that myself. Yet, did I deserve to be used so cruelly?
In the realm of the English court, it was customary for the nobles to snap at one another for prestige like a pack of savage dogs. It was once said of our colony across the Atlantic that the Americans committed unimaginably barbaric acts of enslavement and subjugation of an inferior people, but the real savages were the English. Overnight, power changed hands and laws changed on the whim of a nobleman.
I had once believed in the objectivity of the law, but the philosophies of morality and law began to swirl together in a melting pot so that I could no longer distinguish my allies from my enemies. I had trusted that my parents would be able to recognize what was best for me. I had naïvely believed that Jonathan would outgrow his foppish tendencies. When he had matured, I trusted he would opt to continue remaining by my side, grow old with me, to raise a family based on mutual attraction and interest in intellectual pursuits. It wasn’t that I couldn’t learn to appreciate what Christian could provide for me, but Christian had not been my choice. Christian had always treated me with respect. And my parents were not wrong in assuming that Christian could provide for me luxuries beyond Jonathan’s capabilities, for the Windsors were the most affluent and powerful family in all of England. But he had not been my choice.
Looking back on my decision, I see now that I had never looked beyond the surface of Jonathan. He had manipulated me into a sense of freedom, as he had done with everyone else. Every season a lady fell into disrepute. At first I didn’t understand why, I was too young, too naïve to open my eyes to the reason before me. It had been him all along. I never had a choice to begin with. All along, I had been his marionette. Despite my parents’ ignorance of my preferences, they had been right as parents often are. Despite confining my existence to progeny, I could not bear to make Christian unhappy even if it cost me my own happiness.
He had never manipulated me. He had always held me in high regard, treated me like the lady I was bred to be. Though Christian could never compare to Jonathan in the literary arts, he had his merits. Christian was well-educated in foreign languages and diplomacy. He was bred for the parliamentary system, to sit in the House of Lords, just as I was bred to be his wife.
“My Lady Mirabelle, would you care to dance with me?” whispered Christian softly in my ear.
At this proximity, notes of cedar rose and mingled with pink chiffon. It curled and enraptured me, reminding me of my childhood spent at the Windsor country estate. It was in those days I had gotten along with Christian. It was in those days before I had met Jonathan that I knew I had wanted to be Christian’s wife.
As a child I didn’t care much for practicality, but as I grew up, fear dominated me. The fear of one day having to pass on my wisdom to my children, to take care of someone else, to explain to them as my parents had to me the workings of high society. I didn’t want to grow up, but it was irreversible. So all I had to fall back on was my education. I came from a family wealthy enough to afford every type of education one could imagine. I had studied everything from the classics to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, from mathematics to astronomy, from embroidery to music to the domestic sciences. Regardless of how much I knew, I still worried that I was lacking. I wanted to be a good mother, to impart to my children everything I had learned, to protect them from the same mistakes I had made, wasn’t that what every parent wanted? Or was this something society had conditioned us to want?
We had changed, but not that much. Inside, Christian was still the chivalric English gentleman, the last of an almost extinct species. He was precious and I knew, but could never admit. Pride prevented me from admitting I was wrong. But it was so simple; all I had to do was admit I was wrong and that I had been wrong all along. It was funny how my intuition as a child was more accurate than the intuition I had after all these years of education. It was only fair to return his affections. It was my turn to return his favours, unrequited and delayed for so long.
I took his hand in mine, a smile that matched his brilliance lit up my face. I had been lying to myself. Before me stood the most honest man in all of England. He was the last person who would reduce me to progeny. He was the only person who would appreciate my intellect.
Prompt: Imagine yourself as being a famous novelist, poet, artist, actor, etc. And produce a work worthy of that reputation (I kind of cheated, I reworked an existing piece I had)