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A Private Hotel for Gentle Ladiesby Ellen Cooney
Charlotte Heath was in such a hurry to get to her husband, it took her a while to notice the absence of her bells. If they were there, she would not have seen her husband at the edge of their town's big square, under an elm tree, bending his head toward a young, pretty woman, to kiss her.
It was midafternoon. No one else was out. No one else was watching. Except for Charlotte, her horses, her husband, and the woman, the roads around the square were deserted. All the houses were shuttered against the cold.
If it weren't for the absence of bells . . .
She'd imagine it like a song: If it weren't for the bells, the lack of the bells, if it weren't for the lack of the jingle of bells . . .
Her sleigh in the snow down Mulberry Street should not have been silent. It should have announced itself, as sleighs are supposed to, in a chimey, wild jangle, which the horses would add to with snorting and horsey whistles, just to make noise. They disliked snow. They missed hearing the rhythm of carriage wheels on uncovered roads, and their own, steady clip-clopping.
If he'd had some warning--and he would have recognized her right away, by the bells--her husband could have thought of good excuses. He could have passed himself off as a man who'd offered his arm to a solitary woman, in a social-decorum sort of way, as if they were headed for a stroll across the park, and never mind that the walkways weren't clear. The big square did not resemble a town green so much as a white, high-banked, North Pole tundra, with whirls of snow blowing everywhere. Hard white sunlight was in the trees, in every branch, like an extra layer of ice.
Who was the woman? Charlotte didn't know.
The snow in the road was deeply packed. The blades of the sleigh ran as smoothly as a child's fast sled. There was a basic unnaturalness about soundless, gliding runners, Charlotte felt, even though she'd grown up in the East and loved winter.
It was the middle of February, 1900. She was supposed to feel glad and optimistic about this new century. It didn't seem enough to be astonished to keep finding herself still alive.
Her husband turned away from the woman in plenty of time for the kiss not to actually happen. You had to know him to know he was saying (with a look, no words), "This is something we have to postpone."
Charlotte remembered that sometime last summer the cook's girl and boy had taken her bells from the stable for some game of theirs in the kitchen. They had not put them back, which was typical of them. Except for Charlotte and the cook, Mrs. Petty, the feeling in the household about those children was this: they were like two red squirrels who'd burrowed in through the walls, and very much needed to be removed.
They were gone now, having moved with their mother into Boston. Charlotte loved them. She'd been sick. She owed them, in a way, her life.
Her horses were fond of the bells. There were many more than she needed, in many sizes. Some were as small as buttons; some were as large as fists. She was always collecting sleigh bells. She was encouraged by the Heaths to be musical. She had not learned an instrument as a child. She did badly at learning piano, worse at violin, worse still at other strings, and worst of all at woodwinds. She was told she lacked a feel for scales and notes and could barely distinguish a key. She had no patience.
Maybe the horses knew what lay ahead before she did. They were unusually quiet. After the turn onto Mulberry Street, they slowed down a lot more than they had to.
Their town, south of Boston, was settled in the earliest of colonial times. It was a Puritan-prosperous place: big homes, good manners, modern conveniences, gentility, professions, sacred inheritances, nothing out of place. Her husband loved their home like a box he happily fit into. But he was always prepared to burst out of it. Charlotte never traveled with him on business trips.
It was the home he grew up in. It was enormous; it was the only one on the street. A Heath had taken it over in 1820 from a man who'd made a fortune as a sea merchant and who then, having become religious as a result of a near-shipwreck, envisioned the place as a self-sustained college for the training of missionaries, which had not happened.
The house was elegant and austere, with so many added-on wings and hidden rooms you could wander around for hours without sight of another person. Two of her husband's sisters lived there with their husbands, and his two unmarried sisters, and two of his brothers and their wives. And Charlotte's father-in-law. Charlotte's mother-in-law.
A dozen of them. One of her.
The various Heath children--six of them who had parents in the household--lived at their schools now; two were old enough to have established their own homes. Charlotte's husband was the baby of his family.
It never occurred to him to live anywhere else, not even at their summer place--on the coast, in Cape Ann, in the village of Squab Cove--where Charlotte always longed to be, no matter the season. He didn't care for the sea. He tolerated it one weekend a month in the summer because that was what was expected of him. He disliked dampness.
Just now, he was involved in arranging money for the switching of a factory in Ohio. He had been called home unexpectedly for the death of one of his uncles. Had he brought the woman with him?
He did a great deal of work in the Midwest and felt a personal relationship, something like love, with the train he rode to get out there: he'd arranged the money for a part of the track to be laid. That particular factory was in the process of changing from the making of kitchen and parlor stoves to the making of bicycles.
Everyone needed stoves, but everyone wanted new bicycles. That was where the money really was. Her husband didn't ride one himself (as far as she knew), but he'd offered to get her one so she could ride in the lanes at some future point, like his sisters and sisters-in-law. The future point meant, "if someday you're well." There was always an "if." They had thought she'd never get well.
If he brought home a bicycle for her, she'd let it sit in the yard and rust. Or give it to the maids. There was only one kind of riding she was interested in.
She'd given the horses their heads on the way across town; her ears were still ringing with rushing, icy air. Her heart had barely started beating again in its usual way, from that wonderful fisting-up that seized her inside the chest like a good, big hand, then let go.
She wasn't reckless. She knew her way around speed. Before she was sick, people were always telling her husband to make her stop going so fast, and he would say, "Charlotte, you must change the way you carry yourself, you have got to slow down," and she would answer that he was right, they all were right, and then she'd go at a ladylike canter out of town, to gallop through the woods and fields and old logging roads, where no one saw her but God.
No bells. Only a silence.
Her husband and the woman must have just left the house she was heading to. It belonged to her husband's uncle: the man who'd died. A Heath uncle, Owen, of the lawyer branch of the family.
It had happened the morning before; he was eighty. In his house, a high, handsome mansard full of marble and gleaming wood and French furniture, they were holding his wake.
The branch of the family her husband belonged to was the finance branch. "Our Mr. Heath owns money and he arranges things" was how Mrs. Petty explained him to her children. He liked that. "He owns things himself and when other people want to get things, or manufacture things, they give him money and he arranges it."
Charlotte saw the way the woman let go of her husband's arm. Slowly, reluctantly. Confidently. It was the same way people stopped talking about personal things when a servant came into the room.
She pulled back the reins and the two horses stopped. She knew it looked wasteful of her to have brought out the pair for such a light sleigh, but they hated being apart. They were young, handsome chestnuts, high-headed, proud of themselves, healthy. It had been a long time since she'd been out with them and they kept letting her know their joy to have her back, even though they'd never been separated from her completely: someone from the stable had brought them to her window every day when she was sick.
Her husband took off his hat--a stiff, dark one. A mourning hat. He brushed his hand along the crown, as if a load of snow had settled on it, weighing down on him. But there wasn't any snow; he was procrastinating. He took a long time to put it back on, and he did so with an awkwardness that didn't suit him. He was amazed to see his wife and her horses and sleigh, coming upon him silently. He wasn't in the habit of being stolen up on.
John Hayward Heath. Hays, he was called.
Funny he should speak to the woman first and not to her. But at least he didn't whisper.
"Why, here is Charlotte and her horses." The woman didn't know who Charlotte was--or pretended she didn't. Hays said, "My wife."
The woman wore a fur coat--dark mink--and a matching hat, and stylish leather boot shoes, very narrow and pointed. In spite of the coat, you could tell her corset was steel-lined. Steel-lined corsets had a particular look. The coat had a tightly gathered waist. It was belted, with the ends in a perfect knot, exactly in her middle, pulled tightly.
Charlotte hadn't worn a corset for a long time. She lost a lot of weight when she was sick; she didn't need one. But she'd made up her mind never to put one on again. You don't get up from a sickbed and find that you are the same person you were before. It maddened her to think of herself as a weakling.
Why, here is Charlotte and her horses. Charlotte and her horses. That sounded like a song, too.
She saw the way her husband looked at the woman.
He was soft in the face. She knew that look: serious, naked, with a longing that sooner or later would be satisfied. He had that. He was someone who knew that whatever his longings were, he wouldn't walk away from them unsatisfied.
Until this moment, she had believed that there were only two things to cause that expression: desire for her, in the days before she was sick, and babies, especially when someone showed him a new one, or even mentioned one.
She had no idea how much it was required of her to keep saying she was sorry not to have had a child by now. She knew from other women she should never stop trying, she should not give up hope; she should think of three misses as a rehearsal, or dues you must pay, as if bearing full-term was something she'd eventually get right, something she would have earned. She'd developed the talent, at her time of the month, to never pay attention to the sight of her own blood. She avoided wearing clothes of any red shade.
At the summer place there was a female cat maintained by one of the maids. It was not allowed outdoors because Charlotte's father-in-law, in retirement, was studying birds. There were feeders all over the yards, birdhouses in the trees, particular flowers and shrubs to attract certain types. Cats in this system were murderers.
The summer-place cat must have felt it was in solitary confinement. All the maids felt sorry for it; then one day a fisherman brought over a scrawny orange kitten. The cat took the kitten by the neck and walked away with it to a dark corner--either to destroy it or to adopt it. Charlotte happened to be there. She was always turning up in kitchens.
This was the first time in her life she understood what it was like to be shot through her body with pure, stinging, burning envy. The cat came proudly and boastfully back into the light to show off its baby, as if saying to the humans, "I don't recall giving birth, but I suppose I must have done so, and now I am very pleased." Charlotte watched the cat lick every part of the kitten, but after that, until the kitten was grown, she stayed away from that part of the house.
The woman with her husband wasn't maternal-looking. She wore her hat at an angle, very stylishly, in spite of the fact of the wake.
Hays and the woman stepped away from each other. They did a good job. They could have been strangers. They looked as if they were used to being parted when they didn't want to be parted.
There was no guilty look on her husband's face when he realized his wife was in the middle of Mulberry Street.
She wasn't supposed to be out. He looked amazed, but he didn't look guilty. Charlotte thought, "He doesn't think he'd be doing something not all right in kissing her." He looked like what he was doing was right.
"I was on my way to look at your uncle," called out Charlotte, as if he had asked her. She'd expected to surprise him at the wake: the only husband among all those relatives without a wife at his side, not counting the widowers. He was the Heath whose wife was always absent. She'd thought he minded that. He wasn't particularly fond of Uncle Owen, but that wouldn't have kept him from playing a part he knew well: a man who's doing what he should. A man who gets things right.
A man who gets things.
Heaths took mourning--and all ceremonies--seriously. Uncle Owen had lived much longer than anyone thought he would, and for that alone, Charlotte admired him.
His heart had stopped while he dozed in front of his fire, exactly the way he had wanted to die. He was a competent lawyer, and he was rich, and neither overly greedy nor overly hoardful, which was true of all Heaths. He never denied himself brandy, butter-rich foods, sweets. He was gout-ridden, heart-weak, blood-torpid, and as fat as the Falstaff of Shakespeare, whom in fact he had played.
From the Hardcover edition.
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