Read A Cup of Tea: A Novel of 1917 Online

Authors: Amy Ephron

Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #New York (N.Y.), #General, #Literary, #Triangles (Interpersonal Relations), #Historical Fiction, #Upper Class Women, #Fiction

A Cup of Tea: A Novel of 1917 (2 page)

 

W
hat she thought about while Rosemary was in the closet. The picture on the wall of the child sitting cross-legged in the woods with an angel overhead, an obvious holdover from when Rosemary was young, the satin coverlet on the bed, the ivory and silver hairbrushes on the vanity, the warmth from the fire that made everything else seem so faraway. She hadn’t realized how tired she’d been or how long it had been, not really that long, since she had sat down. Actually, a moment’s peace.

“Try these,” said Rosemary coming out of the closet with stockings and a skirt and a clean over-blouse.
She didn’t even have the heart to protest but rather let Rosemary press the clothes on her and show her into the bathroom.

Rosemary lit a cigarette and leaned against the mantel. Rosemary considered how she could phrase her inquiry, what she could ask to bring the girl out. Her temporary musing was broken by the door opening and a woman’s voice.

“I hear you’re on some kind of a tear.” The woman who entered the room had a clipped way of speaking. Her clothes were plain and tailored but looked expensive. Her hair was cut unfashionably short. She seemed to take everything in in an instant. Her name was Jane Howard and she had been Rosemary’s best friend since childhood and, from the way she entered the room, she had been doing this, entering without knocking, for some time.

Rosemary put a finger over her mouth to urge her to speak quietly. Jane looked around curiously. “What have you done?”

“I don’t know quite,” said Rosemary laughing. “It was an impulse. I met a girl. Well, I found her really.”

“You—what?”

Rosemary stepped over to her and spoke softly. “Shh. Let me tell you. She was on a corner. She asked me for some money. And I thought—what if—well, you’ll see her. What if circumstance, well, anyway, I
thought what if I brought her home, gave her some clothes. God knows I have clothes I can spare. Helped her find a job somewhere. What if I actually made a difference. It would be so easy really.”

“It’s not that I don’t commend you,” said Jane, who privately thought people weren’t quite like strays to be taken in so easily. “But have you thought about—” The way Rosemary stared at her stopped her mid-sentence.

“I couldn’t resist it,” said Rosemary. “I mean, think how I would feel if…I were actually able to help. What’s the danger? Or, if there is one, doesn’t that make it all the more exciting?” She laughed a little at herself. “Haven’t you ever done anything on impulse,” she asked, “just because you felt you should!”

“Well, of course, I have but—”

Their exchange was interrupted by the bathroom door opening and the object of their conversation stepping back into the room. The color had returned to her cheeks. The long, tangled hair was brushed now and her dark lips were quite full. She had deep, lighted eyes. The plain dark skirt, white shirt and sweater that had been pressed on her made her look almost as if she were one of them.

“Jane Howard,” said Rosemary, “this is Miss—”

“Smith,” said the girl. She stood there strangely still and unafraid. “Eleanor Smith.”

 

“C
harmed,” said Jane Howard. But before they could have more of an interchange, the bedroom door opened again and Philip Alsop, Rosemary’s fiancé, entered the room.

Eleanor studied him, although she was careful not to look at him too long, shyly dropping her eyes or turning back to Rosemary. She was unclear, at first, what his relation was to Rosemary. Brother? No, probably not, there wasn’t enough of a physical resemblance. He was tall, good-looking with aristocratic lines, high cheekbones, but more substantial somehow, broad-shouldered with a slightly athletic countenance enhanced by the fact that his skin was tanned which
Eleanor mistakenly attributed to idle afternoons taken up with lawn tennis, boating, or whatever it was that gentlemen did on idle afternoons. But, really, it was from working on the docks as he owned a shipping business which he’d built up on his own. He was staring at her. She was used to that, men staring at her. What she wasn’t used to was wanting to stare at them back.

“Rosemary, may I come in?” he said, somewhat after the fact. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you had—Oh, hi, Jane.” He hadn’t seen Jane at first because he was so struck by the appearance of Eleanor. There was something frail about the girl and yet exciting as if she had another side. Not like Rosemary’s usual friends who were done up to appear exactly what they were. He looked at Rosemary questioningly.

“Philip, this is my friend Miss Smith. Eleanor Smith. We were just having tea. Would you like a cup, Philip? Jane?”

Philip shook his head, “No, I—”

Jane Howard interrupted. “I’ll help myself as always,” she said as she filled a plate with tea sandwiches and poured herself a cup of tea.

Philip had trouble taking his eyes off Eleanor even though he was speaking to Rosemary. “I was just going to ask you, Rose, to come into the library for a moment.”

Rosemary laughed up at him. “I haven’t done a thing about the wedding all day.”

“It’s not that,” said Philip. “Actually, I can’t wait until it’s over. I don’t mean that the way it sounds, but it is such a fuss for a single afternoon.”

“Not such a fuss to start an entire life,” said Rosemary smiling up at him.

Of course, thought Eleanor understanding, in that moment, their connection, he was her betrothed. She’d looked like a girl who had a perfect life.

“And you know,” said Rosemary laughing, “how much I like to arrange things.”

Philip smiled because he knew that every detail of the wedding mattered to her. “Would you excuse us, Jane? Miss Smith?” he asked looking once more at Miss Smith as he said it.

Rosemary answered for them. “Of course, they would.” She followed Philip out of the room.

The rain was still beating steadily outside. Jane Howard walked over to the fireplace and took a cigarette off the mantel. She offered one to Eleanor. “Would you like one?” she asked.

Miss Smith narrowed her eyes. “I’d love one, thanks,” she said almost languidly. And, in that moment, it appeared she might not be as innocent as she seemed.

 

P
hilip shut the door behind them to the library. “What gives?” he asked.

Rosemary came over and kissed him playfully on the mouth. “What do you mean, what gives?”

“Who
is
she?” Philip asked. “Where did you find her?”

“Could you tell, then?” said Rosemary laughing. “I picked her up.”

Rosemary walked over to the fire. There was a mirror in a large wood frame behind them on the mantel. Rosemary looked at herself in the glass for a
moment and at Philip standing behind her. She turned to him.

“That is what I did.” She was sort of pleased with herself. It was like something in a Dostoyevsky story, to pick a girl up in the dusk and bring her home. “I found her on the corner of Greenwich,” she said. “I don’t know. You read about these things. And I just did it.”

“And now what do you plan to do?” asked Philip. This wasn’t the reaction she had expected. “You can’t just pick someone up like that. And, then what?”

“I don’t know,” said Rosemary. “We haven’t talked yet. Be nice to her. Be awfully nice to her. Show her—make her feel—”

Philip cut her off. “I’m not sure it can be done.”

“Why not?…” said Rosemary, pouting again. “I want to. I decided—”

“She is so astonishingly pretty,” he said.

“Pretty?” said Rosemary. “Do you think so? I hadn’t thought of it.” She turned and looked at her own face in the mirror for a moment. Philip looked at her reflection, as well.

“She’s absolutely lovely,” he insisted. “Take a look at her again.” Rosemary turned to him. “I was knocked out by her when I came into your room just now. Even so, I think you’re making a mistake.” He
laughed and said, “But let me know if Miss Smith is going to dine with us tonight.”

Rosemary searched his face for a moment before she gave a small laugh back. “I will, Philip,” she said.

 

R
osemary left the library but did not go immediately to her bedroom. She walked instead to the little sitting room upstairs where she kept her papers and wrote notes in the morning. Pretty! Absolutely lovely! I was knocked out by her when I walked into the room! She sat at the Victorian desk. Her cheeks were flushed. She reached for her chequebook. But cheques would be no use. She opened the desk drawer and took out fifteen one-dollar bills, and after a moment’s contemplation, put three back, folded the others neatly and tucked them in the pocket of her skirt.

Eleanor and Jane were deep in conversation when she walked back into the room. Jane was laughing. Rosemary cut them off. “Jane, would you be a dear and check on Philip?”

Jane stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray. “Of course,” she said. Rosemary liked to run things in her own house and Jane Howard rarely questioned her. “It was awfully nice to have met you,” she said to Eleanor, gave a small wave, and left the room.

Rosemary walked into the closet and hurriedly went through some things. She came out of the closet carrying an overcoat.

“I think the rain is stopping,” she said to Eleanor.

Eleanor sat up on the couch. She knew what this meant.

Rosemary pressed the coat on her.

“No, take it,” said Rosemary as the girl reached a hand up to protest. “I never wear the thing. It isn’t new.” Not that anything Rosemary had was old, probably only been worn a couple of times. “I’ve put some money in the pocket. No, don’t say a word. If the tables were turned, you would—I wish I could do more.”

Eleanor Smith just stared at her. She sat with the angled posture of a ballerina, slightly bemused, her head slightly tilted to one side, her hair falling perfectly
around her face. She was not surprised that this had happened. She had almost a faint smile. She knew why she was being asked to leave.

“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” asked Rosemary, wishing the girl would say anything and not just stare at her like that.

When she did answer, her voice was soft, extraordinarily composed and self-assured. “Yes, I’ll be fine.” She slipped the coat on over her shoulders. “Thank you—ma’am.” The ma’am was almost an afterthought.

 

Philip and Jane had switched to champagne when Rosemary walked into the library. She opened the door and leaned against the door frame and looked at them with her dazzled, exotic gaze. “Miss Smith,” she said, “will not be joining us for dinner.”

Philip looked surprised. “But,” he said, “I thought—”

Jane Howard interrupted. “I can’t stay either,” she said, standing. “I’ve stayed too long already.” Jane set her glass down on a table, blew a kiss with two fingers, and rushed out of the room.

After they left, the prospect of staying alone with Philip and filling the night up with simple conversation
seemed too much for Rose. The air in the house felt thick as though something untoward had settled there. “Why don’t we try that sweet little Italian place on the corner,” she suggested, smiling up at Philip. “I don’t feel like staying in.”

 

I
t was just drizzling as Jane Howard hurried down the darkened street. She had no umbrella, just a hat, but she was not the sort to be bothered by the rain. She saw what she was looking for, the shape of a woman on the next block, and almost ran across the wet cobblestones which seemed to shimmer like cut glass.

“Wait!” she called out. “Miss Smith. I’m so glad to have caught you. It would have been terrible not to have seen you again.”

Terrible not to have seen her again? Jane didn’t give her an opportunity really to answer. She went on, “It’s almost a pretty night out, if it wasn’t so wet, that
is. I always like the way it smells after a rain, don’t you?” Jane continued to walk, long, mannish strides, so that Eleanor was forced to keep pace with her. “You might not like the way it smells after a rain. Not everyone does.” This made Eleanor smile. There was something about the way Miss Howard rattled on. “I have a—I don’t mean to intrude—but we have intruded, haven’t we. Are you going to be all right?”

“I’ll be fine,” said Eleanor.

Jane Howard didn’t look convinced. She stopped on the sidewalk unmindful of the rain which was coming down almost like a mist around them. She looked at Eleanor. “I have a friend,” she said, “who owns a hat shop. Dora’s, on Sutter. Here, I’ll write it down for you. Tell her that I sent you, Jane, Jane Howard, and that I thought she might have a job for you. You’d be good at that, I think, selling hats.” She smiled at Eleanor.

Eleanor was unsure what to make of this. She was not used to people taking care of her. This was what it was, then, to make a connection? To be given a helping hand? And, yet, it had a similar sting to when her mother had been forced to rummage shoes for her from the rector who’d always, after that, looked at her pityingly as if to say, her father can’t even put shoes on her feet, would rather spend it on a Friday night at a local pub.

“I won’t tell her anything about you,” said Jane. “I’ll leave that part up to you.”

“Nothing is for free, Leni,” her mother had said to her as they’d walked away from the parish, the new shoes snugly on her feet. “It’s always best not to take something from someone, if you can help it. But there’s some times when y’can’t help it.” But wasn’t that the chance she was being given here, to work for a living, to have an honest job, to be dependent on no one but herself.

“Thank you,” she said almost shyly. “I might stop by.”

“Well, only if you think that it’s a good idea,” she said, having actually no idea what the girl did think. Jane Howard glanced at her watch. “I’m late,” she said. Jane reached out her hand to say good-bye. “Good luck.” And the interview ended as suddenly as it had begun, leaving Miss Smith again alone on a street corner.

 

T
here were confections of hats in the window. Hats with feathers, ribbons, and veils, everyday hats and hats for all occasions, celebratory hats and hats for mourning. It reminded Eleanor of when she was little and she used to stand outside the penny candy store on her corner, stare in the window, and wish she could go in and say, “I’ll have one of everything.” The man in the candy store used to give her sweets which was one of the first times she’d learned, when he’d coaxed her into the back of the store with the promise of a box of chocolates that he’d saved for her, that her mother didn’t lie when she’d told her, “Nothing is for free,
Leni.” He’d laughed when she pushed him away, laughed at what a silly girl she was. And then looked at her coldly and said, “But it’s the only thing you have to barter with.” After that, she would still allow herself to stop on the way home from school and look at the candy displayed in the window and sometimes she would stare at him, knowing that he would never dare to come out on the street and taunt her.

She entered the hat shop—shyly would be the wrong word, for she had too much poise to do anything shyly—but with a certain reserve.

Dora, the proprietress of the hat shop that bore her name, snatched a dark blue hat off a hatstand and glided over. “Oh, this will do nicely,” she said as she set it expertly on Eleanor’s head. She gently propelled her towards a mirror. “Oh, you don’t like it?! Try this, then.” She pulled a black hat with feathers off another hatstand and put it on Eleanor’s head. “Daring? Bold!” She stepped back and surveyed her. “It certainly makes a statement. Don’t you think?”

Eleanor still didn’t answer her, just stared at herself in the mirror. “Not what you had in mind?” Dora snatched it off her head. “Try this.” She pulled a little pink piece of fluff, like a pillbox, with a veil off a display and placed it daintily but firmly on Eleanor’s head and fastened it with a hat pin.

Still no response. “You think it’s too young for
you?!” She was trying very hard to get the girl to answer her. “Oh, well, you do have the face for it.” She saw that Eleanor’s eye was drawn to a very plain beige hat with a beautiful shape. “Oh, you like that one. Simple yet elegant.” She took it off the handstand and handed it to Eleanor. “You try it.”

Eleanor removed the pink hat from her head and gingerly placed it on a display case. She carefully set the beige one on her head and placed it at an angle. Her hair fell perfectly under it and her long pale neck and fine features were accentuated by its lines. She looked at herself in the mirror for a moment and turned to Dora meekly. “It’s lovely.” She was a little bit embarrassed at this next part, “Actually, I was looking for Dora,” she said.

“The one and only. I hope you were looking for a hat.”

Eleanor took the beige hat off her head and set it on top of a display case. She lowered her eyes. “No, I was looking for a job. I’m sorry.” She took a step backwards, certain there was no job here. She hesitated. “Jane…Jane Howard sent me.”

“And what did Miss Jane Howard think you could do?” asked Dora, studying the girl quite closely.

“She—she thought I might sell hats—I think.”

“Well,” said Dora, “you certainly can wear them. Do you have any experience? Of course, you don’t.
You don’t look like you have any experience at anything. How old are you?”

Eleanor’s eyes got a little bit wider. “Twenty-four,” she said.


How
old are you?”

“Twenty,” she confessed.

“If you’re any younger, I don’t want to know. The hours are terrible. We open at eleven. You get here at nine. We close at six. Some nights from six to nine, we make hats, unless there’s a wedding, in which case we work all night. You start tomorrow. Do you have any questions?”

Did this mean she had a job? It had all gone so quickly, she hadn’t thought of anything to ask.

“You want to know what you’re getting paid?” said Dora as though this ought to have been her first question. Before Eleanor could say anything, Dora answered this, as well. “Whatever I can afford. Some weeks, we do well, others…” She shrugged and shook her head and it was almost as though she was shaking her head for bringing the girl on, at all, given the off weeks. Dora picked up a purple felt piece she’d been shaping and started to sew. She didn’t have any more questions. She didn’t want to know too much about the girl; although she was curious in this case, she always felt it was better not to get too mixed up in her employees’ lives, didn’t want them coming to
her for a handout or if their mother was sick, or they had a broken heart. Better to keep it polite and professional. “Keep the hat,” she said almost dismissively, glancing over at the simple beige one Eleanor had left on the counter. “It suits you.”

“Th-thank you,” said Eleanor. She put the hat on her head and looked at herself in the mirror. And not knowing what else to say, she walked out the door.

Dora watched through the glass windows of the shop as Eleanor walked away down the street, her head tipped perfectly under her new beige hat. And, out loud, Dora said, to no one in particular, “And what else did Miss Jane Howard think you could do, I wonder?”

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