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 (3 page)

 

A
sign on the door said:
MISS WETZEL’S—BOARDING HOUSE FOR YOUNG LADIES
. There was a pretzel vendor on the corner wearing a white cap and looking flushed from the heat of his pretzel stand. Eleanor walked over and bought herself a pretzel. She took a bite, savoring the taste of the salt on the warm dough. Down the street, a young boy hawking newspapers screamed out in an adolescent voice, “U.S. breaks diplomatic relations with Germany! Uncle Sam supports”—his voice went up on this—“European allies.” And Eleanor was left to wonder whether he, too, would be sent to war next year. And whether three squares and the regimen
wouldn’t be good for him or, at least, only as hard as this.

It was starting to rain again. She stood and looked up at Wetzel’s Boarding House. The curtains were grim and looked as though they could use a washing, the paint had chipped a bit on the facade but some of the best houses, not that this was one of them, had chipped paint. And certainly, she thought, it would do for now. She put her hand on the banister and started to mount the stairs.

At the top, she hesitated, then rapped the knocker. After a few moments, the door was opened by someone who was only a few years older than Eleanor but, on first glance, quite a bit more independent. Her name was Josie Kennedy and she had a full mane of brownish blond hair and a long-gaited walk that implied inbred confidence. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said Josie.

“Do what?” asked Eleanor.

“Take one more step inside. Didn’t your mother tell you? Terrible things happen to girls who take their lives into their own hands.” She smiled at her. “I’m Josie Kennedy,” she said. “On a good day, I am an actress.” She posed—she put one hand against her head and slouched to the side. “Most of the time,” she said, her voice dropping an octave as she straightened up again, “I work at Ted’s, you know that little restaurant
on Bank Street, one step up from a dive—but it’s good for you because it means I bring home dinner and the tips are generally okay—which is where I’m headed now.” Josie started to leave. “Tell Miss Wetzel you don’t want meals except Sunday—Sunday, her sister cooks. You did want a room, didn’t you?”

Eleanor nodded.

“What did you say your name was?”

“I—I didn’t.” There was a pattern here with these women for she’d felt that she could barely get a word in with any of them. “Eleanor. Eleanor Smith.”

Josie repeated after her. “Eleanor. See you tonight.” And Josie walked out into the night and left Eleanor standing in the doorway looking at the dark but cozy, in a modest, disheveled kind of way, interior of the house.

Miss Wetzel appeared at the top of the stairs. She was in her sixties, her hair in a bun with little stray white wisps flying about her forehead, her eyeglasses partly down her nose making her look even more severe and bird-like. “Did I hear someone knock?” she called out in a remarkably clear voice for someone her age.

Eleanor answered softly from the bottom of the stairs. “Yes, ma’am. It was me. Eleanor. Eleanor Smith. Miss Kennedy let me in.”

Miss Wetzel cut her off. “Step into the light where I can see you,” she said.

Eleanor did as she was told and stepped under the dim light of the hall so that she might be examined.

“Did you want a room?” Miss Wetzel asked.

“Yes, I did,” said Eleanor.

Miss Wetzel studied her. Eleanor stood frozen in the entranceway until Miss Wetzel finally edged a few steps down the stairs. “Gas is included in the rent,” she said, as she continued to descend.

Eleanor was uncharacteristically thrown by Miss Wetzel but it had been a remarkably long few days. “Yes, ma’am,” she said again almost sheepishly.

“And meals.” She peered at her up close now. “No gentleman callers after eight. And none upstairs ever. Where are your things?”

Eleanor hesitated. “I thought I would send for them later,” she said.

Miss Wetzel shook her head. She didn’t believe a word of this but she did have an empty room. She beckoned for Miss Smith to follow her upstairs.

 

I
t wasn’t the fur wrap around her shoulders that was keeping Rosemary warm, it was Philip’s arms around her. The street was practically deserted. They were standing on the steps to her brownstone. They had been at the theatre and had a late supper afterwards at a café on Columbus that was frequented by a mixture of really important people…and writers and artists. Paul Lucien had announced, after two martinis, that he wanted to paint their portrait, causing Rosemary to wonder what such a thing would cost…and Philip had teased her that she wouldn’t be able to sit that long. They’d had a bit to drink themselves, an awfully good claret
and afterward cognac with their coffee. They were standing on the third step to her brownstone. He kissed her, playfully at first, and then it turned to something more urgent, something she could get lost in if she let herself. She felt his hand on her back through her dress. She moved slightly into him but then pushed him away.

She considered whether she should ask him in. He kissed her again and the force of it startled her. She pulled away when a carriage stopped unexpectedly a few houses away. She looked at Philip and smiled and he kissed her again. For a moment, she responded but then pulled back again.

“Stop it, Philip,” she said. “It’s late.”

“You don’t really want me to stop,” he said. He buried his face in the soft curve of her breasts. He started to kiss her there.

“We’re running out of time, Rose,” he said so quietly it made her hold her breath. He meant the war, the thing they never spoke about. And that there were rumours that the U.S. might soon join.

“Don’t say that, Philip,” Rosemary answered. “It frightens me.”

He looked at her and smiled sadly. His Rosemary, who never had a hair, a button out of place, who stepped so easily out of her car into the warmth of wherever she was going. In a way, she was as innocent
as a child. She seemed to live her life as though she honestly believed that nothing bad would ever happen, and, if were to, by sheer force of will, she thought she would be able to right it. It was one of the things he admired most about Rosemary, that she staunchly believed that things should be a certain way…and that she had the luxury to believe it. “Oh, my precious, Rosemary,” he said, stroking her hair softly, “in her almost perfect world.”

 

T
he city felt as though it had been washed clean, the rain had finally stopped entirely, and the air was full with the fragrant smell of the onset of spring. Rosemary had been out for a walk, a constitutional so to speak, uncharacteristically without a store as a destination.

She took her hat off and shook her hair out as she walked into the library where her father was sitting in a leather chair listening to news of the war on the radio. She had color from the outdoors. She looked almost pretty. Henry Fell hardly noticed she’d come in, intent as he was on hearing the news from Europe.

That was all anyone did anymore was listen to news
of Europe and speak about the war. “Will you think I’m terrible,” asked Rosemary petulantly, “if I tell you that I’m sick of Archduke Ferdinand?”

Her father chided her softly. “Are you going to tell me that you’re sick of the Archduchess Sophia, too?” he asked. He was teasing but trying to elicit a more human response, for although history would forget this, the Archduchess was killed alongside her husband and whatever Rosemary’s mood, she had always been a defender of women.

“No,” she answered soberly, “but their legacy lives after them. I don’t want to hear about Bismarck or how they feel in France.” Her father switched off the radio and looked at her carefully. She looked back at him. Her voice softened. “I would just like one day,” she said, “where I didn’t feel as though the world, my world, was in, was about to be in, a state of siege…”

Mr. Fell stared at his daughter and wondered whether he’d raised her at all adequately for any of the things she had to deal with now. But do we ever raise our children, particularly those as pampered and protected as Rose has been, to deal with whatever unexpected occurrences life throws at them? “What,” Mr. Fell wondered, “defined character and backbone?” What lessons had he passed on about morality and perseverance? He looked at his daughter’s unlined face, his child who had known little of tragedy except
her mother’s death and she was so young when that occurred.

“No,” he said, “I don’t think you’re terrible. I just think you want the war to end.”

Rosemary stood by the fireplace, an almost wistful expression on her face, framed like a cameo by the flickering light of the fire behind her. She looked for a moment like what she was, a society girl who had lost the society she was raised in.

 

W
hen Jane Howard came over for her practically regular afternoon visit, she found Rosemary up in her bedroom, the canopied bed scattered with pieces of lace, samples, for her veil and wedding dress and train. Rosemary looked displeased. Jane set aside a pile of lace, cleared a spot for herself, and sat on the edge of the bed. Rosemary sorted through a number of the pieces and held up a square of pure-white netted lace with curlicues of butterflies and daisies, clearly hand-made as the pattern was irregular. “I think it’s a little fussy, don’t you?” she said and put it down again without waiting for Jane to answer her.

She picked up a darker piece with a simpler pattern almost like a spider’s web and a slightly brownish hue. She stared at it for a moment and shook her head. “Antique white?!” she said with some disdain. “This is beige. Antique white should just be old not brown, slightly yellow as though it’s been passed down.”

“This should be your biggest problem in your marriage…” said Jane who thought the enterprise of picking lace a fairly ridiculous one, anyway.

Rosemary sat down next to her and took her hand. “Just today, let’s make it my biggest problem.” She dropped her hand as suddenly as she’d taken it, jumped up, and started to walk around the room. “Or what we’re going to have for lunch. Do you think you would want fish? It’s almost hot today. Or should we just have salad? Or could my biggest problem be what I’m going to wear tonight?”

She walked over and picked up a dress that was draped across a chair. It was a silk dress cut low in the bodice with tiny sleeves that went right off the shoulder. Collar lines were plunging that spring and dresses were becoming more revealing. Rosemary held it up against her. “What do you think of this?” she asked. “Is it too bare? I’m not sure I have a corset small enough to fit under it.” Her voice dropped. “He’s enlisted.”

“What?!”

“Philip. He’s told me that he’s going off to war.”

Did they really think that none of this was going to touch them?

“When—?”

“They’ve said they’ll hold his orders until two days after the wedding. Of course, we’ll have to move the wedding up.” Rosemary laughed and shook her head. She suddenly looked tired. “Why couldn’t he have just said he had essential service here?”

Jane looked at her sadly. Did any of them know, really, what the next few years was going to bring. “Philip’s not like us, Rose.”

Philip Alsop’s father had died when he was fairly young and not left him and his mother well provided for. Philip had always gone to the best schools somehow, but had always been the poorest boy in them. There had always been the money owed to the butcher, the dressmaker, the tailor. It was part of his mother’s talent to get them to continue to extend credit but it took its toll on her. It had made him stronger though, more determined, more responsible. He’d started with a storefront on the docks and built his shipping business up himself. “Unlike the rest of us,” said Jane, “he’s worked for everything he has. It isn’t an indictment, Rose. It’s just a fact.”

“What does that mean?” asked Rosemary. “That
he has a different sense of duty than the rest of us. I intend to volunteer.”

“Of course you do, dear,” said Jane soothingly. Better not to have a fight. Rosemary always thought her positions were correct, exemplary. Rosemary probably thought that she was “essential service” here. Poor Rose. Did she really think the war wouldn’t change anything at all?

“Two days…” said Rosemary, picking up another piece of lace. “We can’t go away. Should we check into the Plaza for a night…” She was half-joking when she added, “Or just take a ferry around Staten Island?”

 

E
leanor didn’t understand why Jane Howard thought she would be good at this. These women had no idea what they wanted half the time and they didn’t trust anyone else to tell them what looked good. And, to further complicate the enterprise, Eleanor had discovered that her sense of aesthetics was so strong that she couldn’t let anyone out of the shop wearing a hat that
didn’t
flatter them. Somehow, she justified it, that wouldn’t be good for business, anyway.

On the afternoon in question, a society woman named Emily Mayhew had wandered into the shop in
search of a hat for her daughter’s commencement, with her daughter, the thirteen-year-old object of the commencement, Caitlin Mayhew, in tow. They were accompanied by a small brown terrier by the name of Tiger who went everywhere with them and a woman friend of Mrs. Mayhew’s who appeared to have more interest in gossiping than in hats, although she occasionally interrupted their discourse to make disparaging remarks about any number of them.

Eleanor first tried a navy hat on Mrs. Mayhew’s head that was oval shaped with a brim that arched slightly over her forehead.

“I don’t know…” said Mrs. Mayhew, looking in the mirror.

“It makes your nose look too long,” said her friend.

Eleanor said sweetly, “I think you have a nice nose.”

“Patrician,” said Mrs. Mayhew cutting her off. She turned back to her friend. “
Anyway
, they’re all smitten with her. Under her spell, I should say.” Mrs. Mayhew laughed at her own joke. “I think she has an odd name for a seer, ‘Madame Olga’!” The woman she was referring to was a psychic, a gypsy, who recently, because of a number of well-placed predictions, had become a bit of a rage about town. “Katherine swears she conjured up Henry Goggins the other night right
in Mrs. Van der Owen’s living room,” said Mrs. Mayhew. “But why they would want to conjure up Henry Goggins is beyond me.”

“I sort of liked him,” said Mrs. Mayhew’s friend, Hilary.

“Hilary!” said Mrs. Mayhew as though her friend had said something untoward. The two of them giggled. Caitlin looked bored, awkward, slumped in her chair in a perfect teenage adolescent slouch.

“But I was thinking, said Mrs. Mayhew, “what if I could talk to Mama! I always wanted to know what happened to that ruby brooch. Look around, Caitlin. You have to do this, too. It is
your
commencement.”

Caitlin looked completely disinterested in the idea of a new hat.

“You know that Daddy wants you to look nice,” said Mrs. Mayhew and turned back to her friend. “Not that he’ll notice. Theodore doesn’t notice anything. I am trying to get him to spend less time at his club. Not that that will matter. What is it that makes a man so distracted even when he’s with you?! I talk—he doesn’t hear a word I say.”

Mrs. Mayhew glanced over at a lighter, fluffier, extremely floral hat on a display.

Eleanor snatched it up. “Try it, Mrs. Mayhew,” Eleanor suggested almost timidly.

“Oh dear, no,” said Mrs. Mayhew. “I’d look like a landing strip for birds.” And without losing a beat, she turned back to Hilary again and continued chatting. “Not that I think he should care what color the curtains are, but when I redo the entire bedroom, at least he could notice. I bet if Henry Goggins were to materialize in the bedroom, he wouldn’t even notice that.”

Mrs. Mayhew turned to her daughter. “You couldn’t find one either, could you, Caitlin?” Mrs. Mayhew stood, obviously done with the shop and ready to move on. Eleanor panicked. They were suddenly a test of whether she could do this. She pulled a dove gray felt hat from a drawer. “No, wait,” she said, “I’ll design one for you.” And then her voice got softer. “
Just
for you. No one in New York will have anything like it.”

Intrigued, Mrs. Mayhew sat down again. Eleanor placed the hat on her head and tipped it at an angle. “See, it suits you. Plain, simple lines. Elegant. See, it hits your forehead, just so.” She rummaged through a drawer and found a feather and a darker beige hatband. She put the feather on the side at an angle and secured it with the hatband. Mrs. Mayhew’s short bobbed hair curled out from just under the rim.

Mrs. Mayhew stared at herself in the mirror critically.
“No, I like it,” she said. She stood up, the hat still on her head like a beacon. “Why didn’t you just do that to begin with?”

Eleanor smiled politely and turned her attention to Mrs. Mayhew’s daughter. “Now, let’s see what you want.”

Caitlin Mayhew looked at her sullenly.

“Is there
anything
you like?” asked Eleanor.

Caitlin pulled a large, plain black hat from a display stand.

“Caitlin!” her mother admonished her. “You can’t wear a black hat to your commencement.”

Caitlin put a hand over her forehead and slumped back into her chair.

“I could design something for you, too,” said Eleanor, careful not to sound too enthusiastic.

Caitlin looked at her skeptically. Eleanor pulled a light chocolate brown wide-rimmed sun hat from a shelf and a yellow ribbon from a drawer. She looked at Caitlin and smiled, and it was clear that she would win this, too.

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