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 (4 page)

 

A
nd, finally, Dora had to admit that Eleanor did have a knack for selling hats. She had confessed to Dora that she’d learned a bit of sewing as a child. “There wasn’t anyone else to do the mending,” she’d explained which was about all she had explained. Her hands seemed to take naturally to the finer part, delicate stitches, embroidery. She knew the right way, instinctively, to set a bead on a piece of lace, the perfect shade of ribbon for each hat, yet often such unusual choices. She had a good eye for design, subtle, nothing obvious or gauche. And, odder still, she was seemingly honest, which was strange, since she really had come in off
the street although by what means, Dora still didn’t realize.

After awhile, Dora began to take more time to herself, longer lunches, naps at home when she’d had more than a glass of wine, an occasional afternoon liaison. She instructed Eleanor, “Just do the sewing in the front whenever I’m out, that way you can keep an eye on who comes in. And, if you feel like it, wear anything in the shop. As if you’re a bit of an ad.”

It was on just such an afternoon, when Dora was out on an errand or rather, lying prone at home, when Eleanor was sitting, a bit like a picture in the window, with her head bowed intently sewing a ribbon on a hat, when the bells on the shop door jingled and a man entered in uniform.

She finished her stitch and looked up at him. She recognized Philip Alsop at once. The uniform made a difference, made him look more solid somehow, not that she hadn’t thought he was attractive when she first met him but she’d pegged him as one of those rich, flighty types. She studied him. She wondered what it would be like to be in his world all the time.

“Hello,” he said, “I’m supposed to pick up Miss Fell’s hats,” he said and smiled. There was a dimple evident just below his right cheekbone. There was something kind about his eyes, yet serious, as though he’d seen things, knew things, was somehow deeper
than he’d first appeared. The muscles in his arms were well-defined. She was aware that they were alone in the hat shop.

“Yes,” said Eleanor, “I knew someone was coming.”

It was the voice that tipped him. He remembered her voice. It was oddly cultured, yet direct, as though she could defend herself if pushed. He was as taken with her as the first time he’d seen her.

He stared at her. After a moment, he said, “It is you, isn’t it?”

She nodded, “Yes, I’m afraid it is.”

He teased her. “Afraid of me?” he said.

Uncomfortable with the familiarity, she didn’t answer him. She shook her head. Then felt the need to put a proper amount of distance between them. “Let me get you your—Miss Fell’s hats.”

“It’s such a surprise to see you here,” he called out to the back room, but it was Dora who’d returned from lunch who came out of the back room bearing the many hat boxes.

“Oh—” said Philip, catching himself, as Dora started to gush at him. “You’ve come for the wedding hats. It’s been such a rush.”

“Yes, of course it has,” he said.

“The war…I don’t think we’ve ever worked this quickly,” said Dora making an odd face. “Although,
if you ask me,” she added, “it’s about time we went over there.”

“Yes, ma’am, of course it is,” said Philip.

“And then she kept adding things—”

Philip laughed. “She always does that. That’s why I wouldn’t let her come today. I was afraid she would change something else. Do I owe you something?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” said Dora, shaking her head, “I’ve put it on her account.”

Eleanor walked back into the shop from the workroom carrying even more hat boxes. She said, as she would to anyone who had come into the shop, “I can help you with these to the car.” And then, aware of Dora’s watchful gaze, she straightened and added, “There are certainly too many for you to carry.”

Dora opened the shop door for them, and looked after them curiously as they walked to the car.

“How are you?” asked Philip as they walked to his car.

Eleanor, suddenly shy, didn’t answer.

“I can see how you are,” he said. “You’re fine.”

She smiled at this.

“Better than the last time I saw you, anyway,” said Philip.

“Certainly better than that,” she said.

Eleanor and Philip approached his car, juggling the
many hat boxes. “I’d hoped that she was coming in,” said Eleanor. “I wanted to—”

Philip interrupted, “Thank her?”

“No, I wanted her to see me. I should thank her.”

She helped him load the hat boxes into the back of the car. One of the boxes she was carrying flew from off of the top of the others. She leaned over to catch it as Philip did the same and caught it just before it hit the ground. The effect of it was the two of them were pressed together. She set the hat boxes down on the pavement and took a breath.

“I wanted to see you,” he said very softly. Her face was framed in reflection in the back window of the car. She was so very pretty. Her clothes were simple, almost elegant. She looked a long way from the street.

Dora, who was sitting at the front table doing paperwork, looked out the window and thought she saw him lean down and whisper something in Eleanor’s ear.

 

I
t was almost dark out when they closed up for the night. Eleanor seemed in a hurry but stayed and helped as Dora fluttered fitfully about the shop methodically and meticulously removing the hats from the hatstands and putting them away in drawers as she did each evening.

“I can never sleep when I’ve finished a job like this,” said Dora. ‘You’d think it would be during. That I’d be so nervous how they’d turn out that I couldn’t sleep. But for me, it’s after. I’ve given them the hats and…” She gestured with her hand. “They never invite us to the wedding, you know.”

Dora tucked another hat in a drawer after wrapping
it carefully in tissue paper and closed the drawer more forcefully than necessary. “Not that I think much of her,” she said, “or her hats for that matter. As Henry James once said about one of his characters”—she gave a little bit of a laugh—“‘Her imagination is bounded on the East by Madison Avenue.’ And she doesn’t think anyone else can
have
an opinion.” Dora placed another hat in a drawer. “I’m off to my sister’s,” she said. And then in a completely different tone of voice added, “You open tomorrow. We should do well. It’s spring. Not that it matters. We’ve done well enough this spring, thanks to the war. I wonder, if it were in our backyard, if we would be so festive.”

 

There was a carriage parked on the corner of the street. If Dora had not chosen to go out the back door she probably would have seen Eleanor arrive at the corner and Philip Alsop reach from inside the car and open the passenger side door.

It had simply been his intention to offer her a ride home. He did not intend to take her for a drink. He did not think he was going to kiss her. There was something about her that made him want to take care of her a little. Eleanor was shy, hesitant, at first, that she ought not to accept a ride with him
but he insisted. She stepped into the carriage. Her face was lit softly from the streetlight. He took her gloved hand in his to help her in and all the other things occurred to him. He did not immediately let go of her hand.

 

H
ad she had too many glasses of champagne so that time seemed almost frozen, slower than usual, sound oddly amplified, as men on the other side of the room whispered about liaisons and stock prices and whatever men whispered about in a room like this. The cigarette girl paused in front of her. Rosemary declined. She was feeling too light-headed to smoke. The restaurant was dimly lit and on a very high story of the building, with large windows so that the city was visible outside, the skyline etched in shadow, almost minimalist, jaggedly beautiful, with the row of brownstones and the river visible just beyond. She was acutely aware of a
woman on the other side of the room laughing, surrounded by three admiring men, punctuated by the black piano player, Charlie Miles, whom she’d known since she was a child, crooning a song about love. It wasn’t like Philip to be late. She felt strangely unguarded as though a layer had been stripped away and one look at her face would reveal the anxiousness she felt. She forced a smile and walked over to the piano. She set her champagne glass down on the top of the piano, and Charlie broke into an instrumental and began to speak to her about the other people in the room, specifically a couple dancing on the dance floor.

“He thinks she’s in love with him,” Charlie said to her under his breath, “but if you could have seen her last night with Freddy Bagley…”

“Yes,” Rosemary laughed, “but
she
has no reputation to protect.” He still hadn’t arrived. Should she take a seat at a table and order herself dinner and pretend that he’d told her he was going to be delayed? She took a sip of champagne and started to feel a little less at sea. And then a man’s hand was on her back.

“I’m sorry I’m so late.” It was Philip. “I got your hats. I was”—he hesitated, “at the War Office…” Rosemary looked at him questioningly. “At least I haven’t missed dinner,” he said. “And you, I trust”—he looked gratefully at Charlie Miles—“have been
well entertained.” He put his arm casually on her shoulder.

Did she expect him to remark on her dress or the line of kohl under her eyes that made her eyelashes look longer than usual? Did she expect him to be knocked out by her when he walked into the room. Am I pretty, Philip?

 

I
t was a few days later that Rosemary was sitting at her desk opening her mail with the silver letter opener that she’d purchased from Mr. Rhenquist. Philip was lying on his back on the couch with his feet up on the arm of the sofa. “I should go to the Foundling Hospital’s annual tea,” she said opening yet another invitation. “Will you go with me?”

“Oh, Rose, do I have to?”

She didn’t answer him because she had immediately opened another letter and was distracted by its contents. A sort of florid card, one you would buy at a
dimestore, not the usual engraved stationery. She opened the card which had a note written on it and some money stuffed inside it.

“I hate it when you don’t answer me,” he said. “Is this what I have to look forward to—years and years as a neglected…husband?”

Rosemary interrupted him. “Philip, she’s sent me back my money.”

He knew instantly who she meant.

“I never expected her to repay me,” Rosemary said. “Do you remember that girl I picked up?”

“Who?” he said, appearing to still be distracted.

“You know. Miss Smith. The one I picked up that day in the rain and brought home for tea. Do you think maybe I helped her?” Rosemary looked very pleased with herself.

On the couch, Philip has shut his eyes.

 

T
he shops were closing for the night. The streets were crowded with taxis, carriages, people on their way home on foot or running to catch the streetcar, women with children hanging on their skirts making hurried stops in food-stores and the apothecary shop on the corner which closed conveniently a half-hour after everyone else.

The street lamps were just coming on as Eleanor came out of the hat shop and found Philip’s carriage parked on the corner. He’d let his driver go and was
holding the reins of the two chestnut mares himself, a driver’s cap pulled down over his forehead. Despite it, she recognized him at once. He’d rolled the window down as if he were waiting for her. “Did we have an appointment?” she asked him.

“No,” he said, “I wanted to see you.” He smiled at her and she remembered again how charming he was but it didn’t deter her.

“Oh. And I’m here whenever you want to see me. In between the other things?” She started to walk away from him down the crowded street.

Did he think she was going to be easy? No, if he’d thought that, he wouldn’t have been interested in her.

He started to follow her in the carriage. “You’re making a scene,” he said, casually, as if he were amused by her.


I’m
making a scene?”

He smiled again.

“Don’t you care?” she asked him, surprised that he would take a chance like this.

“I just thought we could have dinner,” he said as politely as he could.

“Actually have dinner. I actually have other plans.”

“Another time, then,” he said. He closed the window
and the carriage took off down the street. And then as abruptly as this began, it ended. It wasn’t clear who’d won this exchange.

He didn’t feel like going to his club where there would certainly be talk of war. He directed his driver instead to take him to Jane Howard’s.

 

J
ane Howard and Philip Alsop had been friends since they were children, since before Philip’s father died. She remembered when he lived in the big house on the corner of 9th Street and Fifth Avenue, when he wore short pants and had a pony of his own, when his mother was still beautiful before the hardships of her life ravaged her once unlined face.

He had always confided in her, never questioned her loyalty to him and with good reason, as Jane had always been the person in his (and Rosemary’s) life whom they told their darkest secrets to, and she, in turn, had incited them to do things she would never
have done herself. They had the kind of comfort with each other that cousins had, a mischievous conspiratorial streak from too many unchaperoned hours when they were children and the grown-ups were busy doing whatever grown-ups did on idle summer afternoons and evenings.

Jane was standing at the mantel with her back to the room smoking a cigarette. Philip was lying on the couch. She had offered him wine which he declined preferring something stronger, whiskey neat, and was on his second glass.

“It’s like an addiction,” he said with some excitement and a small degree of distress.

Jane turned to him and took a long draw on her cigarette. “She has that effect. Certainly on me.”

Philip looked at her as though they had a mutual understanding.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “But I
was
compelled to follow her that night. She looked as if no one had ever taken care of her. I—sent her to Dora.”

“So, I have you to blame,” he said.

Jane raised an eyebrow, amused, unmindful of the consequences all of it might have.

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