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 (5 page)

 

I
t was late at night when Eleanor, certainly innocent that she’d been the object of any conversation, walked down the street with Josie Kennedy. The two of them had been at a late dinner after the theater and had a couple of drinks with a few friends of Josie’s, a fairly innocent night all in all. As they approached the dreaded Wetzel’s boarding house (as they sometimes called the dear woman behind her back), Philip was standing on the corner under a streetlight. He looked completely relaxed, as though he had nothing better to do than stand on the street corner enjoying the night air.

Eleanor was annoyed because it was starting to feel
like an intrusion. She had come out of the shop that afternoon and found Philip’s carriage parked on the corner—as though she should be there at his whim! He
was
engaged and she was beginning to feel like something he was toying with.

Josie stood awkwardly a few feet away. Eleanor made no effort to introduce them.

“I’ll see you at home, then,” Josie said after an awkward moment.

Eleanor nodded at her and continued to look at Philip. She had some responsibility here. Yes, she had accepted a ride from him, stopped for a drink, and then, feeling the effects of the champagne, had kissed him goodbye but had meant it to be that, a kiss goodbye. It had been a mistake. Did he think she would be so flattered by the attentions of any man like him? That there was something more to this?

“I didn’t think this was your neighborhood,” she said finally.

“I don’t deserve that.”

Eleanor wondered what he thought he did deserve or what right he thought he had to be on her corner. “Are you following me?” she asked him.

“No, I was waiting for you.” He smiled at her again but there was something in the way he stood, a respectful distance from her, as though he were asking this time.

“I wish I could do this the right way,” he said. “I don’t have time. I wish I did. If I had time, it—could be different. If I could make an appointment and take you to dinner next week. I don’t feel I have control of this, Eleanor…” His voice trailed off. “Any day I could get my orders. And leave for Europe.”

“And I’d be here,” she said almost without inflection.

He stepped in closer and put his hand on her hair. Her inclination was to fall into him. She stopped herself.

He leaned in and kissed her and the only thing she could do was kiss him back. He led her by the hand to his carriage. But it was never clear with them who was doing the leading.

 

T
he dining room table was elaborately set for one with long ivory candles burning in the imposing silver candelabra. Rosemary’s father, Henry Fell, was sitting alone at the head of the long table reading one of his many reference books and occasionally, absentmindedly taking a sip of consommé from a silver soupspoon, unmindful of the fact that it had grown cold many minutes before. The mahogany doors to the dining room slid open and his daughter glided dramatically into the room. “You’ll have to put your book away, Papa, if you want to eat with me,” she said and kissed him on the forehead. She sat down next to him at the table.

“And what makes you think I prefer you to my present companion?” he asked teasing, then smiled at her and shut the book although he didn’t trust this sudden attention. “And why is my sweetheart home, tonight?”

“Oh, I didn’t think we’d been spending enough time together, did you?”

Henry Fell raised an eyebrow. “And where is Philip?”

“Playing cards—I think.”

Rosemary got up and helped herself to an empty soup bowl from the sideboard, a napkin, and a necessary selection of silver. She didn’t actually know where Philip was that night. Had they made plans? She couldn’t actually remember. She sat back down at the table and took the top off the soup tureen. “Is this all we’re having for dinner?” She made a face. “Dull, brown liquid?”

“Oh, Rosemary. Don’t start with Gertrude.”

“Oh, Papa, she likes it.” Rosemary smiled at him impishly. She picked up the silver bell on the table and rang for Gertrude to come from the kitchen. And though she might not be able to control the rest of her life, it was clear she was going to have whatever she wanted for dinner.

 

N
ot so many blocks away, the city was dark as the carriage flew towards Philip’s house. There was an antic, urgent quality to the night as though a collective insanity had gripped the city and all through-out it there were women in the company of men who they knew that they might never see again.

 

Eleanor would remember every moment of that night as though it were etched in glass, indelibly. How many stairs there were to his front door, nine, that one light was on in the parlor by the leather chair where she
imagined that he sometimes read, that the fifth stair on the staircase leading up to his rooms had a slight crack as though at some point it had suffered water damage…and the carpet was fairly worn at the landing, once a deep purple color that had faded to gray.

That his bedroom was much less grand than she had imagined it to be. There were no words as he undid the many tiny buttons, of her blouse and then her corset in his bedroom. She looked completely trusting—as though her whole life had been about this moment. The room was barely lit by a gas sconce and the reflected light of a street lamp from outside as they lay fluid in each other’s arms, naked on the bed, as though they belonged together, and, for that moment at least, there was nothing else in the world.

The next morning, Philip opened his eyes and barely focussed. The bedroom was flooded with sunlight. He put one hand over his eyes to shade them and with his other reached for Eleanor next to him in the bed. But she was already up, bathed, and dressing in the corner of the room with her back to him. He tried to convince her to come back to bed. But she insisted that she had to go to work.

“I’ll have my driver take you,” he said.

She finished the sentence for him. “…And drop me four blocks away, so nobody will see.”

He sat up in bed and put a pillow behind his head. He looked chastened. He wasn’t sure how to respond to her.

“It’s one thing in the night,” she said, “but in the daytime when everyone can see and our eyes aren’t tricked by shadows or artificial light…”

“Don’t make me feel cheap, Eleanor. It’s not something I would ever do to you. Take the day off. I’ll take it, too.”

“That’s easy for you,” she said. “You work for yourself,” reminding him again of the differences between them.

“We’ll send a note in that you’re ill,” he said and smiled. And in that moment, she realized that she wasn’t just an evening’s entertainment. Almost without meaning to, she’d crossed the room and his arms were around her once again.

 

It was long after the customary time for breakfast when they finally went out onto the street and stopped in a bakery for fresh buns and warm cups of tea. Philip took her downtown and they walked the open air markets on Canal Street. He bought a basket of fresh apricots. Eleanor took a bite of one, warm from the sun, and a bit of juice dripped down her chin. He reached his hand over to clean her face and she held his hand
and kissed it. They stopped at a stand of silks where he bought a shawl for her that was wildly over-priced but, under the circumstances bartering would never occur to him. She wrapped it around her shoulders. He took the edges of the shawl where it lightly fringed and wrapped them around his back, as well, binding them together. And then, leaned in and kissed her. They were so far from his normal, social world that it didn’t occur to him that anyone would see them.

 

T
he mood at Rosemary’s was much the same as always. The champagne flowed easily, the slight clink of glasses from good crystal, despite the fact that the guests toasted one another for a future that for the first time was uncertain. There were plates of hors d’oeuvres passed on silver platters. There was a discussion on one side of the room about a play that was all the rage on Broadway but that Rosemary’s friend Sarah found baffling. “They made such a fuss about it in the
Times
,” said Sarah, “and then we went to see it…? Maybe I’m not much for, what do they call it, satire?”

“I liked it,” her husband said.

“Of course you did, dear,” she said and looked at him rather patronizingly until he added, “Maybe your problem is that we are the thing that is being satirized.”

“I think I’ll skip it,” said Rosemary more in an effort to placate Sarah than to miss an experience. “Can I offer you a little more champagne?”

Rosemary’s father stuck his head in for a moment and decided he’d rather not be part of this gathering, at least for the moment. He helped himself to a toast with salmon and retired, presumably, to his study.

Jane and Philip were standing by the window which was framed by heavy velvet drapes. They were talking softly, almost conspiratorially.

“You’ve seen her?” Jane asked but it was more a statement than a question. And there was a look on his face which made it all seem not so light anymore, not something simply to be dabbled in. “Are you sure you haven’t taken on more than you can…”

He put a hand on her arm and tried to stop her but she continued questioning him.

“Are you feeling a certain amount of guilt?” Jane asked.

He came right back at her. “Are you?”

They didn’t notice Rosemary was standing there
until she spoke. “Do either of you need another drink?” And then, because Jane looked so startled, Rosemary said, “Oh, I’ve interrupted you.”

“No,” said Jane, a little bit too quickly, “we were just discussing the pressures of war on modern society.”

“A subject I’m familiar with but would rather not discuss,” said Rosemary. She gave Philip a kiss on the cheek and went off to tend to her other guests.

“A certain amount of guilt,” said Philip after she was a safe distance away. “Yes, I would say that.”

 

I
t was hard to tell what the aged Miss Wetzel thought of her charges, if they could indeed be called that. Certainly, if you asked her, the nature of the individual girls she’d boarded in the last ten years had become as a whole markedly wilder and more independent. No one ever stayed there very long. Wetzel’s was a stopping place. But except for an occasional stern reprimand when one of the house rules was broken, Miss Wetzel mostly kept to herself, retiring at half past eight each night to her lonely bed and the few pages of the Bible, New Testament only, she read before retiring. The girls treated the house more like a boarding school,
preferring to do their living in their rooms instead of in the bleak and modest parlor downstairs. And once Wetzel fell asleep, as she could barely hear when awake, they felt it would take a near avalanche to rouse her.

Eleanor liked the simplicity of Wetzel’s. Most nights she stayed in. It had been so long since she’d felt safe anywhere. Since childhood when she’d had to dodge her father’s drunken rages that could turn so easily to maudlin self-pity (which was somehow even harder for her to bear)—she’d always felt as though she’d been on her own. She would take a bit of work home from the shop some nights. On the night in question, she was sitting at the vanity in her room, wearing the silk shawl that Philip had bought for her wrapped around her shoulders, imitating the casual nature of two women who were in the shop that day, running Dora fairly ragged but spending. They were not her usual sort of customers, as Dora seemed to specialize in
Old New York
. These were women who had married well, blonde with perfectly made-up faces. They were women who had invented themselves successfully, as if they themselves were something to be marketed, and they shopped the way a child would shop, unbridled in a toy store.

“I’ll have one of those,” said the first woman pointing to an elegant forest green hat with a veil as if there
were many of them sitting somewhere on a shelf. “Oh,” she added as if it had just occurred to her, “and I need a navy blue hat.”

Dora obligingly showed her one which was instantly accepted, rather than scrutinized, as if she didn’t realize if she were to reject it, two or three other styles would magically appear.

Eleanor stood in the doorway of the workroom watching them, silently studying their moves.

The second woman, who looked very much like the first woman except that she was a few inches taller, spoke in a voice that was a little husky and fairly trilled with laughter. “I like that little white one,” she said. She picked up a fluffy concoction with a veil and held it in front of her. She didn’t even try it on. “Of course, I couldn’t wear it till the spring,” she said. “But it will keep.”

Eleanor picked up a white straw summer hat she had been stitching and put it on her head. She looked at herself in the mirror of the vanity. She secured it to her head with a hat pin and said out loud as she looked at herself in the mirror, “Of course, I couldn’t wear it till the spring, but it will keep.”

Her reverie was broken by a knock at the door, a very quiet tapping but insistent. She hurriedly unpinned the hat as though afraid she would be caught playing at something she ought not to be playing at
and opened the door a crack. It was Philip. Eleanor spoke to him in a half-whisper. “You shouldn’t be here.” House rules—no male visitors. It was almost a game to her. She pretended every night that it was the first time he’d come to see her, as though she needed to preserve some vestige of prudery before she let him in the door. And then his immediate response, “But you’re glad I am. Let me in before I make a scene.”

After she’d shut the door, “You’re always threatening to make a scene,” she said. She put a finger to her mouth. She was almost laughing. “Shh. You’ll get me thrown out of here.”

He leaned in and kissed her. There was no need after that to quiet him.

Philip didn’t spend the night, he left at three in the morning. Eleanor stood in the window watching him as he walked out of the building onto the street. She was wearing a silk robe, her hair was down, her face reflected in the pane of glass, and she looked as innocent as if she were fourteen. He’d brought her a present that night, a necklace that had belonged to his mother, a delicate chain of white gold and at the base of it a small inlay of diamonds around a larger square-cut diamond, elegant and simple although the middle stone was quite impressive. He told her, his father had given it to his mother the month before they married and it was the one piece that she had refused to pawn.
She put her hand on the diamond.
It was his mother’s and he’d given it to her….

She watched as, on the street, Philip got into his carriage. He half-turned when he was on the step of the running board, almost inside, and looked up at her. She put a hand to her face and stood there watching as he got in and the carriage took off down the street.

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