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 (6 page)

 

T
he next morning, Eleanor was rearranging the hats on display, all light colored and pastel because it was spring, jauntily tipping them at angles on their stands. Dora was sitting behind the desk, practically immobile as she was most mornings, drinking a cup of coffee that Eleanor had brought for her from the café across the street and looking at the morning paper. Dora opened the newspaper and flipped immediately to the Society Page.

“You can’t buy publicity like this,” she said, suddenly excited, as she spread the newspaper out on the table. “She’s wearing our hat! See, I do give you credit, dear,” she said to Eleanor.

She read the item aloud:

“Miss Rosemary Fell and Captain Philip Alsop will be wed…”

She was only glad her back was turned so that Dora couldn’t see her face.

“…A month earlier than planned. At St. Luke’s Cathedral tomorrow. As the handsome bridegroom has received his war orders and will ship out next week to France. New York will be emptier without him but Europe will be a safer place.”

Dora didn’t seem to notice that Eleanor was barely holding herself up, her hand gripping a hatstand, as she answered so quickly it didn’t seem as though she had lost her composure. “Really?” said Eleanor. She faltered a little bit when she said this next bit. “What—hat is she wearing?”

Dora showed her the picture. Philip, in uniform, and a smiling Rosemary Fell in a moss-green hat that Eleanor remembered stitching. Underneath was the caption, “The soon-to-be-Mr.-and-Mrs.-Alsop”.

 

E
leanor feigned a headache and walked the twelve blocks to the waterfront, although she was so pale, it hadn’t required a lot of acting. She stopped on the corner and bought a copy of the paper. She had always known he was betrothed, but somehow seeing it in black-and-white:

Miss Rosemary Fell and Captain Philip Alsop will be wed, a month earlier than planned…

She couldn’t imagine that the time they’d spent together had meant nothing to him.

She saw him standing at the edge of the dock shouting
orders to some shipyard workers who were loading a freighter that had just come in.

Philip smiled when he saw Eleanor approaching him. “I was hoping I would see you today,” he said.

“And what about tomorrow?” she said accusingly. “Were you hoping you would see me tomorrow? And what about this?” She waved the newspaper at him. “Were you planning to tell me?”

He held her shoulders to try to calm her. She realized Rosemary Fell would never cause a scene in public. She responded flatly, almost without emotion, “What?”

He noticed that the dockworkers were staring at them and pulled Eleanor off to the side of the dock. She was beyond caring. What did she expect him to say? That he loved her. Certainly, she expected him to say that. But what declaration could he make to her? What could he promise? There wasn’t anything he could say to change the way it was. There were too many feelings to account for, too much propriety at stake, too little time.

He let go of her and shut his eyes. “It’s as if your life is going one way,” he said finally, “and then something happens…Are you supposed to derail your entire life?”

She finished for him. “Or just not care about the consequences that it, has on others?” He would always
remember the way that she looked at him, directly, almost as if it were a challenge. “I’m a big girl,” she said, “I can take care of myself.”

There was a moment where neither of them spoke. “I know—” she said, “your name is supposed to appear in the papers three times—when you’re born, when you marry, and when you die. And that’s where I’ll get my information about you.”

She threw the newspaper on the ground where it landed in a puddle, opened to the offending item. The edges of the paper curled slightly as the picture of Philip and Rosemary became submerged in water. He watched her as she walked away from him down the dock.

 

I
t was late, after midnight, when Josie came in from the theater. She was elated from her performance and didn’t feel like going to sleep. The light was on in Eleanor’s room. She knocked softly and Eleanor, still in her street clothes, answered the door.

“Oh, it
is
there,” said Josie. Eleanor forced a smile.

“Well, you are
never
here anymore. Let me in before we wake the warden.” Without waiting for her to open the door fully, Josie pushed her way in.

Eleanor’s bedroom was so plain, it was almost austere. Minimally decorated, a dried floral wreath with ribbons hung on the wall, and a cheap paisley shawl
had been thrown over the end table as a covering. There were fresh flowers, lilies, in a vase on the table. Josie threw herself dramatically across the bed and lay on her stomach, her head propped up by her hands and elbows. “You got anything to eat? I’m starving.”

“You’re the one who works in a restaurant,” said Eleanor.

“Not anymore. I’ve gotten a part. Not a part exactly. I’m part of the chorus…” She added, laughing, “…And, I’m completely broke.” Eleanor tossed her an apple from the top of the bureau.

Josie was so intent on herself, she could still hear the applause from the theater, she hadn’t eaten, and it took her a few moments to realize that Eleanor was not her usual self.

She noticed the necklace around her friend’s neck. “Where did you get that?” asked Josie.

“I gave myself a present.”

Josie wasn’t buying any of it. “Some present.” She took a bite of the apple. “You don’t have to lie to me,” she said. “He has good taste.”

“I should give it back to him,” she said. It was all she could do to hold back tears.

“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” Josie said. “It’s always a good idea to have something around you can hock in case things get tough.”

Eleanor’s hand flew protectively to the necklace at
this remark and it was clear, that no matter what were to occur in the future, she would never part with it.

Did she expect to hear from him, expect him to show up on her doorstep? Did she harbor any illusions that he would change his mind about the course his life was going to take? Perhaps. But she was practical enough to know that he wouldn’t. And impractical enough to ever give up the notion that he would.

 

M
ilitary feet marching with their own rhythm and syncopation, in contrast to the provincial French countryside they were marching through, rough, chaotic, as though it were a portent of what was to come. They received a warm reception, cheered on, fed, embraced, as if the Americans were the saviours they’d been waiting for.

As Philip wrote to Rosemary,
“It’s odd. I feel as though we’re on a trip. Or on a roller coaster that has started up and down is just around the corner. We stop and eat at inns along the way. Except that everyone looks frightened, awfully glad to see us though
.

“We’ve stopped at a small country inn for lunch. Provincial.
You would like the menu. It feels so normal here as though I have a foot in my old life. The officers will sleep in beds tonight and then, I think, there will be no more inns. We are supposed to camp in Normandy
.

“I want to tell you to light a candle in the window but pour a glass of wine instead. Its feeling will be more immediate.”

He was sitting in the dining room of a provincial country inn as he wrote to her looking out the window at a vast expanse of rolling meadow that months later would be decimated by war. He signed his name and sealed the letter. Timothy Whitfield, a British Officer who would die two months later in a trench outside Vevey, walked over carrying a small chess set which he placed between them on the table. Philip drew white and Whitfield set the board up.

“Pawn to pawn four,” said Philip. “I’m not very good at this,” he mused. “I never had a head for schematics.” He started to draw on the tablecloth. “It’s like chess,” he went on as he moved a knight out. “You have to have a head for it.” He finished the sketch, perplexed. “If they come from the north and we’re here…” He drew an arrow. He realized that he didn’t know the answer.

“May the best man win…” said Whitfield, answering for him.

“Something like that,” said Philip as he looked out
the window again at the pristine meadowland and the rows of stone houses that edged it. “But aren’t I supposed to feel angry? I am angry—that you could take a history like this and trample on it.”

“But, Philip,” said Whitfield as he captured his knight with his pawn, “we are history.”

 

R
osemary did as he asked, pouring herself a glass of burgundy because she thought it was appropriate and sat alone by the fire in the sheltered and sequestered silence of her New York parlor. The last four weeks seemed almost a blur, the chaos of the wedding where everyone around her had seemed to almost lose their minds.

Her father had turned into a child, on the morning of her wedding, forgetting how to tie his tie, presenting himself to Gertrude. “Oh, Gertrude. Are you any good at this? I’ve been doing it all my life and suddenly today, I can’t even remember…”

Gertrude stifled a smile and grabbed both ends of his tie around his neck a little more forcefully than necessary. “Stand still,” she told him. “I’m not going to be able to do it with you hopping around like that.”

He looked at the picture of his late wife, Elizabeth, in the silver frame on the dressing room table. “I wish Elizabeth were here today, Gertrude,” he said. “I need someone to hold
my
hand tonight. This is not one of those things I imagined doing alone.” He looked at his perfectly tied tie in the mirror. “Thanks, Gertrude,” he said and stared again at the picture of his wife. “But I think we’ve done well with her, Lizzie. I hope he does as well.”

 

When Jane showed up an hour later, Rosemary’s bedroom was a mess, a pre-wedding mess. The bed was unmade. There were petticoats scattered about the floor, all very frilly and girlish, and Jane felt as if she were in street clothes in the navy blue serge suit she’d picked for the wedding. Jane had declined being one of the bridesmaids. No, she would not wear a dress and attempt to catch a bouquet for an event that would never occur…Rosemary didn’t press her on it but there were a great many things in Jane’s life they never spoke about. Mostly, they spoke about Rosemary. And
that morning, the morning of her wedding, was no exception.

There was a breakfast tray on the vanity that appeared largely untouched. Jane helped herself to a strawberry and called out to Rose who appeared from inside the closet. She was half in her wedding gown but it wasn’t fastened. Her hair was up. She looked almost pretty.

“Oh, it’s you,” she said sounding relieved. “I thought you were Gertrude. For twenty-seven years, every time I’m hungry, I’ve had to beg her to make me something. This morning, the one time I’m not hungry, she showed up with a four-course breakfast. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.”

“You have,” said Jane. “Something borrowed. Mother sent it over.” She smiled and held a black velvet jewelry box out to Rosemary.

“It’s beautiful,” said Rosemary as Jane fastened the emerald bracelet on her wrist.

“It’s borrowed.”

“I know that,” said Rosemary and then added wistfully, “I wish your mother was coming.”

“So do I. She hasn’t been out for months. She hasn’t felt well enough to go out.”

“She’s the only one of us, though,” said Rosemary, “who never loses her mind. Philip’s so nervous I think
he’s going to jump out of his skin. Not something I respect or admire. My father’s turned into a child. And I know I can do this but I feel as if I’m giving myself a wedding. Tell me not to do this today.”

Jane smiled at her. “Don’t do this, today, Rose,” she said. “Just be a good girl and turn around and let me fasten your dress. See how tiny your waist is. Mother says a girl’s waist is supposed to be tiny before she marries. Now, look at my waist. See, I barely have one. Not that it would be my preference to marry a man.” And in that moment, she acknowledged what they never spoke about. She missed a hook on Rosemary’s dress. “There, hold your breath in.” There was a hint of envy in her voice when she said, “You look almost like a picture.”

 

T
o the outside eye, the wedding was a complete success. The day lilies practically spilled off the altar into the church. The organ played Brahms’ 4th and then the Wedding March. Rosemary, protected by her veil and her exquisite bone structure, looked every bit the society bride. Her father wiped his eyes as he walked her down the aisle. The bouquet was caught by one of the Forrest girls, Nan, who went home with a piece of cake to put beneath her pillow so she might dream about who the lucky man might be.

That Teddy would tell Sarah later that Philip was a near wreck before the wedding (which he masked
with charm and wit) was not surprising. But, once he’d stepped into the church, there was no evidence to anyone in the congregation of his nerves. Rosemary, distraught that their honeymoon was reduced to one night at the Plaza, was too reserved to admit to anyone that she was actually frightened it would not be enough time to properly assume her wedding vows.

A small crowd had gathered on the street. It was, after all, a society wedding, and a number of people wanted to catch a glimpse of the bride. Philip and Rosemary were practically royalty. And, in their number, far back in the crowd, was a woman whose face was partly and purposefully hidden by a veil but whose beauty was unmistakeable. Eleanor Smith. There was an innocence about her in that moment as she watched Philip kiss Rosemary at the top of the stairs. And the division between the wedding party and the people on the street was so defined, as if there were a barricade they would never be able to cross.

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