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 (7 page)

BOOK: A Cup of Tea: A Novel of 1917
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S
he watched the moment when they kissed to try to see if it measured up in any way to what they had…She didn’t wait until they walked hand-in-hand down the steps and into the waiting carriage, the back of which was decorated with bells and ribbons, but lost herself in a crowd of people and headed towards the theater where Josie was performing.

On the corner of 45th Street, there was a man, quite drunk, under a lamppost, whose age was difficult to determine. He looked to be in his sixties although he may have had ten fewer years. He was holding a bottle
in his hand. He looked up and saw Eleanor and his face broke into a smile.

“I knew my little girl was going to show up today,” he practically shouted.

Eleanor looked panicked. She crossed the street to avoid him, praying that he wouldn’t try to follow her. She almost haphazardly fumbled in her purse, came up with a ticket and lost herself in the sea of theatergoers as they rushed inside, pretending all along that her father had mistaken her for someone else.

Inside the theater, she made her way to the bar and ordered herself a whiskey and soda, what Philip always used to order. There was a man standing at the bar staring at her. The scotch tasted vile and strangely metallic. She forced herself to finish it as though it were an homage of a sort and found her way to her seat. The performance was sold-out and she was acutely aware that she was one of the only people who had come to the theater alone. It took a long time for the curtain to rise and she couldn’t quite get herself to focus on the show except for the bits when Josie bounded in.

Josie was only a part of the chorus but she had that moment, in the third act, where she performed that little song and dance with Jimmy Donohue, a large,
moon-faced fellow with kind eyes and a voice that was remarkably deep. They actually stopped the show, getting their own round of applause led partly by Eleanor who certainly felt it deserved a standing ovation. It was a soppy, romantic musical and as the leads kissed, the curtain fell.

Eleanor waited with a small group of people for the actors to change their clothes. The show was a popular hit, although it had received very little critical acclaim, and there was an infectious mood among the cast. Josie was more bubbly than usual hanging on the arm of Jimmy Donohue. A man walked up who was better dressed than the rest of them, dark-haired, handsome. His name was Robert Doyle and he was the producer of the show. He couldn’t take his eyes off Eleanor.

“Where have you been keeping her?” he said to Josie.

Before Josie could answer, Eleanor said, “I’ve just come back to town.” Josie wrote it off as one of those things Eleanor said just because she liked to be mysterious, although it did occur to Josie that if Eleanor disappeared, she would have no idea, beyond the hat shop, where to look for her.

Doyle was quite taken with her, tried to talk her into coming across the street with them for a drink.
But Eleanor insisted that she wouldn’t be good company that night. Doyle watched her, intrigued as she walked back through the darkened aisle of the theater alone. She took a taxi home because for one night she wanted to be just like them.

 

S
omeone in the crowd began to sing “Over There.” And it was picked up by one of the soldiers on the boat. There were women holding children, wiping their eyes with handkerchiefs, waving miniature American and Allied flags that had been mounted on small sticks, trying to appear brave.

It was the first deployment of U.S. troops to Europe. Three military transport ships were leaving and it seemed as if half of New York had turned out. A huge crowd had gathered on the pier. And, off to the side, a splinter group protesting the United States’ involvement. There were a number of police, uniformed
officers on foot and on horseback, to lend support and quiet the crowd, if need be. Rosemary had gone with Philip to the Hudson Dock to see him off. She took Jane with her so that, after he left, she wouldn’t have to be alone. Rosemary was never very good in crowds. She always tried to stand a safe distance from everyone as though being part of a community interest would somehow make her common. She was not at ease with public displays of emotion, of which there were many that afternoon.

Since Philip was an officer and Rosemary behaved like she was titled gentry—they were, after all, one of those New York couples—the crowds parted to let them pass. Rosemary held on to Philip’s arm tightly, as if she could never let him go. Nothing had seemed as real as this. The lobby of the Plaza had been filled, the morning after their wedding night, with soldiers—but that had seemed to Rosemary almost as if it was staged. She had been right—one night at the Plaza and best efforts not to appear petulant about it.

They had moved in with her father for Philip’s remaining two nights in town. Did she intend for them to live at her father’s house forever? They hadn’t really had the conversation. It made sense for Rosemary to stay on 9th Street while Philip was at war but when he returned…shouldn’t they establish their
own residence, begin to have their own life, or did she expect that he would fit in neatly into hers?

She packed for him. What did you pack for someone when you were sending them to war? Stationery which she’d had engraved with just his name and no address, a quill pen, a thin volume of Yeats’s “The Green Helmet and Other Poems,” a bedside clock which he thought was sweet but almost comical. A wristwatch perhaps with a second hand for precise movement of military operations but that would be regulation-issue. He couldn’t imagine unpacking his clock each night after he’d undone his bedroll—how like Rosemary to try to decorate his bedsite, as if there would be any vestige of civilization in a trench. He teased her that perhaps she could figure out a way to pack a bedside table.

Rosemary was standing just to the side of the gangplank as Philip walked up it to board the ship. He leaned over as he passed her. She reached her hand up to his. Their lips could not quite reach.

The crowd swelled closer to the boat, as if everyone wanted to hold on to whoever it was that was leaving them. And in their number, way in the back of the crowd, stood Eleanor Smith, partly hidden by a hat with a veil that shaded her face. She watched as Philip reached down and touched Rosemary’s cheek. She
wanted to touch him. She wanted to be able to kiss him goodbye. She imagined what it would be like to be “the other woman” in mourning without a recognized outlet for grief and she was reminded again of how nothing in her life had been legitimate except her feelings for Philip.

Say a prayer.

The departing soldiers continued to sing. They were joined by the people in the crowd.

Neither Philip nor Rosemary sang. The only expression on Philip’s face was to blink quickly as he looked down at Rosemary. Jane caught Rose’s arm and held it.

The crowd continued singing. As Rosemary and Jane watched Philip walk up to the deck and in that moment become indistinguishable from the other soldiers in uniform, Rosemary turned and looked at Jane. “I never have the right response anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to wave a flag. I’ll wave a flag when he comes home.”

Jane held Rose’s arm a little tighter as the ship began to pull away.

 

O
nce abroad, entrapped in a regimen he barely understood, where everything was minimal and stripped away and basic and terrifying, and though he could admit this to no one, plagued with lingering doubts about his ability to lead and the nature of war, images of Eleanor kept coming to his mind. He sent her a letter from France. A letter she read so many times that the paper had grown thin in the places where she held it.

She was sitting on a stool in the workroom rereading the letter, although she had no need since she knew it by heart, when Dora walked into the workroom
carrying a black hat. She immediately hid the letter in the pocket of her apron.

Dora held the hat out to her. “Would you mind…? We have a delivery to make. Mrs. Lawson—her husband,” said Dora as if no other explanation were necessary. “I’ve grown to hate this war. But my mother always used to say, one should always be prepared and keep a black hat in the closet.”

Eleanor couldn’t tell whether she’d just been told a life lesson or one of Dora’s eccentricities. She took the hat from Dora gingerly and put it in a hat box. Forgetting that the letter was in the pocket, she took her apron off and hung it on a hook. She nodded as Dora handed her the address.

“Although,” said Dora as Eleanor turned to go, “I guess I could understand wanting a new hat under the circumstances.”

It was terribly hot and humid. A group of children were playing around an open fire hydrant, barefoot, unmindful of the fact that their clothes were getting wet. Three women, presumably with some relation to the children, sat exhausted, legs splayed, fanning themselves on a stoop. Eleanor walked by carrying the hat box. She felt like a messenger of death. And as she walked down the street, the words in Philip’s letter, the letter she’d been reading, the letter she hadn’t expected
to get and hoped for every day, sounded over in her mind.

“I have heard of people having flashbacks when they returned from war,”
he wrote.
“But I began to have them as soon as I arrived. Flashbacks of you. They come unbidden. I’m hoping you can forgive me and give me a chance to make right what is wrong. In the meantime, I am left with memories of you. The way you looked when you opened your door at night…And how it felt to lie beside you…”

A taxi honked at Eleanor as she crossed the street. She hurried on oblivious. The sounds of the city became intermingled with the sound of war in her imagination, an explosion in the distance, planes flying overhead.

“Did I speak to you about duty. I meant to…”

Eleanor walked down a residential street that was lined with brownstones with a uniform facade.

“Duty and honor. And what it is like to be bound to one thing when your heart wishes you to do something else…”

The sound of a bomber overhead, intermixed with traffic noise as it strafes the sky.

“What it is like to fight a war when nothing about a war makes sense except a sense of duty.”

The sound of a single bomb now on a swift trajectory
to the ground as if for one moment she were by his side.

“Don’t question my love. Try, if you can to forgive me. And know that I am coming home to you.”

And then, unmistakably, the sound of a bomb as it hit and exploded on the ground.

The Lawson house stood out because of the yellow ribbon on the door that was tied like a Christmas package, but in the center where the bow would be, hung a black wreath. Eleanor walked down the stairs of the brownstone to the servants’ and delivery entrance and knocked.

The door was opened by the fat cook, Emma, whose normally cheerful countenance was stained by tears. The sight of the hat box was enough to start her off again, but she had always run a gracious household. “You must be scorched,” she said to Eleanor. “I’ve got fresh lemonade.”

Eleanor was feeling flushed and queasy from the heat. She held the banister to steady herself.

“Come in out of the sun,” said Emma. “Not that it’s much better in here. What with the baking for tomorrow.”

“Have you a—” Eleanor was going to ask for a Powder Room but she was too polite.

Emma guessed her meaning. “You do look as though you might be sick,” she said and directed
Eleanor to follow her through the kitchen to the servants’ bath. Emma, protective of the house from strangers, waited outside the door and heard the unmistakable sound of retching even though Eleanor had turned the water on to mask it.

A moment later, Eleanor opened the door. She had splashed water on her face and her color had returned a bit. The two women looked at each other. “It’s the heat,” said Eleanor apologetically.

“If I were you,” said Emma who guessed her condition immediately, “I would loosen those stays.” Eleanor seemed to pale at this suggestion. She followed the woman back to the kitchen. “I suppose I should see if it fits—see if the hat fits,” said Eleanor.

“Oh, no—” said the old cook, handing her a glass of lemonade. “I’ll take it up to her. I don’t think either one of you’s up to a fitting.” They both looked for a moment at the hat box on the table.

 

W
hen Josie came in at her usual time, twelve-thirty, from the theater, carrying a chilled bottle of champagne, she found Eleanor sitting at the vanity in her room wearing only white pantalooned underwear. The window was open and the overhead fan was spinning slowly, but all it seemed to do was move the hot and humid air from one place to another.

“You missed my applause,” said Josie reproach fully.

Eleanor had promised to meet her at the theater that night but hadn’t felt well enough.

“I brought the house down,” said Josie. “It was fabulous.” She practically pirouetted around the room and popped the cork on the champagne. She poured them each a glass in jam jars which was the only readily available china she could find.

“Where were you?” she asked as she handed Eleanor a glass.

“I wasn’t feeling well. It was the heat. I haven’t been—feeling well. Dora sent me on a delivery, at noon. I thought I’d walk. It was too far to walk in the heat. Someone’s husband died and I—had to bring them a black hat. It—it was too far to walk in the heat.”

“You look pale,” said Josie.

“I do look pale. I know,” said Eleanor. “I shouldn’t. I should look like a picture of health. I’m—” Eleanor studied her friend. It wasn’t that she was worried what Josie would think of her. Josie had always dealt in unconditional acceptance. It was just that she had not yet said it out loud. “I’m—having a baby.”

“You’re not…?!” said Josie.

“I am.”

“Who is he?” asked Josie sounding in that moment like an older sister.

She didn’t know how to answer. The man she loved. The father of her child. “He isn’t here,” she said. “He isn’t—free. He’s in…France.”

“Oh great,” said Josie without losing a beat. “A married soldier.”

“Officer,” said Eleanor.

“That makes it better,” said Josie. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?! What happens when you lose your job?! How long can you hide it?!”

“I figured you’d have your name on the marquee by then and support us both,” said Eleanor who was only half kidding.

“Be serious,” said Josie. “I have a friend who knows a doctor. Actually, I think he’s a dentist.”

Eleanor cut her off. “I could never do that.”

“What are you going to do then? You think Wetzel will let you live here?”

“We’ll move. You’ve always wanted an apartment. I haven’t,” she said. “I haven’t thought about any of it.” She laughed a little to herself. “It’s not a condition you think your way into. I’ve thought about what I will name her,” she said. “If it’s a girl, I want to call her Tess.”

Josie answered drily, “And if it’s a boy?”

“I thought I would let his father name him.” Eleanor got up and walked to the window. “It would be easy to say the war has made us do things we otherwise wouldn’t have.”

“Us?” said Josie.

“Okay, me, then,” Eleanor admitted. “But I don’t have the sense to regret any of it at all.” She gave an odd smile because she didn’t regret any of the time she’d spent with Philip.

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