When Papa quit farming and became a manure salesman, my family thrived. It was the secret to our wealth. We were finally able to leave New Hampshire and make a better life for ourselves in Europe. I lifted my eyes to meet their questioning looks.
“New Hampshire is a place of such quiet simplicity,” I remarked.
“It sounds charming.” Louisa turned the page of her sketchbook, showing another flower, this time a Tiger Lily.
“It must be a hard thing for a mother to have to leave her child,” Letitia remarked, putting her teacup down.
“Indeed,” I murmured, scrutinizing Louisa’s pencil sketch, my mind focused on where it should go in the garden.
Laura Mollington, who was seated next to me, tittered. “We’re talking about your child, Mary Emelin, dear.”
I was so taken aback that I stared at her for several moments. But her large gray eyes never left my face. I have a bad habit of letting my mouth hang open when I’m surprised, and as her expression changed from curiosity to disapproval, I shut my mouth, my cheeks warming as I did so.
Lucy Alvanley put her hand on my arm. “We heard that you had to leave your child back in America when your husband died.”
“But I don’t…didn’t have a husband in New Hampshire,” I stuttered. “Nor a child.”
They looked at me speculatively, the expressions on their faces ranging from sympathy, through doubt to outright condemnation. I turned to Letitia Capenhurst, whose expression conveyed the most condemnation. “Who told you?” As soon as the words left my lips, I wished I’d used another phrase. For didn’t my question suggest that what they believed was true and that I was hiding a secret?
“Why, I heard it from Charlotte,” she replied bridling.
My heart sank. Charlotte Helsby was a retired lady, recently widowed. She was the very image of propriety and I scarcely knew her.
I turned to Louisa Bretton. “You don’t believe it, do you?”
She raised her dark head from her sketch pad and paused, her eyes full of sympathy.
“Charlotte never gossips,” remarked Laura Mollington. The others nodded agreement.
Not for the first time I wished I weren’t so foreign, or that I found it easier to make friends amongst the standoffish English, or that I were back in America. What could I say? No-one knew me well enough to believe me. These ladies had no idea how lucky they were with their lives of privilege, their family connections and close friends. They had no idea what it was like to be on the outside, and saw no reason why they should make special allowances for the foreigner. Indeed, most English people treated foreigners with the greatest suspicion. It was no surprise, therefore, looked at from that angle, why these ladies might believe such an outlandish tale. The room sighed around me as the silence lengthened. Suddenly, I couldn’t bear it any more.
“But it’s not true!” I exploded. “It’s a pack of lies.”
My loud words reverberated around that quiet room.
“Dear, dear,” murmured Lucy Alvaney. “There’s no need to shout.”
I hung my head, and in that moment I knew I’d lost them. Well-bred ladies never shouted, whatever the provocation. What was wrong with me? I knew better than to show a display of temper in a London drawing-room. But I’d had too many difficulties in my life recently, and there is nothing more frustrating than trying to declare your innocence before a hostile audience. [To be continued.]