“Mmm…must I really?” the woman asked, propping herself on some pillows and reaching for the cup of tea Eleanor handed her.
Eleanor smiled, “You certainly must. It’s late.” And she sat on the edge of the bed and lit a cigarette.
“What a lovely party, Eleanor. You have such a talent for entertaining,” the woman said between sips of tea.
“It helps that you have such a talent for appreciating my wine cellar,” Eleanor teased.
The woman ignored the comment. “You are so much more amusing than my husband, darling,” she sighed heavily and reached out to run her fingers through Eleanor’s hair.
“I am amusing. Your husband is rich.”
“No richer than you,” the woman pouted.
“But I can’t marry you, can I?” Eleanor pointed out, taking the woman’s hand from her hair and kissing it, before setting it down on the bed again.
“You would though—if you could—wouldn’t you?” the woman prodded.
Eleanor smiled. “Lunch in half an hour. I’m going to get dressed. If you need anything, ring Christine.” And she rose and left the room.
An hour later, Eden Smith stood at Eleanor’s front door. She was early for their planned engagement, but didn’t think El would mind.
Mrs. Williams, opened the door. “Good afternoon, Miss Smith,” she said, taking Eden’s hat, coat and gloves, “I’ll announce you.” And she showed Eden to the little dayroom opposite the parlor and hastened away.
Eden loved Eleanor’s dayroom. It was small compared to the other parlors, but it featured an enormous bay window of leaded glass that were not hidden away by the heavy drapes that covered most of the other windows in the house. So much light filled the room that it was almost a conservatory. Little prisms danced about, falling here and there on the marble floor tiles, the wood-paneled walls and the mahogany furniture.
After a few moments, Mrs. Williams returned, saying “Miss Stephens says you must join her.”
Eden rose and followed the woman to the dining room where Eleanor and a woman in a wilting voile evening gown sat around the ruins of luncheon.
“I’m sorry…” Eden began, but Eleanor cut her off.
“Sit down, darling,” she insisted. “You’ve met Vivienne Webb, I think?”
Eden looked at the woman, puzzled.
But the woman smiled and put out her hand without rising from the table, “you’re the cowboy’s daughter, how could I forget?”
Eden took the woman’s hand and sat. The kitchen maid hastened to bring a table setting and placed it before Eden.
“It was two years ago at Francine’s party—before you began your studies,” Eleanor reminded Eden.
“Of course,” smiled Eden politely without remembering at all.
“She’s a dear, Eleanor. How have I missed her until today?” Mrs. Webb chastened. “You must hide her away.”
“Of course not,” Eleanor answered. “But Eden is quite busy with her studies. Not everyone can waste time as brilliantly as you and I, Vivienne.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Webb, rising from the table, “I’m afraid I’ve wasted as much as I can today. Wills is expecting mummy this evening. Some new girl he wants me to meet.”
Eleanor raised an eyebrow. “It sounds serious.”
Mrs. Webb shrugged. “It’s the third one I’ve had to chatter with over tea. Wills doesn’t seem able to make up his mind.” She sighed.
Eleanor rose from the table, but the other woman stopped her. “Do sit, Eleanor, I can see myself out. Don’t leave your little friend alone.” She smiled at Eden who had risen too and took her extended hand. “So lovely to see you again.”
Eden gave her a little bow. “And you.”
Vivienne swept out of the room, followed by the maid. Eleanor sat and gestured for Eden to do the same. “Do you want something to eat?” she asked Eden.
“No thanks—well maybe just a cup of tea,” she changed her mind quickly. Eleanor nodded at the kitchen maid in the doorway.
The two were silent for a moment.
“Vivienne is a small diversion of mine, in case you’re curious,” Eleanor said. “I didn’t mention it before.” She raised an eyebrow. “After your reaction to Alice Vine, I wasn’t sure you’d approve.”
“It’s none of my business,” Eden said with a blush.
Eleanor lit a cigarette as Eden’s tea arrived. “Smoke?” Eleanor asked the girl.
Eden shook her head.
“In fact, Eden, Vivienne is your business—somewhat tangentially.” Eleanor tapped the ash from her cigarette. “I have been trying to think of a way to bring it up for some time, in fact…”
Eden looked at her friend curiously.
“Eden… Darling…” Eleanor paused. “Listen, don’t be upset, but Vivienne…” She frowned.
“What is it, El?” A knot was beginning to form in Eden’s stomach.
“Have you heard the name Henry Barrett?”
Eden was quiet for a moment. “I don’t think so.”
Eleanor put down her cigarette and met Eden’s eye. “What I’m going to tell you might be a bit shocking, so please bear with me.”
Eleanor waited until Eden had lit her cigarette, before speaking again. Then, “Henry Barrett was your mother’s husband. Her first one, before she…married…Joe Smith.”
The color drained from Eden’s face. “How do you know about any of that?”She had never spoken her mother’s secret to anyone. But now Eleanor was claiming to know more about it even, than Eden.
“It doesn’t matter how I know. But I do—I know all of it,” Eleanor added gently. “I’ve never breathed a word to anyone, of course.”
“What does this have to do with that woman?” Eden asked, looking at the door through which Vivienne Webb had gone, refusing to meet Eleanor’s gaze.
“Her husband is Henry Barrett’s cousin. She met your mother years ago—” Eleanor said. “Naturally, she didn’t make the connection when you appeared in Francine’s parlor,” she quickly added.
Eden stared blankly at her hands and watched her cigarette burn.
“What do you want me to say?” Eden asked in a whisper. She didn’t look up.
“Listen, darling. I know you love…your father. But Henry Barrett is rich as a king—”
Eden cut her off, “what’s that to me? It’s nothing—it’s nothing, Eleanor!” and she rose from the table in haste.
“Eden, please,” Eleanor rose too, put out her hand and begged, “please sit, just hear what I have to say.”
But Eden skulked to the corner of the room and squinted out the small window into the grey garden.
“Alright, don’t sit, but listen,” Eleanor began again in even tones. “I think it best that you not let Henry Barrett die believing himself to be childless…” She paused.
“Is he not childless?” Eden asked, her voice quivering slightly.
“You know he is not.”
Eden finally looked up with a scowl. “I want to know where you came by these ideas of yours!”
Eleanor was quiet for a moment.
“When I met your father, it was obvious to me that you were not his natural child, darling.”
“But this story about Henry Barrett…”
“Barrett is well known to have lost his young wife when she drowned herself in misery or drunkenness—it depends on who is telling the story—on her honeymoon in Boston twenty years ago. Of course, everyone speaks to the man’s face as if it were an accident, but everyone smiles behind his back,” Eleanor paused. “He’s an ass. He deserves it.”
“What makes you think his wife was my mother?” Eden pressed.
“Your mother told Francine and Francine told me.” Eden’s face grew stormy again. “She told me in particular—she told no one else—because she could see that I might take a special interest in you.”
“A special interest in me?” Eden crossed her arms tightly, but turned to face her friend.
“It’s obvious why that would be the case, isn’t it?” Eleanor gave Eden a small smile. “Francine had the best of intentions and so do I.” She paused. “And I feel you ought to meet Henry Barrett.”
“No.” Eden did not consider it for a fraction of a moment. “Even if it is true, I don’t care. He is no one to me.”
“Of course not darling, of course not. But that does not mean—”
“No.” Eden wouldn’t let Eleanor finish the thought. “Shall I go, or will you continue to pursue this idea?”
“I apologize, Eden.” Eleanor sighed. “Forget I brought it up.”
“I assure you, I will,” Eden told her.