School had started on the first of the month and I dreaded going back. It was my senior year, and I should’ve been back in Pennsylvania and planning for prom and going to drive in movies with the cute boys at my school and thinking about a career or getting married. Now Camilla was dead. I was dead. The thought was a lot to wrap my head around. Of course, I could just go back home and prove I wasn’t dead, find someone who remembered me, but I had no proof that I was me. No records, no property, nothing. Even my school pictures had been left behind.
Friday the eleventh, I was picked up from the train station more promptly than ever. I barely had time to visit the post office, and was questioned when the chauffeur found I wasn’t at the normal pickup spot. I claimed, cooly, that I had been at the general store, and held up some recently purchased pencils from school to prove it. My lie seemed to have worked, and he questioned no further when I was driven back to the manor. Once we arrived, however, I was not free to do as I please, and in fact escorted to my grandfather’s chambers.
Against what Grandmother had said last weekend, he wasn’t getting better. In fact, he was getting worse. Perhaps the third time was the charm and he’d finally die, I thought. Standing in front of the large, wooden bed which was heavily covered in blankets despite the summer heat and surrounded by medical devices, I politely curtsied to my ailing Grandfather. “Good afternoon sir.” I said politely.
“Good afternoon, Camilla. You’ve most certainly heard of the news regarding Sunday.” He replied, looking me over. “Come, sit closer to the bed.”
Despite me not wanting to whatsoever, I obeyed. “Yes, sir.”
“Olivia told me you were apprehensive.” He croaked.
“I… Yes.” I admitted, keeping my cool. “Most people pick their own spouse from people they already know and fall in love with.”
“And that’s exactly the problem with Corinne.” He responded firmly. “She made her choice, a sinful one to lie with family, to conceive a child out of wedlock, and to commit infanticide. Olivia and I don’t want to see you make any choices like her, this is out of your best interest.”
I didn’t see it in any way my best interest, but I allowed him to continue.
“We’ve picked the finest four young men from the finest four business partners and colleagues I know. They’re intelligent, confident, capable, and can help a young woman raise a household. You wouldn’t need to worry about a thing.”
At this point I still didn’t see the point of being summoned here, but then he cleared his throat.
“I’m sure you remember about a year and a half ago, during the Christmas ball, a young man by the name of Nicholas Manning?” He asked.
My blood ran icy. I hoped, prayed, internally begged that the letters had not been found. “Yes.” I answered flatly.
“That is not the kind of man to associate with. His father and I have had a falling out, and since then I have been informed he has become infatuated with you. He’s been drafted into the armed forces, and his journals have been confiscated by his family under suspicion he’d desert, yet found paragraph upon paragraph about you.”
“Oh?” I feigned innocence, hoping it would work, and it did.
He pressed his lips together. “I see you were unawares, and that is only another sign he’s imperfect. He’s antisocial, narcissistic, and self serving. A Foxworth relative, a young woman from every family, should not suffer this. We chose men to support you, Lucille. Not to hurt you. This is no punishment.”
It felt like one.
After he had finished, he went into a long coughing fit and I was sent away. My heart felt like a pit in my chest, cold and deep and unyielding. I took the stairs two at a time to my room, closed the door quickly and pulled the newest letter from my bag. It felt lighter than most, and once I tore it open, I saw why. It was barely half a page long, on one sheet of lined paper in a messy scrawl. It was dated from Wednesday, it must have been express mailed or delivered from somewhere else.
Can’t write much right now. Have to sneak out to send. I’m going into the army and I leave next Friday (18). I can’t get another letter from you I’m sorry. They took all my journals and everything. I burned all your letters. They think I’m obsessed with you and I’m not. I love you so much. Maybe I’ll run away one day and find you again. Goodbye.
It was so short… I didn’t know how to feel. I looked at the chair in the corner, down to this letter, back to the chair. We were, essentially, broken up at this point, the worst possible time, and I began to cry.
On Saturday, we prepared for my meeting. A dress was picked out, etiquette was redrilled into my head, and I was given basic descriptions of my four suitors by Grandmother and Grandfather.
Arthur was Mister Clark’s son, at the age of twenty two, five years my senior and the second oldest. Mister Clark owned a shipping company in southeast Virginia and Arthur was learning to take over for him once he was too old. Supposedly he was good with numbers and enjoyed doing mathematics. The eldest, Lawrence who was twenty three, was already a business owner himself. He owned an accounting firm not far from town, but was poor with numbers, but good with managing people. He was known to be a little vain but pampered others when he felt up to it. Then, there were Kenneth and Charles, both twenty one, and their fathers were brothers-in-law. Both worked in a steelworking plant owned by Charles’ father as foremen, both were obnoxiously competitive at times, but supposedly gentlemen.
That was all I got. A few sentences about the men I’d have to choose a husband from. All of them were at least four years older than I, legal adults. The worst part is that I knew, deep in my heart, this was a business transaction. It wasn’t to protect me, that was the veil Grandfather hid it under. All of the men chosen were partners of his, and from what Grandmother explained to me, ones he wanted legally closer before he died. That was it. They could’ve chosen distant members of his family through lines of marriage that couldn’t be considered candidates for “sin”, or family friends that had nothing to do with making some partnership, but no. I was but the political pawn princess used by some banking family to strengthen ties and raise wealth like they did in Italy hundreds of years prior.
I was sent up to bed early that night, flushed out of the library, out of my copy of The Great Gatsby, and away as I “needed my beauty rest”. What a phrase! Bitterly I thought that my suitors could take me at face value, not dolled up like a pretty plaything. Out of spite I stayed awake well into the night, reading by moonlight, working on cross-stitch, anything to keep me alert. However, around three I found myself slipping, and had to surrender to the down comforter and solace of sleep.
The next morning, I had to be woken by a servant. She seemed angry, telling me she had been knocking at my door for some time before simply letting herself in. Taking a look at the clock, I realized I was, very, very late. I rushed through a bath, getting dressed, and making myself presentable. It wouldn’t be a perfect first impression to my suitors, but they could deal with it. Once I’d rushed downstairs, everyone had already eaten, so I had to pray over an apple for the road. Grandfather wouldn’t be joining us at the church like he’d wanted, but he’d meet us at Lawrence’s father, Mister Wright’s estate.
Church was uneventful, but through the entire service, I felt Grandmother’s disapproving stare bore into me. I’d gotten my pre-service lecture about tardiness, about sin, about obedience. I tuned most of it out, feigning attention as usual. She knew I was uneasy. She knew I wanted to bolt. She knew I wouldn’t. Not here.
Today’s sermon was unbearably short. We didn’t even stay to mill about. As soon as we were all dismissed, Grandmother’s hand clamped around my forearm in an iron vice and she walked me to the car. We had to be punctual, she said. I would rather have died there, or been late enough that none of them liked me. Unfortunately, we arrived on time.
Wright Manor like Foxworth Manor, loomed tall and foreboding, though unlike Foxworth, it was obviously once a plantation. Rolling fields surrounded the place, and the road leading to the front door was lined with dogwood trees, though they were long past flowering. The land was mostly flat, mountains visible in the distance, and I decided it must be beautiful in the springtime. At the doors, we were greeted by a tall, thin woman perhaps a little younger than Grandmother. In her youth, she would have been stunning.
“Olivia!” She called, a little excited, but not overly so. “This must be Lucille! Come, come. Malcolm and the rest are in the study, sandwiches and coffee are being served at noon.”
She was an eager host, leading us all in, and announcing our presence. I was going to thank her, but when I turned she was closing the doors and left, murmuring something about staying out of business under her breath. I whipped my head back around when I heard Grandfather clear his throat, sounding as raspy as he had been for awhile.
“Gentlemen.” He croaked. “This is my niece, Lucille.”
I licked my lips and curtsied politely. “Hello.”
There was a small chorus of hellos, and I was sat down next to my Grandfather’s wheelchair as I was more formally introduced to everyone. Lawrence was first, of course, this being his house and the oldest. His light blonde hair was carefully set in place, and when he kissed my hand I could smell the heavy cologne on him. Everything about him was crisp, prim, proper if he was sitting or standing. I noticed that when he walked, he was still gangly, all arms and legs. Still getting used to his adult body, I thought. He was overeager, and immediately began talking all about himself and his job and such. It wasn’t until after a few minutes of this did he pause, catch himself, and ask how I was doing, apologizing for his social faux-pas. I simply smiled and forgave him. Like a lady.
Arthur was next and much calmer, actually bowing when he approached me, greeting me with a soft voice. He thanked me for coming, and, like Lawrence, kissed my hand. When he did, the thick glasses on his nose slid down and he apologized profusely, pink in the face. I knew then and there he’d never met a girl. He had no discernible confidence, but made an overwhelming effort to try and charm me in the few moments of introduction, though didn’t even talk about himself much. Mosty his father and telling me I was very pretty. I decided he was sheltered.
Charles and Kenneth approached me at the same time, or at least tried to. As I was told, they were competitive. Kenneth got through first. He didn’t kiss my hand, though, he shook it and told me to call him Kenny. His grip was a little firm, my hand hurt once he’d let it go and I simply put it in my lap. He was a little fat, I noticed, and from how his breath smelled, it was from drinking. He had a faint halo of whiskey about him, and when I casually asked his birthday, he mentioned he’d be twenty two in December. I knew he was young, but it surprised me a little. He politely said he’d hope to get to know me better over lunch.
Charles butted in after he’d said this, making a snide remark about him liking any business over lunch. I shot a look at my Grandfather, but he’d turned his attention elsewhere. I waved a little at Charles, who, thankfully did not shake my hand and kissed it like the others had. He was muscular under his suit, I could tell. When he spoke, his voice had a light lisp to it too, and he dropped in a few choice words, of course, when the adults weren’t listening as much. It took me by surprise, but they were men after all.
All my introductions were brief, but over our aforementioned sandwiches and coffee, I got my impressions of everyone, and deep down, I already made my decision.
I wouldn’t pick any of them.