On the afternoon of the Christmas ball, I sat in front of my mirror, studying myself more closely than I had in many years. I was mere inches from the glass, taking in every detail I could. Blue eyes, yes those were the same as they always were. My hair had grown out some since I’d been here. The freckles were gone. My face was a little slimmer. I touched the mirror with feather light fingertips. I was a young woman. I’d be eighteen in two months. I’d been here since I was fifteen. My mind always wandered back there, fifteen.
Taking a look at the clock, I sighed. People would be arriving in just over an hour. I still had to bathe, do my hair, apply makeup, and get dressed, all so I could present myself to the world and make the hardest decision I had in my entire life. I still hadn’t chosen my suitor. None of them were entirely repulsive. The problem was that I didn’t really know them. A few dozen afternoons over three months wasn’t enough to pick someone to be with for the rest of your life. To pick someone to inevitably have children with. That’s what was expected of me, wasn’t it? My cheeks heated up and I felt like crying, something I’d done a lot of late at night for the last few weeks. Every part of me wanted to curl up, to not attend the ball, to not pick a suitor, to simply not exist for awhile. With balled fists I rubbed fiercely at my eyes. No tears. Not now.
My gaze travelled to the silver jewelry box on the vanity before me. I opened it carefully, I’d been reminded time and time again that it was incredibly old, inset with jade, lined with plush felt. I didn’t have much inside, a few pairs of earrings, a single ring, a bracelet, and towards the center, two necklaces. One, less worn, was the silver chain with a small, oval shaped opal. I picked it up, holding it out. It caught the light magnificently, shimmering in a fiery rainbow, blue and orange and pink. It reminded me of the crystals that fantasy books mentioned, holding an unseen magic, hoarded by dragons and witches and wizards, coveted by kings. I set it back down, picking up the second necklace. It was the one from Lawrence, given to me a month previously. I’d only worn it once since then, at the funeral. The emerald stone itself, framed by tiny diamonds, was probably many times more expensive than the opal necklace. My father had bought it for my thirteenth birthday as a symbol of me hitting such a milestone. As I closed my eyes, I tried to remember the feeling of his gentle hands doing the clasp behind my neck, but nothing came. The chain had felt so long then; only now did I realize that it was probably intentional so I could wear it as an adult.
Lawrence’s hands had been cool, but gentle. Those I could remember. Kenneth’s were warm, soft, a bit fat. Like the hands of a baby. He’d briefly held mine as we took a September stroll through his family’s garden. Arthur’s were slim, soft, unaccustomed to work. Charles had the opposite; rough hands, thick fingers, already covered in scars. It was odd what you could remember about a person. I could remember Daddy’s voice, his face, his gifts, the cologne he wore, how he could never seem to cook anything but hot dogs or pancakes, but I couldn’t remember his touch. He’d hugged us so many times over, wouldn’t be imprinted into my memories? Maybe not.
The grandfather clock at the end of the hall struck three, chiming it’s song, echoing down to my room. I really had to get ready. With a heavy sigh, I set the necklace back in it’s box, latched it shut, and began to physically and emotionally prepare myself for Christmas night. Within the hour I was washed, perfumed, dolled up as much as I could. The champagne colored gown that I’d picked out the weekend before looked good enough, Momma insisted it brought out my eyes. In my opinion, it could have been the ugliest green burlap shift and I wouldn’t have felt any worse. My gaze fell back on the jewelry box, and I pulled out the two silver chains. Both matched my outfit, it wasn’t a matter of that. I knew I didn’t need to even wear a necklace. But it felt right. Felt necessary. This would be my last Christmas ball living at Foxworth Hall, my last Christmas of childhood, really. I held the two necklaces in front of me, but I wasn’t looking at them, I was back pondering my own reflection. The electric light behind me created a halo, the lavender scented candles I’d lit in an attempt at calming myself flickered their light across my features. I heard the doorbell chime faintly. People must have been arriving early. I shakily sat down on the vanity chair, reaching for some perfume to spritz across myself. All I had to do was get through tonight, I convinced myself. Get through December twenty-fifth, nineteen fifty-nine, and then life would only become easier. Right?
A knock at my door made me jump, and the necklaces clattered to the table. My head swiveled around to catch my mother peeking her head in. “Lucille?” She asked. I swallowed the lump in my throat.
“Yes?” I replied.
She stepped inside, leaning against the wall just to the right of the door. “It’s time for you to come down. Olivia wants you to be greeting everyone.”
My eyes darted around, and I shuffled over to her, taking a deep breath. “Can’t you call me Camilla in private?”
She looked puzzled for a moment, as if I was suggesting she called me the Duke of York, it simply didn’t make sense to her, but familiarity flashed across her face. “I would, but there’s always listening ears.”
I didn’t want to accept her excuse, but did anyway. “I’ll be down in five minutes. I just… Need to do a few more things.”
She smiled at me, though it wasn’t warm. It looked forced. “I’ll see you then. Don’t be nervous darling, everything will be alright.” She replied, and was gone as quickly as she came. She tended to do that, peek in for a few words, then leave me unsatisfied and a little baffled. She was a songbird, flitting from one branch to another. I wish she’d built her nest somewhere more secure.
I took a final deep breath, standing once again at the vanity. Outside the window it was dark and frigid. In fact, we were due for a light dusting of snow, something I’d always missed from Pennsylvania. I made my decision, finally, and watched myself clasp the chain around my neck, watched the stone sparkle in the candlelight. I blew the candles out.
Everyone had arrived by the time food was being served. I could barely eat, though, despite the numerous hors d'oeuvres being offered left and right. My suitors were especially pressed, Kenneth would barely leave my side as he begged for me to try some cocktail shrimp. Luckily, he was whisked away by Charles who’d found the flutes of champagne. I’d already gotten one for myself, fresh cut strawberries lying at the bottom, and I nervously sipped it in futile search for liquid courage. I’d be announcing my suitor by inviting him to lead me in the first waltz which would be taking place in just a few minutes. That was it. Simple. Inconspicuous. To the untrained, or perhaps just naive eye, it was just me calling my personally chosen long-time boyfriend for a dance. Usually the man called, of course, but it was our Christmas ball. Olivia Foxworth called the shots.
She was hovering nearby, keeping a watchful eye on me. I was, in her eyes, a “flight risk”. I was firmly held by the throat by societal conventions. If I so much as thought of making a scene, so much as thought of hesitating, I would regret it dearly. It wasn’t just my wellbeing at stake. My siblings were playing chips.
I began to wander so my feet didn’t glue themselves to the floor. There was a lot of idle chit-chat, I was the talk of the evening of course, everyone knew that I’d be announcing something. Gossip had spread like wildfire. Eavesdropping, I had heard a few theories ranging from attending a university to moving to England. If only those were it. I tried blending in with the crowd. Somehow, it worked. The clock on the wall chimed it’s hour and my heart sank to my stomach. It was time.
I set my champagne down on a tray. Grandmother eyed me across the dance floor, it was as if the Red Sea had parted, but I was not walking to the promised land as Moses had. It felt like I was walking straight back to the pharaoh. She smiled, and to everyone else it would appear warm and friendly. I knew her game. I took my place beside her, the dance floor cleared, there was now only idle whispers. I took a breath, but she spoke before I could get any words out.
“As many of you know, my darling niece Lucille is nearing eighteen. She is a young woman. And as many young women do, they fall in love.”
Love, was it?
She raised her own glass of blood red wine high. “She has recently become engaged, and in honor of the soon-to-be couple, they will lead the first waltz of the night. Lucille, will you call your fiance for us?”
Time slowed. My gaze fell on the four men who vied for me. They stood in a small group directly across from me, perhaps twenty feet away. They looked like vultures. Only one of them would get me. Four pairs of eyes locked with mine. They wanted me. Or maybe my money. I hoped it was the money. My heart pounded in my chest. I made my choice. I licked my lips, willing myself to speak. It felt like everything was closing in on me. I had to keep my cool. I had to get this over with. It wasn’t so hard, right? Just say his name.
“Lawrence dear?” My voice didn’t even waver. “Shall we?”
He had the look of a cat who’d gotten the cream. He strode across to me, taking my hand as gently as he could. It wasn’t saying much, he was still a little rough with it, but he pulled me into a well trained waltz, feet much more certain than mine. I’d waltzed before, it wasn’t something completely foreign, but I was suddenly aware of exactly how many people were watching us. Just moments before, when I had to announce my suitor, I was only aware of five people. And now, it was perhaps two hundred.
He leaned down, lips nearly pressing against the shell of my ear. “You’ve made the right choice, darling.” He whispered. “And I do like your necklace. Emeralds certainly bring out your eyes.”
I gulped and faked a smile, faked being happy. “Oh, you think so? I never wear them. Perhaps I’ll get myself some matching earrings.”
He made an irritated noise as I accidentally stepped on his foot, but he bit it back as quickly as it happened. “Oh, no, darling. I simply won’t allow you to spend a penny on anything. I’ll take care of it.”
I caught the gaze of Arthur across the ballroom, looking absolutely crestfallen, drink in hand. He was my second choice. I think he was a lot of people’s second choice. Meanwhile, to his left, Charles and Kenneth were bickering.
Lawrence noticed my gaze was wandering, I suppose, because his fingers cupped my chin and made me look back at him. “Don’t worry, darling. They don’t matter any longer. Only I matter. We’re going to build a beautiful life together, you and I. I’m thinking a summer home in France, what say you?”
Everything was going so fast. I felt a few beads of sweat begin to form at my brow. Thankfully, the music changed, the waltz stopped.
“It sounds perfect.” I lied, pulling away a little. “I’ve got to powder my nose, may I be excused a moment?” It felt so much like asking Grandmother.
He beamed, squeezing my hands. “Hurry back, the steak medallions are nearly gone and they’re to die for.”
With a fake smile, I nodded, promised I would, and hurried to the hall, which was nearly empty. I didn’t stop there, though, I ran up the stairs, up flight after flight, until I was nearly at the top level. It was so quiet up here. So dark up here. I slumped against the wall and nearly began to cry. I’d made my choice, it was over, wasn’t it? I sunk to the floor, clutching my knees close to my chest. I don’t know how long I was there, perhaps only a few minutes, when I heard soft footsteps padding down. My head shot up, I quickly recomposed myself.
Soft moonlight streamed through the window at the end of the hall, thin with the waning moon, but it was just bright enough for me to catch a silhouette. Hidden in shadow, they couldn’t see me, but I could catch their features. Blond hair, yes, but shorter than Lawrence, with slighter shoulders and wearing white instead of a sharp black tuxedo. I watched the figure dart between doorways, and as it came closer, I could see more and more features. I crawled forward, stifling a gasp.
“Chris?” I whispered. He froze in his spot.
“Camilla?” He whispered back, inching closer. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”
I stood, and found he was taller than me by perhaps four inches. “I could ask you the same.”
Instead of replying, he pulled me into the closest room, an empty and unused bedroom. I flipped on the lightswitch. He was so pale, it hurt to see, and his eyes were sunken. This was the closest I was to him in a long time.
I sighed. “It’s Christmas.”
“I know.” He responded. “It’s the ball tonight.”
I avoided looking at him. “I’m engaged.”
“You told us.”
“I don’t want to be.”
He paused, looking a little puzzled, but I continued.
“Grandmother wants me out of the picture but she can’t lock me away. She’s forcing me to get married so I can move away. If I tell anyone what’s happening, she’ll hurt you.”
I could tell he was contemplating if I was lying or not, but he seemed to stick closer with the side of trust.
“So you’re just going to let her use you like that?”
“If it keeps you all safe, yes.”
“I see…” He sighed. “I guess I should tell you why I’m sneaking around.” Chris reached into his pocket and pulled out an array of change, plus a few crumpled dollar bills. “We’re trying to get away, but we need money. I’ve been sneaking into momma’s room to get the money she leaves behind.”
She had a nasty habit of leaving change around. A few times she accused the servants of stealing it, but of course she didn’t change her ways, and Bart didn’t complain either. I nodded.
“How much do you have?” I asked.
He shook his head sorrowfully. “Not enough.”
I began to think, then placed a hand on his shoulder. “On the new moon, I’ll try and smuggle you money, alright? I need to be as stealthy as possible. I want you to be as safe as you can be.”
“And you won’t rat us out?”
I wanted to say more, but I heard footsteps on the stairs. I quickly shut off the light, staying as silent as possible. I could hear voices as they reached the landing.
“Is she alright?” I heard a voice ask. “She looked a bit ill on the dance floor. Influenza is going around.”
“Which room is her’s again?”
“Not this floor, for sure.”
I looked at Chris, mouthing to him. “They’re looking for me.”
I heard the footsteps pace to the end of the hall, then back down the stairs. Once they were gone, I pulled away.
“I’ll see you soon.” I whispered. “I promise.”
Chris nodded, both of us wishing this fleeting meeting could be a little longer. He slipped out of the door first, and once I could no longer hear him, I slipped away too. Back to the party, if only to save face. If only to save them.