Living in the Eternal Now

by Jenean McBrearty

 

 

                                     

Rachel watched the skinny-dippers with sad eyes though her eyes were smiling, pained that they were free. they had more than written rights. these American with their loud laughter and wonton mindlessness. Their clothes were patriotic—everything red, white and blue—even their racing silks sported stars with the stripes. The women couldn’t find Germany on the map. None of them played the piano with any skill. So how could Rachel expect them to understand the dancing the politicians on the continent were doing?

“Who are they,” she asked Hugh at the Mannerly Estate garden party. Everyone was admiring the magnolias Hugh’s mother and sisters had imported from Georgia to make them feel at home. Corpulent white fleshy flowers with leaves that were too green.

“They’ve come over from Brighton. They look different with their clothes on.”

“God help us.”

“The young one fawning over the flowers is Harriet Underwood from Atlanta. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but she was educated in Chicago. She’s not really a Southern aristocrat. Her companion is Edward Benchly.”

“He’s handsome in a pretty way. Are they engaged?”

“Only in pretending they’re indifferent to civilized expectations.”

The waiter brought them white wine in glasses as transparent as Rachel’s questions. “Do you think the Underwood’s owned slaves?”

“The other couple are Harriet cousin’s, Sara, and her businessman husband Carl Redmond,” Hugh said. “So cut your outrage in half, my girl. They have money.”

Rachel moved on to conversations waiting for her in a group of ladies in flowered frocks. Men couldn’t appreciate the sacrifices women had to make to affect respectability. Eventually, she tired of the talk about how prettily Charmane, Hughes’ youngest sister, had decorated, and moved to the terrace overlooking the prettiness.

She caught a whiff of a briar pipe, and turned to see Carl Redmond standing four feet to her left, watching her watch the soirée. “You needn’t skulk, Mr. Redmond. Hugh told me your name, if you’re curious.”

“I am curious, but not about that. I’m wondering if you’ve ever been drunk, swam naked, or cheated on your husband.”

“No. No. And does not apply. I’m not married.”

“The first two answers explains the last. Do you have any questions for me?”

“Not really.”

“Then I’ll answer yes, yes, and yes, often.” He turned to go.

“Wait. I do have a question. What are you doing in England? Holiday? Business?”

“Both. Always. Americans are always on the lookout for opportunities especially on holidays. Or garden party chance meetings.”

“What is your business?”

“My father’s in munitions. He’d have come himself , but he doesn’t walk too well. He lost a leg at Gettysburg. He made a lot of money, however, so he says he did right by the South and was rewarded handsomely by the North. It should be the same when England and Germany tangle.”

Harriet and Sara may be oblivious to the European unrest, but Carl Redmond was acutely aware. “What side will you be on?”

“The winning side. My side.”

****

“Redmond’s an opportunist. A scoundrel,” she told Hugh. They were resting their horses after an exhilarating canter, and were sitting by a noisy stream.

“You like him that much, hunh? Interesting.”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“Come on Rachel, you love scoundrels. You’re still in love with Captain Huff-puff.”

“Heffington, Hugh, and don’t jest about soldiers. He could be wounded in India. Maybe lose a leg or something.”

“I doubt that. Sgt. Norris takes good care of him, I hear.”

“Oh, shut up. You’re a cruel gossip.”

They returned to Mannerly House in time for tea, and Rachel was grateful. She’d skipped lunch so she could read the newspapers just delivered from London without interruption, she told herself. The truth was, she wanted to avoid the American women. Now they waved to her when she strode into the living room. “Come sit with us,” Sara said, and steered her towards the two settees perpendicular to the fireplace, separated by a white wood coffee table. “I wish you would have let Carl ride with you and Hugh. He would’ve love to have seen the countryside.”

“Maybe next time,” Rachel said, and gobbled her biscuits as ladylike as she could manage. It was a rude thing to say given that the week-end was almost over.

“I’m thankful you didn’t invite me. All that champagne at dinner. What a head I have.” Then Harriet leaned over and whispered, “What do you know about Count Seifert von Shoenberg.”

“Hugh’s German friend from Cambridge. The Mannerlys and the Shoenbergs are related by marriage. Not unlike the Kaiser.”

“Hugh’s related to the Kaiser?” Harriet said.

“No, the Kaiser’s related to the Royal family. But there are many English families who are related to German families in some way or another.”

“Oh. That’s interesting.”

“Could get sticky,” Rachel said, astounded at her ignorance.

“He’s dashingly handsome. Where did he get that scar on his cheek?”

“It’s a dueling scar. He belongs to a University society. He’s a pilot too.” The look that Harriet shot Sara told Rachel that it was Sara who was really asking the questions. A flirtation with Carl suddenly became more agreeable now that it seemed so permissible. “We’ll all have to meet up in London. I promise to get Carl on a horse before you sail back to America.”

****

Rachel chose to wear her rose-colored gauze and lace gown to dinner, and a delicate rose-gold necklace that matched her bracelet. It was George Heffington’s favorite ensemble. It made her look angelic, he’d said months ago. Perhaps Carl Redmond would feel the same way and ignore Sara admiring Count Shoenberg . Staring at her from the open jewelry case was the locket George had given her the night they’d announced their engagement. Inside the heart-shaped casket were their pictures, facing each other as privately as in a marriage bed. Hugh had been ruthlessly accurate in concluding she still had feelings for Heffington—who’d been a gentleman despite what people twittered about the situation with Lloyd Norris.

She brushed her hair upwards and secured it with a cloisonné clip, pulling wisps from its clutches to soften her face. Tonight she’d smile at everyone, even the American women. The mood would be somber, of course, given the continued tensions in the Balkans, but ladies owed it to good company to be elegant and composed in the face of adversity. It was a role she’d practiced well.

She descended the staircase in house as silent as a crypt. The women were alone in the living room, speaking in low voices about cancelling social engagements and vacations in Italy. Harriet and Sara were sitting close together on the settee; Hugh’s mother was poring over a newspaper, Hugh’s three sisters draped around her like a shawl. Like Rachel, they were wearing their summer finery of pastels and prints that reflected the flowers that graced the tables. They looked up when she entered. Hugh’s mother smiled a welcome, then sobered. “We’ve just found out about Archduke Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie…”

Her eldest daughter, Constance finished her sentence. “They’ve been assassinated in Sarajevo.”

“Carl says there’s going to be a war,” Sara offered. Harriet put a protective arm around here shoulder.

Rachel joined them on the sofa. “Well, there’s nothing we can do about it tonight.”

“Rachel’s right,” Hugh’s mother said. She folded the newspaper neatly. “Tell my son we’re starving, May,” she directed to a middle-aged maid who’d come in with a tray of crystal glasses of sherry.

“I’ll send Robert to them, Ma’am.”

Seconds later, the men filed into the living room, all of them apologetic except the taciturn Carl. Rachel thought it odd that they stayed so close to the women after that—as if they were guarding them. Harriet and Edward held hands as they walked to the dining room. When she took Hugh’s arm, he wrapped his hand firmly around hers. Flirtings would have to cease, it seemed. Between the men and the women, and between people and life. Everyone appeared desperate, as though fortifying themselves, laying up stores of love and strength.

Except Carl. He let Sara cling to him, but he didn’t look at her. Once seated at the table, his eyes roamed the faces of his dinner companions like a man choosing a horse to bet on at a race. When his eyes landed on Rachel’s, she stared back, and he gave her the barest hint of a sardonic grin before moving on.

It was that slightest of grins that caused her to follow him outside as the others discussed train timetables and return trips home. He’d lit his pipe and was sitting at a patio table. She walked passed him to the railing, looking at the tree shadows on the lawn.

“Did you wear that lovely dress for Hugh?”

Rachel folded her arms across her chest and turned to him. “I wore it because I think it’s lovely too. Why?”

“Hugh’s in love with you, and is going to propose.”

“Nonsense.”

He shrugged. “Alright. Don’t believe me.”

“Did he tell you that?”

“Shoenberg told me when I asked him why he wasn’t chasing a beautiful bird of prey. He’s been doing everything but standing on his head to get your attention.”

“Oh, you’re wrong about that. His acrobatics aren’t meant to impress me, but a beautiful caged bird.”

Carl’s silent contemplation of her words lasted only a second. “Will you accept Hugh?”

Rachel went to the table and sat down. “I’ll have to think about it. I’m glad you warned me.”

“In that case, let me warn you about something else. Something you’ll believe because you’ve been through a war of sorts. But the rest of them—never.” He leaned back in his chair, his body was stiff as a corpse in a coffin. Only his was face lit by moonlight, his words spoken as if from a pulpit.

“Before I left Atlanta, my daddy told me it would be tough doing business with foreigners. They never pay America any attention, much less respect. but that’ll change after they fight their war.”

She looked into his ghostly face and shivered.

“They don’t know what modern weapons can do. I wouldn’t know either except I’ve seen Brady’s pictures of the battlefields, of the stacks of severed limbs outside a field hospital. Thousands of men losing arms and legs, eyes and faces blown to bits by metal shards. Tonight I sold hell’s weapons to gentlemen who will be shocked at their destruction. It’s terrible because the world needs gentlemen. Just ask my daddy, who bound up his stump with his bright gold sash so he wouldn’t bleed to death.”

Carl stood up, a glistening dew drop rolling down his clean-shaven cheek, and offered Rachel his hand. She took it, letting herself be pulled up, letting him raise her hand to his lips, and then let it drop to her side.

“Accept him, Miss Rachel. He’ll need a lady like you to come home to. If he comes home.” And Carl Redmond walked into the warm glow of the living room where people lounged on a precipice, having their after-dinner brandy as Sara badly played Fur Elise on the piano while Count Shoenberg turned the pages of her sheet music, while Rachel remained on the patio, thinking only of Captain Heffington.

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