Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
“DOESN’T CLARICE LOOK LOVELY!” DAPHNE EXCLAIMED in a whisper to her sister, Julia, seated beside her. They watched their twenty-five-year-old cousin, Clarice Davenport Appleton, and Freddy Stewart Courtney standing before the minister at the altar. The minister was about to pronounce them man and wife.
Julia Davenport smiled in assent but she was too moved to speak. Freddy lifted the veil from Clarice’s upturned face and kissed her as the organ chords reverberated through the church. Julia gazed at the stained-glass windows glimmering above the altar. Although weddings were as common as balls and dinner parties, Julia found herself feeling sentimental this evening.
The newlyweds began their promenade to the front of the church, where a horse-drawn carriage awaited them. The carriage would carry them the half-dozen blocks north, to the Appletons’ Fifth Avenue mansion. There would commence the dinner for the immediate family and friends, which would precede a ball at which over three hundred of society’s best were expected.
Julia wondered if the snow that had hung so heavily in the silvery dusk sky had begun to fall. She hoped so, for she loved the way a light snowfall softened the edges of the city streets and gave a magical look to the park that bordered Fifth Avenue on the west. As a child, Julia had believed snowfall the work of angels painting the earth, just as she herself spread a wash of colors on paper at her drawing table in the nursery.
Clarice turned in Julia’s direction, looking so radiant that Julia could not prevent the trickle of tears rolling down her cheeks. Julia felt a communion with her shy cousin as their eyes met and held for a moment. Clarice’s plain face and hefty body seemed transformed into loveliness, more by her happiness than by the delicate lines of her satin-and-lace wedding gown, Julia decided. Even Freddy looked almost dashing.
For the first time in her twenty-three years, Julia envisioned herself dressed in white lace, walking proudly down the aisle, her hand entwined with that of her new husband. Yet, as clearly as she could picture herself, the man beside her remained an unfocused, attractive figure whose face eluded recognition. While Julia acknowledged that she’d been blessed with a fair amount of physical beauty in face, form and coloring, she wondered if she would glow with half the inner beauty emanating from Clarice. For Julia knew that if true love did not manifest itself during the next year or so, she would have to make a suitable marriage, which her mother had been pressing her to do for the past three years. Twice Julia had been engaged; twice she had broken the engagements. Fond as she had been of both young men, she had not been able to conceive of herself married to them for a lifetime. Although divorce had become so commonplace within their set that it was almost fashionable, Julia still believed in the sanctity of the marriage vows.
Julia’s broken engagements had enhanced her social standing, for as curious as it was to her, the assumption seemed to prevail that because she was “hard to win,” she was worthy of greater regard and more ardent pursuit. She knew she was considered a charmer and a flirt. And flirt she did, for this appreciated social behavior was ironically the easiest for her. Her banter pleased, yet allowed her to keep her private thoughts comfortably hidden. Only through her painting could she express her inner self. Julia knew that her mother had never fathomed her decisions to end her engagements, but then to Mamma, she knew she was something of an enigma.
“I was thinking about my wedding colors again,” Daphne said, her brown eyes bright with excitement. “I’m not sure if I want blue after all. What do you think of yellow? The color of daffodils?” Daphne whispered, for her engagement to Harold, while presumed, was not yet formally announced.
“I think yellow sounds fine, but blue would be pretty as well. It’s your decision.” Daphne’s eyes assumed that dreamy look that had become her most common expression of late. Then Daphne’s eyes cleared and she smiled broadly. She covered her mouth to repress a giggle. “What did I say that tickled you?” Julia asked.
“You said that whatever I chose was fine.” Daphne leaned closer. “But we both know that the colors will be whatever Mamma decides,” Daphne answered, and again tried to repress her giggles. “I was only thirteen when Louise was married, but I still remember how Mamma won at each turn.”
Julia fought to keep from laughing at the memory of the war that had lasted for months. “I remember the battle of the flowers as well. But I’ve forgotten just what they settled on—”
“Orchids,” Daphne answered quickly. “The conservatory was festooned with orchids—Mamma’s favorites. . . . It was lovely actually, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, I guess it was,” Julia agreed with her sweet nineteen-year-old sister. “I think it was Mamma’s prodding that led Auntie Gertrude to choose orchids for Clarice’s reception too.”
Daphne nodded. “Well, they aren’t my favorite flower, but lucky for me I don’t mind them, as they shall probably fill the conservatory in Lenox for my wedding as well.”
“Lucky for Mamma that it is your wedding and not mine. For—”
Again Daphne grinned and said in a whisper: “Mamma will be so thrilled when you actually decide to marry, that I’m sure she’ll consent to whatever flowers you wish. Whatever kind of wedding you wish—as long as it’s socially acceptable—when you marry—”
“If I marry,” Julia said, half-seriously.
“Oh, nonsense,” Daphne retorted. “Of course you shall marry. And it wouldn’t surprise me if the gentleman’s initials turned out to be P.M.!”
“P.M.? Now who might that be?” Julia sallied.
“Dearest . . .” Henrietta Miles Davenport said to Daphne, her gloved hand tapping Daphne’s shoulder. Daphne turned her attention to her mother providing Julia with a moment to reflect upon Daphne’s teasing about Percy Martin.
Julia wondered if Percy, who was presently courting her, might be the unfocused man in her fantasy after all. He had proposed a dozen times during the past year. Always with just the proper air of lighthearted jocularity that freed her from answering and still preserved his pride, friendship and hopes. Percy made her laugh more than any young man she’d ever known and she enjoyed his company and easy conversation. She believed that despite his casual air he truly loved her. But did she love him? She fancied him, but that was not necessarily the same as love. Mamma would be thrilled by the match, but that alone was not a good reason to get married. Yet, despite their frequent verbal dueling, Julia loved her mother dearly and would be happier than she cared to admit to finally please Mamma.
Julia glanced a few rows behind to where Percy sat with his parents and sisters. His boyishly attractive face, with eyes almost as blue as her own, immediately caught her stare. He gave her a smile and a playful wink. Julia felt her cheeks redden and wondered if Percy had read her thoughts. She smiled in return and pretended that she was scanning the pews and had just happened upon him. She played the role expertly, then turned away.
A glance in Mamma’s direction showed that her eagle-eyed mother had not seen her momentary loss of composure. Mamma’s elegantly coiffed head, beneath her ribboned and plumed hat, was cocked in the direction of Louise, Julia’s twenty-six-year-old sister, and Louise’s children, Gwendowlyn and Thomas Junior. Beyond them, Julia’s brother-in-law, Thom, engaged in conversation with Papa. Julia caught her father’s eye and smiled affectionately. With his reddish-blond mustache, thick silver-blond hair and blazing blue eyes, he looked handsome enough to be a bridegroom himself, Julia thought.
Julia saw that the last of the wedding party had disappeared behind the arched doorway. Soon they and the other members of the Appleton and Courtney families would begin their slow procession. Julia needed to stretch, but decorum forced her to wait until those in the first three pews filed past her.
To entertain herself, she studied the family members already standing. Sally Courtney, dressed in a pink brocade gown and flowered hat, appeared like a vision of spring on this frigid December evening. Julia supposed her own gown, a Worth design of buttercream satin with printed faille ribbons in an English flowered appliqué of rose and earth green, evoked a similar effect. Julia didn’t usually give the serious concern to fashion that Mamma, her sisters and friends did. Visits to their dressmaker were more a matter of unwanted obligation than joy.
Stretching her legs beneath her gown, Julia returned her gaze to her family. A man was crouching in the side aisle, speaking with her father. She could not see his face beneath his dark hair, but even bent in his somewhat awkward position, he remained an imposing figure: his shoulders broad, his legs solid and long beneath his finely tailored tuxedo. Something about him intrigued her but she could not place him. With aroused curiosity, she watched, waiting for him to rise. As she stared, she mentally filed through the names on the guest list, to which she’d paid scant attention. He must be an out-of-town guest, she decided. The name Mr. Coster from Boston came to mind because Mamma had made a point of what a fine catch he was. It had been at that juncture that Julia’s attention had wandered. Little had she expected that she would be...