I was still new to this world, both the physical world of Edinburgh, Scotland (for what amount of study can truly prepare one for a place such as this?) and the ephemeral, gauzy world of fetes and society balls. I had never excelled socially, despite the best lessons in how to fake it, and in this world I felt paralyzed.
Mrs. Eggleston, who was to be our hostess for the evening, had taken it upon herself to introduce me around to all of the eligible bachelors in attendance. I believe that she had picked me early on to give attention of this nature due to my abysmal performance at the previous two balls when I had dance a total of four times all night. A special project, if you will, like one of her many charities. She was an American living abroad here. In fact she had lived in this city for decades. She was widowed and wide and worrisome. But I endured her because I knew I could not suffer another ball without something further to show for it or I may as well pack all of our trunks myself and head back over the Atlantic.
Tonight, I had selected my gown most carefully, my mother’s tasteful eye boring down warily upon me. I had decided on a red and green floral silk brocade on a champagne colored silk faille. The deeply pointed waistband further accentuated my narrow waist and the neckline scooped daringly but not indecently. I had a total of three petticoats with their ruffled flounces. The matching low heeled pumps could only be seen on rare occasions peeking out from beneath the lace. Long white gloves covered my arms in order to prevent the act of actually touching anyone. A professional hairdresser had been employed who managed to pile my stubbornly straight hair in seductive ringlets that cascaded from the top of my head and down the back of my neck to my shoulders. It was an unusual style for the period but tasteful, something that would garner attention without raising eyebrows.
We arrived, mother and I, shortly after 9 o’clock and after changing our shoes and removing our cloaks in the assigned room, we had immediately sought out Mrs. Eggleston. Her gray hair was arranged most fashionably, restrained by an intricately carved ivory comb at the back of her head, most suitable for her age. Her gown was a muted silver that blended well with her hair. She moved with a deliberate grace despite her girth, introducing us around the room. Mr. James Barwell, from a good wealthy family but cursed by an oddly shaped nose that seemed to make a right angle toward the left side of his face. Mr. Stephen Connelly, a tall, and very skinny businessman who dressed meticulously and effeminately. Mr. Henry Latham, a British man that was darkly handsome, aloof and mysterious. Mr. Enoch Bradley, a dour and sallow complected fellow with a pinched face. And they went on…Mr. Leith Argyle, Mr. Archer McDonell, Mr. Thane Stewart, Mr. Maxwell Morogh…and on. It was no time at all when my card was almost full, but Mrs. Eggleston was not yet done. She continued to make the rounds until I had been introduced to every eligible gentleman in the room, young and old. At last, we stood before a rather tall fellow, well dressed in his dark suit.
“Mr. Brierly, please meet my young friend, Ms. Evelyn Claire Douglas. She is all the way from America for the season. Ms. Douglas, this is Nathaniel Joseph Brierly.”
“I am honored to make your acquaintance.” There was something about the accent of a Scotsman that seemed to make all of them infinitely more desirable. Why?
Victorian protocol being what it was, when introduced in a ballroom all that was permitted was a bow. Most of the gentleman would bow at the waist, their eyes to the floor. But not Mr. Brierly. He managed to maintain eye contact, staring at me as he bent low…a most brazen, disconcerting thing. He was tall and slim, standing well over six feet and appeared to be near thirty years of age. Dark hair, long of course, curled gently at the nape of his neck. Full sideburns were his only facial hair.
“Shall I have the honor of dancing this set with you?” He asked. His voice was deep and confident, bordering on arrogance. I hated him instantly.
“I…I am sorry, but I have promised this dance already,” I heard myself stammering. I had not promised it in actuality. I looked around, heart racing, desperate for someone to provide an escape route. But I was alone aside from Mrs. Eggleston. My mother had left some time ago, relieved that I would at least be busy tonight, and was gossiping in the corner with one of the other mothers.
“Nonsense. I see nothing written on your card.”
“You have not looked at my card, sir,” I replied, coldly.
“I do not need to, Madame,” he replied firmly, and took my hand, ushering me to the dance floor. My hostess, relieved that she could at long last move on to the several other wallflowers present, relinquished me to him, ignoring my pleading eyes.
The first dance was a waltz. In the excitement of procuring partners, I had purposely not filled that slot. The waltz, with its modified closed position that allowed the gentleman’s hand to rest upon the young lady’s waist, was considered by my mother to be salacious enough that young, unmarried women were not to dance it. There would be hell to pay tomorrow.
Mr. Brierly bowed. I curtsied. He held out his dove gray gloved right hand. I accepted it reluctantly. My only hope, I realized, was to feign a fainting spell before my mother caught sight of me. But that would be suicide of another kind. I had no choice. His touch made my skin crawl. We did not speak. His left hand rested gently upon my waist, open palmed, respectful, as he guided me around the room, spinning here and again, in time to the music. His hazel eyes were intense and seemed to wander all over my person, making me self conscious. The music itself, in that candlelit room, was powerful, if not magical. Or perhaps it was the intoxication of actually being noticed. I was glad to be dancing. It was something in which I knew I excelled, waltz or no. It did not require conversation, a skill which I found exceedingly difficult. I had always told myself that small talk seemed such a waste of time, but I dismissed it as such because I disliked the way I always felt when engaged in it…stilted and awkward.
I could feel his shoulder muscles moving under my gloved hand and through the sleeve of his black suit coat as we waltzed about the room. Firm and strong. My mind wandered. What would it feel like without my glove?
“Ms. Douglas, what brings you to Scotland?”
“What?” I was shocked that he was trying to hold any kind of discussion during a dance this fast paced.
“What has brought you to Scotland?” He said it slower and louder, enunciating deliberately.
“I heard you the first time,” I replied, but did not answer his question. To find a husband? It seemed a silly thing to say. Surely that was obvious.
“A ship, sir.” It slipped out. I could not help it. I cringed inwardly. He did not laugh, or even respond for that matter. Those three words hung in the air between us for the remainder of the waltz.
At the end of the set, he bowed. It was then that I realized that I had danced the entire piece. I glanced around, trying to locate my mother, panic settling into the pit of my stomach.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing. I turned back to him and curtsied. He offered his arm to me, which I accepted, and he escorted me to the ring of chairs lining the ballroom. After a final bow, he moved off. No other comment or attempt at conversation. No offer of refreshment. No request for another dance. He simply disappeared. I hated him all the more.
My mother was at my side almost instantly, glaring. I felt the dread building.
Opting for first strike, I leaned over and whispered, “I know mother, the waltz, it will not happen again.”
“You know better than to behave in such a way. One tiny wrong decision can derail any hopes of a good match!” Her eyes flashed.
“I understand.” It was what she wanted to hear, so I gave it to her. I could see that she was far from satisfied but she moved away to join a conversation between Mrs. Eggleston and the great Mrs. Milligan
In short order, the second name on my dance card appeared, a Mr. William Aspern, bowing and smiling, offering his gloved hand. I was once again escorted back to the dance floor. Mr. Aspern was considerably shorter than Mr. Brierly. His dark brown hair was cut rather short and his wide face sported a rather long goatee and a pair of eyeglasses that made his even darker brown eyes appear small and black. All through the dance, Mr. Aspern remained silent. He stared at me, his eyes never seeming to leave my face, never saying a word. He was solicitous, however once the dancing was done, fetching me a small glass of sherry after leading me to a chair. He tried to make conversation, but realizing I would rather not engage, he chose to sit silently by my side until my next partner came to collect me.
At some point, later in the evening, Mr. Brierly arrived again at my side and guided me to the floor without discussion.
“I…I…. really cannot allow you to do this,” I stammered as I began to follow his leading. “I have another name on this card, sir.”
“This time, you are being truthful, but as the card is only a guide and not a law, I feel that it is within my boundaries to claim another dance from you.”
I held my tongue, despite the fact that I wanted to say something sharp and hateful.
“See, you do not protest further and therefore give your consent.” He arched an eyebrow at me as he circled around.
The dance proceeded with the same structured turns and spins as all of the others before it. Very little passed between us in the way of words. I watched his face and how his body moved. At long last, it was through. And then…
“Would you prefer to sit for a while, or to take some refreshment?” He offered me his arm at the end of the piece, which I took.
To answer such a question is difficult. To admit that I would indeed like to be escorted to the refreshment table by him seemed presumptuous as we had not met before this night, but would then saying that I would rather sit imply that I was not really interested? I wasn’t interested. Why did I care? But then he had offered.
I chose the sitting, afraid to spend more time with him. I did not like him but I surely liked the fact that he was paying attention to me, though I was not sure I liked how he was going about it.
He delivered me to a chair beside my mother and after bowing to me, nodded respectfully to my mother.
“Is there anything else that I can do for either of you?” he asked. His eyes, the deep hazel that they were, seemed to bore through me.
“No…thank you…,” I stammered, “thank you…very much.”
He bowed again, and left. I watched him walk away. He stopped at the end of the room, his back to me, and spoke with Mrs. McClure and her lovely daughter Rose, who giggled incessantly. I watched him bow to the Ms. McClure and move off to the dance floor with her in hand. Sadness settled in the pit of my stomach. I realized that I was merely an obligation to fulfill, the correct response for a gentleman to make when introduced to a young lady without a partner. I was relieved that I had not agreed to walk with him.
I sat for several more sets. No one appeared to dance with me despite their names on my card, although I could not help noticing that Mr. Brierly did not sit, even for one quadrille. My mother continued to converse with the other married women around the room, hoping to gain further introductions to the homes of the town’s elite. My mother was much more skilled than I at the social graces. I took the time to observe the candlelight reflections in the gilded floor length mirrors, the myriad of colors of the ladies’ gowns and the gentlemen’s overcoats swirling together in time to the violins.
Boredom was overwhelming me when I became aware that someone had just sat in the seat beside me, vacated by my mother. It was Mrs. Eggleston.
“Ms. Douglas, after all of our earlier work, you are still left sitting here alone?” She was dubious.
“Yes, I am afraid it is so.” Why was I so alone? Just when I felt that I might be able to come out of whatever shell I had been placed into, something happened to remind me that I was awkward and unskilled and uninteresting.
“Let me see your card.” I passed it to her, reluctantly.