Mrs. Eggleston left after looking over my card. Perhaps she was taking names, determining who should be persecuted in the future for not following her plan? Perhaps she was going to hit up the remaining few on my ticket to ensure they followed through?
It must have worked, for the next fellow showed up on cue looking rather flushed. As we took our turns around the room I scanned faces, looking for Mr. Brierly. It was dimly lit despite the candelabra glowing in the mirrors and flickering off of the crystal. He was not dancing. He had either left or was lurking in the shadows. Hopefully, he had left. I felt myself relax to some degree and even started to enjoy my dancing partner. I made a mental note to recheck his name on my card as soon as possible, as I was embarrassed to admit that I could not remember at this point.
At the end of the dance, I thanked the man, who turned out to be a Mr. Gregor McMurray, and allowed him to escort me back to my seat. I set out to find Mrs. Eggleston.
“Ah, there you are, my dear!” she exclaimed when I had managed to negotiate the crowd. Her tone seemed to imply that she was the one who had been doing the searching, but I found her in the refreshment room with a plate of cold roasted chicken in her hand. She had made herself quite comfortable and had clearly been there for quite some time.
“Please tell me about Mr. Brierly.”
Shockingly, Mrs. Eggleston giggled like a school-girl. She leaned close to me and proceeded to whisper conspiratorially. I could smell the alcohol on her breath.
“My dear, he is glorious isn’t he?” The giggle again. “The rumor is that he has a small fortune, a reasonably good match. He has been eyeing you since your arrival, though. He has asked an awful lot of questions of a good many people and truthfully, that may be why your card is difficult to fill. On some level, you seem to be spoken for even if he is only flitting around on the periphery.”
She paused long enough to place a large bite of chicken in her mouth. With my mind reeling, I used that moment to stand and excuse myself.
I found my mother sitting beside Mr. Brierly who was engaged in conversation with an elderly gentleman that I was not familiar with. He excused himself when I arrived, standing a few paces back.
I realized that he would not speak to me unless I first acknowledged him. Protocol in Victorian society was strictly guided by rules. Many rules. I caught his eye, nodded at him, and smiled. He bowed. He was a gentleman after all? He chose this moment of all times to begin observing ballroom etiquette?
“Ms. Douglas,” he said as he moved to stand to my right.
“How have you enjoyed the evening?”
“It has been pleasurable,” I replied demurely, though I am afraid I did not sincerely mean it. But first rule of small talk…never say what you really mean.
“My dancing companions this evening have told me that you are from Massachusetts.” I would have been startled that he had been asking his other partners about me, had I not just spoken to Ms. Eggleston.
“They are well informed.”
“It is quite beautiful there this time of year.”
“Indeed it is, Mr. Brierly.” I squinted at him, most unladylike. “Have you been to Massachusetts, sir?”
“I have. Though it has been some years ago.”
“Whatever for, if I may be so bold to inquire?”
“Certainly. I was the ward of a distant cousin for a very brief time after my parents died.”
“Oh! I am sorry.”
“Sorry that you asked or sorry that my parents died?” I was not sure how to respond. Both. Fortunately, I was saved from answering in the nick of time. “Forgive me, but would you further honor me with another dance?” He stood, bowed, and proffered his hand which I accepted as a contra began. We assumed our place in line across from each other, performed the required niceties, and proceeded to dance the reel. By the end, I was sufficiently warm and out of breath, a fine perspiration had accumulated on my forehead. Mr. Brierly guided me out of the ballroom to one of the adjoining rooms . It was garish with hideous bright green patterned wallpaper. It appeared to be a sitting room by day. Though the adjoining rooms were also quite filled with people, they had not been heated by the physical activity of dancing and were hence, much cooler. As we sat, I studied him further. His waistcoat was new, a glossy black with well fitting trousers that matched. His shirt was simple, crisp white with gold studs. He wore a dark green silk necktie and the required white gloves.
“What do you do, Mr. Brierly?”
“I am currently a student at Edinburgh University.” What a beautiful grounds. The buildings there exuded brilliance!
“What are you studying?” I said it almost too eagerly, and checked myself.
“Medicine, specifically obstetrics” A wave of jealousy washed over me.
“I see…,” I replied quietly. Another wave of jealousy.
“You are most exuberant about the subject.” He raised a single eyebrow.
I focused my attention at a painting just over his left shoulder, attempting to avoid eye contact. A very old gentleman with deep wrinkles and a large red nose stared brazenly back at me from the dark frame.
“Unfortunate, then, that you are such an attractive woman for I daresay that you would make a fine physician were you not.” While the words themselves could be mistaken for mocking, I could see that he was most serious. How do you know such a thing so soon after meeting me?
I fell madly in love with him at that moment. I had a large lead weight in my chest that made it difficult to breath. A good cry would probably help, but I was not sure how.
If someone were to ask what drew me to him ultimately, I would be hard pressed to pin down exactly what that would be. I hated his arrogance, but then I was drawn to it, too; his single minded pursuit of me despite the surrounding social constructs. It seemed to imply that if he were willing to work so hard to get to this point that he would then do anything and everything in his power to hold onto me, to protect me later should it be required. He was terribly handsome. He was so brilliant that it was intellectually flattering to be able to hold his attention. I adored the way my hand fit into his so perfectly and the unabashed way he met my gaze head on, never averting his eyes. I was in love with the idea of him, without even really knowing him. It started here, this day, and has haunted me every day for the rest of my life since.