“Oh, it is quite wonderful, isn’t it dears?” Mother was sighing at the new Hepplewhite that she had arranged by the window overlooking the garden. The glass had been redone only four years prior, and had not yet yellowed or waved. It let in the summer morning, and outlined the entire day in silver. Marie thought it was wonderful. She would quite like to sit in it, but the new Hepplewhite would be sat in by Mother only for a fortnight or so, and then when she tired of it, Helena could enjoy her afternoon tea there, and then Marie with her own in the company of the garden. And the chair really was wonderful - the upholstery was such a pleasant blue, and inlaid with those fine accents of gold and blush.
Marie opened her mouth to say so, but Helena spoke before she had the chance. “Yes, mother,” she said, and Marie thought it better to nod her head in that pleasant way she did at church instead of speaking, as her lips were so soft that morning, and speaking may dry them of such a texture.
There was a knock at the sunroom door, and Helena’s bright head tilted upwards to greet the noise. She really had such lovely hair, or so Marie often thought. It was like spun gold, and always set in such a pleasing manner about her face - oh! How Marie wished she could wear the pinks that Helena could, with her complexion. And the yellows, the ones Helena wore to bring in the midsummer air from the garden! Mother always said girls with dark hair should never wear such things.
Mother let out an assenting noise allowing entrance to the knocker. Within a moment, the young girl who brought Marie her tea when she was tucked into her bed with illness entered, her arms set heavily with a tray of treats and cups of sweet milk. Marie and Helena let out pleased cries, much to the dismay of Mother, and descended on the tray in a way that allowed them to only just maintain their ladylike manner. On inspection of the contents, Marie noted that her favorite sweet breads sprinkled with the lovely white sugar were missing from the assortment. “Dear, the ones with the sugar!” Marie said, forgetting to keep her lips soft.
“Oh, where is Hattie?” Helena cried, her fair hands fluttering in dismay above the bertha collar she wore across her shoulders - for she too had seen that the sugar-topped sweets were not among those on the tray. The girl was not one of the house staff that Marie was well acquainted with. She had the same brutishly simple face as the others did - a square jaw, flat chin, and eyes untouched by powders and creams. All of them had such a practical air to them that Marie used to imitate when Mother was not there to scold her for acting in such a way.
The girl lifted her eyes to meet Helena’s gaze, which seemed like such a strange action. The stare was nearly accusatory, though Marie could think of no recent wrongdoings of her own. “She’s fallin’ ill,” said the girl. “An’ her husban’ too. She’s stayin’ home lookin’ after him.”
Marie thought of Hattie, who would never forget the girls’ favorite sugar treats, who always brought the morning sweets and milk. Fallen ill! What an awful thing to happen! No more sugar-topped breads or tastes of cream before dinner, no more tea with just the right amount of honey, no more for Marie! Mother stood with them with her back to the lovely Hepplewhite.
“What a fuss over such things! Drink your milk and send the tarts to the kitchen to be remade.” So Marie took her cup and saucer and left the sweet assortment untouched. The girl exited the room to make over the sweets, and a sensible silence fell about the room. Oh, how smart Mother was! Marie would have consented to keep the wrong treats. It was only Mother and Helena who could think to send back for the correct ones. She glanced upon them, fondness softening her vision, and tried to hold her head in the way that Helena did.
Mother gave the Hepplewhite another look and sighed with her hand at her collarbone. “Too new to set in it! We shall have our tea and milk in the parlor.” And Marie so loved the parlor, with its clean walls and the oil paintings Daddy had bought for Mother, and the fresh flowers from the garden cut and displayed. Helena smiled, and what a pleasant smile it was! When the Elingston boys came for dinner, Marie always heard them speak of how fair Helena was. Marie rather agreed. She’d listened to Mother praise her sister’s skin, soft and white as snow, since she was cared for by the house nurse. Marie herself had always had a disagreeable speckly touch to her skin from too much time spent in the sprawling gardens behind the manor,
“Of course, Mother, of course!” said Helena, and followed Mother from the room. Marie made to follow them, but a sudden warmth struck the back of her neck and caused her to turn her head. Through that clean, clear window, the sun had cleaved the clouds to bleed afternoon light into the room. The Hepplewhite stood outlined in the garden’s sun, so pristine and so fine that she could not help but to stand by it.
“Oh, it is a lovely chair!” lamented Marie, and so wished to sit on it first, while it was so new and wonderful. The garden continued to beckon her to the seat, so lovely and spilling from the window like an overturned vase. She left the milk on the sill before the window and laid one hand on the back of the chair. But she really musn’t sit; only Mother would enjoy the chair to begin.
And how smooth it was! So wonderful, almost like stone in its texture, yet warmed by the afternoon sun. “I mustn’t sit!” Marie told the Hepplewhite. But it was so agreeable, so pleasant. How would it be if she was able to be the first to sit upon it and view the garden? The sun caught the polished edge of the chair’s back, reflecting like a warm brown wink to Marie. If chairs could wink, the Hepplewhite most certainly would! How amused it was in nature, as if it knew her dilemma.
“Oh, it is like you are begging me to do so!” cried Marie. “So hush, or I must.” And almost as if she had been told to do so, she settled on the Hepplewhite. And it was every bit as wonderful as she thought it might be! It had not yet been softened by long afternoons, or worn by dust and age. How prim and perfect the moment was! And how exciting to be the first to sit on the marvelous Hepplewhite!
A small smile touched her lips. Before her, and through that wonderful window, the garden looked up at her as if it beamed in return. And how perfect a day to sit in the sunroom before this window! The rose bushes were in bloom, blotting the garden with blushes and whites like those paintings Mother so adored, and the grass cut to a perfect emerald green to accentuate the spotless sky! “Oh, oh,” said Marie. “Such a day, such a day!”
Marie reached down to feel the fine upholstery of the Hepplewhite. It was fine indeed! And so pleasant a color. And how lovely her hand looked upon it! It was as if the moment was meant to be, just Marie and the garden and the Hepplewhite. Her finger found a loosened thread from the side of her chair and Marie frowned. The moment was not perfect...and perhaps the room was a bit cold, and her milk was not quite sweet. And she began to think.
Hattie - ill! And her husband as well! Suddenly Marie could not strike the old housemaid from her mind. How horrible for Hattie, and not just because those wonderful sugar-topped sweets would not come! She was away caring for the husband Marie had never met, and might never be acquainted with! It was almost as if Marie could feel the sickness rising up within her. Poor old Hattie was ill, and Marie had not asked the new servant girl of the status of her recovery! And if she’d come down with the Devil’s Plague! What a tragedy it would be! It was almost impossible to bear the thought of Hattie finding a red stain in her old kerchief! How selfish Marie must be to have thought of the sweets before the woman who made them - how wretched! She looked down at the Hepplewhite and the loose blue string between her fingers.
“Oh, you’ve tricked me!” she wailed, and pulled the string, letting it unravel into her hands. Marie tugged and tugged at the string until the thread snapped in her fingers, leaving an unbecoming bare patch on the side of the Hepplewhite. How awful it was that such a lovely thing was ruined! And Marie had done it!
But as she stood from the chair, no guilt or shame colored her cheeks or shook her hands. Marie recovered her cup of milk with its saucer from the sill by the window and took one last look at that Hepplewhite. “To think all I missed was the sweets!” she told it. “How unfairly you’ve had me think.”
Ignoring the soft sunlight from that lovely window, the soft silver glow of the afternoon, and the ruined Hepplewhite, Marie slipped out of the sunroom to join Mother and Helena in the parlor.