It was the eve of 1901, and New York's society was at its finest. The balls were grander than they had ever been before, the dresses more elegant, the men more eloquent, and the women more beautiful. On Sunday mornings such as these, the women of this class received visits from others—men trying to woo, women attempting to impress, and friends simply coming to discuss gossip. On such mornings, no home was busier than Beatrice Cartwright's, for she was the epitome of beauty and the essence of courtesy. Every girl wanted to be her, and every man wanted to wed her.
It was for that very reason that Martin Banes-Cole was now seated beside Beatrice in her grandmother's parlor. He was a nervous sort, always wringing his sweaty palms into the brim of his hat and never looking her fully in the eye. Martin was not the type of man anyone expected Beatrice to marry. But then again, all bets had been off ever since Beatrice's presumed suitor married another girl the previous year—an event that had quaked all of polite society. Even Sophie, Beatrice's ambitious cousin, had not seen that coming.
"Have you been to the Opera recently?" Beatrice asked her guest conversationally. She was having a hard time thinking of topics of interest, as she found Martin a most uninteresting person. "My grandmother attended a performance of 'La Boheme' recently and noted that it was magnificent. I, myself, would have liked to make an appearance, but I unfortunately took ill that night." She coughed into her handkerchief to demonstrate.
"I am afraid that I haven't frequented the Opera in a few years," Martin said nervously, as if afraid of losing Beatrice's approval. "My mother enjoys such events as those, but I am not particularly fond of that type of music."
"Oh? Do you prefer the symphony? I hear the New York Philharmonic has an excellent program this season," Beatrice added, smiling brilliantly.
Martin cast an anxious glance toward Beatrice's grandmother who was needle-pointing in the corner. Though her grandmother's eyes were politely cast down at her work, Beatrice knew that a sharp ear was tuned into their conversation. Her grandmother had always kept a tight grip on Beatrice ever since she became her guardian.
"I have not been to the symphony recently either…" Martin said regretfully. "I'm really more interested in sports…horse racing and cricket and that sort of thing…" he droned off.
"Well, then you're in luck!" Beatrice noted, a sweet smile upon her lips. She was secretly counting her blessings that she had finally found something to talk about with Martin Banes-Cole. "My family happens to own quite a few horses. My father took great pride in showing them in races. We've even hired a new jockey from Atlanta, I believe. My uncle says he is to lead our horses to the very highest standings—Isn't that right, Grandmother?"
Mrs. Cartwright gave Beatrice a stern look from her corner, which clearly told she would not help Beatrice out of this quagmire of a visit.
"In any case," Beatrice continued, not permitting annoyance to play across her face. "We are very lucky to have him with us, though I haven't had the joy of meeting him yet. "He's living at my Uncle's home at the moment. You know my dearest cousin Sophia, yes?" Beatrice wished desperately that Sophie could be there at this moment, for she would have made something interesting of the visit.
Sophie and Beatrice had been best friends since birth. They were as if two halves of a whole—while Beatrice was soft and kind, Sophie was passionate and lively. Beatrice's soft blonde curls and warm brown eyes were considered cherubic, and Sophie's dark hair and smoky blue eyes were sultry. Beatrice was playful and Sophie was mischievous. But despite their conjoint beauty and social status, Beatrice was still considered the more marriageable of the pair—something Sophie had always been resentful of.
"You simply must watch for our horses at the next race you attend," Beatrice said. She finished her sentence with an air of finality, giving Martin the signal that the visit had come to the acceptable half hour visiting time and she must now take other guests. Thankfully, he recognized the cue and stood to take his leave.
"I had a wonderful time speaking with you this afternoon, Miss Cartwright. I hope that we will be able to meet again soon," Martin said politely. If another man had said it, Beatrice might have been impressed by his courtesy. But said by greasy-haired Martin, Beatrice thought it sounded as if his mother had made him rehearse the goodbye like a little boy.
"I hope so, as well. It was a most enjoyable visit," Beatrice smiled, standing up. She smoothed her soft sky blue skirt and held out her hand for him to take and kiss before they quickly said their goodbyes and her maid, Lydia, led him to the door.
"What an intolerable young man," Mrs. Cartwright said negatively as soon as she heard the door close behind Martin. "It makes me angry that you spend time visiting with him when you could be taking calls with a Dodge or a Laurent boy who actually stands a chance at the prospect of marrying you."
"It's rude to turn somebody away from the door," Beatrice replied, smoothing her hair back. "You've always taught me that. And I don't want to be known as an insolent patron. I'm sure there's enough time for visits with all the suitable men, as well as one from Martin once in a while."
"Well," Mrs. Cartwright said sourly, but she then quieted for a moment as she studied her granddaughter. "I suppose that if you thought differently of the matter, you wouldn't be sweet little Beatrice, the one that New York has come to know and love."
Beatrice felt a sense of pride well up from inside of her. Compliments were not freely given in the Cartwright home. "But," her grandmother continued, "I don't know how much longer they are going to buy the act. Society may love a pure girl, but they get more entertainment out of a passionate one. They might tire of you, Beatrice—do not think you are different from any other girl."
Beatrice sighed. "Of course not, grandmother."
Lydia appeared in the doorway of the parlor. She looked rather dull in her dark uniform and sensible shoes next to the fine paintings, velvet clad furniture, and the Persian rugs. Beatrice sometimes wondered what it was like for Lydia to live in such a grand house. Did she feel like a fish out of water? Or like a foreigner without a translator?
"Visitors have arrived for you, Miss Beatrice," Lydia said quietly in her little coo of a voice. Mrs. Cartwright perked up in the corner, wishing for the best. "It's your cousin Miss Sophie and Mr. Edward Epstein. Shall I show them in?"
"Yes, please do at once," Beatrice commanded, excitement blossoming in her voice. She quickly went to the parlor mirror above the bookcase and pinched some color into her cheeks. Though it was just Sophie and dear Eddie coming for a visit, she had to look her finest. It would never do to show any sign of weakness, even to her cousin.
"Sophie! Eddie!" Beatrice turned and greeted the two merrily, stepping toward them with her dainty gait. "How good of you to come!" She and Sophie exchanged small kisses and Eddie graced her palm with his lips before the three sat—Sophie and Beatrice atop the sofa and Eddie on the small ottoman before them.
"Oh little Trixie, it never ceases to amuse me that you find such enjoyment in visiting with us," Sophie commented, a smile upon her face as she arranged her skirts on the sofa next to Beatrice, while giving a nod of greeting to Grandmother, who still sat in the corner. Beatrice had to admit that Sophie looked particularly beautiful this day. Her hair curled perfectly on her brow, and she wore a dress of red silk that the First Lady would have found charming. And as usual, she was bright and lively. Beatrice was sure she seemed a dull bore next to her cousin. "After all, you must have seen the pair of us only a few days ago."
"Yes, but after a day of visiting with half of society, I feel as if I haven't seen the pair of you in weeks," Beatrice said, placing her hand over her heart as if telling a deep secret. "And you two are by far my most interesting guests of the day."
Eddie grinned at Beatrice, his brown eyes crinkling at the corners. Eddie was one of the best-looking men in New York, and from a good family as well. But although he was only twenty years old and very marriageable, Beatrice hardly thought of him as a courtier or future husband. She and Sophie had played with Eddie when they were children, and now the thought of marrying him was absolutely impossible to entertain.
"Well," Eddie said, his good-natured smile upon his face. "Sophie and I caught Martin Banes-Cole on our way in here. I can't say we have any stiff competition." He and Sophie laughed.
"Oh, that's a terrible thing to say!" Beatrice scolded, holding true to her polite manners. But then she lowered her voice. "It was absolutely awful. Really. I can't tell you what boredom I suffered…"
Eddie rested a hand on her shoulder while Sophie said dismissively, "Well, we've come to save you now, dear Trixie—from your boredom and hopefully from Grandmother as well. Eddie and I have come to spring you," she finished with a mischievous twinkle in her eye that Beatrice knew too well. Trouble often followed that look.
"Oh, I couldn't," Beatrice spouted, shaking her head. "I'd never hear the end of it from Grandmother. Would you believe that she says…?" Beatrice halted mid-sentence and gave her cousin and Eddie a watchful eye. "Did you two come here together?"
"Oh no," Sophie waved her off. "Will brought me here on his way to visit some friends. He says hello."
"And I just happened to be coming to see you at the same time as Sophie, and we walked in together," Eddie finished.
"I see," Beatrice said quietly, not sure if she wanted to believe them. She decided that she would later ask Sophie's stepbrother Will if he had really dropped Sophie off at her house. If there was anything to know about Eddie and Sophie's relationship, Beatrice was going to be the very first to know, not some gossiping columnist for the New York Inquirer.
"But enough about that," Sophie said quickly and leaned into Beatrice. "What were you about to tell us about Grandmother?" She cast an eye toward Mrs. Cartwright, but the trio was speaking in such hushed tones that even the old bat would not be able to follow their conversation.
"Let's put it this way," Beatrice said remorsefully. "Think about all of the afternoon visits, dinner parties and acceptances to every ball in New York. Can't you see that she's trying to marry me off again? She says that she wants me married by the end of next year." Beatrice examined her slim, white-gloved fingers and then folded them neatly in her lap.
"But isn't that a good thing?" Sophie asked confusedly. "I thought we all wanted to get married. Isn't that the entire point of having a debutante ball and for coming out and courting? What's the point in all of that if you're not going to get married before you're twenty-five?"
"Sophie," Eddie rebuked. "Beatrice is barely eighteen, let alone twenty-five. Neither of you have even had your debutante ball yet. I hardly think you're old maids," he kid.
"She'll be heading that way in no time if she isn't careful," Sophie warned.
"It's not that I don't want to get married," Beatrice clarified. "It isn't that at all. I thought I was going to be married when I was sixteen years old, and I thought it was the best thing in the world. But when Kimber unexpectedly broke off the engagement to marry that Seymour girl…" Eddie turned away sharply at the comment, and Beatrice knew that he had been angered by Kimber's decision as well. "Well, after I was once again a young, single woman with my whole life ahead of me, I started to really enjoy it. Because I had finally realized that I could have some free life before it was all over, and I had to slave to a husband." Beatrice swallowed and looked down. "But now she wants me married off again, and I'm not sure I'm ready." Eddie took Beatrice's had in his, but it was so natural a gesture that Beatrice did not even look up.
"I think you two are both ridiculous," Sophie said bluntly. "Personally, I cannot wait to be married." She stood up sharply and turned to Beatrice and Eddie. "And if you 'aren't ready' to be, well then all the more prospects for me." She turned and stalked out of the parlor in the typical Sophia Cartwright way.
Beatrice sighed. She was used to this. She knew that by the same evening, Sophie would be sending her a nice pair of kidskin gloves to apologize, and of course, Beatrice would send them back and say that no harm had been done. Then Sophie would end up with a new pair of gloves. That was how Sophie did things; they always ended in her favor. She was heavy and hotheaded and that was what everyone loved about her, but sometimes it really did tire Beatrice.
"Don't worry your pretty little head too much about her," Eddie said quietly, moving to sit next to Beatrice on the sofa. Grandmother cleared her throat at the gesture, and Eddie sprang back up like a jack-in-the-box. "You know how Sophie is."
Beatrice sighed. "Yes. I know too well."
Eddie gave her a smile. "Well, Sophie had told me that she was actually coming over here to invite you to her family's dinner party tonight in honor of the new jockey, an invitation I also received. But since she left so abruptly, I'm sure she just forgot to tell you about it. So instead of waiting for her to come crawling back here to apologize and hand you the embellished invitation," Eddie paused and grinned, "why don't I just escort you as my date instead?"
Beatrice's face broke into a smile. She could not imagine a better evening that one on the arm of Eddie Epstein. "Really? You would like that?"
"I would love that," Eddie replied earnestly. "My mother was encouraging me to take a marriageable girl to the dinner party, and who is more marriageable than Beatrice Cartwright?" He gave her a wink.
"Is too hotheaded to make a good wife," Eddie finished in a low voice. "But you, Miss Beatrice," he kissed her hand, "are the belle of society."
As Beatrice looked into his brown eyes, cast down to meet hers, she could not help but feel immensely lucky at that exact moment. She never would have expected that in only a few days, she would wish never to have been born into her high society class.