It pained me to watch a beauty like Ivy Luckett try so hard, especially to impress a man like Ewen Branson.
Ivy was a Taurus, and as such, a coquette when it came to charming the masculine sex. After all, fashion, food, and flirtation were among her favorite pastimes. She could-and had-made any man of her choosing follow her home like a stray dog, begging her to take on his name. Some of the bachelors who came calling for her weren't blessed with all, and could only bargain so far with this fasionista when it came to their average looks and modest assets. But many of those kind had been true Lancelots when it came to temperament. Loyal, good-hearted, and hard working men who would treat Ivy like a queen with what little they had. Other suitors had mimicked the disposition of a Mr. Darcy, with more than their share of pride and a plethora of prejudice when it came to marriage. Yet, most were nonetheless willing to give up all to make an exception for my scarlet haired friend. And a handpicked few could've given John Jacob Astor a run for his money. Sickeningly rich and painfully beautiful. Cremes of the crop.
But not nearly creamy enough for Ivy.
She turned them all away, once she was bored with them, and dragged me out to town monthly to shop for a new heart to break.
None of them could sway her so effectively as the European boy she was promised to have. Even though (at least up to the point when we met him) Mr. Branson had been a vague and tentative idea of a potential suitor, Ivy loved him from the moment her father passed her his photograph at dinner and curtly stated, "This one, girl. You're going to marry him. He'll be here from England in two years to take you off my hands. And that's the end of it, you understand? I don't want another man in my house calling for you after tonight, or there'll be Hell to pay."
I guess it was lucky then that Ivy found Mr. Branson handsome enough to agree to those appalling terms.
Either that, or she pretended to accept it, as she had no other choice but to.
I often wondered if her sudden romanticism of Mr. Branson reflected her true feelings about him, or if it was all just an act to get through the day. Another mask that we girls put on so the world can't know what we're really feeling inside.
If it was an act, Ivy was quite the primadonna. She never gave us any reason to think otherwise.
Frankly, in my private and humble opinion, Ewen Branson was her inferior. The fruit rotting underneath the creme of the crop. He was the antithesis of a gentleman, and my friend deserved much better than the likes of him.
I could tell Ivy was nervous, though I can't imagine why. She obsessively kept smoothing out her skirt to keep her hands from fidgeting. All the while with that ever-fixed, relentless smile of hers that tarnished her true beauty and made her look more like a madwoman than a goddess.
This wasn't really her. Before me was an empty and shallow image which our patriarchal society had projected onto her. Ivy was just playing her part, and I knew it more than anyone else in that room. She changed herself in an effort to impress Mr. Branson, and cater to her father's wishes.
I felt so sorry for her, and the pressure she was under to get it right. I couldn't bear to imagine what her father would do if the marriage arrangement didn't work out in her favor. In that moment, I finally learned to appreciate what my father had been trying to tell me all along. Ivy's world was all glitter and glamour on the outside, but behind the fragile wall of her mechanical smile was an entrapping and manically twisted nightmare.
Once more, I was glad to have been born the daughter of a lady's maid and a sailor. Free to choose for myself, be loved for myself, and never subjected to Ivy Luckett's place.
But, returning to the topic of Mr. Branson, I was deeply conflicted. Not just because of the nature by which he was forced onto her, but because I wasn't convinced that he matched her personality at all.
He was on the pale side, probably due to the lack of sunshine and the surplus rain in his part of the world. That sickly complexion made me think of dark and dismal things, like he'd just walked out of Poe's "The Raven" into our parlor. The word dreary came to mind, and death, and melancholia, and gothic, and every other adjective that describes unhappiness. Just looking at Mr. Branson somehow drained all the energy and life out of me.
Apart from his chalky tone, I suppose the rest of his features could be salvaged, if Ivy were desperate enough to make him seem handsome.
In my opinion, men with fair colored hair are darlings.
However, admittedly, there was something sophisticated about Mr. Branson's dark neatly brushed locks...if one were really looking for it.
And if I may trouble you with my opinion further, there is nothing extraordinary about dark brown eyes either. I prefer blue, like my father's.
But somehow, Mr. Branson seemed to make those coal pupils work in favor for him.
For a moment, I wanted to believe that there was evidence of life behind them. That, like Ivy, he too was just playing a part. That he couldn't just be this cold, distant, and unfeeling suitor threatening to snatch my best friend away to a miserable life of melancholy and loveless rejection. That perhaps, there was something secretly romantic about him that he never dared to share with the rest of the world, but could one day feel comfortable enough to share with Ivy.
Then again, maybe not.
Maybe he really was just a high-nosed elitist bastard who happened to have nicely combed hair and beguiling onyx eyes.
And that nose...how can one nose be so large and yet so...adorable? Must be an English trait. And nothing unique, no doubt. It couldn't be anything exceptional that a hundred other more amiable fellows across the pond didn't also possess.
Anyway, in conclusion, if Mr. Branson wasn't such an elitist, perhaps he might have been handsomer to me.
But he wasn't my suitor, and it wasn't my job to judge Ivy's man. My duty was to fill in the empty spaces of their conversation.
"Who cares for your horses while you're away, Mr. Branson?" I asked, saving Ivy from the pain of uttering another one of her desperate and thoughtless statements.
I hoped she'd catch onto the idea that maybe Mr. Branson would make easier conversation if she asked more questions about his interests, rather than his feelings about their dreaded upcoming marriage.
But for some reason, Ivy didn't take too well to me stealing his attention from her, even if I was only trying to help her. She completely disregarded my question, giving Mr. Branson no time to answer it, as she pressed on with her own inquiries, capturing Mr. Branson's attention again.
"Are you really English?" she asked him.
"I beg your pardon?"
"There's a hint of something else in your accent and it's riddling me. Sometimes it hardly sounds English, but then again, it must be because you arefrom London, correct?"
"Aberdare," he replied.
Unfortunately, our learning in European geography was limited. The location wasn't familiar to either of us, and we sat there staring dumbly at him until he finally solved the puzzle.
"It's in Wales. I'm Welsh," he said. "Well, half. My mother was a Welsh countess. It's my father who's from London."
"Are there really respectable families in Wales?" Ivy blurted out in surprise. "I wouldn't have guessed. I've been under the impression that Wales is a cesspit next to England's majesty. I once had a governess who was Welsh. A very competent girl when it came to sewing and washing, but not as quick minded in reading and writing. It's hard to imagine a gentleman talking the way she talked. If I hadn't known any better, I could've mistaken you for a servant in a coattails. All you needed to say was, may I take your order, ma'am?"
She giggled at her private joke.
There was no saving her on that one.
"There are a number of respectable people in Wales, manservant and lord alike, who carry my accent, and they are all commendable in their own right," Mr. Branson defended. "Am I to assume that because you are American, that you are undereducated, wasteful, and have no sense class or culture? It would be an unfair assumption to make just by listening to the way you talk, am I right?"
Ivy glanced at her white gloved hands in her lap, and bit her lower lip in remission.
Mr. Branson was just creating an analogy, but Ivy was so sensitive about criticism, that she took it as an insult that went straight to her heart.
Though I agreed with Mr. Branson's logic, I didn't appreciate the tone in which he delivered it. And besides, I was there to support my friend, not him. I couldn't help but to say something to him.
"Well, granted, unfair assumptions have gone both ways this afternoon, Mr. Branson. For instance, you assumed I couldn't play the piano, and I've proved otherwise. Obviously, we have plenty to learn and understand about each other. And I hope that after this meeting and your stay in America, you'll retract your earlier opinion of our country as being a backwoods for farmers and milkmaids, and see the worth in our thriving houses, though they will never look like your castles. We're not kings, but we've got just as much in us to take you on. We carry our crowns within us, rather than on our heads. We work hard and we laugh harder, " I told him.
"And I'm sure Miss Luckett meant no harm by it. Only a handful of us women are allowed to leave our homes and venture out into the world. Naturally, the consequence of that restriction is prejudice, which can be corrected with patience. But I think we can agree that the total area of Wales is significantly smaller than most places, and unfortunately, a smaller population yields smaller representation. It is likely that the number of privileged families in Wales travel less often to America looking for jobs than those of the lower classes. You are the first person that Miss Luckett has met as her social equal from Wales, and as your opinion of America is likely to change now, so will her opinion of your country. Until then, we'll have to forgive each other of our ignorances, and gently correct them with the true facts."
Mr. Branson took a long swig of his brandy, emptying the entire volume of the glass in one swallow before setting the glass firmly back on the mahogany table.
"She's entitled to her opinion, like any woman," he muttered finally, searching for the Brandy bottle on his serving tray. "Just like I'm entitled to keep mine."
"My, aren't you a wonder, Mr. Branson? Very few men would acknowledge so much," Ivy complimented him on his radical politic, while completely overlooking the hidden dagger in the latter part of his statement. "Father says a lady's opinion is shaped by her husband's. He told me never to disagree with you, no matter the topic."
"I like a lady with a good opinion," Mr. Branson answered, pouring another glass to the brim. "It keeps the conversation away from the crickets."
I caught the glance he shot in my direction, but it didn't seem cold and hostile like before. More cordial, actually. Like a gesture of acceptance toward me. Reverence, even. Can you believe it? But, it happened so briefly, that I couldn't be sure what it signified, or if it was really meant to be directed at me. He turned his attention back to his brandy, and I never saw that look out of him again.
Ivy went on grinning politely, though I'm sure she didn't catch the slight he had indirectly made on her character.
"When you're not out with your horses, Mr. Branson, how else do you pass the time?" I asked, desperate to advance to a new topic.
"Yes, I'm sure you have the world and time at your disposal," Ivy piped in. "Especially with so many servants handling your every request."
"We don't have much hired help at home. I don't have a valet or any footmen. Never needed one. The help we do have is enlisted part time as gardener or cook or stable hand, and the rest of the work I do myself. I've never addressed anyone as a servant."
"But you must have a very large estate. Why is your house so understaffed? Money can't be an issue, or else we wouldn't be here," Ivy giggled.
"I'm stubbornly independent," Mr. Branson replied. "I dine alone. I carry my own cigar light. I work for my own. I'm probably more of a wild man than the wild can handle when I'm out hunting on my estate. And I'm a carpenter and handyman by trade. I have a knack for broken things, and I take deep satisfaction in fixing them."
"You're quite the hero then, Mr. Branson. Aren't we charmed, Cora?" Ivy grinned at me.
"I wouldn't call me a hero," he said quietly. "Only a man who isn't afraid of a little dust in his life."
"Wild man indeed," Ivy's eyes were on him like a cat calculating its prey. "I'm starting to fancy this engagement idea."
Mr. Branson poured himself yet another glass of brandy, careful not to engage her devouring gaze. He never gave her a reply to that.
"What of your passions, Mr. Branson?" I asked, knowing it was probably a question Ivy would've asked if she wasn't swooning herself into doltishness. "A man with your influences must have a plan about how to establish his legacy."
That provoked a smile out of him. A rather bashful one that melted away the cold, unfeeling mask he had hidden himself behind.
He looked up to address me directly. "You'll laugh."
"I have a dry sense of humor, Mr. Branson. I rarely laugh," I told him playfully. "Come now, what is it? It can't be that outrageous. You want to end world hunger? You want to sponsor the cure to Consumption? You wish to erect a statue of your vanity in Buckingham Palace?"
"I want to be a sailor," he said.
"A sailor!" Ivy cried, horrified.
"I'm sure he means a yachting champion," I assured her, to calm her rattling nerves. "That's normal, right? There are plenty of respectable gentlemen who race yachts for sport."
I smiled back at Mr. Branson. "Miss Luckett's father competes every summer."
"No, I don't mean to do it for sport. I meant professionally," he proceeded cautiously. "If I can manage it one day, I would give it all up to go to sea. It's the only place I've felt at home. I learned to swim before I could walk. The marine world is a part of who I am."
"But that's normal, right?" I said nodding as I glanced at Ivy. I don't think she noticed how low her jaw was hanging and how rudely she gawked at her guest. "Every man has fantasies about going to sea. My father is retired from the Royal Navy, and he-"
"You're teasing me again, Mr. Branson" Ivy insisted , a smile stretching across her face. "I know it. You and I both know that my father would skin himself into leather before he handed me off to a man so unimportant and disposable as a sailor. Can you imagine what people would say about that? Let's not even think about it!"
How I felt as the "unimportant and disposable" sailor's daughter was nothing in comparison to how Mr. Branson must have felt after Ivy finally shut up.
The last opportunity of knowing that secret side of him that he kept from the world withered away from Ivy then. She had lost him. He masked himself once again in the cold unfeeling face of a pessimist, setting the tone for the marriage between them.
"Go on, tell me something serious now!" Ivy finally caught her breath after laughing so hard. "And by God, how do you pronounce your name? I can't believe we've discussed all the trivial things and missed that important detail. I suppose I must know how to say it now that we're engaged."
"Branson," he replied flatly. "Two very simple syllables. Bran and son."
"No, I didn't mean your surname. The other one."
"Ewen," he answered. "Also two very simple sounds. Eh and Win."
"I said no more jokes!" Ivy giggled.
"That is my name."
"But what sort of name is that?"
"The one my mother picked for me," he said firmly, clearly reaching his limit for patience. "Do you have something to object about it, Miss Luckett?"
"Oh, no. Forgive me, Mr. Branson. I had no idea that your name was the last gift she left you," Ivy told him. "My mother wasn't around long either. That's why I was so grateful to Cora's mother for staying in our service. Emily was a lady's maid to my mother, and she took care of me too for some time. She was always so giving of her strength and love toward me. I could never have asked for a better nurse. Cora is practically a mirror image of her, which is why I'm so affectionate of her."
Mr. Branson stared at me puzzled.
"But did you not just introduce her as your cousin? And now you say she's the daughter of a lady's maid?" he asked Ivy. "What exactly are you playing at, Miss Luckett?"
"Well, Cora is practically family," Ivy stumbled, trying to cover her tracks. "I mean, despite her unfortunate status, Cora is a sweet girl, and I am proud to call her a friend and sister."
That justification didn't seem to work for Mr. Saier. He looked back and forth between Ivy and I in apparent displeasure.
"I believe, in the matter of jokes, you just took home the prize, Miss Luckett," he said.
Then he turned to me. "Madam, I don't know what you expected to gain in tricking me into making your acquaintance, but I assure you it has given you no benefit. If you inform anyone that we were introduced, I will deny it and your reputation will suffer immensely."
He shot one last loathsome look in Ivy's direction before excusing himself and leaving the room.
Ivy quickly turned to me. "Cora, I'm sorry. I was carried away in my excitement. I didn't mean to unveil your disguise. It just came off my tongue without even thinking."
I laughed and patted her shoulder.
"Well, we almost had him fooled. It was a good run," I said, shrugging. "Your reputation will suffer immensely. As if it isn't already bad enough, being a sailor's daughter and all."
"Cora, I didn't mean it that way when I said it," Ivy blushed with embarrassment.
"I know," I replied. "You were just nervous. All is forgiven."
"But you can still join us for dinner?" Ivy begged. "Did you see the vile way he looked at me? I don't think I could face him alone, and you know you'd give anything to see his lip curl up again at the sight of you."
"Yes, I could make a party out of vexing him, but I think I've had enough of playing heiress for a day," I told her. "You, however, get to play wife for a lifetime. We should really find you something breathtaking to wear for your first dinner together. Something sky blue to bring out your eyes. They are your most disarming weapon against men, and we could use all the help we can get at this point."