Thursday, December 18, 2014
Masterpiece Marriage: Quilts of Love
Copyright © 2014 by Gina Welborn
All rights reserved.
Later that morning
I made you your own rally sign.” Miss Dewey’s words were punctuated with a squeal reminiscent of a piglet’s first gleeful discovery of slop.
Arel Dewey slid into the padded mahogany pew as Mary opened the hymnal to the first song listed on the board. Most people were still finding seats or already seated and in deep conversations. Unlike
anyone else in Belle Haven, Miss Dewey dared to share a pew with Mary. Her sheep always assembled with their parents. Today, their ninth Sunday service together, Miss Dewey sat so close their thighs touched. She had also uncharacteristically changed clothes. Next to Mary’s simple black-and-white-checkered dress, her yellow one with its pink and orange trim looked like a bouquet.
Speaking of flowers . . .
Miss Dewey’s new and cloying perfume cloaked Mary in a garden cloud she suspected would leave them both scented for hours. She sniffed. Lilac. With a touch of magnolia, heliotrope, and nectarine. Sweet and fruity. Like lemonade with berries. Not altogether unpleasant if doled out in moderation.
Moderation seemed not to be a virtue Arel Dewey espoused.
“It’s very—” Mary hesitated. Kind? Thoughtful? Imposing? Unsure of the least offensive yet most appropriate adjective, she settled on, “You didn’t have to.”
“Oh, but I did.” Miss Dewey leaned in. Her heavily lashed brown eyes sparkled and widened, making them appear even more owlish. “It’s what friends do, one for the other.” The heavens would open and the ocean beds would split to flood the earth again before it was possible for Miss Dewey’s voice to hold any more delight.
Mary dropped the open hymnal into her lap. Her every muscle, tendon, joint, bone, and strand of hair tensed. Perhaps she exaggerated a bit on the latter, but—friends?
Perhaps friendly acquaintances.
Being friends meant spending time together, having deep intimate conversations where one shared mistakes, dreams, fears, and desires, and it was not going to happen if Mary had any say in the matter. If she were to have a friend, and she would like a confidante when her life had settled down, she certainly wouldn’t choose a happy-as-a-piglet one who was preternaturally disposed toward conversation.
Mary leaned back and looked past Miss Dewey to spy Mrs. Priscilla Dane Osbourne. Now there was someone with whom she needed to become friends, or at least friendly acquaintances. The dark-haired widow, elegant as ever in her blue walking suit, sat beside her housekeeper, Mrs. Binkley, who was clad in a dove gray gown with a white lace fichu, as elegant a scarf as Mary had seen. A cough broke free from Mrs. Binkley’s chest. She opened her pocketbook and withdrew a handkerchief. She then slid what looked to be a butterscotch candy into her mouth.
“Mary, don’t forget we’re leaving on the four o’clock train.”
She looked back to Miss Dewey and chose her words carefully, as to be as clear and direct—as American—as possible. “Spare no time waiting for me, for I shan’t be your chaperone.”
Miss Dewey’s eyes rolled and head bobbed in a faux offended manner, her straw hat not shifting an inch on her braided wheat-gold chignon. “Oh, pishposh, of course you will,” she said calmly. “You can sit with me and we can catch up on old times.”
Mary blinked. They’ve been in each other’s acquaintance for two months. Spoken upon no more than twenty-three occasions, during which Miss Dewey did most of the talking. No old times to be found. Nor would they sit in a railway car together on way to a rally. On the way to anywhere.
She shifted on the pew to put several needed inches between them. “Miss Dewey,” she started, “I must elucidate—”
“Call me Arel.” Her sparkling grin filled her face. “For you are simply Mary to me.”
No. Not Mary. Not Arel. Not either of them using each other’s Christian names, and they certainly were not friends who had old times to reminisce over—despite Miss Dewey’s delusion.
Miss Dewey’s head tilted to the side. She was still grinning. “I must admit I view you more as an older sister than”—her face quirked as if she licked a lemon and her voice sounded like a chipmunk—“a mere friend.”
There was morning effervescence. Then there was Arel Dewey. Five minutes in her presence was enough to compel Mary to require a nap from sheer social exhaustion.
Mary gripped the hymnal as she resisted the urge to punch a fist through her own straw hat. She didn’t dislike Miss Dewey, but how was one to be friends with a wild girl with no sense of proper decorum? Miss Dewey was the antithesis of the ideal English lady.
Mary eased another few inches away from Miss Dewey then shifted to face her pew mate. “Miss Dewey, I—”
“Arel,” she corrected, placing her hand on her bodice, just under her red lily corsage bearing her Deeds Not Words pin and yellow Votes for Women ribbon. “As in Arl. One syllable. Think of it as Karl without the K. Everyone pronounced my name correctly until Zenus called me Owl last summer during the croquet tournament, and when Zenus Dane speaks, people listen and follow and adore. He’s Mrs. Osbourne’s nephew, in case you don’t remember. He hasn’t been to visit since Christmas because she attempted to match-make him with Lydia Puryear, who I made sure to warn away because Lydia deserved someone less . . .”
Her upper lip curling, she uttered an I-am-so-revolted-by-him errrg.
Mary looked away long enough to notice the dozens of Belle Havenians watching them from the pews behind, next to, and in front of them. Her neck and face felt unusually warm. She closed the hymnal and slid it into the pew back next to the congregational prayer book and Bible. If she left now—
She couldn’t leave. She needed to stay and talk to Mrs. Osbourne.
Miss Dewey gripped Mary’s clenched palms and didn’t respond to Mary’s immediate flinch.
“Zenus Dane believes he is a Titan and we are insignificant mortals,” she groused. Her voice became happy again. “Be thankful you will never meet him. He had a fight with Mrs. Osbourne last Christmas, and now they aren’t speaking.” Arel’s lips curved in a contented smile, and Mary presumed it meant she had finished talking.
Thank you, Jesus.
Mary withdrew her hands from Miss Dewey’s grasp. She fiddled with the pearl earring in her right ear, not because her skin itched but to disguise her reason for pulling away. Whoever this Zenus Dane was, Miss Dewey had an abnormal fixation on him. Mentions of him crept, ever so often, into Miss Dewey’s conversation. If she didn’t like the man, why talk about him? What Miss Dewey needed was something more noble to occupy her thoughts. Something like—
Despite the volume of the congregational noise, Mary lowered her voice to keep those watching them from hearing. “Can you draw? Sketch plants or leaves?”
Miss Dewey looked mildly offended. “Why?”
“No reason,” she answered with a dismissive wave and a disappointed sigh. At least she tried. She reclaimed the hymnal and flipped through the pages.
“Four o’clock train.”
Mary flinched, startled by the sound of Miss Dewey’s voice so close to her ear.
“Don’t. Be. Late,” Miss Dewey added, reaching to claim a Bible from the pew back.
“Regarding the railway, I—”
“Oh, and bring the necessities for four days in Richmond.” She looked to the wallboard that listed the day’s scripture location. “I’ll bring your sign.”
Mary released a frustrated breath. “I am sorry to say you have mistaken the degree of our acquaintance and made presumptions upon my acquiescence regarding your trip to the Commonwealth’s capital. You will have to—must, actually—rally without me.”
Miss Dewey stopped flipping through the Bible and gaped at Mary. Then she blinked. “No matter what British people say, they sound smarter. It’s the accent. My dearest and bestest sister Mary, this is why you must come with us. We need an educated woman such as you to communicate our passions and convictions in such a manner.”
“A collegiate education is available for anyone who seeks it.” In fact, college would be good for Miss Dewey, whose mouth gaped again.
Her mouth gaped again.
Oddly encouraged by the silence, Mary continued, “There are over ninety mixed-sex colleges alone in your country.” Which she knew because she’d researched them all looking for a professorship. As the other conversations in the chapel began tapering off, thankfully with gazes focused more on the podium than on them, Mary whispered, “You should enroll. Secure for yourself the education
you admire in me.”
Arel Dewey continued to stare as if the thought of earning a higher education never occurred to her. At twenty-two and the youngest of five children, heir to a substantial inheritance from her fishing empire father, and under no pressure to marry and produce grandchildren thanks to her prolific older siblings (information Mary never asked to know), Miss Dewey had a world of opportunities and adventures before her. There was nothing wrong with her suffrage cause. It was merely a case of how she was going about it, which was rather off-putting at times.
Mrs. Binkley fell into a fit of coughs.
Mary mimicked the gaze of everyone on her side of the meetinghouse and looked to where the gray-haired woman now stood.
Mrs. Binkley motioned to Mrs. Osbourne to remain seated. Then with her kerchief covering her mouth, she eased out of the pew and down the back of the room to the door.
“Let’s bow our heads in prayer.”
The exit door opened then closed.
Mary turned to the podium to where the Reverend Jaeger now stood. He bowed his head, giving all in attendance a prime view of his balding scalp. She followed suit, desperate for a moment away from her chattery pew mate to focus her thoughts. She’d been raked across the conversational yard by Arel Dewey. The poor girl was going to be devastated—but hopefully disillusioned—when Mary did not show up for the four o’clock train. But she couldn’t. She had no time to be distracted by other causes. Or people. Once the service was over, she had to find a way to convince Mrs. Osbourne to agree to turn her plant photos into illustrations.
As far as what to do about Karl without the K . . .
She peeked to see Arel holding the open Bible to her chest and mouthing her own prayer while Reverend Jaeger was praying aloud. One more thing to say about Arel Dewey: She had the courage to be herself. English society trained a woman from the cradle to be pleasing, thereby obliterating her individuality in the process. Mary certainly felt obliterated.
She looked away. What would life be like if she were free to be herself? Free to express her feelings and opinions, even disagreeable ones?
Free like Miss Dewey.
A strange warmth rushed through her, bubbles of—dare she say—hope. Never before had anyone insisted on being her friend or viewed her as a true sister. Not even her brothers claimed her as one. To them, she was the unspoken black sheep of the family, a female Varrs with two baccalaureate degrees. Worse, even, than her mother. Horrors upon abnormal horrors.
My dearest and bestest sister Mary . . .
Not just friend but—
For one second—just one—Mary yielded to a slight smile.
A quilting bee would, simply, not be the death of her.
Mary nibbled on the last lemon-glazed biscuit and held the curtains back to spy on the house next door. Another quilting lady entered Mrs. Osbourne’s home. Ten ladies so far this morning. Not including Mrs. Osbourne or her housekeeper Mrs. Binkley. A coughing fit like the one that had caused Mrs. Osbourne to leave the service early to care for Mrs. Binkley would not derail her plans.
Her own fears may.
Mary glanced at the crumbs on her fingers, the sweetness of the biscuit no longer a tasty trifle on her tongue. Monday morning arrived all too soon.
She knelt, holding her fingers out. “How can I go to a quilting bee?” she asked as his sandpaper tongue found every last crumb. She’d never felt comfortable talking to strangers.
If only she had the extraordinary vivacity of Arel Dewey.
“Should I go”—she sighed—“or put an ad in the paper and hope someone answers immediately?”
Napoleon stopped licking. He didn’t have to speak for her to know what he would answer. Mary scratched behind his ears until he stopped arching his head for her to scratch more. She then stood and walked to the kitchen to wash her hands. The water cooled her skin but not her nerves. Her hands shook. Her heart pounded in her chest. She turned off the water and gripped the edge of the porcelain sink. No reason to panic. Stop panicking! Be calm. Somehow, she and Mrs. Osbourne would work a trade, and it wouldn’t include Mary spending one minute quilting. Simple and easy.
The idea brought a morsel of comfort.
Mary toweled her hands, retoweled, wiping until not a drop of moisture remained. Then she folded the towel in proper alignment and laid it over the edge of the sink. Nothing else to do. Nothing else to stop her. Go. Go. Go. GO.
“All right, I will,” she muttered.
Mary dusted the front of her bodice, brushing away any biscuit crumbs. She smoothed the belt around her waist. Her gaze shifted to the straw hat on the kitchen table, still where she’d left it, following her morning constitutional. Wear it? Not wear it? Stop stalling.
Go. Go. Gogogogogogogo.
“Wish me luck,” she said to Napoleon as he trailed her to the front door.
Before she talked herself out of it, she was at Mrs. Osbourne’s house. Standing at the bottom riser. Not moving. Don’t think. Just go.
Mary raised the front of her white skirt and hurried up the stairs, crossed the porch, reached for the door, and gripped the handle tight. A wave of dizziness hit, blurring her vision. She desperately held onto the door. Not now.
Closing her eyes, she breathed deep.
Speak of nothing save the weather and other idle chatter. All would be well and easy and comfortable and fine.
She relaxed her hold on the door. Opened her eyes. Steadied her shoulders.
After another deep breath, she walked into Mrs. Osbourne’s house in the same manner as she’d observed the other quilting bee attendees do—without knocking. Not a soul stood in the open foyer to welcome her except an orange feline on the carpeted stair runner. Its tail flicked with a you may pet me if you must.
Mary laid her calling card in the empty gold-plated receiver, her fingers hovering over the white card. Leave it. Don’t leave it. What was the proper Virginia protocol?
“We’re in here, Rheba,” someone called out. “Leave your pies on the table. I’ll take care of them in a moment.” Sounded like Mrs. Osbourne, but since they’d only spoken upon a handful of times, Mary couldn’t be sure.
Mary looked around. Covered baskets rested atop and underneath two folding tables that looked to be handcrafted from rosewood and inlaid with ebony, similar to a design she once saw in Paris. Wait. Pies? She cringed. Lunch is potluck the invitation had specified. She should return home for some canned jalapeño pickles.
Splendid idea! If she wished to lose what courage she’d built up coming here.
Mary rested her hands on the increasingly tight, black v-shaped belt she wore with her pique skirt and pink-with-gray-dots blouse, an outfit usually worn when golfing, which she enjoyed often during her studies in Florida. Despite bringing her clubs, she had yet to find a golf course. But she hadn’t tried looking. She ought to. In fact—
She released an unladylike grunt. Golf and fashion? She had far more pressing worries at the moment than golf and fashion.
Still, the white bow tie around her shirt’s high collar now felt like a grip around a putter. The internal tension from interrupting a quilting bee was enough to strangle her. And she missed calculating the trajectory of the ball, the influence of the wind, the—
Dawdling is what she was doing.
Stop avoiding the inevitable!
She breathed deep. Her lungs had to have the capacity of an ocean steamer. She released the breath and walked to the parlor.
Underneath the ornate chandelier and surrounded by gold-painted, velvet-cushioned furniture were the quilters. Ten to be precise. All gathered around a rectangular wooden frame covered with muslin. Each wearing dark skirts with white or gray blouses, hair drawn back in simple buns, instead of the elaborate braided and twisted chignon Mary wore. Without taking turns, they spoke. Five, six maybe, conversations going.
So many people talking at once. So much laughter.
Instead of covering her ears and running from the house, Mary opened her mouth. “I am not Rheba.”
Silence blanketed the room.
All gazes turned her way, emotions clear on their faces. Shock: You?! Then suspicion: Why are you here? Finally, rejection: This is a private event; we don’t have a place for you. Responses similar to those she’d endured since she was ten. Their gazes shifted to Mrs. Osbourne, the singular soul in the room looking delighted to see Mary.
“Miss Varrs,” she said, standing and stepping back from the quilt frame. “I am thrilled you decided to attend.” Her words held a sincere graciousness.
About this. She wasn’t actually attending if she could get out of it.
“I have no pies.” That was the best she could say in response. Pathetic.
“No need to fret,” Mrs. Osbourne said sweetly. “You’re my guest.”
Mary nodded to the ladies in the parlor. “But they are your guests, too, and they brought . . . on the tables . . . the invitation said potluck. I wasn’t thinking and . . .”
Oh, good gracious, she was babbling like a brook. Her pulse even raced like a kayak down said brook. All panicky. Just like the day Headmistress Whitacre drew her to the front of the great hall.
Ladies, this poor soul needs improving to become a lady.
Mary gave her head a shake to dispose of the memory. She smiled as best she could to appear at ease. “Mrs. Osbourne, might I have a word with you?” She motioned to the foyer. “In private.”
“Certainly.” Mrs. Osbourne touched the shoulder of the quilter on her right. “Peggy, take over for me please, and remember to continue layering the scraps out from the center.” She then walked to Mary and stepped with her into the parlor, leaving whispers in her wake. “Did the elixir not help Napoleon?”
“It did. He and his bowels have returned to docility.”
“Then, if this is about not bringing a dish, you need not feel embarrassed. We always have enough food.”
“It’s not —. I—” Her throat choked as the words I need your help petrified inside her larynx.
Mrs. Osbourne took Mary’s hands, surrounding them together with hers. A tender action. A typical American action. “You look ghastly,” she whispered. “What’s wrong?”
She didn’t look at Mrs. Osbourne’s hands clasped around hers, nor did she draw away despite her desire to escape being at the complete mercies of her neighbor who had invaded the private—and
comfortable—bubble surrounding her. Yet, she relaxed her grip, in hopes Mrs. Osbourne would receive the action as a subtle clue to let go, like other people had when holding her hands. Instead, Mrs. Osbourne held tighter.
Speak and ignore her touch.
“For the last two years, I have lived around the world doing a study on tomatoes,” she rushed out. “My intention has been to submit it to the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station with the express purpose of obtaining a research assistant position. The VAES is open to hiring females.”
Mrs. Osbourne nodded for her to continue.
Mary glanced down at their joined hands and pinched her eyes closed, drawing in a steadying breath doing nothing to ease the nervous tumble of her pulse. Do not insult her by pulling away. She looked up, meeting her neighbor’s compassionate gaze, a gaze clearly aware of her unease. Why? A caring person would not force closeness. Even animals knew to respect another’s territory. Granted, their establishment of territory required the use of urine, which was not an option for her.
Abruptly Mrs. Osbourne dropped Mary’s hands and, with a gentle smile, took a step back. “About your tomato study . . .?”
“Yes, I, uh . . .” Mary clasped her hands together with a concerted effort to look relaxed. “I have recently learned the photographs I’ve taken for my study will nullify my application. I need classical illustrations of my photographs”—she nipped the corner of her mouth—“and I have no artistic ability.”
For the longest moment, Mrs. Osbourne just stood there, giving Mary time to notice how her ski-slope nose tipped up at the bottom. The little bump made her classic features more amiable. Even with heavy wrinkles and gray-sprinkled dark hair, the woman was aging well. Of course, what she was thinking, Mary could not fathom. While she knew little about her temporary neighbor, she sensed the woman was old enough to be her mother and did not suffer fools.
“And?” Mrs. Osbourne finally prompted.
“When I saw the drawing you did on the invitation . . .” She gave a little shrug. “I need a botanical illustrator. I need . . . you.”
Understanding dawned in Mrs. Osbourne’s blue eyes, and she released a pent-up breath. “Is this all? I would be happy to help.”
Mary blinked, stunned. “You would?”
“It brings me joy to help others.” Said with enough maternal concern to cause Mary’s eyes to feel unusually moist for the third time today. “When do you need them?”
Mary cleared her throat. “Ten days.”
“Ten days? Dearest, my quilting bee—”
“Yes, I know,” cut in Mary, “and it is the quandary I am in. They need to be in the mail by next Wednesday in order to arrive by the submission deadline. I would seek aid elsewhere, but I am desperate, and your sketching is beautiful. I’m willing to negotiate a trade of my time for yours.”
Mrs. Osbourne fingered the falls of lace at the neckline of her gray-on-gray-striped blouse. “How many illustrations do you need?”
“For a study of this size,” Mary explained, relieved by the comfortable topic, “five types per species is common, along with a rate of growth related to nutrients and sunshine, and I have seven major
varieties per type, although I have fifty-three different seed plants, including cultivated and wild and—”
Mrs. Osbourne’s brow rose in a headmistress manner. Minimum requirement, please.
Mary cringed awkwardly. “Um, well, for the top tomato in each of the five types: germination, mature plant, leaf, fruit size and shape, and a cross section of a mature tomato. Each illustration approximately palm-size.”
Mrs. Osbourne smiled warmly in return. “So five individual drawings on five separate canvases?”
“Yes, mum,” Mary said with an embarrassing exuberance in her tone spewing forth before she could contain it. This time the racing of her pulse made her feel giddy, hopeful. “Each set of sketches needs to fill a traditional sheet of art paper, not canvas. The mercantile had drawing and charcoal paper. I bought both this morning not knowing which you would prefer.”
“If it must be paper, then Bristol board would be better.”
“I purchased it in two-ply and three-ply, white, but if you prefer ivory, I could—”
Mrs. Osbourne just arched her brow. Again.
Mary avoided wincing this time.
“Your diligence to be prepared for all scenarios reminds me of my nephew.”
“It was not a compliment.” Mrs. Osbourne’s gaze shifted to the parlor, where not a peep could be heard. Wherever her quilting friends were standing and listening, they were far enough back not to be seen.
Afraid to say more and risk losing her neighbor’s willingness to help, Mary eyed the cat. The cat—with its you poor worrisome human flick of the tail and an arrogance befitting Marie Antoinette—lifted its paw, rubbed its head from back to front, then proceeded to lick its paw as if it literally did not have a care in the world.
Oh, to be a cat.
“I will help you, Miss Varrs.” Mrs. Osbourne turned her full attention on Mary. She took a step forward, closing the comfortable distance between them. “I will sketch in the day during my quilting bee, and in exchange, you will take my place embroidering the quilt.”
Mary could do nothing to stop her eyes from widening and jaw dropping in a most unladylike manner. “Embroidering the quilt?” she echoed. “But—”
Mrs. Osbourne’s brow rose again, and Mary held back any further argument.
Mrs. Osbourne patted the side of Mary’s arm with a you’ll do fine, then added a verbal “You do know how.” Not a question, but a statement made in confidence. Likely from the assumption all Englishwomen knew how to embroider; thus, Mary knew, simply by location of her birth. Which was an unfair presumption. One would not have to do a case study to prove not all Englishwomen were intrinsically skilled with the needle. This said, her needlework skill was passable. When she concentrated on giving her best effort, some—all right, one: the prince—even declared her skill to be exceptional.
“Excellent,” was said with all the delight Arel Dewey had when discussing votes for women. Mrs. Osbourne smiled. “Now, Miss Varrs, while I collect my pencils and easel, you will bring over the Bristol board and your first set of photographs.”
Lifting the front of her black skirt, she moved up the stairs, around the cat continuing to flick its tail even with its eyes closed.
“Holly Jane Ferris,” she intoned, “in recompense for listening to a private conversation, please find Miss Varrs a chair between you and Peggy. The rest of you, get back to work. Posthaste.”
Mary didn’t move. She had hoped for a trade. For an exchange of goods, perhaps. She clenched her hands together, nipping her bottom lip, staring nervously at the parlor’s entrance. But—
Embroider a quilt? Heaven help her, what had she gotten herself into?
Mary looked to the top of the stairs where Mrs. Osbourne stood. “Yes?”
“A quilting bee will not be the death of you.” She paused, smiled. “I promise.”