The maid who had been assigned to the construction of Abigail’s elaborate hairdo stood at attention, her smile reflected in the dressing table mirror.
“Are you pleased with it, Miss Platford?”
Abigail sighed. Really, what difference did it make? What mattered was that everything was done exactly as her future mother-in-law had instructed, her honey-red hair arranged over several layers of padding that rose nearly half a foot and the formidable mass ornamented with plumes and several strings of pearls from Mrs. Hennessy’s own jewelry box.
“It’s very nice. Thank you.”
“Will there be anything else then, ma’am?”
“No, that’s all.”
She was relieved when finally she heard the door of the guest room close, and she was alone.
It was April 19, 1907, precisely five months before her wedding date, and that night Mr. and Mrs. Hennessy were hosting a marvelous banquet at Sherry’s, one of the most expensive venues in Manhattan. The purpose was to announce their only son Arthur’s engagement and, Abigail assumed, to ease her introduction into New York’s high society circles—if such a thing could be done. The invitations, handwritten in French, announced that the theme of the night was to be a royal garden party. Mrs. Hennessy had invited nearly a hundred guests and asked them to come dressed in eighteenth-century costumes. All this, Abigail surmised, just because Mrs. Hennessy wished for an excuse to oversee her attire for the evening, likely fearing that otherwise her son’s fiancée would fail to make the correct impression.
There was no denying that the costume provided for her was beautiful. The dress, deep blue to match her eyes, had a square neck with lace trim, tight sleeves with layers of ruffles, flounced skirt, and a fitted bodice to emphasize her slim silhouette. As the final touch, Mrs. Hennessy had insisted on an exquisite diamond choker, purportedly among the most precious of the venerable old family’s heirlooms. Abigail contemplated it now with mixed emotions. If security was what she desired, then surely she had found it in Arthur Hennessy. But as she lifted the borrowed necklace to her throat, it seemed only a symbol of her irrevocable captivity.
She thought back to the gloomy gray morning in mid-February when she had fled her mother’s home and found Arthur at the bank, with the intention of asking him for a position—a teller, a secretary, anything that would enable her to move out and never again be subjected to the lewd advances of her new stepfather. Arthur and she had barely known one another then. Still, he had taken pity on her, offering her temporary asylum in his parents’ home.
She pictured the gallery of dour-faced family portraits under which she had unsuspectingly sat on that night when, in a rush of words that seemed painfully well rehearsed, Arthur proposed. At the time, it seemed as if there was nothing else she could have said but yes. Yes to a man for whom she felt not the slightest spark of passion. Yes to a life she didn’t want, one filled with the endless insincerities of polite social intercourse and the useless pastimes to which women of the Hennessys’ class so ardently devoted themselves. And, of course, children. She had never desired them but, as surely as all the rest of it that she didn’t want, they were ahead of her now.
And all because of that one tragically foolish mistake that had stolen her father—and her future—forever.
There was a tap at the door. Before she could reply, Mrs. Hennessy entered the room, a gnarled stick of a woman dressed in a lavish gold and burgundy brocade gown that trailed at least three feet along the floor. She was followed by Arthur’s sister, Sarah, whose heavily layered costume of canary yellow silk with orange chiffon only served to make her appear even larger and more awkward than usual.
Abigail held her breath as Mrs. Hennessy slowly circled around her, checking for any slight deviation from perfection. “You actually look quite lovely,” she finally said, offering a subdued smile. “Doesn’t she, Sarah?”
Sarah’s tight-lipped expression made it clear that she was in the mood to be even more difficult than usual.
“That necklace belonged to Grandmother Hennessy,” she said tersely.
Abigail reached to undo the clasp, more than willing to relinquish the family jewels.
“Leave it, Abigail,” Mrs. Hennessy commanded. She turned to Sarah. “It’s only for one night, dear.”
Sarah gave a little sniff and then turned on her heel and stormed out, a suffocating cloud of French perfume lingering in her wake.
“I was thinking,” Abigail began uncertainly, the choker tightening around her neck, “might this outfit look best without jewelry?”
“Don’t be silly.The important thing is that tonight you appear like a lady.”
Abigail decided to ignore the inference that she would fail to do so without the Hennessy diamonds at her throat.
“Arthur should have been here by now.”
“Oh, he telephoned from the bank. He’s planning to meet us at Sherry’s later.”
She tried to hide her displeasure. How could he send her off to the party alone, most likely knowing not a single soul among all the guests!
“Couldn’t we wait for him?”
“Come along now,” Mrs. Hennessy said sharply.“The limousine is waiting.”
They were about to head downstairs when the maid, the same one who had styled Abigail’s hair, suddenly rushed into the room, her eyes flitting from the mistress of the house to the guest and then back again.
“Ma’am, you don’t want to forget this,” she said, passing something to Mrs. Hennessy, who quickly turned to Abigail with her arm outstretched.
“For you. Open it.”
It was a fan mounted on a stick of ivory with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Carefully, because she could tell that it was old and fragile, Abigail spread the silk folds. It was exquisitely painted, the intricate design weaving a mythical tale of castles and sailing ships, mermaids strumming on lutes, cupids peeking out from behind the clouds. She would have loved to linger, piecing together the various fragments of the artist’s imagined story, losing herself in the magic, but there was no time now.
“Thank you,” she said, though uncertain if the fan was a gift or yet another item on loan. “It’s beautiful.”
Mrs. Hennessy’s next comment was direct and deliberate, and Abigail had no trouble reading between the lines.
“I always feel that a fan lends a woman an air of mystery, don’t you?”
In other words, the less her future daughter-in-law might reveal about herself, the better.
Abigail had never been to Sherry’s before, but even if she had, she would not have recognized it that night. An entire floor of the restaurant was decorated to create the ambiance of a royal French garden, complete with wisteria-covered arbors under which the banquet tables, laid with gold plates and sparkling crystal goblets, were set upon a floor of actual grass. As she stood in the doorway, bedazzled by the opulence around her, Mrs. Hennessy turned to her with a stiff smile.
“It’s best that you not call attention to yourself or discuss the engagement with anyone yet. Mr. Hennessy will make the announcement later in the evening, and I want it to be a surprise.”
Abigail was distracted by the sound of laughter coming from the hallway, the arrival of the first guests. As they came into view, she saw that all were in colorful period costumes as extravagant as Mrs. Hennessy’s, likely modeled after famous portraits of Louis XV and his mistress Madame de Pompadour, or Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Certainly none among the Hennessys’ set would wish to be caught dead in an outfit less than authentically regal.
“Go on and take your seat. You’ll be at the head table.” Mrs. Hennessy pointed across the room where among all the round tables there was one that was long and narrow with seating for twenty or more. “There’s a place card with your name. Hurry now. Don’t dilly-dally.”
If Mrs. Hennessy wished her not to call attention to herself, Abigail thought with a touch of bitterness, this was surely not the way to do it. Sitting alone at the head table would only make her more noticeable and engender speculation as to who would merit such a prestigious spot and why she was unaccompanied. Nevertheless, she did as she had been asked, settling herself into the designated seat and trying to look as if she belonged there. She was glad when several others finally sat down nearby, followed by a few more until the table was nearly full. The seat to her left, however, remained empty; the place card said it was reserved for Mr. George Kilroy, whoever he might be. The vacant chair on her right was Arthur’s.
She had not yet seen Arthur in his costume but tried now to imagine him with his long, serious face and his sparse rust-colored mustache dressed as a sword-wielding eighteenth-century Frenchman. The thought of it brought a brief touch of levity to her otherwise anxious, and increasingly annoyed, state of mind. However ridiculous he might look, she told herself, she would try to keep from laughing. Arthur was extraordinarily shy, and even if he might deserve a taste of humiliation such as she was being forced to endure now, she didn’t have the heart to embarrass him.
As it turned out, she needn’t have worried. The moment Arthur walked through the door, it was apparent that he’d planned his late entry purely to maximize the attention he would receive. There was a swagger to his step, a flush to his cheeks, an exuberance that was palpably heady. As a matter of fact, Abigail had never seen him look quite so comfortable with himself as he did in that full-skirted and elaborately embroidered coat, the long waistcoat underneath left open at the neck to display the frilled shirt-front and lace cravat held in place by a black velvet bow. Even the powdered wig seemed to suit him well, tied at the back with another black bow. He had apparently decided that a sword was unnecessary, but he carried in his hand, probably so as not to muss his hair, a three-cornered hat bound with gold galloon and sporting a trim of flat rosettes of ribbon.
Abigail watched as he went around to nearly every table, taking his time, chatting amiably with the guests. He was animated, confident. Though she couldn’t help a curious sort of admiration for his new attitude, her irritation far exceeded such kinder sentiments. Had he no appreciation of how uncomfortable she felt, surrounded by people she didn’t know—people who obviously had very little interest in knowing her? And the way his mother had treated her! It was as if Mrs. Hennessy didn’t trust her to open her mouth for fear something foolish would come out.
Suddenly, she felt the chair to her left move. She looked up to see a gentleman who was noticeably out of place with his black evening suit and white bow tie. His neatly trimmed hair was dark and wavy, his mustache thick and waxed at the ends. He was quite a bit older than she, perhaps in his forties. He immediately struck Abigail as one of those men who become even more handsome with a slight graying at the temples. The hesitancy in his manner led her to believe he must realize that he had arrived at the wrong event.
“Pardon me,” he said, “I believe this is my place.”
“No, Mr. Kilroy couldn’t make it, I’m afraid,” he said, proceeding to sit down next to her. “He’s a little under the weather. But Mrs. Kilroy—” He nodded toward the head of the table, where a stout woman, her costume adorned with stunning jewels obviously worth a fortune, stood talking with Mrs. Hennessy. She gestured toward the gentleman then sitting next to Abigail. A slight frown formed between Mrs. Hennessy’s brows.
“Mrs. Kilroy,” he began again, “persuaded me to accompany her in place of her husband. And, if you know Mrs. Kilroy, you’ll understand that I really had no choice in the matter.”
By now, she had taken in more of his appearance: the firmness of his jaw, the sharp angle of his cheek, the depth of his eyes. He was a distinguished-looking man but the rakishness of his smile hinted at a touch of impetuosity. She noticed, too, a peculiar scent about him, slightly acrid. It was so familiar.
An image popped into her mind. Row upon row of stoppered bottles and lidded apothecary jars, her face reflected for a moment in the glass of the medicine cabinet before she opened the door, reached inside . . .
“I must say, though, it’s embarrassing to be the only one from the twentieth century in attendance.”
Forcefully, she pulled herself back to the present. “Actually, it’s a welcome relief to see a modern man. I was beginning to feel I’d been sent off in one of Mr. Wells’s time machines.”
“Ah, one of my favorite books!”
“Mine as well.”
“It’s an intriguing premise, traveling into the future to see what the human race has become.”
“Yes, quite a fantastical story but with a rather solemn truth at its core.“
“Solemn truth?” He thought for a moment. “Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right.” He gave her an approving smile, pausing for only a beat before adding, “What else do you like to read?”
He probably expected her to be a fan of Gothic novels, she thought. No doubt he imagined that, like most impressionable young women in their twenties, she harbored secret longings for torrid surrender to the recklessness of passion. In her case, such longings had always been overridden by what her mother liked to call a morbid fascination with the human body and the variety of afflictions that could so mercilessly render it helpless. Which is why, at that moment, it was an entirely different kind of tome that came to her mind.
“Gray’s Anatomy,” she said, realizing full well what an odd choice it must seem. Perhaps just as strange was her sudden and inexplicable urge to tell him how Father had always encouraged her to study science, how she’d grown up believing she would follow in his footsteps and become a doctor despite the many challenges a woman faced in trying to do so. To think that she had once imagined herself becoming a student at Johns Hopkins! Yet, since her father’s sudden passing, that dream and so many others had died a slow, agonizing death.
“Excuse me—” The stranger was speaking again. “Since we appear to have no one offering to introduce us, allow me to do the honors myself. I’m Dr. Franklin Rome.”
She inclined her head politely, feeling a hot flush spread over her face. Surely he must think her incredibly pretentious to have mentioned Gray’s Anatomy. He had no way of knowing the countless hours she had spent poring over that revered book—the more than eight hundred illustrations, all the skeletal parts laid bare of flesh, meticulously labeled as to the various bones, nerve openings, attachments of the tendons.
“You’re a doctor?”
“I’ve only opened my practice here very recently. Mrs. Kilroy is one of my first patients.” He glanced at the elderly woman with what seemed a condescending smile. “I’m not sure what I can do for her, but I’ll think of something. However—” He turned back to her. “Far more important, you haven’t yet told me your name.”
“No, I haven’t.” She thought of Mrs. Hennessy’s warning. “Abigail Platford.”
“It’s a pleasure, Miss Platford. It is Miss, isn’t it?”
Mrs. Kilroy had taken a seat directly opposite Dr. Rome and now called out across the table, “Dr. Rome, I see you have managed to land yourself a spot next to the loveliest girl in the room. I suppose I should be grateful it’s you sitting next to her, instead of my husband.” She and everyone around her laughed, which Abigail thought in poor taste considering that Dr. Rome had said Mr. Kilroy wasn’t well.
“If my goal was to rub elbows with the loveliest of all the lovely creatures here tonight, then surely I would be sitting next to you, Mrs. Kilroy,” Dr. Rome said, turning to Abigail with a sly wink.
“Oh, Doctor! Are you sure your degree isn’t in flattery?” Mrs. Kilroy snapped open her jeweled fan and fluttered it lightly by her cheek. “I suppose I should explain how I came to be accompanied by this charming gentleman tonight. Lest you think,” she said, turning to the right and then the left, to make sure everyone was listening, “that I’ve run off and left my poor ailing George for another man! Dr. Rome can attest to the fact that I’ve done no such thing. You see, our own personal physician, Dr. Hannity, is on holiday overseas. Just when we need him, of course! But—and don’t ask me how, because it’s a very long story—I was fortunate to have recently made the acquaintance of Dr. Rome, who has been tending to George for several days now with uncommon devotion. Though my husband wasn’t quite up to stepping out tonight, I wouldn’t dream of disappointing our hosts. So I convinced Dr. Rome to assume the role of my escort, an invitation which he very graciously accepted. And isn’t it nice to have at least one gentleman around here without flowing curls or a velvet-bowed rat tail?”
“Most certainly, it is,” agreed a stylish woman sitting two seats to Mrs. Kilroy’s right, who had been studying Dr. Rome with a keen eye.
“The pleasure is all mine,” Dr. Rome replied. He turned to Abigail. “Miss Platford and I were just discussing time machines, and I was thinking that, were I a time traveler, I could hope for no better place to land than a royal banquet in eighteenth-century France. For one who enjoys excess in all things, it surely is the perfect setting.”
“Excess, Doctor?” replied the same woman, who’d not taken her eyes off him. “But I thought those in your profession most often preach moderation?”
He chuckled. “My particular calling undoubtedly is not quite what you imagine. Nevertheless, how a doctor advises his patients and how he behaves himself are often two very different things. We are, after all, only human,” he added, turning again to look at Abigail and leaning close to whisper, “I must admit you’ve intrigued me, Miss Platford. We’ll have to discuss Gray’s Anatomy in more detail later, alright?”
Arthur appeared the next moment, slipping into the chair to her right with a mumbled apology. She’d never been happier to see him, his absence having left her vulnerable not only to the curiosity of others but as well to her own curiosity about the handsome doctor on her left. She hadn’t spoken of her interest in medicine for so long. She’d not even dared to think of it. What had made her suddenly bring up the subject—and to a total stranger?
Of course! It was that smell!
The meal proceeded uneventfully, if one could call a feast with eight separate courses uneventful. Abigail had never seen so much food all in one place, every inch of the table occupied by some extravagant culinary creation, wave after wave of bowls and trays and platters piled high and steaming with the scents of tarragon, thyme, rosemary and sage. There were four different soups, three kinds of salad, stuffed pheasant, roasted duck, veal, ham, and several whole fish, each entrée accompanied by its own exotic sauce. The procession of French champagnes of every variety and vintage was unending, the pop of a cork sounding every few minutes from somewhere in the room.
In the midst of it all, she merely picked at her food, unable to enjoy any of it, too apprehensive about what was to come. Soon there would be a hundred pairs of prying eyes trained on her. The flowery toast would be followed by discreet whispers and polite applause, Mrs. Hennessy’s frozen smile fooling no one. Abigail who?
Abigail was grateful to Mrs. Kilroy for dominating the conversation so completely that, throughout the meal, she scarcely had to speak. And she was careful to orient herself slightly to the right, toward Arthur, hoping not to have to engage further with the doctor on her left, though she wasn’t entirely sure why she dreaded doing so. It might have been that nervous flutter she’d felt when she first saw him; even now, she found the recollection of it vaguely disturbing. More likely, though, it was the bittersweet memories he had inadvertently evoked. She could remember Father quizzing her on anatomy and how hard she would try impress him with her knowledge, incomplete as it was. She recalled the warmth of his smile, his words of gentle encouragement. Someday they would practice medicine together, he’d often say. Someday they would be a team.
Suddenly Mr. Hennessy rose from his chair and tapped a knife against his glass.The others seated around Abigail joined in, understanding that he wished to speak. The clamor from the head table quieted everyone around the room. In the sudden hush, Abigail could hear the urgent thumping of her heart.
Mr. Hennessy straightened his wig and began. “I hope everyone is having a wonderful time tonight. My lovely wife never ceases to amaze me with her talent and imagination!” He paused for the applause as Mrs. Hennessy dipped her head in a gesture of humility. “In addition to a desire to host our many dear friends at a banquet to end all banquets, I must admit that we have another reason for inviting you here tonight–a reason that we have kept entirely secret until now.” Mr. Hennessy looked over at Arthur, beaming. “Our only son, Arthur, has long been our pride and joy. Besides being a young man of exceptional abilities, as evidenced by his accomplishments of the last several years at the helm of one of our family’s banking enterprises, I have always believed him to be a gentleman of refinement and taste. I am delighted to say that I now have irrevocable proof of these very qualities, as evidenced by his selection of a most charming young lady to be his future wife.”
There was an audible gasp from all corners of the room.
“It gives me great pleasure,” Mr. Hennessy continued, “to introduce her to you now.” He turned again to Arthur. “Son, please assist Miss Platford to rise and let our guests get a good look at the two of you together, the future Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Hennessy!”
Arthur stood up and offered Abigail his arm so that she could rise and display herself next to him while the elite of New York City acknowledged their impending union. Those at the head table were the first to stand, but soon all were on their feet, giving the couple an ovation more suitable, Abigail thought, for the stars of an opera or a nominee for political office. It seemed to her that it went on forever, but actually it was less than a minute before the guests were again in their seats, gossiping among themselves, admiring the decadent assortment of multi-layered cakes, cream-filled pastries and chocolates that were being delivered to the tables on huge rolling carts.
It was then she noticed that Arthur seemed to be in a heightened state of agitation. She could tell by the way he kept fingering the ruffles of his shirt, eyes cast down, mouth drawn tight. He had lost the easy grace that she’d so admired earlier in the evening. Now he seemed more like a man awaiting execution.
“Arthur? Are you all right?”
He glanced uneasily toward the door leading into the hallway outside the banquet room. Abigail followed his eyes. There was a young man standing there, rather handsome in a delicate sort of way, with a look of distress about him that mirrored Arthur’s distracted air.
“You’ll have to excuse me,” Arthur said, rising abruptly from his chair.
She watched him leave, feeling rudely abandoned. Had she embarrassed him somehow? Had she done something wrong? She quickly arrived at the conclusion that he must be having second thoughts about his affections, or at least the wisdom of marrying someone of such little note. His proposal, after only a short acquaintance, might seem overly impetuous to him now. Despite her own ambivalent feelings toward the marriage, it was intolerable to her that Arthur might be similarly torn. Arthur was to have been, if nothing else, her rock. But might he so easily crumble? Was he no stronger, no surer, than she?
“It seems that congratulations are in order.” Dr. Rome had leaned toward her, speaking in a confidential tone. “I didn’t realize I was sitting next to the evening’s guest of honor.”
“I’m hardly that,” Abigail replied, aware that her heart was again thumping wildly.
“And here I thought perhaps you aspired to practice the medical arts. Or was that only a passing fancy?”
“It was a long time ago,” she said, suddenly so very weary. The effort to explain was simply too great. She felt ill. She could not bear to be there another second. “I apologize, but I really must excuse myself.”
She pushed back her chair, ignoring the inquisitive glances from others seated at the table, and hurried out of the room and into the hallway. She found the stairs. Gripping the banister for support, she dragged herself up to the top. The ladies’ room was only a few steps away. She burst through the door, collapsing in disarray onto a tufted-velvet chair—praying that no one would come along or, if they did, that she would have the presence of mind to blame her condition on the champagne.
Not her sudden realization that somehow she must escape.