“I hope dear Joshua is feeling better, such a kind note he sent. You saw it, Isabella?” Mrs. Polk lifted her silk fan lazily, her feet propped up on a low stool embroidered with roses.
“I saw, Mama,” Isabella replied, her hand shaking slightly as she set down her glass of lemonade.
“…a lovely young man. I am ever so glad he’s back,” Mrs. Polk continued sleepily.
“Mmm,” Isabella replied, biting her lower lip as she remembered the horrid mass of metal and flesh that now made up part of Joshua Hawkins.
She shuddered. The father and now the son; perhaps the family was cursed.
“…was telling your sister–”
“What?” Isabella broke out of her reverie. “Charlotte isn’t here, Mama.”
“She is, indeed,” Mrs. Polk struggled to sit up so that she could look at her daughter. “She arrived in Charleston yesterday and she popped by today just before breakfast.”
Isabella slumped down onto the low settee. First Joshua, and now Charlotte. Was the universe set against her? Her dreams of trips to Charlotte for the Exhibition and the grand balls were all crumbling; she had such high hopes for the summer, too. She stared moodily at her dripping glass of lemonade as it dampened the ivory doily on the table beside her.
“You know dear Joshua stopped by yesterday? Before he even went back to the plantation. A great compliment to you, my dear, I’m sure,” Mrs. Polk murmured.
“Yes, Mother. You told me Mr. Hawkins came to call and that’s why I called on him yesterday afternoon,” Isabella tried to keep the bite out of her voice.
“Oh I did, didn’t I? So silly of me…Such a nice boy, Joshua. Always had an eye for you, for my ‘bella…” Mrs. Polk’s voice drifted off in a snore.
Isabella sighed and took the fan gently from her mother’s lax fingers and rescued the tilting cup of cooling tea from her mother’s lap. She gestured to one of the housemaids to draw the curtains against the sun that filtered in through the sitting room windows, watching as the sunlight melted into little more than a sliver across the colorful rugs and softly glowing wooden floors. Isabella stared at the watery pattern the bright line of sun made as it rippled through the curtains.A bee trapped somewhere in the room buzzed frantically. Mother slept more and more these days, since the doctor prescribed higher doses of the laudanum. It was good she wasn’t in pain, Isabella thought, but her absentminded mother was becoming positively nonsensical. If only Father was alive… The sound of an autocar outside made her raise her head. Joshua?
The front door burst open and the gay cry of: “Why hello, Boggs, it’s positively smashing to see you!” brought Isabella out of her seat as though she was on a spring. Hurrying through the dim room, she pulled the paneled doors closed behind her and walked quickly to the foyer.
“What are you wearing?” Isabella gasped.
Her sister’s ensemble was horrifying even from the back. Charlotte spun to face her sister, displaying the tight trousers she wore from the front. Her so-called skirt, made of thinnest cotton, swirled from her hips like a cape. Beaten brown leather boots reached her thighs and a fancifully embroidered corset revealed how thin she was beneath the dusty navy duffel coat she was shrugging off her bony shoulders.
Charlotte’s voice was just as Isabella remembered: husky, sounding as though she was on the verge of a smile or revealing a juicy secret. An indecent voice.
“You can’t let Mother see you in that,” Isabella said.
“Mother can barely see the tip of her own nose these days. Besides, I wore this to breakfast this morning and she didn’t say a word,” Charlotte grinned, wide mouth stretching in her familiar catlike smile.
“You…you…” Isabella choked on a fitting invective.
“Ungrateful urchin? Troublesome trollop? Wretched wastrel?” Charlotte’s green eyes widened earnestly as she tried to aid her sister.
Isabella sniffed, her normally milky skin suffused with pink. Charlotte hung her coat on a hook by the door, pointedly ignoring old Bogg’s attempts to help her.
“Boggs,” she said. “How is the arthritis?”
Boggs bobbed up and down, mouth twitching despite his best efforts.
“Oh, it don’t hurt so bad, Miss Charlotte. The summer heat be helpin’, I reckon.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” Charlotte said, tossing her dusty gloves onto a table.
“Really!” Isabella exclaimed. “The maids only just cleaned and here you are tracking in dirt and dust from God knows where.”
“London, Cairo, Venice, and Charleston,” Charlotte ticked the cities off on her long fingers. “God’s cogs, I’m tired. It was a hell of a run we had.”
She pulled off her grimy black top hat and allowed Boggs to take it while she ripped the pins out of her hair. It tumbled around her shoulders in a riot of silver-blonde curls.
“Honestly, Charlotte,” Isabella grabbed her sister’s elbow and dragged her towards the stairs. “Have you no decency?”
“No,” Charlotte freed herself from Isabella’s vise-like grip and ran a hand through her tangles. “I haven’t.”
“When was the last time you bathed?” Isabella wrinkled her fashionably upturned nose at the tang of sweat, dust, and smoke that hung around Charlotte. Her skin was nearly brown, making her fair hair and eyebrows look even paler. The white shirt she wore under her corset was stained and frayed at the sleeves.
“Oh, honestly, Isabella. I’ve been travelling for weeks. Can’t you keep your nagging to yourself or will you explode?” Charlotte’s low voice did not rise in volume, but Isabella recoiled.
“I–I–Mother’s quite ill, you know,” Isabella said, smoothing her full skirts unnecessarily.
“I know,” Charlotte said. “She wrote me.”
“She wrote you?” Isabella stopped halfway up the wide staircase.
“Yes. She always writes me,” Charlotte said over her shoulder, as she continued up stairs, leaving a trail of gold hairpins in her wake. “Don’t worry, Bell. I won’t be staying.”
photo by me