The Cruelest Sting Of All

Submitted by Debra Caples to Contest #9 in response to: Write a story about unrequited love.... view prompt

Spring had arrived in Connecticut, Elspeth’s favorite season. A long, cold winter hadn’t helped her condition at all. Said condition had always puzzled her. What exactly was “a wasting disease?” No mystery to her, seeing as the affliction was hers. She knew the outcome, the pains, the limitations, but what was the cause? What, if anything, could be done about it?

Old Dr. Norris here in Hambleton had urged Mother and Father to take her to New Haven where he assured them the most up-to-date medical help could be found. They discovered nothing. No mysterious spider bite, no restorative she could swallow and certainly no cure. “Plenty of bed rest,” they prescribed. “Keep her warm and out of drafts.”

Thank you very much.

It had begun with pneumonia when she was twelve. Perhaps this debilitating weakness had contributed to it or vice versa. Regardless, she’d recovered only to find she could scarcely stand, never mind walk. Exercise had returned a little strength to her limbs but it had lasted only a short time and now she was confined to this miserable wheeled chair.

An invalid, she thought, scowling. It was a word she’d come to despise, a word that enveloped her by definition and sealed her inside it. She was a perpetual convalescent, an observer of life as it teemed past her like tiny fish in a brook. Always, always happening to someone else. Oh, she might attend teas and church and quilting circles, weather permitting. If it didn’t? She had to watch the others get into the carriage, leaving her with an open book in her lap. Books were her boon companion and she loved reading them but longed to be out there living!

“Mother,” she ventured. “Might I help plant the flowers?”

Mrs. Armstrong looked up from the bed she was digging, gardening claw in hand. Around her was a riotous color of blooms in pots that had escaped the hothouse. Jocelyn looked up as well and sent their mother an inquiring look then frowned and resumed working with her small spade. She knew the answer as well as Elspeth. A careful smile came her way and Mother said, “Not today. The ground is still a little chilly.”

“If we put a blanket down---” Elspeth suggested.

“No,” was the firm answer. “We can’t risk you getting ill.”

Jocelyn sought to divert Elspeth’s attention. “Where shall I put these? You’re the one planning the outlay.”

Elspeth held back an ungracious sigh. Her sister was only trying to make her feel useful and it was considerate of her but disappointment cut all the same. The thought of never being free of this chair brought tears to the back of her eyes but she refused to let them show. Swallowing, she pointed. “Over there, by the shrubs. They’ll break the monotony of green.”

“Excellent,” Mrs. Armstrong said approvingly. “The purples and yellows are just what’s needed right there.”

Jaw tightening, Elspeth looked out over the back lawn with her carefully maintained mask of a face. Father had taught her to do her whining inwardly. Anything less was weak. What she saw in the distance brought a thrill to her heart and a smile to her lips. Over the gently sloping hills leading to the house were two figures bounding in their direction on horseback. “Oh! It’s Manfred and George!” she exclaimed. Her brother and his best friend, recently graduated from the university this past fall, were racing to the stable. So young and handsome and athletic were they. George had been the captain of the tennis team and no one in the state, in Elspeth’s opinion, played golf as well as Manfred. She had had the pleasure of watching him play in Hartford last summer and for once was glad to be sitting while everyone else had to stand. It must be exhausting to move from one hole to the next.

George had been there, too, and Elspeth’s soul thrilled to the core as he pushed her about the course, making small talk and cheering wildly as his chum drove one birdie after another to win the trophy. Of course, he spoke differently to Jocelyn, who’d been seventeen that summer to Elspeth’s fourteen. Still, she’d been overjoyed by his attention and after he and Manfred went back to their studies she’d plummeted into a quiet depression she kept as well guarded as her secret. She’d fallen for George.

Oh, she knew what everyone would say if they found her out. ‘It’s a crush, darling, quite painful but you’ll survive it,’ is what they’d tell her. All the while their eyes would have that hint of pity at the very back of them. Poor Elspeth, poor infatuated cripple, how sad it is! Of all the things she didn’t want anyone to have for her, pity was the worst. She mustn’t show it even if she felt it. No one admired a martyr, not really. Everyone might admire you for holding forth, stiff upper lip and all that. She wasn’t lulled into believing that they felt, in the end, one such as she had be God’s most miserable creature.

Jocelyn sprang up before they got too close and ran for the door, shedding her gardening gloves and patting her hair. “I must look a fright!” she said, disappearing to change from her old gown into a nice morning frock.

Elspeth fairly giggled for Jocelyn could never look a fright. “Would you like me to do your hair?” she offered.

Caught between manners and being seen in this state, she bounced on her toes before the entryway, brushing at the front of her soiled dress. “No, no. I think my hair’s…fine...it’s my clothes!”

The two young men strolled into the garden, arguing good naturedly, earning indulgent smiles from the two ladies. “Mother!” Manfred called out, bending to buss the cheek his dam offered. “And my lovely sister!”

Elspeth’s face glowed as her brother bent to kiss her. His dark eyes were bright with the very essence of youth and strength but it was a look from George’s beautiful green ones she craved. They were slightly slanted at the back corners, tiny lines of amusement gathering when he smiled and the dimple in his right cheek made her want to touch that handsome indentation just once with the pad of a finger to see if his skin was as soft as it looked.

“Where’s Jocelyn?” George asked, glancing about.

His question made a prickle of worry go through Elspeth. Why would he care? Well, he was just being polite she convinced herself. A gentleman had to notice things like that, didn’t he? It wasn’t as if he’d shown an overabundance of interest in Jocelyn. “She’s inside,” Elspeth tactfully supplied. She could hardly say her sister had been afraid of being caught in a mess. That was something a bratty girl would do, not a young woman of nearly sixteen.

“What have you there?” he asked, pointing to the drawing in her lap.

Happy to be noticed at all, Elspeth tendered the paper. “It’s my diagram of the garden. Where we should plant what.”

“That’s very nice, good work.” He grinned down at her and gave the drawing back. “Elspeth, architect of gardens.”

Mother sent her younger daughter a fond smile. “Don’t give her any ideas. Headstrong, that one is.”

Elspeth imagined herself before a drafting board, creating skyscrapers and college dorms. “I wouldn’t mind being an architect,” she said wistfully.

Manfred laughed out loud and it jarred Elspeth’s dream right out of her brain. “Our little suffragist. Next thing you know she’ll be wanting to run for political office!”

George took off his hat and gave Elspeth a fond look. “I don’t see why she shouldn’t aspire to something. Women can dream large.” Wonderful man! She could have kissed him!

“Yes, but can they achieve it?” Manfred shot back. He shook his head and ruffled Elspeth’s hair. “It’s a man’s world, little sister.”

Elspeth scowled and swatted at his retreating hand. “Perhaps it shouldn’t be!” she retorted hotly, her cheeks flaming. She knew in her heart he might well encourage her to become something if she weren’t sitting in this chair. Father was on the brink of refusing to allow her to go to finishing school. He just hadn’t said so. Many changes would have to be made to board one such as she not to mention hiring a nurse to go along.

The two young men went to change out of their riding clothes and at lunch the talk was of them going into town to her father’s office. Mr. Armstrong was a partner in an overland shipping company, the most successful man in the county. Elspeth hoped that one day he might allow her to become his secretary or oversee the delivery routes. She loved to help him in his office at home, smelling his pipe tobacco and aftershave. What was the chance of it, though, if he wouldn’t let her go away to school?

At lunch, Elspeth sat between Manfred and her mother, Father being in town, naturally. She peeked beneath her lashes at George as she ate, listening to him and Jocelyn argue the merits of one violinist over another. George had no musical talent whatsoever but her sister was a more than fair hand at the violin while Elspeth was an accomplished pianist. Perhaps she could attend school at the conservatory. Half her life had been spent sitting on a piano stool. She didn’t even require one with this stupid wheelchair.

The ladies sewed as the afternoon grew long waiting for the dinner hour. Just before she knew the men would arrive she wheeled herself to the piano and began to play enchanting opuses and etudes, her fingers gliding over the keys effortlessly. She chose a piece by Chopin that she would begin the moment she heard them arrive through the front. Perhaps it would draw George into the music room and she might have a few minutes alone in his company.

Shortly after the clock rang the hour she heard them in the hall, loud masculine footsteps, voices holding forth on matters of business. When she heard George break off from the others and enter the room her stomach gave a leap but she kept her attention on the music and pretended her fantasy hadn’t come true. He leaned on the grand piano to watch and she offered him what she hoped was her most winsome smile. He drew up a seat close to her wheelchair and she fought to play eloquently and not fumble at the keys. And she succeeded!

As the last note died she lifted her wrists, fingers dangling just so. George applauded softly, his eyes gleaming in the light of the candelabra. “You play so beautifully, Elspeth. I wish I could.”

“I could give you lessons, if you like,” she offered shyly.

He chuckled, a sound she’d never grow tired of hearing. “That would be a waste of valuable time.”

Her sense of humor shone through as she rolled her eyes. “Please. I have nothing else to do all day.”

Rising, he took hold of her chair. “I must dress for dinner. Allow me, mademoiselle, to escort you to the parlor.”

Comme tu le feras, monsieur,” she said, flushing with delight. When they left the music room she pointed to her right. “I must dress, also. This way, Jeeves.”

He laughed at her joke and took her to her room on the first floor then went his own way. At one time this had been a drawing room but Elspeth’s independent nature had caused her parents to make it her bedroom and, she suspected, save them all the trouble of lugging her and her chair up the stairs. The arrangement was quite practical and afforded her more privacy. She chose her dress then went to the dressing table and removed the net she wore her hair in during the day.

Looking at her reflection, she wound her locks into a chignon and placed a couple of combs she thought were rather sophisticated. Something an older girl might wear, she judged. She chose a pair of earbobs and matching necklace then dabbed a little eau de cologne behind her ears. The door opened to admit Jocelyn, already oufitted for dinner in mint green silk that complimented her auburn hair and peaches and cream complexion.

She put her fists on her hips and observed her sister’s reflection in mirror. “Don’t you look grown up!”

“Your jam-faced sister has matured,” Elspeth said dryly.

Jocelyn helped her stand and smoothed the back of her dress down. A certain amount of wrinkles were to be expected under the circumstances but Mother had raised them to be ladies. Jocelyn put her chin on Elspeth’s shoulder and said to her reflection, “You have a perfectly heart-shaped face with marvelous cheekbones and red rose lips. Your eyes are as black as your hair and shine in the light. If only---”

Elspeth’s pleased smile slipped away. Her expression became taut as wire. “Don’t say it.”

“I was going to say, if only I were as pretty as you.”

Elspeth knew it was a lie and that Jocelyn knew she knew it. Instead of reproof she gave her sister a wry, insouciant grin. “Unfortunately, I was named after our mother’s dear aunt. It makes me sound like a witch.”

She found herself seated next to George that evening and dinner was a magical affair. He conversed with her as an adult and her mind kept coming back to the way his eyes had lit up when Jocelyn wheeled her into the room. Her toilette had been noticed and she wondered if what her sister said was true; she was an attractive young woman.

She took great interest in what he was arguing with her father and Manfred about, that the cost of refitting railroad cars to carry perishable goods would be offset by the swiftness of transport. “Just think of it! No more spoiled meat. Vegetables would arrive crisper, too.”

“Sounds logical to me,” Elspeth chirped as she raised her glass to sip water. Most of her food had been shifted from one side of the plate to the other in her preoccupation.

Her brother snorted, as if to say what would a woman know about logic, much less refrigerated shipping cars. George indicated his gratitude with empty fork and bowed his head in her direction. “I have Elspeth’s blessing on it. What more could I ask?”

“Nothing more is required,” she announced, glad to hear the other females at the table agree.

When dessert was over George rose and asked, “Mr. Armstrong, could I speak with you privately?”

Her father looked up and quizzically swept his glance over the others. “Certainly.”

They went in the direction of his office and Manfred pushed her chair to the french doors overlooking the veranda. She cracked them open and gazed out at the garden, wishing she had her plan drawing. So, George was in favor of her studying architecture? Would he feel that way if they were married? That would be unusually forward thinking of a man to have a working wife! Of course, if they had children she would remain at home, but for a time she’d have realized something of gain. As it stood, she faced a dreary future as the crippled daughter with no prospects.

Her musings were disturbed by a sound outside. It was Jocelyn and George. Eavesdropping was wrong but she couldn’t turn away. She could just make out their silhouettes through the curtains. They went into each other’s arms. Breathless, her sister inquired, “What did he say? My love, don’t keep me waiting another second!”

“He accepted my proposal and has given his blessing.”

Elspeth’s stomach dropped down to her useless toes. The moist sound of their lips joining then breaking apart cut her heart to shreds. That look hadn’t been for her. It was Jocelyn that made his eyes dance so. He’d only been showing courtesy to the little sister of the woman he truly desired. How blind was she? How idiotic? Before she could stop it a sob escaped her throat and she whirled her chair about to leave the room.

Too late. “Elspeth!” It was Jocelyn and she could hear the heavier tread of George right behind her.

She would rather be tarred and feathered before letting them see how deep her humiliation went. Unable to dry her eyes but managing to bolster her pride, she turned about and smiled. “I wasn’t spying, I swear, but I did hear what you said. This is wonderful news.”

Tears of joy in her own eyes, Jocelyn sank to the nearest chair as George knelt beside a wheel. “Are you happy for me?” her sister asked. “I’m over the moon!”

“Of course I am.”

“And I’m going to speak with Father about you going to Mrs. Fletcher’s school. There’s no reason you shouldn’t go if you want to.” Jocelyn leaned over and laid her head on top of Elspeth’s.

She gulped, withering inside where no one could see how much George’s gentle regard for Jocelyn hurt. It was pride and gratitude warring with merriment. “I’ll be good to her, I promise.” He seized Elspeth’s hand and his kiss burned her skin.

Elspeth raised her chin. “You’d better or I’ll get Father’s fowling piece and shoot you.”

They laughed and went to inform the rest of the family. Elspeth heard the distant laughter and good wishes as she steered toward her room. Grateful to be alone, she allowed herself enough time to cry it out then, steeling her emotions, she opened the window and let her foolishness fly out it. This wasn’t her first dream to go. Certainly, it wouldn’t be her last.

 

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