Only on Lady Edith’s third invitation to tea, did Lady Mary accept. She had been out of town on the first occasion and had reservations with her husband, Henry, on the second. However, when her old friend approached her after church the Sunday past, Mary found her well of excuses entirely dried up.
Lady Edith was quite as busy as Lady Mary had pretended to be, for no item could be forgotten or left unpolished. Ordering the most delicate of finger sandwiches, preparing the tea, dusting the counter, setting out the fine china – indeed, when her powdered and frilled guests arrived, Edith’s cramped dining room simply sparkled.
Lady Mary was neither first nor last to be seen entering the party. She had chosen a dress which her husband had mail-ordered from Paris, a deep blue dress which, she was told, made her eyes appear almost shocking. Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Long had arrived just before her and made quite a bit of fuss as she entered, gesturing fiercely to join them at the table.
“What should one think,” rushed Mrs. Long as she leaned in, “hosting tea so soon after such a tragedy?”
Mrs. Hughes paused to make sure Lady Edith was still absorbed arranging the sandwiches in the next room. “I should think,” Mrs. Hughes muttered, “she’d just as well have danced a jig over her poor husband’s grave.”
Mrs. Long nearly spat out her tea. “Quite.”
Lady Mary sipped hers in silence. News of the sudden death of Lady Edith’s husband had shaken their gentle and oftentimes uneventful circle. Indeed, it was odd for Edith to seem recovered so much more quickly than the other members of their little society. Though Mary noted that she still wore the traditional clothes of mourning.
It was then Lady Edith returned from the kitchen with the sandwiches and with Miss Elizabeth Parker who had just come from Wharton’s. Elizabeth was not two years younger than Lady Mary, but displayed every bit of spirit and risk that Mary was without. Smiling broadly, she removed her stylish coat and plucked a ham sandwich from Lady Edith’s carefully constructed tray.
“Don’t say you’ve begun without me. What a scandal.” Elizabeth teased the others as Lady Edith hurried to pour her tea before sitting herself.
Lady Mary spoke for the first time, “We weren’t entirely sure you were coming, you know. Some of us did wait almost half the hour.”
“How could I miss it? To think I shouldn’t come when surely I’d be last to know how a man falls off the balcony in his own home? Truth, it’s almost like walking straight into a novel! Who could miss it for the world?”
All eyes were directed at Lady Edith as she sat woodenly at the head of the table.
Mrs. Hughes stuttered in her reproach. “What could you mean by – how could you say something so thoughtless in front of our poor Edith?”
Elizabeth blushed deeply, “Goodness, it’s not as if I meant – ”
“It’s alright, Elizabeth darling.” Lady Edith answered kindly and with no menace, lowering her cup to take Elizabeth’s hand. “Please don’t think me so entirely breakable I can’t speak of his death. Truly, it’s not as if I’ve forgotten.”
As no one else spoke, Lady Edith continued, “John was a dear man and I’ll remember him fondly. But I’ve every mind to make a fresh start,” she paused, looking to Lady Mary, “and I’d truly appreciate the help of everyone at this table in achieving it.”
From this moment, their party gained the forced ease of those trying to speak without speaking of anything at all – though Miss Elizabeth a bit embarrassed, Lady Edith a bit anxious, and Lady Mary a bit quiet.
“Did you remark Mrs. Swire’s appearance at Etherton’s?” Mrs. Long leaned in conspiratorially. “Pale as a sheet – she really looked almost spectral. I thought she might slip free of her dress and float away.” Several other ladies smiled behind their cups.
“My maid’s aunt works in her kitchen and tells such stories of the husband,” Mrs. Hughes interjected. “Says he thrashes and screams the night. The whole house can’t sleep a wink.”
Lady Mary had noticed the deep lines in Mrs. Swire’s sweet face but thought it more intolerable to speak ill of the poor girl. Henry, on the few occasions he spoke about the war, had told her what it was to hear cannons and bullet fire in one’s sleep even after returning home. Lady Mary admired Mrs. Swire’s steadfast efforts to shake her husband from the nightmares.
Lady Edith, too, was gentle. “I don’t believe we can blame Mr. Swire for his conduct as he sleeps nor Mrs. Swire for her kindness to him.” She amended, “But surely we also could not place blame if the poor woman sought a good night of rest and chose to seek it elsewhere. I think we have all learned our lives are too short and unpredictable to refuse happiness.”
Lady Mary turned, “And yet it is not the duty of a lady to find happiness, but to remain at her husband’s side.”
“Yes, quite so.” Mrs. Long coughed.
When the tea had turned cold and all the little treats were eaten, the ladies excused themselves from the table to return to their homes and husbands. Lady Mary had just turned to fetch her coat when Lady Edith spoke quickly, “I’m so sorry, could I trouble you to stay?”
She continued, “I remember you used to have quite the eye for roses, and I really do need help. Mine can’t seem to grow.” Lady Mary obliged, and followed her to the garden where her roses were indeed in poor shape.
The pair found a small path among the flowers and walked side by side, birds chirping hopefully overhead. “I confess I held tea as an excuse to speak with you,” Lady Edith disclosed as Lady Mary inspected a rose. “I’d like to speak as openly as we used to.”
Lady Mary said nothing, and then finally, “Really, Henry should be coming to drive me home soon. All that these flowers need is a bit of sunlight.”
Lady Edith almost smiled as her thoughts drifted to earlier years. “Do you remember when we and Henry lost ourselves on the Yorkshire estate as children? We thought we were the Merry Men set out to explore. They had to call out a search party.
“And later when we’d imagined your father’s horse a unicorn and set it loose on the grounds – Henry very nearly got trampled when we finally did find the poor beast.” When Edith laughed then, Mary looked over.
“When you married Henry, I imagined myself lost in the world. I really did. And that’s just when I met John, and he was such a dear man, I imagined we could all be happy,” Edith’s eyes welled with tears now. “But the truth is, and I think now you must hear it and I must share it –”
Mary turned, “Stop.” Her face was gray and pale and vicious against her nature.
Edith spoke quietly, “I love him.”
Drawing a small breath, she pressed on.
“Truth, I’ve always loved Henry, though you must believe I’ve tried every possible means to not to. Out of an equal love for you and for our friendship, I’ve tried.”
Grabbing Mary’s arm, she continued, “But I do love him, and can you not see I’m free now?” She paused, “I’m coming to you in the name of that same friendship to release him as I am. ”
Mary pulled back from Edith’s grasp, spitting. “How can you speak of our friendship when it was you who assaulted it and – and putrefied it? I know who you are. What you are. Do not call yourself ‘friend’.”
Edith backed away, hand to her chest, remembering how to breathe. She had never seen this side of her calm, collected Mary.
“Do you think I could not already know what you’ve told me? How could I not have seen the way you mooned over him, threw yourself at him — my husband — in the face of your own and everyone we know? And now you come to me not a fortnight after your own is buried.”
Mary’s spitting anger turned cold and distant. She turned away, sneering, “Really, Edith, I did wonder. Did your dear John learn the truth before he fell?”
Edith spoke as if her heart could break again, “Yes – before he fell.”
Both ladies stood in the rose garden, in a silence broken only by the birds, surrounded by thorns of their own making.
Quietly, Lady Edith asked, “How could you stay, when I have his heart and mine is broken? Do we not all deserve a shot at happiness?”
Lady Mary gathered herself, patting away the dirt from her deep blue dress so as not to muddy her husband’s car later. “I’m a lady, dear. The heart is just another organ.”