“Please, Miss Green.”
Ida arched an eyebrow, but permitted the young Master de Valle to pull out her chair, and hover as if to steady her as she slowly took her seat..
Master de Valle, she thought to herself, stifling a snort. He had long since grown into his large features, and stood before her now a man full grown, bedecked in finery - all silken waistcoats and silver cufflinks. Still, such formality would always feel strange when addressing someone she had known since childhood, in the years gone where she was a young girl shadowing her father as he made his house calls, and he was a young boy, pallid and frail, with hair like straw, found resting ill in bed more often than not. When he was simply little Georges, not certain to survive the night.
She studied him now, as he took his own place at the table across from her.
He looked nervous, she thought - she watched twitching fingers fiddle with shirt cuffs for a long moment, before he brought his hands down to his lap, hiding them from her view.
He caught her eye suddenly, and just as swiftly turned his head away, leaving her staring at long, blonde wisps of hair. She lifted her gaze instead to look over the table, ornate tureens of steaming soup and stews, thick, chestnut-brown gravy and richly coloured roast vegetables. A castle of jelly wobbled between them, pink with captive berries.
She took a fresh bread roll, loaded with salted butter, when it was offered, and the footman, tall and gangling, served them both in silence. He looked unsurprised when Georges dismissed him with a curt nod, and a tense curiosity washed over Ida as he swiftly walked out, leaving them sitting there alone.
They ate quietly, exchanging no words. Indeed, Ida’s plate was nearly empty by the time Georges finally looked over at her.
She held his gaze, expectant, but without judgement.
He cleared his throat.
“Miss Green. Forgive my forwardness, but given the nature of your specific situation, I thought this to be the most appropriate manner in which to make my proposal.”
He paused, as if appraising her. Ida’s face was impassive.
“We have known each other for over a decade now,” he continued, “and I would like to think that over that time - well… I would consider you a friend, and I hope that you feel the same..”
Ida made no objection. Georges exhaled, slowly.
“It occurs to me, that the two of us, unmarried as we are, and surely growing older, and without - or, not actively seeking - other prospects, might have a lot to gain from forming a union between us.”
Ida’s eyes widened, just barely, with comprehension. Still she said nothing, but her mind was fast unravelling the tangled threads of confusion she had been nurturing ever since Georges had sent his invite to her house two nights prior.
Georges was more uncertain when he next spoke. “We are, after all, already known to each other; our families are close. I do not expect you to love me in perhaps the traditional manner of husbands and wives, but I do care for you deeply, and I believe that this match could be greatly beneficial for both of us.”
Ida thought on this, and at last responded. “How?”
“I - pardon?”
“I understand that I am, or will soon be, in dire need of a partner - I am not ignorant of the precariousness of my situation. I might live off my inheritance for some time, but it will not last forever, and a nurse’s salary is not sufficient to sustain me - us, for indeed there is my brother to think of.”
She noticed his face change, subtly, as she mentioned Thomas, and in her mind more threads pulled loose.
“What I do not understand, is what advantage marrying me could afford you. I have little social status, and dwindling funds. I am sure you might have your choice of fine ladies should you desire - I can think of no reason you would instead choose a woman who says she will not love you, besides some strange, misguided sense of charity.”
She examined his face.
“Unless… you wish for a bride who you think will not love you, that you may not love her in turn. Is there perhaps someone else, who you would have instead, but with whom a formal union is not possible.”
The edges of his ears flushed red. It was endearing - a reminder of the boy he had been. She thought she saw a flash of panic spasm across his face as well, and made a note in her mind.
“There is someone. And you cannot marry them, but you must marry someone, and so you have asked me.” She smiled despite herself, the corners of her mouth quirking up. “I must say, you have thought your proposition through well - I am impressed. Are they known to me?” she asked, hoping to confirm a suspicion. When Georges would not meet her gaze she laughed, breaking composure.
She raised her eyebrows at him across the table. “Do you perhaps plan to marry the wrong Green sibling?”
He paled, face suddenly bloodless, and she held up a hand. “Sorry. Please, I mean no harm. I know my brother’s heart, and I can keep your secret as I do his.”
Slowly, colour returned to Georges’s face, in uneven patches. Ida nodded to herself, just once, in satisfaction.
“I cannot promise you an answer tonight,” she said. “I will need to think on this, and speak it over with Thomas. But for now, desert?” she asked, gesturing at the jelly. “I believe we have a lot to discuss.”
Thomas was feeling hesitantly optimistic.
He sat in the corner of their front room, in the house that used to be their parents’. Ida was at the table, hunched over a large swathe of dark fabric, needle in hand. She hummed as she worked, loud and tuneless, and peppered with the occasional muffled yawn. The dim candle light flickered around them, and he knew she must be squinting to see her stitches properly, but her posture was relaxed and she seemed for once to be truly at ease.
“And you are sure that you want to accept?”
Ida looked over at him. “Do you not wish this arrangement to go ahead? If you are not happy with this arrangement, or feel overlooked and-”
He held up his hand, and could feel his face heat up. “No! No, nothing of the sort. Only that - I do not wish for you to forsake your own happiness while granting mine.”
She scoffed. “What happiness? The joy of watching our accounts shrink while spending half my time on shift at the hospital and slowly selling all our family possessions?”
She smiled as she said this, still mirthful, but Tom could not help the guilt that pricked at him anyway. He studied her sister now, noted the plain brown dress that she wore. It had been their mother’s, one of her older garments, and he knew it had once been embellished with delicate lace, before Ida had taken her thin blade to it and sold the netting to an elderly seamstress for a penance.
She claimed that she preferred her clothing to be less fanciful, and perhaps that was true. But he had watched her rehem skirts to keep them from dragging along the ground, and repurposing the excess fabric to form repair patches, or tie on pockets, despite her needlework being crude and clumsy. He knew that she left her nurse’s uniform with a friend at the training school, to reduce the risk of damaging it as she traveled to and fro. He was sure that while she would never complain about performing such tasks when necessary, she would rather not have to rework her clothes at all.
It occurred to him that her proposed marriage to Georges may not be selfishly motivated after all.
“You wish to be married then?”
“Married women can act without scrutiny,” she answered, in her roundabout manner. “This arrangement will relieve the financial burden on us, and relieve me of the burden of attracting a husband. Furthermore, it levies no expectation upon me. I may have agreed even if it were not proposed by a man who I trust and you love.
“It will require care and vigilance on all our parts, to keep people from suspecting the true nature of affairs. Or from meddling. But the two of us can move into the de Valle estate, and he and I will keep separate bedrooms and the two of you may do as you please. Selling this house will fund your legal training and then some. And then perhaps in some years time, when you are settled and working the courts, I can stop making the nursing rounds entirely and become an eccentric recluse. That has always been a quiet dream of mine, and besides I have been told that my bedside manner often leaves much to be desired.”
Tom chuckles. “I remember. You sat at my side whilst I was bedridden with flu as a child, and told me to get better or else father’s reputation would plummet.”
“I stand by my words then and now. And it was effective, was it not - you sit here now, still alive, and any damage to the good reputation of the Greens is down to spinsterly yours truly and no one else.”
“And mine, for living off my sister’s earnings and not stepping up to become the new man of the house.”
“I have said it before, and I shall again - I would rather you study-”
“Regardless, you cannot claim entire credit for diminishing the Green reputation for yourself, I demand recognition.”
“Well, perhaps this high-society match will restore us anew, and then we can once more begin to ruin our good name from a level playing field.”
Thomas accepted her terms, laughing, and then the candle finally died as Ida was pulling her needle free, and as the point pierced her skin the words she muttered in the dark proved exactly how improper and unladylike she could be.
“Thomas,” asked Georges, “would you care to take a walk around the grounds with me.”
They were at a ball, and perhaps he had drunk one glass of wine too many, for he could not remember who was holding the ball or indeed where. But he felt light and giddy, and the moon was high in the sky and it flooded the gardens with silver light, and he thought to himself that no matter who was hosting the ball or why, he would right now like nothing more than to lead Thomas outside to stand under that glittering night sky.
Thomas nodded at him, cordial and steady, but his dark eyes shone bright as he took a step towards him.
And then, from nowhere, Ida appeared, and attached herself to her brother’s arm.
With a wide smile and low voice, she whispered, “I believe it is not proper for young lovers to take walks and such unchaperoned.”
Thomas’s cheeks reddened, and he moved to shrug her away but with no real force behind the action, she was not moved. “That does not apply here,” he hissed from the corner of his mouth, but Ida was not moved.
“I have effective immediately decided it does. You need someone to keep watch for you, and watch out for you. What kind of sibling would I be if I let you walk about without regard for your honour?” She caught Georges’s eye and winked, and he could not help but grin back.
“‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends,’” she added, and the three of them walked out of the ballroom and into the future that awaited.