She had to ask

Submitted into Contest #50 in response to: Write a story about a proposal. ... view prompt

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General

A typical country chill breeze blew over Lady Anna Denton’s garden party. She frowned at the clouds, believing that the sun aught to have shone down on the party she had thrown to celebrate the engagement of her oldest daughter to the landed and wealthy Lord Grey.

The gloomy clouds were fine by Miss Edith Denton, it suited her mood. The sight of her mother’s frown brought her satisfaction. If I have to pretend to be happy and honoured today, she can deal with clouds spoiling her perfect party.

Miss Edith had cried herself dry over the last month as she came to grips with her fate. What remained was bitter and angry at the loss of what she had expected her future to be like. She had known for years that she would get little say in who she eventually wed; still, she had held a different picture in her mind of how it would be. For years she had looked forward to the season she came out. She had imagined all the dances and parties she would attend, the new gowns and hats she would need to stay properly in fashion, the bachelors that would be lined up asking for permission to court her.

One coming-out ball. That’s all she had gotten. No callers, no suitors, nothing other than her mother sitting her down the day after the ball and explaining her husband had been arranged already. She was being given over to Lord Grey, an old friend of her father’s who had recently lost his wife and his son, his sole heir, in a terrible accident. Now she had to marry this stuffy old man she had known her whole life. Known, but never liked. Lord Grey had never shown the tiniest bit of interest in her, not even a friendly sort of interest, and now he was going to be the rest of her life. He had made it clear to her from the very beginning, that her only role was to lie on her back and beget him a son. She could handle a marriage without romance, but a lifetime joined to someone with no hope of even friendship or companionship, that was a hardship she had been unprepared for.

Miss Edith slumped at the beautifully set table. She was saved from her Mother’s wrath over her posture only by the presence of her closest friends and the fact that the remainder of the guests would not be here for another half hour.

“My dear Edith”, Miss Marry-Anne whispered as she patted her friend’s hand. “It may not be so terrible as you think. I’ll visit often. Lord Grey will hate me I’ll be over there so much. And wait until you’re the mother and have your own kids to take care of, you can find joy in them.”

“Mary-Anne!” Miss Adelana admonished. “You don’t honestly believe a few brats will make her happy.” Adelana shook her head, dispensing her usual brutal honesty. “What you need”, she continued, pulling a flask out of her sewing basket, “is a few splashes of this.” She added a healthy dose of Whiskey to Edith’s tea before offering it to Mary-Anne.

Edith giggled as Mary-Anne looked on disapprovingly. Adelana added it to her own tea and quickly splashed some in Mary-Anne’s as well. Adelana raised her teacup delicately in the air, “To great proposals” she declared with a giant grin. The other two looked at her as if she were mad.

“Great proposals?” Edith whispered angrily. You know this was no great proposal. It wasn’t even a proposal, just a decision announced to me that I had no say in.

Adelana still smiled maddeningly.

Mary-Anne frowned at her. “You are a lot of things, but never cruel. How can you say this is a great proposal after all the tears she has cried on your shoulder?”

“Not Edith’s proposal! That is not great at all. My proposal!”

A moment of stunned silence. Then the other two shrieked and huddled close to whisper excitedly.

“Who has proposed to you?” Edith asked, her own bitterness forgotten in the moment.

“Was it Lord Beckham?” asked Mary-Anne. “It was wasn’t it? He is talked about everywhere, and my aunt told me that Lady Samantha told her that he fancied you.”

Adelana grinned widely and shook her head.

“Not Lord Epstein, I hope? He’s a lecherous old geezer if you ask me, but he’s got piles of money and looking for a new wife I’ve heard.”

Adelana flinched. “No, never, don’t be crass. Not for all the money in the world.”

“You say that like you’d have a say in it” Edith responded, her bitterness returning. “You know what we want matters not a wit to the likes of our parents. Do you know, my brother got discuss his options with my parents! Sure, they had to approve of her, but at least he had some say. He wasn’t just shipped off to misery.”

“Adel!” Mary-Anne whispered intensely, her hands practically vibrating on the table, “you may be the only one of us that can be happy. Tell us who proposed to you.” They both looked at her expectantly.

“Nobody proposed to me, you gooses. I am proposing to the both of you.”

They stared blankly at her, frowned at each other, and stared back at her. “Too much whiskey”, Mary-Anne fake whispered to Edith.

“No, hear me out. I didn’t mean a marriage proposal. Who said anything about getting married? Well you did, I guess. Sorry Edith. But I can fix that.”

“You have a proposal for both of us that will fix it so that I don’t have to marry Lord Grey? Spit it out, I’m all ears.”

“Edith, stop encouraging her.” Mary-Anne sighed. “I love you Adel, but your ideas are always wild. Remember when you convinced us that gypsies were coming to attack the countryside, and that we had to learn how to use swords to protect our families?”

Adelana choked on her tea. “That, my dearest friends, was the best summer we ever had. Did we ever has so much fun as when we were practicing for the attack. That was one of my better ideas, even if the gypsies never came. That wasn’t my fault by the way, the kitchen lad told me the gypsies were coming.”

“It was your best summer because you didn’t get your backside tanned when your father found out you were in the woods fighting with swords. I can still feel the sting of his belt.”

“Ouch. I’m am sorry about that bit of it, Edith. I wish you hadn’t gotten caught. That ended bad for you, but this doesn’t have to. To be fair, my proposal is going to sound crazy at first.”

Edith and Mary-Anne gave each other a knowing look.

“Hear me out. All the way to the end before you say no.”

“Go on”, they both encouraged.

“We have to do what we’re told. All the time. First with our parents, then with our husbands. Even when no ones around we’re supposed to do what ‘proper ladies’ do. Boys don’t have that problem, do they?”

“We know all that bit. What are we to do about it?”

“There is a captain of a ship in port looking to hire some new men for his crew going to India.” She stared at the expectantly, trying to gauge whether they were following her line of thought.

“Okay. Are you wanting to marry the Captain?” Mary-Anne asked hesitantly, knowing this wasn't where she was going but unable to figure it out.

“No! I don’t want to marry the captain. I don’t want to marry anyone. Ever. I want the freedom to live my life as I see fit. I want to get hired onto his crew. And you two. We need to do it together. Can you imagine the adventures we could have on the seas, and seeing new countries? You see how wonderful that would be don’t you? Please say you do.”

Mary-Anne snorted and sipped at her tea. Edith closed her eyes, her new found hope fading quickly.

“Number one” announced Mary-Anne holding up one finger, “the captain would never hire us. Number two" she continued, holding up another finger, "our parents would never let us go.”

“I’ve thought about the captain.” Adelana reached into her sewing basket and brought out a sketch book. She opened it up and showed them sketches of each of them in breeches, shirts, and coats. If we cut our hair, and wear men’s clothes, we can get hired by the good captain.”

“Adel, dear. I have certain curves that would be unusual in men’s clothing, don’t you think?” Mary-Anne gestured discreetly to her ample bosom.

“Yes, indeed you do. But I learnt how to tie our breasts down. Don’t ask where I learnt it, you honestly do not want to know. But it only takes some length of cloths tied tight. Like corsets for breasts. But we’d be better off because we’d never have to wear an actual corset again. Can you imagine never wearing one again?” Adelana sighed.

“And our parents?” Edith asked, humouring her.

Adelana looked firmly at Edith, then at Mary-Anne, willing them to be brave. “We don’t tell them!” She spoke it confidently, as if it was the easiest thing to do. “We leave. They’ll never find us if we look like boys. They’ll never tell us who to marry, they’ll never switch our backsides for wanting to protect them, and they’ll never take away our sweets so that we don’t get too plump. They won’t get to control us anymore. We’ll take care of ourselves. Free.” She grabbed a hand of each of her friends, and putting all her bravado into her words, “We can do this.”

Mary-Anne laughed, pulling her hand back. “No, we cannot. And how does it help me? It’s bad enough knowing I’ll never get to marry my Fredrick, but how much worse would it be if I could never even see him again. He’d be devastated if I ran off.”

“He’d be devastated watching you marry another man.” Adelana responded harshly, but it was what Mary-Anne needed to hear. Carrying on in a kinder tone now, “But you’re right, you deserve happiness with the man that you love, not whoever your parents would pick out for you. Fredrick should sign on with the captain too. Just long enough for you and him to save up some money and for your parents to give up on finding you. Then you can go live like proper man and wife. There is no other way you could be with him.”

“And Edith” Adelana continued switching her attention to her despondent friend, “you could find your own man, one of your liking. Or no man at all if you want. But you’d never have to marry Lord Grey.”

Mary-Anne shook her head firmly.

Edith chewed her bottom lip as if she were considering. “What if we cut our hair, ran off and the captain won’t hire us.”

“We won’t cut our hair until he hires us. We just hide it under a cap at first. We get hired, then get rid of it. It’ll grow back when you want it to.”

“If the crew finds out, they’ll throw us off board”, put in Mary-Anne. “It’s bad luck to have a woman on board.”

“That’s rubbish, just another thing that men blame on women. Obviously, we can’t let them find out when we’re on board, but if they do, they won’t throw women over the side. It’s against sailor’s honour to harm women.”

Adelana tucked her sketch book away. The guests would be arriving any minute and Edith would have to play the part of the dutiful fiancée.

“Think on my proposal. I know we can do it, but we need to act fast before the captain hires men and sails off. At the end of the party, tell me what you want to do.” Adel trusted that Edith would agree to anything by the end of this miserable party. Once Edith was on board, Mary-Anne would follow.

The guests arrived and the three of them put aside the crazy proposal, donned their proper faces and pretended to be the refined young ladies that was expected of them. Miss Adelana laughed, gossiped and smiled when appropriate. Inside she was a mess of nerves. She could see so clearly the path they were on, where it would take them, the miserable shallow lives they were supposed to lead. They had this one chance to choose something better for themselves. She had done was she could, she had to wait for their answer.

If they say no, will I still go? Or will I resign myself to their same fate? The thought of becoming her mother, being chained to female fragility and expectation, made her sick to her stomach. She desperately hoped that her friends had the good sense to agree to her plan. Please let them say yes, she prayed to whatever god could hear her. 

The afternoon wore on. Mary-Anne was clearly avoiding her, and Miss Edith was unable to escape Lord Grey’s side. She worried that they were rooted too firmly in this world. They are the only good things in my life, they’ve loved me more than my family ever could. If they won’t come with me, I either have to stay and lose myself, or leave and lose them. 

The end came and her gut hurt from waiting and worry. Lord Grey and Miss Edith stood out front as the guests made their way to the carriages. Miss Adelana curtsied to Lord Grey, he nodded solemnly to her. Miss Edith stared at her hard in the eye for an uncomfortable moment, then wrapped her tightly in a hug. She whispered in her ear, “Let’s do it”.

July 14, 2020 02:49

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2 comments

Alwyn Mc Namara
03:40 Jul 23, 2020

Oh I love this story! I can just imagine the three of them on a ship sailing away. From the picture you painted, I was transported to a Regency era party. I loved the three young girl characters and the part where they were hatching their plan and sipping their 'tea' brought a smile to my face. Such an enjoyable story. Well done!

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Christina Hall
05:15 Jul 23, 2020

Thank you for the kind comment, I appreciate it. I'm hoping another prompt inspires another chapter for these characters. :)

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