The Balcony

Ella Holm

Chapter 1

Eyes never raising above ankle level, Kath wound through the crowd to the balcony doors. Outside, she shivered; smoke hung, as if someone had just gone inside, or perhaps walked down into the darkness, a cigarette carelessly held between his teeth. The balcony extended the whole length of the room, bright windows over stone, facing the gardens.

Uneasy in the spilled light, she walked away from it to the space between the windows, to the very limit of the balcony over the gardens, and hugged her wrap to herself. There was a smell of a storm in the air, and a stronger note of tobacco. She imagined the sky, overcast, and inhaled deeply. It did not calm her.

A burst of male laughter through the open doors startled her, and she froze, not wanting to turn, nor to be seen and talked to.

But they, whoever they were, did not appear to see her. 'How is she? How did you like it?' said one voice, unknown but with a definite tone of meanness. They sounded as if they had stopped just outside the doors, or even in the doorway itself.

'As well as ever,' said another, which she knew too well, and then he laughed. 'The girl, now -- but that cannot be helped. She will serve well enough.'

'Will she?'

'Of course.'

'Then why have I not met her?' There was more than a note of curiosity in the tone -- it was faintly disbelieving.

'I had no desire to tie myself to the chit the whole night -- I will see her before I go and reassure her; you can come with me. You must understand, the secrecy is part of it; it always keeps them coming.'

'Enough to send the bell ringing for this one? Or should I say tolling?' He sounded as if he were smiling, he alone appreciating his own joke.

'If she does not want to christen my bastard, then yes. If she is not in an interesting way, she will be shortly.' The tone was almost grim.

The other laughed again, and his tone was mocking. 'Have you used her so well? What an unpleasant task you have made for yourself.'

'I will have you know my work is very hard.'

'That, I expect, is not a pun?'

'I am hale and hearty -- even her squalid charms do the deed fairly easy, and if not--' he made a pause-- 'I think of our cold, cold winter queen.'

'And there she goes. Are you not promised to her for this for this set?'

'Yes, we better go.'

Steps, then the door.

A cold winter queen. What originals they were! Kath shivered again, and swallowed around the lump of her throat. And that gentleman, that man had deceived her! Her embarrassment almost eclipsed her despair for a moment. What to do if she was--? She could not even think the words.

Silly girl, she told herself. This is no more than you deserve.

She would have to go to her brother with this, or she would have to tell her sister, at the very least, though she could imagine what her sister would say: You must tell Mr Field! What can I do?

Her breath grew erratic, and her throat closed even more at the perspective. Odious, odious man, she thought, and she was not entirely sure she referred to the one who had been part of her fall, or the one who was supposed to help her hide it.

She leaned over the balcony, and hid her face in her arms. Maybe she would feel better if she could at least cry, but she was terrified. The future, always unknowable before, stood now grim and defined with certainties.

To marry the man, when she knew what he was! It was too much. She would have given anything in that moment to be deceived, as she had been deceived before -- but even that would not serve, because, if she were to be honest with herself, had she not suspected his amiability? And had she not grabbed his hand, eyes willingly closed, and told him, in not uncertain way, to lead, anyway?

And why? Because she, silly girl, she repeated to herself, was too curious by half, and had wanted to see the end of the path.

Yes, her brother would say, Silly girl, have you no sense? Where did your mother go wrong? Were you not taught about honour?

And what could he do, truly? Nothing. Marry her to the same man, or some other, if some other could even be imposed upon; but that only if she were to beg enough, if she were to impress in her brother how much of a libertine this man was. She would have to lie, of course, because he was not out of the common way, for a man.

And what kind of man could he get, in short notice, with her in the state, and her money as only enticement? Maybe giving it all outright, without tying it up in any way. And what kind of man would accept those terms?

She shuddered. She hated this -- she had always been at someone else's mercy, leisure and patience, but she had thought that would change, not too far into the future. That dream, lost.

She felt her eyes water finally, and sighed.

'There, there,' said a voice behind her.

She turned, almost cried in surprise, and could see nothing.

The voice came again -- he was in the alcove between the windows, and had stood directly before her, she supposed, since she had come to stand there. Embarrassment and confusion reigned for a moment, and she could not understand his words, until-- 'Crying for the one they call the queen -- and if so, do not worry, she can manage one or two dandies -- or for the one the man will marry?' The tip of his cigarette shone brightly for a moment.

She blushed, and hoped it did not show in the darkness. 'I am not crying.' Her voice was not quite as firm as she would have wanted.

Staring into the dark, she could now see smoke slowly spiraling into sight in front of one of the windows, to the side of the voice.

'Of course not. The girl is in a pretty pickle, would you not say?'

'I do not know that of which you speak, sir,' she said, cooling her voice.

'Oh?' It was spoken softly, the tone amused. After a moment, and her not relaxing her stance, he said, 'You might as well make yourself comfortable, unless you plan to leave.'

'I will go!' she said, annoyed. She should have gone when he spoke the first word. She should not be here standing in the dark with a stranger she could not see.

He laughed, a surprisingly warm sound, and then she felt the small breeze he caused by waving his hands around. 'I apologize,' he said. 'I ought not be smoking in front of you.'

'I cannot see you.'

He laughed, again, and she knew he gestured as he spoke, a bright spot moving in the darkness. 'Do sit down on the balustrade; I rather think you will want to hear what I planned to say.'

She did, if only because not doing so would leave her alone with her thoughts, and her thoughts had no good news to tell her.

'I will be blunt,' he said, lowering his voice, when she had sat. It carried in the darkness, and she could hear him, but she leaned towards him without thinking, and was suddenly breathless at the warm, serious tone of his voice. 'You suspect -- you have reasons to suspect you may be in trouble, trouble that would require you to be married in short order. And you would not wish, I think, to marry the--' and here his voice twisted as if he were grimacing, or maybe smirking-- 'gentleman who helped you along the path to perdition.'

His voice was amused when using the more dramatic turn of phrase. Kath's voice clogged her throat, and there was no way she could speak, or laugh. All blood had left her face. If he knew, she was lost. How many people knew? To how many men had he told?

'I have a proposal. You might not find it agreeable, but then again, you might, so I have decided, against all common sense, to present it to you.'

He paused. On her not objecting, or perhaps, on her not even moving, he said, 'Are you all right?' He took one step in her direction, but stopped. The light of the windows did not quite reach him, but he was now a figure, somewhat taller than her, but not too tall, not too wide, either.

'I think I have shocked you. Well, I will shock you more, perhaps. My proposal is simple. I will court you, until such a moment -- the earliest possible -- in which you discover you are, indeed, enceinte. And then, if you are, we will marry.'

In her startlement, even though part of her had known those words or some very similar ones would be coming, she finally found her voice. 'I do not know you.'

Her question, not even voiced, had been answered: this was the kind of man who could be persuaded -- nay, who offered to marry her knowing her state. Had they even been introduced? She thought not.

He huffed, but he did not appear really annoyed, and withdrew to the darkness again. The tip of his cigarette moved in an impatient gesture. 'Indeed, you do not. And there is nothing I could tell you, nothing you could see of me tonight who would leave you better informed than you are now to decide to trust me, or not.'

'But why -- you do not know me at all either, why would you do this?'

'Quite easily. I am penniless. My father's state, which should be mine, is mortgaged to the last wretched painting.'

'And you would raise another man's child as yours? Even if he would be male, and thus, your heir?'

'I would,' he said, simply. 'I cannot have children.'

There was a silence, and hope and fear warred in Kath's chest.

'You would, of course, be insane to accept me on these terms alone. I promise -- I promise you two things: the money which you will entrust me will only be used towards the state your -- our -- child will finally inherit, and I will not, ever, bother you again.'

'Bother me?'

He made another gesture, and this one, broad, seemed to encompass her whole figure, sitting -- she realized now with annoyance -- inelegantly slouched over towards him. She understood, suddenly, his meaning, but could not react in time to stop him from clarifying. 'I will not --' he seemed to search for words-- 'visit you at night, or take liberties.'

Kath thought it a strange way to call it -- certainly, they wouldn't be liberties when taken by a husband? -- but said nothing, only assented. She was red now, and hot all over, and only wanted the interview to be over.

'You cannot decide immediately,' he said, finally, after a lengthy silence, 'of course. I will call on you tomorrow, and you can tell me then.' And he walked away, passed through one of the brightly lit glass doors into the ballroom, and lost himself into the crowd.

She had only a glimpse of him. Straight nose, dark hair, not really too tall at all, though not short, and with the slimness of the youth she had recognized in his voice. Only some years older than her, then.

She sat there for a long time. Enough to think over the whole interview from start to finish two or three times, perhaps, but still -- silly girl, she thought, reflexively -- the only things in her mind were the quick, graceful bow with which he took his leave, and his voice, travelling through the darkness and offering unexpected salvation.

Chapter 2

Kath woke up late the next day, having tossed and turned through the night. Isabelle was in the breakfast room when she came down, and talked barely taking breath of the success of her ball, what had her friends did and said during it, with whom they had danced, and the gentlemen who had promised to call. It was this last point that sat heavy on Kath's stomach, and made it difficult for her to eat -- she took some tea, and hoped her sister did not note anything out of the ordinary.

'Oh, Kath, you barely danced,' said her sister after some time, but her tone had more of weary disappointment than surprise. 'I do not know how you expect to marry barely making an effort. You can always stay with me and Mr Field, of course, but I would have thought you would want a household of your own.'

It was an old remark, often repeated and seldom answered, and what could Kath say? The sole idea of remaining in Mr Field's home, depending on his kindness, could make her want to cry.

Her sister was surprised when, sitting in the drawing room speaking with two of her friends, the butler announced a Mr Turner, calling on Miss Wright. She turned to Kath, her eyebrows climbing her forehead, and waited for an explanation. There was thankfully no time to give it -- she did not, in any case, even know his name before that moment, and could think of no excuse for not having mentioned him.

The drawing room was silent when he entered, Isabelle too curious about him to follow her friends' conversation, and them easily following her lead.

He was exactly as Kath had imagined and half-seen, she thought -- not too tall, and more wiry than wide; a strong nose, dark eyes and hair. He was not unhandsome, she thought, too, and she felt immediately half as silly again as she had thought herself the night before -- it was not quite the important thing, was it?

He was very correct and his voice was warm, though his tone was not amused, but rather serious.

As soon as he took a seat, as invited, next to Isabelle, he had to answer her sister's questions. Kath felt a heavy weight settle on her stomach, though he was discreet and said nothing out of the ordinary; though, of course, the very fact of him calling raised Isabelle's interest.

He had met Miss Wright last evening, though no, they had not danced. Yes, she looked very fine this morning, as -- this added with a roguish smile that did not go amiss -- did her sister. Why, yes, muslin -- this said with so straight a face that it could not be in earnest -- was his very favourite fabric.

Kath could barely speak. She looked at him, and listened to his answers with interest, realizing with some surprise that Isabelle, though she had not met him before, knew of him, and his family, and rather liked him.

'Is Miss Turner in good health?' asked Isabelle.

Kath had not imagined him with a sister -- she could not, actually, imagine him with any family at all.

'She is perfectly well,' he said, looking for a moment to the floor, which made Kath think he might be prevaricating. 'You, who have met her, will know that she does not enjoy the social whirl of the season; she preferred to stay at home.'

'She must be very lonely, in that big house!' exclaimed Mrs Rochester, who was always fond of a good drama.

'Indeed, I do not believe so,' he insisted, his tone still easy. 'She is not overfond of company. This has not been the first year she has sent me away so I would not interrupt her solitude. She is a very active correspondent, of course, but a body cannot hold her interest if he is less than 20 miles from her.'

The conversation turned then to the obligation of answering letters, which Isabelle hated but Mrs Rochester loved and Mrs Ellis found indifferent. They were forever finding themselves in those kinds of perfect disagreements, and the discussion of their minutae, the whys and wherefores of their own opinions, were of high interest to each, if not to the other two, or, truly, to anyone else.

At length, Mr Turner took advantage of a slight pause in the discussion. 'Mrs Field, if I may be so bold, I had thought that we could walk out to the park, if Miss Wright is amenable?'

Isabelle doubted only for a moment, and did not consult Kath at all. 'My sister would be delighted.'

It was senseless, of course, but despite wanting to go out, wanting to have a private conversation with him, part of her was deeply annoyed she had had no say in it. She was conscious, too, that, unfairly, most of her anger concentrated on him.

Her anger had cooled somewhat while getting ready, but she did not know how to start the conversation once they were outside. He made not attempt to break the silence until they were entering the park.

'I hope you have recognized me?' he said, at last, looking down at her. 'And that I have not dashed any dreams of it being all a dreadful nightmare -- though you do not look as if you slept enough for that.'

'Why, thank you,' said Kath, put off. 'Yes, I did recognize you, though I did not see much of you at the time.'

'I was afraid you would dismiss the idea outright if you did,' said he, his smile disarming.

It was so patently ridiculous that Kath was surprised to find herself making a real effort not to laugh.

'I did not know you had a sister,' she said, because she knew not how to introduce the subject that most concerned her.

'I daresay you did not know me from Adam, much less my sister. She lives with me, but I am afraid I cannot offer to introduce you to her before our wedding, if indeed there is one. She does not fancy coming to London, and I am not altogether sure she would approve of it, in any case.'

Kath was at a loss, though she could not say she liked the perspective of appearing at this woman's home, unknown and unexpected, to displace her from her position as mistress of it.

'I do think you will like her,' he said, at her silence. 'And that she will like you.'

He did not speak for a moment. 'You will think me very forward,' he said, and paused, perhaps waiting for her reassurance. She coloured and kept her eyes on the path, having no idea of what he would say, and still dreading it -- a hot, heavy feeling low in her stomach --, said nothing. 'When will you... When do you think you will know?'

'Know?' she said, disconcerted, turning to him, and understood his meaning only as she did, feeling her face get hotter. She looked down before speaking again and could barely get out, 'I... One or two weeks, I think.'

He cleared his throat. 'That is good.'

There was another silence, and in her shame, Kath considered speaking of anything else, but nothing at all came to her mind. It was like nothing else in the world existed.

'However,' he added, 'I should have asked first -- you have not yet told me if you accept.'

Kath had thought of nothing else since last evening, and still, did not know what to say. She could not, of course, say no. What else would she do? And there was a hope, however slim, that there would be no consequences to her actions -- she did not quite know what she would do then, given that any prospective husband would still want her to be untouched, but not marrying at all would then become a real possibility, however horrible.

'I understand you do not like to speak of it, but you must at least tell me if you want me to stop importuning you,' he said, with some asperity.

Her throat closed up, shame and anger muting her. She felt like such a ninny, when circumstances most required her to be quick and intelligent, she almost wanted to scream. And it was not, after all, his fault.

'Yes, of course,' she said at last, drawing herself up and away from him, and looking up into his eyes. 'I apologize for leaving you in an uncomfortable position. I did not mean to play you for a fool. I would--' she felt like running, like lowering her eyes from his, which were uncomfortably keen, like hiding away in her bed, like putting her hands over her ears and drowning reality's time-marking sounds with nonsense. She had no such a luxury, and she had to make a decision. 'I accept your proposal, and I thank you for your help.'

This time he looked away. He cleared his throat again, and said, 'There is, of course, no need to thank me. We are, at the very least, helping each other.'

She felt colouring again, a knot in her throat, so unexpected had been his words and the tone with which he had spoken them.

Looking ahead, he said, 'I have little to offer you, except a cloak of respectability, and you would be giving me much.'

It would undoubtedly be silly to disagree aloud, however much she thought so, and so Kath said nothing. She felt half elated, half wary -- he seemed too kind, too handsome, too dutiful to be real in the circumstances. There would be, undoubtedly, some negative traits to his character, and she would prefer to have them lined up before she pledged herself to him -- not because she would, or could, say 'no' to him if she disliked them too much, but because she felt in a very real danger of suffering too much of a disappointment.

'I think,' she said, at last, embarrassed but uncomfortable with the uncertainty she felt, 'that it is time for us to... arrange how it will be?'

'Of course,' he said. 'I thought I would call on you -- not every day, since it would draw attention, but perhaps once every three days or so. Undoubtedly, there will be occasion enough for us to speak then, and in the event we do marry, it will seem very much like I had been courting you.'

'Do you receive invitations? We go out every night, and we could meet, perhaps, without you calling so often.' She did not like the idea of everyone pitying her if they did not marry. Already they tended to see her with too-kind eyes, and avoid any mentions to age and marriageability on her hearing.

He considered it. 'I do not receive as many as your sister appears to, but I receive some. I daresay I can contrive to be where you are on some evenings.'

In agreement, both seemed at a loss of how to continue, and Kath was relieved to see him starting to lead them back.

At last, almost at the door, she thought to ask, 'Why would your sister disapprove of our marriage, if you think she would like me?'

He called on the door, his mouth twisting into a smile. 'She would disapprove of our marrying because she likes you.'

The butler opened the door, and Mr Turner gave her no time to ask for an explanation -- he led her in, tipped his hat, and said with a smile, 'I am afraid I am late for an appointment, Miss Wright. Please convey my respects to your sister,' before walking away into the street.

Feeling the butler's gaze, she could not linger at the door, and so went in, already dreading her sister's interrogation.

To Be Continued . . .

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