The Curious Letter and What it Contained

29 09 2008

I’ve always loved velvet upholstery. A dear friend of mine cannot even touch velvet without having a terrible attack of shivers. The thought of an entire piece of furniture covered with the stuff is utterly abhorrent to her.

But I love it. Today, while the footman was telling Lady Victoria of my arrival I took off my gloves and ran both hands over the sofa. It was a wonderful sensation of opulence. With times as difficult as they have been only the aristocracy can afford things like velvet sofas.

Luckily I have an acute sense of hearing and Lady Victoria has had more than her share of cake in her lifetime. I heard her coming before she reached the marble floors of the hall and hurriedly replaced both of my gloves. They were hand dyed, embroidered in a lovely shade of pale gold and fit perfectly.

I always feel better about going visiting when I look my best. The new breed of female believes that we would dress as dowds to feel free. I believe firmly that a nicely embroidered pair of gloves does more for one’s outlook than all the gray wool in the world. Though, I will admit to a partiality for their ideas about footwear. High heels pinch me terribly and my arch is not all that could be desired.

The arch of my foot was nearly the last thing on my mind, though. In my handbag there was a letter written on very elegant cream stationary. It was a letter of some importance and one that had given me an extraordinary number of sleepless nights.

But perhaps I should “back up”, as they say.

My name is Lillian Agnes Sheville and I am the only child of Henry and Ida Sheville. My father made his fortune in steel and married my mother for love. He later studied law and became so brilliant that he found a way of entailing his entire estate to me. Soon after, no doubt feeling that his life’s work was complete, he died. My mother must have loved him as much as he loved her for she quickly followed him. They are buried on our family estate in Kent. I planted roses on their graves and moved to London.

Being as sensible and they were loving, they brought  me up to be both practical and fashionable. As soon as they died I employed a lovely, but somewhat dim elderly woman of impeccable manners and reputation to be my matron. Her name is Mrs. Jones-Fonda and she thinks that I am quite nearly perfect. I let her think that because it makes my life much easier.

I now live in London, the fashionable neighborhood and attend as many parties as I wish. I also take lessons in French, painting, pianoforte and cooking. I can also dance, embroider, design clothes, garden and decline latin verbs. Without any vanity I can assure you that I am one of the most accomplished young ladies this season.

All that accomplishment is rather ruined, in the eyes of the bachelors of London, by my personality. I am willful, rather vain and more than usually tall for my age. No man wants to dance with a woman who can look him in the eye. Far less does he want to marry such a woman.

Oh, I should mention that I am twenty years old and beginning to be regarded as something of an old maid.

And that brings me to today’s interview. Lady Victoria may be much more of a woman than is considered strictly fashionable, but I would trust her with my life. More importantly, I would trust her with my reputation.

I stood when she entered the room. She was clad in purple and diamonds and looked like I imagine the queen should look. It wasn’t really necessary that I stand, we were old friends, but she likes the little courtesies and I like her.

“Well my dear,” she nodded at the sofa as she sat in a green throne-like chair, “What can I do for you today?”

“Oh Lady Victoria! I have had the greatest surprise and I confess that I am at a loss.” I fumbled in my handbag and pulled out the letter.

“What ever is the matter, child?” She sat up even more straightly and her magnificent brow creased itself in concern.

“This” I waved the letter dramatically, “Is a proposal of marriage.”

Lady Victoria’s lips twitched. I suspected that she was trying not to laugh. “Well you have had those before, I daresay. Why the fuss?”

“Because this is a proposal from a man I have never met. And, Lady Victoria, you  will never guess who it is from!”

She must have perceived my italics. Her left eyebrow arched ever so slightly. She has far too much dignity to ever play guessing games with a child like myself so she simply waited.

“It is from Sir William M. Hofstead!”

“Mad William Hofstead?! I thought he was in Africa shooting elephants or some such lunacy. Why on earth should he want to propose to you?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. He’s rich as Caesar so it cannot be for Papa’s money. I have nothing particular to recommend myself. At least, not to someone like him.”

“Don’t be silly, my girl. Your many talents are rare in one so young. Nevertheless, to be frank, you are not nearly beautiful enough to be an object of prey for that reason and you are certainly not rich enough to interest him. Did he write the letter himself?”

“As you see,” I handed the letter to her ladyship. Since I had to stand to do so, I thought pacing might help me think. If not, the swish of my skirts would at least be soothing. I was wearing my favorite dress and so looked unusually well.

“Hmm. He writes an elegant hand and the paper is exquisite. It doesn’t say whether he is in Town. You don’t think he wrote this to you from Africa, do you?”

“I have not the faintest inkling. It was sent by personal messenger and so has no stamp.”

“It’s certainly a flattering proposal. I have never actually seen a letter in which someone likened a woman to ‘a pearl of the Orient’ and a ‘rose from Eden’ all in one paragraph. Isn’t this rather overly romantic for a first letter?”

“That is what I thought, but I have so little experience in proposals…”

Silence reigned again as Lady Victoria thoroughly perused the letter. She called the footman in at one point and ordered tea. Nothing was said again until the tea had arrived and been served. I kept pacing, balancing my teacup in one palm.

“Well, Lillian, what are you going to do about this rather presumptuous, yet incredibly charming proposal?”

“I am dreadfully tired of saying this but I haven’t the faintest idea.” I sank back onto the couch, rearranging my skirts with my free hand. “I feel rather strange about accepting a man that I have never seen, nor spoken to. He might be as mad as people say and demand I take up riflery or wear trousers!”

“Or he might be as charming as this letter indicates and sweep you off your feet for a life of romance and adventure.”

“Or he might beat me and make me scrub floors.”

“Or he might kiss you thoroughly and swear eternal devotion.”

“He might keep a dozen dogs who all sleep on his bed.”

“He might like cats.”

“He might eat off the floor and howl at the moon.”

“He might like fine china.”

“He might eat fine china.”

That broke even her ladyship’s stoicism. We both laughed until tears rolled down our faces. When we recovered ourselves her face grew serious.

“Lillian, it comes down to this; do you want to get married?”

My mouth opened, ready to say the decided “no” that had ever been my reply to that question but it snapped closed again. I forced myself to think sensibly about it, to gauge my heart against my head. “Well, your ladyship, for this first time in my life I think I actually do.”


“But,” I added quickly, “I certainly do not want to marry someone I have never met.

“Oh I think that we could solve that little problem.” She rang her bell again and her liveried footman appeared. “James, would you please send our guest down?”

My mouth must have dropped open in shock. I know that I stood and turned to the door, my back pressed against a nearby armoire.

Minutes passed while Lady Victoria silently laughed at me and I hardly dared breath.

Then the door opened and in walked the tallest, kindest looking man I had ever seen. He was at least thirty-five with sun tanned skin and bright blue eyes. He came in laughing and bowed very elegantly.

“My dear Miss Sheville, allow me to introduce myself. I am Mad William Hofstead. My friends and relatives” he nodded at Lady Victoria, “Call me Will.”

“I…I…” Unable to finish my sentence I dropped the most elegant curtsey that shock and confusion would allow me.

“Lillian, child, I knew that you would never accept a normal sort of proposal. When my nephew William wrote to me to find him a nice young lady you were the only one I thought of. He is no more mad than I am, you see, only he does like adventure and does not like societal conventions. Instead of settling down with one or another of the ridiculous young women being thrown at this head, he sailed the world and made his fortune.”

He broke in, “Some of the stories you have heard are true, of course. I have eaten dinner with a Rajah and been almost eaten by cannibals. I do like cats and I also have dozens of dogs who are allowed the run of my house. Most importantly, I have never loved anyone. Though” he smiled “after seeing you, I feel very much in danger of falling in love for the first time.”

“My dear sir! I am unused to accepting proposals from anyone, much less near strangers. I have one question for you.”

“Anything, dear lady.”

“If I marry you, will I be required to shoot anything?”

“Not unless you desire to. Moreover, I have far too much money and so my fortune will be entirely at your disposal. It should be spread around, anyway.”

“Then, sir, I should be very happy to marry you. Indeed, I think I would do so were you as poor as a churchmouse.”

We all smiled, then, and Lady Victoria laughed out loud.










2 responses

29 09 2008
Jennifer James

I love it. Mostly because it’s you, if you hadn’t been born a century too late.

29 09 2008

Ha ha. Yeah, the parallels were mostly unintentional. I wrote it last night at 11 o’clock in just under an hour. Given another go at it I would probably make the similarities less obvious. Though, she isn’t ALL me by a long shot. I like pants, and riflery and I do NOT enjoy velvet upholstery.

Love your face, my sister!

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