Ella Middleton, a middle class seamstress in London, England in 1885, is in the height of the season. For almost two weeks she has been exchanging letters with a suitor who her mother is pressing her to accept. Tonight he is taking her to the Opera, a quite exquisite date which leads her to believe he may be proposing.
I woke up with a jumpy feeling on Friday morning. I expected Frederick to propose. Each one of his letters had been increasingly sincere and increasingly earnest. While I honestly felt the sincerity too sudden, I had known plenty of people to become engaged quickly and yet marry into a healthy relationship. I tended toward caution, but perhaps he was merely one of those swifter types.
However normal it might be, however often we wrote each other, I had only seen him in person twice. To me, what I knew of his public reputation was not enough. What I had read in his many letters was not enough. Only his demeanor face-to-face could determine true his character.
“Ella,” Isabella sat next to me at breakfast. “You’ve hardly eaten a bite.”
“My stomach is uneasy today.” I replied, glancing at the blue and white plate of eggs and sausage.
“Or stressed.” I replied. I didn’t feel like explaining. I’d been in love before and I knew my usual physical reactions. I would be shaky and short-of-breath. But not sleeping or eating with a complaining stomach? This had never happened to me before. It wasn’t from an overly tight corset either, in fact my stomach felt better when I put on the corset that morning.
I made petty mistakes all day as I worked. I knew that I should be excited and happy, and so I pushed that attitude, but in the pit of my stomach I felt strained and frightened. The more I thought of it, the more I expected it. “I’ll ask for your mother’s permission.” When he said that I’d assumed he meant the opera, but he could have asked for my hand.
“Ella,” My mother tapped my shoulder.
“Yes?” I turned to look up from my sewing machine.
“You can finish up for today. I’ve had an early dinner made for you. Your Aunt Louisa is coming over shortly to help you get ready, and of course to chaperone you.”
“Thank you!” I smiled gratefully as I rose from my chair. At least my mother’s great concern over my courtship made her give me special consideration.
My stomach felt uneasy as I ate my porridge. I tried to down the whole bowl, but I couldn’t manage the last few bites. Holding my stomach awkwardly I walked to the washroom. I remembered throwing up out of stress once before I’d seen someone. I found myself doing the same again. It was mild, not the way it feels when you have a virus, but I still felt shaky and weak afterwards.
Aunt Louisa arrived as I had made my way to my room. Mother had laid her gown out on the bed for me. It was indeed lovely.
“Ella!” Aunt Louisa embraced me warmly. “It’s good to see you again!”
“Good to see you too!” I smiled at her, and then began taking off my work dress.
“Let me tighten up your corset a bit for that dress.”
My heart warmed around her. “Thank you. I’m glad you could come. Goodness knows how many times you’ve been my support and stay during courtships.” I laughed, “You’ve saved me from so many awkward moments, or helped me to have a private word if I needed one.”
“Oh Ella, I’m just sorry I can’t be around you more often.” She gave the corset strings one last tug and tied them. “I wish we could arrange our schedules better, but your work is one of heavy hours, and my children need me.”
“As much as I don’t mind my work,” I paused as I found my way through the deep red silk of the gown. “I do wish we could spend more time together.” I adjusted the cloth over my crinoline in the front and Aunt Louisa tidied the bustle and managed the buttons.
“Well,” she sat me down in a stool before the dresser. “You can always write me.”
I watched myself in the mirror as she carefully put up my hair. I always liked how I looked in crimson, something about it made me look older and more serious. It made me feel elegant and regal.
“There,” She put in the last hair pin. “You look lovely. Now close your eyes.”
I heard the rattle of beads and felt them against my neck.
“Pearls for a beautiful lady,” She stood back and looked at me with a warm smile. “Now, I do believe I hear carriage wheels!”
“Oh, my darling!” Frederick exclaimed as I came into the street. “You look beautiful!” As he gave a sweeping bow I noticed he wore a crimson waste coat.
“My Aunt, Louisa Davidson,” I motioned toward her.
“What an honor!” He kissed her hand.
“The pleasure is mine,” She passed a glance at me and we laughed internally at his somewhat overly romantic manner.
I smiled at him, and probably thanked him. But I remember feeling a cold insecurity. The comment could have been harmless enough, but it also could have meant something wholly inappropriate and his manner of speech hinted at no innocence.
As I expected, he treated me with utmost gentility through the evening. I gaped as he led me to a box seat. True it was one toward the back, and certainly not the best in the house, but I knew it must have been quite a feat to attain these tickets.
“Of course I provide you with only the best,” his little smirk attempted to smooth over my shock.
In spite of my best attempts to show interest in the opera I found it dull. We watched each other in sideways glances, but a number of times I found him blatantly staring at me. At last I leaned towards him and spoke in a low whisper.
“Do you expect me to sit completely composed with you gaping at me so?”
“I won’t stare at you,” he gave me a smile he meant to be most reassuring, but somehow I doubted him.
At intermission he took me downstairs to a parlor of the common guests. I say common. It was the parlor for those of the working class, but of course was quite fine.
“Let me provide you with refreshments,” Frederick vanished from us as we entered the room.
I felt strangely out of place. I had never been with such people before. As much as my mother’s family had once been in this rank before hard times had come, and I had come on the arm of a successful man, I didn’t feel too comfortable. Almost every woman or girl in fancy attire compares herself to the others in the room, and none of them judge lightly. While I didn’t particularly care for their approval, it brought a bit of tension.
“Mrs. Davidson,” Frederick was offering Aunt Louisa refreshments as she sat on a couch a yard from where I stood. They conversed for a moment but the noise in the room averted my hearing.
“My dear,” he came to my side and offered a small plate. “Enjoy yourself.”
“Ah, I confess I find myself unable to eat this evening.” I smiled at him, a laugh playing on my lips.
“Why?” He raised an eyebrow.
“You know my stomach grows uneasy if I’m tense. But really, do you expect me to eat in front of you?” My laugh broke, and then I spoke in an undertone. “I vomited at dinner.”
“Well, I too am in a rather excited state, but I can at least eat.” He popped a tart into his mouth.
I watched him as he stood there nonchalantly munching. I wondered when he would propose. He could have just been asking Aunt Louisa for a private audience. But we began heading to our seats before he had said anything. I felt relieved in a way, but at the same time had the urgent feeling that I wanted him to get it over with. As I thought, he paused and led me into a side gallery. Aunt Louisa stayed out in the hall. Everything I had been mulling over for the past week would suddenly be decided.
“Ella, my darling,” Frederick knelt and took my hands. “Beloved, beautiful lady, I would be honored, overwhelmed, if you would do me the great honor of marrying me.”
“I-” nothing came out. The past hour had been saying yes, but suddenly I felt wholly confused and wanted to say no. “Oh, please! Do excuse me! Pray forgive! May I have the rest of the evening to think on it?”
His face fell, but me smoothed it as he rose to his feet. “Of course my dear, you may have all the time you need.” He gently led me out of the room with his hand around my back.
I shifted tensely as I listened to the shrill voices of the singers. Opera indeed was not my taste. From the corner of my eye I could see Frederick still intently gazing at me. I nervously glanced in the direction of Aunt Louisa. Concealing my alarm at seeing her dozing off, I quietly moved from my seat to wake her. She had never fallen asleep on such an occasion before. But as I rose, Frederick stood up and pulled me to the back of the box.
“Have you decided?” He leaned close to me. Before I had any time to declare my intentions he had pulled me into a kiss.
My memory here is a mixture of blur and complete clarity. I can remember almost every detail of some moments, and hardly anything else of others.
For his sake and my own I wanted to enjoy that moment. At first I tried to enjoy it, but too many of my sensors of shock screamed in my ears. This was too quick and completely inappropriate. He had cornered me in the back of the box. He had one arm around me, the other on the wall, and the shadows concealed us completely. To add to my shock his kiss was sharp and forceful.
Whatever doubt in my mind that had been there before vanished. When he at last gave me a moment’s breathe I gasped. “No! The answer is no!”
He drew his face back from me a bit, but did not pull back his arms. “No? No? After all that I offer you? When I invite you to a world that no one else could give you?”
No one else can give me? Who does he think he is?
“Why do you refuse me?” he continued, growing heated. “Have I not fulfilled every passionate desire of your heart?”
I grabbed for an answer, my mind had become scattered and frantic. “It is not right! I feel unsafe!” I felt completely idiotic.
“Oh, but God predestines our every action. If He lets it happen, it must be right.” His perversion of scripture horrified me.
“What? Were David and Bathsheba right?” I gaped at him.
“How can something that makes you feel this good be bad?” He leaned in and stole another kiss.
I winced backward. “No. No!”
“Oh, shame, shame on you Ella. Shame that you refuse such a perfect match. I’d wanted to keep you all for myself, but you’ll bring in plenty of money as you are. At the very least though, I have you for tonight.”
I remember thinking in that moment how thankful I was for a corset. I couldn’t keenly feel his arms running over me, nor could he keenly feel me beneath the carefully crafted cage of boning. But in spite of that small feeling of safety I had to immediately gauge what danger I faced. What did he mean by what he had just said? What were his intentions? Should I scream for help so that everyone in the entire theater, all the high class of London society should hear me? Or should I be silent and do my best at an attempt to physically resist? If I decided, I don’t remember. All I remember then is that I shut my eyes.