On Friday night, as he was looking through the correspondence in his room at his mother's London home, there was a cautious knock on the door. William threw his jacket over his shirt and vest, and went to open.
"Willie," Vanessa was standing there, holding a letter. "This just came for you."
"With the post?" he took the letter out of her hand and saw his name, written in an elegant, feminine hand, but no return address.
"No, a woman brought it."
He opened it with urgency, which surprised Vanessa, for her usually attentive brother neither waited for her to leave, nor asked her to come in. She finally dared to come in, timidly, and he, seeming too preoccupied with the contents of the letter, said nothing. Vanessa could see, through the thin paper, that there was no more than a single paragraph there; yet he stared at it for a long time. He finally folded it and turned to his sister.
"It is from Miss Stella Rosa de Lara," he said. "She informs me that she cannot dine with us on Thursday."
Vanessa noticed the confusion on his face; for the rest of their conversation, he remained absent-minded and inattentive.
The next day, the Hesters received another apology, this time from the old Mr. and Mrs. Levy de Lara, as well as Miss Elena, who, like Miss de Lara, referred to circumstances beyond their control. They also received a note of thanks and confirmation by Mr. and Mrs. Henry de Lara, who promised to be there on Thursday at seven.
William, who chiefly wanted to see Miss de Lara, was now faced with her amiable, but relatively uninteresting brother, and his chatty, unpleasant, silly wife.
For the rest of the week, Vanessa watched her brother, who was usually the most gracious host, meander aimlessly about the house. He did indeed hire a cook who could prepare the foods agreeable to his guests, but as he did that, Vanessa had a feeling that he no longer was glad that he had made the invitation. She offered to take it upon herself to prepare the house for dinner on Thursday, and he gladly and readily agreed; he then immediately left for --shire and did not come back until the early morning on Thursday.
When, on Thursday night, the de Laras arrived, Vanessa was pleasantly surprised by the husband, who was exceedingly amiable and worldly, and at the same time managed to avoid seeming obsequious. She was shocked, however, how someone so agreeable and reasonable could marry and be with someone as silly and laughable as his wife; Vanessa even made a mental note to mention it to Will and to ascertain his feelings on the subject.
She never did, because somewhere in the middle of the conversation, Henry de Lara said, as if having suddenly remembered:
"Ah, by the way: do you remember my sister Stella Rosa?" He asked.
"Most certainly," William said.
"There has been a most propitious development regarding her!" The young man said. "She is to be married! To a young man of a very good family and solid fortune."
"Really," William said, and Vanessa wondered whether it only seemed to her that he turned extremely pale. "What wonderful news."
"That is why, in fact, my sister could not be here today!" Henry de Lara continued, getting more and more excited. "Her future husband's family are paying my parents a visit as we speak, asking officially for her hand!"
William quickly finished the contents of his wine glass, Vanessa noticed, and asked, with forced civility:
"And when is this most excellent event to take place?"
Henry de Lara went into the tedious details of the wedding customs of his people; Vanessa surmised, from what he said, that his sister was to be married in mid-March.
Vanessa watched his brother closely and noticed that he turned positively ashen and looked very unhealthy. Could it be? she thought feverishly? Could it be that William was so besotted with a Jewess? She saw Miss de Lara in the Park and found her rather pretty, but a Jewess? William, who was always so mindful of the rules of the proper Society, who stringently disapproved of any misbehavior, William, in love with a Jewess? William, who was always in such complete control of his feelings, emotions and actions? This seemed rather improbable, but as Vanessa watched her brother, she became more and more assured of the fact that the news of Miss de Lara's engagement did not sit well with him.
Later that night, after their guests had parted and Lady Hetty had retired to her room, William and Vanessa remained sitting in the drawing room of their house. She waited for him to say something on the subject of Miss de Lara and their guests, but he was quiet, sprawled in a chair before the crackling fire, sipping brandy from a glass. This was odd in itself; Vanessa hardly ever saw her brother drink.
"Will," Vanessa said quietly. "They were most pleasant people, were they not?"
He did not answer, and Vanessa was not at all sure that he even heard her. So she repeated her inquiry, and he said, as if waking up from a deep slumber:
"Ah? Yes, yes, they certainly were."
"It is a pity that their sisters could not come," she went on. "For I would have much enjoyed knowing them."
He smiled a crooked smile and said,
"I daresay you would, dear. She is a delightful young woman."
"She?" Vanessa raised her eyebrows.
He threw a quick glance at her and mumbled, "I meant to say they. Miss Elena and Miss--" and he took a deep breath, "--Miss Stella Rosa."
"The most peculiar name," Vanessa noticed. "But what a brave girl--she simply threw herself under Alexandra's horse..."
William smiled, but again, said nothing. Vanessa was beginning to lose patience with him, for he said nothing of substance and only sighed and drank his brandy.
"I hope that now that she is to be married, she and her sister would still visit with us," she said. All of a sudden, he slammed his glass onto the coffee table and stood up.
"I certainly hope not!" he said and started pacing furiously around the room.
He stooped in front of the fireplace, seized a charred piece of wood from the side and, as it burned his hand, threw it back with a curse.
Vanessa could not believe her eyes; her brother, the man to whom she looked up more than she did to either of her parents, was suddenly behaving like an imbecile.
"Ow!" he said, nursing his hand. "I certainly do not want them to visit now!"
"Why, Willie?" Vanessa was now genuinely concerned for her brother's safety. "Do you need something for that hand, by the way?"
"No, the hand will be fine," he said. He stopped pacing, fell back into his chair, and closed his eyes. Vanessa waited patiently for him to answer, and he finally said. "I--I do not know," he said. "I have spent one evening in her company, and have seen her three times, briefly, excepting that. In addition, she is a Jewess, and it has not cross my mind before to marry her. There really is no reason why the news of her marriage should affect me so."
Vanessa listened, saying nothing, and he went on. "But I just know that seeing her here, knowing that she is to be married--or already married--to someone else--that would be--" he hesitated,"--most difficult for me."
"You said," Vanessa said, "that you had never before thought of marrying her. Is that to say that now you have?"
"I don't know, I don't know, I don't know," he muttered, shaking his head. "I have not had the chance to know her," he said. "What I've seen of her was most delightful," he smiled. "She reminded me of you."
Vanessa could not help smiling; it flattered her immensely that the first woman to so obviously and completely capture her brother's attentions did so, in part, because she reminded him of her.
After she went upstairs to her room, having touched his arm gently and wished him good night--
"These things have a way of working themselves out, Willie," she whispered, hardly believing anything she said--he remained in front of a dying fire, staring at the glowing coals and finishing his second glass of brandy.
The day after my future in-laws came to ask for my hand, I took to my bed with a real fever. The thought of marrying Marcus d'Almazan was so abhorrent to me that it nearly made me retch. In addition, out of my entire family, I was now only speaking with Elena. Any care that my mother administered me was done in dead silence.
My mother was laying cold rags on my forehead to ease my fever, when Elena burst through the doors, her countenance betraying her utmost anxiety.
"Stella Rosa, there is a lady to see you!" she uttered as she ran into the room.
"What lady?" my mother asked immediately.
"I do not know that, Mother," my sister said. "But she is well-dressed and well-spoken, and she asks to see Stella Rosa."
"Tell her your sister is ill," my mother said crossly. She was angry at me for keeping my silence, and I was furious with her---though not at all surprised---for not supporting me before Father. Elena made eyes at me behind Mother's back; I said:
"No, I shall go down."
"Stella Rosa!" Mother snapped. "You are ill, you cannot go down."
"I shall go down," I said obstinately, sitting up and swinging my legs over the edge of the bed. "Elena, shall you please tell the guest to wait while I get dressed?"
Elena came back soon and helped me with my dress, as Mother had left in a huff over my disobedience.
"Who is it?" I asked her as she fastened the dress on my back.
"Miss Hester," she said. "I did not want Mother to know---I thought you should explain it yourself, if you felt it proper."
"Thank you," I squeezed my sister's hand.
Miss Hester stood in front of the fireplace, warming her hands before the fire and gazing upon my parents' k'tubah, which hanged above it.
"Miss de Lara, good morning!" she exclaimed as I walked in. She pointed at the painted, gilded k'tubah. "What delightful art you have here!"
"It is my parents' marriage contract," I said dryly. "How may I be of service to you, Miss Hester?"
"I am quite so sorry you have been feeling ill," she said. "But perhaps I can convince you to take a turn about---perhaps you have a garden or something of the sort?"
"No, we have nothing like that," I said. "Would your brother approve of you taking a turn about the streets of Whitechapel?"
"My brother does not know I am here," she said simply. "I've come on my own accord."
"Forgive me, Miss Hester, but as I've been feeling quite out of sorts lately, I would much rather stay inside."
"That is quite fine with me," she leaned her head gracefully. We sat down on a couch, and I was able to get a better impression of her: she was elegant, polished, with fine features, dark hair and an altogether noble bearing. An uncomfortable pause ensued, after which she said, "As I've mentioned to you, my brother has no knowledge that I am here. Nor has he authorized me to come."
I said nothing, but listened, waiting. Her appearance in my father's house was most intriguing, but I was so ill, tired and dejected, that I simply could not bring myself to be excited about it.
"Yesterday, at supper, your brother, Mr. De Lara, related to us that you were soon to be married, to an honorable gentleman among your own people."
"So I am," I said.
"My felicitations to you on that occasion," she said, and I thanked her, almost amused---she could not have possibly come all the way to Whitechapel to congratulate me!
"My brother, Miss de Lara, did not seem to take the news well. In fact, I must tell you, I have never seen him so bothered by anything before---and I am a good judge of character. At least, of his character."
In spite of my resolution that whatever she could tell me, I would remain cold at heart, a strange, happy feeling flooded me at those words. He cared! It was not all the same to me! The news of my impending marriage saddened him---that means that he ... thinks about me.
"He has not said so to me, but I think, Miss de Lara, that Sir William really likes you. When he received your apology regarding our supper, he just seemed lost, for the entire week, and it was then that I began to suspect that you, not your brother, were the real object of his invitation. And then yesterday---Miss de Lara, I have never seen him so heart-broken! I do not know whether he is in love, but he certainly sets you apart from other women."
"But has he said this to you, Miss Hester?"
"No," she shook her head. "But I think I know him well enough to say that you have touched his heart."
Suddenly, I was angry: it was most cruel of her to come and bother me so! She could not offer me any real hope or consolation; if Sir William truly liked me enough to entertain any serious intentions on my part, why did he not come to visit me himself? I asked his sister that question.
"I left my brother in our drawing room last night, drinking. He never drinks, Miss de Lara---he frowns on the excessive use of alcohol. But this morning, as I came back, I found him, asleep in that very same chair, a bottle of brandy nearly finished next to him."
"Forgive me, but what is that supposed to tell me? That I induce your brother into alcoholism?"
"Only that I left without waking him up. And that most likely, he is still asleep. And that you are making him change his habits," she said. "And though I do not welcome this sort of change in him, it is a sign of something momentous, something good, perhaps."
"But I am to be married," I said. "In less than a month, I will become another man's wife."
She said nothing, but shrugged helplessly. I found I could stand this torture no longer.
"Miss Hester," I said, with all the anger I could muster at the moment, "let us be honest with each other. You know what I am."
"Miss de Lara!" she exclaimed. "Let me assure you, I had never, not for a moment---"
I raised my hand, asking her to indulge me just for a moment longer.
"That only speaks to your good nature," I said. "But most people do, and often, and can you vouch that your brother never does?"
She was silent.
"Miss Hester, the position of my people in this country is precarious. To most of the people in your circle, we shall always be the dirty money-changers."
"Miss de Lara!"
"I shall be honest with you, Miss Hester. I did like Sir William, from our first encounter. He seems to me an exceedingly good young man. But we are different; will always be so---"
"I am certain that my brother is above such prejudice!" she said, nearly indignant.
"But perhaps I am not." My heart cried bloody tears: I was only saying this to turn her away and end the torment. "You never even take a moment to think, Miss Hester, that perhaps, such a match could be objectionable to me as well. If I were to marry your brother, I would forever lose my entire family, my culture, my people. He, on his part, would be despised and shunned by his neighbors and equals. In the end, we would both be miserable."
She stood up, and I followed her. I felt exceedingly sorry to be so cold to her, since I believed her attempt to be good-natured and genuine, but I could not risk my heart any further.
"Miss Hester," I continued. "Please understand. It is altogether best for all of the parties concerned if your brother and I avoid one another."
"Well," she said, sounding positively piqued now. "I only wished the both of you well. Please, accept, once again, my felicitations on your engagement."
After she was gone, I slowly dragged my weary body upstairs. Elena met me half-way and helped me up the stairs. As she was aiding me into bed, Mother walked in.
"Who was that woman, and what did she want?" she asked.
"It was Vanessa Hester. William Hester's sister. She came to congratulate me on my engagement, Mother."
And already, as I turned my face to the wall, I slipped into that dark and comfortable abyss called the Fever, which would insulate me from the world through Purim and for the next two weeks.
I woke up from my fever in the first week of March. It was a week after Purim, my favorite holiday, and by my bed, I found a purimlik, a small gift, from Elena---a beautiful mirror. There was nothing from my parents, and all the hamentashen had already been eaten. I picked up Elena's gift; within its ornate frame, I saw my gray, ashen, sickly countenance. It was two weeks before my betrothal, and I was extremely weak.
My mother had warmed up to me during my illness, but my father was still not speaking to me. Elena said that during my illness, Marcus d'Almazan called on me almost every day. I knew that her intentions were the most kind: she hoped, perhaps, to warm me up to this man, who, in her opinion, genuinely worried about me. But the very mention of his name almost made me ill, and Elena, seeing that, relented.
"Has anyone else called on me?" I asked Elena, and she shook her head, silently, knowing whom I meant. So that was that: Vanessa Hester related my harsh words to her brother, and he, properly appalled at my unkindness, put me out of his mind---and heart---forever.
My kiddushin was to take place in a week; a special dress, worn by generations of our women, was fitted urgently for my figure. It was made of heavy red velvet, covered with pearls and beads, and stitched with gold. One morning, as I stood, dressed in the ridiculous garb, while my mother and Margarita fitted it around my back, my father walked in.
"Very well," he said. "You shall make a beautiful bride, Stella Rosa."
These were the first words he uttered to me ever since our discussion in his study. I felt encouraged. Darting away from my mother and Margarita, I fell to my knees in front of Father and begged him to spare me. He watched me from above, and then withdrew his hand from my grip.
"You are a silly child," he said, with some semblance of kindness. "I only have your good in mind. You have made an advantageous match---for both yourself and the rest of your family. You ought to be happy."
With this, he turned around and walked out, leaving me down on the floor, to weep in shame and dejection. Margarita, obviously irked by my behavior, came near and prodded me in the side with the tip of her shoe.
And so the day had come. I had not slept the night before, and as my family led me to Bevis Marks, I stumbled, barely able to walk. People around us recognized a wedding procession and shouted greetings and congratulations, but my heart was black.
The night before, as my mother and my sisters took me to my pre-wedding mikveh, there was little celebration. Everyone in my family knew how repugnant this marriage was to my heart; not even the empty-headed Viola could pretend to enjoy herself. I dove three times to the bottom of the mikveh; each time, I wished to stay down there and drown, but each time, the women's hands raised me to the surface. For the rest of the evening, I only spoke with Elena, and only on the most mundane matters; for I could not bring myself to think of what tomorrow would bring. The night brought me no respite, either, for I lay wide-awake until the women came to dress me.
At the Temple, we were lead to a room near the sanctuary. There was a round table there, and a high chair, on which I was seated, like a queen, and immediately pelted with flowers. I saw them lead Marcus in and seat him with his back to me; the khakhan spoke to him about something, as the women sang and clapped their hands around me. I was feeling increasingly ill, my head spinning.
As tradition demanded, Elena and Margarita were dispatched to where Marcus sat, to invite him to join us. He turned around and came at me, like a young boar. He was short, heavy, with small, heavy-set, beady eyes and a tousled beard.
As my sisters raised a veil above my head, the khakhan asked him whether I was the very woman he was promised in marriage; with the most inappropriate guffaw, he said "yes," and the veil was lowered over my head. It was now the time to walk over to the table with him and sign our marriage contract.
I knew that even though my k'tubah, like that of my parents, only spoke of Biblical obligations of a husband to his wife, its actual terms were far more certain. There was a price named there, and an assumption of my maidenhood, and even if I were to die before marrying Marcus, my Father would still be well advised to adhere to it, and to pay him my dowry; otherwise, he would face the consternation of the entire juderia.
I stood up from my chair; as I had not eaten or slept in the past day and was still weak from my illness, my head was spinning most cruelly and there was foul ringing in my ears.
"Querida," I heard and saw Marcus offer me his arm. Suddenly, the room began to spin and twirl around me; my knees buckled and I fell heavily on the floor, losing my consciousness.
"...It is nothing, nothing!" my father's voice said. "She is simply fretful, as befits a girl on the day of her betrothal!"
"No!" replied that of my mother. "No, Levi, my husband, you know that she is unwell, has been unwell for weeks! Perhaps it was altogether too early to do this, she has only been recovered a week!"
"Woman!" My father said furiously. "How dare you contradict me! I am her father, and I say that she is well enough to continue with the ceremony! Marcus, what do you say?"
"I say that there isn't anything that difficult about signing a piece of paper and drinking a bit of wine, Donna Reina, if you forgive me," said Marcus.
"No, Levi," my mother continued to implore, and, broken as I was, I was amazed at her sudden determination in the face of my father's will. "She is not well enough to continue! We must take her home, Levi---what if she dies?!"
"She won't die!" My father's voice was full of rage. "She is doing this on purpose!"
"Don Levi," said yet another voice, which I deduced to be that of the khakhan, as the room immediately went quiet. "I agree with Donna Reina. In order to go through with the ceremony, the kalla must be entirely whole. I cannot, in good conscience, do this when I see that she is so ill."
My father sputtered in anger, but could not argue with the rabbi; so he asked:
"When, then? Next week?"
"No," the rabbi said. "If she keeps fainting---that is too soon, Don Levi."
"Two weeks, then?"
"Two weeks from today is Erev Pesach. And even that would not be enough time. It is my decision that the ceremony shall take place on the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan, or, according to the gentile calendar, April 28. That should give your daughter enough time to feel better."
Over a month's reprieve! I was jubilant, but tried my hardest not to smile, or the khakhan might think that I, indeed, fainted on purpose.
All the way home, my father could not stop muttering curses, and as Enrique volunteered to carry me, I thought it most prudent to lean my head against his shoulder and keep my eyes closed. It was not that difficult, considering how ill I still felt.
Up in my room, Elena sat by my bed.
"Father thinks you intentionally made yourself ill," she said.
"Do you think so?"
"How well do you know me, if you ask me this?" I asked, hurt. "I did not eat because I had no appetite. I did not sleep because sleep wouldn't come to me."
"My poor, poor sister," Elena said, and, leaning closer, motioned for me to do the same. "I think Mother is going to prevail on Father to take you to Brighton."
She nodded, smiling.
"While you had your fever, the doctor advised them to take you to the seaside, and Father just dismissed that suggestion like this," she made a small flippant gesture. "But now that Mother is convinced that you are a step away from death-"
"Brighton?" I repeated, shocked.
"Yes," she nodded. "And---if I am so lucky---I may even get to come along!"
And so my father agreed to let us go to Brighton. We were to leave immediately after the last day of Passover; for the two weeks preceding our departure, I found it best to stay up in my room and out of his sight. Because I had been ill, I was spared most of the housework preceding Pesach, as well as most of the festivities. I was happy to leave London and even happier that Elena was to come with me; what ruined my splendid mood somewhat was that Margarita was to come with us, as well. And so on the early morning of the fourth day of the month of Nisan, a day after the holiday of Pesach, we set off for Brighton.
Though his mother, worried about a possibility of rain, implored him to take the family carriage, he went on horseback. He found the exercise beneficent for his body and the lively ride to the seaside---refreshing for his mind. Before he left, Vanessa wished him a good rest, and Alexandra complained about wanting to go with him. But more than anything, he felt that he needed rest and solitude, and for once in his life, he was going to be selfish.
During his ride to Brighton, it did not rain, but the sky was cloudy; William wished for a bit of sun, but knew better than to hope for it. Yet, he did find some disagreeable beauty in the overcast sky and the gray, roaring expanse of the sea. Having arrived to Brighton, he inquired at the inn whether his valet had arrived with things, and, having received an answer to the negative, handed Zanzibar over to the inn attendant, and walked to the seashore.
As a boy, William often came to Brighton with his father. Sir Isaiah, with his somewhat melancholy nature, taught his children to see beauty in nature, and ever since then, William had always preferred the serenity of the countryside to the tumult of the city; even when nature itself chose to be anything but serene. Right now, standing on a crag over the turbulent sea, his eyes closed, he greedily inhaled the briny seaside air. He felt that all the pain and worry of the past six months were slowly letting go of him. And it was when he turned around, to walk back to the inn, that he saw her.
He could barely believe his eyes; she stood a little way off, huddling against the wind, which was playing rough with her many skirts and petticoats; it seemed that a moment longer, and she should fly away. Her sister, Miss Elena, was with her; she was saying something to her, softly, completely inaudible to him behind the grumbling of the sea; Miss de Lara was smiling back at her sister, and William saw that love and gratitude shone in the look she gave Miss Elena.
For a moment, he hesitated and wondered if he should simply walk away; after all, he still remembered what Vanessa said to him the morning she returned from visiting the de Laras.
He had woken up late, and found himself still sitting in the chair in front of the fireplace, a warm plaid covering him and a cruel headache reminding him why he so rarely partook of hard liquor. He went upstairs and took a long bath, faced with all the inconvenience of doing it without his valet, left at Bloomfield; when he came downstairs, fresh and cleanly shaven, but still ailing, Vanessa was already there. She had just come in and was taking off her hat and gloves. He asked her where she had gone; she turned to him, and he was taken aback by her expression.
Concerned, he inquired what had happened. She made an angry sound and waved her hand. William waited for her to gain her composure; finally, she said:
"I went to speak with your Jewess."
"What?!" He was immediately very angry. "I have not asked you to do so!"
"I know," she said. "But yesterday, you were in no condition to ask anyone anything."
"It is an outrage! To speak to her about what? And she isn't mine, by the way!"
"Apparently not," Vanessa went into the living room, and he followed her, white from headache and anger. "So she told me."
"She told you what?"
Vanessa turned around. "I went to tell her that you were besotted with her."
"Vanessa, how could you?!"
"Well, aren't you?" she asked calmly.
He looked down at his shoes, shaken that his sister was able to see inside him better than he, himself, was.
"Aren't you?" she repeated. "Aren't you, Will?"
"Well," he sighed. "I have to---yes, I am quite---quite smitten with her."
"Well, I went to tell her that."
"And she told me that it was the best thing altogether if you forgot about her."
He was lost; though angry with Vanessa for taking matters into her own hands, William had hoped, for a brief second, that her envoy had proved successful.
"She said that?" he muttered, rather pitifully.
"Yes. And also, that she would have to sacrifice too much if she were to marry you."
"She said that to you?"
"She did as much. So I have to agree with her," Vanessa went on bitterly, "the best thing to do would be to forget her. Oh!" she cried, as she walked away. "Insufferable conceit!"
Then, left standing in the middle of his mother's drawing-room, William felt lost, angry, even insulted; his anger, however, soon subsided and left room for the understanding that if she were at all sensible, Miss De Lara could offer his sister no other reply. For his own purposes, he was not at all sure that he was prepared to weather the societal disapprobation and marry a Jewess; he was quite smitten with her, but he had others to think of, including his three unmarried siblings all of whom still needed to make good matches. And even if he were to offer her marriage, he had to consider that for her, it might not be the best solution---which, in spite of himself, he still saw as quite incredible, for he knew that, with fifteen thousand pounds a year and an exceedingly good name, he made a desirable match. William took it on faith that Miss de Lara's losses, in case of their union, would be at least equivalent to his own. So in his mind, he congratulated himself on Miss Stella Rosa de Lara's good sense in this matter, wished her, with all honesty, a good marriage, and resolved to forget her as soon as possible.
By God, he even thought he had almost succeeded.
Almost. For as he stood there, watching her, thinking feverishly whether to approach, a hurricane of senses seized him. His heart beat wildly, and his throat became painfully dry. His body reacted in other ways, as well, for which he chastised himself cruelly, for he thought them base. Indeed, the sight of her was an onslaught on all his senses and feelings; for he was gripped with desire, shame, anguish, longing. And it was only when it became obvious that she saw him, and it was no longer proper to stand aside, did he approach.
"Miss de Lara," he bowed, and then, turning to her sister, "Miss Elena."
The women curtsied, the wind messing with their hair. "Sir William," Stella Rosa de Lara said ceremoniously, and he noticed, for the first time, that as she smiled, dimples appeared on her cheeks. "How pleasant to see you."
"You have been at Brighton---long?" he squinted against the wind.
"Only two days," Miss de Lara answered. "And you?"
He told them that he had only just arrived; he mumbled congratulations on her engagement; he inquired after their parents. Miss de Lara, to the visible consternation of her gentle sister, asked if he would walk with them to their inn, and he gladly agreed. He was immensely pleased to see that she was not bitter or angry at him for the liberty Vanessa took; indeed, as they approached the inn, she said:
"Sir William, your sister visited me several weeks ago."
He waited for her to continue, saying nothing, his heart beating wildly; Miss Elena looked as if she was wishing for a crack in the earth to fall through.
"I was ill at the time; I am afraid I may have been uncivil towards her," Miss de Lara went on. "I hope that she holds no resentment for that."
"I am sure she has none."
"Would you still be so kind as to give her my most sincere apologies?"
He assured her that he would. He wished, more than anything in the world, to ask her whether her feelings had changed since Vanessa's visit, and that prompted him to inquire of himself whether his own did. So instead, he asked her:
"How long are you to stay at Brighton?"
"For the next three weeks," she said. "My betrothal is to take place on April 28, and we shall stay here until a week before."
He muttered felicitations again, hiding his eyes, but not even to the most casual observer could his pronouncements to her happiness seem genuine. Miss Elena de Lara, red in the face, could not feign propriety any longer and escaped, pathetically, pointing to the figure of their mother near the inn.
"I must go," she stumbled over words, "Must ask mama something. Stella Rosa, shall you join me soon?" she asked, making large round eyes at her sister. The latter assured her that she would and Miss Elena walked, nay, nearly ran away.
William and Miss de Lara continued to walk towards the inn, now in silence, as it was no longer necessary to pretend. He kept throwing clandestine glances at her, and found her lovely---more so than when he saw her in London---indeed, it was now certain that she was lovely, even with her hair loosely pinned on the back of her head, and a simple shawl around her shoulders, moreover, precisely like that, yes, precisely like that she was at her loveliest. What was even more unsettling was that their silence was by no means uncomfortable; it seemed to him that he could walk like that for miles, as long as her soothing presence was near.
"Well, we have arrived," she said, stopping in front of the inn. "Are you staying here as well?" He confirmed that he did. "You must dine with us, then," she said. "Or, as the case may be, we must dine together."
William bowed sharply and watched her walk away; once again, he found that her figure was most comely. Indeed, in the last hour, the adjectives that came to mind as he thought of her beauty, grace and intelligence were only of the most superlative kind.
After she was gone, he ran up to his room, where Barrington, his valet, was already waiting with his things.
"Run me a bath!" William snapped, and added, "Cold!"
"Cold, sir?" Barrington asked, perplexed.
"Yes, cold!" William was rapidly tearing off his coat, his vest, then his shirt. He then stopped and waited for Barrington to finish with the bath; after which, he dismissed him and finished undressing. As he slipped into the bathtub, the water was unbearably cold, but it served its purpose and soothed his yearning. William could now think more clearly, though at risk for pneumonia.
With a small yelp, he shot out of the bathtub, wrapped himself in a warm robe and fell into a chair in front of the crackling fireplace, shaking. He had two options available to him: he could go, or he could stay. In the first case, the much-needed rest would once again elude him, and he would feel like a most despicable coward. In the second case, he would still most likely get no rest, but at least, his torture would be sweet. And so it was decided: he was going to stay at Brighton for the next three weeks, much as he planned, and enjoy his acquaintance with Miss de Lara to the fullest.
Even if it was going to cost him his heart.
It was pure torture: not only was he staying at Brighton at the same time with us, he even rented a room at the very same inn. And his first night at Brighton, he came down to dinner at the inn and sat at my side. I threw sideways glances at him, which, I knew did not escape Elena's watchful--and disapproving--eye. I noticed that he had large hands--graceful, but decidedly masculine.
"Miss de Lara," he asked me quietly, "how is it that you are able to eat here?"
"Sometimes," I replied, just as quietly, "we are forced to break the rules of kashrut. I would much like to adhere to them, but it would make this trip of ours quiet impossible."
"And have you been enjoying your visit?"
"Very much so, sir," I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster at the moment.
"Have you been to Brighton before?"
"Never," I said. "I had never been out of London before."
"Ah yes, I remember you saying that before."
"Have you? Been to Brighton before?"
"Many times," he said, nodding. "With my father, as a child."
"So you know the town pretty well?"
"And the coastline?"
"Perhaps I can then beg of you to show me around--for I am quite beside myself locked here at the inn." I almost added "with my mother and sisters," but thought better of it. All the while, as I was asking of him to serve as my guide to Brighton, I kept querying myself on the prudence of my behavior: what on Earth was I doing?
"I shall be honored," he said, "to serve as your guide."
"Perhaps Elena can come as well," I made a half-hearted attempt to add propriety to our conversation, but it was hardly necessary, as he threw a glance at me, which spoke volumes to the fact that my sister's presence would be neither necessary, nor desirable.
"Stella Rosa," My sister Margarita said from across the table, "why, you have the good gentleman's ear all to yourself. Pray tell us, Sir William, all about your travels. My brother and his wife cannot say enough of your travel accounts!"
He seemed embarrassed, looking down. "Mr. de Lara grossly exaggerated the extent of my travels," he said.
"I am certain he did not," I said quietly, making sure that he was the only one to hear me. "Enrique never lies or exaggerates."
Margarita and my mother continued to implore him; he gave in and told the tale of the Great Clock of Death in Prague. The story was appropriately gruesome: the subject of blinding and medieval punishment served to provide conversation for the rest of the supper.
Later that night, as he was about to retire to his room, I asked Sir William whether he could show me around Brighton to-morrow. He bowed sharply in acquiescence, and we said our good-byes for the night.
As we later went up to our rooms, I heard Margarita say to Mother:
"He is entertaining enough--for a goy." My sister was certainly the most two-faced creature I knew. Later, as we were preparing to go to bed, I dismissed of all of Elena's attempts to speak to me about my behavior at supper. She finally became offended, climbed into the bed and turned her face to the wall. My heart was instantly softened: I climbed into bed next to her, and forcibly turned her around. I was startled to see that Elena had tears in her eyes.
"You're crying!" I exclaimed, touched.
"I am frightened for you, Stella Rosa!" she said. "You never did tell me what his sister come to speak to you about! For all I know, you may be lovers already!"
I could but laugh at her ridiculous suggestion. "My dearest Elena, I shall tell you presently what Vanessa Hester spoke to me about!"
After I did, she whispered, looking at me mournfully. "So he is besotted with you, then."
"She thought so. But I made it clear to her that I could not return his sentiments--and after all, any such sentiments he might have are by no means certain..."
"And what if they were?" Elena inquired, angrily.
I said nothing, falling back on the pillows. Sir William Hester was by far the most attractive--pleasant, amiable, interesting--man I had ever met. In his company, I was simply tumbling in love with him; away from it, I missed it dearly. This, however, was not what I told Elena.
"It is nothing," I said resolutely. "Listen, Elena, darling. In a month, I am to be betrothed to a man whom I heartily dislike--a stupid, crude, uninteresting creature. If I am given a gift of company of someone who is exceedingly pleasant--just for a short time--how am I not to take it?"
"But your good name--"
"I shall do nothing to jeopardize it, Elena," I reassured her. "And I am certain, he, being a gentleman, won't do anything of the sort, either."
"Margarita says that they do not see us as equal," Elena worried. "Perhaps he will not see you as a lady of his upbringing, and will not afford you the same civility?"
"He is a gentleman," I said firmly. "I cannot imagine that he would treat me any worse because of my race. If you so wish, do come with us tomorrow and be my chaperone."
As he had promised, William escorted Miss de Lara and Miss Elena to the beach; the three of them walked down, towards water's edge, where the sea and the earth fought their perpetual battle over a natural frontier. The waves lapped away at the sand and the ladies' petticoats. William loathed the idea of water in his boots and stayed well in the dry area. Miss Elena shied away, gathering her skirts about her; at first, she tried to walk in a dignified manner, but very soon, William saw her scurry away from the waves. Her sister's laughter followed her---lively and pealing, like the ringing of a silver bell. Miss de Lara herself chased after the waves as they retreated---only to dash back to dry land as they advanced and pursued her, again and again. Finally, a particularly large wave thrashed the shore and caught up with the young woman, mercilessly soaking her feet and petticoats.
"Oh, Stella Rosa!" her sister cried. "Look what happened! You are all soaked now!"
Laughing madly, Miss de Lara walked to a large stone and leaned against it, her back to them. A moment later, before either William or Miss Elena had anything to say, she was standing before them, suddenly barefoot, holding her shoes and stockings in her hand. "I might as well!" she said, making a flippant head movement at the water, and before her sister or William managed to say anything, threw her shoes on the sand and ran towards the tide, holding her skirts up, so that William, though embarrassed beyond reason, could throw a furtive glance or two at her shapely legs.
Miss Elena wrought her hands, watching her sister play in the tide, the bottom of her skirt now dark with sea water. "She is sure to get pneumonia now!" she cried. "Oh, Sir William, she is my older sister, why is she so reckless!"
William himself was at a loss for words. This kind of behavior was utterly unacceptable, improper, unworthy of a young, well brought-up, lady: William would never tolerate it from Vanessa or Ali. Now, however, he stared, in confusion and endearment, at this amazing young woman, so eager to be alive, so ready to disregard the rules of the proper society, so beautiful and enticing as she frolicked in the waves. He knew that it would be proper to be dismayed at such wild behavior, but the only thing he truly felt was admiration of her spirit, her liveliness, her incredible joie de vivre.
Together with Miss Elena, they finally coaxed Miss de Lara out of the water. She came out, her hair wild again---it positively refused to stay put, he thought darkly, as he was drawn, overwhelmingly, to run his fingers through these dark tresses---small drops of water shining in her curls. Her dress was thoroughly ruined now, but she was laughing, and, as she raised her eyes at him, he saw in them the vast joy of living in the moment. With almost a physical difficulty, he tore his gaze away from her face.
"You are going to get a most severe cold," he said curtly, taking off his coat and throwing it over her shoulders. She thanked him and the three of them walked back to the inn---the older sister still giddy, grinning happily; the younger---surly and displeased at her wild behavior; and their escort---pale and tight-lipped in his appearance, but inside, torn between passion and propriety.
Having deposited the sisters in the care of their mother and promised to be back by tea, William mused, for a short while, on what to do next. Of course, he could go up to his room and have Barrington pour cold water over him; but that involved a certain degree of embarrassment. He could simply go for a walk, but as his thoughts invariably returned to Miss de Lara, he doubted that the walk would do him much good. For a short moment, he was at an utter loss: though possessed of a passionate nature, William had never before been in a situation where his mind could not fully command his flesh. Then, all of a sudden, he knew what he must do.
William turned around and walked back to the beach. There, in a secluded spot, he disrobed and hid most of his clothing, his cane and his boots under a large rock. He now wore but his breeches; the sand felt lumpy and damp under his bare feet. William turned and faced the sea. He closed his eyes, listening to its even growl; he felt the gentle breezes caress his bare chest and shoulders.
Finally, having taken a deep breath, he ran towards the blinding waves and dove in. It immediately became difficult to breathe and nearly impossible to move and he struggled with the waves, as his own movements became confused and served to propel him down rather than forth. But only a moment later, he prevailed, and swam onward, his movements graceful and powerful at the same time.
William came out of the water only a short time later and found, to his great dismay, that though his body had calmed down, his mind certainly had not. It was in just as great a state of flux as before, as it argued vociferously with his heart. It was most confounding, indeed: in his mind, he saw clearly all of her faults, not the least of which were her race and religion. But his heart! Oh, his heart. His heart melted every time he thought of her. Where his mind saw oddity, his heart only noticed sweet freshness and originality; what his mind perceived as a lack of decorum, his heart declared to be pure sparkle. So, bewildered and very cold, William dressed sloppily and made his way back to the inn.
That night, he joined them at supper. Other boarders dining with them included a wealthy widow, Mrs. Matlock, with two children, a adolescent lanky boy and a quiet, reticent girl a few years older; a decorated Army major, an invalid, whose chair was wheeled to the supper table by his attendant; a clergyman and his young wife on their honeymoon; and an absent-minded, bespectacled, scientist, who every day went out to the shore in search of interesting seashells. Some of the boarders were certainly people at or close to William's station, but, to his own surprise, he found himself unconsciously keeping close to Mrs. de Lara and her three daughters.
All through the supper, numerous looks were exchanged over the table:
William noticed that both the major's aide and the widow's young son shot glances at Miss de Lara, the first one---furtively, mindful of the rules of propriety, the second one---brashly and openly, as he was too young and hot-blooded to concern himself with etiquette. One could fairly say that he all but stared at her all through the evening. William was first amused, but his amusement quickly changed to irritation after he noticed that she was flirting with the assistant. William himself was the object of keen attention, both by the minister's pretty wife and the old widow, who obviously saw him as a fitting target for her matrimonial designs regarding her daughter.
"Lord Hester," the widow cooed, "do you come to London often?"
"As rarely as I can manage it, madam," he answered earnestly.
"So you stay mainly at your estate in --shire?"
"I do, madam."
"Ah!" she clasped her hands in front of her monumental bosom. "But isn't the society dreadfully lacking in the country?" she inquired.
"I find that my demands for society are well served by my neighbors in --shire," he replied. "They are fine people, and I do find large gatherings oppressive."
"But what about finding a wife---can that be easily done without attending, as you call them, large gatherings?" the woman pressed tactlessly. William noticed that Miss de Lara, sitting across from him, rolled her eyes most spitefully.
"I should not know that, madam," he said, cross, "for I have not looked for one. I suppose that when I do, the country should do just splendidly."
"But the girls in the country!" Mrs. Matlock scoffed derisively. "They cannot possibly be as refined as those in London are!"
"Perhaps," William said, truly addressing it to Miss de Lara, "I should not be looking for "refined.""
"Rightly so, my boy, rightly so!" the old major barked, curtly. "The women in town are positively loose, I tell you!"
With a strange, perverse, pleasure, he turned to Miss de Lara---she was gazing at him serenely, wholly composed, though somewhat pale---and continued. "The qualities should look for in a wife are just as easily---and perhaps more so---is found in country ladies as it is in London ones."
"Pray, tell, sir," Miss de Lara said, not taking her emerald green eyes off his face, "what are these qualities that you should look for?"
"Good manners," he said, harshly. "Seriousness. Propriety."
"If that is all you look for, sir, then true, you could find it almost anywhere," she said softly and turned away, immediately engrossing herself in a conversation with Mr. Pennington, major's aide.
The conversation at the table, in the meantime, has taken a different turn.
"Have you heard," the major inquired sonorously, his deep baritone covering the rest of the conversation, "that upstart Jew Rothschild is contending for Parliament again?"
Oh, Lord! William threw a quick glance at the de Lara women. The palpable disapprobation with which the old major referred to the most illustrious among their people had left them lost. Mrs. de Lara lowered her eyes to her plate, as if accustomed and resolved to this sort of discourse; her oldest daughter, Mrs. Abravanel, grew red in the face and pursed her lips tightly, and her youngest one became deathly pale. As to Miss de Lara, she turned her head towards the speaker, in obvious interest, but, unlike her sisters, did not seem particularly hurt.
"It is true," the widowed Mrs. Matlock agreed. "These people have no shame!"
"Pray tell, sir," William asked, "why do you think Baron Rothschild to be an upstart?"
"You should know, sir, your family goes back for centuries! Probably to William the Conqueror, does it?"
William stifled a smile. "I am duly impressed, Major, that you know the history of my family so well-"
"Well," the major seemed flattered, "I do dabble at heraldry, sir."
"---but I would just as well have you answer my question. Why is Baron Rothschild an upstart?"
"Sir William! Pray, do not tell me that you should want Jews in the Parliament!" Mrs. Matlock piped up.
"I should have no objection to their being there," William replied coolly, "as long as they are duly elected, as Baron Rothschild has been, for the past several years. But the Major still has not answered my question."
"Very well," the major said. "The Jews are a plague, sir, if you are so interested in my opinion."
"I am very interested, sir. Why are they a plague?"
"Well," dared the young minister, timidly, "They are the non-believers, sir? They reject Christ!"
"So do the Moslems, and the Chinese, yet it would not occur to you to call them a plague."
"And the Good Book teaches us that in their rejection of Christ they have murdered Him!"
"Dear Sir!" William turned to the minister. "You amaze me! The Good Book says many things, including prohibiting the combined wearing of linen and wool---yet I do notice that you are wearing what looks like a linen shirt under an obviously woolen waistcoat!"
The major was now becoming exceedingly red. "I do not see the thrust of your query, sir!" he protested. "You wish to know why I think Rothschild to be an upstart---very well, I shall tell you. The Jews are a plague, my good sir, because they attempt to smother every people to which they attach themselves---with most preferred occupation, usury. Which is how maison Rothschild made its money---by sucking off the people who had given them shelter, first in Amsterdam, then here! If you consider that every Christian country that had ever welcomed them soon closed their door to them---"
"Whatever you think of Mr. Rothschild, sir, it is preposterous to deny him a seat in the Parliament based on an antiquated oath," William said. "His constituents keep electing him---it should not be up to you or me to say that he should not serve because his faith is different from ours!"
"Lord Hester," the minister protested, "you do make light of a very serious matter!"
"Quite the opposite, sir, I think it is an extremely serious matter---a British citizen is being denied his rights---based on a prejudice."
The minister objected: "The oath clearly states: "I swear on the true faith of a Christian---' That cannot be done away with! Christianity, our one true faith, is one of the cornerstones of our system of government!"
"Well," the major quipped heavy-handedly, "You give them another year or two---and you shall see, they will Jew their way around this problem!"
"You are a bigot, sir!" William heard and saw Miss de Lara stand. Her expression was most irate, and the fire, which William saw burn in her deep emerald eyes, made them even more bti. "And a fool," she added, raising her chin proudly. "You spout these hateful words, and yet, I am most sure, you do not know a single Jew."
The supper party sat quietly, deeply shocked. Miss de Lara's family were all obviously and painfully shamed. William watched her, breathless, sharply aware of her loveliness and fire.
"Baron Rothschild keeps running for Parliament and winning , and that but does your countrymen an honor. No," she corrected herself, "it does my countrymen an honor. For I am a British citizen, born in this country---generations of my ancestors have been born here, ever since Mr. Cromwell allowed us to return. You speak true in our respect, sir," she continued, "we have been driven out of many lands, including this one. But I have always believed that it was due to the vicious prejudice of our offenders---not that we somehow deserved religious persecution, murder and wholesale expulsion. At least, that we deserved it no more than the man who translated the Bible into English did, from Sir Thomas More, or any and all, who were ever persecuted for their religion. But you justify your own prejudice by thinking otherwise---and I do so pity you!"
"And you, minister," she turned to the young clergyman. "Remember always that you built your religion on ours. Remember, sir, that when your ancestors lived in caves, mine built the Great Temple in Jerusalem and lay the foundation for the Good Book you so love. After all," she said, smirking, "Jesus Christ was a Jew."
An audible gasp flew around the room as she said this; she left her seat, placed her hand on Miss Elena's shoulder and said, gently:
"Mother, sisters, shall you not come upstairs with me? This company has gotten stale."
Hiding their eyes, the three other de Lara women rose and filed out of the room. Before she left, however, Miss de Lara stopped near William's chair.
"Shall you join us in lighting the candles tonight, Sir William?" she asked, smiling.
Yes. Tonight is the eve of Sabbath for us. Hebrew women light candles each Friday night. Have you ever seen it done?"
"No, I have not," he confessed.
"You may find it interesting," she promised. He looked up, and her smile warmed his heart.
"I shall be honored to join you tonight," he assured her.
"Splendid," she said, turned around, and left the assembly. After the light sounds of her steps disappeared outside, the party came alive and buzzed angrily.
"I do say!" The major grinned. "What a lusty lass! Pennington, she has surely told me off, hasn't she?"
"Such poor upbringing!" the widow opined. "I have heard it said that their women are brazen and masculine, and now I have witnessed it myself!"
"Awful, just awful," the minister fussed. "Such outright insult to our faith! I think we shall change our lodgings presently, dearest," he turned to his wife.
"We shall do no such thing," she replied coldly, eyeing William greedily from her seat.
The scientist looked the supper party above his spectacles, visibly disturbed by something---perhaps by the altogether sudden disappearance of Miss Elena, who had served as a willing and attentive outlet for his theory of mollusk development---and said, incredulously:
"I thought they were Spanish!"
"I thought she was splendid!" Mrs. Matlock's young son interjected, suddenly. "And she was fair, too! The major has said dreadful things about her people! Oh, I do wish I were older!"
"Oh, Stephen, do hush up!" his mother burst. "How dare you! Sir William, I do hope that you do not go up to participate in their barbaric custom! " she scoffed. "We shall have dancing instead, shan't we, Emma?" she inquired of her pallid creature of a daughter.
"I do hate to disappoint you, madam," he replied, rising from his seat. "Yet I must. I have already promised to be there. Cannot break a gentleman's word."
And, amidst everybody's utter disbelief, William took his leave.
...That night, he knocked on the door of their apartments. Mrs. Abravanel opened and was, to his utter distress, immediately all smiles.
"You were our defender today, sir!" she cooed.
William was decidedly uncomfortable with this; he had argued with a major partly out of his regard for Miss de Lara, but even more so, because he could not stand the man's stupidity. He tried his best to ignore Mrs. Abravanel's insincere words and her obsequious manner; for behind her, he already observed her younger sister, standing near the dinner table, holding a tall candle.
He entered their drawing room and approached Miss de Lara, who stood, her head lowered, looking down at the candle she held.
"Every time I see such behavior in seemingly rational, honorable people---I begin to think that Beni is right," she said softly, dejectedly.
"My oldest brother. He think we should do well if we were to cut all ties of friendship between us and---and them."
"I cannot judge whether your brother is right, Miss de Lara," he said, and, suddenly bold, gently drew his fingertips down the back side of her hand, "but I would regret it most cruelly, should I lose your friendship."
She shuddered at his touch and shot a glance at him, before quickly hiding her eyes. "What you said in there," she whispered. "Was it simply said for our sake?"
He answered her with all possible honesty.
"I do not know," he said. "I believe everything I said. But should I have been so vocal in arguing it, had it not been for you?" She looked up at him again. "I do not know, Miss de Lara. I should like to think that, but I do not know."
She smiled easier. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you for your honesty, Sir William."
Her mother and sisters entered, all carrying candles---her mother and Mrs. Abravanel had two each, and Miss Elena only had one.
"It is time, daughters," Mrs. De Lara said, and the women gathered around the table. Miss de Lara furtively pointed at a spot next to her, which William took, hesitant. The room had been made dim, and, as the four women lit their candles, six in all, their faces became loci of light amidst the shadows. After Miss Elena blew out the match, the women covered their faces with their hands, and Mrs. De Lara led them in a prayer.
William watched them, listening to the strange, hoarse tongue, in which they said their prayer. He took the language to be Hebrew, because it sounded more like what he had heard when traveling in the Mahreb than what he had heard in Mr. Enrique de Lara's house. He suddenly felt very alone, as he was not privy to their private congress with God.
William was glad when they took their hands away from their faces and Miss de Lara whispered, giving him a most joyful smile,
"El Sabado es un dia de la gloria!"
That he understood, and he returned her smile, hoping that his unsure grin betray all the admiration and awe he had come to feel for this woman.
On Friday night, my sister Margarita was angry with me for betraying us to our neighbors. She was worried that now that everyone at the inn knew that we were of the Hebrew persuasion, she would be lacking in society. Indeed, I thought, a great loss it should be if she had no-one to discuss the latest fashions with!
"Would you rather Stella Rosa sat quietly and bore that outrage?" Elena asked her.
"It is not the first, nor the last time that she may have to," our mother said curtly.
"The man was a boor, mother," I said. "I am sure that Father would reply to him much as I did."
"I am not so sure of that," Mother said, smiling. "Either of your brothers, perhaps, but not your father."
"And even if he did, you are not our father!" Margarita snapped. "You are a girl, and it befits you to hold your tongue!"
"Oh, hush, Margarita," I said. "It befits you to stay at home with that belly of yours, and yet you insist on going out! Take care not to have your babe down at the beach!"
Margarita wheezed, outraged, and Elena and I escaped to our room. There, I climbed on the bed, holding my knees to my chest.
"Oh, Elena, did you see him?" I whispered to my sister. "He was magnificent !"
"Yes, he was quite---quite good." Elena smiled, softly. "Quite kind."
"I think he likes me, Elena," I seized my sister's hand.
"There is nothing to think, Stella Rosa," she answered. "He is clearly quite besotted with you."
"Is it really so obvious?"
"How you can fail to see it is beyond me. He does not take his eyes off your face;
when he speaks, he only speaks to you---even if he addresses himself to someone else or to all; when he sees you enter the room, his face simply lights up."
I sighed and closed my eyes. As I heard of his affection for me, I, too, grew quite smitten.
"But," I heard my sister wise voice, "Stella Rosa, I hope that as an honorable man, he will keep his emotions at bay."
I opened my eyes. "Why as an honorable man? What has that to do with honor?"
Elena did not say anything, but lowered and hid her eyes.
"You do not believe that he should want to marry me, isn't it so?"
"No, I do not believe so," Elena said. "Whatever he said at dinner tonight, it may be quite a different matter when it comes to marriage."
"Oh, come off it, Elena," I was now angry. "Must you go and ruin my beautiful fantasy?"
"I do hate to remind you of it," she whispered, "but you are to be betrothed to Marcus d'Almazan at the end of the month."
The mention of the hated name completed my misery. Angry with my sister for reminding me, but most of all, with myself, for keeping my head in the clouds, I stormed out of the room.
I went down the back staircase, so as to avoid being questioned by my mother or Margarita. I walked down the street, towards the beach, and very soon, felt a cool seaside breeze caress my face. Elena was right, of course. I simply could not imagine that a gentleman of Sir William's station would disregard the opinion of his peers so callously as to marry a woman of a race so despised and hated. True, he had defended my people at supper; but there was an abyss of difference between showing the magnanimity of his soul among those so unequal to him in worth and intelligence and connecting his very life with someone who was fundamentally different from him in faith, upbringing and even race.
This could not be expected; it would be a life-long ordeal---to struggle, every day of his life, to justify the most important choice of his life to those dearest to him---and could not be asked of him.
Thinking thus, I reached the tide, and this time, stayed away, mindful of my wild morning frolic in the waves. After all, I only had two pairs of outside shoes with me, and the other one was already thoroughly ruined. Now that I thought about it, perhaps it was not such a good thing to behave so; Sir William did seem to be displeased with me, and at supper, he made a point to show how much he disapproved of my wild behavior. I thought, with a great surprise, that his esteem meant more to me than that of my brothers or parents; the only person, whose disdain would pain me more was my Elena.
"Miss de Lara!" I heard, and, turning around, saw him. "What are you doing here so late?" he inquired. "It is already completely dark and you are here all alone."
"I stepped out for a walk, sir," I answered. He was hatless, and the evening breeze played gently with his dark curls. For a moment, I imagined him placed among those I loved best, and, to my own amusement, I thought that he would blend perfectly in. "And you, sir, what forces drive you outside so late at night?"
He grinned sheepishly, hiding his eyes. "I saw you leave out of the window of my room, Miss de Lara."
"And you had nothing better to do than follow me! What a delightful thing to do for a gentleman! Spying on a lady, indeed!"
"Not spying," he hastened to object, "but perhaps, meaning to be near, should my assistance be of need!"
"Very well," I said, observing his honest, serious mien. "It may be that I shall need your help and protection, dear sir. Walk with me a little, Sir William."
We walked down the beach, towards the gigantic shadow of an old light-house, many years since abandoned.
"What do you want here?" he asked me.
"Ever since I've come to Brighton, I have been meaning to climb up there. I cannot do it during the day, since it would cause the objections of too many, including my own mother and sisters. I could not sleep and thought that now, perhaps, would be a good time."
"But you shan't see anything in the dark," he said.
"But during daytime, I shan't climb at all," I replied, and, seeing him hesitate, pulled the heavy wooden door open, and slid inside.
Of course, I had had no previous design to climb the exceedingly tall light-house---it was simply a wild notion, partly inspired by his posturing during dinner. I regretted it immediately: inside, it was pitch black, the air was foul, and in general, it was all positively frightening. And Sir William was perfectly correct---I would barely see anything at all, some lights perhaps, but nothing worth such a labor. But now that I have made it so obvious to him that it has been my fondest wish for the past week to scale the terrifying tower, I could not admit defeat and come out. So, without much heart, sickened by the stale air and frightened by the dark, I began climbing.
The door behind me opened and closed, and for a second, I froze on the steps.
"Sir William?" I asked tremulously.
There was no answer.
Then, a match alit, and in the circle of light, I saw his face.
"Shall we?" he inquired, pointing to the spiral staircase.
A quarter of an hour later, we stopped. We were both weary, breathing heavily, and he had taken off his coat; in a narrow staircase, visible only due to the faint moonlight, which was seeping through the small windows, we stood, facing each other, he, wiping perspiration off of his forehead, I, still clutching my skirts instinctively, though there was no longer the danger of tripping over them (in general, I found that ladies' attire was poorly suited for such adventures!).
"Why did you bring me here, Miss de Lara?" he asked, suddenly, and I had to confess that it was all purely on the spur of the moment. And then I added, marveling at my own presumption:
"Perhaps, there is yet another reason."
"Pray, tell," he said, fairly wheezing.
"I feel that with you, I do not need to pretend or think of propriety."
"Because I---Because my world is so far away from yours. Because our paths should never have crossed---and they only did because you were liberal enough to hire my relation as your solicitor. Because in three weeks, I am to be officially betrothed to a man who is as different from you as an ox is from a lion."
He was silent, and I continued.
"Had there been a whisper of opportunity for me to secure your affection, I would endeavor to achieve the ideal you described at supper today. I should be quite proper and serious, you may depend on that. But as it is, in two weeks we shall part forever, and I may as well enjoy them---my remaining two weeks of sweet freedom. And in your company, dear sir, such enjoyment is guaranteed to me."
He did not say anything for a long time. Then, quietly, he inquired:
"So I take it, Miss de Lara, that your fiancé is not altogether to your liking?"
"He is as good a man as any, I suppose," I lied. "No," I corrected myself. "I am lying to you, and I have promised myself that I shan't. He is not a good man, not a good man at all, at least for forcing me into marrying him. And no, he is far from being to my liking. But it looks to me like you have gathered your breath?"
I turned around and started up the stairs, this time not caring, particularly, if he followed me. He did, silent; in another fifteen or twenty minutes, we reached the top.
To our common surprise, our arduous scramble was well worth it. Through a large window, whence the guiding light once shone to the mariners, the most incredible panorama opened to our eyes. On the firmament of ebon velvet, incalculable stars, so large and brilliant as diamonds, were scattered. The moon, perfect, round and yellow, hung low above the dark expanse of the sea, paving on its surface a broad, striking path to the shore.
"Sir William," I whispered. "I had no idea..."
I touched the windowsill cautiously, testing if the stones were still solidly set. A few of them crumbled and I staggered back, frightened of the merciless height.
"Be careful," he whispered, taking my elbow solicitously from the back. I made a step back and all of a sudden, in liberty previously unknown, he wound his arm around my waist and held me firmly against him.
I gasped. I wanted to break free and run; but even more so, I wanted to remain there, my back pressed safely against his masculine form, cradled in his arms. We were not meant to be; this was the only caress we were ever to allow ourselves.
"What are you doing, sir?" I whispered, driven by the very propriety I had so wantonly disclaimed but minutes ago.
"Keeping you from falling out of that window," he whispered into my hair.
Knowing full well the regrettable consequences of my words, I asked him:
"Are you taking such a liberty with me because I am a Jewess?"
He immediately let me go and stood to the side, shamed.
"Forgive me," he said, hiding his eyes.
"You should have just denied it," I smiled.
"I could not bear to have you think so," he said. "Forgive me."
We spent the next ten or so minutes in silence and stillness, observing the beautiful vista, which opened to our eyes. Then, I turned to him, startling him, as if out of deep reverie.
"Sir William, we should return now. My family, if they have discovered my absence, must now be beside themselves."
And as we commenced our descent, he walked slightly ahead of me, from time to time, turning around to offer me his arm; bitterly, I watched his broad back in the moon-light, thinking that Elena was right. Once again, as always, Elena was right. His almost involuntary caress, though most welcome to me, would never have happened, had he entertained any serious designs on my account, and that, of course, was impossible! I breathed with relief when we finally escaped the dark stairwell and stepped out on the deserted beach.
In the moonlight, I saw a solitary figure on the beach, and, to my great shame and consternation, recognized it to be that of my beloved sister. Calling her name, I ran towards her. Elena scolded me for disappearing and making her mad with worry; she then saw Sir William, who followed me at a slight distance, and cut herself off.
"What---where have you been?" she asked, in visible dismay, as she removed some cobwebs from my hair.
"I shall tell you later," I told her, as Sir William approached and bowed to her.
Sir William walked Elena and me back to the inn; we were about to retire, when he asked:
"Miss de Lara, shall you do me the honor of returning to the beach with me tomorrow?"
I could not think of a good excuse, and, to tell the truth, though my heart ached after what happened in the tower, simply seeing him near was a delightful torture.
"I shall," I said, curtsying.
Upstairs, Elena and I crept past our mother and Margarita's room, and made it safely to our bedchamber. Sitting down in front of a mirror, I removed the remaining cobwebs from my hair and quickly undid the stifling collar of my dress. In the mirror, I saw Elena sit down on the bed.
"I do think I deserve an explanation," she said, cross.
Feigning excitement, I turned back to her and told her that she should go up to the top of the old lighthouse before we leave Brighton. Elena ignored my advice and my praise of the most excellent vista, which opened from the top of the said lighthouse; instead, she focused on the imprudence of my behavior and particularly, on the impropriety of my escapades in the company of a man---particularly, when that man was a gentile.
"It is easy for you to say," I answered, annoyed at her posturing. "You are to marry the man you have loved all your life; I am to be given away to a disgusting stranger! He is a gentleman and will do me no harm; and who is to know of this, unless you tell?"
"That is, unless Margarita notices."
"She will not. She is too preoccupied with the subscription to the Journal des Modes, which this excellent establishment receives."
"But I am to become your unwilling accomplice?" Elena asked angrily.
"You cannot be my accomplice as there is no crime. But I do so cherish his company, Elena," I could not help smiling. "No harm is to come of it---to anyone---unless you tell."
Elena shook her head. "Well, of course, I shan't tell! But you should know that I do disapprove of your behavior most severely!"
Once we were in bed, I tugged on the sleeve of Elena's gown and called her name softly.
"What, Stella Rosa?" My sister whispered sleepily.
"Shall you come back to the beach with us tomorrow?" I asked.
"Pray tell, why do you need me there?"
She already knew the answer and sighed, tiredly. "I shall come, dear. If only to keep an eye on you!"
Standing near the inn, he endured, for a long enough time, the mindless chatter of the oldest sister, Mrs. Abravanel. She might have been as pretty as Miss de Lara herself, but he could not be the good judge of that, for she seemed silly, mean, and conniving, and irritated him exceedingly. She was also quite with child, he noticed, and he found it absolutely improper that she should be out so much at such a late stage in her pregnancy; but it was also fortunate, for that meant she would not be able to come with them on their excursion, which she regretted vocally.
Finally, his wait was over, and the two young ladies, Miss de Lara and Miss Elena, came down, wearing light dresses and carrying white summer parasols; for it was a beautiful, unseasonably warm day. Having bid their good-byes to Mrs. Abravanel, the trio set off towards the coast.
They walked for a long time, listening to the pleasant warbling of the sea. Miss Elena walked a little ahead of them, hidden under her parasol, and William was thankful to her for giving them the privacy. For he had a burning question to ask Miss de Lara, and, lowering his voice, he did:
"What you said last night about my sister's visit--"
"Yes?" She quickly raised her eyes at him, and he was immediately stricken by their brilliant hue of green.
"She has related to me your answer--and I confess, it displeased me greatly."
"I am sorry for that," she said earnestly. "I was only trying to be honest."
"And I do commend you for that. Lying would be a most pernicious thing to do here."
She said nothing, and he continued. "I confess, had your response been different, I would be pleased--no, thrilled."
"Sir William," she said softly. "What other answer could your sister expect from me? She was only reasonably suspicious that you--" she stumbled over words and lowered her voice all the more, "--that you liked me. You had not communicated it to her in any more certain terms."
He gulped for air. "Miss de Lara," he said. "What if I had?"
Their exchange was interrupted by a disagreeable "Oh!" emanating from Miss Elena: her parasol became inverted with wind, and was flapping in her hands like a bird, about to fly away. As it did, scuttling across the sand towards the water, William ran for it, captured it like an errant child, and brought it back to its rightful owner.
As he handed Miss Elena the parasol, she thanked him, but his eyes were on her sister: Miss de Lara was pale, and he understood the reason for that--she must have been considering his last question. What if he had made his feelings known to her? Seeing her pallor and the slight trembling of her lower lip, William almost regretted his forwardness. Unfortunately, Miss Elena now took to walking next to them, and he was unable to continue with the conversation; but his last question, asked in spite of himself and left unanswered, burned in him for the rest of the day.
The next morning, he came back to take them to the Brighton Pavilion, and found, to his great delight and simultaneous great fear, that Miss Elena was feeling out of sorts and was unable to go. He and Miss de Lara were able to walk towards the Pavilion, and under its magnificent shades, he asked her again.
"Have you considered my question, Miss De Lara?"
She had been studying a Chinese embroidery on the wall. Slowly, she turned around.
"Sir William," she said seriously and, as it seemed to him, angrily. "It is most ungracious of you to ask me questions like these. I am to be married. Have you considered that?"
He was immediately ashamed. "Yes," he said. "Forgive me. It is positively dishonorable on my part to attempt to, to--" he searched for a right word.
"To torment me," she said softly, raising her beautiful eyes to him.
"Please do forgive me," he repeated. "I was unthinking. I in no way wished to cause you any discomfort!"
Her countenance softened; she sat down on the bench and drew the tip of her shoe across the marble floor.
"Do not chastise yourself, dear Sir," she smiled. "My impending marriage is the chief reason for my discomfort. Your question the other day simply added to it--though greatly so."
He was silent, waiting for a continuance. "The only comfort I find in my situation is that I have nothing--no-one--to lose in marrying my future husband. If I should be in love with someone presently, my heart would just break. What you said yesterday--it made me think, for a moment, that it could, perhaps, go differently for me. That my life could take a different, happier, turn; yet, because I am powerless to affect my fate in any way--Sir William, it is pure torture!"
"Miss de Lara," he said hotly. "My sister was right about my feelings. If anything, she has grossly underestimated them. Since your conversation with Vanessa, I have not been able to think of anybody but you. When I saw you here the other day, I was conflicted--I wanted to leave, I wanted to stay, I knew that you could never be mine, and at the same time, I knew, I knew, that I could not simply walk away from you, that perhaps, this was something I could conquer."
"Sir William," she whispered, and he saw that she had tears in her eyes. "Pray, do not toy so with my poor heart! I am a Hebrew, and if you were to--to marry me, you would forever be subject to the most cruel disapprobation by your peers!"
He was suddenly kneeling in front of the bench.
"My dear Miss de Lara, I should be the last one to toy with your heart," he said passionately, and added, in a voice altogether more subdued and earnest. "For my own, I think, has been taken by you. Seeing you again has made me realize that I care little for what my peers will say! Oh, Stella..." he whispered her name for the first time, feeling the sounds of it roll off his tongue like pearls...
His last words had the most distressing effect on her. She shook her head desperately, and cried. "No! I am to be married, in three weeks' time! Why are you tormenting me so? Why are you here, on your knees, like an empty promise, like a reminder of a love I could never have?"
Suddenly, she sprung to her feet and dashed past him. He jumped up and followed her, but could not possibly chase her down the street, calling her name, without scandalizing them both. Their inn was only a block away from the Pavilion, and William saw her stop near it, gathering her composure, her face still covered with both hands. He dared not approach and could only helplessly watch as she straightened up, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and entered the inn, without so much as turning around to look at him.
My sister Margarita was sitting in the inn's drawing-room, looking idly through a Paris fashion-book.
"Back so soon?" she asked me. "And where, pray tell, is your novio?"
The word hit me like a whip; for a second, I thought that she knew. But how could she? No, my brainless, cruel, spiteful sister was only making light of me.
I ran up the stairs to the room I occupied together with Elena, and found her there, reading. Paying her no mind, I fell down on the bed, weeping.
"Stella Rosa!" Elena was near me immediately, seizing me by the shoulders, but I only further dug my face into the pillow. "What is happening, dear sister?"
Finally, after another desperate attempt at an answer, Elena was managed to sit me up. Taking my hands away from my face, I cried:
"It's my fault, Elena, it is all my fault! I have encouraged him so thoughtlessly!"
Elena's eyes grew round, and I read the awful thought that darted, at that moment, through her mind.
"Oh, no!" I cried. "No, that is not what you think!"
"Oh, dear," Elena clasped her hands together and implored me, "Do tell me what has happened!"
Elena had refused to go with us to the Pavilion; I was still somewhat cross with her for saying that she had no desire to be a silent witness to something of which she so heartily disapproved. I now related to her everything that Sir William had said to me; her countenance became sadder and more tortured with every word I said.
"Oh, Stella Rosa, I was so afraid of it," she whispered to me. "Now what?"
"Now nothing," I said, wiping away angry tears. "He does not understand. I, myself, can barely guess what difficulties such a union would bring!"
"You are most prudent--most wise to think so, Stella Rosa," my sister said, regarding me shrewdly. "But is this really your heart talking? Would this union be agreeable to you save for these difficulties?"
"I think so," I said with a pathetic sniffle. "He is the first man in my life--save, perhaps Enrique--to speak with me as a person! If I could pursue it as a courtship, perhaps, to see what it would turn out--yes, Elena, I think this union would prove rather agreeable with my heart."
"And he seemed genuine when he said all this to you?"
"What reason would he have to lie? All this cannot lead but to problems and difficulties for him!"
Calming down a little, though a pitiful shudder did now and again ran through me, I concluded: "Affording him the same measure of trust I would give a stranger who came and confessed his love for me--yes, I think I do believe him. And oh, Elena, it breaks my heart," I whimpered.
"Now think about it this way," Elena said, reasonably. "You are sad because Father is forcing you into a marriage with a man you do not love. If you did not have to marry Marcus so soon--would you still cry about Lord Hester?"
I considered her question: without a doubt, I was smitten with Sir William. In his countenance, I saw kindness, worth, goodness and manliness altogether; he was a first man to affect me so powerfully. I twenty-one years old, a year Elena's senior, older than most of my married friends, and I had not yet met a man to make my heart flutter so. The other day, when I saw him on that cliff, as he stood there, laughing, his face raised to the sky, breathing in the seaside air, I was seized with such weakness that I thought, for a moment, I was going to fall. And now, to know that he, too, was besotted with me--and at the same time, to know that our growing regard for each other was fruitless and stood no chance in this world!
Elena saw that I was tortured and ran her hand through my hair. I could not bear it; tears flowed freely once again.
"Now, now," Elena said. "Do you believe him to be an honorable man?"
I could only nod, sobbing.
"I cannot give you any advice, sister," Elena sighed. "You know everything that is to happen should you choose to accept his advances. Please remember that whatever happens, you will always keep my love and esteem." With this, she reached for me and we embraced, I, weeping, she, cradling me against her chest.
That night, Sir William did not come to dinner. His absence did not remain a mystery long, for a note was brought to my mother, with apologies and explanations.
"It seems that he had urgent business in London and could stay in Brighton no longer," Mother said, folding the note. She was most indifferent to his presence or absence, and would have changed the subject immediately, had it not been for Margarita, who immediately proceeded to belittle the poor gentleman for "escaping" without first taking formal leave of the ladies.
"Most rude of him," she said. "What a disagreeable man!"
"Come, Margarita," Elena said crossly. "Did you not just profess your liking of his travel accounts days ago?"
"Just like a goy to do something like that," my oldest sister said, ignoring Elena's quip.
"Would you just be quiet?!" I exploded. "You silly, mean-hearted, two-faced creature!"
Margarita was taken aback by my outburst, and I regretted it immediately, for she said, turning to our mother:
"Stella Rosa seems to have a little too much care for what I say about our gentile friend! We need to watch her closer, before she up and disgraces the whole family!"
My mother chastised both of us softly, and I, able to stand their society no longer, asked her permission to retire.
"Are you not well, child?" My mother asked, concerned.
"I am simply tired, mother." I lied as I endured the laying of her hands on my forehead to check for fever. "I've walked too much in the last several days," I added.
"Daresay in the wrong company, too," Margarita muttered, and I saw Elena throw an angry glance at her.
Upstairs, I undressed and went to bed immediately. My anguish was hard to describe; surely, my reaction to his pronouncement has offended him most grievously and now he was gone forever. Suddenly, there was no greater evil in the world than what I have done that day; I lay in bed, choking on my tears. Elena came up and sat with me, trying to soothe my pain.
"I cannot believe I am saying this to you," she whispered, "but all will be well. He will be back, Stella Rosa, if he is half as reasonable and kind as you believe him to be, he will be back."
...Of course, my wise-beyond-her-years younger sister was right. The next day, I received a letter. Addressed to me personally, it was almost snatched by Margarita, but Elena managed to take it from the postman and give it to me--and from me, there was no taking it. I went to the seashore to read it. Sitting down on a rotting piece of wood, my heart beating wildly, I opened the red seal, noticing a griffin and an intricate "H" on the red wax seal.
"My dear Miss de Lara," he wrote. "Yesterday, you have asked me whether I was prepared to weather societal disapproval for marrying you. This letter is to inform you that I am. Indeed, I have found myself to be in love with you over such a short period of time that it is quite to my consternation--I have never before been so in love. Now that I have found myself so entranced by you, there are very few things in this world, which I shall not weather for the sake of being with you.
Miss de Lara, I shall be gone tonight. I am going to London, to inform those closest to me that I intend to ask your father for your hand. Pray, do not misunderstand this as asking anyone's permission: I am a man of independent means and need not do so. This is simply to show you that I value your presence in my life above any mark of approval the society can bestow on me. I hope, on my return, to find your countenance much improved, my dearest Miss de Lara, nay, may I say this? My dearest Stella. If only you knew how violently in love I am with you."
I folded the letter and held it to my breast for a brief moment; it seemed to radiate warmth, and I felt airy, light, dizzy. He loves me! I thought, in the deepest state of happy shock. He loves me, he loves me! I opened the letter and continued to read.
"My beloved Stella, I have entertained a hope that you return my affections. I am bold enough to believe that to be the case; perhaps I am too bold, but pray, do not break my heart, of which you are now the full mistress. As to your father, I will speak to him, beg of him, if I need to. You are promised to another man, but this situation is agreeable to none, as you love him not, and I love you dearly. I promise to repay your father for any grievances that your broken engagement may cause him.
As I soon hope to become, yours, etc, etc."
In giddy happiness, I kissed the letter, folded it gently, and hid it on my bosom--one place I knew it was going to be safe from Margarita's prying eyes. I did share it with Elena, and was exceedingly cross with her when she suggested, worrisome, that perhaps, Sir William's certainty of his success with our father was misplaced. For the next two days, I walked in a state of happy delirium; my love for this man grew with my every thought of him.
Then, two days after I received the letter, he called on us again. It took me all my composure to not betray the great joy I felt upon seeing him; and I hoped that it required a similar effort on his part. He immediately invited my sisters and me for a walk down the beach; to her consternation and my joy, Margarita was too unwell to walk with us, but Elena readily agreed. Once down on the beach, my kind sister stayed away, hiding under her parasol, paying the keenest attention to the business of gathering seashells, and I, for the first time in my life, truly looked at the man who was to be my love, my companion and my master from that day on.
© 2002 Copyright held by the author.