Mariel stared out her window, playing with a strand of hair and trying to convince herself that she was excited. While she knew that her father was expecting her to be the perfect little hostess for the dinner party, Mariel just could not bring herself to look forward to it. The gentlemen who would be at tonight’s meal were just that, gentlemen. They were the crème de la crème, all highly intelligent and respected men, but…
Mariel sighed. None of them was interesting, at least not when she was around. They only words any of them spoke to her were the same boring pleasantries which one found in abundance at social gatherings; they never said anything of import. Rising from the window seat, Mariel went to her dressing table to secure the rogue hairs which had escaped her bun and straighten her gown. Fixing a smile on her face, she slipped her shoes on and headed downstairs.
The next day found Mariel in the furthest part of the back garden viciously pulling at weeds, muttering under her breath. When she had left the house after breakfast, it had been with every intent of pruning the roses and perhaps bringing some inside to liven up her room. She had started the trek out to the garden willing herself to forget all the dismal details of the previous evening’s dinner party: how every time she’d come upon a conversation that was the slightest bit interesting the men had stopped talking, how the women refused to speak of anything other than who was wearing what and which men were worth marrying, how Mr. Brighton had been sitting so close to her at dinner that she could barely eat for fear of hitting him with her elbow.
Feeling the need to scream, Mariel threw a weed as far as she could. The fact that it didn’t go very far simply because it was a weed did absolutely nothing for her composure. As she sat looking savagely at the roses, deciding that it was definitely lucky for them that she had left the shears inside, a shadow fell over the ground. Mariel turned and squinted into the sun to see who had come to disturb.
“Yes Rachel, do you need something?”
“Yes’m, Mr. Blackwell bids you come in,” the servant answered. “He says it is important.”
“Rachel, I saw my father not half an hour ago at breakfast, what could he possibly have to tell me?”
“I don’t know ma’am. But he said you were to come to the front room.”
Puzzled, Mariel stood and brushed off her skirt, it was a tad dirty from kneeling in the garden, but she was sure her father wouldn’t mind. While he didn’t approve of her doing the servants chores, he had never felt that a bit of work hurt anyone. “Very well Rachel, I’ll go see him. Oh, would you mind cutting a few roses for my room; I think the color will be needed later.”
A moment later, Mariel stopped short at the door to the front room. There, sitting in the chair she had always considered her own, was none other than Mr. Brighton. Mariel immediately wished that she’d taken a moment or two to freshen up, while her father might not care about her appearance when it was just the two of them, he did care what others might think. She hastily smoothed what she could of her hair while she waited for the two men to notice her.
“Ah, Mariel,” said her father. “We were just speaking of you. You do remember Mr. Brighton from the dinner last night. James, my…somewhat rumpled daughter.”
“How do you do, Mr. Brighton, it is indeed an honor to see you again.” Mariel did her best to sound sincere. “Please pardon my appearance, I was attending to the garden.”
“Of course, Miss Blackwell,” Mr. Brighton replied. “Your father was just telling me how well you attend to your flowers. It speaks volumes.”
Mariel nodded her head in what she hoped was a gracious manner and was about to excuse herself to clean up when her father addressed her.
“Mariel, do sit down and join us. There is a matter we would like to discuss with you.” As she settled on her second favorite chair, Mariel’s father continued. “Mariel, Mr. Brighton has come here today to ask for your hand, and I was delighted to tell him that nothing would please you more.”
Mariel quickly looked up from her lap, praying to some god that she had misheard, or that this was her father’s idea of a joke. But she was not so fortunate; her father beamed as he looked first at her and then at Mr. Brighton, who stared at her as if appraising his newest foaling mare.
Oh heavens, Mariel thought, I’m his newest mare…ugh!
“Mariel, don’t you have something you’d like to say to Mr. Brighton?”
“Yes, Father, of course. Mr. Brighton, it is truly an honor to be asked for my hand in marriage; I hope I will please you well.” Mr. Brighton beamed, which Mariel decided to take as a sign that she hadn’t responded too mechanically. “Father, Mr. Brighton, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to freshen up. Mr. Brighton, I do hope that you’ll be able to join us for dinner this evening.” Mariel stood, nodded to her father, and left the room.
Her composure held until she reached her room. Mariel closed the door as quietly as possible, threw herself onto her bed, and screamed into her pillow. Feeling a bit better, she stalked around the room, throwing her soiled clothes on the floor and attempting to squeeze herself back into the mold that was her life.
The rain pounded heavily on the roof, echoing the beating of Mariel’s heart as she crept around the attic. As silently as possible, she inched her way to the window in the far corner. Having placed her lantern on a nearby box, she settled into the one comfortable chair hidden away in the attic. Her heart raced faster as she reached for the old trunk in front of her. As her fingers traced lovingly over the letters carved into the top, Mariel thought about the events of the past week.
While Mr. Brighton had stayed for dinner the evening he had proposed to her (come to think of it he hadn’t actually proposed to her…) he had not been around much since then. Apparently, he was “doing business.” What exactly that meant she had no idea. When she had asked her father, he said that she shouldn’t worry about it, that it was no concern of theirs.
Indeed since the proposal and acceptance, Mr. Brighton had barely said two words to her. Mariel was thankful for the reprieve from his inane conversation, but she couldn’t help feeling that this marriage was a farce. She knew about arranged marriages and marriages of convenience, but was there absolutely no mutual respect? Was it really possible for two people to live together with nothing in common at all? Were all marriages like that, were all men?
Time and again over the past week, Mariel had found herself staring off into space asking those questions. She didn’t want to believe that there was no hope for the future, but that seemed to be the conclusion at which she continued to arrive. She had wondered a few times if there were any place in the world where the future was not so decided by others. Was that only possible if one were a man? Mariel looked down at the trunk in front of her and willed herself not to think about the impending future.
My darling little girl,
I am so glad that you have come to us at last. For a time there I thought that you would never arrive. As soon as I knew to expect you I knew that you were a little girl. I am sure that you will carry on the tradition of the women in this family. There is so much that I cannot wait to share with you. My cup truly does run over now that you are here in my life.
With all of my love,
My precious daughter,
You have brought such joy to my life in the past year, and now you are to have a brother. Your father will be so proud to have his little boy, just as I am proud to have my little girl. I know that you will love your brother just as much as I love you. He is to be named Thomas William, but he will always be my Sweet William just as you are my Marigold. I still cannot wait for the day when I can share with you all of the stories of our family. Someday, you and I will go sit in the garden, your favorite spot, and I will share all with you. How I await that day!
All my love, forever,
Mariel refolded the letters, placed them on the floor next to her, and turned her attention to the contents of the trunk. A woolen traveling cloak sat on top; it had been so well made that, aside from the slight fading of the black to a dark gray, it showed no signs of wear. Mariel lifted it slowly, almost reverently, from the trunk, knowing that underneath its protective folds lay the only memories of her mother.
There was a long heavy ebony jewelry box, empty save for the lingering scent of her mother’s perfume which still clung to the rich velvet lining, and a small silver key which shone in the light of the lantern as if it had just been polished.
Next to the jewelry box was a small frame which held a portrait of her mother and father on their wedding day. Mariel’s eyes misted over as she looked at her parents gazing into each other’s eyes with such love. Mariel laid the frame aside as she looked through the rest of the odds and ends in the trunk. None of them meant anything to her, but she was sure that they had been important to her mother. Underneath a book about herbs and fungi, she found what she had been looking for.
Gently she picked up her mother’s wedding gown and placed it, still folded, on her lap. She only knew what it looked like from her parent’s portrait. Mariel had never unfolded it for the same reason that she had never removed any of her mother’s belongings from the attic: she wasn’t supposed to know about this trunk. Her father must have packed everything away and stowed it in the attic shortly after her mother had died, and Mariel had only discovered it by accident a few years ago. She had no idea what her father would say when he saw her in the dress at the wedding, and she hated to think about what it meant that she had defied her father in any way, but she hoped that he would eventually understand and forgive her.
Resolved, Mariel stood and shook the dress loose from its folds. Hearing a dull thud, Mariel froze, her heart lodged in her throat. She turned around fully expecting to be caught, but no one was there. Then something caught her eye. There on the floor was a small black leather book with a silver lock that shone in the flickering light of the lantern.
A week passed before Mariel touched the diary again. She had been sitting at her vanity, arranging her hair for the evening’s festivities when she’d suddenly caught sight of her own reflection in the glass. In that unguarded moment, her eyes had seemed so sad, as if there were no hope for the future. Her attempted smile had barely touched the corners of her lips and disappeared almost as soon as it had emerged. Unable to bear the melancholy any longer, Mariel had buried her face in her hands, wishing that someone existed in whom she could confide. She had thought about speaking to Rachel for the past week, but couldn’t; even though Rachel had never betrayed a confidence, Mariel knew that Rachel’s loyalties lay with her mother, whose allegiance was to Mariel’s father.
Raising her face, Mariel had once again looked into her own eyes, almost the same color as the emerald pendant which hung from a chain around her neck. She remembered the day her father had given her the pendant, “To match your eyes,” he’d said the day she had turned ten.
She had looked at the sparkling jewel, nearly unable to believe that her eyes were that beautiful, an asked, “Papa, why are my eyes so green?”
He had frozen in place, about to fasten the necklace on her, and said, “They are to remind us of your mother.” He never spoke of her mother again, but Mariel had asked the cook who confirmed that Mariel indeed had the same color eyes as her mother.
It was this remembrance that brought Mariel back to the diary. She got up from the chair and drew the book out of the bottom drawer of her dresser and moved her hand over the smooth black leather binding. She could almost feel her mother’s presence in the room as she held it to her breast. She went to her window seat and dug the key out from a small hole in the cushion. Sitting down, she fitted the key into the lock, turned it and opened the book.
Mariel’s reading was interrupted by a knock on her door. Glancing at the garden sundial she could see from her window, she was disheartened to see that it was nearly time for the guests to be arriving. The knock was louder this time, and it was accompanied by Rachel’s voice, “Miss Mariel,” she called. “Your father asks that you come downstairs to greet the guests.”
“Thank you, Rachel. Please tell him I’ll be right down.” Mariel rose slowly from the window seat, not quite ready to leave the words – and thus the world – which had once belonged to her mother. She hadn’t learned much from the first few entries in the journal, but it was enough to make her want to forget about propriety and stay there reading for the rest of the night. Pushing aside even the possibility of thinking about that idea, Mariel gave herself one last glance in the mirror, deemed herself presentable and handsome – if not stunning and beautiful – and went to welcome the guests with her father.
A version of this piece was previously posted on “Maggie Writes Stuff.”