Emily reached for the bedpost. She steadied herself and took a slow breath. A few feeble waves of her handkerchief failed to stave off the oppressive August heat. Mother was issuing commands in the other room and Alistair’s head popped around the doorway. She groaned in exasperation as he swung in and flipped her suitcase onto the bed.
“Still not light enough?” She knew the answer before she asked.
“Sorry, Em. Another few things, maybe one heavy item, and that might do it.” He scrunched up his face while he imitated the railroad man’s voice, “‘one bag, not more than thirty….’”
“Yes, yes. Thirty pounds. I know.” She sighed and yanked at the buckles to open the bag yet again, knowing full well what she had to leave behind. She took out a small case and held it out to Alistair without looking.
Alistair reached for the case with the set of heavy antique hairbrushes. Emily hesitated. He laid his other hand on her wrist. His touch was gentle and his voice reassuring.
“You’ll get your Grand Mama’s brushes back when the rest of the luggage arrives, Em, I promise. We’ll be in California in two days and the bags will be one day behind us by train.”
Emily let go reluctantly, crossed her arms, and harrumphed.
“I shall be most cross if my hair isn’t presentable. Why on Earth must we leave New York and go rushing across to California in only two days? It’s not civilized.”
“Your father and I spent months on end dragging the 4th Hussars back and forth over a few hundred miles of stinking mud in France. Travelling three thousand miles in a mere forty-eight hours sounds quite civilized indeed.”
“Well, if Rowland hadn’t insisted on the most expeditious means available, I’d be able to make the journey in a more respectable fashion.”
“You know your brother wouldn’t have gone to all the fuss if it wasn’t important.”
Alistair took the suitcase, set the brushes on top of a yet unpacked trunk, and vanished. Emily flicked the limp handkerchief at her face again and sighed.
“Now, dear, you mustn’t worry Alistair so.” Emily’s mother whisked into the room. The butler was right on her heels. He was looking a bit winded but Emily thought Mother looked amazing. Emily studied her face quickly. The delicacy of her features tended to mask the firmness of her character and Emily had seen several people underestimate Mother. She rarely allowed them to make that mistake twice.
Emily opened her mouth to reply but Mother held up one finger to pause her. A slight inclination of the head signaled the attentive butler.
“Paul, put those in Emily’s trunk. We’ll try to remember what else we forgot and send it to Penn Station this evening.”
“Yes, Mum.” He was already moving.
Mother placed her hands on Emily’s shoulders, “Now let’s take a look at you.”
Emily braced herself for the inevitable criticism. Here it comes.
“You’re so skinny.” Mother pronounced. “And the dresses these days… they’re so… well they’re just… flat. No curves. No nothing.”
Emily stood a little taller and started to frame a reply, but Mother was still speaking.
“The trick is to entice and attract, my dear.” She looked down and ran her hands down Emily’s sides pulling the slack of the dress tightly in to her waist.
“You see? You use the right bait, you catch the right fish.”
“Mother, this is New York haute couture. Really, it’s the latest summer fashion.”
Emily was wearing a light blue satin dress that draped loosely over her lithe body. She’d briefly considered bobbing her hair, Louise Brooks’ style, but hadn’t had the courage yet to part with her waist-length straw-blond hair even if she did wear it up most of the time. A single strand of pearls graced her neck. Low cream colored pumps clad her feet and a matching straw hat and pair of gloves waited on a nearby chair.
“Piffle.” Mother dismissed popular opinion with a wave of her hand. “Who decides that? A few artistic types in a little studio in the Garment District? When you enter a room and turn heads, that, my dear, is fashion.
“Have you a shawl, dear? You must bring something.”
“Mother, it’s August,” Emily began, punctuating her protest with a few flips of the handkerchief.
“The nights can be cool, dear. One should always be prepared. Paul, bring her one of my wraps. Something light that will match her outfit.” Paul nodded and was gone. The clock at the foot of the stairs began to strike.
“Oh my! Four o’clock already! Come along dear. James will be waiting with the car.”
“But Mother, we’ve over an hour until the train leaves.” Emily objected even as she reached for her hat and gloves.
“Certainly, dear, but the traffic is so horrid these days. I was so glad when AJ decided to build another station in New York, but he put it all the way down in that dreadful part of town. You’ve got a long trip and you don’t want to be late for the first leg. Now, hup-hup!”
She shooed Emily out of the room and down the curved staircase into the foyer. Alistair was waiting. A faint smile began to cross his face, but when Emily’s mother bustled in, it faded quickly. Emily thought he looked both fashionable and comfortable in his linen suit. He glanced down and fiddled with his straw homburg as Mother approached him. Emily was amused by his discomfort.
“Now, Alistair, you must take very good care of Emily in California.”
“Yes, Mrs. Manning. The Colonel gave me very strict orders in that regard before we left England.”
“Oh, I’m quite sure he did, but if anything happens to my sweet child I shall most certainly ‘speak unto you in my wrath and vex sore in my displeasure.’” Her affectionate smile did not detract from the gravity of her words and Alistair inclined his head respectfully.
“Have no fear, Ma’am, I shall make sure you have no need to ‘break me with a rod of iron, nor dash me to pieces.’”
Mother granted his response the merest of nods. Emily noted Mother’s acknowledgement at Alistair’s ability to quote verse back to her. It was a favorable sign. Mother had not always approved of Alistair though he’d been with her father, “the Colonel” as Alistair always called him, since the war.
Mother turned to Emily.
“Be very careful, dear, and you mind Alistair.”
“Mother, I’m nearly twenty-one. I’ll be an adult in a few weeks.” Her mother’s response was a titter that was both politely disarming yet mildly patronizing.
“Oh yes, but if a beautiful young woman wishes to become a wise old woman some day, she will listen to her mother and behave properly. Regardless of how soon you will attain your majority, dear, Alistair is your chaperone and you shall conduct yourself accordingly. My son Rowland is a brilliant inventor, but he is also impetuous and headstrong, so do be careful. They don’t call it the Wild West for no reason.”
“Yes, Mother. We shall endeavor not to be attacked by savage Indians.” The sarcasm failed to register on her mother.
“Now off with you both. Hurry, before I have a change of heart.” Mother’s hands fluttered momentarily in a rare show of emotion. She motioned them towards the door of the apartment, which Paul opened. He pressed a light shawl of Spanish lace into Emily’s hands.
Mother grabbed Emily suddenly and pressed kisses to her cheeks. Emily was taken aback by the sudden gesture. An awkward moment passed in silence.
“I will send you a telegram the moment we arrive.”
Mother watched them walk down the hall. Paul followed with the two small suitcases. Emily stood quietly while they waited for the elevator to arrive and then stepped in. She glanced up at Mother and exchanged a quick wave as the operator slid the door closed.