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Victorian

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Victorian era, New York City

Mrs. Heverschwitt moved through her graciously-appointed townhome, from the coral-colored parlor where her daughter Lucy admired a picture above the mantel, to the kitchen where a servant stood dutifully at the sink, to her sea-foam green bedroom upstairs where her cocker spaniel waited to play, and finally up to the attic where the baby slept in its cradle—

“Why’ve you put the baby in the attic, then?” Henry asked with idle curiosity, looking over Eleanor’s shoulder at the dollhouse. “Bit drafty, don’t you think?”

“It’s not a baby,” Eleanor countered, returning the elegant matriarch doll to the parlor. “It’s just a baby doll. It’s been put in the attic because Lucy is too old to play with dolls.”

“Oh I see,” Henry replied knowingly. “And who told Lucy she was too old for dolls?”

“Her mother, of course,” Eleanor answered pertly. “Lucy must concentrate on her sewing and painting and Latin now.”

“Well if she’s going to paint you ought to get an easel for her,” Henry suggested cheekily. “And a sewing basket, and a book of Latin.” Instead of replying Eleanor just sighed and moved some of the dollhouse furniture around aimlessly. She wasn’t supposed to play in the nursery anymore—she was a young lady now, her mother had taken to saying, and the nursery was just for little girls. But her little sisters seemed to have so much more fun than she did. She missed her toys—and whenever she stole away to play with them she found they’d been moved all around or put away wrong. It was distressing.

Henry watched her thoughtfully for a moment, then scooted forward a bit, leaning one elbow on the edge of the table the dollhouse rested on. “You know what courting is, don’t you?” he asked casually. He wasn’t sure which conversation needed to be handled more delicately—the one with Eleanor, or the one with her parents.

“Of course,” she replied matter-of-factly, picking up the doll dishes from the floor of the dollhouse foyer where her little sisters had left them. “That’s what people do when they want to get married. Like you and Clara.”

“Well, not anymore,” Henry pointed out with a sigh. Not his finest hour, really.

Eleanor giggled childishly. “Are you terribly upset with her?” she asked.

“No,” he decided. “I think she always liked Edward Davenport better anyway.”

“Mama and Papa are terribly upset with her,” she tattled delightedly. It wasn’t often her parents found fault with her perfect older sister. “Edward Davenport is only a lieutenant, you know, and he hasn’t as much money as you!” she added bluntly.

“Clara likes him, that’s what’s important,” Henry mused. “Besides, I’d rather marry you.” Hmm, that wasn’t exactly how he’d planned to say it.

“Well, I’d want better presents than you gave Clara,” Eleanor sniffed, and the response was so unexpected that Henry burst into laughter.

“What? You didn’t like my presents?”

“Lace gloves and silk fans and shoes you can hardly walk in,” Eleanor scoffed. She leaned over in an unladylike way and grabbed a tiny couch that had become separated from the dollhouse.

Henry couldn’t help but smile, even if he wasn’t sure how seriously she was taking his declaration. “And what sort of presents would you prefer, Miss Eleanor?”

“Chocolates and caramels,” she announced immediately, with a greedy tone in her voice. “And new dresses, but not itchy ones with lots of lace. And some matching hair ribbons.”

“And books?” Henry suggested playfully. “Should you like some of those as well?”

“Perhaps if they have colored pictures in them,” Eleanor allowed. “And aren’t in Latin.”

“Well I shall keep all that in mind as I come courting,” Henry promised.

“If we were married, would we live in your townhome?” Eleanor asked after a moment, putting Lucy the doll into the dollhouse nursery.

“I imagine so,” Henry assured her, “and we could go out to the country whenever we wished.”

“Pip’s never been to the country,” Eleanor pointed out, and the little golden cocker spaniel pricked up his ears at the mention of his name. He wasn’t allowed near the dollhouse anymore, after an unfortunate incident involving the late Mr. Heverschwitt. “I think he would like it, don’t you? We would take Pip, wouldn’t we?” she asked suddenly, giving Henry a worried look.

“Of course,” he promised. “So we’re agreed, then,” he added. “You’ll marry me if I bring you chocolates and caramels, and take Pip to the country.”

“Well… alright,” Eleanor agreed, as though she had been persuaded towards some mildly unpleasant task.

“It won’t be for a while yet,” Henry hastened to assure her. “Not until you’re sixteen, at least.”

“That’s a long time away,” she observed, with the perspective of the young.

“Well, if you don’t like me at the end of it, you don’t have to marry me,” he suggested.

“I expect you would just ask Olivia, then,” Eleanor said tartly, referring to the next sister in line.

Henry barked out a laugh. “No, I wouldn’t,” he avowed. “I just want you.” His tone was suddenly warmer, and for an instant he thought he saw a kind of recognition in her blue eyes, an understanding that went beyond the confines of the world that currently constrained them. But then she turned away abruptly.

“Mama said I must work on my Latin this afternoon,” she announced, clambering to her feet.

Henry jumped up as well, recognizing the dismissal. “Of course. You must be well-educated to be my wife,” he joked.

She looked at him thoughtfully in response. “Hmm. You look like one of my toy soldiers,” she observed of his pressed uniform and shiny buttons. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not. Then she was darting out of the room. “Bring me some caramels next time!” she shouted over her shoulder. Henry decided to take that as a positive development.

***

There was a great potential for awkwardness in courting the younger sister of the girl who had broken with you, but Henry made arrangements with Edward Davenport—man to man, you know—such that Clara was usually out with him when Henry came to call on Eleanor. There was no worry about running into Clara at society balls or dinner parties, either; Henry didn’t go to them, as it would have been a bit unseemly for Eleanor to attend at her age. Some girls could have gotten away with it, but Eleanor was the sort who might have had her official debut delayed anyway, frankly.

So Henry spent a lot of quiet afternoons just at their house or in the nearby park, listening to Eleanor play the piano or admiring a picture she had painted, more in the vein of an indulgent older brother than a potential fiancé. She was maturing quickly, though, even if her parents couldn’t see it—but every day Henry saw she was understanding more about who she really was. Maybe by the time she was old enough to marry, he would be marrying a true equal, however young she might appear.

“I had such a funny dream last night!” Eleanor declared, studiously applying some watercolor paint to her canvas.

“What was it about?” Henry inquired, trying not to move.

“Don’t move!” Eleanor ordered anyway. “You’ll come out blurred.” She painted another blob that was supposed to be a medal on his uniform. “I dreamed that I was inside the moon!” she went on. “And do you know who lived there? Rabbits! It was full of rabbits.”

“How curious,” Henry remarked carefully. “You dreamed that, did you?”

Eleanor frowned behind her canvas. “Well… It felt more like a memory,” she admitted. “But it must have been a dream. Don’t you think?”

There was enough uncertainty in her tone that Henry decided to risk discussing it further. “Maybe it was a memory,” he suggested lightly. “Maybe it was a memory of something you did when you were someone else.”

“Someone else? How could I be someone else?” Eleanor scoffed—but she didn’t seem to be entirely unfamiliar with the idea. “If I were someone else,” she went on after a moment, “who would I be? Might I have been Cleopatra, do you think, or Queen Elizabeth?”

Henry rolled his eyes. Metaphysical literature was trendy right now and Eleanor had no doubt picked up some of the ideas she considered romantic, even though she wasn’t allowed to really read it. “Do you think Cleopatra could have gone to the moon?” he asked carefully. “No, I think you’re much more special than that.”

Eleanor liked to be told things like that, whatever they meant. “Special enough to go to Paris with you next month?” she hinted without subtlety.

“Eleanor, you know you just upset me by asking that,” Henry reminded her mildly.

She put her paint box down and ran to him. “I’m sorry, Henry!” she exclaimed, throwing herself into his arms. “It’s just that I so want to go to Paris with you!”

“I know,” he assured her. He patted her back, then straightened her up so it wouldn’t look too awful if Eleanor’s mother were to look in on them. “But we can’t go away together until we’re married. And we’re not going to be married anytime soon.”

“But I shall miss you terribly if you leave without me!” Eleanor protested. Henry didn’t miss the hopeful if. “Perhaps Clara could come along to chaperone.”

He was about to chide her for the ridiculousness of that suggestion—talk about awkward—when he noticed the glint of mischief in her eye. “You are just teasing me!” he accused, laughing. “That’s very naughty. And I certainly don’t take naughty girls to Paris!” Paris had enough of them.

“Oh, but I do want to come with you,” Eleanor repeated more seriously. “After we’re married, can we travel a great deal?”

“As much as you like,” Henry promised, pleased to hear her mention their marriage with no hint of discomfort.

“You’ll bring me back presents, won’t you?” she checked.

“Of course! Now, are you done with your painting yet?” he reminded her. They were supposed to be engaged in the innocent diversion of art, after all.

***

Everett the butler stood stiffly at the door. “I’m sorry, sir, but Miss Eleanor is indisposed today,” he reported.

Henry’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Indisposed?”

There was a sudden commotion from inside the house. “Everett!” someone summoned.

“Excuse me, sir,” the butler told Henry gravely, backing away and shutting the door.

Henry didn’t let that stop him and let himself in. They were used to him around here anyway. Eleanor indisposed? She couldn’t really be sick or injured, though the term politely covered a wide variety of situations. Nevertheless, he was concerned—even more so when he heard a loud wail coming from upstairs.

Suddenly, Eleanor appeared at the top of the stairs and, spotting him, raced down to throw herself into his arms. Her hair was frightfully mussed and her face red and streaked with tears. “Oh, Henry!” she sobbed.

“Shh, shh,” he soothed, wrapping his arms around her. They were in the middle of the hall, after all. “What’s wrong, my love?”

“Susie!” she blurted. “Mama wants to take Susie away! She’s going to throw her away!” She dissolved into such intense sobs that Henry had to hold on tight to keep her on her feet.

“Shh, shh, it’s alright,” he murmured. “I’m sure she won’t be thrown away. Just put away for a little while.” He had always been amused that Eleanor had named her most beloved doll ‘Susie,’ saying she just liked the name for some reason. But there was nothing funny about her current distress.

“I want Susie back!” Eleanor demanded hysterically. “Don’t let her take Susie away!” The gas lighting in the house flickered ominously and Henry glanced around with some alarm.

“Honestly, Eleanor, you’re making a spectacle of yourself!” her mother chastised, coming down the stairs. “You’re a young lady now, with a suitor! You can’t be playing with dolls all the time.”

“But Susie is my best friend!” Eleanor wailed.

“Don’t talk nonsense,” her mother insisted firmly.

“Shh, shh, shh, calm down,” Henry told her. He pushed her back slightly and kissed her forehead, smoothed her hair down. “Shh, shh. Come on now. Go wash your face, hmm, and I’ll take you to the park. Let me talk to your mother.” Eleanor nodded miserably and trudged back upstairs. Henry watched her go, then turned to her mother.

“Impossible child,” Mrs. Thomason commented with frustration. She didn’t want to be a mean person, especially to her own children; but her ideas of proper behavior were very firm, and although her first daughter largely acceded to them, her second daughter so far rarely did.

“I’m afraid you arrived at an unfortunate moment, Colonel Dupree,” she half-apologized to her visitor with a tight smile. “So thoughtful, your offer to take her to the park!” Clara, despite her general high level of achievement in all the womanly graces of the day, had managed to lose the affections of only the most eligible man in the city; Mrs. Thomason considered it quite generous of him, if a touch eccentric, that he was willing to transfer said affections to another daughter in the same family. She was just frustrated that the next eldest daughter was so backwards and willful. But she supposed there was no way she could ask him to hold out for the daintier Olivia, who was only eleven.

“Perhaps I could take those dolls off your hands, Mrs. Thomason,” Henry suggested diplomatically. “I could have them sent to my house in the country. I’m sure Eleanor would like to have them, to pass on to her own daughters someday.” Of course, he knew Eleanor couldn’t have children, biologically that is, but there was no use telling people that ahead of time; besides, they could always adopt.

The sentimental statement seemed to have the desired effect on Eleanor’s mother, however, whose expression softened. “What a lovely thought, Colonel,” she decided. “I do hope Eleanor is appreciative of all you do for her.”

“I’m sure she is,” he replied politely. Although today, she might not be.

***

Clara’s wedding had to come first, of course, as she was the eldest daughter. Double weddings were all the rage right now, but that seemed to Henry to be in poor taste in their situation. Fortunately, after seeing the fuss involved in her sister’s nuptials, Eleanor indicated she wanted something smaller in scope, so her parents weren’t bankrupted by two weddings in the same year. The wedding was in the morning (though Eleanor did hate getting up early), followed by brunch, followed by the train trip to Henry’s house in the country. Eleanor had wanted to honeymoon in Paris, but Henry persuaded her that as romantic as that might sound, Paris actually took a long time to get to, and perhaps such a trip would be better put off for a month or two. He wanted her to get used to being married before they attempted any international voyages.

He wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he slipped into their bedroom that night. Eleanor always seemed so close to understanding, but yet not quite there, though he expected she understood more than she let on. In the end it was he who became impatient and pushed for the wedding soon after she turned sixteen; she had a way of looking at him sometimes that was so familiar, so knowing, and her questions to him were more probing and specific lately. He felt he had to be so careful while she was still in her parents’ care, however—one crazy-sounding idea that she passed on from him and they could yank her away completely, make things quite unpleasant for him. He yearned to be able to speak honestly with her, without fear of outside interference.

Of course, there were other things he yearned for as well.

“Hello,” he opened, leaning in the doorway to assess her mood. “I see you found your dolls.”

Eleanor sat in the middle of the bed in her nightgown, holding Susie on her lap. “Yes, I did,” she agreed. “Thank you for keeping them for me.”

She sounded a little nervous and Henry approached slowly. “You must be tired,” he suggested, giving her an out. “It’s been a long day.”

Eleanor shrugged, toying with a ribbon on Susie’s dress. “It’s such a big house!” she replied instead. “And all those servants who met us at the door. I don’t know how I shall manage them all!”

He leaned against the bedpost on the far side of the bed from her. “Oh, well, they practically manage themselves,” he assured her. “Braden and Armstrong are very good at keeping things running smoothly. Just tell them what you want to eat and they’ll handle the rest.”

There was a pause. Eleanor looked as though she wanted to say a lot of different things, but couldn’t think where to begin or even if they were worth saying. “How do you feel?” Henry finally asked.

“It’s not that people have been lying to me,” Eleanor replied, rather unexpectedly. “It’s just that they didn’t know themselves.” She looked up at him questioningly.

“That’s right,” he agreed, easing himself down onto the edge of the mattress. “People don’t know about people like us. They think we’re just ordinary people, just like them.”

“But we can do things, and we know things,” she went on thoughtfully.

“But we must pretend to be ordinary,” he added as a caution. “So we don’t frighten people. The game is more fun if we have to work within the rules.”

“But sometimes we break them anyway,” she countered impishly, and the eyes that met his were almost Susannah’s.

“Sometimes,” he agreed with a smirk. Soon she would remember that he was usually the rule-breaker—although in this particular scenario he was really quite respectable. It was a refreshing change of pace for him.

“Eleanor isn’t my real name, is it?” she asked, and his heart leaped.

“No, it isn’t,” he answered carefully. “Do you remember what is?”

She frowned, then shook her head, and he tried not to let his disappointment show. “That’s alright,” he replied. “You’ll remember in time.”

“So…” Eleanor began after another long moment, “Mama was trying to explain to me about the wedding night.” Henry raised an eyebrow at her matter-of-fact tone. “But she really didn’t make much sense at all.”

“It’s really better shown than explained,” he decided carefully. He reached out for the doll she still held. “Let’s put Susie over here for the time being, shall we?” He set her on a chair beside the bed and covered her with his dressing gown, so she wouldn’t be watching them. “Now, I want you to tell me if anything I do makes you uncomfortable,” he told Eleanor earnestly. “If you want me to stop, I will—“ She threw herself at him suddenly, kissing his lips with fervor if not much technique. Apparently the wedding night was not going to be much trouble on this round.