Mistress of the Manor

 

The room is quiet; the only sound the soft rhythm of the woodcased clock.  Light is slowly, slowly spreading its wings through the lace curtains on my window, splashing intricate patterns against my companion pillow. My bed is warm, the sheets white and crisp, relaxing me more fully than a bubble bath of rose pedals and gardenias. My nightgown lies soft and silk against my skin. I must get up, but nothing in me wants to, even with the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting into the room through the heat vents from the kitchen. Tabby sleeps near my feet, stretching her paws as she extends across the quilt. We warm our faces together in morning’s first light. 

The wardrobe door is ajar, a peacock blue robe draped over the attached mirror. I gaze at my dresses, wondering which to wear. Something white, I think, something for the countryside. My shoes wait below in strict rows of attention, except for the teal ones from last night’s dancing, tossed in before falling asleep, my mind too busy with swirling and laughter to care. Memories of the party send me deeper inside my sheets, as I recall the ballroom, the human churning of finery and jewels, the orchestra and tables of pheasant, candied plums and champagne. 

I’m brought back by the sound of carriages in the cobbled street below, their drivers calling to one another, while coaxing their horses around the turn. The view from my window is memorized, the sounds telling me everything I need to know about the weather and the day. I love the echo of their hooves against the stones, the rattle of the buggy and the squeak of warm leather. I picture the blinders squaring off the eyes of each mare, keeping her focused and straight, and the drivers in their black hats, and waist coats, with carriage whips raised, each one in a hurry. The street is busy now, but it will quiet soon. By eleven social calls will begin. We will only receive Mrs. Eckhart today, so we can leave for the country before two. The fire in the drawing room will be set, scones will be made and the finest black tea steeped in the Devonshire pot. The thought of our new country home with its vast landscape rolling like great emerald waves for untold miles, brightens my imagination.  I will miss our London home but it will not be abandoned; only vacated for the summer season. 

The crystal doorknob from the hallway turns quietly to the right. If I had not been daydreaming in that direction, I would have missed it. John tiptoes in.

“Oh, you’re up,” he smiles.

“Not exactly” I counter, reaching for him. “Awake but not up.”

John sits to stroke tabby, who is bathed again in warm slumber. Bed springs yield to his weight as he extends his hand in my direction. “Are you ready to become the Mistress of Yorkshire Manor?” 

New York City

 

statue 5Every few years my parents treated us to a cultural week-end in NYC.  We drove four hours through vineyards and rolling acres of farmland to the heart of a cosmopolitan environment that was as different from our barefoot childhood as I could imagine. 

We stayed at the Hotel Astor, which in 1955 was the finest hotel in the city. The Astor embodied old world elegance, sat in the heart of the theater district and towered over Time Square. The Brooklyn Dodgers had just won their first world series and the city was alive with excitement. Cab Calloway and Fats Waller were hot stuff and the Cotton Club was birthing a new musical sound. But it was the Broadway shows that interested my folks.

Evenings found us in our finest clothes with fresh gardenias from a street vendor pinned to our coats. The smell of that delicate white flower can still bring back vivid memories of Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, sinking into red velvet theater seats, watching chandeliers dim against a ceiling of gold and holding our breath as plush curtains whooshed back to reveal a magical world of song and dance. We sat spellbound by every theatrical gesture and perfected vocal score. Those performances began my admiration and love for the theater, and also spoiled me for anything less professional. 

I was ten years old when I watched long rows of women called the Rockettes, high kick in unison at Radio City Music Hall. They were wholesome family entertainment, while a trip to the Latin Quarter opened our eyes to the exotic. Women on flower-covered trapezes, descended from the ceiling wearing high heeled shoes, seamed stockings and little else. The undeniable points of attention were their breasts, where long tassels adhered to each nipple, leaving their fullness bare and exposed. The tassels were smaller versions of the fabric ends that held back the drapes in our living room. I was stunned! I could not take my young eyes off them – grown women who amused themselves by swinging naked from the ceiling of a darkened theater. Was that really okay? Was that what women did when they got older? Apparently it was not only approved of but applause worthy.  I began to wonder about stringing ropes in the hayloft and doing some undercover surgery on my mother’s drapes.

When the performance finished, my sister Kristen and I had to use the bathroom, but the lines were too long, so mother encouraged us to wait. We’ll be home soon, she promised. We hopped in a taxi, which vigorously whisked us through busy streets and hairpin corners. When we screeched to a halt, my father’s angry face matched the burgundy coat worn by the doorman. He was complaining about the driver as my sister and I pushed through revolving glass doors, past walls of glossy walnut, expensive paintings and potted palms. We jumped up and down in the elevator in our urgent need, reaching our fourth floor room before the white gloves of the elevator man disappeared behind us. Doors were never bolted at home, so we were stunned to find we’d been locked out.

I’m peeing my pants, Kristen told me. What should we do?

I had pushed my winter coat aside and was dancing up and down in a desperate attempt to wait.

We can’t pee right here, I said, it will make wet puddles right outside our door. We’ll surely get caught and get in big trouble. I have an idea. You run that way, and pee as you go. Run all the way to the window drapes. I’ll run to the marble statue. We’ll spread it out in long lines, that way nobody will be able to figure out what we did.

And so, on that eventful Saturday night, in one of the cities grand hotels, two little girls were pushing aside their fancy lace dresses to leave a bit of themselves in the lavish carpet at the Hotel Astor.