Shae Findlay picked at a knot that had formed on the buttery yellow embroidery thread. It was preventing her from finishing the small sampler her mother had made her begin last week. The knot happened to be a tight one, and it seemed an exercise in futility to try to loosen it. She thought, it was much like her mother’s reasoning behind her starting the umpteenth sampler for her hope chest. If one were to contemplate on it, or were to ask Shae’s opinion, filling her hope chest bordered on the ridiculous. She was nearing 24, and had not received even one decent offer of marriage.
Sighing, Shae stopped trying to loosen the stubborn knot and looked out the expansive bay window that had a view of the brick street. It was steadily raining, somewhere between a gentle rain and a downpour. An occasional carriage passed by, the clopping of the horses’ hooves slightly improving the monotonously slow movement of the afternoon. Thankfully it would be tea soon. They were expecting company, and not just any company either. Her father had it in his head again to try to marry her off.
He was as stubborn as that embroidery knot. She hated doing embroidery work, but as her mother said she must be balanced in all things. Mrs. Findlay insisted that if she must fill her head with useless knowledge usually designated for men, then she must also be trained in the feminine arts. These included painting, piano, and embroidery, as well as the mundane small talk that was so common among womenfolk of their acquaintance.
It was nearly time for tea. Standing up, Shae put away her needle work. Glancing at the mirror over the fireplace mantle, she didn’t spend more than a few seconds looking at her visage, and then only to make sure that her hair was in its proper place. To bother improving anything else about her looks was an exercise in futility. She had no illusions about herself. She knew that she was considered rather short and slightly plump. She had a plain face with a pale complexion. Her eyes, dark brown in color, were large and slanted slightly upward. Her straight, even mouth usually gave away nothing; showing neither delight or sadness. On rare occasion, she was obliged to smile for courtesy’s sake. Her hair was a non-descript brown. It wasn’t nut-brown, or dark enough to be considered ebony. It was just “plain brown”; plain like everything about her. And boring like her life, which had no ebb and flow, no daily changes, except for the occasional guest for tea. There really was little for Shae to look forward to on a day-to-day basis.
She sighed quietly, as she stood to look out the window. It was late autumn. The days were growing progressively shorter. A few stubborn oak leaves stuck to the limbs of the old tree. The rain dripped from the eaves of the roof into a brown, sludgy puddle below, tediously. Shae was tired of it all. The silence of the house grieved her, until she, who was known for her patience and practicality, felt like screaming from the nothingness of it all. She hugged her arms about her waist.
Her mother interrupted her thoughts.
“Good afternoon, Shaelene.”
“Good afternoon, Mother,” she responded politely, not giving away her sad mood. “Is it time for tea?”
“Nearly,” her Mother said, eyeing her carefully. “As you know, we will have company. Your Father is discussing a possible marriage arrangement with a man from Iowa.”
“Yes, “ was all Shae replied.
Her mother nodded. She knew, as well as Shae did, that it was most likely her last chance of procuring a husband. She was considered “on the shelf” and was well beyond the delusions of her childhood that a man would come bursting through the door to pronounce his undying love for her. It was only business that had caused her two previous proposals to happen. They weren’t of any consequence. Her father was one of the wealthier businessmen in their mid-sized city. The two men who came were only interested in the connections that her father brought. They were willing to look past Shae’s plain looks for a chance at pleasing her father and reaping from the Findlay family business.
The first prospective husband quickly bowed out soon after he found out that Shae was learned in all of the typically male subjects: grammar, history, Latin, mathematics, and all the sciences. His look of abject terror on his face upon discovering that his possible wife was more than likely smarter than he, gave Shae a smile or two when she was alone and happened to think back on it. If she were to be asked her opinion, Shae would have expressed relief, because the man had been painfully thin, nearing 70, and smelled heavily of mothballs and stale alcohol. Both of those were smells that she detested. It was good riddance.
Her father rejected the second proposal even before Shae had a chance to be introduced to the man, because of the desperation that he was pleading for her hand with. It turned out that he had creditors on his back and thought that her father would bail him out if he married the city’s old maid. He was soundly thrown out of the house. This was also fortunate.
Her father, Gerald Findlay, was a stoic man, making intelligent decisions in his day-to-day dealings. He was very practical, even so much that he and Shae had worn only brown and gray for years. They were practical colors. Her mother insisted on wearing blues, as they showed off her eyes, and reminded Mr. Findlay of when they were courting. No thing was to be wasted. He was frugal to a fault. His practicality extended past his shrewd business dealings, and filtered into his whole life. Anything that veered from his opinion was often thought to be unreasonable to him. If anything veered from the sensible in his life, it was his sincere admiration of her mother. They were very much in love still. She had always wished for that for herself, but was resigned to the fact that her marriage, if she were to marry, would be a business arrangement. That, or she would remain unmarried, living in this house until her death. The latter thought made her shudder.
She decided right then and there, as her mother was preparing for tea, that no matter how pitiful the visage of the man or how close he was to his grave, if her father gave his approval and the man was willing, she would agree to the marriage. Another year in this monotony of embroidering in hopes for a more-than-likely, non-existing proposal, and she actually might make her way up to the attic and scream like she’d been wanting to since she turned 20 years old.
Her father had no time for conversation, usually, as business took up much of his time. Her mother simpered and fretted her life away, talking only about the neighbors, weather, and whatever few social functions that this small city offered them. So even if the man from Iowa, who was today’s prospective bridegroom, found her looks abhorrent and her intelligence a blight, she would say “yes”. She needed a change from the monotony of her present life. Perhaps this man would provide that for her. They might find some sort of camaraderie or friendship, eventually. Maybe they would have children to love, even if they didn’t ever fall in love with each other. One thing she knew for certain is that the change of scenery would help her stop feeling like she was already slowly dying.
As her mother talked to the maid about the arrangements for tea, Shae’s thoughts went again to the man from Iowa. From what little she knew, he was a lawyer, as well as an aspiring politician in the area he was from. She knew little beyond that. Was he old or young? Was he widowed with many children? She was already prepared to accept the very worst: a toothless, spindly, old man with cold hands, married children, and a sour disposition. Hopefully he didn’t smell like mothballs.
Her mother directed Shea to her seat at the small table. She would be sitting by the half-rotten old man, it seemed. He probably would smell like mothballs. No matter. She would marry him anyway… and wash his clothing immediately.
A commotion at the front of the house signaled her father’s return from his offices in the downtown. The man from Iowa was with him. Their voices were muffled, but from the deep, smooth tones coming from the voice that was not her father’s, it would seem she was spared from marrying an elderly man. Still, this man, as he spoke, sounded far different from the exuberant resounding of a young man. His speaking voice, which was gaining in volume as they approached the parlor, was controlled and authoritative, though not loudly or commandingly so.
Her mother stood up just before the men reached the door. Shae was starting to stand as they entered. And that was when the last of her hopes to find a marriage match fizzled to absolutely nothing. She swallowed a sob that was clawing at her throat, and she felt the blood rush from her face. She hoped that the fact she was light-headed didn’t show.
There at the door of the parlor, standing just as stoically as her father was the most attractive man that Shea had ever laid eyes upon. Why would he want to marry such a plain-jane as she? She studied his first reaction to seeing her. Her steel-will kept her from revealing the strange mixture of panic and hopelessness she was holding inside. He showed no reaction either, but he was watching her closely. There was not delighted approval in his eyes. He didn’t seem to have disapproval either, she discovered. He merely looked as resigned as she—or, even more so, resolved.
There he was standing, a seemingly mirror image of her own indifferent composure, but he was much more fortunate in the looks department. He had raven black hair that was well-groomed, but showed some curl on the ends. He had a little grey in his sideburns. He was tall and broad, a man’s man. He looked to be in his early 40’s, about 4 decades younger than Shae was expecting him to be. She couldn’t tell what color his eyes were. They were either blue or gray, it seemed from this distance.
As the men made their way to the table, she noticed the preciseness of his movements. They were steady, perfect, and self-confident. It was then, as he was making his way to her, that she realized she was destined to be alone all of her life. After all, why would this quality of a man ever want her as his wife? She showed no beauty or even a promise of it. She was a wilting daisy, plain and tired. This man would be handsome until he was well into his old age, distinguished and strong. He took her pro-offered hand, as her father made introductions, and bowed over it. He kept his eyes trained on hers. He was watching her every move. Not in manly interest, but with speculation.
Very well, she thought, I’d best make this situation as pleasant as possible.
She found a smidgen of her proper will, and met his eyes as she curtsied. She smiled the perfect smile as she was taught to do by her mother for as long as she could remember — not too large and open, as well as not too pinched and tight. His grip on her hand tightened slightly, as he really searched for a crack in her reserve. She held her smile.
“Pleased to meet your acquaintance, “ she said, not too blithely, and not too coldly.
“The pleasure is mine,” he returned, but the “pleasure” did not reach his eyes, which she discovered then were both dark blue and smoky grey.
Shae held her own under his scrutiny, remaining serene, just like her mother taught her. Finally, he let go of her hand and they sat down to tea.