The week progressed quickly. On Monday, Lucy acted like she didn’t know anything about any of the school subjects that Shae put before her. However, Shae knew that Lucy at least had to know how to read, and the girl was pretending to be illiterate. So, the next day, when Shae made her read from a first level primer all day, Lucy finally caved and showed her how much she really knew. She was a little above the norm for her age. She decided to keep in mind that boredom was a tool that she could use to persuade Lucy to try harder. And hopefully be more honest.
The days after that were busy, which was quite a different way of life than Shae was used to living from day-to-day at her parents’ home. Shae was either tutoring Lucy, or sewing on one of her new outfits. And now it was Friday evening and she was in the carriage on the way to Davies for the community celebration.
Outside it was raining and cold. The snow had stuck for two days and then a slightly warm spell came from the south. The snow melted, leaving a very mucky road. The rain wasn’t helping the ground be less miry either. Shae hoped that it would stop raining soon, because if it rained any more, the muck would be too much to drive in. Getting the wheels stuck in such weather would be less than desirable, especially in her evening finery.
A little earlier, Mrs. Klein and Maggie had gotten her ready with much more enthusiasm than she had felt. The pressure to be Mr. Matheson’s perfect wife was a heavy weight on her shoulders. Luckily, her thoughts weren’t evident on her face, and both of the other ladies’ faces were wreathed in smiles. Excitedly, they had gotten her dressed in her new gown and had done her long hair in the latest hairstyle. They claimed she looked grand. She took a long look in the mirror at herself and had to agree that the fashionable blue and black gown looked much lovelier than the brown she usually wore. The elegant hairstyle seemed to help her too. Much different than the tight bun she usually wore.
Shae stopped reminiscing about the time earlier in the evening with Mrs. Klein and Sarah. Now she must ready herself mentally and emotionally to go to the ball to face a multitude of strangers. After a few minutes, the carriage came to a stop and Mr. Matheson climbed in, sitting across from her. He greeted her politely and asked after Lucy. By the time she finished telling him of the week, they had arrived at the town hall. He stepped out of the carriage and offered his hand in to help her out. She accepted and put her hand through his arm. As they walked into the doors of the town hall, Shae couldn’t help, but feel fluttery with nerves.
Her husband’s arm was iron, as were his eyes as he appraised her. The man, who had seemed somewhat warm on the day of their wedding and the day after, again seemed distant and closed-off like the day she had first met him. Shae took his cue and retrieved her backbone. Putting on the serene smile her mother had trained her to wear, she didn’t allow her nerves to force her to fail.
Mr. Matheson nodded approvingly at the reclamation of her composure, and led them to the main room where many people were gathered to celebrate the end of the harvest. It had been a good year for the hard-working farmers, which meant prosperity for the whole town. The atmosphere was happy and blithe, filled with lively conversation, a small group of musicians, and dancing couples. The walls were decorated with elaborate orange and brown bows. By the time there were a few introductions to prominent members of the community, Shae felt much more at ease. That was when Neva Langley glided over to her husband.
“Rand! How delightful to see you!” she said, intentionally dismissing Shae. “I was just saying to Beatrice that I was in sore need of a good dance partner, and then you walked in the door.”
Without missing a beat, her husband politely bowed to Neva in greeting.
“It would only be proper for me to dance with my wife first,” he replied, just as the next song was starting. “Shall we, Wife?”
“Of course,” Shae replied, taking his arm.
It was a cold refusal by Mr. Matheson, which should have put Miss Langley in her place. However, it had quite the opposite effect. Shae could tell from the slightly crazed look in Neva’s eyes that someone would pay for Mr. Matheson’s rejection of her. That someone wasn’t her husband either. That someone was Shae. Already it seemed that a plot for vengeance was brewing beneath those blonde curls. It was only a glimpse, but a cruel glint flickered in Neva’s eyes as she glanced at Shae, before she returned her gaze to Mr. Matheson with flamboyant smiles and batting eyelashes.
“But, of course,” she said, coyly, “that would only be proper.”
So, Shae was asked to dance by a male for the first time at a dance, nearly by force it would seem, even if it were her husband. Mr. Matheson led her by her slightly shaking hand to the floor. Many eyes were on them. Did he remember that this would be her first dance in front of people? Nothing was indicating on his face that he did. Was her fear showing? She hoped not. He tightened his grip on her fluttering fingers. It was just the comfort she needed to at least be able to begin dancing.
They joined the rest of the dancers for the lively dance. Following Mr. Matheson’s lead, she was able to get through without tripping or flailing. His strong hand led her the right direction with every movement, so all she had to do was follow. Although, she wondered what the onlookers saw as they watched her husband and her dance. Did they see a happy newlywed couple or was their façade of a marriage a very thin veneer and obvious to all? There was certainly nothing intimate about their postures or the looks on their faces. If one were to look closely, would they see in between the cracks to where they knew that Shae was just a convenient replacement mother for the one Lucy had lost? Neva was certainly trying her best to tell. She was watching their every move with a mixture of obvious jealousy and evil zeal. Shae would have to be very careful not to make any slips around Miss Langley.
After the dance was over, her husband led her to the refreshment table, where he poured them both punch. Shae thanked him and took a sip, watching her husband. He was looking about the room.
“You did well for your first dance,” he said as he looked across the room. “You took to it naturally and let me lead.”
“Thank you,” she said, relieved.
“I have a feeling that you will be asked by more gentlemen to dance. You have my permission to do so, as it will help with my standing in the community. Charm them all, but leave your educated thoughts to private conversations with me.”
With that he looked at her and gave her a small smile. She thought he was making a sly joke. Shae agreed with him just as a distinguished looking gentleman, whom she found out was a city alderman, asked her to dance. That was the first of many dances that Shae participated in that night. She didn’t dance with her husband again. In fact, he didn’t dance with anyone else at all, instead choosing to enter into discussions with the men of the community. This was to the great disappointment of many of the women there, as was evidenced by their disappointed glances in his direction. His need for a wife was more than obvious to Shae now. He had been right in his assessment of his social standing being in jeopardy. Shae was very much needed by him. That was a nice feeling.
That evening as they sat in front of the fireplace in the library, Shae sipped on some sherry, while Mr. Matheson drank from a tumbler of whiskey. The drink was doing a good job warming her from the inside out. The ride home had been a bit chilly. It would probably freeze overnight, so the fire and drink were welcome. As was the company of one. While she enjoyed meeting new people and learning about the community, after awhile it wore on her. She was also used to much less socializing.
“You did well tonight, Wife,” Mr. Matheson complimented.
“Thank you. I noticed that many women were disappointed in your declining to dance with them.”
“I’m not there to impress the women of the community. That is why I married you, as you know. I need you to impress them for the Matheson name. I despise their flattery and flirting. Even the married women join in.”
“Surely you know that almost can’t be helped. You’re very handsome. Most women want the attention and regard of a man such as yourself.”
He stared at her after she spoke, as if reading her intention in that statement. Noting that her words were just a statement of her opinion, and not any flirtation on her part, he nodded.
“It seems so shallow, but I know you’re right. I just don’t have time for such machinations. I have political aspirations and I can’t gain the confidence of the men in the community if the men’s wives and daughters are playing flirtatious games with me. When that has happened before, whatever standing I had built that night was torn down, and I had to start all over again the next party or ball. I believe that how one looks can be a curse.”
Shae had to agree with him, but for her it was the complete opposite reason. She told him so. He looked up from the fire, where his gaze had been so far that night.
“I wouldn’t be so sure. Would you have wanted a husband that only wanted to marry you because you were beautiful?”
“You have a good point, but it isn’t any different than the suitors that came for my hand because my father had money that they wanted to get their hands on. I suppose that would have happened anyway, and certainly more often,” she paused, admiring the glint of the fire bouncing off the sherry as she slowly swirled it in her glass. “At least if I were beautiful, I would have had something that people wanted that actually belonged to me, even if it were a vain reason.”
The fire crackled, as a log shifted in the fireplace. They remained silent, thinking on the topic. After awhile her husband shifted in his seat, and looked pointedly at her.
“It is sheerly the luck of the genetic draw, I say; a mere chance that your father and mother happened to produce something that society deems beautiful. For that matter, Mrs. Matheson, what exactly is beauty? Who makes the rules that define it? Different cultures have different definitions of what beauty is. Tiny feet are a mark of distinction in China. They even bind the women’s feet so that they are merely a few inches long.”
“Barbaric…” Shae trailed off.
“Yes, but are we any better forcing our women to wear corsets to cinch the waist to measurements not patterned by nature? Beauty in our culture is fluffed up, created by fine dresses and the most flattering hairstyles. Some women use paint to falsify the level of their beauty. Take you this evening. I don’t believe that you wore any paint on your face, but your gown tonight suited you better than anything I’ve seen you wear yet.”
“Yes, Mrs. Klein, Maggie, and I worked on some new clothes for me. That is something I meant to talk to you about. As you know, my father is a very practical man—“
“One of the most practical men I’ve met,” her husband concurred.
“Well, ever since I was ten, I’ve only worn brown or grey, except for the day when we were married. My mother insisted that I choose a different color for my wedding gown.”
“Now that you mention it, I do recall you wearing grey the day we met and brown the day after the wedding. That was required of you? I hope this doesn’t offend you, but that is practicality that nearly borders on the ridiculous.”
“Well, yes, it was. Mr. Matheson, I thought perhaps since you wanted to be seen in good standing in the community, that I should wear more color in order to be more appealing to the people of the community. To be more fashionable?” Shae paused.
“That would be seemly. I don’t expect you to wear only grey or brown. I also don’t think that I have to tell you to be modest. I can’t see you being risqué for any reason.”
“Oh, no. Not at all! On Sunday, I inquired after Mrs. Klein’s help, as I knew the ball was tonight. Since it had snowed that day and I couldn’t get to town soon enough to start up a gown with fabric from the store, I realized that I would have to come up with something here. I had thought maybe I could refashion a brown gown of my own, but then Mrs. Klein remembered that there were bolts of cloth that were your mother’s found upstairs in the attic. We went through the cloth and began some dresses. I hope that this is alright.”
“Of course. There wasn’t any other use for the material. It was just sitting up in the attic being wasted. The dress suits you. I’m glad that you both came up with that solution to your problem.”
“Thank you, Husband.”
It was the first time she had called him anything, but Mr. Matheson. His gaze, which had been open during their conversation, became shuttered once again. He glanced to the portrait of his wife on the wall and then looked into the fire again. Quickly downing the rest of his whiskey, he stood abruptly. He held out his hand to Shae.
“It has been a long night after a long week. I’m sure that you need some sleep. I hope that you have had a good evening.”
“Yes, I did. Thank you.”
With that, Shae took his hand and rose from her place on the settee.
“Thank you for…”
He paused as he searched for the right words. The fire crackled in the fireplace, but Shae felt cold because of his demeanor.
“Thank you for your help tonight. Good evening.”
With that he placed his cup on a table and went upstairs to his room. Shae slowly followed to her own room, taking her time and thinking about her evening, feeling mostly satisfied. She didn’t examine the part that didn’t. Why dwell on that when the rest of the night had been so eventful and fun?