Miss Maitland Bristow
14 Bathurst Mews
25 July 1903
I read your letter twice over, not believing the lines and curves penned upon the paper. The pages drifted out from my hand on to the floor. I took myself directly to the spare room and removed the hatbox full of letters from the closet shelf. It was horrible, Maisie--there were several more letters to my mother, signed "Walter"--all of them dated June or July of 1883, which proves immoral and altering for each one of us. I do not know how she responded, of course, but she must have encouraged his advances, else he could not possibly have written such indecent things. I sank into a deluge of misconstrued memories--in particular my father's wild and violent appeals to my mother to "release him from this hellish unknowing," which were met with her artful and perpetual silence. Perhaps it was not clear to you, Maisie, but I must certainly have already been conceived during the greater part of that amorous correspondence, all of which took place while my mother was newly wedded to her lover's brother. For nineteen years I have been under the illusion that my father and mother's--or rather, Walter and Elyse's--anniversary was 12 June 1883. This filthy secret is the reason for all of it--these years of acrimony between my father and uncle--whomever it is that holds those true titles. I am the invention of my mother's dark selfishness; her pawn to maneuver. I could scarcely stand it, Maisie. I made my way to the study, rushing past Madame Fifi and ignoring her request to wait in the parlour for Mr. Westley. I entered the room and placed myself within the small girl's presence, touching her painted, framed face. The brush strokes had captured my loneliness, even then.
As for my mother's family name, I had always known it to be Bell. It is written in her composition books, and on some old school papers which I have come across at home. It can only be some form of abbreviation, as I see it now. But until today I never had reason to make any connexion between my mother and the Bellefeuilles of Dorset. I can tell you, Maisie, it is with my whole heart that I desire to leave Mr. Westley's estate and return to you in London. However, I had already requested a private interview with my uncle, and could in nowise abandon it. I kept company with the portrait for a bit, then attempted to collect myself and began to move slowly in the direction of the parlour. The room itself offered me some comfort. I ran my hand along the familiar, smooth, straw-coloured walls as I entered, pausing at the mantle of the fireplace to take in the scent of beeswax and lemon oil. A pale girl looked back at me out of the large gilded mirror that hangs above the burnished wood, and behind her dark head the crystal chandelier gleamed down from the gracefully corniced ceiling. I found a seat on the fruitwood divan, arranging my skirts carefully, and cast about for some distraction with which to occupy myself. I found nothing to keep my thoughts from the revelation in your letter. Filled with the most troublesome of emotions, I could only sit and restlessly spin the ring around my finger. It radiates beauty, Maisie. The oval sapphire rests upon a thin band of gold, guarded by a halo of diamonds. It is a pity it sits upon such a reluctant hand. Vaughn thought it absurd on my part to involve Mr. Westley in the decision--so much so, in fact, that he refused to be present. I heard the door close, and looked up to see my uncle making his way to his wing-backed chair. His grey-black hair is thick like my father's, and I could not help but make the connexion between them. There are, however, differences enough. My father has not faired nearly so well with age; his handsome features have become distended from the years of liquor--the once pleasing lines of his face muddled by an unbecoming beard. Mr. Westley's face, by stark contrast, is long and slender--gaunt, even--and meticulously clean-shaven. His powerful presence filled the room, as did his silence. He apparently felt no inclination to greet me, nor to acknowledge me in the slightest. Perhaps I need not remind you that he is an impressive man, Maisie. One might conclude that a man with a bit of a limp would appear shrunken, frail and wasted. I can attest to precisely the opposite effect. On numerous occasions I have come upon my uncle unexpectedly--in the hallways or on the grounds--and each time the solidity of his square frame weaving towards me conjured fading gunshots and the figures of men of lesser physicality and wit falling before him. I have never been at ease in his presence. I looked about restively, unsure of how to begin. Mr. Westley struck a wooden match against the tiny brass matchbox on the table, lighting his familiar pipe. I recall asking Madame Fifi about the pipe shortly after my arrival in Paris (as he is so seldom without it). She recounted how Mr. Westley obtained it during a campaign on behalf of the French whilst in Turkey, during the Crimean War many years ago. It is a beautiful, amber-coloured meerschaum pipe, with the clawed foot of an eagle gripping the bowl. Exhaling the sweet-smelling smoke, his heavy eyelids lifted, and at last he looked in my direction. In his thick, low voice he asked, "When did he make the proposal?" Caught unawares by the transparency of my circumstance, I looked away and replied, "I accepted one week ago, today." He made no immediate response, but sat pensively for some little time, letting the tobacco burn away in the pipe. Then, "I pray you have not found yourself constrained to seek my approval in the matter."
"I am not here out of any supposed obligation. You have shown me great charity in permitting me to stay with you, and I wish to thank you for it."
"Child, you should be in London with your mother and father."
I was briefly tempted to question him as to his certainty that my father was in London, but I'm sure you know me well enough to realise that I did not. Indeed, I had enough to wonder at as it was. It is still unclear to me whether his statement was merely his advice, or an order to be carried out. He had certainly seemed confident in his use of the term father, which alone was enough to unsettle me greatly. And yet I had little time to dwell on any of it when once I had considered that his comment might simply be an expression of his wish for me to leave his estate. I could not think that he would grudge me the few months of occupancy left before my wedding. Could he be suggesting that Vaughn and I return to London after our marriage? Certainly he had no sudden, strong conviction that I should leave Paris now? It seemed incredible that he might disapprove of the very man he had himself introduced to me, but I could not be certain, so I pressed him further, "Mr. Rousseau is a fine gentleman, I'm sure you will agree. He has spared me a great deal of sorrow and unhappiness." Mr. Westley rose from his seat and gazed down at me, ever exerting his prodigious nature. After what seemed to be a careful selection of words, he responded, "In my experience, it is never wise for a young woman to marry one who does not have her heart." He had turned to go, but I was at once upset by this, and perhaps without much thought retorted, "I assure you, Uncle, I know the correct and sensible course, and in marrying Vaughn, I am certain I will not be hurt nor abused by him in any way!" Mr. Westley had made his way nearly out of the parlour by this point, and I began to doubt that he was listening to my defence at all. Pausing in the doorway, however, he turned back towards me, "Adeline, I have no doubt you shall, indeed, remain well-cared for . . . it is Mr. Rousseau for whom I fear." So saying, he left the room, shutting the door behind him, and my chest swelled with pain as the significance of his words flooded my heart. I could only think on Vaughn. Am I really so cruel, Maisie? For my uncle to draw such a parallel between me and my mother--to see how very near the apple has fallen from the tree--I could not bear the idea of becoming such a creature; and I shan't. My mother had choices, and she chose her course with confidence and without regard for any thing but her own pleasure . . . yet, who else will have me, I ask? What other prospect lurches about the streets of Paris or London in pursuit of a grand wreck such as I? An avenue has been laid before me, forked in two. It is as clear to me as if I have been privy to some Elysian revelation: As I stand, I feel the warmth and sunshine streaming down from behind me. To my left, I see a path stricken with the cold London fog, snaking its way back to Paddington to deliver me to my father and into the arms of his chosen bridegroom. To the right, I see the plain and well-paved road to Vaughn. Yes, I have chosen Vaughn. I do not pretend to deny there is an unhappiness that holds my very hand as the day of our marriage advances, but the sands in the hourglass do not pause for the fantastic wishes of my romantic heart to somehow be realised. I will marry Vaughn. I know it would be foolishness on my part not to acknowledge that I have greatly underestimated the sadness it has caused me to have my mother absent in planning such an affair, and despite her failings, I recognize that my sheer loneliness and longing for her has made the approach of this event all the more bittersweet. It would seem I can only hope that Vaughn can sufficiently fill the place in my heart that was not at first carved out for him, and that in time, all things may mend. We will go before la mairie on 9 November. Vaughn has allowed me time to have a proper gown made, else it might have been sooner. He is anxious to return to his work with Professeur Barrère, and sees little value in the marriage being an indulgent event, as neither of our kin will be in attendance. I imagine my day will be a far cry from the loveliness that would have been your union with Stuart Hill--and I apologise to mention him at all in light of his recent transgressions . . . I am sure the thought of him had already fled your mind, and I have done you no service in unwittingly reminding you of him. Forgive me.
23 rue Saint Paul