Elsa Wolcott had spent years in enforced solitude, reading fictional adventures and imagining other lives. In her lonely bedroom, surrounded by the novels that had become her friends, she sometimes dared to dream of an adventure of her own, but not often. Her family repeatedly told her that it was the illness she’d survived in childhood that had transformed her life and left it fragile and solitary, and on good days, she believed it.
On bad days, like today, she knew that she had always been an outsider in her own family. They had sensed the lack in her early on, seen that she didn’t fit in.
There was a pain that came with constant disapproval; a sense of having lost something unnamed, unknown. Elsa had survived it by being quiet, by not demanding or seeking attention, by accepting that she was loved, but unliked. The hurt had become so commonplace, she rarely noticed it. She knew it had nothing to do with the illness to which her rejection was usually ascribed.
But now, as she sat in the parlor, in her favorite chair, she closed the book in her lap and thought about it. The Age of Innocence had awakened something in her, reminded her keenly of the passage of time.
Tomorrow was her birthday.
Young by most accounts. An age when men drank bathtub gin and drove recklessly and listened to ragtime music and danced with women who wore headbands and fringed dresses.
For women, it was different.
Hope began to dim for a woman when she turned twenty. By twenty-two, the whispers in town and at church would have begun, the long, sad looks. By twenty-five, the die was cast. An unmarried woman was a spinster. “On the shelf,” they called her, shaking heads and tsking at her lost opportunities. Usually people wondered why, what had turned a perfectly ordinary woman from a good family into a spinster. But in Elsa’s case, everyone knew. They must think she was deaf, the way they talked about her. Poor thing. Skinny as a rake handle. Not nearly as pretty as her sisters.
Prettiness. Elsa knew that was the crux of it. She was not an attractive woman. On her best day, in her best dress, a stranger might say she was handsome, but never more. She was “too” everything—too tall, too thin, too pale, too unsure of herself.
Elsa had attended both of her sisters’ weddings. Neither had asked her to stand with them at the altar, and Elsa understood. At nearly six feet, she was taller than the grooms; she would ruin the photographs, and image was everything to the Wolcotts. Her parents prized it above all else.
It didn’t take a genius to look down the road of Elsa’s life and see her future. She would stay here, in her parents’ house on Rock Road, being cared for by Maria, the maid who’d managed the household forever. Someday, when Maria retired, Elsa would be left to care for her parents, and then, when they were gone, she would be alone.
And what would she have to show for her life? How would her time on this earth be marked? Who would remember her, and for what?
She closed her eyes and let a familiar, long-held dream tiptoe in: She imagined herself living somewhere else. In her own home. She could hear children’s laughter. Her children.
A life, not merely an existence. That was her dream: a world in which her life and her choices were not defined by the rheumatic fever she’d contracted at fourteen, a life where she uncovered strengths heretofore unknown, where she was judged on more than her appearance.
The front door banged open and her family came stomping into the house. They moved as they always did, in a chattering, laughing knot, her portly father in the lead, red-faced from drink, her two beautiful younger sisters, Charlotte and Suzanna, fanned out like swan wings on either side of him, her elegant mother bringing up the rear, talking to her handsome sons-in-law.
Her father stopped. “Elsa,” he said. “Why are you still up?”
“I wanted to talk to you.”
“At this hour?” her mother said. “You look flushed. Do you have a fever?”
“I haven’t had a fever in years, Mama. You know that.” Elsa got to her feet, twisted her hands together, and stared at the family.
Now, she thought. She had to do it. She couldn’t lose her nerve again.
“Papa.” At first she said it too softly to be heard, so she tried again, actually raising her voice. “Papa.”
He looked at her.
“I will be twenty-five tomorrow,” Elsa said.
Her mother appeared to be irritated by the reminder. “We know that, Elsa.”
“Yes, of course. I merely want to say that I’ve come to a decision.”
That quieted the family.
“I … There’s a college in Chicago that teaches literature and accepts women. I want to take classes—”
“Elsinore,” her father said. “What need is there for you to be educated? You were too ill to finish school as it was. It’s a ridiculous idea.”
It was difficult to stand there, seeing her failings reflected in so many eyes. Fight for yourself. Be brave.
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