As any good Southerner knows, the cogs of society are oiled by the gossip of its ladies, and the Mmes. Crouch and Latimer were doing their part. Ever since Madame La Vert left the city in disgrace, having shamelessly entertained the occupying Yankee scoundrels, the social affairs of the local elite had proved of little interest, but that all changed when the widow Lady Welmsley came to port.
“I hear she’s a genuine Lady of British nobility,” stated Mrs. Crouch with resolute authority, hoping to impress her peer with this tidbit. “A countess, or even a duchess!”
“Can’t be,” retorted Mrs. Latimer. “Haven’t you heard her speak? Not only is her accent American, it’s distinctly Southern. I was at the Battle House only this past Sunday and overheard her inquire after our local theater. She spoke eloquently enough, I’ll give her that, but she’s no Briton, to be sure.”
“Well, she certainly looks the part,” countered Mrs. Crouch. “Did you see her walking dress yesterday in the square? Fashionably well-made out of that beautiful aubergine silk brocade … extremely flattering color, too, even if it was made suitable for late mourning. And she carries herself with such a regal air! She could teach our debutantes a thing or two about how to promenade with grace, I’d say. I hear she’s taken up residence in the Battle House’s finest suite. Wrote ahead to have it reserved … ” She leaned in conspiratorially, finally ready to reveal her trump card. “on a crested letterhead and signed ‘The Lady Peregrine S. Welmsley,’ and sealed by the same crest.” With a nod, Mrs. Crouch leaned back with a self-satisfied grin. What did it matter that she improvised the crested seal bit? It’s a safe enough bet that a crested letterhead was accompanied with a crested wax seal.
Mrs. Latimer eyed her cohort skeptically. “Even so, she is not a Brit,” she repeated decisively.
Willena smiled to herself, holding a fresh strawberry against her lips and softly thanking the street vendor before moving on. Lady Welmsley would be pleased to learn she was the subject of local gossip, exactly as she’d planned. Learning to navigate the murky waters of British society had provided her the understanding of what drives all elite: the chance to be more elite. Provide social climbers a carrot to pursue, and they’ll hardly stop to question it.
The lady was pleased, but not at all surprised. She had observed herself only that noonday how all eyes fixed on her and the way whispers flew about as she made her way into the hotel dining hall. Of course, part of the intrigue was in seeing a woman dine alone … one who, other than the company of her lady’s maid, was likewise traveling alone, but their curiosity lasted throughout the meal, and the hotel staff seemed more graciously attentive than usual. She was surprised, however, by the rapidity with which news of her had spread in the lazy port city. She had expected to be there a full week or more before seeing evidence of it.
“I’ll be glad to have a place of our own where we can dine together again,” Lady Welmsley confided to Willena with a sigh after sharing the report of her lunchtime experience.
“Now, you know that cain’t happen once you hire a cook an’ servants to be hov’rin’ around an’ then gossipin’ with all the other ladies’ servants. You’ll be done lost all the good standin’ you’re workin’ for. You know how thangs is! They ain’t changed that much since the war.”
The Lady’s countenance fell as she couldn’t deny the truth of it. Singling out one servant to be treated as equal, though one so longstanding and familiar as her personal maid, would be regarded as wholly alien and unnatural, even for a foreigner. With a sigh she reached to dislodge the dark ringlets pinned at her crown, but then, tossing the hairpiece onto the dresser, suddenly straightened and declared, “Well, then, we’ll all eat together!”
“What?!?” cried Willie, completely caught off guard.
“When not entertaining, all of us … the staff, you and me … will dine together. It’s sure to inspire gossip and queer looks, but it won’t do any true harm. It won’t single out any one person, so attention won’t be drawn to you. It will just be my own peculiar custom, easily explained as a way for me to stay on top what’s going on in my own home, while also serving to foster good feelings and hopefully loyalty among the staff. That’s it,” the Lady said, slapping her skirts; “I’ve decided.”
“You done lost yer mind,” said Willie flatly.
“Nope. I’m just going to run my own home as I see fit. I’m in charge of my life now, and I won’t let anyone else’s notions about how I should behave override my own ever again.” She stood and walked around the little vanity stool to return her fancy hair comb to the valise.
“You will if you want to be a society lady,” Willie said to her back. “You don’t get to be a part of high society while rejectin’ its rules. That ain’t goin’a work!”
Lady Welmsley turned with head bowed in thought, then strode slowly to place a firm hand on Willie’s shoulder. With chin still lowered, she regarded Willie sternly through her lashes and said, “Look. I am all too well aware you didn’t have to accompany me here. If I hadn’t convinced you to come with me, there’s any number of other, better places you could have gone to build a new life for yourself than Mobile, Alabama. I owe you more than I can say. There’s no way I could manage to establish myself here without you.”
“Miss,” said Willie, arms akimbo and cocking her head to one side, “You ain’t foolin’ me. I know nothin’ can stop you once your mind gets set. You’da found a way with or without me. An’ stop this fool talk like you tricked me into movin’ here wiv you or somethin’ like that. I jus’ hadn’t thought of it myself is all. What you did was show me how to hope after sump’n that had gone so far out o’ my mind, I didn’t e’en know I’d lost it. You paid me a kindness in that, and you cain’t tell me no different.”
Lady Welmsley grinned slightly, and, taking a step back said, “any differently.”
“I can’t tell you any differently.” The Lady turned on her heels to busy herself about the room. “That’s the proper way to phrase it. You can’t say ‘not’ and “no” together in a sentence because they cancel each other out, and ‘different’ should be ‘differently’ because . . . well, we can get into that later.”
Willie thought Dire could turn a conversation on a dime, so it was more out of frustration with this fact than for the correction that she replied with some indignance, “I di’n say ‘not.'”
“You said ‘can’t,’ which is short for ‘can not.’ If you want the appearance of being the lady that you are, we might as well get started with fixing your grammar.”
“Hah! ‘Lady,” you say. You’re the only one who’ll ever see it, no matter how much you fix me. My skin’s the wrong color for most e’rybody else in the world.”
Dire straightened from arranging the items on the vanity to look squarely at Willena. “You’ll see it, Willie. When you see it, you’ll feel it, too, and then no one can ever put you down, no matter how they speak to you.”
The air hung silent between them for a moment, broken by a rap at the door. A bellboy stood outside holding the calling cards of a Mrs. John Forsyth. “The lady waits downstairs for your answer,” he said while handing them over.
“Forsyth . . . ,” Lady Welmsley pondered. “Why does that name sound familiar?”
“If I may, ma’am. Could be because her mister is editor of the newspaper,” volunteered the bellboy. Dire cut her eyes at Willena, who had already spun around to swoop up the latest edition lying nearby and hand it to her. Skimming the page to easily find his name, she grinned wryly.
“Tell Mrs. Forsyth I’d be only too happy to receive her.” The bellboy nodded and turned to go. “Wait! Tell her I’ll meet her downstairs. If she likes, we might enjoy a coffee.” The bellboy nodded and was off.
“Better than being visited by a society lady is to be seen being visited by a society lady,” said Dire conspiratorially. “Quick! Replant my hair while I check the register.” She stopped by the steamer trunk positioned near the door to retrieve the Dagron Spectrodex and a card file before moving back to the vanity stool for Willena’s ministrations. With adept fingers, she flipped the card file open with one hand and pulled the “Fo-Fy” reel while holding the device steady in her lap with the other. Working quickly, she removed the top dowel to slide through the spool and clicked back into place, working the film’s loose end through the apparatus and into the slot of the spare spool on bottom. Giving it two cranks, she held the Spectrodex up by its base pole to look through the visor on front. A couple of presses to the right-side lever allowed her to pass quickly through the F-o-b to F-o-p names. Then, using the dial beneath it, slowly perused the subsequent names until she found Forsyth. John Forsyth, editor of the Mobile Register, former U.S. minister to Mexico, mayor of Mobile, and state senator, Democrat, Episcopalian, advocate of states’ rights. Father, deceased, was once governor of Georgia and Secretary of State to President Andrew Jackson.
“Dear lord,” Dire said under her breath. With nothing other than a raised eyebrow, Willie fervently continued working to reassemble Dire’s tresses. “Typical,” Dire muttered, dropping the device back into her lap and looking to Willie in the dresser mirror. “A wealth of information about the gentleman and a dearth of information about his lady. Well, this gadget is still going to be worth it’s weight in gold, even if it is painfully cumbersome to haul around with all those card files. Knowing exactly what I’m getting into before I’m getting into it? That’s a new one. Might take some getting used to,” she said with a wry chuckle. She felt Willie pat her upper arms to signal the last pin had been placed, so she swept up and passed off the Spectrodex while making haste to the door. “The wife of a famous newspaper editor and politician ~ what a coup for introduction to society!” At the door she paused as a new thought occurred to her, and turning back to Willie with bright eyes said, “You don’t imagine she could be feeding a story to her husband?” Without awaiting response, she was off, leaving Willie to shake her head in bemused disbelief.
Starting out in an excited rush, it was all Lady Welmsley could do to slow to an appropriate pace and not get winded for her introduction to the stranger. Having shared society with dignitaries and nobility of every variety, this should not have excited her so. There was, however, the mixed elements of hope and danger in this instance that none other had possessed. The thrill of a challenge had been present before, but it wasn’t the same. All hope for her future was at stake now. It was enthralling, invigorating, and wholly impressive, but the words “daunting” or “intimidating” were not allowed to pass through her mind. Total commitment without restraint was needed, or else there was little point in making any effort at all.
Entering the lobby, she came upon a gentlewoman in her mid-50s of diminutive stature, wearing a charming, though simple, gray on gray striped day dress. Salt and pepper hair was neatly arranged at the nape and protected by an equally simple bonnet. Despite the severity implied by such presentation, there was nothing severe about the plumply rounded face or the sparkle of warm, brown eyes. From the lady’s bodice an amethyst gemstone brooch winked at her.
“Mrs. Forsyth, ” she greeted as the lady stood. “I’m privileged to receive your visit. May I offer a coffee,” she said, gesturing toward the open French doors of the café.
The young stranger’s unreserved reception left Mrs. Forsyth stunned for the briefest moment, quickly replaced by a spreading smile of appreciation and approval. “Er, thank you, no. I’m only here a moment. I hope I’m not intruding.”
“Oh no,” Dire quickly assured her. “You’re my first visitor since arriving in Mobile. To tell the truth, I have been lacking female companionship since leaving Ireland, with the exception of my maid. Of course, that’s not the same is it,” she said with a light laugh.
“Well then,” replied Mrs. Forsyth feeling completely welcomed, “perhaps I will have that coffee.”
The two ladies fell into easy conversation. As it happened, Mrs. Forsyth had heard of Lady Welmsley’s arrival and her intention to settle there from her son, Charles, the Commercial Editor at his father’s newspaper. “That’s why the name was familiar!” realized Dire, for she had dropped into the Mobile Register offices across the street the day prior hoping for advice on acquiring a local solicitor to help in her search for a residence. She had been happily provided a list of recommended professionals and invited to return should she need further assistance. It was a relief to find the widely reputed Southern charm had not been lost in the war.
“I was visiting my boys across the street when Charles told me about the predicament of a most interesting new guest at the Battle House who had paid him a visit. Since I was so close by, I saw no harm in stopping in to offer a welcome. Wherever you choose to settle in town, I’m certain our paths will cross.”
Mrs. Forsyth was eager to tell about the charms Mobile had to offer, informing Lady Welmsley about the best places for seafood, the lovely parks, theatrical entertainments, and opportunities for amusement across the bay. Presently, she was brought up short with a thought.
“Please forgive my ignorance, but I must ask. I’m afraid I’m not sure how to address you.”
Dire realized this was the lady’s genteel way of trying to find out more about her, with which she was more than happy to oblige.
“My official title is Viscountess Welmsley. Formally, I am addressed as Lady Peregrine Welmsley or Lady Welmsley, but underneath it all I’m just the widow, Dire Welmsley.”
“I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re young to be a widow. Of course, we have many young widows around since the war. I take it your husband passed on a while ago?”
“Just a month past 2 years,” Dire affirmed. “He was considerably older than me, but it was still quite unexpected. Apoplexy,” she said, finally raising her eyes from the cup enfolded in her hands. “We were married only 4 years.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. How dreadful,” said Mrs. Forsyth, denying herself the motherly instinct to place a comforting hand on Dire’s arm.
Dire nodded her acceptance of the lady’s sympathy. “His son is viscount now. Never really took to his father marrying an American woman, especially one near his own age. It made an uncomfortable situation for remaining after my husband died. Would become even more so should he marry. Can’t have two viscountesses, you know. So, I decided it best if I returned here to set up a new life. I have missed it so.”
“Well, what about your own family?” asked Mrs. Forsyth, suddenly feeling the loneliness of this poor woman’s situation. “Surely you would want their support at this time. Do they live nearby?”
“Oh no. No,” replied Dire. “I mean, I could return to them, of course, but I’m afraid Chapel Hill won’t do now, after having been part of London society. The season can get to be a bit much, and I doubt I’ll miss all the prescriptions of elevated society, but the sedate, small-town, country life couldn’t satisfy me after all that. So, it’s a fresh start for me, and I couldn’t imagine a better place for it.”
“Well, Mobile is glad to have you, I’m sure,” said Mrs. Forsyth, “but life is very altered since before the War. I don’t know that Mobile will ever resemble her old self, but hopefully you’ll find plenty to make you happy here.”
“No doubt I will,” said Dire, giving the other woman an assured grin.
Sensing this was the perfect moment for drawing their tête-à-tête to a close, Mrs. Forsyth announced she had better be moving along, declaring the conversation to have been “delightful” along with the pleasure of meeting the Lady Welmsley. Dire could only return the same. Before parting, however, Mrs. Forsyth turned back with a proposition.
“Tomorrow night is a performance of La Rue’s Minstrels at the Mobile Theatre. They’re here all week. My husband and I will be going as part of our wedding anniversary celebration. My sister and brother-in-law are going along with us. Perhaps you would like to join us, as well. Get out of your rooms for a bit.”
Although delighted with the idea, Dire initially responded, “Oh no. I couldn’t intrude upon your anniversary,” but upon the lady’s insistence, she acquiesced. So, it was determined she would accompany the ladies and their husbands upon an excursion to the theatre. Thus was the Lady Peregrine S. Welmsley introduced to Mobile society.
The Dire Predicaments is a web-serial chronicling the adventures of Dire, Lady Peregrine S. Welmsley starting a new life in the Reconstruction Era South. Copyright © 2012 ~ The Airstepper’s Adventures. All rights reserved.