An Unscripted Courtship
We know what we are, but know not what we may be.
—Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 4, Scene 5
Tuxedo Park, New York, 1901
Robert Malcolm stopped short and raised his face to the breeze, imagining himself as a bloodhound scenting prey. He held up a hand to silence his companions. He thought he’d heard something.
Chattering and laughing, the others failed to notice and plowed into him. He staggered forward, the bark of a tree biting into his palms as he reached out to steady himself. He rubbed his hands against his pants and shook his head.
“Robbie, what is it?” Geraldine Scott demanded, her voice wavering between pique and concern.
“Shh!” He rubbed his hands against his pants again. He wanted one of his cameras, even his little Kodak Brownie. Without one he always felt out of kilter. It was the way he framed the world. But after that last set-to with his father, they’d all been confiscated. The idea of an adventure, however short-lived it would likely be, felt both liberating and all wrong if he couldn’t capture its essence on film.
There it came again, the faint sound of laughter. Ears almost itching from listening so hard, Robert stepped off the dirt path. The foliage welcomed him with the mossy, green smell of unspoiled wilderness. Who could it be? Whoever it was, he meant to make the most of anything unexpected.
“I hear it, too.” Charlie Morton pushed his way forward.
Robbie grabbed for his collar. “Hold up there, chum.” This was his adventure and he’d be dashed if Charlie was going to take it over. “I’ll take the lead.”
Assuming the point position, Robbie stepped carefully through the thick, late summer undergrowth. The others trooped behind him as subtle as a marching band. Their smothered giggles grated on his nerves. He ought to have ditched them all and come back on his own.
The trees thinned and grew more windblown. They’d come nearly to the lake’s edge. Robbie took refuge behind the last line of trees and stopped.
Along the edge of a tiny cove formed by a natural outcrop of stone, two young people reclined on the grass in bathing costumes. A pretty young woman in a bathing suit stood before them gesturing broadly. Robbie squinted, making sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him. They were villagers. Villagers sporting in Tuxedo Park as if they had a perfect right to the place.
This was better than he’d dared hope.
Standing right at his shoulder, Geraldine gave an outraged snort. “How dare they!”
Robbie held a finger to his lips. “Let’s see what they’re up to.”
She scowled, but held her peace.
Robbie knew the girl declaiming before her friends. It was Julia Wren, the daughter of the owner of the local ice cream parlor. But she was different from the last time he’d seen her. Gone were the pigtails and pinafore. He edged just a hair more around the tree. She was more than pretty—she was beautiful, with luminous eyes of iris blue, dark hair and fair skin. Yet the change in her was more than the fact that she had blossomed into womanhood. She held herself with confidence. Her words held her friends in thrall.
They held him in thrall, too.
Longing again for his camera, he decided to risk getting closer.
Julia bowed at the waist, her loosely braided hair flopping over her shoulder.
“Bravo!” Her friends Minna and Friedrich Bauer jumped to their feet. “Encore!”
“I think it’s brilliant, Julia.” Minna sprang forward and gave her a hug. “Your professor is going to love it. You will get an A for sure.”
Friedrich was more decorous, but he reached for Julia’s hand and raised it to his lips. “Delightful, dear Julia.” His tawny, close-cropped hair was still damp and darker than usual, but his eyes were the same vivid blue as always.
The intensity in his gaze made her cast her eyes to the ground and she gently withdrew her hand. She opened her mouth to thank him.
“Brilliant indeed.” A more languid clapping came from Julia’s right. She spun in the direction of the unexpected sound.
Robert Malcolm stepped from the woods flanked by several other Parkies. The leading lights of their set. Her hands grew suddenly clammy. The jig was up. Her friends depended upon their jobs at the Park, and now her desire for a lark had gotten them in big trouble.
She didn’t say anything. What could she say? Minna and Friedrich stood shoulder to shoulder with her. In Julia’s imagination they were the gallant underdogs, facing a vastly superior force. Lines from “The Charge of the Light Brigade” began spooling through her mind. Half a league half a league, Half a league onward.
Mr. Malcolm stopped about six feet from her.
Julia found her voice. “We’re leaving.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Now why would you want to do that? It seemed as if you were all having such a jolly time.”
The response flustered Julia. She had half expected the Parkies to produce horsewhips and drive them from the Park. She sensed a trap, but her pride nudged her. “We were having a jolly time.”
Harriet Vines, thin faced and purse-lipped, crossed her arms with the air of someone longing for a horsewhip. She settled for words with nearly as much sting. “Minna, it distresses me to think how disappointed Mama will be when I inform her of this transgression. We simply can’t continue to employ a maid who doesn’t know her place and sneaks about like this on her half day.”
Julia flinched for her friend. The high flush in Minna’s face fled and she dropped her gaze to the ground, but she did not move away from Julia’s side. Friedrich stepped forward, his hands curled into tight fists at his sides.
Harriet opened her mouth to say something to him, but to Julia’s surprise, Mr. Malcolm gave Harriet a withering look and she subsided. “Tell me about this play you were acting out. Some parody on Shakespeare?”
Warily, Julia appraised him. Why was he so interested?
Now both eyebrows rose.
She forbore from sighing. “It’s called A Tempest in a Teapot. I reimagined The Tempest in a modern American setting. In a place much like Tuxedo Park in fact.”
“Sounds droll.” The ever-elegant Geraldine Scott said in a voice that meant the opposite as she fluffed the frills on her parasol.
“I don’t know. It could be intriguing.” Mr. Malcolm settled himself on a rock. “Why The Tempest?”
Julia smiled wryly. “Originally? Because I liked Ferdinand and Miranda the best of any of Shakespeare’s lovers.”
“More so than Romeo and Juliet?” His eyes danced with light. “I thought it was something of a requirement that young ladies fall madly in love with dashing Romeo.”
“A silly, ill-considered popinjay,” Julia responded promptly.
“Misguided, obtuse and over hasty.”
Once again Mr. Malcolm’s eyebrows rose and a rogue’s smile flashed across his face.
“‘Though she be but little, she is fierce.’”
Julia bit her lip to keep from responding with a grin of her own. No sense in letting him know she didn’t have the upper hand. Which of course, he already did know. But still. No need to reinforce his superior position.
Charlie Morton had followed Mr. Malcolm’s lead and claimed a tussock to sit on. Despite the tittering of the other Parkies, he ignored his fellow’s jest. “Don’t you think that’s rather missing the point?”
“Perhaps,” Julia said, “but I have little patience for Romeo and Juliet and their ilk.”
Wondering how on Earth they had fallen into an actual conversation, but cautious as if she were placating a pack of guard dogs, Julia smiled without baring her teeth.
Friedrich and Minna began discreetly clearing away the remains of their picnic lunch. Used to servants moving about them unremarked, the Parkies didn’t even seem to notice.
Miss Scott’s fan swished in irritated cadence as if she couldn’t understand why they were still wasting time on townies. Her gaze settled on Julia. “I suppose you think you can do a better job than the great playwright?”
Trust her to put claws to the conversation. Julia’s cheeks grew hot with choking down the retort that sprang to her lips. Geraldine had had this effect on her ever since they were children, when Julia had had to wait on the selfish twit any time she came into the ice cream parlor.
Friedrich made a strangled sound of protest. “You know nothing of—”
Julia gripped his arm. Then deliberately willed away the tension in her jaw. “This is an assignment for a class at Barnard.”
Geraldine smiled at her sweetly. “Oh, yes. I’d heard that you decided you weren’t likely to find a husband and were chasing an education instead.” The smile ended with a point as sharp as a knife. “It was probably a wise decision.”
“As was your decision not to attempt anything so mentally taxing.”
Minna glanced at Julia as if she was crazy. Julia breathed deeply. She needed to rein in her temper for their sake, if not her own. Their jobs at the Park were on the line. And she was in the wrong for having enticed them to join her in sneaking into the Park anyway.
She glanced back to Mr. Malcolm and found that he looked more amused than upset, and faintly surprised. “I thought your innovations rather charming, Miss Wren.” His eyes were full of mischief and humor when they found hers. “I think it would be the perfect project for our amateur theatrical.”
Julia stared at him, feeling as if the bear trap had sprung but so shocked she couldn’t quite feel the bite yet. Mr. Malcolm’s friends gazed at him with almost as much horror as she felt.
Friedrich, scowling and fierce as an avenging angel, spoke for her. “Why would you want to do that?”
Mr. Malcolm’s response was almost languid. “As I said, I found it amusing. It could be interesting to do something unique.”
“We had planned on A Doll’s House.” Geraldine’s tone was taut.
“That old chestnut has been done to death.” Mr. Malcolm stood. “What we need is an amusing new challenge. And the best person to direct it is its author.”
The bear trap had fully closed. Julia shook her head. “No. Oh, no. I don’t think so. Miss Scott is right. It would be better for you all to put on A Doll’s House.” She glanced to Minna for support. “I mean that’s real literature. It’s—um—dramatic and challenging and has a lot of substance for you to work with.”
“No. We do enough of those. We can stand a break from taking ourselves so seriously. A comedy will be perfect. And I do hope you’ll allow us to use your play.” He paused for the briefest moment. “Perhaps if we promise not to make an issue of your indiscretion in trespassing on private property?”
His friends’ eyes flew to him, and he stared hard at each one in turn until they glanced away.
Julia could almost hear the squeal of metal as the trap ratcheted tighter. “I—that is—” Her throat tightened and she felt so hot that if she jumped into the lake, she’d have set it boiling.
Miss Scott stepped up to Mr. Malcolm’s shoulder, her face set in hard planes while his was relaxed, almost neutral. “I would hate for there to be any repercussions for your friends here.” Her words were grudging, almost as if they were being dragged from her by force. “It is a tough time to be out of work and without a reference. But if you will comply with Mr. Malcolm’s wishes, we will not need to say any more of what we’ve seen here today.”
Julia looked at each of the Parkies in turn, but their expressions gave little away. Even Miss Vines. Julia couldn’t decide whether it was satisfaction at her own distress, or Mr. Malcolm’s influence which swayed Miss Scott. Either way, the little blister made no more complaints and no more threats. Anything Julia said now would only make things worse. Wincing at the trap’s bite, she handed the script to Mr. Malcolm then reached to shake his hand. They had a bargain. She would have to trust him to keep up his end.