Rucked-up knickers, standing in the pond
with a cheesecloth net. Frogs and the golden Japanese carp
she caught from the stock the grounds men had added
that spring. And she fed them to her snake.
(She is Abigail, her novel is Under the Rose
by Langley Boisvert, published in London in 1886.)
Hair-tossing was a habit, and ringlets
pulled back under a blue straw bonnet. Oh, and that laugh,
a merry laugh it was, and her eyes often
danced, I am afraid. But
she had a chin like a prize fighter.
Out and About
Three soldiers committed suicide in her first season
when she turned them down. It was remarked that two
were captains, one a colonel. Rank, of course,
meant nothing to her. After she jilted the son of an Earl,
the scandal sheet demanded: “Lady or Tiger?”
She found that unbecoming
and, briefly, trimmed her claws to the nub.
What they could not know, she too was unable to know,
the nature of herself being unknowable to her nature, veiled, that is,
woman who is not known and will not be known until it is too late
and still she will not be seen, she will be unknowable
and even when she looks in the mirror
she sees not a thing. Except those ringlets,
glossy chestnut ringlets.
Abigail acquired banker husband, then boy, then twin girls, and full
household staff. The cares of ceaselessly
apportioned foods and drinks. The occasional frisson
of rucked-down knickers in the conservatory, muffled
giggles from the old row-boat. The stars and a sort
of domestic helium carried her through
the faceted vertiginous glare of dinner, through salmon russe
and those silly young men, the hobbledehoys
who needed a firm hand. She was said
to be quick-witted but unquotable, with a voice like sun melting
morning hoarfrost. A scent, chiefly citrus and ambergris,
was mixed in Paris for her exclusive use,
and it was known that she herself directed the terms
of the new trade treaty with Austro-Hungary.
And yet it got out of hand. She was misled
into thinking this one safe because he was, of all things,
tow-headed. It was not accessible
to her imagination that sun-spreckled skin
and mild grey eyes would exact a payment, and from her.
The unravelling of her garments ensued: The small house
in Islington where she was exiled with her girls while her son
was sent away and her husband continued to make money
but with the aid of other female hands. The stock swindle—
that, at least, was not on her watch.
Rumor had it that she would not age gracefully,
and rumor had it wrong.
See her rummage through her escritoire.
That trinket of bulbous Baja pearl,
hanging from a coin-purse latch, a gift from her dear Mama.
The letters sheaved in a lavender ribbon (the ribbon edged
with tiny loops of silk) that catches on a fingernail.
She has been known to know a few things, lately,
and she knows this, as she fiddles with the rings
on her still-slim fingers: She knows
that no harm she has done comes close
to what has stabbed at her, what now stabs—
these cheap losses. The Chinese yellow
of her day-gown flatters her skin to a peach glow,
which helps a good deal. She puts the letters back
in the drawer, the ribbon rent but not untied.
reprinted by permission from
Romanticism, W.W. Norton, 2009