The news of a forgotten marriage contract hit her like lightning. An Unlikely Arrangement.
June 12, 2013
A VG Serial: An Unlikely Arrangement
The earthy smell of grass and dirt filled Elizabeth’s nostrils and reminded her of home. She sat back on her heels to rest her sore knees and stiff back. The long, muslin skirt caught on the heel of one shoe. She fell back and rolled onto the ground. Unhurt, she laughed at her clumsiness and brushed the dirt from her backside. “Elizabeth, old girl, you are not quite as spry as in your younger days. Maybe it’s time I called it a day in the garden. Spring is in my veins, I want my beds to be ready, but the boys will be home soon. I must clean up and prepare dinner for my hungry mob.” A cloud of dust blossomed as her dirty hands brushed the rumpled skirt to remove the last remnants of the flowerbed. Satisfaction warmed her heart on this day. She began to hum on the way to the house. My oldest son is going to marry a lovely girl. His business is growing and doing well. The two youngest boys are healthy, robust, and excelling in school. Life has taken a turn for the better for me since my husband’s death. I am truly blessed.
She turned the corner of the house surprised to see a black taxicab parked in her drive. Funny…I didn’t hear anyone pull in the drive, and I wasn’t expecting anyone. Wonder who it can be? Curious, she walked toward the car.
“Over here, Mrs. Kirby. I am over here.” A young, fair-haired woman, dressed in a long, somber, black dress, perched on the porch swing.
“Oh hello, I’m sorry. If you knocked, I am afraid I was in the back, in my garden. May I help you with something?”
The woman stood and reached out a hand in greeting. Tall and slender with a plain face, she spoke firmly, “Yes, you may. I would like to come in and converse with you. My journey was long and would plead with you for refreshment, if you don’t mind.”
“Certainly, I’m afraid my hands are dirty from all the digging. Come in and sit in the parlor while I clean up a bit.” Elizabeth went to the door and pulled it open with a gesture for the woman to come inside.
“Very well. That suits me exactly.”
The two women entered the house, and Elizabeth showed her into the parlor. “I’ll only be a minute, Miss. I’m sorry, but I did not get your name.”
“Hattie, my name is Hattie Morgenstern.”
Elizabeth gave the woman a nod. “Hattie, please sit down, make yourself at home. I’ll wash up and bring tea. “
“You’re very kind,” the woman said.
Mrs. Kirby smiled and left to clean up. While she washed her hands, changed to a fresh apron, and jammed another pin into errant locks, the nagging notion plagued her. The name sounds so familiar. For the life of me, I cannot put my finger on it. She looks to be around Peter’s age.
Presentable again, she carried the tea tray into the parlor laden with teacakes and her company china cups. She set them on the small table in front of the girl. “Now, Miss Morgenstern, let me pour the tea. Please help yourself to the cakes. I made them fresh this morning.”
Hattie Morgenstern devoured a cake with one bite. “They are scrumptious. You smell of mint, Mrs. Kirby. Do you have a spice garden in the back?”
The delicate teacup rattled as she poured. “Actually, I do. Gardening is my passion. I use the spices in all my recipes and baffle the locals with the flavors. I brought them from my homeland. My sons, at least, can enjoy the taste of home. The mint is from a mix for the tea. I guess that is why you noticed it. What brings you to the Kirby’s, Hattie? May I call you by your first name? You seem so familiar.” Elizabeth settled back in her chair and sipped her tea. She studied the young woman’s proper black dress and her manner; the way she sat…so straight with ankles crossed.
Hattie dabbed her rosebud mouth with Elizabeth’s fine linen napkin and returned her hands to her lap. “What brings me here, Mrs. Kirby, is the necessity to fulfill the contract between you and me.”
Elizabeth stopped the advance of her teacup to her lips. “Contract? What contract, Miss Morgenstern? I don’t believe I have ever laid eyes on you before, although, you do seem familiar. What is this all about?” She set her cup down and leaned forward.
“The marriage contract. The one you and your husband signed at my birth and of your son’s. Peter, isn’t it?”
Stunned, Elizabeth couldn’t move. Her mouth fell open. All she could do was continue to stare at the girl.
“Mrs. Kirby? Are you all right? You look a bit surprised. May I get you something—a drink of water perhaps?”
The beautiful, sunny day, the birds singing in the trees, the glorious earthy smell as she puttered in the flowerbeds, the complete sense of peace and serenity shattered at once. The contract. It came rushing back to her like a lightening bolt from a cloudless sky. Of course, how could I forget? The old days…when marriages were arranged between households to ensure family lines.
At birth, parents would align themselves with a family of prominence to betroth their children to each other, thus assuring the security of the family name. She and her husband followed the custom without question when Peter was born. Over the years, times changed, the world became more modern, and the tradition, although not completely abandoned, was not adhered to as rigidly. Certainly, this woman would not hold her to such an archaic promise.
She poured a bit more tea, rearranged the cakes on the tray, gathered her thoughts, and tried not to project panic. “Yes, Mrs. Morgenstern, I do remember the old contract, but it was a long time ago, another country, another time. Surely, you do not suggest we honor such an outdated tradition, in this new age. What of your family, where are they?’
Hattie Morgenstern trained her gaze on Elizabeth. Her voice remained steady, without a trace of a waver as she answered. “My family is gone, died in an accident. I am alone in this world. From a little girl, my mother told me of the agreement between our two families, and of Peter. I have dreamed about him all my life. I always knew he would be my husband. I only have pictures of him as a boy. Of course, you remember the village gatherings our families attended. Unfortunately, things changed. You moved to another village, and for a while, my parents kept track of where you lived. I believe your husband passed a way a few years ago, and my family met with misfortune resulting in their deaths. I have no one—nothing, but this contract. So, you see, I intend to have it honored, Mrs. Kirby.” She pulled a rolled piece of paper from her cloak and presented it to Elizabeth.
Unable to blink, Elizabeth took the paper, untied the bow, and read the printed words of the agreement of the betrothal. She saw her very own signature on the bottom of the scroll, and her heart sank. The paper became a heavy stone in her hands, and she lowered it to her lap, but Hattie reached over and snatched it back. “Hattie, I understand your plight and will truly help you in any way I can. Your mother and father were friends of mine, and I am so sorry to hear of their fate. The thing is, we cannot honor this contract, for you see, Peter is engaged to someone else. They are to be married in a few weeks. This situation cannot happen.”
Hattie Morgenstern stood abruptly and pulled herself to her full height. “Mrs. Kirby, I suggest you find a way out of his engagement, because I intend to hold you to your commitment if I have to take it to the law. I have taken residence at Mrs. Whitewood’s Boarding House. I will be back this evening to speak with Peter and suggest you make him aware of his responsibility. Good day, madam.”
Miss Morgenstern was out the door and into the waiting cab before Elizabeth could stop her. Elizabeth Kirby fell back into her chair, panic rising in her throat. Peter will be home in an hour, what in God’s name am I to say to him?
Chapters of the novel appear on Monday and Wednesday.
You can learn more about An Unlikely Arrangement on Amazon.