Her new bedroom was small but well proportioned, with all the accouterments of an indefinitely temporary guest: a canopy bed, a carpet from Lauderman's in St. Louis (Elizabeth said Springfield carpets were too drab), a bureau, a wash-hand basin, a looking glass. When she retired, a freshly tended fire was waiting for her; when she awoke, she found a pitcher of fresh water. The only thing she could think to complain of was the jarring sound of carts carrying stone to the new capitol . . . but she commanded herself to think of it as the price of progress.
And was she not progressing, too? Going to her future. Until, without warning, the future came rushing at her.
It happened on her twenty-first birthday, a few days shy of Christmas. Elizabeth had commemorated the occasion by giving her sister a dry embrace, a new pair of shoes, and a cake. It was only when Mary was reaching for a second piece that Elizabeth leaned in and whispered: "You mustn't panic."
Which, up to that moment, she had felt no inclination to do. It was true that Kentucky girls married young and Todd girls younger—Elizabeth herself was barely nineteen when she snagged Ninian. There was at least a perverse comfort in the counterexample of Mary's stepmother, who had been written off as a lost cause until the newly widowed Robert Todd came a-calling. To hear people talk, Betsey had been anywhere from twenty-five to twenty-eight, though it was impossible to know because she had destroyed all the records. "Birthdates," she used to say, "are never etched in stone. Not even tombstone." At face level, such vanity was ridiculous. With her marriage, Betsey had inherited half a dozen children from a dead woman and had then popped out another nine of her own in nearly as many years. She was constantly ill, eternally vexed. Any accents of spring had long since vanished from her face and figure—and still she carried on as if she were a woodland nymph. Only now could Mary see the advantages. Imagine being whatever age you chose! Suppose, she thought, she were to declare herself four. Mama would be alive, and so would Baby Bobby. Grandmother Parker would still live just up the hill. She would still be Mary Ann, infinitely better than Mary.
Suppose now she were twelve. Running so quickly the three blocks uphill to school that a Lexington watchman once reported her for eloping. Reciting from The Ladies Geography and wearing a chaplet of flowers to the May Day parade.
Suppose now she were seventeen. Fresh out of finishing school, a prized dance partner, fluent in flirtation, gazing down the rest of her life as if it were a flowering prairie, extending in every direction.
How had it become so quickly a peninsula? Today, if she were to call the roll of her old classmates at Madame Mentelle's, she would have to add to every girl's name, except hers, a man's surname. Even the least likely of prospects had gone at matrimony with a grim and single-minded resolve, and they now had the carriages and summer cottages to show for it.
And what had she to show after four years of tea parties and late-night suppers? Four years of flirting with the same Lexington boys with whom she'd once picked blackberries along Upper Broadway. Four years of French swiss and pianofortes and blushing for the homesick students of Transylvania University.
After all this time, she had begun to wonder if, unbeknownst to her, she harbored some constitutional flaw. An innate faltering, perhaps, that manifested itself at le moment critique. Looking back at the swains who used to crowd around her on the herringbone floors, she could see how easily she had wielded her power over them, had guided them to the brink of infatuation. Yet each time it had come to naught. And each time—here was the insight that had until now eluded her—she had been the one to take the step back.
Often without intending to. All it needed, in the end, was a passing gibe, a bit of playful sparring that devolved into quarrel.
Take that sweet young Mr. Broadhead, the Massachusetts theology student whom Father had engaged to tutor the younger Todds. Anyone could see he was besotted with her. Always clearing his throat when she passed. Engaging her in the fine points of Episcopalian liturgy. She had given him just enough encouragement to awaken hope. Then, over breakfast one morning, for reasons she still couldn't understand, she had called him the one word she knew he couldn't abide. "Do Yankees know how to dance, Mr. Broadhead?"
Rather than simply have her joke and fall back into silence, she had pressed on. "Is it true Yankees bathe in molasses?" "I've read that Yankee drawing rooms are fairly bathed in spittle." Every word wreathed in laughter and striking so deeply that, by the end of breakfast, he had quite gone off her, never to be coaxed back.
Why had she done that to Mr. Broadhead? Why had she teased Jedediah Fowler about President Jackson? Why had she chided Alexander Chaney for chewing too loudly and laughed when John Wilkes got a kernel of corn stuck between his teeth? She had meant no harm—no conscious harm—and still she had managed, in the space of a few seconds, to deaden every last ember that stirred in their hearts.
It had to be that, in her soul, there lay some rebel contingent. Lying in ambush the whole while and rising up at the first suggestion of romance. But if so, what was it rebelling against? Or holding out 'for'? Something better, was that it?
"There is nothing better," said Elizabeth. "And many things worse." She gave Mary the lightest of boxes on the ear. "It's only a matter of time, puss. At least you still have your bloom."
The very thing you told a woman on the verge of losing it.