Author’s Note: I was looking over Merits and Means, a story I wrote after spending a few days doing history fest last spring, inspired by this house, and I debated about sharing so many different parts of it, but most of my favorite pieces are either spoilery (it’s a mystery) or wouldn’t stand alone. I almost picked the dime novel bit or the bonus story, but the dime novel is just a snippet, and the bonus story gives away far too much.
I settled on the first scene, since I liked the end of it so much.
My new neighbors hated me, and I did not know why. Perhaps this would not matter so much if I did not already feel so isolated. My new home had every possible convenience—in some respects it was almost too modern. I had all the finest things, the arrangement of them was done according to my exacting specifications. I carried the key to the parlor with me, in charge of every aspect of this house. It was my kingdom. I could rule as queen—without any subjects, with a king that was a stranger to me despite the fact that he was my husband. I supposed that I had felt the neighbors would help alleviate the sense that I had some how been… exiled.
No one had said that moving west was intended to be a punishment, and had I perhaps committed a sin that required a hasty marriage to cover over my indiscretion, I would understand the sort of behavior I found myself experiencing, but I had not. I was far from my family, but I was living in the middle of a town, in luxury, and society should have been open to me. Instead, my next door neighbor had taken a dislike to me for reasons I did not know, and she seemed to control the circle around here enough to bar me from it.
Perplexed, I sat in my overly ornate parlor, staring at the empty chairs. I was supposed to entertain here. That was my duty, my role, even my purpose. At it, though, I was a spectacular failure. Though I had been raised with the expectation that I would know this and how to run my own household, I feared I had spent too long in my mother’s shadow. I had her example of everything I was to do, but I had never been allowed to do it for myself. It may have been as simple as inexperience, and yet I could not see what I had done to offend this Mrs. Shaw so strongly as to earn this kind of censure. I had been cut without warning, and it stung.
My hand touched the paper in my lap, and I remembered Mother’s advice, so simple and yet it seemed impossible. Cultivate other social connections and—this was perhaps the worst of her advice—never forget, daughter, if the house seems empty now, you will soon fill it. I moved my hand to my stomach, so thin and trim as Mother and the lady’s maid had forced it to become, and shook my head.
Though by law he was my husband, in truth he seemed more like a housemate, and barely that. The idea of our union had been suggested and almost wholly arranged by our parents. Before what I thought a true courtship had even a chance to start, I suddenly found myself affianced without that question being asked—at least not of me. I had barely spoken to the man before it all happened. Everything was rushed as he was due to head west for a very important position—some sort of vice presidency in his family’s business—and that meant, of course, that he must be sent with his wife and possessions as well. I was, I sometimes thought, considered one of those possessions. I had little say in any of what took place. They arranged a morning ceremony, a reception in the afternoon, and then gave us over to the berth on the last train of the day, shipping me off west without another thought.
I had thought this was all what I was supposed to do—obey my parents and their wishes, to acquire a husband to provide for me for the rest of my life, and to settle in my own home and raise my own family. I knew of no other life, and yet I found myself wondering what I had done that I deserved this fate.
My husband was not by any means unpleasant, I would not say that at all—it was difficult to find fault with a man who was never there, after all. It was simply… awkward between us whenever we were together, and such a thing was rare enough. His position and the work he did kept him out late enough to where I frequently ate without him and retired to my room before he even arrived home.
Perhaps I should hire some sort of servant. Though there was not much around the house to keep me all that busy, I would at least have someone to talk to for a change.
I heard a knock and jerked my head up, looking over at the French doors, startled. “Mr. Attwater.”
His lips curved into a smile, and some of the fatigue disappeared from his face. For a man of five and twenty, he looked at least ten years older when he returned home after a long day of work. On the other hand, he was rather handsome when he smiled. It gave a different light to his dark eyes and softened the sharpness of his features. “Are you going to call me that for the rest of our lives, Philomena?”
I flushed. Some women did that, called their husbands “Mister” or even “Father,” but I suspected that he knew my use of the title came from the fact that I still felt he was a stranger to me. “I suppose that depends. You are home quite early today, aren’t you? Unless I was woolgathering for longer than I realized, in which case, dinner shall be very late—or shall have to be cold or—”
“You do not have to fret. I am early and not terribly hungry,” he said, coming into the parlor. His eyes went to the letter and then back to my face. “Are you… homesick?”
“What makes you ask that?”
“The way you looked when I came in, the fact that you did not hear me when I did, and when I spoke to you first, you again failed to hear me. I had to knock,” he answered, sitting down next to me.
Embarrassed, I sighed. “I am not—This is my home now. This is where I belong. It is… I seem to have done something wrong and everyone here hates me.”
“They cannot possibly hate you. They do not know you,” he corrected, leaning back in his chair and flexing his hand as he did. I was not sure what that habit of his was, but I had noticed him doing more and more since we’d been here. Of course, given how little I knew of him, that meant nothing. “I cannot believe it is anything you did. You and I are new to the area. Perhaps they need time.”
I looked away. He had a point, but then he was not the one being snubbed. My failures reflected on him unfavorably, but that was not the same. “Why are you home early?”
“My project was finished, and I refused to start another today,” he answered, yawning. “I think I shall retire early.”
He rose, and I watched him walk toward the door. I shook my head. Surely we could not continue like this for the rest of our lives. “Mr. Attwater?”
“Merritt.” He did not stop, rather forcing me to follow him. I set the letter aside and rose, making my way to the pocket door before I stopped.
“Are you suggesting that what I ask has to have merit? Why are we discussing merits all of a sudden?”
He laughed as he reached the stairs, looking back at me. “My name is Merritt. You could try using it, Mrs. Attwater.”