Mississippi, Spring 1824
“Daddy’s drinking again!” Alicia’s expression was more irritated than scandalized as she swept into the front parlor, her full, ankle-length silk gown billowing with her brisk pace. “What are we going to do?”
“The same thing that we always do, ignore him.” Elizabeth consulted the ornate gilt mirror between the front windows, arranging the flowers in her hair and checking her drop earrings for evenness. “Lily will be playing when the guests arrive, and we’ll send everyone in here and they’ll not even miss him with all the fun they’ll be having. Perhaps we should have some refreshments ready so the men will have something to occupy them before the dancing starts. Hannah, see to setting out a table.” She directed this last remark toward a black servant making hurried last-minute adjustments to the white organdy gown of the youngest member of the family.
The servant glanced with frustration from the gown’s loose waistline to the young woman at the mirror.
The wearer of the loose gown, Lily waved the maid away. “It’s all right, Hannah. I’ll be sitting down all evening. No one will notice. This is the night Beth’s bringing Artemis to the asking point. Let us not stand in the way.”
The two exchanged conspiratorial glances that said, “The sooner, the better,” and the servant hurried off to do as told. Lily took her place at the magnificent new Steinway that had replaced their old harpsichord, satisfied that she was where she wanted to be.
“Lily, it’s too early to start playing. Why don’t you have Bessie do something with your hair? It looks like it hasn’t been touched in weeks.” Elizabeth turned away from the mirror long enough to scrutinize her youngest sister.
Since Bessie had just spent half an hour trying to arrange the slippery golden-brown tresses thus disparaged, Lily merely shrugged and lovingly stroked the keys. The pink flowers Alicia had insisted that she wear in the elaborately curled and braided coiffure were already listing to one side, tugging loose one of the painfully curled locks of baby-fine hair. More strands would come loose before the night was over. Lily really didn’t think it would matter, although somewhere deep down inside of her, she wished it would.
“No one will notice, Beth. Leave her alone.” Alicia’s words echoed Lily’s thoughts enough to make the younger girl wince as she bent over the piano keys.
“She’s sixteen. It’s about time she started making someone notice,” Beth answered with a sniff. “I’ve taken my time in making my choice, but Lily will have to start looking right away if she’s to find anyone at all. What about young Robert Paul? Surely he must be tall enough.”
The young man in question was of the same age as Lily, with a pockmarked face and a way of stuttering that sent spittle all over the person with whom he was speaking. Besides that, he had once tried to put a toad down Lily’s back. The idea of setting up a courtship with Robert Paul made her wince even more than the disparagement of her hair. Stoically, Lily crashed into a rousing chord of Beethoven.
Ephraim Porter appeared in the hallway as the first guests arrived. A tall man with unruly wavy hair that perpetually fell in his face, he managed to maneuver the rosewood stairs with some degree of grace as he descended amid the apprehensive gazes of his two eldest daughters. Lily, the one who took after him, was nowhere in sight. Elizabeth and Alicia frowned, but he managed the last stair with great aplomb and held out his hand to greet the first arrivals.
“Glad you could come, Harper. Welcome. Have a nip of France’s finest with me while the womenfolk talk.” To the relief of his daughters, Ephraim steered their first male guest to the study, where others could join them while the women safely entered the parlor, undisturbed by the telltale smell of brandy on their host’s breath. Before the evening was over, all the men would smell of the liquors that Porter’s Emporium carried with spectacular success.
When Elizabeth drifted by to whisper to Lily that their father had safely installed himself in the study, Lily nodded and continued playing, hiding her disappointment. She would have liked some reassurance from her father, some kind words that would give her confidence for the evening ahead, but she was accustomed to disappointment.
She used to be his favorite, but since her mother’s death, Ephraim had drifted into a world of his own, seldom noticing any of his daughters. Lily felt it the most, but she had more experience in hiding her feelings than her sisters. Already taller than her schoolmates when her mother died, she had learned to hide her hurt at their taunts long ago.
These days, she added hiding her fear and anguish, first at the loss of her mother and then at the gradual loss of her beloved father. Her sisters were already grown and mature enough to deal with their losses. Lily was not and probably never would be. Her feelings poured into the music as the guests arrived to fill the parlor with their chatter.
When the room was filled to bursting and the gentlemen sufficiently “under the influence” to begin the dancing, Lily launched into a Virginia reel at a signal from her sister. The music came effortlessly, and she watched as the figures formed, Elizabeth triumphant on the arm of Artemis Cole, Alicia pouting prettily at the handsome Randolph Brewster.
The elder Porter sisters were the belles of two states, despite their rather plebeian origins. Every eligible bachelor within sixty miles fell under their spell, just as those of an older generation had bowed to their mother a quarter of a century ago. The only difference was that Alicia and Elizabeth were determined to correct their mother’s mistakes. They would marry wealthy men with names from old, established families, not hapless farmers who would have to sell their land before they could make enough to live on—not men like their father.
As the dancers laughed and twirled and worked their way through the reel, Lily turned away. She was accustomed to spending the evening at the piano rather than among the guests. It amused her to listen to the gossip whispered around her when the speakers thought her too engrossed in her music to hear. She had learned a great deal about life that way and knew perfectly well what their neighbors thought of them.
“Well, I can see there will be wedding bells soon for those two,” one elderly matron sniffed from somewhere behind Lily.
“Elizabeth and Artemis?”
“Elizabeth and Alicia. It’s quite obvious they’ve both made up their minds. One can’t blame them for taking the first chance to escape this household. Just like their mother, they are, and a more gently bred, refined woman this world has never seen. What she saw in Ephraim Porter is beyond my comprehension. He’s turned out just like her mother warned her he would.”
Lily scowled and sent the reel into a faster pace, leaving the dancers breathless and in serious disarray.
The whisper lowered, but she could still hear pieces of the conversation. “Pity… gawky, like her father…. Old maid…. Someone has to look after him.”
Lily knew without a doubt that they were talking about her. She had heard it all before. She was taller than most men and had a face plainer than the side of a barn. Even her father’s well-known charm had escaped her. But she could play any instrument anyone handed her, and play it well. Music was her solace, her consolation, her life.
Lily continued to tell herself that later in the evening when both her sisters announced their engagements. And she continued lying to herself the next day when the house filled with congratulatory visitors and her father hied himself to the store where he could tipple in peace. Music was all she needed. She didn’t need handsome men courting her.
But she couldn’t play in a house full of excited women. Wandering into the garden that had once been her mother’s delight, Lily inspected the roses for the first bud and then strolled to the back gate, looking over the picket fence to the dirt road that meandered out of town. To her interest, a peddler’s wagon was wending its way down the hillside. Maybe he would have a new book or some sheet music she could purchase.
When the handsome young peddler stopped the wagon at the gate and gave Lily a slow smile from beneath a tangled mop of dark curls, her heart nearly stopped beating. When he spoke, she was certain she had fallen asleep and was dreaming.
“I knew fate drew me to this place, and now here’s my lucky charm to prove me right. The name’s Travis Bolton, my fair lady, and I’ve come to sell you the things that dreams are made of. Do I dare ask that I make your lovely acquaintance?”
Lily could tell the traveling salesman was not much older than she, but his silver tongue and mellow voice spoke of a world of experience well beyond her own, and his dancing eyes and charming smile were the answer to all her wishes. Here was the chance to make a memory to look back upon when she was old and lonely.
She made a mock curtsy and introduced herself, and the peddler eagerly leapt from the wagon to open the garden gate.
* * *
From the perspective of nine years, Lily looked at her tall, dark-haired son and shook her head at her youthful folly. The peddler had certainly given her a memory to last a lifetime.