Chapter 3 – Matching wits

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As predicted, a couple of the most involved members of the ladies’ circle showed up at Lucille’s door within hours, with appropriately concerned looks on their faces and spelling trouble from a distance. Lucille crushed a few choice words between her teeth and remembered to smile. She sometimes wished that the mores of their society allowed women to express frustration in the same care free and irreverent way men did, but alas, she was a lady, and ladies never lost their composure. She took a deep breath to let irritation settle down, raised her chin and opened the door.

“Rosemary, Giselle, what a pleasure to see you so early! Everything is well, I hope?” she mimicked concern, at the same time managing to point out the etiquette gaffe of showing up at one’s house so early in the morning.

She was hoping this detour would unsettle her acquaintances enough for her to redirect the conversation to a safe subject, like the deplorable state of young girls’ fashion these days, or who had the best recipe for jam, but the ladies were on a mission.

“Our poor Lucille!”

“Such misfortune, dear, and so unfair, but we want you to know that we’re here for you, after all it was never your fault and the circle shouldn’t hold this against you.”

“Such a shame! We can’t even imagine how you’re coping!”

“How could Mary do such a thing to you! If there is anything that we can do to help!” they took turns bombarding her with fake sympathy the same way poker sharks confuse a sucker with kindness before they wipe him out.

Lucille wasn’t a sucker. She reevaluated her position, cursed Mary under her breath for having put her in this situation and smiled, gesturing politely to the ladies that they should come right in.

“I’m afraid I don’t know what you are talking about,” she faked worry. “Let me sit down for a second to catch my breath, I feel a little lightheaded,” she said, bringing up a pallor and patting her face with the handkerchief to elicit concern.

The ladies had known Lucille for decades, and the handkerchief production was old news to them, but they couldn’t breach the social mores, so they had to spend about twenty minutes rubbing her hands and fetching her cold water, while Lucille made herself look sicker to play for time.

The fact that the good lady could look unwell at will was an amazing skill that would have ensured her a glorious career in theater, if only the rules of society didn’t prohibit a woman of her standing from entertaining such pursuits. She’d been masterful at engaging audiences since she was a young girl, and her gift of emulating and drawing upon human emotion made her a formidable opponent in deliberations within the ladies’ circle.

She made good use of the twenty minutes, steeling herself against the sharpness of embarrassment and blame, two weapons she assessed would be brandished by default. She was looking through her eyelashes at the two, trying to figure out what they knew in order to develop her strategy. Unfortunately she let a little shrewd glimmer through, and it didn’t escape Rosemary’s keen eye. The latter got up and went back to her chair on the opposite side of the table, thus putting an official end to the charade.

“Well, we’re hoping you feel better, dear! The situation is grave, you really have to do something, Lucille…” she paused for effect. “About Mary, poor thing!” and stopped, in a hope that the reverberations of the last phrase would press Lucille to volunteer information.

The latter didn’t budge. The silence between the two became uncomfortable, with poor Giselle left in the middle to wriggle in the drama.

Giselle was relatively harmless, at least compared with Rosemary and Lucille, who could guilt the feathers off a chicken if they felt the situation warranted it. Poor Giselle couldn’t take the pressure anymore and spoke, despite a glut of piercing glances from the battling opponents.

“We’re afraid poor Mary sought her own reflection,” Giselle’s mild voice faded to a whisper.

As she stood across the table, wringing her hands with a pained look on her face, it would have been difficult for a distracted person to distinguish her from the furniture.

Rosemary always brought Giselle along everywhere, to create the illusion of social support, but everybody knew the latter had as many personal opinions as a potted plant, and pretty much the same personality. Rosemary was secretly furious that Giselle spoke out of school and ruined the scenario she was trying to develop, but couldn’t show that, of course, so she smiled and decided to torment the wallpaper flower later with one of her favorite conversations. If delicate allusions about Giselle’s lack of talent for needlework didn’t do the job, she could always fall back on the wedding subject. Her friend never married and this gave Rosemary ammunition for decades of put-downs.

Lucille looked distressed and brought up the handkerchief again. As much as she loved Mary, she could choke the girl right now for forcing her into this uncomfortable situation. She wiped her nose needlessly and spoke.

“Poor Mary, oh, my poor dear! Where did I go wrong? I tried so hard to raise her well, even considering her dreadful… condition,” she brought the handkerchief to her eyes in an attempt to engender sympathy.

Rosemary didn’t relent.

“We fear the dear girl has lost her way, Lucille. We’re all very concerned of what this means for our society, you know, with the omen, and all. I know you don’t give any credence to these superstitions, but she’s going to cause trouble if the situation isn’t addressed immediately. What if other young girls start defying the principles of our society like that? As if the dreadful state of fashion of our youth weren’t enough reason for concern!” she descended from her moral outrage on a safe subject, to signal to Lucille an opening for negotiations.

The latter was wondering what Rosemary wanted, and nodded to allow her to follow her streak.

“If only we could find that dreadful object and destroy it, maybe we can nip this terrible corruption in the bud and protect our young people from its wickedness. You wouldn’t happen to know where the poor child could have found a mirror, would you?” she glanced swiftly at Lucille, giving away the real purpose of her visit.

There had been gossip during Lucille’s youth that Rosemary had sought her own image, and the rumor mill ran for months, in secret, debating her reasons, her morality and her endangered soul. Rosemary never admitted to any of it, of course, and her parents defended her honor fiercely, managing to shield her from what could have been a socially disastrous event and arranging for her to get married quickly, before the rumor broke out publicly.

One didn’t know what Rosemary saw in that mirror, but her personality changed overnight. She turned from a Giselle to a Lucille with a speed that made her family members’ heads spin, and Lucille could only assume her acquaintance had been pleasantly surprised by what she saw.

‘So this is what you want!’ Lucille thought. ‘Our pillar of morality wants her mirror back, if only a little late!’

She meant it as a mean comment, but the state of fact was that Rosemary had aged well, with a glowing, wrinkle free complexion, a nice figure and only a few strands of gray in her hair. The she-dragon looked good and she knew it. Lucille continued.

“What on earth would you want with such a cursed object! I hesitate to ask Mary, she never talked to me about any of this! Are you sure she saw her reflection, Rosemary? You know people can be very cruel with their gossiping? We haven’t had mirrors in this village since our youth, when council leader Abraham destroyed the last one in the public square. You remember that, don’t you?” she threw a sharp glance at Rosemary to catch her unawares.

Rosemary looked like the picture of innocence, wide eyed and expressing proper moral outrage.

“That was a long time ago, my memory isn’t what it used to be,” she went on the defensive.

“Nonsense, dear, I’m sure you’re as sharp as you were in your twenties!” Lucille retorted.

“So you didn’t talk to Mary about this?” Rosemary continued prodding.

“Why would I even think such a terrible thing were possible?” Lucille reached high moral ground. “I’m really reluctant to discuss grave issues like this with her, she is sensitive, you know? Even considering the terrible misfortune of her birth, she has a kind soul. I fear that expressing suspicion might make her lose her way, and if this is just gossip!…”

“I’m sure it’s worth the risk,” Rosemary interrupted her bluntly, with an irritated tone she couldn’t dissimulate.

She never liked Mary, saw her as a threat and was secretly pleased that finally a reason for banishment presented itself. How could one live in the same house with the green eyed curse was beyond her.

“After all, the girl is fair! How do you know what she is capable of?”

Lucille didn’t answer.

“Well, we took a lot of your time, didn’t we, Giselle?” Rosemary looked at her self-effacing companion with a commanding stare that dislodged the wallflower from her chair.

“Oh, yes indeed, we really were on our way to the market, we just thought we’d stop by your house and give you the news,” Giselle started to talk, only to be met by grizzly looks from Rosemary, who didn’t appreciate when people of Giselle’s caliber tried to convey meaning in her presence.

“We won’t keep you, dear. Could you please give our best to Mary, and assure her that we’re all thinking and praying for her, now in her time of need,” she ended the conversation, getting up from the chair with a grunt.

She hated old age passionately, especially during moments like this, when her aching back reminded her she wasn’t twenty anymore.

“I’m so glad you could stop by early, you know it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, we really should do this more often!” Lucille reminded Rosemary that it was ten in the morning and she was woefully in breach of etiquette.

“We’re looking forward to seeing you at our house, Joel was asking about you and I’m sure he’d like to express his well-wishes directly,” Rosemary threw a poison arrow back at Lucille, managing to touch upon her prolonged widowhood and the fact that Joel used to find Mary’s auntie quite fetching in their youth.

Rosemary straightened her shoulders triumphantly.

“We really have to be off, look at the time! Don’t forget to ask Mary about the mirror, will you? We need to nip this in the bud!”

‘Wouldn’t you give an eyetooth to get it!’ Lucille thought, waving at the two departing ladies, who had already started whispering among themselves the second they were past the garden gate.

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