Henley towel dried his hair, slapped on some cologne, and walked into the bedroom where Beckworth had laid out his evening wear. He had called his manservant off his duties so he might have some privacy to consider the events ahead of him. With Proberta and her parents due to arrive at seven, he had little, if any time to get out of his present situation. The proposal was expected. Although his father seemed less than interested in the whole affair, his mother was hell-bent on his marrying society’s most eligible debutant. Proberta’s parents, Sir Miles Gerber, and his charming wife, Alexandra, couldn't be happier. As for the young woman in question, Henley felt that, like him, she was just doing her duty. After observing her at cocktail parties and balls, Proberta seemed more inclined to be a reckless flirt than to want to settle for one man, particularly someone like Henley. She was witty, clever, and gorgeous, and knew it. Henley had a reputation for being only moderately good looking, uninterested in hunting, fishing, or athletics, all of which were practically mandatory for those of the male persuasion, and to top things off, he was a bore at social events. Once married, Henley knew all this and more, would only increase her outside interests. However, arrangements were being made and nothing was to be done, or was there?
He dusted the shoulders of his black jacket, ran a comb through his straight, blond hair, and bared his teeth into the vanity mirror.
“Oh, you are a homely son-of-a-bitch,” he said with a laugh. “What is poor Proberta to do?”
He rubbed his two front teeth with his forefinger, smacked his lips, and pulled out the velvet box from his pants pocket for one final look at it in its lovely satin nest. He tried to envision it on her finger, glimmering in the firelight as they sat side by side reading; hers Keats, his Dickens. The thought of her slender fingers (twinkling diamond included) holding up her book made his mind wander, following her arms up to her shoulders, then to her powder white neckline, and then down over curves and softness. Henley’s body quivered. Was it from fright of what may develop from these erotic images of his, or was if fear of handling himself around her sexual prowess? He didn’t know, so he shoved the thoughts - all thoughts of love and sex and a woman’s body - into the far reaches of his mind. This is what he was used to doing - what felt safe.
Just then there was a knock at the door.
“Sir, you are expected downstairs in ten minutes. Your mother said...”
“Tell Mother not to worry, Beckworth, my good man,” Henley interrupted. “I’ll be down in a jiffy.” He could hear Beckworth smile through the door. He is a good man, Henley thought, smiling too, and for a brief moment, he felt calm.
It wasn’t long before Henley was down in front of the glowing fireplace, whiskey in hand, chatting politely with Sir Miles Gerber. He avoided looking into the flames, not wanting to appear flustered since Proberta was staring at him from across the room. He fingered the box in his pocket, and his heart rate quickened. What am I doing? he thought, suddenly panic stricken.
“Henley, Henley my dear. Be a love and make your mother another Gin Fizz, will you?” Henley looked at Miles.
“Please excuse me, Sir,” Henley said, and truly meant it. He quite enjoyed talking with Miles, but relief from the stuffiness of the room was welcome.
Henley walked over to the bar and began placing cubes from the ice bucket into his mother’s glass.
“Hello, Henley,” said a demure voice from behind. Henley jumped.
“Oh, Proberta, yes, hello. I, er, didn’t see you coming.”
“Well, here I am.” Proberta posed enticingly for Henley, who smiled, then returned to the task at hand.
“I was hoping we’d have some time alone this evening, Henley. Perhaps we could take a turn around the garden before dinner. It’s a lovely evening, wouldn’t you agree?” Henley shot a glance outside, then turned.
“Yes, quite. Well then, let me take Mother her cocktail, and I’ll come back to escort you outdoors. We should have time for a short jaunt.” Regardless of what hesitation he felt regarding Proberta and the proposal, Henley had to oblige.
“Oh, that’s perfect, Henley. I’ll wait here.”
Outside, it was lovely. The setting sun cast an orange and yellow reflection on the pond, and although a chill was setting in, it was pleasant enough for a pre-dinner stroll around the grounds. Proberta held fast to Henley’s offered arm, rubbing it ever so softly with her thumb. She leaned in close when the wind picked up, and gentleman that he was, Henley removed his suit jacket and placed it around her shoulders. She smiled up at him with over indulged gratitude.
“So, Henley,” she began eagerly, nudging him playfully with her shoulder. “Your mother intimated to me that you had something you wanted to discuss. Is that right?”
Henley started walking again, this time more briskly.
“I’m not entirely sure what you - or my mother - are referring to, actually.” He turned toward the oak tree above the house, hoping to hide his blushing face from her. He could feel her body stiffen.
“Nor do I, Henley,” she replied defensively. “I was just sharing what I heard from your dear mother.”
“Well,” he coughed. “She could have meant that I should tell you about the new investment I made for the company. It’s an account in America that I know will serve us well. I discovered it...”
“No, Henley,” Proberta cut in sharply. “I don’t think it was a business matter your mother was referring to.” Her tone softened slightly. “You know Edith, no time or interest in Hornbrook Enterprises.”
The dinner bell could be heard from the front porch. Saved by the bell, Henley thought, trying to hide his relief.
“We should go, Proberta. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving. Let’s finish this conversation another time, shall we?” He patted her hand. Proberta sighed, loud enough for Henley to hear, but he ignored her. He gave the arm wrapped around his own a squeeze, to placate her. He knew it wouldn’t do the trick, but it was all he could think of to do at the moment. Truth be known, he was beginning to realize he simply had no feelings for the girl, and he feared that would not change with marriage. He understood his mother’s wishes, she had made them very clear, but that didn’t mean she was going to get her way. It was his life, after all. She had run, or tried to run it for long enough. As much as he wanted to please her, he knew now that he couldn't marry without love, and he did not love Proberta, nor did he feel that she loved him. He had thought that perhaps over time they might learn to love. He’d heard about that prospect often in conversations between both men and women. It seemed a common fact of life and of love. However, Henley couldn't imagine that was the best it could be. There had to be some magic, something to cause a stir within. Proberta did nothing of the kind to him, and although he knew he wasn’t the best judge of such matters, somehow he knew, deep down, there was more.
They walked in silence back to the house. It was lit up like a Christmas tree with lights and candles, and plenty of merriment. Cheerful conversation could be heard well before they entered through the big oak door.
“There you two are. We were wondering if you’d both taken off and eloped.” His sister Margaret’s sarcasm met them at the door, followed by looks of anxious anticipation from the others who had gathered on their way to the dining room. Henley withdrew Proberta’s arm from his with a brusk awkwardness, although he looked as if he’d just shed a heavy load. Taking his jacket from around her slumped shoulders, he nodded in greeting to the group gathered in the foyer, then handed it to Beckworth.
“Shall we?” He gestured toward the dining room with his arm. Proberta stood still, looking sullen.
“Excuse me,” she said finally. “I must freshen up.” Without hesitation, she dramatically rushed off to the loo. Concerned for her daughter’s well being, her mother followed. Edith, after shooing the guests in to the room to be seated for dinner, glared at her son from across the table, fire in her eyes.
...stay tuned...Chapter Three will be posted next Tuesday, January 24th...