Bucks County Writers Workshop
Six Months Later by Roberta Kyle
f Cupid shoots blindfold in May, his targets often exhibit festering arrow wounds by December. So it was in the stately brownstone near Gramercy Park, where two weeks before Christmas, the new Mrs. Coulson sat alone in her formal front parlor. Her countenance was not a happy one. The corners of her mouth sagged under the weight of her furrowed brow. Perched stiffly on the edge of a horsehair divan, the former widow Widdup shifted her gaze to a small card held gingerly between her right thumb and forefinger. She lifted the card up to the light, staring at it with all the enthusiasm of a student looking at a homework assignment. "Bertha Widdup Coulson" it said in elegant engraved script. Her new husband, whom she persisted in addressing as Mr. Coulson six months after their June wedding, had handed her the box of calling cards that morning, right after breakfast.
"Here, my dear," the old man had said, looking up at her solemnly from his wicker invalid chair, "we'll make a lady of you yet." Pleased with his gift, he had failed to notice the angry flush that rose to further inflame the already ruddy cheeks of his beloved. Her discomfort had been duly noted, however, by the ever-present Higgins, positioned like a silent sentinel behind his master.
"Shall I take those for you? Madam?" Higgins had asked as he deftly crossed in front of the old man's chair to position himself next to Bertha. Leaning over her he had whispered surreptitiously in her ear, "Don't let the old man get you down. He means well. Give those to me. I'll get rid of them."
"No thank you, Higgins," Bertha had replied with what she hoped was appropriate disdain. "I'll just take them with me into the parlor."
Cards in hand and head held high she had made a hasty retreat towards the impressive mahogany doors, behind which lay her private sanctuary. The room welcomed her, drew her into its soft velvet and polished marble interior. A cheerful fire burned in the grate. Carefully, Bertha reached into her reticule and pulled out a small flask. Skillfully opening it, she took two grateful swallows of the nerve tonic Dr. Woodward had prescribed for her melancholia. A tear rolled down Bertha's cheek as she stared at the creamy engraved card.
"Make a lady of you yet," she muttered to herself as she raised the bottle to her lips once more and sat down on the horsehair settee to examine her new calling cards.
For his part, the bridegroom of May was suffering his own winter let down. His gout had not improved with the onset of cold weather. Always on the edge of pain, he grew more irritable and impatient each day. Still, he bought Bertha little gifts, inquired after her health, patted her hand and tried to be kind, gestures, which had worked well with his first wife and were what he remembered about being a good husband. The fact that his new wife's morose moods seemed to increase no matter what he did had chilled his ardor as the months rolled by. In spite of daily plates of oysters and sheep gland injections, it had not returned. December was definitely not fulfilling the promise of May.
Downtown, far from the bourgeois respectability of Gramercy Park, the former Miss Van Meeker Constantia Coulson, was also adjusting to the results of Cupid's springtime archery practice. Standing over the partner's desk in the open Greenwich Village loft that served both as her new home and the offices of Gustafson's Ice Company, she was absorbed in the giant ledger open before her. A strand of her loosely bound brown hair fell over her eyes. She pushed it back impatiently. Adjusting the paisley shawl, which covered her shoulders against the winter chill, she began to enter the day's transactions in the ledger. Business was good. Profits had increased fourfold in the months since Constantia had taken over the billing and bookkeeping functions. They could now afford to expand and hire more staff, including, much to Constantia's relief, a cook/housekeeper to take all the domestic details off her shoulders. This would leave the new Mrs. Gustafson more time not only for the business, but also for her husband, whom she adored, and for her ever-increasing responsibilities in the women's suffrage movement.
Stanny (as she now preferred to be called) had not expected much from Olaf when she ran off with him. He was a means to an end for her. He offered a way out of the suffocating, genteel spinsterhood that seemed to be her pre -ordained lot in life. Her mother had died when she was just nineteen, at the end of her first debutante season, and as the other girls had paired off, she had been left on the sidelines; not beautiful or rich enough to be a desirable prize. With no mother to negotiate for her in the marriage sweepstakes, Constantia, at thirty-two, was a bitter, over-ripe virgin sentenced to a life of good works and social rectitude.
So on that fateful May afternoon, when Olaf had stood before her, hat in hand, looking at her as if she were a goddess, and had suggested that once the ice was delivered she might allow him to buy her an ice cream in the park, she nearly swooned. She cared not a fig for the social gulf which lay between them. Here was a man who found her attractive and treated her with respect. He was good looking, hard working, and decent. She asked for no more. By the time they had finished their ice cream the deal was sealed. They obtained a marriage license that day and the next morning a clerk at City Hall pronounced them man and wife. Stanny had gotten right to work organizing both Olaf and his business. He, a lonely, hardworking immigrant with few roots in his new land, took to the arrangement willingly, grateful that such a clever, industrious woman was willing to share his business as well as his bed. The couple spent many happy evenings planning a bright future that included health, wealth, and numerous children.
Now, absorbed in her ledger, Constantia didn't even look up when she heard a knock on the office door.
"Come in," she said absently, thinking that it must be one of the deliverymen with a problem. Looking up from her work, she was surprised to see the substantial figure of her new stepmother standing breathlessly in the doorway. "Why Bertha, whatever are you doing here? Come in and sit down for goodness sake" Stanny laid down her pen and eagerly crossed the room to take her guest's coat and pull out a chair for her. Hanging Bertha's snow covered cloak on one of a series of wall pegs, she smiled her welcome. "My, my, did you walk all the way down here from Gramercy Park?" she asked. "Whatever possessed you?"
Constantia no longer disapproved of her father's choice, thinking it ironic that it was her attempt to thwart the union that had brought about her own happiness. She and Olaf often chuckled over what they both referred to as "The Ice Caper." Bertha sat gratefully.
"Ah, it was a long walk but a good one. I'm strong, you know, and I like to walk. Mr. Widdup, my first husband and I, well, we used to walk for miles every day when we was courtin. I kinda like it. "Bertha smiled as she thought of her youthful romance. "But, that's neither here nor there," she continued. "I come for a reason. I hear you need help with your housework. Higgins told me. I come to apply for a job with you."
Constantia looked startled. Bertha gulped and went on.
"Yup. I heard you and Olaf will be needing someone to cook and clean the house and I want to apply for the job. I'm leavin yer papa. Can't take it no more. He's a kind old goat, but his family and the neighbors hate me and he never talks to me so I'm leavin. I need a job. You need a housekeeper. How about it?"
Bertha took a breath, fingering the pocket of her dress where her nerve tonic resided before she went on. "And when the time comes I can be a good nanny too. I was the oldest of eight and raised two of my own so I know about babies."
Before the startled Constantia could say a word, the front door burst open once more and through it, like the proverbial bat out of hell, came Higgins, wearing a muffler, top hat and waving what looked like a pair of steamship tickets in his tightly gloved hand. Constantia's head spun round to take in the tall, snow covered figure in the doorway. Her wide eyes and open mouth made it clear that the ever-competent, always capable Constantia Olafson, neČ Coulson, was totally thunderstruck.
"What in the name of God are you doing here, Higgins?" she asked testily. Feeling out of control was not her strong suit. "You gave me quite a start."
Higgins stamped the snow off his boots, nodded at Constantia without replying and advanced purposefully on Bertha. Planting himself in front of her he waved the tickets dramatically under her nose and, sounding a bit like a circus ringmaster, announced," I have, here in my hands, the answer to all your problems. I've had enough of you and the old man getting more and more unhappy as the days go by. You need the balmy breezes of spring and the hopeful blooming of flowers to nourish your tenderness for each other. I've talked to the old man about it and he has finally agreed to my plan. If springtime is what you need, springtime is what you shall have."
Bertha stared uncomprehendingly at the tickets. "Stop talking nonsense, Higgins," she snapped. "I can't stand living with old man Coulson no more and you know it. He was sweet in the summer but once the cold weather started bringin back his aches and pains, it was no use. I couldn't do nothin right... and the neighbors, ach!" She made a face. "Didn't they make my life a living hell, always snubbin me and calling me a fortune hunter to my face as well as behind my back. And 'cept fer you and Olaf, Constantia, his family has treated me like dirt." Bertha nodded in Constantia's direction and then stated dramatically to the room at large. "Even a saint couldn't take livin this way. I give up. I'm leavin."
"Hold your horses, Bertha," Higgins interjected. "I have here two first class tickets on the SS Rosa Caliente, flagship of the Argentinean steamship Company. It sails for Buenos Aires tomorrow night and you and the old man can be on it. It docks in South America on Christmas Eve and, in case you didn't know it, that is springtime in the Southern Hemisphere. You'll have the balmy breezes of May in December and see in the New Year with the scent of flowers just coming into bloom."
Bertha was speechless. A look of puzzlement crossed her earnest face. Stanny, on the other hand, burst out in peals of laughter and leapt to her feet, applauding. "Oh yes, yes, Bertha. You must go. This is wonderful." The words tumbled over each other out of her mouth as she virtually twirled around the room clapping her hands and laughing. "Oh yes, I see it all. Six months in Argentina under a warm Latin sun will fix both your broken hearts and Cupid will smile on you once more. Then you come back to New York next May and if you like you can go back to Argentina next winter. Papa will be a lamb on the ship and abroad, he loves to travel and you and he will become close again."
Bertha shrugged and continued to seem both stunned and puzzled. After several minutes of silent reflection, she smiled and looked first at Higgins and then at Constantia.
"Why not," she said with a shrug. "I never been on an ocean trip. Furthest I ever got was Coney Island. The old man isn't a bad sort and we had some good times those first couple of months before the neighbors and his friends started treating me so bad. I'll even take those danged calling cards to Argentina. Tell him I accept, Higgins."
"Tell him yourself," said Higgins pulling Bertha to her feet and handing her her coat. "He's waiting downstairs in the carriage for your answer." With that Higgins put a hand under Bertha's elbow, and rushed her rather hurriedly out the door. Stanny chuckled as she returned to her ledger and the day's receipts. Cupid, she thought, as she added up the figures, has quite a sense of humor.