The crackling of the fire, the rustle of skirts, and the musical lilt of the maid’s voices were familiar sounds to Isabel Hayes, sounds that felt a little more tired each time she heard them. Pre-party preparations, countless hours spent making sure that every hair was set in its place, every wrinkle smoothed out. Isabel’s voluminous skirts swirled around her in a heavily embroidered cloud of silvery blue, colored to match her stormy grey eyes, as she settled delicately into a spindly chair. The maids began to tease her inky curls into a bun, leaving one tendril to rest against her ivory skin.
“Belle?” Cornelia Hayes burst in, the familiar nickname flying from her tongue easily. The maids, startled by Cornelia’s sudden entrance, hastened to conjure a chair for her as well, beginning to tie her dark blonde hair into a complicated knot. “It’s New Years, I can’t believe it’s going to be 1900 in just a few hours! A new year of causing all sorts of trouble for mother’s husband catching plots,” Cornelia laughed, her eyes glittering like jewels in the candlelight. It was remarkable how little the girls looked alike. Isabel’s hair was always composed in perfect ebony curls, her high cheekbones and aristocratic nose only assisting her in her unruffled demeanor, and her full lips curled as if she had a secret. It was surprising how the few features that the girls shared sat so differently on Cornelia. Dark blonde hair, vivid green eyes, and a mouth that was always lifted in a smile, gave her a different kind of charm than her older sister. Except the thing about Cornelia, she was the most reckless society girl in all of New York.
Isabel grinned back, but was immediately reprimanded by the chambermaid dabbing powder on her face. Isabel shrugged apologetically to the girl, talking to Cornelia anyway,
“You look adorable, Nelly, green is really an excellent color for you,” she clucked, fingering her sister’s deep emerald gown, “If only you could control your impulses, you could be the perfect society girl!” Isabel sighed.
“Belle, sometimes I think I should too. But then I look at ‘perfect’ society girls, and see how boring it is!” Cornelia grinned mischievously.
All too soon, for Isabel’s taste, it was time to exit the cozy dressing chamber. Isabel gave the chair by the fire one last, longing look as she shut the door behind them. Cornelia hurried ahead, lifting her skirts to an unladylike height so she wouldn’t snag them on the gleaming wood floor in her hurry. Her elder sister followed, keeping a stately pace, drawing on her countless lessons of how to walk properly.
They entered the lavishly decorated drawing room, where their mother was waiting, perched among the mounds of throw pillows, her modestly cut brocade dress pooling around her. Mrs. Eleanor Hayes’s eyes only glossed over her younger daughter, coming to rest on Isabel, on whom she bestowed an approving nod. Accepting her mother’s praise in the expected modest fashion, Isabel turned up the corners of her mouth slightly, forming what the strictly by the book society girls would call a demure smile. Cornelia, too excited to take much notice of the silent conversation, had already slipped into her warm fur coat. Mrs. Hayes clicked her fingers,
“We need our coats. The fur, of course,” she directed to the nearest maid, a plain looking girl in an even plainer black dress. Once the women were sufficiently bundled, they glided out the heavy oak doors, making for the carriage waiting at the curb. A bitterly cold winter wind tore down the cobbled street, sending the ladies’ heavy skirts swinging. One of the coachmen leaped down, stowing the Hayes women safely in the deep red velvet upholstered coach. Cornelia bounced happily as the buggy jolted into motion, bumping over the uneven terrain of 5th Avenue, closer and closer to the Bryant manor.
“Yes, yes. This is will be a most excellent evening…Mrs.Byant does hold well-attended parties,” Mrs. Hayes mused, the words originally intended for herself ringing throughout the carriage, “And this will be a good opportunity for looking at marriage prospects,” Isabel nodded empathetically, showing a hint of a smirk at Cornelia’s stricken expression. The carriage jerked to a stop, sending the three of them sprawling across the cushy seats. Before her elder sister or her mother had recovered themselves, Cornelia hopped out and leaped up the stairs, rushing into the expansive coatroom.
“Cornelia!” screeched Mrs. Hayes, horrified. She let herself be helped down, then went charging after the wayward girl, oblivious to the scene she was causing. Isabel gave herself a second to giggle at her family’s antics as the coachman lifted her down. She handed her coat the butler, and swept through the coatroom and into the ballroom. The architecture in the high ceiling room was dazzling, leaving unwary visitors to marvel at the intricate columns and gilt wallpaper. Cream-colored couches were placed at strategic angles around the edges of the room. The punch table, along with its crowd of thirsty debutantes, was set off to the side, allowing more room for the dance floor. Crystal glasses winked at her from the table, everything having been cleaned to a shine for the new year. The polished floor was swarming with couples of all shapes and sizes. Isabel rolled her shoulders, preparing to enter the fray. Cornelia caught sight of her elder sister, standing by the door as if the party was a precipice, and she was afraid to fall into the extravagance of it all. Shaking her head, the young Miss Hayes darted through the throng of high society’s finest to get to her sister.
“Oh, Cornelia, dear, where’s mother?” Isabel fretted, “I wanted to go thank Mrs.Byant with her,” she scanned the hall.
“Don’t worry your pretty head, darling. Tonight, you’re here to have fun!” Cornelia instructed happily.
“But we must thank Mrs. Bryant. That’s the proper etiquette,” Isabel shot back.
“Etiquette? Why do society gatherings make you so insufferable?” Cornelia grumbled.
“Mother wants…expects. Nelly, please,” the use of Cornelia’s nickname surprised both of them. Isabel usually strived to be all propriety when in public. Staring into Isabel’s doe eyes, Cornelia relented.
“Fine,” she gave in, and let herself be pulled over to Mrs. Byrant and her clique of admirers.
“Mrs. Bryant, this ball is quite delightful. As ever, you are an impeccable hostess,” Isabel gushed. Mrs. Bryant gave the girls an indulgent smile.
“You girls are much too sweet,” she chirped, “Have you met these ladies, Lord Norington, Mr. Lewis?” Two men sauntered over, appraising the girls.
“Briefly,” the shorter ventured, “The Misses Hayes, it is a pleasure to see you again,” Lord Norington extended a chubby hand, laden with ornate rings to Cornelia.
“Shall we dance?”
“We shall,” Cornelia managed, holding back a disappointed sigh. Lord Jonathon Norington was well known. He was wealthy, titled, and only possessed one topic of conversation; his horse Betsy. As he led her to the dance floor, Cornelia turned to see her sister entering the dance floor with Mr. Lewis, giving him a rare smile.
“Miss Hayes? My dance?” Lord Norington’s nasal whine interrupted her.
“Erm, right,” Cornelia muttered, staring wildly around for a savior. But there was no one, and the song started up.
“So, Miss Hayes, the weather has been dreadful, hasn’t it? Betsy and I have been scarcely able to ride!” Cornelia could see the sweat beading on his forehead.
“Who’s Betsy again?” Lord Norington was shorter than Cornelia. He stared up at her as if she had outright insulted him.
“Why, Betsy is my horse, of course. I bought her overseas. She is the most beautiful creature I have ever laid eyes on!” Cornelia nodded, letting the words slip over her as he continued. She came back to attention as a new, deeper voice joined the babble.
“Lord Norington, my friend. May I cut in?” Cornelia looked up for a glimpse of her new partner. He angled his devilishly handsome face down at her, grinning. Cornelia froze for a moment. “ When I saw you dancing with Norington, I had to save you,” he chuckled.
“And why is that?”
“I can’t resist a damsel in distress.”
“I can save myself!” Cornelia bristled, looking past this stranger’s enchanting tawny eyes.
“Yes, you were doing a fantastic job by yourself. He shouldn’t be courting you anyway. He is obviously going to marry that horse of his,” the stranger teased gently. He drew her to him, clasping one hand with her own. The waltz struck up, the classic notes floating through the thick air.
“Very true. His only love. I hope we are invited to the wedding,” Cornelia joked. The stranger laughed. “I’ve been meaning to ask, who exactly are you?” she added.
“Alexander Courtland, Miss Hayes, but I do wish you would call me Alexander,” he requested, leveling his golden gaze at her. Cornelia’s heart flipped.
“Alexander it is then. Alexander Courtland, a nice ring to it. And while the rules have already been flouted, my name is not Miss Hayes, incidentally,” she replied.
“Miss Hayes, Cornelia, pardon,”
“No matter, it seems we have the same care for the rules, that is, none,” the coy words escaped from her lips before she could stop herself. Alexander chuckled, his dark hair falling in his eyes.
“Oh?” the single syllable was all that was needed to turn Cornelia’s limbs to jelly.
“Indeed. You and I are similar in that aspect it seems,”
“Well, Cornelia Hayes, I think that you might be the most interesting debutante in New York. And the prettiest,” he spun Cornelia around, making her giggle at his outrageous flirting. They danced past one of society’s matriarchs, Adeline Jones, who was talking animatedly to the woman next to her. Cornelia shot them a wide smile. Ms.Jones turned, saying in a carrying whisper,
“I do not know what Cornelia Hayes thinks she’s doing. Dancing with a man promised to another girl! Nothing is official, of course, but you would think she had more sense than that!” Cornelia’s smile slackened, morphing into a frown. She turned angrily to Alexander, who still seemed oblivious.
“Is this true?” she challenged.
“Is what true, sweet?” he smirked.
“That you are almost betrothed,” came the icy hiss.
“Well, not exactly, you see,” he drawled casually. Cornelia wrenched her hand from his.
“You, you are despicable,” she spit, spinning to march away through the tangle of bright dresses.
Perched on a stone bench in the garden, the magnitude of what had just happened really hit Cornelia. And it stung. It wasn’t her walkout that fazed her, the many confines of society never worked with her. Alexander had played her. In all her escapades, she had never felt so used and wrong. Cornelia curled and uncurled her numb toes inside her dainty slippers, trying to slow her breathing. Goosebumps peppered Cornelia’s pale arms, the injustice and frozen air combining to make a feeling that rattled her to the core. She bit the inside of her cheek until the metallic taste of blood hit her tongue, making her gag. For a moment, she was thankfully distracted from the horror unfolding in front of her eyes. The pale circle of light leaking out from the ballroom stretched its long fingers out to the hem of her gown, as if to pull her back inside, to greet the mayhem that she had fled from so willingly.
Inside the ballroom, Isabel made her way slowly across the room, heading for the door out which she had seen Cornelia disappear. Whispers cut through the air as Isabel strode into the darkness.
“Belle? Is that you?” Cornelia’s voice floated through the frigid air. Isabel felt blindly in the darkness until she felt the smooth fabric of Cornelia’s dress. Isabel took her younger sister’s hand,
“Tell me what happened,” she insisted softly.
“Alexander is engaged!” Cornelia wailed, “And he was dancing with me!” she exhaled sharply, “And I cannot find one of my gloves!” This fact on top of all others seemed to drive Cornelia over the edge. Isabel grimaced sympathetically at her little sister, drawing her into a hug.
“Don’t worry, dear. Let’s get you home,” Isabel helped Cornelia up, and led her to the door of the ballroom. Quickly enough they found Mrs. Hayes.
“Mother, we must take Cornelia home. You are accompanying us, no?” Isabel queried. Her mother frowned,
“Girls, it’s the middle of the party!” Mrs. Hayes protested. Isabel’s face turned to stone,
“It’s urgent. If we stay, her reputation could be completely ruined,” Isabel had uttered the magic words. Mrs. Hayes sprang into action, saying goodbye and ushering her daughters through the room. The debutantes and their partners stared as the Hayes women passed, but Cornelia and Isabel pretended not to notice. Collecting their coats from the maids, they climbed into the waiting carriage. The rocking of the cab soon lulled Isabel and Cornelia to sleep, even through their mother’s mumblings. Their grand dresses formed a patchwork of ice blue and forest green across the girl’s legs as they slumbered.
It was late morning when Cornelia awoke, surprised to find herself in her own bed. Blinking the sleep from her eyes, she stared hard at a fat band of sunlight falling across the foot of her bed. The younger Miss Hayes had to press her hands to her eyes as the events of the past night came back to her. Falling back on her pillows, Cornelia laid a plan. Dressing in a white and light green day dress, Cornelia headed carefully down to the morning room. Her mother and sister were assembled, nibbling on fresh fruit. Cornelia snatched a strawberry, relishing the sweetness blooming across her tongue as she bit into it.
“Mother, I think I shall take some time to spend on a walk, ‘tis a lovely day,” Cornelia almost burst into peals of laughter at her spot on imitation of the kind of girl she was supposed to be. Mrs. Hayes’s face wrinkled in confusion, for this was not like her daughter at all,
“Why, dear, shouldn’t you take a chaperone?” Mrs. Hayes suggested, unaware that she was close, much too close, to ruining Cornelia’s plans.
“Oh, no matter. ‘Tis just a short walk!” Cornelia dismissed her mother.
“No. Cornelia, I feel that you should take a chaperone, and that is final. The coachman can be your chaperone, he will be able to drive you as well,” Mrs. Hayes decreed.
“Well, alright then. If you think so…” Cornelia agreed, spinning on her heel. She snagged her coat from a maid, stepping out into the brisk morning. She vaulted into the coach, settling into the wine-red seats.
“To the Courtland Residence!” she ordered the driver.
“Miss Hayes, I thought you were going for a walk,” he turned his unshaven face towards her. Thinking fast, Cornelia huffed in mock frustration,
“Do you want to make mother angry? Plans have changed,” she snapped, parroting the tone that she had heard so many times from angry debutantes. To her amazement, the act worked.
“Sorry, Miss Hayes. Right away,” the driver consented. The jostling of the coach masked her snicker, the sweet proof of a plan well carried out.
The Courtland home was a tall imposing building, with a beautiful carved façade. Rather like the man that lives here, Cornelia thought wryly as they pulled up. She strode up to the wide doors and knocked boldly. A butler opened the door.
“Is Alexander Courtland in?” she inquired, liking the surprised look from the butler when she uttered his first name.
“Yes, Mr. Courtland is in. I shall show you into the drawing room, he will be here shortly,” the butler brought her to a light, airy room with dramatic red furniture. Alexander was already waiting on a rose-red armchair.
“Alexander,” Cornelia addressed him shortly. He studied her curiously, like she was a mildly interesting painting.
“Is there a specific reason you came here?” his voice was razor sharp, cutting at her nerves. She perched nervously on the edge of her chair.
“Well, yes, actually, I lost my glove last night and I was wondering if you might have it. It’s rather important to me, as it was a gift from my father…” she trailed off, staring at his stony face, “But I’m thinking that my sentiment was incorrect,” He nodded curtly. “But may I ask you a question?” she spoke softly.
“I’ve learned that nobody can control what you do. So by all means, ask away,” Alexander held his arms out wide.
“Why did you dance with me if you are engaged?” Cornelia’s voice cracked. Alexander slumped in his seat,
“A long, complicated story with which I will not bore you. Let’s just say I do not approve of arranged marriages,” he said heavily.
“Oh,” the word hung between them.
“No matter, I know there that there are countless men waiting to take the hand of Cornelia Hayes,” he recommended dryly. She stared at him critically.
“Just not you?”
“No, not me,” he sighed, snapping his head around as the butler entered, holding a single white glove.
“Is this the said glove, miss?” he appealed. Cornelia looked at Alexander.
“Keep it,” she insisted, getting up and smoothing her skirts, “I’ll be going now,” The younger Hayes daughter walked out, climbing into her waiting coach. She looked back at the house, giving its hidden occupant one of her signature impish grins. It was a new year. Things were changing. Cornelia Hayes turned her thoughts to her blissfully empty afternoon, where, if she could, she might take that walk after all.
Age 13, Grade 8
Math and Science Exploratory School