Mamie Thomas was peculiar looking. No one knew it better than she did. Though there were those women whose little-too-big-this and little-too-small-that combined into a pleasing whole, she was not among them. Her lips were quite broad and pinched in the middle—not helped by the fact that she seemed preternaturally to have a scowl—beneath a broad (but thankfully not hooked) nose. Her bosom was adequate, and no more, and her hips were wide, and stood out a quite narrow waist. And her hair. The less said the better.
Oddly, though Miss Thomas understood her physical deficiencies better than did anyone who knew her, she was the least concerned about them. She’d been through two seasons of the post-coming-out market for rich brides in New York Society—always with a capital “S”—and the truly attractive ones were picked off in the first and the not-quite-so-attractive rich ones in the second.
Now, having just turned twenty-one, she was in danger of being selected only by men in their late twenties or early thirties who understood that their own chances of collecting (and ultimately holding) a rich beauty had been forfeited to younger, handsomer men.
Miss Thomas had been around long enough and had read Austen often enough to know that whatever scant beauty she might have had just a year or two before was quickly fading away but, as we say, she was the least concerned by this nearly universally acknowledged fact.
She’d recently returned from a stretch in the frigidity of a western Massachusetts winter at the family’s house in Lenox, and she was warmed quite a bit by her trip the night before to the Academy of Music. She, unlike her mother, shared her father’s love of opera, and though they were neither rich enough nor high enough to have their own box, even on non-premiere nights, they were perfectly content with seats midway up the floor with their libretto translations.
She and her father had dressed particularly well for the Wagner. It was a chance to be seen by many who they’d not met since the fall. Mrs. Eloise Thomas might have gone for that reason alone had it been Verdi or one of Mozart’s Italians but it was not so she deferred, allowing her daughter to accompany her husband.
Miss Thomas liked Verdi well enough and knew enough Italian to follow the story without the translated libretto, but she and Mr. Thomas preferred other, harsher operas, and Die Walküre, making its first appearance in New York, was just the thing to warm a chilled New York March evening.
And she had enjoyed it, especially at the start of the final act, when the Valkyries ride with the strings building and building until they crested across the hall like an artillery barrage. Afterward, she’d seen and exchanged greetings with some friends at the Academy and quite enjoyed the evening for that as well as the music. Much of the thrill was with her when she awoke the next morning and when her breakfast was placed before her. As always, she took it in her room at a round table between a pair of armless chairs. The table was a bit off-set from the room’s window, which looked out over Twenty-Eighth Street. Seated there, she could scan the street and the brownstones opposite while she fell leisurely into the day as she breakfasted.
It was a little colder than it had been since they returned from the country, but the sky was a crystal blue and the sun was just high enough to fill the room. As she sipped her coffee, she recalled James Watson. That’s who it was. She caught a quick glimpse of Mr. James Watson during the second intermission. He was going out to Fourteenth Street, likely to smoke since it was too cold to be doing anything else outside, while she was getting a coffee with her father in the lobby. There he was and there he went and she’d not given him another thought until the first sip of morning coffee took her back to that moment.
James Watson. He’d tried to get to know her the prior season at a ball at the van Stykers over on West Thirty-First Street but nothing came of it. He had, she thought, turned his attentions to Shirley Donald and she was glad of it, though nothing ever came of that in the end, and Miss Thomas thought it likely that he’d been used as bait for a more advantageous match, which other match with such other gentleman indeed then-Miss Donald was able to consummate in the fall.
She’d not thought of James Watson once since the last time they saw one another the prior autumn. That, she recalled, was also at the Academy and was also brief and amounted to little but a distant bow to her and smile to him at a presentation of three Beethoven symphonies.
Miss Thomas found herself strangely irritated by the memory. The memory and the man were, or at least should have been, very slight to her. Yet suddenly they were not. This bothered her. She made short work of the remains of her toast and coffee, including a refill she herself poured, and pulled the cord for Evelyn to remove her tray.
When her maid arrived, Evelyn asked how Miss Thomas intended to spend her day and when and where she intended to go out so that the proper attire could be prepared for her. In truth, both were painfully aware that there was little difference in what Mamie Thomas did each day, excepting Sunday. She either visited or was visited by a familiar list of friends and acquaintances in the afternoon.
Which is what she told Evelyn. She—Miss Thomas—would be in a house gown until lunch and after stopping in to wish her mother a good morning she’d go to her father’s library. It was a rarity, a daughter going to her father’s library, but Miss Thomas was a curious sort and exploring the books in Mr. Thomas’s fine collection was the major source of her education, more than the time she spent with a governess and then at Miss Fenton’s School for similar girls on West Twenty-Third Street till she was preparing to come out shortly before her eighteenth birthday.
That library remained her great refuge, and she often retreated there when she was not inclined to be with her mother. To be sure, she spent much of each day with Mrs. Thomas, but there were times when the underlying unease her mother transmitted about Miss Thomas’s future became too much, and more and more she spent time with her father’s books when they were in town.
It was there that morning when Baxter, the butler, knocked. She told him to enter. He carried in his gloved hand a silver tray that had been among the gifts her parents received nearly twenty-two years before for their wedding. Polite society had said nothing about how unnaturally short Mrs. Thomas’s pregnancy with her daughter was thereafter.
The tray itself was about a foot across and precisely in its center was a rose. A single, white rose. Miss Thomas was vaguely thumbing through the pages of a novel in the cushioned window seat—which looked out over the garden and patio in the rear of the house, which was closed off for the season—and had been deciding whether to venture into the story when Baxter entered. Seeing he had the tray, she turned and jumped down to take in its lone occupant.
“For me?” she asked.
“It just came for you, Miss Thomas.”
“There is no note. Do you know from whom it comes?”
“I am sorry, miss. It was handed to me by some sort of newsboy. He flew away as quickly as he could after giving it to me and saying ‘it’s for the house’s young miss’ without even waiting for a coin.”
Miss Thomas lifted the flower up, delicately using her thumb and index finger until it was just below her nose. She closed her eyes and took in the flower’s deep fragrance. How long it had been since savoring such a simple delight?
She shook her head and lowered the rose. She dismissed Baxter and turned to the matter at hand. Who sent it? And why?
She’d of course in recent years received bouquets of tulips and lilies and, yes, roses. It was one of the rules. If a gentleman enjoyed her company in the evening, a bouquet would follow the next morning. The smell sent Miss Thomas drifting back-and-forth between romance and reality, and in the end the reality of her life prevailed and the rarity of flowers being delivered to her now stung.
She returned to the bench seat at the window, pushing the novel she was considering to the side so she had room to squirrel herself in with a back to a bookcase and her legs bent so she’d fit. The window was cold, but she paid it no mind.
She thought of opening the window and flinging the object out to the back yard but could not do so.
Who sent it? And why? her thoughts repeated. It was now squarely in the open palm of her right hand as she contemplated it Yorick like. She again shook her head as she nearly crushed the delicate thing into a fist. But she caught herself. She jumped from the seat and went to the door.
Suddenly handling the rose like an egg, lightly in her palm, she went to her room. She still had not decided whether the gift was meant affectionately, but with each step of the wide marble staircase with its assembly of portraits to the side that brought her to the second floor landing and each step of the narrower one that brought her to her room, she made herself believe it was a gift sent with some idea of affection.
But who? She’d been back in town for less than a week. She’d seen nobody but old friends and acquaintances. And hardly a man among those.
She knew she was unsettling herself and grew angry at that weakness. Being angry at it, though, did not lessen it. She placed the rose in the right back of a lower drawer of the dresser in her room with care and covered it with an undergarment. She didn’t realize she’d hidden it until she had done it.
Being all aflutter, Miss Thomas decided she was not up to visiting. A stroll to clear her head was the thing for her, and she rang for Evelyn who appeared somewhat out of breath. Miss Thomas regretted having called her maid from whatever task she was performing in the basement kitchen and making her rush up the three flights but it could not be avoided.
“I think I would like to go for a stroll,” she said.
Evelyn did not appear to understand. It was very cold out and not close to noon yet so her mistress could not be thinking of visiting anyone—and if she were it would be with her mother in any case.
“A stroll, miss?” she asked.
“I need some air,” was the response, which was, of course, enough of a response for Evelyn to do as she was told. The maid suspected it had something to do with the peculiar rose that Baxter mentioned when he returned to the kitchen but that was none of her business so she simply and flatly asked what it was that the mistress required.
After Evelyn gathered a wool dress and a pair of sturdy boots that were not too heavy for “strolling” from the room on the fourth floor where the family’s clothing was kept. Miss Thomas was quickly dressed with the addition of a fur coat and fur hat and leather gloves and wool scarf kept in a closet off the front foyer for the family. She boarded a hansom cab one of the footman had hailed for her from Madison Avenue, the cabbie having instructions to head to the Mall in the Central Park.
Miss Thomas told her mother before she left that she “needed to think”—aware of the unavoidable reality that her mother spending every moment of Miss Thomas’s absence to wonder as to what it was that her daughter needed to think about—and as she rode west and then north, she knew the servants would be speculating as to that same question.
In fairness, though, Miss Thomas herself had no idea what it was. All she knew was that she’d received a single white rose and could not fathom who had or even might have sent it. Somehow, though, she thought the simple act could be quite a significant one in her life and she again hoped she wasn’t being made fun of for the spinster she seemed destined to become.
* * * *
Within half-an-hour and still before noon, Mamie Thomas left the cab at the southern end of the Mall. In a month or so, the trees along the promenade would be in full bloom and would create a canopy for the many couples and families strolling its length. Now, though, in March, few trees showed any signs of life and those that did only had a few brown or green buds on the tips of their branches.
Miss Thomas began the walk north. She’d go to the Lake. It was sunny, and perhaps the sun would have warmed the terrace that ran across the southern stretch of the water and she could find a comfortable bench to watch the ducks and the geese and the lovers.
She’d not gotten far, though, when she heard someone call to her.
“Miss Thomas,” it was. Only upon hearing it a second, slightly louder time, did it get her attention, and she turned.
Coming towards her and removing his hat as he did was James Watson.
All became clear to her. It was, of course, Mr. James Watson who’d sent the white rose. She didn’t know why he didn’t identify himself or, indeed, why he’d done it but she knew it was him who’d done it. The coincidences were too tight for it to be otherwise.
When he reached her with a bow, she ignored it. She was fully aware that he’d preyed on her nerves, on her rushing from her house in despair, with his little ploy. By the time he was close, she’d steeled herself and turned towards him.
“Why did you not simply visit as any proper gentleman would?”
He was surprised and nearly undone by her reaction. He’d not credited her to have figured it out so quickly. And when she did figure it out, he thought, she’d think it a vaguely romantic gesture, his little ruse. As he rode his own cab shadowing hers to the Park, he felt proud of himself for having anticipated her reaction so precisely. It was not even noon and there they were, together on the broad promenade in the Central Park looking like more than acquaintances, with little chance in the cold to be seen by anyone from their world.
She knew how proud he was thinking himself. That he’d cornered her. He did it, she immediately knew, so that she could not reject the normal, proper approaches. If he’d done that, she could have told Baxter upon seeing his name on the proper card brought to her on that silver wedding tray that she was “regrettably indisposed.” Had they both been out, she could not turn to a friend or acquaintance or even a stranger along the side of a ballroom to speak of a matter of some importance so as to avoid speaking to him had he approached her in the proper way.
As she waited for his response to her accusation, she softened. Maybe she would have been pleased were she to receive his card. Maybe she’d be happy to have him devote his attention to her on the sides of a drawing room after a fine dinner.
Now there he was, not five feet from her with his grin softening at her question. Why hadn’t he done it in the proper way?
He was a handsome man though too proud of his beard and the quality of his clothing and the shine of his boots. He was some years older than her, but not of the age of the increasingly desperate bachelors who in coming months would be hovering on the margins of dances and balls and dinners seeking the best approach for the woman who was that evening’s—or perhaps even his life’s—prey.
James Watson was rich but not terribly rich and after some rough patches with his father was secure as the family’s chief heir. He retained some independence, though, doing quite well as a junior partner at a small, well-enough connected law firm on Pine Street.
Yet for a lawyer he was remarkably slow in responding to her.
“You think yourself clever, Mr. Watson, do you not?”
“Me? I cannot imagine of what you speak.”
Even a lawyer can wilt when confronted with hostility, and so it was for James Watson, his smile slowly falling, his confidence slowly flagging.
Miss Thomas read enough Shakespeare to know that the true worth of a man—or a woman for that matter—turned on the ability to be honest. To “thine own self” and to others who were in some way special.
It was rare enough in her world for people to be honest with themselves let alone with others. Shields and swords abounded as if they were props in a play in which each person’s role was well thought out and each person’s words were precisely as required and expected.
So she waited. Would he tell her the truth as they stood in the cold March morning?
“I was afraid,” he finally said.
She was not expecting this. The truth. She didn’t know how to respond, but before she could, he said, “We should walk.” They did, resuming going towards the Lake but careful not to come into contact with one another, even the simplest placement of her arm through his.
“I hadn’t thought of you in I can’t say how long when I saw you at the Academy last night. It was in the first intermission. I had no idea you’d be there, and I don’t think you saw me. I hadn’t thought of you in months and months and then I found myself thinking quite a lot about you during the second act.
“I was determined to speak to you during the second intermission, but you were with your father so I pretended to want a smoke. I knew you’d seen me then. But my courage failed me.”
“Courage?” She wondered at the absurdity of it.
“Yes. Courage. You may think me a fool, of course, and I may well be one. But during the intermission I was suddenly afraid I would say or do something inappropriate.”
“Why would it matter?” She was genuinely puzzled by this. They had crossed paths often in the past and would do so again in the new season when they were both among the unmarrieds. They were not friends, to be sure, but were plainly acquaintances.
“That’s just it,” he said. “Suddenly it very much did matter. So, I went out to Fourteenth Street and the cold until it was time to go back for the end of the performance.”
He chuckled. “It is absurd, I know, but—” They were going down the steps that led to the plaza along the Lake and when they were through the ornate tunnel that passed below the carriageway and into the sun again, he continued. “Miss Thomas, I must ask you. Did you think anything of seeing me? Did you think anything of me?”
“I will be honest. I didn’t. Not until this morning.”
“Then you knew who sent the rose?”
“No,” she said. “I only knew that detail when you…accosted me here.”
She stopped and smiled at him. It was too cold to sit, and they stepped to the edge of the water. She put her arm through his, to all onlookers just another pair of lovers enjoying the sun and the fowl bobbing on the surface and occasionally diving in for a bit of a snack.
With her free hand, she gripped his arm harder than she realized and onlookers would have noticed, though she did not, that she leaned her head the tiniest bit closer to him.
“I might have given you a fleeting thought, I’m afraid, after seeing you in the lobby of the Academy,” she admitted. “If I’m honest, I might have hoped I would see you as we left, but I didn’t. And then thoughts of you were gone. Till this morning, that is.”
“This morning?” he asked, fully aware of her hand’s grip and afraid to move an inch lest she soften it.
“I was at my little table with my breakfast in my room. I sipped my coffee and it was as if I were again in the lobby and seeing you and I regretted that you’d not come to me.
“So you were in my thoughts but, again, I’d put them behind me. I was in my father’s library when our butler brought in the rose. The single, white rose.” She pushed away lightly, but only so that she could turn him enough to see him.
“I made no connection with you. It confused me. Who sent it? Why? It aggravated me and, as you now know, sent me here.”
It was getting cold, them just standing there, and they were again side by side, walking back whence they’d come, her arm again through his. Nothing was said till they were back up the stairs to the promenade itself.
He confessed that he’d not been able to get her out of his thoughts.
“Before I left for the Wagner, I saw a fine bouquet in the drawing room at our house. I didn’t give it much thought but when I woke up, I had an inspiration. I would send you a single, white rose. There were some dark red ones too, but somehow I thought the white, a single white, was best.
“I clipped it right after breakfast and went to the corner where I gave a newsboy a good tip to bring it to your house.”
“He wouldn’t even wait for a coin, my butler tells me. ‘It’s for the young miss of the house’ is all he said before running away. Though I’m not so young.”
“Young enough.” He smiled. “I told him not to wait lest he be questioned and I made it well worth his while on my end.”
“That doesn’t answer my question. Why?”
“It must have been while I slept. I’d seen the roses before I went to the Academy and when I woke up I knew, I just knew I had to send one to you. It’s as simple as that.”
They walked in silence till they neared a row of hansoms that waited on the Park Drive at the southern end of the Mall. At the curb, James Watson signaled for the next one and they were soon inside it.
“May I take you to lunch, Miss Thomas?” he asked.
She said he could, and the cab took them to a restaurant some distance from where they both lived where they would not be seen by any of their acquaintance.
This was inspired by John Singer Sargent’s Lady with the Rose (Charlotte Louise Burckhardt), painted in 1882. The painting is on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum. For rights reasons, I cannot reproduce it, but it can be found at the link below.
According to the Met:
Sargent’s sitter for this portrait was the twenty-year-old daughter of a Swiss merchant and his American wife, members of the artist’s cosmopolitan circle in Paris. The monochromatic palette, shallow space, and emphasis on the figure’s silhouette pay tribute to the Spanish master Diego Velázquez, whose work Sargent’s Parisian teacher, Carolus-Duran, had encouraged him to study. Sargent exhibited the portrait to great acclaim at the Paris Salon of 1882. In the words of the novelist Henry James, it offered “the slightly ‘uncanny’ spectacle of a talent which on the very threshold of its career has nothing more to learn.”