Lady with a Rose

Lady with a Rose, by John Singer Sargent

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 particularly beneath 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 were 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 to 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. 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 opera’s thrill remained with her when she awoke 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’d caught the slightest glimpse of him 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 had 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. Miss Thomas was of the view that it likely he was being used as bait for a more advantageous match for Miss Donald, which turned out to be the case apparently since Miss Donald’s marriage intentions to another, wealthier gentleman was announced some weeks after that evening at the van Stykers.

Miss Thomas could not recall having given a moment’s thought to James Watson since the last time they saw one another the prior autumn. That, she remembered, was also at the Academy and was also brief, amounting 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 sudden appearance of that particular 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, and pulled the cord for Evelyn to remove her tray.

As she saw to her task, her maid 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 gotten and prepared for her. In truth, both were painfully aware that there was little difference in what Mamie Thomas did each day (excepting Sunday), which was to either visit or be visited by others 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 her father’s fine collection was the major source of her education, more than the time she spent with a governess and then at a school for similar girls on West Twenty-Third Street, where she remained until she was nearly ready to come out shortly before her eighteenth birthday.

That library remained her great refuge, and she often retreated to it when she preferred not to be with her mother. To be sure, she spent much of each day with her mother, 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.

She was there that morning when Baxter knocked. She told him to enter. The butler carried in his gloved hand a silver tray that had been among the gifts her parents received nearly twenty-two years before—polite society said nothing about how unnaturally short Mrs. Thomas’s pregnancy with her daughter was—for their wedding.

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—deciding whether to venture into the yard when Baxter entered. Seeing 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 several 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. Miss Thomas was in a period of her young life where she was drifting back-and-forth between romance and reality, and the reality of her life and the rarity of the flowers being delivered to her 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. But she caught herself. She jumped from the seat and went to the door. Holding 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 have decided to go for a stroll,” she said.

Evelyn did not appear to understand. It was very cold out and not yet close to noon 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. She 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 asked what it was that the mistress required.

Evelyn went to the room on the fourth floor where the family’s clothing was kept and gathered a wool dress and a pair of sturdy boots that were not too heavy for “strolling.” 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 footmen had hailed for her from Madison Avenue, the cabbie having instructions to head to the Mall in 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 is that she’d received a single white rose and could not fathom who had 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.

Within a quarter hour and still before noon, Miss 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 even though they were not as tall as they would someday be, and they would create a canopy for the many couples and families strolling. 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 geese.

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 flower. She didn’t know why he didn’t identify himself or, indeed, why he’d done it but she knew it was him. 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.

“Why did you not simply visit as any proper gentleman would?”

She thought he seemed surprised and nearly undone by her reaction. Had he not credited her for having figured it out so quickly? Did he think she’d view it as a vaguely romantic gesture, his little ruse? Oh, as he rode his own cab shadowing hers to the Park, as he must have, she was sure 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 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. She could not tell Baxter when his card was brought to her on that silver wedding tray that she was “regrettably indisposed” and thus avoid him. 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 at some public event.

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.

He was rich but not very 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.

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. This 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,” he said after they began, “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.

“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 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, and 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 said. “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 over.

“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 anyone of their acquaintance.