“You must stop this, sir! You mustn’t speak this way!”
The lady’s hand pressed against the bodice of her dress as if to keep her heart from breaking through the cage of her ribs, corset, and stays and bursting right through the delicate silk of her dress. His words shocked and startled her and she struggled to stand her ground.
“Nay, Madame! I must and will speak my mind,” the gentleman insisted.
The lady drew back from him as if in fear. Spoken words were dangerous, as they could not be unsaid. Spoken minds were even worse, as they could be forever remembered.
“I beg you, say no more!” she pled, anger beginning to forment within her at this intrusion to her serenity. “I am a married woman, I remind you.”
“And your husband is a fool to make such a devoted wife penniless after his own foolishness!” he spoke hotly now at her mindless defense of the man all knew to be a thoughtless cad.
Her breath was stolen by that hard-slung word.
“Penniless?” Impossible. “You are mistaken, sir. Utterly mistaken. My family–”
“Has been in debit for months, Madame.” His voice betrayed his sadness as this fact. “Your fortune is in shambles. Your husband has borrowed against promises and his debts are being called in. Even now, the bailiffs are on their way to your residence.”
The warm summer day had turned deathly chill to her and she felt herself grow faint, grasping at the tree under which they stood to keep herself upright. He reached to help her but she held up a trembling hand to ward him off.
“I must get home. The staff will be aghast and my children so frightened. Please, take me home, Stanton, and, as we go, you will tell me all. Do you hear me? All!”
Stanton did as commanded, offering her his arm to lean on. He led her back towards the road, hailed a hansom and, as they drove through the busy morning streets as quickly as may, he detailed Isabelle’s husband’s descent into disgrace, shame, and penury at the gambling tables and moneylender’s counters.
Isabelle’s face grew pale and then stoney as marble by turns as her eyes were opened to the unabashed truth to which only she had been a stranger. “Then we are indeed ruined,” she breathed in horror-stricken resignation, “Utterly ruined.” Not only in lack of money but their respectability – her respectability – was now stricken through in black. Lowell had ruined not only himself but also her, shattered their children’s prospects, and their family name.
She turned her eyes to the man who sat across from her, those eyes made brighter by the tears that filled them, her hands twisted together so tightly as to almost tear her delicate gloves. But she did not cry. Instead, she fixed her face like a flint on this man who claimed to be her friend and asked,
“Stanton, what am I to do?”
The look on his face said all she needed to know.