A Woman’s Place
She watches as he walks slowly from his car to the door. Any second the doorbell will ring and she will be forced to face him. She lets the curtain fall back over the window and glances at Gustave, the butler, as the doorbell rings. She nods for him to answer.
From where she stands she can see Reginald as he steps into the foyer. He is dressed in dark slacks, dark jacket, vest, and white stiffly starched shirt. Atop his head is the hat she bought him in Paris on their honeymoon. It, too, is dark. She has never before noticed how much he looks like a man dressed to attend a funeral.
“Janice, I’ve come to make peace.” He says putting his hands up in a gesture of surrender. He looks a mess. She can see the stress sunken into the flesh around his eyes. Has he been crying? Reginald was not a man for tears. She has not seen one single tear ever shed from those stone grey eyes. Even as he stood before his mother’s grave on that cold September morning five years ago there was no any sign of weeping. Now he stands here before her with something that resembles defeat and grief written upon his face.
“Come in, Reginald. We can talk in the parlor.” She turns to lead the way across the foyer. She can hear him close the door quietly behind him, and she knows without looking that he is removing his coat and hat. As he has so many times before, he will be folding the coat and placing it on the small marble table that sits just inside the door. He will then place his hat upon the coat. This she knows.
She sits on the large red chair so she will be facing him when he walks through the door. As anticipated he enters sans the coat and hat. He sits uncomfortably on the sofa facing her. As he starts to speak she puts her hand up as if to say it is not your place to begin. He politely, and sensibly, obliges.
“Reginald, there will be no sense in discussing the matter.” With this she folds her hands into her lap and looks directly into his eyes. There is a lack of life in those eyes. Small, grey, and rather dull, his eyes are not at all welcoming and friendly. She wonders why she ever thought of them as beautiful.
“Reginald assumes a position that she knows he believes to appear relaxed and confident, but as he begins to speak she can hear the discomfort in his voice. “I know what I have done is not forgivable. I simply have come to make peace, as I said before.”
“What is it that you have to say? I have things that must be attended to and I do not have time for your speeches.”
Reginald looks nervous and seems to be sweating a bit through his shirt and vest. She can see the dampness of his perspiration. She quite enjoys the idea that she is affecting him so. So often it had been her who sat in his position, nervous and anxious, as he berated her with instructions for behavior at a party or when someone was coming for dinner. In those moments she had wanted nothing more than to crawl under something to hide. He is trying so vainly to look put-together that it only serves to make him look foolish.
“As I am sure you are aware; my career could be put at jeopardy with this situation. I do hope that you have considered how that would affect you as well.” He fidgets with the buttons on his vest as he speaks. This is a clear sign that he is uncharacteristically nervous as he acutely aware that he is at her mercy. “I ask that you and I handle this matter between ourselves. It will not be necessary to involve those who have not been immediately affected by the situation.”
As he continues to speak a thought flashes through her mind. She is taken aback by the audacity of this man. She cannot even bring herself to look at him. She turns to the fireplace only to be caught off guard by the painting that hung above. Painted several years ago when they had both been giddy with love; it was a portrait of her and Reginald in the garden. They looked happy. They were happy then. She quickly turns away before she loses her resolve.
“What do you mean, ‘those who have not been immediately affected’? Are you asking me to simply sit back and let you resolve a problem of your own creation? Is that what you are asking?” She is surprised at the tone in her voice. She has never spoken that way to him. To him or any other man, for that matter.
Stammering a bit, Reginald continues, “It’s just that…just that if it were to become a public spectacle I, and you for that matter, would be greatly affected. You know as well as I that it would be unfortunate if it were known by all that I had been involved in such a dishonorable act.”
She looks at him, and for the first time in the seventeen years she sees a pitiful, pathetic man. Here he sits talking about honor as he soils his shirtsleeves. Such a man could not be worthy of honor. Reginald Harrison, a man she had believed to be good, wholesome and above all, honorable, now sits here broken and exposed for what he truly is--a louse.
She wants to feel anything besides this contempt that is eating at her. She tries to speak, but the lump that has formed in her chest prevents words from escaping. She sits back in the chair clutching her hand to her breast. After a moment she sits up and looks at him directly. “Reginald, it is not your honor, it is not your reputation that I care about. It is the good of myself, and my family that deserve my discretion. I only have a few conditions that you must meet without hesitation and without question.” She stares into his eyes again as he slips deeper into the sofa. Now another new emotion has clouded his already dismal grey eyes--fear.
“First, you will sign over the deed to this property and all its holdings to me. This will be done tomorrow afternoon. You will meet me at the office of Mr. Henry Madison at two p.m. sharp.” Reginald sits forward as if to object. “No questions. No objections. Two p.m. sharp with everything you will need to do as I have instructed.” He sinks back into the sofa even further this time.
“Secondly, it will be your responsibility to see to it that the financial arrangements be made to ensure that the house is properly maintained for as long as I am residing here. That includes staff wages, household expenses, and my livelihood.” She cannot hold back a sly smile that tingles at the corners of her mouth. She has never felt so alive as she does at this moment.
“How am I supposed to do all of this? I still have to care for myself and keep my position. I don’t see how I could care for this house and care for myself.”
He appears to be regaining some of his composure. He stands in front of the sofa now as he speaks. He is leaning across the massive table that separates them. “You are not in a place, Janice, to be demanding things from me. I am not a man to be pushed around.” Janice finds herself backing away, slipping into the chair deeper as he spits the words at her. “I gave you this life and I will be the one to determine how this is handled. You are my wife.”
His final words infuriate her. How dare he believe that he made her? How dare he think that gave her anything? She stood up from the chair and faced him. “Reginald Harrison, I believe that you are not in a position to be speaking that way. I would kindly offer the thought that you should have exercised some discretion if you are concerned with your position in this town.” As she speaks she leans across the table placing her face mere inches from his. It is immediately apparent that her strong words have taken him off guard. He starts to speak, but thinks for a moment. Leaning back he stands straight and forces a smile “Maybe we can discuss this deal you were speaking of.”
“Yes,” she sits back on her chair and continues, “I was saying that we will make these arrangements as well with Mr. Madison tomorrow afternoon. He has already written up the agreement and your only duty will be to sign where you are asked.”
Looking rather bewildered, Reginald stands again, “I believe that I need to be going soon. I will do my best to make this meeting with you tomorrow.” He turns to walk toward the foyer.
“Will there be anything that you require that you have not already taken? You have left quite a few things in the closet. Some clothes and a few items that you might be in need of before I have the locks changed in the morning?” She stands and is amazed that he shrinks back a bit as she approaches him. “You have permission to go upstairs and collect the things that are yours.” She walks toward the door that leads to the dining room. She turns back to him, “Gustave will be glad to assist you in getting the things to your car. I will ring for him from the dining room. It is time for me to have my supper. You know your way around and should be able to manage without my assistance. Good night, Reginald.” She turns again toward the door to the dining room. Although she does not turn to look at him again she can feel him watching her as she walks away.
Entering the dining room she takes her place at the large table. She stares at the meal before her and around the table at the empty chairs. The same table, the same chairs have greeted her for every meal for years; yet something has changed. She rings for Gustave and asks him to assist Reginald. She can hear the two men speaking as they go up the stairs. When this day began she was not certain she was going to be able to make it without him, but now there is no doubt in her mind that she had found her place.