The content in Seeing the Elephant is not all grim, despite the themes of post-traumatic stress disorder, the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, and gross mismanagement of the hospital. In one chapter, Maggie and Eli are invited to attend a winter ball at the home of Josiah Norton, the industrialist from eastern New Jersey who now has a mill and factory in the western part of the state – and a mansion just to the north of Blaineton.
So, let’s put on our fancy clothes and sneak into the Norton party, shall we? Maggie and Eli have just arrived and gone upstairs to leave their outwear before the event.
When they approached the ladies’ apartment, which under normal circumstances was a bedroom, a young maid greeted them at the door and invited Maggie in. Eli heaved a sigh then went to the opposite side of the hall where a footman was awaiting him. He tried not to gape at the surroundings overmuch. Granted, he had lived in Samuel and Abigail Beatty’s house for a short while. He had been free there to gape at their furnishings all he wanted. But this was different. Propriety was everything in a formal gathering.
In the ladies’ apartment, Maggie surrendered her opera cape to the maid in charge of the cloaks and received a number. She had just flashed a smile at the maid, who must have been all of fourteen, when a voice at her side said, “Good evening, Margaret.”
It was Abigail!
Smiling in joy, Maggie turned. “Abby!”
The two women kissed cheeks. Then Abby took Maggie’s hands in hers. “My, but don’t you look lovely.”
Taking in Abby’s gold satin gown, designed to complement her golden hair, Maggie whispered, “And you are a vision!”
“Despite that let us check our appearance in the mirrors and make any necessary adjustments.”
Like two schoolgirls, they joined hands and went to the mirrors helpfully placed at one end of the room.
In the hallway, Eli had found Samuel.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Sam was saying. “This is a good sign.”
Eli lowered his voice. “I think it’s more a sign that Norton wants to get on my good side, so he’ll be assured of glowing stories about his hotel.”
“Well, connections are important.”
“Evidently. Shall we fetch our ladies?”
Once they did that, they all proceeded downstairs.
Eventually, all twenty couples lined up in the hallway until the orchestra began to play the Grand March. The line began to move, and Maggie slipped her arm through Eli’s as they marched through the loggia and into the picture gallery where the ball was being held. Once inside, Eli fetched a program for his wife, greeted the people they knew and made the acquaintance of those they didn’t.
Samuel did the honors of presenting Josiah Norton to the two women. Maggie and Abigail both curtsied.
“I am pleased to meet you, Mr. Norton,” Maggie said. “Thank you for hosting this lovely ball.”
“Indeed, our town has not seen the likes of this in a long time,” Abigail added.
Josiah smiled. It was a charming smile with just a trace of arrogance. “Ah, well, my wife, Isobel, and I thought we might bring a bit of eastern New Jersey out here to the wilds of the west.”
The comment made Eli wonder if Norton saw them all as semi-civilized barbarians. If that was the case, how must he perceive those who lived in the western territories? It took an impressive act of will for Eli not to roll his eyes.
Josiah held his hand out toward Maggie. “May I see your dance card, Mrs. Smith?”
“Of course.” She slipped the ribbon off her wrist and surrendered the card.
Josiah read it and glanced at Eli. “Only one dance, Mr. Smith? With such a lovely wife?”
“A man with a cane is only good for one dance, it seems,” Eli replied.
“Would it be permissible for me to have two dances, Mrs. Smith?”
“It would, Mr. Norton.”
As he wrote his name in two empty slots, Josiah glanced at Abigail. “And you, too, Mrs. Beatty. Or would Mr. Beatty object?”
Abigail laughed cheerfully. “He would not, sir!”
“See here,” Samuel teased, “he might have something to say about that.”
Abigail gave her husband a good-natured wink. “You shall have many dances with me, Mr. Beatty. Have no fear.”
The trumpet’s call indicated it was time for the dancing to begin. Maggie turned to her husband. “Are you ready?
Eli took a huge breath. “I’ll do my best. I hope this is a slow waltz.”
Fortunately, the orchestra struck up Byerly’s Waltz. Its music was gentle and lilting. When the Smiths stepped onto the floor, Eli bowed, and Maggie curtsied. Then he took her in his arms. While the other dancers spun about, they stayed close to the edge, moving slowly but as elegantly as possible. All the while Eli kept praying that he wouldn’t stumble. He had left his cane propped against the wall. But Maggie was graceful and accommodating, and he got through the ordeal by staring into her beautiful hazel eyes.
I feel sorry for Eli, whose lame leg prevents him from doing much in the way of dancing. And, since Maggie loves to dance, he is forced to watch her twirl across the ballroom floor with other men, including Josiah Norton. Yet, we all know that Maggie’s heart belongs him and him alone.
The scene presents an idea about what a ball or formal event would have been like in the mid-1860s. I had great fun researching the subject and learning about the clothing, music, dances, and the customs that my characters would have experienced.
Next blog: things get crazy when Maggie starts a school in A Good Community.
Until then, “be excellent to each other,” to quote Bill and Ted.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder