The silence stretched on. And then, in a flash of understanding, Ellen comprehended it all. She jumped from the settee and flew to Slade where she dropped down on her knees in front of him.
“Don’t you dare get all noble on me, Eli Slade! Whether it is a little house on the side of a mountain or fine house in
, it will be nothing and empty if you
aren’t there to take care of it and me!”
Tears welled in her eyes. She
pounded on Slade’s knee with her fists and then rested her forehead against
them. “You cannot do this, Eli. You just can’t.” Santa Fe
She straightened up and wrapped her arms around his waist. Eli’s heart melted within him. His hands shook as he saw her emotional storm.
“Ellie, can I do this to you? Can I want you to be my wife when you could be so much more? Is it fair?”
“No, Eli. It isn’t fair to ask me to face all the problems of what to do with the land and the house and the out buildings and all the people who used to be dependent on the Aguilar family. I have no idea what to do and you want to make me do it all alone. Just because I happen to have more money in the bank and a bigger ranch than you do? It isn’t fair, not at all. I’ve learned to depend on you and love you; how can I do this by myself!
“And it isn’t fair to ask me to give up the joy I’ve had these last few days. ”
When she leaned back, her face wet with tears, he had no answer. She stood up and walked across to the window.
“Ellie, can we think about it? Will you consider the rightness of it? I don’t know what I’ll do without you, but you so far out rank me now. Is it right to be my wife? Is--” he was interrupted by a knock on the door.
“It’s Mrs. Coulter.” Ellen said. “Just a minute,” she called.
She wiped her eyes. Slade came to stand behind her. He stroked her back and turned her between his hands. She rested her face against his chest and he couldn’t keep his hand from smoothing her hair even as he argued against his right to do it. When she raised her face, he still bent his head and kissed her with all the tenderness of his being.
Fighting the onset of more tears Ellen could only say, “I have to meet this lady now. She is bringing samples and dress patterns. I need some clothes besides Madeline’s.”
Slade released her shoulders and stepped away. He felt as though his heart was ripping in two. Ellen touched his cheek very gently and turned away to go open the door.
In the process of her welcome to Mrs. Coulter Slade slipped across the hall.
Mrs. Josephine Coulter had been making dresses and fine clothing for the ladies of
for nearly twenty years. She had made Ellen’s wedding dress and every
piece of clothing she had worn since.
Ellen was happy to see her again and stood back in amazement at the bundles
and clothes carried in on the arms of her staff and Gilbert, the errand boy. When all of the things were distributed
around the room to her satisfaction, Mrs. Coulter dismissed all of her staff
except one lady. Santa Fe
Gilbert looked confused.
Ellen crossed to the case on the table by the window and took out one of the smallest coins for him. “If you can wait in the courtyard, I will have other errands for you later perhaps.”
Gilbert assured her he would be there and left holding more money than ever before in his life! The coin would pay for his services for the next month-or more!
Mrs. Coulter, meantime, was opening packages and had already arranged several things on the settee. “If you will let me know what you need, I’m sure we can help you,” she told Ellen. She was a small fussy woman who fancied herself Santa Fe’s leader in fine dress designs, she made sure to get the latest style papers from the east and even some from European modistes.
Ellen gathered her scattered thoughts. Regardless of the situation with Slade, she needed clothes desperately.
“I was taken hostage, Mrs. Coulter. I escaped with only the clothes on my back and nearly died before I was saved by an American rancher to the west of here. The only clothing of my own that I am wearing now are my stockings and my shoes. And neither of those is in very good shape. Everything else is the former property of Mr. Slade’s deceased sister in law.
“I need underthings-shifts, petticoats, pantaloons. I need a nightdress. I need a robe. I need at least one good day dress and another plain day dress. Or I can use a skirt and waist-shirt. If you have anything ready made that will fit me, I am certainly not too proud to take advantage of it.
“I put myself in your hands.” Ellen thought wearily that she didn’t care about the clothes; whatever Mrs. Coulter suggested was fine.
All she could think of was Eli, in the other room. Whatever would she do without him? The sun that had shone so brightly just this morning was gone. The excitement that she had experienced when she heard of the inheritance was gone. What good was property or money without him to share it? How could she live in a fine house and know he was alone braving the storms and cold to check his cattle all winter?
Mrs. Coulter was chattering on about a ‘lovely’ shift that was just the latest thing, “look at the dainty tucks below the bodice.” See how it ‘emphasizes the bust line without being immodest or suggestive” And these lovely petticoats- “see how the flounces begin at the knees and make two layers giving fullness at the bottom but a slim waistline. I designed them myself and they have been very popular.” And this! This is the newest fashion, they are called “pantalettes” so outré! They are shorter than pantaloons and have this cunning tie at the waist, ‘reducing bulk you see.” And notice, they are constructed of silk allowing them to rest smoothly between the skin and the shift.
Mrs. Coulter rattled on, never realizing she only had part of Ellen’s attention, “`And I have several of these in stock as sample pieces. The sample pieces are always in the smaller sizes thus deceiving the larger woman into envisioning herself as dainty lady when she wears them. I usually have them left on my hands, but you are so small. Yes, Senora, I believe you have even lost weight since the last time I served you! You are so small that I‘m sure they will fit with very few alterations.”
Ellen approved each one. Those which fit she accepted immediately not caring if the waist was a little large as long as the length was right. Other things she sent back for alteration. Afterward she wondered exactly how much and what she had bought.
After the underthings were out of the way, Mrs. Coulter stood Ellen on a short stool and took her measurements, jotting the numbers down in a small book. Glancing down, Ellen saw that her name was at the top of the pages and understood that the old measurements were being replaced by new.
“I have brought two dresses with me for your approval.” Mrs. Coulter went on. “One is a nice walking dress in a dark blue that would suit you. If you would like to try it on I can see how it will fit.”
“Oh no,” Ellen answered. “I have not had a chance to bathe since I left the ranch. I am dusty and dirty from the trip. I cannot put on your lovely dresses.”
“Well, let me call the maids and we will have water sent up. Jessie can help you bathe in front of the fire.” Mrs. Coulter moved to carry out her plan immediately and Ellen was left to follow along.
In a few minutes, while Ellen looked on, the maids carried a big hip bath with buckets of water into her bedroom. They placed them before the fire off the sitting room. Jessie, under Mrs. Coulter’s direction, took Ellen into the bedroom and the filled hip bath. When she offered to help her into the bath, Ellen absolutely refused to let her help. She could undress and bathe herself. When she had chased every one out she removed Madeline’s clothes and lowered herself into the warm water.
It felt heavenly; she took the smooth rose-scented soap the hotel provided and lathered her hair and body. She rinsed her hair and soaped it again. She used another can of clean water to rinse her hair then piled it on her head and wrapped it in one of the towels. She scrubbed her body again and paid close attention to her hands and nails. They had been neglected during months of hard work. When they were clean and her nails as white as she could make them, Ellen stood up in the tub and poured the last of the clean warm water over herself. She took another of the infinite supply of towels and dried herself, then dropped the towel on the floor to step out on. When she was out of the water she wrapped herself in another towel.
Jessie had left the underclothes, shift and a petticoat on the bed. Beside them there was an ivory dressing gown. She put on the ‘pantalettes’ that Mrs. Coulter was so proud of. They were really just shortened pantaloons, but Ellen did like them. The shift was tight and fit snuggly under her breasts where tucks allowed them room in the front instead of flattening them as a normal shift did. Ellen wasn’t sure she felt entirely comfortable in it, but it was the only thing available besides her dirty one. She put on the petticoat over the shift and was pleased with the fullness around her feet. She didn’t even remember seeing the dressing gown earlier but when she put it on the waist tied securely with a sash and the wide V of the bodice covered her breasts with a froth of ruffles. She left her head wrapped in the towel and went out to see what Mrs. Coulter was doing. Her entire bath, as much as she felt she had luxuriated, had only taken a short while.
The lively lady had been busy folding the things to return to her shop, sorting the things Ellen had specified into separate packages. She exclaimed over her beauty to such an extent that Ellen was embarrassed. She insisted that her friend was exaggerating and walked to the fireplace to begin drying her hair.
“Let Jessie do that for you,” Mrs. Coulter insisted. “Sit here.” She led Ellen to the settee and took the comb from Ellen’s hand to give Jessie. Jessie began picking gently through the long wet air. While her clerk did that, Mrs. Coulter brought the two dresses over for Ellen to look at.
“I believe this one will fit very well if we simply shorten it. I’ve checked the measurements and they all match pretty well. I should take it up a bit in the bodice if you want. The ladies like them tighter to show their slim waist and a generous bust line.” Ellen tried it on and found it fit her perfectly except in the length.
“No, no.” Ellen answered. “This is fine. Just make it shorter and I’ll be happy.”
Then Mrs. Coulter brought out the other dress not nearly so fancy but still attractive. This too was very nearly a perfect fit and could be adjusted easily.
“I need something to wear tonight; do you have anything that I could possibly use?”
Mrs. Coulter looked around. “I don’t have any more dresses. I do have this skirt and a matching shirt waist. Look at this.”
She held up a tailored skirt that hung smoothly in the front and flared at the sides into fullness in the back. Ellen loved its deep burgundy color. The white shirtwaist had tucks on the front with burgundy piping edging them. The collar had an edging of burgundy around it, too. The shirt waist fit perfectly and the skirt was only slightly long. If she wore slightly higher than her waist and walked carefully it would do until Mrs. Coulter had time to hem the other dresses. Without Slade, the joy in her new clothes and the wonderful feeling of her bath was gone. Not even the fragrance of the sweet soap surrounding her brought a smile to her face. If Slade weren’t close enough to notice it, why should she enjoy it alone?