During her lunch break, Casey went outside to escape the heat of working in the tropical section of the glass Palm House. She ate on the lawn, with a partial view of the herbaceous border, and re-read a note from Tom that had arrived that morning. Especially the part that made her knees shake.
“My parents have invited you and Sam to dinner at Ardara, on Saturday. Will you come? I am so anxious for all of you to meet. It can only do my nerves good to have it done sooner rather than later!”
His nerves! She was going to be tried and judged, and she suspected the verdict had already been decided. She could never measure up to those people. Whatever had she been thinking to let this go so far?
She finished her lunch and stood to return to the Palm House, pausing when she recognized Mrs. Herceforth’s carriage on the nearby path. Casey grinned and waited. Mrs. Herceforth continued to sponsor their project, and since her private tour of the Tropical Section, had begun to take an active interest in their work. She stopped by frequently to look around, tell jokes, and chat with Casey, never failing to ask about any possible young men in Casey’s life. Casey had so far refrained from mentioning Tom. She suspected Mrs. Herceforth was just lonely and wanted company. But she suddenly saw an opportunity, and as the two of them walked back to the building, she plunged in.
“Mrs. Herceforth, may I ask your advice on something?”
“Oh certainly, dear. What do you need to know?” The old blue eyes twinkled; Casey supposed it was seldom anyone actually asked for advice.
“Dr. Altair and I have been invited to someone’s home for dinner this weekend. They are very well respected, and I’m afraid I’m a bit unsure of what I should wear. I’m certain I’ll need to buy something, but do you know of a good shop with appropriate dresses?”
Mrs. Herceforth leaned forward. “Are they wealthy, dear?” she whispered gleefully.
Casey blushed. “I think so.”
“Is there a young man involved?”
The blush deepened and she could only nod. Oh please, don’t let this be a mistake.
Mrs. Herceforth straightened, her face thoughtful. She looked Casey up and down, as if she were not already aware of what Casey looked like. Then abruptly she held out a hand, which Casey took with some hesitation.
“Can they spare you for a few minutes at the House? I have something to show you.”
Casey glanced at the students talking at the entrance. “I can catch up later, sure.” She wandered over to them while Mrs. Herceforth waited. “I’ll be gone a bit with Mrs. Herceforth. Will an hour be all right?”
The senior student nodded, winking as he turned to go inside. “Never hurts to butter up the sponsors.”
Casey followed Mrs. Herceforth into her carriage, not missing her order to the driver to take them “home.” “Mrs. Herceforth?” she said weakly, but her anxiety was waved down.
“It’s not far, dear. You’ll see.”
It wasn’t far, either. In ten minutes, during which Mrs. Herceforth kept up a running commentary about the buildings they passed and the people who lived or worked inside them, they drove through a large, formal garden of cut grass, trimmed hedges and roses, stopping in front of a three-story mansion, covered with ivy, and complete with white columns gracing the front. Casey followed her hostess into the house, where she was ushered through a cavernous front hall and up a wide, carpeted stairway, past a chandelier over a story tall. They entered a lavish bedroom while Mrs. Herceforth called for “Daisy.” Casey had no time to ogle the furnishings, which surely belonged in a palace, for Daisy came immediately, her maid’s uniform immaculate. She curtsied, eyes flicking a critical perusal over Casey’s working clothes. “Yes, ma’am?”
“Oh there you are, Daisy. Please pull out the dresses that Miss Olmstead left here.” Mrs. Herceforth turned to Casey, beaming with pleasure. “My niece from Kilkenny recently stayed with me, and she did quite a bit of shopping while she was in Belfast. She didn’t take everything back with her, and I’ll be amazed if you are not exactly her size. In fact, I have in mind the exact–ah, here we are!” She turned to Daisy who had emerged from an armoire with several dresses in her arms. Without hesitation, she reached over and snagged the dress that was second from the top and held it up for Casey to see.
Casey could only stare. It was the prettiest dress she’d ever seen. The material looked like silk with a chiffon layer, a very pale sea green with a darker green pattern woven sparingly throughout. The sleeves were long and slender, the collar a V-neck with a faint bit of lace in the ‘V.’ The skirt was flared slightly from the waist. It had none of the yards and yards of material Casey had noted at the dance, and which she had instinctively decided would be “too much” for a dinner.
Mrs. Herceforth nodded smartly at her expression. “Daisy, let’s help Miss Wilson try this on. We must be sure.”
Expression neutral, Daisy immediately went to Casey’s aid, helping her undress. She sniffed in disapproval at the absence of a corset, but Mrs. Herceforth clapped her hands in delight. “Oh, it’s fine, Daisy. She’s much too thin to need a corset, anyway. I think she’s smart not to wear one. Dreadful things.”
Daisy was unconvinced, but Casey smiled slightly in vindication; she simply refused ever to wear one. Then the dress was on her, Daisy doing up the buttons in back and Mrs. Herceforth applying a smart brown belt to the waist. They stepped back, Mrs. Herceforth smiling grandly as she moved Casey in front of a mirror. Casey stared. She still was not used to women’s clothes in this era, and even the simple work clothes she wore made her feel dressed up. This though, this was a dress royalty could wear, if royalty wanted to appear confident and elegant. The green was the perfect shade for her coloring, and the dress fit as if it were made for her. Her eyes were greener than ever and the bodice emphasized her small bust in a way her twenty-first century outfits never did. She could just imagine the look that would be on Tom’s face, when he saw her.
Mrs. Herceforth gazed with a critical eye at Casey’s reflection, then nodded with approval. “All you’ll need is a hat and some gloves. Short gloves, dear, since the sleeves are long. A parasol would be nice, too, if you could find one the proper shade and with flowers. Do you have any other shoes?”
Casey nodded. “I have a nice pair that I wore for the dance the other night. I think they’ll work.”
Mrs. Herceforth nodded. “That’s fine, then. Daisy, let’s get her back into her clothes; I’m sure she needs to get back to work.”
Befuddled, Casey let them undress her and she slipped quickly back into her simple work clothes, as Mrs. Herceforth dismissed Daisy with instructions to pack the dress for Miss Wilson to take with her. When she turned to Casey, the twinkle was back in her eyes. “Now, dear, this is not charity. I’m afraid I have a price.”
Casey stood still, hands clasped in front of her. Her eyes flicked once after the dress. “I’ll pay it if I can.”
“Oh, it’s not difficult. Just have a seat and tell me about the young man. I promise I won’t gossip, but I do miss seeing the young people make their matches. Are you meeting his family at this dinner?”
“So you’re quite nervous, I take it?”
Another nod, and Mrs. Herceforth laughed gaily. “Oh this is marvelous. My dear, you are going to dazzle them, you know. I have always found you charming and well-behaved. Even the best families are usually satisfied with that, at least at dinner.”
Casey laughed, feeling a little better. “I suppose I should concentrate on just that, but I hope they like me for longer.”
“Who are they, dear?” As Casey hesitated, she reminded her, “I said I wouldn’t gossip.”
Casey stared at the carpet a moment. Was it okay to tell her? Would the Andrews family find out she bought her dress with gossip about them? Still, Mrs. Herceforth might have advice about the dinner, and she sure wasn’t going to get it from Sam. Or even from Tom, who couldn’t understand how intimidated she felt.
“The Andrews family. In Comber.”
After a minute of staring at Casey, Mrs. Herceforth blinked once, and took a breath. “Well. You have made an impact. But let’s see,” she tilted her head, “it’s not the youngest son. I don’t believe he’s yet twenty. And James lives in Dublin. The only other unmarried boy is…” her eyebrows rose, and she looked at Casey with something approaching profound respect. “Thomas? My dear, is the young man Thomas Andrews?”
Casey’s blush was all the answer Mrs. Herceforth needed and she once again clapped her hands gaily, this time adding an infectious laugh. “Marvelous! Dear Miss Wilson, you are going to turn this town on its ear! I believe several women have had their eyes on him for their own daughters!”
Casey’s voice was small. “Mrs. Herceforth? He hasn’t asked me to marry him or anything. He just wants me and Sam to meet his family.”
This was pooh-poohed. “Dear, you have to meet the family before he can propose. It wouldn’t be proper otherwise, and the Andrews are proper to a fault.” The head tilted again as the blue eyes regarded her, and Mrs. Herceforth nodded once. “I approve. I’ve known that boy since he was a boy and you, my dear, are perfect for him. I bet he adores you.”
Casey smiled shyly. “I hope so. I certainly adore him.” The confession filled her with momentary fear, which faded at the genuine smile on Mrs. Herceforth’s face.
“I’m so pleased, Miss Wilson. And I’m delighted I could help with the dress. It’s perfect for this. Thank you for asking me.” The head tilted again, modestly this time. “I’m always afraid I’m something of a pest, so you’ve really made my day by wanting my advice.”
“You are too kind to do all this for me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.” Impulsively, Casey hugged her and Mrs. Herceforth joyfully hugged her back.
“That dress is on an installment plan,” she stated playfully. “You’ll have to come back and tell me how the dinner went.”
Casey laughed. “I’ll do that.”
“Marvelous. Now, I really need to let you get back to work, and I wanted to look in on that new strain of azaleas. They seem to be quite vigorous.”
They discussed the plant while Casey received the dress from Daisy, and the driver helped both of them into the carriage for the trip back to the gardens.
“They’re going to ask about church,” Tom told Casey.
They were finishing in the kitchen after dinner the next night. Sam had gone into the parlor to get the fire going. Tom had been answering her questions about the family dinner, and he had offered this statement without preamble, since he could not think of a graceful way to bring it up. Casey turned to stare at him.
“Ask what about church?”
She truly didn’t seem to know. “My parents had asked me what church you and Sam attend and I didn’t know what to tell them. I did say that I thought you didn’t attend anywhere, but they were sure I was mistaken.” She looked irritated and he continued helplessly, “It’s important to them, Casey. I know, at the yard, you said you were an atheist, but it would never occur to my parents that I would court a girl who…” he paused, not sure how to say it, “…who doesn’t believe in God,” he finished lamely.
“You didn’t tell them I was an atheist, I take it?”
He shook his head.
She slowly folded her dish rag and lay it on the counter before looking at him. “Is it important to you, Tom?”
He looked at her. Bright green eyes, short, but luxurious hair, lips that smiled readily, although they were currently turned down in a frown, which caused a dimple to appear in her chin. Her small waist seemed made for his arm, and he thought all day about touching her lovely breasts…
He closed his eyes, as if to block her out, then opened them and gave her a rueful smile. “I’m so enamored of you, Casey, that the only thing I can think of, is being with you. Whatever opinions or philosophies I had before have faded away. I can’t give them credence anymore.”
She raised a finger, her expression stern. “That’s not good enough, Thomas Andrews. You’ll remember them eventually, and then you’ll be very disturbed about my beliefs.” Her hands went to her hips and he saw the chin tremble. “You need to figure out if it’s important to you or not.”
“Is it important to you?” he asked her. “I don’t mean the extreme beliefs of Mike Sloan, but just normal church life, normal Christianity? What do you really believe about that?”
She lifted a hand to her forehead and moaned in frustration. “I don’t want to make you angry, Tom.”
He half laughed. “Why would I be angry?”
“If I say I think it’s a colossal waste of time, wouldn’t that make you angry?”
“No. But tell me why, Casey. I want to understand.”
“The Irish have been killing each other for centuries, and have nearly destroyed their country because of it, and you don’t understand?”
“But that’s the extreme, sweetheart. That’s not what I’m asking you. That’s not what I… what I want you to participate in.”
She stared at him, chewing on her bottom lip, hands on her hips. She didn’t answer for a minute and he held his breath, afraid to say anything else.
He thought his heart would break as she slowly shook her head. “You want me to go to church. Sit in a Sunday School class with other women and read scripture and pray and listen to some man tell me what the Bible says I’m supposed to think and do. Am I supposed to do that every Sunday, and maybe read scripture and pray every morning before breakfast, too?”
Her words made his stomach hurt. “You make it sound so infantile and stupid,” he said softly. “And it’s not. I’ve done this my whole life, Casey, and it’s not.”
A tear rolled slowly down her cheek, her mouth in a bitter, tight line. It was obvious she wasn’t going to say anything else, and he couldn’t stand to see her so upset. He put his arms around her, pulling her close. She stiffened a moment, then buried her face in his shoulder and cried, holding him tight.
“I love you, Tom,” her voice was muffled in his shoulder. “I don’t want this to be a problem between us.”
“I don’t either, dear.” He stroked the soft curls, kissing the top of her head. “Nothing’s going to come between us. I love you too much.” He tucked a finger under her chin to look into her eyes. “There has to be a way to compromise. It’s not all preaching and scriptures, you know. There’s an entire social side to it, and that’s just as important. It’s almost like a community contract. Everyone participates one way or another, whatever their beliefs.”
Her brows lowered in confusion and she sighed. “So maybe I attend the bake sales and Christmas parties and not the sermons?”
He smiled. “That would be a start.”
“What do I tell your parents?”
He kissed her gently on the lips before speaking. “You tell them as much of the truth as you’re comfortable with. You can tell them your family was not religious and didn’t attend any church when you were a child. That Sam doesn’t belong to a church and you haven’t attended anywhere since coming to Ireland. Leave it at that.”
“Will they be satisfied with that?” She lifted a finger to trace his lips, still in his arms. He held her tighter in response, aware that he probably was not thinking very clearly.
“I suspect they won’t. But you’ve effectively put the blame on your parents and Sam, and they will expect me,” he emphasized the word, “to encourage your religious education.”
“What if I don’t want a ‘religious education?’“
He shrugged slightly. “All I can do is encourage you. My family tends to lead by example, sweetheart. No one will argue with you about it.”
But they might not permit a marriage, either.