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I had two primary inspirations for "Vivienne Degraine." The first was a dream, which was something about a girl, attending a banquet with her parents and brother, who encountered a former lover -- unfortunately, I woke up before the story was properly concluded. The second inspiration came when I took a train tour and, the doors between my car and the next being left open, I could see into that next and imagine what it would be like to see someone both familiar and unexpected as one of its passengers.
This story may be set either in the United States or in England -- I couldn't myself decide, so readers may choose between the two as they prefer.
Thanks to "Duchess," aka Mrs. Hungerford, for the name Vivienne.
"Dear, dear Aunt Clara,
I write from my train to tell you that I have decided to stay with Mother and Father, rather than returning to you after the dinner and ball, for not a reason but an inexplicable inclination. (If you come to be dying to see me again, please do spend Christmas with us!) I think I shall not write any more, because this particular train, or perhaps the engineer, is rather unpredictable in movement, and I am afraid I will knock over my ink—so now I will be off to post this note.
Vivienne C. Degraine"
Having finished her note, Vivienne closed her ink and set it back in a satisfied manner, glad that the engineer had not managed to spill it for her, before she put the note into an envelope and closed and stamped the latter. Then, she rose, smoothed out her skirts, and opened her compartment's door to step out and make her way to the post office car.
Unfortunately, someone had left the doors open between this car and the next; the woman shivered and and went to close them, but she had only traversed a quarter of the car's length when the train rounded a bend and she could see the compartment doors in the next car. She froze, not because of the chill air, but because of the figure which she saw closing a door and turning to come through the passage in which she stood, while her breath was caught in a faint gasp. By the time the personage passed her door, she had grasped the doorknob with unsteady fingers and whirled herself back inside, holding the door open but a crack and peering out to watch the alarming passerby.
Another girl, on her way to the dining car, was not at all surprised by the man whom she passed in that car—why was Vivienne so dramatic? The man passed her door, and she put one hand across her mouth, her other supporting her as she wilted against the door frame, her heart stepping forward and cheeks flushing, knees weak and thoughts flying again and again through the same figure-eight: he looked like Eustace Meliot, she saw Eustace Meliot on her train, she could not take this train any farther, she must unless she preferred to be late, she must not be seen nor could she see him again, what might happen if she did meet him?, how could they possibly have chosen the same train?, was he Eustace Meliot after all?, and back to the fact that he looked exactly like that individual. As her mind attempted to carry out its business of thinking with clarity, her heart was also occupied by fretting over the pinch it had felt, which was followed by an ache and a burn, the former of regret and the latter of some resentment. After indulging in emotion for several minutes, she put on a hat with a veil and took up the letter which she had dropped on the floor, for she must post it, even if there was a chance that she would encounter one for whose company she did not care.
She did not see Eustace Meliot on her way either or from the post office car, but her ear was alert as any girl's could be, or it might have been more so—suspicious, too—, and she heard someone pass her at a gait that might have been familiar.
“Are you well, Miss?” asked the man who took her letter, observing that she flinched.
Vivienne murmured that she was well enough, for she thought she was, having neither fainted nor lost much control of herself.
Indeed, when necessary, she was fairly strong of spirit, as though she had an iron core through her heart, which attracted some and repelled others, causing her not a little sadness in her adulthood. As a girl, she had never happened upon circumstances in which she must display her will, but as a woman her sphere was less homogeneous, her acquaintance larger and generally more critical, and her options for conduct greater in any given situation, and those with whom she associated were sometimes affronted by her inexorability.
Her character was both a blessing and a curse, she thought as she crossed the post office's vestibule on her way back to her own car, stepped onto the plate between the cars, and, seeing motion from the corner of her eye, glanced up to see another passenger opening the next car's door to come her way.
Flinching again, she lost her footing and was assisted by the other passenger, who leaned forward to grasp her hand and pull her into the vestibule in which he stood, with an “Are you shaken, Madam?” when he felt a tremor in her hand.
Again, her voice quiet, low, halting here and there, Vivienne replied, “No—I am—I am quite fine—thank you—” as she took back her hand and hurried through the door.
In her compartment, she sank to a chair and gazed at her hand—wonder! Had Eustace Meliot truly held that hand to help her across? As she thought such, her heart pinched and ached again, yet it burned but slightly, snuffed out as quickly as is a floating spark, the minute flame smothered by a little sneaking cloud of something far softer than the rancor—and she gingerly laid her hand over her face after putting her lips to it for a moment.
It was peculiar, at the very least, that he had come on this train. No, it was not peculiar; it was absolutely strange, and unimaginably coincidental and unfortunate! Yet, perhaps it was not quite unfortunate, for she knew that her mouth had taken the shape of a smile both nostalgic and mischievous, and she laughed to herself, wondering what Eustace would think if he knew the identity of the lady whom he had encountered. Had not she worn a veil, he certainly would have recognized her and certainly would not have helped her, at which thought her mirth crept away, yielding to a sigh. If only mankind would learn to consider all possible consequences before speaking, or even allowing the display of facial expression! If only emotions did not play and build from one another, impetuosity did not exist, or humanity did not find forgiveness difficult or humiliating—if only perfection was attainable, she would not have avoided Eustace, or felt uneasiness when she saw him, or been remorseful at the thought of him. If only she had been endowed with clearer foresight three years ago, and greater maturity, he would have smiled at her own face as he led her from car to car, and this affliction would not be hers.
Why had not she been forgiving and willing to confess her responsibility for her share of the strife?
Eventually, having more sense than to spend all her time in dwelling upon certain aspects of the past and present, she took a book from her bag and began to read, with which activity she filled the couple of hours between the afore-depicted events and her change of train.
When the train entered her station, she sighed, relieved that she was parting from the chance of meeting Eustace again, collected the luggage she had with her, and descended to the platform, where she stood to wait for a porter, to tell him where to take her trunk. It happened that many passengers chose to leave the train at this station, so the porters were quite busy and took rather a long time to unload all the trunks. Vivienne was fated for misfortune on that journey, for as she waited, one passenger descended, looked at his watch as he walked toward the station, and, failing to see her, collided with her shoulder.
He apologized, of course, and observing that she was the lady whom he had come across between cars, he remarked upon the the peculiar coincidence that they now met again, and then he courteously picked up the bag which he had caused her to drop. It was only natural that he should look at it as he did so, but a passerby might have thought his expression most unnatural.
How can three letters be so astonishing? Then he thought he might have misread their sequence, so he looked at the bag again, only to see that he had not, nor had he mistaken the style in which the V.C.D. was engraved.
“Miss—Degraine—!” he exclaimed, holding out her bag in an abrupt, startled manner.
Vivienne elegantly extended her arm and clutched the handle of her bag. “Thank you, Mr. Meliot, and good afternoon,” was her stately response. “Excuse me; I must board my next train.”
By all appearances, she had been utterly unruffled by speaking to Eustace, but she felt lightheaded from breathing too quickly and shallowly, and her hand and arm seemed weak when she held the bar to keep her balance while climbing into the train. Ought anything more sensible to have been expected of her? It hardly could have been, when she was a young woman who happened upon a former lover, from whom she had parted with haste and indignation that she once thought righteous.
Standing by a window in her luxurious quarters, looking absently over the platform below her, she shook her head and sighed at herself for her silliness. There was no true reason for heart to speed, face to heat, breath to be shortened, or hand to quiver—there was no reason to pace through memory. Why could not past be left as such? Why must such an unlikely coincidence occur to her? Why could she not help but to think of Eustace?
Nay, she thought, why will I think of naught but him—and I know that very well, as she pulled a white lily from the vase on a table by her side and idly rolled its stem between her fingers, brushing the petals against her cheek, which was nearly as pale as they. But I cannot dwell so, or I will be absurd—the girl with dreams in her eyes—and sour grapes! if I loathe the idea simply because my dreams are caged, confined, only given leave to peer out from my eyes.
The five minute whistle blew, and a few straggling passengers hurried to the train before the doors were closed and it set off for the next city. When the last of them had left the platform, Vivienne sighed again and smiled, her shoulders relaxing as she realized the absence of a cause for nervousness—he had not numbered among the hurriers-aboard.
Two nights later, Mr. and Mrs. Degraine met their daughter at the ---------- (town) station and proceeded to the Marriotts' house, where they were to stay for the ball and house party. They arrived in the early evening, at that comfortable time after a few other guests but before the latecomers, and were conducted to a sitting room to converse with the others before the dances. Another group entered not ten minutes later, and its members dispersed themselves throughout the rest of the company, with a “Hello!” here and an “Oh, what a long time--how very good to see you!” there, a particularly warm smile toward some, and a slight snub toward others.
Vivienne was speaking to her mother and a Miss Heyde, who had been her close friend in girlhood, when she heard her brother, William, greeting someone whom he was evidently pleased to see, saying, “How many years has it been? I think I haven't spoken to you since you went to live ----------(city); was it three years ago? Well, how are you faring?”
Out of curiosity, she turned to her brother--and then she clutched her mother's arm for a moment to prevent herself from stumbling, for her legs were inclined to be unsteady. She composed herself quickly and continued her discussion, slowly shifting away from her brother and his companion, who was--naturally--none other than Eustace Meliot. It would have been wiser to make her excuses to Miss Heyde and quickly find some acquaintance at the other end of the room; William recognized her, and called her to come and speak to Eustace.
She had a reasonless flutter of agitated reluctance as she approached the two young men, but she controlled herself so that she looked tranquilly up at Eustace and said a quiet, “Good evening, Mr. Meliot.”
“Vivienne!” exclaimed William, “how cold!”
Both she and Eustace ignored him, the latter saying, “I imagined, Miss Degraine, that our meeting at the station was a single coincidence.”
“As did I.”
Had William been only in casual company, he would have put his hands in the air out of exasperation. Because he knew nothing concerning their parting, he assumed that they would be quite glad to meet up again, and so he could not understand the aloof air between his sister and their old friend.
Thinking to act as a mediator, he asked, “Did you take the same trains from ----------(city), then? How did you manage to meet but once?”
“We met twice, but only knew one another once,” said Vivienne. 'Oh, what does Eustace think, since he now has the knowledge that I am the woman who tripped between the cars?'
They stood and exchanged words awkwardly for some time, until Vivienne was warmly addressed by another guest--which, thought William, perhaps did not please his friend, whose posture seemed ever so slightly stiffer now than it did before he saw the newcomer with Vivienne.
Asked the rigid Eustace, “I assume he is close to Vivienne?”
“Indeed.” And, as he disliked the man with whom his sister stood, but liked Eustace quite well--and knew his nature fairly well--he continued, “I suppose it is not surprising that Thomas Shackleforde is so rude as to call her away, since they are engaged. Do not you wish they were not so very selfish?” eyeing Eustace, though his face was turned toward the subjects of the conversation.
“I do not think he suits her, nor she him,” which was far more pertinent to his thoughts than to William's question.
“Well--you wouldn't, now, would you?”
The brother then went to find the lady with whom he was to dance and escort her to the ballroom, as all guests had arrived. They all made their way to it, and took places, and the evening formally began.
Shackleforde first danced with Vivienne, of course, and took the opportunity of inquiring as to her brother's friend, for he had appeared to disconcert her.
Hoping she did not flush, she replied, “He is Eustace Meliot, a friend of my brother's.”
“You dislike him, I presume?”
“I--do not necessarily dislike him--but he does not put me at ease.”
He showed to her a concerned countenance. “Is he untrustworthy?”
“No, I imagine that anyone might entrust his life to him. He is noble enough, according to William.” It may be noted that there was a brief pause between "noble enough" and "according to William," which certainly intrigued her partner. Eustace was sitting out and speaking to his host, and Shackleford studied him with a disturbance that became displeasure.
“If he is your brother's friend... has he been yours, as well?”
The question was asked quietly; hoping he would think she had failed to hear, and would not consider his question important enough to be asked again, she did not reply. However, he was quite curious, and she must either reply or be rude to him.
“Oh? Why, of course he has--my brother and I are close, so his friends must be close to me, too.”
“Why are you no longer close?”
She looked over his shoulder, marveling at how poorly he read her. Her mother could have known from a mere glance that she was as close as ever, if only in her heart.
“I assume that you would appreciate the truth? Or do you fear it?”
He would appreciate it.
“I was once in love with Eustace Meliot, but he was too suspicious--I was too defensive--he was too quick-tempered--I was not wise enough to be forgiving. Thus, the saga is ended. You need not view him as a rival, Thomas, for we could not coexist if we tried.”
“Are you certain?”
“I like to fancy that I know my own nature,” she replied in a near retort, caused by his suspicion which both insulted her and gave her a vague, irritating fog of guilt.
Vivienne knew altogether too well that knowledge of her own nature was all she would have to prevent the unwise plotting of her future, should Eustace love her yet, for her heart was hardly indifferent; and she feared Shackleford would realize how carefully she avoided mentioning whether or not she still cared particularly for the man who was supposed NOT to be his rival. Yet, why did she fear that he would learn of her inconstancy? Rather, it was her constancy, for she had never loved HIM--she had only consented to marry him because she thought he admired her and would not create the trouble that Eustace had. Now, of course, she knew that she had acted out of sourness, and, perhaps worse, her action had been that of a spoiled child, but she believed all promises to stoutest bonds, whether their breaking harmed any one or not.
After her dance with Shackleford, she was partner to several others, to whom she paid so little attention that she could not have named half of them when the ball was over. She did know, however, that none had been Eustace Meliot, to her disappointment and to her relief. Nothing would have been so agreeable as to have danced with him, nor could anything have begun to approach the agitation discomfort. In truth, her relief was fortunate; the after-ball emptiness of her spirits was not as dramatic as usual, and she sought her chamber with anticipation of tranquility, rather than that dread of the dull silence after gaiety.