These Vicious MasksBy: Kelly Zekas & Tarun Shanker
During the ride home, I clutched Rose’s hand, considering the feasibility of never letting go, to keep her from danger, particularly the odious Mr. Braddock. I tried to put him out of my mind. He didn’t even deserve the thought. He will speak to her, he says! The nerve. I shouldn’t have even responded to him. A man that eager for attention needs to be avoided, ignored. He was sorely mistaken if he thought I would let my sister near his pretense and folly. While I contemplated murder, Mother listed off the evening’s many eligible men, “especially Mr. Braddock,” she fluted, eyes digging into me.
A hand squeeze and an inquisitive look from Rose brought my mistake with Robert back to mind. What a mess this evening had turned out to be. I gave her a halfhearted smile, and she nodded. We both knew there was much to discuss. After bidding good night to our parents, I changed into my nightgown and sneaked back downstairs like a recalcitrant child.
Rose entered the musty library moments after me, but before I could ask what the large man and Mr. Braddock had been about, she spoke with a melancholy sigh. “Oh, Evelyn! The poor man, Felix Cheval, just wanted my help!”
“He was looking for me! Apparently, talk of my nursing reached him all the way in London,” she said, blushing and pacing about the room. I couldn’t help but feel a rush of pride for my talented sister. “He has a sick sister in town. He has spoken to many doctors and is quite desperate.”
“Enough to sneak into a ball, it seems. But how did Mr. Braddock get involved? They certainly seemed to know each other.”
Rose nodded. “Indeed. Mr. Cheval found me as I paused from dancing, and asked to speak to me somewhere quieter. We were having a perfectly comfortable conversation until Mr. Braddock stormed in and ordered him out of the house, as you heard. They must have some kind of acquaintance.”
Given that they seemed to be at odds with each other, I briefly found myself trying to choose a side. Mr. Cheval was simply an exceptionally large man with a sick sister, while Mr. Braddock, on the other hand, was rude, overbearing, and maddening. But they’d both been doing strange things throughout the evening. I shook away the thoughts. What mattered was Rose’s peace of mind.
“You aren’t responsible for anything,” I assured her, settling into the nearby window seat. “There are plenty of other doctors out there for the case. It’s not as if you’re actively hurting his sister.”
“But what if I am the only one who can help? And someone has to tell this girl, as she lies there dying, that the person who might have saved her could not make it because she has a family’s reputation to uphold?”
“Rose, that’s highly unlikely. And your reputation won’t even be an issue soon—future matters shall be a bit easier.”
She tilted her head and squinted her eyes.
“Robert would be rather understanding. . . .” I added.
Her lips pursed. She still had no idea what I was talking about.
“And I may have told him tonight that I assumed you would marry him, which is actually an ideal—”
“Evelyn! You didn’t!” she exclaimed, stiffening.
“I’m afraid I did. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking and it just came out that I hoped you and Robert would be married shortly.”
“But he’s like a brother to me—to us. Where—how did you even get the idea I have feelings for him?”
It was my turn to be confused. I didn’t even know where to begin that list. “The endless hours you two spend together. The glances you give each other. Whenever we have a dinner party, you prefer his company over anyone else’s,” I insisted.
“You sound like Mother now,” she said, slightly impatient. “None of that means I want to marry him. I don’t wish to marry him—or any man, for that matter!”
I was the worst sister. I considered self-defenestration.
“I always assumed you were teasing when you spoke about Robert in that way,” she continued.
I sank back against the window’s drapes miserably. “And I always assumed there was an understanding.”
She frowned and paced before finally settling down on one spot on the rug. “Well, I will simply have to tell him you were mistaken.”
“The man has been in love with you ever since I can remember,” I pointed out lightly. “It’s not like declining an invitation to a picnic. You have to be careful how you say it.”
She glanced over at Father’s desk and sighed. “Yes, I’ll have to prepare something so I don’t say the wrong thing—”
“I’m so sorry to have to put you in this position. I can help you—”
“No, don’t be, it’s quite all right. If he really is in love with me, we would have had the discussion at some point,” she insisted. “I’m glad you brought up the matter. I simply don’t want to hurt him.”
Poor Robert. He’ll be devastated. I tried not to think of the horrid poems that would spill from his fevered brain.
“But I cannot allow marriage to impede my work,” Rose said, standing up with new resolve. “I must become a doctor. I must study in London so I can help people like Mr. Cheval.