✧Front and Back✧
Erna leaned against the window frame. She was tired, her whole body was tired. She pressed the heels of her palms into her burning, wet eyes and tried to push away the sadness that dwelt there.
The doctor told her that her Grandmother needed plenty of bed rest and stability. Erna didn’t know how she was going to tell her Grandmother. Erna was still quite immature when it came to handling such serious matters. She decided not to tell her just yet, allow her to continue regarding her as if she were her naive granddaughter.
She thought of her Grandfather. He had died of a heart attack and was found on the floor of the study. When Erna got the news that her Grandmother had been taken into hospital, after being found on the floor of the study, she ran as fast as she could to the hospital. When she got there, she could hardly breath, her chest felt heavy and hot.
She came into the room where her Grandmother looked to be peacefully sleeping. It broke Erna’s heart and she couldn’t help but think of her Grandfather. The memory of it choked her, exacerbated by the news that she had fainted because of a weak heart.
If they had not been in the middle of the city, or if Grandmother’s heart was a little weaker, she would not have made it. Erna suddenly felt so alone and burst into tears.
She pressed her palms into her eyes again and tried to suppress the tears. It was no good descending into self pity now, she had to be strong.
Forcing herself to think about her Grandmother’s recovery, enough that she can travel and then they can return to Buford together. They needed to get away from the city, and with the money Pavel had given her, she could rent somewhere nice, somewhere peaceful. Somewhere she could start fresh.
“Absolute stability.” The Doctor said, ensuring that Erna understood.
His voice brought her back into the room and she looked up at her reflection in the window. Can absolute stability exist in life, in this place? Can it come from leaving a family mansion, filled with life long memories?
“Yes, I understand.” Erna stuttered.
“Good.” The doctor said and left Erna alone with her Grandmother.
It will surely be a big mess to move her Grandmother to Buford, but what else can be done? There is no way to protect the mansion any more. Should she have accepted Thomas Baden’s proposal?
When she thought it would be the easiest way, she became even more miserable. Her best efforts were becoming resolute and accepting less than optimal conditions.
Erna stood at the window like a statue well into the evening. The hallway outside the room, which had been busy with visitors all afternoon, had grown quiet. She could see her reflection clearly staring back at her and the mess of her makeup the tears had made.
She tried to fix it, but it was never as good as what Lisa could do, but at least it looked presentable. It felt like a mock expression of her life. No matter how much she worked at it, it never came out how she wanted and was a complete mess underneath.
Erna let out a slow breath and suppressed the urge to wipe the makeup away. She put on a smile, a mask that reflected the life she wanted. She still wanted to love it as much as she could, even after all the suffocating drama. As much as she was ashamed and upset, she kept the smile on her face.
Erna, Erna, Erna.
All through the summer it seemed to be the only name anyone ever mentioned. Here, there and every where, all people talked about was Erna. Within the modest ball rooms and lowliest cigar lounges. It was madness.
The name was like tinnitus in Bjorn’s ears. He closed his eyes as he tried to erase the annoyance from his mind. The card board was nearing its end, cooling down, which made sense as dawn was drawing close.
Bjorn rested his chin on his fist and stared at the thin slither of light peeking in through the curtains at the far end of the room.
As soon as the woman’s name was mentioned, Bjorn could feel the press of a headache at his temples. When he opened his eyes, the silent waiter had placed a cup of tea on the table in front of him. The black broth was bitter and helped clear his head a little.
It also cleared the woman’s name in his mind too. He got word that she had rushed to the hospital, to be by her sick Grandmother’s side. He also heard rumour that it was Pavel Lore that was paying for the hospital fees. Those two were definitely playing around in the night.
Bjorn gave a chuckle as he considered what a woman had told him.
“We’re long time family friends.” She had said.
Not likely. There’s not a fool in the world that would spend that amount of money on family friends. Family, friends, lovers, whatever they were, Bjorn tried not to care any more. He was going to give that woman the money she needed and be done with this game. He would have done so sooner, if it wasn’t for her fathers orders and absurd scandal.
It came round to Bjorn’s go and with an impatient huff, he played the card to end the game. The other players groaned at the expected defeat and resigned themselves to the loss.
Bjorn did not reveal in the victory. He sat back in his chair, falling deeply into its warm comfort and closed his eyes. The bustle of the losers leaving the room lasted but a moment and there were not many others in the games room this early in the morning.
“Hey Bjorn,” Peter said, once everyone left. “So, um…Miss Hardy….She’s not a bad girl.”
“So what?” Bjorn snapped.
Peter was startled when Bjorn opened his eyes with a frown and looked at him with dark intent. Peter paused, not wanting to risk offending the prince, but the debt he owed Erna Hardy was too grand not to be known by pretty much everyone.
A staunch supporter of Bjorn and Gladys, Peter’s mother, grandmother, sister, and even Peter’s little niece engaged in circulating cruel rumors about Erna Hardy and her family. Almost overnight, people rose up to fight this new, rising evil named Erna Hardy. The lads were the same way. Those who lacked the guts to confront Bjorn instead vented their repressed animosity on that poor woman.
Peter was delighted to learn that Bjorn didn’t detest or speak poorly of her; he felt a great sense of relief; otherwise, he would be the one in a very tough place being on Erna’s side
“Well,” Peter continued, finding his courage. “Don’t take people’s words too seriously. Was all I was going to say. At this rate, you’re going to be forced into a situation you can’t revive from. Me and the other boys feel sorry for you.” Peter tried to gloss over the awkward conversation with a friendly smile.
Bjorn looked up at the ceiling, not saying a word or even acknowledging what Peter had said. He was growing tired of all the comments and questions people were pouring on him when it came to Erna Hardy. Go easy, be calm, he would always tell himself, but Peter was different.
Everyone seemed to have the same aspirations as Louise when it came to Erna Hardy. Which boiled down to stop defending that woman and get the happy ending we all want.
It was the spin everyone put on their excuses for meddling in his affairs. The false show of care and affection toward the prince, when really all they wanted to do was grab a juicy nugget of gossip to share at the next gathering and increase their status. Bjorn was getting bored of it.
Bjorn looked down at the card table and his share of the chips he had won. The cards that sat face up showed queens, kings and knights. They resolved to look like Gladys, Louise and Erna. He blinked and they disappeared.
Even if Erna were to disappear, he would still be left with this situation, but the drama would be aimed at another woman, even if he shared but a brief glance at another woman. The only way out, he could see, was to either marry, or die.
Was his father’s heart this cold and calculated, when he ordered him to marry Erna Hardy? Marriage without love, divorced without love. It was all politics and love had no room in politics.
Bjorn did not think quite like that. He believed in something simpler. A clear sense of self and numbers. Like it not, it was either good, or it was bad. He did not want to deceive himself into wrapping up life in a neat little convenient lie. Not for Gladys, or for any woman and Erna Hardy was no exception.
So just as he had married without love and divorced without love before. If the benefits are good and outweigh the negative, then there would be no reason why he shouldn’t marry Erna.
So what about Erna Hardy?
She was beautiful, that was hardly up for debate and he did enjoy her company. She was like an old, ragged book, full of deficits that had no hope of yielding any benefits. If the position of the Grand Duchess was filled, at least he wouldn’t have to hear about Gladys any more. And the significance of the role was enough to depress Walter Hardy.
Bjorn shook his head as he realized he ran in circles and came back to square one. Sighing, he reached over to the poker table and grabbed a chip. The card table was a fitting place to resolve things of this turmoil, given that it was where it began. His tolerance was becoming thin under the mounting pressure of this bizarre circumstance.
Front and Back. Head or Tail.
He weighed all of the possible outcomes before launching the chip into the air. It wasn’t long before he got the chip back into his hand. Bjorn slowly spread his fingers apart and saw a picture appear.
“What are you doing, your highness?” Peter asked, breaking the serene quiet of the games room. Bjorn realized Peter had not stopped looking at him the entire time he was in thought.
“Organise and clean up.” Bjorn said. He stood up, grabbed his jacket.
“Anything I can help with.” Peter said, he felt spurred on by the prince’s new found vigour.
“Yeah, gather my chips would you? I need to head into the city.”