An Exchange of Words Between Two Ladies of Similar Breed
By Annie Lewandowski
NOTE: This is a fictional scenario dealing with the characters, Snow White and Ellen Olenska (The Age of Innocence).
The Setting: Snow White is a young girl, not yet old enough to be courted and fresh off the boat from some sunless little country in Europe. She has come to New York to visit her dear great grandmother, Mrs. Manson Mingott. While Snow White is visiting the old woman, Ellen Olenska stops by on her way to the opera. She is struck by the young girl’s beauty and demure manner and immediately invites the child over to her modest home the very next day as a way to welcome her to the city that Olenska herself felt lost in when she first returned from Europe. What follows is the contents of their unusual visit.
Snow rang the doorbell apprehensively, she had never had someone take such an interest in her before as this Madame Olenska had. “What could possibly be so fascinating about me?” The girl thought to herself, looking down at her modest woolen coat and plain black shoes, suddenly self-conscious of her Old-World looks in this city of bright lights and modern marvels. Snow White did not have long to contemplate her feet, however, because soon after she rang the bell, a swarthy, kind-faced maid dressed immaculately in black and white opened the door and ushered the young lady inside.
Entering the foyer of the house, Snow was surprised by the warmth and closeness of the room, contrasting it favorable with the drafty halls of her own home.
“Send her straight in, Nastasia,” came the voice of Countess Olenska from the sitting room, its bright timbre only slightly muffled by the abundance of drapes, “I want to see the little darling right away!” Snow, now shy and nervous to meet the lady whom she remembered from the night before only as a statuesque flash of blood red silk and gleaming diamond, unbuttoned her coat and handed it to the housekeeper.
Walking down the tapestry-lined entry hall, half a pace behind “Nastasia”, Snow breathed in the intoxicating aroma of frankincense, incense of some kind. Soon enough the girl rounded a corner and took her first good look at the Countess. She was standing by a massive vase, arranging an enormous bouquet of yellow roses, probably sent by some adoring relative, or possibly by a fawning lover…
“Ah,” Ellen sighed, appraising the child with a slight smile on her lips, “You’re even more beautiful in the daylight, sweet girl.” Snow blushed, she was, of course, used to being called beautiful. Her jealous stepmother eyed her maliciously every time she passed through a room, and the entire village seemed just about ready to put her under a glass case, watching her like some helpless idol, glorious to behold but useless nevertheless. Ellen herself was quite a beauty, as well. Severe in her dress, black satin with tiny mother-of-pearl buttons shutting the front of the dress all the way up to her chin, yet stunning with her dark hair and fair, flawless skin, so similar, yet so different to that of Snow White.
Ellen continued to look at Snow, and her eyes suddenly turned sad, “You remind me of someone,” the Countess murmured, “Someone who had your same rosy cheeks and thick black hair, and ivory pale skin. This somebody was a fresh young girl once, just as you are. She was bold, and outspoken, but dreadfully naïve. She let herself be married off to an unfeeling man of society in some foreign country so far away from home, and of course, that man found another woman, some coarse whore, who can give him some things his wife can’t,” Snow was shocked by this deluge of heavy words. The rims of Ellen’s eyes were a raw red, making her irises all the more vivid.
“Madame,” began Snow, “I don’t know what to say, forgive me but I barely know you. Though, I think I would like to.” Ellen gave Snow White a watery smile.
“Oh, you don’t want to know me. My past is so wretched, it would make your pretty hair curl. I have never been lucky in love. Why, even now I fear I have ensnared a man betrothed to someone else. I have very nearly been ostracized from society completely. Next week I plan to leave for Washington, simply to get away from the scrutiny.”
Snow was almost offended by these words. Despite her fragile appearance, Snow White was a surprisingly scrappy young woman. She found refuge from her wicked stepmother in the wilds around her home and played and cared for the odd little miners that lived in a strange cottage nearby. “Forgive me, Countess,” said Snow once more her voice inadvertently rising in pitch, “while I may not know the pitfalls of New York high society, I most definitely know what it feels like to be an outsider. I have very few young women in whom I can truly confide. My own family shuns and scolds me. I get out whenever I can, but I do not have the means that you have to travel as far as I would like. Besides this trip, I’ve never even been outside of my own little village.” Hearing herself speak the words out loud, so plaintive, so wrong to say to a woman whom she had just met, Snow blushed, coloring her white skin a deep red. Ellen Olenska had been standing frozen at the Ming vase filled with golden blossoms during this entire outburst, her fingers clutching so tightly at the stems of the flowers that when she withdrew her hand, a drop of blood pearled off of her narrow thumb, pierced by a thorn missed by the florist. The droplet was the same color as Snow’s cheeks.
The Countess’s eyes softened and her erect posture melted into something almost timid and juvenile. “I’ve never heard anyone in this forsaken city speak like that,” Ellen said, walking over to the young girl.
“I’m so sorry. I, I..” Snow felt the blood under her translucent skin pound harder.
“No, no, my dear,” Ellen said a delighted chuckle slipping past her lips, “It’s such a relief to hear that there are some left who still have a spark in their hearts and heads. A little bit of passion.” Snow looked up into the face of the Countess, noticing the slight laugh lines around her mouth and eyes and the way her ringlets lay on her forehead, almost disheveled as if she had just stepped off of a sailboat on a windy day. “It’s really too bad that I am leaving so soon,” Ellen suddenly said, looking genuinely upset, “I believe you and I could become very good friends.”
Snow White smiled sheepishly and added, “Well I could always visit you, if you’d like?”
“No, love,” the older woman sighed, “I need to break ties with New York for a while. Perhaps, when you are older, when you go back to Europe, if you go back to Europe, you will come see me in my little flat in Paris, or maybe I will keep you in my mind just as you are now, just as I have done for so many others that I have abandoned,” and with that, Ellen summoned Anastasia, and sent Snow out the door with a tender squeeze of her small hand.