Gilded Prison

Written by: Mikami

Candlelight illuminated the characteristic faces at the table before Alice Munro. Each candle was placed strategically in the array of design—every one between stacks of fine china, fresh-cut flowers, ribbons, glass goblets and silver. A majestic crystal chandelier hung still and glittering above their heads, surveying the finery of London's dominant bourgeoisie. Servants flitted around the table, moving from one guest to the other to take various requests. The appetizer course had ended not long ago and the entrees were being served amongst the titter of conversation and gossip.

Alice smiled politely at each one of her companions seated at the long table and gave answers to all their inquiries about her past adventure in the Americas. The ladies and their gentlemen friends in close proximity leaned in with intrigued eyes, sparked full of interest at the Munro girl's tales of the new world. They commented profusely at her bravery and complimented her on her succession from girl to woman in such a harsh reality. They were impressed but horrified at the same time at how she seemed to retain a sense of "normalcy" after what she witnessed first hand. But Alice smiled once again and sipped her wine delicately in reply.

A moment later, one of the gentlemen sitting close by—an officer of high rank—latched onto her story and expanded it with his own, drawing from his personal experiences of being across the Atlantic Ocean. He captured the attention of the others with his tale of a gallant siege and soon Alice was forgotten as fast as she was thrust in the limelight.

Truth be told, Alice was actually relieved for the officer's interruption. While any girl of her twenty years didn't mind a little glory, Alice was never a purposeful attention-seeker. But the subject that was just under discussion had been hard to recount to listeners like all the other times she'd been asked since her arrival back to England.

It was two years, six weeks and fifteen days since she landed back on British soil from the Americas. Alice was shocked to find that London had never changed. The roads were still paved in cobblestone, the rich were still rich and the poor were still poor. Even her bedroom in the house of her late father, Colonel Munro, was still exactly and unfalteringly the same.

As the officer launched into another story of his regiment, Alice carefully sliced a bite sized portion of roast beef and put it in her mouth. As far as she knew it tasted like ash—spiritless and without any real substance, just like the various conversations being carried around her. One young woman was chirping about her upcoming wedding plans and another about the dress she was having custom-made by a famous seamstress. Alice's eyes slowly drew back and forth between the two women and saw the ghost of her former self within both of them.

The guests who cared to listen to her story were only right about one thing. She did become a woman in the Americas but the extent of it taxed her soul. No child's right of passage had to include the witnessing of death, horror and war or the raw brutality of humankind. Perhaps she was just unlucky; the world seemed to have a rather grotesque sense of humor.

Alice wasn't hungry when she started this feast among her uncle's friends. Her uncle, Charles Lloyd Romsey was a very successful tradesman and enjoyed the fruits of luxury as best he could. He had said long ago to his brother-in-law, the late Colonel Munro, that being a businessman was exceedingly more satisfying than fighting savage red men on the Frontier. Romsey came to meet her at the port and welcomed her into his home two years ago.

Primped and polished like a doll, Alice sat with both hands folded in her lap, staring at nothing and everything in front of her as the dining guests continued their merrymaking. Alice didn't even have the slightest clue as to what occasion this dinner party was for nor did she care. Two years of meaningless parties and incessant twitter about trivial things had rendered her a shell of society—proper on the outside, empty on the inside.

The chatter combined with the clinking of utensils and glasses cut like knives into her eardrums. Laughing faces and amused guffaws surrounded her and made her head pulse. Alice cringed and pursed her lips. She desperately needed air.

Pushing her chair back and pulling another round of apologetic smiles, Alice excused herself from the table—not that anyone seemed to notice. She picked up her heavy skirts and exited the dining room. Alice's pace seemed to quicken when she felt short of breath. The voices and sharp clinking sounds were still echoing inside her head. Upon reaching the terrace balcony doors, she had gritted her teeth and shoved them open. A blast of cool, evening breeze hit her in the face and there, out in the horizon, was a long stretch of forest and fleeting glimpses of the ocean.

Alice grasped the rail bars for support and took deep gulps of air, blue eyes wide and fixed on the horizon where the water met the sky. Peering further into the disappearing light of day, her throat constricted in a terrible manner as she squinted harder as if trying to find what she knew was on the other side of the boundless body of water.

A hot and merciless, pricking sensation stung her eyes as Alice tightened her grip on the bars and rigidly swallowed a whimper. From the moment she set foot on that damned ship back to London, she knew she was making a mistake. And yet like a fool, she tried to convince herself that returning to England was an honorable path and she was taking her rightful place in British society where she belonged. The Frontier was never a place for a lady, let alone the weak. She repeated to herself that she was meant to live a life of fine dresses, coaches and parties and to eventually meet a young man of outstanding social stature so they could be married. That was the plan she and everybody else set for her before the Frontier. Alice felt she had wandered dangerously far off that path in the time she found herself in the company of a young Mohican.

But things were different now and growing up so fast in a short time put weights on her slender shoulders. Alice remembered the look on her sister Cora's face when she told her she'd be journeying back to London alone. The younger Munro sister had already taken it as a given that Cora would be staying with Nathaniel Poe. She was always the braver of the two and was never afraid to follow her heart. Alice avoided the irked expression on her sister's face by exiting the cabin quickly. The very thought of bringing Uncas into a conversation unnerved her.

Back then Alice thought she wouldn't have to deal with it if she left the ordeal unspoken. However, the burden of her mistake never gave her a moment's peace, sleep or awake. His face was etched in her mind's eye, his voice was in her ears, his touch had left a burn on her skin and his taste left her relentlessly thirsty.

She tried to say goodbye to him two years ago. It was as if he shut down and was more unresponsive as ever the night before she left. Their goodbye was a quiet one with nothing more than simple words exchanged. He didn't ask her why she was leaving but Alice was aware that he already knew. Unspoken questions and raging emotions passed between them in silence and Alice held her breath tightly against the onslaught of hot tears. He made no sound when she uttered her last goodbye and a poor excuse for an apology, then ran off into the night. Alice dared not to look back in Uncas' direction. Her heart would have exploded if she spied even a speck of anguish in his eyes.

Now she was back in London and things were the same as she had left it years ago. It was proper, clean and civilized, populated by familiarity and predictability—but it was empty and such a waste. Alice felt her legs giving way under her skirts. The heaviness of the dress became more apparent with sorrow and heartsickness cascading from her being. Alice couldn't even mouth his name as she sank down on the stone terrace. Burying her face into trembling hands, her body was overtaken by grief and she wept soundly for the first time in two years.

— Finis