The Wedding Dress

Danielle Steel | 20 mins

Chapter 1

It was a crisp, cold night with a stiff wind off the San Francisco Bay, the night of the Deveraux’s ball, a week before Christmas, in December 1928. The elite of the city had been talking about it for months, with great anticipation. Rooms in the imposing Deveraux mansion had been repainted, curtains had been rehung, every chandelier gleamed. The tables in the ballroom had been set with shining silver and crystal. Footmen had been moving furniture for weeks to make room for the six hundred guests.

All the most important members of San Francisco society would be there. Only a handful of people had declined Charles and Louise Deveraux’s ball for their daughter. There were fragrant garlands of lilies over every doorway, and hundreds of candles had been lit.

In her mother’s dressing room, Eleanor Deveraux could hardly contain herself. She had waited for this night all her life. It was her coming out ball. She was about to be officially presented to society as a debutante. She giggled excitedly as she looked at her mother, Louise, and her mother’s maid, Wilson, held the dress, waiting for Eleanor to step into it.

It was a touching night for Wilson too. She had grown up as a simple girl on a farm in Ireland, and had come to America to seek her fortune, a bit of adventure, and hopefully, find a husband. She had relatives in Boston, went to work for Louise’s family there, and had come to San Francisco with her when she’d married Charles Deveraux, twenty-six years before. Wilson had dressed Louise for her own debut twenty-seven years before, and served her ever since. She had held Eleanor the night she was born, and her brother, Arthur, when he had been born seven years earlier. She mourned with the family when he died of pneumonia at the age of five. Eleanor was born two years after his death, and her mother had never been able to conceive again after that. They would have liked to have had another son, but Louise and Charles were deeply in love with their only surviving child.

And now Wilson was dressing her for her long awaited debut. Wilson had lived in America for twenty-eight years by then, and there were tears in her eyes as she watched Eleanor put her arms around her mother and hug her, and then Louise gently helped Eleanor put on the earrings that her own mother had given her for her debut twenty-seven years before. They were Eleanor’s first piece of grown-up jewelry. Louise was wearing the parure of emeralds that Charles had given her for their tenth anniversary, and a diamond tiara that had been her grandmother’s.

The match with Charles Deveraux had been an excellent one, and the marriage which had produced Eleanor was loving and stable. Louise and Charles had met shortly after her debut in Boston, when she attended a ball in New York with her cousins at Christmastime. Charles was visiting from San Francisco. She was from a distinguished Boston banking family, and she and Charles had met that night. The marriage which was subsequently arranged between Charles and her father had been an excellent one for both of them. Their courtship had taken place during two visits Charles had made to Boston to see her, and their love had taken root during an extensive correspondence and warm exchange of letters for three months after they met. Their engagement was announced in March, and they married in June. They had spent their honeymoon in Europe, and then went to live in Charles’s home in San Francisco.

Charles was the heir of one of the two most important banking fortunes in San Francisco. His family had originally come from France during the Gold Rush, to help make order from chaos, and assist the suddenly wealthy miners in protecting and investing their new fortunes. Charles’s ancestors had remained in California, and made a vast fortune of their own. The Deveraux mansion on the top of Nob Hill was the largest in San Francisco, and had been built in 1860. After his parents died in the early years of their marriage, Charles and Louise had moved into it. He ran the family bank, and was one of the most respected men in San Francisco. Tall, thin, fair haired, blue eyed, elegant, aristocratic, and distinguished, he loved his wife and daughter, and had waited years for this night too.

Eleanor was strikingly beautiful. She looked a great deal like her mother, with long ebony hair, porcelain white skin, sky blue eyes, and delicate features. Both women had lovely figures, and Eleanor was slightly taller than her mother. Her education had been carefully attended to, with governesses and tutors at home, just as her mother had been brought up in Boston, and as the other girls of their world were raised in San Francisco. Several of her governesses were French and she spoke it fluently. She was talented in the art of watercolors, played the piano beautifully, and had a passion for literature and art history. In a somewhat modern decision, her parents had sent her to Miss Benson’s School for Young Ladies for the past four years to complete her education. She had graduated the previous June, with a dozen young women of similar upbringing and age. She had made many friends there, which would ensure that her first season in society would be even more fun for her, attending a round of balls and parties given by her friends’ parents.

Most of the girls coming out would be married within the year, or have formed a serious attachment. Charles hoped it wouldn’t happen to Eleanor too quickly. He couldn’t bear the thought of parting with her, and any suitor would have to prove himself worthy before Charles would give his consent for her to marry. She would be a major catch on the marriage market, since everything he had would be hers one day. It was something he and Louise had discussed discreetly, without ever mentioning it to Eleanor, and it was a circumstance she gave no thought to. All she wanted to do now was wear beautiful gowns and go to exciting parties. She wasn’t eager to find a husband, and loved her life with her parents. But the balls they would attend would be a lot of fun, particularly her own. Her parents had been careful not to invite anyone unsavory or that they didn’t approve of. They wanted to keep the racier men about town, and any fortune hunters, well away from her. She was a lively girl with a bright mind, but innocent in the ways of the world, and they wanted it to stay that way.

Their preparations for this memorable night had centered around whom to invite, as well as what band they would hire. They had brought one up from Los Angeles for the occasion. All of Eleanor’s attention had been focused on what dress she would be wearing. With Charles’s blessing, she and her mother had traveled to New York, and sailed to Europe on the French steamship SS Paris, which had been launched seven years before. It was Eleanor’s first trip abroad. They had spent a month at the Ritz hotel in Paris, where they visited several designers, but Louise was determined to have a dress made for Eleanor by the House of Worth.

Jean-Charles, the great-grandson of the original designer, Charles Frederick Worth, ran the house by then, and his recent designs had revolutionized fashion. He was the consummately modern designer at the time, and Louise wanted to get Eleanor an exciting dress that would be different from everyone else’s, while maintaining a look of dignified elegance. His prices were astronomical, but Charles had given her permission to buy whatever she wanted, as long as it wasn’t too modern or outrageous. Worth’s use of beading, metallic threads, incredible embroidery, and exquisite fabrics made everything he touched a work of art, and Eleanor’s lovely slim figure lent itself perfectly to his sleek designs.

The dress he had designed for her was a narrow column which fell from her shoulders with a slightly lowered neckline in back, and a discreet drape below it. It was the most beautiful dress Eleanor had ever seen, beyond her wildest dreams when it was finished. He designed a headpiece to go with it that was the height of modern fashion, and set a halo of pearls and embroidery on her dark hair. It was perfection. They arrived back in San Francisco in late July, and Wilson was holding the dress now. It was heavy from the intricate beading and embroidery.

Eleanor stepped into it, ready for this long awaited moment. Her dark hair was swept into a loose bun at the nape of her neck with pearls woven into it, which Wilson had done masterfully. The headpiece sat on the stylish waves which framed her face. The dress was both modern and traditional and used all the techniques that the House of Worth was famous for to create an unforgettable impression of high fashion.

Louise and Wilson stood back to admire the effect, as Eleanor beamed at them both, and could see herself in the mirror behind them. She barely recognized the elegant young woman she saw in the reflection. Her father hadn’t seen the dress yet, and he stood still in the dressing room when he saw her.

“Oh no . . .” he said with a look of dismay and Eleanor was instantly worried.

“Don’t you like it, Papa?”

“Of course I do, but so will every man in San Francisco. You’ll have ten proposals before the night is out, if not twenty.” He turned to his wife then. “Couldn’t you have gotten something less spectacular? I’m not ready to lose her yet!” All three women laughed, and Eleanor looked relieved. She wanted her father to love her dress too.

“Do you really like it, Papa?” she said, her eyes bright as he leaned down to kiss her. He looked as elegant as ever in white tie and tails, and gave his wife an admiring glance in her green satin gown and the exquisite emeralds he had given her. As always, thanks to him, she would be wearing the most stunning jewels in the room.

“Of course I do, how could I not? You and your mama chose very well on your adventure in Paris.” A less generous man would have paled at the bill. Worth was famous for charging a fortune, and even more to his American clients, and he had followed his usual tradition this time. But Charles thought the dress was worth every bit of it, and had no regrets. He could easily afford it, and wanted his wife and daughter to be happy. It pleased him to think that his daughter would be the most beautiful debutante of this or any season. And the attention they’d lavished on the ball was commensurate. He wanted this to be an evening that would be a memory Eleanor would cherish forever. Their magnificent mansion on Nob Hill was the perfect place for it.

Charles offered his daughter his arm, as they left her mother’s dressing room. He and Eleanor led the way down the grand staircase, with Louise following right behind them. Wilson watched them, smiling gently. She was happy for them. They were good people, and after losing their son twenty years before, they deserved all the happiness life could give them. She would be waiting for Eleanor to help her undress at the end of the evening, at whatever hour, and she was sure it would be very late. They would be serving a supper at midnight, after a sumptuous dinner several hours before that. There would be breakfast at six in the morning for the young people who stayed late, including the bachelors who remained to dance with the young women and flirt with them. The older people would have left by then, but Wilson knew that the young would dance the night away.

There were a dozen footmen at the bottom of the stairs, waiting to serve champagne from silver trays. Half of the footmen worked for them, and the other half had been hired for the night. The champagne was of the best vintages from Charles’s wine cellar, put there well before Prohibition began, so they had not had to purchase wine or champagne then for so many guests. And since it was a private party, there would be no problem. The kitchen would be teeming with activity by then, as their cook and three assistants prepared the meal, and dozens of footmen waited to serve them. Louise had planned everything meticulously. The house was filled with flowers, the candles lit the rooms brilliantly, the ballroom was ready to receive them. She had spent weeks on the seating to make sure that all the right people were placed where they should be. There was a long table for Eleanor and her friends, with all the most dashing young men carefully selected from the best families.

The guests began to arrive, with a long line of chauffeur driven cars outside, drawing up to the portico one by one. Additional footmen were waiting to take their coats and wraps the moment they entered the house. Charles, Louise, and Eleanor had formed a short receiving line to greet the guests, with their butler, Houghton, standing beside them to announce their names. The evening was no less formal or elegant than any similar event in Boston or New York. San Francisco society was every bit as impressive as its counterparts in the East.

Eleanor looked radiant as her parents introduced her to people she had never met, and their friends whom she knew embraced her and told her how ravishing she was in her exquisite gown. She managed to combine the elegance of high fashion with a look of distinction, and her parents watched her proudly as the crowd in the house grew and drifted into their reception rooms. It was fully an hour later when they left the receiving line to join their guests, and Eleanor whispered to her mother that it was just like a wedding without a groom, and Louise laughed.

“Yes, it is. That will all happen soon enough.” But Eleanor was in no hurry for that, and neither were they. It was exciting to be part of society now, and Eleanor wanted to savor every moment and enjoy it for as long as she could. She had greeted many handsome young men on the receiving line, and the boys her age looked mostly silly and very young. Some blushed when they greeted her, and they were standing around in large groups with each other, admiring the young women present and drinking champagne. A few of the braver ones came up and asked Eleanor to put their names on her dance card, and she took out the exquisite little carnet de bal her father had given her earlier that day. It was a pink enamel book with ivory pages, and tiny diamonds and pearls on the cover, which had been made by Carl Fabergé at the turn of the century. The ivory pages could be erased at the end of the evening, so it could be used at the next ball she attended. It had a tiny pink enamel pencil with a small diamond at the end. She took it out of her evening bag and wrote their names in it. Once the other young men saw her do it, there was a crowd around her requesting dances with her. The little book was almost entirely full of young men’s names by the time they went into the ballroom for dinner an hour later. They had asked other young ladies for dances too. Eleanor whispered to half a dozen of her friends as they walked into the ballroom together.

“They’re very handsome, aren’t they?” she said to some of her old classmates from Miss Benson’s, and they all agreed. Her mother had chosen carefully who she included on the guest list, and the young men in the room seemed equally pleased. The table of young people she had seated with Eleanor was a lively group. They were talking and laughing and appeared to be having fun all through dinner, as the older guests in the room glanced at them, smiling with approval. A debutante ball brought back tender memories for most of them, and it was nice to see so many handsome young people enjoying each other and having fun.

Eleanor danced the first dance with her father, a waltz, and then everyone else danced when he led Louise onto the floor for the next one. Their oldest friends were seated at their table, and the band Louise had hired was very good. Charles complimented her on it. The music got livelier as the evening wore on. Eleanor had taken lessons to prepare her for this, and with all the names in her elegant carnet de bal, she didn’t sit down for a moment until she finally left the room with a group of other young ladies. They took refuge in the library for a few minutes to catch their breath. Several young men followed them there, to pursue conversations, or meet the girls they hadn’t danced with yet.

When they walked into the library, Eleanor noticed a tall, good-looking man with dark hair intensely studying a book he had removed from one of the shelves, and he looked up in surprise when she and her friends walked in. Her father had an excellent collection of rare books and first editions, and the man smiled at her as she walked past him to get some air at an open window. She noticed that he had serious, warm brown eyes as he watched her.

“You’ve been dancing all evening,” he commented, as her friends drifted away for a moment, and he put the book back on the shelf. “Your father has some wonderful books here,” he said, with admiration, and she smiled at him.

“He’s gotten them from all over the world, and a lot of them in England, and New York.” He knew who she was. Her father had introduced them on the receiving line. He was Alexander Allen, whom she knew by name but had never met before. He was of the other most important banking family in the city. He was considerably older than her contemporaries, and observed her with a fatherly air. He was somewhere in his thirties and seemed very grown up to her, and appeared to be at the ball alone. “I would have asked you to dance, but you were so surrounded earlier in the evening that I’m sure your dance card is quite full by now.” He wasn’t in the habit of chasing debutantes, but he didn’t want to seem rude for not asking her to dance.

“Actually, I have three dances left,” she said innocently, and he laughed. She was so new to all this that there was something wonderfully childlike about her.

“I’ll sign up, but I’m afraid your shoes and your feet will never be the same.” She was wearing elegant white satin shoes with pearl and rhinestone buckles which Worth had made as well. Worth had even made her little evening bag, entirely embroidered with silver flowers and encrusted with pearls. “Why don’t you put me down for those three dances, and you can see how I did after the first one. If your shoes are damaged forever, I’ll release you to find another partner for the last two.” She laughed and took the pink enamel carnet de bal out of her purse. He didn’t want to seem rude to his hosts for not dancing with her. The evening was in her honor after all.

“That seems fair,” she said happily and wrote down his name on two different pages. The first dance was somewhat earlier in the evening than the last two, which were one after the other. They chatted for a few more minutes and then her next partner came to claim her and led her back to the ballroom. As she left, she waved at Alexander Allen and he smiled, and helped himself to another book, which he thought was more fun than dancing, although he was looking forward now to dancing with her. There was something so fresh and easy about her, and she was pleasant to talk to. She had none of the agonized shyness of some young girls at their debut, nor the aggressive ambitiousness of girls desperate for a husband from the moment they came out. She was just having fun, she looked spectacularly elegant, and was a very pretty girl.

It was another hour before his turn to dance with her, and he wandered back into the ballroom shortly before. The dinner tables had been removed by then, and there were smaller tables where people congregated, drinking and talking. The mood was one of considerable animation, everyone seemed to be having a good time, and Alexander Allen stepped forward in time to claim Eleanor for their first dance. She seemed pleased to see him again.

“Is tonight everything you hoped it would be?” he asked as they set off on the crowded dance floor. He was surprised at how thin she was once he held her, and what a good dancer she was.

“Oh yes,” she answered, smiling broadly, “It’s everything I hoped and more. It’s so exciting. I’ve never been to a ball before.”

“Well, you won’t find many to measure up to this one. Your parents have provided a magnificent evening for all of us. I don’t usually like balls, but I’ve had a wonderful time, especially dancing with you.” He smiled at her, and she looked pleased. A few of her school friends noticed her in the arms of what they considered an older man and felt sorry for her. Her father looked at her mother and raised an eyebrow, surprised that Alex Allen was dancing with her.

He said something to his wife as they watched them. They made a very handsome pair. “I’m surprised you asked him. He’s not really the sort to chase young girls. I hardly see him out anymore, except at my club for lunch once in a while. He’s a serious sort, although he’s a good man. I suppose he felt he had to dance with Eleanor.” It showed excellent manners, and that hadn’t just come for the dinner and superb wines.

“I don’t think he ever recovered from what happened. All the ambitious mothers invited him everywhere for a while. I don’t think he went out for a year or two afterward. Someone told me he’s a confirmed bachelor, but we needed men to dance with the women his age.” There were always some spinsters and young widows at any party, and he was the right age for them. They couldn’t just have a room full of married men and young boys.

“That was unfortunate,” Charles agreed. He remembered the story, they both did. Alex had been engaged to one of the most beautiful young women in San Francisco, from one of the best families, eight years before. It had been one of those love stories that captured everyone’s hearts, probably because they were both so good looking and seemed so much in love. Alex had served in the Great War in France, and two years later was madly in love and engaged. His fiancée succumbed to Spanish flu, and died five days before their wedding. His mother had died in the same epidemic, and his father had died suddenly two years later.

Alex ran the family bank now, at thirty-two, and was only twenty-six when he’d inherited it. He was doing a good job of it, Charles knew. “He’s probably too busy with the bank to think about marriage, and an incident like that must have been so traumatic,” Charles said sympathetically. “He’s too old for Eleanor, but you were right to invite him. He’s a good man. I liked his father. Terrible tragedy, all that. I think his mother and his fiancée died within a day of each other.” They had lost several friends in the epidemic, which had ravaged the world, and taken more lives than the war itself. Twenty million people had died of Spanish flu before it was over. Louise hadn’t let Eleanor leave the house for months. She had been ten then, and after losing their son to pneumonia, they were terrified of losing their only surviving child to Spanish flu.

“Well, how did I do?” Alex said, looking down at Eleanor’s shoes as the dance came to an end. “I think I stepped on you at least a dozen times,” he said humbly.

“Not even once,” she said proudly, and pulled up her gown just enough to expose the elegant shoes, which had remained pristine. He noticed that she had small, narrow feet.

“That is lucky,” he said, smiling broadly. “Does that mean I can stay on your dance card for the other two dances?” She nodded, smiling.

“I had a nice time talking to you,” she said, shy with him for the first time. She looked so vulnerable and young that it touched him and made him feel protective of her.

“Even though I must seem a hundred years old to you,” he said, sounding more somber than he meant to. It was easy to be honest with her. She blushed. She thought he was old, but not a hundred certainly. She wondered if he was one of those old bachelors her parents had warned her about, who preyed on young women. But she didn’t think they would have invited him if he was.

“Why don’t you go dancing more often? You’re a very good dancer,” she said earnestly and he laughed.

“Thank you. So are you,” and then he grew serious again. “It’s a long story, and not appropriate for an evening like this. I don’t go to parties very often. And I’m definitely too old for debutante balls. I like your father very much, so I wanted to come to this one, and I’m very glad I did. I’ll try not to ruin your shoes with our next two dances. I like talking to you too,” he added, and she smiled at him.

“The boys my age get a little tiresome after a while, and most of them are drunk by now. They’re the ones who will ruin my shoes!” They both laughed at that, and a minute later, her next partner came to claim her and they danced away, as Alex watched her with a smile. She had literally been dancing all night.

It was another half hour before his next dance with her. He was getting tired by then, but she was as lively and graceful as ever in his arms. When the dance ended, the midnight supper was set out, and they went to get something to eat, and sat at a table together. The guests were beginning to thin out a little, and the older guests had begun to leave. Her parents stood near the entrance to the ballroom saying good night to them, and Eleanor’s table filled rapidly with old classmates and childhood friends. They looked at Alex like he was someone’s parent, although he was only thirty-two. But they rapidly discovered that he was good company, and he teased several of them and made them laugh, telling them stories about debutante balls he’d been to where everything went wrong, and one where the debutante got so drunk, no one could find her. She was under a table, sound asleep. Eleanor’s friends loved the story, and the way he told it, and after supper he claimed his last dance with her. He felt like an old friend by then.

“Thank you for being nice to my friends, and not treating them like silly children.” He had treated them all like amusing adults.

“I’m a silly child myself sometimes,” he said, smiling at her. “Even if I seem very grown up to them. I remember how annoying it was to be dismissed as an idiot at their age, by people the age I am now. I was barely older than they are. I was twenty-one when I went to war. That makes you grow up pretty quickly,” he said quietly.

“My father wanted to volunteer. He was forty-one when America got into it. My mother didn’t want him to go, and he was too old to fight anyway. They gave him a desk job and he never went to Europe. I think he was disappointed not to go.”

“It was a nasty fight. I was in France for a year. I was an officer in the infantry. It was ugly. I went as a boy, and came back a man,” he said with the memory of it in his eyes. And then their dance came to an end. “I had a lovely time with you, Miss Deveraux,” he said, smiling at her again. “And I hope you thoroughly enjoy your first season.” He bowed and she laughed.

“I’m sure I will. I hope we meet at another party sometime,” she said, and he didn’t answer, but had been thinking the same thing. He left her then, and she went off with her friends. He thanked her parents for a wonderful evening, and left, surprised by what a good time he’d had. He hadn’t had so much fun in years. He couldn’t remember the last debutante ball he’d been to.

The party went on long after Alex Allen had left. Eleanor danced until she felt like she couldn’t anymore. There was still a good sized crowd of very young people when breakfast was served at six in the morning. The young men had had a lot to drink by then, and the substantial breakfast did them good. Then finally, at nearly seven A.M., the ball was over. The band had stopped playing, the servants still at their posts looked exhausted. Eleanor’s parents had gone to bed around two in the morning, and were content to let the young people take over. There had been no problems or awkward incidents. Everyone was well behaved. Some of the older guests were a little less so and drank too much, but they’d gone home.

When Eleanor finally walked up the grand staircase after the last guest left, she found Wilson waiting for her in her bedroom to help her undress. She had been dozing in a chair, and woke up the minute she heard Eleanor come in.

“Well, how was it?” she asked, with eyes full of expectation and delight for Eleanor. “Did you dance all night?”

“Yes, I did.” Eleanor smiled sleepily, and held her arms out so Wilson could take off her dress, and then she gently lifted the headpiece off Eleanor’s head. “It was perfect,” she said happily, her eyes still dancing with the thrill of the magical evening. “I had the best night of my life,” she said, kissed Wilson’s cheek, and climbed into bed. Before Wilson could turn off the lights, or leave the room to hang up the dress, Eleanor was sound asleep. It had been an important rite of passage for her, not just a party. Her life as an adult, and a woman, had begun. Wilson smiled, thinking about it, as she quietly closed the door. And as beautiful as Eleanor was, Wilson was sure she’d be married soon. That was the purpose of it after all, wasn’t it? Debutante balls were for young girls from good families to find husbands. And even in 1928, nothing had changed.