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Reflecting Hearts - Chapter 10 - Season's Secrets

by ariah347

Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and mature content.

The holiday season is knocking on our door like an overenthusiastic caroler. Christmas makes even the toughest of us feel some type of way, or maybe it is the insufferable jingles assaulting my ears from every direction and I’m finally losing it. This year is different though–I am about to introduce my girl to the chaos that is my family. I mean, it can't be any worse than the debacle at her house. I knew her dad was a piece of work and all, but I expected them to keep their demons hidden, not dance with them – that’s what my family does, especially my mother.

As I drive, my fingers dance nervously on the steering wheel. Her stereo blasts some salacious heavy metal, and I try to hide my nerves by tapping to the beat. She rolls her eyes at my song choice and exudes serene aura of hers, completely oblivious to my brooding.

The house I grew up in isn't exactly what she is used to. Hell, it is a far cry from it. It is small and screams "below the poverty line" in every nook and cranny. Compared to her family’s mansion, this place looks like a glorified shoebox. What if she is disgusted by what little I have? What if she realizes I am just a rat from the wrong side of town?

My hands clutch the car keys with a death grip as we pull up in front. With a deep breath that feels like swallowing a boulder, I turn off the ignition and turn to Abigail. She meets my gaze with those eyes that have a knack for stopping all my thoughts.

"Ready?" she asks, sensing my unease.

"As ready as I'll ever be," I mutter, my attempt at a confident smirk falling flat.

We step out of the car and make our way to the front door. My heart hammers against my ribcage, and my hands are suddenly clammy. As we enter, I hold my breath, waiting for her reaction. But then, a sight I am not quite prepared for greets me–Abigail's face lights up like a Christmas tree as she takes in the living room decorated with modest decorations.

I stand there, slack-jawed, as she spins around, her eyes wide with delight. "It's wonderful!"

Wonderful? I had anticipated a range of adjectives–maybe "pathetic" or "decrepit," but "wonderful" was far from one. I manage to muster a bewildered laugh. "You mean that?"

She giggles a sound that fills the room. "Yes, silly. It's perfect. It feels… real."

Real. The word echoes in my mind like a mantra. To her, this isn't about material grandeur but another part of me that she gets to know and love. I let out a breath, still unconvinced.

"A real piece of crap, right?" I joke.

Abigail's laughter intertwines with the crackling of the fireplace, creating an air of warmth and comfort that I never expected to feel in this worn-out house of mine. I watch her as she moves around the room, her fingers grazing the edges of furniture with a gentle touch that brings life into every corner.

"I wouldn't say that," she says, turning to me with a mischievous glint, "I think your house has character."

"Character, huh?" I raise an eyebrow, a half-smile tugging at my lips. "That's your fancy way of saying it's falling apart."

She playfully swats my arm. "No! It's like... It's been through life, and it shows. It has stories to tell, and I find that incredibly endearing."

Endearing. This girl has a way of explaining things and wrapping words around me like a warm blanket, and suddenly, the dilapidated state of my house doesn't feel like a shameful secret anymore. It's a part of who I am, and Abigail's ability to see the beauty beyond the surface reminds me that sometimes, the most valuable things aren't the ones that glitter.

We make our way into the small kitchen. I'm relieved by only seeing a few bodies in the room, none of which are my mother. My grandfather, Uncle Joe, Aunt Bettie, and my young cousins Lily and Max sit at the table. Lily's animated storytelling competes with Max's attempts to balance a spoon on his nose. The room is alive with their laughter, the kind that's so infectious you can't help but join in.

"Zeke! I'm so glad you brought her!" Aunt Bettie exclaims, enveloping me in a hug that feels like being squeezed by a boa constrictor. My cheeks become hot, embarrassed that she's revealed I have talked about Abigail with them.

I manage to chuckle, my ribs still intact. "Yeah, Aunt Bettie, I did."

Grandpa's eyes crinkle at the corners as he looks at Abigail, his face full of fondness. "Welcome, my dear. We've been looking forward to meeting you." His reaction surprises me. He can go a whole day only saying a few sentences, and here he is, greeting her like an old friend.

Abigail blushes and smiles. "Thank you, Mr. Mercer. It's an honor to be here."

Uncle Joe gives me a hearty slap on the back. "Well done, Zeke. She's a looker!" I roll my eyes and mumble thanks, though Abigail's laugh beside me makes it all worth it.

After the initial introductions and warm embraces, we gather around the eccentric dining table with mismatched chairs. With their boisterous energy, Aunt Bettie and Uncle Joe recount a hilarious misadventure where they attempted to assemble a complicated piece of furniture, and it turned into a game of 'guess the missing screw.' Lily and Max squirm in their seats, eager to share tales from school or eat, probably both.

The spread before us is a medley of potluck dishes that range from mysteriously mushy to questionably burnt to mouth-watering, a collection handed down from generation to generation. Grandma's old recipe book sits on the counter, its pages dog-eared and stained. Thanksgiving at Abigail's was a professionally catered culinary dream, but nothing beats homemade comfort food made with real butter.

Aunt Bettie has cooked up a storm, presenting her signature mac and cheese, my favorite. The creamy goodness clings to my fork as I scoop a generous serving onto my plate. Uncle Joe, the self-proclaimed grill master, has whipped up some juicy barbecue ribs that fall off the bone with each bite. The smoky aroma dances around the room, making my stomach rumble. Grandpa, as expected, has prepared a pot of hearty chicken and dumpling soup, a recipe passed down. The aroma is like a warm embrace, wrapping around us and pulling us into the stories of our family's past.

As we dig into the feast, the conversation flows effortlessly. Uncle Joe regales us with more tales of his DIY escapades, including when he proudly turned a broken toaster into a "state-of-the-art" radio. While I don't doubt his skills, I suspect his tinkering is more about saving a few bucks than engineering marvels. With her wide-eyed innocence, Lily shares a hilarious story about a hamster named Mr. Whiskers who accidentally turned the kindergarten classroom into a chaotic racetrack during show-and-tell. Max, with his hyperactivity, manages to incorporate every bite of food into his description of playground battles. Abigail, ever the gracious guest, listens with genuine interest. She laughs at the right moments, nods in agreement, and shares stories of her own that surprisingly fit into my family's simplicity.

Amid the laughter and clinking cutlery, I catch Grandpa staring at Abigail, his eyes softening with each look. It's like he's not seeing just her but something deeper, and I can't figure it out.

The meal winds down, and our dessert–a humble but delicious homemade apple pie is served along with a platter of chocolate chip cookies. Abigail takes a bite, and her eyes light up. "This is incredible," she says between bites. "Did you make it?" She asks, looking at Betty, who laughs.

"Oh no, this was all Zeke's doing. He's quite the baker," she gloats, and I shove my foot into her leg, which does not break her smile.

Abigail stunned, turns towards me, and I don't look at her. "Well, aren't you full of surprises?"

I shrug, suppressing my grin and embarrassment. "Just one of my many hidden talents, I guess."

Soon, the conversation lulls, and Abigail's curious nature takes over. Her question hangs in the air, dropping like a pebble into a pond.

"So, I know you told me once before that when you were little, you worried about when your mother would come back, and I also noticed that your grandmother isn’t here. Where are they?" She looks at me with innocent eyes, awaiting my response.

The room is quiet for a beat, and I exchange a glance with Benji. His usual relaxed expression has been replaced with sadness. I clear my throat, my eyes briefly meeting Abbie's before looking at my empty plate. "My mother, Kiki, she… well, she's been gone for a while now," I say, my voice carrying the weight that has been with me since I was born.

Abigail's eyes soften with sympathy, and she reaches across the table to rest her hand on mine. "I'm so sorry, Zeke."

I manage a half-smile before furrowing my brows. "Nah, don't be. She's not gone, literally. I mean it more figuratively. It's probably for the best that she doesn't come around much anymore. She's made her choices-" I don't get the chance to elaborate further as Joe interrupts me. 

"My sister is sick. Not cancer or anything, but drugs got to her at an early age. Can't quit them for nothing," he says as he stands and clears the table. Bettie, without a word, joins him. This isn't an easy topic for anyone. Sometimes, she's around, clean and trying, but she always relapses. Suffice it to say I gave up on her a long time ago.

I watch as Abigail's expression shifts from curiosity to sympathy to sadness to unease. Benji clears his throat, fixated on the horseshoe on the wall. "And your grandmother, Delilah, passed away some years ago."

The moment is diluted when Max eagerly attempts to snatch a cookie with gusto but is stopped by Bettie's stern but loving gaze. "You finish your dinner first, young man," she commands. With exaggerated dramatics, he sighs and takes a bite of mashed potatoes, his eyes never leaving the cookies. This kid is me reincarnated, and I smile.

Abigail's fidgeting beside me shows how much she regrets asking, seemingly unaware of Max's dessert dilemma. "I'm sorry that I brought up something so sensitive," she says softly, her hands smoothing her dress.

I shake my head, offering her a reassuring smile and nudge. "It's okay, Abbie. These things are part of who I am. Gotta share the good with the bad, ya know?"

As the night wears on, my extended family sleeps in the spare bedroom, and I find myself in the kitchen with Abigail, our hands wrapped around warm mugs of tea. Benji is in the living room, in his rocking chair, staring at the small fire crackling. The soft glow of the light overhead the kitchen sink and the fireplace in the next room warms our quiet conversation.

"You and your family have been through a lot," Abbie says, her eyes thoughtful. "But somehow, there's so much love here."

I nod, considering her words. "Yeah, we've had our share of bullshit. We might not have much, but we have each other. And that seems enough, even if it isn't extravagant."

Abigail's finger traces the rim of her mug, and she looks up at me. "It's more than I have. My house may be this huge, impressive castle, but it is cold and sterile. You saw the divisions within my family. There's a lot of us, but more does not always mean merrier, and quantity doesn't always mean quality."

I brush her hair behind her ear, and a wry smile plays on my lips. "Well, at least a heroic knight stormed the castle and escorted the beautiful princess away from the mean dragon."

She laughs, her eyes twinkling as she joins my game. "Absolutely. The princess decided she had had enough of her gilded cage and wanted a taste of adventure instead."

I lean in closer, my voice dropping to an ornery whisper. "And you know, that knight, while not exactly noble, does have a talent for finding trouble. Even though he's so handsome and charming, he attracts mischief. Oh, and he knows how to make a mean cup of tea."

She pushes my hand from hers playfully. "Ah, yes, those are essential knighthood skills. Forget swords and armor; it's all about the dimple, humor, and tea-making prowess."

I lift an eyebrow, overtly dramatic. "Why, of course! Wicked beauty, fearless sarcasm, and tea-making–the ultimate weapons against any dragon, metaphorical or not!"

Our laughter mingles with the slowing flames in the living room. I relish how Abigail and I can trade witty remarks and unguarded truth.

Benji enters the kitchen and asks Abigail if she would like to join him in the living room. His offer bothers me. He's never one to speak much, let alone to strangers. At first, their hushed conversation seems serious, but then her laughter floats over, and his face breaks into a rare smile. I catch parts of the conversation. "…remember, like his grandmother…" and "…beautiful painting…" It's like they're sharing secrets, connecting on a level I can't fully grasp.

As Abigail returns, there's a softness in her eyes, and her smile seems to hold a deeper meaning or understanding. She doesn't elaborate on the conversation, and I know I shouldn't pry. After some silence, she finally says, "Your grandfather is a wonderful storyteller."

I nod, glancing at him as he slowly walks toward his bedroom. "You managed to get him to talk way more than he ever normally does."

She gives my hand a gentle squeeze. "Well, I think he was brought back to some cherished memories tonight."

She yawns, weariness tugging in her eyes. I stand up, stretching my arms above my head, and follow her yawn.

"Well," I say, trying to stifle asking any questions, "I think it's time we call it a night."

She nods, yawning again. We go up to my bedroom, the stairwell dimly lit by a few scattered nightlights.

Being in my bedroom with her here is weird. Should we sleep together in the same bed?

"Uh, do you want the bed?" I ask, my voice slightly nervous.

She smiles sweetly. "Can't we share?"

The offer catches me off guard because I wasn't sure she would be comfortable like that with my family down below us, but I'm relieved she is. I nod, and we slip under the covers.

The following day, the sunlight peers down on us from the skylight, rousing us awake. Abigail stirs beside me, her eyes fluttering open as she stretches. As I watch her, a lazy smile tugs at my lips; the morning light pours over her face with an angelic glow.

"Good morning," I murmur, my voice still heavy with sleep, kissing her forehead.

"Morning," she replies, her voice carrying the same sleepiness.

She leans over and softly kisses my lips. I put my hands on either side of her face, stroking her temple with my thumb. We stare at each other for a few beats before we hear the stirring of my family below us.

We get ready and share the bathroom mirror. The small moments of completing our morning routine together bring comfort in the ease of her company, a sense that we've crossed some invisible threshold in our relationship.

When we finally meet the others downstairs, everyone is gathered in the living room. Lily and Max rip open their presents with unrestrained enthusiasm, and Aunt Bettie and Uncle Joe watch with joy.

"Morning, you two," Aunt Bettie greets us, her eyes twinkling.

"Morning," Abigail and I chorus.

We settle into the cozy chaos of the present opening, sitting on the recliner, Abigail on my lap. Lily and Max are a whirlwind of energy, their joy infectious. Abigail continues to fit in, laughing and engaging with them as if she's been a part of the family for years.

After the presents are opened and the wrapping paper strewn across the floor, one small gift is left under the tree. Everyone is in the kitchen preparing breakfast, leaving Abbie and me alone. I reach under the dainty tree and grab the gift.

"Hmmm… I don't know an Abbie, do you?" I tease, pretending to read the tag.

She laughs, sitting on the recliner still. "Abbie? Nope, I can't say I do. Must be a mix-up."

I give her a tilted glance, a smirk spreading across my face. "Well, there's only one way to find out." With theatrical movement, I hand her the gift.

She eyes the small package, hesitant. "I guess I should do the honors then."

Carefully unwrapping the gift, she reveals a beautifully crafted heart-shaped keychain. It may not be from Tiffany's, but I did my fucking hardest to weld something to show how much she means to me. The delicate silver heart is engraved with intertwining initials–Z and A–surrounded by a swirl of elegant patterns. This isn't the diamonds she's probably used to getting, and I suck in a breath, waiting for her reaction. 

She looks up at me, and her eyes flicker through emotions like a radio dial–surprise, delight, and something I can't read. She traces her fingers over the engraving, her touch slow.

"It's beautiful…" she says, her voice shaking.

I shrug nonchalantly, my attempt at casualness failing. "Well, you know, I just thought it might be handy to attach it to the key to the castle."

She laughs. "So, does this mean I have to curtsy every time I unlock something?"

"Curtsies might be a bit excessive, but I wouldn't mind a heartfelt declaration of how amazing I am whenever you unlock something," I reply with a cheeky grin, pretending to brush off an imaginary speck of dust from my shoulder.

As her laughter subsides, there's a thick quiet between us; our intimacy will never be comfortable for me. I clear my throat, trying to brush past the moment. "I'm glad you like it," I say, putting my hand on my shoulder.

She crosses the room towards me, putting her hands up on my face. I lean down, searching her eyes. "Thank you," she sighs, and our lips meet. Before the embrace can escalate, the bustling sounds of the kitchen filter into the room, a reminder that we aren't alone. We pull away from each other. Abigail slips the keychain into her pocket. Today, she's not wearing her signature dresses. Instead, she has on jeans and a blouse. The tightness of the pants cling to her curves in all the right places. I can see the shape of her ass perfectly through the material as she stands to clean the aftermath of wrapping paper.

Trying to hide my staring, I gesture towards the kitchen. "Shall we?"

She nods, falling into step beside me as we enter the kitchen. I catch Aunt Bettie's knowing wink and Uncle Joe's teasing grin. Lily and Max are too engrossed in their chatter to notice, but Grandpa's eyes sparkle. Of course, they were all eavesdropping.

Abigail and I take our places at the table. After breakfast, Lily and Max are eager to play with their new toys, so they head off to the guest bedroom, leaving the adults to chat. Grandpa Benji catches my eye and gestures for me to join him in the corner. I walk over, curious about what he wants to say.

He looks at me with fondness. "That girl of yours, she’s… special."

I nod, puzzled by his interest in her. "Yeah, she is."

"She reminds me of your grandmother," he continues, his gaze half distant. "Delilah had that same spirit, that ability to see the beauty in simple things and the kindness that makes everyone around her feel valued."

The mention of my grandma shocks me. "You think so?"

He nods a soft smile. "I do. And I think you've found something rare in Abigail."

I glance at her, laughing with Aunt Bettie as they clean dishes together.

"Thank you, Grandpa," I say, my voice sincere. "I'm glad you like her."

He claps a hand on my shoulder, and his grip is serious. "Trust your heart, Zeke. It'll guide you right. Finding someone who makes you feel alive is what some people spend their whole lives searching for."

As the morning after Christmas transitions into the afternoon, Abigail and I gather our things. The time has come to return to campus. Lily hands Abigail a crumpled piece of paper as we put our jackets on. "For you," she says with a shy smile.

Abigail unfolds it and gasps. It's a drawing of the two of us, a stick-figure representation of our Christmas. "Thank you, Lily. This is beautiful!"

Max tugs at my sleeve. "Zeke, you're cool. You can come back anytime." I laugh. He acts like I don't live here.

I tousle his hair with a grin. "You too, Max."

As we step outside, I look at the house that has seen so much life. It used to be a sight for sore eyes, but now it fills me with pride. Walking back to the car, Abigail's fingers find mine.

"Your family is incredible. I had such a great time."

Soft rain falls on her blue jacket, and I wipe away some droplets on her cheek with my thumb. "So, they didn't scare you off?"

"I loved every bit of it. I feel like I've gotten to know a part of you that I wouldn't have otherwise."

"And here I thought my secrets would stay buried like ancient artifacts. You've navigated the Mercer maze—your next challenge is deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics." I press a kiss on her forehead.

"Hieroglyphics, eh? As long as they're not as tricky as you are, I'm game!" She smiles up at me as I kiss her nose.

Before I can kiss her mouth, she puts her finger over my lips. "Tell me why you do that," she demands, practically stomping her foot with an adorable sulk.

"Do what?" I ask innocently through a sly smile as she moves her finger.

"Come on, Zeke," she retorts with a playful roll of her eyes, "I know that deflective charm thing you do. You're not getting away with it this time."

"I'll tell you when you ask nicely," I counter, sticking my tongue out, "with a cherry on top."

She narrows her eyes at me, raising that damn eyebrow, but the corners of her lips twitch as if she's fighting a smile. "All right, Mr. Mercer, may I please know why you pull off your most charming acts precisely when I'm about to get a real answer from you?"

I laugh, shaking my head. "Abbie, you're overthinking it. It's just a silly quirk."

Her expression softens as she looks at me thoughtfully. "Is it because you're afraid of what might happen if you say what you feel? Or do you only tell girls you love them when you’re arguing with their father?

I lean closer, my mouth hovering over hers. "Funny… since you're so curious, I'll give you the scoop. See, three kisses…" I pause for dramatic effect as she loses patience and looks up at me, "…forehead…" kissing her forehead, "…nose…" kissing her nose. Pausing again teasingly, she actually stomps her foot. "…Lips…" I whisper, dipping her backward. Her breath is caught in her throat as I kiss her. Once she's returned upward, I finish, "It's my secret code. It means 'I love you.'"

Her eyes widen, and a soft blush tinges on her cheeks. "Wait, seriously?"

Sheepishly, I reply, "Yeah, it's my way of saying it without, you know, actually saying it. Easier to slip past if you don't catch on, but you're too smart for that."

Flabbergast overwhelms her beautiful features as she puts things together. "But you did that very early on. I thought it was just your way of flirting."

I shrug, feeling vulnerable. "So? Contrary to my statue looks, I'm not made of stone."

Before the moment can become more serious, the sky erupts into a downpour of rain. "Leave it to Mother Nature to raincheck this,” I shout as we scramble into the car.

We sit in the car, catching our breaths and laughing at the situation's absurdity. I glance at her, and rainwater drips from her hair; her cheeks are flushed from the wetness, and her eyes are sparkling more than ever. The rain drums on the roof as I lean over, and our lips meet.

This time, our kissing isn't as urgent. It's still full of passion but slow. As she kisses me, it's as if she's putting together how quickly I fell for her. She solves my fucking mysteries and uncovers the secrets I've kept hidden with ease. If I'm going to live this life letting someone in, she's the best person to do it.

In the dim glow of the car's interior light, our embrace is loving, each touch conveying a deep feeling that words could never express. Our tongues move synchronously, and our hands explore, fingers tracing contours and caressing with tenderness. Her hands tangle in my hair, pulling me closer, while mine explore the curves of her back, sending shivers through her body. The intensity of our embrace grows, but just as the moment threatens to consume us completely, we pull slowly away, our breaths mingling, foreheads resting against each other.

As we part completely, she smiles, her voice dripping with sarcasm, "Well, wasn't that a masterclass in self-restraint? Who knew we had it in us?"

"Maybe when we return to your dorm, I can teach you a thing or two about restraint. You know, I have to admit, the idea of you being tied up could get me hard right here," I tease, licking my lips.

She covers her face with her hands, and I put my hand on her thigh. "Only if you want that," I add.

The drive back to the dorm is quick and painless. We teased each other the whole way, but Emily is here, so I must behave. She's invited us to a New Year's Eve bash, and Abigail is all about that. The things I do for this girl…

Is this a review?



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1405 Reviews

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Reviews: 1405

Sat Sep 23, 2023 9:25 pm
IcyFlame wrote a review...

Hey ariah, back for another chapter. Whew, I'm all caught up once I've read and reviewed this one!

The way we skip through seasons and holidays in this novel is kind of reminiscent of a tv show. It's nice to see how the characters experience each of the different key points in the year, and it's great to see the contrast in how the different events play out. In one way, I like how we've moved from Thanksgiving to Christmas to show the complete opposite in the two families of the main characters but equally it would have been good to read more of the fallout of Zeke and Abigail's visit to her family. I feel like there's got to be some insecurities from everything happening between them.

The character growth we see for Zeke here is interesting. So far, he's been a bit more reluctant to let Abigail in but he really hasn't been able to prevent his family letting her in! It does make me wonder about that dream she had in an earlier chapter though. It seemed like it was going to be quite an intense theme of her not really feeling that he's being completely open with her but then this chapter kind of removes that as an issue?

Also, I sneaked a peak at Vento's review below and must say I 100% agree with the point about the images. I'd much rather hear descriptions of the characters and places than look at the pictures, especially seeing as I tend to skip over them at the moment!

Hope this helped :)


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Wed Sep 20, 2023 8:50 pm
Ventomology wrote a review...

Eyyy what up.

I totally left all that sappy "tag me next chapter" stuff and then immediately saw this in the green room haha. Still stands though!

Let's get into the review:

I've been wondering this since the beginning: is there a particular reason you've decided to include images? What is your goal in doing so? Especially since most of them are photographs and don't seem to be actual illustrations from your own hand.

I've said this before, but sometimes it feels to me like you forgo written description in favor of a picture. I think there are instances when images are acceptable. I've seen steampunk novels with incredibly meticulous prototype drawings, and there's a great juvenile fiction series out there called Chasing Vermeer, where the illustrations double as puzzle elements. In Japan, an entire genre exists called the Light Novel genre, which can occasionally include illustrations. However, with the exception of Chasing Vermeer, which uses the imagery to include its younger readers in the puzzles the protagonists solve (and honestly, the illustrations in those books are gorgeous, and the puzzles wouldn't be nearly as effective otherwise), the images are an accent. The books would read just as well without them. In your case, if you left out the pictures, I would have no idea what half the characters looked like, or what their vibe was. And that's a sign they are doing lifting that might be better accomplished with your writing.

The allowance that you might be better able to get away with, would be to keep it to photography in Zeke's perspective, and actual paintings in Abigail's. And to really consider: what images would Abigail and Zeke have caught and recorded? What do they take away, and how do they illustrate the situation? How does the story fit with their art? If you approach the images more this way, then they can be a fun accent that complements their artistry and ALSO adds to the first-person narration by making the piece a little more diary-ish.

Next thing:

It's a great choice to put this chapter directly after the Thanksgiving chapter. You've really highlighted the differences between the two families and the contexts in which Abigail and Zeke both grew up. There are some great windows into Zeke's past as well, which I'm excited to see play out as we move forward.

Great work! Hope this helps,

I'm also not sure why but even though I normally wear cool tones I have a feeling red would have been my color in the 1860s.
— Elinor