The air reeks of gunpowder…and blood, fresh blood.
I push the limp body off me; someone's sobs, mine no doubt, I hear as if from far away. Dropping my skirts, my eyes skirt the room, to the body on the floor, to her standing in the doorway. I've never seen her so pale, so…blighted. I see the gun on the floor. Tendrils of smoke snake upwards from the barrel as if beckoned by the notes of a magic flute.
I hear the voices, the footsteps. They're coming. I hear my heart in my ears; fell the snuffs of air from my nose.
What I do, I do without thought.
It takes me only a few steps to snatch the gun from the floor and cross the room to her side.
Fear-glazed eyes find me.
I reach up and tuck a stray strand of her gleaming raven hair back into her perfectly coiffed Gibson Girl.
“What?” she asks again, this time her luminescent brow furrows, growing awareness in the moment returns, a spark of denial simmers.
“You must get out of here, Pearl.” I take her hand, one I remember having held more than any other in my life. “You have far more to lose, too much to lose.”
I shake my head; tangles of thoughts rattle. The words accusing me, the voices that will say I somehow brought this on myself, part of me believes. That part knows I cannot let her take any blame, for this, for him.
I lie to her for the first time in all our years together.
“They will believe me. They'll believe I could do such a thing, why I could do such a thing. Look there is blood on my clothes, but none on yours.”
Her gaze flits over my dark uniform, then her bright silk gown.
I look at her face, I flash to the memory of her first face, the young one, one so like mine.
“My papa is nothing in this world, and yours is devoted to him. Mine cannot be hurt by this. Your famiglia …it will disgrace them forever.”
“No. No, I must tell them,” Pearl shakes her head; there is little focus in eyes that try to focus everywhere. “I came to protect you. It's my fault. If I had believed you, trusted you, he wouldn't—” she babbles. I understand it all.
Now both of our almost black eyes drop to the floor, to the body slumped upon it, to the growing puddle of blood around it, to the face so dashing even in death.
“They'll execute you,” she whispers.
I grab her by the shoulders and shake her. “You did protect me. You came. You gave me time to…” I shudder, the words I must say—fleeting through the sliver of mind still capable to think—feel as if they are a rag shoved down my throat and I gag on them. “…we didn't have time to finish.” My gaze grabs her harder than my hands. “He always wanted me more, you know that don't you—”
Pearl shakes her head, covers her ears with trembling hands.
“He desired me.” I slap her with a thin thread of truth. It is enough.
The slap of her hand spins my head; the sting of it stays long after her hand retreats.
I clench my eyes tightly.
“He always desired me more than you.”
This time it is no slap. Curled fingers and knuckles meet my face. All that I had done to her feeds the strength of her arm.
I stammer back from the blow. My shoulder collides with the wall. The corner of the table digs deep into my buttock. I drop to the floor.
Pearl is blurry through my teary eyes. I can feel the sadness in the wane smile I force upon my face.
Hers creases like crumpled paper.
“My bruises,” I totter back upon my feet, “these bruises will tell their own tale.”
The shutters flap open; Pearl gasps.
“You made me…” She wants to speak of it. There is no time.
The voices from above grow louder, the stomping upon the stairs insistent.
“You came in time, it is all that matters.” I pull her to me; hold her close. “Now we must act in time.”
With a graceful movement, grace acquired from the dance lessons she herself had given me, I twirl our bodies round, open the door, and push her out.
I shut the door on her face. I turn to the man, the dead man who had ruined our lives, lives that had been better, truer, and richer, for the existence of the other, and await my fate.
If that afternoon was different from the many others that came before, I could not tell.
My father, mother, and I sat in awkward repose in the Conservatory, sipping afternoon tea, waiting for the hour of the coach parade to approach. I detested coaching almost as much as tea. I sat apart from them by the fountain, apart from them in this room; we were all just pieces even when together, never a whole.
Thin silk curtains fluttered in the salty breezes off Newport Harbor. The smell beckoned to me, whispering softly to me in the waves of air wafting toward me that I was still young enough to play in it, to run in it, bathe in it. Those days had passed, or so they said, but not in my mind.
Water trickled brightly from the rouge fountain tiered with cupids, filling the heavy pauses, so many of them. I loved this room, where house fused with garden, but only when alone. I was rarely alone.
My brother, Clarence, was off playing tennis at the Casino, as he did more and more often of late, or gadding about town with his friends. He stilled 'played.' While I, caught in the nowhere between childhood and adulthood, I was rarely allowed to go anywhere without my parents. I so longed to go somewhere without my parents. But what would they be without me, the small piece of jetsam floating untethered in gloomy thickness of their marriage?
My mother prattled on and on, savoring her gossip with the same relish as she did her tea.
“Alva refuses to speak of anything but the additions to Marble House, how very grand it will be. She doesn't say it, but we all know. She expects it to be the grandest of all the cottages.”
Whenever my mother spoke of Alva Vanderbilt, her voice chirped with admiration, her face twisted as if she'd bitten into a lemon. How she reminded me of the catty girls from school, the girls who made fun of me for my dedication to my studies, as if that made me inferior to them in some way. How happier my mother would have been with one of them as her daughter. How often I wished one of them were.
Mother pestered my father, invisible behind his newspaper.
“Orin, we must think of expanding. The Beeches has been at the top of the list for a year. We cannot be usurped.” She sat bolt straight, spine never touching the back of the chair; the lace of her day dress unfurled precisely from her small lap, not a single strand out of place from her upswept crown of red hair.
I slumped lower in my chair, crumpling my skirts in my fists.
“We will do no such thing,” my father mumbled from behind his wall of paper. “It is perfect as it is. Do not forget our agreement, Millicent.”
Their agreement; how it plagued my mother to have conceded to it. Father had made it plain to her; I remembered it well. Her pleading for a summer 'cottage' in the newly chic island off the New England coast, his own desire for how it should be built rising out of his love for art and architecture. He had put it to her straight, if she wanted a home in Newport, it would be constructed to my father's specifications. He demanded; she surrendered.
I sipped, gaze down in my cup, wondering why my mother could find no joy in this glorious building. Perhaps she had had little say save for the wall coverings and the furniture and such, but it was still one of the most splendid places I had ever seen, still one of the grandest places I have ever lived. Our tour of Europe two years ago had had a profound effect on my father; and it was here, in every curved banister, coffered ceiling, and marbled column.
“But Orin, dear…”