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Gilded Summers

Gilded Summers

Book excerpt

Ginevra

1899

The air reeks of gunpowder…and 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; I feel 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.

“What?”

Eyes glazed with fear find me.

I reach up and tuck a stray strand of her gleaming raven hair back into her perfectly coiffed Gibson Girl.

“Go.”

“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 of 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 before resting on her bright, silk gown.

I look at her face, I flash to the memory of the first time I saw her 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 of thinking—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 quickly.”

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.

“Ginevra—!”

I shut the door on her face. I turn to 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.

 

Pearl

1895

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 or gadding about town with his friends, as he did more and more often of late. He stilled 'played.' While I, caught in the nowhere between childhood and adulthood, as 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, and not a single strand slithered 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, gazed 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, and still one of the grandest places I had 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…”

She called him 'dear.' Oh, here it comes, I thought, my eyes rolling to the painted ceiling. It didn't.

With his characteristic throat clearing, Mr. Birch took a single step into the room, denying my mother her cajoling.

“There is a man here, Sir, and a girl.” Our butler, as stiff as his shirt, made the proclamation as if he announced the delivery of a parcel of manure. “They claim you are expecting them. Costa, I believe she said their name is.”

My father jumped up, newspaper scattered with a rustle to the floor. My mother and I balked at his quickness, at the rare glimpse of his smile beneath his bushy mustache.

“Wonderful, Mr. Birch,” said he, rushing from the room.

Spilling tea as I quickly dropped my cup in its saucer, I rose and followed.

“Pearl, stay. It is your father's business.”

I ignored her. Monotony had become my most constant companion. No matter how inconsequential, I ran toward anything to run away from it.

I stopped at the top of the white marble stairs leading down to the grand doors of our summer home, half hiding myself behind one set of double breche marble columns crowned with gold capitals. Just inside the small vestibule between the arched wood doors and the inner ones of grill and glass, I could see only their silhouettes against the bright afternoon light, so very small in the massive aperture. I saw Birch had left the outer doors open as if he would shoo the visitors out like pesky insects at the first opportunity.

The man was tall. A short hat and long suit jacket enshrouded him. The girl was no girl, at least not a little one. The slight curves of her body, sheathed in what I could only see as a dark-colored, single-layered dress, were those of a young woman, or a girl on her way to becoming one.

“Welcome, Mr. Costa, Miss. Welcome.”

My head popped farther around the marble pillar, not to see the visitors, but my father. To see if this enthusiastic man was my father. He rushed toward the man, hand held out, a swath of his black hair, hair he had given me, falling upon his slightly wrinkled forehead. Reaching behind them, my father closed the doors. I could see them more clearly now.

The man looked my father's age, perhaps older, or perhaps simply more aged. It was the face of the girl, an older girl as I had thought, which held me. If not for her deeper complexion, olive I believe such skin was called, we could be sisters, for her eyes were the same nut brown as mine though more almond shaped, cheekbones high, mouth full, chin narrowed her face to a point.

Mr. Costa replied with a hesitant good day, but upon his tongue, it came as “gooda day.” The distinct addition of a vowel gave them away. Italians. I had never met any real Italians. I studied them as I would a painting I had never seen.

My father pulled the man deeper into our home by the hand still in his, beyond the grilled doors, and into the marble foyer. He straightened his shoulders, gathered himself. Zeal still beamed from him; a bright spark glinting in his dark eyes. His voice dropped to its normal deep timbre, words spaced ever so, with aristocratic nonchalance.

“How was your journey? Fine, I hope.”

The man turned to the girl beside him with a particular look I could see she read well.

“Fine, Sir,” she replied. Better than the man’s, the girl's English was a trifle more fluid.

“Glad to hear it.” My father was a man of intelligence and pride; he could see it in others. Though the girl had answered, my father directed his reply to the man. “I hope you will be comfortable here. It is a fine house.”

As the girl softly translated my father's words, I smirked. A fine house, Father, really?

Would he tell these people the ocean was but a puddle?

To them, our summer home must have seemed a palace, a fantasy functioning as a home, a four-story mansion designed after the chateau d'Asnieres in France, the home of the Marquis de Voyer, sitting on ten acres of land. A 'house' indeed.

“Mr. Birch, please show our new guests to their quarters, if you would.” With a gestured hand and a small dip of his head, my father encouraged these 'guests' up the few steps and into the grand gallery spanning the entire length of the house from north to south.

They followed slowly. Their eyes widened at the grandeur, the enormity of our 'cottage,' the thirty-foot-high walls of white Caen stone, the ancient oil paintings, the length of the walls framed by gilt moldings that greeted every entrant. How pretentious such opulence must have looked. Their slight bodies cried out for good meals, not flamboyant affluence. My cheeks burned as I looked at them looking.

“And which would those be, Sir?” Birch sent a blast of cold through the warm room.

“Mr. Costa here is to have the luggage room. I've had Mr. Grayson refurbish it into a living space and a workshop. This is the man come to teach Clarence violin and to make us some one-of-kind furniture. Aren't you, Mr. Costa?”

The man nodded, but it was to my father's ebullience. His expression blank, hesitant; he understood little of my father’s words.

“He and his lovely daughter will also be staying over in the winter as members of our off-season caretakers.” My father turned back to Mr. Costa. “And for that I say grazie.”

“T…thank you, Mr. Worthington,” the young woman said. “My papa, he is excited, to work.”

My father took her hand in both of his.

“Ah, Geenahva, so glad to have you here as well, of course.”

She smiled, and it was lovely. “It is Ginevra, Gin-eh-v-ruh,” she pronounced her name correctly, slowly, for my father's behalf, and perhaps for mine, for I had seen her gaze flash to me with the same curiosity with which I perused her. Gin, like the drink my mother would say; emphasis on eh; rush through the v, to end low with the ruh. I said it over and over in my mind. I would say it correctly when the chance came. I swore to myself the chance would come. I would banish monotony not just from this moment.

“Yes, Ginevra,” my father did a passable imitation of her name. “You will be housed with other young ladies such as yourself…” servants, he meant, of course, “…on the top floor. I'm sure we will find something productive for you to do soon.”

“Sew,” she said without hesitation. I smiled. “I sew.”

I saw my father's grin. “Wonderful. There is plenty of sewing to do in this house. Isn't that right, Mr. Birch?”

Birch nodded. It looked as if it hurt him to do so. He held out a hand, pointing toward the right, toward the back stairs, those belonging to the servants.

Vieni, Papa,” Ginevra put a hand on her father's arm as she reached down for a battered valise. Mr. Costa nodded silently, picked up the two beside him, having never released a glossy leather violin case from beneath his arm, and followed Birch's lead.

As she brushed passed, our eyes met. Did she see it in mine, or I in hers? Regardless, it was a fine beginning.

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A Necessary End

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