Elsie lay on the bed engulfed in darkness. The misery she felt threatened to overwhelm her. Harrison was gone. She supposed she should feel grateful—even happy—that things had turned out as they had, but she just couldn’t. Instead she felt ashamed and wretched. She turned over on her side, toward the window, not that it mattered. The thick velvet curtains covering the windows of her Palmer Square bedroom, drawn as they were now, let in little light. It must be nearly morning, though, Elsie surmised, and she felt sure that she hadn’t slept at all.
What would she tell Henrietta? she groaned inwardly. She and Clive were due to arrive home late that afternoon. They had docked in New York the day before and were taking the train to Chicago today; at least, that was what she had been told. Elsie knew she probably wouldn’t see Henrietta for several days, as her sister would undoubtedly be caught up in the arrangements for Mr. Howard’s funeral, which had been postponed, she had heard, until Clive and Henrietta could get back from their arrested honeymoon. Poor Clive, she thought. She knew what it was like to lose a father. And how terrible for both of them to have had to abandon their lovely trip! Elsie winced at the thought that her own deviousness, her own sinful behavior, would surely add to their current woes.
At first, she had been hopeful that perhaps her letter, in which she had revealed that she was eloping with Lieutenant Harrison Barnes-Smith, might not have reached Henrietta before she and Clive had had to rush home at the news of Alcott’s death. She had eventually realized, though, with a sickening sort of dread, that even if her letter had arrived too late for Henrietta to have read it, both she and Clive (how mortifying!) would surely hear the news from Julia at some point, anyway. Elsie had begged Julia to swear that she wouldn’t tell Ma what had—or had almost—happened, to which Julia had thankfully agreed, but not without warning Elsie that she could not, in truth, promise anything more.
Elsie had been surprised that fateful afternoon, as she was hurriedly packing for her evening escape with Harrison, which she had assumed was to be her wedding night, when Karl had knocked and said that she had a visitor. Elsie was horrified to think that it might be Harrison, that he had arrived early (she still had so much to do!), but Karl had informed her that no, it was not the lieutenant, but rather, a young lady, a Mrs. Julia Cunningham.
Elsie panicked. What would Julia be calling on her for? Perhaps it had something terrible to do with Henrietta or Clive, and Julia had been sent to tell her! She hurried past Karl, who was still standing dozily in the hallway just outside her bedroom door. Elsie entered the parlor and embraced Julia quickly, her face betraying her anxiety, and subsequently breathed a heavy sigh of relief when Julia responded in the negative to her distressed inquiries regarding Clive and Henrietta’s well-being.
Once assured that they were truly not in any danger, Elsie tried to collect herself and proceed with the visit as propriety might demand, awkwardly offering Julia a chair and perhaps some tea? Julia had declined any refreshment but had accepted Elsie’s invitation to sit down. As she did so, Elsie’s mind uneasily began to guess at what other reason Julia might have to condescend to visit her—and unannounced at that. Worriedly, she supposed that it couldn’t be anything good.
Julia, as it happened, did not leave Elsie guessing for long. She entreated Elsie to recall the conversation she had had with her and Henrietta in the bride’s room at Sacred Heart on Henrietta’s wedding day, as the three of them had held hands and declared their love for one another, just before Henrietta had walked down the aisle.
“That makes us like sisters, does it not?” Julia asked, sitting beside her on the settee. Elsie very enthusiastically agreed, to which Julia then proceeded to ask, quite delicately, if there was anything Elsie might like to tell her—anything at all.
Elsie, growing nervous now, demurred, but Julia pressed. She had received a letter from Henrietta just the other day, she said, in which Henrietta had expressed concern about a certain lieutenant . . .
Elsie blushed profusely at the mention of Harrison but did not answer.
Julia went on to say that she felt it her duty to inform Elsie that, as charming as Lieutenant Barnes-Smith might appear, she was very sorry to tell her that he possessed quite a bad reputation. Lowering her voice, then, she asked if Elsie had not heard the story of poor Alice Stewart?
Elsie bravely met Julia’s eyes at the mention of the unfortunate Alice Stewart, saying that she had indeed heard of her and that she had, as a matter of fact, asked Harri—the lieutenant—about her and that he had told her that it was a common misunderstanding, that he was not to blame in that very disagreeable situation. He had told her everything, Elsie said, not without a little bit of triumph in her voice. Julia reached out and took her hand. “Did he?” she asked quietly. “Did he mention how he secretly engaged himself to her and got her with child?” She said this last bit barely above a whisper.
Elsie’s throat tightened.
“But when Alice’s father refused to settle any money on her as long she took up with the likes of him,” Julia went on, “the ‘honorable’ lieutenant released himself—and her—from any betrothal promises.”
Elsie could not help letting out a little murmur at this point, as she had, quite unconsciously, been holding her breath.
“Alice was sent to live with relatives for the duration of her confinement,” Julia continued, “and the lieutenant walked free—denying everything.”
“Didn’t . . . didn’t her family do something? Force him to marry her, perhaps?” Elsie asked, a slight crack in her voice.
“No, they wanted to be well rid of him, calculating that the mild scandal would be worth it. Alice had to give the child up, of course, and then her mother took her to Europe for the season to escape all of the bad rumors. I’m afraid her reputation is in tatters now, though. Her only hope is to marry a foreigner,” she sighed.
“You’re . . . you’re sure?” Elsie asked, shocked that Harrison had not only lied, or had left out a very large portion of the story, at any rate, but that he also had a child somewhere out there. Hastily, she wiped away a tear from the corner of her eye.
“Very sure, dearest,” Julia said quietly.
Elsie burst into tears, then, her body racked with sobs as she gave in to her despair. She knew it was unladylike in the extreme, but she couldn’t help it, nor did she really care. Julia didn’t seem to mind the breach in etiquette, either, and quickly moved closer to her and put her arms around her. Elsie confessed the whole sordid tale, then, how she had very nearly succumbed to the same devious plan as had been tried on the unwitting Alice Stewart, but had left out the very important detail of how he had already seduced her, how she had given her virginity to this wretch. In truth, however, she had not given him anything—he had taken her virginity, their dalliance that night having been closer to something forced more than anything else. But poor Elsie could not, even now, admit that to herself, much less utter the words to one such as Julia; she was ashamed enough already. Elsie thought that she might tell Henrietta when she returned, but then again, maybe not.
Julia listened calmly to all of Elsie’s sad story, and when it was done, she entreated Elsie to come and stay with her for a few days.
Elsie declined at first, but when Julia pointed out that she was in no fit state to face Harrison when he appeared—apparently, in just a few hours—Elsie reluctantly acquiesced and left a note for him, which Julia made sure to discreetly read first, with Karl. Mrs. Von Harmon would not know or care if Elsie went to stay with the Cunninghams: she believed her to be going to stay with her Aunt Agatha and Uncle John, anyway, as was her usual arrangement on Wednesdays, and which had been the proposed cover for her escape with Harrison.
Julia herself had helped Elsie pack a small portmanteau and had taken her back to Glencoe with her. Once she had settled Elsie in one of the guest rooms to sleep off the exhaustion from the emotion of the afternoon, which had included some additional rather violent sobs, Julia had quickly telephoned her father to employ his help in the matter.
Upon receiving Julia’s worried call, Alcott had been very sorry and, indeed, quite incensed to hear of poor Elsie’s woes and had promptly attempted to put a call in to the reprobate’s uncle, Major Barnes- Smith, who had not only been Clive’s commanding officer in the war but who had also been Clive’s best man at his wedding, which is how Alcott had come to know him better.
After several precious hours of trying to reach the major at his home, Alcott attempted to instead telephone him at Fort Sheridan and was promptly put through to one Colonel Perkins, who crisply informed him that Major Barnes-Smith had been summoned to Washington, DC, several weeks ago now to report for duty, but that was really all he could divulge. It didn’t take too long for Alcott to add up what had probably been going on in the major’s empty house while he was away, and he felt a fresh burst of anger toward Harrison Barnes-Smith for more than likely using the major’s home as a den to lure the innocent Elsie. Why, she was little more than a child!
Alcott then explained to Colonel Perkins that he very desperately needed to speak to the major regarding a matter that was somewhat delicate in nature. Could the colonel possibly get a
message through, asking the major to telephone him at Highbury as soon as possible? Colonel Perkins grudgingly took down Alcott’s information before he rang off and said he would do what he could, but no guarantees.
Alcott sat back in his chair in his study then and poured himself a brandy as he considered what to do next. He supposed he should ascertain whether Elsie had been interfered with—but he would leave that to Julia. Dwelling on such a subject for any length of time made him decidedly uneasy. He contemplated confronting the lieu- tenant himself and possibly trying to detain him, but what good would that do? he mused. No, he would leave it up to the major; after all, Harrison was his nephew. Alcott predicted that once the major was finished with him, the lieutenant would very soon find himself stationed somewhere remote, held by a very short rope. He would tell Clive, of course, when he came home. He contemplated writing to him, but why bother him with such a thing on his honeymoon? No, he would handle it on his own.
He should probably tell Exley, though, he sighed, as he took a longish drink of his brandy. That was sure to go badly, but Alcott knew that if it were he in Exley’s position, he would want to know, if only to perhaps keep a closer eye on what Elsie got herself into. John and Agatha had told him and Antonia that the girl was coming to stay with them regularly, with the intent of exposing her to society, as per Exley’s instruction, but obviously the lieutenant had wriggled his way through that particular line of defense. Alcott wondered whatever had happened to that neighborhood boy Elsie had turned up with at the engagement party. They had seemed well suited—not that his opinion ever counted in such matters. Knowing the Exleys as he did, however, Alcott presumed that the boy had probably been long since chased away by now.
No, he sighed, he supposed he would have to drive over and see Oldrich in the morning. Not that he had time, really; not with this other business pressing so hard as of late. Alcott stood up, unsettled, and gazed at the papers lying on his desk, his eyes unfocused. At the bottom, he knew all too well, carefully tucked under the blotter, was yet another letter from Susan, this one more pressing, more demanding. Alcott moved from behind the desk and began to pace.
What was he to do? It had gotten worse since Clive’s wedding, oddly, and was almost out of hand now. He cursed himself for not having confided the whole miserable business to Clive earlier. Enough was enough, as it were. If he allowed it to go on any longer, he risked putting Highbury itself in jeopardy—but more than that, he didn’t want Clive to inherit the problems he himself had forged. After all, Clive would have enough to worry about when he took the helm.
Alcott walked to the fireplace and braced himself against the mantel, his arms outstretched as he stared into the flames. He should never have gotten himself involved with these—what would he call them?—ruffians! He had always refused to call them by their more common name—the Mob—though as time had gone on that was what he felt sure they were a part of.
Shortly after his marriage to Antonia, her father, the powerful Theodore Hewitt, had unveiled his plan that Alcott and Antonia should move to the Midwest and capitalize on the emerging automobile industry in Chicago and Detroit. Both had been loath to do so, but Mr. Hewitt had assured them that he would have a mansion built for them to rival any in New York, and Alcott, it was known, had always had a penchant for luxury racing cars. Not that that would be the thrust of his business, Mr. Hewitt had explained to him over countless glasses of cognac and cigars, but he could always dabble on the side, he had wryly suggested. Alcott had at first tried to protest this proposal, saying that he had read Greek at Cambridge and had no idea regarding business affairs, even in the slightest. Hewitt had told him not to worry, that he would surround him with business aficionados and that he need act only as a figurehead of sorts. Make sure everyone was on the up-and-up, as it were, someone to make sure Hewitt wasn’t being cheated at the end of the day.
Alcott, eager to prove himself in his new country—and remembering the third of Antonia’s fortune that had been wired to the coffers of the crumbling Linley Estate back in Derbyshire as part of their marriage contract—knew where his duty lay. If he were to be the sacrificial lamb for Linley, then, by George, he would throw himself into it wholeheartedly. Admittedly, marrying the beautiful socialite, Antonia Hewitt, although a relative stranger to him, had not taken much persuasion, but he had balked slightly, in the beginning, when the arrangements were being negotiated and drawn up, at Hewitt’s decree that the young couple live on American soil. Knowing it was a fight he couldn’t win, Alcott had manfully given up life in his ancestral home and had taken the hand of his bride and led her to the palatial Highbury, built for them, as promised, by Theodore Hewitt as a wedding gift.
Antonia, for her part, Alcott later learned, had likewise been reluctant to leave her home amid the New York social scene, especially considering the decided advantage becoming the wife of an English aristocrat would have given her in all future social situations. She had been convinced in the end, however, by her mother, who craftily explained that this way, Antonia instead had the opportunity before her to be the reigning queen in Chicago. And so, separately won over by the powers that be, Alcott and Antonia had dutifully agreed to depart and establish themselves just north of the city in Winnetka, Illinois.
It hadn’t taken long for the Mob, or the Outfit, to catch wind of a new business opportunity, and they eventually got around to introducing themselves—in decidedly cheap suits, Alcott noticed right away—but perhaps that was to be expected in this part of the world? With rather crude language and in no uncertain terms, they explained to Alcott that all Chicago businesses, especially ones importing luxury items, needed protection and that their “firm” just happened to offer such services. “Protection from whom?” Alcott had asked, but was never given a solid answer. The conversation had then strayed into distasteful, even frightening, topics of warehouses robbed, deliveries held up, cargo lost at sea, and even, in some unfortunate cases, terrible attacks on family members.
Alcott, a true innocent at the time, quickly deduced that Chicago was indeed a more dangerous place than he had first realized. He contemplated asking Mr. Hewitt about said protection services, but as if they could read his mind, these Outfit chaps had instructed him that this was a private, quiet arrangement. No need to tell anyone— simply pay the monthly “fee,” as it were, and nothing bad would happen. Somewhat against his better judgment, Alcott had then fatefully entered into this “contract” with them, careful to make the payments from his own money and not from the company’s account. After six months or so of getting his feet wet and gaining experience in the business world, however, Alcott attempted to extricate himself from said arrangement. He explained, somewhat nervously to these thugs, that while he was grateful for said services, they would no longer be needed, he didn’t imagine, and that he there- fore wished to end their relationship. He had expected perhaps some refutation, but certainly not physical violence, which, indeed, was what had transpired. Two men had attacked him in an alleyway as he was coming out of the Burgess Club in the city and had told him he might want to reconsider pulling out of the arrangement and that the next time he made trouble, an unfortunate accident such as this
one might instead befall his beautiful new wife.
Shaken to the core, Alcott had told Antonia that he had been held up, nothing more, when he showed up back at Highbury with a split lip and perhaps a cracked rib. She had fussed and fumed and said this was what came of living in what one could call a frontier town! Never before had she witnessed such lawlessness and violence, she had exclaimed and positively pined for the days when she had been able to lunch at the Waldorf or spend the summer at Newport.
In truth, Alcott was privately inclined to agree. Never had he experienced this kind of violence either, even as a first-year at Eton, and he was, in truth, quite frightened. Dutifully, then, he had gone on paying the “fee,” which he now recognized as outright extortion, but which he could not see any way out of it. He had told no one, of course, under threat of more violence, except Bennett at the firm,
though even to him he had not elaborated the whole story, but had merely hinted, until recently, that is. Bennett, however, had a way of perceiving things, and Alcott was pretty sure he had guessed what was really going on before he had openly shared it with him.
The arrangement had gone on this way for years, Alcott paying the “protection tax,” as it came to be called, and no more incidences of violence had occurred. He was communicated with through untraceable letters and was informed, usually yearly, when the “tax” was increasing. It had been particularly difficult to pay during the Depression years, when Alcott had already dipped into his private salary to help keep the company afloat.
Consequently, there had been less money to spend over the years on Highbury itself, which needed constant repairs and cost a small fortune just to run, not to mention the money needed to entertain and thereby maintain a certain standing in the upper echelons of the glittering society in which they dwelled. As a result, he had been forced to let things slip. He knew Clive noticed each time he visited from the city and was utterly ashamed at his poor steward- ship, but what could he do? As it was, he was worried that he might have to begin dipping into the accounts of Linley Standard before too long. He had come into the marriage relatively cash poor, and he had already spent everything he had and everything he had sub-sequently earned. Luckily, the company itself was doing well—the board had invested wisely in steel and the railroads, besides being heavily involved in manufacturing automobile parts and importing luxury cars. Somehow, he had managed to get by.
But just recently, the arrangement had taken a different turn. Alcott had begun receiving odd letters from one Lawrence Susan, informing him that a new outfit was taking over his “contract” and that they had consequently decided to double the amount of his payments. Outraged, Alcott, who had always been content to communicate with these ruffians via letters to a post office box, as instructed, especially after his violent experience with two of this firm’s members all those years ago, demanded an actual meeting with this Lawrence Susan. He had had enough! He was no longer afraid, tired of hiding the truth, and conscious of the fact that if Clive really were to take over Linley Standard soon, he was going to have to find a way to end this once and for all. He dreaded Clive’s ever discovering his dis- honor of having allowed himself to be extorted from all these years, made worse by the fact that Clive was, or had been, an inspector with the Chicago police!
Surprisingly, this Susan had agreed to a face-to-face meeting. Alcott had made his way to the predetermined rendezvous place in the city, a filthy bar called Duffy’s on Canal, where Alcott was ushered into a back room to fi d Susan waiting. Much to his bewilderment, Susan had not been what he was expecting at all. He was small and slight, with thinning hair and crooked, yellowing teeth, and he gave off a stale, acrid odor as of smoky garbage or rotting fl h, tempting Alcott to put his hand over his nose, which he managed, just in time, to resist doing. From the man’s thin, almost nonexistent lips dangled a cigarette.
For a brief moment, Alcott contemplated whether he, even in his advanced years, might be able to defeat this Mob boss in a physical altercation, however distasteful that would prove to be, but quickly saw the futility in such a move, though his anger and his fear ran high. For one thing, Susan was surrounded by two large, beefy goons, who added a bizarre element of contrast to the thin, greasy man seated between them. For another, he knew that killing, or even injuring, this spider would not necessarily extricate himself from this web. No, he would need to be craftier.
The creature before him laughed when Alcott demanded that the arrangement come to an end.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” Susan said soberly. “The arrangement ain’t over just yet. You’ve gotten off cheap all these years, I’d say. Moretti was soft on you. So now yer gonna start payin’ what you should have been payin’ all along. Double, I think. And a one-time fee—call it back taxes, if you want. Ten grand oughta do it,” he said with as much of a smirk as his thin lips would allow. The goons shuffled and grinned.
“That’s preposterous!” Alcott blustered. “Look here, I’m finished with all of this now. My arrangement was with this Moretti fellow, not you. I should have ended this long ago.”
“But you didn’t, did you?” the creature said coolly, his black eyes boring into Alcott. “And you ain’t gonna now either,” he said, ash spilling from his cigarette onto his jacket. “Know why? ’Cause of those two little grandsons of yers. Randy and Howie is their names, ain’t they? Or should I call them by their proper names—Randolph and Howard?” He grinned when he saw the unmistakable look of horror cross Alcott’s already flushed face. “And they’re enrolled at Sacred Heart Academy, ain’t they? Ridin’ lessons on Tuesdays. Fencin’ on Thursdays. Always a walk in the park on Saturday afternoon with Nanny. Am I close?” He laughed.
Alcott felt his heart constrict.
“It’d be a shame if one of them was to have an accident, wouldn’t it? So easy to be thrown from a startled horse, or even led astray while Nanny dozes. Boys will be boys, you see. And there’s plenty of dangerous criminals out there. You should be thankin’ us for the protection services we offer, that’s what I’m thinkin’. Grateful is what you should be,” he wheezed.
Alcott forced himself not to recoil. Sweat had broken out on his forehead now and was dripping down the back of his neck, but he did not make a move to wipe it. His mind raced, searching for some- thing—anything—to bargain with. He knew he shouldn’t show fear, but he was thoroughly out of his depth. He should never have come. It was turning out worse than he had imagined.
“Look here” he said, trying his best to sound firm, “I’ve had enough of your bloody attempts to frighten me. I’ll not be threatened any further, I’ll have you know. I’ve made up my mind, and I’m going to the police,” he said, with much less force than he had hoped for.
The creature merely tilted his head ever so slightly, causing one of the goons to break rank from behind him and quickly stride over to where Alcott was standing. With incredible alacrity and force, the goon grabbed hold of Alcott’s shoulder, and with one fluid movement, sank his other fist into Alcott’s gut, causing him to groan and double over. Barely able to breathe, Alcott would have collapsed, but the goon gripped his jacket and held him up, only to punch him again before he finally let him slump to the floor on his knees.
“Now then,” Susan said calmly, “I hope that got yer attention. And as for the police, funny you should bring that up, considerin’ your son’s a high-and-mighty detective inspector. Must not be too good a one to not even know how deep his own father is involved with the, shall we say, less-than-desirables, such as myself. Tsk, tsk. It does look bad, don’t it?”
Susan stood up, then, absently trying to brush the ash from his waistcoat. “But maybe he’s just distracted, shall we say? That little wife of his is a ripe cherry, if ever there was one. Be a shame if some- thin’ happened to her, wouldn’t it? Almost had her, I did. Twice,” he snarled. “But she slipped through my fingers. She won’t be so lucky next time.”
He walked to where Alcott was still on his knees on the filthy floor and spit on him. “You bring us the cash, and you don’t say anything to anybody. Understand?”
Alcott gave an almost imperceptible nod, and Susan and the goons left him then to further contemplate his options.
Alcott stirred himself from the fireplace and the memories of that terrible night, which he tended to recount over and over in his mind, and looked up at the mantel clock. It was getting late. He supposed he should telephone Julia and let her know what had come of his attempts to locate the major. It was good that Julia had had the foresight to remove the girl to her own home in Glencoe. Barnes- Smith must surely have been surprised when he turned up at the Von Harmons’ only to find that his prey had escaped him. As he thought about it, Alcott rather uncharacteristically felt the desire to release some of his own pent-up anger on the unsuspecting lieutenant in the form of a severe scolding—or perhaps more—but that was madness, obviously. But he sincerely hoped that the major would contrive of some way of punishing the wretch, or at least some way of getting rid of him.
But that, of course, was the least of his worries. Ever since that night several weeks ago at the bar on Canal, he had been struggling for a way out of the web in which he was still entangled. He had raised the “back taxes” that Susan was demanding by reluctantly selling one of the paintings from the upstairs gallery. He had selected one of Isaac Levitan’s lesser known works, knowing that Antonia was not overly enthralled with this artist, anyway, calling him amateurish and Impressionistic, which was absurd of course, as Alcott considered him one of the last of the golden age of the Russians. But now was not the time to quibble over art. He had Billings replace it with a similar work stored away in the attic, but he knew it was only a matter of time before Antonia would discover it. Well, he would deal with her later. The cash, the whole ten thousand, was stored in the wall safe here in his study, ready for his rendezvous with Susan or his goons or whomever it was he was to meet in the end. He had been instructed via the usual unmarked letter—letters which, of late, had strangely begun to appear on his desk rather than in the post box, making him uneasily suspect that at least one person on the staff was in cahoots with this outfit—that the hand-off would be in one week’s time at the train station in Winnetka. Obviously, they knew his movements, knew that Fritz drove him every day to the station to catch the 9:04 into the city. It gave him the chills to think that he was so closely observed. Well, that would be the end of it, he hoped, as he formulated a plan—perhaps a reckless one, but it was all he could think of.
Wearily he picked up the telephone and asked the operator to put him through to the Cunningham residence, Glencoe. He sighed, waiting for the connection to be made. He hoped that Julia had been able to offer the girl some means of comfort; Julia was good at that sort of thing, after all. Exley, however, would be furious when he heard what had gone on.
Elsie forced herself out of bed. She knew that preparing all of them for Mr. Howard’s funeral would fall on her. Not for anything in the world would she burden Henrietta with having to make sure they were all properly attired; she would have enough to worry about. Ma had not said much regarding Mr. Howard’s death, just that it was a shame and that no one ever knew the time or place. More than once, Elsie had lamented aloud the fact that poor Henrietta’s lovely honeymoon was being cut short, but Ma had merely snorted that “something was better than nothing.” Elsie knew that Ma was right of course, especially considering Ma’s woeful experience—but Elsie couldn’t shake her sorrow over Henrietta’s failed trip. Maybe it had something to do with her own failed attempt to fly away, crude and melodramatic though it may have been in comparison, like so much bad poetry in the face of a sonnet.
She winced at the memory of how she had so stupidly fallen for Harrison’s manner of seduction, which consisted of, among other things, reading her poetry that he had originally tried to pass off as his own. Had her virginity really been exchanged for this? But there had been more to it than the poetry and the whiskey, she told herself defensively. There was a part of her that had liked—no loved!—being with Harrison, and a small part of her still mourned the loss of him. She knew this to be wickedly wrong of her, but she couldn’t help it. Despite his apparent deviousness, she couldn’t help but miss him just a little and the attention he had given her. As Ma had said, wasn’t something better than nothing? And, if truth be told, she couldn’t help but to still feel sorry for him, even in the midst of this debacle in which she herself had been the victim. She grieved not only for her- self, but also for him. For how misunderstood he was. And what of Harrison’s child, somewhere out in the world? Did the two of them even know of the other’s existence? Thus, on more than one occasion, Elsie found herself crying not only for herself, but also for this lost child, and for Harrison, too. Harrison was bad, certainly, but it wasn’t really his fault, was it? He was practically no more than a lost child himself.
But it would never do to say this to anyone, even to Julia. No one seemed to understand her. Elsie had stayed with the Cunninghams for almost a week until she began to feel underfoot, especially where Julia’s boorish husband, Randolph, was concerned, and declared quite suddenly one day that she felt much better—truly!—and that it was time for her to go home. In truth, as the week had gone on, she had felt Randolph’s withering glances acutely and longed to escape back into the confines of the tomb-like Palmer Square house, which held its own set of problems, Ma being the first and foremost of course, but which was safe, at least, in its lack of visitors and society in general.
Julia had been averse to let her go, entreating her to stay even a few days longer, so much so that Elsie began to wonder if there was something more to her entreaties than mere concern for her own pitiful situation. No, she told Julia, she must be getting back, lest Ma begin to suspect something. Julia had finally acquiesced, knowing as she did that the lieutenant was no longer a threat, as her father had informed her that the major, infuriated when he had eventually learned of the situation, had had Harrison mysteriously transferred to Oregon where various army troops were assisting the CCC in building ranger stations deep in the Oregon forests.
Julia had been kind enough to tell Elsie that no real harm had come to Harrison as a result of his treachery, that his punishment had consisted only of being transferred somewhere far away. Elsie was grateful of course for the news, but she was surprised by the whole range of emotions she felt at his exile, anger oddly surfacing at times to mix with the sadness and the pity. But she had thanked Julia just the same for all she had done, though Julia had been the primary agent, one could say, of the breakup of the lovers in the first place.
Elsie had spent at least some portion of every day since then crying, though she managed to do it in secret. Ma remarked several times, however, complaining that Elsie seemed an awful mope these days, and what had gotten into her? And then had come the terrible news of Mr. Howard’s death, after which Elsie’s tears could flow openly, masquerading as sorrow for her sister’s father-in-law. Not that she wasn’t sad of course; Mr. Howard had seemed kind and had treated her respectfully at both the engagement party and the wed- ding itself. But she had not really known him well, and so most of her tears, in truth, fell for herself and her lost love.
As the days wore on, monotonously marching toward the funeral and Henrietta’s return, her tears had finally ebbed until she was left with merely a barren sort of dullness. Where she had once felt so much so tortuously, now she seemed to feel nothing at all, and instead went through the days in the same dreary way.
Elsie dressed slowly and went downstairs for breakfast. Ma was nowhere in sight of course, and the boys were already off to school. Thankfully, Eddie and Herbie had black suits they could wear, and God knew Ma had more than enough black dresses to choose from, but Doris and Donny and Jimmy would have to be fitted with some- thing new. As Odelia bustled in with some coffee for her, Elsie tried to muster up the energy to make a plan. She supposed she should go up to the nursery after breakfast and ask Nanny to accompany her downtown with the twins to shop. She would have to take Jimmy tomorrow, or maybe she should wait for him to get home from school and take him and the twins together? She should have kept him home from school! Oh, why couldn’t she think? This wasn’t that terribly complicated, and yet she found it difficult to concentrate on anything as of late. Absently, she poured herself some coffee from the silver carafe in front of her and rested her forehead on her fist.
What was she to do? Is this what her life was to be now? Stanley was gone; Harrison was gone. Her grandfather, she knew, wished her to make some sort of stupendous match with the son, or the fountainhead himself, of some eminently wealthy or powerful family, and that Aunt Agatha and Uncle John had been specially discharged to oversee this mission, she also knew. As Elsie poured some cream in her coffee, her stomach clenched as she wondered how much of the Harrison escapade her grandfather was aware of. She prayed that Mr. Howard had not confided in him before his death. She would be mortified, and no doubt he would be furious. But, she thought then, a realization slowly coming over her as she added some sugar to her cup, that perhaps him finding out that she was “damaged goods,” as Harrison had called her, might not be so bad after all. Perhaps everyone might leave her alone then to her own devices. Elsie had no idea what those might be, at the moment, but at least she would be free from her new relatives’ machinations and scheming attempts to marry her off.
Elsie sighed. To be fair, Aunt Agatha and Uncle John had been very kind to her, and she actually enjoyed their company and the lovely concerts and plays they had taken her to see in the city. And, in truth, the young—or not so young—men of their set whom they made sure to introduce her to weren’t terrible, per se, though she always felt strange and awkward around them. She hadn’t the slightest thing in common with any young man of their acquaintance it seemed, and yet no one seemed to recognize or acknowledge this, at least not out loud. She had once tried to voice her reservations to Aunt Agatha, explaining that she didn’t know what to say to any of them, that she found conversation difficult at times even with the easiest of companions. Aunt Agatha had tut-tutted her, saying what- ever did conversation have to do with it? That all that was required of her was to smile demurely and appear in lovely gowns. And, Aunt Agatha had been pleased to say, Elsie was progressing nicely in the learning of bridge, which would be an asset as well.
But did Elsie really want a man who merely sought a rich, well- dressed wife who could play bridge? What about love? She knew that if she raised this question, in all seriousness, she would be given some sort of pat answer, such as “Well, of course love is important, darling, but it doesn’t always happen right at the beginning!” But what, wondered Elsie, if it never came?
But worse than all of these doubts was the guilt, the shame that she now carried around, like a heavy bundle on her back. She could not escape her feelings of self-deprecation regarding her lost purity.
All these rich men, looking for a chaste, obedient wife to display in their mansions . . . but she was no longer that, was she? And so she felt doubly inadequate, an imposter on two counts. First, she was not of their class (not really, despite what everyone said about her being an Exley and a Von Harmon), and secondly, she had shamefully and irrevocably tainted herself. She felt so very different now and was amazed that no one else seemed to notice what was so plain to her. She had been praying ever since that fateful night with Harrison that her sin wouldn’t become clearly obvious to the greater world, in the form of, say, being with child. Each day that passed in which her flow did not come had added to her misery, so that when it did finally begin—a week late!—she had flown to St. Sylvester’s and said a rosary in thanksgiving.
She roused herself, again, from her dreary thoughts, and pushed back the plate of toast that Odelia had set before her. She couldn’t eat, and even that made her sad. What an ungrateful girl she was! There had been a time, not so very long ago, when they would have fought over an extra piece of toast—and with real butter on it, to boot! She sighed and looked around the exquisitely appointed room of the house her grandfather had purchased for them. How dare she dwell on her own miseries when she should instead be grateful. But she didn’t feel grateful, and that made her wretched, too.
She stood up resolutely, determined to extract the twins from the nursery and do something useful, simultaneously resolving to stop reading Jane Austen, or at least romance novels, and certainly poetry, anyway, for the foreseeable future, maybe forever. That chapter of her life was decidedly over. She would simply have to allow fate to take its course. But she shouldn’t use the word “fate,” she reprimanded herself; she should say God.
She had worked up her courage just yesterday to go to church and confess her sins to Fr. Finnegan, who was severe in his reaction to them. She hadn’t really felt forgiven, though he had of course absolved her. She had dutifully and prayerfully—and she hoped sincerely—said her penance, but in her heart, she felt it wasn’t enough.
Well, she would allow God to inflict whatever punishment He saw fit upon her. And if that meant marrying whomever the Exleys put before her, then she supposed she would and she would try to be happy in the process. After all—a lovely home, pretty clothes, a family—isn’t that what she had always dreamed about as she sat sewing in Mr. Dubala’s dusty shop?
But that was not all she had dreamed of in those days, she knew. Love had been the intertwining thread, but that seemed impossible now. She would just have to school herself to believe that love was a fantasy, an illusion; that was obvious, wasn’t it? A stray thought of Henrietta came to her mind, then, like an errant sprite, but she pushed it away. Henrietta’s situation was different, of course. She had found true love, but that was rare. And if it were such a rare, precious thing, it made sense that it had come to her beautiful sister and not to the likes of her—plain and, well, dirty.
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