The writings of Richard Kluger
…A most satisfactory ending to the season, she mused afterward, pleasingly sated, lying on her side with her breasts pressed against his motionless body, his arm around her neck and a leg thrown over hers. He looked – she opened an eye and glanced at his face in the dim light seeping in from the sitting room – utterly contented. Was she enough for him? Had he pleased himself half as much as he had her? Or did he prefer more tender, nubile female flesh? Did he inventory the charms of all the beauties he bedded, rate their quotient for passion, their outcries of ecstasy?
“How many women have you – been with this season?”
“Yes – including me.”
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about. How many women have you had here this season?”
Now his eyes were wide open. He turned to look at her. “What the devil’s got into you, Maddy?”
“That is not an answer.”
“That is not a question worth answering – or one that a lady puts to a gentleman.”
“I don’t see why not. You’re a socially active gentleman – who’s no doubt proud of his – attainments and – and conquests –”
He gripped her by both shoulders. “Maddy, did you or did you not have a good time in this bed a little while ago?”
“Wasn’t that apparent? In fact, that’s why I’m asking – whether you give – all your companions so good a time of it.”
“I don’t see why that should be any concern of yours so long as you –”
“Actually, I was wondering whether you are lying there contented or just itching to go downstairs and get back to the party.”
“No, I most decidedly do not want to go downstairs.” He sat up and fixed her with a stern look. “Maddy, I’m here because this is where I want to be. Do you want me to go – is that it? Just tell me what the matter is.”
He was right, of course. Her words and feelings were unbecoming, were beneath her dignity. “I – don’t know. It’s just – that I’ve seen you with so many women here –”
He flopped back onto his pillow and gathered his thoughts. “Look,” he said, curling an arm around her body and tugging it close to his, “I don’t give a damn about anybody else you may have seen me with – or not seen me with. They’re all part of the game I play, can’t you understand? Just forget about them, will you, please?” His mouth was beside her forehead, and she felt his breath as he spoke. “This is where I want to be – by your side, whenever I can be. What I was thinking about before, when you rudely interrupted my reverie, was where you and I will go from here – what’ll happen to us – when I can see you up north. Do you understand? There aren’t any others – they’re only decorative bodies so far as I’m concerned.”
How she wanted to believe that. She lay quietly, reflecting, her head on his shoulder, listening to the soft sounds of his breathing, his even exhalations slightly stirring a few hairs on her scalp. She felt enveloped by his nearness, his solidity, the earnestness of his protestation, that faint scent of his bay rum. But did that cosmetic aroma cover something foul beneath it, the same way his silver tongue and easy charm might so readily be deceiving her? Could their tropical idyll survive the harsh test of a colder clime? The distractions of the city were innumerable, and fragile things crumbled easily there. No doubt he was saying what he knew would please her, but honesty was required now, at season’s end. If their time here together had been simply a joyful accommodation for them both, she would relish it as such, and without a moment’s regret, and harbor no hopes or expectations of permanence for something that had been built on sand. There was only one way to determine his sincerity: he had to be told the truth about her, all of it, and now.
“I was beginning to think you’d died.”
“Harry, there are things I haven’t – wanted to tell you – things about my past I wasn’t ready to reveal – to you or anyone.”
Their eyes were inches apart. “Maddy, you needn’t. I know as much as I need to.” He caressed her face, brushing a strand of hair back from her forehead.
“Not as much as I need you to, though,” she said.
“Your qualities are far too apparent for you to –”
“Hush. Hear me first.”
Her future was set even before she was born, she began, when her mother, Catherine Reynard, a transplanted French-Canadian mill worker from Woonsocket, Rhode Island, met Hiram Memory, a bank clerk at the New Haven Trust Company, while she was vacationing at Savin Rock. For the mill girl a man who occupied such a responsible position and wore a clean collar to work every day was a real catch, and she married him as soon as possible. But Hiram Memory was no world-beater and did not advance as quickly as Catherine had hoped. Money was scarce, especially after their home was blessed with children, first a son, then six years later a daughter. As soon as Madeleine was old enough to help by wielding a needle, Catherine Memory opened a small shop selling ladies’ hats and notions on State Street in New Haven.
Business was slow at first, but when Catherine, on a buying trip for supplies in New York, hit upon the idea of millinery inspired by Parisian styles and insistently called her creations “chapeaux,” the store began to prosper. After a couple of years she had enough money to open a place around the corner on Chapel Street, the best business address in the city. She called the shop “Madame Catherine’s” and thickly laid on her crude Acadian accent whenever a customer was within earshot.
It would not do, of course, for the daughter of “Madame Catherine,” whose shop was now patronized by New Haven’s most refined women, to attend school with working-class children, so little Madeleine was sent to Miss Wilson’s Female Seminary, where the daughters of New Haven quality were taught, besides grammar and mathematics, etiquette, speech, posture and all manner of feminine graces that every gently born lady-to-be was expected to have mastered. Catherine had plans for Madeleine. After being “finished” by Miss Wilson’s, she was to be sent to a school in Paris that Catherine had heard all about, where her daughter would learn style and color and fashion, and when Madeleine returned to New Haven with all her accumulated knowledge, Madame Catherine’s shop would become the finest millinery establishment in the state, if not the nation. Accomplishment and wealth would naturally follow, promoting for Madeleine a brilliant marriage into a family of means and position.
First, however, Madeleine would have to know the French language perfectly, displaying a proper Parisian accent, which would instantly authenticate her mastery of la mode française A suitable tutor of French had to be engaged; mere classroom instruction at Miss Wilson’s would not suffice. An advertisement placed in the Register drew to their doorstep a fine young Yale student named Russell Giles Corwin, the son of a smalltown minister from upstate New York and a French mother who saw to it that her son spent his summer vacations in her native Normandy. Russell’s blond good looks and wholesome pedigree added to Catherine’s conviction that here was the ideal candidate to instruct her daughter.
Three evenings a week after dinner, starting early in October, Russell sat with Madeleine in the Memorys’ front parlor, conversing with her, reading with her, enchanting her, as Catherine flitted in and out in order to refine her own accent and to make certain that the young tutor and his pupil were engaged in things strictly Gallic. The trouble began in the spring, when Russell suggested that he and Madeleine meet in the afternoons instead of evenings to familiarize themselves with the outdoors as seen through French eyes. A knowledge of the vocabulary of the natural world would prove enormously useful to Madeleine, the young man solemnly assured her mother, inasmuch as smart Parisians often walked in the Bois de Boulogne and took holidays in Brittany. That it would enhance her daughter’s opportunities was all Catherine needed to be told, and she gave the youngsters permission to take walks after classes for each of them had ended. The two of them explored the streets of New Haven, and in time they took to wandering farther afield up to the reservoir north of the city or to Hamilton Park on the west or the waterfront on the south, but most of all they enjoyed the spectacular vista from East Rock, the promontory overlooking the city and all the places they had navigated on foot and the wide world beyond.
It was on East Rock, in a secluded niche, that they made love for the first time. Madeleine, frightened but curious, was avid for the experience, passionately enamoured of the Yale student, her teacher and sophisticated companion, as only a sixteen-year-old in love for the first time could be. Young Russell swore that so long as he did not spend himself within her, nothing could happen – that was what everybody did in France. It was all part of her cultural training, so to speak.
And nothing did happen, that first time. But after the fifth, or perhaps the twenty-fifth time – for by then Russell was teaching Madeleine with relentless enthusiasm nearly every afternoon – the girl knew something was wrong. Russell left for France at the end of June, and by the middle of July it was apparent that some wasting malady was afflicting her. She was seized by lassitude, and a peculiar discomfort every morning caused her to reject her breakfast, sometimes before rather than after it was consumed. Her breasts were so sore she had to be careful easing them into her corset, and worst of all, her monthly did not arrive. By August, when she had to loosen her corset laces for the first time, she understood that Russell had not entirely mastered the nuance of French civilization that discouraged impregnation. She had been irreparably “caught.” And there was no one for her to confide in. She dared not tell her mother; her father had been reduced to spineless impotence as the weekly income from Madame Catherine’s shop had long since surpassed his salary by several times, and her brother had gone west years earlier after a fight with their parents.
When Russell returned to Yale in September, Madeleine tearfully related her situation, only to be told that he had become betrothed over the summer to a very special young woman, the daughter of a former French nobleman from a fine Huguenot family, and although he was very fond of Madeleine he was not about to break his vow and thereby throw away his future on – he would not say an ordinary girl from an ordinary family – her. And, by the way, he said, he could no longer tutor her since a betrothed man should not be seen in the company of another woman, but he would offer her what money he could. Under the circumstances, however, it would not amount to very much.
“Little bastard,” Harry muttered.
“Shhh,” she said. “It was very long ago – and he was not little.”
She would, at any rate, not accept his money if she could not have the rest of him, and a man that dishonorable no longer commanded her starry-eyed love. She had no alternative but to tell her mother. Catherine Memory’s instinctive response was to demand the name of the villain who had wronged her daughter, but Madeleine, knowing full well her complicity while now despising her own trusting nature, refused to disclose his identity. Her mother guessed it, of course, but Madeleine’s lips were sealed, forever until now, on the subject. Betrayal of all Catherine’s hopes for the girl and her own resulting rise in the social world were the least of the charges mother lodged against daughter; it was the first time Madeleine had heard the word “slut” uttered in their home. As her last maternal act, her mother arranged, instead of her final year at Miss Wilson’s, for her to stay at Mrs. Pinckney’s Home for Erring Women in New York. For her to have remained in the Memory house would have brought endless shame to the family and infamy to Madame Catherine’s shop, inevitably causing a sharp decline in trade. After the baby’s birth, the door to her parents’ home would be barred to her, her mother said, washing her hands of a child who had proved so utterly ungrateful for the opportunities lavished on her, so disrespectful of the values taught her in an upright Christian household. Madeleine Memory was on her own now, for good. And so, after the baby had been turned over to the van Ruysdales, the infant’s mother, who had not even reached her eighteenth birthday, was forced to make her way alone in the great Sodom of New York City.
He kissed her brow. “What did you do?”
“Whatever I’ve had to in order to survive – but nothing dishonorable, I assure you.” She forced a smile. “I just wanted you to know who I was – that my ‘husband’ never existed – that my mourning clothes are a complete and utter sham –”
He held her tight for a long, silent moment. “I don’t care who or what you were or, within limits, what you’ve had to do. And if you thought I’d think the less of you because of what you’ve had –”
“I felt only that you ought to know – whatever the consequences.”
“Ah, Maddy. You are too, too good. But some things need not be said or ever revealed – what good can they do? You make me ask myself how much of the truth I need to confess now to you.”
“You have no obligation to me.”
“No less than you had to me, yet you told me.”
“I can’t believe you’re harboring things that I haven’t –”
“Do you think you’re the only one with dark secrets? We all carry them around with us. Surely you’ve gathered that the life I lead is not an entirely ethical one by conventional standards.”
“You don’t hurt people, do you?”
“Only in their pocketbooks – and only people who can afford the injury.” He separated from her and propped himself up on an elbow. “The Wall Street firm I told you I’m connected with – that I seek clients for – is as mythical as your late, lamented husband. My business, Maddy, is card playing, which I am spectacularly good at –”
“Is there a living in that?”
“A precarious one, but it can provide certain amenities.”
“But how? Where does one go to –”
“You’re not hearing me, Maddy. I am a professional gambler.”
The news numbed her. “But I thought such people –”
“Lived on Mississippi riverboats and wore big diamond rings? Not at all. Sometimes we look – in fact, the best of us always look just like the people we play with. We’re members of the same clubs, eat the same foods, drink the same wines, patronize the same tailors – in short, we blend in with our prey so we don’t arouse their suspicions. Sometimes we lose to them at cards, and for the very same reason. The only difference is that when we lose, we lose small, and when we win, we win very big. We live by our wits, our dexterity and our powers of observation, which must be kept very sharp, my dear, every minute of the time so that we can turn any situation that might arise to our advantage. And at the Royal Poinciana, opportunities abound.”
A thousand questions rushed into her head, but before she could begin to sort them out, they both reacted to a sharp rapping on the door to her suite. “Oh, Lord, what time is it?” she said, lunging for a closer look at the clock on her bedstand. “Twelve-fifteen! I’m going to be late –”
The rapping on the door persisted. She threw on her dressing gown and hurried out through the sitting room, calling out to whoever was intruding on her to wait a moment. Barefoot and breathless, clutching her thin garment closely about her, she inched open the door. It was Stokes-Vecchio, in full evening regalia.
“I – yes – is there something the matter?”
“Madeleine –forgive me – I thought you’d be dressed and ready.”
“I’m afraid – I must have dozed off.”
“I was thinking I might escort you downstairs to my office –”
Lord in heaven. “Thank you – Anthony – but that’s really not neces-sary.” She kept the door open only the merest sliver.
“It would be my pleasure. I could wait while you got ready –”
“Really, no – thank you. It’s not – appropriate – your being up here-with me –”
“Actually, there was something I wanted to say to you – before the others – in private –”
“Surely it can wait until tomorrow.”
“I had hoped – I’ll take only a moment of your time – if you’ll just fetch something proper to wear –”
How could she leave him out there, begging admittance, when she badly wanted him to offer her a return engagement for the next season? Damnation, how she disliked the smarmy man. “I – if you’ll come in and wait just inside until I can get on something –”
As she turned and began to retreat to her bedroom for slippers and a less filmy garment, she spotted the champagne bottle and glasses behind her on the sitting room table and Harry’s clothing littering the vicinity. There was no choice but to wheel around and confront Stokes-Vecchio before he took a step farther. As she pivoted, she nearly tripped over one of Harry’s discarded shoes; the other, she saw, rested on its side midway between her and the hotel manager, who in the dimly lighted entranceway remained transfixed by the sight of her and had not yet let his gaze wander to the indicting piece of male footwear. She scurried toward him, stopping directly over the shoe and covering it with the skirt of her dressing gown.
“Madeleine,” said Stokes-Vecchio, taking her advance toward him as a delayed sign of affection, “you’re quite – radiant in that – garment.”
“Anthony – you have me at a disadvantage. What is it you wish to say?”
“Must I say it here in the hallway, my dear?”
“I’d rather – if you don’t mind-“
“Can’t we speak in your sitting room for a moment?”
He was practically pleading with her, like a schoolboy. Cruelty, though, was her only defense. “I think not. It would make me most uncomfortable.”
He drew a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the oozing front edge of his scalp. “Madeleine, you are – an exceptionally principled woman – and I respect that – in you – a great deal. But really, I can not see why I must be made to –”
“Because I insist.” She suddenly reached for both his hands to show a softening in attitude but kept them locked at waist height to form a barrier rather than a bond between them. “Now please speak your piece, Anthony, or I’ll be hopelessly late for the ceremonies downstairs.”
Well, he began, he wanted her to know – her especially, to know – -how proud he was of the way the hotel looked at all times. Why, just the other night he had been unable to sleep so he came downstairs to clear up some paperwork that had accumulated on his desk, and he was delighted to see that the rotunda appeared as lovely at three-thirty in the morning as it did at three-thirty in the afternoon.
Was that the urgent message he had come to deliver? The man was a hopeless ninny, but he had to be humored, and right out the door. “It’s terribly nice of you to come all the way up here to tell me that, Anthony, but really it’s all part of my duty. Now if perhaps you can let me proceed with my dressing, we can –”
“No, no, Madeleine – it’s more than routine. Your notion of dividing the housemen into two crews for morning and evening work – it s been an inspired arrangement. I hadn’t realized till then just how well it’s worked out.” He withdrew one of his hands to smooth back the quivering right side of his mustache.
“Thank you, Anthony, but I think you are too generous in your –”
“No, not in the least. You are superb at what you do, Madeleine – you are superb in almost every way –”
“Anthony – really – you must not-“
“You must rejoin us next season. I shall be quite lost without you.”
“That’s most kind of you. I’m just not entirely –”
“At a handsome increase in your salary, of course. I’ve not worked out a budget yet with Mr. Flagler, but I was thinking of an additional five hundred for the season – if that would suit you, I mean.”
“I – well, that’s most generous, of course. But I think I ought –”
“A thousand, then. I think I’ll be able to work that out. You must say yes, Madeleine.”
“I – well – if you’ll promise to leave the next instant and let me attend to my appearance for the ceremony –”
“Yes, of course!”
She beamed at him with full magnitude. “Then yes – thank you so very much. I’m proud to be part of this fine establishment.” She gave his hand a fond squeeze and then cast it free. “Now forgive me, Anthony, but you must scat – absolutely at once.”
He retrieved her hand for another moment and kissed her fingers in gratitude before departing, nearly at a bound.
Whether more exhilarated over having averted disaster or being hand-somely rewarded for her season’s labors, she could not say as she lifted the hem of her dressing gown and danced back into the bedroom to tell Harry the news. She found him bunched in the bottom of her closet, sound asleep….
©2017 Richard Kluger