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By Susan Howatch
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Susan Howatch
All rights reserved.
THERE WERE TWO SUBJECTS I never discussed: my dead wife and Cashelmara. So when I first met a woman with whom I could discuss both subjects with ease, it was hardly surprising that I should once again flirt with the idea of marriage.
I had been a widower for eight years by the time I visited America in the spring of 1859. My friends had long since convinced themselves that I was wedded to my wife's memory, but none of my friends ever seemed to consider that even the most cherished memory does have certain shortcomings. One cannot conduct a stimulating conversation with a memory; one cannot take it to the theater or to the country or to bed. The void in the bedchamber is the least of one's problems, since a man in my position can always find a mistress; but the void elsewhere is less easy to fill, and I had begun to despair of ever finding a woman who would do more than spend my money, flaunt my title and bore me to death.
Naturally I had no wish to fall in love. At my time of life a man makes himself a laughingstock if he succumbs to some ludicrous infatuation, and, besides, I had too much pride and good sense to behave like a young swell half my age. I merely wanted a certain kind of companionship, preferably provided by a mature, good-looking, sympathetic woman intelligent enough to meet the demands of my public life and agreeable enough to respond to the requirements of my private inclinations, but unfortunately, as I soon discovered, such admirable women always seemed to be married to someone else.
"It surprises me that you show no interest in younger women," said my brother David to me once. On the third anniversary of my wife's death I had rashly confided in him that I might consider remarriage if I could only find a woman who suited me. "If you could meet a girl like—"
"My God," I said, exasperated, "am I to hear yet another paean in praise of Blanche Marriott?"
Blanche Marriott was at that time David's favorite topic of conversation. He had met her that summer when diplomatic business had taken him to the United States, and in between his negotiations with the Americans on the touchy subject of the British searching of slave ships he had somehow contrived to escape from Washington, visit New York and call on my wife's cousins, the Marriotts. I too had visited New York once and called upon the Marriotts, but that had been years ago when Francis, the present head of the household, had been a boy of fourteen and his two sisters, Blanche and Marguerite, were still unborn. However, on the strength of my brief past acquaintance with Francis I had given David a letter of introduction to him, and when David had eventually returned to England I had been obliged to listen to his lyrical descriptions of the fifteen-year-old Blanche.
"Fifteen!" I exclaimed, scandalized. "David, your tastes are becoming positively pagan!"
"I think of her purely as a daughter," he answered happily. Men who make remarks like that are always men who have never had daughters. "My admiration for her is wholly innocent."
"I hope your wife believes you."
When David was harboring one of his romantic notions he became incredibly naïve, and I was not in the least surprised when he told me he wanted to invite Blanche to England so that his wife could present her at court.
I never heard his wife's comment on this ingenuous scheme, but presently when David confessed to me with a sigh that he had abandoned his aspirations I wasted no time feeling sorry for him. Half the fun David derived from his romantic notions came when he was forced to abandon them; he liked to yearn moodily for a week or two like some pastoral swain in a popular painting. Indeed, as far as I knew no romantic notion of his had ever been consummated, for consummation would have been a great anticlimax, and his wife, by whom he was secretly intimidated, would have been much too severe to make such reckless behavior worthwhile.
I was very fond of David. When he died three years after his encounter with Blanche I felt the loss profoundly, for he had been my last link with the remote past, the only person who had shared my early memories of Cashelmara. I was still adjusting myself painfully to his death when I received a long and eloquent letter of sympathy from America.
Blanche Marriott had seen David's obituary in the Times and had written to say that she mourned with me in my bereavement.
I was surprised and touched. I wrote back, not expecting to hear from her again, but presently she sent a second letter, and soon, almost before I was aware of what was happening, we were conducting a regular correspondence.
"I seem to have taken your uncle David's place in your cousin Blanche's affections," I said, amused, to my daughter Nell. "I can't quite think why, but I admit it's very pleasant. She writes the most charming letters."
"It's good of you to take the trouble to write to her when you're so busy, Papa," said Nell. "Poor girl—orphaned so young! No doubt she has a great need for a mature male relative whom she can regard as a father."
I found this remark extraordinarily irritating, and after that I no longer spoke to Nell about her cousin.
Blanche was eighteen by this time and evidently most accomplished. I learned that she played the piano, took lessons on the harp, spoke French and Italian and read all those women's novels which have given the decade the name of the Feminine Fifties. She did not seem to care about the political issues of the day (to my relief; I heard quite enough about those at Westminster), but she told me about the current events in New York—the enlargement of the Astor Library, the establishment of the Cooper Institute, the Staten Island riots and the great fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace in Bryant Park. Her descriptions of the fire were so graphic that I told her she should try her hand at a novel, and she said yes, she would like to write a novel just like John Halifax, Gentleman, which she was rereading for the ninth time.
I was entertained. I saw no harm in such an agreeable correspondence, and, besides, I liked the idea that somewhere in the world there was a charming young woman who not only wrote regularly to me but ended each letter by expressing the hope that one day she might make my acquaintance in person.
Shortly after her twentieth birthday she sent me a sketch of herself drawn by an artistic friend.
"Very fetching," said my daughter Nell when I was unable to resist showing the picture to someone. "But, Papa, why should she send you such a thing?"
"Why shouldn't she?" I began to feel irritated, and this was unusual, for Nell was my favorite daughter. "I see nothing odd about it."
"Supposing when I was her age I had sent a sketch of myself to your friend Lord Duneden!"
"It's not the same thing at all," I said, more annoyed than ever. "You're not related to Duneden, and I'm related by marriage to Blanche."
"I see," said Nell and tactfully changed the subject. I never had the chance to discuss Blanche with her again, for shortly after that conversation in the March of 1859 Nell died in childbirth, and once again I was left with a gaping void in the fabric of my life and an almost unendurable sense of loss.
This time, however, I was so angry that there was barely room for grief. I was angry with everyone—with Nell's stupid oaf of a husband, who had taken her to his Dorset manor for the confinement instead of letting her stay in London where she could have had the best possible care; with the poor dead infant who had deprived his mother of life; with the foolish people who wrote to me afterward to say how grateful I must feel that I still had three surviving daughters to console me in my bereavement. Everyone knew that I was estranged from Annabel and Madeleine and separated by over a thousand miles from Katherine. I received no consolation from them and I expected none.
Finally I felt so full of anger that I lost my temper with my closest friend when he called to offer his sympathy.
"What use is sympathy to me?" I shouted at Duneden in a paroxysm of bitterness and rage. "What do I care about sympathy? Everyone I've loved best is dead. No, don't dare remind me of all I have left. I'm well aware of all that remains to me—old age, loneliness and death. God Almighty, what a prospect!" And I proceeded to rant against death with such a fervor that Duneden insisted in alarm that I immediately drink a double measure of brandy and soda water.
When I stopped shouting long enough to drink the brandy he tried to soothe me by suggesting I go away for a while. "A sojourn on the Continent, perhaps," he murmured, "or a quiet sea voyage—above all a change of scenery."
"There's nowhere I want to go," I said morosely, "and no one I want to see."
Less than a month later I was boarding the Cunard steamship Persia at Liverpool on my way to America to meet Blanche Marriott.
Naturally I did not decide to go to America solely to meet Blanche. I was not my brother; I did not harbor foolish notions about a young woman of twenty whom I had never met, but since I had decided to travel to take the edge from my bereavement and since I was interested in recent American developments in agriculture, there seemed no logical reason why I should not call upon the Marriotts in New York.
On the twelfth of May, 1859, after a quiet eight days at sea, I steeled myself to withstand the blast of American civilization.
Was there ever a city like New York? Perhaps London might once have resembled it, a medieval London, its shining palaces of unimaginable riches rammed cheek to jowl against squalid hovels of unimaginable poverty, the raucous cries of the beggars drowning the strident bargaining of the merchants and above everything, beyond the clamor and noise and smell, the splendid skyline of church spires glinting in the sun. It had been many years since I had set foot in New York, but as the ship edged closer to Manhattan Island I remembered the reek of the rivers and could almost hear the endless cacophony in the mean smoky alleys north of the Battery. My memories sharpened. I could recall the stevedores shouting to one another in a dozen languages, the pigs rooting in the rubbish on every street corner, the bright lights blazing each night from the brash new buildings on Broadway. New York was a primitive town, its better neighborhoods groping to imitate the architecture of Georgian London; but although in my opinion it was hopelessly plain, I defy any visitor not to be hypnotized by its vitality. Even from my position on deck, still separated from land by the waters of the harbor, I found myself already stupefied by the pulse of the city's frenetic daily life.
Francis Marriott met me at the pier allotted to the Cunard steamship line. I recognized him without difficulty, although age had enhanced his marked good looks and given him the poise he had lacked as a boy. He had unusual eyes, brown but light, white even teeth and a peculiarly brilliant smile.
"Welcome, my lord!" he exclaimed. "What a privilege! What a delight! What a rare pleasure!"
Such effusion did not surprise me, for Americans are notoriously effusive. I have always regarded it as part of their un-English charm. Smiling, I thanked him, shook his hand and said how pleased I was to return to America after such a long interval.
The formality of customs inspection had already been completed on the boat, and fortunately a man in my position need not trouble himself with the regulations which hinder the progress of visitors entering a foreign country. When I had instructed my manservant and secretary to attend to my possessions, I paused only to accept a dinner invitation from the British Consul, who had also come to the docks to welcome me, before I battled my way through the riffraff to the Marriott carriage.
It was abominably hot. Sweat prickled my neck, dust tickled my nose, and above in the hazy sky the alien sun was blazing on those rutted teeming streets.
"What—no pigs?" I said, peering out of the window as the coachman cracked his whip at beggars and horses alike.
"Pigs! Land's sakes, they've all been banished to the piggery uptown! I can tell it's been a long time since you were last here, my lord."
"No doubt I shall see many changes."
"You will indeed. Wait till you see the new buildings! We have a beautiful park now, you know, and the finest Catholic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is being constructed on Fifth Avenue."
"I suppose you have the Irish immigrants to thank for that."
"Well, we'd best not talk about immigrants," said Francis, still smiling, "since it's a subject that makes a lot of people here ill-humored."
"Still?" I said, remembering how America had finally managed to slam the door in the face of the hordes of Irish who had crossed the Atlantic to escape the famine ten years before.
"My lord, the increase in population, the difficulties it creates ..." And he embarked with gusto upon a description of New York's problems while I listened politely. At last I managed to deflect him by murmuring with a smile, "In England we're more interested in President Buchanan's attitude toward secession."
"Ah, Buchanan knows what he's doing," said Francis confidently. "There'll be no war. No one wants war—so bad for trade and the stock market suffers." Both Francis and his father had made fortunes on Wall Street. "Even talking of war is a crime in my opinion. Gold has already gone into hiding, and as for commercial credit ... Things have never really recovered since the panic of '57, when Ohio Life failed and the Bowery Bank collapsed." And he talked for a minute longer on financial matters before we drifted into a discussion of my voyage, the welfare of my family and the welcome that was awaiting me at the Marriott mansion north of Washington Square.
I would not have thought it possible that the mansion could appear more gross than I remembered it to be, but before he died Francis' father had ordered that the gutters and gargoyles be painted gold, and the innovation had enabled the house to achieve a new and unbelievable pitch of vulgarity. I am incapable of further description; all I can add is that Greek ideas had married Gothic affectations in the architectural plans, and the marriage had not been a happy one.
The carriage turned off Fifth Avenue, rolled through a pair of gates (also gilded, I regret to say) and swayed to a halt in the wide courtyard. As the footman helped me down I saw that a red carpet had been patted over the porch steps, and in the hall beyond another carpet of an identical shade of red rolled endlessly into the distance beneath a constellation of chandeliers.
"My family are all most eager to make your acquaintance, my lord," said Francis with his peculiarly brilliant smile. "My sister Blanche in particular has been counting the days till your arrival."
"I'm looking forward to meeting both your sisters," I said politely. Since Blanche could hardly have conducted her correspondence with me without his permission, I knew he must assume that her interest in me was reciprocated, but I had no wish for him to assume too much.
His family were waiting in the hall.
I saw Blanche at once. She was smaller than I had imagined, but her figure was exquisite. She had a pale, unblemished skin, high cheekbones and a long lovely neck. Having constantly told myself that I was certain to be disappointed when I met her face to face, I was now so stunned to discover that for once in his life David had not exaggerated a woman's attractions that I almost lost my composure altogether, and it was only with a considerable effort that I maintained a neutral expression on my face while Francis was introducing me to his wife, Amelia.
Amelia was a large woman, her skin prematurely lined by the New York climate, her brown eyes bearing a perpetually worried expression. Perhaps she worried about her husband's infidelities, which, I felt sure as soon as I saw her, were numerous and varied. Her two children resembled Francis in looks. The girl, Sarah, was a pretty child with a spoiled mouth, and the boy, Charles, though shyer, had a bright, alert look about him.
"And now permit me," said Francis at last with a sweep of his arm, "to present my sister Blanche. Blanche, my dear, may I introduce ..."
He was so enrapt at the opportunity of introducing Blanche to me that he quite forgot his other sister. However, fortunately by that time I had my wits about me again, and after greeting Blanche with the appropriate amount of courteous enthusiasm I turned to the small sandy-haired miss of seventeen who stood sulking in the background.
Excerpted from Cashelmara by Susan Howatch. Copyright © 1974 Susan Howatch. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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