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  • Writer's pictureAlyssa Maxwell

Murder at Rough Point EXCERPT

Newport, RI

September 1896

“You will come down from there this instant. Now, sir.” I clapped my hands for emphasis, but to no avail. The individual whose disorderly bulk presently concealed the newest tear in the leather seat of my buggy merely tilted his head at me with an infuriating mixture of defiance and incomprehension.

That look begged the question: How could I possibly object to his accompanying me? Yes, well. Such had been my morning thus far. The same individual had earlier spilled water across the kitchen floor and managed to fold the doormat in half so that upon entering from the garden I’d first stumbled over the mat and then slid sideways across the wet floorboards. These acrobatics culminated with the bumping of my hip on the edge of the kitchen table.

While I did not find this latest antic any more endearing, it was not, however, entirely unexpected.

The rays of an uncertain sun seeped through lacy cloud cover and the sharp tang of low tide permeated the air and settled on my tongue. I stepped closer to the buggy and unceremoniously took hold of a bold red collar. “I must be off, and you, good sir, must vacate this seat immediately.”

Patch, a brown and white spaniel mix and Gull Manor’s newest and unruliest resident, whimpered sadly and resisted my gentle tug for all of a second or two. Then, with a growly whine, he hopped down onto the footboard and from there sprang to the ground beside me.

I bent to stroke his sweetly rounded head, which reached just above my knees. The curling fur slipped like warm velvet between my fingers. “There now, your job is to keep Nanny and Katie company while I’m gone. Be sure no harm comes to them.”Did he understand me? Oftentimes I believed he did. On this occasion he licked my hand and took off at an uneven lope, his shaggy ears flapping and his curling tail feathering in the breeze. He bolted out of sight around the corner of my sprawling if somewhat ramshackle house that had once belonged to my great-aunt Sadie.

I was not about to waste the opportunity, for who knew how long it would be before Patch remembered that Nanny, my housekeeper, and Katie, my housemaid, were fully capable of taking care of themselves. I climbed into my gig and clucked to my old roan hack, Barney. He lurched into a halfhearted stroll. Barney only knew one speed, but his leisurely pace was just fine with me today as I hadn’t far to go.

My front lawn, which had recently benefited from the attentions of my uncle Cornelius Vanderbilt’s gardeners, showed tinges of yellow and brown, a sure sign that autumn had arrived. Though the elms and maples on the perimeter of my property remained heavy with summer growth and showed only hints of the blazing colors to come, the hawthorn, boxwood, and azaleas closer to the house already looked tired and thin.

Despite the fading summer and my trials with a naughty, nearly full-grown pup, my spirits ascended with each of Barney’s labored steps. Mr. Millford, editor-in-chief and my employer at the Newport Observer, had called last night with a new assignment for me, one that promised nothing in the way of danger. That in itself came as a welcome relief, for I’d had enough of danger back in July. Yet neither was this to be one of Bellevue Avenue’s extravagant fetes, about which I had written countless frivolous columns about gowns, jewels, tableware, and decorations. No, for once I would neither be threatened by murderers nor secretly bored by frippery, and, best of all, I had been asked for specifically. Asked for. By name. It seemed I was establishing a reputation as a journalist. Finally.

One question did niggle at the back of my mind, but I resolved to ignore it. Why contemplate vexing riddles in the face of my good fortune?

As we left Gull Manor behind, a sturdy ocean breeze threatened to lift my hat right off my head. I placed one hand on the crown of my straw boater and turned my face into the gusts, letting my eyes fall half closed while I enjoyed the heady promise of a story of substance, the likes of which Newport hadn’t seen in far too long. Decades, actually. I didn’t even mind when the gull feather, dyed blue by Nanny to match my carriage dress, worked loose from my hatband and fluttered away. More than a decade ago, the intelligentsia—artists, writers, and philosophers—who had once inhabited our city in such great numbers had fled before the onslaught of the great industrial barons such as my uncle Cornelius. Suddenly they were back, at least a small number of them were, and it seemed they wanted me to be the means through which they announced their return.


“Barney, do you realize this could be a new beginning, not only for me as a reporter, but for Newport as well?” I let him have his head, and while this only encouraged him to slacken the pace, we’d arrive at our destination in plenty of time. Barney knew the way to Bellevue Avenue as well as he knew his way into his own cozy stall.

For it was to Bellevue that we headed, but where the avenue made its ninety-degree turn north toward the opulent mansions that stretched along its length, we took a sharp right onto the curving driveway of Rough Point, the estate owned by Uncle Cornelius’s youngest brother, Frederick. Here was no palazzo like The Breakers, or Italianate villa like Beechwood, or the neoclassical variation of Versailles’s Le Petit Trianon that was Marble House.

With its granite façade trimmed in red sandstone, diamond-paned windows, and crenellated accents, Rough Point seemed a transplant from the English countryside, at least those whose pictures I had seen in books. Three gabled wings jutted out imposingly from the main structure, while a fourth gabled wing set at a slight angle from the rest made up the kitchen and service quarters. Heavy double doors beneath a Gothic arch stood framed by Ionic pilasters, forming an entrance that seemed to convey a forbidding message: Enter if you dare. Sitting on relatively isolated grounds near the southern tip of Bellevue Avenue, with rear lawns that heaved and tumbled to the Cliff Walk’s rocky precipice, Rough Point had been aptly named.

And yet, for all that, I smiled as Barney brought the buggy closer. Perhaps Rough Point spoke to a dark and defiant part of my nature, one that allowed me to endure danger and death without giving way to despair. Perhaps. At any rate, I had never felt the disquiet here some of my young Vanderbilt cousins experienced. Gertrude termed the place oppressive, Neily called it archaic, and Consuelo feared the shadows no amount of sunlight or electric illumination could dispel from its mahogany interiors.

At the sound of another vehicle crunching along the drive behind me, I looked back and was surprised to see Uncle Frederick’s brougham being brought up from the carriage house. A moment later the front door opened, and both Frederick and Louise Vanderbilt stepped outside. The pair had vacated Rough Point at midsummer, and I had not realized they’d returned. A man with dark hair slicked close to the scalp, angular, European features, and a pencil-thin mustache followed them. I recognized him as their estate manager, Howard Dunn, who handled legal and financial matters on Uncle Frederick’s various properties. As if he were a footman or butler, he carried a valise in each hand.

Aunt Louise saw me and waved. A tall woman with tightly curled hair and a slim figure envied by her sisters-in-law Alice and Alva—and explained by her never having born children—she always seemed genuinely pleased to see me. “Emmaline, I’m so glad you arrived before we departed. Another few minutes and we would have quite missed you.”

“I’m glad I had a chance to see you, too,” I said, but I couldn’t help a slight sinking in the pit of my stomach. Here I had believed the individuals renting the house for the next two weeks had specifically asked for me to report on their activities. But now I suspected it had been Frederick and Louise who had recommended me for the job. I hadn’t achieved distinction as a journalist after all; I merely had thoughtful relatives.

Matters could be worse, I supposed. Either way I had an opportunity to distinguish myself as a reporter in matters other than fashion and frippery.

“I thought you’d left after the tribulations of the summer,” I continued as Uncle Frederick handed me down from my carriage.

“We most certainly did,” he replied. “Who could bear such vulgar disorder here, in what is supposed to be a peaceful summer enclave of garden parties and festive balls? This past summer, combined with the town’s rabid need to keep up with the Joneses, only served to reinforce our decision that Newport is not for us.”

I hid a grin. Though I couldn’t fault his motives when it came to murder and mayhem, it had been Uncle Frederick’s plans for Rough Point eight years ago that had, in large part, changed the nature of Newport’s summer cottages forever. Before then and with only a few exceptions, our visiting socialites had been content with Newport’s very New England shingle style of mansion with the occasional exception of an Italianate villa or Gothic revival cottage. It had been the startlingly lavish blueprints of Rough Point that prompted a covetous Alva Vanderbilt to erect high walls around her newly acquired Bellevue Avenue property to prevent anyone from glimpsing her triumphant Marble House until its completion. That in turn spawned the rebuilding of The Breakers to its palazzo-inspired glory. Now, Newport boasted one palatial tribute to the owner’s ego after another, with more in the making.

But of course, I wouldn’t remind Uncle Frederick of all that. I believed him sincere in having grown weary of constant one-upmanship. Of his two older brothers, Uncle Frederick most resembled William, but perhaps with kindlier eyes, and a great, dark mustache that curled beyond his cheeks. “We returned only to see our renters settled in,” he told me, “and to pack up any irreplaceable treasures. Now we’re off again to New York.”

Their driver brought the carriage to a stop beside us. Mr. Dunn, having silently held the valises this whole time, moved to load the cases onto the rear of the vehicle. A footman came out of the house with two more bags and piled them on top of the others, then proceeded to strap them all in place.

“You’ve been spending less and less time in Newport. If you stop coming altogether, I’ll miss you terribly,” I said truthfully. Of all my Vanderbilt relatives, Frederick and Louise were the most apt to accept me as I was, and suggested they find a husband for me much less frequently.

The wind stirred the silk flowers adorning Aunt Louise’s wide-brimmed hat, set at an angle over her carefully arranged curls. She gestured with a lace-gloved hand. “I know how much you love Newport, Emmaline.” She smiled at me. “But couldn’t you love it a teensy bit less, just enough to visit us in Hyde Park? You would love it there. This ocean with its constant winds is so unsettling to the constitution. The countryside at Hyde Park is ever so much more tranquil, like a Charles Baker or Thomas Cole painting. So idyllic and soothing and . . . well . . . civilized. We’d so love to have you there. And our neighbor’s youngest son—”

“Thank you, Aunt Louise, perhaps someday. But I have responsibilities here. A household to maintain, and employment.”

“Speaking of which, we’re glad you’ve been asked to report on whatever it is these bohemians plan to do.” Uncle Frederick flicked a disapproving gaze up at the house. “You’ll help Mr. Dunn keep an eye on things for us, won’t you?”

“Yes,” his wife interjected with some degree of agitation, “and alert the authorities should things get out of hand.”

“Out of hand?”

“Yes, you know how these freethinkers are with their modern ideas of art and poetry and theater. As if the traditional and established needed fixing.” Uncle Frederick gave a dramatic shudder.

“Of course,” I promised rather absently. My thoughts fixed on what he’d just said. We’re glad you’ve been asked to report . . . Was he merely trying to conceal his and Louise’s hand in my being here? Or had their tenants truly asked for me? I brightened at the prospect and with unfeigned enthusiasm said, “Can you tell me a bit about this group? Who they are, and their respective art forms.”

“Mr. Dunn will apprise you of all of that, dear.” Aunt Louise patted my cheek. With a careful tilt of her head to avoid our hats from colliding, she leaned and kissed me good-bye. “We really must go. Our luggage has gone ahead and our steamer is waiting to set sail. Adieu, Emmaline!”

Uncle Frederick kissed my cheek and squeezed my hand. “Good-bye, then, Emmaline. Come see us in Hyde Park sometime.”

With that he helped his wife into the carriage and climbed in after her, leaving me with a sense that their departure seemed rushed. With her smiling face and broad hat filling the open window, Aunt Louise called out another good-bye and added in a breezy tone, “It just occurred to me you might be familiar with one of the guests, at least by reputation. Mrs. Edward . . .”

The carriage jolted as it followed the curve of the drive, and the rest of Aunt Louise’s disclosure became lost in the rumble of wheels and the creaking of leather suitcases. I watched until the brougham reached a stand of elm trees and disappeared from view.

I turned to Howard Dunn, the estate manager I knew only vaguely, for I’d never had reason to say more than good day to him when we had met previously. Despite his carrying valises to the coach today, his was not a service role here but rather an administrative one. I opened my mouth to question him about the guests, but he spoke with a twitch of his mustache, so thin it might have been sketched in ink.

“Do come inside, Miss Cross, and I’ll apprise you of all you need to know. Some of our guests are already here. Others should arrive by this afternoon.” With no further attempt at pleasantries, he turned and led the way into the house. Apparently he found me beneath his regard.

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