Excerpt: Murder at Crossways
Newport, Rhode Island
A pair of footmen in livery lifted the wheelchair, one on either side, while two others opened the rear doors of the Bailey’s Beach clubhouse. The foursome exchanged not so much as the slightest glance, yet operated in perfect precision like the automated works at a factory that turned wool into yarn and yarn into fabric. I, on the other hand, held my breath and questioned not for the first time the wisdom of this outing Aunt Alice had ordered for today.
The two holding the chair proceeded down the steps to the sand, while a refrain played in my mind: Don’t drop him, please, don’t drop him. Of course, I needn’t have worried. They’d gotten him this far without incident. No one would dare drop Cornelius Vanderbilt II—not here at the beach, not at home on the staircase, not on the drive between the front door and the carriage.
Along with Aunt Alice and my youngest Vanderbilt cousin, teenaged Gladys, I hurried down behind them, my foot turning slightly inside its boot when I stepped onto the sand. Familiar faces dotted the beach, Astors and Cushings and Goelets and Browns—and many other families I had often reported on when I worked as a society journalist for the Newport Observer. Today, however, I would not be reporting. I was here merely as a niece, though if one wished to be thoroughly accurate, I was a cousin, on my father’s side, about thrice removed from the present Vanderbilts, our only common ancestor being the Commodore himself. Still, with mutual fondness they had adopted me into their summer circle many years ago.
We took a hard right on the sand as the footmen carried Uncle Cornelius to the west and most desirable section of the beach, farther away from that narrow strip at the east end which no one owned, accessible from the Cliff Walk for those hardy enough to climb down from the rocks.
Stirred by the motion and the breeze, the large front wheels of the chair rotated aimlessly, while Uncle Cornelius himself bobbed slightly from side to side with each step. As we passed friends of the family, they greeted Uncle Cornelius and Aunt Alice with brief pleasantries, which my uncle acknowledged with feeble nods and tremulous attempts to smile. It did my heart good to see him being afforded the respect he deserved, while his acquaintances carefully schooled the pity from their expressions. He was by no means the only invalid on the beach today, nor was Aunt Alice alone in her faith in the healthful properties of the sea air, but to see a formidable man like Cornelius Vanderbilt brought to such a state surely left many of today’s beachgoers unsettled.
We trekked several tens of yards, until we came alongside the bathhouse leased each season by the family. One of the footmen had procured a rake and had run ahead of us to smooth away any bumps and rocks in the sand that might detract from Uncle Cornelius’s comfort. Yet another stood waiting with an umbrella, and as soon as the two carrying the chair set that venerable, ailing man down, a circular patch of shade was carefully positioned around him.
After a blanket had been spread over the sand, Gladys sank in front of her father’s knees and reached to hold his hand. “How is that, Father? Are you comfortable? Isn’t the sea lovely today?” She glanced over her shoulder to admire the deep blues and froth-edged eddies of the Atlantic, and turned back smiling. “I’ve brought our book. Would you like me to read to you while you enjoy the view?”
He gave a nod but no verbal answer. Gladys hadn’t expected one; none of us did, for Uncle Cornelius had never fully recovered after that awful day in the summer of ninety-six when he and Neily had their dreadful row, and Uncle Cornelius had collapsed in a stroke of apoplexy. There had been smaller strokes since, leaving him incapacitated. Still, his gaze found his daughter’s, brightened and brimmed with affectionate emotions, and then narrowed ever so slightly in a smile his lips could not quite form.
Gladys, still holding his hand, raised up on her knees and kissed his cheek, and as she pulled away, she whispered, “Thank you, Father.”
I understood her gratitude, for it seemed to all of us that although Cornelius Vanderbilt’s strength had waned, his legs no longer worked, and his mind had become trapped behind a silenced tongue, he somehow still had the power to let us know he valued us and that we were important to him. He had not forgotten how to tell Gladys how beautiful he found her.
One of the footmen produced her book and handed it to her, while the others went into the bathhouse and brought out folding wood and canvas chairs. Gladys settled in close to her father and began to read, while her mother sat at his other side and studied the other beachgoers.
“Good heavens,” Aunt Alice suddenly said with a harrumph. “Is that Lucy Clews I see splashing about in the waves? In a bathing costume?”
Seated beside her, I raised my hand to my hat brim to further shield my eyes and glanced out over the water. Among the group of women bobbing in the waves, I recognized the dark-haired Mrs. Clews, wife of New York financier Henry Clews. “Yes, Aunt Alice, I’m afraid it is.”
Aunt Alice had never gotten over her shock at the bathing ensembles women wore these days, albeit the woolen blouses, knee-length skirts, bloomers, and stockings covered every inch of skin, but for the forearms, from the neck down. Still, most people, men and women both, strolled the beach in lightweight street clothes and planned no more than a quick wade through the shallowest waters that skimmed the sand, if that. I myself had worn a linen tennis dress I’d come by secondhand from Gladys’s elder sister, Gertrude. The ocean breezes kept me cool enough and I’d no desire to slog about in heavy, sodden, sandy wool.
Gladys found her bookmark and proceeded where she and Uncle Cornelius had left off in The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell. Poor Gladys. I knew she’d much rather be reading a novel—something by Louisa May Alcott or perhaps Jane Austen—but she was more than willing to trudge through a staid biography to please her father.
From the water came yelps of laughter as a group of women, segregated from the male swimmers, splashed one another. Some floated on life rings or wore cork life jackets. Others danced up and down with their arms held above the cresting waves. I smiled at their antics, listened to Gladys’s calm reading, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my skirts. My thoughts wandered.
Sudden screams cut off Gladys’s next sentence, and even Uncle Cornelius flinched against the wicker back of his chair. Aunt Alice leaned forward, as did I, to locate the source of the cries. Out beyond the female swimmers, one dark, shining blob floated on the currents. A fish? A bank of seaweed? A massive jellyfish?
That would certainly produce screams. Then a pale arm flailed and a leg clad in a black stocking kicked, and I realized the blob could only be a woman who had lost her footing and been swept up by the tide. In an instant I was on my feet and racing to the water’s edge, though what I would do when I got there, I didn’t yet know.
The shrieks of laughter from the other women abruptly turned to shrieks of fright. Some of them attempted to fight the incoming waves to make their way out to their foundering friend. Their woolens made them clumsy and dragged them back. An incoming wave soaked my boots, even as I realized my own skirts and petticoats would render me equally unwieldy. Could I help, or only make matters worse? My question became moot when, all at once, several men, some in bathing costumes, others shedding their coats and shoes on their way across the sand, streamed by me and plunged into the water. Straw boaters, blown off their heads in the frenzy, floated like lilies scattered on the waves.
One man, his striped swimming clothes standing out against the surf, reached the struggling swimmer, whose head, to my horror, had gone under while her feet kicked at the air. It took him some moments to right her, and in the end he needed the help of two others, as the swells kept upsetting the balance of all involved. Finally, they dragged her in far enough that she could set her feet solidly down and maintain her upright position. I saw then that it was Mrs. Clews, who lived but a short walk across Ocean Avenue at The Rocks, a rambling timber and granite house with peaks and turrets and perhaps the best views in Newport. Had she perished, it would virtually have been in the shadow of her own home. Her friends immediately surrounded her as she coughed and sputtered, and gradually they walked her back to the shore.
Once safely on the sand, she turned toward the water as if not trusting to have her back to the waves and sank to the ground. Both hands pressed her breastbone and her head sagged between her shoulders. She continued to heave and gasp for breath as the others stroked her back and bombarded her with inquiries as to her current state. The men plodded their way back to shore, attempting to collect their boaters as they went. I’ve no doubt several were inadvertently exchanged, while a few remained unclaimed and traveled like tiny boats out to sea. In an unsteady, watery voice Mrs. Clews called out her thanks as they passed.
With a relieved sigh, I retraced my steps to find Aunt Alice and Gladys both still on their feet. They converged upon me for the details, which I elaborated upon as much as I could.
“Well, Emmaline, who was it?” Aunt Alice demanded. “It looked like Mrs. Clews. Was it?”
“It was indeed. But she seems all right, if a trifle shaken. It looked to me that her life jacket hadn’t been secured properly, and had slipped so low as to make her tip forward headfirst into the water.”
“Mrs. Simmons always says life jackets are more of a hindrance than a help,” Gladys offered. “And that if one is intent on going in the water, one should learn to swim unaided.”
“What does Mrs. Simmons know? She’s merely an elocution tutor.” Aunt Alice returned to her chair. Reaching, she made an adjustment to the blanket covering her husband’s knees. Gladys, meanwhile, ran up the steps into the bathhouse and disappeared inside. She returned with a picnic basket, from which she took a glass bottle and a silver goblet.
“Lemonade, Father?” At his nod, Gladys poured and held the cup to his lips.
My heart lodged firmly in my throat, and the burning behind my eyes had nothing to do with the salt-laden air. Though two years had passed since Uncle Cornelius’s first episode, I couldn’t resign myself to the undoing of such a formidable individual, and it caused me physical pain to see him in these reduced circumstances. Even his patience threatened to wring tears from me, for in the old days he had never suffered anyone to fuss over him. Now he submitted readily, while I wondered if, in the privacy of his mind, he railed and cursed against the injustice.
I had resumed my own seat and raised my hems a bit to allow the sun to dry my lace-up boots, when a new commotion echoed its way across the beach. At the easternmost end, no longer Bailey’s Beach but a rocky area just below the Cliff Walk, a handful of children were raising a rumpus. I squinted in the sunlight to make out their shapes against the boulders.
“What now?” Aunt Alice grumbled as she, too, craned to see what the matter was. “I do wish they’d block access there from the Cliff Walk. One never can know who’ll wander down onto the beach. Such a nuisance.” Quieter, she confided to me, “I brought Cornelius here to benefit from the sea air, not to become overly excited by nonsense.”
They had, in fact, arrived in Newport only days ago. Before that they had been at their New York City mansion on Fifth Avenue where Uncle Cornelius’s physician could visit him regularly. But as the August days had grown stifling hot, Aunt Alice had decided to flee the city in favor of Newport’s open spaces and fresh breezes.
“Oh, look, Mother.” Gladys pointed down the beach. “It’s Spouting Rock. The tide is coming in and the children have gathered to watch the spray.”
Spouting Rock was a hollow basin in an outcropping. At high tide, the waves traveled beneath the rocks and then erupted in a geyser-like display. Locals and tourists alike thrilled at the phenomenon. The only ones who found it unimpressive and inconvenient were the summer cottagers who resented what they saw as an intrusion onto their private beach.
Aunt Alice shared that view. “The Spouting Rock Association should have bought that property along with the rest of the beach and walled it off. Then we wouldn’t have to suffer such ill behavior.”
I might have pointed out to her that as a Newporter born and raised, I, too, along with my half brother, Brady, had often begged our parents to stop there whenever circumstances brought us to this part of the island. Like the children gathered there today, we had thrilled and shouted in glee each time the water sent up its glittering spray. But that was long before the Spouting Rock Association had established Bailey’s Beach and there had been no one to mind our childish antics.
“Don’t the Clewses own Spouting Rock now?” Gladys asked, and then offered her father another sip of lemonade.
“No one owns it, although I wouldn’t blame the Clewses one bit if someday they took a stick of dynamite to the pesky thing.” With that, Aunt Alice turned her head away, as if something at the opposite end of the beach had captured her attention.
I, on the other hand, continued studying the figures in the distance. They waved their arms and continued calling out, and now two of them, boys by what I could make out, scrambled down from the rocks and ran in this direction. I came to my feet.
“I don’t think they’re shouting because of Spouting Rock. Something is wrong, and I’m going to go see what it is.” To Aunt Alice’s verbal disapproval—“It’s nothing, Emmaline, you needn’t involve yourself”—I set off down the beach.
The group at the rocks turned out to be older than I’d thought, not children, exactly, but not yet adults either. There were three girls and two boys, and by their clothing I judged them to be junior house staff such as hall boys and kitchen maid assistants. They’d probably walked over from one of the nearby cottages for a brief morning distraction before returning for their afternoon duties.
Whatever pleasure they had anticipated at Spouting Rock seemed instead to have left them distraught. By now they had all climbed down to the sand and were in various states of dismay, from gasping and crying among the girls, to the boys gesticulating wildly and shouting for help. I arrived in their midst along with a number of beachgoers, many of whom openly demonstrated their displeasure at having their agreeable day so disturbed. I had no doubt these young people were about to be ordered to leave, and rather than put myself in the thick of the conflict, I strode past all of them and clambered onto the rocks. Behind me came an immediate cry.
“No, miss! Don’t look. It’s horrible.”
The warning from the young man came too late. Near Spouting Rock, in a shallow tide pool pocked from centuries of surf, sand, and pelting stones, lay a man, his face bloated and fish-belly white, his eyes glazed and blank. The bile rose in my throat and I started to turn away. Then . . . good heavens . . . something in the face—in the shape of the nose and brow and chin—reached as if with icy fingers around my throat and drew me closer.
As I inched forward I found myself engulfed in a rush of figures scrambling by me. Apparently, the youngsters had gotten their message across and now men from the beach hurried to investigate.
“My word . . . is he dead do you think?”
“Dead as driftwood, I’d say.”
“Must have fallen overboard. That storm three days ago . . .”
“But how’d he wash up this high out of the water?”
While the speculation around me grew in volume and scope, I could do nothing but stare at that face. The blood pounded in my ears. My vision darkened. A tap at my shoulder sent a jolt through me.
“Miss, you really oughtn’t to be here.” And then, more emphatically, “Miss Cross?”
The red and white stripes of a man’s bathing costume flashed at the corner of my eye. I tore my gaze away from that blanched face and gazed up into another, nearly as familiar to me. “Robert?”
The young man looking down at me with such concern was Robert Goelet, the eighteen-year-old son of Mrs. Ogden Goelet, who owned Ochre Court. Only three weeks prior I had witnessed an appalling crime at their home, and had helped discover the culprit. Now I once again found myself caught up in violence, though whether committed this time by man or nature, I didn’t yet know.
“Miss Cross, you should go.” He tried to nudge me along, but I refused to budge. I was frozen in place, caught in a web of horror. I turned back to the body, to that all too familiar face—one I had known all my life, one I loved dearly—and fainted dead away.
Someone was slapping my hand, tapping my cheeks, and urgently calling my name. My eyelids fluttered but a burst of sunlight prompted me to seal them tight.
“Miss Cross, please wake up.”
I recognized the voice, as well as the tone—fear. Then I remembered where I was, what I had seen, and who spoke to me so adamantly. Reaching out and catching hold of a hand, I sat up and forced my eyes open, despite the glittering sunlight and salty spray. Spouting Rock had erupted again. My clothes were damp, my skirts sticking to my legs. Sharp pains pierced my back and elbows and I realized I had been lying on the bare rock.
The physical pain didn’t matter. My heart ached as though wrung out like an old sail and left to dry in the sun. I nonetheless said, “I’m all right, Robert. I’m sorry, I . . .”
I didn’t finish my excuses. Instead I tightened my grip on his hand and used his strength as leverage to stand. He tried to turn me around and draw me back to the beach, and once again I resisted. “No, I have to look. I have to know.”
“Know what? That some poor sot met with a watery, rocky end? Drunk, no doubt, and tumbled off his boat. Probably a scrod or lobster fisherman.”
“No.” I stumbled past him. “Fishermen don’t dress like that.” Despite the drenched state of the dead man’s clothing, his garments spoke of erstwhile quality. The trousers tapered in the current style, and the coat had been tailored to a personal fit. I even spied a mother-of-pearl stud on his shirt where his necktie had slipped awry. “No,” I repeated, “he was a gentleman.”
At a misstep I nearly went tumbling down the outcropping into the water, if not for the hand that grabbed my elbow to steady me. The men spoke of me as if I were deaf, all of them agreeing that someone should escort me from the scene. But I reached the body and forced myself to stare back into those sightless, clouded eyes. My heart threatened to shatter into countless, irretrievable pieces...….
Crossways on the Ocean Drive, built for Stuyvesant and Mamie Fish. They insisted in a thoroughly American design, and the result is this neo-Colonial mansion overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and Bailey's Beach.
Below: Mamie Fish.