Murder at Kingscote: excerpt - Chapter One
Newport, RI, July 1899
Bellevue Avenue teemed with color, fragrance, and a wide-eyed wonderment at the country’s newest technology. It was the summer of 1899, and something extraordinary had arrived on the shores of Aquidneck Island—something that promised to change our world forever.
Overhead, a deep cerulean sky embraced a vista of gleaming, sun-golden clouds, while the deepest greens of the European beech trees swept the avenue’s front lawns and gently grazed the borders of perfectly geometric flowerbeds. But oh, the spectators who had gathered today. A sea of people had turned out in their very best summer attire, wealthy vacationers and workaday Newporters alike having dug deep into their wardrobes, trunks, and cupboards. Seersucker and linen and fine flannel suits for the men. And for the women, silks, cottons and muslins, moirés and taffetas, all in vivid florals and stripes, each outfit topped by a hat sporting blossoms and ribbons and feathers and even whole birds, dyed impossible hues to match the wearer’s attire . . .
“Good gracious, Miss Cross, have you ever seen such frippery?” The speaker hovered at my shoulder, his notepad and pencil at the ready. Ethan Merriman held the position of society journalist for a small local newspaper, the Newport Messenger, and I, Emma Cross, had the unlikely distinction, as a woman, of being his editor-in-chief. “Why, I keep thinking some of these chapeaux are going to take wing and fly right off the wearers’ heads.”
I replied with a laugh and said, “In New York, such hats have been all the rage for some time now.”
“Poor birds,” he cried heartily and scribbled some notes.
I returned my attention to the crowd. It seemed all of Newport lined Bellevue Avenue from Bath Road in town, past the Casino shops and along the fence lines of the city’s most costly properties, all the way to Ledge Road at the very southern tip of Aquidneck Island. Adults stood a good half dozen deep along the sidewalks on either side, and children perched in threes and fours on gate posts and perimeter walls, or straddled the lower boughs of trees.
“Is anything wrong, Miss Cross?” Ethan had stopped scribbling, his pencil held aloft over the page while he studied my expression.
Had I forgotten to school my features? It seemed, at least to me, that only one individual in this happy multitude was experiencing twinges of apprehension and finding it necessary to admonish herself time and again not to show it. Experience in recent years had left me cynical of such crowds; hard lessons had taught me at best to suspect the antics of our wealthy summer cottagers, and at worst, to dread them.
“It’s nothing, Ethan. Just something I . . . need to do when I return to the office.”
“You should enjoy yourself, Miss Cross. Parades like this don’t come about every day, you know. And there’s that fat envelope you’ll receive at the end.”
“You’re absolutely right.” The envelope he spoke of would contain a portion of the entrance fee from the participants of the parade. Today’s event wasn’t merely for the entertainment of Newport’s citizens, but would raise funds for several charities, including one near to my heart, St. Nicholas Orphanage in Providence. Ethan was right, and I put on a cheerful face for the children’s sake. This seemed to appease him, for he returned to jotting down his observations.
Perhaps I worried for nothing and I’d be proven wrong. Perhaps it was nothing more than that, unlike the colorful multitude, I wore my typical workaday outfit: a dark blue pinstriped skirt and a starched shirtwaist that boasted a mere smidgeon of lace at the collar and a bit of ribbon piping at the cuffs. My plain straw boater sat straight and smart on my head, my hair pulled back into a tidy French knot. I hardly presented an aspect one would consider festive.
But as a working woman, I had learned not to compete with the ladies of the Four Hundred, that elite number of guests who fit comfortably into Caroline Astor’s New York ballroom, and which had come to define the parameters of society’s most prominent members. My wearing anything approaching finery today would have been an affront to their sensibilities, an impertinent suggestion that I might be as good as they. Never mind that I was a cousin of the Vanderbilt family; that I was the great, great granddaughter of the first Cornelius.
Unfortunately for me, or perhaps fortunately, depending on one’s point of view, I traced my lineage through one of the “Commodore’s” daughters, and that formidable old curmudgeon hadn’t believed in leaving much of anything to women. My lack of fortune combined with the benevolence of a great aunt who had left me with a house and a small annuity had led me to what I considered my vocation and a measure of independence most women never dreamed of.
Speaking of my vocation, I very nearly opened my velvet handbag—rather threadbare at the edges, to be sure—to dig out my own writing tablet and nub of a pencil. It had become a professional habit during the past several years. But as editor-in-chief of the Messenger, a position I’d come into last summer, I was no longer required to tale meticulous notes on every frock that entered my field of vision, or the height and shape of every boot heel, or which young lady held the arm of which eligible gentleman. That responsibility belonged to Ethan, and I knew I could trust him to make a fine job of it.
“I should move through the crowd now,” he said, and I waved him on. His dark hair slick with Macassar oil, he weaved his tall figure along the sidewalk, his pencil flying across his notepad. From time to time he stopped to speak with this or that spectator and jotted down his or her reply. He possessed an unerring sense of which of our summer denizens sold the most papers to our readers. And yet it was with a twinge of envy, one I couldn’t entirely explain, that I watched him go.
I threaded my own way through the milling spectators, stopping periodically to chat with friends and acquaintances. For a penny I purchased a small bundle of roasted peanuts from a vendor cart. In vain I searched the faces around me for Nanny, my housekeeper, and Katie, my maid-of-all work, who had ridden to town in my carriage with me earlier. I couldn’t find them but never mind, we had an agreed upon place where we would meet later.
The crowd stirred with a tremor of excitement, like an electrical current that shivered through the air. Once again, a vague foreboding rose up inside me, and I found myself bracing for . . . I didn’t know what, only that it would not be anything good. Then, a woman with dark, curly hair piled high beneath a hat sporting a bird as large as a cormorant approached one of the objects of Newport’s present fascination.
I could not have said what color the Duryea Runabout automobile might have been. Giant bunches of blue and pink hydrangeas bedecked every outer inch of the vehicle, along with an artificial tree sprouting American Beauty roses growing behind the leather seat. My relative, Alva Belmont, primly mounted the running board and climbed unassisted into the vehicle, where she stood on the floorboards facing out over the line of similarly-decorated vehicles stretched out behind her toward Bath Road. In many respects, these motorcars didn’t appear much different from ordinary carriages, except for the engines mounted beneath the chassis or behind the seats. Aunt Alva had organized today’s event, and now at her signal, the other participants began clambering into their flower-strewn automobiles and readying themselves for Newport’s first-ever auto parade.
Among them I recognized, of course, Vanderbilts and Drexels, Oelrichses and Goelets, Taylors and DeForests and a gaggle more who were brave enough to display their fledging skills at the steering tiller. I noticed Harry Lehr helping a now aging Caroline Astor into his automobile, and Winthrop Rutherford, who had once been my cousin Consuelo’s sweetheart, handing Miss Fifi Potter onto the rich, brocade seat of a Riker Electric Triumph sporting green and white clematis and tiny Japanese lanterns. This was, after all, a competition, and prizes would be awarded to the most gaily decorated autos as well as the most proficient motorists.
Farther down Bellevue Avenue, directly in the path of the vehicles, wooden figures littered the roadway, forming an obstacle course to challenge the drivers’ skills. For more than a week now, our summer cottagers had been practicing in fields and on their own driveways, resulting in several mishaps, or so my friend Hannah, a nurse at Newport Hospital, had confided to me. Injuries had been minor, thank goodness, and I hoped today would see no further accidents.
Aunt Alva caught my eye, waved, and grinned as she pointed toward a Hartley Steam Four-seater with bright yellow wheel spokes idling not far from me. Brilliant blue cornflowers enveloped the vehicle, with an umbrella of the same blossoms shading the front and back bench seats. Three individuals stood beside the auto, their heads together in some inaudible but fierce debate. I grinned back at Aunt Alva, understanding.
I couldn’t resist moving closer to the Hartley. The engine puttered and tufts of steam panted from its exhaust pipe, while the chassis shivered on its wheels as if with pent up excitement. I knew each of the individuals continuing their deliberations beside it. They were Newporters, albeit far above my own social and economic standing. The one closest to my own age saw me and offered me an encouraging smile. I approached the group.
“Miss Cross, do lend your efforts to our own in persuading our mother to ride in the parade.” Miss Gwendolen King, only two years my junior, raised an eyebrow and winked with amusement. She wore her golden brown hair upswept into a bun beneath a tilted straw hat crowned with a burst of flowers that matched those on the automobile. Her carriage suit, too, was of a brilliant blue, and the parasol she carried in her gloved hand promised an equally dazzling display once opened. “Mother is being most stubborn and not at all sporting.”
“I hadn’t been aware your family had purchased a motorcar,” I replied with a laugh. As a former society reporter, I still kept track of such happenings. But Gwendolen King knew very well I’d never venture to persuade her mother of anything; it wouldn’t have been my place.
“We certainly have not,” Mrs. Ella King said forcefully and with a pointed glare at the third member of their party, her son, Philip. For a middle aged woman, Mrs. King, a widow these five years past, had retained a slim figure well-suited to the elongating lines of her summer frock, of a paler blue than her daughter’s but which nonetheless complemented the vividness of the cornflowers. Her hair, too, was a lighter blond than Gwendolen’s, partly due to strands of encroaching gray, and framed her face with a middle part. She wore a hat with a large bow and a feather that curled cunningly along the line of her cheek.
Mrs. King’s expression and tone lightened when she spoke again to me. “Nor do I plan to own one, Miss Cross, and you may quote me on that. Give me a sound horse any day. I’d far rather canter across the countryside than motor down an avenue. Really, what is all the fuss about? I don’t believe these contraptions will last as long as the paint covering them. And all the work simply to start them! Fill this tank with water, that tank with gasoline, open this valve, light the pilot—my head positively spins. We didn’t dare turn it off when we arrived. It’s all well and good to dress up a motorcar as we’ve done today for a bit of entertainment, but I hardly believe them dependable when it comes to daily life. What do you think, Miss Cross?”
“I think time will tell, ma’am,” I replied tactfully. In truth, I envied the parade entrants and wished I’d secured an invitation to ride along. I’d ridden in an automobile while in New York City and had found the experience exhilarating, if a bit unnerving. “But I can’t see automobiles ever completely replacing horses.”
Mrs. King gave a little sniff and tugged a lace glove more firmly onto her hand. “I should think not, indeed.”
“Mother gave me no choice but to borrow for the occasion, though I’m eager to exchange my cabriolet for one of these beauties just as soon as can be. An electric one, though, if I have my way.” Twenty-one year old Philip patted the automobile’s rear panel as if stroking a prized horse. And he might have been, for it was obvious he coveted not only a vehicle of his own, but
the status that went along with owning one. His boastful intentions reminded me of my younger cousin Reggie Vanderbilt, a young man with too much time on his hands and too few responsibilities to keep him occupied. And as with Reggie, I detected in Philip’s blue eyes the gleam of craving but no spark of ambition.
Apparently, his mother thought so to, for she said, “If you want an automobile, son, you must choose a profession, work hard, and earn one. But your horse and cabriolet will prove far more trustworthy, mark me on that.”
Philip rolled his eyes and emitted a long-suffering sigh. “Really, Mother, you’re positively archaic. And of course Miss Cross believes motorcars are the wave of the future, as do I and most other people. She’s simply too polite to say it.”
Oh, dear. I didn’t like being thrust into the middle of a family dispute. With the siblings being of one mind contrary to their mother’s opinion, I decided Ella King needed an ally. “What I do know is that Mrs. King is one of Newport’s most accomplished equestriennes, rides some of our finest horses, and is peerless in the art of dressage.”
“Why, thank you, Miss Cross.” Mrs. King beamed with satisfaction. She was so delighted by my pronouncement that she placed her hand in her son’s and allowed him to hand her up into the front passenger seat of the Hartley. She smoothed her skirts and leaned down to address me again. “Will you be following along on foot?”
“I will, Mrs. King. I shan’t miss a moment of the fun.” The parade would proceed from our present location, on the avenue between the granite walls of Stone Villa and the shingle-style architecture of the Newport Casino, all the way south to Ledge Road at the end of Bellevue Avenue.
Mrs. King nodded in satisfaction, but fidgeted with her purse strings and repeatedly compressed her lips. I turned to her son and murmured, “I trust you are knowledgeable when it comes to operating a motor vehicle?” As always, I felt protective of my fellow Newporters. I would loathe to see Mrs. King, a generous philanthropist, come to any harm.
He replied with a laugh that did nothing to fortify my confidence in him, his breath being laden with a sharp scent of spirits. While he turned away to assist his sister into the Hartley’s rear seat, my stomach sank. Was Philip simply enjoying the day? I wished to believe it, but I knew better. I’d worked the society pages too long not to have heard the gossip about him.
“It would be awfully sporting of you to let your mother take the tiller,” I suggested to him, hoping I sounded lighthearted rather than worried.
“As if she would. I think not, Miss Cross.”
“Your sister, then. She wouldn’t be the only woman driver. My aunt Alva intends to operate her vehicle.”
As if I’d suggested something so outlandish as to not warrant the least consideration, he grinned and shook his head at me. Then he circled the Hartley and swung himself up onto the seat beside his mother. With a salute he dismissed me, or so I thought. “I’ll own one of these yet, Miss Cross, mark my words.”
Perhaps, but his mother’s expression told a different story.
Applause and cheers went up, and I shaded my eyes as I glanced along the avenue to see Aunt Alva’s Duryea Runabout began creeping forward. Beside her, her husband Oliver shouted instructions which I’m quite sure she ignored. The grind of gears, the hissing of steam, the whine of electric motors, and several backfires filled the air as, one by one, the entrants in line prepared for the trek. I prepared for my own trek on foot, but before I could take the first step a woman’s voice carried shrilly above the commotion.
“Enjoy your privileges now, Mrs. King. They shan’t last much longer, I promise you that.”
Startled by the threatening nature of those words, I turned back to the Kings’ automobile. A woman in dusky violet wearing an ostridge-plumed hat stood gripping the top edge of the side panel as if to hold the motorcar in place. She set one booted foot on a lower spoke of the front wheel.
“How dare you.” Philip’s profile hardened and the knuckles of his right hand whitened around the steering tiller. “Release this vehicle at once or I’ll accelerate and let you be dragged along.”
As I took in this shocking exchange, Philip’s mother put a hand on his forearm to quiet him and peered down at the defiant woman. “Mrs. Ross, haven’t you done enough damage? Your demands are irrational and unjustified. Please, go away and let us be.”
The name, Ross, struck an awareness inside me. I had heard it before, and knew this woman, Eugenia Webster Ross, had been an unwelcome fixture in the King family’s lives for more years than they would have liked to count.
Mrs. Ross emitted a harsh laugh, her sallow complexion darkening with anger. “Be assured, I shall never go away, nor will it do you a lick of good to wish me gone. Kingscote and everything in it rightly belongs to me, and I’ll not rest until I see you out of the place and myself in my proper position.” Her accent told me she didn’t hail from New England, nor any state in the north of the country.
“Don’t listen to her, Mama.” Gwendolen slid along the back seat, putting more space between her and the woman. She even tipped her hat brim lower to block Mrs. Ross from her view. “She’s obviously unbalanced.”
The vehicle in front of the Hartley, a two-seater electric Rambler decked out in roses and a fortune’s worth of vibrant, multi-hued dahlias, rolled forward. It was the Kings’ turn to move. Philip released the brake and with clenched teeth repeated his earlier threat. “You’d do best to release your hold now or you will find yourself dragged along the road.”
Mrs. Ross lowered her foot and let go of the seat with a flick of her fingers as if to dislodge an unsavory substance from her glove. But then she raised a fist in the air and shouted threats as the motorcar rolled away. She captured the attention of the spectators on either side of the roadway, though only momentarily. The spectacle of so many automobiles proved too tantalizing to allow a common feud to dampen their excitement. Eugenia Ross was left to vent her anger on deaf ears.
That was, until she whirled about and encountered me.
“You’re Emmaline Cross, aren’t you?”
Her bluntness took me aback. I blinked, rendered briefly mute. She might have learned my name in relation to my position at the Messenger, but she and I had never met. I wondered how she recognized me by sight, but didn’t give her the satisfaction of expressing my surprise. “I am.”
“Are you a friend of the Kings?” Her southern accent asserted itself more insistently.
“As much as someone in my position can be a friend of the Kings, yes,” I replied without irony, but rather a simple statement of fact.
“More fool you. Do you know who I am?” She spoke the words as if challenging me to a contest of wits.
“I didn’t at first, until Mrs. King mentioned your name. Then I realized you are the woman who has been attempting for years now to undermine the Kings’ rightful inheritance from their uncle William.”
“William Henry King was my relative and owed the King family nothing. They took advantage of his bearing the same name and invented their ties to him.”
“That hardly makes sense.” I started to chuckle at the ridiculous claim. Motorcars rumbled past us, their tires crunching on the hard-packed dirt of the avenue at a pace not much faster than most people walked. Mrs. Ross took issue with my lightness of mood.
“You find funny, do you?” She stepped closer, the pointed toes of her high-heeled boots nearly touching mine. Her dark eyes on a level with my own, she attempted to stare me down. Her shoulders squared, and her chin jutted at me with menace. I suddenly felt threatened and darted glances around me, hoping someone would notice my discomfort and come to my aid. No one did. No one returned my glance, too enthralled as they were with the passing automobiles festooned in their floral displays. “Is it also funny, Miss Cross, that they shut him away in an asylum and took control of his money?”
“Mrs. Ross,” I said with feigned calm, albeit my heart pounded in alarm, “is there something you wished of me? Can I be of assistance in some way?” I hoped not, for I wanted only to be away from this woman, but it was all I could think of to defuse the situation.
My words did seem to placate her. Her threatening posture relaxed and she opened the space between us by several inches. I breathed more freely, then nearly choked on a gasp when she said, “Take up my cause.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Write an article telling my side of the story. I’ve been vilified for years by the press. Let people know my cause is just.”
“Is it?” That was more than I knew. “Will you explain the exact nature of your supposed relation to William Henry King?”
“Supposed? Why you . . .” She moved closer again, prompting me to pull back. Though she was approximately my size, the fury flickering in her nearly black eyes made me once again fear for my immediate wellbeing. I might have called out to the nearest spectator, except that at that moment, someone called my name. A moment later, a firm, warm hand came down on my shoulder.
“Emma, is there a problem here?”
I recognized the voice immediately and craned my neck to look up at Derrick Andrews, standing slightly behind me. He smiled, his face shaded by the brim of his boater, the grosgrain band of which matched the rich amber brown of his suit coat. His hand dropped to his side, but its warmth and reassurance lingered. Ignoring Mrs. Ross for the moment, I turned to face him, hardly able to contain the flurry of emotions set loose by his sudden appearance. Happiness, exhilaration . . . apprehension. I took a steadying breath and schooled my features to reveal none of it—not here, on a bustling parade route. “I didn’t know you were in Newport.”
“Only just arrived. With my mother,” he added with a quirk of his eyebrow only I would have noticed. Yes, the source of my apprehension—Derrick’s mother, Lavinia Andrews. “I’d hoped to surprise you. I see I have.”
A gleam in his eye mirrored my own delight. He looked perfectly wonderful—fit and robust, and slightly tanned from his summer pursuits of golf and tennis and riding. “She wished to see the parade. In fact, she’s riding in an auto, several back.” He gestured over his shoulder with his thumb. “She’s staying on a couple more days to attend the Jones’s charity cotillion.”
“Oh, is Edith in Newport, too?”
Before my excitement could take hold at the prospect of reuniting with the budding author, Edith Jones Wharton, Derrick shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. She’s still in Europe.”
I let my sense of letdown pass. “It’s good to see you.”
He leaned closer, bowing his head to deliver his murmur to my ears alone. “And it’s wonderful to see you, Emma. Wonderful to see you smiling back at me. I feared my time away might have . . .” His face hovered barely a kiss away from mine, though our lips never touched. His smile turned wistful. “Well . . . it seems something or other always sends us in separate directions.” He raised his hand and gestured with his chin. “Are you going to introduce me to your friend?”
I whirled about. I’d completely forgotten about Mrs. Ross, still standing near me and staring daggers now at both Derrick and me.
“We are not friends, sir.” Eugenia Ross fingered the strand of golden pearls hanging over the front of her bodice. “I approached Miss Cross in hopes of persuading her to do a bit of unbiased reporting on my behalf, but it seems she is too heavily influenced by those she considers her superiors.”
Both Derrick and I opened our mouths to reply. What he might have said, I couldn’t say, but I intended to relieve this woman of her misconceptions, there and then, by assuring her the Messenger reported only verifiable facts, and thus far she had verified nothing about her outlandish claim. Before either of us could speak, however, Mrs. Ross set off toward Bath Road.
“She’ll miss the parade,” Derrick said as he watched her strut away. “What did she mean by unbiased bit of reporting?”
“She’s Eugenia Ross. Does the name mean anything to you?”
“Indeed it does. There was that big to-do at the McLean Asylum in Massachusetts a few years back. She tried to have Willie King released and actually managed to do it on one attempt. The courts ordered him placed back into custody the very next day, and then he was moved to the Butler Hospital in Providence. She’s tried multiple times again, but to no avail.” He glanced again toward Bath Road, but the woman in question had disappeared from sight. “Good grief, is that really the same Eugenia Ross?”
“The very same.” I told him what had occurred between her and the Kings before Philip had driven away down the avenue. The vehicle’s bright yellow spokes and brilliant blue cornflowers stood out against the dusty road, and I could see that the Hartley had reached the edge of the Kings’ own property, Kingscote. The automobiles had picked up speed as they proceeded, though none seemed to be moving at the heady fifteen miles per hour they were capable of. The Kings would reach the obstacle course a few dozen yards farther along. I worried again about Philip’s ability to handle the vehicle, and turned back to Derrick. “I’d like to walk. Will you accompany me, or do you need to rejoin your mother?”
He had secured my hand in the crook of his elbow before I’d finished asking the question. Dare I say my fingertips felt utterly at home there, against the strong muscle covered by sturdy serge? “Mother will be just fine. In fact, why don’t we hurry along before she catches up to us?” He set us in motion with a brisk step, while deftly steering us through the milling spectators.
“I take it your mother’s opinion of me hasn’t changed.”
He said nothing, his jawline going tight.
“It’s all right. I’m used to it by now.”
“I’m not,” he said tersely, then sighed. “If not for my father’s health and my need to be in Providence making sure the Sun continues to thrive . . .”
He spoke of his family’s primary newspaper, though they were invested in numerous others throughout New England. I shook my head when he continued to speak. “You needn’t explain, Derrick. I understand.”
“I don’t want you to think it’s all merely an excuse to keep me away.”
“I don’t. Your faith in my abilities to run the Messenger says all I need to know.” Indeed, Derrick had bought the small local newspaper less than two years ago, had taken it from little more than a failing broadsheet, and in mere months had built up its influence and its subscriber list. Last summer, when family duties had called him back to Providence, he asked me to take over the running of the Messenger as its editor-in-chief. We had known each other several years by then, had shared both harrowing and meaningful experiences on multiple occasions, and yet had always seemed at cross purposes when it came to the affections we each harbored for the other. He had once proposed, early on, long before I had been ready to consider such a thing. And then, as he had said, something or other had consistently sent us in separate directions.
Our moods lightened after that. We continued down Bellevue Avenue, caught in the general flow of spectators, chatting and catching up since we’d seen each other several months ago. We passed Kingscote with its Gothic peaks and gingerbread trim, but I refused to let Eugenia Ross invade my thoughts. I had been apprehensive at the outset of the parade, and, in a way, Mrs. Ross had given substance to my misgivings. For now, at least, she was gone, leaving me to enjoy a festive, beautiful summer day on the arm of a man I esteemed and cared for very much, and who shared those feelings for me.
Under a thick canopy of shade trees, we passed Bowery Street. Berkeley Avenue came into view, and just beyond, the obstacle course with its wood and canvas figures representing pedestrians, delivery carts, trolleys, and more. The first few automobiles weaved their way around the barriers, the laughter of the occupants audible above the puttering engines. I saw Aunt Alva’s Runabout swerve perilously close to an object that, in the distance, appeared to be a mule pulling a plow.
“Slow down, Aunt Alva,” I couldn’t help uttering under my breath, eliciting a laugh from Derrick. I wondered if her husband, Oliver, clutched the edges of his seat in trepidation for his very life.
My cousin, Willie Vanderbilt—Aunt Alva’s son—waved to me as he drove past with his new wife, Virginia. Their automobile had been transformed into the shape of a locomotive decorated with immense gilded bows interwoven with white tulle, and at each corner of the vehicle hung a golden cage of canaries amid trailing vines and poppies. It was all truly fantastical, and anyone suddenly transported to the scene would have believed themselves to be dreaming or to have taken leave of their senses.
The bright sunny spokes and blue blossoms of Philip King’s Hartley Steamer brought my attention back to the family as they, too, entered the course. My worries for them eased, as Philip seemed to be guiding the automobile well enough. He wobbled a bit along the course, but certainly no more than Aunt Alva had. Perhaps the whiskey I’d detected on his breath had been the result of but one drink.
Derrick and I fell to discussing newspaper business. The Messenger’s profits had been steadily rising in the past year, especially now that the summer people were back in town. We discussed our newest investors—or his, really. I couldn’t claim even the smallest share in the business, for I couldn’t afford to buy in and was, essentially, merely an employee. But if one’s heart and hopes mattered, I was as heavily invested as anyone else.
One topic I avoided was that of my former office manager, Jimmy Hawkins. Once employed by the Sun, Jimmy had come down from Providence to work with Derrick when he’d first purchased the Messenger. Jimmy had stayed on to work with me when Derrick returned to Providence, but things hadn’t proceeded as one might have hoped. I’d had to let Jimmy go, and when Derrick first asked me why, I had answered vaguely that Jimmy and I simply hadn’t worked well together and he had decided to return to the Sun. Apparently, Jimmy had given Derrick a similar explanation.
I doubted Derrick believed either of us. The next time I’d seen him, last winter, he’d made the same inquiry, and I’d given him the same answer, resulting in a look of disappointment that made me wish I’d told him the truth.
Almost. But doing so would have meant explaining how Jimmy had betrayed both Derrick’s and my trust, and would reveal the role Derrick’s father had played in the deception. That, more than anything else, stilled my tongue, for I didn’t wish to come between father and son.
Would he bring it up again? We reached Bellevue Court, walking on the opposite side of the avenue from the building site of The Elms, one of Newport’s newest and largest homes to date. An actual house had taken shape, although there was still much work to be done. Last year, the site had been a giant rectangular opening in the ground while the engineers and electricians had prepared Newport’s first all-electrical system, with no gas power as backup. The plans hadn’t been without controversy, as workers from our local gasworks, the Newport Illuminating Company, had marched to the site to protest what they saw as the eventual loss of their jobs. So far that hadn’t happened, and now I mentioned this to Derrick, as much to discuss the prospect as to forestall any questions he might have been planning to ask about Jimmy.
“There are several all-electric mansions going up in Providence now, and New York, too, although The Elms will beat them to completion.” He smirked. “I think that’s important to Ed Berwind,” he added, speaking of the home’s owner and president of the Berwind-White Coal Mining Company.
I started to answer, when the sound of skidding tires gave way to a crash, a crunch, and the splintering of wood.