Excerpt: Murder at Chateau sur Mer

April 1, 2017

Newport, Rhode Island

July 1897

 

Bits of grass and earth pelted the air as a thunderous pounding rolled down the polo field. Long-handled mallets swung after a ball no larger than a man’s open palm. Each time a mallet connected with the ball, ponies and riders raced in a fresh, ground-shaking burst of speed.

With my pencil and tablet in my hands, I stood just beyond the sidelines, out of danger of being hit with the ball yet with a view worthy of the highest-paying spectators. As the action sped from one end of the field to the other, about a dozen other reporters and I hurried to follow, back and forth, attempting to discern every pertinent detail of the match and keep an accurate record. The wind and my own momentum plucked at my wide, leg-o’-mutton sleeves and rippled my summer-weight skirts. My hat, at least, I needn’t worry about, for at home Nanny had pinned it to my coif and securely tied the ribbons beneath my chin. Her last words to me were “Try to bring it home intact please, Emma.”

The skies over Aquidneck Island had finally wrung out their clouds and cleared to a vibrant, porcelain blue. Bracing ocean breezes counteracted a warm sun, making this a day for sportsmen and spectators alike to rejoice. An exuberant crowd of local Newporters blanketed Morton Hill in a teeming medley of hats and parasols, while closer to the sidelines, the wealthy cottagers from Bellevue Avenue occupied seats in the covered grandstand or lounged on lawn furniture beneath shady pavilions. From wicker hampers drifted the savory aromas of roasted meats and baked delicacies, while copious quantities of champagne for the elders and lemonade for the young people flowed from crystal pitchers.

Most of those present cheered each time the mallet of a Westchester player connected with the ball. The Westchester Polo Club had officially made Newport their home a decade ago, and familiar names occupied the team list. Today they played the Meadowview Polo Club of Long Island, not only the season’s favorite, but also last year’s champions.

Grumbling had heralded the opening of the game, a controversy stemming from the belief many held that one of the Meadowview players should have been upgraded in his skill rating. Had the Polo Association officials done so, the Meadowview team would have been assigned a two-goal handicap, thus putting the two teams on a competitive par. Had clandestine funds changed hands among the Polo Association’s Competition and National Handicap Committees, resulting in Meadowview’s rating remaining the same? Such a transgression could be difficult to prove.

I didn’t know who had been the most disgruntled when the usual handicaps were announced, the Westchester players, the wealthy gentlemen who were known to place hefty wagers, or the working men watching from Morton Hill, who risked a day’s pay or more in hopes of doubling or tripling their money.

Another thwack sent the eight riders, four in red shirts, four in blue and white stripes, about-facing and hurtling down the field yet again. I admit I cringed often, so certain was I that men and beasts couldn’t possibly avoid pulverizing one another. Perhaps it was because, as a reporter covering the event for the Newport Observer, I daren’t look away but must carefully view every swing and every advance across the field. The sure-footed ponies—horses, really, most being a mix of Thoroughbred and quarter horse and standing between fourteen and fifteen hands—never collided, and somehow those mallets never sent anything but the ball and grass flying.

 

Still, it was to my relief that a bell rang out, indicating the present seven-minute period, called a chukker, was nearly at its end. It was enough time for James Bennett of the Westchester team to recover the ball from Meadowview and send it, with the help of his teammate Oliver Belmont, across the field and through the Meadowview goal. The halftime horn sounded amid uproarious cheers from the grandstand and the hill beyond. Ladies clapped while gentlemen rushed to one another shouting new odds for the eventual outcome of the match.

The horses were walked off the field into a fenced pavilion where they would be unsaddled, watered, and rubbed down. Another set of eight would replace them for the next chukker following the break. In the meantime, gentlemen in morning coats and top hats escorted ladies in colorful day dresses and wide, beribboned bonnets onto the field. A six-piece band struck up a lively tune. The stomping of the divots began, accompanied by a good deal of laughter and lighthearted shrieks.

Replacing dislodged bits of earth to the field hardly interested me, and I had already recorded the most notable of fashions sported by today’s gathering of the Four Hundred—that magical number of guests who could fit inside Mrs. Astor’s ballroom and thus claim their place in illustrious society. The latest designs of the likes of Worth, Redfern, Rouff, and Doucer were well represented. I therefore moved off the sidelines toward the surrounding pools of shade cast by sweeping beech, elm, and ash trees, where other spectators went to stretch their legs. Perhaps, if I paid careful attention, I might discern the seeds of a real news story.

“Emma! Emma, do come and join us!”

The hail came from a stunning young woman dressed in pale green silk that set off the brilliance of her auburn hair. She wore the latest from Worth, of course. She always did. I changed course to greet her beside a bright blue pavilion sporting golden tassels that flashed in the sun.

“Grace, how lovely to see you.” I tucked my pad and pencil into my purse. “When did you and Neily arrive in Newport?”

“Emma, don’t be so formal.” Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, my cousin’s wife of one year, drew me into an embrace and kissed my cheeks in the European manner. “We came in only yesterday and are staying with my parents. We knew we’d find you here reporting on the match.” She drew back to hold me at arm’s length. “Do you never tire of it? Reporting, I mean?”

Before I could answer, my cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt III excused himself to the others beneath the pavilion. I recognized Grace’s brother, Orme Wilson, and his wife, the former Carrie Astor, and Carrie’s brother, John, and his wife, Ava. They glanced over at me, each raising a hand in casual salute.

Neily paused to pour a glass of lemonade from a frosty-looking pitcher, then ducked beneath the flapping canopy as he stepped out to join Grace and me. As he handed me the glass, the cool condensation against my palm made me realize how thirsty I’d become scampering along the sidelines. Thank goodness for the recent rains that prevented the billows of dust often raised during a polo match. Holding the glass, I returned his quick embrace with one arm. “How are you, Neily?”

However much I tried, I couldn’t keep the concern from my voice. Though my cousin stood as tall and slender as always and was still a couple of weeks shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, he appeared older than his years, world-weary. The bright sun brought particular attention to the fatigue dragging at his features. I would have thought the opposite, that, having achieved his heart’s desire in marrying Grace, he would have flourished this past year of their marriage. Yet he looked to me nearly as he had in those days before his wedding last summer, when difficult choices had thrust their weight onto his shoulders and forever changed his life.

“I’m well, Emmaline,” he said with neither enthusiasm nor dispiritedness, nor, I noted, a direct look into my eyes.

“Have you seen—”

He shook his head before I could finish asking. “I haven’t seen my parents. They know I’m back but they’ve made it clear I’m not welcome at The Breakers, nor in New York, for that matter.”

“I’m so sorry, Neily.” His parents had objected vehemently to his marriage to Grace. They considered her family beneath them, and Grace herself to be a gold digger. Ridiculous, for the Wilsons were as wealthy as any members of the Four Hundred. Neily and his father had nearly come to blows over the matter, and would have, except that before Neily’s eyes—and my own—his father had collapsed from a stroke from which he still hadn’t recovered.

“It’s all right,” he assured me quietly. “We’re staying with the Wilsons.”

Grace slipped her hand into the crook of Neily’s arm. “Mother and Father are thrilled to have us. And you must join us for dinner soon—quite soon. I’ll send an invitation.” Her eyes twinkled. “You may bring the delectable Mr. Andrews, if you like.”

Neily blanched at his wife’s forwardness, but I laughed it off. “I’ll come alone, if you wouldn’t mind, Grace.”

“Oh?” She leaned in closer, our hat brims nearly touching and enclosing us in secrecy. “I had so hoped you and he might . . . you know.”

“I haven’t seen him in a year,” I told her. “His planned return from Italy last spring was postponed. I have not had word from him in several weeks.”

Grace looked thoroughly dissatisfied, as if the day suddenly threatened rain. I said the first thing that sprang to mind in an effort to cheer her.

“There is someone else I could bring, if I may. Jesse Whyte.” My friendship with Jesse, a longtime family friend, had blossomed through the winter and spring, and he now occupied an important place in my life.

Grace made a slight clucking noise in her throat. “Are you speaking of that local policeman?”

“Detective,” I clarified.

Her pretty lips turned downward. “It’s nothing serious, I hope.” She didn’t wait for my reply but continued on. “You could do so much better. Neily, surely you agree. Tell her.” Neily quirked his eyebrows and shuffled his feet. With a slight shake of her head, Grace turned back to me. “There is no lack of eligible young men in our acquaintance, Emma, and if—”

“Thank you, Grace, but no. Leastwise, not at present.” Goodness, didn’t I have enough to do warding off the matchmaking efforts of my two Vanderbilt aunts, Alice and Alva? I certainly didn’t need Grace adding to the fray. “I must be moving on now. The match will be resuming in a few minutes and I’ll want a good position beside the field.”

“Yes, all right. I’ll call on you soon, Emma.” Grace embraced me again, but I felt a hesitancy that hadn’t been there when she’d first greeted me. I had clearly disappointed her and no doubt left her wondering what was to be done with a stubborn, misguided young woman such as myself. Though Grace and I had grown close last summer, I sometimes expected too much of her. As the daughter of one of America’s great banking families, she had never known privation, and had rarely been told no. Though kindhearted and generous to a fault, as she had proved countless times, she had nonetheless grown up in circumstances vastly different from my own, and therein lay a gap between us that could never fully be breached.

I squeezed Neily’s hand, imparting my loving acknowledgment that all was not well with him, and my willingness, no, eagerness, to lend a sympathetic ear he should desire one. Of all my Vanderbilt cousins, I felt closest to him. We didn’t need words to make our sentiments clear. He smiled bravely back at me and nodded.

Before I moved away, he said, as if suddenly remembering, “Brady is here with us. He and Miss Hanson went for a walk.”

I turned back to him, beaming with pleasure. “Brady is here with Hannah?”

Neily responded to my rhetorical question with a genuine smile. He didn’t know Hannah Hanson well, but he obviously approved of my half brother’s interest in her. When we were children, I’d often brought her with me when invited to visit at The Breakers. Another lifelong friend of ours from the Point neighborhood where Brady and I grew up, Hannah had only just returned to Newport the previous summer after several years away. I scanned the colorful crowd, craning my neck to see around the pavilions.

Brady and Hannah. What a lovely thought. And a surprising one, though perhaps it shouldn’t have been. Brady’s position at my uncle Cornelius’s New York Central Railroad brought him in contact with some of the highest levels of society but, like me, Brady was a Newporter born and raised. And like me, monetary considerations played very little role in his affections.

I didn’t spot them presently, but I would make a point of finding them later, during the next intermission. For now, with only a few minutes left to roam the grounds before the next chukker, I tipped my hat a bit lower over my brow. I had worn a day dress given to me by my cousin Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, Neily’s sister. Though of simple design and a year out of date, the garment nonetheless boasted the quality needed to fit in with this summer’s creations of Worth or Paquin—or well enough. Typically, female society reporters clad themselves in modest attire as a way of acknowledging the superiority of those about whom they reported, but today I wished to blend in with the crowd. If I had learned nothing else in the past several years as a reporter, it was how to render myself invisible.

 

As I strolled, I assumed a leisurely pace as if I hadn’t a specific destination in mind. In this way, I moved from group to group without drawing attention to myself—and without prompting sudden breaks in conversations. For it was often such conversations that most interested me at any social gathering, whether it be Mrs. Astor’s season-opening ball or a tournament at the Newport Golf Club or one of Newport’s many yacht races. During the earlier intermissions I had gleaned hints of several illicit affairs, learned of a dispute concerning James Bennett’s desire to expand the Newport Casino, and witnessed the desperate pleas of a compulsive gambler for a loan—a request his elder brother curtly denied him.

I hadn’t long to wait for another interesting snippet. I passed a group of men handing round a silver flask. They attempted to be discreet, but I caught the flash of sunlight on the metal surface. The word burglary drifted to my ears. I tilted my head to hide my face beneath my hat brim and pretended to be searching for an item in my drawstring bag.

“There’s been quite a rash, and one wonders when these scum will decide shops aren’t lucrative enough and come after bigger game. We’ll be lucky not to be murdered in our beds.” The man who spoke sported a mustache that wandered across his cheeks to meet the bushy profusion of his sideburns.

The thin fellow next to him slapped his shoulder. “Come now, Warner. You think these brigands would have the unmitigated gall to intrude on Bellevue Avenue? They’re cowards, praying on the weak.”

“Five break-ins in as many days, all along Lower Thames Street,” another of the group said. “With accompanying vandalism. That points to thugs with plenty of gall.” He shook his head while accepting the flask from the older man on his right, who had his own opinion to share.

“Seems we might be dealing with a single criminal, and these burglaries are not random but in fact part of a pattern.”

The others harrumphed noncommittally, but I tended to agree with that last assessment. The robberies they spoke of had occurred at a milliner shop, a purveyor of leather tack, a general mercantile, a bakery, and an apothecary—the one I sometimes stopped in at to purchase Nanny’s headache powders. In each case, there had been acts of vandalism that had nothing to do with the actual theft, such as the gouging of countertops and the breaking of glass cases kept empty at night.

I hadn’t covered these break-ins for the Newport Observer. Mr. Millford, the paper’s owner and editor-in-chief, had judged the incidents too distressing for a woman’s delicate sensibilities, and had sent my co-reporter and nemesis, Ed Billings, instead. Not that I hadn’t covered similar stories in recent years. I most certainly had. But I knew his decision had little to do with my sensibilities and everything to do with the letters he had received in the past year chastising him for allowing a woman—me—to expose herself to life’s more disagreeable occurrences.

Disagreeable, indeed. My nape bristled ever so slightly, as it had when I read each account of these break-ins in the Observer’s morning editions. Now, as then, I couldn’t shake the sensation that both Ed and the police were missing some vital clue that connected these crimes and pointed to a single individual.

I reminded myself that these were not my stories to cover. I had my assignment—today’s match—though if I happened to stumble upon a more interesting news item, could I be blamed?

I moved on. Gathered beneath the overhanging branches of a giant weeping beech, three men speaking in rumbling tones drew my interest. The foliage that draped like a lacy tent between us partially obscured me from their view, and they from mine. Nonetheless, bright red hair and a mustache of equally fiery color identified one of these men as Stanford Whittaker, an architect who designed many of Newport’s opulent cottages, as well as the Newport Casino. The other two, Robert Clarkson and Harry Lehr, were well known to me as well; all three were members of the Four Hundred. I stopped a few yards away, turned my back to them, and pretended to be enjoying the view of Morton Hill, the colorful pavilions, and the stomping of the divots.

“I tell you frankly, gentlemen, the Dingley Tariff will be the death of fair competition in this country and will result in the stagnation of international trade.” The speaker was Robert Clarkson, a man several years my senior who, in the last election, had won a seat in the Rhode Island State Senate. He was one of the youngest men currently serving as senator, yet Mr. Clarkson’s receding hairline and somber manners belied his age.

“You’re not telling us anything we don’t already know. But the question is what are we to do about it?”

With my back to them I couldn’t see the speaker of this last comment, but I knew the voice to be Harry Lehr’s. At twenty-eight, Mr. Lehr was a man of youthful good looks, vigorous energy, and a clever tongue—with very little else to recommend him. My Vanderbilt relatives considered him a fortune hunter and had taken pains to veer their daughters well clear of his path.

I’d heard of this tariff they spoke of, for lately it had been an ongoing item in the newspapers, and the U.S. Senate was set to vote on it next month. Passions ran high both in favor and against, leading to accusations on both sides and threats of an impending end to free American enterprise as we knew it. Obviously, these men were against the proposal that all imported goods should be taxed higher than the current rate.

“The devil take George Wetmore and his cronies. They’re drunk on power, is what they are. They need to get off their high horses and listen to reason.” Again, I didn’t need to turn around to recognize the voice of Stanford Whittaker. My mouth turned down in distaste. He made men like Harry Lehr seem downright respectable. His antics were legendary.

Older than Mr. Lehr and Mr. Clarkson by some twenty years, Whittaker had publicly humiliated his wife, Bessie, with his lewd behavior more times than I could count. And then, of course, he carried on quite openly with that teenage chorus girl in New York. Rumor had it he maintained an apartment in the city where he often brought the young beauties he seduced. I shuddered to think of it.

Now he dared speak crudely of George Peabody Wetmore, a respected U.S. senator and one of Newport’s most generous and esteemed residents. Even if this Dingley Tariff deserved Whittaker’s and the others’ disdain, out of a sense of indignation I found myself hoping the opposition won out in the matter. Intrigued, I turned my head slightly to block out the distracting sights and sounds of the polo grounds.

“I suppose Wetmore and the Republicans believe they’re protecting American interests,” Robert Clarkson murmured.

“What they’re doing,” Harry Lehr countered, “is creating American monopolies that will allow a very few select men to dictate supply and price.”

“That is precisely what sticks in my craw. Wetmore’s father made his fortune in the China trade, an international endeavor if ever there was one.” Whittaker spewed an oath I would be ashamed to repeat. “Now he wants to prevent the rest of us from doing the same. It’s insufferable.” Whittaker’s voice became a low growl. I strained to make out his words. “He can’t be allowed to get away with it.”

A chill swept my arms. Exactly what did he mean by that?

“Wetmore’s not alone in his protectionist thinking.” Harry Lehr gave a mirthless chuckle. “What do you plan to do, Whittaker, take them all down?”

A long pause ensued, and then Whittaker spoke again. “No. Not all.”

Lehr laughed again. “Don’t be ridiculous. Look, the bill might not pass, and all our grumbling will be for nothing.”

“I’m being ridiculous?” Whittaker shot back. “Lehr, the only reason you won’t actively take up the fight is because you’re hoping Wetmore will let you marry his daughter.”

My eyes widened. Harry Lehr and one of the Wetmore sisters? This was news. I could hardly fathom such a match, nor did I believe for one minute George Wetmore would consider it. The Misses Wetmore had been carefully educated and groomed to be respectable ladies. Great ladies, like my cousin Consuelo, who was now a duchess. Harry Lehr, on the other hand, was hardly known for his gentlemanly virtues or financial prospects. However charming he might be when he wished, rumors abounded concerning his many ribald antics and reckless business schemes.

What could he be thinking?

As if to answer my question, Robert Clarkson sniggered. “You’d sell us all out for Miss Maude’s dowry, eh, Lehr?”

“And quite a dowry it’ll be, my good man,” Lehr said with a snide laugh. “You’ve seen how she dresses. Her sister, too. Neither one of them goes in much for French frippery, which means that much more to line my pockets.”

While the others snickered, a sour taste filled my mouth. Yes, despite the Wetmores’ wealth, it was true the sisters were governed by good old-fashioned, New England thriftiness. How dare any man seek to take advantage of their good sense?

So it was the younger sister, twenty-four-year-old Maude, he was after. Did he think he had a better chance of winning her than her older sister, Edith? Or did he consider Miss Edith too long on the shelf? Either way, more fool he. A man like George Wetmore wouldn’t allow Harry Lehr within a hundred yards of either of his daughters. And in my opinion, both ladies were too sensible to suffer his attentions for long. Both had been courted in the past, but thus far neither had found a man enough to her liking to prompt her to spend the rest of her life with him. Unlike most ladies of the Four Hundred, the Wetmore sisters refused to marry merely for appearance’s sake.

I could not blame them. After all, I lived according to the same principle.

From the field, the warning bell for the next chukker sounded. The spectators ceased stomping earth back into place and dispersed to their pavilions and seats in the grandstand, or climbed back up to their blanketed perches on Morton Hill. The eight players rode onto the field on fresh horses. Behind them came the two mounted referees. A stocky man in dark trousers, checkered cutaway, and a rather flat-crowned derby walked out onto the field. If nothing else, his hat identified him, for it had become his trademark, much to the chagrin of his more fashionable peers in the nation’s capital. Where other senators sported top hats on their way into Congress, George Wetmore insisted on wearing his derby. They called it disrespectful, but that didn’t deter Mr. Wetmore. He raised his arm and tossed out the ball, beginning the chukker and setting the riders in motion.

Time for me to return to my official business of reporting on the match for the Observer, where I ran my weekly Fancies and Fashions page during the Summer Season. Never mind that I had rather learn what the bitter triumvirate beneath the weeping beech were planning in response to the proposed import tariff. Mr. Millford expected an article detailing the match and today’s fashion highlights on his desk first thing in the morning.

In no particular hurry, I moved away from the tree and strolled toward the field. A moment later the branches of the beech swished behind me as they were swept aside, and all three men strode single file by me. Each tipped his hat in passing, and I received a clipped “good morning” from Henry Lehr.

As the others kept on, Harry Lehr suddenly stopped, pivoted, and pinned his gaze on me. He waited until only a few yards separated us. I stopped short at his abrupt step toward me.

“Miss Cross.” He swept his top hat off his head and tipped me a bow—a mocking one. “Always on the lookout for a story, aren’t you?”

A quirk of his eyebrow suggested that his question wasn’t a rhetorical one. “I’m covering the match of course, Mr. Lehr.”

“Are you indeed? Then perhaps you should stay away from the trees, Miss Cross. The match is that way, on the field.” He pointed with an outstretched arm.

“I’m on my way back now.” I tried to keep my voice light, unconcerned.

He moved another step closer. “Listening in on other people’s private conversations isn’t very ladylike. I’d advise against it, if you don’t want others to think ill of you. And you’d do best to keep whatever you think you heard to yourself.”

“I assure you I was not—”

He didn’t linger to hear the rest of my lie, but strode past me, shoving his top hat back over his straight, dark hair. I drew a rather shaky breath. Here I thought I’d been discreet, but I had underestimated Harry Lehr’s powers of observation. Now that I considered it, it only made sense that a man like Lehr, a gentleman with little inheritance who had learned to live off the largesse of high society, would be keenly attuned to his surroundings at all times. He wouldn’t want to miss an opportunity. Nor would he want me to give the Wetmores advance warning of his designs on their younger daughter.

I dismissed the incident when sharp voices resonated from a few yards beyond the foot of Morton Hill, both male and female and none too friendly. I raised my face to see from beneath my hat brim.

Two policemen blocked a woman’s path as she seemed to be attempting to make her way toward the grandstand, which was reserved for the wealthy cottagers. Obviously, she could not have paid the costly admission fee, or the police would not have stopped her. I couldn’t make out her identity, but even from a distance and in the glaring sun, I saw that she wore a tasteful day dress and matching Eton jacket of rose silk with plum trim. I made my way closer, slowly, pretending to scan the spectators in a general way. It was then I spotted the inconsistencies in the role the woman attempted to play: the slightly ragged quality of the ostrich feather in her hat, a complete lack of jewelry, a drawstring bag that tried but didn’t quite match her ensemble. The closer I went the more I realized the trim on her outfit had been added by a less-than-nimble seamstress, for the velvet embellishment rippled where it should have lain perfectly flat. What had appeared elegant from a distance revealed itself on closer inspection as shabby, almost garish, in ways no society lady would ever countenance.

My reporter’s instincts came alert. As I looked on, she attempted to push past the two policemen. I moved closer, within hearing distance.

“You don’t understand. I must speak with Mrs. Wetmore.”

I halted. Had I heard her correctly?

One of the officers caught her elbow and spun her around. “I don’t think so.”

She tugged free and attempted another dodge past her pursuers. “If you’d allow me to see her for one minute, I’ll say my piece and be on my way.”

“Of course you will. Now, let’s be a good girl and come along.” The same policeman reached for her again.

I heard a breathless murmur behind me. “Lilah.”

I peered over my shoulder. Harry Lehr, Robert Clarkson, and Stanford Whittaker had circled back around and now stood not far behind me, watching the policemen’s attempts to remove the trespasser. Which one of them had spoken? I could not have said, for the voice had been too low to identify.

I stole another glance behind me. A third policeman had apparently hurried to the grandstand and alerted George Wetmore, for with a deep frown the senator came striding across the lawn, the officer trailing him. I recognized the moment his gaze lit on the intruder, for he came to an abrupt halt and surveyed the scene with a baffled expression. Obviously he, too, wondered what a woman from among the spectators on Morton Hill could want with his wife. The woman with the ragged ostrich feather caught his gaze, but rather than call out to him, she looked quickly away and took a step back as if searching for an escape.

George Wetmore continued toward her. Did he know this woman who demanded to speak with his wife, and who seemed to be known by other men in his social circle? A possibility sprang to mind, one that left me gaping—that she was, perhaps, George Wetmore’s mistress. It seemed impossible, based on all I knew about him. Upstanding, charitable, hardworking, and, as a former Rhode Island governor and present U.S. senator, dedicated to public service.

At the thudding of footsteps behind me, I turned to see Harry Lehr, Robert Clarkson, and Stanford Whittaker walking at a brisk pace back to the grandstand. Again I wondered which one had spoken the name Lilah. But perhaps all three of them knew her. Where would three well-bred gentlemen have occasion to meet a woman of such modest means?

As if she had heard the intruder calling to her, which of course she could not have from that distance, Mrs. Wetmore made her way through the crush and came in our direction. Had she noticed her husband’s departure from the match? Perhaps, for now she slowly followed in his wake, holding her skirts above the tips of the grass. Concern grew on her middle-aged but still attractive features.

 

 

 

Quickly I raised my own skirts and made my way to her. I’m not exactly certain why I felt it my duty to shield this society matron from potential unpleasantness. Perhaps the contemptuous conversation I’d overheard beneath the beech tree had raised a protective instinct or two. Hastily I closed the distance between Mrs. Wetmore and myself.

“Ma’am, there appears to be a trespasser making a bit of a scene, but it seems under control.”

Mrs. Wetmore stopped beside me but her gaze remained on her husband. Her own frown deepened. The altercation continued, but the policemen were succeeding in bustling the woman away. George Wetmore lingered, watching. At the same time, a man in work clothes and a wide straw hat came down from the hill and trotted to catch up with the woman and the policemen who were ushering her away. He fell into step beside them and tipped his head to hers, obviously speaking. I tried to make out his identity but they were too far from me now, and his hat cast a shadow over his face. But the woman’s pleading had stopped, and she allowed the policemen to escort her off the grounds without further ado.

“What on earth is going on, and why is my husband involved?” Mrs. Wetmore started forward.

“Ma’am, please, I don’t think you should.” I again scanned Morton Hill. Were there other reporters watching from among the common folk? These matches were typically attended by journalists from Tiverton, New Bedford, even Providence and New York. Not all of them were willing to practice discretion, as I did when circumstances warranted. Again, I half questioned my motives in trying to protect Mrs. Wetmore. Most of the Four Hundred were quite capable of taking care of themselves. But the Wetmores were different. Perhaps because they were lifelong Newport residents rather than summer transplants, I couldn’t help feeling a kind of kinship toward them—however removed.

George Wetmore, apparently satisfied that he had seen the last of that woman for the time being, turned about, saw his wife, and rushed over to us. When he reached us he caught his wife’s hand and drew her several steps away from me. “My dear, it’s nothing. An unfortunate miscreant wanting a handout, I’m quite sure.”

“How do you know?” Mrs. Wetmore spoke in a calm, genteel tone. “Did she speak to you?”

“Indeed not. If she wishes something from us, there are proper channels she may follow. We do enough to succor the poor without their having to seek us out at sporting events. And I refuse to reward bad behavior.”

“Will she be arrested?” Mrs. Wetmore appeared saddened by the prospect.

Her husband shook his head. “She’s been warned not to attempt such a stunt again. If she is so bold as to seek us out a second time, then yes, she’ll find herself behind bars.”

“Us, George? You mean she came here specifically to appeal to you and me?”

“Uh, er, yes, she did. But never mind. Come, dearest, let us return to our pavilion before our friends begin to wonder what’s happened to us.” He spared me a glance. “Ah, Miss Cross is it? I hope I can depend on you not to—”

I held up a hand in a gesture of reassurance. “There is nothing here to report, sir, other than the match. As you said, an unfortunate woman decided upon an ill-advised undertaking.”

Nodding, Mr. Wetmore offered his wife the crook of his arm and drew her toward the field. “But George,” she said as he ushered her away, “why us? There are so many others here to whom she might have stretched out her hand.”

 

“She must have heard what a tender heart you have, my dear.”

I wondered about that. Mrs. Wetmore was known in Newport and throughout the state for her philanthropic efforts. She even supported St. Nicholas Orphanage in Providence, as did I. But she was not known as a woman who simply doled out money to all who asked. She expected something in return for her generosity, namely that the recipients of her benevolence use the opportunity to better their circumstances. It was a philosophy to which I myself subscribed. It wasn’t enough to simply feed someone, although at first basic sustenance might mean the difference between life and death. But after that, a person must learn to feed themselves if they are to achieve any dignity and fulfilment in this world.

I yearned to follow the trespasser and question her. She might have scoffed at me, but more often than not I have found troubled individuals willing to speak of their adversity. A way to lift part of the weight from their shoulders, at least temporarily, I supposed. But if Mrs. Wetmore was known for her philanthropy, I, too, was known in Newport for taking in young women in need of a haven. My home, Gull Manor, had become a stopover for any honest soul—or even not so honest—looking to escape regrettable circumstances and start afresh. The tradition had started with my great aunt Sadie, who had left Gull Manor to me in her will, and at the same time imparted to me the responsibility of helping my less fortunate sisters.

Sighing, I retrieved my pen and tablet from my purse. Yes, I took strays into my home, and with the help of my housekeeper, Nanny, I fed them, taught them skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, sewing, and cooking, and once they healed from whatever wounds had sent them to me, I gave them what cash I could spare and wished them Godspeed. I could do none of those things without an income of my own. My article for the Newport Observer beckoned.

Before I could take up position along the sidelines again, my half brother Brady stopped me. Having not seen him for several weeks, I tossed my arms around him. Like George Wetmore, he, too, had eschewed the traditional morning coat and top hat, and instead looked quite the sporting gentleman. A straw boater topped his sandy blond hair, and he wore tan linen slacks and a striped suit coat and waistcoat, perfectly tailored and crisply new. Working in Manhattan for my Vanderbilt relatives had given Brady new confidence to go along with his greater salary.

“What was that about?” he asked in an undertone. His eyes gleamed with interest. Leave it to my older brother to never miss a thing.

“I’m not quite sure.” I told him the plain facts as I’d observed them, including Mr. Wetmore’s claim that the woman had asked for money. She had made no such request in my hearing. And then I remembered the name I’d overheard. “Does the name Lilah mean anything to you?”

A slight flush bloomed on Brady’s cheeks. “I, uh . . . Lilah, you say?”

I lowered my voice another notch. “Is she George Wetmore’s mistress?”

“Good grief, no.”

I leaned closer and peered up at him beneath the brim of his boater. “Don’t toy with me, Brady. Who is she?”

“Well, Em, as you know, any number of women might be named Lilah. Just because I might happen to know one doesn’t mean I know them all.”

“Brady, please.” Despite the polite word I used, I spoke through gritted teeth and with an implied threat he couldn’t ignore. Brady might be several years my senior, but somewhere along the way I had taken up a parental role and helped keep my brother out of trouble more times than I cared to remember. That had changed the nature of our relationship forever and given me an upper hand I wasn’t afraid to wield under the right circumstances.

His eyes narrowed. “How did you come by that name?”

Although I was growing annoyed enough to whack him with my notepad, I nevertheless replied, “I overheard it a few minutes ago. I don’t believe the speaker meant to utter it. Rather, the shock of seeing the woman yanked it from him.”

“Really. Who was this? Surely not Wetmore.”

“No. I didn’t see directly nor could I hear well enough to identify him, but either Stanford Whittaker, Robert Clarkson, or Harry Lehr.”

“Humph. Doesn’t surprise me one bit that it would be one of them.” He glanced from side to side, and then over his shoulder to ensure no one would overhear him. With his hand cupping his mouth, he leaned close to my ear. “She works at the Blue Moon Tavern.”

I gasped, but only slightly. In fact, it was more of an I thought so gasp than one of surprise, because if she wasn’t someone’s mistress, this explanation suited equally well. The Blue Moon held a notorious reputation in town, and the appellation of tavern was understood to be a polite euphemism for the truth. “Why on earth would she want to speak with Mrs. Wetmore?”

“Mrs. Wetmore?” Brady removed his boater and raked his fingers through his hair. “Good grief, Em, tell me they didn’t speak to each other.” Again he glanced behind him. He knew as well as I what kind of scandal would ensue should anyone learn a prostitute had asked for Mrs. Wetmore by name, as if they shared a prior acquaintance.

I shook my head. “No, I stopped Mrs. Wetmore from following her husband. I’m not even sure why I did it.”

“I’ll tell you why. You’re too decent to let someone walk unknowingly into her own ruination. Not to mention her husband’s.”

“I think you’re exaggerating the danger, Brady.”

“Perhaps, but only a bit. You and I both know it.”

“Well, disaster averted, I hope.” A sharp thwack and cheering from the field reminded me of my obligations. Still, I lingered as I regarded my brother. “How was Uncle Cornelius when you last saw him?”

A shadow fell across his usually jovial face. He shook his head. “Not well, I’m afraid. Still bedridden, for the most part.”

“And his speech?”

“Little improved. I believe his mind is as sharp as ever, Em, but it’s as if he’s trapped inside his own body.”

“Oh, Brady, how dreadful. Cornelius Vanderbilt was the strongest man I’ve ever known, and to think of him as helpless and dependent . . .” I drifted off as a weight pressed against my breastbone. “I saw Neily a little while ago. Apparently they still blame him.”

Brady set his boater back on his head. “Yes, I’m afraid so, at least where Alice and Gertrude are concerned. And the old man won’t hear Neily’s name mentioned. He makes that more than evident even without the power of speech. I might risk my employment by standing up for him, but Em, I can’t just sit by and see Neily demonized for marrying a woman he cares so deeply about. Luckily, Alfred and even William see my side of it, even though outwardly they feel obligated to show Neily the cold shoulder.”

By Alfred, Brady referred to Neily’s younger brother, who had taken over for his father at the New York Central. William Vanderbilt was Cornelius’s brother. I understood why they must appear to stand with the family in this matter—unless and until Cornelius and Alice relented—but I was glad for Neily’s sake that he did have allies, even covert ones.

I returned to our earlier subject. “Tell me more about the Blue Moon.”

“Good grief, Em, I’m not going to talk about that place with you.”

“You may spare me the baser details, thank you. I merely want to know who is in charge should I need to speak with anyone.”

“Absolutely not.”

“It could be important if Mrs. Wetmore is harassed again. I’ll . . . pass the information on to Jesse.” I improvised that last assurance, knowing I’d gain more insight from Brady if he believed I’d let our mutual friend, Detective Jesse Whyte of the Newport Police Department, conduct any necessary interviews.

“Well . . . all right.” Brady went on to convey the details I sought, and ended with a protestation that he had only come by the information through hearsay.

“Of course,” I readily agreed. “How else? I’d better get back to work.” I leaned in to kiss Brady on the cheek, then laughed as I remembered a happier detail. “Say hello to Hannah for me, if I don’t see you again before the match ends. And come by the house for supper as soon as you’re able—both of you. Nanny has been wanting to cook for you.”

<1L#>

I awoke with a gasp, a ringing in my ears, and a warm weight pinning my legs to the bed. It took several moments before my sleep-befuddled mind identified both the ringing and weight, the former being the telephone in the alcove downstairs, and the latter my dog, who had crawled up from the foot of the bed to nudge me from sleep.

“Woof.”

Blinking in the darkness, I eased Patch, part spaniel and part mystery, off me and flipped back the covers. The telephone jangled relentlessly. I gazed at the gap I always left in the curtains to allow the dawn’s first rays to awaken me, but no sun peeked in from the seaward horizon. What time could it be? Patch must have wondered too, for he tilted his head as he peered at me, his brown ear twitching forward while the white one simply hung.

All at once, the portent of a ringing telephone in the dead of night gripped me with its urgency. Frantically I swept my feet over the floor beside my bed, searching until I found my slippers. No good could come from the summons of a telephone at such an hour, and my mind turned over several possibilities with lightning speed. Brady was in trouble. Uncle Cornelius had passed away. Some accident had befallen Neily. Ill news from my parents. But no, that last, I reasoned, would come by telegram and not over the telephone lines, as Mother and Father had returned to Paris in the spring.

I grabbed the shawl I had tossed over a chair last night and threw my door wide. Patch leaped down from the bed and was beside me in an instant, his furry tail arced and waving. His nails clicked on the oaken treads as he preceded me down the stairs. Finally, my shawl half falling from my shoulders, I squeezed past him into the alcove beneath the stairs and snatched up the ear trumpet. “Yes? This is Emma Cross.”

“Emma, it’s Jesse. How soon can you be dressed and ready to accompany me?”

“Accompany you where?”

“Chateau sur Mer.” It was all the explanation he offered. I knew better than to press him when he spoke in that concise, authoritative manner.

“I can be ready as soon as you get here. Are you still in town?”

“No. I’m at Chateau sur Mer with the Wetmores. Don’t worry, no one in the family has been harmed. I’ll start out now.”

He disconnected, and as I replaced the ear trumpet back onto its cradle, heavy thuds and creaking wood sounded from the staircase above my head.

“What was that?”

I left the alcove, nearly tripping over Patch in the process, and met Nanny at the bottom of the steps. She held her dressing gown closed over a faded nightgown, her hair in curling rags and covered by a kerchief. I had known Mary O’Neal all my life. She had been my nurse when I was a child, Brady’s too, and when I left my parents’ home in our harborside Point neighborhood to take up residence here at Gull Manor on Ocean Avenue, Nanny had come with me as my housekeeper. Grandmother seemed a more accurate term for the woman who had soothed me, scolded me when I needed it, taught me, encouraged me, and stayed steadily by me all these years. I kissed her cheek, velvety soft with age.

“It was Jesse,” I replied, feeling a sudden chill and hugging my shawl about me. “Something has happened at Chateau sur Mer. He needs me there.”

“You? Why?” She clucked. “Never mind. I’ve learned better than to ask. I’ll put the kettle on to boil and heat up some johnnycakes.”

 “There may not be time. Jesse’s on his way now.”

“There’s time. You go get dressed.” She called to Patch. “Come on, boy. You’ll be needing a trip outside and then some breakfast, too.”

Some forty minutes later Jesse and I drove up the driveway of the Wetmore estate on Bellevue Avenue. A faint light shimmered on the horizon far out over the Atlantic. Standing beside another of those giant weeping beech trees whose branches undulated like seaweed on the tide, Chateau sur Mer possessed a solid dignity that spoke of tradition and distinction. If The Breakers and Marble House personified the extravagance and vanity of my Vanderbilt relatives, this Second Empire French chateau, built of granite blocks and sporting two towers and a steep mansard roof, just as surely exemplified the upright and dependable George Peabody Wetmore. Jesse had told me little in the carriage, except to confirm that the Wetmores were all still alive, and that an incident like those that had brought the two of us together last summer and autumn had once again occurred. I knew what that meant, and I shivered in the predawn chill.

Three other police wagons and an ambulance populated the lengthy circular driveway. Light spilled from every room on the ground floor, and a few of the second-story windows as well. Jesse maneuvered the carriage around to the side of the house, to the new entrance the Wetmores had built during their extensive renovations. We exited the carriage beneath a sheltering porte cochere.

Strained, bewildered voices reached my ears as soon as Jesse opened the front door. I needn’t take many steps beyond the vestibule to discover why.

Two policemen crouched at the bottom of one side of the double staircase. Between the two flights rose a tree of life mural painted on the soffit where the staircases merged at the half landing and continued as one to the second floor. After the darkness of the ride over, I blinked in the sudden glare of gas lighting.

It took several moments for my eyes to adjust, and for the full impact of the sight before me to register. When it did, it struck with the force of a pony-driven polo mallet. I now saw what the officers crouched over. Brown hair, curled into spirals, tumbled across a white, lifeless face, and a plum and rose gown lay tangled around legs thrust at odd angles, as if by a fall. Yes, certainly the result of a fall. But it was the neck and the position of the head that drew a gasp of dismay from me, along with a name:

“Lilah.”

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