Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Domino Effect, Chapter Eleven

Master Ham sucked his teeth and was rewarded with a single, stout blow to the ear. "What'd you do that for?" he cried, patting the offended spot.

Bolger serenely tucked the enormous drawing pad beneath his arm. "Don't do that. You look like a peasant."

"I am a peasant!" Master Ham glared from his stained tattered smock to an imaginary cheval glass in the corner. (To be continued...)

The Domino Effect, Chapter Ten

Another twilight fell upon the garden. In the music room beside the terrace, somebody thrashed out a difficult passage of Bach on the pianoforte. Two floors above, bloodcurdling shrieks signaled children rebelling against their elders’ attempts to put them to bed.

Wallis Frederick tapped glowing ash from his cheroot onto the terrace stones. “Ahhh, the child sacrifice has begun,” he informed the grinning butler who had brought him a glass of port.

The remark--and Frederick’s friendly manner--prompted employer and employee into a fatherly discourse about the care and feeding of offspring.

Sensing that the gentlemen were not about to flee the delicious, deepening dusk for the comfort of civilized light indoors, Phyl skulked across the yard to the back of the stables. A path between the carriage house and the hothouse brought her to the midst of a fragrant stand of pines. From there she turned left upon the slim, oak-lined path that skirted the lawn and promised to bring her to the clearing where Philip waited with his phaeton. The sudden sound of a carriage rolling from the direction of the house made her bolt like a spooked horse deeper between the trees. But the light from the car’s lamps was too weak to penetrate the darkness, and she was too curious about the content of the note Philip had given her the night before:

“My lady, There comes a point where life ceases to be a continuous line of hope-fulfilling events and becomes, instead, a parable fit for examination, if not for understanding. If you would like to examine a portion of that parable, then please meet me after nightfall, once your duties are done for the day but while the house is in the tumult of preparing the children for bed, a quarter of a mile south of the spot where I will have encountered you this evening. Dress for travel.”

Accordingly, she wore the darkest and most comfortable of her daily governess dresses; walking shoes, cotton gloves, and a lightweight bonnet.

The light of the half-moon was enough to let her distinguish first the phaeton and then her chauffeur, waiting as promised in the clearing. Though haste and nerves at the possibility of not finding him in the darkness left her breathless, she managed to greet him with criticism as he handed her onto the car seat.

“Really, Philip, was it Eton or Oxford that taught you to perceive life in such arcane terms?”

“Which terms, my lady?”

“The parable.”

“The parable?”

She quoted his note as he sat beside her and took the reins.

“Ah!” he said, driving onto the road. “Neither school, actually. It’s common sense, don’t you think? Like exiting the building in the midst of hue and cry--as you just did. I figured that everybody would be too busy to notice your departure, and there would be too much noise to notice car wheels in the distance—just as you failed to notice your employer leaving the premises.”

Phyl regarded him in silent awe. She had no idea he could be so conspiratorial. “I did see a carriage. Was that Mr. Hartshorne? He must be miles from here by now."

“No. There.” Philip held both reins in his right hand and pointed with the whip. “Do you see those lights ahead? That's him en route to town.”

Phyllida squinted deeply, eventually spying the distant yellow pinpricks that denoted carriage lamps. “So you dare to follow him in an open car."

“I have no other.”

“But what if he should see us?”

“He won't. We're too far behind. And it's too dark. Besides, if he did somehow see us, he'd think we were just another pair of travelers. A man and wife, perhaps, engaged in urgent family business. Who will know? Who will care? We’re both dressed and conducting ourselves respectably.”

“But we are not man and wife!”

Philip slowed the horses. “Forgive me. Would you prefer not to see the truth about your precious Mr. Hartshorne?”

The distant yellow pinpricks winked. Phylidda clutched Philip’s arm in a panic. “What are you doing? We’re losing him!”

Philip urged the horses to walk faster, but no so fast that they outpaced the feeble yellow light from the car's lamps. The pinpricks re-appeared as the distance closed, but winked again as the Hartshorne car picked up speed.

“He’s outrunning his lights,” Phyl mused. “Lud! What must be so urgent for him to drive so recklessly?”

Several moments passed before Philip replied. “The place he visits.”

Phyl was fired by the reluctant tone. “And what kind of place would that be?”

“With all respect, my lady, I prefer that you see for yourself.”

“Why? Is it disreputable?”

“Put it this way: If he were my employer, and if I were a female living under his roof, I should find cause for concern.”

At once Phyl imagined Wallis alighting from the car and entering a building whose restrained brick fa├žade concealed either a gaming hell or a brothel, if not both. A gaming hell she could understand. He was, after all, an American, and Americans were known to be careless with their money. But a brothel?

Phyl remembered the night in Lady Wilfer’s maze. What had Wallis really been doing there? Had he indeed run afoul of newfound friends, as he had told her? Or had he gone to Lady Wilfer’s ball seeking the kind of fun that had terrified her into escaping?

Not two days ago, Phyl had dared to believe that Wallis Hartshorne loved her. Now a childhood friend was daring her to see that she had been deluded.

“Don’t compel me to guess,” she said. “Tell me. Not to tell me would be to torture me all night long.”

Phyl sensed Philip look at her as he asked, “Would you believe my word alone?”

“Would it be any less than what I would see for myself?”

“It could be more.”

“Then tell me where he goes.”

“That’s the point, my lady. I’ve no idea how to describe the place. It could be a club, or a house for public balls or private assignations. It’s a large, brick building, with brightly lighted rooms where people dance, and with dimly lighted rooms where people dine, and with even darker rooms where people are not seen at all, but where the windows remain open to the evening air, giving off the sound of singing or sighing, sometimes to the accompaniment of a pianoforte.”

The distant teeny lights vanished. So did Phyl’s desire to follow. “Bring me back. Please.”

“To where?”



The temptation to say yes was nearly as strong as the urge to say no. What a relief it would be, to turn her back on the Hartshornes and return to the uncomplicated life of the house on the outskirts of town! Phyl wished she had never met Wallis Hartshorne or gone to Lady Wilfer’s ball in the first place, vainly determined to uncover the identity of the scandalous Gentleman Dairyman. Yet to return to her family would mean she must stop writing about the Americans in the countryside. She would have no income. Once again her mother and brothers would know financial hardship. How could she sacrifice their comfort for hers?

She explained her decision to Philip, who did as she asked and brought her back to the park.

She alighted from the phaeton in the place where Philip had met her, pensively walked around the horses to where he sat and shook his hand. “Thank you.” She seemed not to notice that he held on to her hand long after shaking it. She heard in his voice the timidity that he struggled to conceal in his face.

“May I…may I call on you again? For a drive?”

“I’ll let you know when.” She let him kiss her hand, and trudged back to her false home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Domino Effect, Chapter Nine

That evening, Phyl strolled through the gardens, attempting to mentally compose a letter to her mother but unsure as to which was more distracting, the bursts of laughter coming from the lively card game between Mrs. Hartshorne and Mary Catherine on the terrace, or the piano duets played by Mary Alice and Mary Ellen. The true source of her distraction she failed to regard as a distraction, for a distraction, to Phyl, carried unpleasant connotations, and the true cause of her distraction could hardly signify as unpleasant. Does he love me? she repeatedly asked herself, remembering Wallis on the way to the village.

She felt light, like swan’s down lifted by a gentle breeze, letting the invisible current take her where it willed. She no longer had cares or worries, yet she was the same person she had been the day before. She ate, taught, and communed with the Hartshorne family, and she had serious matters to consider. Her mother had reported that her brothers had been traveling back and forth to Oxford, petitioning their mentors for help in finding suitable professions.

“I think you should ask your employer to find something for them to do,” Mama implored in her customary illegible hand, on cheap paper liberally smeared and dotted with ink. Phyl replied, in a far neater hand and on more elegant paper, that the Earl of Blystone and his brother would never consent to work so near to the old home, nor would she encourage them to do so. “The temptation to take back the estate would be too great,” she wrote, again forbidding herself to reveal that she herself worked there. “I know my brothers. They would think of nothing else, and do nothing else except plot against the current owner in a conspiracy that must resolve badly.” She nearly wrote “tragically,” but decided that the hint of death and destruction would tip dear Mama into hysterics. Poor Mama, always expecting the worst, Phyl reflected. Whatever would she say about Mrs. Hartshorne’s affections towards me?

Phyl had wandered to that part of the garden that her father had determined should mimic a meadow in the wild. Tall grass and lavender reached for her knees. Sere brown leaves, forgotten remnants of summers past, crunched beneath her feet. The path ended, smothered by a brightly colored tangle of shrubs and wildflowers that extended towards one of the park’s many copses. This was once her favorite spot in the estate. How often had she come out here, marveling at delicate spring blossoms or drinking in the lovely weight of autumn, when the air was still and everything was bathed in vague, pink-orange twilight.

Certain that nobody could see her she sat, arms around her legs, her chin on her knees, as she had been wont to do. It was astonishing, really, that the garden could look the same but not feel the same. There was no longer any comfort here. The knowledge that her home had been wrested from her unsettled her with the constancy of an ache from a splinter too fine to be removed. She reflected that she should have known her life would be unhappy, for not every moment of her childhood on the estate had been a source of delight. Surely, she hadn’t dreamt the scene of her mother confiding how she would have left her father (for whatever reason, Phyl had long forgotten), and the memory of her father declaring (for another reason that Phyl had long forgotten) how her mother “could be so vicious.” As big and sumptuous as Blystone was, despite the number of out buildings and pleasant pockets among the grounds and gardens, the only sanctuary from the parental tempests that Phyl and her brothers could find was at the home of Mama’s ever-so-clever modiste. “Ma’am,” as everyone called her, would ply them with tea and let them play her pianoforte. Though her son, Philip, treated Ronald and Russell with an awe that prevented him from being at ease in their company, despite their friendly nature and desire to please, her daughter, Penelope, at once took to Phyl. The girls had no doubt they would be friends for life and often plotted how “Pen” could snare Ronald as a husband.

The notion of Ronald as somebody's husband made Phyl wonder what sort of husband Wallis Hartshorne would be. She imagined Wallis as she so frequently saw him in his current, seemingly unattached state: the icon of the perfect son, brother, uncle, friend, playing with the children, joking (albeit it in writing) with siblings and gallantly strolling the grounds with his mother on his arm. She never saw him with a woman not related to him, and she never heard his family speak or speculate about his affairs of the heart. That Wallis was unattached, Phyl was certain. She considered that he never had been married, for women wanted to hear their husbands’ declarations of love, just as men wanted their wives to have money. No, he cannot have serious intentions about me, she concluded. He knows no woman really wants him, as I know no man really wants me.

Twilight drooped lower, snuffing the shards of pink and golden light that moments before had danced low between the trees. Phyl no longer felt like swan’s down dancing on the breeze, unburdened by memories, suspicions, uncertainties. She thought of the horribly round-shouldered woman who sold carrots in the market. Her spirits felt the way the woman looked.


Was that a hiss or was it really a “Psst!”?

“Miss Phylidda?” the whisper belonged to Elspeth, the freckled girl from the kitchen.

Phyl looked up at her from where she sat.

Bending low, Elspeth whispered further, about someone she and Martin, the valet, had met in town. “Would you remember the other day, when Cook said a man had stopped her in the market, inquiring about the people who live here?”

Phyl often was amused by how the locals called the village town, while town, to her and her family, was London. She spoke without thinking, annoyed at the intrusion to her solitude. “I’m afraid I wasn’t aware of that. What happened?”

“Just as I said, Miss Phylidda. A man chatted up Cook about Mr. Hartshorne and the family. He said he wrote for a newspaper in London and wanted to know if it was true that an American lived at Blystone.”

Ah yes, Phyl thought; she knew the type: Anything for news that would make the paper stand out among the rest. “I doubt there was anything behind it, Elspeth. The gentleman was probably looking for a good story, that’s all. The ton is fascinated by foreigners who live in England.”

“But today it was me and Martin who was stopped. It sounds like the same man.”

“If it was indeed the same man, most likely he’s searching for somebody to give him an introduction. He knows he can’t very well come charging down here like a runaway steeplechaser. The form would be so bad as to be unforgivable.”

“I don’t know, Miss. The things he was asking! It didn’t sound like he wanted an introduction, or that he wanted to write a society story, you know?”

“Why? What was he asking you?”

“Impertinent things, like what kind of an income we thought Mr. Hartshorne had and how he made his money. We sid it weren’t any of his business, but he said we were fools to work for a foreigner and not know anything about him. He said it wasn’t right for so many people to live all together like that and not have a title or a profession to let them live so high.”

”Did he, now! What did he look like?”

“It was nobody I’ve ever seen, Miss. Mind you, I’m not from here. Mr. Hartshorne hired me in London.”

“In town?”

“No, ma’am, in London. I worked for the hotel where he stayed. I heard he needed staff for here, and I didn’t want to live in the city any more.” The girl’s brow crinkled. She leaned forward and asked Phyl, in a tone of dread, “The staff and me, we heard that Mr. H didn’t come by this house rightly. You don’t think he’s been doing something untoward, do you?”


Elspeth shrugged. “Thievery. Forgery. Opium. Light skirts. Speculation. Who can tell?”

Phyl laughed, confident in her knowledge and in the knowledge that her knowledge would calm the ingenuous girl! “I do not for an instant believe it’s any of those things. I myself happened to hear that he won Blystone in a bet with the old earl.”

“A bet…” The girl’s voice brightened with enlightenment then slid back into suspicion.“But how can he afford to live here, Miss?”

“The rents, Elspeth! Blystone has tenants. Surely, you could see that.” Phyl gestured broadly, as if to embrace the manor and its park.

Elspeth's eyes followed the gesture. "Of course, Miss Phylidda. How stupid of me!"

Phyl interrupted. “That stranger who accosted you. What did he look like? You never told me.”

“Oh! He—“ Elspeth stopped, mouth agape. Phyl followed the girl’s terrified stare. A young man on horseback, taking advantage of the twilight, had had the gall to ride up to the house and now awaited recognition not by Elspeth or by any other member of the household, but by Phylidda, who recognized the form despite the hat, which she had never before seen him wear. Indeed, Phyl had had no reason to see him in a hat, for she had never seen him outside his home or the print shop.

“Not to worry,” she assured the girl, who succumbed to her fright and folded upon on the turf in an inelegant heap.

“How very convenient,” said Philip, who dismounted and pushed a letter into Phyl’s hand.

“It’s imperative that we speak, my lady. The particulars are on the page. Until tomorrow,” he murmured, and walked the horse back toward the road, vanishing into the darkness.

Phyl hastened to the house, where she recruited a footman to help Elspeth, who was playfully chided for letting herself be overcome by the shadow of a tree in the night.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Domino Effect, Chapter Eight

As the weeks passed, Phylidda sent her mother and brothers letters about her life as a governess for a rich American family in the country. She hadn’t nerve enough to state all the facts about Wallis Hartshorne and his curious relationship with their cherished estate. She posted all that to Ma’am. The first narrative she directed to that lady's attention became the first in a series of columns about the Hartshornes, whom she refrained from identifying. The stories, which Phyl chose to write in the guise of “Lady M. Dash,” were a hit. Sales of Lady Athol-Hight’s Society Paper soared.

The Hartshornes apparently knew nothing about their notoriety. Nor did Phyl betray her deep-seated desire to embarrass them as the usurpers of her legacy. They showed Phyl nothing but kindness and consideration, which led her to believe that, to them, she was little more than a blameless, lonely soul in need of protection from the evils of the world. Her schedule was a reasonable arrangement that one would expect to see in a reputable school and assured that neither she nor any of her charges was overworked. If anything, they all were overfed, for meals were unabashed family feasts that required portions fit for persons accustomed to frequent, massive doses of hearty, lethargy-inducing food. Phyl's dresses, too, reflected the Hartshornes’ generosity. She had one for every day of the week. Though each was a thing of practicality--modestly cut of dark fabric, with long sleeves, as befit a woman who spent most of her time with children--each also featured a high, expensive muslin frill at the neck. A scarlet fob at the bodice secured a small, self-winding watch by the Swiss house of Breguet.

As for personal comfort, Phyl's underpinnings were fashioned from the softest cottons and linen, and embellished with dainty lacework. She had a high-ceilinged, well-ventilated room to herself. However, the room was on an upper floor, away from the children. She was surprised to learn that her responsibilities for the children ended along with the school day. “You’re their teacher, not their parent,” Mrs. Hartshorne advised. The information struck Phyl as odd, for she knew few parents who were only too glad to relinquish their round-the-clock duties to nursemaids and governesses.

But perhaps the greatest oddity of Phyl’s new life was her mute employer. From what she could see, perpetually silent Wallis Hartshorne had no wife or children. He had chosen to dwell in a lordly manor with more than two dozen relations who had left the comfort of their homes and accompanied him thousands of miles across the sea not merely to a new life, but to a new country. Their fidelity was rewarded, or perhaps fueled, by the never-ending supply of the most basic requirements of life, provided with no apparent effort by a man who spared no expense for their ease.

Despite his wealth, Wallis Hartshorne was astonishingly thoughtful of his servants and tenants, as well. Often Phyl would spy him in the distant fields, chatting with all manner of staff: shepherds, cattlemen, haymakers, gardeners. Though he rode out on horseback, he dismounted for the meetings. “How very democratic,” Phyl would muse at the sight. “Whatever would young Earl Blystone think?” For Ronald would never deign to present himself before the common folk in so common a position. He always said that to present oneself on horseback was not so much to reinforce the lower class’s lowborn position, but to encourage the lower class to look up, and by physically looking up, to aspire to rise above their squalor and to better themselves.

And what, Phyl wondered, did Wallis Hartshorne himself aspire to? Was it enough for him to live like a lord, benefiting from the years of improvements and cultivation produced by generations of Phyl’s titled forbears? What kind of a man would live off the rightful belongings of another? Every day, Phyl awoke with the determination to ask him what his business was with the place, but every day lapsed not with an opportunity missed, with the preference not to venture upon the subject. Though she had ample opportunity to challenge him--he often met with her to discuss the children’s progress--she refused to trample his benevolence (not to mention her privileged life at the house) with questions that could betray her as an ingrate and have her thrown off the premises. She resolved to rely upon her columns to inspire her readers to question the appearance of the impudent foreigners and restore the Earl to his lands.

As Phyl walked to the village one sunny morning to post her latest column about life with the Americans, a burst of traffic revealed a horseman who turned his mount around as soon as he had passed her and rode back towards her. Dismounting, Wallis tipped his hat to her in what she perceived as a vaguely American pose, and mouthed a greeting. He walked beside her, leading the horse, a strapping bay gelding, by the reins.

Phyl felt as though she had been caught doing something wrong. “I’m posting a letter to a friend I left behind in London,” she lied as Wallis produced the ubiquitous notebook and pencil.

“I’m so sorry!” he wrote. “Had I known you had mail, I’d have brought it myself.”

“Thank you, but it’s a fine day for a walk, don’t you think?”

“Yes! Which is why I chose to ride, ha ha.”

How difficult to convey humor in writing, thought Phyl, smiling more from courtesy than delight.

Wallis failed to notice the smile's lack of spontaneity, for he continued to write. “Is there anything that you need or want, for yourself or for the children?”

”I want for nothing,” said Phyl, hoping she sounded truthful.

“Nothing? Are you certain?”

“I have everything I need, Mr. Hartshorne.”

“I know of no one on this earth who has everything he needs. Surely, there must be something?”

“Notatall. I’m quite happy, thank you. I should like to know something, though--” Phyl held the thought as Wallis respectfully helped her step around a bunny hole. “Pray tell me: Have you always been like this?”

“Like what?” he wrote as soon as he was assured that Phyl could walk without further assistance.

“Unable to speak.”

Wallis crushed a smile. “I’m quite able to speak. I just don’t make the sounds necessary for audible speech.”

Phyl recalled their confrontation on her first night at the house. “Excuse me. I should have asked if you have never been able to speak aloud.”

“It’s a long story, I’m afraid.”

“Ah, but it’s a long walk to the village.”

“Well, it’s not a glorious tale, either. Rather ordinary. Dull. Based on stupidity.”

“Were you a singer? Did you misuse your voice?”

Wallis’s face erupted in a great, nearly noiseless gasp of a laugh. Phyl could not resist laughing along with him. How different he looked when he laughed!

“No, no, no, no, no!” he protested in pencil. “And it wasn’t drink, either, if that’s what you’re thinking!”

The ground being uneven, Phyl leaned close, her hand ever so lightly on Wallis's arm, to see what he wrote. “What was it, then?” she prompted, eagerly looking into his eyes, which she only just realized were shaded by lashes that resembled the fringe on her mother’s black velvet wrap. “Why must men have the best eyelashes?” she mutely agonized.

Grinning with mischievous self-satisfaction, Wallis wrote: “As I said: stupidity. An attack of quinsy when I was a boy. The doctor lanced my vocal chords along with the abcess in my throat. See? Ordinary and dull, as promised.”

Phyl gulped, unable to understand why she now felt so miserable for prying. “I’m so sorry! How awful for you. How awful for your parents!”

“Awful? Never! Once they were a few days removed from the shock of the damage, they were relieved that they’d never again hear me screaming in order to coerce them into giving me whatever I wanted.”

“Your mother! That adorable, little old lady? She was that wretchedly cold-hearted—“

The hectic scribbling smothered Phyl’s disbelief, for she was compelled to rationally follow every syllable formed by the pencil: “Of course, they were horrified! Horrified, incensed, despondent. But not so horrified, incensed and despondent that they forgot to prepare me for a life without a voice. My father was a lawyer. He did what any lawyer would have done: he at once began to groom me for the law, bringing me into his office to work as a clerk. Simultaneously, he sued the doctor. The timing indicated to me that both actions were of equal importance.”

Now here was a revelation. At last, Phyl would know what he did for a living! Deep inside, she fluttered with the excitement that accompanies the joy of unexpected triumph. “You practice law, Mr. Hartshorne?” She struggled to make it sound like a question, not an exclamation of discovery.

He nodded.

“As a solicitor?” She could not imagine him attempting to try a case in court, as a barrister.

“We don’t have the distinctions you have here. Either one tries cases, or not. No matter which, one is still called a lawyer. Or an attorney. Or a counselor.”

“I take it you don’t try cases.”

He dropped his jaw in feigned gasp of horror.

“What?” Phyl giggled nervously, uncertain if she had committed a grievous error.

“I most certainly DO try cases!”


He tapped the paper.

“Goodness, I should find all that writing tedious!”

“Sometimes my worthy colleague on the opposing side finds it tedious and settles—rather wisely, I must say--before the first recess.”

And Phyl wisely waited until they had progressed several more paces, so as not to appear too eager and indiscriminate, before asking what had been on her mind for weeks. “Pray, tell me one thing, Mr. Hartshorne. Forgive my frankness, but I feel I’ve been with you long enough to ask: How does an American lawyer come to live in an English manor?”

The reply was quick. “There are many similarities between English and American law. There must be, as the latter is founded upon the former. I believe that one of the likenesses extends to confidentiality. Forgive me if I cannot say more, but please trust that my business here is lawful and appropriate.”

“So the manor really isn’t yours? As people say it is,” Phyl hastened to add, fearing she had overstepped the bounds of good manners.

“Miss Athol-Hight, if the State of New Jersey ever allows women to appear before the Bar, yours would be the first name on the list for the privilege.”

“That’s a lovely way of telling me to mind my own business, is it not?”

“It is, rather, a compliment.”

Wallis’s lack of rancor at her questioning bolstered her courage to press on. “So please tell me this: You brought your entire family to England with you for what amounts to a business trip. Your client must be fabulously wealthy, indeed!”

“You don’t give up, do you?” Wallis wrote, shaking with silent laughter.

“Sadly, no, I’m afraid I don’t.”

“Have you read Shakespeare?”

“I have.”

“Are you familiar with The Merchant of Venice? You may recall that one of the characters is a wise woman named Portia who practices law disguised as a man.”

“Of course...” Phyl wondered where this discussion would lead them.

Wallis squinted towards the slightly distant village, his eyes smudged by deep preoccupation. Some moments later, he wrote: “How fortunate that your first name begins with a P, for I can call you Portia, and write to you as P, and nobody will be the wiser. If you will allow me the pleasure, that is.”

Wallis was several steps away before he realized that Phyl had stopped and was now hidden behind the horse’s hindquarters. Her face, though shadowed by the bonnet’s straw bill, had turned deep claret. Her eyes were downcast. Her perplexity embraced a question: Why did he say that? Was it not enough that he was her employer? Did he mean to be a suitor too? Did he want to take her the way he had taken the estate?

There were only sorrow and concern, not lechery, thievery, nor any other element of criminal intent in Wallis’s face as he bent and turned his eyes to hers, so close their foreheads almost touched. Phylidda saw at once that she had been wrong to suspect the man of such abject villainy. He was no libertine. Nor was he the palest shade of a rake, despite his not being married. Shame spoiled her suspicion and stoked her misery. She willed herself not to cry. Tears leaked, all the same.

“No no, no, no, no,” Wallis mouthed. Briefly, he squeezed her shoulders, then reached for the notebook. Guessing he was about to apologize for the remark—which had been made rather shyly, Phyl noted—she placed her own hands over his, signaling there was no need to write. “I’m sorry,” she mewed. “I’m not accustomed to such attention.”

“No?” Wallis mouthed, eyes wide with soft disbelief.

Phyl remembered Philip in the print shop, with his pompous declarations of admiration, but, really, there was nobody else. There would never be anybody else. Not now, not after what her father and Wallis Hartshorne had done to her family. Phyl cast her answer in a teary whisper. “Never.”


Because I became poor, and no man in his right mind will marry a poor girl, Phyl thought, catching the shape of the word. “I am poor,” she said, then begged, as Wallis formed another “no,” “Please, Mr. Hartshorne, I’m alone, dependent on your charity. You mustn’t take advantage of my position.”

“Never!” he mouthed, with an earnest shake of the head. “Never!” Assured of his sincerity, Phyl released his hands and he wrote:

“Take this notebook. Please! Whatever you think of me at this moment--whatever wrong you imagine me capable of doing now or in the future--remember this: If ever I become cross with you, or speak boorishly to you, or do anything to signify any feeling contrary to the esteem that I have for you, show me these pages, and I will make amends with speed and before anyone who may have witnessed my transgression.”

He held out the booklet to her. At first she refused to take it. “I can’t take that from you! What will you use to communicate?”

“Oh," Wallis said, then thought, then wrote. “Pragmatically, I believe the stationer’s is nearby, so please have no fear of my going without the means to express myself. And there are more of these books at the house. However, so long as you are with me, I feel no need to resort to writing in order to convey my thoughts to someone who does not know me.”

“That’s unspeakably kind of you, Mr. Hartshorne, but may I remind you that you may need to convey some thoughts to me first. How, then—“

“You will know. As surely as I know that you were going to ask, ‘How, then, will I know what you mean to say?’ You will know.”

Once Phyl read the last note, Wallis closed her hands around the booklet with a tenderness that signaled both the end of the discussion and the beginning of something that Phyl could not have foreseen moments before: an understanding between them that transcended the transcription of consonants and vowels, and had, at its source, messages that are best understood in the heart.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Domino Effect, Chapter Seven

To the boisterous family that flowed over the grounds with the shameless intrusion of the tide, Wallis Harthsorne was off managing the poor excuse of a farm that signified the former estate of the late Earl of Blystone. But safely out of sight in his study, Wallis studied the charcoal drawing of a young woman.

The medium suggested that the upswept hair and fringe of thready curls about the face were a deep brown, so distantly unlike the lighter, ethereal wisps that flashed red-gold in the sunlight. The girl was paler, too, and more delicate in form and features than the artist had recalled. But no, there was no mistake. On paper and in person, the girl was indeed the old earl’s daughter.

Wallis thought she dressed simply for an earl’s daughter. He had expected someone of her position to attend the ball in silk or satin, perhaps overlaid with a fine, too-translucent tulle, and wickedly low-cut. But the gown she had worn beneath the domino--the same gown she had by necessity donned for breakfast--was a disarmingly modest affair made of soft, white lace over a pink linen underdress. It had a gathered bodice and straight, nearly elbow-length sleeves. A moss-green velvet ribbon defined the high waist. Shoes and gloves of York-tan kid completed the outfit, which was more suited for day than night.

What is she up to?, Wallis wondered, revisiting the way she had hastened from room to room, and how she had jumped away when they collided. Was she thrilled to be home, or was she gathering evidence, made bold by something he had failed to put away?

There was also the matter of her name. Athol-Hight, she said it was, not Fitzmaier, her family name. A Lady Athol-Hight was the publisher of a society paper. Surely, Lady Phylidda had better sense than to masquerade as a scandalmonger! If not, what, then would compel an eighteen-year-old girl to pretend to be something she wasn't? Or was it possible that he was wrong, he really had brought home the wrong girl, after all?

Flushed with the notion that he had invented the major folly of his life, Wallis folded the drawing and, without a word to any of his kin or household help, headed towards the stables with a speed which he hoped would not attract attention. Within minutes he was cantering towards the hills beyond the park and two smocked figures who lounged in the shade of a twisted, outstretched tree, surrounded by round, wooly bodies, their limp, slouch-brimmed hats flopping low against the noontime brightness.

The figures were two rather young men who had their own reasons for escaping attention. Moments earlier, they had observed the adult members of their new employer’s family rolling hoops alongside the children. Gleeful shouts and squeals traveled through the clear spring air sounding more like barks than human sounds.

Bolger, the elder of the two, had rolled his eyes with disgust. “Look at them, carrying on like that! A desecration, if you ask me. What would the old earl say?”

Bolger’s ruddy cheeked associate spoke even as he bit off a chunk of bread. “Never mind the old earl. What would the young earl thay?”

Bolger’s glower deepened till it seemed his entire face were folded in. “I think I know what people would say about the young earl. He’s spineless. He can’t stand up to the usurper.”

“That’s arrogance,” Bolger’s colleague pronounced. ”Besides, do the people around here really care about the young earl? Nobody’s offering to help him get back the estate.”

Bolger shuddered and swiped at his associate’s head as the fellow shoved in more bread without first having swallowed the previous load. “Don’t do that!”

Completely unswayed, his friend simply ducked out of the way and jutted his chin towards the faraway scene. “They thpend an inordinate amount of time with their children, the Americanth.”

“Well, we’re spending an inordinate amount of time playing with what amounts to somebody else’s sheep.”

A whimper of an incipient laugh escaped the colleague’s slender person. “What’s that for?” inquired Bolger, caught between amusement and suspicion.

“You make that thound thooooo loaththome.”

“I make it sound loathsome? You know what people say about shepherds and their sheep.”

Blankness overcame the younger man’s face. Exasperation heightened Bolger’s voice. “Come now, you can’t be that thick! It ain’t humanly possible!”

Chewing, the younger shepherd squinted philosophically towards the treetop. “Actually, it ith humanly pothible. Morally reprehenthible, perhapth, but—“

Bolger restrained himself, an effort that gave him a mild tremor. “I was speaking about the human capacity for intellectual density, of which you seem to be the prime mover!”

Happily, the discussion about man’s moral conduct with animals was lidded by the appearance of the new squire, who, the shepherds grudgingly admitted, cut a fine figure on horseback. Bolger’s friend attempted to stand at Wallis’s approach. Bolger pulled him back down.

Wallis dismounted and approached the shepherds on foot, the reins swaying loosely over his arms. “Mr. Bolger!” he mouthed, giving a small, friendly bow. He looked from Bolger to the second shepherd, arching an eyebrow in the deliberate implication of “And who is this?”

“Master Allen Ham,” Bolger said without missing a beat. His associate coughed, spraying crumbs, but managed to raise his hand in a wordless greeting.

Wallis, the authentic voiceless one among the three, wrote quickly, not at all irked by Bolger’s remaining seated. He presented the note, which he carefully tore from the booklet, with the same easy manner that he had displayed upon approaching the shepherds.

”I believe I’ve found the lady whose likeness matches the portrait you drew for me. I would appreciate it if you could come by the house to confirm my find.”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that, sir,” Bolger replied, shooing Master Ham away from peering over his shoulder. “You Americans may feel at liberty to go where you please, regardless of your station in life, but here? Men like us? We don’t belong in that house. It ain’t our place, you see?”

Wallis's pencil flew. “It’s your place if you have business with your employer.”

“Beggin’ your pardon, squire, we’d rather not. It wouldn’t look right. To the other servants.”

After brief and silent consideration, Wallis placed several coins in Bolger's hand, mouthed, "I understand,” and began to walk his horse back towards the house.

Bolger regarded the guineas with a face so tightly screwed with disdain that he looked like another person. He waited until Wallis was well out of earshot before admitting, “I feel filthy. As if I’ve sold her into... slavery.”

“I thought you were going to say ‘prostitution,’” said Master Ham, who had noticed Bolger’s pause between “into” and “slavery.”

“What shall we do with it?”

“The money? Give it to the vicar, I suppose. Perhaps he could direct it to something worthy.”

Bolger snorted. “Yes, the communion wine.” He allowed a moment of befuddled silence to pass before spitting.

Master Ham, who until that instant had exhibited himself as the master of crudity, gasped at the prodigious stream. “What a disgusting emission!”

Bolger shrugged. “Perhaps. Do you know, I’ve always heard of men spitting at something or somebody they disdained. I never understood why. Until now. I confess, it was a marvelous release.”

Master Ham regarded his associate with an expression that wavered between awe and distaste. Nevertheless, he took a deep breath, sat stiffly straight, worked the muscles about his jaw and ejected a volley of moisture that could go no farther than his chin. He grumbled, wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Humph! It did nothing for me.”

“Give it a few days,” replied Bolger in a tone of somber sagacity. “Then you’ll know what I’m talking about.”

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Domino Effect, Chapter Six

Phyl’s sleep was a succession of jagged thoughts and dreams about her home, her family, the solicitous women who had installed her in a guest room with much sympathy and few questions. Despite her distress, she had resolved not to mention her former association with the premises. It was best to keep silent and enjoy this unexpected visit. Had the house not been lost under such baleful circumstances, she could have hoped that a new friendship would allow her many more opportunities to stay there. But such an alliance was impossible, considering the role of the current occupant, a most heinous, unlikely thief.

When the distant shouts of small children finally roused her from her mental wanderings, the sun was high and a note in the stranger’s hand lay on the side table:

”The family is eager to meet you. But if you prefer to remain in your room, please avail yourself of the bell chord, and we will accommodate you with breakfast and whatever else you may need.”

I’ll lay a wager the family is indeed eager, Phyl thought, casting the note aide.

She just as quickly snatched it up. Did he really write “family is eager”? Family are, she muttered, disgusted but hardly surprised, for it was typical of low-born criminals to confuse nouns and number.

Phyl deigned to go down to breakfast, mostly because she preferred not to have anybody come to her, but partly because she was curious.

A chorus of conversation about ordinary things drew her away from the route she was taking to the breakfast room and towards the dining room, which was crammed with card tables in addition to the long ebony table that had been her mother’s pride and joy. Every table, long and small, was filled with diners of every age imaginable.

Lud, it’s an inn! Phyl thought. He’s turned the place into an inn!

Indignation that her home should be consigned to so banal an existence at the hands of the masses nearly brought Phyl to tears. Her complexion went from white to red and back to white again in the brief time it took for every male guest, adult and child, to stop what he was doing and respectfully stand upon seeing her.

Her stranger stepped forward but stood aside, bowing to another man who had also come forward, beaming upon Phyl. The second man was a shorter, plumper, somewhat younger version of the first.

“If you don’t mind, miss, my brother asked me to make introductions. There are so many of us, he’d fear we’d be here all day if he had to write out the names!”

The accent, full of hard “r’s” and drawled vowels, struck Phyl as odd, and she believed she was enjoying an encounter with people to whom English had not come naturally. Imagine her surprise, then, when she realized that the man was advising her of the ladies’ names, and they all began with the rather English-sounding Mary: Mary Ann, Mary Alice, Mary Claire, Mary Katherine, Mary Rose, Mary Elizabeth, Mary Barbara. The eldest woman among them, a rotund, white-haired lady in a frilly day-cap, was just plain Mary by birth but Mrs. Cornelius Wallis Hartshorne the Third by marriage. Clearly, these were not inn-stayers, but a family. An incredibly large, noisy family.

Phyl, who had every assurance she would not remember everybody’s name, could hardly wait until the man had presented every single man, woman, child and infant before asking, in as restrained a tone as her agitation would allow, “You are, I understand by your accent, not from around here?”

Heartened by the good-natured laughter that filled the room, Phyl went further, “From the Netherlands, perhaps?”

“She’s an original, Wal!” a boy shouted as the crowd laughed ever louder.

The old lady summoned Phyl by raising her gnarled finger. “And what did my son say your name was? Phyllis Athlyte? Wallis!”

The crisp enunciation of the name elicited “Yes, Mother?” from no fewer than three of her male offspring. “Boys. They’re so attentive,” Mrs. Hartshorne the Third confided to Phylidda before scolding, “I said Wallis, not Wallis Frederick, Wallis Thomas or Wallis Paul.” Three Wallises went “Ho-ho-ho” as they otherwise shrugged and returned to their tables. Phyl’s rescuer alone remained, standing at his mother’s side like a puppy ready to indulge its mistress, and in so doing, indulge itself. “You haven’t found a governess for all my grands yet, have you?” the lady challenged.

The remaining Wallis mouthed, “No, ma’am,” for, apparently, his mother needed no notes to understand her eldest son.

The woman eyed Phyl with the shrewdness of someone accustomed to sizing up people. “Do you like children, Miss Athlyte?”

Phyl could not stand children, but for the sake of politeness said she did. “However, I should add that I have little—“

“You seem educated. Intelligent. Can you sing? Draw? Dance? Add figures? Speak French?”

Upon hearing Phyl apply the affirmative to each category, Mrs. Hartshorne turned to her son. “This is an accomplished girl, Wallis. You would be out of your mind to send her back to London, where she can get into Lord knows what trouble with those infamous friends of hers. You have a moral duty to hire her.”

Good heavens, she’ll next be telling him he has a moral duty to marry me! Phyl thought. She looked upon Wallis, half expecting him to reason with the woman. Don’t just stand there, say something, she willed him. Pleeeaaaassse say something.

Wallis held his little notebook so Phylidda could read as he wrote, “With pleasure, Mother.”

Though she smiled and pronounced Mr. Hartshorne “too kind,” Phyl could not deny the ice that gripped her fingers along with the fate that twisted her stomach. After a moment she excused herself with a modest curtsy, delicately made her way between the tables and took the stairs towards her room.

Two flights up, she feverishly paced the hall, assured that nobody could hear her through the happy din below. It was madness, utter madness: not merely being in her former home. Agreeing to work as a governess. For the very person who had assured her family’s poverty for the rest of their lives!

She had no business being there. She would walk home, this minute, though it take hours. She would tell her brothers what had happened to her… Her brothers! Ohdearlord, her brothers. Her mother! They all must be worried to death about her. They would never believe she stayed so long at a ball! She had to send a message to them without delay.

In the haste that obliterates all sense of matters that have nothing to do with the cause of that haste, Phylidda dashed from room to room, searching for paper and pen until she ran straight into Wallis. Feeling his coat on her cheek and his hands on her arms, she jumped back, fearing what he would ask her and not knowing what she would tell him. She tried to appear calm, but lacking confidence in her ability as an actress, she instead accidentally manipulated her features into a grimace of disdain that made her host shift his concern from her face to her hands and what possibly lay therein.

Phyl bridled. He thinks I've stolen something, the fool! “I’m not a thief,” she declared through her teeth.

Wincing, with a faraway look in his eyes, Wallis pulled the notepad and pencil from his tail pocket with such difficulty that the pencil dropped and rolled along the carpet. As he bent to retrieve the item, Phyl succumbed to the desire to humiliate him, the real thief who had usurped her home.

An expert dancer, quick upon her feet, she kicked the pencil so it scudded across the room. The act produced on Wallis’s face a look of dismay, hurt, and frustration that made him appear much younger than Phyl had assumed the night before, and not so expedient as she had presumed the moment before. He had, after all, saved her from a woman’s ultimate shame when there was no need for him to become involved. Ashamed of her lack of gratitude and abundance of selfishness, she retrieved the pencil and held it at arm’s length, her eyes lowered in contrition.

Rather than accept the pencil, Wallis took her hand in both of his and studied her fingers. She knew what he was thinking: She had told him she was a dressmaker, yet her fingers were too smooth for somebody who professed to wield needles for hours at a time. His study ended with a face wrought in sorrowful resignation. He leaned so low as to brush Phyl's ear with his breath. Slowly, barely formed words emerged in a craggy whisper: “It would hurt me, beyond measure, to know that you are anything other than the decent, unsullied young woman I meant to help.”

Phyl’s answer was polite but assertive. “I assure you, sir, that in the course of my situation here, you may encounter many witnesses who could attest to my character. Many witnesses,” she repeated, hoping the emphasis on “many” would infer the possibility that his neighbors would know precisely how he came in possession of the estate, and, feeling for Phyl and her family, press him to return it to the rightful owners.

But the hint went unnoticed. Wallis Hartshorne took his pencil and in writing advised Phyl that his mother would help her plan the children’s schedules and send for someone to make a dress more appropriate for her new station in life.

“I can make one myself,” Phyl protested.

Wallis wrote quickly: “I wouldn’t want to spend money on fabric to find out that you can’t.”

“Then we see through each other,” Phyl muttered after Wallis, with a sparkling eye, bowed out and left her to herself.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Domino Effect, Chapter Five

Though stunned by the fall, Phyl sensed the man kneeling beside her and fumbling with the clasp on her domino until he was yanked up and backwards. Booted feet and clods of earth flew past her head in a silent scuffle. The man in the domino went down on all fours, then kicked up more turf in a frantic scramble to escape.

A taller, somewhat older man whose figure was not concealed by mask or fancy dress took the miscreant’s place beside Phyl and helped her sit up. His grip was secure, but kind. A horseman’s hands, she thought.

Fireworks exploded, casting the grounds in a pulsing, reddish light that permitted Phyl to perceive that her rescuer, though he retained a head full of long, luxuriant chestnut hair, had enough creases about his eyes and mouth to suggest a mature man anywhere, in her inexperienced estimation, between thirty-four and forty. He reached into a pocket deep in his coattail and withdrew an artist’s pencil and a little booklet in which he wrote quickly. He extended the note in time for Phyl to read in the fading light: “Are you hurt?”

Little thinking of another reason why he would communicate in this fashion, Phyl considered her rescuer was deaf. “I think not,” she shouted, searching in the dark for his eyes, hoping he had light enough to read her lips.

Another burst, this time of green, revealed a fine mouth trembling in an attempt to smother a smile. He wrote quickly: “Please be assured that I can hear you perfectly. There is no need to distress yourself further by raising your voice.”

“So you’re only a mute,” Phyl said softly, still unable to accept the fact that the man could hear. Now breaking into one of the broadest, most good-natured grins that Phyl had ever seen, he issued yet another communique: “May I summon a member of your party?”

“That was a member of my party!”

“Your husband?”

“No! Oh, thank heaven, no.”

“Perhaps, then, it would be best to find your chaperon.”

“Alas, there is no chaperon. Let me explain-please!” Phyl’s despair was such that she placed her hand on the man’s arm to stop him from writing without hearing her out. “Please, listen to me. I have no family in town. I am here on my own, a dressmaker, earning a respectable living, among respectable folk.”

Still, the pencil flew. “Forgive me, madam, if I cannot help but notice this is not a place for respectable young women.”

“You disapprove of the ball? Then allow me to please ask what you yourself were doing here.”

“A stranger tends at times to stumble upon acquaintances that progress beyond what they at first seem. It would appear that the evening’s festivities have been a mistake for both of us.”

“So it would.”

Phyl gave the man her hand, and he steadied her as she stood. The grass beneath her feet felt soft, mushy, uncertain. The hedgy corridor seemed to slope down. Phyl staggered. The man, who, she perceived as tall as a wall, put one hand to her elbow and kept the other above her waist, waiting. Seeing she was stable, he wrote. “May I take you to your home, or to wherever you prefer to go?”

She should have asked to be taken to Penelope’s house, but it was so late, and Penelope would want to know so much, while the unfortunate Philip would want to say so much. Her only recourse was to leave the domino at Ma’am’s door and walk home.

“I can walk to my rooms myself, thank you. The worst is over. That individual would never entertain revisiting me.”

The man wrote that, although he disagreed with her decision, he would gladly walk her to the main road.

Crossing the lawn was an odd trial for Phyl. She could not dispel the feeling of walking downhill on turf packed in tight, uneven mounds, though she knew the lawn was flat and even. Panic twisted her stomach and dried her mouth. “It’s nothing," she told herself. “I’m tired. Shaken. Hungry. I’ll feel better once I reach Ma’am’s.”

Nature, however, had other plans, and within the moment she was praying that nobody from the ton could see her retching behind the tree.

Her escort lifted her as if she weighed no more than a leaf and carried her to one of the carriages that waited on Lady Wilfer’s gravel driveway. With help from the driver, he placed Phyl on the forward-facing seat, then took advantage of the car’s lamplight to scrawl anew: “You shouldn’t be alone. Where are you from?”

She weakly mentioned the borough slightly more than an hour’s drive south of town.

“If not family, do you have friends there?”

She nodded, envisioning the mayor, the vicar and his family, Ronald’s friend Bernard, and so many others, young and old, who had become the happy longings of daydreams.

The man passed a note to the driver and climbed onto the seat opposite Phyl. Feeling too physically miserable and emotionally foul to care what next befell her, she allowed her escort to ply her with brandy from a flask concealed in a box beneath the seat. Warmed and comforted by the drink—and having no doubt that “conversation” with the stranger was impossible, owing to the darkness and the rocking motion of the vehicle—Phyl nestled her head against the back of the plump, leather seat and dozed. She awoke to the familiar silhouette of sycamores lining a lane, and the equally familiar pattern of windows glowing orange in the distance.

Her benefactor had brought her to the estate that she and her mother and brothers had vacated six months ago: the estate which, she had learned only hours before, had been gambled away to a stranger.