Newport, Rhode Island
"Tessie! Tessie, wake up! Master James has spilled his port again."
Tessie Moran, eighteen and not yet in love, was dreaming of handsome young men and moonlight. She could not easily be roused from her enchantment.
The housemaid gave her a violent poke. "Tessie! If you want me to be waking your sister instead, then that's all right with me."
"Mmn? No ... no, leave her be. I'm ... awake." Slowly Tess dragged her unwilling body into a sitting position, forcing her eyes to adjust to the light of the maid's kerosene lamp, forcing her mind to accept the fact that it was two-thirty in the morning, the party was over, and now the linen must be done. Her head drooped. Her hair—thick, wild, auburn—tumbled over her shoulders, and her one thought was, I shan't put on a cap—not at this hour.
"Will you be lighting the lamp, or is it the entire night you expect me to stand here?" the maid asked in a low hiss.
"I'm sorry, Bridget," Tess answered in a sleepy yawn. She removed a match from its porcelain holder and struck it. The little burst of flame lit up a complexion white and smooth and sprinkled faintly, almost whimsically, with freckles. The eyes, long-lashed and deep bottle-green, were expressive, and their expression just now was of weariness, of exhaustion.
It was high season in Newport.
"Thank you for not waking Maggie," whispered Tess as she turned on the gas and touched the match to the night lamp. The lamp glowed and Bridget left instantly, bound for her own garret room down the hall.
As quietly as she could, Tess changed from her cotton nightgown into an even plainer cotton shift. The garment, devoid of any snippets of lace or other bits of vanity, nonetheless encircled her lovely throat, skittered around her tiny waist, and fell over her rounded hips with alluring perfection. Not one of the ladies at Mrs. Winward's dinner party that evening wore a gown sewn as subtly as that cotton shift. Tess was a sorceress with a needle, and she sewed only for herself.
For herself, and for her sister Maggie, who lay peacefully, for once, in the small metal-framed bed opposite her own. Maggie had slept through Bridget’s interruption, and the dry, hacking cough that had plagued her nights lately remained undisturbed. Tess hovered over her sister, longing to caress her feverish brow but not daring to wake her. Maggie was two years older than Tess; she might have been ten. Shy, never robust, seldom joyous, Maggie was in every way Tess's opposite. She seemed to Tess not to fuss very much about this thing called life; her attitude was of one who waits, simply, and sees.
During their early years in Cork, and then later at the comfortable Meller estate in Wrexham, and now at the palatial Winward summer "cottage" in Newport, Maggie, of all the Moran family, had chafed the least at her domestic situation. In Ireland she'd been the meekest of scullery maids; in England, the gentlest of dairy maids; in Newport, the most resigned of laundry maids. Whether her mistresses were kind or harsh, Maggie smiled her faraway smile and did her work quietly.
That amazed Tess. Looking down at her frail, beloved sister, her brow damp, her thin chest rising and falling with the effort of breathing, Tess clenched her fists and swore an oath that was anything but meek. It was cruel: anyone could see that Maggie was too weak for the grueling job of laundry maid at such a large house. But when Tess had pleaded with the head laundry maid to assign Maggie less physical work like sorting and mending, she had been angrily dismissed from the interview. In retrospect, it had been a—what would her ladyship have called it?—a faux pas. A misstep. Tess had succeeded not only in alienating the head laundry maid by her impertinence, but she had drawn attention to her sister’s illness besides. Un faux pas. Absolument.
Maggie's eyes fluttered and opened. "You're dressed, Tessie." It was said without emotion. "They've done with their cigars, then?"
"Shhh. Back to sleep. Yes, they've done, and it's only the merest bit of a spill."
"Mother Mary—not the damask, is it?"
"Yes, it’s the blessed damask, and it's nothing at all for you to worry over."
The damask tablecloth, twelve yards long and imported from London, weighed nearly as much as Maggie and cost far more than the entire Moran family had so far earned in their service to the Winward family.
Maggie struggled to get up, but Tess pushed her gently back onto her pillow.
"Margaret Moran, stop jumping about like a flea on a rug and listen to me. Don't I have the strength for two? And are you thinking that your influenza is a joking matter, by any chance?"
"Oh, Tess ..." A tear slid down Maggie's thin cheek. "It isn't influenza, is it."
Tess swallowed a lump as hard as a diamond. "I surely don't know what else it could be."
Maggie's voice dropped to a threadbare whisper. "Tessie, I spit up ... blood this morning." Her wide eyes in her pale face looked not so much fearful as guilty.
"Ah!" exclaimed Tess with a righteous anger she did not feel. "And whose toothbrush is it that's always dry as a bone? Whose apple is it on the nightstand, all shriveled and uneaten? If it's your gums that are going to bleed, you've only yourself to blame." Tess forced her mouth into a stern, motherly smile as she tucked the blanket around her sister.
The two exchanged a long, infinitely sad look. "Yes ... it must be my gums," Maggie said in soft agreement.
Tess, not trusting her own voice, kissed her sister gently on the brow, took up the night lamp, and stole out of the room.
A kind of desperate anger scorched the edges of her thoughts as she made her way quickly down the three flights of stairs to the wet-laundry room. Maggie would get well, if only she had enough rest. Her lungs needed the cool dry air of the dairy house on Lady Meller's estate, not the wet, steaming oppression of Mrs. Winward's laundry room. A soft word, a friendly smile—if only they'd never left England! The Moran family were as happy in Wrexham as they'd ever been in their lives. Except for her mother, all of them had flourished under Lady Meller's care: Will had learned his ciphers, and Tess, to read and write fluently, and when Maggie was laid low with scarlet fever, it was Lady Meller who'd nursed her, and actually got Maggie to laugh and joke about her bright strawberry tongue.
If only they'd never left Wrexham!
When he returned he was carrying an exquisite enameled box; he handed it to Tess.
"For you," he said, "with one silken thread attached."
More baffled than thrilled, Tess lifted the lid from the small rectangular box: it was filled with money. How much, she had no idea. She was seeing hundred dollar bills for the first time in her life.
So this is what drink does, she thought in fuzzy wonder. You dream with your eyes open. Without taking her eyes from the money she asked simply, "Why?"
"I want you to spend the night with me."
She looked up; he was serious.
"You will find one thousand dollars in there, enough to start a nice little hat shop in town. You can live above the shop with your family; you need never tug at a forelock again—except, of course, as a matter of better business. From what I have learned tonight, I have not a single doubt that you will be successful."
"Then make it a loan!" she said in anguish. "Charge me a fair—even an unfair—interest, and I'll gladly pay. You're right; I would be a success. I'm clever, and I'd work monstrous hours. Even Cornelia would patronize me eventually. All I'd have to do was sell one hat to one of her friends; she couldn't bear it! Oh, I would do well at it!"
"If I were an ordinary businessman, I might consider your offer. But look around you, Tess. Give me more credit than that. Surely you see that I am a collector of beautiful objets d'art. The Enchanta itself is such an objet. She is not the largest yacht in the harbor, or even the most opulent for her size, but she is by far the most beautiful, the most exquisitely fitted out. So it is with you, Tess. You are exquisite, and I want very much to have you."
She tried to cut through the sherry in her brain with only partial success. "But I'm not an ... an 'obe-zhay,'" she wailed. "I'm ... a Catholic!"
"Whatever you are, you're very desirable," he said seriously, and poured more cognac in her snifter. "Listen to me, Tess. Suppose I lend you the money with interest, as you suggest. Suppose we do it all quite legally, a business transaction. What do you think will be the reaction of Newport Society when you suddenly flaunt the means to open a smart little shop on Bellevue? Everyone knows I brought you away from the Servants' Ball; everyone will assume the worst in any case. Short of your posting sworn affidavits and the promissory note in your shop window, I can't imagine why they would think otherwise."
"You knew you were compromising me when you helped me!" she said angrily.
"And so did you, Tess. If you thought about it at all, you knew you were taking a risk."
"Out of desperation!"
"Absolutely. I'd be the first to admit that." He waited.
It was such an unadorned offer. So rational, so measured, so brutally logical. She stared at the delicately rendered cobalt and emerald pattern on the box, then stood up and tossed it across the table at him. It fetched up against his gilt-edged plate with a thunk and he winced; it was clear that Aaron Gould really was a devoted collector. It gave Tess a sharp little thrill to see that she'd caused him pain. She wondered why, as she walked away from him and stared out a porthole at the drumming torrents of rain.
After all, his offer was quite painless. The consequences—well, the consequences would have to be faced with or without his offer. What a fool she'd been before: blind with embarrassment and rage, utterly without foresight. Her pride again. It always came down to this: her fatal flaw, the source of all the bruising encounters she'd had so far in life, was her damnable, damnable pride.
She turned around to face him. He was seated at the small table still, his fingers gently rubbing the invisible wound on the enameled box, soothing and caressing.
"If I don't accept your offer?"
He reached behind him to a small panel lined with pushbuttons. "I'll have someone escort you ashore instantly." His lids lowered an infinitesimal amount, registering displeasure at her apparent distrust of him.
"That won't be necessary." She swallowed her damnable pride. "I agree to your terms, in the main, Mr. Gould," she said in as businesslike a tone as she could muster. "But there are some things I need to know." She lifted her chin the way she'd seen society ladies do. "Is it required that I enjoy myself, or act as if I am?"
"It would be nice; I don't insist on it."
"Will it involve"—here she blushed furiously—"cruelty or violence, or pain?"
He considered a moment, which sent her into a panic. "I shouldn't think so, but there is once in every woman's life—"
"I didn't mean that," Tess said quickly. "I meant—any other kind."
"Then the answer is no."
"How long am I obligated to stay?"
He matched her formal tone note for note. If he was amused by her whimsical negotiations, he gave no sign of it. With courteous reasonableness he brought out a watch from a pocket in his jacket and said, "The storm should blow itself out by early morning; when the wind goes around to the northwest the Cove will become an uncomfortable anchorage. I plan to head out for Fisher's Island Sound then, on my way to New York. You should be ashore by, oh, ten o'clock at the latest."
And although you seem to have no great love for it," he added, I had intended for you to keep the enameled box." For the first time, he allowed himself a small, wry smile.
'That won't be necessary. The money will be sufficient." Sufficient! She almost laughed out loud at herself. "Well. When do we—?"
"Start? We've begun, dear lady. Please—join me." He stood partly up from his seat. "This really is an excellent cognac.
Tess came warily back to the table and took her seat. Think of Maggie, she told herself. Think of poor Will and of Father. Think of the shop.
So she did. While Aaron Gould rambled on pleasantly about the relative merits of various brandies, Tess spun quick fine dreams of the wonderful life she would provide for her family. Oh, how happy she would make them! Maggie would have the finest care and she would live to a wonderful age. Tess would see to it. They would never marry but would live together in a nice old house with a big front porch with a swing on it for Maggie. And Will would visit with his wife and children, and her father would live either with Will or with Tess; she would have to think about that. But none of them would ever be tenants and beholden again. Ever.
A few hours; it was a small price to pay.