Authors: Susannah Bamford
Darcy couldn't resist. “But I do not know your family either, husband.” It was a deft thrust, an allusion to the fact that Claude had always been touchy about his origins; it had always been obvious that the bare facts he'd told her had been invented, especially the existence of the blue-blooded mother who had died so young.
His face flushed purple, but he ignored her comment. “It is clear to us that you need help, my dear, for I truly believe you do not realize the dangers your conduct will lead you to if your moral corruption is not rooted out now. Dr. Arbuthnot and I are quite concerned.”
Darcy turned to the doctor. “Dr. Arbuthnot, surely you can see that my husband is exaggerating this case. If he does not approve of my reading materials or my friends, let him say it. But to suggest that this is leading me down the path to damnation is rather overzealous. I have done nothing wrong!”
Dr. Arbuthnot rose and put a hand on her arm. “Please sit down, Mrs. Statton.”
This time, Darcy sat; her knees were shaking, and she was grateful for the suggestion. She looked up at him anxiously, searching for the kindness she'd seen in his eyes earlier. He smiled down at her, and she felt relief course through her. This man would help her, she knew. He would not listen to Claude's ravings.
“I am not accusing you of wrongdoing, Mrs. Statton. Of course I cannot judge your conduct; that is for your husband to do. Now, I don't want you to upset yourself. As I told you before, I did note some evidence of nervous instability, but I see no cause for alarm.”
His manner was so matter-of-fact, so kindly, that she relaxed. “Thank you, Dr. Arbuthnot.”
“My cure for ladies' ailments such as yours is simple, Mrs. Statton. To relax the nerves, I prescribe massage and rest, and perhaps, if need be, a simple medical treatment, done in a moment, to further aid the health of the womb. Now, I'll send a masseuse over, you will take this tonic, and I will see you next week. So. Is that so terrible?” He smiled.
“No. It is not so terrible.”
He patted her arm. “Good. I'll see you next Wednesday. Now, Mr. Statton, I have a few more words for you. Mrs. Statton, I suggest you go for a drive in the park and let the fresh air revive your spirits.”
“I was just about to, actually,” Darcy said.
His eyes twinkled approvingly at her. “You see? We agree on your treatment. Good-bye, Mrs. Statton. It was a pleasure, I assure you, and I also assure you not to worry, and to relax.”
“Yes, Dr. Arbuthnot. Thank you.” Darcy rose, nodded at Claude without meeting his eyes, and fled the library. She had won. A tonic, a massage, a drive in the park. Claude had not been able to influence the doctor, after all his sordid accusations. Now she could turn her mind to other things, like how she was going to manage to see Tavish Finn again.
Thoughtfully, Tavish went down the marble stairs of the Van Cormandt mansion. Dusk was setting in, and he paused at the bottom to look around him. Across the street, the palace of Cornelius Vanderbilt II blazed, an impressive block of red brick with white trimmings that managed to simultaneously suggest Versailles and an English country house while dazzling the eye with its amazing size. Next to its magnificence, the Van Cormandt mansion in mellow light brownstone looked almost puny.
Tavish turned left, toward downtown. He walked down Fifth through the gathering darkness, past the Renaissance palaces, the medieval castles, the eighteenth-century chateaux of the new millionaires of New York. The styles elbowed each other with a hauteur that was undeniably vulgar, Gothic and baroque and Greek and Byzantine and rococo, and sometimes a horrifying melange of all of these. Call them shoddyites or swells or bouncers, the folk that inhabited these mansions were a force to be reckoned with, and they had succeeded in grinding the Golden Age of little old New York to dust. The genteel age was gone now, the quiet life that went on behind the brownstones of the Jones's and the Kings and the Rooseveltsâit had been for a generation, perhaps two. The Golden Age had turned to the Gilded Age, as Mark Twain had said. Now the copper kings, the silver kings, the wire kings, the trolley kings ruled. They were who mattered.
And chief among them was the king of them all, Claude Statton, in the white marble palace built to rival them all. Leave it to Claude to build in marble when everyone else thought it unluckyâA. T. Stewart had died soon after completing his marble mansion, and then had the misfortune, it was said, to have his body snatched from his grave and held for ransom. And hadn't William Backhouse Astor died after his marble palace was built?
But Claude Statton flung the superstition in their facesâthere could not exist a grander, more ostentatious marble edifice than this. Tavish stopped in front for a moment, staring at the lighted windows, wondering which room Darcy was passing through, wondering if she thought of him. A terrible vision was taking place in his mind, a vision of what really lay behind these palaces, these sumptuous dinners on gold plates, this careful talk that never once touched on anything more real than yesterday's weather. Would his terrible vision destroy Darcy Statton, a product of elegant Old New York trapped in the rushing, threshing machine of the new age?
He went on, down past Alva Vanderbilt's lovely replica of the Chateau de Blois, past the twin mansions her father-in-law, William Henry, had built on Fifty-first to Fifty-second. He saluted St. Pat's and stopped for a minute to gaze at Jay Gould's mansion at Forty-seventh, wondering if the infamous Gould, slowly wasting away from consumption now, it was rumored, would be interested to see how his cutthroat techniques had spawned a new kind of monster in a world that was changing fast. He passed the enormous Croton Reservoir at Forty-second and saluted Mrs. Astor at Thirty-fourth for gallantry under fire, trying to maintain a solid footing in a social world now suddenly turned to quicksand. Now the huge mansions gave way to the quieter mellow brownstones of the Old Guard. And he finally turned off Fifth when he reached the upper Twenties and found himself at Mrs. Fleur Ganay's door.
She, Tavish had been assured, ran the first-class sporting house of all New York, which was saying something. Only twenty years before, a Methodist bishop had made headlines by claiming that there were as many prostitutes in New York as there were Methodists in the city. Now the numbers had surpassed even Bishop Simpson's outrage. There were the whispered horrors of Water Street and the shame of the Greene Street houses, there were the waiter-girls in concert saloons, there were the Sixth Avenue streetwalkers, and there were places like this one, an elegant Greek revival mansion with scrubbed marble steps right off Fifth Avenue, frequented by the cream of New York society, for Fleur Ganay was as rigid in her exclusion as Mrs. Astor.
He rang the bell and was admitted by an elegant butler. He had a letter of introduction from Ned Van Cormandt, and he was expected.
The house surpassed even Ned's enthusiastic descriptions. It gleamed with slick marble, it cosseted with rich brocade and velvet, and it titillated with a mural one took for Boucher until a closer glance revealed scenes a Boucher would not dare to flaunt. The sound of a Mozart concerto tinkled from a room somewhere in the back of the house. Camelias bloomed in silver vases. There was a reflecting pool in the interior courtyard that gleamed with the light of candles that floated by on lilypads. It was extravagant and overdone, it teetered on the edge of the ridiculous, and Tavish admired it immensely for its knowing cheek.
And as Fleur Ganay rustled to meet him, gowned in green silk trimmed with black lace, with only a single spray of diamonds in her hair, he saw in a moment why she had been able to rise from a “flower girl” on Wall Streetâthose pretty young girls, some as young as fourteen, who sold flowers to the men in their offices and offered other favors, as wellâto the madam of the finest house in the city. It wasn't just her beautyâher thick brown hair with a sheen of copper, her large liquid-brown eyes, or even the lush pale skin that brought thick English cream to Tavish's mind in a rare rush of homesickness; it was the mysterious conveyance of absolute elegance with the hint of absolute eroticism this woman projected, should a man be lucky enough to be allowed to explore it. It was said she took no clients anymore, though she could not be older than forty and looked ten years younger.
“I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Finn. Perhaps the private parlor is in order,” Fleur Ganay said. “I have some very good Madeira.”
Tavish bowed. “I would be delighted, Mrs. Ganay.”
He followed her down the purple-carpeted hall past several sitting rooms, one of which was filled with gentlemen with glasses of brandy in their hands who were laughing uproariously at some joke. Beautifully gowned women laughed along with them, leaning over to relight cigars and refill brandy glasses. A tall golden-haired beauty said something quietly, and the men burst into loud laughter again. Mrs. Ganay's girls were known for their wit as well as their inventiveness upstairs.
Tavish was led to the rear to a small, exquisite room paneled in painted wood. The colors were shades of rose and soft blue, the cornices and wainscoting were gilded, and Tiffany-shaded lamps in red and pink cast a lovely glow. Fleur Ganay's perfect skin appeared even more ravishing in the light.
“Please sit down, Mr. Finn,” she said as a butler appeared with a tray holding a crystal decanter and two glasses.
Tavish sat on the blue damask couch next to her. They exchanged pleasantries while she poured the sherry.
After a few sips, she put down her glass purposefully. “Mr. Van Cormandt feels that we may be able to help each other, Mr. Finn.”
Tavish nodded. “He came to you when he was blackmailed, he said. And you suggested that you might know who was behind it.”
“I don't know, Mr. Finn, but I do suspect. His letter, the method of payment, is remarkably similiar to â¦ something I'm familiar with. But perhaps you can tell me what your interest is in this.”
Tavish had already decided upon seeing her that he would resort to the practice he was most unfamiliar with: honesty. He knew that Fleur Ganay would not settle for less and just might throw him out on the street should he toy with her.
“I'm tracing the members of a blind trust that operates in California under the name of the Pacific Improvement Company. While trying to find the members, I keep running into something odd on the fringesâblackmail. And the reason for blackmail usually has its origin in a house such as yoursâsomeone has informed on the victim, you see. I've found one too many coincidences for comfort. So, I've finally given in. Instead of conducting my investigation on Wall Street, I've finally realized I should do it in, shall we say, more pleasant surroundings.”
Fleur Ganay inclined her head.
“When Ned Van Cormandt told me that you were willing to speak to me, I was very glad. I've tried to talk to several girls around town, but I'm afraid they were uncooperative. You see, an acquaintance of mine is in a society that offers aid to such girls, and I went there first for information.”
Fleur Ganay smiled. “You speak of Mrs. Nash?”
“Yes. I suppose she wouldn't be a friend of yours, Mrs. Ganay.”
“I wouldn't say that, Mr. Finn. More sherry? No, I would say that in a strange way, Mrs. Nash and I are on the same side. I do not exploit my girls, Mr. Finn. Why should I, since I started just as they did? I give them a beautiful house and beautiful clothes, I bank their money, and if they choose to leave I let them go with their moneyâwith interestâunless, of course, they go to another house. I've always taken great pride in that, Mr. Finn. Better they should find their way here than in some den on Greene Street. But lately things have changed.” Her eyes glinted, and Tavish caught sight of something there. It reminded him of the look on Artemis Hinkle's faceâthe look of someone who has had enough, who has faced a wall and spun around to face his attacker and make a last stand.
“Yes, Mrs. Ganay?”
“I started this house with a loan from a friend, which I paid back with interest in three years. Since then I have been independent. But someone threatened me with ruin if I did not pay a percentage of the house's earnings. Fifty percent, Mr. Finn. I refused, of course, and within one week I had no customers. I found that rumors had been spread concerning the health of my girlsâit was said that they were all diseased. And a prominent customer, a man I've known for years, was mentioned in Colonel Mann's paper as frequenting my establishment, though he was newly married.”
Tavish nodded. He knew of the notorious Colonel Mann and his paper,
. He had a solid network all over town composed of servants and service people who gladly traded their intimate knowledge of society folk for cash. If the unfortunate refused to pay the colonel to suppress the information, he found himself featured in the next issue. Though Colonel Mann could not print scandalous news outright, he had devised an ingenious methodâthe delectable tidbit would use no names, yet one had only to look at the next paragraph or across the column to find the name in a harmless social mention. It was said he had received over twenty thousand dollars from a Vanderbilt alone.
Fleur Ganay sipped at her sherry. “Within another week I had capitulated. And now every week I put money in an envelope and hand it over to a messenger boy. Even though this person has forced me to steadily raise prices, my girls don't see the profits, nor do I. When Ned came to me with his problem and showed me his letter, I was very distressed, indeed. For this goes beyond intimidationâI am paying my percentageâand it means that my house is being used as some kind of conduit to blackmail. I have always been very scrupulous with regard to my girls. I demand integrity. A man must feel safe in a house. Now girls are sent to me, and I must take them. And I find that they inform on my customers. I've had enough. So I told Ned I would talk with you.”