Authors: Susannah Bamford
So, in this fine February of 1888, the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys certainly thought themselves the equals of the Astors. Or if they didn't, if any vestiges of the embarrassment due to old Cornelius Van der Bilt beginning his fortunes as a ferryman crossing the river to Staten Island, they kept it to themselves. Mrs. Astor even rubbed elbows with the charming Mrs. Paran Stevens, the daughter of a tradesman. Even the notorious Columbine Nash was present this evening, resplendent in a gown of gold, her honey-blond hair piled high. If there were those who whispered about Ned Van Cormandt's visits to her little house on Twenty-third Street and the too-exposed bosom of her dress, Columbine Nash didn't seem to care. She appeared to be having a marvelous time. As were the Livingstons, the Jays, the Van Rensselaers, the Kings, the Gallatins, the Goelets, and the Rhinelanders. Everyone was having a marvelous time. Except Mrs. Claude Statton, who appeared pale and hardly left: her husband's side. And an elegant, mysterious stranger whose odd, too-Irish name soon made the rounds: Tavish Finn.
Adelle Snow Archer rustled over to Darcy. Her dress, light blue satin brocade trimmed with pink ribbons, elaborate lace, and looped up with royal-blue velvet roses, seemed to precede her. There were women who seemed to inhabit a gown by divine right, and then there were those who seemed to be temporary squatters. Adelle was of the latter variety. As the young widow's fortunes improved, Adelle had begun to abandon the conservatism of her upbringing and dress like the newly rich she'd once shunned. But Adelle was having a wonderful time in her new dress, and even the disapproving look on the face of Claude Statton didn't dim her smile.
Darcy returned the smile, ignoring the slight pang of jealousy that always pricked her when she saw Adelle. It was pure meanness, Darcy knew, and she hated herself for it. It was just that Adelle was so full of life. Next to her, Darcy felt so dry, so desiccated, so envious of Adelle's freshness, Adelle who was ten years her senior, thirty-seven, and like a blooming young girl next to Darcy, a dried-up old maid who happened to be married.
Adelle smiled her public smile, gracious, with a tilted head and wide eyes. Her tiny light brown curls quivered as she shook her head at Darcy. “What an evening! I declare I haven't stopped dancing since I arrived. If only I had a glass of champagne, my life would be complete.”
Claude took the hint. He bowed. “If you'll allow me.”
Adelle dimpled at him, then watched him go with narrowed eyes. “He hasn't left your side all evening, Darcy. Don't you want to dance?”
“Not at the moment,” Darcy said. “I'm enjoying the spectacle.” She didn't want to discuss Claude's insistence on hovering near her tonight. How could she begin to explain in a crowded ballroom everything that was wrong? She felt ready to scream at his constant presence by her side. She despised him now, for at last she felt fully justified in doing so.
Her house had become a prison ever since he'd caught her downstairs weeks ago. Although she had slipped down the next day to retrieve her cloak and boots, they had disappeared. They hadn't reappeared in her closet, and she only hoped that some servant had found them and, thinking them forgotten and worth risking dismissal for, had carried them off to her room.
She had spent a long night and a day going over the conversation she'd overheard, and she longed to ask her father about it. But she knew somehow that Edward would not want her to know such things, no matter how untrue. It would embarrass him merely to have to contradict them; to defend himself against such calumny was demeaning. But how could she live with Claude until the spring? Over and over the questions revolved. She felt exhausted with the force of her hatred and the weight of Claude's newly heavy attention to her every move, her every diversion.
“Remember the days when we knew everyone at a ball?” Adelle asked, her small bright eyes roaming over the room. “Why, there wouldn't be more than a face or two you didn't knowâindeed, you were lucky if there were. And Aunt Catherine is still disapproving of me for wearing my Paris gowns the same season I get them. Times are changing, and I do welcome it. I find it exciting to wear new clothes, to see new faces.” She leaned closer to Darcy. “And prominent among them is Mrs. Columbine Nash,” she said behind her fan.
“Yes, Father introduced me to her.”
“No!” Adelle's round eyes grew even rounder. “Uncle Edward goes too far. Why, Mrs. Nash is divorced, though that's not the only source of her notoriety. Would that it was. What did she say?”
Darcy put her lips to Adelle's ear. “How do you do,” she whispered, then laughed at Adelle's expression. “It was as brief as that, I promise,” she said. “I think Father regretted his audacity immediately. He swept me away very quickly.”
“They say Mr. Van Cormandt himself issued the invitation to Mrs. Nash, even though Cora Van Cormandt threatened to shut herself up in her room if he did.”
“Well, I suppose someone must have opened the door and let her out,” Darcy observed. “And I suspect it was Mrs. Van Cormandt herself. She could hardly resist being hostess tonight. The practice of hypocrisy does keep the New York society world turningâwe know that so well.”
“Darcy!” Adelle shook her head. “You don't seem â¦ yourself. Are you quite all right?”
“Perhaps it's the champagne. But only one glassânothing scandalous, I assure you.”
Adelle immediately accepted her flippancy, for it meant she would not have to press her concern. Her eyes continued to rove around the room. “I must say the most interesting figure here is that tall dark man with the pale skinâdo you see him? Over there, under the musician's balcony.”
Darcy searched over the heads. Just as she found the man, he turned, and their eyes met. Mr. Finn. His eyes didn't drop, she noted as she quickly looked away.
“I see him,” she said behind her fan.
“His name is Tavish Finn.”
Darcy peeked back at him and saw that he was still watching her. It was just as she'd been afraid of; he would hold the previous night over her head. “An Irishman?” she asked, to cover her confusion.
“Yes, but they say he is well-born. Look at the way he stands; of course you can see that he must be. But they also say that Mrs. Columbine Nash is the one who procured his invitation.”
“And did Mr. Van Cormandt threaten to stay in his room if she did so?” Darcy asked dryly.
Adelle's laugh was a short explosion, a laugh Darcy seldom heard outside the privacy of Adelle's own drawing roomâand then only after a glass or two of sherry.
“I wouldn't want that Mr. Finn around if I were Mr. Van Cormandt,” Adelle agreed. “He's much handsomer. And there's something about him â¦ But you know all they say about Mrs. Nash.”
“Actually, I don't,” Darcy said. “I've heard of her work for woman's suffrage, of course.”
“Oh, that's the least of it. Her lecture tours were ten years ago now, I believe. Oh, you were too young, perhaps. It's very odd. She's the daughter of an English duke or a lord, or something. Scandalous.” Adelle leaned closer in order to whisper. “She advocated free love.”
Darcy turned and regarded the angelic Mrs. Nash, who was now moving across the ballroom. She was heading for Tavish Finn, and he was smiling at her approach. It was the smile of a man who enjoyed seeing a woman walk across a ballroom alone and do it well. So few could. Why, a woman at a ball would hardly take a step without the protection of a man's arm. Darcy certainly never had. Suddenly, she had a fierce and utterly irrational wish: she wanted to walk alone across a ballroom straight to a man like Tavish Finn.
“And other things I couldn't mention,” Adelle went on, her eyes on Columbine Nash as well.
“Ah, but I think you will, Adelle,” Darcy said.
Adelle gave her a quick, assessing look. “This is not talk for a ballroom, Darcy. We are having the most extraordinary conversation.”
“Perhaps I am weary of ordinary conversation at last,” Darcy said. Columbine Nash was smiling flirtatiously up at Tavish and accepting a glass of champagne. “Tell me what else Columbine Nash has spoken out for.”
“Oh, the usual things. Anarchy and labor and the rights of married women. How the entire male sex is corrupt and horrid. And how the solution of every ill is for women to stop having babies â¦” Adelle's face flushed, and Darcy knew she thought she'd blundered. Every Snow and Grace, everyone in New York, Darcy imagined, was convinced Darcy was in a near state of collapse over the fact that she'd been married five years with no child. No heir to the Statton fortune. No young Claude looking up at her with those strange, triangular yellow eyes.
Adelle fanned herself. “Oh, dear. I see your husband heading this way. And here is that delightful Mr. Travers coming over. I do hope he doesn't say something witty. I never know quite how to respond.”
As Adelle turned to greet Mr. William Travers, Darcy quickly melted back into the curtained alcove behind them, out of Claude's view. From the shadows she saw him scowl slightly and scan the ballroom.
She had a moment or two, no more. Darcy sat on a red brocade couch where she would be hidden by a large palm. What a long trial the ball had turned out to be. At least her marriage had taught her well in the art of dissimulation. Of patience.
“You've dropped your petals,” a voice said.
Darcy looked up. Tavish Finn was smiling, holding out a handful of rose petals. They were white, and must have come from the small bouquet she carried.
“Thank you. But I don't think they're of much use to me now,” Darcy answered. She felt an unladylike urge to be rude. If Tavish Finn was a gentleman, he would not approach her at all this evening. What if Claude saw them together?
“I saw your husband heading to the refreshment room,” he said easily. “So I thought I would come to your rescue. As for the petals, I don't think they're of much use, either. When I think of the colors that roses come in, I must confess I wonder how anyone could choose whiteâso pale, so insubstantial.”
“It's their delicacy that makes them beautiful,” Darcy said, slightly affronted. White roses were her trademark. Claude had a standing order at the florist, and they were delivered every day. “Why should they shout their allure?”
“But just look at them,” Tavish said, indicating the small bouquet in Darcy's lap. He spoke as though they were old friends, with none of the formality required by their circumstances. It was infuriating. “Anemic, tightly furledâyou know these buds will never bloom like a good wild rose would, in colors of carmine or crimson lake. Of vermilion, of incarnadine, of butter yellow, of deep claret, of scarlet, of Venetian red â¦” The colors rolled off his tongue easily, and he leaned over to fleetingly touch a flower in her bouquet.
Darcy disguised her involuntary jump by leaning back. She tilted her head to look up at him. “And what of moonlight, and lace, and ivory, and pearl?”
He bowed slightly, and when he looked at her again an odd feeling pierced her. The eyes were so green, so cool. His expression hinted at intimate knowledgeâof what, Darcy didn't know. Women? Her own discomfort? Roses?
“Of course,” Tavish said. “They have their beauty, too, no doubt. You point out to me, madam, what I should have known. Here I am in New York, in a ballroom full of white rosebuds. What would I do,” he said, his eyes never leaving hers, “with a wild crimson rose?”
Darcy's hand tightened around the bouquet in her lap. She tried not to stare at him, but in the seconds it took for her to look and cast her eyes down again, she seemed to note everything. She realized for the first time that he was handsome. Unlike every other man in the ballroom, he was clean-shaven. There was something so naked about his upper lip, the cleft above it, the smoothness of it all. And that upper lip was so odd in itself, so beautifully shaped, too sensual a curve altogether for a man, Darcy decided. She felt dizzy from following it.
“Are you all right, Mrs. Statton?” He bent over her slightly.
“I'm quite well,” Darcy said firmly, lifting her head again. Tavish stepped back. “I'm just a bit shocked to find myself having two extraordinary conversations in one evening. I don't know,” she added dryly, “if my delicate nerves can stand it.”
He looked surprised. And then the most wonderful grin flashed across his face. He stood, smiling down at her.
“Darcy?” Her uncle, Lemuel Grace, loomed behind Tavish. “May I escort you to supper?”
Darcy rose gratefully. “Yes, Uncle Lemuel. Thank you.” She quickly passed Tavish with only a slight nod and felt his eyes on her back as she walked away.
“I didn't know you'd be back from Florida in time for tonight,” she said, desperately trying to sound normal while the blood pounded in her ears in a distracting way. “Did you enjoy your trip?”
“I've only just arrived,” her uncle explained as he took her arm. “Well, a trip to Florida is hardly a trip to Paris. But my business on the St. John's River went well. The weather was glorious.”
Darcy tried to listen. The back of her neck felt hot. She felt herself under observation but didn't dare turn and make sure. She wondered what kind of man would speak to her in such a fashion. An adventurer, she thought scornfully, for all his fine manners. A man who could ruin her father again and send him back to that black hell he had sunk into years ago. And what of that way he looked at her, as if to say,
I know you
. He was worse than an adventurer. He preyed on dried-up women such as herself. She was no better than her father if she allowed herself to be seduced by such easy charm.
But her heart, her heart that only beat in anger or disgust, her heart was beating so. And a man had done it. A man who thought of her as a wild crimson rose. Darcy let her arm fall and her fingers open. The bouquet of tiny, furled white rosebuds with its trailing gold ribbons dropped to the floor.