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Authors: Susannah Bamford

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BOOK: Blind Trust
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Hinkle clasped his hands tightly. His eyes went flat and angry. “If I could find a way to crush them I would, by God. I have been a scoundrel, in my way. What millionaire has not? But they have threatened the happiness of my family. And they have done it with such contempt, such …” He shook his head. Then his eyes blazed at Tavish. “That I do not forgive!” he shouted. He lowered his voice. “But I am trapped like an animal in the snare they have laid, and I blame myself for that. I had nothing to do with the bribe exorted from your town, Mr. Finn, nor with the death of your friend. You have my word.”

Tavish nodded.

Hinkle looked down and noticed his cigar was out. With a grunt, he began to relight it.

Tavish puffed on his own cigar. “Perhaps I can ask you some questions,” he said.

Hinkle nodded. He looked suddenly exhausted, his face white and pinched. “I am ready, Mr. Finn,” he said.

“Of course you should have come,” Columbine Nash said to Darcy. She was even more beautiful by daylight. Her complexion was fresh and clear as a young girl's, though Darcy was aware she must be in her mid-thirties. Her light brown eyes were enormous, almost green in the bright early afternoon sun slanting through her parlor curtains. “I must confess I saw you at the window, and I told Bell to admit you. I did so want to see more of you at the ball. We'll have tea, won't we, even though it's a morning call. I've always thought it so silly to refer to a ‘morning' call when you can't properly arrive until after lunch, don't you? And you mustn't think of staying only fifteen minutes. I won't stand for it. How do you like my little sitting room? All of the furnishings are rented, with the house. They're hideous, I know. This flowered horror underneath our feet—isn't it a disgrace?”

While Darcy wondered if she should answer, and how, in fact, she could do so gracefully without complimenting the truly atrocious carpet, Columbine fussily adjusted curtains that must have been a rich ruby at one time. Now they were a dull maroon. Beige tassels that must have once been gold hung drearily down, appearing to have been worried at by a too-eager puppy. But the room was welcoming somehow, strangely free of clutter, the bibelots and whatnots Darcy had come to expect from sitting rooms. There was only the shabby furniture, a few odd treasures—a bowl in robin's-egg blue, a round crystal, a paper knife with a handle of ivory—and books piled on every table and shelf, and even on the floor by the windows. There was a copy of what must have been every daily newspaper in New York by Columbine's chair, a pair of spectacles lying askew on top of them. In the corner, a secretary was piled with correspondence. A lone letter lay on the floor by the chair.

As Columbine fiddled with the curtain, Darcy felt the cool shadow touch her face with relief.

“Tea, then, Mrs. Statton?” Columbine asked.

“I would love some tea.”

“And cakes,” Columbine said, ringing for the maid. “What would tea be without cakes? Americans have to learn about tea, I think. They've barely caught on to us. Oh, dear. Bell was already making tea, she said, and it isn't coming. Bell tends to disappear at the oddest times. I suspect she is conducting a flirtation with the newspaperman two doors down.”

Columbine wondered how long she would need to chatter before her visitor felt at all at ease. She had barely been successful at concealing her surprise when Mrs. Claude Statton had shown up at her door. “Did you have trouble finding my house? The willow tree weeps over the door, I know.”

“I asked my cousin for the address. I haven't been to this part of Twenty-third Street before,” Darcy said. Then she blushed furiously. “It's charming,” she said confusedly.

Columbine laughed. “How charming of
you
to say so. My friend Mr. Van Cormandt thinks it appalling. But it suits me. It is near my work. And I have such interesting neighbors. Oh, Bell, here you are, tea at last. Thank you. Please tell Mrs. Hudson that I am again not at home for callers. Now you can go back to Mr. Fresham, who is hanging over the garden gate waiting for you, I'm sure.”

The pretty maid grinned, curtsied, and left. Darcy tried to conceal her surprise at Columbine's tone. It wasn't ignorance that made her speak to her servant in such a strange—such a
personal—
manner. As a daughter of an English peer—was her father a duke, had Adelle told her that?—Columbine must be used to servants.

“Bell has been with me forever. She's followed me over hill and dale … oh, dear, I
do
manage to spill so often. Thank heavens my mother isn't here. Perhaps you should pour, such heresy—no, how terrible of me,
there
we are. Wasn't it a wonderful ball at Delmonico's? So much to see and to say, wasn't there?”

“I—I don't know,” Darcy admitted. “The season has barely begun, and I find I've had all the conversations I'm going to have already. I seem to have the same ones over and over again.”

“Well, you must say the same things yourself, over and over,” Columbine said practically. She took any possible sting out of her words as she handed Darcy her cup. “I know just what you mean, of course. Back in England, after I came out, and then when I was married to Mr. Nash, of course we went to the same places, saw the same faces, day after day after day … Of course things are a
bit
better in England. They don't treat women quite so much like dolls. New York society, of course, hasn't learned to take women seriously. Or perhaps it did once, and now it's forgotten. I've been flirted with and complimented and flattered delightfully—yes, I'm not immune to it; I rather enjoy it, I must say—but I've never been
conversed
with. Now in England, there's the grand tradition of the brilliant London hostess, you know, who stimulates her guests and encourages talk. And we're allowed to talk of politics and art at the dinner table, which is so much nicer. And of course we allow writers and actors in our drawing rooms. So things are a bit more interesting. But just a bit.” Columbine sipped her tea. “Oh,” she burst out, “try as I might, I cannot decipher this New York society! I fumble along—”

Darcy put down her teacup. “No, Mrs. Nash, I don't believe you do.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Darcy smiled thinly. “You don't fumble, I think, except when nervous ladies intrude on your drawing room and perch on the edge of their chairs. You've never spilled a drop of tea in your life. And you don't natter on like this normally, do you?”

A slow smile spread over Columbine's face. “Oh, my,” she said.

“I appreciate your kindness. You're trying to put me at ease. But I don't think it's possible to put me at my ease today, Mrs. Nash. I'm afraid I… I'm not supposed to be here, you know.” To cover the admission, Darcy reached over and picked up a book lying on the small table by her chair. “
Leaves of Grass
,” she said.

“It's marvelous. Have you read it?”

“No. Mr. Statton won't allow it.”

“I was under the impression that Mr. Statton was very interested in culture.”

Darcy smiled. “Of course. Like any man of his stature. We have no armchairs in our house. Only
fauteuils
.”

It took a long moment for Columbine to realize Darcy had made a joke. Then, a startled laugh broke from Columbine that petered out into a delighted smile.

“Oh, my,” she said again, shooting a look at Darcy.

They exchanged the most conspiratorial of smiles. Darcy caressed the leather binding of the book. How she would love to take it home! It would not be the first forbidden book she'd smuggled into the house. Books kept her alive. “Is Mr. Whitman very shocking?”

“Extremely, wonderfully so. Take it with you.”

“Mr. Statton—”

“I'll wrap it for you,” Columbine said promptly.

Darcy leaned forward. “Will you tell me about your beliefs, Mrs. Nash?”

“Bless you. No one seems to want to hear about it among your friends.”

“My friends … you mean the people I dine with?”

Columbine gave her an odd look. “Yes, I suppose that's what I mean. There are times—this might sound peculiar to you, Mrs. Statton, since I know how New Yorkers are—but I miss the Midwest. Those audiences in Kansas were so progressive. Less afraid of new ideas than New York. But things are changing. Why, Ned Van Cormandt gave me a contribution to the New Women Sodety. He doesn't want it generally known, of course. But he did give it.”

“I shan't breathe a word. The New Women Society? Is that the name of your … organization?”

“Yes. Well, I wouldn't call it
my
organization, but I helped found it. I'm trying again, Mrs. Statton. I took two long years off from public speaking. I collapsed, I'm afraid, from overwork. I went home to England and simply sat. It was very difficult for me, more difficult,” Columbine said, laughing, “than speaking in a drafty hall and going back to some poor soul's boarding house for some gray meat in a sauce of grease for my dinner. As for my work now, I'm shifting emphasis. Free love is not very popular these days, not with Mr. Comstock on the loose. What a disgrace that man is! Throwing people in jail just for trying to help women prevent conception. I do believe we are slipping backward, with all the steps forward we made in the seventies. So I concentrate on the basic issues. I think some of these new leaders of the movement are making a grave mistake by concentrating on suffrage to the exclusion of other rights that women
must
have.”

“Such as, Mrs. Nash?”

“Women are property, Mrs. Statton, in the eyes of the law.” Columbine rose and went to the secretary. While she spoke, she searched through the papers and finally emerged with a piece of brown paper and some string. “We need to change that. Women should have their own money, and if they divorce, they should be protected.” Columbine returned to the chair and began to wrap
Leaves of Grass.
Her fingers were deft and quick, and not once did her words falter. “But if they
are
married, they should also be free—constricting minds only leads to physical and mental distress, you know. Sexual fulfillment in marriage is so important, and no one dares to speak of it anymore … well, not nearly enough.” Columbine handed Darcy the book. “More tea?”

“Thank you,” Darcy murmured. This was the kind of talk she'd come to hear, but she felt overcome with embarrassment. How could Mrs. Nash talk of such things so freely? “I'm sorry to say that I never heard you speak, Mrs. Nash. I've heard how stirring your addresses were.”

“‘When you look at the history of the repression of the human race, the phallus as an instrument of torture and death is mightier than the rack and the sword.' Oh, I
am
sorry, I didn't mean to shock you, I was quoting myself, actually. Did you hear Victoria Woodhull speak? No? A pity. I shall never forget it. At one meeting this awful boor asked if she was a free lover herself. Do you know what she said? ‘If I want sexual intercourse with one or one hundred men I shall have it!' Oh, she was wicked! Wicked and gifted. I shall miss her. She believed, you know, that the more one discussed the sexual organs freely the less embarrassed one would become. How do you feel about that, Mrs. Statton? Do have a cake.”

Columbine held the plate out to her with a friendly gesture. Darcy took it mechanically. She knew she could never force it down her dry throat. “What exactly do you mean, Mrs. Nash, when you speak of constricting minds leading to … oh …”

“So many things! I'm sure you see as much needless suffering as I do. Women, shut up in their houses, unable to use their minds or bodies freely … Why, it's no wonder they have imaginary ailments, and nerves, and all that other upper-class claptrap.”

“Claptrap?”

“Oh, I don't mean that women don't suffer genuinely. Of course, they do. But so much of these ‘nervous conditions' I hear about—why, you take a healthy, vibrant, intelligent man, bind his torso in whalebone and steel, force him to ride back and forth in a carriage all day or receive the same callers again and again for fifteen minutes, never let him pick up a book or a new thought—what do you expect?” Columbine leaned forward. “Now I am going to shock you, Mrs. Statton.”

Darcy waited, wondering how far Columbine Nash needed to go before she considered herself shocking.

“I work with prostitutes, you know. And they have their own dilemmas, to be sure. But they are free of corsets and their minds are free, and who can say they are worse off than those women from Fifth Avenue you call on?”

“Who, indeed,” Darcy murmured.

Columbine picked up a cake and nibbled on it; it was her only method of stopping her mouth. She knew she talked too much. And her guest did look a bit overwhelmed. She watched Darcy covertly. She had the air of a woman who had come to discuss a problem. Why else had she defied her husband and her class and sought Columbine out?

Columbine leaned forward, her eyes intent. She spoke gently now. “Mrs. Statton, I realize we aren't friends, not yet, but perhaps we can be. I feel that we can be. I would like … I would like to have a friend like you. I do not for a moment depreciate the courage it took for you to knock at my door. You must need fresh ideas very badly. Or perhaps friendship. And I am here to give it.”

Friendship. Darcy felt herself yearning toward this forthright woman with the loud delightful laugh, who had put her finger on a need she hadn't known was there. It was as though she'd been walking on a dusty road on a hot, hot day, and all the while a clear, cold spring ran beneath her feet. If she could only dig deep and find it. Darcy raised her eyes to find that warm friendliness had replaced the shrewd impatience in Columbine's eyes. She felt herself drawn to the woman, no matter how outrageous her talk. Why, she was
kind
.

“I have so few friends,” Darcy mused, staring down at her teacup. “My cousin Adelle, I suppose, but there are things I cannot speak of to Adelle.”

BOOK: Blind Trust
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