Authors: Susan Wiggs
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
THE CALHOUN CHRONICLES BUNDLE
“What nice little children you do have, mother,” said the old duck with the rag around her leg. “They are all pretty except that one. He didn’t come out so well. It’s a pity you can’t hatch him again.”
And the poor duckling who had been the last one out of his egg, and who looked so ugly, was pecked and pushed about and made fun of by the ducks, and the chickens as well. “He’s too big,” said they all. The turkey gobbler, who thought himself an emperor because he was born wearing spurs, puffed up like a ship under full sail and bore down upon him, gobbling and gobbling until he was red in the face. The poor duckling did not know where he dared stand or where he dared walk. He was so sad because he was so desperately ugly, and because he was the laughingstock of the whole barnyard.
When morning came, the wild ducks flew up to have a look at the duckling. “What sort of creature are you?” they asked, as the duckling turned in all directions, bowing his best to them all. “You are terribly ugly,” they told him, “but that’s nothing to us so long as you don’t marry into our family.”
—Hans Christian Andersen,
The Ugly Duckling
The real offense, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all.
The Portrait of a Lady
Boston, October 1851
eing invisible did have its advantages. Isadora Dudley Peabody knew no one would notice her, not even if the gleaming ballroom floor decided to open up and swallow her. It wouldn’t happen, of course. Disappearing in the middle of a crowded room was bold indeed, and Isadora didn’t have a bold bone in her body.
Her mind was a different matter altogether.
She surrendered the urge to disappear, relegating it to the land of impossible things—a vast continent in Isadora’s world. Impossible things…a smile that was not forced, a compliment that was not barbed, a dream that was not punctured by the cruel thorn of disappointment.
She pressed herself back in a half-domed alcove window. A sneeze tickled her nose. Whipping out a handkerchief, she stifled it. But still she heard the gossip. The old biddies. Couldn’t they find someone else to talk about?
“She’s the black sheep of the family in more ways than one,” whispered a scandalized voice. “She is so different from the rest of the Peabodys. So dark and ill-favored, while her brothers and sisters are all fair as mayflowers.”
“Even her father’s fortune failed to buy her a husband,” came the reply.
“It’ll take more than money—”
Isadora let the held-back sneeze erupt. Then, her hiding place betrayed, she left the alcove. The startled speakers—two of her mother’s friends—made a great show of fluttering their fans and clearing their throats.
Adjusting her spectacles, Isadora pretended she hadn’t heard. It shouldn’t hurt so much. By now she should be used to the humiliation. But she wasn’t, God help her, she wasn’t. Particularly not tonight at a party to honor her younger sister’s engagement. Celebrating Arabella’s good fortune only served to magnify Isadora’s disgraceful state.
Her corset itched. A rash had broken out between her breasts where the whalebone busk pressed against her sternum. It took a great deal of self-control to keep her hands demurely folded in front of her as she waited in agony for some reluctant, grimly smiling gentleman to come calling for a dance.
Except that they seldom came. No young man wanted to partner an ungainly, whey-faced spinster who was too shy to carry on a normal conversation—and too bored with banal social chatter to try very hard.
And so she stood against the block-painted wall, garnering no more attention than her mother’s japanned highboy. The sounds of laughter, conversation and clinking glasses added a charming undertone to the music played by the twelve-piece ensemble. Unnoticed, she glanced across the central foyer toward her father’s business study.
In the darkened study, perhaps Isadora could compose herself and—heaven preserve her—wedge a hand down into her corset for a much-needed scratch.
She started toward the entranceway of the ballroom and paused beneath the carved federal walnut arch. She was almost there. She had only to slip across the foyer and down the corridor, and no one would be the wiser. No one would miss her.
Isadora fixed her mind on escape, skirting a group of her brothers’ Harvard friends. She scurried past a knot of her father’s cronies from the Somerset Club and was nearly thwarted by a gaggle of giggling debutantes. Moving into the foyer, she had to squeeze past a gilt cherub mirror and a graceful Boston fern in a pot with four legs.
One step, then another. Invisible. She was invisible; she could fly like a bird, slither like a snake. She pictured herself lithe and graceful, fleet of foot, causing no more stir than a breeze as she disappeared into nothingness, into freedom—
Deep in one of her fantasies, she forgot about her bow, which stuck out like a duck tail festooned with trailing ribbons.
She heard a scraping sound and turned in time to see that a ribbon had tangled around one of the legs of the fern pot. Time seemed to slow, and she saw the whole sequence as if through a wall of water. She reached for the curling ribbon a second too late. It went taut, upending the large plant. The alabaster pot shattered against the marble floor.
The abrupt movement and the explosion of sound caused everyone to freeze for precisely three seconds. Then all gazes turned to Isadora. The Harvard men. Her mother’s friends. Gentlemen of commerce and ladies of society. Trapped by their stares, she stood as motionless—and as doomed—as a prisoner before a firing squad.
“Oh, Dora.” As usual, Isadora’s elder sister Lucinda took charge. “What a catastrophe, and right in the middle of Arabella’s party, too. Here, let me untangle you.” A moment later a housemaid appeared with a broom and dust shovel. A moment after that, the ensemble started playing again.
The recovery took only seconds, but to Isadora it spanned an eternity as long as her spinsterhood. Within that eternity, she heard the censorious murmurs, the titters of amusement and the throat-clearings of disapproval that had dogged her entire painful adolescence. Dear heaven, she had to get away from here.
But how did one escape from one’s own life?
“Thank you, Lucinda,” she said dutifully. “How clumsy of me.”
Lucinda didn’t deny it, but with brisk movements she brushed off Isadora and smiled up at her. “No harm done, dearest. It will take more than a dropped plant to ruin the evening. All is well.”
She meant it, she really did, Isadora realized without rancor. Lucinda, the eldest of the Peabody offspring, was as blond and willowy as Botticelli’s Venus. She’d married the richest mill owner in Framingham, moved to a brick-and-marble palace in the green hills, and every other year in the spring, like a prize brood mare, she brought forth a perfect pink-and-white baby.
Isadora forced herself to return her sister’s smile. What an odd picture they must make, she thought. Lucinda, who had the looks of a Dresden china doll and Isadora, who looked as if she had an appetite for Dresden German sausage.
Her moment of infamy over, Isadora finally escaped to the study. It was the classic counting-room of a Boston merchant, appointed with finely carved furniture, books bound in tooled leather, and a goodly supply of spirits and tobacco. Breathing in the familiar smells with a sigh of relief, she shut her eyes and nearly melted against the walnut paneling.
“Heave to, girl, you look a bit tangled in your rigging,” said a friendly voice. “Something foul-hook you?”
She opened her eyes to see a gentleman sitting in a Rutherford wing chair, an enameled snuffbox in one hand and a cup of cider-and-cream punch in the other.
“Mr. Easterbrook.” Isadora came to attention. “How do you do?”
She imagined she could hear Abel Easterbrook’s joints creak with rheumatism as he levered himself up and bowed, but his smile, framed by silver side-whiskers, radiated warmth. “I’m in fine trim, Miss Isadora.” He seated himself heavily against the coffee-colored leather. “Fine trim, indeed. And yourself?”
I’m still madly in love with your son.
Horrified at the thought, she bit back the words. One social blunder per hour should suffice even her.
“Though I’ve committed foul murder—” she gestured ruefully at the open door, indicating the Boston fern being carried off to the dust bin “—I am quite well, thank you, though the autumn weather has given me a case of the grippe. Did your ship arrive?” She knew Mr. Easterbrook’s largest bark was expected in and that he was anxious about it.
He lifted his cup. “She did indeed. Found a berth at harbor tonight, and she’s set to discharge cargo tomorrow. Broke records, she did.” He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “The
grossed ninety thousand dollars in 190 days.”
Isadora gasped, genuinely impressed, for matters of business interested her. “Heavens be, that is quite an achievement.”
“I daresay it is. I have the new skipper to thank.” Easterbrook toyed with the chain of the money scales on the gateleg table by his chair. Isadora liked Abel Easterbrook because he treated her more like a business associate than a young—or not so very young—lady. She liked him because he had fathered Chad Easterbrook, the most perfect man ever created. Neither of which she would admit on pain of death.
“A new captain?” she inquired politely.
“He’s a brash Southerner. A Virginia gent, name of Calhoun. Had such impressive sailing credentials that I hired him on the spot. I judge a man by the cut of his jib, and Calhoun seemed well clewed up.”
She smiled, picturing a grizzled old ship captain. Only a man as conservative as Abel would call his employee “brash.”
He took out a handkerchief and buffed his snuffbox until it shone. It was painted with the Easterbrook shipping emblem—a silver swan on a field of blue. “He’s still aboard the
tonight, settling the sailors’ bills. Hope to have a new sailing plan from him before the week is out. Next run is to Rio de Janeiro.”
“Congratulations,” said Isadora. “You’ve had a marvelous success.”
Abel Easterbrook beamed. “Quite so.” He lifted his cup in salute. “To you, Miss Isadora. Thank you for keeping an old salt company. And to my speedy new skipper, Mr. Ryan Calhoun.”
He barely had time to take a sip when a footman came in and discreetly handed him a note. Abel excused himself and left the study, grumbling about a business that couldn’t run without him.
Isadora hung back, savoring her solitude, and mulled over Mr. Easterbrook’s news. Ryan Calhoun. A brash Virginia gent. Isadora wasn’t brash in the least, though sometimes she wished she were.
She used the moment of privacy to adjust her corset, wishing she knew a curse word or two to describe the whalebone-and-buckram prison. On impulse, she picked up a dagger-shaped letter opener from the desk. Unable to resist the urge, she inserted the letter opener down the bodice of her gown to scratch at the rash that had formed there.
As she eased her discomfort, she chanced to look into the oval mirror hanging on the wall behind her father’s desk.
Peering over the thick lenses of her rimless spectacles, she saw herself for exactly what she was. Her hair was the color of a mud puddle. Her eyes lacked the pure clear blue so prized by her parents and so evident in her siblings. She had none of the gifts of laughter and beauty her brothers and sisters possessed in such abundance. Instead, she wore a sullen expression, and her nose was red from the sniffles.
If the Peabodys were a family that believed in magic—and being proper Bostonians they most certainly were not—they would call Isadora a changeling child: dark where the others were fair, pallid where the others were fashionably pale, round where the others were angular, tall where the others were petite.
The unforgiving mirror reflected a discontented creature in matronly black bombazine stretched over a bone-crushing corset. At her mother’s insistence, she wore her hair in a Psyche knot, for the Grecian mode—a topknot with streamers of cascading tendrils—was considered the height of fashion. The problem was, her long, unruly hair stuck out in all directions, and the delicate tendrils resembled fat sausage curls. She made the very picture of youth drying up like a fig on the shelf. The image filled her with such an immense self-loathing and shame that she wanted to do something desperate.
Could she not even think of an imaginative way to banish her own misery?
Enough, she told herself, giving her bodice a last good scratch with the letter opener. As she did so, the door to the study blew open, and a fresh wave of revelers poured into the foyer. They brought with them the crisp smell of autumn and gales of cultured conversation.
Too late, Isadora realized the guests could see straight into the office. She froze, the letter opener still stuck halfway down the front of her. Loud male laughter boomed from the foyer. “Good God, Izzie,” said her brother Quentin, standing amid a group of his friends from Harvard. “Is this your imitation of fair Juliet?”
Too mortified to speak, she managed to extract the letter opener. It dropped with a thud on the carpet. Swept up on a wave of hilarity, Quentin and his friends headed for the ballroom.
Isadora stared down at the dagger on the floor. She wanted to die. She really wanted to die. But then she saw him—the one person who could lift her out of her wretched melancholy.
With long, fluid strides he followed Quentin’s group to the ballroom, heading for the refreshment table to help himself to frothy cider punch. Immediately, several ladies in pastel gowns managed to sidle near him. Praying her faux pas had not been observed by Chad, Isadora returned to the ballroom.
Chad Easterbrook. His name sang through her mind. His image lived in her heart. His smile haunted her dreams. He moved with effortless grace, black hair gleaming, tailored clothes artlessly stylish. When she looked at Chad, she saw all that she wanted personified in one extraordinary package of charm, wit and sophistication. He wasn’t merely handsome to look at; the quality went deeper than that. People wanted to be near him. It was as if their lives became brighter, warmer, more colorful simply by virtue of knowing him. His ideal male beauty was the sort the Pre-Raphaelite painters strove to depict. His charm held the romantic appeal of a drawing room suitor; he beguiled his listeners with low-voiced witticisms and languorous laughter.
Isadora pushed her spectacles down her nose and stared, wanting him with such fierceness that her itching busk flared into a fiery ache. If only…she thought. If only he could look into her soul and see all she had to offer him.
But it was hard for a man to look into a woman’s soul when he had to see past bombazine and buckram and worst of all, a painful shell of bashfulness. The few times he’d deigned to speak to her, he’d asked her to relay a message to Arabella, whose hand in marriage he’d narrowly lost to Robert Hallowell III.
Still, she wished things could be different, that for once she could be the pretty one, the popular one—to see what it was like. To dance one time with Chad Easterbrook, to feel his arms around her, to know the intimacy of a private smile.
He and his cronies alternated between spirited bursts of laughter and dramatic whispers of conspiracy. Then, one by one, each young man paired himself off with a lady for the next dance. The tune was “Sail We Away” set to an irresistible rhythm and new enough to pique the interest of even the most blasé socialite.