by Mary Brunini McArdle
|part 1 of 3|
Isabelle laughed at my stunned reaction to the enormous Victorian house outside Cullman, Alabama. We were standing beside her car halfway up a curved, tree-lined driveway. “It belongs to my family, not just to me, Gina. All seven of us contribute to the upkeep.”
“Joseph will get our luggage,” she added as an elderly man dressed like a butler opened the front door. I was still busy drinking in the sight of the elaborate shrubbery and beautifully kept lawns and gardens. The sheer size of the property had rendered me speechless.
I had met Isabelle Leighton by offering to share my table at a crowded restaurant in Huntsville one day in early March. We slid into a casual relationship that deepened with time. It was now late April and we had become fast friends. We were both in our early forties and divorced. I eagerly accepted her invitation to spend a weekend at her family house outside Cullman, a small town above Birmingham.
Isabelle was a graceful and shapely woman. Her blonde curls swept straight up the back of her long neck. The only jewelry I ever saw her wear was a ring with a solitary ruby in an old-fashioned setting. Her diction was so flawless and cultured it made me feel like an awkward teenager.
My eyes widened when I saw the marble-floored foyer furnished with fine antiques and the elaborately carved stair railing.
“Our rooms are upstairs, Gina. There’ll be clothes for you in your closet.”
“Clothes?” I frowned.
“We dress for dinner. Don’t worry, Joseph can’t see you as you are. We can only stay for the weekend, anyway.”
“We have to go to work Monday,” I replied. What did she mean, “Joseph can’t see you as you are”? I wondered.
“This is sort of embarrassing, Gina, but my family is quite eccentric. When we’re all here they like to wear period costumes. Here’s your room. Eunice will have laid out an afternoon dress for you. Why don’t you change and we’ll take a prowl? See the horses and grounds.”
The room was large and comfortably furnished , with shuttered windows and a white crocheted bedspread over pale blue. There was an adjoining bath. My luggage was against the wall and a note was on the bed beside the clothes there. “Don’t worry about strictness with the clothes, Gina. Ditch the corset. I always do.”
Light red hair, blue eyes, and freckles — a difficult combination for someone to choose the right colors. Isabelle (I imagine it was Isabelle) had the eye of an artist. The afternoon dress was pale gray, with a rose collar and cuffs. There were gray boots with a small heel and a simple straw hat with a gray ribbon and a pink rose. The parasol was gray with pink lace ruffles. The styles reminded me a little of the movie Titanic.
Eunice knocked to ask if I needed any assistance; I declined. If I had used the corset I definitely would have needed her help, I thought.
“Your bath will be ready for you when you return, Miss,” she said through the door.
“Thank you,” I said. “Will you direct me to where Miss Isabelle is waiting?”
I had managed to tuck my medium-length hair up under the hat, no easy task, I can tell you. I felt as though I were in a movie when Isabelle and I went outdoors and opened our parasols.
There were nine horses, two gentle mares for guests. “Do you ride?” Isabelle asked.
“Not English saddle!” I squeaked.
Is this really happening? I thought. Am I at an elaborate weekend costume party?
“We nurse the pansies along until May if we can,” Isabelle continued as she pointed out several pansy beds in the front.
“It hasn’t gotten hot yet,” I said. “You just can’t tell in the spring, especially in April. I love pansies, though.”
“I’m ready to bathe and change. I can’t wait for you to meet the rest of the family.”
Neither can I, I thought. This movie is getting better and better. I wonder if Isabelle is insane. She doesn’t sound insane. But maybe sounding insane would be even more sane then talking normally.
I shut the door to my room and sighed with delight. My dinner dress was laid out on the bed. It was medium blue velvet with a low neckline and tiny puffed sleeves. Pearls were embroidered on the bodice which looked as though it would fit very tightly. Little blue velvet slippers were on the floor.
After bathing and dressing I added my own pearl earrings and admired myself. Everything Isabelle had selected was so perfect! I had pinned my hair up and tried to curl it in the front, but it would never compete with Isabelle’s upsweep and swan-like neck.
Joseph was at the bottom of the stairs ready to show me to the dining room. I was seated to Isabelle’s right. The rest of the family trailed in.
I met Gilland, the portly elderly uncle first. He was Isabelle’s mother’s oldest living relative. I already knew the mother was deceased. Gilland sat at the head of the table. A woman with blonde hair mixed with gray sat at the foot. This was Mavis, Gilland’s only sister. Her husband Gene mumbled the whole evening — I never heard a word he said. Then there was Aunt Lucy (on the paternal side), her husband Dexter, and the spinster aunt, Becky. Isabelle and I were the youngest people there.
Lucy, I discovered, liked to knit; Dexter read financial magazines constantly; and Becky spent her time playing solitaire in the parlor with two maltese dogs for company. “Oh, it is such a wonderful game, Lena,” she gushed. “It’s ‘Gina,’” Isabelle said, but Becky was beyond listening. “I run through several decks of cards a month!”
“Do you live here, uh, Becky?”
“Oh, yes. I don’t have any money to speak of, Lena.”
“Never would take my advice,” Dexter growled. “She’d have been a wealthy woman by now if she had.”
“We’re happy to have her use the house,” Gilland interjected pompously. “She contributes what she can, of course.”
“Joseph picks up my medicines and groceries. That’s all I need, Lena. As long as I have my cards, I’m quite contented.”
“Hmmm, yes,” Mavis said. “How about you, Gina? What are your interests?”
“My job consumes my days. I’m a secretary for a real estate company. But I do have a cat, a white Tom I dearly love. His name is Coconut.”
“Isabelle has a cat... What’s his name, dear?” Becky’s eyebrows went up in a question mark.
“Her name is Mamie, Becky. She’s a three-year-old gray tabby.”
“Are we ready for dessert?” Mavis asked. “I’ll ring for it.” We were served a frozen dessert and coffee. Gilland then rose to signal the dinner was over.
“Are you tired, Gina?” Isabelle asked once we had left the others and were on our way upstairs. “I’d like to talk to you about something.”
“Fine. Your room or mine?”
“Let’s go in yours.”
“There’s a huge ballroom with double doors downstairs,” Isabelle began. “You haven’t seen it yet. Gorgeous dark polished floors, crystal chandeliers. It hasn’t been used for a long time. But I remember my twenty-first birthday celebration.” Her eyes glistened with tears, but she went on. “My gift was an intricately wrought ruby and diamond necklace. I wore a white satin dress with a rose underskirt and sash.”
Isabelle sighed. “All the women in my family received fine jewelry for their twenty-first birthdays. Mavis was wearing her emeralds tonight and Becky her amethysts. Perhaps you noticed Lucy’s pearls and diamonds.”
I nodded. Lucy’s necklace was particularly eye-catching.
“My party was more than twenty years ago and I still remember every detail. Around eleven there was a storm. We had a brief power outage and while the lights were off someone grabbed my necklace and tore it from my neck. A single ruby was on the floor when the power came back on. Gina,” Isabelle said with emphasis, “I have to find out who did it. I want you to help me.”
“How? Is that said ruby the one in your ring?”
“Well, I can see how you feel it’s very unfair. But, Isabelle, you don’t have to find out who did it. I mean, it was so long ago...”
“Gina, you don’t understand the significance of that necklace.”
“Oh, is it like the ‘blue water’ in Beau Geste?” Then I did something I’m sorry for now. I started to giggle. Not only was I at a costume party, I was in a very old novel and I couldn’t stop laughing.
Isabelle began to sob. Tears gushed down her cheeks in torrents. “Oh, Isabelle, honey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you so.”
Isabelle gulped. “Gina, I want to tell you more about it, but it is so amazing I’m afraid you won’t believe me. Just do me a favor. At breakfast tomorrow morning, think about what I’ve said. There had to be a motive. There had to be a thief. Later, I’ll tell you everything. Including what that ruby necklace means.”
* * *
We wore plain morning dresses in subdued colors to breakfast, which was delicious. The meal was leisurely; I had an opportunity to study the individuals of Isabelle’s family as she had asked.
Right away I noticed a few things. Subtle things, eye expressions, mostly. When no one seemed to be looking his way, Gilland leered at Isabelle. The old toad. Mavis had a peeved turn to her mouth, and when she was talking to Isabelle, there was a peculiar glint in her eyes. Like... disapproval? Meaness? Dexter was more observant than anyone thought; Lucy was still quite in love with him and watched his every move.
Then breakfast was over and I got no further. I tentatively agreed to spend another weekend soon but said I needed to make a call first.
“Oh, your cell phone won’t work here, Gina. You know, some of these rural areas...” Isabelle’s voice trailed off. “Wait till we get on the highway tomorrow.”
I sighed. At least there would be lunch and one more dinner before we left early Monday morning. I needed to see more of Gene and Becky. Was the latter as foolish as she seemed?
I didn’t notice until the day progressed that there were no televisions or computers in the house. Peculiar. These people carried their vintage passion to the limit.
Isabelle and I played a game of badminton (the weather was glorious), and lunch was served. Just before we went inside, I spotted Gene and Becky engaged in an intense conversation. As soon as they saw me they stopped talking.
There was that inexplicable look on Mavis’ face again, and Gene seemed bored with everything but his food. Becky? I wasn’t sure. But there was something about Mavis and I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I could get used to this, I thought when I picked up the gray satin dinner dress Eunice had laid out. It had two rows of lace around the deep round neck and a split skirt trimmed with a ruffle going up the side.
I made no further progress at dinner or breakfast except noticing Becky cast hooded glances at Gene when Mavis was occupied. Hmmm, I thought. Romance is not dead. Interesting. There are all kinds of complex undercurrents in this dining room.
“Isabelle,” I said after breakfast when we went back upstairs to finish packing, “does Mavis have some kind of grudge against you? Mavis, Becky, and Gene... so far the most suspicious, but it’s hard to be sure. Or even to know why.”
“Mavis has always been jealous of other good-looking women, especially younger ones. I don’t think she is certain her marriage is still strong. And Becky is half senile.”
“Uh, uh, Isabelle. She isn’t. She enjoys that pretense. Lucy seems harmless enough. But Dexter is a strange fellow. Hard to read. Good Lord, I feel like Hercule Poirot.”
Isabelle laughed. “You are good at this, Gina.”
“I need to get better. Draw these people out until they drop some useful information.”
* * *
In a hospital in Birmingham a new amnesia patient had been admitted. The blonde woman appeared to be in her early twenties and claimed she couldn’t even remember her own name. All she knew was that she had “awakened” in Birmingham carrying a purse. It was 1980.
The woman seemed tired and listless but her purse contained important information. A birth certificate, a social security card, and a bank deposit slip for five thousand dollars. The woman’s name, according to the contents of the purse, was Isabelle Jeanne Leighton.
Isabelle didn’t really have amnesia; she was pretending. It was necessary that she had some time to study and grow accustomed to the new world she was in. She would need work and she had no skills. She had never seen a wireless phone or a computer. She knew nothing about the things other people took for granted. But she knew the documents in her purse were fake except for the deposit slip .
Twenty years later Isabelle had a car, a good job as a bank teller, and a condo complete with a cat.
There had been one last conversation she had had with her uncle before she got to Birmingham and thought of the amnesia stunt. But she would never forget the hateful words: “Your ruby will allow you access to the house on the weekends, Isabelle, but without your necklace you will have to leave by Monday morning. You won’t spend much of your time in 1910 or with your family. You’ll have to learn to get along in the future. We’ve opened a bank account in Birmingham for you to help you along. Here is the deposit slip. Make it last until you can find work and a place to live.”
“But it’s not my fault, Uncle Gilland,” she protested. “Someone took my necklace from me last night. This just isn’t fair.”
“No,” Gilland replied, fingering the large diamond ring on his little finger. “But there is nothing you or I can do about it. The fine jewelry possessed by the women in our family has a special function. We all know that. The most valuable possession a woman can have — and, Isabelle, you don’t have yours anymore.”
And Isabelle looked down at herself — for the first time dressed in clothes suitable for the 1980’s.
* * *
Isabelle told me all this Monday morning in the car. We talked the entire trip home.
At one point, I yawned heavily. “We’re going to be exhausted by the end of the day, packing up and driving directly to work.”
“That’s why we parked your car there.”
“Uh-huh. Listen, there’s something I don’t understand. Why has it taken twenty years for you to get serious about finding your necklace?”
Isabelle frowned. “I needed time to learn what I needed to survive, for one thing. And once I got used to your world, Gina, I grew to like it. The movies, the computers, the television, the freedom gained by women. And you knew I was married for a while.”
“Sure, we talked about it and how after two years you couldn’t deal with his dishonesty — like his cheating on taxes and stuff like that.”
“I never took Dan to Cullman. I went there less and less anyhow. But I thought I loved him and pictured a life with him. When I decided to leave him, the memory of my family home took possession of my thoughts. I became nostalgic for my time: the horses, the elegant clothes, the servants. But without my necklace I couldn’t leave the grounds; I had no access to carriage rides and house parties in Birmingham. I couldn’t visit my friends but I missed the leisure.”
“What about the men? How do they get to enjoy all the privileges?”
“The men in the family have rings. The men married to our women have the same privileges because marriage is a sacred, intimate bond: ‘One flesh’.”
“What about me?”
“As long as we accompany our guests...”
“The women who consent to use their jewelry and remain in the family home and its surroundings are sterile.”
“Oh, my God, Isabelle!”
“There’s something else, Gina. At twenty-one I was crazy in love. My heart pounded the whole time I dressed for my party because I knew Richard would be there. But I didn’t know he would jump the gun that night and privately ask Gilland for my hand in marriage. When Gilland told him I would never have children, he turned on his heel and left. I thought for the longest time he was just late. I didn’t find out what really happened until later. He never married.”
I sank back into the passenger seat, quiet and thoughtful. This casts a new light on things, I mused. What effect does sterility have on personalities and motives, especially of the women?
“So, Isabelle, the members of your family will die out someday. Maybe most of them already have.”
“Probably. But in 1910 the people you met are just fine.”
“But what about before? Somehow all of you were born and raised.”
“I was born in 1868. My father died in 1881; and my mother, in 1907. So at least my mother wasn’t sterile.”
“But what I mean is...” I frowned. “How was this uh... mechanism put in place?”
“None of us know. Or we can’t remember. None of the men and women are alive today. It’s possible my mother was already pregnant when she turned twenty-one and received her sapphires. Gilland hinted at something like that once. In fact, I’ve become convinced that was the case. I’m the youngest family member; none of the other women have children.”
“Oh, good Lord.”
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Mary Brunini McArdle