Authors: Anne Rivers Siddons
Tags: #Romance, #Adult, #Chick-Lit, #Contemporary
ANNE RIVERS SIDDONS
For Stuart, Kelby, and Maggie Siddons
The next of us
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the Future’s sakes.
“Two Tramps in Mud Time”
ound is queer here by the water, especially when the fog has come off Penobscot Bay, as it has now. It started in the middle of the afternoon, unusual for this time of year. Usually our late-summer fogs are only just beginning to drift in at this hour, so that walking home from drinks at one or another of the old cottages is still easy: pleasant, in fact, and quite lovely, with the edges of everything just beginning to soften and blur.
But people would not find the going easy this evening, would need their flashlights and sticks…if there were any people left to be going home in the fog. They’re all gone now. I’m the last one left. It’s a new experience for me, but not nearly so strange when you think about it. Someone has to be last.
And it is, after all, September.
I said the sound is queer here; by that I meant strange, with an otherness that can be quite disturbing until you get used to it. It bounces about so you can’t tell where it’s coming from, or how far or near it is, and it often mimics something else entirely. The rhythmic dripping of the downspout onto the porch shingles, for instance, and the wet riffles off in the 3
birch grove opposite my cottage, when a little wind disturbs the branches, might well be the
of tennis balls and the polite spatter of applause from our little August tournament. It has been held every year since I have been coming to Retreat; I remember when the young men who played wore long white trousers and blazers, and few young women played at all. The snapping of sodden branches might easily be the little flat, popping starting guns for one of our endless regattas.
The creaking of the old twig rocker in the porch below my window, stirred by the rising night wind, sounds very much like the drying ropes on the sloops moored down in the little deep-water harbor at the foot of the lane—or lines, as I believe they’re called. I never learned the proper sailing terminology; Peter was a passionate sailor, but from the first I disliked it, and to use the language without the object of it has always seemed to me both ostentatious and ridiculous. I have never thought myself either.
The mewl of the harbor gulls, now: that might be the questing cry of Amy and Parker Potter’s old tabby tom, Widdy, or, years later, the baby that was born to Elizabeth in that house, prematurely and after all those ghastly long hours of labor—in darkness, too, for the dying lash of an August hurricane had knocked out the colony’s power. The baby died that night, as I recall; Elizabeth could not get to the Castine hospital because a great fir was down across the lane, and there was no doctor in the colony then. I heard its crying all that endless afternoon, and into the evening, before it finally stopped.
I never liked the sound of the gulls after that.
Apparently Elizabeth didn’t either. She never came back to Retreat after that summer, though I could not decide whether it was because of the sadness of the baby’s death or the possibility of talk about its birth.
Probably the former. Elizabeth would not have cared about the latter. She would not have come to Braebonnie, to the family cottage, to have the baby if she had feared the tongues of the colony. Certainly not in light of the fact that the baby’s father was in a nearby cottage with his own family that summer…or so we all heard. Such things may be discussed for generations in a small place like Retreat, with great enjoyment and with no proof at all. In this case, the proof lived less than twelve hours.
At any rate, Elizabeth never returned, and she never sold Braebonnie as we all thought she would, after Amy and Parker were gone. She simply rented it each summer, apparently to anyone in her curious and hectic world who had the price of it, and so the first chink in Retreat’s armor, if you will, was breached.
We had never had renters before then. Amy and Parker would have died of shame, if they had not died of other things first. But I must admit that the renters of Braebonnie livened us up. One summer we had a world-famous composer who wrote his best known work here, doodling and banging on the tuneless old Bechstein in the living room; and another summer a family of actors, Jewish, I believe, who alternately rehearsed their new play and excoriated each other every evening for three months. I should know; my upstairs bedroom windows face Braebonnie’s living room and veranda, and, as I said, sound carries here at the edge of this cold sea.
The noises from the Potter cottage have always rather annoyed me, except for the carefree back-and-forth calling Amy and I used to do when we were both young brides here. But tonight I would almost welcome the composer, or even the actors.
Not the sound of the doomed baby, though. Never that.
Of all the sounds of birth and life and laughter I have ever heard down all these summers in Retreat, and all the sounds of quarreling and crying and even coupling, yes; and of all the sounds of diminishing and even of dying—please God, never again that one small and terrible sound, begun out of storm and anguish, ended so soon.
And yet, for me alone, never ended at all.
ll places where the French settled early have corruption at their heart, a kind of soft, rotten glow, like the phosphor-escence of decaying wood, that is oddly attractive. Seductive, even, if my mother-in-law, whose astonishing opinion that was, was to be believed. And she was always believed. The conventional wisdom of her day was that Hannah Stuart Chambliss would rather be burnt at the stake than tell a lie.
I don’t find that surprising at all. I think the Maid of Orleans role would have pleased Mother Hannah to a fare-thee-well, even the fiery martyr’s death. Mother H had a streak of thespian in her as wide as her savage stratum of truth, and she employed it just as fiercely when the need arose. I never knew anyone who escaped those twin lashes except my husband, Peter. He alone might have profited from them.
She told me that, about the corruption and the seduction, on the evening I came to Retreat colony for the first time. It must have been in her mind ever since she first met me, the year before, when Peter took me to the big house in Boston to meet her and his father, but she had never voiced it until then. But it was plain to me—and, I suppose, to Peter—that it, or something like it, lay like an iceberg beneath her austere and beautiful surface. Oh, she smiled her carved Etruscan smile, all the years of our relationship, and hugged me lightly and kissed my cheek with lips like arctic butterflies, but none of us were fooled. I don’t think she meant us to be. My un-suitability hung in the pristine air of the Chambliss drawing room like a body odor.
But it was not until Peter brought me as a bride to the old brown cottage on Penobscot Bay, in northern Maine, where the Chamblisses had summered for generations, that she allowed that particular little clot of displeasure to pass, and with it damned me and Charleston, and, indeed the entire indolent, depraved South to Retreat’s own efficient purgatory.
That she said it with a little hug of my shoulders and a small laugh, in response to something old Mrs. Stallings bellowed in her ginny bray, did nothing to mitigate its sting.
Augusta Stallings looked at me, small and roundly curved and black-eyed and-haired and brown with sun, standing in the chilly camphor dusk of the cottage’s living room, and fell upon my utter alienness, in that place of fair straight hair and rain-colored eyes and long bones and teeth and oval New England faces, like a trout on a mayfly.
“Charleston, you say?” she shouted. “Gascoigne, from Charleston? I know some Pinckneys and a Huger, but I never met any Gascoignes. French, is it? Or Creole, I expect.
Well, you’re a colorful little thing, no doubt about that. You’ll open some eyes at the dining hall, my girl.”
And that is when my mother-in-law laid her long Stuart arm around my shoulders and made her light little speech about the French and corruption and seduction. My face flamed darker, but I doubt that anyone noticed. The cottage’s living room was as dark as a cave because Hannah would rarely allow the
huge lilac trees that obscured its windows to be cut. It was the first thing I did after she died.
Peter pulled me close, grinning first at his mother and then at Augusta Stallings.
“The only French who settled in Charleston were four hundred good gray Huguenots on the run after Louis the Fourteenth revoked the Edict of Nantes,” he said. “Not a jot or tittle of corruption in the lot of them. Or seductiveness either, I imagine. Unless, of course, you meant that Maude was an octoroon, Mama?”
“Don’t be silly, Peter,” Hannah said, in a tone that said she had indeed entertained the possibility. There was my dark skin, after all, and the black eyes, and the hair that curled in tight ringlets around my head. And something about the nose….
“You mean a nigger?” Augusta Stallings brayed, peering more closely at me in the cold, pearly dusk. The tumbler of neat gin that she held sloshed onto the sisal rug.
“Oh, Augusta, really,” Hannah said. “Of course that isn’t what I meant, and if I hear a word about it around the colony this summer I’m going to know where it started. Maude’s family has been in Charleston for two hundred years; they’ve had the plantation almost that long.”
“Oh, well, then,” Augusta Stallings said, as if the word
“plantation” were a Rosetta stone that explained the mystery of this overripe too-dark southern daughter-in-law.
Peter laughed aloud, and I smiled, tentatively, and the two older women moved away onto the sun porch, where the drinks tray stood.
“We’ll put a bone in your nose when we go to dinner tonight, and your career in Retreat will be guaranteed,” Peter said, and I laughed aloud, as he had intended. Peter could always make me laugh, even in the worst times. Even though everyone and everything
in this strange, cold northern world was alien to me, and frightening, I would be all right as long as Peter was beside me.
“You don’t want to pay too much attention to Augusta Stallings, my dear,” my father-in-law said from the sofa in front of the vast fireplace. I jumped. I had forgotten he was present. He had said little since we arrived; he had said little, indeed, the few other times I had been in his presence. He was handsome and remote but somehow bleached out, a faded negative of Peter. He was kind, but he was simply, for me, not there. Every time I heard his voice, it was as if I were hearing it for the first time.
“It doesn’t matter a bit,” I said.
“Well, I hope not,” Big Peter said. “Dreadful woman.
Never see her that she’s not half squiffed. Too much money and not enough to do. That’s what’s the matter with all these women. Too much money and not enough to do. Too many long New England noses in everybody else’s business.”
I smiled across the room at him, sensing an ally. With these two Chambliss men in my corner, how bad could the summer be?