First, I'm so sorry if you got a bunch of "chapter update" emails earlier this week… I was doing some editing!
If you're impatient to start reading, feel free to skip this absurdly long note. But if you want to know what's been going on since I last updated:
I started this chapter in July… on vacation in Toronto. Later, I had a Breaking Dawn release party. I flew to Seattle to see Stephenie Meyer "in concert" with a friend. In late August, I went to college, Vanderbilt, located on a beautiful national arboretum campus in Nashville, Tennessee, where I saw the Twilight movie. I've since finished my first semester have returned to Chicago for break.
Thanks to Angeliss, BabelFish42, cullenist1918, dsolo, edene, Flame, Juliejuliejulie, Madame Meg, Mary Alice Brandon Cullen, Mistflyer1102, NeverHadDreams, , rain is my refuge, ryolatwentytwo, Spack272, starrylove, stressylemon, tragixlove, Utopian, , xkidscanflyx, and xxtwilight for reviewing.
Seeing an email update and reading all of your thoughts always lights up my day. It's flattering, I think, to get long reviews with both criticisms and compliments because it shows your readers think you worth the effort of a thoughtful comment. I hope I may return the favor. Please do yell at me for messing something up, like everyone who told me I put "Pratt" instead of "Platt"—I've fixed that (that's why you were getting "update" emails…) Special thanks to those who've got my back.
Recap: Esme was about to leave for her school in downtown Columbus, Ohio…
Chapter 3: The Lion's Den
September 5th, 1910
"Robbie!" hissed Mrs. Platt, "Hurry up and get out here! Make yourself useful, Celeste—move that trunk onto the back."
"But I'm still eating breakfast!" called Robbie as Celeste tried to yank the trunk handle.
Mrs. Platt's glared through the open front door. "I told you not to eat another roll. Now hurry up."
"I can't find the last ball of twine!"
"Freddie, it's in the kitchen."
"Hold this down while I get it, Pa."
"I can't lift this!" Celeste groaned. "What's in here?"
"That would be her books. Have fun!" Robbie grinned, walking out with a steamer trunk in tow. Ten years old, Robbie's cheeky enthusiasm at the crack of dawn brought a glare to Celeste's eyes. "Who knew she had so many—oi!" as Freddie came rushing back and tripped over him, "Watch it!"
"Got the twine!" Freddie tossed it to his father standing on top the cart, and turned around to pick up Robbie's trunk and set it next to the seat. He grinned and hooked his little brother under his arm by the neck. "And gotcha, you rascal. No more cheek outta you."
Robbie wrestled out of the hold and his freckly face scrunched up in a scowl. "I'm gonna eat your toast. G'bye," and he dashed back into the house.
"Get back here!" Freddie hissed, racing back.
Mrs. Platt sighed. She leaned down and grabbed one end of the trunk of books to heave it onto the rickety cart. Ol' Bessie, their ancient mule, yawned in the misty blue haze of morning.
Celeste climbed up and sat with her legs dangling over the edge. From inside the house, she heard furniture squealing against wooden floors. A second later, Freddie emerged triumphant and munching on toast, exaggeratedly content. From his side, Robbie, hair more tousled than before, slunk out to the cart and dejectedly plopped himself onto the back next to Celeste.
With some more huffing and a few more yanks by Mr. Platt on the ropes, everything was set.
"Sho..." said Freddie with a mouth full of toast, "Where's Eshme?"
Esme had stayed up the night before alone with her thoughts and the summer crickets. All day her nerves had crackled with suppressed energy and she felt like time was twice as fast. But that night the shadows seemed to have affixed themselves in permanent positions on the worn, wooden planks. Minutes were interminable. Thoughts and fantasies crashed into each other like exploding fireworks. Unformed visions of that time next week, or even that time next night, dazzled her mind. Since she didn't know exactly what to expect, she was free for the moment to live in the delicious realm of fanciful hope.
All night she had tossed in gleeful anticipation to leave, but now, with someone calling her from the front of the house, she couldn't make her feet rip out of the muddy early morning fields. She looked out onto the expanse behind her home. It was all she had ever known, and she probably knew every bit of it by heart, but still Esme let her eyes linger on each thing. The shed's roof was coming undone, and someone had left a shovel out overnight. Mother was not going to like that. Parallel dents in the dirt led to the field. She tried to memorize the way the eastern field sloped downwards towards the rising sun. As she watched, the light crept over the tips of unharvested wheat until in the distance, it looked like the fields were painted in glowing gold.
Having drunk in that scene, Esme slowly walked back through the dewy grass towards her favorite oak tree. It reigned silently over the land, and Esme thought of all the times she had been in its leafy arms perched against the clouds.
Esme looked up. In the dim sky, the boughs stretched silently into peaceful heavens. Suddenly, she had an urge to have one last moment in her favorite spot where a few thick branches formed a nook. She reached up to grab the familiar first handhold—
"Esme!" called Celeste. "Where are you?"
She pulled her hand back. With a regretful quirk of her lips, Esme turned away. "I'm coming, Celeste." She took a breath and strode forward from the tree and fields to the cart.
Freddie jumped into the front of the cart and Mrs. Platt stepped forward with a tied-up cloth. "This'll be lunch for you both." She handed it to her. "Don't do anything stupid. Keep your clothing in good order, and wash at least once every couple of days."
"Yes, Mother." Esme rolled her eyes. "I won't forget." Her mother had never been one for sentimentality.
Mr. Platt hugged Esme. "We wouldn't want you to smell badly, now would we? But don't forget to study." He hugged her again, and this time she came away with a small purse. Conspiratorially, he whispered, "Just in case, right?"
"Thanks." Esme smiled, and tucked it in her dress pocket. She turned to Celeste. "Don't do anything stupid, right?" she said pointedly.
It was lucky for Celeste that it was still mostly dark, or else it would have been obvious the girl was beet red. Esme had concocted a "devious plot" (quoth Celeste) to prod Richard Thornton into action. For some reason, at their church's annual harvest luncheon, Richard had asked Celeste to share a picnic basket with him. Celeste had pretended to be squinting at the sun so she could glare at Esme with murderous daggers, but took Mr. Thornton's arm with her usual sweet smile. It was the subject of many knowing glances among the congregation—to Celeste's acute embarrassment—but Esme always reminded her, "Well, you two are a thing now, aren't you?"
"Don't you dare bring that up." Celeste's eyes narrowed, then softened. "I'll miss you while you're away." She hugged Esme tightly, then pulled back to look into Esme's face with a small smile.
Esme looked back at her innocently. "Keep me informed." She grinned as Celeste scoffed and let go.
Robbie bounced to her side. "Will you bring me back presents from Columbus?"
"'Course I will. A new model train, is that good?"
He grinned in glee. "Yeah!" Then he tugged her dress so she leaned down, and whispered in her ear, "Make sure to eat all of Robbie's food, alright?"
Esme raised herself up, eyebrows raised. "We'll see..." she said, and shook her head. She strode towards Freddie at the front of the cart and pulled herself up. She turned around and called, "Bye, everyone! I'll write you all soon!" Freddie patted Ol' Bessie who started slowly pulling the cart down the dirt road towards Columbus. Esme waved at everyone waving back, at the retreating house, and the waving grain stalks in the background.
For awhile they rode on in silence. The road gradually grew brighter from sleepy morning light to bright sunshine. Freddie swiped his forehead with a handkerchief as the air warmed up, and Esme untied the cloth. The apples, cheese, and corn bread quickly disappeared.
"You could have saved some for later, you know."
Freddie smiled cheekily. "Now where would be the fun in that?"
Downtown Columbus at mid-morning was an admirable example of orderly chaos. Automobiles had come into vogue* and everyone, it seemed, from the old families to the nouveau riche to the new middle class tooted their horns down the streets, literally and metaphorically. The shiny boxes on wheels shared the space with horses and buggies that invariably stopped exactly when automobile drivers wanted to move. Pedestrians ventured into the street at their own peril. It was a Monday and shopkeepers were bustling about wrapping up meat and selling vegetables. Kitchen maids and wives scrutinized produce only to declare the price akin to robbery, got better deals, then jealously handed over coins but left secretly satisfied. Young boys on street corners cried out the morning headlines to peddle newspapers off passing gentlemen.
Towards the centre of the city, the roads got less dusty and more paved. Respectable shops laid finely-crafted wares out for the more discerning citizens of Columbus. Several establishments were bookshops brimming with the latest scientific manuals and novels while others were purveyors of creamy stationery paper and fountain pens. Milliners, dressmakers, and tailors made bespoken clothes for the rich—but the truly rich still had their garments from London or Paris.
Miss Langton's Academy stood near these shops. It occupied a building, Esme soon learnt, that was much like its current mistress. Esme's eyes roamed over the architecture as Freddie drove through the open wrought-iron gates. It was firmly in the Gothic Revival* tradition of mid-century Europe; the first floor featured a graceful arcade and long vertical windows swept the eye up three floors to an ornately sculpted cornice, making the building look like a case with an exquisitely carved cover. Simple but immaculately groomed verdure in the small courtyard complemented the building. The academy exuded strength, dignity, and impeccable taste against the hustle and bustle of fashionable Elliston Avenue.
The wooden wheels of the cart clicked to a stop against the brick-paved circle drive. Esme leapt lightly off the front seat, brushed some traveler's dust off her best dress, and strode forward to the front door. She pulled the cord hanging by the door, an oak and glass marvel sparkling in the sun.
After a minute of torturous waiting, the door swung open to a rather short, round woman with the sanguine features of doting grandmothers. "Mrs. Porter, housekeeper here. Miss Platt, is it?" she cheerily asked. Not waiting for an answer, she beckoned Esme in. The inside was more luxurious than any Esme had ever seen. She stood gazing at the grand, circular vestibule in awe. Black and white checkered marble floors in the Dutch style supported a staircase with gleaming banisters starting with scrolled ends that rose to a landing, then parted to either side. An electric chandelier hung proudly in the centre of the room lit in the bright, clean natural light pouring in from a glass oculus dome.
"Excuse me, ma'am." Esme was startled by the voice of a young boy behind her. She jumped aside to let him and another fellow through. They were carrying trunks and boxes she recognized as hers, and were followed by Freddie.
He gave a shrug. "Appeared out of nowhere and started taking things. Feels kind of odd." Neither had ever been waited on by servants before—their mother would've thought it an intolerable luxury.
"Come on, you two," Mrs. Porter called, "I'll show you to Miss Platt's room."
They followed her up the grand staircase to a third floor corridor lined with old photos. Esme fell behind to peer at the sepia-colored portraits hanging neatly on the papered walls. In each one, about forty young women posed primly and confidently on the same staircase Esme had walked up. The photographs dated from 1877, and as Esme slowly moved down the corridor, it seemed to her that the women's fashions were the only thing that changed over time. The gowns became slimmer, the shades lighter, the hairstyles varied, but the students' expressions were all the same. In none of the photos did anyone smile*.
"Oy Esme!" called Freddie. "Come look at your room!"
His voice broke her fascinated reverie. In the second to last room, she found Freddie spinning gleefully in front of a massive bedstead like a little boy. Mrs. Porter stood by the door, amused, and directed the errand boys where to place Esme's things.
It was a very large room, even larger than the attic she and Celeste shared. Freddie plopped himself into a small white sofa that was so dainty it shouldn't have withstood his assaults. The rest of the furnishings, a low table, a carved chair and writing desk, and a few scattered chests of drawers, were in rich shades of carnelian*. The dark red was offset by pale wallpaper dotted with small flowers. The luxury of it was surreal.
"Miss Crawford sends her apologies for not greeting you properly." said Mrs. Porter as she shooed the errand boys out. "She's been in a meeting with one of our patronesses the entire morning."
"Oh, that's fine," Esme waved it away. "I'm sure I'll meet the headmistress soon anyway."
"You'll see her at dinner. But for now, you're free. You and… your brother?" Mrs. Porter continued to Esme's nod, "Might want to walk about Columbus, see some sights or buy some items."
"That sounds nice, Mrs. Porter, but I've still to unpack and—"
"Don't be silly, Miss," Mrs. Porter said, "I'll send a maid up and all your things will be stowed away nicely by the time you come back. Now go enjoy yourselves, and not another word out of you!" She turned around and bustled out the room.
Esme turned to Freddie, who had ensconced himself on the sofa. "Come on, let's go walk about Elliston."
"But it's so comfortable!"
She grabbed his arm. "Get up, you lazy bugger!"
The two of them had enormous fun buying absolutely nothing on Elliston. It was amusing enough guessing how many dollars was the ludicrous hat with a stuffed pigeon perched on the side or what ridiculous man would buy the shiny gold pocketwatches dangling in the midday sun that could tell the time in eight cities. How could anyone want, much less need, all these absurd fripperies?
All too soon, the church bells chimed three o'clock, and Freddie groaned, "Pa'll have my hide if I don't get back before supper."
Esme sighed but they walked back up the street to Miss Langton's. The cart and Ol' Bessie had been taken to the back, and the two started walking around the house to fetch it. "Sir!" called a young boy looking up from brushing a chestnut mare, "Can I help ya, sir?"
"I'm just claiming my horse and carriage," said Freddie, amused.
"I'll bring it around, then. You and the lady just wait in the front," he swiveled around and started trotting towards the back. "It'll just be a minute!"
"Sure you're not going to get spoiled?" grinned Freddie as he and Esme started for the front of the building. "These lot seem eager to not let you do anything."
She rolled her eyes. "I'll be fine. It's just… a different feeling, that's all. Being waited on when we've been doing laundry and washing pots at home ever since we could walk." She could hear the clacking of the cart's wooden wheels approaching. "Don't you go telling Mother—I won't get soft here, I'm sure."
"Whatever you say, Miss Platt," teased Freddie as he took the reins from the stable boy. He gave her a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and with a hollered goodbye, was off towards home. Freddie's departure was like him—not the least bit melancholy.
Upstairs she found that, as Mrs. Porter had assured her, all her items had been unpacked. The bed was made in crisp lines, her few clothes were neatly folded or hung, and—Esme peered closer at the shelf—her books were all in a perfectly straight line on a dustless shelf. Alphabetized, too. She hesitated to touch them as if she were but a guest with all the proprieties involved. Everything she owned had been placed coldly and efficiently like in a hotel room and an unsettled feeling struck Esme; this was her room, but it didn't feel that way at all. It felt forbiddingly perfect.
Esme heard a shriek of laughter through the wall. It shook her out of dark thoughts. Intrigued, she followed the sound out into the hallway, where it emanated from the door next to hers. She paused a moment in front of that last door in the corridor but knocked anyways.
"Come in," a girl's voice commanded.
She opened the door and peered in. The room was easily twice the size of hers and even more lavishly furnished. Ten or so girls sat in the corner beneath a bay window overlooking the street to form a court around one, a haughtily beautiful creature with calculating but expressive dark blue eyes.
"You must be the new serving maid," the imperious girl said from her windowsill cushion, "Lay out my dinner outfit and—"
"I'm no servant; I'm a new student here." Esme was disconcerted—did she really look like a servant?
"Oh…" The girl would've made a splendid comedic actress—she knew just how to make clear her feigned innocence. "I would never have guessed from that dress." One of her ladies-in-waiting burst out in a laugh and a few others looked on the verge of doing so. All of them were wearing the latest fashion: stylishly corseted within an inch of their lives, it seemed, and garbed in narrowly cut patterned silks garnished with lace and ribbons. It put Esme's plain grey dress to shame.
But she wasn't shamed. Esme was no fool, either. These girls were obviously not interested in making her welcome. They were probably but a coterie of sycophants to their queen seeking only to emulate her worst qualities. The girl's acerbic comment stung—Esme's pride wasn't used to blatant and petty attacks—but she'd try to salvage some dignity. She walked towards them and addressed the girl basking in admiring looks. "Esme Platt, pleased to meet you."
She slowly stood up and glided towards Esme. For a moment, the two stared at each other in a war for dominance with neither willing to concede. Finally, the girl smiled, and without breaking her unblinking appraisal of Esme, proclaimed "Ah, the charity student." Her angelic complexion and dancing eyes seemed grossly wasted on such an acidic being. "Miss Marguerite Winchester, but," she added in a stage whisper as they shook hands, "My friends call me Marie."
Esme flashed a smile. "Thank you. I shall call you Marguerite."
The girl nodded, still acting cordial as ever. Esme kept her eyes on Marguerite's large, seemingly innocuous eyes hiding a direct challenge—a show of weakness on her part would've been that girl's triumph. Marguerite smiled even more broadly. At once she acknowledged her prey's spirit and also plotted its fall. She took pleasure not in the eventual demise of her rival—no other outcome was possible—but in playing the game.
This round, it was a draw. With a murmured "Enchantée," Marguerite returned to her window seat to be surrounded again by her court.
Esme exited, acutely aware of forcing even and measured steps and not slamming the door. She only let her breath out when the door clicked safely shut. In the relative darkness of the corridor, the breathing she'd forced to stay even started to race.
At that moment, Esme only knew the Academy would be no easy existence. She knew that, unlike those giggling idiots, she didn't need the foolish baubles on Elliston, nor would she suffer bowing to arrogant ringleaders. Esme was herself and could be nothing less. In hindsight, the sphere where memories become tinged with symbolism and meaning, that day spoke candidly of what Miss Langton's Academy was: an altogether different world only tangential to her familiar life on a simple Milton farm. The Europeans she would meet in her travels during the Great War liked to comment wistfully on the ability of Americans to transcend birth and rank—what must it be like, unfettered by medieval social snobbery and to rise solely on one's own talents and abilities? Gloriously free, they imagined.
And yet, she, who had been raised from a normal existence to one gilded in marble and expensive furnishings, was in a den of lions.
1. Automobiles: A shout-out to the poor American car industry… For most of the late 19th century, cars were just interesting playthings for the rich. No one person invented the car—the modern car was the product of an eclectic mix of innovation. The most famous early car, the Ford Model T, or Tin Lizzie, became popular around 1909. It cost about $850 then (about $20,000 now) making it affordable to the middle class.
2. Gothic Revival: In Europe, the Gothic Revival, spanning about 1740-1860, can be represented by Westminster Palace in London. As the name implies, the era recalled late medieval graceful flying buttresses and intricate decorative sculpture like the Cathédral Notre-Dame de Paris. In the U.S., a quaint form called Carpenter Gothic was in vogue in the late 19th century that combined native abundances of timber with architectural elements reminiscent of European Gothic such as gables (the triangle formed by a sloping roof) and vertical-favoring lines.
3. "In none of the photos did anyone smile": People weren't more serious back then—the exposure time necessary to develop photos required the subjects to stay still for several minutes. It was simply easier to maintain a pleasantly blank face. If you see old pictures of big crowds, you'll probably see a few blurs because people moved.
4. Carnelian: A color much like burgundy. I would've used the latter, but the internet said "burgundy" wasn't used to describe a color until 1915—who knew?
I'm sorry there wasn't a 1921 Carlisle section in this chapter and so to make amends, Chapter 4 will be entirely 1921. You may expect that one by Wednesday, 7 January 2009. Until then, I hope your holidays have been merry, and a happy new year to all. And don't forget—please review!