Corpus Christmas (Sigrid Harald Series #6)by Margaret Maron
A relic of Manhattan's Gilded Age, the Erich Bruel House is home to an idiosyncratic collection of art. For over sixty years it has managed on donations from the visiting public and its dwindling trust fund. But tastes in art do change and in trying to restore the house's faded luster, its trustees propose a major retrospective for renowned artist Oscar Nauman. A festive Christmas party in Nauman's honor ends in acrimony--and next morning one of the trustees is found in a most unfestive heap at the bottom of the basement steps. Lt. Sigrid Harald had been an unwilling guest and the party and now she must return to investigate why that trustee was so universally hated.
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By Margaret Maron
WARNER BOOKSCopyright © 1989 Margaret Maron
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThursday, December 10
SNOW WAS PREDICTED BY SUNDAY AND A CHILL morning rain had drenched the city streets but it had stopped by ten A.M. when Rick Evans arrived at Sussex Square, that little gem of urban felicity down in the East Twenties. He paused a moment, propped his tripod on the wrought-iron fence which enclosed the tiny park, uncapped the lens of the camera slung around his neck, and slowly panned the area.
Unlike the broad avenues of commerce where New York's glamorous stores were bedizened with tinsel and glitter, Christmas down here approached in a resolutely nineteenth-century fashion that was less intimidating to someone born and reared in a small college town in Louisiana. The solid townhouses that ringed Sussex Square were built of stone, not wood; but most wore heavy wreaths of fresh evergreens, waxed fruits, and lacquered nuts that gleamed in the weak winter sunlight with a homelike familiarity.
Number 7 was twice as wide as any of its neighbors and bore a small brass plaque that informed passersby that this was the Erich Breul House, built in 1868 and open to the public since 1920.
Rick Evans focused carefully on the brass plaque, then retrieved his tripod and walked up the broad marble stoop to the recessed doorway, a doorway so imposing that he automatically wiped his boots on the outer mat before entering the marbled hall.
Black velvet ropes,looped through brass stanchions, formed a walkway to a long Queen Anne tavern table where a middle-aged docent sat with a cash register on one side and a selection of brochures, books, and postcards on the other. The docent looked up from her knitting and peered at him in nearsighted hopefulness; but when the young man's camera case and folded tripod came into focus, her smile faltered with disappointment. Only that photographer she'd been told to expect; not a paying sightseer wishing a tour of the house.
From an alcove at the rear of the vaulted entrance hall, a young black woman saluted him with a friendly wave of her steno pad as her high-heeled boots clicked through a doorway that had once led to the butler's pantry but was now the director's office.
On the left, midway the depth of the hall, stood a bushy fir tree, at least ten feet tall, but dwarfed by the massive proportion of the carved marble fireplace. The tree was surrounded by open boxes of ornaments, a tall aluminum stepladder, tangles of candle-shaped tree lights, and three women dressed in urban-casual woolens. As Rick Evans approached them, the light floral scent of their perfumes mingled with the fir's woodsy aroma and for a moment he felt himself unaccountably, profoundly homesick for Louisiana and Christmas in his mother's house.
He propped his tripod against the opposite side of the fireplace and smiled diffidently at a kind-looking brunette whose graying hair was tied back with a red silk scarf. "Is Mrs. Beardsley here?" he asked.
"Is God in his heaven?" the woman replied in an unexpectedly deep voice.
"Oh Helen, you're awful!" giggled a shorter, round-faced woman.
"Shh!" a third woman warned. Sensible leather heels tapped down the wide marble staircase at the right of the hall as Mrs. Gawthrop Wallace Beardsley, senior docent at the Breul House, descended triumphantly, followed by a man in dark green coveralls whose face was obscured by the boxes he carried.
"We found them," she said, bustling over to the group. "I knew we had more decorations than these." Her all-seeing gaze fell upon Rick Evans and she halted to consult the old-fashioned gold watch on her wrist. "Mr. Evans. Surely I told you the tree would not be ready to be photographed until after lunch?"
Rick fiddled with the lens cap on the camera still slung round his neck. "Yes, ma'am," he admitted, "but I had some free time and I thought maybe I could shoot some of the ornaments individually or something? I mean, aren't some of them pretty special?"
His voice trailed off in uncertainty. The deep-voiced woman with the kind face took pity on him. "Yes, they certainly are special. Melissa, show him one of Mrs. Breul's glass angels."
Melissa, the widow of Dr. Higgins Highsmith Jr., whose many trusteeships had once included the Erich Breul House, plucked an ornament almost as delicate as she herself from its nest of tissue. From girlhood, Sophie First Breul had collected dozens of fragile glass Christmas tree ornaments, charming souvenirs of carefree winter visits to relatives in Germany and Austria.
This particular angel had been blown from a pearly, opalescent glass and its features then hand-painted in soft pastels. Its robe was pale green and, incredible after so many years, fragile glass hands still held to those rosebud lips a gilt paper trumpet stamped with stars.
"Over a hundred years old!" marveled Melissa Highsmith. "And it's only frayed a bit here." Her wrinkled fingers sketched a circle around the trumpet's flare without actually touching the tattered edge.
"Do be careful," Mrs. Beardsley warned. Her words were meant for the man, who was trying to set down his load of boxes without tipping them, but Mrs. Highsmith guiltily replaced the angel in its tissue as the deepvoiced woman stepped forward to help Pascal Grant.
Carefully, the workman straightened the boxes until each right corner was square with the one below, then turned to Mrs. Beardsley for approval with such innocent expectation that Rick automatically lifted his camera to his face to shield himself from so much physical beauty.
He knew that the Breul House contained basement quarters for a live-in handyman, but had not yet met him. In listing the people who worked there, his grandfather had hesitated at Pascal Grant's name and murmured something about a lamb of God, one of His poor unfortunates, which had led Rick to expect someone defeated or with an obvious physical handicap. A crippled alcoholic, perhaps.
Instead, now that the boxes no longer hid the man's face, Rick saw someone who looked like one of Sophie Breul's angels stepped down from a Christmas tree.
Pascal Grant was slender and finely built-even the coarse green coveralls he wore could not disguise that-with eyes as blue as the Virgin's robes and golden hair like spun glass. He had a thin, well-shaped nose, a rounded chin, and an upper lip so short that his mouth was seldom fully closed.
It must be those parted lips that made him look so innocent and young, thought Rick, twisting the barrel of his portrait lens until Grant's seraphic features filled the viewer. Too, the janitor seemed to keep his head tilted down so that when he spoke to anyone he had to look up from beneath level sandy brows like a child looking up at an adult.
He was looking now at Rick. "Hello," he said in a voice as light and sunny as his smile, and held out his right hand as if they were at a formal dinner. "You're Mr. Munson's grandson. You're going to take new pictures of everything. I'm Pascal Grant."
Puzzled, Rick lowered the camera and extended his own hand. "Rick Evans."
He was surprised by the unexpected strength of the janitor's grip, and noted that Grant's hand was calloused and that his fingertips were grease-stained beneath the ragged nails.
The women smiled approvingly at Rick. Even the patrician Mrs. Beardsley softened. "This is Helen Aldershott," she said, gesturing to the tall, deep-voiced woman. "And Melissa Highsmith, whom you've just met."
"So pleased," murmured Mrs. Highsmith, taking his hand between both of hers.
Her thin, arthritic fingers flashed with accumulated diamonds and he sensed that several of the rings were too loose, as if fashioned for younger, less gnarled hands. He wondered briefly how many generations of Highsmith fingers those rings had adorned.
The round-faced giggler and her shusher were Mrs. Dahl and Mrs. Quinones.
"Now then, Mr. Evans," Mrs. Beardsley said briskly. "Perhaps you can help Pascal bring down the last load? I don't possess quite the stamina I once had."
"You're amazing and you know it, Eloise," said Mrs. Aldershott. "You must have been from the basement to the attic a dozen times this morning. It's enough to tire anyone." "I'll be glad to help," Rick said politely.
He hung his fleece jacket on the tripod, piled his camera and case next to them, then followed Pascal Grant up the broad marble staircase, which turned back on itself at a landing halfway up the height of the hall.
At the left of the stairs, eight thick red candles filled a freestanding fourteenth-century bronze candelabrum, and Mrs. Beardsley and her troops had garlanded the white stone balustrade in evergreen swags and tied them with red velvet ribbons.
On the wide landing, out of the way of passing traffic, stood the dummy figure of a woman, dressed in a ruffled, high-necked blouse and green serge skirt and buttoned shoes. Looking up at her from the curve of the balustrade on the floor below was her male counterpart, clothed as if on his way out for a stroll around Sussex Square on a December morning in 1905.
Thrifty Sophie Breul had seldom discarded anything, so the attic held trunks and boxes full of period clothes. When Gimbels closed its Broadway store, someone had salvaged several fashion mannequins for use at the Breul House. It was almost like having a Ken and Barbie set for adults, and the docents enjoyed dressing the figures to suit the changing seasons.
Today, the gray-haired male figure wore a top hat, white silk muffler, and long black overcoat, and he carried a goldheaded cane.
The second floor was also open to the public, and it consisted of a wide central hall that was richly somber with a coved wooden ceiling and walls covered in dark burgundy silk. Two tall windows overlooked the park at one end and a carpeted mahogany staircase rose majestically at the other.
Narrow marble-topped tables hugged the walls beneath sumptuously framed oil paintings. The more important pieces of the Breul collection were displayed in the gallery downstairs. These were some of Erich Breul's less discerning purchases and the massive frames, each with its own small lamp, only mocked shrunken reputations. Here was a seascape by Henry Babbage, once praised as "the American Turner"; there, a landscape by Everett Winstanley, "our Constable"; plus a pair of heroic battle scenes with heavily muscled horses, plunging and rearing about with flared nostrils, the work of Genevieve Carlton, whom the late scholar, Riley Quinn, had called the Rosa Bonheur of central New Jersey. Between the paintings, every door stood wide to reveal bedrooms and dressing rooms, Erich Breul's oak-paneled study and Sophie Breul's sitting room. The latter was elaborately carpeted, draped, and cluttered with fringed shawls, tasseled cushions, gilt mirrors, cut-glass lamps, and other ornate bric-a-brac that passed for tasteful decor in the late 1890's.
Halfway down the hall, they had to press themselves against the wall as a docent exited from the main bathroom with eight German tourists and their tour guide in tow. To judge by the laughter and bright chatter as they passed, the Victorian bathroom had been a great hit. Rick Evans had never seen a bathroom quite that large himself, nor one that lavish: walnut commode, a walnut-enclosed tub deep enough to float in, a wide marble lavatory, and all the brass fixtures fitted out with china knobs and handles.
At the end of the hall, the gloominess of the stair landing was relieved by an oval Tiffany window that Erich had ordered as a tenth anniversary present for Sophie. Even on this gray December day, its stained-glass leaves and flowers glowed with jewellike intensity.
Pascal Grant paused beneath it and smiled at Rick shyly. "This is my second favorite window in the whole house," he said. "You should take a picture of it."
"I'm going to," Rick agreed. He had noticed it when Benjamin Peake, the director, had given him a hurried tour of the public rooms the previous week, but he planned to wait for a sunny day when the window would be more brilliantly backlighted.
"So," Rick said as they moved on up the steps to the third floor, "what's your first favorite window?"
"The front door downstairs," the other answered promptly over his shoulder. "Not the big door. My door." Rick remembered seeing steps that apparently led down to a doorway recessed beneath the stoop of the main entrance. "The service entrance?"
Pascal Grant paused at the top of the stairs and nodded. "That's mine. I'm service. I have a key and everything." He pulled a tangle of keys from his coverall pocket. "See?"
Even though he stood a step or two higher than Rick, his head was tilted so low that he seemed to be looking up at someone taller as he returned the keys to his pocket.
The third floor was as solidly built as the second, but the hall was narrower and the ceiling was simple plaster except for the cast moldings. Benjamin Peake had made a point about them, but at the moment Rick couldn't remember if the director had said they were special because of the oakleaf-and-acorn design or because of the process by which they had been cast. Whichever the reason, Rick decided he'd better borrow Grant's stepladder, rig some lights, and take a couple of close-ups.
The front rooms had belonged to Erich Jr. before he went off to France; but in 1948, an imaginative curator had removed the young man's personal effects to a bedroom on the second floor and restored these rooms to their original state as a nursery and playroom. Like so much else, Sophie had naturally saved everything her only child ever used, so the public now saw baby Erich's cradle, his crib, his nursemaid's narrow bed, and, in the connecting playroom, his horsehide rocking horse with its genuine mane and tail, the mane sadly reduced to stubble by much hard riding.
There were also wind-up toys, books, blocks, even a handful of wax crayons which were now scattered beside a childish drawing of stick figures labeled Papa and Mama and Erich in straggling letters across the picture. Another Gimbels mannequin, this one resembling a four-year-old boy, sat at the table with a crayon fastened in its hand. It was dressed in short pants and a jacket of gray serge, a white batiste shirt, a black silk bow, long black lisle stockings, and high-top, button-up shoes.
Here again were more visitors. Watched by a woman whose apprehensive air immediately identified her as a docent, seven young day-care kids and their teacher were getting a first hand look at how one privileged child had lived a hundred years earlier.
"Where's his television?" demanded a tot as Rick and Pascal Grant passed the doorway.
"I have a television," Pascal whispered to Rick. "Mrs. Beardsley and her ladies gave it to me. For my birthday."
"That's nice," Rick answered, a shade too heartily. Never before had he been required to interact with someone mentally handicapped and his natural compassion was jumbled with both embarrassment and uneasiness.
Physically, Pascal Grant could be any age from sixteen to twenty-six.
Mentally, he probably wasn't too much older than those children.
A damn shame, Rick thought soberly. The guy was so good-looking. Of course, there were no rules that said it had to be otherwise, but still-
They passed through an open set of frosted glass doors that bisected the third floor. At the far end of the hall stood a mannequin dressed as a housemaid in a long black cotton dress and white bib apron, with her hair neatly pinned up under a starched white cap.
On this half of the third floor lay bedrooms for the servants, their one small bath, and a back stairs that ran from the basement kitchen to the attic. In the old days, the glass doors were normally kept shut, but after touring the spacious quarters of the master and mistress, modern visitors always wanted to see where the live-in staff slept when they weren't cooking and cleaning or fetching and carrying for the Breul family.
The docents might loyally insist that the Breuls were enlightened and considerate employers, but most visitors gleefully picked up on how even the floor coverings defined class lines. On the nursery side of that translucent glass, the carpet was a thick wool Axminster; on the servants' side, woven hemp matting.
At the rear stairwell, black velvet ropes barred the public from further passage. From kitchen to attic, the steps were wide enough to accommodate wicker laundry baskets, cleaning equipment, or storage chests, but they rose much more steeply than the wider public staircases and they were uncarpeted. Pascal Grant unclipped one of the ropes from its brass wall hook, waited for Rick Evans to pass, then carefully clipped it back again before leading the way up to the fourth-floor attic.
Excerpted from Corpus Christmas by Margaret Maron Copyright © 1989 by Margaret Maron. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
MARGARET MARON grew up on a farm near Raleigh, North Carolina, but for many years lived in Brooklyn, New York. When she returned to her North Carolina roots with her artist-husband, Joe, she began a series based on her own background. The first book, BOOTLEGGER'S DAUGHTER, became a Washington Post bestseller that swept the top mystery awards for its year and is among the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. Later Deborah Knott novels UP JUMPS THE DEVIL and STORM TRACK won the Agatha award for Best Novel.
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