Gramercy Parkby Paula Cohen
New York City, 1894. To Gramercy Park, bordered by elegant town houses, cloistered behind its high iron fence, comes Mario Alfieri, a celebrated tenor and the toast of Europe. Poised for his premier at the Metropolitan Opera, the summit of society, Alfieri needs a refuge from the clamor of New York's elite . . . and from the eager women who rule it. He finds it, he… See more details below
New York City, 1894. To Gramercy Park, bordered by elegant town houses, cloistered behind its high iron fence, comes Mario Alfieri, a celebrated tenor and the toast of Europe. Poised for his premier at the Metropolitan Opera, the summit of society, Alfieri needs a refuge from the clamor of New York's elite . . . and from the eager women who rule it. He finds it, he thinks, at Gramercy Park, in the elegant mansion of the recently deceased Henry Ogden Slade. The house is available, but not quite empty. Clara Adler, Slade's former ward, lives there still, friendless and alone. Who is this bewitching young woman? Why did Slade take her into his home, only to leave her penniless at his death? And what tragedies and terrors have left Clara little more than a pale and frightened ghost, haunting the deserted mansion? Mystified, then enchanted, Alfieri is soon involved in an intrigue that spans two decades and pits him against a vicious enemy who swears to destroy both him and the woman he loves . . . and whose weapons are scandal, murder, and the revelations of Clara's past...
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DEATH IS A GOOD TOPIC for conversation. The fascination with it seems ingrained in human beings, and there are few acts performed during the lives of most people that are so endlessly discussed, so lovingly dissected, as the act of leaving it. A natural modesty seals the lips of even the most talkative when procreation or birth are mentioned, and the intimate details of marriage, child-rearing, and family life are, at best, confided to one's closest friends.
But death is different. The last, lingering illness and all of its symptoms are picked over with morbid glee; and the greater the suffering, the longer the illness, the uglier the end, the more the head-wagging preoccupation with it.
The passing, therefore, of an elderly gentleman, dying quietly in his bed, would normally elicit little discussion. It is a fact, however, that there is one topic upon which people love to dwell even more than death. That topic is money. Should the elderly gentleman have been rich, therefore, the heads would wag with no less vigor, but the solemn preoccupation would be with the size of the fortune, the way in which it was amassed, and (most important of all) howand to whomit would be bequeathed.
Such was the case in the passing of Henry Ogden Sladefinancier, philanthropist, pillar of the communityin the late winter of 1894. Sixty-six at the time of his death, Slade had been known in many circles of New York society as an upright and God-fearing, though slightlypeculiar, man. That he was upright was proved by the exemplary lack of scandal surrounding his business dealings, all of which were large, lucrative, and accomplished with unusual ease and goodwill. That he was God-fearing was proved by his success. That he was peculiar was attested to by the presence in his house of a warda young woman taken in by Slade at the age of fifteen, and reared and educated, for the four years until his death, as his own daughter.
What made this rather ordinary situation unusual enough to earn Slade a reputation for peculiarity were three facts. Fact one: Henry Ogden Slade was a bachelor who had lived alone for more than forty years. Fact two: Clara (for that was the young ward's name) was neither related to Slade nor the orphaned, penniless child of friends of his youth. Fact three: her father, reputedly still living and quite prosperous, was a German immigrant who was, also reputedly, of the Hebrew faith.
All this, of course, was enough to fuel sporadic fires of conversation for years within New York society, for yet another example of the man's eccentricity was the extreme secrecy with which he shrouded his domestic affairs. Few people had ever actually met Clara, as Slade kept her carefully cloistered within his house at Gramercy Park; and those who had, mainly elderly men like himself, come to discuss weighty matters of business over dinner, were frankly unable to say much about the girl, other than that she was tiny, pretty (in a rather Semitic waydark, and all eyes, with an air of melancholy), and had a positive genius for vanishing silently at the tread of strangers' feet, and the sound of strangers' voices.
Slade's reasons for taking her in, therefore, remained a mystery. All that was definitely known was that he and the girl's father, one Reuben Adler, had had financial dealings, and that in the summer of eighty-nine they had met at Adler's home on the south Jersey shore, to discuss business away from the stupefying city heat. There he had been introduced to Clara. Three months later, shortly after her fifteenth birthday, Clara had moved permanently into Slade's home.
Perhaps it was felt that the young Miss Adler would benefit frombeing in the great metropolis, where she could regularly attend the opera, ballet, concerts, and the theatre, and where she would have the opportunity to meet people from a wide spectrum of acceptable society. Perhaps Slade, who should have known better, neglected to tell both the girl and her family the brutal fact that her ancestry would bar her from the company of that acceptable society, regardless of the identity of her sponsor. Or perhaps he did tell her, at some later date, for society was never once disturbed by having to refuse the discreetly dropped suggestion that Slade's ward desired an invitation to tea, or wished to pay a call. Instead, Clara had spent the four years with Slade in nearly total seclusion, and her appearances at the ballet or opera were memorable simply because they were so rare.
Like Halley's comet, vast stretches of time seemed to pass between her being seen; unlike that heavenly apparition, however, Clara's appearances followed no fixed schedule. It was their very unpredictability, in factand her forever downcast eyes, and the way she would cling to Slade's arm as if terrified of being swept away and drowned in the glittering crowdsthat caused the performances on the stage to be all but forgotten in the endless, whispered speculation about her.
"Out of sight, out of mind," however, has become a proverb precisely because it is true. During those long stretches in which Slade's box at the opera house sat empty, New York turned its collective mind to other, more immediateif less exoticmatters, and the mystery of Miss Adler, and her reasons for being where she was, lay dormant.
Until that terrible night in February of 1894.
According to the information gleaned from the servants, Miss Adler had been awakened, in the small hours of the morning, by cries from the dying Slade's room. She had rushed across the passageway and arrived just in time to see his eyes glaze over. Her screams had awakened the rest of the household, and a footman had been dispatched to summon the doctor.
One horror had followed another. The worst blizzard of a bad winter had delayed the doctor; and when he finally arrived, breathless and soaking wet, Slade had already been dead for close to an hour. Therewas nothing to be done for the deceased but to close his eyes, fold his arms, and pull the sheet up over his face. The girl, however, had not left the dead man's side since entering his room, but had sat holding his hand in her own. That hand had been warm when she had taken it; by the time the doctor pried it from her frantic fingers, it was growing cold and beginning to stiffen.
The combined strength of the doctor and the girl's maid were needed to get her back to her own room. She had fought them wildly in her efforts to stay with her guardian, seemingly unwilling, or unable, to believe that he was truly dead. Even after they forced her to lie down, and a sedative had been administered, she continued to cry. What had been most terrible, however, and a sure sign that her mind had become unbalanced, were the fits of laughter that had alternated with her tears. The doctor, being a prudent man, had stayed with her until she fell asleep, and had kept her heavily sedated for the next few days. He had also refused to allow her to attend the funeral.
Thus was New York cheated of seeing, up close and lacking the shield of her guardian's protective arm, the little Jewess who was expected to inherit all of her guardian's very great fortune.
So affected was she, in fact, by Slade's passing, that the reading of the will had to be postponed for a full month, there being genuine concern about her health. It was not until late March, therefore, on a gray and chilly morning, that the lawyers, led by one Thaddeus Chadwick, Esq., the late Mr. Slade's personal attorney and oldest friend, had appeared in Mr. Slade's library to unseal and read his final intentions, and to announce to the waiting ears of New York the advent of an heiressthe city's newest, and possibly one of the richest, if rumors about the size of the Slade estate were to be believed.
Clara entered the room last of all. Still six months shy of her twentieth birthday, she was not yet fully recovered from the shock of her guardian's death, and her skin had an unhealthy, chalk-white pallor made even whiter by the severity of her black dress and dark hair. That within minutes she might be one of the world's wealthiest women seemed incongruous, at best; there was simply nothing about her that could serve to explain Slade's interest in her. Certainly, there was nothingevident that morning, as she slipped quietly into her chair. She looked as plain and as ordinary as a shop girl, with her small, pinched face and nervous, nail-bitten hands. Only her enormous eyes, bright with unshed tears, lifted her from the realm of the commonplace.
Immediately after her arrival, the library doors were closed, shutting off the proceedings from the eyes of the servants who lingered nearby, finding more to do in the vicinity than could possibly be accounted for by their usual round of morning duties. For twenty minutes the only sound to reach their ears was the dry hum of Chadwick's voice from behind the huge ebony doors. Then, suddenly, in the expectant hush there was another sound; a sound so out of place, so inappropriate in that house of mourning, that the hovering servants stared at one another, shocked, and one Irish housemaid, more devout than the rest, made the sign of the cross.
Laughter. Girlish laughter, which did not remain girlish long. Low at first, and musical, it rose swiftly, becoming high and strident: peal after sobbing peal of mirthless, helpless, hysterical laughter.
The heavy doors banged back; Chadwick and his colleagues, ashen-faced, hurried from the room. Within the library, tiny, shy, quiet Clara Adler sat and rocked, tears streaming down her face, laughing the laugh of a demented thing.
Once more a servant was sent flying for the doctor; once more the sedatives were administered. The lawyers went away shaking their heads, and the servants scattered to their separate duties, to whisper what they had seen and heard into the ears of fellow servants in other houses. By the next day all of New York knew that Slade's ward had been struck down, and knew, too, what had caused it.
What many could not understand, however, was the laughter. Tears, perhaps, but never laughter. Clara Adler, taken in by Henry Ogden Slade at the tender age of fifteen, and reared and educated as his daughter for the four years until his death, had been dispossessed, utterly and completely. Her name had not even been mentioned in his will. It was as if she had never existed.
Still, there was nothing funnynothing funny at allabout losing thirty million dollars.
DEATH IS A GOOD TOPIC for conversation, and never better than when money is involved. The last, lingering illness, and all of it torments, are picked over with morbid glee; and the greater the sufferingthe younger the victimthe more the head-wagging preoccupation with it.
The passing, therefore, of a young and innocent girl would elicit much discussion, in voices hushed and solemn, about life's vicissitudes and the sudden, inexplicable workings of Fate. Should the girl be one about whom hung an air of mystery, and who had not even the consolation of the Christian faith to sustain her in her final hours, the pious platitudes would rain thick and fast, reminding all that even in the midst of life we are in death.
So New York listened for word of the end of Clara Adler, struck down by brain fever at the age of nineteen, in the spring of 1894, the fever brought on by the twin shocks of the loss of her guardian and his estate. The hysteria with which she had greeted the news of the latter had been the onset of her illness. She was not expected to recover.
It was all very sadand very satisfactoryand the city settled in, with melancholy anticipation, to await her passing. It was no more than what any truly well bred young woman would have done in her place; and certainly there was nothing else for her, with propriety, to do. The only problem, as the days became weeks and the weeks became months, was that she did not do it ...
GRAMERCY PARK. Copyright © 2002 by Paula Cohen. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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