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, the world's greatest tenor. Poised for his premier at the Metropolitan Opera, the summit of society, the handsome 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, the world's greatest tenor. Poised for his premier at the Metropolitan Opera, the summit of society, the handsome 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 orphan? 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 weapon is a scandal that has already come close to killing Clara Adler.
“Leave[s] us amazed at her ability to re-create a vital, graceful, almost elegiac world.” Chicago Tribune
“High society, mystery and opera merge in Cohen's haunting first novel.” New York Daily News
“With a compelling plot and lush description, Paula Cohen tells an involved tale of wealth, power, secrets, and surprise in high society.” Susan Vreeland, author of The Passion of Artemisia
“Gramercy Park has everything we need in a book: cliffhangers, plot twists, and surprises galore.” Katherine Neville, author of The Eight and The Magic Circle
“An excellent read, refreshing...brings to mind Victorian novels, with shades of Dickens in its considerable drama and suspense. Moreover, Cohen is a masterful storyteller who skillfully draws readers into her plot and characters.” Chattanooga Times Free-Press
“A dazzler...[an] intriguing tale of love, suspense and Gothic terror.” Arizona Daily Star
“Suspenseful drama...with a sly and absorbing plot” Publishers Weekly
“[An] irresistible concoction of civilized terror.” Booklist
“Keeps readers engaged” People
“New twists unfold on every page” Rocky Mountain News
“Plot twists, a remorseless villain, and a rags-to-riches triumph impel readers to keep turning pages.” Library Journal
“A plot-twisting tale of scandal, intrigue, and the upper crust.” Book Street USA
“A talented author whose creativity is matched by a rare fluency, a flow of words almost poetical in nature” Provincetown Banner
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Read an Excerpt
From Fifth Avenue, with its gleaming carriages and fine, new mansions, and its smell of money only lately won and not yet fully grasped by the minds of its makers, it is merely a healthy stretch of the leg to Gramercy Park.
There, enclosed on four sides by a high, iron fence, a small oasis beckons the passerby: a graceful green rectangle of shady paths and wide, low benches scattered beneath trees thick with years. It is an odd sight: nature penned in amid a forest of brick and stone, and the innocent stranger might be tempted to pass through the black-barred gate, to spend a quiet hour in contemplation of such a wonder. But the gate is locked, and only the privileged few who live on the borders of the little park possess the key that will open it.
Life appears to be sweet for these keepers of the keys of this tiny Eden, and drudgery is evidently not their daily portion. On warm summer afternoons, one can see nursemaids wheeling the infant lords and ladies of the great Republic along the dappled paths, and spy daintily clad children at play beneath the gaze of vigilant nannies.
But the vulgarly obvious wealth of Fifth Avenue is missing here; these houses, for the most part, are vestiges of an earlier day. Red brick and white stone, they stand side by side with not even a handbreadth of space between them, forming a solid square of dignity, and those who dwell within them have no need of pomp to proclaim their worth to casual passersby. Like their houses, their wealth and power were built in bygone days, and possessing them has become a part of the natural order ofthings, occasioning no more thought than, say, breathing or sleeping. They know what they have, and that is all that matters.
Near the southeastern corner of this demiparadise stands one house different from the rest. Built of drab red brick in a dull, square shape, its front door is the only one which does not face the park, but opens, instead, onto one of the small, cobbled streets that radiate from the green like the spokes of an angular wheel, as if to declare itself even less guilty of ostentation than its neighbors by virtue of its refusal to acknowledge the center of their common universe.
Somber and self-contained, with windows too narrow for the expanse of wall between them, it is a house which does not welcome: a massive, reclusive, indifferent pile of stone, which holds what it has within it, and takes no notice of anything else.
Of the two men approaching it from the direction of Fifth Avenue on this particular afternoon in late May, the house is wholly oblivious, although the many people enjoying the brilliant spring sunshine in and about the little park do not share this disregard.
The men present an interesting contrast in types, for one of them, a pale man of medium build and middle age, is outstanding only in that he is so very ordinary. His companion, however, seems to be the focus of every eye as he passeswomen, particularly, seem to find him of uncommon interestand this fascination could be laid to his height, which is well over six feet, or the exceptional breadth of his chest and shoulders, or even to the cut of his impeccable clothing. About forty years of age, black-eyed and swarthy, he is clean-shaven and well made, and he draws eyes like a magnet, seeming not so much unaware of the glances cast his way as accustomed to receiving them; a man very much at ease beneath the gaze of others.
"I am grateful for your time, Signor Alfieri," the nondescript man says to his dark companion as they draw near to their destination. "I will waste none of it, for I know that you must have a great deal to do."
"On the contrary, Mr. Upton"Signor Alfieri's heavily accented English fully corroborates his foreign looks and name"for the first time in years I am completely free and have absolutely nothing to do, at least until the middle of July. Until then, my time is my own."
"And will you be in New York until then?"
"Until then and after then. I must be in Philadelphia from mid-July to early October. After that I will return here."
"For the opera season."
"For the opera season," the signore agrees, smiling.
"And you have been staying at the Fifth Avenue Hotel since your arrival?"
"A week ago, yes. Originally, I had thought to make the hotel my home while in New York."
"A year is a long time to live in a hotel, signore."
"Ah, you see, Mr. Upton? Mr. Grau agrees with you, which is why he sent you to me. And because it would not be right for me to refuse the kind suggestion of the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera House, I am here with you. Also, both Mr. Grau and I feel that my continued presence at the hotel might disturb the other guests"
"Your consideration does you credit, signore."
"and I am absolutely confident that before long the other guests certainly would disturb me." His smile is amiable. "That has a miserably ungrateful sound, does it not? Nevertheless, you can have no idea of what it is to be pursued everywhere by admirers who have heard you perform. I am afraid, Mr. Upton, that privacy has become a necessity for me."
Being a house agent, Mr. Upton is both sympathetic and quick to take professional advantage of this opening. "You needn't fear being disturbed here, sir, I assure you," he says. "And as for disturbing others, such a thing would be quite impossible. The late Mr. Slade's house is admirably well built and wonderfully spacious, with absolutely everything Mr. Grau said you would require. Most important, of course, is the music room, which contains a superb grand piano, and even a small eighteenth-century pipe organ, which Mr. Slade had brought over from Germany and built into the walls.
"In addition," he says, counting on his gloved fingers, "there are a reception room, two drawing rooms, a library, a picture gallery, a ballroom, a conservatory, and a billiards room. The dining room seats twenty comfortably. And, of course, there are the ten bedrooms. The late Mr. Slade lived on quite a lavish scale in his younger days."
Alfieri smiles. "So I see, Mr. Upton. But," he says, gazing up at the long rows of curtained windows, "perhaps this house is somewhat ... too spacious for my needs? Along with everything else Mr. Grau told you, he must also have told you that I am only an unmarried man, after all, traveling with only one servant. What on earth am I to do with two drawing rooms, a dining room that seats twentycomfortably or notand a ballroom?"
"Ah, but you must remember, signore, it was Mr. Grau who suggested that I show you this house. He feels that the music room will appeal to you particularly. And as for its being too spacious, the late Mr. Slade was unmarried too ... although, quite frankly," he adds confidentially, "I cannot ever recall hearing that he made much use of the public rooms in his later years."
"Or of the ten bedrooms."
"Or of the ten bedrooms," Upton agrees. "Much of the house was shut up a great deal of the time," he says, fitting the key into the lock and struggling with the stiff mechanism, "which accounts for the marvelous condition in which everything has been left."
"Indeed. Was Mr. Slade a recluse, Mr. Upton?"
"I'm sure I couldn't say, signore. I never had the honor of meeting him. It is known, however, that he kept more and more to himself as he grew older."
"Indeed," Alfieri says again. "Perhaps he, too, found people disturbing."
"Perhaps, sir. Anything is possible." Upton pulls the key from the lock, reads the paper label pasted on it, smiles apologetically, returns it to the lock and continues his efforts.
"And just when did Mr. Slade die, Mr. Upton?"
"Just this past winter, signore, very suddenly."
"Had he no heirs? Was there no one to inherit this admirable house?"
The house agent is momentarily silent as he searches for the right words. "Mr. Slade died a bachelor, signore, and left no heirs." He hesitates slightly. "He grew somewhat eccentric in his last years. There were a number of bequests, of course, most of them to charitable organizations, but the great bulk of his personal fortune, and this house, were left to his estate. His attorneys wish to keep the house intact and furnished as it was during his occupancy until such time as they see fit to sell it, which they are in no hurry do to. That is why it is available for lease. According to the executors, to keep a staff on to maintain an empty house would be a drain on Mr. Slade's estate."
"Really? Did he die impoverished?"
"Oh, very far from it, signore. But the executors, who have retained me to show the house, feel that it is not their place to spend Mr. Slade's money if it can be avoided, even if it is for the upkeep of his own house. However, if they lease the house, the rental income will defray the cost of keeping it up."
"That is very sensible, Mr. Upton. Now if only we can get in, so that I may see with my own eyes this house with ten bedrooms that one man inhabited." The signore smiles. "You know, Mr. Upton, I fear you will never make a successful burglar."
As if in answer to his words, there is a sudden click, and the key turns in the house agent's hand. "Ah! That does it! Not a burglar!" he laughs. "That's very good! Come in, Signor Alfieri, come in."
The two men step through a vestibule into a cavernous entrance hall. Upton shuts the door behind them, leaving them momentarily blinded. What light there is comes from distant rooms, and is filtered through drawn curtains. Yet, even to eyes not adjusted to the sudden dark, the floor, walls, and ceiling, marble all, glisten in the dimness. Huge archways, flanked by onyx pillars, lead off left and right, and on the far side of a gleaming expanse of floor an alabaster staircase soars palely up, to disappear into the twilight.
Upton slides his hand along the wall until his fingers come into contact with a recessed button, which he pushes. The sound of a click in the darkness is the only response.
"Mr. Slade was one of the first to install an electrical system in his house," he says, "but it has evidently been turned off for safety's sake. Shall we move on? We can open the curtains in the other rooms."
The house agent's voice is low, out of respect for whatever lurks just beyond the borders of hearing in silent, shut-up houses, but even so it fills the air with rustling echoes. Alfieri follows him through the doorway on the left, into the first of the house's two drawing rooms, a chamber so vast that its far end is barely visible in the half-light. The furniture, in muslin shrouds, looks humped and unnatural; what can be seen of it is in a style current twenty years ago. Upton pulls aside the heavy drapery, and colorsivory woodwork limned in gold, dadoes and friezes of Pompeian redleap from the walls, only to retreat again into shades of gray as the curtain falls back into place.
Two massive sliding doors lead from there into the library and the adjacent picture gallery. Upton pulls aside a crimson plush curtain, revealing walls covered in gold and green silk above ebony bookcases filled with rare volumes. A pair of slender marble columns frames the entrance to the picture gallery. The works of art are gone from their places; they rest, instead, on the floor, carefully swathed in muslin and ranged against the sides of the chamber. Lighter patches on the silk walls show where they were accustomed to hang.
"Would you care to see more, signore?"
The signore does not answer. He stands in the center of the darkened room, a vaguely distracted expression on his face, as if trying to recall something that remains just out of reach of his memory.
Alfieri rouses. "Yes, I would care to see more, Mr. Upton, but some light to see it by would be most welcome."
"Then allow me to leave you for a few moments to find the footmanI know he must be around somewhere. There is a private generator, and if he can turn it on we shall have the whole place as bright as day. Don't wait for me, signore. Feel free to explore more of the house while I'm gone, if you'd like. I'll find you, never fear."
But fear is not what Alfieri feels. The great house holds no terrors for him, despite the darkness; there is a sense, instead, of something almost remembered, like an old, familiar melody, just beyond hearing, that he cannot place.
With Upton gone in search of the generator, Alfieri retraces his steps to the front hall. The music room has been on his mind since Upton's first mention of it, and he is understandably eager to see it. Florentine by birth, the son of a physician, his great gift had become evident at the age of four, when, seating himself at the piano, he had played, flawlessly, three exercises from The Well-tempered Clavier, learned solely from listening to the efforts of his mother, a talented amateur who was accustomed to practice the piano while her little son amused himself with his toys in the corner of the parlor. His lessons had begun immediately, and, when he was old enough, singing in his church choir had augmented his other musical studies.
When he was fourteen his voice changed.
For no reason which, in later years, he is ever able to explain, except that this is the right way, he climbs the alabaster stairs to the floor above. The darkness here is almost total, for the walls are no longer pale marble, reflecting whatever faint light may exist, but smooth wood, or so his fingers tell him; and all the doors on either side of the broad landing are shut.
He has never been in this house before today. For that matter, until one week ago he has never been in this city, or on this continent. And yet he gropes his way directly to the second door on the left, and enters. This room, too, is enormous and very dim, its drapes drawn against the glory of the spring noon. But after the oppressive darkness he has just left, his eyes easily take in his surroundings.
The music room.
Here, again, the ubiquitous muslin shrouds the furniture, and the many-armed and -globed chandelier, swathed in netting, blooms downward from the high, coved ceiling like a monstrous wasps' nest. The pale Aubusson carpet, however, still covers the floor, and deadens his footsteps as he crosses to the grand piano between the windows, dropping his hat on a table as he goes. He seats himself at the instrument, raises the cover of the keyboard, and plays a few exploratory chords. The piano's keys are stiff, at first, and the sound tentative, as a voice would be that had not been used in a great while, but it mellows and grows full and sonorous as he continues to play.
After a few minutes, he begins to sing. "Una furtiva lagrima negl'occhi suoi spuntò ..." Sweet and beautiful: Donizetti's Nemorino, telling of his beloved, and the secret tear that spills from her eye ...
Downstairs, at the back of the house, Upton stands by the generator, listening to the distant music, and he gapes, just a little. He is a house agent, not a poet, and not particularly gifted with words. He would not be able to describe the sound of the voice he is hearing if someone were to ask him. But others have described it for him.
It is honey, and cream, and gold. It is dark velvet and sunlight. It is incomparable. For as long as it lasts, Upton stands immobile, forgetting time, forgetting his work, forgetting everything but the sound of that voice. When it stops, finally, he stands dazed, and sighs as the everyday world settles around him once more; and as he bends to help the footman, there are tears in his eyes.
Excerpted from GRAMERCY PARK by Paula Cohen. Copyright © 2002 by Paula Cohen. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Paula Cohen has been a passionate Victorian for as long as she can remember, and has always been obsessed with opera. She lives with her husband and their cat. She is the author of Gramercy Park, also published by Fourth Estate.
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