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Hall of Secrets
By CATE CAMPBELL
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 Louise Marley
All rights reserved.
Everything under the soaring dome of the First Class Dining Saloon of Berengaria seemed to glitter. Beyond the draped windows, the North Atlantic night was dark as pitch, but within, crystal goblets, silver flatware, and Minton china gleamed. The candelabra sparkled, and the linen tablecloths and waiters' jackets were blindingly white. Even the instruments of the string quartet glistened, their varnished surfaces catching the light as the ship rocked. Allison Benedict could see the musicians scraping and sawing away beneath potted palms at the far end of the room, but she couldn't hear a note for the whistle of the wind past the funnels.
The ocean had no sympathy for the passengers of Berengaria this night. Candle flames swayed with the ship's rocking. The white-coated waiters, approaching with the first course, teetered dangerously on the parquet floors as the ship plunged and jolted. The middle-aged woman on Allison's left gasped and seized the edge of the table. Half the seats in the Dining Saloon, including those at the captain's table, were vacant, their intended occupants nursing mal de mer in their staterooms.
The seas were rough, there was no doubt. Before dressing for dinner, Allison had spent an hour watching the waves splash up the sides of the ship to wash over the lifeboats in their webs of rope and to soak the promenade decks. Whitecaps formed and then dissipated, spitting foam over the dark surface of the water. The deck creaked beneath her, and the curtains at the windows rippled and swayed.
Her mother, Adelaide, was in their suite even now, groaning and miserable. She had taken to her bed, and ordered her maid to bring a vinegar compress for her forehead. Allison's own maid was in her bunk in steerage, unable to open her eyes or set her foot on the tossing deck without being sick. Only tonight's invitation to sit at the captain's table had saved Allison from being trapped in the suite with her mother. Adelaide had spent the first days of the voyage angling for that invitation, and she couldn't bear to waste it.
The waiter safely reached the table, his tray of hors d'oeuvres intact. He bowed to the captain and began to serve the first course, tiny anchovies quivering in a bed of tomato aspic. The older woman waved hers away, and pressed her gloved fingers to her mouth. In defiance of this, Allison spooned hers up in two bites, aware that her neighbor shuddered, watching her.
Captain Rostron smiled. "Miss Benedict, you're a very good sailor."
"Thank you, sir," Allison murmured, glancing demurely up at him. He was quite old, forty at least, but he cut a dashing figure in his dress uniform, with gold epaulets on the shoulders and ribbons draped across his chest. "I like the storm. It's thrilling."
"I don't know how you can say that," her neighbor moaned. "The ship sounds like it's coming apart!"
"Not at all," the captain said smoothly. He waited while cups of clear consommé were placed before them, then added, "I assure you, Mrs. Benton-Smith, there's nothing to worry about." He winked at Allison, and she felt her cheeks warm. "Miss Benedict is quite right. It's exciting to watch a good ship brave a storm."
"Miss Benedict," Mrs. Benton-Smith said, turning an inquiring look on her. "You're traveling with your mother, I believe. Is she not coming to dinner?"
"No," Allison said. "She's not feeling well."
"Of course she's not. No one is."
"I am," Allison said. "I feel perfectly well!"
"A good sailor," Captain Rostron repeated. "We should give you a job, Miss Benedict. An officer of the Cunard line!"
Allison laughed, but Mrs. Benton-Smith scowled. She said stiffly, "Perhaps, Miss Benedict, you should be in your stateroom, tending to your poor mama."
Allison's laugh died. She said defensively, "Mother's maid is with her."
Mrs. Benton-Smith sniffed. "Well! I do find that curious. In my day, a young girl did not come to dinner unchaperoned."
"I'm out, though," Allison protested. "I made my debut this year, and I've just finished my Grand Tour."
"Even so. There are proprieties to be observed, especially for girls of our class."
"Come, come, Mrs. Benton-Smith," the captain interposed. "We're well into the twentieth century. We've fought the Great War. Young people are different now. The world is different from the one we grew up in."
"Different," Mrs. Benton-Smith said, pursing her lips, "does not mean better."
The ship lurched at that moment, and the gentleman across from Mrs. Benton-Smith spilled his bowl of consommé down the front of his starched white shirt. A flurry of waiters descended on the table to mop him up, to escort him to his stateroom to change, and to reset his place. During the fuss, Allison rested her chin on her hand and contemplated the view of the Dining Saloon from the captain's table.
In the past three months, she had seen so many Gothic cathedrals, baroque concert halls, and rococo palaces that her visual palate was exhausted, but she thought the churches and halls and palaces had been appropriate in their historical context. This ship—designed by a German before the war, so perhaps it was understandable—was overladen with flourishes and scrolls and gilt.
For her mother, the opulence of Berengaria was perfect. The glow of gold leaf, the shine of enameled flowers, the elegant moldings and carved archways, all supported Adelaide Benedict's sense of status. She felt the elegance of the ship was only her due, and she found it a comfort after the shortcomings of the European hotels, the inconveniences of the trains, the refusal of waiters and maids to speak English.
It all made Allison feel like a caged bird, restive and fluttery and trapped.
She had felt that way most of her debutante year. She had wearied early of the dull parties, the proper dresses, the careful hairstyles. She found her mother's obsessive perusal of society columns humiliating, and Adelaide had haunted every step, managed every move her daughter made, analyzed everyone she met. Allison lost her temper once, after a reception when Adelaide had pushed her in front of the newspaper photographers so often they began turning away when they saw her coming. That night, Allison snapped at her mother that she should have been the debutante. Adelaide retorted that she had not been so fortunate as to have a debutante year, and she seized upon the moment to hold forth at length about how grateful her daughter should be.
Occasionally, Allison had observed other girls and their mothers laughing together, embracing, whispering secrets. Such moments left her confused and uneasy. She had never whispered in her mother's ear. No one in her family embraced. She felt as if there were something she should understand, something these other families knew that hers didn't, but she could never quite grasp what it was.
She had nursed a hope that the Grand Tour might be different, but in that, too, she had been disappointed. Her mother crowded every day with lectures, guided walks, shopping excursions, teas and suppers with other mothers and daughters traveling the same route. They had been in Europe no more than a week before Allison understood that her Grand Tour was not hers in any sense. It was Adelaide's Grand Tour. Allison was only the justification.
Dinner in the First Class Dining Saloon proceeded. A dish of cucumbers in dill sauce appeared, then steamed sole, followed by roast beef. Allison could have eaten it all, as she had the anchovies, but even in her mother's absence, habit persisted. She cut everything into tiny pieces, tasting two or three morsels and making little piles of the rest on her plate. She drank two full glasses of champagne, though, something Adelaide would never have allowed, or would have ruined by adding water. Mrs. Benton-Smith tutted when the waiter refilled Allison's flute a third time. Allison was tempted to point out that Mrs. Benton-Smith herself was on her fourth glass, but she held her tongue, despite feeling wonderfully giddy from the champagne. She had no doubt the old fussbudget would find a way to report any incivility to her mother.
The chocolate soufflé made Allison's mouth water so intensely she had to dab her lips with her napkin. She couldn't resist taking a spoonful before mashing the rest into dark paste. Mrs. Benton-Smith, she noted, overcame her malaise enough to devour all of hers. Her long silver spoon rattled in the empty glass.
"Girls," Mrs. Benton-Smith lamented, casting an eye over Allison's figure. "I used to be slim myself! It's not easy getting older, Miss Benedict, I promise you. I hate being so fat, but what can you do?"
Allison was certain Mrs. Benton-Smith didn't expect an answer—or want one—so she didn't offer it. She was, of course, an expert on the topic, thanks to Adelaide.
Captain Rostron pushed back his chair, rose, and bowed farewell to the ladies. The other diners rose, too, in a flutter of furs and silks and opera scarves. Most of them staggered off to their staterooms to wait out the storm. A few made their way into the First Class Lounge, and Allison, draping her silk wrap around her shoulders, followed these hardy ones. On the stage of the lounge the orchestra was tuning. Allison settled into an upholstered chair, and a waiter appeared with a small silver coffeepot and a cup on a tray. She smiled her thanks, smoothed the embroidered gauze of her evening dress, and sat back to enjoy the music and her precious moments of solitude.
Her respite didn't last long. The steward, the man who cleaned their suite, kept their flowers fresh, and brought them tea or coffee when they wanted it, appeared beside her chair and bowed. "Pardon, Miss Benedict. Mrs. Benedict is asking for you."
Allison set down her coffee cup and gazed out at the listing dance floor. The orchestra had begun a Viennese waltz, and a foursome of dancers was trying to execute the steps despite Berengaria's pitching. They laughed as they clutched one another to stop from falling.
The steward said, hesitantly, "Miss Benedict?"
Allison stood up, drawing the length of her silk wrap through her fingers, and cast the steward a pleading glance. "Could you tell her," she begged, "that you couldn't find me? Just this once?"
The steward's eyebrows rose, and his lips parted as if to make some protest. Allison murmured, "Please."
He suddenly grinned, and she saw that he couldn't have attained many more years than her own nineteen. His uniform and the solemn expression he affected made him appear much older. She wondered what he must think of the Benedicts, of her imperious and demanding mother, of her own mostly silent presence. She realized with a pang that she hadn't even learned his name.
If any of this bothered him, she couldn't tell. His grin faded as he glanced around the room, then pointedly gazed over her head as if she had become invisible. He cleared his throat, and turned his back to her.
Allison whispered, "Thank you!" and hurried away before he could change his mind.
Margot Benedict watched Blake rise and walk toward her, leaning on his lion-headed cane. His right leg still dragged, and neither she nor his cardiologist could predict how much that would improve. But he was walking. And smiling.
He settled into the Morris chair Dickson had ordered for him, but he sat erect, disdaining the chair's reclining position. Margot drew up a straight chair. She threw her coat over the back and sat down with her medical bag at her feet. "Blake, you're looking well. You seem to be feeling much better."
"I do feel better, Dr. Margot." Ah do. Since the stroke, Blake's accent had reverted to his decades-old Southern roots. Margot took care not to comment on it. She knew, the moment he realized it, he would make every effort to shed that resurrected drawl.
"Are you walking every day? With Sarah?"
"Of course," he said. With a hand that trembled only a little, he gave a mock salute. "Following doctor's orders."
"It's good to hear someone follows them," she said with an affectionate smile. She tried to look him over without being too obvious. She was gratified by how clear his eyes were, how much his color had improved. He had lost weight, but that was natural. His speech had been distressingly slow to return, but now he was forming his words—and his thoughts—with ease. Only the Southern vowels, the slight slurring of the consonants, gave evidence of the aphasia that had persisted for so many months.
It had taken a long time, but Blake was making his way back from the cerebral apoplexy that had made them all fear for his life. "I'll be back at work by Christmas," he said, but she saw the quiver of his eyelids. He was worried she would deny him.
"We mustn't rush things," she said. She lifted a forefinger and shook it in gentle warning. "I'm not going to let you work sixteen hours a day anymore! There may be some damage to your heart, and we don't want—"
With a touch of his old dignity, he interrupted her. "I appreciate that, Dr. Margot, but a man needs to work. And since Mr. Dickson has been so kind as to hold my job ..." He raised his eyebrows and tapped his fingers on the armrest of the Morris chair.
She linked her hands loosely in her lap. "Your job will always be there, Blake, you know that. Father could never be satisfied with anyone else. We've had to borrow the Sorensens' butler several times, and that hasn't been entirely—shall we say—felicitous."
He said, "The Sorensens' butler is a dipsomaniac, I'm afraid. I expect Mr. Dickson figured that out."
Margot chuckled. "Yes. He dips into the brandy when he thinks no one's looking. In any case, everyone at Benedict Hall is waiting for you."
"That makes me a lucky man."
Margot's heart warmed with gratitude. It had been a terrible year for Benedict Hall, full of tragedy and sorrow. Blake's recovery seemed to signal a better year to come.
She stretched her legs out in front of her and began to relax. It had been a long day, and this was the brightest spot in it. "You might be surprised to learn we're adding to the household this winter," she said. "Do you remember my young cousin Allison?
"I believe I do. She and her mother—Mrs. Adelaide, I recall—visited once when Miss Allison was only two or three. I'm not quite clear on how she's related, though."
Margot laughed. "It's not easy! Cousin Allison is related to Mother and Father both. Adelaide is Mother's cousin on her mother's side, and she married Father's cousin Henry."
"So that makes her your third cousin, I believe—or is it fourth? Or," he said, lifting his thick white eyebrows, "both?"
"Oh, Lord, Blake, who knows? Mother's the only one who could keep those things straight, and right now, she doesn't really . . ." Her voice trailed off. It was painful to feel her mother's accusatory glances on her, or worse, to know her mother was doing her best not to see her at all. Sometimes it seemed as if Edith had found a way to look right through her, as if Margot had become transparent since Preston's death. It was a difficult situation, one she had solved, in part, by moving into Blake's apartment above the garage so she wouldn't have to meet her mother in the hallway. She hadn't told Blake that, because she knew he would say it wasn't proper, but it was exhausting to have to confront her mother's pain every time they met.
Margot understood that her mother was protecting herself. Whether for good or ill, the family had a sort of unspoken agreement that allowed her to do it. Edith had concocted her own explanation for the death of her youngest son, and though it bore no resemblance to the truth, no one argued with her. No one troubled her with the exact account of what Preston had done or how he had brought about the disaster. Even Margot felt it would serve no purpose, and she was the one Edith blamed.
Hattie believed what Edith believed, of course, but Hattie's conviction didn't include making Margot responsible. She treated Margot with the same affection she always had. She fussed over her laundry, worried over the late hours she kept at the hospital, and insisted on carrying food out to the garage apartment when she missed dinner.
Excerpted from Hall of Secrets by CATE CAMPBELL. Copyright © 2014 Louise Marley. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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