- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
THE DAYS WERE longer then, in that long-ago summer at the shore, and the air was softer, and the sunlight more golden as it winked and wobbled off a bluer sea. The men wore immaculate white linen and jaunty boaters of straw as they sauntered, hands in pockets, up and down the boardwalk; the women wore white lace and white bonnets, broad-brimmed and gay. The dress I wore most often that summer (yet felt I had not worn enough, could not wear enough) was in fact my very first lace, and to this day I can hear the whisper it made when the breeze, warm and sweet and smelling of salt, came fluting in off the water. And I can hear the rustle of the crinoline beneath; and, at my throat, as precise and real as though it were happening at this moment, I can feel the flutter and tickle of the bonnet ribbons. Time does not really pass away; people do.
There must have been other women that summer, besides Miss Lizzie, who wore mourning; but for the life of me I cannot recall them. Perhaps they kept themselves and their griefs indoors, never ventured out into that bright white sunswept world where grief would have seemed beggarly, derelict. Or perhaps, so self-involved was I that season, so intoxicated by a sense of my own, and the world's, infinite possibilities, that I simply never noticed them.
For, two years after the end of the War to End All Wars, the country had at last unbuckled its belt and loosened its tie. Women had obtained the vote; and, with it, they had helped replace the Democrats—represented by sad somber Mr. Wilson and his would-be successor, Mr. Cox—with the Republicans—represented by the hearty handsome Mr. Harding. There was everywhere a feeling of expectation, of Something Wonderful trembling just around the corner. Little wonder, then, that a thirteen-year-old girl (having just arrived, so she saw it, on the shores of womanhood) might have failed to notice anything so shabby, so offensive, as mourning.
Difficult it would have been, however, not to notice Miss Lizzie. She was, for one thing, our nearest neighbor. She rented the white clapboard cottage next to ours, and every morning from the parlor I would watch her bustle down the steps and across the small sandy yard, tufted with weed, to the gate of the picket fence. She would unlatch the gate, slip through it, then turn and latch it once more, carefully, deliberately, like someone who took care against intruders. And then she would set off down the street, a short squarish figure, her hands folded into the sleeves of her black dress, her purse hanging from her forearm like a padlock. She moved with her shoulders hunched and bent slightly forward, leaning into a private wind, and she wore her black, I thought, almost proudly: as though it were a uniform, as though she were on march.
For another thing, of course, she was notorious. I doubt there was a single child in all New England, in all the country, who had not heard the famous bit of doggerel about her and the axe. I remember my disbelief, and my secret thrill of excitement, when Father revealed to me that, yes, the woman next door was indeed that Lizzie, the woman who had been tried, almost thirty years before, for the awful murder of her parents. And had been found, he added gravely, pointedly, not guilty.
"So the truth," I said, hugely disappointed, "is that she didn't do it?"
"The truth?" Father smiled sadly and stroked his mustache. As on every Sunday after-church afternoon, part of the Boston Herald was spread out across his lap, while the rest of it—except for the Katzenjammer Kids, whom I had appropriated to my nest on the sofa—lay scattered about the floor around his easy chair. Music was waltzing from the gramophone, outside the sun was shining, and the day was one of those lazy Sundays, now extinct, that seemed filled with time enough for everything and everyone.
"The truth," he said, "may never be known, Amanda, except to Miss Lizzie and the Lord. But legally she is entitled to our respect, and—"
Across the parlor, working methodically on her needlepoint, my stepmother sniffed once. Loudly.
Father sighed. With a patience that had over the years been drained of its original fondness, he turned to her and said, "Yes, Audrey?"
"They arrested her, didn't they?" she said, her lips set in the thin grim line they assumed whenever she expressed what she knew would be an unpopular opinion. "Where there's smoke, there's fire." This she delivered, nodding her head slightly, with the absolute conviction she reserved for all her platitudes; and then she took a chocolate bonbon from the box that lay (as always) on the coffee table, plopped it into her mouth, and bent once again over her needlepoint.
"Legally," Father said to me gently, "she is entitled to our respect. And spiritually she is, like everyone else, entitled to our compassion."
My stepmother sniffed again and said, without looking up, "Nothing good ever came out of Fall River."
No people are more provincial than the metropolitan middle class. Had Miss Lizzie come from Boston, instead of Fall River with its mills and its tradesmen, my stepmother would have asked her over for tea. Had she come from Back Bay, axe murderer or no, my stepmother would have been camping on her front porch.
* * *
This conversation took place, as I say, on Sunday. With a neatness of coincidence that in fiction would seem suspicious, but in real life (when you are thirteen) seems inevitable, I met Miss Lizzie face-to-face on Monday.
Annie Holmes and I were in Drummond's Candy Store on Broad Street, ostensibly to buy licorice whips but actually to display our summer finery to Roger, the son of the owner. He was tall and lean and dark, and he had poetic hollows below his cheekbones and fine black hairs along the backs of his long tanned fingers. (And also a sleek black Shaw motor-bicycle.) He was our Heathcliff, Annie's and mine, and both of us would have gladly let him ravish us; even, I am sure, if we had known exactly what that meant.
As we left, I turned at the doorway and drawled over my shoulder—with the insouciance, I believed, of the born coquette—"So very nice to see you again, Roger."
Annie snorted explosively beside me, and for an instant I was furious, and then suddenly the giggles were upon us both, overpowering, and Annie pushed me quickly out the screen door. Directly into Miss Lizzie and an armload of packages that went soaring abruptly off in every direction.
I stood there, immobilized, while Annie scuttled around me to help the woman. There were fewer parcels, only three or four, than their eruption had made them seem, and in only a moment Miss Lizzie had collected them all. Then she turned to me and said, "Why the open mouth, child? Catching flies?"
I closed a mouth that I had not, until then, realized was open.
She narrowed her eyes. Behind the pince-nez clipped to the bridge of her nose, they were a very pale blue, almost gray, and large, which made them seem expectant, waiting. "You're the Burton girl," she said. "Next door to me."
I nodded. Her hair, pulled back into a chignon beneath her black bonnet, was silver-white. She must have been in her late fifties or early sixties, but her skin was fine-pored, neither wrinkled nor freckled. Like most women in the first few years of the 1920s, before rouge and lipstick became emblems of chic, she wore no makeup.
"Well then," she said, and she smiled, "do you have a first name?" It was really quite an extraordinary smile, creating two deep dimples in her cheeks, transforming what had been a stern, severe face into one of great liveliness and charm.
"Amanda," I said, finding my voice. It was raspy, threaded, as though I had not used it for years; I cleared it and repeated, "Amanda."
Her left arm grasping the packages, she held out her right hand for me to shake. At thirteen, I had received few offers of a handshake, and I felt very sophisticated accepting hers. (And very grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to demonstrate this sophistication.) Her hand was small and plump and dry.
"Lizzie Borden," she said, and if she was waiting for a reaction from me, a flinch of horror, a gasp of surprise, she gave no sign of it. Nor did I provide such a reaction. Unaccountably, I felt a sense of kinship with the woman.
Annie, however, reacted. Her body stiffened and her eyes grew wide. She held out her hand reluctantly, as though putting it into a flame, took Miss Lizzie's, and jerked it back immediately after whispering her own name.
With a small smile, amused and inward-looking, Miss Lizzie turned to me. "And how is it, Amanda, that you haven't come a visiting?"
I smiled back, and already it seemed to me that we were sharing some private joke; although what it was, I could not have said. "But I haven't been invited."
She laughed. It was a full laugh, almost a man's laugh, loose and easy and up from the diaphragm. "Well then," she said, "we must rectify that at once. Would you care to come to tea at four o'clock?"
"Today?" I said, and I think some disappointment slipped into my voice. Annie and I were planning a swim at four (the time at which, by happenstance, Roger Drummond habitually took his).
"If not today," said Miss Lizzie with a small shrug, "then perhaps some other time."
"No," I said, suddenly deciding. "This afternoon would be fine. I'd love to. Really."
She turned to Annie. "Of course you're invited as well, dear."
Annie nodded numbly.
"At four, then," said Miss Lizzie to us both. She adjusted her packages, turned, and went bustling down the street.
When she was out of earshot Annie clutched at my shoulder and whispered frantically in my ear, "That was her! That was really her!"
Casually, I shrugged. The cloak of sophistication still lay, regally, upon my shoulders.
"Lizzie Borden," Annie hissed, jumping up and down beside me. "Lizzie Borden! Took an axe and gave her mother forty whacks!"
"The jury in the trial said she wasn't guilty."
Annie stopped jumping and stood back. "Oh no," she said, horrified. "Amanda. You're not really going to go there? Amanda! You can't! Are you screwy?"
"Legally," I announced, "she is entitled to our respect."
* * *
If Father had been there that day, I am certain that I would have asked him for permission to visit Miss Lizzie's house, and I am equally certain that he would have given it. But he was in Boston, back at the office where he did something immensely important but rather vague with stocks and bonds, and would not be returning to the shore until Friday.
There was no question whatever of discussing the visit with my stepmother. She would have flatly refused. Not because she feared for my safety (I think that by this time in our lives she would have gladly handed me over to a bona fide witch, providing she received in return an iron-clad guarantee that I would be roasted and eaten), but because the neighbors might learn of it and be scandalized. She dreaded the idea of scandal attaching to herself, probably because she was such an assiduous collector of the scandals that attached to others.
* * *
I shall have to talk about my stepmother for a moment, for she will play an important if unwilling role in the events which follow.
It was said during that August—although by no one who actually knew any of us—that my brother and I hated her. This was simply not true. Hate, like love, requires an acceptance of the other, a recognition of his or her reality. What we felt for our stepmother was something worse, something far more shameful. It was contempt.
I never knew my natural mother; she died shortly after my birth. When I was five years old, Father was diagnosed as tubercular and shipped off to a sanitarium in the dry therapeutic Southwest. My brother William and I were sent to my father's parents, to live with them in a rambling stone mansion built before the Revolutionary War, a conflict which, from the way my grandmother spoke of it, displaying an easy familiarity with its participants, I assumed had occurred some few short months before.
It took over a year for Father to regain his health, and, in the process, he gained a new wife while my brother and I gained, so he told us upon his return, a new mother.
She had been his nurse, out there in the Wild West of cowboys and Indians and recuperating consumptives, and before me now I have a photograph, brown-edged and brittle, that shows him sitting back on a chaise, gray mountains folding and unfolding off into the background, a blanket around his legs and a smile across his lips that seem so absolutely radiant with vitality that it is impossible to believe he was ever in his life unwell. She stands behind him in her medical whites, her hand upon his shoulder, and the smile she wears (or so it has always seemed to me) is at once relieved and triumphant, that of the cat who has, after a long-sustained and wearisome stalk, finally snared the canary.
In an attempt, no doubt futile, to avoid cattiness myself, I must say that I believe she made an honest initial effort (and probably much against her natural inclinations) to like my brother and me. That first day, I remember, she beamed at me and, bending down, swept me up against a broad buoyant bosom smelling strongly of lilacs. "Amanda!" she said against my ear. She squeezed and released me, abruptly, a woman uneasy with children, with touching them, and she held me out at arms' length, her head cocked to the side, and said, "We're going to be great chums, aren't we, dear?"
The strain behind the smile was so obvious, even to a six-year-old girl, that I looked up in confusion to Father. Surely he could see that this blowsy woman, overdressed and (even then) overweight, was acting a part? That her affection was, transparently, affectation? Father stood looking down at us happily—proud, I think, of both of us, his wife, his daughter.
I looked to William, four years older than I, and he, at least, had seen what I had. Arms tightly crossed atop his chest, he pursed his lips at me and rolled his eyes heavenward.
I turned back to my stepmother and with the effortless cruelty of childhood I said, "I don't think so."
For only a second her smile flickered; then, immediately, she relit it. "Now, dear," she said, "you must give me a chance. After all, you know, Rome wasn't built in a day."
Petulant, willful, I pushed her away and screwed up my face and shouted, "No!" Then, chanting it viciously, "No no no no no," I turned and ran from the room.
* * *
I wince now, thinking of that moment, and of others. At our cruelest, William and I laughed outright at the clichés and the narrow-minded strictures around which she structured her life and around which she expected us to structure ours (ours, two children who had learned, from a year of doting and wealthy grandparents, that we were unique, privileged: anointed ). At our kindest, our politest, we pretended to ignore her; and I suspect that our kindness was far more cruel than our cruelty.
Our obvious scorn did nothing to improve her relationship with Father, who was trapped between two loyalties. But I truly believe (trying neither to minimize our awfulness nor to seek forgiveness for it) that the marriage would have deteriorated in any event. He and she were no longer playing the roles in which they had met and first loved each other; and, without the starched white uniform and the coarse woolen blanket, they were merely two (very) dissimilar individuals who happened to be living under the same roof. Father came from a tradition that believed that nothing but death could terminate a marriage, even a bad one; and so resigned himself to his lot. And she, I think, knew this, and so resigned herself to hers. She retreated into a sullen silence, nibbling her bonbons and lancing her needle in and out that taut circle of fabric, while her bosom, harking (as all flesh must) to the croon of gravity, slowly grew broader and less buoyant.
Excerpted from Miss Lizzie by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1989 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted March 31, 2001
Murder,lise,and hatered. In 1921 when young Amanda Burton finds her stepmother murdered her only hope is the help of an old woman. The woman's name is Lizzie Borden. Lizzie Borden was tired and acquitted of the ax-murder of her parents 30 years before. Is Miss Lizzie a killer or is she a friend? And if Miss Lizzie did not kill Amanda's stepmother, than who did? And can they find the killer in time?
1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.