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My hands were so tightly clasped that the lavender kid gloves covering my knuckles fitted as tight as another and thicker skin. It required strict self-control to keep from indulging in a fault I had been so often scolded for, pleating and creasing, in my nervousness, the overdrapery of my dull gray, corded silk, traveling dress.
Around me the walls of the ladies' parlor of the hotel appeared to stretch miles, aided in that illusion by numerous large mirrors. Red plush velvet drapery, which allowed little or no light through the long windows, was picked out with gilt fringe. And there were fat, button-studded chairs of little comfort, sofas all gilt and crimson, and a marble-topped table or two. All this was intended, I knew, to suggest the opulence expected in an establishment of the first rating, but to me it seemed vulgar.
Perched on a chair an arm's distance away from me, my escort held his watch in one hand, looked from the dial to the lobby door and back again at measured intervals. His impatience at being kept waiting was so very apparent that I felt guilty even though I had no part in this delay.
Twice I glanced at the mirror which fronted my present uncomfortable seat. My reflection should have given me confidence, but at this moment the knowledge that I was well dressed, coiffured in the best fashion, and in no way inferior to those others sitting here chatting and waiting was of little use in slowing the fast beating of my heart, the panic arising within me.
This invitation had come so unexpectedly that I still felt as if I had been whirled here on one of those windstorms they call cyclones. Out of my neat and staid life at Ashley Manor School into this—this—
I swallowed, though my mouth was dry. One does not tear up a peaceful and somewhat monotonous life in a day without feeling the consequences. And it had been only a scant forty-eight hours since I had been summoned by Madam Ashley herself to meet this man now consulting his watch for the fifth time.
Mr. Thaddeus Hogle, man at law—for five years he had seen to the small estate my father had left when his ship and he had been sunk by a Confederate blockade runner during the late rebellion. When Mr. Hogle had made the trip out to Ashley Manor I had first believed that it was to tell me of a further loss of funds, or some such crisis which would make me more dependent than ever on my salary at the school. I was fortunate in being one of the teachers there, that I well knew. For Madam Ashley was unique in her treatment of her staff. She required that they be ladies of impeccable social standing (we numbered a De Lancy and a Carroll among us). And our students were also of a distinct type, the daughters of families newly rich who wanted the polish only those of higher society might give them.
Having been educated since I was twelve until I was sixteen in Brussels, my French and German were such as Madam considered excellent enough to equip young ladies who would make a grand tour of the Continent as part of their emerging into adulthood. And for that service I was well housed, adequately paid, and supposed to dress in good fashion—which I was and did.
But Mr. Hogle had not come with more gloomy news of finances; rather he had started his interview with a question which had surprised me:
"Miss Penfold, does the name Sauvage mean anything to you?"
But it had not and when I said so he had continued:
"It would have to your father. In 1848, when there was grave trouble in Paris, Captain Penfold was of great service to that family. They have a most unusual history. The founder of the line was a man of noble birth who was exiled to Louisiana about a hundred years ago. It is necessary to tell you all this that you may understand better the background of the request I bring you.
"The exile refused to use his name because of an injustice underlying that exile. He became a trader with the Indians and assumed the name "Sauvage" in consequence. In time he married, legally, a Princess of the House of the Wind, the royal line of the Creek Nation.
"When the first Napoleon offered amnesty to any of the old nobility who would back his own pretensions, the son of this Sauvage was sent to France. He became an official of the Court, but on the fall of Napoleon returned to New Orleans.
"As a family the Sauvages are unusually gifted with mercantile ability. In the early 1850s their interests spread into California, where mines, railroads, and large landholdings passed into their hands. However, they had never completely broken their ties with France and some of their wealth is also invested there.
"When the disorders of the February Revolution began in Paris, Madame Sauvage and her daughter were in danger. Chance brought your father to their aid. He gave the ladies his protection and support during a most trying time.
"Shortly after her ordeal Madame died. Her husband remarried—unfortunately." Here Mr. Hogle had paused, coughed dryly as if not quite sure how to phrase what else he would say. It was plain to me that he had no wish to go into what might lie behind that "unfortunately."
"There was a separation, the second Madame Sauvage remained in France. Her husband, his daughter and son by his first wife, returned to establish a home in California. Very recently, some years after his father's death, Mr. Alain Sauvage discovered that he had a young half-sister in France. Her situation there was bad and he arranged to bring her here to provide her with a secure and comfortable home.
"Traveling has proven to be difficult for her as she is not too strong. Nor is she accustomed to the manners and the language of this country. As I handle matters for him in the East, he consulted me concerning this problem. He desires a lady of good family, one who speaks French, is acquainted with some aspects of continental life, and who is young enough so his sister will not feel as if she is under the direction of a governess.
"A generous emolument, including a dress allowance (since this lady must accompany his sister into society), is offered. I chanced to mention your name, he immediately recognized it and connected it with your father, for whom all his family have had the greatest regard.
"He would be most pleased for you to consider this situation. I agreed to approach you. If you are interested a meeting will be arranged for you and the family at their hotel in New York."
At the time this seemed as if it might have been lifted from the pages of one of those light novels which we tried to discourage the young ladies of Ashley Manor from reading. But I could not imagine Mr. Hogle lending his prim person to any ill-founded romantic action.
I found myself asking for time to consider and he nodded, seeming to agree at once that this was only proper. It was later, that evening, that I had returned to Madam Ashley's study.
"You have come to a decision?" she asked with that remoteness I had long since come to accept as a part of her character.
"I have come to the decision that I need advice, Madam."
Then she had smiled faintly, but as if she were, like Mr. Hogle, pleased with my prudence.
"I have heard of the Sauvage family," she said slowly, "though not of this half-sister. They are well established, both financially and socially. The elder sister is now married to Lord Ellinboro and lives in England. In the business world Alain Sauvage has a name for shrewd but honest dealing. He is respected and his establishment in California is said to be of the first quality. He is unmarried and in his middle thirties. For a bachelor his reputation is acceptable."
At this point her gaze no longer met mine so squarely. Certain matters were never openly discussed. The eyes and ears of a respectable lady were carefully closed to those aspects of life. That these did exist were known, but they were not acknowledged.
"He is discreet"—she made a careful choice of words—"and bears a good name. Certainly what he offers you is worthy of consideration. You are now twenty-four, trained and fitted to move in the best society. Were you yourself of a less discreet temperament I would not speak to you this frankly. But the ability you have shown in handling the problems of some of our girls, without becoming emotionally involved, is noteworthy. Yes, I have every confidence in your being equal to this position."
Again she hesitated, and then spoke in a rush of words as if she must make me aware, almost against her will, of the importance of what she now said.
"I need not point out to you that marriage, except in very exceptional circumstances, is the only secure pattern of life for any lady. In California a female of good family and impeccable manners will have many excellent opportunities. Choices there are unlimited. You will be entering that society with the best of introductions and your want of a personal fortune will not matter.
"I am speaking plainly, but I think you will understand that I do so in your own interest. You may stay here and continue as a teacher, but this is a chance such as few are ever offered."
I did not have doubts, her cold estimate of marriage chances was that of society. This was logical and something the world in which I moved was well aware of. But I still had a personal aversion to such decisions made only for motives of a "secure establishment." Also what if I traveled a full continent away, only to discover the position uncongenial? Had I passed the age of youth when one was willing to take a chance on the unknown? And that thought aroused me to say, "I shall at least go to meet the Sauvages."
Which decision had brought me, this late afternoon in March, to sit waiting in a room of too many mirrors, too much red velvet, too—
A page approached Mr. Hogle. The lawyer rammed his watch back in his pocket and arose, offering me his arm. My hands were numb with the tightness of the grip I had on them. There was still time to turn and go. I was a little giddy as I got to my feet. This was all too fast, too unexpected. As if I were being whirled along without any will of my own. But I realized, too, that I had indeed made one decision, the results of which had to be faced. I must meet the Sauvages.
We were escorted upstairs into the sitting room of a suite. More red velvet, gold, marble, numerous bouquets of scented flowers surrounded the three people awaiting us. Three—no, four—for there was one who stood in the half-shadow behind a divan on which a girl half reclined, supported by a nest of small satin- and lace-covered cushions as if she found the effort to sit up beyond her capacity.
Though she was the central core of that group she did not dominate—one's eyes went first to the man who advanced from before the fireplace to bow. He was not as tall as Mr. Hogle, topping my own height by only a few inches. But he had an air about him which made him impressive in any company.
Not that he was handsome, his features were too harshly cut. But he carried himself with assurance, as if he had often faced situations in which his will had prevailed. Memory pricked me unhappily—so had my father been, ruler in his own ship world. But though I recognized that authority, in this man it made me uneasy for some reason I could not define.
His complexion was dark, his hair black. Contrary to custom he was clean-shaven, even his hair clipped a little shorter than eastern fashion dictated. He wore a dark suit, and there was only the spark of fire in a massive ring on his right hand to relieve the general somberness of the impression he made.
"Miss Penfold"—his voice was not as harsh as his face, rather gave a feeling of warmth; but that also I found disturbing in a new way—"this is indeed a pleasure." Neither his voice nor his words were familiar in a way I could resent, yet when he held out his hand, I had to make myself grasp it in turn. In defense against a stirring of emotion I could not give name to, I stiffened within, perhaps also without. I was aware of his touch as I had never been aware of any personal contact before, as he drew me forward to greet his companions.
"Mrs. Deaves, may I present Miss Penfold."
He made no explanation of his relationship to this woman. But I could guess it was a close one. She sat straight-backed, a piece of elaborate needlework lying across her lap, its colors in contrast to the garnet red of her dress. She must be, I speculated, some eight or nine years my senior and had used every art to preserve youth. Her fair hair had been puffed and built into a high coiffure in which was set a garnet-encrusted comb, and more of those sullenly red stones were at her plump wrists, her throat, and her ears.
"Miss Penfold." She inclined her head majestically as if setting between us from the first some barrier.
Being well schooled in the subtleties of a feminine world, I grasped easily enough that she resented me, for what reason I could not yet fathom. But already the master of this household had turned from her to the girl among the pillows.
"Miss Penfold, my sister, Victorine." His second introduction was as blunt as the first. The almost curt way of making me known to the others I found a little daunting. Was this his regular manner, or had it been assumed for me alone, to let me know from the beginning that I was on a different footing from his family and friends?
I shoved that suspicion to the back of my mind, intent now on the girl I was asked to companion. Her mass of loose hair, only token-confined by that latest fad, "flirtation ribbons" ending in tiny silver bells, was as dark as her brother's. But her skin was ivory fair, with very little trace of color, other than in the lips so fully curved and always moist, as if she had run tongue tip across them.
She was no pretty doll of a jeune fille. Rather there was a quality which made me, in a rare flight of the fancy I seldom allowed myself to unleash, think of those classic beauties of history who we have held up before us as the epitome of dangerous and sometimes fatal charm.
Yet her expression lacked animation, her eyelids drooped, she presented the appearance of one whose inner strength was small, leaving only this perfect shell of what might have been.
She wore a pink wrapper, better suited to the boudoir than the parlor, and her feet were hidden by a silk shawl which had half slipped from across her knees, as if she were too wearied to draw it up again. She regarded me languidly, with no interest at all.
"Enchanté, mademoiselle." Her voice carried the echo of a childish lisp.
Then she held out her hand, but not to me. That fourth figure moved hastily out of the shadow to place in Victorine's fingers a crystal vinaigrette. She sniffed at the aromatic contents, sank back farther in her cushion nest, as if uttering those two words of dubious welcome had exhausted her. Her brother paid no attention, rather handed me to a chair so I was settled to face the ladies, subject to a sharp, if veiled, study from Mrs. Deaves, a lackluster stare from the girl.
She who had come out of the shadows was plainly a maid, a quadroon with the exotic, startling beauty of such a racial mixture. Across her arm lay a second shawl and she held a fan as if ready for her mistress's call.
Tea was served, we exchanged the stilted conversation of strangers. It was as if we were trying, on another level of understanding, to learn more about each other than each of us wished to reveal in turn. Victorine did not speak at all.
She accepted a cup languidly, drank perhaps two sips, refused, with an exaggerated shudder, any selection from a plate of small cakes and sandwiches. At length she closed her eyes. Neither Mrs. Deaves nor her brother apparently noted her rudeness. Had she been one of the girls lately under my supervision I would have spoken sharply. Only here I was no "lady instructoress." Though if this was a sample of Victorine Sauvage's usual conduct, I did not wonder that her brother wished her to have a companion.
Mr. Sauvage switched to French, perhaps so trying to awaken his sister to her duties as hostess. But he never glanced at her when she did not respond. At last he set down a cup, which I believed he had been holding merely as a matter of form, and launched directly into our business.
Excerpted from Velvet Shadows by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1977 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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