Set in turn-of-the-century New York and Newport, Rhode Island, Catherine Rae's novel Sunlight on a Broken Column blends romance and suspense in the story of two sisters who take different paths upon the loss of their family fortune.
After Caroline Slade's parents die suddenly in 1892, her father's debts force Caroline and her brother and sister to leave the family's New York City mansion. With the kind help of their elderly neighbor in the adjoining house, Caroline and her brother are able to complete their schooling, while their sister, Laurel, goes to New England in the hope of marrying well. When Lauren returns to New York in disgrace and impulsively marries for money, Caroline is caught in the middle as her new brother-in-law's strange, tormented behavior threatens to drive her sister away and throws the family into turmoil.
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About the Author
Catherine M. Rae (1931-2000) is the author of several novels, including Sunlight on a Broken Column, The Hidden Cove and Flight from Fifth Avenue. She lived in Guildford, Connecticut.
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Sunlight on a Broken Column
By Catherine M. Rae
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Catherine M. Rae
All rights reserved.
The day we moved out of the old house on Harrison Street in downtown New York I tripped over the loose board in the front hall and cut my forehead on the edge of the small marble shelf meant for letters and calling cards. I had run back in from the waiting cab to coax Caesar, our large black-and-white cat of indeterminate age, from behind the kitchen stove, where he had taken refuge from the confusion caused by our departure. Like most cats, he disliked any interruption to his daily schedule, and besides, the noise made by the men who came for our trunks and cases as they tramped through the house probably hurt his ears.
That is why I fell: The rug in the hall had been taken up, the one Mamma bought to cover the place where my brother Jeremy had pried up a piece of parquet when he was little. He said he needed it for a boat he was making, but I know that he did it because he was in a temper at not being allowed to go over to the docks on the Hudson River with his friends.
"I've wanted a rug there for years, anyway," Mamma said airily when Papa asked her why she hadn't called the carpenter to repair the damage, "and it covers it so nicely."
Papa sighed, but after warning Jeremy against any further desecration of the house, let the matter rest. He never could say no to Mamma. He wasn't quite so amicable, though, when he saw me climb into the cab with blood dripping down over my cheek and Caesar clutched in my arms.
"Damn that cat!" he exploded. "He's nothing but one hell of a nuisance! Couldn't you have left him for the Conklins? They'll be moving in tomorrow. And what will you do with him in the new house?"
"Now, Samuel," Mamma said placatingly, "you know we'll need a cat wherever we live. There isn't a house in New York that doesn't have mice, and I'm simply terrified of the filthy things."
"Oh, very well," Papa said resignedly as he turned to me. "Caroline, stop that sniveling. You're upsetting your mother. That little cut can't be so painful. Here, take my handkerchief and mop up your face. Go on, driver."
He was wrong on two counts: First, he was the one who was upset, and second, I wasn't crying on account of the cut, but because we were leaving 314 Harrison Street, the only home I had ever known, and I dreaded living in the great, cold, stone mansion on Sixty-eighth Street.
My siblings took a more cheerful view of the move. Of course, they were older than I was. At that time, the fall of 1892, Brad, at twenty-two, was reading law at the firm of Lewis, Crouch, and Fisk (Mr. Fisk was an old friend of Papa's) and hoping to marry Elspeth Dowd in the near future. Jeremy, two years younger, was limping through Columbia College, undecided on a career.
Laurel, the beauty of the family, was eighteen, and had already had two proposals of marriage, both of which Papa had rejected. Everyone adored Laurel; even I, jealous little beast that I was, had to admire her. She seemed to have everything. As Mamma was fond of saying, the gods must have been smiling when she was born. Her long blond hair curled just enough to make it manageable, her brown eyes were flecked with gold (gold dust, to quote Mamma again), and her complexion had all the freshness and delicacy of the camellias I saw in the florist's window on Chambers Street. Next to Laurel I felt that I looked like one of the homemade rag dolls that old Miss Cooker in Number 212 used to make for the Christmas bazaar at the church.
I never understood how Laurel invariably managed to appear looking so lovely; she didn't spend hours at our small dressing table, but I noticed that she was careful never to leave our room without a glance in the long mirror that hung on the back of our closet door. She told me she had to make sure her skirt was hanging properly, and that all her buttons and snappers were fastened.
She was not only neat about her appearance, but also about her possessions: Her collection of small objects, a silver thimble (although to my knowledge she never sewed a stitch), a lovely, smooth marble egg, a miniature Limoges tea set, and a tiny wooden model of a sailing ship, were all carefully wrapped in tissue paper and stored in a Christmas box that had come from A. T. Stewart's Emporium. There were undoubtedly other things that I've forgotten, but I do remember Mamma saying Laurel was never a problem when it came to birthday presents. "Just give her a silver cat or a golden mouse for her treasure chest," she'd say, "and Laurel will love you."
I've often wondered what became of all those little objects — I haven't seen them in years.
* * *
At the time of our move uptown (everyone who was anyone in New York in 1892 was moving north, according to Papa) I was an awkward, skinny seventeen-year-old with straight brown hair, uninteresting greenish brown eyes, and a tendency to blush painfully. Mamma and Laurel did the best they could with me, but dresses never seemed to hang properly on my bony body, and even if I slept (or tried to sleep) all night with my head in rag curlers, my hair would be hanging down limply by the time breakfast was over. I finally took to wearing it parted in the middle and pulled back into an untidy bun. In a daguerreotype taken about that time I resembled a young girl in an early American painting I'd seen in one of Papa's books. She is by no means a beauty, but she has a look, an expression in her eyes that seems to be asking questions, the kind of look that is apt to irritate grown-ups.
* * *
I had seen our new home once before, but only from the outside. Mamma had taken Laurel and me up to Sixty-eighth Street in a cab one afternoon and had us driven slowly past it. She pointed with pride to the impressive entrance (seven wide stone steps leading up to a massive front door instead of the three narrow ones we had in Harrison Street), counted the windows (nineteen in all instead of eight), and exclaimed over the solid stone railing that surrounded the areaway on either side of the stoop, almost hiding four additional windows in the basement.
"Think of it, girls," she said, clasping and unclasping her hands in her excitement, "a drawing room, reception room, formal dining room, library, morning room — oh, I forget what else!"
"And separate bedrooms for Caroline and me?" Laurel asked.
"Bedrooms galore," Mamma replied. "And even dressing rooms as well as two upstairs sitting rooms. Oh, I can't wait until we're settled there!"
She had never complained about the lack of luxury during our years in Harrison Street, but it was obvious that she was looking forward to a life that Papa's newly acquired wealth would provide. He'd recently been made an officer (executive vice president, I think) of the bank in which he'd worked ever since he was a boy, starting as a messenger and moving up steadily. His father had been president of that bank years ago, and that may have had something to do with his unusually rapid rise.
As I remember, it was in 1890 that money began to be more plentiful than it had been earlier. We had more new dresses for one thing, and Mamma began to wear jewelry, but it was not until '92 that Papa declared himself "a rich man." At the time I had no idea where the money came from, and it was not until years later that I learned about the enormous financial risks he took. He couldn't have looked upon them as risks, though, because instead of worrying about his investments he boasted happily about the "killings" he made in the stock market. More than once I heard him urge Mamma to buy anything she wanted for the house: "Don't even think of economizing, my dear," he'd say. "I have enough money to buy a dozen houses now. Get whatever your heart desires." She did, too.
* * *
In the days that followed our trip uptown I brooded unhappily over the move, but I knew better than to tell Mamma, or anyone else in the family, that I had disliked the mansion on sight, that something about it frightened me, and that I would much rather stay in our neat little two-and-a-half-story brick house.
The nine houses that made up the L-shaped enclave encompassing Washington and Harrison Streets were almost identical, each with its modest front door and the aforementioned eight windows, two of which were dormers. They were simple houses, the kind a child in kindergarten would draw on a slate. There were no bay windows, and except for the fanlights over the front doors, no ornamentation of any kind. I loved them. Ours, known as the Jonas Wood house, had been built in 1804, and with the exception of the addition of a bathroom and new appointments in the kitchen, very few changes had been made over the years.
There are those who hold that large rooms are easier to maintain than small ones, but I do not agree with that. The somewhat cluttered parlor we had struck me as being the perfect size, at least for our family. It held the six of us comfortably, and if Mamma entertained, the sliding doors between it and the dining room could be thrown open. She didn't entertain frequently in those days, though; she was too busy raising us, she said.
We didn't have much household help at that time, just Molly, a sort of maid of all work, who cooked (unless Mamma decided to produce something special for dinner) and cleaned, and a laundress who came in one day a week. Ordinarily, our dinners were not fancy, consisting as they did of meat, potatoes, and whatever vegetable was available. How I loathed the turnips that showed up on the table so often during the winter months! I also became tired of apple pie, which the boys clamored for, and which we had for dessert three or four times a week. We certainly were not living in the lap of luxury, but it was the only life I had ever known, and I resented having to leave it.
To make matters worse, none of the old familiar furnishings were to go to our new home. They would not be suitable, according to Mr. Colby of W. and J. Sloane. He was undoubtedly right; the chairs and sofa, while comfortable, were worn, and I had to agree that the lamp tables looked ready for a secondhand furniture store once the covers we kept on them had been removed. All the same, I objected to Mr. Colby's casual dismissal of articles I'd lived with for so long. It was like abandoning old friends.
Friends! That was another thing: The only real friends I had lived in our enclave, and while Mamma promised that I'd be able to keep in touch with them, I knew that once we were in Sixty-eighth Street the old intimacy would be lost. There'd be no more knocking on Sarah Makin's door to find out if she'd walk down to the milliner's with me, no more impromptu tea parties with the Ambrose girls, and worst of all, no more late afternoon walks with Peter Aspinwall after his classes at Columbia were over for the day. Sixty-eighth Street did not look like the kind of street where neighbors knew each other, much less fraternized.
"You're making yourself miserable over nothing, Caroline," Mamma said when I complained about being cut off from people I'd known for years. "You would do well to follow Laurel's example; she's looking forward to new experiences, to meeting new people, to a whole new way of life. Why can't you adopt that attitude?"
I'm not Laurel, I thought. I'm not like her in any way. She's pretty and I'm plain; she'll go to parties and dances and I'll stay home with a book, and she'll make a brilliant marriage while I'll be a spinster forever. Even Peter Aspinwall wouldn't marry me, and he's no great catch.
* * *
When the cab drew up in front of 7 East Sixty-eighth Street on the day of the move, I had to admit that it looked more welcoming than it had when Mamma first showed it to us. Of course, it had been empty then, with the bleak look that hovers over unoccupied houses, and now heavy lace curtains hung at the nineteen windows and some sort of greenery had been planted in the large stone box in the enclosure over the front door, while clumps of late fall flowers bloomed in the window box to the left of the stoop.
My entrance to our new home was no more graceful than my exit from the old one had been: Caesar, no doubt as unhappy as I was, squirmed out of my arms as I crossed the threshold, causing me to stumble over him as I leaned down to catch him. In trying to save myself from falling, I caught hold of the nearest object to me, a huge Chinese jardiniere. I don't know which noise was the louder, the crash of the china or Papa's voice when he shouted:
"For God's sake, Caroline! What has come over you today?"CHAPTER 2
Not surprisingly, I was the only member of the family who did not adjust well to our new surroundings. Laurel, Brad, and Jeremy might have been born to the luxury with which we were suddenly surrounded — the maids, the butler, the cook, and all the accoutrements of wealth. The silks and velvets, the tapestries and embroideries, to say nothing of the massive pieces of furniture Sloane's and Mr. Colby had chosen, may have been suitable for the mansion, but I found them overwhelming.
One by one I removed from my room as many of the little pillows and ornaments as I dared, secreting them in the back of the linen press at the end of the upstairs hall. I could do nothing about the large armoire or the oversized canopied bed, but after I took down the portrait of a simpering female that hung over my fireplace and snipped off the fringe at the edges of my draperies I felt that I could tolerate, if not like, the room. In fact, I came to enjoy spending an evening in front of the small fire in the grate with Caesar purring in his basket beside my chair. He spent most of his time in my room, going down to the kitchen for food only at stated intervals. Then Mrs. Ellis, the cook, who fortunately liked cats, would let him out into the garden for what she called his "airing."
Since my room was in the rear of the building, overlooking the back garden, I could watch him as he prowled among the bushes and shrubs. If I tapped on the glass, his ears would perk up, and in a moment or two his yellow-green eyes would be staring at me. From that same window I could see the house directly behind us, the garden of which was separated from ours by a waist-high stone wall. I was interested in what I could see of that house because it looked so much like our own, at least from the rear. The similarity of the two structures was so striking that when I walked around the block to view the Sixty-ninth Street house from the front, I was not surprised to see that it was practically a duplicate of ours.
It is true that our neighbor's house was somewhat smaller, having only three floors above the basement instead of our four, but the entire design, the stoop, the entrance, the arrangement of the windows, and most of the architectural details were exact duplicates. Even the decorative stone railings that ran around the edges of the roofs were identical.
I was standing on the north side of Sixty-ninth Street staring at our near double when a face appeared in the bay window on the second floor in what would would be the equivalent of Mamma's sitting room. I turned and started to walk toward Fifth Avenue, thinking that whoever it was would motion to me to go away, the way old Mrs. Shelbourne used to do when we played some noisy game in front of her house on Harrison Street. I was wrong: When I looked up at the window again it had been thrown open, and an elderly woman with a lace cap on her head leaned out. I couldn't hear what she said, but from her gestures it was clear that she wanted me to cross the street and knock on her front door. When I nodded that I understood, she clapped her hands and closed the window quietly.
Why did I answer her summons so readily, without hesitating for a moment, or even wondering why she wanted to see me? I didn't stop to think that it might be unusual, even peculiar, for a complete stranger to be invited off the street into one of the city's grandest houses. Was it boredom with the dull life I was now leading, or merely curiosity? No, I think it was not either of those, but rather the authoritative way in which the old lady had commanded me to come to her.
A tall, rather muscular but neatly dressed manservant — he didn't look quite like a butler — answered my ring and led me up a flight of marble stairs, exactly like ours except for the color of the carpeting, to the second floor.
"Come in, come in," an impatient voice cried out even before the man had finished knocking. "Come over here, girl, where I can see you, and Gordon, go see about tea! Tea at once! And make sure there are madeleines today."
The man Gordon withdrew silently, closing the door carefully behind him. My hostess, who was sitting erect in a large, velvet-covered wing chair near the window, held out a small, soft hand for me to take. She wore no rings, and when I looked up I saw that her only jewelry was a diamond and amethyst pin at her throat.
"I know who you are," she said suddenly. "I have seen you in your garden. I do not, however, know your name."
"I am Caroline Slade," I said in response to the implied question.
"And I am Henrietta Prentice," she said briskly. "Prentice is spelled i-c-e, not i-s-s; Miss Henrietta Prentice, of a long line of New York Prentices."
Excerpted from Sunlight on a Broken Column by Catherine M. Rae. Copyright © 1997 Catherine M. Rae. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: Caroline,
Part II: Leland,
Part III: Caroline,
Part IV: Laurel,
Part V: Caroline,
Part VI: Laurel,
Part VII: Caroline,
Part VIII: Laurel,
Part IX: Caroline,
Also by Catherine M. Rae,