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Authors: Stefanie Matteson

Murder on the Cliff

BOOK: Murder on the Cliff
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Murder on the Cliff

A Charlotte Graham Mystery

Stefanie Matteson


For Dave


This novel is based on the story of Townsend Harris, the first American consul to Japan, and the geisha Okichi. Although Harris and Okichi are historical figures, their descendants are products of the author’s imagination, as are the places and incidents associated with them. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

The author is indebted to Oliver Statler, author of
Shimoda Story
, and to Liza Crihfield, author of
Ko-uta: “Little Songs” of the Geisha World


Charlotte Graham stood on the lawn of the Newport Art Association waiting for one of the handsome young officers from the U.S. Naval War College to escort her to her seat. As an official representative to the Black Ships Festival, she couldn’t just sit down, she had to be escorted. She was glad the art museum was located on one of Newport’s highest points: a breeze off the ocean relieved the heat, which at ten in the morning was already intense. The traffic heading down Memorial Boulevard toward the beach was already heavy. Much of it was motorcycle traffic. Newcomers quickly learned that in order to get around Newport during the season, you had to give up the idea of driving a car. She had driven up last night from New York and was staying with her old friends, Connie and Spalding Smith. Spalding, a retired foreign service officer who had been posted for many years in Tokyo, was president of the Black Ships Festival. Connie and Spalding had invited her to join the United States delegation, and she had readily accepted. “The city by the sea” was one of her favorite places. She loved its smell—the pungent odor of old boxwood and privet, the cool, salty smell of the sea, the sweet honey scent of lindens in bloom. She loved the shimmering sea light that made you feel as if you were in Deauville or Honfleur, and the soft, sweet air, swept clean by the sea mist and fog. Even in the off season, there was an easy sense of leisure about the town, as if it were always a lazy summer afternoon. She also loved the variety of the architecture: the colonial mansions of Newport’s golden age, the sprawling cottages of the high Victorian era, and the imposing palaces of the robber barons, which attracted millions of tourists each summer. Newport even had an example of Viking architecture, or so it claimed. The mysterious stone tower in the park across the street was said to be the remains of an old Norse church built by Viking explorers.

Against the backdrop of the mystery tower, a large tent had been set up for the opening ceremonies. The tent faced a statue of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry which was encircled by red-and-white striped banners of the kind used by the Japanese on festive occasions. Old Bruin surveyed the scene majestically from his lofty perch, looking more like a vainglorious Roman emperor than a distinguished naval hero. He clutched a cape, toga-like, in one hand, and a dress sword in the other. He was facing East, of course. Before Perry sailed into the Bay of Tokyo (then called Edo) in 1853 with his black-hulled fleet, the forbidden empire had been closed to the world for two hundred and fifty years. No one allowed in; no one allowed out, except for a few Dutch traders. The shogunate had even banned the construction of oceangoing vessels. Only frail little junks were permitted. But Perry had changed all that. Although the history books claimed he won over the Japanese with his negotiating skills, the cannon assembled on the decks of his “floating volcanoes” probably had a lot more to do with his success than diplomacy. In any case, Perry was revered as a hero by the Japanese for reasons Charlotte didn’t quite understand (although he came as an enemy, he did so with great style; and the Japanese always held style over substance, Spalding explained), which is how the Black Ships Festival came to be held every year in his home town. It combined the celebration of Japanese-American friendship with the celebration of Japanese culture: sumo wrestling, kite flying, the tea ceremony, flower arranging, paper folding, puppet theater … And this year, for the first time, geishas.

Which was how Charlotte came to be there. That, and her friend Connie, or rather Constance Harris Montgomery Brandolini Smith. For Connie had been married almost as many times as Charlotte.

In the park a Marine Corps color guard was presenting the Stars and Stripes, and the white flag with the red ball in the center which represented the Empire of the Rising Sun. A Navy band in dress whites played the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and then the Japanese national anthem.

“I hope they come for us soon,” said Connie, fanning her face with her program. “This heat is getting to me.”

Her makeup had started to cake and damp marks had appeared under the arms of her green silk suit. Looking at Connie now, it was hard to believe she had once been one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars. She had the kind of delicate complexion that didn’t stand up well to time and she had gained a lot of weight, but the passage of the years couldn’t erase her lovely pale blue eyes and the charm that had endeared her to millions of fans.

It was said that Perry unlocked the door to Japan but Townsend Harris opened it. A distant relative of Connie’s, Townsend Harris was the first American consul to Japan and the first foreign diplomat of any stripe. He arrived in the small fishing village of Shimoda in 1856 (the Japanese had barred foreigners from the capital) and spent two lonely years hammering out Japan’s first foreign trade treaty. Or maybe not-so-lonely years. Harris was famous in Japan, not as a diplomat, but for his love affair with a beautiful young geisha named Okichi. After Harris’s return to America, Okichi was scorned by the townspeople because of her association with the foreign barbarian. For years she waited in vain for his return. Despised by her countrymen and despondent over her abandonment, she sought solace in Japanese rice wine. Over the years she sank deeper and deeper into poverty. Finally she took her life by plunging off a cliff. Or so the story went. Historians dismissed much of it as the fabrication of romantic minds, but it was nevertheless the most famous love story in Japan and the subject of countless books, plays, and movies. The most famous of the movies was
Soiled Dove
, the extravagant Hollywood production in which Charlotte had played Okichi opposite Lincoln Crawford as Townsend Harris (a miscasting if there ever was one). It had been her biggest box-office success, thanks in part to the sizzling love scenes. Charlotte’s on-the-set affair with her leading man had been one of her most notorious, though she was thankful she had had the good sense—on that occasion, at any rate—not to ruin it by marrying him. He had died shortly afterward in a car accident.

Though much of the Okichi story may have been a myth, Okichi’s union with Harris had produced a child. Now, a descendant of Okichi’s child was coming to Newport with a group of geishas from a famous geisha house in Kyoto. Known as Okichi-
, or “grandchild of Okichi” (though she was really a great-great-etc.-grandchild), the descendant of Okichi’s love child had traded on the famous story to become one of Japan’s most famous geishas. She would be the mistress of ceremonies for the Afternoon of Japanese Culture to be held on Okichi Day, the third day of the Black Ships Festival and the hundredth anniversary of Okichi’s suicide.

As she waited for her escort, Charlotte cursed herself for being there. Although she loved Newport, she hated these kinds of functions. But she almost always gave in. Out of sense of obligation, she supposed. She felt that she owed it to her fans, who had been loyal to her for fifty years: half a century! More than that, if you counted the ones who’d been around when she’d made her first movie in the late thirties. God, she was getting old! Just how old always caught her by surprise when she thought about it, which wasn’t often. It also surprised her fans, who still expected her to look just as she had then. She sometimes understood why Garbo had closed the door on her public when she was still a young woman. But despite her age, Charlotte wasn’t doing too badly. Although they sometimes expressed surprise that she was still alive, her fans still recognized her. Indeed, she still looked much as she had in her youth: the strong jaw-line; the alabaster white skin; the glossy black hair, once worn in a famous pageboy, but now pulled back into a tight chignon; the thick, winged eyebrows that had become a
cause célèbre
when she refused to let the studio makeup men pluck them to pencil-line thinness. Most of all, her elegant carriage and her long, leggy stride still identified her as someone special, even to those who had no idea that she was one of the century’s foremost stars of stage and screen.

The young naval officers were seating the delegates according to status: first American, then Japanese. First to be seated were the governor of Rhode Island and the Japanese consul general for New England and their wives. Next came the mayor of Newport and the mayor of Shimoda, Newport’s sister city. As they awaited their escorts, an American couple broke away from a knot of Japanese delegates on the lawn and headed toward Connie and Charlotte.

BOOK: Murder on the Cliff
11.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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