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Authors: Gillian Roberts

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BOOK: The Bluest Blood
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“Still, I miss the joys of a quiet night at home.” He sighed. “Just you—in that dress—an’ me and a fire goin’…”

I wished I could believe I was the object of his homebound lust, in or out of my gown, but I doubted it, no matter what he’d say. I knew that what he secretly sighed for was, instead, his new computer. Friends swore this was a phase he’d outgrow, but meantime, Mackenzie yearned only to surf the Net and search the Web and electronically natter about topics of subminimal interest.

What a sexy, interesting man he’d been, pre-Internet. “You know,” I said, “watching you watch a computer screen…well, it’s too
intense
for a steady diet. Too overwhelmingly exciting. I need to come up for air, catch my breath, balance the madness of it all with something drab and boring—like a fabulous party in a mansion.”

He chuckled, unfazed. He and his pet computer were above my barbs.

“I think we’re close now,” I said. “Coming up on our left any minute: fabled Glamorgan.”

“Be still, my heart,” Mackenzie said.

Glamorgan had been named after a place in Wales, like so many other Main Line sites: Radnor, the township it was in, as well as Bryn Mawr, Bala-Cynwyd, Narberth, Merion, Berwyn. All were remnants of the Welsh Barony, fifty thousand acres granted by William Penn to Quakers from Wales. I don’t know what Glamorgan means in Welsh, but when I heard or read mention of the house, it was the
glamour
portion that shimmered and reverberated. And the stardust spilled over to its owners.

“Don’t be disappointed,” Mackenzie said, as if reading my mind, “if neither they nor their house is what you fantasize. These are the Philadelphia suburbs, after all, where snobbery is so refined they invert it. Old money’s hallmark is that it’s invisible. You’re supposed to look penniless. You know: I’m so secure, I don’t have to
prove
anything. If you don’t know who I am, you’re nobody, so who cares? Plainness is the only Quaker vestige you people have left, and it makes no sense.”

I just hate it when he says
you people,
lumping me with the entire population of the Delaware Valley, even if this time, my lump was the incredibly wealthy segment. “Is it possible your standard of decor is based on
you people’s
New Orleans bordellos?” I murmured. “The Roederers are anything but drab. The day of the school ceremony, Tea Roederer wore a velvet patchwork suit with high-laced boots. And amber jewelry that must have once belonged to the czarina. And he wears gorgeously cut suits and funny black-rimmed glasses—they aren’t drab. Not flashy, but interesting, like they’re happy with themselves.”

“Goodness me,” Mackenzie said. “I’ve never heard you do fashion commentary before.”

“Only because I, too, expected dowdy. And older. They’re in their forties, which seems too young for the amount of fun they have.”

I peered through the windshield, looking for the silhouette of The House, but all I saw was landscaping and high stone walls.

And a peculiar light fluttering behind a clump of trees on my side of the road. As if there were lanterns on the ground, and all of them with erratic batteries.

But, of course, there were no lanterns. Only that warm, erratic ground light, as if the sun had fallen on the side of the road ahead, illuminating unevenly from below so that naked branches became grotesque silhouettes, grabbing at the air.

The car moved on slowly as Mackenzie studied the left side of the road, looking for the house.

Fire.
I tried to say so, but only
fff
emerged because we rounded a small bend, and what I saw pushed all the words and horror out shapelessly, squeezed into a scream.

Mackenzie hit the brakes so hard we skidded, nearly slamming into a massive stone post. “What the hell—” Then he, too, saw. He flung open his car door and raced toward the ragged light, toward what I’d seen—a man hanging from a bare-branched tree, dangling, broken-necked, above a pyre, his trousers, jacket, and hair licked by flames.

There was no saving him. Mackenzie could run and perform heroic measures and be as brave as could be. It would still be too late. It was obvious from where I sat, unable to move at all. The lynched man’s eyeglasses had melted, their thick frames twisted into dripping shapes. It was too late.

Once he was close, Mackenzie seemed to understand the futility of intervention. He stared at the dangling body before turning back to the car, walking at a regular pace.

“We should—we have to—the police—fire company—” I said, when he returned. “Even though he’s already—” I fumbled in the glove compartment. “Your cellular—in here?”

“Mandy. Wait.” He put his gloved hand on my arm.

I shook my head and pawed at the compartment. I found maps and a small tape recorder, batteries, and a roll of quarters, but no phone. “Where is it?” I asked, more shrilly than intended. Yards away, the dead man twirled in thermal currents. The flames’ angry orange reflected on our windshield, colored the planes of Mackenzie’s face. “We have to tell the people in the house to call—”

“Look,” he said softly. “Carefully.”

“I know it’s too late and we can’t save him, but even so—he has to be treated like—give him human dignity—we can’t simply—”

“Look,” he said softly. “Please.”

I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Once was enough.”

“Try. Calmly.”

I forced myself. I saw the melted glasses again. And then I realized those were all I saw. No nose, or mouth, or features. Where were his eyes, his ears? Where was his face?

“Now look at the hands,” Mackenzie said in the voice of a patient teacher.

Pale semicircles lacking digits. Like a rag doll’s. Like the face.

“He—it’s not a man, is it?” I whispered. “Never was.”

“It’s an effigy.”

The burning form was stuffing covered with cloth. “Nobody was lynched.” It comforted me to say it out loud, make it fact. “There’s nobody there.”

Mackenzie nodded.

I should have laughed with relief, except that what
was
there—the effigy—had been designed to strike terror, and had succeeded. That nobody had been killed was a comfort, but that somebody had gone to great lengths to inspire fear negated that comfort.

The fire had been set on a gravelly semicircle beside the road. A turnaround, perhaps. Or maybe the site where rubbish was collected, because I spotted a trash can near the pyre.

Trash can. I looked across the road at the granite post we’d nearly hit. It and its twin across the drive anchored a pair of arched wrought-iron gates. And on each column, the word GLAMORGAN was carved in Gothic relief.

“It’s them,” I said. “Again. This has their trademark all over it.”

“I think so, too. Those zombies.”

The group he meant—the Moral Ecologists—had declared war on libraries and reading lists, determined to banish “mental pollutants.” Our small private school was added to their hit list the day our Roederer Trust grant was announced. This past week, via the Moral Ecologists’ placards, bullhorns, and pamphlets littering the school’s entryway, I’d been informed that
The Color Purple
“corrupted” young minds, that
Slaughterhouse Five
would “promote deviant sexual behavior,” and that both
The Diary of Anne Frank
and
The Canterbury Tales
were too sexually explicit for our students. Our students! It would be funny were it not so frightening.

The Moral Ecologists denied responsibility for the series of book-burning bonfires plaguing the city, but praised whoever had done the “good deed,” calling them “civic heroes.” The fires were nevertheless accepted as their handiwork, although nobody could prove the connection yet.

With each new fire, I saw visions of men wearing black boots and swastikas, of robotic salutes, the triumph of ignorance. The world hadn’t taken those people seriously soon enough, either.

Tea and Neddy Roederer, repeatedly funding libraries, giving dollars like so many slaps in the face of the Moral Ecologists and their attempt to restore the Middle Ages, were their prime and fearless antagonists. I shuddered and realized I was shaking my head, trying to deny them access.

“Look at the effigy’s glasses,” I said softly. Neddy Roederer’s trademark black-framed Buddy Holly glasses. “The trash can.” The Moral Ecologists, accusing Neddy of promoting garbage, called him Trashman. “The kindling. All right angles. They’re burning books again. Only now, they’re also burning Neddy Roederer, right at his front door.”

“Not Neddy, an effigy,” Mackenzie corrected me. “But how’d they know about tonight? Are we to believe they don’t read books, but they do read the social calendar? Not that your school’s fund-raiser would be listed in it. How did they know?”

“Maybe it’s coincidence. Or PR savvy. They always manage to schedule their events to get the most media attention. Remember the one at Penn the day the freshmen’s parents came to visit? For all we know, they’ve harassed the Roederers for a long time.”

“Let’s go to your party,” Mackenzie said.

I didn’t budge. Couldn’t. The party was now locked in with this malevolence. The excitement I’d felt seemed nostalgic, part of an earlier, more innocent, time. As if I’d been a child half an hour ago. The fire had burned away the shine and coated everything with ash.

“Nobody got hurt,” Mackenzie said. “Remember. Nobody got hurt.”

“Yet.” I shivered, and it had nothing to do with the damp chill in the air. My thoughts were impaled on the idea of people who needed to intimidate and terrorize, on their lethal mix of hatred and self-righteousness, their potential power, their targets. I looked over at the smoldering books on the gravel, and then back at Mackenzie, resplendent in his tuxedo, and I sighed. “Nobody got hurt—yet,” I said. “But they will.”

And they were. It generally feels great to be proven right, which I ultimately was. But at no point did it feel great. It never felt anything but horrifying.

Two

To my amazement, the up-close power of Glamorgan dispelled the dark brooding that had overtaken me. I paused at the front door, admiring the house’s assurance. It was a monument to entitlement, sitting on its knoll as if it had always owned the site, as if serfs might still live in hovels in the rolling countryside surrounding it, might still tug forelocks to their lord of the manor.

The power of the place almost made the ugliness across the road seem a taunt not worth noticing. Almost.

I don’t know what style the long-ago architect considered his sprawling stone handiwork. I knew the place had grown over the years from its origins as a farm before the Revolutionary War. Now, it had a hint of chateau, a whiff of villa, a dollop of Stately Homes of England. It should have been a dreadful pastiche, but when it had all been stirred and simmered and ivy-covered, an exquisite dwelling emerged. Solidity itself.

Once inside, I had to fight to keep my jaw from dangling. Excess can be stunning when each portion of it is exquisite.

A place like this was probably subversive. The Old World’s palaces were the result of gross inequities—rigid class structure and unearned privilege—that drove our forefathers away. What then, to make of New World citizenry living in regal splendor? And nobody screeching, “Off with their heads!”

I stood in the entrance hall inhaling the essence of money. Acres of finely grained marble flooring. A circular table inlaid with a tableau of peacocks and palms formed of semiprecious stones. A screen whose panels of pastel cherubim must have once belonged to the Medicis. An RV-sized chandelier that caught its own light in a thousand crystal facets. An upward sweep of curved and carved staircase.

I could live with this. “I was meant to be raised in the lap of luxury,” I told Mackenzie.

“Me, too,” he said. “Only problem was, luxury stood up before I arrived.”

“If you’ll follow me,” a man in a morning coat said in Brit-crisp syllables.

“Butlers.” Mackenzie’s voice was low. “You don’t hardly find them these days.”

“The majordomo,” I corrected him. “The
head
butler.” Education compliments of
Masterpiece Theatre.

Mackenzie raised a single, challenging eyebrow.

“Excuse me,” I said to the morning coat. “You are the Roederers’ majordomo, are you not?”

“That some kind of putdown?” His accent was suddenly pure Philly, and his tone, offended. “Because I don’t appreciate it. Me, I’m a musician. My cousin owns the catering company. I don’t have a gig, I work for him. I gotta eat, too.” And resuming his unearned hauteur, he turned his back and again we followed.

“Cocktails in the libr’y,” he said. “This way.” His Philly had Anglo edges again.

“He’s a minordomo,” Mackenzie said.

We passed several rooms, a series of settings, visual hits of color and texture: burgundy leather, pale silk, dark wood and floral wallpaper, a harp, a globe, flowered chintz, a marble bust on a pedestal.

“I need a phone,” Mackenzie said.

“Ask the minidomo.” I was busy coveting. I’m not materialistic. If I were, I’d have to be masochistic as well, because my profession cuts me no slack on the “stuff” score. So I don’t yearn or fester or covet. Not usually. But there are exceptions to every rule, and this was one of them.

We reached open double doors. “The libr’y,” the mock-butler said. “The bar is in here. Another is in the music room.”

BOOK: The Bluest Blood
7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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