Authors: Beatriz Williams
G. P. PUTNAM'S SONS
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Copyright Â© 2014 by Beatriz Williams
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The secret life of Violet Grant / Beatriz Williams.
1. NiecesâFiction. 2. AuntsâFiction. 3. Family secretsâFiction. 4. World War, 1914â1918âFiction. I. Title.
PS3623.I55643S48 2014 2013043630
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To my beautiful grandmother, Sarena Merle Baker
n the summer of 1914, a beautiful thirty-eight-year-old American divorcÃ©e named Caroline Thompson took her twenty-two-year-old son, Mr. Henry Elliott, on a tour of Europe to celebrate his recent graduation from Princeton University.
The outbreak of the First World War turned the family into refugees, and according to legend, Mrs. Thompson ingeniously negotiated her own fair person in exchange for safe passage across the final border from Germany.
A suitcase, however, was inadvertently left behind.
In 1950, the German government tracked down a surprised Mr. Elliott and issued him a check in the amount of one hundred deutsche marks as compensation for “lost luggage.”
This is not their
“Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love.”
NEW YORK CITY
nearly missed that card from the post office, stuck up as it was against the side of the mail slot. Just imagine. Of such little accidents is history made.
I'd moved into the apartment only a week ago, and I didn't know all the little tricks yet: the way the water collects in a slight depression below the bottom step on rainy days, causing you to slip on the chipped marble tiles if you aren't careful; the way the butcher's boy steps inside the superintendent's apartment at five-fifteen on Wednesday afternoons, when the super's shift runs late at the cigar factory, and spends twenty minutes jiggling his sausage with the super's wife while the chops sit unguarded in the vestibule.
Andâthis is important, nowâthe way postcards have a habit of sticking to the side of the mail slot, just out of view if you're bending to retrieve your mail instead of crouching all the way down, as I did that Friday evening after work, not wanting to soil my new coat on the perpetually filthy floor.
But luck or fate or God intervened. My fingers found the postcard, even if my eyes didn't. And though I tossed the mail on the table when I burst into the apartment and didn't sort through it all until late Saturday
morning, wrapped in my dressing gown, drinking a filthy concoction of tomato juice and the-devil-knew-what to counteract the several martinis and one neat Scotch I'd drunk the night before, not even I, Vivian Schuyler, could elude the wicked ways of the higher powers forever.
Mind you, I'm not here to complain.
“What's that?” asked my roommate, Sally, from the sofa, such as it was. The dear little tart appeared even more horizontally inclined than I did. My face was merely sallow; hers was chartreuse.
“Card from the post office.” I turned it over in my hand. “There's a parcel waiting.”
“For you or for me?”
“Well, thank God for that, anyway.”
I looked at the card. I looked at the clock. I had twenty-three minutes until the post office on West Tenth Street closed for the weekend. My hair was unbrushed, my face bare, my mouth still coated in a sticky film of hangover and tomato juice.
On the other hand: a parcel. Who could resist a parcel? A mysterious one, yet. All sorts of brown-paper possibilities danced in my head. Too early for Christmas, too late for my twenty-first birthday (too late for my twenty-second, if you're going to split hairs), too uncharacteristic to come from my parents. But there it was, misspelled in cheap purple ink:
Miss Vivien Schuyler, 52 Christopher Street, apt. 5C, New York City
. I'd been here only a week. Who would have mailed me a parcel already? Perhaps my great-aunt Julie, submitting a housewarming gift? In which case I'd have to skedaddle on down to the P.O. hasty-posty before somebody there drank my parcel.
The clock again. Twenty-two minutes.
“If you're going,” said Sally, hand draped over her eyes, “you'd better go now.”
Of such little choices is history made.
â¢Â Â Â â¢Â Â Â â¢
I DARTED INTO
the post office building at eight minutes to twelveâyes, my dears, I have good reason to remember the exact time of arrivalâshook off the rain from my umbrella, and caught my sinking heart at the last instant. The place was crammed. Not only crammed, but wet. Not only wet, but stinking wet: sour wool overlaid by piss overlaid by cigarettes. I folded my umbrella and joined the line behind a blond-haired man in blue surgical scrubs. This was New York, after all: you took the smell and the humanityâoh, the humanity!âas part of the whole sublime package.
Well, all right.
Amendment: You didn't
to take the smell and the humanity and the ratty Greenwich Village apartment with the horny butcher's boy on Wednesday afternoons and the beautifully alcoholic roommate who might just pick up the occasional weekend client to keep body and Givenchy together. Not if you were Miss Vivian Schuyler, late of Park Avenue and East Hampton, even later of Bryn Mawr College of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. In fact, you courted astonishment and not a little scorn by so choosing. Picture us all, the affectionate Schuylers, lounging about the breakfast table with our eggs and Bloody Marys at eleven o'clock in the morning, as the summer sun melts like honey through the windows and the uniformed maid delivers a fresh batch of toast to absorb the arsenic.
Mums (lovingly): You aren't really going to take that filthy job at the magazine, are you?
Me: Why, yes. I really am.
Dadums (tenderly): Only bitches work, Vivian.
So it was my own fault that I found myself standing there in the piss-scented post office on West Tenth Street, with my elegant Schuyler nose pressed up between the shoulder blades of the blue scrubs in front of me. I just couldn't leave well enough alone. Could not accept my gilded lot.
Could not turn this unearned Schuyler privilege into the least necessary degree of satisfaction.
And less satisfied by the moment, really, as the clock counted down to quitting time and the clerks showed no signs of hurry and the line showed no sign of advancing. The foot-shifting began. The man behind me swore and lit a cigarette. Someone let loose a theatrical sigh. I inched my nose a little deeper toward the olfactory oasis of the blue scrubs, because this man at least smelled of disinfectant instead of piss, and blond was my favorite color.
A customer left the counter. The first man in line launched himself toward the clerk. The rest of us took a united step forward.
Except the man in blue scrubs. His brown leather feet remained planted, but I realized this only after I'd thrust myself into the center of his back and knocked him right smack down to the stained linoleum.
“I'm so sorry,” I said, holding out my hand. He looked up at me and blinked, like my childhood dog Quincy used to do when roused unexpectedly from his after-breakfast beauty snooze. “My word. Were you
He ignored my hand and rose to his feet. “Looks that way.”
“I'm very sorry. Are you all right?”
“Yes, thanks.” That was all. He turned and faced front.
Well, I would have dropped it right there, but the man was eye-wateringly handsome, stop-in-your-tracks handsome, Paul Newman handsome, sunny blue eyes and sunny blond hair, and this was New York, where you took your opportunities wherever you found them. “Ah. You must be an intern or a resident, or whatever they are. Saint Vincent's, is it? I've heard they keep you poor boys up three days at a stretch. Are you sure you're all right?”
“Yes.” Taciturn. But he was blushing, right the way up his sweet sunny neck.
“Unless you're narcoleptic,” I went on. “It's fine, really. You can admit it. My second cousin Richard was like that. He fell asleep at his own
wedding, right there at the altar. The organist was so rattled she switched from the Wedding March to the Death March.”
The old pregnant pause. Someone stifled a laugh behind me. I thought I'd overplayed my hand, and then:
“He did not.”
Nice voice. Sort of Bing Crosby with a bass chord.
“Did too. We had to sprinkle him with holy water to wake him up, and by sprinkle I mean tip-turn the whole basin over his head. He's the only one in the family to have been baptized twice.”
The counter shed two more people. We were cooking now. I glanced at the lopsided black-and-white clock on the wall: two minutes to twelve. Blue Scrubs still wasn't looking at me, but I could see from his sturdy jawâlanterns,
âhe was trying very hard not to smile.
“Hence his nickname, Holy Dick,” I said.
“Give it up, lady,” muttered the man behind me.
“And then there's my aunt Mildred. You can't wake her up at all. She settled in for an afternoon nap once and didn't come downstairs again until bridge the next day.”
“So, during the night, we switched the furniture in her room with the red bordello set in the attic,” I said, undaunted. “She was so shaken, she led an unsupported ace against a suit contract.”
The neck above the blue scrubs was now as red as tomato bisque, minus the oyster crackers. He lifted one hand to his mouth and coughed delicately.
“We called her Aunt van Winkle.”
The shoulder blades shivered.
“I'm just trying to tell you, you have no cause for embarrassment for your little disorder,” I said. “These things can happen to anyone.”
“Next,” said a counter clerk, eminently bored.
Blue Scrubs leapt forward. My time was up.
I looked regretfully down the row of counter stations and saw, to my
dismay, that all except one were now fronted by malicious little engraved signs reading
The one man remainingâother than Blue Scrubs, who was having a pair of letters weighed for air mail, not that I was taking note of any details whatsoeverâstood fatly at the last open counter, locked in a spirited discussion with the clerk regarding his proficiency with brown paper and Scotch tape.
Man (affectionately): YOU WANT I SHOULD JUMP THE COUNTER AND BREAK YOUR KNEECAPS, GOOBER?
Clerk (amused): YOU WANT I SHOULD CALL THE COPS, MORON?
I checked my watch. One minute to go. Behind me, I heard people sighing and breaking away, the weighty doors opening and closing, the snatches of merciless October rain on the sidewalk.
Ahead, the man threw up his hands, grabbed back his ramshackle package, and stormed off.
I took a step. The clerk stared at me, looked at the clock, and took out a silver sign engraved
“You've got to be kidding me,” I said.
The clerk smiled, tapped his watch, and walked away.
“Excuse me,” I called out, “I'd like to see the manager. I've been waiting here for ages, I have a very urgent parcelâ”
The clerk turned his head. “It's noon, lady. The post office is closed. See you Monday.”
“I will not see you Monday. I demand my parcel.”
“Do you want me to call the manager, lady?”
“Yes. Yes, I should very much like you to call the manager. I should very muchâ”
Blue Scrubs looked up from his air-mail envelopes. “Excuse me.”
I planted my hands on my hips. “I'm terribly sorry to disturb the serenity of your transaction, sir, but some of us aren't lucky enough to catch the very last post-office clerk before the gong sounds at noon. Some of us
are going to have to wait until Monday morning to receive our rightful parcelsâ”
“Give it a rest, lady,” said the clerk.
“I'm not going to give it a rest. I pay my taxes. I buy my stamps and lick them myself, God help me. I'm not going to stand for this kind of lousy service, not for a singleâ”
,” said the clerk.
it. I haven't even startedâ”
“Look here,” said Blue Scrubs.
I turned my head. “You stay out of this, Blue Scrubs. I'm trying to conduct a perfectly civilized argument with a perfectly uncivil post-office employeeâ”
He cleared his Bing Crosby throat. His eyes matched his scrubs, too blue to be real. “I was only going to say, it seems there's been a mistake made here. This young lady was ahead of me in line. I apologize, MissÂ .Â .Â .”
“Schuyler,” I whispered.
“.Â .Â . Miss Schuyler, for being so very rude as to jump in front of you.” He stepped back from the counter and waved me in.
And then he smiled, all crinkly and Paul Newman, and I could have sworn a little sparkle flashed out from his white teeth.
“Since you put it that way,” I said.
I drifted past him to the counter and held out my card. “I think I have a parcel.”
you have a parcel?” The clerk smirked.
Yes. Smirked. At me.
Well! I shook the card at his post-office smirk, nice and sassy. “That's Miss Vivian Schuyler on Christopher Street. Make it snappy.”
“Make it snappy,
,” said Blue Scrubs.
With whipped cream and a cherry,” I said.
The clerk snatched the card and stalked to the back.
My hero cleared his throat.
“My name isn't Blue Scrubs, by the way,” he said. “It's Paul.”
“Paul?” I tested the word on my tongue to make sure I'd really heard it. “You don't say.”
“Is that a problem?
I liked the way his eyebrows lifted. I liked his eyebrows, a few shades darker than his hair, slashing sturdily above his eyes, ever so blue. “No, no. Actually, it suits you.”
I held out my hand. “Vivian Schuyler.”
“Of Christopher Street.” He took my hand and sort of held it there, no shaking allowed.
“Oh, you heard that?”
“Lady, the whole building heard that,” said the clerk, returning to the counter. Well. He might have been the clerk. From my vantage, it seemed as if an enormous brown box had sprouted legs and arms and learned to walk, a square-bellied Mr. Potato Head.
“Great guns,” I said. “Is that for me?”
“No, it's for the Queen of Sheba.” The parcel landed before me with enough heft to rattle all the little silver
signs for miles around. “Sign here.”
“Just how am I supposed to get this box back to my apartment?”
“Your problem, lady. Sign.”
I maneuvered my hand around Big Bertha and signed the slip of paper. “Do you have one of those little hand trucks for me?”
“Oh, yeah, lady. And a basket of fruit to welcome home the new arrival. Now get this thing off my counter, will you?”
I looped my pocketbook over my elbow and wrapped my arms around the parcel. “Some people.”
“Look, can I help you with that?” asked Paul.
“No, no. I can manage.” I slid the parcel off the counter and staggered backward. “On the other hand, if you're not busy saving any lives at the momentÂ .Â .Â .”