The Secrets of Lizzie Borden (5 page)

BOOK: The Secrets of Lizzie Borden
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In truth, by this point, though I didn't dislike the hue, I was bored to death by blue. But Emma was convinced that blue was my best and
only
color. Browns, light or dark, she insisted, made me look depressingly plain and doused the fire in my hair; white for daily wear was just plain impractical; gray made me look washed out and glum; green was such a cliché on redheads any sensible woman with hair that color would do well to avoid it; yellow made me look jaundiced and stouter; black, despite the slight slimming illusion it worked upon my waist, was far too funereal and made my jaw look heavier in comparison; and the purples, pinks, peaches, oranges, and reds, all those soft sorbet and bright candy colors, my soul
hungered
for heightened the unfortunate tendency of my face to an ugly, mottled floridness; only blue did anything for me, though, granted, that was not saying much.
But Miss Mowbry was very kind; she spoke up for me whenever such remarks penetrated her ear trumpet. She said that I was right to favor blue, as it was clearly my best color and worked wonders with my eyes, chilling or warming them according to the shade I was wearing. Traveling light, she also thought, was very wise; I would have more room in my trunk for new dresses and souvenirs without having to spend my father's money on another trunk to put them in. “Lizzie is a sensible girl who opts for quality, not quantity,” she said with a look that implied that Carrie, despite her seemingly endless wealth, most decidedly was not. “That girl buys and discards dresses like a bumblebee drifting from flower to flower,” Miss Mowbry whispered to me, and I could not but agree and hope that the vivid raspberry-and-lemon-striped and ruffled confection Carrie was then sporting would soon find a place amongst her discards, as I feared just looking at it would bring on one of my awful migraines.
And Nellie Shore, with her acerbic tongue, thank goodness, was largely indifferent to me. She obviously didn't consider me a worthy subject to waste her wit and quips upon and always looked straight through me as though I were made of glass, and deafness seemed to afflict her whenever I spoke. Sometimes I was sorely tempted to rush into her stateroom in the wee hours and shake her out of a sound sleep and shout, “The ship is sinking!” right in her ear just to see if she would hear me. But, of course, I never did; it would have been behavior ill becoming of a lady and one of the Bordens of Fall River.
We were all laid low with seasickness for most of the voyage even though Miss Mowbry, the only seasoned traveler amongst us, had brought along a goodly supply of
Gully's Tablets for Mal-de-Mer,
which she swore by, and we obediently sucked on them even though they tasted like solidified quicklime.
When we steamed into port at Liverpool the sky was so gray it was very near black and the rain was so dense I had to squint and strain my eyes to make out the rooftops and church steeples in the distance. My companions shrieked in dismay, but they were more concerned about ruined hats and clothes, or, in the case of Miss Mowbry, dying of diphtheria, than this rather bleak introduction to the land of our forefathers. But
I
didn't care. I stood at the rail and drank it all in, letting the rain do whatever it would to my hat and drench me to the skin until my skirts and petticoats were soaked clean through and plastered to my limbs and my hair torn loose from its pins. I'm sure the others thought I was quite mad, but I didn't care; I was
determined
to let
nothing
spoil this. It was a once in a lifetime moment that would never come again. Even if I ever did venture across the Atlantic again, it would never be the same as the first time.
At the hotel, where we were once again sharing accommodations, I was quickly rushed into a hot bath and then bundled into bed in a warm flannel nightgown with a hot-water bottle. Miss Mowbry was certain I would catch my death and even wanted to send for the hotel physician, but my will was stronger than any contagions floating about in the air, and I refused to let even so much as a sneeze or a sniffle rob me of a single moment of my time in England. There was too much to see and do to be sick!
“What a stouthearted girl you are, Lizzie! Strong as a horse!” Miss Mowbry said admiringly. “We'll make a traveler of you yet!” Though the compliment was a trifle spoiled when she leaned in close and whispered in my ear, “You know, Lizzie, I am getting on in years and there are many girls from Fall River's finest families growing up all the time and wanting to broaden their horizons with European travel. If your father would permit it, I should be pleased to take you under my wing. . . .”
The idea of
me
as a paid companion to those girls when I was just as good and rich as they were! Pride blinded me, and in her offer I saw only the shame, not the doorway Freedom was holding open for me, while eagerly beckoning me across the threshold.
The other girls quickly went their own way; they were more interested in seeing the insides of dress shops than anything of cultural or historical significance. Great cathedrals, so beautiful they could make a man weep, paled in comparison beside the couturiers' confections in their eyes, and Michelangelo's sculptures didn't thrill them anywhere near as much as the hats on display in the front window of a milliner's shop. Gems, not Great Masters, made their breath catch in wonder and their eyes sparkle. They whiled away their time batting their eyelashes at eligible Englishmen, dreaming of snaring a duke or a lord and going to live in his ancestral castle, playing lady bountiful to the tenants, and presiding over well-laden tea tables serving petit fours and cucumber sandwiches to the crème de la crème of society, and, of course, the ultimate honor of being presented to Queen Victoria in white satin and plumes.
Romance was something I had long since consigned to the land of dreams. Of course I had had schoolgirl crushes on my teachers, and a classmate or two, daydreamed over the wedding gowns in
Godey's Lady's Book,
and sighed wistfully over poetry and romantic scenes in the novels I read, but I had long since grudgingly accepted spinsterhood as my lot. But in Europe I began to feel like the princess in a fairy tale who slept for a hundred years before she was awakened by Prince Charming's kiss. I was stirring, waking up; it was terrifying yet
so exciting!
I was only just beginning to realize then what I know all too well now. Every old maid, crabapple virgin, and prim spinster lady has a story, and it is usually a story about love, but it is always a sad one, bittersweet at best, that does not end with a wedding or “happily ever after.” We are not all the innocent naïve virgins the world likes to think. We may stay at home, protected by well-meaning relatives, buffered from the
real
world of cads and bounders, but we have hearts and minds and bodies; we
can,
and
do,
hope and dream, and
feel,
often with a burning, hot intensity that, if they knew, would shock our relations to the core and consign us to the care of an overzealous doctor for one of those discreet operations to calm hysterics and free women of these libidinous demons by cutting out the source of these unwholesome and unseemly passions. But they don't know; we're too wise to let them. We all have secrets we keep in the heart-shaped lockbox in our breasts.
From the start my life seemed destined to be one of secrets—a kiss stolen in the shadows of a shady tree, a petty theft from a shop, a glass of absinthe and the loss of all inhibitions behind a locked door—doing what no proper, well-brought-up lady would
ever
do. I have never wagered so much as a penny on a game of chance, but I think I understand what compels the gambler. I saw the roulette wheels spin on the Riviera, and fortunes lost and won, and the high euphoria and plummeting despair that came after depending on the outcome, and I think that I, sheltered old maid that I am, understand
exactly
how it feels to court destruction and risk everything for a momentary thrill. Few gamblers stop once they've won; they
always
go back for more. I understand that too. How many times have I followed the lure of love, the hope of opening my eyes to a dream come true? We shall have to count them all as this story unfolds, the whole sad tally of love lost, denied, thwarted, or rejected, and trust misplaced. Let us begin with the prince who woke the sleeping princess up and aroused all the longings she thought had died in her long stagnant slumber.
I shall not tell you his name. There is no point; nothing would be served by it except prurient curiosity, and I will not let yet another innocent person be tarred and feathered by association with me; that has happened too many times already. People who should have been able to live out their lives in peace now have their names mentioned in books and lurid articles about crime because their path in some way crossed mine. And every woman is entitled to keep
one
secret tied up in the red ribbons of her heart, so let
his
name be the secret I take with me to the grave.
He was an architect, a few years older than myself. His eyes were blue and his hair was blond, like golden wheat kissed by the summer sun, and even when it was subdued by pomade and combed back had an irrepressible tendency to flop boyishly over his brow. I like to think he saw more in me than anyone else ever has before or since. Many Americans believe that the English are singularly lacking in warmth, that they are frigid and imperious as icebergs, and shun emotion as if it were leprosy, but I
know
this is not universally true. As I am a woman who has often unjustly been called “cold” and “undemonstrative” because I don't give vent to impassioned displays in public places to oblige the spectators who think they have the right to know everything about me because of the infamous course my life has taken, you may trust me implicitly upon this point.
We met in a secondhand bookshop on a rainy day in London when we both reached for the same volume. It fell with a thud and a puff of dust that made us both sneeze. We laughed and bent to retrieve it at the same time and bumped heads, knocking each other's hat off. It was not a proper introduction. Some might have mistaken him for a masher and me for a forward American girl setting her cap for an English milord—it is after all a common assumption about all unattached American females of marriageable age traveling abroad—but from the moment our eyes met neither of us cared what anyone else thought; we knew the truth and who we
really
were, and nothing else mattered.
He had an umbrella, a trusty black umbrella—what Englishman does not? I held tight to his arm as we crowded beneath it, being jostled by the crowd on the pavement as they stepped around us.
I asked him if the sun ever shines in England; it had been raining since the day I arrived. He laughed—he had such a merry laugh that made his blue eyes sparkle like sapphire-colored fireworks on the Fourth of July—and assured me that yes, it did upon occasion.
We went to a quiet but respectable little tearoom he favored and had tea and Banbury tarts—the cook's specialty made from an old family recipe—that reminded me of Abby's mincemeat. We talked for
hours,
of
so many
things; it was as if we had known each other all our lives. His world was wider than mine, but we found enough common ground to meet upon. I felt like a tight little rosebud slowly unfurling beneath the sun of his kindness and attention. I wanted only to be with him; when I was with him I
thrived,
I felt
so alive!
Yes, Dear Reader, I know, when I read back over these words I also have to shake my head and smile. I sound so starry-eyed, like a silly girl just struck for the first time by Cupid's dart, a Juliet ready, willing, and eager to die for love, when in truth I had just passed my thirtieth birthday and was already a confirmed spinster withering on the vine. But that is how it was. I
cannot
lie; that is
exactly
how I felt. It was
marvelous
and
new
and
wonderful
and made everything seem so fresh and beautiful! I had never felt so happy and alive! And
awake!
He made me feel as though I had been sleepwalking through life!
He threw my
Baedeker
into the Thames and took time away from his office to show me the sights in London and beyond. We toured the Tower, where a bold raven snatched at the hem of my skirt, and he told me stories from its bloody past, and how a sentry had not ten years ago almost been court-martialed for sleeping on duty after he encountered the diaphanous white phantom of Queen Anne Boleyn. He had challenged her with his halberd and she countered by lifting off her head and he fainted dead away. Fortunately for him, he was saved at the last moment when another guard, who had witnessed it all from a stairway above, came forward and confirmed his story.
He showed me Hampton Court, the Houses of Parliament, the tombs at Westminster Abbey, and we spent a whole day at the National Gallery, and through it all he told me stories about the places, the craftsmanship and architecture, and the people who had left their mark upon his country's glorious past. One day he took me into Shakespeare land. We stopped at Anne Hathaway's cottage, where the Bard's wife had dwelled. I felt quite at home amongst the red brick chimneys and rustic Tudor gingerbread and imagined our making our home in a place just like this, a little spot of Heaven in the heart of the English countryside. I saw myself sitting on a bench in the garden waiting for him to come home from a busy day in London, reading a book while our children frolicked about, and the housekeeper prepared dinner for us and Banbury tarts for dessert. And on a ridge between Warwickshire and Oxfordshire, where his family had a country home, he showed me a favorite site since his boyhood—the Rollright Stones, a circle of seventy-seven standing stones, centuries old. Legend claims they were once a king and his army who set out to conquer all Britain. But along the way they offended a wizened crone who turned out to be a witch. As punishment, she turned them all to stone, and then transformed herself into an elder tree to stand eternal sentry and make sure the curse was never lifted. If cut while in full flower, local folk said, the tree would bleed human blood. At midnight, on certain sacred nights, my beloved told me, the king and his knights are magically restored to human life, and dance hand in hand, round and round, unceasingly while the witch keeps time to the fairy music, tapping her toe, and clapping her gnarled hands with long yellow nails like talons, until cock's crow turned them back to stone and tree again. Yet any mortal who has the misfortune to stumble upon this spectacle will go stone blind or mad. “When I was a lad,” my architect confided, “I used to sneak out at night and watch the witches gather and perform their rituals within the sacred circle of the Rollright Stones.” He saw black cocks sacrificed, held upside down as their blood was drained into goblets that were then passed around, and other acts not fit for a lady's ears.
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