Terms of Engagement
Emily Edwards was pulling weeds in the gardens of the Mirabilis Institute. It was certainly not a requirement that guests of the Institute pull weeds—in fact, the Institute generally preferred to let their gardeners perform that task, so that their guests’ relationship to the gardens might be the more traditional one of enjoyer to enjoyed. And indeed, when Emily had started out that morning, seeking fresh air to clear her head, she’d had every intention of maintaining the sanctity of that unspoken relationship. But the spring air had proven insufficiently head-clearing, and Emily found she simply could not ignore the variety of vegetal interlopers that the Institute’s gardeners had overlooked. And so she had ended up on her knees before a loamy bed with a pile of weeds mounding up behind her.
“Emily Edwards! What in heaven’s name are you doing?” Penelope Pendennis’ accusing boom came from behind and above her, the woman’s large shadow falling across a damnably tenacious dandelion that Emily was trying to claw out by its roots. Emily might have jumped out of her skin, but by now she was so used to having Penelope sneak up on her that she barely twitched.
“Gardening calms my nerves,” Emily muttered. Frustrated at losing the battle with the dandelion, she moved on to deadheading flowers from a large bush of blueish blossoms.
“But you’re massacring the hydrangeas! What could have your nerves in such a state?”
Emily savagely threw a spent blossom over her shoulder in Penelope’s general direction.
“Mrs. Stanton,” she said.
“Ah,” Penelope said, having sidestepped the bloom. Actually, she didn’t say it as much as sighed it with a long, drawn out note of sympathy. “Old battle-ax been giving you a hard time, has she?”
“I have not met her yet,” Emily said. “Not formally, anyway. But she’s having me for dinner tonight.”
“I’ll just bet she is.” Penelope shivered.
The cannibalistic imagery suggested by this statement conformed with surprising exactitude to the anxious imaginings that had kept Emily up half the night—imaginings which had driven her to seek the morning’s fresh air and, ultimately, the comforting solace of the weeds. She might not have been quite so scared had she not been given to understand that, as a social occasion, such a dinner was almost completely unprecedented. Sons of the New York aristocracy—a group to which her fiancé, Dreadnought Stanton, belonged—typically had the decency to marry girls well-known to them (and more importantly, their mothers) all their lives. Emily, was not from New York City, or New York State, or even New Jersey. She was from California, and a witch—and if she’d been from outer Mongolia and a goatherder she could not have felt more ill prepared for such a challenge.
“Why don’t you come with me?” Emily’s eyes lit with bright desperation, and she clutched at Penelope’s arm. “Hortense Stanton, Dreadnought’s sister … she’s a friend of yours, isn’t she?”
“A dear friend,” Penelope affirmed with a nod. “But I wouldn’t do you a bit of good. Mrs. Stanton despises me. Our politics differ. And anyway, I’ve no time. I just came to say good-bye. I’m off on my lecture tour in the morning.”
Emily made a small sound of despair.
“Oh, come, now. It’s not all that bad. I assume you’ve purchased something new to wear, right?”
“I most certainly have not,” Emily grumbled, stomping on a dead flower. “You know as well as anyone that I’ve got dresses coming out of my everloving ears.” In fact, the superfluity of dresses Emily had felt obligated to purchase since arriving in New York—and the amount she’d had to spend on them—was a subject of evergreen annoyance.
“You have a minimally acceptable number of nice little frocks,” Penelope sniffed, “and one rather stunning ball gown that is, I must remind you, a loaner. And you can’t possibly be thinking of showing up for dinner in that! It would be like going to a clambake in a tiara. Dining au sein de sa famille, especially in the Stanton family’s severe Republican bosom, requires something very particular.” Penelope tapped a finger to her chin, her eyes turning inward as she mentally delineated the very particular costume required. “Something exquisite but not fussy, elegant but not overconfident, sweet but chic, naif but not naïve, jolie but not jejune …”
“Oh my! Look at all those weeds over there!” Alarmed by Penelope’s rapid descent into French, Emily made a break for a patch of ground several yards distant. But Penelope caught hold of her shoulders and held her fast.
“No you don’t!” Penelope said fiercely, with the air of a military commander bracing a raw recruit. “We’re going shopping!”
“Only if you don’t want this night to end in complete and crushing defeat, setting a worm in the bud of your future happiness that will destroy all your most fondly cherished maiden hopes!”
Emily knit her brow.
“Can I think about it?”
“Not for an instant,” Penelope thundered. “How can one think and shop at the same time? Come, Miss Edwards. To the Ladies’ Mile!”
Through Penelope’s efficient offices, one of the Institute’s shiny black carriages was hastily commandeered and, within what seemed mere moments, they were on their way downtown. As they rode, Emily used the thumbnail of her living left hand to scrape bits of dried garden-mud from the joints of her prosthetic right hand—made of ivory, the prosthetic was plenty durable, but the absolute devil to keep clean—and privately mourned the incipient assault upon her bank-book. She had never liked spending money when she didn’t have it, and now that she had it, she liked spending it even less.
As far as she was concerned, there was only one part of a downtown shopping trip worth looking forward to, and that was a visit to the Signor Giuseppi, the hokey-pokey man—a street vendor on the corner of 18th and Broadway who sold scoops of sweet, fruity ice-cream from a wheeled cart packed with sawdust shavings. Hundreds of hokey-pokey men like him spilled out onto the New York city streets on the first warm day of spring, but Signor Giuseppi was the only one who was allowed to set up a cart so close to the much-hallowed Ladies Mile. He had earned this honor by once bestowing a free cup of tutti-frutti on the Mrs. Astor (innocent of her identity, according to the story, but Emily didn’t believe it for a second), and the grande dame had so delighted in the confection that she’d thereafter kept the local beat-cops from chasing him off.
Even Penelope approved of Giuseppi, allowing that his wares were probably associated with a smaller risk of botulism than the cheaper offerings to be found farther downtown.
However, an examination of Penelope’s face, and the grim purpose and determination found there, made Emily feel that a visit to the hokey-pokey man was likely not on today’s itinerary.
The Ladies Mile stretched from Union Square to Madison Square, with shops ranged along both Broadway and Sixth Avenue. Tall white facades of gleaming cast iron stood one by the other, like a regiment of wedding cakes. The street was absolutely jammed with carriages—in front of the most popular stores, they sometimes stood three deep—and as Emily and Penelope approached their destination, their own carriage slowed to a crawl. Emily was familiar with the grandest of the department stores—A.T. Stewart’s—having shopped there before for the nice little frocks already mentioned. But to Emily’s surprise, their carriage crawled past that venerable purveyor of dry goods. Instead, they climbed out in front of an excruciatingly chic little boutique, which bore no name; apparently the fantastically-garbed mannequins, posed behind the intricate gold scrollwork painted on the front windows, were deemed sufficent advertisment for the retailer within.
While Emily felt certain such an establishment should be entered with an air of calm hush, rather like entering a church or a funeral parlor, Penelope shoved open the brass double-doors like a gunslinger entering a saloon.
“Nanette!” Penelope cried. “Come out this instant! All bustles on deck!”
There was no immediate reply, but perhaps that was because the amount of fabric inside the boutique was sufficient to muffle even the loudest of Penelope’s bellows. Indeed, Emily thought, one could very easily drown in all the fabric and draperies. Sumptious waterfalls of velvet, luscious torrents of peau de soie, their swagged exuberance only barely restrained by satin braids looped over leaf-hooks of gilded brass. In the center of the room, dainty wrought-iron chairs were arranged around sample gowns—sartorial confections even more incredible than those in the front windows. The arrangement of the chairs seemed appropriate, as these were gowns more suitable for watching than wearing; each one seemed as if it might burst into song at any moment.
Finally, after several long moments of fabric-stifled silence, an exquisitely small woman in a gown of Tiffany blue emerged slowly from the back room, calmly floating on a bubble of haughty dismissiveness. The dismissiveness quickly became cheerful welcome when she saw who had so rudely summoned her and her bustle.
“Penelope! Ma cherie!” She embraced the larger woman, pecking her warmly on both cheeks. “But surely you cannot still be in New York? Are you not leaving on your lecture tour?”
“First thing in the morning. But,” she said, presenting Emily, “I’ve got an emergency to take care of first.”
Emily didn’t much like being presented as an emergency, but she was used to it by now. Shoving her hands in her pockets, she suffered herself to be scrutinized.
“Her future mother-in-law’s having her for dinner tonight,” Penelope explained. “Formally.”
Nanette clucked sympathetically, giving Emily’s cheek a consoling pat. “Pauvre petit,” she murmured. “Such are the sufferings of woman.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Penelope said. “Guess who her mother-in-law-to-be is!” Penelope paused dramatically, as if waiting for Nanette to guess. When Nanette did not oblige, Penelope stabbed the air with a punctuatory digit. “Mrs. Argus Stanton!”
Nanette stifled a shriek of horror. She recoiled, crossing herself involuntarily. “La Gorgone?”
“Now, I was rather hoping Miss Edwards could be spared Mrs. Stanton’s nickname,” Penelope said sternly. “She has quite enough to worry about already. Can you help?”
Nanette became all business. She looked Emily up and down, critically apprasing. Then she sighed.
“It will be very expensive, of course …”
“Money no object!” Penelope insisted, and Emily didn’t even bother protesting. There was no point. She was now on a runaway train of fashion; there was no use trying to pull the brake. Closing her eyes, she let herself be hurtled headlong into fabulosity.
Five hours later, Emily and Penelope left the boutique laden with prettily-wrapped boxes. The boxes contained a magnificent dinner gown—in a very flattering shade of springtime green, beaded with jade and gold and smartly trimmed in soft brown velvet—as well as all sorts of accessories: a fan, gloves, kid boots, silk stockings, even a matching talma wrap should the night air turn chilly. With Nanette’s deft assistance, the dress had been quickly fitted to seem as if it had been made for her.
She and Penelope headed back uptown toward the Institute. But before the carriage left the Ladies’ Mile, Penelope gave the driver a few swift instructions which brought them to a stop on Sixth, before a small, nondescript store, again with no name on it. Penelope seemed to prefer stores without names, Emily noticed.
“Don’t bother getting out, this will only take a moment,” Penelope said, as she dashed out of the carriage. Emily assumed that she was going in to retrieve some final item to complete her costume, some doo-dad of earth-shattering importance that Emily would never in a million years have thought of and would be sure to drop, break, or forget; but when Penelope returned she was as empty handed as when she left.
“They didn’t have what you wanted?”
“It’ll be delivered later,” Penelope grinned, seemingly quite pleased with herself. “You’ll see.”
It was late afternoon by the time they arrived back at the Institute. Emily was starving, but there was no time for lunch; dinner was to be served promptly at six. Penelope helped put Emily into the new dress, and Emily was grudgingly forced to admit that it showed her off to better advantage than anything she might have come up with on her own.
Penelope quickly ran Emily through her curtseys (offering her some very pointed critique) while simultaneously peppering her with rapidfire advice.
“Remember, you can always talk about the weather. Stick to nice safe topics. (Oh for God’s sake, Emily, kick your train behind you! You’re stepping all over Nanette’s pleating.) Gardening! That’s a good one. (A good topic, I meant, not that cannonball curtsey you just dropped … ugh! Do it again!) Never anything unpleasant. Never anything from which anything unpleasant could even be extrapolated. (Better, better … drop slowly … gracefully … then up.) Certainly never politics.” Penelope shuddered, falling abruptly silent, obviously reliving some highly unpleasant run-in with La Gorgone.
“All right, that’s enough preparation.” Penelope frowned at a nearby mantel clock, the hands of which had come far too close to five p.m. for her liking.
“And the delivery is still not here!” she fumed. “I swear, if they can’t handle a little thing like that …” But then there was a knock on the door, and as things in the Institute always seemed perfectly timed, Emily knew it would be the delivery—which it was, carried up by one of the Institute’s pages, who waited outside to escort her to the Institute carriage that was standing for her downstairs.
Penelope rubbed her hands with delight as Emily looked over the delivery. It was a very large wicker basket. It had a lid on it, and the lid was tied down with a decorative ribbon. From within the basket came the sound of scritching and mewling.
“What is that?” Emily asked.
“A douceur,” Penelope said. Emily, who’d already had quite enough of Penelope’s French for one day, narrowed her eyes suspiciously. Penelope smiled. “A sweetener,” she translated, removing the lid from the basket.
Within, the basket was lined with blue silk and absolutely infested with kittens—silky white Persians, each with a silken ribbon tied around its neck. They were chaperoned by their mother, a fat luxuriant queen with eyes of lucent blue.
“Cats?” Emily said.
“I can tell you two things about Mrs. Stanton,” Penelope said, lifting a kitten to her chin for a cuddle; it purred loudly. “One, she’s a creature of pure evil. And two, like most creatures of pure evil, she’s got a sentimental streak a mile wide. The kittens will win her over. Just you wait and see!”
She tucked the kitten away, closed the basket, and rapped on the door to summon the page. Then she wrapped Emily in a vast, muscular embrace and kissed her on both cheeks with the noble passion of a general sending a private to a glorious, patriotic doom. Tears gleamed in her eyes; she did not wipe them away. “Now I’ve done all I can do! Good-bye! Good luck! You’ll need it!”
The Institute carriage took Emily to the Stanton family brownstone on Thirty-fourth. The driver, smartly dressed in the Institute’s grey livery, retrieved the basket from where it had been strapped to the back of the carriage and carried it up the stairs for her. Leaving it on the top step, he rang the bell on her behalf, then tipped his hat to her before retreating. He’d hardly gotten down two steps before the door opened. The opener was a tall, distinguished-looking man, silver-templed—not the Senator, Emily had seen him once and this wasn’t him—so she guessed he must be an uncle or a brother-in-law or something.
“Hello,” she said, extending a gloved hand—the one of flesh and blood, so that he might not be startled by her prosthetic—”I’m Emily Edwards. Mr. Stanton’s fiancée. I’m here for dinner.”
Even if she’d offered him her prosthetic hand unattached to her arm the man could not have appeared more shocked. He made no move to take her hand. Emily let it hang, uncertain as to what to do. From inside the house she heard the ring of hasty footsteps. She sighed with relief as the familiar face of her fiancé, Dreadnought Stanton, appeared over the older man’s shoulder.
“Miss Edwards.” He smiled in welcome, taking her elbow and leading her inside past the man’s bewildered gaze. As Stanton brought her into the large foyer, he bent his head low to her ear: “He’s the butler, darling. For future reference, you’re supposed to breeze past them, not say hello.” Noticing the basket Emily had left on the top stair, Stanton added: “Broward, bring that inside, will you?”
The entry hall of the brownstone was as magnificent as she’d feared. A great crimson-carpeted staircase with heavy newelposts of carved mahogany dominated one wall. Along the other wall, flanked by gas-jets dripping with crystal pendants, were tall pocket doors—behind which, Emily knew, lay the most formal room of the house, the parlor. Emily pressed herself close to Stanton, appreciating his warm presence, the firmness of his arm under its covering of fine wool. While he was dressed impeccably in evening clothes, she saw—to her dismay—that his thick brown hair was wildly tousled. Her fiancé, she had discovered, did two things when he was anxious: he whistled and he ran his fingers through his hair. As the former was probably not allowed in the house, he’d been doing so much of the latter that it made him look as if he’d been struck by lightning. He was as nervous as she was, for pity’s sake! The recognition was disheartening, but at the same time it fired her with outrage and its attendant courage. Make my fiancé nervous, will you? She wouldn’t stand for it!
She lifted her chin.
Seeing her resolve, Stanton pressed a warm kiss on her forehead. She liked that very much. She would have liked it more, actually, without the addition of his next, whispered words:
“Welcome to Hell.”
Well, it was hot as Hell, in any case. The first thing Emily noticed when she entered the parlor was the huge fireplace, framed by an imposing mantle of black marble. An enormous fire blazed, casting leaping shadows on the heavily carved mahogany paneling and making the patterns on the gilded wallpaper writhe demonically. Apparently, the light from the hearth was deemed sufficient to the night’s purpose, as the gas fixtures had been turned down quite low—feeble little flames flickering parsimoniously.
Into this crepuscular gloom Emily was brought. As her eyes adjusted, she perceived the forms of four women, who rose as she entered the room. Stanton placed Emily before this shadowy tribunal.
“Hortense, Ophidia, Euphemia … Mother.” He paused before invoking the last, as if the word had a tendency to catch in his throat. “Allow me to present my fiancée, Miss Emily Edwards of Lost Pine, California. Emily, these are my sisters—Hortense, Ophidia, and Euphemia. And my mother, Mrs. Argus Stanton.”
Emily curtseyed as she and Penelope had practiced, and she was pleased at how well the movement came off, and how prettily the firelight made the beadwork on her dress sparkle. It was an excellent start.
Or at least she thought so, but none of the women smiled or said anything. In unison, they all resumed their seats. Stanton fetched a chair for Emily, placing it right where she stood in the center of the room. Sitting, she felt like a defendant at a trial.
“Father won’t going to be joining us, I’m afraid. He’s got business tonight.” Stanton’s tone was casual, conversational; he was trying to put her at her ease, bless his heart, but under the weight of those eyes, who could relax? She opened with the gambit she’d been mentally rehearsing in the carriage all the way over.
“Lovely weather we’re having,” Emily ventured in Hortense’s direction. She had a slight hope that Hortense’s friendship for Penelope might cut some ice. And indeed Emily did seem to discern some slight sympathy in the older woman’s eyes—but the hope was short lived, for Hortense quickly turned the gaze onto her mother. They all gazed at Mrs. Stanton, waiting for her to speak. Mrs. Stanton’s eyes did not waver from Emily. She was silent for a long time before responding.
“I have observed that the suitability of the weather largely depends on what one proposes to do in it,” the old woman concluded finally. “I myself have no particular partiality for the outdoors. But as I am reliably informed that you do, I suppose the weather is of great interest to you.”
“Yes,” Emily nodded, blinking at the sinuous tangle of words. “Lovely weather.”
“I hear Miss Edwards likes gardening,” Hortense commented. Emily couldn’t tell if this was intended to help her or not, but she tumbled all over herself seizing it nonetheless.
“I do like getting my hands in the dirt,” Emily said, realizing instantly that she probably should have phrased it differently. She looked to Stanton for help but saw that he was rubbing his temples as if to ward of an incipent headache. Annoyed, she added, quite pertly, “Some weeds you’ve got here in New York.”
“Weeds?” Mrs. Stanton arched a considering eyebrow. “I cannot claim any personal experience with weeds; as a member of a civilized society, I employ a gardener. But I will allow that, as New York is well known for producing the finest examples of all things, I am sure its weeds must be of the highest quality.” There as a long pause as she let this sink in. Then she added, with a hiss of acid, “In any event, I certainly would not presume to challenge your expertise on the subject.”
Emily stared at the old woman. She had never been so unsure she’d been insulted in all her life. She felt she should say something.
“Broward!” Stanton roared, in some non-specific direction. “Broward, for God’s sake, isn’t dinner ready yet?”
Broward slid the ornate pocket doors to the dining room open. Beyond, a fantastic grotto of candles, china, and crystal could be glimpsed.
Pointedly ignoring Stanton’s roaring, Broward went instead to Mrs. Stanton. He bent and murmured something in her ear. After an extended contemplation of Broward’s message, Mrs. Stanton rose, carefully smoothing her skirt. Around her, her daughters rose, silk taffetas rustling in perfect harmony.
“Dinner is served,” La Gorgone said mildly, extending her slim elderly arm. It hovered in midair only the briefest moment; Stanton leapt forward to keep it from falling. And into the dining room—the second circle of the Stanton Family Hell—they all went.
Stanton pushed his mother’s chair in. Emily realized too late that he would have pushed hers in, too, had she not already scooted it forward herself. Broward served, assisted by a pair of maids in starched white pinafores.
The dinner began, as all dinners in New York seemed to begin, with raw oysters. Emily could not stand oysters, raw or cooked, but she tackled them gamely, and when she choked on one she remembered to do so politely (if rather loudly), into her handkerchief. The courses marched on inexorably from there. There was a lobster bisque, then cold hors d’oeuvres, then fish, and then even more hors d’oeuvres (hot this time)—and all of this before they even got to what appeared to be the main course!
Throughout the grim processional of dainties, Stanton ventured little bits of small talk, but even he gave up eventually. His mother and sisters and nothing to say, and Emily had decided she wasn’t going to risk it with any more talk of weather, gardening, or weeds.
Dinner was a total of sixteen courses, and sixteen courses of rich food and unbearable silence can do strange things to a person’s mind. By the time Broward served the coffee, Emily was ready to tear off her dress, run naked into the streets of New York, and kiss the first man she met who looked like an orphan. But one thing kept her from doing so. One small hope. Penelope’s gambit. It might work. Mrs. Stanton might be enthralled by the kittens. Or she might unhinge her jaw and swallow one of them alive. It was terrible to admit, even to herself, but Emily was quite interested to find out which alternative would occur.
After dinner, they retired to the parlor again, where (per Mrs. Stanton’s command) the postprandial entertainment was to be Ophidia playing a piece on her bassoon. Emily had never been informed that Ophidia played the bassoon, and dearly hoped to forestall the inevitability of hearing the talent demonstrated. As Stanton helped her back to her chair, she whispered to him:
“Bring in the basket! Quick!”
Without a word, Stanton nodded. As he brought in the huge basket, four pairs of eyes quizzed him.
“A present from Miss Edwards,” he informed them, setting the basket before his mother.
“I hope you’ll enjoy it,” Emily said.
Mrs. Stanton regarded the basket for a moment, giving her daughters time to gather suspiciously around her. Finally she reached down and carefully untied the the ribbon that was holding the basket closed. She eased up a corner of the lid, her arm extended to its maximum, as if she fully expected asps to launch themselves at her from within. However, once she saw what the basket contained, she threw the lid off. Within the basket, the little white puff-ball kittens tumbled winningly. Mrs. Stanton said nothing, but around her, her daughters began to squeal in delight. Three grown women—three well-grown women at that—regressed instantaneously to lisping girlhood.
“Oh, how thweet!”
And as each of them reached into the basket to retrieve an individual squirming kitten, Emily saw something in Mrs. Stanton’s eyes soften slightly.
“How very charming, Miss Edwards,” the old woman said, and Emily’s heart sang with triumph.
Balls of string were produced from sewing baskets and the walls of the parlor rang with merriment. The mother cat, not interested in such silliness and obviously glad of the opportunity to get away from her rolicksome progeny for a while, prowled the edges of the room restlessly. No one paid her any attention until she tensed, and hissed, and chased something onto the carpet in front of the fireplace. A small, dark, scurrying thing. The girls squealed, seizing their kittens and holding them aloft. Euphemia actually clambered up onto a berlinworked footstool.
“Oh, mercy!” she screeched. “It’s a rat! A huge filthy rat!”
Emily eyed the mother cat, waiting for nature to take its course. But this New York cat was nothing like the cats Emily was used to back home. Having flushed the rat into the open, the fluffy white queen apparently deemed her work done. She plopped herself down before the fire and began washing her face, purring contentedly.
“Well, aren’t you useless?” Emily said to the mother cat, over the sound of her fiancé’s screaming sisters. Then she turned her attention to the rat, which was trembling on the carpet, disoriented by all the commotion and unsure which direction to run.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, he’s just a little feller,” she clucked under her breath. Remembering one of her Pap’s ever-ready spells, she bent down and picked up a pinch of white ash from the hearth. She muttered a quick rhyme over it, then blew the dust over the terrified rat. It settled over the little beast in a fine dust. The small bit of magic wasn’t intended to harm the creature, just hold him still so he could be carried out.
“Kindly step aside, Miss Edwards.” Mrs. Stanton’s voice came from above her. Looking up, Emily saw that the old woman had the heavy grate shovel in her hand, and there was murder in her eyes.
“No fair going after him when he can’t run away!” Emily quickly reached down and grabbed the rat by the tail. The screams in the room swelled to a higher pitch. But Mrs. Stanton’s shovel was already descending. It landed flat across Emily’s shoulder.
“Ouch!” Emily blazed. Who would have thought Mrs. Stanton would have such an arm on her! “Why don’t you watch where you’re swinging that goddamn thing?”
Ophidia, who had probably never heard anyone speak so rudely after being hit with a shovel, fainted dead away. With a moan, Euphemia knelt at her fallen sister’s side, fanning her, quite ineffectually, with a kitten. Hortense, at her mother’s side, was holding her back as a level-headed friend might hold back an inveterate barroom brawler.
“I will thank you to get that horrible vermin out of my house!” Mrs. Stanton said, throwing the shovel onto the grate with a loud clatter. Whether the command was issued to Emily (who still had the rat in her hands) or Stanton (who had taken Emily’s elbow) was somewhat difficult to ascertain.
Stanton quickly led Emily out, making a low comment to Broward on their way to the front door.
“I’ll have the carriage brought around immediately, sir,” was Broward’s reply.
Then went down the front stairs into the cool sweet evening air. Emily’s head rung with all the shrill screams. The rat in her hands was warm and soft and she could feel its heartbeat, even though it didn’t move. It would recover from the spell in a moment.
“Well,” Stanton said, reaching into his breast pocket for a cigar. He tucked it between his lips, lit it, and exhaled smoke. “The roast was particularly good tonight, didn’t you think?”
Emily opened her mouth to say something, but then she just shook her head.
“How’s your new pet?” Stanton asked. Emily opened her hand to look at the rat, and to her astonishment, found that it wasn’t a rat at all. It was a silk handkerchief, wadded up into a warm, rat-sized ball. It was, she realized, Stanton’s handkerchief. He took it from her, shook it out, folded it into a neat square, and tucked it back into his pocket.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“I thought it was a pretty neat little piece of illusion,” Stanton said.
“You turned your handkerchief into a rat?” Emily was outraged. “Just when I had them all eating out of the palm of my hand with the kittens?”
“My dearest love,” Stanton smiled. “You may have gulled my sisters with that transparent ploy, but my mother is made of sterner stuff.”
“Yes, and now she hates me,” Emily said. “More than she already did. Which was, I gather, a considerable amount. What were you thinking?”
“Honestly, I expected you to seize the hearth shovel and kill the rat yourself. I could imagine no better way for you to bond with my mother than over the slaughter of a small helpless animal.” He paused thoughtfully. “But you have an even more tender heart than I realized. It’s very sweet.”
“Well, I’m glad you think so, because that is the one small success I can see in an evening in which the only other highlight was your mother hitting me with the hearth shovel.”
“I promise you, she’ll like you much better for having hit you with a hearth shovel,” Stanton said. “She respects someone who can take a punch. She didn’t hurt you, did she?”
“Only my pride,” Emily said, peering back at the dark smudge on the shoulder of her dress. “And my laundry bill.” As they stood there together, waiting for the Institute carriage to be brought around, she slowly reached an alarming conclusion. “Wait a minute. The rat … the cat … the kittens … why, you and Penelope cooked all of this up together, didn’t you?”
“I had no intention of sitting around after dinner listening to Ophidia play the bassoon,” Stanton said. “I’d much rather take you out to a show. Wouldn’t you like to go to a show with me? Or I guess we could go back in and try to smooth things over …”
“What’s playing?” Emily interrupted.
“Does it matter?”
“Nope,” she said, as the carriage pulled up. As the driver folded down the step for them, she added hopefully. “Can we stop for ice cream on the way?”
“Of course,” Stanton said, helping her up. “I’m told there’s a fellow called Signor Giuseppi on Eighteenth Street who makes an excellent tutti-frutti …”
“Approved of by Mrs. Astor herself,” Emily affirmed, and then they were off—having successfully escaped from Hell for one more night.