Sunday, November 24, 2013

1901 by Fred Skolnik

Newlywed Dorothea feels foreboding about the future in Fred Skolnik's charming turn-of-the-century American romance.

"Progress," Dorothea thought when Rupert brought the newspaper to their bed. He was wearing his striped pajamas but still looked like a Greek god. Dorothea was naked under the sheet. She loved the brazen sensuality of it. The room was warm. It was a lovely August day. "Progress," she thought again as they looked at the headlines. She was not yet used to the new century. She was barely used to Rupert. "Close your eyes. I'm getting out of bed," she said.

"Must I? I want to look."

"Then I'll close mine."

"Oh, silly Dorothea."

She walked quickly across the room and gathered up her clothes and then went across the hall to wash. The big house was empty. Everyone had gone to Buffalo straight from Saratoga to see the Exposition and hear the President speak. "How will you manage?" her mother had said, insisting that half the servants stay behind. "No, we want to be alone," Dorothea had said, and felt now that it was the most liberating and wicked thing she had ever done, other than lying naked with her husband in their bed.

A half-hour later Rupert knocked on the bathroom door. "What are you doing, Dorothea?" he said. "I hope it isn't another of your baths."

"Come in," she said. "You can scrub my back."

"I do say, Dorothea. This is slightly too much."

"Please come in, my dear."

"I will not."

"Then wait downstairs. I'll only be a while."

When she came down he was ready. He was truly a dear. She'd seen him first at the Bradley Martin ball in the new Waldorf-Astoria and had known at once that she must marry him. He was so well proportioned.

"I do so want an ice cream sundae," she said. "Shall we have one today?"

"If you wish, my dear."

Though most of the big houses were still closed, the street was full of carriages, broughams and barouches of the loveliest design, and the finest horses too, some of them commandeered by coachmen to give their ladies a spin in the absence of their masters. Now and then a comic-looking automobile with gong and goggled engineer interrupted the idyllic scene. "Progress," Dorothea thought once more. She remembered as a child being taken to see the Tower Building at 50 Broadway as though it were a wonder of the world. "This is the future," her father had said, and it was true. It was always up ahead, unseen and unimagined, and then one day it was upon you.

They walked to church. It was ten o'clock. The sermon dragged on and on and everyone seemed bored and restless. Afterwards they promenaded for a while on the Avenue. The better families were at the watering places but the streets were fairly crowded nonetheless. It had not been a mistake at all to get away. In the house they changed into less formal wear, packed a picnic basket and went out again. Rupert wore his straw hat and Dorothea took her parasol. They took a hansom cab into the park. Dorothea inhaled deeply and held her husband's hand. "Isn't this lovely?" she said. There were carriages and riders on the bridal path while thousands of working folk and their families coming up on the cars thronged the commons and the footpaths and the woods. "Here!" Dorothea said. "Let's get down here." They got down, walked with the picnic basket between them and found a spot beneath a tree. Dorothea had so many memories of the park. It was like paradise for her. Riding there as a child she had imagined she was a queen, that all the people were her subjects, and thought of ruling them with a kind heart. Her throne would be a bower and her bath a rushing brook.

Rupert brought out a book of poems. "Shall I read to you?" he said. It was Rossetti. She closed her eyes and smiled.

Lazy, laughing, languid Jenny,
Fond of a kiss and fond of a guinea,
Whose head upon my knee tonight
Rests for a while, as if grown light.

She sighed and laid her head against him. He read for a while more and then they ate their cold cuts and salads and fruit. She thought of going back to the empty house with him and romping through its rooms, hoping he wouldn't want to play billiards again. The summer heat made her aware of every pore of her skin as her flesh quickened and tingled beneath her dress. "Were we alone," she said to him, "I'd ask you now for your sweetest kiss."

"Oh, Dorothea," he replied.

"Isn't it good to be together?" she said with sudden feeling.

"Oh yes," he said. "Yes, it is."

"I'm glad you feel that way." She stood up and shook herself out. Some people came by; she felt the men's eyes on her as they tipped their hats and she imagined that she was naked again. "I feel like walking," she said. She unfurled her parasol and they stepped out from under the tree. The sun beat down implacably from the cloudless sky. "I like the heat," she said. "It makes me feel alive. Let's have a race."

"Are you mad?" Rupert said in great alarm.

"I'll bet you'd never catch me."

"I'm sure I wouldn't."

They had the empty basket now between them. Suddenly some boys materialized from out of nowhere and came running down the path, almost knocking them over.

"Hey!" Rupert shouted, and then to Dorothea: "Are you all right?"

"Of course," she said. "I'm not made of glass."

"Unruly beasts," Rupert muttered.

"Let's walk to the lake," Dorothea said.

"If you like," Rupert replied.

"Look there, a chipmunk running up a tree."

"The park is full of them."

"If they had a brain they'd throw us out."

"You mean a war, a war of chipmunks against the human race?"

"Quite," Dorothea said.

"I think we're done with wars," Rupert said. "We are about to embark on a glorious age."

"Yes, I know. It's progress, isn't it?"

He shifted the basket to his other hand and she took his arm. They were walking west. She had thought they might get a house on the other side of the park, one of those new brownstones, but her mother had said it was unseemly. So instead they had the "newlyweds' wing" at the mansion, named for them. She wished she could build a wall to shut the others out. Everything was unseemly in her mother's eyes and Father seldom intervened; he had his interminable affairs to attend to. They found a restaurant, sat down at a table and had their sundaes.

"Did you ever think," she said now, as they watched the crowd, "that we might disguise ourselves and go downtown and try to live among the common people?"

"What are you saying, Dorothea?"

"To see what it's really like. I'll bet it isn't bad. Don't you have those clerks working for you in the firm?"

"They aren't really common. They're quite refined."

"And their wives? Do their wives scrub laundry?"

"I'm sure I wouldn't know."

"I read they're organizing women in those shops."

"You shouldn't read those stories, Dorothea. It's none of our concern."

"I'm so tired of living with Mother and Father."

"It's only for a while."

"Then what?"

"We'll go to Europe."

"Everything is so unsettled," Dorothea said.

"But what is it you want then?"

"I don't know."

She reassured him with a smile. Sometimes their silences were strained, sometimes they were sweet. She didn't wish to alarm him. It was she after all who had yearned for his embrace, and had not been disappointed. They began to walk again, caught up in the great milling crowd, first north, then west again, where the skyline was more ragged than in the east. In truth she was somewhat frightened to go downtown among the rough immigrants and saloon crowds. She had never ridden in a horsecar, not to mention the new electric trolleys or the El. Once she'd gone to Coney Island by excursion boat and had some rides at the Steeplechase. This was another extraordinary outing in an uneventful life. It was Mother who stymied her. How she wished she could shake her off.

Rupert, on the other hand, was out in the world each day at his family's venerable firm, not that he was enthusiastic about it. She knew he'd rather be with her. Nothing was more enjoyable than reading poems together or riding in the park. The park was their private playground, as crowded as it was. Again she imagined that the people were her subjects. And Rupert - wasn't he fit to be a king?

"Are you tired?" he now said. He was extraordinarily handsome and wore a mustache but he was gentle too. Some men were cads but Rupert was an angel. He had ruddy skin and powerful limbs and when he held her she was bereft of will and felt that she would swoon. Of course she had to guide him, saying, "Touch me here" and "Touch me there."

"No," she said. "I could walk all day. Did you ever think of going off to fight in a war? Like Lord Byron did?"

"Certainly not."

"Men have all the opportunities. It isn't fair."

"You'd have to be quite foolish to seek to fight in a war."

"Usually they come to you and you haven't got a choice."

"That's another matter. If I were called upon, certainly I wouldn't hesitate to go."

"And leave me behind?"

"Oh, Dorothea."

"I would be a nurse, like Dorothea Dix."

"I hardly think it will come to that."

They had reached the long, broad mall with its central promenade and beautiful emerald lawns and elms. They went up to the trellised walk heavy with wisteria and honeysuckle overlooking the lake. They sat for a while on the low wall and then went down the massive steps to the terrace beside the lake, near which many carriages were parked. The fountain in the center threw up a fine spray.

"Shall we take a boat?" Rupert said.

"Please let's," Dorothea replied.

The boathouse was nearby. Rupert helped Dorothea into the boat and then took the oars. Swans swam beside them and a public boat came by. The wooded heights sloped down gently to the water's edge and little pavilions where a lady and her gentleman might sit jutted out from the shore. It was like a fairyland. Dorothea shut her eyes and nearly slept. Rupert rowed beneath the footbridge and parked the boat at the northern end, at the Ramble, a labyrinth of wooded walks and rustic nooks and tiny bridges over little brooks and wild flowers and vines and grass and rock. "Come on, let's go up," Rupert said. They found a spot to sit, well hidden amid the pristine undergrowth. "Now I'll give you that kiss," he said. She sighed and looked to swoon when he put his mouth to hers. Then she said, "Have we anything to drink?"

"Yes, we have the mineral waters."

They both drank thirstily. "Let's stay here forever," Dorothea said.

"Would that we could," Rupert said.

"Isn't it odd," Dorothea said, "that the world can be at peace on Sunday and at war on Monday?"

"There'll be no war this Monday."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because all is well."

"Let me lay my head upon your lap." He was sitting with his back against a tree, she lay against him and he stroked her cheek.

"You have such fine skin," he said.

"I love you," Dorothea said.

"I love you too, my dear."

"Passionately?"

"Yes, of course."

"Will you always love me?"

"As long as I live."

"I hope that will be a hundred years."

It was past three o'clock. The bright sun was now enfolded in haze but still suffused the air with heat. Rupert said, "Shall we go?" and they both stood up and shook out their clothes. Then Rupert rowed them back and they came out of the mall at the marble arch at the southern end. The sound of hoofbeats on the little bridge was like the distant rumble that precedes a storm and as they walked a shout or peal of laughter occasionally caused Dorothea to turn her head. There'd been that earthquake in Japan a few years ago that could have swallowed up the park and everybody in it in less time than it took to have their sundaes. She looked up at the sky as though for a sign but all was indeed well.

Someone called to them from a carriage. It was the Davenports with their two young children. Thomas Davenport was in brokerage too and the family lived lower down on the Avenue. "Hey, old man," Thomas Davenport called. "Out for a stroll?"

The carriage had stopped and they all got down. The children ran off toward the trees. Mrs. Davenport shouted, "Don't go far." To Dorothea she said, "I thought you went to Buffalo."

"We stayed behind," Dorothea said.

"I understand the President is backing off on the tariff," Thomas Davenport said.

"We are entering an era of international cooperation and goodwill," Rupert said.

"We'll see about that," Thomas Davenport said.

Both had gone to Yale and mentioned the death of Hay's son in that terrible accident.

"Fate is fickle," Thomas Davenport said.

Mrs. Davenport said, "We've had a telephone put in."

"Yes, we have one too," Dorothea said.

"I say, old man," Davenport said, "you wouldn't be free this evening by any chance?"

Rupert looked toward Dorothea and said, "I believe we are."

"Well, then, join us. We've gotten up a little theater party but young Schuyler's been called away. I think an appointment's in the offing."

Again Rupert looked toward Dorothea and she indicated her assent, though she'd had different things in mind; those could wait.

"Capital," said Davenport. "We'll have supper first. We'll pick you up at seven if that's all right."

Mrs. Davenport went off to find her children and then they all drove off.

"Well," said Rupert, "that will be nice. I thought we'd have nothing to do."

"Yes, nice indeed," Dorothea said.

"Did you see how their children have grown? Did you ever think that someday we'll have children too?"

"Probably sooner than you imagine."

"Dorothea!"

"No, I'm not, you silly."

There were fewer carriages as the day wore on but more riders filled the park, dashing by in small groups, with many ladies among them. Perhaps they should have ridden, Dorothea thought. She was in the mood for a good gallop around the reservoir. They had their stables in East 65th Street, where the grooms and coachmen were quartered as well. Her father had told them all about his friend Strong Vincent, riding each morning at Fredericksburg with his beautiful bride, the former Elizabeth Carter of Newark, and then dead at Little Round Top. She carried this image of the two lovers with her and had even met the noble Mrs. Vincent, as well as that Chamberlain fellow on a trip to Maine, another ruddy, mustachioed sort.

The day was winding down. People would be having their suppers and then later come out again to walk or ride until the sun was gone. Dorothea hated to see the day end. She loved the light, though now they had those marvelous electric lights in the house, bright and steady. What would they think of next? The heat had not abated and Dorothea had to admit that she was feeling some fatigue, so they sat down on a bench. A young man in a black suit bowed to them from the bench across the way. Unlike Rupert, he had not removed his jacket and sat quite stiff. Rupert still had on his vest, which one might never remove.

"Fine day," the stranger said in a rough accent

"Yes, it is," Rupert replied. The man must have been a mechanic.

"I like to watch the fine people," he said.

"Have you come uptown just for that?" Rupert said.

"I'm from the west."

"Really?"

"Yes, I like to watch the fine people. They're all so fine."

Dorothea thought to speak but restrained herself, knowing Rupert would not like it.

"And what are you doing in our fine city?" Rupert said.

"Passing through."

"You'll excuse us now." Rupert guided Dorothea to her feet and onto the path, with a certain urgency that was unlike him. When they were out of earshot, he said, "An anarchist, I'll bet."

"Why do you say that?" Dorothea asked.

"He had that lean and hungry look."

"Oh, I don't know. They all look the same."

"So much the worse for us."

"Shall we go home?"

"I'll stop a cab."

The man had unsettled her. He had a mocking look, if the truth be told. Was he mocking them, or all their world? She sat back in the hansom and closed her eyes. Rupert seemed unsettled too, so she took his hand and felt its pressure and everything was right again. She thought of sitting naked with him in the cab, underneath a blanket. That would be their secret. She imagined wearing nothing underneath her dress, walking in the street without the tight corset that curved and twisted her body into such a hideous shape. She had shocked Rupert in their bedroom once like that and he had nearly had a fit. Thinking such thoughts made her skin tingle again. But she was hot and sticky too, so she would have to take another bath. She thought about what she might wear that evening to keep Rupert on his toes.

The hansom came onto the Avenue and stopped before the house. They got out and went up to it. Rupert had a big key in his pocket but they had forgotten to lock the door. Nothing was amiss, so Dorothea went up to take her bath and Rupert went to the library to replace his book. When she came down, scantily dressed as was her habit nowadays, he was still there, reading again.

"Dorothea, will you please get ready. It's past six."

"What are you reading now?"

"It's just some Swinburne."

"Come help me choose a dress."

At seven the Davenports came by and they drove to Broadway, where there was lively traffic now in the Gay White Way, illumined too by electric lights. All sorts of people mingled there, a rougher crowd than Dorothea was used to: loose women and rowdies along with sporting and bohemian types and the finer people. They went first to a lobster palace, finding the other couple there, the Ashbys, also somewhat older than Rupert and Dorothea. Mr. Ashby represented his bank at the Gold Exchange. Mr. Davenport and Mr. Ashby were Roosevelt men, bewitched by the energy of the Governor, now Vice President. They talked about Schuyler's getting his appointment, perhaps as assistant to the President now that young Hay was gone.

"Is he going up to Buffalo?" Rupert asked.

"Yes, he's already left," Thomas Davenport said.

"Capital fellow," Mr. Ashby said.

"We saw an anarchist in the park today," Rupert said.

"Really, what did he say?"

"That he was looking at the fine people. He had such a manner."

"Oh, I'm not sure he was," Dorothea said.

"What then, tell me?"

"It's the foreigners," Davenport said. "They come with such ideas. They would pull down all the world."

"They agitate," Mrs. Davenport said.

"The park should be closed to those sort of people," Ashby said.

"But where would they go, the common folk? The park's a boon," said Dorothea.

"They may go to blazes," Rupert said.

Afterwards they went to an English comedy "on the roof" for summer viewing. Dorothea sometimes envied the unfettered life of the women in these companies. She looked around, marveling at the variety of faces in the audience. They were so unknowable and yet animated by the same warmth that informed her own. What were their dreams? she wondered. The actors' voices boomed out at them theatrically from the small stage and her mind drifted. What lay ahead? she thought. What did the future hold in store? She wished she could lie in bed forever in her husband's arms, but duty always called. No doubt she would be like Mrs. Davenport in a few years' time, with nothing real accomplished but the reproduction of her flesh as though she were a mare for breeding on a farm. She had a little French and a little playing at the piano and that was all. But she was naughty and fickle and sometimes wild. What would become of her?

After the theater they promenaded for a while and this time went in for oysters. It was getting late but the streets stayed full, teeming with humanity, as the saying went.

"Shall we call it a day?" Davenport said.

"By Jove!" Rupert exclaimed. "We've been on the go since morning. I'm beat."

"When will the family be back?"

"I expect in mid-September."

"And you're staying alone?"

"Quite."

"We'll have you for supper then."

"Yes," said Mrs. Davenport. "I can call you on our telephone."

They rode back in the Davenports' carriage and chatted about the Exposition for a while. They all agreed the world was becoming a smaller place and that great changes were in store. Barely fifty years ago, remarked Mr. Davenport, it took three weeks to get from Chicago to New York, and now two days by rail.

"I wonder what we've really gained," Dorothea said.

"Why, it's evident," Rupert said. "We're left with so much time."

"But what to do with it?"

"Use it, my dear," said Mr. Davenport. "Make of it what you will."

"I'm afraid we're rushing headlong into I know not what."

"Oh, nonsense," Rupert said.

"We're like a train that's gone off track."

The Davenports dropped them off and said goodnight. In the house they turned on the lights upstairs and Dorothea began to undress.

"Would you like hot chocolate?" Rupert said.

"No thank you, dear. Please help me out of this."

He loosened her corset and she sat down at her table and began to undo her hair. Rupert fussed in the background. She had a good mind to take another bath. She watched him remove his garters, thrilled by the fullness of his calf. They were alone and that was good. What could they not do? What was there to do?

"I'm really bushed," Rupert said again.

"Too tired to tup me?"

"Dorothea!"

She smiled and shook out her hair. It fell to her shoulders in a cascade of shimmering locks. Unharnessed and in dishabille, she seemed slight and even frail, like a creature of the wild shorn of its protective coat, but her allures were ample and the soft curves of her flesh beguiled. She could see that Rupert was getting interested.

"Shall we go to bed then?" he said.

"In a while. Let's chat first."

"About what, Dorothea?" he said with a little exasperated laugh.

"Oh, about this and that."

"I hardly know what you mean."

"Didn't that man in the park frighten you?"

"He did disconcert me, yes."

"I wonder what he was up to."

"We'll never know, will we?"

"Are you going in tomorrow?"

"For an hour or two."

"I think I'll shop. I saw some lovely ivory hair brushes that you can have engraved and a lovely gilted rosewood dressing case."

"We can go riding in the afternoon if you like."

"Yes, that would be nice."

She closed the light. She was about to throw off her chemise and drawers but felt a sudden chill. She froze where she stood, as if listening for an intrusive sound.

"What is it?" Rupert said.

She walked to the window and looked out. The sky seemed darker than before. Not a star was out. Suddenly it began to rain. "Oh," she exclaimed. Then lightning flashed twice across the sky like tongues of flame and two claps of thunder rent the air. She shuddered, Rupert came up beside her and took her in his arms and said, "Silly Dorothea, don't be frightened." He held her but she kept trembling and could not stop, seized to the depths of her being by a presentiment of terrible things to come.

4 comments:

  1. what a first class story! beautifully descriptive, and the feeling of change hanging in the air against the privileged life style

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. You really catch the mood and life-style of the times in which your story is set with your descriptve passages, as also the arrogance and emptiness of the lives of the rich. If there is any criticism at all, it is that not much actually happens in your story other than a suggestion of what lies ahead.
    Beryl

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  3. Funny, Beryl, because you nailed my thoughts, exactly. I almost didn't comment because, as you note, nothing really happens in the story. But then, after I read your comment, and reread the story, I started to think that's was exactly the point. For the well to do of the time, life was void, encased in their little shell (of money), and not much of substance ever took place. Nonetheless, I agree with both you and Michael on the wonderful setting of the scene and mood, and the great descriptions.

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  4. Style over substance, and in this case, proving the point of the culture. Begs the question of today--are the rich and entitled just as vapid as at the turn of the century? While I don't find the characters appealing, I do think the settings are natural, and that it is perfectly natural to find people frittering away time in pleasantries if they feel the future is doomed, whether they are rich or poor.

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